Short Story: Meta menardi

Saturday, 26th April 2014

It's a disused railway tunnel, not a real cave, and after a lifetime of minding the gap Laurence can't shake the feeling that he definitely shouldn't be down here between the tracks.

Kester catches his eye and as usual knows what he's thinking. 'What, you think someone at TfL will suddenly think, know what would be really fun? Running trains through the tunnels that have been closed off for decades. Just like old times!'

'No.'

'So there's no problem then.'

Laurence opens his mouth, but the conversation is closed.

Kester picks up the torch and shines it around the walls. The torch that Laurence packed is just a thin white line, emphasising the dark.

'Don't they object to that sort of thing?'

Laurence thinks back to the evening that led here.

'Meta menardi,' Kester pronounced with relish, stressing the ms. 'The Orb-weaving cave spider. Fascinating creature. The young are attracted to light, but as they grow older they become photophobic and head back to the caves. Nature's way of making sure that they get out and see the world.'

'Nice of Nature to show them a bit of a good time.'

That set Kester off on a long speech, replete with extensive hand gestures, on population spread and diversity and all of the points that he had evidently sat up all night memorising. Laurence was only half listening. His mind slipped back to the dim and distant past; to the nights spent camping in Kester's back garden. Kester's torch illuminating his sleeping bag as he raced through the latest I-Spy spotters' guide; while Laurence lay back and imagined that the sounds of the suburban night were the sounds of Brazil and the Himalayas and the African bush all mixed into one. The goldfish pond fountain was a rainforest shower; the neighbour's cat a caracal prowling its territory.

He's jerked back to the present by the sharp white light hitting him in the face.

'God! Stop that, will you?'

Kester lowers the torch. Laurence can just see the broad grin behind the light trails that keep dancing across his vision.

'You zoned out for a moment there. To answer your question: our eight-legged friends will be less bothered than you just were. Besides, they're not here: we're just stopping a while to adjust to the surroundings. Do you fancy a little something out of the thermos?'

The 'little something' could be anything. Tea, coffee, some random concoction of whatever Kester thought wouldn't last the night in his fridge. Experience suggested that it's drinkable nine times out of ten, so Laurence passes across his camping mug. This time it's tea.

Kester lies back with his head on his camera bag, and gazes up at the roof of the tunnel as if gazing at the stars. 'It's extraordinary, isn't it?'

Laurence looks up, wondering if he's missing something. Kester notices the movement and grins at him. 'Not the ceiling, specifically. Just that we can be here, in a space that man created and then abandoned, and we are about to meet a species that few people ever see. Not halfway up a mountain on the other side of the planet, or on some remote island almost untouched by human hands. Here, with London just above our heads. Doesn't that seem quite remarkable?'

Laurence can imagine for a moment the layers of pipes and cables and steel reinforcement above them, and regrets being dragged back up there. The world can carry on without him just for now. Unfortunately, Kester has surfaced.

'I forgot to ask. How is Anna? Still getting along like a house on fire over in whatchamacallit?'

Laurence thinks, those are two very different questions, but finds an answer that covers both. 'Oh, you know. Much as usual.'

'Still saving for the house?'

'Always.'

Back on the surface, the house is the only thing that's real, though they haven't yet found either it or a bank that understands. It exists in brochures and print-outs and door-to-door flyers, spilling over the kitchen table and on to the floor. And amid the chaos, the girl with the cello and the odd socks slipped away unseen.

These are the thoughts that he does not share. He tells himself that his friends don't need his problems on top of their own. He repeats it over and over again; drowning out the voices that insinuate that they already know; and that in the real world, it already ended.

'How about you?'

'Definitely not saving for a house.'

'I meant generally.'

'Plans pop up here and there. Dolphins in Scotland, lichens in Surrey. You can imagine how excited I am about the latter. There was talk of Madagascar for a while, but that looks like a non-starter. I told them they'd have to either increase the budget or wait for me to win the lottery.'

'What are the chances of that?'

'Lottery? Fair to middling.'

Kester rolls over to grab the thermos. He nestles back against the camera bag and laughs. 'Do you remember the System?'

'Of course.'

The System covered the walls of the flat they once shared, to the extend that Laurence didn't recognise the wallpaper when he become reacquainted with it on moving-out day. It was a constantly growing mass of calculations that Kester was convinced led inexorably toward riches. The source of those riches jumped from roulette to poker to the National Lottery and back again as often as post-it notes were added, but the underlying belief remained undiminished for the best part of two years.

'After all,' Kester had explained back in the early days when the System was contained in one corner, 'what's the point of having a mathematics degree if you can't manage a little lucrative prediction?'

Kester doesn't list the degree in question on his CV. The disillusionment was like a divorce; the disappointment of expecting the keys to a great secret and instead being handed a certificate and a handful of letters too much to talk about. Laurence is surprised that he is talking now.

'Absurd, really. But it filled the nights, oh god, did it do that. Remember the times when you all went to the pub, but I was sure I'd come up with the answer and just couldn't leave it?'

'Oh yes. There were plenty of them.'

'Maybe I owe my health to the System. I could have been a raging alcoholic by twenty-one. Never do anything by halves.'

Kester pauses to sip his rapidly cooling coffee. 'God, it all seems like so long ago.'

'It was,' Laurence replies, while part of him feels that it's so close he could almost reach out a hand in the dark and touch it.

'So many changes since then. Always hung on to the important bits, though, haven't we?'

Laurence nods, and only later wonders whether Kester has the same things in mind.

He remembers the day that they moved out, the System dismembered and placed in plastic bags ready for disposal. 'Shame, really,' Kester had said. 'But then a lot of bloody use it's going to be for a wildlife documentary maker.'

It was the first time that Kester had mentioned the wildlife documentaries, but this was Kester and he already had a plan and contacts and the benefit of total conviction. It was a lifeline that Laurence had clung to and never let go.

Kester undoes the straps of the film camera bag and fiddles self-consciously with the contents, sure that this time, something must have been forgotten. He's an old hand at it now, but he overplayed his experience on the first outing, and the recent brush with old times has brought with it the old feeling of being a fraud on the brink of exposure.

Kester knocks back the dregs of the coffee and reaches for his own bag.

'So, are you ready to go exploring?'

'Give me ten minutes. I promised I'd phone Anna.'

'As you wish. Give her my love.'

-

Out in the old passenger walkways the light is still dim, and the torch helps less than the hours spent acclimitising. It feels more alien to walk along through the tiles and the posters for West End plays that nobody remembers now. The sense of the world ending is back again. He catches himself thinking, what if this is all that is left?

He's halfway up the stairs before the moment is broken by the peevish chime of his mobile phone springing back into life.

He thinks he knows the contents of the text message before he opens it, and he is right, but as always, Anna has a simple eloquence that his premonitions lack.

I think you know as well as I do that this isn't working. The futures that we want are not the same. I'm going back to my parents' place to get my head straight. I always loved you, you know. I'm sorry.

He reads it through six times, memorising it, looking for hidden meanings. He finds none, and presses to respond.

I know. I always loved you too. Take care of yourself. - L

A memory leaps forward and grabs him by the throat. Anna on the opposite side of the table, laughing at her inability to find the pub without directions and at his habit of signing texts. 'I know who you are, "L". The phone tells me.'

He leans against the cold tiles, and doesn't recognise the sound as his own until it bounces back from the walls. From the outside it sounds like laughter, and perhaps that's the closest he'll come to an explanation of that time.

He weaves back along the tunnels in a strange euphoria. The world has ended, he thinks, and I was absolutely right. Victory and nothingness are an intoxicating mix. He reaches the platform and stands on the yellow line, and raises his torch in a clumsy toast. To the end, he thinks to himself, and, regaining composure, slips down to the tracks.

-

Kester looks up but does not see. The torches are turned the other way, cutting lines in the void. 'Ready?'

'Yes.'

Ahead of them the light from headlamps and torches reflects off the old train tracks, tracing parallel silver lines stretching ahead until the darkness once again reclaims them. Kester divides his attention between the ceiling and the map in his hand. They are heading towards the area marked with a red felt tip X. Here be spiders.

They come within a few yards of the spot and Kester gestures for Laurence to hold back. He disappears around a bend in the tunnel, his movements broadcast back by the changing light from his headlamp as he searches, and then the classic ah-ha that Laurence was waiting for.

Laurence moves to join him and they go through the ritual of erecting the infrared cameras. and sound equipment. Laurence runs his thumb over the controls, reminding himself for the thousandth time of the layout, and waits for the signal.

'And one.... two... three.'

The lights go out in unison, leaving only the thin red gleam of the recording light.

Laurence hears Kester clear his throat, and kneels down to look through the viewfinder.

He's always been afraid of spiders, but the fear suddenly seems absurd; an anachronistic hangover from the other world. This world belongs to them, now, and they handle the responsibility more elegantly than their human predecessors.

Along the ceiling he sees pale teardrops suspended from silk threads: they look too delicate to survive anywhere other than in this world that they have made their own. In Laurence's imagination they are soft and weightless; impossibly thin strands woven in patterns too intricate to see. Meta menardi delicately pick their way around them on slender black legs, a curious picture of conscientious parenthood.

In the background, Kester's documentary voice dims the magic. 'The Meta menardi egg sac has the most stretchable spider silk known to science. Spider silk has fascinating potential applications...'

This is where they differ. For Kester, this is the realisation of his research: an experiment to confirm the theory. For Laurence, it is a brush with the unknown, and the little he knows the greater the payoff. He'll watch the documentary later with everyone else; for now, he needs that moment of first contact.

Kester winds down. Laurence can hear him segue into the tidy pre-prepared ending, then the held breath, then finally the exhale and the relieved 'cut'.

'What now?'

'Now we give them a bit of space and hope that they do something photogenic. You can switch the sound off.'

-

They're on the floor behind the camera, and the only light is the screen projecting fuzzy infrared on to the opposite wall.

The silence goes on for too long.

'Anna's gone, you know.'

He keeps the tone light; it's almost as if she's popped out for a pint of milk.

'When?'

There's no surprise in the response.

'Now, more or less. She'll have finished packing by the time we surface.'

'I'm sorry.'

'So am I,' Laurence answers, and means it, but he isn't sure exactly what either of them is sorry for.

The silence falls again. Above their heads, Meta menardi continue their tender ministrations.

'The trouble with Anna,' says Kester , 'is that she never really understood you.'

Laurence thinks, the trouble is that she got there in the end, but he doesn't feel like starting a debate. Best to stick with what he knows.

'I loved her.'

'Everybody knows that. But the past tense heals all wounds eventually.'

The recording light goes out. The memory is finished.

The light is coming and every fibre is screaming, give me a reason to go back there. Give me just one reason.

And with the light comes a clarity that he hasn't known for years; that he didn't know he was capable of feeling any more.

'How much do you need for Madagascar?'

'Too much.'

'Yes, but how much?'

'Thousands. Tens of thousands. That's for the groundwork necessary to attract the real funding.'

'I could fund it.'

Kester's laughter echoes off the walls. 'I appreciate the gesture, but with what?'

'It seems I don't need a house just yet.'

'You probably won't get it back.'

'That's my problem.'

Kester's face is half-illuminated as he turns, and Laurence can feel for a moment the breeze coming in from the outside world. Almost home.

'You are quite, quite mad. And possibly sleep-deprived.'

'But you think it could work.'

Kester laughs again and lays a hand on Laurence's shoulder. 'We'll talk over breakfast. I never make business decisions on an empty stomach.'

Laurence doesn't look back. The next adventure awaits.