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 Dying to Live

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: Dying to Live   Fri Apr 28, 2017 12:31 am

Chapter 1

            With the television suitably loud, tuned to ‘National Geographic Channel’, Ari briefly watched as killer whales launched themselves at luckless seals. He’d be fascinated except he had seen it before. It was only on to mask any telltale noise as he clambered out of his second storey bedroom window onto the roof. Pausing momentarily to listen, he scanned his room. ‘Yup, he was a nerd,’ he thought as he saw his picture of Albert Einstein on the wall, the one that looked like he’d just been given an electric shock to make his hair stand on end. It wasn’t just that; it was the poster of Da Vinci’s ‘measurement man’ standing akimbo in a circle to describe all the pertinent ratios of the human physique, and it was his map of the galaxy, his Apollo 11 model, his microscope and a variety of other things, such as a bookshelf full of classics. Ari shook his head slowly, most of the paraphernalia was provided by his parents. He carefully edged his way around to the back of the house where he had purposely left an old wooden ladder leaning against the wall.

“Wow, that’s lucky!” he said to himself with mock surprise, “I won’t have to jump.”

Descending a little recklessly, he almost missed his footing before reaching the grassed verge of the garden bed. He felt he was being watched, stood stock still and squinted at the windows to see if he could detect any movement—nothing.

            He looked across at the bicycle leaning against the back of the garage. “Another bit of luck,” he said grinning to himself as he went over and grabbed the previously prepared getaway vehicle. “This was obviously meant to be.” Ari wheeled it quietly toward the front, and looked up. A flush of embarrassment washed over him when he noticed a girl about his own age, in jeans and tee shirt standing at the mailbox next to her bike, staring at him. Had she heard him talking to himself? She had blonde hair pulled in a ponytail and was halfway through depositing an advertising catalogue when she had been diverted by his strange conduct. She had a nice-looking, friendly face, and if he had any gumption at all he would have said hello, but he just held his finger to his lips. Then he ran with his bike as she responded with an amused expression. He ran onto the pavement and then around the corner before mounting it and setting off with a flurry of peddling. Oblivious to the picturesque setting of the distant blue coloured mountains across the valley and the blur of the leafy neighbourhood, he tried to escape his chagrin. Ari charged down the hill, tilted into the next corner and hurtled around it. The road flattened out a little, but it still sloped enough to allow him to freewheel another kilometre before peddling up the rise on which his grandmother Marree lived.

 

“Fancy you dropping by.” His Gran said conspiratorially. “And I just happen to have some chocolate drink and cookies out.”

Ari smiled broadly and gave his Gran a hug. He had recovered his composure from the exertion of ascending that last little hill.

“Do they know you’re here?”

In reply Ari looked slightly guilty with a thin lipped smile and he shook his head minimally as if to say, ‘Let’s not get into that.’

“Oh well,” responded his Gran, “I guess when they find that you’re missing they’ll know where you are.”

“How can you say ‘find’ if I’m missing?” Ari quipped.

“Don’t be cheeky. If you’re so clever you had better show me. We have a game to finish.”

They went into the lounge with the tray of drinks and cookies and sat down to play their chess game. Even though Ari was only twelve years old by this time, he consistently outplayed his grandmother.

 

            As they played she looked at him with a sad, loving expression and sighed slightly as she considered his plight. Ari misread the sigh. “Don’t rush me Gran; I’ve got plenty of time to move.”

“I know; it’s not the game... I’m just sighing.”

Ari’s grandmother pictured the handsome wedding photograph of Ari’s parents. What had happened? Everything had seemed so perfect to begin with. Then in the third year of their marriage Aristotle Archimedes James was born to Alfred Arthur James and Taryn Whyte. His father had become a scientist of some little renown, since particle physics was hardly a glamour field of endeavour; while his mother was entertaining the idea of becoming a celebrated journalist. By retaining her surname, Taryn reflected her desire to maintain media recognition. Both of Ari’s parents were totally engrossed in their respective professions and, although usually meaning well, they were derelict in their parenting duties.

After the pomp and fuss of giving their pedigree progeny a suitably grand moniker and outlining noble aspirations for their son, little changed in their lives. Aristotle Archimedes was generally neglected by his mother and father who felt their respective causes demanded their full attention. Almost as an afterthought they made provision for their offspring by hiring a Nanny and tutors—even for his early years. A feeling of vindication came upon them as they heard of their son’s remarkable progress in language, and then reading, well before normal expectations. Though this was in no small measure due to Grandmother Marree’s frequent incursions into the nursery to play and read and talk with her grandson.

            That the boy, Aristotle, had any degree of normalcy was solely due to his grandmother Marree, his Father’s mother. She was the one who coined the name Ari and who showed love and filial care. And Ari knew it was she who listened and played and guided. It was not an influence his parents encouraged, but Marree was persistent and ignored their rebuffs. Because of their self absorption, Marree often ‘kidnapped’ Ari from the attention of his minders. This occurred several times before his parents reactivated the process of raising a prodigy and banished ‘Gran’ from the house—a large multilevel wooden building on a hill overlooking the valley. Alfred and Taryn were only attentive when they could parade their ‘gifted’ child among educated friends or put him on show to garner plaudits.

 

            Their main preoccupation, when they interacted at all, was to engage in extended, simmering, sarcastic arguments. From the smallest thing, such as personal hygiene, to bigger issues such as the best use of finances, who their friends should be and who should defer to whom when it came to demands on their professional time. Ari himself was often the one being argued over, as some chattel for which no one wanted to be responsible; and it left wounds on his psyche that he would carry around in years to come. One thing was a constant; they never compromised, they never reconciled. Hostilities would cease only because they went their separate ways, like two boxers pulled apart by a referee and sent to their corners, only to resume combat in the next round. 

            Ari’s father, Alfred James, was a very clever man, but he was not wise. Alfred was labelled Freddy by his friends and workmates; which is a redundant thing to say because he had no friends apart from his colleagues at the Institute of Particle Physics. He hated the name Freddy insisting that it was ‘Fred’ or ‘Alfred’. Of course this aggravation was sufficient incentive for all those who knew him to call him ‘Freddy’. Though not a visionary or an intuitive theorist, nevertheless he was highly respected for his pragmatic and thorough experimental procedures. While many of his fellow scientists loved to dabble in the speculative aspects of elemental physics, Alfred was meticulous in forming a mathematical basis for his predictions and observations, and known (amongst the local research fraternity) for obtaining numerous consistent outcomes before even hazarding the ‘risk’ of publishing his causative theory. ‘Rerun Freddy’ was often referred to when one physicist or another was waiting in line to use the synchrotron. He was an inconvenience for those impatient to publish the newest ideas about quarks and leptons and create even sillier names for the ever-increasing number of sub atomic combinations being described.

           

            So, his father was conscientious and concise when it came to work, but he was clueless when it came to his family. Ari was barely into his teens when his mother finally realised there was more to life than work. Sadly, she couldn’t find it in the home relationships, so she looked elsewhere. Abandoned by his mother, his father and he continued on as if nothing much had changed, living in the big gabled house on the hill with a succession of housekeepers and minders. It was these minders that he tormented with his covert excursions to his Grans, or the mall, or anywhere away from home.

                                                ----------------------

 

            Coming to terms that his parents had separated was one thing, but the emptiness he felt in being given the choice of who to stay with gnawed at him. He avoided the decision altogether. Ari merely stayed where he was, not as a preference for his father but for convenience and—if he would admit it—close to his grandmother. Soon after his fourteenth birthday his parents divorced. His mother remarried into the business social scene. Ralph X Scherer was an up and coming media mogul and had run into Taryn at a number of newspaper social events. His flirting with her was enough for Taryn to covet a more fulfilling relationship. Married to Ralph, she would be amongst business power brokers, celebrities and the social elite. Not long after she and Ralph were married she invited Ari around to a party to show him off. He was so degraded by the vacuous nature of the conversations and social interchange that he left after making some regrettable disparaging remarks.

            A talk with his father in the old family home found a, largely, unaffected, distracted scientist who revealed that their relationship had been mostly for convenience for a long time and he felt less encumbered now that his wife was gone. This left Ari cold and disillusioned, as he would have contested that although his parents were queer birds, they at least loved each other, or did once.

 

            School was not a particularly enjoyable experience for Ari. Although other students also had indifferent parents, considerable wealth and a growing belief in their own superiority—all of which enabled him to relate—nevertheless he was still too different. And being different is the ultimate crime. Ari was curious about the world he lived in and not obsessed with materialism. He always asked questions, and said so when he didn’t think much of the answer. Being so different was not easily accepted by children; particularly the children at the exclusive private school that he attended. So he was teased, mocked and bullied, but he stuck to his guns. This tenacity was grudgingly admired by his peers and eventually his eccentricity was tolerated. But school was no joy. He had no real friends.

            As a boy, Ari learnt to be sceptical. His father constantly debunked popular myths of science, religion, politics or any statement made that he thought worthy of contradiction.

“No Ari, it is not possible to see the Great Wall of China from the Moon. It may be long but it’s not that wide. It would be like locating a major highway. No, the Great Barrier Reef is not the largest living organism because it is made up of billions of organisms. You may as well say a flock of birds is an organism or a shoal of fish.” Sometimes his criticisms were purely his personal prejudices: “Politicians are not interested in people, they just want power and they’ll promise anything to get it! There are lots of religions but not one of them have proved the existence of God, or the existence of an after life... they’re just a bunch of quaint stories.”

                                    ---------------------------

 

             Precocious, self assured, Ari grew up arguing against everyone whether he agreed with them or not. He even began to poke holes in his father’s pet theories. “Can you prove the Big Bang? Has anyone ever made something from nothing?” But Alfred didn’t deign to answer his son. After all, what would he know of the mathematics, of the evidence in background radiation and the expanding universe? His snubbing of his son’s questions only caused a further distancing in their relationship and a building resentment of Ari toward his father.

            Marree, his grandmother was quite the opposite. She tried vainly to answer Ari’s questions. Most often she referred to her simple faith. “It’s in God’s hands Ari.” Ari wasn’t very impressed by her—“That’s the way God made it”—responses, but he was impressed by the quality of her character and her consistent care for him.

 

            The difference between the two significant adults in his life eventually caused Ari to seek some answers. It happened when he was experiencing considerable change in his life. His voice was breaking, he was growing and he was becoming conscious of even minor acne blemishes.  Although he was fifteen, he still enjoyed the regular chess game or just hanging out at his Gran’s. They were staring at the few remaining pieces on the chess board. For some reason Ari had not made a decisive move and the game had, almost ponderously, ground into a fruitless draw.

“What’s on your mind?” Marree asked perceptively.

“How come Dad is so against what you believe Gran?” he asked his grandmother after determining that of the many questions in his mind, that particular thought was causing most dissonance at present. He smiled inwardly as he said it, realising that every excursion to her place seemed to result in a ‘deep and meaningful’.

“Your father was already an adult when I came to know Jesus,” she said plainly. “He couldn’t understand the change. All we lived for was education and materialism, and then your grandfather and I attended a local church after being invited by neighbours.”

“So you became Christians?”

“It’s not like joining a club or anything. It’s more like having a great new friend. Do you want to hear about it?”

            Ari suddenly recoiled at the thought of a sermon. “No thanks.” He turned the conversation away from himself. “So Dad didn’t like the change?”

“He thought we were crazy. But we were happy, and everything began to make sense to us. We began to think more of people and we started doing volunteer work at a shelter.” Ari’s grandmother became quiet for a brief moment. Her eyes glistened as she stared into space. Memories were flooding back. Her voice was fragile when she spoke. “It was then that the Lord took him.” She caught her breath before she continued. “He died suddenly from a heart attack. I’m just thankful that he was ready... but I wasn’t.” Ari’s Gran fought back the tears. “I was slow to understand, but Alfred, your father, was angry that I still had faith. He insisted that your grandfather’s death was proof there was no God.”

 

            Ari felt uncomfortable talking about such imponderables as death and faith. He didn’t know what to say, so he challenged his Gran to another game of chess. His thoughts were very focussed for the next half hour or so, but not on the game which he lost. His preoccupation was on what Gran had said. He thought now he understood his father’s disillusionment with life. When Ari arrived back at home his father was in a foul mood. Standing there, at the main entrance just up from the garage, with one hand on his hip and the other against the doorpost, he just scowled. It was like going from bright colours to shades of grey; like travelling from a land of stirring melodies to a droning drum beat. Ari braced himself for the inquisition.

“I don’t like you spending so much time over at your Gran’s. She’ll fill your head with her silly ideas and, besides, you should be putting more time into your studies. What do you want to spend so much time there anyway?”

            “Well you don’t spend any time with me! You’re too busy researching something or other, or attending meetings.”

“Ari,” his father growled. But Ari had momentum now and he wasn’t going to stop.

“Or you’re writing some paper or too busy working in your study to even notice me.” Ari had said it before thinking. This was a first. Usually Ari said sorry, let the remonstrations wash over him and that was the end of it. Something broke inside him; he was a bursting plastic shopping bag weighed down with angry emotions and resentment that had built up so much until, inevitably, it released its straining load. “You don’t even care!” he cried.

He stood fluttering in tatters, strangely empty, like that plastic bag. There was a tense silence before Alfred stomped out, seething, but with nothing to say.

 

            The confrontation did have its effects. It happened a few weeks later. After a power blackout at work caused his father to come home early, Ari was disturbed from his computer exploits. His father decided to ‘rescue’ him from his nerd enclosure.

“Come and throw a ball with me.”

Ari protested to begin with but his father was adamant. He needed physical exercise and fresh air he was told. Ari gave in eventually, as a favour to his dad who he felt needed to assuage a guilty conscience about not spending quality time with his son.

So they threw a ball. Because Ari was somewhat uncoordinated his father found an old baseball glove to help him catch.

            Conversation slowly drifted from the technical vagaries of throwing and catching, to what his father had been working on with the synchrotron. When his father asked what he was reading he hesitated before telling him. Anticipating his displeasure, he shared his thoughts on something his Gran had said.

“You know what Gran said to me? She said don’t knock it till you find out something about it. So I borrowed this book from the library. It’s called ‘Church History and the Reformation’.

“Religion is the opiate of the people.” his father quoted.

“What does that mean?” Ari asked his father, irritated and reacting to his condescending tone.

“You tell me.”

“Well, I guess it’s a saying: I guess it means religion numbs people’s minds, and they become dependent on it.”

“Exactly,” then smiling approvingly he added, “Say, you’re pretty smart son.”

Ari ignored the compliment. “But I don’t believe it. Gran is more alive, more with it than anyone I know. She cares for people and she helps people. I reckon that’s more important than anything.”

Alfred threw a little harder knowing that the comment was another backhand dig at his limited parenting skills. Fortunately for Ari his father was as unaccustomed to sports as he was, and the throw was just a little less lobbed than the others.

            One thing this unprecedented father – son activity caused was to awaken Ari to the fact that he actually enjoyed the physical activity. Thereafter he contrived to develop a solo pitching routine using a more responsive rubber ball. He threw the ball against the side brick wall of the garage and caught it in the glove. Gradually he challenged himself to hurl the ball harder. He varied his routines trying to introduce some angle or to aim at a particular brick. The thwack of ball against brick and the phut of ball in glove became a common sound at the side of the house. Initially, the nearest neighbour peered over the fence to check it out, but the uniqueness of this event was soon ignored as it became his regular practice.
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