A long long time ago in an earlier century, I did some random reading about medieval constructions of the world/universe. One that particularly appealed to me was the reverse of the version we work with now. In it, the surface of the earth was like the inner surface of a hollow sphere, rather than the outside, as if the atmosphere was a big bubble in an endless mass of dirt.
I took that for a story and updated it to a 1990s office block where, when the window cracks, dirt tumbles in and the sky proves to be an illusion. The story was called Meanwhile, Thirty-Eight Above Charlotte (it’s back again as an ebook called The Truth of Jacarandas).
So why has this story come to mind now? Because yesterday it felt as though I was living something like it.
It was raining in Sydney, so I decided to go to the hotel gym instead of going out for a run. I caught the lift to the 23rd floor, walked up the spiral staircase to the 24th and the pool I’d swum in the day before and let myself in through the pool gate. It’s one of those child-safe ones where you lift a knob at head height. There was a guy cleaning the pool, but otherwise no one around. I walked into the gym and, as I was checking out the equipment, realised I hadn’t brought a towel. Then I saw the ‘no towel, no workout’ sign. And I’m both a nerdy rule-abider an a hater of gym equipment drenched in other people’s sweat, so the choice was clear. I walked out of the gym to go back to my room and fetch my towel.
The first hint that all was not right came at the lifts. There were only three of them, and I was sure there had been five before. That make no sense at all, so I put it down to festival fatigue. Besides, who’s in the business of counting lifts and then checking them again later?
The doors to one lift opened and I stepped in. I hit the button for my floor repeatedly, but it didn’t work. There was nowhere to swipe my card or do anything else to engage the button and make it pressable, so I got out, let that lift go and called another. Same thing happened.
I thought I’d go and get the pool guy to help me, so I swiped my card to get back into the pool area. Where I found both pool gates locked from the side I was on – with a key-type lock that hadn’t been locked before – and the child-safe knobs no longer seemed to be there. Meanwhile, the door had shut behind me and locked too. And there was no card swiper, just a place for a key. I had no key. I was stuck.
So I climbed up the polished granite wall, leaned over the gate and opened it from the pool side. Things were starting to feel more than a little strange. Here was the pool I’d swum in the day before, identical in so many ways, and yet nothing was working for me the way it had.
When I got up to the pool, the pool guy was nowhere to be seen, and yet there was no way he could have got past me. The mosaics were identical down to the last tiny tile, the poolside furniture was identical and I was alone and apparently stuck there. That’s when I noticed that the spa had moved. It was at the wrong end of the pool. (Cue ominous music, perhaps medication, perhaps an alien ship or anal probe …)
For a second I thought I was both lost and losing it. I thought I’d been sucked into a parallel Truman-Show bizarro-hotel just like mine but with no people, different security at every turn, lifts that didn’t work and a few other odd glitches that told me all was not right.
Then I worked it out. The view from the windows was different. Not just different – 180 degrees different. On the second half of the 24th floor of the hotel there’s an area for permanent residents which is an ALMOST EXACT MIRROR IMAGE of the bit I had access to, and yet I’d never been told of its existence. That’s where I’d accidentally found myself.
Fortunately, TV has taught me a thing or two about parallel universes. There’s always a portal, and I worked out in an instant that, in this case, it would be the gym. So that’s where I headed. And, sure enough, there’s one gym, with doors into each universe. My mistake had been to enter through one, get distracted by the towel issue, engage my festival brain and cross over inadvertently to the other side.
I’m back now and, like anyone who’s just had a brush with aliens or other worlds, I feel the least I can do is pass this knowledge on in the hope that others might be more prepared in future.