THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 4

The Gem

When I opened my eyes I was standing in front of another door. This one was pink. Its doorknob was made of some kind of crystal, with a daisy trapped inside it. I knocked.

‘Open it,’ said a voice from inside, ‘but don’t come in.’

‘Huh?’

The room was pink. The walls were pink. There was a pink armchair, and a pink chest of drawers on top of which was an impressive collection of dolls and teddy bears, most of them pink or wearing it. In one corner of the room was a large pink dolls’ house. In another was a bed with pink bedclothes, on which a girl was standing.

The girl looked to be in her early teens. She was dressed in black. She was pale and very thin. She was standing on the corner of the bed, in the corner of the room, with her back pressed against the walls. She looked scared.

‘Freeze!’ she said.

I did, with one foot off the ground.

‘I’m serious,’ said the girl. ‘Don’t take even one step into this room.’

‘Um, OK.’ I put my foot back down and stayed in the doorway. ‘Can I ask why not?’

‘There’s a shark in the floor,’ said Gemma.

I looked at her.

I didn’t know what to think about the shark. I had seen one before, when I first arrived at this world: hearing the same animal mentioned now was a coincidence I didn’t like. The other possibility of course was that Gemma was just crazy. Either way: she believed there was a shark in the floor. I decided to play along.

‘OK, Gemma,’ I said, staying where I was. ‘My name is Connor. I’d like to ask you some questions…’

‘I’ve got one for you first,’ said Gemma. ‘Can you get me out of here?’

I looked at her. ‘Out of where?’

‘The room,’ she said. ‘This world: all of it. I have to get out. Can you help me?’

My hunch had been right, then: someone was being held in Meade’s world against their will, and I’d found her. But I still needed answers.

‘Is that what you want?’ I asked. ‘To leave this world?’

‘More than anything,’ said Gemma.

‘Since when?’ I asked. ‘Your father told me you were happy here.’

‘My father.‘ Gemma scowled.

I waited.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘I won’t pretend we haven’t had good times. I loved this place when I was little. Playing with the dolphins. There was a dragon I used to ride too. It’s probably still around somewhere.’ She sniffed. ‘Daddy always gave me everything I wanted.’

‘But then?’

‘But then I grew up.’ Gemma gestured at the room around her. ‘I mean, look at this place. It’s like living in a snow-globe – a pink snow-globe. I’m thirteen years old. I’ve never met anyone my age. You’re the first visitor we’ve ever had. I…’ She sniffed again. ‘I can’t go on like this anymore.’

‘Is that,’ I asked, ‘why you smashed the aquarium?’

‘What?’ Gemma looked shocked. ‘The aquarium got smashed? When?’

‘Never mind that for now,’ I said. ‘I guess what I’m really asking is, do your mum and dad know how you feel – about not wanting to be here anymore?’

Gemma frowned at me, then shrugged.

‘I told them.’ She smiled bitterly. ‘Daddy freaked. He took my cards away so I’m stuck in this room. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, now I can’t even set foot off the bed.’

I saw I’d avoided the subject as long as I could.

‘So let me get this straight,’ I said. ‘You’re standing on your bed because there’s a shark in the floor.’

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘Listen, Gemma,’ I said, ‘I can help you. But I need you to come with me.’

I held my hands out and beckoned.

I’ve learned something: no one ever really gets rescued. The most you can do for someone is to help them rescue themselves. If someone in trouble can’t make at least some effort to get themselves out of it, even if only through their will to survive, then ultimately whatever you can do for them is going to fail. Maybe Gemma had given up hope. Or maybe – and this was what I wanted to check – she didn’t really want to escape.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘It’s OK, Gemma. Everything’s going to be OK.’

She gave me an exasperated look.

‘I told you,’ she said. ‘I can’t touch the floor. There’s a shark in it. Which part of that don’t you understand?’

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll come and get you.’

‘No!’ yelled Gemma. ‘No, no, no!’

But I’d started walking. And already I’d noticed something strange.

The floor of Gemma’s room was carpeted wall-to-wall in (what else?) pink. On top of that, in the centre of the room, within reach of my first step, was a large, round, fluffy-looking rug. The rug was white. When my foot came down on it, instead of meeting solid floor it sank, up to my knee.

All around the place where my foot and lower leg had disappeared into it, the rug and the rest of the floor of Gemma’s room still looked like floor. But my foot was now stuck – trapped in place as if by thick mud.

I took another step and the same thing happened. My foot sank up to my knee. Keeping my eyes on Gemma I pulled my first foot free of the floor – it made a sucking sound as it came out – and took a third step. Things got weirder.

The area in front of Gemma’s bedroom door seemed to be a kind of shelf, like you get on some beaches when you wade into the sea: my first two steps had met something sticky but essentially solid. My third step, however, met nothing but liquid.

I overbalanced, fell, and found I was swimming.

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

 

THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 3

The Queen

I didn’t go straight to her: Meade had designed his world with better manners than that. When I opened my eyes I was outside a door. I knocked.

‘Yes?’ said a voice from behind it.

‘Mrs Meade? I’m Connor. I was wondering if…’

‘Come in. Don’t mind the mess.’

The door opened on an artist’s studio. There were sketches all over the walls – shapes scored in charcoal lines on paper. I saw stacks of books on the floor. In the centre of the room, silhouetted against the twilight sky outside the window, a woman with long red hair was sitting with her back to me.

‘I hope you won’t think it rude if I don’t get up?’ said Mrs Meade. ‘The clay’s just perfect right now. Please: come around where we can see eachother.’

Stepping carefully between the book-stacks I did as she asked.

Mrs Meade’s denim dungarees were spattered with pale grey splodges. There were more grey marks on the scarf she’d used to tie her hair back. There was another grey splodge on her cheek. I liked the way she smiled at me.

‘Pottery,’ she said, indicating with her eyes the wheel that was spinning between her knees and, on it, the grey blob she was moulding there. ‘Ever tried it?’

‘Never,’ I said.

‘It’s harder than it looks. But I think I’m getting the hang of it.’

I watched her work. Her fingers were moving with amazing speed and delicacy. The shape she was making was unusual. From what little I knew of potter’s wheels, what was made on them was normally supposed to be rounded: what Mrs Meade was making had corners. With deft, precise, coaxing movements she shaped the clay into a four-sided pyramid from the apex of which, as I watched, another pyramid rose and spread. The second pyramid was upside-down. The two pyramids balanced on top of each other, spinning. They looked like one was a reflection of the other. The place where their tips touched was so small that it seemed the second pyramid couldn’t possibly balance there – but somehow the spin of the wheel and the skill of Mrs Meade’s fingers were keeping them upright.

As she noticed my mesmerised expression Mrs Meade’s smile became a proud grin. She sat back and pressed a switch on the floor with her foot. The wheel slowed and stopped and the pyramids sank back into each other, becoming again the grey blob from which they’d started.

‘Call me Alice,’ she said.

I swallowed and asked: ‘Do you know why I’m here, Alice?’

Her grin faded.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid I do.’

‘All right then. Maybe the best way for me to start to try to understand what’s going on here,’ I said, ‘would be to ask why you are.’

She blinked.

‘How did you come to this place, Alice?’ I asked. ‘What made you decide to live here?’

She looked surprised.

‘We took the deal,’ she said, ‘obviously.’

‘Was it an easy decision for you?’

She stared at me.

‘Easy?’ she echoed. ‘Leaving behind the real world and everything we’d ever known? Taking that decision on Gemma’s behalf? No. I wouldn’t say that was easy.

I watched her.

‘But what kind of life,’ she asked, ‘would we have had if we’d stayed? Who wants to queue for food and water rations every day – and risk getting robbed of them every time on the way home? Who wants “home” to be a stinking tent you share with another family beside the latrine you share with six other families in your compound? Who wants to scrape out a life on a dirty, crowded, ruined “real” world when you can live in a place like this, with everything you want? Do you?

I said nothing, just waited.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said after a moment. ‘We don’t get visitors, and with the strangeness lately I’m a little on edge. Please excuse me.’

‘That’s OK,’ I told her. ‘I understand.’

I did: Mrs Meade’s reactions to my questions were giving me more information than she realised.

‘How about you?’ she asked. ‘When did you leave the real world? Recently? Because I’ve been wanting to know: When all the people like us took the deal and left their bodies behind, did that do any good? Is there more room now? Is life there better? Or is everything just as bad as it was?’

‘Honestly,’ I said, ‘I can’t even remember myself.’

There was a pause.

‘Would you say you’re happy here?’ I asked.

‘I’ve got Tony and Gem. I’ve got my art.’ She sighed then shrugged. ‘I think so. We’ve certainly been happy.’

‘So how do you explain the problems this world is having?’

Mrs Meade looked at me.

‘I don’t explain them,’ she said. ‘I can’t.’ She looked down. ‘I just wish that they would stop.’

We talked a little more but it was just for politeness. I already had everything Mrs Meade could give me.

Outside the room I took a deep, imaginary breath and thought through what I’d learned so far. I’d found one answer, I supposed, but it was more like an extra mystery on top of the first, balancing there, ready to fall.

I put my thumbs on the hearts at the corners of Gemma’s card.

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

 

THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 2

The Trouble

Mr Meade blinked some more but looked in my direction.

‘I’d like to talk to your wife and daughter,’ I told him, ‘and get their take on what’s going on here. I’ll question them, gently of course, and see what comes up. Maybe they’ll give us something we can go on. Something you might have missed.’

‘Yes,’ he said faintly. ‘Yes. I understand.’

‘But first,’ I asked, ‘is there somewhere I can be alone?’ I tapped the side of my head. ‘I need to check a couple of things.’

‘Of course,’ he said. He sniffed. ‘Right. Yes. Certainly.’

I blinked and we were in another room.

‘The guest suite,’ Meade explained. ‘Please make yourself comfortable.’

If I’d wanted to it would have been easy. It was a nice room. At its centre a round bed beckoned silkily, promising sweet dreams. To my left a long window gave a view of the volcano; to my right another gave another of the castle’s interior. It really was shaped like a giant champagne flute: from where I stood I could see that this room was near the brim. Above, the sky’s clear blue was deepening as the sun of Meade’s world began to set. Below was more empty space: a lot of it. Across from me and down, like bubbles clinging to the side of the castle’s gracefully curved mother-of-pearl interior wall, I could see three rooms, spaced far apart. They were too far away for me to be able to see into their windows: besides, their curtains were shut. The room with the aquarium must have been near the base of the castle. That was very far below. When I looked down all I could see at the bottom was mist.

‘Quite a place,’ I said.

‘Thank you,’ said Meade, cheering up a little. ‘As you can see and probably guess, there’s no direct path between the rooms here – not on foot.’ He reached for his back pocket. ‘Instead we use these.’

He gave me three playing cards.

‘They were my wife’s idea. This,’ he said (showing me the King of Hearts), ‘will take you straight to me. This,’ (he showed me the Queen), ‘will take you to Alice. And this will take you to our daughter.’

The third card was the Jack – but this Jack was female.

‘”The Gem,”‘ Meade simpered.

‘Cute,’ I lied.

‘Put your thumbs on the little hearts at the corners of the cards. You’ll be taken where you need to go.’

‘Fine.’

‘Well,’ said Meade, ‘I’ll leave you to it.’

He vanished.

The Gem, I thought. Sheesh.

I closed my eyes and tried to contact headquarters.

Yes: I’d arrived at Meade’s world without knowing anything about him or his family. I’d come knowing nothing except that I was needed: so what? I had a direct mental link to headquarters, from whom I could easily get all the background information I needed.

Except I couldn’t. As I stood there with my eyes shut I found I had no access to anything outside of Meade’s world. I couldn’t reach headquarters. I couldn’t reach anything. I couldn’t even get a message saying I had no access. That was worrying enough, but there was something else too.

Below the left corner of my mouth I was getting a strange tingling sensation. The tingle became an ache, then a throb, then a kind of bulging feeling, like something was swelling there. I opened my eyes. Past the bed was a round wooden door: I turned the handle and found what I was hoping for – a bathroom. In the mirror over the basin I examined my face to find out what was happening to it.

Below and to the left of my mouth, a spot had formed. It was a juicy zit – angry red, with a creamy yellow dot expanding at its centre. It was getting bigger as I watched.

I put two fingers either side of it and got ready to squeeze. I remember thinking that when this thing popped the eruption would be a lot more convincing than anything the tacky-looking volcano outside would ever manage. But the spot didn’t pop.

It opened. An eye looked out.

The eye was small – less than half a centimetre across – but it was human. It glanced around the bathroom as if getting its bearings and then, in the mirror, it looked at me.

That was when I knew I was in trouble. It was clear to me that Meade’s world had serious problems. In fact this was the worst fail I’d ever seen.

Meade’s world wasn’t real but it had real dangers: if it collapsed while I, Meade and his family and were all still inside it, two things could happen. One was that we might die. To be honest I preferred that option. The other was that we all might lose our minds.

I had to work fast.

Concentrating, I stared back at the eye and imagined. For a long, worrying second nothing happened but then the eye closed, my skin sealed over it and it was only a zit again, getting smaller and smaller until finally it was gone.

I rubbed my chin and made a face at the mirror.

If a world is shared, it’s always got to be by consent. There can be people who are supposed to be “in charge” and maybe the world will be based on their ideas. But everyone else who lives in that world has to agree to see things in the same way. If they don’t, that’s when you get problems. You can’t force everyone to agree: there will always be resistance. If the resistance is strong enough, things fall apart.

For an imaginary world to get as messed up as Meade’s was, there was only one explanation: someone really didn’t want to be there. Maybe they were being held there against their will; maybe they just hated it. Either way, that darkness and anguish were corrupting the place, making it come apart in ways that were going to be unpredictable.

I needed answers. I decided to go ask Alice. I put my thumbs on the hearts at the corners of her card and blinked.

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

THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 1

The World

When I opened my eyes I was standing on a small grassy island in the middle of a sea. The glare of the sun reflecting off the water put the face of the man who was waiting for me into shadow: I couldn’t see him clearly at first.

‘Connor!’ he said, taking my hand and shaking it. ‘I’m Tony Meade. Welcome to my world.’

When my dazzled eyes recovered I found that Mr Meade was a short, tubby, middle-aged man with a big, proud smile on his face. He was pointing at something behind me. Obediently I turned and looked.

Floating in the air a couple of hundred metres up above the sea, tethered there by five fine silver chains, was a volcano. Beside it, also floating, was a castle. The castle was shaped like a champagne flute. It twinkled.

‘Wow,’ I said to be polite.

I wasn’t impressed. Imaginary worlds are my job. I’m called in when they fail.

Apart from Mr Meade, nothing I could see was real. The volcano, the castle, the sea, the sky, the island we stood on: all of it had come from Mr Meade’s imagination. Everything in his world was there because he had chosen it. For him this place was supposed to be a paradise, containing all he could possibly want. That was why he lived there. But something was wrong. Mr Meade’s perfect world had problems. I’d just seen my first clue to what they might be.

Away out in the water, in the shadow of the floating volcano, something slipped beneath the surface, leaving ripples.

‘What was that?’ I asked, pointing.

‘What?’ asked Meade.

‘In the water. I saw something move.’

‘Really?’ said Meade, frowning. ‘I didn’t seen anything.’

I just looked at him and waited.

‘Um, OK…’ said Meade. ‘Well, we do have creatures: dolphins, rays, things like that. That’s why the island is here. My wife and daughter and I come down here to call the creatures up and play with them. But,’ he added, ‘and I’m sorry if this sounds rude, Connor – none of them are anywhere near right now.’ He tapped his head. ‘I would know.’

‘Right,’ I said, staying polite.

‘Perhaps you imagined it.’

‘Perhaps,’ I said.

I hadn’t. I’m careful with what I imagine. I’d seen what I’d seen, and it hadn’t been dolphins or rays: what had vanished beneath the water had looked a lot to me like the dorsal fin of a shark.

‘Well,’ said Meade, all smiles again. ‘Shall we…?’

I blinked and we were in the castle.

It looked the way I was coming to expect from Meade’s world: like something from a fairytale but with some sci-fi flourishes. The main space was a tall, narrow upside-down cone of what looked like mother of pearl. It glowed with a colour that was sometimes silver and sometimes the red of fingers over torchlight. A white staircase wound upwards around the interior of the cone in a widening spiral. There was no bannister, but the void beside me was criss-crossed by glittering gossamer threads, like cobwebs, waiting to catch me if I fell. The stairwell was safe. Of course it was. Mr Meade was a family man – as he kept telling me.

‘Seven years we’ve been here,’ he was saying, ‘my wife Alice, my daughter Gemma and I. The happiest years of our lives: I know that sounds corny but it’s true. We love it here. We’ve never had a problem before, and maybe the problems lately aren’t as bad as they seem. I mean, all this just couldn’t be coming to an end – not suddenly, not like this.’ Still climbing, he turned to look back at me. ‘I appreciate your coming, Connor, but I think you’ll understand me when I say that I really, really hope I’m wasting your time.’

‘Sure,’ I told him.

He was. We hadn’t needed to take the stairs; clearly we were taking the long way up because Meade needed to talk. That would have been fine, except that all I was hearing from him was denial.

Meade was proud of the world he’d created. That it was failing was an idea he didn’t want to face.

‘Still,’ he said as (to my relief) we reached the top of the stairs, ‘it’s quite a thrill to have a visitor for once. I can’t wait to show you this...’

There was a white-painted steel hatch, like something from an old submarine: Meade spun a wheel to unlock it, and pulled.

‘We all love our aquarium,’ he said. ‘Alice and Gemma and I chose all the creatures in it together – all our old favourites from the real world. We love watching them. We never get tired of – oh.’

The hatch was now open but the scene behind it clearly wasn’t what Meade had been expecting.

It was a round room with comfy-looking velvet sofas lining the walls. At its centre was a tall glass column that had recently contained a lot of fish and other water-based creatures: now the glass was shattered and the creatures and their water were all over the floor.

Most already looked dead – just lying there lifelessly on the sodden black carpet. Some were still flopping weakly, opening and closing their mouths as if gasping for breath.

‘Oh!’ said Mr Meade again. ‘But… who could have done this? I mean, I know that none of the creatures are real – but they don’t. Every one of these animals thinks they’re alive – and now they think they’re dying! This is just… horrible!’

I was inclined to agree with him, and not only for the reason he’d mentioned: at that moment I was noticing another clue. The fish nearest me – a dark blue one with a fat lower lip that gave it a gormless expression – was doing something I didn’t like.

Spots were forming in its scales. As I watched, the spots bulged, burst then sprouted long, thin legs – four on either side of the fish’s body. The fish came upright on its eight new legs, then, like a spider, it scuttled out of sight under a sofa.

Meade didn’t seem to notice.

‘I can’t understand it,’ he was saying. ‘Gemma would never do anything like this. Nor would Alice, of course. But nobody else is here. Who could have done it? Who?’

He was blinking a lot. I saw with alarm that he was about to cry.

‘Tony,’ I said. ‘Listen to me.’

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

 

TheFail

THE FAIL

a novella in nine chapters

by

Sam Enthoven

publishing here weekly each Friday, free, from Oct 16th 2015

Start Reading

This time I made a video. 😀

 

My five favourite books I’ve read in the last few months are:

The Bees by Laline Paull

Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Dandy in the Underworld by Sebastian Horsley

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

-and-

Suffragette – My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

All these and four hundred and ninety-five other books I adore(!) can be found on my Five Hundred Fine Books list, on my LibraryThing profile. Seeking some more summer reading suggestions? Step this way.

A belated but heartfelt THANK YOU to Grace Igbekele and the fabulous Children’s Creative Writing Group she runs at C.L.R. James Library in Dalston, Hackney, where I came and gave a talk last Wednesday. Whether it was the warmth of the welcome I received or the fact that it was the hottest day of the year and I was waving my arms around as usual, I must admit that I, ahem, ‘glowed‘ a bit — so much so, shamingly, that one young person there pointed to the black stains on my black shirt and told me loudly and directly that she hoped I was wearing deodorant. I was, and told her so. She looked visibly reassured. 😀

It’s a great group, containing – as I saw from the work displayed on the library wall – some serious writing talent. I hope they found helpful things in what I had to say, moistness notwithstanding. ;p

Fine write-ups of last week’s brilliant launch of Big Green Education and the Haringey Chapter of Patron of Reading here and here. I was a bit nervous about speaking after Michael Rosen but I think I got away with it. 😀

This is my copy of Doing It by Melvin Burgess:

DoingItByMelvinBurgess

In October 2004 being an unaccompanied adult at a book event for teenagers was an odder thing than it is now. I’d received some curious looks by the time I reached the front of the signing queue – not least, since I was also the tallest person in it, from Melvin himself.

I explained I was an aspiring author as well as a massive fan. He shook my hand, wished me luck and wrote this lovely message in what – typically for his work – is a truthful, passionate and thrillingly fearless book that still causes trouble to this day.

More of the Books Beside Me coming soon.

More fabulous events these last few weeks: my thanks and best wishes to everyone I met at Northumberland Park Resource Centre in Tottenham, William Farr School in Lincoln and The Hillingdon Secondary Book of the Year Awards. 😀

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