The sunset’s almost right. From peach it slowly turns crimson, leaching the colour from the sky overhead as I press my cheek against the cold window. Down the road I notice the boy with the baseball cap — I can’t see which team, I don’t know any — folding grey wadges of paper and pushing them through letterboxes. Anticipation makes my mouth go dry, so I pop into the kitchen. I turn the jamjars of herbal teas on the window sill one by one to read their handwritten labels; tonight there’s Mellow, Bonfire, Sunset and Love, my favourite. I unscrew its lid and shake some leaves into my teapot, filling it from the kettle that’s still hot from last time. While it brews I gaze out of the back window. I’ve no garden to speak of, just a lawn with high fences down each side and a path leading to a scrapheap that stretches to the horizon. If I squint I can make out bedsteads, old phoneboxes, wine bottles, a spacehopper. I fill my gold-rimmed cup, return to my sofa with my phone and chocolates beside me. Chocolates are for happiness. The uncurtained windows of the terrace houses opposite are black as retinas. The moon appears bright and low, silhouetting the old TV aerials of my childhood. I love the wet slate roofs, the window boxes like children’s coffins with tiny coloured flowers. I love my room’s white walls and parquet. I love David. I phone him. He walks in from the hall as I put the receiver down.
“Oh hi!” I say. He smiles back. He only talks when he’s sure of himself. I think it’s going to be one of those nights. Suddenly I get an idea.
“Let me show you around. The price includes all fittings, even the weather house up there. Cute isn’t it? When the businessman with a black umbrella comes out, the bikini’d lady hides. This arch was knocked through to the kitchen by the previous occupants. Want a drink? There’s one in the pot.”
He shakes his head. I blush when I see I’ve left the lid off the jamjar, but he doesn’t notice which. “It’s a quiet area. I think you’ll like it. I’ve never had any trouble with the neighbours.” He nods. Then I take his elbow, lead him upstairs, ostentatiously masking the damp patches from him as we climb. “The bathroom’s just been modernized,” I say, when I don’t recognise it. Above the sink, on plywood shelves, there’s now an assortment of soaps, some with their Xmas labels still on. I leave him to poke around for cracks and condensation. He seems to understand.
In my bedroom overlooking the empty street I kneel down by my latest toy, a dolls house, and pull the front aside to see if he’s in there. It’s a perfect replica right down to the miniature dolls house in the bedroom. I’m about to look inside that too when I feel him above me. I blush again, close the house and get up. The room darkens as I look into his eyes.
“Let’s play another game,” I say. “You stand over there by the door and I’ll look out of the window. Whenever I turn around you’ve got to be still. First one to touch me wins. It’s called statues, OK?” He must have played before; I don’t see him move once. I scratch my nails down his back as we make love, encouraging him to be less gentle. We lie apart in the silence after the echolalia of sex, he doesn’t like too much contact. I must be patient. Before I’m quite asleep I hear the front door slam. I don’t know when I’ll see him again. I miss him already. It’s the only power they use on me. It acts like love; I’m free but cannot go.
There’s a trick so you can tell if you’re awake or not. Find a sign with writing on. Memorize it. Look away. If the sign’s changed when you look back, you’re dreaming. So I practise in my sleep until the sign stays the same. In my dreams I can walk straight out of the house. I can look back through the window.
Morning again. I prop myself up on an elbow and look around like a child on Christmas day. No, nothing new. I slip out of bed, pick up his denim jacket that’s draped itself over the dolls house and hang it with the rest in the wardrobe. The mirror’s gone from inside the door. They’re all disappearing one by one. My photos too. I look for them on top of the wardrobe but there are only some old board games I used to play as a child, the corners of their boxes sellotaped, and the dusty exercise books that I brought with me. How did they get there? I take them down, ruffling through them until a distant train distracts me, making the radiator rattle. I rush to the window. In the bright sky a vapour trail broadens and fades as I watch like the scratches on his back. This is how they communicate, as if I were a child needing picture books, translating my emotions: embarrassment becomes a hot room; tiredness makes the sky bleed and darken; sweating brings the bikini’d fat lady out of the weather house.
Then everything goes quiet again. They realise how little of me would be left if they stay away too long. I think their visits must tire them; they don’t come often, only when I phone. And they understand my need to match the world and words, outside with inside, past with present. Just as a baby will first echo syllables back, learning the turn-taking of discourse, so they present me with fragments of memory.
I return to the exercise books on the bed, see an old press cutting — White House Porn Scandal! The president had woken up to find at his bedside a metal panel depicting a man and a woman, naked. By the time one of his aides recognised the design as the panel on the old Pioneer missions, the presidents of Germany, India and Japan broke the news that they too had woken up to the same pitted panels. Tests on the U.S. panel revealed that it wasn’t a copy, but the actual one sent out on the first mission in 1972. The other panels, even the one that the Chinese later owned up to, proved to be just as authentic, with the same isotopic proportions and patterns of impacted cosmic dust. On the obverse had been etched a new solar system. More duplicate panels appeared round the globe. There was pressure on governments to do something. ‘Think what would happen,’ said the economists, ‘if they started duplicating currency, or art treasures’. Hoaxers had a field day, though the new Stonehenge discovered in the middle of the Gobi Desert was real.
I’d always been jealous of my old professor — one of the last ethnolinguists allowed to visit the protected African tribes. So when a mission was advertised I applied. Newly promoted to a chair in linguistics, a high-flyer, I knew I had a good chance. It was that or teaching nursery rhymes to neural nets. I was driven to an isolated transit station, somewhere out on the moors, a place where volunteers once went to test cold cures. I was ordered not to go out. That’s all. I waited alone for a ship to arrive. Then things started changing while I was asleep or turned my back. I didn’t pay attention at first, I blamed myself, then I became scared to look away from anything, especially mirrors. For a day or so it was foggy, which helped. When it cleared, the old terrace houses were opposite.
I can hear the newsboy closing in again, letterbox by clacking letterbox. He’s never been this close before. My heartbeat shakes the bed. His footsteps outside the door just below, followed by the thud of a falling newspaper echoing up the stairs, turns my senses inside out. I finish tidying up, disposing of the browned tampon hastily discarded the night before and take my notebooks downstairs. The doormat’s empty. As I’m making breakfast Dave comes into the kitchen. It’s never anyone but him. I didn’t phone. Who knows, it could be love.
“Morning thunderthighs,” he says. Out of character but no matter.
“Hi Dave. Sorry, I’m right out of Rice Krispies.” He takes the orange-juice carton from the fridge, pulls out a corner and folds along the dotted line. Gripping on each side of the fold he grimaces, tugging until his hands slip and the carton thumps onto the fridge top. He takes the bread-knife from the drawer which he slams shut with his hip then hacks the corner off, spilling gobs of juice.
“You do that every time,” I say.
“Do you want some help?”
“You heard what I said — fuck off.” This has all happened before. Seeing my anxiety he breaks into a smile and pours us each a drink.
“I was looking for my photos,” I say, “Know where they are?”
“While I was looking I found these exercise books. Did I tell you about them? I won’t read them out, you’ll only laugh. Oh, alright then, here goes. I called this bit ‘Recovery’ — The notion of us having a true self sullied by society has been overturned. There are no layers, no core. Trying to find your real self by peeling away a feature merely restricts your range of behaviours. Personality is fragmented, a toolbox of coping mechanisms that are combined to suit the situation. Unity is just another feature of socialization — a module, not our soul. The paperboy’s always just a few doors away. Last week I put down a pen and couldn’t find it again. I gave up and made a tea. I looked for a tea-spoon and couldn’t find one. I used a knife for the sugar. Next day there were no knives so I found a big screwdriver under the stairs and used that. Next day the screwdriver had gone, but under the stairs I found spoons and a pyramid of washed Bovril jars too beautiful to throw away. Though they weren’t mine, tears welled up. I could smell the damp plaster on the stairs.
“Is that it? You should go out more.”
“But I’m scared. I don’t know what’s out there. It’s funny, but lids of all sorts help. Things to screw and unscrew, dark skies, sunglasses — I like the sun or anything that turns. It’s just the thought of having nowhere to hide that terrifies me.”
“You’re going crazy,” he says, “It’s something to do with me isn’t it? Maybe we shouldn’t see each other for a while.”
“If that works okay for you that’s fine.” He walks out. I knew he would — he couldn’t just disappear.
Now the hard work begins. I’ve been wasting time. Learning their symbols is only the start, I have to see where they point, make them transparent. It’s not enough to have a few instances; quantum effects will dominate. With a sufficient number of symbols, the random influences of culture will be factored out and classical linguistic theory can be applied. When they show me terrace houses then yes, I should study their flowerboxes and phonelines swinging like tightropes but I must also ask myself what’s beyond the houses, what’s their deep grammar. When they show me my past then I must look at its interconnections but also the meaning of each present moment, specify the class of histories to be summed over, then since I haven’t got the computers here to do the full calculations, indulge in the exclusion principle that brings him and only him back to me.
I spend the morning going through my notes, researching more into how insides and outsides can match. There are as many points inside this house as outside. Each point in the universe has a unique partner here. R maps to 1/R. It’s strange how when I hear a train I invent distance, I believe in things beyond the houses, but when I put my hand on a hot kettle, I’m only conscious of my hand. Pain isolates. I read that in Reflexology each part of the foot corresponds to part of the body. With a sickly liver the big toe throbs. But what part of the foot represents the wounded foot? Pain regresses infinitely. If the contents of the house represent me, how can I be in the house? And how does the vocabulary of the house correspond to the world? Suppose my mind matched what I could see from the window. So much can change in 30 days.
Then I chance upon some jottings about topology. I don’t recall bringing them here but maybe I did. Whenever a flat map of an object is made, there’s a risk that information will be lost or distorted. Brown’s “Flower Pressing Theorem” states that some points which were close will become separated and previously distinct points are superimposed. So in mapping their world into my experience, the radiator could be my auditory nerve, the walls my skin, the gasometer slowly rising and sinking beyond the rooftops my lungs. Cause and effect have become confused so that the sadness comes first, then reasons have to be made up. I start writing furiously, each sentence a hand-drawn line of best fit, confident that Dave won’t interrupt anymore. I’ll never know if he used to deliver papers.
The fog started mid-afternoon. I watched as it thickened, sipping Dedication in my front room. Soon all I could see were headlamps of passing cars, so I went back to my writing. But it must have cleared by nightfall because now I can see the stars. The other houses have all gone. I try the phone. It’s dead. I turn on all the lights, leaving open the curtains to make the house feel bigger. Waiting for the Earl Grey tea bags to brew I start humming a tune, dancing with myself in the window because it’s so dark outside. I return to my notebooks until I’m too tired to go on.
In the night there’s a knock at the door. I go downstairs, wait in the middle of the room in case I’m imagining things. Another knock. I pull the bolts and some men come in. They smile at me, say my name. I recognise them now. They brought me here – doctors and misters, no profs. We all sit down. They glance at each other when I ask if they want a drink. During the small talk they glance through my notebooks and at each other. I laugh at the right moments but I’m thinking of my silhouette still warm upstairs under the cold blankets, imagining refilling it limb by searching limb. They seem pleased, relaxed, as if we were at a conference bar between papers, me the only woman, the centre of attraction. I’m bursting with questions.
“How did you know about this place?” I ask.
“We had reports that people in isolation were having hallucinations involving space-superposition, and we knew the aliens could only have sent us faster-than-light messages by folding dimensions.”
“Where did I go?”
“I don’t think she understands.”
“She deserves a better answer than that,” says the oldest one, “Calling it SF is a cop-out.”. He turns to me, says “It depends on whether anyone looked in the window. In a sense you were here all the time. You see, you were shortlisted because of your research interests, but when your fiancé died you became the best candidate. We needed someone suggestible.”
“Which isn’t to deny, of course, the brilliance of your academic work,” one of them interrupts.
“Absolutely,” the first continues, “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay,” I say, “Sometimes, even in the real world, our simplest dreams come true. Want a chocolate?” But I can’t find any. That makes me sad but I try not to show it.
The old one asks “What do you think they’ve learnt?”
I take my chance to show off. “I don’t think they have any intelligence at all. They’re a special surface that distorts some things and not others in the way that a mirror turns left into right but not up into down. Or a virus damaging the language areas of brains, triggered by stress and isolation. It wants to spread so it changes the host’s behaviour to attract others.”
“Interesting,” he says. His colleagues laugh. One of them sidles towards the phone. I wait to tell him that it’s broken, but the old man starts speaking again. “However, from your indications they didn’t merely copy, they abstracted a grammar of forms from you then used it to create expressions of their own.” Suddenly I have a feeling that this room of men is trying to trick me, asking me questions to keep me talking.
“Do you think they’re dangerous?” one asks.
“You mean will they devalue the currency of our thoughts and beliefs? Will they duplicate our nuclear weapons? Will they invade? Maybe they’ve been here for years. Just look at the number of repeats on TV.” I hear one of them whispering at the phone. “How long have I got?” I ask him. He seems embarrassed.
“Oh, 20 minutes or so.”
“Enough to teach you what I’ve learnt,” I say. I walk to the window and hold it open. I feel the wind on my burning cheeks. I hear the autumn leaves falling one by one. “Do you understand now?” I ask. When they shake their heads I close the window then suddenly open it again, closing and opening it like a musical box. “See?” When I start to cry they look away. When I look back at them they’ve gone. That shouldn’t happen.