It is very dark, but the road ahead glows a lighter shade, reflecting starlight. I am riding a bicycle through level, quasi-silent countryside, drawn towards an unseen destination. The feeble glimmer of my lamp is of little use: an impotent spurt of failing yellow against an overwhelming mass of blackness. My eyes however, are adjusting. Inside my head there is a pain like a bad hangover and the hissing of a distant unidentifiable turmoil, but beyond the borders of my being I sense familiarity in these surroundings and allow myself to be embraced by fresh pure night.
This is a flat landscape, and a place whose character resonates in my soul. It could be anywhere, but I know where I am. I have just passed the untidy profile of some elderly elm trees, their silhouettes sturdily defiant against the deep sky. Sounds of nature seep into my consciousness, the breeze amongst roadside willows and sporadic croaking complaints of nocturnal birds almost too well known to register. Two kinds of distant low rumble vibrate along with my ill-defined personal discomfort. There is the motorway network; a gentle constant background noise which only really emerges out of nocturnal stillness. This is punctuated by a periodic monstrous roar and red glow against the horizon as hot slag is ejected from a huge steelworks. It is many miles away and I am facing the wrong direction to see the effect directly. I also seem unwilling or unable to stop and turn, but I know it to be there - our own local Hades.
I haven't passed this way for more than thirty years, but the very road beneath talks to me, its ticks and bumps as familiar as the blemishes on a favourite old record. The wheels hungrily absorb undulations over which I must have ridden a thousand times. Here is that row of houses, originally built for Victorian railway workers. There lived a lad whose friendship I only cultivated because he had a miniature snooker table. Just behind his place there is a canal in which we swam during one last hot summer of innocence before big school rivalries made us hostile. Here is a bungalow whose occupants were always an enigmatic mystery, and further along is the big ranch where they spent too much money and ended up living in two rooms with a breeze-block finish while the rest of the building flapped under miserable plastic sheets, the grass in their acre of estate grew in unsightly tufts, and the richly gravelled driveway sizzled in the rain, sank under cold puddles, and eventually scattered adrift in the same way as their dreams.
I stop on an open stretch of straight road, ears and eyes absorbing the surrounding countryside. I can filter the experience through the latent malaise within my sickly skull, my nostrils filling with sweet moist air, fragrant with the sharp tang of hawthorn hedges and the chill of gathering dew. I know what lies ahead and I move forward slowly, savouring every barely visible marker on my way. There will be that corner where, riding fast, I leant forward too far and the boots slung around my neck caught in the spokes of my front wheel. That neckline pain shoots back into my consciousness as I recall the smash. For a long time I treasured the corrugated imprint of hard road on the plastic of a Swiss Army knife I'd had in my pocket like a heroic souvenir. A little further and I will see the white of a farmhouse in front of which stands a World War II relic. This consists of a grassy hillock which camouflages an Anderson bomb shelter, the front and rear walls showing sturdy brick rather than the more usual corrugated iron. I remember going inside once: a darkly confined and characterless space with a hardmud floor, depressed into dusty dips by animals which used it as a cave against the elements. Why anyone had thought this farmhouse might be the focus of enemy bombs was beyond me, though my own village further on had lit decoy fires and been hit on one occasion. We once dug up a big piece of bomb shrapnel in the garden, all rusted pitting and curved blast lines. I also knew where you could still see the overgrown remnants of a crater to one side of the church path.
My mind stuffed with preoccupations and absorbed in youthful reminiscence, it is a shock to see the looming shape of a big new building in the field adjacent to that farmhouse. I know this is where I have my appointment, at this huge anonymous block whose blank lack of windows makes it look like one of those dreadful sports centres. Until now, a sense of unreality had led me to think I might be following the course of some overly symbolic dream, but that hissing ache in my cranium always kept yanking my thoughts back from reverie as effectively as sharp fish-hooks. The atmosphere of my memories had lent themselves to an acute feeling of place and time, and yet I now find myself struggling to recollect through a resistant haze: an angry shielded void which is holding some secret about what has led to my being where I am. A sense of isolation, of movements played out in an enforced other-worldliness, reinforce this impression. I can find no answers within myself, and worlds seem to be clashing both in memories and in my perceptions of the environment. This meeting place and its connection with a sudden sense of a distinct purpose have become the focus of a new and heightening set of discomforting sensations.
Acting with an increasing sense of pre-ordained inevitability, I dismount and lean my bicycle against the vast new wall. As if it might be my last time in the open air, I stretch backwards and look directly up. The top of the building forms a shadowy second horizon against which the striking line of the Milky Way plunges like a bold brushstroke through the ink of infinity. Light pollution. Townies never see this. They don't know what they're missing.
With a foreknowledge of the correct direction I feel my way along the perimeter of the wall to the main door, which opens as I approach. Overly-bright neon lighting spills out into the night and hurts my retinas. I wince on entering, but the experience forces further recollection: reluctant homecomings after rare late expeditions: bonfire nights, long car journeys - my mind is still running on the giddy spice of long neglected nostalgia.
"Welcome back Mr. Traublin."
I have no words for a reply, but watch warily. Welcome back? The figure before me has dark skin and a bald head. The contrast between this and his white coat against the pitiless lighting couldn't be greater. He is a hazelnut with a clipboard, and I don't recognise him.
"Please, Magnus, come through."
Still with no idea why I am where I find myself, I follow the figure's encouraging gesture and the sweeping fabric of his long jacket as he moves through a short corridor and plunges through some transparent PVC strip curtain.
"Here is the main floor of our establishment. Don't be alarmed by what you are seeing. It's not particularly pleasant I know, but everything we do is in the name of genuine research and I can promise you that no-one has been harmed; at least, not by us..."