This is the second part of Harvey John’s novel The Lost Burdens. To read part 1 click here.
Chapter 1 – The Ordinary Life of Fraser Daniels
Fraser Daniels had woken up that morning, his stomach a bundle of nerves. He felt as though he may be sick, or on the verge of sickness. He of course knew to expect this, and in anticipation of the insomnia that usually came in company, he’d swallowed a sleeping pill the night before.
Sleep was important, especially today. He needed his mind as sharp as the edge of a butcher’s cleaver. Today was going to be a day that changed his life forever. A day he’d worked towards for four and half long years. Now it was time to put all he’d learned into achieving something he truly thought wonderful and ground-breaking.
Of course, he could be mad, and no one would blame him for that. When one goes missing for five, nigh on six, years of their life and returns with barely a memory of that lost half-decade, people expect a little oddity. Fraser saw it as nothing more than a blip in an otherwise happy life, a life that had led him from his parents’ house in Aberdeen to studying at Edinburgh University.
His Ma and Da were so proud of him, especially considering the time he’d lost. They’d thought they’d lost their wee boy for good, and when he came back they were frightened that he’d be emotionally scarred or too scared to engage with the outside world. And here he was, living in his own little flat in Craigour.
It was a comfortable little place, converted from an old house that had belonged to Georginas’ uncle who’d passed some fifteen years ago. Fraser’s missus and him had moved in after their third year, once her parents had settled down to the idea of her living with the lad they’d known as the Terror of Richmond Terrace.
He looked back fondly on those times, but also with some sadness for the horrible little lad he once was. He’d been a bit of a bully in his youth. He’d hit puberty earlier than most and had decided, given his height advantage, to steal sweets and crisps from the little ones in his area.
Georgina was one such soul he’d tried to rob, him at nine and her at five, he’d thought her easy pickings. Then she punched him, right in the golden jewels. He had cried, and she had been raised to the level of local hero. Funny, he mused, how life goes about itself. One second, the girl across the street is your greatest nemesis. The next she’s the love of your life and your whole reason for being.
One of the first memories he recalled, when he came back from wherever he was, was seeing her. He didn’t know then that it was Georgina Douglas he was looking at…or perhaps deep down he did. She had been in The Meadows outside of Edinburgh University with her folks, doing a tour of the place.
“Georgina!” he’d said, first as a hollow whisper then a loud shout that startled many including himself. She’d turned and looked at him. She was beautiful then as she was now, standing between her parents. Her father had placed his hand in front of her and stared him down like a mother bear against a cougar.
He did not say anything but looked into her eyes, pleading with all he was for her to see him, to recognise him– not a friend but a familiar face long lost. She stared back at him and, somehow, saw in his aged face something familiar. “Fraser?”
Like all those years before he’d wept but this time he’d fallen into her embrace and not run away from her fist. She’d let him weep in a manner that now made him blush red just thinking about it and for which he was often teased by his better half.
He shook his head, as if the shaking would loosen all these thoughts and memories that once weighed on him. He was no longer that man, that boy, who’d been broken. Now he was stronger than before. He was a man, with a girlfriend and a job and running five minutes slower than he should be.
He sent a text to Georgina letting her know he was on her way to the Uni building now. She quickly responded telling him that her, Nathan and Molly would be going to the pub later and that whatever should happen he should join them either in a pint of victory or a pint of solace.
He didn’t disagree that a pint would be needed either way today. He set out from the apartment, waving to his neighbour Michael on his way out. The nosey little man was staring out of his window as always, fixing his suspicious eyes on Fraser’s retreating form. The man was a true oddity, always awake and always watching. Perhaps he didn’t trust Fraser, the suspicious character he was. He always had his eye on Fraser’s arms. It was something he learnt to live with, the result of a mystery he had no intention of solving.
It was a good hour of walking at least to make it to the University building, Fraser was due to make his presentation in less than an hour and a half. He’d been such a fool not to remember the broken bike. Though this wasn’t the first time something had slipped his mind or he’d been subject to the Mandela effect.
He was constantly recalling things incorrectly – the year World War Two began, the names of world leaders, deaths of celebrities who were still alive. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. For a good few years he kept calling Mars ‘Aries’, insisting that was the planet’s name. Georgina had quite a victory parade the day he’d googled that.
Perhaps he should have been more worried, the gaps in his knowledge were far from subtle. And yet for all he didn’t understand, there was much he did. He could speak nearly a dozen languages perfectly, had a mind for maths that made many turn their heads when he told them he was a student of philosophy. And, he was in great shape. A runner beyond many, he could run for miles and not feel at all tired from the exercise.
It was why he wasn’t completely panicking at the prospect of walking in with barely an hour till his meeting. More than anything he was worried his proposal might come off a little…strange. It was an idea he’d had in his head for some time, a little voice in the background that just wanted to get out and express itself through the academic word.
He had high hopes, Dr Leslie Madders, who had been his supervisor through his MA, had always had a kind spot for him. Or as much of a kind spot as a passionate little Welsh woman could have. She was an odd sort like him, but in a different way. Her means of educating was both to be extremely mean and extremely kind. Loud but gentle, inspiring but fearful. Her classes divided on their view of her. Some thought her horrid, while others believed she was inspiring and her burst of anger came from a need to inspire understanding in her students.
As he came along the way to the Uni, he paused briefly and turned then headed on a quick detour into Newton Cemetery. An eery yet beautiful piece of land covered in trees, he would linger here but a moment to pay his kind respects to his departed kin. His grandmother was buried here, and he felt obligated to see her whenever the opportunity came about.
She had been a good woman , as much a mother to him as his Ma. She’d passed not three years ago, too many pills in her system. The doctors believed that in her confused state she’d forgotten the safe dosage. Fraser believed she’d chosen to go out of this world as she had been in life – someone who could recall her own name.
He stopped in front of her plaque and rested a hand there for but a minute, allowing himself to feel sad for her loss but inspired by the faith she had in him. Both her and his grandad had always believed the best in him. Like Fraser, his grandad was long missing but unlike him it was not mysterious.
His grandfather had always been a man who came and went at his pleasure, disappearing and re-appearing suddenly throughout Fraser’s life. According to his Ma, it had always been that way. His grandfather was a travelling salesman, or so he said, for Fraser could not recall him selling anything. And yet he always returned from his travels with some measure of wealth, and not traditional wealth gathered in a bank account or in paper or coin.
The last time he’d seen his grandfather had been six months before his grandmother died. He’d gone to visit and found her and his grandfather screaming. He could see that it was some sort of horrid argument occurring through the front window. He’d walked away fast and returned the next day to find him gone again and his grandmother a broken woman. Not long after, she was diagnosed with dementia.
“He’d said it would.” had been her reaction to the news.
It occurred to him that somehow, someway, his grandfather had known what was to happen to his wife long before she did. He would have liked to know how but the old Englishman had vanished once again. This time, seemingly, for good. Yet his grandmother was still here, dead and in the ground but at least he knew where she was. And he knew that she would tell him to be brave and wear a smile, for this is what gives the world the image of strength.
So, he put on a smile and kept walking, even though he was beginning to feel a change in the air. And he wasn’t sure why, but he felt as though he was being pulled away from this world. He chalked it down to a strange feeling in his gut, as he had to do for all such feelings for this world he lived in and this was the world he chose…. though he did not know what that meant…
By the time he had reached the university, the majority of his nerves had been quenched and he was now feeling much more prepared and calmer about pitching his proposal. He managed to cut some time by quickly jogging his way across several roads, much to the ire of several foul-mouthed drivers.
Arriving at the Uni, as ever he was impressed. An old but growing school, it had its history carved into its ancient buildings and its commitment to progress through its sleek modern buildings. Years back, before his strange disappearance, Edinburgh hadn’t even been on his mind. In fact, his heart had been set on attending Cardiff University, as a friend, well a young lass, he knew through online gaming, lived there and, as a man, he followed the call of nature.
He chose to come here, again, because of a lass but also because this place felt familiar and safe. A strange feeling that he knew not why he felt but simply did. It had not been the easiest place to get in to, he had not always been the best at examinations and so his A-Levels had been quite ordinary.
Yet, after hearing Georgina was going to be there, something stirred in him. It had been many months since his return, and she’d been his closest friend in that time. Most the friends he’d grown up with had moved away, some for education and some for work. Others were married, a few even had children.
It mattered not to him, Georgina was the only friend he needed then and he’d made more along the way. Nathan and Molly he’d met at a Freshers party, one with their head down a toilet and the other holding back Nathans’s hair while posting photos on to Snapchat. Glory days, they pass you by faster than you blink and faster than you might think.
Molly Bregman was still at Edinburgh but now worked part time as a lecturer in the English department. Nathan meanwhile was living at home, and currently unemployed while he worked full time on writing his novel. Georgina and Fraser had both stayed to do doctorates. Georgina was doing hers in medicine – she didn’t just want the title of Doctor, she wanted to earn it and be the first in her family to receive a PhD before the age of thirty.
Georgina had already started her PhD, having been accepted by her brilliant proposal which she’d worked to perfection while undertaking her Masters. Fraser hadn’t quite been so certain about his own project. His desires were clear, but the subject remained elusive. Until one night it hit him.
After two long months he was finally ready to pitch his proposal to Leslie. He was a bit surprised, mind, that he’d been asked to come in and pitch it in person. Though he understood Leslie had a way of doing this that went against traditional academic protocol. It was probably why she was such a good teacher, she firmly believed in questioning the nature of things.
“No subject should be withheld from open discourse,” she’d once said. “That’s why philosophy is so important. Doing things is one thing, understanding why and questioning if we didn’t is another. No matter how uncomfortable the subject matter, we should always be free to discuss and debate and give opinions. As living beings, we’re incredibly complex. As ones capable of higher thought and greater action than most other species, we’re our own riddle wrapped in an enigma.”
She’d said that on the first day of his second year. From that point onward he’d wanted to be taught exclusively by her. Not that his other lecturers were anything other than brilliant, but none of them inspired like she did. Sometimes after lectures, if the weather was, nice, she’d head over to The Meadow with a few students who wanted to follow her and they’d sit on the grass sipping drinks, eating lunch, and just talk.
Talk about everything and nothing. Literally, once he’d joined them and the subject had been the concept of nothing – how there could be no true concept of nothing in the human mind for even trying to picture nothing most of us picture darkness, and even when trying to truly think no thoughts, thoughts of something must clearly be there to be so clearly absent of something.
Once Georgina had come along and she’d told how she wanted to be a doctor, and she meant a real doctor. That then in turn evolved into an argument about what was truly real and what, if any, meaning was held by titles. By the time that had settled down, most of the group had drifted towards the pub and then continued to the very next day. So late did the talking go on that by the time of the 2pm lecture neither Fraser nor Leslie, nor at least half a dozen other students (including Georgina) and another faculty member (Georgina’s diss supervisor Mike), had had so much as a wink of sleep. How he missed those days…
Leslie was in her office on the third floor, drinking a cup of coffee and reading what he assumed to be some homework she’d issued for her latest batch of freshers. Evidently she was none too pleased with the effort this particular first year had put in. He couldn’t say he could ever recall her being so foul-mouthed though he should have guessed with her temperament.
He gently rapped the door. Tap, tap-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap, tap-tap. Startled, she looked up and waved him in. “Morning Leslie.” He greeted her with a smile while she gave him a funny look.
“You know Fraser, I don’t think I know a single other person who knocks like that,” she remarked.
“Oh, well, just little odd quirk of mine I suppose.”
“Yeah, it is a bit weird,” she stated, then before he responded, “How’s Georgina doing? I haven’t seen her since that night at the Hen.”
“Working hard, Mike’s pushing her along. You know Mike though.”
“Aye, hard arse but a good arse that gets you to get the work done. Mind you, I wouldn’t spend an evening with that pompous twat if my life depended on it.”
Fraser said nothing in response.
“So, your proposal. Now, not to put too much pressure on you, but with your history in my class I’m hoping for something quite amazing.”
“Well, I’d like to think this is…unique.” He offered, opening his faux leather bag, and pulling out the proposal and setting it in her beckoning hand. Leslie gave a quick glance at the title and raised and eyebrow.
“‘Meaning and the Multiverse – Understanding Ethics Within Infinite Parallel worlds…Fraser, you’re really gonna have to sell this. Cause this is maybe a little too weird.” She told him as she began skimming his written work.
“Well, you’re aware of the theory of the multiverse, right? Infinite parallel realities playing out around us. Well in recent years there been more studies that have concluded that there is evidence of these other realities existing around our own. Essentially, my doctorate would aim to discuss why ethics remains important when you have endless possible realities existing around us,” he said.
“In theory,” Leslie pointed out.
Fraser shrugged. “Well, as I said, there have been studies in recent years. Strong suggestions that ours isn’t the only universe out there.”
“Yes, well, even if that was a true fact, why on Earth, or Earths I guess, would that affect the importance of ethics?”
Leaping to the defence he’d prepared, Fraser explained, “Well consider how most of us act and make actions. We decide to give money to the homeless, donate to charities, help old women cross the street because we believe we’ll be rewarded or because we feel it’s the right thing to do. Well with infinite universes, we could see all the alternatives to those times when we made different decisions. Worlds where giving money to the homeless may lead to our own state of poverty or may even lead us to great fame and fortune through our kindness. Imagine, if you will, we could see these realities and see all the possibilities. Now knowing from these realities what our actions might lead to could corrupt our own sense of right and wrong and remove any desire to act. We might feel in a state of hopelessness not understanding how one version of us prospers and another suffers from the same act we do every day.”
“Ah, I see. So in essence, our personal motivations change.” Leslie nodded. “So what’s the argument you’re making? Cause it seems to me that if knowing about potential alternatives lives is the problem then the solution is the current state of things – not knowing about potential other versions of us who may or may not be living in mansions or slumming it behind a Maccies.”
“Actually Leslie,” he interjected. “I feel that its more important for us to know about what goes on in parallel realities. Seeing the best and worst of us, seeing how certain lifestyles and societies play out in real time could allow us to see, not just in theory but in practice, which theories of ethics and what versions of society prosper most and why they prosper.”
“And that would be handy if we could. But we can’t.”
“Well, actually…we can in a way.” Answering her puzzled look he explained, “The university has connections with a company that develops advanced military computers for the government. A lot of the STEM graduates have taken their work there. I was hoping perhaps you could see if it was at all possible that I might be able to use one of their programmes to run simulations-“
“Play out alternative worlds like a computer game?” Leslie sighed. “It’s not exactly proof of concept Fraser. And it’s not exactly likely either.”
“I know, I know, and it’s not as important as some of the work they do but Leslie this could be groundbreaking work. The sort that wins Nobel prizes.” Fraser pleaded.
Leslie snorted lightly. “Yes, it is. It could also get you a one way trip to loony-ville…which is why I’ll reach out and ask. No promises though, and even then I’ll have to get someone else as open-minded as me to sign on on this.”
“So…so you’re saying…?”
“I’m saying a very, very, very hesitant maybe, again it will take me a bit of time and a lot of academic political capital…if you win a Nobel you’re buying me a Mercedes.” She informed him. “ The company your talking about, Pilgrim isn’t it?”
“Y-yeah. Like the cheese,” he answered.
“Oh I’m plenty familiar with the cheese. Lush it is!” She gushed. “ There are of course a few things here I’d like to go over with you, just in case Pilgrim turns us down. Though to be honest, and just between us, I think they’re up for anything. I met their boss once at a function. Strange man, strange name.”
“Yeah, Bernard Pilgrim? Anyway, yeah so let’s go over this…”
Leslie gave him a thorough talking to, walking him through his entire proposal which felt strangely like waking from a dream. He wasn’t sure where his mind had been while he’d been speed typing it out, but both were in agreement – they weren’t sure if it was madness or genius.
And while Leslie had clearly stated this was by no means a certainty, it was likely enough that he was considering having more than a few pints tonight. He texted the good news to the love of his life who quickly responding with heartfelt congratulations and a reminder to be at the pub at 5 pm.
That gave him a few hours to sort himself a bit and change into something a little nicer. Also the walk back to his flat would burn a few calories and he’d noticed he’d put on a few lately. All that sitting in front of a till was adding to his hours of boredom, and he was subtracting with food.
Perhaps best he’d just have enough to slow down the beer when he ordered some food at The Hen later. Meanwhile he was off and back on his way back to Craigour. He decided to take a different route back, it was looking like a sunny day and so he thought why not and took a left on his way back to head towards Craigmillar Castle Park.
It wasn’t often he got to take this route home, he would like to walk it more often. On days when he was awake at the same time as Georgina she’d coax him into running that way for the climb on the way back was ‘a short way to a quick burn’.
It’s a short way to staining my boxers, he’d always respond to which she’d whack him over the head with a pillow. For a smart and often quite calm woman, Georgina could hit with the force of a fin whale. He’d had plenty of times explaining bruises from play fights brought on in fits of excitement. And as for the rest…well, a gentleman doesn’t tell.
It was as he was passing the back of the waste recycling centre that things took a turn. The skies turn as clouds blew in on stormy winds and the first droplets of rain pattered on the ground. A warning shot for the barrage to come.
“Really?!” He exclaimed.
Thunder cracked like Thor laughing down on the poor Scottish fellow and he decided to quicken his pace for the sake of rain soon to fall. He reckoned he’d catch the bus back down later on, he’d no desire to get back soaking wet.
Fraser wanted his pints, and to wrap his arms around his love and know that, so long as she was there, all was right in the world. Though right in that moment he’d have settled on the foresight to bring with him an umbrella, and a flashlight. The clouds overhead and the tree branches above him showed this pleasant little walk was turning quite horrific.
As it often did, his mind ran wild and far off into the dark corners of his imagination. There it proposed to him what could be about to happen – that he was about to be the dinner of some feral beast or some monster in the dark. The rational part of his brain said to him this was nothing but nonsense, there was no such thing as monsters. If something was going to attack him it would be a someone.
“Oh yeah, that bloody helps!” Fraser muttered, while assuring to himself everything was fine and he was two minutes from the street lamps around the corner on Old Dalkeith Road. He’d soon be turning the corner and be out in the clearing where he could see the road and the passing cars. The safety of civilisation, though ironically, he knew that actual civilisation was more dangerous than the wild these days.
That’s when he heard it. Fraser could hear the sound of rustling, a noise he ordinarily would have dismissed if he hadn’t felt as though someone’s eyes were on him. Not something, like a bird or a fox, but someone. He kept walking, knowing full well that he should keep his calm and wait for the opportune moment when he was out beyond the treeline where he could make a dash across the road and leave the flurry of passing cars as the barrier between him and whatever foul person was hiding amongst the trees.
As the light of the street lamp got nearer, he started to feel his heartbeat drop and his breathing relax. Then he felt a cold hand on his shoulder and turned to face the very image of not a robber but what could only be a ghost…or a very pail looking Mike Dougan.
“Christ, Mike!” he shouted, clutching his chest. “What the bloody hell are you playing at you fool?”
Screaming at the man he completely forgot that this was a lecturer and Georgina’s PhD supervisor, but if the man seemed bothered, he showed no quarrel only offering an apologetic look and keeping his hands above his head.
“My apologies Fraser. I saw you turning the corner. Actually, I thought I saw you a little while back but Nigel decided to go and run into a pile of crap. Speaking of, where’s the wee devil? Nigel! Come back here you little troublemaker!”
And from out of the bushes came a tall golden retriever with a stick in his mouth – a branch really, tail wagging and not a care in the world nor the slightest idea that, up until a few moments ago, Fraser had mistaken him for an attacker hiding in ambush.
“Sorry Mike, got a wee bit scared for a moment there.”
Waving a dismissive hand he said, “No harm no foul. You going back to your home?”
In that moment of panic, Fraser had completely forgotten Mike lived barely two streets down from his current lodgings.
“Yeah, umm, heading back to freshen up, then going to join Georgina at the Hen.” He told him as the two, well three, started walking.
“Ah, off for a bender of celebration I take it?” Mike asked.
“Nah, nothing so extreme,” He joked. “Just a little end of week drink.”
“And this’ll have nothing to do with the fact that your presentation was today?” At his surprised look Mike smirked. “Forget whatever Leslie says about me, she loves me deep down.”
“Didn’t she once call you a shitty little wanker?”
“Deep, deep down,” he repeated with a smile.
Mike rambled on but something had caught Fraser off guard, and this time it wasn’t Nigel hiding in the bushes. It was a strange sensation, that he couldn’t describe and the flash of an image in his mind which he could not place to anywhere he’d been.
A desert under a hot sun where a tall man sat in the shade of gargantuan mountains. The image was gone as soon as it had arrived, and he was able to play it off without any suspicions. What was happening to him he knew not, nor could he as he could not know many things. That barely twenty miles away on a train, Joseph received the same image.
“So soon,” he grumbled, irritated but accepting that tomorrow would bring with it a new day, an old face, and a world he had not seen for some decades. Joseph only hoped Bernard wasn’t too close on his trail!
There you have it, chapter one of The lost Burdens. I hope you enjoyed the read and are as eager as I am to find out what happens in the next chapter – does Fraser make it to the pub? Does his grandad make it in time? And what’s up with Bernard being all over the place?
You’ll find out more next week. In the meantime, please feel free to follow me on my social media platforms and donate to my PayPal. Remember, every time I reach over a new hundred in followers, I’ll release a chapter, an extra chapter. Until then, cheerio!
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Next time –
“What of the body?”
“Speak Walkens! Or I’ll have your head, Fuhrers furry be damned!”
“N-no body Grand Marshall. Not even a blood stain… I…I can’t even explain-“
“Yes well of course you wouldn’t.” He sighed. “But you did see it before it…evaporated, yes?”
“Umm, yes Grand Marshall.” The snivelling sergeant stumbled over his words.
“Did he look like this?” The Grand Marshall placed a crudely drawn sketch in front of Sargent Walken.
Examining it closely, and with some trepidation, he answered honestly, “Yes Grand Marshall. A little older perhaps, but yes.”
“Hmmm, so he’s dead.” He then did the oddest thing and began laughing. “Thank you Walken, you are dismissed.”
Walken, confused but dutiful, nodded and saluted his leader before leaving. In walked the Grand Marshall Chief commination’s officer who saluted her leader before asking, “What shall I convey to the Prime?”
Grand Marshall Bernard leaned forward in his chair and grinned. “Convey to him that James is deceased and that the book is beyond them. The grand rising cannot fail now!”