(1200 words) At Stamford Brook a couple got on and sat at the far end, and an elderly woman took a seat opposite me in the otherwise empty carriage. I looked up. She wore a smart silver-grey jacket and trousers, and a matching headscarf over curly white hair. I watched her take out a small notebook filled with tiny writing in a neat blue hand that went right to the edges of the pages. With a pencil she began to underline certain sentences and paragraphs. I watched her at her self-appointed task and the more I watched, the more I wondered. It couldn’t be, surely? The woman looked up over pince-nez, sensing my stare. an imperceptible smile playing on her rouged lips. Then she went back to her underlining. Finally, I could stand it no more. In a hushed tone I said, “Excuse me, do you know you’re the spitting image of … of the Queen?” She put her book down and looked at me over her glasses with piercing blue eyes. “That’s one way of putting it.” She gave a small smile. “And who are you?”
(1200 words) “Your mission, should you choose to accept it – but actually you don’t have any choice – is to go to 2034 to take out a gentleman named Eldred Banks.” “D’you mean, kill?” I asked. “Well, yes, if you put it like that.” “Why?” My controller smiled. “Well, let’s just say he’ll be in charge of a pretty nasty weapon, and it’ll be best for the future world if he’s not left to his own devices.” “How will I do it, then?” “Don’t worry about it. You’ll have help when you get there. It’ll be a piece of cake for a man of your talent!” “So where am I going, exactly?” He smiled. “Sunglasses and suntan lotion will come in handy, Tim. Tunisia.”
Say nothing when Ruth comes in, Brodie Somers told himself. There she was, tall, slim, long blonde hair blowing in the freshening wind. She was laughing, smiling at him. Robbie McClelland, the wretched layabout, lolling in his open top Mazda. With his black leather jacket and hair greased back he looked like a reject from Happy Days. An all-round bad influence on his daughter, Brodie thought.
Ruth waved to Robbie as he roared off inland, down the little lane. Against the gulls calling, the waves rolling on the beach, and the rustling grass on the dunes, the intermittent noise of Robbie’s revving engine as he careered back into town was like an insult to the quiet countryside, like someone throwing a dog turd in your face. He hurriedly put the binoculars away as the door opened and Ruth came in.
Say what you like about Charles – and plenty of people had plenty to say – but before Charles came into my life Dominic had been a nightmare, fighting all the other kids at school, ranting and raving at home, and refusing to help out or tidy his room; in short, a real devil child. But he looked up to Charles, saw him as a kind of hero, which he was in a way I suppose. Charles would give Dominic little jobs to do – cleaning his crampons, coiling his ropes, helping to sort out the mountaineering gear he’d stowed in my shed, all those bits and pieces that had names I suppose, but looked like junk to me.
And, of course, Charles would show us photos of his expeditions – Kanchenjunga, Cho Oyu, Manaslu, Nanga Parbat and so on, mostly names that meant nothing to me back then.
Tunsgate Green stood, thinking of Ruth back in the cottage, typing away at her wretched manuscript. Some romantic nonsense, mainly to make up for the total lack of it in their lives, he imagined. Once she’d been young, vivacious, sexy even. He snorted. Hard to imagine that now! Their love life currently resembled this salt marsh - dead flat.
He gazed over the dry beige marshland to the distant level horizon, the faintest deep blue ribbon set against the pale blue sky indicating the start of the North Sea, next stop the fjords and islands of western Norway, 400 miles away.
It was midday, the sun’s yellow disc was high in the clear-blue, summer sky and it was sweltering. The heat burned into every cell of my body and mind. I could feel my back beneath my rucksack wet with sweat, and drops of it ran down my face from time to time. The grass beneath my walking boots was dry and brown, there’d been little rain for weeks. “I think we should take a break, it’s too hot.” My girlfriend, Sara, turned to me. Her eyes were hidden by dark black sunglasses but her face was pink and beads of moisture covered her sunburned forehead. Dark pools stained her T-shirt under the armpits. I looked around at the desolate moorland – parched grass with the odd brown rock, all that was visible to the horizon in every direction. There was no sign of life, no sheep, no birds, nothing. “Look, we can go and rest on those rocks over there,” said Sara, pointing to a jumble of boulders in the far distance, off to one side.
While I wait for news, and now my hands have stopped shaking, I want to record the incident that happened tonight.
My parents had gone into London to see an opera and are still not back at nearly half past midnight. They said I could have a couple of schoolfriends around as long as we promised to be ‘sensible.’ Fat chance! So, Shelley and Julie had called round, together, about seven o’clock. They’d brought some DVDs and Julie had snuck a couple of bottles of beer from her brother’s stash. Shelley had brought a large carrier bag. Like all teenage girls, we swapped news and giggled about the boys we fancied, then sat in the lounge and put on a DVD, The Omen.
Well, it was pretty scary, and nasty too, the way people got killed, being sliced in two by a faulty lift and crushed between train carriages, just two examples. When it had finished, Shelley said, “God, that was horrible. Look, I brought something we can play, I’ll go and get it.” She headed for the kitchen.
The weather was hot, the sky a clear, bright blue and the sun a burning orange disc. Most unusual for the English East-Midlands! I’d decided to take a drive out to the coast, having lived within striking distance of it for a couple of years, but whenever I’d previously thought of it, the weather had been cold and wet, the climate we normally endured.
Now, it was as perfect as it was ever going to be. But the sea looked such a long, long way away. Hmm. I walked back to a nearby caravan park, proudly boasting its very own fish and chip shop, the English coastal obsession. The owner was friendly enough. “Oh, the sea comes well in, even up to the top of the dunes, just beyond the car park.”
“Well, why isn’t it there now?”
Apparently, it was the wrong season, tide, and/or year. I sat and ate my over-salted fish and chips on one of two benches, the totality of Skendlethorp’s visitor amenities, along with a rubbish bin, looking out to the distant sea.
In the foreground was a huge sign warning of buried World War Two bombs and missiles in the currently-desiccated marshland that stretched out ahead. It stated that no reward would be given by the Ministry of Defence to anyone finding one. Well, that kind of made sense, they wouldn’t want to encourage idiots digging for unexploded bombs!
Like something out of a James Bond film, I was to observe and photograph a Russian agent being handed secrets. The setting, Painter’s Fairground, set up for the week on a field just out of town.
It was getting dark and I wandered between the brightly lit and gaudily painted stalls, laden with brilliantly coloured boxes containing tacky plastic toys. I inhaled the smell of electricity, petrol engines and candy floss, whilst my ears were assailed by the noise and excitement of the rides. The bumper cars careening across their conductive floor, sparks flying from the connecting rods as they moved across the ceiling. Crazily driven by laughing teenagers, girls made up to look ten years older, twenty-five instead of fifteen, accompanied by lanky youths in coloured tops and tight jeans.
I passed the Ghost Train, hearing the thundering vehicle passing through the wooden shack, children screaming in faux-fright, and always, the relentless chugging of generators everywhere. I tried in vain to imagine someone designing a Ghost Train vehicle and the ‘spooky’ house it ran through. And factories manufacturing them in some godforsaken place.
“Hey, Pal, wanna try your luck?” A barker with a time-worn face and pork-pie hat addressed me from a shooting gallery where little ducks ran on rails.
“Sure.” I put two pound coins into his brown leather hand and took a rifle
A kiosk stood, black and shuttered, looking like a relic from World War Two. Hard to imagine people queuing, a young woman smiling as she handed over cappuccinos in cardboard beakers with plastic lids. Guaranteed to spill burning coffee over you if you tried to drink it once the train was moving.
Once through the station, we began to pick up speed and my small, dimly lit carriage began to sway, as a hubbub of rattling and clanking permeated the compartment once more. I looked at my watch. 1.30 a.m. I should be in London for 2.00 a.m. Though quite who or what would be waiting for me I was unsure.