Five Productivity Tips You May Not Know About, from A Fledging Freelancer

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

Many more people are working from home now, and perhaps, like me, you are pushing for your dream of becoming a freelancer. The matter of motivation, therefore, rests almost entirely on you and you alone. How can you increase your productivity? A quick Google search on the subject will yield hundreds of results, but with so much, often contradictory, advice, what is the best approach to take?

It all comes down to personal preference, of course. However, in this article I want to share five things that have really helped me and I think may help you too: some are recent discoveries; some are older, time-honoured tips but so easy to forget.

Anyway, without further ado, here they are:

1. Listen to Lo-fi

Or lo-fi hip hop to be more precise (or chillhop as it’s sometimes known). It’s a downbeat musical style that incorporates breakbeats, sampling and textures, and has gained massive online popularity during the worldwide lockdowns of 2020. It’s the ideal kind of music to listen to when you want to focus on work or study. This is because it’s unobtrusive enough to have on in the background, but stimulating enough to stop you from nodding off. There are many playlists and live-streams of lo-fi music on platforms such as YouTube and Spotify. Lo-fi music is easily my biggest productivity discovery of late, and I think you should give it a go.

 

2. Plenty of Daylight

By this I don’t mean you should work outside (although this always an option), but it’s worth remembering that daylight naturally makes us feel more awake. By making sure there’s plenty of daylight in your workspace, you’re more likely to be productive because you’ll feel less sleepy. So fling back those curtains and open those blinds – it’ll help. And fresh air is never a bad thing either.

 

3. Limit Distractions

It’s important to limit environmental distractions to increase your productivity and focus. Find a quiet spot to work in and invest in some noise-cancelling headphones if you need them.

It’s equally important to limit electronic distractions. You have to be strict with yourself here. Don’t check social media during your work or study time. Don’t keep checking your phone notifications or email inbox. A stable, predictable environment with as few distractions as possible will help your brain to focus better without becoming overtired.

 

4. Get Plenty of Sleep

If you’re tired, it’s going to be harder to focus. Fact. Tiredness will sap your motivation. You may overcompensate by drinking lots of coffee, but this can make you jittery and find it hard to concentrate on one thing at a time. The only sensible answer, then, is to get enough sleep.

What constitutes enough sleep will vary for each person. If six hours is enough for you, great. But if you need nine hours, make sure you get them. And if you’re not an early morning person, don’t try to force yourself to be. Getting up early will only increase your productivity if your body clock is used to it, not if you’re sleep-deprived. You have to work with your own natural rhythm.

 

5. Take a Break

Sometimes you’ll find, despite your best intentions, you just can’t focus. Maybe you’re tired, worried, stressed, or restless. Maybe you think you should just try to push through. But this probably won’t make you more productive. More likely you’ll just spend most of your time staring at a blank screen or trying desperately to understand a spreadsheet which normally wouldn’t be that difficult.

In this case, I think the best thing to do is give yourself a break. Just do what is absolutely necessary that day and cut yourself some slack for the rest of it. Take a nap. Go for a run. Spend time with friends or family. Whatever you need to do to recharge. Then, when you return to your work, you’ll be refreshed and maybe even inspired, and this will naturally increase your productivity.

 

I hope these tips help. Have you got any productivity tips you’d like to share? I’d be glad to hear them!

Update on My Life

Hello followers! Today is my one-year anniversary on this blog. I would like to update it more regularly than I have been doing, but we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve finished my Alice novella and it’s all up on this blog now, in ten instalments.

So what’s it all about?

It’s about a 27-year-old woman, called Alice, who temps in an office. She’s a bit of a loner and feels she’s not quite where she wants to be in life. Then, one day, the Cheshire Cat appears inside her game of computer Solitaire, while all her work colleagues are in a meeting. This is the beginning of a strange journey for Alice, where she enters another realm and encounters some familiar fictional characters…

If this sounds like your thing, you can start reading from part one, here. I will also be publishing a very limited run of print copies – slim paperback volumes which are the very final, final, ‘perfect’ edition (which means they’ve been obsessively edited and proofread by me to within an inch of their lives).

I think I’ll also look into getting it published as an ebook format, a little further down the line.

My current project is: working on generating a bit of income for myself through freelance writing, editing, proofreading and transcription. If you have any work for me in these areas, please do get in touch via my contact form, or email themorningstarblog@gmail.com. I will charge very reasonable rates, as I’m just starting out, and looking to build up my contacts and CV.

I have also set up a BuyMeACoffee account. If you enjoy my writing, and wish to give a few pounds to show your support, it’d be greatly appreciated. Support a starving artist and all that (not that I’m technically an artist but you know what I mean…).

I want to start getting up in the early hours again as I’m way more productive when I do that. It can be hard to start off with, but I know if I push myself, I can get there. Plus, it’s lovely at this time of year, to hear the dawn chorus (I’m very emotionally invested in the birds of my neighbourhood). And then I can once again see the Morning Star!

Have a good day, and stay sane,

Nicola

Xx

Alice Part 10

XII.

Alice knocked on the door, and a man’s voice said: “Come in.”

Alice tiptoed around the door into the room, which seemed to be some sort of study, and was immediately assailed by the ticking of hundreds of clocks. They were everywhere: all over the walls and on every surface. He sat with his back to her at a writing desk beneath a giant stained-glass circular window, which looked like a clock: each segment was stained a different colour. A golden light seemed to fill the room.

He turned around to face her.

“Ah, Alice, I’ve been expecting you.”

His face was both young and old and yet nothing extraordinary. He had a sleepy expression and there were silver streaks in his carefully parted brown hair, which none the less was going ragged around the edges, as though he’d run a hand through it several times in excitement or frustration. He wore a dark suit of a conservative Victorian fashion with a white bow tie, though something about his air possessed the merest hint of dandyism.

“Is it really you?” asked Alice.

He patted himself. “I think so. Though I can never be quite sure. I always work on the assumption that I am myself. And you are you. Though I bet you’ve been confused on this journey.”

“I certainly have.”

Alice looked at all the clocks. Their ticking seemed very loud in the small room. She wondered how he could stand it.

“I am a Master of Time,” said Lewis Carroll. “And that is what you must become.”

Alice looked over at the papers on his desk. “What are you working on?”

“I’m writing a book upon the nature of reality. Does it ever occur to you, Alice, that our entire universe can be broken down into mere numbers?”

Alice shrugged. “I guess – no, not really.”

“Everything is numbers, Alice. We are all numbers.”

Alice looked around the strange room again. That golden light seemed to be everywhere.

“Am I dreaming?” she asked.

“Does it matter?”

Alice thought about it. “I must be,” she said, “because I’ve been able to control some things. Though not everything…”

“Such is life,” said Carroll.

“Did you invent this dream? Did you bring me here? They call you the Inventor.”

“Ah, but am I the real Inventor? Who can say who is dreaming the dream?”

“Is this meant to be some sort of puzzle? Why am I here?” asked Alice.

Carroll crossed one leg over the over and folded his hands over his knee. “Such a philosophical question. Where to begin?”

Alice tried a different tack.

“Okay, I’m going to go on the assumption that this is my dream. And you, apparently, have something to tell me.”

“Assumptions are all we ever have to go on,” said Carroll, and here he rose out of his seat and floated into the air, just like the Cheshire Cat.

“Why do so many impossible things happen here?” said Alice, turning on the spot as Carroll floated around her like an astronaut.

Carroll laughed. “A thing is not impossible merely because it is inconceivable. I assure you, Alice, that human reason has very definite limits.

“Take zero, for example,” he continued, floating around her. “It isn’t a number. It is nothing. It is the absence of a number. And yet, and yet – through a number of minute steps reaching into infinity, it somehow becomes a number one. Tell me, Alice, how is that possible?”

He turned upside down in mid-air and looked at her questioningly.

Alice shook her head. “I really don’t know.”

“That rather proves my point. And the universe is built on numbers, Alice, on finely-tuned calculations. But it is not for us to know everything. And how wonderful a thought that is! The space between understanding and non-understanding… that is where fancy lies; where creation happens…”

His face took on a dream-like expression as he slowly spun right-way-up again.

“But still we try to impose some order on things, and just as well, or there would be no civilisation. And humans impose their numbers on reality as they see it. Time, for example. Calendars. Clocks.”

Alice wondered what he was getting at.

“Time, Alice,” he remarked. “Time is of the essence. And you must become a Master of it. You have almost completed your journey here, Alice. You have almost crossed the board, from non-understanding to understanding.”

Alice thought of that story she kept meaning to write. She had some good ideas for it now, at any rate…

“Then, Alice,” he said, eyes widening,

there is no Time
    like the Present,”

and he slowly faded from view before her eyes, leaving nothing but the Cheshire Cat’s grin hanging in the air.

Then the room began to spin. The ticking of the clocks grew louder and louder, until it was almost deafening in her ears, and then –

Silence.

She was floating upwards, through darkness…

 

Epilogue.

Alice woke up. She was back at her desk. She was alone in the office. She glanced at the clock on the wall. It was twelve o’clock.

Had she been sleeping? Her computer screen had gone into screensaver. She wiggled the mouse, and there was her old Solitaire game, with no Cheshire Cat.

She was confused. If that had been a dream, why had it been so very vivid? And it seemed to have lasted for ages, like she’d been through a whole day. How could she be back at her desk as though nothing had happened?

She got up and walked across to the other side of the office to the kitchen area. She switched on the kettle and pondered, intensely.

The dream had had some sort of message… she thought over all the events that had happened: the fall… the tunnel… the beautiful garden… meeting Humpty Dumpty on the riverbank. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare. The Dark Forest and the White Knight… she should have asked the Red Queen to free the Knight. But would she have listened?
Then there was the Gryphon and the beach. Her child self: she’d had to let her go… the train and all the animals. Then the White Tower, and meeting Lewis Carroll at the top. And all the while, the omnipresent Cheshire Cat. He’d been the one who’d started it all.

She needed time, to get her head straight. As soon as her work colleagues were back, she’d take her lunch break and get out of the office, go for a walk. Because she needed to know: what did it all mean? And had it all been a dream?

Well, readers, what do you think?

THE END.

Alice Part 9

XI.

Once inside, she saw she was in a wide entrance hall that seemed to belong to an old gothic mansion, and was certainly not the right dimensions for a narrow circular tower. The floor was tiled in black and white squares like a chessboard, but their edges seemed to be blurred; in fact, the whole room seemed to be shifting and moving and seemed never to stay still. The heavy chandelier that hung from the ceiling swung from side to side. It was like being on a ship at sea or in one of those fairground fun houses. Alice walked unsteadily across the hall.

The Cheshire Cat appeared in mid-air before her.

“Welcome to the Fun-House,” he said.

“What’s going on in here?!” asked Alice.

“Oh, you’ll find many of the Inventor’s half-formed ideas and dreams live here. They haven’t all quite taken shape yet, as you can see.”

Alice walked past some odd-looking contraptions that looked vaguely familiar, though she couldn’t quite place them. Though there were some distinctive objects too: she walked past bookshelves and a small table where a game of chess lay abandoned. Alice noted that a white pawn had nearly made it to the other side of the board.

“Watch out!” said the Cheshire Cat. Alice ducked as a grand piano went sailing over her head.

Then she looked around for the Cheshire Cat, but he had gone again.

“Whose dream is this?” thought Alice, not for the first, second, or even thirty-third time that day (if, indeed, this was a ‘day’ she was in).

Ahead of her was a spiral staircase, but instead of the steps being stationary they moved upwards like an escalator. Alice got on and held on to the handrail tight.

The upper floor was a white, circular hallway with four narrow corridors leading off from it. In front of one of the corridors stood a little girl with dark hair in a white dress. It seemed as though she had been waiting for Alice. The most curious thing was the girl was all black and white like an old photograph, and her dress was old-fashioned and lacy with a high collar; it looked Victorian.

The girl didn’t speak to Alice but looked at her for a moment with her dark eyes, then silently turned and walked down the corridor behind her. Alice followed, presuming her to be some sort of guide. The girl turned a corner, and when Alice had followed her around, she had disappeared.

Ahead of Alice was a long, white corridor, seemingly without end, with doors lining the walls on each side. Alice started walking down the corridor, and as she passed the doors, some opened, and things came out.

Out of one a great quantity of unusual insects came flying. Some of them looked like rocking-horses with wings:

“A rocking-horse fly!” said Alice.

Another kind looked as though it were made out of thin crusts of bread, with a glob of butter for a head.

“A bread-and-butterfly?” guessed Alice.

And then there was another which she wasn’t sure about: it had holly leaves for wings and a burning raisin for a head. What could they be? Such curious things they were!

Out of another door burst Humpty Dumpty, who was no longer covered in bandages but whose shell was shining and whole again.

“I’m healed!” he cried ecstatically, racing past Alice. “I’m new! I’m whole! I’m born again! I’m –” And here there was a great crash.

Poor Humpty Dumpty – he must have fallen down the stairs. Alice turned to go back to him but found the corridor came to a dead-end right behind her! Curiouser and curiouser! She turned and walked back down the corridor a little way and then looked back – the dead-end was again right behind her, as if she’d gone no distance at all. She kept walking then, afraid the wall would catch up with her, and all the while doors kept opening and strange things kept coming out.

Out of one some goldfish came swimming, through the air. A couple of them looked like her goldfish.

“Argyll! Olly! What are you doing out of your tank?” They both swam around and around her, opening and shutting their mouths, looking quite pleased with themselves, as far as goldfish are able to. Then they swam off through another open doorway. A creepy clown peered out at her through the next one, and Alice quickly moved on. Suddenly the Mad Hatter came running down the corridor towards her.

“ALICE!” he cried. “I’M AFRAID THIS IS ALL TOO MUCH FOR YOU! YOU MUST HAVE SOME TEAAAAA!!!”

“I’M OKAY!!!” said Alice, batting him off. “REALLY, I’M FINE!!!!” She had no idea why they were speaking in capital letters, or why they were using so many exclamation marks. She must really be going around the bend….

She shut her eyes tight and then opened them again. The Hatter was gone, and now she was standing in a plain circular room, with a lightbulb pointing up from the floor.

Alice looked up. There was an old-fashioned leather sofa and a coffee table on the ceiling. It looked like the room was the wrong way up…

The voice of the Cheshire Cat chuckled, and said,

“Why don’t you take a seat?”

The room flipped upside-down, and Alice landed in a heap on the sofa.

The Cheshire Cat materialised, curled up on the coffee table.

“How long will you keep this up for?” asked Alice.

“Keep what up? It has nothing to do with me.”

“Well, when will this madness end?”

“You must find the Inventor.”

“You mean Lewis Carroll?”

“I mean what I say.”

How do I find him?”

“The only way is up.”

And the Cheshire Cat disappeared again.

“I wish he’d stop doing that,” said Alice.

Alice rose from the sofa and walked towards the door. She needed to find more stairs, she guessed, and she had the curious feeling that she was running out of time…

Behind the door was another corridor that seemed to go on forever. She ran and ran, but there was no end in sight.

“You’ll never get anywhere like this,” said the voice of the Cheshire Cat, from the air around her.

“Up, I need to go up!” said Alice frantically to herself. And as she said it, somewhere a giant clock began ticking; she heard it, coming from above. What was she going to do? She wished the White Knight was here. She was lost. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that when she opened them, she’d be somewhere else. Her feet left the floor, and she began moving, floating upwards…

She opened her eyes to see she was flying towards a beautiful bright light… it was heavenly.

“I’m going up!” thought Alice joyfully.

And so she was. She travelled at lightning speed. The wind rushed through her hair. It was like flying on the Gryphon, except there was nothing supporting her – and then she became afraid; what if she fell?

Her progress began to halt –

“Don’t stop Alice, you’re nearly there!” said the Cheshire Cat, beside her. And he was positively beaming with encouragement.

Alice began to move upwards again more rapidly. Up and up, and then, before she knew it, she had come to rest on a small landing. On the landing was a door. And on the door was a gold plaque which read, in formal lettering:

LEWIS CARROLL

Alice Part 8

X.

As the train gathered speed, Alice took a closer look at the other passengers on board. It was ‘standing room only’ in the most literal sense, as there were no seats, and many of the animals were not well-adapted to sit in seats anyway. There were squirrels, dormice, rabbits, oysters, hedgehogs, frogs, various birds and even an alpaca. The train was gathering speed rapidly now and Alice looked on in some alarm as some of the smaller animals began to roll towards the back.

“Eek!” said a squirrel, as it tried to cling to the hem of Alice’s trousers. They were going really fast. Alice looked out the window to find she could no longer see the ocean, just a racing blur of technicolour. Were they going faster than light? Alice began to tumble towards the back too, and suddenly felt she didn’t want to be on this train anymore; she was scared. Why couldn’t she have stayed on the beach, collecting shells?

“Ow!” she said, as she hit the back of the carriage, and dislodged a disgruntled hedgehog from behind her.

“Watch where you’ve flying!” said the hedgehog.

It was pandemonium: animals were piled up at the back of the train, all bickering with one another. Many of the birds had tried flying to keep up with the speed, but it was too fast for them, and they too were hurled towards the back; a large seagull was draped over the eyes of the alpaca, which was in turn draped across Alice and the other animals.

“I wonder were the gnat is?” said Alice.

“I’m right here,” said the tiny voice by Alice’s ear, and Alice fought the urge to swat at it.

“This is quite a way to travel, isn’t it?” said the gnat.

“Indeed!” said Alice. She was so vexed she could say nothing else.

“Trains have really gone downhill if you ask me!” said the hedgehog.

“No-one was asking you!” said the squirrel.

“Now, now, don’t bicker,” hooted an owl, who was spread in a most unbecoming way against the back of the carriage.

“Where are we going?” said Alice.

“To the White Tower, of course!” the animals all squeaked, hooted and chirped in reply.

“But why?” said Alice.

“Because we want to go, stupid,” said the hedgehog. “Why else would we be here?”

Alice thought he was only grumpy because she’d squashed him slightly. She wondered when this terrible train journey would end.

The Cheshire Cat materialised then, in mid-air in front of Alice.

“Having fun?” he asked.

“Not really,” said Alice. “What is the point of this?”

“The train is a great metaphor for life, don’t you think?” said the Cheshire Cat. “It can be rather a bumpy ride.”

“This isn’t funny!” said Alice.

“That depends on your view,” said the Cheshire Cat. “I like to view things a different way.” And here he flipped over onto his back in mid-air and grinned at Alice, upside down.

“Who are you? And why are you different to all the other animals?”

“I’m a cat,” he said simply. “And don’t expect me to tell you my secrets, for we cats revel in mystery. But I am not the mystery you must solve. In this case, I am simply the messenger.”

“So, you’re not the one who’s behind all this?”

“Oh no – I’m a cat. I may know things humans don’t, but I’m no inventor. I think there’s someone you should meet. You’ll find him in the White Tower. Right at the very top, if you can find it.”

And he disappeared.

Eventually the train began to slow down, and it finally came to a stop at the bottom of a hill. Alice and all the animals unfurled themselves, grumbling, from the back of the train, and got off. Alice looked up at the hill. The White Tower stood on top of it, gleaming in the sunlight. She looked around as a flamingo pushed past and saw that all the animals and birds were heading off in another direction.

“Where are you going?” she called after them.

“To the Visitor’s Centre and Cafe,” they replied in unison. Alice shook her head and started walking up the hill.

“Goodbye,” said the tiny voice in her ear.

Alice reached the top in time to see the Cheshire Cat’s tail disappear through a half-open door at the foot of the tower. A biting wind came from nowhere and the door blew shut. Some butterflies flew past that were the colour of autumn leaves.

Alice walked up to the tower and stopped outside the small wooden door, which was painted a peeling blue.

She’d been wanting to come here for so long…

She took a deep breath and turned the handle.

Alice Part 7

IX.

But no, they were flying to the other side of this strange world, where it was still daylight, and Alice could see the sea. They landed on a soft, sandy beach. Alice recognised the place from real life, though she knew they were still in the dream world.

“How do you know?” asked the Gryphon, as though he could hear her thoughts.

“Because there is me,” said Alice. And it was true; there, a little further off down the beach, was the child-version of Alice, staring at the waves.

“This beach holds a special place in your memory, doesn’t it?” said the Gryphon.

“It does,” said Alice. This was where she’d had her childhood holidays. This was the first place she’d seen the sea; she remembered seeing it on the car drive down: a big black line that broke the sky. A monstrous thing. And she remembered the beach: the tangled clumps of seaweed, the dead jellyfish, like shipwrecked space-beings. Her parents warned her not to touch them.

The beach looked different now: with combed golden sand, there was not a dead jellyfish in sight. The young Alice was watching the waves, as though entranced. A golden light seemed to faintly halo the scene.

Alice went and crouched down next to her.

“What are you looking for?” she asked gently.

“I’m waiting for my ship to arrive,” said young Alice.

Alice wondered whether she was playing a game. She noticed there were lots of colourful shells buried in the sand around their feet.

“Would you like to collect shells while we wait?”

Young Alice nodded. “Okay.”

A little further off, the Gryphon had curled up on the sand and gone to sleep. Alice wondered why he had brought her here. There were two brightly-coloured buckets sitting on the sand nearby and the two Alices used them to fill with shells. There were a lot of different shells, all different colours and shapes.

Alice felt like they were waiting for something more than a ship to arrive. She noticed, not far off, the start of a train track that ran alongside the sea into the horizon. She wondered whether a train would come soon? There was nowhere to buy tickets…

“Why are you sad?”

Alice looked at the child version of herself, who was watching her curiously.

“I’m not sad.”

“You are – I can tell.”

Alice had forgotten about child-intuition. She thought about what young Alice had said. She was a little lonely, maybe. She wasn’t really sad. She had things she wanted to do she never seemed to get around to doing. Maybe adult life wasn’t as she’d imagined it’d be when she was eight years old… which was nearly twenty years ago now.

“I’m not sad, Alice. I’m just –” What could she say to the child version of herself, who would one day grow up to be her?

“Did you write those stories you wanted to write?” asked young Alice.

“I wrote some of them down, yes.”

Young Alice brightened. “Does that mean you’re a famous writer?”

“Not exactly – I work in an office.”

Young Alice was puzzled. “Why do you do that?”

“I need to make money. I need to pay my bills.”

“Are you married?”

“No, Alice.”

“Do you have a house?”

“I have a little flat of my own. It’s okay.”

Alice felt she should add more. “I’m going to write more stories, though, Alice. And I’m going to get them published. And I’m going to travel. I’m going to go on adventures, and make lots of new friends.”

Young Alice shook her head. “You’re lying.”

Alice’s heart sank. “I’m not. I’m going to do those things.”

“I want to be happy when I grow up. Or I might as well stay being a child.”
Alice looked out towards the waves. It seemed an eternity before she noticed there was a ship on the horizon.

“Look!” she said, pointing.

Young Alice nodded soberly, as though she’d never doubted its coming. Then, in no time at all, the ship was at shore.

“I have to go now,” said young Alice.

“Why?” asked Alice.

“Because all things must come to an end.”

Alice nodded and hugged her younger self tightly.

“I won’t forget you.”

Young Alice nodded, and carried her bucket of shells onto the ship. When she was onboard, she waved at adult Alice as the ship bore her away over the horizon.

Alice kept waving until the ship was out of sight. Then she stared at the blue horizon.
She was broken from her reverie by the sound of a train arriving along the track by the sea, and a Dodo in a conductor’s hat was waving tickets and shouting. She looked for the Gryphon, but he was nowhere to be seen.

She heard little voices singing by the water’s edge. She turned and saw a small group of oysters walking eagerly towards the train, though she hardly knew how, as oysters don’t have legs. Still, walking they were, and singing sweetly in high-pitched voices:

““Will you walk a little faster?” said one oyster to another,

“The headmaster’s close behind us, and he’s threatened to tell Mother.”

See how eagerly the little oysters all do strain!

They are waiting on the shingle, and they want to board the train!
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you board the train?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you board the train?

You can really have no notion how delightful it will be,
When you board the train and look out of the window to the sea!
But you might think, “No way, no way!” and threaten to abstain,
And we will say, “Okay, okay, but you should board the train.”
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you board the train?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you board the train?

And you might ask, “What point is there, of going for the ride?”
So we shall say, “There is a tower, on the other side –
There’s a tower you will get to if you choose not to refrain,
So turn not pale, humanoid, but come and board the train.”
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you board the train?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you board the train?”

Well, Alice was convinced. She ran to the Dodo waving the tickets.

“Get your tickets for the White Tower! Last train!”

“I’d like a ticket please,” said Alice eagerly.

“There you go,” said the Dodo.

“Don’t I have to pay?” asked Alice.

“I’ll accept a few of those shells,” said the Dodo, nodding his head at the bucket Alice still carried.

Alice gave him the bucket of shells.

“Take them all.”

“For me?” asked the Dodo in astonishment. “Good heavens, I’ll be a rich man!”

Alice boarded the train after the oysters. It was rather crowded inside with various animals, even though she’d seen no-one else get on.

“Perhaps this ‘No-One Else’ is more popular than you think,” said a tiny voice by her ear. Instinctively Alice swatted at her ear, as the voice had sounded like the whine of a gnat.

“Hey!” said the voice, and then whined off.

The train started to move, very slowly. Alice looked out the window towards the sea.

Alice Part 6

VIII.

The garden was dark and flanked by high hedges. Up above, the sky was dark blue and peppered with stars. All was quiet in the Queen’s gardens – only the occasional snore punctuated the silence. This was because here and there was a guard, standing asleep; they were using their lances to prop themselves upright. Alice guessed this was to make it look less obvious they were sleeping, as if the Queen caught them it would be “off with their heads”.

She crept around the walkways of the massive garden, careful not to wake any of the guards. It was somewhat like a wide hedge maze. She could see the Queen’s palace, not very far away. She wondered where the Gryphon was that the White Knight had mentioned? She turned to look back at the Knight on the hill, but couldn’t see him in the darkness at this distance.

Just then, she heard footsteps. She crept behind a clump of rosebushes and peeked out. A moment later a guard, in red armour, walked past.

When the coast was clear, she crept out from behind the rosebushes and carried on down the path, as quietly as she could. She came to a square with a fountain in the middle. The tinkling of the fountain seemed noisy in the night air. Beyond was a path to another square, which had a statue of a Gryphon standing in the middle. She was just about to start moving again when, out of nowhere, a voice said: “Where do you think you’re going, Miss?”

She broke into a run towards the statue. Just as she was about to enter the second square, two guards blocked her path. She was escorted back to the palace. She heard a horn blown in the distance. The guard to her right nudged a sleepy guard they passed and said, “Go and find out what that was.”

They led her up the wide steps of the palace and through the double doors into a spacious, ornately decorated hall, where the Red Queen sat in the middle on her throne. The Red King sat on a smaller throne beside her.

The Red Queen was a tall, imposing woman with an air of severity. Her husband, meanwhile, was a small, timid-looking man. As their titles suggested, they were both dressed entirely and elaborately in red.

“Well, well, what have we here?” barked the Red Queen. “An intruder! What are you doing, trespassing in my grounds?!”

“I’m sorry!” said Alice. “I just wanted to talk to the Gryphon. I understand he can take me somewhere important.”

“The Gryphon has no business with a person like you,” said the Red Queen. “He is under my command, and will do my bidding, just like everyone else in my kingdom. Kevin! Stop fidgeting!”

“I’m sorry, dear,” said the King, looking awkward. He promptly stopped fiddling with his whiskers.

“As I was saying,” the Queen said icily, “he shall do my bidding.”

“Then I’m sorry to take up your valuable time,” said Alice, curtseying. “If you’ll let me go, I’ll be on my way, and you won’t have to see me again.”

“Let you go?!” exclaimed the Queen. “How do I know you’re not a spy? Well? Who are you? What do you call yourself?”

“I’m Alice, your Majesty.”

“Alice? That’s an unusual name. A little Victorian; sounds made-up to me.”

“Now Susan, dear –,” started the King.

“Don’t take that tone with me, Kevin!” said the Red Queen, turning impatiently upon the King. “And address me by my title in front of strangers!”

She turned back to Alice, her face red. “I’ve had enough of you already. You’re irritating me. Off with her –”

She stopped because the head of the Cheshire Cat suddenly appeared, five times its usual size, in front of Alice, grinning at the Queen.

“Hello Susan,” it said.

This time the Queen really did go red.

“WHAT IS THIS?!!!” she screamed, enraged. “KEVIN, HAVE YOU BEEN SMUGGLING CATS IN?”

“No dear!” protested the King.

“YOU KNOW I HATE CATS! OFF WITH ITS HEAD! OFF WITH ITS HEAD!”

In the confusion that followed, Alice made a dash for it – out of the palace, back into the gardens, and she ran towards the square where the Gryphon had been. All the guards were running back towards the palace, alerted by the Queen’s screaming.

“What a horrible woman!” thought Alice. She ran back to the square where she’d seen the Gryphon, but it had disappeared. What now?

“Alice!” said a voice frantically behind her. She turned around and the Gryphon was there. It was the size of a horse.

“There’s no time to lose!” said the Gryphon. “Climb onto my back. Hurry!”

Despite her reservations, there were guards running towards her now, so Alice clambered onto the Gryphon’s back; he gave a flap of his great wings, and they went up, up into the air, at dizzying speed. Soon they were rushing through the stars.

“Sorry to startle you like that,” said the Gryphon. “But they know I’m a spy now. I can’t go back there.”

“What will you do?” asked Alice, who was quite determined not to look down.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go and live in the Dark Forest. Or maybe I’ll get a job in a supermarket. It’s a toss-up, either way.”

Alice presumed the Gryphon was using humour, and found it rather odd. Generally, mythical beasts are not known for their sense of humour.

“Where are we going?” shouted Alice over the rushing wind.

“Somewhere very special,” said the Gryphon. “It’s important to you.”

For a moment Alice wondered if they were going to leave the dream world and go back to her reality.

Alice Part 5

VII.

She looked up to see a tall white horse standing over her, with a short knight in silver armour sitting upon it.

At first, she could say nothing, because she didn’t understand how the Knight had suddenly appeared without making a noise.

“Are you hurt?” asked the Knight. “Here, let me help you.” And he dismounted his tall horse to help her up off the ground.

She numbly let the Knight help her to her feet. He really was rather shorter than she would have expected a knight to be: in fact, she was somewhat taller than him. He had a stocky build, and, when he removed his helmet, revealed himself to be middle-aged, with a greying beard and kind blue eyes.

“What is your name, young maiden?”

“Alice,” said Alice.

“Alice,” he repeated thoughtfully. “I am the White Knight. And what, may I ask, are you doing here in the Dark Forest all alone?”

“I got lost,” Alice said simply.

“So I see. How did you end up here?”

Now there was a philosophical question, no doubt.

“The Hatter and the Hare sent me here.”

“I see. You should not listen to the delusions of madmen.”

“The Hatter said you would lead me through the Dark Forest. I’m trying to get to the White Tower, you see.”

“Ah. Well, I can certainly do that. I know this place very well. I’ve been here a long time. Far too long, actually.” A mournful look passed over his face. “It’s nice to have some company for a change.”

Alice was curious. “Why are you here?”

“The White Queen whom I served is missing, presumed dead. It’s the Red Queen who rules this land now. I have been banished to this forest, for she cannot stand the sight of me. I was lucky, really. Most people she dislikes don’t survive. Maybe I should view it as a special sort of favour.”

He chuckled, though there was little humour in it.

“Perhaps she still sees some sort of use for me. In my old life I was a Demon-Slayer, you see.”

“A Demon-Slayer? There aren’t any demons in the forest, are there?”

“Oh yes. But they are afraid of me. They hide behind the trees.”

Alice looked around her at the dark, hulking shapes of the trees. She remembered the voices which had taunted her.

“They haven’t been bothering you, have they?” asked the White Knight.

“Some of them were talking to me earlier… but I couldn’t see them.”

“That’s because they’re too afraid to show their faces while I’m around. To be honest, most of them are pathetic creatures. It’s the shadows which lend them their threat. If you could see them in broad daylight, you’d laugh.”

Alice sensed a hush in the forest, and felt sure the demons were listening, but while she was with the White Knight, she felt safe. His presence was reassuring.

“Would you like to ride Snowdrop? We’ll travel much faster that way.”

Alice looked up at Snowdrop, who looked back at her and snorted gently.

“Er…okay.”

“Don’t worry, he’s perfectly safe.” The Knight patted Snowdrop’s long nose affectionately.

First, the White Knight commenced to mount Snowdrop, which was quite a sight, as the horse was so tall and the Knight so short and stocky. Alice waited patiently while the Knight struggled to swing his leg over the horse’s back. Then, when he was safely seated, the Knight held out a gloved hand to help Alice up behind him. They set off at a steady trot.

“Let me sing to you the song of the Demon-Slayers,” said the White Knight.

“Okay,” said Alice.

The White Knight cleared his throat and began:

“Hark! I hear the demons coming –
I hear their footsteps softly drumming.
Their faces are so unbecoming,
Grimacing at me.

Men of honour, stop your sleeping –
Can’t you hear the women weeping?
While the demons keep a-creeping,
In amongst the trees.

From the trees rebounding,
Let my horn-blast sounding
Summon all the White Queen calls
To honour nigh-astounding!

Men of honour, on to glory!
See your courage famed in story
Harken to these words we sing ye –
May they never fade!

See the demons – see them running!
Where is now their evil cunning?
Their faces still so unbecoming,
Scatter, evil ones!

Our brave steeds are wildly neighing,
Our brazen horns are hoarsely braying,
While the women keep on praying
For our mortal souls!

See! they’re all afeared!
Frightened and bat-eared!
Ever they shall rue the day
They saw my mighty beard!

Now the demons fly before us!
They’ve had a fright or my name’s Doris!
So raise the loud exulting chorus,
“The woods are safe again!”

“Erm, that’s very nice,” said Alice gently. “Did you make it up yourself?”

“It’s a traditional song the Demon-Slayers used to sing,” said the White Knight. “Of course, I’m the last of them now.”

“What happened to the White Queen?” asked Alice.

“Nobody knows. She just disappeared one day. And I’ve been banished to this forest ever since.” He heaved a deep sigh.

Alice felt sorry for the White Knight, who seemed like such a nice gentleman, living here in the forest all alone. She wished there was something she could do to help him.

Snowdrop picked up speed, until soon it seemed they were virtually flying, judging by the way the trees were whirring past.

“All the paths look the same,” shouted Alice, as the wind whizzed through her hair.

“Yes, it does look like that to the untrained eye,” shouted the Knight, “but when you’ve been here as long as I have, you start to know your way around.”

“I wish there was a way you could get out of here.”

“The only way is if the Red Queen will let me go, but I doubt she’s ever going to. She’s a very headstrong woman.”

“Perhaps I could talk to her.”

“I doubt she’d listen to you, Alice. In fact, I’d rather you stay away from her. She won’t listen to anyone but herself.”

“But there must be a way,” thought Alice. Then, a thought struck her.

“Is this my dream?” she asked. It occurred to her, you see, that the Knight was the only person she’d met so far who seemed like somebody she could completely trust.

The Knight seemed puzzled by this question. “I don’t know, Alice,” he said after a while. “If this is your dream, what would become of me after you wake up? I should disappear, and though my life isn’t very interesting, I shouldn’t like to disappear completely.”

“I didn’t mean to worry you,” said Alice. “It just occurred to me that if this is my dream, I could set you free.”

They had reached the edge of the forest. The Knight helped her down off his horse, and raised his visor to look at Alice.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Just focus on your own journey. You have much to learn.”

“But what about you?” said Alice.

“There is a friend of mine who lives in the gardens of the Red Queen,” said the Knight. “A Gryphon. He has to take you somewhere important.”

“Great, back to riddles again,” thought Alice.

“But whatever you do, you must evade capture by the Red Queen. Watch out for her guards. They are everywhere. I can go no further, but I shall watch you from this hill, for I can see over the Queen’s gardens from here, and if it looks like you are in trouble, I can raise a diversion.”

“What is this, a game of chess?” thought Alice. For suddenly it seemed to her that she was just a pawn. It wasn’t really her dream at all – she was in someone else’s dream, and they were playing games with her. But who?

But she only nodded to the Knight.

“I’ll miss you,” said Alice. And it didn’t seem wrong to say so. For in such a short space of time, they had really bonded. Time didn’t work properly here, wherever ‘here’ was – not like it did in the real world.

“I’ll miss you too, Alice. Really, I will. How I wish that things could have been different, and I wasn’t confined to the forest! Ah, how I wish I could turn back time! But Time has a habit of getting between us and the people we care about; between us and the things we wish to do. And, alas, it cannot be undone.

“Try not to make a false move, Alice, but remember, if you do, I’ll be watching, and I will do all I can to assist you.”

Alice thanked him with tear-rimmed eyes, and they embraced, then parted, and Alice walked down the hill towards the Red Queen’s gardens alone. As she did, she turned back to look at the White Knight one last time: the solitary figure by the horse on the hill; in gleaming silver armour that caught the moonlight. The poor, brave Knight, who she would probably never see again.

Alice Part 4

VI.

As she progressed further the forest began to grow very dark. There were strange noises all around, and the trees seemed to lean in on her. As she walked along the narrow path, a familiar shape materialised on a branch above her head. It was the Cheshire Cat!

“Why, hello Alice,” said the Cheshire Cat, grinning down at her. His teeth looked very sharp, and seemed to glint strangely in the dim light.

Alice stopped in her tracks. “You!” she said. “You’re the one who brought me here!”

“Only to teach you an important lesson. But really, you brought yourself.”

“What are you trying to teach me?”

He grinned wider. “You’ll see. How did you find the Hatter and the Hare?”

“Crazy,” said Alice. “Are there any sensible people here?” Though she thought she knew the answer to that.

“Oh no,” he said. “We’re all mad here.”

“But I don’t want to be around mad people!”

“You have no choice, Alice. You see, you’re entirely bonkers too. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s quite normal, in fact.” Here he stretched himself and yawned.

Alice wanted to know how being mad could also be normal. But decided not to ask the question.

“A great many people are mad,” continued the Cheshire Cat. “But the real tragedy is, they try not to be. To pretend they are normal. I want you to fall into your madness, Alice. I think you have real potential here.”

Alice wondered what he meant by this. But instead she asked, “Is it far to the White Tower?”

“Not far,” said the Cheshire Cat lazily. “On the other side of this forest you’ll come to the kingdom of the Red Queen. But I must warn you, she has quite a temper. Be very wary of that one, and always keep your head. One false move and she’ll have it off.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Alice.

Here the Cheshire Cat began to fade.

“Don’t go,” said Alice. “Stay.” For she was afraid of being in the Dark Forest on her own.

“I’m afraid this is a journey you must take alone,” said the Cheshire Cat. “Besides, I thought you didn’t want to be amongst mad people?”

Here he grinned, and faded out, slowly, until his grin was all that was left hanging in the air. Then that faded too.

True, he was mad, thought Alice, but compared to the others he spoke a strange sort of sense.

Now the Cheshire Cat was gone it seemed even darker in the forest. Alice continued along the narrow path, which took many twists and turns. She heard strange bird calls in the darkness around her, but couldn’t see the birds which made them.

“Must be the calls of the Jubjub bird,” thought Alice, though she’d no idea where she’d got that fancy from.

“Perhaps I am mad, after all,” she said aloud. She had spent quite a lot of time talking to herself on this journey.

After a while, the path forked into three different routes. Alice stopped and tried to decide which one to take. What if she picked the wrong one? Would they all lead to the Red Queen’s kingdom? What if she somehow went around in a circle? She wished there were signposts. There simply weren’t enough signposts in life, she decided.

As she hesitated, the calls of the Jubjub birds seemed to be getting louder. It seemed they were speaking words now:

“Choose! Choose! Choose!
Now! Now! NOW!”

Alice took a deep breath and picked the path on the right. She hoped it was the right path, after all. Oh dear – she was making puns in her head now. She’d been here too long.

After a while, she definitely felt like she’d gone around in a circle. The problem was that everything looked the same. There were no landmarks – just endless dark trees and the unchanging path. But was it her imagination or was it getting colder and even darker? There were no fluorescent mushrooms here to light her way. A little further and she came to another fork. Or was it the same fork? It was all very confusing – this time she took the centre path.

She wished for a moment she had her phone, so she could look at the satellite map. But what would it say? Dreamworld? Wonderland? Nowhere-land? Where was she? Inside a weird dream or hallucination? Was she going crazy? Was this all happening inside her head?

“Thoughts are cheap,” said the voices from the trees. “But time is worth a thousand pounds a minute.”

Alice looked around, but couldn’t see where the voices had come from.

“Who’s there?” she asked, though she was pretty sure she wouldn’t get an answer.

“Better not speak then,” said the voices from the trees. “Speech is worth a thousand pounds a word!”

“I’ve had enough of this!” said Alice, and she ran, while the voices jeered at her. She ran, in what she hoped was the direction of the Red Queen’s Kingdom, for she wanted to get out of this creepy forest as fast as she could.

After a time, she came to another fork where the path split into three, and she took the left path. She carried on running until she was quite out of breath.

“How much farther?” thought Alice, for the air was getting very cold now. But she kept going and going, until she came to another fork, and here she stopped, despairing. She was quite convinced she had gone around in a circle, and had made no progress at all. She was lost!

She sank down to the cold ground and put her head in her hands. Would she ever get out of here?

Just then, a deep, gentle voice said, “Excuse me, young lady. Are you lost?”

Alice Part 3

V.

This wood was different from the last. It was large and dim and the trees were more real-looking. Here and there were giant mushrooms that glowed faintly with a dim phosphorescence. Alice wondered if she would bump into any other famous characters soon.

After a time, she heard what sounded like drunken singing somewhere ahead, and the clinking of china cups.

Surely it couldn’t be…?

She came out into a clearing in the wood.

There was a large wooden table, set out as though for a tea party, and at the head of the table sat the Mad Hatter. His eyes were closed as though dozing, but he nodded along as if in a trance to some jazz music that came from a small digital radio. The March Hare was dipping crumpets into a bowl of cream, hiccupping and singing softly to himself. She noticed the Dormouse curled up on the table, snoozing next to the teapot.

When the March Hare saw Alice he started, and threw a crumpet at the Hatter. The Hatter’s eyes snapped open and focused on Alice.

“Alice!” he cried. “How lovely to see you!”

Alice had that odd, out-of-place feeling again. “There must be a mistake,” she began, “I’m not your Alice –.”

The Hatter looked down and patted his pockets in confusion, then checked himself.

“I never said you were, I just greeted you as Alice because I know you are an Alice!”

“He calls everybody that,” said the March Hare, hiccoughing.

“Please, sit down, sit down, and have a cup of tea!” said the Hatter.

Alice sat at the table, the opposite end from the Mad Hatter. She pushed a pile of dirty cups and saucers away from her.

“You must have been here a long time. There are cups and plates everywhere.”

“Time?! There is no Time here, Alice, except the present. For here it is forever five, and forever tea-time! Will you have a crumpet?”

“Um, okay,” said Alice, hoping secretly it would be served on a clean plate.

The March Hare threw her a crumpet, which she caught one-handed, and he giggled.

“Be a lamb, old sport, and throw her the butter too,” said the Hatter.

“It’s okay!” said Alice. “No really – I’ll get it myself.”

As she rose to get the butter, she looked around the table and saw there were many empty places with clean cups and saucers set in front of them, as though they were expecting guests.

“Who are they for?”

“Why, they’re for us. We merely move on a place when we’re finished.”

“What happens when you run out of places?”

Here the Hatter looked alarmed, and the March Hare started singing loudly while banging the table with his teaspoon:

“Twinkle, twinkle little bat!
Twinkle, twinkle little bat!
Twinkle, twinkle little bat!
Twinkle, twinkle little bat!”

The Dormouse stirred and mumbled in his sleep.

“Don’t mind the Hare,” the Hatter said confidentially to Alice through the uproar. “He has OCD.”

“Now, let’s change the subject,” he said, louder this time. “How about a riddle? They’re always fun! Pray, can you tell me, Alice, why a raven is like a writing desk?” The March Hare quietened down.

“I know the answer to that!” Alice said eagerly, thinking that here was a riddle she could answer at last. “It’s because Edgar Allan Poe wrote on both.”

The Hatter’s eyes widened and he took a small tatty notebook from his waistcoat pocket. He flicked through its pages and said, “That’s quite a good answer. Better than the one Mr Carroll gave… He said they both produce a few notes, though very flat, and you can’t put either of them wrong-end-first…”

Alice’s ears pricked at the mention of “Mr Carroll”.

“Wait – “Mr Carroll”? Do you mean Lewis Carroll?”

“The very same.”

“Is he here then?”

“Oh no, he’s not here. You can’t see him, can you? He lives in the White Tower.” And as he said it Alice could hear the capital letters dropping into place of their own accord.

“Yes, a nice chap,” The Hatter continued, “An inventor.”

“He invented you,” thought Alice.

“Tart?” said the March Hare.

Alice started. “What? Oh, no thank you.”

“Bread and butter? Battenberg? Biscuit?”

“I’m fine, thank you, really.”

“How about more tea?”

Alice looked at her empty teacup. “I haven’t got any tea yet. How can I have more?”

“You can’t have less. But you can always have more than none.”

Ah, semantics. Alice decided not to argue, and reached for the teapot instead.

“Selfie!” cried the March Hare, and he produced a smartphone from his waistcoat pocket and snapped a photo of them at arm’s length.

“This can go on my Instagammon account,” he said, looking at his phone.

Well, this was a Wonderland full of surprises.

The March Hare then pulled out a bottle of whiskey from his other waistcoat pocket.

“A drop of whiskey for your tea?” he asked Alice.

The Mad Hatter giggled like a twelve-year-old who was in on something naughty.

“I’m fine, thank you,” said Alice.

“Suit yourself,” said the Hare, and he took a big swig from the bottle, then passed it to the Hatter. The Dormouse hiccoughed in his sleep.

“I think now would be an excellent time for a sing-song!” announced the Hatter. “Who’s with me?”

And here the March Hare consented with a drunken “Hurrah!” The Hatter did not wait for further encouragement, but leapt up onto the table, upsetting tea things as he did so, and he began to caper about as he sang, merrily:

“Oh, better far to live and die
Under tea’s influence – I fly! –
Then play a well-betrodden part
With a hatter’s head and a hatter’s heart.
Away to the “normal” world go you,
Where people still lace-up their shoes
But I’ll be true to the thing I be
And shout: “A hatter – that is me!”

“For I am a hatter – hurrah!
And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a hatter! Hurrah!

“When I sally forth to pour my tea
I call myself the royal “we”
And eat a few more tarts, it’s true,
Than a cultured hatter ought to do.
But even the Queen on her high-class throne,
If she wants to call her crown her own,
Must manage somehow to get through
More scrumptious tarts than ever I do.

“For I am a hatter – hurrah!
And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a hatter! Hurrah!

“For I am a hatter – hurrah!
And it is, it is a glorious thing
To be a hatter! HURRAH!!!”

Alice was left with a slight ringing in her ears after this little display. Amazingly, the Dormouse hadn’t woken up. She wondered how he could sleep through such a racket. She gently prodded him with the end of her teaspoon. He giggled, said “Fudge!” then carried on snoring.

When they had settled down again (although the March Hare kept intermittingly banging the table and shouting “Hurrah!”) she asked the question that had been on her mind.

“How do I get to the White Tower from here?”

“You must go through the Dark Forest yonder,” said the Hatter mysteriously, waving an arm in a vague direction behind him.

“Is it far?”

The Hatter took out a pocket watch and consulted it.

“Seven steps from here,” he said decisively.

But Alice knew the tower was more than just a few steps away.

“The White Knight will show you the way,” continued the Hatter.

“Seven steps,” muttered the Dormouse in his sleep. “Seven steps”.

It made no sense to Alice, but she wasn’t going to argue with these eccentrics. At least she had something to go on: she knew she had to go through the Dark Forest, and the White Knight would show her the way – or was the Hatter simply talking nonsense? If ever there was a warning for the effects of too much caffeine, he was it.

She rose from her seat.

“Don’t go!” cried the Hatter. “Stay and have your tea!”

“Or at least a Bakewell tart,” said the Hare.

“I want to find Lewis Carroll. I need to speak to him,” said Alice. And as she said it, she knew it was true, though she didn’t know why.

“At least don’t go without provisions!” cried the Hatter. “You’ll need all your strength in the Dark Forest.”

And here they began to ply her with biscuits and cakes, cramming them into the pockets of her cardigan. The March Hare tried to give her a teapot to carry, but she flatly refused this. And so, with her pockets full of crumbling sweetmeats, she thanked them for their kindness and went on her way.

“What do they do if they need to sleep?” wondered Alice. For she got the strong impression, you know, that they never left that table.