We’re entering a town on an elevated highway, through concrete and space never walked on or touched but seen by millions through glass. From the open-topped convertible in front of us, a sweep of music surges, with soft and ethereal voices, as from paradise. Caught among cars all jostling for the exit ramp, we slow down. The man and the woman in the car in front kiss, while the music carries on and on, syrupy and swoony and incongruous in traffic. Glancing from the highway to a grimy housing project underneath us now, I jump at a sight that lifts the music’s incongruity to heights quite obscene. As this gorgeous aural treacle fills the air, a boy beats another quite defenceless smaller boy with a baseball bat, surrounded by a ring of cheering onlookers: thwack upon his bare head, thwack upon his ribcage, thwack upon his bare shins, thwack into his groin… The traffic creeps forward, the smaller boy screeches and the music swishes on.
I look away in horror, feel my head start to swim and move it down between my knees. I know I must help the smaller boy … but when I come to, the music’s gone. I’m reclining in the passenger’s seat, which has been pushed back so that I’m looking up through the van’s open roof. I sense the driver is a bit like a skeleton, but I can’t be sure of this because I cannot tear my gaze away from the gluey ultramarine of the sky, which is enrapturing me: my eyes rootle into the sky’s surface as if to eat it. The driver turns from the wheel to me, grinning, and I feel more than ever how like a skeleton it is, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Still I am fixated on the orgy of darkest blue, which grows ever larger and more glutinous. The driver leans close to me and its bony lips whisper, When the student is ready, the master will appear! Grinning wide, it blows upon my face a breath that’s at once decaying parchment, rich wine and the smell of Greek seas through the ochre dusk light of a temple on an island—then my gaze is released from the sky with a jolt and I am sitting in the driver’s seat, alone.
The car is cruising fast, sliding smooth on the curve of an elevated freeway, high as a suspension bridge, that strides grey and silver through the countries of a jungle on a march of slender legs I can see far ahead disappearing in a mist of light.
Either side of this sleek path of concrete and steel spreads a wet land of spongy green, monkey shrieks and bird plumes, hanging vines and steamy swamps twinkling with leeches and gassy mud, yellow fish and tiny white bubbles on the underside of weed fronds.
Jaymi, you see that ahead? comes the vanished driver’s voice, like a whisper from the back seat. A shadow in the overhead mirror—quickly gone. You see that ahead? comes the whisper from my left, and half a mile ahead beside the freeway a fountain of orange flame bursts from the jungle, to burn high and clear against the fluid sky. That’s your death, at age sixty-eight! You want a preview? Go ahead—I’ll hold the wheel while you look! and I can feel the steering-wheel being adjusted as we drive on, to keep us with exactness in the centre of our lane.
The orange fountain-flame seems to ripple into folds. A picture forms beyond it: the outside of a tiny washroom window. Inside the window, in a cubicle, a long shrunken grey face nuzzles into view, sick and pinched and mad with dead despair. Its chin sinks to rest upon the sill, its deadened eyes looking down to the right, as if it’s never been outside this poky washroom. It spits greyly, feebly—and suddenly I see that it really hasn’t been outside the washroom, for decades, and it knows it never will.
The flame-folds ripple back, to cover up my future, like a curtain sliding across a movie screen. The fountain subsides to the jungle canopy. Control of the steering-wheel returns to me. I drive on, distraught. The spongy land on either side carries on, as if nothing’s happened, just as beautiful and alien as ever.
“No,” I think, then scream aloud “NO!…” and hear my voice, flat and dead upon the closed air.
I sense I had to help someone, back there behind us. Who was that?
I sense, in addition, that the word I just shrieked was a sound and nothing more.
For more about "The Imagination Thief" by Rohan Quine, see
For some great reviews of it, see
And to pick it up from whichever retailer you may prefer, the retailers’ links for the paperback are at
and for the ebook at