“Need to get off, I’m going to be sick. Need to get off, I’m going to be sick.” Muttered under breath. Head in hand. Down, down, down into his hand and merging. He is Grecian and statuesque there on the bus. This bus takes the long route home, up winding streets adorning steep hills. Pressure rises in the pit of his stomach as the bus climbs. Compounded headaches and queasiness turn the bus into two strips of pure light hanging above, like blurred lights lining a tunnel traversed at high speed. In an instant it is there, a gushing majestic fountain of yellow all spattered and chunky, with vegetables down shirt, shorts, and shoes.
“Are you okay? Should I hit the stop button?” A woman in a side-facing seat ahead of him asks.
“Oh God,” he says. “Oh God… yes, yes, I’ll be fine, I’m sorry, I’ll be fine.” It’s back again, new décor for an old floor, double coat. In art circles it’s a bucolic impasto on polymer after Pollock, in reality it is vomit on the floor of a bus. The man in the seat in front, a shiny headed bald man in a grey hoodie, looks over. There’s a tiny damp spot on the back of the hoodie that will dry out before he gets home probably, but our man has gracefully managed to keep the vast majority of his vomit segregated from the passengers, reserving for it the floor and his seat and his shirt, shorts, and shoes.
“I’ll hit the stop button. I think you should get off, yeah?” Says the woman in the side facing seat. He nods at her, tells her he’s sorry again. The bus stops after a minute and he sidesteps the driver’s booth with his back turned, told him thanks and got off. It seemed the driver hadn’t noticed the man throwing up on his bus, meaning he wouldn’t have to pay a fine for disabusing himself all over the floor. That was something, at least, and probably more than a man who wore the contents of his stomach on the outside could have hoped for.
Taking shelter in the bus stop, he swore at himself while trying to brush chunks of undigested food off his legs. Some people walked past the stop, they didn’t pay any attention to the man with the vomit all over him, which either meant that it was not as bad as he thought, or he was in an area of town where this happened a lot. He didn’t really know where he was. The location name on the bus stop gave him a clue, but there was no way of knowing, the names of streets in one area might correspond to the name of an area on the other side of town. It happens in these quaint English towns, and some of them have roads named after completely different towns, some of which are not even in England.
He walked down the road, not knowing which way he was going through an unfamiliar part of town, and he was covered in his own vomit. If it had been someone else’s vomit he would at least have had someone else to blame, but it was his own. He wondered if the shiny headed bald man in the hoodie had discovered the speck of gastrointestinal fluid that had landed upon him. He wondered if that man despised him for his courtesy, a fraction of a degree removed from perfection in practice, of trying to throw up as far out of other people’s way as was possible on a bus. The bus was long gone, and he decided that for now it was best to forget about it, though he bore the stains of his shame on cloth and skin as a symbol of his character to all onlookers who should pass him.
At the bottom of the hill which perhaps had been the cause of his backfiring gut he was beset on all sides by shops and bars, still open despite the time of night. It was after the third glimpse of fishnets that he realised where he was. The fabled red light district – not quite Amsterdam, he thought, but that was a stupid thought to have had as he had never set foot in Amsterdam – was awash with drunks and druggies and drunk, drugged-up women in fishnet tights and miniskirts offering oral pleasure for any man or woman who was looking for an opportunity to acquire herpes and was willing pay for the privilege. Finding himself thinking about herpes, it was impossible for him to stop licking his lips to feel for cold sores. Eventually he reinterred his grossly protruding lingua as he noticed people were looking at him with severely unkind expressions on their faces. He knew their expressions were unkind somehow, even though they seemed to move by him in a blur.
As he walked along, making it his mission to get out of the red light district, he began to recall the bus ride that had taken him through it in the first place. Oddly he could not remember having seen from the bus window any of the erotic toy shops, the adult cinema, the tastelessly dressed prostitutes, or the kebab shops that seemed with their greasy fly-pecked ersatz meat to complement them so well. Naturally he attributed this to his travel sickness, his eyes had not been focused on what was going on outside while he was trying so hard to ensure that whatever was bubbling up down there stayed down there, not to mention he was looking at it backwards now, coming from the opposite direction, taking as the point of ingress his prior point of egress. Still, he had stolen a few glances, and he could have sworn that he had passed only through a quiet residential area with nothing of this Poundland glitz that presently enveloped him.
After ten, twenty, thirty minutes of walking, he was struck by the idea of eternity. He began to posit to himself theories concerning this interminable open-air den of iniquity. It’s a dream, obviously, no one walks this long in one direction and gets nowhere! Yet he reasoned, quite astutely, that dreams do not work this way outside of fiction, and with the efforts of such directors as Kubrick and Lynch, such writers as Joyce and Pynchon, there was now little excuse for them to operate in that manner in fiction either. No, he could not have walked this far in a dream without blinking and finding himself on a train, in a jungle, in a merging of old family homes, friends’ houses, schools, places of work. In a dream one blinks again and again like a film projector, conjuring up a new image in the theatre of the mind twenty-four times per second.
I must have ingested something that is causing me to hallucinate, I cannot trust my eyes, I could be in very real danger, the middle of a motorway perhaps! He asked himself what he had eaten today. Bread, tinned mackerel in brine, salad consisting of peppers, carrots, cucumber, chervil and basil was the answer, converted by a bus ride from food to fashion accessory. He recognised that all of this was something approaching his standard food intake on any given day, save the occasional bar of chocolate or ransacking of the bakery in the local supermarket. And to drink? Coffee with breakfast, and water from then on, that was all. Then perhaps I’ve contracted some fast acting airborne strain of syphilis! Oh come off it. Maybe I’ve been reading too many books of chivalry, perhaps this is an adventure as befits a knight errant of mighty arm such as myself, and requiring the service of my chaste and noble squire-
“Look here, you, if you don’t cut this out I’ll leave you here,” said the author. “Look for the man in rags, he’ll be down some side street or other. Got it? Good. Now go.”
Suddenly, without quite knowing why, the protagonist got it into his head that he needed to look for a man in rags. If nothing else it seemed reasonable enough action for the unreasonable time and place in which he found himself. He didn’t have to look far, as it turned out he was standing right by the side street that he somehow knew this man would be inhabiting. He walked, finding it was not so much a street but an alley, narrow and enclosed, old and cobbled, dirty but not like the rest of the district, this was a wartime suburban dirt, old Yorkshire dirt. The man was there, or rather a man was there, he was not wearing rags, but a neatly tailored suit, crisp white shirt, black tie. He walked over to our man and said:
“How do you do? I’m the man in rags.” He held out his hand, offering the shake, our man took it:
“I’m the man in vomit. It happened while I was on a bus.”
“Don’t bother me with trivialities. I am here to show you something.” The man in rags motioned for our man to follow him, which our man did without asking anything but:
“Have you got a spare set of clothes? I’d like to get out of these.”
“Please stop talking.”
After ten, twenty, thirty minutes of walking, our man found himself in much the same situation as he had the last time he walked for that long. He had travelled a considerable distance in one direction, yet he was in surroundings no different than before. The alley stretched on ahead to infinity. Eventually the man in rags drew them to a sudden stop.
“Is everything alright?” Our man asked.
“We are here,” said the man in rags. He turned around so that he was facing our man, and produced a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit jacket. “Wipe it off before we go in.”
“In?” Taking the handkerchief. “In where? There aren’t any doors here.” In fact it seemed to him that they had been walking by the same featureless brick wall for at least ten minutes, passing the same puddle next to the same cardboard box on the same cobbles – no, not cobbles, concrete now. The concrete was alarmingly smooth. He marvelled at the smoothness of the cold grey floor, touching his hand to it and tracking his fingers along it like an insane and hopeless actor dreaming of Hollywood Boulevard.
“There is no time to stand and admire this superior craftsmanship. Wipe yourself now.” Our man wiped himself, making a mess of the concrete with chunks of undigested pepper and carrot. His shirt, shorts, and shoes were still damp with acid, but the man in rags assured him that dampness would not be an issue. “We will go through here.” The man in rags pointed at a section of the wall indistinct from the rest of it.
“Through the wall?”
“Pay attention.” He walked towards the wall. When he reached the wall he kept going, going further, further still, still going, going through, through the wall. Our man was left standing in the alley, watching the only person who had said anything to him since he left the bus disappear through a wall, but at least he wasn’t covered in vomit any more – that was partially true. At that moment a conscious decision had to be made, so far the protagonist had allowed himself to be led by the author and by agents of the author through this strange place, by the confines of the narrative the former had decided upon for him, including this decision and its outcome, naturally. Recognising that his situation was completely ridiculous, and that it had now been shown to be so in unequivocal terms, our man decided that he was not going through the wall, nor farther along or back through the alley, he was going to stay, he was going to sleep in the cardboard box he had walked past what he conjectured to be hundreds of times already.
The night passed in that box, and after a day or two, though it is impossible to really know, our man ventured to take a look outside. As he had illogically suspected, the outside world had changed again, now to bright sunshine and grass. He crawled out of the box and on to the grass, felt the dry cool blades brush against his palm. He heard that sound cardboard boxes make when they fall off of something, that kind of softly rough rubbing, and then nothing. When he turned to look he was greeted by empty blue ahead, nothing below where the box had been, and the realisation that he was perilously close to the edge. He crawled deeper into the field and stretched out, somniac before the sun for what was again an unknowable period of time.
One moment he sat up and decided to start walking again, there was nothing much else to do besides lay down on the grass, or sit on the grass. Exercises such as sit-ups and press-ups and aerobic dance routines were valid alternatives, but in his opinion those were not things one did while sporting a vomit encrusted shirt. As the field had interminability in common with its predecessors, he devised a game in which he would go so far in one direction, then stop and turn to face another and start walking that way, before stopping again and deciding on a new way to go, and so on. While the game was in play there was almost nothing he could not do, the only strict rule was that he could never turn more than 90º, which he assumed would prevent him from doubling back on himself. The more he played the more he noticed the ambience, or more correctly the lack thereof, furthermore the lack of trees, shrubbery and wildlife, eventually coming to the conclusion that for all its loosely structured charm he would essentially be looking at a featureless sea of grass no matter how long he played the game, so decided to return to the edge for a change of pace.
It took him a while to find it, but the edge was indeed still there. He had no idea if it was the same edge, perhaps he had reached the far edge of a big square, but whether he was back where he started or at a new destination there was still nothing to see. That was until he got the idea to lay down on his belly and, making sure he was as properly secured as he could be, lean over the abyss, and from that vantage point he witnessed the perfect straightness of the cliff, like it had been shorn off by an almighty cutting laser. Then he thought he could trace the edge, see if he could reach something new. This he did, keeping himself a couple of metres from the absolute edge, but nearing it every few minutes to see if there was anything new down there. There never was anything new to see rising from or falling into the void that enclosed the plain, and he was about ready to give up when he saw the most bizarre and frightening thing he could have seen at that moment. A corner of the plain came into view a couple of miles ahead of him, and continuing to put his feet one in front of the other he soldiered on through the sores and blisters that were now forming on his ankles and toes. Naturally, once one finds something anomalous to one’s experience, one must see how deep the rabbit hole goes, and for a countless length of time he trained his brain to create an infallible, or so he hoped, mental map of the place. It was an exercise in futility beyond futility, but he knew he must go on.
At last our man found what he dubbed The Final Corner, so called because right next to it, hanging weightlessly over the edge, was another box like the one he had arrived in, and it seemed logical to him that this box, like the box in the alley, should be another transport to another place, possibly one that was not a large plain. The plain, by the way, was a twenty-sided 2-polytope that may or may not have been abstract, by our man’s reckoning, but he wasn’t up to scratch on combinatorics so that detail was at best a guess. Feeling a sea change – most paradoxically – in the air, he walked over to the box and crawled in, shutting the side flap and bringing his vision to a cold dark zero. It wasn’t too long before he heard a soft friction, then silence.