A dream of wessex, p.23
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       A Dream of Wessex, p.23
 

          
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  The body of David Harkman lay before her, and on the instant she saw his face Julia cried aloud.

  He was still and stiff, as if dead, but his eyes flickered behind closed lids and his chest was moving steadily up and down. His body had been allowed to deteriorate even further than when she had last seen him here: his naked skin was pale, and his flesh was soft and seemed as if it were waterlogged. His hair was long and matted, and his fingernails curled back towards his palms.

  She sank down and laid an arm across his chest, loving him, loving him.

  Something unspoken told her that he would never return; that his permanent place was the Wessex of the mind; that he had become as one with the world he had helped create.

  She was crying because he was there and she was here, and because she wanted only to be with him.

  He had been watching her from under the shelter of the seawall, waiting while she read the crumbling piece of newsprint. Of course she remembered it now; the newspaper had carried the story the day the projection began, more than two years ago. ‘It’s genuine, I’m sure it’s genuine,’ he had said. She wanted to tell him now that he was right ... but what did it matter? She no longer knew what was real, no longer cared. David was her only reality, but David was in Wessex.

  Julia cried, and wiped her eyes with the soggy tissue she still clutched. She kissed David’s unresponding face, then stood up. She walked to the front of the drawer, put her weight to it, and in a moment it slid slowly and smoothly home. He was safe again.

  She walked numbly towards her own drawer, and found it.

  The surgical gown was held with three simple laces at the front, and she slipped it off. Then one of the orderlies noticed, and pointed it out to Dr Trowbridge.

  ‘Miss Stretton ... what are you doing?’

  She made no answer, but reached behind her and found a corner of the sticking-plaster across her shoulders. She pulled, wincing at the pain. It wouldn’t tear back, so she tugged harder, and at last it came away. As she dropped it to the ground Julia saw that there were spots of blood, mingling with the yellow stain of antiseptic.

  Her drawer was beside her, and so she sat down and drew up her legs.

  ‘Julia!’ It was Eliot, who had appeared at the entrance to the hall. Marilyn stood beside him. ‘Julia, get down from there. Trowbridge, get away from that! ‘

  ‘I’m going back, John!’ she shouted.

  ‘I told you, no one is to use the projector again. I’ve had instructions to close it down, to turn it off.’

  Trowbridge had crossed the room and was standing a few feet away from her, apparently uncertain of what to do.

  ‘You can’t turn it off with people inside,’ Julia said. ‘You know that would kill them.’

  ‘I’ve had instructions from the trustees.’

  Eliot had been walking slowly towards her as he spoke, and Julia knew that where Trowbridge hesitated Eliot would act. She knew what she wanted. She knew more certainly than anything she had ever known in her life.

  Wanting it, she stared her defiance at Trowbridge ... who turned away.

  Wanting it, she stared at Eliot... and he came to a halt.

  From the doorway, Marilyn called: ‘Do it, Julia! Take care!‘ Julia closed her eyes. She lay back on the drawer, settling herself on the supports, and she gasped with pain as the electrodes went into the old sores. She reached behind her, found the handle inside the cabinet. As she pulled, the extra strain caused the electrodes to snag and tear at her flesh ... but the drawer was moving, taking her into the dry, warm darkness.

  The drawer closed and bright internal lights came on, and Julia stared upwards into a circular mirror.

  twenty-seven

  Julia ran down the main tunnel beneath Maiden Castle, the coarse fabric of her dress chafing against her legs. Her memories were intact.

  For the first time since the projection had begun, Julia had full knowledge of herself and her place. She could remember Paul’s mania in the projection hall, and the shouting and fighting; she could remember her return to the world of the 1980s; she could remember running down this tunnel away from Marilyn, with the girl shouting her name.

  But this was Wessex, and there was no Marilyn, no Dr Eliot. She reached the end of the tunnel, and no one called after her. She was alone.

  The glaring lights of the projection hall shone down the side-tunnel, and she slowed, not knowing what to expect. Were David and Paul still in conflict? Was Paul still cowering in his corner, babbling of death and power?

  All was silent as she walked into the long hall. It seemed like only a few moments before that she had walked in the same way into the same room, desperate for a sight of David. And so it was again: shielding her eyes against the brilliant spotlights, Julia looked for David.

  The hall was empty. Along the side, the drawers of the cabinets were closed, a uniform wall of finality. When she left Wessex, two drawers had been opened: one for David, one for Paul. Now all the drawers were closed, their secrets contained.

  In the centre of the floor, picked out by the lights, was the pile of discarded clothing.

  ‘David?’ she said, her voice unsure and sounding tremulous. This was the first noise she had consciously made since walking into the hall, and at once she was alarmed. She had a sudden irrational fear that it would bring Paul out from some hiding- place.

  The room was silent, with only the background hum of the projection equipment.

  Because she had expected to find the two men here, Julia was disconcerted by their absence. What had happened to them? Because they hadn’t appeared in the present, she had assumed they were still in Wessex. Where were they?

  But their drawers were closed: could they have returned to the present without her knowing it? But no, her memory was quite clear: neither had appeared. She remembered the two closed drawers, the two trolleys and the orderlies waiting. And she had seen David’s body seconds before she climbed into her own drawer.

  Nagging at her, though, was the knowledge that the transfer from present to future, and vice versa, was instantaneous. It could have happened ... Paul and David could have returned at the same moment as she herself rejoined the projection.

  How else to explain it?

  She walked across to the drawer that she knew was David’s, conscious of the way in which she was continuing to retrace the steps of her alter ego in the present. That Julia had walked to this drawer looking for a David she had lost, and that Julia had not found him. With the same instinctive dread, she pulled her hands away from the drawer before she could act.

  She stepped back, turned away. Alone in a world that was entirely hers, Julia felt the terror of the unknown.

  The pile of discarded clothes was next to her, and she looked down at it. Lying on the top was a jacket she recognized at once as David’s. Beneath it, neatly folded, were the rest of his clothes.

  She touched the jacket, and it was damp from the rain; she lifted it up and pressed it against the side of her face, holding it as if it were the last trace of him.

  In total misery she dropped the jacket on the pile, and cried out his name.

  Then, very muffled, she heard: ‘Julia...?’

  It was David’s voice ... and without a thought she ran across the hall and took hold again of the drawer-handle. She pulled with all her strength, and at once his naked body slid into view.

  That he was conscious and alert was instantly obvious because he moved his head before the drawer was fully extended, and bumped his forehead against the metal edge.

  He winced with agony, and his head fell back.

  She looked at his healthy body, his ruddy complexion ... and the expression on his face, pain and pleasure, comically mixed.

  She laughed aloud, almost hysterically, relieved beyond words that he was safe.

  ‘Oh, David ...’

  ‘Don’t laugh! Help me out of here! I thought I was stuck forever!’

  She knelt down and put an arm across his chest, pressing the side
of her face against his. She was still laughing, but crying too ... and David put his arms around her, pulling her down against him.

  Then he winced in pain again. ‘These needles ... pricking me.’

  She moved back and helped lift him away from the shoulder-supports. He sat forward, in the way she had been made to sit by Dr Trowbridge, and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. She looked to see, but the needles had barely penetrated the skin, and there was a faint pink rash along the upper part of his spine.

  She hugged him for several minutes, thinking only of him, and being with him.

  But then she said: ‘David, what happened? Why didn’t you go back to the present?’

  ‘I did as you said ... but nothing changed. I stared into a reflection of my own face, wondering what the hell was supposed to happen, and how I was going to get out, until I heard you outside.’

  ‘But you should have returned instantly. Has the projector been turned off?’

  ‘Not as far as I know. I certainly didn’t touch it, even if I knew how.’

  ‘Then Paul must have tampered with it.’

  David shook his head. He swung his legs to the floor, and walked over to retrieve his clothes. He said: ‘Mason’s in the machine.’

  ‘Was there a fight?’

  ‘Not after you left. He was still ranting away, but he ignored me completely and was talking about projecting himself into the future, trying to follow you. He went to the cabinets on his own, I waited until he’d filed himself away ... and then I tried to come after you. But as you see, it didn’t work.’

  ‘Why not, David?’

  ‘Perhaps I’m immune.’

  He said it jokingly, but it struck a resonant chord in Julia’s memory; her new memory, the one that stretched back to the twentieth century.

  The last time she had been out of the projector, during the meeting when Paul was there: Andy and Steve had come back from Wessex, and reported that David had been shown the mirrors but that he’d resisted it somehow.

  (And a deeper memory, several layers down, folded back under itself: a morning at the stall in Dorchester; David exhilarated from having ridden the Blandford wave, and trying to talk about it as the tourists gathered around the stall; Steve appearing with a mirror, and trying to show or sell it to David; herself taking the mirror from him, and smashing it on the ground; David unconcerned, wanting to see her later in the day; Steve going away from the stall.)

  David had been in Wessex continuously for more than two years; had the deep-hypnotic triggers been lost? Was he as resistant to the mirror inside the projector as he was to the ones carried by the retrievers?

  David said: ‘You must be immune too. You’re still here.’

  ‘I’m here because I chose to come back. Everything you talked about was true. Look...’ She took his trousers from him just as he was about to put them on, and felt in the back pocket. The newspaper cutting was still there. ‘This, David ... it’s true. When you put me inside the projector I went back to the twentieth century. As soon as I was there I remembered all that’s true about us. Neither of us is real, but it doesn’t matter! We are real to each other. I saw what was happening in the present, and I couldn’t stand it. I had to come back.’

  She was wondering how to begin telling him what she could remember. The trustees; her past life with Paul Mason; the damaged minds of the other participants.

  And David’s real body: pallid, bloated, uncared for. If he ever went back, tried to assume his real identity, could he survive?

  ‘David, this is the only reality left! What Paul Mason did ... I can hardly explain. He set up the second projection here, and I thought it was a way home. But what he is projecting is an imaginary twentieth century ... one where that newspaper was printed! ‘

  David laughed nervously, and took the newsprint from her. ‘First I’m told by this that I don’t exist, and now you tell me this doesn’t exist! ‘

  ‘That’s right.’ She remembered the emergency as the participants returned. ‘Most of the other people have gone mad ... in that projected world.’

  ‘But not you.’

  ‘No ... I had something to believe in, something I knew to be real.’

  ‘What was that?’

  She shook her head, and smiled at him. ‘If you don’t know, David, I’m not going to tell you.’

  He had all his clothes on now, and was straightening the collar of his shirt: a concentration on a familiar, mundane task to avoid thinking about the unthinkable.

  ‘David, don’t you understand? The newspaper was right about us at one time, but it’s wrong now. When we met, our identities were projections from the past. But Paul Mason changed that. His project, this one, is imagining the past. Not the one we’re from, but one very like it! And Paul’s projection is a complete success; I know, because I’ve been there! It’s a two-way projection ... people in Wessex, who were projected from the past, are projecting the past from which they started. It’s been too much for them. They’ve lost their minds.’ She ran a hand through her hair, and found that it was still damp from the rain of an hour before. ‘I think I’m beginning to lose my own! ‘

  She went to the cabinets, and took hold of the handle of the first drawer she came to.

  ‘If Wessex is still a projection, David, this drawer should be empty. The alter ego that was projected would either vanish, or resume its normal life in Wessex, when the mind of the participant withdraws. But do you know what’s inside this? Is someone here ... or is the drawer empty?’

  As she had been talking, David had left his shirt-collar alone, and was watching her thoughtfully. The piece of newsprint had slipped from his fingers, and lay on the pile of clothes.

  ‘Julia, I don’t think you should open that drawer,’ he said.

  ‘I’ve got to! ‘

  She pulled, felt the familiar resistance ... and a moment later the drawer slid out. Lying inside was the body of Nathan Williams. He was still, but alive. His chest rose and fell steadily, and behind closed eyelids his eyes were moving.

  Julia said: ‘He’s projecting, David. His mind is functioning.’ She opened a second drawer, a third. Both contained living bodies of people she knew.

  Thinking of their destiny, thinking of what had happened to those minds, Julia closed the drawers again. She had seen their projection.

  ‘Have you looked in your own drawer, Julia?’

  ‘No!’

  ‘You should. Is your drawer empty?’

  ‘It must be ... I’m here! ‘

  ‘Are you a figment of your own imagination, as I am of mine?’

  ‘David, I don’t want to know! ‘

  He had turned her own argument against her in a way she could not face. She stepped back, and further back, until she reached the further wall. Between her and David lay the pile of clothes ... and she saw, lying beside a damp raincoat, there was a plain, brown dress, identical to the one she was wearing. She looked down at herself. The bottom of the dress, that had not been covered by the coat, was dark and wet from the rain. She remembered the chafing against her legs as she ran down the tunnel.

  The dress lying on the pile was also damp.

  She alone had visited the projected past, and had not been harmed. She alone had returned to reality. Her memories were whole. She was in Wessex. The future, the present, the now.

  David pulled open the drawer she had used, and stared inside. For several seconds he didn’t move, but then he said: ‘I think you had better look, Julia.’

  ‘No, David. No!’

  She could see, from where she was standing, that there were two white and naked legs stretched out along the drawer. The rest of the body was hidden by David standing over it.

  ‘You’re the same as the others, Julia. You lie here and project, and you stand there and are projected.’

  ‘Close the drawer, David. Please!’

  He turned to look at her. He was grinning.

  ‘You’re very beautiful naked,’ he said. ‘Come and
see what I mean.’ She couldn’t move, couldn’t turn her head away. ‘David, please close that drawer! ‘

  The momentary roguishness on his face had faded, and with a sober expression he put his weight to the drawer and slid it back into place.

  ‘I don’t understand, Julia. Are you real? Am I?’

  ‘I can’t think about it any more,’ she said. She felt as if she were about to faint, or to suffer the same loss as the others. ‘We are as real as we think we are. I only know that I love you. Is that reality?’

  ‘It is for me.’

  He went across to her and put his arm around her shoulders. ‘I’m sorry, Julia,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have done that ... with the drawer.’

  ‘I think you had to. We had to know. It doesn’t seem to make any difference.’

  ‘What shall we do?’ David said. ‘Can we leave here?’

  ‘Do you want to?’

  ‘I said, can we.’

  ‘We can do whatever we wish,’ Julia said. ‘We are utterly free, for the moment.’

  ‘What do you mean by that?’

  ‘When I was in ... in the present, I heard that the Ridpath projector was going to be turned off.’

  ‘It means nothing to me. What effect would that have?’

  ‘Nobody’s really sure,’ Julia said. ‘Ridpath himself believed that it would kill anyone inside. It’s never been tried.’

  Then a stray thought - comforting? confusing? - hovered for a moment like a flying insect. As she left the present, Eliot had said the trustees had instructed him to close the projection. But that was in the world she believed was being projected from here! Would that have any effect here? Where was the present from which Wessex was being projected? Were they the same ... or was the system now closed? Did one world project the other, each dependent upon the other for its own continued reality?

  David said: ‘Julia, I think we should leave. I’ve got everything I ever wanted. We’re together ... that’s enough for me.’ Julia, distracted by the uncertainty of her thoughts, felt David’s hand on hers. She shook her head, as if to throw off the intruding notion, then saw from David’s expression that he had taken this as a negative response to what he had just said.

 
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