Monday, 15 February 2010

Fiction Burns - Steven Harris

“…The virus is airborne and believed to be highly infectious. The government is advising everyone to stay in their homes, with the windows closed and doors sealed if possible…”

I scowled at the radio, and then turned it off. Today of all days. I was supposed to be meeting Reg; our first date after four years of being “just friends.” Ten minutes ago I’d slopped out of the bath and jammed the radio on, hoping for some funky music to help me decide what to wear. All I got was a repeating message, delivered in a clipped English accent from an “official spokesperson.”

I went to phone Reg, realised I’d left my mobile at work, again, and had to resort to the clunky, old landline.

“Reg. It’s Alice. Have you heard the radio?”

“The Fictons thing? I’ve had the TV on. Every channel shows the same guy telling us all to stay indoors.”

His warm voice down the phone was soothing and I knew his analytical mind would be trying to read between the lines of the story.

“Alice, do you swallow this stuff? Apart from a piece in the Telegraph two days ago this has come out of nowhere. No one else ran that story. Now it’s a national emergency.”

“I don’t know what to believe. Just wish this could have waited another day so we could have had our date. I can’t believe I asked you out.” I heard him chuckle quietly.

“What you doing reading the Telegraph, anyway?” I teased.

“Mum was round.”

“Well have you still got it? Might tell us something.” Apparently he’d used the paper as extra padding when sealing his front door. Reg kept the line open while he went to see if he could retrieve it.

He sounded sexily out of breath on his return.

“Still there? Get a load of this.”

“Stranger Than Fiction? Professor W. Carpenter, head of English at Berkley University in California, has teamed up with scientists at CERN, in an attempt to prove his most outlandish theory to date. Prof. Carpenter, a notorious radical whose appointment at Berkley two years ago was strongly opposed by many of his own colleagues, has put forward the notion that works of great literature spring not from human inspiration or individual genius, but from exposure to tiny, virus-like particles he has dubbed 'Fictons'.

According to the Professor, 'Fictons are microscopic particles which ordinarily exist in extremely small numbers in the atmosphere. However, if they enter the human respiratory system they can temporarily infiltrate one’s body chemistry and, vitally, find their way to the brain. Once this occurs Fictons fundamentally alter their victim’s sense of reality.'

He further alleges that relatively mild infestations of Fictons can have positive effects: 'A person whose grasp on reality has been destabilised by Fictons may well find their capacity for writing fiction or poetry is enhanced for a time,' Prof. Carpenter told a press conference yesterday. He went on to say that 'It is quite possible that figures such as Shakespeare or Tolkien were repeat sufferers of Ficton infection; or were even victim to permanent, presumably low level, colonisation by the particles.' More serious infiltration is considered by the Professor to be the underlying cause in cases of sudden psychosis and more lasting mental dysfunction.”

Reg trailed off and admitted he hadn’t managed to find the rest of the article.

“I remember the gist of it, though. Apparently this professor has the DNA of some prolific writer he is convinced was colonised by the Fictons. He’s got CERN to agree to put it all into a particle accelerator and smash atoms at it.”

“And prove what?” I said. “That he’s a nutjob and CERN are even more insane for granting him house room?”

“But Alice, it looks like they’ve succeeded, doesn’t it? And, beyond his own expectations. If they’ve actually created Fictons, or accidentally released them, then the particles are marauding over Europe in a giant cloud of craziness.”

There was a lengthy silence. The idea that the experiment could have succeeded was preposterous. Fictons! You might as well argue that babies come from jam jars.

“You still with me, Alice?”

“Yeah, just can’t really believe any of this.”

“Well that’s a good sign then. Shows you haven’t been attacked by Fictons. Say, do you know how I realised I wanted to be more than just your friend after all these years?”

“Tell me,” I stalled, wondering where he was going with this.

“The reading group.”

“Eh?” It had been my thing: a few of us just into our thirties, inexplicably missing university, would meet regularly and discuss the month’s novel. Reg had come a few times but I’d assumed it was a bit girly for him as he’d rarely said much. I didn’t know quite what it had to do with Fictons, but the change of mood was welcome.

“Sitting there listening to you spouting with such passion about literature, I realised something I hadn’t properly understood about you before. You’re in love with books, aren’t you Alice?”

“Er, well not exactly in love, no. But they’re extremely important in my life. Surely you knew that? The fact that my house is full of them must be a clue.”

“I say it’s a love affair. I was really moved by the way you could give out so much love without the faintest hope of it ever being reciprocated. I’ve always loved you, Alice, but in that moment it grew into being in love with you, the way you love your books.”

My whole body felt warm, like August sunshine glowing from within. For a few wonderful seconds I forgot there was a panicking world outside and melted joyfully into our newfound love. Reluctantly, I broke the spell .

“You’ve made me so happy, saying that. But, why tell me now when all this is going on?”

“Two reasons. Firstly, I was going to tell you tonight anyway. I admit a softly-lit restaurant table would have been a more romantic setting.”

“No, not at all. I just wish I could look into your eyes right now.” We both sighed; he continued.

“Anyway, since this has sort of become our date, I had to say it. And, the second reason is even more important. Alice, this Ficton stuff, could change the world forever.”

“Or turn out to be a big hoax and change nothing.” I interrupted. “We’ve got no proof it’s anything to do with Professor Crackpot.”

“True, but the authorities are fired up about something. Maybe it’s a new disease, or someone’s used germ warfare to attack us? Whatever it is, our lives may never be the same. These words down the phone might be the last we ever speak to each other.”

“Don’t say that!”

“I have to. When I went to find the newspaper I discovered I’d forgotten to seal off the cat-flap. Dinah had come in, or gone out. Either way, the flap was ajar and I might already be infected by whatever it is.”

“That bloody cat…” I began to say before an awful beeping cut me off. “Oh shit! Reg, my phone is almost out of battery. I can’t recharge it and talk at the same time so I’m going to have to put it back in the cradle.”

“I’ll call your mobile.”

“I left it at work again. Listen, it’ll charge up quite quickly. Go and seal the cat-flap and I’ll call you back when I can.”

Once we’d said goodbye my anxiety rose. All I could think of was what he’d said about these words maybe being our last. Some date it had turned out to be. I was still wrapped in a towel and my hair was ridiculously frizzy. Good job he loved me for my mind.

I threw some clothes on and, for want of anything better to do, I stared through a downstairs window. What little I could see of the street didn’t tell me much. Several cars looked like they’d been parked hastily. One or two had clearly knocked into one another, but the drivers must have been in too much of a hurry to get indoors to worry about any damage. I could only see one person, a young girl standing under the lamppost in front of my house, apparently oblivious to the danger.

Seeing the girl pushed me into action. Pulling out the rug I’d stuffed into the crack under my door, I took a deep breath and marched out into the street. As I drew closer, the girl looked towards me, smiling at first before confusion and concern crept across her face.

“You’re not Mister Tumnus. You’ve come to take me to the White Witch so she can turn me to stone, haven’t you?”

I gaped at her for a moment before catching on. “Don’t worry. You’re not in Narnia; look around you.”

“Snow, the lamppost, the trees: it certainly looks like I’m back in Narnia to me,” she reasoned.

A glance down showed that I was ankle deep in crunchy, white snow. Behind me footprints traced back not to my house, which had disappeared along with the rest of the buildings, but into an eerie forest. But, we were on Blackall Road, ten minutes from the train station and I certainly had not stepped through a wardrobe.

The Fictons. I must have already been infected. And yet, if I was aware that this scene was just an illusion then this was probably a “relatively mild infestation,” as Professor Carpenter had put it. I shook my head in an effort to clear it and found that the girl, the snow, and everything Narnian had gone. I was outside my house. I touched the nearest wall to prove to myself that it was solid. The brick crumbled slightly under my hand.

“Yes!” I shouted, convinced that my victory over the hallucination was a sign that things were going to work out okay. One of the abandoned cars still had the keys in its ignition; so, without really thinking about it, I jumped in and started it up. A few minutes later I was emerging from an underpass and imagining Reg’s surprised face when I showed up on his doorstep.

I was quite enjoying driving like a TV cop, squealing round corners and breaking the speed limit. As I swung around a sharp left-hand bend I was confronted by a foreboding figure in the middle of the road. Well over six feet tall, his skin was a horrible yellow colour, his lips as black as death. It was Frankenstein’s creation; not the film aberration with a bolt through his neck and stitches across his forehead, but the evenly proportioned creature of Mary Shelley’s book.

I rammed him, expecting to hear a sickening crunch of bones where instead there was a faint flapping sound and the monster was nowhere to be seen. Just when I was ready to put it down to a hallucination, the rear-view mirror revealed that I had run over a prop; nothing more than a plywood promotional figure from the independent bookstore, which some joker had thought it hilarious to place in the road.

And then I crashed. One moment I was laughing about the Frankenstein scare, next thing I knew I was coming to, blood dribbling from a cut above my eye. On exiting the car I was nearly sick; the crumpled body of a woman lay beneath the front tires. She was a mess, and fading fast. The single word she uttered before dying confirmed that I was hallucinating yet again: “Vronsky!” I’d just killed Anna Karenina. I guess she was too impatient to find a train station.

The car refused to start and I’d have been reluctant to reverse it back over what used to be Miss Karenina anyway, so I continued on foot. Once more I congratulated myself on being able to tell reality from illusion fairly swiftly. If this was all the Fictons could throw at me, I didn’t need to be afraid. Reg and I would be fine once it all died down. He’d probably be less affected than me, if at all, thanks to that methodical brain of his. I’d find out soon enough as I was no more than ten minutes walk away from him now.

I sped up as I passed a group of schoolchildren waving gnarled pieces of wood in the air. Strange sparks shot from the end of several of the wands and the boy with the spectacles and a funny scar on his forehead was muttering in cod-Latin. One of his friends was a girl with hair frizzier than my own. She glanced at me and for a moment I thought she was going to speak, but I put my head down and ploughed on around the corner.

At the end of Sidwell Street I noticed a well-dressed adolescent talking to himself in the doorway of Matalan.

“Stick around, or top myself, that’s what I need to work out. Have I got it in me to, like, ride this shit, or the balls to face up to it? If I string myself up…”

“Hey,” I called to him, “You’re Hamlet, aren’t you? But where’s all the fire and poetry.”

“What do you know?” he answered. “I’m bang up to date, baby. Twenty-first century angst.” I gave up and carried on my way as he began to ponder whether an “eternal kip would bring bad dreams, ‘n’ that.”

All in all I was finding the Ficton experience more irritating than frightening. As I turned into Reg’s street everything seemed normal. The smell of roast chicken came from one of the houses and Dinah was perched in her favourite spot on Reg’s lawn. A huge smile came over my face as I approached the door and reached for the knocker. The door opened and I flung my arms around my man.

“Oh Reg, I’m so glad you’re ok, and I’m ok, I thought I wasn’t but I am.” I knew I was babbling but I didn’t care.

“Miss Liddell, as I have told you many times before, my name is Dodgson, Doctor Charles Dodgson. And would you please let go of me, I can hardly breathe.”

“But, but, the Fictons? Where’s Reg? He lives here…That’s his cat” I turned to point out Dinah; but she’d gone.

He turned to the young woman standing next to him. “Miss Liddell is my most frustrating patient. For years she’s been convinced that her psychotic hallucinations are reality. Recently I’d begun to think we were making some progress with her problems, but apparently not.”

Addressing me again he spoke in an admonishing tone. “You are, as ever, late for your appointment. I warn you, Miss Liddell, if this is going to turn into another tale of white rabbits and talking playing cards I am going to recommend you be sectioned again.”

I followed him into the clinic and the world faded to black.

-Steven Harris writes in varying styles and different media. From short fiction to academic work; from poetry to the novel he is currently working on; from song-writing to journalism: words are the thing.
He has published two books – And Other Stories; Flotsam & Jetsam – with a collection of poetry due in October 2009.
One of his stories has been shortlisted for the Happenstance International Story prize 2009.
Steven lives in Somerset with his wife, an assortment of young people, a menagerie of chickens, ducks and geese, and a very noisy cat.

-Photographs by Christopher Barrio