SEE PART ONE AT BABEL
BABEL PART TWO BY ARTHUR CHAPPELL
The leading scientist was invited to comment on the air crash that had just been reported. "Terrible, truly terrible. A tragedy, Martin. A terrible tragedy."
"My nameís Michael, Professor, not Martin. I only just said it."
"Quite, yes. Quite. As you can see, I am affected by this virus just as much as you are."
"What is happening out there? What should we watch out for, Professor?"
"The symptoms vary enormously, but amnesia is a common factor. People are forgetting where they live or work. People are forgetting names, and the faces of people they know. Many people are getting lost. Quite a lot are confusing things that are happening with things that are not. More and more people are having vivid, very realistic delusions, and hallucagenic experiences. Itís extremely frightening. "
"What can we do to keep ourselves on track?"
"Youíre best doing as little as possible, and going out only in emergencies. When you do have to move, take notes first. Keep a pen and paper on you at all times. Write down where you are going, and note every turn to left or right that you must make. Write down the names of friends, and family, even of people you know extremely well. Keep referring to your notes, no matter how much you think you are doing well without them. Take nothing for granted."
"Thatís good advise, Professor. In fact, following your tips got me into work here on time today, so it works."
"Yes, I too followed this pattern of work."
Forester felt pleased that he had already started using maps to help find his way around., but what he was listening to unnerved him. The men on the radio were talking softly and politely, but they were virtually describing the end of civilisation as we knew it. For the first time, Forester knew that this was not some minor hitch, or an illness that would heal up shortly, like the common cold. It was .....
"Professor, what is happening in the quest for a cure?"
"Sadly, not much progress. Our computer programmer s are trying to prepare anti-virus programme that we can pour into both computer matrix and human minds, but the illness is making everyone make so many mistakes. Half of our human test subjects had their minds wiped clean, and are now reduced to vegetables, because someone confused the DOWNLOAD DATA button with the DELETE buttoní.
"Someone? Who exactly?"
"Me, Iím afraid. I was responsible." The Professor sounded close to breaking, emotionally. He sounded tired. He had obviously not had much sleep.
"What are you going to do now?" asked the interviewer.
"Iím attending a Think tank session of all the major computer scientists and technically minded people in the world. I am flying up to Manchester tonight. Tomorrow, we start getting our heads together to systematically find a cure for all this. Anyone and everyone capable of solving this crisis will be at the Manchester Summit."
"Itís nice and central, and they did invent the first true electronic computer at their University. It seems an appropriate choice."
"Good luck, Professor. We all need you to achieve this for us, now."
"Well, thatís the end of my show. Sadly the next presenter isnít here yet, so Iíll leave you with some music. Stay tuned, and stay alert."
Forester turned the radio off and carried on driving. He was nearly home now, nearly safe."
A fire engine overtook him with its siren blazing. A few minutes later, Forester saw it again, parked up. A fireman ran up, flagging his car down. Forester stopped, and wound down the window.
"Whereís Charlestown Street?" the fireman asked him, in desperation."
"You donít know?"
"I should. I ought to, but I donít, and weíve had a shout to a chip pan fire there, with children trapped in the house, but I canít find the street."
Forester looked up Charlestown Street in the A to Z, and told the fireman to write down the instructions as he guided him there. The fireman thanked him, and ran back to the engine, which set off quickly to follow the route prescribed.. Forester hoped they would make it in time.
Forester followed his notes and got home in one piece. He nervously turned his key in the front door lock, and was surprised and elated to find that it fitted perfectly. He gave a childish cheer and waved his fists in the air triumphantly, shouting "I am the championí at the top of his lungs. There was a cry from the living room. Forester realised he had given his wife a shock by making such a sudden noise. He walked towards the room, but she opened the door before he reached it and peeped out. Her hair was uncombed. Her face and hands were unwashed, and her grey eyes were blurred red with continual crying. She was still weeping, even though her tears had stopped flowing. She was still wearing the clothes she had worn the day before. The house was a mess. Forester sighed. Mary was normally so house proud, tidy, and carefully groomed. Her smooth skinned face was now a warren of worry lines and frowns. She looked ten years older, reduced overnight to a reclusive Miss Haversham figure. Forester wondered if she would even recognise him, but after a moment of struggling to identify him, she threw her arms around him, and kissed him. "Thank God youíve made it. I was worried sick."
Forester got her a cup of strong coffee, having found the coffee in the tin marked as containing tea bags, and made one for himself too. He described his day for her, and then asked her about her own ordeals.
"I never went to work. I didnít get a chance. First of all we got all the wrong post delivered. Some of it was for a man in Wrexham. Then I found out the milkman had left us nothing, but that next door had seventeen bottles delivered. I decided to pinch one, for us. I knew they wouldnít mind, as they obviously hadn't ordered that many. I got the milk, but instead of coming back here, I ended up trying to get in the house next door but one. I was convinced I lived there, utterly convinced. The woman there told me to piss off. I only got back here because I had left the door open, thinking Iíd only be out a few minutes. I thought it was just me going mad at first, but then I got a lot of wrong number phone calls, all for different people. One man even phoned from Italy. I donít know how he misdialled to the point of phoning abroad but he did. He wanted an ambulance to take his girlfriend to hospital, as she was in labour. I couldnít help him. I decided to call you, and see if everything was all right at the school, but I couldnít get the number right. I kept misdialing. I know the number. Iíve memorised it and called you so many times, but I kept getting pizza parlours, and other people. I just decided to sit down here and wait for you. It seemed to take forever. I wondered if youíd ever get here at all."
George held her and comforted her in her fretful stress. "Relax, Itís over now. Iím staying right beside you until the crisis ends."
They lay down on the settee, wrapped in one anothersí arms. She slept soundly. He stroked her hair gently.
There was a sudden noise from the front door. Something heavy had been pushed through the letterbox. Forester carefully got up, leaving his wife asleep, and went out to look. It was an evening newspaper. Forester stared at it incredulously. It would normally have arrived before he got home. He looked at his watch. The digital read out said 22;33. No one delivered papers this late on. Forester realised that the paper boy had obviously got lost, and probably had no idea how late it had become. He opened the door and peered out into the darkness, but the boy had vanished out of sight. Forester contemplated going after him, but he remembered that he had to think about his wife first. He didnít dare get himself lost going after child. There would be lots of people of all ages wandering the streets, trying to get home now. He had made it to the sanctuary of his house. He had a duty to stay there now. Nevertheless he was angry that some greedy little newsagent had still sent his delivery boys out at all in the current crisis. "No oneís forgetting the value of moneyí" he mumbled to himself.
He opened the paper to glance at the title. He was surprised that it was the Manchester Evening News; theyíd sent him the right one. Then he thought about it; the Evening News was Manchesterís only Evening paper. It had no competitors to get muddled up with.
The headline shocked him so much that he dropped the paper and had to put all the pages back in straight again. It read "GEORGE FORESTER BLAMES HIMSELF FOR MAD CHIP DISEASE."
Forester quickly looked at the story. It read that he, Forester had appeared on a radio programme to talk about the crisis, and had admitted to the interviewer that he had caused the disease himself, and that in his efforts to find the cure, he had reduced several human guinea pigs to mental vegetables.
Forester realised immediately that he was reading a story that fused together elements of the two different Professor Jonkinson reports he had come across that day; one in the morning paper, and the other one on the radio, but the newspaper was now confusing him with the professor. It was such a coincidence. They even had a smiling photograph of Forester wearing a scientistís laboratory coat.
Excitedly, Forester took the paper to his wife, and woke her up. Scared by his aggressive demand for her attention, Mary took the paper and looked. "Itís Professor Jonkinson, not you. Go back to sleep."
Forester snatched back the paper, tearing it slightly, ignoring his wifeís disgust at the violence of the snatch. He could still see his name there, instead of the Professorís. He looked at the other headlines. FORESTER QUITS POLITICS. FORESTER MUGS PENSIONER FOR £3.27. GEORGE FORESTER DROWNED IN QUICKSAND. GEORGE FREED TO MOLEST MORE CHILDREN.
He looked to the back pages to find more references to himself. GEORGE FORESTER SCORES OWN GOAL. FORESTER LETS THE SIDE DOWN. FORESTER KNOCKED OUT IN THE THIRD ROUND.
Driven by panic, he opened the paper to look inside. It was more of the same. "FORESTER MUST GO. FORESTER, CAUGHT AT LAST. He only seemed to be in the stories where he was a killer, or a criminal or the victim of some awful incident. Stories about heroes and people doing good deeds were all given other names, probably the names of the people the story genuinely involved. He looked to the obituary column. It was extensive, far more so than usual, but all the names there were Forester, George, and carried his details, though one referred to him as loving mother to Georgie Forester. He looked at the cartoons, and found himself depicted even there. All the jokes were at his expense. Forester panicked. was this Mad Chip Disease? Was he mad? Or was it real? Had someone swapped his newspaper for a bogus edition to make fun of him? If so, who? And Why? It was so professional; too professional, really to be a hoax. George wondered why, now he knew that it was an illusion, superimposed on his sense of reality, that it didnít go away. In dreams the monster disappears as you wake up. Here, the monster madness was still right in front of him, even though he knew it was a figment of his chip diseased imagination. He couldnít will the words and images away, no mater how he tried. He broke down and cried himself to sleep on Maryís shoulder. It was her turn to be strong for him. She woke him long enough to give him his tea, a simple beans on toast affair with some tomato sauce relish. The toast was burnt, even though Mary had never been known to burn toast before, and the beans were stone cold. George smelled gas and went to turn the oven off. The gas was on, but it hadnít been ignited. He warned Mary to be vigilant against doing something like that again. He was critical, and firm about it, without being impolite. She understood, and wrote it down in her book as heíd advised her to do.
They went to bed after they ate the food, without reheating the beans. George found himself waking up in the early hours, with his head full of worries. He went to the bathroom, and for a few minutes, couldnít even find it. He managed to get back to the bed easily enough, but he was no longer tired. He decided to leave Mary undisturbed and read a book in the spare room, which doubled as his formidable library. Shelves were everywhere, leaving little room for comfort, and making many overnight visitors leave feeling very claustrophobic. To Forester, the Library was as exciting as stepping into Narnia through the back of a wardrobe. The books were his best friends. He went to the bookshelf and fished out Dickensís A Tale Of Two Cities, a favourite of his from way back. It was the first real book he had ever read, after Peter and Janet, SEE THE DOG. SEE THE BALL. word and picture type picture type learning books. His childhood mind had relished at the thought of the guillotine as a convenient means of disposing of your enemies, such as school bullies, and old Mr. Grun, who never gave back a football once it had gone into his garden.
Later, as heíd matured, he was moved by the nobility of Sidney Cartonís heroic sacrifice.
"It is a far, far better thing that I do now than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
No! Something was wrong here. Carton was supposed to save Darney, but he had just abandoned him, and left him to his death. His heroic, sacrificial speech was reduced to a mockery. He was doing a better thing by getting out and leaving the poor wretch to his fate, and his better rest was reduced to merely sleeping off a celebratory drink and resting with a clear, indifferent conscience about what he had done. Worse, despite the book retaining Dickenís style of writing, the character of doomed Darney was now replaced by George Forester, and so was the evil, amoral character of Sydney Carton.
Forester skimmed through the book, seeing his name mentioned on every page. He was Mr. Lorry, Mr. Cruncher, and Miss Pross.
Forester threw the book down with contempt, fear and loathing, and rushed back to his bookcase. He pulled out several other volumes from his collection of classics, and important books to be seen with. Unlike many other purchasers of such works though, Forester had read them all, many of them several times over. He found pretty much what he was dreading anyway. He was the villain sinking in the bog in Lorna Doone, he was Dracula, and Frankensteinís Monster (as well as being the creatureís creator). He was the Invisible Man, and the Martians in The War Of The Worlds. Whodunit? Forester, every time, and who had he done it to, but himself, in every detective story he read. He trembled as he took down his copy of Mein Kampf, and discovered that he was Hitler. In the Bible he was God, Abraham, Moses, Satan, Jesus and the Archangel Gabriel. In each, the text remained consistent with the style and presentation of the original author.
He read on, frantically looking for one uncontaminated book, but fell asleep in the heap of half opened books that had been his well ordered library. He had even been considering introducing the Library based Dewey-Decimal system to his collection, but now it looked as though the house had been burgled and ransacked. Several volumes were torn, and some had their pages creased from the way he had frantically cast them aside. Dust jackets lay askew everywhere.
He woke feeling thirsty. His watch told him it was 04.37 AM. He peeped out through the curtains and saw that it was just growing light outside. He got himself a glass of water, turned the radio on, and turned the volume down, soís not to wake Mary up. At first there was no sound, and then, through the faint static, he heard his own voice, introducing Queenís hit single, IíM Going Slightly Mad. It wasnít Freddy Mercury on lead vocals though, it was Forester, sounding like a very poor quality Karaoke performer. He switched the radio off, and flicked the portable bedroom television set on. He was there, as the monster in the last adult film to be shown before children's morning TV programmes started. He was being chased through a burning, crumbling building that would inevitably be the means of his destruction. He switched to another channel, where a news reporter showed his uniformed junta picture and accused him of starting a civil war in Nicaragua. Forester turned the set off and held his head in his hands, trying to suppress his tears and rising sense of panic. Seeing himself in words was nothing compared to seeing himself in actual life, or at least in TV pictures and moving images. His whole life was becoming a grotesque hall of mirrors. He remembered Narcissus, drowning in his own reflection. No, bad analogy. Narcissus wanted to see himself in everything. Forester just wanted to be himself. He was one of lifeís natural spectators, watching things going on around himself, but generally blissfully detached from them. He had his books, full of other peopleís stories. He was a teacher, cramming kids heads with other peopleís ideas, and thoughts. He was married to a beautiful woman, albeit one who's own difficult birth had left her unable to have children of her own. Forester was just someone who had things going on around him in such away that he could forget about himself all the time, but not now, not ever again. The crisis threw him at himself with such an In Yer Face attitude. There was no escape. He was everywhere.
He looked up at the photograph of his wedding, but while his wife was there, in her stunning bridal gown, he was not. Roncoy seemed to have married her instead. Forester looked quickly at the other photographs around the room. he wasnít in any of them either. He seemed to have been replaced by various strangers and old friends in all of them.
There was a distinct sound from downstairs of a door slamming shut. Forester gasped with the shock of the noise. It wasnít five o clock yet, was it? He looked at his watch again.
03;12 AM. He looked out the window again. It was dark out. The sun showed no sign of rising yet. He remembered seeing the sun only a short time before. His knees went weak for a moment. He wondered if there was an eclipse or some such phenomena, but no. His watch had not long since had its battery changed.
Forester wondered why the door had slammed. Had he left it open in the night? Possibly. It would be so easy to make such mistakes at present; but who had closed it? And were they inside the house or outside? Was it some stranger, convinced he or she was in a home of his or her own? Was it burglars and looters exploiting the crisis to their own profits?
Forester realised he had to wake Mary now, and warn her of the danger of having intruders in the house. He rushed to the bedroom, to find her bed empty. She had left him a note pinned to his bedside lamp.
"George, Nipped out for some fresh air. Couldnít sleep. Iíll fetch the twins home from school today. It looks like the heat wave will continue. Itís lovely and bright out. You wonít need your overcoat. Love Mary."
Forester screamed. She thought it was daylight, and sunny out. She was going for the children, even though she had none to collect. Sheíd already got lost leaving the house once.
He looked around and spotted the note book he had told her to keep. Sheíd forgotten it. He glanced at the notes she had made. "Nearly Christmas. Who Pays the Ferryman. Ring A Ring Of Roses. gvcxzoirgjkl Mbewiytoig," Her notes descended to gibberish, doodles and scrawls of increasing illiteracy and illegibility. Forester threw them down, and swore loudly. After a few minutes he took his own notebook from his pocket and glanced at it, unsurpassed to find it too contained incomprehensible gobbledegook.
Forester walked down the stairs, and opened the door. It was indeed daylight, but the sky was not the clear blue of his wifeís heat wave. It was full of dark, ominous storm clouds. It seemed miraculous that it hadnít already started raining heavily.
He contemplated running after her, but no; even though it had only been a few minutes since she had left, he doubted his ability to catch up with her. He suspected that he would only end up lost too. There were plenty of people in the street, all looking lost; and many of them resembling him, even a baby in a pram had his face instead of its own. One lookalike starting calling to him, as if to ask directions to some place or other. Forester quickly slammed the door shut and ran back inside. He poured himself a neat whisky and knocked it back in one, only to find that heíd drunk Pernod instead. He knew it was mistake drinking so early in the day, but then, he wondered if it was still early in the day. He realised that he no longer knew even what day it was.
He took up the phone and dialled the police. His own voice asked him which service he required. He hung up, but then tried again, and answered himself with the details of his wifeís disappearance anyway. The policeman assured him help would come, but that it might take time, due to so many other calls coming through, and so few policemen having turned up on duty.
George grabbed the phone book and glanced through it to see who else he ought to call. When he saw that every number listed was to G. Forester at his address he gave up. He grabbed out for another drink, not bothering to look at the label on the bottle, and before he knew it, he had drunk himself unconscious. He woke up on the floor of his bathroom, feeling decidedly ill, tidied himself up, and decided to go to bed. He wondered if he ought to phone the school to apologise for not coming in, but under the circumstances he knew that hardly anyone else was going to be there either.
He was asleep before his head hit the pillow. He woke with a pounding headache and all numb in the mouth. He was all sweaty and feeling terribly sorry for himself. He switched on the bedside light and his mind gave in to total terror. The very furniture of the bedroom had his features now. The wardrobe was sculpted in his form, as was the table lamp. He was woven into the carpet; a thousand writhing, deathís head grin Foresterís. A large portrait of him was even etched into the ceiling. Tearing his eyes away from that, Forester caught a glimpse of the back of his own hands and realised that he was tattooed all over his own flesh as well. His lungs and exploded in a terrifying scream, straight out of an Edvard Munch painting. He sank down, exhausted and hyperventilating, losing all his senses sight, sound, touch, hearing, smell, and that other one his father had told him about ... what was it; proprieception. That was it; that had gone too.
Everyone thought the next sense after sight, hearing, smell, etc was something like ESP or telekinesis, that only parapsychologists would be interested in, but there was a natural 6th sense everyone had; proprieception. If you closed your eyes, his Father had told him, you can still, quite instinctively tell whether you are lying down flat, curled up in a ball, sat up, and standing fully stretched. You know if your fingers are openly reaching out, or clenched in a fist. You know what position you are in, even if you donít know where. His father had been a deep sea diver, working on the rigs and supply ships at the height of Britainís North Sea Gas drilling spree. He had claimed in one of his often repeated monologues to his son that his sense of proprieception had saved him from drowning many times. "You just have to know which way you are facing and if you are the right way up and then follow your bubbles up to the surface."
Forester was plunged down into the darkness in his head now; unable to will himself round. He had no idea which way up he faced. His proprieception had gone. No, wait a minute. He was sitting up, in a cushioned chair. His head was cushioned too. He had a headrest. He felt a slight throbbing sensation, as though moving forward, hitting bumps. He was in a car. He opened his eyes. His sense of triumph faded as he saw the other passengers and realised he was on board a passenger train. A thousand panics and doubts and questions assaulted him. Other realisations made him feel good inside at the same time. He still felt hung over, but the tattoos of himself had faded from his hands. He wondered how he gone from his bedroom to this? Had he left the house and not Mary? Was she still safely tucked up in bed? The other passengers had their own appearances too. They were not him any more. There were about twenty other people on board, all looking troubled, deeply, and all siting as far apart from one another as possible. Forester, siting at the back of the carriage, (facing the direction the train appeared to be heading) had room around himself for eight other passengers if anyone was to come and sit near him. He felt like a leper. He wondered if it was the clothes he had slept in for two nights running that put them off him. No, he realised, he was dressed in pressed grey trousers, and blue pinstripe shirt. He felt like a middle manager for some treading corporation. He felt as though he ought to have a posh leather briefcase to complete the effect, but no such case was visible.
It was dark outside, and the train was moving at breakneck speed. Occasionally lights flashed past from towns, villages, farms, and roads nearby. Suddenly, it was daylight. It was there as instantly as the light from an electric bulb that had just been turned on. The reassuring patchwork greenery of the English landscape was quite welcoming to behold. It had been raining too, though it appeared to have stopped for now. A few water droplets still clung to the window, as though desperate to hang on for dear life, but slowly, steadily, inevitably, they lost the battle and perished.
Forester felt his heart palpitating. He pushed hunger and thirst aside, to concentrate on how he came to be on the train. His first thought was that he was in some kind of Nightmare On Elm Street style vivid dream. He remembered the Lewis Carroll analogy of the King dreaming that he was a butterfly that was dreaming that it was a king, who dreamt that he was butterfly, who dreamt that it was a King, who dreamt ......
No, he was here. He had to hold on to that fact. He had to maintain focus on that meaning and order. He was no longer being swallowed by his own image. Things were improving. This was progress. Perhaps the Professor, Jonkinson, that was his name, perhaps he had found a solution, a cure. Perhaps everyone was getting better.
But how had he ended up on a train?
Forester recalled the level crossing incident outside Abbotís school. He remembered contemplating catching a train from the school, when he hadnít found the car. Maybe he had done that. Maybe he hadnít driven home at all. But that meant.... No; the events of the previous night (or day, or afternoon, or twilight) had been real. Mary feeling such distress,, her disappearance, the drinking. Real! Real! Real! It had to be real. His life wasnít like the comeback scene of some soap opera star, dismissing hours, days, and months of existential experience as a dreamer a hallucination, was it? Could it be? He remembered the duck rabbit pictures he once saw; a rabbit was drawn in such a way that it might also be a duck. You looked and saw one or the other, but you could never get it to be both at the same time. Where was he now? In his bed? In the library? On a train? Driving his car? He ruled out the latter. He doubted if he could drive in such a foggy mental state without crashing. He wondered when this crisis had started, for himself, and in general. Had it begun with Jonkinsonís experiments? Had it begun when the boys and teachers started missing school and people started getting lost? He remembered the return flight from Paris, when baggage handlers lost his luggage. It was posted on to him with grovelling apologies, only days ago. Was that the first symptom? No; some things just naturally go astray. People misplace things all the time; a missing sock, a biro that you swore blind was on the mantelpiece, but which no one admits to having moved on you. As a child he had been convinced that his mother was teasing him by deliberately hiding his shoes, before he discovered each time where he had discarded them. Now it was happening to him. He was no longer sure where he was, or who he was, or where his wife was; if he had a wife at all. He suddenly realised that he could no longer recall her name. Sarah, Molly, Mary, Nancy? Possibly Nancy, yes. That sounded familiar. Or did it.
At the school he seemed to have been teaching most of his life, he had made a point of telling the children about the continuity errors in their favourite films. He had seen cavemen in prehistoric times, not only running from dinosaurs that were extinct long before the Neanderthals evolved, but also wearing wristwatches. He had seen medieval electricity pylons, and films where the character gets into a red Allegro, but then gets out of another make of car at journeyís end. Now the same kind of gaffes ands slip ups were happening in real life. Forester felt like one of Godís out-takes.
He looked at the other passengers, seeing only the backs of their heads. One was a nun, wearing her habit. Another was a man who appeared to be smoking a pipe, despite the no smoking signs that were posted to several windows in the carriage. The plumes of smoke rose over his head every minute or so.
Forester felt cold, and apprehensive. There were no identifiable landmarks in sight. None of the scenery looked familiar to him, and the journey seemed to go on for quite a long time. He wondered if he was on board an Intercity Express rather than a local service train. A railway station came into view, but he train made no attempt to slow down, let alone stop, despite what Forester took fore a clear red light signal. He caught a glimpse of the station sign as it went by.
Devonshire? What the hell was he doing in Devonshire? He had no family or friends there. He braced himself, took a deep breath, stood up, and walked forward tot he pipe-smoker, who sat in Sherlock Holmes tweeds but wore a pointless plain baseball cap instead of the deerstalker any casual, intelligent observer would have expected to see. Forester wondered if that is what the man imagined he was wearing.
George stood in front of the man who guiltily started putting out his pipe, half expecting to be admonished for smoking where he wasnít allowed. He looked relieved when Forester just asked him where the train was going.
The man looked Forester up and down condescendingly, as if the destination was common knowledge to everyone. "Liverpool Lime Street, of course."
"Where from?" Forester asked.
"Edinburgh, of course, where we got on. Do you always ask such pointless questions?"
Forester growled. "You do realise we just passed Axminster, donít you?"
"Donít be so absurd. Thatís nowhere near Edinburgh or Carlisle."
"Carlisle? You said Liverpool Lime Street a moment ago."
The pipe-smoker was clearly began to lose patience. "Now look, my good man. I know where I am, and where I am going. Just because you were stupid enough to get on the wrong train doesnít mean I am also affected by Mad Chip Disease. Now please go away before I complain about you." He added several swear words and curses for good measure, stood up and started waving his fists aggressively.
"Iím no more mad than you are, Sir," Forester barked assertively, as though to an unruly classroom. The man before him suddenly withered visibly and sank back into his seat. "As for Mad Cow Disease; Everyone is affected in some way. None of us are immune." He was about to walk away when an idea struck him. He turned back to the stranger. "Are you really convinced you are going to Liverpool?"
The mansí eyes crossed. He looked uncertain, but he nodded his head and said he was positive about it. "Right," Forester said, triumphantly, letís ask the nun where she thinks we are going to."
Before the man in the baseball cap could protest, Forester was off down the carriage to talk to the nun. The man reluctantly tailed after him. He arrived by her side just in time to hear her reply "Ipswich, from Lowestoft, I think." The two men stared at each other and at her in speechless terror. The young nun came to share their dread when they told her their own intended destinations. The arguments started up again, albeit with greater care to avoid profanity due to the ladyís profession. Each of them clung stubbornly and stridently to their own chosen journeyís end. After a while, they calmed down and became more rational, and less emotive towards one another. The old pipe smoker introduced himself as William Prideforce-Barnes, retired landscape gardener, though he seemed doubtful himself of any of those credentials.
Despite having a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes lookalike on the train, it was Forester who first suggested a practical solution to the mystery. "Letís look at each otherís tickets. They should state our destination. It should be printed out on them. Itís worth a try." He wondered if his would actually just say ĎForesterí all over it. They all started rooting through bags, pockets and wallets, and while Prideforce-Barnes had vague memories of having bought one, neither Forester or the nun, Sister Linda Mitchell, could recall getting one at all. None of them had tickets. The nun had a cricket ball in her habitís pocket, and Forester had several shells from a seaside beach in his for no apparent reason, but no train tickets.
"Weíre dead," Prideforce-Barnes mumbled. "We died and now weíre being taken straight to Hell. Thatís what this is all about."
"Even her?" asked Forester, sarcastically. "Do nuns get sent to Hell? I doubt it. I doubt anything so superstitious actually. Itís more likely weíre going to some sort of asylum for deranged, psychotic railway enthusiasts."
"Very funny," moaned the nun. "Now letís start being serious about this." She closed what she thought she had been reading, which was the Bible, but which Forester saw to be a copy of Lady Chatterleyís Lover, and which Prideforce-Barnes took for Existentialism For Beginners. "We need to find someone with a better idea than us. We need to find the ticket collector, an inspector or even the driver. Thereís bound to be a driver, isn't there?"
"I bloody well hope so," shouted Prideforce, and immediately apologised for his profanity. They walked together to the next carriage which was fuelled to capacity. Many passengers were standing. All looked tired, confused and angry. A fight seemed to have broken out between two youths further along. Forester took one man aside and discreetly asked him where he was going.
"Swansea Central, on the Bakerloo Line, right after Birmingham NEC.."
"Neither Swansea or Birmingham are on the London Underground," Forester said, apologetically.
"Arenít they?" The man, barely more than a boy, burst into tears.
Forester shook his head in sorrow. "I wish they were for you. I really do."
Another young man, slightly older than the other one, insisted on knowing what time they arrived at RAF Honington, as he was already overdue for returning from leave. He was worried about being registered there as AWOL. "We are going to Honington, arenít we?" he pleaded. Forester shrugged his shoulders and he was about to say that he honestly didnít know, when a man shouted that the soldier would have to change trains at St. Ives first if that was where he wanted to go. That started the riot. Cries and shouts for every station in the U.K, and a few for other countries, arose. Forester shouted out loudly. "ENOUGH! Sit down. Youíre worse than Class 4C. " To his surprise, they paid attention. He told them not to panic, and about the plan to find the train driver or the conductor. people started following him, Prideforce and the nun, in quite an orderly fashion, when someone shouted out that a station was coming into view. "A station platform. A station! "
The stampede for the best view through the windows left two old ladies trampled underfoot and barely noticed by anyone in their pain. Forester thought he spotted MORECAMBE as it sped past, but already there was a pandemonium of calls for other destinations arising. A girl of seven, clutching a doll that had lost its clothes, sat crying quietly. The nun asked her why.
"That was Hartlepool, and that was where I was supposed to get off," she whimpered.
The Nun asked her where her parents were, but she had no idea. The Nun indicated to Forester that she wished to stay with the girl for now. Forester nodded agreement, and started moving forward again, but he had barely reached mid-carriage when another shout went up.
"A train! Thereís a train coming the other way!"
The scramble for the windows was repeated, though no one was hurt this time. Forester half expected the train to topple over to its left and derail itself, but it never happened. He found himself pressed right up against the glass by the sheer weight of people behind him, craning and struggling to see.
The train moved past quickly, in the opposite direction to their own, along a close parallel track. Through its windows people stared back in grim impassive silence. Some of them held up card against the glass; one letter per window frame, with a break of two windows between words.
P L E A S E T E L L U S W H E R E W E A R E
The train vanished into the distance.
Someone produced a map of the British Isles which gave major road and rail routes. He presented it to Forester, who quickly looked through it and handed it back. "Useless, Iím afraid.", he said, in bitter disappointment. "It tells us where weíd like to be, but not where we are. Until we get a landmark we all agree upon, thereís no way we can start to use a map."
The map-bearer snatched away the map as though personally insulted by Foresterís remarks, and sat down with it clutched to his chest. Every so often he looked out for some recognisable site, and quickly looked it up on the map, to no avail.
Prideforce Barnes appeared and clutched Foresterís shoulder in excitement. "Iíve taken a quick count. There are nine other people so far who are looking for Liverpool. It seems to be the majority favoured destination. I think we should think of it as our one true destination; a sort of holy grail. What do you reckon?"
Forester tutted in disgust and started walking off.
"Where are you going?" Prideforce called after him.
"For the bloody bus," Forester shouted back, without bothering to look round.
George made a last valiant attempt to lead a march forward to find the driver, but the soldier hoping to reach Honington RAF base suddenly recalled that trains were as likely to be driven from the rear carriage as from the front. Forester tried to assure everyone that train drivers are expected to be able to see the track ahead, but the damage was done. Half of the people so far accepting his reluctant leadership were now trying to go back down the train, the way they had come. Others tried to follow Forester. There was an impossible, impassable log jam in the middle of the carriage.
"Itís getting dark already. Youíd better hurry," insisted the soldier.
"But itís barely noon," groaned another passenger, sparking a furious feud over various times of day, days of the week, and months & seasons of the year. Forester suggested that they should all synchronise their watches to either noon, or midnight, but the suggestion sparked so much bickering over various other times that he let it go. He did push his own watch forward to midnight, but when he looked at it again moment later it was reading 04.23 AM.
They passed more stations. Everyone agreed that they could see stations, but there was total anarchy over which stations they were.
Forester decided to go back to the quiet carriage he had first woken up in. He pushed through the crowd, with no one following him, or noticing him any more, which pleased him. He got back to what he took for his carriage only to find it full. No seats remained empty. Several people were standing, as in that which he had just left. Forester avoided communicating with them, even when some of them tried to ask him where he thought they might be, and made his way down the carriage to the next one, and the next after that, and the next after that. Each was packed with a similar crowd and Forester saw a few who he recognised as having seen before, such as a girl with a naked doll, sitting next to a Nun, who was trying to comfort her in her distress. Neither the girl or the nun seemed to recognise Forester though.
He gave up counting after the fifteenth carriage back, but wondered how big the train actually was. He was tired and hungry. There were no signs indicating a buffet car anywhere. What there was however was a communication chord; an iron chain that could be pulled to stop the train in the event of an emergency. A notice attached to it warned of the fines and penalties to be imposed for improper use. Forester had no doubt that this however was a real emergency. Passengers were panicking, fighting and getting hurt. No one knew where they were going, and he had no idea how he had got on the train. He reached out to pull the chord.
There was a passionate, panic stricken cry for him to stop. He turned to see who it was and thought he caught a instant's glimpse of Professor Jonkinson, and his own wife, Mary running towards him with open arms, and there was a voice warning passengers to fasten their seat belts ready for landing .... Too late to stop himself, Forester pulled the chord. There was a screeching violent forward motion. Doors burst open. A cold blast of air first threw him down, and then sucked him out, and for a moment, he knew exactly who and where he was.
"It is terrible to have to report that the plane carrying Professor Jonkinson to the Mad Chip Disease Emergency Summit has exploded and crashed. Early indications from the black box flight recordings suggest that a passenger forced opened the doors in mid air, at 20,000 feet, and may have imagined he was getting off a train instead. The loss of the Professor at the height of the current crisis is a terrible tragedy for us all. He was widely believed to have been close to a solution to the crisis. All through the flight, he was contacting world laboratories through his Internet linked lap-top computer. Investigators at the crash site believe that the computer may have survived the crash intact. We will keep you posted.
The world is now officially safe thanks to the late Professor Jonkinson. We now know that just before the plane crashed, he was beginning to piece together an important clue that ultimately lead to our salvation. He poured idea after philosophical idea into the process and eventually hit on the right one. He analysed the research data into the Babel affliction. He noticed that terminally ill people affected by it seemed to reach a moment of knowingness when they seemed cured, just before their ailments or injuries killed them. This often happens, Jonkinson observed, even with people not affected by Mad Chip Disease. To quote the great man himself - Many seriously, terminally ill patients with cancers, stroke victims, people trapped in the wreckage of burning cars hovering in and out of consciousness, etc, often become more coherent in their final instant of life. When staring death in the face, you become suddenly intensely aware of the sum of your life. This may be what Near Death Experience, (NDE) patients mean by their descriptions of 'seeing their whole life flash before their eyes'. Notice, possibly from your own experiences, how many people, in the final death throes of their life threatening medical conditions, suddenly appear to show signs of recovery at the last minute. People about to die suddenly show signs of having a pulse. Hearts start beating. If speechless, they may utter a few words. They show at least some signs of health-recovery, and then they relapse and die, shattering the hopes, prayers, and expectations that their false recovery has given to their tearful relatives. If we can tap into the mental energies of those rare individuals who have experienced near-death, we may find some fundamental clue that enables us to recover our sanity in the ongoing Babel crisiÖ.."
His message ends there with the destruction of the plane. It was enough. Research into NDE experiences took off all around the world. Test subjects were so rare that it was declared a criminal offence in Europe to deny that you had experienced near death if you had. Geneto-chemical studies found rare enzymes unique to the brains of NDE survivors. The rest was easy. Science prevailed. Today, we can safely say we have found the cure.
This is Peter Warrington, for the BBZ World Cervix, signing off for now. Next news at August 33rd, Humpty Dumpty had a little lamb, whgw wugahkdftermuf...........
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