December 2015



Sam Enthoven

Chapter 9


‘Gemma got older,’ said Mr Meade. ‘She had to: kids do. She had to start asking questions. She had to know why she couldn’t be with anyone her own age. She had to ask about leaving, and I had to tell her she couldn’t. I had to imagine all those things for her. They were inevitable. But the problem wasn’t just her.

‘The more time passed,’ he continued, ‘the more I started to worry that I couldn’t properly imagine either of them. As the years went by I understood that the real Alice, too, just like Gemma, would have changed in ways I would never have been able to predict – but my Alice and Gemma, the ones who lived here, could only change in ways that I could imagine for them. It was like they were limited by me. Sometimes I even felt like I was holding them back.’

He spread his hands.

‘Now, Connor,’ he said, ‘do you see my problem?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘For your wife and daughter to continue to exist, they could never be allowed to guess that they weren’t real. That must have made things very difficult for you.’

‘I had to make myself believe in them,’ said Meade. ‘Even though I knew they weren’t real: I had to act as though everything was fine. If I ever gave them the slightest clue that things weren’t as they seemed, it would have been like killing them.’

I knew what he meant.

‘It would also,’ said Mr Meade, ‘have meant admitting to myself the truth: that I’d been wrong to imagine them here. That they would never be part of my world.’ He shook his head. ‘I couldn’t face that – not then. So I thought of another solution.’

He looked at me. By now the volcano had vanished too. We were standing in darkness except for a low greenish glow that seemed to come from Mr Meade himself.

‘I needed someone,’ he said, ‘to come here and prove to me my problem. I needed someone tough and cool and thorough, who would investigate the situation here and reach the only possible conclusion about its causes. I needed someone who could make me face up to what I’ve done.’

‘So,’ I said, ‘you called me.’

‘But Connor,’ said Mr Meade, ‘that’s not quite how it happened, is it? There’s one more thing that you haven’t admitted to yourself either, isn’t there?’

Now, at last, I began to get frightened.

‘I didn’t want an outsider,’ said Mr Meade, his glowing eyes staring straight into mine. ‘I couldn’t have some stranger come here and force me to confess my secrets, could I? That’s why this world has never had visitors. That’s why,’ he added, ‘the only real person who’s ever been here is me.’

‘What about me?’ I asked him, still trying not to believe it. ‘I’m real. I’m here.’

Mr Meade smiled.

‘Denial,’ he said. ‘It’s always the first response.’

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I had nothing to say.

I’d known all along, I realised. I’d known when I’d failed to contact headquarters. I’d known when I’d failed to remember my life before I came to this world.

I had never existed outside it. There was no me, except for what Mr Meade had imagined.

I looked down at my hands. They were already gone. So was the rest of my body. But something of me remained: I could still see Mr Meade standing there in watery darkness lit only by the glow that came from himself.

‘Goodbye, Connor,’ he said. ‘I’m grateful to you. You did exactly what I imagined you would do. So I’ll do you a favour. As I finish this, I’ll let you watch.’

He stretched his arms out to either side of himself like he’d been crucified. Then he started to disappear.

It began in his fingers and the tips of his toes: they faded like a dream. His hands and feet went next, then the nothingness started to climb his arms and legs. It was as if schools of invisible flesh-eating fish were consuming him from the extremities inwards. His limbs vanished. His torso shrank. Soon there was nothing left of him but his head. Then that began to disappear as well.

Mr Meade was smiling as his face went: the bare teeth left beneath still looked like a grin. His eyes seemed to get bigger for a moment as their lids and brows dissolved to nothing, giving him a strange, temporary expression of surprise before the eyeballs went too. His skull hung there in the darkness for a moment, still glowing from what was inside it. Then that shrank and vanished and the real Mr Meade – and the only real thing about me – was revealed.

There was a brain. Except for a few tubes and wires attached to it, it was naked.

Brains don’t take up much space – not compared to a whole human body. Brains don’t require much energy – about the same as an old-fashioned lightbulb. It was a brutal solution to the problem of human overpopulation and overcrowding but, for now, it worked: in his mind Mr Meade could live out his life in a luxury that the richest person in the real world could only dream of. The system would give him everything he wanted – nearly.

The watery darkness shimmered and then I saw the last thing I ever would – that Mr Meade’s brain was surrounded by more, from other people who’d made the same decision. There were billions of brains floating there, dreaming their dreams, living the best lives they could imagine.

Were any of them happy?

I would never know.

I wasn’t there.

THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.

Read Previous Chapters: 1 , 2 , 3 4 , 5 , 6, 7 , 8

The final chapter of THE FAIL will go live next Friday, December 18th. Right now my mind is mostly taken up by this:

2Notting Hill Orchestra FilmLondon

Tonight is my debut performance playing theremin with the Notting Hill Orchestra for Film Music. Our first concert is at St John’s Church in Watford. Tomorrow night we play St George’s Church, Notting Hill.

I’m nervous and excited – not a combination that helps keep one’s hands as steady as a thereminist needs them to be, but a fun one just the same. 😀

Yesterday I returned to Alexandra Park School for my second session there as a Book Doctor. Over the course of the day I took appointments with eight students from Year 8, trying to find each one of them a book that would exactly suit that person. Here’s what I ‘prescribed’:


Ice Station by Matthew Reilly

Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Trouble by Non Pratt

TWOC by Graham Joyce

True Grit by Charles Portis

Model Under Cover by Carina Axelsson

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Everything is Fine by Cathy Brett

A World Between Us by Lydia Syson

Time and Flood by Stephen Baxter

-and, though not pictured-

The Recruit by Robert Muchamore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Thanks again to the staff at APS for another lovely warm welcome, and to the students I met for what were some fascinating discussions. Among these unique individuals the only pattern I could discern was that some said they’d reached a point where they’d had enough of what they’d liked before and were ready to try something new. I hope I helped them find it.



Sam Enthoven

Chapter 8

The System

‘By the end of the twenty-first century,’ Mr Meade began, ‘there were too many people for the Earth to support them anymore. The seas were all dead; the land was all used up by people and their needs. There was mass starvation. Diseases swept the globe. There were constant wars, as those with the strength and stupidity to do it fought over what was left. It was chaos. But we found a way out.’

He pointed at his head.

‘What if we could live in our minds instead? What if was possible to leave reality and spend our lives in other, better places that we could imagine for ourselves? The imagination would never run out of space or resources: the imagination was infinite. In the imagination, there would be room for everyone.

‘Getting there,’ he continued, ‘seemed like a short step. People spent half their lives in their imaginations already through stories, dreams and games. We already had the technology to create the worlds we wanted, and share them with others. So why couldn’t we live in our imaginations all the time? What was stopping us? Just one thing: our bodies.

‘It was our bodies that took up all the space. It was our bodies that needed food, warmth, shelter, light, medicine, more. Our bodies had used up the Earth. They were holding us back. To be free we had to break out. And that,’ said Mr Meade, looking at me, ‘was the deal we were offered.

‘We could either carry on as we were – crammed up against each other, starving, miserable, fighting for the final scraps. Or we could live with total control of our lives, in any way we cared to imagine – and leave our bodies behind.’

He paused. I took the opportunity to get a word in.

‘Why are you telling me this stuff, Tony?’ I asked. ‘I know all this.’

‘You know only what you’re allowed to know, Connor,’ said Mr Meade. ‘The only way you’ll know more is by hearing it from me.’

I blinked, surprised again.

‘May I continue?’ asked Mr Meade.

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘Thank you.’ Mr Meade bit his lip and sighed.

Around him, his world began to change.

‘I had a wife,’ he said. ‘We had a daughter. The three of us loved each other very deeply, but we were unhappy. I don’t mean to say that life in the camps was any harder on us than it was on other families: it wasn’t. It was hard on everyone. It was hard to get enough to eat and drink, and it was hard to live with any kind of dignity with so many of us packed into such a small space like we were. One day I realised that I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I thought that Gemma and Alice shouldn’t have to stand it either. So I decided we should take the deal. But there was a problem…’

‘Alice didn’t agree,’ I said.

Mr Meade scowled at me.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Please go on.’

‘The problem was Gemma,’ said Mr Meade. ‘Alice thought it wasn’t right that we should make a decision like this on her behalf. It was fine for Alice and I to leave our bodies and go live somewhere imaginary: we’d seen enough of the real world to know we wanted no part of it anymore. But Gemma was just a child: she’d barely lived, barely seen anything. To decide, for her, that we would go and never come back – to take her away from the real world forever, before she’d really had a chance to find out about it for herself? We didn’t have the right to do that to her. That’s what Alice said.

‘But,’ Mr Meade continued, ‘I didn’t listen.’

The air had got darker and thicker. The whole of the room was an aquarium now: fish scuttled up the walls on spider legs and swam, wriggling, all around us.

‘I took a decision: I went ahead and booked the operation for myself, and told Alice and Gemma what I’d done.’

Mr Meade smiled bleakly.

‘The idea was that when they saw I was serious, it would make them decide to go through with it too and come with me. It almost worked. When Alice realised there was no way she could talk me out of it, she booked the operation for two days after mine. Two days after I left, Alice and Gemma were supposed to follow me to our new home.

‘We spent my last few days in the real world deciding what we wanted our next one to be like. My job was to make sure it was all here and ready for when they arrived. Then Alice and Gemma took me to the clinic. They held my hands as the surgeons gave me the anaesthetic. I told them not to be scared, that I would see them again soon and then we would be together for the rest of our lives.’

He sniffed.

‘I left my body and came here. I got it all just the way they wanted. But they never arrived.’

The walls of the castle had become transparent. Or perhaps it had ceased to exist: it was hard for me to tell. The floor still felt solid beneath my feet. Mr Meade was still standing just a few steps away from me, but everything else was water. Away out to my left I could see the volcano: that seemed to be underwater now too. Its fake-looking lava lit us with a low orange glow.

‘I suppose,’ said Mr Meade, ‘that Alice and Gemma must have changed their minds. Maybe they never really wanted to come with me at all: I don’t know. I waited. I kept hoping. And when my hope died and I knew I couldn’t wait any longer, I did the only other thing I could.’

‘You imagined them,’ I said.

Meade looked at me, but this time he just nodded.

‘To begin with,’ he said, ‘it was easier than I thought it would be. I remembered every detail about them that I could, and the system did the rest. It made them live and breathe. It made them love and laugh. It made them be here, exactly as if they were. I was amazed at how real they were. At first it was hard to tell the difference – and I didn’t want to. I only wanted us to be happy. And, for seven years, we were.’

‘Then what happened?’ I asked.

I wanted to hear him say it. But I already knew.

Read Final Chapter

Read Previous Chapters: 1 , 2 , 3 4 , 5 , 6, 7

THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.

This post is to mark the passing of Shigeru Mizuki.


As well as being a manga genius it was he, more than anyone else, who introduced younger Japanese generations – and the wider world – and me – to the fascinating, charming and terrifying creatures known as the yokai. As I now know thanks to wonderful new English translations published by Drawn and Quarterly, Mizuki was a terrific historian and memoirist too: Showa is amazing.


There’s a lovely tribute to him by translator Zack Davisson here. If you don’t yet know Shigeru Mizuki or his work, his Seven Rules of Happiness (listed there) are as good an introduction as any.

His books live on.