Entering The Web
Dominic woke up with the day buzzing ahead of him. Fresher’s week, and a horde of new computers plugging into the college system. Things had changed a lot since the mid 1990s, when he'd graduated into the arcane world of computer technology. Back then, he’d been working with a handful of computers whose sole purpose had been to access the central library service, singing their slow dial tones into phone lines until their screens shone blue and blinked with blocky yellow letters. Shyly, the students of the late last century had hauled great desktops up the narrow stone staircases, and Dominic would spend an hour or two over coffee installing network cards and explaining the concept of email. He got to know a few of them quite well, while they struggled with text-based archives and mounted bold expeditions into Geocities.
These days the world was wifi, and the students were savvy and anonymous. The odd breakage, the occasional spree of illegal downloads, and he’d send an email or pop up briefly to a room to tweak the network access and depart. He’d initiated a Fresher’s Week Induction Talk in 2004, but ten years later it had shrunk from an hour to a scant fifteen minutes, as he rattled off college policy and indicated where he could be found, should the need ever arise.
He walked to work along a route that had not changed in twenty years. His flat was low-rent, college-owned, and just central enough to be convenient without feeling like an extension of his workspace. It helped that the houses were white. The colleges were, almost universally, built from heavy, honey-coloured stone that glowed in the sunlight like mythical golden cities - El Dorado, or Atlantis before the flood. He chuckled; there was always the odd, anxious humanities student who apologised for jinxing every piece of technology they ever touched, “like Midas, only rubbish and frustrating”, as last year’s pretty Organ Scholar had put it. He must be anticipating their poetic explanations. Or was it… the graffiti that had sprung up overnight?
Dominic stopped and gave the wall his proper attention. Somebody had painted - quite beautifully - a sliver of forest on the corner of his street. It was rather impressive: a silhouette of dark trees arching over a cloud of delicate woodland flowers. It definitely hadn’t been there before the weekend. Perhaps some art student had ambitions to be the next Banksy. Dominic smiled. He enjoyed other people’s imaginations. Creativity wasn’t really his cup of tea, but he liked unexpected encounters like this. Perhaps, he thought, there’ll be more.
He entered his office and switched on his computer. Network traffic flow analysis had replaced coffee and conversation. Youtube, netflix, iplayer and facebook; wireless access point overloads, and securing the network in the new and nearly-new college buildings. The old quads were fine, because they had wooden floors. It was those blooming faraday cages they’d built in the eighties, when aluminium-backed insulation had become all the rage. Great for the environment but a nightmare for spreading wifi through student accommodation. His summer’s preparation had not been in vain. Everything was ticking over smoothly, and the tide of traffic was steadily rising as the students disembarked. The college was thrumming with invisible information. If he closed his eyes, he could almost see its bright blue threads weaving through the walls and soaring and gathering in the air outside. Like a curving magnetic field around the college, his system flowed freely and without a snag or a stutter. The world wide web, funnelled into his domain.
The next morning, he was delighted to see the artist had struck again. A path wound out of the forest to a tower rising from a hill beyond the trees. The tower was golden - not literally decked out in gold leaf, but very cleverly painted to show sunlight glinting from jewelled window panes under a fairy-tale conical roof. The graffiti was spreading down the terraced houses towards his flat. Rapunzel, he thought. Or - no, there’s a door - the magical workshop of a proud wizard, sought after by dozens of ambitious kings. Dominic laughed. He hoped the university wouldn’t be too quick to paint over it. They came down pretty promptly on high-spirited damage to their property.
He was amazed at the painter’s speed - or perhaps there was a group of them. He watched the tower become an island fortress, bounded by a green sea. On the shore, jagged rocks shone darkly between the waves. On Thursday, swans landed on the water - seven of them - and the forest grew again on the other side. These new trees were thick and dark, looming over a shadowed ravine. There were no flowers on this side of the water. The moon shone through the crooked fingers of the branches and, lost in the darkness, Dominic heard a wolf howl. He knew what picture Friday would bring. He shook his head, and shrugged, and smiled, the way he did when the older professors refused to accept some new advance in technology. Dominic was patient and good-humoured, and waited until the nervous dons were overwhelmed by the inevitable and he could get on with his job. Still, he felt a strange, unsettling tingle as he wondered what would happen when the graffiti reached his own home.
He dreamt that night, but forgot in the morning. As he walked, he turned his head firmly towards the traffic, and reached college faster than usual. The purr of his computer room disturbed him, and he twitched up and down checking the monitors, although the web held firm and nothing seemed to be building towards a crash. The first Friday of the month was folk night at the Crown & Anchor, and he usually met some mates from other computing departments in other colleges - Tom and Alistair, and sometimes Chris. The same musicians showed up each month: the Irish fiddler with the walking stick, the quiet teenager on his accordion, and a group of women who seemed to work in ceramics when they weren’t playing ancient recorders. The guitar player was quite famous, and sometimes went on tour, and there was an weather-beaten gentlemen who sometimes played the spoons. When Dominic arrived, Tom and Alistair’s conversation was in full flood.
“I’m dreaming of it these days,” said Alistair.
“We’re part of it now,” said Tom. “They’ve got nanosurgery in Japan, and those A.I. guys. Our bodies are just hardware, after all. Neural transmission - they’ll mimic it in the next couple of decades. It’s in the military’s interests to go down that route. I bet they’ve employed Google to fix it for them. “Do no evil” isn’t going to stop a good old-fashioned military collaboration, and they don’t stand by that any more, do they?”
“Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly,” said Dominic.
The other two looked at him blankly.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve had a funny week. I keep thinking about fairy tales and nursery rhymes.” He smiled, and shrugged. “There’s some new graffiti down my way. We should get a pizza after the pub, back at mine. I’ll show you.”
“Graffiti?” said Alistair. “Artistic stuff, is it? I’ve seen some myself, down St. Clements. There’s a forest full of spiders by the bus stop, and cave under a full moon. It’s like something out of Tolkein.” He hunched over his pint, and might have shivered. “I’ve been dreaming of it,” he said. “Like when I was a kid. Remember when Frodo gets caught by that spider, and wrapped up in its web and left for dead? All those stories about wolves and spiders and enchanted castles. They never leave you, those old stories you read when you were a child. I used to dream I was Frodo, wrapped up in the spider’s web. Used to wake up screaming. Funny, I haven’t thought about that in years. They never really leave you, do they?”
Sometimes they say a ghost walks over your grave, and sometimes they say it’s a goose. Everyone knows what the words mean, however they come out, and who’s to say which way is best?
“Let’s get that pizza,” said Dominic. “It’s not really buzzing here tonight.”
He was right. The guitarist was on tour, and the ceramic women hadn’t turned up. The quiet teenager’s accordion was still in its case, and the weathered man stood by the bar, cradling a pint instead of his spoons. Dominic couldn’t tell if they were waiting for something, or if they’d just given up.
When they got back to his flat, laden with Four Seasons and Neapolitans, the street walls were white again.
“College must have come around and painted over them this morning,” said Dominic. It occurred to him, in the back of his mind, that he hadn’t noticed the glisten or smell of wet paint either that evening or on any of the mornings of last week, but he smiled and shrugged and shut the thought away.
That night, he dreamed he was a dragon. His jewelled body coiled around a slender, golden tower that reached up into a blood-streaked sunset. The dark forest behind him hissed with secret slitherings, and a wolf howled in the dying light. Along the path, with a thunderous inevitability, rode a white horse; on its back a white rider; and in his hand a shining silver spear.
Wet, misty, grey, cloud down and still they set off. Uphill, steep, short steps, short breaths, looking for respite. Halfway and three became four. Talk of cave spiders - shall we? shan't we? on the way there? or on the way back?
How is Nathan? What is he doing now?
Where is Nathan?
Have you seen Nathan?
Eric, can you open the door?
Chris convinced the others to stop and stare.
Deep in the shed cocoons hang
Milky white twists from the roof
Legs twitching, fat red body, orange flecked
and moving so slowly upside down
I need more light! Will this do? Eric passes the four eyed torch
Click click flash
On they press
through the woods
up up up the spiral tower
wet stone dripping walls no light
Long cast shadow mewling birds of prey talk of beasts and owls
Time to go
down down down and down
Where is Nathan? What is he up to now?
He's in his room...
Anne's watching the racing!
"Any one like a cup of.........?"
The phone rings. Can you help? I am looking for art classes for a terminally ill man in your area. Can you help?A group or one to one? What will be best?When?In the New Year.
What would Nathan do?
For planning Christmas in our household the various pressures and lobbies do change from year to year, work, children, illness, money; but the answer is always the same. A long drive followed by domesticity, tinsel and food, more driving, more of the same, and home to a cold house after a week. We grow older each time but we never stop, and quiet words with mothers and siblings glue it together. Quiet words and times in old rooms, with old books.
In the car, family asleep, in the dark my mind wanders reaching for meaning and patterns in the white lines and passing yellow street lamps. Spiders will first release a thread to the wind, and when it catches the game is afoot. Why did he leave us all those years ago? I am driving on the scaffolding of others, the silken star my mother worked so hard for. Starting in the center and like a good boy I go round and round.
When we arrive it is all quiet and the key is on the hook where it has hung for twenty years. Sleeping children are hurried across crisp gravel, and it is quiet outside this old house. Inside my book is still there. It falls open and I trace the lines. If I count the revolutions will I find out how many years I have left? What will happen at the end, when the web is complete? Every year we lay down new evidence, to be encountered on the next time round, birthday, Easter, birthday, birthday, Christmas again.
The winter morning is glistening and silver, coffee, eggs, toast. Relaxed and happy right now, my mother is cooking. There are smiles. The lines of humanity.