Arthur was, as usual, the last to leave his office. He tidied his desk, emptied the waste basket, put the file he was working on back into the filing cabinet and brushed away a recalcitrant morsel of fluff. He liked to keep his desk clean and orderly, shuddering at the thought of the sticky remains of surreptitious snacks he had noticed on his neighbour’s working surface. Not that his own work station really deserved to be called a desk, more of a corner, actually, the end of a shelf housing office equipment, first aid box etc. Thank goodness the working week was over, he would soon he home with his Collection. Unpadlocking his bicycle from the rack, he heard the joyful end-of -the -week voices of colleagues.
‘Hi Arthur! We’re stopping for a drink at the Raven. Coming?’ The passing group shouted their invitation, barely pausing for an answer.
‘No thanks, I’ve got an appointment this evening.’ He failed to hear the ensuing comments.
‘Don’t bother to ask him. He never comes.’
‘Weird bloke. Never goes anywhere.’
‘Saw him once in the museum.’
‘Is he on his own?
‘Never saw him with anyone.’
Already out of earshot, they hurried on with contemptuous laughter. But the appointment was not an excuse. Arthur had indeed an appointment, one with his doctor. Settled in the waiting room he tried to rehearse his approach to Dr. Henry. A previous appointment with his optometrist had not gone well.
His name was called.
Seated beside his doctor’s desk, he was invited to talk about his problem.
‘Well, it’s difficult to describe. I feel quite well in myself, it’s my eyes that are playing up.’
‘Have you been to your optometrist?’
‘I went last week. Said he couldn’t find anything wrong. Told me that If I wanted to speak to a specialist I should see my doctor first.’
‘Could you describe the symptoms?’
Arthur hesitated. It wasn’t easy, sounded ridiculous.
‘Sometimes, not always, things seem to change colour.’
‘Could you be more specific? D’you mean individual objects change colour?’
‘No, it’s not like that. It’s everything, everything I can see, goes a sort of orange.’
‘How long have you noticed this?’
‘Well, it started some time ago. Just occasionally. But it’s getting more frequent.’
The doctor looked puzzled. Which indeed he was.
‘Could be some form of migraine. But I’ve not heard of it before.’
He deliberated, asked a few more questions, jotted down some notes.
‘I’ll give you a prescription for some tablets. They should help. Let me know if the symptoms don’t clear up.
Arthur thanked him and left, reassured. His brother had suffered from migraine, probably runs in the family. At home in his small immaculate flat he decided to have his tea before his daily treat – the climax of his day. A visit to his spare room, the one that housed his Collection.
It was indeed a large assortment of objects. Crammed with difficulty, but neatly, into his small spare room. No special theme, just an accumulation of - things, some natural, some artifacts. Some were beautiful by any standards, others just interesting, a few puzzling if you didn’t know their age and context. It represented his only hobby, his passion, his life. On various official forms he had described his occupation as ‘Collector’.
He picked up an ammonite that he had found on holiday, on the Dorset coast. Marvelled at its spiral structure, wondered for the hundredth time if he should pay to have the specimen halved and polished, showing the lovely internal structure. His attention turned to an intricately decorated cup and saucer he’d found in an antique shop, and bought on impulse. He had a pretty good idea that it was worth a lot more than he’d paid for it. He must find time to do some research.
The acquisition of his various objects was as diverse as the things themselves. Some had been bought, some found, a few given, others… well, stolen. One particularly fine Meissen plate had been lifted from a stately home while the guide was distracted. He had been surprised how easy it had been. He looked at a hemispherical lump of rock, neatly divided into six segments, a septarian concretion, given to him by a retired geologist. He fingered a fairly dull group of rocks, basalt, limestone, a lump of granite, most of which were there on account of the circumstances in which they had been found, rather than for any intrinsic beauty or value. Most were described in carefully hand printed labels, though there was one specimen he hadn’t got round to labelling yet, a rough, rusty lump of some kind of volcanic material. He must choose the wording carefully. He held it in his hand for a minute or two, pondering on its source. He replaced it. With a final look round his jam-packed, beloved Collection, Arthur left the room, gently closing the door behind him.
Returning to his living quarters, he felt the unwelcome shimmer of an impending migraine. This was followed later by the colour change he had described to his doctor. The reddish orange tinge to his whole field of vision. The familiar furniture was becoming hazy, he put his hand on the arm of his chair, it felt gritty. He leaned back and closed his eyes, the blackness a relief. How long would it last this time, he asked himself. His thoughts became confused, random words came into his head, making no sense at all. Opening his eyes again, he felt the orange mist becoming denser – he thought he could discern sharp angular shapes, shadows, motionless as his eyes probed his field of vision. He felt cold, colder than ever before. Inexpressibly weary, sick, and an overwhelming anger and sadness. He fell asleep, woke hours later, his vision blessedly normal once more, and remembered the tablets he’d been prescribed. He must remember to take them. It was long past his bedtime.
Two weeks later he was again seated in his doctor’s surgery. No, there had been no diminution of symptoms, in fact they had become worse.
‘We need to look at where and when these attacks occur. How often?’
‘Started with several times a year. Getting more frequent all the time. About once a week now.’
Does it happen at work?’
‘No, never at work, only when I’m at home. At any time of the day or night. It’s...frightening’.
‘We’ll get to the bottom of it. I’d like you to keep a diary, put down what you’ve been doing, what you’ve been eating and so on. We need to know what triggers these attacks.’
‘O.K. I’ll do that. Could it be an allergy?’
‘Could be. Come back in a fortnight.’
Arthur left for home with a determination to battle on. But there was another issue that he had not mentioned to the doctor. Words. Strange words and phrases that popped into his mind for no obvious reason. The latest was a repeated phrase, ‘Listen. Listen to me’
Why should he think these words? They became more distinct when the orange mist appeared, now a daily occurrence. Home again, he sat down, in trepidation. It would return, this hallucination, these episodes that were ruining his life, affecting his work.
Opening his eyes again, the orange mist was there, thicker.
The words and phrases in his head were becoming more frequent. He would bring up this new development with the doctor, after he had given him the record of his daily activities.
‘Here’s the diary. I don’t see any pattern. Don’t know if you can.’
The doctor glanced through the meticulously written account of Arthur’s life during the past fortnight, interspersed with the visions that were threatening his sanity.
‘I need to study this more carefully. But if we can’t establish a trigger, I think we need to think about a consultation with a specialist. A psychiatrist might be able to help us resolve this …disorder.’
‘You’re saying I’m mad.’
Certainly not. I would never use those words.’
The doctor’s reply brought him to the new subject of his visit.
‘Words come into my head that I don’t understand.’
The doctor smiled wearily. ‘Well, I can assure you that I know what I’m talking about. Come back if there’s no improvement. With your permission I’ll organise an appointment with a consultant.’
Realising that any account of the unbidden words that came into his head would only reinforce Dr. Henry’s view that a psychiatrist was needed, Arthur sighed.
‘Alright, if you say so.’
He returned home with the now familiar dread of what he knew would happen. The shimmer, the orange mist, the cold, an overwhelming sadness. And the words, the repetitions.
‘Listen, listen. Give back what belongs to me.’
He switched on the television, hoping the sound would drown the speech patterns in his head. But the picture he saw was orange, the sound no match for the flood of words, the distressed outpouring of pleading that was taking shape as he tried to hold on to reality.
‘Help me, help me. Give it back to me.’
Arthur knew at last that these were not his own words. They were utterences he could understand, but seemed to have nothing to do with his own self-generated thoughts of fear, puzzlement, of profound exhaustion. They came from elsewhere. He must address the speaker in the same way.
He formulated the words in his head. ‘What is it you want?’
The orange mist shimmered with a new intensity.
‘I believe you start to understand me.’
The orange glow became thicker. He began to discern a sort of – landscape. Rocks, searingly bright, nothing but rocks, and below his feet, sand. Above the sharp angular horizon, a black sky, with stars, not unfamiliar. The coldness was of a depth he had never before experienced. This is like another world, he thought.
‘It is another world. It is mine.’
‘You are from another world?’
‘I am another world.’
‘What is your name?’
‘Look out of the window.’
Arthur could barely see his living-room window for the orange landscape that was obscuring it. He rose from his chair and went to the window. His orange vision shifted, and he was looking at a clear night sky.
‘What can you see?’
‘I can see the moon and some stars. And that might be the planet Venus.’
‘And that’s probably Mars, low on the horizon.’
‘That is who I am. I am the planet you call Mars. So far away. Everything is so hard.’
Arthur had given up any idea of logic to his situation. With difficulty, he returned to his chair.
‘Why are you here?’
The rocky landscape shimmered, again he felt a profound sadness. He repeated his question.
‘What do you want?’
‘You have something of me.’
‘Something that belongs to you?’
‘Something that is me. You have a piece of Mars.’
A flood of understanding filled Arthur’s weary mind. Of course he had. It was part of his Collection. Obtained last year from an acquaintance who worked at a museum of astronomy. Said there was a bit of rock brought back from the Searcher III expedition, could pinch it for Arthur, but it would cost him. It did. Nearly emptied his bank account, had to sell two lovely bits of Delft and a half-smoked cigar discarded by Churchill, with its accompanying letter (forged) from his valet.
The museum’s loss had been discovered, his acquaintance denying all knowledge of the theft, but getting the sack all the same. Didn’t matter, he’d got enough money from his transaction with Arthur to keep him going till he found another place.
There is so much you do not know. Everything in our common home - you call it the Universe – can communicate with everything else. But Earth has focussed so much on its machines that it has never learned to listen. Its achievements are so advanced that you can now visit other places, other things. Your moon, for example, which speaks to you with your tides. You have never listened. But we have all agreed that a visit, now that it is possible, must be done with permission, and with respect. What you have has been stolen. It is unbearable to have such a loss. Earth has the technology to return it.’
The room was filled with a pain that Arthur could not bear.
‘Take it! Take it with you!’
‘I cannot. I am what you call a ghost. I cannot transport objects. You must return my piece of rock. Earth’s technology is one of the most advanced in the universe. You can easily take one piece of rock back home.’
The stony landscape shivered. The voice in his head spoke again.
‘I cannot stay much longer, I am very tired. I have never communicated before with such a small and complicated thing. I cannot talk to Earth, it is obsessed with its machines. It has never learned how to hear or speak to other things in the universe, so I have had to learn new ways of communication. It has been so hard, but now it is done. You are hearing me and you understand me.
What I am asking is not impossible. Send back the piece of me that Earth has stolen.’
A blessed silence. The living-room sofa, the television, the empty beer bottle became clearer as the landscape of the red planet began to fade. He could discern the night sky through the window and a few of the countless number of entities that peopled it, most of them able to speak to each other, through ways Arthur could not even begin to imagine.
There were no more unbidden words in his head, he was able to think his own thoughts, chaotic and vertiginous at first, but gradually forming the knowledge that relief was possible.
What Mars wanted could be done. One or two fibs told, a word in the ear of someone who knew someone, some money needed perhaps? It would be worth it.
Weeks passed. Each evening Arthur went outside to look at the sky. Sometimes Mars was visible. ‘I’m doing my best,’ he whispered to the distant red sphere.
Extract from The Daily Star newspaper, July 26th, 2020:
‘Robot Rover Perseverance begins its journey to Mars on Thursday to explore and search for signs of life. And it will be accompanied by a piece of space rock, donated by the Natural History Museum. The extraordinary journey home will take the rock seven months.’
Two weeks later Arthur made his now customary visit to the doctor.
‘You can cancel that appointment. Symptoms all gone now. I’m feeling fine’
‘So glad. I thought it would probably clear up of its own accord.’
Back home, Arthur visited his crowded Collection with a pleasure that he hadn’t experienced for weeks. He looked at his group of rocks. He wouldn’t re-arrange them, he would keep the gap left by the disappearance of his favourite piece. He touched the empty space.
‘Safe journey’ he said.