I walk gently along a path through a forest. The sides of the path lined with bluebells, their stalks and leaves not quite distinct, the many flowers often blending together into one. I stop and turn, waving my hand through them. At times I can feel their petals, at other times, they are gone. I move my hand nearer to the ground, trying to grab one of the bluebell stalks, but it wriggles as I grab it, evading my grasp.
Sighing, I stand up and walk to the end of the path, which is increasingly changing from fresh mud to a rather more malignant black, manmade ooze in parts. I tread carefully to avoid getting the ooze on my feet. The path leads to a building plastered with ancient posters, their text and pictures long faded away or torn off, mostly advertising concerts or films. To the left hand side of the building is a door. I push it open, and it leads into a front room with bare, paint-spattered floorboards, tatty armchairs, and bookcases scattered with browned pages torn out from books many years before. I reach for one of the armchairs. It feels soft and familiar, so I sit for a moment, and then get up and head out of the front door of the building, which leads out onto a main road. As I walk, I sense a woman I once loved, standing somewhere near me. I cannot see her clearly, but then I feel her smiling at me, her eyes shining with the expression of a love and a desire which has lasted throughout the ages, but I still cannot see her or touch her.
“I can’t remember your name,” I say aloud.
She begins to reply, and I walk towards her, and then she is gone, the air empty and desolate.
“Why do you live in the past?” a new voice booms out, as if speaking directly inside my head.
I turn around, trying to find the speaker, but there is not a soul in sight.
I walk along the deserted street, past shops which initially appear attractive, glittering, enticing, in every case revealing themselves as broken, empty, shattered glass on their floors, the clothes muddied and torn, the food squashed, rotten, useless.
I hear noises towards the end of the street. Shapeless forms approach me, and without warning begin firing guns. I duck into one of the empty shop fronts, watching as a pitched gun battle breaks out between what I can only surmise are two separate gangs of warring criminals, rejoicing in their freedom in this lawless land.
“The past is but a failed state,” the voice comes again.
I feel an invisible hand pressing against my face, and then a sensation as if goggles or glasses of some kind are being removed.
And then I am here, sitting on a sofa in a sterile, white office. Before me stands a woman in a white suit, her blonde hair tied back, holding two pairs of large, bright red glasses in her left hand.
“It’s OK,” she says, noting my disorientation, “You don’t remember where you are, do you? I’m Doctor Eislemann, your psychiatrist. I’m here to help you.”
She is right; I do not remember. Whatever technology is contained in the glasses, it took me to a world so strange and real that it’s made me forget the reality of the present.
“Why do you live in the past?” she asks me, “As I said, it is a failed state. And, as we saw just then, even the things about your past which were good, you cannot hold onto them now. Like a crumbling utopia, they are gone, vanished, dust. All you can do with the past is leave it behind, move on. It has nothing to offer you.”
Fragments of my life begin to come back to me, although I still cannot relate them to what I saw when I had the glasses on.
“What was that?” I ask.
“That was your emotional sense of your past, how you imagine it deep inside, what it means to you. It was made real via our technology.”
“Who was the woman I thought I saw?” I ask.
She replies, and then seemingly decides to ignore my question, “But, now that you’ve recovered, and I can see you aren’t suffering from any kind of negative reaction to our treatment, it’s time for part two. Come this way.”
Dr Eislemann leaves the glasses on her crystal-clear desk and walks to the left, touching the smooth wall in front of her. A hitherto-unseen doorway opens onto a rubbery walkway which leads up to a platform. I follow her to the platform, which has a glass wall up to just above waist height, topped by a metallic handrail.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“You’ll see. I’m going to take you to some places from your past. For real. And since it’s Christmas tomorrow, I believe something seasonal is in order.”
She reaches to the floor and presses a small red button. A column rises from the floor, dotted with buttons and a small screen.
She turns to me.
“Where to begin,” she thinks, looking at me in the same way that a teacher might a five year old pupil.
“Ah yes… Holi.”
She types a date into the small keyboard just below the screen, and the glass behind us closes, and everything outside our enclosure becomes increasingly blurred, until it is at once everything and nothing, I feel sick, disorientated, confused, and I then, out of nowhere, I get a feeling of my mind, retracing the steps, going backwards, and then I see a blistering blue sky, and a beautiful panorama – and suddenly I am back there, in a previous moment of my life, floating just behind the person I was…
I was in India, in the hill station known as Almora. It was a quite remarkable place, a retreat in the foothills of the Himalaya, built by the Mughals long before the British ever set foot on Indian territory, as a place to go for respite from the summer heat. I was staying in a delectably nice guesthouse with a huge sign outside saying ‘Smile: A curve that can set a lot of things straight.’
I’d been there a few days, and it was early March. One of the hotel workers was a grinning Nepali guy who sold me hash. I spent most of the time getting stoned out of my face with him and my other travelling companion, a posh Scot from Edinburgh.
On that particular day it was Holi, the date special to Northern Indians as it marks the point in the year in mid March when the weather turns from deceitfully temperate (and really no hotter than England at the same time of the year) to boiling hot, almost overnight.
I’d woken up, noted the snowfields of Nanda Devi, the highest peak in the British Empire, glittering away against a deep azure sky as they always did, rolled a joint, and wandered into town. It was a day which has always stuck in my head, all the shops with their shutters down and windows bolted up, the only shop which rather conspicuously stayed open being the ‘Government liquor store’, which already had a small queue forming as I walked past towards the central square. As I wandered, it felt as if a giant whisky bottle had been emptied over the town during the night, as almost every man I passed appeared astoundingly drunk. With inebriation well under way, they could get working on the main day’s activity: throwing paint over every passerby imaginable. As the hash kicked in, I grew increasingly paranoid, and retired to my room to sleep awhile.
And then I was back on the platform, standing next to Doctor Eislemann, looking out at the deep black nothingness encountered by people passing between times in history, seeing the vastness of the Himalayan setting we had been visiting, for a moment, as seen through a window in that great big black wall, and then vanishing altogether.
“Take a moment,” said Dr Eislemann, “That day is important to you. Why?”
“Well,” I replied, “It was a beautiful place, Almora. I dream of it often.”
“Why do you dream of it? Could you live there your whole life? Do you really think so? I think that you would slowly go insane, until the reason why you had come to be attracted to the place had long gone, and you were clinging only to a memory and not a life.”
“Anyway,” Dr Eislemann said, “Where now… Ah, I know!”
As she typed a new number and location into the console, she looked at the black void outside our glass platform, then back at me.
“Always best not to linger,” she said, “People who spend more than ten minutes out here have been known to crack up. Spending more than a few minutes in a go in a temporal void puts a huge strain on our mental and physical well being.”
I braced myself for the sickness that had arisen the first time we had travelled, and then Dr Eislemann pushed me off the platform, which had materialised outside a squat, bungalow-like house. It was situated next to a small pond, from which young children were occupied fishing for xiazi, or freshwater crayfish. From the moment I saw the house , the sense of longing within me became greater and greater. I walked through the door in my former body, which opened into a room rich with memory, its walls brown with the smoke of hundreds of years. To its right was a disused washing machine and an ancient bike, rusty and battered, and above that, portraits in black and white of two elderly Chinese people, who I took to be the paternal grandparents. A man is standing next to the table, setting out glasses full of Chinese wine next to empty plates and chopsticks. He turns to look as I walk in, his wide face lit up by an extraordinary smile.
“Ah, Max!” he booms. He points to the table, which, as I now remember, has been used to make an offering to ancestors via wine in the cups and theoretical food on the plates. Once that has been finished, it’s time to eat.
The bedroom door to the right opens as I sit down at my table. A woman, late 20s,
thin, worried-looking, walks through the door and sits down next to me. She reaches over and brushes her fingers against mine.
“Darling,” she says, “it’s time for dinner.”
Her touch is extremely cold, and then she moves her fingers away.
We all sit down at the table and begin to eat. As I sit, I feel as if I am coming out of my former body, and at once I am standing at the other side of the room, looking at my former self, dressed in scruffy black trousers and a huge blue coat (the weather is icy-cold in this region of China during the winter).
I wondered if the people sitting at the table would recognise me, and to test this
question I shouted my own name aloud, but they appeared to hear nothing, although my mother in law, who appeared a more weather-beaten replica of her daughter, did cast a brief, curious glance towards the coarse wooden doors where I stood.
“Come, Max,” Dr Eislemann called, beckoning me back over to the platform. I walked onto it, slipped back into the void, and then, several headrushing moments later, were back in the corridor outside her office.
As we returned to our respective couch and desk, she asked me how I felt. I was still thinking about the two places we had visited, the two celebrations I had witnessed, and in particular the piece of the past which had showed my family in another country, far far from where I assumed I was now.
“It’s funny,” I replied, “Even though when I awoke on the couch I barely knew my own name, by the time I got to those two places, it all started coming back.”
“What’s your emotional reaction to seeing those two places again? Let’s start with Almora.”
“Incredible,” I said, “When I saw that blue sky, the Himalayans splashed against it in all their grandeur, and the smiling faces in the streets, I was taken back there so quickly.”
“Whenever we try to scan your brain for celebrations you’ve attended, that one always came up the quickest. Why do you think that is?”
“Well,” I replied, “those two times in my life, I feel, were important to me.”
“Right. But you couldn’t live in them now. Imagine sitting, freezing to death, during the Himalayan winter. It’s all very well, always looking back to that time in your life and placing such importance on it, but things change. If you’d been there forever, you’d have ended up a burnt out old hippie. And as for your inlaws’ ancestral home-“
Dr Eislemann pressed a button to the right of her desk, and an image came up on the wall above of the field I had just been looking at, except that in place of the small village of bungalows which I had seen, and walked inside, there were now rows and rows of western-style ten storey blocks of flats.
“You see?” she said, “That house doesn’t exist now. Your old family in China, they don’t live in that place any more either. It’s long gone. So why do you cherish it so?”
My own memory was still weak and fractured, but I conjectured as best as I could.
“I can imagine, no, I know, that that was the house my wife grew up in. We used to
go there during Chinese New Year holidays to visit. It just felt so familiar, so real. The first place you took me, that looked spectacular, but I didn’t relate to it in quite the same way.”
Dr Eislemann gently nodded her head in approval as I said, this, making notes on a sheet.
“Now,” she said, “As well as always living in the past, there’s another issue, which hampers and handicaps you every bit as much. Come this way.”
She walked to the other side of the room from where the time travel platform had been. An opaque button was set at head height against the wall’s white background. She pressed it and a door whirred open, leading down a long , seemingly endless corridor decorated with paintings denoting subjects which one might associate with aspiration: wealth, cloudless skies, perfect sunsets, superficial beauty, beaches, expensive cars, helicopters.
“Where does this lead?” I asked, curiously.
Dr Eislemann remained tight-lipped, as the corridor seemed to go on and on forever, until finally it ended in a large oak door, incongruous in this sleek setting.
“Go on,” she said, “Go through the door.”
I opened it, and instantly a wave of warm, lush heat hit me. I walked out onto a beautiful scene: a beach, the sand white and powdery, with clear, deep blue sea and palm trees. I looked back to the doorway, hanging there like a portal. Dr Eislemann smiled and said ‘Just walk around. Then you’ll see it.’
The beach was lined with bungalows and guest houses, many of which had little bars on the beachfront where people in various states of hippyness lounged, drinking beer, smoking joints.
I wandered along it for a while and then decided to go into one of the bars. It was
a big place, with a dancefloor. It was early afternoon, though, so nobody was actually dancing. I had to do a double take when I saw the barman – it was myself.
On first glances, the life I was living looked extremely attractive – I was suntanned, thin, happy looking. Later, though, as it grew dark, things began to get strange. I looked on in horror as I coped with issues such as police appearing out of nowhere and demanding ‘special payments’, as well as local crooks and gangsters doing much the same thing.
“Seen enough?” a voice came from behind me. I turned round to see Dr Eislemann standing there, still wearing her heavy white doctor’s outfit despite the heat.
“Come, let’s go back to the office.”
I left the bar and returned to the portal. The corridor seemed much shorter walking back, and I was sure that some of the paintings had changed.
Sitting back at her desk, Dr Eislemann asked me what I thought it all meant.
“This is the future, right?” I asked her, “I’ll be doing that in the future?”
“Yes,” she replied, “And this doorway demonstrates exactly why you can’t live in the future. Just as your mind always being stuck in the past means that you can’t enjoy the present, you’ve spent far too long daydreaming about ‘owning a bar on the beach’, and it means you haven’t made enough of your life in general. Furthermore, the fact that what is clearly a fantasy so quickly turned out not to be the completely happy life you have envisaged, demonstrates that you really can’t build things up to be something they aren’t. Everywhere in life there are problems. Reality is not like a dream.”
I nodded, starting to understand.
“Now,” she said, “I have one last door for you to go through, and then our session will be over.”
She pointed to the door immediately behind her desk. It was metallic, framed by a lit-up beam which glowed from the inside.
“Where does that lead?” I asked her.
“The future,” she said.
“But you said I shouldn’t live in the future, only the present.”
“Ah,” she replied, “The future I showed you before, that was not the real future. That was the imaginary future dreamed up a million times in your fanciful head, the one that you will never actually attain because you do not live in the present. The real future is out there, through that door. Yet to be discovered.”
“What will I find?” I asked, “Where are my family? Who was the woman I saw in that vision? Is she my wife?”
Dr Eislemann fell silent.
“I am a therapist,” she replied, “Not a marriage guidance or relationship counsellor. Step through that door and you will find it all out there.”
I walked towards the doorway.
“When you step through that door, the last remaining vestiges of negativity, desire, preponderance towards over-dreaming, will be erased from your mind. You will be starting again from a clean slate.”
“Will the knowledge be erased too?” I asked, concerned, seeing as my old memory was only just starting to return.
“No,” she replied, “We are not memory-thieves. Unlike others who sometimes visit
“By the way,” I asked, “Where are you from?”
Again, she refused to give me a direct answer, stating simply that “someone you know and love paid for our treatment. Now go.”
“Fancy a beer?” I asked her.
“No!” she replied, “Good lord, no. I don’t fraternise with my patients. Now go. Go in peace. It’s all waiting for you.”
“What is?” I demanded.
“Life.” She said, “Life is waiting!”
With that, I got the impression she did not want to answer any more of my questions. I stepped towards the doorway and walked through it. I felt a sensation of being cleansed, purified, wiped clean, as I did so. Beyond the doorway all was white and misty, and as I transcended its boundaries, I saw a road, black, clean, unmarked, the road which led into the future. As I stepped onto the road, her words echoed through my head one more time.
“Life is waiting.”