spelt from Sibyl's Leaves
Eleanor Soper . . .
Yours, not mine.
Strange. I have been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave, and have been a diver in deep seas, and keep their fallen day about me, but my own reality still troubles me. The little patch of blue I can see through the high round window is probably the sky, but it could just as well be a piece of blue backcloth or a painted flat.
On the other hand, with one touch of a key, I open up your past, my Eleanor . . .
I remember I remember the house where you were born . . . The little window where the sun came peeping in at morn . . .
My window's too high, and I in my wheelchair too low for the sun to peep in at me. Distantly I hear a clatter of hooves. They're changing guard at . . . I've heard them do it thousands of times. But they could be mere sound effects played on tape. You don't take anything on trust in this business. Not even your friends. Especially not them. I who know everything knew nothing till I knew that.
Back to Eleanor. School and medical records . . . bright, alert, slightly hyperactive . . . an only child, much loved though maybe your father would have preferred a boy . . . ? This might explain your preference for soccer over netball . . . your fury when told you weren't eligible to play on the school soccer team. An awkward, angry teenager . . . an anger that was eventually chanelled into protests, sit-ins, flag-burning, civil disobedience . . . but did it stem in part from your reluctance to admit the undeniable evidence that you weren't a boy?
I remember, I remember the fir trees dark and high; I used to think their slender tops were close against the sky . . .
The only undeniable reality lies in the machine.
But while reality hardly changes at all, the machine has changed a lot. It grows young as I grow old.
Shall I like my namesake grow old forever?
My namesake, I say. After so long usage, am I starting to believe as so many of the youngsters clearly believe that my name really is Sibyl? Strange the name my parents gave me also labeled me as a woman of magic, but an enchantress as well as a seer. Morgan. Morgan Meredith. Morgan le Fay as Gaw used to call me in the days of his enchantment.
But now my enchanting days are over. And it was Gaw who rechristened me when he saw that I had no magic to counter the sickness in my blood.
A wise man hides his mistakes in plain sight, then over long time slowly corrects them.
My dear old friend Gawain Clovis Sempernel is a wise man. No one would deny it. Not if they've any sense.
Aroynt thee, hag. Ripeness is all. And I have work to do.
When I first took on my sacred office, the machine loomed monumentally, like a Victorian family tomb. Thirty years on, it's smaller than an infant's casket, leaving plenty of room on the narrow tabletop for my flask and mug, and also my inhaler and pill dispenser, though generally I keep these hidden. Sounds silly when you're in a wheelchair, but I was brought up to believe you don't advertise your frailties.
That's a lesson a lot of folk never learn, which is why so many of them end up frozen in my electronic casket where there's always room for plenty more.
If I wanted I could ask it to tell me exactly how many people had passed through my hands, or, rather, my fingertips, for that's the closest I get to actually handling people. But I don't bother. This isn't about statistics, this is about individuals. Like Eleanor Soper.
For my casket is also an incubator.
Here they make their first appearance, often looking completely helpless and harmless. But, oh, how quickly they grow, and I oversee their progress with an almost parental pride as their details accumulate and their files fatten out.
Some live up to their promise. (By which I mean threat!)
Others, apparently, change direction completely. Such converts I always regard with grave suspicion, even if--especially if--they make it to the very top. They're either faking it, in which case we're ready for them. Or they're genuine, which means the contents of these files could be a serious embarrassment.
It's always nice to know you can embarrass your masters.
But the great majority merely fade away, became ghosts of their vibrant young selves.
You, Eleanor, begin to fade the day you trip into church as Ms. Soper, the academic radical, and stroll out as Mrs. Pascoe, the policeman's wife. For a while you resist the change . . . but then you start a family . . . move out of academe . . . one last fling in the underworld of miners' politics . . . and after that . . . perhaps you simply found that marching with a kid on your back wasn't so much fun . . . perhaps . . . or perhaps not. . . .
Let's take a look at your current protest status, Eleanor Pascoe.
Amnesty--member, nonactive; Anti-Fascist Action--lapsed; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament--lapsed; Gay Rights--lapsed; Graduates Against God--lapsed; Greenpeace--member, nonactive; Labour Party--member, nonactive; Liberata Trust--member, active; Quis Custodiet?--lapsed; Third World United--lapsed; Women's Rights Action Group--lapsed; World Socialist Alliance--lapsed.
Once you squawked so loud in your incubator, Eleanor, now you rest so quiet.
Gaw Sempernel (let no dog bark) says there is nothing so suspicious as silence. Must have watched a lot of cowboy films in his youth. It's quiet out there, Gaw . . . too damn quiet! But don't underestimate Gaw. He is often right.
Certainly neither sound nor silence gets you out of my casket. Once inside, there you stay forever. And if your presence is ever needed, you can be conjured up in a trice, like the wraiths of the classical underworld, which as my classically educated Gawain likes to remind me were summoned to appear by the smell and the taste of fresh blood.
For machines may change, and fashions change, and human flesh, God help us, changes most inevitably of all.
But some people have at their hearts something which refuses to change, despite all life shows them by way of contra-evidence. Perhaps it is a genetic weakness. Certainly, once established, like the common cold, no one has yet found a way of eradicating it.
Which is why I, practicing what I preach, have demonstrated to the world (or that section of it which shares this lonely building in the heart of this populous city), that there is life after death by staying in gainful employment all these years, Sibyl the Sibyl, sitting here in my solitary cell, hung high in my lonely cage, laying the bodies out neatly in my electronic casket, and, when necessary, conjuring them back to life.
My poor benighted ghosts scenting blood once more.
Have you really changed, my Eleanor Soper? Or do you still nurse a secret hope that the fir trees' slender tops really do brush against the sky?
If so, then you may be in for a lesson in reality. It was a childish ignorance, but now 'tis little joy to know you're farther off from Heaven than when you were a boy.
Excerpted from Arms and the Women by Reginald Hill. Copyright © 2000 by Reginald Hill. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.