It had become something of an unwritten rule of our travels about the landscape that we should never pass an Imaginary Emporium without looking in. These rickety, old-fashioned stores were only ever to be found in remote, out-of-the-way locations and the range of goods they carried was eclectic to say the least. In the early days the seemingly endless line of credit offered by the (invariably male, bearded and green-aproned) shopkeepers had proved a godsend when supplies were running low (providing, of course, you were prepared to take a flexible attitude regarding the freshness of the produce). These days, when we considered ourselves more at ease with the bartering nature of transactions in the landscape, the dubious tinned delights of the Imaginary Emporiums held rather less appeal but we could rarely resist a poke around, if only for nostalgia’s sake.
We had stumbled upon Gerard’s Imaginary Emporium on the edge of a windswept plain, where a few battered cottages huddled beneath the dubious shelter of a skeletal tree. Being in need of nothing in particular, we had only intended a quick look inside but the interior proved such a grotto of unexpected delights and the shopkeeper, Gerard himself, was so welcoming that we must have spent a good hour rooting around amongst the shelves. In the end, for form’s sake, Michael condescended to pick out a new tie from a motley assortment hanging on a rack. Evidently thrilled to have made a sale, Gerard insisted on wrapping up Michael’s new purchase for him.
“Are you sure you won’t take the purple striped as well?” asked Gerard whilst he hunted about behind the cash desk for some tape. “I’ll do you a very good deal on the pair.”
“No thank-you,” replied Michael firmly.
“Very well,” said Gerard with a sigh, reluctantly taping the parcel shut. “I presume you have an account with us.”
“Everingham and Redgrave,” I called out, looking up momentarily from the bin full of hats through which I was rummaging.
“That’ll be three pounds then,” announced Gerard, drawing an enormous dusty ledger out from beneath his desk. “Unless you wanted me to throw in the sombrero as well.”
I hesitated just a moment before returning the hat in question to the bin. “No, that’s okay thanks.”
“As you wish.” Gerard sighed again as he opened the ledger. “Now let me see, Everingham and Redgrave,” he murmured to himself as he flicked through the pages. “Ah yes, here we are. And I see we also have a packet here for you to collect.”
“A packet for us?” said Michael uncertainly. “Are you sure?”
“Of course,” said Gerard. “We’re often used as a drop-off service between clients who have accounts with us. We’re cheap and friendly, you see, and postal services in the landscape aren’t always as reliable as they ought to be.” He pulled a large box filled with letters, parcels and packages of all sizes up onto the desk top and began rummaging through it. “The mail coach, for instance, is often prey to highwaymen or Red Indians and there’ve been three packet boats sunk by submarines just this month.”
“But why would anyone expect us to turn up here?” I asked. After all, we hadn’t known we’d be here ourselves until the very moment we’d stepped through the door.
“Oh well, they may not have expected you here as such,” replied Gerard airily, “but I suppose the sender assumed you would find your way to one or other of our stores sooner or later. All our stores offer the same service.”
“But how…?” I began in confusion. “I mean, either the packet’s here or it’s somewhere else. It can’t happen to be at any store we turn up at. Can it?”
But enlightenment on the operating procedures of the Imaginary Emporium chain was forestalled by a sudden exclamation from Gerard. “Ah, here we are!” he cried, pulling an item from the box and pushing it across the desk towards us.
Michael and I leaned forward curiously. Our ‘packet’ turned out to be a thick, cream-coloured envelope. It was marked for the attention of ‘Miss Natasha Everingham and/or Mr Michael Redgrave’. The address simply read ‘Somewhere in the Landscape’.
“I’ll need one of you to sign for receipt,” said Gerard, drawing forth another, smaller ledger and offering up a pen. Michael hastily scrawled his name in the place indicated. Then we both resumed our business of glaring suspiciously at the offending envelope. There was no return address or marking of any kind to indicate who might have sent this unexpected missive.
It was Gerard who finally broke the spell with a slight cough. “Well, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” he remarked earnestly.
“Oh, yes, thank-you.”
Slowly, hesitantly, I reached out and picked up the envelope. Holding it cautiously out in front of me I began to drift towards the door.
“Do call again if you’re ever in the neighbourhood,” Gerard called out eagerly as we departed.
“We will, thanks,” replied Michael distractedly.
“Oh, and don’t forget your tie sir.”
We waited until we reached a roadside tavern about a mile or so further into our journey before proceeding any further with the business of discovering just what our unexpected packet might contain. There was something about the expensive stationery and neatly formal hand-writing that seemed to demand a degree of ceremony in the opening. So we settled ourselves at an outdoor table and ordered a couple of cooling drinks before I took out the envelope once more. I set it down on the table in front of us and we stared suspiciously at it for a minute or two.
“Well, aren’t you going to open it then?” Michael finally said.
“Why don’t you open it?” I retorted. “Your name’s on the front, same as mine.”
Michael sighed and picked the envelope up off the table. He carefully slit it open, then paused just a moment to ensure nothing was likely to crawl or burst out of it before tentatively reaching inside and drawing out several sheets of paper. He smoothed these out and carefully read through the top sheet before passing it across to me with a faintly amused expression. It was written in the same bold, steady hand as the envelope and read as follows:
Dear Natasha & Michael,
I hope you will forgive me for contacting you in this manner (I assure you I am not one of those narrators who feels the need to return again and again to the same story to both the annoyance of the subject and the tedium of the reader) but I felt compelled to get in touch. Firstly, I trust that you are both well and are making good progress in your quest to locate your missing friend. Since our brief time together I have kept mostly on the move, searching out fresh tales to narrate. Whilst I have picked up the threads of several intriguing stories lately I feel that I have yet to come upon that truly sweeping epic that I have long been searching for.
But this is all by the by however. The real reason for this letter is that during this time I picked up a rather fascinating lead that I think may prove most useful to you. I recently ran into a colleague of mine in Venice – a narrator who specialises in short vignettes of city life – and he passed on a story about a café encounter which I’m sure you’ll read with great interest. I have taken the liberty of enclosing a copy of my colleague’s tale with this letter.
Wishing you all the very best in your adventures.
P.S. My associate’s style is a little brisk for my tastes but in the interests of transparency I hereby present his story in the exact manner in which it was related to me.
Accompanying the Narrator’s letter were three sheets of neatly typed prose which Michael and I read as we sipped our drinks.
A Grey Afternoon at Florian’s
The scene: Café Florian, Piazza San Marco. Thick rolls of grey cloud and a persistent drizzle keep away most of the tourists. A few hardy souls collect beneath the arcade. Most drift away after an hour or so, preferring to take their sight-seeing indoors, to the Basilica or the Doge’s Palace.
Just two men sit out the morning, sharing a table at the end of the row. The first is tall and handsome, sporting a taupe polo-neck sweater beneath a navy blazer. The second is a shapeless man in a shapeless suit; his bald head sinks directly onto his shoulders without benefit of any discernible neck to support it. What little conversation they have is long since used up by lunchtime but they sit on into the afternoon, watching and waiting.
They wait so long they fail to spot his approach. A wanderer, a gaunt figure of uncertain age with hollow cheeks and a greying beard, appears at their table as if from nowhere.
The wanderer smiles a tired smile as the two men look up, startled. ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you recognise me?’
A sharp intake of breath from No-neck as he gets a good look at the wanderer for the first time. Polo-neck eyes him shrewdly. ‘You were expected a week ago.’
The wanderer shrugs, sits down at the table. An under-employed waiter hurries over but he is immediately shooed away by Polo-neck.
‘Truth is, I only really came to return you this.’ The wanderer throws something down onto the centre of the table; a gadget about the size of an automatic camera. The lights and dials on it are all dead. Scorch marks around the edges suggest they aren’t likely to light up anytime soon.
No-neck picks up the gadget, cooing over it like a wounded animal. ‘What the hell have you done to it?’
‘You might better ask just what it’s done to me.’
An uncomfortable silence. No-neck continues to cluck over his gadget, Polo-neck sizes up the wanderer.
‘So you came back to tell us that you failed.’ Polo-neck’s tone is ice cold.
‘I failed because it can’t be done. Stabato’s calculations were right after all. You can’t outrun the imagination.’
No-neck looks up from his injured gadget. ‘My experiments on the effects of trans-dimensionality on an expanding cosmos conclusively proved…’
The wanderer interrupts. ‘Your calculations aren’t worth shit out there in the field.’
No-neck rises angrily from his chair but he’s hauled back down. His protests are silenced with a look from Polo-neck. While No-neck composes himself Polo-neck turns dispassionately to the wanderer. ‘Where exactly? Where were you based?’
‘Corona, a little town in New Mexico.’ The wanderer lets the place name hang heavily over the table for a minute. ‘I figure you probably already heard about what happened at Corona.’
Polo-neck shrugs disdainfully. ‘Some sort of natural disaster they say. What of it? This is the imaginary landscape – natural disasters happen all the time.’
‘There was nothing natural about this disaster.’
No-neck mimics his cohort’s disdainful expression. ‘Spooked you did it?’
The wanderer leans in close, his tone sharp. ‘You’re damned right it spooked me. You’d have been spooked if you saw your world crack apart like that, saw the very fabric of your existence split apart at the seams. You have no idea what kind of trouble your little experiments are gonna land you in if you keep at ‘em.’
No-neck snorts. ‘You probably didn’t follow the instructions correctly.’
There’s a second where it seems the wanderer will strike him. No-neck flinches in anticipation. But the moment passes and the wanderer leans back in his chair. ‘You think you can do better, then fine you go right ahead. But you’d better make sure you’re ready cos there are hells out there that you ain’t even dreamed of. Only the ancients have seen them and they knew better than to speak of them out loud.’
Silence follows. A stiff awkward silence that threatens to run on forever.
Finally Polo-neck breaks the tension with a contemptuous wave of the hand. ‘Melodramatic nonsense. You always did read too many fairy tales.’
The wanderer shakes his head sadly. ‘Fine, if that’s the way you want to see it. You carry on. But you’ll have to carry on without me. I came back to tell you I resign.’
A sharp look from Polo-neck. ‘Nobody resigns from the Explorer’s Club.’
‘So what you gonna do? Turn me into a frog? Addle my brain? Or do I get my own purpose-built prison? Hundreds of rooms scattered the length and breadth of the landscape? A fine view at every turn but no chance of ever escaping?’
The wanderer throws out a challenging look. But No-neck is looking uncertainly at Polo-neck and Polo-neck is gazing thoughtfully across the Piazza. The wanderer smiles. ‘I thought not. Those kind of things take a lot of time and effort, right? I ought to be insulted but then I guess the powers-that-be never concerned themselves with my fate.’
Polo-neck slowly draws his gaze back to the table. ‘Still, you took an oath. You can’t expect to break it without consequences.’
The wanderer shrugs. ‘Then I guess I’ll just have to take what’s coming to me.’ A tired smile. ‘But you’re wasting your time. I’m no Sturridge. I can’t help you anymore but I won’t be getting in your way. I’m finished with all this. I fancy getting back to some actual exploring for a change. Islands maybe. You know I always had a fancy to see if I couldn’t find myself the most beautiful and exotic island in fiction. There ought to be a few contenders, don’t you think? I reckon that’s what I might try next.’ A pause, a straight look. ‘So if you want to come find me, try looking round the islands.’
The wanderer pauses again, waiting for a response that never comes. Finally he pushes back his chair. ‘So long fellas. I wish you luck with your experiments. I reckon you’ll be needing it.’ He slowly rises and strides out across the Piazza, eventually disappearing into the shadows around the Basilica.
The two men watch him go. No-neck turns to his companion. ‘Do you want me to…?’
Polo-neck shakes his head. ‘No. Let him go.’
No-neck picks up his broken gadget again. ‘I’m sure if I can get this back to the workshop, make a few adjustments…’
Another shake of the head from Polo-neck. ‘Leave it. If he can’t get it to work, no-one can.’
A long, awkward pause. ‘What then? Another trip to the sci-fi heartlands?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Why not? With our contacts we’re bound to turn up something else we can use. Some kind of complementary technology. It’s just a case of being able to see the possibilities.’
‘It won’t work.’
It’s clear No-neck wants to protest this curt dismissal but can’t quite find the right words.
Polo-neck sighs. ‘The trouble with science-fiction is that sooner or later it rubs up against the boundaries of rationality. Man might dream of the stars but he’s always obliged to start from the physical world he already inhabits – and his imagination will only take him so far.’
No-neck looks up, worried. ‘But if science-fiction fails us, how can we ever hope to conquer the landscape?’
Polo-neck shrugs lightly. ‘As always it’s simply a case of looking at the problem from a different angle.’ And then he tips his head thoughtfully in the direction of the Basilica. ‘Perhaps where science has failed us, faith will succeed.’
“So what the bollocks is all that about?” I demanded when I had finally read the story through.
“Well,” mused Michael, toying absent-mindedly with his drink, “Polo-neck and No-neck would appear to be Valentine and Kenneth, our old friends from the Explorer’s Club.”
“I figured that much,” I retorted. “But what are they up to now?”
Michael gazed in concentration at the sheets of paper lying before us on the table before finally responding with a ‘Beats me’ kind of shrug.
“And more to the point what has any of this got to do with us and our hunt for Sturridge?”
Michael shrugged again. “At least there’s no indication that the Explorer’s Club are aware we’re still on Sturridge’s trail,” he pointed out. “Maybe that’s the point. The Narrator’s just letting us know that we’re free to go about our business without having to look over our shoulder every five minutes.”
“Well I don’t see why he couldn’t have just said that,” I grumbled. “You know, something like; ‘Dear Natasha and Michael, the Explorer’s Club still thinks you were burnt to a cinder in a horrific Zeppelin fireball. Keep up the good work. Love and kisses, the Narrator.’ That would have done the trick. You’d think he, of all people, would appreciate the value of a little economy of narrative.”
Michael couldn’t resist a sly smile. “Ah, but you know what these story-tellers are like once they get started.”
“Then I suppose we’ll just have to put this down as a mildly interesting but inconsequential narrative cul-de-sac,” I said, scooping up the papers and sliding them back into the envelope.
“I suppose we will,” agreed Michael.
“Well then,” I said, tucking the envelope back away into my bag and downing the last of my drink, “time to get back to the main plot then.”
To be continued…