428: Land of Shadow and Substance

I closed the laptop and took a shower. Hot water on command burning my face like dragon acid reminded me of Jenny.

I was doing my best not to think of her, or the others back in Flatland, but it was hard not to feel I’d let them down.

There’s arrogance for you. Like the dragonrider and the queen of emotional manipulation needed my help. Mind you, Dudley could probably use a shoulder to cry on every now and again. I’d abandoned the poor bastard to the love of his life, who was probably busy convincing him he was deliriously happy — that’s how sick and twisted his tormentor was.

Examining myself in the bathroom mirror wasn’t a fun experience. How the hell had I survived the last six months/three years? Scruffy didn’t even begin to describe the ambience I had created around myself.

My hair had been recently cut to stop it getting in my eyes. I’d done it with a sharp dagger and had cut my scalp without noticing. I could have healed the small scars but I didn’t have that power anymore. It was the sort of haircut the victims of sexual abuse give themselves in an attempt to communicate their distress. Not a good look; you’ll probably see it on the catwalks of Milan next season.

I needed to eat, I needed to sleep, and I needed to figure out what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life.

The trousers on my bedroom floor contained my wallet, my keys, and £3.47 in loose change. The phone in my jacket was dead but then it usually needed charging every five minutes. Had they invented reasonable battery life for electronic devices while I’d been away? Considering how much money it made them, I doubted it.

My debit card was out of date, so that was going to be a problem. I could get a new one, but it would take a week or so. The only way to get money was to go down to the bank in person and ask for it the old fashioned way, by actually having to speak to someone. This future was a dark and scary place.

I would need a form of identification to prove I was me, not that many other people would make that claim. I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.

Fortunately, I had a passport and it wasn’t out of date — still eight years to go. It was entirely unstamped as I hadn’t left these shores since getting it. The world, yes. The country, no.

I had planned to travel all over once my mother died and I was free to do as I pleased, but I never figured out where I wanted to go.

The clothes I put on — jeans and t-shirt that both smelled musty — hung loose on me. I had lost weight. I left the phone on charge and checked I had everything I needed. I didn’t, but I had enough to get where I was going and back.

Walking to the High Street along roads I had traversed a million times was a strange and alien experience. The people I passed were just like me but different, like the people you see in adverts. They were chatting, going about their business, walking with kids holding their hands, and I was convinced they were trying to sell me something. The idea that they were happy and I could be, too.

The High Street was teeming with people. Online shopping hadn’t quite destroyed going out to the shops, although there were a few more To Let signs over empty premises than I remembered.

The bank teller was happy to let me have some of my cash. I say happy, forcefully smiling would be more accurate. She didn’t seem like she was pleased with where her life had ended up. Join the club, mate.

“You haven’t used this account in a while,” she said as she looked up my details. She looked over the computer screen at me like my unusual pattern of activity might mean I was laundering money for the Russians.

“I’ve been travelling,” I said, hoping that would explain it.

“Oh, where did you go?” Just my luck to find the only chatty Cathy in the capital. She looked genuinely interested. Cathy wanted adventure in her life, she wanted to see what was over the horizon. No you don’t, Cath. Trust me on this one.

“Everywhere,” I said, “and I’m never going back. People are incredibly unfriendly in every corner of the globe and only interested in selling you fake designer clothes. Worst three years of my life.”

It wasn’t the answer she expected and she decided not to ask to see the photos. The light of interest in her eyes died and I felt my work here was done.

I ordered a new card, but refused the loan she offered me in learned by rote monotone.

I was tempted to go buy myself a meal from McDonald’s, not because of their fine cuisine but because it was the sort of food I hadn’t had in a long time. But I didn’t want to end up shitting all night. Not that Mickey D’s is any worse for hygiene than the other fast food joints, but because when you’re not used to that kind of chemical gut rot the lining of your stomach can react badly when you remind it what it feels like to eat processed meat. Yes, yes, it’s all grass-fed all-beef patties and hormone free, Ronald, but you’re a clown giving nutritional advice so shut your fucking mouth.

Instead of junk food, I went to the closest supermarket instead and bought salad and fruit and stuff that said it was healthy even though it required zapping in a microwave which would probably kill any goodness it might contain. I also bought some doughnuts and various sweet things from the bakery counter that made my teeth ache just looking at them.

I spent most of the night on the toilet anyway.

Turns out any food from here is a shock to the digestive system after a few months of genuinely organic meals. Food with mud on it and bits of fur, that’s the organic part.

Sitting on the toilet, my hatred for life in general and my life in particular came back with a vengeance, as did the vegan Thai green curry that I thought would start me off the right way. I think it hadn’t quite cooked all the way through. My greatest flaw is that I lack patience. It isn’t my only flaw, and it’s a very tight race.

A cleansing of the bowels helped me sleep for the whole of the next day.

It took me a week to come to my senses.

I was not the man who was going to save the world, this one or any other. Save it for what?

If Nazis wanted to try to take over again, good luck to them. It might galvanise the rest of the population into giving a shit. There’s nothing like a necessary war to make people feel like it’s worth supporting your own side, rather than just assuming your side will win because they’re the good guys. Pride isn’t worth much when you can just buy it from eBay, lowest bid wins.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed sleeping in a soft bed. One without insects crawling around in it like when I slept out in the open under a moonless sky. A bed devoid of company, what a luxury.

I slept a lot that week.

After the third day, I stopped thinking about Jenny.

After the fifth day, I stopped dreaming about her. Not so hard it would wake me in the middle of the night, at least.

In addition, I cleaned my flat, did a proper shop and kept to myself.

Insanity ran in my family and my story wasn’t one people were going to take seriously. I still believed this was a manufactured reality, even more so when Tottenham Hotspurs qualified for the Champions League final. Spurs had been my team since I’d been a kid, forever the nearly-men of modern football.

The club badge is a rooster. My very own spirit animal: the cock. I know, appropriate.

Every time they seemed to get their act together and hopes soared for a return to the glory days of Danny Blanchflower, the taste of rich leather filled every fan’s mouth as failure stuck the boot in.

If they actually won, then there would be no question —  I’d crossed over into the Twilight Zone.

I still fervently believed the Nazis were a video game trope added to get my attention. What better reason to fight than the undisputed best worst villains of all time?

“Come on, Colin,” they seemed to be saying as they marched with their Tiki torches, whispered in between their anti-semitic slogans, “teach us the lesson we so richly deserve, the way only you can.” Yes, I watched some porn in that week; no, not gay porn.

Back when I first woke up in Flatland, I had assumed it was some sort of virtual reality game I had been thrown into. I spent a lot of time trying to activate the UI that would allow me to assign my skill points and choose my new spells every level.

I was never able to figure out how to do it, and most people thought I was trying to brush up on my pop and lock dance moves as I vainly attempted to hit invisible buttons that might have been somewhere around me. Just one lucky hit to bring up a status screen would have proved them all wrong, and then I could go back to practising my actual pop and lock moves which were almost ready for my big break on Britain’s Got Talent.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t a VR game, but without access to the controls it didn’t really matter. Now that I was back in the real world, the first thing I did was assume this was a game. It suggested to me I hadn’t really learned anything. Still trying to centre the universe around me.

Play the game, beat the game, be the hero. Whatever made young men desperate to be someone special who achieved goals, I was not immune to it.

I slept, I tried (and failed) to regain my magic powers, and I browsed the internet.

It had occurred to me that if I had managed to return, perhaps someone else had.

There had been a lot of people who visited Flatland over the years, one of them might also have made it back. They probably wouldn’t have told anyone for the same reason I hadn’t — fear of being locked up in a looney bin. Although they don’t call them that these days. The PICU, psychiatric intensive care unit; although the people screaming in their locked rooms is pretty much the same as back in Victorian times.

These other returnees might have mentioned some of it in the form of stories or presented them as fictional tales. The internet was full of terrible fantasy stories.

I did a search for Fengarad and Dargot and all the other places I could think of. None of them scored a hit, which didn’t really surprise me. It had been a long shot at best. But my next move was to put down what had happened to me so if anyone came looking, they would find me.

No, it wasn’t a blog. I didn’t write a journal about what I did over the holidays on Tumblr. I made a short page listing every name of a place or person I could recall from my time in the land of the fairies. If someone searched for the same things I had, they would find this page and the email address I left on it.

It was easy enough to set up, using a free web service with terrible templates. I called it the Glossary of Flatland and spent way too much time picking the fonts.

I didn’t really expect anyone to contact me. Maybe several years in the future when Maurice worked out how to get back.

Once that was done, I really had very little to do. I kept at my finger manipulations and the exercises that had enabled me to perform magic back in Flatland. It was probably pointless, but what if it wasn’t? It had taken time to get it right before, I expected it to be no easier here. It was also a good way to distract myself.

I received an email the next day.

I’ve been where you’ve been. Let’s meet up and talk about it.

No name, no corroborating evidence. The email address was a random bunch of letters and numbers. It was short and to the point. Perhaps it was real; probably it wasn’t. I didn’t get my hopes up. This was the internet, land of a thousand unsolicited dick pics. Someone was always going to answer. My site already had thirty-four followers for some reason.

I replied and arranged to meet where it was crowded with lots of exits. My mystery e-penpal was equally cautious. Perhaps they had reason to be, I just expected it to be a wind-up and was dealing with it in the most efficient way possible. If it was some nutter, I would bail as quickly as I could and disappear into the crowd.

The day arrived and I turned up at the arranged spot, feeling nervous, like I was on a blind date, like my Tinder profile finally got a swipe right.

Sad, miserable git seeks same. Time wasters only. I have a double bed.

I was carrying a copy of the Financial Times, which had been my brilliant idea. It’s actually quite hard to find anywhere that sells the pink piece of shit these days.

What if it was Jenny? What if it was someone who wanted me dead? What if it was a secret department of the government who knew all about where I’d been and wanted to take me in for questioning and anal probes? There are worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon, I suppose.

I saw her approach through the crowd, a large floppy sun hat hiding her face, pink newspaper under her arm, and I knew who it was. She was pushing a buggy with a toddler in it. Possibly the ugliest kid I’ve ever seen.

“I thought it’d be you,” said Mandy, removing her hat and revealing glossy blonde hair that you could just tell had an intimate relationship with a personal stylist. “Cheng will be very happy to see you.”

“He’s here? A demon in London?”

“Sure. Why not? He’s from old money, you know. We live in a really big house in Hampstead.” Her eyes widened with self-satisfied pleasure at the thought of it.

She had come a long way since the days of being a stuck up little bitch. She was a mother and a wife and confident woman. She might even have some answers for me. It was actually wonderful to see the gold digging whore again.

Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.

Afterword from Mooderino
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