The first thing he noticed when he entered the room was that everything was upside down. His father, his mother, the furniture, the cat. Everything inverted.
His mother was speaking but he couldn’t focus on the words. He stood frozen, stunned. He could barely breath. Finally he became conscious of her calling his name.
He looked at her.
“What’s wrong? You like you’ve seen a ghost."
He was unable to speak. He looked around.
He could see the inversion. He perceived it with his own eyes. He knew that the erstwhile upright features of the room were all wrong. It was a total dishonesty of physics, a mockery of the general order of things. But he could not acknowledge it. For to do so would have been a kind of concession, an admission of his own madness. This left him in a predicament.
I can’t continue standing here silent and motionless, he thought. They may be onto me. I have to say something.
Could his parents not see it for themselves? Were they prosecuting some kind of sick charade?
I ought to test the waters, he thought. To bide myself some time.
“I’m sorry…I just remembered something…never mind. Say, mum,” he went on. “Do you notice anything…different?”
“…What do you mean?”
“I mean…do you notice anything has changed?”
She looked at him suspiciously, as though it were a trick question.
“Wait a minute...I think I know...you’ve had a haircut!” she said, beaming.
“Yes…very good…but I mean…in here … since I was here last…has this room we’re standing in…has it changed in any way?”
He watched her closely, nervously. He could see the levity with which she was treating the task he had given her. As though she were a participant in a childhood game of I Spy.
He waited for what felt like hours.
Finally a look of self-satisfaction descended upon her face, like a composer crafting the final line of a timeless symphony.
“Aren’t you clever,” she said. “Yes yes…your father has finally taken down those ghastly war propaganda posters…I say, haven’t you darling?”
His father’s eyes rose just above the top of the newspaper. He grunted a monotone acknowledgement and returned to reading.
Rick was on the brink of despair. Was the inversion in the living room, or was it within his own mind?
His mother left the room and everything fell silent while his father continued to hide his face behind the newspaper. He wanted to engage him in conversation. Perhaps he could give him some clues as to the meaning of all that was occurring about him.
“It’s damned hot out there, isn’t it?”
“Don’t curse, Rick. There’s no need for that.”
He attached great weight to the observance of decorum—etiquette—which to Rick’s mind was a craftily engineered device, a trip-wire to offset a boundless fund of human insecurity.
He was always a victim, Rick thought. But now he is a victim of a different kind: a hapless casualty of the silent inversion.
The inversion made him consider the room in a different way. He began to move his head vertically as well as horizontally. It all came so naturally, he thought, the atavistic impulse to scan the canopy.
He looked to the right of his father and noticed the cat occupying the warmth of the seat where his mother had been. Rick tried to catch her attention, wondering how she would react to seeing him from this new perspective. She was lying with her head angled toward the rear of the room, looking just past where he stood.
He began to move his hands around the space where her gaze was directed. She blinked an indifferent expression, as though they were the movements of an object too trivial for a cat’s concern.
He moved his face into her line of sight, determined to rouse her, positioning himself in what he thought was the centre of her vision. His eyebrows raised, he peered straight into her eyes. But he could get no rise out of the animal. She looked at him but did not perceive his existence, her vision fixed on a deeper field.
He called out to her. Her ears rose, indicating her pique, but she continued to stare straight through him.
Perhaps the inversion has dulled her senses, he thought. Maybe the overstimulation has crippled her fragile mind. She cannot be blamed, she is but another victim.
He called to his father.
“What?” he said finally.
“Sorry…it’s just…Dorothy…she seems a little out of sorts…is she OK?"
He folded the paper to reveal his face but did not look down.
“She was sick a few weeks ago but your mother took her to the vet. She’s had medicine. She’s fine now.”
He returned to reading.
“I only ask because she doesn’t seem to recognise me.”
“You haven’t been around here for a while."
“I suppose so."
His mother re-entered the room with tea. She poured a cup and handed it to him.
“What are we going to do about this daughter of yours, Cynthia?” his father said.
Her expression soured.
“I don’t know, father.”
“It’s driving me mad, Cynthia. That daughter of yours.”
“I know, dear.”
“These ideas of hers. This creative business. She’s too intelligent to be giving it all away.”
“We’ll need to tell her we can’t do it anymore.”
“I know, dear. For now though, let’s support her. This will pass. This will all pass.”
Rick stood there wondering how he had survived in this place so long. Then he felt that he could not stand being in the room any longer. He finished his tea and made for the side door.
“I’m going to the bay for a walk,” he said. But they were still bickering and took no notice of what he had said.
As he walked towards the door his thoughts returned to the inversion. I have no time for cats or petty arguments, he thought. Some kind of false image, some vast fabrication has eclipsed reality, and I have no option but to come to terms with it.
His mind was befuddled. He wanted to wake up. But he knew it was not a dream. As he pulled the door open he hoped that the horror was coming to an end and that it was not just the beginning.
He stepped outside and found the sky ablaze. The sun blasted rays of crimson which bounced off the surface of the ocean and the glass panelled apartments about him. It was a torrent of luminescence, as though a hydrogen bomb had exploded in the distance. He shielded his eyes with his hands.
Beneath him lay the staircase leading to the bay, and beyond that the horizon and the fire in the sky.
He passed through the gate and began his descent. He couldn’t see anything except his feet negotiating the stairs, but somehow he knew there was no one around.
With each step towards the bay he felt more self-assured, less afraid. He knew the answers to all the questions that had been goading him lay not with his mother, his father or with any individual, but that he would find the truth if he walked towards the light. The knowledge gave him a sense of serenity, as though he were a wayward petal from one of the sunflowers lining the staircase floating towards the bay below.
Suddenly he sensed birds flying overhead. When he reached the road at the bottom of the staircase he did not stop to check if any cars approached. He knew the birds were the only ones about him now.
As he entered the lawn by the seawall a grand tree blocked the light of the sun. He was able to observe the world around him. He looked to his left expecting to see the grand City Bridge but it was not there. It was not to his left, but to his right. It was not above, but below. As were the birds and the sun which still burned like fire across the twilight sky.
For it was not the living room nor his mind but the world which was inverted.
He felt an ecstatic wave rush over him. No human nor bird nor fire in the sky could hurt him now. They all appeared toys, trifles in his mind.
He walked towards the bay. He felt no need to hurry. There was no past, no future. No up nor down. East nor west. The old rules were suspended. A new logic ruled now.
He stood at the water’s edge, looked to the sky, closed his eyes, inhaled deeply and dove into the sea. It was an act of consummation, a rite of infinitely more significance than anything to that moment he had experienced. Rebirth, baptism and resurrection all at once. The cosmos had lowered the drawbridge to eternity which he was now undertaking to cross.
He lay at peace on the seabed. All mysteries were solved, anxieties appeased.
When he surfaced he looked at the sky again. The burning red had faded. The moon now shone over the horizon. He floated on his back and felt the moonlight caressing the outline of his body on the smooth surface of the ocean. The stars twinkled brilliant iridescence, inviting him to reach out and pick them from the sky like ripe orchard berries.
He smiled, and with him the world smiled. He felt a sense of dominion, of power in this new inverted world.
He thought he heard his mother calling to him. She wanted him to return, he thought. To go back and stay with her.
“I want to stay here,” he said out loud. "I want to think everything through for a while..."
He closed his eyes and visualised an image of himself from below. This young man, lying on the surface of the ocean, bathing in the glitter-light of the radiant stars, the world beneath him.
It occurred to him that his past were an illusion, episodes in the life of some alternate, parallel self. There was only an eternal future now in which all yearnings would be satisfied, dreams realised.
Everything lay ahead. Oh, Inverted World!
This story was Highly Commended in the 2015 Manchester Fiction Prize.