It was cold that night, god it was cold. In more ways than one.
My day of rest proved as bright as a rainy, windy winter's day possibly could be. So many faces littered the town's streets. Manned the tills with smiles of rebuttal.
Cooking was an easy choir; how could it be anything else? Open a box, strike afew holes into the smooth white plastic packaging, set the timer on the Microwave. Egg noodles and chicken. Put that together with afew beers and a loud talking TV set; who needs conversation?
As the clock approached midnight my eyes were streaming with the inane gabble of far away souls putting on pretend acts of courage and enthusiasm. I found it difficult to move from the position I had been in for the last three hours.
A nice relaxing weekend after a stressful weeks' bread earning.
I always kid myself that the week has been stressful; it's good cover for the dry nothingness that makes up the weekend. On the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done; the hard work of creating the universe, with all nature and His creatures in their resplendent glory. God deserved a rest, and so did I.
But after the empty night of digitally transmitted dullness, with the rainy wind swept streets of drunken fever that lay outside, a tree swinging gently to its harsh rhythms, I couldn't help wondering what it was all about.
You worked all week, human companions there only for the pay-check. Nights down the local boozer with the few male companions you liked to call your friends. Sometimes achieving a bit of companionship, but with the emptiness that makes up all our lives, what could a real friendship possibly consist in? Then on the weekend indulge in a bit of the consumer habit: buy this or that, the latest album, the best new shirt. In the end what did it matter? It all came down to this: the small but bloated lobster on the sofa infront of the latest tit bits of modernism that TV had to offer. Anyway, the best things on TV were those nuggets that made specific reference to TV and all those who watched TV. Everyone finds them funny to watch, but if you ever actually thought about why it was so funny you would soon realise it was laughing and spitting at those very people who found it so amusing. Those sad deadbeat lobsters. Like me.
The TV was over by one in the morning, at least for me. No female companion to keep me company; bed and possibly sleep were the only options I had. I realised that some paid afew pounds more to watch others with beautiful bodies invade each other in spectacular acts of sexual savagery, finding that small extra spice of evening entertainment; but that wasn't for me. Imagine a world where everyone was as such; glued to the set, giving them only half shadows of a physical and biological act of emotional necessity which everyone was perfectly capable of enjoying for real. It seemed to me like flushing my head down an un-flushed public toilet.
My head hit the pillow with angst and frustration, and my final thoughts before nightmarish sleep were questioning the number of people in a similar condition to me. How many heads touched pillows in the same unknowing state of modern lethargy? How many heads found their eyes stiff and dry from prolonged screen watching, ears filled with false voices advertising useless body products, "healthy living", and cars with drink holders? What would all this do to my mind, OUR minds, in the long run?
I dreamt nightmares of psychoanalysis, and when I woke up, it was a hundred years later and a hundred miles south.
As I rose from my slumber, I was instantly aware of some kind of profound change. The air was not cold and crisp. The sounds of the house were not ancient and mechanic like; no drippings of water services, gas meters ticking into a cold and gassless future. No, as my eyes began to gain awareness of being covered by thin lids of skin (rather than staring into the horrific beauty of dream reality), my body registered that it was covered in sweat. The smell of changing rooms after robotic style exercise sessions, and the sticky feeling of just having a bath. My room was hot and humid.
I tried to account for this. Maybe the heater had broken down (or up) in some way. But as I sat up, I found a burst of clean and almost moist air (the moisture of a cold and fresh spring) blasted at me from the ceiling. It somehow knew I had awoken, knew I was hot, and was cooling me down accordingly. It was so refreshing I breathed deeply into my lungs and almost let out a half-sounding gasp of acceptance and joy, emptying the dead air from my body. The sticky heat left me almost instantly.
"Ha ha ha!" Someone laughed nearby. This scared the hell out of me; for time immemorial in my life I have woken up alone. Let alone to the sound of a laughing man.
I spun my head round with cats' speed and found the owner of the laugh. A man, just a little older than me, stood at the doorway. He laughed again.
"Ha ha ha ha ha!" His smile at me as he laughed was not altogether unfriendly, although there was a kind of superiority in it; a sense that his pleasure derived entirely from something about me and just me. He was laughing at me.
But as I met his gaze in the confused state which I was now in, a whole host of other confusions greeted my dawned senses. I didn't at all recognise the clothes the man wore, was the first thought. An all white body suit. Then I was aware that the door was unfamiliar; it was certainly not the door I had closed before retiring to bed, smooth and dusty; now it was silver and dry. Just at that moment I knew the entire room was different. The bed I sat in, the bed clothes (infact I wore some kind of skin suit pejhamas). When the nice cool air had gushed over me I had instinctively looked up to its source, my eyes closed so my face could receive its full benefits. But now I saw that a strange arrangement of red lights, flashing in esoteric rhythms, adorned my ceiling.
The man could see the realisation in my face. He laughed, though with less ferocity, a third time. Then he spoke.
"I'm sorry. Really I am. It's just¦I can never get over the way you do that. Every time!"
I mumbled something non-distinct at him, showing incomprehension. The situation was almost too much for me. The words he spoke carried only half their intended meaning; spoken in some unfamiliar dialect of English I felt I should know, even recognised in some sense, but which I couldn't quite master.
"Oh, so the ritual must continue for another day? I suppose I shouldn't hope for anything more, just enjoy my fate, however bizarre it is."
The turn of humorousness was leaving him now. He pushed the sides of his unfamiliar dress down in the fashion of neatness, preparation. Pulling himself together symbolically, muttering something to himself, as if he didn't altogether relish what was upon him and I, disorientated one might say, holding my breath for what was about to come.
His eyes turned serious as he regarded me, the bemused amused fascination gone.
"Now listen to me carefully. Everything I say will be a shock to you. Firstly, you are not that man who put himself to bed just now. Not that discontented, malnurished, masturbating celibate who glued his eyes to a TV set for the comfort of the evening hours. That, I should say most strongly, can only be a good thing."
This was a dream, I was by now sure of it.
"Secondly, this is not a dream."
The fact that he said this only doubled my certainty.
"No," he continued, "this is definitely not a dream, though I dare say you'll be convinced of it until well after lunch time."
He seemed so real, everything around seemed so real. My mind reeled, what on earth was happening? His stern eyes of seriousness brought me back from near delirium.
"Thirdly, and most importantly, this is not the year it was when you went to sleep. In terms that you'll understand, this is about a century from when you were last conscious. All those "TV programmes" I know you were so attached to, they are nothing but history, defunct relics. Homer Simpson, I'm very pleased to announce, is officially dead, and has been for a long time."
I stared back, once again overcome with a terrible feeling of the bottom being puled out of everything, the whole world just disappearing from under my feet. My eyes must have communicated this feeling to the man in some comic way. Once again he couldn't resist the joking smile, his lips parting for a stolen giggle. This time, however, he truly paid for it, for at the hearing of this sound for a fourth time, almost as a theme tune to this strange reality I had woken up to, I passed out in a spinning fit. The world seemed to speed up its orbit to the point of a fairground rides' delirium, and my head just gave up trying to fight it, instead choosing to go with it safely on the pillow.
Somehow he managed to get the flashing red lights on the ceiling to work for him, and it felt like a bucket of ice cold water was dropped on me from a great height.
"No, no. You're not going to pull that one on me. We've got to go to work. It's almost nine o-clock already."
Work? How could I have a job in this crazy place I'd never seen or been before?
"Time to get up. Now."
He dragged me from my slumber and walked me to where my clothes were stashed. During the walk I glimpsed outside through a red tinted window on the wall. What was this place?
I saw small plastic looking cars with single passengers sitting back reading electronic newspapers. I saw children with burning looks of excitement running riot across a nearby road. In the distance I could make out the ancient spires of Westminster, interspersed with solid metal constructions of criss-cross patterns, and rabid looking wooden skyscrapers. Low in the sky a large blood red sun burned across the silhouetted cityscape. I was in London.
"This is London!" I proclaimed.
The man sighed the parental sigh. "Yes yes, I'm sure it all looks very new to you. You'll see more of it on the drive to work. For now, just get ready will you!"
He pushed me into a small compartment which looked like it was for showering.
"Just stand still for a moment, ok?"
I did as he asked, and was soon immersed in hot gasses of water and fragrance. Blasts of clean air then filled every crevice of my body.
"Now touch that red seashell to your left."
Touching a strangely real looking seashell, totally convincing, apart from the fact that it was completely red and seemed to be a part of the wall, as if it were an organism, my mouth was instantly rid of all the bad taste of a nights' sleep. "Wow," I thought.
"Alright, here are your clothes," he pointed to some garments he had laid out on my bed. "I'll wait for you in the corridor, don't be too long." I nodded affirmatively.
As I stepped across the room to the bed I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror next to the door. It was not some alien person that greeted me, but exactly the individual who had gone to bed so disquieted with life the night before in a different time and place. But not exactly, there was something different: my hair. In this reality I didn't have any. Suddenly I remembered something about the man in my room and indeed all the people I had glimpsed outside. Each and every one of them had a shiny bald scalp of perfect smoothness.
It was only when we stepped out into the true light of day that I realised how my window had not been red-tinted at all. Our faces were instantly cast the dull red colour of burning bushes as soon as the shining, bulbous sun alighted them. And not only that. The buildings around us, some old, Victorian relics, some new, about ten stages past post-modern, working their way back to gothic majesty, apparently rotting wood married to sold black steel; the streets and vehicles, all who dwelt therein; every last object belonging to the City; all turned red the moment the suns' light fell upon them. It enveloped them, throwing its signature onto them all. Some buildings were coloured brightest blue so as to appear a perfect purple in contrast to the overbearing sky.
On the whole the effect of this change was to make the city appear like some kind of giant and seedy leviathan of Soho. It was like the old capital had been raped, or brainwashed into renouncing its previous existence, and now it had made itself dirty, exciting, like a momentous brothel that stretched for miles on end.
The man showed me to a nearby vehicle. It was small with only two doors and two seats. It had a more streamlined look than the cars I was used to, more rounded in shape, like a little bubble. Also there was no steering wheel; only a strange array of small red flashing lights.
Once we had sat down, the man spoke into the lights.
"The Church." He commanded, and the vehicle shifted gears. The car lurched smoothly forward to join the trickle of conveyance on the main road.
As the car began moving I was suddenly overcome with the anxiety that previously knocked me out. The sense of unreality grew in power.
"Wait, wait!" I pleaded. "We can't go! I don't even know who you are, or who I am for that matter!"
The man had been glancing over a portable electronic screen of some kind; the morning news I suspected. He regarded me with stern eyes.
"OK. You're Stipton and I'm Wallace."
How could I respond to such a statement? So blank and devoid of meaning.
"Who are we? What do we do?"
As I put forth my questions, his stern look grew into controlled irritation.
"If you don't remember now, it's a lot simpler if we just go where we're going and you see where you work. That'll probably jog your memory."
"But I don't understand. This must be a dream because I don't know you, this place, our work; any of it. As far as I'm concerned this is all completely insane."
"You will remember." He said with complete certainty.
"But I don't remember. Not at all."
"Just wait a bit. Relax."
I sat back, quiet for a moment. He returned to his morning reading ritual, humming to himself routinely as he did so. Abruptly the car came to a halt, though in actuality the physical effects were greatly hampered by the vehicles' bubbly structure. In view dead ahead of us was a trio of pre pubescent children, laughing in a playful naughtiness as they charged across the street.
"Damn kids." Said Wallace. Meanwhile, I'd thought of a question to ask.
"Wallace, why is everyone bald?"
He assimilated this question briefly, with a kind of smirk I was unfamiliar with; a little condescending, yet also genuinely amused.
"It beats the hell out of wearing a skull cap all the time." He was much animated as he made a mockery of my childish question. "Much cheaper too. The rest of the body doesn't seem to mind the constant cooling. But with the head, its' different. Our brains our very delicate indeed, and it really is extremely difficult to cool such an organ down in that way without at once killing it at the same time."
This startled me. "But I don't understand. Why¦
"Why? Why? What's wrong with a smooth tidy scalp? You'd be amazed at the health benefits."
"No, I meant¦"
"Yes, yes." He dismissed. "Isn't it obvious? That sun out there." He pointed out the window as we crossed the Thames on London Bridge. Kissing deadly the murky waters with a thousand shards, hugging the asphalt urban landscape into submission, sat the huge, deep, but above all red sun. So huge now, its' ascent having progressed somewhat, that when you looked at it it was almost like you could see veins of purple heat running wildly all over it. I turned away.
He finished off what he was saying.
"That sun out there, is almost as hot as it looks."
I slumped back into my seat. No space for hair in this place, I thought. Sweat comes at a premium. The world had definitely moved on a pace. Would I ever even work out the most basic ground rules? How had time affected other such simple and rudimentary components of day to day living?
Then I remembered the rediculousness of the situation. I had just woken up to an alien world.
"This is crazy! How can you even trust me, assuming you're real and this world is really true? Me, a man who thinks he went to sleep on a Saturday night, but woke up on a Wednesday morning? What am I, schizophrenic?"
He looked at me knowingly, again brightly smiling, as it seemed he was secretly most times I found it necessary to question everything.
"Stipton, Stipton my dear fellow. These are all excellent questions. Think of it this way then if you like. In your present state I trust you completely to be completely ignorant of the present world and all its workings. I trust you to ask me completely simple questions, ridiculous questions even, about such elementary things as the necessity for baldness. Also, I trust you to cease this wonderful show of complete innocence very shortly. Why do I trust you in this way? Simple; because I have to do this every single morning it happens to be my duty to pick you up from your place and take you to work.
"Personally, I have good days and bad days; sometimes I relish the task, other times I get convinced you will never again regain your temporal senses. Today, I am in the mood to sit back and relax; I haven't the inclination to explain everything to you, to answer your endless questions. Believe me, in the past, I have often felt this to be my strictest duty as a humanitarian. But why? Why really? What is the point when I know for certain this strange amnesia or schizophrenia or whatever it is you have, which is by the way anyway mostly completely harmless, so I'm told by the experts, will simply disappear in the next hour or so, to be replaced with the witty and brilliant Doctor Stipton, member of the Council of the Church."
"Doctor Stipton? Council of the Church? What does it all mean? I'm no Doctor, and I'm certainly not religious at all!"
"Look, clearly you don't understand, and as I said there's no way I can make you just suddenly understand everything the way you should without you remembering half of what I'd have to explain in the first place"
"But I really¦"
"You really don't remember, as you keep saying."
"But how am I supposed to do a doctors work without any knowledge of what I'm supposed to be doing? What if I can't remember by the time we get to work?"
He regarded me with a silence of finality, but I just had to know a little more, even for the sake of my present sanity; how could I sit back and just hope some ethereal memory would return?
"Just tell me what it is I do and I'll shut up."
He didn't want to go into it, his exacerbated face was overwritten with distaste at contemplation of the task. He sighed once again as I had already heard him sigh many times.
"Don't worry, alright. In all truth, you really don't have anything to worry about. After all, my friend, you are the Lucky Sock!!!"
And the cackling laugh of light relief started all over again.
It took half an hour to reach our destination, and in that time the sun grew higher in the sky, burning its power deep into the acres of urban strangeness. Its outer lines shifted and wobbled against the dusty backdrop of atmosphere and emptiness, dispersing any wisps of cloud that had attempted the futility of a skyway presence in the mildness of the night.
The temperature rose perceptibly. Even with the cooling system of our vehicle and our clothes, beads of sweat began to adorn our foreheads, sticking like small insect's bent on making our bodies their final resting-place. As we drove through the city, dawn shadows were replaced by a sharp, bland and glaring reality. All architecture was in the grip of an irrepressible shade of light, the monolithic entity of heat ruling mightily from the sky.
We drove past much of London that I recognised, and much that I didn't. Old monuments and famous places from imperial days were fused almost imperceptibly with new additions of remembrance that I didn't understand. The great parks from yesteryear, where people would often spend a quiet afternoon wondering in peaceful contemplation, were now dotted with glass structures of geometrical shapes. I saw many pyramids, much like the one that had accompanied the Louvre museum in Paris. There was little hint as to their function, and I dared not ask Wallace, as his mood had shown itself to be totally unreceptive to my questioning.
The vehicle buzzed its way through the central part of the city, leading us on its mysterious path to my place of work, what Wallace called the Church. It stopped at corners and crossings when it deemed necessary, chugging noiselessly past fading shop signs as people seemed to migrate indoors for what must have been their mid-morning siesta. Soon we were approaching the more outlying areas, filled with large brick-laden business buildings of tempered monotony; dry and functional to expend their energies economically.
When we did eventually arrive at the Church, I was not aware of it until the last possible moment. We drove up to a large triangular building that looked much like any pedestrian place of business. It had a car park full of cars, it was largely self-contained, fenced off by protecting dead tree's and brown bushes. In large red letters above the entrance was written "Affiliated Church Activities." The vehicle stopped abruptly, and as it did so the doors opened with automatic impersonality.
"Time to get out Stipton. This is it."
I got out, and as I glanced through the large translucent entrance doors, I saw a very ordinary looking reception area. There were afew couches, no one sitting on them, and behind a desk stood a tall and attractive young woman. She was wearing a very smart black suit, or, I should say, a uniform.
We walked in to greet her, and as the distance between us lessened, I noticed the one identifying sign on her dress; a small insignia bearing the letters "A.C.A" written in red in a small red triangle.
"Miss Stevenson," Wallace greeted cordially, "Good morning."
She replied "Good morning" to Wallace, and then turned to face me. I was overcome with a feeling of strangeness. She looked at me as if she knew me, and had done for a long time. But more than that; her eyes communicated that she knew me well, was familiar with me, as if we had conversed on a day to day basis. All the while I was having these thoughts I was not saying anything.
Wallace goaded. "Come on now Stipton, is it a good morning or isn't it?"
I was quickly brought back to my senses. "I'm sorry. Good morning Miss Stevenson."
"Good morning Dr. Stipton," she replied smiling, exuding radiance. She turned compulsively to Wallace. "One of those days is it?" This said with joking friendliness.
"Oh yes," He said sighing. "But isn't it always. Now, " in a business fashion, "I believe Stipton is expected at a council meeting this morning¦"
"Yes," she answered definitely, and then looking at me, "You are supposed to be in the T-room now I believe."
I was unsure how to proceed. "The T-room? But I don't know where that is."
Giggling slightly, "I'm sure Wallace will show you the way. Start with the elevator." She gestured with her hand to a wall of black lift doors behind her desk.
I started walking towards them, and as Wallace moved to escort me, Miss Stevenson said in a low voice, so that I couldn't hear, "be gentle with him will you", and then, as we both walked together, "Good day gentlemen. The stars themselves, in all their glory."
Wallace replied, again with that sigh of weariness, "The stars themselves."
When I said nothing he flicked his hand onto the side of my suit. I understood instantly
"The stars themselves." I said warmly to Miss Stevenson, though I knew not what I was talking about. To my surprise I continued speaking.
"On their perch, may they rest, unheeded,
From our dark hands, that have pained, hurt, bleeded.
In all their glory, may they shine, forever,
In all their glory, souls as one, singing together.
See their gaze of light-ray, through blackness long drawn,
Through burning nebulae, dusty moons of stellar spawn.
The stars themselves, in all their glory,
Reach our nights sky, and thus begins the story.
Oh, the stars themselves, in all their glory."
The words flowed naturally from my lips. But still, it was profoundly shocking. I couldn't believe I had just uttered them. I felt it impossible to be sure that I had. It made my head feel like an over brimful glass of warm milk, just waiting to spill out.
Wallace and I entered the lift without a word. He uttered "number eleven floor, triangulated sector" into the familiar sparkle of red flashings' on the wall, and we made our way to a meeting of the council of "Affiliated Church Activities."
At the end of a long, dark, doorless corridor stood a large door with a huge red triangle and a capital letter T written boldly inside it. Wallace did not accompany me to this door, but simply motioned me to exit the lift.
"I'll be on the thirteenth floor if you need me. He said in business simplicity.
I stepped out of the lift and watched the doors close around him. The large door beckoned to me, and I walked towards it, unsure but strangely confident. I stepped up to the door, blazed over by a strong red light that seemed to be scanning me. In a moment the door opened itself smoothly.
Inside the T room was the largest collection of creatures, assembled around the largest triangle shaped table, in the largest triangle shaped room that I have even seen. All eyes greeted me knowingly. I bowed my head to all in the fashion of formality, and seated myself at a chair that bore the words "Dr.P.Stipton brightly on its back. I was quiet and calm on the outside but on the inside my mind raged, twisted and jumped around, disconcerted by the scene that my eyes brought to it. At one corner of the table the small chimp that sat there began talking authoritatively.
"Welcome Dr.Stipton. Still tardy I see, ah well, as I was saying to everyone else, we have a small problem with the ceremony this afternoon. I'm afraid we may have to cancel it.
A golden retriever sitting two places down to the right from the chimp found this suggestion most agitating, protesting immediately. "But we can't just cancel it, it's too central, too symbolic. Everyone will worry that we can't deliver, and you know what that means¦
But he was interrupted by the lioness sitting serenely next to me. "Yes, K is right. Even if we postpone for just a day, all creatures will seriously wonder whether their faith is justified. We have their trust, we have built up a good understanding. I'm not sure this "small problem you speak of can justify such a drastic move.
There was a general murmur of agreement around the table, and a hawk eagle with a most graceful voice of trusted confidence made a further suggestion to the chimp. "H, perhaps if you explain further what this problem is then we can come to a better understanding together. It is together that we make decisions for the best, and we have worked so well in the past. Why waste our group wisdom, so precious as it is.
All fell silent at the voice of the eagle, and then the dolphin in the water tank placed next to the eagle made further comment. "We should all listen to W's wise talk of our group coherence, he said in a voice mediated through microphones in his tank to speakers that sat on the desk before him. "The church is good always, it brings peace and fulfilment to all, but it is better if we the council are united and strong, for our disagreements are felt further afield than is immediately obvious. We must hear further what the problem is and exactly why H feels today's ceremony must be cancelled. If all is known to all, then the right decision will be made.
The chimp H waited for the cacophony of whispers between individual council members reaffirming their solidarity to each other to die down. Then he looked towards me, itching his elbow as he did so. He spoke with good humour.
"Well, Dr.T, we are still yet to hear the outspoken opinions of our human friends. This is most irregular. Usually you are the first to take issue, even if there is no issue. He began to laugh almost like a hyena, and the rest of the assembled joined him.
Bearing in mind that my mind was still empty on the topics they spoke of, and judging from the general seriousness of the meeting (except where I was concerned), I decided to bluff my amnesia for the moment rather than risk becoming the centre of their derisive attention.
"I think the eagle is right, I said with a no nonsense air. "We shouldn't cancel anything without a damn good reason.
"Oh, the chimp mocked, "so you defer to the eagle¦
But again the lioness interrupted. "Just tell us what we need to know and stop teasing the human. For stars sake we can joke to the moons content, after the matters are sorted.
The murmur of general agreement made itself heard, and the chimp, suitably castrated, assumed his former authoritative tone.
"OK, point taken.
Beep beep, beep beep, beep beep beep BEEEEEEEP!!!!
I slung my hand over to my bedside table and smashed the alarm until it stopped torturing me with its doom ridden call to reality. It had all been a dream I realised with both sadness and gladness. What on earth had it meant though?
No time to wonder now, I had a boring job to go to. Shower first, then breakfast, got to catch the bus¦¦¦..
By the time I got home that evening, the dream was almost completely forgotten. I could remember only a vague feeling of disquiet and discovery. I tried unsuccessfully to conjure up the details, but soon my attentions wondered to the TV schedule sitting on the coffee table in front of me. I flicked though to today.
Pity, I sighed. As usual there was nothing good on.