Some weeks later, Helen was asleep when the familiar voice woke her. But there was something strange about it.
‘Helen, It’s Odysseus. Wake up. I’m outside. Get your coat on and meet me at the door.’
She got up out of her bed and pulled on her clothes. It was the middle of the night and no one was about in the empty corridors of the ULTIMATE® home as she made her way to the front door. She stepped outside into a pale full moon, and blinked against the unexpected brightness.
She couldn’t see anyone at first. Then she made out the shadow of a man standing beside a vehicle. It looked like a real car, not an ULTIMATE® transporter and as she walked towards it he waved, confirming she was doing the right thing. As she came closer she could see the car was a beaten up old Land Rover. The man had a cap pulled right down over his eyes and he was the last person she expected to see but as she came close to him it was unmistakable. She was looking straight into the eyes of Randall.
‘Come on,’ he urged. ‘There’s no time to lose.’
She got into the car without further ado, still stunned but with a strong desire to kiss him. As she sat next to him and he turned the key in the starter, she couldn’t stop herself. It had been ten years after all and she had missed him like missing a part of herself. One kiss reminded her of everything she’d lost and she didn’t even look back at the ULTIMATE® Home as they drove off. She was safe at last.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked, flashing back to her 40th birthday to Cairnholy and half expecting his reply to be ‘it’s a surprise.’
Instead, he smiled at her and said simply, ‘We’re going home.’
She felt she should have questions. This was a situation she had never imagined, could not have dreamed of. She was out of her depth. She was trying to process the unexpected and it took all her effort. The repetitive jolting and shaking of the car through the darkness of the night was all that she could handle at the moment. This was her reality. She gave herself up to the moment. She looked at Randall for as long as she could, but she found her eyes closing and her mind wandering. She was safe, she was warm, she was on a journey with the man she loved. Questions could wait. She was going home, that was enough for now.
Eyes shut, she could hear the rumbling of the tyres on the road as the Land Rover ate up the miles. She could swear she heard Randall singing but she didn’t open her eyes, thinking that if she did, either he’d stop singing, or she’d find out that he wasn’t really there at all.
She gave herself up to the music.
‘life is but a dream.’
The song had changed. She must have been sleeping. She’d nodded off to a Randall and the Reivers classic and woken up to a children’s song. It was Nick’s favourite when he was three.
Helen and Nick sat on the big branch of the beech tree, singing and laughing, pulling back and forth against each other as they sang ‘row row row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.’
‘Life is but a dream.’ The unmistakable chant of the three year old as he giggled. ‘A dream Nan, it’s a dream.’
Helen opened her eyes. She felt odd, disconnected and the motion was making her slightly nauseous. She was relieved to see Randall at the wheel. He turned to her, ‘Okay?’ he asked.
‘I was dreaming,’ she replied.
‘That’s okay,’ he said.
She felt comforted and closed her eyes again.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ Catriona’s voice rang in her ears. An eight year old Catriona on the long journey from Galloway to Dundee to visit Grandparents. Torquil was sleeping but Catriona was eager to get there. She wanted to tell Grandpa something ‘secret.’ The kids were pretty good in the car but by the time they hit the motorway and there was nothing to look at but miles and miles of tarmac and cars, the novelty wore off. There was only so much I-Spy you could play before the inevitable ‘he’s kicking me, she ate my sweetie, I need the toilet….’ began to take precedence and the kids squabbled like so many puppies in a litter, each convinced that life was all about them.
‘Settle down will you,’ Helen said, then pulled herself back to the present.
‘Sorry,’ she spoke to Randall, ‘ I… I’m…’
‘Disoriented?’ he asked. ‘Don’t worry. It’s natural. We’ll be there soon. Just close your eyes. You don’t have to do anything.’ The calmness in his voice was reassuring and she felt her eyes closing again.
‘I’m going to pick an apple from your tree, mummy.’ Torquil had woken up. ‘And make you a napple pie….. a napple pie….’ he laughed.
‘It’s an apple pie, stupid,’ Catriona butted in.
‘No. I’m making A NAPPLE PIE,’ he replied. ‘Just for mummy and me, not for you.’
‘That’ll be lovely,’ Helen said, ‘I’ve been so lonely.’ She was getting it all mixed up. The past, the future, the present. Life, memories, reality. Apple pie. Birthday cake.. the tastes all mixed up… the smell of coffee, real coffee.
‘Wake up and smell the coffee… smell the coffee…’ She couldn’t place the voice. Was it her dad? Was it Torquil? Randall? Her eyes felt heavy and she had a taste of diesel in her mouth.
‘Life is but a dream, life is but a dream.’ Randall was whistling the tune and tapping on the steering wheel. ‘You don’t ever have to be lonely again,’ he said.’ I’m here now.’
‘I… I’m so confused…’ she said. ‘I don’t know where I am. I can’t believe you’re real.’ She reached out and touched his hand, cupping hers over it, feeling the steering wheel judder. It felt real.
Touch. That first touch. When she’d first held his hand. A sensation like pulsing electricity all those years ago, relived. The touch that had redefined her life. Followed by a kiss.
‘I love you, Helen,’ he said. Don’t fight it,’ he added gently. ‘Just go with it. This is life, Helen, you’re free.’
She so wanted to open her eyes. When she eventually did so she could only make out Randall’s dark image. They were off the motorway. They must be on the last dark winding road that led home. She was tired, so tired.
‘It feels like dying,’ she said.
He laughed. ‘How could you possibly know what dying feels like?’
‘It feels like this,’ she said.
She woke up the next morning, enfolded in Randall’s arms. He held her, as he had for the best part of forty years. All her senses told her she was home before she even opened her eyes.
‘Good morning,’ he smiled. ‘How do you feel?’
She stretched. ‘ Fine. I feel…. Odd but fine.’
‘Good.’ He kissed her. And offered her breakfast in bed. But she wanted to sit at the kitchen table. She wanted to be in her house, feel it, touch it, smell it, all together and all at once. Like it used to be. Sitting at the kitchen table opposite Randall, it was all exactly as she remembered it. They ate toast with homemade jam and drank tea, real tea. It was too good to be true. But it was true.
‘Why did you call yourself Odysseus?’ she asked.
Randall laughed. ‘Name is the thief of identity, remember. How else could I stay free and keep in touch with ULTIMATE®? We all have more than one identity, Helen, you know that. We are all the people we want to be in our heads and someone else when externalised. Nick became Nike, I became Odysseus; only you stayed the same. And perhaps even you could be known by a different name, in a different context, at some other time and in some other place.’
‘And what about Torquil?’ she remembered Nick’s last message. If Randall was alive, which clearly he was, sitting here in front of her in a shirt that had not seen an iron recently, then he might know about Torquil too.
‘He’s re-invented himself,’ Randall acknowledged. ‘But you can’t contact him.’
‘Helen, there’s plenty of time for that. Just accept it for now will you?
‘Maybe one day?’ she asked, not wanting Randall to burst her bubble. If Torquil was alive, surely one day…..? Alive. That was a question that needed an answer.
‘How are you alive?’ she asked Randall.
‘Ah. That’s a big question too.’ He smiled. ‘It’s a long story. Let’s save it for later eh? Start with the easy stuff shall we?’
‘Has the RIP been going all this time?’
‘Yes, in one form or another. It’s not easy as you can imagine but some of us have managed to stay beneath the radar,’ he pointed at the barcode on her arm, ‘we’ll have to deal with that.’
‘Yes,’ he laughed, ‘it’s pretty easy really. Easier than branding a cow anyway.’
She shuddered, imagining that he was going to have to inflict some pain on her, dig out the implant, something… but she gave her arm to him willingly anyway. She closed her eyes, waiting for the cut which never came. She opened them to see the pressure she’d felt was all that was going to happen. She had a silvery coloured plaster covering the barcoded brand. Surely that wouldn’t work?
‘It’s incredible,’ he said, ‘there are so many simple ways to get round the system, if only you use some ingenuity.’
He explained that the chemicals in the plaster worked against the bio-laser which conducted the signal and that as long as she kept it covered she’d be out of range. That seemed impossible. To be out of range of the ULTIMATE® world.
‘What about my Memory Banks?’ She was beginning to believe she was free now, but she didn’t want ULTIMATE® to have any of her, not even memories.
‘I’ve had them modified and diverted into Omo’s archive.’
‘You what? How did you do that? You’re a Luddite not a computer genius.’
He tapped his nose. ‘You’d be surprised,’ he answered. ‘No of course I didn’t do it myself. But I knew a man who could. And I thought it’d be important to move the memories, so that as far as anyone poking around is concerned you’ve just been virtualised. Who else but Omo would go looking for you anyway? I thought you’d want him to know. Having spent all that time putting them together, it seemed a shame to waste them. Don’t worry. They’re safe.’
‘Have you been here for the last ten years?’
‘Not all of them. I had to move around a lot for the first five years. Working out how to get out of the system wasn’t that easy. Now of course it’s easy, but we had to work it out from scratch. I’ve been here for the past five years though. The old place doesn’t look that bad does it?’
Helen knew she should just feel happy that she was here, back home with the man she loved, but somehow something resembling anger was welling up inside her. She had to let it out. She and Randall had never had secrets. Never left things unsaid. However difficult, they had been in it together. Always.
‘How could you leave me to rot there when you were here? How could you not let me know you were alive? How….’ she burst into tears.
‘Believe me, it was the safest option for you.’
‘So why come and get me now?’
‘The time was right. I’ve been working towards this since the day I left you Helen, honestly. It was as hard for me as for you. But I had to take the decision. And I don’t regret it. I know it was the right thing to do.’
‘We used to make decisions together,’ she replied, aggrieved. Who was Randall to make decisions regarding her life and tell her she should be grateful for the pain she’d suffered. How could he know…
‘I had to keep you safe. I was keeping an eye on you.’
‘I didn’t want to be safe. I wanted to be with you. Or I would have done, if I’d known there was a choice.’ She paused, overcome with an emotion that felt horribly like betrayal. ‘You should have let me know,’ she said, weakly.
‘I couldn’t. Believe me,’ he replied.
She wasn’t sure she did believe him. For the first time in nearly fifty years, she questioned his integrity. It didn’t feel good.
‘Look. If you’d known I was alive there’s no way you would have stayed there.’
‘You’re damned right,’ she interrupted.
‘And you couldn’t have lived here on your own, knowing I was somewhere out there. I had to do all this, alone. Find a way for us to live a safe life. And I’ve done it now. It’s time to be happy.’
‘But we vowed to be together, forever. How could you do this to me?’
‘I did it to us, Helen. But I did it for us too. I’ve missed you every single day. Every day I’ve asked myself if it was the right thing to do and every day I knew it was. You’ll understand one day. It’s a lot to take in. I hope that you’ll forgive me.’
‘I don’t want to have to forgive you,’ she replied, ‘I want to still trust you.’
That was a body blow.
‘Of course you can still trust me.’
That was when Helen realised something about the real world. It was distinctly different to the self-constructed Memory Bank of ULTIMATE®. Because here, in the real world, you had to negotiate with another person’s view and another person’s meaning. That was the joy and the pain of it, surely. ULTIMATE® had created a heaven of individual selfishness where each person thought they were the celebrity, the key player in the game, the protagonist of their own story. Underpinning this was the fact that no one was individual any more. People were just cogs in a very sophisticated wheel, all of which worked to the benefit of the ULTIMATE® system. Everyone had been wooed into the virtual world and given up their individuality while believing all the time that they were winning. They were the worst kind of slaves. They thought they were free. From Plato’s cave to 1984, no fiction had come close to the complete domination of humanity that ULTIMATE® had visited on the real world. Helen shuddered. You can’t fight city hall. Surely it wasn’t possible to live outside this system? Surely something was wrong and they would be caught or…. These were the important issues she needed to discuss with Randall. She should leave the recriminations and the self-pity for later.
‘Do you know what happened to Nick?’ she asked. It was impossible to be in the same room with Randall and not talk to him. There was no time to be angry. There was so much to catch up on.
‘Only in outline,’ he replied, ‘I can tell you it wasn’t an accident.’ He gave her time to compute this information before he added. ‘but I can’t tell you who killed him.’
‘But why did they kill him?’ Helen came from a time when there was a THEY to fear. Not the ULTIMATE® world where the marketing slogan ‘there is no Us and Them only US™’, had become a truth in a world of created truths.
‘He knew too much.’
‘Well if he knew too much, I’m sure I must have been next on the list then,’ she added, ‘Because I’m sure I knew more than him.’
‘Not necessarily,’ Randall replied. ‘He didn’t know what he knew. It doesn’t matter anyway. We’re safe now. As long as we stay out of the system, keep our heads down.’
‘But what if they come looking for us?’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘Because we have nothing they want,’ he replied. ‘Their world is complete, Helen. We are nothing to them. No challenge, nothing. We don’t even exist to them now. Our reality and their reality are completely different. They’ve virtualised us and we are free. I tried to explain it to Torquil, but he wouldn’t understand. He wanted to fight against them. I just wanted to be free. For us both to be free.’
‘Tell me about Torquil.’ This time she was going to get an answer. It was time to know.
‘He’s reinvented himself, of course. He’s dedicated his life to fighting the system. He’s fighting for a freedom that can’t exist because his freedom depends on the destruction of ULTIMATE® and Helen, you know that’s never going to happen. But he’s a young man. His perspective is different. We’ve had our lives. We’ve got what, two, five, ten years if we’re really lucky. He, he’s got another fifty to go and he sees walking away as giving in. He’s still got a fire in his belly and a cause to fight for. Me, I just want us to be safe and free to live out the rest of our lives together without anything interfering with us. And I’m prepared to make whatever sacrifices that means. After all, we’ve made most of the sacrifices already haven’t we?’
‘But couldn’t you have persuaded him to come home?’
Randall shook his head. ‘No, Helen, I couldn’t. And we must never, never see him or contact him again.’
‘It was part of the deal I had to make, to get you here.’ Randall said. A straight answer to a straight question. That was the man she knew. He could tell her things she didn’t want to hear and he trusted that she would believe him and accept. It would take some doing, but with Randall beside her, Helen knew she could find the path back to acceptance again. She knew he was right. However much she yearned to see Torquil again, if the price she had to pay to be with Randall was that she lost her children and her grandchild, she’d pay it. It had been more or less paid in full anyway. And maybe one day…. But they had to think of themselves now. And the future, whatever that would be and however short it might be. They had a life to rebuild. To live. Together. Which was all she had ever wanted.
They went out for a walk, hand in hand, as they’d done in the old days.. yes, she really could look at them as the good old days. And she was living them again now. Her ability to live in the moment returned as if it had never been lost. The years in the ULTIMATE® Home were already slipping into memory as she drank in again the life that had been her complete reality for so long. She marvelled at the swiftness with which the brain would re-order itself, allowing past horrors to slip away into the subconscious, while you revelled in the reality of the present.
But there were still questions. She still wanted some answers. She had to make some sense of the narrative of her life. He picked up on her pensiveness.
‘What is it?’ he said, stopping.
‘Why didn’t you wait?’ she asked.
‘We’ve been through that,’ he said, ‘you have to believe me. I did what I thought was best.’
‘No. I mean, when I went for the interview. You said you’d wait. But you didn’t.’
‘I did wait. You didn’t see me. You walked right past me,’ he replied.
She didn’t believe him. ‘Why would you lie to me?’
‘I’m not lying,’ he said.
‘Yes you are,’ she said, ‘I know it. What really happened?’
He took a deep breath, ‘I did wait. Until… until I got a phone call…’
‘You didn’t have a mobile phone in those days,’ she was not going to be fobbed off.
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Okay. I’m not proud of it,’ he said, ‘I realised I was late for a meeting. I had the offer of a record deal. I waited as long as I could.’
‘Did you get the deal?’ she asked, trying not to sound too sour.
‘And I came back for you. And waited more. I was only gone twenty minutes… I thought I’d easily…. I couldn’t believe I would miss you. I wanted to…..’ he was struggling. ‘But in the end, you know, I came back.’
‘And gave up music for me?’
‘You didn’t have to do that.’
‘I did. I wanted to. I don’t regret it for a minute.’
‘Are you sure of that?’
‘Yes. Dead certain,’ he replied. ‘Now, can we talk about something else?’
They kept walking. She had her answer. Everything fell into place. She wished she’d known. She wouldn’t have wanted him to give everything up for her, even though she was more than happy and prepared to give everything up for him. Her everything had seemed so little and he’d had such promise. He’d made the real sacrifices. She’d never thought of it like that before. She loved him all the more.
‘When did you first know you loved me?’ she asked.
‘When I realised I’d missed you that first day in London,’ he replied. ‘And I told myself if I found you again I’d never let you go again. And then I had to. Because I loved you. It’s complicated.’
‘And you were the man who said it was simple. That it was only we who complicate it,’ she noted. ‘That was the point of the story wasn’t it? That life is simple and all we have to do is go with the simplicity to be happy?’
‘Helen,’ he replied, ‘you know I’ve always believed we live in two places. In the moment and in the memory. But we are only truly free in one place and that is in the mind. The goal of ULTIMATE® is to take that freedom away from you but they can only succeed if you let them. Remember, reality is what you choose to believe and life is how you create it.’
‘I have no life without you,’ she replied. ‘ Our identity..it’s.. fused… Do you know what I mean?’
‘Just let go,’ he said. ‘I’ve always loved you. I always will love you. Nothing changes that. This is all that’s real. Just us. Now. Here.’ They were at the beech tree, gazing over the most familiar view in her life.
‘It’s enough isn’t it?’ he asked.
She smiled ‘Yes. It’s enough.’ And let go.