Fiction Friday: An Excerpt from Tom Learmont’s “Scientific Romance” War Across Time, Spanning Millions of Years
Learmont tells Books LIVE that Volume III, Bridge Across Time, is “in gestation”. “The sequence is perhaps best pigeonholed as scientific romance or ‘time opera’,” he says.
The excerpt, taken from Chapter 1, begins with the death of an “old white man” in a village in Malawi, and spans millions of years until the creation of a “new heaven and a new earth”.
Read the extract:
The old white man’s body was still warm when the little boy came up the hill to bring him a fish for his breakfast. He had died in his pyjamas, sitting in a wicker armchair, on the narrow terrace in front of his tin-roofed, rock-walled shelter. Mr Archer seemed to be looking east across the lake into the sunrise out of Mozambique, for his eyes were open – as if he were already one of the watchful dead.
Chilembwe scampered back down to the village and gave the fish to his mother. She sent him to tell the pastor and the headman that Archer had passed away, and the two elders set about undertaking the burial of a man who had been generous to the village during his ten-year stay. The fishermen who went to carry the body down to the graveyard were uneasy, for there had been gossip about spook lights near Archer’s house at night.
He was buried the same day without a coffin, shrouded in a sheet from his own bed. The pastor read from the English Bible about a new heaven and a new earth. Then the villagers sang a hymn and the pastor said a prayer. Two fishermen covered him with soft earth. One planted a small makeshift cross of bamboo and twine at the head of the grave, and that was that.
Next day, the villagers went to share out the old man’s belongings at his home. They had built it for him, of rough freestone walls that curved around two rock outcrops. The passage between these central boulders led to a kitchen at the back of the house. In front were two more rooms and the stone-paved terrace overlooking the lake. The pastor was peeved to discover that Archer’s cupboard had been rifled in the night. Only two bottles of red wine were left for him and the headman. And there was no money to be found.
The people took food, crockery and cutlery as well as the furniture – even a wooden seat and spade from the nearby latrine. Men staggered downhill bearing steel window frames and zinc roofing. But they ignored the dozens of books. Chilembwe took one in English, which he found lying on the terrace next to the wicker chair. His older brother told him that it was by a man called Andrew Marvell. When the boy asked what wisdom was in the book, his brother riffled the pages and read out in English: my vegetable love.
This he paraphrased in his own language, Chichewa, as: I love eating vegetables. He said, “Stupid! I’ll keep this book. The paper’s good for rolling a smoke.”
Chilembwe became a fisherman. He grew old and died; his sons and daughters buried him in the graveyard near Archer. Nobody remembered him after the people left the lake shore. The sun still rose out of Mozambique and fish eagles swooped on their prey and screamed into the wind for another million generations. Then they vanished too.
The tilted earth kept spinning, circling the sun through days and nights, seasons and years, until the opposite shore dropped below the far edge of the lake. Lightning crackled along the eastern skyline in monsoon storms, and earthquakes racked the beach. After a million years a small whale surfaced near the place where Archer’s fossil lay compressed under strata one hundred metres down. A salty breeze came off the water, for what had been a great lake was now a sea.
Far offshore, the sea began to steam, then to boil. A volcano took half a million years to to build a snow-capped island out of magma and ash. Over the next two million years it aged into a burned-out cone, then weathered away and sank. On clear nights, the eastern horizon glowed with volcanic fire from a large island. Once part of Mozambique, it was drifting eastward on the Somali tectonic plate.
The young Nubian Sea spread wider still as it filled the African Rift Valley, which was torn open at the southern end. The forked continent shifted northward and began to pivot clockwise, crushing the Mediterranean basin under rising Alps that threatened to overtop the Himalayas. Up above, the stars also drifted; Orion’s belt and his dismembered limbs were scattered into space. Strange new constellations began to form, with no one to see or to give them names. As the pastor had said, nearly three and a half million years before, it was a new heaven and a new earth.
In that heaven, a man and a woman lay in bed, talking in the dark.
- War Across Time by Tom Learmont