In this series of blog posts, members of the Supernatural Cities project at the University of Portsmouth introduce their own research, outlining their different disciplinary and methodological perspectives on the urban supernatural.
Dr Alison Habens is a novelist and academic. She is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing in the School of Media and Performing Arts at the University of Portsmouth, and the author of the novels Dreamhouse, Lifestory and The True Picture. Her personal website is alisonhabens.com, and she can be found on Twitter @AlisonHabens.
A Dream, a Screen, a Time Machine: Three Flash Fictions
The only time I go outside is in street view. I get my exercise walking around Hyde Park in google maps. Scrolling past the stone terraces, clicking along the candy-cane railings, skirting the Ladies Mile.
I know all the people in Bayswater; boy with a backpack, lady with a peacock hat. It’s always the same day; traffic light, weather fine. I walk through a family group on the path; dragging scenery, lagging greenery, past the last street view man and his dog in mouse clicks, close to the Serpentine as my computer can go.
Normally, there’s nobody at the water’s edge, not on that spot. Further along, by the Italian garden, a woman pushing a pram, a toddler riding a trike. Not this serpent coming from the lake. A person with no legs: tail snaking onto the footpath. But, full screen, it’s a pencil skirt, a trail of pixelated pinstripe. Her blazer buttonholed with a dripping water lily. Her barnacled bowler-hat.
I cannot finish my walk round the Long Water. Leaving the window open, I come back to that scene later, for it can’t be open-ended all night. I swipe left to check her out from the West Carriage Drive. Is she higher up the bank? A blurred gaze follows me as I back off clicking wildly, her cubist features turning to watch me go.
Panting, in my pyjamas, I get back to my house on google earth, loving how it looks with me inside. There’s no face at the window, looking out for rain; I was asleep that day; weather light, traffic fine. I know it is just the internet, just the screen, just the game, just a dream.
I go out again at dusk, scrolling down Lancaster Gate, past stucco facades to the tube station. Not many people about; backpack boy, the lady in an azure tit-for-tat. I drag slowly to the right; my computer is so laggy tonight. At the park entrance it stops.
Patrolling my own portal, I know who should be frozen mid-stride, and who I should not see. Street view is playing tricks on me. It’s the snake-haired accounts manager I saw crawling from the water. That Chthulhun businesswoman has moved again.
She has crossed Hyde Park and is coming through the gate, fronds of pondweed on her shoulder pads. She’s no street view person; she is some spirit who can shift between levels, a siren superimposed on the scene, a glitch in the programme.
The next time, and the last time, I check my house in street view she is there. She’s leaning in to look through my net curtains. She is right outside. I know it is just the internet, just the screen, just the game, just a dream. But I look up at my window. Because it’s always the same day; traffic light, weather fine.
Face pressed to glass, the dead double-entry book keeper of the Serpentine has come to check her figures. The dripping pinstripe PJs. The drowned briefcase.
They say that if you appear on google street view your soul is taken. With a crowd in the town centre or on your own in a country lane; you may not know it has happened. Many street view people have never googled themselves.
The road home from work every day, or an avenue strolled once in a life time; most folk don’t think to check their routes on google maps to see if their spirit belongs to the internet. But they should.
The man in a checked shirt at Trafalgar Square; the woman in pink shoes at Piccadilly Circus; the group of lads crossing Ladbroke Grove; the girl smoking in Mornington Crescent. Their faces have been blurred out but their walks are in the public domain.
The ones who saw the camera car, who ogled back as it passed, have more clout against the giants they’ll meet in the cloud, the spiders they’ll see in the web, the trolls they’ll encounter on the internot.
They say that, when you become a street view person, your facebook starts to predict the future. Your timeline gets ahead of itself. Not instantly; a deeper wrinkle, a thinner hairline, a thicker waist won’t show at once.
The selfie-takers notice it first; a deeper tan, a thinner thigh, a thicker lip. How do I know? Not because ‘they’ say so! But it happened to me, or will happen, or is happening to me now. And it could be the same case for you. How to claim for your missing soul (without a long wait on a helpline)?
Check your house on google earth to be sure there’s no green-skinned, weed-haired undine, or flint-boned, chalk-jawed undead soldier about to peep through your letterbox. Check facelessbook in case you didn’t post this update, didn’t up this postdate, didn’t date this post up.
Check that your thousand followers aren’t actually in your house, in the middle of the night; though you would hardly be relaxing at home when a vintage tea-cup dealer you follow on pinterestless lives a thousand miles away and is waiting to be liked.
Keep checking that you’re still there. Take your own photo against famous places and familiar landmarks; be seen on beaches, with babies, in Buddhist poses.
They say there’s an epidemic of depression, a plague of anxiety, the down-loading of our souls, a cross-posting of ghouls and goolies. They say the world isn’t what it used to be, young people aren’t what they were: in the checked-shirting of Neverland, the pink-shoeing of Narnia, the vintage tea-cupping of Nirvana.
While someone, somewhere, is on-line you too must be insomniac on the wide web, wobbling like a dew drop on its threads. I am a lady smoking in Ladbroke Grove, so I know: I could be googled any moment. And when I scroll down on my timeline, I can see the day I’ll die.
Gas mask gave one hell of a hallucination: I saw H.G.Wells’ Time Machine. Couldn’t breathe, on my knees, in a Flanders field; envisioning the twisted ivory bar, the twinkling quartz rods, and me in the saddle of that miraculous conveyance. H.G. winked and said he supported the Pompey Pals since he’d dreamed up the time machine as a young man in haberdashery there. Poor Herbert hated his apprenticeship in Southsea but agreed my plight was worse.
Nut-deep in mud, in a trench near the Menin road, in the dark except when we were lit up like sitting ducks by the Very lights, and picked off by Jerry if we moved. Chap in front of me shat himself; we’d seen the chap beside us shatter into parts. Privates Morlock and both Ellerys, I’d known from school, had all gone west that day in the battle of Polygon Wood.
Face-down on wet sandbags, when the famous writer promised to get me out of there, a flare went up in my spirit. Chaps invented marvels on the Western Front; I saw flamethrowers, geophones that detected enemy tunnelling, tanks. Then Wells called on me to re-create his time machine in a concrete ‘pillbox’, to convey myself and as many boys as could pop in back to Blighty.
At dawn we’d be ordered to advance past that pillbox but Germans with machine guns were positioned inside. 14th Battalion Hampshire Regiment had lost men there already. Then, it was as if H.G. spoke to me:
‘You know of course that a mathematical line, a line of thickness NIL, has no real existence. Neither has a mathematical plane. These are mere abstractions.’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.’
‘A solid body may exist,’ I said. ‘All real things—’
‘So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an INSTANTANEOUS cube exist?’
Under this officer’s orders, I made ivory levers from the legbones of soldiers, and quartz rods from their teeth. I hope it was a good tribute to my fallen brothers in arms. For them I found the guts to approach, the grenade to throw in, the gumption to follow through after the blast; and throw all the bloody bits of Hun out of their gun post. I quickly set up the time dial, as the father of science fiction had shown me, and mustered as many of the Pompey Pals still stood in Flanders.
The doomed youth were coming home. Fuelled by bully beef and rum rations, forged with wire cutters and mustard gas, we landed at Fratton Park. But I’ve fat-fingered the dial and we arrive a hundred years in the future, 26th September 2017.
Portsmouth’s finest re-appear through a turnpike portal from the foreign field. Saluting hands like rusty spades, they come through the mortar mist; mixed-up lads in corroded helmets; Tommy’s eyes, Jerry’s jaw, French fist.
Still in my steamed-up gas mask, I’m following them home from the game.