On the evening of the Summer Solstice the brave explorers finally set off on the expedition that had been planned for so long by the university. When I say ‘so long’ I am referring to a subjective feeling they shared rather than any precise measurement of time. Anxiety had made the days seem long and unbearable but now the dramatic moment had arrived.
The longest day of the year had been chosen because there was less night and this was regarded as a comforting fact by most members of the team. Not that any moonlight would penetrate far into where they intended to delve. The date was purely of psychological benefit, for they were still human beings with the superstitious instincts of their ancestors.
I say ‘they’ but in fact I was also part of the expedition. However my role was to stay behind and wait for their return, so I barely consider myself to have made a real contribution to the mission.
Collins, Fumble, Rigby, Lister, Ripple, Masson and Blister were their names. Seven heroes willing to risk everything in order to add just a little to the universal store of knowledge that belongs to us all. I admired them then and I admire them even more now. And I recall with acute feelings of bitter nostalgia the last sunset they ever saw as it reddened their faces in a cosmic blush on the steps of the university we all worked for.
Then we walked slowly out of the town and over the landscape and soon the entrance of the mystery loomed ahead. This was the portal of fame or doom, depending on what destiny decided, but I do not believe in fate and it seemed of no great menace to me as I approached.
We stopped before it and made final preparations.
The idea had originally been to tether the explorers securely so they could be hauled back out in the event of an emergency, but unmanned probes that had already been sent in indicated that ropes would snag on the superabundance of objects that crammed the enigmatic space.
None of the probes had returned, by the way, but they were designed for a one way trip, so this fact did not worry us. Farewells were brief and every team member shook solemn hands with every other, Collins with Fumble, Rigby with Lister, Ripple with Masson, Blister with me, and so on. The explorers were equipped with food to last several months.
“Switch on your torches please!” cried Collins.
The group had no official leader but I guess someone had to give orders at certain points during the perilous mission. Beams of powerful but oddly unconvincing light appeared to emanate from every hand and a complex mesh of insubstantial girders was suddenly created. Then the beams swivelled to point in one direction only, namely into the mouth of the anomaly.
“Good luck!” I called to them, wiping away a tear.
“Don’t cry in public!” someone said.
I stiffened to attention, but who was there to witness my dishonour? What shame is there in weeping anyway? My tears glinted very faintly in the starlight and only the moths knew anything. They fluttered past and tickled my ears and the powdery sensation of their wings on my lobes made me sob harder but with an unhealthy and involuntary mirth. And then—
They were gone. Not the moths but the explorers.
They had entered the object.
I did everything that was required of me. I sat on a portable camping chair and boiled milk for hot chocolate on a little gas stove. I twiddled my thumbs. In the morning I began reading the first of the books I had brought with me. That is how I passed the time. Every so often a university official would come to check but I never had anything to report.
No journalists ever arrived to interview me.
The story simply had no value for them at this stage. Only if the explorers returned blinking, arms loaded with mementoes, from that undoubtedly hellish region, would the press care about the mission. And they never came back out. That is the thing that needs to be stressed.
None of them ever emerged. The days and weeks became months and the months eventually joined hands into a year.
The funding ran out at that instant. I was required to stand up and fold the chair and take it back to the university. Everything felt heavy, especially a vague feeling of guilt I had, and I walked as if through molten lipstick, wearily and in despair of my shoes. The town seemed unfamiliar to me when I reached it and I entered the campus grounds like a stranger.
Collins, Fumble, Rigby, Lister, Ripple, Masson and Blister already were statues on the steps leading to the main entrance. Skilled masons had been busy in that year of etiolated ambitions. And I had a statue too, but it was of a pigeon with my face perched on the head of Collins, who somehow had posthumously acquired the status of leader. I shuddered.
Nothing was ever the same after that. I started drinking. Not to excess but to a lack of success, which is nearly as bad, and now I am here, in this bar, and you are the first journalist to care about my story. I know I met you by accident here, that you didn’t seek me out, that we started talking randomly, but at least I have had a belated opportunity to tell the tale.
The journalist in question frowns and drains his brandy. His frown is imperfectly symmetrical. “A handbag!”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“How extraordinary! Lost inside a handbag!”
“Indeed. It is terrible.”
“They were your colleagues?”
“Yes and my friends.”
“Were they little men? I mean, to fit inside a handbag they surely must be tiny figures as small as thumbs.”
“They were of normal size. I knew them well.”
“In that case, the handbag must have belonged to a giantess! Was it an enormous example of the type?”
“It was a perfectly ordinary handbag.”
“I don’t understand...”
“What is there to understand? It was a woman’s handbag, no more or less, and they were men! And they will never return, never, and who knows what they are doing in there? Who outside can guess what inexplicable things they have found and are still finding? A woman’s handbag! Now you must go away and leave me alone. I will say it one last time. They were ordinary sized men and the handbag was a typical handbag. They were men like me. That’s all you need to know. The conversation is over.”
He departs and I finish my whisky. Then I too get up and leave the bar and walk home along the dark streets.
And just in case the events of this true story seem no more than a jest based on chauvinism, let me put your mind at rest by declaring that before I reach my front door, both suspender buttons spontaneously pop and my black silk stockings slide down around my ankles.