The ego-track of Neville Yeadon:
Crikey, it's hot. I raise a hand and mop the brow. It would be far cooler in the cellar bar. Less diverting, though. Is not this view from the pavement, under the inadequate shade of a table umbrella, worth its price in trickles of sweat? Existence is too pleasant right here. I'll keep my place a few minutes longer and continue to watch the world mooch by in summer dresses and shirtsleeves, with even the police going jacket-less and tie-less.
Fortunately The Prince Consort is sufficiently up-market to provide its customers with a sheaf of paper napkins at each table; I swipe another, mop the brow again, and continue with my idyllic lunch-hour.
By all that's holy, there'll be no more munching next to the telephone... Instead, for each of the final few days of my current job, I shall luxuriate in the permission, granted by myself, to get out of the office and take my break in the open air. Make up for lost idling. Belatedly explore further among these little streets around Chancery Lane... The fact that I'll soon be employed elsewhere has, paradoxically, brought back to me some of the buzz I used to derive from working in central London. Call it the Affectionate Departure Syndrome, with the affection dependent upon the departure.
Nevertheless - it's funny - a week and a half has gone since I gave in my notice at Kagan Cartons, and still I can hardly believe I'm free. The benign, slow-motion bombshell of Fact is only gradually blasting its way into my intelligence; the full delight of its truth has yet to seep in through every mental pore. All the same, there's no room for doubt; I've been reliably notified of my good fortune. So, while Britain swelters, and cold drinks do a roaring trade, I swig the draught of secret happiness. In future years, while the country remembers 1976 for its heatwave, I shall remember it for my release.
And because contentment has a way of spilling over I'm tempted to imagine, from where I sit and daydream, that the world in general is getting marginally better behaved... Little by little, as I listen to the news, a common-sense outlook takes shape out of a grab-bag of totemic jig-saw pieces of current events. With the US now emerged from its Watergate years, the amiable Gerry Ford, helped along by the feel-good boost of his country's Bicentennial, can hardly fail to win in November. My own country will celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee next year. Perhaps the Shah, who they say is unwell, will tone down his police state and allow his son to succeed to a more stable Persian empire. More definitely, the Viking lander-probes are approaching Mars. I suppose it's too much to hope that they'll both reach the surface intact, but even one success out of two will be... mind-boggling. The real landscape of Mars! A thought to tingle the spine.
My thoughts zoom back to this particular street, this golden hour. What gives it extra shine is that, from where I'm sitting, no-one else from the office is visible. At this bar, it seems, no one knows me, and I don't know anyone. Not that I would normally wish to avoid my colleagues. I get along with them well enough; but a new-found bliss needs to be hugged in private.
Wait now - that next-but-one table, which just got vacated - it clears my view to the one beyond and - is it possible? - do I see someone after all - not a colleague - someone from my past -
But no, this is incredible. If it is she, then she's hardly changed in fifteen years.
I raise a hand again. This time, to mop the brow is not the principal aim, merely the cover action. My real motive is to steal a glance.
Yes, the face, and poise of figure, I recognize for sure - and the sight threatens to scatter my wits.
But not quite. These aren't the sad old days. Because the Institute's letter has offered me a future, I'm no longer desperate to re-heat past hopes.
So my wits rally and stay in one piece. Why should I unroll out-of-date emotional maps, after all? Nostalgia's hold has slipped.
Nevertheless it would be unwise to miss this chance - if it is a chance - to prolong my acquaintance with the perfection of Woman. That supreme spark never peeps out from more than one individual in one lifetime...
Be practical, then, I tell myself. If it's a good idea to approach her at all, it's a good idea to do so right away. Stupid to count on any dubious chance that she's a regular here and will turn up tomorrow! After all, I don't want yet another boot of remorse to kick me afterwards. Over the years, I've had enough of those. Go on, get the uncertainty over with now. For crying out loud, why hesitate?
Ah, here comes the reason, the old shame-faced fear of loss. Suppose she is truly she, which means that after all these years I have found her in London just as I am on the point of leaving London for Cambridge - how can I cope with that?
The old, old fear of the word "good-bye" with its inundation of sorrow? Nah, your new liberated self can laugh at it. The loss-averse reflex is now reduced to a negligible twitch. My rescue helicopter arrived the Monday before last, in the guise of the letter from Cambridge thudding onto my mat, and now it has lifted me so high that former yearnings look up at me from their diminished stand in a widening field as the vanes of imagination whirr me to invulnerable altitudes... Tipsy with unaccustomed confidence I rise from my chair, turn to face in her direction, catch her eye and - she tilts her head: she's seen me. Nothing is going to spoil this miracle, I assure myself as I make my way to her table, carrying my glass with me and taking care not to trip over anything.
Though she is wearing a smart blue summer dress, I overlay that with mental movies of other colours. Those creamier sunset drapes, the warm-tinted shawls she used to wear: personality-power, that's what stirred up their waterfall effect of ever-overflowing charisma. Such effects used to overwhelm me, but now? Now - I pay a maturer tribute. Now that I can admire her objectively, now that neither of us are young any more, now that she has no hold over me: I pardon my juvenile self.
Well, here's my older, fifty-seven-year-old self with my hands on the back of the chair opposite hers. Quick, assemble the right words, for pity's sake! Better begin with some faint irony, to keep open a line of retreat, just in case.
"Dr J," I mumble, employing the playful form of address I used when I called her a 'shrink'.
"Hello again - 'John'," she replies, with just enough twinkle in her pronouncement of my false name, to make it clear she was serving me right for the 'Dr J'.
We stare at each other; then we both grin.
I say, "You look so good - it's not fair." Indeed, though we're the same age, her fifty-seven years have left her more beautiful than she has any right to be.
"We both won the genetic lottery," she amplifies. "Sit down and we'll form a beauty-parlour."
I scrape into position at her table, while I struggle to form a reply to her teasing. She holds up a finger to stop me: "Don't try to think of something clever to say, Neville - that's my job, remember?"
"This really is like old times," I say. "You haven't changed a bit, Rosamund."
"No, but I sense that you have, Neville; ah-hah, Neville, Neville, look, you're not wincing any more when I use your real name."
"I still hate it," I say, thoughtfully. "But..."
"But something's happened that's good for you. Tell me what you've been up to for the past goodness-knows-how long."
"Pen-pushing." I say it neutrally. A month ago I would have been ashamed to admit it.
She frowns. "I'm sure there's more to it than that."
"No, not really," I shrug; "worldly success has passed me by."
"You haven't quite run your entire course yet," she dryly objects.
"No, but the pattern of my life has become clear enough."
Her gaze is steady upon me. "So speaks the dark horse."
"The dark bookworm, more like."
"Ah, well, that's why you don't need exterior adventures and triumphs; they all happen inside your own head."
"Whereas for you...Dr J?"
"Whereas for me... there are rich pickings around here for a qualified psychologist. The big organizations need me like homes need plumbers."
"What exactly do you do?"
"Oh, assess work-patterns, chart flows of this and that... Not the stuff that dreams are made of. But - lucrative." She exhales with a dismissive lip-curl. "You, however, look really happy now... It suggests to me, you've found your dream."
I nod cautiously. I don't want to blurt it all out, in case I fail to do it justice; it would be terrible if she were to belittle it, or say I was fooling myself.
I say, "To cut a long story short, I have had an offer from Cambridge - from the new Institute of Outer Planet Studies."
"That sounds quite high-powered!"
"Sweet of you to say so."
"Well, why shouldn't I think so? A job in science..."
With a deprecatory wave of the hand I say, "Sort of. My job-title will be librarian-stroke-information-scientist. Still pen-pushing in a way. And actually I'll be earning less than I do now, but, you know..."
"I quite understand," she says to my enormous relief, "and I'm happy for you. Doing something meaningful. Something to do with astronomy."
She stretches back in her chair as the waiter brings her order. Then with a happy smile, as she toys with her salad, she resumes:
"I can't tell you how pleased I am to see you again, Neville. By the way, please confirm - is it really all right for me to call you that, now?"
I smile bravely, "I'm resigned to it. I used to blame my medievalist father for his interest in Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the 'King Maker' - he wrote a book about him..."
"I don't think you ever told me that before."
"No, well, I wasn't keen on being named after the thug. But since that's my fate, I accept it. Besides, since I last saw you I've read Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Baron, which makes a sort of hero out of Warwick. Quite an epic."
She eats in silence for a minute or so, while I relax in silent reverie, too happy to speak.
Putting her fork down for a moment, she appears to ponder. "When did we last see each other, Neville? Nineteen sixty-two?"
"'Sixty-One," I correct her.
"Our lives," she reflects as she sips her beer, "seem to resonate with big years. Like you, I was born in the year of the Peace of Versailles. And yes, when we lost touch, it was '61, the year Gagarin went up into space..."
"And now we've found each other in the year of... um...?"
"The roasting," she suggests, and plucks at her dress-strap. "Or say, the year of the Viking probes to Mars."
A surge of affectionate remembrance, of the astronomy evening-class at which we first met, prompts me to say to her, "How wonderful that you've kept up with stuff like that. Now we can be on tenterhooks together next month..."
"You mean, as we pray they land safely... You looking forward to seeing the real Mars?"
"I certainly am," I say.
She scrutinizes my expression. "How nice that you've moved on - 'John'." Back to the name I used to prefer.
"Moved on from what?"
"Don't stall - you know what I mean."
She's opened the door to a roomful of mental junk. I am forced to look inside. She's right. I do know.
I counter-attack: "Inside many a top-flight psychologist, I guess there's a psychiatrist trying to get out. You really are a shrink at heart - Dr J."
"An amateur's help may be better than none."
I think: yes, no doubt that's so. But do I want to take what she can dish out? The conversation has unexpectedly taken an awkward turn. I confront the issue and come up with the glad answer: I shall willingly take my medicine this time. I can afford to, now.
"Go ahead, Dr J. Don't pull any punches."
"Very well. Here it is: the Case of Neville Yeadon. Not the stock loony who imagines he's Napoleon. You were more original than that. But, maybe not much! I'm talking about that story of yours, you remember, years ago, the one you gave me to read... but are you sure it's all right for me to say all this?"
"Say on. It's all right," I assure her. I can guess where it's leading.
She is going to steam ahead with what she evidently has been wanting to tell me for a very long time. Today looks like her opportunity to get some of her own back for the scribblings I used to bother her with. She'll offload her judgement on my effort at a novel, Vistas of Mars. And, in doing so, tell me what's wrong with me.
Here goes - she's letting me have it -
"No wonder I needled you about your chosen nickname John... trying my best to hint that you had John Carter of Mars too much on the brain... I was hoping to suggest to you, that if you put more of yourself, and less of another, in your book, you'd get better results in your writing and, by extension, in your life."
She doesn't know how far I am ahead of her. Every word she speaks is eagerly mobbed by my own thronging thoughts. Not only do I support much of what she's saying, I go still further, while amending the details. Thus -
Of course I was far too influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs. No argument there. But as for ERB's protagonist, John Carter, to me he was just a peg to hang episodes on. A viewpoint device for world-building. Dr J has yet to realize that I wasn't terribly bothered about the fellow's prowess with the sword, or his ability to become Warlord of an entire planet.
(Mind you, it's true I envied him his knack of winning the princess...)
Doesn't matter now. The main thing is, we're here, Dr Rosamund Jezard and I, sitting together, cozily misunderstanding one another as of old. It'll be a little golden box of delight for me to look back on this allowance of extra time in the fixture I'd thought was over.
As for 'winning the princess' for real -
No go, for many reasons. For a start she's still wearing her ring. And by this time we've moved further apart in our respective orbits. Sad but inevitable. And now, prideful as well as sad. For as the panorama of the past glows at me, instead of the usual procedure in which I eat my heart out, this time I do myself justice and acknowledge, to give me my due, that I was never so stupid, never so morally and practically unrealistic, as to fling myself into a doomed attempt at an affair with this woman. I always knew that she, securely and happily married with three young children, was romantically out of bounds. I had that much common sense, though unfortunately it didn't extend much further -
From the beginning, it was I who let myself be trapped. My perfectionist attitudes cannot be blamed upon anyone else. It was my own fatal resolve that, denied the best, I would never settle for second best. Trapped for life!
Meanwhile she lectures cleverly on:
"...The trouble with hero-worship is – you focus upon a favourite hero, because you want to be more like him; but do real heroes do that? No - they don’t trail after the image of someone else! Therefore, in your aim to emulate him whom you wish to resemble, the more you try, the more you fail."
"Absolutely, Doc!" says I.
She glances up with a quirky, sniffy sort of smile. Ah, she's scenting my new freedom.
I continue, "So from now on, I'll just be myself. Just plain old realistic me, like the plain old realistic dusty Mars we're going to see from the Viking probes. No more fantasizing in my life. I've ditched all that."
I watch her nod slowly and inquiringly. Anticipating the question on her lips, I hasten to add: "Don't take what I say as bitterness. I've just expressed my, er, resolution in rather punchy words, maybe. But actually I'm not bitter at all..."
She nods. "You don't need to be. You're not being singled out. For all of us, growing up is a lifelong process..."
Ah, but I can't tell her - my inner magical sense of growing down is impossible to put into words. Let her think I've 'grown up', which in a superficial sense has to be true; meanwhile I am embraced by the parallel truth of a subsidence, a relaxation, which will fluoresce my sunset years with a glow of peace and contentment.
That is how I am able to let her go so easily today. We part, with mutual smiles and affectionate hand-clasps, after I have extended my lunch-'hour' to an hour and a quarter. Perhaps she is a little surprised that I don't give her my address and phone number and don't ask for hers. But the name, "Outer Planet Institute, Cambridge" is enough of a clue, that she can keep in touch if she really wants to.
Fact is, like a full tummy, my meal of wisdom is best digested in peace.
I now fully understand the point of my loneliness and failure as a writer. Years of faulty aim! All that time during which I was in love with the adventurous world of Barsoom, I was really delving down to a far greater value-lode. Puerile to dream of becoming the Warlord of Mars or of anywhere else! In all likelihood, even if I had got published, readers would have sensed the falsity of my effusions, and my success would have been small.
Whereas now, I have reached what I really wanted by another route.
To be a minor functionary in the Outer Planet Institute - to spend my last few working years cataloguing results from new telescopes and the Voyager probes (if the latter prove successful in their missions) - will satisfactorily nudge my spiritual radar. No need, any more, for literary transportation to another planet. Be they the merest driblets of data, telemetered signals from the cold, far, presumably lifeless worlds of the outer system will grant my remotely roving soul sufficient bliss.
So as not to feel naughty about my extended lunch-hour, I resolve to be extra good during the remainder of today. This evening I shall stick at my desk and work even later than I had planned to do.
I actually enjoy leaning into the boring minutiae of admin. I'd almost wish that this exquisite transitional fortnight might stretch a lot further into the future, were it not that its winsome tedium springs from its imminent end.
Yet how dare I assume that when I get to Cambridge I won't be doing this sort of stuff any more? It would surely be rash to deny that my new post will likewise involve a paper-filled in-tray plus filing and telephonic hassle. Ah, but the papers will pertain to different things, as will the phone-calls, and I, as I deal with them, shall be animated by a different spirit.
Meanwhile, since I'm not there yet, I cheerfully slog on here at Kagan Cartons, the idea being to put in some quite hard work during my final week, dispose of the in-tray's entire contents and hand over the desk in a pristine state to my successor.
I'm doing well. Hours have passed productively. A flicker at the corner of my vision tells me the receptionist's light has just gone off: she has departed; the switchboard has gone silent. My own office, however, still gets the evening summer sun right smack through the window, plus the sound of rush-hour traffic, so the opening lines of Gray's Elegy do not yet apply.
My internal phone rings. I pick up the receiver. The voice of my boss, Henry Durliff, barks through it.
"Ah, there you are, Neville." (As though I had not been there for hours.) "I have something for you. Would you pop over?"
"Will do." Into and then out of the main corridor, within moments I am at the company secretary's office.
Durliff is a spry fifty-year-old, seven years younger than I am and far better than I am at spouting orders. There are some ex-armed-forces personnel who are quiet, gentle and courteous, and whose military background could not be guessed from their voice or manner - and then there is Henry Durliff...
He is rummaging in his briefcase when I enter his office.
I then remember, I had lent him a book on the Dark Ages. I am pleased to hear that he has found it "exceedingly interesting".
"I was afraid," I remark, "that you might know it all."
"Most of it was new to me," he assures, flicking the pages. "It was about time that I learned more about the origins of Britain's armed forces. Of course, King Alfred's primitive coastal defence can hardly be said to possess institutional continuity with today's Royal Navy, but each age comes up with its own answers to the same underlying problems..."
Durliff's crusty personality, I start to think, might not have been so different from mine, if our fates had been exchanged. He and I seem to be on the same wavelength as we discuss the book. We're both serious types, interested in issues of honour, loyalty, morality and patriotism as they have played out in conflict with one another throughout history.
Durliff has been impressed by the story of Thorkell the Tall, the Danish raider who changed sides in 1012. Thorkell's followers, out of control, murdered an archbishop who had been their hostage. This was too much for their leader, pirate though he was. "Which just goes to show," says Durliff, "that even a killer-savage may sometimes be moved by a sense of decency."
"I remember that part," I nod. "They killed Aelfheah because he refused to allow his ransom to be paid, though Thorkell himself pleaded for the fellow's life."
"Whereupon Thorkell went over to the English; not that it did us any good," Durliff adds; "Sweyn merely used the defection as a pretext for a massive attack the following year. Anyway," - with abruptly parched voice, while thrusting the book at me and plumping back behind his desk, "I must get on and prepare for tomorrow's Board. And you've still got work to finish, I expect."
I wander back to my own office and collect my thoughts in order to paper-push for perhaps another half hour or so.
The internal phone rings again. It's the voice of Durliffe, again. In peremptory mode this time. "Neville, are you on course to complete that financial summary for the Board by three-fifteen tomorrow?"
"Yes," I say. As you should well know, I add silently. Never have I failed to meet that kind of deadline.
"Good," he says, and hangs up.
I sit fuming. It's gallingly, blatantly obvious that Durliff has felt the need to reassert the proper degree of authority after having unbent while discussing the history book.
Walt Colebrook, the young technical advisor, a joker who fancies himself as a firebrand, pokes his head around the door to say cheerio, notices my rigid stare and says, "Have you just escaped from Castle Dracula? Hey! Beep-beep! How's the thorn in the side?"
"The usual," I say, letting out a weary breath. "Matey one minute, martinet the next. I wouldn't mind all the blowing-hot-and-cold, if only there was a gadget to predict the oscillations - "
"Bunk! Haven't you given in your notice? Don't you understand, you lucky feller, that you can just tell old armpit, next time he opens his mouth, to put a sock in it?"
"Reverence for authority," I explain grandiloquently, "is a characteristic of mine."
"What a load of garbage. You could have said whatever you liked, any time these last ten years, because - " and Walt glances down the corridor and lowers his voice a trifle - "he simply could not have done his own job without your support."
"It's more complicated than that," I say. "Sometimes he behaves decently, and he once backed me up when a blunder of mine put me in an awkward spot with the Director..."
Walt raises his eyes to the ceiling. "You could make a school story out of it. Well, it's home-time for me. I'm off."
He goes, but his words linger, resonating with my thought that this delicious limbo between careers does indeed somewhat resemble the final afternoon at a hated school, when the place glows paradoxically warm with one's anticipation of the last good-bye... it's that Affectionate Departure Syndrome again... arising from transition, from the delicious twilight between years of frustration and certain escape.
How terrible it would be, if anything were to block the escape.
But the Cambridge appointment is a firm one. I have it down in black and white. Only a disastrous illness could upset my prospects, and I am in excellent health.
I did have a fear, at one stage, that my stupid article in Anomalistics might have been held against me. As if determined to find something to worry about, my fidgety mind goes back to thinking about that amateurish piece. I remember dreading that the subject might come up at the interview; that they might say, "Sorry, we can't risk appointing you - think of what the papers could make of it if the story came out: Crank Theorist Given Post at New Institute."
That worry was laid to rest when it turned out that they did know about it, and were merely amused. So what if I had argued in a crank journal that the supposedly gaseous subgiant planets, Uranus and Neptune, might possess solid icy surfaces, on which one day it would be possible for explorers to land? "It depends what you mean exactly by a 'surface'," my senior interviewer, Professor Culhart, had commented. "Transitions between phase states doubtless occur in the structures of the gas giants - " and that was that. I had the sense to keep quite about what I myself had meant by "solid surface": namely, a stupendous expanse on which one might walk, roaming an area over ten times that of Earth. I'll only be an archivist, after all. I was let in.
Horray for the good-humoured authority of Prof. Culhart. Infinitely preferable to the snappings of Henry Durliff.
Thank the stars, though, that I myself am no kind of authority figure at all, and never will be. The course my life has taken has providentially ensured that I shall never be in a position to give orders, never be expected to command. Live and let live, but if someone must wear the chevrons or wield the sceptre, let it not be Neville Yeadon.
Not that I look down at those who do take such responsibilities upon themselves. I quite often respect them - unlike Walt Colebrook whose ire is too quickly aroused by would-be brass-hats like Durliff. Walt makes hyperbolic comparisons with Nazism whenever somebody struts a little bit. That's unfair. It also makes me uneasy insofar as it reminds me of the ambiguous gusto of the current anti-Nazi satire boom. My thoughts turn to recent news items. Whole gangs of youths - the 'Willuns' - dressing up and goose-stepping, purportedly to mock the Hitler Youth but I suspect that their mockery shades into a degree of emulation. From what I hear, the police likewise suspect that the supposed motive of satire has become a mere pretext. I hope I never run into the 'Willuns' and I hope the fad either dies out or gets stamped out.
Depressing, this turn my thoughts have taken. I have a longish commute ahead of me. It'll be later than usual by the time I weave my way homeward after the last Tube stop. Parts of Kilburn can get bleak during the supper hours: beyond the centrally warm family atmosphere of an Irish immigrant community, the yobs who opt out have created an unattractive periphery. I'd rather my mood didn't second the run-down streets and loiterers.
So - as it's time to leave the office - let my watchword be as positive as Dale Carnegie. Smile!
In particular, smile at the prospect of waking up tomorrow at the bright outset of yet another day in this special final week.
I know it'll be good because I know I'll be free of sadness tonight. How marvellous it is to have become immune to the old nostalgic dreams which used to pluck at my heartstrings while I surfaced on a typical morning.
I can deliberately dare them to do their worst. I can dwell on them with impunity. Those shifting scenes which flow into one another, in the kind of dream where the locations are jumbled and the ages are all wrong but they conspire to tantalize with a blissful closeness and a glow of presence, all abruptly banished into impossibility by the shrilling of the alarm clock, inflicting the usual groggy ache of irretrievable loss - none of that pitiful stuff any more! Good riddance!
Instead the walls of my bedroom, in the early sunshine, will seem to greet me brightly as though I had just painted them, and routines will present themselves as shining gifts, wrapped in the promise that something real and great is about to become true. For it is true, marvellously true, that after years of humdrum toil I’m going to earn my bread at something interesting.
Out in the street now, city-slicker-briefcase in hand, hurrying along because everyone in London hurries, I head for Chancery Lane Tube station. Careful not to bump into anyone, I steal a glance up at the clear blue sky, and think of other skies, sunset cloud-scapes which as a child I fancied were solid, like floating mountains. More reason to smile, gently, indulgently, as I trace the thread which began with my young yearnings for those glowing vistas. I contemplate how they became translated as I grew up
into scientific terms. I recall how, after graduation, I tried in vain to get a
post in planetology. None were available, to nobody's surprise but my
own, and, at the time, that seemed to be that: so I "came down to earth", as they say, while gazing with longing
at the ranks of the privileged few who are allowed to earn their living
by doing something interesting. On turning thirty, forty, fifty, I
still did my best to keep my dream alive, though no longer able to
believe that anything would come of it; after doing time at the office I
would let my mind out into its exercise yard, perusing the
expensive planetological journal Icarus, with other works on related disciplines
such as geology, atmospheric physics... anything to maintain a link
with real space science. That evening hour became the
consolation which I expected would have to last the rest of my life. It
was considerably better than nothing, but it was a sad structure. But look at me now, on the road to escape!
I congratulate myself. I'm doing well with the positive thinking. On the train, I amuse myself, enjoying the variety of scenes and stops. Glad to see that all the youths are dressed in nondescript, normal fashion, none in the grey shirts and big boots of the Willuns. Negative attire, like negative thoughts, can wreak harm. My mind slides back to the topic of how dangerous it can be to satirize evil too obsessively. Hitler Youth are best left unmentioned. Like the men of Gondor had a taboo against the utterance of Sauron's name.
For that matter it is a good idea for me to refrain from thinking about my past rage at my boss' behaviour.
Yes, it's just as well that I have got well into a positive streak, in which I don't dwell upon... for instance... the "Let Kristin do it" episode. Grrrrr.... that was a bad one. How fortunate that I can put it to one side and concentrate on the bright, clean prospects of the future. Definitely not a good idea to go back to thinking about... about...
About that occasion when his temporary secretary, a quiet, pleasant woman named Lorna, asked me if I had anything for her to do, as she was at a loose end.
I thanked her and said yes, there was something she could do to help my assistant, Kristin, who was battling with an accumulated pile of receipts which needed to be stuffed into envelopes. "Bit boring, though," I warned her.
"Not as boring as sitting here doing nothing," smiled Lorna. "You bring me some of them."
And so, I committed the great sin of bringing a share of the pile of receipts and envelopes to Lorna, and thus set in train the process of doom.
A few minutes later - this is what's most important not to think about - Durliff came bustling in carrying the stuff I'd handed to Lorna, and dumped it all back on my desk. "Neville," he said in his don't-want-any-argument voice, "I found these with Lorna. They're Kristin's responsibility, so I'm bringing them back here."
I then made the mistake of trying to explain. Warding off my words he held up one hand and reiterated, "Let Kristin do it."
For the next few heartbeats I sat rigid. The manner in which that tone of his can grate, on an occasion like that, is indescribable. It all comes back to me now, how my blood pressure soared, so that I can feel it soaring again. It's as though a red mist swims before my eyes. Makes me forget everything else. Including where I am. I have got off the train at the usual stop - but, blinded by rage, I have made a wrong turning somewhere since then.
I don't much like this street, nor the people I see ahead. Eight or ten of them. Are they altering their course? Yes, it seems they wish to block my way. I could run. I should run. They are grey, booted Willuns. I think clearly: Triumph des Willens - Triumph of the Will. Look at them trying to be funny, lifting their knees up as they march towards me. And one of them - good Lord help - is brandishing a knife. I never heard of them going this far. Why now? Why me? Too late to run -
- I want to say let me go let me go, but I know it is no use saying it to them, so instead I must take charge of the mental evacuation and hurl my awareness afar by an effort of will, ensure my mind or soul is away from here when that knife reaches my skin, it's coming now, I must be off, I - flinch, shudder, writhe in the grip, screeeaaaa....
- blood chokes me -
- no - all different - blood gone - grippers gone - hey, it worked, this is unbelievable - elsewhere surrounds me - I am shifted - I feel new - where is this, I'm on a bed or couch - dead, or dreaming - soft-coloured walls, gentle furnishings - foreign decor, elliptic shapes - but but but what is going on - no, stop that question, for heaven's sake, now is not the moment to make demands on the universe, to insist that it explain itself, no no no this is the moment to be grateful for the mercy that I am no longer where I was, or rather (since I suppose I am really still there, lying on that pavement in a pool of my own blood) grateful for the mercy that at any rate I have been let off having to feel that I am there. Instead - what? Stuck - that's what I must be - stuck in the psychic escape mechanism that's evidently attached to the drawn-out instant of violent death, during which, thank goodness, provision appears to have been made for the victim to relocate into some nutty dream. Good system - I approve - only I wish I knew from where my subconscious got the idea of this room - suppose I'd better take it seriously - I'm alone, apparently, but what is this I hear, suddenly echoing at me from the walls -
- "dnertz-scaon-zacon-unnop-rey-sha-jnem-sappad-orl-dy-noom" -
- some pebbly language - a cascade of verbal rubble interspersed with lighter syllables like purplish glass fragments - how did I invent this gibberish - no wait, it suddenly makes sense, I can translate the words in my head -
- "if desperate advice lack, may you try call Dynoom" -
O my head, what are you doing, what are you becoming? The words are shuffling into such good order, it's as though I hear them in perfect English, no, better than that, I'm actually not translating any more -
"Can you hear me, Nyav? This is Dynoom."
For the sake of my sanity I decide I must interact. I croak a reply: "I am not Nyav."
"I'm sorry," says the penetrating voice, "O mind-from-another-world; sorry I had to do this to you."
"Another - world?"
"I have brought you to Ooranye. You are now on the seventh planet. I repeat, I am sorry..."
These frighteningly comprehensible words churn me up some more. I feel sick and incoherent, yet hoarsely I pay my debt of gratitude:
"Don't apologize, dream-voice. I'd rather be here, in this crazy illusion, than choke in that street back there."
CONTINUED IN THE MARCH ISSUE OF TALES TO ASTOUND:
Uranian Throne Episode 11:
The Terran Heir