In a little house, on the edge of town, lived a boy called Arthur. He’d lived there as long as he could remember.
Arthur was very happy, all in all. On week days he’d get up and have breakfast before walking to school; in the evening, he and his mother would eat, then he’d have a bath and put himself to bed.
Occasionally as he lay, Arthur noticed shapes, of all sizes and colours, dancing and whirling in the darkness. He could not quite see them properly: they shimmered and changed as he tried to focus on them but were always there, just outside his gaze.
Eventually he would fall asleep. When he woke the next the morning, the colours and shapes would be gone.
Before long it was time for Arthur to go to a new school, in the big town. Arthur couldn’t wait. He’d been to an open day and seen the equipment in the gym, the classrooms, the sports fields that stretched for ever.
On the first day of term, off he went on the bus with lots of other children. When the day finished he couldn’t wait to get home to tell his mother all about it. For the first few weeks he felt on top of the world.
Strangely though, as he hovered on the edge of sleep he started to see the shimmering shapes more frequently. He was even more puzzled when one morning, he woke to find they were still there. This troubled him: what were they? What did they mean? Perhaps they were part of growing up, he thought.
Not everything went Arthur’s way at school. Some children didn’t like him very much; indeed, they didn’t seem to like anyone at all. Once he went to the toilet and found a group of boys standing inside. One tried to grab him but he quickly ran out.
Arthur tried not to think about such incidents, but he couldn’t help feeling a little worried.
Night after night, Arthur tussled with his thoughts before going to sleep. As he dreamt, the shapes filled his mind, dancing like fiery sprites. He imagined them laughing, mocking him like the boys in the toilet. Before long, every night was the same – he would wake in a cold sweat, feeling he had not slept at all.
One morning Arthur lay for a while, anxiously following the shapes as they danced in his eyes. Eventually they started to disappear: first he saw light through his window, then the outlines of his desk, his chair… once the shapes had nearly gone, he got up and headed downstairs, determinedly ignoring any that remained.
The day came that Arthur had been dreading. As he left one class and headed to another, he felt a push at his back. He turned to see the sneering face of an older boy. The boy’s friends stood behind him, faces expectant.
Arthur wasn’t stupid: he turned and ran — out of the door and across the sports fields, through a gap in the hedge and into a wood. Eventually he stopped, panting heavily. His head was packed with images of snarling boys, their faces twisted in anger.
All of a sudden, his legs gave way.
As Arthur lay, in his mind’s eye he saw the faces of the other children, laughing and jeering. Even as he watched, their faces started to swirl and distort.
Soon all he could see was a flurry of multicoloured, shifting shapes. He could barely make out his fingers in front of his face. In shock he curled into a ball and, maybe, cried just a little.
After what felt like forever, the shapes started to lose their energy. With relief Arthur found he could see his hands, then the trees and the sky. He was getting cold so he stood, brushed the dead leaves from his clothes and, with a sigh, started walking back towards school.
When he got home Arthur’s mother asked him what had happened – what with leaves in his pockets, a torn knee and a twig in his hair. “Nothing,” he said – quite truthfully. After all there wasn’t, not that he could explain.
Having pushed his meal around his plate (“You’re not normally off your food,” said his mother) and had a hot soak (“Let me run you a nice bath”), he went to bed. To his relief he found himself slipping, almost immediately, into a dreamless sleep.
When Arthur woke the next morning, all he could see were shapes, shimmering and dancing across his eyes. As usual, he waited for them to clear so he could get up. And he waited and waited, but still they didn’t go away.
He became nervous but the more he worried, the more the shapes danced and the noisier they became, until they filled his head with a rushing, tumbling sound. He started to cry, which made things even worse.
Through the multicoloured blizzard he made out his mother’s voice. “Arthur, what is it?” she asked, sounding like she was speaking into the wind. He could just about make out her outline, then even she was gone, lost in the swirl.
Arthur opened and shut his eyes, he tried to speak, to scream and shout but no words came out. He stretched and twisted on his bed until he felt dizzy. Everywhere were colours and shapes, whipping and whistling, like a tornado had ripped through a rag factory and sent its contents flying into the sky.
Eventually Arthur ran out of energy. He stopped, carefully rose to his feet and stood, helplessly, for a very long time.
At first the shifting patterns looked the same in every direction. But as he watched the shapes lift, swirl and settle, he started to discern outlines. Squinting his eyes, he realised he was staring across a constantly moving landscape, its hills and valleys shimmering, rising and falling into the distance.
This is curious, Arthur thought, already feeling calmer. He put one foot in front of the other and found the shapes could bear his weight, even as they moved and shifted. It was like walking on a sea of waving cloth.
With nothing else to do, he carried on. As the time passed, Arthur grew in confidence. He didn’t know what had happened to his room, or his house, or his mother. But walking was better than sitting in a heap, he decided. He walked, and he walked, and he walked.
Eventually he became tired. Finding a vaguely sheltered spot, he settled down and shut his eyes, drifting into sleep.
The moving mish-mash of colours and shapes never left him as he slept. But he dreamt, he also imagined grey shadows in the colours, like curtains flapping at a window. Once he thought he saw his mother, standing by a doorway. She looked worried, which made him sad. Then she was gone.
It was quite a relief to wake up, even if he did find himself covered in shapes. As he stood they slipped from him like silken fish.
With no other choice, he continued walking across the giant, constantly changing, multicoloured landscape. Shifting shapes in the distance looked like wild horses, whinnying and chasing across the hillside. Occasionally they caught a breeze, sending them flitting upward like a flock of birds.
The breeze caught his hair and cooled his skin, whooshing and shushing. At times he thought he could hear snatches of speech, caught on the wind – “… Well, I’m not sure…” “…how long has he…” “…you cannot expect…” – but he could never make any sense of them.
On he walked, stopping only to rest, plunging when he did into troubled, shadowy sleep. When he woke, he got up, brushed himself down and continued on his way. He didn’t know what else to do.
After several sleeps had passed and he had walked still further, Arthur found himself standing before a small, dome-shaped hill. He thought he heard someone call his name. “Arthur? Arthur! Over here!” The shouts were coming from just behind the hill, ahead of him.
As he continued over the rise, he saw a strange creature dressed in many, many, brightly coloured shawls. They formed from the colours and shapes, rising up to envelop the creature, before dissolving back into the ground just as quickly. It was as if the creature was part of the landscape.
“Hello Arthur,” said the creature, its voice emerging somehow from the swirling mass of colourful shawls. It spoke quite clearly, though Arthur could not see exactly how. Arthur just stared back, mystified. He had never seen anything like the creature before, and had no idea how to reply.
It started to talk again, but the shawls got in the way. “You’re probably wondering why you are mfff mfff mfff mfff mfff,” said the creature. “Mfff mfff mfff mfff mfff mfff but we will mfff mfff mfff mfff.” The creature didn’t seem to have anything else useful to say.
After watching for a while, Arthur turned away and went on.
While he slept better than previous nights, Arthur could not shake off the bad dreams. Through the shimmering, dancing colours and shapes he caught glimpses of a grey, shadowy world. Over and again he saw his mother, her face furrowed with worry.
Sometimes she would have a bowl of food with her, with which she tried to feed him with a spoon. Other times she washed him, or mopped his brow with a flannel. Or she just sat, staring out of the window. He hoped she was okay. He tried to shout out to her, but no words came.
After a few more days, he came across the creature again. “Do you want to talk to me now?” it asked. “we can mfff mfff mfff mfff mfff. Mfff mfff mfff mfff.”
Arthur thought for a while. “Not really, no. I don’t really understand what you are saying.” he said.
The creature rose with surprise and its eyes – if they could be called eyes – grew to the size of saucers. The creature’s shawls began to swirl, tearing into pieces as they did. Arthur watched as the creature shrank before him, its colourful patchwork whipping into the air like confetti before drifting down and merging back into the landscape.
Eventually, when he realised there was nothing more to see, Arthur walked on, continuing his explorations before he made his way back to his cave.
Every day, Arthur he headed out to explore. Once he found a waterfall of shapes, glistening as they cascaded down, forming a pool of glowing light. Excited, he dived in and swam, splashing at the shapes as they tumbled around him.
To his surprise, he began to laugh. Soon he was laughing uncontrollably. He laughed like he couldn’t stop, whooping and giggling as he tumbled in the multi-coloured torrent.
Eventually, he waded to the side of the pool and dragged himself out. The shapes melted away as he lay on the bank, leaving him quite dry. For the first time he could remember, he felt content. If this was to be his existence, it wasn’t too bad, he thought to himself.
When he sat up he saw a girl, standing at the side of the pool. He was so astonished he nearly fell back into the water, which made the girl put her hand to her mouth, startled. She was quite small and had long, brown hair. Her clothes were brown as well.
It took him a while to get his thoughts together. “Who are you? Why are you here?” he asked, abruptly. The girl looked crestfallen. “Peggy,” she said. “I… I don’t know.” Then she turned and ran.
After a moment Arthur picked himself up and ran after her. “Stop!” he shouted, but Peggy showed no sign of stopping. He followed her down into a valley, round the hillock where the shawl-creature had been then beyond, into places he hadn’t yet explored.
“Wait for me!” he said, puffing. “Wait!”
Eventually, Arthur caught his foot. With a cry he crashed to the ground, which exploded in a cloud of glittering colour. He expected his ankle to be sore but it wasn’t – perhaps there was no pain in this place. Just as he started wondering whether he was actually in heaven, he looked up and saw Peggy standing in front of him.
Arthur thought carefully then smiled, deciding it was probably the right thing to do. “Arthur,” he said, pulling himself into a sitting position and raising his hand. “Pleased to meet you.” He hoped that he was being more polite this time.
Peggy’s face broke into a relieved smile. She sat down next to him. Neither spoke for a while.
“How long have you been here?” he asked, eventually.
“I don’t know,” said Peggy. “I can’t remember.” Arthur realised he could not remember either.
Suddenly Peggy jumped to her feet. “There’s Titch as well!” she said. “Come with me.” With that she grabbed his hand, in a sudden hurry. “Come on!” She set off running again, dragging Arthur behind her.
Barely had Peggy pulled Arthur round two corners before they arrived at a hollow, its entrance by some bushes. Arthur could see how colours and shapes had been heaped up to form places to sit and sleep.
“There,” said Peggy, walking towards one of the piles. “I didn’t know his name, so I called him Titch. He doesn’t say much.” Arthur saw a very small boy, curled up fast asleep. Peggy gave him a nudge and he sat up slowly, rubbing his eyes.
“Hello,” said Arthur. Titch just curled up and went back to sleep. Peggy looked at Arthur and shrugged. “He’ll be OK,” she said. “He just needs a little time.”
Arthur spent a lot of time with Peggy over the days that followed, and sometimes with Titch when he managed to break from his constant sleepiness. At first Arthur was glad to have other people to talk to, even if Titch didn’t say much.
As time passed however, Arthur became uncomfortable. It wasn’t Peggy and Titch — at least, he didn’t think so. But he began to realise that the rolling hills and valleys of shifting colour held no answers, nor would they ever, however much he searched.
Arthur felt a growing sense of dread. Was this it? Would he be wandering the land of colours and shapes forever, with no way out? He felt a pang of sadness as he thought of the fields and woods in which he used to play.
When he slept, Arthur’s dreams were still troubled by the grey, shadowy images. Often he saw his mother; sometimes other faces formed and then evaporated. He thought some of the faces looked familiar, but they wisped away before he could really tell.
Arthur felt a growing sense that he had to do something, to get to the bottom of this strange place.
One morning, with a promise to Peggy and Titch that he would return, Arthur set off by himself. Determinedly he followed as straight a line as he could, heading across the hills.
When he tired, rather than heading back to the camp, he decided he would press on. He lay down and slept for a while, before setting off in what he hoped was the same direction. He concentrated only on the rhythm of his steps, paying little attention to the swirling, multicoloured environment around him.
Eventually, in the distance he saw what looked like a tree, standing alone on the top of a hill. As he approached he realised how big it was, stretching up like a giant. The tree was constantly budding and growing leaves, which withered and fell even as they formed, merging into the landscape.
The tree made a swishing, crackling sound as it swayed in the wind. As he listened, Arthur could make out his name.
“Arthur, Arthur…” swished the tree. “Arthur, Arthur…”
Arthur was slightly scared — he had never heard a tree say his name before. But he was also a little desperate. He nodded, dumbly. Then, checking quickly around him (to be sure no-one could see he was talking to a tree) he breathed a single word – “Yes.”
“I… can… help… you, Arthur,” swished the tree. “You… you want… to leave… this place… don’t… you…?”
“Maybe,” said Arthur. At that moment he wanted to find a way out more than anything, to see his mother and get back to normal. But somehow, he knew the place to start was not with a shawl-creature, or a giant tree, or whatever form the colours and shapes happened to take.
Arthur shook his head. “I’m not sure I want help from a tree,” he said. As he turned away the swishing and creaking grew to a crescendo. Then all the leaves fell at once, making a metallic noise as they crashed to the ground. The twigs followed with an almighty clatter, then the branches.
Finally, the trunk crumbled into a huge pile of multi-coloured flakes, collapsing in on itself with a cloud of dust which dissolved into the air. In no time at all, the tree was completely gone. Wondering if he had made the right choice, Arthur continued his walk, hoping to find a better answer.
Several days passed, punctuated by nights of dismal, shadowy grey. But Arthur did not veer from his path. He walked on, always in the same direction, becoming more focused and confident as he did. Somehow he know what he was doing was right.
Arthur was concentrating so much on the distant horizon one day, that he failed to notice a large, rounded boulder right in front of him. Until he bashed his toe on it, that is. Arthur yelped, more in shock than pain.
As he rubbed his foot, he considered how out of place the rock looked. It appeared to be of no colour at all, and it was certainly not moving. Not knowing what else to do, Arthur sat down on it.
“Why can’t I leave this place?” Arthur asked the boulder. After all, if he could talk to a tree, he could talk to a boulder.
The boulder didn’t reply, of course – it was a boulder.
“Why can’t I get out?” asked Arthur.
No reply. Arthur pondered how strange his life had become. As he sat, so did the boulder, stationary and motionless on his path, in a land where everything was brightly coloured and continuously moving.
And then, quite suddenly, something clicked.
It felt like the nothingness of the boulder was connecting with the deepest parts of his mind. He shut his eyes and followed the nothingness, passing through the colours and shapes swirling across his eyes and into the darkness beyond.
Deeper and deeper into the huge, empty void his thoughts descended. As they travelled even deeper, Arthur saw, deep below him…
… a speck. Which grew, as he approached, and became…
… a boulder.
And he understood.
Arthur opened his eyes. The colours and shapes still swirled above and around him and stretched into the distance, but Arthur saw them for what they were: fragments of consciousness, of thoughts and dreams, fears and aspirations.
He realised he could make sense of them all.
He could see his mother, sad and confused, holding onto forlorn hope, not knowing what else to do but care, day after day.
He could see the bullying schoolchildren, each struggling to define themselves and frantic that they might be found out as weak and afraid.
Stretching over the hills and away into the distance was the rest of humanity, millions of glittering consciousnesses, all worrying, coping, working things out, struggling to connect with the thoughts and deeds of everyone and everything else.
And there, in the middle, sitting on a colourless boulder, was a little boy who had lost his way, but who could see that the way out was right where he was. Arthur saw himself, excited but uncertain, wanting to know everything but nervous about what he might find.
At that precise moment, Arthur realised that he could not find the way out by looking for it. He nearly fell over backwards as a thrill rose through his body and filled his head. Light beamed from his eyes, breaking through the colours and shapes, illuminating everything before him.
Arthur knew he had to get back to the camp, where he had left Peggy and Titch. He started running the way he had come but even as he did, he found himself where he had started, like he had walked no distance at all.
He saw Peggy, sitting on her heaped-up bed, and rushed over to her, grinning and shining. He was about to tell her the good news when he realised she was crying.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“It’s Titch. He went quieter and quieter. I tried to reach him but he just…” Peggy shrugged, hopelessly, and started to cry again.
Arthur looked more closely at Titch’s bed, still shimmering and moving. Barely visible was a dark shape, the shadowy outline of where a small boy had once been, now forever beyond rescue.
There was nothing Arthur could do. More than ever, he realised he had to leave this place, or give in and be trapped forever. Feeling determined, he took Peggy’s hands, his eyes bright.
“Peggy, do you trust me?” he asked. “We need to leave, or we will become like Titch.” Arthur explained, very carefully, what he had learned. Her face still wet with tears, Peggy shook with nerves but she listened to every word.
“We can’t find the way out by looking,” Arthur said, taking her hands in his. “Will you come? Please?”
Peggy nodded, uncertainly.
Arthur furrowed his brow and shut his eyes, trying to clear a path through the colours and shapes with his thoughts. Even as they swirled more brightly, he realised what he was doing wrong.
“You cannot find the way out by looking,” he said once again, this time to himself. He closed his eyes again and gently, calmly, took his thoughts down to the bottom of his soul.
A tiny, colourless space appeared between the pair, a shadowy sphere hovering between them. Then it started to expand. One moment the sphere was walnut-sized, then the size of a tennis ball, then a football. It became bigger and bigger, growing between and around them until it engulfed them almost completely.
Outside of the sphere the colours and shapes seemed to rush and scream, but they couldn’t break into the empty void. Where they touched, they just vanished. For what felt like an eternity Arthur concentrated on the nothingness, ignoring the multicoloured blizzard outside.
“Look Peggy, we’re nearly there!” he whispered, still gripping her hands. She opened her mouth to speak… and then, quite suddenly, he tumbled back into bed.
But it wasn’t his bed, nor his bedroom. He looked around but Peggy was nowhere to be seen.
“Arthur!” He heard a shout, then the crash of a chair falling over. Before he could respond his mother had dragged him upright, picked him up and was hugging him tightly.
“Mum, I’m, okay,” he said, smiling uncertainly. “What are you doing?”
As his mother pulled away from him, he saw tears streaming down her cheeks. “You’re okay,” she said. “You’re okay.”
Arthur was pleased that his mother was alright, but was concerned for his friend. “What happened to Peggy?” he asked.
“Who’s Peggy?” asked his mother.
“Someone I met,” he said. His mother looked at him, surprised.
For some reason, Arthur felt absolutely starving. By the bed was a bowl of soup — cold, by the look of it, but Arthur didn’t care. He gulped it down, his mother staring at him all the time.
After a while Arthur’s mother seemed to calm down. “We need to go and see Mr Powell,” she said.
Arthur had no idea who Mr Powell was, and was still worried about Peggy. Perhaps Mr Powell might know something about her, he wondered. “Okay,” he said.
His mother pulled a strange cord by the bed and waited expectantly. As he lay, he could see the colours and shapes dancing at the edges of his vision. Now he knew what they were, they didn’t bother him.
A man in a white uniform came in the room, looked at Arthur, looked at his mother, then looked back at Arthur. “Ah, I see,” he said, a little strangely. “You need to go and see Mr Powell. I will prepare your things.”
Arthur nodded and got up. He felt weak but followed his mother out of the door.
“Who’s Mr Powell?” Arthur asked his mother as they walked down a corridor. His mother smiled. This is strange, Arthur thought.
As they passed a room with an open door, Arthur saw a woman sitting beside a desk. She was wearing a big coat and a bright red shawl. She looked over her glasses as they passed. “Hello Arthur,” she said, in a familiar voice.
“Who was that, mother? Arthur asked as they walked on. His mother smiled again. This is a very strange place, Arthur thought.
Further down the corridor, Arthur stopped and looked into another room. A tall, spindly man stood inside, his arms reaching up as he put a book high on a bookshelf. “Hello Arthur,” said the man, his voice also familiar.
Arthur looked at his mother. He did not bother asking who the man was, but she smiled anyway.
At the next door they stopped. In an armchair by the window was a short, squat man, deeply engrossed in a large pile of papers. Not knowing why, Arthur walked across the room and sat in a chair opposite.
Neither spoke for a long while.
Finally, Arthur realised he had something to say. “Mum, I don’t need to be here anymore,” he said.
The man raised his head, slowly. He turned and looked at Arthur’s mother and nodded once. Then he turned back to his papers. Arthur knew he would not see him again.
When Arthur and his mother returned to his room, they found the bed made and a small suitcase packed. On a table by the bed was a large, leather-bound book.
“Arthur is ready to leave?” asked the man in the white uniform.
“Yes,” said his mother.
“I will need you to sign,” he said, opening the book. Each page was filled with rows and rows of names and dates. Arthur watched as the man filled in an entry with his name, then stamped it with the word “Discharged”. Then he asked Arthur’s mother for her signature.
In the row above his name, Arthur noticed another name. “Peggy Wainwright,” it said. “Discharged”.
Arthur smiled. Then he turned and walked, with his mother, out of the room and back down the corridor, out of the main door and into the bright sunlight.