What Matters (Novel Sample) — Trust and Value Your Heart

An excerpt from a forthcoming novel about strange coincidence by David Skynner.

Chapter 1

What a conundrum is this world in which we live. What a confusing, challenging, contradictory den of staggering beauty and bestial vice.

But who amongst you who might read these words ever bothers, or would even have the thought that this contradiction merits some thought. Obviously that would require a step away from the latest consuming desire, so you don’t. You just don’t. It’s a loaded subject, that is to say, it is worthy of the consideration and I think everyone at some level knows this, but it is a Pandora’s box of a question and we also somehow know that once you step down this road, you may not easily be able to turn back. What is become known cannot be unknown again. If I were to examine the world and its contradictions and find in there a pattern that makes me reconsider my world view, then my life would change, I would become other than my fellow man and I would be more alone in that. So I don’t look, I don’t consider, I block my ears, cover my eyes and and carry on in denied, but willful ignorance. Sometimes though, the contradictions do not wait quietly to be discovered, they pursue one with such force, that they simply cannot be ignored.

Chapter 2

He stood, he thought and with some justification, on the cusp of the apocalypse and the thought did flit through his mind that four horsemen calling forth this destruction would not seem out of place in the current maelstrom.

His first and confusing thought, was that the chiaroscuro outline he saw before him now, was the carcass of some great beast, it’s vast skeleton rendered of flesh by time and the inevitable corruption of decay. His confusion lay in the knowledge that the only creature that might grow a rib cage of such immense size was one of the great whales, but their home, the sea, was removed by many hundreds of miles from where he knelt, across a desert of such implacable shifting hostility that nothing could exist there.

It had certainly not been there a moment earlier as the jarring earth threw him to his knees. The earthquake had, though brief, been intense and violent. He could hear boulders still tumbling, crashing and exploding down the hillside nearby and as the ground had heaved around him he had briefly glimpsed a mirror image of dark semi circular beams being ejected with great force from the ground. He saw them now, narrowing at the point nearest him and curving elegantly up and out in ordered symmetrical rows that arched towards the sky from a weighty spine that was still all but buried in the sand. Before he could fully comprehend the vision though, the spectral sight was obliterated once more by trillions of grains of sand, blown from their repose, by the viscous desert wind into an earthbound tempest that was stripping him gradually of his skin.

He endured for a few more moments, peering, hoping for a further glimpse, but his eyes were streaming, useless and blind, grit was clogging his nose and dunes marched ever deeper into his ear canals. Incapable of any further forward movement, he therefore crouched in the lee of a sandstone cliff, carved into beautiful sweeping catenary curves by centuries of wind such as this, pressed himself into its glassy smoothness and wrapping his cloak around himself, pulled the sides together until they formed a seal that provided a small but welcome solace from the relentlessly punishing wind.

He remained like that for over an hour, contemplating and wondering what it might be that he had seen, when as suddenly as it had started the sandstorm fell silent and he rose and went to investigate.

Trial book illustration by the author

A dusty haze remained, but it was clearing perceptibly as he approached and the mammoth shape gradually resolved and gave up its animal form. When he finally stood beside it, shielding his eyes from the glare that was returning to scorch the parched and lifeless ground and looked up at the ribs arcing high over him, when he reached out to confirm what his eyes told him, but his mind could not accept, when he touched and ran his fingers gently across the gnarled surface of the wood, he knew that what he had found was in truth almost as inexplicably strange as if he had in fact found the remains of a whale several hundreds miles from the sea. For what stood slowly decaying in front of him, absurd, impossible and yet mocking his denial with its absolute physical reality, was undoubtedly the remains of a large wooden boat.

A little over an hour before, David had been ready for and preparing himself to accept his end. Lost in the desert with the last of his water gone, he had known and accepted that his imminent death was now all but inevitable. He had seen the sandstorm develop and sweep implacably towards him like a colossal tsunami and had felt oddly gratified that the elements seemed willing to hasten this end, when they had previously appeared to conspire to prolong and extend his suffering.

Now, he marveled at this miracle as he walked slowly round the structure, gazing in mute awe at its quite extraordinary strangeness. The hull must once have been nearly fifty feet long. Its planks, long since desiccated, had crumbled, but the superstructure, keel and ribs were of such a thickness that they were still largely intact and he now stepped through them into the belly of the beast. Its mast had fallen, but still lay within and as he paced the length from prow to stern along the line of the keel, he caressed its the growing width and came to feel, suddenly, an affinity, as one does when encountering a friend from childhood who is known at some level, but whose appearance is so much changed that they are not immediately recognised.

David stopped and stood in the middle of the ruin. Here was plainly visible the possible cause of its demise. Below his feet he could see the vast timber keel was shattered and a substantially greater gap between the evenly spaced ribs betrayed the fact that this vessel had met with a force sufficient to break it in two. For a moment he blinked, incapable of admitting what his thoughts were suggesting, then allowed his instinct to plainly speak the words that he sensed were true, but could not in any way begin the explain. It was his insanity surely, the final nail in his coffin certainly and the proof if any were still needed that God does first make mad those he wishes to destroy. But also, the impossible hope that seized his heart in that moment and which he grasped with all the desperation of the drowning, was as a salvation to him; a brilliant flare igniting and soaring upwards, a guide to rescuers, a comfort to those in peril and to him, as proof positive of the improbable touch of God upon the world.

There was no explaining it, but still he knew this was a sign, a message and the deliverance that he had long ago given up on, for though a mere shadow of what it had once been, he was sure he knew this vessel. As he once again placed his hand on the fallen mast, he knew with absolute certainty that he had once been a passenger on this very benighted ship and many long years earlier, had been a witness to her sinking broken beneath the waves.

Chapter 3

David was in point of fact a prince. His father, who was the King of his small, but prosperous country, had sent him abroad when quite young. It is not uncommon for aspirant heads of state of developing nations to be educated at some of the grander schools of the more advanced nations and so it was with David. He had spent some seven years being taught in the chilly halls of an ancient building in a relentlessly wet and mountainous part of that land and he was now finally due to return to the comforting warmth of his homeland.

He was excited. In those years he had only made the journey once before, on the event of the death of his mother. An insect had bitten her; it should have been nothing, but an infection had set in and despite the best efforts of her doctors, she had died only a few days later. David had not seen her since he was eleven and prior to his last trip his schooling had seemed like an adventure. Since his mothers demise though, a sadness had settled on his heart and he had become stoic and withdrawn, studying diligently, but simply for the realisation of a purpose, rather than for the experience.

He had turned eighteen by the time his education was finally complete and he had said his goodbyes, packed his belongings and prepared to return home. This journey was not a simple affair and would take him several weeks. It had begun by train and taken a day and a half to complete. Descending from the mountains and leaving the interminable drizzle thankfully behind, it had continued for many depressing hours through an industrial heartland, a place of considerable ugliness made brutal by endless satanic factories and their towering belching chimneys.

The leaden sky that seemed a permanent fixture thereabouts had lifted and with it David’s mood, as they gradually segued into farmlands dotted with quaint honey coloured stone towns and villages and a final descent from that plateau had revealed at last the sea and a great port, where massive iron ships were berthed.

After a night in a small but comfortable boarding house, whose landlady doted upon him in a motherly fashion, David had boarded one of these ships and that evening they had departed the port and headed south.

There were not many other passengers as the principle cargo of this vessel was freight; just a pair of businessmen, a missionary and an elegant woman travelling to join her husband in his new post. David kept himself to himself, occupying his time staring at the gently shifting horizon, reading and occasionally engaging with a torrid teenage fantasy concerning a dalliance with the mysterious woman passenger. She had dark hair and a full feminine figure; womanly in all respects, she exuded a sexual allure that was made all the more potent by her absolute reserve. She ate alone and he never once saw her engage with anyone other than to thank the steward when he served her meal. She never once glanced in his direction, never indeed gave the slightest indication that she had even noticed he existed until a morning after they had been at sea for seven days, when she appeared beside David as he stood on deck gazing out at the passing sea and addressed him.

“I sometimes wonder if it is us that are actually still and the world that is moving past us.” She said. Her voice was quiet and he thought, melancholy.

The observation was so unexpected that David did not immediately respond and after looking with surprise at her for a moment turned back towards the sea and considered her observation as if she might be expressing a hitherto hidden reality. She obviously thought he was ignoring her, because she started to turn away with a slight but audible sigh, but turned back when he finally responded. “It does seem that way sometimes.”

She smiled slightly and waited for him to continue.

“It makes one feel powerless, like it is all happening anyway.”

“Indeed.” She nodded. “So true.” She moved to stand beside him and together they stared out at the world moving past them in silence. After a few moments she placed her hand on his. “Would you come to my rooms?” She asked.

Once behind closed doors, she had poured him a drink and tried to calm his nerves before she undressed him and gently but expertly took his virginity.

Afterwards, she had become very withdrawn, blamed a headache and he had taken his cue and discreetly left.

The next morning she was nowhere to be found on the ship and once it was assumed she had gone over the side, the ship had turned about to search for her. No trace of her was found though and they lost a day in the process.

David told no one of their liaison; he thought much about her though and knew he had been touched by her darkness, by whatever ghosts had driven her to take her own life. He didn’t hold himself responsible; he had examined his actions thoroughly and could not perceive any way in which he had wronged her. If anything he had gifted her a last moment of comfort, a kindness in a world that was, for her, perhaps anything but kind. Whatever had driven her, was beyond his perception and his control and he felt only sorrow that his callowness and innocence had rendered him ignorant and impotent to perceive and perhaps ease her pain more profoundly.

The voyage continued without any further event until, as the sun rose on the seventh day since the woman has disappeared, it illuminated a thin and distant strip of land stretching across the horizon to the east. They followed the coast for a few miles, simultaneously approaching it at a shallow angle and as it grew ever nearer, the line gradually resolved into a rocky shore, lined densely with trees. This turned abruptly left after a promontory and they then headed into a delta so wide that the far shore was barely visible. Within hours they arrived at a port and here the ship berthed.

David’s belongings were unloaded by porters and transferred to a smaller vessel, a masted dhow about fifty feet long, owned by his father and skippered by his crew and it was on this ship he was to complete his journey. They were to sail along the coast, past a great and largely unexplored desert and once clear of it, they would turn inland, up a long snaking river that was the main tributary of communication and trade for the kingdom he was to one day inherit. In all, this third and final leg of his journey would take another five days to complete.

The crew was experienced and efficient and it was barely midday before David was once more heading south along the coast, this time propelled by a brisk arid desert wind.

As they progressed through the afternoon, the vegetation on the largely flat shore became increasingly scarce, by dusk it had disappeared completely and been replaced by ochre rocks and a muddy yellow sand. There was the odd dead stump of a tree, but otherwise the land had become entirely devoid of any signs of current or past life. The sea on the other hand was ablaze with nature’s wonders. Several times they had been joined by dolphins, at one point even crossing through a substantial pod. These Spinner Dolphins did not entertain themselves plowing the wake of the boat, but would shoot from the surface twisting joyfully around and around three or four times before disappearing back beneath the surface. At one point David was sure he could count two hundred Dolphins out of the water, reasoning the total number in the pod had to be significantly higher.

As dusk turned to inky night, the phosphorescence wherever the boat had disturbed the water became brilliantly visible. It was so bright at the bow you could most probably read by its light, if you could find a way to stay out of the water, but the plankton continued to emit light for a minute of two after they had been disturbed, so a glowing wake stretched behind the boat for well over two hundred yards.

Lamps were lit on the boat and a meal was prepared. After it had been consumed, the crew sang songs, laughed and joked with their important and precious passenger. David shared some stories about his school, he cherry picked the most amusing ones, in particular the tale of ’the headmasters doors’ had made them laugh hard for some moments. The headmaster was typical of his sort, distant and academically lofty, in which aspiration it helped that he was physically very tall. He looked down on the boys in his charge as a kind of unfortunate and detested but unavoidable by product of his job and did his best to scare them into subservient silence. He used corporal punishment liberally to that end and to sound proof his office more efficiently, he had a form of air lock fitted, consisting of doors on the inside and outside of the wall with a six-inch gap between them. They were very effective and when both were closed fast, the cries of a boy receiving even a severe beating were almost inaudible in the corridor outside.

It had been the end of the previous term when a group of boys, of whom David was one, removed one of the stone eagles from the gateposts, manhandled it into the school and placed it on the headmasters desk. They then secured their vandalism by erecting a beautiful pointed and very sturdy brick wall in the space between the doors. The look of total incomprehension on the hated masters face when he opened the outer door the following morning and the fact that he had opened and closed the door several times, as if expecting the wall to disappear, was related again and again in hushed breathless and hysterical whispers through the school until it became the stuff of legend. There was even a suspicion that the shock had provoked him to have a minor stroke. He had after all been absent for the rest of the day and when school resumed the following term, it was apparent that there was less symmetry in his face than before.

David laughed as he told his story, but this masked the truth he felt. He had loathed the school and had made few friends in the years he had attended. He had pleaded with his father not to be sent away, but had been aggressively rebuffed. It was plain his father thought the school would make a man of him and had set his heart on David attending. David could not though understand quite why he had to be sent thousands of miles away for years on end and had said as much. His father had made his point by punching his son. Perhaps he felt this was a way of proving he was not yet the man he needed him to be, or possibly he was trying to break the familial bond to make the parting easier, but the harshness and emotional brutality of being physically attacked for merely wanting to continue to live with ones parents at the age of eleven was profound and the effects of those few moments were to have repercussions that would last for the best part of the remainder of David’s life. This occurrence forced an acceptance onto him, at a deep level he realised that what he wanted, simply didn’t matter and by inference adopted an understanding that he must not matter either. Obviously this was extremely distressing, so much so that he struggled greatly to accommodate it and became increasingly emotionally numb, before excluding it from his consciousness altogether. Whatever his motive, his father was successful in his aim; David was silenced and his objections died on his lips. Within him though, something much more significant had also died and it sank into an unquiet oblivion from where, like a vengeful ghost it would command David’s actions follow its own needs.

The laughter and the drinking continued until after midnight, by which time, most of the crew were quite drunk. Even the captain had trouble standing and came close to toppling off the boat as he urinated over the side, a close shave that seemed to amuse him greatly

It seemed that David, as he was yet to acquire a habit for drinking, was the least inebriated of them all. He enquired of the captain about the ship and was assured that their course was taking them well out to sea, away from shipping lanes and islands and that the wheel was securely lashed and they could carry on, even if unattended, quite safely until morning. With that the captain settled down to sleep for a while, he did though request that David, if he were not to sleep, keep an eye open for any potential danger.

David agreed and soon he was effectively alone upon the sea, accompanied only by the snoring of the crew.

He stared up at the sky; the stars above were so dense and multitudinous that they formed an almost unbroken carpet that stretched from one horizon to the other. The mast and sails were quite invisible, but their presence was betrayed by the huge black triangle cut from the star scape. Several times he saw shooting stars; one crossing the entire sky and taking some ten seconds to do so.

He turned his attention to the sea and was marveling again at the trail of bubbling light behind them, when he saw, far out in the darkness a brief surge of brightness. It wasn’t a light as such, more a small watery glow, that appeared, swirled and vanished again. He estimated it to be as much as a mile away, though as there was nothing to compare scale with, this was just a wild guess. He stared at the spot where he had seen the light for a while and was rewarded by seeing it again, this time larger and brighter and accompanied by a geyser of light that shot into the air and was then consumed once again by the night.

Becoming now quite perplexed by the source and cause of this distant but spectacular light show, David considered whether he should to wake the captain, but as he reached to shake his shoulder some instinct stayed his hand, a sense, from where he knew not, that the fates were playing out their game and he should not chance to interfere. Many were the years that passed when he later had cause to regret the decision of that moment.

He saw the lights one more time, but they had now moved further west and he concluded that what he was observing was caused by some marine phenomena, perhaps whales, or schools of fish feeding and so violently disturbing the plankton that their phosphorescence could be seen even at a considerable distance.

Soon after that David himself fell asleep, the last thought in his head before he slipped into unconsciousness, was whether he should try once more to rouse the captain, but he now considered the thought trivial and childlike and again made a choice not to.

He was awoken some time later; he was not sure at first, by what. The moon had travelled half way across the sky, but there was still no dawn glow evident on the horizon.

David held his breath, listening, every fibre of his being gradually lighting up, alarm spreading like warning beacons through him as an instinctive and undoubtedly primitive awareness grew and became conscious. Something was wrong.

He sat up and looked around. The crew all still slept soundly and the boat appeared to be still following its intended course. Still his anxiety grew, he was close to terrified, but still had no idea of what.

It was a slopping of water that drew his attention and caused him to look over the side of the boat; immediately he gasped.

The sea around the boat was alive with light, it was sufficient to see perhaps fifty feet down and clearly visible, directly beneath the hull a titanic fight for survival was taking place.

A smallish whale perhaps only twenty feet long with a broad flat face shot out from beneath the boat; pursuing it on either side David counted seven black and white orcas. They quickly disappeared into the gloom, then following came a much greater bulk, another whale of the same species, but perhaps three times larger and moving so fast and so close to the boat that the water she displaced caused the boat to keel sharply over to port.

Fully awake, entirely convinced that they were in imminent danger and cursing himself for not trying to awaken the captain, David shouted as loud as he could and threw himself on the captain, shaking him hard.

The captain stirred and sat up. “What is it?” he said rubbing his eyes.

“Whales!” David shouted.

The captain snorted. “Yes there are many whales here.” He then turned, intending to resume his rest.

“Look.” David said and pulled him over to look over the side.

With a sigh and probably realising he had to indulge his monarch’s son, the captain acquiesced, pulled himself to his feet and looked over the side.

For a moment he saw nothing, though the immense presence of phosphorescence did make him frown, then as if following a cue, rising up from the depths and within feet of the boat, came the entire cast of the battle. The huge mother sperm whale, fighting off and snapping with her vast jaws at the half a dozen scavenging killer whales, swirling so adeptly and so fast round her, intent on stealing her calf for their food. The calf itself was seeking some protection under her dorsal fins, but it was plainly exhausted and kept slipping away to where an orca would seize a fin and try to drag it to its death. Valiantly and repeatedly she would round on them and twice she got them in her jaws. One was so badly injured it spiralled bleeding away into the depths, but she was fighting a losing battle and perilously close to their boat.

“Wake up!” The captain screamed, of course it was too late though, for at that moment a pair of orcas working in unison seized the calf’s tail and pulled it away out of sight under the boat. The mother reacted with furious intent, turned and raced after them, her open jaws impacting against the keel as she passed underneath, tearing through the wood, then the immense bulk of her body followed, breaking it entirely and lifting the boat almost out of the water. When she passed and the vessel crashed back down, it did so in two distinct pieces, casting the crew into the ocean.

David went under and for a good moment was so disorientated by the speed with which his world had collapsed that he did not know up from down; he was actually diving deeper, while thinking he was striking for the surface. A great calm came upon him and he was comforted by the knowledge, from where he did not know, that death is actually not so hard. He was embracing this, when he felt a hand on his ankle, was pulled upwards and a moment later he broke the surface.

The captain had saved him and after a nod of assurance that he was okay, he left David alone while he went seeking to gather the remaining crew. David trod water and stared in mute shock down at the two halves of their boat as they sank slowly out of the reach of the phosphorescence and were lost in the deep dark ocean.

The captain had saved him and after a nod of assurance that he was okay, he left David alone while he went seeking to gather the remaining crew. David trod water and stared in mute shock down at the two halves of their boat as they sank slowly out of the reach of the phosphorescence and were lost from sight.

Chapter 4

There was one way he could be sure, one way he could know that he was not lost to insanity. David dropped to his knees and began shoveling away the sand from around the blasted broken beam that formed the keel of the ship. The sun had grown intense now and he pulled his cloak up to cover his head, but still in a few moments he was drenched in his own sweat. He continued to dig for close to an hour and was several feet down in the sand before he managed to uncover the base of the keel. It had been formed from one entire tree and was over four feet square, a vast and implacable piece of hardwood strengthened and protected by an iron base that had been snapped cleanly in half below the broken timber. It was in a small cavity where the iron had been bent away that he found what he was searching for. At first he couldn’t extract it, then after digging at the wood around it with his knife for a few moments, he managed to lever out the object of his search. It was heavy, about eight inches long, oval in shape and narrowed to a blunt point. It was smooth as glass, a creamy yellow in colour and was unquestionably the artistic medium commonly used by sailors of old for scrimshaw, the tooth of an adult sperm whale.

He slumped down on his haunches to examine his find, protected from the sun’s heat by the slightly moist sand and the depth of the hole. It was obviously completely impossible that a boat he had watched sink into the blue waters off the coast, across a terrible desert, over twenty years ago should have somehow found itself entombed in the earth here. There was no power that could have achieved this, none. It could not be, but despite this, the object he cupped in his hands told a different story and as he turned the twist in his story over, again and again in his mind, examining every facet, every possibility from all angles, he kept coming back to the same conclusion. Simply put it was this; for this ship to have found its way here was not rationally possible and for it to have been regurgitated from the ground just as he was wandering alone in this particular piece of a vast and unexplored desert, was a coincidence beyond comprehension. So it must and had to have some meaning, nothing else meant any sense. This was an act of the Gods, not that he really believed in any of that mumbo jumbo, not any more, but the occurrence was so incomprehensible extreme, that it simply screamed ’divine intervention’, there had to be something of particular and personal meaning here and it was that which he was sure he needed to divine.

Chapter 5

They didn’t see the whales again, their fight had either concluded or moved off into another part of the ocean and gradually the glow in the water started to fade. Before it vanished completely though, the captain returned, accompanied by two others and dragging a substantial wooden piece of flotsam. It wasn’t sufficiently large or buoyant for more than one of them to climb from the water, but it gave them something to cling to and the captain suggested they take it in turns resting on the makeshift raft.

They stayed like that until the light was growing in the sky and they could more clearly see their predicament. There was no sight of land and the captain reckoned they were about thirty miles from the coast, but he was optimistic the current would bring them to the shore in a day or so.

The sharks appeared after the sun had been up for about an hour. At first it was just one lazy, medium sized tiger shark. It seemed to lack in confidence and hovered around about thirty feet away, circling them over and over again, until it was joined by two others. They all seemed to gain in courage from their numbers then and tested the crew’s willingness to fight by darting in close and then turning abruptly away.

The captain insisted David climb onto the raft, he demurred briefly but without conviction and when the captain insisted there would be no point any of the crew surviving if David did not, as the King would certainly have them executed for failing him, David gratefully climbed up to this relative safety. He then watched helplessly as one by one the sharks picked off the crew until by mid afternoon he was alone.

The guilt became overwhelming at about sunset and he wept uncontrollably until he did not have any strength to continue. Then curled in a ball in the middle of the raft, he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When he awoke it was light, the sun was several degrees above the horizon and he had a sense he was being watched. Turning over he discovered he was not alone. The great whale that had fought for its calf’s life was lying stationary in the water beside him, partly rolled over onto its side so that its eye was out of the water. David looked around but he could not see the calf.

The eye was as large as a dinner plate and though rheumy around the edges, was a clear lucid black at the centre of the iris and he sensed there was thought behind this gaze.

“I’m sorry.” He said, though immediately wondered why he was apologising to the beast that has sunk his ship and been the cause of the consequent death of the crew. Guilt pushed that thought aside again and he apologised once more with meaning. “I’m sorry.”

He was sure the whale understood, the movement of emotion is clearly visible in an eye and it was visible here in her he thought. He sensed her sadness and even wondered if he sensed her gratitude.

She stared at him for a moment longer and blinked, then rolled back into the water and submerged, before, with a gentle flick of her tail, her great mass started to glide through the water and away.

When she had quite disappeared, David turned round to survey the horizon and saw what he feared he might never see again, land.

The sharks continued to follow hopefully right into the shallow water, even lingering inside the wave breaks after the raft had struck the sand and David had clambered off onto the beach, collapsed face down on the soft dry warm sand and fallen fast asleep from exhaustion.

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