Light Perpetual

Francis Spufford

May 18, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Francis Spufford's latest novel, Light Perpetual, which traces the infinite possibilities of five lives in the bustling neighborhoods of 20th-century London. Spufford is the author of five highly praised books of nonfiction, including I May Be Some Time, won the Writers' Guild Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 1996, the Banff Mountain Book Prize, and a Somerset Maugham Award. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College and lives near Cambridge.

The light is grey and sullen; a smoulder, a flare choking on the soot of its own burning, and leaking only a little of its power into the visible spectrum. The rest is heat and motion. But for now the burn-line still creeps inside the warhead’s casing. It is a threadwide front of change propagating outward from the electric detonator, through the heavy mass of amatol. In front a yellow-brown solid, slick and brittle as toffee: behind, a seething boil of separate atoms, violently relieved of all the bonds between that made them trinitrotoluene and ammonium nitrate, and just about to settle back into the simplest of molecular partnerships. Soon they will be gases. Hot gases, hotter than molten metal, far hotter; and suddenly, churningly abundant; and so furiously compacted now into a space too small for them that they would burst the casing imminently on their own. If the casing were still going to be there. If it were not itself going to disappear into a steel mist the instant the burn-line reaches it.

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Instants. This instant, before the steel case vanishes, is one tenthousandth of a second long. A hairline crack in a Saturday lunchtime in November 1944. But look closer. The crack has width. It has duration. Can it not, itself, be split in two? And split again, and again, and again, divided and subdivided ad infinitum, with no stopping point? Does it not, itself, contain an abyss? The fabric of ordinary time is all hollow beneath, opening into void below void, gulf behind gulf. Every moment you care to define proving on examination to be a close-packed sheaf of finer, and yet finer ones without end; finer, in fact, always and forever, than whatever your last guess was. Matter has its smallest, finite subdivisions. Time does not. One ten-thousandth of a second is a fat volume of time, with onion-skin pages uncountable. As uncountable, no more or less, than all the pages would be in all the books making up all the elapsed time in the universe. This book of time has no fewer pages than all the books put together. Each of the parts is as limitless as the whole, because infinities don’t come in larger and smaller sizes. They are all infinite alike. And yet somehow from this lack of limit arises all our ordinary finitude, our beginnings and ends. As if a pontoon had been laid across the abyss, and we walk it without noticing; as if the experience of this second, then this one, this minute then this one, here, now, succeeding each other without stopping, without appeal, and never quite enough of them, until there are no more of them at all—arose, somehow, as a kind of coagulation (a temporary one) of the nothing, or the everything, that yawns unregarded under all years, all Novembers, all lunchtimes. Do we walk, though? Do we move in time, or does it move us? This is no time for speculation. There’s a bomb going off.

This particular Saturday lunchtime, Woolworths on Lambert Street in the Borough of Bexford has a delivery of saucepans, and they are stacked on a table upstairs, gleaming cleanly. No one has seen a new pan for years, and there’s an eager crowd of women round the table, purses ready, kids too small to leave at home brought along to the shop. There’s Jo and Valerie with their mum, wearing tam-o’-shanters knitted from wool scraps; Alec with his, spindly knees showing beneath his shorts; Ben gripped firmly by his, and looking slightly mazed, as usual; chunky Vernon with his grandma, product of a household where they never seem to run quite as short of the basics as other people do. The women’s hands reach out towards the beautiful aluminium, but a human arm cannot travel far in a ten-thousandth of a second, and they seem motionless. The children stand like statues executed in flesh. Vern’s finger is up his nose. Something is moving visibly, though, even with time at this magnification. Over beyond the table, by the rack of yellowed knitting patterns, something long and sleek and sharp is coming through the ceiling, preceded by a slow-tumbling cloud of plaster and bricks and fragmented roof tiles. Amid the twinkling debris the tapering cone of the warhead has a geometric dignity as it slides floorward, the dull green bulk of the rocket pushing into sight behind, inch by inch. Inside the cone the amatol is already burning. Shoppers, saucepans, ballistic missile: what’s wrong with this picture? No one is going to tell us. Jo and Alec, as it happens, are looking in the right direction. Their gaze is fixed on the gap between the shoulders of Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Canaghan where the rocket is gliding into view. But they can’t see it. Nobody can. The image of the V-2 is on their retinas, but it takes far longer than a ten-thousandth of a second for a human eye to process an image and send it to a brain. Much sooner than that, the children won’t have eyes any more. Or brains. This instant—this interval of time, measurably tiny, immeasurably vast—arrives unwitnessed, passes unwitnessed, ends unwitnessed. And yet it is a real moment. It really happens. It really takes its necessary place in the sequence of moments by which 910 kilos of amatol are delivered among the saucepans.

Then the burn-line touches the metal. The name for what happens next is brisance. The moving thread of combustion, all combustion done, becomes a blast wave pushing on and out in the same directions, driven by the pressure of the livid gas behind. And what it touches, it breaks. A spasm of deformation, of dislocation, passes through every solid thing, shattering it to fragments that then accelerate outward themselves at the forefront of the wave. Knitting patterns. Rack. Glass sign hanging from chains, reading HABERDASHERY. Wooden table. Pans. Much-darned brown worsted hand-me-down served-three-siblings horn-buttoned winter coat. Skin. Bone. The size of the fragments is determined by the distance from the centre of the blast. Closest in, just particles: then flecks, shreds, morsels, lumps, pieces, and furthest out, where the energy of the wave is widest spread, whole mangled yard-wide fractions of wall or door or flagstone or tram-stop sign, torn loose and sent spinning across the street. The blast goes mainly down at first, because of the shape of the warhead, through the first floor and the ground floor and the cellar of Woolworths and into the London clay, where it scoops a roughly hemispheric crater before rebounding up and out with a pulse that carries most of the shattered fabric of the building with it. A dome of debris expands. The shops to left and right of Woolworths are ripped open to the air along the slanting upward lines of the dome’s edge. A blizzard of metal jags and brick flakes scours Lambert Street, both ways. The buildings opposite heave and sag; all their windowpanes blow inward and stick in the walls behind in glittering spears and splinters. In the ground, a tremor pops gas mains and grinds the sections of water pipes apart. In the air, even where there is no abrading grit, no flying rain of bricks, a sudden invisible jolt of intense pressure travels outward in a ring. A tram just coming round the far bend from Lewisham rocks on its rails and halts, still upright; but through it from end to end passes the ripple that turns the clear air momentarily as hard as glass. At the very limits of the blast, small strange alterations take place, almost whimsical. Kitchen chairs shake their way a foot across the floor. A cupboard door falls open, and hoarded pre-war confetti trickles out. A one-ounce weight from the butcher’s right next door to Woolworths somehow flies right over Lambert Street, and the street beyond, to fall neatly through the open back upstairs window of a house in the next street beyond that, and lodge among the undamaged keys of an Underwood typewriter.

No need to slow time, now. There’s nothing to see which can’t be seen at the usual speed humans perceive at. Let it run, one second per second. The rubble of Lambert Street bounces and lies still. The hollow howl of the rocket’s descent is heard at last, outdistanced by the explosion. Then a ringing stillness. No one is alive in Woolworths to break it. All of the shoppers and the counter girls are dead, on all three floors; and everyone in the butcher’s on the left, and the post office on the right, except for one clerk with both legs broken, who happened to be leaning forward into the safe; and everyone in the tram queue on the pavement outside; and all the passers-by; and anyone standing by the window in the houses opposite; and all the travellers on the Lewisham tram, still upright in their seats in their hats and coats, but asphyxiated by the air-shock. Then, only then, from those furthest out in the circle of ruination, the first screams. And the sirens. And the fire brigade coming; and the middle-aged men and women of the ARP stumbling through the masonry with their spades; and the teenage boys and old men of the Light Rescue Service arriving, with their stretchers which they scarcely use, and their sacks which they do. And the attempt to separate out from the rest of broken Woolworths those particles, flecks, shreds, lumps and pieces that, previously, were parts of people; people being missed, waited for, despaired of, by the crowd gathering white-faced behind the tape at the end of the street.

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Jo and Valerie and Alec and Ben and Vernon are gone. Gone so fast they cannot possibly have known what was happening, which some of those who mourn them will take for a comfort, and some won’t. Gone between one ten-thousandth of a second and the next, gone so entirely that it’s as if they’ve vanished into all that copious, immeasurable nothing just beneath the rickety scaffolding of hours and minutes. Their part in time is done. They have no share, any more, in what swells and breathes and tightens and turns and withers and brightens and darkens; in any of the changes of things. Nothing is possible for them that requires being to stretch from one instant to another over the gulfs of time. They cannot act, or be acted on. Cannot call, or be called. Do, or be done unto. There they aren’t. Meanwhile the matter that composed them is all still there in the crater, but it cannot ever, in any amount of time whatsoever, be reassembled. That’s time for you. It breaks things up. It scatters them. It cannot be run backwards, to summon the dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea. Once sundered, forever sundered. Once scattered, forever scattered. It’s irreversible.

But what has gone is not just the children’s present existence—Vernon not trudging home to the house with the flitch of bacon hanging in the kitchen, Ben not on his dad’s shoulders crossing the park, astonished by the watery November clouds, Alec not getting his promised ride to Crystal Palace tomorrow, Jo and Valerie not making faces at each other over their dinner of cock-a-leekie soup. It’s all the futures they won’t get, too. All the would-be’s, might-be’s, could-be’s of the decades to come. How can that loss be measured, how can that loss be known, except by laying this absence, now and onwards, against some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be still may be? Where, by some little alteration, some altered single second of arc, back in Holland where the rocket launched, it flew four hundred yards further into Bexford Park, and killed nothing but pigeons; or suffered a guidance failure, as such crude mechanisms do, and slipped unnoticed between the North Sea waves; or never launched at all, a hiccup in fuel deliveries meaning the soldiers of Batterie 485 spent all that day under the pine trees of Wassenaar waiting for the ethanol tanker, and smoking, and nervously watching the sky for RAF Mosquitoes?

Come, other future. Come, mercy not manifest in time; come knowledge not obtainable in time. Come, other chances. Come, unsounded deep. Come, undivided light.

Come dust.


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Excerpted from Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford. Copyright © 2021 by 2021. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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