In the autumn of 1995, I was working on this very story when Sheila Tarn knocked at my front door. Her arrival changed everything. Without her influence, I would have continued writing a fictional account of some half remembered aspect of my previous life. Instead…
I opened the door. Dazzled by November sunshine, all I was aware of at first was the chill air and the rustling swirl of dry leaves. Then I squinted at the figure standing on my doorstep: A woman of about my own age; pushing forty. An unbecoming scarf concealed her hair and emphasised her double chin. An off-white leather overcoat was beginning to show the strain of containing her buxom form. Her pale blue eyes flickered a series of unsure glances over me.
I didn’t recognise her and I don’t think she recognised me.
“Hello,” she said, in a hesitant but warm voice. “I’m looking for… um…”
Again, her eyes flickered but failed to settle upon my face. I gave a non-committal smile.
“I’m looking for Jonathan Kopek,” she finally declared.
It was then my turn to hesitate. If the past decade had taught me anything, it was the value of caution. Under the current repressive government – especially since the imposition of the Citizens’ Contract – it was unwise to make casual admissions to anyone. I was about to, politely but firmly, close the door in her face, when she suddenly reached out a small, plump hand and rested it on my arm.
“Is it you, Jon?” she asked, almost in a whisper and with a note of pleading in her voice.
I felt myself becoming tense. I looked at her hand, at the chipped pink polish on her fingernails and tried to mask my unease.
“I’m… er… sorry,” I stammered. “You have me at an… um… disadvantage.”
She withdrew her hand and started to rummage in her coat pockets. (A recent fashion trend had been the virtual disappearance of the handbag. This was to avoid the tedious process of women having their bags searched whenever they entered a building.) At last, she produced her Euro-Pass card.
“I expected you wouldn’t recognise me,” she said, extending the card towards my gaze.
Her ID photograph showed a younger, prettier face with more prominent cheekbones and livelier eyes. I felt a pang of recognition with an intensity that bordered on panic. Then, I noticed the name embossed on the card: Sheila Tarn. The name of a character who had appeared in many of my stories.
My natural wariness escalated towards paranoia. I was being accosted on my doorstep by a living work of fiction. No, that was a load of crap. She was probably a poor, deluded fan of my writing. Certainly, a lot of the people who read my stuff tended to be eccentric. In those days, science fiction was almost a subversive form of literature and attracted all sorts of dissidents and downright weirdoes.
“What do you want?” I asked, coldly.
For a while, Sheila was unable to reply. She stood, unmoving, with her arm still reaching out; her Euro-Pass still clutched in her fingers, as if it was a magic talisman that would somehow bend me to her will. I could see the hurt in her eyes as I failed to respond.
“You really don’t know, do you?” she asked, in a voice that sounded small and husky. Her shoulders slumped as she finally lowered her hand.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, lamely and without sincerity.
With a dramatic flourish, Sheila removed her head scarf, allowing her hair to tumble free over her shoulders. It was shocking enough that she should appear bare headed in public, without the fact that her long ringlets were a bright, unnatural shade of pink. The sudden explosion of colour seemed to instantly reverse her mood; from dejection to self confidence in a split second.
“So you should be,” she snapped. “Now, stop pissing me about and let me come in.”
She elbowed her way past me and strode, aggressively, into the hallway. I remained staring, stupidly, out of the door, hoping that none of the neighbours had seen her entering my house.
“Close the door,” she commanded. “You’re letting a cold draught in.”
I complied with her order, but only to avoid a public scene. There were several fundamentalist types living in the street who would have been only too happy to have denounced my scandalous behaviour.
“Look…” I started to remonstrate with her as soon as the door was safely shut. “Just what is this all about…?”
She smiled at me. A thin smile, like the edge of a knife blade. “Does the term monoverse mean anything to you?” she asked.
“Mono…?” I echoed, blankly.
“Wake up, Jon. Your books all contain the theme that things aren’t what they appear to be. Well, you’re dead right. I’m the living proof. I remember the things you’ve been writing about. Allowing for a certain amount of artistic licence and personal bias, they actually happened…”
“This has gone far enough.” I interrupted her hastily. My breathing had become fast and shallow. My fear was a knot of pain in my stomach. “I’d be happy to give you my autograph and maybe chat a while about the symbolic meaning of my stories, but… er… I think you’ve taken them rather more literally than I intended.”
I was afraid of two things at once: Sheila Tarn may have been seriously disturbed and quite capable of doing… anything… if I shattered her delusion. And yet, there was something darkly seductive about the notion that the past decade could have been a total sham and that my whole life was about to fly apart into chaos… Just like in one of my stories, I realised, ironically.
“What can I say to convince you?” Sheila asked, rhetorically. She was already losing her impetus and her mood was poised to swing back towards dismay. It was purely an extended burst of nervous energy that was keeping her going.
Her agitation sustained my fear. It was claustrophobic standing there, in the hallway, but I had no desire to allow her to enter any further into my home. I placed myself in front of the living room door, although I strongly suspected she could have easily shoved me aside if she had chosen to. Instead, much to my relief, she sat down on the stairs. Her leather coat creaked in protest at the increased pressure.
“All right.” I decided to make a small concession in response to her insistence. “Enlighten me. What’s a monoverse?”
She gazed up at me, apparently still wondering what to say. There was something about her eyes that provoked a fleeting erotic memory: Pastel blue eyes, glowing softly in the semi darkness, as I thrust, grunting and sweaty, with her breasts squashing beneath my chest…
“If there really is an infinite number of Alternative worlds,” she murmured, interrupting my reverie. “If we consider that idea scientifically, rather than as a literary device. If everything and anything is possible. Then…” Her voice faded away.
“Then what?” I urged her to continue.
“This isn’t easy to talk about. It sounds stupid when I try to put it into words. Martyn could describe it far better. It’s his pet theory I’m putting forward…”
“Yes. I haven’t seen him for years, but…”
“Wait a minute.” I held up a hand to halt her faltering explanation. I laughed nervously as my fear became tinged with anger. “I’m willing to suspend my disbelief as far as your name goes. After all, you’ve got the ID to prove it. But, when you start dropping other fictional names into the conversation, that’s about the limit. I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Now. Please.” The last three words were spoken in a threatening monotone.
Much to my surprise and also to my annoyance, Sheila merely smiled in response.
“That’s better,” she remarked. “That’s more like the Jonathan Kopek I remember.” She stood up and headed for the front door. “OK. I’ll leave you to think about things.” With her hand on the latch, she glanced back at me over her shoulder. In the dim light, smiling and in profile, the ghost of her previous beauty could be glimpsed. “Let me drop a couple more names first, though. For instance, in your last novel, I bet you had to change the name of the company your hero worked for, because there really is such a firm as Leggrin Enterprises, isn’t there?” She opened the front door and her hair was blown roughly away from her face by a violent gust of wind. “And what about Diane?” she demanded. “And your son?”
I didn’t want to think about Diane. The thought numbed me. Paralysed me. I could neither move nor speak in response to Sheila’s questions. I watched, dumbly, as she walked away. I wanted to call her back, but lacked the will to act.
In defiance of convention, she did not cover her head. The bright scarf fluttered in her hand, like a revolutionary flag.
There was a battered old Harrington Alpine sports car parked at the kerb. Its silvery grey paintwork was dull and streaked with dirt. The chrome was scratched and dented and pitted with rust. Sheila unlocked its door and climbed inside. She had to slam it three times before it would close again; the hinges shrieking loudly all the while.
The rattle and roar as she started the engine roused me from my stupor. I stumbled to the door in time to see her driving away. She waved to me briefly as the car sped noisily down the street, leaving an illegal grey cloud of exhaust gases in its wake.
A curtain twitched in the upstairs bedroom window of a house on the opposite side of the road. I closed the front door quickly, slamming it in my haste. I winced as the sound seemed to echo and re-echo endlessly down the long double row of terraces. Still in a state of confusion and tension, with my thoughts held deliberately in disarray, I wandered into the living room. The screen of my word processor’s VDU provided a soft, amber illumination, which helped to soothe my mind.
I ran my hand over the keyboard and selected the on-line dictionary from the menu bar. I then typed in the word monoverse and pressed the Enter key. Almost immediately, there was a beep and the message ‘? WORD NOT FOUND’ appeared on the screen.
“Shit,” I muttered.
I looked up at the photograph of my wife and twin daughters that was standing on the mantelpiece. I had married Linda almost ten years ago. (I had married Diane in an Alternative version of the year 1979.) I had met Linda when she was working as a receptionist at the publishing company I had contracted to write for. (I had met Diane repeatedly, in virtually every Alternative, in a variety of circumstances.) My daughters were four years old and presently at nursery school. (My son… would have been a teenager by then… In what I had mistakenly believed to have been the Real world, I had seen him grow up to become a man… Until…)
None of this made sense.
Linda was real. She was here and now. Diane was just a vague memory. Less than a memory: A phantasy. Another character in one of my pseudobiographical novels.
And yet, I remembered loving her; vividly and with a passion, an obsession, that had endured across countless conflicting lifetimes.
“If everything and anything is possible,” I whispered to myself. “Then…”