by Chris Beckett
I was beside the fishpond at Vector House. Great dark clouds were towering above me. A hundred yards or so away, a row of chestnut trees were shifting and swaying
restlessly in the wind. From beyond the trees came the constant hissing of heavy traffic on that perpetual ring-a-roses round London that was known in that world, in this world and in countless others as the M25.
The fishpond was raised and I was sitting on the stone flags round its rim. There were about a dozen big carp in there, gliding around under the lily-pads. I sat there every day and watched them. I liked to keep my head down as much as possible.
On side one of me was a wide lawn that extended to the chestnut trees. On the other side was the east wing of the big red brick house. There was a gravel path running along the front of the building and a stone bench on which sat a large bald black man in a cream-coloured linen suit, eating red cherries from a paper bag and tapping his foot as he listened to music on headphones. He was a psychiatric nurse.
‘Hey there Charles!’ he’d call out if I made any move away from the building. ‘Where you going, my friend?’ Not that I had any desire to leave. It was as if I had a
spike imbedded in my flesh. My overwhelming need was to keep as still as I possibly could, and to think, if possible, about nothing at all. But I couldn’t do anything about the fact that, every few minutes, like a tape loop, I heard Jaz’s voice again, crying out my name, screaming out my name, as she fell away from me. I winced and muttered and gibbered to make it go away.
I barely registered the sound of my visitor’s feet scrunching on the gravel path. People came by from time to time and it was no concern of mine. She was standing in front of me before I reluctantly lifted my head to see who it was.
‘Hello, Charles. Do you mind if I join you?’ It was a very large, very plain woman in a long sacklike dress. She had a hooked nose and pebble glasses and an amused sardonic mouth. I knew I knew her but I couldn’t for a moment remember her name.
‘I’ll sit here then,’ she said, when I failed to reply, and she sat herself on the edge of the pond a couple of yards from me, removed her glasses and began polishing them with an old-fashioned pocket handkerchief, red with white polka dots.
I hadn’t intended to be rude. I had simply forgotten that she’d asked me a question. All I really wanted to do was to be able to lowermy head again and go back to counting the fish. ‘
We’ve met before very briefly,’ she said, replacing the glasses on her nose, and peering at me interestedly, ‘but you may well not remember it. There were a lot of other things going on for you at the time . . .’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I remember. It was after the admiral’s pep talk.’
‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘My name is Vanessa Robertson.’
I realised it would be polite to ask a question. ‘You’re a . . . psychologist?’
Several psychiatrists and psychologists had already come to look at me in the few days since I’d been brought to Vector House. Mine was a rare and interesting case, it
seemed, of something they were starting to call TTP, or Temporal Transfer Psychosis.
‘Not I’m not a psychologist,’ said Vanessa. ‘I’m a physicist. Mind you, it’s getting hard to know the difference these days. Once we might have looked at psychology and physics as being at two opposite ends of the scientific spectrum. Now those two ends seem to have come together to make a circle. For what it’s worth, I call my subject area psychophysical ontology. A bit pompous, but it’s the best I can come up with.’
My attention wandered back to the carp.
‘Don’t you think you might as well talk to me as watch those fishes?’ she asked after a short pause. ‘Either way it’ll take your mind off things.’
I lifted my head again. ‘Yes, I’m sorry. I’ll pull myself together.’
Vanessa gave a snuffle of amusement. ‘Interesting expressions those: “pull yourself together”, “contain yourself”, “get a grip on yourself”. If the self is in
need of containing and holding together, what is it that does the holding?’
‘Boundaries,’ I said. ‘They’re what holds . . .’
But what I had been about to say reminded me so much of conversations with Jaz that I couldn’t bear to finish the sentence.
‘When the slip started to take effect,’ I said, for something else to talk about, ‘it was as if I was remembering something that I’ve always known. I felt like I was back at
the very beginning of things. Where the world comes from.’
‘Interesting. Very interesting in fact. I’d really like to hear more about that. But I do just want to explain to you first what I’m about. Just so we know where we stand. Basically the whole slip phenomenon is about psycho-physical ontology. As you probably have much more reason to know than I do, it challenges our preconceptions about the nature of being and the relationship between mind and matter. I’m interviewing people who have personal experience of slip to see what I can learn. I’m particularly interested in your case because, from what I gather, you’re one of the very few people who’ve taken slip and then pulled back from the edge. You may even be the only one in the world. I wondered if you would be willing to help me?’
‘Well, to start with, if it’s all right with you, I’d like you to tell me the story of how you came to take the stuff.’ I considered. Talking seemed like very hard work, but then so was silence, with its constant threat of unwelcome thoughts crowding into the empty space. Perhaps I might as well talk, as sit here trying not to think about that dreadful moment when I pulled back from the edge, but Jaz didn’t.
Marcher by Chris Beckett is published by Dorchester Publishing; ISBN:08439-6197-X; $6.99; http://bit.ly/cbeckett