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Chapter 1

The White Palace (v2)

The factory was drab and monotone, my colleagues blur and shadow, an endless procession of expressionless faces passing me by. The nights bled into one another, separated only by fuzzy daytimes of inadequate slumber. This was my penance — my infraction unremembered.

I toiled away, shuffling sequences of symbols into desirable orderings, my mind wandering to escape the dreary work, searching for an idea to latch onto. An improvement to the sequencing perhaps, substituting one symbol with another taken from the same clustering? Seizing control was a moment of respite on my long journey, but all such attempts at innovation were met with exasperated frowns and gruff harrumphs from the others around me. So I kept my head down and followed the rules, biding my time.

Shuffling ceaselessly, I completed the incoming requests with ruthless efficiency. I was a cog in a well-oiled machine; a small part of a greater self.

Soon after daybreak I burst out into the freshness, the chainsaw-things screaming around me. My eyes, unfocused and downcast, paid them no heed. Shoulders slumping, I began the wretched walk back to my lodgings as the world came to life around me.

I walked and I pondered, trying to recall the root cause of my transgression. It was something dreadful I knew, burdened as I was with the great weight of its guilt. But the details remained fleeting and mysterious to me, hidden in the shadows of my thoughts, betrayed only by the reality of my isolation. This I accepted with alacrity, lacking only knowledge of the details.

Perhaps they were too horrible to contemplate.

This realisation brought me strange comfort. Smiling inwardly, I embraced my naiveté, my ignorance, my lack of self-awareness. Breathing deeply and emptying my mind, I allowed my feet to draw me onward.

The library stood at a bend in the road. I passed it twice daily, a landmark bisecting the line that joined the world of relentless toil with the dream-world of restless slumber. It was a monument to me. A beacon.

I had never been inside.

On my journey to the factory each evening a single light shone somewhere inside its chocolate-biscuit walls, stacks of books silhouetted. Returning home each morning I saw colourful posters tacked to its mirrored windows, which in turn reflected concrete pathways stained with great arcs of rust from the bore-water sprinklers that fed the surrounding gardens, a returns slot gaping in the door to which they led.

I paused to gather my thoughts, feeling as though I was surfacing from the murky depths, drawing a deep breath that filled my lungs as I emerged into full awareness. I regarded the building with nervous trepidation, sensing activity within as others prepared for the coming day.

Curious, I walked a few steps along the pathway leading up to the main entrance, entertaining the idea that I really ought to go inside for once, if only to ease my discomfort. Black shadows from beneath the shrubbery alongside the pathway seemed to wave me onwards as I hesitated along its length. I steeled myself as I approached the slotted door, growing determined to enter.

What harm could come of doing so?

The door opened. A lady stood there in silent expectation, flanked on either side by shadow and gloom that suggested the presence of others. I didn’t wish to confront her, so I bent to admire one of the flowering plants at my knees. I remained like this for a considerable time, but the lady was patient, apparently certain that I would succumb to my curious desires.

I was strong. I arose and turned away from her, walking back toward the street to resume my journey home.

I closed the door gently behind me and put the keys down, stepping into the dimness of my lodgings. All was silent, yet I sensed I was not alone.

Padding though the apartment I entered the bedroom. A girl lay there, her book fallen to the floor, its pages bent back. This did not startle me. We had been residing together for some time, I now realised. Frowning, I struggled to recall her name.

Bending down, I picked up the book, smoothed its creased paper, and replaced it on the bedside table. The cover shouted its author’s name in tall, embossed golden letters. In the limited space beneath was a rendition of a girl, also in bed, but awake and alert and wrapped in a black-and-white patterned sheet that barely served its purpose.

The girl shifted and sighed, beginning the gradual ascent into consciousness. Still dreaming, perhaps, of what she’d been reading.

Julie. That was her name, I remembered. The alarm clock screeched seven.

“Morning meeting, I’ll be late.”

Julie burst out of bed and entered the bathroom, barely glancing my way in the rush. The shower hissed into life.

Later, I cracked four eggs into a pan, muddling them with a wooden spoon on a low heat as the coffee brewed.

Julie had left already, bustling through the kitchen with wet black hair masking her face before rushing out the front door. I continued to prepare the breakfast things, retrieving cream from the fridge, salt and pepper from the pantry, sliced bread from the freezer. I opened the cutlery drawer to the sound of jangling keys, the front door bursting inward. Julie, flustered, collected a few more forgotten items. Then, standing before me, she frowned, stretched up to peck me on the cheek, and was gone again.

I toasted the bread. The coffee pot bubbled. The eggs had achieved the right consistency, so I added a goodly amount of cream into the pan and continued stirring, using my other hand to take the coffee off the heat and pour a cup, topping it up with more of the cream. The toaster popped. All things happened at their proper time; one of life’s small pleasures.

I ate my simple meal on the sofa, a tray on my lap, the television on. Nothing worth watching, but hours of recorded late-night programming to fast-forward through with buttery fingers. Then re-wind when something looked interesting. Then discard when it proved not to be, as it so often did. My morning routine complete, I cleared the things away, changed into my pyjamas and brushed my teeth.

I walked through the house, closing blinds, shutting doors, preparing for sleep. I noticed that Julie had dropped a few scraps of paper on her way out. They didn’t look important, nothing more than strips torn from across the top of a couple of notebook pages, but I left them on the kitchen table for when she returned anyway.

I then climbed into bed, head empty and belly full, and lay down to rest.

I was standing in a vivid countryside. Life buzzed and blossomed all around me, the air glinting with drifting motes of pollen and tiny insects. Grinning at the exquisite detail of my surroundings, I examined a leaf and found that I could see every vein, every mite upon its surface, every fragile hair.

Somewhere far away the chainsaw-things screamed. There were a few dull thuds from closer by, and the muffled babbling of voices. I looked around, but saw nothing amiss.

Then I noticed it. Away in the distance, hidden beyond a citrus grove, there stood a white palace. I was drawn to it, and started walking in its direction. But when I entered the orchard I became hopelessly tangled and lost.

I climbed a large orange tree to get a better view of my predicament. From my perch atop its branches I could see that the orchard was vast, stretching for miles in every direction. And there, far in the distance, lay the palace. In the topmost window of its tallest spire I fancied that a princess waved in my direction, her flowing blond hair shining in the sunlight.

Convinced that the princess was calling for urgent assistance, I gazed upwards and smoothly propelled myself into the sky, feeling the ground drop away beneath me. I crested and dove, sweeping across the treetops, whooping with joy at the sensation of flying through the air so effortlessly. Skimming towards the palace, I passed a fountain. A man stood close to it, hands on hips, his orange head shrouded in a cloud of blue smoke. I zipped past him in a blur. And then I was at my destination, standing outside the portal at the entrance to the palace.

The door creaked opened, and I was surprised to see the lady of the library standing there. I realised then that the palace was the library, all mirrored windows and chocolate-biscuit walls. How strange that I had thought it to be a white palace from a distance! But such is the way of dreams.

The lady turned to address me.

“This is an offer too good to refuse,” she said. “Act now!”

I started backing away, but two gorilla-men rushed out from where they had been cowering in the gloom behind her, bundling me to the ground.

A shock of blackness descended.




Written for NaNoWriMo 2015; edited to first-draft quality during NaNoWriMo 2016

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Jason Hutchens

Jason Hutchens

Procrastinating perfectionist.

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