I stumbled out of my appointment with Dr Pierce in something of a daze, a succession of ineffectual phrases about ‘taking responsibility for your emotions’ and ‘finding the courage to be honest with yourself’ ringing in my ears. I didn’t feel quite ready to head straight back to my flat but instead drifted rather aimlessly for a bit. And so ,about twenty minutes later, seemingly without any conscious effort on my part, I found myself strolling across Clifton Green towards the bench upon which I had been seated when Michael had first bounded up to meet me all that time ago.
That is, of course, if he ever had come bounding up to meet me. It may sound strange, given how extraordinary and unlikely the whole imaginary landscape adventure had been, but it had somehow never occurred to me previously to query whether it might really have happened or not. For one thing I wasn’t sure I credited myself with quite that much imagination. For another it was just too lengthy and involved an adventure to be entirely dreamed up – if it were truly all fantasy, was it really conceivable that reality might not have intervened until now? But, and most significantly of all, it just felt real.
It’s impossible to put your finger on just how you differentiate reality from imagination. Your dreams can look, sound, smell and even taste like everyday existence but ultimately they remain indubitably fantastical. The landscape of the imagination somehow felt true in a way that I couldn’t quite explain. But what was undoubtedly also true was that a lot of people, whose opinions I had no reason to doubt, were quite sure that it was entirely fictitious, a mere figment of my own imagination. So just what was the truth?
I gazed out across the green. It was a beautiful day – crisp, sunny and, but for the sounds of some workmen digging up a nearby road, perfectly peaceful. The air had that slightly decayed Autumnal tang to it as opposed to the fresh scents of Spring but in every other respect it could be the exact same day I had left for the landscape. Part of me half expected to see Michael charging cheerfully down the path towards me at any moment. And the truth was I would undoubtedly have welcomed his presence.
It was only as I sat here alone, struggling to make sense of my situation, that I realised just how important he had been to the whole adventure. I mean, it’s not like he generally had any more idea of what was actually going on than I had. Nor did he necessarily always come up with the most practical of solutions to our many difficulties. And Lord knows his relentlessly optimistic outlook could at times be a touch wearing. But the important point, I guess, was that he was always there. In the landscape his mere presence lent a sort of legitimacy to our sometimes lunatic crusade and often convinced me to keep going when my first instinct might be to turn and run.
But then, I couldn’t help reflecting with a worried sigh, perhaps those were precisely the key characteristics of an imaginary friend.
Finally, after mulling things over for a good forty-five minutes without coming any closer to any kind of conclusion, I got up and headed home. I could only hope that I might find something in the flat that might help decide the issue for me one way or the other. Because it seemed to me there were essentially only two outcomes to my current predicament. Either my current sojourn in Bristol was merely a temporary blip in my ongoing adventures and I would somehow or other find a way to get back to the problems of Sturridge, Michael and Co. Or the whole landscape of the imagination was nothing more than my own demented fantasy, Sturridge really was dead and I ought to book myself into the nearest loony bin ASAP.
I was rather relieved to find the flat was empty when I eventually got back – Becky was no doubt still at work and Ben had probably gone to the Uni library in an effort to find someone new to harangue about the state of popular culture. I made myself a cup of tea and retreated to my bedroom. There I began a random search of shelves and drawers, digging amongst heaps of clothes and piles of papers and books. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for beyond something that might help fill in the blank of the last few months. For surely if I had been in Bristol rather than the landscape of the imagination all that time then there would be evidence of it – lecture notes, junk mail, discarded cinema tickets. A whole summer couldn’t have passed without leaving some kind of impression on my surroundings.
But it wasn’t long before I was defeated by a combination of the sheer overwhelming disorder of my room and a general all-pervasive weariness. In the end it seemed just too absurd to be sifting through my own stuff for hints of my past and I sat down at my desk with a heavy sigh. I sipped my tea and opened up my laptop. There was one item of the story of my recent life in Bristol as related by Becky and Dr Pierce that I needed to look into more closely. And yet it was the one thing I dreaded examining in detail. Eventually, after gazing listlessly out of the window for a not inconsiderable period of time and draining the last of my tea, I brought up the internet, typed the words ‘CJ Sturridge’ into the search engine and pressed enter.
It was all there, just as I had feared. Confronted with page after page regaling me with news of the aborted life and tragic death of renowned author CJ Sturridge, I couldn’t possibly dismiss Dr Pierce’s claim that I had fabricated our entire meeting. The facts were clear. Sturridge had gone missing from his home in London one Thursday evening, prompting worried friends to contact the police the following day. Five days later (and a full two days before he had been due to give his talk to the University students in Bristol) his body had been pulled out of the Thames, a little way upriver from Hammersmith Bridge. The coroner wasted little time in recording a verdict of suicide. I read through the bewildering succession of news reports, obituaries and memorial pages with a growing numbness until I was suddenly compelled to snap shut my laptop and gaze wilfully out of the window.
I was jolted out of my reveries by the beep of an incoming text message on my mobile phone sounding from deep within my bag. Having no recollection of having made any use of the thing for the last few months (the signal in the landscape of the imagination being pretty woeful) I fished it out with some curiosity. The message was from Peter, my boyfriend, and read simply, ‘Don’t 4get – 2nite, my place. I have wine + pizza.’ Flicking through, I was intrigued to discover one further unread text message, apparently sent earlier that morning. This one turned out to be from my mum. She had never quite mastered the art of brevity required by modern communication and her wordy missive read, ‘Hello Natasha. Hope you are well. I wanted to catch up with you as I have a couple of questions I need to ask. Call me when you can. Love Mum. xx.’
I toyed nervously with my phone. I was filled with a sudden urge to respond to the request and ring my mam – after all, I hadn’t spoken to her in quite some time – but I was also unexpectedly anxious as to what, under the current circumstances, the reception would be. I could only assume that she was fully up to date with what Becky liked to call ‘my difficulties’ but I had no idea how this might affect our relations. It felt extremely odd to be in the position of not knowing how your own mother might react to you. She was, after all, generally the one person I could rely on to take the same maternally loving, if frequently exasperated, tone no matter what the circumstances. Would things have changed?
Eventually, after pacing apprehensively up and down the room for several minutes, I pulled up her number from the contacts list and dialled.
The phone rang for some time and I was just anticipating the answer machine kicking in when a slightly breathless voice answered with, “Hello?”
“Hi mam, it’s only me,” I responded.
“Ah Nat, it’s good to hear from you.” The phrase, as always, carried the merest hint of an accusation, a perpetual reminder that my calls home were never as frequent as they ought to be. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” I replied, after the merest hesitation.
There was a brief pause at the other end during which I could tell my mum was considering whether this was a topic which warranted further investigation. Instead, she chose to move on. “I was just hanging the washing out,” she said. “It’s a lovely day up here – I hope you’ve got some sunshine where you are.” There was another brief pause to allow me to mumble a confirmation of the loveliness of the day in Bristol before she moved swiftly on. “You didn’t want to speak to your father, did you? Only he’s in his shed and I’ll have to go and give him a knock if you do.”
My dad, who worked as a long distance lorry driver, travelling right across the continent, tended to spend most of his leave locked away in his shed in the back garden. There he surrounded himself with the detritus of a hundred different hobbies from matchbox collecting to model-making, each of which was taken up in a fit of enthusiasm only to be abruptly abandoned after a few months. I briefly wondered which new pursuit was occupying him on this occasion.
“No, you’re alright,” I told my mum. “I’ll speak to him later.”
There was the sound of my mum gratefully easing herself into her favourite armchair. “Good, I’m glad you called though,” she continued chirpily. “I wanted to know if you’d made your mind up yet about the weekend of the thirtieth.”
I continued to pace before the window. “The weekend of the thirtieth?” I repeated uncertainly.
“Whether you’re coming up to see us or not,” added my mother with a hint of impatience. “You know your brother’s going to be home.”
My older brother, Jack, had been inspired by our father’s job to venture abroad in search of a career. Unfortunately, Jack’s idea of a career was one that didn’t involve much in the way of work and so he mainly spent his time bumming around Europe, taking the odd job here and there. As such his sporadic visits home tended to be occasions of both joy and anxiety to my mother, who usually solicited the support of both myself and my sister to ensure that the reunion might pass without undue incident.
“Oh right,” I murmured noncommittally.
“He’s bringing his new girlfriend with him. She’s from Holland.” My mum paused to allow this snippet of news to sink in. “Do you suppose she’ll be a vegetarian?”
“How on earth should I know?” I retorted.
“I just thought you might know whether they go in for that sort of thing in Holland or not,” said my mum equably. Having been as far afield as Sicily on my holidays I had acquired in my mother’s eyes something of a reputation as an expert in continental culture. My dad might have driven to every corner of Europe but he barely stepped out of his cab if he could help it. He remained firmly convinced that there was nothing in any of the many and varied cultures that existed between Boulogne and the Bosphorus that could match the simple joy of a plate of sausage, beans and chips.
“I imagine there are some people in Holland who go in for vegetarianism and some who don’t,” I replied wearily. “I don’t think they subscribe to any general rule.”
“Oh well, maybe I’ll chance my arm and do a roast anyway,” mused my mum. “I could always have a quiche on standby. But you will come, won’t you?”
“I dunno mam, I’ll have to see.”
“You know you’re always welcome to bring Peter if you like,” coaxed my mum. “We might be a bit pushed for space but I’m sure we can squeeze you all in. Your dad’ll no doubt spend most of the weekend in his shed anyway.”
“To be honest, I don’t really know what Peter’s up to at the moment,” I said evasively.
“But you will ask him, won’t you?” pressed my mum. “I wouldn’t like him to think he wasn’t invited.”
I smiled. It was typical of my mum to fret over whether Peter might feel slighted about not being asked to a family weekend that she knew very well would scarcely be top of his list of things to do. “Alright mam, I’ll ask him, though I can’t say…”
I stopped abruptly in mid-sentence. Still pacing in front of the window, my eyes had drifted out to the street below and I suddenly found myself brought up short by one of the strangest sights I had ever seen. The cat belonging to our neighbour in the flat below had just darted across the road and disappeared down the side of the house. That in itself was hardly strange – the cat was a skittish thing that customarily moved everywhere at a hundred miles an hour and had a fondness for lurking in the bushes between our house and the next. But there had been something about the cat itself that had been quite extraordinary. Totally forgetting about my mother still awaiting the rest of my sentence on the other end of the phone, I pressed myself up against the window, hoping to catch another glimpse of the animal.
“Nat, are you still there?” said my mum.
“What? Yeah, sorry mam, I just saw…” I trailed off again, quite at a loss to explain exactly what it was I just saw.
“Is everything alright there?” my mother’s voice was immediately awash with parental concern.
“No, it’s fine. I just thought I saw something…” I craned a little further forward, still trying to catch a further sighting of Mrs Winstanley’s cat but it appeared the animal had now gone.
“You’ve not been having any… issues again, have you Nat?” asked my mother delicately. “I didn’t like to say but I did notice it’s the second Thursday in the month. Have you been to see Dr Pierce today?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I’ve been already.”
“And everything is… okay?”
“Honestly mam, I’m absolutely fine,” I said, finally turning away from the window. “Just, I have got quite a lot of work to do so I probably ought to go now.”
“Well, if you’re sure…”
“Absolutely, I’ll give you a ring back later.”
“And you won’t forget to ask Peter about the thirtieth?”
“No, I won’t forget,” I pledged.
“Well, you take care,” urged my mum.
“I will. Bye.”
The line went dead and I slumped back into my chair, trying to recollect exactly what I had seen just a moment before. It was just a cat running across a road, something I must have seen on countless other occasions, and yet there was something very wrong about this cat. It couldn’t have been… Could it? But unless my eyesight was going along with my mind then I was quite certain it was.
I tossed my phone aside and shook my head. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about with figuring out whether the landscape of the imagination truly existed or not, now it seemed there was more to this particular reality than met the eye.
To be continued…