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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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?”
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…)