Fiscal Constraints, p.1A.D. McFadzean / Fantasy
Copyright 2011 A. McFadzean ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
He awoke, feeling queasy and strangely restless. His back was stiff, his mouth dry and foul-tasting. His head throbbed.
With a groan he sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, feeling with his feet until he found the worn old slippers. For a while he stared blearily at the carpet. Then he yawned and stretched, wincing as his tired muscles ached. Deep in his shoulder something gave with an audible click.
“Getting old,” he mumbled, working at the muscle with his long, thin fingers. He yawned again and shook his head in an effort to clear the fog. It only seemed to make things worse.
Eventually, with a resigned sigh, he rose, swayed, rubbed at his eyes and crossed to the window. There was no sound from the street outside. Vaguely, he wondered what time it was.
Dim orange light filtered through the heavy roller blinds. Outside the sun would be bright. He groped for the cord and then, closing his eyes in anticipation, he tugged it down and let it go. The blind flapped open and the warm spring sun streamed in. Even with eyes tightly shut it was too much and he turned away with a feeble moan.
Fumbling for the catch, he pushed the window open wide. For a moment he stood, eyes still shut, filling his lungs with the warm air. It smelled unusually stale this morning, felt strangely unsatisfying. Bewildered, he opened his eyes.
The glare still hurt his eyes, so he closed them again, rubbed them lightly and shook his head. He looked again. His legs felt weak and he stumbled back to the bed and sat down heavily. His voice was weak and distant. “They’ve gone,” he said.
There was no reply from the crumpled shape under the duvet, just the sound of slow, rhythmic breathing. Somewhere, far away, a dog was barking. He sensed a note of panic and frustration in the sound and he smiled a little grimly. “I bet he’s noticed too,” he thought.
The bed creaked as she rolled over, turning away from the light, stretching and yawning in her turn. “Wha’ time izzit?” she asked.
“They’ve gone,” he repeated.
“Mmm?” she surfaced slowly, struggling out of a foggy dream, “Wha’d you say?”
“They’ve gone. The trees. They’ve all gone.”
“What?” She sat up too quickly and the room span. Groaning, she lay back, eyes shielded by her arm. “God,” she moaned, “that sun’s bright. What time is it?”
“The trees,” he repeated, “All the trees. All gone.”
“What?” She peered at him through splayed fingers, adapting to the light, “What d’you mean, ‘gone’?”
He shrugged and laughed, wincing as he heard the edge of hysteria in his voice, “All the trees have gone. There aren’t any trees anymore. None.”
She sat up again, more slowly this time, and managed to stay that way. “Don’t be stupid,” she said, “They can’t have gone. Who’d cut down trees in the middle of the night, for God’s sake? Anyway, we’d have heard them.”
“They haven’t been cut down. They’re just gone. Like they were never there. It’s scary.”
“It’s mad!” she snapped, giving him a worried, sidelong look. “Or you are.”
Outside, the wild barking degenerated into a plaintiff howl. “Hear that?” he asked, “The dog’s noticed too. He was barking at first. Now he’s just scared. Like I am.”
She scowled at him. “Oh, come back to bed, you idiot! That party’s addled your brain. And that poor dog’s probably just locked out of his house after a wild night out on the town. Let’s just go back to sleep until it’s a more sensible time. You sleep off all that booze and I’m sure the trees will come back.” With a melodramatic sigh, she burrowed back under the duvet, turning her back to him. Gently he reached out and touched her shoulder. She shivered, but it wasn’t cold.
“If you don’t believe me,” he said, “take a look for yourself.” She ignored him, but he persisted. “Come on, just one quick look and then you can phone for the men in white coats to come and take me away.” She pretended to be asleep, but her eyes were too tightly closed and her breathing was fast and shallow.
“You’re scared,” he said softly, “That’s what it is, isn’t it? You’re scared that I might be right. That they might really be gone. It makes no sense. I know that. So just come and take a look and that’ll be an end to it.”
She rolled over to look up at him. Her face was grey and her eyes showed too much white. “Yes,” she agreed, “I’m scared. I’m scared that I’ll look and everything will be normal and I’ll have to come to terms with marriage to a lunatic.” He gestured to the window, inviting her to look. “And I’m scared that you might be right, because I know you’re not mad and I don’t know what scares me more.”
“So come and look,” he said, stretching out his hand to help her up, “Come and look. Either I’m mad or I’m not. That’ll be one less thing to worry about.”
Reluctantly, she rose, hugging her arms close about her, ignoring his outstretched hand. She followed him to the window, her eyes fixed on his face as though she thought he might burst out laughing at any moment and was scared that he wouldn’t.
“Look,” he said, and she glanced outside then quickly turned away.
“You’re right,” she said, unhappily, “It is different.”
He shrugged. “I told you it was.” She turned back to the window and for a long time they both stood there, just looking. He felt her warm hand in his and he squeezed it, reassuringly. The air felt better now, more normal and he breathed deeply, catching a scent of flowers in the gentle breeze. “Smell that air,” he said, “So fresh.” For a moment she frowned, and then smiled at him. He had always liked the way she frowned; the way it creased her forehead, the way she wrinkled her nose. He smiled back.
“It is different,” she said, at last, “But I can’t see how.”
“I can’t explain. I mean, you’re right. Something’s changed, but I don’t know what. It didn’t look like this yesterday. It feels wrong. But I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.” She leant on the window sill, frowning up at him. “Annoying isn’t it?” She shivered again and he stood beside her, putting an arm around her shoulders and laughing gently.
“You know,” he said, “when I woke up this morning, I felt really strange. I mean, right from the moment of waking I felt really odd. Like something was wrong, something really fundamentally wrong with the world.”
“I feel like that most days.”
“Yeah, I know, but this was different.” He played with the cord from the blinds, twisting it between his fingertips. “Then, when I looked out the window, when I heard that dog barking, I was sure that I knew what it was. I was so sure! I knew exactly what was wrong with the world. But now, now it feels fine, well, normal, anyway. I feel fine. The world looks fine, too. In fact, it’s going to be a nice day. Look at the sky. No clouds.” He smiled. “Maybe I just drank a little too much last night. Had a weird dream.”
She laughed back, and prodded him in the stomach. “You’ll have to watch it, or you’ll be getting an actual beer belly.”
“Nonsense!” he retorted, “That’s not fat, it’s just loose muscle.” He leant down and kissed her nose.
“Maybe I should send you out jogging.” she suggested.
“Great! I’ll go for a stroll in the park, while you clear up.”
“Maybe not… Maybe clearing up would be better exercise. Anyway, they were you’re friends.”
“Ooh! Unfair! Half of them were yours and you didn’t exactly object. In fact, you made a very positive contribution to the mess in the kitchen.”
“Wasn’t my fault the pasta bowl slipped.”
“Of course not. Wasn’t your fault at all. You were just drunk.”
“Was not!” she said in mock indignation.
“Certainly not.” She threw her arms around him. “I was merry, not drunk. Ladies don’t get drunk.”
He laughed and then, inadvertently glancing outside, he tensed. “I don’t know…” he mused, “It still looks odd. Something’s gone, something so obvious that you somehow don’t notice it.”
With a sigh, she straightened up, slipping away from him to flop back down on the bed. “All right,” she said, “try an experiment. Close your eyes, go on, close them. Now try to imagine what you saw when you looked out first thing yesterday morning. Then look at what you see today. Compare the two and tell me what’s different.”
“Ok, sounds simple enough.” He leant back against the window frame and closed his eyes, trying to picture the same scene as it had been the day before. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. He couldn’t build a clear mental image of the view from the window, the view he saw every single morning when he woke. Maybe that was the problem. He saw it every day, he didn’t need to remember what it looked like, because it was always there. He tried to putting the picture together a little bit at a time. What had the weather been like? Were there clouds? Was it dull or sunny? Were there people on the street? Animals? Birds? Cars? What was it that had changed? Every time he tried he saw exactly the same scene that was out there now. Nothing looked different, but he knew that something was.
“This is hard,” he complained.
“Quiet! Just keep trying.”
“You should try it yourself.”
“I am!” she hissed in frustration, “and I’m getting nowhere.”
“Likewise.” Then, for the briefest of moments, from the deepest recesses of his mind, came an image of something, something that could be tall and majestic, but not always, that could be green and vibrant yet grey and dead and dormant. Something that was strong enough to stand against a winter gale, but swayed in the gentlest summer breeze. Something that died and yet did not die, was reborn again and again and again. He could almost see it. He recalled the smell of it, fresh and damp and rotten all at the same time. It smelled of the earth and of the air. It smelled of life. He could hear it now, like the wind blowing through tall, dry grass only a thousand times better, more beautiful, more moving, more alive. In that instant he knew that something wonderful was gone from the world and he couldn’t even remember what it was.
“It’s no good!” he snapped, but she wasn’t listening. He glanced across and she was staring at him, her wide-eyes reflecting fear and, worst of all, understanding.
“Books.” Her voice was low, little more than a whisper.
“Books,” she repeated, “What about books?” She rolled from the bed, seizing a book from the bedside table, rippling through the faded yellow pages with a frown of concentration. She held it out to him, two-handed, like an offering. Cautiously, he took it, turned it over.
He shrugged. “It’s a book.”
“OK. And what’s it made of? What’s it printed on?”
“What exactly are you getting at? It’s just a book.”
“Humour me. What are books printed on? Books and newspapers and magazines?”
“Paper, of course.”
“Right. And where does paper come from?”
“Exactly,” she cried, and a shadow crossed her face, “What are trees?”
He opened his mouth to reply, but found that he had no answer.