An uneasy feeling gradually comes over Ren as manic dreams flit through his head. He feels like he is unable to lie down. Try as he might, he cannot make his body stretch out. He realises that he is running, or jogging, in a stooped-over fashion, and has been for hours. He can’t stop. He can’t stop because he can’t unbend his body at the thorax and make himself stop. He is permanently stooped from being bent over while running. He’d give anything to be able to straighten out properly. Or even bend all the way so he falls over, but he can’t bend any further either. He tries to will himself to fall to the ground, but it just makes the stoop more rigid. He’s going to be stooped for years, as a result. Perhaps even forever. He starts to cry at the thought of this. It’s so awful. His body has been disfigured, just when he’s in his prime.
Hours later, he wakes. There’s something not right with the way he’s lying down. Maybe he really can’t bend any more. Maybe he has got a permanent stoop. His legs feel wrong, like they’ve changed weight. They hurt too. Everything hurts, especially his head. Something very heavy must have fallen onto his head, and crushed the back of it.
He opens his eyes. A blazing light torments them, but he can just make out a word: ‘Options’. Indeed. What are his options? He can stay still and remain in pain. He can try to move, and risk disaster. He can try to die now, to escape this personal torture camp, but in the absence of anything like a cyanide tooth that’s a tall order. ‘Options’: it’s not much of a message.
Then he makes out some more words: ‘Robert Sheckley’. Oh. It’s a book spine. He opens his eyes more fully. He’s looking at the bottom shelf of the bookcase on the landing halfway up his stairs, before the stairs turn right. He’s lying on the stairs, his upper body on the mid-stairs landing, his lower body on the steps below. It’s morning. He’s been asleep halfway up the stairs all night. How did he even get home? Gradually he drags himself up the rest of the stairs, trying to ignore the throbbing in his head, and the cold stiffness in his body – he suspects he hasn’t moved a muscle all night – and into bed.
Then he wakes again, to find the future is upon him. Three hours later in the future, to be precise (or as precise as we need to be.) He feels terrible, but at least he’s no longer in mind-rending agony. Eventually he drags himself downstairs and takes some codeine and paracetamol tablets. It’s such a shit, he thinks, how great days, days that are so great that you celebrate them, end up being followed by the worst days of your life. Like the day he finished his final undergraduate exams. The day after that was so bad that he would have gladly thrown himself into a pit of spikes just to end his suffering. He would have gladly bashed his own brains in with a hammer had there been one lying nearby. Except that he wasn’t capable of moving at all that day until 6pm, even to get up find some painkillers. In what way does the Universe deem that a suitable reward for someone who worked so hard to do his exams? Not that he actually did much work himself. But even if he had, the result would have been the same: a blinding, killer headache. A scant reward for effort.
He thinks of those poor bastards who get vomiting hangovers, something he never does. Why should a student who’s been studying hard all year and going easy on the booze until after exams be rewarded by the Gods with a morning bed covered in foul-smelling brash? And then have to run to the toilet all day for technicolour yawns, which makes their headaches even worse? If the Gods do exist, they must be those Greek buggers.
If he could only catch that bastard who’s always fucking him over. Ren the Celebrator, he’s the bastard. Boozy Ren the Celebrator, always celebrating something or other with alcohol. Oh, I got another paper accepted, let’s go to the bar and get hammered. Oh, I just bumped into an old friend, we must celebrate with firewater. Oh, it’s Friday, such an unusual occurrence cannot be allowed to pass without an alcohol-based celebration. Give the guy an inch and next thing you know he’s destroying my head and liver. If I could only catch him… but I can’t. He’s never there to be caught. I’m never around when he acts up. I leave messages telling him not to, but he ignores them. It’s like trying to see the back of your head in the mirror, as Tanja would say. It can be done, but only with an elaborate system. And Ren the Celebrator is good at evading systems. Especially when he’s with that other bastard, Miles the Other Fucking Celebrator. My friend Miles the Done-In also hates Ren the Celebrator and Miles the Other Fucking Celebrator, but he’s also powerless against them. Ebriection is the last thing on their minds when they start knocking them back. (Well, in a way it is on their minds when they shout, ‘Let’s get fucked up.’ But it’s Miles the Done-In and I who get fucked up, not them.)
Then he thinks about what happened last night, and the PPP descends upon him. The dreaded PPP, scourge of the over-imbiber. The PPP is the ‘post-piss paranoia’, a term from his undergraduate days. He buries his face in his hands. God, the embarrassment. Is he going to be sacked? Raked over the coals?
It’s that asshole Ren the Celebrator again, fucking him up in public.
No. Stop it. He can’t go that way, evading responsibility for his own actions, even his own drunk actions, like a leftist who says, ‘Social forces made me do it.’ Or a drug addict who says, ‘I found myself taking drugs again. They were too strong for me to resist.’ Or one of Theodore Dalrymple’s shifty criminal patients: ‘I watched as the knife went in.’ It was him, all along, all him. He’s Ren the Celebrator. A stronger dose of paranoia sweeps like a wave over him. He can’t show his face in public ever again. He can’t even show his face in his own kitchen. He goes back to bed and hides under the sheets.
After another nap another future arrives and he feels a bit better again. The codeine has now kicked in. He feels a bit happier when he reflects on the details of what happened last night. He did little wrong. Harry jumped on him. Attacked him. That’s assault. Not that has any interest in prosecuting Harry for a bit of argy-bargy. As for himself, all he did was engage in mild self-defence, while trying to make light of it all. Yes, he did sort of provoke Harry, but a bit of light-hearted parody doesn’t excuse being jumped on and strangled. He’s in the clear, surely? Anyway, is there likely to be any complaint made? He isn’t making one. Harry won’t be making one. None of the academics there will be either. The students are unlikely to, it was good entertainment for them. Rumours will spread, sure, but even if he gets hauled in he has witnesses to say he was jumped, and he did nothing wrong. So he’s in the clear, right?
But then what happened later on in the evening? He remembers more frenzied drinking in the bar for a while, as people bought him vodka, but at that point the grainy Super 8 runs out. He’s tried to tell Ren the Celebrator before not to get plastered in the student bar, where students can see him, to move on somewhere else, but Ren the Celebrator doesn’t always listen. Or maybe they did move on somewhere else. He just can’t remember. He tries to clear his mind and relax, to let his memory improve its retrieval tasks, but there’s an irreparable fault with the access to his later memories. Or perhaps the relevant memory slots got wiped overnight. Or perhaps they were never laid down in the first place.
He calls Miles to get his view on the public perception of the wrestle with Harry, and to see if he remembers the later events. And to see if he knows how Ren got home. But there’s no answer. He thinks about calling Lily, but remembers that she’s seeing Jason today. And she disappeared anyway. Depression and paranoia sweep down on him again like an unwanted afternoon shower when you’re out walking on the dales. He’s acted like a buffoon in front of Lily. Even if she and Jason ever split up, which seems a remote prospect, he’s surely put himself out of contention with his tomfoolery. Ren the Celebrator strikes again. Bastard.