Different Worlds by Chris Green
I have no recollection of how I arrived at this remote place or where it might be. I have lost my phone, so I have no means of checking my location. There appear to be no roads leading to or from here in any direction. I have trudged several miles through dense wild scrub. There are no obvious paths to follow and no landmarks. The terrain is featureless for as far as the eye can see. You would think there would be a farm or some sign of rural pastimes, even in the back of beyond. Or perhaps a distinctive clump of trees to give you your bearings. Now and then, I catch a glimpse of a meandering grey river in the distance, but each time I head towards it, it seems to have moved further away.
There is a Simon and Garfunkel silence. There is no hint of a breeze. No distant traffic noise, no rustling of the long grass, no birdsong. It is hot and sticky. There are banks of ominous dark cloud overhead. They are not moving. Would I be able to tell which direction I was heading in, anyway, if I could see the sun? Probably not. Despite my scientific background, my orienteering skills are poor. Gina is forever pointing this out. She says I could get lost in the supermarket. I laugh it off and tell her this is the title of a track by The Clash.
The last thing I can remember is that Gina and I were driving to a holiday cottage in the south-west for a well-earned break. Was that this morning? Or was it yesterday evening? My sense of time is on the blink. Time has always been a tricky customer. Einstein thought so too. When a pretty girl sits on your lap for an hour, he suggests, it seems like a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, it seems like an hour. And he wasn’t the only one who found the concept of time challenging. Schrödinger, Dirac, and Hugh Everett have, in their different ways, all spent their best years grappling with its complexities. One thing they all seemed to agree on is that although it appears that way, time is not linear. I can still hear old Coot Conway in double Physics on Friday afternoons banging on about Special Relativity and Spacetime.
I do recall that the accommodation had an unusual name. Faraway or Past Time or something like that. Quirky names seem to be a marketing ploy for holiday lets. We have stayed at places called Wit’s End and Fanta Sea. I am sure I would have remembered if we had actually arrived at our accommodation, though, whatever it was called. Yet I can’t recall any road accidents, any road closures, diversions, or breaks in the journey that might explain my dislocation. No disagreement with Gina or other circumstances that would have caused us to go our separate ways. So why is she here not with me? Where is she? Where is the car? What is it that has happened? Where is this godforsaken place? Why can I remember nothing? I should not be going through this.
I am hungry, but most of all I am thirsty. My throat feels like the bottom of the proverbial parrot’s cage. I’m not sure when I last ate or drank, but I have the feeling it was some time ago. A pop-up café would go down well, or an ice-cream van, or more realistically, a freshwater stream. I’d even take my chances with a duck pond or a horse trough.
Something about the strange landscape triggers a rogue thought. But no sooner has it pinged in than it disappears again. It is like the sensation when you remember a fragment of a dream but annoyingly, the rest of it eludes you. But this fragment had a hard edge to it, suggesting that it may have related to an actual experience and not an episode from the nocturnal ramblings of the mind. I try my hardest to recover it, but it stays put. I am left with the nagging feeling that it may have been important. Perhaps it will return when I am no longer thinking about it. But it is frustrating. This is not the first time I have been left trying to recapture a random thought lately. It has been happening regularly. Are such lapses something I have to become used to as I get older?
Perhaps I have been working too hard. Things have been pretty manic at the Modem Museum lately, this exacerbated by staff shortages. Perhaps I should not have dropped out of university then I would not have had to put up with the exploitation you get in these low-status jobs. Gina has been working long hours too at the Wind Chimes workshop. We were having rows about matters of little consequence. Why hadn’t I fed the fish, or did I put her silk bustier in the wash with my black jeans? Do I have to drink so much when her mother comes round? Did I eat the last of her Belgian chocolate? According to her, the rows are always my fault while I think they are mostly down to her. Whichever, she generally comes out on top. She has a PhD while I am still struggling with Quarrelling 101.
We had been talking about taking a holiday for months, but for one reason or another, it never seemed to happen. In fairness, we were both guilty of coming up with lame excuses for not going. We finally agreed we had been putting it off for too long. Things were only going to get worse between us. This was it. If we were to save our relationship, we needed to get away for a while.
‘Hey, Chet,’ a voice calls out. ‘Over here.’
At first, I cannot make out where the voice is coming from, and it takes me a while to realise that it is my friend Django. Eventually, I catch sight of him. This is a hell of a shock because Django died four years ago. A motorcycle accident on a notorious bend on the A39. I went to his funeral. But here he is, large as life, and looking much younger than he did towards the end. I go weak at the knees. How can this be happening? Am I dead too? I check my pulse and my heart. They are still pulsing and beating. Not conclusive, but a good sign. It puts the odds firmly in favour of my being alive. But something is definitely not right. It is like something you might find in Phil Dark’s speculative fiction.
‘Hey, buddy!’ Django says, making his way over to me. ‘Where did you get to?’
I stammer a reply about being unaccountably lost.
‘It is pretty remote out here, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘I guess I didn’t realise we had gone so far off-piste. We’ll bring a compass next time. What have you done with the fishing gear?’
I remember that Django and I used to sometimes go fishing together. Not the obsessive kind of fishing where you spend hours baiting your hooks and measuring the fish you catch. Our approach to it was much more laid back. We saw fishing as a casual pastime, a good way to relax. We would take a few cans and enjoy a spliff or two by the river, and we would always throw back the little ones, which was probably all we ever caught. But that was a long time ago. Probably three years or more before his motorcycle accident, and before I met Gina. I had just split up with Sophie, or perhaps we were in the process of splitting up. Our relationship had been going downhill for a while, I recall. The difficulty with breakups is that there’s always a bit of love left, and you try to persuade yourself that it is enough. If both of you are doing this, the process can take years. Errol and Cheryl have been playing out their drama ever since I’ve known them. They have turned breaking up into an art form.
Without being specific about his demise, I attempt to explain to Django my current confusion about what might be going on. Not surprisingly perhaps, he does not get it.
‘You often find that things are not what they seem, Chet,’ he says. ‘You’re probably missing Sophie, aren’t you? You ought to get yourself a bike. Doesn’t need to be a big machine. A Kawasaki 250, or something sporty would do. You could come out with me and Mick Dongler on Sunday mornings. The A39 is a good run. Lots of bends.’
‘I think I might be too old for that,’ I say.
‘Nonsense, man,’ he says. ‘You’re what, coming up to thirty. It’s the right time to get a bike.’
I stop short of explaining that this is wishful thinking. I am now nearly forty.
‘It’s time you replaced that old Sierra, anyway,’ he continues.
It does not seem the right place and time to tell him I have had at least three cars since the Sierra. Instead, I nod my agreement.
‘And you need to get yourself a new girlfriend,’ Django says. ‘Now look! My Annie has a friend called Gina. She’s just split up with her fellow and is on the look-out. She works at that new-age place that’s just opened up. You’d like Gina. She’s a bit kookie, I suppose. She is into all that punk science stuff. But it’s not all bad. She looks pretty good and always dresses nicely. And she likes the right music. I seem to recall she went to a Flaming Lips concert. They’re pretty cool. And when Annie and I went round last week, she was reading a Philip C. Dark short story collection. I remember you talking about how much you liked his books. Anyway, admit it, you’re a bit kookie too. I think you’d get on like a house on fire. I could introduce you if you like.’
‘Maybe later on,’ I say, still flummoxed about what is happening.
‘Anyway, mate, shouldn’t we get back to the river to see if our gear is still there?’ Django says.
He seems to know the way, so I follow him, hoping some explanation will suddenly occur. His phone rings. He takes it out of his pocket. It is an old Nokia with a polyphonic ringtone.
‘Oh, hi Sophie. Chet? Yes, of course. He’s with me now. …… Oh, I see. You’ve been trying to get hold of him, but he’s not picking up. Between you and me, I think he may have lost his phone. Shall I put him on? …… No. we haven’t caught any fish yet, Sophie, my love. Is everything OK with you? …… Yes, he has been acting a little strange. Oh, shit! He seems to have fainted.’
‘It’s time,’ a stern female voice calls out. ‘Stop writing now and put down your pens.’
What! Already? It can’t be time already. I’ve hardly written anything in answer to the question on Relativity. I lost track of time and I spent too long answering the question about the Many Worlds Interpretation. It’s not easy to be concise about multiverses, wave-function collapse and quantum decoherence. There are an infinite number of different worlds.
I’m pretty sure I won’t have passed. I may have to drop Physics now. I’ll probably have to concentrate on Computer Science. I suppose it’s not the end of the world. Stanton Polk says it has potential for jobs now the Internet is taking off. He says that software companies will be crying out for graduates with a good degree.
‘Oh, you’re back,’ says Gina, plonking her shopping bags down on the imitation bearskin rug. ‘How was the training course? Health and safety, wasn’t it?’
Training course? What is she on about? The last few days have passed in a bit of a blur, but I don’t recall a training course. Sometimes I think Gina and I live in different worlds.
‘I tried phoning you a few times but in the end, I realised you must have been busy,’ she says. ‘Hey! I’m really looking forward to our holiday next week. Do you want to see what I’ve bought?’
I know she is going to show me anyway, so I smile and say, ‘of course, pet.’
‘Just a few things for the holiday,’ she adds. ‘I thought I needed a new wardrobe. I haven’t bought anything for ages.’
My recollection of her purchasing history differs. Packages are forever arriving in the post. Even allowing for the ones that get sent back because they are too big or too small or are the wrong colour, there’s still a net gain in outfits.
Gina starts to take items of clothing out of the bags, holding each one up against her.
I say, ‘that’s a nice colour’ or ‘you will look good in that,’ and all the recommended things from the relationships primer. ‘That suits you’ is always a good one. Or sometimes a simple ‘Wow!’ is sufficient.
‘What about this?’ she says, taking some kind of white undergarment out of the black Janet Reger bag.
‘What is it?’ I say.
‘It’s a silk bustier,’ she says. ‘I knew you would like it.’
‘You will look good in that’ seems more appropriate than ‘that’s a nice colour’, but I add a ‘Wow!’ just in case.
‘And I’ve booked a tanning session at The Tannery and ordered a bikini from Teal and White for those sunny days we are going to have.’
‘Where exactly is it we are going?’ I say. ‘As I recall, it was you who booked the place, and I’ve been racking my brains, and I can remember it had a silly name, but that’s about it. For the life of me, I can’t seem to remember where it is. Did you say it was by a river?’
‘You booked it, Chet. …… You did book it, didn’t you? Tell me you booked it.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved