The moment she heard about The Dimension, Anna knew that she had to try it.  She’d followed, almost religiously, the career trajectory that her parents, teachers and community had sketched out for her.  She’d never yet taken a drug other than alcohol and even then, her use of it had been discreet, sparing and always correct.  She lived in a detached, four-bedroomed house in Surrey.  Her husband, a lawyer with a major bank, worked long hours, and her son and daughter were at a private school and only came home at weekends, so she had lots of spare time during the day.  Lunches with friends, hair appointments, shopping and cooking and, of course, her Pilates classes filled some of the hours but the creative urge that she’d been suppressing since her late teens continued to grow and become more urgent.

‘You mean you get to make and dress your own … what did you call it? … avatar?’ she said to Helen, who’d told her about this new virtual world.

‘Yes,’ said Helen.  ‘Mine’s a nun.’

‘Oh, that’s so sweet,’ said Anna, although she was surprised at the revelation since there was much talk at their Readers’ Group of Helen’s many extra-marital affairs.

Helen laughed.

‘Not really,’ she said.  ‘It keeps most of the men away, so I can choose the ones I want to spend time with.  The minute I find one, my habits come off and I’m in skin-tight pink lycra which shows … everything.’

‘Helen,’ said Anna, both shocked and excited by her words.

‘But that’s the point,’ said Helen.  ‘You can be like that there.   Anything goes.  I’ve had better sex there than I’ve ever had with Don.’

Don was her husband, the non-executive director of six engineering companies and a well-known local rugby player.  Anna found him loud, rude and generally unpleasant.  But then, all men seemed perverse to her – wrapped up in their own worlds, incapable of understanding the delicacies and refinements that life could offer.

They talked some more about Helen’s experiences as a nun, but Anna was eager to get home and try this wonderland for herself.  She made an excuse about having an appointment with her manicurist, then drove home, checked that the phone was in answer mode, and settled at the computer.

The moment she was asked whether she wanted her avatar to be male or female and was presented with a standard, characterless female form, her mind leapt thirty and more years back into her past and she was with her first Barbie doll again.  She’d been crazy about them.  She bought them in all their forms, had boxes full of outfits, herds of ponies and the pink carriages to go with them, houses, furniture, tea-sets, ball gowns, jodhpurs, swimsuits. Anna was the archetypal Barbie girl.  And now, once more, she was being given the chance to slough off the cares of being a respectable member of a fine middle class community, and play with dolls.

She noticed other avatars, male and female, coming and going around her but, for days and days, she ignored them all and lost herself in refining her avatar’s appearance, buying clothes and accessories and animations that let her walk and pose like the stars she admired so much in Hello magazine.  The fact that Beebie (her avatar) could do such things made her so much more satisfying than dear Barbie had ever been.  Anna could launch her creation onto dance floors, into beach parties, shops and clubs and she looked like and was much closer to a real person than Barbie could ever have been.  It was the fulfilment of a dream.  Inside the woman, the girl who’d dreamed with her dolls still existed, as full of fancies as ever, and convinced that this was a world in which the transcendence she craved would be possible.  Here, she could side-step reality.

To begin with she WAS Barbie – or rather, Beebie.  In the same way that she saw other residents BEING their dreams – cats, dogs, teddy bears, dragons – it was so wonderful.  All these people had rediscovered a childhood passion and were free to revisit it and indulge themselves in developing it further – sometimes to astonishing extremes.

One day, after she’d groomed her pony, taken her shower and was looking through the ‘Wardrobe’ folder in her inventory to decide what to wear, the thought of Ken crept into her mind once more.  It had happened before but the idea that, with the magic available in this virtual world, a relationship with Ken could go so much further than it ever had in real life, had caused her to shake the thought from her mind.  She was used to sitting stiff-legged Kens and Barbies at picnic tables or in the dining rooms of plastic mansions, holding tiny cups and glasses to their lips.  The thought that Beebie might actually be embraced by a Ken equivalent was at first unseemly; she was the embodiment of purity, a perpetual virgin.  Even when her brother had crucified one of her Kens on the trunk of a cherry tree when she was nine, the realities of the harsh world in which they lived had still not sullied her dreams.

But now, her living Barbie could … make love.  The temptation was strong, and Anna began planning how she might find someone worthy of Beebie.  It went without saying that his name had to be Ken.  She typed it into the search facility and was delighted, if rather taken aback, to discover that there were over a hundred.  But she’d decided on this course of action and was now so eager to progress with it that she didn’t bother reading any profiles. Instead, she selected some at random and, in the end, chose one who hadn’t even bothered to write anything about himself.  The fact that he’d joined on the same day that she had was a clear indication that they were meant to be together.

After several deep breaths and a secret smile at how fast her heart was beating, she sent him an Instant Message.  She’d thought he wouldn’t be there, so she was surprised to get an answer right away.  With no time to work out a strategy, she blurted out (insofar as typing can be described as ‘blurting out’) something close to the truth – her Barbie craze, the attraction of his name, the fact that she hadn’t yet made many friends because she’d been too busy getting Beebie just right – and she was thrilled when he seemed to understand her and confess that he’d behaved in exactly the same way.

In the end it was Ken who suggested they meet and Anna, more and more excited that Beebie would be meeting her soul mate, agreed, saying only that they should leave it until the following day to give her time to think through what she wanted and what they might do.  Ken gave her a landmark for a rendezvous in a street in Paris near the Eiffel Tower and they said their goodbyes.

That night, after a meal of confit de canard with green beans and roast potatoes and garlic, she allowed her husband to have the usual perfunctory sex then lay unable to sleep.  The next day was endless as she crawled slowly towards the time of their appointment.  At last, she logged on and tried on outfit after outfit as she waited for three o’clock to arrive.  The second it did, she teleported to the street and looked around.  It was empty save for a blue, low-slung Corvette coupé.  She turned through 360 degrees just to check, and it was only when she fixed on the car again that she realised it must belong to Ken because there was his name floating over it.  She moved towards it.

‘Hi,’ said Ken, ‘God, you’re gorgeous.’

The passenger door of the car swung open and Beebie stooped to get in.  Then Anna paused.  There was no driver.

‘Where are you?’ she said.

‘Here,’ said Ken. ‘You’re climbing into me.’

Beebie stood and stepped back.

‘I told you,’ said Ken.  ‘I’ve spent as much time on my avatar as you have on yours.  This is a 430 horse power, 6.2 litre LS3 with a V8 aluminium-block engine, short-throw six-speed manual transmission and split-spoke silver-painted aluminium wheels.’

‘You’re a car,’ said Anna.

‘Of course I’m a car,’ said Ken.  ‘But if you don’t like this avatar, I’ve got others.’

‘Thank goodness for that,’ said Anna.

Then Ken went on.

‘I’ve got a 6 cylinder, 245 hp Porsche Boxster with 273 Nm maximum torque at 4,600 – 6,000 rpm and a compression ratio of 11.0:1.  There’s also a 4.2 litre Jaguar XK Convertible, a Toyota Avensis with sequential automatic transmission, a flat four overhead valve 1486 cc Jowett Javelin with twin Zenith carburettors …’

As his words continued to jump onto the screen, Anna turned Beebie round and began to walk her away down the boulevard.  Beebie’s hips swung with the same exotic insolence, but Anna was ready to cry.  Why were men always such a disappointment?  She sat back in her chair as Beebie continued her stroll and Ken’s words still trailed across the screen.



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