Time quake, p.19
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       TIME QUAKE, p.19

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  Suddenly Kate noticed a dark shape above her that made her heart thump in her chest. It blotted out a tiny pocket of stars and she could not account for it. But when she walked a few paces to one side she realised what it was. A bat hung in the air only a few feet above her head, as if suspended by elastic from an invisible ceiling. Kate jumped up to take a swipe at it, an action she regretted when she landed back on the cobblestones.

  She walked to the edge of the quayside and looked down, half-expecting to see the Tar Man or Gideon and Peter. But there was no one in sight, just a line of rowing boats and, beyond them, a few larger vessels anchored in deeper water. She leaned over and peered first to one side and then the other. Where could they have got to? Kate felt certain that the trapdoor must lead to a secret passage, so surely its purpose must be to link the Tar Man’s house to the river? Unless, of course, they had never got out of the cellar . . . She became uneasy. There was nothing for it, she was going to have to go back.

  Back in the Tar Man’s house, the gaping hole did not look any more inviting. Even if I can’t carry the candlestick very easily, she said to herself, at least I can move it closer to the trapdoor. The flame did not even flicker as she pushed it across the floor but it cast too weak a light to illuminate more than the stairs. Kate stared down into the darkness and imagined damp, slimy walls and scuttling creatures. After a lengthy hesitation Kate worked up enough courage to climb down the rough wooden steps. The odour of rottenness and stagnant water intensified. She walked straight ahead, her arms outstretched, but soon, as total, suffocating darkness swallowed her up, she found herself scrambling back up the steps in a panic and collapsed on the floor, face to face with Parson Ledbury, still as cheerful as ever at the prospect of a nip of brandy.

  She sat there, recovering her breath, until her gaze happened to rest on two objects, barely visible in the gloom, that lay in the corner of the Tar Man’s hall. Kate hurried over to investigate and heaved the objects off the floor and held them in front of her.

  ‘My trainers!’ she cried.

  Unpeeling the soiled strips of petticoat from her red and blistered feet, she struggled to put on the well-loved blue and white trainers with their spongy soles and soft lining. But once she had finally managed to get into them, her feet trailed as if she were wearing blocks of wood. Rather than allowing her to walk better, she feared that they would actually prevent her from walking at all. She cried out in exasperation and, if the action had not required so much strength, would have pulled them off and flung them across the hall in disgust. She trudged from one end of the house to the other, furious with her trainers for behaving in this way when the rest of her clothes had the decency to cooperate. Soon, though, she began to notice that the soles started to yield a little to the pressure of her foot. She persevered. Yes, there was no doubt about it, with each step the trainers grew more pliable. Curious and encouraged, she shuffled up and down the hall like a toddler wearing her mother’s high heels. Was this process, she wondered, like defrosting a chicken in the pantry overnight? Just as the heat would transfer from the air into the meat until both reached the same temperature, the rates at which she and her trainers travelled through time needed to equalise.

  Kate felt so pleased with herself for this feat of scientific deduction that she had to share it. She sat at the feet of Parson Ledbury and the old gentleman and, as she stroked Toby’s white belly, she told all three of them about her idea. Travelling forwards and backwards in time was amazing enough, but being able to affect the speed at which adjacent objects move through time was incredible! She told them that if her dad were here he would probably make her hold different objects and sit in baths of water – and who knew what else – to test her theory. He might even name a scientific law after her: Kate Dyer’s Law of Temporal Osmosis . . . She looked at her unresponsive audience and suddenly her head sank down onto her knees. ‘Oh, Dad,’ she whispered into her skirts. ‘When are you coming to get me?’

  Kate woke up with a start. The first thing that came into her head was that she had to find Peter. She had not meant to fall asleep. When she lifted her head up the Parson’s expression was subtly altered. One of Toby’s ears was turned half inside out and she wondered how it had happened. Had she done it? She stared down into the black hole once more and without understanding how she could be so certain, decided that she could not detect Peter’s presence – it was to the river that she must return. Kate waited until she was able to run on the spot in her trainers, then set off at a jog.

  Kate loved to run: to feel the wind in her hair and see her feet pounding the earth, eating up the ground in front of her. Here, there was no wind and she was obliged to lift her heavy skirts to avoid tripping up, but running was still a pleasure. She headed westwards, past Blackfriars, and then, when there was no sign of anyone save a young couple stealing a kiss by the water’s edge, she turned back on herself. Kate continued for some way in the direction of London Bridge but after a while her lungs began to burn with the effort of it. She stopped and bent over, resting her hands on her knees, trying to get her breath back. Some of the pins fell loose from her hair and long red tresses hung down, swaying from side to side, brushing the cobblestones. While she waited for her heart to stop hammering, she looked through strands of hair at the river below her. She could see five or six small boats sailing over this stretch of the Thames. The waterman nearest to her had just pushed off and his boat – which was nearer in size to a rowing boat than a wherry – was still only six or seven feet from dry land. The waterman stood balanced at the centre of the boat’s floor, one arm outstretched to steady himself. His stance caught Kate’s attention. Watermen spent their whole lives bobbing about on the river in these precarious little vessels so that keeping their balance under all conditions was second nature to them. It was all in the legs according to Sir Richard – so it was surprising to see one who had to resort to using his arms for balance. Perhaps he wasn’t a waterman. The man had his back to her but his stance reminded her of a javelin thrower, and he held one of the oars provocatively as if rowing with it was the last thing on his mind. Kate stood up and strained to see what he was doing. Then she ran over and walked right up to the edge of the quayside to take a closer look. He was aiming at something in the water, his lean and athletic body a perfect expression of coiled-up energy about to strike. She was familiar with the watermen’s uniform. They wore distinctive red jackets and, more often than not, a particular kind of hat. It was too dark to differentiate between colours but she felt sure that this man’s jacket did not belong to a waterman, nor was he wearing a hat. His longish hair, black from what she could tell, was tied back in a ponytail. A shiver of recognition ran down Kate’s spine.

  Estimating the distance between the boat and the quayside, she walked twenty or thirty paces away – enough for a good run-up – and charged towards the river at full pelt. Holding up her cumbersome skirts to the level of her knees, she leaped high into the air and landed heavily in the bottom of the wooden boat, narrowly missing the man and toppling forwards onto her hands and knees. Although she was expecting the flimsy vessel to rock violently in the water, it behaved instead as if it were on dry land and did not shift even a fraction of a millimetre. Just how fast must she be travelling through time for her not to feel even that? Kate crawled past the man and slowly turned her head upwards. She hardly dared look.

  Kate lay at the feet of the Tar Man. He was angry, that much was obvious. His eyes smouldered and his mouth was open in a ferocious shout. Kate felt uncomfortable. To be at such close quarters with him went counter to all her instincts, even though common sense told her she was perfectly safe. She stood up and confronted him.

  ‘You’re at my mercy now!’ she said in as fierce a voice as she could manage. ‘I could chop all your fingers off if I felt like it . . .’

  He continued to stare furiously back at her, defiant, fearless, indomitable. His presence was so powerful Kate took a step backwards. The brutal scar was clearly visible
, even by moonlight, a vivid white through his burgeoning stubble. Seeing it so close, the scar provoked a pang of pity. What a terrible fight it must have been to have left him so disfigured.

  Stillness had conferred on the Tar Man an air of unreality. He was a study in ferocity, rendered harmless by Time. He brought to mind a wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s, or a snarling, stuffed tiger in a natural history museum. When she followed his gaze, she saw a hand clinging to the edge of the boat, knuckles white and fingernails biting into the wood of the boat. Kate stood up with a start.

  ‘Gideon!’ she breathed.

  She had misread the Tar Man’s stance. He was not about to strike with his oar; on the contrary, he had just struck. Gideon was splayed out in the water, totally submerged apart from his face and one arm. His loose hair floated about him and by the light of the moon it seemed white against the black water. He was clutching at his chest whilst trying not to lose his grip on the boat. Like his brother, Gideon was crying out, only his was a cry of pain.

  All at once Kate’s heart leaped into her mouth. Where was Peter? She looked all about her, at the quayside, at the other boats, at the Thames’s glassy surface. Her gaze scoured the darkness but she could not find him. She felt the blood pulsing in her neck. What if he were already dead, drowned as in her vision?

  ‘Peter!’ she screamed out loud. ‘Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me here by myself!’

  Kate, who had been trying for so long to keep her spirits up, felt despair wash over her. She covered Gideon’s fingers with hers. His hand was as cold and white as alabaster and made her think of graveyard angels. A single teardrop rolled down her cheek, dropped off her chin and fell, sparkling in the moonlight, onto the surface of the Thames. But even her tear was rejected, for it merely rolled away, like a bead of mercury, refusing to be assimilated, like a rebuke. As she pushed herself up something pale caught her eye in the water behind Gideon, only ten or perhaps fifteen feet away. Instantly she understood what she saw. Her vision of the future had been accurate to a fault.

  ‘Peter!’

  His white face had already sunk below the surface. Kate screamed again with the shock of it. Her friend was dying before her eyes. She looked up at the heavens.

  ‘I’m not an oracle!’ she cried. ‘I’m not!’

  Kate had been lying stretched out on the bottom of the boat for a very long time. Who could express, in this world where seconds and minutes had no meaning, how long she had lain there? Had she slept? She could not have said.

  She saw no solution to her predicament. Kate had quickly given up trying to jump back to the quayside, for the boat was too small to allow a sufficient run-up. But neither could she risk immersing herself in the river – her arms and legs were not strong enough to cut through the water and if she tried to swim she might well drown. Kate now accepted that Peter alone, for reasons she did not understand, was able to ground her. But Peter was out of reach and drowning. If she tried to rescue him then she, too, would perish in the process. And so it was checkmate: she was trapped indefinitely on this tiny boat in the unwelcome company of the Tar Man.

  Kate wondered how long she could survive in this condition. Food and water had barely crossed her mind and, although she would gladly have drunk something, she was surprised not to be thirstier. Kate had considered putting some solid river water in her mouth to see if it would melt like an ice cube, but when she remembered some of the things she had seen floating in the Thames she decided to put off trying this until she was really desperate.

  And so Kate sat at the bottom of the boat trying to pretend that the Tar Man was somewhere else. Searching for a meaning to it all, her mind roved over all the circumstances that had led to her sharing this boat, perhaps for eternity, with a villain who had threatened to cut her fingers off. She also thought about the fortune-teller’s assertion that she was an oracle, and she tried to see her own future, but only ever discerned a massive wall of impenetrable darkness. Only one thing came out of her prolonged meditation, and that was the intermittent sensation, which she felt as a prickle at the back of her neck, that she was being watched.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  On the Steps of New York Public Library

  In which Lord Luxon poses some

  questions, Alice draws some conclusions

  and Tom proves to be invaluable

  Two figures emerged from the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, blinking in the sunlight. They began to pick their way through the crowd that milled about on the stone staircase that led to the sidewalk. Alice looked about her for somewhere to sit, and found a couple of metal chairs adjacent to one of the marble lions that stood guard over the majestic edifice. Yellow cabs honked and heat radiated from the sidewalk baking in the midday sun. Alice dropped her heavy bag of books and sat down, wafting herself energetically with a card folder.

  ‘Do you even own a pair of shorts?’

  Lord Luxon raised one eyebrow by way of a reply. Alice smiled. Her companion’s affirmative replies about military re-enactments and his interest in the What If?s of history had calmed her fears about the redcoats in Prince Street. What, precisely, had she imagined was going on? Was it more likely that this good-looking English milord was a visitor from another century or that he and his friends were into military history? She thanked her lucky stars that he had not spotted her grappling with that scary dog on the emergency stairs – now that would have been a difficult one to explain . . .

  Lord Luxon stood on the sidewalk to admire the library’s architecture.

  ‘I told you it was worth seeing,’ Alice called down to him.

  Lord Luxon raised his hands in the air and shouted back. ‘It is a veritable temple to reading! I feel devilishly clever merely walking past such a prodigious quantity of books! Though I confess that scholars tend to bore me – and I should sooner have a tooth pulled than be forced to read a book.’

  The library steps were crowded with people hunched over paperbacks and eating their lunch. Several people stopped chewing their sandwiches to give Lord Luxon hostile looks.

  Alice laughed. ‘I wouldn’t have put you down as an academic underachiever!’

  ‘It is the truth, I assure you. For some fellows, books are as meat and drink to them, but for me, making sense of words and letters on a page is a sorry business . . .’

  ‘If you say so! And what do you think of Patience and Fortitude?’

  Lord Luxon looked at her askance. ‘I cannot say they are my favourite virtues – though doubtless they are attractive in a maiden aunt. No, on balance, give me rather Pleasure and Appetite.’

  ‘I can never be sure when you’re being serious!’ said Alice. ‘Patience and Fortitude are the names of the lions!’

  ‘Ah. The lions. Then, yes, I like the lions inordinately.’ Lord Luxon walked over to the nearest beast and took off his straw Panama hat. ‘Is this Patience or Fortitude?’

  ‘Fortitude – I think.’

  A lady in a sari seated above Alice leaned over and said softly into her ear, ‘I think you’ll find it’s Patience, dear.’

  ‘Thanks,’ replied Alice. ‘Make that Patience,’ she called.

  Lord Luxon stroked Patience’s mane and growled at her. Alice reached for her mobile and took a picture.

  ‘You’re in a good mood! Being in America must suit you.’

  ‘It does. Indeed, you might say that it both gives me pleasure and stimulates my appetite.’

  Lord Luxon laughed, a little louder and a little longer than Alice thought his comment deserved.

  ‘Well, I’m delighted that you approve of this side of the pond! How do Patience and Fortitude measure up to the lions at the bottom of Nelson’s Column that I love so much? Only they’re made of metal not stone, aren’t they?’

  Lord Luxon shrugged his shoulders.

  ‘No, I can’t remember for sure, either,’ Alice continued. ‘You get an awesome view of them from the National Gallery. You must be able to walk to Trafalgar Square in ten minutes fro
m your house – do you go there much? Are you an art lover?’

  Alice paused, for Lord Luxon suddenly looked very uncomfortable – as if he had no idea what she was talking about and was trying to conceal the fact. Yet he’d said that he lived in the heart of London, in Bird Cage Walk.

  Lord Luxon spoke without choosing to acknowledge her question.

  ‘Come, Alice, my stomach tells me it is time to eat. And I am hoping that you may be able to shed some light on a subject which has been preoccupying me.’

  Lord Luxon stepped towards the street and hailed a taxi. As Alice got into the yellow cab next to her companion a cold feeling of dread passed over her. She gave an involuntary shiver which prompted Lord Luxon to ask if anything was the matter.

  ‘No, I’m fine. Someone just walked over my grave, that’s all.’

  Could he be a con man who had smelled the scent of money and had made up his identity and his address and this stilted manner of speaking? Or had Lord Luxon just not heard her question over the traffic noise? Get a grip, Alice, she told herself as she pulled herself together.

  ‘It was good of you to pick me up from the library,’ she said. ‘After all that studying I could eat a horse – well, a club sandwich at any rate. Where are we going for lunch?’

  The inviting table for two overlooking the lake in Central Park revived Alice’s spirits. They both leaned back in wicker chairs on the wooden deck and surveyed the view. Ducks quacked. Sunshine glowed on the white linen tablecloth and sparkled on the water. Were it not for the skyscrapers towering over the trees in the distance, it would have been difficult to believe that they were lunching in the heart of Manhattan. Lord Luxon was studying the menu. Alice sipped her glass of chilled wine and watched ducks and swans gliding lazily on the water and the antics of two girls in a rowing boat.

 
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