A Box Of Birds

By Charles Fernyhough

Does neuroscience change our understanding of ourselves?

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Chapter Two

Forest Glade 7

He's on the stairs ahead of me. Gareth left ten minutes ago, saying he needed to slip away early so that he could get his speech ready for the debate. There's no one else on the stairwell. I see James on the third-floor landing, peering at the iris scanner that controls access to the maximum-security areas. He flips out his phone and films the scanner for a few seconds, then glances up at the CCTV camera which eyes him from a safer reality. He pushes on the door, recoils from its solidity, then frowns at it as if it had broken a promise. I'm watching him from one flight above. It feels wrong to be spying on him, but I was the one who let him up here. If I've got a Conscience activist in my tutorial group, I need to know.

           He carries on down the stairs. The lift doesn't even stop at this third floor, unless your access privileges reveal it for you on the control panel. You wouldn't know that this research floor existed unless you'd worked out the architecture from the outside. This is where the Lorenzo Circuit is being pieced together, neurone cluster by neurone cluster, to make a map worth—to our rivals at least—a price that goes beyond money. If James were with Conscience, this honeycomb of sealed rooms would be top of his target list. As I pass the iris scanner, walking fast to keep him in sight, I feel the hum of the secrets it is protecting, its silent, massively automated efforts to stop certain facts from becoming known. At the second-floor landing, James increases his pace, all at once in a hurry. By now, the grey stairwell holds a wash of daylight from the windows on the lower floors. I can hear his feet clattering as he skips down the last flights of stairs and through the door into the atrium. If I run, he will hear me. Betas buzz around, yabbering into mobile phones. I have to push through the queue for the coffee cart. Someone stops me with a question about an assignment, and by the time I've shaken her off James is already out of the building and crossing the concourse by the boarded-up windows of the East Wing.

            Outside it's the slanting light of late afternoon. A couple of contractors' vans are crash-parked on the kerb outside the East Wing. A radio blares, but no one is working. James walks past the scene with the Flintstones mask jacked up on top of his head, his gaze set dead ahead, oblivious to the damage his fellow protestors have caused. I watch him catch up with a crowd of betas heading for a session in the Peer Review. He'll have to do his drinking quickly if he wants to catch the old heritage steam service to Fulling, where the students have their colleges, in time for the debate. I'm tempted to follow him, but I'd rather make sure I'm there in time to watch him tonight, when positions have been stated and I can see which cause he's fighting for. I'm nothing, he told me. I'm not anything. If I want to know what that means, I'll have to be there when the shouting starts.

            One of the contractors' vans is blocking the access to Libet Avenue, which is the way I go when I'm on my bike. The surface is compacted grit, fine for cycling, and at night there are lights in little ground-level turrets, security points every fifty metres. Then there's a maze of narrower footpaths that trace different routes back to Forest Glade, and less chance of being mown down by some proto-scientist on a thirty-speed racer. Down this way, gorse prickles your shoulders and red squirrels play pirates overhead. From odd clearings you can look up at the treehouses at the top of the rise, paused like tripod aliens taking a break from conquering the earth.

           Today I'm walking. This morning I stood on the roof of my treehouse and realised that I needed to pace it out, leave these jittery thoughts scattered among the undergrowth, and feel the certainty that only the footsore rhythms of a long walk can give you. A feeling is in me, a conflux of internal states that I call a feeling, and at a certain point it'll turn into a thought, and the conscious machine will start believing. Something has already tipped off my endocrine system; I can already feel the panic that will ripple out. What surprises me is the lovesick feeling that drags it here, a soft buzzing nervousness, all that adrenaline and noradrenaline licking at my insides and twisting me out of shape. Thinking's a gut reaction, rooted in the heart, the large intestine, the adrenal cortex, and only doing its conscious work in the brain. Hot intelligence, Mateus used to call it. His excuse for never losing an argument. If you went against his theory, you went against him.

           Come to Florida. Whether it's golf, fishing, or old-fashioned sunshine and beaches, we can help you to find the new life you've been looking for.

           Hot intelligence. That's what was bothering me last night, when this video message came through. Alone in my treehouse, curtains open to the blackness over the forest. The wind tongueing the flue of the stove, a reddish glow from a hollow stash of embers as fragile as a house of cards. I logged on and saw the shimmering lilac banner of Des*re, flickering like a flag in a virtual breeze. Another mouse-click or two and I'd be getting a detailed rundown on the items traded, the webcam trails to obscure locations, all the clues and red herrings of this obsessive networking game. The welcome banner gave way to a night sky. Each new message twinkled in the firmament like a star. Some people think I overdo the graphics, but I want the full experience, especially when the rest of me is falling apart. There was one new star, brighter than the rest. The sign of a new trader, travelling under maximum anonymity. Once I'd started trading with him I would get to see his icon, details of his avatars and perhaps even a clue to the flesh-and-blood gamer behind the mask. But for now he was a stranger, casually setting my heart on fire.

           I clicked on the new star. It exploded into a cam-feed of a windy beach under a grey sky. A self-conscious black woman, clearly doing a favour for a friend, was explaining why she was glad she'd picked a realtor to manage the purchase of her condo on Anna Maria Island. Then the movie had been edited, and another voice dubbed onto the soundtrack, speaking through her lips. Even if you lost it in the dark, you could try looking where the light is.

           I only know one person who talks like that. At least, I used to know. 

            I looked away from my wallscreen. I saw the cream sofa with chocolate stains on the cushions, stacked with essays waiting to be marked. His photograph on the bookcase, his Sansom carpark swipecard and ID badge. That stack of dog-eared journal articles which he never wanted anyone to see. How had he tracked me down? He had his settings configured for maximum privacy, but he must have known that I would see through them. I made myself visible. I could see his icon now, coyly shaded to grey. A Portuguese guitar trapped behind the bars of a cage. It was Mateus alright. My gorgeous, suffering fadista. He tore my heart out, but it was he who sang the sad songs. Mateus who thought he had a monopoly on hurt.

            I went to bed shaking. Why had he bothered to come looking for me? This morning, as sleep and not-knowing poured off me, it made no more sense than it had last night. Which is why I'm out here now, on my own two feet, hoping that this fresh March air will shape some common sense. Trusting that my footsteps will dislodge something, set the thought free.

            Even if you lost it in the dark, you could try looking where the light is. But where is the light? Where is he hiding?

            The spruces reach up into the blueness, scaly branches still rimed with frost. Needles sag, too heavy for this altitude.

            He wants me back. Or else he wants me to hurt me all over again.

            It's been two years. In all that time I didn't know if he was alive or dead. He never had the courtesy to tell me.

            Oh, my dark man. It takes its time but it breaks eventually, and something in the heart region shifts bluntly to one side, and the thought is conscious, here to stay.

            He's back. Mateus is back.

            Florida is where the biennial meeting of the Association is going to be held. The first chance I'll have had to see him for two years. Since the last meeting of the Association, in fact, the hell of Quebec City. He's inviting me, the arrogant bastard, as though a meeting of eight thousand neuroscientists was somehow going to be Mateus Pereira's own show. The Pereira Effect was big, but it wasn't that big. I'm supposed to be presenting a poster about my research. He'll know by now whether his own submission has been accepted. The business of neuroscience has arranged it that I'll see him there. All that stuff about buying a condo and setting up life together is purely his sick joke. I'll be in Tampa for five days, and then I'm coming back home to my lonely life.

            The thought bounces and shatters, shedding more of its mortal heaviness, and I can hear my own voice in the silence.

            Try looking where the light is. If only it were that simple.

            I wonder what he's working on now. No doubt he's still toying around with his human–machine interface. Trying to persuade silicon chip to speak unto neurone, that kind of thing. It wouldn't be Mateus if it wasn't breathtakingly ambitious. But if anyone could make the impossible happen, it would be him. With a little help from his employers, perhaps. He was already busy with the interface when he was working for Sansom, back when we were together. Is he still on their payroll? I could never find a trace of him, not anywhere. Last night, after his message came through, I sat and called up the citation record for his famous paper, “Anomalous conductivity responses in non-organic tissue”, which he published in Neuroscience a few years before we met. The article that first described the effect that took his name, and cleared the way for technological advances in everything from sensory enhancements for the blind to control of prosthetic limbs. Referenced in just about every article published on the topic since the mid-nineties. I was going to print out the full list of citations and scrutinise it for evidence that he still loves me, that he's trying to communicate with me through the chain of influence the Pereira Effect has left behind, like you might track down a film star at a party just by following the trail of starstrucks who are still whispering his name. But there was nothing. If he's still in the business, he hasn't been publishing. Sansom have research centres all over the world. He could be holed up somewhere in the tropics, working on a project they don't want anyone to know about. He could have planned the whole thing. Disappear for a couple of years, make out that you're dead, then jump out to give the grieving ex the fright of her life.

            There's a crashing sound in the bushes to my right, and I startle, my heart in flames.

            Sansom want the map of the Lorenzo Circuit. The knowledge of what goes on in my building would be a gift beyond price. The Executive keep telling us that we cannot trust anyone. And that, if he really is back on the scene, means Mateus as well.

            I stand, halted, watching for where the noise came from. My head is spinning from the climb and the oxygen that's been forced through me. The undergrowth keeps its counsel. The ferns swirl, set spinning by motion after-effects. I must have startled a pheasant or something. But nothing flew up; whatever it was, it's still in there. Shapeless, nameless, whatever my fear wants to make it. Thinking is a rush of blood, a panicked jumping to conclusions. Not a person, though, not this far out. Just let it not be a person.

             Up ahead, the trees shrink back from the path. As I hurry around a corner I can see the massive steel supports of the first of the Forest Glade treehouses. They trudge in pairs up the slope; mine is Number Seven. I can see that they've delivered my firewood and left it next to my winch. No neighbours for me since the woman in No. 8 failed her PhD, so my comings and goings are nobody's business but mine. But that also means that I'm alone out here. Right now, that isn't a comfort to me.

            I pull on the heavy beech door and drag the boxes of firewood into the winch. I tap in my passcode and feel the solar-powered motor jolt into action. Everyone has their ritual of homecoming; mine is this smooth electric ascent. They've fixed the problem with the elevator transport. We might be one of the more distant outposts of the Lycee, but they try to keep this particular social experiment running smoothly. There's a special division dedicated to the treehouses, to prove that their commitment to the project is still strong. See, say the animated graphics of the Forest Glade website, these fourteen huts on stilts ('built in 1999 to demonstrate the Lycee's commitment to sustainable twenty-first century living') haven't been a complete waste of Federation grant-money. Half of them are empty now: people couldn't stand the height, the morning bird-din, or the way the treehouses were designed to sway in the wind like ships' masts—an essential safety feature, of course, but disconcerting when you're on your own in your first week of occupancy and the storm is roaring down the dale like the end of the world. One careless post-doc actually managed to fall out of his—pissed after a Sunday session at the Peer Review, and lucky to be in one of the little fifteen-metre ones and have his fall broken by a forgiving rhododendron. Mine is the grown-up version, though: if you fell from here it would be like one of those dreams you're never meant to be woken from, a down-the-rabbit-hole flypast of your life's unfinished business, with the things that really matter to you ranged like lost treasures on unreachable shelves, safe from your dreamy grasping.

            I need to get this firewood in before it gets dark. I ride the winch all the way to the roof, propped up awkwardly in the narrow floor-space left by the boxes. When I push open the door and step out into the cold air, it's like emerging from the roof of a submarine, surfacing onto a sea of brightness, one brave survivor inheriting the world. The silence is total, the kind of stillness that makes your own thoughts audible, and the view breaks your heart. I'm thirty metres off the ground, on top of the capsule of larch and Douglas fir that houses me and everything I own, pretty much the last thing to break the forest canopy until it reaches the fine print of the Eskdale moors, that visible blueness on the forty-mile horizon.

            The bunker is in the corner under the wind turbine. For the moment the white sails are motionless, frozen in a turn. There's not a breath of wind. Right now my treehouse is draining power from the earth, the back-up grid under the forest soil, thirty metres below. At the same time the solar cells are heating water, the idea being that all these sources of energy will provide enough hot water later for a bath. I'll need this firewood in the morning, when I awake in the fog and the whiteness outside the windows will make me think I've died and gone to heaven. I can see that they've sent some good stuff. I like these hard bits of ash, the historic feel of them, as though they'd witnessed things in their lives. Split one and you'll see how its heart is pinky-brown, like it once had blood flowing through it.

            In the shadow of the rail, some apple bits I left out for the squirrels have all been eaten. They are ravenous this year; I can't feed them fast enough.

            When I straighten up from the bunker with a basket full of ash-bits, I can see Sansom's European headquarters laid out under the eastern sky, five miles away as the crow flies. I can make out fifteen or twenty low-slung bunkers each a quarter-mile wide, the whole thing like a little American city, gridded and freewayed. They say it's got its own airport, hospital, TV station, police force. Strong enough to care: just on the funny side of understatement, when you're talking about the third biggest biotech in the world. To the south, directly below me, a gap in the canopy displays the forty-acre plot of the Lycee's Forest Campus, where I've just walked from. To the right and west, a road takes you higher and higher into the valley, past that indiscernible boundary where the land starts to crowd out the people: slow them, quieten them, make them mythically robust and self-reliant. It runs through the Saxon villages of Scarf and Winning, those high gold gleams that are just visible on a sunset evening, and on into the dale, through the last sheep-bitten straggles of forest and up towards the mining country. Mateus and I used to go cycling up there. Two centuries ago there were a quarter of a million men working those hills, chasing lead, iron and fluorspar through tunnels you couldn't stand up in. The pits are abandoned now, shafts lying open to the wind. They say there are still people up there—Sansom has an outpost, apparently, a research team and a couple of labs, some classified project to kill the years. It's bleak up there, anyway; as soon as you get past Winning the cold gets under your skin, the wind starts to howl inside you, and you long for your treehouse in the valley, that large-whisky/hot-bath kind of daydream.

            I let myself in through the trap door and take the back stairs down to my living floor. Only when I'm inside, with the front door locked behind me, do I feel comfortably invisible again. I glance into my bathroom and the corners of my white bedroom, just to reassure myself, although the unease I'm feeling is something more than the fear that I might have been followed here. I grab some clothes and carry them back into the living room with me. I need to hurry if I'm going to make it to Fulling in time for the debate. Mateus' face stares down at me from a beechwood frame high on the bookcase. I should have got rid of him by now. I thought that moving him up there  would be a kind of statement for myself, a sign that I'm pulling through. By the time he's relegated to the hallway I'll know I don't love him any more. I stand in front of him, caught between the window and his big eyes. Nothing happens. I pull the scrunchie out of my hair and feel its unglossy waves frame my paleness. I ought to wash it, but I wonder what's the point. Mateus would see through it, anyway: he always could. If I could have him back for a day, I'd ask him how he managed to get into me like this, why I can't even get dressed to go out in the evening without wondering what he'd think of me. That's the problem. He can hurt me but I can't hurt him. And the one weapon I have against him, I can't use. Unless Florida gives me an opportunity. The thought makes me pause, and I stare at the pile of papers on the bookcase with a slow, unreeling fascination. That obscure journal article from the 1980s, written in Portuguese, which no one but me was ever allowed to know about. I look back at his image with a nervy sense of possibilities unfolding. You think you know things about me, Mateus Pereira. But I also know things about you.

            His eyes follow me out of the room. In the kitchen I neck a solpadeine and wash it down with a slug of tapwater. The message light on my answering machine is flashing. For a moment I wonder whether it could be Mateus, calling to explain. But then the beep goes and the line clears and I hear an uncertain, old-lady voice, strangely formal, committing her words to digital memory as though dictating a telegram. My heart dives for cover. Effi. I was supposed to call her today. She chatters on about her washing machine and the wonderful view she has from her ugly new apartment. Today she is fluent, remembering the names of things and the basic details of the world around her, or at least the gloomy few square metres that her world has shrunk to. Then Daren, her nurse, takes the phone and reminds me that I'm supposed to go over there tonight, to cover for him while he's at the football. I knew there was a reason why I couldn't go to Gareth's debate. I press the button to return the call and listen for the guilty silence to break, for Effi's worn-out voice to croak softly into my ear, my fairy godmother, my milk-and-two-sugars friend.

            'Yvonne,' she mumbles. 'Thank God for you.'

            She still recognises me, then. Dementia has not cast her adrift so completely.

            'I'm sorry I haven't called. I've been really busy.'

            'I know. You live out in the country. It's hard for you to get in to Pelton, what with petrol and everything.'

            'Even so. I shouldn't be letting you down like this.'

            She doesn't understand what I'm saying. My voice is unsteady. I want to turn the clock back, edit our recent lives so that we had this conversation long ago.

            'I can't make it tonight. Something's come up. I'm really sorry.'

            'What is it, Yvonne?' Effi says.

            There's that faraway tone to her voice, and the question splinters into a million different requests for certainty. The doubt of Alzheimer's. What is it? What is any of it?

            'I can't make it tonight. Can you manage your dinner and everything?'

            'Of course I can. My dishy nurse has it sorted out. Tell me, have you ever heard that boy sing?'

            I tuck her back into her reverie, unclip the french windows and step out onto the balcony. I'm still gripping the phone, dimly conscious that there are more calls I need to make. Home, that pebble-dashed house of science and faith, would be top of my list of neglect. I dial my parents' number at the vicarage, looking out over the detailed stillness of the forest. The distant sheen of Sansom's headquarters is the only sign that any human being was ever out there. I remember Mateus setting off for work from here, on those drowsy mornings we shared as lovers. He would cycle the five miles and then cycle back to me again at night, only slightly less radiant than his morning self had been. All the long nights of that summer, up on the roof of my treehouse, cupped in love's warm fingers. I told him I had this fantasy: me, standing on my balcony in front of the forest. Hearing, feeling, a man behind me, but never getting to see his face. He told me he wanted to be that man; he wanted to love me without me knowing it was him. Why? I asked him. Because then you'll never know who to start hating.

            Someone is cycling along the path beneath my treehouse. I wonder how long he's been visible for; whether he has only just come into view, or whether I have only just noticed him. He's riding a mountain bike and carrying something strapped lengthwise across his back. He's wearing the grey uniform of the Lycee's security team. His head is shaved, and he's bare-armed in a polo shirt despite the cold. His arms are dark with tattoos. I recognise him as the security officer who comes to the Institute to lecture us about the risk of terrorist attack. He came to talk to us after the firebombing of the East Wing, promising the wrath of the Executive, the police and every other law-enforcement agency in the country to anyone who breached the new security code.

            The security guy disappears beneath the platform. I hear my doorbell ring. I realise that the vicarage phone is still ringing, and cancel the call. Then I see him again, walking around the base of my treehouse to the north side. He's pushing the bike and holding the implement, the length and rigidity of a golf club, in one hand. I'm still holding the phone, and I think vaguely for a moment about calling for help. But I don't yet know what I'm afraid of. I'm guessing that my visitor is circling the treehouse. I pull back from the rail, abuzz with instinct. If he catches sight of me up here, he'll know I'm deliberately not answering the door. I cross to the eastern end of the balcony and look out towards where I think the security man will be coming round. It's a mistake, because I've walked straight into his line of sight. He is standing astraddle his bike, pointing his golf club at the space I've just moved into. But it is not a golf club. I can see its polished wood and black metal, how his hand at the trigger looks as though it were cupping something precious, easily spilled. The frail life of something; maybe even mine. When he sees me he swings the barrel wildly, as though parting a curtain. Then he hesitates, realising that my presence up here is a problem that cannot be waved away. He lowers the gun, glares at me, then carefully hooks the weapon back over his shoulder. He barks an order into his ultra-thin mobile, wrenches his mountain bike through a tight circle and sets off again the way he came.


            I watch him vanish around the bend in the path, breathing hard with the aftershock. I can't get past his embarrassed expression, his look of offended apology. Whatever he was meant to be taking aim at on this winter's afternoon, it shouldn't have been a member of the Lycee's research staff. Something is happening here, and people like me are not supposed to know anything about it. I can see I'm not alone in hearing rustlings in the undergrowth. But no one else has come at the problem with a shotgun.  

            There's a noise from the rooftop terrace above me. I'm used to the squirrels that gather up there, but this is different. An impression of restless weight, a shuffling of heavy feet on the wooden platform. A shot of adrenaline spurts from my chest and tingles in my fingertips. The security man could have seen something up on my roof, and this was what he was aiming at when he accidentally took aim at me. I pull the balcony door shut, absurdly fastidious about keeping unwanted wildlife away from my living floor. I start up the ladder steps that connect my first-floor balcony to the rooftop. The air is thin and dizzying. My fingers stick to the cold metal rails. At the top, I look out from the cover of the fuel bunker and halt on an in-breath. A black shape is hunched in the corner, picking over the remnants of my fruit offerings. The animal turns suddenly, hearing me, and I'm looking into the eyes of an adult chimpanzee.

            I freeze on the ladder, calculating distances. This is no student in a monkey suit. The animal looks frightened. A grown chimp can do a lot of damage to a person. I have to control his fear as well as my own. That means no sudden movements, and as little eye contact as I can get away with.

            'McQueen,' I say softly. 'That's what they call you, isn't it?'

            The chimp climbs up onto the rail and looks back at me. A spruce branch that overhangs my rooftop will give him an easy escape. He chatters loudly at me, peeling open his tennis-ball mouth and showing his pink gums and gappy teeth. It's a show; there's no real aggression there. If he's come from a lab, he must be used to humans. He probably understands who, in her ignorance, has been feeding him all this time.

            I watch him lope up into the tree and vanish into the canopy below my platform. I'm shaken and cold, and this high in the winter sky I feel like a disaster victim awaiting rescue. To the west, the sun is setting over a bristling range of evergreens. In the other direction, Sansom's metallic expanse is tinged with orange. Somewhere in that gleaming complex is the unwanted home that McQueen has escaped from. But what is the world's third biggest biotech doing with a colony of chimpanzees? I told Gareth and James that the story of the escaped chimp was just a rumour, but the rumour is true. And if I'm the only person who appreciates that, things are going to start getting difficult for me. 

Back to project page
Share on social

Top rewards

163 pledges


  • ebook edition
Buy now
£20  + shipping
209 pledges


1st edition hardback and the ebook edition.