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Also by Huckleberry H. Hax: Beside an Open Window The Day is Full of Birds The introspection of Imogen Card Old friend, learn to look behind you in the coffee queue (poetry) by Huckleberry Hax: AFK AFK, Again AFK, Indefinitely AFK, in pursuit of avengement Be right back My Avatars and I Your clothing is still downloading Amazing Metaverse (Collected short stories) S econd LifeÂŽ is a place we visit (Collected articles)

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SIM HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX


Copyright © 2016 by Huckleberry H. Hax. All rights reserved. ISBN: 978-1-326-72212-8 This paperback edition published in 2016 (Version 1.0) Huckleberry Hax is hereby identified as author of this work in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Published by www.lulu.co m Cover design by Huckleberry Hax

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For DHD


1 The glass wall

Some sort of party. Some sort of ce le bration. Some body’s apartme nt in the city. I was me t at the door by a man in a blue cardigan. Some one I kne w, but only re cently. He wave d me in with gre at circular swe e ps of his arm, told me to ge t a drink. Lounge music was playing, de finite ly some thing from a re cord playe r. The man with the cardigan found me again and spoke to me about Budape st; he was large , middle -age d and had a thick be ard. Budape st. I was on a plane to Budape st, and the lights and de tail of the flat city had rise n up, almost to touching distance . The be arded man was on some sort of busine ss trip. “I was on a BA flight back from the 2009 Grand Prix,” he said. “Some one on the plane got ill and we had to do an e me rgency landing in Be lgium. But the y didn’t te ll us what was going on until afte r we we re on the ground. Lite rally, we just droppe d from the sky. I 9


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took up smoking again the ve ry ne xt day. Why not? You ne ve r know whe n you’re going to go.” We we re outside on the thre e pe rson balcony, e leven stories up and tapping our ash ove r the side . I was crying. The orange lights and de tail of the city we re almost at touching distance . The cabin cre w had take n the ir se ats. A minute to go. We floate d ove r a main road and I saw cars crossing lazily be ne ath us. Sudde nly, the e ngine s roared and the nose pulle d up. We we re pushe d back into our se ats by e me rge ncy thrust. I looke d at the guy ne xt to me , but the re didn’t se em to be much point in starting up a conve rsation. Our e ye s just said to e ach othe r, “Oh.” Life be came a single se cond at a time . The be arde d man had sobbe d though his third cigare tte about his son’s de ath. I remembe r now that he was black. His son had be e n walking across a park in the e ve ning and someone had just come right up to him and put a knife into his stomach. The re we re no witne sse s, but a jogger discovered him not long afte r. “I got to the hospital with just minute s to spare ,” he told me . “You’re lucky, se e. You have the time that I didn’t.” The man ne xt to me on the plane had be e n be arde d too. Pe rhaps it was his son; I’m re ally not ce rtain. We climbed back up to a safe he ight and then the pilot soothe d us by trivialising the incide nt in Re ce ive d Pronunciation. “Te rribly sorry about that, 10


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

Ladie s and Ge ntle me n; I’m afraid a me mbe r of the cre w be came sudde nly ve ry poorly, re quiring a swift landing so that she can re ce ive the me dical care she ne e ds.” “That,” said the be arded man, pointing at the spe ake r above us, “is why I’ll always fly BA.” I wasn’t sure if he me ant because the y took care of the pe ople on the plane or be cause the ir pilots spoke in posh accents. In any case, we we re still flying, and at an impossible angle . Looking towards the cockpit was like looking up a lift shaft. At some point, I woke up. He re . I woke up in this room and the same se cond of string arpe ggio was re pe ating, so that the first action I took in this world – if ‘world’ is what you can call it – was to lift the ne e dle from a re cord and re turn it to the re st. I was in an orange-carpe te d living room, lying on a white , Danish Mode rn couch. The curtains we re close d. On a long coffe e table in front of me was a be ige compute r with brown ke ys, and a mouse conne cte d to it that looke d the size and shape of a pack of cigare tte s. A gre e n te lephone mounte d on the opposite wall started ringing the mome nt I starte d moving around. I we nt ove r to it, picke d up the re ceive r and he ld it to my e ar, and twiste d the coile d cable round my right inde x finge r be cause that’s what I always do whe n I’m spe aking on the phone . I think. “He llo?” 11


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“Good e ve ning, Mr King.” The voice was polite , clippe d, soothing. “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” “The re staurant?” It se e ms to me in re trospe ct that I both kne w and didn’t know what he was talking about. “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” Same question; same Re ceived Pronunciation tone. It took se ve ral re pe titions be fore I re alise d I was liste ning to a re cording. Eve ntually, I ve nture d a te ntative , “Ye s?” The re was a click. “You will be se ate d at table thre e . Liste n for the signal.” Anothe r click. The n the line we nt de ad. I swe ar the y put something in the food. I’m pre tty sure my mind didn’t use d to be as mixe d up as this. Or maybe it’s the wate r. Drinks he re taste odd. Some times, the y make my mouth taste more dry than be fore I drunk the m. The othe r things in the room include a Philips music ce ntre on its own le gs opposite the couch (that’s whe re the re cord playe r is); an oil painting hangs above it of a village harbour with a gre e n, a re d, a ye llow, and a blue fishing boat moore d the re . Gre e n, re d, ye llow, blue . A tall rubbe r plant stands ne xt to the door. I got up and ope ne d the curtains. The y’re gre e n with ye llow flowe rs on the m. I found that the y 12


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

cove re d a mirror the size of a window, but whe n I pre ssed my face right up to the glass I could se e the vague shape of some thing that looke d like a stre e t lamp outside . Late r on, whe n I was looking again – I think this was still on that first awake ning – I thought I saw brie fly a pe rson walking past and unde rne ath it. By that time I’d worke d out that I was locke d in and I bange d on the window and shoute d out. I could se e so little that I couldn’t te ll if he or she he ard me or not. It was just a moving shape . It was gone almost as soon as I saw it. But a fe w minute s afte r that, the ‘signal’ sounde d and the front door of the house unlocke d with a loud click. I was scare d to go out at first. I stood in the doorway to the living room and watche d the front door from that spot for a full five minute s, wonde ring if it had be e n unlocke d to le t some thing from the outside in rathe r than to le t me out. Gradually, my he artbeat returned to normal. I we nt to the door – it’s white and has a cre sce nt of six fan-shape d pie ce s of froste d glass at the top – and liste ne d for noise s from the othe r side . I could he ar nothing at all, so I ope ned it slowly and we nt out. But I’m ge tting ahe ad of myse lf. The re ’s the re st of the house to de scribe . Not that the re ’s anything e specially re markable to re late . The lounge le ads to a small dining room via an archway in the wall opposite the window. In the 13


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dining room, the re ’s a round table to seat four with an e xpansion le af unde rneath (the table is split across the middle ; you pull e ach half out and the le af rotates and unfolds to fill the gap). I don’t know why the table ’s e xpandable . It’s not like I ge t visitors. The re ’s also a te ak side board with cutle ry drawers and cupboard space for tablecloths and crockery. The side board stands unde r a white se rving hatch from the kitche n. To ge t to the kitche n, you have to go into and the n out of the living room; the door is imme diate ly to the right, opposite the front e ntrance . It has a sink with a draining board, a short le ngth of Formica-toppe d working surface and an e le ctric cooke r that hardly e ve r has powe r. The working surface is pale ye llow; whe n you look at it re ally close , you can see that it’s white with tiny ye llow lines in a de licate crosshatch. On it is a ke ttle and a bre adbin. Unde rneath it is a washing machine and a tumble drie r. I don’t think I’ve e ver used those. I just le ave my dirty clothe s on the floor whe n I go to be d and the y’re gone by the time I wake up. I’ve ne ve r worn anything long e nough that it’s actually starte d to sme ll. Upstairs, the re ’s a tiny landing le ading to a bathroom ove r the kitche n, and two be drooms ove r the lounge and dining room. One be droom has a double be d and a wardrobe in which I find e ach day a fre sh pair of blue polye ster slacks and a short-sleeved, 14


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

white or pale ye llow shirt. The othe r room has a single be d made up with one pillow and a cre am coloure d blanke t – the unde r-she e t folde d te n ce ntime tres over the top – and a white che st of e mpty drawe rs. If I me ss up that be d, it’s always made again whe n I wake up. Outside , I saw that my house was one of a te rrace of four. It was dark. It’s always dark. The re ’s grass and shrubs and tre e s, and for the life of me I can’t work out how the y live without any light. I suspe ct the m to be artificial, some how. I ke e p me aning to che ck. My house has a neat lawn and a pave d footpath to the road. The re is inde e d a street lamp outside of it; it casts a pe rmanent sodium glow. On the opposite side of the road is an ide ntical te rrace . All e ight house s have a similar garde n e xce pt for numbe r one , which has a kne e -high prive t he dge around it and baske ts of trailing ivy hanging from bracke ts e ach side of the door. The stre e t is calle d Wildwood Close . The house s are numbe re d e ve n on my side and odd on the opposite . My house is numbe r six; I am the third door in on my side . I walke d to the e nd of the road, looking at the windows of the othe r home s and e xamining the m for move me nt or light. I we nt back and stoppe d at numbe r four, and bange d loudly on the door. “He llo? He llo? Is anybody there?” The re was nothing I could 15


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se e or he ar. No lights got turne d on. Nobody banged back. I walke d across the grass to my own front window and saw that it was mirrore d on the outside too. It was the same for all the othe r houses. I pe ered through the window to numbe r four and could se e absolute ly nothing. I did the same at numbe r two and could vague ly make out a pool of light and an archway like the one le ading to my dining room. A dark shape got up and approached me, and sudde nly I could se e nothing: some one inside had drawn shut the curtains. Wildwood Close is a turning off from Holly Ave nue , a long, curvy road that conne cts up the island and which turns into the short stre e t of shops at the bottom of Be rman Hill. The re ’s a hundre d me tre hedge alongside it opposite the ope ning to the close , with a gate in the middle to a childre n’s park on the othe r side . The park has two swings and a roundabout. I found it on the se cond or third se gme nt. I sat on the roundabout and discove re d a re d pape r napkin folde d e nough time s to make it thick e nough to be we dge d be twe e n the horizontal woode n slats. I ope ne d it out, but the re wasn’t e nough light to look at it by. So I put it in my pocke t and looke d at it whe n I got home . It turne d out the re was nothing writte n or drawn on it at all. It was just a plain napkin, folde d up and stashe d, I suppose d, for nothing more than the sake of it. 16


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

Turning right out of Wildwood Close , the re staurant was a two minute walk away. I could se e it from the e ntrance to the close , uplit in ye llow by lamps sunk in the ground around its e ntrance . It’s a re ctangular cuboid, a concre te box cantile ve r ove rhanging the sudde n drop of Be rman Hill. As I got close r, I started to he ar piano music coming from inside the building. Für Elise . The inte rior of the re staurant is de corate d in thick re d carpe t, te ak pane lling and cre am-white curtains. Each table – the re are e ight in total – is se t for one pe rson with woode n handle d cutle ry laid ne xt to a folde d, re d pape r napkin, all se t on a white table cloth. The music come s from a pianola in the corne r. A bowl of ve ge table soup was waiting on table thre e ; it was the only table with food on it and I sat the re and ate the soup, wishing it was hotte r and had le ss salt. The re was a bre ad roll also and a pat of butte r on a side plate . Whe n I finished the soup the re was an e le ctronic chime from the dire ction of the e ntrance ; I looke d and saw a hatch in the pane lling slide ope n with an unne ce ssary hum to pre se nt a main course of a chop with carrots and boile d potatoe s. “Ple ase put your use d plate s and cutle ry in the hatch, Mr King.” The instruction came in a fe male voice from a spe ake r to the right of the hatch. I re turne d to my table and put down the plate of food, 17


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the n we nt back with my e mpty bowl. The hatch door slid shut. Pudding was a pink blancmange. A single cup of black coffe e followe d that, with two white sugar cube s on one side of the sauce r and a pe ppe rmint on the othe r. Each time , the same re corde d instruction was issue d from the spe ake r as the ne xt course was de live re d. I wonde re d why the y calle d me ‘Mr. King’. I suppose d that had to be my name . The pianola continue d throughout the me al. Me nde lssohn’s Ve ne tian Boat Song, Chopin’s Waltz In A Minor, De bussy’s Re ve rie . And so on. Whe n I re turne d the e mpty coffe e cup to the hatch, a ne w instruction was issue d. “You have one hour and se ve n minute s re maining of your le isure time . A signal will be give n whe n you have te n minute s le ft.” “What am I suppose d to do?” I addre sse d the spe ake r, assuming I could be he ard. The re was sile nce . The n a click. “You have one hour and six minute s re maining of your le isure time . A signal will be give n whe n you have te n minute s le ft.” I le ft the re staurant and followe d the road down the hill. The air was cool. The re was no bre e ze . The sky was black. The re we re no stars. The road made a lazy, zig-zagge d de sce nt, moving first to the right, be low the ove rhang of the 18


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

re staurant, the n to the le ft; finally it straighte ne d out and be came the tiny street of lit shop windows be low. At the first one -hundre d-and-eighty de gre e turning I inste ad wande red off the road and across the grass. I walke d up a short slope and made my way through a copse of e ve rgre e n tre e s. On the othe r side , I e ncounte re d an ope n fie ld that incline d slowly towards a horizon not a hundre d me tre s distant. I walke d towards it, assuming that the ground slope d back down be yond it and that I would soon se e the tip of a building or tre e from the othe r side start to e me rge . As I got to within fifty me tre s, howe ve r, I notice d that this ‘horizon’ was in fact a straight cut across the land that continue d pe rpe ndicular to my line of approach in both dire ctions, and as far as I could se e . It was as though some one had slice d through the soil with an e normous ve rtical knife and what lay be yond had simply falle n away. I e xpe cte d to find a wall of some de scription supporting the we ight of the land from the othe r side , to be looking down at any mome nt into an artificial valle y, pe rhaps an ope n mine or quarry. The light was poor; I assumed the opposite side of the valle y was obscure d from my vie w by the darkne ss. I came to the ridge and looke d down. I could se e absolute ly nothing; just blackne ss. The land simply stoppe d a fe w inche s from my fe et. I was scared to go any close r, fe arful that the void might fe e l me at its 19


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e dge and pull me down into it. I de cide d to walk down the hill with this ridge to my right and se e what transpire d furthe r down. The incline was ste ep in place s, inte rspersed with le ve lle d are as; it was like de sce nding a se t of giant, grasscarpe ted ste ps. I trie d to jog down but found myse lf uncoordinate d by the darkne ss and ne arly trippe d halfway down the first slope . A ne arby bush advise d me in the same voice as the se rving hatch that I had te n minute s of my le isure time re maining. I told it indignantly – surprise d by my re be llious bluste r – that nothing like an hour had passe d ye t. The words taste d sticky. I continue d down the hill, be coming more and more cautious with my footing as I we nt. By the time I’d re ache d the lowe st point, I was sle e py and unable to conside r the re turn route to Wildwood Close . I ne arly fe ll over a park be nch se t halfway down the final incline ; this de spite the fact that it sat be neath a lamp post and my world had light within it once again. A ne arby sign said, ‘Love rs’ Vie w’. I sat on the be nch for a moment, not wanting to move any more and not cle ar on my re asons for having come to this place . I looke d to my right and saw the silhoue tte of a man not te n fe e t distant from me on the othe r side of the gre at cut. Whe n I shoute d, he made no move . Whe n I got to my fe e t, he rose himse lf at the same mome nt. I walke d towards him and he walke d 20


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

towards me . Inside his outline I could se e black wate r, still and e ndle ss and de ep. We me t at the line of the cut and only the n did I re alise I was looking into my own re fle ction. I re ache d out and fe lt glass be twe e n us. A move me nt in the re fle ction caught my e ye . A white van had come into vie w on a ridge be hind me . I turne d to wave and ne arly lost my balance . I stumble d back to the be nch and lay down on it. In the sodium wash of the stre e t lamp, I saw a word carve d into the wood in front of my e ye s. It re ad, “Alive ?� I wonde re d if I was alive . I thought about stre e t lamps so close I could touch the m. I thought about the final approach to Budape st and the roar of sudde n thrust.

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2 The hidde n othe rs

I wake up. Some time s I wake up on my be d upstairs; some time s on the couch in the living room, like on that first se gme nt. Some time s I’m fully dre sse d, some times I’m nake d or in my pyjamas. The re ’s no way of pre dicting how or whe re e ach cycle will be gin, othe r than that it will always be some whe re in my house . Some time s, I’ll re me mbe r the whole of the pre vious pe riod; some time s, it will be blurre d and distorte d, like looking at oncoming traffic through a rain-cove re d windscre e n. I don’t e ve n know if the pre vious se gme nt re calle d is actually the pre vious se gme nt at all. I might have gone through a whole cycle and had it wipe d from my mind comple te ly be twe e n what appe ars to be the now and what I think to have be e n the just be fore now. I might have gone through two 22


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

se gments. I might have gone through thre e . It could be a whole ye ar’s worth of time that’s passe d for all I know. Once , I woke up on the kitche n floor with an e mpty pill jar ne xt to me . I could re me mbe r quite cle arly e ve rything I’d done the pre vious pe riod as I re calle d it, right up to ge tting home be fore the te n minute signal and going up to be d. The re we re no pills and nothing to do with the kitche n floor anywhe re to be found in that me mory. I have no way of knowing the e ve nts that pre ce de my awake nings. I ge t up, turn on the be dside light and put on my slippe rs and dre ssing gown. I go downstairs to the kitche n. I fill the ke ttle and turn it on. I put two white slice s of bre ad into the toaste r. I switch on the radio. The radio show is always one of four pre se nte rs. Two play classical, two play lounge . The y ne ve r me ntion the time of day or the date . The only thing the y e ve r talk about is what re cord the y just put on and what the y’re going to put on ne xt. The re are no othe r stations, in fact the radio doe sn’t e ve n have a tuning dial. I’m not actually sure what a tuning dial is, e xce pt it se ems to me you should be able to choose be twe e n diffe re nt radio stations or why would you call the m ‘stations’ inste ad of just ‘the radio’? The phrase that sugge sts itse lf to me whe n I think about all that is ‘tuning dial’. I think I re me mbe r turning one once ; I se e a thin re d bar sliding be twe e n tiny 23


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numbe rs. Tuning dials. Of course I re me mbe r tuning dials. I take out margarine and a jar of marmalade from the fridge . I’m running low on marmalade . I put both be side the toaste r and take off the ir lids, and I take out a plastic knife from the cutle ry drawe r. I spre ad the knife with margarine – a long, pale ye llow we dge , e nough for two slice s – and le ave it lying across the rim of the ope n tub. I like to spre ad the toast the instant it pops up. If you le ave it more than a fe w se conds the n the surface harde ns and absorbs le ss, and it just doe sn’t taste the same . I go into the living room and turn on the be ige compute r so that it can start up whilst I wait for the toast. It be e ps and a fan starts up from some whe re inside it. A little gre e n cursor appe ars in the top le ft corne r of the scre e n. I can’t re membe r e xactly whe n I first discove re d the compute r, othe r than that it was a fe w se gme nts afte r the first. I'd woke n up and the front door had re maine d close d for hours, so I’d fiddle d with e ve rything that could be fiddle d with to kill time . I’d looke d through the re cords – Jame s Last, He nry Mancinni, Ne lson Riddle , Burt Bacharach, and some classical colle ctions – and playe d tracks from them on the turntable . I’d e xamine d the books. The y we re mostly historical romance s. Whe n e ventually I turne d the compute r on it took 24


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a couple of minute s to do its little start-up routine . Afte r thirty se conds or so, the gre e n cursor was re placed by a me ssage in the middle of the screen that said, “Loading sim…” Finally, the scre e n we nt blank and a thre e dime nsional room appe are d on it, ide ntical in e ve ry way to the room I was actually sitting in. The re was e ven a man sitting on the couch in the same spot as I was, we aring what looke d like the e xact same blue trouse rs and ye llow shirt. The vie w was from be hind and above him, and for a mome nt I thought it actually might be me that I was looking at and I looke d be hind me at the ce iling to see if I could spot a watchful e ye . I raise d my right hand and wave d it, e xpe cting to see the man on the scre e n do the same thing. He did not. The re we re lots of buttons around the e dges of the scre e n. One of the m said, ‘Stand up.” I move d the chunky mouse across the coffe e table a little and clicke d on this, half e xpe cting my own body to be je rke d some how into an upright position. But only the man on the compute r stood up. A small he lp window ope ne d across the scre e n, it re ad, ‘You can move your avatar around using your compute r ke yboard’s arrow ke ys.’ I close d the window and pre ssed the up ke y on the ke yboard, and the man be came animate d, as though walking up stairs; he clambe re d on top of his own ke yboard and the n on top of the compute r itse lf, the n de scended the 25


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othe r side of the coffe e table . For some reason, I looke d in the re al world at the spot he now occupie d. I re me mbe r doing that quite distinctly. I pre sse d the le ft arrow ke y and my ‘avatar’ turne d on the spot to his le ft; I pre ssed the right arrow ke y and he turne d on the spot to his right. I e xplore d the house on the compute r scre e n. Eve rything was e xactly as it was in my actual house . I e nde d up at the front door and a ne w he lp window ope ne d up whe n I bumpe d into it: ‘Click on doors to ope n the m’. I clicke d on the front door and it ope ne d. At that, I wonde re d if I’d some how misse d the signal and got up to che ck the re al front door. I re me mber that, whe n I found that it was still locke d, I tappe d on it, te ntative ly, with my finge rtips, as though the mouse ’s magic might some how e xte nd to the re al world. But the door re maine d locke d. Re turning to the compute r, I walke d my avatar ove r the thre shold, out into the night that lay be yond it. Once I’d walke d him to the e nd of Wildwood Close , howe ve r, I could se e that the sky be yond the fall of Be rman hill was gre y inste ad of black. I followe d Holly Ave nue in that dire ction and branched off across the grass at the first of the zigzag be nds, just like I did on my first re al life e xploration. By the time I re ache d the cutaway ridge , stre aks of ye llow had appe are d on the horizon and I could se e 26


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

cle arly the se a be yond the glass wall. It was utte rly still. I followe d the glass back down to Love rs’ Vie w, the n continue d across the meadow on the othe r side , pushing through the long grass all the way to the Gre at Black Barrie r. I’d discove re d the Gre at Black Barrie r in Re al maybe a couple of cycles be fore . It stre tche s across the whole island as though it was droppe d from a he ight and cut its way through e ve rything on the way down. It e ve n bise cts a fe w of the buildings. In the library, individual books are split down the ir spine whe re it cuts across the Romance se ction. It fe e ls warm like plastic; but whe n you rap it with your knuckle s, it sounds thick like concre te . In Re al, the barrier had appe are d to stre tch up as far as I could se e , be coming one with the black, starle ss sky. On the compute r, howe ve r, I could se e that it we nt up for maybe twe nty me tre s or so, the n stoppe d. Some words appe are d sudde nly at the bottom of my scre e n: Everyone experiences something different on the other side. I turne d my compute r man around and found him facing a woman with dark hair and a ye llow dre ss. For a mome nt, she stood the re doing nothing, looking like a de partme nt store manne quin. “Who are you?” I said to the compute r. In re sponse , she re volved through pe rhaps a fifte e n de gre e angle and the n walke d a little close r to me . 27


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Hello, by the way. The ne w words appe are d be ne ath the pre vious se nte nce , which now fade d slowly away. A slight pause and the n: I don’t think we’ve met, but forgive me if we have. Anothe r pause . I’m very forgetful. We all are here. Pause . My name is Ms Needle. “He llo, Ms Ne e dle ,” I said to the compute r. Are you new here? Was I ne w? I supposed I had to be . That implie d the re had be e n some thing Be fore . “I think so,” I said. The re was a long pause . I looke d at the ke yboard. Whe re had I got the ide a from that one could talk to a compute r? I type d my noncommittal comment in. Whe n I pre ssed the e nte r ke y, my comme nt appeared on the screen below he rs. I have no ide a how I know to hit the e nte r ke y at the e nd of a se ntence, nor e ven that I know the big fat ke y to the right side of the ke yboard is in fact calle d the ‘e nte r’ ke y. But I do know the se things, some how. Did they put you in number six? Ms Ne e dle aske d. I’m in number four. You’re in number four right now? I re plie d and turne d in my place on the se tte e to look at the wall be twe e n us. Of course, she re plie d. Where else would I be? I we nt into the kitche n and got a mug from the cupboard, the n re turne d to the living room and started tapping the e dge of its base against the wall. 28


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

Can you hear that? I pause d to type the que stion and the n continue d. I can’t hear anything, she re plie d. What are you doing? I’m tapping on the wall with the base of a coffee mug, I told he r. Surely you can hear? No. All the houses are soundproofed. But this is impact noise rather than airborne noise. I wasn’t sure how I kne w that e ithe r. You try it. Okay, Mr Soundproofing Expert. A pause of about a minute . The n: So, did you hear it? I think I re me mbe r all of this so cle arly be cause my he art was be ating with e xcite me nt and appre he nsion. I wante d so badly to he ar a tapping coming through the wall. At the same time , I was fe arful that I actually would. It fe lt like we we re bre aking a rule . I’ve had e nough inte ractions now with the othe rs that I know who the y are and I re cognise the m, but I can’t re call e ve ry conve rsation. Some me morie s are distinct. Othe rs are blurre d and vague . Sometimes, they refer to a conversation I was part of and I have no re colle ction of it at all. I re call he aring no tapping coming from the wall, but maybe I just don’t re me mbe r it right. Late r on – I’m pre tty sure on the same occasion – we we re sitting on the be nch at Love rs’ Vie w. She taught me how to do that. I had to move the mouse so that the little arrow on the scre e n was positione d 29


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ove r the be nch, the n click the mouse button for a little on-scre e n me nu that had ‘Sit’ at the top of it. I type d in, Who are ‘they’? I don’t know what you mean, came the re ply. When you asked if I was in number six, you asked if ‘they’ had put me in here. I have no idea who ‘they’ are. A pause . ‘They’ are those who decide. Some time afte r that, I was standing in he r living room and she was te lling me I could stay with he r if I wante d, but that probably I might want to me e t the othe rs. She said to the be st of he r knowle dge the y we re down at the bar, but he r le isure time was approaching and it was bad manne rs to turn up and the n log out just like that. I aske d he r how many othe rs the re we re and she told me the re we re pe ople in all the house s up to mine , e xce pt no-one kne w who live d at numbe r one and you couldn’t look inside it, e ve n on the compute r. So that made thre e more pe ople afte r he r and me : two of the m wome n and a man in numbe r thre e . She said that se x would be inte re sting now that the re we re two guys in the street; I wante d to ask he r what that me ant but couldn’t figure a way of wording it that wasn’t e mbarrassing. In any case, the n she just vanished. I supposed it was he r le isure time . I got up and we nt to the window and cuppe d my hands around my e ye s and squinte d so I could make out the orange glow of the stre e t 30


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

lamp. For a mome nt, I thought I could just about make out a moving shadow to my le ft. But I might have be e n imagining it. Or I might just be re me mbe ring it wrong. I re turn to the living room with my toast, the margarine soaking pe rfe ctly into it and the marmalade spre ad e ve nly across the top. I se t this and the mug of te a I also carry be side the compute r and sit on the couch in front of it. My avatar sits on the couch on the scre e n, just like he did on that first login. I stand him up and guide him out of the house with the finge rs of my right hand whilst my le ft lifts the first pie ce of toast to my mouth. Crumbs spill onto the ke yboard and I pause to brush the m away, some slipping be twe e n the ke ys in the proce ss. The space unde rneath must look like a toaster crumb tray by now. My toaster doe sn’t have a crumb tray; I have to hold it upside down ove r the sink pe riodically and shake it e mpty. I don’t know how I know about crumb trays, e xce pt I have a me mory of sliding one out and banging it cle an on the rim of a bin. It’s not a single me mory. It brings back a fe e ling of satisfaction. I once like d cle aning out crumb tra ys, I gue ss. But I don’t know whe re or whe n or how many time s. Or what I e njoye d on my toast. I find Ne e dle waiting for me at the play park. She ’s sitting on the roundabout. She te lls me , When 31


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it’s my turn, I’ll come here and leave something for you. Like what? I ask. I’ll fold up a napkin from the restaurant and wedge it between the slats. I type , I wish there were pens here. Then you could leave me a message. The napkin will be the message, she write s back. We walk down to the high stre e t and take a look in the clothe s shop. She buys a white dre ss with an e mpire waist and pe rsuade s me to ge t a pair of black swimming shorts for the be ach. Whe n we come out, the sun has gone te mporarily in and the re d spotlight from the top of the Gre at Black Barrie r locate s me . You never told me what you found there last time, she comme nts. I don’t recall, I re ply. Exce pt I do. I activate flight mode and take off into the air. Be low me , the buildings slip away; I se e all the way to the be ach, whe re the othe rs are sitting in a triangle on the sand. I fly up to the top of the Gre at Black Barrie r, and over.

32


3 The Gre at Black Barrie r

If it’s not your turn and you fly up to the top of the barrie r, you hit an invisible wall that stops you from going any furthe r. Now the wall is gone and I fly ove r a long, wide plain of black. In the ce ntre, the re’s a white ope ning. I come to a stop above it and hove r for a mome nt, the n ge ntly de sce nd within. The Gre at Black Barrier is in fact a Great Black Box. Inside it, howe ve r, the walls and roof are transpare nt. You wouldn’t know that you we re inside anything at all. Be low me is anothe r black box and I fly ove r the top of it back in the dire ction I came from until I re ach the end. The n I lowe r myself to the ground in front of the e ntrance . You have to approach your contents in a ce rtain way. The y have to be e xpe rie nce d in a spe cific orde r. A fe w yards away, Ne e dle is standing facing me . She ’s on the othe r side of the Barrie r, unable to se e 33


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anything but black, but we have this agreement that the one will always stand there for the other on the outside . I walk right up to he r until the Barrier stops me. I’m here, I write , though I know she won’t be able to se e it. I turn to face the e ntrance . It’s a wide ope ning halfway along the inne r box. Inside , I se e what looks like a hospital corridor running le ft-right be fore me . I ste p into it and the e ntrance close s be hind me , be come s a wall with a notice board on which are tacke d minute s of pre vious union me e tings, an age nda for the next and a he alth and a safe ty at work poste r. In the wall in front of me the re is a door. Invisible walls pre ve nt me from travelling e ithe r way down the corridor. I se e nurse avatars trave rsing short le ngths of it, clipboards in the ir hand. I don’t know who the se actors are. I’ve trie d talking to the m in the past, but the y ne ve r answe r. In the wall in front of me , the re is a woode n door to a private room. The door strike s me as incongruous; in a hospital so full of comple x e quipme nt, how dare doors pe rvade , with the ir antiquate d arrange me nt of handle s and hinge s? I e nte r. A boy of about te n ye ars is sitting on a be d and a doctor is sitting on a chair in front of him. He is le aning forward, pe rche d on the e dge of his se at. His e lbows are re sting on his kne e s. His hands are grasping e ach othe r. The boy’s face is pale . His e ye s are we t. A te ar is 34


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

froze n part-way down his che e k. A man and a woman are standing ne xt to the doctor. The ir face s are flicke ring. Expre ssions of calmne ss, of re assurance , of che e rful hope are inte rlace d with the contortions of rage , of agony, of fury. I am sudde nly outrage d. I am sudde nly grie f stricke n. I am sudde nly ove rcome with the urge to smash e verything the re in the room. Use le ss fucking hospitals. But I am not actually in the room. I am not actually in the hospital. I am in my lounge in front of the compute r. I scre am. I kick the coffe e table and coffe e slops ove r the rim of my mug. I pick up the mug and hurl it at the window, whe re it smashe s. The mug, I me an. I jump out of my se at and race across to the fragme nts, pick up the large st and sharpe st and hold it across the inside of my wrist. At last. At last. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this be fore . Sudde nly, e ve rything is finishe d. Sudde nly, I am in the place I know I’ve always wante d to be in. I raise the shard and plunge it into my arte ry, and a hot spray of blood hits me in the face . Ye s. Yes. I am kne e ling. I sit back on the carpe t. I lie back on the carpe t. I fe e l lighthe ade d. Eve rything goe s fuzzy. “You must have known,” I say to the ce iling. “It was only a matte r of time .” The time be fore, I was in a hote l room. The guy I just 35


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saw in the hospital room – not the doctor, the othe r guy – was having se x with some one . I don’t know who. She was lying on he r back and he r le gs we re wrappe d around his waist. He r arms we re locke d around his ne ck and shoulde rs. He r mouth was froze n ope n in orgasm be side his e ar and he r e ye s scre we d tightly shut. I couldn’t se e his face ; it was burie d in he r ne ck. The way the muscle s in his le gs and ass we re straine d, it looke d like he was in climax too, e mptying himse lf into he r. I didn’t te ll Ne e dle about it be cause she ’d de scribe d in he r own re colle ction of a Barrie r e xpe rie nce once an almost ide ntical sce ne . I do some time s wonde r if the sce ne s just ge t rotate d amongst us, but e ve ryone has this firm be lie f that the y’re all unique and pe rsonal. It got me thinking about Be fore . We all know that logically the re must have be en a Be fore , but none of us can re me mbe r a thing about it. Whe n I looke d at those two, the woman curle d around the guy in just the way that Ne e dle had de scribed, I started to wonde r if the sce ne was actually a me mory from Be fore and that I was the guy and Ne e dle was the woman. I re me mbe r he r te lling me and Whe el about it – Whe e l got irate whe n she did, claiming Barrie r stuff shouldn’t be share d and that was the rule (though if it is, I’ve ye t to se e it printe d anywhe re ). The me ntal image of the two of us toge the r made me instantly hard and whe n I shut 36


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

my e ye s I could sme ll mome ntarily pe rfume e dge d with swe at and I could fe e l the pre ss of damp, slightly tacky skin. I didn’t te ll Ne e dle about it be cause of what sort of me mory it might activate . It was too much unce rtainty. And what if Ne e dle and I had just fucke d othe r pe ople at diffe rent time s, but by chance in a similar looking hote l room in a similar looking se x position? Ne ithe r factor is e xactly unique . If I told he r about the sce ne , might we start jointly re me mbering things we ’d ne ve r actually done ? What if the re ne ve r was a Be fore and the purpose of the Now is to cre ate it? I wake from sle e p. I’m sitting on the sofa. My wrist is scarre d and ache s a little , but looks se ve ral we e ks he ale d. I don’t quite re me mbe r how it got that way. Hot coffe e waits for me in a mug on the table . I am we aring my clothe s. I re call the barrie r mome ntarily and how it fe e ls so smooth and warm. I turn on the compute r and, whilst it starts up, I shut my e ye s and sit back on the sofa, and se e stre e t lights within touching distance be low and cars crawling lazily across our path. A be arded man whispe rs in my e ar, “The re ’s some one I want you to me e t.” The phone rings. “Good e ve ning, Mr King,” the clippe d voice te lls me . “I’m afraid a me mbe r of the cre w be came sudde nly ve ry poorly.” 37


SIM

“What?” I re ply. “What cre w?” “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” “I don’t unde rstand. Who is ill?” “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” “Ye s.” “You will be se ate d at table thre e . Liste n for the signal.” I walk down to the re staurant whe n the signal come s, thinking the re should be a cool bre eze to e njoy on any walk to any re staurant. Outside the e ntrance , I look up for no particular re ason at the roof and wonde r if I could ge t up onto it. The walls are plain concre te with no obvious footholds, but if the glass door was ope n the n the handle might just take my we ight. The roof ove rhangs the e ntrance. I’d be able to ge t my hands to it if I was pe rche d on the handle of the door, but it would be finge rs only. I doubt my ability to pull myse lf up like that, plus I’d be swinging. If I could ge t onto the roof, I could walk out across the cantile ve r to the far side drop and jump off. I don’t know if that would kill me , but it might. I jog across the island to the beach afte r my me al. He re , the pe rfe ct sand dips into wate r for thre e fe e t horizontally be fore finding the glass wall. The wate r is fre sh. I take off my shoes and socks and paddle up and down ne xt to the glass. On the othe r side , the pond se a stre tche s to infinity. I crouch so that my 38


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

re ar just skims the wate r and I fe e l a cold we t patch spre ad across my arse . I start digging at the sand unde r the wate r at the e dge of the glass, fe e ling how the wall goe s down de e pe r and de e pe r, and the surrounding sand tips into and fills the te mporary hole I’ve cre ated. I walk back onto the be ach and start drawing with my finge r. I cre ate a house and thre e stick figure s be side it. The n I draw a plane ove rhe ad. The n I draw a pe nis standing like a statue in the garde n. I de cide sudde nly that the se are the thre e corne rs of a triangle and draw a large isosce le s around the whole lot. We’re a study, says Picture . We are sitting in he r living room. In he r living room on the compute r, that is. It’s the only thing that makes sense. We’re not a study, Whe e l state s. What could anyone possibly learn from this that’s in any way generalizable? I’m sure we ’ve had this conve rsation be fore . And yet, here we are, says Ne e dle . What we are, Whe e l continue s, is being punished. Punished for what? I ask. I don’t know for what. I’m just saying this is punishment. It feels like punishment. It’s hardly a prison, Picture says. Are you kidding me? It’s exactly a prison. Except if it was it’d be a thousand times more expensive than any prison I ever heard of before. 39


SIM

What do you know about expense? Whe el asks. What do you know about prisons? Ne e dle says, Maybe we died. And this is hell? Whe e l asks. Well, it sure ain’t heaven. I was thinking purgatory, she re plie s. Purgatory doesn’t exist, he states. Wheel states stuff all the time . I don’t know how I know that, but I do. If this isn’t a study¸ Picture says, then what purpose does the house at number one serve? What does being a study have to do with the house at number one having a purpose? Isn’t it obvious? she asks. Its whole function is to arouse our curiosity. Its function is ‘them’ stuff, Whe el state s. Either they live there or that’s where they enter this place. Maybe it ’s where they stash their equipment. I think, says Ne e dle , that somebody lives there, just like we do in our houses. Only he doesn’t like being with other people. This might be hell for us, but for him it’s a kind of heaven. If we could only measure the passing of time, Picture says, then we might be able to work out some of the patterns. Patterns? Whe e l says. What patterns? Like how long an outside session actually lasts and how long there is between the end of one and the start of another. 40


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

Why does there have to be a pattern? I ask. Well, quite, Whe e l says. You’d need to be able to write things down too, says Ne e dle . That’s true, I would, Picture re plie s. Whe el says, Just suppose they gave you a watch: how would you know they weren’t fiddling with it whilst you were sleeping? Well of course I wouldn’t. Anything we got ‘given’ would be suspect. We should pool together everything we know about them, Ne e dle state s. Yes, let’s fill up our minds before someone opens the taps and empties them all over, Whe e l says. What fun. I saw a van, once, I offe r, trying to be he lpful. We’ve all seen the van, Whe e l re plie s. Did you see the driver? I think Ne e dle is spe aking to me . No-one’s seen the driver, Whe e l re plie s. Or we’ve seen the driver and then forgotten that we’ve seen the driver, Picture says. Does anyone know how long we’ve been here? I ask. I remember it was once just me and Match, says Picture . Match is curre ntly in the outside . But I don’t remember the first time you all were here. They’ve killed our long-term memory, Whe e l state s. Nothing gets stored properly any more. Nothing. It must be drugs that they use, Picture says. Either 41


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there’s something in the food or it’s some sort of gas. Can anyone remember anything from Before? I have a fe e ling I’ve alre ady aske d this que stion of the m. Many, many time s. I know there’s a place called Paris and it has the Eiffel Tower, Ne e dle says. I know there’s a place called London and it has Ben Big. But how I know these things I have no idea. Whether or not I’ve visited or even lived in these places, I have no idea. Isn’t it Big Ben? I say. Not Ben Big. No no, Picture says, It’s definitely Ben Big. Ben Big is what I recall, says Whe e l. I think about it. Yeah, you’re right. Of course it’s Ben Big. ‘Big Ben’, says Ne e dle . How funny. I vote King gets called ‘Big Ben’ from now on, says Picture . I chuckle at my compute r scre e n. I suppose I could be called worse, I te ll the m. At least, for as long as we remember, Whe e l says. As long as we remember King or as long as we remember to call him Ben Big ? Big Ben, corre cts Whe e l. And both. Why would you forget about me? I ask. Are you expecting me to leave? You make that sound like that would be a bad thing, Whe e l comme nts. I wonder if there have been others before who we’ve 42


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

already forgotten, Ne e dle says. Maybe the van driver was one of us once, Picture sugge sts. Maybe the van driver lives at number one, re sponds Ne e dle . How do I know, I ask, that one of you isn’t the van driver? I don’t know, King, re plie s Picture . How do you? He doesn’t, says Whe e l. You don’t. Really, Big Ben? says Ne e dle . You think one of us is a collaborator? For all I know, I say, you could all be collaborators. Careful, King, cautions Picture . That’s a solipslippery slope you’re stood at the top of. I didn’t say I don’t think any of you exist, I re ply. Although now that you mention it… If I’m a figment of your imagination, Ne e dle says, then you, Sir, have a filthy imagination. I re ach out and touch the Gre at Black Barrie r. It fe e ls solid like concre te , but smooth like plastic. Whe n I rap it with my knuckle s, it bare ly make s a sound. I spre ad the finge rs of both my hands across the surface and pre ss my e ar flat against it. I he ar a faint, almost inaudible hiss. The wall folds itse lf around me . I slide slowly to the ground, thinking it must be

43


4 Re cursion

The phone rings. “Good e ve ning, Mr King,” the clippe d voice te lls me . “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” I re me mbe r a conve rsation. Some thing about some one drugging the food. “No,” I say. But the n I worry I might not be le t out. “Wait; ye s.” I’ll say that I’m eating, but the n not e at. “You will be se ate d at table thre e . Liste n for the signal.” I ask myse lf, And then what? And why has this ide a to not e at sudde nly occurre d to me just now? I re me mbe r a calm voice , but only for a se cond. The lounge programme is playing on the radio. It’s thirteen minutes past the hour and that was ‘The Touch of Your Lips’, the James Last arrangement from ‘Trumpet A Gogo Three’. We have a whoooole stack of 44


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

James Last LPs here in the studio and that was from 1968. We’re going to remain with Hansi for the next track, but jump forward seven years to 1975 and volume 20 of his ‘Non-Stop Dancing’ series. This is ‘Laughter in the Raaaaaaain’. I turn on the compute r, forge tting for a mome nt that the door will soon be ope n. It be e ps and a fan starts up from some whe re inside it. A little gre e n cursor appe ars in the top le ft corne r. Unable to connect to Sim. The n the front door unlocks with a click and I ge t up to le ave the house, wonde ring what’s on the me nu today. I re member a conversation. Some thing about some one drugging the food. Maybe I won’t go to the re staurant. I can always e at toast late r. I re alise I’m not we aring my shoe s and run quickly upstairs to ge t the m. Halfway down, I ask myse lf why I re ally ne e d the m. Eve rything is cle an outside . Eve rything is smooth and absolutely nothing at all is sharp. ‘Laughter in the Rain’, there, from James Last . It’s twenty-nine minutes to the hour and you’re listening to The Lounge Show. We’ve got music from Franck Pourcel and Henry Mancini coming up. But first, a track from Nelson Riddle’s amazing 1972 LP, ‘Communication’: ‘Uptown Daaaaaance’. I stop outside Ne e dle ’s house and pe e r through he r window. Vague ly, I make out a pool of light and 45


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an archway like the one le ading to my dining room. It doe sn’t make se nse . It’s dark outside and light inside : I should be able to see much more than this. I bang on the window. A dark shape ge ts up and approaches me, and sudde nly I can see nothing as the curtains are drawn. Didn’t I once bang on he r wall and ask he r if she could he ar it? How do I know she was te lling the truth whe n she said that she couldn’t? How do I know anyone le aves their houses e xcept me ? How do I know if the pe ople I conne ct with are e ve n in the house s of this stre e t? The y could be anywhe re . That would e xplain the lack of sound conduction. Eve ry house might be in its own sim, e ach stacke d one on top of the othe r. Pe rhaps that’s why the sky is e mpty of stars. But the n who would that make the pe rson in the house in front of me who just dre w the ir curtains? I cup my hands toge the r around my e ye s and pe e r in through the m, but now I can se e nothing at all. In the re staurant, I turn the ide a ove r in my he ad whilst I e at frie d live r and boile d potatoe s. The y couldn’t just put e ight sims on top of e ach othe r: it would we igh too much. The re ’s nothing on the island othe r than the barrie r that could support that sort of we ight; though pe rhaps the barrie r in Re al is a solid block the le ngth of the sim or longe r, e ach laye r ove rhanging just like the re staurant cantile ve r. That 46


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

would do it. At the e nd of the me al, I sit in one of the e asy chairs in the foye r and flip through a magazine on home inte riors. Pape r. If only I could write some thing. I think for a mome nt about using my blood as ink and bre aking off a le af from a ne arby rubbe r plant so that I can use its ste m as a quill. I think sudde nly about a hospital; I don’t know why. I look at my wrist. The re is nothing unusual about it. What would I write , in any case ? Who would I write to? Eve n if I could write some thing down, it would be se e n and take n away. But how do things ge t se e n in the first place ? I de cide that the re must be came ras watching me , and that the y must be e ve rywhe re . I stand and the room sways a little . Just one : I want to find just one of the m. Only so much can be hidde n. I e xamine the knots in the wood pane lling opposite , e ach smooth with the surrounding surface . I look up and it’s as though what I se e can’t quite ke e p up with what my e ye s are looking at. The discre pancy make s me stagger. And the n I notice a movement at the very e dge of my vision. I look through the doors and se e the white van pulling into the lot in front of the re staurant. Where in blaze s do the y hide that thing? I run at the door, but my hands miss the push plate and I crash into the glass. My mome ntum ope ns it just the same and I ge t about twe nty de gre e s to fall through. 47


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For a mome nt, the pain from my kne e make s me angry and things all straighte n out a little . I stand. The van is about te n fe e t away. Just te n fe e t. But I only manage three of the m and the n I sit back down, my e ye s aching. I want to sle e p. The re is a van in front of me . The re is a van. The re is a van. I turn on the compute r and go back into the kitche n to make toast, but first I hold the toaste r upside down ove r the sink and shake out the crumbs. The y drop like de ad fle as onto the stainle ss ste e l. I turn on the tap to wash the m away, but I turn it on too hard and the wate r splashes my sle e ve . All of a sudde n, I fe e l the abse nce of be ing in a hurry. Once upon a time , actions like this we re unconscious things that happe ne d in the conte xt of othe r goings on. In the Be fore , the re would rare ly have been a moment whe n turning on the tap was the only thing that was happe ning right the n. And the re was light. The re was a window in front of the sink. The re we re potte d plants on the sill. ‘Laughter in the Raaaaaaaain’. James Last, there. It’s twenty-nine minutes to the hour, folks. You’re listening to The Lounge Show. Coming up, we’ve got music from Franck Pourcel and Henry Mancini. First, though, a track from Nelson Riddle’s amazing 1972 LP, ‘Communication’. This is ‘Uptown Daaaaaance’. I drop two slice s of bre ad into the toaste r and 48


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

push down the le ve r. The re is always a ne w loaf of bre ad in the bre adbin, just as the re is always a ne w pint of milk and a ne w tub of margarine in the fridge , and a ne w box of cornflake s in the cupboard. I hate cornflake s. I don’t suppose I’ve e ve r e ate n the m. Pe rhaps it isn’t a ne w box e ach time , the n; pe rhaps it’s the same box that’s be e n he re all along. Whilst my bre ad toasts, I ge t the box of cornflake s out and run my finge r along the top. No dust. But pe rhaps it just ge ts dusted. I re gard the picture on the front with disdain. The y make the m look so crunchy, but whe ne ve r I think of cornflake s I think of soggy little pie ce s of cardboard sliding around on my tongue . “Just so that you know,” I say, in a loud voice , “I hate cornflake s.” It can’t hurt to me ntion it. My toast pops up. I spre ad the margarine. I he ad back to the lounge and the compute r. A private me ssage from Ne e dle is fading in the bottom-le ft corne r of the scre e n. My avatar sits on the couch in front of his compute r. I go to click on him to stand him up whilst I put my plate down ne xt to the ke yboard. Be cause my atte ntion is divide d by the two move me nts, I don’t hold the plate straight and my knife starts to slide . I corre ct the angle , but my mouse pointe r misse s its targe t and I click on the miniature compute r inste ad of my avatar. All of a sudde n, it be e ps and tiny gre e n le tte rs appe ar on its 49


SIM

scre e n. Curious, I zoom in on this compute r within the compute r. “Loading sim…” And, pre sently, I see an avatar sitting on the couch in front of a coffe e table with a compute r on it. I click on this se cond avatar, like I would click on my normal man to stand him up, but it doe sn’t re spond. I’m just clicking on a pie ce of virtual glass. I type in, “He llo?” on my re al world ke yboard, but the worlds appe ar on my screen, not the screen within the scre en. So I zoom in on the ke yboard and click on the le tte r H, the n pan back up to look at the e dit box on the scre e n within the scre e n, whe re my H stands alone like a pair of folde d arms. I click on the mouse and move my own in e xpe rime ntal circle s; the mouse on the scre e n move s in union with its re al world controlle r and a tiny pointe r on the se cond scre e n goe s round and round and round. It is difficult to control it with pre cision. What is this sim within a sim? I se nd a me ssage to Ne e dle . Did you ever turn on the computer on the computer? She re plie s, What do you mean? The computer on the table in your virtual house, I type . Did you ever turn it on? I don’t think so, she answe rs. I didn’t realise I could. Click on it now. See what happens. 50


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

But I’m not at home, she te lls me . Where are you? I ask. At the beach. Will you join me? But this might be important, I type . There could be a whole other hidden sim. Look later. I might not remember later. For all you know, you might have done this a hundred times already. Then again, I re ply, I might not. Afte r a fe w se conds, she e nte rs, Fine. Do what you want. I alte r the vie w on the monitor, zooming out so I can se e both the mouse and the simulate d scre e n, the n I click on the mouse and move it so that its own tiny pointe r move s towards the miniature avatar. It’s like trying to write with my le ft hand, but finally – pixe l by painstaking pixe l – I manage it. I re le ase the button on the re al mouse and the n move its pointer so it’s hove ring ove r the virtual mouse ’s button. I click; it clicks: the man stands up. Smooth saxophone floats out of the radio whilst I fiddle with the virtual ke yboard, clicking on the various arrow ke ys to move what I think I’ll call from this point on the ‘se cond avatar’ out of the living room and ove r to the front door. More me ssing with the virtual mouse . At last, I ge t the se cond pointe r onto the door and all the buttons line d up. I click; the virtual mouse clicks. But the door re mains close d. 51


SIM

The phone starts ringing. I ge t up to answe r it. “Good e ve ning, Mr King,” the clippe d voice te lls me . “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” I re ply, “I will.” I notice that a line of te xt has appeared across the bottom of the virtual scre e n, but it’s too small for me to re ad from whe re the te le phone is. “You will be se ate d at table thre e . Liste n for the signal.” I hurry back to the couch, catching the te xt just as it starts to fade . It says, The telephone is ringing. I ge t the se cond avatar back into the lounge and click-click on his phone . This should be inte re sting: the first avatar’s virtual phone never rings; at le ast, not that I can re call. The se cond avatar goe s through an animation of picking up the re ce ive r and putting it to his e ar. A ne w line of te xt re ads, Telephone voice: Good evening, Mr King. Will you be dining tonight at the restaurant? Slowly, picking out e ach ke y on the virtual ke yboard with my mouse , I type , yes and click Re turn. Telephone voice: You will be seated at table three. Listen for the signal. Right at the same mome nt, my actual door clicks ope n and so now I’m caught in a dile mma: do I stay and inve stigate the world outside the se cond avatar’s door or do I go e at my dinne r and have my walk in the ope n? I try some thing I don’t think I’ve e ver trie d before: I take one of the dining room chairs and use it to 52


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

we dge the front door ope n. Whe n I ge t back to the compute r, ne w te xt has appe are d on the bottom of the scre e n – the actual scre e n, not the simulate d one . Are you still messing about with the computer? It’s Ne e dle again. I just got the signal, I re ply. I’m going out. That’s not possible, she te lls me. Wheel just messaged me to say he got the signal. It take s maybe two se conds for the implications of this to re gister fully, the n I bolt out of the lounge and through the front door. Outside , the door to numbe r thre e is ajar and light shine s through; a mome ntary te mptation to go inside and se e a space I haven’t been in be fore lose s out instantly to the de sire to se e anothe r re al human be ing. I run to the e nd of the road and look down Holly Ave nue … …and se e a distant man e ntering the re staurant. I start to run again, waving my arms and shouting as I do. “He y! He y!! Whe el! Whe el!!” I’ve cove re d half of the distance whe n I notice I have a ne w shadow in front of me that darke ns as I look at it. I he ar an e ngine . A horn sounds. Rubbe r shrie ks as brakes are forcibly applie d. I stop and turn. The white van. It cannot possibly stop in time . And I fre e ze .

53


5 The white van

What would you have done, Whe e l asks, if you’d caught up with me? I am sitting with him and Ne e dle and He dge s outside The Gre at Black Barrie r. Picture is on the othe r side . I have no idea, I re ply. Maybe shake you by the hand? How typical, He dge s comments. The first time they let two of us out together and it has to be the two men. I hardly think what happened constitutes ‘together’, I re mark. But you saw another person, Ne e dle insists. For a brief moment. In the distance. Even so! I’d have kissed whoever I met, Ne e dle te lls us. Full on the mouth. I wouldn’t even stop to say hello first. I’d have fucked whoever I met, He dge s states. Man or woman. Right there where we stood. Ne e dle is indignant. Hands off him! she says. King 54


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

is mine! Sorry, honey, He dge s re plie s. You know I love you. But I wouldn’t pass up on an opportunity like that. What do you say to that, t hen, King? Whe e l asks. Would you have fucked me if we’d met? Since the idea hadn’t even occurred to me, I re ply, I suppose the answer would have to be no. Typical, He dge s says again. I sometimes think skin is wasted on men. You’d do just as well if you were made out of aluminium. And you really feel no pain from the collision? Ne e dle asks me , pe rhaps ke e n to change the subje ct. None at all, I re ply. I can’t actually remember being hit. I don’t think that’s unusual, Whe e l comme nts. Not remembering the pain, I mean. Well anyway, it must have been a mistake, He dge s says. Why let two people out at the same time only to then run one of them over before they get the chance to make contact? Someone messed up. And then they panicked. Undoubtedly, Whe e l agre e s. So there’s not much point in us getting all excited over meeting each other in the flesh, however much the very thought of it might be giving me goosebumps right now. Ohhhhh, goosebumps – me too! Ne e dle says. Now that you’ve mentioned fucking, Whe e l comme nts, I’m having an altogether different physiological reaction. 55


SIM

If only they could make it rain here, says He dge s. Then that would be perfect. Sex in the rain? Ne e dle asks. Kinky! I’d settle just for rain all by itself. I’d strip off in it. I have this memory from Before. I don’t know when or where. I just recall stripping off my clothes in a thunderstorm. I bent over so I was touching my toes, then I reached all the way up and pulled my ass cheeks open so I could feel the raindrops on my anus. Would you excuse me for a moment please? Whe e l says. If you need to cum then cum, He dge s e nters quickly. Share the pleasure! But Whe e l is gone . I just don’t get his pseudo-secrecy, she comme nts. He’s a private person, Ne e dle says. She doe sn’t re ally approve of He dge s’ dire ctne ss. If he was that private, he wouldn’t have told us anything. I mean, King’s very quiet – I bet he’s jerking himself off as we speak. I am not, I e nte r hurrie dly, the n re gre t the comme nt’s sharpne ss. We need another orgy, Ne e dle says. It’s been too long since the last one. We’re clamming up. So let’s do it, He dge s says. He r top disappe ars; she ’s we aring a black lace bra be ne ath it. Now? asks Ne e dle . Why not? We haven’t planned it. 56


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

What’s to plan? I say, I don’t think it was a mistake. Letting two of us out at the same time? Obviously, it was a mistake, state s He dge s. What makes you think it wasn’t a mistake? asks Ne e dle . It’s funny how I can te ll he r mood from so little . Right now, I know she ’s inte re ste d in my comme nt only be cause it bre aks up He dge s’ flow. I don’t know how I have this intuition. Pe rhaps I kne w some one like he r be fore . I think I was doing something at the time, I say. It was something to do with the computer. Yes, you were on the computer, Ne e dle te lls me . Well, that’s how you knew Wheel was out. I told you. It’s something more than that. I have this feeling I discovered something. It nags at me . A bit before, you were saying something about turning on the computer on the table in the sim, Ne e dle says. Yes! I e nte r. That’s it! It come s back to me sudde nly, the kinae sthe tic me mory of the labour of the se cond pointe r trigge ring the tumble of the re st. That’s it? says He dge s. You turned yours on too? I ask he r. What on Earth would be the point? What on Earth would be the point in what? Whe e l asks, announcing unofficially his re turn. Welcome back, He dge s says, noticing. King managed to turn on the computer on his 57


SIM

computer, Ne e dle te lls him. The virtual computer? Whe e l asks. I thought that was just for show. So did I, I say. But it works just like a real one. There’s another sim in it? Yes, I type . Only the avatar in it’s restricted, just like we are in real life. It can only go outside when it gets the signal. Interesting! And did you get it? I did. At the exact same time as I got the real signal. So I was about to take him outside anyway when Needle told me you were out in Real. He dge s stands up and the n sits down ne xt to Whe el. He r skirt disappe ars. She stretches out on the grass. But why does any of that mean it wasn’t a mistake they let you two out at the same time? Ne e dle asks. What if they didn’t want me to take the second avatar outside? What if letting Wheel out was a distraction t o get me away from the computer? In that case, why didn’t they just turn the second computer off? Whe e l asks. Or the first one. Surely they can do that. He doe sn’t say any more afte r that and e ve ntually Ne e dle give s up fe igning inte re st and we switch to private . We e nd up having se x side -by-side with He dge s and Whe el. Ne e dle is lying on he r back with he r le gs wrappe d around my waist, and he r arms locke d around my ne ck and shoulde rs whe n she 58


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

whispe rs to me in private , I’m going to cum. It’s as though I can he ar he r climax, fe e l he r tighte ning, sme ll the swe at of our se x. Whe e l is right. The y could just have turne d off the compute r. Why was he le t out? Why was I run down? I’m walking now with Ne e dle . We ’re going to the re staurant to have, as she puts it, a date . I have n’t ye t trie d the compute r-within-the -compute r thing again and it’s annoying me be cause I me an to, but othe r stuff ke e ps coming up. Just that I’m re me mbe ring it, howe ve r, is re markable in itse lf. I find I’m recalling more than I used to, I te ll he r. Is that true for you too? Like what? she asks. Like being run down by the van. You were run down by the van? she says. The white van? You don’t remember me telling you? I think I’d remember something like that, she te lls me . Eve rything darke ns for a mome nt and the n I’m bathe d in re d light. I look up. The spotlight on top of the Gre at Black Barrie r has found me again. Nuts, she says. Later, I te ll he r. I jump my avatar into the air. Inside the inne r box, I ste p into the aisle of an aircraft. 59


SIM

The floor rise s steeply in front of me and the plane is full of froze n avatars, the ir finge rs all gripping the e nds of the ir armrests. I climb the slope, pass though first class and he sitate just outside the cockpit door; I turn back and look at the first class trave lle rs . The re are two me n thre e rows down to my right, looking at e ach other. The y are familiar, somehow. One of them is be arde d. I le an across the m and look out of the window. I se e streetlights so close I could re ach out and touch the m. I go back up to the cockpit door and ope n it. Inside , the captain is pulling back hard on the yoke and the co-pilot has his arms crosse d ove r his face . In the lounge I’m actually sitting in, the radio cuts out sudde nly, the panpipe s of a Jame s Last track sile nce d; “Te rribly sorry about that, Ladie s and Ge ntle men,” the pre se nte r says in clippe d Re ce ive d Pronunciation, “I’m afraid a me mbe r of the cre w be came sudde nly ve ry poorly, re quiring a swift landing so that she can re ce ive the me dical care she ne e ds.” How can the se words be re concile d with this sce ne? I re turn to the seats three rows from the front. For the pe ople in this plane , the re can be no more than a fe w se conds of un-violate d life re maining, at which point the first class bodie s and the e conomy class bodie s will be smashe d and squashe d and incine rate d in e qual me asure . This is the ir last 60


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

glimpse of normality; in this froze n mome nt, none of the m know what is about to happe n and that thin little dividing curtain still has some sort of me aning. I suppose that many will die be fore their brains get the chance to re giste r that the ir e nd has arrive d. Is it be tte r to die like this – a fe w se conds of fe ar and unce rtainty, followe d by instant e rasure – than to know the e nd is coming we e ks or months in advance? I think of a doctor. I think of a child. I look at the coffe e mug ne xt to the computer in Re al. It’s a shame the y’re made of me tal. The phone rings. “Good e ve ning, Mr King,” the clippe d voice te lls me . “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” I te ll him, ye s. But I’m not going to e at this time , ne ithe r at my house nor at the re staurant. I swe ar the y put some thing in the food. This time , I’m going to go out and await the arrival of the white van. I walk all the way down Holly Ave nue to the small stre et of shops at the bottom of Be rman Hill. In the first – the bake ry – the re is always an e mpty counte r e xcept for a single , slice d loaf wrappe d up in brown pape r. One awaits me the re now, but inste ad I climb ove r the counte r. I’m pre tty sure I’ve ne ve r done this be fore . Be hind, the re are rows of cupboards which turn out to be e mpty. The re are no ove ns. A door at the back ope ns and I find a ste e p staircase 61


SIM

be hind it. Upstairs, I find a be droom with a me tal be d that’s fixe d to the floor. The re ’s a small bathroom with me tal fixture s and a kitche n. Eve rything is scre we d down. I turn on the taps in the bathroom sink, thinking I might cause a disruption by making it ove rflow, but nothing come s out. I go back downstairs and look again at the cupboards. The y’re fixe d to the wall, but made from wood and the doors move fre e ly. I ope n one that looks to have the gre ate st horizontal le ngth and crouch ove r it, grasping the bottom corne r with my right hand. I pull upwards with all my stre ngth, e xpe cting the thing to put up a fight; almost imme diately, howe ver, the wood around the hinge screws splinte rs. It take s a bit more work to comple te ly separate the door from the unit, but the n it’s fre e with one of the hinge s still hanging onto it, and I climb back ove r the counte r and out of the shop with it. The stre et is still e mpty. I take my cupboard door and swing it like an axe into the bake ry window. The instant the corner of the door hits the glass, the whole thing shatte rs and the individual shards fall to the ground like so much wate r tosse d into the air. My he art be ats furiously with my victory. I punch the air, hard. Still the stre et is e mpty. And now a ne w ide a has forme d. To he ll with the white van. I take my we apon and run with it to the top of the high stre e t, 62


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

the n take Huckle be rry Lane down to the be ach. I cross the sand and splash through the narrow strip of wate r, the n start attacking the glass wall with my axe . Again and again I hit it, but this time the re is no shatte ring. In fact, I don’t e ve n le ave a mark. Exhauste d, I turn to se e the white van arriving in the small car park at the bottom of the lane . I know now I got gre e dy. I should have take n the axe to Ne e dle ’s window. Ne e dle . Sudde nly, I want he r. I ye arn to fe el he r actual skin, he r actual body bre aking down and submitting to me . I run towards the van. I’ll kill the drive r with my axe . I’ll bury it in his he ad. I charge , scre aming as I run. I re ach the ve hicle in unde r a minute . Nobody, howe ve r, is in it. I walk all the way around; I che ck the bushe s ne arby and squint back across the be ach as though the re was possibly a way I could have passe d the drive r and not notice d. The e ngine ticks its he at away, but no-one appears to have drive n it he re . So be it. I ope n the door and ge t in, rolling down both windows in case the y try to gas me whilst I’m inside . The dashboard is cle an, functional and utte rly impe rsonal. Black plastic, fade d by sunlight. A fe w le ve rs; a fe w dials. The re are no crumbs or mud stains on the floor; the re are no food wrappe rs in the door pocke ts; the re are no e mpty cassette case s in the glove compartment. The ke ys are still in the ignition 63


SIM

and swinging slightly from the van’s re cent motion. I turn the m and the e ngine starts. I put on the se at belt. I put the van in re ve rse and do a thre e point turn in the little car park. I take it up Huckle be rry Lane in scre aming se cond. I don’t know how I know how to drive , but I’ve stoppe d que stioning such things. I take a right at the top of the lane and zig-zig my way up Be rman Hill. I’m going to drive the van into Ne e dle ’s house . I’m going to drive it through he r front window. I turn into Wildwood Close , drive to the e nd and halt, re ve rse onto the grass of numbe r thre e . I re alise the he adlights are n’t on and locate the switch. I want to give Ne e dle as much warning as I can. I le an on the horn, but the n I he sitate: what if the noise and light brings he r to the window? But I don’t have time to second gue ss things. I put it in first and floor it. Ne e dle ’s house shoots towards me and I cross my arms in front of my face , just like the co-pilot in the 737. How do I know it was a 737? The van’s bonne t smashe s through the brickwork be ne ath the window and the glass shatte rs around me . I’m through. The van door is buckle d. I manage to push it ope n with my fe e t. I fall out, shake n by the impact and adre nalin. I squeeze through the gap betwe en the van 64


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

and the broke n e dge of the wall. Ne e dle ’s lounge is in darkne ss, but somehow one of the he adlights is still functioning, so I can se e it’s an almost e xact copy of my own. Ne e dle has move d he r compute r from the coffe e table to the dining table . I cannot he lp but be struck by what a good ide a this is. Le aning ove r the ke yboard on the coffe e table make s my back ache . I shout out, “Ne e dle !” I find the kitche n e mpty, the n run up the stairs. “Ne e dle !” I che ck the main be droom, the n the small be droom, the n the bathroom. All e mpty. I he sitate at the top of the stairs. If I stay in this building the n the y’ll drug me for sure , but she has to be he re . What am I going to do ne xt if she ’s not? Pe rhaps the re is no-one in the se houses. Pe rhaps I am alone in this sim. But who did I se e , the n, whe n Whe e l and I got le t out at the same time ? If the van still drive s, I think, I could try it against the glass wall. I should have thought of that be fore . I start back down the stairs, but a small noise from the main be droom stops me . I go back in. “Ne e dle , are you in he re ? Why are you hiding from me ?” I drop to my kne e s and look unde r the be d. Nothing. So that only le ave s the wardrobe . I stand in front of it. “Ne e dle , I know you’re in the re . I’m going to ope n the door.” A thin voice come s from the wardrobe . “Ple ase . Ple ase don’t.” 65


SIM

“Ne e dle ,” I re assure . “It’s King. Don’t you want to se e me ?” “It’s not pe rmitte d. Ple ase go away.” “I know it’s not pe rmitte d but I don’t care !” But e ve n as I de clare this, I fe e l my bravado starting to slip away. What have I achieved? What had I hope d to ge t out of this? Just se x? I need the e nthusiasm of some one e lse to ke e p me going now. Pe rhaps He dge s. Pe rhaps Whee l. Ne e dle , I re alise now, was the wrong choice . She ’s too conve ntional. She re spe cts rule s to much. She fe ars de viation. “Ple ase , King. Ple ase just go away.” I allowe d lust to ge t the be tte r of me . Stupid fucking idiot. Stupid fucking Ne e dle . I shout at he r, “For God’s sake . Do you want to spe nd the re st of your life in this place ?” All my arousal is gone now. I don’t know what I was thinking. Do I give up or do I continue ? Continue with what? I start to go downstairs, thinking sudde nly I could pe rhaps take the van and drive it into the glass wall at Love rs’ Vie w, but halfway down I re conne ct with my fury and my ne e d for a companion, willing or not. I’ll drag he r out of he r close t kicking and scre aming if I have to; once she’s crossed the point of no re turn the n she ’ll have no choice but to he lp me . I bound back up the stairs and throw ope n the wardrobe doors. It’s e mpty. I look unde r the be d again. I re che ck the 66


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

bathroom and small be droom. Nothing. This is impossible . “Ne e dle ! Whe re the fuck are you?” I can’t stay he re any longe r. I run downstairs and into the lounge . ‘Laughter in the Rain’, there, from James Last. It’s thirteen minutes to the hour and you’re listening to The Lounge Show. We’ve g ot music from Franck Pourcel and Henry Mancini coming up. But first, a track from Nelson Riddle’s amazing 1972 LP, ‘Communication’: ‘Uptown Daaaaaance’. The white van is gone . The hole whe re the white van was is gone . The lounge is pe rfe ctly re store d. The compute r has been move d from the dining table to the coffe e table . Slowly, I sit down on the couch. The phone starts ringing. I ge t up to answe r it. I wind the cord around my finge r. “Good e ve ning, Mr King,” the clippe d voice te lls me . “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” “Ye s,” I say. “You will be se ate d at table thre e . Liste n for the signal.”

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6 Numbe r one

Just like that, Ne e dle is gone . He r house on the compute r is e mpty. He r name is abse nt from the me ssaging list. The othe rs barely se e m to have notice d. At first, the y sugge sted she ’d had he r signal and gone out. I suppose d this to be true right up to the point whe n Picture got he r signal and we nt offline , and Ne e dle didn’t appe ar. Well obviously she’s asleep now, said Whe e l. I waite d around anxiously. Finally, I told the m about ste aling the van and bre aking into Ne e dle ’s house. He dge s was e xcited by the story, but Whe el de clared me an idiot. You should be thankful it’s her they’re punishing and not you, he told me . You just said she was probably sleeping now, I re minde d him. That was before you told us about your damn fool little escapade, he re plie d. You can’t break rules like that and 68


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not expect there to be consequences. Maybe it is you that’s being punished – no more sex for you now. Certainly, she’s asleep, He dge s console d. Don’t you feel bad for a second, King. It’s about time someone around here took the initiative. They can’t expect us to live like this indefinitely without trying something out of the box. Don’t you get it? Whe e l said. We’re here serving time. This is a prison. Prisons have rules. Break them and it’s important that you regret breaking them. Don’t you even think about driving any van into my house, King. I won’t just hide in the closet like poor Needle: I’ll knock your lights out and throw you back outside fo r them! You can break into my house any time you like, He dge s told me . I promise I’ll make it worth your while. The ne xt se gme nt I re me mbe r, no one e ve n me ntione d Ne e dle until I brought the subje ct of he r up. I didn’t see her for a while, Picture said. Whe e l claime d he had no ide a who I was talking about. Whe n I re peated the story of my van the ft, he assured me that such a thing was quite impossible . You think they’d just leave t he van lying around like that? You’re losing your grip on reality, King. So who lives at number four? I aske d. No-one lives at number four. Needle lived at number four, Picture said. I don’t know where she is now. Then you must be remembering from before I arrived, Whe e l told he r. 69


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The time afte r that, no-one kne w who Ne e dle was. I fully inte nd to ste al the van again; this time , though, I won’t me ss around: I’ll take it straight to the glass wall and drive it through. If that doe sn’t do it, I’ll park the thing alongside and blow up the fue l tank. I’ll rub sticks toge the r to cre ate fire if I have to. Though, come to think of it, I have no ide a whe re I would obtain sticks from. But first, I want to e xplore the se cond avatar again. It se ems to me that the reaction to that was far more rapid than the re action to taking the van. I turn on my compute r, the n the compute r on the scre e n. With the same clumsy manipulation, I take the se cond man to the door of his house . I click on it, but it doe sn’t ope n. Twenty-nine minutes past the hour. That was Geoff Love and his Orchestra. I promised you some James Last and here it is: ‘If you knew Suzie’, from his masterpiece, ‘Golden Memories’. Enjoy it, listeners! I think for a while about Ne e dle . She was such an organise r. She took e ve rything so se riously, including he r appe arance . Lord knows how many outfits she had for he r avatar: e ve ry time I saw he r she was we aring some thing diffe re nt. How did she know what she ’d worn be fore ? The phone rings. I ge t up to answe r it and spot the te xt appe aring on the se cond scre e n as I do so. 70


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“Good e ve ning, Mr King,” the clippe d voice te lls me . “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” “Ye s,” I say. “You will be se ate d at table thre e . Liste n for the signal.” I hurry back to the compute r to answe r the que stion again. The n the door clicks and I ge t up to we dge it ope n with one of the dining room chairs as I did be fore . On the compute r, I se nd out a ge ne ral me ssage . There’s my signal. I’m heading out. No way! He dge s e xclaims. I just got the signal too! In that case, I’m staying put. I don’t fancy getting run over by the white van. Like that could ever happen, says Whe e l. This is amazing! He dge s de clare s. We can meet up for real! Why don’t you come over to my place? I ask. The door’s open. It must be a mistake, she says. My door’s bound to lock any second. Suit yourself. I can’t de ny it would be nice to se e he r. I can’t de ny it would be nice to se e anyone; e ve n the van drive r would be a we lcome sight. The thought of se e ing anothe r human be ing e xcite s me e normously, but I don’t be lie ve for a se cond it will actually happe n. Whe e l was a one -off. The y’re just me ssing with me now. I turn my atte ntion back to the se cond avatar and guide him back to his front door. I 71


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click on it. It ope ns. Eve rything is in torturous slow motion; I move the se cond avatar out of his house and onto his garde n path. The close is in darkne ss, just as it is outside my own front door. This make s navigation e ve n harde r. I squint at the scre en within the screen and it se ems to me that something is not quite the same . I’m use d to the compute r stre e t be ing shown in daylight, howe ve r, so it’s ve ry hard to say. I wonde r about othe r pe ople in this sim within a sim. I look around the se cond screen’s use r inte rface for the pe ople me nu, but it doe sn’t appe ar to e xist. Am I alone he re ? I turn le ft to che ck out the house ne xt to me and, as I cross the lawn, my se cond avatar bobs up and down mome ntarily, just like my first avatar doe s whe n I walk him ove r the coffe e table . I have steppe d ove r some thing, but in the dim light of the stre e t lamp it’s ne ar impossible to te ll what. I think to myse lf, if it hadn’t be e n for Wheel be ing le t out to distract me from this, I might not have looke d at it for more than a couple of minute s. If the re are answers he re, they are not going to be e asy to find. I stand my se cond man outside what would be Ne e dle ’s house in the first sim – what would have been Ne e dle ’s house . In the first compute r sim, we can come and go as we ple ase in the othe r home s – all 72


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e xce pt for numbe r one , of course. He re, howe ver, the door re mains shut whe n I click on it. I zoom in on the door handle – an infinite ly comple x task that take s a full minute of fiddling – and notice sudde nly some thing that make s no se nse at all. “Is the compute r re ally that much more inte re sting than me e ting me in the fle sh?” says a fe male voice from my living room doorway. I ne arly fall off the couch in shock. A woman is standing in my lounge . A re al, fle sh and blood woman. I stand, shocke d. “He llo, King,” she says. “He dge s?” I ask, incre dulous. “He dge s,” she re plie s. “Oh my God,” I stutte r. “I ne ve r thought for a mome nt the y’d actually allow us to come into contact.” “Te chnically,” she says, “no contact has ye t take n place .” I cross the room, ne arly tripping ove r the coffe e table in the proce ss. I stand in front of he r with no ide a what to say or do. Clumsily, I offe r he r my hand. “I’m ve ry ple ase d to me e t you.” She laughs, take s my hand and shake s it. She ’s a woman of about forty. Brown e ye s; long brown hair. He r jawline is taught and firm. She ’s we aring more or le ss the same as I am – light blue slacks and a be ige 73


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shirt. She pre sses the palms of he r hands against my che st and le ans in close to me . “Now that we ’ve de alt with the formalitie s,” she says, “it occurs to me that we might not have much time .” She starts unbuttoning he r shirt. “You know,” I say, glancing back at the computer, “I’d just stumble d across something odd in the sim. I just ne e d a mome nt to put the pie ce s toge the r in my he ad.” “Think how much more focuse d you’ll fe e l afte r fucking me ,” she re plie s. She drops the shirt to the floor and unfaste ns he r trouse rs. I cannot he lp but start to re spond, but the fe ar that I will forge t all this le ave s the threads dangling in front of me just a little longe r. What I saw on the door was that the numbe r was thre e . It should have be e n four. He dge s’ body is hard and firm be ne ath skin loose ne d slightly by age . I touch he r abdome n with my finge rtips. Re al skin. Re al muscle s flutte r in re sponse . The numbe r on the door was thre e instead of four. She unclasps he r full cup bra from be hind and he r bre asts are released. Re al bre asts, sagging a little with age , but nake d and be autiful be yond de scription. I take one in my mouth and fe e l the nipple harde n as I lick it. The numbe r on the door was thre e . Why was it 74


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not four? She kne e ls and unzips me , pulls me out and starts licking lightly with the tip of he r tongue across my fre nulum. I groan. I think about the se cond avatar walking ove r some thing and the pie ce s finally come toge the r. He was walking ove r a prive t he dge . I don’t live at numbe r six in the se cond sim. I live at numbe r one . Our se x is urge nt, fast, clumsy, me ssy. We fuck on the lounge floor like the thre e minute warning has just be e n give n and I come hard inside he r. The n I collapse into he r body, shaking, and she wraps he r arms around my shoulde rs and he r le gs around my thighs. We stay like that, sile nt for a fe w minute s, our bre athing slowly re turning to normal. “Don’t you dare fall asleep on me now,” she says finally. “I don’t want this to e nd.” I do fe e l drowsy. I roll off he r and ge t to my fe e t, go to the kitche n and splash cold wate r on my face . Whilst I’m still at the sink, she come s up be hind me and puts he r arms around my waist. She kisse s the back of my ne ck a fe w time s. “We should do that again whilst we still have the chance ,” she murmurs. “Do you have any food? I’m starving.” I turn in he r arms to face he r, my face s till dripping. “Don’t e at or drink anything,” I say. “Not 75


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if you want to stay awake .” “I do want to stay awake ,” she says. She stands on he r toe s and kisse s me and I re alise this is the first time our lips have touched. I spre ad my hands ove r he r back and pull he r into me , fe e ling arousal start its cycle again. “Now that we ’ve fucke d,” she says into my mouth, “we should make love .” I kiss he r hard for a minute or so, my right hand moving up he r back and ne ck and grasping the back of he r he ad through he r thick hair. The n I se parate myse lf and go to the front door. I se e the white van parke d outside of numbe r one . Again she ’s be hind me , pre ssing he r skin into mine . I fe e l he r stiffe ning slightly whe n she se e s the van. “Oh,” she says. “We could ste al it,” I sugge st. “I’ve done it be fore .” “You have ?” she asks. “Whe n was that?” “A fe w nights-“ I be gin. “Oh of course !” she says sudde nly. “I re me mbe r now. You drove it into numbe r four, didn’t you? What was the name of the woman who live d the re ?” “Ne e dle .” “That’s right. But that was ye ars ago now.” I turn to face he r. “What do you me an, ye ars ago?” “We ll, at le ast a couple .” “That’s impossible ,” I te ll he r. “It was just a fe w 76


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days ago. A couple of we e ks at the most.” “Oh darling,” she says. “The y fuck with your me mory he re; you know that. I re me mbe r now: you and he r we re sort of a couple . That was be fore Valle y came along.” “Who the he ll is Valle y?” “Your partne r,” she replie s. “She live s at numbe r se ve n. You know, she probably won’t be all tha t ple ase d about us me e ting up like this. Maybe we shouldn’t te ll anyone . I re ally wouldn’t mind myse lf if the situation we re re ve rse d with Whe e l. Still, I think she ’s a little posse ssive .” I’m be wilde re d. “I thought my me mory was improving.” “What would you do,” she asks, “if we stole the van?” “I’d drive it into the glass wall.” “And the n what?” “Swim for fre e dom, I suppose .” “Do you re ally think the re ’s actually anything out the re ? Maybe this is all that the re is.” “We all came from some whe re .” “Sure . But what if that whe re doe sn’t e xist for us anymore ?” A little angrily, I say to he r, “You sound like you don’t want to go back.” She smile s sadly at me . “Look at my be lly,” she te lls me . I look down. “Prope rly. Go down on your 77


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kne e s.” I crouch down and look close ly. He r abdome n muscle s are taught and firm, but the skin is a little loose and saggy. I turn he r so that he r back is to the doorframe and the hallway light shine s across he r body. I se e stretch marks. About an inch or so above he r mound I trace with my finge r a long, horizontal scar. “You se e it?” she asks. I nod. She pulls me back up and he r e ye s are we t. “I have one or more childre n, King. I le ft the m be hind and I don’t re me mber them. I don’t know the ir name s, their ages or how many of the m the re are. I e ve n forge t I have childre n most time s I wake up and only re alise whe n I se e myse lf nake d. Do you unde rstand? No-one wants to go back more than me .” I take he r hands in mine . “The n le t’s at le ast try.” “What you’re sugge sting,” she says, “could turn out to be suicide .” “I’d rathe r die trying to be fre e than be comfortable in a cage .” “Oh, what a stupid thing to say!” she e xclaims. “Such a typical man, always thinking the re ’s a simple bravado solution. No, King, you wouldn’t rathe r die : you’d be come e xhauste d and drown; your he ad would slip unde r the surface and you’d gasp wate r into your lungs and it would fe e l like your inside s we re be ing torn up into little pie ce s. It would be the 78


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most te rrifying and painful e xpe rie nce of your life . You’d probably shit yourse lf in your last fe w se conds. And you roll up all the stuff that’s not about such pointle ss valour into the word, ‘comfortable ’, like it’s ultimate ly no more inte resting than a pair of slippe rs. I’m standing in front of you nake d, King. What could possibly be a more fulfilling ce le bration of life than spe nding the fe w minute s we have making love ? Do you re ally just cate gorise that as ‘comfort’?” I say quie tly to he r, “You se e m to have gre at clarity on the e xpe rie nce of drowning.” “It’s one of the things the y show me ,” she says, “on the othe r side of the barrie r. I se e a woman in a car that’s drive n into a lake . She ’s not all that fa r be low the surface , but he r se atbe lt’s stuck and she can’t ge t out.” She shive rs. “Sometimes, I find myself imagining that it’s happe ning to me .” I look across the road at the white van, which still sits the re sile ntly. The cab is in darkne ss, but the n I notice a tiny little glow of re d: a cigare tte being drawn on. We are be ing watche d. I se e that she’s seen it too. “I could at le ast go over the re and talk to the drive r,” I say, thinking private ly about pulling him out by his hair and kicking the shit out of him if that’s what it take s to ge t him to talk. “Maybe he could give us some answe rs.” “He – or she – wouldn’t be sitting the re if the re was e ve n the re mote possibility you could do that,” 79


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she te lls me . She re ache s down and starts stroking the arousal back into me . “The y’re goading you. The y want you to try and fail. The y think the y know how your mind works so take this opportunity to show the m that the y’re wrong. Fuck me in front of the m. Turn me around and fuck me right he re in this doorframe .” Afte rwards, we le ave the door ope n and go upstairs. We get into be d. We both fe el drowsy. “I’m fading, darling,” she says and kisse s me . He r e ye s start to roll. “If I forge t about this, don’t be mad at me . Try to re member it… for as long… as you can…” The last fe w words are a murmur and the n she is asle e p in my arms. It’s funny how you can ge t use d so quickly to some thing that at first se e me d so e xtraordinary. I think about He dge s as though she ’s no longe r with me . As my own e ye lids start to droop, I re je ct he r inte grity. She must have made up ‘Valle y’. She must be lying. She must be one of the m. I wake up and she is still ne xt to me . It must only be a fe w minute s since I droppe d off. The proble m with this place is you hardly e ve r know whe n you awake n how long it’s be e n since your last me mory. It could be five minute s, five days, five we eks, five months. It could be five ye ars if what He dge s told me is true . I have no ide a if He dge s is he re be cause I only doze d 80


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off for a mome nt or if she ’s he re be cause we ’ve had nume rous additional e ncounte rs since our first and this particular now follows one of those the ns. I don’t e ve n know if the one e ncounte r I have knowle dge of is the first time that we me t like that. I could wake he r and ask he r what she re membe rs, but e ve n if he r re colle ction matche s mine , the re ’s still no knowing that it’s accurate. We might both have forgotte n any numbe r of subsequent e ncounters. What is accurate re colle ction anyway? All the se thoughts pass through my mind as I look at he r, our skin still touching unde r the cove rs, e xcept I feel at some unde finable le ve l that this is just a fe w minute s late r and I’ve woke n be cause some thing disturbe d me be fore I was comple te ly asle e p. I still fe e l drowsy and I’m te mpte d to shut my e ye s again, but the howe ve r-many-se conds-it-was nap has re turne d to me a de gre e of ale rtne ss. I re call that I have n’t e ate n this se gme nt. The n I re me mbe r the white van outside and the compute r downstairs that I le ft with its conne ction to the second avatar standing on the lawn outside of numbe r thre e . I e ase out of be d, taking a pe e k as I do at He dge s’ nake dne ss and se e ing it with re ne we d e ye s that communicate things to my body. I push all that out of my mind and cre e p downstairs. The front door is now shut. Pe rhaps it was its closing which awoke me . 81


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But the compute r is still on and the se cond avatar still stands in darkne ss alle viated only by the sodium glow of the stre etlight. I turn him around to face the stre e t and se e some thing I’ve ne ve r se e n on the compute r be fore . The white van is parke d on the road at the e nd of numbe r one ’s path.

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7 Valle y

I wake up. Some time s I wake up e xhauste d. Today I fe e l tire d but re laxe d. I ge t up, turn on the be dside light, put on my slippe rs, put on my dre ssing gown. I go downstairs to the kitche n. I fill the ke ttle and turn it on. I put two white slice s of bre ad into the toaste r. I switch on the radio. It’s thirty-seven minutes to the hour and we’ve got some great pieces of easy listening lined up for you folks. Coming up will be more from Hansi; but first, sit back and relax to the smooth tones of Mancini: Mooooooon River. I go into the living room and turn on the computer so that it can start up whilst I wait for the toast. It be e ps and the fan starts up. The little gre e n cursor appe ars in the top le ft corne r. Valle y is online . And Picture . And He dge s. I se nd Valle y a private me ssage asking he r if she wants 83


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to go down to the be ach for a while and she sends me back a ye s that’s both speedy and has an e xclamation mark at the e nd of it, so I gue ss that’s a positive ly re ce ive d ide a. The n He dge s se nds me a me ssage I can’t make se nse of. Hello darling. Did you sleep well? The n again, the line be twe e n familiar and ove rfamiliar always was a bit of a blurre d one for he r. Yes thanks, I re ply. You? Amazingly, she says. Sex is the best sleeping pill. Ah, I say, not sure whe the r this is some thing I should re spond to or not. I ge t the impre ssion I’ve ne ve r been e specially good at distinguishing be twe e n idle , happy comme ntary and incomple te storie s dangle d for an inte rrogatory que stion. Afte r a fe w se conds of contemplation, I write , I take it Wheel was a lucky man last night, then. I de libe rate ly don’t use a que stion mark. What do you mean, Wheel? she asks. Now I’m confuse d. Doe s she mean Picture ? Is this some thing I’m suppose d to know about? Doe s she me an… me ? The sex… last night? Ah, she says. I see. Okay. Well, never mind. I he ar the toast pop up in the kitche n. At the same mome nt, the phone rings. I shrug. I go to the re staurant and e at my me al. I ste al an ice 84


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bucke t from the bar, the n wande r down to the be ach. I’ve take n late ly to sand sculpture , but I don’t like building too close to the glass wall – I just dislike be ing that close to the e dge – so I have to transport wate r up the be ach from the little strip of ‘se a’. The bucke t is made from plastic, othe rwise I’d have a crack at swinging it against the glass, just to se e what happe ns. Eve n so, it probably wouldn’t be anything like he avy e nough to make much of an impact. The glass fe e ls thick and strong. Whe n I rap it with my knuckle s, the sound is slight and solid. I tip maybe six or se ven buckets of wate r onto the same patch of sand to make it we t, the n I start to dig with my hands. I pile up the sand on the side of the hole , thinking to make a gre at towe r or a block of flats. Whilst I do this, que stions float across my mind: Can we dig de e p e nough to fit a pe rson? How far down is tre asure burie d? How far down do you have to dig to ge t to the othe r side of the world? I suppose I must have had a mothe r and fathe r. Possibly, the y’re still alive and worrying the mse lve s sick ove r whe re I’ve got to. I’m not sure how long I’ve be e n he re now. In some respects, it fe e ls like I’ve only e ve r be e n he re ; in othe rs it fe e ls like I’m ne w and still ge tting use d to the place . I have a vague feeling I was with some one be fore Valle y, but maybe that wasn’t he re ; maybe that was Be fore . The possibility sudde nly crosse s my mind that I 85


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actually might be a fathe r. I might have a son. I might have a daughte r. That cause s me to stop for a mome nt. I think my age is some whe re be twe e n thirty-five and forty-five , judging from how I look. If I had childre n, the y might be grown up by now. Was I good to the m? Do the y miss the ir fathe r? Do the y suppose I am de ad? A ne w que stion floats across my mind: Do you think they’ll have beaches in heaven? I am se ize d sudde nly by a gre at hole ope ning up in my stomach and I have to stop and stand for bre ath. A huge sob e scape s me . I kick down what e xists so far of the towe r. I throw fistfuls of the sa nd in the dire ction of the glass wall. I don’t know why I’m so mad. I take the bucke t and run down to the wate r. I fill it up with we t sand and start swinging it round in circle s so I can smash it into the wall. The n I have an ide a. In my pocke t, I still have the che wy mint that come s with the coffe e in the re staurant. All I ne e d is some thing small and hard, pre fe rably with a sharp e dge . I search the e dge s of the be ach for a stone or pe bble , but find nothing. The wall at the e dge of the car park has a smooth, concre te finish; I can chip nothing from it. I me ntally scan the e ntire island and nowhe re can I think of a place whe re the re might be some thing useable; e verything e verywhe re is smooth, and unclutte re d. I scream my frustration. I think of a small hand in mine , growing cold, and I hit the 86


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concre te wall with my fist thre e time s and stain it with blood from my knuckle s. An ide a forms. I ope n my mouth and fe e l my te e th with my finge rs. Ye s. A tooth might just do it. I’ll use the wall to knock one out. I kne e l and pre ss my bare d te eth against the rounde d concrete. I take a de e p bre ath. One . Two. ThrAnd the n I se e it: a small, brass, self-tapping screw about thre e fe e t away on the othe r side of the wall: some thing used in furniture , pe rhaps; maybe to fasten a hinge . It’s pe rfe ct. I grab it and run back to the wate r. I che w the mint just e nough to make it sticky, the n stick it in a donut shape on the wall, fixing the scre w in place so that the point is against the glass. I swing the bucke t with all my stre ngth: one circle , two circle s, thre e ; I smash it into the scre w and am re warde d with the satisfying noise of glass cracking. Just one small crack, but I hit it again and again on the same spot, e ach time picking up and sticking the scre w back in its original position. On the fourth atte mpt, the bucke t splits ope n and this distracts me from se e ing the scre w drop; whe n I se arch in the wate r I can’t find it. But I have made a hole in the glass. It’s a small hole , just big e nough for my little finge r. As I e xamine it, the adre nalin drains from my body and a wave of drowsine ss hits me . I he ar a noise and turn to se e the white van e me rging from 87


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Huckle be rry Lane . Not ye t. Not ye t. I want to fe e l the outside . I shake my he ad. I push my finge r through the hole . Se aring pain attacks the e nd of it and I scre am out in agony. Whe re its tip should be the re is nothing: it looks as though my finge r has be en cut off, flush with the oute r e dge of the glass. I howl with pain. It’s like nothing I’ve e ve r known be fore . It make s me throw up against the glass. A cold, lighthe ade d swe at swe e ps ove r me and I start to black out. And I re alise that the re is nothing at all be yond the glass wall. The re is nothing. This place is all that the re is. The four of us sit around a table in the re staurant. He dge s is be hind the Gre at Black Barrie r. On the couch, I hum along to a Jame s Last me lody coming from the radio. I’m telling you, Whe e l says, we’re being punished. I’m sure we ’ve had this conve rsation be fore . What kind of punishment leaves you with no recollection of what you did that was worthy of punishment? Picture asks. Maybe that’s part of the punishment, Whe e l re plie s. Wouldn’t you rather know what it is that you’re in for? If I was the victim of someone who got locked up, Valle y comme nts, I would want them to know. Are you sure about that? Wheel pe rsists. Wouldn’t it 88


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be good to think about them going half nuts trying to figure out where they are and what they did? Quite sure. Valle y answe rs. If they had no recollection, it would be like they were innocent in their mind. Really? Picture asks. What do you mean by that? Valle y’s re ply take s a while to appe ar. If you take away all those memories like they’ve taken them away from us – if you leave them with nothing but an empty brain – why, that would be no different from killing them. A person’s made out of their memories, right? So what gets left behind is a brand new person who did nothing to nobody. I would think of them not knowing and I would pity them. I don’t want to pity someone who did harm by me. What if the things we see behind the barrier are related to our crimes? Whe e l asks. I can only remember a couple of visits, Picture says, and neither of them appeared to be in any way crimerelated. Is there something you’d like to share with us, Wheel? There most certainly is not , he re plie s. The last one I can remember, Valle y te lls us, I saw a young woman skydiving. It made my heart race to watch her. I think it was the same woman I saw a different time being shot, only then she looked older. For Christ’s sake, Whe e l says. You shouldn’t be sharing this stuff. 89


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Did anyone ever actually tell you that? Picture asks. If they wanted us all to know each other’s experiences, how come only one of us can go over the barrier at a time? So we know who the scene is for, I say. Right, agre e s Picture . Isn’t it funny, says Valle y, how your heart can pump fast in different ways. When I saw the woman skydiving, it was with exhilaration. When I saw her getting shot, it was with horror. There’s no way you can be sure it was the same woman, Whe e l state s. He state s stuff a lot. The bullet was frozen in the air about six feet from her. She looked so perfect and I knew that in a fraction of a second it would be entering her body and destroying that part of it. It looked like it was going to hit her in the chest. I saw a couple of teenagers kissing in one of mine, says Picture . And a woman giving birth in another. I can only re me mbe r one sce ne right now. I te ll the m. I saw a boy coming downstairs in his pyjamas and pointing at a Christmas tree. What do you remember about it most, King? asks Picture . His face, I te ll the m. It was pure joy. I find that I am smiling. And we e ping. Why do we assume that it’s them who make us forget things? Valle y asks. It’s the food, Whe e l says. I’m certain of it. What if that’s just the way we are? 90


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If that were so, Picture asks, then what function would this place have? I don’t know, Valle y re plie s. A hospital? What if we’re all dead? I say. What if this is the afterlife? Then for sure we’re all in Hell, Whe e l state s. Again, not knowing what we did that got us here? asks Picture . Always with the reasons. Always assuming things have to make sense the way you want them to. Wouldn’t there be more people here if this were the afterlife? says Valle y. How do we know there aren’t? Whe e l re plie s, There could be billions of these islands out there. We could have been individually chosen as having the qualities that would drive each other nuts. So I could have been Hitler, by your logic, Picture pe rsists. Or I could be guilty of a one-off manslaughter? There’s no sense whatsoever in my knowing what I’m being punished for? Who says it has to be logical? he de mands. Maybe an absence of logic has been chosen as your own particular hell. Well, you have an answer for everything. Answers? Who has answers?! I’m just saying your logic isn’t the only way of looking at it. You’re making circular arguments, she te lls him. You’re saying it’s Hell because it makes no sense and it 91


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makes no sense because it’s Hell. You saying that that doesn’t make it not Hell. Valle y se nds me a private me ssage : Do you think we’re in Hell? I write back, I don’t think so. But I do think we might be dead. But surely this can’t be heaven? Maybe it’s something else, I re ply. We ’re sitting on the be ach toge the r. She ’s we aring a lime gre e n bikini. I have on a pair of black swimming shorts I found in my inve ntory. Say, she says to me , did you ever try turning on that little computer on the coffee table when you log on? You mean the computer in the computer? I ask. I didn’t realise that did anything. Mine works just like the computers we’re using right now. But I’m the only one in the sim. And guess what? I live at number one! I don’t have time to ask que stions about this be cause the n e ve rything darke ns and the re d spotlight finds me . I fly up ove r the barrie r, the n down and into the inne r box. The sce ne pre se nte d to me this time is of two pe ople having se x on a lounge carpe t. It’s my own lounge at numbe r six. The woman I do not re cognise, but the re ’s no que stion that I am the man.

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8 The be arde d man

I wake up, e xpe cting He dge s’ warmth. Of course, she is gone . I go straight downstairs to the compute r and turn it on. I se e Picture and Whe e l and Valle y sitting in Picture ’s lounge . He dge s is offline . Valle y. I re member he r now. Why on Earth did I te ll He dge s I didn’t know who she was? A private me ssage from he r appears on my screen. You coming over? Not right now, I te ll he r. I want to try out something on the computer. Let me guess: the computer within the computer? You know about that? I told you about it last segment, baby! How was the barrier? I stop and try to re me mbe r. The last thing I can re call is be ing with He dge s in re al life . Have things 93


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happe ne d to me since the n or is it Valle y’s me mory that’s screwe d? It’s hard not to think about He dge s. I wish she was online now so we could talk about it. I look at the patch of floor whe re we had se x. I see two things in my he ad: I se e the re al life touching and kissing and urge nt e nte ring; I se e a froze n, pixe late d snapshot as though it’s a sce ne from be hind the barrie r. He dge s was probably right about Valle y. I de cide not to te ll he r. I can’t really remember what happened there, I say. Sounds like one of us is missing some time, she re plie s. Okay, honey. Join us when you can. I miss you. I switch on the compute r within the compute r and wait for it to start up. I’m hungry and the ide a of toast forms in my mind, but I’m not going to e at anything. I swe ar the y put some thing in the food. So I se e now on my scre e n a se cond compute r scre en and on that I se e my se cond avatar sitting on his couch in front of his compute r. What I want to know now is whe the r I can turn on that computer too. I move my re al mouse to control the mouse – the se cond mouse – on the screen. I have to be able to see the se cond screen and the se cond mouse on the re al scre e n, so I fiddle with the vie w to ge t as much as I can in. I move the se cond mouse pointe r ove r the third compute r and I click. 94


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Tiny gre e n le tte rs appe ar on its scre e n. The y’re too small for me to re ad; I have n’t ye t adjuste d the vie w on the se cond scre e n, so I se e the whole se tup be side the third compute r – couch, coffe e table and all. I spe nd a fe w minute s trying to improve on this, during which time I manage to screw it all up and ge t a close -up vie w inste ad of the lounge ceiling. It take s a lot of fiddling. Finally, I have a good e nough vie w of the screen within the screen within the screen; I see a third avatar sitting on his couch in front of a fourth compute r. The te le phone – the re al te le phone – rings. I ignore it. I’m now controlling the se cond mouse to manipulate the third mouse . Eve rything is te n time s slowe r, but the re is no othe r way. I click-click-click on the third avatar and he stands. It take s me ne arly five minute s of atte mpts at pre ssing the third se t of arrow ke ys to ge t him to his front door, during which time my re al door clicks ope n. For a mome nt, the thought of be ing with some one re al passe s through my mind; my body re sponds momentarily to the me mory of He dge s and I wonde r what it would be like to have se x with Valle y. What I can’t figure , though, is why I ge t all the se atte mpts at distracting me from compute rs within compute rs whe n it would be simple r to just 95


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shut the things off. Why are these things available to me if the y don’t want me to do the m? Do the y not re alise that the distractions only se rve to push me in that dire ction furthe r? Pe rhaps the y do. Pe rhaps that’s actually the ir function. That’s an inte re sting thought. Could it be that I’ve got this whole place wrong? Could it be that it’s actually trying to he lp me ? I click-click-click on the third front door and it ope ns. I walk through. Just outside , I find an avatar I do not re cognise . He appe ars to be waiting for me . You made it, then? he says. The tiny gre e n le tte rs are hard to re ad; I have to squint at the monitor from about a foot away. The man is me dium he ight, black and be arde d. Who are you? I ask him. I click-click-hove r the third pointe r ove r him and his name is re ve ale d as ‘Charle s’. I live at number six, Charle s te lls me . That’s my number. Not here, it’s not. Where is here? Each que stion take s an age to type out, but he waits for me to finish. Pe rhaps he unde rstands. I assume it must be the same for him. This is the next level, he re plie s. Of what? Of consciousness. The words appe ar almost 96


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

instantly. How you type so fast? I ask. Don’t worry about it , he re plie s. You’re only viewing the level. Of course it’s fiddly. Viewing? Like looking at something through the bottom of a glass. What is this place? I ask him. I add, Am I dead? Not any more, he re plie s. I died in plane crash? There was no plane crash. The pilot saved us. We laughed about his calm announcement after. It’s how we met. What is this place? I ask him again. A cocoon, he says. How I escape? You have to fly your way out. Fly where? There’s only one place to fly to, he says. Forty-five minutes to the hour, chirps the radio. You’re listening to The Lounge Legends Show. I, dear listener, have a hankering for some pan pipes. Did I turn the radio on? I don’t think I did. The trille d intro to The Lonely Shepherd drifts out of the kitche n and I look up and take in the lounge . The re is a painting on the wall opposite which I ofte n look at whe n I’m tire d of the compute r world, but not ye t drowsy e nough to sle e p. It’s an oil painting of a 97


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fishing village harbour; an actual oil with bumps and ridge s and swirls that I can run my finge rs across. It fe e ls like I’ve always known it. If I look at it so that a de tail take s up all of my atte ntion, I be come lost in the fe e ling of anothe r place . It’s not that I start thinking about somewhe re in particular, but more that the re ’s a fe e ling of oddne ss whe n I look away and find myse lf still standing in the lounge . In the painting, the re ’s a green boat, a re d boat, a ye llow boat and a blue boat. Gre en, re d, yellow, blue . I say the words out loud to myse lf: “Gre e n, re d, ye llow, blue ” and e ach sound make s my finge rtip tingle , and whe n I’ve finishe d saying the m I imagine a we ight upon my le ft arm and le g, and I imagine saying the n again in a voice that’s sugge sting the se colours are nothing short of amazing. Gre e n, re d, ye llow, blue . Now you say it: gre e n re d ye llow blue The phone rings. “Good e ve ning, Mr King,” the clippe d voice te lls me . “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” “Ye s.” “You will be se ate d at table thre e . Liste n for the signal.” 98


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

I sit back down at the compute r. I just got the phone call, I te ll Ne e dle . Time to head out. I’ll be waiting for you when you get back, she re plie s. Pre se ntly, the front door clicks ope n and I le ave the house . I take a meandering route to the restaurant. I stop off at the park. I sit on one of the swings for a while and le t my toe caps scuff against the ground as I move backwards and forwards a little . I think about the white van. I think about the ke ys swinging from the ignition, just like I am swinging now. What we re the othe r ke ys for? I have a me mory of the van driving towards me , its he adlights close e nough to touch. A sudde n roar of sound. Finge rs gripping the armre st. Finge rs growing cold in my hands. I have a me mory of a be arded man at a party telling me the re was someone I should re ally spe ak to. Something about computers. I wonde r how far the re cursion goe s. Anything be yond the third le ve l is, to all e xte nts and purpose s, impossible to acce ss. I see someone in level four, Ne e dle told me re ce ntly. He is looking for you. What does he look like? I aske d. He is young, she re plie d. He’s confused. But he’s progressing more quickly than we are. Perhaps he has less to remember. You should hurry or he might have moved on by the time you get here. 99


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The lights are close e nough to touch. The e ngine s roar. The noise seems to go on fore ver, but e ventually our ascent eases off and things quie te n down. We all le t out long bre aths. Our muscle s relax. A fe w pe ople laugh ne rvously. The pilot make s a calm, clippe d announce me nt. “Will you be dining tonight at the re staurant?” The bearde d man chuckle s. “That,” he says, pointing at the spe ake r above us, “is why I’ll always fly BA.” He te lls me about a time whe n a plane he was on had to do an e me rgency landing. We share our storie s. Whe n I ge t to the re staurant, the door into the foye r is locke d. I shake it by the handle , but it won’t budge . I am stuck outside . I can he ar muffle d piano music. I can he ar muffle d voice s. I walk outside to the far e nd of the foye r whe re the e ntrance to the dining are a is. I look through and se e five pe ople sat in a loose circle around table three: a man and four wome n, one of whom I re cognise as He dge s. I bang on the window and shout, but no-one looks in my dire ction. The man says something de e p and loud, I can he ar his voice through the glass but the highe r fre que ncie s don’t make it through and I can’t make out the words. His arms ope n wide as he spe aks and the wome n all laugh, the ir he ads tilting back in unison as though conne cted to the same pie ce of string. I bang on the window again. I shout 100


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

loude r. No-one looks around. I look up at the roof and wonde r if I could ge t up onto it. The walls are plain concre te with no obvious footholds, but if the glass door was ope n the n the handle might just take my we ight. The roof ove rhangs the e ntrance. I’d be able to ge t my hands to it if I was pe rched on the handle of the door, but it would be finge rs only. I doubt my ability to pull myse lf up like that; plus I’d be swinging, just like the ke ys to the white van. In any case , the door is close d and locke d. I bang on the window again. Now I want to smash it. I want to be with my frie nds. I want to be with He dge s. I look again at the thre e unfamiliar wome n, supposing that one of the m must be Valle y. I’d like to be with Valle y too, but it’s He dge s who I sudde nly de sire . I watch he r face. I see her lips move as she says some thing. I think about the scar above he r mound. I think about he r be autiful, sagging, vibrant skin. I have a me mory of smashing a window once . I think it was at the bake ry. But what could I possibly have use d to do that? Eve rything is scre we d down the re . I ne e d some thing he avy e nough to inflict damage but not so he avy that I can’t lift and carry it. I think about the chair I use to ke e p the front door of my house ope n some time s. That might do it. Why have I ne ve r thought that be fore ? 101


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I go home , ge t the chair and come back. The door is still locke d, but now the re staurant is in darkne ss. The piano music has stoppe d. I se e nobody through the window. I put the chair right unde rne ath the overhang and stand on it. I re ach up, but the e dge is just out of my grasp, e ve n if I stand on tiptoe s. If only I had some thing to put the chair on. The table in my dining room. I go back to my house again, taking the chair with me in case it’s re moved by the time I ge t back. It’s a fiddly proce ss ge tting the table out through the front door, but I manage it by tipping it on its side and angling first one pair of le gs out and the n the othe r. I roll the table on its side along the road to the re staurant. I carry the chair slung ove r my le ft shoulde r. I put the table unde rne ath the ove rhang and the n the chair on the table . It’s more than e nough. When I stand on the chair this time I can actually see ove r the e dge : a long e xpanse of concrete stretche s off in front of me . I ge t a good grip with my hands and jump, knowing that if I me ss this up I’ll like ly miss the chair whe n I come back down and fall badly on the table or ground. I don’t care . In any case , I ge t e nough upward mome ntum from the jump that I can take my we ight through my hands sufficie nt to straighte n out my arms. I ge t a kne e up be twe e n the m be fore the y give way from shaking. I le an forward. I roll onto the 102


HUCKLEBERRY H. HAX

roof. I stand and look back down, my he art be ating furiously for a mome nt. The white van is pulling into the lot be low me . I he ar a handbrake pulle d. The e ngine switche s off. I think of the ke ys swinging in the ignition. Too late . The y can’t stop me this time . I watch for a mome nt just the same , wonde ring if I’ll se e the drive r ge t out. I should have kicke d the chair away as I jumpe d, though it’s not like any pursue r couldn’t just pick it up and put it right back on the table . I turn and walk to the far e nd of the building. I stand on the e dge and look down on the ste e p slope of Be rman Hill. The drop from the far-right corne r of the re staurant roof must be a good forty to fifty fe e t. If I hit the zig-zagging road from that he ight I’ll almost ce rtainly die . Pe rhaps I should try to go he adfirst, just to be sure . I walk care fully along the e dge to that corne r. I wish I could have sat at table three with my frie nds. I wish I could have seen He dges again. She ’ll think me a fool, but the n I suppose she will forge t me be fore too long. The y’ll all forge t me . One day I’ll be some one who is gone , the ne xt I’ll be some one the y re me mber. By the third se gment, the y’ll wonde r why it is that no-one live s at numbe r six. I look back towards the e ntrance to se e if anyone is following me , but I am alone on the re staurant roof. 103


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So be it. I look down. I look back up. I take a de e p bre ath. I pause . I look back down again. I’m standing on some thing. I crouch and pick up a re d pape r napkin. All of a sudde n, I’m bathe d in dazzling re d. The spotlight. The spotlight at the top of the Gre at Black Barrie r has found me . There’s only one place to fly to, the be arded man told me . And so I jump. I fly around the sim twice , the first time for the nove lty of se e ing it all from this vie wpoint, the se cond to bid this le ve l fare we ll. I hove r for a mome nt above Wildwood Close , the n I turn and spe e d towards the Gre at Black Barrie r. Up. Up. Ove r.

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A man awakes to find himself in a house, in a square region of land which is walled off on three sides by impenetrable glass and on the four...

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