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.’

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Jones


 I recall exactly when I first began to think about eating a cat. It all began because of a neighbour’s cat called Jones. It’s a silly name for a pet cat in my view, but of course that’s not why I decided to eat it. I mean I’m not prejudiced about the names people give to their pets. I prefer normal names such as Mitzy or Tibbles, but that’s all it amounts to.
The real problem with Jones was that he had been fouling my garden for quite some time and I was fed up with it. By the summer I was really tired of getting cat poo on my best trowel or the end of my hoe, or even sometimes my fingers. Yes, my fingers – I actually had the stuff on my skin! I washed it off and disinfected myself thoroughly as you may imagine, but the smell lingers and the shock of it stays with one for days. I’m not over-sensitive, but it isn’t nice, is it?
I actually complained to my neighbours once or twice, a middle-aged couple called Smith with no children but at least four cats. Jones was the only one to venture into my garden though. The others seemed to stay indoors all the time. What the Smith’s house must be like I can’t imagine, but they were pleasant enough and politely regretful about Jones’ doings as they called it.
‘I think you mean his pooings,’ I said, but my bluntness seemed to be lost on them.
‘But what can we do?’ said Mrs Smith, shrugging her plump shoulders in that annoying way so many people adopt when confronted with their responsibilities.
‘Train the thing to use a litter tray,’ I suggested – quite reasonably I thought, but apparently reason doesn’t come into it as far as the Smith’s and their damned cat are concerned.
‘You can’t train cats,’ Mrs Smith said as if it was a law of the universe or something.
‘Well you could try,’ I replied, rather huffily.
‘We do try,’ said Mr Smith, which I suspect was a barefaced lie.
‘Well you don’t try anywhere near hard enough in my opinion,’ I replied. I walked off at that point because I knew I wasn’t likely to get anywhere with the Smiths. Being politely regretful isn’t enough in these cases. Not in my view it isn’t. Cat poo requires action.
It was only when I got back to my neat little bungalow, after thinking over what I could do about Jones, that the idea of eating him popped into my head. It came from nowhere and shocked me at first, but not for long. Of course I’d no idea what cat might taste like, but when you are on a pension and money is tight, then really some nicely prepared cat should just be another meal shouldn’t it?
‘Why not give it a go?’ I asked myself. It may not have been a coincidence, but as these thoughts passed through my mind, my favourite TV cookery programme was drawing to a close. I hadn’t been paying it the slightest attention, although I knew I probably hadn’t missed any cat recipes.
Of course that was the first thing to settle - the recipe. I looked through my cookery books of which I have quite a number, being a good cook though I say so myself, but I couldn’t find a recipe for cat. Not that I was expecting to find such a thing, but I was certainly hoping for ideas. Some adaptation of a chicken recipe was my general idea.
Cat pie was my first thought, or a simple stew with mushrooms and onions or something more adventurous such as cat cacciatore. As you see, when it came down to it I wasn’t short of ideas, but I was not so sure about flavours and the best herbs to use. Texture too – how long was one supposed to cook cat?
I finally settled on a pie with a nice short-crust pastry, but it was only when I’d sorted out the recipe that I realised there was a distasteful aspect I’d rather overlooked in my enthusiasm for dealing with Jones. How was I supposed to catch him? Even more worrying – how was I supposed to prepare him for the pie?
At that point I wasn’t at all keen on the killing and skinning side of things, so I put the whole grisly subject to the back of my mind and just concentrated on my pie. I imagined myself baking the pie using prepared Jones fillets or something – rather like those packs of chicken breast you buy from the supermarket. The label would be different I suppose, but my imagination didn’t stretch that far.

Anyway, I gave it a go. One day I grabbed hold of Jones after enticing him towards a saucer of milk in the back garden. Cats are supposed to love saucers of milk, although Jones just seemed to want to wrap himself around my legs in that fawning way cats have.
Unfortunately when I picked up the little beast, he scratched me rather badly on the hand, wriggled out of my arms and ran off. I didn’t see where he ran to because I had to rush inside to disinfect that scratch which was rather deep and quite painful.
I was in no fit state to think about cat pie for days because that damned scratch made my whole hand swell up like a balloon. It itched like blazes too. However I daren’t go to the doctor in case she recognized it as a cat scratch and asked awkward questions as doctors sometimes do in my experience.
I mean - there was no reason why I shouldn’t go to the doctor with a bad cat scratch, but in this particular instance I didn’t want to raise my medical profile - re cats.
Eventually the swelling subsided and I was able to review my cat pie plans, but since the scratch I’d become more than a little wary of Jones. My hand still itched as a constant reminder of what I might be in for unless I did the job properly with protective gloves and maybe something for my face.
So I bought a pair of leather gardening gloves from the garden centre, expensive ones with good long cuffs. I also went to the DIY store and bought one of those yellow plastic helmets worn by builders on big construction sites - plus a pair of safety goggles. It wasn’t perfect protection, I could see that when I looked at myself in the bedroom mirror, but it was much better than nothing I thought.
But the next time I tried to get hold of Jones he spat and wriggled like a wild thing, scratching my face before he got free and ran off next door. My face was quite a mess this time, with three long scratches all the way down my unprotected cheek below the goggles. One of them was deep enough to bleed quite profusely. A few spots of blood were even spattered across the goggles.
I patched myself up well enough, but my face was really swollen by the following day. I felt ill and rather odd. I knew I was easily ill enough to go to the doctor, but I didn’t want to explain how I got the scratches. I don’t know why, but I thought it might get back somehow. Neighbourhood gossip for a start. I know they talk about me.
So people would guess from my scratches why Jones had disappeared, although I have to confess I was losing my appetite for Jones pie by then. In fact I noticed I was losing my appetite generally and losing weight. I weigh myself each morning on the bathroom scales and keep a note of each weighing on a chart. So I knew straight away you see - I knew there was a problem with my weight. It wasn’t just the fact that my trousers fell down at the bus stop.
One morning I opened the back door intending to do a little gardening. I was feeling better by then, but I saw Jones crouched down by the apple tree on the lawn. He stared at me with those horrible cat’s eyes, almost as if he was waiting for me to venture out. Another cat was with him too, a big, untidy beast with long black fur and a malign expression. I decided not to bother with the garden.
A few more days went by, but I stayed in the house, eating out of the freezer and the stock of tinned food I keep for emergencies. I often sleep during the day now and prowl the house at night. Sometimes I just stare out of the window into the darkness beyond – sipping my glass of milk. I’d like to go out into the garden, but I’m sure Jones is waiting.
Maybe I should just leave the back door open one night. Yes, I’ll do that.

Monday, 8 October 2012

A New Time Machine


‘Why do we need a new time machine?’ Ellie demanded one slow Saturday evening in May. ‘What about a new servitor – why can’t we have a domestic robot that actually does what it’s supposed to?’
This was familiar territory to both of us - Ellie was winding up for yet another argument about money. Money is our problem – or one of our problems anyway. Spending the stuff is a blessed escape for both of us but unfortunately we need to escape in different ways – and for different reasons.
Ellie wanted a new servitor and I wanted a new time machine, so there we were again arguing about money and how best to spend the stuff. Or at least Ellie was. I’m more into evasion. The indirect approach – that’s me.
‘What’s wrong with the servitor?’ I knew this was a feeble evasion, but I was trying hard not to notice how the whole house smelled of fish. The fishy smell and a faint bluish haze of scorched grease meant our servitor was cooking the evening meal.
Unfortunately our new servitor wasn’t a great cook. It wasn’t too hot at any of the other things domestic robots are supposed to do either, but I was angling for a new time machine – not another boring servitor. Time machines are one of my ways of escaping life’s humdrum routines, but our TimeTrippa turned out to be a crappy bore from the day we bought it.
‘You know perfectly well what’s wrong with the servitor.’ Ellie’s voice had that particular edge to it, a spiky gritty sound like glass being crushed to powder under a heavy boot.
‘I don’t –‘
‘We are the only people I know who have to make do with a servitor as downmarket as that heap of junk you bought through that special offer in your so-called ‘webmag’.
‘It was really cheap though.’ And yes – she did manage to put verbal quote marks around ‘webmag’.
‘It was only cheap because you had to send off about a million tokens’.
‘We're not made of money – the webmag tokens were a really good deal. Couldn’t go wrong.’ Oh shit, why do I say these things?
‘Couldn’t go wrong? Well I don’t need to go into details do I? Even you know how stupid you are at times. So I really don’t see why we have to make do with a cheap unbranded servitor from your dodgy webmag.’
‘It wasn’t all that cheap what with scraping together all those tokens…’ Oops – done it again.
‘It told my mother to sod off the last time she called round. Proper servitors don’t tell house guests to sod off. Proper servitors open the front door and welcome guests politely with a nice compliment and a friendly word about the weather. But these domestic basics seem to be beyond that tin-head you paid good money for. Not to mention a shed load of tokens.’
‘It made a mistake – it thought your mother was selling something so it tried to help us by getting rid of her. It just needs adjusting in some way. Once I’ve translated the instructions -’
‘...and you also told me our brand new servitor was going to be the electronic equivalent of a three star Michelin chef.’
I held up my hands to stem the gathering storm of Ellie's tirade. How did I ever imagine that blue eyes and curly blonde hair meant she had a soft centre? ‘Okay – let’s just agree the servitor must have been rude to your mother because of some minor setup issue I can easily sort out. So let’s also agree that I'm going to get it fixed. Okay? New servitors always have teething problems.’
 ‘Did teething problems make it tell the Vicar we'd joined the Moondreamers Sexual Revolution? And what about that little teething problem when stood in the middle of the road ironing Mr Carver's Koi carp? He was relying on us to look after those carp while he was away on holiday.’
‘That was a schedule mix-up -’
‘Because you told it to feed the carp and you also told it you’d like fish for supper, didn’t you?’
‘All I did was –‘
‘Didn’t you?’
‘Possibly...’ I just knew she’d bring up the Koi carp incident. I just bloody knew it. In fact I'd known Ellie was going to be short on enthusiasm as soon as I brought up the idea of a new time machine.
The time machine idea had popped into my mind when I found out how much more advanced they now were than our old TimeTrippa. I’d been into work for a few hours and for some reason, on my way back home, I'd nipped into the High Street showroom where they had the new Chronos xfi on display. I’d seen the ads of course, but never seen one for real, so I decided there was no harm in surveying the market.
Wow! That Chronos xfi was one beautiful machine - state of the art time travel – light years ahead of our ancient TimeTrippa. How could I explain these things to Ellie though? It just didn't seem to bother her that the TimeTrippa was the crappiest time machine around.
‘Now your latest fad is a new time machine,’ Ellie ground on. ‘It's not as if we ever use the TimeTrippa – you only bought it to leer at Henry the Eighth's wives.’
‘Not true,’ I protested. I was about to list our many other cultural uses of the TimeTrippa, but Ellie butted in as she so often does when I'm putting a good argument together.
‘And what does xfi mean?’
‘What?’
‘The letters xfi in this Chronos thing’s name - what do they mean?’
‘It's something to do with x-dimensional fibrillation,’ I replied vaguely. Actually I did know the answer because it was explained in the ads. I just couldn't quite bring it to mind.
‘We don’t need a new time machine and that servitor will never be any good George. Why couldn't you buy a proper one like an i-Jeeves instead of a cheap unbranded webmag model nobody ever heard of?’
‘There's nothing wrong with our servitor - it just has a few bugs to iron - sort out.’
‘A few bugs? Look George, I want an i-Jeeves servitor to do proper housekeeping. I don’t need a bum servitor which irons a neighbour's pet fish in public. Especially the pet fish of a nice neighbour like Mr Carver.
‘They were only fish –‘
 Those Koi carp meant a lot to Mr Carver. And why did our servitor start a fight with his servitor when it came round to comfort him about the Koi carp. That’s supposed to be impossible.’
‘Impossible?’
‘Servitors are not supposed to pick fights, George. It’s illegal or something. It must be.’
Well things went downhill from there. Ellie also decided to bring up the wonky 3-D control on our old TV set, how she couldn't afford for it to go on the blink now that her favourite soap opera was screened 24/7 and the main character was due to be resurrected by cloning him from DNA traces found in his beer mug.
‘...So don’t talk to me about a new time machine,’ Ellie yelled after working herself up her scale of grievances. She was angry enough for two people by then but I thought she was going to explode when our servitor opened the door to announce supper.
‘Seared fish for supper guys – mmm yummy.’ Ellie just glared at the servitor for a few seconds, gave a kind of demented shriek and flew out of the room, barging the innocent servitor against the door.
I just shrugged my shoulders and followed the servitor into the dining room. Actually I was a bit suspicious of the fish but the servitor insisted it was plaice and definitely not ironed carp.
Of course I wasn’t going to allow a spot of domestic bother put me off a test run in the new Chronos. I'd told the sales guy I was really interested and as the following day was Saturday I’d soon be back in that showroom.

‘Mr Harbottle - nice to see you again sir. Come to try out the new Chronos?’
‘Why not? I was passing anyway,’ I replied casually. The sales guy had remembered my name from the previous visit - I liked that.
‘Anywhen you'd like to go Mr Harbottle? We can go as far back as you like - this model's as quick as a blink. I believe you said you have a TimeTrippa at present?’
‘Never got round to replacing it.’ I shrugged as if time machines weren't that high up my list of priorities.
‘Only ten standard TimeStops on the TimeTrippa aren't there?’
‘Yes – and six of those are Henry the eighth’s wives,’ I replied. ‘Plus Marston Moor, the Battle of Hastings, the signing of Magna Carta and a two second glimpse of Shakespeare picking his nose. The battle of Hastings wasn't where the history books said so we have to take binoculars to see any action.’
‘We have the battle of Hastings properly located in the Chronos xfi Mr Harbottle. What about Marston Moor?’ The salesman sniggered.
‘The battlefield latrine business you mean? Well it’s better than nothing - almost.’
‘Of course - with a limited range of TimeStops you get the same result every time. Once you’ve seen history from a single angle you've seen it. The Chronos xfi has two hundred TimeStops as standard and each TimeStop has up to six TimeViews carefully chosen to get you right into the action. Plus you can add as many TimeStops as you wish just by purchasing HistoriPaks from our vast Living History Catalogue.
Two hundred TimeStops and six TimeViews for each one! In the TimeTrippa, you only see Catherine Howard over the top of a wall at Hampton Court and as for Anne of Cleves – well she looks like a man to me.
The Chronos xfi was sleek and gleaming, a silver projectile in the middle of the showroom. It was their demonstrator model, so naturally it was top of the range with that factory fresh feel all over it. The salesman held open the door and I stepped inside while he took one of the passenger seats. Inside there was a built-in cocktail cabinet and a Kool-Snax module for time-travelling picnics. The TimeTrippa just has a plastic clip to hold your Thermos flask.
‘Anywhen you like Mr Harbottle - she's all yours.’
I settled myself into the Plushtex upholstery, inhaled the sweet, succulent tang of pure newness then flicked on the control screen. It lit up with dozens of colour-coded TimeStops, screen after screen of them, every historical event I ever heard of and some I hadn't. Mostly stuff I hadn't heard of actually. What the hell was Beatlemania?
‘Spoiled for choice, Mr Harbottle?’ The salesman grinned.
‘Just looking over my favourite historical periods,’ I lied as I selected a TimeStop at random and the showroom vanished in a shimmer of shifting temporal dimensions...

‘It's murky out there Mr Harbottle - which TimeStop did you select?’ The salesman peered at swirling grey fog outside the window of the Chronos. ‘Let’s try another View. You see how easy it is to change Views... although they all seem to be rather similar.’
He touched the View pad repeatedly, but all we saw was more and more fog - thick as smoke. That fog was pretty creepy too, even though it's impossible to have any physical contact with the past. You just can't go outside a time machine and the past can’t get at you - it's impossible. Something technical to do with the great time paradox – or so the ads say. The fog still gave me the shivers though. I glanced at the control screen.
‘Jack the Ripper’s London?’ We both spoke at once. Neither of us expected such an interesting TimeStop to be standard kit in the Chronos xfi.
Wow – this is even better than I hoped. I began to think about finance and bank loans as we peered outside to see if anything was happening. Suddenly a shadow stirred the gloom and something gleamed and flashed and I forgot about bank loans and the salesman made a kind of gurgling sound...

‘I'm so sorry Mr Harbottle. It must have been the fish - our servitor gave us fish last night.’ The salesman dabbed at his cheap salesman’s trousers with a tissue. He'd been a little sick as soon as we saw what Jack the Ripper was up to in that foggy alley.
I felt sick too but I'd had the presence of mind to avert my gaze and stab my finger at another TimeStop. The factory fresh aroma of the Plushtex wasn’t so noticeable now. We took a look at the TimeStop I'd selected at random to get us away from Jack the Ripper's London.
‘Some kind of amphitheatre - Roman perhaps - how interesting.’ The salesman was pale but he managed to pick up the threads of his patter now the Chronos had wafted us somewhen else safely away from the foggy horrors of nineteenth century London. After all, he still had a Chronos xfi to sell.
Outside there were tiers of stone seats arranged in a huge circle, all packed with people wearing what looked like loose cloaks. Togas perhaps? I could tell the sun was fierce out there. The sky was like a blue dome - a great blue lid sealing in the heat. Tawny shapes moved in the middle distance.
‘Aren’t those lions Mr Harbottle? How fascinating. You don’t get genuine historical lions with your TimeTrippa.’ The salesman pointed through the haze shimmering over the sandy floor of the amphitheatre. He was right - there were several lions padding majestically out of a large doorway into the arena.
‘Who are those people - do they know about the lions?’ The salesman shifted his hand about ninety degrees, nearly dislocating my nose as he pointed to another large doorway on the opposite side.
People in ragged tunics were being prodded into the arena. The people at the wrong end of the prodding didn’t seem keen on the idea. I peered at the TimeStop screen. I thought I’d selected the World Cup football final between England and Germany in 1966, so why the lions?
‘Oh dear those lions have seen the people. It doesn’t look good for them.’ At that point the salesman grabbed at another tissue and again I had the presence of mind to stab my finger at another TimeStop...

‘I'm so sorry Mr Harbottle - I really am. I'm sure the Roman Games TimeStop is really very educational - I just wasn't expecting... Never mind, where are we now?’
‘I just selected a TimeStop at random.’ I replied. I gazed round with interest.’
The salesman took a look too then glanced at the screen. ‘Oh no, I don’t think so Mr Harbottle. Something is very wrong here.’
‘Hang on for a few minutes.’ I put my hand over the screen to stop him from flipping us somewhen else.
‘For some reason this vehicle obviously isn't equipped with the manufacturer’s standard HistoriPak Mr Harbottle. I can't apologise enough but we have to leave.’
‘Another minute.’ I kept my hand over the View screen, but that blasted salesman had other ideas.
‘I'm sorry Mr Harbottle.’ He punched the big red Quick-Return button and the scene outside the Chronos xfi changed abruptly to the dealer's High Street showroom. ‘I really am sorry Mr Harbottle,’ the salesman said again as we clambered out of the Chronos.
I shrugged. ‘It was interesting while it lasted.’
‘Somebody must have left a hard-core HistoriPak in our demonstrator - I'll have strong words about it. I can assure you we're not into hard-core history here at Chronos.’
‘I told you I don't mind.’
‘But Sodom and Gomorrah Mr Harbottle?’
‘I just wondered which it was - Sodom or Gomorrah – historical curiosity you know.’
‘Yes - well we have a brand new servitor to valet all our demonstrators Mr Harbottle, but it can behave rather strangely. I don't know how, but it must have set the Chronos xfi up with some kind of hard-core HistoriPak instead of the standard product.’
‘Was your servitor one of those webmag models?’ I asked casually.
‘Oh you know about those?’ said the salesman.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Clearing


I speak from experience when I say that last year's self-catering holiday home was above average and rather unusual. Shortly after our arrival, I remember standing at one of the quaint little upstairs windows, watching Karl heave our bags from the car. As he carried the bags inside, I transferred my gaze to a lovely old deciduous wood which completely surrounded us. The house was a large, square building on a quiet part of the south coast. It sat in the centre of this wooded clearing at the end of a long, single-track road, well out of sight of our nearest neighbours.
Karl clumped into the bedroom, dropped a bag from each hand and flopped onto the bed.
‘That's me done. I hump them, you unpack them. That’s the deal.’
‘I'll unpack mine,’ I said sweetly. ‘Then I'll make a cup of coffee. I'll unpack yours when we get home, when my holiday is over. That’s the real deal.’
Karl closed his eyes and grunted, so I wandered off downstairs to make further explorations of the house and garden. The house was clean and well furnished, not so functional and second-hand as some self-catering places we've been to. I was pretty sure the owners used it as a second home, but the garden was what I liked best.
To be honest, it could be described as a minimum maintenance garden eschewing neatness in favour of a natural look. So it would be rather shaggy to some eyes, but just right for the house, with its surrounding sweep of mature woodland. It fitted my townie notions of a country garden more closely than anything else I'd ever seen. It had massive rhododendrons, gnarled old apple trees and straggling lilacs, while honeysuckle twined its way round red brickwork.
Instead of a house in a clearing, it blended into the woodland via that garden, with no formal dividing lines between one and the other. It was not even possible to tell if the effect was deliberately contrived or the happy result of semi-neglect.
‘Badgers.’
Karl's voice startled me out of my reverie. I turned round to see him holding a book in his left hand while stabbing a king-sized digit at the open pages.
‘What?’
‘Badgers. It says in the visitor’s book that badgers come into the garden at dusk and eat anything you care to put down for them.’
I took the book from his hands, reading for myself the comments of previous holiday-makers. They all mentioned the badgers and their feeding habits, which seemed to be charmingly indiscriminate. According to the visitor’s book, badgers were omnivorous creatures who would eat almost anything, including breakfast cereal, dog food and toast and jam. While I read about the badgers, Karl's interest faded away and he wandered off towards the woods. I went back into the house to brew up some coffee and freshen up after the journey.
I remember lying in bed on our first night, savouring the silence surrounding our house. City folk rarely know real silence or real darkness. There is always the rumble of a passing vehicle on the nearest road or someone slamming a car door and the sky is never quite free from the orange glow of street-lights. To me, silence is like a singing in the ears, as if one’s hearing becomes hyperactive with nothing to do, with no background noise to be screened out. Modern ears, when they encounter true silence are rather like deprived workaholics. With nothing to do, they fidget and invent sounds of their own to try and screen out the silence.
On impulse, I eased myself out of bed away from Karl's slumbering bulk. I parted the curtains to absorb some inner peace from the surrounding woods, but saw little beyond the glass of the window. There was no moon and even if there had been, the trees were high enough to shut out what little light there was. I climbed back into bed, snuggled up to Karl’s broad back and fell into a deep sleep full of oddly disconnected dreaming.
Morning finally found its way through our outer palisade of trees as a shaft of sunlight triumphantly bore down on us through window and dust motes, sending Karl and I downstairs in search of coffee and croissants to be eaten in the garden.
‘I need a few bits from the shops, shampoo and suchlike,’ I told Karl as I brushed the last few flakes of pastry from my fingers.
‘Okay.’ He sat slumped in a slightly dusty wicker chair, sipping noisily at his coffee in his usual, non-committal fashion. ‘I'll go for a walk - see if there are any decent beaches round here and then meet you for lunch,’ he added after another slurp of coffee.
 It was too late in the year for spending much time on the beach, but the weather was still sunny and warm, almost an Indian summer. The road, or rather track, petered out when it reached our house, narrowing into a footpath through the woods, signposted to the nearby village of Deeming. I left Karl to clear up after breakfast, grabbed a bag and my purse and followed the path into the trees.
The woods grew right to the edge of fragile cliffs overlooking a narrow strip of beach and as the path meandered its way in the direction of the cliff edge, I was able to catch glimpses of the sea through the trees. About half way through the wood, the path brushed by a small clearing which went right to the cliff edge. There was a wooden slatted bench set facing out seawards.
The walk to the village turned out to be no more than thirty minutes. I'd collected my shopping and set off back by a quarter to ten. I shouldered my bag, promising myself a couple of hours of relaxation in the garden while Karl was out on his beach-searching ramble. Anyway, I'd detected the onset of one of his surly moods at breakfast and had no desire to spend the entire day in his company.
By the time I reached the clearing near the cliff edge, the bench had been taken over by an elderly couple. The man was in the act of pouring tea or coffee from a Thermos flask, while the woman rummaged around in what I took to be a picnic bag.
‘Good morning,’ I called out, waving and smiling, feeling distinctly sociable for a change.
The man returned a slight smile and a nod, lifting the flask in a kind of picnicker's greeting, while the woman looked up briefly from her bag, flashed a bright little smile then busied herself again like a small bird.
‘Pleasant spot.’
The man's voice came from behind me as I strode off. A thin, reedy voice - rather distant. I glanced back but they were both busy with their picnic.
'What a nice idea - they must be having their elevenses or even an early lunch,' I remember thinking as I re-entered the trees.
Karl failed to turn up at lunch time, so I read for a while in the garden before falling asleep amid all that lovely quiet. Karl finally turned up by early evening, claiming to have walked at least a dozen miles along the coastal path. He’d caught the bus back.
We watched the sun drop below the trees over a couple of bottles of wine, then put Cornflakes and some rather disgusting tinned meat stuff on the back lawn. Presumably the tinned meat had been left by previous occupants but was still okay for badgers. Karl was hoping to photograph the badgers. He set up his camera and tripod in the conservatory, which was to be our observation post. He fancied his talents as a wildlife photographer, but never quite made enough effort to get some really good pictures.
We watched as the light faded. Soon a couple of black and white snouts appeared in the undergrowth at the lawn edge. Karl was enthralled as the badgers gobbled up meat first then cornflakes, snuffling around the lawn, not missing a crumb. I don't think he could have seen badgers before because he seemed really surprised when they turned up, as if he'd bracketed them with mythical creatures from childhood. All in all, it was a good day, the best for a long time.
The next day was bright and sunny too. We drifted off in the car to a beach about twenty minutes drive away where we actually sunbathed for hours. We drove back in the early afternoon, affected by that dry, gritty lassitude which sun, beach and idleness can produce. It must have been about a quarter to three when I asked Karl to drop me off in Deeming so that I could collect a couple of bottles of wine for the evening.
‘You go on in the car, I’ll walk back through the woods,’ I said when Karl seemed ready to come with me to the shop. I also picked up a bottle of Rioja, intending to treat myself on the bench overlooking the sea. Karl would be sure to disapprove of me drinking wine from the bottle, and on a bench to boot! He’d say it was unladylike but I didn't care.
In the event, I didn't get the chance to be unladylike, because the same elderly couple occupied the bench in the clearing. I wasn't quite up to sitting in on their picnic with my collection of bottles.
‘Good afternoon,’ I called out, trying to suppress both my annoyance and a too-obvious clinking of bottles.
The man gave his faint smile and nod, lifting up his flask as before. His wife was rummaging in the picnic bag again. She flashed me her smile, the afternoon sun glinting on her spectacles, hiding her eyes.
‘Pleasant spot.’
The man's voice was addressed to my disappearing rear, but I didn't look back this time. I remember striding on through that wood, counting points of similarity between my two meetings with the elderly picnickers. I recall my puzzlement too, when I realized that I knew of no points of dissimilarity, save the time of day.
Days slipped by as they do on holiday. We fed the badgers, went to beaches, drank wine and Karl even became quite jolly. We both agreed the holiday was turning out to be something of a success. It was on Thursday though, that the weather first showed signs of breaking. Small, high clouds floated across the sun, sending shadows racing up the beach, while the pure, azure dome of the sky was gone, filmed over with haze like the finest gossamer veil. It was one of those transient September weeks between late summer and the cool, misty mornings of early autumn. Although it was early evening, the light was beginning to fade rapidly and the warmth of the day soon faded to an autumnal chill.
Karl dropped me off in Deeming on our way back from sightseeing because I wanted to walk back by myself and a woodland stroll seemed a peaceful way to end the day. I faced the setting sun as I walked, so when I first reached the clearing, I couldn't see that the bench was occupied yet again. I suppose I was quite startled, because I stopped walking, shading my eyes to be absolutely sure that it was the same elderly couple. It was, so I carried on walking. Polite as ever, I called out my good evening as I passed.
The figure of the man was a dark shadow outlined against the red arc of the sun still sinking below the horizon, but I saw his pale, bony old hand round his up-raised Thermos. I felt a creepy, prickling sensation at the back of my neck as my eyes switched to the old woman and her interminable groping in that damned bag. She acknowledged my presence by looking up as usual, her glasses catching the livid red light of the sun, her face not properly visible, lost in sharp black shadows.
I walked on, quickly entering the trees, trying not to run but imagining their old eyes boring into my back.
‘Pleasant spot.’
I’m afraid that at that point I just broke out into a run. I ran through the woods until I reached the house and I didn't stop running until I burst into the kitchen where dear, homely Karl was pottering about making coffee. I stood at the door panting, getting more than my breath back. He looked up, quizzical – concerned even.
‘What's the matter?’
‘An unnerving experience.’ I managed a shrug and sat down, still out of breath.
‘Tell me,’ he said calmly, arresting my hand as I reached automatically for my bottle of Rioja.
‘You won't believe it.’
‘Try me.’
‘It's too bloody weird.’
‘As I said, try me.’ Karl uncorked the bottle of Rioja and poured me a drink, a small one, pushing it across the table. Well, I told him as best I could, emphasizing again and again the exact correlation between all three meetings. I explained how improbable it was, the weirdness of it and how he as a man of science must see that. He didn't though, not at first.
‘It’s just a coincidence,’ he said easily.
‘Well it’s a bloody odd coincidence if you ask me.’ I swallowed the wine in a single gulp. Karl frowned as always.
A couple of bottles of Sancerre took us through the remainder of the evening. I knew Karl didn’t see the weirdness of those elderly picnickers. By the time midnight had come and gone and under the mellowing influence of good wine, I was beginning to see it as a coincidence too. Unfortunately, about half an hour after midnight, I realised I had to be sure Karl really understood. Another phase in my alcohol intake I suppose. I had to explain the weirdness in a way even he’d understand. After a bit of searching, I came up with a pen and a piece of paper and slapped them down on the small table between us.
‘Right mister scientist, I'm going to make a list.’
‘A list? Okay – let’s make a list.’ Karl smiled one of his rare, broad smiles as he sat back in his chair.
‘Yes – I’m going to list every point of similarity between each of those three meetings.’ Karl watched as I wrote my list, the length of which even surprised me. Once finished. I handed it over.
‘People are creatures of habit,’ he said as he took my piece of paper in his big hand.
‘Maybe they are, but read that then talk to me about the laws of probability, about three chance meetings on three separate days at three widely differing times of day.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, tracing his way down my list with a finger like a banana.
‘When you've finished,’ I added, risking his disapproval by pouring a final glass of wine. ‘When you've finished I'll tell you about instinct and sensitivity and atmosphere and weirdness.’
He finished reading and handed the paper back. ‘What was the time of day for each of these meetings?’
‘Ten in the morning, three in the afternoon and eight this evening.’
‘So five hours between each one.’
‘I suppose so, yes.’ Actually I hadn’t noticed that.
‘Well,’ he said, glancing at his watch, ‘it's now twenty minutes to one. At one o'clock it'll be five hours since your last meeting. Let's go and check it out.’
‘But it'll be one o'clock in the morning.’
‘Exactly, if they aren't there, the chain of coincidence is broken.’
Karl fetched a torch from the car while I picked up the bottle and glasses. If that bench was empty, then I intended to celebrate a kind of exorcism. Outside, it had become quite breezy, with huge, stone-grey clouds illuminated briefly as they skimmed rapidly across a curl of moon. Karl shone the torch on the footpath sign, making the entrance to the woods seem like a disused railway tunnel, a dead black arch set in the trees. I suddenly changed my mind about the wine and left bottle and glasses at the base of the signpost. I seized Karl's arm in a firm grip as we set off.
There is no natural contrast quite so vivid as that between a woodland by day and in the dead of night. A wood is a living, breathing thing, serenely beautiful and friendly by day, aloof and alien by night. Night is a time set aside for creatures of the dark, creatures that touch and smell their way around. It is not a time for blundering, sight-limited humans. High wind-voices whispered through unseen branches as we cautiously followed our pool of torchlight. I had no real notion of progress until quite suddenly, a patch of grey appeared in the blackness ahead.
‘Wait, stop.’ I tugged Karl's arm.
‘What is it? Are we there?’
‘Maybe - switch off the torch.’
Karl switched off the torch. As we strained our eyes towards the patch of grey, it resolved itself into the clearing with a dark, indistinct smudge for the bench. The light was too poor to see anything more at that distance, so we edged closer without the benefit of torchlight. Just at that moment, we heard the first spatters of rain which very soon began to find its way through the canopy of leaves overhead. We stood together for a few moments while a livid flash of lightening forked across sky and the first boom of thunder rolled over our heads. The rain became a steady, hammering downpour, hiding what little we could see of the bench and slicing through the leaves above our heads as if they weren’t there.
‘This is becoming too ridiculous,’ Karl said.
‘We haven't checked the bench out yet.’
‘It's one o'clock in the morning and we’ve managed to walk into a bloody great storm. Just look at it,’ he answered, holding an arm out to the rain-curtained clearing.
‘We're wet already; a spot more can’t do any harm.’
‘A spot? You call this a spot of rain?’
‘Please Karl - let's break the chain of coincidence. I need to break it.’
‘Make it a quick break then.’ He sighed and switched on the torch.
‘No, not yet.’ I held back, uncertain, hoping perhaps that the rain would ease off enough to see the bench from where we were.
Karl knew I couldn't bring myself to cross that clearing and also knew I wouldn't go back to the house without a sight of the bench. Anyway, what are big, strong men for, if not to be of use on these occasions? He sighed - again.
‘Right, you stay here. I'll be back in ten seconds and you'll have to take my word for it if the damned bench is empty.’
He stepped into the rain and for a few seconds I could see the torch beam dancing in time with his stride. Suddenly I seemed to feel the earth groan beneath my feet, as if a slumbering giant had awoken deep beneath the woods. An inorganic stirring, massively indifferent to fragile organic life. At the same moment, I heard a kind of slithering, muted roar and part of the darkness in front of me sank away, replacing blackness by a grey view of the sea.
I'm not sure what I did next. I have an image in my mind of new, grassy edged cliff, glistening with wet, red clay like an open wound. I remember screaming Karl's name into the wind and rain, but I don't remember running back through the woods or using the telephone, although I suppose I must have done.

I must have phoned for help, else how could I have ended up in this room with Nurse Muir to look after me and Doctor Carlisle to visit me every day? They asked me a lot of questions at first, about how Karl came to fall down the cliff and what we'd been doing there so close to the edge. Many questions with people taking notes all the time.
They tell me that there has been no clearing and no bench by that path through the woods for twenty years, ever since a landslip took a bite out of the cliff, killing an elderly couple out for a picnic. At first, they even said I’d pushed Karl over the cliff and talked about a trial. I think Doctor Carlisle sorted that one out, because they stopped saying those things – it was too absurd.
Actually, I’ve noticed that Nurse Muir says the same things to me each morning - exactly the same. It’s too weird. I've started to make a list of the things she says and what she does. When I’m sure of myself I’ll show the list to Doctor Carlisle.