The Imaginary Butler

This short story is also published in Hierophant.

The suicide prevention hotline buzzed and crackled to life. It was that time of year again.

Tristan released a long, drawn-out breath – the last of several. He had been lying in his bed hours longer than he should have. The remains of his alarm clock lay strewn across the floor.

“Sir wouldn’t want to be late for his lecture” muttered Mr Sourcruft.
“None of your cheek” grumbled Tristan, as he rolled over his covers.
“Very well, sir” acquiesced Mr Sourcruft politely, before continuing, “but one must consider sir’s instructions of last night, which stated plainly that he should not be permitted to miss this particular presentation”.
“Oh, to hell with it!” Tristan barked, “as if I’m realistically going to go to America now anyway”. The lecture was a presentation on student exchange opportunities in America. Sourcruft said kindly, “one must always have hope, sir”.
“Pah, to hell with hope”.

Despite this final statement, Tristan slowly managed to drag himself out of bed and, once Sourcruft had left, get dressed. Out of his black pyjamas and into his black pants, socks, shoes, shirt, jumper, skinny jeans, and coat which draped down to his knees. “I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside“; the lyrics came to mind. He brushed his teeth. His toothbrush, unfortunately, was not black, but pink. His mother had bought it for him.

He packed his leather satchel with a water bottle, a book to read on the bus, an inhaler, and migraine tablets, and before he left the room he habitually glanced around to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anything. It was a shabby little student apartment containing a bed, a sink, and a desk. It was as small and claustrophobic as a prison cell; more so due to the clutter which filled every space. The mess of an indolent life.

As soon as Tristan left the room and shut the door behind him, he suddenly found the tall figure of Mr Sourcruft by his side again. “So glad to see you out and about, sir. I just thought I’d come and see you off” he said cordially in the Received Pronunciation. He was from head to toe every inch a Jeevesian caricature; he even bore a striking resemblance to Stephen Fry. “Erm, actually Sourcruft,” began Tristan, “I was rather hoping that you could come with me. You know how I enjoy your company; it might cheer me up a bit, make me feel more like going? I’ll discharge you of your duties for the day; I’m sure the lesser servants can manage for now”.
“Only if you’re sure, sir”
“I’m sure”.

As Tristan and Sourcruft made their way through the short corridor of the flat of which Tristan’s room was a part they passed one or two of his flatmates. “I’ve been living here for two months and I still don’t know their names” thought Tristan.
“Indeed, sir” remarked Sourcruft.

They exited the flat and plodded through the longer corridors of the student accommodation complex – a former malt house, redeveloped in the 1990’s. Soon they were at the bus stop on the road adjacent, surrounded by a post-industrial working class neighbourhood about twenty minutes away by bus from central Nottingham. From there it was usually a ten minute walk to the university and the relevant lecture theatre. Of course, before they could get to that part of their journey they had to wait for the bus itself, which would take about eight minutes.

They were alone at the bus stop. The air was cold and bitter; their breath turned to steam as it departed their lips. Tristan wished he was wearing a vest. And it seems bitter air creates bitter thoughts, for then he said, bitterly, “I regret ever choosing this accommodation. Not that it was much of a choice; it was either this or that crack den in the city centre. The places on campus were far too expensive… but I feel the people staying there will be getting more of the fabled “freshers’ experience” than I ever got. There are flats there right above the common rooms… they must get so much more of that student “community feeling” I’ve heard so bloody much about”.
“I didn’t think you still believed in all that, sir” replied Sourcruft.
“No, no, I suppose I don’t. The “freshers’ experience” is reserved only for the happy people – the confident people, the sociable people, the popular people. It was never for the likes of you or I…”
“Quite, sir”
“… of course, exactly the same could be said of the Christmas experience…”, grumbled Tristan as a delivery van with a garish Christmassy advert plastered on its side passed by.
“Ah, well, with the utmost respect, sir, here I must draw a line. I am still innocent enough at least to believe that Christmas belongs to everybody. Don’t you agree, sir?”.
Tristan sighed. “It’s only ever a matter of time before innocence is corrupted. One of these years you’ll understand”. Then the conversation turned to the upcoming lecture, and this is what the two men discussed until the bus arrived, four minutes late.

Tristan and Sourcruft got separated amidst the rabble of people on the bus, which was completely full. “Packed like a train to Auschwitz”, thought Tristan. Strange, for it was two o’clock – hardly rush hour. But then the young man remembered with a grimace the Christmas fair which was opening to the public on this day. This day, 30th November. “The moneygrabbers couldn’t even bear to wait for Advent to begin” thought Tristan despairingly, to which he overheard Sourcruft reply “quite, sir” from the other end of the vehicle. It was a good job Sourcruft could read his thoughts, Tristan pondered, or else all his intelligent cynical comments would go to waste.

After an unpleasant, dehumanising journey squashed up next to a man who smelt as if he had soiled himself, finally Tristan and Sourcruft reached their destination: Robin Hood Road. It was only a short walk from here, through Sheriff of Nottingham Street, to Maid Marian Way, and from there they could enter the university Gisbourne Building, wherein was the lecture theatre. “You know, when I first came to Nottingham I thought there would be a tribute to Robin Hood here and there, as there should be” remarked Tristan as they got off the bus. “But everyone here is obsessed with him! Robin Hood this, Sheriff of Nottingham that. It’s almost as if this city hasn’t accomplished anything in its two thousand year history except produce a semi-fictional thief in the Middle Ages. And even then many people say he was actually from Yorkshire…”.

The Gisbourne Building was frightfully tall, blocky, and imposing – built in the 1930’s in an art deco style. All in all it gave off strong whiffs of fascism, as if it had been designed by Speer himself. Tristan and Sourcruft continued their conversation as they walked inside. By now their topic had turned from Robin Hood to far-off thoughts of home. “How I miss Oxford… such a sweet, romantic town, drenched in history and poetry” Tristan yearned. “It’s only when you leave a place that you really begin to appreciate it. Nottingham is all right, of course. But it’s just that – “all right””.
Sourcruft responded, “you’ll be back soon enough, sir; two weeks to go until the university breaks up for the Winter holidays”.
“Ah, but what then, Sourcruft? When I said I missed Oxford I meant I missed the Oxford of yesteryear. It just won’t be the same after all I’ve been through. Oxford still stands, as beautiful as ever. And this is an insult to me. Oxford still stands for everybody else to enjoy. But for me and only me, it’s rubble”.

Tristan and Sourcruft joined the crowd of students (all members of Tristan’s Biology course) waiting outside the lecture hall for the presentation to begin. The pair stood quietly on the outskirts of the congregation. Among the inane chatter Tristan overheard was one particular student talking casually to two others about how he had broken up with his girlfriend. His name was, like so boringly many of his generation, Jordan. He had dark brown neatly combed hair. His clothing was likewise perfectly neat and fashionable, as if every little piece of fabric had been designed to fit his body exactly. He wore those rectangular retro-50’s glasses that seem to be popular these days. While he wasn’t particularly handsome, everything else about him, from his impeccable appearance to his confident manner, screamed “cool”, screamed “I’ve got my life together. I’m the ideal 18 to 21 year old. Mine is the face that appears on university open day leaflets. I am what all ordinary parents idealistically think their uni-going children are supposed to look like”. Or at least that’s what Tristan thought, anyway.

“Yeah I had to end it mate; she was getting too clingy” boasted Jordan to his friends, in an Estuary English accent. “Fairs mate, fairs” replied one of them.
Jordan continued, “It’s better to be single anyway. Then you can go with anyone at a party; there’s no hastle”.
“No heartbreak” interjected his other friend. She spoke the Received Pronunciation, but it was not Sourcruft’s quaint variety. No, it was that mucky casual form favoured by much of the middle class youth of today, who can’t bring themselves to stoop as low as Estuary English but still wish to appear “laid-back” and “approachable”. “Everyone wants to be laid-back and approachable these days” Tristan sighed internally, “like politicians in suits without ties”.

“No hastle, no heartbreak, yeah” Jordan agreed with his friend. Tristan felt like vomiting. “What would the world be without heartbreak?!” he hissed to Sourcruft. “How can these people live their lives with only “short-term” relationships (if they’re dedicated enough to be in a relationship at all, that is). Casual romance and casual sex to go along with their casual clothes, their casual accents, their casual lives! Well I don’t want to live casually – I want to live! I want a one true eternal love – the lifelong sacrament of marriage – with all the struggle and sacrifice that would bring. And if I can’t have that, if something goes wrong, then I want heartbreak – all the heartbreak I can suffer. When a romance ends I don’t want to stand there so sickeningly nonchalant as he is standing there now – I want to feel like the end of a girl is the end of the world! If the love of my life, whoever she may be, ever rejects me I swear to God I’ll press the thorns of my rejected rose deep into my very breast until my heart is pierced literally as well as figuratively… What is the point of living casually, in comfort, if there is no one to live for?”. Tristan said everything in a violent whisper between his teeth, as he did not want anyone to see him talking to Sourcruft and thinking him mad.

Sourcruft replied gingerly, “Well, sir, perhaps they’ll get married once they leave university? Perhaps they’re only, well, erm, as my father used to put it, a vulgar expression…”. Tristan smiled fondly; poor old Sourcruft was too prim and proper to say it.
“Sowing their oats, you mean?”. Tristan finished his sentence for him.
Sourcruft blushed. “Quite, sir, quite”.
“In the lonelier hours of the night, I am not too embarrassed to admit to you, I have considered doing the same. Yet I still hold out for that dream of a first and only love. To think there are men out there who have only known one woman all their lives, and women who have only known one man… the bond they must have. That’s what I’m holding out for. It’s all or nothing”.
Sourcruft replied, “so there is hope in you yet, sir? I’m glad to hear you’re still holding out for anything”.
Tristan moaned. “A dwindling pool”, he snapped. “The well dries up by the day”.

That was the last the two men had of that conversation for a while, but in a few minutes as they made their way into the lecture hall with the rest of the class, Tristan got in his last word, “There’s just something so blandly bureaucratic about hopping from one relationship to the next with barely a tear. Where’s the romance in that? Where’s the love in that (and surely that’s what it’s all about in the first place)? So bland, bureaucratic, routine, loveless, stale – no passion or heartbreak, just “your sexual relationship with Girl A has terminated. Here is Girl B. Please move on and get with her instead”. Where are the star-cross’d lovers in today’s world? I just don’t understand it…”.

Tristan had snapped at Mr Sourcruft because the man had dared to display optimism, Tristan’s most sickening foe. Sickening because it was not true. Optimism, at least with regards to Tristan, was always a lie, concocted by his few remaining friends to make them feel better about the failure that was his life. When somebody else’s life is an irreversible tragedy, it is better to forget all about it and carry on with your own, happy existence. If it’s irreversible then there’s nothing much you can do, after all. Therefore there’s no point bothering yourself about it when the fact will only serve to make your own experience that bit more uncomfortable. Either push it out of your mind or delude yourself into thinking it isn’t true. No doubt you’ll do this next time you see a homeless drug abuser on the street. Perhaps you’ll switch off the TV when the news comes on, the messenger of woe. “It doesn’t bear thinking about”.

Subsequently, the presentation which Tristan had to sit through was one of the worst single experiences of his life. It was full to the brim with cheery optimism about the potential of youth – of coming to the States and living some student version of the American Dream, and every time a beam of sunny optimism deflected off of Tristan’s inner fortress of impenetrable black cynicism it caused him exquisite pain. By the end of the two-hour torture the boy was literally shaking. “Oh, what a great opportunity. Oh, what fun to be had. Oh, what possibilities there are out there. How young I am. How many years there are stretched out ahead of me. Long, terrible years”.

“Well, that looked jolly fun, sir!” exclaimed Sourcruft positively as they left the lecture hall. It was the very last thing Tristan needed to hear. “It was such stuff as insanity is made of” he retorted, before Sourcruft, not yet learning his lesson, continued, “but sir, you’ve always wanted to go to America! That great exotic country, the same yet different-“
“Oh shut up, Sourcruft”. Tristan was on the verge of tears. “You’re supposed to be the one person I can talk to honestly without getting an earhole of this filth! What exactly is your purpose if not this?”
“Ah, quite, sir – sorry”, replied the butler sullenly.
“Fuck your Hollywood movie vision of life. All lives are tragedies because they all end in death, in the cold rot of the grave. Some in suicide. There are no happy endings, not ultimately”. All the suffering that had built up throughout the lecture had shot out at that very moment, like the venom of a rattlesnake. But Sourcruft, though shocked, stoically continued his plea for hope,
“All lives are comedies for having happened at all, sir! Sir… ?”. Seeing the cold stoniness of Tristan’s face rendered Sourcruft’s voice a whimper.

When a few awkward minutes had passed, and Tristan had calmed down slightly, the young man had a devious idea. He said, “Don’t you remember your brash American brother: Colonel Sugarpuft? I thought you would have been the last person to approve of my going to such a country”. Mr Sourcruft was astonished. Until that moment he hadn’t remembered ever having a brash American brother named Colonel Sugarpuft, but now that he did (how could he have forgotten?) he knew that Sugarpuft was an uncouth braggart – the worst of all that is American condensed into a single individual. No, he didn’t like America at all and didn’t want Tristan to go there. He said nothing more on the matter.

Sixty billion light years away, in the deep black sea of space, beyond the observable universe as we know it, a lone asteroid drifted unseen through the void. Unseen, because there was no light in this region of the cosmos; the object had passed the last remaining light source ten billion years ago. There was no friction to slow its eternal advance – not a solid, liquid, or gas for the hopeless rock to bump into. No, as a matter of fact it was the last thing in the universe. All that lay ahead of it, and behind it for the last ten billion light years, was an incomprehensible expanse of invisible dark matter, and even that, when the asteroid inevitably reached the legendary realm where time and space begin to peter out and reality breaks down into nothingness, would eventually come to an end.

“Well you’ve really done it this time, Sandra” said Derek Bailey, the co-inhabitant of Asteroid Zeta-Delta-Vox. Sandra Bailey scowled from her deck chair in Crater 2B8, and got back to trying to read her copy of the Cosmopolitan (though it was far too dark). “Bloody typical. Here I am planning a nice golf trip with the gents down to Blackpool, when Paul of all people suggests I should let my missus come along”. Derek angrily kicked a stone. It ricocheted into space and in sixty billion years hence will crash as a burning fireball into the heart of the Shadrofax Nebula, triggering the Shadrofax supernova and the total destruction of the Zeeboid Contrafibularity. “I thought, I don’t usually take the missus out with the lads; who knows, might be fun, might be a good bonding experience”. Sandra licked her finger and turned a page. “But look where we bloody well are now; sailing blind through the eternal night of deep space at the speed of light, thirty billion years from the nearest intelligent life form and sixty billion years from the Earth. I tell you, Sandra, that’s the last time I’m bloody taking you to Blackpool!”.

Meanwhile (if such a thing can accurately be said with the relativity of spacetime), Tristan was by now having an early dinner at Kemal’s Kebab, a dingy little greasy spoon in Nottingham city centre. Sourcruft groaned disdainfully.
“Listen Sourcruft, you know these days I’m not eating very much at all. I’ll really only have one meal per day. So it should cancel out the unhealthy stuff I do eat”. Tristan’s tone was even grumpier than usual; he was still recovering not only from the presentation and the argument with Sourcruft, but the walk through the shopping centre that it had taken to reach Kemal’s.

He always dreaded that walk this time of year. Charming Christmas songs played from the shopping centre loudspeakers, so he wrapped his headphones round his ears and fended off Bing Crosby with The Smiths. “Thank God The Smiths didn’t release a Christmas single” he had thought. But his vision was still bombarded on every side with Yuletide merchandise and advertisement – like a Christmas-themed artillery shelling directly into his eye sockets. “I feel like I’m being raped by Father Christmas himself, and he’s not a gentle lover”.
Overhearing his thoughts, an astonished Sourcruft had noted, “Sir, you recoil from Christmas, hissing, like a vampire from sunlight!”.
“Of course I do, Sourcruft! Christmas is a time for everyone else to celebrate how happy and loved they are! Hence the whole ritual of gift-giving”.
“Sir, if you had any loved ones you know you’d only push them away”.
Within the purgatory of the shopping centre, Tristan was by then in a reconciliatory mood. “Well at least I have you, Sourcruft. At least you exist; you’re there for me”.

Even if it hadn’t been 30th November and therefore officially well into Advent season (or so corporate interests decreed), Tristan would have found the way to Kemal’s Kebab unpleasant regardless. Walking anywhere in public, when there were people about, was an uncomfortable thing for the young man to do. That’s why he generally kept himself to wandering through empty parks, gardens, and orchards when he was outside. This he had been capable of doing in the rural tranquillity of Oxfordshire; not so much in the urban jungle of Nottingham; another way in which he found the city so suffocating. Only a week prior, before the “Christmas decorations” had gone up, Tristan had visited the shopping centre to buy new shoes (he didn’t find any). But even then as he walked amongst the happy faces of men, women, and children, students and workers, the rich and the poor; he had felt like a spider, with them but not of them, crawling in the opposite direction, one long tendril after another, through the dark alleys of life. Anansi-incarnate: a sinister shadowy thing gently creeping through the crowds of real people of flesh and bone. And this is how Tristan had felt wandering through the shopping centre today as well, except with the additional bother of Santa’s heavy lovemaking.

Anyway, he had made it through the centre alive, and was now safe and sound in Kemal’s restaurant. While Tristan was trying to eat his food as best he could (he didn’t have much of an appetite, but eating too little would give him another headache), Sourcruft was reading a broadsheet newspaper. Curiously, if one looked closely at it, it would be revealed that all the writing, from front page to back, was simply lorem ipsum. A good few minutes passed before Tristan was almost finished his meal, and felt the need to take a break from eating. It was in this space that yet another melancholy discussion developed between the two gentlemen.

Tristan spoke sombrely. “Why don’t more people complain of the linear passage of time? It pushes us from happy memories, kicking and screaming, like a ruthless tide”.
“It also pushes us from unpleasant memories, sir”.
“Well that’s just the thing: it pushes us from good times and bad times indiscriminately – indifferently. We take it for granted that we have freedom of movement in space – why not also in time?”
“Ehm, something to do with avoiding temporal paradoxes, sir?”
“I’m sure God, being omniscient and omnipotent and all, could have found a way around that, that didn’t involve restricting our basic freedoms. Why can’t we pick and choose what time we inhabit, as we usually do with our geographical location? There are times I’d much rather be than here – no offence to you, of course. So many happy memories I would so much like to re-live. But the tide has taken them. They’ve been submerged by the obscure seas of the distant past, as lost as Atlantis”.

Sourcruft folded up his paper. “Feelings never to be felt again, lips never to be kissed again, friends never to be seen again – that sort of thing, sir?”
Tristan smiled proudly. This was Sourcruft at his best. “Yes, old man. Particular feelings that could only be experienced once, when the Heavens were aligned in a particular way that they never quite will be again. Loved ones who have left, died, or changed irreversibly. A cherished childhood home demolished and replaced with a block of flats”.
Sourcruft was just about to speak, but he saw Tristan put his head in his hands and withdrew his comment.
“Because, Sourcruft, this is the truth – I have had a good life. A beautiful life. But it’s over now, and it makes me want to weep that not one of those beautiful memories I can ever inhabit again”. The tears dripped, dripped, dripped into the kebab, but Tristan tried to maintain his composure in a public place. To express such emotion for some reason isn’t permissible in public.

Sourcruft considered observing that “memory is merely the final stage of experience”, but thought better of it, not wishing to say something so offensively optimistic again. It was no use – of course Tristan knew Sourcruft’s thoughts as well as Sourcruft knew Tristan’s, and he gave the poor butler a scowl.

After an awkward pause the two friends resumed their conversation as if nothing had happened. “But if we could live life in a non-linear fashion, sir, as you suggest – it would surely solve all the world’s problems, wouldn’t it? I mean, sir, should someone be having an unpleasant experience, they could simply return back to a happier memory, and keep returning there forever, so that they would never ever have to experience a horrible thing. In fact, they wouldn’t even have to die!”
“Yes, Sourcruft!” said Tristan, surprisingly gleefully. Sourcruft at his best. Tristan continued, “They would never have to experience death or old age or pain – they could inhabit the memories they want to inhabit always”, but then he added mournfully, “unless all they experience throughout their life is pain; then this wouldn’t do them much good… and even if this were not the case, those unpleasant experiences may be delayed, but I suppose they would have to be experienced sometime, in order for them to happen at all…”.

Soon enough he perked up again, “… But at least we would be able to experience the pleasant or at least not-unpleasant experiences as many times as we would like. You know what they say about time being an illusion of human perception? They say time doesn’t really exist beyond our minds – it’s just a way for the brain to categorise cause and effect in a neat little order. Well perhaps scientists could experiment on the human brain someday in the future and figure out a means to give us control over our perception of time – so that we could have this very ability, to time travel up and down our lifespans as easily as we move from place to place. I could be experiencing my old age one week and my life in the womb the next. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Sourcruft – perhaps someday this will be a reality. Then perhaps I could live again”.
“Experimenting on brains is a risky business, sir”.
“Oh, of course it is. And a future of transhumans and post-humans alarms me greatly. But where there is danger there is always potential”.

It was then that Tristan finally finished his kebab, and begrudgingly he and Sourcruft got up to leave.

As they began their stroll back to the city centre bus stop and left Kemal’s greasy spoon behind them, Tristan reinitiated the discussion.
“Maybe non-linear time is already the case for some of us. If “time” truly is an illusion controlled by an area of the mind, then what if that area were damaged or destroyed? I’ve heard there are people out there with brain injuries, who have a distorted sense of time – they experience an hour as a day, or a minute as a second – things like that. Perhaps there are people out there who experience events in the wrong order”.
“Quite, sir”.

“Maybe this will happen to me when I die. If by some chance during the millisecond that is the moment of death, the part of my brain which controls time perception perishes before everything else, then that millisecond could last an eternity for me. Perhaps this is what the ancient religions and mystics meant by a life after death – time perception goes out the window, and you’re left with an eternity trapped in the same moment. Not just any moment, but the agony of death, forever and ever. Perhaps this is what they meant by Hell”.
Sourcruft dared to make an optimistic statement. “But suppose, sir, that in that same millisecond, the part of the brain which controls mood is damaged a nanosecond before time perception is destroyed. And suppose this damage causes the brain to emit a sudden blissful burst of endorphins, like nothing anyone could ever experience in life! Then it would be Heaven!”.

Tristan was amused so let Sourcruft off for his hopefulness. In fact, he added to the butler’s comment, “Suppose, Sourcruft, that throughout one’s life the part of the brain which controls mood either builds up chemicals which trigger negative emotions, like noradrenaline, or chemicals which trigger positive emotions, like endorphins. Maybe if you’ve done many bad things in your life, the guilt and shame will build up chemically in your brain in the form of noradrenaline and whatnot, whereas if you’ve done many things to be proud about endorphins will build up instead. So… when you die, depending on whether you’ve done more good things than bad, an eternal burst of either positive or negative emotion will be released in the nanosecond prior to the destruction of time perception, thus determining whether you spend an eternity in bliss or anguish. And maybe that’s what the ancient religions and mystics meant by what they call ‘Final Judgment’!”.

Tristan smiled. “An interesting conversation as ever, Sourcruft”.

Tristan had been so entertained by the discussion that he was largely distracted from the journey back through the shopping centre of doom, and had made it to the bus stop with his sanity intact. Whatever sanity he had preserved, however, was quickly lost with the imminent prospect of another cramped bus journey. It was six o’clock by now; dark, rainy, and at the height of rush hour. Nevertheless, by some great act of Divine mercy, when the bus arrived Tristan managed to get a seat (although Sourcruft had to remain standing). Regrettably Tristan had sat in one of those “priority seats” at the front of the bus reserved for the aged, disabled, or pregnant. He resented sitting in these places, dreading the constant threat of awkward social interaction they presented – with any elderly, handicapped, or gestating stranger who might happen to step onto the vehicle at any moment. Thankfully, it wasn’t so likely such people would attempt public transport during the hustle and bustle of the evening rush.

Naturally, Tristan found himself once again sat next to someone who smelt of urine. It was always either urine, vomit, or corpse-breath. But this didn’t last forever. Eventually this person got off the bus, allowing Tristan to have the window seat. Sourcruft attempted to sit next to him but was shuffled out the way by a man with a frighteningly small head. He burped as he sat down and from the corner of his eye Tristan noticed him begin to pick his nose ferociously, like a gold rush prospector hurriedly digging for buried fortune, or an addict desperately clawing through their belongings to locate a hidden bag of scag. “What on earth does he expect to find up there?”, a disgusted Tristan thought. Sourcruft’s face was contorted into both a scowl, for preventing him from sitting next to Tristan, and a grimace, for this vile act of nasal pillaging. Knowing that Tristan was the only person who could hear him, the butler snobbishly, sarcastically sneered, “Welcome to public transport”.

Tristan removed his book from his satchel and began to read. It was a fantasy, entitled The Wizard of Carethas. It beckoned him into an escapist world of magic and elves and dragons and adventure. But it wasn’t long before he found himself drifting from this vision to the simpler world of humble daydreams, and before he knew it he had begun staring melancholily out of the bus window. The star-like lights of the city shone beautifully through the raindrop-stained glass, and in them Tristan was almost mesmerised into forgetting his woes. Almost, anyway, for the audible squelching of his neighbour’s nostrils was a constant reminder of bleak, ugly reality.

About halfway through the journey, the bus paused in front of some traffic lights, and Tristan got a glimpse through the window of a small bookshop he had visited a week before. He recalled that a particular book he had seen in there had made him chuckle morbidly: a biography called Polanski by Christopher Sandford, about the film director of the same name. A review from The Spectator was printed on its front cover: “Expertly put together … a notable tribute to a rascal genius“. A “rascal”, as if he were some kind of Dennis the Menace character (Polanski drugged and raped a thirteen year old girl in 1977). Tristan had never seen a Polanski film, but the man’s sustained forty year popularity after his crime made Tristan ponder the morality of appreciating the art of wicked men. Before he could recall any of this any longer, the engine of the bus revved up, and it sped past the traffic lights, back into the evening darkness.

The bus finally arrived at Tristan’s student accommodation complex and he and Sourcruft walked in silence to his flat. Another day survived.

On the way, the two men made a detour to the reception area, where they could check to see if Tristan had any post waiting for him – letters from the university, TV licence fines and the like. It turned out he did – a Christmas card from his mother. Tristan opened the envelope. The card was decorated with a cartoon elk crucified, below the caption “Merry Christ-moose!”. Tristan sighed and placed it in his satchel, and continued on to his room.

When he and Sourcruft got there, Tristan closed the door behind them. Alone at last. Well, except for Sourcruft, but he didn’t count.
“What are you to do now, sir?”
“The usual; waste what precious little remains of my life on mildly amusing internet videos until I develop eyestrain and have to go to sleep”
“I see, sir”
“What about you, Sourcruft?”. Tristan had taken his shoes and coat off and was in the process of activating his laptop.
“Oh, you know, sir. Supervising the other servants, making sure they’ve done a good job today while I’ve been gone (and by the state of this room, it doesn’t seem like they have!)”. The room was still an incorrigible mess. “… And then, sir, if it’s permissible, I might have an early kip. After I’ve completed my duties, of course, sir”.
“Of course, Sourcruft” said Tristan, and he smiled beamingly. He took a step towards the butler and shook him firmly by the hand. “It may seem simple, what you’ve done for me today, but it’s worth more than you can possibly imagine”.
“But sir” started the butler, astonished, “I haven’t done anything for you today – you let me have the day off? And now your room is still a mess!”.
“Right, of course it is” chuckled Tristan knowingly. His room was a mess, but for one brief, glittering moment, his emotional state was not.

He finished shaking Sourcruft’s hand. He took a step back.

He slipped on something. He never could remember what. A sheet of paper, the discarded “Christ-moose” Christmas card, something as grotesquely comic as a banana skin? It mattered not. What did matter was his head tumbling towards the ground as quick as a silver bullet. A silver bullet to slay the monster – the Anansi-incarnate who wandered the earth spreading its pitiful misery like a foul breath. The crackle of the boy’s head against the metal bedframe should have been the end of him, as he himself thought in later years. But the shot was a miss. It ricocheted with a clang worthy of a spaghetti Western, right into the heart of the loyal servant; the dedicated butler; the good friend.

When Tristan awoke groggily from his concussion, his first instinct was to call out to Sourcruft. He waited several minutes but no response came. “Shabby butlering” he muttered as he held his aching head and felt the warm tender bruise at the back of it. “Where could he be?”.

There was something eerie about this question that gave Tristan a chill. He couldn’t quite place it; at first he dismissed the sensation that ran up his spine as merely the feeling of someone walking over his grave – that unexplainable mystery, not unlike déjà vu, that all of us experience now and again. Experience, then easily dismiss, and carry on with our lives. But soon enough the reason for his unease revealed itself in his mind. Tristan had never before needed to ask where his butler was; he was always right there beside him, lightning-fashion, as soon as he was required. The whole concept of Sourcruft being anywhere but where he needed him was frighteningly alien.

Tristan felt a great wave of insecurity flush over him. He felt naked and alone, but the worst was still yet to come. For an even more horrifying question was waiting for him just around the corner; a question so mind-bending and crushing that when the young man finally found himself uttering it, a thousand elephants stampeded over his poor desecrated graveside.

The question was, “Who is he?”. For Tristan had quite forgotten who Sourcruft was.

Fragments remained – he knew the man’s name, he knew that he was his butler whom he loved very much. He knew that he was never far. But where once were plentiful memories there was now only darkness. Sourcruft had vanished into incomprehensible non-existence, into blackest oblivion.

Half of Tristan’s soul had been torn out for a man he could barely remember. He cried in searing pain for a great lost love that was now only a whisper of a name.

People tried to tell him that there was no man named Sourcruft, but Tristan kept the faith. There must have been, surely? He recalled a deep, tangible love – a deep joy, surrounded on all sides by oceans of sorrow. But the people had evidence on their side, and the contradiction between this and the reality of what he felt drove him insane.

Numbness followed agony. The months passed like dreams. Mourning rumbled through him like a ghost dragging its chains across the floorboards. He was alone with his tears, now his only friends and company.

Each sleep for him was like a small suicide; the thought that he was actually going to wake in the morning filled him with so much despair. The Sun rose and he wished it would burn out.

But life gallivanted on, indifferent to his desire to stay behind. He grew fatter and weaker and wearier. Life happened – Tristan never had the guts to take it – and Sourcruft never returned. Tristan died having not seen his old friend for sixty years – if he ever really saw him at all.