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 –
She was floating upwards, through darkness…
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?