Alice watched the iridescent bubble fluctuate, tall and skinny, short and fat, as it hovered above her bath. Eventually the laws of physics played its part and the bubble fell to the foam landscape, bursting in a spectacular rainbow. Satisfied with this culmination, Alice slid down the tub, submerging her head beneath the water. This meant however, that her knees were now exposed to the chill air and for some reason that was worse than the cold tip on her nose, so she resurfaced, Amphitrite leaving her domain. The phone rang, and Alice smiled in anticipation.
‘Hi, this is Alice and Tom’s phone,’ said the answering machine, ‘Tom is out fucking his whore and Alice is in a nice hot tub with a glass of chardonnay and a razor blade. Please leave a message … and have a nice day!’
‘Ah, hi, this is Chris from the Mus Musculus Society, I just called to ask if you could spare a nickel for our research? Now is probably not a good time so I will phone back later. Bye.’
Alice gave a little giggle of embarrassment for the unexpected caller then finished her cheap wine and balanced the glass beside the bright orange pill cannister.
‘Looks like it is just you and me, Mr Mouse Guy,’ said Alice.
Later, the phone rang again, and again, but Alice couldn’t hear it from her crimson pool.
She heard nothing, not the lapping of waves, the creak of the rowlocks, nor the scurrying of the boat. A blanket of silence had been carefully draped over the river and with it came the serried fingers of opaque fog. She huddled down into her seat in the bow and pulled an imaginary shawl around her shoulders, it wasn’t cold at all, but the sombre mood warranted it.
‘Spare a nickel, lady?’ came a cockney voice from the gloom. ‘I don’t have ’nuff to pay old Charon and he don’t ‘alf get crusty.’
This reminded Alice that she too was short the full fare, in fact her purse was quite empty.
‘Why? What happens if you can’t pay?’ she hissed at the unseen stranger.
‘You get dumped in the river and made to swim for the shore.’
‘But that’s terrible!’ said Alice, ‘Which way would you swim? You could go on forever.’
Alice hunched her knees up and thought, ‘I am invisible, just this once, I am invisible’.
‘It’s like this me old china, see…’ the stranger’s protestations interrupted her prayers. There was a resounding splash and an, ‘Oh, bugger,’ as Alice’s companion landed in the river.
Alice peered at the dark shadow that confronted her and quickly realised that she was not invisible.
Grabbed by rough hands, she was lifted to her feet, ‘Wait, but wait! I can’t …’
Alice thrashed the tepid water of the river, arms flailing wildly, only to realise that the more she struggled, the quicker she sank. She soon found it easy to dog paddle to the surface.
‘Orright?’ called her cheerful companion from nearby. ‘Don’t struggle, you can float easily enough, and I am here,’ he said, paddling skilfully to her side.
‘Why, you’re a mouse!’ said Alice, surprised.
Mouse smiled and introduced himself as just that, Mouse, and they agreed to share the journey, even though uncertain, as they were, of a direction. The mouse wanted to take any course, but Alice was not so sure. She swivelled her body to the four points of the compass then looked at mouse with eyes that verged on hysterical.
‘We could be swimming in the wrong direction,’ she cried, ‘or worse, in circles.’
Then Alice paused and looked at Mouse, curious. To their ears came a hurly-burly of whistling melodies.
‘What is that music?’ asked Alice.
‘Sirens,’ said Mouse.
‘No, I’m certain it is a calliope, perhaps two, maybe three.’
‘Sorry love, it’s a siren, a mermaid siren, tempting us further into the river,’ he explained.
‘I see,’ said Alice. ‘Well, as it is coming from the left, we shall swim to the right.’
‘Seeing it is coming from the right we should swim to the left.’
‘As we cannot agree, left or right, I think we shall swim between them,’ she decided, ‘We will find our destination in the silence,’ and Alice set off.
‘You know what Kafka said about sirens and silence, don’t you, love?’ asked Mouse, following her.
Alice and the mouse sat on the stony shore and watched the billowing mist dissolve. A kindly old fisherwoman had wrapped them both in a blanket while another gentle soul had placed a tin mug of steaming sweet tea in their hands. A swarthy gentleman, who might have been carved from granite, tipped a fiery liquid into their mugs.
‘This will dry you out!’ he said with the voice of a keel being drawn over rocky shoals. ‘We don’t get many survivors here, most seem to swim out to sea.’
An awkward young urchin came and stood before them, the river waves rolling over his ankles, he picked his nose and knocked his knees then finally asked, ‘Spare a nickel mister? Spare a nickel missus?’
‘Why would you want a nickel, young man?’ asked a curious Alice.
‘The carnival, missus, I want to see the carnival!’ and the young boy became all dreamy-eyed, ‘I wanna see the wonders of the world.’
‘Carnival?’ it was Mouse’s turn. ‘What carnival?’
‘The carnival on the headland!’ said the little boy, surprised that they didn’t know. ‘Can’t you hear the music?’
Alice and Mouse could hear the fairground organs playing their protrusive tunes and recognised them at once. They looked at each other, first in horror, then with amusement, then shared a full belly laugh with tears rolling down their cheeks.
‘Here, get out of it you grub!’ said Mr Granite to the boy, fearing that he had pushed the survivors over the edge with his chatter. The boy waded disconsolately along the shore while Alice finished her tea and rose to her feet.
‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
‘Well, some folk stay right here, making a home for themselves among us, but most, and there hasn’t been that many, make their way to the temple on the hill to find their comfort.’
Mouse and Alice lifted their eyes and there, overlooking the river, bathed in the gentle afternoon light, was a temple, resplendent in its pink sandstone and white marble highlights. Alice noted that there was no iconography of any faith apparent in the architecture and that the path was littered with the aids and contraptions of the disabled and disadvantaged.
‘Most people find solace there, I suppose.’ continued Mr Granite.
Together they admired the splendour of the temple on the hill.
‘Shall we?’ asked Alice.
‘My oath!’ said Mouse with enthusiasm.
The pair turned and began to make their way along the shore.
‘Here, where are you going?’ called Mr Granite. ‘The temple is this way!’
‘The temple?’ laughed Alice, ‘that temple is not our destination, kind sir, our place is at the carnival!’
And they started to run.
Alice was quickly swept up the fairground midway by a flood of humanity, pushing and shoving, bumping. A rainbow of lights swayed overhead and the night air, a thick fudge of deep fried food, rang with a cacophony of sound. She eventually found a quiet backwater, somewhere outside the eddies of the crowd, and caught her breath.
‘Spare a nickel, young lady? Can you spare a nickel?’
Alice turned at the familiar phrase and was confronted by a graven-faced old carnie, dirty flannelette, grease-caked jeans, a grey leonine shock of unkempt hair.
‘Spend a nickel and win a bob!’ he continued.
‘Well,’ said Alice, ‘this is not what I expected at all!’
‘Nothing is as is expected!’ he said, as though spruiking to the passing throng. ‘You pay your money and you has your fun!
‘What money? What fun?’ she asked, ‘I have had nothing!’
‘You come into the world with nothing,’ said the carnie. ‘You leave with nothing.’
Alice shook her head, ‘Still, one should be able to expect … something … a destination at least.’
The carnie gave her a toothy grin, carious gravestones in the moonlight. ‘You’re a queer fish, I’ll give you that,’ he said. ‘So, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do, one free shot … one on the house … can’t do fairer than that, can I?’
Alice took the proffered ball and assessed the stand of knock-’em-downs. The old man was watching her intently but didn’t notice the tiny start of recognition as Alice saw the glint of a musculus eye behind the pyramid of cans. She weighed the ball carefully in her hand then swung in a powerful sweeping arc to launch it at the target. The ball floated harmlessly by and bounced off the back of the joint, but inexplicably the target toppled to the ground. The carnie looked perplexed but smiled anyway.
‘Winner!’ he called out. ‘We have a winner! The lucky lady takes home a dime for her trouble! Only a nickel, come test your skill!’
The old man reached into his dilly bag and pulled out a dime, ‘There you go young lady, there’s your winnings, why not spend it at the mirror maze? Might find what you are looking for there.’
Suddenly the crowd surged, and Alice was sucked into the ebb and flow once more, drawn further up the midway.
Alice stepped away from the mirror, uncertain of what to make of her new-found youth. She turned and saw that she was overlooking a pastoral utopia where wolves lived with lambs, a leopard slept with goats and a fatted calf grazed the lush green grass with a lion.
Suddenly a voice from nowhere called out, ‘Excuse me miss, can you spare a nickel?’ and a cat, resplendent in a fine cut suit, emerged from the nearby thicket.
‘A nickel? Why, you are cloaked in Armani and shod with Gucci, on your wrist is Versace and you reek of Clive Christian, why would you need a nickel?’ asked a surprised Alice.
‘Always ask, miss, always ask. Didn’t get this rich by giving it away you know,’ said the cat. ‘Now, are you ready to play your part, miss, are you ready to lead?’
Alice gave the cat a bewildered look.
‘Oh, dear, miss, have you forgotten? Has the passage slipped your mind? Let me refresh you’ and here the cat rather noisily cleared his throat, ‘and the young child shall lead them. There, that’s you miss, that’s your journey.’
‘Lead where though, Mr Cat, and whom?’ asked Alice on uncertain ground.
It was the cat’s turn to look confused, but he finally pulled himself together.
‘Why, nowhere, miss, anywhere and everywhere will do, just … just … lead.’
‘Ahh yes, but you can’t just lead, you know,’ Alice was more certain now. ‘There has to be a destination!’
The cat pondered this for a moment, no one had ever asked before.
‘No need to go anywhere, miss, we are already there,’ said the cat without conviction.
Alice was about to demand to know who were where when a ruckus in the thicket drew her attention. Four fat mice emerged and rolled down the hill towards the grazing animals. The cat snarled and bounded after them, but they reached the placid lion first and gently peeled back its cloak.
‘Why, that lion is a calf in disguise,’ said Alice with indignation. ‘What other deceits await me?’
But before the mice could answer, the cat was among them and began to bite their heads off.
‘Run away, Alice, run,’ screamed her friend, the mouse.
Alice hadn’t waited for Mouse to call out but had rushed urgently to his aid as the cat continued its gruesome task. Mouse watched Alice come down the hill with reproach, ‘you should have run to the mirror!’ he said, taking a languid step into the feline claw.
Alice towered over the cat, her shadow an implied threat.
‘What?’ asked the cat looking up from its grizzly feast.
Alice bent and retrieved the decollated body of Mouse.
‘How was I supposed to know he was an acquaintance of yours, miss?’ said the cat. ‘I certainly would not have harmed him had I known.’
She turned and stalked away from the cat, taking long and determined strides towards the mirror. The cat scurried to keep up with her, bouncing through the undergrowth.
‘Where are you going, miss? What are you going to do?’ he asked. ‘No good going back to the mirror now! It has shrunk, you won’t fit!’ The cat wove between her legs then stopped in front of her. ‘Miss, Alice, I have so much to show you, there is so much to offer, why would you want to go now?’
Alice brushed past and marched on steadfastly till she reached the mirror. In the reflection was a young Alice, a fresh-faced youth full of life and enthusiasm. Alice didn’t recognise her.
‘Besides, you can’t go, you don’t have a nickel!’
Alice headbutted the reflective glass as she attempted to step into it, but the mirror only rocked on its base. She tried to push her hand through, then a foot but the mirror remained impenetrable. Desperate, she charged around to the rear and landed knee deep in water.
‘Watch out for the brook, miss! A rivulet, that runs from the back of the mirror,’ called the cat.
Suddenly Alice loomed over him.
‘Give me a nickel, Cat, give me a nickel or else!’
The cat took a step back and reached into his fob pocket, withdrawing the desired coin.
‘Before I give it to you miss, before I grant this boon, there is something you should know,’ and with this he held the nickel up in both hands, a holy communion wafer. ‘You have changed, miss, but back there, through the mirror, things have remained the same.’
Alice snatched the coin and turned to the mirror, in the reflection was the old Alice, the comfortable Alice, a well-worn and familiar slipper. She could hear the sirens and the doctors, and the nurses and she could hear her husband’s voice, she could hear Tom.
She stood there for an eternity, listening to his insincere homages and hollow promises then asked over her shoulder, ‘Cat, where does that brook flow to?’
‘Where ever it wants, miss.’
Alice listened a little longer before saying, ‘I might follow that brook, Cat, follow it till it joins a creek, then follow that creek till it joins a river, then follow that river till it flows into a sea and follow that sea until it joins a … till it flows into a …’
‘An ocean, miss?’ offered the cat.
Alice was delighted, ‘Yes, an ocean, Cat, and do you know why?’
‘No, miss, I cannot fathom it.’
Alice handed the nickel back to the cat then gently placed the body of Mouse into her pocket and checked her reflection in the mirror. It was the young Alice looking out at her again.
‘Because death isn’t a destination, Mr Cat, it is a journey.’
Then Alice stepped behind the mirror and was gone.