Chapter 1 - Chapter 2
Reflections of Light
She stopped at a small shop and went in for something to eat. The shopkeeper was a dour man, lifeless, unresponsive, leaving her to take her purchases and leave the way she had entered, unconnected with the world around her. She stood at the counter, waiting, as the man fetched something for her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a figure standing in the doorway of the back room, a tall man dressed in red, holding something that was glowing green, caught in a shaft of stray light. She turned to look but the doorway was empty, indeed it was only a little dirty window. Some stray reflection flashed from behind her, she looked over her shoulder but the street was empty now. Then she lost interest abruptly, as if a thought had suddenly lost purchase on her mind and slipped away.
She turned into an alley, and then along the banks of the river. There was a row of empty warehouses standing there, their empty mouths gaping towards the dirty hulks that had once served them. She walked along an expanse of white concrete, decorated with cryptic grooves and rusty rails, towards a low bridge across the river. Beside her a row of low boats bobbed at rusty chains, the woodwork bleached or rotted away where tarpaulins had fallen away or been stolen. There was no one about at all, except for a single man on the further side of the water. The sun cast his long shadow out towards her across the concrete, making the man himself almost invisible. As she got closer to the bridge he turned and limped away past the huge drab skeleton of a cargo crane.
The bridge nestled in a patch of long straggly grasses and drab bushes. Alicia walked to the crest and leant on the rail, looking at the grey water. The sun sparkled here and there and she sought out the sparkles, counting them. Her mind shied away from any thought of her family, while at the same time seeking them out, her hated family. Who were they? Nothing but her own demons made real she sometimes thought, or perhaps the shadows of her unfulfilled desires. She could not remember a time when she had ever been happy. They had driven her out that day, with their insidious comments and their blind cruelty, or she had driven herself away from their blankness. She hated them, with all her heart, it gave her something, it allowed her to build a core for herself that could maintain itself in the face of their cold indifference, otherwise what was she, nothing, non-existent, a dream?
Her eyes followed the water. It moved sluggishly beneath her, but the shimmers danced across it in long diagonal rows towards the nearer side, following an unseen current. She allowed her eyes to drift with them over towards the bank. She thought idly that it was not so much that her parents were unpleasant (although they were) but that she was allowing their lack of faith to affect her. She tried to pretend that it wasn't true, that she held an image of herself sacrosanct, a true acknowledgement of a worth to which they were blind but she was not. But it could not be true, was not true. For that she hated them more than anything else, yet they meant nothing to her, all the past she had endured with them was no more than an unclean skin ready to be shed.
Yet she had not escaped. Some circumstance, some combination of events that she couldn't quite recall the complexities of, prevented her escape. In the pale grey light rising off the water she suddenly couldn't remember anything of the recent years, she was severed from her past. She could remember nothing but the endless present, as if every day was the same, the grey shop, the empty streets. It must be they who were keeping her here.
She brooded over the insults and the slights, but she gave up trying to count them because the more she searched for them the less she could remember any of them, it all lost definition, like the details of a nightmare that one tries desperately to seek out, but cannot. In some way it was worse, far worse, than torture or violence or abandonment: all those, she told herself, she would prefer to this grey soulless dissolution, this endless living. Or perhaps she was already one of the dead, was this not how the dead lingered on, in the endless grey? Beneath her fingers the bridge was like the grey water, formless, the grainy definition of a poor photograph, a slice from a nightmare, which her hand touched but did not feel.
Somewhere above her there came the drone of a light aircraft, cutting through the silence. Yet it somehow did not manage to break the quiet in this forlorn oasis. She looked up to see the plane, but, although the sky was empty, bright and clear, a blinding blank expanse, she somehow missed it, and let her gaze drop back to the water. She saw now a dancing of light on the water, cutting through the grey dream of the day. Her eyes followed the lights to the bank, and then, because her attention was elsewhere, across it. On the bank, as upon the water, something was sparkling. What could it be? Suddenly distracted she crossed the bridge back to the bank. Whatever it was, it was invisible from there, hidden amongst the rough long grass, so she had to get down on her knees in the undergrowth. She looked this way, and she looked that, but she found nothing: in fact she was about to give up and turn away, when she saw the glint again, sun on metal. "Its just a tin can." she told herself.
She sat back in the grasses, her mind running over her problems yet again, like a tongue over a painful tooth, poking endlessly into familiar cavities, without doing anything. All her problems seemed so tangled and folded in upon themselves that she did not see how they could ever be sorted out. Each problem seemed almost to swim into focus, and then eluded her, as if she didn't even know what was wrong with her. Each time she tried to pin down a memory, a particular insult, it escaped her. All her hates were like broad blurred brushstrokes on a canvas, indistinct figures she could not focus upon.
Suddenly she saw the flash again, from the corner of her eye, as she reached up to push a stray strand of hair from her face, and shifted her head. This time it was very close, close enough for her to reach straight for the place. "It's just a bit of glass." she told herself, but it was not. Her questing hands closed upon a golden chain that basked in the fire of a ruby ring strung upon it. On the necklace itself was another crystal, transparent and apparently hollow, strung lengthwise in the centre.
She raised the ring and necklace in amazement, up to the sun, and the ruby glowed with redoubled brilliance, until it almost seemed to turn her arm to fire. The lattice work of shadows and brilliances that it cast, fell across her, and across the ground, forming what was almost a picture, of hills and a plain before them. She tried to get closer to it, to decipher it, but the further she leaned toward it the less it meant. Strangely distressed, she changed tack and tried to search out the pattern in the gem itself, and indeed it seemed to be there. Closer and closer she brought it, her whole attention focused upon it, and suddenly it seemed to leap into focus, and she was falling!
With a scream that shocked her she managed to pull herself suddenly away, finding herself sitting safe in the sunlight.
Quickly she thrust the jewellery into a pocket and looked around, expecting to see a crowd of onlookers. The quay was as deserted as it had ever been, but now the shadows had lengthened and dulled. On the far bank, when she stood up and looked, a red sphere of sun glared through the skeletal latticework of the cargo crane; it was growing late.
Had it really been so long? To her it seemed only a moment since she had been buying lunch at the dull little shop, and she would never have stayed in this wilderness so long if she had known how late it was becoming. It was obvious that she could not take her find to the police at once, she had to go home, she couldn't even remember where the police station was. She hurried out between the high sided silos, her shadow flitting across the graffiti, filled with an anxious need to be out of there as soon as she could, and through the empty streets. When she looked around her she found that her feet had taken her the fastest way, towards home, certainly she could not turn back now to go to the police. She would go home, as she had to, and take the gems back in the morning.
Soon that grim visaged building was before her, her home. No one greeted her at the door, and she went upstairs to her room. For some reason she felt the need to take out the jewels, and to hide them. Then she sat, still. It was as if, she had once thought, she could not function without commands. She could hardly muster the will to criticise her own lack of it. She was only a pale shadow of herself.
Later she moved down the stairs. They opened out into the wide hall with the familiar carpet. On the table in the hall was a note, which she hardly looked at. She knew that they had gone out again. They always seemed to be out, she couldn't remember when they had been in. She wished only to fade, to disappear into the wallpaper or the curtains, so that no one could see that she existed. Instead she simply turned away, doing as she had been told.
A little later, she sat alone at the dinner table. Food had been left for her by their cook, what-was-her-name, but there was no one there now but herself. It was as if the food had appeared all by itself, spontaneously creating itself in the empty house. The presence, or absence, of her parents seemed to hang over the house, even when she was alone, and she could not stir herself to act, to be real, when she was in the house, no more than she was able to act outside it.
In her room she sat on her bed again, and switched on the television in the corner of her room. The picture simply buzzed and blurred, hissing static that flickered in time with the grey rain now falling outside her window. She did not even notice this. She gazed blankly at the blue-grey screen as if it were showing pictures. Outside the wind seemed to be asking "Who are you? Who are you?", but her heart could not answer.
Absently she took out the necklace and the ring again. The light of the lamp flickered in the gem, and gave her a sudden unaccustomed feeling of warmth. This house was always cold and empty. A cold wind blew into her room, whistling as it came down the empty corridors and rooms. Outside the window the rain fell soundlessly on a grey-green garden of tangled plants. In the corner, against a wall, there was a broken greenhouse or cupola, draped in the brown remains of a dead creeper.
The light glittering off the gemstone concentrated into one spot which whirled this way and that as the gem turned on its chain. The spot gradually settled on a dark corner of a bookshelf, where a small heap of tattered books lay jumbled together. Unconciously she followed the light too the books, but there was nothing there but grey titles that she could not remember reading. Clumsily, because of her exhaustion, she turned away, and fell on the bed, slipping into sleep as an empty hollow wind, rising somewhere in the praries of the corrodors, the carverns of the cellers or the high peaks of the attics, blew past her, exhaling itself through the night.
That night she dreamed. She dreamt that she was being washed along by a great river. It flowed through London and Paris, Venice and Amsterdam, and a hundred other cities, until she came finally to rest. Above her, was a jumble of grand decaying houses. Their tall glassy windows reflected the distant red of a sunset, tingeing their flat walls yellow, rather like old gold, although the sky above them was a dusky, dusty, blue. Through one wide window she watched a tall man dressed in robes of red velvet, standing before a huge green rectangle, like a painter. But the rectangle was not canvas. In the shaded darkness it glowed a sickly green, and the man put his hand through it as if either he or it, or both were simply dreams, or reflections in the wide sea of glass.
On the banks there she saw another man, like the first, ageing it seemed to her, and with a short grizzled beard, and she desperately wanted him to come and help her, he seemed so friendly, sticking to some dream of a plan as frail as her own dreams, not understanding that he was actually going to his own funeral.
She heard noises behind her, and turned to see figures advancing through the corrupted mud of the river's edge. They were dressed in rags, and she thought that they were beggars, but she saw that they were actually contorted constructs, made from the parts of old dolls. They looked at her as if their very existence was painful, and asked her to join them, since she was one of them, and so she did.
Together they lived their lives in the streets, surrounded by the scent of the sea, valueless, beneath the feet of the dregs of humanity, but always she hankered after the man she had seen before. One night in the graveyard she knocked three times upon the grave, and a door opened. She went through, and was seized by vertigo, spinning her into a darkness from which there was no escape, and no one to save her.
She awoke breathlessly in her bed. It was all right, it had only been a dream. She was terrified of falling. She lay back and let the grey sun of early morning fall across her. On a table by the window she had put the necklace and ring, and now the sun shone through the gem once more, falling across her. Above and opposite her was a long shelf, empty but for a few treasured books and a single doll, that she thought had once belonged to her aunt. Its clothes were faded, and its hair was now gone, leaving only a hollow porcelain head, and yet, somehow she felt a strange affinity with it. Despite its condition it appeared somehow noble, hugging the remains of its once glorious clothes about it as if the memory could shield it from its present condition, and somehow it worked.
She looked back at the light from the ring, and now that she saw it again all trace of the visionary landscape seemed to have vanished, and the pattern of light and dark was no more than that, a pattern. Idly she reached across to them and picked them up. She let the ruby dangle, so that the patterns danced across the walls, back and forth, like the reflections created by ripples beneath the water. She began to draw with them, finding shapes in the lines. It was quite pleasant.
She turned over, seeking more of the patterns, and looked into the jewel. The sun refracted from internal planes, and created a swirling dance of light. Entranced by its beauty she leant closer, putting it to her eye. The patterns soared and dived like seabirds over a wild cliff, seeming almost alive. They had a song that she could almost hear, and it wrenched at her, making her yearn for all that she thought she had lost. She pressed the gem closer, seeking that song, scrunching up her other eye, like she had when she had been younger, to produce strange patterns. She felt that if only she could now enter the pattern of the gem, as she had entered the patterns behind her eyes, then she would somehow find an escape from all that she hated.
So she strained, seeing the music of the pattern within her skull, almost expecting it to come alive and take her. Behind her the wall seemed to shimmer. The grey windowpane and the garden beyond were flaking and crumbling like a handful of dust broken upon the wind, folding in on themselves and the empty house. The sunlight fell through the hollow crystal strung on the golden chain, which in turn was still strung through the ring, and might have spelt out words of warning in a strange tongue, had anyone been there to see them. "Beware!" that watcher might have cried, if he were one that had her safety in mind, or even cared, but there was none, and Alicia could not turn her head and see, for she was caught in the dream of all that burned within her, and would not have dared to turn, even had she been warned, lest another, final chance slip from her grasp once more and shatter on the ground below.
So, "I can do it!" she cried to herself, "just a little more...", and the pattern suddenly resolved itself into a landscape of rolling hills and sweeping grasses, and she was falling, falling and twisting away into the darkness, and into unconsciousness.