|<<< prologue||two : the island of fear >>>|
Monday, 6 October 2014
one : Happy Birthday, Arthur Ness
Arthur Ness sat in his office and looked at the birthday card in his hands. Inside the card, in the scruffy handwriting of a child, it read;
Happy Birthday Arthur, 40 Today!
And further down, it read;
Have you noticed the men in hats lately?
It didn’t say who it was from.
The little speaker-box on his desk buzzed and the tinny sound of his secretary’s voice came through.
“Dr. Felix is here to see you, Mr. Ness.”
“Thank you, Martha, send him in.”
“Yes, Mr. Ness.” A pause, then, “Have you had a chance to think about my birthday? I’d really like the day off to see my mother and-”
“I have no interest in your personal nonsense, Martha,” Arthur snapped. “Be in work on that day or be in the job centre the next. Now, stop bothering me with your prattle and send the doctor in.”
“…yes, Mr. Ness…”
Arthur put the card back in its envelope just as the door opened and a tall, thin man in an ill-fitting brown suit entered.
“Happy Birthday, Mr. Ness,” said Dr. Felix. “I trust I find you well today?”
“If I was well,” said Arthur, ignoring the doctor’s outstretched hand, “then you wouldn’t be here. Please, let’s begin. I have a meeting in an hour.”
The doctor nodded, politely, “Very well. Let’s move right along.”
Arthur had been seeing the psychiatrist, Dr. Felix, for two months, now. To be honest, he didn’t even want to see the doctor. He wasn’t crazy. But Eleanor, his wife, had insisted. She’d noticed that he wasn’t feeling his usual confident, satisfied self. He’d been prone to fits of what she called ‘worried sadness’. Like he was afraid of something – something big – but he didn’t know what. These had been quite disorienting for Arthur because they went completely against the one thing that Arthur Ness was known for.
Namely, not being scared of anything. At all.
Over the years, Arthur had grown into a very successful businessman; the head of the largest electronics company in Europe. He had no fear of anything or anyone and had pushed, fought, shouted – and yes – bullied his way to the top.
Arthur would be the first to admit he wasn’t always the nicest person in the world. But being afraid of nothing meant he could forge ahead into whatever activity he pleased – and usually win at it. It had been many years since he’d felt the need to be nice to anyone in the process.
But it wasn’t just the feelings of sadness and depression that had prompted the visits to Dr. Felix. There were the dreams, too. Dreams he hadn’t had since he was a boy, newly returned from Waterwhistle. Dreams of flying ships, floating islands and talking animals.
Dreams of a world that didn’t exist.
“So,” said Dr. Felix, sitting on Arthur’s office chair, his pad and pen out, “how have you been feeling this week?”
Arthur himself was sat on a brown, two-seater sofa. The doctor had brought the chair up to the sofa and the two men faced each other. Arthur sighed.
“The same,” he said. “Depressed. Down. Like I can’t be bothered with things. Like things don’t… well, like they don’t matter. Like they’re not real.”
“Mm-hmm,” the doctor scribbled in his pad, “And the dreams?”
“Getting more and more vivid,” said Arthur. “Last night I dreamt I was talking to a stick doll.”
“Interesting…” said the doctor. He scribbled again. It annoyed Arthur when the doctor did that; said ‘interesting’ then scribbled. He didn’t know why, but it did.
“I haven’t had these thoughts since I was a child,” Arthur said, more to himself than the doctor. “Since I came back from Waterwhistle.”
“Ah, yes,” said the doctor, “back at the start of the war. The evacuations. What can you tell me about your time in Waterwhistle?”
Arthur allowed himself a rare smile, “It was brilliant. The people were friendly, I had lots of children to play with… I was actually quite popular, seeing as I was from London. They were fascinated with the way I talked. They said ‘grass’ and wanted to hear me say ‘grarse’.”
“It sounds like you had a good time there.”
“The best. Then, when I was finally allowed to come back home to my parents, things got even better. My father was a war hero – he flew in the Battle of Britain. But he was injured and had to leave active service. He came back home and the three of us were happy. Happier than ever, really, despite the war. I became really popular at school. I deposed the school bully…”
“You took his place, didn’t you?” said the doctor, checking earlier pages from his notes, “Tommy…erm… ah, yes, Tommy Watkins. The school bully. You knocked him off his perch, so to speak. And then took his place as ‘top dog’.”
Arthur nodded, no hint of remorse in his voice, “Oh, yes. Before I went to Waterwhistle, I was a frightened little scaredy-cat. After Waterwhistle, I felt no more fear at all. Not a scrap. So, yes, Tommy Watkins had it coming to him. I wasn’t in the mood for his nonsense anymore. And, yes, I took his place. In this world, the fearless are in charge. I didn’t make the rules, that’s just how it is.”
“So, what happened in Waterwhistle to affect such a big change in you?”
“I…” Arthur stumbled, “…I can’t remember… There was…”
“The one you can’t remember anything about?”
“…yes. Because she wasn’t really real. I think I made her up.”
“Have you been thinking about her more, recently?”
Arthur nodded, slowly, “I’d managed to put her out of my mind, many years ago. But with all these thoughts coming back into my head, recently… yes, she’s been coming back too.”
“But you still can’t remember anything about her,” said the doctor, “because she isn’t real. Just like the stick doll or the talking cat or the floating islands.”
Arthur nodded, “I know, I know… and yet…”
Arthur looked at the doctor, now, something new in his eyes. Something the doctor hadn’t seen before. Something Arthur hadn’t felt since his return from Waterwhistle.
“There are the men,” Arthur said, “the men in suits. With hats. And cases.”
The doctor furrowed his brow, flicked through his notes, “Which men? You haven’t mentioned them to me before.”
“I know I haven’t. Because I wanted to pretend they aren’t there. They make me feel…” Arthur could barely bring himself to even say the word, “…afraid.”
“And… what do these men do?”
“Nothing,” said Arthur. “They just watch me.”
“I’ve noticed them over the last few months. Every so often, I’ll turn my head and one of them will be there. Standing in a crowd of people, maybe. Or on a bus that’s driving past. Just standing there, watching me. Then I’ll turn away for a moment and turn back…”
“And they’re gone,” the doctor guessed.
Arthur nodded, “I feel as though they’re keeping an eye on me or something. I haven’t told anyone. Not a soul. Not until now.”
“Perhaps…” Dr. Felix said, slowly, “…perhaps they aren’t real, either.”
“Oh? Then how do you explain this?” Arthur handed the doctor the envelope. Curious, the doctor opened it and took out the birthday card. He read the handwritten note inside.
“There’s no name,” he said, eventually.
“Who gave it to you?”
“It was on my desk when I got here this morning. Martha’s been in since the office opened but she said nobody else has come by.”
“I… see…” the doctor said slowly, putting the card down and scribbling in his pad again, quite quickly.
“Wait a minute…” Arthur said, “…you think I wrote it, don’t you? Wrote it to myself.”
Dr. Felix looked at Arthur with that expression where someone tries to think of the best way of saying something you don’t want to hear.
“Let me promise you one thing, Doctor,” said Arthur, firmly, “I did not write this card!”
The doctor smiled, “Listen, Arthur. I just want to tell you something. You are not crazy. Okay? You’re just overworked. Anxious. Stressed out, as the youngsters say. You have a very successful life. Take some time off with your wife and take things easy for a while.”
“My wife?” Arthur said, anger suddenly tumbling into his voice, “You mean the wife whose lawyer sent me a letter this morning saying she was divorcing me? That wife? Or perhaps you mean my first wife? The one who also divorced me? Would it be one of those two wives you’re talking about?”
“Ah… I’m… I’m very sorry,” said the doctor, embarrassed, “I didn’t know…”
Arthur looked over to the dustbin by his desk. Barely visible under piles of screwed up paper was the green and blue of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk II. His favourite aeroplane. An exact replica of the one his father had flown thirty years ago. It had been a birthday present from Eleanor last year. Upon receiving the divorce papers this morning, Arthur had relegated it from his desk to its current position.
His life was full of relics like that. Ruins of things that used to be good – but which he’d turned sour. His fearless approach to everything had brought him money and power. But his life was full of wrecks and skeletons of all the things he’d messed up along the way. His parents. Two marriages. His children.
Had he made a mistake? Was his total lack of fear not quite the best way to be, after all? Could it be that he ought to-
“Sleep, Arthur,” the doctor interrupted Arthur’s thoughts.
“Hm? I’m sorry?”
“Everything’s getting to you right now. Don’t let stress and tiredness make you doubt yourself. You’re the head of this entire company – you just need a break. Recharge your batteries. Trust me…” the doctor put his pad and pencil away and got up, “…everything will be okay if you just get some sleep. Sleep will cure all, Arthur!”
Arthur was unsure, but nodded. He stood and walked the doctor to the door. This time, when Dr. Felix extended his hand, Arthur shook it – but he was distracted.
“What is it, Arthur?”
“Hm? Oh, nothing. Well… maybe nothing. It’s just… well, don’t you think it’s strange?”
“That the Second World War is still going on today? In 1970? Don’t you think it’s strange that it didn’t end back in the forties?”