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Archive for the ‘Short Fiction’ Category

It was Bert Grundy who took the call. It was the morning of the day before his retirement from the laboratory, and he’d been hoping for a quiet one. As one of the few who still knew his way around the Imperial Archives, at the National Standards Institute, he wasn’t kept terribly busy these days. There was just the occasional VIP tour they still held for crusty old Empire types, when he’d be wheeled out to share some of his knowledge on largely obsolete matters, to nods of dewy-eyed approval. But mostly he was allowed to tinker away at his own research, which involved measurements at decimals of a millimetre, using lasers. He’d been busy in his allotment the night before, so had missed the latest government announcement that millimetres were to be phased out, and those old Imperial units of measurement, more familiar to those crusty Empire types, were in fact to be brought back as the next big thing.

“Grundy, get down to the basement and dig out the foot, will you?”

“The foot, Director?”

“Yes, the bloody foot. Go check on it, will you. I’ve a feeling we’ll be needing it again.”

The director sounded irritable. Bert had known him a long time and the two of them generally got on, not withstanding their differences in rank. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would still be interested in seeing the actual, historical foot, but that was by the by. It also puzzled him how ignorant the director was of the protocols. You didn’t just go down and check on the foot. First you went onto the secure server and looked up the combination of the safe where the ledgers were kept. Then you stirred the dusty security man from his slumbers to admit you to the ledger room. And from the actual paper ledgers you looked up the combination of the lock of the vault, where the precious foot itself was kept. The entire business could take an hour of his time.

Duly armed with the combination, Bert rode the lift down to the deep basement, where the vaults lay in hermetic isolation. More dusty security men had to be negotiated. He’d not been down there for years, and the cutbacks were beginning to show in the cobwebs hanging from the ceilings, and the flickering of yellowing strip lights.

The vaults themselves were airtight to prevent degradation of their artefactual curiosities. It had been discovered, in the nineteenth century, for instance, the actual foot was shrinking. This was a little known fact, indeed, top secret, that the physical foot of today, was not the foot of a century ago. Neither was the pound, nor the ounce for that matter, though many thought they were, or rather, on reflection, Bert lamented how nobody thought very much about these things at all, actually.

It was with an air of anticipation then that Bert donned his special, sterile coveralls, and face mask, punched in the code and entered the air-lock. Not many people had gazed upon the genuine foot, at least not in recent decades. Bert himself had only seen it once, and that was some time back in the later nineteen seventies, when he was an apprentice, and wide-eyed with wonder. Now, with a faint hiss the pressures were equalised, and Bert entered the inner sanctum of all things forgotten.

There wasn’t just the foot down here, of course. There was the bucket for measuring the official Imperial gallon – arrived at by years of study, and discussion, and, like the actual foot, of purely historical interest now, since the adoption of the international system, but it was considered worth preserving anyway. There was even the apparatus, used in the eighteenth century, by Sir Arthur Boddington-Spottiswode, in support of his somewhat convoluted argument for the Empire adopting the official units of speed as furlongs per fortnight. And thank God, that hadn’t worked out! Old Spottiswode was a crackpot, of course, but influential in his day. Then there was lots and lots of other stuff, things even Bert hadn’t the vaguest idea about, and which lay forgotten by the nation, but was still of antiquarian interest for anyone sufficiently motivated to root it out.

And there it was, the cupboard, where they kept the foot, the actual foot, against which all other feet were measured. But, opening the cupboard, it was then Bert discovered, there was a problem,…

The director was ominously quiet while Bert explained his findings, and then he exploded. “What do you mean, it’s not there?”

“Well,… the ticket says it’s out for inspection,” said Bert. “Bernard Stringer withdrew it for checks. You remember old Stringer?”

The director did not, and wasn’t interested anyway. “Just get it back off him, will you? I want that foot on my desk before you go home.”

Easier said than done, explained Bert. Old Stringer had been let go in the nineties, as part of a cost-cutting drive, and was most likely dead by now – after all, there was no point in him keeping on checking the size of things that were considered obsolete, so they’d let him go. The bit of the lab he’d worked in had been refurbished several times since, and it was likely the foot had got caught up in all the confusion, and chucked out by some dozy contractor as a piece of scrap, along with the rest of old Stringer’s kit.

As a matter of interest, while he was down there, Bert had also checked on the pound and the ounce, and found they too were out on loan to Stringer, but he kept this particular news to himself. He still intended retiring tomorrow and, for now, all the director needed to know about was the foot. And the foot was missing.

The director wasn’t comforted by Bert’s argument that, from a technical point of view at least, it didn’t matter. All that had been lost was an historical artefact – embarrassing though that was – while the actual measurement of the foot, should anyone be of a mind to determine its nominals again, was secure by reference to the international units of measurement, and the conversion factors. And while the director knew that was perfectly true, he also knew he would have a hard time persuading the PM. Unknown to Bert, there were more things at stake here than could be measured by a ruler. The PM wanted The Foot, and only the genuine foot would do.

Sure enough, when the director put in the call to Downing Street, the PM was similarly incandescent. “What do you mean, you’ve lost the effing foot?”

“Well, PM, I’m sure it’s not lost exactly. We’re having a root around for it. It’s probably still about somewhere,… em.” However, the director wasn’t hopeful, and privately shared Bert’s view the glorious, Imperial foot was indeed gone forever. “But you see, PM, we know the foot is precisely 0.3048 of a meter. So for all practical purposes, the foot, as a unit of measurement, is imperishable, I mean in the abstract sense of things. As for the actual physical foot, in the archives, well, that varied from day to day, depending on how accurately you measured it, and indeed who was doing the measurement,… while, as regards the meter,…” But he was waffling, and worse, he was being technical, and the PM was having none of it.

“No, no, no. That won’t do at all. Listen, we’re not making any further reference to those damned Johnny Foreigner measures. No more meters, or sub twiddly bits thereof, d’you understand? We’ve taken back control. We are a Sovereign Nation, and shall exercise our right to exceptionality in all matters, be that feet and inches, or pounds and ounces. And to that end, I want the actual effing true blue British foot, so I can present it to the public at my next news conference. Do I make myself clear?”

Bert was putting his coat on at the day’s end, thinking he’d got away with any further involvement in the case of the missing foot, when the phone rang again. “I’m sorry, Director? Did you say fake it?”

“No, I said make it. Can’t you just make another foot? Though, technically that would be faking it, I suppose. But it’s only a lump of metal, after all. No one will know the difference. I’m sure we can get the original drawings off the Internet or something, so we know roughly what it looks like. We’d have to keep it hushed up, of course, but since I’m sure you value your pension, I presume I can rely on your discretion.”

“It’s really not as simple as that, Director. The problem isn’t so much what it looks like, but how big shall we make it? – if we can’t refer to the international standards – I mean the meter – and when the actual – you know – the actual foot itself is missing, how do we measure a foot?”

The Director sighed. Bert was a good man, but like all his kind, he was infuriatingly rational, and wilfully ignorant of the bigger picture, to say nothing of the real forces that shaped the world. “We can’t refer to the meter, Bert. It’s been impressed on me, in no uncertain terms, that’s completely out of the question. The meter is to be persona non grata. A matter of national importance, and all that. We have to find another way. A way that’s more,… I don’t know,… patriotic, let’s say.”

“Well,…” said Bert, thinking hard, but hoping he couldn’t come up with anything, because all he wanted to do was go home and check on his allotment. “We might still have a yard knocking about. Would that be patriotic enough?”

“A yard? Well, why didn’t you say so? We can work backwards from that. Three feet to the yard, right?”

“Well, I suppose so, Director. But it would be much easier if,…”

“No, Bert. I told you. The meter is out. Go fetch the yard, man.”

With a sigh, Bert hung his coat up again. He hoped he was right, and the actual yard hadn’t gone rusty, or worse, been chucked out too, or they were really sunk. Even then, how he was going to explain this to the manufacturer without reference to anything metric, he didn’t know. They’d have to measure the yard in terms of something else. There were inches, of course, thirty-six of them to the yard, and patriotic he supposed, but he’d not seen, or indeed used, any of those tricky little blighters for decades. As for the pounds and ounces thing, well Bert still wasn’t for letting that awkward bit of news out of the bag. He was retiring tomorrow, come hell or high water, and by the time it was discovered by the higher ups,… well, it was definitely going to be someone else’s problem.

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The Wharfe, Langstrothdale, Yorkshire Dales

I thought I might as well visit Langstrothdale, while I was up this way – this way being the Upper Wharfe, in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s evening, the shadows are long, the light is pure gold, and the Wharfe is the prettiest I’ve ever seen it. We’re nearing the source of the river here, so there’s not much breadth to it, but it makes up for that with vigour, and a charming little waterfall every couple of yards.

It’s my first time, actually, but it will not be my last. A narrow road brings us up from Buckden, by the George Inn, at Hubberholme, and on, via a series of dramatic dips and bends, to the farm at Yockenthwaite. We’ve left the car near there, at a roadside pull-in. The river is close to hand, easily accessible, and looking like a favourite picnic and paddling spot for those in the know.

The George Inn, Hubberholme

The drive would take us on to Hawes, eventually, but we’ll save that for when we’re in the little blue car, and then we’ll get the top down, so we can feel the drive, as well as see it. This is such a gorgeous, timeless place. If you wanted to film a drama, and needed a location that could pass for the 1930’s without much fudging, this is where you’d come – as indeed they did for the later series of Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

One of the downsides to carrying the phone everywhere is your emails can catch up with you, and I’ve just had one from the energy company that threatened to spoil my day. I’d been feeling pretty smug, actually. Draconian economies at the old homestead had cut our energy use by a third, so I was thinking – crisis or not – we were quids in. Then I get this email telling me my bills will still be fifty percent higher than they were last month. And, then passing the filling station, near Grassington, this morning, I noted the price of fuel had hit £1.76 per litre, which was around 10p a litre higher than when I filled up a few days ago. There is a feeling of poor old Albion careering into disaster.

Everyone’s struggling with it, and the poorest will be crucified by what’s coming. It grates, of course. We’ll be washing in cold water next, and banning the Lady Graeme from baking cakes (the last straw!). But an evening like this, by the Wharfe, up Langstrothdale, laughs out loud at such things. The world, as we’ve made it, and I mean the world beyond this gorgeous fold of a dale, seems a universe away, now.

Yockenthwaite, Langstrothdale

Not a long walk today. Just a mile up river, from Yockenthwaite farm, to Deepdale, then back – a bit of a scouting mission for future expeditions. The meadows are bright green and splashed with broad strokes of yellow from the buttercups. A closer look by the path-side as we make our way reveals the tiny blue faces of germander speedwell, and the little white stars of common mouse ear. Lower down the valley, in the meadows by Hubberholme, this morning, I found the bolder saxifrage, mayflower, butterwort, and campion, all in profusion, and then a lone early purple orchid.

It’s a little cold, and many of the gnarly trees by the river are looking haggard, but I guess they’re just a bit late putting on their leaves. It’s summer at home, down on the Lancashire plain. Here in the higher dales, though, it’s still spring, and looking a little uncertain of itself.

The Yockenthwaite Cricle

There’s a small stone circle along the way that I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. I’d wondered if it would be difficult to find, as many of these small antiquities sometimes are, but there it is, plain as day, and beautifully located between sparkling river and fellside. Given its size, I’m wondering if it’s more likely a ring of kerb stones for what was once a burial mound, or if it marks the site of a hut. The fact it’s on the tilt, is also curious.

So, yes, I’m missing the little blue car on this trip. She’s in for a tidy-up. I first brought her up the Wharfe the summer I bought her, 2014. I was only going to keep her a few years, get the open-top roadster thing out of my system, but we’re still together. A marriage made in heaven, you might say. The back wings are blistering out, like they always do on this marque, but I’ve managed to find a man who restores cars, and that wasn’t easy. Welding skills are becoming rare. Fingers crossed, though, my man will have her back in fine fettle with some more summers ahead of her. Then, sure as eggs, we’ll be up this way again, and we’ll drive that road from Buckden to Hawes, just like we said.

The Wharfe, Langstrothdale

This evening, I’m wondering about old Albion, down there, beyond this fold of dale, and am almost reluctant to return to the madness it has become lately. I’ve been keeping company with J B Priestly throughout this trip, reading some of his short stories, and in one of them a character describes people as either asleep, or dead. It seems a cruel thing to say, but I think I know what he means. We’ll not hurry back. We’ll settle by the river a while, and watch the light moving across the fells.

Thanks for listening.

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Alice Golightly had the misfortune of surviving all her family. Husband, children, brothers, sisters, all of them had gone before her, so she sailed into her nineties alone as friends, too, old and new, fell by the wayside. Among the last of the plotter girls, she’d served as a WAAF, with Fighter Command, during the Battle of Britain. Then she’d worked forty years as a formidable secretary, in one of the great manufactories, now fallen to rust. She’d spent her retirement in the bingo halls, a cheerful soul. There were holidays in Blackpool, and Marbella,…

In wartime, she’d survived a direct hit on her bunker, helped pull others, less fortunate, from the rubble, never wondering for what purpose she was spared, what purpose, this long span of life. Only now did she fall casualty, still unquestioning of the rhyme and the reason of things. A copper broke the door in, found her sleeping the eternal sleep – by now a sleight, malnourished form, under hand crocheted blankets, in an unheated room. Less mobile, and confused of late, she’d been unable to work out how to make the pension go as far as was needed. The coroner concluded she’d been subsisting on a diet of raisins, and thereby succumbed to seasonal hypothermia.

After a blur of mergers and acquisitions, the newly formed, newly fangled energy company that had taken over Alice’s supply, had risen, as if by sleight of hand, and emptied her bank account in short measure. Then it disconnected her, when she could no longer pay. Alice had been sure it was a mistake. She’d always been able to pay her way before. Official letters had couched their threats in guarded and impenetrable legalese. Her own, spidery, handwritten replies spoke of confusion, openness and old age. There was also humiliation in her appeals for explanations in terms she could understand, none of ehich were forthcoming. She had never joined the online world, wary of clever people duping her out of money, and ruining her life. Always outgoing and spirited, the walls of her world finally closed in, and Alice Golightly was heard from no more. She might have made it to a hundred, if only we had let her.

Alice Golightly’s last act was to have the undertaker’s little ambulance block the road by her house, during her removal from this world. The traffic backed up and blocked the neighbouring street, which in turn, like a series of ripples spreading out, caused a minor hold up in the middle of town.

Now, the chief executive who closed the deal that indirectly caused the disconnection of Alice’s energy supply, was an unhappy man. Three times married, he was approaching as many divorces. His daughter, from his first marriage, was in therapy, and hated the ground he walked upon. His son, from his second marriage, was dropping tens of thousands in the casinos of Monte Carlo, and seemed bent on bankrupting him. The renovation of his Oxfordshire mansion wasn’t going to plan, and the taxman was on his back. He’d have to move more of his money offshore. Life really was a bitch right now.

As his limousine cruised through town that day, it hit the traffic indirectly caused by Alice Golightly’s last act, and a sat-nav diversion took him by a line of people queuing for food handouts.

“So many homeless,” he mused.

It never failed to amaze him how anyone could be so feckless, so lacking in the work ethic, or intelligence, or whatever, to say nothing of being so damned shameless, as to line up for charity like that. His driver nodded, not wanting to tell him these weren’t actually homeless people. They were more likely workers, working precarious jobs, yet who still couldn’t feed their families, or heat their homes. It was just the way of the world right now. But the chief was always right.

It did nothing to improve the chief’s mood, of course, seeing the ugly underbelly of the world this way. It always had him wondering by what misfortune he might yet end up there himself. It was a recurring nightmare of his. The limousine slowed to a halt in heavy traffic. He tried to avoid eye contact with the people queuing there, but his eye was indeed caught, briefly anyway, by a young girl in the line. She looked to be of his daughter’s age, and as pretty a girl as he’d ever seen. Scrub her up, swap her cheap clothes for couture, and she wouldn’t look out of place anywhere in his world, he thought.

Was it only money, then, that made the difference? What was the trick that had him destined for riches, and her,… well,… to stand in line like this? The girl’s expression was blank, betrayed no emotion. Except, suddenly, she smiled at something her neighbour said, then laughed out loud, holding her sides as if to contain a surplus of mirth that threatened to rock her entire being off the pavement. Her laughter moved him. It was so open, so light, so genuine. He could not remember the last time he’d felt that way. It saddened him too, that he would never see his daughter laugh like that, and when his son laughed – as he often did – well, that was only out of scorn.

The traffic eased as Alice Golightly’s final journey got under way. The chief’s limousine moved sedately on, and he settled back in the leather, caught up in a moment of deep introspection. Then it came to him, the solution to his unhappiness! What he needed, more than anything, right now,…

Was to buy himself a yacht!

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The concluding part of the story,….

Okay, that wasn’t too bad. The car goes like a rocket, doesn’t it? A little wild on the corners by modern standards, but plenty of kick! Anyway, here we are, just pulling into a space on Menses Park Terrace. The college is over there, and Menses Park is to our right. We’ve still an hour to kill, so I thought we’d take a look in the park because I’ve not been in there for ages and, well, the place is kind of special to me, for a number of reasons.

I’d forgotten how green this part of town is, all cherry trees and wide open spaces. It’s just a stone’s throw, and yet a million miles away from the bustle of the centre. And here,… see? Isn’t this a pretty park? Look at the lawns, and the colourful borders. You won’t find parks like this anywhere else in the world – it’s so English, so Victorian. See the bandstand? The ornamental lake? This is where I come at lunchtimes when the weather’s good. It gets me out of college, gives me somewhere quiet to be on my own and lick my wounds.

If you don’t mind we’ll just sit here on this bench for a bit. We’ve been lucky with the weather eh? Today’s exactly as I remember it: warm, and the scent of fresh cut grass. But it was always a pleasure tainted by the perpetual loneliness of being in love, and always disappointed by the reality of love’s apparent indifference to me. Still,… no need to dwell on that now: I’ll soon be seeing Serena again. She’ll be sitting beside me in the car, and I’ll take her to that little pub. We’ll talk over a decent meal and get to know one another,… we’ll feel so grown up and sophisticated – then I’ll bring her home and drop her on her doorstep and say: it was fun, wasn’t it? I really enjoyed being with you. And she’ll blush and maybe give me her number and we’ll arrange to do it again sometime soon.

What’s that? I said: We’ll arrange to,… what are you looking at? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,….

Woah!

Didn’t I tell you Faye was a looker? Crikey, I’d forgotten she used to wear her dresses as short as that! That’s her bench over there you see? Didn’t I tell you? This is where we first met. This is what I wanted to show you, just for completeness really, though it’s a while yet before our time comes, and I wasn’t expecting to see her today. She was sitting over there, reading Wuthering Heights. I was going through a bit of a Bronte phase myself and was reading The Tennant of Wildfell Hall – made a change from Newton’s Laws, and Mhor’s Circle.

Anyway, even from a distance we couldn’t help but notice one another’s books and we made a joke about swapping them when we’d finished. It was said light heartedly but – you know how these things work – I looked out for her every time I was in town after that, and in the end we did exchange books. Her telephone number was written on the very first page and the rest, as they say is history,… or rather my future.

Look at her legs as she sits down, and crosses them. Aren’t they sexy? You can nearly see her stocking-tops! And the way she dangles her shoe on the end of her toes like that! Oh,… but she looks so pretty,…. so young and absolutely devastating! I don’t mind telling you I feel a bit awkward now, sitting here, knowing I’m about to be going off with someone else shortly, and maybe you think it’s wrong, but you’re forgetting: Faye doesn’t know me yet and it would complicate things if I were to do what you seem to be urging me to do, and take my copy of Wildfell Hall out of my bag – yes I know it’s in there – I’ve seen it too. Oh, Faye: red high heels, big bushy hair, a slash of red lip-gloss, electric blue eye-shadow. How I used to ache for you! Where did you go, my love? What happened to you? What happened to us? Do we really change so much as we age – or are we the same, and we just forget who we are?

Okay, maybe we should move on. I’m beginning to feel really strange now, like I’m going to wake up. Talk to me will you. Say something. Why do you have to be so flipping quiet all the time? Oh,… I think it’s too late,… we’re slipping free,…. no sense in fighting it; once we start to slide there’s nothing we can do to stop it,… here we go.

Damn!

Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault. I think it was seeing Faye that did it. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Let me come round for a moment, then we’ll go back into the house and check on her. Does everything look as it should to you? I mean the shed. I could swear there was something,… oh never mind,… I think the tea was a little too strong. Do you have a funny taste in your mouth? Yak!

So, anyway, here we are. The house is all quiet. We’ve been away a bit longer than I expected and everything’s in darkness. There’s just a light showing under the lounge door, and I can hear the TV, so I don’t think I’ve been missed, but I’m feeling guilty about the Serena thing, so I’ll salve my conscience by asking Faye if there’s anything I can do. It’s a little weak I know and she’ll suspect me at once of something underhand but, really, seeing her as she used to be has reminded me of what it was that drew me to her in the first place. She was every bit as pretty as Serena – I’d forgotten that – but there was something else,… and I’m really glad I woke up in time before I had the chance to disgrace myself. Anyway, here we are:

“Faye,… I was just,…”

Okay.

You’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I think about this.

Yes,… I can see it’s not Faye. But who?…. Oh, I get it – It’s Serena of course! Nice one! She’s padded out a little, and there are lines around her eyes – not unattractive, I might add. Its more her expression that’s so shocking – the same dull, deadness – just like Faye: those lifeless eyes reflecting nothing but the crap she’s watching on TV. So,… I take it we’ve slipped forwards, not to our old future, but to our new one?

Fine, just so long as I know where I am!

On the up-side, it seems our courtship went well and we’ve managed to share a life together, but on the down-side, unlike my life with Faye, I’ve obviously not had the pleasure of remembering the best bits of it. I’ve gone straight from that tingling anticipation of our first date, to surfacing directly here into the featureless plain of our later years, a time when it’s all been said and done, and we can barely be bothered looking at each other any more.

“Serena?”

She’s barely aware of us,… fortunately, the TV is on so loud she didn’t hear me calling her Faye.

“Serena, can I get you anything?”

She waves her hand dismissively. Clearly I’m disturbing her and I suspect we’d be as well retreating back into the kitchen.

Now, given the rather shop-worn outcome of both these relationships, I agree it seems I’m most likely the one at fault here, since I’m the common denominator in them both. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that though. I mean I could do the decent thing while I’m here and try to perk things up with Serena, but since I don’t remember anything of our relationship, I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that without her knowing something’s wrong, and maybe making things even worse.

So that leaves me wondering about your part in all of this, and how we seemed to bump into each other at that particular time and place. And you must forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking it’s you who’s been married to Serena all this time, that this is your future, and that maybe lately you’ve been haunted by memories of a woman sitting on a park bench flashing her stocking tops, and reading Wuthering Heights? A woman who caught your eye and smiled at you as you were waiting to go out on your first date with Serena perhaps?

Okay. Fine. Well, I trust that, like me, you know what it was now that you really left back there in ’83, and now we’ve found it we can both avoid screwing up our lives any further. It was really weird bumping into you again, and you understand if I hesitate to suggest we do this sort of thing more often? For now, I’d be obliged if you’d just put the kettle on and hand me your almanac. With a bit of luck the moon’s not moved too far away from the ecliptic,…

….and Faye’s still sitting on that park bench.

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Still with me after part one? Much appreciated. Let’s see where this goes. So,…

We’ve skipped ahead a little now, consulted our almanac, and there’s a full moon on the ecliptic this evening. I’ve checked the earth’s geomagnetic signature on the Internet and sure enough, it’s been plummeting for days, so now’s our chance. I’ve tickled round the garden with a hoe, tidied up the borders and mown the grass, which ought to keep Faye off our backs for a while. If you think you’re ready, come down to the shed, and I’ll boil us up an infusion of hedgerow clippings. Take a seat, make yourself comfortable – go on – settle back.

Here we go,….

There! see how easy it is? We’ve slipped back to ’83 without much trouble. The only problem is we’ve missed the best bit and we’re already half way through Dodman’s lecture. Mhor’s Circle is up on the blackboard, which means Serena’s long gone. That’s a bit of a drag, but maybe you’re right and trying to cop off with a dream-girl from my past is like trying to run before I can walk. So, maybe I should start with something simple like,… I don’t know,… how about if I just,…. stood up?

Okay! That seemed to work. Here we are, standing up in the middle of Dodman’s lecture on Mhor’s Circle. Weird! It seems we’ve just created another future because Dodman, interrupted mid-sentence, is now looking at us over his spectacles in a way he never did in our original past, at least not at this place and time.

“Yes?” he asks.

He’s a pleasant chap, old Dodman, and we’ve no need to fear his wrath, but all the same it’s an embarrassing situation and I’ve no idea what to do next. To be honest I didn’t expect things to be as easy as this.

“Em,…”

“Is everything all right, young man?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Dodman. I think,… perhaps,.. I need,… to excuse myself.”

I could just have sat down again and maybe time would have flowed back into its normal course, but, really, this is too interesting a thing to let it go just yet. So, we’re outside the room now, breathing hard, sweating like we’re sick and shoving our college notes back into our bag. What now you ask? Well follow me and I’ll show you.

I’m of an age when I can look back fondly on the 80’s, and even though it doesn’t seem that long ago to me, the fashions, the styles, the cars,… when I see these things in movies or pictures from that period, they conjure up a feeling of such nostalgia it’s like I’m sure I misplaced something back here that was really important to me. I’m also sure I know what, or rather who it is:

We’re talking about Serena, of course!

The girls were mostly into big fluffy hair, and shoulder pads in those days. I remember it as a very glamorous, sexy and confident time. As for my car – I drove an RS 2000, painted a gloriously unsubtle shade of yellow. It had alloy wheels, fat tyres and a Cosworth engine. If I’m right I’ve left it parked around Avondale Road, where it’s all quiet and residential, and where the parking’s free. But that’s for later. For now though, I’ve just remembered a coffee shop in the old Market Hall which is nearer, so we’ll check that out first.

Okay, here we are. I know it’s not much of a place but the coffee’s really good, and is very straight forward to order – just coffee – none of the endless choice that’s supposed to be the mark of a sophisticated free-market society. It’s pretty busy, it being market day, you see? But if you follow me quickly there’s a table just over there. We can hunker down, sip our coffee and try to work out what to do next.

Excuse me,… coming through!….

Wow, did you see that girl? She looked like a movie star! I used to sneer at all this glam stuff – plastic people I used to call them – but now I really miss it! By the way, if you don’t mind my saying so you seem to know your way around here pretty well.

Anyway, where were we?

Oh,… hold on. Something really strange has just happened. Serena’s walked in. She’s over there, ordering coffee from the counter – baggy striped sweater and jeans, big satchel. Isn’t she gorgeous? Do you see the provocative tilt of her hips? Oh,… now she’s looking for somewhere to sit. Ever heard of a synchronicity? Well you’re in one. We shouldn’t get too excited though because, considering the way she last looked at me, I’ll be lucky to get a smile out of her this time. Still,… she can’t find a seat, and we’ve got this whole table to ourselves.

I wonder,… Okay, she’s looked our way now and I’m sure she’s recognised me. I can read her mind: she’s thinking she can either beg a corner of that table with those old dears by the window, or she can come and sit with me. If she’s kind hearted, she’ll know I’ll be hurt if she chooses the old dears, but I don’t want her to be uncomfortable either. And I don’t want her to feel sorry for me. I just want her to want me.

Right, she’s coming over! You’d better slip off into the background, while I deal with it. No,.. don’t go too far; I don’t mind you listening in and, anyway, I may need your help if I get into trouble.

“Hi,” she’s saying. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Of course not.”

I can feel myself tingling now, like she’s emitting a force field and it’s exciting every particle of me. Once again there’s that startling awareness of every detail of her, and she looks so cute and cuddly in her sweater. Surely, no matter how long I live, I will never desire anyone as completely as I desire Serena at this moment. No,… I’m not talking about sex here; it’s more that I can’t remember a time when I’ve ever wanted just to be,… with anyone so much as this. But I’m confused because, of course, this moment never happened. If this truly is, or was, my past, then it’s following a different track now.

And that’s progress.

Isn’t it?

Serena’s nervous. She can read my thoughts, she sees the desire in my eyes, and she doesn’t want any embarrassment. She just wants to sit and drink her coffee without some hormone-inebriated youth making a pass at her.

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”

Now it’s her turn to be confused. “Oh?”

“I’m not really here, you see?”

She smiles. She has a lively sense of humour and thinks perhaps I’m joking with her – thinks perhaps she’s misjudged me, been too hasty in setting a distance between us.

“Really?” she asks. She has the most beautiful dimples, and those lips? Do you see those lips – how wide her smile, how white her teeth?

“It’s true,” I’m telling her. “I’m actually sitting in my shed some time maybe twenty five years from now, thinking back on this moment.”

She takes a sip of her coffee, and I can see her running this one through her mind, her eyes making little oscillations while she weighs me up. She could easily think I’m a wierdo and recoil, but instead she tiptoes politely into my joke, and now she’s asking me: “So, what’s it like then: twenty five years from now?”

And of course I want to say something corny like: “All the poorer for not having you in it, Serena,” but that would be lame and this is a joke, after all, so I’ll have to say something light and smart and say it soon, or it’ll ruin the moment.

But what is it like, twenty five years from now? Do I say the world’s economy has collapsed, that the financial institutions these stripey shirted, brace twanging proto-tycoons are constructing around now will turn out to have been nothing more than a sophisticated con-trick? No,… too downbeat. But then I remember I was not particularly happy here in the ’80’s either – sure I wasn’t sinking in a sea of mortgage hell and torpedoed investments, but what I was, was forever falling in love with a long string of women, none of whom ever knew my name, which from where I’m sitting now, back in ’83, suddenly seems a whole lot worse than looking at my building society statement twenty five years from now and thinking: shite!

But she’s waiting – the moment sliding away and if you want to make a decent joke, of course timing is everything. I give her a smile, as warm as I can muster, and then I hear myself, like some ham actor from a ’40’s movie say in clipped English tones: “It’s all terribly dull I’m afraid.”

I’m a hit: she’s laughing now and my heart is swelling. How I wish I could simply hold this moment than have to take things any further, but the times are holding on to me, and it seems each moment from now will be whatever I choose to make of it.

“You’re a nutter,” she says, but flicks me a smile and a coy look that I take as permission to proceed – but carefully.

“Shouldn’t you be in class?” I ask.

“Study period,” she replies. “What’s your excuse?”

“Me? I’m meddling with the nature of space and time.”

But this raises barely a grin – too pretentious. Must keep it real! “Well,… seriously, I’ve attended this lecture so often I know it by heart.”

“Lucky you.”

“What time are you in college ’till?”

She pauses before replying. I’m being too obvious now but my gambit is rewarded by that coy look again. “Four,” she replies. “You?”

“I’m here ’till nine.”

“Nine?”

“I’m a day release student,” I explain. “We get twelve hours of lectures a week – all on the same day unfortunately.”

“Ah,… then you have a job?”

“Yes. I’m an engineer.” I might have said ‘designer’, but I’m worried she’ll think I mean fashion or something. But what’s this? She’s interested: she’s lifting her chin, fastening her eyes a little more steadily upon me.

“Reeeaaaally?”

Now, it’s not that engineering’s a sexy kind of job – it’s more that just having a job at all makes me seem a little more mature than your everyday college boy. I earn real money, while the guys she’s been out with so far have most likely all been full time students and dirt poor. Sure,… this is what she’s thinking – trust me. Now, I’m not exactly a rich man, but I can afford to spend money on her, and every woman likes to be made to feel she’s worth a million dollars – it doesn’t make her shallow. Anyway, that’s the female side of the equation. As for the male: one side of my head may be pushing fifty – which is the side that’s thinking straight, thinking ahead, and urging caution, but the other side is twenty three and thinking very little, except how much I want to show her the car, or preferably get her into it. I’m young you see and I want to wave my bright yellow, two litre metaphorical willy at her.

“Do you need a ride home?”

She shakes her head and I cringe inwardly. That was too much, too clumsy, but I note she’s careful not to push me so far away. “I mean I don’t know you, do I?” she says.

“True. True,…”

“Anyway,” she goes on, teasing. “If you don’t get off ’till nine how can you?”

“I’ll probably skip the rest of today,” I tell her. “What I really want to do,…” I mean if I blow it here, I’m thinking, “is take the car for a blast over the moors – there’s a little pub I know. Cosy. Good restaurant. I’ll probably hang about up there for the evening.”

“Sounds nice.” I can see her balancing the potential of my rather subtle invitation against the risks of being stranded in the wilds with a psychopath. “Well,…. I see you often enough in the refectory at lunchtimes,” she calculates. “So, I sort of know you already, a little.”

“Yes,… you do.”

“I don’t need a ride home though – I only live five minutes away.”

“Right. That’s very,… convenient.” My how this girl likes to tease!

Is she inviting me back to her place, then? No – don’t be an idiot. Her place will probably include a mum, a dad and an annoying little sister.

What do I do? Time is ticking. Her hands are curled around her coffee cup, her arms flat upon the table and I see her turning her wrist a fraction so she can tell the time. She’s so lovely, so perfect,… but I fear I’m losing her now.

“Study period almost over?” I ask.

She nods, and though she does not smile, there is a look in her eyes that betrays her pleasure in the time we have spent together.

“Sorry,” she says. “I don’t mean to be rude.”

Our eyes are lowered a fraction. She’s waiting to see what I’ll do: if I’ll try to blurt in a last desperate pass. She’s perhaps hoping I won’t, but being terribly polite in giving me the opportunity to embarrass myself. “Well,…” I say. “Maybe you’ll let me buy you coffee next time.”

She’s surprised by this. It gives her the easy way out, the chance to smile and say “maybe”, and retreat with both our dignities intact, also the chance of a follow up if she feels like it, or the chance to avoid me if she doesn’t. Really, I wish I’d had this much sense when I was younger, instead of being so damned gauche and backing girls into corners all the time.

“Well,…” she’s saying. “If you happened to be parked down Menses Park Terrace, say just after four,… you never know,… we might bump into each other again.”

And if I’m not mistaken I think I’ve just scored.

“You never know,” I tell her. “And maybe if you were passing, I could ask if you fancied joining me for a meal,… at that pub?”

“And maybe I’d like that,” she says.

She’s in a hurry now, drains her coffee, and with a last look at her watch, pushes back her chair, flashes me a smile, and says it was nice talking to me. I nod dreamily, and she’s gone before I have time to ruin the moment by saying something stupid.

Well, come on then! There’s no time to waste. We’d better pay up, and get out of here. I know we’ve hours to kill before four o’clock, but I remember it was always murder parking down Menses Park Terrace, and we’ll probably have to circle a bit before we find a spare slot. I don’t want to leave anything to chance, you see, and it’ll give us an opportunity to get a feel for the car again. And maybe,… sure,… while we’re there, there’s somewhere else I’d like to show you.

To be concluded tomorrow,….

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Blowing the dust off some old short fictions with a thought for getting back into the craft. I’ll be putting this one up in daily instalments. Each one is a five to ten minute read, so hopefully I can hook you early on. It’s about young love, old love and time travel. What’s not to like? So,…

I haven’t been to Wigan for ages, not since the ’80’s, in fact, and I can’t say for sure we’re really here now, except it seems pretty much that way to me. If I’m correct, it’s a Thursday, just after lunch, and we’re standing in a huddle of people waiting to go inside the old technical college on Parson’s Walk, but there’s been a fire alarm, and it’s chaos. It’s no hardship, though, because the sun is shining, and every second I spend out here is a second less I’ll have to spend in class.

Okay,… so, here we are; this is the interesting bit: there’s a girl looking at me, smiling. Do you see her? That’s Serena, and I’ve been in love with her for a long time. Her smile is heart-warming, it’s also completely unexpected because, until this moment, I’d not been aware of her having taken much notice of me. Clearly though, she is aware of me; dare I say she even seems to like me?

The crowd fades into the background and all I can see is her, except “see” isn’t the right word. Yes, I can see every freckle, every individual eyelash, but I can also feel the texture of her skin, her clothes, her hair,… and though she’s twenty feet away, and just one person in the midst of so many others, I’m aware even of the warm-womanly scent of her.

Emboldened by that smile I take a step closer, but the smile fades as if she’s read my thoughts, and is wondering how to avoid the embarrassment of my making an unwelcome pass at her. See? She’s gone now, swallowed by the crowd whose din fills my ears as the fire alarm is ended, and we all make our way towards the doors. I always was a bit of a klutz when it came to women.

Here we are then, shuffling along corridors, heading for my Materials’ Science lecture, which I warn you is going to be a couple of hours of grinding tedium, but you’re lucky because from my perspective things are made all the more unbearable by the ache in my heart, and the knowledge it might be weeks before I ever come that close to Serena again.

I’ve done this a few times now, slipped back to this moment, and what I’d really like to do is slow things down, savour the best bits, the glow of that smile for instance, and then pull out of it before this crushing disappointment kicks in, and I’m once more sitting listening to old Dodman explaining about Mhor’s Circle. I might have found a way of slipping back in time, but once I’m here, time ticks along at its normal pace, and I’m unable to control how long we remain, though boredom usually kills it and sends you right back to whatever time you came from.

It’s curious, these trips to what I suppose must be the early summer of 1983, and my final year of the old HNC course in Mechanical and Production Engineering. It’s curious, because although I am myself, as I believe I was back then, my heart heavy with the bitter sweetness of an unrequited love, there is also superimposed upon my memory the knowledge that for our entire lives, Serena and I will never say anything more than an awkward “hello”, that we’ll marry other people, have kids, and live our lives in complete ignorance of one another.

Now, don’t go thinking I regret the way things turned out for me, because I don’t – well, not exactly. This moment may be charged with a deliciously poignant nostalgia, but I could just as easily have revisited any number of similar moments from around that period. Indeed a few months from now I’ll meet a delightfully feisty girl who won’t disappear every time I try to say hello. On the contrary: she’ll take me to her bed at the first opportunity and keep me there – that is until we both wake up, a quarter of a century later, too middle aged and kid-tired for that sort of thing any more.

Nowadays she prefers watching TV and grumbles when I forget to take the rubbish out. Well, that’s middle age for you, and you either grow up, grow into it, accept its imperfections, its disappointments, and grow old grumbling at someone, or you ruin yourself on a mad fling with a girl half your age that you know won’t last, and then you grow old and alone, with only the walls to grumble at.

In the absence of any other alternatives, I know which of the two I prefer. But what if there was a third alternative? What if that mad fling were to take place in another time and place, dare I say even a different universe altogether? Then you could have your fun and it wouldn’t matter would it? And then what if it wasn’t a mad fling or a bit of fun at all? What if it turned out to be the single most important thing you never did?

Old Dodman’s lecture on Mhor’s Circle seems to do the trick – don’t misunderstand, this is technically interesting and professionally important stuff for me, first time around. It’s just the boredom of its frequent repetition I suppose, that has me resurfacing, safe and sound, in the shed at the bottom of my garden.

The light’s melting into amber over the messy backs of all the red brick terraces of my street. I can see a multitude of chimney pots, a tangle of drainpipes and a mad assortment of larch-lap fencing in various degrees of disrepair. It’s not exactly the most likely setting for an experiment into the nature of time and reality, but then I’m not sure there’s much of a precedent for this sort of thing.

Faye thinks I’m potting up Bizzie Lizzies – at least in so far as I imagine she thinks about me at all these days, and to be safe I have potted a few, but mostly I’ve just been sitting here in this old armchair, among the dust and the cobwebs, well,… daydreaming really. Except, as you’ve just seen, there’s more to it than that. So, maybe you’re wondering if it really is possible, to slip back in time, court girls, and have sex with all that sweet simplicity like you used to, and just,… be so damned young again!

Well, trust me, it’s possible all right, to go back and experience your past again. I’ll show you how in a moment, but I’m warning you, you can only amuse yourself so much with that kind of thing before you start to wonder how you might go about making some changes while you’re there. I see you hesitate? You’re worried about going back and, by changing something insignificant, ruining your present, or maybe even blotting it out altogether?

Don’t worry. That’s day one on the time traveller’s course, and if you don’t mind my saying so, that theory’s a bit dated now – I mean all those rational paradoxes the usual smart-Alec naysayers throw at you. No, trust me, if you change something in your past, you don’t change your present at all – you simply create another version of it. Setting aside all the philosophical musings for a while, there really seems no harm in it, provided you can always get back to where you started from, of course, and as we’ve just seen, all that takes is moment or two of boredom.

So, it turns out the business of time-travel is actually a lot easier then than you’ve been led to believe, provided you’re only interested in going backwards of course. Sure, it turns out the most effective time machine’s not a machine at all, it’s simply the mind, whatever that is, helped along by nothing more complicated than some herbal tea, and the right phase of the moon.

The phase of the moon, you ask?

Perhaps I should explain. At certain times of the month, your mind is less securely fastened down inside your brain. This has to do with the earth’s magnetic field, which forms a sheath of energy around the planet called the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere gets a regular kick from the Sun’s magnetic field, which generally keeps the magnetosphere lively, which in turn stimulates our brains through the pineal gland. What’s that? Well, it’s basically a magnetic sensor wrapped in nerve fibres.

With me so far?

Much of the pineal gland’s function is a mystery, but one of the things it does is keep our sense of self too busy to think of leaking outside of our brains to somewhere more interesting. Once a month though, just before Full Moon, the earth’s magnetic field hushes down a little and then, if your mind’s calm enough, it can slip into a state of dissociation, where any memories that happen by are rendered in ultra-realistic detail.

Okay, so, maybe now you’re thinking this isn’t really time-travel after all. It’s more simply a kind of hallucination? You might have a point, but how about this: if you can trigger a memory, like we just did, then amplify it to such an extent you experience everything, exactly as it was: sights, sounds, touch, smell, and the feel of it all, a feel so overwhelming it entirely blocks out the sense of your present self, well, what difference is there between that and reality, other than the passage of a few decades?

Okay, it’s cold sitting in the shed. Come into the house for a bit and warm up. Let’s try the lounge. Yes,… just as I thought: that’s Faye, reclining on the sofa, dropping bits of chocolate into her mouth, while she gawps rather unattractively at the TV. I’m sure you’ll agree she’s not a bad looking woman, and there was once a time when she was very sweet indeed, very energetic in her loving, only now I get the impression she isn’t really much of anything other than this dull automaton, with all the life squeezed out of her. And to be perfectly fair, she probably feels the same way about me – and not without justification.

Now, Faye and I will never split up. I mean we might have outgrown the idealistic stage when we both believed we had the power to make each other deliriously happy, all the time. And though we may be past all that, we’re far too polite and conventional to do anything so drastic as making each other deliberately unhappy, for example by having the bad manners to take off with someone else. We’re companionable enough, most of the time, but anyone can see there’s something,… well,… missing.

There’s no sense in disturbing her just now, so lets sneak back into the kitchen and check on the herb tea situation. Did I mention the herb tea? Look – I keep it all here in this cupboard where its cool. I get it from the hedgerows, dry it out slowly over the summer, then crush it in the usual way, soak it, drain it. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you there’s plenty of stuff growing in those hedgerows that will kill you, and make a pretty long and nasty job of it too, so you need to know what you’re doing. What’s that? You’re already familiar with this kind of thing? Well that’s fine. I suppose you must be, or we wouldn’t have met outside the college the way we did, or when we did for that matter.

But, tell me, do you also know about the ecliptic? No? Then allow me to explain, because a knowledge of the ecliptic might be just the thing you’re looking for to enhance your experience. You see, there’s something else about the moon you need to know. Over the course of a month it goes from rising south of east, to rising north of east, and then back again. When it’s half way, that is when it’s rising due east, it’s said to be over the ecliptic. When the moon’s at this point, more often than not, the earth’s magnetic field is once more a little quieter – like a with a full moon. So, if you want to skip back in time, you’re better doing it either with a full moon, or with a moon over the ecliptic. Got it? If you check your almanac you’ll see this gives you three or four chances a month. Okay? With me so far? Ah,… I see I’ve sparked your interest now. You’re intelligent and already making the connections: you’re wondering will happen when the moon’s full and over the ecliptic at the same time?

Well, you’re on the right lines. A full moon on the ecliptic only happens about twice a year, and I agree with you, that might be just the time to slip back in time if you wanted to do something other than simply experience your past, and instead see about making some changes while you were there. That’s what I plan on doing next time. Next time, I’m going to try a little harder with Serena, instead of being so damned passive about it. After all, you don’t create a fresh future for yourself by being timid in your past, do you?

To be continued tomorrow,…

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In Sunnyhurst woods, Darwen, Lancashire

So, today we’re looking for trouble. We fell foul of disappearing footpaths on this walk last time, and today we’re not messing about. We’re well rested, tack sharp, and feeling assertive. We’ve also cleaned our spectacles in case we missed any obscure signage that would have seen us on our way. But since our last visit, there has been a mysterious and profuse flowering of the official green way-markers, which is frankly unexpected, since I have not yet reported any obstructions to the council. Perhaps someone read my blog? I feel my guns have been spiked, but in a good way, and whoever you are, thank you.

Thus, we are guided, without a hitch, through the formerly troublesome farmyard, and to a diversionary path. It’s not exactly as marked on the map, but it’ll do, and before we know it we’re smoothly on our way towards Tockholes. Then, at the gate, which we found to be locked last time, and had to be climbed, we note the gate is merely tied. So we untie it, and pass through with dignity. We then tie it up again with a boy-scout’s reef-knot, and a little bow on top – by way of thanks to our guardian way-fairy, for restoring safe passage. Except then, we turn to find we are greeted by a pair of magnificent horses, who must have heard us coming, and are curious. They’re big horses, too, which is a little alarming, as they canter down with purpose – their purpose being – well – us. Cobs, I think the breed is called. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take their picture – such huge, beautiful creatures, not as big as a shire, but impressive all the same. Our alarm is uncalled-for, though. They are gentle, and their stillness invites our touch. Just mind their back legs as we get around them. Horses can sometimes have a quirky sense of humour.

It’s with some regret, then, we leave our new friends, and head off up the meadow to Tockholes. We’re going a little further than we did last time, pushing the walk out to eight miles, taking in Sunnyhurst Woods, at Darwen. I’ve not been there for ages, and it would be nice to see if it’s still as I remember it.

I put a short story up on the blog last time, wrote it for Ireland’s Own magazine, some twenty years ago. I did a lot of stories for them in the nineties and the early noughties, and, as I walk, I’m trying to remember the others. One in particular comes to mind. It was about this guy who’s aching to leave his home town and see the world. Then he meets a girl from the other side of the world, who’s travelled to his town, because she saw it on the map, and thought it sounded like a cool sort of place. Through her, the guy ends up seeing his home-turf in a new way, and he decides to stay.

Looking at the lush meadows here, as they sweep up to the shaggy moors, I’m thinking, it’s a small part of the world, this corner of the West Pennines and, beautiful as it is, it’s one I sometimes take for granted. Shall I go somewhere? or shall I just nip up the moors? But when I put out a photograph online, of Great Hill, or the spillway of the Yarrow reservoir, or when I write about walks like this, I don’t always appreciate how others from around the world, and for whom their part of the world is radically different to mine, will see them. Even the names of places, unremarkable to me, sound exotic to others, as their place names, unremarkable to them, sound exotic to me.

So, whilst it’s a pleasure, and an education, to travel, and I think we should always travel as much as we can, we’ll never know anywhere as well, and I mean as intimately, as our own allotted patch of God’s earth. So we should never feel there’s anything dull, writing about it, or photographing it. We are curating what we know, and what we love. Photographs of the landscapes of Iceland, and the Faroe Islands in particular, blow my mind, but I could never know those places intimately. Such grandness is for the Icelanders, and the Faroese, as this part of the world is for me, in all its understated beauty, also, it has to be said, its occasional ruin and imperfection.

At last, we come down to Sunnyhurst Woods. It’s a public park, actually, on the edge of a once industrial Darwen, but also on the edge of the moors. Bought out of a public-spirited ideal, and planted up in the early 19th century, it’s now a ruggedly mature gem, natural in style, well-kept and well-loved. We’re beyond peak autumn, now, with most trees are looking bare – just the occasional beech still hanging on to its coppers, and the stubborn oaks. And yes, it’s all pretty much as I remember it, and gorgeous.

There’s a pretty waterfall here. We try a shot, but the light is poor. Maybe we can tease some colour out of it in post-processing. There’s a park bench. We sit, retrieve our soup-flask from where it has settled, deep in the sack. Bacon and Lentil today, made in Wigan. Kitt Green. We do still make things in Lancashire, just not as much as we used to do. But still,…

In Roddlesworth Woods

From Sunnyhurst, we pick our way over to Ryal Fold, where we enjoy another break, and a pot of tea at Vaughn’s Café. Then it’s down through the plantations at Roddlesworth. Gone is the gold of just a few weeks ago. All is bare, now, and autumn firmly on the ground. The season is still worth some pictures, though. I’m glad to have found a properly marked way through that farm. The public rights of way network is a thing of immense value, protected in law, and a freedom not enjoyed in other parts of the world. An understated resource, it costs nothing to enjoy – good for the body and the soul, and no gym membership required.

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The second and concluding part – to open the trunk or not?

Kathleen recoils from the idea, then becomes evasive. “I wouldn’t know where to find the key. I think Grandma might even have thrown it away,…”

“My tools are in the van. I could have the lock off in no time,…”

“No, thank you. I’ll think on it for a while, but I’m not sure if it’s what she would have wanted.”

I leave her cleaning the dust from the trunk, revealing inch by inch its original lustre. I’m regretting even more now that we touched it, for in doing so, I fear we have disturbed a very melancholy spirit indeed.

It’s a long job, putting things back in order. I’m weeks at Kathleen’s house, and every lunchtime she calls me down for a bite to eat. We sit in the kitchen with the trunk gleaming darkly upon the dresser, but Kathleen will not speak of it, nor even look at it in my presence. Once though, as I’m searching for some tools, I catch her bent over it, the lock in her hand, as if she’s fighting the urge to open it. And as the time passes, I noticed how she seems yet more dispirited, her grandmother’s old sorrows returning to fill again every corner of the house.

When the job’s finished, I come down from the attic to find her sitting, staring at the trunk. By now I hate the thing. I hate it’s squat, ugly shape, but most of all I hate the effect it’s having on Kathleen.

“Have you thought what you want to do with it?” I ask. “I could get rid of it for you, if you like. I’ll take it to the tip. Or we can just set fire to it in the garden and be done with it.”

“No,” she says. “We should put it back. Let it rest up there, out of sight.”

Surely not, I’m thinking. I can just imagine its grim presence lurking above her head, never more than a stray thought away.

But Kathleen insists. “If you’d just help me with it,…”

So that’s how we come to be hauling the thing back up the ladder. I remember pausing to steady myself, and resting the trunk precariously on one rung while I alter my balance. Then I lose my grip and, as the pair of us struggle to keep upright, the trunk goes crashing into the hall below.

The lock must have been hanging by a thread because the lid bursts open, and the contents, an unexpected riot of colour, spill across the carpet. I stare in wonder. There are fine dresses, letters, photographs, a handful of magazines, and the prettiest pair of silver dance-shoes. Kathleen gives a howl and is down in an instant, trying to gather the stuff together, desperate to put it back.

“Whatever would she be thinking?”

But gradually her curiosity gets the better of her, and she begins to study the things more closely, gazing at the photographs, even slipping open some of the letters,…

An hour later, we’re still at it, picking our way through a bewildering collection of poignant mementoes. Then, suddenly, there’s a change in Kathleen, a dazed confusion wrinkling her brow, as she studies the contents of an envelope that was sealed long before either of us were born.

“What’s the matter?”

She says nothing but slowly wand with a trembling hand passes me a slip of paper. As I read, I realise it’s confirmation of her grandmother’s passage to America, departing Queenstown, April 1912,…

There was one boat sailed from there at that time, a boat that has gone on to live forever in the hearts and minds of people the world over. And sure enough, printed at the bottom of the slip of paper is the name. The Titanic.

“Her whole life,” says Kathleen, “She spent it lamenting a lost chance, and she never knew how lucky she was. If she had gone, then she would surely have drowned. And my mother, and I, would never have been born.”

Seeing all those wonderful things, I’m able more easily to picture Kathleen’s grandmother now as a young girl looking ahead with all the vitality of her youth, only to become a dispirited soul, locking that brighter self up in this old trunk, and tossing away the key. That was the real tragedy, I thought, to have been miraculously spared such a terrible fate, and then to have wasted her life in ignorance of it.

Later, Kathleen and I are sitting out in the garden, gazing at the hills and the woods and the little houses, dotted along the roadside. Everything seems uncommonly beautiful of a sudden, the blue of the sky, the sunlight on the trees, even the taste of the cool evening air. She turns and looks at me, as if to speak, but there’s no need. We understand each other perfectly. Over the years, we’ve each had our share of ups and downs, and I suppose it’s only human nature that it should be the disappointments that carry the most weight. But this evening, we’re both appreciating, I think, and perhaps like no other time, what a precious thing life is.

This concludes my little story. It was first published in Ireland, around twenty years ago. I thought I’d blow the dust off it and give it a fresh lease of life, here on WordPress. Thanks for reading.

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The discovery of an old trunk stirs unsettling memories,…

Crouching low in the attic, I play the torch over the roof beams, and find them fragile. Kathleen peers anxiously through the trapdoor beside me.

“Well?” she asks. “What do you think?”

For three generations this house has served her family well, but lately the roof has begun creaking ominously, in even the lightest of winds. She’d telephoned me to ask if I’d mind taking a look. It’s as well she did, for in all my years I had never seen a roof in poorer shape, at least not on a house that’s still standing.

“Well, it needs a bit of attention,” I say, trying not to alarm her. “I can start this afternoon if you like, but first we’ll have to clear all this stuff out of the way.”

I shine the torch over the mass of junk that always seems to gather in such places – the bits of carpet, the old-fashioned lamp stands, the packing-boxes crammed with all manner of forgotten odds and ends,…

She’s embarrassed by the mess. “I know,” she says. “I’ve been meaning to get around to it for ages.”

It’s while helping her to sort through everything that we come upon the trunk, a big old thing, secured by a hefty padlock. Curious, I trace my fingers through a thick layer of dust to reveal a rich, dark sheen of lacquered wood.

“This is a fine chest, Kathleen.”

Her face darkens. “Oh,” she says. “I’d forgotten this old thing.”

“Looks like its been up here a long time.”

“Since my grandmother was a girl. That must be ninety years, or more.”

“But whatever’s inside?”

“Just some old clothes and things, I expect. When we were children, we used to imagine all sorts of exotic treasures. Sometimes we’d beg her for the key, only to be scolded for our cheek and then she’d tell us that, so long as she was alive, the trunk would never see the light of day.”

“But she must have been gone twenty years,” I remind her. “Have you never thought to look since?”

“It didn’t feel right, somehow. It’s like she was still watching me.”

“Well, it’ll have to come out now.” But I can see she’s uneasy about it. I’d often heard folk say what a difficult woman Kathleen’s grandmother was, and it troubles me we might have disturbed memories Kathleen would rather remained forgotten.

Later, I sit in the kitchen while Kathleen makes tea. It’s been a long, messy job clearing the attic and we’re both covered in dust. The trunk had been troublesome, nearly pitching me off the ladder as I’d tried to get it down. Now, it squats sullenly in the corner, an uncomfortable presence hanging over it.

As I look around I notice a photograph on the wall of a young woman wearing a plain dress, in the style of the 1920’s. If I had not known better I would never have guessed this was Kathleen’s grandmother. She would have been about thirty then, and remarkably good looking, which never failed to surprise people, since most could only remember her as a bent and bitter old woman.

Indeed, the bitterness was a thing which soured her life, but it also weighed heavily upon those, like Kathleen, who’d cared for her in her sunset years. Looking at that picture now, I fancy I can see it even then, frozen into her otherwise handsome features,… a sort of tragic emptiness.

Kathleen sees me looking. “Ah,…” she says. “She was always reminding us how she might once have made something of her life. I can see her now, rocking herself by the fire, complaining about the rain and the draughts whistling through the door, and about how noisy the neighbours’ children were,… and all of us would be wishing that if only she could be a little more cheerful,…”

“Didn’t you once tell me she was a dancer?”

Kathleen sighs. In all the years I’ve known her, she’s rarely spoken of her grandmother, but now, the surfacing of the trunk has made her want to talk. Slowly, draws up a chair.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she begins. “But she worked at a theatre, in town. They say she had the music in her bones, and such a tremendous vitality on stage, all who saw her reckoned she was destined for greater things. And sure enough, she was spotted by an American lady who turned out to be the owner of a theatre in New York. There was a position going in a production they were putting on, and it was my grandmother’s, if she wanted it,…

“It must have seemed like a dream come true, starting out from such a small place as this. It would have been her first step on the road to fame and fortune. Who knows? First the theatre, then maybe, with looks like that, the movies do you think? Sure she might even have been a movie star. But she was only nineteen. That would be 1910 or 1912, and New York must have seemed a very far away place indeed,…

“My great grandfather had died, leaving only my great grandmother, a poor, sickly woman who didn’t want my grandmother to go to New York. But in the end, I suppose she must have agreed and, so the story goes, everything was set. The theatre company arranged her lodgings and I think they even booked her passage over – so they were keen to have her all right.

“But it was not to be. No sooner had she got used to the idea she was really going, than my great-grandmother was taken gravely ill, and since there was no one else in the family, the responsibility fell to my grandmother.” Kathleen shook her head. “I can imagine how she felt – all the conflicting emotions as she watched her ailing mother, while her own dreams slipped though her fingers.

“He mother lingered for years, finally passing away in 1914, by which time it was the war, and the world all upset, and my grandmother’s chance was gone,…”

Looking at the photograph again, I feel like I’m seeing it now for the first time. “The poor woman.”

Kathleen nods. “It ate away at her for the rest of her days. Oh, she settled down, met my grandfather,… raised a family, had all the things we ordinary folk enjoy,… But I don’t think any of it meant as much to her as it might have done. She must always have been thinking how different things could have turned out,… if only,…”

“And the trunk?”

“Well, they say she gathered everything up that was even remotely connected with her dreams of New York, and locked them inside. Then she had a neighbour carry it into the attic, and there it lay, out of sight, but never quite out of mind. I don’t know why she kept it. I would have burned it, if it had been mine.”

In a strange way, I think I understand, though. “Some dreams are just too hard to let go of.”

We sit for a long time, our thoughts inevitably focused upon that old trunk and, I for one, am burning with curiosity. “So,… will you be opening it, do you think?”

Thanks for reading so far. Part two tomorrow,…

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Tim felt at once they were not a receptive audience. There were few truly earnest faces among them, while others pretended, thinking perhaps he had more authority than he did, when in fact he had none. Worse, he felt empty of a sudden. It had seemed such a little thing at the time, just to come along and talk. But an audience’s attention isn’t guaranteed, especially not a captive one like this. He’d have to work at it. Then having won it, he’d have to come up with something worth saying, and fast. What he’d planned to say, aided by these stilted notes he clutched in increasingly his sweaty palm, just wasn’t going to do the job.

It had started as a joke. He’d written a little book about trees called, well, “A Little Book About Trees.” It had taken him all of an evening, and he’d posted it online, like he did with his other stuff. And like all his other stuff, some of it going back twenty years, he’d not given publishing a second thought. Maybe someone would appreciate the joke and leave a wry comment. There were some real wags out there in cyberspace. But then the impossible happened, and a publisher emailed him. This really doesn’t happen, ever, he’d thought, and especially not for a title like: “A Little Book About Trees” by Tim Burr. I mean, the publisher knew it was a joke, right?

The publisher wasn’t one of the big six, of course, but a small, local press, who handled history and nature. The book would be a good fit, he said, after cautioning Tim there’d be hardly any money in it, but he’d like to print the book anyway, if Tim had no objection. Well, Tim had no objection. It would even be funny, he thought, seeing it on the shelves. Trees weren’t exactly his forte. He’d simply blagged the information from a dozen places around the web and put it into his own words. Then he’d illustrated it with his own photographs. Literature it was not. Poetry it was not. And of all the things he’d ever written, this, he felt, was the least worthy of anyone’s attention.

What he had that he felt was of infinitely more value was a dozen epic novels of a romantic and metaphysical nature. With all his heart, he still believed in them, but they sat up on his web-site with the rest of his stuff, and hardly anyone read them. Still, he wondered if one thing might lead to another, and then, well,…

With publishing, there also comes marketing, so Tim found himself on a bit of a promotional book tour. Or rather, he had a ten-minute phone-in slot on the BBC local radio station. Then there was a morning in a bookshop with a pile of his books for signing. He dressed up in tweed for that, but no one got the joke, just like they didn’t get the Tim Burr bit, and no one was buying the books either. Tim didn’t mind that so much, and even understood it, having by now seen the cover-art foisted upon him by the publisher’s graphic designer. It looked like it had been dashed off in half an hour, which was fair enough, this also being about how long it had taken Tim to write the book.

That said, the book did go on to sell a thousand copies, which just about broke even. You’ll still see the occasional one in publishers clearance, but it’s fair to say Tim’s brief moment in the spotlight faded back into obscurity. So it goes, thought Tim. It never did lead to anything else, and nobody got the joke.

But then there was this teacher who taught English to adolescent students. She was the sister of a friend of a friend of Tim’s, and she’d arranged a speaker to come into school for the annual Book Week, but they’d cancelled at the last minute. This was an esteemed professor, author and arts critic, who sounded to Tim like the real thing, except he was too busy, and also rather rude having cancelled at so short a notice. So, there was a desperate trawl for anyone who might know someone who knew someone half resembling a writer. And that, to cut a long story short, is the only reason Tim was standing there now.

“Just talk a bit about writing,” the teacher had said.

Simple enough, thought Tim. Except, right now he couldn’t think of a thing to say. And he wondered if part of the reason was he knew nothing about writing after all, or if he did, he’d forgotten it, and his dozen novels of a romantic and metaphysical nature meant nothing in the scheme of things. So there was no point trying to enthuse such a reluctant, and by now fidgety crowd of youngsters over the wonder and the mystery of the literary creative arts, when Tim was losing the plot of it anyway, and when the surest route to the high-street bookshelves turned out to be a spoof title called “A Little Book About Trees”, and a subject he knew nothing about.

The teacher, a trim, middle-aged lady with a permanently harassed expression, and greying hair, was starting to look less harassed, and more worried. Was Tim all right? I mean, he was a writer, wasn’t he? And there was nothing writers liked more than boring the pants off others about their writing. So go on, Tim, just say something. Anything.

There came a titter from the back of the class. In Tim’s day there would have been spitballs to follow, but they did not seem an overly violent bunch, and he took comfort from that.

“So,…” he said, a little too loud, and while it got their attention, it didn’t stop the kids from looking at their watches. It was a half hour slot, but there was a risk this was going to be the longest half hour of his, and their lives.

“So,” he said again, softly this time. “How many writers have we got in the room? Put your hands up.”

Tim put his hand up. No one else did.

“All right, he said. “Let’s call it something else. Who keeps a diary?”

He put his hand up. Glances were exchanged. A dozen hands went up, shy at first, but helped by the hand of the teacher.

“So, you were having me on,” he said. “I’m not on my own after all. There are lots of writers.” Titters again, but this time he felt they were with him, and he relaxed. “Can you tell me this, though,” he said: “Would you ever show your diary to someone else?”

There were no takers for that. “Why write it then?” he asked. The atmosphere had changed. Already they were five minutes in, and he’d barely scratched the surface. “That’s a mystery, isn’t it? Let’s think about that.”

Then he remembered why he was a writer, and realised he’d just woken a dozen kids up to the fact they were writers too. And those who weren’t? Well, by the time he was done, he’d have shown them they could be writers as well if they wanted. He was doing none of them any favours, of course, because it was an odd thing, to be a writer. But the blood-writers among them would know that.

And they’d do it anyway.

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