Alice is gathered in his arms, her lips slightly parted as she seeks his affection, her hand caressing his collar. She breathes gently and her sweet exhalations make him shiver. He grasps her slender waist, but casts his eyes downward as if to shield them from her beauty. He suddenly realises how fleeting this moment is, and how everything must end. The thought reaches his face and the camera clicks.
The sorrow that had sat idly for years – that had grown obese and threatened to overburden his already heavy heart – had begun here in the very moment this photograph had been taken. Now it plagued him. It was no longer a mere worry, but a ruthless reality which threatened to consume him. So it was that Mr. Charles Dodgson did what he always did when desolation struck. He began to write...
Miss Alice Liddell whirled across the stage, playing a caricature of her former self. She skipped and let slip a three-note giggle before engaging in a long soliloquy on the absurdity of imaginary numbers. Though very much a woman now, she had the entire audience riveted and convinced of her childish age. Dodgson sat in the auditorium, outwardly pulling taut an engaged smile at what he hoped were the right moments, but inwardly fighting his own ghastly Jabberwocky. He told himself that the surges of pride, threatening to make waterfalls of his eyes, were for the play – an adaptation of his own chef-d’œuvre – and that the anger and frustration, betrayed by the white knuckles of his clenched fists, had been brought on by the scriptwriter’s insolence and insensitivity in the handling of his precious story. Glancing down at the programme he spotted the culprit’s name – Pat Marvin – and made a mental note to seek him out later. How anyone had managed to twist such a tale to allude to the suffragettes, whilst amputating all his carefully constructed mathematical fancies, was utterly beyond him.
Of course, he wouldn’t really seek out Marvin – mainly because he couldn’t care less about this amateur production. The pride he was feeling was for Alice Liddell, the star of the show, and the one person he thought he still knew. So great was the anger and frustration which now overwhelmed him that he thought he might get up and leave. It was too hot. He tugged at his collar and tried to shrug off his tweed jacket, but the punter on the bench beside him gave no room to manoeuvre. It struck him that the actress who now pranced about on stage was no longer the sweet and thoughtful girl he had once adored – still adored – which made her character all the more cruel.
Miss Liddell was being hoisted aloft by two other members of the cast who were visibly melting under the fresnels and Dodgson began to feel sick as the room began to swim. He tried to focus his vision elsewhere, but their hands on her bare thighs drew his eyes like moths to a flame. The theatre was sweating; he was burning inside and out, and he feverishly surmised that he might have tumbled headlong into Hades. The inferno was upon him, and his eternal punishment was to watch as she drifted further from him, spiraling down the rabbit hole.
He was glad when it was finally over. The house lights came up and the audience erupted into applause as he struggled towards the bar. There, he would exchange necessary (if irritating) pleasantries with a few past acquaintances he had spotted and keep his dark thoughts at bay with a schooner of some dreadful spirit. At least, that was the plan...
A distant bell tolled midnight as Dodgson made his way slowly up the hill towards his house. Most of the street lamps were broken and the moon was far from gibbous, casting its lacklustre glow weakly towards a dark world. He tapped his umbrella on the tarmac as he walked and leaned on it heavily from time to time for seemingly no reason at all. The umbrella had been useless, as had the tweed jacket which he carried now under one arm; it had been the hottest day of the year. Tap, tap, ta-tap, tap, ta-tap, tap, ta-tap. A pattern emerged and rang out along the muffled street, and Dodgson began to hum a tune which wasn’t to be composed for another fifty years.
He contemplated the meaning of his life, the supposed existence of his God, the Stygian afterlife he might expect… then became bored. How did any of this matter when she did not care for him? How could one ponder the great mysteries of existence with half of their fragile identity missing? Perhaps a part of his being was forever lost, preserved only in his written reflections from all those years ago. She had grown so fast; eat me. He smiled bitterly to himself and realised he had stopped walking. Tap, ta-tap, tap, ta-tap; he clicked half a league onward, muttering Tennyson under his breath in a vain venture at diversion. The dactylic rhythm lulled him into a madman’s respite, and for the first time all evening he felt safe from himself. The valley of death could wait. A sigh escaped his lips as he swung open the gate to his humble abode and resigned himself to living.
He stood, drink in one hand, umbrella in the other, trying to look nonchalant and suave all at once. He waited to congratulate his starlet (not his) on her performance. After several minutes of awkward glances at her fellow troupers and muttered congratulations which sounded lame even to his ears, Alice appeared. She waltzed by as if he were not there, but took the drink he proffered as if he were one of the theatre’s many ushers.
Dodgson stood at the edge of the room, shrinking with embarrassment as he tried not to be noticed; drink me! He downed the foul firewater that clung to the belly of his glass and left it on a windowsill. Waiting was a game he was well-acquainted with, though he didn’t much care for it; he preferred a game of riddles any day. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before one of the young thespians at the bar took an interest in the odd tweed-trussed fellow who leant upon his umbrella like a cane and, having graciously donated another dram of liquor to The Dodgson Maudlin Charity upon discovering his nom de plume, was demanding to know the answer to a nonsensical conundrum which had survived the adaptation.
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”, the Transfigured Hatter asked. He thought he knew the answer. Is it perhaps that they both have inky quills? No? Maybe that some macabre American wrote on both? Oh, what a pity… He was out of guesses, though clearly more chuffed with his own attempts at a solution than interested in the Creator’s. Dodgson recalled Alice’s tireless interrogation upon hearing it for the first time; she too had missed the allusion, thinking there to be an answer. Finally, her eyelashes had coaxed one (improvisation) from his lips.
“A raven is like a writing desk, my dear, because it may bring forth a few notes (though they are very flat) and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front.” This latter half had puzzled her for long enough – though his clever nymph twigged at once when it was written down. She thought it silly though and soon had erased it from her memory.
That was a talent of hers. Young Alice relished control, not recognising her complete lack of it, and strove constantly to “be herself” – as if their were other options! So much did she rein in her identity, she might almost be thought incurious. Curiouser and curiouser grew he; Dodgson was dangerously curious. Nothing could blunt the edge on a curiosity like his, and it glinted now, his eyes like daggers dripping with his own hamartia. He had to know her. He had to know love.
He stepped closer to the edge, floating across the yellow line towards the void. His body felt light and flimsy as he listened to the train gliding along the track. It would be so easy… It was only the guilt inspired by a glance at the driver that stopped him. Through the murky windscreen the weathered old face grew and grew (eat me!) as the locomotive slid alongside the platform, evoking a haunting melancholy in Dodgson, almost as though the ghoulish operator had known his thoughts in moments previous. Two doors soundlessly slid apart in an alarming fashion and he stepped aboard.
In fact, everything around Dodgson was utterly alien to him, but he seemed to take no notice, examining a brightly coloured plan of the train’s stops and working out the quickest route home, away from all this – away from her. He walked a way down the carriage and sat down opposite a pretty businesswoman in a slate-grey suit. His eyes wandered vacantly over her face and the pulp paperback she held in her delicate hands before she looked up and he was forced to avert his gaze.
The eerie sound of train on track and the low hum of the engine combined to produce a sinister minor third which niggled into Dodgson’s psyche as he journeyed onwards in the dark. He noticed only when the train slowed and the rumble dropped, creating a tritone which raised hairs on his neck and turned his knees to gooseflesh. Checking his watch to cover his shivers, he realised he wouldn’t be home for a long while and hopelessness overwhelmed him. Suddenly caught up in a net of lassitude, he was left slumped in the arms of Morpheus to be carried through the night by the otherworldly vehicle.
He rounded the corner and was sick into a gutter. Late-night revellers looked at him with a mixture of disgust and pity as he sat down against a wall to collect his bearings. He was glad that she could not see him now – that she was out of sight. Couples sat on the opposite side of the street, nuzzling each other’s necks and preening each other’s hair. Ornamented soprano giggles rose over dull baritone murmurs, and for an instant Dodgson made out their song. He listened for a while, trying to think of nothing. Finding that a more difficult subject than he had supposed it might be, he stood and walked unsurely towards the end of the road. She was quite an actress and he supposed she always had been. He silently gave thanks that the moving picture business wouldn’t take off until the next century, as he reckoned if it had he would only ever see her in two dimensions (and he rather admired her third). That might not be such a bad thing, but Dodgson was broken, stuck going around and around trying to impress a faded memory of Alice. A memory which was incandescent with disaster. He knew nothing could change now. He looked about for a bridge to hurl himself from. He saw the station. He made for it with a new swiftness and surety. This time – this time he would do it.