To my wife
Sonnet, to Beryl.
Sing to the Lord a glad new Song
Ar Lan y Mor
Jesus we have come to honour
The Night that is Different
Lady of Foxdale (extract)
Daughter of the King (Extract)
Endless Loop by Malcolm Cowen
To be different from your fellows, to be abnormal in any way in your
appearance, is to face a challenge. Not a challenge to be conquered by
skill, or by physical prowess, but a challenge to be overcome by courage
and by learning the value of your own self before God.
Some people face that challenge and pass the test; they win honour and
the respect of their friends and colleagues. Others fail that test, and
the price of failure can be terrible.
When Karen was six months old, she developed a high temperature. The
doctor came quickly, because there was a severe outbreak of polio that
first year after the War. But Karen recovered, and showed no sign of any
problems. She grew into a beautiful child and, unfortunately, well aware
By her fourteenth birthday the illness was forgotten. Her parents had
moved up in the world, as her father gained promotion. Her mother was
equally determined to gain promotion socially, and spared no effort to
establish herself and her family in their new upwardly mobile social class.
For Karen it was easy to follow her mother's way. She was bright, attractive,
good at sports, and popular with almost everybody. She was popular with
the teachers, with the boys and with the other girls' parents, at least
with the ones she thought counted.
It was while getting her new dress for the Christmas party that her mother
found the deformity starting in Karen's ribcage. Her old doctor had died
by now, and her new doctor referred her to a consultant, who explained
to Karen and her mother that some muscles were abnormally weak, and were
not holding the spine and intercostal ribs in the way they should. He
used the word "scoliosis", but did not explain it or "intercostal",
so instead of going back to school, as she had told her mother she would
do, Karen went to the library and looked the strange words up.
"Scoliosis", she read, "is a lateral curvature of the spine,
associated with a rotation of the ribcage about a vertical axis. It is
caused by a imbalance of the intercostal muscles which hold the ribs and
spine in the correct posture."
The dry words were like iced water sluicing through her. She closed the
book, and laid it down carefully, her eyes filled with tears and rage
at the whole world.
It was the first time she had faced any imperfection or failure in herself.
With all the best motives, her parents had protected her against every
hurt or grief. Now she had no experience of past hurts overcome that she
could draw on to sustain her. She had never learnt how to turn to others
for help. Instead in her grief she turned inward on herself, and let the
anguish in her heart become acid to corrode her soul.
She cried all the way home, and refused to have anything more to do with
the dress, or the party. That was the first step in the destruction of
Karen demanded surgery to correct her back, but the consultant explained
that surgery was not "appropriate". He didn't, unfortunately,
explain the reasons why, or what the risks of surgery were. He merely
Perhaps it was Karen's fault for demanding too much of herself, perhaps
her mother's fault for placing too much value on external appearance,
and not on the person inside, but whatever the reason from that day Karen
began to hate her own body, and to believe against all the evidence that
others must hate it too. She could never again accept that she was still
attractive. In her mirror she saw only ugliness.
She dropped most of her friends, maintaining just a few girl friends.
She gave up sport, convinced that the growing hump would be noticed, and
took to wearing thick cardigans to disguise the shape of her back. In
her heart she knew that to reject the whole world would surely lead to
ultimate destruction, so as she shut herself away from any social life.
At the same time she tried to compensate by flinging herself into academic
work with an intensity which baffled her family. Her commitment was total,
and her success remarkable, but no woman or man can grow properly without
the friendship of others, and the knot of grief and self-hatred still
burnt in her soul. She went through her O and A level examinations like
a hot knife goes through butter, and no-one was surprised when she got
First Class Honours in the new Computer Science course at Manchester University.
One of the new software houses snapped her up and her career began.
Her work was purely mental, writing system software in obscure computer
languages. She quickly earned respect for her skill, and lost it just
as fast for her attitude to her colleagues.
Her co-worker on her first project tried to warn her that her attitude
was wrong. If Karen had listened, then perhaps things would have been
different, but she was afraid to admit that faults could lie anywhere
other than in her twisted spine.
She had met a few people who had thought it fun to look down on cripples
and make entertainment with jokes about Quasimodo. Now she projected their
attitude onto all the rest of the world. All men, she assumed, must find
her repulsive, all women must find her an object of scorn or even worse
If she had asked she would have found that most people did not even notice
her deformity. Had she known it, several of the men would have gladly
sought her friendship, if she had let them; but she could not believe
that others might not care about her back, might not even notice it.
Karen turned on her co-worker with fury and scorn, demanding that the
man be transferred away. Shaken and hurt, he agreed to the transfer to
escape her wrath. The news spread round the department. To a man and to
a woman all the other staff supported him and cold-shouldered her.
Utterly alone now, there was no-one to whom she could have turned, even
if she had wanted to. She made her work her life, and her promotion was
swift, until late in her twenties the pain started. If she had asked she
would have found others who are in pain, and she could have learned that
even pain can be lived with and overcome, but she was too proud to admit
a need. Instead of seeking help she tried to pretend that the pain did
not exist, denying it. She fought it for several years, her temper gradually
getting shorter, until her departmental manager, concerned as much for
the peace of his department as for Karen, more or less ordered her to
see a physiotherapist again.
The back exercises helped, and her career grew again. Her reputation grew
with it, and one day she handed in her notice and started her own research
group. Her life was still her work, and she dominated her staff ruthlessly.
They all feared her, but only a few of them noticed the two significant
factors. She would never take on anybody with any physical defect, and
yet the more attractive the young women on her staff were, the more she
bullied them. In working with software she was ruthlessly honest about
analysing her work looking for faults, but she could not apply the same
analysis to herself. Jealousy was the next step in her destruction, but
her technical brilliance protected her for the time being.
In her early fifties her physiotherapist recommended her to a support
group for scoliosis patients. She went a few times. She had just won a
contract to research virtual reality systems, and she dominated the whole
evening talking about it to the group. Most of them thought she was a
bore, but one couple, a younger girl and her husband, tried to befriend
The girl had a similar deformity and she tried to speak to Karen, to tell
her that she had been through the same heartache, and overcome it, by
courage and with the help of friends who cared.
"Why shouldn't I wear any dress I like", she asked Karen once
when inviting her to a party, "My husband and my friends want me
to look good, and if they don't care about my back, why should I care.
And if anyone doesn't like my back, well I don't like them, so why should
I care about their opinions?"
Almost it struck a chord in Karen. For a moment she saw what she could
have been. A woman not merely respected for her technical skills, but
also valued as a friend and as a lover. For an instant she was tempted
to turn to her salvation and to joy, but her pride was too great. If this
was true for others, then it could not be true for her. She was already
too old. She had no husband foolish enough not to care about her back.
She declined the invitation to the party and instead stayed at home, alone.
A few weeks later the friendship finished with an exchange of letters.
Karen's letter said, at length, that she didn't want to be associated
with a bunch of useless cripples, and she had more important things to
The answer was a week in coming, and came as two letters. The husband
simply wrote that he had married his wife because she was the most worthwhile
girl he had met. He was proud of her. The girl was more blunt. "I
hold down a job by my own competence, not by charity. I've got colleagues
and friends, men and women, who respect me for what I am. I've got a husband
who wanted me, instead of any one of a dozen 'normal' women. Don't call
me a cripple. You are the cripple for what you've done to yourself, and
you'll stay a cripple until you sort yourself out."
Perhaps the wife should have been less blunt in her choice of words, but
it would have made no difference now. It was another step in Karen's destruction,
and she would have taken it no matter what the letters had said.
Karen continued with her work for four more years, completing her project
for a total environment simulator. It won rave reviews in the trade press.
Two months later she suddenly sold her company, bought an estate on a
Scottish island, and retired.
On the first day of her retirement she locked herself in the cellar of
her new home, and unpacked the equipment she had developed over so many
months. She loaded the software, and began to customise it. She was tense
with anticipation, and so did not spot the small logical error that she
made as she set up the internal controls she would need to use in her
virtual world. It was almost the last step on her road to destruction.
She checked the couch, it was soft and well made, it would suffice. In
the next room she had stored the supplies of food, cratefuls of tins and
bottles laid ready, for when she would need to return to the real world
to eat and drink every few hours.
Everything was complete. Ready at last to turn her back on a world she
hated, she attached the neuro sensors to her neck, placed the contacts
over her ears, and eyes, and lay down on the couch. She touched the control
and the world faded.
She stood now in an expensively furnished room. In front of her was the
red panel she had programmed to exist, with the "WITHDRAW" button
on it. Only her eyes could see it. One touch of the button would end the
session and return her to the real world. Around her neck were two similar
small buttons on a pendant, one with "WITHDRAW" the other with
the word "REPEAT" on it. A touch of the second button would
replay the last few minutes of the virtual world for her. It wasn't the
red panel or the pendant that she looked for now though. She looked down
at herself, at her slim upright figure. She felt her back, and found no
hump. She stretched, and there was no pain. She knew she was beautiful.
The front door beckoned, and she walked out smiling onto the street. As
she walked down the pavement she could feel the sun on her bare shoulders
and the lowcut neckline of her dress; she could sense the men turning
to watch. As she came to the end of the street she saw her reflection
in a shop window, a slim, shapely, and perfectly formed girl in her early
twenties. Her dream was complete, she thrilled with pleasure, and in her
last folly she doomed herself. Around her neck was the "REPEAT"
button. She pressed it.
. . . The door beckoned again, and she walked out smiling onto the street.
Again she felt the sun, again the men turned to watch, and again she saw
herself in the shop window. Only when her fingers reached unbidden for
the "REPEAT" button did she realise her error. She tried to
stop them, but it made no difference.
. . . The door beckoned again, and she tried to scream, but she could
not, instead she walked out smiling onto the street . . .