Peregrin - 7 May 2000 - H2G2 Fiction
Stephen stubbed out the cigarette butt and immediately lit another from my fireplace. This was something else new. The Stephen that I knew would never smoke.
He sat back in the armchair, took a long draw, and exhaled slowly, relishing in the pattern of swirling smoke lit up by the fire. 'Yes, I know I haven't been in contact for a long, long time. I'm sorry, I really am. But there has been a good reason.'
Since I had known him at college, his appearance and manner had changed drastically, and unfortunately not for the better. His athletic figure and strong cheekbones had wasted away over the years, leaving a somewhat shriveled impression, and a mess of uneven stubble shadowed his features. He used to be very well dressed, a far cry from the faded, torn jeans and jacket he now wore. It was probably just the way he held himself, but when I first opened the door to him, he had looked much smaller than the towering rugby player that I had once known.
'You know I always had planned to travel after college. And my obsession with India. Well, after all my plans, I'm sorry to say that I never made it to India. Just after I finished college, I was offered a good job at the local power station - you know, the one about three miles up the valley from the college - and there I laboured for several years. About six years, I think it was. I forget.'
He had been strangely reluctant to explain his long absence when I first asked him, but after I pressed the matter he had suddenly been eager. He had often confided in me on personal matters in college, and I think he was grateful to return to that trust.
While he talked, he stared directly at me. His eyes were the only part of him that didn't move. He was continually fidgeting with his cigarette, and rearranging his feet. Not in a very enthusiastic way - it looked as if he was uncomfortable with his surroundings. But his eyes stayed focused on me.
'Anyway, during that time, I fell in love. She was a local girl, she went to the college too, but I never met her there. Georgina was her name. We lived together for several years. My parents, as you may guess, thoroughly disapproved of this.'
He remembered his cigarette, and took another draw. I was about to offer him another drink, but he continued his monologue. His eyes bored into me.
'I grew away from my parents, mainly because of Georgina. You know what it's like - when you're in love, nobody and nothing else matters. I didn't go out with my friends any more, I just wanted to spend time with Georgina. I thought we were inseparable.'
He gave a short, sarcastic laugh. For the first time, his eyes turned away from me.
'I was an idiot. I never doubted her, not once. I didn't notice her disinterest, or her increasing absences. I desperately held on to the concept of the Georgina that I first knew.'
He fiddled with his cigarette, and glanced back at me. I saw eternal pain deep in his eyes.
'She eventually admitted it. She was seeing somebody else. I was grateful that she did admit it - I hate to think what I would have done if I had come home and found them together.
'It was the worst situation ever. It wasn't just that she was seeing somebody - she was seeing my boss at the power station!'
He fell silent. He took a drag on the cigarette, and blew the smoke out in a half hearted smoke ring, and I watched it gently drift upwards. I waited until it reached the ceiling, and was about to offer some consolation to break the silence, but he beat me to it again.
'It was her house, so I moved out. I quit my job that afternoon. I don't think I've seen her or Eric - he was my boss - again.
'I moved away, into a flat in London. It was the first time I had lived on my own for... well, ever. I didn't give anyone my new address, so I got no visitors. I was desperately lonely but didn't want to see anyone. I don't know how to explain it.'
'I know what you mean.' I interjected.
He looked grateful. 'I didn't get a job, I just moped around all day. I only went out of the house to go shopping, which I did rarely. I was sinking deeper and deeper. I started to drink, but fortunately didn't get too far with that.
'One day I was walking back from the shops, via an alley which I used as a shortcut. There was a drunk man coming the other way. He staggered and fell. I held back, wanting to help but wary of contact. He dragged himself to the wall and sat there drinking from a plastic bottle.
'I walked past him. He was in a disgusting state, clothes dirty and torn, unshaven and greasy.'
I refrained from commenting on Stephen's current state.
'When I got home,' he continued, 'I looked in the mirror. I saw that I was really no better than the drunk. That day I pulled myself together. I shaved and had my first shower for weeks. I bought some new clothes. I decided that it was high time I fulfilled my travelling ambitions.'
'I had enough money, that wasn't a problem. I had carefully saved up my pay when I worked at the power station. That same day, I went to the nearest travel agent and browsed the cheaper flights from Heathrow.
'You know that I always wanted to go to India. I started looking for flights to India. The lists were in order of country, and another flight caught my eye. It was to Ireland, Dublin to be precise, extremely cheap, only three spaces left on the plane, and departing the next day. I bought the ticket, reasoning that as it was so cheap I could afford to go somewhere exotic afterwards.'
I made some comment about my own time in Ireland, I forget what. The only details I clearly remember of the evening are the swirling cigarette smoke, Stephen's strangely hypnotising eyes, and his story in extraordinary detail.
'Anyway, to cut a long story short, Ireland disappointed me. I had bought a one way flight, and had made my way west across Ireland over roughly a fortnight. I decided to spend a few more days rambling on the west coast before leaving.
'Although I have desperately tried to remember, I cannot recall exactly what part of the coast I was on. It doesn't matter, I have no intention of returning, but it does bug me.
'This is where the stranger part of my tale begins.' He suddenly smiled. Not very warmly, but it was the first time I had seen him smile that night. 'Do you have any more whisky?'
'No problem,' I replied. 'Hang on.' I pulled myself up out of the armchair and opened the drinks cabinet. I was glad to be looking away from Stephen for the first time. My drinks cabinet, with its rows of cut glass bottles and mysterious murky liquid contents, looked reassuringly real and clear.
I poured two whiskies, one for him and a large one for myself. When I sat down again, he was staring into the fire. I sipped from my glass and waited for him to continue.
'The countryside and coastline temporarily uplifted my spirits. I had not felt better for a long time. It was late summer, and the weather was fantastic. However, with my usual luck, the weather didn't hold out. There were several days of dense cloud and torrential rain. I didn't make much progress, and realised that I had spent more time rambling than I had intended to. I became depressed again. It was a mistake walking on my own, I now realise, especially after I had been so lonely.
'One morning I woke up and it was strangely quiet. It took me a while to realise why - the rain had stopped for the first time in several days. I had got used to the continual drumming on my tent. It was still very misty. As I walked, I could see a small area of sea on my right and a small area of grass on my left, and the jagged, rocky Irish coast stretching out into the mist in front of me. Occasionally a solitary ragged sheep would loom out of the mist, silently wander past me, and disappear back into the whiteness behind me.
'The coastline continued like this for I don't know how long. It seemed like I had been walking for days, but it was probably only a few hours. There were no features whatsoever, except for the continually meandering coastline, and the gentle pulsing of the sea washing onto the rocks. It was like a dream.
'After what seemed an eternity, I came across a small bay. The sea had broken through a weak spot in the rocks and created a round, stony beach. I walked across it instead of round it, just to break the monotony.
'What I initially thought was another rock appeared out of the mist in front of me. As I got closer, I saw that it was a figure sitting on the beach.
'It was a thin, gaunt man. He had white hair and a white straggly beard. He was sitting cross legged, with his arms wrapped around himself. He vividly reminded me of the Hindu fakirs that I had seen so many pictures of, and I've always wanted to see in India.
'Do you expect me to tell you he was dressed in a white loincloth?' Stephen grinned humourlessly. 'Well he wasn't. He was dressed in blue jeans and an old brown jacket. His clothes were incredibly faded and ragged, and somehow they added to the air of mystery around him rather than subtracting from it.
'I crossed over and stood in front of him. I looked at his face.'
Stephen closed his eyes tightly. 'I can still see it now. It haunts me. His face was bony and thin, devoid of any substance. His greyish skin was stretched tightly over his cheekbones. It looked like his skin had been pulled away from his jaws, and up towards his eyes. There were many wrinkles around his wide eyes.' Stephen suddenly opened his own eyes again and stared fanatically at me.
'His eyes. They were like nothing I'd ever seen before. You've heard the expression, 'a thousand yard stare'? I know what it means now; but his was more like a thousand mile stare. I had the impression that he was looking straight through my body, towards some faraway visage that only he could behold. They would occasionally move as it following something. The whites were bloodshot and stained yellow. I could barely look at the centres of the eyes, it was like looking into a tunnel... a tunnel leading to somewhere terrible.
'His mouth formed noiseless words continually. I spoke to him, more out of fear than curiosity, but he gave no reply. I had no evidence that he had even noticed me.
'I put my hand on his shoulder. As I expected, it was bony and thin.' Stephen put his hand on his own shoulder.
'He suddenly reached up and grasped my hand. He continued staring forwards, and working his mouth as he had, but his cold hand held mine tightly for a moment. It was as if his hand and his head were two separate entities.
'I was shocked in a way that I cannot describe. I was in a cold sweat. I was greatly relieved when he let go, and wrapped his arm back around his body. I backed away, terrified.
'It took a few minutes to collect myself. I told myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, and began walking again. I didn't look back. I just wanted to get away.'
Stephen glanced around and subconsciously moved towards the heat of the fire slightly. His cigarette was burning itself out in the ashtray, but he seemed to have forgotten about it.
'I continued walking for about half an hour. I was extremely unnerved. The mist seemed to take on a new element, that of menace. I was certain that I saw several shadowy figures briefly, but after each time convinced myself that they were sheep.
'You know that when you're walking down a dark alley or something, and you're slightly nervous, you hear all sort of things?' I nodded. He continued, 'The classic thing to hear is footsteps behind you. That's what I heard then. I ignored it for a while, thinking it was my overactive imagination. I was still nervous though, and stopped and turned round, determined to quell the suspicion.
'I saw, as I predicted, nothing. Just the white mist, the ragged grass, and the slim sheep trail that I had been following. But after a moment, I heard the footsteps again. A figure loomed up in the mist. I recognised the man from the beach immediately. I began sweating profusely, but stayed where I was.
'He came right up to me, and looked into my eyes. Again, it felt like he could see through me and into worlds unknown. He spoke with a quavering, thin voice.
'I expected him to say something profound. Or something mysterious. Or to say, "Hello Stephen, I've been waiting for you," or something equally unnerving. But he simply said, "Good day, my friend." This was just as unreal though - coming from such a strange person. It did nothing to relax me.
'I said, rather stupidly really, "Are you real?" I don't know why. But he seemed to expect such a question.
'He replied, "Real? To you, yes. To you, this grass is real. Your rucksack is reality. Your fear is real. Your feelings are as real as the grass." I said nothing. After a moment he continued, "When you think of your past, is that not real? You've been through the past. You've seen it with your own eyes. And when you fantasize about the future, those thoughts are just as real. When you remember a friend, they are real in your mind. And it is your mind that is reality. Some people claim that the world is but an illusion, and your feelings are the true reality. The truth is that your feelings are reality, but the world is reality too because you see it with your feelings."
'As you may expect, this didn't make a lot of sense to me. I was still afraid, and tried to nerve myself to say something else, but he suddenly turned and walked away from me. I could no longer hear his footsteps; just before he vanished into the mist, I noticed that he was barefoot.'
I was staring straight at Stephen. The rest of the room seemed to fade, I was concentrating on Stephen and Stephen only. His words hypnotised me and I could almost visualise him standing on the Irish coastline, scared and confused, trying to see into the mist.
'After a while I continued walking. I don't remember ever changing direction, but when I think of it, I sometimes remember the sea on my right and sometimes the sea on my left.
'For some reason I began thinking about my past. I thought of my time in college, of my work, and especially of Georgina. I thought of her voice, and her laugh. I don't know why her laugh in particular, but I could remember it vividly.
'You know when there's some music or an alarm or something sounding in the distance, and you can barely hear it? You're not sure whether you can still hear it or it's just your imagination. That is what started to happen to me. I was thinking of Georgina's laugh, listening to it in my mind. Soon I wasn't sure whether I was imagining it or not any more. Her laugh became louder, not in the distance any more. Intermingled with it was Eric's laugh. Even when I could hear it distinctly, I still wasn't sure whether it was my imagination or not. I don't expect you to understand.'
I said nothing.
'No. But soon the mist began to make shapes in front of my eyes. I'm sure you've seen shapes and faces in clouds. It was like that. I saw vague faces and ghostly buildings. I imagined Georgina.
'I kept on seeing her shape in the mist, and seemed to hear her laughing or talking indistinctly. I began to see people passing me by. You know when you recall a dream, you can't remember general details about people, like what they are wearing, and colours, and things like that. It was like that. I recognised who some people were, more by the feeling of their presence than recognising them visually.
'Eric was one of them, he told me that I was lost to him for ever, and that I'd never find Georgina.
'I saw the man from the beach again and again. I was never sure whether I really saw him or it was an illusion. He kept muttering about reality. I eventually realised that it was evening. It was difficult to tell in the mist, but it was generally getting darker.
'I pitched my tent. I didn't have to look around for a spot, the coastline was unchanging as ever. I remember having difficulty stretching the tent over the poles. I think one of the people helped me hold it down.
'I climbed into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep. I don't know if I did sleep and dream, or if I was awake the whole night. But I saw the man from the beach. He was sitting cross legged at the mouth of the tent, staring at me, mouthing continual nothings all night. I may have talked with him.
'The next day the mist had cleared. I packed up and started walking inland. After several hours I saw a village. I got there via a track, and walked into the village centre.
'There were many people there. I sat down and drank from my flask. I decided that I had wasted too much time in my walk and I needed to find a bus out of the countryside and back to Dublin or somewhere. I tried to ask someone about buses.'
Stephen seemed slightly unnerved. He lit another cigarette carefully before continuing. 'There were people milling around me. But whenever I turned to face somebody, they were invariably walking away from me. They didn't turn away, they were already walking away. But there were no shortage of people near me. I never saw their faces, but from behind one of them looked remarkably like Georgina.
'Nobody spoke to me. I walked through the village, and eventually found a bus stop. There was a bus timetable, which I read, and discovered that there weren't any buses going from there for several hours, and they only went locally to other villages, nowhere useful. Having nothing better to do, I sat down and waited.
'Almost immediately a bus drew up. I got on it. I don't remember asking or paying for a fare, but I must have.
'I was sitting about three rows back from the front. The bus made its way through continual Irish countryside. After a long time it occurred to me that the driver was the man from the beach.
'There may have been other passengers, I remember some figures but not their appearance. I cannot remember the route I went, whether I got on several different buses or travelled on the same one all the way, or how long it took. But I remember arriving at Dublin. I got off the bus, and said goodbye to the driver. He replied, "It is never goodbye to a friend when you remember him in your mind."
'I took a ferry back to England. I remember little about the journey, except the monotonous splashing of the waves, and recognising other passengers as various people from college. I don't think I talked to any of them. You were one of them.
'When I arrived at the port, Liverpool I think, I went straight to the station. I bought a ticket back to London from a girl at a ticket booth. She gave me the ticket and my change, and said, "I live continually in your mind." She was Georgina. She laughed as I walked to the platform.
'The train on the way back passed through Plymouth, where I lived as a child.'
I nearly made some witty remark about geography and British Rail's routes, but wisely kept it to myself.
Stephen gazed wistfully into the distance. 'Out of the window I saw the house where I grew up, and my mother. She was pushing me on my swing.
'The train also passed the college. I could see the block that we used to live in, and even our windows. The whole place was empty and dry. I tried to drink from the fountain in the college square but there was no water, only sand.
'When I arrived in London I was in a black cab. I got out and paid the driver, who was a faceless man in a cap. He drove away into the mist.'
I was getting increasingly unnerved by Stephen's story, I can't say why. I knew by this time that he must have some serious psychological problems, but there seemed to be something more to it, more substance than just a disease of the mind. More real.
Stephen continued, 'I went back to my flat, and I think I've lived there since, for the last few weeks. I'm sure that I've been in India as well, I seem to remember elephants, fakirs, and the faceless bustle of Bombay.
'Every day I go for a walk. The people around me are faceless and colourless. If I look at them directly, I sometimes recognise them.
'Today I was walking down a road and my attention was drawn to a nameplate on a house. It was your name. I couldn't resist seeing if it was really you living here. And it is.'
I kept quiet; I have no nameplate. Stephen took a final drag on his cigarette and stubbed it out. 'And that brings me up to date. I'm sorry, I've been here much longer than I intended. I really should be going, I need to do my shopping before the late-night shop shuts.'
Stephen stood up. He suddenly seemed distant, less intense than when he was reciting his story. I had meant to discuss all kinds of things with him, recite old college tales, but he seemed intent on leaving.
'Thanks for the drink,' he said. 'It was nice seeing you again. I'll be in contact. Remember me, I am real in your mind, and we can see each other whenever we like.'
I wordlessly followed him to the door. He walked out into the night. I stood at my door, while the light of my fire flickered behind me. The dim light of the occasional lamp post let me see Stephen as he walked down my road. As he turned at the end of the road, he turned to face me. In the dim light, I got the impression that he had long white hair and a scraggly beard.
That night I stayed up late, sitting in my armchair, staring into the fire, and worrying about Stephen. The whole evening felt slightly unreal, as if it was a distant memory or a dream. I finally put out the fire and went to bed.
The next day, when I woke up, the whole experience seemed even more distant. I put on my dressing gown and went down to the living room and contemplated the cold ashes in the fireplace, and Stephen's and my empty glasses. His cigarette butts lined the ashtray that I had got out especially for him.
I felt I really should do something about Stephen. I got dressed and phoned a psychiatrist friend of mine, to see if she had some time. Stephen had noted down the address of his flat, and so I went out to find him.
When I got to the address, there was no house or flat there, just a small abandoned temple of some kind. It looked vaguely Indian. I have never seen Stephen again, but frequently think of him.