A dream of wessex, p.17
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       A Dream of Wessex, p.17

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  Deep inside her, a spectral memory flared like a match-flame in a darkened cellar ... and a spectral version of herself recoiled in horror.

  As Paul sat down at the table with the others, Julia stared with unfocused eyes at the floor, her spectral identity struggling for release. She thought of David, she thought of his love, she thought of hers.

  Soon, she began to tremble.


  The heavy thunderstorm had brought a break in the weather, and six days later it was cool, windy and squally in Dorchester. David Harkman’s frustration continued; he had not seen Julia since the afternoon on the heath, and discreet inquiries, mainly of the two Castle people working behind the stall, got him nowhere. They appeared to know nothing of her, and were surprised that he should be interested.

  He was still being blocked by Mander’s apparent reluctance to let him at the archives, and on the fourth day he had left the Commission in a rage and travelled up to Child Okeford to ride the Blandford wave. This too had left him unsatisfied; the tide was unseasonally low, and the wave had been crowded with inept amateurs. Swerving to avoid a group of riders, Harkman had slipped behind the crest of the wave, making the whole expedition futile and irritating.

  Futility and irritation were two feelings he was well acquainted with, and Harkman had little doubt whence they grew.

  It was a cruel irony that within a few minutes of Julia’s apparent return to him - his knowledge that the intangible was there again - she had left him. And in spite of what she told him, Harkman remained convinced that she had left him for some other man.

  His response was human and straightforward: he suffered an abiding and wounding jealousy.

  On the sixth morning he inquired again about the matter of the archives, and once more Mander told him that Commissioner Borovitin was ‘considering’ his request, Harkman, enraged again, left the Commission offices and for want of anything better to do strolled along the sea-front, watching the holiday-makers with a mixture of boredom and envy. He walked the length of the Boulevard, past the skimmer-shop and all the stalls, past Sekker’s Bar, and along the road that led to Victoria Beach.

  Two peddlers approached him, holding out some of their wares. At first he didn’t see what they were offering, noticing instead that they were wearing Castle clothes.

  ‘Will you look at a mirror, sir?’ said one of the two, and held a little circular piece of glass before his eyes.

  Harkman saw a crazy, flashing reflection of himself, but then he pushed past them and walked on. The mirror was a cheap bauble, a common ornament. It was the second time peddlers had tried to sell him one.

  Victoria Beach was as crowded as usual, in spite of the cool weather. Many of the visitors lay on the sand, presenting their naked bodies to the cloudy sky, apparently relishing this opportunity for fashionable exhibitionism without the risk of unfashionable suntan. Harkman paused for few minutes, staring down at them. People always seemed to behave the same on a beach, discarding normal behaviour with their clothes.

  Beyond the beach, set on its hill, was Maiden Castle: symbol and embodiment of his discontents.

  Julia was there, but his jealousy was defensive, and he dared not seek her out.

  Standing by the rail overlooking the beach, Harkman felt again the primal instinct that drew him to the Castle. It represented the permanence of time, an inexplicable link with the past.

  It came from the past, the real past, the historical past.

  Maiden Castle had been there on its hilltop as Dorchester was being rebuilt after the earthquakes. It had been there as the earth had shaken and subsided, and as the sea crept towards it, submerging the valleys around. It had stood on its hill indifferent to the nations and races of the world, as they argued and warred about territory and money, maize and oil and copper, ideology and torture, political influence and frenetic arms-race. It had been there as the first steam-train followed its bright new iron tracks towards Weymouth in the south, and it had been there as kings struggled with parliaments, and as feudal lords and seigneurs raised private armies to extend their lands. The Romans had sacked it, the ancient Britons had raised it. Time was deposited about Maiden Castle like layers of sedimentary rock, and Harkman could excavate it with his imagination.

  It distracted him because it was the focus of his interest in Wessex.

  He had not come to find Julia, although he had found her, and he had not come to ride the Blandford wave, although he had done so and would again. The Castle was central to everything: a sense of past, of continuity, of permanence.

  If he walked along Victoria Beach from here he would be at the Castle in ten minutes. Harkman tested his courage against his jealousies, and his courage failed. He glanced once more at the glowing green mound, then turned back and walked quickly into Dorchester.

  He had been at his desk for no more than ten minutes when the internal telephone rang.

  ‘Mr Harkman? This is Cro, of Information. I understand that the Commissioner has authorized you to examine our archives.’

  ‘I thought Mander was in charge of those.’

  ‘Mr Mander is taking a few days’ leave of absence. Before he went I took it upon myself to make sure you received your clearance. Do you wish to use the archives today?’

  ‘Yes, of course. I’ll come now.’

  He went first to Cro’s office, then followed the portly little man to the elevator.

  The archives were kept in the basement of the building: a huge storehouse behind a fireproof wall, filled with metal racks that covered all four walls and made artificial aisles across the width of the room. On these shelves were stacked the records: cardboard-boxfuls of papers, books, pamphlets, bound folders, licences, records of births and deaths, notes of court-proceedings, file upon file of memoranda from Westminster and the other provincial Commissions, statutes, minutes of meetings, newspapers, government posters, police-records ... all the dusty memorabilia of service to and administration of the State, and a mouldering testament to the pedantic mind of the bureaucrat, which will never allow anything to be thrown away.

  ‘I’ll have to lock you in, Harkman,’ Cro said.

  ‘That’s all right.’ Harkman looked at his watch: it was just after two. ‘Come down for me at five, unless I telephone beforehand. And I’ll probably want to spend all day tomorrow here.’

  Cro pointed to a browned, faded sign above the door. ‘You can’t smoke in here.’

  ‘I wasn’t intending to.’

  ‘You’d better give me your cigarettes, in case.’

  Harkman stared at Cro aggressively, fighting to keep his temper. He had had only occasional contact with this man, but he felt he knew and understood him, or his type. Because of Harkman’s status as an attached academic, Cro was administratively his junior, but the archives were his domain. To avoid a needless scene, Harkman handed over his cigarettes, aware that he was scowling like a schoolboy caught smoking behind the gym.

  He forced a grin. ‘I suppose I might have been tempted.’

  ‘I’ll keep them for you,’ Cro said, and put them on a shelf outside the room. He closed and locked the door, then nodded to Harkman through the heavy glass window, and walked away. Harkman stared thoughtfully through the window at his cigarettes, knowing that if Cro had taken them with him he would have forgotten them. Now he wanted a smoke.

  He turned away, intent on getting on with what he had come down here for.

  Until now, the only aspect of the archives he had had access to was a part of the index, so he already had a partial understanding of the filing-system, and the numbered codes used to identify different classifications.

  He walked up and down the aisles, looking at the boxes and folders. The newer additions to the collection stood out from the others, for their labels were as yet clean, unyellowed by age. Harkman tried to read the words inscribed on the spines of various folders, lifted the dusty lids of boxes to peer inside. The air in the vault was dry and stale, and even just walking raised clo
uds of fine dust, making his eyes water and his nose itch.

  He worked aimlessly for half an hour, not only unsure of where to look, but uncertain of what it was he was seeking. The rows of dirty folders confused him; the order in which they were stacked appeared to be random, with the court-records for one year placed with seeming purpose next to the register of marriages for another, twenty-three years before.

  He returned to the index, and chose a few entries at random, trying to work out the system. After some false starts he managed to trace a chosen item: Housing Committee, Minutes of Meetings, 2117-2119. He had no interest in the proceedings of a committee sitting some twenty years before, but finding it had helped him understand the system.

  Now with more than an inkling of how to go about his search, Harkman settled down at one of the desks with the index in front of him. He had already abstracted a list of certain records he wanted to examine, and he took out his notebook and checked off two or three items of special interest. By a quarter past three he had a list of some forty entries that might contain what he was looking for, and he went in search of them. He couldn’t find them all, but he soon had at his desk a land-registry that covered the whole of the twenty-first century, newspaper files, Commission year-books for the last three decades, minutes of Party meetings and congresses, a popular history of the twentieth century, several guide-books to Maiden Castle, and copies of various memoranda sent between Westminster and the Resources Attaché’s office in the last two years.

  In this last folder he discovered the first reference to Maiden Castle.

  A query had been raised in the Regional Office in London about the power-consumption of the Castle community; the answer, amid much elaborate qualification, said that the community had access to mains electrical supply, but that its consumption was negligible provided certain unidentified equipment was not in use.

  Later, Harkman discovered more correspondence in the same folder, this time concerned with a query about the possible scrap- or salvage-value of the research equipment; the Commission’s answer - signed by D. Mander - took the form of a letter attached to a printed circular. The circular was a Party directive concerning self-sufficient craft cooperatives, and the desirability of minimal government interference; the typewritten note merely added that the present condition of the Ridpath apparatus was not known, and was assumed to be worthless.

  The proper name of the equipment held no significance for Harkman.

  In the land-registry of the previous century, Harkman discovered extracts of the deeds by which title to the land on which Maiden Castle stood was transferred formally from the Duchy of Cornwall to the Soviet Land and Agriculture Board. This was in the year 2021. The transfer was one of several hundred, in which all land not nominally State-controlled was handed over to Westminster.

  There followed a fruitless search, where he found several documents relating to Maiden Castle, or referring to it, but they were normal bureaucratic fodder: population estimates, land- surveys, health reports, an advisory document on education, the findings of a team of sanitary inspectors.

  Harkman had not looked at the newspaper file since locating it, thinking of it as a last resort, but on searching through he discovered that in the early years at least of the Commission’s administration, there had been diligent attempts to collect items of local interest. There were all sorts of cuttings here: details of a road-building project (since abandoned), the reconstruction of Dorchester after the earthquakes, the first ideas publicly discussed for the development of Dorchester as a tourist centre.

  Then, stuffed into a pocket at the back of the file, Harkman found several other clippings from a much earlier period. He pulled them out and unfolded them carefully; they were brown with age, and as dry as the dust that lay on them.

  The first one had a lurid headline, set in an old-fashioned typeface: A JOURNEY TO THE FUTURE! Underneath, written in short paragraphs and sensational English, was a report on the formation of what the newspaper called ‘an electronic think- tank’, whose members would ‘step into the future’ and ‘contact our descendants’, all with the aim of ‘solving the burning problems of today’.

  There were several more of a similar ilk, each one concentrating, presumably for the benefit of a semi-literate audience, on such ideas as time-travel, exploration of the future, visiting the ends of time, and so forth. These were in cuttings dated from the beginning of 1983 until the summer of 1985. Maiden Castle (‘shrouded in antiquity’) was mentioned several times, and the name of Dr Carl Ridpath (variously a ‘boffin’, ‘inventor’ or ‘genius’) featured prominently.

  Harkman read them in chronological order, learning more from each one, and recognizing also which elements of the reporting could be discounted as sensationalism or speculation.

  As he finished the last cutting, Harkman felt that he had found what he had been seeking. At some time in the late twentieth century - presumably in 1985 - a scientific research foundation had developed a means whereby the future could be investigated. It was not a form of travel through time, in the sense the newspapers used it, but a controlled, conscious extrapolation, visualized and given shape by Dr Ridpath’s projection equipment. The work would be carried out in a special laboratory constructed beneath Maiden Castle.

  Clearly this was the apparatus that was mentioned in the Commission files!

  Harkman was suddenly struck with an intriguing notion, and he turned back through the cuttings. There was common consent in the reports on one matter: that the chosen period for the projected ‘future’ would be exactly one hundred and fifty years.

  In other words, they were envisaging the year 2135 ... just two years ago!

  Harkman wondered wryly what they had made of what they found.

  He stared at the aged newsprint for several minutes, realizing that these ancient pieces of paper were themselves a link with that optimistic past, a time when man and his technology had not stagnated, when they could still look forward. Just as Maiden Castle itself had been built for defence against the enemies of the day, and had survived to withstand the decay of time, so these words, hastily written and hastily printed, had outlived their makers.

  The men were dust, but the words and ideas lived on.

  Harkman shuffled the cuttings into a pile, then slid them back into their pocket in the folder. He felt a slight obstruction, so he pulled them out again and peered inside.

  At the very back, concertinaed by the pressure of the others, was one more cutting. Harkman reached inside, and pulled it out carefully.

  He smoothed it with his hand, pressing it out on the desktop.

  It was printed in a different style from the others, with a more sober presentation: from the printing at the top he learned that it was taken from The Times, 4th August 1985.


  Harkman read through the piece quickly.

  Today, in an Ancient British hill-fort near Dorchester, a group of intellectuals, economists, sociologists and scientists will pool their conscious minds in an attempt to see into the future of Britain and, indeed, the world. Questions have been asked in Parliament, and much comment has been heard from informed sources, about the expense involved in what to some is no more than an indulgent fantasy of some of the best brains in Britain. Would the money not be better spent, say the critics, on more positive and social research - indeed, the very kinds of research that in many cases the participants have abandoned in order to take part?

  In fact, although the Wessex Foundation is partly subsidized by the Government - through the Science Research Council - most of the funds have been raised from private and industrial sources.

  There followed a paragraph discussing the financing of the project. Harkman glanced over this, then read on.

  Much has been heard about the ‘time-travelling’ ability the participants will develop when their minds are electronically pooled, but this is strenuously denied.

  Speaking at yesterday
s press-conference in Dorchester, Dr Nathan Williams of Keele University said, ‘We are imagining a future world, which is made palpable to us by the Ridpath projector. Our bodies will be inside the projector itself, and will not leave it. Even our minds, which will seem to experience the projected world, will in fact stay within the program dictated by the equipment.’

  For the Trustees of the Wessex Foundation, Mr Thomas Benedict, who is himself to take part in the experiment, added, ‘In terms of what we hope to achieve, we believe that what we shall learn from the world of 2135 will amply repay every penny of what has been invested here.’

  There is a total of thirty-nine participants in the project, and together their qualifications present a formidable array of talent. Many have taken indefinite leave of absence from their university posts to contribute to the Ridpath projection, and several more have left brilliant industrial careers for a chance to deploy their speciality in this experiment.

  Dr Carl Ridpath, who developed his mental visualization and projection equipment at the University of London, was unable to attend yesterday’s press-conference. Speaking from a West London clinic, where he is recovering from an operation, he said, ‘This is the fulfilment of a dream.’

  Alongside the article were eight photographs of some of the participants, tiny faces staring out at Harkman across the years. One was of Ridpath, a small, intense expression; another was of Dr Williams, a middle-aged, balding man with a square, intelligent face.

  At the very bottom of the double column of photographs were two at which Harkman stared uncomprehendingly.

  The first face was his own. Underneath, the caption said: Mr David Harkman, 41, Reader in Social History, London School of Economics.

  The second photograph was of a pretty, dark-haired girl: Miss Julia Stretton, 27, Geologist (Durham University). Miss Stretton is the youngest of the participants.

  Harkman’s first reaction to this was disbelief, and he closed his eyes and turned away his face, as if this would remove some incredible sight. Then he stared again at the pictures, and glanced through the article, his heart speeding up as his nervous response stimulated the adrenal gland. The girl’s photograph was unmistakably Julia; the man given his name was undoubtedly himself.

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