Birmingham, England. 4th August 2016.
In a crowded public house, a middle-aged man sits across the table from a much younger woman. He looks relaxed in the pub, but uncomfortable with the woman. The woman looks relaxed with the man, but uncomfortable in the pub. It was her smile that had brought him to her. He was sure that the table in the corner had been empty earlier. But the briefest movement caught his eye, barely a shimmer in the air, and when he looked that way again there she sat . . . smiling an invitation at him. Meeting those eyes he had forgotten his years and actually spilt his pint rushing to claim the seat opposite her. She had no drink, no coat, no handbag and seemed oddly dressed.
Occasionally you receive an unexpected offer that presses a PAUSE button on your life: a rich friend seeking a travel companion; a boss offering an unwanted promotion; a colleague’s lonely, drunken girlfriend . . . Well, that was how it felt two minutes ago when a woman Lee Statham had never met before offered to save his life. A life he didn’t realise was in danger. But now, up close, her smile troubled him. His friend, Tommy, used to have a colourful description for that kind of smile. He called it a “shit-kickin’-grin”. Like the grin those US marines said the Palestinian driver wore as he drove his bomb-laden lorry at the gates of the US embassy in Beirut. A grin that knows something you don’t.
Sitting in the lounge bar of the Fox and Hounds, ironically clutching his pint of ‘Courage Best’, he smiles back at her. Thoughtfully, he glances at the door.
“You won’t make it.” She laughs (his thoughts read).
“I’m fast.” He says.
She shakes her head. “Have you listened to a word I’ve said? You don’t make it, or I wouldn’t be here. I’m not permitted to change that, and neither are you. But I can save you.”
The woman nods gently in the direction of the bar. A bearded, eastern looking youth has opened his long green parka to reveal a black waistcoat packed with lumpy brown plastic packages. He is reaching into his pocket but his hand is moving too slowly. Lee is staring in alarm at the youth, when he feels a light touch on his forearm. He meets her still smiling eyes; his own smile now forgotten.
“Well?” she says calmly.
Lee’s eyes are drawn away once more. A well-dressed woman walking towards the door has slowed to half speed. It’s only then that he notices that the jukebox, which is pounding out an old Queen number, has started to sound like a 45 playing at 33. A glance at the flat screen telly suspended from the ceiling in the corner, shows a game in slow-mo, a football slowly rolling to a stop as the lazily pursuing players ground to a halt around it. Lee returns his gaze to the woman opposite him. The woman still wearing that knowing grin. The woman still on PLAY, while the world around them is winding down to STOP. She reaches across the table, her warm soft hands grasping his.
“It’s now or never handsome. Are you a statistic or a survivor?”
A brightening light has begun emanating from the direction of the bar. Looking back, Lee sees that an intense fire has consumed the youth. As he watches the expanding conflagration slowly starts to eat its way through the oak of the bar itself, the very air around it. Lee jumps as his fingers are squeezed. She leans conspiratorially towards him and whispers, “Time’s up.”
A fist-sized knot of fear has been working its way from his stomach to his throat.
“I want to live!”
The urgent, desperate exhalation of his held breath almost drowns the words. The intensity of the light in the bar is becoming unbearable, as the heat finally hits him. A low roaring that has entered his consciousness is suddenly silenced. Darkness. The heat is gone. The stale beer smell of the pub is gone. He sees nothing; he smells nothing; hears nothing; feels . . . her warm hands still holding his.
“Am I blind?” he asks.
“You’re . . tired.”
Her hands let go of his. He hears the rustle of fabric as she gets to her feet.
“You‘ve travelled far Lee. Your body needs to rest. Your sight will return. It took me a dozen jumps to master it.” Then, as if as an afterthought, “Welcome to your future.”
Out of his depth, exhausted, Lee stares into the darkness. The new surface beneath him feels soft and yielding. He lies down, closes his eyes and is surprised to see tiny pinpoints of light beneath the lids. On, off, on, off . . like flash bulbs in a darkened stadium. It focuses his thoughts for barely a moment, for the young woman is right, Lee Statham sleeps.
Clapham Junction, England. 12th December 1968.
The ‘mark’ seems to have taken the news of his impending death remarkably well. Thirteenth operational jump solo and Lee himself feels like an old hand. The transition to the moving train had been almost instantaneous. His head swam a little but his vision was clear. But, as with the last two ‘marks’, it looks like this one could go to the wire. He checks his internal chronometer: 1 minute 13 seconds and he will be back home. Yes, home. Anne had been her name, the girl in the bar, his recruiter. Although he hadn’t seen her since.
Lee smiles at the doomed man opposite him. The man whose eyes are widening in terror as the train lurches sideways, brakes squealing, baggage flying, people screaming . . . all in vivid slow motion; the racing scenery outside the window running down like a kiddies’ ride hungry for a coin. Lee punches the man’s shoulder, gaining his attention once more.
“Time’s up!” he shouts. “I get off here. You coming?”
The mark struggles to find his voice, croaking “Yeh . . God, YEAH!”
Lee grabs the man’s hand, as the carriage floor starts to lift, and begins its slow screaming, torturous roll. “I must look up that Anne” he thinks, as silent darkness envelopes the pair of them.