Time quake, p.23
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       TIME QUAKE, p.23

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘This is weird weather,’ she said, rubbing her arms through the wet sleeves of her dress and shivering. ‘I’m a bit worried that I might have set it off.’

  ‘What are you talking about?’ asked Peter incredulously.

  He looked at her with such intensity that Kate had to look away.

  ‘Just what is going on, Kate? When are you going to tell me what’s up? I know I’m not a genius like your dad, but I’m not stupid either. I thought we were supposed to be in this together.’

  ‘We are!’

  ‘Well, you could have fooled me . . .’

  Kate tried to remove the cork from the jar and when she couldn’t Peter helped her. Inside was a spherical pomander. Kate opened it to reveal a small compartment covered with a fine metal mesh. A sharp, vinegary odour met their nostrils. Kate bent her head and sniffed it.

  ‘Oh! that is disgusting!’ she said, holding the pomander away from her with watering eyes. ‘The Tar Man is right – that will definitely bring Sir Richard round!’

  Peter grabbed hold of the pomander, sniffed it and thrust it right back into Kate’s hands.

  ‘Phwoah! That’s supposed to make him feel better? It’s lethal! It’s worse than hot chilli ice cream!’

  Kate laughed and pointed to his dripping nose. She offered him a damp handkerchief that smelled of the river. Peter used the back of his hand instead.

  ‘When are you going to tell me?’

  ‘I’ll tell you in the morning – it’s not simple. And I’m tired . . .’

  ‘Yeah, yeah.’

  ‘I promise.’

  ‘You know, you don’t look so good, Kate.’

  She held out her hand and looked at it. ‘Thanks.’

  ‘Maybe it’s the light . . .’

  She shrugged. ‘I think Sir Richard’s been through enough already without having to smell this, too. I might try it on the dog, though.’

  ‘You’ve seen Toby? After he bit the Tar Man’s ankle he kicked him clear across the room. He sang a duet with the old gentleman – you should have heard them!’

  ‘Molly joins in when I sing, too, it always makes me laugh.’ Kate was trying to close the pomander. The hinge suddenly felt stiff. ‘That’s weird. I can’t close it. Can you have a go?’

  Kate held it out towards him but no hand came forward to take it. She turned to look up at him but it was a statue that Kate saw staring back at her. A sinking feeling that began in the pit of her stomach spread right through her. Kate returned Peter’s stare with blank, expressionless eyes and fought back the tears. It’s like I no longer belong in my own time any more. Through the window she saw the Tar Man, caught in mid-step on his way to the river. She spun around to look at Hannah and Gideon tending Sir Richard. Gideon was moistening his lips with a drop more brandy and Hannah was cleaning the cut inflicted on him by a doctor determined to bleed him, no matter what his complaint. The scene reminded her of a museum display with particularly life-like dummies enacting a typical domestic scene from the 1760s. She imagined the explanatory notes: Tended by a maid and a reformed cutpurse, an aristocrat recovers from a dislocated shoulder inflicted on him by a time-travelling henchman.

  But at least she knew where Peter was this time around. He was a mere arm’s length away. A question occurred to her. Why had she not touched him straight away? She looked out again at the Tar Man, his unmistakeable contour black against the glittering river, the memory of the explosive consequences of her slapping him still vivid in her mind. And it was precisely that slap, she realised, which accounted for her not touching Peter. She was curious. She wanted to know why it had happened and if it might happen again. She wanted to know what she was becoming. The loneliness of fast-forwarding filled her with dread, and Kate worried about what it might be doing to her. Yet, at the same time, there was the undeniable lure of the unknown. In truth, a part of her must enjoy being the first human to experience existence at such high speeds. It was like being the first person to climb Everest or to reach the North Pole. And, as with any scientific experiment, an initial observation was not sufficient – there had to be proof. An expression of her mother’s popped into her head which she chose to ignore as, she told herself, curiosity doesn’t always kill the cat. In any case there was only one way to reproduce this experiment.

  On her way to catching up with the Tar Man, Kate systematically touched everyone in the house – excluding Peter but including Toby. It failed to provoke even the tiniest tremor. Kate decided to leave the pomander on the old gentleman’s lap, next to Toby’s nose. Half-formed theories ran through her head. When she was fast-forwarding, the only two people who seemed to interact with her were the Tar Man and Peter. Both had travelled through time, though, from what she had gathered, the Tar Man was better at blurring than Peter. Did this mean that he was a better ‘conductor’ of whatever energy was causing all of this? Or did it mean that he was more sensitive to it? And then, Peter had an effect on her, whereas she had an effect on the Tar Man. Almost as if they were from opposite poles, like magnets, or something like that . . . Anyway, she and Peter came from the same century; The Tar Man came from another . . . Oh, enough! she thought. My brain is going to explode.

  Kate hurried outside and ran down the cobbled street to the river. The Tar Man was striding cheerfully out. The prospect of returning to the twenty-first century must appeal to him, she thought. Kate positioned herself right in front of him and scrutinised his face. He really was not as old as she had imagined him to be. In fact, he looked a lot younger than her mum and dad. She decided it was his scar and black stubble that created the illusion of age; that and his fearsome reputation which, she now realised, he both deserved and encouraged. The Tar Man’s dark eyes shone and a smile played on his lips, which made Kate want to smile, too.

  As she stood looking up at him she became aware of something flitting about in her peripheral vision. She looked around, thinking it must be another bat, until it occurred to her that if it were a bat it would be motionless. Each time she tried to focus on the movement, it seemed to vanish, but if she looked straight ahead the movement was visible once more. Kate could not make it out and, in the end, put it down to exhaustion and an overactive imagination.

  She stood on tiptoe and reached out her hands to touch the Tar Man’s face, gradually bringing the palms of her hands closer and closer towards his cheeks. They tingled and grew hot but she did not altogether trust the sensation. She resolved not to touch him fleetingly like the last time, but to press her flesh into his, determined to observe the consequences of keeping in contact with him for a prolonged period of time. Kate reassured herself that it would be no worse than touching the dome of the Van der Graaf generator in her dad’s laboratory. Perhaps there would be some static electricity produced. That would be enough to account for the Tar Man’s eyes flipping open, wouldn’t it? After all, what was the worst that could happen? Perhaps her hair would stand up on end . . .

  All at once Kate shied away from touching his face, so she lowered her heels, counted down from ten and then grabbed tight hold of the Tar Man’s arms just below the elbow. The frozen calm of her world was instantly shattered; her touch akin to a spark igniting clouds of escaping gas. It set off an immense detonation, which reverberated all around them, sending out shooting, luminous fingers of energy far into the night sky. Kate gasped with the shock of it but dug her fingers deep into the Tar Man’s arms. She became conscious of an alarming, crackling sound reminiscent of treading on dry twigs in an echoing wood. A sheath of flickering energy encased them and she was aware of a dazzling light. Her skin crawled with an intense prickling sensation that came close to pain; she felt that every hair must be standing on end; the very air seemed saturated with an unknown, potent force.

  When the Tar Man’s body suddenly jerked back to life in a violent spasm Kate screamed. His eyes flicked open and he strained against her grip. In her confusion, she hung on even more tightly, her hands stuck to him like limpets to a rock, even when she found hersel
f lifted fully off the ground. The Tar Man’s face was shining with reflected light and all at once she understood that she was the source of it. Glancing down, she saw that her hands were glowing. Waves of greenish light rippled over them. With a shuddering jolt the Tar Man took a step forward. His face was creased with pain.

  ‘Witch!’ he screamed. ‘Be gone from me!’

  The Tar Man threw Kate off and she fell backwards onto the cobblestones. Instantly the Tar Man was a statue again, only instead of smiling, his face was contorted into a mask of pain and terror. She looked at her hands – the light was almost gone, like a fading electric element when the current has been switched off.

  ‘What have I done!’ she cried, for she sensed that she had torn away a curtain that up until now had protected her. She had looked at the sun. Not only that, she had been on the verge of making the Tar Man fast-forward with her. And she also knew, in her heart of hearts, that she should not have done it. She was already damaged; she did not have the right to inflict such damage on another person – not even the Tar Man. Kate ran through what seemed like a howling hurricane back to the house, back to Peter. He called me a witch! Is that what I’ve turned into? Is that who I am, now – a witch and an oracle? She hurtled up the stairs and grabbed hold of Peter’s hand. Nothing happened. Kate squeezed Peter’s fingers.

  ‘Oh please!’ Her heart started to race. ‘It must work! It must! I promise I won’t do it again.’

  ‘Well, give it to me then,’ said Peter.

  Hot tears of relief welled up in her eyes.

  ‘That stuff stings! You should see your eyes!’ he said.

  ‘Yes,’ Kate replied, sniffing, and smiling a lopsided smile.

  The sound of distressed barking came from below.

  ‘Oh,’ exclaimed Hannah. ‘Praise be! The dog lives!’

  ‘Toby!’ cried Peter. ‘Come on!’

  Peter grabbed Kate’s hand and pulled her downstairs. Gideon followed them.

  Kate stood there panting and trembling while a small group of people gathered round the small dog. Peter tried to take his hand away from hers but she would not let him. The old gentleman was giving Toby another good sniff of the Tar Man’s pomander for good measure and laughed in delight when the dog started to smack its jaws open and shut as if it had eaten something unutterably disgusting.

  Peter turned to Kate, a big frown on his face.

  ‘But how did the pomander get down here?’

  Kate pretended not to hear. The dog sneezed violently over and over again. How comical the bemused animal looked with his black patch over one eye. The old gentleman kissed his head and lifted him to his cheek.

  ‘Ah, Toby, my dear soul! How should I have lived without you?’

  Gideon leaned forward and tickled Toby behind his ear.

  ‘Ay, I should like to hear you sing again – and perhaps I shall join you.’

  The driver had brought Sir Richard’s coach and six directly to the Tar Man’s front door. Another thunderclap sounded as Gideon and Hannah helped Sir Richard down the stairs and out onto the street. The pain and the brandy and the loss of blood had all made him groggy, but he could walk, and he managed to exchange a few warm words with the old gentleman. Hannah, together with her three patients, sat inside the carriage while Kate and Peter sat on top. Gideon tried to persuade Kate to ride inside for her teeth were chattering but she refused, insisting that she wanted to stay with Peter. Now they sat, propped up one against the other, Kate resting her head on Peter’s shoulder and holding his hand tightly in hers.

  ‘What in Heaven’s name ails the horses?’ asked Parson Ledbury, observing how they pawed the earth and whinnied. ‘I can see the whites of their eyes, and the leader has built up a fine sweat.’

  ‘I cannot tell you, sir,’ replied the driver. ‘They’ve been fretting since we arrived. I fancy ’tis the storm – though it is a queer kind of storm with no rain clouds in sight. They shall be happy once they are back in their stables at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.’

  ‘As shall we all,’ said Parson Ledbury with feeling.

  Their first destination was to be the old gentleman’s residence off Ludgate Hill. Gideon took the reins while the driver stood balanced at the back of the carriage. They rumbled over the cobblestones, heading for the Thames, but had barely reached the quayside when the leader horse abruptly refused to go a step further. The black mare reared up, eyes bulging and whinnying in fear. The driver jumped down from the back of the carriage and tried to get her to walk alongside him but she would have none of it and continued to rear up, until she upset the rest of the horses. The driver threw up his hands in exasperation. Now Gideon climbed down and started to stroke the leader’s nose and to whisper gently into her ear. Gradually the animal quietened and Gideon asked the driver to try walking by her side again. Soon the six horses were stepping out in unison and Gideon clicked his tongue and talked to them in a soothing voice until they were settled and moving again. The driver ran back to take up his position at the rear once more and Gideon quickened the pace to a trot.

  Peter was glad to be going away from this place at long last; he felt sick with tiredness. All he wanted now was to go to sleep. Kate was warm, if a little too bony to make a comfortable pillow, but within half a minute he was already drowsing. Despite this, he soon became conscious that Kate was trembling and he shifted around to check on her through half-opened eyes. Her pale skin seemed transparent in the moonlight.

  ‘There’s nothing wrong, Kate. Something’s just spooked the horses. And even the Carrick Gang would think twice before attacking us lot . . .’

  Kate shook her head and put her lips to his ear. ‘Can’t you feel it? It’s coming. Just like the last time. At Hawthorn Cottage with Gideon.’

  Just the mention of that day conjured up terrible images in Peter’s head. He vividly recalled how Kate had sensed something was about to happen long before he had. At the time he’d seriously wondered if Kate was going mad – until he saw it for himself. The following morning they had tried to explain what they had seen to Parson Ledbury, but on a calm, sunny day in Derbyshire, with the larks singing overhead, all talk of ghosts and of the apocalypse had seemed suddenly absurd and they’d ended up making lighter of it than it deserved. Then, as the days went by and they did not come across a single other person who had witnessed the phenomenon, they slowly began to doubt the evidence of their own eyes.

  ‘Are you sure?’ he asked. Peter was wide awake now. He did not want to believe her.

  Kate nodded ‘I’m sure . . . And there’s something else.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘I’m beginning to think I’m causing them.’

  Peter stared at her. ‘You need to get some sleep, Kate. You’re talking rubbish.’

  Kate barely registered his comment. ‘Please can you do something for me? It’s really important . . .’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Whatever happens, don’t let go of me . . .’

  ‘Okay,’ Peter replied a little doubtfully.

  ‘Promise?’

  ‘I don’t get why but I promise . . .’

  Suddenly Kate put her head to her knees and covered it with her free hand while she rocked to and fro, biting her lips to stop from crying out. There was a part of Peter who wanted to tell her to stop making such a fuss but he held his tongue.

  ‘What ails Mistress Kate?’ asked Gideon in alarm.

  Before Peter could reply, all the horses started whinnying and rising up, but instead of refusing to move, this time the leader quickened her pace. Gideon was forced to stand up and pull hard on the reins.

  ‘Whoa!’ he cried.

  But it was to no avail for the horses were already thundering up the narrow thoroughfare towards the dome of St Paul’s. As the carriage hurtled up St Andrew’s Hill, the driver, who had been clinging on for dear life, was thrown off, unnoticed by the party, rolling over and over until he came to a halt in the doorway of the Cockpit Tavern. Then the horses careered into Thames Street,
parallel to the river, and galloped eastwards. All the while the carriage listed violently, first to one side and then to the other, and with each juddering encounter with a pothole the passengers braced themselves for fear of overturning. Gideon stood up, his stance reminiscent of a charioteer, pulling hard on the reins, ducking to avoid being hit by oversized shop signs, leaning into the bends whilst grabbing hold of Peter’s arm to prevent him and Kate sliding off the narrow wooden seat. Cries and screams and the occasional alarmed bark emanated from the inside of the carriage as the passengers were thrown violently about. Parson Ledbury contrived to poke his head through the window, bellowing at Gideon to pacify the horses before they all broke their necks.

  ‘I cannot hold them!’ shouted Gideon over his shoulder. ‘I do not understand what makes them so afraid!’

  Peter held on to the edge of the seat, hampered by Kate’s refusal to let go of him. The dark city street sped past and Peter looked up at Gideon and down at Kate and wondered how much more of this he could take. The creaking of wooden axles and the thunder of the iron-rimmed wheels on stone was deafening and yet, over and above this he gradually became aware of an ominous noise. Kate, like the horses, was becoming increasingly distressed. Like a never-ending and inconceivably powerful thunderclap, the sound was so deep you could feel it in your bones. Peter looked up at the sky and saw that the stars had become blurred, as if they were dissolving into a liquid night.

  Suddenly, out of nowhere, a rider, borne on a magnificent white horse, appeared, rearing up in front of them. The image was clear, yet it undulated in waves like a billowing curtain. In the split second Peter had to take in his appearance, he made a vivid impression. Dawn was hours away, yet the sun – a sun – poured down onto the fair-haired figure so that he shone out like a beacon in the darkness. The rider wore chain mail and the cross of Saint George was emblazoned across his chest, red on white, and he carried a metal helmet under one arm. A thin white cape flapped about him in the strong wind. Too shocked to move, a peasant girl, barefoot and dressed in a simple shift, stood on tiptoe offering a basket of apples to the knight. The russet fruit glistened in the sunshine and for a short moment the tang of warm, ripe apples laced the air. Peter’s mind reeled. He was looking at a different century!

 
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