Read the 3rd Prize Winner - Point Nine, Recurring by Michael Callaghan
Point Nine, Recurring
There is the familiar flash of bright light, the same roar in my ears – far-off, like waves crashing in the distance – then that dizzying, rushing feeling, like I’m plunging down a roller coaster.
“Col. You okay? Col?”
I blink. Things swim in and out of focus, blur, then settle. And I see Gem’s face. Sharp and clear now, eyes so bright and blue. She looks so familiar, so… right, I could cry.
She frowns at me.
“Wassup, Col? You look like you’re gonnae’ faint. Not gonnae’ puke are you?” She blows a pink bubble-gum bubble that expands then bursts against her mouth.
“I’m fine.” I say.
My voice sounds okay, I think. I don’t say anything else. I keep looking at her. Drink in everything about her. I watch the way her hair falls in light, tangled curls across her forehead. I watch how she bites the edge of her glass with her teeth. I watch how her pink cardigan sleeve curls around her fingers.
She frowns more.
“Why you looking at me so funny then, muppet?”
I find my voice. Think of the right thing to say.
“Cos you look funny, muppet.”
She smiles. Her familiar, lazy smile, lips closed, mouth curled up at one corner. She reaches over and I overturn my hand, letting her fingers rest there.
Nothing has ever fitted in my hand as well as Gem’s hand.
“We’re doing this Col. We’re finally doing it! We’re going to London. London! They can’t stop us now!”
I nod, press those fingers tight.
“How long now?” I say. I always ask this, for some reason.
She shifts her gaze to behind me. “Six minutes, platform 2. We’re okay.”
My heart sinks at little. Only six minutes. Sometimes I get longer. Up to fifteen, twenty, minutes. But the science isn’t exact. I look behind – slowly because jerky movements make me dizzy – and see that the station is buzzing. It’s the holiday weekend rush. We’re sitting at a table outside the café on the concourse. I see a little girl on her dad’s shoulders laughing and saying giddy up, daddy. He is huffing with the effort of carrying her and his two suitcases. I can smell beer and hot fat cooking and can hear horns blaring from the taxis outside and feel the buzz, buzz of the crowds.
“Anyway,” she says. “It’s the same number.”
For a moment I’m lost. Then, in a rush, I remember what she is talking about. It’s maths. Gem, I remember, is fascinated by maths. Prime numbers, long division, equations – she loves it all.
“It’s not!” I say. I’m annoyed, oddly. “It can’t be. How can one be the same number as… zero point nine. That makes… no sense!”
She twirls her straw in little circles in her drink, then flicks it at me. “Not zero point nine, muppet. Zero point nine recurring. Recurring means forever. And that makes it the same number. Those nines going on and on forever.”
I shake my head. “That’s just mad, Gem. It must be less. Otherwise point nine recurring wouldn’t be a number. It would just be… one. You don’t understand… logic.”
She picks an ice shard out of her glass and crunches it.
“You don’t understand forever,” she says.
Then she looks behind me again, and her eyes widen. “Woah. Three minutes. C’mon, run…”
And next second she’s picking up her rucksack and jumping up and running.
I get up, grab my own bag, and follow her across the station concourse. The world becomes blurry at the edges, which happens with fast movement. We run across to platform 2, and wave our tickets at the guard, and arrive, panting, at the train doors.
Gem jumps on, then looks back, smiling.
“C’mon then, muppet.”
But I stay where I am. I can’t get on the train. I never can. There is a horrible blank moment, when she realises what’s happening. And then she gets off and stands in front of me. She puts her hand on my waist, leans in close. She smells of vanilla and Red Kola.
“Col... I’m going. With or without you. I can’t stay in this… shitty little town. I want London. I want the big adventure. I want to see Buckingham Palace and the tower and that big church and the waxworks and the clock thing…”
“Big Ben…” I say, dully.
“Yeah Big Ben, and the… the marching guards…” She mimes someone marching. “…and… I want my life to move fast and for stuff to happen… and I can’t do that here. Nothing happens here. We’ll get old and grey and fade away and die and our families and friends will cry for a little bit… and then it’ll all be over. Like we never even existed. I’m sixteen now and I’m… not afraid and I think…” she hesitates “…maybe you are.”
“Gem…” I say.
I need words. Some words to say that will fix this. I’ve practised words that could have fixed it. Good, clear words, that expressed how I felt and would have made Gem understand. But always, in the realness of the moment, I’ve nothing to say. And my feet stay on the platform. I want them to move. More than anything. But I can’t.
She gives me a look. A look that has always haunted me. Not anger or disappointment. Not even sadness. It’s a sort of resigned understanding.
“It’s all right Col. I understand. This is my thing. I knew you weren’t… weren’t really up for it. It’s not your fault. I was wrong to bring you along.” She touches my arm one last time, leans in and lets her cheek touch mine. I smell the vanilla and Red Kola even stronger. Then she turns and gets back on the train. I see a flash of her rucksack through the first window as she walks up the carriage.
Then she’s gone.
And now I try to follow her. I can’t stop myself. I take a step onto the train. Even though I know what will happen next.
And it does. My foot doesn’t connect. The step distorts in front of me, like a glitch in a computer game. Everything flickers. The sounds around me fade, then grow loud and crackly. There is a disorientating swirling, a shimmering and fading, then that feeling of falling… falling...
The world turns to black around me.
I blink. The nurse withdraws the needle from my arm, repeating the standard medical-legal mantra.
“Your name is Colin Merrill. You are in the premises of TimeTrans. You are awakening from a deep hypno-sleep. You are being given an intravenous injection of Soletin and an oral compound of Transyt-5 to complete the post hypnotic transfer. The risks inherent in the procedure have been explained to you. You have accepted those risks. You have waived all rights to legal action…”
I’ve heard this before, many times, and I tune her out to a background burr. When she finishes, I try to sit up from the rec chair.
“Don’t move,” she says, pushing me back. I look at her. She has a pale, scrubbed face with no makeup except for lipstick that is too red for her pale face. She projects an air of unsmiling, thinly veiled contempt – although it may be that she’s aiming for detached professionalism. She gives me an orange pill in a plastic tub and a cup of water.
“Swallow this.” she says. “Transyt-5 pill. You must wait fifteen minutes for post hypnotic consciousness stabilisation. Then you can leave.”
I put the pill in my mouth and close my eyes again. I feel terrible. I always do. But it gets worse each time.
It’s been three months since I responded to the TimeTrans advert. I normally scroll right past these Facebook adverts but this one caught my eye. “Relive the past, better than ever! Contact TimeTrans!”
Relive the past?
Who could resist that?
I had hesitated, scrolled down, then scrolled back up, and clicked on the link. And half an hour later I had signed up for my first regression with TimeTrans.
TimeTrans offered the “latest developments in sub-hypnotic regression experiences” – the chance to re-live incidents from your life. More than memories. You were transported, with real life vividness, to past experiences of your own choosing. It was essentially a semi-controllable lucid dream – a heady mix of hallucination, memory and daydream. You could even interact, to an extent. But only so far. Push it too far away from what actually happened in your past and you were jolted out of the hypnotic state. Otherwise, as long as you obeyed the rules, you could enjoy a holiday in your past, whilst safe in a rec-chair in the TimeTrans premises.
True, the medical science behind TimeTrans was controversial. There were reports on online forums of deaths and patients succumbing to irreversible comas – with any potential claims hushed up with financial settlements and confidentiality agreements. TimeTrans simply insisted that as long as you followed the rules it was safe.
I knew the risks. I accepted them.
This had been my fifth regression.
Most people used TimeTrans to experience times of pleasure, of joy, in their lives. A bells and whistles interactive video of favourite episodes from their past. Perhaps to relive a moment of sporting glory. Or a wedding, spoiled in real time by big day nerves. Even childbirth – less the pain and exhaustion – was apparently a popular choice. But I used TimeTrans for one specific purpose. To relive the time forty years earlier, when I nearly ran away to London with Gem McLaughlin. “Nearly” because I bottled out at the last minute, leaving Gem to go by herself.
Gem was never seen again after that day. Not by me or anyone else who ever admitted it. Despite public appeals and mass police searches. She was swallowed up in London’s maw. And I have always been consumed by what might have happened to her. It isn’t necessarily the worst. Maybe she ended up in America, part of some off-the-grid hippy commune. Maybe she’s living by a beach in Australia − perfectly happy, just no wish to re-establish contact with a world she was desperate to leave behind. Or maybe she’s living in a rambling farmhouse with a vineyard in the South of France, enjoying a glass of wine of an evening, thinking of nothing very much.
But there are other maybes. And it’s those other maybes that play over and over in my mind in the small, dark, hours. And the question I always asked myself was: what would have happened if I had gone with her.
My life isn’t so bad. Fifty six. I’m an accountant, a partner in my firm. I could stop working now and not want for anything. But I’m trapped by the memory of a girl who disappeared forty years ago. Each regression I take, the desperation to get on that train gets more acute.
But I can’t.
I look over at the nurse, now sitting at her desk doing paperwork. Her body is angled away from me. To discourage conversation, I think.
“Can I ask something please, Nurse?”
She turns her head and smiles. She uses a patient expression, but slightly exaggerated, to let me know she is being patient.
“Of course, Mr Merrill.” She puts down her pen – pointedly – and turns her chair round to face me.
I pull myself up slightly. “When I’m… there, in the regression, Gem talks about maths, about how the number zero point nine recurring is the same as the number one.”
“Mm-hmm.” She nods, glances at her paperwork, then back at me.
“Well, firstly, that seems strange. There we are… about to run off to London, and she’s talking about maths. It seems weird.”
“Well… I see what you mean. But people do act in real life in a way that can seem a little… random. Another possibility is that it’s a memory from another time, echoing along the neural synapses, wrongly transposing to the time of your regression.”
“Yeah, okay. I see that. But… that’s not the main thing. When I’m in the regression I’m thinking, yes, Gem always loved maths – this conversation makes sense.”
Her smile is becoming noticeably less patient.
“And…?” she says.
“But… Gem didn’t love maths. Outwith the regression, that’s not my memory of her at all. She liked Art… and English, a little. That was it. The idea of her loving maths is just… mad. Yet in the regression, that’s what she always says and that’s… who she is. It …doesn’t make sense to me.”
She frowns. It looks like she’s trying to think of the correct paragraph from her training that deals with the situation.
“Well… I can’t explain that, Mr Merrill. But the human brain is an incredibly complex machine. Even at TimeTrans we don’t have all the answers. I suggest you include your experience on our feedback form. That allows our neurologists to gain greater understanding and improve our service and –”
“And what she was telling me,” I say, interrupting her. “That the number zero point nine, recurring, is the same as the number one… I’d never heard that before I had the regressions. I’ve looked it up since. Apparently, mathematically, it’s true, although I always forget that in the regression. But… how could I have learned something new from a regression?”
“Well… you couldn’t of course. You must have known and then, at least consciously, forgotten.”
“What I was wondering... was maybe… Gem, is trying to tell me something. Sort of… trying to give me a message…Telling me how to… put things right… from all those years ago…”
Her smile switches off. She’s looking very concerned now, like I have said something very disturbing. I have crossed the line between irritating and potentially troubling. There is intensive psychological screening before TimeTrans accept you as a client. I see she is thinking that they might have missed something.
“No. That is not possible Mr Merrill. You experienced a memory. A flawed memory perhaps. But a memory. You did not actually communicate with anyone during the regression. Gem was not there. Do you understand?”
I smile in what I hope is a reassuring way. “I know that – of course. You’re absolutely right. Anyway… what kind of message could be passed by talking about… numbers? I’m... just… a bit emotional, you know. It’s always the same just after. I’ll let you get back to your paperwork. You’ve been very helpful.”
She looks at me. She’s not quite convinced. But her alarm bells, if not silenced, have been muted. She turns away and continues her work. And I close my eyes and don’t say anything else.
Finally the fifteen minute timer sounds.
“You may go now,” she says. “Thank you for using TimeTrans.”
I get up and walk, a little unsteadily, towards the door. But I stumble slightly. She notices, and frowns.
“Are you all right?”
I open my mouth to answer. But nothing comes out. She says something else, but her voice doesn’t sound right. It sounds far off and distant. Everything is becoming woolly and fuggy.
I stumble again, and this time I fall over.
She looms over me, her face frightened and confused. “What’s happening? What −?”
Then I hear her gasp. She bends down and with a polythene-gloved hand, pushes her fingers into my mouth, and pulls it out.
The Transyt-5 pill I kept under my tongue.
I’ve done my research. I know how vital Transyt-5 is to stabilising the post hypnotic recovery. The PVS cases were all due to issues with Transyt-5. If Transyt-5 isn’t admitted immediately, the brain quickly destabilises, and makes a catastrophic retreat, to what the researchers believe – believe because there has never been any direct testimony about this – is the last regression.
A regression that can’t be reversed.
I see the dawning horror on the nurse’s face. It’s no longer pale. It’s red and blotchy and furious.
“You stupid… fool! Do you realise what you’ve done?” Her hand slams some emergency button on the wall and sirens begin to wail. Within seconds people in gowns and masks are swarming around me.
“Quick!” she screams. “Resuscitate him! Hurry…”
I feel a sharp jab, and the injection coursing through my veins. But I’m already fading. I can feel that rushing feeling, the world fading and collapsing around me. I close my eyes…
I open my eyes. I’m back on the platform. Gem looks at me from the train. I look down at my feet, then back at her. And I find my voice.
I step up, onto the train. This time, the world doesn’t dissolve. The floor of the carriage stays firm and solid beneath my feet. I see discarded cigarettes on the floors, sweet wrappers, crushed Coke cans. Gem picks a seat, slides her bag across the table. I sit opposite her.
“We’re doing this!” she whispers. Her eyes gleam. “We’re going to London! They can’t stop us now!”
I hear a distant whistle blow, and I wait for the scene to distort and fade. For that rushing, falling, feeling. But it doesn’t happen. And I hear a slow groan as the train starts to move.
You might say I’m crazy. I’m choosing a dream over what’s real. But if a dream goes on forever, doesn’t that… make it real?
I reach over and take Gem’s hand.
“I understand now Gem,” I say. “The nines are going on forever. It makes it the same as the real number one. The forever makes it real.”
Gem frowns, then laughs and shakes her head
“Absolutely no idea what you’re talking about, muppet!” She presses her fingers against mine. “But it’s okay. We’re here! And we’re together. Forever!”
“Forever,” I say.
Gem leans in close, so close our faces are almost touching. I breathe her in.
“Forever,” we say, together.