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Seven Irrational Things: Part One
A tale of two wormholes, told in two parts
Based in London, Matt Mordecai has worked in IT for several decades, and co-written 5 books on software development. Not before time, he's now turned his attention to the far richer world of fiction, SF in particular. Find out more at his website: www.mattmordecai.com
Part Two of this story is available to read here:
“I lost my dog,” she called to the grinning man as he bounced in her direction down the steep woodland path. His grin fell and he looked around.
Regina felt a ping of satisfaction at his concern, then a pang of annoyance. Why had she told him that? She didn’t even own a dog. But he’d been above her on the hill, bearing down. Not exactly barrelling, but fast enough to startle her. And that over-friendly grin was unnerving. Irrational things she couldn’t control.
She avoided his empty gaze, those cavernous eyes like the crusted nostrils of a sneezing pig, and studied the footpath behind him. The ascending path was divided into sloping steps by a series of wooden boards driven into the ground. Over time the boards had weathered, darkened, and the compacted earth between each one had eroded, so that the boards stood out at regular intervals like the black keys on a piano. It was why she loved this trail so much. Her spotless apartment with its parquet tiles and its centrepiece baby-grand was the civilised reflection of this untamed realm. Perfect edges and hardwood surfaces versus collapsing banks, rutted paths, mulching leaves, fungi clustered in corners.
“What breed?” the man asked, still grinning.
The perfect symmetry of her granite-topped kitchenette versus the vivacious chaos of life bursting its banks at every chance. The ambient aroma of pristine clean peppermint versus damp moss, puffs of jasmine, honeysuckle, invisible clouds roaming like the ghosts of vegetation gone before. She loved the duality, the yin versus yang contrast, and she loved that by walking this undulating clavier path she was never truly away from her beloved Elysian baby-grand.
Even out here, away from her haven, if she stayed on this path she was in control.
“What breed?” Grin asked again with polite impatience.
She shrugged helplessly. She wasn’t used to lying; deceit was chaos.
He nodded over his shoulder. “I may have seen a dog back that way. I can help you look, yeah?”
“No, really, that’s—”
“Quite alright. I’m not due back at work for another twenty minutes or so.”
For the first time, she took in what he was wearing. Very smart, double-breasted charcoal suit jacket, a battleship-grey tie poking out beneath a red-speckled grey scarf. Who on earth wears a suit to walk in the woods? Then she noticed the faded jeans. Wrong… so wrong.
She looked up, avoiding his shoes. She didn’t want to know.
She also didn’t want to follow him into the woods.
“Hey,” he said jovially. They locked eyes, and her mind was filled with his round face. The stare was as unsettling as the grin. And yet… he seemed so nice, he was offering to help. Perhaps she really should follow him, see what they could find.
He turned, and she followed him up the hill. He needed a haircut. The mid-afternoon sunshine angled down at them, turning the man into a dappled, haloed silhouette. He must be on a late lunch break. Why not take a lunch break at lunchtime? So, so wrong.
Her eyes fell to his footwear. He was wearing trainers, like her, but at least her low-key checkerboard Vans matched her casual hiking outfit. Black sweatpants, white hoodie, chestnut hair tied back in a neat bob.
The path crested. It ran level ahead of them for another fifty feet where it fell away into the next little valley. Ahead, two heads bobbled into view. An elderly couple, well dressed in autumn coats and woolly hats, even though the south England weather clung to the fading edge of summer.
“This young lady has lost her dog.”
The couple watched her uneasily, as if she was the one out of place.
“That’s rich,” the elderly lady said, eyes narrowed, her voice pitched low, tuned over the years by relentless waves of cigarette smoke, no doubt. But her uncalled-for scepticism jolted Regina like a burn on the wrist. “How long have you even had a dog for?”
She stared at the elderly lady, who stared right on back with piercing eyes. Rattled, Regina glanced at the husband, who appeared lost in some other moment. Eyebrows arched, he’d turned away and was looking distantly into the trees. Perhaps, Regina thought charitably, he’s looking for the dog.
The grinning man coughed. “What breed did you say it was? I’m sure I saw a Labrador by itself earlier. Was it a Labrador?”
Piercing-Eye Lady sighed warmly beneath her auburn hat, though her suspicious squint didn’t match the sound. “Oh, a lovely breed. So friendly, so loyal. That does make sense; I’d imagined you would own a cat, if anything. Nasty creatures. But a Labrador. They do moult rather a lot, though.”
Her distant husband turned his attention from the trees, preliminary scan complete. “Shall we help you find it?”
“No, really, I—”
“Nonsense, dear. We’re in no hurry, you know.”
The couple revolved slowly on the spot like Panzer tanks on manoeuvre, treads carving out a circle on the tacky ground. Grin slipped ahead and led the way along the level path. Regina followed the group with her head bowed, fists clenching and unclenching.
Descending the next slope took an age. The couple edged carefully down the piano slide, the man holding out his arm for his wife to balance against. Normally, Regina loved this part of the hike: the rapid glissando descent, the rush of air like cymbals sizzling, then finally, braced legs crouching to slow down, slapping the hill’s bottom—in this case, a huge, rounded tree stump that blocked half of the path—with a brief carefree whoop.
She stood and watched the three do-gooders creep downhill, and her teeth began to grind.
At the nadir of the miniature horseshoe valley, her uninvited entourage stalled. She jogged slowly down the hill to join them. The husband, Distant Old Man, gazed out to Regina’s left, where an opening in the trees revealed a gentle lake, azure surface lapping. The far bank was lined with white willows that rippled in the breeze.
Grin pointed to her right. Where he pointed, the ground dipped to form a modest bowl about fifty feet across. The lake’s underachieving younger sibling. The undergrowth down there was particularly wild, and a couple of small-leaved lime trees thrust upward, as if they could ever compete with the uppity silver birches circling the bowl.
“Maybe your dog’s down there? I’m sure I saw something move, yeah?”
“You should call for him,” Piercing-Eye Lady said, squinting as if her eye muscles had gripped Regina’s subterfuge and begun to tear it apart. “What’s his name?”
Her stomach lurched. She felt ill. All she’d had today was some lemon squeezed into a glass of water. Amid the desperation, a nugget of truth escaped: “I haven’t thought of a name yet.”
The grinning man’s grin widened. “You never named your dog? No wonder he ran off.”
Unsure how to continue the lie, she waved her arms around instead.
The grin subsided and he peered at her.
“You know, your eyes, I’ve never seen that colour. Are you wearing contacts?”
“There!” Distant Old Man said, having wrenched his gaze from the momentary escape of the lake. “There’s definitely something down there. I saw its tail disappear. Must be digging a hole. Got its secret stash of bones under those bushes, I bet.” He chuckled gently, though his wide-open mouth didn’t fit the sound. Dido’s lament. Regina wanted to get away from these wrong-in-every-way people, eradicate them from her life and from her memory. People belonged in auditoriums. Paying people, who were there to appreciate her presence and her musical talent.
“You’d better get down there,” Grin said, his voice concerned, his face grinning. “I would climb down there myself, but your doggie doesn’t know me. It would sooner run off than sniff my hand, yeah?”
Regina looked around. Piercing-Eye Lady and Distant Old Man were watching her with unusual intensity. Expecting a performance, a return for their damned empty kindness.
She could turn and run. The element of surprise would give her a head start, and her car wasn’t too far away. She’d left the classic soft-top Porsche by the roadside, trusting that no delivery vans would round the corner and send the wing mirror bundling down the single-track lane like a bowling ball. She could do it. Just run, and if the half-suited man gave chase like a dog after a stick, she might just reach the car and speed away before he could draw her back with another banal observation.
She toed the edge of the bank like a kid refusing to tuck into a bowl of green salad. Or, more aptly, like an eight-year-old girl desperate to leave the piano having practised for the fourth consecutive hour that day. She didn’t care what the leering fool thought of her, but something about the elderly couple kept her from running; perhaps the authoritative air of the aged that she felt obligated to obey.
Pouting, but trying instead to look grateful, she crouched and gripped a protruding tree root. She slid one foot over the precipice, her slipping sole outlining a superficial trench down the exposed wall of soil. Beneath her, the slope was smothered with buckthorn. She placed her foot onto a precarious stem, chose another stem and, crouching low, reached down with her hand to take delicate hold. The surface was spiny, and she worried about abrading her skin. What was she thinking? Her hands were her whole life. She let go. Her other foot gave way and with a barely suppressed yelp she slipped between the shrubs and slithered all the way down the bank. A layer of bracken gave her a soft landing.
The floor, though satisfyingly crunchy, was already damp: in a month or so this sunken bowl would be a bog, an ephemeral kingdom populated by skittering insect workers and patrolled by slimy-smooth newts.
High up in the peanut gallery, curious faces stared down; in fact the audience had begun to grow. A young family—fresh-faced parents and their two scowling cherubs—had arrived. A cycling helmet was perched high on the young father’s head, the straps dangling loosely. Grin was talking animatedly to both parents, glancing down at Regina as he spoke, one hand circling in a rapid version of the Royal Wave. The elderly couple stared fixedly at her with deeply disapproving looks. What the hell? They had wanted her to climb down here! Wrong, so wrong, all of them.
Still, she had to put on a show. She was used to that. Even if reluctant, she could at least control the performance. Hold the audience rapt; only release them when she wanted to. She turned with a flourish and ducked beneath a canopy of broad leaves and twigs. Several more steps. Enough of a show, surely? Besides, a fallen oak tree blocked any further progress. Its mossy trunk was being swarmed over by droves of ants and beetles, its afterlife a Promethean nightmare of eternal consumption.
She took a deep breath, ready to turn back. Oh well, she would tell her growing fanbase, guess I lost the dog. Gotta go, thanks, bye.
Something moved. Beneath the fallen tree, the moss parted and a single eye poked out. Regina gasped, hand straight over her mouth. The eye was the size of one of her parents’ Wedgewood side plates. The eye’s owner, an unfeasibly large grub, at least three feet long, pink as a newborn, wriggled out through the moss and flopped in front of her. One end was dominated by that single pastel blue eye, the other end tapered to a point like an ice cream cone.
Impossible. Horrified. Must escape this chaos, return to the path. But what would she tell the strangers whom she suddenly cared so much about? I didn’t find a dog, but I did see… this thing. They would never believe her. Accept the lie, but not the truth. The elderly couple would look crestfallen; for some reason she couldn’t face their disappointment.
Leaning forward, gingerly, she reached out and pulled at the moss. It parted like a curtain. Tucked away in the recess, amidst an otherworldly red glow, another six giant grubs wriggled, coming alive.
Her feet grew heavy, and warm. The first grub had rolled and clambered on top of her lovely Vans, and was looking up at her in a most disarming way.
“Don’t you go giving me that helpless puppy eye,” she murmured. The thing blinked.
Regina was no longer repulsed: in fact, she suddenly felt rather maternal. Compelled. Reaching down, she slid the flats of her hands beneath the cylinder of flesh, felt its warmth, sensed the life pulsing against her palms, and lifted the creature, cradling it to her chest.
The onlookers looked on, peering through the umbrage of pre-autumnal decay. She’d almost forgotten about them. Cautiously, she prised the giant grub away from her chest, ignoring the mud and mucus that it left in streaks across the front of her hoodie, and held the prize aloft.
“Found it,” she called, hoping they couldn’t clearly see what she was holding, wishing they would just wave, whatever weak needs their flaccid egos possessed having been satisfied, and depart.
“Why’s she holding her arms up like that?” the youngest of the scowling cherubs asked his young mother. “What’s she doing?” The young mother shushed the boy. His elder sister watched silently with her head slightly tilted.
The sun had changed its angle and now kindled the gathering in a golden haze. Though the cherubs seemed unbothered, the adults’ faces were rapt, lit, awestruck. Above Regina, the grub was similarly lit up, wriggling in the warm rays.
“That’s no Labrador,” Grin said, no longer grinning. “It’s…”
“Beautiful,” the young mother finished for him. The young father nodded slowly.
“I have never seen such a dog,” Piercing-Eye Lady warbled. “Such a specimen. It’s…”
“Simply magnificent,” her elderly husband finished.
A silence fell upon them; her uplifted arms growing tired, Regina lowered the creature and returned it carefully to the crunching carpet of green. The other grubs had begun to emerge from their secret grotto, huge eyes blinking at the mottled stage lights.
“I believe I will return,” she whispered to the squirming troupe. “You’re not chaos at all.”
She returned to the bank, clambered up with more difficulty than she would have liked, waved away Grinning-again Man’s proffered hand, stood up and brushed herself down. The front of her top was sticky against her hand.
“So that’s that,” she said.
Grin touched her arm and said in a disappointed whine: “But what about your dog?”
“He’s happy down there. He’ll come home when he’s ready.”
Seven jaws dropped as she turned away and strode up the hill.
• • •
The moment she was home, Regina threw off her muddy trainers and the soiled hoodie, put on a pristine cream blouse and different Vans, and ran across the bare hardwood floor to the piano, which stood alone in the centre of the apartment. She pulled out the soft-cushioned piano stool, sat, opened the lid, closed her eyes, and sought her quiet place.
Grin had commented on her eyes. Wrong colour or something. Well, he was the wrong one. Besides—and she suddenly realised why his smile had been so disconcerting—it didn’t match the rest of his face, like the wire running between his mouth and eyes had been cut. Well, he and those others were gone now, out of her life; stability restored.
She stretched her arms, fingers and toes, and played Chopin for an hour until she finally began to relax.
Dinner was a bowl of fresh pasta, rocket leaves, and a bottle of Evian.
• • •
“I lost my maggot,” she smiled to herself as she traipsed up the woodland path early the next morning. She should be resting right now—she had a recital at the local concert hall later that day. She should be reclining at home, protecting her feet and fingers from possible harm, and meditating, or watching Netflix or lions mating on the Discovery Channel. But she felt drawn to the grotto, the jungly crib for her adopted babies. The one she’d picked up she decided was female and her name would be Magpie.
Shiny clean Vans clip-clipping the black keys of the downward slope, she performed her piano slide and reached the bottom. She forgot to slap the massive rounded tree stump and even ignored the lake. The overgrown salad bowl awaited. Without hesitating, she crouched and slithered down the earthen wall in one movement, trusting the bracken to catch her softly.
“Magpie,” she called, pushing through the foliage, avoiding the nettles. “Where are you, my lovely Maggot Pie?”
Around the broad trunk of the fallen oak where beetles still feasted, several piles of clothes lay strewn, each set folded inward, as if the owner had shrunk beneath the clothes and been drawn away. Regina counted seven piles. She clucked her tongue noncommittally and turned to the far more absorbing occupants of the grotto.
The creatures had grown. In front of the fallen tree, seven giant grubs, almost twice the size they had been yesterday, sat upright on their tails. The tails. Facing forward, bifurcated, each more like a twin cone than a single. Where the ice cream scoops would be, thick lumps extruded like bunions. Bulging, flattening, stretching out to form toes, feet, perhaps eventually legs. Regina could already see the emerging leg-shapes like split trunks above the base of each grub.
Which one was Magpie? She had no idea. But on each creature, the single Wedgewood eye had transmogrified into a human face.
She looked closer. The grub on the left was grinning, flawless white teeth spread across the full diameter of its rounded front, eyes no longer baby-blue but an annoying luminous green.
At first, the next two grubs looked unfamiliar. Regina blinked hard, then recognised them as younger versions of the elderly couple, pink, smooth and amorphous. Next to them, the faces of the young parents and their two children, aged forward to resemble adolescents, still scowling.
Regina squatted gently, feeling the work in her calf and thigh muscles, and peered at the grinning grub more carefully. Behind the teeth and the perfect gums, there was no mouth, just a slight concavity like someone had pushed with their fingertips into a block of pink modelling clay. She reached over to the simulacrum of the elderly man and prised his lips open. They only expanded by an inch or so, with a similar wall of pink behind his teeth. The teeth wobbled at her touch—dentures. Most authentic.
Her feet felt warm and heavy. Glancing down, the grinning grub had flopped onto her shoes, and was now snuggled up against her shins.
“Oh, Magpie,” she chided, “did you really have to? Him, of all people?”
She stayed with them for a while, carefully examining their conga drum bodies, prodding their gelatinous tummies, hugging them and cooing—though she wondered if they were too old now to be mollycoddled—and eventually departed, promising them that she would return soon, though she had a concert tonight and needed to focus.
• • •
Back in her apartment. Only an hour until she had to be at the concert hall. She didn’t bother to change, she would do that there. Her resplendent evening gown would already be hung up for her in the dressing room. The venue also had a stylist on tap, who would help her to spruce up. Lucky, as she felt strangely disjointed right now.
She wandered into the bathroom and wondered how that face in the mirror had gotten so sallow, its eyes so dull. With one finger she pulled down her lower lid, stared at the damp red stripe, and tutted. Her gaze drifted down to the two electric toothbrushes. Side by side. She blinked.
The white one was hers, the bristly head quite a new replacement. But the toothbrush next to it, red with yellow stripes, the bristles on the round head worn and splayed out, was unfamiliar. She stared at the intruder, and stared some more, and lost track of time, until, back in the living area, her iPad pinged.
Time to go, but her eyes darted like a salamander’s between the toothbrushes. Did she have a partner? A flatmate? She looked back at the mirror, and hardly recognised her own reflection. Who even was that person staring back? The persnickety loner who faulted everyone and everything around her? That… wasn’t her, surely?
The iPad pinged again. Really time to go. No time to settle her rattled mind… she would drive to the concert hall, park in the open-air car park just opposite, and hope the scant remaining time, while she dressed up and got stage-ready, was enough to reobtain her muse.
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