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My Family: Chapter 1 Early Preview

In my last blog post, I promised to provide a preview of an early draft of chapter one, A Morning With Lisa. This morning I decided there's no point in putting it off, I'm going to be tweaking and polishing it for a while yet, but I may as well give you a flavour of what's to come.

You'll see it's a different beast to anything else I've written, and you'd be hard pushed to identify it as science fiction in any way. There are a couple of clues in there, but it isn't until chapter two when you start realising there's more going on than is evident at first. To be honest, most of the chapters are hardly SF, but the story wouldn't work without that speculative element to its rationale.

There's a bit too much scene-setting exposition at the moment, some details of which I'm likely to more naturally expand in later chapters and cut out here on a later draft once I've done so. We'll see.

Right, enough preamble. Chapter one starts after my photo of the West Kennet Long Barrow, taken earlier this year, one of the settings of chapter one, and indeed, chapter two. It'll likely recur later too.

Chapter 1: A Morning With Lisa

Chris Parsons opened his eyes to a new day. Mornings felt so fresh, so vibrant; as soon as he awoke, he was raring to get out and experience something new.

Reality also dawned. His instinctive excitement died the moment he saw his wife perched on the wicker chair on her side of the bed, already dressed, quietly studying him as he surfaced. Once he recognised the pain in her eyes, he remembered. It all came flooding back. The day would be a struggle once more.

Chris shuffled across the bed, swinging his legs around to lean forward and hold Lisa's hands. To his admittedly biased eyes, she still appeared in her early thirties rather than their common age of forty-eight. Her dark skin felt as smooth and flawless as when they'd first met at university all those years ago on the same computer science degree.

He'd never truly understood what she'd seen in him at the time; he'd been a socially-inept young man, not an obvious match for such a confident, gorgeous woman. She'd been the catalyst that sublimated his life, and they'd remained happily together ever since – at least until recently.

When she'd unexpectedly fallen pregnant shortly after their graduation, he knew it was the right time to get married, and had not regretted it for a single second since. They'd settled in Maidenhead on the Thames in Berkshire, giving them access to a ready supply of jobs in the ever-changing technology companies around the M4 corridor of uncertainty. Until last year, they'd had no need or desire to move away from the area.

Once their daughter, Alexis – Alex, as she'd later insisted – had been born, their world felt complete. Although it had caused a brief hiatus in Lisa's job, they'd subsequently shared the burden of her upbringing equally allowing both of their careers to blossom.

Alex had been a precocious young girl, then a surprisingly subdued teenager, before sensibly settling for a similar career to her parents, specialising in artificial intelligence after her degree. Just like them, she met the man who seemed destined to be her life partner, Daniel Oliver, while at university. Chris thought at first that she could have done better until he realised how similar Daniel was to him at that age. Like mother, like daughter, clearly; who was he to question their judgement?

And then she was gone. One stupid accident and her life had been cut short, all her potential never to be realised. It transformed their lives too.

Chris looked down at his hands wrapped around Lisa's smooth, dark forearms. His lightly-tanned skin was starting to show the first telltale stigmas of age, the liver spots on the back of his right hand being the most obvious. The last year was having an ongoing impact in so many ways.

'We'll get through this,' said Chris, squeezing her arms gently. 'We must.'

Dry-eyed, Lisa nodded curtly.

'I'll be in the lounge,' she said, standing up and extricating herself from his grasp.

Chris's eyes followed her around the room as she left through the bedroom door, her taut posture betraying her mood. He knew he had to do something to help. His own pain was hard enough to bear but seeing Lisa's continuing distress made him even more determined to alleviate her suffering.

After Alex's death, they'd decided to make a fresh start away from the constant reminders of too many painful memories, uprooting their lives from the busy Berkshire commuter belt and relocating to rural Wiltshire. Neither of them had been particularly enjoying their jobs at the time, having risen to senior managerial grades which too often sucked the creativity from their souls. It had been an easy decision to take a break while contemplating what came next.

Downsizing their home and moving to the small town of Calne, where an equivalent property cost less than half of their previous house in Maidenhead, meant that they could live mortgage-free and still have enough of a nest-egg to keep them going for a few years, worst case. They were confident one or the other of them could pick up a software contract role working from home reasonably quickly if push came to shove, so it didn't seem to be too much of a risk. It felt as if it would be just what they needed.

It hadn't entirely panned out as he'd hoped. They’d been busy at first, moving, setting up their new home, exploring the nearby towns and villages. They'd felt immediately welcome in the town, and it had lived up to their expectations of a quiet, somewhat sleepy locale with many interesting places to visit nearby – exactly what they'd wanted. As with much of England at the time, there was a degree of rose-tinted reminiscence pervading the community, looking back to its relative boom time when its economy was dominated by the pork processing industry. Not untypically, the pride in its past balanced a nervousness for its future in a rapidly changing world.

Nevertheless, Chris felt instantly at home here. He intended to become more involved within the community once things had settled down, but he wasn't quite ready yet, neither of them was.

They'd gradually adopted a new routine which kept neither of them fully satisfied. Chris realised they needed to keep busier, to start getting out more again, and it looked as if that was exactly what would help Lisa today. He picked up his iPad from the bedside cabinet to check the weather. Perfect. It was a bright, crisp, sunny autumnal day – just what was needed for his plans.

Chris took his time getting up, wanting to give Lisa some time alone. His usual routine of a shave followed by a slightly-too-hot shower engendered the feeling of renewal he'd craved. Once dressed, he wandered into the lounge to find her sat on the edge of the sofa, clearly waiting for him.

'What are you planning today?' she asked, her words conflicting with her expression of disinterest.

Chris considered how best to reply. There was no point in dragging her along if she was reluctant, but he knew it would do her good. Fresh air and exercise was a tonic for his own mental health, and he knew it had the same impact for Lisa. Often, the hardest part was getting started; once that hurdle was overcome, they'd both feel better, he was sure of it.

'I fancied going out for a walk,' he said. 'It looks a lovely day. Coming with me?'

'I guess,' she said. 'Anywhere in particular?'

Chris deployed his best ingratiating grin.

'Oh, you know. A short drive. A walk up a hill.'

A transient smile crossed Lisa's face.

'I should have guessed,' she said. 'You're obsessed with that place, you know?'

'I know,' said Chris. 'There's just something so unspoilt about it, and the views are amazing. It makes me feel…at peace.'

Lisa stood up.

'That's all I needed to hear,' she said. 'Let's go.'

Surprised by her unusually abrupt decision-making, Chris quickly decided to flow and go. He didn't want to risk Lisa changing her mind if he had breakfast first, and anyway he didn't feel that hungry yet. They could always stop off at a café on the way back and have a fry-up. Once he'd thought of it, he immediately fancied the idea, and it could serve more than one purpose. They seemed to talk more these days when they were sat across a table in a public place. It would help break the tension.

But first, the walk.


They took Chris's battered old diesel Renault, bought in the days when it was supposed to be the environmentally-friendly choice. He felt guilty driving it now, and really wanted to get something more aligned to his ecologically-aware values, but couldn't justify the expense while they had no current source of income. It was a constant sore on his conscience, so he restricted himself to short drives whenever possible.

Their route took them past the Victorian gothic town hall which dominated the town centre again these days. Despite having seen photos of the town from decades earlier, Chris still couldn't fully envision how everything had been dwarfed by the Harris pork processing factory before it had been demolished. It only showed how transient everything was, how an industry could grow from nothing, command the local economy for a century and vanish without trace, living only in the memories of the residents. And yet, a few miles down the road, the permanence of the rolling hills of Wiltshire and the millennia-old human achievements awaited.

Unexpectedly, Lisa spoke as they passed the town hall.

'Remember the first time we came here?' she said.

'Of course,' said Chris. 'We had fish and chips at the café over there.'

It was a moment indelibly engrained in his memories: the view across the stream towards the town hall while enjoying a surprisingly good meal, the moment he began to believe they could move forward with their lives again.

'Yeah, it was nice,' she said. 'I think that's when we finally agreed to move here.'

'Yup. We went straight around the corner and into the estate agents.'

'It all moved so fast,' said Lisa. 'Alex was so happy.'

A cold shiver ran up Chris's spine and grabbed him by the throat. He glanced across to Lisa, but she was calmly looking forward through the windscreen, smiling wistfully and oblivious to his shock.

Alex hadn't been with them. She couldn't have been. She was dead.

He didn't know what to say. How could Lisa be confused about that? Alex's death was the fulcrum around which their lives now pivoted. Lisa's mistake threatened to unbalance the small island of stability they'd painstakingly built for themselves, even if they had been treading on eggshells throughout.

Mutely, he drove onwards through the town and out towards Cherhill. As the countryside opened up around them, his spirits began to lift. Perhaps Lisa had misspoken.

Nothing could spoil his mood driving down this road towards Marlborough, one of his favourite stretches of road in the country. It may have been in the centre of Calne that they'd decided to relocate here, but it had been this drive out afterwards and seeing the splendour on the doorstep that had cemented the decision for him.

As they drove through Cherhill, the magnificence of the white horse carved in chalk on the hill to the right rode into view. Despite his hatred of the nationalism that had taken hold in the country in recent times, there was something quintessentially English about the scene that made him proud, something about his upbringing that had instilled its essence into his soul. He belonged here. This was his home.

'Remember when we walked up there a few months ago?' said Lisa.

'Early spring, wasn't it?'

'Yeah, they'd just re-chalked it, I think,' she said. 'It looks a bit grubbier now.'

She was right, it was becoming a little tarnished again now autumn had fallen. It was a lovely memory, though. Although the hill wasn't too steep, he'd been knackered by the time they'd reached the summit immediately above the horse – another sign of his age, and the fact that he'd not kept himself as fit as he should have over the years. Lisa had been much less affected by the climb, but it hadn't stopped him from enjoying the stunning views of the verdant rolling hills. He'd sat down, splayed his palms across the grass and imagined a connection to the chalk beneath stretching out away in all directions. He'd felt utterly content.

They fell back into silence as their journey took them past the turnoff into Avebury before the small but imposing shape of Silbury Hill came into view, the tallest artificial prehistoric mound in Europe. The English Heritage signs pointing to the fenced-off flat-topped grass-covered conical mound rising almost forty metres from the road triggered a smile of reminiscence.

'I can't believe you did that,' said Lisa, knowing what he was thinking.

'One off the bucket list,' said Chris. He had an odd sense of déjà vu about the exchange, one he was convinced he'd had before with Lisa on the way to the long barrow, but couldn't place the exact details.

He'd always been frustrated not being able to get near the hill itself, so one clear summer evening, he'd driven there at midnight with a torch, clambered over the fence and scrambled to the top of the mound. It was everything he'd hoped for, laying on his back at the top, staring up at the stars. He stayed there for over an hour to watch the heavens in the enhanced darkness of the countryside, even catching a glimpse of a shooting star. It had been a magical moment of tranquillity, one he intended to reproduce once the Anderson-Howell comet was fully visible in the UK shortly. It was all over the news at the moment, the brightest comet of the century, something Chris intended to experience in the best possible conditions. He'd never forgotten the feeling of awe seeing a faint comet through a pair of binoculars in his twenties, so the chance of viewing one with his bare eyes was something he wasn't going to miss.

'Anyway, here we are,' he said.

Before reaching West Kennet, Chris did a U-turn to park in the unassuming lay-by on the other side of the A4. There were only a couple of other cars there, so it should be a relatively undisturbed visit, precisely as he was hoping. He looked across the recently resown wheat field leading up the hill where he could just make out the largest of the standing stones of the long barrow poking above the crest.

They disembarked and headed towards the metal gateway allowing access to the public footpath that led around and across the fields leading to the top, pausing to look at the English Heritage sign just inside. He took Lisa's hand as he read the information yet again.

'It never ceases to amaze me how uncommercialised this place is,' said Chris. 'It's over five-thousand years old, but you can just wander inside, touch the stones, climb across the top, everything.'

'I know,' said Lisa, smiling softly. 'You tell me every time.'

'Let's go then.'

The West Kennet Long Barrow was part of the extended Stonehenge-Avebury complex of prehistoric sites, dating back well over three thousand years BC and yet freely accessible at any time. It was Chris's go-to place whenever he needed mental rejuvenation; there was something about it that made him feel renewed with every visit.

It was a relatively gentle climb up the last stretch towards the brow of the hill, but he was still short of breath before they reached the top – another sign of his age and unfitness. As they approached the summit, the full row of standing kerb-stones in front of the sarsen-capped opening came into view, the tooth-like sentinels guarding the entrance to the one hundred metre long burial mound. Chris ground to a halt, entranced as always by the ancient grandeur of the sight before him.

Admittedly, if he broke it down, it was just a long, grass-covered uneven hump with some randomly-shaped stones in front of it, but there was more to it than that. He could feel the sense of ancient history, could imagine the prehistoric society and rituals that took place at this very spot all those millennia ago. If he closed his eyes, he could smell the fires burning nearby; feel the warm, smoky air blowing against his face; hear the drums of the pagan rituals being enacted in the long barrow.

Actually, he could hear drums. There was a dull thudding noise coming from within the barrow. Curiously he stepped down into the entrance pit and peered into the dimness of the barrow itself. The resonant drumbeat was much louder here, echoing from the depths of the internal chamber.

As his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, he could just discern the forms of two people standing in gloom at the very end of the barrow, a portable sound system between them. It was hard to make out what they were doing, but he assumed it must be some sort of neopagan ritual. Suddenly feeling self-conscious, not wanting to disturb their private ceremony, Chris withdrew back into the light. He'd revisit later, once they'd finished.

'What's next?' said Lisa, who'd remained outside.

'Let's go down to the end and then up on top,' he said.

Lisa nodded, turned and walked around the back of the mound, followed by Chris, who fell back as her brisk pace took her away. Chris wanted to take his time, to savour the view down the far side: the rolling Wiltshire hills covered by a multi-hued patchwork of fields; tree-lined thoroughfares breaking up the vista; compact farm buildings nestling rightfully in the landscape; all topped by a brilliant clear blue sky with nary a cloud to pock the bright terrain.

Lisa waited for him at the end of the mound, before they made their way up the informal path onto the top of the barrow itself, right into its centre.

'Stop,' said Chris to Lisa, who was forging on ahead again.


'I want to admire the view,' he said, pointing down the hill towards where their car was parked. 'Look at that.'

Lisa shrugged and stopped. Chris had hoped the fresh air and scenery would have cheered her up a little. It looked as if it would take more than that, but he wasn't going to let it spoil his enjoyment.

He looked down the slope towards the view on the nearside of the mound. It was even more impressive than the natural beauty of the fields at the back. The landscape below was broken by the imposing man-made mound of Silbury Hill on the other side of the hedgerows concealing the A4, beyond which he could make out the ring of standing stones around the isolated village of Avebury. Here he was, standing on one piece of prehistory, looking over two other unique specimens directly before him; he couldn't imagine anything more perfect, even if he'd designed it himself.

'We must visit Avebury again soon,' he said, nodding in its direction. 'It's amazing to see it from here, but there's nothing like being able to touch the stones themselves.'

Lisa frowned and looked at him uncertainly.

'You can see Avebury?' she said.

'Of course,' he said, pointing beyond Silbury Hill. 'Can't you?'

Lisa shook her head almost imperceptibly before smiling unconvincingly.

'Maybe I need to get my eyes checked.'

He smiled back.


Chris carefully stepped a little way down the slope at the side of the mound facing Silbury Hill, then sat down.

'What you doing?' said Lisa.

'I just want to sit here for a while,' he said. 'Take it all in. Relax.'

Lisa looked at him dispassionately.

'I'll leave you to it,' she said.

'What do you mean?'

'I…I'll just go for a walk,' she said. 'Give me a bit of time on my own, OK?'

'OK, darling. Take care.'

'I will,' said Lisa. 'I'll meet you back here when I'm done. Why don't you close your eyes and have a rest?'

Chris did feel a little lethargic. It might not be a bad idea, especially at such a tranquil, restorative location.

'I might just do that,' he said.

Chris watched Lisa leave and fade into the distance before returning to the view towards Avebury. After a few minutes, he lay back onto the grass, shimmied to get comfortable, and closed his eyes. Within a short while, with the warmth of the autumn sun completing the sensation of perfect tranquillity, he'd drifted into a light, restful sleep.

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