by GJ Hart
Despite what his apologetic yet mildly officious text claimed, Brian was not presently resident at a mindfulness retreat on the banks of Lake Windlemere dismantling his perplexities. Instead, Brian was doing what Brian had done every night since staggering home to discover Janet’s Dear John—lying in bed, watching YouTube as his hand wandered slowly between his bollocks to a family sized bag of cheesy ringogos.
On screen, a fleshy middle-aged man squeezed into an alpaca onesie and brandishing an electronic cigarillo the size of a trombone was explaining how the earth was flat, the moon hollow and the world controlled by shape-shifting newts. When this indefatigable purveyor of indisputable truth—bigdickwizardsnake121—began emphasising his points so stridently Brian feared his headphones might rupture, he scrolled on.
He watched more, gulped them down like cheap shots—two on chemtrails, three on the Illuminati and one that went to extraordinary lengths—via earnest but crude stop-motion animation—to convince him Michael Jackson was alive, well and running a windsurf school in Sharm El Sheikh.
Just as sleep beckoned and Brian’s phone began to slip from his hand, he stumbled on a video that piqued his interest. Unlike the others, it was well produced and provided credible evidence to back its claims. According to its presenter, although countless satellite maps existed online, certain areas were blurred out and fuzzed over. The internet, she said, kept secrets.
These titular grey areas were dotted erratically about the globe—from tundra to desert—and seemed linked only by their prosaic locations: one behind a dry cleaner’s in Frankfurt; another beside a supermarket in Ottawa; another in an overgrown park beside a lugubrious housing estate in Southend-on-Sea .
Why, asked the presenter, should these places be masked from view when, with a couple of clicks, even a casual browser could inspect any number of missile bases or government research facilities? The video offered up a few theories, all of them tentative.
Then, just before the wrapping up, the presenter revealed one last grey area: a short bank of fallow land, hedged between cliff tops and a minor road and situated no more than 5 miles from where Brian lay.
Brian woke, damp and dry-mouthed from dreams of grey brutes with grey eyes—the video. Brian was baffled. How could a place he’d passed a thousand times, on the train to work and before, in his father’s rattling car en route to days by sea, exude even a whiff of mystery? He had to investigate and dressing quickly, forwent breakfast (a simple sacrifice since he had none) and headed out to the bookshop on the high street.
He arrived as the shopkeeper was opening up and, wishing her good day, ducked inside and sidled along the aisles until he reached the high, oak cases containing the maps. He pulled one down, unfolded it on the floor and pinpointed the area. He was disappointed to find it marked by nothing more forbidding than an unassuming knoll. He replaced it and was about to leave when he decided to check a glossy tourist map in the section adjacent.
This time, rather than a gentle incline, he found the terrain marked as a cluster of houses—barely a village—moated by a narrow river. In confusion, he pulled down others and each time found it keyed differently – a coniferous forest, a quarry, the remains of an ancient abbey.
Brian looked up suddenly, expecting to find himself surrounded by tall figures in dark glasses, but the shop, except for the shopkeeper, remained empty.
There was no choice, he had to go, and since he was currently unemployed and as definitively between jobs as the Titanic is between Southampton and New York City, he hurried immediately to the station, jumped the barrier and cowered in the toilet until his train rolled into the station.
Stepping onto the station’s deserted platform, Brian was confronted by a woeful scene. A rush hour of weeds—balsam and ragwort, nodding and bored—and between them, obscenities scrawled across every wall. At one end, a ticket booth lay upended and at the other, a waiting room so thoroughly vandalised only its door plaque, rusting on the ground, remained. Brian’s heart joined it amid the detritus, saggy condoms and cans, but he continued on, ignoring the migraine left by his dissipating avidity and picking his way down broken flagstones to an unremarkable, unmarked road.
He looked about, squinting, his eyes so hobbled by weeks spent hunched over his smartphone, that the landscape—the swathes of hay and billowing villas and barns big as airships—seemed a dreary mess. With little enthusiasm he set off, flapping and cracking and pitching his body against the road’s easy gradient as if the Matterhorn lay ahead.
But he persevered, and gradually, with each fresh step, his vigour and vision improved. He increased his pace and, looking up, finally saw where he was: beautiful! He nearly gasped and breathing in, felt an approximation of wellbeing—a rare analogue emotion—a curio—both wistful and new. He relished it, it was robust and nourishing and completely unexpected. With better ease, he walked on, losing himself to the late summer heat and the tip tup of his soles against the winding road.
Minutes or hours had passed, he wasn’t sure, when a commotion roused him.
He turned to see a coach approaching, double-decked, its yellow livery and drooping mirrors lending it a waspish appearance so that, as it swung his way, it seemed to be nosing out a giant flower to alight upon. Brian stepped aside to let it pass.
It stopped, and with a tsk of compressed gas, its door popped open. A small man in a three-pieced suit stepped down to the road.
“Denis Bladthorn,” he said, thrusting out a hand.
Brian distrusted him instantly, his smile was too wide and although smart, his breast pocket was torn, his trousers shiny and his tie dappled with stains. A crooked solicitor, thought Brian, or an honest accountant.
“Brian,” said Brian, stepping back, ignoring the hand.
“Where are you going?” said Bladthorn, arch and plosive.
“Just out swinging the limbs, having a look about.”
“So, you’re an explorer—that’s good, inquisitive people are invariably worthwhile. But can I guess what you seek?” Bladthorn tapped at his mouth. “A pyramid or a gateway to another time. The Renaissance or a new world where disease and hunger are stories told to frighten children. No, none of these, I think. So, what is it?”
Brian blushed like an aged interloper at an Easter egg hunt.
“Come on, we’re no different from you,” said Bladthorn and pointed toward the coach. The windows were crammed with people, all suited and exhibiting the same creeping neglect as Bladthorn. They stared impassively down at Brian.
It was stupid, Brian knew it, but he told him everything. About the video, the grey areas, the one close by, the one he was looking for.
“So, you’re literally searching for nothing,” said Bladthorn, “How wonderful! We must give you a lift.”
Bladthorn’s uncanny smile remained set, widened even and Brian knew he should refuse, but his feet ached and his legs itched as if crawling with ants.
“That would be grand,” he said.
“Brilliant,” said Bladthorn and stepping aside, ushered him aboard.
Taking a seat behind Bladthorn, Brian shuffled himself down into its dense and giving upholstery. The coach appeared new, sleek and well-appointed with luxuries concealed yet visible in that typical, modern way. But again, as with Bladthorn and his coterie, peripheral deficiencies abounded—tissues littered the floor, an odour hung in the air and from behind drifted gentle, persistent undertones of distress.
Leaning forward, Brian tapped Bladthorn’s shoulder. “Who are you people?” he said.
“A society of sorts,” said Bladthorn, “Although that makes it sound terribly formal. Simply put, we are like-minded individuals who find solace in a shared aim.”
“And that aim is?”
Bladthorn laughed, as if at a joke he’d heard many years ago. “Just to get by, I suppose,” he said. “Now please forgive me.”
He patted Brian’s shoulder and standing, turned to address the coach.
“My friends, after traveling many, many miles, we have finally arrived.”
Although innocuous, Bladthorn’s words provoked a desperate response—panic: the passengers screamed and scattered, tearing at latches and handles and pounding windows until wrecked by their efforts, they ducked and covered. Were bombs inbound, were tornados swirling, was the driver, so enraptured by filthy texts, about to run them off a cliff? Seeking answers, Brian leapt to his feet, but found nothing had changed: their route remained clear, the landscape peaceful and the weather still the best of summer and autumn combined. As he sat, his chair heaved and a wiry fellow in grotty tweeds fell into his lap. “Please,” he implored. “Gerroff!” roared Brian and pulling himself free, forced his way along the aisle as the windows fogged and the air turned sour.
To Brian’s relief, the coach began to decelerate until eventually it stopped on a patch of uneven asphalt beside an empty open field. The doors opened and Bladthorn swung up an arm and left. The passengers shuffled after him, snivelling and bowed, straightening collars and flattening hair whilst Brian stayed curled beneath a seat, too unnerved to follow. He needn’t have worried. By the time curiosity had coaxed him down, a transformation had occurred. The tantrums had vanished, and the passengers—now divested of whatever terrors had seized them—stood at the road side, laughing and bright-eyed.
Linking arms, they stumbled out across the field’s muddy tide until marooned by its vastness. Some seemed content to wander, whist others sat and ate. Brian followed them, moving from group to group, listening as they talked with unbridled enthusiasm about the plainest things: the weather, interest rates, council misdealings and the success of this year’s asparagus yield.
“Have you ever been in trouble, serious trouble?” said Bladthorn, now standing at Brian’s side.
“No,” replied Brian, quick as a sneeze.
“So, are you principled, lucky or just damn clever?”
Brian studied the ground. “Can I join you,” he said, “travel with you?”
Bladthorn spat down on two worms coiling at his feet. “Do you have a choice,” he said.
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