EPISODE TWO: THE SOUND OF SCREAMING
The trees all around were still and the only sounds were two sets of crunching footsteps ploughing laboriously along the gravel path. Having been plunged rather unexpectedly into the landscape of the imagination I had not really had much chance to consider what might be my initial emotions on encountering a whole new world. However I am quite sure that, even had I enjoyed the leisure to think it over, boredom would not have been high on my list. But this was turning out to be worse than Miss Sykes’ tour of Clifton College.
“Are we nearly there yet?” I asked, not particularly caring that I sounded like a five year old on the verge of a tantrum.
“Are we nearly where yet?” retorted my companion, Michael.
“I don’t know. Somewhere. Anywhere. We must have been walking for hours.”
“I’d say twenty minutes tops.”
“It feels like hours. How do we even know we’re going in the right direction?”
“Well, so far there only seems to have been the one direction. Do you see any other paths lying around?” Michael gestured at the dense foliage that surrounded us on all sides.
But looking around only served to remind me just why I was so bored in the first place. “I wouldn’t mind so much if there was something to see along the way,” I complained. “You’d think that a walk through an imaginary landscape might throw up one or two interesting sights along the way. But what have we seen so far?” I didn’t pause long before providing the answer myself. Trees.”
“Well…” began Michael.
“And more trees.”
“No, wait, just a second… what’s that? Oh look, it’s another tree.”
Michael confined his response to a look of pure disdain. But I had seen enough. Catching sight of a mossy tree stump at the edge of the path I stopped abruptly and sat down.
“That’s it, I’ve had it,” I announced. “I’m fed up and I’m hungry and I refuse to move another step.”
“And just how do you think sitting down there is going to get you any closer to a decent meal?” asked Michael reasonably.
“Don’t know. Don’t care.”
“What about Sturridge? We’re hardly likely to find him if we stop here. He might be in real trouble. He could be facing all kinds of dangers right now, as we speak.”
“I’ll grant you he may be in danger of dying of boredom.”
“I suppose that means I’ll have to go after him by myself then, will I?” Michael said regretfully, switching tactics.
I remained unmoved. It seemed to me that it was just about time that we set some parameters on this unexpected partnership of ours and Michael was about to discover that I was not one to be pushed around. “I suppose it does,” I responded airily.
“Fine then, I will.” Michael considered matters for a moment. “I imagine it’ll get pretty dark soon. I mean, I’d offer to come back for you later but chances are you’ll have been eaten by a bear or something by then.”
“Well, at least somebody will be getting fed.”
Michael took a few tentative steps down the path. “Right, well, I’m going then.”
He shrugged and continued to walk on. He’d got no more than fifty paces before he stopped on the top of a small rise in the ground and stared out through the trees. “Wait a minute,” he called back to me. “What’s that over there?”
“Really Redgrave, you don’t think I’m going to fall for that one, do you?” I protested with a shake of my head.
“No seriously, just through the trees there. I can see some houses, must be some kind of village. Come and have a look.”
He sounded convincing but then he did have something of a reputation as an actor. It was curiosity, though, that eventually drove me off my tree stump and led me to walk over to him. He triumphantly pointed through a slender gap in the trees. “See?”
From the small rise we could see down into a brief clearing about half a mile away in which were clustered a handful of homely cottages. There was smoke rising from one or two of the chimneys but no other sign of life was visible.
“Alright, so there’s a few houses,” I conceded in response to Michael’s expectant gaze. “It’s not quite a bustling cityscape, is it?”
“It’s a start,” he shrugged and, without waiting any longer, he strode off through the trees in the direction of the hamlet. “Come on, let’s go and explore. I bet you they have something to eat down there.”
“No doubt something that grows on trees,” I muttered as I reluctantly trudged after him.
It took us a bit longer than anticipated to get to the village in question as the forest soon closed in on us again and away from the rising ground it was difficult to keep our bearings. But eventually, after one or two untoward detours, we pushed through a tangle of branches and found ourselves at one end of a short muddy street.
“Is this it?” I asked dubiously as we proceeded cautiously down the street, staring into the blank windows of the cottages lined up on either side.
“It’s alright,” insisted Michael, not entirely convincingly. “It’s just a bit… rustic.”
“It’s like something out of Grimm’s fairytales. With the emphasis on the grim.”
“No, here we go,” Michael pointed hopefully to a sign above the doorway of the last cottage in the row. “Edward’s Imaginary Emporium – General Stores. This looks like our best bet.”
“You’re joking, aren’t you?” I retorted, staring at the smudged front window which offered no clue as to what might be inside. “That place looks like it hasn’t seen a customer in centuries. Do you suppose it’s even open?”
“Only one way to find out.” Michael pushed at the door and it swung open to the jingle of an old fashioned shop bell hanging above.
We proceeded cautiously inside. It took a moment to readjust our eyes as the grimy window didn’t allow much sunlight to penetrate and there didn’t appear to be any other means of illumination. The interior made me think that an explosion had occurred in a junkyard and someone had elected to build the shop around it. There were shelves, tables and cabinets scattered randomly throughout, each piled high with an assortment of bric-a-brac which in turn was nestling beneath a hefty layer of dust.
“Hello?” called out Michael between coughs. “Anyone about?”
There was a succession of bangs and crashes from somewhere deep within before suddenly a head popped up from behind a shelf full of old copper kettles. It was surrounded by a shock of white hair and displayed a grey straggling beard. The face regarded us keenly for a moment before bursting into a broad smile. “Ah, customers!” it exclaimed delightedly. The head rose from it’s awkwardly cramped position, revealing a body encased in a large green apron, and glided effortlessly forward between two tottering piles of junk with a proprietorial manner that led me to assume that we must have found the Edward of Edward’s Imaginary Emporium. “What a fine looking young couple,” he continued after a closer inspection. “How are you both? Where are you headed? What are you after?”
“Erm, not entirely sure to be honest,” I conceded, my head spinning from all the questions. “To all of the above.”
“Ah, you’ll be newcomers to the landscape of the imagination then,” Edward said knowingly.
“Is it that obvious?” asked Michael.
“There is a slightly dazed look about you, I have to confess,” replied Edward. “And, to be fair, we’re not exactly at the heart of things here. I suppose it’s as good a place to start as any. But what brings you to the landscape? Romance? Adventure? On the run from someone?”
“Actually, we’re looking for someone,” I explained.
“Perhaps you’ve seen him,” added Michael. “He must have come through this way.”
“CJ Sturridge – he’s quite a famous author. Tall bloke, fifty-ish, he has a beard.”
Edward slowly shook his head. “Oh, I haven’t seen a new customer in these parts for… ooh, how long? What makes you think he might have come by here?”
“We’re pretty sure he entered the landscape through the same door in the wall as us.”
“I hate to dishearten you folks but that doesn’t mean anything on this side,” said Edward gently. “Gateways from one world to another are notoriously temperamental. Where he ended up and where you ended up are likely to be two very different things.”
Even Michael had the good sense to look rather deflated by this information. Personally, I was starting to find this whole procedure more than a little frustrating.
“This is ridiculous,” I complained loudly to no-one in particular. “We get told that we’re supposed to come and rescue Sturridge – but nobody seems able to tell us where he’s gone or what kind of trouble he’s in. And now it seems that there’s not even going to be a trail for us to follow. Just how are we supposed to find anyone in these conditions?”
“Perhaps it might help if you knew your friend’s reasons for coming to the landscape,” suggested Edward smoothly, entirely unperturbed by my outburst. “What was he looking for?”
“He told me he was looking for the original idea at the heart of the landscape of the imagination,” I announced, aware even as I said it that it sounded a little, well, pompous.
A dark cloud seemed to pass over Edward’s previously sunny features. “Oh,” was all he said in response.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked suspiciously.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” replied Edward just a little too quickly. “A bit vague that’s all. Rather difficult to glean directions from I’d say.” He busied himself momentarily with brushing ineffectively at the dust lining a box full of odd shoes. Before I could question him further though he regained his composure and turned back to face us with a bright smile. “Your best bet would be to head on inland I guess. See if you can pick up word of him in one of the towns or cities.”
“I guess that would make sense,” shrugged Michael resignedly.
There was still something about the change in Edward’s manner though that made me uneasy. “What if we chose not to go inland?” I asked sharply. “What if we chose to turn around and go home?”
Michael looked at me with an expression of keen disappointment. “Don’t tell me you’re giving up already?”
“Just weighing up my options,” I replied casually. As a matter of fact I hadn’t the least intention of giving up so soon but the more Edward shuffled awkwardly around his shop the more convinced I was that he was hiding something from us. And that just made me want to prod him a little further. “The door we came through,” I addressed Edward directly. “That kind of looked like a one way deal. Would that be right?”
Edward sighed noncommittally. “Doors between worlds do have a habit of opening and shutting entirely at their own discretion.”
“But there must be other ways out?”
“Oh, I’m sure there must,” said Edward cheerfully.
He busied himself brushing at his shelves once more. “Well, I don’t know as such. I mean, I have heard rumours… But, like I say, I’m not really at the heart of things here. We don’t get many visitors.”
“Brilliant,” I muttered.
“If you are going to be doing some exploring then you’ll probably be wanting a map,” Edward announced unexpectedly.
Michael and I looked at one another in surprise. It had never occurred to us that there might be something as simple as a map available. Edward delved into a succession of drawers, blowing up such a cloud of dust that he was momentarily obscured from view, before he stepped forward and handed to Michael a thick, dark brown leather tube.
“There you are,” announced Edward proudly. “Finest embossed leather case with handy carry strap. That should do you.”
Michael examined the case admiringly. “Thank-you, that’s really beautiful,” he said. He eagerly opened up the case and drew out a rolled up sheet of parchment from inside. “That’s just amazing.” Then he paused a moment and turned the parchment over with a frown. “Hang on a second, that’s blank.”
“Of course it’s blank,” responded Edward smoothly. “This is an imaginary landscape.”
“And just how are we supposed to use a blank map?” I asked.
“You fill it in as you go of course.”
Michael could only shrug at me as he rolled the parchment back up, slotting it back into it’s case.
“Now then, you’ll be needing supplies I imagine.” Edward clapped his hands together and began digging again amongst the cupboards. “We’re a bit short on fresh stock but some of this tinned stuff isn’t too far out of date.”
“I’m afraid there may be a slight issue about payment,” I confessed. “We didn’t exactly come prepared, you see.”
“Then you’ll be wanting to start a tab I suppose,” continued Edward, who seemed to have an answer for just about everything. He rummaged about beneath some pots and pans and brought forth an enormous ledger that he rested on the only clear bit of table in the whole shop. “Interest calculated monthly. All bills to be settled before departure from the landscape. Those are my terms.”
“Very generous,” conceded Michael.
Edward carefully inscribed both our names and my address into his book. It seemed simpler to allow him to believe that Michael and I lived together in the real world than to try and come up with an explanation for why Michael was unable to give a current address of his own. Edward then added a list of the provisions he had picked out for us, explaining kindly that he’d only charged us half price for the tinned salmon as he couldn’t be entirely sure of its provenance.
“If it’s not too stupid a question, what do people normally do for money here?” I asked as Edward packed up our purchases in a paper bag. “Is there an imaginary currency? Credit cards? Travellers cheques?”
“Well now, that is a bit of a thorny issue,” conceded Edward, scratching his beard. “The landscape, springing as it does from the whole of human imagination, is of a somewhat heterogeneous nature. It combines elements of every era, every region, every creed and civilisation. In such circumstances it is difficult to impose a single unified economic policy.”
“I can imagine.”
“I believe most folks who travel get by through bartering.”
“Oh,” I said rather worriedly. “We didn’t exactly bring a lot with us.”
“Then you’ll just have to trade judiciously, won’t you?” suggested Edward.
Michael and I divided up the goods for transportation and began to contemplate moving on. “As we’re starting with a blank map I don’t suppose you’d be able to offer any advice as to the best route to take, would you?” asked Michael, more in hope than expectation.
Edward scratched thoughtfully at his beard again. “If you head on through into the forest, in about a hundred yards the road forks,” he said. “You’ll find a lot of roads in this landscape fork. One path takes you down to the lake, the other up to the railway station. It’s up to you which you choose.”
“How do we get across the lake?” I asked.
“You don’t. The ferry sank quite some time ago.”
“I guess railway station it is then,” said Michael.
Edward saw us out of his shop and waved us off on the doorstep. “I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for,” he called out after us as we disappeared off into the trees once more. There was an oddly wistful note to his voice now that might have bothered me more had I stopped to consider it. But now that I had food in my bag and a sense of direction – of a sort – I’m afraid I was no longer paying such close attention. Instead I strode off with something of a spring in my step, not a little curious to see just what this landscape had to offer.