The Nameless Manuscript

Someone was shaking me awake.

‘Train terminates here, miss,’ said the guard.

Finding myself slumped against the grimy train window, I blinked, stood up and made my way off the train. Still half asleep, I wobbled on the step and the guard helped me down as if I were an old lady or worse: tipsy.

Alone on the platform, I ran my hand across my eyes and grimaced at the soot left on my gloves.

At the barrier, the ticket collector looked askance and outside the station, the taxi man hesitated when I gave Harriet’s address, taking me in from top to toe as if ascertaining whether I could afford the fare.

‘My word,’ said Harriet, when I finally arrived at her flat, ‘did they make you travel in the coal tender?’

‘Do I look that bad?’ I looked into the mirror over her fireplace. My clothes were crumpled from the sleep and my hat askew, hitching my curls up on one side and flattening them on the other. Soot striped my eyes as if I had applied war paint.

‘I hope whatever you were doing was good copy,’ said Harriet, after I’d tidied myself up. ‘Could you put it in “Blueprint for Thingummy”?’

She nodded at my satchel, where my just-finished manuscript hid, its pages huddled within the string, tied up as a sacrifice for the publisher who’d agreed to look at it. I imagined it whimpering with the fear of being read and laughed at. I only had until tomorrow to think of a proper title.

‘Apart from the fact that it’s finished – I think – I’m not sure how I could get time-travel into it. “Blueprint” is supposed to be a murder mystery.’

‘Time-travel?’

‘It’s what happened to me on the train.’

‘I knew it,’ said Harriet, ‘trying to be an author is sending you mad. You need to stop writing and get a proper job before you get overwhelmed by delusion. And you need a stiff drink. Whatever really happened is obviously too traumatic to be solved with a cup of tea.’

‘Anything can be solved by a cup of tea.’

‘Really – you’d rather tea to a whisky and soda?’ She poured out a generous measure and waggled it at me.

‘Well maybe not tea the way you make it.’ I took the proffered glass and sat back. ‘Seriously, I really did travel in time.’

‘You were dreaming, but tell me anyway. Which era did you go visit? I always wanted to go back to Medieval times.’

‘It wasn’t back. It was forward.’

‘Robots I guess. Rocket ships.’

‘No, it wasn’t like that at all. I was on a train.’

‘Well yes. You were on a train, fast asleep.’

‘I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on and then I woke up a few minutes later. I found myself sitting at a table and all the seats were orange.’

‘Orange?’

‘And the windows were quite clean. Apart from a few rain streaks, I could see out clearly. There was no soot.’

‘That’s because it was all over your face instead.’

‘No listen, I saw the power station at Battersea.’

‘Who can see that from the train in November? The radio said there was a real pea-souper in London today.’

‘There was. Or rather there was before I fell asleep. But when I woke, the skies were completely clear. No fog, no smoke.’

‘The power station…’

‘Just a shell. With scaffolding. Everything looked both familiar and unfamiliar. I thought I saw a fisherman on the river.’

‘What could you fish out of the Thames?’

‘I dread to think. There were skyscrapers on the horizon.’

‘Like the Empire State? In London?’

‘They weren’t anything like the Empire State. I can’t even describe them.’

‘I thought you were a writer. Isn’t it your job to describe things?’

I closed my eyes and tried to remember those edifices glinting in the autumn sun. ‘They were strange shapes. One looked like a pencil with a jagged top.’

‘It was a dream.’

‘And the people in the carriage. They were different.’

‘Silver suits, ray-guns?’

‘No. They wore pretty much what we wear only not so smart. Some had suits but not many. No hats apart from two men with peaked ones a bit like schoolboys wear.’

‘Baseball caps?’

I paused, remembering staring at them, wondering whether to be affronted at the sight of men indoors who had not removed their hats. I tried to recall what a baseball player wore.

‘Maybe.’

‘So they were all scruffy, dirty?’

‘No. That’s the strange thing. They were all dressed so casually and yet they were all so clean. Apart from their shoes. Hardly anyone had polished their shoes.’

I recalled the shiny hair, the smell of laundry soap, scent; the clear skin and eyes. There had been no odour of tobacco or coal or sweat. There was a strange smell which I couldn’t place and I wondered if it came from the orange seats which were made from something like rayon or from the structure of the carriage interior itself which appeared to be made of pale Bakelite. It was not unpleasant, just odd.

‘Some of the women wore a lot of cosmetic and others none. And no-one smoked.’

‘No-one?’

‘I know. I felt a bit rattled. I was afraid I might smell and must look peculiar with my hat and red suit and shiny shoes and brown satchel. But no-one paid me any attention till I got my cigarettes out.’

‘What did they do?’

‘They frowned and tutted and one of them nodded at the window. I thought he meant I should open it or something. Then I saw a sign. It was a sort of black sketch of a smoking cigarette with a red line through it. So I put my cigarettes away and said sorry.’

‘And then…’

‘I was ignored again. They were all staring at things – oblong bits of Bakelite – all sizes. There were flat folding typewriters. People were typing away, though I couldn’t see where the paper went. Others were looking at silent movies on tiny screens – I don’t know where the projectors were and they had wires stuck in their ears. And some were reading or writing by tapping on the glass with their fingers. Oh I can’t explain.’

‘I’m telling you. You’ve been working on that novel too hard. It’s worn out your brain. Typing without paper, writing with fingers…’

‘And then the train stopped at Vauxhall (which looked very strange) and one of the girls at my table left her oblong thing behind. I stood up to try and call her, but she’d had to walk down a long aisle and I couldn’t see her. I heard a whistle and some beeping and then the train started up. I fell back in my seat and bumped my head. Next thing I knew, I was being woken up by the guard down here.’

‘My dear,’ said Harriet, pouring me another whisky, ‘you’ve been watching too many scary movies.’

‘It wasn’t a dream. It was all real.’

Harriet stubbed out her cigarette and nodded towards my satchel. ‘OK. If you say so. Are you going to show me your masterpiece or not? I want to be able to say I handled it just before the publisher snapped it up.’

Unbuckling the straps. I pulled out the manuscript, and with it came the girl’s oblong Bakelite thing. It was about eight inches by five, flat, glass on one side and dull black on the other, like a picture frame without a picture. When I touched it, a sunset appeared and when I pressed a button, the image was replaced with a grid of numbers and the words ‘enter passcode’. Just to see what happened, I touched out the first number which came to mind: the year, 1932.

The numbers disappeared and words replaced them…including my name.

I read aloud, ‘“In the early thirties, my great-grandmother had a strange experience on the train out of London. She was on the way to her publisher with the manuscript we now know as the best-selling masterpiece of classic detective fiction called…”’

The glass went black but for a whirring circle and some incomprehensible words. Then they too disappeared and nothing happened when I pressed the button.

I shook the object to see if it would do anything else. It didn’t.

Harriet lit a new cigarette.

I sighed and contemplated the depleted whisky bottle.

It had been a very strange day and no matter what the oblong thing said, I still had to decide a name for my novel.

As if reading my mind, Harriet said ‘Maybe your book will turn out to be a best-selling masterpiece, but I think you should stick to the title “Blueprint for Thingummy”. I can’t imagine any kind of world in which “Battery drained, shutting down” has any kind of meaning at all. Can you?”

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

(This story started as a prompt on a Facebook page to write 750 words including “Blue-print”, “delusion” and “fisherman”. I started writing it on a train journey and was having so much fun I doubled the word limit! – I did post an edited version though…)

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Vigilance

‘There’s a deviant behind me,’ whispered Caitlin, ‘I thought they were all dead.’

She could hear it shuffling as if its feet in the broken shoes were bruised and blistered. But it was getting nearer nonetheless.

’The virus we put in the water supply killed the majority,’ Abbi answered, ‘but a few were immune. They’d die out in time, but we daren’t risk it.’

Caitlin picked up a stone. Turning to throw it, she saw that the deviant was barely alive: rags hanging from its haggard frame, a kind of pleading in its eyes as it reached for her. She dropped the stone and quickened her pace.

‘It looks so weak,’ she murmured to Abbi, ‘are you sure it can harm us? It’s starving to death. What can we do?’

‘Don’t worry. Daniel’s prepared.’

Caitlin squinted to where Abbi was pointing. On the roof opposite, a boy lay, sunshine glinting off his gunsight. A red spot briefly appeared on Caitlin’s shoulder then disappeared to her left. She moved to give Daniel a clear aim. There was a soft crack and then a thump.

Caitlin looked down on the emaciated corpse.

‘He looked nice,’ sighed Caitlin, ‘Like grandfathers in books. Whatever grandfathers were.’

‘Don’t believe their propaganda,’ snapped Abbi, ‘you know perfectly well the world is a better place now that it’s run by children who reproduce by cloning. There’s no place for teenagers and adults anymore. You know the rules.’

Caitlin was silent. She would be thirteen in two years time. She looked up at Daniel and shuddered.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Do you want more time?

When I was little, my Uncle Edgar made a time-machine.

Most people would make one so they could go back and see Stonehenge built and stop Dave from marrying that Nora or go forward and get the lottery numbers.

But Uncle Edgar didn’t.

His advert in the free paper said:

DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH TIME?
If not, call round to garage no 9
Willoughby Avenue
No charge. No catch.

Of course, aged five, I wasn’t interested. For me, there was far too much time. Holidays and Christmas and birthdays and getting to be a big girl were all taking an age to arrive.

In fact, I never would have remembered about the time-machine if I hadn’t found that box of newspapers in my parents’ attic today.

Uncle Edgar nearly made the front page. But unexpected heavy rain meant the headline was ‘April Showers Cause Car Chaos’ rather than ‘Local Man Makes Time Machine’, which was on page two. Things soon changed.

The first customer was a student. With just one week to write his dissertation, he was desperate. With help from Uncle Edgar, he managed three months’ work, several really good parties and a couple of brief romances in what was really just seven days.

Word spread. Young wives applied for more time to do housework (this was a long time ago you realise); couples applied for longer honeymoons; mothers asked for more time with their toddlers; people asked for time to sort out their incompetence before their bosses found out.

Uncle Edgar never asked a penny and everyone got exactly what they wanted. Yet it was all over in less than six months.

Reading the first article and seeing that long-forgotten face, I vaguely recall seeing him on some news programme in fuzzy black and white, in awe that someone I knew was on TV.

‘I thought people would want time to change things, to heal things…’ he kept saying

‘How do the requests seem to you, Mr Rudd?’ asked the interviewer.

‘Selfish,’ sighed Uncle Edgar, ‘just selfish.’

Flicking through the papers, I saw that the time-machine overtook politics, women’s lib, hippies and fox-hunting as the top reason for writing to the editor.

‘Sir, if I had paid any money, I would want it back. Something ought to be done about Mr Rudd. We have just returned from a week’s holiday in Spain. We saved up all year. Mr Rudd turned one week into two months. Now no-one is speaking to anyone else and I have an appointment with the divorce lawyer on Monday.’

‘Sir, an extra long honeymoon is a terrible thing. We ran out of things to say after six weeks and I’ve found out all his horrible habits. I wish I’d married the other bloke.’

‘Sir, I wanted to be with my children thirty-six waking hours a day. I am now going grey and I am only twenty-four. Don’t print my name. My husband always said they were little brats and I don’t want him to know I now realise he’s right.’

Only two letters stood out in praise.

‘Sir, having spent a weekend away from 3b which Mr Rudd had extended to a month, I now realise what objectionable little toe-rags they are. I have handed in my notice and am off to work in a country where children prize their education.’

‘Sir, I asked for extra time to improve my housewife skills. In the library looking for recipe books, I enrolled my husband on a cookery course while I learnt accountancy. We are both now much happier and about to open a hotel.’

But a final letter suggested sinister implications.

‘Sir, are Mr Rudd’s motives truly altruistic? Enemy agents are at this moment infiltrating our society with secret brain-washing machinery! How can we know that he is not central to this plot? All true Britons! For the sake of God, Queen and Country: boycott this fiendish device!’

Uncle Edgar closed down the garage in Willoughby Avenue.

I now live in a small town myself and know how scandals about nothing rumble round for what feels like forever and then blow over. In Uncle Edgar’s case, the indignation about the time-machine was overtaken when the local chip shop started offering curry sauce and ‘The Great Foreign Muck Food Poisoning’ debate began.

I realise as I wade through the yellowed newsprint, that I last saw the time-machine in 1976. Uncle Edgar used bits of it to make me a radio which he put in a 1950s vanity case. Being an unconfident teenager, I didn’t appreciate it. Already desperately uncool, I didn’t want to be seen with something so old fashioned it probably couldn’t pick up the ‘right’ station.

Putting the newspapers into a neat pile for recycling, I turn to the next set of things to sort. Deep in a battered cardboard box is the vanity case radio, covered in lovely cherry red leather. I am ashamed that I didn’t thank Uncle Edgar enough and that I was more interested in other people’s opinions than the work of art I possessed. Such is the regret of middle-age I suppose.

Clearing this attic is both sad and exhausting. I wish I could relish it more, that I didn’t have to go back to work tomorrow, that most of this stuff will go to landfill because I only have today to go through it all.

I run my hands over the case and opening it, turn those solid dials which speak of a less disposable era. My fingers find something out of kilter, a little bit of imperfection. Tucked down between the radio and its case is a tiny slip of paper.

It reads, ‘Dear Paula. Next to the left dial is a small button. One day, you’ll want more time. If so, just press the button while you tune in. Make the most of it. Love Uncle E.’

With a trembling finger, I press….

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Umbrella

Today I dithered.

From the screen, Dina with lowered eyes, chatted away, oblivious to my restlessness. She was doing some form of craft I think. Her hands were below the screen but occasionally, scissors and thread flashed above the edge or she leaned forward to check her work.

For all I know she was performing surgery. For all I know, she was projecting a stock image of the woman she wants me to think she is.

If she had looked up, she’d have seen the image I chose to be today. I created it about ten years ago. My skin is iridescent and my hair in silvered braids is formed into the ears and scales of a dragon.

In the evenings I like to project myself as a sleepy cat for online friends. Only for close family do I show myself as I nearly am.

I have never seen Dina in person but this morning, I agreed to meet after five years of dialogue.

She gossiped and I responded in noncommittal sounds. Putting my glare glasses on, I motored to the window and looked outside where vehicles glided, their occupants obscured behind tinted glass and robots rushed.

There are still some who choose to be in the open. There will always be some who have no choice. Here and there, those throwbacks whose lower limbs still function walked or ran, mingling with those on motor legs like me. I’ve got the impression Dina is a throwback. I will know when I meet her for the first time next week.

All the people on the pavement, legged or motorised, wore their shells like badges. Here was a rich person, here someone trying to look rich. Here someone who didn’t care what anyone thought. I have not been beyond these walls for three years.

Shells fit close but they can project a lie as easily as a digital image can.

Someone passed whose shell looked cheap and worn. Over his head, he carried one of those antique fabric structures on a stick which was designed to keep off the rain, in the days when we used to have rain. I imagine he’d bought it in a junk shop to keep the sun from penetrating his inadequate shell.

I willed it to work. Once my little sister ran outside into the sun without protection. I tried to get to her but our mother, sobbing, pulled me back. Whenever I look at the burn scar on my right arm, I hear my sister’s screams; her skin bubbling and blistering as she died.

Now I turned to motor over to my wardrobe. Inside, my collection of shells hung – the myriad possible me’s taunted. I could look rich or average, shy or confident, flamboyant or conservative. Which one? Which one?

‘How will I recognise the real you?’ said Dina, biting off a piece of thread.

I stared into my wardrobe and said nothing. I no longer knew who I was myself.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission