Nobody knew whence Cheriso came but they were convinced of his destination. The planet next door.
There was a loose lease in force despite that planet's inaccessibility. Few, indeed, had travelled there in the last century, mainly because of the belief - whether grounded in fact or fever - that the hot star had grown hotter or the planets had moved a little closer into the invisible corona. Indeed, the planet next door was, of course, that much closer to the sun.
In any event, Cheriso was the one they hoped to break the duck. His rocket, although amateurishly constructed, at least looked fitter and leaner than any of its predecessors.
Cheriso had Christened the planet next door Mirth.
He thought it should have a name. Apparently, in another solar system, dark years away, every single planet - even the uninhabited and the uninhabitable ones - had, he maintained, a name. Here, however, he was surprised to see that even the planet on which the people lived was called, well, it was called simply the planet next door to the planet next door.
"You won't get far in that..." said the Uncle, pointing at Cheriso's lop-sided craft.
"Far is too far," replied the inscrutable Cheriso.
The Uncle was older that the last attempt to reach the planet next door as Mirth had then been called. A beautiful girl gazed at Cheriso with wide eyes, oblivious of her own thinly disguised charms.
She had always called the hot star Fun.
Suddenly, Cheriso, interrupting such backward thoughts, said to the Uncle: "Well, I got here in that!" He strode towards his leaning rocket, adjusted a chock and strapped himself into the harness as if he were about to take part in a rodeo.
"Hey! Cheriso, there is a difference between a ringmaster and a ringleader," shouted the Uncle with a grin; and he walked off with the girl in tow. Only one of them gave a backward glance as Cheriso lit the fuse at the base of his steel steed and eventually merged with the speckled merriment of the benighted universe.
The clouds were thought - by the villagers of Essex - to contain shapes that were heavier than air. Not a religion as such but, nevertheless, a faith in impossibilities as truths. As for me, I'm a villager who questioned everything - one of the very few who can tell a mock reality when he sees it. And I shall now speak of the most bogus of all...
In the old days - when I was younger - I, too, naively gulped a different belief with each swallow - even when someone maintained that the newly published dictionary had missed out the word "gullible".
I had things either in tow or after me.
But, at the time, I didn't believe anything. I soon learned my lesson - and I was proud of it.
So there was no difficulty when Arabella knocked on alternate doors of the village and asked whether the householder in each one thus knocked upon had seen the ... or, at least, felt the presence of ... creatures which lived in the clouds.
As it happened, I was the last one that woke up from his or her sleep that momentous night. I simply told her that even parts of normal daily life were, in themselves, dubious, let alone tall tales of creatures in the clouds. There were no fixtures, let alone commodities such as futures.
She pulled me by the hand into the outside to look at the sky. All I saw were stars. And no clouds at all (unless they were too far away to be seen). I quickly scuttled back indoors, because, secretly, I'd seen something like a silver pin or flashing sword.
Since I had been the last but one house that Arabella had seen fit to visit, I took her inside for hot soup. I had some simmering on the hob for just such an eventuality.
She was pretty enough but I did not believe in love lasting beyond the first look. So I had never got married.
"What's that on the carpet?"
She pointed at my shadow lolling behind me like a bloodstain - evidence for moveable murder or a dry feast for vampires, I nearly said aloud but didn't since Arabella was a simple girl. In fact, most of the villagers were simple. None could fathom my complexities, least of all sweet Arabella.
"What's the village like these days?" I asked, ignoring her question and hoping to encourage her to speak without my intervention, although agoraphobics as intense as myself were even disturbed simply by talk of the outside.
"Well, they've built it up a bit more, and the library has been refurbished..."
I nodded. I remembered it well from the old days when I was similar to every other villager, which meant slightly more than half.
"The square has got dustier - with the seasons drier and the sand from Clacton-on-Sea being borne on the winds. The shapes in the clouds..."
I hoped she would pause at that point since the soup should be supped while it was still piping hot. But she managed to continue speaking through mouthfuls of pea-green slime.
"...some say Great Old Ones are lurking up there ... sewn together by God's needle."
"So someone's been reading the Necronomicon again, eh?" I asked with some grasp of the ancient art of interruption.
"It's still in the library..."
She paused now for real, not for a fresh spoonful, but because she dared not tell me that villagers had been withdrawing the Necronomicon unstamped-out by the librarian. I could read all that in her wide, bowling eyes. Her legs crossed and uncrossed in a rather becoming fashion but I kept myself more or less fixed upon her upper face. The only truth was in eyes - they could tell me far more than any mouth or gesture.
"Are the others still there?"
What others? And where? The secondary questions were unvoiced since Arabella guessed I meant the books in the basement instead of the more accessible ones in the main body of the library - because they were even more arcane, recondite, abstruse, esoteric, occult or simply more dangerous than the Necronomicon itself.
As we thought silently, there was a tangible feeling in the air of impending doom. This was the first time I had felt it so strongly since abandoning myself to a claustrophobic cure for disbelief in the existence of the outside world. Simply because Arabella was a representative of that very outside did not entail any diminishment of my faith in open-mindedness, an open-mindedness so intense I often found myself searching horizonless dreams for brooding nothingnesses bubbling like soup at each centre of infinity ... a soup that coagulated within cores, cores unto themselves.
I shook my head. Craziness had no place in me. If I were crazy, then there was nothing upon which I could depend. I could not hang my hat even on the hook of my mind, in such circumstances. To gain some purchase on any smidgen of reality whatsoever, I began to visualise the library building as I remembered it, facing out upon the dusty village square.
The feeling was so strong, I felt Arabella's small hand inside my big one, tugging me with barely perceptible gusts of breath filling her rosy cheeks. Yes, there, the library, with its two old-fashioned turrets, one containing the erstwhile school bell ... the one that had tolled a token of a more ancient tugging, when I myself was as young as Arabella. In those days, it had not seemed strange to be led by the claws of a tentacular beast who was a human being in disguise - where only the perspective of adulthood made me realise that disguises, like basements, were never-ending.
Cheriso stood at the library door. A smile on his face.
"I knew you would come, Uncle," the youth said.
And the old man spread his fingers as if to encompass the whole world. The girl lightly kissed his deep-lined face, before she left to enter the library with Cheriso. The old man could see they were becoming closer than he had ever managed with another human being.
In the dusty square stood a silver fountain. It had been there years, hadn't it? He approached it, determined to vanish within its folds.
He yearned for the Heaven next door but one, where he could be merely himself, no longer a figure of Fun.
The book was slammed shut with a dusty explosion. The ancient couple entwined twigs for bones and chuckled merrily at the unexpected ending.