Sunday, 24 November 2013

Fairy Godfather

A few days before Christmas, Gary Darling closed his bedroom door after getting ready for Emma’s party. He sauntered downstairs in a new silk shirt to find an old guy in his house, a complete stranger. Gary prided himself on his cool, but even he was mildly alarmed to find an old man pottering around his living room.
Gary’s visitor was tall, with white hair and a slight stoop, rather elegant, even distinguished in an old-fashioned way. He seemed slightly confused too - rather like Gary's old headmaster. Gary glanced at his watch. Eight o'clock - should be off to Emma’s party any minute, but for the moment he seemed to be stuck with some old nutter who must have wandered in off the street... although the front door wasn’t open.
‘Hello,’ Gary said affably. May as well be polite - show a bit of Christmas spirit. It was a bitter December evening - too cold even for nutters to be wandering around. Anyway – this little incident may turn out be a good story for Emma’s party. A laugh perhaps? Especially after a few glasses of something strong. After all, the old guy could have lost his memory like Gary's dad before Gary put him in that home.
‘Bloody typical,’ said the elderly man suddenly interrupting Gary’s flow of seasonally adjusted good intentions. Gary found a pair of piercing blue eyes focussed on his own.
‘Pardon?’ Gary hastily revised his ideas. The old chap didn’t look at all confused now. More like an angry old headmaster who still had all his marbles. Could still be a nutter though.
‘This is absolutely bloody typical - no organisation - none at all.’ The white-haired man pointed a long finger in the direction of Gary Darling's living-room ceiling.
‘Do we have a problem?’ Gary gazed blankly at the ceiling.
‘Too many damn problems - but I suppose we'd better get on with it,’ the elderly man snapped. He gave Gary another searching glance with those sharp blue eyes. ‘I suppose you wish to attend some kind of revelry.’
‘Well I’m certainly going to a party.’ Gary glanced at his watch again.
‘I knew it. He was attending the revels anyway you blithering idiots. He doesn’t need the slightest assistance from me because the young fool was already on his way,’ the elderly man shouted at the ceiling. ‘I knew the young toad didn’t require the services of a fairy godfather as soon as I clapped eyes on him. What? What on earth for? Well – if you insist. The damned fools say I have to carry on anyway now I’ve made myself known to you,’ he said, transferring his furious gaze from the ceiling to Gary.
‘Carry on what?’
‘My name is Pringle and I’m your fairy godfather - and don't you dare laugh or I'll turn you into a fairy and shove you on top of that tree.’ Pringle pointed to Gary's plastic Christmas tree in the corner of the room, opposite his huge TV set.
‘My fairy godfather?’ Gary’s eyes rested for a moment on his phone, lying on the table by the door with his car keys. The old chap didn't look especially strong...
‘Fairy godfathers have been out of fashion for a while, but for some accursed reason the tradition is being revived by management,’ said Pringle. ‘It’s a marketing thing.’
‘Oh. I see - my fairy godfather - I should have known that’s who you are – how could I make a mistake like that?’ Gary sidled casually towards his phone.
‘Have you a suitable means of transport to this shindig of yours?’ Pringle eyed Gary dubiously. ‘I don’t go in for glass slippers or any of that mullarkey, but I can do you a coach and pair.’
‘A coach and pair? Horses and stuff?’
‘Of course horses. How else does one drive a coach?’
‘Wouldn't a coach and horses be a bit old-fashioned?’ Gary was by the table now. He slipped the phone into his jacket pocket but kept his hand in the pocket – just in case.
Pringle seemed surprised by this remark, glancing round the room as if for the first time, his eyes flicking over Gary's massive wide-screen TV and expensive multi-media sound equipment.
‘Blast and damn.’ Pringle pulled out a huge silver watch from his waistcoat pocket. ‘I’ll turn the dozy dogs into a pack of warty toads. This is a bigger foul-up than I'd thought. Are we in the twenty-first century?’
‘Well I am, I don't know about you.’
‘Blast it to Hades. I’m landed with the blasted twenty-first century again - all smoke and fumes and pollution - hardly a grain of romance left. No wonder you don’t have a clue about fairy godfathers. Oh well – the sooner I’m done the sooner I clock off. I suppose you want one of those foul motor cars to travel to your seedy gathering?’
‘Actually I have a car - a Ford.’
‘I could make some improvements on a Ford,’ said Pringle. ‘How about a Ferrari? You look like a typical young twenty-first century fool wallowing like a pig in crass materialism. You must covet a Ferrari – it goes with the territory you people say.’
‘A Ferrari?’
‘Yes – thing with four wheels don’t you know. Anyway – make up your tiny mind. Do you or do you not want to go to your party in a Ferrari? I haven't got all night.’
‘Well...Don’t you need a pumpkin and white mice and stuff like that?’ Gary tried to remember the Cinderella story. He'd have a hell of a tale to tell when he finally got to the party.
‘A pumpkin?’ Pringle gave a short, barking laugh. ‘Pumpkins and white mice are for show-offs, I'll just make a few modifications to your Ford.’
Gary upset the table as Pringle suddenly seemed to flit past him, leaving the room at a great rate. Almost as if he... ‘Almost as if he flew,’ Gary muttered as he followed his uninvited guest out through the kitchen and the back door.
‘This vehicle needs a damn good clean and a spot of polish,’ Pringle grumbled when Gary eventually found him in the garage, running a fastidious pink finger across the soiled blue paintwork of Gary's Ford.
‘I don’t get time to clean it,’ Gary said automatically. Why was he apologising to the old nutter? ‘Can't you clean it by magic?’ he added with a smirk.
‘Cleaning a client’s car is absolutely not in my contract.’ Pringle took a kind of glittery wand from somewhere in his jacket and waved it. There was a brilliant flash of pinkish light.
‘What was that, you stupid old...?’ When Gary finally blinked away the stars and persuaded his eyes to focus, he found his Ford was gone. His garage was occupied by a bright red Ferrari F40 crouching on fat black tyres like a sleek leopard ready to launch itself at its prey.
‘Like it?’ Pringle asked.
‘I can't believe it.’ Gary stared at his reflection in mirror-bright paintwork then looked up and noticed that only his own breath was visible in the cold night air. No vapour escaped from Pringles flaring nostrils. Gary shivered.
‘Believe it, because I'm off.’
‘You're leaving already.’
‘That's right - all done - thank heavens.’
‘No - hang on - don't go.’ Gary put a disbelieving hand on the cold surface of the car. It felt real enough.
‘You have a Ferrari to waft you to your merrymaking,’ said Pringle, fishing out his big silver watch again. ‘What more do you want?’
The Ferrari seemed to send Gary’s mind into overdrive. ‘Don't I get three wishes or something?’ He suddenly had visions of winning the National Lottery as teeming images surged through his busy mind.
‘I was going to skip the three wishes. You aren't exactly one of the deserving poor, are you?’ Pringle slipped the watch back into his pocket with a frown.
‘I bet it's in the rules,’ Gary said.
‘It is in the rules - but I still say you don't really need three wishes you greedy young toad.’ Pringle drummed his fingers on Gary's Ferrari.
‘Less of the personal stuff - I'd like to see those rules.’
‘ONE.’
‘What?’ Gary stepped back as his fairy godfather thrust a tattered book under his nose.’
‘You asked to see the rules so that is one wish over and done with. I showed you the rules, so you have two wishes left.’ Pringle slipped the book back into his pocket.
‘That's not fair - that wasn't a proper wish and you haven't even let me read the rules.’
‘You only expressed a wish to see the rules, but you may read them too if you wish. There is a whole chapter on the seven deadly sins - you may care to brush up on them. Do you wish to read the rules?’
‘No I don’t want to read the rules. I want to win ten million pounds on the National Lottery.’ Gary grinned and folded his arms. ‘I know what you're up to, so that was my second wish.’
‘TWO.’ The fairy godfather smiled for the first time.
‘When?’ Suddenly Gary felt uneasy about matching his wits against this old bastard. He placed a hand on the cold metal of his Ferrari - just to be sure.
‘What do you mean?’ The fairy godfather smiled again.
‘When do I win the National Lottery?’
‘You'll win ten million pounds two days before you die. Would you like to know when that will be? I’ll look it up for you shall I?.’
‘Ten million pounds?’
‘You didn’t say when you wanted to win the lottery, but as I'm your fairy godfather I'll stretch a point to make sure you do win - eventually.’
‘Ten million pounds for two sodding days?’ Gary clapped his hand to his forehead, trying to force some hard thinking into the turmoil of his mind. How could his own fairy godfather not want him to have his three wishes? How mean could you get? There was only one wish left now so it had to be foolproof – he must make a damned sight more than a Ferrari out of all this...
‘Won't you be late for your party?’ Pringle smiled his irritating smile.
‘I‘d rather stay here for now…’
‘THREE.’
‘No - hang on…’

‘That's three wishes and as you have changed your mind about attending the revelries you do not need the Ferrari,’ said a voice as the fairy godfather vanished along with Gary's beautiful red Ferrari.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Roast Watch

I was an only child, born in nineteen-sixty. Dad insisted on naming me after his mother, so I was christened Kate - Kate Willerby. All through my childhood we lived in the council semi on Bromley Road where I was born and the only transport we ever had was Dad's old Raleigh bike. Some people might have agreed with Mum and called him ambitious – what with him starting from such a low base but with such big ideas. At least, Mum always said his money madness was ambition. I never called it that. To me he was just plain mean – and more than a little crazy.
Looking back, I remember no end of odd details about Dad’s tight-fisted, money-saving ways, every one of them etched on my memory like little scenes carved in a slab of marble. It's strange how things like that can take such a grip on you. You could say Dad scarred me for life if you like to think in those terms - the terms my social-worker uses.
‘If only things had been different,’ my social-worker sometimes says in that silly, wistful way she has. ‘You might never have done such things....’
She goes on about me because it's her job I suppose, but I'd rather hear about what's happening outside. When I was a kid in the Sixties, Dad worked as an accountant for the Borough Council. He cycled off to work each morning with his briefcase dangling from the handle-bars and came home for his tea on the dot of half past five. I realise now that we could probably have afforded a car, but obviously Dad stuck to his bike because it was so much cheaper. He thought he was going to be Clerk of the Council one day, but he never was - never even got within sniffing distance of the oak-panelled office.
Dad must have made Mum’s life a misery with his penny-pinching notions of driving a family up the social ladder. He certainly made mine pretty grim. I vividly remember the day when Annie Faulkner, my best friend, took me into Cullen's sweet shop near our school.
‘How much money have you got?’ Annie asked. She wanted us to go halves on a quarter of mint humbugs because she adored anything sweet. She’s never put on a pound of extra fat to this day though. Lucky cow.
‘None,’ I said. I never had any money.
‘Not even threepence?’ Annie held out three of those big pre-decimal pennies in her pink scrubbed hand as if she was inviting me to count her amazing wealth.
‘I spent it,’ I lied.
‘Didn’t you get your pocket money on Saturday?’ Annie asked in that mock innocent way of hers. That was Annie all over – she was never one for giving up easily. It was Monday, so she couldn't believe I'd spent my pocket money already and she wanted to know what I’d done with it. It never occurred to her that some kids might not get pocket money – even those from the ‘better’ families at the top end of Bromley Road.
‘I had my pocket money, but I spent it,’ I lied again. I knew not to embellish it too much because Annie would follow it up like a bloody terrier. I never had pocket money, except for the odd few pennies and halfpennies Mum slipped me when she’d found a few bargains on a shopping trip. Till that time with Annie in Cullen's sweet shop, I never knew normal kids had pocket money every single week. So Annie shrugged her shoulders and bought herself three penny chews. She didn't share a single one.
Bromley Road was much the same in the nineteen sixties as it is now, except for the cars which clutter up the narrow road these days. Every year we went on holiday for a week in a Skegness boarding-house like most people in Bromley Road, but that was our only luxury. Actually, I always called the landlady Auntie Elsie, so I suppose we were getting special relative’s rates. Dad would see to that. I never found out who Auntie Elsie actually was – never placed her on our narrow family tree. I don't think Mum liked her – once said she was blowsy – whatever that is.
‘Here we are, buy yourself a few ice-creams, young lady,’ Dad would say when we arrived at Skegness.
He would hand over a couple of Irish two shilling pieces for my holiday spending money as if presenting me with a pools winner’s cheque. Mum told me years later that he took the Irish coins from the tea fund at work and wrote them off as foreign coins - worthless.
Dad was a great one for all kinds of investments. He invested piddling sums in the stock market while Mum darned socks and made my dresses out of cheap cotton prints, or knitted him his next pullover. He kept a blue notebook with columns of figures in tiny, crabbed writing. A complete history of family expenditure and Mum’s attempts to make a shilling stretch into half a crown.
One day, while I was playing with Annie near the railway bridge, I saw Dad on his way home from work. He was zooming along on that old Raleigh with one of his trousers flapping round his ankle where his bicycle clip had come off. I could tell he was excited.
When I got in for tea, I found out that he'd bought a watch which he said was valuable. He bought it off old Mr Greenway who had been some kind of businessman before the war. I think he once owned a textile factory. Anyway, Mr Greenway had gone bankrupt years ago and people said he'd lost his marbles. At the time, I didn’t think that losing marbles should make anyone go like Mr Greenway.
This watch was supposed to be something really special - a rich man's watch - a real gold one. Dad was thrilled with his bargain. He said it was worth a lot of money, much more than he gave old Mr Greenway for it.
As I grew up, I came to wonder how Mum tolerated Dad. Once, when I was about fourteen, I even dared to ask why she put up with him when he refused her the money to buy a new dress for church. I don't think she knew what to say to me. She was rather shocked and obviously embarrassed that I knew how things stood between them. I didn’t mention it again.
Mum went to church every Sunday and she made me go too, but Dad never came. She would prepare the Sunday dinner and put it in the oven on a low heat, then she'd get herself changed into her best clothes and make me polish my shoes till they shone. When she was all ready, she'd ask Dad to keep an eye on the dinner. Then it was on with her pair of white gloves and off we’d go down Bromley Road to St. Michaels. The vicar of St. Michaels was the Reverend David Swain who always had a special smile for Mum, a pat on the head and a few words for me.
When I was sixteen, I got a job in Worrall's bread shop. I enjoyed the work and got on well with the customers, who mostly liked a chat. The women loved me to tempt them with cream buns and ├ęclairs as a special treat before their husbands came home for tea. I became quite good at it.
I think my bit of independence must have brought me out of my shell because I've always got on with people since those days. Mrs Worrall and I had lots of laughs together and for the first time in my life I had some money. I handed half of my pay packet over to Mum, who lied to Dad about how much I was getting so I could buy things and go out. Mum called it telling little white fibs to father.

One night, just after my seventeenth birthday, I came back from the pictures with Annie and her boyfriend to find that Dad had been rushed to hospital with a massive heart attack. Early next morning, Mum and I were at the hospital waiting to see him when a doctor came up to us and said he'd passed away without regaining consciousness. Mum cried, right there in the hospital. I didn’t.
Dad's death had come straight out of the blue though – nobody had the slightest inkling. Mum was heartbroken for a while, but I don't remember feeling anything much. Maybe a mild sense of release is all I'll admit to. Mum was softer than either me or Dad, but even she picked herself up pretty quickly.
Dad didn't leave much in his will. As I said before, his investments weren't going to make us rich. Mum says some of them were hardly worth cashing in. She married the Reverend David Swain six months after Dad died, so in the end, none of it mattered very much. It was as if our lives had been ticking over till Dad went, waiting to get properly started. From that time I got the investment bug on a grander scale than Dad ever imagined....But you've read all about that in the papers.
Years later, I did wonder about Dad's investments, particularly Mr Greenway's old watch. Mum had passed our few family photographs to me and among them was one of the watch. He'd had it taken by a professional photographer because of the watch’s value. I took the photograph to a dealer, who said it was a gold Patek Philippe made in the nineteen thirties. He valued it at £20,000 to £25,000. I was pretty interested by then because I had a few cash-flow problems, so I asked Mum where the watch was.
She pondered for a while then she laughed. ‘I put it on his wrist just before the funeral, I didn't want poor old Mr Greenway's watch whatever it was worth.’


I had to laugh too. What's £20,000 when you come down to it? Won’t even buy a decent car. Dad would have been furious though, especially as Mum had him cremated.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Flute

Amy couldn't stand the heat any longer. ‘It's far too warm in here Craig. Aren't you bothered about the gas bills or anything?’ She stared hard at her boyfriend as he watched TV, willing him to turn towards her and say something - anything.

Craig didn’t move. Craig said nothing. Craig behaved normally.

Amy wondered, not for the first time, if it was time to forget Craig and move on. There was only so much a girl could take, whatever financial possibilities might dazzle her colourful imagination.

Eventually Craig turned his head to gaze through thick spectacles around a spacious, expensively furnished living-room. In passing he allowed his eyes to fondle racks of T-shirts hanging on a rail by the door.

‘I don’t want this room to get cold’, he said eventually, after much nose-picking deliberation. ‘I have to be very careful of damp. Once mildew gets into the fabric of a T-shirt, especially a cotton one – well then you've really lost it as far as value goes.’

‘Lost it?’

‘As a collector's item it’s ruined. You can’t wash mildew out of a cotton T-shirt, not one that’s signed. It never looks right afterwards and anyway you’re not sure about the ink used to sign it and so on. The value collapses.’

‘Oh come on Craig - aren't T-shirts supposed to stand up to a little cold and damp?’ Amy drummed impatient fingers on the arm of her chair. They'd been through this kind of thing before – many times.

‘A little cold and damp what?’ Craig looked blank - faintly alarmed.

Amy sighed. She really ought to give up on Craig Flute in spite of his one big advantage. He lived with his mother in a large house and collected autographed T-shirts, but when he died, Craig's father had left his only son a pile of money and his share of Flute's, the family engineering business. To Amy, with her background, that was a huge plus in Craig’s favour. Even so, there were limits to what a girl was prepared to put up with in the name of financial security.

‘Are you sure you should still be collecting autographed T-shirts, Craig?’ Amy asked wearily.

‘Yes.... Why?’

‘Maybe their time has gone. You have loads of them and nobody else ever joined your T-shirt collector’s club. You're still the only member. Wouldn't stamps be more interesting and take up less space? A few stamp albums on a nice set of shelves would be so much more practical. They could look quite smart – like proper books.’

‘Stamps?’ Craig turned back to the TV. ‘No thank you. Whoever heard of signed stamps? Celebrities don’t sign stamps.’

‘Not signed stamps you pill... It was just a suggestion Craig.’

‘It's a very rewarding hobby, collecting autographed T-shirts. You have to have your wits about you and wear an unsigned T-shirt all the time in case of meeting someone famous to sign it.’ Craig said over his shoulder. ‘And you need to have some felt-tip pens with you.’

‘But your T-shirts are signed by people I've never heard of.’ Amy got up from her chair, took a T-shirt off Craig's rail at random and studied a signature scrawled on the front in lurid green ink. ‘Like this one. Who the hell is Lewis Coker?’

‘He's quite a famous autograph collector actually,’ Craig said, turning away from the TV with a tiny ripple of enthusiasm. ‘Standard autographs rather than T-shirts, but very well-known in autograph circles.’

‘Oh wow. You have the autograph of an autograph collector?’

‘Yes and Lewis Coker isn’t the only one either.’

Amy shook her head and reviewed her options. Was all this grief and tedium really worth it? She dabbed at her brow with a tissue, the room was far too hot. Perhaps she should use the temperature as an excuse to take her clothes off. What would Craig do if she simply stood before him stark naked?

A few feeble sparks of sexual interest had persuaded Amy that Craig wasn’t gay, so maybe blatant seduction was worth a try... Or worth yet another bloody try to be accurate.

‘Craig?’

‘What?’

‘Do you enjoy games?’

‘No I don’t. What kind of games anyway?’

‘Oh anything that comes to mind. Just think of a game – anything you like. A game where you do just whatever you want.

‘What are the rules of this game?’

‘You choose the rules Craig. Anything you choose is okay by me.’

‘I’m not very good at thinking up rules. Anyway, I think you should know the rules already – if you are playing some kind of game. It’s a funny kind of game where the rules –

‘Oh never bloody mind Craig. Just forget I ever mentioned it.’ Amy sighed and leaned wearily against the T-shirt rail. Craig would probably throw a T-shirt over her anyway if she stripped off – just in case his mum came in.

‘Could you put it back now?’ Craig asked.

‘What?’

‘My Lewis Coker.’

Amy was surprised to find she was still holding the T-shirt signed by Lewis Coker, famous autograph collector. She wondered if Lewis had Craig’s autograph... Oh God the T-shirt was all grubby and greasy round the neck too. She shoved it back on the rail with a little moue of distaste.

‘Thank you.’ Craig turned his attention back to the TV.

Perhaps sex was worth one last try? Amy felt round the back of her jumper and pretended to be struggling with her bra strap.

‘Well would you believe it Craig, my bra clip's come undone again, right under my jumper where I can't get at it. Can you fasten it up for me love?’

Craig blushed. ‘I don't know, I broke my fingernail the last time, it's still painful.’

‘I’ll help you –

‘And Mum might come in.’

‘She never comes in when we’re alone. I thinks she hopes we’re up to something.’

‘I don’t think she does –

‘Oh don't bloody bother then Craig. Anyway, you probably wouldn't notice if my bra had three cups.’ Angrily Amy flounced out of the room to join Craig's mother in the kitchen.

‘Hello Amy dear – has Craig got his nose stuck to that TV again?’

‘Yes he has Mrs Flute.’

‘He watches a lot of TV does our Craig.’

‘Tell me about it.’

‘Yes dear, I know what you mean... You know dear –

‘Yes?’

‘You know - I'd feel much easier about Craig if just once I found him with his hand up some girl's jumper,’ Craig's mother said with a sharp sideways glance in Amy's direction.

‘He might break a fingernail,’ Amy replied. Was Craig's mum a mind-reader? Craig certainly wasn't, he probably had enough trouble reading his own mind, let alone anyone else's. She set about mashing a cup of tea, crashing crockery about in her frustration.

‘Is Craig playing hard to get?’ Craig's mother sipped delicately at a large lipstick-stained tumbler of gin.

‘No.’

‘No?’

‘Impossible to get would be a nearer the truth,’ Amy replied shortly. She only added six sugar lumps to Craig's cup as he was trying to cut down. As Amy picked up the cups, Mrs Flute put out a restraining, talon-like hand.

‘I've been watching you my love. I think we're two people who understand each other about... Well about Craig mainly.’

‘Yes?’ Amy waited.

‘Flute's have always been a family business, but to keep a business in the family, you need - ’

‘A family?’ Amy supplied. ‘The patter of tiny feet?

‘Well yes.’

‘And someone to pod them?’

‘Yes dear – if you want to put it like that. I wouldn’t put it quite like that.’

‘Someone to make Craig live up to his responsibilities - to produce a whole orchestra of little Flutes?’

‘Eh? Oh... Yes dear, most amusing. But I’m sure we understand each other really. I’m quite sure.’ Mrs Flute smiled and took another delicate sip of gin, somehow managing to empty half the glass.

‘I didn't know you were keen on grandchildren,’ Amy said.

‘I'm bloody not, it's purely a matter of keeping the business in the family.’ Mrs Flute winked with a bloodshot left eye and poured herself more gin.

A bearded collie wandered into the kitchen so Amy bent down to tickle her ears. ‘I like your dog,’ she said, changing the subject. Amy was fond of dogs. Mrs Flute seemed to have lots of them.

‘Suki's a bitch actually,’ said Mrs Flute.

‘She has a lovely pretty face with all that silky fur and those floppy ears, I think she's really lovely.’

‘She's just for breeding, dear. Her pups make the money.’

‘Really? I didn't realise you breed dogs.’

‘Yes dear, I’ve done it for years as a kind of hobby to pass the time. Suki's just a puppy machine I’m afraid, so don’t you go getting all sentimental over her.’ Craig's mother lit a cigarette and blew a thin stream of blue-grey smoke towards the kitchen ceiling.

‘A puppy machine?’

As I say, the pups make the money in dog breeding.’

‘How interesting – but I think I'll be off now.’ Amy took her coat from the back of a kitchen chair.

‘Going already dear?’

‘Yes – time to move on.’

‘Aren't you even going to have another go at our Craig?’ Mrs Flute’s cigarette quivered in bony fingers. Half an inch of ash dropped into her gin - a sure sign of agitation.

‘No,’ said Amy. ‘I've just realised I have far more options than poor little Suki.’ She left, slamming the door on her way out.

‘Little bitch – never liked her anyway.’ Mrs Flute took another sip of gin.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Bottle


Late November afternoon fading to chill grey dusk and still Lucy hadn’t bought Bryan’s birthday present. She’d left work early, caught the bus into town, but found nothing suitable after what seemed like miles of trailing round the shopping centre. Nothing suitable for Bryan at any rate.

‘I don’t need a birthday present,’ Bryan had said with one of his tolerant smiles when Lucy made the mistake of asking him directly.

‘Of course you want a birthday present,’ she’d insisted. But what kind of present? Bryan didn’t actually do anything, didn’t even have a hobby. He watched TV and played computer games, but they had several TV sets - and a sofa. That was Bryan’s domestic world - apart from bed. But let’s not go there...

So here she was on the edge of town still without a present. Hadn’t even seen anything worth a second look. She should be on her way home by now too. She checked the bright window of a large DIY store, but Bryan didn’t do DIY. That was Lucy’s job.

Put up shelves, oil hinges, hang pictures, fit new washers into leaky taps, paint and decorate and wash the car. She gazed wistfully into the window. A hammer-drill would be really useful - her old drill was too weedy for brickwork. But no.

‘What’s the use of a hammer drill?’ Bryan would say. Quite so Bryan. No use to you at all. Lucy moved on to the junk shop next door.

‘This is the very last shop. If I don’t find anything I’ll buy him a couple of bottles of wine.’ She’d seen the junk shop before, but had never been inside, so it was worth a try. A bell jangled above her head as she pushed open the door.

‘Can I help you love?’

‘I do hope so – I’m looking for a present.’ Lucy gazed forlornly round the shop, crammed almost to the ceiling with what looked very much like the contents of your average skip.

‘Anything in particular catch your eye love?’

‘Not really.’

‘We have all sorts here – stuff you never dreamed anyone would sell.’

‘I’ll say.’ Lucy stared at a stuffed squirrel in a glass case. Good grief, did people still display such awful things?

‘The taxidermist’s art is back in fashion now you know,’ the man said, as if sensing Lucy’s faint tremor of disgust.

‘Not in my house it isn’t... I suppose I’m just looking for something unusual – and not too expensive.’ The place really was so crammed with junk, she wondered how best to browse without knocking stuff over. For instance that pile of mismatched plates balanced on a cardboard box of shabby books, teetering on a three-legged stool -

‘This is really unusual.’ The shopkeeper plonked an opaque glass bottle on the counter - as if he’d had it in his trouser pocket all the time.

Lucy glanced at him, made tentative eye contact, noticed how friendly and sympathetic his eyes were despite the patter. Blue eyes they were, set behind a bushy grey beard and framed by long, hair. An ageing hippy perhaps? She looked down at the bottle on the counter.

‘A most unusual item this one, love,’ he said.

‘What is it?’

‘It contains a demon.’

‘Really?’ she smiled in spite of herself. Almost felt as if she was being chatted up for once. ‘The demon drink I suppose?’

‘Oh no, a proper demon,’ he said with a smile. He stroked his beard with long fingers then picked up the bottle. He offered it to Lucy. ‘You mustn’t open it though. Never.’

‘Never?’

‘Never. Just put it on the sideboard as a talking point.’

‘Does the demon do anything?’ Lucy hefted the bottle. It was surprisingly heavy. Why was she going along with this nonsense? Because it would be something different to give Bryan on his birthday? A talking point? They needed talking points.

It was about the size of a beer bottle, almost pure white and slightly translucent with what looked like some kind of figure etched on the inside. That must be the demon. Quite clever really. The bottle’s stopper was blood-red glass with a red wax seal. Curiosity aroused, Lucy touched the seal -

‘No love – don’t touch the stopper - seriously.’ The shopkeeper snatched back the bottle, laughed, quickly handed it over again with a raised eyebrow. ‘We don’t want to let the demon escape do we?’

‘Don’t we?’

‘No love, I don’t think we do. It would spoil the mystery, wouldn’t it? No point having it on the sideboard then.’

‘How much?’

‘Forty pounds.’

‘Forty pounds?’ Lucy dumped the bottle back on the counter.’

‘Thirty then.’ The shopkeeper grinned, shrugged his broad shoulders.

‘Oh go on, you’ve charmed me into it.’ Lucy knew she should have haggled more, but time was pressing. Nearly dark, she had to walk back through the park. She pulled a twenty and a ten from her purse and grabbed the bottle. ‘Don’t bother to wrap it.’ She left to the chimes of the bell, the bottle heavy in her coat pocket.

Full dark by the time she reached the park, Lucy walked quickly with a confidence she didn’t feel, keeping to the middle of the asphalt. About halfway through the park she noticed a shadow move - close to a big clump of laurels some ten feet from the path. She stopped. Should she go back? She waited...

The shadow moved again.

‘Is anyone there?’ Lucy groped in her pocket for her mobile phone, but found only the bottle, heavy as a brick. Of course, her phone was in the kitchen being charged up. Damn!

‘Who is it?’ The bottle was better than nothing, gripped tight round the neck it was a weapon at least. Lucy kept it in her pocket - the shape of it might even look like a serious weapon...

The shadow became a man on the path. Lucy couldn’t see him clearly because - wouldn’t you know it? One of the park lights wasn’t working. Obviously the reason he’d chosen this spot.

‘What do you want?’ Lucy stood her ground, but he seemed to edge closer; Lucy caught the glint of a knife.

‘Do you want money?’

Another step... He just kept coming.

Too close!

Lucy swung the bottle hard, caught him on the side of the head. The man collapsed at her feet - glass everywhere – the broken neck of the bottle still in her hand - a knife skittering down the path.

Then a moment of silence.

‘Oh no – oh no.’ Paralysed with horror at what she’d done Lucy stood there, her mind frozen. Her assailant moaned, rolled over onto his back. Lucy turned to run. This was her chance to get away...

But the man stopped moving - just lay there on his back.

Lucy stepped closer, stood over him, her natural confidence filtering back like warm water. This guy was a loser, not a monster. Monsters were very different. She looked around.

Nobody about.

‘This isn’t your lucky day is it?’ Lucy stared down at him, ignored a small cut on her thumb. She placed her foot on the man’s throat, pressed hard. Gurgling sounds. Shards of white glass all over the path, glinting as he died.

She laughed. ‘I wonder where the demon got to?’

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Making Merry


I found the Professor in his oak-panelled study, basking in the glow of a coal fire. Two beeswax candles in silver candlesticks stood on his desk - these and the fire providing his only sources of illumination. The Professor was seated in his favourite elm settle among flickering shadows, a bottle of old port on an ancient tripod table by his elbow.

‘Come in old chap.’ With a large hand, the Professor waved me to a chair on the other side of the fire. ‘Have a glass.’ With a soft plop he uncorked the port. From a nearby shelf he took two marvellously delicate glasses, their rims chased with the finest gold filigree which threw off tiny flecks of light from the fire as the Professor filled each glass to its golden rim.

‘Not going to the Dean’s Christmas party, Professor?’ I asked, taking the seat by the fire. As the Professor poured generously, I savoured that rich, raisin aroma of old port which seemed to permeate the very walls of the Professor’s study. His room was warm but not too warm for comfort, a bitter December wind making futile attacks on mullioned windows.

‘No not this year.’

‘You attended last year though, if I remember rightly.’

‘Yes, but last year you see, I upset the Dean’s wife.’

‘An easy enough thing to do under any circumstances, Christmas especially.’ I replied. I eyed the port, gazing at one of the Professor’s candles through its luscious purple depths.

‘Indeed. It is all too easy to upset the Dean’s wife I’m afraid. At least I find it so.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘I simply said to her - madam, you have the nose of a snuff-taker - do try a pinch of my special blend.’

‘Oh dear again.’

‘She was not amused. I could tell immediately.’

‘One always can tell – especially with the Dean’s wife.’

‘In any event, the Dean only serves the most execrable cream sherry at Christmas.’ The Professor picked up his glass of port from the table. ‘These glasses are Venetian – eighteenth century. Just imagine - the lovely lips of Kitty Fisher may have touched them.’ He held his glass to the firelight and with slow relish he took a long sip. I joined him and for a while we sat in companionable silence.

‘I’m supposed to be writing a ghost story,’ I said eventually, ‘but I’m short of ideas so I thought I’d give it a rest for a while.’ I warmed my hands by the fire.

‘Ghosts don’t exist,’ the Professor replied, setting down his glass. ‘The laws of physics insist that even the ghost of Kitty Fisher cannot come back to haunt us – more’s the pity. You see, even a ghost must have an energy source. Even the ghost of Kitty Fisher. We cannot make exceptions where the laws of the universe are concerned.’

‘Maybe not, but I can’t put the laws of physics into a ghost story.’

‘I don’t see why not. Scientific laws tell us what is real and what isn’t. Kitty Fisher was delightfully real. Now she isn’t - real that is. She is still in a sense – delightful.’

‘Yes but I have to write a scary ghost story – not a dissertation on physics. I’m sure the laws of physics are a comfort, but I’m not offering comfort to my readers.’

‘No of course you aren’t offering comfort old chap – just the opposite in fact. Well then – it must be a quiet ghost sucking energy from its surroundings. Mere wisps of energy beyond the ken of our measuring devices. A kind of afterglow from the past, from what was but now is not. Apart of course from the afterglow.’

‘A quiet ghost?’ I took another sip of port and thought of Kitty Fisher.

‘It could be the quiet ghost of a quiet man, still searching for a quiet place,’ the Professor mused. ‘I’m a quiet man, but one day I’ll make a little more commotion than usual.’

‘Oh? How?’

‘Oh I think I’ll challenge the Dean to a duel. It’s about time somebody did. That’ll cause a certain amount of noise.’

‘A duel?’

‘I don’t see why not. It’s Christmas, a time of traditions, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t revive an old tradition and challenge the Dean to a duel.’

‘On what grounds.’

‘Oh I don’t know, there are so many offensive aspects to the Dean that one is spoilt for choice. His silliness for instance. I find that most offensive – and perfectly good grounds for a duel.’

‘Well there is that. How about weapons?’

‘We’ll have a pile of his badly-written books to hurl at each other from twenty paces. The Dean may choose which of his ridiculous books make the best missiles. I’ll challenge him formally during a faculty meeting - you may be my second.’

‘Fine - and perhaps we should make merry ourselves now you’ve avoided the Dean’s party and sorted out the duel.’

The Professor stretched his legs towards the fire, took a silver snuff-box from his waistcoat pocket and smiled. ‘Avoiding the Dean is my way of making merry. Avoiding his ghastly cream sherry and festive patisserie from the nearest supermarket – that is merely a bonus.’

I sipped my port, the Professor took snuff and we both thought of Kitty Fisher and the art of making merry.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Itch

While waiting for the bus, I scratched my upper arm through the sleeve of my winter jacket - round about the spot where my ID implant is supposed to be. The implants aren’t supposed to itch of course, but mine has always itched in cold weather, ever since I was a child.

‘My arm itches,’ I’d say on the way to school.

‘Well don’t scratch it then,’ Mum always replied, ‘that only makes it worse.’ So that was that, but at least it only itches now in cold weather.

‘Chilly old morning isn’t it?’ That was Eric from over the road, a neighbour of mine although I don’t know him beyond a few words of greeting in the bus queue. He always makes some remark about the weather and like me he works in the city. I’m not sure what he does though, because I don’t recognise his uniform. Something to do with opinion polls I think. Telling people about the opinions they should hold on all kinds of issues – that kind of thing.

The bus was on time for once, so I climbed on board, found a seat and slipped my feet into the pedals as usual. I like this part of my daily commute because a good hard spell of pedalling warms me up in winter and even in summer I get to work feeling that bit better for the exercise. Which is the whole idea behind pedal buses of course. Everyone knows that.

The bus was unusually slow that morning though, pulling away from the bus stop as if it would never get going. Some of the passengers were really struggling with their pedals. I could see there weren’t quite enough fit people pedalling sufficiently hard to get us off to a good start and up to our official 10 mph running speed.

This is the speed we’re supposed to reach as quickly as possible or the bus motivator starts nagging us, asking if we’ve eaten a good breakfast and so on. One or two High Officials whizzed past in their private cars, sounding their horns in understandable frustration.

There were also more oldies than usual sitting at the back in the seats with no pedals. That never helps because of course oldies don’t have to pedal. I turned round in my seat and gave them a bit of a glare, but still managed to carry on pedalling.

I’m like that sometimes, rather bold and defiant. I can’t seem to help it in spite of the temperament capsule I take every day. My Health Supervisor can’t get to the bottom of it. Maybe she’ll put me on something different if that glare gets reported by one of those oldies. These minor acts of aggression don’t always get reported though – oldies don’t usually bother unless it’s actually verbal.

Mind you, we aren’t talking Rehab here – only a capsule mod at most. Not that I’d ever know about a capsule mod of course, but everyone is pretty sure it goes on.

I always have one of the Health-Approved breakfasts to start my day – fresh fruit with a glass of water or something like that. If I don’t, the fridge complains to the Health Authority, although it’s not really supposed to report something as minor as skipping some fruit.

Maybe it’s faulty, although I’m not sure I should report a faulty fridge in case it is really functioning normally and the whole thing reflects back on me. Decisions, decisions – all part of the rich tapestry of life.

Anyhow, my bus arrived in the city centre eventually, only about ten minutes late, so not too bad and at least I didn’t get the blame. I should think not too! I’d been pedalling really hard all the way – much harder than Eric for example. Eric always hums little tunes while he’s pedalling, probably covering up his lack of real effort in my view. I think the oldies may have been Logged though – there were too many of them on one bus as I suspected.

‘Who is paid to sort these things out? I want to see the manager.’ I heard one of them say to the Drive Unit. I don’t know why – there’s no point saying things like that to a Drive Unit. In fact there’s no point saying anything to a Drive Unit.

I have a funny story about oldies which I’ve told on a number of occasions, but it bears repeating because it always gets a laugh. Once an oldie who was standing next to me at the bus stop said she wasn’t surprised that people don’t have children any longer.

‘Wait until the new conception regs come out,’ I said, ‘then you’ll see some real action.’

I laughed like a drain at the time, but the oldie just stood there looking puzzled. I didn’t bother to tell her about the new conception regs because they are pretty complex, but I’m sure they will be really effective in boosting the birth rate.

I’ve heard oldies talk this way before – criticising things they don’t really understand. They often talk about money and paying for things and prices and suchlike. I know what prices are, because it’s all to do with whether or not you can afford something, but hardly anyone seems to know what they mean by money and paying for something. The bank handles all that, so why do they bother to make an issue of it?

If I look at something in a shop such as a pair of new shoes, then of course the display unit tells me if I can afford them and if they are my size. It also gives me a load of sales spiel about the current fashions for my age group and social profile, but I don’t usually listen to that even though I’m supposed to.

My Social Awareness advisor tells me I should be a little more fashion conscious, because she says I don’t always conform to my social profile and that could lead to anxiety and unhappiness. But I’m simply not interested and can’t seem to do anything about it. I just switch off somehow. Nobody seems to take my lack of fashion sense too seriously though - I’ve managed to get away with it up to now.

Anyhow, going back to the business of shopping for new shoes. If I can afford the shoes I just try them on and if they feel comfortable that’s it as far as I’m concerned. Okay – I have to fill out a health and safety check list and wait until the sales pitch is over, but then I take them or I don’t. The shop and the bank handle everything else. It’s certainly not my concern is it? Do I have a degree in banking? It’s the same with any other kind of shopping such as meals – we should all know that by now, even oldies.

One day I’m going to ask an oldie what they mean by paying for things. There’s nothing about it on the Web as far as I can see. With them being oldies, maybe it’s a historical matter, but I don’t have a history qualification so that part of the Web isn’t accessible to me. A good thing too in my book - I can only take in so much. It’s not as if I’m a High Official or anything.

It’s only a ten minute walk to the Careers Office, so I jogged the rest of the way and managed to make up a bit of lost time due to the bus being late. At least I’d have a story to tell at Drinks Break – about the morning bus being late because of too many oldies. That kind of incident always gets a laugh.

I entered the building where I work, ignored the little lecture from the door monitor about being late, because obviously it already knew why I was late via the Web. I’m a Careers Advisor in the Ministry of Career Fulfilment, or MCF as we insiders call it. It’s a job I enjoy very much, which it presumably why I was nudged in that direction from an early age.

I nodded to a few colleagues who were already hard at work, collected my settling-in drink from the dispenser and went off to my cubicle. I missed my settling-in drink once and didn’t half cause a rumpus!

The dispenser is obviously programmed far too strictly anyway - everybody knows it, but you have to be careful about reporting such things in case it’s some kind of new initiative. I just took it on the chin and made a joke of it in the usual manner. Anyway it’s not my job to make fun of the drinks dispenser – I’m not a techie.

I sat down, ticked off the usual safe-seating checks then went straight into my morning scan of the jobs market apps. I remembered to take a sip from my settling-in drink too, but that’s a pretty reliable habit these days. I rarely trip up over that one and haven’t had a lecture on dehydration for ages.

My job is all done via the Government Web of course, but I have my specialist Careers Advice apps to pick up vacancies, career progressions, temporary roles and so on. The apps match these up to people with the right qualifications and experience and once I have a good match I put a number of processes into action. Once I get to this stage, I tend to finish off my settling-in drink before I roll up my metaphorical sleeves and really get cracking.

Sometimes I have the pleasure of informing people about an unexpected promotion even though they aren’t actually scheduled for a promotion. Off-schedule promotions are our way of taking up the slack and filling the gaps when the unexpected happens, which isn’t often, but we are always prepared for it.

That’s the customer relations aspect coming in, giving someone the news about a promotion and why they must accept it. It’s the bit I like best of all. My scheduled promotion decisions are based on the job market, qualifications and experience and such factors. I enjoy all of it and it’s what I’ve been doing since I left college with my brand new Careers Advice degree.

From this point it all gets very hectic until morning Drinks Break, which usually comes as quite a relief as anyone might imagine. The itch on my arm is completely forgotten by then.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Dr Bluett


 ‘I've done it - I've finally built a time machine.’ Dr Nigel Bluett stepped back from his shining creation, finally free to relish a few sweet moments, time to admire the fruit of years of concentrated sweat, toil and supreme mental effort. This was it, his triumphant guarantee of everlasting fame after fifteen years of grinding, lonely work.
Bluett pulled a new yellow duster from the pocket of his overalls, flicked it lovingly over the polished, car-sized bulk of the complex machine filling most of his garage.
Of course time travel would always be a one-way journey into the future, because his theories proved travel into the past to be impossible. Time travel was strictly a one-way trip.
In fact the Bluett Theory of Time would be another secure foundation for his lasting fame. As compensation for never coming back to his own time, there was the glow of knowing he was the first person to travel in time. Plus the fact that he would be leaving behind complete details of his plans and theories for other, lesser mortals to follow. He was sure that history books of the future would be full of his life and works.
Nigel Bluett - Father of time travel.
There was only one thing left to do now, pack his bags, arrange for his plans to be sent by registered post to the world’s top ten universities, then off to the future.
Bluett sent off his parcels of plans and posted the manuscript of his book to six publishers - let them fight over it. His instructions were that profits from the book should go to the Nigel Bluett Foundation. The Foundation didn't exist yet, but someone was bound to set it up sooner rather than later.
Finally he packed a holdall with a change of clothes, a toothbrush and shaving tackle. He locked the door of his house with only the slightest pang of regret that there was nobody in his life to say goodbye to -
‘Morning Doctor Bluett.’
‘Good morning Mrs Davies.’ Damn, Mrs Davies was peering over the hedge, trying to poke her sharp nose into something that certainly didn't concern the likes of her.
‘Are you working in your garage again today, Doctor Bluett?’
‘Not today or any other day Mrs Davies, I’m going away for good.’
‘Going away Dr Bluett? Are you selling your house then?’
‘I leave my house to posterity Mrs Davies because I'm travelling two hundred years into the future. You won't ever see me again.’
‘The future Doctor Bluett? You usually go to Eastbourne.’
Bluett suppressed a surge of anger as Mrs Davies turned away, smiling and tapping her forehead with a bony index finger. Unfortunately Mrs Davies was going to be the last person who ever spoke to the Father of Time Travel in his own time. He would have preferred Mrs Davies to be someone more significant like a major celebrity, but there was no time to do anything about it now.
The time machine worked first time, just as Bluett knew it would. He tapped the co-ordinates for the year 2212 into the Temporal Location Computer and pressed the red button. There was a kind of queasy lurch and a terrific blinding flash.
When Bluett recovered his senses, the garage, his house, everything outside the time machine was gone. Through the windows he could see only gentle hills and grassy fields with a few mature trees under a blue, cloudless sky. He checked the temporal reading - 2212 - spot on.
For a moment or two, Bluett wished he’d brought along a bottle of champagne to celebrate. No matter, surely his reception committee had laid on a few cases. He opened the door, stepped out onto a grassy field and looked around for the crowds of dignitaries who ought to be greeting him. He couldn’t see a soul, just a blackbird perched on a hawthorn bush.
‘HELLO – I’M OVER HERE,’ Bluett shouted into the silence.
No reply.
‘HELLO – IS ANYBODY THERE.’
Still no reply.
‘Oh... Well I thought my house might have been preserved at least,’ he muttered. ‘Perhaps they chose the house where I was born as a hub for Bluett Museum and Educational Centre...’
‘Morning.’
Startled, Bluett turned to see a rather shabby, rustic person strolling towards him along a path by the time machine. ‘Good morning,’ he replied frostily. This man clearly wasn't part of his reception committee.
‘You another of them time-travellers?’ The man stared at Bluett's machine, his hands in his pockets.
‘What?’ Bluett was stunned but after a few startled seconds he realised that time travel must have become quite common by now.
‘Yes... you are one of them right enough. No point denying it.’
‘Deny it? I'm the very first time traveller. I'm Doctor Nigel Bluett – THE Doctor Nigel Bluett.’
‘Oh aye? My name's Drago.’ The man said nothing more for a while, just scratched his chin. Then he added, almost as an afterthought, ‘fancy a beer?’
‘Ah yes... I suppose so.’ Bluett realised he would have to make himself known one way or another. Even so - journeying all the way to the twenty-third century to drink beer with a farm labourer was a bit much.
‘Come on then.’ Drago set off down the path.
‘Down here is it?’ Bluett wavered uncertainly, still hoping for the reception committee. Still, if he went with this Drago person he would meet more people and one thing would lead to another. After all, the whole world should know when he was due to appear because he had said in his book that he would travel exactly two hundred years. Two centuries was a long time though -
‘You coming then?’ Drago asked.
‘Oh all right - I suppose so.’ Bluett fell into step with Drago who strolled off without saying anything further.
‘Where exactly are we going?’ Bluett asked after about half a mile.
‘The inn's somewhere round here,’ Drago said easily.
‘The town that used to be here seems to have shrunk a little, have there been any - disasters?’ Bluett asked. He had a sudden horrifying vision of nuclear war and deadly radioactivity. Good lord, he should have foreseen exactly that possibility and brought a Geiger counter. Nuclear war would have destroyed records, set progress back by centuries. The history of his great achievement -
‘No disasters,’ said Drago. ‘There are fewer people around than in your time - far fewer. Folk have more space now and a bit of time for themselves.’
‘Incredible technical advances have given you more leisure, I suppose.’ To Bluett’s vast relief he realised that there wasn’t the slightest sign of nuclear war, what with the lush grass and the mature trees.
‘We turned aside from your kind of leisure about a century or so ago - went in for common sense instead.’ Drago pointed to a road and a low, thatched building about two hundred yards away. ‘There's the inn.’
‘Surely industrial progress hasn’t gone into reverse though?’ Bluett began to feel a sense of dismay, a crawling suspicion of betrayal. There was worse to come when he spotted what seemed to be a steam train in the distance complete with its plume of smoke.
‘Good lord - tell me that’s a piece of nostalgia. It's a day out for antique steam buffs, isn't it?’
‘What?’
‘That thing - that – that steam train.’
‘Nothing nostalgic about a train,’ said Drago, we use them all the time. Oil ran out for the diesels.’
‘Don't you normally travel by three hundred mile-per-hour monorail or something?’
‘No.’
‘Matter transporter?’
‘Never heard of one.’
‘Sub-orbital rocket plane?’
‘No, nothing like that. That must be the Tuesday express on its way to the south.’
‘The Tuesday express?’
‘I expect so. It runs every Tuesday and it goes south. Only stops at fifteen stations - normally.’
‘You travel by steam train which usually goes south and may or may not stop at fifteen stations but you still call it an express? What on earth are the slow ones like?’
‘Look here Mr Bluetit -’
‘Bluett, Doctor Nigel Bluett, Father of time travel.’
‘Well Mr Bluett, by the twenty second century, folk finally got fed up with trying to zoom around at enormous speed. They only ended up sitting in traffic jams breathing in their own exhaust fumes. We know all about follies of the past.’ Drago shuddered.
‘What about computers and lasers and genetic engineering - all the technical progress from the twenty-first century.’
‘Progress? It wasn’t progress though was it?’ Drago said. ‘What about pollution, flat-pack furniture and TV reality shows.’
‘Flat-pack furniture?’
‘Let's face it,’ said Drago, ‘a lot of what you in the twenty-first century called progress was plain lunacy.’ They had reached the inn and Drago pushed open the solid oak door. ‘Including fucking time travel,’ he muttered under his breath.
This was all too much for Bluett. He turned and ran back along the path as fast as he could. The time machine was just where he left it, but there was another yokel sitting on top drinking from a brown bottle. Bluett dragged the door open and locked it behind him. He set the Temporal Locator for the year 2412 – another two hundred years into the future. Surely human progress had not ended forever.
There was a flash, a queasy lurch and Bluett saw much the same scene outside his machine. He heard a thump and saw the yokel who had been sitting on his machine had been transported with him and fallen off when they stopped. The yokel was sitting on the grass and staring round, the bottle still in his hand. He got up and ambled off, two hundred years into his own future.
Somehow Bluett knew things were going to be much the same in 2412 as in 2212. He wiped his brow, took a deep breath to quell mounting panic and adjusted the Temporal Locator again.
The year 2612 was more promising. Massive shining spires rose out of a distant haze and the road had become a six-lane highway with odd, bubble shaped vehicles without wheels streaming along it.
‘At last, progress returns,’ said Bluett with huge relief. With a bit of luck Drago's dratted inn had been pulled down to make way for the highway and the railway tracks were rusted away. He rubbed his hands and opened the time machine door.
When Bluett emerged from his time machine, a shining orb about two feet in diameter approached him across the grass. It floated three feet in the air, completely silent like an enormous soap bubble.
‘I’m Doctor Nigel Bluett,’ Bluett said clearly and distinctly. He knew the orb was bound to be a machine with highly developed computer intelligence. He glanced anxiously in the direction of the highway. There was still a chance the machine knew who he was and was summoning that blasted reception committee.
The shiny orb floated up to Bluett's time machine and a thin metal rod shot out from its surface. A square plastic film seemed to extrude from the tip of the rod, sticking itself to the time machine window.
‘Illegal parking on a footpath,’ said the machine as it floated off. ‘Standard fine is five trillion euros. Have a nice day.’