The Grand Tour Excerpt

The moving shadows of light on the wall of the train darkened and decreased as the sun went down. Through the window opposite, Chuck watched the blue sky catch fire at one edge with the glory of sunset. The brilliant light smouldered into rich colors and slowly went out, like a fire reducing itself to ashes. For a flat world, the Dreamland certainly had all the trappings of a round one. Keir would probably tell him the sunset was all in his head, and everyone else’s, too: a product of memory and imagination. He chatted idly with his seatmates for a while, wondering when Keir was going to come back and teach him to expand his mind, or something. Keir was paying him no attention. He was sitting in the next row with that Pipistrella twit. She was off on one of her interminable stream-of-consciousness blathers about higher minds and happiness. Chuck felt a shamefaced fascination, like listening to someone else describe a love affair. He was enthralled by the description, and absolutely unwilling to get involved in such a thing himself. A yawn pushed its way up from his ribcage and pried his mouth open. He covered it quickly. 
        “I apologize,” he said to his fellow passengers. “I guess I’m more tired than I thought.”
        “You’ve come a long way today,” Mrs. Flannel said, kindly. She held up her pet, now a huge, green bullfrog, which regarded her with pop-eyed adoration. “I’ve got to tuck Spot in. Why don’t you take a nice rest, too?”
        “That sounds like a good idea,” Chuck said, gratefully. “Excuse me.” Carefully, he stepped around Hiramus and took the window seat. He hadn’t noticed any blankets, nor had Keir mentioned sleeper cars. They must be expected to sleep sitting up, or meditate in place, like Buddhist monks. Maybe this was part of the ordeal of his vision quest. Brightening at the thought, he hunkered against the wall, trying to get comfortable enough to drift off. 
        Suddenly, his seat started shifting and softening. Chuck sat bolt upright. Was the stupid thing turning into caramel? Or swallowing him? Would he disappear into the cushions without a trace? His alarm must have shown on his face. Hiramus chuckled.
        “It’s just reading your mind, sir,” he said. “What our esteemed guide keeps hammering into us: form follows function. You want to go to sleep. Your chair is obliging you by becoming a bed.”
        Hiramus leaned back. His seat rose upward as it flattened out. The luggage rack withdrew toward the ceiling and disappeared behind a short curtain. Chuck copied him and pushed back on the cushions with the back of his head. The older man was right. The coarse weave of the seatcover smoothed out and became cool to the touch as the frame continued to stretch out. Okay, influence, Chuck thought, do your thing. Shortly, the curtains at the window billowed out around him. When they settled, he lay on a narrow bed furnished with white pillows and sheets and rusty-golden blankets enclosed in a square alcove staring up at a rack of springs. The lower berth, he thought. The window beside him had divided into two parts, one above the other, so each bunk had its own, framed by loosely-woven curtains of a homey red-brown. Even his clothes had changed into a handsome pair of tan pajamas piped with white. He sat up to examine his surroundings, and was well pleased by the results. Thousands of times in his dreams things had changed around him, but hardly ever the way he wanted them to. Thanks to Keir’s lessons, he now knew why they did what they did. He had control. He liked that.
        Outside the window the dark land raced by. Chuck caught the occasional yellow gleam of a lamp in a window, usually so far off he couldn’t see if there were any people in the house. Beyond the landscape was the unbroken escarpment of the mountains, which were visible against the night sky only as a darker darkness. The train must be running parallel to that range for a good long way. From what Chuck remembered of the map he couldn’t keep, the Dreamland was roughly circular, and completely surrounded by mountains. He wondered if they were going to cross them at any time. What lay beyond them? Had he crossed them himself coming to the Dreamland on his flight? No, there hadn’t really been any flight, he reminded himself. It was all symbolism to help him understand what he’d accomplished. He had meditated his way here.
        Chuck put his hands behind his head and fell back on the pillows to watch the moonlit landscape roll by. Tree, house, barn, tree, tree, tree, fence post, steeple, tree, house, barn, counterpointed with the regular stroke of telegraph poles with their bowing wires stretched between them touched by the blue-white light of the rising moon. The pattern of passing objects made a calming rhythm coupled with the clickety-tat of the train. Chuck welcomed the sensation of calm, and waited for that blissful moment of drifting away into sleep.
        He couldn’t sleep. He was too excited. Any time he started to relax, he kept expecting something to happen at any moment. No matter how he tried to empty his mind of thought, curiosity and excitement came creeping in. Maybe he could read himself to sleep. He reached up to feel for a light switch, and was rewarded when his fingers came into contact with a sconce light, a miniature of the ones that studded the carriage walls during the daytime. A flame sprang up inside the painted glass shade. Chuck frowned at the flame, worrying about fire hazard. Hadn’t they invented light bulbs yet? Sure, they must have; there were jet planes and other modern things. Chuck felt around under his bunk for his bag, any one of his bags. He expected it to be there, and so it was. Maybe he was getting the hang of this peculiar reality. In triumph, he hauled up a blue, tapestry carpet bag and plumped it on his bunk.
        But the bag disappointed him. Chuck pulled out clothes, shaving kit, shoes and endless packages of snacks, but there wasn’t a single book to be found. Now, that was atypical; he always packed a book for every night he was going to be away. But he remembered he didn’t really pack for this journey. He hadn’t even been wearing clothes when he lay down to meditate.
        He had to have something to read. Chuck tossed the useless suitcase under the bed, and put his forefingers to his temples, concentrating on getting a stack of bed books to choose from. Maybe a good nonfiction book about the Dreamland, so he’d know what to expect; a handful of good novels including some sensational thrillers would be nice; a couple of cosy mysteries would fill out the bill perfectly. He nixed the idea of a news magazine; he didn’t want any reminders of the Waking World to interrupt his quest. But he didn’t know how many books to ask for because he had no idea how many of these ‘nights’ he’d be traveling. And he remembered the gibberish he had seen on the signs and the newspapers – would he be able to read the volumes he got? Chuck kicked his way under the coverlet, closed his eyes, composed his limbs and tried to meditate again, hoping for sleep. It was no use. He couldn’t break the habit of a lifetime. He couldn’t nod off without words under his eyelids.
        Maybe someone on this train had a book he could borrow. He struggled out of the soft bedclothes, which seemed reluctant to let him go, felt under the bunk for slippers and shuffled off into the corridor.
        Everyone seemed to have retired by now. The aisle was lined from ceiling to floor with curtains. A small yellow light at each end of the car was the sole source of illumination. Maybe he could find that nice Bergold guy. He struck Chuck as another man who read himself to sleep.
        Chuck walked up and down the corridor, staring at acres of rust-colored curtains, trying to guess which one was Bergold’s bunk. He hesitated to tap or call out. He heard a murmur from one of the berths at the engine end of the car, and dashed toward it, hoping the person inside would speak again so he could identify him or her. But the voice had fallen silent by the time he got there. Another voice arose, this time in the middle of the car, but a sudden noise from outside the train drowned it out. Chuck walked to the middle to listen. Not a sound. Two voices spoke out at once, from opposite sides of the car. Chuck dithered as to which one he would go toward, when they both stopped. A Frustration Dream, Bergold had called it.
        “Darn this, I just want to find a book!” Trying to maintain some dignity in bedroom slippers, Chuck strode toward the front of the car and on out the door. A breeze touched his cheek, soft and warm as a summer night. The moon, clearly visible at the horizon off the right side of the train as he faced the engine, was mottled with shades of gray. Just for a moment, as he pushed through the door to the next car, he thought he saw a face in the big silver disk.
        People were still awake in the next car. From the worn, rustic paneling and more utilitarian character of the seats, he guessed that it was the next lower class of travel. A family of pale-faced, dark-haired children in flat caps and shabby clothes clinging together on one bench seat looked up at him as he passed. A thin, swarthy man with a moustache and a stout woman in a babushka sitting opposite kept staring out of the window. Yet, the cluster of men who sat together over a card table, waving cigars and laughing looked stout and prosperous.
        The seats seemed to be scattered any which way. Chuck saw seats in alcoves, seats in rows, seats arranged in circles where people spoke earnestly in low voices, glancing at him suspiciously when he walked by. Chuck glanced into a niche. A flat-faced, ochre-complected man in a thick fur coat was reading a book made of floppy skins sewn together, by the light of a wick stuck into a fish propped upright in an iron stand. Chuck was puzzled. To him, fish was food. Then, he remembered the three F’s. Right. He had once seen a television program about how people in the Middle Ages used fish and small animals as crude lamps. It looked a little sickening, but it seemed to work.
        “Excuse me,” he asked. “Where did you get the book?” Wordlessly, the man raised a thick-fingered hand and pointed toward the front of the train. “Thanks.” Chuck trudged on.
        The conductor appeared at his side, hastily buttoning his collar. “May I help you, sir?”
        “Yes, well,” Chuck said, watching a cluster of dark-skinned children fighting over a loaf of bread. He felt ashamed for wanting a little luxury when people here were in obvious need of necessities. But he heard Keir’s voice reminding him that these were manifestations of real people working out issues in their everyday lives. For all he knew this was a dream about sibling rivalry, not starvation. The knowledge didn’t stop him from feeling guilty. “I… all I want is something to read in bed. Are there any books on the train?”
        “Oh, yes, sir,” the conductor said. “We have a very fine library.”
        Library! Chuck liked the sound of that. He followed the conductor through miles of corridor to a glassed-in compartment. The uniformed man stepped aside and gestured him inside.
        “There we are, sir.”
        The man seemed ready to burst with pride, but Chuck was nonplussed. This was a library? There were about ten dog-eared books on a small shelf. He picked up one after another, feeling his heart sink with disappointment as he read the titles. Favorite Dishes of the Coloratura SopranosWhy People Shouldn’t Marry One AnotherGardening Hints for HouseboatsLawyers In Danger101 Seaweed SaladsExtended Discourses Upon Reducing TruancyThe Joy of Knitting. All of them sounded awful.
        “People actually read these?” Chuck asked in disbelief.
        “Oh, yes, sir,” the conductor said, with a dignified smile. “The Joy of Knitting is our most popular volume. Some people have borrowed it again and again.”
        “Really?” Chuck asked in disbelief.
        “Form follows function, sir.”
        Chuck made a face. He didn’t really see how the rule of influence applied to a book he wouldn’t use to hold up the leg of a wobbly table. “Well, I’m afraid there’s nothing here I’d want to read.”
        “I’m sorry to hear that, sir,” the conductor said. He looked over Chuck’s shoulder at the bookshelf and pulled him far enough away as if ashamed to speak up in front of the books. “If I want something special, I usually wait for the next round of changes from the Sleepers, sir. When one of ‘em’s got his mind on reading, things change.” The conductor nodded knowingly, finger laid against the side of his nose just like in Victorian illustrations.
        “Well, I am not about to wait around for the next wave of influence,” Chuck said. “I might turn into something that can’t read, like a mailbox or a bicycle.”
        “That could happen, sir,” the conductor admitted, with a deferential bow. “If there’s nothing else you need?”
        “No. Thanks, conductor. Good night.”
        “Good night, sir.”
        Chuck turned to slog sadly back to his bed, feeling his sense of resentment rising again. This wasn’t right. He shouldn’t be trying to fill a slack period like this when he could get bored. Things ought to be happening. It should be day all the time, full of important, revelatory events that would help him put his soul in order. Having to put up with what the Sleepers imposed on him was downright tedious. But wait, he thought, I’m one of these sleepers. I can use influence!
        He hurried back to the front of the car. The conductor, now in shirtsleeves with his collar unbuttoned again, stood up from the small table against the inner wall of the train and put down his teacup.
        “Don’t disturb yourself,” Chuck said. “I can take care of this. We don’t have to wait for the Sleepers. I can make this book collection bigger.”
        He stood in front of the shelf, summoned up all the thought-power he could muster, and waved his arms like a magician. Suddenly he was staring up at books the size of a table. The sensation of amazement lasted a half of a second before the shelf collapsed under the weight, cascading enormous volumes down on him. Struck by THE JOY OF KNITTING!!! Chuck staggered backwards and fell to the ground. The other books thudded onto his chest. When the avalanche stopped, he was flat on his back with the train’s collection of really large-print books scattered around him.
        The conductor, who had been regarding him from the door with bemusement, came to crouch with concern beside Chuck’s head.
        “Are you all right, sir?” he asked. “Shall I go get your guide?”
        “No!” Chuck exclaimed, more weakly than he intended. The breath had been knocked right out of him. He dragged in a gasp of air. “Thank you. No.” He knew what Keir would do if he saw this mess. He’d cock his head and fix those bright eyes, and remind Chuck he had to have a clear picture in his head of what he wanted to happen before he tried to make it so. Chuck didn’t want Keir to see how badly he had goofed up. He extended an arm to the conductor. “Do you suppose you could help me up?”
        Contemplating the pile of giant books, Chuck cracked his knuckles nervously. In five tries, he had managed to shrink the print and make the volumes thinner, but not to reduce the books themselves in size. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t manifest any extra books, enormous or otherwise. He had tried incantations, mantras, even exhorting the books to go back to normal, but he had the picture of the pathetic little library shelf fixed in his mind, now, and he couldn’t make it change.
        “One more time,” he said. He fixed on the image in his head of the way he’d seen the books the first time, and closed his eyes. Something was happening, anyhow. He swore he could feel a sensation of compression. Chuck was almost afraid to look. Peeling open one eyelid, Chuck was relieved to see the tattered little collection on the floor, back to its normal size, books leaning wildly against one another as though exhausted from their ordeal.
        “At last,” Chuck croaked, hoarsely. He gathered up the books and put them on the shelf. It collapsed. He caught the books before they hit the floor while the conductor picked up the fallen pieces of shelf. “I’m very sorry.”
        “Don’t worry, sir. I will take care of it.” The conductor gave him that Victorian nose-propping gesture again. “It’ll be our little secret, sir.”
        “Thanks,” Chuck said with honest relief. He reached for his pocket to give the man a tip, and his hand flapped against thin cotton. He looked up in embarrassment. There were no pockets in his pajamas, and he didn’t have a wallet in this place anyhow. The conductor understood what he was doing, and held up a hand.
        “Oh, no, no need for anything like that, sir. You meant well, and that’s kindly of you.”
        Chuck vacillated for a moment, reluctant to go back empty-handed. He still craved something to read. Maybe the fish guy would lend him the pelt book. He turned to go, and found he was still holding The Joy of Knitting. The conductor nodded at it.
        “Why not try it anyhow, sir? You can always bring it back if it doesn’t suit.” Chuck peered at him uncertainly.
        “This is the best one? Really?”
        “Oh, yes, sir.”
        With a sigh, Chuck put the book under his arm and headed back to his berth.
        To his surprise, The Joy of Knitting turned out to be the perfect bed book. It was absolutely not gripping, not calculated to keep him awake under the covers with a flashlight all night, not action provoking or exciting. It was meant to put him to sleep as soon as possible, and that’s just what it did. Within five pages of reading about yarns and the choice of the best needles, his eyelids started to droop and his the grip of his fingers began to slacken. Form really did follow function.
        Just before he fell asleep, he thought he felt someone watching him, but decided it was the reflection from passing lights.