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And then there was the day when Markham managed to get himself snatched by aliens – or so we thought at the time.
I was summoned to Dr Bairstow’s office to find Markham and Peterson already present. We looked at each other.
‘Any clues?’ I asked.
‘You can go in now,’ said Mrs Partridge, so in we went.
He looked up from his desk. ‘There you are.’
We agreed that yes, here we were.
He gestured at his briefing table on which reposed several archive boxes and a fat folder.
‘The County Archivist has been good enough to make available various documents requested by Dr Dowson. A condition was that we do not expose them to the hazards of a random delivery service.’ It was not clear whether it was the company or its delivery that was random, but we nodded anyway. ‘And so, I would like you, personally, to return these valuable documents with my compliments and thanks.’
He handed Peterson an envelope.
‘Of course, sir.’
‘This afternoon, if you please.’
Peterson glanced at his watch. ‘It’s already afternoon, sir.’
‘How quickly you grasp my meaning.’
‘I do my best, sir.’
‘I have assured the County Archivist that my best people are on the job. They being unavailable, however, I have therefore designated my Chief Operations Officer, my Head of Security and my Deputy Director to fulfil this simple task.’
His Deputy Directory, Head of Security and Chief Operations Officer assembled their best air of cool professionalism – which in our case consisted of standing a little straighter and not picking our noses. I don’t think he was impressed, staring at us bleakly for a few seconds and then demanding to know why we were still here.
Since Peterson was burdened with the envelope, Markham and I seized the boxes and we left with all speed.
‘Right,’ said Peterson, ‘I shall assume full control of this mission.’
Markham made a rude noise.
‘Get changed and meet in the car park in ten minutes. That’s ten minutes, Max. No wafting around in front of mirrors trying on dresses.’
Now I made a rude noise.
We met in the car park, shoving Markham and the boxes in the back, and departed.
‘A nice afternoon out,’ said a voice from behind the boxes, and we agreed.
Now I know what you’re thinking. I can hear exactly what you’re thinking, so I will say now that the boxes were delivered on time and to the correct destination. The County Archivist herself took delivery so God knows what was in them. Peterson, after a series of nudges from me, remembered to hand over Dr Bairstow’s letter of thanks and they gave us a cup of tea. They were lovely people. I wish I worked there. We set off for the return trip, hoping to be back in time for tea, and things started to go wrong almost immediately.
Peterson caught my eye. I always think that sounds as if you’ve been indulging in a quick game of eyeball tossing, but I knew what he meant
‘So,’ he said, almost casually, negotiating the last roundabout out of town and accelerating away, ‘how are things with you and Hunter?’
‘OK,’ said Markham vaguely. ‘I think.’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘Well, it’s hard to tell sometimes, but I always think if she’s not coming at me with a kidney bowl then, you know, things aren’t too bad.’
‘Why would she come at you with a kidney bowl?’
‘Because she can’t find a bedpan.’
Peterson tried again. ‘So – got any celebrations planned then?’
‘Well, you have an anniversary coming up.’
‘Wedding. You know. You and Hunter.’
There was a long silence from the back. ‘Don’t know what you mean.’
‘I worked it out,’ said Peterson in his best I’m Peterson and I’m brilliant voice. ‘I’m looking at Hunter these days and she’s looking very well, isn’t she? Blooming, almost. And she’s a very moral girl is our Hunter. Well, she has to be since you don’t have a single moral to your name, so I reckon you had the ceremony just before or just after the Battle of St Mary’s which means there’s an anniversary coming up.’
There was a lot more silence from the back.
‘Oh come on,’ said Peterson. ‘Admit I’m right and the then the two of us can buy you a celebratory drink in the bar.’
‘I’m right, aren’t I? Go on – say I’m right.’
Even more silence.
‘I don’t know why you won’t admit it,’ he said, slightly exasperated. ‘Are you ashamed of something? Wait until I tell Hunter you’re ashamed of her.’
He paused, hopefully.
Nothing but silence.
I pulled down the passenger’s sun flap and looked at the mirror. Markham was sitting with his arms folded and a stupid grin on his face.
‘I reckon,’ said Peterson, ‘the two of you snuck into the Register Office without telling anyone but I’m going to make you tell me just the same.’
‘Right,’ he said. ‘You asked for it. Hold on tight, Max.’
We swerved off the road into a field, skidding to a halt in a shower of dust, stones and indignant birds.
‘What are we doing here?’ said Markham, picking himself up off the back seat and peering out of the window.
‘We’re staying here until you tell us.’ He switched off the engine and folded his arms. ‘Not another yard until you tell us the truth.’
Markham folded his arms. ‘Never.’
I began to make plans for spending the rest of my life in a field.
The silence dragged on, only to be broken by the sounds of Markham getting out.
‘Where are you going?’ I said, in some alarm. ‘We’re still not supposed to go anywhere alone.’
‘Well I’m not staying here with you two maniacs. If you want to sit in a field you can do it on your own. I’m off.’
We watched him walk across the field and out of the gate.
‘Bollocks,’ said Peterson.
‘Well, that worked, didn’t it?’
‘Bollocks,’ he said again.
‘Look, why don’t you just check the records at Somerset House? It’s a simple enough process.’
‘That’s not the point. I want him to tell me.’
I surveyed the vast, empty field. ‘How’s that working out for you?’
He cursed again and switched on the engine.
Markham was a couple of hundred yards up the road. We passed his plodding figure with a merry toot of the horn.
‘It’s four miles back to St Mary’s,’ I said, watching him recede in the wing mirror.
‘Do him good.’
‘Ronan,’ I said warningly. ‘We shouldn’t leave him alone.’
‘No,’ he said reluctantly. ‘You’re right. We shouldn’t.’
We pulled into a layby and waited.
He never came.
We waited some more.
‘For crying out loud,’ said Peterson. ‘I know he’s Security Section, but surely even he can’t have got lost between there and here.’
I sighed. ‘I’ll go and look for him. He might just be taking a rest.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ he said, getting out. ‘No one should be alone, remember?’
‘Markham,’ I said accusingly. ‘We left him alone.’
‘He doesn’t count.’
We walked to the bend and looked. The road was empty. We could see for miles. No Markham. Not anywhere.
‘Shit,’ I said. We rotated slowly. Where could he be?
‘He’s cut across the fields,’ said Peterson. ‘Hang on.’ He climbed onto the car roof and surveyed the flat countryside. The flat, empty countryside.
‘Shit,’ I said again, beginning to panic. ‘We’ve lost him.’
‘We can’t have,’ he said, climbing down.
‘Then where is he? Oh my God, we’ve lost Markham.’
‘Look,’ he said. ‘The little sod’s in a ditch somewhere. Either he fell in and hurt himself – perfectly possible – or he’s hiding under a hedge to teach us a lesson. We’ll go and find him, kick the living shit out of him for frightening us like this, and then he can buy us a drink afterwards.’
I looked up. It was the only direction left. ‘Do you think he’s been snatched by aliens?’
‘Always a possibility,’ he said, locking the car. ‘Although if so then they’ll be returning him in a hurry any minute now.’
‘No, seriously,’ I said as we set off, him on one side of the narrow lane and me on the other. I peered into ditches and looked under hedges. ‘It’s the only explanation. You hear about this sort of thing all the time. You know – anal probing.’
‘For God’s sake, Max, get a grip. Why on earth would super intelligent beings cross the vastness of space just to firkle around in Markham’s bottom area. Would you?’
‘Well there you are, then. Anything your side?’
‘Nothing. Where could he be?’
‘I don’t know, but it’s four miles back to St Mary’s.’
It was at that moment we heard the car start up. We stood paralysed for a moment and then Peterson screamed, ‘Bastard,’ and set off at a run. I pounded along behind him and we raced back around the bend just in time to see Markham pull out of the layby. He waved, gave us a merry toot, and sped away out of sight.
We skidded to a halt.
‘Didn’t you lock it?’ I said accusingly.
‘Of course I did, but it’s bloody Markham, isn’t it? He could hot-wire a rock’.
‘It’s four miles back to St Mary’s.’
‘He’ll stop around the next bend,’ said Peterson, reassuringly. ‘He’s just teaching us a lesson.’
He was and he didn’t.
Four bloody miles. With Peterson vowing grim retribution with every step.
And we missed tea.
Have you ever noticed how often you want to go to the loo when you can’t walk properly? When even a short ten-foot journey to the bathroom is an endless distance and unspeakable agony for every inch of it? And it was going to the loo that got me into this predicament in the first place.
I’m on holiday. I knew it was a bad idea and I said so. I told them. Many, many times. God doesn’t give us laptops so we can frivolously abandon them to gallivant half way across the world for unjustified and unauthorly enjoyment. I warned them. I said it would end badly. And it did.
The first day was fine. I did the traditional tourist thing. There was sun and meeting friends and a glass of wine and a nice lunch and I was beginning to think my misgivings had been completely unjustified. I’d even been able to write a couple of sneaky paragraphs in the bathroom when no one was looking and then – this morning, I had a bit of an incident.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re all reading the previous paragraph and thinking – Wine? Daft bat! Sloshed again.
Well, it was just after breakfast and even I can’t drink wine at breakfast. I’ve tried. It didn’t end well.
Anyway, having gorged myself on everything in sight and drunk three cups of tea, obviously a visit to the facilities was called for. Asking for directions, a charming young man indicated ‘just over there’ and while I was craning my neck to see where ‘just over there’ was, I fell the colossal distance of four whole inches and wrenched my foot. I mean we are talking black football here.
I was helped to my feet by an enormous number of charming young men – because that’s what it takes to get me on my feet these days – although I wasn’t complaining. It was almost equal to the occasion when I looked up and six young men were climbing in through my bedroom window just prior to rescuing me from the flash flood doing its best to wash our cottage away. I can’t tell you how many fantasy boxes that ticked, but back to the diseased foot.
It’s agony. Six hours later, it still hurt like hell. It’s still swollen now, but with blue rather than black bruising, which is interesting and coordinates rather nicely with my top.
I’m surviving on a mixture of Ibuprofen and Pringles and I’m alternately either too sleepy to think straight, or in unbearable agony depending on which point of the pain cycle I’ve reached. They are very strong painkillers and amazingly effective. The pain is still excruciating but I’m feeling very cheerful about it.
And, of course, because I can barely even move my leg, I’m up and down to the bathroom every ten minutes because I’m the proud owner of the bladder that just keeps on giving.
I am never going on holiday again. Ever. Never going to happen. And because I don’t have my laptop with me you won’t get the chance to read this until next week. Many of you may be able to combine it with attending my memorial service, because I’m not going to survive this. I always thought it would be the Accent Electrodes that did for me and I would expire in a shower of sparks, clumsy metaphors and explosive punctuation, but it was the holiday that got me in the end.
Farewell, cruel world …
Actually, there’s been a bit of a renaissance. My chemically induced haze of goodwill produced a tiny idea for a Max, Markham and Peterson story. Just a couple of hundred words. I’ll get it typed up and maybe post it tomorrow …
I shall call it ‘Markham and the Anal Probing,’ because that won’t give Accent Press anything to worry about at all …
I’ve had a fabulous weekend at the end of April. On Saturday April 29th I was at the Llandeilo LitFest, sharing a Time Travel panel with Jasper Fforde, author of the wonderful Thursday Next series. An alarming number of people attended – I’m a bit like Sheldon Cooper in that I worry about crowds large enough to trample me! Not that this group was anything other than beautifully behaved and trampling definitely did not occur. Everyone asked intelligent and perceptive questions – i.e. ones to which I knew the answers.
We all had a bit of fun with the Have you ever written anything you regretted? question and I had to apologise all over again for the ‘sudden and acrimonious break-up of the EU,’ America closing its borders and building a wall, and for the derogatory remarks about Donald Trump’s hair. Once again, I had to deny clandestine possession of a pod although, once again, I don’t think anyone believed me. I rather think I might slip a new chapter into Book 9, detailing the unexpected break-out of world peace and general benevolence to all, just to see what happens. Fingers crossed.
And Sunday was the Booky Brunch at Octavo’s Bookshop in Cardiff, where we got down and dirty with all things St Mary’s. We talked about Ronan, the Time Police, favourite characters, favourite moments, what was the thinking behind this that and the other, how I did my research – yes, I know it looks as if I just throw the books together, but really I don’t – and so on.
We discussed plot developments, the new supernatural series, possible titles for new books and people’s strange aversion to reading anything by the well-known Regency Romance author, Isabella Barclay. The questions were many and varied, and then we tucked into the world’s best ever Eggs Benedict. Followed by mountains of toast and I managed to get marmalade on both elbows. No idea how that happened.
No rest for the wicked, because last Saturday was the Masterclass – History and Humour – which was fabulous, not least because Accent Press (All hail Accent Press) don’t let me out that often. I’m normally down in the dungeon – third manacle from the right if anyone wants to visit – typing away for dear life in the hope of extra gruel and a light touch with the electrodes.
Where was I? Yes. Sorry. Wandering the paths of whimsy again. Of course there aren’t any actual electrodes. What was I thinking? I need my hands to type – and to write more books! No, this week’s good news is my books are now available in Waterstones! The first two books of the series, Just One Damned Thing After Another and A Symphony of Echoes are up on the shelves for all to see. Just like real books. I’m so excited I’m going to have to put the kettle on.
And to finish … just a quick plug for an event very dear to my heart. It’s that time of year again. The annual cheese rolling (as described in A Second Chance) will take place at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucester, on 29th May this year. I’ve been there – In younger and fitter days I did manage to get myself half way up the hill, but collapsing through lack of oxygen. The slope was so steep that even sitting down I was in danger of rolling back down again and could only stay in place by clinging, face down, to a tuft of grass. And fear not – despite what happened to Max, very few people get smacked by the cheese these days. There’s a link below to anyone who can’t make it. Someone will post a video of this year’s carnage in due course. Enjoy.
The final runner-up for the fanfiction short story competition is Andy Farenden.
Excellent research and a vividly drawn word picture of a tiny snapshot in time. Nothing much seems to happen and yet quite a lot actually does. Nice to see Mrs Enderby getting out and about for a change. Congratulations on conveying a complex world in such a few words.
Mrs Enderby dipped her toes in Gunyan River letting the cool water wash over her aching feet; she wasn’t used to being out in the field. After a day on her feet exploring the fabric market, the short walk from the pod to the river in the hard-soled leather shoes had been a less than pleasurable experience. When she returned to St Mary’s she would investigate the possibility of adding some discreet cushioning to the history department’s more basic period footwear. Her security escort, a lovely young man whom Mr Markham had assigned to her, sat further back up the bank under the shade of a nearby tree rubbing his worn feet too.
The assignment from Thirsk had tasked the history department with gathering information on the construction and establishment of the Donglin Academy in 12th century Wuxi, China. Which, for a short time, was a hub of neo-Confucian philosophy and home to scholar Yang Shi. For Mrs Enderby, it was an opportunity to explore the silk trade at the height of the middle ages along the nautical route of the Silk Road.
At first Max had been unsure about bringing her along on the jump, but had given in due to the relative political stability of the era and chocolate centred bribery.
It was late August 1111; Mrs Enderby basked in the warmth of the early evening sun. She had seen a great deal today and her recorder was full of rich bright fabrics and period dress. She had even been able to visit silk makers a little further along the river.
As she sat she noticed a group of young women, who she recognised from the silk makers, approached the water’s edge a little way off. They carried a large shallow bucket between them. Carefully, they began emptying water back in to the river filtering it through their hands. Mrs Enderby realised that they must be draining the water from soaked silk worm cocoons and trying not to let the last precious fibres escape. She drew a pocket-sized notebook and pencil from the secret fold within her dress and began to sketch them.
As the light began to fade and the young ladies finished their task a lamp lighter rounded the corner and began to light the lanterns that illuminated the path around the river’s edge. Mrs Enderby sighed, patted her feet dry with the base of her skirt – something that she would chastise a historian for doing – and slipped her feet back in to her shoes. Rising, she dusted herself off and headed back up the shallow bank to her escort. She smiled at him as he rose to join her. Today had been a good day. Wearily, they made their way back to the pod to re-join the rest of the team.
Mrs. Enderby sagged into her seat as someone passed her a cup of tea; she felt bone tired but satisfied. The historians completed the F.O.D check, took their seats and the world went white.
Hello everyone! We’re here for another of the St Mary’s fanfiction short stories competition entries. This week it’s Kyrsty Hardy’s turn.
This was lovely. I’m so pleased Dr Bairstow had a happy ending for once. In fact, he’s figured prominently in all the entries. Obviously a favourite character. I really like the ending and the nicely understated image of the two of them dancing the night away. And huge professional congratulations on managing to fit Roanoke, a fire, a flood, a skeleton and the Queen’s Jubilee into only 500 words!
It was against Bairstow’s better judgement to send the usual suspects, but with Bashford concussed, and everyone else at a Tudor wedding, an urgent request from Thirsk left only Maxwell, Peterson and Markham available to jump to Roanoke. They had returned suspiciously meekly, and something was clearly amiss.
Standing in his favoured interrogation pose, Bairstow summoned them. Markham was quick to defend himself. “Sir, I was just trying to keep the kids in blue safe. The fire came from nowhere, and I can’t explain the flood. Ask Max; Major Guthrie says it’s always her”.
Maxwell grinned, always a cause for concern.
“Dr Maxwell, explain.”
Peterson interjected. “No need for concern, sir. A minor fire, a little water, no time police. A roaring success”.
“Indeed sir” Maxwell began in the tone that meant trouble “and I think the skeleton was ok. I mean, I didn’t check, but we weren’t struck down, so History must be happy”
Bairstow was not persuaded. “I don’t share this optimism. You will return immediately and ensure History is intact.”
“But sir, we can’t go, we’re already there.”
“Who’s available?” Bairstow demanded.
“Bashford, who doesn’t know who he is, Chief Farrell… and you sir.”
Bairstow sighed “Farrell and I, then. I shall deal with you when we return.”
An hour later, Leon initiated the jump. The world went white. And then, it went red, white and blue…
“Chief, we appear to be in the wrong century” Bairstow checked the readout. “Please explain how my Chief Technical Officer has confused the 1500s and the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Have you had too many sleep deprived nights with my godson? Or have you finally succumbed to the foolishness that afflicts my entire unit.”
“No, sir, we are exactly where I intended us to be. Look, Edward”
Viewing the Mall through the screens, Bairstow saw a familiar figure. He caught his breath, and started for the door, before stopping with visible effort
“Why would you do this? I cannot go out there.”
“You can; Annie was left behind when the team jumped back due to an injury, and spent the evening alone before a rescue party arrived.” Bairstow thought back “I was on another jump. She never spoke about it, she just said she danced…”
He looked again at the lonely figure of his lost love. As he watched, another familiar figure appeared behind her, dressed in toga and sandals, looked directly at the camera, and nodded, before disappearing.
“The 100 year rule?”
“Our childhoods are far enough in the future, sir. St Mary’s won’t arrive for 5 hours.”
“What shall I say?”
“Edward, if anyone can navigate this situation, it is you.”
Bairstow subtly checked his reflection in a monitor, and reached the door before turning back.
“An honour and a privilege, Edward.” Bairstow placed his cane to one side, and left the pod. Tonight, he would dance with the girl he loved. Farrell closed the door, and put the kettle on. “Happy birthday, sir”.
Welcome to week 4 of the St Mary’s fanfiction short stories. This weeks story is by Vicky Garlic and the first thing that came to my mind was: Seriously?
Only Sykes could manage to get herself propositioned by Fat Harry himself. And on his way to his own wedding, too! Has she no shame? Nicely written and the dialogue really pushes the story along.
The Flanders Mare Fiasco: 6th January 1540, Greenwich, London. A nice, simple observe and document jump, or at least it should have been. My name’s Max and I work for St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research where we investigate major historical events in contemporary time, don’t call it time travel.
Our latest assignment was to jump to 1540 and witness the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves. Why her? Simple really, to find out whether she was as unattractive as everyone said. It’s well known that Anne was said to look nothing like her portrait and Henry wanted out of the marriage as soon as he’d said ‘I do’. Well it was actually a bit sooner than that.
Peterson landed the pod with a bump (I really should stop him from driving) and he, Sykes, North, Markham and I headed towards Greenwich Palace where we hoped to see a glimpse of the fabled Anne. We managed to bustle our way to a good viewing position and I’m almost certain I would have had a perfect view of the new Queen had we not lost Markham and Sykes on the way.
“Markham? Sykes? Report”
“Oh, hi Max,” Sykes replied in her typically cheery voice, “Everything’s fine.”
“Where are you?”
“We took a wrong turn and…oh my god!”
“Oh it’s nothing,” Sykes replied making me tense up.
A long silence.
“We’re fine Max,” he finally replied in an equally cheery voice. I groaned internally. “What’s going on? Where are you?”
“It’s okay,” Markham replied a little too quickly, “We’re on our way back now; we just had a little misunderstanding.”
“A misunderstanding? With who?”
“No one important,” he said airily. I ground my teeth as I saw them enter into view and strode towards them trying to look menacing as the two of them just grinned at me.
“Umm,” Sykes said.
“Well…” Markham said.
“Someone better answer me,” I threatened.
“I might have been propositioned,” Sykes finally replied.
“Henry,” they responded in unison.
I started, “King Henry?” They nodded slowly. “How?”
“Like I said we took a wrong turn.”
I just stared.
“It’s okay, Markham explained I was already spoken for and he seemed to accept it.”
“Peterson, where are you?”
“We’re in the crowd,” Tim replied, “just seen Anne and seriously Max her description as the Flanders Mare is unnervingly accurate.”
“Never mind that now,” I said, “get yourselves back to the pod, we might have outstayed our welcome.”
“Come on you two,” I said glaring at them as they continued to smile.
We miraculously evaded capture/imprisonment/beheading so Henry must have decided to go through with his wedding to the unattractive Anne. Turns out Peterson wasn’t exaggerating about that bit and they had the footage to prove it; Dr. Bairstow would be happy with that at least. I heaved a sigh of relief, settled myself at the console, programmed the return coordinates and initiated the jump. The world went white.
Another Thursday, another St Mary’s fanfiction short story entry from the competition. This weeks offering is by Alison Clements.
A lovely modern twist to a great St Mary’s story. It’s very tempting to speculate on just how much trouble Max, Markham and Peterson could have got up to at Woodstock. Dr Bairstow is on good form as well.
‘Sir!’ I must be firm. Since Matthew my body is no longer the temple of perfection it once was and I doubt it will withstand public scrutiny.’
Dr Bairstow sighed. ‘Not for the first time, Dr Maxwell, I believe you are over-estimating the assignment’s requirements. As I understand it, nudity was entirely optional. Besides, I hardly think the declothing incident participants were universally blessed with bodily perfection.’
‘But really’, I continued, ‘Woodstock? It’s barely history, and everyone knows they got naked and frolicked for days high on dubious chemicals, flower power and free love. What else could Thirsk possibly need to know?’
He looked at me over the top of his glasses. ‘You are there to gauge what proportion of the crowd were there due to the rumour that Bob Dylan might appear. Besides, we are deficient in both cashflow and goodwill with Thirsk and – perhaps with misguided optimism – I feel that this simple assignment should help to address both.’
‘Returning to the free love point, sir. Peterson and Markham are fine-looking specimens, but it’s way more than my job’s worth to court that sort of trouble from Helen and Hunter’. ‘Or Leon’, I added after a brief pause. ‘But mostly Helen. Don’t make me do this, sir.’
‘Let me repeat myself Dr Maxwell. Joining. In. Is. Not. Compulsory.’
I had still not given up on squirming out of this. ‘Does the 20th century really deserve to be exposed (and I mean that in both senses of the word) to Markham and Peterson in all their glory? Because if you think I’m going to be able to stop them getting naked then you are sadly overestimating my superpowers.’
‘I have every confidence in you Dr Maxwell, and if not then I suppose it will save Mrs Enderby some costume work. Although,’ he paused thoughtfully, ‘I know she was very much looking forward to making you a tie-dyed kaftan. Or perhaps a miniskirt?’
I looked at him. There was no hint of humour on his raptor-like features.
‘Just one more thing, sir.’ I had cunningly saved my best argument until last. ‘Surely our British accents will attract unwelcome attention as soon as we speak?’
His face adopted the sort of expression usually seen on a fox which has just discovered an unlatched henhouse. ‘I cannot account for any attention that your inimitable style might attract, of course. But the American borders did not close until well into this century. You will be seen as exotic, and perhaps a little eccentric …’
(‘Absolutely no ‘perhaps’ about it’, I thought …)
‘… but your accents will not in themselves attract undue attention. Stay out of the mud, and enjoy the music. I understand Joan Baez was at her divine best.’
I turned to leave, and passing an amused-looking Mrs Partridge I could have sworn I heard the faintest hum of Blowin’ in the Wind emanating from somewhere. But whether it came from Mrs Partridge or Dr Bairstow himself I couldn’t say.
Insomnia – that moment at twenty past two when you abandon all hope of getting back to sleep, go downstairs to put the kettle on and have a think about how to pass the long dark hours.
I generally take my tea back to bed, fold my arms, scowl at the wall opposite and have a bit of a think. I let my mind wander – even more so than usual – and wait to see what turns up. Snatches of dialogue, bits of plot, disconnected fragments of ideas, it all rises to the surface rather like the scum you get when boiling bones.
The big thing is not to panic – or lie, jaw clenched, thinking I must go to sleep, I must go to sleep, over and over again. That really doesn’t work.
I’ve always slept badly. Ten or fifteen years ago I barely slept at all. I don’t remember being particularly bothered by this – although I did learn that falling asleep at half past six in the morning just in time for the alarm to go off at seven really wasn’t a good idea. Thirty minutes’ sleep is much worse than none at all.
I learned to daydream in the dark, working out plots and putting together characters without the slightest idea any of it would ever see the light of day, far less be of interest to anyone else. And then, when I’d designed Hawking Hangar, peopled it with technicians, decided what they’d wear, how they’d behave and so on, I’d get up and go to work. I wasn’t aware of any ill effects of only two or three hours sleep a night – although you might want to check with my colleagues for a more accurate assessment. For all I know I was staggering around like the Living Dead, but owing to sleep deprivation, considerably less amenable.
There was another Attack of the Fifty Foot Insomnia last night. I tell you now, there was a lot of wall scowling at going on at twenty past two this morning. On the other hand, I may have resolved a knotty plot problem in Book 9 – yes, it is coming along, but very slowly. This one’s a difficult book to write. I also clarified the outline for the sequel to White Silence, made some notes for a possible sequel to the sequel of White Silence, had a bit of a think about this year’s Christmas Story, discarded my idea for this year’s Christmas Story, briefly considered a stand-alone contemporary romance, dwelt for a moment on my next Regency novel, and spent some time thinking about the Time Police. It’s only a small bedroom but I think you’ll agree – I pack a lot in. Although now I’ve typed that it does occur to me that some people might get the wrong idea. Shame on you.
Anyway, I’m sitting here, with my umpteenth cup of tea and my writing schedule mapped out for the next four years. My point being that even insomnia can be advantageous. The opportunities to scowl, uninterrupted, at a wall for hours on end during the day are fairly limited.
In a separate but probably related issue – I had my first coffee yesterday. I didn’t mean to – I was seduced by the word ‘chocolate’. I was out for lunch and we were studying the desert menu. The only really chocolatey thing was ‘Three artisanal truffles served with an Americano.’ Having no idea what an American was, but with a vague hope it might be Matt Damon related, I ordered, and found myself confronted with three tiny but delicious chocolates, together with a small jug of the Devil’s Juice or milk as everyone else calls it – and a cup of what I initially took to be engine oil. Turned out an Americano is a coffee. Who knew?
However, not one to avoid a challenge, I closed my eyes and sipped. It wasn’t that bad. A bit weird, but not bad. At the urging of others, I was induced to pour in a drop of milk. Still not bad. I would have preferred ice cream but apparently, that’s not an option for serious coffee drinkers.
So there we go – coffee and insomnia! Could they be connected? You read it here first!
We’re back on the regular schedule posting the short stories entered into the Comic Con competition. Ready?
This following short story was written by the lovely Sophie Griffiths. A very nice story – excellent historical research and well presented. And an idea worthy of Professor Rapson at his very best. Great ending!
Dr Bairstow started the meeting, his face expressionless.
‘You know someone in Rushford called the RSPCA. You are lucky none of them were hurt, apart from the paint. What you were thinking?’
‘St. Olga of Kiev ‘replied Professor Rapson, shifting uneasily in his chair. Dr Bairstow raised an eyebrow awaiting a fuller explanation. ‘Okay – formerly Princess Olga of Kiev, born in the 9th Century. Her husband was killed by Drevlians, and they hoped to marry her to their leader. But she was quite vicious – so she buried the first set of ambassadors alive and I think the second lot she burned alive. Um…she invited the remaining soldiers to a feast, where she got them drunk and ordered her soldiers to kill them. By this time the Drevlians were rightly scared of her, it was said she killed 5000 men at the feast. I’m not sure if that is true. I mean – for example how much food you would need for a feast for 5000– perhaps I could look into it-‘
‘All very interesting Andrew, please explain what this has to do with 20 purple pigeons residing on roofs from here to Rushford’
‘Well she went to invade the Drevlians, they didn’t want to fight but couldn’t give her tribute; instead she asked for doves and sparrows from each house. She tied sulphur to the birds’ legs. When the doves went home to roost in the buildings, sulphur sets the wood alight and burns the village to the ground.’
‘I wanted to see if it was possible. I thought pigeons are easy to get hold of; we can’t use sulphur –obviously. Then I hit upon the idea of paint. If made small DIY theatrical squibs – like the ones they use for fake gunshots – with purple paint so we can see where they land and how effective it would be, where the fires would start etc.’
Dr Bairstow looked out the window; purple paint trickling down the panes. ‘Very effective I should say’ he sighed. ‘Please see Mrs Partridge for deductions from wages slip Professor. As no animals were actually hurt – just scared witless and dyed purple I will smooth things over with the RSPCA. Be aware I will take a dim view of you using any more live animals for your research.’
Professor Rapson slunk back to the office for tea, thinking of researching the feeding of the five thousand. Outside Mr Strong was cleaning walls and muttering. Markham and Evans of the Security section, and historians Peterson and Maxwell were holding a ‘Catch the Pigeon’ competition, to see who could catch the most purple pigeons which were then cleaned and released. They were grateful it wasn’t the swans this time.
Dr Bairstow looked through a splattered window; a single non-purple pigeon was flying, a small theatrical squib, unburst, attached to its leg. He wondered where it would land, when the squib would go off. Most of all he wondered: ‘How on earth did Olga become a saint?’
I should be working. I should actually be researching Persian female apparel circa 300BC. I should be absorbed in textiles and patterns and styles and not in any way thinking about Professor Rapson. I shouldn’t be imagining putting my feet up and drinking wine with Peterson. I certainly shouldn’t be staring out of the window listening to an imaginary conversation between Max and Professor Rapson. I’m never going to be a proper author at this rate …
I was on my way to Peterson’s office for our Friday afternoon meeting. The one where he opens out a bottle of wine, I get out the glasses, and we both put our feet up and have a huge moan about the previous week. Sometimes the meetings are quite long.
Anyway, I was making my way around the gallery, juggling the half dozen or so files I’d brought with me as camouflage – because it doesn’t do the other ranks any good at all to see a couple of senior officers setting a bad example – although, to be fair, most people were outside watching the Security and Technical Sections eviscerate each other in the name of sport – when Professor Rapson erupted – literally – from his lab shouting, ‘Eureka!’
He was fully clothed. Trust me – it was the first thing I checked.
I said, ‘Good afternoon professor,’ because that’s how Markham would do it. Apparently now he’s Head of Security, standards must be maintained. What sort of standards of course, he never says.
‘Ah Max. Good news. I’ve done it.’
‘So I gathered, professor. Jolly well done.’
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I know it’s been a while but we got there in the end.’
‘Excellent news, professor’ I said, trying to ignore the glass of wine shaped hole in my life and failing dismally. ‘I look forward to reading your report.’
‘No, no, you don’t understand, Max. I’ve really done it.’
I stopped thinking about wine and concentrated. This was Professor Rapson after all. I asked the question I should have led with.
‘Exactly what have you done professor?’
‘Well, as you know Max, water is very heavy.’
I stared at him. He looked comparatively normal. His hair was standing on end. He had a huge acid burn on one sleeve of his lab coat of which he appeared
completely oblivious and was wearing one brown and one black shoe, so as I said – normal.
He was, however, waving around a beaker of clear fluid. I stepped back because it could be anything. The Elixir of Life. Cerebral brain fluid – although if it was his it would probably be a little murkier. An untraceable deadly poison that would kill us all in seconds. Anything, really.
He raised the beaker to his lips and drank deeply. I braced myself but nothing dreadful seemed to happen to him.
‘Water, Max. Water. I’ve done it.’ He raised the empty beaker. I half expected a flash of lightning and shouts of ‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ but that usually relates to Markham.
‘What were you expecting, professor?’
‘Well, water, obviously, Max.’
Never had a glass of wine seemed so far away.
‘Professor, please tell me – what is the project you’ve been working on?’
‘Oh yes, of course. Well, as I said, Max, water is heavy. Leon’s always complaining about the weight of the tanks and how that messes up his calculations and he’s right so I thought I’d have a go.’
‘At what, professor?’
Oh God …
‘Desiccated water, Max. Powdered water. The answer to all our problems. We reduce water down to a fine powder, bag it up in plastic and hey presto, portable water. No more tanks, no more heavy water bottles – just stick a couple of packs in you supplies and away you go. Small packs for your pocket. Something larger if you want a bath. Simple. Quick. Easy. Convenient.’
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘That’s brilliant professor. Well done.’
‘Thank you,’ he said modestly.’ I’m just off to show Chief Farrell.’
‘He’ll be thrilled,’ I said, happily sacrificing Leon’s Friday afternoon, but wine deprivation can do that to a girl. ‘You must give him a complete demonstration. Several, in fact.’
‘I will,’ he said, hair standing even more on end as he prepared to depart at top speed.
‘Just one question, professor.’
‘How do you reconstitute the powder?’
‘The powder. How exactly do you reconstitute desiccated water?’
‘Oh, that’s easy.’
He regarded me as an idiot.
‘You just add water.’
Pssst: you can still pre-order And The Rest Is History right here 😉