The Dark Matter of Recollections
By James Rowland
Stanley was the type of man an Oxbridge don would dislike for being a bit too pompous. Even the proprietors of the Daily Mail would cringe on meeting him. Finally evidence they had gone too far. The ills of the world were obvious to Stanley: immigrants, foreigners who now lived in England, asylum seekers, people who came from one country and moved to another, ethnic people, and, of course, the Poles. This was not an exhaustive list. He was also concerned about the quality of Britain's youth, as well as the productiveness of the middle-aged and the fortitude of the elderly. Football had gone to the dogs, too much money he would grumble at family gatherings, and Formula 1 was dying because it was too concerned with cost cutting.
Mr Stanley Taplock was a chartered accountant.
Every morning at six, he would rise and have a bowl of porridge while watching the news on a flat screen television in his kitchen. Several friends, well, people Stanley knew, suggested having such a large screen was a show of status too far. These were very dim people. After all, at forty-two inches, this was Stanley’s smallest television. With a mouthful of slurried oats, he would grunt in disapproval at the segments he disliked (the news, the weather, the human interest story, the sport, the banter, the financial report, the newspaper review, etcetera) and grunt in approval at the things he enjoyed (the female reporter’s legs).
Finishing his breakfast with a hurried cup of instant coffee, Stanley would then get himself ready for work. He would pick out a grey suit, black was a little too fashionable these days, and squeeze his rotund figure into the fabric. Allowing himself a brief look in the mirror each morning, he would nod happily at the few remaining hairs combed over a slightly red scalp. They clumped together like a band of brothers. Stanley always thought he looked rather like a young Sean Connery and had the personality to match. Everyone else thought he happened to look like Stanley Taplock and had the personality of a car: metallic, lifeless, and with prolonged use would cause damage to the planet itself.
Except today, Stanley didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he rose at some point after ten, forewent his dressing gown in favour of wearing a sports jacket over his paisley pyjamas, and stared aimlessly out of the kitchen window. It took him several seconds to realise he was trying to eat his tie for breakfast. By the time the doorbell rang, causing Stanley to jump, he had managed to at least move onto edible food. He was absent-mindedly smearing porridge over crisp, brown toast. This was to be expected. After all, only yesterday had he seen something very odd.
His local fish and chip shop was closed due to sanitary reasons, which left Stanley with quite a problem. Every Tuesday for five years he had bought dinner from there. Having to choose begrudgingly between the Chinese and Thai place down his street, he chose the latter and sat down in front of the television for dinner. Halfway through some chicken-like thing, Stanley felt particularly worse for wear and threw open the living room's french windows. His front garden didn't have flowers. It didn't have a well-kept lawn or a small volleyball net. The entire space was paved with patio decking. The solitary tree, a one hundred year old oak, had been cut down a fortnight ago because, as Stanley told the Council, it affected the view. In reality, he suspected it was causing problems with his satellite reception.
Where the tree had once stood was now a shallow bowl, rain water collecting in it to form a muddy lake. It seemed to ripple independently of the light breeze. Stanley took a step closer, clutching his stomach. A sound erupted from his mouth, somewhere between a strangled deer and a deflating Michelin Man. He stumbled back, his backside striking the edge of the wall. A hand was appearing from the puddle. In the meagre moonlight it glistened as another joined it, sticking upright as if a man had been buried alive. Stanley felt a stabbing pain in his chest. He slumped to the ground. From the puddle, a vaguely human-shape was dragging itself free, a man made from glass. It noticed Stanley's whimpering, meeting his wide-eyed stare, but did nothing except hurdle over the garden fence.
Needless to say, Stanley didn’t sleep well that night.
He was still thinking about that glass man as he walked through his hallway, the ringing bell growing louder. “Good morning?” Stanley said, opening the door to his home.
On his front step were stood two men. The first was very tall and resembled a giraffe with skinny, stretching legs and an even longer neck. Next to him was a far shorter man. He was hardly an inch over five foot and unfortunately had the weight of someone far taller. If he were six foot, he would have looked positively athletic but instead he looked rather like an apple. The roundness of his face gave more room for a friendly smile to sit. Much to Stanley’s displeasure, both men were wearing black suits.
“Good morning?” said the taller one, his forehead creased. “Why yes it was an excellent morning, but that’s beside the point.”
“I think he was, perhaps, greeting us rather than enquiring about the goodness of our pre-luncheon day,” the shorter one said, smiling kindly at Stanley, seeking confirmation. Stanley stared, open-mouthed. His breath smelt rather of tie.
“You’re quite right,” carried on the short man, as if displaying a range of fillings and cavities was the proper way to carry on conversation in Durham. “We haven’t introduced ourselves. I am Mr Ernie.”
It was at this point Stanley remembered how much he disliked practical jokers. They were always trying to inject fun into areas where it had no place to be, such as work or at home. “And I suppose you’ll tell me he’s called Bert?”
“Don’t be silly,” replied the taller man. “I’m Mr Eric.”
Stanley was beginning to feel a little more like his old self, belligerent. These men were clearly having fun at his expense and he wouldn't stand for it. Rising to his full height, moustache bristling in indignation, Stanley readied one of his more favoured speeches. It began with ‘now I don’t know who you think you are’ and ended with ‘off’. Before he could so much as finish the word ‘now’, though, the shorter man began to chortle.
“Of course, we're just having some fun at your expense, sir,” he said. “I am, naturally, Mr Eric, and he’s, artificially, Mr Ernie.”
As one might imagine, Stanley stuttered into silence. He was awfully confused. Was the short one Mr Eric or was that the tall one? Mr Ernie was originally tall and so was now short, or actually, was he short but now tall? Mr Eric has an indifferent face and Mr Ernie had the round smile, except now they had swapped. Or had they? Not wanting to make a fool of himself, Stanley merely nodded and said, “hmm”.
“May we come in?” asked Mr Ernie, the tall man. “We’re from the government and have much to torque about.”
“You have to excuse my friend, he’s fond of homophones,” Mr Eric, the short man, added.
Stanley was unsure of the relevance of this information, but felt comforted all the same. He was, after all, inherently distrustful of homosexuals. With the knowledge that he was among friends and that he was dealing with government officials, he invited the two men into his home.
It did not cross his mind that governmental officials at your doorstep were generally not considered a good omen. Important people coming to talk to him just seemed logical. No doubt they had read his blog, Politically Incorrect – RIGHTing the World’s Wrongs – Immigration, Liberals & Trains, and enjoyed his quote from Winston Churchill on the first page. In a few minutes they would be gathered around his dining room table discussing the economy and other important matters. Stanley wasn’t even willing to rule out the possibility they had come to invite him to Buckingham Palace to receive some sort of honour. Perhaps, he would be awarded an OBE for services to chartered accountancy.
“A lovely home,” Mr Ernie said, walking into the dining room. “Do you mind if we take a seat?”
Telling them it wasn't a problem, Stanley stood perplexed as the taller man plucked one of the dining room chairs from the floor and carried it out of the room. Before he could utter so much as an "oi", Mr Eric stepped in front of him and asked for a cup of tea: teabag in first, then sugar, then hot but not boiling water, and finally an entire slice of lemon. It was a very peculiar request. Cups of teas are offered, they are very rarely asked for. Still, Stanley turned on the kettle and busied himself in the kitchen. He felt a tiny tug in his stomach compelling him to follow the words of the strange gentlemen in front of him, even going so far as to ask the now chair-less Mr Ernie if he would like a cup as well.
“Yes, please. Wensleydale, if you have it.”
Within five minutes, the three men were seated around the table. Somehow a complicated dance of cups took place, Stanley ending up with the mug of tea before swapping with Mr Eric for his normal instant coffee. A slab of cheese rested at the bottom of Mr Ernie’s. “Well, enough of this banter,” Mr Eric said, clapping his hands together. No one had said a word for several minutes and Stanley had drunk half a cup just to fill the silence. It wasn’t like his usual coffee; there was a taste of honey. “I suppose you’re wondering why we’re here?”
Stanley thought it impolite to wonder anything. It implied an imagination. He said nothing, giving a non-committal shrug. Mr Ernie took a sip of his cheese.
“We are,” Mr Eric continued, “members of the Bureau of Supernatural Investigations and as we understand you had some sort of magically-related incident yesterday?”
There was a pregnant pause in the air and everyone waited until it left the room. Stanley was feeling very mixed on hearing about the Bureau of Supernatural Investigations, very mixed indeed. The presence of a governmental organisation concerned with magic was comforting in a way. It meant he hadn’t gone mad; there really were strange things out in the world. He didn’t think he could have coped being clinically insane. After all, he would have ended up being a beneficiary. So yes, it was good. What he saw last night was confirmed as real by the concept of the Bureau.
On the other hand, "bureau" was an incredibly American-sounding word. Nothing good could come from that. Furthermore, Stanley’s interaction with the magical world happened last night. Now, he was talking to government officials. This seemed like an incredibly quick turnover and highlighted a suggestion of governmental competency, which to a conservative such as Stanley Taplock made him feel instantly queasy.
“I did,” Stanley settled on saying. “Don’t see why the government is butting in though.”
Mr Ernie laughed a short and abrupt chortle. “Very droll, very droll indeed. Don’t you agree, Mr Eric?”
“Beat me over the head with a late 1950s model refrigerator, Mr Ernie, I do. I certainly do.”
“Do we, perhaps with great interest and no small amount of caution, ask him what he saw?”
“And with no large amount of caution either?”
“I think we’re beyond the point to even consider such a quantity of that good quality so as to render the discussion as moot as the benefits of a night-watchman in a game of cribbage.”
“What?” Stanley said. His eyes moving back and forth as if he were watching a tennis match. A vein within his forehead began to throb. Vaguely, he had the notion of being in the middle of a carousel, watching the two gentlemen run around him.
“What did you see, sir?” Mr Eric said with the promised amount of caution.
Stanley sat in silence for several seconds. The tension, not to mention the sibilance, could be cut with a knife. Now that he thought about it, really thought about it, he struggled to remember what he actually saw. There was definitely a bang, or maybe a whimper, and the smell of bacon or autumn. Maybe there was a man but it could have been some sort of animal. A laugh rang in his ears, or possibly it was a scream. He rubbed his forehead. “I’m not really sure I remember.”
“Good, good,” Mr Ernie nodded. “We’ll make all necessary inquiries and enquiries.”
Mr Eric shot his partner a dirty look and once more apologised for his love of homophones. Stanley stared out of the window, feeling his heart begin to race. It was a foreign sensation, which obviously caused him great discomfort in every way possible. “Why can’t I remember?”
“That will be us, I’m afraid,” Mr Eric said. “We are the BSI’s fix-it-men, so to speak. And you are in need of fixing. Unauthorised knowledge of magic is very troubling, but we take care of it and you’ll get back to your horrendously dull and terrible life.”
Stanley was so panicked, so terrorised by the unfamiliar sensation, he didn’t even stop to defend his dull and terrible life as not being horrendous at all. “How?” he squeaked.
A strange change came over the men in front of him, as if some artist had gone back and made corrections to an earlier work. Mr Ernie no longer looked like a giraffe; he looked like a bouncer, tall, muscular, and quite willing to break someone’s nose. Mr Eric didn’t look like an apple at all. In fact, he bristled with so much power and conviction he appeared downright Churchillian. There was no warmth in Mr Ernie’s eyes and Mr Eric’s smile had been replaced with a passive, uninterested stare.
“It’s rather easy,” Mr Eric said, picking at a speck of dirt hiding beneath his fingernails. “First we appear as nonthreatening and non-distinct as humanly possible so the target doesn’t remember us in their life. Of course to someone such as yourself, we send two white men in suits.”
“Which,” Mr Ernie interrupted, “is really boring. People like you are why our team is failing to meet our quota. We look terrible at diversity meetings, terrible. We have a black boss, the field agents are ran by a woman, and our team is just a row of nondescript, middle-class white guys. Couldn’t you lot just not be troubled and confused by a black man or an Indian woman or something?”
Mr Eric continued as if his partner hadn’t said a word. “Then we introduce chaos, confusion, and strangeness to the mix. Silly names, talking funny, unusual actions, literal interpretations and so on upsets your brain and puts you in an agitated state.”
“This is the best part of our jobs, I must admit. Like, I didn’t even need to steal your chair; I just thought it was funny.”
“Once you’re in an agitated state,” Mr Eric said, after taking a sip of his tea. “You then become susceptible to the concoction I spiked your drink with. Consider it a regionalised, very precise lobotomy. It attacks the memories of the supernatural incident you witnessed and wipes them clean from your head. All that is left is several hours of non-memory, the dark matter of recollections if you like.”
“Like when you watch a game of cricket and by the end of it you literally can’t remember how you spent the past eight hours of your life,” Mr Ernie added helpfully.
Despite everything, despite the supernatural incident retreating from his mind, the strange men in front of him, the gobbledygook he had heard for the last twenty minutes, Stanley’s mind began to clear with one familiar emotion: righteous indignation. How dare they! How dare the government mess around inside his head? It was a scandal, a proper Royal Inquiry, select committee-inducing scandal. This was completely unacceptable. Such a power should only be used by properly chosen people, like the Queen. Stanley wasn’t going to stand by and let Big Government extend its influence to inside his brain. He would write blog posts and sign petitions. He would even, the thought coming to him like a thunderbolt, write a letter to the Daily Mail. Yes that would teach these men for trying to mess with Stanley Taplock’s memories.
“The final part is to return you to your happy place, a place where you are comforted with familiar thoughts and feelings,” Mr Eric finished.
“This is often the hardest part as you might imag- oh,” Mr Ernie tapered off. Stanley’s head slumped to the table, loud snores rumbling through the room. No sooner had he thought of the Daily Mail did he suddenly feel very tired and content. His eyelids grew heavy and somewhere from the distance, a dream slowly ballooned larger. This, of course, being Stanley's dream, involved a horribly indecent act with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and the abolition of Twenty20 Cricket.
When he opened his eyes, he found two men sitting across from him. Stanley wasn’t sure how they got there but supposed he must have invited them in. Yes, he seemed to recall meeting them on his doorstep. One was far taller than the other and both were wearing black suits. “Sorry, I must have tuned out,” Stanley said flustered. Reasonable people should never have to apologise for daydreaming because reasonable people shouldn't daydream.
“That’s okay, Mr Dalliard,” said the tall man, smiling like an elderly grandfather. “As we were just saying, we’re here to talk about your insurance plan.”
“Mr Dalliard?” Stanley said.
“No, no, you’re Mr Dalliard,” said the short man. He looked politely confused in the way only British people can look.
“No, I’m not.”
Both men looked at each other and then began to laugh in a friendly sort of way. They apologised, rambling on about the wrong house and incorrect computer systems and Stanley puffed out his cheeks and blew a long sigh. He hated incompetence and these men were exactly the type of incompetent people the education system was currently pumping out. It wasn’t fair on upstanding members of the community, such as himself, to have to put up with them.
“Well, we’ll be going,” the tall man said, standing up. “Unless we can interest you in some insurance?”
“No, you can’t.”
The man nodded and with a smile and a wave he left the house, closely followed by his colleague. Stanley stared after them, trying to remember why he was even home on a Wednesday. Maybe he was just feeling a little funny; the Thai from last night must have upset his stomach. Shrugging, he reached for the mugs on the table and dropped them in the dishwasher.
He never noticed the lump of cheese and was perplexed to find it clogging the machine the following morning.
James Rowland is a young British writer who currently lives in New Zealand, where he works as a Judges' Clerk. Besides writing, his hobbies are reading, photography, and the sport of kings, cricket. His fiction has been published in several small magazines. You can find out more, or just read his occasional musings, at his website https://jamesrowlandwriter.wordpress.com.
"The Dark Matter of Recollections" Copyright © 2016 by James Rowland