The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.

The Real Place

Sometimes loneliness hits him right in the gut. He can't really think why -- it seems unlikely, and unlike him. It happens without warning; one minute he'll be in the pub, having a laugh with the others, then he'll have to look away for a moment as a hot red nugget of something, like a little hard marble, begins to expand slowly in his middle. Poisonous fire spreads out through his body in thin tongues. Nobody ever seems to notice this, so perhaps he just seems distracted, staring at a spot on the wall as though sifting through his mind for something he's forgotten. Always, after a few seconds, he surfaces, dragged out of his own depths by a story or a joke. Everything balances itself out. Normality resumes.

It happens something like this today on set, and as usual, nobody notices. It's just him and Dom, stuck up at the top of the big animatronic Ent, and they're waiting for ... actually, he can't remember. The thing they started out waiting for was followed by a whole succession of other things that needed fixing, moving, adjusting or just, well, waiting for. It's easy to lose track of. Dom's trying to explain something complicated about gorillas and Tina Turner, and all of a sudden, Billy gets lost. It's like something's pushed him off course, away from himself, and now he doesn't know where he is. Of course, he's still sitting there, in his wig and his feet and his hobbit padding, and Dom's still there too, but Billy feels cut off, as though he's watching everything through some kind of screen made of reinforced glass. Like he's been the victim of some crime, and now he's looking through a two-way mirror at a line-up of his own life. "That's the one, Officer. That's definitely the one. You can tell from his eyes -- look at them, all dead and empty. Nasty piece of work, he is." He doesn't know quite what to do when weird things like this happen to him. So he doesn't do anything, and after a while, the feeling subsides. Dom is still talking about gorillas.

"Course, the trick is finding one where they've given them names. Like, you know, for some kind of breeding programme or whatever. And they have to be proper names, like, well, like Tina. Or Susan, for instance. Susan'd be a good one, actually, because you could then start thinking Susan Sarandon. Doesn't have to be gorillas, of course. Could be ... lions, or zebras or something. But obviously, some animals are always going to be funnier than others. You have to bear that in mind."


"Well, like, ants don't do a lot of funny stuff, do they? Whereas a monkey, on the other hand, is always good for a laugh."

"Gorillas are apes."

"I know that! I'm just saying, monkeys--"

"Dominic, what in the name of fuck are you going on about?"

Dom looks at him reproachfully. "Have you not been listening? Billy, I'm making nature fun."

"Oh. No, I was listening, sorry. I just got ... distracted for a sec."

"All right, well, I'll go over it again. You're watching a wildlife documentary, right? All well and good. But it's not grabbing you, is it? You're in the mood for something else. Right. Something fun. But there's nothing else on. It's all rubbish. So what are you gonna do, Billy? Eh? What are you gonna do?"

"I dunno. Turn it off and go down the pub?"

"Not an option. You can't be bothered. It's too far. You haven't got any friends. I'll tell you what you do. You use your imagination, Billy."

"Right. Okay."

"Right, you use it to imagine that they're not talking about gorillas at all. No. They're actually talking about world-famous celebrities."

"Like Tina Turner."

"Yeah! Or Susan Sarandon. Or Elton John. That's why it's good when they've given them names, so when the voice-over says something like, ooh, I dunno, 'Tina rolls in her own dung in order to attract a mate,' it makes it a lot more believable. I've invented a new way to watch telly, Bill. You need never be bored again!" Dom looks up at Billy. The wild evangelical light shining in his eyes is only half put-on. "What do you think?"

"I think, Dom, that you are, categorically and without doubt, as mad as a flaming wombat."

"Only way to be, Billy. Only way to be."


Other times the loneliness does not hit him in the stomach, but instead creeps up on him slowly, like a fog. It's this way: he'll be in his kitchen, searching at the back of the cupboard to see if he's got any of those biscuits left and, even though it's a warm evening, he'll begin to feel cold. Damp tendrils of mist seem to reach out toward him and, ever so gently, stroke the back of his neck. Hairs prickle at his scalp as the fog whispers and curls icily around him, but it's very gentle, so gentle that he hardly notices it at all until it's too late. Now he's enveloped in it, it's all around him and he knows it's going to be difficult finding a way out. He can only stand here and stare at the door of the cupboard, waiting for this thing to clear, to blow over. He can't remember now why he wanted biscuits so much.

He's being silly. It's just boredom and tiredness, and he doesn't know why he's letting it get to him like this. He needs distraction and entertainment and stupid conversations. He needs to call Dom.

"Have you got any of those biscuits left?" The line is bad, and Dom's voice sounds squashed and far away. It trickles thinly out of the receiver and into Billy's ear.

"Um ... I dunno actually, I'll have to have a look."

"Come on, you've got to make it worth my while." He yawns.

"I'll make you tea. Pizza! We could order pizza. How about that? Or, it doesn't have to be pizza, we could get Chinese."

At the other end of the line, Dom hums and has and considers. He's tired; he'll only have to drive all the way back again later. Billy feels the grey fog somewhere behind him, waiting patiently for him to get off the phone. If Dom says no, it will start to creep forward again, lunge at him in a shapeless mass, twisting and squeezing and working its way in.

"Oh, I know! We can watch telly and you can try out your game with the nature programmes!"

"God, you really are bored, aren't you? All right, I'll be round in a bit. Have a look for the biscuits though, yeah?"

The fog begins to recede, drifting in thin wisps under the patio door, out across the backyard and away.


"No. Hopeless. This isn't gonna work, Bill."

"It's not looking good, Dom, to be honest."

"Not one single flippin' wildlife documentary. Not one!"

"Slim pickings, Dom."

"Dry as a fuckin' desert! Not even ants or ... anything. We should have gone down the pub."

"Not an option, remember? Too far. You can't be bothered. You haven't got any friends."

"No, that was you. I, on the other hand, am extremely popular. Many people love me."

"Oh, aye. You just keep on telling yourself that, petal." Billy reaches over the arm of the sofa and across the gap to where Dom sits scrunched up in an armchair, flicking through the channels for a third time. His knees are pulled up under his chin and his trainers are rucking up the fabric on the seat cushion. Billy pats him condescendingly on the head and ruffles his hair. It doesn't look stupid enough, so he ruffles it some more.

"Get off, you wanker." Dom heaves a tragic sigh. "It's no good. You just can't play the Tina Turner game with Death on the Nile. It doesn't work."

"Oh Jesus, Dom. Your life's work ruined. Never mind. Console yourself with some prawn crackers."

"No, you're all right, ta. I'm gonna bugger off home in a bit anyway."

"Oh, right." Panic rises inexplicably in Billy's chest; the world slips sideways and he's left in the dark, bad place. The real place that's been there all the time, waiting. This place is real because it's bad and only bad things are real. Everything else is insubstantial, is too light and will float out of his grasp. He sits in front of the flickering screen, his mind flapping about inside his skull like a trapped moth. Dom lolls, the wrist of his remote control hand propped on a knee. His head flops against the chair-back, the hair still standing up in the silly tufts Billy's hand created. Billy has the feeling that he would like to move or say something, but it's too difficult. Indecision roots him where he is.

Dom turns suddenly and looks him straight in the eye. Billy is electric-shocked out of breath for a second.

"Did you find them biscuits?"

Biscuits. "Biscuits! Sorry, I forgot to look, I'll, em ... I'll go and see, hang on."

Biscuits. Biscuits will keep him here, they will hold back the tide of grey fog that's already gathering outside the door, he can feel it. Perfect, melt-in-the-mouth, sugar-sprinkled Danish butter cookies; nobody can resist their power. It would be foolish to try. As long as there are some left, Billy is okay. There are some left, there must be. He wills them into being. The tin is here, right at the back of the cupboard. He wrenches it open, and... Yes. There is a layer at the bottom. A layer of lovely, little, Dom-ensnaring golden cookies winking up at him in their paper cases. The world snaps back again, sliding so seamlessly over the dark place that you'd hardly even know it was there.


By the time the tin is empty, Dominic is asleep. His fingers are wrapped loosely around a half-drunk mug of tea, which is balanced precariously against the arm of his chair. On the TV, a variety of easily frightened people in fancy dresses are being chased round a mansion house by a disembodied hand. Billy gets up from the sofa and carefully removes the mug from Dom's grasp, before its contents decide to make friends with the carpet. Dom's eyes flicker open for a second.



"Dom, it's really late, do you want to stay over?"

Dom makes an indistinct snuffling noise into the chair-cushion.

"I'll give you a lift in the morning, okay?"

"Y'okay, thanks."

Victory. Billy feels like singing. Which is kind of desperate really, but he doesn't care.

"I'll make you up a bed."


The first time Billy wakes, it's still dark. The shapes of things loom at him out of the gloom, fuzzy and unfamiliar. When he tries to focus his eyes on them, they shift around subtly and his gaze slides off them again. The air in the room is unpleasantly humid and full of his own used breath; the whole space seems to pulse, to expand and contract along with the blood rushing and squeezing in his veins. He can still taste last night's takeaway food, although he cleaned his teeth dutifully before he went to bed.

He gets up and crosses the carpet to the window, fumbling behind the blind to get at the catch. He pushes the window open as far as it will go, but it doesn't seem to make much difference. The cooler air drifts in languidly, mingles for a while with the stagnant fug in the room, and then obviously decides that stagnant and fuggy is where it's at these days. Billy goes back and sits on the edge of his bed. The bedclothes are tangled in a heap in the middle of the mattress, so he reaches out and tugs at them, smoothing them out flat. Then he stands up, pulls everything off the bed and remakes it from scratch; sheet tucked, pillows plumped, nice lightweight duvet spread over the top. He gets back in and waits for a minute. Five minutes. The heavy air presses down on him and his skin begins to itch. He thinks about fog, and burning marbles, and two-way mirrors, and wonders when it was, at which point exactly, that he really started losing it.

Half an hour passes before he gets up again, gathers the duvet into a bundle, and walks out of the bedroom. Dom lies on the floor, on a line of cushions stripped from the sofa. The covers of his makeshift bed are pushed down on one side, turning his naked back into a pale triangle of flesh. The moonlight from the window fragments and splinters on his hair.


The second time Billy wakes, day has dawned. Light streaks across his eyelids. He yawns and turns over, and nearly falls out of the armchair onto the floor.

"Damn," says Dominic, who is crouching on the floor next to the chair and leaning on the armrest. "I was sure you'd go that time." He's fully dressed in his jeans and that brown tracky top with the yellow stripes down the sleeves, zipped up all the way up to the neck.

"Shit. What time is it?" Billy tries to leap out of the chair, but gets tangled in the duvet and ends up just thrashing about ineffectually.

"Still early, don't worry. There's ages yet. Why are you sleeping in a chair?"

"Can't remember. There was fog ... marbles."

"You what?"

"No, nothing..." He yawns. "Just out of interest, how d'you know if you're going insane?"

"Oh, I dunno ... you probably wake up one day and find yourself with these enormous rubber feet, and you're having an argument with a talking tree, and there's a little hairy man in shorts running around shouting at you through a loudhailer. Something like that, anyway."

"Oh, well, that's all right then." Billy's laugh seems to be stuck somewhere between half-hearted and hysterical.

Dom eyes Billy, chin resting on his folded arms. He breathes into the synthetic fabric of his sleeve.

"So ... are you okay, or do I have to come round and slap you?"

"Oh yeah, God, yeah. Just tired."

"Could be worse, Bill. Could be down't pit. Aye, lad, it were different in my day -- slavin' away in the dark, morning till night... Who am I doing, can you tell?"

"I dunno. Is it Python?"

"No, it was Sean Bean, but don't worry. I'm still working on it."

"Oh." Billy rubs at the sleep in his eyes.

"Come on, Billy boy, rise and shine! Smile, or I'll beat you up." Dom bounces up on his heels and vaults over the armrest, squashing himself into the small space next to Billy. Billy does as he's told, and smiles. Dom is warm and heavy, his body on the duvet pegging Billy down and holding him there. His eyes are fixed on Billy's, and he is biting his upper lip very slightly as he watches. He looks as though he might be weighing-up, deliberating, but Billy doesn't know, because Billy is stuck on the outside. He can only guess. Billy wishes sometimes, that he didn't have to guess. He wishes he could break into Dom, and camp out in there for a while, and discover things. He wants to be an inhabitant, an intrepid explorer of the world of Dom.

"Tired," he groans, leaning forward in a slump against Dom's chest. The zipped-up zip is cold against his forehead. On impulse, he reaches up and takes hold of Dom's sleeves, grabbing at shiny folds of polyester. The sleeves feel slightly slippery, and then rough where the yellow go-faster stripes are stitched on. Billy's sure he remembers wearing something like this when he was about eight. Very retro, very Dom. He rubs his thumbs over the fabric -- smooth, rough, smooth -- and then he turns his head and feels the cold plastic nubbles of the zip under his cheek. It occurs to Billy that this, after all, might be the real place. That maybe warmth and light and other people are real, whether you can keep hold of them or not. Dom's chest moves up and down under Billy, as his body circulates air.

"Fuck off," sighs Billy gently, and tightens his grip on Dom's sleeves.

"All right." But Dom doesn't go anywhere. After a minute, his hand moves up and touches Billy's hair, stroking him rhythmically, almost absently, from crown to nape, as though Billy were a cat.

"Are we okay for time?" asks Billy again, the words floating up muffled and distorted from Dom's chest.

"Yeah," says Dom. "Yeah, we've got a while yet." The sun is bright this morning, shining through the living room window, and the shadows on the floor are sharp and clear and definite.