After spending a good portion of the afternoon fruitlessly watching the road outside my bedroom window in the hope of catching another glimpse of my neighbour’s cat, I was initially somewhat disinclined to respond to the invitation from my boyfriend for an evening at his place. On the whole the day had proved rather trying and I found myself generally disinclined to company by the time of our appointed rendezvous. In particular, I found myself disinclined to company that might result in awkward questions and uncomfortable explanations. For if I had been worried about how my mam would react to my psychiatric ‘difficulties’ then the issue of my relationship with Peter didn’t really bear thinking about.
But there had been nothing in his text message to suggest that relations between us were currently anything other than cordial and it seemed foolish to imagine that anything could be resolved by hiding away indefinitely in my room. So in the end I somewhat grudgingly completed the twenty minute walk down to his harbour-side flat and pressed the buzzer. If nothing else there was at least the promise of pizza.
To my surprise it proved to be, on the whole, a perfectly pleasant evening. The pizza was tasty and the wine was good and, as I had already discovered this afternoon with my mum, it was surprising how easy it was to slip back into the old routines. In fact, it was rather agreeable to forget for a while concerns about the fate of Sturridge and the landscape of the imagination and to listen instead to Peter gripe good naturedly about his work colleagues or lazily discuss plans for a prospective Christmas break. Before I knew it we were settled together on the sofa watching nothing in particular on television and contemplating where we might go for breakfast in the morning.
But then Peter had to go and put his foot in it.
“I suppose you went to see Dr Pierce this morning?” he casually dropped into the conversation, quite out of the blue.
“I suppose I did,” I answered aloofly.
“Would you be seeing him again anytime soon?” Peter added, maintaining the tone of studied nonchalance.
“What makes you say that?”
“No reason,” replied Peter quickly. “Just curious.”
I edged my way out of the crook of his arm and turned to give him a severe look.
“Oh alright, Becky texted me,” Peter confessed, unable to meet my eye. “She said you seemed to be having a few… concerns right now.”
I made a brief mental note to consider taking up a game of mental health euphemism bingo to enliven future conversations. ‘A few concerns’, ‘Some issues’, ‘One or two difficulties’ – it was pretty impressive the range of delicate phrases that could be employed in order to avoid having to ask outright whether I was totally nuts. “Becky should mind her own business,” I muttered without thinking.
“She’s just concerned about you,” insisted Peter. “We all are.”
“It’s just, she said you woke up this morning with the idea that you’ve been back in the landscape of the imagination,” continued Peter determinedly. “That you can’t remember anything of the last few months, dating right back to your first breakdown.”
“Must have been one hell of a text message,” I muttered.
“So it’s true, is it?” Peter persisted.
Now I was the one compelled to look away.
“Oh Natasha,” murmured Peter sorrowfully. “What can possibly have set all this off again?”
“Believe me, I wish I knew,” I replied.
“You can’t really believe in this landscape of the imagination though, can you?” pleaded Peter. “It’s just too absurd. Logic must tell you there’s only one world – this world, the one we’re living in right now.”
I stood up and walked over to the window. “It’s not as simple as all that,” I answered evasively. I was patently aware that if the argument was to be settled upon the grounds of logic then I hadn’t a leg to stand on.
There was an uncomfortable pause. “I suppose what I’m really asking,” Peter eventually said quietly, “is just what’s so wrong with your regular life that you have to keep on creating this insane fantasy.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my regular life,” I replied defensively.
“I mean, how am I supposed to react?” complained Peter. “You’re always running away. Usually with some other guy in tow. I suppose you were accompanied again by Sir Michael Redgrave on this latest trip to fantasy land.”
“Don’t tell me that’s what all this is about,” I spluttered. “You’re jealous!”
“So he was there!” exclaimed Peter with satisfaction. “Just what is it about that guy?”
“It’s not like that,” I protested. “We’re just friends.”
“Friends – ha! Just listen to yourself Natasha. The man’s dead for God’s sake! How can you be friends?”
Unable to think of a cogent response to this I chose instead to turn and stare absent-mindedly out of the window.
“Come on Nat,” murmured Peter wearily. “This can’t go on forever. You do realise that sooner or later you’re going to have to face up to reality, don’t you?”
“Or perhaps you’re just going to have to come to terms with the fact that you and I have a somewhat different understanding of the term reality,” I replied softly.
“Fine,” sighed Peter. “But can you give me just one piece of evidence, one tangible reason, why I should believe your version of the truth.” He paused and looked at me closely. “Apart from the fact that you want it to be true, that is.”
I stood and stared uneasily at the window sill. The truth was I had nothing. The more I struggled to get a grasp on the reality of the landscape of the imagination, the further it seemed to slip away from me. And I was beginning to find all these arguments over my sanity rather draining. It put me in mind of that quote by some author whose name I couldn’t quite remember – “They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me”. I wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel just yet but I had to concede that for the moment the ballot certainly seemed to be going against me.
After an uncomfortably long silence I looked up and simply said, “I think it’s time I was getting home.”
“But I thought you were staying over,” protested Peter.
“Yeah well, it’s been a long day,” I shrugged. “And as I’m sure you’re well aware I have an appointment with my psychiatrist first thing in the morning.”
Peter looked at me unhappily. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
I gave him a rather weak smile as I gathered up my coat and bag. “It’s fine, I’m just tired, that’s all,” I insisted, somewhat unconvincingly.
“You’ll at least text me when you get home, won’t you?” said Peter. “Just so I know you’re okay.”
I gave him a quick kiss. “Of course.”
“You are okay Natasha, aren’t you?” Peter said with a look of genuine concern in his eyes.
“I will be,” I responded firmly.
Peter hesitated for just a moment before opening the door to his flat for me. I gave his arm a quick squeeze and then hurried on out.
I was glad of the cool night air that hit me once I was down the stairs and out of the front door of his apartment building. The distant cries of drunken revellers drifted across from the waterfront bars as I stood on the pavement for a moment, considering my next move. So many things still seemed so uncertain but one fact was gradually resolving itself in my mind. Sooner or later I had to acquire some genuine proof of the existence of the landscape of the imagination or I would have to give the whole thing up.
After a moment more of hesitation I ignored the route home and headed instead up the steep slope of Jacobs Wells Road towards Clifton. For if the landscape of the imagination truly existed then there was only one place in Bristol I knew where I might find some evidence of it.
Clifton College, alma mater of the late Sir Michael Redgrave, sat silently in the pale moonlight. Clearly, the most sensible strategy would be to wait until morning to go hunting for the door in the wall that had first taken me to the landscape of the imagination. But without my colleague Redgrave in tow I wasn’t confident of my ability to talk the authorities into allowing me to go poking around their school. And the day had been so beset with doubts and uncertainties that I had a vague idea that if I didn’t put my plan to sneak into the school into operation right away then my nerve would fail and I might never bring myself to do it. It felt rather like approaching the highest diving board at the swimming pool – a swift run up and an instant leap were what was required. To hesitate or look down would prove fatal.
Even so, I did a tentative circuit of the grounds first to check out the lay of the land. The whole area seemed quite deserted at this late hour but there was the odd light shining within the buildings. However, the primary obstacle to the successful completion of my plan seemed to be the somewhat inconvenient fact that I couldn’t for the life of me remember just whereabouts in the school we had originally come upon the door in the wall. The tour conducted by school secretary Ms Sykes had been of such a mind-numbing dullness that by the time I came across the door I had long since ceased to take any notice of my surroundings. The best I could come up with was that I seemed to recall our being somewhere in the vicinity of the library and so this seemed to be the best target for my proposed break in.
After a hasty patrol of the area I conjured up a basic plan of action. It was far too risky to attempt to force a door or a window on the North side of the building where I might be spotted by a random passer-by. But if I slipped into the school past the Porter’s Lodge I figured I might have more luck finding an opening on the more secluded South side. Then, using the library as my central reference point, I hoped that by scanning the corridors nearby I would sooner or later come upon the door in the wall. Assuming, of course, that it had ever existed.
I allowed myself a brief moment to steel my nerves and then I made my move.
For the first sixty seconds or so the plan worked perfectly. Keeping to the shadows, I tip-toed noiselessly past the Porter’s Lodge and through a low archway to the far side of the main school building. There was no sign of life as my eyes swiftly picked out a narrow door lurking in a dark corner. I scurried down the side of the building and had just reached out to grasp the door handle when I was frozen by a sudden cry of, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
After a second of stunned inaction I swivelled on the balls of my feet, ready to make a run for it, only to find myself silhouetted by the dazzling beam of a powerful torch. Blinking violently in the bright glare, I could just make out a powerfully built man in a navy jacket and cap marching purposefully towards me. I could only stand and gulp as he covered the ground between us in a couple of lengthy strides.
“This here is private property and you’re trespassing,” he barked in a thick West Country accent.
The security guard, having got a clear look at my features for the first time, gave a start of recognition which saved me from uttering whatever implausible explanation I had been groping for in my mind. “Oh, it’s you Natasha,” he interrupted, his face softening.
I could only blink bewilderedly in reply.
“You’ll be looking for that imaginary door of yours again, I s’pose,” the security guard continued cheerily. “I can’t let you in at this time of night though, my love. The head’d have my guts for garters if he thought I were letting unauthorised personnel into the school after hours.”
“You know about the door in the wall?” I said in surprise.
“Ah, come on now, this wouldn’t be the first time you’ve been copped trying to sneak your way into the school,” said the guard, giving me a playful nudge that almost knocked me sideways.
“Won’t it?” I said with a sinking feeling.
“Not that I’m one to judge,” he insisted amiably. “If you say there’s an imaginary world hidden somewhere in our school then I won’t argue with you. After all, ‘there’s more to heaven and earth…’ and all that palaver.” The security guarded lifted his cap and scratched the side of his head thoughtfully. “My Great Aunt Gladys was convinced she knew the location of the lost city of Atlantis. Somewhere down by Weston-Super-Mare I think she said. I mean it sounds unlikely to me but who’s to say really?”
Not knowing quite how to reply I merely smiled weakly.
“Anyway, that’s as maybe but I still can’t have you running around here at this time of night,” said the guard, replacing his cap. Taking me by the elbow he began to steer me firmly but gently back towards the road. “P’raps if you were to apply to the school secretary she could fix you up a time to have a proper look round. One day in the school holidays I reckon would be best.”
I could only offer up another weak smile as I allowed myself to be led back to the school gates. Any door in the wall now seemed quite beyond my reach.
“Now, do you think you’ll be alright from here?” asked the guard with a searching look as we reached the gate.
“I’ll be fine thanks,” I replied awkwardly. “Sorry for any trouble.”
“Oh it’s no trouble,” the security guard replied amiably. “Beats keeping an eye out for sixth formers sneaking a cheeky fag down by the pavilion.” The security guard touched the front of his cap in a sort of salute. “No doubt I’ll be seeing you again sometime,” he added with a wry smile.
“I shouldn’t think so,” I replied with a doleful shake of my head before slinking away through the gate.
I could sense his benignly smiling face watching me all the way as I set off back down College Road towards home. It was hard to know just what to believe anymore but as I trudged wearily away I couldn’t help feeling that my last chance of access to the landscape of the imagination had just been slammed firmly shut. Perhaps Dr Pierce, Peter and the others were all right – it was time to stop daydreaming of other worlds and different lives and face up to reality.
I trudged home in something of a mournful frame of mind. Indeed, so wrapped up was I in my own thoughts that it was some time before I recognised the incongruity in the sound of noisy drilling that now drifted across the night air. Given that it was almost midnight it seemed a most unlikely time for anyone to be engaging in roadworks or construction but there was undoubtedly some kind of heavy industrial activity going on nearby. What was equally surprising was that none of the local population seemed in the least perturbed by this late night bout of noise pollution. I might have expected such a racket to bring forth a stream of irate residents onto the streets but the roads remained largely deserted all the way back to my flat.
Upon reaching my own residence I stopped and settled for a moment on the front steps, straining to see if I could pinpoint the location of the drilling. The noise had seemed strangely nearby and yet just out of sight all the way home and even now, as I sat perfectly still and listened, I couldn’t quite make out from which direction it emanated. I was still puzzling over this when I was interrupted by the arrival of a mildly drunken Ben staggering cheerily up the street.
“Hey Nat!” he called out. “What’s up? Lost yer keys again, have you?”
“I was just trying to work out who’s making that bloody racket,” I replied.
Ben paused in the driveway and looked around as though he were only noticing the sound of drilling for the first time. “DIY freaks,” he muttered.
“I’m surprised we haven’t got half the neighbourhood out complaining about the noise,” I said mildly.
“Ah, I’m sure it’ll stop eventually,” said Ben with a shrug. “Anyway, what are you doing home?” he added, settling down on the steps alongside me. “I thought you were at Pete’s.”
“I was,” I replied. “But then I came home.”
“Oh,” said Ben. There was a moment of silence before he added, “Everything alright, is it?” with the reluctant concern of a bomb disposal expert obliged to poke at a high explosive device that might go off at any moment. Relationships were not really his forte.
“Everything’s fine,” I reassured him.
“Ah that’s good,” murmured Ben with a sigh of relief. “He’s a good bloke is Pete.”
Before I could respond to this assessment of my boyfriend I was interrupted by the sudden reappearance of Mrs Winstanley’s cat. The feline abruptly darted out from beneath a bush in the front garden, hovered for just a moment in the driveway in front of us and then bounded off down the road.
I grasped Ben’s arm excitedly. “Did you see that?” I exclaimed.
Ben gazed blearily down the road. “What? It’s just the cat from downstairs,” he replied, somewhat nonplussed.
“But didn’t you notice anything unusual about the cat?” I insisted, gazing hopelessly after the now-vanished creature. “Like it’s colour, for instance?” Ben merely looked back at me blankly. “What colour would you say Mrs Winstanley’s cat is?” I demanded.
“I dunno, it’s cat-coloured,” retorted Ben with a baffled shrug. “What am I? Some kind of expert?”
I looked at him closely. He was undoubtedly a little worse for wear but surely there was no way he could have failed to notice what was so glaringly wrong about Mrs Winstanley’s cat. But Ben merely gawped back at me with a mildly discomfited air.
Eventually he struggled awkwardly to his feet. “Well, I’m going to get some sleep,” he announced decisively. “Maybe you ought to be getting yourself off to bed as well. Don’t you have another appointment with Dr Pierce in the morning?” I nodded distractedly. “Ah well, there you go. I’m sure you’ll feel a lot better once you’ve talked things over with him.”
I looked up at Ben for a moment before slowly rising to my own feet. With the sounds of heavy drilling still echoing in my ear and the strange image of Mrs Winstanley’s cat still flashing through my mind, I took once last look down the road before turning and putting my key to the lock. “Perhaps you’re right,” I told Ben as we both disappeared into the hallway. “I think there are one or two things I need to get straight with Dr Pierce in the morning.”
To be continued…