The Queen of Yesterday: Sample Chapter
That night everyone else had the same dream.
Old men spluttering in their sleep saw a fantastical castle in the sky. Young boys flew with the eagles that danced across the battlements. A thirty year old IT student with no imagination marvelled at the crystal walls which had repelled invaders for forty generations.
But Zoe didn’t see any of this.
Around 3am she did briefly drift off and dream about a ginger cat who’d learnt to speak Czech, but mostly she spent the night staring restlessly at the ceiling. Wishing she didn’t have to stare at it alone.
The next morning the same conversation was repeated up and down the whole country. The realisation that everyone had shared in something most unusual.
For some it happened over breakfast. A child would mention to their parents that they’d spent the night in a magical place. The parents – used to humouring such tales – would nod and continue about their business… until they heard the details, which sounded oh-so familiar. Then they would stop and listen.
For others it happened at work. While they were putting their uniform on in the locker room, perhaps; filling the air with small talk. In prisons, disruptive inmates suddenly found something in common with their captors, and for once they spoke as equals.
The dream brought people together in ways no-one could have imagined. It was a club everyone could be a member of.
Well, almost everyone.
Zoe arrived at the office early, which displeased her. For some reason the Underground had been unnaturally quiet this morning, leading to hopes – soon frustrated – that an archaic bank holiday had been revived without her knowledge.
As she passed through the foyer she nodded at Alf, the surly security guard. He responded with a barely audible grunt. Zoe had no idea why they even needed a security guard: they were a minor branch of an even-more minor local council, not a nightclub at kicking out time. Admittedly, there had once been an altercation when a press officer and a middle manager discovered they’d been sharing more than just a vision for the future of the department. At the time, however, Alf was nowhere to be found.
Zoe headed into the cramped general office with her head down, hoping to avoid making eye-contact with anyone. She was long past the stage of pretending to care what anybody else had done at the weekend. Today she got to her desk without incident, which was in itself strange. However hard she played the ice queen, someone would usually mistake proximity for giving-a-shit.
She fired up her computer, ready for another day’s instantly forgettable work. Her spidey-senses tingled. There was something missing.
The other people. All of them.
While this would be a blissful situation if it were permanent, Zoe did wonder where they’d all got to. Her fear was that it was someone’s birthday and right now the cakes were being dished out without her. If so then it was a race against time, although mostly against Fat Julie, whom it was rumoured could sniff out a cream horn at a hundred yards. Zoe didn’t assign these nicknames without reason.
She headed off on a scouting mission to the kitchen. From the hallway she could already hear the rumble of half a dozen voices locked in conversation.
“I saw things so vividly.”
“I could feel the crisp wind on my face.”
“The smell was intoxicating.”
Zoe came into the kitchen to find a huddle of people trying to ‘out sense’ each other. It would have made one of the more disappointing editions of Top Trumps.
“Don’t tell me even you had it?” Fat Julie asked her.
“We all travelled to a magical castle last night,” explained Acne Nigel from HR.
“Oh, right. Is there cake?”
“See you later.”
Zoe spun on her heels and left them to it. Nobody seemed to notice her go.
“Did you see the eagles?”
“I flew with the eagles.”
Zoe returned to her desk, not knowing or caring what the others were on about.
They’d once wasted a whole day trying to guess Daniel Craig’s email address, so there was no point worrying about whatever madness they’d got obsessed with this time. The important thing was that she’d been wrong about the cake situation. Well, either that or Julie had already devoured the lot, box and all.
Zoe slumped down in her seat and began the thankless task of marketing the council’s unremarkable work to a disinterested world. It was another forty minutes until the others drifted in and hit their computers, desperately searching for new ways to try and outdo each other.
“I got an email from my Auntie Elizabeth,” squawked Julie. “She’s in her eighties, and even she had the dream.”
“So did my sister’s twins, and they’re only four,” came the reply. “They’re very advanced for their age. It’s in their genes.”
Zoe tried her best to ignore them, but it was hard. They were an obsessive bunch when they had a new game to play.
“The dream is the top trending topic at the moment,” announced Lopsided Peter.
“Haven’t you got work to do?” sighed Zoe.
“Hey, there’s no reason to stress. Just chillax and go with the flow.”
Zoe thought it should be a crime for anyone in their forties to say words like chillax. Sadly, nobody ever dared criticise Lopsided Peter for fear of being done for discrimination. For Zoe’s money a twat was a twat, lopsided or not.
Her phoned beeped. A text from a distant cousin asking if she’d had the dream. Then, a little later, another message. A different person, but the same question.
And then again.
The delusional ramblings of her colleagues she’d learned to ignore, especially since the carbon monoxide detector broke. But real people in the real world? Most of them she’d barely seen for ages, surely they wouldn’t be texting her without good reason?
Zoe surreptitiously opened her internet browser and instantly discovered what everyone was getting so excited about. The dream was fast becoming the only story covered on everything from personal blogs to respectable news sites. People all across the country had shared in something special, a vision of a wondrous place. It was like a magical holiday everybody else had been invited on.
Fucking typical, thought Zoe.
She tried to convince herself that it might all be a practical joke. Perhaps it was just the idiots in the office getting revenge on her for some perceived sleight. They might have mocked up some special version of the internet which would redirect her to the pages they’d written. Maybe they’d even found some way to send fake texts from distant relatives. It was possible that she was the unknowing star of some hidden camera reality show, and right now unemployed people across the land were watching her mundane life on some obscure cable TV channel.
She grabbed her mobile and snuck off to the privacy of the Customer Relations department, the one place she was guaranteed not to be disturbed. Whatever staff had once worked there had either been convicted or died of chronic apathy long ago. Time for the acid test.
“Oh love, isn’t it incredible?” came the familiar voice down the phone.
Maybe she’s in on it too?
“Do you mean this dream everyone’s been having?”
“Did you get to go inside the castle? They’ve been talking about it on the news, but it seems that nobody was able to get past the gates. If you did, we’d make a fortune!”
“Mum, I didn’t have the dream.”
A long silence.
There was that tone of disappointment Zoe had spent years trying to filter out.
“Maybe that makes me more special?”
“Nnnggg,” was the best her mother could manage.
“Did everyone in the village have it?”
“I did have a dream last night though. A brief one.” Zoe could hear the desperation in her own voice. “Maybe that could be important.”
“There, um, there was a cat.”
“A castle cat?”
“No. Just a cat-cat.”
“What did it do?”
“It spoke Czech.”
A long silence.
“Or possibly Polish,” added Zoe. “They sound pretty similar to me.”
An even longer silence.
“I think it was called Mourek…”
“There’s someone at the door,” said Zoe’s mother abruptly.
“Ok, I’ll speak to you soon”.
The line was already dead.
Zoe decided to knock off work early, there didn’t seem a lot of point trying to get anything done today. With something so unusual going on she couldn’t imagine anyone was going to miss hearing about the department’s new waste management initiative. She went to HR to ask for the time off. In the circumstances even the normally-fastidious Acne Nigel didn’t cause a fuss about the lack of notification. He was always a soft touch if you spoke to him nicely and didn’t stare too much.
When Zoe got out onto the street the full scale of what had happened became apparent. The whole country was grinding to a halt. Strangers were talking to strangers, comparing their identical experiences. A passing tramp grabbed Zoe in a bear hug.
“Get off!” she yelped.
“It’s a miracle! I just want to share the love.”
Zoe prised him off before any love was shared.
An impromptu party was forming in the High Street. A general sense of good will and happiness pervaded. The station was a bus ride away, but Zoe couldn’t face the thought of being crammed in with all these tediously happy people so she walked.
When she finally reached the Tube she scuttled quickly down the stairs. She’d never seen a happy person on the London Underground and today didn’t disappoint: even in the face of an unprecedented event like this, people avoided eye contact. Zoe wondered if it would be possible to spend the rest of her life making laps of the Circle Line.
She got back home just before one in the afternoon and immediately pulled all the curtains in her flat shut. Without further hesitation she made a beeline for the bedroom, stripped off and slid beneath the duvet.
Then she tried to go to sleep.
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