Time

Pocket watch

Pocket watch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The snap of his briefcase clasps shattered the silence like a gunshot. Wordlessly, Nickleback (of Nickleback, Orchard and Furrow) retrieved a sheaf of papers before closing the briefcase. The disorder of the papers was in stark contrast to Nickleback’s meticulous appearance. His jet black hair, parted exactly at the corner of his squarish forehead. He pulled off his frameless spectacles and cleaned them using his handkerchief.

“Mr… Albert Muller?”

The old man sat across the other side of table grunted his acknowledgement. Most of Albert Muller’s hair was no longer there and what remained was an atoll of wispy white strands. A bushy white beard framed his face. Like his lawyer, he wore a suit but his seemed to accentuate Albert’s dishevelled appearance.

“Charged with Criminal Damage?”

Albert swallowed audibly before bridging his fingers in front of his face. As if unhappy with the pose, he immediately folded his arms across his barrel-shaped chest.

Nickleback looked up. “Is that correct?”

Albert didn’t trust his voice in responding. He nodded, once.

“How will you plead, guilty or not guilty?”

Alberts chair flew backwards as he stood and pounded his fist upon the table scattering papers from the pile.

“It is they who are criminals. They stole my whole life from me. Everything I ever worked for, they took from me. They should be locked up!”

Nickleback removed his glasses and sucked on the earpiece, weighing up what Albert said before gathering the scattered papers. He replaced his glasses and read on.

“The errr… subject of the criminal damage was some sort of machine. A machine that they bought from you for £10,000.”

Albert sat down again. “A compulsory purchase is no purchase. It is robbery by the government. They should be sat here as your clients”

“But there’s an accounting here for every single nut, every single screw, every piece of wire, every panel. They paid you a very fair price.”

“Who’s to say that’s a fair price? Every nut, every bolt… What about every bead of sweat, every sleepless night, my painstaking research and experiments, the very essence of my being. What price do you put on that?”

“But they paid you an additional £5,000 for estimated labour costs.”

Albert leaned forward, before lowering his voice. “Five thousand pounds? How much of your labour would I get for five thousand pounds Mr Nickleback?”

“What was the machine Mr Muller?”

“It was a time machine.”

Nickleback leaned forward, curious. “Did it work?”

“Yes, of course it worked. That is why the bastards stole it from me.”

“How did it work?”

“You know nothing of the base principles of temporal science, so it is very difficult to explain. Let’s just say the machine helps to locate the strands of time and follow them backwards into the past and in limited circumstances forwards into the future.”

“Why did you destroy the machine?”

“Because they could not be trusted. They wanted to go back and remove Hitler. They wanted to steer the Titanic round the iceberg. They wanted to stop the terrorists from crashing into the world trade centre. They even wanted to use the machine for financial gain to pay off the deficit – fools. They do not understand the dangers. It is all too easy to blunder into significant changes to the present. If they cause feedback by tying the present to the past, they can cause a temporal causality loop. And then there are paradoxes. Fools as well as criminals!”

Albert sat back in the chair. “Besides, I did not destroy the machine.”

“It says here that all that was left was a pile of twisted metal and wires.”

Albert spoke slowly. “I tell you, I did not destroy the machine.”

“Who did then?”

“I simply moved the machine and left in its place the detritus you describe.”

“Where is it now?”

Albert smiled. “To a man with a time machine, hiding places are limitless.”

Nickleback shook his head, opened his briefcase and cast in the sheaf of papers. “If found guilty, you are looking at a significant custodial sentence.”

Albert’s smile broadened into a wide grin. He began to laugh, slowly at first, but before long, his shoulders shook with exultant laughter.

Catching his breath Albert said “My dear Mr Nickleback, to punish me, a temporal scientist, they intend to give me…”

He descended into hoots of laughter again before gasping out the word “Time!”

Nickleback left the room shaking his head. He could hear Albert’s laughter a long way down the corridor. At the reception desk, he located his name in the ledger to sign out and frowned. He looked at his watch and then looked back at the ledger.

The reception clerk looked up “Everything OK?”

Nickleback stared into space. “Yes – it’s just… I could have sworn today was Friday.”

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Finding my demons

Madness

Madness (Photo credit: Dark Botxy)

I don’t know how I lost my memories, but I know I want them back. I pull against my restraints once more, testing them for no good reason other than nervousness. The man in the white coat is approaching once more, no doubt with yet another dour warning. I know that whatever made my mind shut down may be horrific, but I have to know otherwise what am I? Just an empty shell.

I find myself nodding in response to his questions, but if you asked me what those questions were, I would struggle to repeat them. I just want it over with. Give me my memories.

He fills a syringe, squirts out the excess, taps to eliminate any bubbles and bends over my supine form. I feel the sharp pain as the needle pierces my skin and everything goes black.

I start to hear voices at first, then I can smell the clinical smell of the treatment room. I eventually open my eyes – they feel sticky, my vision blurred. I can just make out a man in a white coat. He is asking me a question. It takes me a while to focus, to tune into his words.

“When you think of a flag burning, what do you remember?”

My head spins. Suddenly, I am no longer in the treatment room. I am in my student digs, looking out the window at a teeming mob below. A peaceful protest march suddenly is peaceful no more as violence breaks out. My eyes fixate on a flag which is now burning. As I watch, I become aware of my girlfriend’s arms around me. I can remember her name, Karen. She pulls me back to the bed and starts to delicately undress me. I cry out as I feel the pleasant memory drifting away from me as once I again I lapse into unconsciousness.

I slowly come round. Again, the man in the white coat is speaking to me.

“When you think of a Christmas tree, what do you remember?”

The disorientation sets in once more and I find myself in the lounge of a house, my house, no – our house. Mine and Karen’s. She’s now my wife. I slowly scan the room before resting my gaze on the charred Christmas tree in the corner. There is a letter addressed to me on the mantlepiece. I recognise Karen’s handwriting. Inside, she tells me of her love for another and I can hear screaming. It is me screaming. I beg the man in the white coat to put me under again and after an eternity, I drift away once more.

I awaken. The man in the white coat is still there.

“When you think of a butterfly brooch, what do you remember?”

Nausea kicks in as my stomach lurches. I feel my physical self vomit. I’m at a church. It’s my daughter’s wedding, but I’m not invited. I’m carrying something, a bottle. In horror, I realise that I intend to use the bottle to harm my daughter. I try to drop it, but I am a passenger of my memories. I can change nothing.

As she emerges from the church, I open the bottle and run towards her. Suited men rush to block me, but not before I launch the contents of the bottle at my daughter. She screams and so do I – at least my physical self does. The men in suits set about me. I feel physical pain, but it is nothing compared with the mental pain. Just before I mercifully slip into a coma, I notice my daughter’s butterfly brooch on the floor. It is badly damaged by the acid.

Gradually I come round. I feel exhausted and horrific memories fight for my attention. The man in the white coat is saying something to me.

“Congratulations Mr. Tomkins. Your treatment is now complete and you will in time regain all your memories. I have to ask you if you wish to keep them – if you would rather they were erased once more – it is a simple procedure.”

The more I remember, the more pain I feel. But is it worse than the emptiness of having no memories? I slowly make my decision. In a shaky voice, I make my request. For one last time, I feel the sharp pain of a needle and I drift off to sleep.

***

The man in the white coat walks over to his desk and picks up the phone.

“Would you please come and pick up Mr. Tomkins.”

The disembodied voice responds.

“Did he choose to keep his memories this time.”

The man in the white coat slowly shakes his head before answering.

“No, I’m afraid not. Maybe next time.”

A helping hand

Noir

Noir (Photo credit: Ontario Wanderer)

He stepped down from the train onto the snow encrusted platform, impeccably coiffured and dressed in expensive Italian clothes. The steam from the engine swirled around him, mingling with the surrounding mist. He stood waiting for the other passengers to clear as the train noisily forced its way out of the station. Unlike the other passengers, if he felt the cold, he gave no outward sign.

Surveying the single platform, he marked the Soviet propaganda posters and the taped up windows. His gaze fell upon a vagrant sleeping on a bench under a pile of untidy newspapers. He took slow deliberate steps across the platform and sat down next to the supine figure.

“You don’t smell any better” the man announced as he removed his wide rimmed hat.

The vagrant sat up sending the newspapers sliding to the ground. “All part of the act old chum, all part of the act – how long has it been?” he replied as he scratched his unshaven chin.

“A hundred years – same as last time Jim” the man said as he pulled out a cigarette case.

“Doesn’t time fly Captain.” the vagrant said as he took one of the offered cigarettes.

The Captain tried and failed to bring his lighter to life. “Technical problems sir?” Jim asked cheekily, chuckling at his own joke whilst pulling out a box of matches from somewhere. The man smiled in reply, taking a big drag of the cigarette before blowing out a series of perfectly formed smoke rings.

“How are things going?” Jim asked – genuinely curious.

For the first time, the Captain looked at his companion, “Not good. Sometimes I wonder about this planet. Do you know they haven’t even got nuclear power yet?”

“I see – well behind schedule. What are we going to do?” Jim said, concern lacing his voice.

The Captain stubbed out his cigarette in the snow whilst blowing out a long jet of smoke. “Nothing else for it, we’re going to have to give them a helping hand.”

It took a while for Jim to take it in. “Oh. Who’s it going to be this time?”

“It’s either you or me this time Jim, you or me. I’m feeling generous… and… tired. Let’s toss a coin. Don’t worry, I never win.”

He reached inside his coat, pulling out a silver coin. “Heads or tails Jim?”

“Tails” barely audible.

The coin span through the air before settling in the snow at their feet. They looked down in tandem before sitting slowly back. Wordlessly, the Captain handed Jim his briefcase and then a pistol.

“So long Jim.”

Jim didn’t respond as the Captain stood up and walked slowly down the platform. He’d barely taken 10 paces before a single gunshot pierced the otherwise still night air. He froze for a moment as a single tear dribbled down his cheek, before resuming his walk into the mist.

The bargain

Spanish Fairy

Spanish Fairy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cock crowed and he cried. As he pulled on his rough-hewn sackcloth clothes, he still cried. He stepped outside his meagre dwelling, looked up at the looming castle through the rain and saw no reason to stop crying. Many would envy his position as a blacksmith’s apprentice, but Thomas was miserable. He was useless at smithing and Master Flint never missed an opportunity to ridicule him in front of the other apprentices. His foul breath was as hot as any furnace and the flecks of spittle burned like cinders as he blasted out his daily tirades.

How he hated Master Flint.

Thomas trudged up the hill to the castle trying to understand how he found it so difficult. The instructions were simple enough, but the tools felt like shapeless, clumsy clubs in his hands. Master Flint talked about the feel of the craft, but it was all Thomas could do to avoid maiming himself as he hefted the white-hot metal.

As he approached the threshold, he heard Master Flint giving his first lecture of the day. Realising with dismay that he was late, Thomas tried to sneak to his workplace unnoticed. He almost made it when Master Flint stopped mid sentence. With trepidation, Thomas turned to look, only to see Master Flint’s eyes burning into his soul. For a change, there was no tirade and Master Flint just stared at Thomas as he shuffled with sloped shoulders to take his place.

Master Flint resumed exactly where he left off, all the time glaring at Thomas. Today’s task was all about forging a dagger, one of the most challenging jobs the apprentices had faced so far. Thomas’ heart sank. He had struggled at almost everything so far. How on Earth was he going to forge a dagger. His worst fears were confirmed when Master Flint’s assistant dumped the unformed lump of metal onto Thomas’ workbench. It looked nothing like a dagger.

After dropping it twice, Thomas managed to get the lump under control. His heart froze when it nearly slipped from his tongs into the slag at the bottom of the furnace, but somehow he managed to get the ingot white hot. Edging the glowing lump over to his anvil, he groped around for the right tool. Settling for the first he found, Thomas swung it as hard as he could into the ingot.

It struck with an off-pitch clang and vicious sparks flew out in every direction. Thomas screamed as one flew into his eye. Master Flint appeared from nowhere, grabbed the tool from Thomas’ hand and rattled out the three things he had done wrong – each punctuated with a ringing blow on the anvil. The pain in his eye and the ignominy of yet another lecture in front of everyone was too much for Thomas. He ripped off his apron and ran.

He darted across the busy courtyard and down a corridor. Skittering around a corner, he nearly lost his footing on the wet flagstones. Another turn later and he slowed his pace, but not his sobbing. One more turn and he was lost. He noticed it was no longer raining, and the castle looked different. The stones looked more haphazard, but cleaner. Bright, sweet-smelling flowers grew at the base of the walls. Nearby, he could hear the cascade of a stream and a girl’s voice singing a haunting melody.

Still sobbing, he followed the sounds around the next corner. The singing girl had long dark hair and she dangled her feet in the small, rapid stream. She heard him, stopped singing and turned. Thomas froze. She was dressed in rags, but there was no denying her beauty. Even when she withdrew her feet from the stream and boldly approached him, the sound was almost magical.

Tipping her head to one side, she reached up to touch Thomas’ cheeks and his tears dried beneath her caress. “You are troubled.” her words almost like musical raindrops. “For a kiss, I can grant your deepest desire, but you have to be sure of what you want.” Thomas quickly leaned in and kissed her. The rags she wore felt like silk and Thomas found himself lost in her heady aroma.

* * *

He was unsure of how long he had slept, but Thomas awoke stiff and damp. It was still daylight and knowing his place was at the forge, he reluctantly paced his way back there. Thomas made no pretence of hiding from Master Flint and Master Flint made no secret of his contempt for Thomas, but no words were spoken.

Thomas reached for his tongs and thrust the ingot back into the furnace. Somehow, he knew exactly the right moment to pull it out and he instinctively started working it with the right tool. He hammered the ingot with just the right pressure and somehow it started to take shape. Realising his work had cooled, he thrust it back into the flames. Again, he pulled it out without fumbling and resumed working the iron.

With growing confidence, Thomas’ work rate increased. His hands were almost a blur, the notes from the hammer blows forming a satisfying rhythm. He didn’t even notice the other apprentices as they gathered round him watching in awe. What he did notice was when he felt Master Flint’s encouraging hand on his shoulder and his whispered encouraging words in his ear.

Thomas felt alive and his spirits soared. He had only ever dreamed of becoming a competent smith. The notion that he might actually excel and impress Master Flint made him beam uncontrollably. By his skilled hand, the finest dagger Thomas had ever seen came to life. When he finished, he cradled the dagger, savouring the perfect balance and the pleasing shape.

He offered it up to Master flint who laughed and sagely nodded “there were times when I ‘ad my doubts about you boy. But you come good in the end.”

Thomas could not help but smile wordlessly and proud, not noticing when his hand formed a vice-like grip around the hilt of the dagger. For reasons he could not fathom, he felt like hugging Master Flint. As Thomas approached, his grip on the dagger tightened. He threw his arms around Master Flint, meaning to drop the dagger, but his hand did not obey.

As the dagger slipped between Master Flint’s ribs, Thomas realised with horror the nature of his bargain.

An act of generosity

Commuters

Commuters (Photo credit: Alan Cleaver)

It had been a long morning even thought the day was young. The chill of the concrete pavement seeped up through the cardboard into his bones. He had not looked at the sky, knowing it would be slate grey. The cold, damp atmosphere enveloped him and sapped away at his soul. A steady stream of commuters had already marched past him. Most steadfastly ignored him. A small minority had mumbled some abuse under their breath. A smaller minority still had offered kind words. None had thrown any money into the plastic cup offered out in front of him.

The ironic thing was that not so long ago, Eric had been among them. Every morning, he used to put on a shirt and tie, kiss his wife goodbye and set off for work. He would have marched past the vagrants sitting at the side of the street, striving to avoid eye contact. Wondering why they didn’t do something to pull themselves out of the gutter. It didn’t take long for Eric to fall. His wife left him for another man. In the ensuing breakdown he lost his job. The house went soon after. The last thing to go was his dignity.

Someone stopped in front of him and fished around in his pocket. Eric knew not to get excited. The first few times he had looked up expectantly only to receive a mouthful of abuse or a patronising lecture. Once someone had made a show of rooting around in their wallet before dropping a load of old receipts in his cup. He wondered which one this man would be. Allowing his mind to drift, he started to imagine what he would do if the man gave him some money.

He was hungry, but then he had got used to it. He could murder a drink. Alcohol took away the cold and the pain for a short time. For brief moments, the numbness would seep through him soothing his soul. Give him numbness over cold, hunger and sadness any day. The man was still there rummaging around in his wallet. For reasons he could not fathom, Eric started to think about his old job at the newspaper. He had been a cartoonist and illustrator. He used to really his work and it lightened his mood.

The man bent down and stuffed something into his cup before walking off. Eric snatched at the cup, eager to see the man’s donation. Would it be a sarcastically penned note of advice? A piece of chewing gum wrapped up in paper? It was neither. It looked like money. Erik suddenly found it hard to draw breath. Nobody had ever donated paper money before. His spirits soared as he fished out the note and unfurled it. Twenty pounds. He could get very numb indeed with twenty pounds and have something to eat. Hiding the note, he looked left and right to make sure no other vagrants had noticed his windfall. Being robbed now would be a cruel twist of fate.

Making his way around to the supermarket, he began mentally spending the money. He began to salivate for the first time in longer than he could remember. Feeling like he was walking on air, the pain began to melt away, he could see the supermarket ahead of him. Just beside the supermarket was an art shop. He wondered why he’d never noticed it before. Probably because they don’t sell food or super strength beer.

Pausing in the doorway of the supermarket, he looked wistfully over at the paints and pencils in the art shop, scrunching the twenty pound note in his pocket. A security guard, his interest piqued by the automatic door constantly opening and shutting. “Oi – mate! You coming in or what?” Eric turned and stared at him. “I just don’t know.” He replied.

The find

The Cave

The Cave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tommy eased himself down from the upper bunk, silently watching his brother as he descended. His feet reached the floor with a touch and he groped around for his clothes. Gathering them up, he shot one last look at the lower bunk to make sure that his morning expedition had not been discovered before it had started. He opened the door with just the right amount of practised force to avoid the creak that the hinges usually made and made his way along the passage.

The early dawn light was streaming in through the rippled bathroom window and he set about pulling on his clothes. There wasn’t long before the tide turned so time was of the essence. He simply had to find something today. Declan had been boasting all week about the driftwood he had found on the beach. Etched into the worn wood had been the word “Viceroy” – obviously the nameplate of a vessel. Today was the last day before the Summer holidays and if Tommy didn’t find a more interesting relic, then bragging rights would be lost until the Autumn.

Slipping the latch on the gate, he was away across the cliff top. The strong wind tugged at his clothes as he skittered across the wet rocks. He quickly reached the top of smugglers’ steps and surveyed the beach before him. As the radio man had said – it was a very low tide today exposing the Western shore. Despite the greasiness of the steps, he took them two at a time bounding quickly down to the sand below.

In a moment, he was at the edge of the small river which crossed the beach. Despite his haste, he paused to study the stepping-stones that threaded their way across the river. Experience had taught him that the stones often shifted and became unstable. A moment studying them was worth it to avoid a ducking by putting too much weight on a wobbly stone. Skipping safely across, he ran across the sand to the caves of the Western shore.

Peering into the first cave, Tommy could hear dripping as the recently departed tide gave up its grip on the rarely exposed rocks. He liked to call this the eyeball cave as the walls were studded with glistening stones and bits of tin that seemed to stare as you made your way further inside. Making his way to the back of the cave, he came to the pools that gathered in the bowl-shaped rocks. Scanning them for any interesting flotsam, he could see nothing to catch his eye.

The second cave was known as hangman’s cave, due to the length of grey rope hanging down from the roof where it had somehow become embedded. As he neared the back of the cave, Tommy caught his breath – there was driftwood, several pieces. He examined each in turn, rolling them over and over in his hands. With disappointment, he noted that there was nothing special about the pieces of wood. But there was still the last cave, if there was time.

Dead man’s cave was so-called because many foolhardy souls had lost their lives trying to get back from it. With that thought on his mind, Tommy eyed the turning tide, weighing his chances. The thought of the insufferable, boasting Declan spurred him on and he raced across the sand towards the cave mouth. Twice, the advancing waves nearly soaked his shoes, but he managed to jump clear each time. Breathless, he peered into the last cave.

A broad smile lit up his face and he threw his arms up in the air. There was no-one there to hear him, but he cheered anyway. He had hit the jackpot. Again, there was driftwood, but among the ragged pile was a small wooden box. It was heavy and elaborately carved. The metal bands surrounding the box had saved it from the worst ravages of the sea, but it was still battered in places. To Tommy, it was the finest sight ever. He eased the box open. Inside was a tightly tied leather bag. Closing the box, his thoughts turned back to the tide. It was time to go.

The waves were now lapping around the entrance to the cave – it was going to be close. Tommy timed the approach of the incoming waves, picking his moment carefully. At the right time, he dashed across the beach at full pelt. He got halfway to hangman’s cave when a surging wave enveloped his feet and lower legs. He stumbled and grabbed the rocks for support. The wave ebbed away, and he began to run once more. Another wave – this one to his thighs. With one hand he grabbed the rocks again, keeping a deathlike grip on the box with the other.

At the second cave mouth, he paused for breath and assessed the tide. He had definitely left it too late. There was no time to lose as he made his way once more. The next wave pulled him away from the rocks and he found himself flailing in the surf. As it receded, he managed to find his feet only for another wave to lift him and send him perilously close to the rocks. Fear gripped his stomach and he clenched his eyes shut holding the small wooden box close to his chest.

Mistiming a breath, he took in a full lung full of cold briny water as a wave broke over him. Coughing and spluttering, he risked a glance towards the shore and panicked as he saw how far out he was. Clutching the wooden box for all his life, he felt a rip tide tug him under the surface. His strength had deserted him and his struggles became feeble as he realised the futility of his situation. Just as he gave up completely, he felt himself lurching towards the surface as a large hand grabbed the scruff of his clothes.

He was pulled into a small fishing vessel and cast upon the floor with rest of the fisherman’s catch. He wanted to thank his saviour, but couldn’t stop choking. Eventually, he managed to bring up enough of the water to speak. As he smiled up at the fisherman, all he could manage was “I’ve found this box.” before he fell back among the fish unconscious.

Running into trouble

Hoar frost or soft rime on a cold winter day i...

Hoar frost or soft rime on a cold winter day in Lower Saxony, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As he slammed the heavy wooden door shut, he breathed deeply through his nose and exhaled in a cloudy breath. Checking his watch with satisfaction, he noted that it was just after 7AM. Plenty of time for a refreshing run before making his way into the office. Running was his favourite way to get things straight when he had a lot on his mind and today he had more than usual to think about. He picked his way across the street between the cars as a milk float droned past. In only moments, he was through the iron railings and into the park.

On a good day, it took him roughly 5-10 minutes to do a full circuit around the lake and back to the gap in the railings. He mentally set himself a target of 5 laps which would leave him plenty of time to take a hot shower before the commute to the office. Quickly finding a rhythm, he settled into an easy pace and allowed himself to take in the misty scene before him. The lake had a skin of ice across the surface and he smiled to himself as he noted a duck slipping on the glossy surface.

As usual, he tried to keep an empty mind for his first lap. He found it helped him to focus on the problem at hand. He allowed himself a shortcut through the trees for a change and his feet crunched on the frosty grass. When he emerged, he found himself in front of the toilet block. The attendant had just unlocked the ladies and was making his way towards the gents. As he ran past, as always they said hello to each other despite the fact that their only contact had been brief chance encounters in the park.

As he reached the halfway mark, he noticed a corpulent lady in front of him. She was jogging in the same direction and he could tell from her gait that she was not having an easy time of it. Sweating profusely despite the chill in the morning air, her breathing was rapid, deep and laboured. He looked at her with some concern as he jogged past, but she smiled dismissively and he pushed her from his mind. When he reached his starting point at the gap of the railings, he took a deep breath and set about his second lap.

His mind turned to the problem in hand; his budget had been cut, so one of his team had to go. There must be a solution, he just had to work it out. Playing out multiple scenarios in his head, he found himself negating each one in turn as he found some fault or another. Up ahead, he could see a baseball capped dog walker leading a scruffy mongrel on a studded lead. As he did so, the dog arched his back and proceeded to defecate in the middle of the path. He just knew as he jogged past that the youth had no intention of disposing of the dog’s waste and he shot him a filthy look.

Around the lake once more and he spied the corpulent lady. She was sitting on the garden bench beside the path. Still puffing, wheezing and sweating, she waved feebly as he jogged past. Past the gap in the railings once more and he noted with frustration that the steaming pile of faeces still sat in the middle of the path. He tutted as he jogged past and wrenched his mind back to the problem in hand. As he rounded the lake again, he could feel the tendrils of his problem knitting themselves into a solution. He had narrowed it down to two. Who should go out of Simpson and Douglas? One more lap should do it.

Yet again, the corpulent lady came into view in front of him. She was jogging once more and her gait had not improved. As he came close behind her, he felt he nearly had the solution in hand but before he could grasp it, the corpulent lady collapsed in front of him. His own problem melted away and he ran to her side. Her breathing was shallow and her skin had a worrying pallor. Pulling his phone from his pocket, he punched in the emergency number and called for an ambulance.

As he finished the call, the lady coughed suddenly and a fleck of blood appeared on her lips. Using his T-shirt, he wiped it away and asked the lady her name. Her lips moved feebly, but nothing came out except raspy breaths. Her eyes seemed glassy and distant as her eyelids sank to half mast. He found himself shouting at her, willing her to breathe. After what seemed like an age, the ambulance arrived and the paramedics took over. They told him that she needed to get to the hospital and asked if he would like to go with her.

Taking his numb lack of response as a yes, they bundled the two of them into the ambulance and took off. The journey was a blur as he watched the paramedic working on the corpulent lady. After a bumpy ride, the ambulance came to an abrupt halt and the doors thrown open. Uniformed figures took her stretcher in one direction and led him in another to a seat. He sat there silently, his mind in absolute turmoil. He hardly knew this woman, yet every fibre of his being wanted her to be OK.

After a time, a younger woman came and sat next to him. To his surprise, she reached over and grasped his hand. “I want to thank you,” she said. He looked at her puzzled as she explained that the lady was her mother and she was eternally grateful for his quick actions. He saw that she was fragile and close to tears. Stretching out, he put his arm around her and pulled her close. She seemed to melt into his embrace as he rubbed her back in comfort. He realised with embarrassment that he was still in his running gear and smelt none too fresh, but she didn’t seem to notice.

His rumbling stomach made him think they were seated for quite some time. As his thoughts turned to food, a man in a white coat stepped over.  The young woman looked up expectantly. The doctor smiled as he broke the news that her mother would be OK. She threw her arms around both of them and whooped with joy.

He arrived at work at lunchtime. His boss pulled off his glasses and stared at him sternly. “You’re late!” he barked. “I hope you have a name for me?”. The man looked down at first, ashamed. But he then whipped his head up defiantly and replied “Yes! I saved a lady’s life this morning, so I can think of better things to do than this – you can have my name!” He turned on his heel and left the office with no intention of returning.

The commute

Sample British crossword grid

Sample British crossword grid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alfred was a precise man and a regular commuter. As he walked up the platform that morning, his head moved with sudden, angular movements not unlike a pigeon. As if to mock him, one of those very creatures had taken the opportunity to defecate on the collar of his otherwise pristine waxed jacket. He arrived at the exact same spot on which he always stood and glanced at his watch. He noted with inward satisfaction as the second hand ticked over at the usual time.

He was of an age whereby his chin had begun its slow retreat inwards and his jowls had loosened their grip on the sides of his face. His wire rimed silver spectacles looped around oversized ears and on his crown was a thick mop of pure white hair. He glanced at the boards showing the status of the next train and gave an almost imperceptible smile as he saw that it was on time. His broadsheet newspaper was folded into quarters and tucked beneath his arm.

After precisely three minutes, the train loomed into view and slowly came to a halt. Unusually, the doors did not line up exactly with Alfred’s position and to his annoyance, he had to shuffle half a step to bring himself level with the door. The doors swished open and because few commuters made the journey this early, he easily found a seat inside the carriage. He reached inside his pocket and pulled out an expensive looking pen and turned the newspaper over to show the cryptic crossword.

He prided himself on completion of the crossword every morning before the end of his half hour train ride. Before long, he had filled out a quarter of the answers. As he looked up in deep thought about his next clue, he noted the young lady who boarded behind him was sat nearby. Coincidentally, she was attempting the very same puzzle. At first, he was pleased to see that the hobby was being taken up by the younger generation and was not about to die out. Then he noticed with unintentional annoyance that the young lady had completed half of the crossword already.

He managed to crack the next few clues and before too long, he had caught up with the young lady. He couldn’t help but glance across again. She had completed nearly three quarters of the puzzle now. She caught his gaze and smiled. He awkwardly flashed an embarrassed  smile back to her before returning his attention to the crossword.

With five minutes to go before they arrived at his stop, Alfred had completed every answer except one. As he sucked on his pen in deep thought – he saw that the young lady had completely filled her crossword in and was gazing out of the window. Even as the train arrived at the terminus, Alfred had still not cracked the final clue. He could not remember the last time he had failed to finish the crossword before the end of his journey.

Once again, his gaze caught the completed crossword on the chair opposite, abandoned now as the girl was gathering her things in preparation to leave the train. She turned towards him and as their eyes locked, she gave him another smile and a cheeky wink. Alfred’s face flushed and he immediately looked away.

He waited for her to step down on to the platform before gathering his things. He almost walked past the completed crossword before curiosity got the better of him. He simply had to know what that last answer was. With a furtive look around him to make sure no-one was looking, he picked up the newspaper. Within moments, he rolled his eyes as he realised that the girl had simply filled in random words rather than working out the answers. He smiled as he stepped from the train shaking his head.

The big day

 

Wedding cake

Wedding cake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As she looked in the mirror, she realised with a deep sigh that it was still not good enough. Reaching for a wipe to remove the make up from her face, Alison tutted under her breath and told herself that today of all days – it had to be perfect. She glanced at the clock and gasped as the lateness of the hour dawned on her.

She tossed the used wipe into the bin where it joined several others and she reached for another. She stared disbelieving as she realised that it was her last one. This was her last chance in more ways than one. It would help if she wasn’t so damned nervous. There was a definite tremor in her hands and her stomach felt like a washing machine.

Removing the last of her make up, her thoughts drifted to the night before. Over and over, people had asked her if she was sure she was doing the right thing. It was a big step after all. As if she didn’t know. As if she hadn’t been through it in her head a thousand times before. Why were they trying to put doubts in her mind?

As she started applying her foundation, tendrils of uncertainty crept up on her. What if she was making a mistake. Was this the real thing? Were they going to be together forever? What if it all went wrong? She had felt so certain before, but sitting in her bridal lingerie with her make up half applied had made it all so terrifyingly real.

She looked at the clock again and nervousness started maturing into panic. She reached for her blusher and fumbled sending cosmetics flying in every direction. There was a knock at the door. “Are you OK in there?”. It was Sarah, her bridesmaid. “I’m fine – just clumsy”. She heard a giggle from the other side of the door and with a deep breath, Alison composed herself.

The rest of her make-up went on without incident and she surveyed the finished product in the mirror. It certainly wasn’t perfection but it would have to do. She had no more wipes and no more time. She pulled on her bridal gown as best she could, and called out for Sarah to come and zip her up. As she walked in, Sarah gasped and told her she looked beautiful.

Alison blushed, but she was so happy to hear the compliment and it helped to dispel a few of the butterflies in her stomach. As Sarah struggled with the zip, Alison looked in the mirror once more. Maybe she did look OK. From outside there was the sound of a car horn. “That’ll be the driver” Sarah said.

“Could we just have a quick drink Sarah? You know – to settle my nerves.” Disappearing with a wink, Sarah returned in an instant with a mini bottle of champagne and two glasses. The champagne was quickly poured and bride and bridesmaid chinked glasses before sinking a long mouthful.

The car horn sounded again, more urgently this time. “We’d better go!” Sarah said as she gave Alison’s arm a reassuring squeeze. Alison nodded and they headed out to the car. Alison didn’t know much about cars, but this one was very impressive – paid for by her father. As the doors shut behind them, they settled into the luxurious seats.

“Are you sure you’re OK?” Sarah asked. Alison nodded and stuttered that she was nervous. Sarah grabbed her hand and held it tightly. “It’s only natural – you’ll be fine”.

All too soon, they pulled up outside the registry office. Once out on the pavement, Sarah pulled Alison’s veil down into place and gave her a reassuring smile. “Let’s get you hitched!” she said. Alison moved robotically as she was led by the hand into the building. As she walked through the office towards the front, she glanced around her at all her guests furtively through the protection of her veil.

Although she had jelly legs, she managed to reach the front of the room without incident. She turned to face her partner for the first time that day as per the bridal tradition. Rebecca was resplendent in an identical gown to Alison and as they exchanged smiles through their veils, the last hints of nervousness melted away. Everything was going to be just perfect.

 

A Victorian Letter

Dearest

My Dearest Rachel,

It seems like so very long ago that I penned my first letter to you as we steamed out of the port of Falmouth and I must confess, there have been times when I have felt that this interminable sea voyage might never end. And yet, here we lie at anchor in Zanzibar. Although we have seen some strange places along the way, I feel that this must rank as quite the rummest place I have ever set my gaze upon.

The natives seem to come from everywhere and swarm all over the dockside, spewing forth in tiny vessels into the harbour. In noisy and very loud foreign voices, they hawk their wares. They seem to be selling everything from bananas and ivory through to humanity itself. Their skin takes on the hue of varnished mahogany and their hair is curled so tight that it looks almost bound to their scalps.

The ladies seem to have little or no modesty, for they walk around wearing next to nothing. Their large breasts hang pendulous in front of them and yet they seem completely oblivious. Perhaps it is the heat, for it has become progressively warmer the further the ship has ventured. Lady Alice fainted yesterday, and it took Captain Jacobs’ smelling salts and a small dose of Father Edwards’ “holy water” to bring her back into the land of the living.

Captain Edwards is full of tales about what lies beyond the port as if he has spent several lifetimes here. I have to confess to private thoughts that I think he would speak this way of places he has yet to visit. He does say, however, that the temperature gets even more severe the further one ventures inland. As I look around my small cabin at the trunks full of evening and daywear, I feel I may have to improvise in terms of what to bring with me. Captain Edwards says that the bearers will only be able to take one trunk.

He speaks of big game with a glint in his eye as he polishes his impressive looking rifle. Apparently, some of the creatures which dwell on the island could swallow a man whole. The whole thing makes me feel quite queasy. I do look forward to seeing some of the stranger flora and fauna, but I hope we don’t come across to many snakes and spiders – they sound quite monstrous.

Father Edwards says that he is here to bring God to the savages. From what I have witnessed, I’m not sure the savages are really that interested, but he remains resolute. He says that he will found a small church, and teach the savages how to speak English and sing in God’s own tongue. I do hope he also teaches them how to dress with a modicum of decorum.

Although I have found my cabin quite uncomfortable, when we say goodbye to the ship and strike inland, we shall be staying in tents made from canvas. They assembled one on the deck yesterday, and not only did it take an age to assemble, but it really did seem like the flimsiest of structures and certainly not capable of keeping out some of the wilder creatures described by Captain Edwards.

The other thing that will take some getting used to is the constant swarm of insects tha burden every poor soul who ventures above decks. I am assured that they are much worse in the port than they are inland. I do hope so, because I find them quite the most tiresome beasts imaginable. Father Edwards has fashioned a net which hangs from my bonnet, and yet they still find their way through to my skin.

My dearest sister, I set out in search of adventure, and every day does seem to be very different to the days in London, but I do wonder why adventures seem to happen so slowly and uncomfortably. There are times when I wish I was taking tea in the parlour with you, but then I look around at the beauty that surrounds me, and I admonish myself.

Until we meet again (lest I be eaten by spiders or beguiled by snakes), I remain your most gracious sister, Emily.