It’s hard to say just how long I sat motionless on the bed, struggling to come to terms with my sudden and unexpected shift in location, but it was probably quite some time. Whilst I sat there I carefully examined the details of the room, just to confirm that I really was now in my bedroom from back home. But everything seemed to be exactly the same as I remembered – there was the same jumble of books on the bookshelves, the same out of date laptop drowning beneath a sea of papers on the desk and the same photos pinned up on the wall alongside.
Eventually I swung my legs off the bed and walked over to the window. The view was one that I was all too familiar with – our quiet residential street on a bright sunny morning. I recognised the row of cars parked along the edge of the pavement (including the skewed Renault Clio belonging to the guy at No. 34 who couldn’t parallel park to save his life), I recognised the neat row of wheelie bins lined up for collection (meaning it must be a Thursday – bin day), I even recognised the overweight jogger wheezing his way up to the Downs and back as he had done every other morning for the past year without ever getting any discernibly thinner. There was no doubting that I was back in the Bristol I had left when I had fallen through the door in the wall into the landscape of the imagination.
Several thoughts immediately crowded into my brain at once. Had time passed here in Bristol whilst I had been gone? Had my friends and family missed me? Were the police out making enquiries concerning my whereabouts as they had with Sturridge? And, of course, the most obvious and pressing question of all – just how the hell did I get here?
Instantly my thoughts swung to the inter-dimensional travel drive. Had it somehow activated itself in the middle of the night whilst I slept? It seemed unlikely – I could scarcely believe that the device could transport me anywhere when I wasn’t in direct contact with it, let alone that it might have somehow ejected me from the landscape of the imagination altogether and returned me to the real world. But something nonetheless compelled me to check up on the drive at once.
It took me a few moments before I finally located my bag beneath a pile of unwashed t-shirts in the corner of the room. Upon opening it though I found no trace of an inter-dimensional travel drive. In fact, I found nothing at all of the miscellaneous odds and ends I had picked up on my journey through the imaginary landscape. Just a blank notepad, a tattered paperback novel, my purse, phone and keys. I made a hasty search of the rest of the room but there was no inter-dimensional travel drive or imaginary landscape detritus to be found anywhere. With a baffled shake of my head, I opened the door and headed out of my room.
Hearing voices coming from the kitchen, I made my way in that direction, cautiously opened the door and peered in.
I was greeted by a familiar domestic tableaux – my two flatmates engaged in some form of heated debate over breakfast. Becky, dressed in her Starbucks shirt ready for a shift at work, was gesticulating emphatically with a high-fibre muesli bar at Ben, who sat hunched over a bowl of coco pops in his favourite Dawn of the Dead t-shirt. At the sound of the door opening both paused and turned to look at me.
I held my breath for a moment, wondering what kind of a reaction my unexpected appearance might prompt. Would there be shock? Relief? Recriminations? Who knows, perhaps even a tear or two?
What actually happened was that, after regarding me with a weary expression for a couple of seconds, Ben took another mouthful of coco pops and Becky casually remarked, “Geez Nat, you look terrible. Did you sleep in those clothes?”
Choosing to ignore the remark, I advanced cautiously into the kitchen and took a seat at the breakfast table. “You guys haven’t missed me at all then?” I said slowly.
“What – last night?” replied Ben. “No, we got by without you. You shouldn’t refuse to come to the pub if you’re only going to regret it in the morning. And I bet you didn’t get any Uni work done while you were stuck at home either, did you?”
“Please tell me you’ve actually started your essay by now,” said Becky, setting down the muesli bar and taking a sip of herbal tea. “You do realise the deadline is in a week, don’t you?”
“Is it?” I said casually. “You wouldn’t happen to know what the date is today, by the way.” It seemed a good idea to get a few basics straight before the conversation went much further.
“October 10th – you should know that,” said Ben with a sigh.
“Should I?” I replied distractedly. It seemed I had now to somehow account for the fact that it appeared to be about five months since I last recalled setting foot in Bristol and yet my flatmates were acting as though I had never been away.
“It’s the second Thursday in the month,” Becky suddenly added with a mysteriously knowing look.
“And what’s so special about the second Thursday in the month?” I asked.
“Oh come on Nat, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten again,” said Ben.
“Forgotten what?” I retorted, beginning to find all these enigmatic statements just a touch exasperating.
“Oh geez Nat, I knew you hadn’t been looking too well lately,” said Becky with a doleful shake of her head. “Well, I guess if you’re going to go into another full blown relapse then it’s a good thing it is the second Thursday of the month.”
“Relapse of what?” I demanded. “Will somebody please tell just what is so bloody special about the second Thursday of the month?”
Ben stood up, calmly extracted a small white business card from where it was pinned to the front of the fridge and then laid it down in front of me. I cautiously leaned forward to look at it. The details of the card read, ‘Dr J Pierce, BS, MS, MRCPsych, Consultant Psychiatrist’.
“The second Thursday of the month,” Becky explained gently, “is always the date of your psychiatric review.”
Becky kindly made a slight detour on her journey to work in order that she might help fill me in on my missing five months as I made my way to my appointment with Dr Pierce. Apparently bouts of amnesia were a common symptom of what she euphemistically referred to as my ‘difficulties’ so she didn’t seem unduly surprised at being burdened with such a task. Another key symptom was my tendency to ‘retreat from reality’ and engage in ‘highly articulated fantasy worlds’, by which I swiftly grasped that she meant the landscape of the imagination. It transpired that my friends and familiar were only all too well aware of my recent sojourn to this other world. Which at least spared me some uncomfortable explanations. What was less comforting was the fact that they were all quite convinced that my experiences were nothing more than the deranged fantasies of a deluded mind.
Supposedly it had all started around the time that Sturridge had made his non-appearance at the University. The disappointment of not seeing him give his talk, Becky sensitively explained, had affected me rather deeply. Then, if she remembered rightly, there had been some ill defined incident in the Uni cafeteria when I had become irrationally upset over the type of scones on the menu. And finally there had been some stress about a University deadline which had somehow seen me spiral into a full blown psychosis requiring a week in hospital and my now monthly sessions with Dr J Pierce, BS, MS, MRCPsych, Consultant Psychiatrist.
“You’re really telling me all this blew up over some scones and an essay to be handed in?” I said incredulously when Becky finally finished her account.
“Sometimes it can happen that way,” replied Becky with an uncomfortable shrug. “That’s what Dr Pierce says – it can often take something as seemingly innocuous as a family bereavement or a minor illness to set things off.”
“Did I have a family bereavement or a minor illness at the time?” I asked.
Becky thought for a moment. “You may have had a bit of a cold,” she offered weakly.
We continued our journey in uncomfortable silence. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the destination for my appointment, a square stone building with a small car park in front. A gleaming bright sign in front of the hospital designated it only as belonging to the deliberately non-specific ‘Bristol Health Trust’.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright from here?” asked Becky with a touch of concern as I stared, nonplussed, at the unfamiliar building.
“What? Yeah, sure, I’ll be fine,” I replied. “You’d better get off to work.”
Despite my exhortation Becky insisted on loitering conspicuously on the pavement outside until I had reluctantly made my way through the entrance and into the building. The receptionist inside took my name with a disinterested sigh and directed me up to a waiting area on the first floor. I had barely had time to settle myself into a chair and gaze distractedly over the pile of out of date magazines on the coffee table in front of me before I was called forth into Dr Pierce’s office.
It was a bright, airy, scrupulously hygienic room though the cleanliness couldn’t quite obscure a somewhat worn and dilapidated air that permeated the place. The paint on the ceiling was peeling in several sections and in one corner, half concealed by a screen, a rather decrepit looking boiler clung perilously to the wall. I couldn’t help noticing that despite the broad window that occupied one wall there were only two small square windows higher up that could actually be opened and they could only be nudged ajar with the help of a long window pole propped up nearby. We may only be on the first floor but it seemed nobody was taking any chances on a tumble out of the window, accidental or otherwise.
The furniture was limited to a large desk and two chairs, one of which was occupied by the man I presumed to be Dr Pierce. I estimated him to be in his mid to late forties, his dark hair flecked liberally with grey. He was rather casually dressed, wearing a navy jumper over a light blue shirt with an open collar. His pose seemed rather studiedly relaxed, leaning back in his chair, one leg crossed over the other. He smiled brightly as I settled myself somewhat awkwardly into the vacant chair.
“Well then Natasha,” he said brightly. “How are you this morning?”
“I’m, er, fine thanks,” I replied noncommittally.
“Really?” Dr Pierce’s bright smile faded just a fraction.
“Well…” I began cautiously, feeling that this might require a delicate touch.
Dr Pierce settled his features into an expression reminiscent of a children’s television presenter in its air of cheerfully inexhaustible patience. “Now then Natasha, it’s imperative we maintain a spirit of total openness in these sessions,” he said plainly. “Remember what we talked about before?”
“Er, no actually, I don’t,” I replied, choosing to respond in a spirit of total openness. “Cos, to be perfectly honest, as far as I’m concerned you and I have never actually met before.”
Dr Pierce looked momentarily nonplussed before reaching over and picking up a pen and notepad from his desk. “Oh dear, another total relapse,” he sighed, scribbling illegibly upon his pad as he talked. “I fear we’re going to have start from the very beginning again. So, what you’re saying is that you have no recollection of our meeting last month? Or the month before that?”
“None at all.”
“Then perhaps you can tell me what you believe you were doing instead this time last month,” said Dr Pierce, giving me a very direct look.
“Well, that’s a bit difficult,” I floundered. “You might not understand. You see, there was this door in the wall…”
“Leading to the landscape of the imagination?” interjected Dr Pierce, a trifle wearily.
“Oh, so you know all about that too.”
“I’m very familiar with your tendency to retreat into a fantasy world.”
“It’s not a fantasy world,” I protested. “Well, I suppose it is sort of, given that it’s constructed from the imagination… but not in the way you mean. What I meant to say is…” I faded to a halt under the direct glare of Dr Pierce, uncomfortably aware that I wasn’t perhaps giving the best account of myself.
“You shouldn’t think we haven’t been here before Natasha,” said Dr Pierce gently. “It’s important that you don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by your mental health issues.”
“I don’t have any mental health issues,” I instinctively retorted. I was about to add that I had been given a clean bill of mental health by no less an authority than Sigmund Freud but decided that under the circumstances it may not prove the most compelling testimony.
Dr Pierce regarded me closely for a moment or two before plastering his cheerful smile back onto his face, brighter than ever. “The important thing to bear in mind is that there is no problem so large that we can’t deal with it between us,” he announced optimistically. “Talking things through is always the key to taking control of our emotions.” He paused and leant across to his desk, tapping speedily at his computer keyboard for a few seconds. “Fortunately, I have a cancellation tomorrow so we can start afresh with a full session first thing in the morning.”
I sat silently. Further protestations seemed quite futile at the moment. What I really wanted right now was some time alone to think things through. On balance I figured that adopting the path of least resistance was probably the quickest way to get out of here.
Dr Pierce looked up from his computer. “9.30 wouldn’t be too early for you, would it?” he asked eagerly.
“Excellent. 9.30 in the morning it is then,” he said, turning back to me. “If you’re prepared to sit down and talk over these imaginary experiences then I’m confident we can work our way towards a permanent cure.” Dr Pierce glanced down thoughtfully at his notepad. “I’m sure there must be some kind of trigger for these dissociative episodes. Am I correct in thinking you have some form of work due in for your University course?”
I thought for a moment. I was a little hazy as to where precisely I was currently supposed to stand in the University schedule although I did recall Becky mentioning an essay deadline this morning. “Maybe,” I eventually replied.
“Well, of course work stress is a classic trigger,” mused Dr Pierce. “Though I’m still of the opinion that the incident with the author, CJ Sturridge, played a key role in your first breakdown. I think it would be most helpful for us to talk over your feelings regarding him.”
“Oh, Sturridge and I are just fine now,” I replied unthinkingly. “It was just a silly misunderstanding.”
Dr Pierce looked up at me sharply. “What was just a silly misunderstanding?” he asked.
“It was nothing really. Just some things that were said between us…” Once again I faltered, with the realisation that trying to explain the intricacies of my relations with Sturridge to Dr Pierce was unlikely to prove fruitful.
For almost the first time during the appointment Dr Pierce’s face took on a sombre expression. “Now I realise we have a long way to go but in order for you to get better Natasha it’s important that you face up to one or two facts from the outset,” he said sternly. “I can’t allow such falsities to go unchallenged.”
“What falsities?” I demanded.
“The notion that you have exchanged words with Sturridge,” replied Dr Pierce.
I looked at him puzzled. “Well of course I’ve spoken to Sturridge,” I insisted. “Even if you don’t believe in the landscape of the imagination, you can’t deny that I met him here in Bristol when he came to the University.”
“Now you know very well that CJ Sturridge never made it to Bristol,” asserted Dr Pierce solemnly.
“Of course he did,” I replied. “He may not have given his talk but he was here at the University – I met him in the Uni bar.”
Dr Pierce merely shook his head. “Really Natasha, this has to stop,” he said sadly.
“But I swear he was here in Bristol!” I insisted in a tone of exasperation. “Just what makes you such an expert on the whereabouts of CJ Sturridge anyway?”
Dr Pierce took a deep breath and then turned once more to his computer keyboard. He tapped away briefly before turning the computer screen to face me. He had brought up a news page on the internet, the headline of which suddenly made my blood run cold.
“I know that CJ Sturridge never came to Bristol,” Dr Pierce explained gently, “because his body was pulled out of the Thames two days before he was due to arrive. He committed suicide.”
To be continued…