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The sphinx smiles down at me, flexes an immense paw. Above, one of the new airships floats overhead, serene as a god. I am standing at the entrance to the bridge, looking out across sparkling mist, waiting. The hem of my robe--the white and crimson of a Welcomer--snaps in the breeze. I lean a little more heavily on my iron staff and smile back at the sphinx. In the reflected metal of the panelling on the tower, our faces are not unalike: broad, dark, patient.
My name is Olaudah Jea. I do not know the sphinx's name, for such things are guarded carefully. I call her Left Hand. She sits on the left hand tower, staring into the mist and occasionally, one supposes, conversing with her Right Hand companion.
The mist is glittering, a sign of imminent arrival. I tap the iron shoe of my staff against the iron strut of the bridge, producing an echoing clack. Patient I may be, but sometimes things need to be speeded up a little.
"Mr Kingdom!" I cry. I don't mean to order him around--experts must be respected--but he is like all scientists, prone to wander off into a haze of speculation, diagrams scribbled on the backs of envelopes, on table tops, on bridges. "Mr Kingdom!"
And after a moment, an answer comes.
"Olaudah? Is that you?"
The sphinx's smile widens.
"Who else would it be?" I say.
He steps out of the mist, top hat speckled with droplets of congealed ethereality. "My profound apologies. I was at work on a new device, something quite radical, which the Venturers' Guild will, I am sure, be happy to hear about."
"Another invention, Mr Kingdom?" This is not,absolutely, his name, but it amuses me to call him this and I think it amuses him, too. He points upward, past the sphinxes, past the upright struts of the bridge, to where a thin sickle moon is riding. The airship--her name is Beginnings--soars beneath the lunar crescent, her sails outstretched to catch the winds of the Severn Sea. "As graceful as that one?"
"Pah!" Mr Kingdom is too much the gentleman to spit over the side of the bridge, but I can tell that this is his initial reaction. "My creation would take you much further than these upper airs. All the way to that, in fact." And his finger stabs directly at the moon.
I do not like to question the mad, or engineers, which amount to the same thing. "Well, that would be a marvel, Mr Kingdom," I say. "Now, about the arrivals..."
There is a little more urgency in my voice now, for I can see their forms starting to emerge through the mist. Their eyes are wide: they must think they are crossing from one hell into another. They are wrong. And I spread my arms wide, to welcome them home.
There's more to life here than sugar and slavery. People don't believe me when I tell them this: they're a hard people in Bristol, they say, with an eye to the main chance and to money. Merchants and marketers, always looking beyond the rolling hills and the Severn Sea to the lands over the ocean, where there are fortunes to be won and lost.
But I hadn't come to Bristol to make a fortune, not as such. I'd come to build a bridge.
The river Avon runs through a steep and narrow gorge, a place of crags and cliffs. The town perches at its summit, looking out across bucolic green fields. But though the gorge is narrow, it cannot be easily crossed at any point of its snaking length, and thus the good burghers of Bristol wanted a bridge. Who better to consult for the task than myself, Isambard Kingdom Brunel?
I do not wish to sound arrogant. But if anyone is asked to build a bridge, then surely it must be I, who have spanned the gorge of the Severn in its upper reaches, to such effect that the surrounding village is known as Ironbridge? Who has built the Great Western Railway and laid cables beneath the Atlantic? But I am bragging, of course. All those things came later and besides, matters did not go so well with this particular initial construction. I speak from the perspective of a man much older than the one I am supposed to have become. Have patience with me. I must not get ahead of myself--I am an engineer, after all. Things must be linear, structured, in their place, and so I will begin with the original bridge itself, with that graceful arching span across the Avon, with its sturdy Egyptian pillars.
Originally they asked Telford, the idiots. I suppose it makes a kind of sense; he was then the chief architect of the day, a Name. But Telford went his own sweet way in all things, and the bridge he wanted to build was not the bridge they had in mind. So they asked me, and as a rash young engineer of twenty-four, naturally I agreed, and I blessed the name of William Vick, the rich wine merchant who had decided that what Bristol needed was a bridge.
He had left a thousand pounds to achieve this end, setting it in an account that would enable it to grow. When the sum grew eightfold, the city fathers decided they could wait no longer and summoned first Telford and then myself to the city.
It was my first visit to Bristol, and I knew little of the place. A rural city, if that is not a contradiction in terms, set amongst cow pastures on the muddy banks of the Avon. A city built on slavery, although only a relative handful of black faces had ever set sight on its pale facades compared to the numbers that had been ferried across the Atlantic to the Americas on Bristolian slave ships.
Slavery had itself fallen prey to the abolitionists in the quarter of a century before I was hired to build the bridge. But the smell of it remained along the wharves and dockyards, in the stale waters of the river, in the wealthy mansions that stood above the cramped streets and the filthy inns.
I did not realise, then, how much more of it remained even than that.
More than a quarter of a century after that, and I am dangling from a metal basket, two hundred feet over the sluggish creep of the river. Needless to say, the tide is out. It is a September afternoon, with the early autumn light hanging trapped and golden among the leaves of Leigh Woods. I am accompanied by a boy named Casket, my wife Mary having inexplicably declined to join me in this particular adventure ("Under no circumstances!"). We seek to cross the bridge for the first time.
I say "bridge." In fact, the construction is yet no more than two turrets, influenced by the Luxorian pylons I have seen in engravings, and I think they look very fine. A steel bar, some eight hundred feet long, passes between them, and this is what will become the bridge itself.
Casket looks down and grows a shade paler.
"Mr Brunel? Why aren't we moving? Have you halted this cradle to admire the view?"
A good question. In fact, although the view this afternoon is also very fine, I have not stopped the basket in order to contemplate it.
Rather, we have stuck.
I am reluctant to inform Casket of this basic fact, but he wants to be an engineer, like me, and he needs to have an empirical approach to reality. Thus, I let him know that through no calculation of my own, we cannot progress any further without someone climbing up the chain that attaches the basket to the iron bar and releasing the bolts.
This someone, I also inform him, had better be me, since I do at least possess the advantage of knowing more or less what I am doing.
Casket, perhaps understandably, is alarmed. What, he asks me, should become of him if I fall?
Well, I tell him, then I will be a corpse floating down the Avon and you will still be stuck, in which unfortunate case someone will have to crawl across that bar with a rope.
Try not to fall, Casket says, with more wryness than I might have expected of the lad under such circumstances. Endeavouring not to look down, I stand on the wavering edge of the basket and begin to inch my way up the chain like a monkey of the Indies.
The basket sways alarmingly and the river, when I do eventually glance down, looks much further away than two hundred feet. I am relieved that my dear wife elected not to accompany me, though I am annoyed that she seems, thus far, to have been proved right. When I look back up again I see that a mist is beginning to appear, boiling down from the length of the iron bar.
Even more annoying. If a mist is coming in--as happens in September when one is not far from a major estuary--the chain will become slippery and I am not that confident of my ultimate dexterity. However, we have no choice.
As I progress up the chain, I see something waving at the corner of my eye. I grip the chain tightly and look across. It is a fragment of red flannel, wielded like a flag.
Odd. Perhaps something has caught on the bridge, and is flapping in the wind--but there is remarkably little wind now, and the mist is descending fast. I go hand over hand up the chain and soon, to my relief, reach the bar. Except the bar isn't there any more. Instead, I crawl out into a wide plain of gleaming metal, the colour of mother of pearl.
I stand, bewildered. I do not understand what has happened. Then, out of the mist, a voice bids me, "Good afternoon!"
I turn. A man is standing on the bridge. He is as black-skinned as any Caribbean slave and he wears a flowing robe of red and white, plus a small round skullcap. He carries an iron staff. He is beaming.
"Yes. How do you know my name?"
"Ah. Well, we have met before, you see. Or rather, after. In fact, we know one another quite well."
"My dear sir," I say, "I fear that I have never seen you before in my life and I feel certain that I would have remembered you."
The man gives a slight bow. "This is mysterious, I know. However, I hope to make it a little more plain. Please come with me."
After a moment's hesitation, I do so. I follow the swirling red and white robes to a point at the end of the bridge--for such it must surely be. As we walk, the mist whirls upwards and a tower emerges from it--a tower that is very familiar to me, having been built from my own drawings and with its twin on the Leigh Woods side of the bank, now forming the only completed part of the bridge.
My tower, and yet not quite my tower. Whereas my own edifice had been constructed from brick, this is clad in a softly gleaming metal, darker than that beneath my feet, a kind of shimmering bronze shot with green lights, like a beetle's wing. And on top of it--I gasp.
I've always liked sphinxes. I had hoped, all those years ago, that the city fathers would have let me have a couple on the towers of the bridge, for they are very fashionable, and they had appeared in my original specifications. But--bah!--it had been deemed too expensive and thus my towers sat, sphinx-less.
Here, however, is a sphinx and although it is the colour of bronze, with a more golden hue than the tower itself, it is alive. Huge sun-coloured eyes blink down at me and then the thing gives a snapping yawn like a cat.
"Please do not think you are boring her," my guide says with a laugh. "She has been awake for some time."
"What is she?" And then, because this seems rude, I say to the sphinx, "Who are you?"
"I am a Holder-of-Place," the sphinx says in a booming, accented voice. For a moment, I think this might be a riddle, like the story of Oedipus, but it seems that this is a simple description of her role, for the sphinx says no more.
"Where is this place?" The images before me are interfering with my engineerial sensibilities: I simply cannot make sense of what I am seeing, and that offends me. It occurs to me that perhaps I have dropped off to sleep in the basket and am dreaming, but if so, I am unable to rouse myself from it. It also strikes me that maybe I have fallen to my death, and unremembering the actual event, have passed into some curious afterlife. I say as much to my guide and he laughs.
"Not at all. You are as alive as I."
This does not help a great deal. He goes on, "But I must introduce myself. My name is Olaudah Jea, and I am a member of the Venturers' Guild."
"You must pardon me," I say carefully, "but I do not think that the Venturers' Guild would allow one of your ... colour within their ranks. Make no mistake, I do not approve of these claims as to the inferiority of your kind. I am in favour of abolition. I believe all men may be equal, no matter what the shade of their skin."
Olaudah Jea gives a small, acknowledging bow. "Then you are an enlightened man for your time, Mr Brunel, and I commend you for it. But you are quite correct. In your day, a dog would have had a better chance of joining the city's elite."
"This is not, then, my day," I say. "Is it?"
"No, it is not."
There is a long silence, while I stare at the glistening metal at my feet. "This is my bridge, though?" I sound like a child. I feel as though I am clutching at the thinnest of straws, not at the impressive construction on which I am standing.
"Yes, Mr Brunel." Olaudah's voice rings out firm and convincing, dispelling some of the mist in my mind. "Have no fear. You will build your bridge ... or rather," he hesitates, and an odd expression crosses his face. "You may remain reassured that your bridge will be built. You have already gone through much travail in the construction of it."
"You might say that," I remark with some bitterness, for truly, with all the projects with which I have now been involved, the Bristol suspension bridge has been the most aggravating: the most subject to delays, stupidities, and hitches. It cheers me greatly to hear this man tell me that it will be successful. And I believe him. I am standing on it, am I not?
"Now," Olaudah continues. "I want you to build me something."
This takes me aback. "But if this is some future time..." I falter. "Surely you have progressed beyond my meagre talents. In my own day, my bridge is not even complete and it has taken years." I could not resist adding with some bitterness, "I sometimes despair that it will ever be finished, regardless of what we might be standing on now."
Olaudah looks grave. "This is a future time. I do not say it is your future--the future of your world."
"How is that possible?"
"Futures depend on the choices men make," Olaudah says. "In this day, the time in which we now stand, such things are much more closely studied and better understood. Social decisions and policies, with the weight of a society's will behind them, are sufficient to cause the temporal fabric to change course, like a tributary hiving off from a main river." He looks down as he speaks and when I follow his gaze beyond the bridge I see that the mist has cleared. The Avon flows below, higher and therefore wider than in my own day. A ship, with sails as delicate as spider-webs, glides beneath it, heading for the Severn Sea.
"She is heading for the Windwards," Olaudah says. "She carries a substance which is unknown in your day and she is powered by the sun. This is the world in which we find ourselves. And this, Mr Brunel, is what I want you to do..."
I remember that first meeting with my Mr Kingdom as I sit in the watchtower, beneath the guardian gaze of the sphinx, and put a call across the aether to London about the new arrivals. How strange Mr Kingdom seemed, on that first day, a figure from the past, dishevelled, a little afraid, but ultimately at home in the knowledge of his own competence. What I was asking him to do was not easy, and I suspected even then that he would meet with opposition, although I did not know what kind it would be.
Once I have completed my work for the day, I lock the watchtower and walk back across Stone Down, enjoying the evening air. It is late spring now. Daffodils line the walkways and blackthorn laces the hedgerow like seafoam. I have been to many places on this Earth: to the yellow lands of Dahomey and Punt, to many of our island colonies, with their prospering towns and abundant fields, but the beauty of this country can still arrest me in my tracks. I am, I suppose, quintessentially English, born in the West Country and even now disliking to move far from it.
I cross into Clifton, greeting friends and associates at the pavement cafes, shaking hands here and then, but I do not stop. The tall cream house near the park is waiting for me. The key in my bracelet activates the door as I approach and it swings open to familiarity, the cool, sparsely furnished rooms, the sounds of my children's voices. My wife, elegant in her djellebeah and headscarf, smiles at me from the study: she has been working from home today on a case for the Legal Society. We are respectable, affluent, English, fortunate. In Mr Kingdom's day, this house belonged to a man named John Penney, who made his money from the Caribbean, just as I have done. But not in the same way.
I am clambering back into the basket, my hands raw from the chain. Casket is white-faced beside me. The basket rattles on, heading smoothly for the Leigh Woods tower, and I blink in a sudden shaft of late sunlight.
Casket reaches out and in an uncharacteristic display of emotion, pumps my hand. "Magnificent, Mr Brunel! Well done!"
"You did not hesitate! Up, and a manoeuvre with the bolts, and then we were free! Soon we will be standing on solid ground once again, and I confess that I shall not be sorry."
I look up. The basket is trundling along the metal bar, the small wheels moving swiftly and easily. The memories are clear in my mind: Olaudah standing on the bridge, regal in his red and white robes, raising a hand to bid me farewell. And my task--the enormity of it stuns me. I do not think I am capable, but Olaudah believes in me and indeed, he must: his own existence depends upon it.
I am an engineer and an architect, not a philosopher. I do not understand these considerations of the temporal, these loops and wheels of time which are so different from the cogs and gears of my own science. But Olaudah trusts me, I think as the gilded leaves of the Leigh Woods shore come close enough to touch and willing hands reach out to pull the basket to safety. And I trust Olaudah.
That night, the first attack comes.
I am not one to suffer greatly from nightmares. The nature of my work ensures that I am tired by the time my head strikes the pillow, and my devoted Mary does her utmost to ensure that I get sufficient sleep. Thus, the dream is unexpected, and quite peculiar in its intensity.
I am standing once more on the bridge. But although the towers are similar, there is no broad band of gleaming metal here, no sphinxes. Instead, the road that stretches before me is made of some stony substance, a dark grey in colour, although it is hard to tell through the twilight and the rain, which hammers onto the bridge like gunfire. Down the middle of the road are painted broken white lines and at the far end, which I recognise to be the Leigh Woods side, are two bright lights, yellow in colour.
Voices are shouting. It is a moment before I realise what they are saying.
"You are under arrest!" It is a male voice, harsh and much louder than it should be, booming into my ears.
"Approach the checkpoint with your hands raised! If you do not comply, you will be shot."
I half turn around, but there is no one behind me. They must be talking to me. I do as I am instructed and walk forwards. Soon I am close enough to hear a muttered conversation.
"Isambard Kingdom Brunel."
A gate--I did not ask for such gates to be placed on my bridge--rattles open with a gaol-house clatter. A figure steps onto the bridge, very different from Olaudah's towering form. This man is equally tall, but wears a garment-like armour that reflects the glaring lights in a wash of wetness. His face is hidden by a helmet. He carries something long and black, but it is not a musket: it is the wrong shape.
"Keep your hands in the air!" he snaps. I do so and my person is briefly and efficiently investigated. My arms are jerked down and bound behind my back with a click of metal.
Then I am taken inside the western tower and read a statement, which speaks of the Nation of Albion and asks me to sign a piece of paper called a Purity Claim. A drop of my blood is taken, so that they may check it for impurities, though I do not know what they mean by this. Then I am bundled inside a cell and told to wait. Snatches of conversation come to me through the bars.
"...some lunatic, impersonating a historical figure..."
"...not so sure, was speaking to one of the state scientists last week..."
"...enemies are known to have crossed the temporal gap..."
"...cannot risk an incursion..."
Later, I hear my first captor's voice, speaking through a device to someone in London. I am to be taken there and--there is a small spark of light. I look up. The ceiling of the cell has become transparent. Far above it, golden eyes blink down at me.
"Mr Kingdom," the sphinx's voice says to me, as warm as sunlight, "they will try to reach you through sleep. Do not let them. You must wake up."
I try, but how do you rouse yourself from a dream?
"Wake!" roars the sphinx, and I am there in my bed, clammy and shaking. I do not sleep for the remainder of that night.
It happens again and again, although I never once reach the guardhouse on the bridge. Everything else is the same: the wet road, the lights, the shouting voices. And I feel as though I am watched, figures glimpsed at street corners from the edges of my eye, shadows in the night, strange sounds. My health suffers and so does the bridge, which despite an ecstatic mention in the local press, is languishing. The original legacy has long since run its course and we are dependent upon city funds, which are slow to appear.
I go north, south, east. I build other things: bridges, tunnels, steamships. I become famous and not a little wealthy, but the Bristol bridge is never far from my mind, and nor are the things that Olaudah told me. I have a secret work, now, a work which I practice at night when my family sleeps. I myself sleep little, and I never know if someone is looking over my shoulder; Olaudah is not here, to tell me what to do, though I have often stood at the tower on the Stone Down side and called his name. Often, too, I think I have imagined him--such an unlikely dream--but besides, there are the calculations that he gave me.
It is not a science I understand. It seems made up of more than simply mathematics, for there are words within it, too, more suited to poetry than architecture. "To be free" are such words, and "beauty", and others in a language that I do not comprehend. Olaudah told me, when he handed over the specifications, that it did not matter whether I understood all the material; all I had to do was to set the calculations down and work them through.
"If I don't know what I'm doing," I said to him, "then this may take years." And Olaudah sighed and said that yes, this was indeed true, but he offered me no other recourse.
It is hard to describe the calculations themselves. I work at them, and then return next morning to find that the figures seem to have rearranged themselves on the page, forming other configurations which I must then puzzle out. Sometimes, before my tired eyes, images rise from the page and float away: glimpses of islands set in a sapphire sea, a long yellow coastline. Sometimes I hear what sounds like the clank of an iron chain, or glimpse a fragment of red flannel fluttering out of the corners of my eyes.
Years after I first set sight on Olaudah, I return to Bristol. I have reached the point that he told me I would, where it is necessary to implement the calculations themselves. I made careful note at the time of the manner in which this is to be done, and I have not forgotten.
The bridge is much as I had left it. There is more than the iron bar, now, for some structure has been erected, a kind of scaffolding, and it is possible to walk out a little way onto this. Following Olaudah's instructions, I have inscribed the latest working into a small metal tablet. I am to place this upon the structure of the bridge.
I do so. It is a November morning, the winter sun striking harsh notes from the scaffolding and from the trickle of the river below. Into this silvery world I place the tablet. I am hoping to see Olaudah once more, but instead, it is the world of the dream that finds me.
Immediately I am convinced that I have done something wrong. It is dark, but it is morning rather than evening. There is a bloody smear of sun to the east and thunderheads mass over the Severn Sea. A pair of lights rushes towards me, and there is a booming, blaring sound. I throw myself out of its way and crack my arm painfully against the iron sides of the bridge. More machines are coming, pouring across the bridge onto the Leigh Woods side.
"Olaudah!" I cry. "Olaudah, help me!" And something cuffs me to the ground. I sprawl on pale metal, and when I look up, it is into golden eyes.
"Olaudah!" But it's gone and I'm lying on the floor of the Stone Down tower, my cheek pressed against the ground. Passing outside to the scaffolding, I see that it is dusk, a wintry light fading fast over the west. The scaffolding looks no different and I cannot see the tablet: it must have fallen into the river below. With a cold, sinking sensation of despair, I turn and go back to the town.
I have failed Olaudah. Again and over again, I ask myself why this should matter so much to me. A phantasm, glimpsed years before, a different world. Surely nothing that is real...
But then there is another attack.
It comes, strangely, not at night or during my work on the bridge, but three days later, at a party for my eldest son. One moment I am working a puppet for the boy, the strings dancing in my hands, and the next, I am back on the bridge in the rain. The guardhouse is some distance away, but the gates are open. The machines that rumbled through it have now ceased to do so, but I hear a shout and there is a sharp sudden crack. Something is tumbling through the air towards me, flipping over and over, and before I can dodge it, it strikes me in the throat.
Then, back again, with the children clamouring for more of the puppet and my wife walking into the room with a jug of milk. When I stop choking, I tell her I have swallowed a half sovereign during a party trick, the best excuse I can make.
Naturally, she thinks I am an idiot, but this view changes to concern as the night wears on and my breathing becomes more difficult. There is nothing to feel, nothing to cough up, and yet whatever struck me in that other world of the bridge is still here, lodged within my body. We take increasingly desperate measures to remove the object--forceps, a board to which I am strapped and turned upside down. A ludicrous situation for an engineer, obliged to invent devices to keep me alive. The latter equipment, however, works: something tumbles from my throat and is gone into the air. Over the next few months, my health continues to deteriorate.
And still the bridge is not finished. I truly despair, now, of ever seeing it fully built. Olaudah's dreams, my own dreams--nothing more than ash in the wind. I am no longer able to work--my health is too poor--and so, while I am still able, I return to Bristol and the bridge.
If they have attempted to kill me, in that rainy world, they have succeeded, I think as I stand at the Stone Down tower. My hands tremble as I unlock the door and step through. I have left specific instructions for my wife, on how to present my death to the world. If they want me, I think, then let them take me. I shut my eyes and walk out onto the scaffold.
As soon as I feel rain on my face I know that I am there. I open my eyes and there it is: the guardhouse, with the tall soldier waiting.
"You!" I shout. I do not wait for him to notice me.
He turns and the gun comes up. I do not wait for this, either. I throw myself over the side of the bridge and down.
The cold air hits me like a blow. I can see the glint of the river beneath, but it isn't water any longer. It's metal. It knocks the breath out of me.
"Mr Kingdom!" Olaudah says. "You have arrived!"
Smiling, he helps me to my feet. The bridge is as I first saw it, all those years before. The sphinx blinks in the afternoon sunlight.
"I thought I was dead," I say. The river looks very far away.
"Why, so you are. At least, as your day sees it. We have a somewhat different view of things, in mine. Look." He gestures. "Do you see how your device is working?"
At the middle of the bridge, there is a mist. It sparkles with lights. I see a cascade of numbers, of words, of shapes and patterns. All these sink down into a metal plate set into the centre of the bridge.
"My tablet!" I say. "It was not lost."
"No. It passed from one world to another, to here, and it opens the way, for the arrivals to come through."
The first of them steps out of the mist as I watch. Ragged, in chains, wondering, bewildered.
"Who are they?"
"They are the slaves of your day. Those who passed through Bristol, those who were carried on Bristol's ships. Through your device we have tracked them, diverted them. These are living folk, Mr Kingdom, which you are not. And we have changed the world."
"The other world, the one in the rain?"
"A different Britain. One that might have been and now will never be. You have closed it off. Do you remember what I told you, that our science today is made from the decisions of men? Your decision to trust me was the key. A man who might just as well have been a dream, and yet you trusted me. It changed things, and you see the change before you."
I do not know what to say. Instead, I stand on the bridge, with the golden-eyed sphinx smiling above me and the man smiling beside and watch the arrivals come home.