Monday morning finally arrived and with it his new badge, dropped off personally, as promised, by DCI Morgan. “Oh, and Sam, I’ll take the briefing papers back with me. You obviously can’t take them with you, and I don’t want them left here.” Morgan waited expectantly.
“Of course, Sir. If you’ll just hold on a moment, they’re in the car.” Annoyed at the unexpected request, Williams pulled the neat packets from the kit bag, taking the opportunity to deposit his “being Sam Tyler” notebook in the inside pocket along with his notes on preservation and evaluation of forensic evidence.
Far too late now to wish he’d listened to Doctor Whittaker, he thought exhaustedly as he ushered Morgan back out of his echoing flat. Yet again he’d woken up feeling as if he’d been running and fighting all night. The state of the bedclothes seemed to support the idea.
He forced himself through the usual routines - coffee, wash, shave, dress, toast, coffee - hoping that the simple, repetitive processes would engage his attention for long enough to help him achieve some degree of calm. The Tyler clothes felt strange against his skin.
The ticking of the clock, reflecting the sun in the corner opposite the window, seemed louder than usual. He found himself pressed to acknowledge every minute passing as he struggled to get the toast down. Now he had finally reached the point of no return he felt sick, and every mouthful and every movement only increased his fear and nausea and a foreboding sense of unreality.
To keep himself focussed, he decided to rehearse his first meeting with DCI Hunt. Polite but not submissive, he thought. Minimally subordinate rather than deferential. ‘Sir’, obviously, although he planned to drop that as soon as possible. If Sam Tyler was going to challenge Hunt on his own ground, it would start with the name. But then he would have to decide when to begin using the man’s name instead of his title. Too early and he risked getting smacked down for insubordination; too late and it would be just that - too late.
He got up and paced the kitchen, trying to put the Tyler walk together with the manner of speech he had practised, remembering at the same time to concentrate on his pronunciation and the delicate balance between submission and challenge that he’d decided he had to use with Hunt. And that’s without thinking what I’m going to actually say, he thought despondently. Perhaps Tyler would stand still while he was talking? Well yes, but all the time? I don’t think so.
He tried again, this time focussing on finding the right words to signal to Hunt his compliance with orders at the same time as his essential independence of thought. When it all fell apart for the fourth time he ran his hands over his face in frustration. There were just too many things to remember all at once.
He’d have to put them in priority order so that if he couldn’t manage everything at once, at least it was only the one aspect that wavered. But if any aspect wavered at all, wouldn’t that make them suspicious anyway? Wouldn’t they then start looking at ... No, calm down. They have no reason to be suspicious, he reminded himself. No reason at all. He tried again, but each time something jarred; some part of the performance didn’t quite work.
When he caught himself panicking for the third time, thoughts spiralling out of control, he admitted that Doctor Whittaker’s dire warnings were very close to coming true. He knew he should never have agreed to this, although to be fair there hadn’t been much actual agreeing involved.
He took a few minutes to have one last try at phoning Pete. Please be there. He hadn’t dared try again last night; he’d had insane visions of the landlady reporting him as a heavy breather. Please, answer the phone. But again, the phone rang and rang at the other end. Oh please, just for once... He’d wound himself up so tight over the past week, and this was the final straw; he couldn’t stop tears of unendurable stress forcing their way past his flawed control. Angry and ashamed, he wiped them away immediately, brushing at his eyes impatiently as he walked through the flat, checking everything one last time.
At eight o’clock on the dot he left the flat and made himself comfortable in the shabby borrowed Rover, dumping his made-up transfer papers on the passenger seat. As he finally set out for what he knew would be his last secret operation, he realised with a sense of shock that he’d been promised the Davis operation would be “the last one” as well. That memory had lost itself amongst all the fear and confusion at the end of the Davis business, and it must have surfaced now triggered by his fears of the new operation. In an attempt to take his mind off those fears he hit the Play button on the 8-track.
I still don't know what I was waiting for
For further distraction he decided to practice the new pronunciation again. He’d finally decided to go for the Southern-influenced glottal stop he’d learned at the orphanage to disguise his own precise t’s.
And my time was running wild, a million dead-end streets
Concentrating on how to speak would help ensure he never forgot to think about every word before he uttered it. Driving the Rover carefully through the familiar streets, he finally admitted to himself that he was terrified.
Every time I thought I'd got it made it seemed the taste was not so sweet
‘A’ Division, with its rough characters and infamously non-standard procedures was never going to be a place he could fit into easily. But that was precisely what he had to do. The operation could never succeed if he stood out as being too different.
So I turned myself to face me
He had to be unobtrusive, appearing to go along with their unacceptably archaic practices while not incriminating himself. He shifted uneasily in his seat as he realised that he no longer had any faith in his ability to absorb the new identity and keep to it. There’d been too many before it, even without the “new personality” to complicate matters.
But I've never caught a glimpse of how the others must see the faker ...
Desperately, he went over the background in his head: mother still living locally, father not to be mentioned. Auntie. Hyde. Gap Year. Over and over. Mother. Auntie. Hyde.
... Turn and face the strain ...
He wished now he’d invented a father after all. It would be something else to talk about. What sort of idiot talks about his mother and auntie to the people he works with? And did it fit with his new personality? Did smiling, confident people talk to colleagues about their mums and aunties? Hardly. He scrubbed hard at his face, concentrating on the feeling of skin against skin.
...Just gonna have to be a different man
He knew he’d never been as scared as this before going into a job, and he still couldn’t pin down what it was about this one that was so frightening; he knew it wasn’t just the pressure of remembering the new personality. He tried to ignore the voices in his head, whispering endlessly ‘it’s like a different planet, Sam; in a coma, Sam; like going back in time, Sam’.
How could it be so much more difficult to be a police officer amongst police officers, than to be a small-time drug-runner amongst similar? But it was, and he could not stop his face crumpling as the despised tears threatened again. He’d vowed at the age of twelve never to cry again, and he’d kept that vow until the day he came home safe from his very first undercover operation. Since then it had been more difficult.
... Time may change me but I can't trace time ...
He took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the road.
He was being ridiculous, he told himself firmly. He’d dealt confidently, time and again, with villains who would not have hesitated to kill him if they thought it necessary. But that was different: expected, he told himself, just their natural behaviour.
What was not natural, he thought, was a police officer for whom the lines were apparently so blurred there was no guarantee he would not kill too. Williams could only hope that DCI Hunt was closer to human than Morgan had made him sound.
Now he realised that this was the main cause of his fear: that he was going to have to cosy up to this terrifying creature and pretend to agree with everything he said and did when what he really wanted to do was just tell the man he had to change.
... Where's your shame, you've left us up to our necks in it ...
God, I’m so fed up with being alone – I’m always on my own, he thought again self-pityingly. Rubbing a hand across his mouth, he swiped it back again, moving a tear away from his top lip with the back of his hand. He gripped the wheel more tightly as the voices in his head grew louder, fading and swelling again.
The tears were trickling down his face now; he could not stop them. ‘It’s like another planet over there, Sam’. As a tear coursed delicately into his mouth he licked it away. ‘It’s like going back in time going over there.’ He tightened his lips in an attempt to get himself under control. ‘Keep your eye on the prize, Sam’.
He hit the steering wheel. “Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it!” he shouted, angry with himself even as he did so for losing control. It was the one thing he’d agreed with the staff at the Home about: people with an adequate command of the language don’t need to swear, and normally he never did. Just one more sign of how dangerously close to the edge he was.
In his imagination Morgan laughed and repeated his favourite joke yet again: “They’re so dozy over there Sam, you could run rings round them even if you were in a coma.”
The next track started. He had never much liked this one, or the one after, so he hit the fast forward, then after a few moments, the ‘Play’ button.
Too absorbed in what he was doing, he wasn’t paying enough attention to the road. He realised belatedly that he had slowed down, forcing the following traffic to overtake with increasing difficulty as he wavered dangerously close to the middle of the road. As he looked up a red car hurtled past, the driver blasting his horn.
Williams screeched to a halt, unreasonably shaken by the non-incident.
He turned the engine off and undid his seatbelt as the track he wanted began to play softly. ”Life on Mars”: how appropriate for a man heading for another planet, he thought hysterically, desperately trying to get his breathing under control. He was overwrought, he knew. He desperately needed to calm down before reporting to Hunt.
It’s a Godawful small affair
He sat, shaking, and took more deep breaths in an attempt to calm down.
Pictures flooded jaggedly into his mind, each unsettling image swirling and flashing as it was replaced by something worse. Suspects with bruised faces, staring defeated at the camera. Reports Morgan had shown him: “unwarranted violence”; “exceeding allowed custody times without charge”; “unexplained injuries”.
To the girl with the mousy hair.
And, then, from four years ago, the newly-promoted DCI Hunt himself, staring grimly out of a newspaper report. Hard face, mouth like a steel trap. Long-lashed eyes burning out of the page. Williams had woken up one night yelling in fear with that picture fixed in his brain.
He shook his head to clear the images.
But her mummy is yelling “no!”
He wound down the window, but the car still felt airless. The music was not working its usual magic; he still felt too shaky to drive.
And her Daddy has told her to go.
Eventually he opened the door and cautiously stepped out into the road, leaving the music playing.
But her friend is nowhere to be seen.
Still trembling, he leaned on the car door, trying to calm himself down.
Now she walks through a sunken dream.
He lost track of how long he stood there, regaining control of himself. Finally, realising he was going to be late for work on his very first day in ‘A’ division, he took another deep breath then got back into the car.
To the seat with the clearest view.
Ashamed of his weakness, and angry with himself, he banged his fist on the dashboard, hurting his hand, and started the engine.
And she’s hooked to the silver screen.
Summoning up all the mental strength he could find, he willed himself to focus on the music and drive on.
But the film is a saddening bore
Still trying to get control of his thoughts, he pulled out without looking over his shoulder.
Cos she’s lived it ten times or...
A lorry blared its horn as it rocked the car, a wall of steel appearing with heart-stopping suddenness at the driver’s window.
Williams panicked and spun the wheel frantically. He couldn’t see where he was going. Something was wrong with his hearing as well, and he couldn’t feel the ground beneath the car. Random sounds and flashes of green filled his head as he struggled with the wheel.
* * *
The car careers across the wasteground as if the driver cannot see where he is going. Eventually, the engine seems to cut out and the car drifts to a halt.
After a while, the driver’s door opens. A man steps out clumsily and stumbles away, clutching his head. He gazes up at the sky; uncovering his ears he stretches his arms out, and then up as if in supplication. As he reaches towards the sky he staggers and collapses on the ground.
Faintly heard, music plays from the car’s 8-track.
...friend is nowhere to be seen
Slowly, the man’s limbs untangle and relax until he’s lying flat on his back.
* * *
Sam half-woke, struggling to understand what had happened. He had been driving, he thought, and now he seemed to be walking, searching. He was moving through woodland, sunlight dappling his vision.
As she walks through her sunken dream.
Moving closer to consciousness, he recognised his persistent childhood nightmare, and lay still, sweating coldly, as it played again inside his head. He was walking through the woods. As always, something terrible was going to happen and he had to stop it.
to the seat with the clearest view.
“Where are you?” he whispered. Again the sun lit the woman in the red dress as she ran, screaming, from ...who?
And she’s hooked to the silver screen.
If only he could feel the ground beneath his feet, he knew he could save her this time. As he tried desperately to see what or who the woman was running from, the sunlight tilted and he was surrounded by blackness.
But the film is a saddening bore
* * *
Sam opened his eyes as if shocked awake.
cos she’s lived it ten times or more
He could feel rough ground under his back. His fingers, arms limp by his sides, moved across stones and dust. Only his eyes moved as he ran through a mental inventory of bones and muscles. Nothing broken or torn.
she could spit in the eyes of fools
He sat up, gasping with the effort and looked around him, bewildered.
as they ask her to focus on
He tried to focus on his surroundings.
sailors fighting in the dance hall
As he started to pull himself up, he looked all around again, seeing only wasteland stretching for several hundred yards in all directions. He seemed to be on a building site, except there were no new structures, only the smoking aftermath of old buildings destroyed.
oh man, look at those cavemen go
Still finding his balance, he tried again to stand up. It seemed to be taking a very long time, he thought, dazed.
it’s the freakiest show.
He staggered slightly, and finally managed to get himself on his feet.
take a look at the lawman
Now he could feel the ground he was standing on. As he stood up, the world starting to steady, he tried to get a grip on his wandering mind, still skittering uncontrolled.
OK, first things first: where the bloody hell am I?
...beating up the wrong guy.
God knows he thought as he looked around him, seeing nothing he recognised.
oh man, wonder if they’ll ever know
Bewildered, he started to turn on the spot, still seeing nothing that made any sense.
he’s in the best-selling show
Completing the circle, he stared again, bewildered, at the broken buildings all around, the smoke rising and the dust settling.
is there life on Mars
He blinked in shock as he finally acknowledged the music that he had assumed until now was only in his head. Life on Mars, he thought. That’s appropriate - it is like another bloody planet.
His mind seemed to click into place at last and he moved purposefully towards the car he had noticed during his survey, tripping over demolition rubble as he went. As he got nearer, the music swelled, filling his head with sounds that were definitely real. Well, probably real. OK, maybe real.
Right, come on brain, think about it. I must have been going somewhere. I wasn’t coming here, that’s for sure. He looked in through the car window, seeing an 8-track in the console; a pile of paperwork on the far seat. So, what do we know so far? He concentrated, and spoke out loud.
“My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident, and I woke up ... here.”
Lyrics to “Changes” and “Life on Mars”, both from Hunky Dory, copyright David Bowie. Reproduced here without permission but with no intent to profit or harm.