|Gordiscope mirror © Darmy|
Around the corner of the alleyway was a yard which revealed its own narrative. It was stacked high with railway sleepers, branded with the names of places in England, and dates. They were from Sheffield, York, Birmingham amongst others; some bore ancient marks of the train companies: GWR, LMS, LNER. Having supported the weight of those steam trains transporting people across the land, their penultimate trip seemed to have been to the South Coast, following the same direction as all those holiday makers. I assumed most were from the railway lines closed many years before, and that they’d basked in the Southern sun for decades, the seasoned wood awaiting repurposing. I remember thinking to myself that surely they wouldn’t be around for long now - being increasingly popular for that latest shabby chic look people like in their gardens.
The yard was overlooked by a series of workshops, windows reflecting the light from the heavens, casting eerie beams of moon at odd angles. A vintage truck sat in one corner, reeking of oil and new paint. The body of the vehicle looked good as new, but the doors had yet to be completed, their surface scuffed and worn. But even so, its appearance was anachronistic. With the aged railway sleepers and this mode of transport, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. I tried to ground myself by listening for the familiar groan of the buses in the distance, but instead I heard a different, unfamiliar noise – the sound of wheels on tracks.
I tentatively began walking across the yard, the surface of which was unpleasantly sandy and gritty on my paws. I remember wondering about how I’d have to spend time licking them later, and subsequently how I’d have to deal with the gritty sensation on my palate. But then I turned to the matter at hand.
At first, I looked around for the Architect, but he was nowhere to be seen. As for the rat with my disc... I spent some time searching, walking between the ranks of the sleepers, examining the various workshops, some of which had been left open for the night - this itself was unusual, but I didn’t think much of it until later. I sniffed every pot and bucket and toolbox in that place, but there was no scent trail to speak of.
As I passed to the back of the yard, there was a large wooden shed. I began to get a curious sense of displacement. I thought back to looking out of the top window at the rear of the house, the room where my tall Slave likes to write. But the wooden shed hadn’t been there before – as far as I could remember this should have been an empty space, sometimes used as an ad hoc car park. And of course, cars wouldn’t have been able to get access with the pile of railway sleepers there.
I heard the odd whistle of metal on tracks once more. Something really wasn’t right. I sat and listened, but the yard was devoid of life. Even the bats which often fluttered around overhead, jittering their choreic dances to the sounds of echo, were absent. The night was completely still. Realising that the sky was turning a shade of blue, signifying the beginning of dawn, I walked back to the alleyway, only to find my path blocked by a tall door.
Uncertain what to do next, I ran into the street, confused by the lack of cars parked there. What’s more, the street looked different – the houses I remember seeing through the window across the road weren’t as taller, nor as grand. In addition, their front gardens looked different: more manicured, neater. Then I saw some houses I recognised, but even these seemed different somehow, despite the lack of cars and the gardens: everything looked newer, fresher. And there were no television aerials, no satellite dishes.
I heard that screeching metal sound again, and saw something pass by at the end of the road. Then behind me, very close by, there was another noise: the clip clop of hooves on the road. I turned to see a horse drawn cart, laden with milk bottles. It had stopped momentarily for a delivery, the horse snorting with impatience. It caught me in its glance and I thought it was about to say something, but instead it stamped its foot, stroppily.
I ran up to our terrace and looked at our house – wondering if my Slaves were asleep. Or indeed if my Slaves were actually there. But the door and the windows were different. I couldn’t recall the door being red, nor could I recall the white lead mullions on the glazing. Frightened now, I started running up the road. I’d been this way a few times, and was aware it was interdit, verboten, according to my Slaves, because they were worried about me getting squashed beneath the wheels of an inconsiderate driver. But this was an exception surely? And there were no cars!
I simply had to find the Architect. Where was he? When I reached the top of the road, I watched an open top tram screech past, the electrical cables above fizzing. It was a beautiful sight, its red and cream livery lending a regal feel – so much better than the buses we now have. The lower deck was illuminated, and filled with men reading newspapers and smoking. Their clothing all seemed rather uptight – no slovenly T-shirts or shorts, like my tall Slave likes to wear. On the top deck sat a lone figure who waved as me as the tram passed.
When I turned back to walk back down the road, I was once again surprised by the milk cart. It had crept closer as it made its deliveries up the avenue. The horse stood looking at me once more, stamping its feet as if trying to tell me something. When the milkman dismounted to drop of a few bottles of silver top, a familiar figure jumped out of the back of the cart: it was the Architect.
‘Um, apologies about all this,’ he mumbled.
‘What the heck is going on?’ I asked.
‘Well, there seems to have been a slight time blip. Happens occasionally. Nothing to worry about,’ he added in a laissez-faire manner.
‘Time blip? Just how many years have we gone back?’ I asked.
‘Only about… well, only about eighty.’
‘Eighty years?’ I asked, incredulously.
‘I think we’d better head back down the road, before that milkman appears again, don’t you think?’ replied the Architect, rhetorically.
It made sense of course, when I came to think about it. My subconscious mind had flagged up something, and I’d half wondered about whether or not I’d entered a different part of the layered alternate universes. But the effect had been so disorientating, I hadn’t been able to work it out.
We passed the family houses which would eventually later be converted to flats. We passed rows of similar houses that would be bombed in a few years time, obliterated from existence. We passed gardens that would be torn up to make way for driveways for humans’ precious motorcars. Behind us, another tram circled the block, which would be removed from service and sent to Wales or perhaps down the coast to Seaton, the existing network pulled up and replaced by buses. Everything would change, because everything always did.
‘Did you find the rat?’
‘Of course. Rats can’t stop time like cats. I went to the library first, thought you might be there. Left the disc there. It is all ready and awaiting your arrival.’
‘Well, we just have to get there.’
‘Just as soon as we manoeuvre ourselves into an approximate position of where we were before the jump…,’ the Architect explained.
‘When we get back, we’ll walk around to the library on the road. It is early enough. But before we go…’
‘This is your house isn’t it?’ he asked, stopping outside the terraced property. I looked up, recognising the house number, the familiar brickwork, and nodded.
‘Yes, that’s the one.’
‘Follow me then,’ he said, nudging the gate open with his head. I definitely didn’t remember there being a gate. Beside the door stood two ice cold bottles of silver top milk. The Architect scratched at the top of one of these, knocking it onto the ground and began to lap at the cream layer beneath. He then turned to me, shrugged. ‘Well, when in Rome… Your turn,’ he replied, with white whiskers.
In a short while, we were back at the end of the alleyway, where the obstructing door prevented access. And then in an eyeblink, it had gone and all that remained were some old holes in the brickwork, where the hinges had attached. As I examined one of these, a woodlouse crawled out, testing the day with its feelers, before returning into the shelter of the darkness.
‘Wasn’t so bad, was it?’ asked the Architect, looking at me with a worried expression.
‘No. But how… how did you know where I was? Or rather when I was?’
‘Well, my mistake really. Had to spend a while, you know, searching the timelines, once I’d realised what had gone wrong.’
‘Searching the timelines?’
‘Yep. Every year back to 1928.’
‘Every year? But what if something had happened? What if you’d been blown to smithereens by the bombs that landed?’
‘You’d have been stuck, old chap.’
I thought back to the car free roads, the old style trams and dress sense. Would I have been happy there? ‘I suppose it wouldn’t have been that bad. I’d have missed my Slaves though,’ I said, my thoughts continuing aloud.
‘Not just that. Cat food. Wasn’t the same back then.’
‘I suppose not…,’ I replied in agreement. He was right though – there was no way I’d be able to do without my gourmet white fish and spinach - it was bad enough when the local supermarket ran out of stock.
I followed the Architect up the street to the library. He knew a secret way in through a back window, creeping through the ladies’ toilets and into the library proper. And there was an easy way up, so it didn’t require any kind of athletic prowess. Inside, a number of computers hummed to themselves in the centre of the space, surrounded by the warmth of bookshelves’ accumulated knowledge.
‘Well, there you go…,’ the Architect said, pointing at the technology, which seemed as out of kilter in this space as I had felt in the past. My disc lay next to one of the monitors. When I picked it up, I realised its plastic casing bore little teeth marks.
Soon, the printers were whirring into action, churning out my words. As I waited, I looked around at the stacks of books, many of which hadn’t even been written a few minutes ago. I wondered about adding my efforts to the similar wealth of literature that filled the feline library, which occupied this very space in our neighbouring universe. Maybe one day.
With the printing done, we stepped outside into the dawning day. I clutched my manuscript to my chest, fearful of letting it go after all I’d been through to print it. The world outside the library had changed once more, the sky now dark with clouds. A wind whipped up leaves in the street, shook the trees.
I turned to the Architect, to wish my thanks for his help, but tripped over the step designed for human, rather than feline, gait. In slow motion, I felt the manuscript slip from my hands, split into fractions and be carried by the wind. I tried to stop time, but for some reason I couldn’t. All I could do was watch, hopelessly, as for the second time that day, my words were ripped away from me.
But then, in the next eyeblink, the next flick of the nictitating membrane, everything was back to normal. The Architect was in front of me, holding my intact manuscript.
‘I stopped time. Which was why you couldn’t,’ he explained.
‘I didn’t realise you could do that – stop others from halting the timeline, I mean.’
‘I know. Rather brutish of me wasn’t it? Anyway… How about I see you to your door with this?’ he asked, gesturing to my manuscript and laughing.
‘Sure,’ I replied, feeling a sudden tiredness wash over me, as I joined him in the laughter, which for a moment I thought must have sounded strange to the neighbourhood humans. But then we heard some foxes mating, their screeches hard on the ears, concealing any kind of noise we’d been making.
‘Fox mating season,’ the Architect noted.
‘Which is why your fox friend couldn’t help?’
‘I imagine so,’ replied the Architect.
When we reached the alleyway, I was faced with having to make the return journey over the sheer fence. Whilst I was sniffing around for a way in, the Architect jumped up with the manuscript, almost pirouetting on the fence post before vanishing from view. Moments later, he’d managed to unlock the back gate to allow me access. I noticed my manuscript had been placed on the cast iron table, held down by a small rock. The Architect continued to fiddle with the key in the gate door, and I watched so I could do the same next time.
Eventually, he managed to close the mechanism and leapt back down, landing silently on the patio beside me. We sat in silence for a while, staring at the stars once again, before I spoke: ‘Well, thanks for your… help?’
The Architect raised his paw, waving this away. ‘But look, posting it is your responsibility!’ he replied, before performing another acrobatic manoeuvre and disappearing over the fence. I could hear him laughing to himself in the alleyway beyond.
Thankfully, the following evening, I managed to negotiate sending the book away without incident or need for assistance. But really, that was just the beginning of the story…
Twenty-one: coming soon