Alfred had lost track of how long he had been in the Suburb. He shouldn't have. After all, the only one of his possessions that remained to him was the Watch. It was just that the time it showed was not the time he experienced. How long had he been away? Away from Delia?
He looked out the window of his flat above the milk bar, and saw the awnings and shops of the Suburb, just as he did every day. He shook his head. Time to face the day. Donning his black slacks and, polo-neck and blazer, he walked down the back stairs, past Mrs R smoking by the back gate and out into the alley. Then he remembered that he'd forgotten his enormous white badge with the letter 'F' on it and, swearing, went back to retrieve it.
Thus fully clothed, he made his way to the Suburb tea shop, which for reasons he didn't fully understand was located in the middle of a hedge-maze in the Suburb Park. Fortunately Letter N, the park gardner, had gotten lazy and mown a park directly to the centre. There, the little café kiosk was doing a brisk business to the black-blazered Suburbanites.
"Usual, F?" said L, the waitress.
"Maybe this time I could have it without the hallucinogens?" Alfred sighed.
"One Devonshire tea, half hallucinogens it is."
"Maybe leave out all of the drugs?"
"Just a little hint of drugs, love. Got it."
Alfred took his tea-tray, shook his head and took a seat. For a while, he watched some of his fellow prisoners at cricket. For a ball, they used a glowing ball that defied gravity and for bats, they used telescoping metal rods with inflatable boxing gloves on the end. Somehow, these adjustments made the game even less interesting to watch.
It didn't matter. Alfred swirled his mildly drugged coffee, knowing full well what was coming next. Sure enough, a burly man in a spiky haircut walked up. He was dressed like all the other Suburbanites, except for an umbrella hooked over his arm, a badge reading 'B' and a scarf that Alfred thought made the fellow look like a Hufflepuff.
"Hoy, Letter F," said the man.
"Who are you?" Alfred said, knowing the answer.
"I'm the new Letter B, ay?"
"Who is Letter B.A.?"
"No, Letter B. Ay?"
"Oh. Then who is Letter A?"
"Who is Letter?"
"Never mind," Alfred sighed. "What do you want?"
"Info, mate. Info. Info."
"You won't get it."
"We fuckin' will, ya…" B began, raising a fist.
"No, I mean I don't have any info," Alfred said. "I don't even know how I got here."
Letter B scratched his head. "Yeah, we were wondering that too," he said. "Er, I mean, 'that would be telling.' By the way, are you going to drink that tea or what? 'Cause if youse are, I've got some nice bikkies here that would go down a treat with it."
Alfred sniffed the biscuits, which smelled somewhere between Nimben on the night of the Equinox, and Amsterdam at low tide.
"You know what?" he said. "I'm just going for a walk. I… I may be some time."
Leaving Letter B scratching his head behind him, Alfred wandered through the back streets of the Suburb down to the beach. The Huge Evil Bubble was there, but it didn’t seem very active, sitting on a beach towel and smelling of coconut oil. It growled lazily at Alfred, who shook his head. "Not escaping today, mate," Alfred said. The Bubble settled down and began snoring gently.
Not that there was anywhere to escape to, Alfred thought. Not by water, anyway. Even from the shore, he could see that the horizon was… wrong. The sea just didn't quite meet the sky. Alfred couldn’t quite make out what was between them, exactly, but it wasn't pleasant to look at.
"Where am I?" he said.
Alfred stated as the sand shifted nearby. It turned out to be a woman in an old-fashioned dress whose beehive hairdo and false eyelashes had somehow survived their owner being buried in the sand.
"Oh, what did they drug me with last night?" she said, brushing off sand. "Wait, this isn’t the room with the freaky egg chair. I usually wake up in the egg chair room," she added in what seemed to Alfred to be an accusing tone.
"I don't know anything about that, miss…"
"Miss U," the woman said. "Yes, yes, I know we just met. It's my name. Well, actually it's a letter, but it is my name now."
"What was your name before you came to the Suburb?" Alfred said.
The woman narrowed her eyes, which was not a maneuver that worked especially well with her false eyelashes. "Who's asking?" she said.
For the hundredth time since coming to the Suburb, Alfred tried to say his own name. For the hundredth time he said: "I'm Letter F."
"How do I know you're not one of them, F?" U said.
"Because…" Alfred paused and stared at the sea and the sky and the not-horizon. "I suppose you don't know. I honestly can't think of a good reason to trust me. I wouldn't trust me if I were you."
"So why do you trust me?"
"Because I'm not you, I suppose?" Alfred said. "I'm me. I'm just a trusting sort of bloke."
U looked at Alfred for a long while. "Oh," she said. "I thought you were going to try to seduce me."
"Umm," Alfred said. "No. Nothing personal, but… no."
Alfred considered asking "did you want me to?" but decided that there was no possible answer to that question that he wouldn't find deeply uncomfortable, so he just stood there awkwardly instead.
"No, need to apologise," U said. "Getting a little sick of it, truth be told. Sexy spies trying to seduce me. All the awful double entendres. Look, I think I'll just trust you. It usually goes wrong but it's something to do, I guess."
"I know, right?"
The wind picked up, and the gently snoring Bubble began gently rolling in Alfred's direction. "Let's move," Alfred said.
They wandered along the beach, past the Art Deco change rooms surmounted by racks of ventriloquist dummies and around the concrete slab where two young men played game that seemed a mix of volleyball, skateboarding and tai chi.
"How do we get out of here, U?" Alfred moaned.
"There's no way out of the Suburb," U said. "No way. They'll keep us here until they get some vaguely defined information from us through somewhat threatening subterfuge."
"How long have you been here?"
"Months. Since just after Harold Holt died."
Alfred rubbed his eyes. When had Holt died? 1967? '68? A generation ago. Had this woman been here for fifty years, or were they out of time somehow? What was this place.
"Are you okay, F?"
Alfred stood up to his full, modest height. He set his jaw and raised a fist at the sky.
"I am not a letter!" he declared. The words seemed insufficient, desperately insufficient. It needed so much more to even begin to express his sense of outrage... of separation from his friends, from his family... from Delia. He needed more, so much more, to truly give voice to his anguish.
"I'm bloody not, you know!" he added.