Caveat: this is an extract taken from the raw manuscript before editing. Any mistakes and inconsistencies you find here will be removed before the book is published.
The first time the voice found me was in the bath. As I lay back under the warm suds I tried to relax by thinking about the stars.
Prsssslllllp, it said: right in my ear. Shocked doesn’t do justice to my reaction I just about went into orbit.
“What the?” I leapt to my feet abruptly, sloshing water over the edge with a splash, and stood still. I waited until the contents of the bath stopped swirling backwards and forwards about my ankles and listened.
Then I noticed how much water had gone over the side and onto the floor. I shared the bathroom with three other girls and they were totally anal about mess... well... unless they made it, at any rate, then, suddenly I was the anal one. I didn’t want to wipe the floor with my towel and hoped that, if I let the door open when I had finished, it would dry before anyone saw it.
You’ve no worries on that score. It’s the middle of the night. I thought. Except that I didn’t. It was definitely a thought, and it was definitely in my head, but it wasn’t mine. It was somebody else’s.
“How can I think another person’s thoughts by mistake?” I asked. Was it even someone? ‘Prssssllllp’ didn’t sound like any language I’d heard. What if the thoughts were something’s?
No, it was OK, I told myself. I was not thinking anyone else’s thoughts. There was only one me in my brain but it was acting a bit funny because it was 5 am and it was knackered.
In case you’re wondering what I was doing in the bath at 5 am. Let me explain. I was staying in the Paul Weller Student Residency and I was at university, studying art restoration. But what I really wanted to do was stand up comedy . That’s why I picked a university in London.
That night was the first time my attempts to be funny had gone well. And when the set goes well... trust me. There isn’t a buzz that comes close. I was so hooked on the comedy drug that, afterwards, as I cycled back to the student residence, it was all I could do not to accost random strangers and attempt to be funny at them. But even in London, there aren’t that many strangers on the street at four in the morning. And I doubted anyone who was would appreciate my biting wit. And I had to face reality. I had lectures in a few hours and I was far more likely to end up being an art restorer than a comedienne. So I needed to work at my course which meant I needed to sleep. Stopping to tell jokes to random strangers was right out. But so was sleep unless I relaxed. Which is how I came to be in the bath at five am having a thought that was not my own.
Hello? said a voice. I voice that came from outside but was also inside my head with me.
“No, no, no.”
I got out of the bath and began to towel myself dry. All the while the strange sensation persisted: that there was another mind looking through my eyes.
Two minds in my one brain.
“Am I mentally ill?” I asked myself, aloud, to make it feel real. No. This didn’t feel like mental illness. But then surely it never does or people would know not to obey the voices that tell them to murder people and bury them under the patio.
“No. I’ve overdone it. That’s all.”
I shuddered as I left the warmth of the steamy bathroom and crossed the hall to my room. It wasn’t because I was cold.
Oh come on: talk to me. I know you can hear me.
Goose pimples rose on the back of my neck.
No. Go away, I thought as I ran into my room and closed the door but the voice came with me. Well, it would wouldn’t it? It was in my head.
It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you I promise. What’s your name?
I started to imagine myself building a wall across the inside of my skull with the voice on one side and me on the other.
Hang on, no, don’t do that. Please don’t do that, I need to find you.
No, you very much don’t. I concentrated harder on the wall, picturing the bricks, and the mortar between, imagining it growing higher and stronger.
Wait, please. I have to know where you are. It’s really important. We need to speak. Please don’t shut me out.
I kept building the imaginary wall until the voice faded and was gone.
“What the hell happened there?” I asked my reflection in the wardrobe mirror.
Tiredness. That’s all. I was knackered. And a bit buzzy from the stand up. Yeh. I wasn’t going mad. Not at all. I went to bed.
Two days later I met Eric or at least, looking back on it now I realise that what actually happened was, Eric found me. It’s probably quite lucky that I didn’t understand who he was: or at least, not until a lot later when we were already friends. Life went back to normal, sort of, although two things persisted; the feeling, from time to time that I was not alone in my head and occasionally, a ‘hello’ from the voice. Each time it happened I would build my imaginary wall until it faded away.
It scared me, the thought that I might be getting ill in the head, but I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t getting any worse so rather than acknowledge it, I justified my decision paralysis by telling myself I was evaluating the situation; after all, I reasoned, what could possibly happen? And then suddenly, one day, as I was minding my own business buying lunch in the student canteen, I found out.
I dropped my tray. It crashed onto the canteen floor in a tsunami of overheated baked beans and orange juice, I retained a vivid mental picture of one of my Cumberland sausages skidding under the drinks machine and then blackness. I woke up on the floor, blinking as a circle of blurred heads above me slid into focus. A group of concerned strangers were standing round me fanning me with empty crisp packets. There was a strong smell of cheese and onion fumes. I searched the faces, and behind them, I thought I saw something blurry and indistinct, just for an instant: something I really didn’t want to see. Then I found the person I was looking for: Eric, my best friend, my only friend, so far, at uni.
“Andi, are you OK?”
I couldn’t speak. I nodded and the world blurred and sounds went a bit fizzy. Ugh. Keep your head still Andi.
“You’re OK. You fainted,” said someone.
Ah so that’s what happened. I took my time. Partly because I was still seeing a lot of big green spots but mainly because I was still trying to process the thing that made me faint. The thing – or was that Thing – I thought I’d seen.
Had I imagined it? What was I thinking? Yes. Of course I had. After all, I was imagining a lot of strange stuff these days. I told myself this was just the latest in a long line of events, which on the face of it, were best ignored.
Even so, this one was quite a biggie. Bigger than being afraid you’re thinking someone else’s thoughts; bigger than the voice that was in my head – but also not in my head – that kept saying, ‘hello.’ It was even bigger than the feeling that someone else was sharing my brain. It was something so unbelievably scary it had made me pass out. For a moment I’d thought Eric metamorphosed into a giant lobster with 7 eyes, 3ft pincers and antennae.
However, if he had, he’d gone back to looking like Eric now, and anyway, I seemed to be the only person who had noticed. It was probably some kind of optical illusion, I decided. Yes. That’s what it was. Too many late nights, a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, my wacky imagination steps in and ... yeh. I was helped to my feet, helped to another portion of all day breakfast by the kindly lady behind the counter and sat at a table in the corner. The concerned strangers – and Eric – surrounded me enquiring after my health. After a spell with my head between my knees I began to recover and I was soon able to sit up and mumble excuses about the time of the month. Eric was still looking like Eric and the concerned strangers, drama over, went back to whatever it was they had been doing. I wasn’t feeling dizzy any more but I had a horrendous headache. It felt as if my skull was about to cave in
Half an hour later, when I had recovered a little more, I tried to tackle my meal. I noticed Eric was beginning to go a bit blurry round the edges as if he was sliding in and out of soft focus. If I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye, I would see something ... else, but when I turned to look closely, he’d be Eric again. Whatever was going on, I decided it was best faced on a full stomach, so for now I’d cope with it the British way: ignore it and pretend nothing was happening. Eric kept drifting in and out of focus and the pain behind my eyes intensified each time his image sharpened. He was looking increasingly worried and uncomfortable, and judging by the expression on his face, he thought I was about to have a stroke. I was beginning to think the same thing.
“Andi,” he began haltingly but I interrupted him.
“Eric, have you got an aspirin on you?”
“Can I have one?”
“Yes.” Blimey, I wished he’d hurry up, if he didn’t give me one of those aspirin absolutely immediately the top of my head was going to blow off.
“OK, Andi, I can stop your headache but you have to promise me you won’t go all limp and fall over again.”
OK so Eric was Norwegian but surely he’d seen people faint before – I mean people faint all the time don’t they? His expression was panicked but also slightly shifty.
“It’s called fainting, imbecile and no, I won’t.”
He pressed me.
“Yes I promise!” He eyed me sceptically. For heaven’s sake! How much reassurance could a person need? “I will not faint again,” I told him. As if I had some kind of control over it. “Satisfied?”
“Good! Now for God’s sake give me an aspirin or I’m going to die.”
“No. I’m not going to give you an aspirin. I’m going to stop your headache.”
My reply died on my lips as Eric went into soft focus at the edges again. As he did so, my head began to hurt less. I didn’t like this one bit, there was definitely a correlation between the amount of ache in my head and the amount of blur round Eric. I turned away from him and looked out onto the City of London through the plate glass windows which made up two thirds of the Student Union Canteen wall. I scanned the familiar skyline. The Post Office Tower and the Gherkin were where they should be. The shard? Check, the Walkie Talkie? Check. All was right with the world and nothing, except Eric, was blurry. I faced him again and as I stared, something moved by his head. Was that a tentacle? No, no. My friend did not have tentacles.
“Andi?” Eric waved his hand in front of my face except...
Hang on. That definitely was a hint of a pincer there. Maybe it was a joke. Yeh that was it; a joke; a piss poor one at that.
“Eric what are you doing?”
“How’s your head?”
“It hurts a bit less.”
“OK,” he said slowly. “Andi, this is going to freak you out a bit.”
“Then don’t do it.”
“I don’t have any choice.”
“Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t. Your brain can’t take it.”
My breath caught.
“Can’t take what Eric? Tell me right now or I swear to God I’m going to—”
I stopped. My headache had gone and this time, I knew I wasn’t imagining it. Slowly Eric became a translucent wavy outline and behind him something else appeared. It looked a bit like a lobster except that it was about seven feet tall with two long antennae. It had mouth parts like a praying mantis and on top of its head were seven stalks, each with a human-like eye on the end: each eye was blue, like Eric’s. The creature’s exoskeleton was reddish brown and glistening with translucent slime. I sat there for a few moments with my mouth open.
“It’s difficult to explain,” he said.
Yeh. I reckoned that was the officially certified understatement of all time.
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