I never really knew how hard the ground could be until I had to sleep on it. I mean, intellectually I was aware that the ground was hard. It stands to reason that it must possess a certain degree of rigidity, otherwise you’d sink right through it every time you went for a walk, and that sort of thing wasn’t on at all.
Oh yes, I knew it was hard, all right. It wasn’t the first time I had slept rough, of course, but on those occasions there had been a certain element of choice, not to mention a sleeping bag, an old blanket or a gut full of alcohol to cushion my discomfort. This time I had the benefit of none of those things. My bed was, if the Professor was to be believed, half a universe away - along with my pyjamas, my slippers and my hot water bottle in the shape of a panda. There was, therefore, no choice for any of us but to spend the night beneath the stars - strange, unfamiliar and disquieting stars, at that.
Nevertheless, and in spite of the Janet’s stentorian snoring, Cathy’s unnerving bouts of whimpering, and the Professor’s Herculean farting, I managed to drift into an uncomfortable, hard and lumpy sleep. And for a few fitful hours I managed to dream myself back into normality - or at least a kind of normality. My journey to work, my job at the office, my in-tray piled high, the giant rabbit in accounts called Mildred, being chased round the canteen by a Cyclops with carrots for toes, riding home on a conveyor belt, being pulled over by the police only to discover that I had been completely naked all day. And yet, strangely, it all seemed so much more reasonable than being whisked away to an alien planet in a toilet.
But then slowly the sharp, brittle stones began to dig in. The cold, damp air bit into my bones. The strange, hazy light greeted my opening eyes and I felt that horrible, sickening, sinking feeling that accompanies all early risers when they realise that the real world has snatched them brutally out of the arms of Morpheus.
I propped myself up on one arm, dusting the dirt from my jacket with my free hand. Janet was still fast asleep, her face lying in a bubbling pool of dribble. Cathy seemed to be awake, but as she was sitting with a stunned expression on her face, simply rocking backwards and forwards like a mental, it was rather difficult to tell. Of the Professor there was no sign at first. Then a noise behind me made me turn and I spied him standing on top of the Podulator.
I got to my feet. “What the hell are you doing up there?” I asked.
“Ah, Mr Dickins,” he said. “Awake at last, are you?”
“Ah Professor,” I countered grumpily. “A great one for pointing out the blindingly obvious, aren’t you? So, are you going to tell me what you’re up to?”
“Well now, let’s see,” the Professor began patronisingly. “What could I possibly be doing standing on top of the Podulator with these in my hand?” He waved what appeared to be a pair of binoculars at me. “I would have thought it was ‘blindingly obvious’, as you put it, but if you really want me to explain the relative merits of this vantage point and the benefits of getting a complete picture of our surroundings, then - “
“All right, all right!” I replied, cutting him off mid-gabble. It was too early in the morning for that sort of nonsense, and as it didn’t look as though I would be getting a cup of coffee in the immediate future, I was really in no mood for such peevishness. I rose and hoisted myself up onto the Podulator beside the Professor, and looked around. “Well,” I said. “I guess being up here gives you a better view of the trees. So what?”
“Not just trees, Mr Dickinson,” said the Professor. He pointed at the far off horizon. “Look!”
I looked. I saw trees. On closer inspection I saw further trees, and it wasn’t beyond my admittedly pedestrian imagination to suspect that still more trees lay beyond the reaches of my field of vision. I said so.
“No, no, no!” the Professor responded, more urgently. “Look!”
I looked again. Was there a faint glimmer of grey where the ground met the sky? Or was I just imagining it? I nudged the Professor keenly. “You might be right,” I murmured. “Here, let me borrow those binoculars.”
“Trinoculars,” the Professor corrected me.
I was momentarily distracted, and for a brief second I didn’t register what the old tosser was saying. My look of puzzlement must have been obvious.
“They’re tri-noculars,” Professor Mendes repeated, and he handed me said item. “My own special invention - three lenses, see?”
I held them up before me. They did indeed have three eyepieces. I was quite dumbfounded, and the Professor obviously took my silence as a sign that I was impressed. However, when I finally spoke his expression of evident pride quickly fell.
“Well, what’s the bloody point of that?” I asked.
“Look,” he said, pointing to his invention, as if this would explain all. “Three lenses?”
“Fantastic,” I said dryly. “Why?”
“Well, isn’t it obvious?” he replied.
“It’s obvious that you’re freakin’ deluded,” I said. “But that’s all”
“But there are three lenses!” he insisted, and when I still failed to understand, he was forced to explain. “Look, with two lenses, you can see in three dimensions.”
“Obviously,” I said.
“Obviously,” the Professor repeated. “And it must be equally obvious that if you have three lenses, you would be able to see in four dimensions.” He began to grow misty eyed. “You would,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper, “be able to see into the future!”
I looked at the Professor’s invention, the trinoculars. Then I looked up at the sky and muttered a curse. Finally I looked at the Professor, standing there all smug and pleased with himself. “But I’ve only got two eyes,” I said.
“Ha!” the Professor replied in disgust. “I can’t be held responsible for the deficiencies inherent in human physiognomy!”
“It’s your own inherent deficiencies which ought to concern you, you mad bastard,” I retorted. “Do you really expect people to take you seriously when you come out with crap like this. No wonder you spend most of your time in a toilet.”
By this time the Professor was livid. In fact, he actually stamped his foot, something I’d only ever seen before in cartoons. “How dare you!” he roared. “I have perfected a device capable of seeing through time itself, and you simply mock it. That’s the trouble with the younger generation today - they lack vision.”
“Damn right we do,” I said. “By about thirty-three percent, if your ‘trinoculars’ are anything to go by, you dozy sod.”
He was about to come back with another blistering retort, but in his rage he stumbled and fell off the top of the Podulator. He landed in the dirt next to Janet, waking her up. In her bleary-eyed stupor she simply prodded him curiously before glancing around her and finally realising where she was. “‘Ere, what you up to?” she demanded of him, then slapped him across the face before he had the opportunity to reply. Stunned, dishevelled and covered in shit, Professor Mendes climbed shakily to his feet, made a perfunctory attempt to brush himself down then started to scramble back onto the top of the Podulator.
Looking down at him, I could hear somebody laughing, and moments later I realised that it was me. I hadn’t enjoyed myself this much since Tuesday. My all too evident mirth only served to make the Professor more annoyed. “I fail to see what’s so funny,” he huffed and puffed as he struggled to pull himself onto the roof. “I suppose it’s too much trouble for you to help me up, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“I suppose you’re happy to just stand there,” he continued, “and watch a frail old man flail about helplessly, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I affirmed.
“Arsehole!” he muttered, and slipped backwards again.
I turned away from him, raising the trinoculars to scan the horizon. The grey object at the edge of the forest resolved into a series of squat, concrete structures. “Hey, there does seem to be something over there,” I said out loud. Everything suddenly went dark.
“Exactly,” said the Professor. I lowered the trinoculars to find him standing directly in front of me. His coat was torn, he was scratched and he was covered in dirt. The sight of him like this lifted my spirits no end. “I think it’s some kind of futuristic city,” he said. “We should investigate.”
“I think its probably some out-of-town retail park,” I opined. “But either way, we should be able to find help there.”
“Agreed,” he replied. “So we’ll set out immediately after breakfast.” He turned around, a look of supreme satisfaction on his face, took a deep breath and fell off the Podulator again.
“Breakfast!” exclaimed Cathy as she jumped up and down, clapping her hands excitedly. I was acutely aware that my own stomach was growling hungrily, and so I shared some of her enthusiasm. Unlike her, however, I managed to maintain some degree of dignity, and somehow found the strength to prevent myself from leaping up and down like a retard.
We waited - Cathy, Janet and I - outside the Podulator, whilst Professor Mendes rummaged around inside in search of our repast. I must admit to being impressed the old boy’s foresight in bringing provisions. Well, perhaps ‘impressed’ is the wrong word. Let’s just say that the promise of food had made me slightly less inclined to beat his skull to a pulp against the nearest boulder.
Peering inside, I was a touch disheartened to see him pull a damp cardboard box from behind the U-bend - but hey, food was food and at that point I’d have been happy to eat anything.
“Well here we are,” the Professor proclaimed to his expectant audience as he emerged blinking into the light. “Allow me to introduce the modern miracle that is my patent Food Mangle.” He held up the box with evident pride.
Now, I’m not very technically minded, and I’d be the first to admit it, but even I could see that the Professor’s patent Food Mangle was nothing more than an old shoe box with a slot cut in the front, a cardboard handle on the side and decorated with silver paper. Still, if it kept him happy, where was the harm?
“Go on then,” I said. “Open it up. Dish out the goodies.”
The Professor clutched the box to his chest. “And just what makes you think there’ll be any breakfast for you?” he snapped. “You insult my work, you force your way into my toilet and you use up all the paper. Why should I extend any hospitality to you?”
I baulked slightly. “But Professor, be reasonable,” I said, knowing full well that I was asking way too much of the uppity old tosser. “We have nothing to eat.”
“Well, I can’t help that,” the Professor snorted. “You people can’t come crashing in here and expect me to feed you. You should have brought sandwiches.”
“You selfless unfeeling old goat!” I exclaimed, my stomach gurgling and my anger rising. “Look at Janet - can’t you see that the poor woman is starving?”
“Actually, I’m all right, thanks,” Janet replied.
“She hasn’t eaten for hours,” I continued.
“I had a Twix before I came out,” she said.
“Look how pale she’s gone,” I proceeded regardless. “Clearly she’s on the point of collapse.”
“Honestly, I feel fine,” said Janet. I hit her hard in the stomach, and she doubled up in pain and dropped to the floor.
“Look Professor,” I said, gesturing to her prostrate form. “She’s delirious with hunger.”
The Professor sighed. “Very well,” he conceded. “But I’m not doing this out of any sense of charity, or because it’s ‘the decent thing’. I’m just doing it because it’s the only way I can stop your blasted whining.”
“That’s fair enough Prof,” I said.
“And if you call me ‘Prof’ again, I’ll poke your bastard eyes out,” he warned.
I watched as the old swine attended to his ‘Food Mangle’. There were two dials on the top, made out of the caps from tubes of toothpaste. With tongue clamped between his teeth in concentration, he started to tweak them this way and that, like a safecracker trying to discover a combination. Then, having evidently made something of a breakthrough, he suddenly cranked the handle and a small, blue sausage slid from the slot at the front of the machine.
“Ta-da!” he announced musically. “Breakfast!”
I reached out and took the sausage, which was cold and clammy to the touch. I looked at the Professor. Then I looked at the sausage. Finally I looked back at the Professor. “What the hell is this?” I said at last.
“That, young Dickbury, is steak tartare,” the Professor huffed with pride.
“That,” I responded, holding up the sausage between forefinger and thumb, “is a piece of blue crap.”
“Go on,” the Professor urged me. “Eat it.” He cranked the handle of his machine again and produced similar sausages for the others.
“You want me to eat crap?” I queried, as if I really needed to ask.
“Well I will,” Janet said, and she hungrily tucked into hers. Seeing that she hadn’t come to any immediate harm, I cautiously did the same.
“You see,” the Professor explained, “taste is very much like paint. As you can mix two colours together to make a third, so you can do a similar thing with taste.”
I took another bite and grimaced as I swallowed. I thought the old boy was talking rubbish. Still, it would explain why it tasted like matt emulsion.
“Mine tastes like WD40,” said Janet.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the Professor. “Let me change it for you.”
“No, no,” said Janet. “I like WD40.”
I imagined she was just being polite. The thing was disgusting, but I suppose it was better than nothing. “So this sausage contains all the nutrients and goodness of regular food, yes?” I asked.
“No,” said the Professor. “That’s the bit I’m working on.”
I stopped myself taking another bite. “Then why the hell am I eating this crap?” I suddenly shouted angrily, and I slammed the sausage down on the floor. I guess I did it with rather too much force, as it bounced up again and struck the Professor on the nose. He ran off screaming into the depths of the jungle, clutching his face. Rather embarrassed, I turned to my two remaining companions.
“Whoops,” I said, feeling rather awkward. “I never guessed it was going to bounce that high.”
Cathy nodded sagaciously, as if she was suddenly possessed of some inner wisdom. “Ah,” she crooned. “Food can be very dangerous in the wrong hands. If you can’t treat it with a certain degree of respect, then you should leave it well alone.”
I suppose she had a point, I conceded, and as she and Janet went off to bring back the Professor, I set about retrieving my sausage.