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A Likely Story - Chapter 1 - revised

by giles 

Posted: 18 July 2007
Word Count: 1950
Summary: Prologue: ice shelf collapsed. Chap 1: business as usual
Related Works: A Likely Story - Prologue • 

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Fast Train to Marylebone, London
Morning of 13th June, 2009

Standing there watching slabs of half-baked suburb fly quietly by, Barty Ratherby wondered - in fact for the 3012th time in that particular carriage - what he’d really rather be doing than watch slabs of half-baked suburb fly quietly by. And then for the 3012th time in that particular carriage, his restless little mind began to wander.

The train pushed on for London, slicing through farmyards, fields, towns, golf courses, gardens and estates, until the tidy intervals vanished, the burbs turned to urbs, and everything became all grey and scrambled up. Well, at least for everyone else crammed on the 06.25 that summer morning. Mr. Ratherby, meanwhile, was too absorbed with his latest ambition to notice. Which was: to be the first man to reach the South Pole in a pair of Speedos.

Would anyone really care, that was the question. After all, it would just be him, the sun lying low above the horizon, and the dark illimitable sea, selfishly hogging all the rays to itself. With neither ice nor deflected light, there would be no awesome mirages to behold - no titanic phantom shapes rising above the silver-shot mists like the ghosts of dead armies, not to mention shimmering fields of white-fired diamonds – in other words, nothing to capture the public's imagination. That being the case, how the hell would he sell any books or pack any lecture halls? Leaving aside the issue of where to plant the bloody flag, he also wondered how long he could tread water at that very pivotal point of the Earth, without a floe to cling to. Even if by some remote chance he did cheat death, with all that drilling for oil going on, he’d surely lose his mind. Diagnosed with Type I rapid-cycling Bipolar Disorder, he was already halfway there.

The fast train to Marylebone shot into a tunnel and everything became amplified – the sounds, the smells, the flickering lights – even the people seemed suddenly larger. And then for the 3012th time in that particular carriage, Mr. Ratherby came to his senses.

The train jolted left, right and left again, shaking up its contents, and up popped a great wall crammed with newsprint. There, right under the ad with the smiling pink fish on four wheels (Salmon Rushme Ltd) – was another one of those ghastly disaster at sea stories:

Forty-three feared drowned or missing

Twelve passengers and crew were rescued from a sinking vessel in the ice-ridden Weddell Sea 800 miles southwest of the pole yesterday morning.
The Spirit of Borchgrevink, an ex-Soviet research vessel owned and operated by Antarctic Tours Ltd, was submerged by heavy seas caused by the sudden collapse of a large section of the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest body of floating ice. Alerted by a distress flare, emergency services at nearby McMurdo Station quickly mobilized helicopters to the scene to rescue survivors. Aided by Expedition Leader Scobie Black, thought to be the only surviving crewmember, the search for 43 missing tourists and crew continues.
“This is further evidence that the west Antarctic ice sheet, previously assumed to be stable, is rapidly disintegrating,” said Chris Ripley of the British Antarctic Survey. “What we once called the “slumbering giant” has finally awakened – and with tragic effect.”

For people like Mr. Ratherby, who had joined the fringe environmental movement back in the 1970s before knuckling down to the boring business of making a living (how on Earth he ended up managing the Garden Department at Herods of Knightsbridge was anybody’s guess), this news was all the more depressing.

In 2007 the case for global warming hardened and the scientists became uncharacteristically scared. The global economy was on a collision course with planet Earth, they said, and something had to be done to prevent an average global temperature rise of 2 degrees centigrade - the likely threshold for a dangerous ‘runaway greenhouse’ scenario to kick in. In their outmoded talking shops, the world leaders finally came to terms with the fact that it was time to act, otherwise the window would be missed and the cost of doing something – still relatively small when weighed against the risk of inaction - would skyrocket. There followed a frenzy of chummy, ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ campaigns launched by a thousand-and-one commissions, companies, coalitions, confederations, cooperatives, committees and coadunations, the effect of which was like being buried alive under a gigantic pile of hype.

Predictably, it all turned out to be too little, too late. There never was any real commitment to avert dangerous climate change, and all the rock concerts in the world couldn’t make up for it. The reigning president of the United States -- who’s only achievement was an honorary degree in Hubristic Exceptionalism -- ducked, dodged, and dived on climate change for as long as he possibly could, then proposed do-nothing solutions to protect his blessed way of life. The few nations that did promise to prevent the critical threshold from being reached set the wrong targets because they feared the political fallout of setting the right ones. When they failed even to reach the wrong ones, let alone broker a binding international protocol to tackle the issue, the UN Security Council didn’t lift a finger. Meanwhile, profit-churning utility groups carried on chipping away at emissions only as new requirements came into effect - requirements watered down by powerful oil and coal lobbies that no one had the balls to stand up to.

By 2020, the experts said, global warming would be virtually impossible to stop because of the dirty energy infrastructure then in place. Mankind had only ten years to act.

Why couldn’t someone invent a machine to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere? Thought Mr. Ratherby. Why hadn’t there been more radicalism among the young, given the way their parents and grandparents had bungled the stewardship of the Earth and its fragile atmosphere, not to mention the fact that the ice caps, the pillars of the entire climate system, were set to crumble in their own lifetimes? Was it because it had never really felt like a crisis? Was this just another surreal scene to be passed through fatalistically, like passengers on a train? Copious books had been written about civilizations that collapsed because they destroyed their environment, yet humanity was on track to do it again. What would it take to turn this around, an intervention by aliens???

Feeling himself coming to the boil, Mr. Ratherby scanned the page for something else to take his mind off it. Unfortunately, that something turned out to be even more depressing. Rupe Dochturd, who had bought all of the world’s media just to prove how well private enterprise can provide vital public goods, obviously knew what sells:


Only a fraction of the eighty-thousand man-made chemicals in use were ever carefully analyzed for their toxicity,” said the eminent scientist Sir Stanley Gibbons in front of a stunned audience at the Royal Society last night. “And the root of the problem is people like me. I mean, I invented the wretched stuff,” he said, holding up a bright red plastic bag for all to see. Then without warning, Dr. Gibbons broke open the seal, shoved his face into the bag and drew a deep breath. Tragically, death was instantaneous.
Laboratory tests verified that the cause of the death was the highly toxic substance 90210, which he had won the Nobel Prize for discovering back in 2001, not in his lab but famously, under the meat tray in his holiday home fridge.
First applied to boost crop yields in an age of scarce arable land and long distribution chains, the substance was banned in 2009 after even the most ingenious cover-ups could no longer hide certain side effects, including the appearance of giant foaming craters where droplets of 90210 had accidentally been spilled. And then, tragically, the secret formula got into the hands of embalmist-turned-prison warden-turned-pharmacologist Dr. Jekyll Formalde-Hyde. "We would have nabbed him, had we not been chasing down seventy year-old maniacs driving 37 miles per hour in a 35 zone," admitted Superintendent Growling of New Scotland Yard.

Just then, the brakes bit the rails with the usual screech and thankfully, the bad news collapsed and vanished from sight. How he yearned for the good old days, when his nightmares were born of manageable things, like feelings of inadequacy, of not being worthy, or just plain alienation. Scenes of falling, of being pursued or attacked, getting stuck in slow motion, being unable to move or scream, or finding himself naked outside Chorleywood Public Library; all these he could cope with. But then, after hearing the deranged Dr. Formalde-Hyde had fled the country with the secret formula for 90210, everything changed. “Barty, there’s only one thing for it,” his therapist told him. “You must re-script the nightmare, making a special point to experience the new feelings of freedom and empowerment that the new ending gives you. Then, and only then, will you succeed in breaking its grip on your life.”

His recurring nightmare began in an underground laboratory deep in the Transylvanian forest with Dr. Formalde-Hyde tweaking the secret formula; adding bear tooth shavings, the highly addictive opioid ‘7-hydroxymitragynine’ (squeezed from the leaves of the local Kratom plant), and his own mysterious ‘Ingredient P.’ Next, he heads west to pitch the new and improved formula, Transyl 3000, as a miracle performance enhancer for anything and everything, from Tour de France athletes to the Mars Rover. Following tests on a bunch of down-and-out West Africans, Transyl 3000 soon becomes the intermediate of choice in the production of industrial chemicals, as well as a component in thousands of consumer product formulations, from antifreeze to frozen dinners.

Then disaster strikes, as the time-released ‘Ingredient P’ kicks in, paralysing everything and everyone in sight. The entire civilized world is transformed into a gigantic Damien Hirst installation Dr. Formade-Hyde calls ‘The physical impossibility of life in the minds of the living dead,’ in which poor Mr. Ratherby features as Exhibit 3247654775-A: Bipolar Man In Train.

But in the re-scripted dream, things turn out differently. All the legislators of the world get together at the Lamb & Flag in London (its best evening in 386 years), then swiftly pass a law requiring that corporations test all new products on their inventors, chairman and boards of directors first, before selling them to the general public, with free admission to any artistic production (loosely defined) that might result. In the end everyone is happy - even the petrified directors, who are no longer answerable to their shareholders.

Reality intervened again. The cacophony of crackling newspapers, closing cases, shuffling feet, clicking knee-joints, hissing iPods, and heavy groans came to a head as the train ground to a halt and the doors crashed open. Mr. Ratherby and his travelling companions leaped from the train like a raiding party, clutching their workplace weapons, straining in the rain to catch a glimpse of the line at the ticket gate, where two uniformed guards gaped at broken machines, conversing in deep, monkish Latin. Only seconds to go...Now! Ratherby darted to an open stretch of platform, criss-crossing until he found a point of vulnerability up ahead. With the kind of action born of suburban survival, he cut a path in front of two old ladies, and, skilfully anticipating the eye movements of the guards, flashed his pass and headed straight for the escalators.
He had made it through the despised ticket gate and knew exactly what to do: He had to take the Jubilee Line southbound and change at Green Park - for Knightsbridge.

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Comments by other Members

NMott at 14:02 on 18 July 2007  Report this post
Brilliant summary :)
I enjoyed the opening and especially North Pole swim but it was a little confusing intercut with the Kayaking and the Shangri La hotel and the flower paragraphs.
I didn't find Cal's thoughts so riveting. Wine in South Africa? I thought South Africa already had a thriving wine trade. How about a new vineyard set somewhere like Greenland to tie it into global warming?
I'm afraid my attention wandered after that and my eye skipped down to the Thames Barrier piece, which was fine.
Over all I think this could do with a firm edit - maybe take out Cal's pov which is the weaker of the two.
It has its flashes of brilliance, and bar a couple of pedantic niggles the prose is fine. :)

- NaomiM

giles at 15:10 on 18 July 2007  Report this post
Thanks very much for reading Naomi, I really appreciate it. Interesting you should say that, because there was just Barty in there for the longest time, then Cal appeared and I wove him in, hoping the interplay would work. Cutting Cal out would also get the reader to the key hook of the chapter (starting right at the end of this posting). I could introduce him a little later on. Got me thinking hard...insightful as usual.


giles at 18:04 on 18 July 2007  Report this post
Naomi - this seems to work better. I'm going to create a new chapter for Cal, with exactly the same opening. Thanks again.

Ciao Giles

NMott at 15:42 on 22 July 2007  Report this post
An enjoyable read.
I made a few notes as I went along - just some nitpicks (below).

My main suggestion would be to take out the reference to Notbin and the clones, it is too much of a diversion at this point in the story. The emphasis here should be on the scientist and his toxic creation.

- NaomiM

train stamped - trains can't stamp (implies noise) and suburb fly quietly by at the same time.

illimitable - not a word I've come across before. How about un-illuminated?

nothing to capture the public's imagination with. I'd delete with and either have nothing or change to 'nothing with which to capture...'

‘You can die of worrying,’ Mr. Ratherby thought. ‘You’re gonna die anyway, so why worry?’ Besides, he lived out in Chorleywood, and on a hill at that. And then it dawned on him.
This point often comes up in the Technique forum, but I would suggest removing the quotes. This section is told from his POV anyway so they are unnecessary.

the most probable point of no return the tipping point.

take his mind of it. ...off...

You might consider putting newspaper articles in italics rather than quotes.

which he had won the Nobel Prize for discovering back in 2008 'for which he had won the Nobel Prize back in 2008' (he would have discovered it years before winning the prize).

..dream,” she said, “making.. delete 'she said'.

- NaomiM

giles at 17:30 on 22 July 2007  Report this post
Hi Naomi, superb help, thanks very much. Great idea to work the dream based on the 90210 toxin...will get cracking on that.
Hope the weather's improving over there,

Gillian75 at 12:10 on 30 July 2007  Report this post
Ah great, there's more work uploaded from Giles... :)

I really enjoyed this piece as I did with the previous chapter. I love the opener - it is catchy, punchy and really draws the reader in.

The train stamped on for central London, slicing through farmyards, fields,

Interestingly, I have used 'slice' in my novel to decribe the Thames 'slicing' through London on a cold day! great minds think alike ;) I'd be inclined to change 'stamped' though, to something like 'glided' which suggests a constant motion.

The cacophony of crackling newspapers,

I like this line in particular and overall Giles, I feel you have made full and excellent use of language in terms of description etc...

giles at 12:25 on 30 July 2007  Report this post
Hey thanks Gillian! I'll think about the stamping - maybe there is a better word. Stamping is probably better suited for steam trains (pistons and all that).

How is Farooq(a) these days? Where's the scene where your herione is interviewing Bin Laden? Have you uploaded that yet? Would like to read it.


Gillian75 at 13:23 on 30 July 2007  Report this post
Farooq's fine Giles lol!! I will certainly upload a bit from the interview. It's very long, so I'll select the best excerpt!

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