My Uncle Alfred

Posted in Original, Prose, Writing by netscheri on September 23, 2007

First post in a long time. Although this isn’t the Serious Web Journalism that I had promised earlier and intended to write (starting from Blogging as a Political Review, that overdue PMK review through to That-Sense-of-Escapism-I’m-Looking-For), it is something for my 0.7 readers to know that I’m still active. Or semi-active. Or semi-demi-active. Or at least not non-active.

Well, I suppose it is rather apt, since (truly, madly, deeply) a large part of me is a writer at heart.

Untitled (I originally called it something like ‘Mad Scientists Elsewhere’, but that sounds awkward)

During my childhood, it was my uncle Alfred who carried me on his shoulders and taught me the wonder of mysteries. Three weeks ago, my uncle Alfred led me to safety through a frozen particle accelerator, beneath a city that turned white and crumbled to the touch.

But now, I am his keeper. Every day, I watch as he sinks deeper into a place where I, being sane and at least partly whole cannot reach. It is a place where the set boundaries of nature have been twisted until they no longer apply, where cancerous fumes are breathed by the unknowing and he is the architect of this all. All I can do is cling to the thread that holds me to him and him to me. I bring him meals food scavenged from the wastes, arranged in neat squares and circles of hope – hope that the memory of once-loved symmetry may be able to constitute armour.

The worst times are when he is lucid.

“We thought we were doing something great, Andrea! You had to be there, to feel the excitement, the atmosphere of the times. We were voyagers foraging out into the unknown, charting the universe…’The greatest minds of our generation’ – why, then, why didn’t we think? All in the name of science, mankind, discovery, and this, this is what we’ve created!” He throws his head back and laughs, laughs wildly until his laugh becomes more of a sob and the glint of life in his eyes becomes more the sheen of fever. His hand gestures in an uncontrolled sweep, encompassing the unnatural sky, the sharp daggers of metal impaled into the ground like tombstones for the earth. He raises his hand again, but being what I am, I can bear no more. He is subdued, perhaps by the press of skin against skin, the reassurance of another presence, or perhaps merely by an outside intrusion into his thoughts. A long moment passes. His hand quivers in mine and then is still. What he cannot fully express in words is there on his hands: crescent moons of desperation and shame ground into his palms in night; long lines of wishing, hoping, regretting written into his fingers; rivulets of damp, dark despair. I deserve this.” His eyes were ever drawn towards the barren sky he had created and his voice now was soft, both gentler and harsher than the previous bitterness of ashes and flak. “This shall be my requiem, my requiem for the world.” I let his hand slip out of mine. No need to hold it anymore. There was peace in his eyes: an end to decisions, an end to choices, an end to guilt and regret.  And as the earth turned in its last revolutions, I began to intone my own requiem silently, for the future that could have been.

He is lucid less and less often now. This madness is a lurking madness, waiting for its prey to falter. Sometimes, I feel as if instead of being strong enough to wrest Alfred from its jaws, I am myself stumbling, the beast behind me.

The scientists in their multitude of white coats and grey voices have tried to distance themselves from the human, but it is this that finally undoes them. This, the elusive synapse that refuses to be mapped, the workings of the inner heart that cannot be explained by x and y, α and ß. What use are their microscopes and engineered enzymes as I bandage my uncle Alfred’s hands, first with cloth and plastic, and when those are gone, with songs and stories?

There are other times when he is like a child once more, a grown man kneeling in the dust, drawing circles and wheels, the fantasies of youth. In those states, his clouded eyes laugh and he even accepts some of our diminishing supply of provisions. Those moments would have been sweet if not for the veil of madness, when the circles and wheels turn into logarithms and parabolas, when the stick he has been drawing with cracks and the beast tightens its jaws again.

Now and then, we are merely content to sit by side in silence, shoulders touching, his blond head against my brown. Alfred withdraws in upon himself, his face a closed door revealing nothing. But me, I like to indulge in childish dreams that we are both what we had been instead of what we are now; that while we are both cracked and damaged, together, we might yet make a whole.

And so, like this, we wait. 


I was asked to write a piece that developed a character, and this not-very-uplifting story is the result. It was written about a year or so ago, and I feel, or at least I hope, that I’ve grown as a writer since then. The imagery in a post-apocalyptic setting appealed to me then, and so did the idea of playing around with the archetype of the ‘mad scientist’. Alfred is the usual sympathetic, tragic character. Although it isn’t very noticeable so far, when developing this story further, I also wanted to focus as much on Andrea’s struggle and grip on sanity and reality as on Alfred’s slide into madness.   


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