WHO WANTS TO LIVE FOREVER?
By Edward Morris
The writer stirred and moaned in the gray-green dawn light through the bars on his hotel window. Outside, the rain fell hard on the town that dragged him down, where everyone wanted to live his life except him.
London sped onward outside, but now of awful days he dreamt, he dreamt, he dreamt 1971. Seven years ago. For him it would always be seven years ago, when his own mad flight from childhood was grounded after Austria. Nineteen-sodding-seventy-one, the year they consulted his papers and sent him home with his guitar on his back and wild, continuous disappointment bobbing in his eyes, the year Nanny Government decreed that no one was allowed to hitchhike anywhere, ever again…
He would always have that scar across his universe blotting out the sun, that fire left to gutter out in the war-torn wastes of his imagination, that improbable howl of the wolf always, always at the door…
He dreamt of merrie old England just then, no Innsbruck, no hostel, no star-drenched field spinning in two directions at once… At home the bodies stirred and walked, with no deactivation-codes, through weird glass paintings and wobbly sets to infinity, with so much more going on than the eye of Man was meant to behold…
The big red #24 omnibus was a smoking upended beetle in a litter of meat and metal for half a hundred yards past the shattered lions of Trafalgar Square. For a kilometre round, his city resembled a battlefield. Even past the bomb-crater, the paving-stones were scarred and ravaged and churned.
From beyond the wall of sleep, the writer mourned for England, and the world, and his own sense of wonder driven so far into hiding like a wide-eyed child in an attic hearing the lock-step tramp of barely job-aged yobs marching through Picadilly in uniforms and jackboots. He made a piss-poor Kafka, driven into his own head and not happy about the lack of company.
The bosses kept him single and locked in this room to give them their bread and circuses, chained him to a writing desk, cast his eyes down from the stars and bade him go to his room without any pudding while outside the whole rest of the world went whizzing down the bog.
But here was worse. Here he was bodiless, faceless, endlessly circling the scene as the fog darkened the twilight, swirling thick and dank and close to the ground yet not hiding nearly enough of that horror from view.
My kingdom for a call-box, the writer thought, but Who am I going to call? Captain Kirk’s making cop shows and Han Solo’s frozen in Betty Ford… All the heroes are dead, and the world’s left to the shit that’s risen to the top…
Overhead in the dream, the skies throbbed an angry, infected gray as they had since Bhopal, and Detroit, and so many other dirty bombs let off atop so many other toxic hells. It rained most of the time now in London, a hundred different types of rain, some of which Nanny Government recommended that one shouldn't go outside in.
All around, the police and the Home Guard scrambled troop-transports and beat plastic shields like Centurions, shooting looters on sight and firing tear gas into the madding crowds. He saw them deploying big dustbin-shaped riotbots with deterrent infralamps on the ends of long plunger arms. From the sepia depths of rapid-eye movement, he screamed Exterminate… Exterminate… but couldn’t even wake up from his own post-traumatic yell.
1971…Allahu Akbar… Mr. Prime Minister ( the frustrated science-fiction writer and corporate Labor puppet who first invaded the Falklands in 1969, the year the show won its first Hugo) hid out in his counting-house in Downing Street and directed more beardless lads into the knackers’ shops of Syria and Lebanon, while that mad Grendel did the same from his lead-lined cave in the foothills of Madhya Pradesh and talked turkey with the Soviets when the Al-Jazeera cameras weren’t rolling and the Americans quit talking, if only for two seconds, about Vietnam…
Again and again, the writer heard Farrokh Bulsara’s almost Oxonian diction through that mustache and gleaming white teeth, replayed in every pub, at every jordie skinhead boot-rally, reaching into space…
“… Another mindless crime cannot be allowed to go on behind the curtain of Western modernity! Modernity is genocide! Modernity! Is! Genocide!”
Bulsara’s operatic bellow rang and rang in the writer’s ears within the fuselage of nightmare, from that first grainy, fake-looking video reel sent from Al-Jazeera to Downing Street and from there straight to BBC News...
“King Philip, we want you out of India and out of the Middle East, and we will detonate one bomb for each and every soldier you’ve sent over! Was it not enough for you our own beloved Prime Minister Gandhi took her own life when the nuclear technology you sold her made Bhopal the global cancer it is today?”
Somewhere a baby was crying. Its rhythm was oddly cyclical, like a bell, like ---
“ Was it not enough that a hundred thousand of my countrymen even now are burned beyond recognition and denied the mercy of death? As your own Holy Books say, watch ye then, for ye know not when the Master doth approach…”
---Like an alarm clock. The writer’s big, ungainly shopworn hands were awake before his body knew the score. The window was open, letting in delicious air and tiny spattering drops of rain that went no further than the sill. He was up before he had any idea where he was going, just that he desperately had to get there, and---
The alarm clock went sailing between the bars, landing in the rain-drenched street with a clang and crunch. Someone down there between him and the traffic noise bellowed up, “Oi!”
The writer put his hands in his coarse, wavy hair and groaned to himself. All the Time Lords were dead and he had a hangover. It was a good morning for the end of the world, but the world was always ending and beginning. It never stopped. It never started. The moment simply was.
“Sorry!” he yelled down through the bars, wondering why caged birds sang. The boy was looking up at him, brushing his wet mop of black hair out of his dark eyes.
“Douglas Adams, ennit?” he called up in a low, musically curious voice. He wore a pea-coat as black as his hair, with the collar turned up, faded black punkish Levis and Doc Marten Beatle-boots. Douglas smirked at the boy’s great big old Edward Gorey umbrella that looked like some sort of ready-made sculpture, bowed his thick mane of chestnut curls and sighed, “Yeah, all right?”
Catching sight of his reflection in the window, he reckoned he must have cut quite the filmic figure in his boxers and undershirt, gangly legs to half the window’s height, unable to conceal his perpetual almost-smile.
He looked like an actor, poised on one foot, breath held, yearning to tread the boards and hold the audience in his spell. He looked like an affable mountain of left-handed manatee, one which always seemed to be staring off into space and stuck for a punch line.
Such a large creature didn’t blend well into the humdrum. His eyes were funny and anxious, eyes that knew panic and complexity and the horse latitudes of chemical depression.
In them, reflected back twice, was the Epicurean sprawl of his suite there at the Argyll Arms spread out backward through the light on the glass, so like his old rooms at Cambridge, with socks floating in cups of coffee and dirty dishes spawning cultures so much more advanced than our own. Piles of books he hadn’t read sat atop half the furniture. The walls were hung with clippings and culls. It was a fool’s life, with never enough time to live, only survive.
“Look, um---“ He waited “What’s your name, lad?”
The boy puffed up like a pigeon. “Neil! I‘m with the Guardian! Give’s an interview? ”
“Right! Look, Neil, the doorman’s name is Pat. You show Paddy your credentials and tell him Douglas Adams says ‘XYZ.’ Fancy a bit of breakfast?”
In answer, the wake of rainwater from Neil’s running boots looked like something out of an American ‘Road Runner’ cartoon as the boy sprinted for the door.
“Greenies,” Douglas chuckled rustily to himself, hunting round for a clean shirt, muttering something about the spirits having done it all in a single night. What they’d done, he wasn’t sure, but a bit of a fan-boy moment would numb and distract him from the afternoon’s drudgery still at hand.
He looked out the window a moment longer at Argyll Street, breathing in the clean vapor of rain, the fog and filthy air of his London. All of it could end in smoke at any point: The young mother pushing her pram; the male Mod couple screaming at each other in mid-slapfight over on the opposite corner; the old lady trundling a shopping cart full of what appeared to be military ordnance down the street past the mustachioed busker in his Sikh turban and black caftan making his accordion wheeze out an old Judy Garland song, “You Made Me Love You.”
All of it could wink out of existence without notice, without warning, at any time. Where was his place in that? What was the point of anything?
There were tears in Douglas’ eyes when he turned away from the window, singing along under his breath. After a moment, he fumbled a hanky from his pocket and tried to fix his face. The press was here, in the person of this eager young fan, and the show must go on…
“Scientific prose is more enlightening, but science fiction these days… Ellison, Sheldon, Zelazny, LeGuin…They’re playing with all these fertile myths that make us realize how silly we all look, and doing it scientifically, tempering imagination with logic and reason. They’re trying to blur the lines between red meat and comic relief. That’s something...”
As the great man spoke, Neil speared a rasher of bacon with his fork, washing down a mouthful of baked beans with black tea on the way. This man had soloed with Pink Floyd, and even spoke musically. He made Neil feel smart just listening, like he’d arrived at the concepts Douglas was waxing on just before Douglas himself explained them. The gods had smiled on Neil, that morning, he reckoned. No mistake.
Adams’ rooms were full of every kind of electronic noisemaking gadget there ever was, and enough computers for a small business, in between the shoals of paper and laundry. For someone who acted so much like a lost little child in a giant frame ( arms and legs everywhere in the chair as he held forth in his soft, cynical voice,) he did nothing half-arsed. Not a bit. Neil sat and ate and listened, cataloguing it all in the ticking Ankythera mechanism of his own baroque imagination.
“But there are great lessons to be found in both left-brain and right-brain oriented literature. I want to synthesize science and comedy. Don’t know what you’d call it. Cosmic jokes. Someone else’ll have to name this wondrous new movement within the tired bowels of commercial fiction. I’d just like to head to California and cool my heels for five minutes. Needs is needs, when the devil’s spitting on your doorstep.”
He snorted, watching Neil fall to. The boy ate like he’d never seen food, Douglas thought wonderingly, sitting back over his own plate long since clean with no second helpings phoned up from room service on the Beeb tit. His own tea was Chinese jasmine. “Ahh, you’re nineteen. You make me feel old, and me just twenty-six…”
Neil’s brow furrowed and his shoulders slumped, but he let the Dictaphone run on. He had a look of fascination about him, one that would keep recording even if the interviewee slagged on his Mum.
“Yeah. What of it?” His soft murmur was as calm and amused as Adams’ own, slightly higher in pitch. Douglas leaned forward in his armchair.
“ Farrokh Bulsara was nineteen, too, when he got started. I just think it’s fascinating, the forms that genius takes. I heard Bulsara grew up learning to play the piano and sing, until Bhopal. Who knows what sort of genius he could’ve been, if things went right? He could’ve been Israel Horowitz.”
“Or Liberace.” Neil shuddered. “You’re a laugh riot, Mr. Adams. Bit of a mood today?”
“Look, after a lot of mucking about and feeling sorry for myself and making excuses and hiding in the tub, writing and script-editing all of ‘Dr. Who’ has become my first real job. Literally, the first. But if I had my time over, I’d chuck all of it in a bin marked ‘Don’t Do.’ I can’t really write, and now everyone’s found out.”
The sigh deflated him. He put his head in his hands. “Did you ever feel like you were in the wrong life?” he asked, looking up for a moment, gesturing the way an actor would.
“I don’t mean any of this New Romantic twaddle,” here Neil hid a smile with the back of one hand, “But… like we’re all in the wrong life? Like the whole world’s gone through some sort of Magellanic Cloud of Stupidity and this is all just some sort of bad dream we can’t wake up from?”
The boy gave him a commiserating look. “Well, like the Smiths say, it can’t rain all the time.”
Douglas looked up, miffed. “The who?”
“No, the S-- Never mind. Not important.” Neil mopped up the last three bites of baked beans with his last rind of toast and pontificated.
To him, Douglas looked older than his years, just then. The bags under his eyes grew as deep as the grave, and for three seconds he appeared to have one foot in it.
“I wish I really could go sidewise in time, the way Murray Leinster spoke of. I mean really do it.”
“Where would you go?” Perhaps someday he, too, could walk in those Arthur Murray Leinster tracks across the stars. Neil hoped he would arrive soon.
“I dunno,” Douglas said finally,”Who cares? Anywhere but here.”
“Consequences…?” Neil admonished . Douglas snorted again. “I’ll take my chances. I want…”
He thought a moment. “I’ve never really written anything longer than a short story, just been tied to the show. I want someday to do a novel, I just can’t get past the first page.”
The boy looked at him for a long moment. “Subject?”
Douglas hissed. “Oh, please, sir, can I hear some more?”
Neil waited. Douglas closed his heavy eyelids. What he said next had the feel of a well-worn war story rehearsed word for word.
“Look, I was in Innsbruck when I was your age, you young prat,” here he mugged an old gaffer for a second or two,”Pissed as a fart on the local beer, lying in a field looking at the stars, too drunk to crawl back to the hostel. I looked at The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe sticking out of my bag, and thought there should be a bigger guide, like beyond the planet... Tell me if this is funny…”
Outside, the busker played on, some mournful boho rhapsody probably of his own devising. Douglas stood and began to pace, declaiming in a big radio chest-voice,
“Way out in the trackless wastes of the wrong side of the galaxy lies a small and unremarkable star. Spinning round this star at a distance of just under a hundred million miles is a watery little flyspeck of a planet whose dominant primates are so terminally underdeveloped that they still think democracy is a pretty neat idea. And the inhabitants of this planet wondered why they were unhappy most of the time.”
Neil looked at his recorder and cleared his throat. “And?”
Douglas looked cross, sucking up the last dregs of his tea. It was now quite cold. “What? That’s all I’ve got so far. LeGuin and that lot, they make it look so easy. No censorship in America.”
“No c--- Wait a minute.“ Neil smacked his forehead. “You’ve never been over?”
Douglas shook his big, shaggy head. “But I was just saying to Kurt Vonnegut on the phone the other day that if our Doctor were ever to go bounding out of the wardrobe, there’d be no more show. Then riots in the streets featuring non-Arabs, and the whole common weal would collapse. Wait. Don’t print that. Ever.”
Neil shook his head. “Not me. Here.” He rewound the Dictaphone. PLAY. “…censorship in America.” STOP. “Right there okay?”
“You’re good.” Douglas looked a little mollified. “You know what you can get away with. What’d you say your last name was?”
But Neil was on a roll. “Thing is, you can say anything you want in the Guardian with sufficient frosting, Mr. Adams---“
“Douglas. But it’s just like anywhere. Enough icing sugar and you can get them to swallow William Burroughs’ whole naked lunch. They only realize later what they’ve eaten when the gas starts up. By then, they’ve digested the meaning and your work is done.”
Douglas thought about that. “Yes, yes, Burroughs talked about ‘apparent sensory perception’, and…” He closed his eyes, corralling the tangent before it reached the edge of the room and didn’t come back. “I like you, Neil. You’ll have your interview.”
He gestured at his desk across the room, piled high with bond paper in pre-galley form. “Writer too, are you? And I don’t mean journalism.”
Neil scraped one boot toe back and forth on the carpet. Was he blushing? Douglas thought so. But there was a paleness beneath the blush, one of long nights at the typer with his mouth too full of things he wasn’t supposed to say. “Is it that obvious?”
That garnered a ‘harrumph.’ “Lad, you broadcast!”
Neil looked over at the piled desk across the room, and the spandy-new electronic typer. “Well, I’ve been found out. What you working on, then?”
“Game, set and match. New three-parter for next week, and it’s giving me fits.”
“Oooh.” Neil’s eyes lit up even brighter. “What’s it called?”
“ ‘City of Death.’ And that’s all you get. Robert Holmes would hand me my arse if I gave any spoilers. ‘s actually a nine-parter, called ‘The Key To Time’, we’re just doing it in bits. We’ve got Terry Gilliam to play the mad pirate captain in the next one, and… I think… Yes. One spoiler.”
Now that he’d been properly wound, Douglas couldn’t not talk about this. “Another Time Lord who escaped the great conflagration on Gallifrey. The Doctor said he felt, in his mind, that all his folk were dead, you remember?”
The look of irritation that crossed Neil’s face bespoke a religious fan glued to the telly every Saturday at seven. Douglas noticed this.
“Right. ‘Course you remember. Well, this Professor, this other Time Lord, was thrown through the dimensions, so the Doctor couldn’t feel that he was still alive. But he returns. You’ll see. It’s good fun. The fourth part’s called ‘SNO-7 and the White Dwarves.’ It’s the first adventure featuring the Doctor and the Professor together. I’ll let someone else do the second and see where it goes.”
What A Good Boy Am I, Adams’ eyes said, full of pride between long sloughs of despond riding the edge. As a person, he was easier to read than P.G. Wodehouse, Neil thought. This interview would sell loads of Friday’s street edition if he hustled. He kept listening, knowing he could count faceless Good Fortune’s gifts at another time.
“But how am I supposed to write science-fiction when it’s happening outside in the streets? Can’t go out in the rain half the time or be poisoned. We’ve got flying taxis now, and video games you can play on telly. Got to keep ahead of the current, or we’ll all be washed out to sea by nothing grander than simple ‘Progress’, to use the popular misnomer.”
Neil was trying not to look too enraptured. “Who’ve you got to play the Professor?”
Douglas’ soapbox fell to bits beneath him. He sighed. Kids. “Some bloke from the Royal Shakespeare company called Patrick Stewart or something. Sandra Dickinson’s playing Romana again. Anthony Daniels wanted to do the voice for K-9 again, but he’s out for the new Star Wars picture, ‘Attack of the Empire.’ So maybe K-9 won’t pull a Lassie, Come Home until next season. Plenty of room for discontinuity. As always.”
“Hellooo!” The door suddenly banged open and shut. A tall, long-nosed fellow with sandy blond hair and a ruddy complexion entered the room, glancing around at both of them and eyeing Neil in particular. “Oh, why, hellooo.”
“’Helloo yourself, Gramma. Hands off my reporter. Old enough to be his Dad, you are.” But the smile lit Douglas’ face and made him look ten years younger.
The newcomer removed his topcoat and that long, ridiculous scarf, tossing his garb carelessly in the unoccupied armchair.
“I’ll go fetch us some glasses, “ Douglas went on, “ Neil, please allow me to present---“
But the boy’s jaw had already dropped, exposing small white teeth and a tongue he seemed about to swallow. He regained his composure, taking a deep breath and rattling off,
“Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold,
Then I felt like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his
With that, Neil was on his feet in two seconds to shake the great comic actor’s hand. That hand had a firm grip, and didn’t seem to want to give his hand back straightaway. The actor’s breath smelled like a juniper bush.
“Bravo,” he trilled, “You know your Coots. Keats. Sir John. Sorry. Fancy shaving a cat or two?”
Neil’s eyes opened all the way.“What?”
The actor looked at Douglas, who roared with laughter. “Nothing,” he segued, “You’re too young, you are.”
Neil’s look of adulation returned nonetheless. “Fuckin’ hell, you’re the Doctor.”
“ Not really,” the actor told him. “I never did my residency. Too expensive, you know. Doug’s from a long line of Scottish doctors, though. Why, his grandfather and father both---“
“Shut it.” Douglas got to his feet, glancing back warningly as he made for the other room. “The Doctor” saw the look and did so.
“Anyway,” he went on, “Who you with, then? The Sun? The Daily Mail?”
Neil looked with gratitude at the whirling reels of his Dictaphone on the end-table. From the other room, there were many clinks, and something went ‘Ping!’
“Manchester Guardian,” he answered,“Give us a word? Or…well, I’d rather just let it run.”
Graham Chapman looked sheepish.“The Guardian, no less. Shall I go out and come back in again?”
Neil blushed, looking at the floor. “ Not at all. Mr. Adams, there---“ he jerked a thumb at the other room, “Just threw an alarm-clock at me. The lengths I go for a story.”
“Well, then.” Graham beamed as Douglas re-entered with a tray holding a fifth of Bombay Sapphire, a snubby little bottle of quinine tonic, three glasses and a bucket of ice. “Let’s have a ding-dong.”
“Bit early in the---“ Neil began. Douglas looked irritated.
“I never threw the alarm clock at you, just that---“ Here Neil looked slighted. Douglas flapped his hands. “What? I never did. How was I to know you’d be walking by? There is no true fatalism, dear boy, only an endless string of causes and effects.”
Setting the tray on the end-table, he poured Neil a stiff one. Neil took the drink when offered, shaking his head in resignation at the way his day was shaping up, chuckling under his breath.
“Quite,” Graham beamed over his own drink, which was much stiffer. “Like one of those Von Neumann equations. What was it that American folk singer Allen Ginsberg said in the Fifties---”
“ ‘The child gives birth to the man.’” Douglas looked at the bubbles in his own drink and sipped at it moodily . “Anyway, he’s not your Doctor, he’s just a very naughty boy. What have you come to bother me about, Graham? I’ve just got two brilliant lines out, and I expect I’ll have a whole page of Episode Two by five and then it’s time to go t’pub. So, what’s---”
Graham, meanwhile, had risen and crossed the room, reaching through the bars to yank the window all the way open.
“Will! You! Be! Quiet!” he screamed at the accordion player across the street, who’d been droning on all the while. “Or… really, anything but ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’!”
At this, Neil startled visibly. He hadn’t noticed. Douglas just shook his head, placing it in one hand. Sardonically, the wheezing noise across the street rattled into a fairly creditable da-dun, da-dun,da-dun, da-dun… OoooEEEEOOOO…EEE-eee-oooo, EE-eee-OOOh, Oooh-ooo-Ooooh…
“Right!” Graham got back in the window, nearly closing it on his head. Rubbing the back of his head, he returned to his seat. “Carry on.”
“I thought your type were mad about Judy Garland,” Douglas said without missing a beat. Graham flipped him the bird. Gin came out Neil’s nose. He reached for a fag of his own, coughing and spluttering. Adams handed him his handkerchief.
“Good heavens, you two are in bits. Graham, what’ve you come to bother me about, anyway? I thought it was bad luck for you to see a new episode before the wedding night.”
Graham leaned forward, his color already a little brighter. “I didn’t come here to talk business, Doug.” Neil realized only then that Graham had been holding something in the whole time. He was burning with a kind of hectic fervor familiar to any viewer of the show, but in the same room. Neil’s eyes narrowed through the smoke from his 555. This was what he came for, or so he thought until Chapman spoke again.
“Look, this won’t be in the news for another few days, but you know David’s still on the Associated Press.”
“David who?” Neil interjected. Graham gave him a different sort of look, one that never would have mentioned David if this young thing hadn’t asked.
“David. My… my mate.” Graham flushed, momentarily unable to look Neil in the face.
“I can’t keep track of all your young men without a scoreboard,” Douglas jibed. “I remember the last season of ‘Flying Circus’ when they had Otto yelling up at your window and five different naked boys came when he called for you. Oh, what a hoot---“
Neil smiled sadly, keeping his mouth shut. He knew most of the history here from the tabloids Graham had mentioned, and reckoned he’d go back and write it in later for the readers at home.
Since the Pythons went their separate ways in 1974 when they ran out of show, Graham and John Cleese swore off writing together ever again. Graham Chapman had thrown himself into the role of Doctor Who with a zeal unseen by many. Cleese, meanwhile, disavowed comedy completely, finding another profession more lucrative and, to his own sensibilities, currently much funnier, though that was neither here nor there to Neil at that moment.
Neil knew, too, that as a writer, Chapman ran hot or cold, either deconstructing and rebuilding episodes with a single word, or queening over cuts and culls without telling Douglas, Simon Brett or any of the writers, what he didn’t like.
He and Douglas had great crack brainstorming and sticking away bottle after bottle of gin. Eventually, they found the groove within the typewriter and began churning out episodes, most lately this new thing, this ‘City of Death’ he’d heard so much about from Simon Brett, though he knew better than to let on. Douglas was nearly as temperamental as Graham, trance-channeling Marcel Proust at the slightest provocation, throwing gigantic ideas down when pressed on them and muttering, ‘Too silly…’
But now Graham was dead earnest. Firespots bloomed in his cheeks. “They’ve captured Farrokh Bulsara! That’s fifty pounds you owe me, old man.”
“Who has, the SAS? The RAF?” Douglas stroked his chin, musing. “They’ve been napalming the hills round Bhopal since ’72, not like there’s much left to ---“
“No, no! Scotland Yard! Bulsara was never even in Madhya Pradesh!” Graham roared, “He was in Brighton running the whole operation by remote control! They just routed the bastard out last night! Good God, if I could get a word in edgewise round here we’d have a script or two.”
“What?” Trembling, Neil got to his feet and shut off the tape recorder. The Doctor was high up on a stump now, and didn’t look like he wanted down.
“Do neither of you own a telly? Really! If you’d only watch the news---“
Douglas shuddered. “That’s like asking a knacker to come home and cook a steak dinner.” His eyes kept traveling toward the window, as if he wanted to go throw himself at the ground and miss, and soar amongst the birdies and 747’s, away from all this improbability.
Neil walked across the room to the far right corner and knelt in front of the old well-kept telly, turning it on. There was a ringing in his ears. When he blinked afterward, he could see a little white dot.
“---John Cleese, BBC News, advising every British subject… DON’T PANIC. You have just witnessed the most spectacular intelligence failure in the history of the
human race! Farrokh Bulsara has just eluded custody. Prime Minister Tony Burgess has now imposed full martial law and mobilized the entire Home Guard. Citizens are urged to remain in their homes. Please do not attempt to contact loved ones, MP’s or solicitors. Remain calm. Do not attempt to sort this out. Leave that to us…”
“Stop that,” Graham said at the telly. His hand was clenched around his glass, both of which shook, rattling the ice cubes in his drink. “I said, stop it. It’s too silly…”
He looked round at both of them, trying to hide the sick fear on his face. “I daresay we call it a day after going nowhere, you chaps.”
“I really have got a story here, haven’t I?” Neil asked softly. “I… this… just… fucking hell.” For the first time in recent memory, he’d run out of superlatives.
“Story, nothing.” Douglas rose and began to pace. After a moment, he walked to every window and pulled the shades down, as if shades could stop improvised incendiary ordnance. Before he did, some part of him noticed that the accordion player was gone from his post across the street. “It may be some time before any of us may safely leave this room. Anyone for a rubber of whist?”
Between them all, the telly screamed like a googolplex of radios stuck between stations. Neil wondered if one could ever be sure that anything was, in fact, real.
Douglas grinned a sick grin, returning to his seat “Above all else, there must be logic and reason. It is demanded of each of us when times are, in fact, illogical. Welcome to the Hotel Burgess. Lodgers check in, but they don’t check out until we say.”
Graham shook his head and began to pour them all another drink. Neil sat there with his head in his hands, listening to the news and looking moodily at his tape recorder.
Then came the knock at the door. All three of them jumped.“I’ll get it.” Neil strode across the room and opened the door partway.
“Yes?” he said into the crack. The big, booming Auntie Mame voice that answered him sounded familiar to everyone, yet entirely alien.
“The coppers lost my scent. Glad I’ve got you all here. Ummm… bardling, you’ve got a meet with Pratchett and more. Very important work. That begins… now.” Incredibly, the voice behind the door burst into song, and Graham and Douglas both knew it. “Goodnight, Sweetheart...It’s time to go… Baduhduhdahduh…”
A white glare that wasn’t light roared around the crack in the door. Neil looked down at his hands for just a moment, and then he just wasn’t.
Wasn’t. No pop of displaced air, no special effects budget, just… wasn’t. Graham dove for the fireplace poker. Douglas just got up and answered the door, the weary look on his face one of overwhelming Oh.
“Mr. Adams, you’ve got to help me, you’ve simply got to!” the accordion player breathed in that vast stage-whisper, elbowing his way into the room and removing the clasp from his turban.
Graham dropped the poker and stood there, blown, dawning horror on his face. “You’re---“
“First word, one syllable?” Farrokh Bulsara looked nothing like the maniac on the news. There was a gold hoop in his right ear. He was built like a lithe pit bull. He stood there undoing the last wrap of his turban on a spiky black crewcut that looked almost punkish, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to be standing there shedding his skin.
Bulsara removed the accordion but not the black caftan beneath it, setting the scrolled silver monstrosity down on the floor at his feet as though it contained the Crown Jewels.
Rings chittered on his strong, thick fingers as his not-quite-free hand holstered the strange device that wasn’t exactly a gun, shoving it back in one deep caftan pocket at his hip.
Before it went out of sight, Douglas and Graham noted that it had more barrels than a pub, all of which had lenses and warning-lights.
Douglas looked away from the instant headache of its shape, trying to bring his mind back from its mad flight around the stratosphere, pointedly not wondering about the weapon’s manufacture.
“You’ve got to help me get the truth out.” Bulsara’s sweaty hair stuck out everywhere. He looked like he’d just finished performing before a sold-out arena, with enough juice left for only one more number. “They’re coming for me soon.”
“I should say so,” Graham told him indignantly, voice quavering. “You’ve killed more people than most major wars, for fuck’s sake. How dare you show your face in---“
“Honey,” The smoking look and acid tone out-queened even Graham. “Just shut your pretty face until it’s time for your line.”
Indignant, Graham sloshed his drink and acted instead like he was about to get up and do something. Nearly stumbling over his accordion, Bulsara bulled over to him and grabbed him by his collar, yanking him up in his chair. Graham made an indignant screeching noise.
“It’s never been me!” Farrokh roared, looking up into Chapman’s eyes with mounting hysteria. “I’ve been trying to stop Them this whole time! They’re in Parliament, in the White House over in America, just… everywhere!”
“Slow down,” Graham bade him have a seat. He didn’t. Graham sat back down before he fell down. “What have you done with our reporter? You’ve murdered him, too, you have. Douglas, phone the police. We should get enough dosh out of this to finance a whole season of the show on our own, and damn the Beeb. We---“
Douglas Adams rose and got between the two of them like a minder in a crowded bar, holding up both hands for silence.
“There’s too many queens here, and not enough crowns,” he said softly and patiently. “Farrokh.. May I call you Farrokh?” There was the suggestion of a nod. Douglas had never been so confused in his life.
“If you hate the West so, old boy, if they got that much right in the News-Speak, then….” His brow furrowed, and he struggled mightily to talk as little with his hands as possible, “Why in the name of benign random variable factors are you blowing up your little home-made nuclear devices under chemical plants and oil refineries and trying to poison the whole fucking Earth? Hasn’t the West done that well enough for you?”
Bulsara’s twinkling black eyes mapped like flints and turned to dragon’s teeth. “I’m not. They are.” He looked toward the window, making an odd warding-off gesture. “I’ve been trying to mobilize resistance the whole time. Since 1971! They take my messages and splice them round any way they can to make me look like the enemy, and then act in my name, but… You see---”
Only when he looked up did the fugitive realize that both men were gazing at him with eyes the size of fear itself, ”This is the wrong Earth. They know that. They caused the shift in time when They took us over back in 1896! It’s getting out of their control, so they figure ‘Damn the manger, full steam ahead’ and then sell the chunks of the slagheap for fuel! You’re the only one who can get the truth out there, Mr. Adams, if you just--- Oh, sod it. I’ve only got minutes before I have to jaunt. What’s the point?”
Farrokh turned toward the window as if something were about to break through. Douglas waited for him to get his head back. After a moment, he took the chair Neil had all-too-recently occupied.
Life was suddenly very dizzying. The writer felt like a twig taken on a roaring current, far past anywhere he’d ever meant to go.
“You’re a loony,” Graham told him bluntly, but part of him really wanted to listen, to hear, to believe. Bulsara shook his head sadly.
“I’ve got all the evidence you need in here.” He pointed to the accordion where it sat on the floor near the door. “Microfilm, floppy disk, even something you probably haven’t seen yet, Mr. Adams, called digital audio tape,” here Douglas stroked his chin like a child about to unwrap a new toy,”When this breaks, your Prime Minister Anthony Burgess and President Reagan in America will both see the hammer fall on their heads. Keep the camera alive.”
Bulsara’s long-lashed eyes spilled over with tears. “I’ve got to leave this all behind and face the guns. Nothing really matters to me, any more. I’ve gone and thrown it all away. But you haven’t.” One hand fell on Douglas’ beefy shoulder. Douglas looked at it.
“You know what I mean, Mr. Adams.” His eyes glowed. “What if I told you that one time-stream over was your niche? Hell, mine too. I never wanted to be the gadfly for humanity. I’d rather… I’d rather…”
“Sing?” Chapman sniped. “I’ve read of you, too. Your type make me puke. Can’t have your dream, so you go round squashing everyone else’s. Get the net, Douglas, and throw it on him.”
Bulsara hung his head. “Time’s been damaged. Everything’s wrong. I know it’s mad, but it’s followed a set of rules from the beginning. My work’s almost done. All I ask is…”
He sighed. “That you look around at the slaughterhouse you’re in and realize that you’ve been slaves the whole time. You gave away all your power, your media, your money, everything, to Them before World War One and you don’t even kn---“
Bulsara’s fists clenched together, manicured fingernails deep in his palms. “How did this all get so silly? It was just a big, failed experiment that was too weird to control.”
Graham reached for the gin bottle on the tray, and managed to bring it his way after a moment. “Well, I’ll go along with you there. Our troubles started when we crawled out of the sea. Bad idea.”
Below, sirens roared down Argyll Street. Bulsara waited until they passed, gazing at his shoes and taking lots of deep breaths. “I’m going slightly mad. Please forgive me. That doesn’t change what I came to say.”
Bulsara was a walking paradox. Nothing was right about him, and yet nothing was wrong. As he listened and spoke, Douglas realized he’d gone slightly mad himself, and there was nothing for that now, either.
“Life’s not only inadvertent, but circular,” Douglas muttered to himself, chuckling in terror. “I got it right the whole time.”
The smile on his face was a rictus. He thought of every time the Doctor ever chased trouble down on the show, wired up backward as he was to run to a crisis and yell…
“Fantastic! So what’ve you done with Neil, then?”
Bulsara removed the augury from his hip pocket again. Graham and Douglas tried to look at it and, as before, gave up.
“I sent him where he’s supposed to be. Where you both should be, too.”
“And this---“ Douglas’ breath was in his throat. He had no idea what he was saying any more. “Do I make a mark on that Earth, one world over, or whatever you said? Do my books outlive me? “
Bulsara reached over and snagged the gin bottle from Graham’s hand before Graham had time to do anything but yelp. He drank from the neck like a Gypsy, exhaled loudly, and passed the bottle back. Graham looked at it.
Bulsara, meanwhile, was staring at Douglas rather pointedly. Douglas felt something crawling on the skin at the nape of his neck.
“I wouldn’t let on even if I did know,” Farokh answered, “But…yes, you were supposed to write a book that changed history, in a lot of little ways later on. You’ve said yourself… anything that causes something else to happen causes a third thing to happen too, and so on.”
“Nice,” Graham said hollowly, “Douglas, when’d you say that? Was it in---“
Douglas held up a hand for silence again, shaking his head very fast. “I… never did. I just dreamt I’d said it…”
Farrokh Bulsara began to flow his tears once more. “I’m parked in Trafalgar Square,” he managed. “Time is out of joint. The clock has melted down. I can’t live in this world any longer. I’ve got to go. Please.”
The world was black-and-white in Douglas’ eyes. His heart pounded between his ears. His tongue went bitter and dry as Bhopal wine, scientific mind reeling in horror at the presentation of such knowledge from such an improbable source.
“You’re not just going to zap me with that thing, and---“ He caught up with himself. “No, I suppose not. Well, if that’s it, then, I mean…”
Everyone looked around at each other. There was no easy ending. Graham cleared his throat, the first to break the awkward silence.
“Farrokh… D’you want to go back to my place?”
Farokh Bulsara started to say something, looked at Douglas, looked at the device in his hand… and then grinned a gamin grin.
Douglas reached up to catch the small piece of metal Farokh tossed him just then, closing his hand around it and just staring at what came next with a look in his eyes that asked the Universe to please, just stop, whatever it was doing.
“Thought you’d never ask,” Farrokh answered Graham. The augury glowed at two barrels in two separate streams, oozing light from either end.
The rain fell hard on the humdrum outside. The drops on the window made patterns of patterns. Time stretched like toffee. The moment simply was.
Douglas opened his hand and looked at the key Bulsara had tossed him for a long time. He tried to laugh, but there were tears coming out of his eyes. He’d seen this key a hundred times before… at the BBC, at work, where people regularly called in mad.
He’d seen it in the Props department.
“Well, that’s torn it.” Douglas walked around his empty rooms for a while, looking at the piles of Not Done and Not Having Done on his desk, shuddering as he approached.
Outside the Argyll Arms, air-raid sirens howled the dust from their throats, thirty-odd years of dust since the Blitz ossified into chunks that filled the air like ash, raining down and down. Everywhere was nowhere. The dream had gone bad. Nowhere would ever be safe again.
Was it always like this, seeing momentary miracles dashed to bits? He’d thought himself far beyond misgivings, regrets, anything like them. He’d thought he was happy, but in the wake of what must have surely been a dream, a fugue, a seizure, anything but what his senses were telling him it was, he wasn’t so sure. The whole thing was already starting to feel like a vacation video he’d never watch again.
Douglas tore the blank page from his typewriter with trembling hands, crumpled it into a ball and tossed it across the room. The world was spinning too fast. But this was somewhere he had never traveled, gladly beyond any experience.
He should have known better than to go out. It was long past curfew. Some nice young Army thug would see his Beeb credentials and then gently steer him back to his hotel. He had no idea what he was doing, or why.
But the searchlights would be beautiful in Trafalgar Square, even playing over the big bomb craters where no pigeons would even return. He found himself whistling as he put on Graham’s god-awful striped scarf he’d left behind, and buttoned up his nice black leather jacket, distantly wondering if the doughboys in France felt this way on their last march out across open land.
On the way out, something made him nip into the loo and grab the big, furry white hotel towel the maid left neatly folded atop the closed lid of the bog. Better to have it and not need it, he thought without knowing what he meant.
It was raining again, the bad kind that smelled like lead. Douglas wrapped the towel around his head and kept going. It seemed he walked forever in five minutes. Along the way, he vainly hunted high and low for a cab, but there were none out anywhere tonight.
The walk should have taken hours, and yet it took no time at all. Flares of sanity fell through the darkness in his sad and endless head like the last radioactive chunks of a planet blown to rubble. He’d been working too hard. His ticky heart felt like it was about to break its engine-mounts very shortly.
Strange thoughts grew with a certain pounding in his ears as he made his way across the pavement, slightly wobbly, throwing the right end of the scarf behind his neck again with a little grunt of frustration. It…
This corner. This was his corner, where They (whoever They were, not that he ever wanted to know )let off the first backpack bomb on the #24 bus. The hippies had built a memorial here, a little unornamented wooden kiosk with Polaroids of the dead under glass. He never came here. He had no reason to, but…
Up at the end of the block, the fish-and-chips vendor had locked his cart to the pole and gone home long ago. Everything else was just as normal, as every day in the dreary brave new world that was the only one he knew.
There was no reason for the Police Call Box to be on that corner, battered and blue and covered in graffiti, a tiny monolith looming out of the Nifty Fifties, as incongruous in its present location as a whale would have been, or a steaming cup of tea. He knew this corner, having just dreamt of it, he could walk to it blindfolded, and… no. But there it was.
Certain he was being followed, Douglas Adams looked left, then right, then ran across the street as fast as his storklike legs would carry him, praying fervently to the benign Random: I don’t care. Whatever happens to me, it must be a better lot than this.
The call-box door creaked shut behind him . When he turned around, his gasp of wonder rang louder than bombs. He’d had a point to make to himself, but he’d just forgotten what it was.
This was Something Completely Different.
Above and beyond the London smog, the stars spun silently over the corner, over the cart and the pole, over the leaves that blew down the walks, over the leaf-blown faces of England’s war dead, a rushing stream that roared and fell and sprang up again, and came back different, and then collapsed.
On that corner, flashes of blue light, a wailing horn, and weird bursts of radio signal echoed out across the damp, dead soundstage. Every building and car seemed to wobble in the wind.
Then, there was silence.
This story is for Paul Cornell
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