Astonishingly it's ten years this month since I wrote this tale. TEN YEARS! Anyhow, here it is, for anyone who wants to read it.
IN THE WORLD
Man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.
-- Maurice Merleau-Ponty
He’d grown contented in his world, though today had been more like the past.
Martin Brink straightened the papers on his desk, the plaque that read MANAGER, the framed photograph of Stacey and Tim. Right now he could do with a chat about the end-of-month figures, but Jamie Rock, his fellow property evaluator at MP Estates, was away sick for the week. Martin stood and strolled across the uncommonly quiet office for the window. The weary visage of Bradford – near the end of a working day, shadowed by the petulance of autumn – glared back at him. He remembered the awkwardness of his childhood, saw the reflection of his shirt and tie; he’d not done badly in the circumstances.
And that was when he heard the commotion inside the building.
He was immediately out of the door and along the corridor, his spectacles bumping down a nose as thin as the rest of him. What he found in the showroom, beyond a long desk patrolled by telephones, was just the kind of situation he’d managed to conquer lately. The only receptionist he employed until 5:30 struggled to calm a woman in little more than rags – another of the city’s homeless, utterly deluded.
“Get rid of it! Knock it down! It’s evil! He was evil!”
“Okay Sonia, let me deal with this.”
The young woman appeared more than eager to relinquish the visitor, and then Martin was alone at the doorway. “Could you step outside please, madam? We’re not obliged to provide a service if your interests do not relate to residential affairs.”
“It’s everything to do with houses!” the violator shrieked, and mustn’t be without intelligence since she’d decoded his corporate speak. Nevertheless, she stumped for the exit, plump limbs hacking. “You’ll follow. It’s there I need to show you.”
The woman was surprisingly young – her voice abused by nicotine, but her eyes bright as a frightened animal’s. On the pavement of a street filled with lit up vehicles, she led him around the corner to the illuminated display-box in which cards bore photographs and persuasive prose. She pointed with one forefinger in a grubby mitten.
The building was a new one on their books, a huge dark detached in a plaintive condition. Jamie had consulted Martin before deciding on a figure – £225,000 – and it had yet to generate any serious interest. Since the sale was his colleague’s, he knew no more about it.
“I see. What of it?”
“Oh, you will see, and plenty of it! Let it go – for your own sake!”
“You’re rambling. I have a job to do. Is that all?”
“We knew him as kids – Joseph Priestly. Ha, anything but the latter! We saw it all, and never anything the same again! It’s a wicked place; he’s a wicked man.”
Now Martin recalled an additional detail. “Actually, the owner is dead.” He’d remembered because, as Jamie had explained with astonishment, the man had been well over a hundred and had lived alone. Martin finished with self-satisfaction, “What little family was traced is selling from the south. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
“They know better and so should you,” he heard before the door shut out her and then the half-hourly chiming of the town hall clock. Mercifully it was closing time. He plucked his keys from one trouser pocket, turning the lock with pleasing precision. In any case, the assailant hadn’t lingered at the kerb.
He’d handled the episode, a momentary rupture in the fabric of social life, with habitual aplomb. Stepping in at moments of crises felt good – not heroic; rather, relief after a third of a lifetime of reticence. He shuffled through to the sales negotiator’s room where the experience of Jane was consoling the innocence of Sonia. His elder colleague was a fine, friendly woman, happily married as he was; their mutual attraction was thus contained. Martin smiled sympathetically as he headed for the filing cabinet, rigorously organised since his arrival at the branch ten years earlier. It was plain old commonsense that had him delving inside.
96 Cogiter Grove had indeed been owned by a Mr Joseph Priestly. However, the name on the vendor sheet was Dr Neville Priestly of 570 Trunk Road, Brighton – a son, perhaps? Here was a larger rendering of the photograph. Jamie had caught some of its character, though much was required in way of renovation. Was the grey wizened shape at a broken upstairs window a smear on the glass? It looked too large for that; maybe it had been on the lens of the camera.
The women were now talking about the latest events in one of the soap operas his wife Stacey watched, of which Martin was only ever half-aware. The thought made him feel homesick, the lonely boy he’d once been. Claiming a boss’s prerogative he bid everyone farewell and then stepped across the city square for the car park. No, there was nobody following him – just a shadow, his own. Before moving on, he rubbed a stain from his bonnet and carefully positioned his briefcase and raincoat in the rear.
He’d adjusted to life, slipped into its groove with cautious navigation. This was a lot like driving: the feel of the clutch, the severity of the brakes, the delicate choreography among other motorists. There was his wife at home, and their beautiful son. This was better than comfortable; it could be a delight. Even a hard day lost its impact, but what would his colleague Jamie presently feel like? Who did he have to support him? The evening closed in, the wind stepping up. Martin hummed along to a tune on the stereo to which he couldn’t supply a title, but knew nonetheless. He was feeling well enough to pay his respected understudy – another young and vulnerable loner – a brief visit.
The small terrace-house was on his route back, and he had plenty of time to visit. He pulled up, climbed out and then crossed the road, somebody leaping out to his left. But it was only another of his shadows; several streetlamps had set him at the hub of innumerable black spokes. He knocked at a door so cold it made his knuckles throb like echoes.
How long had he waited before he heard the shambling? Whoever had responded to the summons was struggling to maintain a bipedal posture.
“Jamie? Jamie, are you okay?”
It was hardly a voice that replied, “Not long now.”
Could he mean before his return to work? That would certainly be appreciated, but he sounded ages from recovery. Martin added, “You get yourself to bed, lad. Take whatever you need.”
This was greeted by a species of laughter, or possibly indefatigable hawking. Whatever the truth was, a set of – it was too generous to call them – footsteps retreated, the whole of him trailing bubbling slithers of sound. Martin noticed that the morning’s post hadn’t been pushed through the slot; as was his fastidious wont, he did so, and the few items seemed to fall upon a stack of many others. Jamie surely couldn’t be too ill to read.
Back in his company saloon Martin consulted his A-Z map of the city and its doleful suburbs. Cogiter Grove was a slight detour, but curiosity tugged him in that direction. His stomach grumbled, his dinner would be ready, and he disliked throwing himself out of habit; but there was something he wanted to check out. A narrow country lane led him away from more recently pluralized rush hours. His headlamps bought forth monsters which were bushes at the flanks, and then he’d reached a turnoff plugged by a rickety gate, brandishing the solid flag of an MP Estates sale board.
There at the end of an uneven driveway was the house.
Moonlight bleached the façade. It must have been from here that Jamie had taken the photograph – the angle was identical – though he’d surely also entered the building to measure up. It wasn’t a place to inhabit outside of the daytime, looking dead as some slain otherworldly entity. A blob of grey was indeed at the broken window, but could this be a piece of abandoned furniture? Just then, the breeze brought a sheet of black dust, peppering his windscreen. Martin immediately performed a U-turn, accelerating back the way he’d arrived. The wind must have been working at the glass, too; when he glanced again, that grey object was gone, toppled no doubt.
He wended through familiar streets, his body finding the way. After pulling into the garage he paced through the internal doorway to the kitchen where Stacey was dishing up a plateful that looked as good as it smelled. She turned to kiss him, the usual engrained exchange: full on, lips to lips. She stepped back to pour him the routine glass of red before asking, “How was your day?”
With what little energy he could muster, he rolled his eyes. Then his speech rallied in support. “Disjointed. Unnatural, I mean – if that makes sense. Having to do the work of two has resulted in hardly enough for one. Er, what about yours?”
“No major catastrophes. I’ll strain the broccoli. Do you want to go through to Tim? He’s playing in the lounge.”
“With friends from his new school?” Martin immediately regretted asking.
“Not yet. He’s only been there this week. Give him a chance. He’ll settle.”
I did, he reflected, but knew he was thinking about another, quite frightening timescale. He drifted across the semi, baited by the wine. He received two glorious sips and chemicals went to work beneath his skull. Now he was ready for a tricky operation.
His son was sitting cross-legged beside the television, a spray of playthings acting like a defence. There was a bright Australian soap opera on the screen whose characters Martin could probably name if someone put a gun to his head. But he crouched in front of the six-year-old, ruffling his blond hair with his free hand. Martin wasn’t required to tidy the toys; the lad had them all neatly arranged.
“How’re you doing, Tiger? What you got there?”
“Board,” the boy replied, a sullen expression lending the word an uncomfortable ambiguity. But then he held up a smallish wooden sheet on which a landscape had been painted, with removable men on blocks – a cowboy, several Indians – fitted in their appropriate positions. “Fighting people.”
“And which is your favourite?”
Tim removed an Indian who’d been hiding behind a rock; the sound of splintery edges parted from the tight gap was unsettling. Now the little figure was shorn of his world, snapped clean out of it. Did this mean more than perhaps he’d intended? Martin had also been a shy youngster; he’d felt lost in the world, thoroughly detached from it. But stripped of his land, the tiny painted man was nowhere. There was at least a way back in for real people; it was only an imaginary division between oneself and one’s environment.
Stacey entered, bearing steaming trays. Only once he’d stood, and instructed Tim to do likewise, was the food appreciable: chicken in a yellow sauce and fresh vegetables. The man steered the younger version of himself – even in only his socks, the lad was growing tall – to the couch where they sat side-by-side and ate heartily. The news was full of just half-interesting events; half a mind was sufficient to remain informed. The washing-up was conducted in their mechanical fashion, and then their first and last tucked safely into bed. A happy evening was now there for the taking.
Martin read another chunk of a science fiction novel, a favourite pastime since childhood. The planet depicted by its author was uncomfortably similar to earth, but nothing functioned as it should here. Space defied measurement, while time was anything but linear; objects shifted with dire consequences… In truth, Martin was struggling to concentrate; what felt like a head cold twitched at his temples. He hoped he wasn’t coming down with whatever had infected poor Jamie.
The wine drained and a second bottle started on, Stacey was eager enough for horseplay when they reached the bedroom. Martin washed at the sink and returned to catch her applying anti-wrinkle cream. He wouldn’t draw her attention to the fact that he knew about this; she still looked good, his lovely lady: a few lines were God’s way of redoubling commitment. He took her slight body in the silky slip and did all that her non-verbal communication demanded. It was tired love, yet fine. They hadn’t shared a word; they just understood.
He dreamed of entering the house: 96 Cogiter Grove. The place was smart inside, but what was the damp, blubbery sound in a room on the first floor? He climbed an unsteady staircase, edged along the landing that creaked. The noise turned out to be words, a voice he recognised: Jamie Rock’s. Martin pushed open the heavy oak door…and a hunched pile of rotting putrescence shuffled desperately towards him.
In the morning, he didn’t feel at all well. This was more than alcohol coupled with exhaustion the previous evening. His head felt strange, his perception fractured. Alone in bed he climbed out to access the mirror at the back of the vanity unit. There were no explicit symptoms of fever, but he felt plenty wrong on the inside. Even the paint on the walls looked the wrong colour. Had Stacey bought new curtains, cleared the room of soft furnishings? He dressed for work quickly, spent minutes in a bathroom he scarcely acknowledged, and then thumped downstairs.
His wife was readying their son for school. At Martin’s approach she turned her face away for a kiss (had he upset her in some way?) and he noticed the flesh around her eyes. Good God, the cream was a marvel. Where yesterday tiny crow’s feet had gently flexed their digits, today there was nothing. He couldn’t resist saying, “That must be amazing stuff.”
They both glared at him, Tim looking taller than he ever had – probably the shoes he was wearing.
“What must?” asked Stacey, with a rapid gesture of the hand that seemed uncharacteristic.
“The anti-wrinkle application. Maybe I should use some myself.”
“A little more sleep might be more appropriate. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Of course: a woman’s secret, even to the ears of they who did not understand. Perhaps this was why she was being cool with him. He turned to the boy, corrected a loose strand of his blond hair that hadn’t seemed so long the day before. Everything changed quickly at this age, and as Tim left for school there was none of the usual simmering disquiet. He met friends at the end of the drive. Martin was delighted, but his wife still struck him as curiously distant. She hadn’t made him his customary cup of tea. Maybe she was coming down with an ailment too, or might he be overreacting? It wasn’t long before he was out in the car.
His clutch was failing, it must be – how else to account for its untypical heaviness this morning? He picked his way through the network of streets that would ultimately deliver him to the main route into Bradford. The journey seemed more laborious than usual, not least because his stereo produced music with which he was unfamiliar. He’d never been a connoisseur of modern pop, but could generally sing along. What to make of this cacophony? Here, as the traffic thickened, a billboard advertised a product from a company that must be new to the market.
And that was when Martin stamped on his brakes.
A third of the park had vanished. This was the unspectacular stamping ground of innumerable lovelorn teenagers. He and Stacey had met here in their early days, smoking, kissing, deepening their relationship. Now…a significant portion was missing. In truth, having negotiated the area every working day for a decade, he didn’t pay much attention to the place. But surely he’d have noticed such a major reconstruction, all the traffic jams and delays involved. Loath to interfere with his timekeeping, he took a swift right around the park…and then his heart punched a hole in his ribs.
The house was there: 96 Cogiter Grove, shielded by tress situated in the condensed section of the park. It stood on a corner, across a lane that simply hadn’t been here previously. The property’s boundaries were demarcated by a tall, unruly picket fence. There was no street-name nearby, and the sale board had gone, too. The house loomed high in sheer daylight, in better condition than it had been yesterday, but still no dream home. The windows were repaired, yet dark and dirty.
And somebody was looking out at him from the top floor.
Martin hadn’t stopped the car, but had slowed down, and when a horn blared in his wake, he was forced to snatch his glance forward and focus on the road. The area was now utterly new to him. His hands shook so violently, and then his legs, that he had to pull over beside a shop he’d never seen before.
Was this the fever? Was he hallucinating? How could everything seem real, and yet so outrageously altered? He stooped for the A-Z in his glove compartment. Here was the index, and then the relevant page: Cogiter Grove had indeed shifted across the city; it was now the only lane above the local park. All the corresponding neighbourhood had changed to accommodate it, and the house’s plot was an empty inked ring. Whatever this meant Martin didn’t dare investigate. All he could contemplate with any rigor was his recollection of the face at the glass: it had been grey and wizened, with two beady sunlit eyes peering inscrutably his way.
He accelerated on, the engine surprising him with its eager speed. Most of the world looked different until he’d travelled a good mile. The imposition of the house had had a knock-on effect, like a supplement of paint integrated into the existing configuration of a complicated canvas. Nearer the city centre, however, the environs grew more familiar…or maybe not. Was the town hall brighter at a distance? Could authorities manage a complete stonewash overnight these days? Whatever the truth was, Martin’s scrutiny was soon denied the sight; a backlog of traffic, fuming toxic shrouds, slowed the saloon to a crawl and time to an inverse achievement in rapidity.
Damn, he’d be late for work. What was causing the hold-up? He’d reached the car park’s entrance before he saw the police. Had there been an accident? The atmosphere along the streets, where a crowd was gathering, didn’t suggest that. There were contagious smiles, tiny flags waved: the Union Jack in all its garish resplendence. Martin tucked away his vehicle, positioning his permit on the dashboard without thinking. Some habits he could still rely on. He climbed out with his briefcase, trudged down a level, and then across the packed precincts to MP Estates.
He grew more disturbed before reaching the display-box outside. Indeed, once there, it was an incongruous relief to gaze beneath inside and confirm his expectation that the house in Cogiter Grove was no longer on the market. The nearby cathedral announced 9:15 with a single bong. He soon entered the showroom, his head down, hurtling for the corridor to his office. But Sonia stopped him with a rustle of a poster she carried.
“Here it is, sir.”
Sir? He’d never insisted on being addressed in such a formal way. The comment made him feel awkward, as detached from the general run of everyday events as he’d experienced as a teenager. But then he looked up at the wall behind reception…and felt his body shudder.
The familiar shy smiling face of a woman glared back at him from an A3 page, underscored by the words:
PRINCESS DIANA – VISIT TO BRADFORD
26th SEPTEMBER 2013
The sheet had been extracted from the local newspaper. Martin never read this rag, but rarely seemed to be without a tacit knowledge of regional events; something as newsworthy as this would never have escaped him. Muttering a harried response to the beaming Sonia, he retreated along the passage, thinking: Ninety-eight? Ninety-nine? No, much too late. It must have been ninety-seven. He’d always been good at trivia quizzes. Then, blundering into his room, he reached a sickening conclusion: Princess Diana had died in a car accident over fifteen years earlier.
As if to compound Martin’s misery, Jamie Rock was there. He had his feet up on his desk and today’s copy of the Mirror open on his lap. Upon seeing his boss, he redistributed himself, snapping alert with a busyness he’d infrequently seemed to possess. He said, “Hi, old chap. How’s it hanging?”
Martin dropped his briefcase beside the door. “How’s it…? What do you mean?”
He must look as distressed as he felt, because then Jamie was up from his chair, casting aside the folded paper. “Hey, are you okay, man? Here, take it easy.”
“Am I okay? Is that what you meant by – ”
His colleague steered him behind his desk, seating him. “Hanging, yes. What is it, a fever? I use that phrase all the time.”
“You seem…different, Jamie. Alive and robust.” Now Martin felt a little more composed. “I suppose that comes of recovery from whatever you suffered from yesterday. I…I must say, you’ve made remarkably quick progress since my visit.”
“Hmm. Yeah.” The man was now edging for the doorway, a concerned expression assaulting his broad face. “I’ll get you a coffee.”
Once Jamie had shut himself out, Martin got up and crossed for the Mirror. The front page announced the latest developments in the tumultuous Middle East, but who was the man photographed next to Osama Bin Laden? Martin read the blurb. President Jackson – who the hell was he, and which country did he serve? Martin plunged into the report and was staggered to learn that Jackson had been conducting affairs from the White House. Wrestling open the paper, he flipped through pictures of people he scarcely recognised. Nicole Kidman had put on yet more weight; all four of The Beatles were making a comeback; Manchester United were in administration… Martin slammed shut the pages. He couldn’t even begin to articulate his thoughts. And then he heard the voices in the corridor.
“I’m not sure he’s all here,” said Jamie, in a whisper almost precluded by the gathering gurgle of the kettle. “I’ll take over his work today. I think he needs to expand his time off yesterday to a short break.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Jane, the sales negotiator, typical magnanimity in her voice. “Is that for him? I’ll take it through.”
“Fine. Let me just stir it. I have to go on a valuation now. I’ll leave him to you, then.”
The woman’s voice added in an undertone: “I think I know what this is about.”
The light footsteps advancing along the carpet sent Martin back behind his desk, sitting hurriedly. As the door opened, giving way to steam from a mug curling around the woman’s attractive face, he dropped the newspaper out of sight and clasped his hands, clasped his hands, at only the second attempt successfully.
Jane had now sealed them in; she shuffled forward to place the coffee before him. She appeared troubled, a realisation that prompted Martin to avert his gaze, which conceded altogether too many blinks per second. Then she said with a quavering voice, “What are we going to do, Mart’?”
Mart’? Only his wife called him that, and then only during special moments: on birthdays, their anniversaries…or in bed. Suddenly, as Jane clutched the back of the visitor’s chair for support, he noticed that she wasn’t wearing her wedding ring; a thin band of pale flesh encircled her third-left finger. Comprehending panic dredged cowardly words from Martin.
“Do? I’m sorry, I can’t think about…that now. I’ve an office to run. Now if you’ll excuse, excuse m–”
Why had she begun to cry? If this, as he pretended, was a crisis relating to work, it wasn’t she answerable to higher authorities in the organisation. Martin maintained his position with a stern glare, even as his colleague turned and fled for the corridor. The door was banged, his nerves set even more on alarm. So then he leaned back to close his eyes. The world seemed to vanish all around him.
No! He couldn’t let that happen. There was little enough to connect him to everyday life as it was. He gripped the arms of his seat, snapping open his eyelids. The office sprang at him, its shape numbingly known…but it didn’t seem quite the same. What was wrong here? The landscape painting on the wall slightly lower perhaps? Or maybe an extra stack of files to one side of his drink? Where was the photograph of Stacey and Tim? Martin rifled his drawers and found this face down beneath a folder containing mortgage documents. He felt perplexed and fearful, but then his telephone screamed beside his deactivated PC.
“Your wife for you, Mr Brink.”
All this was said before he was fully aware that he’d hitched the phone to his face at speed. Mr Brink? Again, he’d always insisted on his Christian name. Nevertheless, he thanked the telephonist and awaited connection.
“Darling?” he asked, once the line had settled down.
“Who do you think you’re talking to?”
It was Stacey’s voice, but there was no love there. Then he added anxiously, “I…I – ”
“Aye-aye, three bags full. You’ve been anything but obedient these past few months, Martin, so why start now?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t underst–”
“Oh, we’ve never been able to do that.”
“Your son’s been in more trouble at school this morning. Don’t claim the two events aren’t connected.”
“Two events? I – ” He was beginning to feel like an automaton, adroit at repetition. He was unable to get any kind of grip on the conversation. Then he barked, “Look, love, could you please tell me what you’re talking about. I’m having a helluva day.”
“I bet you are – at that office…with her.”
He thought of Jane at once: the missing ring, the tears, his wife’s strident tone… Before he could respond, however, Stacey went on. “Meanwhile Tim gets involved in another episode of bullying.”
Now Martin could hear a tremble in his wife’s voice, something that inverted his own experience, anger supplanting anxiety. “Tim is being bullied at school?”
“Doing the bullying, you stupid man!” shrieked Stacey across the whole city. “Just like yesterday! Just like tomorrow! And all because of your sordid…little…affair!”
“Now, now, I don’t think you can make such a connec–” he said before he knew any better. But then his hand was shaking so badly he dropped the handset into its cradle.
What had he done? What had been done to him? He wasn’t certain there was any difference between these enquiries, though memory did nothing to help. He got up and crossed to the window. The throng outside had expanded, its members jockeying for position behind police rails at the kerbs. Princess Diana was due to arrive very soon. Martin turned away, perspiration breaking out on his brow. He couldn’t bear to see a living-dead woman. Maybe he should just go home, however unwelcome he might be there…
He collected his briefcase and hurried through to the showroom. He’d just about heard Sonia call, “Out on a valuation, are you, sir? Be sure to get back for the main event at twelve!” before bursting out into the street, avoiding what appeared to be the milling population of the whole city. He was now walking frantically, soliciting attention from all he passed. Nevertheless, his gaze was thrust aside from every one that tore into him.
Here he was back in the old days, the old ways. The sensation of being one step removed from everyday living was characteristic of his experiences as a youngster – his son Tim’s, too, but apparently not any more. What had occurred on Martin Brink’s planet? People around him talked, and this was almost comprehensible, but occasionally they used words – the kind of buzz phrases that came and went – he didn’t understand. Two middle-aged women discussed an episode of Coronation Street, but who were the characters they mentioned? A pub opposite the car park announced a special offer on Budweiser bitter; whatever that tasted like, he could certainly use some, but first he had the short drive to tackle.
The car still felt odd, but with the stereo off, he could just about tolerate it. He pulled out into the sluggish city centre thinking about all the science fiction he’d read for years, and more specifically the notion of alternative universes. Was it possible that he’d slipped into another such parallel realm? If so, where was the other Martin Brink? Back in his world, perhaps, and just as confused? But that man had been a far dirtier player: the affair, neglect of his son, expecting everyone to address him formally… Speculation was mind-blowing; none of it made any sense.
But then he saw the woman on the pavement.
While everybody else glared beyond his crawling saloon, the tramp gazed directly at Martin. It was she who’d come into MP Estates yesterday and created a fuss over the house in Cogiter Grove. Back then he’d dismissed her, but how foolish might that prove to be in hindsight? Now she nodded in his direction, repeatedly mouthing the words, “Joseph Priestly – I warned you.” His lip-reading proved successful at only the third utterance, and he nearly collided with a vehicle emerging from a junction. Once he’d snatched forward his face to apply unexpectedly stiff brakes, he glanced again through the crowd.
The woman had now vanished, but he nonetheless believed she’d been trying to tell him something.
He immediately put on a burst of speed, heading for that modified park.
Number 96 was still there, perched like some proud spider at the core of a new web. Martin parked the car beyond the newly repaired gateway and climbed out into a deserted lane. Chill autumn breeze assaulted him, but mercifully no gazes. Everyone must have travelled into the city to see… But he wouldn’t pursue the thought, rather get moving: over a makeshift stile, up the stone-strewn drive. The building was immense, a trick of the morning light forcing it to stoop his way. Then he fell within its cruel shadow and knocked at the door inside a cramped portico. The beats thrummed in the quiet of the interior, but alerted no mimicking footfalls. He should certainly now try the handle, a remarkably unsullied appendage. The metal turned under his hand and, with slothful inertia, the door crept open.
He crossed the threshold before he could question the wisdom of doing so. What kind of courage did this action require? As an estate agent he was used to venturing into private property, but wasn’t this tantamount to housebreaking? But now his body had a will that consciousness lacked. Similarly, he’d lately heard music and sung along before recognition; he’d driven his car and known without reflection that something was different; yesterday he’d kissed his wife, just as he had today, but it hadn’t been the same experience on both occasions – he’d sensed all these things before active deliberation. Was his body as confused as his mind? Was there even any such distinction? Indeed, wouldn’t it be more accurate to suggest that these two spheres of experience presupposed one another, much the way his two worlds appeared to? But he was surely racing ahead of himself.
Whatever weirdness had befallen him, it had almost certainly started here. Martin edged forward into a wide room, habitually surveying the dimensions. Around sixty-feet square, he’d guess, and not be far wrong. It was a huge ground floor entrance, with only doors to the right that would lead to a kitchen, a pantry, a dining room. The windows were tiny, offering little illumination. A staircase slunk up and away in the far left corner. There was furniture within all the generous space ahead: a handsome suite, an unlit fireplace, a lugubrious bookcase. There was no sign of the vendor, but that was fine; Martin could work much better without hindrance. The whole place would top 200K, no question. He’d dealt with something almost identical in 2009.
Now that all his behaviour was under scrutiny, he couldn’t help being impressed by his effortless expertise. In truth, however, he was simply striving to keep his mind occupied, because his body had now given itself over to ruthless trembling. He continued moving, still thoughtful. This had surely been his problem in this new world: he’d been unable to rely on habitual understandings. Now he saw, in a blaze of discomforting insight, that everything on the planet was connected in a seamless tapestry: pull one strand and the whole was insidiously reorganised. Maybe his experience as a child, the detached isolation of shyness, had afforded him such a revelation. At least back then, however, he’d had a more familiar world to which he might struggle back…and now?
Just then, moisture marred his vision. Without deliberate intention, he was thinking about his son. What was presently happening to the boy? And how upset would his wife still be? Martin advanced across the room to the bookcase, which was made of sable oak paneling and had surprisingly been cleaned recently. There must be someone home, but it was as much as his terrified vision could manage to focus on the spines. Here was a title written by the familiar sounding Heidegger and several other titles whose words were invariably spelled in an ancient script. All were bound in cracked, strong-smelling leather. Ah, but here, pinned to the wall to his left, was an irony! A big cloth map of the earth had been hung on enormous nails. The material was canvas, the continents of the globe delineated in stained cotton.
And was there a thread hanging out of England?
Martin moved closer to a Europe as big as his skull, and peered in the gloom at a representation of the place he’d once unquestionably assumed to be his homeland. The tiny loose piece of weaving was sticking up right at the place where Bradford would be located on an atlas. He had to go on his tiptoes to reach it, and such was his unwitting penchant for tidiness he tugged at the strand, setting the whole tapestry rippling against the flat of the building. The cotton-blue oceans stirred, America stretched towards him, Africa shimmered, the further reaches of Asia and then Australia worked their way together.
Moments later, the ground beneath Martin’s feet began to shift.
That must have been an effect of anxiety coupled by the dizziness resulting from trying to maintain his balance. Nevertheless, once he’d re-established his accustomed equilibrium, he detected movement to the left – from the staircase in the far corner, bathed in light at a nearby window.
Someone was coming down it.
Martin was reluctant to look, but the sunshine offered him no choice. Shouldn’t there be a strip of untended garden behind the glass, this rather than the smear of black and white that surely couldn’t belong to anything other than from beyond the stars? Such had been his eagerness after arriving that he hadn’t examined the grounds on his way inside, nor the front of the house. And it was with the same unthinkable panic that he switched his glance to the figure now stalking down the solid flight. Maybe it had watched him arrive. It certainly observed him now.
The old man was grey and wizened, with tiny bead-like eyes. If he were alive, he surely had no right to be. He was a foot shorter than Martin’s five-seven, and thin as a child’s crayoned parody of a grandfather. His flesh was flaking inside a black tatty suit, and his face was a collapsed composite of bone and sinew. He’d prised whatever passed for his hands into the pockets of loose baggy trousers. Was he motored by a mind, or perhaps pressed forward on the invisible controls of some baleful puppet-master? At any rate, he continued to staggered closer to his quarry, his age as palpable as his intentions appeared to be bleak.
But Martin had to stay and discover what had been done to him.
“Help m-me back,” he said, his body trembling under the strain of conscious manipulation. “I d-don’t know how to go on. I’m not of…of this world. I w-want to return to my…other. Please.”
The man seemed to smile, but maybe the parched slit under a dissipated nose was as much as he could achieve by way of communication. But then his hands came out of the pockets, his arms going up like crucifixion, the fists shedding skin as they halted. Just then, a gust of breeze rushed his way, though no aperture in the room had been opened audibly. The fingers unfurled, and waves of dark dust descended, but under the hold of no gravity Martin could acknowledge. The quantities collided between the old man and himself, forming astonishing patterns at head-height. Were there words among this melee, structured by the capricious play of the powder? JOSEPH PRIESTLEY, Martin thought he’d read, and then: NOT OF THIS WORLD. Had a final tangle been NEW VESSEL REQUIRED? But there was no more, because then this blackish pepper rushed at Martin, filling his frame with rough intoxication. Moments later, he felt himself lifted.
This wasn’t a physical elevation; it was a surging of his life, of all he could remember, passing out of him nigh on simultaneously. It ended with a vision of his son removing the painted Indian from his painted land. Snapped out of existence, Martin told himself, and experienced every bit of it. Not quite a body, nor yet a consciousness. Indeed, now with no world to sustain him, he wasn’t really anything at all.