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Running Downstream 5

by redcoat 

Posted: 09 January 2007
Word Count: 3619
Summary: Sam is introduced to some ugly truths.

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Sam ran. Unprecedented speed, as though, freed from the normal constraints of gravity and inertia, she had derived her own new physics of motion. Wheee! I need to crack my head more often! The night air once again parted to allow her progress, and it was with a frictionless glide rather than the accustomed buffeting that she swept along. Only the turbulent thrum about her ears served to mark her passage, and when she slowed she found no need to puff or draw deeply at the air to offset the exertion.

In passing she saw a neon sign, placed in the window of a discount furniture shop, blazing into life. ‘Beds, Sofas, Discount’. She distinctly saw the burst of blue light flare into being at one corner and race through the ether of the tube, tearing around the perimeter to arrive once again at its origin. She heard the fizz and crackle of the green fire in the lettering and the pop and silence as the sign winked out again.

“I’m glad that you came,” he said as she fell into step beside him. And he genuinely did sound pleased.

“Don’t be. I’m here to solve your mystery.”

“You knew that you couldn’t go back, you mean.”

“I know that I can go wherever I like once I recognize you.”

“You already have.”

She let it go. “Did somebody spike my drinks tonight.”

His brow furrowed. “How would I know that?”

“It seemed possible that you might. I’m having some . . . . interesting effects. I’ve been knocked out before and it wasn’t quite like this.” Fell off a climbing frame, off a horse.


“For Christ’s sake stop being so bloody Delphic!” Now, this was it. She felt anger rising within her and knew that she needed it, needed its power to crack this puzzle. “All you’ve done is answer questions with questions and be generally evasive. I know I need you to help me to understand but I don’t know what and I don’t know why! Please!” He stopped and turned to her. “Tonight I was, well I was okay. I went out with some people, not that I wanted to but I went anyway, and some things were said and some other things were sorted through a bit and at the end of it I felt, well I felt as though there was a way. You know? A way forward? Hope! Hope that I wouldn’t always just be me, Sam Burnes as you see her now, or as I see me anyway. And now? Well now it’s the middle of the night, and there’s you, and Christ alone knows what anything means anymore.” There were tears suddenly at her eyes, the feeling of them pooling under her lids ready to betray her with weakness. “Look.” She held up her hands. “I was hurt. There was blood, dammit!”

He regarded her now unmarked palms. “Sam, do you believe in free will?”

“Oh, what! We’re going to do the whole philosophy thing now are we? Well hang on a minute and I’ll go and get my lecture notes!”

“Sam! Listen. Do you believe that our actions are pre-ordained? Or do we genuinely choose what we do, how we act?” It was his turn to follow her now as she set off, not homeward, jaw set against the strange, liquid breeze. “I wish it was easy to explain. It’s always seemed clear to me that at every point we are absolutely in control of our own destinies, that at any given moment we have the power to determine what will happen, when to raise a hand or speak or stay silent. But you have to see that there are some things that are just going to happen, that will grind on like machinery no matter what we do.”

“The Sun rises.” She shot an arm towards the eastern sky where the first intimations of blue had begun to suffuse the blackness. “The clock turns, the trees lose their leaves. What’s your point?”

“People go. Leave.”

“Of their own volition? Or not, you would say. The relevance?”

“Some people are taken.”

There it was, and there she let it rest for the moment. She set her eyes on the orange glare of the Sainsburys frontage and strode on. If she could reach there and still have her mind in order, if she could look inside and see the products racked side by side, the raw materials of day-to-day banality stacked to the ceiling by the hundred, surely then she would be okay, she would be able to hold herself together. But she felt the centrifugal power of that shadow, the impulse to fly apart before it as it climbed inexorably towards the coming daylight.

“You can swim Sam, but you don’t. Why do you choose to run?”

“Because it was my fault!” What? No! Please no, not all that..

“No it wasn’t.”

“It was. You shouldn’t go in the water. It’s dangerous! Everybody knows it’s dangerous, and I could have . . .


“Don’t talk about it! How could you possibly know anything about it? Just get out of my head damn you!” She strode out more strongly. No business of yours, all that ancient history. If there are things to do now then there are things to do, but you can’t go back. Never!

“Nobody can.” That stopped her, outside the overblown Estate Agents’ office that looked like a trendy bar, and who were they kidding, like you’d go in for a coffee and accidentally buy a Edwardian semi? She glared at him. “But there’s no need, Sam. What’s past is past.”

Can you hear what I’m thinking? She thought at him. He thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. It was an odd thing, like everything about him; a kind of waxed cotton or leathery fabric, long, hooded, and although it flapped open she could see that it would close with toggles. Like some monstrous duffle coat.

“Walk with me,” he said at length.

“Where to, your flying saucer?”

“I’m hoping that we will reach a conclusion.”

“So we amble down Weird Street, me and my imaginary friend or guardian angel or whoever the hell you are, until you say I’m ready to get on with my life.”

“Do you think I’m imaginary?”

“Well I hope you are. If I’m not really unconscious on a bed in St George’s then your explanation is going to have to be a real corker. When I awake from my coma in six months’ time I’m going to have a mountain of email to catch up with and I’ll hold you, Mark, or whoever you really are, personally responsible. Who’s going to feed the cats, for Christ’s sake?”

“First I’m a spaceman and now you’re dreaming.” He waggled his head as though this problem was only to be expected.

“No. If I was dreaming I’d bloody well wake up and get a cup of tea. I’m definitely out for the count.”

“You’re overlooking some possibilities - probably deliberately, but then that’s something that you do, isn’t it?”

“But then that’s something that you do, isn’t it?” Sam mimicked. “Trust me to get lumbered with a smug angel!” There was a crackly moment between them, and a short silence. A man came round the corner and passed close to them, bundled up in a black parka. Early bird. Sam felt abruptly conspicuous in her sweats, standing there with the young Klaus Kinsky, but the man didn’t seem to notice the smile she sketched at him nor indeed to register her presence at all.

“The consequences of things beyond your control are not your fault. That includes things you can’t foresee, and especially it includes the actions of others.” She felt her throat tighten. So perhaps not an angel then. Maybe a demon to confront. I know what you’re talking about.

She spoke quietly, almost beneath her own hearing “He was seven years old. So little. All his life was taken away from him, his whole future. I could have stopped it.”


“By being there. By not letting him out of my sight. Stupid boy, wandering off like that. Stupid, stupid.” She bit her lip to still it. Mark looked away, out into the middle distance and let go a breath.

“So you’ll walk with me?”

“Lucky for you I’m going to Sainsburys. There are some things I need.”

“I don’t think they’re open.”

“Like that would matter.” There was a junction with traffic lights. It struck her as bizarre that they went on blinking through their cycle even at the dead of night, mindlessly stopping and releasing the non-existent traffic. It would be infuriating to be held up by a red light now, a bit like when a pelican crossing stops you and you can see that the pedestrian who pushed the button has found a natural break in the traffic and crossed anyway and is walking blithely away. She never did that; if she pushed the button she always waited for the green man, as dictated by the universal dictum of Fair Play. “You’re saying it’s coloured my whole life. Leaving aside your spooky inside knowledge.”

“I think you recognize that it has.”

“Well so what?”

“So now you have to get past it. Now, of all times, you really can.”

“You sound like Daisy.”

“I don’t know her but she sounds sensible.”

“Mother Insightful? Half the time she can’t find her own arse with both hands and a torch.” He gave a huff of laughter. “No, I think you really would get on. You both know way more than you let on and you both seem to have a mission to fiddle about with my life.” They walked past a bank, a coffee shop. Coffee’s too strong in there, it gives me the wobbles.

“But are we right, Daisy and me?”

“Daisy and I. Try to be grammatical when you probe my psyche.” He exhaled noisily through his nose - a beak of a thing just like Dad’s - a sound of frustration. “Don’t huff at me.”

“You seem to invite it. You are so stubborn, Sam. I volunteered for this, you know?”

“Did she call you in? Daisy I mean. You’re obviously from the same planet as she is, but since she’s deep undercover and I’m such a hard case she must’ve had to call for backup. You beamed down from the mothership and took me out with your brain zapper; a gift for you that I was running about in the dark like an idiot. Jesus! You guys should just phone the UN or something, land on the White House lawn? You’re never going to change humanity by one-to-one counseling.”

“You didn’t kill your brother, Sam.” She tried to hit him then, flew at him with both fists but he caught her effortlessly, strangely gently, by the wrists, and waited till she had stopped trying to twist free before letting go and stepping back. She stood, hands still clenched at her sides, breathing in short, deep gusts.

“Fuck you.”

“The water was too deep, too cold. You couldn’t have done a thing about it. Not one thing. You need to know that, and to understand.”

“Fuck you.” But her voice had gone off into some hopeless, girlish register, and there were tears again, and her lips twisted from one distortion to another as her vision clouded. His gentle strength came again, his arms around her.

* * * * *

“Sam’s right,” said Daisy

“Oh great.”

“No, I really do agree with you, Sam. I spend all day at my desk…”

“You don’t,” said Clyde. “There’s a bum-print on mine from you perching on it, disturbing my train of thought all day.”

Daisy persevered. “I spend all my day at my desk blathering down the phone and staring at my computer, and at the end of it all the World is just the same as it was when I arrived in the morning. If the whole company just abracadabra’d itself into a cloud of smoke nobody would notice the difference. Well, maybe the phone company.”

“There’d be some puzzled accountants,” said Clyde.

“Not to mention a bit of a hole on Jury Street,” said Shane.

Daisy’s brow creased into sudden uncertainty. “Actually yes. Our building’s listed, so abracadabra probably wouldn’t do it; you’d probably need something stronger, and permission from English Heritage. Or a time machine! You could go back in time to the moment when Old Man MacWhatsit was just about to found the company and, and offer him a cup of tea, or flash you boobs! He’d forget about brand engineering completely, and…”

“Invent the air-bag? Or the tea bag,” said Clyde.

“Daisy, please stay off my side,” said Sam. “All I was saying was that we do a fairly abstract kind of bullshitty job so its no surprise if we have peculiar interests outside of work. It’s to make our lives more substantial. We work to support our home lives, our families one day I suppose, if we have them. Right now I go bat detecting, and Gina apparently does a frightening amount of floral decoupage.”


“Yeah! Kirsty on reception went to her flat; says it’s like a visiting Kath Kidston’s evil twin.”

“Kath Kidston’s a bit odd herself if you ask me,” said Daisy. “Have you seen the tableware?” There was a brief discussion of crockery, which Sam mostly tuned out. The bat preservation had been Dad’s enthusiasm first but had been easy to become a part of. She supposed that she had never really closely examined her motivation towards it, and wondered now if she had been kidding herself, doing it to please him. Certainly she had pretty much never done anything that would displease him, having always saved her worst behavior for her Mother. So what was all that about? What had Mum done to deserve exposure to the dark side of Sam Burnes? That’s the trouble with an idyllic childhood; you can’t blame it for your vices. But she knew the chill, as if a cloud passed before the sun, casting that idyll into shadow.

“So is stone masonry your way of doing something lasting?” A direct question looped out of the conversational drone. “You don’t seem to have much respect for our profession.” Shane was smiling to soften the challenge.

“Well maybe,” she admitted. “I’ve never really thought about it. I watched some masons once, doing some restoration work, replacing ancient, decayed stones with their own. But it wasn’t like doing reproductions because you could see that they were putting their own touch on things, leaving their own marks. There was a gargoyle like Thatcher? That sort of thing. It was a cathedral, Salisbury I think, and I thought: how cool to be part of something like that?” She paused, “I think it would be good that it would outlast you. But you still haven’t changed the world.”

“It wouldn’t pass the Abracadabra test.”

“No. But I think it’s a more soulful type of minutiae.”

“Second career coming up, then.”

“Well, its bloody hard work and for all I know I’m a bit crap at it.”

His expression said that he doubted that, and she felt that little tug again. “But if you were coming to a career break, and obviously I don’t know about that, but if you were, would you consider it? Most people in our type of lifestyle make little steps, you know? This company to that one, this client to that.”

“There’s a cliché thing some people do where they jack in their ‘proper jobs’ and go native, Shane. I don’t see myself buying into some fantasy life as a stone mason.” She felt a stab of resentment, as if he had cornered her into admitting to herself that exactly such a fantasy had been her refuge on really black days.

“Kind of a pity. You need to care about what you do I think.”

“Everybody or just me?”

He caught on that he had irked her. “Everybody, Mate. I’m just thinking aloud is all.”

“Well as I say, its just an evening class at the moment. So maybe I’ll have to persevere with the pile cream.”

Clyde set down his drink, foam on his lip. “It sounds as though your chiseling technique may be at fault Sam, if you are having to invest in such products. Unorthodox certainly.”

“I meant the presentation for Andy Graves? I got totally blown up for being late with it this morning and Phyllida just sat there like a stuffed owl, like she couldn’t have reminded me a hundred times that it was due, silly fat cow. I hate those shiny-table meetings. And it’s not as if it’s beyond him to write his own presentations.”

“Well Flid’s a waste of space at the shiny table, and Sam, I’ve been to Andy’s presentations and there’s a reason why he gets you to write them for him,” Daisy was vehement.

“I don’t think you can say ‘flid’ any more, Daise; I think they banned it along with ‘spaz’ and ‘mong’.”

But Daisy charged on, animated suddenly “The only reason you don’t have the shiny table for yourself is because you’re such a sap that you do these idiots' work for them you don't take any of the credit! Who really carries these megabuck big-time projects, Sam? Who hits the deadlines? Not Mr. Andy Andrew sodding Graves. They all know you’re better than they are but you, you seem to be wearing this Prada blind spot, sitting in that fancy chair you blagged and never doing one little bit more than you really have to to stay indispensable! Did you ever think of actually taking responsibility for something of your own? Sorry, Sam but really, it’s time you woke up! It’s not bloody rocket science, after all.” Daisy got up and stalked away into the throng. Sam felt herself colouring and thanked God for the UV lighting.

“Oo-err,” said Clyde. “Thar she blows. I’ll just go and, you know, count her marbles.”

Shane looked at Sam with one eyebrow cranked aloft. “You’d have to have been pissing her off for quite a while to have triggered that so easily,” he said.

“Bizarre.” Sam looked wonderingly after her friend, who was now leaning on the bar while Clyde spoke into her ear. ‘Friend’ really was right of course, as she suddenly knew. “We’ve never been that close before, you know? Just friendly around work. But tonight it’s like – POW! – and she’s right here in my face. Where does that come from?”

Shane laughed a little through his nose. “Don’t let her fool you with all her nonsense. She’s got us all worked out. Give her time and we’ll all be dancing to her tune; she’s the Pied Piper of Jury Street.”

“My career path isn’t rocket science, apparently.”

“Yeah, well she would know. Astronautics and Aeronautics at Cranfield Uni. Top of the class. You’d never guess, eh?”

Sam felt her mind actually boggle. “She pushes paper for Christ’s sake! Talks to the fax machine. I’m appalled.”

“Me too at first. I was doing some stuff for Personnel and there it was in black and white and I thought ‘Hello, that can’t be right’, but it was. So, maybe it’s not for us to question what she does…”

“Oh, like she hasn’t just given me the benefit of a rocket up my backside.”

“Yeah, Sam, but there’s a difference.”

“And no doubt you'll enlighten me?”

“Well, the difference is, Sam, you were whingeing. And forgetting to do stuff is a bit lame. No, don’t look at me like that. I’m not in the Andy Graves Fan Club either, and I’m not talking from any kind of agenda. I hardly know you but, . . you don’t seem happy.”

“Happy! ‘Happy’ is just a word, Shane. It’s for birthdays. I’ve never met any happy people. I think they’re all detained somewhere. I think it’s a state attainable only through ignorance or, or delusion!”

“Yeah, well, you should hear yourself sometimes.”


“You’d talk yourself into a hole in the ground. Look, its not advice I’d normally give but, under present circumstances, as its you and you seem to be worth the effort, lighten up!”

When Daisy returned, with Clyde and Gina and some others, it was as if nothing had happened. But it had. There were open channels now, and she felt that if she could find the right words people would listen. The insidious blackness of mood she had feared might afterall be repelled. But Sam couldn’t leave now as she still felt she needed to, if only to get back some perspective. She was too enmeshed. Daisy had done something odd to her in some subtle way, so that she was both freer and less free, or perhaps stronger through being more connected to the others and thus unwilling to break away. Perhaps that was the price to pay, to give up her painstakingly maintained separation.

When the dancing started she, who had avoided dance floors for many a long year, found it strangely natural to get up and join the swaying, bouncing crowd. She had drunk a lot but felt clear headed, fresh and in full command of every limb and joint. She felt neither conspicuous nor invisible. Which is unusual for me. Shane danced with her, or near her in what she thought was that coyly hopeful way that some men have. And Daisy seemed to dance alone, a perfect vision in a little envelope of stillness, eyes closed and smiling her knowing smile.

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Comments by other Members

JenDom at 21:39 on 15 January 2007  Report this post
Hello again.

I will leave my humble comments until after I've read part 6 and after I've also read through this story as a whole.

Well done you for finishing it!


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