There was a young man who said “Damn!
I now clearly see that I am
An engine that moves
In predestinate grooves:
Not even a bus, but a tram.”
— Maurice E. Hare (1886-1967)
Later, Luke Honeysett would often wonder if the tide in the affairs of men that Shakespeare wrote about was the same as the tide of times that he also mentioned. It had certainly seemed that way. Never mind its leading to fortune when taken at the flood; it had damned nearly swept him away and taken a lot else with it, or so he had been told. Talk about time and tide waiting for no man! Looking back, blessed with hindsight, he could see a lot of things that he might have done differently. But would it have led to a different outcome? All that bloody free will versus predetermination stuff!
There was absolutely no doubt about when it had started, though. From his point of view, that is. It would look a bit different to Constantinou, of course, because he had been on the case well before Luke’s involvement. Or could you say that, considering that he started from later? Never mind.
It was a Monday morning in a May a few years ago. Well, that rather depends on where you look at it from, of course, so let us say more specifically that it was a few years into the twenty-first century. For Luke Honeysett it was much like any other weekday in any month in any of the preceding several years.
Three-quarters of an hour after the alarm had as usual shattered his sleep, he had found himself as usual on a station platform congealed with dollops of fellow-commuters who were as usual gazing anxiously up the track as though the 7·45 to Kings Cross were not always late.
The train came, as it always did, exactly four minutes behind time. Luke had always thought that the timetable published by the train company and their operating schedule must have been two quite independent documents, no doubt planned that way to induce a proper sense of mistrust and unease in the travelling public.
He got a seat, which was not unusual except on the days when the normal eight-coach train was replaced without warning by one with four coaches. It was the middle seat of what were supposed to be three, but would have been nearer two-and-a-half if anyone had actually bothered to measure them. Anyone, that is, apart from the train’s design team, who must have added together the bum dimensions of three average commuters, subtracted about fifteen percent, and then built their triple seats.
Luke lowered himself into the space available, descending partly onto the thighs of the man on either side. This forced the one nearest the aisle to move sideways until one of his buttocks overhung the said aisle, and the other to compress himself against the side of the carriage. Fortunately, Luke did not have a briefcase nor a newspaper. Those of his neighbours encroached upon his airspace to an extent that would have made territorial skirmishing inevitable if he had have done. By dint of a minute’s contortions, he extracted a paperback book from his pocket and began to read, keeping his elbows four inches apart above his lap. The book was “The Caves of Thungor”, a science-fiction novel.
Twenty-five minutes passed and so did the twenty-eight miles to the terminus, upon arrival at which all of Luke’s travelling companions spilled onto the platform like rice from an Uncle Ben’s packet. Some immediately broke into a run, such was the joy or fear that their jobs held for them. Luke could never decide whether it was best to ride the surge or wait until it had subsided a bit before attempting to leave the carriage. He usually dithered somewhat, unsure about the protocol determining whether passengers seated near the door had priority over those, already standing, from further inside. He normally managed to exit with only a couple or so of apologies, given or received.
On that day, Luke decided to luxuriate rather in the unwonted comfort of a whole two-and-a-half-person seat for the thirty seconds until the carriage was clear. Not that there was any hurry anyway; he had plenty of time. He always caught an earlier train than strictly necessary as he could not bear rushing about.
After he walked through the barrier, Luke found that it was raining heavily. By another stroke of the master plan, the suburban platforms at Kings Cross were not a part of the main station, but formed an appendage at one side. This meant that the thousands of already chastened travellers who used them daily had to cross an uncovered courtyard to reach the Tube station, dodging taxis and delivery vans. This, too, helped to establish their frame of mind for the day at work.
Luke, though, having time to spare, and wishing to avoid getting wet, took an alternative route that he had first chanced across some months before. By crossing the entrance of a loading bay, passing behind dozens of parked metal trolleys, and going under a small unmarked archway, it was possible to enter the main station by way of the ground floor lobby of a block containing some offices. The circumnavigatory nature of this path was compensated for by its being all under cover. This fact was apparently unappreciated by most of Luke’s fellow-travellers, as he seldom encountered anyone else on the odd occasions when he went that way.
Luke would probably not have blurted aloud “Christ, they’ve tarted it up!” if he had not been alone, but he was and they had, it seemed. He had noted a recent retro trend for redecorating some establishments in the capital such as bars and restaurants in a Victorian style, in a fruitless attempt to instil an atmosphere of solid dependable values. Now the fad had obviously spread to stations too. The dirty grey gloss paint of the walls of the inside of the administrative block had been supplanted by a two-tone muted red job in rather sombre taste. The mottled vinyl tiles that had surfaced the treads of the staircase to the offices were gone, the wood had been polished, and a carpet the colour of Sainsbury’s Rioja had been fitted, held in place with shiny brass rods. The starkly functional steel and plastic banisters were replaced with a more luxurious set, which had a wide mahogany rail supported by cast ironware of an imaginative floridity, appearing to represent the contents of Kew Gardens’ Tropical House. Gleaming parquet had superseded the asphalt floor. The grimy fluorescent tubes had vanished; in their stead were curly wall-brackets holding what were presumably fake gas lamps. The hallway appeared more spacious somehow, and Luke realised with some surprise that it was because the lift-shaft that had boxed in the centre of the stairwell had been removed, allowing a clear view to the first-floor landing. Up there, shiny dark wood doors could be glimpsed, some with engraved glass panels.
“They must’ve got a wiggle on,” muttered Luke, because it could not have been above a month since the last time he had cut through that way. Shaking his head at the misdirection of money that could have been better spent improving the train service, he went through the archway at the other end of the lobby. The light seemed to flicker as he did so, and he wondered if thunder and lightning would be added to the day’s meteorological delights.
The main concourse of the station had most definitely not been the object of any cosmetic improvement, unless one counted the dozen-odd hanging baskets of plastic plants which had been strung up on one of the walls a couple of years before. Their polythene foliage now had so thick a layer of dirt that it was impossible to see what species were represented; the baskets looked like giant pan-scourers hung to dry.
Luke went down some steps and walked the five miles or so of curving corridors and staircases to the Tube platform amidst the usual crowd of kamikaze pedestrians, suffering no more than one glancing blow, from a large important-looking black briefcase containing only an apple and a copy of “Maxim”.
Held upright on the Circle Line train by the press of bodies surrounding him, and swaying with them in unison at each change of speed like a member of a highly-trained formation dancing team, Luke idly considered whether it would be worthwhile taking up frottage. He would certainly have the opportunity to practice it on a regular basis, were his arms not pinioned by pressures stronger than the G-forces on a Space Shuttle launch. His thoughts wandered off, but he found himself soon afterwards at the radio station where he worked, guided there as if by autopilot.
When Luke got to Kings Cross that afternoon on the way home, it was still raining. Umbrellas dripped on the tiled floor of the concourse, and soggy commuters streamed past passive provincials wetly waiting in queues and cagoules for long-distance trains. He made his way down the inside of the mainline station towards his under-cover long-cut to the suburban platforms. A sign outside the Gents said, “Toilits closed for repairs. Please use those at St. Pancras.” This message, in conjunction with the sound of water pouring down the roof, induced Pavlovian symptoms of deprivation in those who saw it, and a riot seemed a possibility.
Luke passed the left-luggage office, and, ignoring the signposted route, continued until he reached the entrance to the administration block. He walked briskly through, and had almost reached the barrier of his platform before a thought struck him. A slightly queasy feeling insinuated itself into his lower abdomen. He glanced at his watch, and seeing that there were several minutes to spare before his train left, went back at a run to the office vestibule.
It was as he had thought; the place was normal: grey paint, grey lino, metallic lift shaft, strip-lighting. The only splash of colour was a fire extinguisher clamped to the wall. But, that morning, he had seen it redecorated, refurbished, revamped. The lift had been taken away, new banisters and lights installed; it had looked like the foyer of a City bank. Now where was it all? Luke considered the possibility that he could have wandered through a different entrance that morning. A brief investigatory sortie convinced him that there was no other way he could have gone. Could it have been temporarily changed for a film or something? And changed back in a few hours? Come off it! Had he imagined it, then? Unlikely; he was not given to hallucinating interior decoration schemes. He stared a little wildly round the grubby hallway. “Not till now, at any rate,” he said.
“Wozzat, John?” asked a railman passing on the mainline platform.
“Oh, er, sorry, nothing,” Luke mumbled, and set off back towards his train, which he was just in time to see moving away at a tidy lick as he came up to the barrier. “Bugger!” he exclaimed, and dropped his season ticket face downwards onto a particularly wet bit of the wet ground.
Arriving at Lemsfield station therefore later than usual, he found that the rain had stopped, and the sun was half-heartedly elbowing a gap in the clouds. As he picked his way through the car-park puddles, he was enveloped in wafts of malty air from the cereal factory on the industrial estate across the line. This induced its customary feeling of wholesome well-being, which was reinforced by the increasing sunlight as it gilded the fenceless front gardens, the neat bushes and the circumportal climbing roses of the calm streets down which Luke drove out of the town. He skirted the golf course along a hilly and winding road, and then, as even such residual evidence of urbanisation dropped away behind him, Luke felt his sense of contentment growing still stronger, as it always did.
By the time he had negotiated the three miles of narrow country lanes (without encountering more than a couple of oncoming cars on his side of the road on bends, with all the violent swerving that that always entailed) he was verging on the euphoric. He opened the five-barred gate at the entrance to his drive, and splattered the gravel in his haste to park. As he locked the car, his gaze panned round: his Saab next to Kate’s Renault, the old brick of the house, the blossom-filled garden, the adjoining woodland, the distant arable views; and he beheld that it was good. He farted pleasurably.
“Oh, hello, sweetie,” said Kate, coming round the end of the yew hedge with a sledgehammer in her hands. “I thought it was you.”
“You were expectink maybe ze Vienna Philharmonic?” asked Luke with a Middle European shrug of understated subtlety. She hooked her short dark hair behind her ears and wipedher palms over her face. “Well, you are a bit late. I was wondering...”
“Zere is nozzink wrong wiz ze timekeeping of ze Philharmonic! Dozens of famous conductors will testify zat zis is so!”
The smile that always ravished him illumined her perspiring and freckled face.
“Fool!” she said amiably, and turned to the house. “What time do you want to eat? It’ll only take half an hour in the oven.”
“Any time. You know me.”
“That’s true. About half seven, then.”
“Okay. Hey, by the way, a jolly odd thing happened today.”
“Oh yes?” Kate stopped at the foot of the terrace steps.
“Yeah. At Kings Cross this morning...” But suddenly the state of decoration of a London terminus seemed a lot less important than it had. “Oh, nothing,” he finished, and followed her into the house through the french windows. Kate smiled. Luke smiled. The cat yowled in the kitchen for its Meaty Chunks.
“He can’t wait, even if you can,” Kate said.
“Stuff him! Who’s the boss round here?” Luke slipped an arm through one of hers and assumed his aftershave ad expression.
“Don’t tempt me, sunshine!”
“Charming.” Luke relinquished his hold and went upstairs for a wash.
“Listen, bubs,” Luke said as he stacked the dishwasher, “what do you think about the Mid-life Crisis?”
“I’d never given it much thought. Why; are you having one?”
“Piss off! No; as the title of a series of programmes. Neville’s got a bee in his bonnet about doing it. How different punters face up to the burning question of why they’ve been wallies all their lives and are liable to die that way, and all that sort of thing.”
“Sounds reasonable. Who’d present the shows?”
“Blimey. From what you’ve told me, his life’s been one long crisis.”
“Ah yes, but he has the Authoritative Persona.”
“Is that one of your phrases from that dreadful broadcasting magazine you read?”
“I cannot tell a lie.” He clasped his hands to his chest and rolled his eyes upwards. His field of vision therefore suddenly included the top shelf of the dresser. “What on earth’s that thing up there?”
“Oh, I found it in the garden a few days ago. I couldn’t think what to do with it.”
“Let’s have a shufti at it, then.” He brought down the rusty object. It was a kind of T-shaped key or spanner, like a smaller version of those used by plumbers to turn off stopcocks. The business end had a small square socket about a quarter of an inch across.
“I wonder what it was used for?” said Luke.
“God knows. Extracting teeth, I expect.”
“Don’t be daft. No, it’s for adjusting something, or... wait a minute.” He crossed to the large old wall-clock and compared the implement with the keyhole in its face. “No, much too big. Oh well!” He opened a drawer and bunged the thing inside. “Anyway, about these mid-life crises...”
“Are you sure you’re not having one? You’re almost the age.”
“Do me a favour! I’m not even forty for another six years, Kate.”
“You mean to say you never wonder what life’s all in aid of, what good we’re doing; all that?”
“No, not really.”
“Where your job’s leading you, how you’ll end up?”
“Are you trying to bring on a crisis or something?”
“No, but I sometimes think you take things too much for granted; that things are a bit too easy for us.”
“Oh, Divine Providence keeping a few thunderbolts in store for those who don’t work hard for all they take out of life?”
“That sort of thing, yes.”
“The Protestant Work Ethic, that is.”
“Don’t give me your blooming media clichés!”
“Sorry. Force of habit.”
“You must admit we have things pretty cushy.”
“Have I denied it? Would I?” Luke did the shrug again.
“Your job, my lack of need for one, this house.”
“Well, you’ve got your parents to thank for that.”
“I’d rather have them still alive than have their house.”
“Yes, of course,” Luke agreed without conviction.
“Don’t you ever want to take a few risks, branch out a bit?”
“Oh Christ, Kate we have this discussion at least once a month.”
“I know.” She grinned. “It doesn’t get me very far, does it, you boring old twerp?”
“Look! I like living out here in the country, I don’t mind my job, I even quite like you. If that’s being boring, I’m proud to be a bore. Good God, woman, generations of Englishmen have died on foreign battlefields so that their wives had the right to lead boring lives.”
“Oh, all right! Are you going to make some coffee?”
Later that night, as he climbed into bed, Luke said, “I suppose a quick naughty’s out of the question?”
Later still, he woke up briefly and wondered whether Kate did not have a point, after all.
The Tuesday morning was sunny, but when Luke got to Kings Cross he was in no mood to cross the yard directly to the Tube station; he wanted to discover the true state of the ambivalent vestibule. He made as straight for the office entrance as the various obstacles would allow. It came as no real surprise, but nonetheless generated a little frisson, to find that the lobby was as it had been the morning before. The grey lino and paint, the lift shaft; these and the fire extinguisher were not in evidence. Dark wood and cast iron twiddly bits dominated the stairwell. Luke was glad that he had not after all imagined the conversion.
Before he could start to wonder what it was that he had seen on the way home the previous afternoon, a movement on the first floor landing caught his eye. A man stood there, looking down. Luke’s initial thought was that he was a barrister or something, because he had on a long black coat and a high collar. This was soon found not to be the case as the man began rapidly to descend the stairs, for he was also wearing a waistcoat made from red brocade of the type favoured as cushion covers by old ladies, albeit without the fringing. He looked about the same age as Luke, or possibly older — fortyish — it was difficult to tell with those long sidewhiskers.
“Good morning, sir,” said the man with a somewhat accusatory tone. “May I be of some assistance?” His gaze sliced Luke vertically a couple of times and his lip twitched.
“Er, thank you, but no; I was just taking a short cut.”
The man’s face was like that of a goat that had been proffered substandard foliage. “In that case, I must point that these offices are the private property of the Company and the public is not permitted to enter except upon business.”
“Well,” Luke said, suddenly nettled himself, “I’ve come through here lots of times before.”
“Indeed? I must ask that you do so no more. It is the Company’s policy to prosecute trespassers.”
“Company? What Company?”
The man’s lip no longer just twitched. It actually curled. “Why, the Great Northern Railway Company, of course! Now, if you will permit me to escort you off its premises...”
Luke’s mind experienced an effect akin to that felt by a mouth when a sherbet lemon implodes. Now he realised what was going on! He didn’t read science fiction for nothing!
“It’s a time-warp, isn’t it?” he exclaimed. “This is fantastic! This must be the nineteenth century.”
The expression on the man’s caprine features momentarily changed from hostility to puzzlement. “I beg your pardon?” he said.
“Oh, you know; a person goes through a fifth-dimensional gateway or something and finds himself in another era. That way he doesn’t need a time-machine or anything. Very convenient! The ‘worm holes in a book’ idea. Curved space and time. Relativity...” he tailed off. Physics had left him behind in the third form at school when he found that the calculations necessary for the simplest experiment got in the way of the scientific imagination.
The hostile expression was firmly back in control of the man’s bewhiskered face. “Now look here, my good fellow.” The words were individually propelled, as from a peashooter. “I don’t know who you are, or what you’re engaged upon, but I should like you to go from here, now!” And he took Luke by the elbow, none too gently.
Play it cool, thought Luke; find out what’s what. “Er!” he said. Pressure was applied to his elbow, forcing him to walk towards the mainline platform. “Er, do you mind telling me who you are?”
“My name; why should that concern you?”
“Well, um, I could tell you a great deal that would interest you.”
“I doubt that. In any case, I am not in the habit of conversing with drunken artisans.”
“Drunken? I’m not drunken! And I’m not an artisan.”
“You are hardly dressed like a gentleman.”
Luke considered his appearance. If he had been somehow transported to the nineteenth century, his open-necked shirt and cord trousers could be taken for those of a labourer, he supposed. “I expect that’s true,” he said, “but please tell me who you are. It’s rather important.”
The man sighed. “I am Leopold Redpath. I have the honour to be the Chief Clerk in the Registration Department of the Great Northern Railway Company. Now...”
“All right! I’m going.” Luke turned quickly away from Redpath and walked quickly through the arch into the station, fearing otherwise to receive a hefty shove.
He was quite unprepared for what he saw. He had not consciously been expecting anything in particular, but in his mind was lodged a composite image of streamlined trains, litter bins, electronic destination boards, and Cornish pasty stalls. What in fact burst upon his awareness was a panorama of smoke and steam, of brightly painted but oily machinery, short wooden carriages, piles of leather-strapped luggage (some on the carriage roofs), packing cases filled with livestock, piles of vegetables, and crowds of people in fancy dress: exotic uniforms, long stiff skirts, tall hats, trousers tied at the knee, coloured neckerchiefs, silver-topped canes, strange umbrellas, capes like tweed tents. Dozens of unfamiliar noises and as many unfamiliar smells reached him simultaneously. It was cold too. Luke staggered, as if he had been struck.
The next moment he really was struck, on the shoulder, by a large box being carried on the back of a man whose clothing was superficially not dissimilar to Luke’s, except that it was ragged and dirty.
“Beg pardon, mite,” said the man, and passed by.
“Well, stone the crows!” Luke exclaimed under his breath, rubbing his shoulder, “this is a bit bloody Harry Potter and the Magical Platform 9¾, isn’t it?”
Whilst his preference for reading science fiction had left him not unreceptive, in theory, to the concept of a person’s being able to shuttle from one time to another, the fact that it appeared to have happened to him made him feel rather as if he had on the same day come up on the lottery and come up in court.
He walked down the platform to the concourse, his head swivelling round and round and up and down like that of a hyperactive giraffe, as he attempted to absorb all the sights and sounds of the antique environment. Everything was strange to him; even the geography of the place. It looked as if there were only two platforms, though with lots of tracks in between, and there was a booking hall where he was more used to seeing a café.
“You all right, love?” asked a scrawny woman in an over-large dress of an electric indigo shade and a black straw bonnet holding more feathers than the average pillow.
“Thank you, yes.” Luke found a little difficulty in speaking.
“Only you seemed like you might be going to have a funny turn.”
“No, really; I’m fine.”
The woman nodded and was about to move off when a thought occurred to Luke. This was the Big Moment of stories and films galore, but now that he was one of the participants, he was embarrassed.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but...” He felt too silly to continue.
“Yes?” The woman smiled encouragingly and put one hand on a hip.
“It’s just that...”
“Come on, ducks, no need to be shy!”
“Well, what year is this?”
The woman seemed affronted rather than surprised. “1852,” she replied tartly. “The twenty-fifth of November, in case you don’t know that neither.”
“Aargh!” responded Luke, then “Grugh!” by way of enlargement.
The woman’s face hardened. “You want to go and have a sit down till it wears off a bit. And take some water with it next time.”
“I’m not drunk.” The accusation, within five minutes of a similar one, restored Luke’s power of speech, but to no avail, for she was gone.
Making a determined effort to appear casual, as if he found himself in a different century every day, he walked towards the front of the station and the colonnade that gave upon the outside world of 1852. He was surprised to see not city streets, but a kind of scrubby suburbia. The city proper was there all right, perhaps quarter of a mile away, marked by threads, columns, and clouds of sooty smoke. Nearer at hand, though, there were still some tired trees and an area of open land, albeit criss-crossed by dirt-tracks and much encroached upon by houses under construction. A few very temporary-seeming wooden structures listed dispiritedly here and there.
Immediately in front of the station was a wide and dirty forecourt, where the horses of parked carts and carriages chewed the contents of doubtful-looking bags, processing them instantly, it seemed, into large mounds of manure. Wide rutted roads led three ways from the forecourt, each of them crowded with horsedrawn conveyances, handcarts, and tattered foot-travellers. The noise, to one used to the steady hum of twenty-first-century traffic, was deafening. Hooves clipped and clopped, wooden wheels with iron rims jolted and banged, the bodywork and reins of the vehicles creaked, and everyone in sight appeared to be shouting like a lunatic. Even the sound of poultry and pigs came from somewhere close by.
Luke moved out from under the portico, avoiding the ladders of painters putting finishing touches to the woodwork. The station looked very new, with its clean yellow brickwork, and Luke supposed it must be. Victorian buildings were much of a muchness to him, but he knew that 1852 was fairly early in the reign and in the history of railways, so that probably figured. The funny thing was that Kings Cross had always struck him as a bit modern on the outside, like a giant 1930s Underground station. A distinct lack of the ornateness he associated with the nineteenth century. Still, the proof of the pudding, and so forth... He looked at the scene before him. He wished he had a camera. He was unsure of what to do next or even which way he ought to go. He supposed he had better walk towards London proper, where at least the pattern of streets should be roughly the same as those with which he was familiar. The only trouble was that this meant crossing one of the busy thoroughfares in front of him.
Luke picked his way through the mounds in the forecourt, and stood on the edge of the nearest road, trying to work out how best to get across. None of the vehicles was moving very fast, of course, but they alarmed him by their height, their unfamiliar protuberances, their sweaty horses. He saw no gaps between the trundling juggernauts, but reckoned he had better make a dash for it. He closed his eyes briefly to steel himself.
When he opened them again, the first thing he saw was a large pair of semi-naked breasts. Luke’s brain ground gears attempting to work out what place such a sight held in a Victorian traffic jam. His eyes rotated wildly and saw more scantily dressed women, some in rather unusual postures. They were all on the covers of magazines in a large rack that filled his field of vision. He spun round and saw shelves full of paper doilies, calculators, plastic toys, and birthday cards. He was in a W.H.Smith’s shop. It was the one that formed a part of the tatty extension that had been tacked onto the front of the terminus in the 1970s. None of the shop’s customers seemed to have noticed his sudden rematerialisation in the twenty-first century, each being preoccupied with browsing the goodies before them.
Luke felt as if he had had an expensive present snatched from him, but this emotion was not unmixed with relief at the replacement of the ancient rush hour with a more familiar one. “Bloody typical!” was all he could say, and he elbowed his way through the literate throng and headed for his horseless onward transport.
Not surprisingly, Luke could not apply himself to any of his normal untaxing daily tasks. His mind gnawed at the idea of time travel like a child at a stick of rock. What had seemed almost half-expected, the fulfilment of a hundred fantasies, when it first happened, was starting to seem more startling and peculiar by the minute. He supposed it was some kind of delayed shock. Time taking its revenge, as it were, he thought ruefully.
He tried to impose some order on his chaotic thoughts. He had no idea if he would be able to return to nineteenth-century London. It seemed likely that he might, having done it twice already. If that were the case, it was important to get his priorities right, he reasoned. Leopold Redpath was his only point of contact, the only Victorian he had met whose identity he knew. It did not matter that he seemed to be a complete bastard, he was someone to latch on to. One skill that Luke had developed in the course of his career was the ability to identify people that it was expedient to cultivate. He trusted that ability even if he did not trust Redpath. He needed to discover something about the man; his mind skidded away from the issue of how or why he had come to meet him. Kate had thought had needed a shake-up. It looked as if his fairy godmother had been eavesdropping.
Right; time for action! Luke turned to his computer terminal.
An hour later, he was ready to scream with frustration, having totally failed to come up with anything on the internet about the Great Northern Railway, much less about Leopold Redpath. Searches for “Great Northern Railway” had initially produced loads of irrelevant stuff about railroads in America. He had spent ages waiting for pages to load, followed dubious links, been distracted by gaudy pictures that appeared unbidden, gone down more blind alleys than seemed logical in something that called itself a net, and ended up scarcely any wiser than when he started. Eventually, however, he did manage to establish that all the official documents relating to the former Great Northern Railway were now kept at the National Archives at Kew.
“Information Superhighway, my arse!” he exclaimed, standing up. He told his assistant that he had some programme research to do, and left the building.
It took only a few minutes for Luke to get himself onto the District Line, heading west. As the train plunged in and out of stations, he sat and boggled at implications, attempting to see his way ahead into the past. His head ached from conjectural overload. He had already taken two aspirins at the office; now he swallowed two more, forcing their hard acidity down his throat without the aid of water.
The Underground became overground and rattled along behind rows and rows of houses, the gaps between which afforded occasional glimpses of DVD rental shops, building society branches, fried chicken take-aways, and minicab depots. All this landscape of brick had been chucked up in waves of speculative construction some time after 1852, Luke supposed. What would have been there before? Nature, presumably. Woods, fields, marshes, that sort of thing. He could not visualise it; the houses seemed a fundamental part of the topography.
The National Archives, on the other hand, was like an alien mother-ship marooned among the tiny villas of a Kew backwater. It was monolithic. It leant outwards all round, the vast sloping windows of its upper stories facing downwards. Luke felt inadequate as soon as he walked into its shadow, even before he was given the third degree by a succession of jobsworths in the foyer. After passing the entrance examination, he was given a reader’s ticket and permitted access to the green-carpeted first-floor reading rooms.
A rather tedious hour amid shelves of catalogues produced a short list of files that looked as though they might bear some relevance. Then a further half-hour of frustration at a computer terminal enabled him to do what the average schoolchild could have done in five minutes: to order those files from the archives. He was sent away, equipped with a bleeper clipped to his pocket, to have a cup of coffee in the restaurant while he waited. A machine served him the beverage, a human (possibly) sold him a cake. He consumed them as slowly as he could, and, still having had no summons to the reading rooms, answered one of a different sort to the Gents.
That great mainspring of the cosmos, for which the common appellations are Sod’s or Murphy’s Law, decreed that the bleeper went off just as Luke was in full flow. Its sudden stridulation, amplified by the tiled surfaces, caused his hands to jolt, spraying a section of the floor, his left shoe, and, more critically, his left trouser-leg. Attempts to sponge the affected area with damp paper towels only worsened the effect. There was a hot-air hand-dryer, bearing the optimistic legend “Hygienic airstream protects you from unpleasant chaps and the risk of infection”, but he could find nothing to stand on to raise his leg to its nozzle.
Luke approached the desk at which files were issued with an odd unbalanced gait, induced partly by an embarrassed attempt to conceal the wet trouser-leg, and partly by discomfort as the cloth adhered to his thigh. The attendant’s demeanour managed to combine impatience and sympathy, having seen Luke limp up. “Wha’ happen, man; is ages now we bleep?” he asked.
“Oh, sorry! I got a bit held up.”
“Yes, well, you take the files now, eh; we crowded in here.”
Luke soon saw why. The three files he had summoned were far too large to go on the shelves for papers awaiting collection. Their huge and dusty bulk was blocking the space between the counter and the conveyor belt that had brought them. With some difficulty, the attendant hoisted them onto the counter-top.
“You lift these to the other end the room and you bound to want a beer,” he observed, rubbing the dust from the label of one of the files. “Hey, the last time this taken out was 1892!”
“Well, I suppose it’s not something many people are interested in.” Luke wondered what the hell he was letting himself in for as he looked at the Matterhorn of yellowing paper. “Thank you”. He turned to go with the first giant armful.
“Hey man, you soak!” called the attendant, noticing Luke’s trousers.
“Spilt my coffee,” he lied, and lumbered across to the table he had been allocated. Some minutes later he began to look through the first file, wondering whether rheumatism or hernia was most likely to be the outcome of his visit. His sense of achievement was little improved at the end of the first hour’s reading, since most of what he had found in the stout cardboard boxes appeared to be the minutes of interminable meetings and incomprehensible financial reports.
Then, however, he discovered a piece of paper that was some sort of index. Couldn’t have been on top; far too obvious! he inwardly protested. His jaundiced gaze slid wearily down the spindle-shanked lines of writing. Suddenly, one entry seemed to leap from the page in 3D and with a stabbing chord from the soundtrack of a blockbuster film.
“The Leopold Redpath Fraud Case” was what it said.