Rope and Pearl [work in progress]

Here’s the start of something that I might rework…

Rope sits in her room, gazing out of the window as a late spring breeze ruffles the curtains. The breeze is a little cool for her, but she’s glad of it in this airless place. She pulls a blanket over her knees.

There is a gentle knock at the door and then a member of staff wheels in Rope’s sister. Another staff slips in behind them, and swaps a drooping vase of flowers for a revived one.

‘Thank you,’ says Rope, then she turns to her sister. ‘Hello, Pearl, I didn’t know they were bringing you over today.’

‘It’s a Monday – hadn’t you noticed?’ says Pearl.

The sisters relax into silence for a while, both glancing out at the well-kept lawn outside. The staff sits in one corner, leafing through a copy of today’s newspaper.

The other staff returns with a tea tray and places it on a table between the sisters.

‘How are you then?’ asks Pearl. ‘Are they treating you alright?’

‘Oh, you know, you get used to it. The loss of dignity, the constant surveillance.’ The staff turns a page of her newspaper. ‘The problem is, nothing changes. I’m bored again –’

‘You’re always bored.’

‘And you always interrupt me.’ Rope had spoken harshly, quite unintentionally, and a bruised silence settles between them. Footsteps pass in the corridor outside. The honk of a train, passing at some distance, carries through the open window.

‘You know,’ says Pearl, ‘as they drove me over here we passed a train track and a train sped by – so fast. Do you remember those slam door trains we used to take?’

‘Mhm.’

‘And that time I got embarrassed and couldn’t open the door?’ Rope nods. ‘You were sat opposite me next to that old woman. At least she seemed old to me then – she was probably about the age we are now. And we pulled into our stop and I tried the handle to open the door, but it was sticky and I couldn’t get it open. I rattled it and rattled it. And somehow it made it worse that this old woman was watching me, young and strong, and yet I couldn’t open the door. So you reached across her and opened the door but in our panic to get out at our stop we both tumbled onto the platform. Do you remember?’ Rope nods. ‘And we collapsed into giggles. Until the station guard tapped us on the shoulder and pointed to the train, and we both looked up just as the train pulled away and the old woman was staring at us holding my hat in her hand!’ Rope gives a weak smile. ‘Sometimes I think I haven’t changed a single bit, since then – I’m still that young girl inside. Do you ever think that?’

‘It feels like such a long time ago… It is a long time ago…’ Rope brightens, ‘Tea?’ Pearl nods and watches as her sister pours the tea. She notices the drift of time on Rope’s face, the white hairs – wayward, where their younger sisters were dead straight. She observes the shape of Rope’s hands, inherited from their great aunt and revealing this inheritance more with every day that passes. Her sister had kept her excellent posture somehow, and, Pearl notices with a grimace, she’d also kept that dreadful blanket.

‘You’re lucky, you know,’ says Pearl.

‘What?’

‘You’re lucky to get flowers in your room. They must like you more than me.’

‘Or they think they can bribe me…’ says Rope, flashing a look at the staff reading the newspaper.

‘If there’s anyone they can bribe, it’s me!’ says Pearl, grinning.

Rope leans in to pass Pearl her tea and whispers, ‘You shouldn’t joke about that.’ Her eyes say the rest. As Rope leans back, the staff clicks her biro on. On her lap is a blank crossword puzzle and she carefully writes something in the blank squares.

‘I heard something on the radio last night,’ says Rope, briskly. Pearl reaches into her bag and takes out her crochet things, spreading them on her knees. She untangles the wool and gestures at Rope to go on.

‘It was an astronomer talking about our night sky. He said that everyone used to think that the expansion of our universe had been slowing down. That, after the Big Bang, all the stuff of the universe had been thrown out…’ Rope gestures with her hands, but Pearl’s attention stays on her crocheting. ‘Are you listening to me?’

Pearl looks up, hurt. ‘Yes, of course. The universe is getting bigger, the Big Bang. I’m listening.’

‘The key thing is that they thought the expansion of the universe was slowing down. The man compared it to a ball that had been thrown into the air. At the beginning it goes up fast, then it slows and slows before it falls to the ground again.’ Pearl nods. ‘But apparently this isn’t the case: the expansion of the universe is getting faster, not slower. It’s something to do with gravity repelling as well as attracting – something like that. Anyway, here’s the interesting bit. Because everything’s moving away, and at ever increasing speeds, in the far future the stars in the sky are going to go out. They will be too far away for their light to reach us. So they’ll go out one by one until there’s just blackness up there. And this astronomer said that a future scientist would look at the sky and see nothing around us – just our sun, our moon, the other planets in our galaxy. Beyond that, nothing.’ Pearl looked up at Rope and observed her. ‘So then the question is, would this future scientist believe whatever records have been passed down from our time – whatever remains of our observations? Or would they draw their own conclusions, based on the darkness in the night sky?’ Rope lets silence return to the room.

‘So?’ says Pearl.

‘So what?’

‘So what did your astronomer think?’

‘He thought that the future scientist would be more likely to believe the emptiness they could observe rather than the records from our time.’

‘Bloody hell, that’s bleak.’

‘Bleak? I thought it was rather poetic.’

‘What, all human endeavour, all our science – lost to oblivion?’

‘More like… If such a significant thing can be lost to the future, what else have we lost from the past? Like the library at Alexandria – all that knowledge gone, and only bits of it rediscovered, perhaps. I like the idea that as hard as we try to hold onto this knowledge, there’s no guarantee it won’t be completely misinterpreted generations down the line.’

‘This, coming from a scientist!’ Pearl laughs, but stops when she catches Rope’s expression, dark and stormy. The staff discretely jots something down on her newspaper.

‘So, Pearl, tell me about your week.’

Pearl sets her crocheting to one side. ‘Do you mind if we close the window? It’s freezing in here.’