‘When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied this kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!
There ought to be a book written about me.
And when I grow up, I’ ll write one.’
The dream didn’t surprise her. One minute Ali was lying on the old bed watching the splinters of moonlight, the next she was lying in long grass beneath a bright summer sun. She looked down and saw the novel still open on her lap, the margins covered in the same handwritten notes.
‘Cool dream.’ Ali closed her eyes and felt the sun on her face. She could even smell the grass and wildflowers. She sat up slowly, careful not to jog herself awake. It had a name, this kind of super-real dreaming . . . what was it? Lucid dreaming. That was it.
Her dad had told her about it one night when she’d woken screaming from a terrifying dream. He’d talked the night- mare away by switching on her rational mind; the light of scientific reason conquering the shadows.
Ali looked around now, drinking in the details. The colours were intense, even theatrical, like a bright painting. And the setting was familiar, borrowed from the woodland painting in her bedroom, complete with silver birch trees and a carpet of bluebells.
Okay, that’s interesting, she thought. I’ve created a mash-up dream from the painting and the Wonderland book. There was something else her dad had said about this kind of lucid dreaming, something important . . .
‘Newt, you must learn to find your hands, you must hold them up to your face and look at them.’
Ali lifted them now and examined them.
‘If this ever happens again, if you wake up inside a bad dream and I’m not here to wake you up, you must find your hands, Newt. Remember that, okay? Lift your hands up and stare at them. It puts you in control of your dream. If you can instruct yourself to look at your hands, you can tell yourself to do anything in the dream. Got it? It means you decide what happens, good things instead of bad things. No more nightmares.’
Ali stared at her hands and laughed. Her dad was going to be pissed off when she told him about this. He’d studied altered states when he was a student, everything from meditation to astral projection; all hippy-dippy shit like tree-hugging and talking to hedgehogs.
He’d even spent nights in sleep tanks, floating in warm saltwater, trying to have a dream like this one, an intense, lucid dream. He’d never succeeded.
‘Okay, Dad. This is for you.’
Ali opened the book on her lap and told herself that the stub of pencil would be there. It was, wedged in its tube of ribbon in the back cover, and she began scribbling her own notes in the few margins where there was still space to write. ‘So, Dad. I’m lucid dreaming, and for some dumb reason I’m writing this all down in an imaginary dream book.’
She noted everything she could see, then remembered something else her dad had told her, about how to conjure things up, how to manifest them by imagining them in as much detail as possible.
Her mother? Hell, no. Ali squashed the idea. In the first year after her mother’s death, all she ever saw when she closed her eyes was her mother’s last moments, her beautiful body torn apart by the bomb.
She opened the book again and flicked through the pages till she found a picture of a white rabbit in a waistcoat. She closed her eyes and tried to picture the rabbit in full colour, a real creature with soft white fur and pink ears.
When she opened them again, there was no rabbit; instead, two young boys appeared from between the trees on the far side of the clearing. She waved to them, and after a moment of earnest discussion, the boys waved back.
‘I won’t bite!’ Ali yelled out to them. The two boys became agitated, looked around, gestured for her to be quiet, then hurried over.
‘Be so good as to not shout,’ said one. He was taller than the second. They looked of similar age, not quite teenagers, twelve at most, and decked out in odd, theatrical clothing with leather tunics and bright leggings.
‘Are you the best I can come up with?’ said Ali. ‘Pardon?’ said the first boy.
‘She’s new here,’ said the second. ‘Just arrived by the look of her.’
‘Yes,’ said Ali, ‘a few moments ago, express delivery.’
‘It was an observation,’ sniffed the boy, ‘not a question. It is perfectly plain you are newly arrived here.’
‘That so? How’d you guess?’ ‘Your clothes,’ said the first boy.
‘And your airs,’ said the second. ‘Your manner, generally.’ ‘Good to know. Speaking of manners . . .’ Ali got to her feet and extended a hand, ‘we’ve not been introduced. I’m Alice White.’ The boys looked at her hand but didn’t take it. Instead they turned to each other and started arguing.
‘She remembers her name,’ said the shorter boy.
‘Perhaps,’ his companion replied, ‘or she just made it up on the spot.’
‘This is embarrassing,’ Ali laughed. ‘Look at you! What part of my sad imagination have you two been crawling about in?’
‘I think that was rude,’ said the taller boy. ‘Were you being rude?’
‘No, you’re in my dream, so you’re part of me. I can’t be rude to myself, can I?’ Ali began to circle them. ‘But are you really the best I can dream up? Two beanpoles in stupid clothes? Why not Einstein? Or a cute pirate in boots and dreads?’
‘We’re not pirates.’
‘Obviously. But you must be important – I must have dragged you up for a reason, you must have come from some old memory.’
‘We came from the Royal Gardens,’ said the tall boy. ‘We know all sorts of things. We know The Walrus and The Carpenter. Alice taught it to us.’
‘Oh bloody hell. That’s it, you’re from that second book. The sequel. And you were in the film, right? The two fat boys.’
‘Yes, with those stupid names, Tweedledum and Tweedle- dee.’
‘Those are not our names!’ The boys puffed out their chests, clenched their hands into fists and planted them on their hips. ‘Alice gave us those names. But we know our real ones.’
‘Yes, we remember our real names. We say them to each other every day, over and over, so we don’t lose them. Ricky and Teddy, I’m Teddy.’
‘And I’m Ricky.’
‘Good for you. So, Alice gave you those silly names. Why?’ ‘To protect us,’ said Ricky. ‘That’s what she said.’
‘To protect you from what?’
‘People who want us dead,’ said Teddy, and his chin wobbled. Ali studied their faces. They were different, but clearly brothers. How did she dream up this much detail, and why was she making it a murder mystery?
‘People want to kill you? Why?’
‘We don’t know, she didn’t say,’ sniffed Teddy. ‘I don’t want to talk about her anymore, she broke a promise.’
‘Yes,’ Ricky folded his arms, ‘she promised to go back and find our real story. She never did. She forgot, like everyone else here.’
‘Except us; we remember our real names. Ricky and Teddy.’ The two boys turned and embraced each other. Ali laughed. They were really rather sweet. The taller boy tapped his brother on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. They nodded gravely to each other, as if sharing an insight, then raced off without another word.
‘Hey, I didn’t decide you could do that. Come back.’ The boys ignored her, disappearing into the woods. Alice looked around for what might have driven them away. A young man in a battered hat was standing behind her, his features lost in shadow. He was wearing a long jacket of red and gold, and his head was tilted to one side as if he was lost in thought.
‘Spotted,’ said Ali. The young man stepped forward onto the carpet of bluebells, removed his hat and bowed.
‘Holy shit!’ He was drop-dead handsome. Clearly her sub-conscious had been hard at work all this time. That’s more like it, she thought, brushing her hands, ready to greet him; then laughed. I made him, I don’t have to impress him. He walked over and stopped in front of her, his blue eyes blazing with electric intensity. Ali realised she was lost for words and couldn’t believe it. She’d never in her life been lost for words!
‘Do you remember your name?’ said the young man. ‘Alice White.’
‘I knew an Alice once.’ He looked into her eyes, tilting his head further to the side as if puzzled by what he saw there. A large wasp buzzed past her face and she brushed it away.
‘And you? You have a name, right?’ ‘Undoubtedly.’
‘So what is it?’
‘I can’t remember. That’s why you’re here, is it not? To help us recover them? Until then I have a label of sorts; the gentle folk over here call me the Hatter.’
A large wasp flew at Ali’s face, she slapped it away but it whipped around and stung her on the neck.
‘SHIT!’ The stab of pain was intense, A pinprick of fire that punched the air from her lungs and sent her sprawling forward on her hands and knees.