There are your regular forced introductions and small talk. I am Byron - nice to meet you. You are -? Ah, I see, so how long has it been since you last washed? Really? It seems like longer. I wonder briefly. I sit down and reflect for an even briefer time. There really is nothing for it. I have to try and make this party quite the best I have ever been to. A party to remember. There is no future in sitting looking pensive alone on the corner of a sofa in a crowded room of drunken peers, furiously hoping that the one single girl in the room prefers the social outcast type. There really is nothing for it. I spy out a man smoking a spliff and sidle over. This man is like millions of others. He smokes, he drinks, he probably has a healthy disregard for women – just enough so that they want him. Instantly I hate him, but he has the spliff.
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“Awright,” I drawl. He looks at me with narrowed eyes (that could be the spliff or it could, more worryingly, be that he considers me a fool already) and nods, the smoke drifting out of his nostrils like a sleeping dragon might (you know what I mean).
“Uh.” And thus he has registered my presence. He passes me the spliff out of either companionship or because it’s a socially acceptable thing to do. The party starts.
I drink copiously, smoke as prodigiously as possible without actually having to work out how to skin up and without actually paying for any – so the night is not a complete waste of time. I get talking to some woman called Sticklebrick who tried to tell me all about crystals and other such defunct gumph. I am not at all certain I did not at some point wander somewhere dark and private with her, but I have no further memory of that, only of her stupid name. I can’t even remember if she was good looking or not. It can’t have been memorable.
About two in the morning I suffer what I believe is called a whity, or a whitey, or could it even be a whighty? The result of which is jettisoned from myself into a plant pot. I am ejected from the party and laughed at by the ganja cognoscenti as a light-weight.
That was last night. This is this morning and I am under the influence of a party of hammer-wielding mind-dwarves. The relentless pounding and the near collapse as I bend over to put my socks on. The coursing of the poisons through my body are quite invigorating in that they remind me what its like to be alive by the simple expedient of making me feel like death. I look about me and wonder what will take the pain away.
My flat is simply messy, yet despite this (or precisely because of this) it has a magical ability to be functional and provide you with whatever you wish and all this at only an arms length away. I reach out blindly and find a bottle of water that might well be a few weeks old. With my other hand a rummage around in the sofa and eventually discover a tray of Ibuprofin caplets. I neck the caplets and wash them down with aged Volvic. I groan profusely in tongues.
Today is a special day for me. I expect it is a special day for a few people, but not in the same way its special to me. Today I will experience about as many hair-raising and mind-expanding experiences as a man is surely expected to live through. Damn it, I only wanted to rest, watch Richard and Judy and go to bed again. But that was never meant to be. To prove this the doorbell rings. The last time that happened it was the postman saying he’d just delivered a letter that he shouldn’t have. I struggle to the door and open it.
In the doorway is a large man, about forty or fifty with a long grey hair and a long beard.
“Bonjour!” he beams at me. He’s wearing a Kaftan. My mind rebels at the sight of the Kaftan. A Kaftan?
“Um.” Confusion and the general feeling of being out of control are my two companions as I struggle through life. Particularly now.
“Byron?” he asks, an apparently genuine look of concern creases his brow.
“Um, er, I mean yes.” At this the large French man wraps me in a bear-hug and shouts, “That is good, yes?” at me as I struggle to breathe through the Kaftan. I struggle free.
In many countries in the world people are born with many and various ideas of inappropriate behaviour and requirements of personal-space. There are some countries and peoples that don’t go within metres of each other when conversing, there are some that, quite frankly, can’t keep their hands off each other in general conversation. It appears this large be-kaftan’d bearded Frenchman is one of those.
“What?” I manage before he grips me hard at the tops of my arms and he looks at me critically.
“You are not well?” he asks. Or maybe it’s a statement. Its difficult to tell with the French.
“Just a hangover,” I protest mildly. It wouldn’t do to over-egg the pudding, so to speak. But who are you and what do you want? I voice these very question in the exact way in which I just wrote them down. The Frenchman suddenly steps back, stands straight - to his full six and a half feet.
“I,” he says with as much profundity as could be mustered up on the doortstep of a flat in Islington at ten am on a Sunday morning, “am Renee. Renee LaGrue.” And then this mad man bows to me.
“Hello. Byron,” I offer my hand. I can’t help it. His grin reaches ear to ear as he grasps my hand with both of his and proceeds to pump it like it was a fairground test of strength.
“Well met, Byron. I am honoured!” He says this with gravity. This introduction is going on forever. Ho looks at me with intense blue eyes. “I am here to give your life meaning,” he says, “And to show you how!”
As I boil the kettle I am staring out of the kitchen window at the back yard and watching a blue-tit flit between the wall and one of next-doors many feeding posts. There is something not right about inviting the mad Frenchman into my home, but curiosity has its own reasoning I suppose. But what if he was a serial killer? Sod it, what if he’s not yet a serial killer, but were still going to slaughter me and eat bits of my sweetbreads (whatever they are), perhaps intending to start his killing spree here and now with me? Perhaps ‘giving my life meaning’ is a euphemism for burning my broken corpse on a bonfire or for making me eat my own legs. If it is a euphemism for that then its not a very good one. I decide to make a pot of tea – if I’m going to die horrifically I want to have some good quality strong brewed tea in me when I go. I carry the tea tray into the living room with barely a shake. Renee is lounging happily on the sofa, his eyes closed as he basks in a shaft of autumnal sunlight, his Kaftan riding up to reveal strong brown legs and socks that appear to have been made from Yak hair. As I approach he emerges from his reverie to clear a space for the tea-tray in the piles of magazines and books that litter the table, busying himself like an old woman. I decide to sit in the recliner chair opposite. He looks at the tea-tray in a bit of confusion, as if he doesn’t know if he should be doing something.
“Just letting it stew a bit,” I tell him. He happily sits back into the shaft of sunlight and looks at me.
“You must be wondering, my friend, why I am here and what it is that is so important and to what I was referring to earlier at the door.” I nod. That was a fair interpretation of my feelings. He crosses his legs which unfortunately gives me a rather healthy view of his genitalia á la Basic Instinct. He is going commando under his Kaftan – this man is potentially dangerous. I am a man of many considerations. I understand that there are many people with many different philosophies, sexualities and opinions. I am all for it. Love is free, so give it however you feel. If you like men, then so be it. If you like ducks (and they can magically reciprocate) then do whatever you feel is natural. It makes no difference to me. I judge ye not. BUT, the sight of another man’s cock and balls is one to cause me an uncomfortable bout of repression. I find myself staring at Renee LaGrue’s large happy face.
“Well, first things first. You are not who you think you are.”
“Oh yeah?” I am, of course, skeptical. I am who I am surely?
“Yes,” says Renee. There is a pause.
“So, er, who am I?” I ask like its expected of me. Renee’s smile broadens.
“You are the rightful heir to the Kingdom of Albinon.” I look deeply back at Renee who is almost jiggling with happiness. All in all its not what I expected to hear. Obviously this man is mad, and I have been unfortunately targeted by him. There is little I can say as I pour some tea. Then I finally think of something.
“Okay. Does that come with a crown?”
It may seem like I am using twenty-twenty hindsight but I always felt there was something regal about me. I am opinionated, I dislike people, I am a wretched self-delusional, egocentric maniac with an ever-so-slightly paranoid schizophrenic side to me. The only thing that singles me out from normal royalty is the fact that I am not inbred and my nose is not so much regal as crooked. Joking aside, there is something about the word ‘Albinon’ that reaches out to me and rings a little bell of recognition.
“It is said in the Circles that you would not believe us and that you would need persuading.”
I don’t like the idea of a six foot six bearded French hippy nudist ‘persuading’ me of anything, but I am trapped by my own savage sense of politeness.
“Um, I am sorry, but if you explain sufficiently I may be able to understand.” I sip my tea and let out a nervous chuckle that starts artificially and ends up sounding like a burp. The tea, by the way, tastes wonderful I wonder momentarily how come it is this moment that I finally make that perfect cup of tea.
“Of course,” says Renee. “Nice tea, mon amie,” he says seriously. I nod in agreement. He sets the mug down and leans forward, relieving me of the sight of those huge genitals. The relief is palpable.
“The country of Albinon resides all around you yet you cannot see it as it is locked from you as it is from all the inhabitants of the other Earth.”
“I see,” I lie.
“But you cannot, Byron, until you have been unlocked.”
Sometimes I lie awake at night looking up at the stars wondering whether there are a multitude of civilizations up there all trapped by light speed to forever believe they were alone. Right now I wish I was alone and that I hadn’t answered the door. This had sounded strange originally, had become stranger and then had spasmed into life-threateningly bizarre before we could look elsewhere for Jeremy Beadle.
“Look, Renee,” I start out, believing the best way to defuse potentially awkward situations is to pretend that it doesn’t exist, “Its Sunday, I have things to do and, while I appreciate these things you are telling me I can’t really believe them and would really like to be left alone to buy a paper, sip this exquisite tea and try and get rid of this hangover.” Renee nodded all the way through this speech, his face a picture of studied concentration.
“It is not really up to you, Prince, for the King, your father, requests your return. You must come back to Albinon to aid us in preventing the Crombies from usurping our power and lay all we hold most dear to waste.”
I nodded too, like I was at the bank answering some questions about my budget and letting the man spin his sales pitch for their own in-house credit card.
“Sorry Renee, would you go now.” I stand and try to affect a firm look on my face. Renee’s look of happy confusion is gone and in its place is a look that spears me to my craven, pathetic heart. A look of determination. I nervously back away and as I do I bump into something I never knew was there. I turn sharply and a bag is put over my head and a needle is jammed into my arm. The last things I hear before I fade to black is Renee.
“Sorry, your highness, but the Circles and your father will it so. If you resist we must force you. It is for the good of all Albinon.”
Inevitably I awaken with a head that feels significantly less useful than it ought to. I can almost sense my neurons sluggishly rising onto their elbows, casting their senses about and deciding ‘Ten more minutes then I’ll get up’. Meanwhile, the synapses are still hoying up Guinness and a kebab into a bucket. Metaphorically speaking, you understand.
I groan and really try to open my eyes, despite them being full of crusty eye-bogies. I rub them and then a few of my senses clock on and decide to provide my brain with an update. There is unexpected noise, say my ears. Not the noise of the ever-present traffic outside my windows. No shouts from the Danish hardcore rock boys across the street (as is their wont). No reversing vehicles or sirens. Just the trill of songbirds and the slightest sound of children at play in the distance. Now the smells. For some reason the inevitable smell of car fumes and the wafted aroma of pizzas, Chinese takeaways and curries are all missing. There is a definite sense of….what is that…I sniff curiously again. Yes, definitely grass, woodland and roast chicken. Very strange.
“Bonjour!” shouts a voice from merely inches away. I jump and turn, my eyes opening in shock. It is Renee. Next moment I am all dizzy again and sink my head back down onto a pillow.
“Awake at last! Albinon awaits you, Lord!”
“Renee,” I moan weakly,” What have you done? Where am I?” For the first time I look around me. I am in a round room made of dark grey stone. There are, at regular intervals, those narrow windows used in castles to shoot arrows through and ahead of me a broad wooden door with a huge cast iron ring in it that had that seriously substantial look about it. Renee is sat on a wooden stool and there appears no other furniture apart from it. I notice suddenly a man behind Renee. This man is tall, dark and somewhat recognizable to me even in my drug-addled state, although I could not for the life of me think who he was. He is dressed in a cobalt blue robe trimmed with lace and is wearing a violet top-hat which gave him the air of one who really doesn’t care if the colours ‘go’ or not.
“Son?” he says, his eyes questioning. So that solves it. For some reason this word makes me extremely angry.
“I don’t have a father,” I say indignantly. It is true after all. If I did have one he wasn’t remembered and my mother chose not to tell me about him. I have a vaguely uneasy feeling that mother might not actually know herself (in her defence it was the sixties and she was considered an enthusiast in her pursuit of free love – mostly I choose not to think about it). Renee gasps in surprise and turns to the old man.
“Sorry Sire, it appears his mind is not recovered. I should leave it a few hours.” The old man looks at me with a strange expression and stalks out of the room, slamming the heavy door behind him. Renee leans forward and conspiratorially whispers at me, “You don’t want to be upsetting the King like that. Who knows what he might decide to do with you?”.
“Look, Renee, I don’t know where I am or what the hell is happening, but I would really, really appreciate it if you could let me go home.”
Renee appears un-heeding.
“This is the way of it. Anyone who has been in the other realm for so long is bound not to remember.” He sighed and cast his eyes at the doorway. “So you get some rest and tomorrow we will get your original body back.”
“My what?” I ask, incredulous. Renee nods.
“Your body. The body you are in at the moment is just a shell for your mind – They would never have recognized you if you bumped into them. How else were we to make you totally safe?” I think this over, getting thoroughly annoyed at the way things were looking.
“So I feel like someone else, look like someone else and believe myself to be someone else? For God’s sake, didn’t you stop to consider that I might well be someone else?” Renee appeared unconcerned.
“It is quite simple. When we sent you to the other realm we had to make sure the Crombies couldn’t find you. So the Circle changed your body and hid your mind within another. They would never find you. And look, they never have!”
“But how do you know I am the right one?”
Renee laughed at me. “Because you have the beacon.”
Renee nodded. “Yes, it is a complicated potion and it was one of the finest acts of the Circle. I know nothing about it really, only it meant I could find you with the use of a small compass that always pointed to the drinker of the potion.” He brought the compass out from a deep fold in his Kaftan. It was made of brass and was about the size of a poker chip. The tiny needle didn’t seem to point to me at all. It seemed like a normal compass. Renee shrugged, waved it vaguely about, looked thoughtful and said, “That is most strange. Perhaps the beacon wore off when you returned to Albinon.” For a few moments more Renee waved the compass at me until I could stand it no longer.
“Renee, this still means nothing to me. Look, I want to get up now. I want to leave.” I said. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and put my feet on stone. Renee was pondering the compass still. I slipped my feet into my trainers and stood up.
During the last half an hour I had been confused, dumbfounded, addled, perplexed and confounded, but my gaze was directed tone of the windows. I didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas about my location. I was certainly not prepared for the view that assaulted my poor old senses. I gasped as I reached the window ledge and looked outside.