The judge’s robe was as bleak as loathly death; his wig, suggestive of a sheep, half-asleep: curled up, snug and forgetful of its curlers. That he glowered, with an almost audible menace, was perhaps intended as a distraction from any consequent shortcomings of dignity.
“Elliott Harvey Bunbury Lock. You are accused of the following crimes against Reality. That you did poke about at the thin and fragile cloth that separates dream from waking, to the inevitable detriment of said cloth. That you did repeatedly contravene the Immutable Laws of Physics and did bend the Solemn Law of Murphy all out of shape and sideways. That you… Mr. Lock. Please pay attention while I am indicting you.”
The judge directed a force ten glare at the defendant, who started, guiltily, like a miscreant hare at the radishes.
“Sorry, really, it’s just… well, it’s that kangaroo over there. It’s distracting.”
“The ‘kangaroo’, Mr Lock.”
The judge’s voice was icy with disbelief. He flung a lifetime of stored and honed contempt into one annihilating glance; which sadly missed, and felled the court recorder.
Elliott, unheeding, contemplated the kangaroo.
“It’s wearing such disturbingly sticky garters.”
From the list of blurred, or partial, quotes which most people pick up at some point, like chicken pox, “Know your enemy” was a standout for Elliott Lock. Like some small, hunted animal, he had swiftly found the world to be a hostile place and overly full of teeth; to be as energetically against him as if, at his birth, he had thoughtlessly forgotten to invite it to the party, or save for it even one small slice of cake.
He was wary of shadows and sunlight alike, of warning frowns and of concealing smiles, of treacherous words and of rakes in the grass. Protective aggression was not in his nature: in lieu of the growth of prickles or a thick and shielding armour, he worked on the tactics of preparation and avoidance. He made lists.
Elliott’s notebooks were neatly inscribed with a growing tally of people and things, words and actions, to be avoided, wherever this was possible. Each was assigned a threat level: from Grade One: tongue-choking embarrassment, to Grade Twelve: Actual Mortal Peril. He also kept a list of useful hiding places and an evolving set of blueprints for the world’s best running shoes, with functional winged heels and with a neat little seven-league-stride function. They also incorporated a small pump in the left sole, for releasing clouds of mystifying smoke, to baffle and confuse the enemy; from the right, came jets of skunk-like scent to repel and confound.
Where avoidance of a threat would be difficult or impossible, he noted suggestions for defensive measures. These included negotiation, playing dead, disarmament through humour and, in desperate cases, his mastery of two authentic martial arts positions, which, he had fervently – and falsely – hoped, might, on their own, be sufficient to intimidate, without any need for follow-through.
These notebooks he concealed in shifting, secret places, along with the feather of an eagle or a phoenix or – just possibly – a buzzard; and with a lucky stone, soothingly smooth and rounded, yet complex to the touch. This stone had a hole in the middle that was so like a mouse that, gazing into it, you could very nearly see the creature, uncurling before you and stretching out its tail; scampering off into the forest, there to upset the owls and foxes with its stony armour, inimical to teeth.
Elliott’s own subconscious ranked very high on the enemy list. Fight and flight being equally inappropriate and ineffective against it, he had opted for some attempt at understanding: and so, after having sparred with numerous medical textbooks and lost, he had immersed himself deeply into the worlds of dream, meditation and mythology, gaining thereby a little insight into the collective unconscious, and a very little into his own. He also discovered that ‘weirdo’ was rarely a compliment, particularly when accompanied by phrases such as “let’s pound the…” and “what’re you looking at…?”
Elliott, repeated this distractedly – and indistinctly – while chewing on a pencil. Neither of these actions endeared him to the judge, who frowned. He frowned so deeply that his forehead kissed his nose and wished it hadn’t; so blackly, that a small group of thunderclouds formed and amassed overhead. Swelling to the dimensions of a bipedal rhinoceros, the judge raised severity levels to maximum and sharpened his eyes and cheekbones on a butcher’s steel.
“Young man,” he pronounced the words as though divesting his mouth of a series of distasteful toads, “if you are considering adopting a plea of insanity, I should point out that the very nature of your crimes has blurred the distinction between the real and the unreal to such an extent, that the legal definition of insane has spontaneously combusted and been replaced by a large red question mark.”
Elliott was puzzled for a moment – and distracted by the fire – but, having replayed the conversation a few times, he spotted the point of contention.
“Oh! No, no, there really is a kangaroo. Over there, by the jurybox. See? That huge, muscly red thing? Face like a contemptuous llama? Spring-loaded knives for feet?”
Elliott pointed. The kangaroo sneered. Slowly and deliberately, it adjusted its garters and licked at red and slippery claws.
And there was something else wrong, something disturbing.
“Shouldn’t there be more than…” Elliott slowly counted the pale and strained-looking faces. “… more than nine people on the jury?”
“Nine and one half.”
Ah, yes, that was it.
The judge was impatient with such irrelevance. “Mr Lock, this is all immaterial. A state to which, no doubt, the remainder of the jury will shortly attain. Counsel, please call your first witness.”
A vague, shadowy figure, of uncertain gender, indistinct appearance and with a slight question mark about the species, spoke out. Even over the distracting background noises, the voice contrived to be both piercing and persnickety.
“You are Sarah Davis, co-proprietor of Danford and Davis, Dream Consultants?”
Sarah Davis blinked into existence and blinked. “Well, probably.”
She made a critical survey of herself and of the courtroom: both rather wispy at the edges and not quite correct. The courtroom benches, for example, were clearly defined but very slightly out of perspective, so as to be subtly unsettling to both buttocks and mind.
“But, then, say that I was, in fact, a butterfly. If I were a frivolous insect, all giddy from excess poppies, this might well be the sort of dream I’d be having.” She looked around again. “Looks like a two-day hangover job.”
The lawyer essayed a sigh, laced with a theatrical thoroughness of irritation.
“Mrs Probably Davis, could you please confirm that the accused is your employee? Without any undue philosophy?”
“What would qualify as due philosophy?”
The lawyer tutted, paused to enjoy the sensation, and tutted again.
“Just answer the question, Mrs Davis. Need I remind you, that a man’s very life is at stake?”
Elliott startled again, almost falling out of the dock. “Life? Wait, hang on a minute, life?” He clutched at the sketchy wall around him, as though his very life was within it and in desperate need of a hug. He gazed imploringly at Sarah, who frowned.
“Well, yes, Elliott is our dream coach, but…”
“Thank you, Mrs Davis, that will be all.” The judge banged his gavel with a hollow, disquieting thud and glowered again to hide the fact that his wig had slipped. “Next witness. And quickly please, I have a witch to burn before lunch.”
Counsel uttered a few ‘m’luds’ and bowed unctuously. “Mrs Eliza Grace Cantrip, you have been taking a course in techniques of dream control, run by the accused, for a period of one month now?”
A medium-sized figure, round and wrinkled, like a mellowing apple, turned her mild face appealingly towards the judge. “That’s correct.” She sighed piteously and clutched her hands to her heart, after some slight indecision as to the location. “All I wanted was to experience some nice, relaxing dreams of the seaside. Had I but known what it would lead to…”
She dabbed at an eye. The lawyer became solicitous. “And what did it lead to, Mrs Cantrip? Take your time.”
Mrs Cantrip nodded gratefully and wrung her dry handkerchief.
“Whelks.” A sniff. “Initially, it led to whelks.”
She paused for a dramatic accusing stare at Elliott, who looked guilty and confused, on general principles.
“I am quite fond of an occasional whelk, your Honour, but not, I must say, an incessant whelk. Not of a whelk that permeates the cornflakes and saturates the soup. A whelk that slides, insouciant, all down the sherry trifle. Have you ever, Your Honour, tasted an after-dinner mint infused with essence of whelk? I’ll wager you would not have it twice.” Mrs Cantrip set her mouth into a grimace of disgust. She glared again at Elliott, who gazed back, frozen, like a deer in the torchlight of the searching hunter; catching a glimpse of the knife.
“I used to enjoy a good bath,” she continued, balefully, “a thing which is, alas, no longer possible, due to the seventy percent risk of sharks.”
“And we will be hearing later,” the laywer interjected, “a most traumatic account from one of those poor sharks.”
Mrs Cantrip bared her fangs for a brief moment, before her lips struggled back into a suffering smile once more. “And seagulls. Really, quite the nuisance, though the arsenic helps. But the very worst part is the sand. It infiltrates. Do you know how many layers of personal garments I’m wearing? And even then… Well, here look…” She had delved swiftly down, through seven seas of petticoat, all the way to her, non-sticky, garters, before they could either prevent her or shield their tender eyes. The judge slammed his gavel, twice, with desperate force; dislodging his wig even further, so that it teetered on an ear.
“The point having been taken,” he barked, “ the witness will please not trouble to demonstrate.”
Unperturbed, the witness resumed propriety with a slight wriggle, “Mind, it’s something shocking, the penetration, it is…” and gazed up, as meekly and modestly at the judge, as if she was a creature made entirely of prim lace and petticoats, with not so much as a limb, nor wicked ankle, underneath.
“Mrs Cantrip.” The lawyer gulped and continued. “Would you agree that this extremely distressing, traumatising and unlawful invasion of your home, comestibles and, er, clothing, might constitute an indictable attempted homicide?”
She nodded firmly and with satisfaction. “Oh, yes,”
“What? Attempted what? Who? How? W-wait, look, don’t I get a lawyer?”
Elliott, searching the court desperately for any sympathetic figure, found nothing but one bloated kangaroo, picking at its teeth; the empty silence of the jury-box; and a shadowy, gently swaying loop attachment, which newly dangled from the chandelier.
And Sarah: who, suddenly reappearing beside him, was more thoughtful than reassuring.“I rather suspect that that is your lawyer.”
“My subconscious needs work.”
They turned toward the figure in question, who, having retired to a corner for a brief, but heated, one-person debate, now returned, the loser.
“Your Honour, may I interrupt myself, to call an irrelevant new witness?”
“Certainly. That would be entirely proper.” The judge cloaked himself with pomposity, while surreptitiously attempting to use the gavel to push his wig back into place. It bleated, sleepily, in protest.
“Dr Umplety.” Counsel bowed and simpered. “Welcome to the court. You are, of course, an internationally famed Lepidopterist?”
“What? Where am I? What’s going on? Is that blood?”
“Dr Umplety – huge fan, by the way, love your discovery of the elusive dove-tailed butterfly with the precision-cut edging – Dr Umplety, can I just ask? If you were a butterfly, dreaming that you were human, dreaming that you were dreaming, would you take one or two pills for the hangover? And, er, can I have your autograph?”
Dr Umplety, harassed, unfolded a moth from her hair and stared blankly for a moment. “Um, well, er, ginger ale, I suppose, would be best, rather easier on the proboscis, but – Hey! You with the hair! Look out for that kangaroo!”
Elliott caught just a glimpse of incoming marsupial, before the world went black.