It looked normal.
Clara didn’t like it.
Things, she knew, shouldn’t be like that. When things looked this normal, something had to be wrong. She glanced around as she walked down the street. It looked like a normal Stourham Saturday morning.
Which was odd.
At least for a Tuesday.
The man from the bank smiled and said good morning as he strolled past her walking his dog.
Clara said good morning back, even though she and the man from the bank did not speak to one another – at least not since that incident.
And he didn’t have a dog. He didn’t like dogs. You could tell that from his face. Clara would have been able to tell, if she dared glance back at him now behind her, further up Beech Avenue. You could tell people who didn’t like dogs from their posture around them, that sort of trepidation when the dog got too near them.
She risked a glance at the houses on either side of her, at the pavements with grass verges and what she assumed were the beech trees that gave the street its name. She knew nothing about trees. She stopped for a moment pretending to look through her bag for something, trying to act innocent.
Was that true?
She could picture a few trees in her mind: oak, silver birch, weeping willow, sycamore, pine, Christmas trees.
What was that?
There was an image in her mind of a triangular tree, pointed at the top with – incongruously – a star perched on its very tip and multicoloured balls and streamers of shiny stuff draped over it. There were tiny lights too, also multi-coloured, flickering on and off. She had a feeling of cold, of winter, but something warm, welcoming about the tree and it being special. Even that odd word she was sure she had never heard before – Christmas – that seemed to have some safe, cosy meaning, something from childhood.
Clara realised she had been standing still too long with her bag clutched in front of her. She had forgotten to search through it as the strange thought, the strange word, had flooded her memory.
They would be watching.
She tried to compose her face into some sort of expression. She could pretend she had forgotten something, left something behind. She could go back. She could go back to the house that she pretended was her home, even though she knew it wasn’t.
What could she have forgotten, though?
Everything she needed for the day that should be in her bag was in her bag. They would be able to tell, check their records. They would know she had not forgotten anything.
There was always the chance too that by going back, she could reset everything again. Then it could be another, different, Stourham when she stepped back out of the front door that was not really her front door.
Clara knew this was not her Stourham, this was not her life, and – somehow – she knew that she was not supposed to know this, but she did.
Three weeks ago, she remembered, she had been awake early in the morning, around 4:00 am. The world had flicked and disappeared.
Then, as her terror reached a peak in the absence of everything, Stourham had come back, but different, somehow. She forced a laugh as she wiped her tears from her face. It was as if someone had turned the whole universe off and back on again to correct some fault where it had all gone wrong.