Chapter 7

LAURA’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY

The Voyage of the Mind Walker

I don’t know, I think maybe the first heartbreak is the worst.  I was a long time getting over Ian.  I had felt so happy to have found someone, and now felt so bereft.  It’s only when you’ve had a break up that you realise why people talk about love being located in the heart.  Scientifically, your awareness and emotions might be centred in the brain, but when a relationship is over and you are grieving for a lost love, it’s a physical pain in your chest that you feel, I’m sure of it.

I moped and I hid alone in my room, and I skipped lectures and didn’t call my family.  And then, after a few weeks, I was sitting curled up in front of the television with a pile of tissues in front of me, and in that ordinary and unlikely place had a life-changing moment, and made one of the most significant decisions of my life.

There had been an earthquake, in a far off Asian country.  Why is it that these devastating natural events so often affect the poorest parts of the world?  It was heart-breaking to see a culture which was struggling in the first place with poverty and poor infrastructure, suffer a further blow.  There were dreadful images of homes reduced to rubble, orphaned children, weeping relatives, and alongside these, stories of hope – expert search and rescue teams setting off to help, survivors pulled from the ruins against all odds, perhaps because someone had heard them call out from where they lay trapped in an air pocket.

It hit me all at once, watching the image of a dust-covered child being pulled by rescue workers from the vestiges of his home, and placed in the outstretched arms of his joyful family.  How selfish I had been, how self-absorbed!  I had this wonderful, amazing gift, and it had taken me all this time to realise what it meant, and what I had to do with it – help others, of course!  I sat shaking as my mind raced through the implications of this conclusion, and thought of all the possible altruistic applications my skill might have in the world.  I could be wrong of course, it had still to be tested, but suddenly I felt that I knew where my future lay.  In an instant – well, maybe in a few hours of deep rumination – I put my personal preoccupations, and to a certain extent my broken heart, behind me, and found myself inspired and committed to a new unselfish future, a way in which I could put my hitherto confusing and unfocused talent to best use.

So strong was my resolve that day – reinforced perhaps by the recent emotional trauma of a broken relationship – that I acted wholeheartedly and without further hesitation, and the very next morning made enquiries about volunteering for the overseas relief effort and flying to the earthquake zone.  It wasn’t easy – after all, what did a young female student have to offer?  It wasn’t as if I had any relevant knowledge or specialist training.  But I persisted, badgered organisations reluctant to consider it, and eventually – having volunteered to pay all my own expenses (on a credit card which would catch up with me later) – managed to secure a place on a team leaving a few days after the earthquake had happened.

My parents were horrified, my tutors concerned about my coursework and imminent exams.  But I think I already knew I would never return to that college.  Suddenly I realised I had more important work to do, though I couldn’t explain to anyone why I was so sure of this.

It didn’t even occur to me at the time to try to mentally reach the afflicted area from home – I hadn’t sufficiently tested my abilities over distance and felt that I had to be physically closer and to see the area first hand before I could attempt anything.  And it was the right decision because once we arrived I was so affected by everything I saw and so overwhelmed with the need to help, that it spurred me on and helped me to achieve my first success.

At first I just helped physically, along with the others in the team, moving bricks and debris as instructed, helping to marshal the local people away from the most dangerous areas, distributing bottles of water and food aid.  I felt physically shattered, emotionally devastated, but happy and fulfilled and useful, and the reward of seeing people rescued after days of being trapped was indescribable.

But I couldn’t risk leaving my body whilst we worked during the day.  There was never a moment when it was possible – it would have looked as if I had fainted on the job and I would only have caused a problem to my colleagues.  So during the daytimes I observed everything carefully, memorised the lie of the land, and listened to what the professionals were saying about the most likely places people might be found.  But at night, lying in my sleeping bag in a tent shared, at that time, with two other female volunteers, I crept out of myself, roamed around the miles of wreckage aided by the light from campfires and moonlight, and hesitating only slightly the first time round, plunged myself into the piles of broken cement and collapsed rooms, searching for signs of life.

I was weightless, formless – I moved easily between the bricks, beneath fallen beams, restricted by the darkness but simply following the available spaces and somehow never frightened, never fearing that I myself might become trapped, for I could feel somehow that I would always find a route back to the surface, however tight and tiny it might be.  Repeatedly I delved into the ruins, watching, listening, feeling with my mysterious senses, shocked often to encounter death, but soon rewarded by the sounds of whimpering and breathing.

On my first night I found a poor old lady trapped and crushed, pathetically waving a flickering torch around in the hope of rescue.  All I had to do now was convince my fellow rescuers that they should excavate in the particular spot I had identified.  I managed it by deception, insisting a local woman had guided me to where she had heard someone call out in the night.  They took some convincing, but I was rewarded a few hours later when an unconscious, dehydrated old woman was pulled free from her house, with a film crew looking on, and I had the peculiar and private comfort of knowing that I had saved my first life as a result of my secret skill.

There was no looking back.  The following day I insisted again that I had heard talk of noises in a particular place, and once again the team were able to free a young boy whose tearful and blood-spattered face only I had seen before, when I had observed him huddling trapped in a tiny hole under a collapsed stairwell.

At the end of that day, the team joked about my luck in having helped to find survivors, and congratulated me on having been able to communicate so effectively with the local people (despite not speaking the language).  I continued to let them believe it was my youthful commitment and sympathetic social skills that were enabling me to locate survivors – three the following day, and two the day after – though of course my success was in fact due to something else entirely.

These successes gave me such confidence!  There was no doubting now that my skill was a true thing, not some fantasy or figment of my imagination.  I had known it before, but here it was reaffirmed in the most spectacular way.  Lives were being saved because of it, and it made me feel proud and humble – and scared, because now I knew I had a responsibility, a duty.

I stayed in that place as long as I could, helping to rescue several more people, but something happened that I hadn’t anticipated.  I came to the attention of the media which had of course been covering the disaster, and to my complete shock, was shown after a few days that people were writing about me in the papers back home, as some sort of mystery life saver!

Now I had always been so careful, so scared of revealing myself.  I suddenly realised how foolish and reckless I had been in plunging so readily into my good deeds that I had drawn unwanted attention to myself.  I still had the urge to help and I didn’t regret what I’d done, but I knew I had to be more careful.  I still had that strong instinct to keep my skill secret – even my parents didn’t know, and now here I was being discussed in newspapers and even, it seemed, on television.

Luckily they hadn’t got hold of my real name, not my surname anyway; somehow in the confusion, no-one had been certain exactly who was who.  And whilst I saw that I did appear on one or two photographs, they were rather unclear, and in one I had been confused with another girl volunteer who had also been part of the team.

I decided I needed to think again and left as soon as I could, managing to get a lift to the border and finding myself a room in a hostel in the city.

I needed to help people, and to save lives; there was no shaking my resolve to do that.  But I also needed to retain my anonymity, and to somehow find a realistic way to live.  For a brief moment I imagined myself as a secret superhero – selflessly helping to save humanity, like Superman or Spiderman.  But you’ll be pleased to hear I was far too sensible for such a thought to go to my head or even linger there for very long.

I could hardly save everyone in the world, I speedily reminded myself.  Even using my ability, I couldn’t be everywhere at once, and there were only certain circumstances in which I could apply my skill.  Clearly it would be a matter of observing carefully, biding my time, and helping here and there, where I most sensibly could.

Genuinely because it was the first flight I could get on, and because I was afraid of perhaps getting recognised and hassled by the press back home, I went to France, to Paris, and there used my credit card to book a few nights in a hotel and do some serious thinking.

To this day I remember the view from my little window – a pretty square down below and the Eiffel Tower in the distance.  I looked out on the world and subtly rediscovered – or rewrote – my place in it.

A few weeks later, I was still in Paris, but things had changed.  I had conceived a plan and was carrying it through.

Firstly, after a few days, I did go home to London, particularly to see my parents and my brother.  I needed to put their minds at rest, as they had been worried about me whilst I was out in India.  Luckily it hadn’t even occurred to them to connect the stories of a miracle worker with myself – in fact they asked whether it was anyone I had come into contact with whilst I was out there. I denied even that, and told a few more white lies which I thought would both reassure them and give me the space I needed for the new life I envisaged for myself.

I told them I had arranged a postponement of my university studies and that I had been offered some paid work for a French charity.  I promised to keep in touch and visit them as often as I could, a promise which I stuck to for many years, although as my own life veered more and more away from the norm, it became ever more difficult to keep up the pretence whenever I saw them.

My little brother, now a precocious and rebellious teenager, gave me a few funny looks occasionally, as if he suspected I had some big secret, but though I often thought of confiding in him, he was still too young to consider trusting with the truth, and I had such a protective instinct towards him, I thought it best to leave him in ignorance.

I also called a few friends, chatted in a matter of fact fashion, and in general sought to leave the impression that nothing major was amiss, that nothing significant had changed.  I had no idea what I might now be getting myself into, but my instincts were not to arouse any suspicions, and most importantly, not to allow anyone to find me.

I set up a mailbox in London and had my post from university and from home redirected there.  I would check it on occasion in future, but there was seldom anything of importance to attend to.  In fact it was easier than I’d expected to discreetly disappear – without people even realising that that was what I had done.

But I then had to face the issue of how I would continue to fund my existence.  I could have taken a real job, of course, and over the years I did dabble in various types of conventional employment.  But in general, I had decided I needed all my time to myself, and so another form of income had to be arranged.

Here my morals slipped again, but since I intended to dedicate my life to the good of humanity by saving as many lives as possible, I reckoned that a little bit of skulduggery was acceptable, for the greater good.

I had worked it all out in theory first, and putting it into practice turned out to be relatively straightforward.

How could my skill most readily be utilised to make money?  I couldn’t steal, I couldn’t move money about in bank accounts.  I wasn’t a time traveller, so I couldn’t make money from betting on races or anticipating the outcome world events.  But what I obviously could do was gain information – and knowledge was not only power, it was gold-dust.

I baulked at blackmail, but a little insider dealing seemed like just the thing.  It was just a question of finding the right conversations to listen in on.

I started off by lying in my Paris hotel room and letting my mind wander down to the restaurant and the lobby.  Before long I had overheard a number of secret business deals – a contract awarded to such and such company here, a takeover planned of a famous brand name there.  It was a relatively simple matter, to start dealing in shares though a broker, making decisions based on information acquired by a very unusual – and entirely untraceable – means.

I had to be very careful, of course, not to let the pattern of activity in my various accounts cause suspicion in itself.  But I wasn’t greedy, I limited myself to the occasional success only – just enough to keep me in food and hotel rooms – and in any case I found myself so bored, listening in as I did to so many high-level Board meetings at which secret strategies and takeover plans were discussed, that I only took a fraction of the opportunities which I might have.

Once or twice I accidentally – accidentally in that I didn’t know in advance the exact character traits of the individuals I happened to be eavesdropping on – came across plans for serious misdeeds, and tipped off the local Police, who were able to, in one case, stop a nasty murder, and in another, prevent a major case of arson.

Suffice it to say, though, that within a year, I had amassed a sizable portfolio and was independently wealthy.  Oh, and I had moved to New York, because, much as I loved Paris, my French wasn’t up to business standard, and it was much easier to sit in on wheeler-dealing which was taking place in my own language of English.

So, I got myself a nice rented apartment on the East side of Central Park, and paid a specialist security firm to guard the outside of it when I needed them to.  This was because I had become adept at leaving my body for longer and longer periods of time, but remained as worried as ever about leaving it unattended.  So I wanted to be sure that the real me – the physical home of my roaming mind (or was it soul? I’ve never been quite decided on this point) – was well looked after and safe.

And so I got in the habit, not all the time, but every few days or so, of reclining in luxury in my private pad, and setting off mentally to explore the world and do good deeds!

I started with New York itself, where there was enough going on and enough good deeds to be done to last anyone a lifetime.  I came across some heartbreaking situations and some horrible people.  I began to teach myself, very gradually and by trial and error, how I could have an influence and right wrongs.  But they had to be pretty big wrongs – essentially they had to be matters of life and death.  It was obvious to me that I couldn’t help everyone, and it wasn’t for me to meddle in such things as informing wives who their husbands were cheating on them with, or getting involved in ancient family feuds, or preventing every petty robbery which was being conceived in the city.  (I did do a bit of this sort of thing, but soon got disillusioned, troubling myself over the ethical issues.  What right had I to intervene and change the course of history – or of people’s little histories, at any rate?)

But when I found a sobbing teenager quivering on the edge of a road bridge, about to take her life – I was able to drive there myself, in time to stop her.

And when I overheard some youths plotting to kill a boy from a rival gang, for no better reason than holding a silly grudge – I could call an anonymous tip-off line, and manage to get the Police to ambush the event and save the boy.

Yes, with life and death issues, things were far more clear cut.

I quickly began to build up a long list of instances in which I had helped or saved people, and it was rather a lonely business as there was no-one I could share my experiences with, no-one I could tell about them.  I thought long and hard about writing them all down in detail, but decided that, with a lifetime ahead of me, this would be too time-absorbing, and in any case pointless, a task.  Who could I ever share this record with?  How could I use it?  More likely it might be found and used against me.

So I let the details go, but retained a sense of reward and fulfilment such as I’d never known before.  I had been given a gift and was endeavouring to use it properly.  I knew I was doing the right thing, and that was reward in itself.

Oh, I tried so many things in those early days!  Gradually, in a very scientific and low-risk way, I overcame the ‘distance’ issue.  I ventured mentally out into the state, then to nearby cities, then gradually further and further away across the whole of America.  The more I returned easily to my body, from wherever it was that I’d been, the more I grew confident that distance wasn’t in fact an issue.  I began to take leaving, and returning to, my body, more and more for granted.

It could be very disorientating, flitting half way across the continent in an instant, and then being back again, or somewhere just as far away in a different direction.  Exhilarating, also, though.

It took me about six months to risk crossing the ocean and revisiting Europe and my home.  And after that, another six to make it all the way around the world, to Australia and to the far reaches of Asia.

At last my confidence became total, and I knew that the whole world was mine to explore.

I made sure not to neglect my physical body, and always came back and made sure I ate enough, and slept enough, and exercised enough.  But I lived entirely for my mental wanders, and have to admit that the sheer joy of such an effortless and unique form of ‘travel’ sometimes distracted me from my compulsion to help others, and resulted in some protracted periods of what could only be described as – tourism!

I visited vast ranches and watched massive cattle drives.

I came across isolated homesteads and spent time with lonely old ladies.

I explored the squalid back alleyways of Mexican cities.

I listened in on nature lectures on the Galapagos Islands.

I believe I found a genuine lost tribe in the Amazon jungle.

In England, I lingered around my old schoolrooms, just for the pleasure of being able to get rapidly away from them whenever I wanted.

In Russia I drifted around the corridors of power, wondering if anything I could achieve would be more than a drop in the ocean of the world’s vast and varied corruptions.

In Japan I learned by observation, in the kitchens of the best restaurants, how to prepare unique and enticing fish dishes.  (I tried a couple of them myself when I returned – with limited success.)

In China, I drifted along the top of the Great Wall for hours at a time, reflecting on history and archaeology.  I came across a young Chinese girl crying on some isolated steps, and it upset and frustrated me that I couldn’t tell what was wrong and couldn’t do a single thing to help.

People began to distract me more and more – individual, idiosyncratic people.

In Singapore a cab driver was becoming famous for predicting the future for the rich and famous.  I hung around him for nearly a week before discovering his secret – a brother who was a computer hacker, and who had managed to break into the diaries of a few celebrities, in which they had poured out their secret fears and hopes and dreams.  His hypocrisy annoyed me and I abandoned him in a foul mood – proof that my emotions came with me on my journeys, not just my thoughts.

In Greece, I came across a young couple who were intending to run away together.  For days I got involved in their story, listened to their plans, eavesdropped on their family.  I knew what neither the girl’s boyfriend nor her mother knew – that she was pregnant.  I had watched her inspect the pregnancy test in her drawer.  I hovered, not knowing whether to intervene, how to help.  When she finally decided to tell him, and they agreed to face their parents and stay in their home town to work through it all together – I was awash with relief!  They would never know that half way across the world, a woman they didn’t know was pacing up and down in her apartment, crying over their woes and wishing them well.  Like an inept guardian angel.

In Kenya I investigated a particularly nasty poaching ring, finding that many of the young men tangled up in it were not at all happy with the activities they were being coerced into undertaking.  One such sorry individual tried to tip the authorities off about a planned raid on a rhino sanctuary – but he was found out and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion.  I had tried to stop it with a few frantic phonecalls, but no-one took me seriously, or even if they did, they didn’t seem to care.

I sat in New York brooding for a few weeks after that, more aware than ever of my limitations, and worried about how depressed I might get if I took all such failures to heart.

But there were successes also.

Because of me, a dozen people were rescued after a bush fire in Australia, from where they had been stranded in an isolated cave.

Because of me, a human trafficking gang based in India were exposed and convicted, and dozens and dozens of women across Europe saved from the most hideous lifestyles.

Because of me, several care homes in Canada which had been neglecting their residents dreadfully, were closed down.

The trick was to find some piece of information that was secret and crucial – something no-one else could possibly know, so that when I phoned a Policeman or a journalist or a charity worker, or when I put a post on the internet, someone had to take it seriously, and would act to check it out.

A few years passed, and I came to believe I must be more familiar with the world, and all its ways, than anyone else had ever been.  I could go anywhere, look at everything.

I was beginning to feel – well, omnipotent.  Which was dangerous.

I realised that I had made myself the perfect spy, and yet my random wanderings were not as focussed as they might have been.  I wasn’t just going to chance on the evil backroom plot that was going to cause the end of the world – or at least some dreadful extremist event.  Actually, someone needed to tell me where to go, who to eavesdrop on, what information to look for.

And so I did think a lot about whether I should volunteer myself as some sort of special government agent.

But which government?  And how could I possibly know who to trust in that clandestine world?  What if my talent was utterly unique?  I would become the ultimate weapon of war.  And if they had control of my body!  I would spend the rest of my life being threatened and tortured, forced to be the mind slave of one party or another, or seen as too much of an asset to fall into the wrong hands and hence ‘terminated’ to be on the safe side!

No, I had to stay free!  I would have to move around, keeping my corporeal self always secreted away, always a step ahead.

The more I wandered, the more I helped people, the more I realised the astonishing nature of my ability – the more I became afraid.

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