I woke the next morning to find the bright Autumnal sunshine had been banished by a dark and stormy sky. Anyone who wished to disturb the peace with a spot of early morning drilling today would have to struggle to make themselves heard over the regular claps of thunder and pouring rain. Hunched over against the harsh conditions, I marched purposefully to the day hospital. Despite arriving almost fifteen minutes early for my appointment I found myself ushered straight into Dr Pierce’s office.
The doctor was seated in his usual relaxed pose with the same customarily benign expression etched upon his face. There was a minute or two of silence after I had sat down, whilst Dr Pierce regarded me carefully and I took a few seconds to reacquaint myself with the geography of the room. Eventually Dr Pierce plastered on his usual bright smile and began.
“Well Natasha,” he said. “I trust that, having had chance to talk to those close to you over the last 24 hours, you’re a little more aware of the current state of things.”
I nodded noncommittally.
“That’s good. Then what I want to do with this morning’s session is to probe a little deeper into this fantasy world of yours, this ‘landscape of the imagination’.” Dr Pierce reached across to his desk for his notepad and pen. “Perhaps if we were to start from the very beginning…”
“Actually Dr Pierce,” I hastily cut in, “if you don’t mind I have one or two questions of my own before we get started.”
“Why of course,” replied Dr Pierce with an expansive gesture. “Please, go ahead.”
“I’m still a little unclear about just how things stand between you and I,” I said. Dr Pierce furrowed his brow faintly. “Maybe if I could ask you about the first appointment I ever had with you, in the wake of that first breakdown. I suppose you remember that day.”
“Naturally,” replied Dr Pierce casually.
“What day of the week was it?”
“Well I suppose it must have been a Thursday.”
“And what was the weather like? Sunny or rainy?”
Dr Pierce’s brow furrowed just a little further. “Sunny, with a touch of cloud.”
“What time did we meet?”
“What did you have for breakfast?”
“Muesli, with some toast.”
“What colour jumper were you wearing?”
There was a moment of silence whilst we eyed one another closely.
“Well,” Dr Pierce finally said, “I hope you’re satisfied with all this detail Natasha.”
“To be honest – no,” I replied curtly. “There seems to be rather too much detail for my liking.” Dr Pierce shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “You see, you’re a busy man,” I continued. “You must see hundreds of patients, yet apparently you can remember every circumstance of a random day from several months ago.”
“Come now Natasha,” said Dr Pierce uneasily. “Just what is this all about?”
“Just that I’ve been doing a bit of thinking lately about how exactly you distinguish fantasy from reality,” I told him. “And it’s occurred to me that quite often the only way that you know you’ve been in a dream is when you’ve woken up at the end of it.”
Dr Pierce gripped his notepad and pen a little tighter. “Really Natasha, you can’t tell me that after everything you’ve heard you intend to persist in your delusions. What about your friends and family? Don’t they count for anything?”
A particularly ferocious crack of thunder resounded against the window panes. “The thing is,” I responded breezily, “I’ve decided that when it comes to questions of sanity the only opinion that matters is my own. Frankly, I no longer care if I’m out-voted. Democracy can be an over-rated principle – it did give us Cameron and Clegg after all.”
“So the question that’s really bugging me now is this – how do you wake yourself up from a really persistent dream?” As I said this I stood up.
“Really Natasha, you’re being quite irrational.”
Ignoring Dr Pierce’s remark, I walked across the room and casually picked up the window pole that was propped up against the wall. “By doing something dramatic, that’s how,” I told him.
Dr Pierce jumped up anxiously from his chair. “Now Natasha, I need you to think very carefully about whatever it is you’re about to do,” he said in alarm. “You’re acting completely crazy.”
I smiled. “But you see Dr Pierce, that’s real life for you,” I said, taking a step towards the old boiler half-hidden in the corner of the room. “Sometimes it just is a bit mad.” And, with that, I raised the window pole high above my head and brought it crashing down upon the boiler with all the force I could muster.
There was a sharp crack and a dense hiss of steam that forced me to stagger back a couple of paces. The room rapidly filled with smoke as I turned back to look at Dr Pierce, frozen in place with his arms stretched out towards me.
For just a second I thought I may have made a terrible mistake.
But then the figure of Dr Pierce shimmered and began to fade, as did all the details of the room around me. The smoke grew denser and I pulled up my shirt around my face as my eyes began to water and I coughed violently. I waved my hands desperately in front of me until gradually the smoke began to clear and I was able to look up once more.
All trace of Dr Pierce and his office in Bristol had vanished and I found myself standing in the bedroom in Dowerly Manor in which I had fallen asleep two nights ago. Glancing down I discovered that I was clutching not a window pole but the poker I had stolen from the downstairs fireplace and a gradually thinning stream of smoke was rising from the smashed remains of the wood-burning stove in the corner. I stood and coughed for a moment.
Still rather stunned by the abrupt transformation, I might well have stood there for some while longer but for the sound of a loud crash close by. I quickly turned to discover that it came from the other side of the closed bedroom door. Still clutching the poker tightly, I stepped forward and cautiously turned the handle.
The door swung open to reveal a rather red-faced Michael standing in the corridor just outside. His sleeves were rolled up and he was holding above his head a huge mallet, apparently primed for another swipe at the door.
I couldn’t resist a sly smile. “Geez Redgrave,” I remarked. “You only had to knock.”
Michael lowered his mallet with an exasperated glare. “I’ve been knocking for the best part of two days,” he returned coldly.
I stepped forward and discovered that the bedroom door, the doorframe and the walls on either side were pitted with blows and scars of all sizes. There was a rather random collection of tools scattered across the corridor behind Michael.
“I’ve been knocking and hammering and drilling like a man possessed in an effort to get you out of there,” continued Michael. “And all the time you’ve no doubt been snoozing away, entirely oblivious.”
“I wouldn’t say entirely oblivious,” I replied, eyeing up a large mechanical drill propped up against the wall opposite. “It’s just… I’ve had some very strange dreams.”
“Ah, that’ll all be part of the programme,” said Michael knowingly.
Michael casually swung his mallet up onto his shoulder. “I think it might be easier if I let our hostess explain,” he said, pointing the way down the stairs. “Why don’t we go and get some breakfast?”
Michael led the way down the creaking staircase and through the dusty hall that were exactly as I remembered them. When we came to the dining room at the back of the house though things were a little different. The room looked as though it had recently been subject to either the worst natural disaster or the best party ever. Portraits were torn down from the walls, furniture upturned and slashed and the dining table was strewn with broken crockery, ornaments and reams of paper. Breakfast was represented by a pot of coffee and some scraps of cheese, ham and stale bread nestling amongst the debris.
In the midst of all this chaos Ms Grim sat stiffly in her high-backed chair at the head of the table. She started violently as soon as I entered the room. “What? How?” she spluttered, rocking back and forth in a frustrated effort to rise from her chair. It took a moment or two before I realised that the reason she was unable to get up was that she was tied to the chair with a length of stout cord.
“Been keeping yourself entertained in my absence?” I said to Michael with a lightly raised eyebrow.
“Ms Grim and her friend Boris have been most uncooperative,” said Michael with a heavy sigh, laying his mallet down on the table.
“Where is Boris?” I asked curiously.
Michael nodded casually in the direction of the fireplace. My eyes fell upon a decapitated body in a black suit slumped in a pool of thick, dark blood. A tangle of sinewy muscle sprouted from the severed neck. The pale head lay a few feet beyond, nestling against the skirting board. I gasped and turned away in horror.
“Bloody hell Redgrave! You killed Boris!” I exclaimed. “That’s going a bit far, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think so,” replied Michael sanguinely. “Look closer.”
I had to steel myself in order to turn my gaze back upon the gory spectacle but when I examined it a little closer I realised that the tangle of ligaments sprouting from the neck were in fact wires and that the pool of blood was actually engine oil. I stepped forward and gave the body a cautious tap. It resounded with a reassuringly metallic twang. “Blimey,” I remarked, picking up the broken head for a closer examination. “Well, I did say he didn’t look human, didn’t I?”
“You thought he was a vampire,” pointed out Michael.
“Vampire, android – it’s the same thing really,” I blithely replied. “He’s an impressive piece of work though.”
“A device of my own invention,” Ms Grim couldn’t resist throwing in with a note of pride. “The Basic Operating Robot In Service – Boris.” She threw a particularly spiteful glare at Michael. “And I will see that you are made to pay for his wanton destruction.”
“You shouldn’t have set him to kill mode,” returned Michael reasonably. “I was only defending myself.”
“You were interfering with my plans,” retorted Ms Grim.
“Would somebody care to enlighten me as to just what those plans happen to be,” I interjected. “I’m still a bit in the dark here.”
“Perhaps this might help,” suggested Michael, picking up a piece of headed notepaper from amongst the clutter on the table and passing it over.
I peered curiously at the sheet of paper. The heading read, ‘Letitia Grim & Co., Independent Security Contractors. For all your kidnap, rendition and information extraction needs. Operating at various locations across the landscape.’
I looked at Ms Grim with a puzzled expression. “A professional kidnapper?”
“A specialist in containment and information extraction, if you don’t mind,” responded Ms Grim haughtily. “Any hoodlum can knock someone out and lock them up. My services are a little more sophisticated.”
“What? Luring them into your creepy mansion and gassing them to sleep?” I retorted. “That’s real sophisticated.”
Ms Grim returned a sour smile. “Oh, my technology does so much more than merely put you to sleep. I can manipulate dreams and use them to extract memories. In your case, Miss Everingham, I used a programme that I find very effective with landscape outsiders. It’s called Psychological Investigation Enabling a Realistic Containment Environment. Or PIERCE for short. As in Doctor Pierce.”
“My, you are fond of your acronyms, aren’t you?” I muttered.
“It uses the surface memories of the subject’s own life before they entered the landscape to create a realistic dream scenario,” continued Ms Grim, not to be put off now she was in full flow. “Then we can use our friendly neighbourhood psychiatrist, effectively embedded within the scenario, to probe those deeper, more hard to reach, memories. Given enough time the subject’s whole psyche will be effectively laid bare.” Ms Grim’s expression twisted into a triumphant smile. “The really clever thing is that every memory unearthed can be used to reinforce the dream scenario. In effect, the subject creates the boundaries of their own prison. A quite perfect system.”
“Well, almost perfect,” I conceded. “Cos, well… hello.” I gave a little wave just to emphasise the flaw in this perfect system.
Ms Grim’s smile faded to an angry frown. “You can’t possibly have seen through the scenario,” she grumbled. “It’s created from your own memories.”
“Well, I’m afraid memories can be rather unreliable things,” I returned. “You see, there’s always a glitch in every matrix and, in this case, it came in the form of Mrs Winstanley’s cat.”
“What?” snapped Ms Grim.
“Whose cat?” asked Michael curiously.
I began pacing casually up and down alongside the table, rather relishing my ‘Poirot’ moment. “You see, the old lady who lives in the flat downstairs, Mrs Winstanley, has a cat,” I explained. “It’s a flighty thing, always darting here and there, which makes it rather hard to get a good look at in real life. On the other hand, Mrs Winstanley likes to paint for a hobby and on the odd occasion when she’s invited me in for a cup of tea she’s always been very keen to show me the large collection of watercolour portraits she’s done of her cat. She’s got loads of them and she’s really quite a talented artist – they’re very lifelike.” I paused for a moment, rather enjoying the looks of mild bafflement on both Ms Grim’s and Michael’s faces.
“The only trouble is Mrs Winstanley is completely colour-blind. Can’t tell red from green. So she’s cheerfully painted her cat in a range of shades from pale pink to bright blue. Which may have led to a bit of confusion in my memory as to the real colour of Mrs Winstanley’s cat. Which, in turn, obviously led to a slight glitch in your dream scenario technology.”
“You don’t mean…?” began Michael.
“Exactly,” I said. “To be honest, I still couldn’t tell you the exact colour of the real Mrs Winstanley’s cat but when I saw it darting past striped in every colour of the rainbow I knew something had to be wrong.”
Ms Grim shook her head in frustration. “That was all?” she muttered in disbelief. “A dotty old woman and a discoloured cat?”
“Well, to be fair, some of Michael’s hammering and drilling might just about have permeated my subconscious as well,” I conceded. “Which does make me wonder what happened to your dream scenario,” I added, turning to Michael. “You must have cracked that pretty quickly.”
“Ah well, there was nothing for me to crack really,” admitted Michael. “If you’ll remember Ms Grim told us that her technology uses the memories of a subject’s life prior to entering the landscape of the imagination…”
“Oh, I see,” I put in, catching on. “And as you technically had no life prior to entering the landscape…”
“There were no surface memories to extract,” confirmed Michael. “I just had a night of deep, dreamless sleep and woke up in the morning with a bit of a headache.”
I did my best to suppress a mild chortle. “Oh dear, looks like it’s back to the drawing board I’m afraid,” I couldn’t resist suggesting to Ms Grim. “And while you’re at it, you might want to rethink the décor,” I added with a disdainful look round at the Gothic trappings. “It’s not exactly an inviting atmosphere for luring kidnap victims.”
Ms Grim regained her familiar sour smile. “Oh but the décor is a crucial part of the whole operation,” she retorted. “I find my technology is most effective if the subject is in a – how should we say? – heightened state of nerves.”
“You didn’t scare me,” I blustered.
“Forty-five seconds, I think, it took for the gas to take effect in your case,” remarked Ms Grim. “I do believe that’s some kind of record.”
I scowled. “Your plan still failed miserably,” was the best retort I could manage.
“The blame for that cannot be laid at my door,” returned Ms Grim sniffily. “My clients should have notified me that my one of the subjects was deceased before entering the landscape. How could they not see that this was crucial information?”
“Which brings us to a crucial question of our own,” noted Michael. “Who exactly are your clients?”
Ms Grim regarded us with an imperious look. Well, as imperious as anyone can manage when they’re tied to a chair in the middle of an upturned room. “That information, I’m afraid, is privileged,” she announced contemptuously.
I turned and looked at Michael. “Who on earth do you think would want to have the two of us kidnapped?” I asked.
Michael considered for a moment. “Well, it seems to me there’s only one group of people I know of in the landscape whose interests we oppose,” he said slowly.
“The Explorer’s Club you mean?” I said doubtfully. Michael nodded. “But how could they track us down when we don’t even know where we are ourselves?” I added.
There was an unexpected snort of derision from Ms Grim. “Your method of arrival in this sector was hardly likely to go unnoticed,” she remarked, clearly abandoning any notions of client confidentiality in favour of scoring a few points off Michael and I. “You can’t expect to punch a hole in the fabric of the landscape without attracting some attention.”
“The inter-dimensional travel drive!” I exclaimed, hastily reaching for my bag in order to check on the precious object. My fingers quickly closed around it in relief.
“But if they know we have the inter-dimensional travel drive and they know that we’re here,” mused Michael uncertainly, “then why aren’t they here?”
“Oh don’t worry, there’s a party on their way,” Ms Grim informed us maliciously. “They’ve merely chosen to round up your accomplice first.”
“Our accomplice?” I said doubtfully.
“There were three of you on that fateful trip, were there not?” said Ms Grim with a hint of exasperation. “It was a smart move to split up on your arrival but I doubt it will hold them up for long.”
“Oh Lord – Clarence!” remarked Michael in alarm.
“Their methods may be a little cruder than mine,” announced Ms Grim, “but I’ve no doubt they’ll get what they want from him sooner or later. And then they’ll come for you.” A look of grim anticipation flashed across her features. “I think they’re rather anxious to discover who might have appropriated their exclusive technology.”
I looked at Michael and gulped. There was a nagging awareness that I ought really to be more concerned for the fate of poor Clarence but I had to confess that the primary thought in my mind at the moment was that it surely couldn’t be long before the Explorer’s Club figured out he wasn’t really responsible and headed our way.
“Perhaps now might be a good time for us to take our leave,” I suggested hastily to Michael.
“I agree,” replied Michael. “We’ll leave Ms Grim to make our apologies to the gentlemen or women of the Explorer’s Club.”
Ms Grim scowled acidly at us. Fortunately though, she was really in no position to offer any resistance. She could only look on furiously whilst we hastily began gathering together our few belongings. Michael reluctantly abandoned his mallet as being somewhat too unwieldy but tucked my fireside poker into his map case for protection. I gathered up some of the bread and cheese in a cloth for a breakfast on the move. After spending two days fast asleep I was, after all, inordinately hungry.
It was only when we had completed our preparations that an important point struck me. “But where are we going to go?” I asked Michael worriedly. “We don’t want to get lost in the forest again.”
“Don’t worry, I found this while you were off in the land of nod,” Michael replied, showing me a large square of paper. It was a plan of Dowerly Manor and the surrounding area. “There’s a narrow track leading out from the back of the house which appears to come out onto a main road,” Michael pointed out. “I think that ought to be our best bet.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go.”
I paused and looked at the restrained Ms Grim, glowering frustratedly at us from her chair at the head of the table. “Do give our regards to your clients,” I couldn’t resist telling her, just a touch facetiously.
“You won’t get far,” Ms Grim retorted sternly.
“We’ll see about that,” replied Michael imperiously and headed out. I went with him, leaving Ms Grim silently glaring at the wreckage of her dining hall.
We quickly made our way back through the hallway and slipped nervously out of the front door. The forest around seemed almost unnaturally quiet. The wind and rain of two days ago were now superseded by a gentle breeze and blue skies. We slipped quietly around the side of the house and soon came in sight of the narrow track through the trees that had been marked on Michael’s plan.
I hesitated for just a moment on the edge of the trees and looked back at Dowerly Manor. Even in the bright sunshine it had a faintly sinister air to it. I turned away with a shudder. The elements might seem almost unnaturally calm right now but I couldn’t help reflecting, as we set off hurriedly away through the dense foliage, that there was surely an even more ferocious storm brewing somewhere close by.
Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will return with Episode Ten (eventually)…