Saturday, 22 August 2009

An Alternative To Existence


The other week, I happened to see one of those 'imaginary friend' films on the TV, and it occurred to me, that as a concept, this particular type of film always took the form of a comedy, and that they were usually aimed at family audiences or at children.

Admittedly, at first examination, the concept of someone having an imaginary companion doesn't seem like a particularly serious one, and therefore suits a comedy theme, and since film-makers seem to insist that the non-imaginary subject of the story always has to be a child, that does tend to define the audience as families or children. So such films tend to become vehicles for such people as Rik Mayall (Drop Dead Fred) and Gerard Depardieu (Bogus,) and have limited appeal for adult audiences.

The one exception to this was James Stewart's film "Harvey". Though this film was still a comedy of sorts, the main character of this was an eccentric older gentleman, who constantly saw a giant white rabbit, the eponymous Harvey. Throughout the film, the only other adults who were aware of Harvey only saw him whilst under the influence of alcohol.

This is the problem with the concept. The idea of an invisible friend that only one person can see, has to be justified by either childhood imagination, mental infirmity or by the effects of alcohol. With those constraints, it's a little difficult to construct a darker more serious story.

Four years before "Harvey" was released, James Stewart starred in another film: a fantasy that though, really unpopular on its first release, has since become a seasonal classic. It's shown just about every Christmas these days, and is dearly loved by thousands of people.

This film was "It's a Wonderful Life" and covered yet another fantasy concept: that of a person somehow changing reality by wishing he'd never been born. Again, James Stewart was accompanied by a supernatural companion. This time, a trainee angel called Clarence, who showed Jimmy Stewart's character, how the world would have turned out without him as a part of it. Though not quite a comedy, this film was a light, refreshing and uplifting romance, that ended happily. (Sorry for spoiling it for anyone who's never seen it - watch it anyway; you'll enjoy it.) All chances of a darker side to the story were impossible because it was clear that the concept of changing reality, was only ever expressed as a 'what if?' situation.

Imagine though what would happen to someone who really did change reality, by having his existence removed, and yet somehow was still able to experience the world without him. Maybe it happens even now. Of course we'd have no way of being aware of it if it did.

I considered the idea of combining the two concepts in one short story: I wanted to write about someone who had been taken out of existence, and just to give the subject a little tangible reality, I wanted him to also be presented as an 'imaginary friend' to someone else.

What I came up with, I think is in the spirit of "It's a Wonderful Life" and I hope it conveys a similar message, but I've aimed to make it a lot darker, with a lot more serious ideas; in contrast though, I hope that some of the ideas within it are enlightening and uplifting as well.

It's well over 10,000 words, so it may be a little hefty to browse through in one sitting, but I've divided it into five separate sections, and reading a section at a time may make it a little easier to digest. Some are mainly dialogue, one is mainly narrative, and some are a mixture of both.

As always, I'm eager for comments from everyone who reads it. I'd particularly like to know how you feel about the concept of the story itself, though other less specific comments, good or bad are always appreciated.

An Alternative to Existence

(i) Jon and Vincent

Jon was yet to celebrate his 22nd Birthday; celebrating was something that all his friends knew he was really good at. But Jon didn’t feel much like celebrating at the moment.

He was worried that his life might well be over. He’d got into trouble with the police again, and though there had been a couple of incidents in his past that had led to him being held in the cells overnight, things had never been this serious before. Of course, alcohol was at the bottom of it, as usual.

His girlfriend Lisa would probably finish with him; it seemed that every time they argued these days, it was about his drinking habits. This would almost definitely be the last straw. He’d managed to keep the situation secret from her up until now, but only because she was abroad on holiday. She’d called him today at lunchtime and he’d been able to appear as though nothing was bothering him, but how the hell could he keep that up when she returned home next week? Then when he was charged, nothing would keep his secret from her.

The official line was that he had been ‘released on police bail pending further investigations’ and that meant that there was a good chance that he would be charged this time; and if he was, there wasn’t much doubt that he’d be convicted. He didn’t think it would end up leading to a prison sentence, because he felt sure that they didn’t release people on police bail, if they thought that they might be going to lock them up in the end anyway, (did they? Surely not,) but he knew that whatever the official sentence was, he’d end up losing his job if he was convicted. And if he lost his job, how would he be able to afford the rent on this place?

He’d returned to his studio apartment after spending his first day back at work after the incident he’d been arrested for. His mind hadn’t really been on his job all day, and he’d considered taking a day or two off, but realised that things probably wouldn’t seem any better even after taking a break, so he’d decided not to bother. The policeman who’d briefed him before his release had told him that it could be weeks before he heard anything, so he really had to carry on with his life until there was some news, and somehow he had to stop himself from worrying as much as he could manage to.

He’d thought about going home and confessing all to his parents, but couldn’t bring himself to do that, for fear of how they’d react, though he knew that they would find out soon enough if he was charged and convicted. His dad would go bloody crazy with him, and his mum would be devastated of course. They’d insist on knowing the full details of what he’d done, though the details wouldn’t affect how ashamed of him his mum would be; just the fact he’d have a conviction would be enough.

His usual method of avoiding worry, or at least of numbing himself to it, was to drink. He realised since it was drinking that had brought him to this point, drinking to forget wasn’t the most advisable of actions, but he had no ‘Plan B’ to fall back upon, and reasoned that if he stayed at home instead of drinking in public, he could get as drunk as he liked without getting into any more trouble. So he sat on his bed and drained the last remnants of the can of beer he was drinking. He looked around the room and counted the empty cans: There were five of them. He couldn’t remember if he’d had five left at home or six, so he wandered over to the kitchen area of his apartment, opened the fridge and looked inside. Five then: no more beer in there. There was however, half a bottle of cheap white wine that his friend Tony had left there when he and his girlfriend had visited the other day. He could drink wine, but it wasn’t his favourite. Maybe he’d have that later. Instead, he pulled out the bottle of cola from the fridge door and carried it over to the table. He opened his briefcase and withdrew the bottle of Vodka he’d bought from the supermarket on his way home from work and wandered back to the kitchenette to get a glass from the draining board. He didn’t possess any small tumblers, so he grabbed a half-pint glass. That would do: he was mixing his vodka, and he certainly didn’t intend to drink in short measures. So he sat for the rest of the evening, watching TV with half an eye, as his mind kept on wandering to thoughts of what would become of him. He was only a third of the way down the vodka bottle as he noticed his cola was running out. He’d better start mixing them stronger or he’d end up drinking vodka neat. It crossed his mind that he’d seen a carton of orange juice in the fridge. He was quite partial to vodka and orange, though he wasn’t sure if the juice was out of date or not. He stood and staggered back toward the fridge to check, but on the way, probably because of how drunk he was, he forgot why he’d got up in the first place. He knew that his bladder was bothering him, so he stumbled into the bathroom instead.

He stood in the bathroom washing his hands, and looked at himself in the mirror. What the hell was he going to do? This was quite definitely the lowest point his life had reached so far. He stared into the eyes of his reflection and said to himself: “I wish I’d never been born.”

As he left the bathroom, he heard a voice say: “Come on Jon, things are never as bad as all that.” He spun around to see a plump balding man in his early fifties sitting in his only armchair by the television.

Jon wasn’t sure if it was the shock that sent him staggering, or the effects of the drink he’d consumed, but he lost his balance and ended up sitting on the bed again before he could manage to say: “Who the hell are you? What are you doing in my flat and how the hell did you get in?”

The man facing him sat a little more upright in the chair and replied “I know it’s been a long time Jon, but I didn’t think you’d have forgotten me entirely.”

Jon seemed to recognize the man’s voice; he leaned forward a little, from the edge of the bed and tried his best to bring his drunken sight into focus. “Vincent?” he said, “You can’t be Vincent?”

“Oh I can be though,” said Vincent. “As indeed I am. It’s been a long time since we spoke last hasn’t it. When was it? About nine years ago?”

“It’s because I’m drunk, isn’t it: the reason I’m seeing you again after all this time?” Jon said, as though talking to himself. “But I’ve been drunker than this in the past."

He looked over to Vincent, who was sitting there just smiling a little. Jon continued: "It’s probably all my worries, on top of the effects of the alcohol. That’ll be it." All Vincent did was to slowly shake his head as Jon went on, "I used to turn to you when I had worries as a child. I was thirteen when I finally realised that you didn’t exist." By now Vincent's lack of reaction was beginning to infuriate Jon, "I was beginning to think I was going insane, or that you were maybe some kind of ghost, until I finally stopped seeing you.”

“You didn’t think that when you were younger though,” Vincent surprised Jon by replying. Vincent had been so quiet until now, that if Jon hadn't been looking straight at him, he'd have been surprised that he was still there. “Remember when you were eight? When we agreed that you shouldn’t tell anyone about seeing me, in case they thought you were a little strange? How we decided to keep me secret?”

“None of that happened outside of my imagination,” Jon declared. “I imagined you and everything about you. I’m only seeing you again now because I’m drunk. That’s all there is to it. You don’t exist. You never have done! What the hell am I doing even talking to you now?”

Jon closed his eyes tight shut as if trying to block out the vision of Vincent sitting there, but closing his eyes made him go dizzy and feel a little sick, so he opened them again straight away. Vincent was still there.

“I do exist,” Vincent said quietly. “I’m as real as you are: at least to myself I am, and to you. Once, in another time and place I was just as real to everyone else as well.”

Jon shook his head. “If you’re real, tell me this: how come it’s only ever been me who could see you?”

“Because you need to see me,” replied Vincent, softly. “Because you’ve always needed to see me, because this day was destined to come and because you were destined to need me to be here today.” He paused for a short time then added: “And because I decided that you would see me.”

“So if that’s the case, how come I haven’t seen you for nine years then?”

“Because I also decided that you shouldn’t see me anymore until now, for the sake of your sanity,” Vincent declared. “Having what you think is an imaginary friend is fine as a child. Children can handle those things. Adults on the other hand find real problems coping with situations like that.”

Jon was shaking his head now. “I know this is just the booze talking,” he said, “I’ve never had hallucinations through drinking before, but I know that people do. It’s just that it seems so real. I could do without all this you know? Can’t you just go away?”

“I’m here for a reason,” Vincent said, “though I can’t tell you too much. There are things that you need to know, but if I tell you too much, you’ll learn things that you don’t need to know.”

“Now you’re talking in riddles,” Jon replied. “What you’re saying isn’t making any sense. Look I know having you around, or believing that you were around was helpful to me as a kid, but I realise now that you were never real. I’ve worked it out. I used you as a kind of safety net. When mum and dad almost split when I was seven, I turned to you.”

“And I was there for you,” Vincent interrupted. “I remember it well; we got you through that episode together.”

“No we didn’t,” Jon butted in. “I got myself through that by pretending that you were helping me. I handled it in the only way I could do at the time.”

“And what about your mother?” Vincent asked, “When she was really down and depressed, do you remember what you said that brought her out of it? What I got you to say to her?”

“I remember it clearly to this day,” Jon gazed into space as if remembering. He remembered comforting his mother, but it was nearly fifteen years ago now, so his exact words escaped him. “I told her that these were bad days but there were better days to come.”

“What you actually said was ‘there are bad days and there are good days, and the bad days often seem too much to cope with, but have faith that the best days in life are yet to happen.’ Don’t you find that a little profound for a seven year old Jon?”

Jon realised that Vincent had recalled the exact words that he’d said to his mother, at the depths of her depression, when she thought that her husband was leaving her, at the time that she had probably even been considering suicide, if only for a moment. Jon remembered Vincent standing by, invisible to Jon’s mother’s eyes, and silent to her ears, dictating to him, what to say, word for word. He remembered how his mum had hugged him afterwards and how they had cried together. And he half remembered looking up and seeing a tear in Vincent’s eye.

“I’ve always been here for you Jon,” Vincent said. “I’ve watched over you since the moment you were born, and I watched over your mother even before that. Don’t ask why I chose you and her. I have my own reasons.”

Jon was a little confused now. He agreed that the words that had brought his mother around from her despair had been somewhat mature for a lad of seven to come out with. He’d been an intelligent child, but never that advanced for his age. He was beginning to wonder if Vincent really did exist. What the hell: he’d go along with it. If it was just an effect of the drinking, he could laugh at it tomorrow, after he’d recovered from his hangover.

“Anyway,” Vincent was still trying to convince him of his existence, “if I was just a child’s imaginary friend, how come I always appeared to you dressed normally? Why wasn’t I a pirate or a cowboy, or whatever you happened to be into at the time?”

“You did dress as Superman on my sixth birthday,” Jon smiled as he reminded him.

“Yes, I know I bloody well did,” Vincent actually looked embarrassed, “but I did that for you, and it was a big mistake. How flaming stupid does a guy of my age and my build look in a costume with blue tights?”

“It didn’t matter,” replied Jon. “Nobody could see you, remember?”

“You could bloody see me,” Vincent chuckled, “and you laughed, you little swine!”

Jon felt like laughing right then and there. He remembered the incident clearly: even to this day, remembering the overweight and follicly challenged superman standing there looking awkward and uncomfortable at his party brought a smile to his face. Nobody else at his party knew what he was laughing at, and his mother had been quite concerned about him at the time.

They were both sitting smiling at each other now. Jon asked Vincent if he’d like a drink.

“No thanks, I don’t drink these days. Haven’t done for ages,” was Vincent’s reply.

“On the wagon are you Vince?” Jon asked. He’d never called Vincent ‘Vince’ in the past. It sounded strange to Vincent. “How long since your last drink then?”

“Over fifty one years,” replied Vincent, swiftly and positively.

His response surprised Jon. “So exactly how old are you?” he’d never even considered how old Vincent was, but he always remembered him being exactly as he was now.”

“I’m fifty one,” Vincent said. He noticed the confusion on Jon’s face, and added: “And that doesn’t mean that I’ve never had a drink in my life. I’ve been fifty one for a long time now: for about fifty one years. It’s complicated.”

“I’m a smart bloke,” Jon said. “Try to explain it to me.”

“I’d rather not,” Vincent replied. “I told you that the more I explain to you, the more you’ll understand. Now I know that statement sounds a bit obvious, but like I said, there are some things that I’d rather you didn’t understand right now.”

“The state I’m in, even if I did understand, I’d probably forget it all by the morning,” Jon sniggered as he poured himself a neat vodka.

Vincent almost seemed to sigh with relief. “That’s what I’m counting on,” he said, “though there are parts of what I’m going to tell you that I’m relying on you remembering and appreciating tomorrow.”

“So why exactly are you here?” Jon asked. “You’ve been away for so long, what makes here and now so special?”

“I’ve never been away Jon,” answered Vincent. “I’ve always been around watching over you and over your mother too,” he said, “But today is special. ‘Here and now’ is an important time in your life.”

Jon looked puzzled.

“You said earlier that you wished you’d never been born,” Vincent reminded him. “Do you realise how dangerous that is?”

“It’s only a figure of speech Vince,” Jon said, “though at the moment, I wish that it wasn’t.”

“IT ISN’T!” Vincent said aggressively. “And for God’s sake don’t keep on saying it. You don’t realise how dangerous it is for anyone to speak that way. You don’t know the damage you could do to your life and to the lives of others.”

“So if it’s that much of a problem,” asked Jon, “how come we don’t hear about people getting into trouble everyday through saying it?”

“Because you idiot,” Vincent leaned forward again as he spoke, “when people cease to exist, no-one is aware of them anymore. But believe me; it does happen, and more regularly than you think. I’m here now to convince you not to make that mistake.”

“Oh I see,” laughed Jon. “This is like It’s a Beautiful Life and you’re my guardian angel. You’re going to show me how bad the world would be without me.” He poured himself another vodka and knocked it back, finishing it in one gulp.

“The film was called It’s a WONDERFUL Life actually, and I’m sorry to say that’s not a luxury available to you Jon,” Vincent said solemnly. “There are no trial runs. Once you’ve taken that step, it’s permanent. That’s why I have to convince you not to take it.”

“Vince, I don’t believe any of this crap, but nevertheless, do you actually know the state my life is in at the moment. I’m in the deepest shit possible. My life is all but over. I’d even consider killing myself if it wasn’t for...” Jon paused.

“If it wasn’t for..?” Vincent asked. “You’re remembering the words we said to your mother aren’t you? ‘Have faith that the best days in life are yet to happen.’

“So what if I am,” Jon snapped back. “Don’t worry. I’ve no intention of topping myself. That wouldn’t solve anything, and look at the pain it would cause the people I’d leave behind. But if I’d never been born, they wouldn’t remember me anyway. I’d never have existed.”

“Not for them, you wouldn’t” Vincent explained, but believe me, existence isn’t that clear cut. You’d still exist, albeit in a different reality. And you’re right: people wouldn’t even remember you; but your mother wouldn’t ever have experienced the joy you’ve brought to her life, and that alone would do her harm, more harm than her own life could stand, I’m sure. And what about those best days yet to happen? You couldn’t share them with anyone, and you certainly wouldn’t experience them.”

“But Vince,” Jon implored, “what reason do I have to carry on? I’m in such trouble, and I’ve let down everyone I know. You say you care about my mum. How can I put her through the shame I’ll bring down on her?”

“Your mother loves you, you idiot,” Vincent answered. “There’s nothing you’ll ever do that will change that. Yes of course she’ll be angry with you, but it won’t make any difference to the way she feels about you. Parental love doesn’t carry any conditions.”

“What about my dad. He’ll bloody well kill me.”

“I know your dad better than you think I do Jon. I’ve known him longer than you have, as long as your mother has. Yes he’ll probably blow his top and shout at you. Come to think about it, he’ll shout at you A LOT! But once he’s calmed down, he’ll give you all the support he can. You know that in your heart really.”

“Lisa probably won’t want anything to do with me”

Probably won’t? So you’re not positive then? Does she love you Jon? I think she does, and if she does, then she’ll stand by you. If she doesn’t love you enough to stay with you, then the two of you are probably better off apart anyway.”

“She’s been at me for ages to cut down on the drinking and partying. I should have given it all up ages ago, for her sake.”

“Give it up or don’t give it up Jon. That’s a decision you’ll have to make because it affects your life. Take Lisa’s feelings into account, and your mum’s and your dad’s too, because what you do affects them as well, but in the end, it’s your life and your decision.”

Jon started to take another drink then decided against it. He put the glass on the bedside table and lay back on the bed. “I’ll lose my job,” he said, “Then I’ll have no work, and nowhere to live either.”

“You can get another job Jon,” Vincent replied as he pulled the chair nearer to where Jon was lying. “However long it takes you, you’ll bounce back, and I’m sure you could go home and live with your parents if times are hard. You have a lovely mother, and your dad isn’t such a bad bloke either.”

“I didn’t even know you and he knew each other,” Jon mentioned. “It must have been a relief for you when mum and dad stayed together.”

“He doesn’t know me Jon,” Vincent explained. “He’s never met me, but in all the years I’ve watched over you, he was there. I’ll be honest: at first I resented him, almost to the point of hatred, but he loves you, and I think he loves your mum, and over the years I learned to tolerate him and I’ve actually grown to like the man. As for my feelings about what happened when you were seven: I hated him throughout all of that period for what he did, and when they settled things, I was happy for you, I was happy for your mum too, in a way, but I had my own reasons to not be too overjoyed.”

“But you know mum? And she knows you? Or knew you at least?”

“I know your mother better than I know anyone in the world,” Vincent looked lost amongst his memories as he spoke. “She did know me once, knew me very well; we shared an awful lot, your mum and I. But I guarantee that she won’t remember me.” He stopped speaking and sat gazing sightlessly for a moment.

Suddenly Vincent snapped awake, as though he’d finally managed to shut out the thoughts he was having. “You said you’d never consider killing yourself Jon,” he said. “Well this may sound terrible, but killing yourself is far preferable to wishing yourself out of existence. As much as it would hurt your loved ones, at least they’d have their memories of you. For you never to have existed at all in their lives is depriving them of even that. As tragic as death is, it’s only a termination of life, of a life that has happened, a life that has made impressions on people. If you’d never been born, those people would never have been affected, and that would be worse than having you and then losing you.”

Jon smiled. “You’re sounding like Clarence again,” he said.

“Who?” it was Vincent’s turn to be confused.

“The old angel in It’s a Beautiful Life,” Jon explained.

“How come you can remember the names of the characters, but you can’t get the bloody film title right? It’s a Wonderful Life, and believe me: it really is, however you might feel at the moment. There are always bad times in life, and despite what we told your mum, none of us knows if the best days are yet to come or not, but even the very worst days are better than no days at all Jon, believe me, I AM qualified to tell you that.”

“I suppose you’re right Vince,” Jon stated, “but times are going to be hard for me in the days to come. But like you said, those times will pass, and I’ll be ok at the end of it. So now you’ve convinced me to stick it out, tell me about the stuff you didn’t want me to know.”

“Not on your life my lad,” Vincent smiled with relief as he spoke. “Enough for you to know that if anyone actually does decide to change their very existence, it’s such an easy step to take, but almost impossible to change after the event.”

“So the decision is reversible then?” asked Jon.

“There are a couple of ways,” explained Vincent, “though not one that doesn’t affect somebody else’s life. Remember that any change to existence alters reality for everyone involved in it, so by messing with your own existence, you’re messing around with other people’s lives as well. Now that’s all you need to know, and I won’t tell you anymore.” He looked over at Jon. It looked as though he was beginning to fall asleep.

“Vincent,” he said as his eyelids began to close, “will I see you again: after I’ve sobered up, I mean. Or it would at least be something even if we could just chat when I’m drunk, though I don’t intend to be drunk very often in future.”

“I’m not sure,” answered Vincent. “What date is it?”

“Can’t see what that has to do with it,” said Jon, “but its May the 11th, if that’s really important.”

Vincent thought to himself. May 11th 2009. A little less than three weeks to May 29th, the date when all this had first started and where he knew it was likely to end, for him at least.

“No Jon. I’m sorry, I don’t think we will meet again,” He said softly, then he looked down and realised that Jon was now fast asleep, and hadn’t heard him.

Vincent sat in the chair by the bed for a little while. He’d done enough to save Jon, as had been his intention, but he knew also, that he’d doomed himself irreversibly. Two weeks as of next Friday, he himself would either cease to exist, or would move onto another level of existence entirely; he wasn’t sure which, but now it was a certainty that he’d find out.

Vincent looked at the sleeping form of Jon. He favoured his mother so much, as had his own two sons. All three of them had the striking good looks of their mother, Alice. Vincent found it difficult to remember his own boys these days; after all they had existed a lifetime ago, literally. He missed them, as much as he missed his wife, but at least he could see Alice from time to time, even though she could never see him. He looked at Jon again. Yes, he could see his own two sons in Jon’s features. Even after over fifty years, he still missed them. He never expected Alice to miss them because she’d never known them, and obviously she didn’t miss them in the way he did, but he’d seen the inexplicable sadness she’d experienced from the exact date when their eldest boy would have been born and how she’d become even more melancholy on the day that would have been their second son’s birthday, and he remembered in all certainty how, once in a different reality, she had loved them as much as he had. She had loved him too, as he had loved her. That was why he’d watched over her for years. He’d been able to see her as she grew from her teens into an adult, which was a privilege he’d never had the first time around. He sat back in the chair for a little while and thought back over his own life...

(ii) Vince and Andy and The Biker

Young Vince had a good memory. He could readily recall just about every memorable event that had ever happened in his short life, though there were some things that he’d experienced that he had no recollection of whatsoever.

His best friend, for instance: Vince didn’t realise as he grew up that his best friend had been a boy called Andy. He didn’t remember Andy, because Andy had ceased to exist, through no fault of his own. In fact Andy had been snuffed out of existence, indirectly because of Vince himself.

When Andy did exist, Vince would regularly visit his house, a few streets away from his own home. Andy’s parents were George, the chief librarian at the local branch library, and Norma, a lovely lady who would make fudge and cinder toffee for Vince and Andy, which they’d eat while watching TV at Andy’s house. During the school summer holidays she’d give them sticks of rhubarb straight from her garden, with a dish of sugar to dip them in.

It was while he was at Andy’s house one afternoon that Vince looked out of the window and saw the biker for the first time. He was standing in the middle of the lawn, watching the house. He looked as though he was in his mid to late thirties, and wore motorcycle boots over his jeans and a tatty leather jacket over his white t-shirt. Even at 13 years old, Vince recognised the look as being an attempt at a kind of a James Dean effect, though in the films and posters Vince had seen, Jimmy Dean had always looked a lot cooler, and somewhat less ‘dog-eared’.

“There’s someone on your lawn Andy,” he said to his friend.

“On the lawn? Where?” Andy said as he jumped up from where the two of them had been replaying the FA Cup final with the Subbuteo game they'd set up on the living room floor. Andy’s mum rushed into the room from the kitchen when she heard, accidentally trampling half of the Arsenal team into the carpet. Vince dropped to the floor to rescue them; Charlie George’s head and neck were a little bent, but otherwise there didn’t seem to be any damage.

“There’s nobody there,” said Norma. “You must be seeing things Vince.” She returned to the kitchen chuckling. Vince stood up and looked out of the window again. There was nobody there. The biker must have gone away.

Vince had been round to Andy’s house again, a couple of days later, and on his way home he had the feeling that he was being watched. He turned the corner at the top of Andy’s street, and ducked into the doorway of the newsagent’s shop. He waited a little while and then saw the biker again, as he passed the doorway, clearly looking around as though searching for someone.

Vince came out of the shop doorway, and called after the biker: “Are you following me?”

The biker turned around in surprise. “So you really can bloody well see me then? I thought so.”

“What are you talking about?” replied Vince. “Of course I can see you.”

At that point the lady from the newsagent came outside and asked “Have you lost something son? You looked as though you were coming into the shop, and then changed your mind.”

“Sorry,” said Vince. “I was just messing about hiding from my mate.” Then he realised that the biker looked a little too old to be taken for his friend; he nodded toward where the biker was standing only a few feet away, before adding: “and from my mate’s dad.”

The newsagent lady smiled and looked directly toward the biker, but gave no sign of acknowledging him. She looked back at Vince before saying: “Well it looks like you’ve given them the slip. You’d better try to catch up with them now, instead of standing here in the street, talking to yourself.”

Vince walked the rest of the way home, with the biker, fascinated as to how only he could see him. As they passed people, the biker would dance around making a fool of himself, and even dropped his trousers in front of a couple of old ladies at one point. Nobody batted an eyelid, because nobody except for Vince noticed anything happening. Vince thought it was hilarious, and he actually started to like the biker. He was nearing home now and said: “I’m almost home. I live down the next street.”

“I know,” replied the biker. “I live, no... I used to live in the house next door to yours.”

Vince had lived in the same house since he was a baby, and he couldn’t remember anyone like the biker ever living there, so he thought it must have been a very long time ago.

“Can I tell my mates about you?” he asked of the biker. “It will be great to tell them all about the ghost I’ve met.”

“Tell them what you like son,” said his new found friend. “They won’t believe you, because they won’t be able to see me. Only you can see me. And I’m not a ghost by the way, but you know that of course. If you’d have thought I was a ghost, you’d have run a mile away from me by now.”

“So how come only I can see you then?” asked Vince.

“I guess you must be one of the lucky ones,” replied the biker. “The only lucky one it seems. I don’t know: maybe you have something special about you.”

Vince felt that there was something more to it, something that the biker was keeping from him. He felt as though the biker knew exactly why only Vince could see him, but that for some reason, he was keeping that secret to himself.

“So if you’re not a ghost, what are you?” inquired Vince.

The biker stood in silence for a while. “I’m someone who’s been wished out of existence, so that I only exist to myself and to you,” replied the biker, “and the only way I can ever be real to everyone else again, is if someone wishes me back into existence.”

Vince laughed. That seemed a little far-fetched. He was outside his front gate now. He said goodbye to the biker, opened the gate and started down the path. He turned, had a quick look around to make sure nobody was watching him from the window, and then said to the biker: “What’s your name, by the way?”

“You’ll learn my name, soon enough son,” he said. “Just remember what I said: I need someone to wish me back into existence, and since you’re the only person who knows I’m here, it would seem like you’re the man for the job.” He winked at Vince, and then watched him as he opened the front door and went inside.

The following day Vince was on his way to meet Andy outside the post office, when he bumped into the biker again. He’d thought all night about what the man had requested of him, but still didn’t feel ready to agree to it. To him it seemed silly.

“Well,” said the biker, “have you thought about what I asked you to do?”

Vince moved away from the middle of the pavement to stand by the wall: he didn’t want everyone to see him apparently talking to himself. “What do I have to do then?” he joked. “Are you going to teach me a magic chant or something or is there some kind of ritual we have to perform at the next full moon?”

“Don’t be a smart arse sonny,” said the biker. “The next full moon would be too late. I only have a week left and then nothing at all will bring me back to reality.” He seemed quite frantic. “There are no magic spells or rituals to bother with either. All you have to do is agree to help me. As soon as you do agree, then you’ll automatically know what to do. That’s the way of these things.”

Vince thought for a moment. The biker seemed to be in a bit of a panic. He wanted to help him. He couldn’t see why he shouldn’t, but he didn’t like the way he was being pressurised. The biker walked up and down on the pavement, impatiently as Vince thought. Eventually Vince turned to him and said: “OK then.”

“Oh thank Christ for that,” said the biker. Vince took it just as an expression; the biker didn’t seem as though he might be a practising Christian. Suddenly Vince felt concerned about something he couldn’t quite put a name to. He felt both elated and worried at the same time. It was as though he had uncovered a knowledge, a power that he couldn’t explain, that was both wonderful and terrible. He shuddered a little then smiled at the realisation of what he could do, of the knowledge he had. The biker interrupted him saying: “Go on then. Do it! Put things right for me.”

Vince knew exactly what he was doing, but would never again remember what he’d done. All he knew was that he had control over reality and over existence, at least as far as this man was concerned, and for a split second, he was all powerful; he glanced at the biker, who looked upon him with a yearning in his eyes. Vince nodded and with a thought, the biker disappeared...

(iii) Vince and Alice and Alan

Suddenly, Vince was just a 13 year old school boy standing in the middle of the street, wondering what he was doing there. He couldn’t remember where he was going, so he turned and walked home again.

There was nothing remarkable about the rest of Vince’s childhood or about his teenage years, or about the majority of the rest of his life for that matter.

There were a few odd things that occurred to him sometimes: a little like déjà vu. The couple who lived next door seemed strange in certain ways. The man, Alan who was a thirty five year old with a liking for motorcycles would often give him a knowing wink as he passed. That was nothing to be concerned about, but Vince felt that Alan knew something that Vince ought to be party to, as though they shared a secret between them, but that it was a secret that Vince had forgotten his part in. Alan lived with his wife Norma. They had no children. Sometimes Norma would come into Vince’s house to have a cup of tea with his mum. Vince noticed that it was only at those times that he seemed to have memories of cinder toffee and of fudge, and thoughts of eating freshly pulled rhubarb dipped in sugar.

His mum asked him one time what he was thinking about, while she sat with Norma in the kitchen. He told her that for some reason, he was thinking about cinder toffee

“Oh I make great cinder toffee Vince,” said Norma. “My mum taught me how to make it. She said I should learn to make it for my own children, only Al has never been too keen on the idea of having kids, so I don’t think I’ll ever get the chance. I’ll make you some though Vince, if you like.”

“Thanks,” said Vince, “that will be great.” And somehow he knew that it would. He knew exactly what it would taste like, and was certain that he’d enjoy it, though he wasn’t sure how he knew.

“It’s a shame you never had any kids Norma,” said Vince’s mum. “I always thought it would have been nice if you’d had a son about Vince’s age, to give him someone to play with.

As his mother spoke those words, Vince felt a kind of aching in his stomach, as though he was missing something he’d lost.

“I always wanted a son,” replied Norma. “A girl would have been nice as well, but I was the only girl in our family with four brothers, so I’ve always been used to having boys around. I’d have loved to have a son of my own; I even decided what I would call him.”

“Probably something strange and exotic I bet,” said Vince’s mum.

“Not at all,” replied Norma. “Quite an ordinary name actually, not outrageous at all. Guess what it is?”

“Andy,” Vince shouted out, without knowing why he’d done so. His mum looked amused. Norma looked both surprised and amazed.

“Yes,” she said. “How did you know?”

“I don’t know,” said Vince. “Maybe you’ve mentioned it before.”

“I don’t think I have,” said Norma, looking as though she were trying to remember if she had. “Never mind though. I’ll bring you some of that cinder toffee around tomorrow or the day after, Vince.”

Vince’s family lived in that house until he was nearly seventeen years old, but even after they’d moved away, his mum still kept in touch with Norma, and for years afterwards, if he was in his home town visiting his mum, Vince would sometimes bump into Norma and his head would be filled with thoughts of cinder toffee and of rhubarb, and for some reason of a boy called Andy.

When Vince was eighteen he went away to university. He really liked the city where he studied, but not quite as much as his home town. That was until he met Alice, then his hometown suddenly became his second favourite place to be.

He was in his second year when he met her. She worked on the counter at the bank, and he knew as soon as he set eyes on her that he had to get to know her. He did get to know her: it turned out that she knew some of the people he knew, so they went out a few times with mutual friends, and then as he got to know her better, they started to go out as a couple.

Suddenly he wasn’t bothering arranging occasional weekend trips home like he used to, and when term ended he made sure that he arranged a holiday job near to university rather than near to home. When Vince graduated, he was lucky to land a job in a small town not far from the city where he’d been at university. He saw Alice most evenings then and every weekend, and as time passed they got closer and much more serious.
She requested the bank to transfer her to the town that he worked in, and they moved in together. After about seven or eight months, Vince proposed, and they were married a few months later.

Vince and Alice’s life together saw some good times and some bad times. The birth of their two sons, first Peter, then Daniel, were the high points of their time together, bringing them both a joy that they couldn’t have possibly predicted, but there were so many other happy times as well. There were occasions of course, as there are in all relationships when things didn’t go too well. But when Vince was feeling down, Alice would always come to him and say things to comfort him. His favourite was: ‘I know the bad days often seem like a lot to cope with love, but have faith because the best days in life are yet to come,’ and she was right, because better days always did come along eventually, and overall they were happy together, and for years he enjoyed life, and was thankful that he had Alice and the boys, and all the other things that made him happy.
Being together was what made them happy most of all, and they always held onto the thought that when things weren’t going too well, then they knew things would improve, and even when things were at their best, they looked forward to the even better days in life that were yet to come.

The boys eventually grew up and left home and Vince and Alice were finally alone in the house, at long last able to spend time together like they had before their sons had been born.

By this time Vince was running his own business, and around his 50th birthday, the business took a turn for the worse. Vince was suddenly in financial difficulties, and could see no way out. Alice would comfort him, telling him as usual about the best times still to come, but somehow now, her words seemed so hollow, and of no comfort at all. His life had taken a turn for the worse, and all his earlier optimism had just made his change of fortune seem more serious and more permanent.

He’d faced hardship and periods of bad luck in the past, and he and Alice had always dealt with it together, but this time, Vince felt as though he was personally responsible for the ills that befell them, as though he had brought this trouble down on his family, and most of all on his beloved Alice. He felt as though he’d failed her, as though he’d failed himself, and so her words of comfort had no effect on him. As things worsened, even her optimistic outlook began to infuriate him, and he took to going for long walks beside the river.

It was the end of May, a few months after his 51st birthday when things got so bad that he realised that he’d hit rock bottom. He went for his usual walk along the river, in an attempt to clear his head of his worries. Alice asked if he’d like her to walk with him, but he told her that he needed to be alone with his thoughts. So she watched him go, giving him a kiss before he left. She resisted telling him not to worry, because she knew that he would anyway, and had noticed that the last time she’d tried to comfort him like that, he’d actually shuddered a little, as though her words were of no comfort to him at all. As he walked up the drive, he turned to see her watching him from the window with obvious concern in her eyes; he didn’t realise that, though he’d see her many times again, this was the last time he’d see her watching him, and the last time that she’d see him.

As he walked along the river he came to the path that went under the bridge. He thought about going up to the bridge and jumping off, bringing a sudden end to all his troubles, but he realised that though that might be a quick and easy way out for him, it would just leave Alice and the boys to sort out all the problems he’d left behind. It was the last week in May, a Friday evening, and it was surprisingly quiet by the riverside. If he had decided to throw himself in, there’d probably have been nobody around to save him. The situation reminded him a little of the old James Stewart film It’s a Wonderful Life, that he, Alice and the boys had watched every Christmas since they’d bought it on video, years ago. He remembered how George, the main character in that film had wished that he’d never been born. If only that was an option, he thought. He didn’t realise he’d said it out loud until he heard a voice coming from under the bridge. “But it is an option Vince,” the voice said. “You of all people should realise that.”

A dishevelled old man who looked like he was in his mid to late seventies stepped out of the shadows, and walked up to Vince. “You don’t recognise me, do you son?” said the old man.

“I can’t say I do,” replied Vince, “though you seem to know my name.”

“I would do. I’ve come here especially to see you. Surely you remember me. It’s Alan,” the old man said.

Vince thought for a while, trying to remember anyone called Alan. Of course he’d known a number of people called Alan over the years, but there was only one who would be anything like the age that this guy was now. He stared at the old man, trying his hardest to recognise him, and the old man winked. That confirmed what he suspected. It was his old next door neighbour.

“Hello Alan,” he said. “Why have you come all this way looking for me? And how did you find me?”

“I didn’t come looking for you Vince,” he said. “I arrived in town about an hour ago, and came right to this spot. I knew you’d be along soon. I’ve known this day would come for a while now, and I can’t say I’m not glad that it’s here at last.”

“What are you talking about Alan?” said Vince. “You’re not making any sense.”

“You don’t remember anything do you?” asked Alan. “I thought it would have all come back to you by now. Don’t you remember the other reality at all?”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about Alan,” said Vince, “and I’ve still no idea why you’re here.”

“What about Andy?” asked Alan. “Don’t you even remember him?”

“Of course,” said Vince. “Andy was my friend: your son.” He paused. He frowned as contradictory thoughts flew around inside his head. That wasn’t correct. He saw Alan smiling at him, and realised that Alan had never had a son. So who was Andy?

Vince tried to clarify things in his mind. He knew he’d had a friend called Andy, or at least he thought he had. Suddenly, enlightenment dawned: “Andy was Norma’s son,” he said, “but you weren’t his father. You weren’t even Norma’s husband... But I know you were Norma’s husband! I’m confused.”

“Your time is close,” said Alan smiling broadly now. “You’re beginning to remember.”

Vince stood for a while, struggling with the headache that had suddenly overcome him. Then eventually he said: “You were someone who’d been wished out of existence, and I was the one who brought you back.”

“There you are,” said Alan, “now you’re remembering. Well done.”

“So who wished you out of existence to begin with then?” Vince asked.

“I did of course,” Alan replied. “I had my reasons, just as you have your own reasons to do the self same thing. But I also had reasons to put things back the way they were, to give myself a second chance, and I needed you to help me make that happen.”

“And in doing that, my best friend Andy, your wife’s only son, just ceased to exist,” Vince said as he began to realise what had happened.

“That was no real loss. It isn’t as if we actually killed him,” Alan explained. “Until I wished myself away, the boy didn’t exist anyway. All I did was to encourage you to put things back the way they were. There are always casualties when you mess with reality.”

“So why are you here now?” Vince asked.

“I got my second chance Vince, thanks to you. I’ve lived that part of my life three times over now. First there was my life up to the point where I wished I’d never been born. Then I was cursed to live through that entire time again, never sleeping, never eating never drinking; just to experience the sights and the sounds of the world without me in it.

“When I realised that you could see me, I knew that you were my one chance for a new beginning, and when you brought me back, I lived my entire life again, only this time, I was aware of what could go wrong; I knew what mistakes to avoid. But it’s hard, remembering all three existences: sharing my life with people when I remember different versions of them that I knew before, going through life seeing the feeling of loss my wife has always felt, and knowing exactly what caused it, even when she had no idea herself. And the only way I can clear my mind of it all, is when you wish yourself out of existence. Then when you do, I’ll be left with only one set of memories: the memories of this life that I’m experiencing now.”

“But if I’ve never existed, then how could I have ever brought you back?” asked Vince, beginning to understand it all now, despite the paradox he questioned Alan about.

“Don’t ask me,” replied Alan. “I only know that it will work. You’ll know it too, when the time comes. The knowledge of such things sort of comes naturally to people like us.”

“People like us?” Vince asked. “What do you mean: people like us?”

“Don’t you think I didn’t see a ghost Vince? Did you believe that I never saw someone that other people couldn’t see? That’s how we can do it, because we’re destined to wish our existences away ourselves; either that or we wish our existences away because of what we can see.

“It’s like a chain, you see. You in your turn can be rid of all your problems, just by wishing yourself out of existence. Then you’ll exist only as a shadow of the man you might have been until the time comes when you meet someone who can see you, and then you can persuade them to give you another chance, in the same way that you did for me. Then one day, they’ll wish that they had never been born, and with your help, they’ll take the burden from you and your mind, your heart and your conscience will be clear of what you’ve done.”

“What if I decide not to go along with it, Alan?” Vince said. “What if I decide not to wish my existence away?”

“Then I’ll just go on with this torment until I die,” replied Alan. “I don’t have that long to go. I’m almost pushing eighty now. There can’t be that long left for me. As for you, you’ll have to carry on enduring your current problems until you either solve them some other way, or until you die. The state you’re in at the moment, that will probably be by your own hand, and where would that leave your lovely wife? At least this way, she has a chance for a life without you.”

“And if I do agree to go along with it?” asked Vince.

“Then you start again from this point onward. You go back to the moment of your birth as an observer. You watch a world without you in it. And you wait, until the time when someone sees you, and then you know that person is the one who can save you, who can provide your second chance. But you must do that before this date comes around again. Today, May 29th 2009 is your deadline. You can’t exist beyond this date.”

“What happens then, if I’m not brought back by then... by now?”

“Who knows? Maybe you’ll just cease to exist altogether. Maybe you’ll pass on to an altogether different level of existence. It’s a mystery, because obviously I’ve never met anyone that’s happened to.” Alan rolled his eyes as if to emphasise what a stupid question Vince had asked.

“What happened to you Alan?” Vince asked. “What terrible situation were you in, that made you wish you’d never been born?”

Alan turned away from Vince and paused for a while, and then he turned to face Vince again. “I murdered my wife,” He said. “In a drunken rage, I hit Norma hard across her head with one of my bike tools, and she died. I was in prison awaiting trial when I wished that I’d never been born, and when I did, just like you, I received a visit from an old acquaintance.

“So whatever I did after that, even if it did cause Norma to lose the only son she’d ever had, at least it brought her back from the death she’d suffered at my hands! Even if she did suffer the last thirty five years of her life mourning a son she never even knew about, at least I made up for what I did to her! At least I gave her a second chance of life, an extra thirty five years of life!

“So are you going to carry on letting your wife suffer Vince? Or are you going to give her the second chance she deserves as well?”

Vince looked at Alan and saw that he was smiling broadly now; it was only then that Vince realised that he himself was nodding. That was the last thing he remembered of that last Friday in May.

(iv) Vincent and Alice and Jon

Vincent lived throughout the sixties as a middle aged man, or at least he observed the sixties as a middle aged man. That was an experience in itself, to feel he was a part of something that previously he only had vague memories of as a young boy. He watched his parents’ lives go on as normal without him, though there always seemed to be something they were missing from their life that made them seem a lot sadder than he remembered them, until in 1965 they had a daughter. Vincent had been an only child, never having had a sister, but of course, now he had never been born, so things were different; his mum and dad had become parents seven years later than before, and this time they’d had a little girl. From that point on, they seemed happier, but he would still sometimes see in them, that look that only appears in the face of a bereaved parent.

They had a second daughter two years later; Vincent’s father changed jobs and they moved to a larger house, so that by the time the seventies came along, what had once been his family was not even recognisable to him anymore, and he decided it was time to move on. He realised that there was nobody else’s life he would rather observe from this point on than that of his beloved Alice who was growing up herself, far away.

He had no problem travelling. Nobody could see him, so he used public transport with no problems whatsoever, at least with no more problems than the ‘real’ people who travelled with him encountered; so before too long he was wandering the streets of Alice’s home city. He had no need of food and drink, and didn’t have to sleep. He enjoyed sitting down and thinking from time to time, but there were plenty of places he could do that.

Seeing his Alice growing up was a joy to him. He saw her grow through her teen years as she blossomed into womanhood. It was as though he was actually experiencing all the times she had told him about in their many hours talking about their teenage experiences, in his other life when they had been together.

Eventually, the exact day arrived, when he’d met her, and for some reason she had tears in her eyes. Her friends asked her what had upset her, and she had no idea; it was just that she felt so sad for some inexplicable reason. Vincent knew that subconsciously she was missing him, even though she’d never even met him in this reality. He wanted to be with her properly, wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her, but he knew that he couldn’t. For a moment he wished that she could see him, but then realised what the implications of that would be, and banished that particular desire from his head.

At about twenty one years old, Alice met Damien and they were married about a year and a half later. They seemed happy with each other, but of course Vincent resented Damien for being a part of her life, when he himself so wanted to be, but never could be.

Vincent remembered an old divorced friend from his ‘first’ life, who had told him how it absolutely tore him apart emotionally when he saw his ex-wife with her new husband from a distance. When he’d meet them, their behaviour to him would be polite and friendly, but when they hadn’t noticed him, he’d see them acting naturally and happily together, and the memories of his own time with her would hurt him so much. Vincent knew now, exactly how that felt.

About three years into Alice’s marriage, she started being very depressed, as though she was missing something from her life. Even Alice herself said it was irrational that she should feel that way, but Vincent knew exactly why she was so down: the start of her depression coincided exactly with the date that Peter would have been born, had Vincent and Alice married.

Vincent was concerned for Alice but gradually with the help of the available medication and with the support that Damien gave her, she recovered from her problems a lot. It was around the time she recovered that she became pregnant with Jon. She discussed with Damien and with her doctor her concerns that her depression might return after the baby arrived. Damien was clearly worried for her, and showed the sort of concern for Alice that showed Vincent that he really did love her. Vincent stopped resenting Damien and actually grew to like him: he was clearly good for Alice and was there to provide her with the support that Vincent wished he could supply, but couldn’t.

Jon was born just before Christmas, and everyone, including Vincent was relieved that Alice’s depression didn’t return. So it was a complete surprise to Alice, to Damien and to everyone they knew when it did return about eight months later. It was no surprise to Vincent however; he knew the exact date she’d grow sad again, because he knew exactly when Daniel’s birthday would have been.

Though Vincent felt for Alice and was concerned for her, it was Damien who was actually there to help her through it. Just having Jon helped at times, the joy of having her baby in her life often lightened her mood, but occasionally Vincent would see her nursing her son quite happily, before she’d start to cry for no apparent reason. It was one of these times, that she looked down into Jon’s face as she cried, and noticed that the baby’s attention was elsewhere. She turned and looked over her shoulder, staring straight through Vincent as he stood observing them both. Vincent looked toward Jon immediately, and realised at that moment, that the baby was watching him, and could see him clearly...

(v) Vincent

So it was that Vincent sat watching the sleeping form of Alice’s drunken son. He’d realised all those years ago, as soon as he knew that the boy could see him, that Jon represented his one chance of salvation. He’d watched the boy for his entire life, and had been a welcome companion for the lad as he grew. But all the time he knew that if the boy ever found out that he could simply wish Vincent back into existence, then that would allow him the second chance at life that he so longed for. Then it occurred to him, that by wishing Vincent back, Jon would automatically be causing himself to cease to exist. From what Alan had told him that would mean Vincent would have no recollection of this existence. So he’d have no prior knowledge of what happened the first time around, and would be just as likely to make the same mistakes again. If that was the case, the result would probably be just the same. Vincent hated these paradoxical situations. He just couldn’t get his head around them. He’d had over twenty years to think about it though, and it occurred to him that this would lead to him just repeating his original life up to the point when he wished he’d never been born, and then he’d go through the whole process again, living the same life over and over again. He considered the possibility that this might even have happened numerous times already. How many lives had he led up until now? How many Jons had been born and then disappeared from reality? How many times had Alice suffered the inexplicable loss of all three of the sons she’d never actually had?

He looked at Jon, sleeping soundly. He couldn’t do it. He’d got the boy past the point of wishing himself away, and both he and Jon together had earned the boy’s continued existence. He wished that he could bring his own life with Alice back again, wished he could resurrect his own sons, but that would mean depriving her of the memory of Jon. He’d experienced the grief she’d felt for the loss of Peter and of Daniel. He’d seen how badly she’d dealt with it, never understanding where the grief came from. He couldn’t impose the same heartache on her by taking Jon away from her.

Of course she’d still feel the emptiness of losing his two sons, and she’d probably never know why, but come the end of May, Vincent himself would probably cease to exist, so who knows? Alice may wake up on the morning of the 30th with no awareness, conscious or subconscious, of Vincent or of their sons.

He had no choice. He’d decided a long time ago that for the sake of this boy and his mother, he could never do what was expected of him.

He had resigned himself to his fate. In just under three weeks, he would cease to exist; he would give up any chance of life, any chance of awareness, and he would do it because he loved Alice too much to give him any alternative.

He’d thought once, literally a lifetime ago, that there may have been an alternative to existence as he’d experienced it, but he knew now, that however bad his original life had been, there could never be any guarantee of finding anything any better.

Jon was sleeping soundly now. Vincent arose from the chair and smiled as he looked down on the boy. Jon would be fine; he was confident of that, and he was sure that the boy would make his mother happy; he’d become familiar enough with the boy's character over the years to be certain of that. Vincent had himself played a part in making Alice’s son what he was, so in a way, he’d helped to make her happy as well. That was enough for him. That was enough to make the last fifty one years worthwhile.

He had just over two weeks left. He really wanted to spend them in Alice’s company, but knew that Jon would be visiting there within the next few days; he thought it best to be out of the way by then. He didn’t want to disturb the boy by appearing to him when he’d become sober. But by the look of him, he had at least twenty four hours before he had to worry about that. It was late now, but he decided that he’d visit Alice tomorrow and spend the day watching her and being near her for the very last time.

He walked toward the locked front door and as he passed effortlessly through it into the hallway beyond, he paused. He’d got so used to doing that over the past fifty one years, he didn’t even think twice about it anymore. Though there was a tear in his eye, he chuckled to himself. Maybe Jon was right. Maybe he was a ghost.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

"The Heirs of the Magi" - Another sample chapter


The chapter from 'The Heirs of the Magi' that I published on my blog the other week, met with a good response. But with it being the first chapter, it was a little slow in narrative, being mainly made up of dialogue and description to set the scene.

So I've decided to post another chapter. This one relates events a little later on in the book, but still at the start of the story, before the Magi's heirs have returned to Yvoronay. It tells of an incident involving Dern Anchar (mentioned in the first chapter - Mas Kellack's great niece, who had become one of The Brethren.) This chapter contains a little less dialogue, but a lot more action, involving battles with the Lhij invaders. It also introduces the concepts of the 'talents' shared by the Magi and The Brethren, and also gives more details about the free horses, and especially the elite members of their kind who align themselves with the Magi.

Again, this is in draft form. I'm sure there's much wrong with it that editing may put right, but it's the stuff that can't be corrected by editing I'm concerned about, so as usual, I'm hungry for comment and criticism. If the criticism is constructive, all the better, but say what you think because more than anything, I want honest criticism.

Dern Anchar was exhausted. She sat slumped over the neck of her mount. Thankfully, the recent skirmish had been quick; her adversaries were gone for now, some of them killed but most dispersed. She feared that the survivors would return once they had regrouped, and being realistic, she was resigned to her belief that they would. Now was probably her only chance to escape before they did. The sun had gone down, and though the Lhij had better night vision than she had, there would be a fair chance of evading them if she could place some distance between herself and this place before they returned.

There was no sign of her companions. They had been gone when she'd first re-emerged from the ravine below, and she had ridden to this place in the hope of relocating them, but she’d had no luck before she’d encountered her assailants. She tried her best to look around in the darkness, fearing that she may find evidence of their fate, but saw nothing except for the smouldering remains of the rat people she'd just despatched. It seemed that her comrades had either retreated, or had left to pursue more of the Lhij before she'd been able to rejoin them. She paused to recollect her thoughts and remembered the events that had brought her to this place...


Her party had earlier travelled across the southern plains to the west. They were a small group sent out to investigate the strength of the desert dwellers' forces in that area.

During recent battles, despite the Brethren's undoubted superiority in force of arms and organisation, the enemy's overwhelming advantage in numbers had caused them to be repeatedly pushed back, and they had been forced to regroup on numerous occasions. Each time they moved to counter-attack, they had found the Lhij stronger in numbers on their western flank, as though their purpose was to move northwest, toward the mountains.

Reaching the mountains was unlikely to give the desert horde any advantage in itself. Here, the western range consisted only of rocky mounds, cliffs and outcrops with crevices between, but the mountains soon became impassable, with higher peaks which couldn't be scaled, further to the north.

They’d started their expedition during the late afternoon, and it was mid-morning on the second day before they encountered anything of significance. Her party had spent all morning riding west toward the higher ground from the lower plains. It had been hard going, travelling at speed over such terrain: hard for them, but even harder for their mounts. They had reached the more rugged land nearer to where the plains met the foothills at the edge of the mountains, when they found evidence of the Lhij in force. They’d seen dust rising from the ground well to their south, and when they’d found ground high enough to afford them a better view, they had confirmed that there was a small group of Lhij advancing toward them, some miles away. They’d been surprised to find the enemy this far north, even in these limited numbers, and had thought the discovery significant enough to immediately despatch a rider back to their main forces. Dern Anchar was sure the messenger would have got through, since their journey until that point had been uneventful. The remainder of the party decided to manoeuvre so as to surround the Lhij forces on three sides.

Kasilkan, the Somnehlian plainsman who commanded the party, seemed to decide their strategy almost immediately. Dern Anchar admired him, especially his ability to think so quickly, to make decisions under pressure and to take control in situations like these. He issued directions to the others in his group: “Dern Anchar and Jassan: We must divide our forces, and you two are the best suited to each take command of a unit. I’d like you both to lead your groups further west initially.

“Jassan, you should hold the ground to the north of the enemy to prevent them from passing, but be prepared to attack should the need arise.” He paused and scanned the surrounding terrain, as though checking details before he continued: “I want you, Dern Anchar to continue onward working your way around to the target’s western side. Jassan, take ten Brethren with you; I'll lead twenty to circle behind them to the south.”

He turned his attention to Dern Anchar, placing one hand on her shoulder. ”You should take the remainder. That will be a group near equal in size to mine: We suspect that their objective is probably to the west so we'll need to strengthen our attack from that direction.”

He addressed all of the Brethren then: “From what we can tell, they are an isolated group, small, no more than fifty to a hundred of them, but there may still be greater numbers out there yet undiscovered, so when we attack it must be swift; we must despatch them all, or push them toward our forces in the east, before they can reinforce. My group will attack first; we will summon fire to rain down upon them, then we’ll harry them with our archers.” He paused again, and stroked his chin: a mannerism recognised by Dern Anchar and her colleagues to indicate that he was thinking carefully, and weighing all the possibilities. It was almost as though he was putting himself in the Lhij’s place, determining what their response might be. “They will flee toward the north and west,” he continued eventually, “so you should follow up immediately with similar attacks from your forces Dern Anchar.”

She grimaced. She knew how effective it was to use the talent of summoning to bring fire down upon her enemies, but she also knew the cost of it in the effort the summoner needed to exercise, how it almost consumed them, leaving them little better than exhausted for minutes afterwards. She didn’t question Kasilkan’s instructions. She was confident that his strategy was sound, and conceded that they had to use all the weapons and skills at their disposal, whatever her reservations might be.

Kasilkan continued: “Jassan, your purpose is to prevent the enemy from escaping to the north. You should set a couple of your Brethren to summon a wall of flame. Two of you should be able to maintain it, leaving the others free to protect the summoners with arrows or with less conventional methods.”

The wall of flame was a more overwhelming use of the summoning talent, exerting only a slightly lesser toll than the rain of fire when first summoned, but requiring uninterrupted concentration by the summoner, for as long as the wall was required to be maintained.

Over the past few years, the Brethren had discovered many of the talents they now possessed. Scholars within the mountain cities had identified them as being those talents traditionally possessed only by the Magi themselves. Working closely with the scholars and with reference to their records and historic accounts, they each had mastered powers they’d never even imagined previously, let alone ever considered possessing.

The talent of summoning had been one of the first that they’d discovered and was the most effective in battle. It involved calling forth the elements and reshaping them into forms that they could control and use against their enemies. Summoning of fire was the most destructive of the forms of elemental summoning that the Brethren had yet discovered, destructive both in its permanent effects to the target, and in its temporary effects on the summoner. The rain of fire and the wall of flame were two of its forms and were both perilous if not controlled carefully. Only summoning a ball of fire was more dangerous, since achieving this at anything but short range was practically impossible, and when summoning an immense ball of exploding fire close by, the summoner and nearby allies were almost as likely to be consumed as were any of the enemy it was directed at. The Brethren only ever summoned a ball of fire as an absolute last resort.

There were a number of other elemental forces the Brethren had learned to summon; most with less devastating effects than the summoning of fire, but also less effective as weapons in battle. They were however, well suited to use as a form of defence and it was these that Kasilkan had referred to as 'less conventional methods.'

Just after midday, Kasilkan and his twenty rode southeast, in order to circle behind the unsuspecting Lhij unit. They travelled slowly and carefully, each using their talent of illusion in combination to attempt to pass by the enemy unseen, while the greater force under command of Dern Anchar and of Jassan, another  Somnehlian member of the Brethren, travelled swiftly west.

It was late afternoon, before Dern Anchar left Jassan and his smaller force and rode onward toward the rockier terrain at the foothills of the western range. “Remember Jassan,” she said as she left, “Wait for evidence that I have attacked before you set your walls of fire. The enemy will likely flee north when confronted with mine and Kasilkan’s attacks on two sides, so I want you to surprise them as they do. Don’t give them time to think, and they’ll see themselves having no choice but to attempt an escape to the east.”

Later, as Dern Anchar's party rode toward their planned position, they encountered an obstacle: A deep ravine stretching from the mountains in the northwest and bending southward and eastward. It appeared that it had been a river in earlier times, and she half remembered her own people talking about the ‘dead river’ to the south. When hearing of it, she’d always imagined a shallow channel winding its way across the plains but if indeed this was the dead river she’d heard about, it must have once carried a torrent since the ravine was deep and the rocky sides were steep, the dried up river bed being many feet below them.

A lone rider was despatched to follow the ravine to the south to determine if it was passable downstream, or what would once have been downstream. He soon returned with good news: Only six miles further on, the terrain dropped off somewhat and it was possible, even on horseback, to descend the north eastern bank. A short ride further east, the opposite bank was easily scalable by the mounted Brethren.

The party rode quickly toward the passing point, being aware that speed was important if they were to return westward after the crossing, so as to be in position by the time Kasilkan's attack began.

Once the dead river was crossed, they retraced their route, on the opposite side of the ravine now, to where it bent toward the mountains, and then they continued their ride westward to arrive at their planned position while the sun was still hanging low in the evening sky.

Kasilkan's attack began a little while before sunset. The darkening sky suddenly appeared alight as fire rained down upon the position they knew the Lhij would be occupying by now. As predicted the Lhij fled north at first.

Dern Anchar hoped that when the enemy encountered the dead river, they'd be forced to the east before they even encountered Jassan's forces, but instead the Lhij forces headed west directly toward her party.

As they advanced, they were unaware of the resistance awaiting them, so when Dern Anchar attacked, the Rat men were taken completely by surprise. The battle went in favour of the Brethren, and it wasn’t long before the Lhij retreated to the east. Then suddenly they unexpectedly turned southward. Dern Anchar was surprised: she hadn't expected them to retreat straight into the path of Kasilkan's forces.

But Kasilkan's forces didn't attack, and when Dern Anchar had composed herself after the initial skirmish she noticed that though there were still signs in the night sky of Kasilkan's efforts, the fire rain was now falling much further away than earlier. She realised that Kasilkan's party were engaging a second enemy force, further south, even nearer to the edge of the desert.

She had to make a decision: To maintain her position, and keep to the original plan, or to pursue the retreating Lhij before they could form a scissor attack, which would surely lead to the defeat of Kasilkan and the other Brethren to the south.

She called over one of her comrades: “We're going to Kasilkan's aid. When we get to the crossing point in the dead river, I want you to cross and ride to Jassan. Bring him back here to occupy this position. The river itself will surely be enough alone to provide a northern barrier. Should the Lhij get a chance to return this way, Jassan's reduced forces should be enough to hold here.” She continued: “The rest of us will leave you at the crossing point and pursue the Lhij force before they can attack Kasilkan's rear. If they won’t retreat eastward on their own, we’ll try to drive them that way by force.”

Within moments each of the Brethren in her party were mounted, and they galloped hurriedly in pursuit of their enemy.


Kasilkan was surprised by the attack of the second Lhij force from the south, but by the time their attack came, the Rat men he'd ambushed had already begun to flee in panic, north at first then west as he’d expected them to, toward where Kasilkan was confident that Dern Anchar's force could contain them.

He quickly amended his strategy and ordered his comrades to head further south, to meet the new oncoming desert force, rather than to stand and wait for them to attack. This was his one mistake for, as became apparent within moments, this new force of Lhij was much larger than he had expected. He knew then that sooner rather than later, his Brethren would be compelled to retreat, and it occurred to him, that unless Dern Anchar had despatched the other Lhij force entirely, his route of escape may be cut off completely.


It didn't take long for Dern Anchar's mounted Brethren to ride down the retreating Lhij. After the messenger departed across the dead river toward Jassan, they caught the rat men they pursued a mile or two further on, near to the southern edge of the ravine. They attacked immediately, in an attempt to prevent the Lhij from advancing on Kasilkan's position directly south. Their attempts were successful. The enemy made no attempt to escape, but stood and fought instead. This was unusual for the Lhij: From experience of recent battles, the rat men’s armies were not known to defend a position unless it was absolutely necessary. It occurred to Dern Anchar that the Lhij were trying to prevent the same fate for themselves that currently threatened Kasilkan: they would rather fight here than risk being caught on two sides if the fighting moved further south.

Seventeen in her force of Brethren rode into battle against some seventy Lhij. There had been over a hundred in the original force, but Kasilkan's efforts and her own had thinned those numbers somewhat. The close quarters of the fighting restricted the Brethren from relying on their special ability to summon fire, so the battle consisted of hand to hand fighting, the Lhij having the advantage of greater numbers, but the Brethren having the greater manoeuvrability of being mounted.

The Lhij were armed with fierce saw-edged swords and carried heavy shields, though had no other protection in the way of armour. The Brethren each carried a sword, and wore light leather armour, though their talents allowed them to maintain an additional shield, enveloping them completely but invisibly, and able to deflect all but the most accurate and brutal of attacks.

Dern Anchar was never comfortable with a sword, being more at ease with her bow, which at this proximity was useless. She fought in vain to get the better of the three rat men who assailed her, inflicting minor injuries on them but being pressed back little by little. It was a relief when eventually, two of her companions came to her assistance, killing one of her Lhij attackers and effectively relieving her of the onslaughts from the other two.

She swung her mount around in order to ride back into the battle. It bothered her to be riding such a noble animal as this. At first she had resisted using one of the free horses as a mount, and had ridden horses supplied by the Somnehlians. But those animals however well trained, didn't last long in battle. Eventually she had taken one of the free horses, and they had been together ever since. She had cried the night that she'd used her talent of compulsion to force him to succumb to her as his rider. Even if her Loniantehl upbringing hadn't taught her how unnatural it was for a free horse to be used as a battle mount, she knew it for a fact now. Even if she hadn't always believed how wrong it was to ride a free horse against its will, she was convinced of it now.

Throughout the battles they had experienced, she had expected to sense the discomfort and the anguish of the enslaved horse, and she did, but what was worse for her, was that she also detected a real feeling of torment from the horse. The nature of compulsion was that the subjects of it were not just forced to act against their will: their will was actually changed so that they felt they wanted to obey. Unlike many of the other Brethren, she had a concern for the welfare of her mount, probably because of her upbringing, possibly due to the guilt she felt in taking him into battle. Her talents allowed her to know when her mount was injured or weary. But as well as sensing his physical well-being or lack of it, she was also aware of the agony deep within him, the torment as part of him resisted the compulsion with all his effort, whilst another part of him surrendered to it and welcomed it.

As she swung the horse around, he stumbled. This was unusual for such an animal as this; the free horses were usually sure footed even in the most extreme of circumstances. She struggled to stay on his back as his hind legs slipped backwards, first one, then the other. It was at this point that she realised that in turning the horse, she'd inadvertently led him to the very edge of the ravine and now his hind legs were slipping down into it. The horse fell, and she fell with him. For a moment or so she managed to stay upon his back, but then she parted company with the horse. She tumbled downward, and saw the horse following close behind her, struggling in vain to regain his footing as they both fell the fifteen or twenty feet down the steep ravine edge to the dry rocky bed below. If the river had not been long dead, the water may possibly have been deep enough to have broken her fall, but as it was, there was nothing to put an end to her falling until her head finally hit the dry river bed and she lapsed into unconsciousness.

She wasn't surprised to see the horse still there when she awoke. She was a little surprised to see him standing, but then after checking herself for injuries she realised that if she'd survived the fall unscathed save for the large bump on her head, then the horse most certainly would have. The nature of the compulsion was that the horse wouldn't attempt to escape even when she was asleep or unconscious. He would be with her until she chose to release him. That was something she'd considered doing many times, but each time she'd realised that she needed him to ensure her own survival. She would be lost in battle without him.

She knew by instinct that she hadn't been unconscious for long, but she could no longer hear the noise of the battle from above. Maybe the Brethren had defeated the Lhij, but if so, why hadn't they come searching for her? Maybe they'd forced the rat men further south, out of her earshot. She quickly mounted the horse. She would have to ride swiftly to the west to the point where she could climb the bank, and then eastward again and then south to locate her companions.

A few minutes later, she was out of the ravine and back onto the higher land; a short ride later and she was back at the location of the earlier fighting, but there was still no sign of the other Brethren. She galloped south for a few moments before she suddenly came upon a group of around forty Lhij. The night was so dark that she didn't see them until she was almost on top of them. Her impulse was to turn and ride swiftly away from them in the opposite direction to which she'd been travelling, but she'd been so sure that she'd find her companions soon that she hesitated as if half expecting them to come riding over the next mound to her rescue. They didn't, and she soon found herself about to be surrounded by angry vicious Lhij. They charged toward her as she backed her horse away. There was only one chance. She summoned a ball of fire high above her head, then turned her horse and galloped as far away to the north as she dared to if she was to still ignite it. The Lhij followed her, seemingly oblivious to the blazing ball hovering twenty or so feet over their head, so that the majority of them were directly under the fire ball as she caused it to explode outward and downward. She held onto her horse as he galloped further north, and collapsed with exhaustion, barely holding onto him as she heard the screams and cries of the Lhij being incinerated behind her.

She returned a few moments later to the site of the fire ball explosion, she was still exhausted but needed to check if there were any signs of her companions nearby. She quickly examined the bodies of the enemy that she'd just killed. Only the remains of about fifteen Lhij lay scorched on the ground. The others had no doubt been injured and had fled, but might return soon. Unless these were survivors of the recent battle, it would seem that there were more parties of the desert dwellers in the vicinity than any of her companions had suspected. She had no way of knowing whether her comrades had survived the initial battle or not. Even if they had, and had managed to reach Kasilkan, there was no guarantee that any of them would still be there. She didn't want to consider the chance that they'd been defeated and all lost, preferring to think they'd either been victorious or had retreated and escaped back to the main force in the east. Either way, there was nothing to be gained in waiting here for whatever Lhij forces remained to attack her. She made up her mind to head northeast herself. She knew that she had to evade any remaining rat people if she was to escape. She couldn't use her talent of illusion to hide from them because she would first need to know where they were, and they were more likely to find her before she found them. She was unable to ride directly north because of the dead river blocking her way. She knew she could cross it further to the west, but that was the opposite direction to where she wanted to be. She decided instead to head eastward: There was likely to be less Lhij in that direction and she hoped she would find another crossing point along the way somewhere.

After riding about three miles, she found a section of the ravine where she could quite easily guide her horse down to the dry river bed. Unfortunately there wasn't a similar area on the northern bank so she carried on riding along the bed of the dead river itself. She rode a few miles further to the east without luck before deciding that she was maybe safer down in the ravine than riding alongside it anyway.

She didn't possess the night vision that the Lhij had, but didn't need it to know when they'd found her. She'd just passed another scalable section of the south bank and had thought to climb it in order to check if she could determine her location, but decided against it when she heard the sound of many naked clawed feet marching to the south. As the sounds of footfall got closer, she could make out the characteristic noise of the rat people chittering in their strange, alien sounding language, and realised that they were much closer to her than she’d first assumed. She rode onward to the east quickly, and heard the cries and snarls of the Lhij as they swarmed down into the ravine far behind her. They had found her and would soon be on her. Alone, she would be lost if they caught her. She didn't have the strength to summon fire again this soon and decided that her only chance was to ride as fast as her horse would carry her.

She would possibly have outrun her pursuers had she not come across what seemed to be an impassable obstacle. Despite her fear, she almost laughed. She knew that the land to the east was much lower than the land to the west. She knew that she was riding along what was once a deep wide river, so she shouldn't have been surprised when she came to what had once been a waterfall. The land suddenly dropped away in front of her. In the dark, she only half noticed it at first; it was almost as if the night had got a little darker here, so that she couldn't even see the ground in front of her, then just as it occurred to her that there was no ground in front of her, her horse stopped and reared up, turning away from the edge of a drop of what must have been over a hundred feet.

She dismounted and looked over the edge. There were trees and heavy bushes flanking both sides of the river bed, so that she hadn't noticed the river banks themselves falling away. She thanked the horse, patting him on his neck. So this was her fate then: To either fall or jump to her death, or to wait to be butchered by ravaging rat men. She feared that the time of her death was near and remembered that there was something she’d always promised herself that she’d do when this moment arrived. Her mount was now frantically galloping between the banks of the ravine, as if in panic. She returned to the horse and faced him, head on. He lowered his head to her as she placed her hand palm down on the front of his head, between his eyes, with her fingers pointing toward his forelock. The horse fell silent as it closed its eyes and she closed her own.

“I know I've led you unwillingly to this point,” she said in her head, knowing that it was the horse she was speaking to, “and this may not appear as much of a gesture since it's likely that we're both going to lose our lives quite soon. But I want to release you from your compulsion.

She didn't know if the horse understood the words she was thinking or merely sensed the meaning of her thoughts, but she knew it appreciated what she was trying to say to it. “Before I do though, I want you to know how sorry I am for treating you like this, for forcing you to do my bidding, and for forcing you to want to do it. Once I release you from your compulsion, you're going to hate me, and I expect that. I beg your forgiveness, though I don't expect you to grant it to me.

She opened her eyes and with a mere thought, the compulsion was lifted. The horse stood for a moment then threw back his head and whinnied. She knew the relief he must have felt, because she too felt it, as though she had been released from the compulsion herself. She stood back with tears in her eyes as she watched the horse frantically walking from one side of the river bed to the other, looking over the edge. She turned as she heard the approaching sound of the Lhij, then turned back to see the horse walking into the heavy bushes against the northern bank, near to the precipice to the east. After a few seconds he hadn't come out and she feared he'd fallen over the edge. She went over to the north bank and found the gap he'd taken, walking into the bushes herself. There was no sign of the horse. But there was a path that sloped steeply downward here. She looked down the path and saw the horse a few yards further on and a few feet below her. It looked as though he'd found a way down.

She followed. If there was even the slightest chance of surviving this, then she was going to attempt it. She would have to be quick as from the sounds she could hear, the Lhij were almost upon her. She stopped and turned and listened. They were close enough now that using her talent of illusion might just work. There was only her, and far too many of the enemy for her to do anything really complex, but she suddenly remembered the scholars teaching her how the Magi had been capable of weaving together the effects of two or more of their talents, and it occurred to her that by coupling her talent of illusion with her talent of compulsion, she might just manage to persuade them to miss the gap in the bushes she'd just passed through. Even with their night vision they wouldn't see it if she wove together the illusion with a compulsion, so that they didn't want to see it. She tried it, and was amazed at how easily it came to her. Despite hearing of the Magi’s ability to weave talents, she hadn't met anyone amongst the Brethren who'd ever successfully done it before.

Suddenly she realised that the Lhij were now standing at the top of the falls, only yards away from her, but that they hadn't found her escape route and that it hadn't even occurred to them to look for one. She turned and began climbing down the path at the edge of the falls to the lower land below. She sensed where the horse had been, but felt her way carefully to avoid losing her footing. It wasn't until she was about twenty feet from the lower ground that she was finally convinced that she was going to make it. She turned and looked back up the steep winding path. There was no sign of the Lhij following. They had probably given up and returned the way they had come by now. She looked downhill again as she tackled the last section of the path. Below her, at ground level, to the east, she saw the horse galloping away and she smiled.


As the horse galloped away to the east, another watched him from a nearby hillside. This horse was one of a few that were known and revered by the other free horses. Amongst her own kind she was known purely by her deeds and her history, and had no need for a name, but the human she was bound to had named her Thundermane. It wasn't important to her that the particular human she'd chosen had lived many centuries before, and had been replaced by numerous others since then, no more than it even occurred to her that the free horse he'd been bound to was not her, but one of her own ancestors. Her rider had existed in many bodies since then, both male and female, as had she. But in both their cases, they retained the memories of those that came before them, and where to the humans, each life they lived was distinct from previous ones; to her they were all just separate parts of one continuous existence. To her, whether she'd been mare or stallion, she had always been here, the one her human had named Thundermane, and she'd lived forever since that day, hundreds of years ago.

She could sense where her rider was at all times. She knew when she was needed, was aware when her rider was in trouble. Being bound meant that her human was in her mind always. But for years now, that presence had been absent from her mind. One day over twenty years ago, the woman had dismounted and walked into the mountains and she'd never seen her, heard from her or felt her again.

Not until now at least, because now her senses were reawakened; she was aware of her rider again. She knew that could only mean one thing: She had returned.