“Sturridge?” said the old woman. “No dear, I’m afraid he’s gone.”
“Long gone,” added the old man wistfully.
“Bugger,” I muttered.
We had finally arrived back at the Café del Mar in Marston a little over 24 hours late for our rendezvous; a delay which I considered, under the circumstances, to be perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately it seemed Sturridge had not seen fit to wait even a minute beyond the appointed time, leaving the Zielinskis to make his rather lame apologies for him. I was particularly frustrated as I had spent most of the journey back from Marksville working on a heartfelt explanation as to why, after handing over the modified inter-dimensional travel device, we would be regretfully abandoning Sturridge in order to search for a way home from the landscape of the imagination. I did so hate to waste a good speech.
I glanced sideways at Michael to check his reaction to the news. He was wearing the expression he generally favoured on such occasions – a slightly martyred look of resignation. “You’d have thought he might have waited a day or so,” he finally said with a tired shrug.
“Oh no, he couldn’t hang around,” insisted Mrs Zielinski forcefully. “Not a moment to lose.”
Mr Zielinski leaned in. “Events are moving forward,” he added in a mysterious tone.
“You wouldn’t happen to know where exactly he went, would you?” I somehow felt obliged to ask.
“To the barracks my dear,” replied Mrs Zielinski matter-of-factly.
“What barracks?” asked Michael.
“Why, the barracks of the Explorers Club,” replied Mrs Zielinski.
“The Explorers Club have barracks?” said Michael nervously.
Mr Zielinski leaned towards us again and added, “Events are moving forward,” once more, as though that explained everything.
I was sorely tempted just at that moment to turn and walk straight out of the café without another word, leaving the Zielinskis and all their cryptic allusions behind me. I was beginning to feel I had had just about as much as I could take of Sturridge’s obscure plots and arcane schemes. Whatever it was that had brought me to the landscape of the imagination, I couldn’t see much pointing in sticking around just for this.
After a few seconds though of silent frustration, during which the elderly couple placidly sipped their coffee, something compelled me to ask them, “Do you have any idea where we might find these barracks?”
“Oh yes,” replied Mrs Zielinski. “Mr Sturridge left a very comprehensive set of directions for you.” She pushed a disturbingly thick bundle of rolled up papers across the table towards us.
I glared down at them, thinking how typical it was of Sturridge to assume that we would immediately come chasing after him once more. Eventually I turned again to Michael who was also eyeing the papers with a degree of suspicion. Eventually he looked up. “I suppose one more short detour couldn’t hurt,” he said with a hint of reluctance. “If we catch a train after lunch…”
“Oh no, no trains,” Mrs Zielinski hastily interrupted.
“They’ll see you coming,” warned Mr Zielinski.
“A bus then?” I suggested hopefully.
Mrs Zielinski swiftly shook her head. “That would be just as bad.”
“Travel only on foot,” implored Mr Zielinski. “Stick to the side tracks and byways.”
“It’s all in the directions,” added Mrs Zielinski, giving the bundle of papers on the table a further nudge in our direction.
“Just how long is this little trip likely to take?” I demanded.
The Zielinskis considered the question carefully. “A day perhaps, if you’re both quick walkers,” suggested Mrs Zielinski.
“Possibly two,” conceded Mr Zielinski.
“Certainly no more than three,” thought Mrs Zielinski. Her husband nodded vigorously in agreement.
“Bugger,” I found myself muttering once more.
With a heavy sigh Michael picked up the roll of papers and slid them into his map case. Oh well, I thought to myself as we finished our drinks, at least there would be plenty of time along the way to add a few choice words to that speech I was preparing for Sturridge.
It was a full 24 hours since we had left the Café del Mar. All through the long afternoon and evening, through most of a cold, black night and from the early breaking dawn of the following morning we had kept on the move, barely stopping to rest. In that time we had passed four railway stations, twelve bus stops and seventeen cabs for hire, all of which we had spurned as per Sturridge’s directions. His detailed instructions had led us further and further off the beaten track, out of the bustling towns, through tranquil suburbs and sleepy villages, until we seemed to be beyond sight of all civilisation. Our path was now little more than an ill-defined track weaving its way across desolate moorland and it was several hours since we had last seen a living soul. Both Michael and I were now tired and footsore and, having long since run out of anything vaguely interesting to say to one another, we trudged on in silence.
They appeared as two lonely figures on the horizon, trekking wearily beneath the bright, cloudless sky.
“What did you say?”
Michael, whose long legs frequently carried him a few paces beyond me, turned and looked back with a puzzled expression. “What?”
“Sorry. I thought you said something.”
I shrugged lightly and we both plodded on.
The stark beauty of the desolate landscape lent the figures a poignant vulnerability.
Michael and I both stopped dead.
“There you go again,” I said accusingly.
“That wasn’t me,” said Michael.
I gazed around the empty moorland. “It must have been you,” I insisted. “There’s no-one else here.”
“It didn’t sound anything like me,” countered Michael.
This, I had to concede, was quite true. “Maybe you were putting on a voice,” I suggested weakly.
“Why on earth would I be putting on a voice?” retorted Michael irritably.
I shrugged. “You’re an actor. Maybe you were just keeping your hand in.”
Tempers flared. Under that bright remorseless sun small cracks of irritation were liable to fracture into gaping crevices.
“Okay, now that’s clearly not me,” protested Michael.
I spun around a full 360 degrees in confusion. “Then who the hell was it?” I demanded.
There was a moment of silence.
Alright then, if you must know, it was me.
“Who’s me?” said Michael, also looking blankly around.
I don’t have a name. You may refer to me simply as ‘The Narrator’.
“Where are you then?” I asked. “Show yourself.”
I can’t show myself. I’m a narrator – we don’t take a physical form.
“You mean you’re just floating around in the ether?” said Michael
In a sense.
“What are you doing there?”
I’m narrating your story for you. Or I was, before I was rather rudely interrupted.
“You can’t expect us to just ignore a strange voice that suddenly booms out of nowhere,” I complained.
I’ll fade if you take no notice of me. Just carry on as you were and I’ll soon be no more than a faint background rumble.
“I’m not sure I like the sound of that,” said Michael.
“Yeah, I think we’ll pass on the offer of narration,” I added. “I’m quite capable of narrating my own story, thanks.”
Oh, that’s right, I forgot. Everyone’s a narrator these days. It’s a bit like tiling the bathroom. Everyone assumes it’s a job they can handle. Only, before they know it, they’re up to their elbows in grouting, none of the tiles match and they wish to God they’d had the good sense to get a professional in.
“Well, if you must know, I am sort of a professional,” I confessed with a modest smile. “You see, I’m in the middle of a postgrad degree in creative writing and I’ve already had a couple of short stories published.”
Well, there you are. A couple of short stories published. Practically Virginia Woolf, aren’t you?
It was very disconcerting not knowing where to direct my injured glare. “Well, I seem to have managed alright so far,” I retorted instead.
Hmm, not bad I suppose. I’ll admit you have a nice ear for dialogue and there are a few sharp descriptive touches. But there’s little psychological depth, your authorial viewpoint is seriously skewed and frankly your story is lacking in focus.
“Wait a minute, how would you know all this?” interjected Michael. “Just how long have you been following us?”
Not long. I picked you up on the track just a little way back there. But as soon as I started narrating I automatically took on your backstory. It’s kind of a sixth sense we narrators have.
“I do not lack psychological depth,” I protested. “Just because I don’t go in for all that stream-of-consciousness crap you can’t say I don’t do well-rounded characters.”
Well, let’s just say some of your characters are more rounded than others. Anyone reading your account, for example, would have a pretty good idea of what makes you tick but what about Michael here? He’s a key player in the story but what do we know of his inner self? What motivates him? What are his hopes and dreams?
Michael turned to me with a look of amused anticipation. I glared in return. “He’s er… Well, he’s…,” I stuttered, suddenly feeling very much put on the spot. “Well, he’s just Michael, isn’t he?”
He lacks definition, that’s all. I really think the dynamics of your relationship haven’t been laid out quite as well as they might have been. Where’s the sexual tension for starters?
“What?” said Michael, his smile evaporating into a look of discomfort.
Sexual tension. Two lead characters of the opposite sex, sharing danger and adventure together. Your story is clearly crying out for it.
“Whoa there just a minute,” I protested. “You’re barking up entirely the wrong tree with that. I mean, for one thing, I have a boyfriend back home.”
What has that got to do with anything?
“Well, it’s just…”
I wouldn’t lay it on too thick. I’m just saying you could perhaps play on those small moments a little more – the touch of the hand, the accidental brush of the arm, the glance that’s held just a moment longer than necessary…
“Hey! You can stop that right now.”
Oh, so you’re trying to tell me it’s never even crossed your mind?
“No. I mean, not like…” I was annoyed to find that I was unaccountably turning a particularly brilliant shade of red. “Certainly not.”
Right. Of course not. There’s nothing like an author in denial.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I insisted.
“Can I just say I’m not particularly comfortable with that interpretation myself,” interjected Michael. “I don’t know what you think you’ve picked up in the backstory but my intentions here have always been entirely honourable.”
Oh please, you’re an actor, aren’t you? I’ve yet to meet a single member of your profession that wouldn’t go to bed with a hat-stand if it gave you the slightest encouragement.
Michael instinctively opened his mouth to object but, apparently unable to find the right words, settled instead for an indignant harrumph.
“Look, can we just drop the subject please?” I said. “I wish to state categorically that Michael and I are just good friends and have absolutely no intention of ever going to bed with one another.”
Well, of course you shouldn’t actually go to bed with one another. That’s the surest way to kill off sexual tension. You clearly are an amateur if you don’t know that.
“Well, maybe I am an amateur,” I retorted, making a concerted effort not to lose my temper. “But I’m an amateur who’s happy to do without your professional help, thank-you very much. So perhaps you can leave the narration of this story to me and find yourself another tale to tell.”
There was an uncomfortable pause.
I can’t. The thing is I can’t travel unless I have a story to follow and you’re the first people to pass this way in months. Unless you allow me to narrate your tale for a while I’ll be stuck here indefinitely.
“But how did you come to be here in the first place?” asked Michael.
I’d taken up a job of narration on the tale of a couple of smugglers down by the coast. It was a real classic in the making – full of crime, passion, adventure. Unfortunately, the course of narration doesn’t always run entirely smoothly. When it’s working well the narrator should be nothing more than a background presence, entirely invisible to the characters in the story. But occasionally there are hiccups in the proceedings – technical difficulties you might call them – that cause the narration to bleed through into the environment of the story.
“Like the way we heard you?” said Michael.
Exactly. And sometimes when that happens the characters don’t always appreciate what the narrator has to say about them.
“Creative differences, eh?” I suggested with a wry smile.
It’s always the same. People love having their story narrated when things are going well but when times are tough and one or two character flaws come to the surface… well, it’s a different matter altogether.
I told them that if they would only bear with me for a short while then the narrative bleed would repair itself and I would fade from their consciousness. But they wouldn’t listen. Another character flaw that needed pointing out.
“So what did they do?” Michael asked.
They concocted some spurious reason for making a journey into the wilds out here. Then, when they’d made sure I was fully distracted with a lengthy allegorical description of the scenery, they scarpered. Leaving me stranded.
I tried not to display too blatant an admiration for this neatly effective solution to their problem. “As a narrator shouldn’t you perhaps have seen that one coming?” I suggested instead.
Even the best narrators can be blind to certain aspects of a story, particularly where it concerns themselves.
“Maybe you should have just soft-soaped them for a little while,” offered Michael helpfully. “Steered clear of the character flaws until your narrative issues fixed themselves.”
Oh no, I couldn’t do that. There may be some narrators who are prepared to tell a crooked story but I still believe in the Narrator’s Oath – never deviate, never obfuscate and never ever, under any circumstances, lie to your audience.
“Very commendable,” I murmured.
So will you help me by letting me narrate your story for a little while? I won’t get in your way. In fact, if you pay no attention I’m sure I’ll soon fade into the background. You’ll never even know I’m here.
Michael and I exchanged an awkward glance.
“I’m really not so sure I’d be entirely comfortable with that,” said Michael.
“And, as I said before, we’re really okay for narration at the moment,” I added.
Please don’t leave me here. If I stay here much longer I’ll completely lose the plot. There’s only so much you can say about grass and sky and the occasional tree. I need action, characters, a bit of story going on.
Look, I know from your backstory that you’re headed for the barracks of the Explorers Club. If you let me tag along I’m bound to pick up a new story there. Then we can all go our separate ways.
I looked uneasily across at Michael.
“Perhaps if Natasha and I might have a moment to discuss it between ourselves,” he eventually suggested.
Of course. Be my guest.
“In private, I mean.”
Certainly. I won’t listen. I’m not here.
Not entirely reassured by this reply Michael and I wandered off a little way down the track.
“What do you reckon?” I asked Michael, feeling compelled to lower my voice even though the gesture was probably completely ineffectual.
“I’m not sure,” replied Michael slowly. “It’s one thing to be written up in a memoir, it’s quite another to have a disembodied narrator commenting on your every action as it occurs.”
“And frankly I don’t know that I think much of his style of narration,” I added pointedly.
“On the other hand we can’t just leave him stranded out here,” said Michael, glancing around. “It is pretty bleak.”
“I don’t suppose he feels the cold,” I offered.
“I guess so long as it’s only until we get to the barracks it can’t be too bad,” suggested Michael.
“Then we get him to promise that he’ll leave us alone after that,” I said.
We both looked up, rather startled.
“Just so long as you realise this is absolutely a short term arrangement,” insisted Michael.
“And let’s keep things light, shall we?” I added. “We can do without any psychological depth or detailed exploration of character flaws. And we’ll have none of that sexual tension either.”
As you like. So we have a deal then?
There was just a moment of further hesitation before Michael and I each nodded in turn.
Excellent. Perhaps you’d like to resume your journey whenever you’re ready then.
With just a faint air of reluctance both Michael and I turned and began again our steady trudge along the track towards the Explorers Club barracks.
With fresh insight and renewed purpose the two lonely figures took up the reins of their forbidding journey once more.
“Oh brother,” I muttered.
To be continued…