Sixth form stories

by James Pearson.

1986. A new beginning for some but an end for others. Cassiel doesn’t know when he begins university (again) that he would be studying the greatest explosion in history- but he is.

England is a vastly different place now in 1983, with more riots ruining workers’ rights and unemployment skyrocketing- not surprising based on the corruption that occurs behind the solid aged brick of parliament. Being only two years since the system crumbled for the first time, few things have improved since Cassiel’s pen-palletter: Crime is high, morals are low, Thatcher is dangling her proverbial carrot just out of reach of starving mouths. Lyly’s look on life might not have been so far off after all- ‘All’s fair in love and war’…

No sign of rain recently, yet the muggy air lingers round your ankles, twisting, meandering up to caress with deadly vines of vapour that slowly suffocate you- English weather has always been hit or miss since the late 1700’s; a roll of the dice to see how you will suffer that day. Cassiel was used to it by now, having been a regular visitor for millennia.

Not being his first time graduating university, already having majors in seventeen other subjects, Cassiel Marwood shouldn’t be so easily excited to be restarting his life in Bristol University to add nuclear science to his extensive repertoire. Yet he is.

Cassiel, far from angelic, was an enigma wrapped up in a bitter-sweet persona who could make both man and woman fall to their knees- be it from fright or awe. Billowing crimson curls cast shadows across his face creating monsters in your imagination, and the piercing eyes that seemed to hold centuries of wisdom were never the same colour- though few could look him in the eye and walk away intact enough to say otherwise.

The mask he wore slipped from time to time, though it was rare: keeling over to comfort a small child, escorting an older lady across a busy street wordlessly, only nodding at the grateful thanks before spinning on his heel and stalking back through the now-moving traffic carelessly. No one has yet seen the truth and I doubt anyone would dare question why or how Cassiel was both adored and scorned by all who knew of him.

Two years into his major and the leaves were returning to their trees, the showers passed, and late April was birthing spring. Cassiel brooded- nothing uncommon – as he perched on the creaky wooden bed in the cramped shared dormitory, throwing the occasional glare through the window at the unsuspecting passers-by who were loudly exclaiming about the most recent incident of the Sussex prison riots being published. A long time coming. With a deep huff and a scowl creasing his immortal face into a look of malcontent, he snatched up the Times paper and read ‘RADIATION DISCOVERED IN SOUTH BRITAIN’. Oh dear.

‘In the early hours of Friday morning, experts discovered high levels of radiation in Bristol sweeping from the south-east coast, engulfing south Britain. Although not dangerous, researchers say that livestock and crops may be affected, and to keep updated with local news for more information. The Russian Embassy is currently being questioned about the source as radiologists believe the cause was a power station between Ukraine and Belarus…’

A global incident, a local disaster. Attempted to be hidden by those who caused it.

They don’t know what caused it, Cassiel thought, yet they expect people to lay their lives in their hands until the mess has been cleared. Unlikely. He threw himself backwards onto the bed with a thump, and cogs started whirring. Imagine the research that could be done, the lives that could be changed, the knowledge that was waiting to be uncovered if he could witness first-hand the epicentre of this nuclear blowout.

It was most probably a situation he should’ve asked about. The ideas spinning in his mind were illegal or dangerous, or both to the average mortal; he would travel to Ukraine alone. Three days, two applications for extended leave, and a pricey deal with an old pal new out of prison later and Cassiel was on his way to Ukraine in a shady-looking rickety plane- most probably not the kind to be making a long cross channel trip in. You wouldn’t usually catch him dead in- oh. Right.

Cassiel heaved a sigh that whipped the hair from his face and gazed bemusedly through the grubby window overlooking the choppy waters below; an engine to the left of the plane huffed out a cloud of smoke like a long-term smoker as a nearby squawk echoed through the thin glass barrier protecting the man from a high. From the corner of his eye a pale grey gull soared by in loops and whirls ahead of the flock that followed, all of whom seemed uncaring. Watching the display of superiority Cassiel pondered the life of the bird, carefree and unfazed by its surroundings. Another squawk sounded. Then another, then- a cry. A grind. Blood splattered backwards painting the cabin glass in a thick layer of crimson as greying feathers stuck to the collage of red, white and grey.

With a sneer Cassiel leaned away from the now-tinted window in disgust. A bad omen if he said so himself, considering the blood on the hands of most men at his destination- the lives lost due to the explosion. A metaphor of life. Kicking back his feet the ashen figure closed his eyes in an attempt to rest before his landing, where all life had turned to dust and life would inevitably be changed for the next millennia…

Ash. Dust. Remains of shops and schools and houses hunched over as gravestones barely standing on the burial ground it now represented, corpses littered the ground as torn paper scattered by the explosion with no remorse. The stench of death and fear was overwhelming, a metallic taste bit at his tongue sharply, a warning to leave, leave and never return. But it was too late. Nothing comes in if it wishes to leave, any who dared enter would suffer excruciatingly until their death before fertilizing the earth with their bones, destined to haunt Chernobyl for eternity. No backing out.

With every step there was a crunch, and with every breath there was a breeze, actions married hand-in-hand as heaven and hell joined in a wretched dance of death, the bones of the deceased crumbling to dust as if confetti. The echo in Cassiel’s head warned him not to stop: don’t mourn those who are lost, just as you do not mourn those who live; death is a constant that will never be thwarted so dwelling is unappreciated by the dead. A deep breath soothed his worries, and the journey to the centre continued.