Withered hands trembled as they undid the paper.
“Here it is!” His pale blue eyes peered out from his wrinkled face like stars caught up in the net of time.
The box was old and coming apart, but he carefully removed the lid, almost reverentially, as if it was still in one piece.
Inside was just an old plastic fountain pen.
“Of course not.” He sounded affronted at such a ridiculous question. “What would I write? What would I want?”
The old man considered for a second, his eyes leaving the room as his thoughts travelled to the distant past. He shook his head and a laugh escaped from his lips.
“Actually, so much. I wanted it all.” But then he gestured around the opulent room; the lavish surroundings reflected their resident well.
“So you did use it?”
“I said, ‘No’, my boy.” Suddenly he became alert. “There is power in the written word my lad,” he said, sitting up. But it was too much activity. He sank back down into his chair just as rapidly.
“Didn’t need to. I was lucky. In work, in love, in life.” He laughed again, more strongly this time as he sank back into reverie.
Ben waited respectfully; the interview seemed to be over. After a few minutes, he switched his recorder off and slipped quietly away. The Pen of the Worlds tucked safely in his pocket.
Ben had first heard about The Pen after a long, ridiculous night spent with a group of strangers he had hooked up with in the middle of the Caribbean. A girl had heard it straight from her friend that one of her acquaintances was the sister of the butler to a man who owned the Pen of the Worlds. A pen which would turn whatever you wrote into reality.
The butler was disgusted that this man, an elderly gentleman now in his nineties, had never even used the pen.
“He’s always been too scared,” the girl had said in a passable Irish accent, in what Ben had assumed must be an imitation of the butler.
What on earth is there to be scared of? Ben had asked, his thoughts fighting through a haze as his eyes blinked her into focus.
So here it was. An old blue plastic pen.
Ben picked it carefully out of his pocket and gingerly laid it onto a piece of paper on the table in front of him. In all his thirty two years, he had never been more… what?...disappointed by the sight of anything.
So what now?
“Well, pen,” he said to it. “Let’s test you out, shall we?”
He picked it up and dropped it almost at once, staring with a shocked expression. It had seemed to him that the pen had wriggled.
Stop being stupid.
He picked it up more firmly and quickly wrote, ‘I want a Jaguar’ on the paper in a bold hand.
After almost two minutes, Ben realised that he had not been breathing and, quickly gulping some air into his lungs, ran to the window to see whether there was anything parked outside.
[Time stood still. Between one blink and the next the familiar sun-dappled scene of the Amazon vanished to be replaced by a dark, grey pavement. The rotation of the earth was slowed for one microsecond as the new reality insinuated itself over the old.]
Ben sighed and sat back down in front of the paper. He picked up the pen. This time: ‘I want a million pounds’. He hesitated then underneath he wrote, ‘please’.
He looked around the room sheepishly.
[‘Shuuu-uck!’ The tiny sounds of a million pounds sucking out of existence were heard by no-one in hundreds of bank vaults around the world. But the echoes along the corridors of time as the money failed to fulfil its destiny were silent.]
Ben was disgusted. This was worse than receiving a jigsaw puzzle at Christmas. Nothing had happened. No wonder the old fool claimed he had never used the pen. He had probably written hundreds of things but none of it had worked.
Maybe there was a code, or a ritual. He would have to do more research. Special ink perhaps?
Sluggishly, Ben wandered into the kitchen and switched the kettle on, then came back and did the same to the TV. It had taken him almost a year to track down the butler. Then it had taken almost all his savings to find out the identity of the old man and get to have an interview with him. There was no turning back now, he had too much time and effort invested in this.
The sound of the early evening news drifted in through the open door.
“And finally, a large cat has once again been seen roaming the streets of Sussex. Although reports of sightings do go back to the sixties and seventies, tonight, several Twitter users have reported seeing a large black puma-like animal. Police have cautioned the public not to approach anything they think is suspicious. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ll be making sure to lock my doors and windows tonight. Goodnight.”
But he was trying to figure things out. He was obviously asking for too much. Maybe if he had started small, then he had a better chance of getting what he wanted.
Let’s see, something small. Getting no inspiration from the kitchen, he made his way back into the lounge and sat down. How about asking for some new trainers? That would be something small to ask for which would still come in useful.
‘I would like some trainers.’
That was satisfactory. Ben sat back.
Even the sounds from the television could not fill the empty, expectant void which conspicuously, contained no trainers.
Maybe he should be more specific.
Underneath the words, he wrote ‘now’. Then he added the date and time, just to be sure.
[The men had been on the way home. But for a reason which neither of them would ever remember, they turned right that evening and headed into town.]
Ben suddenly accepted the futility of it all. He was sitting alone in his room, writing pointless things on a piece of paper.
Someone must have played a great trick on him that night in the Caribbean. It was an elaborate hoax all right. Hadn’t he ended up giving his money away to ‘contacts’ and informants?
Talking of hoaxes, there was some breaking news on TV. There were urgent red scroll bars racing along the bottom of the screen and the newsreader was looking especially cheerful: Something really horrible must have happened. Ben reached over for the remote and turned the volume up.
“Parts of central London have been disappearing. Police have set up diversions and are evacuating the residents of all central and South London areas. Terrorist activity is not suspected at this stage.”
Then they cut to a reporter on location, but Ben hardly heard a word he said. The scene behind him was the most extraordinary chaos. It was as if pinpoints of reality had taken it upon themselves to float away. Parts of the view suddenly floated up for a short distance and then ‘popped’ out of existence.
A cold dread filled Ben’s body like a shower of cold fireworks. Part of a car behind the reporter suddenly lifted up and headed off into space before vanishing.
The news reporter must have seen the look of shock in his cameraman’s eyes because he took one look at the car and, shouting ‘Let’s get out of here,’ ran off to the left. The cameraman turned tail and followed him, the image bobbing up and down as he ran.
Ben sat back and pushed his floppy brown hair back out of his eyes. He was not quite in central London, but it was near enough to worry. What if this was it? What if someone had left off some weird weapon that would mean the end of reality as we know it?
His mind whirred and his eyes fell on the pen. The Pen of the Worlds.
Well if this was it, then he was going to ask the pen for the big one, just in case.
With shaky fingers, he started to write:
‘Lily, I loved you from the first moment I saw you. You had a coffee stain on your dress and a wonky smile and when you tripped over my bag, it was fate.
I’m sorry I am such a dope. I’m selfish and mean. I couldn’t see that you were the best thing that ever happened to me and I let you go.
I let you walk out of that door and I have regretted it every single day since you left.
I want Lily Evans to love me again’. He took a deep breath.
Well, even if it did not work, he had voiced the one thing he wanted most in the world. The one thing which, if this was the end of existence, would make his life real again.
[Neurons realigned their synapses. Pathways of memory which had been forgotten for two long, agonising years, raw from the constant recriminations and scrutiny now resurfaced, clean and burnished. Tears fell.]
The sound of the phone crushed the silence.
“I… I don’t know why I wanted to phone you.”
A slow smile started to work its way around Ben’s mouth.
“It’s so great to hear from you. It’s been years. Er, how have you been?”
“Ben, I’m married.”
“I’m calling from Tokyo actually.”
“Yes, I got a job out here, after we, after I left England. But something this morning – Ben, It’s five o’clock in the morning here.” She laughed softly.
“It’s funny,” Ben said adding airly. “I was just thinking about you.” He turned the paper over as if Lily would see it down the phone line and find him out.
[The ‘sense’ was pushed out of the world. The course it had carved for itself was meaningless now. What was it going to do with the extra requirements? How would it cope? A building in Germany gave up and floated off into the ether.]
“We did have some great times,” she laughed again.
They felt themselves drawing closer over the miles.
[The only way to cope with this problem was to rub it out and start again.]
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“Ben, something’s happening. I feel sick.” There was a scream.
Ben put a hand to his mouth. Then, “Lily? Lily are you there?”
“I’m disappearing. The room is vanishing. Help!”
Ben sat listening in shocked silence. What could he do?
His eyes swivelled to the TV. The news was on again and now the floating objects were bigger. Large chunks of London were escaping. The picture cut to Oslo, New Delhi, South Africa, it was the same all over the world.
“There is power in the written word, my lad.” The words echoed in his brain.
Suddenly, explosively a corner of the lounge erupted. A gaping hole let Ben see into the street outside. But even there, existence was having a tough time holding on. It was being replaced by a grey nothing. As he looked down, horrified, the ground beneath him was beginning to disappear.
In no time at all, he found himself floating, the room dissolving. Sparks flew out of the TV and it shattered into huge fragment which came hurtling towards him.
A rough wind started to whistle around his ears as the firmament gave way to void.
This was it.
This was why the old man had not used the pen. The Pen was mightier than the world itself.
Words could create and they could destroy. And he, Ben had destroyed. He had been selfish and mean and he had thought of nothing but his own happiness. As consciousness started to drift away, he found that he was once more holding the pen.
With his last ounce of strength, he lifted his failing arm and wrote onto the grey which now surrounded him. There was only one word which filled his mind.