Bozo and the Storyteller
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You might not know it but you, everyone you know and the world itself are all but figments in the imagination of a Storyteller on another planet.
A Bloon by the name of Bozo volunteers to enter the Story and the Storyteller writes in a boy called Theo to accompany him. Traveling the planet in search of a Cure, they seek the counsel of the Awakened Ones and are pursued by a terrible force they only know as the Enemy.
But it seems as though the Story itself has gotten out of control. The Hoomans appear set on a course of self-destruction and the Storyteller’s health is failing as a result.
With the rising of the second crescent moon over the Kraggy Mountains, the Bloons realised that it was almost time for the Story to begin. Whether they were surfing the sand-dunes with their outrageously long feet, or simply engaged in a staring contest with a nearby star, they instantly forgot what they were doing and hurried over to the big rock where the Storyteller sat. The scarlet light of the three moons glistened on their blue skin as they skipped over the sandy ground, and their excited grins revealed beautiful, yellow teeth.
Before long they had formed a semicircle around the big rock. Latecomers jostled for a place. Those who ended up at the back lashed themselves with their long tails and swore that tomorrow they’d turn up three hours early to be sure of a good seat. Bloons could never remember anything for long, though, and they soon forgot their disappointment as they waited anxiously for the Story to begin.
The Storyteller sat above them on his stone perch, his eyes closed in deep meditation. He sat motionless, save for the twitching of his large, grey ears that seemed to be searching for a distant signal. His skin was pale and thin and wrapped around his skull like the parchment of an old manuscript; his biography written in the sag of his cheeks and the lines around his eyes. Whether it was because of his drooping moustache or the melancholy look in his timeless eyes, the Storyteller seemed this evening to be far older and weaker than ever before. He was, of course, older than all of the Bloons put together but now, as his trailing white hair and goatee beard stirred in the breeze, it occurred to them that perhaps the Storyteller would not be with them for ever. The prospect didn’t bear thinking about.
The Storyteller opened his eyes. They seemed to protrude so far from their sockets that each of his listeners felt he was looking directly at them. A hush fell as his eyes turned from red to amber and then finally to green, signaling that he was about to speak.
‘My dear Bloons,’ he began, in a voice that seemed as faint as the light from the distant galaxies. ‘I passed my younger years travelling between the stars, unearthing the secrets that they yielded and sharing my wisdom wherever I went. I was bold, learned and profoundly unhappy. It was only when the invisible currents of the universe carried me to Bloonland that I found meaning to my life.
‘In the three decades that I have passed here, I have found that simplest of treasures that every traveller longs to discover: a home. Among such foolish and touching company, I have felt welcome and loved in a way I never imagined possible. Together we have watched the Story unfold and, for a time, it was my salvation.’
He paused to breathe and it sounded as though his lungs were full of dust. Swallowing heavily, he raised his head and continued: ‘For ten thousand nights I have told you the Story, and for ten thousand nights you have gathered to listen. Once, the looks on your faces inspired me to carry on living, as each night we travelled together through the latest chapter. I suppose that, for most of you, I remain a fearsome old man, irritable and aloof. Yet, with the Story, a piece of my mind became real, and you have come to know me better than any other.
‘However, I can ignore no longer the fact to which I have closed my eyes and ears for so long: the telling of the Story has finally taken the very life out of me and soon I shall die. Ten thousand nights is far too short a time to have lived with such delightful folk, but now we approach the end. My soul shall float away on the breeze and the Story will be no more.’
A great gasp went up around the circle as they saw there was no glint of humour in the Storyteller’s eyes: they had not changed colour. Some of the Bloons stuck their fingers deep inside their ears in the hope that they might be able to keep out the Storyteller’s words. Tell us that the moons will fall out of the sky, they moaned. Tell us that the light of the stars will go out like a candle. Tell us anything but that the Story will end.
For as long as they could remember they had gathered each evening to hear about the strange green and blue planet that had only one sun and one moon. That alone would have evoked the sympathy of any Bloon, but the Storyteller said that hardly anyone bothered to look up at the skies these days. Instead, they had captured tiny creatures called Eleckytrons and forced them to make light.
The antics of the Hoomans who lived in the Story left the Bloons weeping with laughter, and they spent their days chatting about the previous night’s chapter. In reality, of course, they had little else to do – life in Bloonland was a stress-free existence of eating, drinking and clowning around. When they were hungry they simply bent down and took a bite of the cheesy planet itself. Then they washed it down with a drink from the fermented streams that flowed down from the grape bushes in the hills. They made merry in the mornings and sometimes impersonated the Hoomans from the Story, strutting around the place with a self-importance that left the other Bloons on the ground clutching their sides in hysterics. A long nap through the heat of the day, and it was soon time to go and listen to the Storyteller.
In truth, they knew very little about the old man. None of the Bloons could quite remember when he had arrived on the planet, and none wasted time on such an abstract question. They loved him for the Story that he told, but otherwise he was something of a mystery to them.
The sight of him gazing up at the constellations and working away on his charts made them feel sleepy and gave them uneasy dreams. The Storyteller belonged to another world of languages and symbols, mathematics and mystery: nothing for a Bloon to be worried about. While they loved the Story, they tended to avoid the Storyteller, and passed their days on the other side of the planet.
Only one of the Bloons, a tubby youngster by the name of Bozo, ever sought out the company of the Storyteller during the day. He would look over the old man’s shoulder as he worked on his papers. The sight of the strange script filled him with wonder and fear. Occasionally, the Storyteller would deign to explain the meaning of the strange words or encourage the Bloon to learn the foreign alphabets. But then the letters would wriggle out of focus, and more often than not Bozo dozed off on the Storyteller’s shoulder halfway through the lesson.
So now, as all of the other Bloons attempted to plug their eyes and ears, Bozo was the only one who tried to face up to what the Storyteller was saying. He began to think very hard and flipped upside-down to sit on his head so that the blood would flow to his brain. He screwed his eyes tight in concentration and attempted to create some space in his head so that an Idea would come along. Presently, he felt one come looking for a nest, and he trembled slightly as its invisible wings fluttered against his cheeks. He struggled to keep perfectly still and held his breath so as not to scare it away. Slowly and with a great deal of caution, the Idea floated around to his ears and made the unusual decision to make its home in the mind of a Bloon.
Bozo opened his eyes and looked up at the Storyteller. The old man sat on his rock cross-legged as always, but now with his head clasped deep in his hands.
‘Master!’ Bozo cried. The Storyteller wearily lifted his head to meet Bozo’s gaze.
‘Yes, Bozo?’ he responded, in his long, rolling voice.
‘Master, forgive me, but did you say that it is the Story that has made you ill?’
The Storyteller nodded grimly and replied, ‘Since it has been the focus of my every waking moment – not to mention my dreams – for more than a century now, I can only conclude that the Story itself is the cause of my demise.’
Bozo’s eyes glistened. ‘Then might it not be that a Cure also lies within the Story?’
‘It may well be,’ the Storyteller agreed. ‘But the Story is a projection of my own mind, and is too vast for me to explore. I cannot tell the Story and search within it at the same time.’
Bozo tumbled over from his upside-down position in excitement. ‘Then send me into the Story to search for the Cure,’ he said.
The Storyteller shook his head. ‘Bozo, you must understand,’ he replied. ‘It would be suicidal. When I die, the Story will simply fade away, along with everything and everyone inside it.’
‘But, Master, what will become of us without the Story? You know what it means to us. Left alone, we will drink from the wine-streams until we fall off the planet in despair. I would rather die within the Story than outside it!’
The Storyteller fell silent for a long time. His eyes screwed tight in deep thought, he poised as still as the rock he sat upon. Only the odd arch of one of his bushy grey eyebrows gave any clue that he was awake. In the meantime, many of the Bloons dropped off themselves, dozing on each other’s shoulders, their tales curled around their necks like scarves.
Then the eyes of the Storyteller flashed open and his gaze fell upon Bozo like the light of a torch. Bozo was sitting alone and out in the open. He longed for a rock that he could hide behind. He could feel the eyes of the Storyteller burning through his head but he dared not look up. It seemed to the Bloon that the old man was looking right into his mind as though it were an open book. He could feel the Storyteller probing his thoughts and feelings, perhaps testing him somehow, seeing if he really had the courage to go through with this.
Bozo cowered lower and lower where he sat, until he wished the ground would swallow him up. Just when he felt he could stand the interrogation no longer, it came to an end, and Bozo was released from the old man’s terrible stare.
‘I will accept your courageous offer, Bozo,’ the Storyteller finally declared, ‘though you are younger than a strand of my hair. But I must make myself clear: I still possess enough strength to write you into the Story, but I doubt I will be strong enough to bring you back again – unless, of course, your mission is successful and I am restored to health.
‘So you must ask yourself this: are you prepared to leave behind your friends and home, perhaps never to see them again? And should I die, what will become of you? Would you risk oblivion on a fool’s quest to save an old man and a worn-out old Story?’
Bozo gulped and looked around at his beloved Bloons to find them all staring at him with a mixture of curiosity, fear and respect. They were the only friends he’d ever had and it was impossible to imagine life without them. He remembered the thousands of races they’d had surfing down the dunes, the long mornings of making up songs beside the wine-streams, and the nights of playing dot-to-dot with the stars. There was not one Bloon whom Bozo did not love as much as himself. He would have given his life for any of them.
And yet Bozo always knew he was a little different. Often, when his friends had fallen happily asleep, Bozo lay gazing at the distant galaxies and wondering what secrets they held. He had never mentioned to anyone his dream to travel, and had no idea how he might ever begin. He doubted anyone would understand, anyway. All the other Bloons were perfectly happy where they were.
‘I’m ready,’ he announced. ‘When do I go?’
The Storyteller heaved a great sigh and called Bozo close to whisper some instructions in his ear. Then he withdrew a small, green pouch of golden sand. He blew a few grains into the air around his audience, and at once the Story enveloped them all. Every word conjured an image and they drank in the narrative like a collective dream.
‘The Hoomans believe the weather to be a matter of chance, a science of equations and circumstance with the odds heavily stacked against those who live far to the North. They invent all kinds of long words to describe things they don’t understand, and they hope to hide behind them. They say things like ‘cold atmospheric front’ but still don’t know whether to take an umbrella with them when they go out.
The truth is that the weather is simply how the sky gods like to express themselves. Some of the sky gods are fierce and angry, often whipping up winds and hail. Others are always in a good mood, and bring blue skies and sunshine wherever they go. Other deities find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, and when they do they bring a good deal of mist and grey cloud with them.
In general, these sky gods are attracted to Hoomans of the same temperament. So the gods of sunshine and fair weather like to hang out where the Hoomans laugh and joke a lot. Where the Hoomans like to complain and whinge about things, the rain gods of drizzle and gloomy clouds gather together for months at a time.
Once in a while, the gods quarrel and they boom out thunderous arguments above the Earth. If no one backs down, then they fight with long, jagged spears of Eleckytrons across the sky. Occasionally, they miss, and one of these bolts comes crashing down on some poor tree or cricket umpire. Lightning, the Hoomans call it.
It was on one such night when the sky gods were fighting that something very strange happened. For a brief moment a window opened in the heavens, and out tumbled a small Bloon. The entire Story trembled. Hoomans stirred uneasily in their sleep. Compooter screens across the world wobbled. Animals bleated and barked in farms and homes across the land. Then the moment passed. It was remembered only by a poor Bloon, who found himself hurtling towards the ground at lethal speed and almost barbecued on the kebab spear of a sky god.
This rather terrified creature, known back home by the name of Bozo, looked down and screamed as he saw the ground approaching far too quickly. He’d been in this strange new world for only 30 seconds and already he was in trouble. He suddenly realised that he was holding a piece of green rubber with a label on the end that said, ‘Blow here.’ He put his lips to the opening and blew with all his might. He was happy to find that with each breath it expanded into a rather large balloon. Even better: the larger the balloon got, the slower he fell, until he was floating earthwards at a pleasant rate.
He looked down and saw that the bright lights of the city below had gone out. It seemed that one of the spears of the sky gods had freed a colony of Eleckytrons, and the city was left in darkness. The buildings loomed beneath him like an ominous future and he hoped he wouldn’t land on anything sharp. He floated closer to the ground and the wind blew him in the direction of a long, oblong building in the middle of the city. It was surrounded by a large garden with high walls and chestnut trees whose branches flailed in the wind. A flash from the battle far above revealed a sign: ‘St Jude’s Children’s Hospital’.
Before he had time to think about that, however, a sudden gust of wind blew him in through an open window on the top floor and out of sight.’
The Storyteller opened his eyes to reveal a mystic purple and took a deep breath. A light sweat covered his forehead and he appeared a shade older. Not that any of the Bloons had noticed: they were too busy looking for Bozo.
But he was no longer there.
The first sunlight of the morning filtered in through the window and lit up the cheeks of a young boy lying in bed. A nurse entered the room and regarded the child with a mixture of tenderness and pity. Although there was no need to be quiet, she trod gently as she approached and laid a pile of letters on the bedside table. She lifted his head carefully and slid out the pillow so that she could give it a new case. The child’s eyelids didn’t even flutter. It was only the rosy hue of his cheeks and the frail rising and falling of his chest as he breathed that gave any indication he was alive.
The nurse was a young and pretty woman called Sandra, whose dark, curly hair made her a favourite with half of her patients. She forgot the task in hand for a moment and gazed sadly at the boy’s innocent complexion, reaching out to stroke his forehead.
‘Good morning, Theo,’ she murmured, knowing that he probably couldn’t hear her. ‘It’s a bit stormy today but you’ll be nice and dry in here. Don’t worry if the windows rattle a little – it’s just the wind.’ She wondered if he would sleep for ever, and a tear came to her eye at the thought. She quickly dried it with the corner of her sleeve and admonished herself with a pinch: as a nurse, she ought to be used to this kind of thing, but sometimes it still got to her. After all, here was a nine-year-old child who had spent the last three months in a coma, and who the doctors doubted would ever wake again. They had conducted every kind of test imaginable and found him in perfect health.
Except for the fact that he would not wake up.
They had found Theo one May morning, asleep beneath a tree in the garden of the children’s hospital. No one could imagine how he’d got there and he didn’t appear to be harmed in any way. There was no clue as to where he had come from and they knew only his name because it was sewn into the jacket he was wearing when they found him.
He had become the Mystery Child of St Jude’s Hospital. His photo had made the front page of half the major newspapers in the land, and his story had touched the nation. Television celebrities and politicians had arrived to help publicise the search for Theo’s family, and the telephone never stopped ringing with agents offering to represent the sleeping child. Donations sent in by well-wishers funded a poster campaign across the country in the hope of jogging someone’s memory. Theo’s photo could be seen at bus stops and train stations across the country, accompanied by the words ‘Do you know this boy?’
Streams of people came forward claiming to be Theo’s father, mother, uncle or best friend, but a brief interrogation quickly showed them to be imposters. They just wanted to be on television: for, oddly enough, Theo had become a minor celebrity. Letters and flowers poured in every day from people who had read about him or seen him on the latest chat show. Benefit concerts were held for him in the stadiums of the land and priests of every denomination urged the faithful to pray for Theo’s release from the evil clutches of sleep.
Theo was surely the first person in history to become famous by doing nothing other than snoring occasionally.
All of the medicines and therapies of the doctors had failed, and they succumbed to the pressure of the alternative practitioners, who were anxious to demonstrate their cures. Reflexologists, crystal healers, Tibetan chanters and voodoo shamans filled Theo’s ward with incense, quartz crystals and the tongues of roosters (reputed for their rousing properties). They squeezed Theo’s toes, hummed dead languages into his ears and blew particles of ground coffee up his nostrils.
It was only when the shaman’s incense sticks set fire to the sheets that the doctors finally had the excuse to throw out the lot of them. Bad vibes in here, they declared, as they were hustled out of the entrance by some burly security guards. No wonder the boy doesn’t want to wake up.
One of the doctors had suggested that it would not harm Theo to have his fan mail read to him each day. Maybe, she argued, he would respond to one of the letters. They didn’t know if Theo could hear but there didn’t seem to be any harm in giving it a try.
Sandra sat down next to Theo’s bed and looked through his prodigious pile of mail. She stroked Theo’s thin, sandy hair with her left hand.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘You’ve got some postcards here from Barcelona – pity I don’t speak Spanish. Anyway, it’s lovely handwriting, so I’m sure it says nice things. Hmmm. Here’s one from the old folks’ home down the road. I’ll leave it for later, if you don’t mind. I can’t face reading another essay about someone’s shaky knees right now. Hello, what’s this one? I don’t recognise the stamp.’
Sandra picked out a letter that had been posted in a circular, purple envelope. There was no return address and the stamp featured some kind of blue creatures sliding down a sandy hill. She supposed it must be from somewhere in South America. She opened the envelope and as she did so a lively aroma filled the room. It was the kind of scent that evoked a happy memory long forgotten, of something funny and touching that had happened in the past.
Sandra pressed the envelope to her face and inhaled deeply. She remembered how she had loved to play on the swings as a child, a steady hand on her back pushing her higher and higher until she thought she might be able to touch the sunshine itself. A smile spread across her face…and she failed to notice that Theo’s eyelids were twitching.
Sandra came back to the present and slid out the letter from the envelope with a growing curiosity. She unfolded the golden sheet of paper and laughed as she saw what was written.
‘Well, Theo,’ she said. ‘This one smells great but I think it was sent by another crazy. It says:
‘Dear Theo, It’s time to wake up. You have a visitor.
‘I’m awake,’ Theo whispered.
‘How crazy is that?’ Sandra laughed, not hearing him. ‘As if someone could just tell you to wake up and that would be it! I mean, as if all the doctors and the experts hadn’t managed to-‘
‘I’m awake,’ Theo repeated, a little stronger now.
‘…cure you with their technology and – what did you say?’ she gasped, losing her breath as she saw the piercing blue of Theo’s eyes.
‘I’m awake,’ Theo said patiently for the third time.
Sandra stared at him speechless, tears streaming down her face in joy. Her first impulse was to smother him with kisses but then she remembered her responsibility as a nurse and ran to get a doctor.
The next three hours were the exact opposite of what someone who had been asleep for three months would want to face. A never-ending series of doctors and men in white coats marched in and out, armed with clipboards and briefcases full of stainless steel instruments. They took his pulse. They checked his blood pressure. They tested his reflexes and shone lights into his eyes and ears. Theo tried talking to the doctors but they were so busy running tests that they didn’t seem to hear him. The best response he could elicit was an occasional ‘Shhhhhhh’ and a pat on the head. Theo decided that if they were going to treat him like a dumb animal, he might as well play along. Sooner or later they would have to run out of things to test.
When the doctors were satisfied that he really was awake and apparently in good health, they seemed a little disappointed and sent for the psychologist. Presently, a middle-aged man with thinning hair walked in, a leather-bound notepad under his arm. He took up a seat a little too close to Theo’s bed. His breath reeked of tobacco. He regarded Theo gravely and gave a smile that didn’t seem in the least friendly.
‘Good morning, Theo,’ he said. ‘My name is Dr Bunsen. Can you hear me?’
‘Perfectly well, thank you,’ the boy replied.
Dr Bunsen frowned and picked up his pen.
‘Well, then, perhaps you could tell me a little about yourself. Would you like to tell me where you live and where can we find your family?’
Theo thought for a moment and realised that he had absolutely no idea. His mind seemed empty of any memories except of waking up and seeing Sandra crying by his bed. Only that and strange fragments of dreams that swirled around his head.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know. I don’t remember,’ he said.
Dr Bunsen’s eyes rolled. ‘Now, Theo, this is not the time to play games. I have never seen a case of amnesia in anyone younger than 21, and I highly doubt that-‘
‘No, really. I don’t remember,’ Theo insisted cheerfully.
‘Very well,’ growled the doctor. He wrote in his notepad:
The subject claims to have lost his memory. Most likely he is lying to avoid confronting his past.
Dr Bunsen had never liked children: screaming, dribbling, restless creatures of tantrums, snot and loudvoices, always on the verge of breaking something or else erupting in tears. He hadn’t even liked himself much as a child. As he grew older, he tried to be as big as possible by bullying anyone younger or weaker. His only friends were the nervous hangers-on who grinned anxiously every time they thought they were in danger of getting hit.
He had chosen psychology in the hope that he might learn how to trick people into liking him. However, his mother had pushed him to specialise in child psychology to overcome his hatred of children. Yet the more he came to learned about kids, the more clear and justified his reasons for hating them seemed to be. Children were steered by secret agendas buried deep within their unconscious minds. How could you reason with someone who was still traumatised by hidden memories of their potty training?
And to think he could have become a hotshot brain surgeon and made millions. Instead, here he was with some smart-alec kid who was already more famous than Dr Bunsen would ever be. And now this brat wanted to pretend he’d lost his memory?
‘Listen, Theo,’ he said in a sugared voice that Theo found to be vaguely threatening. ‘We’re here to help you. Running away from your problems won’t make them disappear. Life is all about facing up to things. You’re only hurting yourself if you’re holding something back.’
‘Well, there is one thing,’ Theo admitted, hardly daring to look up.
‘Yes?’ Bunsen responded eagerly, grabbing his pen.
‘While I was asleep I kept having this strange dream. I remember only bits and pieces. There was this yellow planet with two suns and three moons. There were hills and valleys made up of powdered cheese, and these blue creatures were surfing down them. And there was an old man sitting on a rock…’
‘Theo, Theo, Theo. If you insist on wasting my time with this make-believe, we’ll never get anywhere.’ Bunsen shook his shiny head and scribbled on his pad:
The boy appears to be mildly delusional. It cannot be ruled out that three months in a coma may have damaged his mental health.
Dr Bunsen stood up and looked down his nose at Theo, making him feel very small. ‘When you can think of something a little more, ah, relevant, to say, we’ll talk some more. Now be a good boy and get some rest.’ He gave a kind of a false wink that made Theo flinch, and left the room.
Theo found himself alone for the first time that day and at once felt ten times better. Since waking up, he’d been tested, inspected and diagnosed by an army of doctors. Then he’d been intimidated, accused of lying and vaguely threatened by a psychologist twice his size. He wondered if he hadn’t been better off asleep.
The rest of the day passed fairly peacefully, though. Every hour or so, Sandra or one of the other nurses brought him drinks and comics to read, but otherwise he had the whole day to himself to think. He really had no idea who he was or where he came from. His memory drew a complete blank. Yet somehow this didn’t really bother him as much as it did the adults. What was the point in having a past? Just another bagful of memories to cart around the place. No, Theo was quite happy to start from scratch.
He doubted Dr Bunsen would agree with him, so he kept these thoughts to himself. Since the nurses had told him to rest, he spent the afternoon reading and listening to the rain on the windows. Knowing that just a few inches away the wind was driving a chilly downpour against the glass made Theo feel all the more warm and secure, wrapped up in a pile of blankets.
Each time Sandra came by it seemed like her smile wanted to leap off her face. Theo had listened to her voice for the last three months and it was a sound he loved and trusted. In a way, he felt like she was already an old friend.
‘Hey, Theo!’ She grinned as she arrived to puff up his pillow in the evening. ‘Are you warm enough? How was your day?’
‘OK. Except for the doctors.’
Sandra laughed. ‘I know what you mean. I think most of them have forgotten what it’s like to be young.’
She placed the back of her hand against his forehead to check for fever and, finding none, she placed a glass of milk on the bedside table. ‘It looks like the thunderstorm they forecast has turned up. It might get a little loud but don’t worry. If you get scared, give me a shout. I’ll be just down the hall. Do you want me to close the window?’
‘No thanks,’ said Theo. ‘I like the smell of a storm.’
The winds grew in strength throughout the evening and the howling gusts sounded like distant voices announcing some momentous event. The sky grew black with ominous clouds and there was a sense of impending war. On the stroke of midnight the storm arrived and all hell broke loose in the sky above. The echoes of the thunder made the windows rattle, and lightning left streaks on the back of Theo’s eyelids.
He pulled the blankets close around him as he sat up to watch the show. He hoped Sandra wouldn’t walk past and order him back to bed. It seemed like someone up above was really angry tonight and wanted to let everyone know about it. The rain pelted against the windows and they shook in the wind.
Theo could hear some of the children crying further down the ward. He was grateful that he wasn’t easily scared, though he had to admit that he jumped when there was such a fierce bolt of lightning that it seemed like the air itself had split apart. The room was lit up and then plunged into a terrible darkness along with the rest of the neighbourhood. He guessed that the lightning must have struck a power line or something. He didn’t mind. It meant that the thunderstorm was clearer.
He pulled back the curtains even further and sent his pile of correspondence tumbling to the floor. The letters fluttered across the room in the breeze that came through the window and revealed one card that was written in fluorescent ink. It was the card that had awakened him that morning. Theo bent down to pick it up and read:
It’s time to wake up. You have a visitor.
What visitor? Who was the Storyteller? And why had he woken up as Sandra had read him the card? Theo didn’t have any answers yet but he had a strange feeling that he soon would. He stared at the stamp that glowed blue in the darkness and tried to think what it reminded him of. However, the memory eluded him and he looked back at the sky for inspiration.
The clouds swirled dangerously overhead but there seemed to be one patch of sky that was darker than all the rest. Theo squinted to get a better view. Yes, it seemed as though there was something up there and it was getting bigger all the time. It must be something falling, he thought, or maybe floating towards the hospital grounds. It was too dark to make it out exactly, but one thing was for sure: it was headed right for him.
Theo gasped but couldn’t bring himself to move out of the way. He stared ahead as if hypnotised, not willing to believe what his eyes saw. Through the falling rain he could make out a figure holding on to a balloon. While Theo gazed in wonder, it flew in through the open window and crashed right into him as he sat up in bed. He tumbled backwards in an avalanche of blankets and cushions, and found himself lying flat on his back with a heavy lump sat on his chest.
Some hidden instinct caused Theo to push his feet against the wall and he flipped his attacker on to the bed with a thrust of the knees. He jumped up and turned to face his opponent with a kung-fu posture that he copied from one of his comics. They stood motionless in the darkness, sizing each other up, neither daring to make the first move. Perhaps they would have stood like that until the morning had not a flash of lightning suddenly illuminated the room. Theo found himself staring into the eyes of a four-feet high Bloon.
‘Who on earth are you?’ Theo spluttered at last.
‘Hmmph. Some welcome,’ Bozo sniffed. ‘Didn’t the Storyteller let you know I was coming?’
Theo sank back on to his bed and wiped the dust from his eyes. I’m dreaming, he thought, I must be dreaming. Probably the aftereffect of being asleep for three months. Only stands to reason that I should start to confuse things. He rubbed his eyes until they saw sparks and then gave himself a long, hard pinch. But that just hurt and everything looked exactly the same afterwards. Nothing could change the fact that in front of him stood a blue creature with large, gleaming eyes and a long, curly tail. And it seemed to be busy drying itself on the curtains of his room.
‘Who are you?’ Theo asked again, regaining his confidence a little. A blue hand came out from behind the curtain in response.
‘They call me Bozo.’ Theo shook Bozo’s hand and reflected that he was still no wiser for knowing his visitor’s name. Moreover, Bozo made no sign that he had any plans to stop yanking Theo’s hand up and down.
‘What are you doing?’ Theo asked. Bozo’s head popped out from behind the curtain, his yellow eyes wide open in surprise.
‘The Storyteller told us that you Hoomans shake each others’ hands when you meet.’
‘Well, yes,’ Theo admitted. ‘But only for a moment. Then we usually let go and ask questions.’
‘Like what?’ Bozo asked distractedly, as he sniffed the flowers. Liking the smell, he began to chew on the petals of the chrysanthemums.
‘Hey! Why are you eating my flowers?’ Theo cried, snatching the vase away from him.
‘You ask people that when you first meet them?’ Bozo laughed, his tail beating from side to side. ‘Oh boy, the Storyteller told us you guys are crazy, but I guess you have to see it to believe it. Hee! Hee!’
Theo wasn’t quite sure the conversation was getting anywhere, but before he could reply he heard footsteps coming down the hall.
‘Quick! Hide!’ he whispered. Bozo rolled under the bed and Theo scooped up the blankets from the floor and dived on to the mattress. At the same moment Sandra entered the room with a candle in her hand.
‘Theo? I heard your voice from down the hall. Were you scared by the storm? It’s taken out all of the electricity for three streets,’ Sandra said, as she placed the candle on Theo’s bedside table. Theo gave her a weak smile and then let his eyelids droop as though he were overcome with drowsiness. He felt his nurse tuck him in and pick up the letters from the floor. ‘Well, if you need anything, give me a shout. I’m only down the hall.’
Theo waited until her footsteps faded to a distant echo before he threw off the covers and peered under the bed. There was no one there. He lowered the candle to be sure and called, ‘Bozo? Psssst, Bozo?’ There was no answer and Theo sighed. ‘I guess it was all just a weird dream,’ he said.
‘Who are you calling weird?’ demanded an indignant voice from behind him. Theo whirled around to see Bozo polishing off the rest of his chrysanthemums and begin on the roses.
‘Why didn’t you answer when I called you?’ Theo asked, unsure whether to be relieved or disappointed that the strange blue creature was still there.
‘I had my mouth full,’ Bozo explained. ‘Ow! These roses have sharp bits.’
‘They’re thorns. Roses grow them so they don’t get eaten by horses and cows.’
Bozo shook his head and laughed. ‘No, no, no. You really don’t know the first thing, do you? I mean, do you see daisies armed to the teeth on your garden lawn?’
‘Exactly! The real reason,’ Bozo continued smugly, ‘is that beautiful flowers – like beautiful people – usually come with a bad attitude. That was one of the first things the Storyteller told us about you Hoomans.’ Bozo extracted a thorn from between his bright yellow teeth and then drank the water from the vase to wash down his meal.
Thunder rolled moodily outside but the storm was already passing. The rain maintained a steady patter on the window, as if it was asking to be let in. The candle flame danced on its stage of wax, casting shadows that leapt about the room. Bozo watched them with interest.
‘Exactly who is this Storyteller you keep going on about?’ Theo demanded, pulling at Bozo’s tail to get his attention.
Bozo swung around in shock. ‘Who is the Storyteller? You mean you didn’t receive a message from him today? Man, he like promised me…’
‘Oh yes. That one,’ Theo said, as he fumbled around for the card. He found the envelope and discovered that the stamp was also luminous. He passed it over for inspection and only in that moment did he realise that the creatures on the stamp looked just like Bozo.
‘I don’t suppose you know any of these…people?’ Theo asked nervously.
Bozo grabbed the envelope from him and cried, ‘Ah, look! There’s Dodo, Lobo, Gogo, Gaga and Raga! It’s rather a good likeness, too. How like the Storyteller to send a picture to remind me of home.’
‘But who is the Storyteller?’ Theo pleaded.
‘Why, he’s the one who tells the Story.’
‘What story?’ Theo asked, completely confused.
Bozo gave him a big grin. ‘This one, of course.’
By a candle flame that flickered to the rhythm set by the falling rain, Bozo explained the whole thing from the beginning. The storm raged outside and the windows shook in their frames as the Bloon spoke. Theo listened carefully to the full account and had to resist the temptation not to pinch himself again.
‘You mean to say,’ Theo stammered at last, ‘that me, this hospital, this city and…everything in the whole wide world are all just chapters in a Story? And that this Story is told by an old man on a distant planet inhabited by blue monkeys like you?’
‘Almost right. We actually prefer to be called Bloons.’
Theo ignored him and began to pace around the room, his forehead wrinkling so deeply that he suddenly seemed an old man. He shook his head in disbelief and waved his hands about like a conjurer attempting to pull a bunny out of a hat.
‘You mean to say that all the animals, all the people and all the countries on Earth are just part of some fairy tale? That our history, our culture, our society are all made up by some old man sat on a rock somewhere? Boy, you’re completely crazy, Bozo. Or, more likely, I am. Yes, that’s what it is. The doctors thought that something might have gone wrong with me after so long asleep. When Dr Bunsen comes back I’ll tell him I’m seeing things. Bozo, you’re just a figment of my imagination.’
‘You know, that’s really quite ironic,’ Bozo mused. ‘Because speaking of figments of the imagination, you yourself didn’t exist until about half an hour ago. The Storyteller just dreamed you up so that I would have a companion on my quest.’
‘What on earth are you talking about?’ Theo hissed. ‘Haven’t you seen the papers? I’ve been asleep for the last few months and all the doctors here can prove it!’ He felt like screaming but didn’t want to alert Sandra again.
‘The Storyteller decided to backdate your entry into the story. That way I could find you here without any family getting in the way. OK, I know it’s a bit sudden,’ Bozo consoled him, wrapping his tail around the boy’s shoulders, ‘but just because you’re only half-an-hour old doesn’t mean you’re worth less than anyone else.’
‘I am nine years old,’ Theo insisted between gritted teeth. ‘Do you think you can just create people in a few minutes? They have to be born and grow up. That takes time! Ah, what’s the use? One of us is completely crazy, I’m sure of that much.’
Bozo thought for a moment and than said, ‘OK, OK. Imagine it like this: say we write a story about a fish called Bert. So once upon a time Bert was swimming along in the deep, blue ocean, smoking seaweed and watching the waves pass overhead. Now, if someone asks us about Bert’s past – his childhood, his family – we’ll have to make it up. He has to have a history even if he was invented only 30 seconds ago. And Bert would believe in it more than anyone.’
‘But Bert doesn’t exist!’ Theo cried, turning red in frustration.
Bozo leaned forwards with a wicked glint in his eye and whispered, ‘Who knows? Maybe he does now.’
Theo sat with his back to the wall and played it all over in his head. He certainly didn’t remember his past before today but he was sure that he had one. And though he’d been awake for only a day, he felt pretty confident that he knew what reality was all about. After all, how could a world as big and complex as the Earth fit inside the head of a single Storyteller?
But then Theo thought of the comics he’d been reading earlier. If he had been able to speak to the characters, they would have assured him that they were real. They would have been certain that their world existed. Though the truth was that their lives and exploits came from the head of some writer drinking too much coffee in a study somewhere. But these were stories with only 20 characters in them, not a planet with billions of people and trillions of animals. How could every conversation, every event fit inside one story?
‘All right, let’s say that I’m prepared to believe this,’ he began warily. ‘Are you saying that the Storyteller sits down every day and tells you about everything that’s going on in the whole wide world?’
Bozo wagged his finger from side to side. ‘Of course not. He just gives us the highlights each day. You know, the funniest bits about the crazy stuff you Hoomans do all the time.’
‘Like what?’ Theo demanded, his pride bruised.
‘Like those Chains that you wear around your wrists. The ones with the big eye and the fingers that order you around.’
‘You mean watches.’
‘I mean Chains. They tell you when to come, when to go, when to eat, when to sleep. You can’t even sit still in a park for a few minutes before you check them to make sure you’re not late for something. And the funniest part is,’ Bozo chuckled, ‘you’re only prisoners because you want to be. You could take them off at any time.’
‘We’re not prisoners…’ Theo began, but Bozo was on a roll.
‘Of course you are. If you were really free, then you’d get up when your eyes open in the morning, eat when you feel hungry and go to bed when you’re tired.’
Theo had to admit there was some sense to what Bozo said. Still, he wasn’t much nearer to understanding where this was leading.
‘I don’t know about that,’ he said. ‘But look, what about the Story – I mean, the Earth – in all of this? We orbit around the sun and that’s part of a galaxy called the Milky Way, and that’s just one very small galaxy in a very big universe. If what you say is true, then where do you suppose we are?’ Theo threw his hands up to the ceiling, feeling like he’d made a very worthy point.
But Bozo didn’t seem in the least bit fazed. ‘Where are we? Why, we’re just in a corner of the Storyteller’s imagination.’
The pieces started to come together in Theo’s mind and he wasn’t sure he liked the conclusion. He struggled to put his thoughts in order and finally said,
‘According to you, the Storyteller is sick – dying, even?’ Bozo nodded sadly. ‘If he dies, what will happen to the Story? I mean, to me and everything in my world?’
Bozo looked up, his eyes wide and tearful. ‘I don’t know. Maybe everything will just disappear.’
‘Theo! What have you done to your flowers?’
The day was only 15 seconds old for Theo and already there was someone screaming at him. He squinted between dewy eyelids and saw Nurse Sandra standing over the vase of headless flowers with a horrified look on her face. She held a few chewed-up stems in one hand and stared at Theo in disbelief. There was little doubt that a fairly good explanation was expected.
‘Um, I was hungry?’ he offered.
‘You ate them? Are you crazy?’ she shrieked, slapping one hand over her eyes.
‘I think I was dreaming that they were chocolate…or something.’
Lying wasn’t a skill that came easily to Theo, but in the bleary morning light the truth didn’t seem an option. Sandra looked him straight in the eye and he felt wide open under her gaze, as if she was hunting through the contents of his mind and already knew he was hiding something. Any minute now he would break down and tell her about Bozo. Then there would be a whole lot of explaining to do, which wouldn’t be too easy as he wasn’t sure that he understood all that much himself.
Sandra opened her mouth to speak but just then the bell down the hall began to ring. With a snort she hurried off, casting one more appalled look at the vase and Theo as she went. Theo peeked behind the curtains and under the bed but Bozo was nowhere in sight. He shrugged and replayed the events of the night in his head as he slid the breakfast tray on to his lap. He took a slurp of rice pudding and remembered how a strange blue creature had flown in through his window on a balloon. It had stood there and told him that he and everyone else in the world were all just part of some story. It didn’t make any more sense at 8.30 in the morning.
What on earth was he thinking? Was he out of his mind? It must have been part of some strange dream – like thinking the flowers were chocolate. A dream that Theo was beginning to believe.
Come on, Theo, he said to himself. You may have amnesia but you’re not crazy – no matter what the doctors think. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was good to know that the world wasn’t going to end, after all.
He spooned some more rice pudding into his mouth and almost choked when he heard a familiar voice say:
‘I see they don’t trust you with solid food yet.’ Theo jerked around and his jaw dropped as he saw Bozo appraising his breakfast tray with disappointment. ‘I don’t suppose anyone thought to bring me any flowers?’
Theo’s pleasure at seeing his new friend was tainted only by the uneasy thought that what he had heard the night before might be true. Bozo’s oval, yellow eyes gazed at him with an expression of pure innocence – an impression that was offset by the mischievous curl of his dark purple lips. Theo started to laugh but then some cautious instinct warned him to be careful. It suddenly struck him that he had no idea who Bozo was. How had he come in floating through the window in the first place? How did he know that Bozo was telling the truth when he talked about the Storyteller and the Story?
Theo’s mind began to race through all the paranoid possibilities: Bozo could be some strange creature that had run away from the zoo. He could be some out-of-control experiment that had escaped from a laboratory. Or maybe he was some kind of old-fashioned fairy or ghost.
He might even be an alien.
Before Theo could think about the implications of this, he heard Bozo whisper from the doorway: ‘There’s a whole crowd of people armed with Flash-boxes. I think they’re coming to see you!’ Bozo leapt across the room and promptly installed himself behind the curtains.
‘Flash-boxes?’ Theo asked in confusion, but in the same instant a squad of doctors and press swung into the room. The journalists had large cameras around their necks and hungry looks on their faces. Theo had a nasty feeling he knew who was on the menu.
‘Good morning, Theo!’ boomed Dr Bunsen, who led the pack. His smile was large and insincere. Theo guessed it was more for the benefit of the cameras than for him. ‘Now give your visitors a big smile!’
The cameras had already begun to click and Theo reeled from the blinding flashes. Sandra approached the side of his bed and whispered:
‘Don’t worry, sweetheart. These people are journalists and they want to ask you a few questions. Don’t answer anything you don’t want to – believe me, they’ll probably make up the answers anyway. I think the doctor invited them here so that he could have his shot at being famous.’ She gave his arm an encouraging squeeze and moved to the side.
The winding and clicking didn’t stop for a moment and the reporters jostled with one another for space. All eyes were on Theo and he felt quite uncomfortable. What if he sneezed?
‘Theo, Theo! How does it feel to be awake?’ asked a journalist with a squeaky voice and a face like a piglet.
‘I don’t know. How is waking up supposed to feel?’
‘Theo!’ came a gruff voice from the back. ‘Do you know where you come from?’
‘I don’t remember,’ Theo shrugged.
‘You what? You don’t remember?’ came a chorus of excited voices, and the crowd jostled closer to stick large microphones in Theo’s face.
Dr Bunsen decided things had gone far enough and he stepped in front of the bed with his arms outstretched.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, as a doctor I may assure you that a temporary loss of memory is quite typical in these types of cases.’ Having gained the attention of the paparazzi, his voice swelled and warmed to its own sound.
‘However, under my careful psychological guidance, I am confident that Theo will soon be restored to his senses.’
‘Doctor, how did Theo wake up?’ The man with the piglet face asked.
Dr Bunsen smirked. ‘That’s Dr Bunsen, B-u-n-s-e-n. May I remind you that we are, after all, in the 21st century, and here at St Jude’s we are at the cutting edge of technology and innovative treatment. Theo has been under my personal supervision for three months now and, modesty permitting, I must suppose it was in no small part due to my expertise and dedication that-‘
‘I got a card,’ interrupted Theo suddenly, growing tired of the whole show.
‘You got a what?’ the journalists cried, hungry for sensation.
Theo looked at their bright eyes and poised pens. He couldn’t help thinking of ducks at feeding time in the
park. ‘I got a card. It told me to wake up,’ he explained, trying not to see the dagger looks that Dr Bunsen was throwing him.
‘Who was it from?’ a woman with razor-sharp lips wanted to know.
‘It was from someone called the Storyteller,’ Sandra joined in, holding up the card for the cameras. There was another blinding flurry of flashes.
‘From who?’ they wanted to know.
But Dr Bunsen was missing the limelight already: ‘Come along, now. I really think we must leave the child to rest, hmm? Doctor’s orders! After all, he only woke yesterday. Perhaps you would all like to follow me to my study, where I shall be delighted to answer any further questions.’
‘Just one more question, guv,’ insisted the man with the gruff voice. ‘Theo, what are you going to do now that you’re awake?’
The answer sat at the back of Theo’s throat and he couldn’t swallow it, no matter how hard he tried. His mouth ran dry and the room fell silent as they awaited his reply. Looking around at the crowd of swollen, agitated faces, he felt his voice float out into the room like a feather.
‘I think…I think I have to save the world.’
The journalists left in good spirits, still over the moon about the last quote. They politely declined Dr Bunsen’s offer of a tour of the hospital.
‘Don’t worry, guv, we’ve got all we need!’ they assured him: a mystery cure from some fruit calling himself the ‘Storyteller’, a beautiful nurse with the healing touch and a child saviour of the world – more than enough for a cracking story!
Theo watched them leave and felt as though they were taking a small piece of his dignity with them. He turned to a rap at the window and saw that Bozo was out on the window ledge. He jumped up and let him in at once.
‘It was getting too bright in here with all those Flash-boxes,’ Bozo explained. He looked Theo up and down.
‘They got you, all right. You look thinner already.’
‘They’re called cameras,’ Theo corrected him. ‘And they don’t make you thin. They don’t do anything to you.’
‘That’s what you think. Each time they flash, they steal a tiny piece of you. Look at all the fashion models on TV. They get flash-boxed hundreds of times each day and they’re skinnier than anyone.’
Theo didn’t want to argue right now. Something else was on his mind. He swung his feet over the side of the bed until they almost touched the floor and cleared his throat.
‘Bozo, I was thinking – don’t take this the wrong way – but how do I know that what you’re telling me is true?’ Bozo stared back at him with wide, indignant eyes. ‘I mean, how do I know that everything you told me about the Story and the Storyteller is the truth…it’s a bit much just to ask me to take your word for it and all…you seem like a nice guy but…’ he trailed off, unable to take the hurt expression that covered his new friend’s face.
‘Well, I like that for gratitude!’ Bozo cried. ‘I leave my friends and planet behind and risk my life on a mission to save this crazy Story, and all you can do is call me a liar or a nut?’
‘OK, take it easy,’ Theo pleaded. ‘I don’t mean to be rude. I’m sure you are doing something really heroic – it’s just that it’s all a bit hard to grasp. I guess I need some kind of proof.’
Bozo nodded magnanimously and the two of them sat on the bed deep in thought. Finally the Bloon spoke up:
‘If only I knew how to get in touch with the Storyteller. He could send you a sign or something. But I haven’t got the first idea how to contact him.’
‘Wait!’ cried Theo. ‘What about the card he sent me?’ He grabbed the card from the bedside table and searched for a clue. He tried holding it up to the light and reading the message in the reverse image of a mirror. Nothing. He gave up and slumped back on his bed. ‘I hoped he might have left a phone number or something,’ he said.
‘I don’t know. It would never be like the Storyteller to make things too easy,’ Bozo mused. ‘He used to tell me that the answers always lay beneath the surface of things.’
They fell silent for moment and then Theo murmured, ‘What about the stamp?’
While Bozo looked on with curiosity, Theo wetted the edge of the stamp with a few drops from his glass of water and peeled it back from the envelope to reveal:
‘ST must be Storyteller,’ Theo said. ‘But that’s the longest phone number I’ve ever seen.’
‘I guess he doesn’t want anyone calling him by mistake,’ said Bozo. ‘Leave it to me.’ He opened the window and hopped out on to the ledge, using his tail to balance in the wind. He edged along to a drainpipe and slid down the wall to the garden below. Theo jumped up to the window and waited with suspended breath as he saw Bozo dart through the garden from tree to tree, taking great care that no one saw him. He scaled the wall in one leap and dashed across the street to an empty phone box. A minute later he was back across the road and over the wall like a shot. He landed on all fours in the garden, took a few good bites from the flowerbed and retraced his cautious route to Theo’s room.
‘Well?’ Theo asked, dying of impatience. Bozo pointed at his mouth to indicate that it was still full. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to finish chewing though, and all the time his smile grew wider and more unbearable.
‘Come on! Tell me, you scoundrel!’ Theo insisted, barely able to sit still.
‘If you’re not going to be polite, I shan’t tell you anything at all,’ Bozo sniffed. ‘I was almost run over by a bus and all you can say is “scoundrel”.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m just dying to know – please?’
Bozo’s eyes lit up. ‘I phoned the number and there was no one there.’
‘Oh.’ Theo’s spirits drooped.
‘But I got through to a machine that said, “Welcome to the Storyteller’s emergency answering service. We are sorry but he cannot respond to your call just now. Please leave a message after the long bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep, and somehow – who knows how? – he’ll try to get back to you.’
‘So now what?’ asked Theo excitedly.
‘Now I go back to the flowerbeds to finish my lunch and you sit tight until the Storyteller picks up his messages.’ Bozo laughed and disappeared out of the window.
The rest of the day was like torture for Theo. At every moment he expected something amazing to happen. Maybe the clouds in the sky would take the shape of an old man and talk to him. Or maybe the Storyteller would appear suddenly on TV in a programme meant only for Theo. As much as his heart told him that Bozo was telling the truth, his head refused to believe it until he had some kind of proof. It was like walking the border between knowing and not-knowing, and it was a lonely place to be.
And still nothing happened. The minutes passed like hours and he could take no enjoyment in his comics or in chatting with Sandra, who seemed to have forgotten the incident with the flowers. Even worse was when Dr Bunsen came to take revenge for the morning’s events by forcing Theo to complete entire papers of pointless psychological tests. He answered the multiple-choice questions in a kind of dejected apathy. He was powerless in a bed in a children’s hospital where everyone seemed to think they knew what was best for him. Even Bozo was nowhere to be seen all day. Theo hoped he hadn’t really hurt his feelings by doubting his word. Right now he was about the only friend that Theo had.
Sandra noticed that Theo seemed a bit down in the dumps, and she decided that he must have been worn out by the commotion of the morning. She gave him a light dinner of soup and bread, and ordered him to sleep as soon as it got dark outside. He protested feebly but her word was law and he found himself sinking into sleep early with a rather fed up expression on his face.
Had he known what was about to happen, he would have thanked her beforehand.
The gardener made his early morning rounds with an annoyed and bewildered expression on his face. Someone or something was tearing up the flowerbeds that he had worked so hard to plant, cultivate and tend throughout the summer. Granted, now that autumn was coming they wouldn’t have lasted long anyway, but he hoped that the flowers cheered up the poorly children as they looked out of their windows or walked though the gardens.
What puzzled him more than anything was that it wasn’t the usual type of vandalism that one expected anywhere in the city these days, what with the state of today’s youth. No, it was more like some kind of madman or wild animal was tearing up the flowers with their teeth. He supposed he ought to alert the hospital authorities but he could see no other traces of breaking and entering, and no one had seen anything out of the ordinary. A few strange shadows about the place, of course, but then the light was changing with the shortening days, not to mention the stormy weather of late.
The leaves had begun to fall in golden brown cascades over the last few days and it was one of his favourite duties to sweep them up with an old rusty rake that leant against the wall. The leaves rustled like an echo of the wind, and he collected them into large heaps that would become the cinders of a bonfire later in the day. His rake dragged over the ground and the sounds floated up two storeys to the window of a room where a young boy was re-entering the chambers of the waking world.
Theo listened to the sounds outside without moving a muscle, vaguely conscious that, whatever happened, there was something he must not forget. Little by little, the fingertips of sleep loosened their clasp about his eyelids and he felt the warm blankets upon his body as though it belonged to someone else. His mind still whirled from the night’s dream.
Theo knew that the dream had been very important and that he must remember it before the nurse arrived with breakfast and chased it away. Dreams were shy creatures: you couldn’t simply grab them like you would a packet of biscuits from the cupboard.
Dreams loved the stage of your mind, but only as long as you weren’t quite aware that they were there. If they felt at ease inside your head, then they would weave a collage of obscure stories and fables for you. They almost always had something to say but could never resist mixing all their stories together so that their message got rather muddled up. You’d find yourself having a birthday party in the desert before jumping on a flying camel that got you to school just in time to take an exam, but before you could start a sudden sandstorm would roll in and cover everything so that you wondered if there was any birthday cake left, or perhaps the camels had eaten it all….
This time Theo knew that he had had a remarkable dream, one that he simply had to remember. The dream was still close by – he could feel it breathing in the darkness behind his right ear. He pretended to pay it no attention, turned over on to his left side and faked a gentle snore. He felt tiny footsteps approach the corner of his eye and pause cautiously. Then cracks of light streamed into his head as the dream lifted up his eyelid to make its getaway. But Theo swung his attention around, and for a brief moment he and the dream stared at one another eye to eye. There was a sudden flash and Theo remembered what he had seen.
He had dreamt he’d been on Bozo’s planet, in Bloonland. He had whirled in past one of the smoky red moons and seen below him the Storyteller sat on his rock. Theo recognised him at once from Bozo’s description but could not help being blown away by the sight of someone far, far older than anyone he had seen before. It was like looking at a mountain.
Indeed, the Storyteller sat so still that he could have been mistaken for the rock he sat upon. His silver hair trailed over his shoulders and gleamed faintly in the evening air. His skin was wrinkled like old leather and his eyes gleamed white as though he had two stars in the sockets. He stroked his goatee beard with long, smooth fingers and he seemed to gaze off into infinity. With the rising of the second moon, an old Bloon picked up a conical white shell and blew a long, plaintive summons to the rest of his people. At once 50 Bloons came sprinting hell for leather from every corner of the hills. They dropped all they had in their hands and made a beeline for the Storyteller’s rock, trampling over dunes, wine bushes and slower Bloons in their rush to get a good seat. They gathered around the Storyteller, who paid them no attention at all. Each late-comer was hushed into silence as he wrestled for a better view at the back.
It was apparent to Theo that the Storyteller was much beloved by the Bloons. They looked up to him with a mixture of reverence and adoration, none daring to speak or make a sound, all silently imploring him to begin the Story. It reminded Theo of an old man surrounded by his grandchildren, and he felt the urge to join the throng.
It was at that moment that Theo realised he couldn’t see himself. While he could see and hear all that went on, he had no body of his own. It seemed as though he was floating in the air above them like an invisible cloud. He was there in spirit but not in body, and the sensation of emptiness made him unbearably dizzy.
The stars began to rotate around him and he felt himself being sucked slowly into the black vortex above. Theo was suddenly afraid that he might just drift away into the endless space overhead and never be seen again. He began to fall away from the planet faster and faster until he could hardly make out the Bloons and the Storyteller at all. He tumbled into an infinite blackness scattered with mere pinpoints of light. He tried to scream but nothing came out.
Then the Storyteller began to speak, and his voice was like an anchor to Theo. He concentrated on the distant rumble of the old man’s words, and the stars slowed down around him. He shut out his fear, focusing even harder on the distant sound, and began to pull himself back towards the planet. Finally he once again hovered above the Bloons and recovered his calm as he heard the first words of the Story.
The Storyteller was telling the Bloons about the invention of mobile Fones and already he had his audience crying with laughter on the floor.
As Theo listened, he began to see the words and the picture they conjured until the scene entirely absorbed him.
‘The Hoomans took to stroking their Fones in their pockets as though they were pets. While they waited for calls, they played with the buttons and tried to count how many friends they had. But as much as they dressed up their Fones in suits of bright colours and ever-smaller, cuter shells, they always failed to see the teeth. For although the Fones were much loved and adored – especially when they rang – they had an insatiable hunger and ate up the lives of the owners little by little. When lovers were kissing, the Fones rang and took a bite out of their romance. When the sun was going down and the sky melted into a fluid blend of glowing colours, the Fones rang and nibbled away at the most beautiful moments of the day.
Everyone began to feel thinner. The more they talked into their Fones, the less they had to say of any value. They began to feel awkward talking to their friends in person and had the rising urge to hold their Fones in front of them like a shield. They converted their Fones into Flash-boxes and used them as a third eye through which they could see the world in only two dimensions. Bit by bit they invented new ways to feel more lonely, becoming more isolated from each other by the day.’
The Story was violently interrupted as the Storyteller gave way to a terrible coughing fit. The images he had conjured dissolved at once and it was like a rude awakening from a dream. His body shook like an old bicycle and it seemed as though he might crack and break into a thousand fragments at any moment. The Bloons covered their eyes and ears with their tails, dreadfully afraid and powerless to help. Each cough and gasp from the Storyteller was felt in the lungs of all, and a sense of dread fell upon them.
For Theo the sight was just as unbearable. He could see exactly why the Bloons loved the old man so much and already he felt a deep affection for this mysterious spinner of tales. Forgetting that he had no hands, Theo reached out to comfort the Storyteller as he struggled for breath again. In that moment, the Storyteller looked up sharply to his right where Theo was floating and a strange look came over him. The Bloons looked up too but saw nothing. At first Theo could not bring himself to meet the Storyteller’s eyes, but eventually it was as though there was nowhere else to look. He was awestruck by what he saw.
The eyes of the Storyteller were like doors unto a soul more ancient than anything Theo could have imagined. Here was a being that had been roaming the galaxies while the stars were still young. Here was someone who had forgotten more than Theo would ever come to know, and he felt like a small candle in front of a blazing sun. Yet despite this, there was something in the Storyteller’s eyes that Theo would never have expected to see.
Fear of dying and leaving the Universe behind for ever. Fear, too, for the Story itself and what would become of it. There was still plenty of light in the eyes of the Storyteller, but it seemed like the embers of a fire that was running out of fuel and would soon die out for good.
He was asking Theo for help.
It was only then that the boy understood in his heart that the Storyteller was dying. He needs me, Theo realised. Until now I didn’t even know who he was, and now that I’ve met him he’s about to disappear from my world for ever. And then what would happen to the Story he tells…
But Theo was no longer only worried about the fate of himself and his world. It’s hard to care about someone you’ve never met before, but now he’d seen the Storyteller with his own eyes and witnessed his suffering, Theo was overcome by the urge to help him, to cure him if he could find a way.
‘He needs me!’ he cried.
‘Everybody needs somebody!’ rejoiced Bozo, swinging merrily from the overhead light. Theo blinked and realised that his eyes had been open for some time and the dream was long gone.
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