EPISODE FIVE: IN FREUD WE TRUST
The policeman pushed back his shiny blue cap and scratched his head thoughtfully as he considered the question. At least I think he was a policeman. He may have been a traffic warden. Or a lollipop man. The uniform was rather non-specific and I didn’t like to cause offence by asking. But he had that official air about him that suggested he was the right person for us to address our question.
“The Explorer’s Club?” he repeated slowly, in a manner that indicated either he wasn’t aware of its location or he wasn’t sure we were the right people to be divulging that sort of information to.
I had foolishly assumed that once we reached Stafford Harcourt locating the office of the Explorer’s Club would be a breeze. Sid Hitchins may have described it as ‘a large-ish town’ but the name had conjured up images of a gentle country village in my mind. A few idyllic cottages scattered along narrow lanes, a parish church and a cosy pub. Perhaps a post office and a small shop. Certainly somewhere an office of the Explorer’s Club would be likely to stick out like a sore thumb.
The place had turned out somewhat different. Stafford Harcourt was a busy, restless city where buildings of every description were thrown together. The town seemed to sprawl in every direction, a succession of tightly packed neighbourhoods butting onto one another. And everywhere people and traffic bustled purposefully by – it appeared this was no place for idle sauntering. It could take us a week to search all the avenues and alleys for an office that, for all we knew, had already moved on. So, at the first opportunity, we stopped to ask the man in the uniform.
The official tilted his head this way and that for a while before finally deciding we were worthy of his information. “Oh yeah, the Explorer’s Club,” he eventually said. “It was a surprise when they turned up in Stafford Harcourt, I can tell you.”
“But do you know where they are?” I pressed him anxiously.
There was another agonising pause. “Ah, that’s it. They took over the old Samson offices on Brook Street,” he finally said. “Just go up to the crossroads and turn left. You can’t miss it. There’s a big sign over the door.”
I was so excited by this news that I scarcely found time to mumble a word of thanks before I hared off up the street, leaving Michael trailing in my wake. The policeman/traffic warden/lollipop man stood and impassively watched us disappear into the crowd before he turned away and resumed his beat.
I saw it the moment I turned the corner. It was a low sprawling building sandwiched between two tall, rather nondescript townhouses. For an outfit reputed to maintain a Masonic secrecy about themselves I was rather surprised to note a large painted sign hanging over the doorway proclaiming ‘The Explorer’s Club’. Even with this clue I felt compelled to reach into my pocket for the faded photograph Sid had given us back in Havana just to check it really was the same place.
The short flight of steps leading up to the darkened doorway were identical. The only thing missing was the frozen figure of Sturridge, whose image in the photo was staring up the street to a spot right about where I was standing just now.
“That’s it! We’ve found it!” I exclaimed with a sense of triumph.
Michael merely smiled with a serene confidence that insisted he had never doubted for a second that we should locate the place.
I tucked the photograph back into my pocket and was about to set off down the road towards the office when, on second glance, something struck me about the sign. I paused and stared at it with a puzzled frown. It took several seconds of concentrated gaze before I was able to pinpoint exactly what it was that had caught my eye. But as I looked it became clear that the letters on the sign above the door were fading from view. Gradually but undeniably the words were gently seeping into the background.
I recalled Sid’s advice about the propensity of the Explorer’s Club to suddenly appear and disappear in various locations and the significance of the effect immediately struck me. “Fuck, the office is going!” I cried out.
I launched myself at once down the road. All I could think was that I had to get through the doorway before the writing above it had disappeared entirely from view. The distance to the door was not all that great but the way was littered with obstacles in the form of traffic hurrying to and fro. I scarcely noticed the honking of horns or the cries of pedestrians as I ducked and weaved across pavement and road. Skidding off the bonnet of a car, I bounced off one unsuspecting pedestrian and then literally flung myself the last few feet, up the steps and through the dark heavy door of the building.
I stood, breathless and exhausted at the end of an echoing empty corridor. Ahead of me stretched bare plaster walls and stark dusty floorboards. The corridor was dotted with doors all along its length but instinct told me I couldn’t hope to find anything within any of the rooms. I had never stood inside a building that felt so utterly stripped of any remnant of human contact.
The door behind me swung open and Michael, still slowed somewhat by his injured ankle, hobbled in and stood beside me. He gazed down the barren corridor with an expression of dismay.
“They’ve gone then, have they?” he finally said.
We stood dejectedly side by side for a while, completely at a loss for what to do next.
“I suppose we still ought to take a look around,” Michael eventually suggested. “You never know, they may have left some sort of clue behind.” There was a vaguely optimistic inflection to his voice but it sounded painfully forced.
I shrugged a weary acquiescence. I was quite certain they, whoever they were, would not have left anything behind. But lacking any alternative suggestions I fell in with the plan.
We set off down the corridor, with Michael investigating the doors on the left while I looked into the ones on the right.
It was a dispiriting procession. We peered into room after empty room, each exactly alike. Not a stick of furniture, not a scrap of paper, not so much as a fragment of wallpaper was left hanging on the walls. It was not so much that the place felt abandoned, it was more that it became difficult to imagine it had ever held any sign of human habitation in the first place.
Michael trod cautiously, peering conscientiously into every corner and paying particularly wary attention to the stark, unpolished floorboards. I, on the other hand, kicked sullenly around in the dust, feeling an urge to leave some kind of human trace within. As we progressed from room to room the emotion that began to well up was an overwhelming feeling of having somehow been cheated.
The corridor coiled around the interior of the building and we had almost completed a full circuit when our seemingly fruitless search finally turned up one tiny nugget of interest. It must have been one of the very last rooms that remained for us to look into. In most respects it was exactly identical to the dozen or so other rooms I had already peered around. My eyes took in the single plain light bulb dangling from the centre of the low grey ceiling. I noted the four plaster walls, entirely unencumbered with any form of decoration that enveloped the bare, unvarnished floorboards.
But then my gaze fell upon one solitary feature of note. In the centre of the dusty floor sat a heavy black telephone. It was entirely alone, unattached by any form of cable or wire, sitting, deserted yet defiant, in the midst of an ocean of dust. I was still gazing curiously at this unlikely object when Michael poked his head round the door to see where I had got to.
He instantly joined in the puzzled contemplation of the telephone. “Where do you suppose that came from?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think it belonged to the Explorer’s club?”
“Might have done.”
“Why would they leave just that behind?”
“I don’t know.”
Who knows how long we might have continued in this fashion if the instrument itself hadn’t interrupted us by doing the one thing I hadn’t expected it to do. The solitary telephone in the middle of the empty floor suddenly started ringing.
I was greeted by several clicks, followed by an electrical hum as though someone were trying and just failing to make a connection. I listened carefully for a moment or two before the mechanical purring faded and eventually a voice forced its way through.
“Natasha, is that you?”
I turned to Michael. “It’s Sturridge,” I told him excitedly. Michael could only nod encouragingly.
“Sturridge, how are you?” I cried out down the phone.
“Natasha, what are you doing here?”
“We’ve come to rescue you,” I announced somewhat melodramatically.
“We’re here to rescue you,” I repeated. “Me and Michael. I’m here with Michael Redgrave. You know, the actor from The Lady Vanishes. We were both sent to rescue you.”
Behind me Michael smiled brightly as though he had just been introduced in person.
Sturridge, though, appeared to be having difficulty in grasping my message. “Rescue me?” he repeated uncertainly.
“Yeah, rescue you,” I reiterated. “There’s some powers that be… not sure who they are exactly. But they thought you might be in trouble in the landscape of the imagination and so they sent Michael to come and tell me because I was the only one who really knew where you’d gone…” I trailed off, aware that I wasn’t perhaps explaining myself quite as well as I might.
“How did you get here?” asked Sturridge abruptly.
“We found the door in the wall. The one in Clifton College.”
There was a period of silence, so long and so profound that I almost thought the line had disconnected. But then Sturridge’s voice came through once more, sharp and distinctive.
“Natasha – don’t.”
“Don’t come to rescue me. Don’t look for me, don’t think of finding me.”
I was rather taken aback. “Why not?”
“Just… don’t. Turn around and go back home Natasha.”
“Sturridge – are you alright?”
There was another tense silence before Sturridge resumed but this time his voice had an altogether different tone, brittle and dissonant.
“I know why you’ve really come here,” he said with an accusatory note. “You can’t fool me. You want to steal the idea.”
“What idea?” I asked, completely baffled.
“The original idea at the heart of the human imagination. You want to capture it and take it back as your own.”
“Sturridge, I couldn’t give a toss about any idea. I came to find you.”
But Sturridge wasn’t listening. “Well, you can forget it,” he virtually spat down the line. “You’d better give it up right now. I think an idea of that magnitude is a little bit beyond the comprehension of some second rate student.”
I was so shocked and upset by this sudden change of manner that I could only gurgle helplessly for a moment or two down the line in reply. Eventually however I managed to pull myself together and tried to get through to him one last time. “Sturridge, I wouldn’t…”
“You can forget it I tell you,” Sturridge snapped back. “Just turn around and get yourself back to reality where you belong.”
There was another click and this time the line really did go dead. There was a sensation of utter sickness deep in the pit of my stomach as I slowly replaced the receiver.
I sat and stared silently at the telephone for a few seconds before I could bring myself to turn round and face Michael. He was peering down at me with an expectant gaze. “Well then?” he said eagerly. “What did Sturridge have to say for himself?”