‘I blame you for this Boyle.’ Lance stroked his chin with long bony fingers while glancing up and down the street.
‘Me? Why do you always have to blame other people for every little problem?’ Boyle shuffled his feet, trying hard to blend into the brick wall at his back.
‘I don't blame other people, I blame you.’ Lance wrinkled his long nose at a faint sewage smell in the sun-warmed air. Sewage in a city? A fly buzzed and he heard the faint sound of singing, but otherwise all was quiet.
‘It's always me though. The tiniest hitch and you blame good old Boyle, your best buddy for fifty years. Anyway, this could be the right time.’
Lance still peered up and down the quiet cobbled street, studied a narrow row of shops and houses with small-paned windows. The two men, both in their mid-sixties, stood with their backs to a high brick wall. Boyle, the shorter of the two, scratched at the grey stubble on his large head. Lance still stroked his chin.
‘We are supposed to be in the twentieth century collecting material for our act and this looks nothing like the twentieth century to me,’ Lance said eventually. Their time machine was on the other side of the wall in a mass of nettles and brambles. Lance wasn't looking forward to scrambling back over the wall. Neither of them was of an age to be climbing over walls.
‘This bit of the twentieth century could be really backward.’ Boyle shrugged.
‘Any fool can tell we are nowhere near the twentieth century,’ Lance hissed impatiently. Boyle had always been the optimist, even when they were kids. He was the optimistic half of their comedy duo too, but even professional optimism could pall after fifty years.
‘I don't see how you can tell - there isn't much to see.’ Boyle gave his head another puzzled scratch as if digging for ideas.
‘I actually read a few history books before you dropped our time machine into that jungle over the wall.’
‘So what time do you think it is then professor?’
Lance smiled in spite of himself. What time is it professor had been one of their catch-phrases. Lance and Boyle the great comic double-act. They might not get the laughs now, but folk still remembered that one phrase...
‘Something's coming.’ Boyle nudged Lance in the ribs, jolting him out of his reverie.
Lance followed Boyle's pointing finger, saw a two-wheeled chaise pulled by a single horse trundling down the cobbled road. It was occupied by a man and woman in unmistakable eighteenth century dress. The carriage occupants stared briefly before they rattled past.
‘That proves we aren't in the nineteen sixties.’ Lance watched the carriage disappear down the road in a faint haze of dust.
‘If you say so professor, you're the one who's read the books.’
‘You don't have much feel for the past do you Boyle? I happen to know a carriage like that can't belong in the nineteen sixties, because everybody travelled by Mini in the nineteen sixties.’
‘Mini?’ Boyle suddenly looked worried. ‘You said a Mini was a type of skirt - you promised me I'd see loads of mini-skirts and we've been here half an hour.’
‘No Boyle, there were two types of Mini in the nineteen sixties.’
‘As well as mini-skirts there were Minis you travelled around in, a vehicle powered by something called Esso.’
‘Esso? Was that the same as coal?’
Lance stroked his long chin, trying to remember some hard facts about the funny little vehicles he'd seen in his books and the museum, something to remind Boyle who the smart one was.
‘Everyone knows Esso wasn't quite the same as coal,’ Lance said. ‘Anyway - these Minis were painted in bright colours and everybody drove round in them saying far out man. You must have seen them in museums.’
‘I don't waste my time in museums.’ Boyle sniffed. ‘So what did far out man mean? Was it a catch phrase like what time is it professor?’
‘Not exactly. In the nineteen sixties it was polite to say far out man to everyone you met. Or you might say peace. I would lean out of my Mini and say to you – hey Boyle - peace.’
‘Piece of what?’
‘Not piece with an 'i' Boyle. Peace as in not committing violence on the so-called friend and partner who got you into this mess in the first place. People in the nineteen sixties just said peace as a friendly greeting.’
‘These guys with wigs aren't saying peace or far out man. They aren't driving around in Minis either, unless Minis were pulled by horses instead of Esso.’
‘They aren't driving around in Minis, because as I've told you a zillion times, this is the wrong time. We've dropped into the wrong century and it's your fault. Where did you get that TimeFinder map?’
‘Hey - now there was nothing wrong with my TimeFinder map - I'm not taking the blame there.’ Boyle folded his arms and glared at a pigeon in the road. It flew off.
Lance grinned and nodded politely to a gentleman passing by on the other side of the street. Backing his historical hunch about their predicament, he resisted the desire to shout peace man- far out. The gentleman over the road wore a sumptuous bottle-green frock coat, powdered wig, cream coloured breeches and black silk stockings. Lance wondered how conspicuous he and Boyle were in their flared blue jeans and Afghan coats.
Lance transferred his gaze to Boyle and realised his friend was wearing mirrored sunglasses. He snatched the sunglasses off Boyle's nose, dropping them in his pocket.
‘Ow - why did you do that?’ Boyle rubbed his nose, blinking in the sudden rush of undiluted sunlight.
‘Nobody wore sunglasses the eighteenth century you nutjob.’
‘The eighteenth century - are you sure?’ Boyle squinted vaguely after the gentleman in the bottle-green coat.
‘Shut up and let me think. Try to look inconspicuous.’
‘I look much less conspicuous than that guy in the weird wig.’
‘No you don’t. Everyone wore wigs in the eighteenth century; it's we who stand out. You got that TimeFinder map from the cheapo warehouse place, didn't you?’
‘It’s the cheapest place around,’ Boyle replied. ‘Because in case you hadn't noticed, we don't make the money we used to since our act went out of fashion.’
‘We'll bounce back.’
‘We got that booking for Mablethorpe.’
‘It's a chance to launch ourselves back into the limelight...’
‘Look,’ Boyle said firmly, ‘it was your idea to buy us a black-market time machine. It wasn't my TimeFinder map, it was your time machine. We should have used a time-scanner like everybody else. Unlicensed time travel is illegal as well as dangerous.’
‘We'd never have got a license.’
‘A scanner would have done us,’ Boyle grumbled.
‘We need to get a flavour of the past if we want to beef up our act,’ Lance said. ‘Time-scanners just don't give that - a feel for how things were. We need ideas for a whole load of new sketches.’
‘Talking about flavour - when do we eat?’ Boyle looked round as if searching for a foodery.
‘Can't you think about anything else but your belly?’
Suddenly Lance spotted a large, shambling figure with a peculiar, rolling gait walking towards them. He wore a shabby brown coat and a little scratch wig was balanced on his head. Lance pulled Boyle sharply back to the wall.
‘Hey Boyle - something worked at least,’ Lance grabbed at his friend's arm.
‘What?’ Boyle rubbed the back of his head where it had contacted the wall. He prized Lance's fingers off his arm.
‘Good evening gentlemen.’ The voice was rich, loud and precise, as if every word had been loaded with judicious consideration and weighty considerations. The big, untidy man in the brown coat had stopped just before he opened the door to one of the shops. He nodded, peered short-sightedly in Lance and Boyle's direction. Lance just managed a reply as the big man disappeared into the shop, then he looked up at the name above the shop door and turned to Boyle, his face glowing with triumph.
‘This is it, it's worked - this is the first on my list of important historical events.’
‘Important historical events?’ Boyle laughed then his eyes shone with suspicion. ‘So this mess is your fault after all, it wasn't my TimeFinder map. You've been fiddling with the Temporal Compass haven't you?’
Lance winced. ‘Well I might not have reset it properly after a little experiment, but never mind that now. The guy in the brown coat was Samuel Johnson, so this is Tom Davies' bookshop. At this very moment, Johnson must be inside the shop meeting James Boswell, so this is the eighteenth century. May the sixteenth, seventeen sixty three.’
‘And this is a great historical event? This is the reason we never reached the twentieth century? You promised me the twentieth century.’ Boyle glared around at what he could see of eighteenth century London.
‘Look Boyle, we'll go to the twentieth century soon enough. This is a big event in the history of literature. Johnson and Boswell became great friends like us, and that led to one of the world's greatest biographies. Historical guys like Johnson and Boswell might be a source of new gags for our act, gags nobody ever dreamed of in our own time.’
‘Eighteenth century gags? For a booking in Mablethorpe?’
‘Well - ideas for sketches...’ Lance's enthusiasm suddenly sputtered to a halt, squashed flat by Boyle's infinite scorn. They weren't going to find any ideas for new gags or sketches, not in the eighteenth century or the twenty second or anywhere else. Lance and Boyle were part of the past - their time had slipped by forever.
‘I was expecting something different to this. I was hoping to see the Beatles and some mini-skirts. We should be getting back - there's nothing for us here old buddy.’ Boyle stuck his hands in his pockets and looked glum.
‘Don't you have a sense of history?’ Lance persisted. Surely Mablethorpe wasn't their swan song – not the final curtain for the great double-act Lance and Boyle star laughter makers.
‘I can't feel any sense of history when guys with wigs keep walking past giving me funny looks.’
‘You've just set eyes on Samuel Johnson - one of the most widely quoted men in history bar Shakespeare.’
‘Well, here's a Boyle quote. Time travel makes you hungry. Is it lunch time yet? Did you remember to bring a bag of Snak-Stix?’
‘Oh shut up.’