What’s it all about?
“Valvepunks! The long road to Quixotica” is an epistolary novel. To you and I - that’s a novel that is written as a series of documents. Typically stories like this have the narrative flowing through letters but in this case there are diary entries, newspaper cuttings and other personal documents which are threaded throughout the adventure along with extensive photographs, illustrations and diagrams. To add further intrigue, the rising action is told in the present tense in stark contrast to the past tense narrative of the bulk of the yarn.
It follows the experiences of Bradley Gardner - a budding young journalist - as he embarks on the assignment of a lifetime, investigating and researching the life of one of the twentieth century’s most alluring innovators. He meets the enigmatic, 98 year old Reginald Merryweather at his home in Hertfordshire and realises that there is much more to this faded radio star than the thin references on the internet about him would suggest.
Bradley is invited to spend the weekend with the aging broadcaster but the forty eight hours are revealed to be weird right from the very start. But, because Bradley is suspicious of Reggie’s claims to have built a time traveling radio, Reggie feels the need to demonstrate its capability. However, in the process he accidentally takes his housekeeper, Florence Jiggery along for the ride.
It is whilst listening to the past that Reggie gets a message about events in the future and the impending peril faced by his one true love - a girl he met during the war. Spurred on by this emotional cry for help, Reggie takes Bradley and Florence back to wartime Paris to try to alert his younger self of the dangers awaiting him and his lover in the future.
They arrive too late to change history (as it emerges that his younger self has already perfected time and space traveling and scarpered rather swiftly to escape not only the British authorities but also the Nazis,) so the three of them must then transport themselves into the twenty second century in hot pursuit of himself and Vera Cruz - the woman he loves more than anything else in life.
Unknown to Bradley, Florence and Reggie, Vera is being brutally tortured and questioned by the antagonists who we learn are the Ludwigian Order - a universally wide organisation of illuminati, cruelly intent on the absorption of all known intelligence. Created from dark energy, and manifest as a super intelligent human form, the ‘Order’ are all powerful and hope to learn Reggie’s specific secret of time travel.
Unfortunately, (like most things he does) Reggie’s radio is not particularly well built and before long starts to fail. They arrive, unexpectedly, on a futuristic pleasure cruise liner and are detained as stowaways. Luckily, Reggie is able to use their power source to recharge the batteries of the failing contraption but his failing health poses a larger threat. They escape just as the doomed liner is sucked into a black hole on its maiden voyage.
He makes Bradley set the radio’s controls to a period in the past when he was younger and fitter so that he may gain strength from his younger self as well as gain from the fresh memory that he now so sadly lacks. Their survival at this stage depends on the success of finding and enlisting a younger version of the elderly eccentric.
Arriving back in England of the 1930’s, the three intrepid (and largely bewildered) playmates discover an even more confused, younger Reginald as he is being pursued by angry Yorkshiremen during the recording of one of his very early radio programmes. They take him, kicking and screaming, to the planet Galena in a solar system not too far from Earth and into a scrape, the like of which he has never encountered.
Hiking across barren landscapes and desert terrain they eventually arrive in a mining outpost which is revealed as a place that Reggie himself helped to establish. The geologists living there were taken by a version of his younger self in search of a mysterious element that he first discovered when he was a young man. This substance is the main catalyst of his time traveling radio and has the power to enhance the human race beyond all recognition. Vera was taken there by the young Reggie to oversee the mining of Radionium 7 (or Seedstone, as it becomes known) but is being held captive with threats to her life if she does not reveal what the material is capable of.
Their enquiries and search takes them into the ‘great underground’ of the planet into a place called the ‘Cave of impossible reasoning’ where the indigenous people have lived for eons which is now occupied by a mixture of new settlers but more recently by the militia forces of the Order whilst they undertake their savage investigation of all mining operations.
One of the overwhelming features of Seedstone is that it is composed of each single element of the periodic table in a state of impossible equilibrium. However, a side effect of its presence in large quantities is that it affects the mind in unpredictable ways. Once inside the mines, Florence, Bradley and the two Reggies are overwhelmed by baffling experiences but ferociously battle on, led by the elder Reggie and his drive to save Vera.
Eventually arriving at the ‘inner sanctum’ of the great city of Quixotica under the hostile surface of the otherwise insignificant planet, the four conquistadors face the military strength of the Order face on, as they discover the true extents of the grand plan that they have begun to execute.
Will they succeed in rescuing Vera? Does she have a subplot up her sleeve? Do the Order have greater plans that they are looking to execute? Will Bradley get back in time to catch his train home? To find these answers, you’ll have to read on. It’s a puzzle, hidden in a conundrum wrapped in a mystery. The internal logic is convoluted and multiple layers of referencing explode at every turn. Contemporary and vintage media icons are mirrored in every event and there are as many genuine facts as there are red herrings but can you find them all?
Two, middle aged friends find their life-paths crossing - after having had no contact since their student days - when a terrible shared secret comes screaming through the years to haunt them, threatening their sanity, freedom and comfortable lives.
Evidence surfaces, when Joshua (the ten year old son of the family who had just moved in to the former student flats) finds a ring in the back garden. This leads to further discoveries of human bone and a police inquiry quickly links the house to the era and the two main characters.
As the story unfolds, we hear personal accounts of the sequence of events told by Dave (a respectable dentist) and Tom (an IT consultant) and see how their viewpoints differ. However, in the process we see how the secrets they each keep (from themselves and each other) have shaped who they have become. These statements are set against (and woven amongst) present tense revelations as the inquiry unfolds, revealing that the girl was a flatmate of Dave and Tom, who was not lost on a backpacking holiday as the reports had suggested in 1976
We learn from Tom and Dave that their extreme student lifestyle - constantly in search of the ultimate thrill - led (through a combination of drink and mushrooms, on Halloween weekend) to the drowning of Clare (an archeology student), in the bathroom at the house.
We hear from Tom that the secret he kept from Dave was that he had sex with her almost-dead body, causing her to drown. However, we learn from Dave that it was his idea to dispose of the body (to hide their grisly excesses) instead of reporting the incident.
Having tried a variety of methods (including food processors and a bonfire in the garden) they are satisfied that the incident is behind them, but rivalry between Dave and Tom reaches a climax when Tom tells Keith about the party. Dave had stolen Keith’s girlfriend and the tension between them was already there.
Now, in the present day only Dave and Tom know the full truth but the police (as yet) can’t directly link them. That is, until Keith arrives back on the scene. Dave convinces Tom that the only way to retain their anonymity is to make sure that Keith doesn’t reveal all that he knows.
However, following the ill conceived murder of Keith, fresh evidence emerges which irrevocably incriminates both Dave and Tom but for different reasons. From beyond the grave, Clare appears to have had a hand in posthumous retribution.
What literature has had the most influence on you?
To be honest, I have to say that it was children’s books that have always had the biggest influence on me. As a father, I have spent nearly thirty years reading aloud to my children and though all that time have absorbed the ‘inner truths’ of simple story telling: there’s a character, they want something, they try to get it, they succeed, they feel better and then they live happily ever after.
From the classics to the modern - all the books (of any merit) that I have read follow this same, timeless path through desire, quest, achievement and solution. But, unlike ‘so called’ adult stories, they do so in ways that are clearly marked and strongly outlined. Each character’s place in the story is very easily understood (they have to be for a child’s mind) and the timeline for each of them follows a defined and logical path.
It’s not surprising then, that when people ask ‘who are your favourite authors?’, my first thoughts are always: Enid Blyton, Hans Christian Andersen, Alfred Bestall, Theodor Seuss, AA Milne, and over recent years: Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson, Jo Rowling, Kate DiCamillo and many others. I’m not saying that their writing represented ‘high literature’, it’s just that they are the names that come most easily to mind. But for me, it was Rupert Bear that struck the strongest chord. With his smart casual clothes, congenial friends and cozy-comfortable family, living a blameless life in rural middle England.
I was captivated by the idea that, following a hearty breakfast, Rupert could go out into the world and for no particular reason, would find himself on a Pirate’s treasure island, or in a Magician’s castle by lunchtime, with the peril of having to save the day for all concerned (which he always did) and yet still managed to get home in time for buttered crumpets at teatime. But that was the secret for me - it reassured me that magic was in the air and all you had to do was look for it. It also gave me a great sense of security, knowing that there was always hot cocoa waiting when the dragon had been slain (or given a jolly good telling off, at least).
In my view, the best adult literature has a little bit of Rupert in there. The only thing that is different, is that the conflicts, solutions and language are more complicated. We all want to know that, come teatime (whether metaphorical or not) things will be restored back to normal but they’ll be just that little bit better because of what our hero did.
It is a most terrible night. The wind is roaring outside and I have been woken from sleep and some terrible dreams. The last thing in my mind as I gained consciousness, was a ghost story which I had to write down, immediately, before it slipped back into the night. It’s written here, in first draft, exactly as the dream dictated it to me.
An unquiet slumber
The Coach & Horses was a large and pleasant Inn on the edge of the Presili Hills, in Pembrokeshire. With beautiful tracts of land that stretched out for miles in all directions, it was in the perfect location for those in search of solitude and respite whilst on the kind of holiday which required some physical effort to enjoy it to the full - The type of recreational travel which rewarded one with some of the most majestic scenery and bracing weather whilst calming the soul of its day-to-day frustrations and clutter.
It was on a night where the wind had taken the valley by force, that there came a large knocking that attracted Samuel, the Inn-Keeper. He had locked up early as it had been clear — since his last customer had left at eight — that there would be no more custom that night. In any case, he reasoned, his sick wife would appreciate the attention he might afford her with a few extra hours to spare.
Samuel, with lantern in hand, pulled back the bolts to the front door and greeted a tall figure clutching at the collar of his coat. With a methodist compassion, he instantly saw that the man was cold, wet and most probably lost on a night such as this. As the wind battered their faces, he bid him to come inside. Once before the fire, Samuel spoke with the man and asked him his business but although he appeared shaken and somewhat reticent, eventually enquired if there was a spare room for the night that he might stay.
Samuel was a good host and was well respected amongst the local farmers and his other regulars. However, he was also known for his vivid imagination and fondness for telling strangers about the many ghosts he claimed were resident in his establishment. The locals knew it was nothing more than a rouse to attract custom from the curious and the thrill seekers. But it seemed harmless enough, and they forgave his outlandish claims, indulging him on the many occasions that he would tell stories on dark nights around the crackling fireplace.
Eager to entertain his new guest as he tucked in to a hot meal of soup, he told yarns of headless horsemen and grey-clad women who were often known to roam the corridors and yards of the old building. But, undaunted by these recollections, the mysterious guest explained that he was tired from travel and wanted nothing more than to rest for the night. Samuel obliged graciously and showed him to the master bedroom, above the bar at the front of the Inn.
The room was of suitable appointment, having wood paneling; a large double bed; a dresser and fine views out onto the Hills. Samuel wished him a good night and left the traveler about his privacy. Once alone, the stranger wasted no time in making himself comfortable. He washed, undressed and laid down to sleep. The wind ripped violently outside but it made no difference to him as he settled back into the starched white, Welsh linen sheets and duck-down pillows.
Shortly after half past twelve, the man was disturbed by a sound. Not made by the gales that lashed the window, nor by the creaking of boards that follows the cooling after a fire has gone out. These were deliberate sounds and ones which caught his attention from deep within his slumber, raising him up like a shipwreck from the deep. He opened his eyes in the darkness and called out.
“Who is this that disturbs my sleep? Tell me. Who dares come creeping at such an hour? Landlord? is it you?”
There was no answer, so the man rose from his bed, lit one of the candles that were at his bedside and went in search of the source of the disturbance. The wind hissed down the chimney to be let in and at the window: the devil sucked his teeth in defiance at the warmth within. In the corridor beyond, the man stepped lightly over the threshold and was confronted by a crouching figure dressed as a grotesque who rose up before him.
“What is the meaning of this,” he said and the figure quickly removed its mask and holding it nervously - as he realised the error of his actions - he spoke:
“Are you not Philip Loxley?” enquired the figure.
“No, I am most certainly not. How dare you break my sleep with this childish foolishness?”
“Then, you must be: the true owner of this Inn. May God help me,” he cried, and fled away into the dark and down the stairs as though he had encountered a ghost.
The following morning, the man was perturbed and somewhat angry about the precedings and challenged the landlord: asking him why he had tried to fool him and break his night’s sleep.
As Samuel served up a hearty breakfast of cooked bacon and hen’s eggs, he was puzzled by the traveler’s accusations, explaining that it could not have been himself, as he was attending to his sick wife in their cottage at the other side of the stable yard. But, he went on to explain, that: one of the stories of the building recounted the tale of Eli Barnes, a former landlord who had tricked the original owner into selling him the Inn and his mischievous ways had followed him through life, getting him into a number of difficult situations.
“Eli Barnes used to play the most outrageous pranks on his guests until one fateful night when his good friend Philip Loxely was staying here. They were well known for their rivalry of practical jokes between them,” said Samuel.
“The rest of the Inn was empty that night, save for this one room (the one you stayed in) and Eli had crept up the stairs looking to frighten his friend. What he didn’t know was that Philip had risen to take a night walk due to the most terrible gut ache. The story goes, that Eli crept in, hoping to scare Philip but instead met a terrible spectre in the room. So terrible was the encounter and so afraid was Eli that he ran back down the stairs, tripped and broke his neck. He was found by Philip, poor man, who sobbed as he ran for help.”
The stranger was neither unmoved nor impressed by the tale, pushed back his chair; paid what money he owed; thanked Samuel for his hospitality and left. His cold manner had not troubled Samuel up to this point but his sudden departure unsettled him. A gentleman such as he would surely have exchanged more pleasant conversation or lighthearted chatter. He felt, for a moment: vexed, that perhaps he had failed to cater sufficiently and that, most possibly, the traveler would go on to tell of the Inn with less than favourable impressions but his worry was soon to be steered a very different course.
Later, as he went to clear the bedroom and collect the towels, Samuel was astonished to find that the bed had not been slept in. In fact, not a single thing in the room had been touched. The towels were exactly as he had left them the day before and the bed was in immaculate order - its sheets untouched by so much as a finger let alone a man who might have slept there.
Far away and in darkness now, the still night changes the features of this street to carbon black and there: like a dense, solid mass is a house like any other - the rolling fog of early autumn sticking to its damp walls. Upstairs, a thin light breaks through the curtains in the gap created by the lens of a telescope; impotently peering out. It stands, attentive but redundant and inside he sits beside its tripod and slightly turns the pages of a book, occasionally glancing at the sky, waiting for a break in the clouds and a respite from that stifling shroud. This night was logged as the perfect time for him to view Alpha Centuri but he is denied the spectacle. He sits in his upright chair and demands the fog to recede but like Canute and the ocean: it defies him.
About him, the ephemeral details of his passions are evident in every quarter. The walls are filled with prints and posters of astronomical instruction; charts of moon phases; artists impressions and tales of places he could never visit but still, he dreams. Comic books line the shelves, fingered and much loved - their contents memorised and captured as imprints in his memory. The details, carefully logged for potential future reference in the event of their circumstances presenting decisions he must make. But, as he surveys his kingdom, a sense of the overwhelming fruitlessness of his labours takes hold of him as a symphony of minor chords and choral tragedy rises to a deafening crescendo in his consciousness as he covers his ears and forces his eyes closed.
Since the beginning, he was captivated in those stories that he heard spoken through a grill darkly - carefully documenting every word as a child. The impossible lives and astounding tales of wonder reverberated in his imagination, brought alive by that deep and cosseting voice which accompanied him to sleep regularly through his impressionable years and burgeoning cogniscense. But, like all dreams of childhood: they were shipwrecked on the rocks of truth as the hard edges of the real word bruised and tore at the fragile sails of innocence.
Each entry, like the splintered fragments of an eggshell, being carefully pieced back into its ovoid whole through the pages of this book. Page after page of hand written words in a book full of wonder that lies dull in his hands now. Turning the pages, he looks upon each entry: carefully transcribed from that voice to his hand.
“Lies and more lies,” he says through stinging tears as the concepts fly from the page to his memory, reminding him of the depth of detail that is now as meaningless as it is unfathomable. The endless lists of prime numbers like exotic islands of perfection, with white beckoning sands gleaming in an endless sea of integers - the surface of which ripples above the ocean of real numbers. The simple decimals and fractions are the shallows and rock pools where the silver fishes play and the irrationals and transcendental numbers are the abyssal deeps: uncharted and dangerous. But their hidden references and continual emergence through those stories, to him now, mean nothing at all. They didn’t signify the ‘ultimate’ truth, only a cacophony of misinformation and misdirection.
The many hours invested in this document now lay heavy on his heart for its worth is empty to him. As his search for scientific proof reached further into the void, the more it revealed the impossibility of the claims and he seethed with the insult of it all. Then, he remembered the letters - each one, lovingly scripted and worded with respectful élan, which had fallen on closed ears, despite their pleading requests for answers. They were nothing more than another gate closed to him by the keeper of secrets.
His resentment fully engaged now, he grips the page and tears it out. First one, then another until the act of tearing his fantasy apart becomes a theatre of spiteful revenge and the impetus it brings makes him feel invigorated. Demolishing the very evidence of his deepest desire propels him higher than the pedestal he took it from and the destruction brings not only a euphoric calm, but a resolve. A solution, intact and perfectly formed.
Reaching, now, for the shelves, he takes a reel of tape from the many. A carefully indexed but perfectly ordinary spool of brown magnetic recording tape and with his finger in the spindle, uses his other hand to wrench the ribbon from its axis. Imprinted in the analogue and undulating magnetic fingerprints of this tape are hundreds of hours of documented adventures, each one beginning and ending in the comfort of the fireside. Warm tones and distant, ghostly voices coming alive each time the tape is played are disseminated - never to be heard again as the lengths of their sonic pattern is strewn through the air. Flaying his arm back and forth, the tape cascades around him in delicate loops and as the first reel is emptied, he turns to the next as the shiny brown bunting falls, drifting at his feet. Boxes are torn apart and cast aside, as each recording is tortured by ritual and he executes his rage upon them without mercy and curses the air.
Standing at the window and looking out at the bleak, milky dark air - amber cast by suburban incandescence, he breathes deeply. His breath catches the glass and forms yet another barrier between him and whatever it is that he believed was outside his four walls. There is no escape, he thinks as he looks over the gardens and shed rooftops into the dreary expanse of houses just like his.
Behind him, his studies reveal another side to his anguish. Piles of reports and essays, neatly written and diligently crafted with the intention of attaining the highest grades which always came almost too easily. His reports and assessments bear testament to his considerable intelligence but are also his prison. The text books now lay asunder with the remnants of the catalyst that bore them as fruit. Standing in the wreckage of his endeavours, the sum total of its futility weighing greatly on his young shoulders, he thumps the glass with his fist. He snatches at the faded curtains with their rocket ship print design and tears them violently from the rail. Plastic lugs ping and ricochet against the pane as he shreds them to bandages - swaddling that might have salved his pain and the fabric which his grandmother had carefully chosen to incite his imagination but which now, burned like acid in his thoughts.
Turning, he steps through the detritus. As the crunch and snap of each footstep brings a closure to the devastation he has wrought on himself, he approaches the radio - a project that he and his father undertook one boxing day, many years ago. The beeswax casing, polished to a rich, penumbrant glow, sits benignly on the shelf by his bed but is now the focus of his irritation.
Reaching for it, he forces the back open and reaches inside for its guts. Tearing wires in handfuls, he pulls at the body of the thing until he finds the core - the tiniest granule of galena crystal that causes its heart to beat, and squeezes it, unyeilding between his fingers.
“All for this!?” he cries and throws it into the air. Then, unravelling lengths of copper wire, he casts them to his floor with the audio tape and hurls the case at his mirror which, for a moment, captures his raging face then splinters with cascading music.
“I shall have my audience. I WILL be part of all that: all that I have worked for. You will be mine,” he says into the stunned silence of his room. Outside, a dog barks into the night.
It is a time of innocence and a place of no consequence as we soar through the night air, carried along by the vibrations that inform, educate and entertain a nation. Over the moonlit, Christmas-cosy rooftops and between the softly smoking chimney pots of suburban Middle-England, we see avenue after crescent of semi detached houses. Closer now, we see the glow of hearth and home, illuminating the netted windows of each one as the families within, settle down at the end of another weekend. There, a woman draws the curtains at the floral, leaded window to keep the frosty nip of the late December air at bay but inside a fire roars, guarded by a sleeping cat.
Behind those curtains, another world unfolds. Mother - in her powder blue, lambswool cardigan, knits. Her legs demurely tucked to the right. Father, with pipe and slippers, reads the Sunday paper, smiles and dunks another digestive in his Ovaltine. But there, sitting cross-legged on the rug between the cat and the side table by the fringed floor lamp, is Timmy Brewster in his red dressing gown and pyjamas. His hot milk - cupped between eager hands and his eyes firmly fixed on the walnut veneer box that stands on the table next to father. He is being drawn in through the latticed, brass porthole on the front of the box by polished, cut glass voices that softly crackle through that comforting silence of the room. They’re voices that are taking him far, far away from home.
“Oh Reginald. When will this beastly war ever be over?”
“Vera, my darling. That was back on Earth, It’s all behind us now - in space and time.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes my dearest. Here in the twenty second century, we are safe from the Gerries but not, I fear from the Order.”
“Yes, my love - The Ludwigian Order.”
“Oh yes, that Order. Sorry, you’re overwhelming me with expositions.”
“If they should ever discover that I brought you here, well - the consequences could be dire.”
“Oh no, is it terribly dangerous?”
“Not as dangerous as it is back …there. But the most important part, is that you establish the mining settlement here. As an eminent geologist, that shouldn’t be difficult. When we, or rather you, finally find the motherload of Seedstone, the world will be at our feet. Don’t you realise that darling? It will bring us riches beyond our wildest dreams.”
“Oh I do love you Reginald.”
“And I love you too Vera.”
“But …last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of thinking since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you must go back to Earth where you belong.”
“But, Vera, no. How can you say that?”
“Now, you’ve got to listen to me! Have you any idea what you’d have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten, we’d both wind up in a concentration camp.”
“You’re only saying this to make me go.”
“I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside, we both know you belong on the radio. It’s the one thing that keeps you going. If you don’t let the magic radio take you back, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
(Mother looks at father and they both laugh. Timmy cannot understand why and he shushes them.)
“But what about us?”
“We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have: we’d lost it until you brought me to planet Galena and then, well - we got it back last night.”
“I meant it when I said I would never leave you”
“And you never will. But I’ve also got a job to do. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. Look, I’m no good at being noble, Reginald, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of two little people doesn’t amount to a hill of seedstones in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
(As the organ music makes its final crescendo, the warm tones of a familiar voice take over.)
“And there we must leave the magical world of yesteryear and return to the present. Let’s switch the magic radio off and let it cool down. There we go. Now …wasn’t that an exciting adventure? I wonder who we’ll meet next. We’ll just have to wait and see. I do hope you’ve enjoyed your little journey through time and that you’ll want to take a trip with me again next week. You do? -oh that’s wonderful.”
(In the background, an orchestra begins to play the final coda of the show’s signature tune: Al Bowlly’s “Any broken hearts to mend” as the voice continues:)
“Well, this is your ‘Uncle Reggie’ saying goodnight until next time. Goodnight children …wherever you are.
(Then there is a silence.)
“This is the BBC and you can catch up with the adventures of Uncle Reggie at the same time next week, when he once again invites you to tune in to his magic radio. It’s very nearly eight O’Clock on Sunday the thirtieth of December and in a moment it’s: ‘Take it from here’ starring Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bentley and June Whitfield. Later this evening, Richard Dimbleby takes a look back at 1956: the year that saw the Suez Crisis and petrol rationing, the Hungarian revolution and the dawn of transatlantic telephone calls, in a programme entitled ‘Review of the year’. That’s at nine O’Clock, but first…” CLICK.
“Now come on Timmy, it’s past your bedtime. You know it’s a treat to stay up and listen to Uncle Reggie,” says mother.
“Yes son. We’ll have no backchat here. Do as your mother says and get yourself to bed now,” says father’s gentle voice and Timmy kisses them both on the forehead takes a last look at the Christmas tree sprouting from a bucket on the table in the bay window.
He watches the lights and baubles as they twinkle then leaves to climb the stairs to dream. “Goodnight son,” they call. Through the closed door of the sitting room, he hears them switch the radio back on, quietly. Alone in his bedroom, he lays in the darkness and looks out into the night sky in the chink between the spaceship print curtains that his Grandma bought him for his tenth birthday.
I wonder if Reggie is really out there, he thinks to himself.’ (Journey into space’ and ‘Orbit one zero’ were Timmy’s long standing favourites on the radio but Uncle Reggie’s stories were, for him - ‘proper magic’: incredible adventures lived by ordinary people, he thought to himself - like me.) I wonder if Reggie really can travel through space and time, he thinks as he slowly drifts into his own world.
“Good morning, good morning, goodmorning! All you layabouts, it’s time to get out of bed and get yourself to work. Shake a leg or an arm or whatever. You are listening to the one and only Chris Moyles breakfast show and it’s five past eight, or summat like that, and anyway, it’s time you were up. But hey! Guess what gang? IT’S FRIDAY!”
The radio alarm blared the start of a new day into Bradley’s ears with a rudeness that focussed his hangover all the more heavily as he fumbled a hand from under the duvet to hit the snooze button, missed and sent the clock crashing to the floor. The muted sound of the clock radio continued under Bradley’s bed: “This is Lostprophets and ‘where we belong’ as he stumbled out of bed and inspected his face in the bathroom mirror.
“I Don’t Need A Vision. A Light To Embrace. I Don’t Need False Promises, Hopes And Wishes,” he sang, off key, to the distant radio as he scraped the ginger stubble from his chin. Looking at himself, he saw a man of 27. Medium build, red hair, moderately attractive, mildly amusing and immensely talented - if only the world would recognise it yet. He’d been five years out of university and the freelance circuit was only just starting to open up to him. It’s just a matter of time, he thought. The next big break, and I’ll be up there with John Peel, Lester Bangs or Julie Birchill ( - well, maybe not her,) he thought as he pulled on yesterday’s Rolling Stones T-shirt and went downstairs, without showering. (Today was not a ’shower day.’)
Eating hot buttered toast to the sound of ‘Don’t stop believin’ on the kitchen radio, he strutted the length of his hallway, past the abandoned bike to the front door, to get the morning’s mail: the usual collection of Domino’s vouchers, LoveFilm offers, bills and - unusually - a jiffy bag with a London postmark - this caught his attention and he discarded the rest on the radiator shelf near the door (as he always did) and walked back to the kitchen, tearing open the package as he went.
“Dear Mr Gardener. Further to your recent communication, please find enclosed a cd that we wish you to review. Yours sincerely, Krissi Murison, acting editor, NME.”
“Yes!” Bradley punched at the air. “At last - something I can get my teeth into.” And then he looked at the cd that fell from the envelope. Sitting at the kitchen table and slurping his morning tea, he turned the case over in his hands.
“Uncle Reggie’s Magic Radio?” he said, incredulously. “Random or what?” he laughed but in spite of himself he loaded it into his laptop and quickly transferred the contents to his iPod. His phone and his laptop were his world, they contained all the films, music, podcasts, books and friends he’d ever known along with his thesis and every unfinished article he ever wrote. Without either of them, he knew that he couldn’t function properly and in particular: his phone. It was his prize possession and the centre of his personal orbit.
He repeated the name over in his mind as he paced about the kitchen, making more tea to the perky melodies and not unpleasant, hypnotic tracks he heard and before long, he was enchanted and had to learn more, not only for the review that he had to write but also to satisfy his own curiosity. The sleeve notes revealed that the band had taken their name from a legendary (and now largely forgotten) radio show. Bradley scratched his head. He’d certainly never heard of it, in spite of his cultural studies qualifications. He opened a Google page, started searching and it wasn’t long before he paradoxically found a lead.
Reginald ‘Uncle Reggie’ Merryweather. Born 1912. Reginald was a brilliant scientist who became a mediocre (but highly loved) broadcaster during radio’s golden years with such legendary programmes as: ‘My gypsy life’ (1930s), ‘Missed your chance’ (1940s), ‘Suspenders’ and “Uncle Reggie’s Magic Radio Show’ (1951 − 1961). However, his experiments with his time traveling radio inventions in the late 50s led to his eventual downfall and departure from the BBC when he unfortunately and successfully erased most of the historical records of his existence and achievements. He disappeared from public life in the early sixties due to mental health problems and only emerged again during 2008 when a British northern pop group took the name of his children’s programme for their own.
“What the…” laughed Bradley. Incredulous that he hadn’t heard of him before. But then, as he thought over the implications of his conclusion, quickly realised that it wasn’t so remarkable after all. If it were true.
“This has to be an elaborate marketing stunt, right?” he said to himself as his typing became more intense and his surfing - more detailed. “If he was born in 1912, that would make him …” he quickly negotiated some basic mental maths, “ninety eight. Wo!” he said softly, then began to wonder as the Wiki entry didn’t give a date of death. Sure enough, he soon found a Twitter page: @therealreginald and it gave the location as Bedford. From there he found a blog page with a link to contact and he sat at his computer, gripped in excited wonder as his fingers poised over the keys like Nosferatu.
“Dear Mr Reggie…” he began. “Nah. That’s pants,” he said and started again. “Dear Sir… oh dear God.” He rubbed his head and looked out of the window. A pair of ladders appeared and then a young man, about his age, with a gray chamois began smearing pigeon droppings across the pane until the glass looked like one of those shops that have closed for refurbishment. Bradley took a deep breath. “Dear Reginald…”
What if he doesn’t even read his email messages, he thought as he watched the window cleaner scrape frothy water into semi-circles of a Streatham street scene. It might take weeks for him to answer. Perhaps a phone call might be better, he finally concluded.
“Hello? yes hello there. I’m Bradley Gardner and I work for the NME. What? …no, not the enemy,” he looked away, considering the idea for a moment then continued: “The New Musical Express. Yes, that’s right - a newspaper, of ‘sorts’ and I’d love it, if I could come over and interview Mr Merryweather. Your number? Oh I found it in the directory. Hmm? Ex-directory? No, it came up under ‘vintage radio repairs’. I’ve rung hundreds of numbers this morning, and… Oh, would you? that would be fantastic. Great, I’ll wait to hear from you then. I sent an email but let me give you my number. This afternoon? Brilliant”
The phone at his ear was becoming slippy but he just had to tell someone:
“Gaz! hey, it’s Brad. Yeh, not so bad mate, listen …er, something’s come up and I don’t think I’m going to be able to make tonight. I know, bummer. Why not? Well I’ve blagged an interview with Reginald Merryweather. Reginald …yes, Merryweather. You’ve heard of him right? Big radio star in the fifties? Well, anyway, there’s this band who named themselves after him and I’m doing a review of the cd for the NME - Yeh! I know! and, well anyway look: I’m expecting a call, I’ll give you a bell at the weekend right? Cool. See you Gaz. Don’t drink too much yeh?
As he put the phone down, Mrs Jiggery’s email surprised him with a ping and told him exactly what he had been wanting to hear:
Dear Mr Gardner.
Mr Merryweather would be delighted to welcome you at his home for an interview and has asked me to extend his hospitality by suggesting that you stay for the weekend if you so desire. Our house is easy to find, and the address is below. Please don’t hesitate to phone if you wish to know any further details and we look forward to seeing you.
Best wishes. Florence Jiggery.
PA and housekeeper to R.K. Merryweather.”
“Good afternoon. Do you have anything on valve radios?” says a mellow voice that rings through the willows and elms, almost making the pond ripple in reverberant sympathy.
“Reggie!” I call as I turn and there he is, dressed in his familiar Gabardine raincoat and tweeds and he lifts his hat as he greets me with that huge, silly grin of his.
“How the devil are you, you old goat?”
I pull the lever and turn my scooter a little so that there is room for the two of them on the bench next to me. “What time do you call this?” I ask him, as he and a young man sidestep to be next to me.
“I’d call this a perfect time to arrive. Bradley - I’d like to introduce you to a very dear and very old friend of mine.”
“Hey less of the old already,” I say.
“Ziggy Bernstein. Ziggy this is Bradley Gardner,” and we shake hands awkwardly as he bends over.
“He’s not on the square, like us, is he?” I wink at Reggie.
“VERY PLEASED TO MEET YOU ZIGGY,” says Bradley.
“I’m not deaf!” I say. I’m just sitting down. “And what about you? What do you do?”
“He’s a journalist, don’t you know?” says Reggie.
“Oh? Are you famous?” I ask. Bradley looks at me and then at Reggie.
“Not as such, yet”
“He’s going to write about me,” smiles Reggie.
“Is he now?” I say. “Good luck.” - Bradley obviously hadn’t got to know Reggie very well yet (or perhaps he had), and he frowns at me as he sits, at the far end of the bench.
“Ziggy played guitar,” says Reggie, and his knee nudges mine. I know what he’s doing.
“Really?” says Bradley, stunned, dying to laugh but still not sure if he heard properly. After looking at me for a moment he decides to go for it: “Screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo?” he says, cautiously. Reggie and me guffaw then fall silent. Reggie has a short coughing fit as he reaches for his pipe from his pocket.
“What do you mean?” I say, straight-faced and Bradley nervously mumbles and looks to Reggie for backup.
“He’s winding you up, Bradley,” says Reggie as he tamps down the tobacco and flicks his lighter open. “You’re learning fast though, I’ll give you that.”
Bradley might be ‘learning fast’ but he’s clearly out of his depth and Reggie was loving it. He leans over and points at the carrier bag of stale bread at the side of my scooter and asks: “Can I?”
“Sure, sure,” I say and kick the bag towards him. He delves into it and begins skimming slices of Mother’s Pride across the dark water as a flotilla of waterfowl emerge from the undergrowth in all directions and he seems pleased.
“So,” says Reggie, as billows of creamy smoke encircle his head and he takes off his hat, smoothing down the white hair, “what do you know?”
“Ach, the same old. You know?” I say. “Got here quite early today. Had a chat with Marty.”
“Oh how is he?” he says.
“You know, usual self.”
“Don’t ask,” I say and he cranes his neck up and looks along the High Street towards Royal Oak Lane.
“Did you come in the Moggy?” I ask.
“Yes. Just making sure she’s safe.”
“Still going strong then?”
“Aren’t we all?” he says with a glance. His brown eyes sparkle in the sharp sunlight and I can still see the fire within.
Bradley is coming to the end of the bread and as he flings the end crust, it wallops a drake on the head, bounces onto the bank and the tabby cat leaps and wrestles with an unsuspecting flurry of feathers. He anxiously looks at us and points but I know there is nothing we can do.
“I think it might be time for a lunchtime beverage. What do you think Reginald,” I ask.
“That sounds like a perfect idea. Come on Bradley.”
“Where are we going?” he asks, still watching the forces of nature taking their course and from the look on his face - feeling responsible, or perhaps irresponsible.
I stand up and fold the tartan blanket into the shopping basket which takes Bradley’s attention away from the cat but his mouth is still gaping as he watches me.
“I thought you …I mean. I didn’t know that…”
“What? That I couldn’t walk or something? Ach, I get lazy sometimes. Besides, my padded seat is more comfortable than that bench,” I say as they both rise and brush the cold from their trousers. “Come on, it’s just across the road.”
We sit in the window, overlooking the road so I can keep an eye on my scooter outside. The smell of freshly cooked chips and bacon fills the air as the soft murmur of a Sunday lunchtime warms us from the brisk day outside. A thin film of condensation blurs the glass and I wipe a small porthole with my cuff.
“A very agreeable pint indeed,” says Reggie as he slurps at the froth of his Black Swan. “Brewed in Yorkshire,” he enthuses to Bradley, then adds: “…wherever that is,”
Bradley’s glass is half-poised to his lips as he thinks fast and looks at him. “It’s…”
“I know - up North, but not as far as Scotland,” says Reggie and I laugh. Bradley laughs too but he is not in on our countless in-jokes. We’ve had sixty years to hone our repartee, how could he? We’re a double act, me and him.
The Fox is a homely, ‘proper’ English pub. Red brick, slatted windows with tangled ivy and a sense of log-fire welcome that is so often lost in many of the new, ‘corporate’ pubs. Villages revolve around places like this and for me, it has become my second home and I settle back, putting the newspaper on the seat at my side as I take off my scarfe.
“So fellas. What have you been up to this weekend?” I ask and Reggie gulps a quick mouthful before heavily landing his glass on the table.
“Oh, it’s been quite an adventure really,” he says and Bradley smiles and nods in agreement. “Friday night, Mrs Jiggery put on a bit of a spread for Burns Night - I know it’s not the right day, but I thought it might be fun. THEN,” he continues: “on the Saturday, we caught the bus into Bedford and after visiting the Museum and lunch at the Embankment…” Bradley is looking at him now. His smile has become that goldfish-gape again as Reggie turns.
“You remember, Bradley? I had the ‘dry-aged Aberdeenshire steak with all the trimmings and a pint of Bombardier and you had the Salmon Fishcake with a watercress salad and bottled water.? Bradley says nothing. He just looks at him and then at me.
“Anyway, after that we walked along the Ouse, over Town Bridge and onto the high street,” - I nod in acknowledgement and saw Bradley mouthing the word ‘No’ as he pulls a bemused frown for my benefit. “Then I took us to see the place where David Robinson had his old shop. Remember Bradley? I told you I worked there as a young man.”
“They named a college after him at Cambridge you know,” I added, looking at Bradley. “Sir David he was in the end.”
“Then we took another bus into Clapham to see the Glenn Miller Museum. Have you been there Ziggy? Housed in the old control tower of the airfield where he was last seen alive in ’44,” said Reggie widening his eyes. “Splendid it was, then back home in time for tea. Mrs Jiggery had made Stargazy Pie for us and we pulled Christmas crackers - just for a bit of fun.”
“Crackers …yes,” says Bradley, downing about half of his pint in a single go.
“Then I put on a slide show: Egypt, Paris, New York, that sort of thing. I opened a bottle of Armagnac and we had cigars,” he concluded.
We all fall silent as the soft, muffled noises of the pub envelop us and the sound of collective swallowing and the clinking of glasses on the table is the only exchange between us. Reggie looks at the crackling logs in the fire but Bradley is troubled. He looks out of the window and back at Reggie a few times before speaking.
“Reggie?” he says, “That’s not …I mean. I don’t …hm. How can I put this?”
Reggie puts his glass down and looks at him, slowly folding his arms, “hmm?”
“That’s not what happened. You’re joking. Right?”
“Well Bradley. Perhaps you’d like to tell the nice Mr Bernstein here, exactly what you have been up to for the last 48 hours, then. Hm?” he says, raising an eyebrow. Repeatedly. I’m not sure what he means but I expect he’s been up to mischief again. As usual. Whatever it is that Reggie is trying to conceal finally dawns on Bradley with a weighty realisation and he grins.
“Ah. Right,” he concedes and stares at the floor with a schoolboy blush just as the chips arrive.
“Ooh! Tucker,” beams Reggie and we all dive into our bowls of hand-cut, deep fried slabs of potato, each of us thankful for the distraction for different reasons.
“You know Reggie, I’ve been clearing out my garage recently. I’ve been getting rid of all the left over stuff from the shop as you know, and I found something that I think is yours,” I say, with a full mouth. Huffing the heat between the words. He turns to look at me.
“Oh?’ he says and I reach into my inside pocket. I offer out my hand and he wipes his on a napkin before taking the tin box from me. He is frozen in time as he gazes at the box.
“Well bless my soul,” he says, shaking his head. “After all these years.” His eyes twinkle as his fingers clasp around the tin. “Thank you Ziggy, you have no idea how precious this is.”
“What is it Reggie?” asks Bradley as he chomps and squirts more sauce on his lunch.
“This,” answers Reggie, “is ‘number seven’ …the one that was missing.”
Bradley stops and looks at his hand as he offers it to him. “I’d like you to look after it. You might need it later,” he urges and Bradley slowly takes the box and starts to open it but Reggie’s huge hand covers it. “Not now,” he says and Bradley puts the box in his pocket, looking at Reggie to make sure that he was doing the right thing. “Good lad,” says Reggie and concludes lunch, wiping his lips with the napkin and rising to his feet.
“You must excuse me a moment. I have to ‘see a man about a dog’,” he winks as he places his hand on Bradley’s shoulder to get past and I see him disappear across the bar and into the Gents. A few locals glance and some nod as he goes by.
“So, you’ve been having fun with ‘Uncle Reggie’ then, have you?” I smile at Bradley as I finish my chips.
“Yes, it’s been …interesting,” he says.
“What do you think of him?” I ask.
“He’s …” he thinks for a while, “fascinating,” he says.
“Don’t believe a word,” I warn him but he is not convinced.
My scooter trundles along the high street, bumpily, as Reggie and Bradley walk alongside as we go back to his Morris Minor, parked a little way along from the pond. I can recognise it immediately, not only for it being an old 1950’s split-screen, vintage green banger but also for the famous ‘AND 50’ number plate.
“Hello there Mavis,” says Reggie to the car, “I hope you’ve been keeping out of trouble.” He leans over and brushes a couple of leaves off the bonnet.
“What have you got planned for the rest of today?” I ask. Bradley shuffles about nervously.
“Oh, that’s it isn’t it? Bradley has to catch a train soon?” I look at him.
“Back home?” I ask.
“Yep, back to London to start my feature.”
“Where will you begin?” I ask him and he scratches his head.
“At the beginning I suppose,” and Reggie laughs.
“I doubt it,” he says.
I hand him the newspaper I’ve been carrying and say: “Here, take this. Something to read on the train,” and he takes it with a smile and a nod.
“How about you?” says Reggie.
“I think I fancy some duck soup tonight,” I say, looking back at the pond.
Bradley looks terrified for a moment, but I punch him on the shoulder.
“Silly boy. Sainsbury’s best. As if I’d…” I say, shaking my head and glancing at Reggie with a wink. “Next thursday, as usual?” I ask and he waves through the window and then they were gone
And that, in a nutshell, was my Sunday - same as usual: ‘nothing much happened’, but it was nice to see the old fool again. I just wonder what Bradley will make of it all.
This isn’t the usual kind of post that I would normally make but this week has seen some extraordinary activity on Tumblr that I couldn’t let pass without some acknowledgement.
I am in the process of ‘workshopping’ my current work in progress: a valvepunk comedy epic psychological adventure, and from now on, various chapters and extracts will appear amongst the usual short stories, sketches and literary obseravations, advice etc.
However, I was surprised to pick up eleven new followers in the week and thought that I’d like to give you all a big thank you. You are (in no particular order): bmulhill, readingme, scrawlingtruths, onceuponatimewriting, bvjk, theriverrunswild, thatneedstogo, pianoghost, iwanttobelikearollingstone, ninjamnah, nureenvelji - and I’d just like to say “Hi, I know you’re there and I’ve followed you back to say thanks”
Just because I don’t comment on posts as a rule doesn’t mean that I don’t read what you put. I enjoy checking stuff out just like the rest and as a writer (!) enjoy a distraction whenever it comes along, like we all do.
Once again, thank you and I hope that you have enjoyed what you’ve read and that you will take time to trawl back through my archives and check out the new stuff as it comes along. The new novel is going to be great and there’s enough depth and intrigue in there to keep anyone guessing (and chuckling) for a long time.
Every Sunday I do this. I take the scooter down to the pond and feed the ducks. I like to have a little routine in my life, you know? A little routine goes a long way: it helps pass the time and it’s nice to have something to look forward to. Monday is Post Office day - I like to check my balance and then on the days when it’s due: collect my pension (ach, it’s not much but then I don’t want for anything these days. Myriam - god rest her - left me everything. I get by.) Tuesdays I like to go to Senior’s Yoga at the community centre and although I find it hard to join in, there’s a lot you can do sitting down. They do a good cup of tea as well, so that makes it a nice trip out. Wednesday is shopping (after I’ve put the washing out). I get the bus into Hitchin and make a day of it. Thursdays I usually meet Reggie in the library and then we go for cakes and more tea.
Friday is the Fish and Chip Club. Three or four of us meet up and go have fish. I like a piece of fish on a Friday - It takes me back to childhood memories of Shabbat but, as there’s nobody to share it with anymore, I don’t make much of a fuss in an evening. Early bedtime, maybe read a book. Saturday is usually a bus ride into Bedford to walk ‘round the shops and then Sunday, it’s down to feed the ducks (if it’s not raining) and a pint of Black Sheep at The Fox with a few hours to read the newspapers. So that’s me for you: a man of leisure you might say but after a life like mine, I think I’ve earned it. I should complain.
“Zelig! Are you talking to the ducks again?”
I look around as best I can and see him standing there. Dark brown Homburg pulled down making his ears protrude like pink handles. “Marty? Is that you?” I ask.
“Yes, you old fool, who did you think it was? The Sandman?”
“It was your ears I recognised. Let me put my glasses on.” He sits on the bench next to my scooter and looks out across the pond.
“How’s Lydia?” I ask, but the curl of his mouth and the tipping of his outstretched hand tells me that things are not great, so I change the subject. “The grandchildren then? Have you seen them recently?”
“Ach, you should see them,” he suddenly beams, “all grown up now. But what looks they have …and bright too. They have brains,” he says, softly tapping his forehead. “They make me very proud.”
He turns slightly to look at me and the warmth of his smile, just for a moment, takes the chill off the afternoon. It’s the kind of day that has a bleak clarity to it, that only winter could bring. The light is different, it has a sharpening effect on the senses and there, way up in the highest stratosphere, the slightest of clouds smear themself over the thin blue canopy.
Marty, too, seems different today. January is visible in his features. Like Janus, he wore two faces - one, looking back over the old year, already blank as snow and the other: bracing the elements and pointing to the fresh green growth of renewal. He is a gardener at heart or rather: it is he.
He’s talking to me but his voice has softened into a blur in my mind as I listen to my own thoughts. I should really pay attention as I know at some point he will ask me something but I am content to just let the time pass and feel the crisp air on my cheeks as he talks. I watch as the ducks fight with each other under the willow trees. Dropped crusts of bread are bobbing about in the ripples around them and now, here comes a coot: little white beak thrusting forward to take advantage of the squabble and steal the crust.
“…don’t you think so?” I hear, as my attention focusses back on his voice - realising that it’s my turn to speak.
“Oh, of course,” I gamble, is the best answer, seeing as he was clearly looking for my approval. My punt pays off, as he seems satisfied that I was right there with him in the moment and, to put a cherry on it, I continue: “If God had meant it to be, he would have made it so,” I add with a knowing nod (which was a masterstroke) and in agreement, he sits back on the bench and crosses his legs, accidentally whacking my scooter. His huge black shoes don’t register the impact and he shuffles about in his seat. As long as he’s comfortable, I think as I look back across the pond.
“Sold any good books lately?” he asks me now, his tongue investigating the remains of his lunch lodged in his dentures.
“Marty, it’s been twenty years since I sold the bookshop.”
“But you were doing wholesale by mail order for a while, weren’t you?” he says, as he tips back his head to watch a flock of Canada geese rise in startled unison from the trees beyond. They scramble and re-form above us before disappearing beyond the rooftops with a collective claxon of noise like the London to Brighton run.
“Meh, it was too much like hard work. All those boxes: lifting, wrapping, posting. Anyway, it was all just left-over stock. Eventually, I’d got rid of most of it. The rest I gave to the charity shop and then some to the community centre.”
“You should have told me you were getting rid of it all.”
“It was all old stuff. You wouldn’t have been interested. People don’t crack spines anymore,” I say, mainly for my own satisfaction at the visual analogy.
“Spines? Cracking? What are you talking about already?” he says, leaning away slightly but turning to me.
A tabby cat skulks out from the trees on the opposite bank and as I watch it, I sigh and continue: “Book spines, Marty. Kids today. They prefer to read their phones or the internet. Paperbacks? They’re finished. Like us - crumbling remains of an older time.”
“Crumbling? Speak for yourself,” he laughs and nudges my knee. Then, slowly tipping himself forward he raises his elbows behind him and I hear the click and snap of his shoulders as he grunts and flexes his back.
“Well, can’t sit here all day. My geraniums won’t water themself you know,” he says as he rocks a couple of times before launching himself unsteadily into an upright position. “You take care of yourself now. Don’t go speeding in that thing,” he gestures with his cane and taps the wheel a couple of times. “I’m not bailing you out of prison if you get into a fight with any rockers,” he winks and I laugh.
“Rebel without a clue, that’s me Marty,” I say and as he disappears, chuckling onto the High Street and away, I call after him: “Remember me to Lydia,” and he acknowledges the thought with an un-glancing wave.
I’ve seen this village change over the years and not for the better either. He takes some time crossing the road because of the constant stream of cars - how they’ve made the outdoors seem so alien, almost dangerous. When I was a young man, there were very few cars. It’s hard to imagine now but apart from the occasional delivery van, people used to ride bicycles or walk. When they did that, it was like the outside was an extension of inside. As though all these strangers were actually in your own world and we’d speak to each other. In actual fact we all knew each other because of it and we had some connection in each other’s lives. But now, with everyone trapped in their little tin boxes, no one talks anymore and there’s never any peace and quiet. There’s always the continual drone of an engine somewhere and when you’re not so quick on your feet (or mind) every road is a worry.
Before all this, when life was different it was very different. I never had time to just sit and think about things like I do now. I was too busy building my empire. ‘How come you can’t be a dentist or a lawyer like your cousin Julius?’ said my mother back then but even though I loved books I didn’t particularly want to do any of the things in them - I was happy just to dream (I couldn’t read enough as child) so it was a concession on her part in a way and so it was sealed: a shop was the only option for me from an early age.
I remember it well. It had been a slow day. A few tourists had passed through: flicked over some copies of local history and some picture books about the British coastline. Mr Potter came in earlier and took away a handful of crime novels. He liked a good murder mystery and I tried to keep him a few aside. He was there most weeks and I liked to keep my regulars happy. Doris Stevenson, one of the local primary school teachers, wanted something on the Vikings and I sold her a huge old thing with engravings and colour plates that she was very happy with.
Yes, one thing that “The Shepherd’s Crook” had become known for was, catering to all tastes. “Rare, antiquarian, second hand and latest releases - all under one roof” it said in the advert I placed in the paper every week. It had been my empire for a few years and I was proud of it. Cousin Julius might be a big shot solicitor but I owned a bookshop, I thought. He had a bit of specialist knowledge but I, - I was the gatekeeper of knowledge itself, I sneered in spiteful peevishness at my absent mother.
It was just after lunch when I first met him. I’d been opening some boxes of books I had bought at auction and carefully collating them into piles on the table by the cash register when I heard the bell go. The shop was a small, three story Tudor style affair, with leaded windows set into a curved bay. There were three steps up from the main road and I could always hear customers even before they come in, by the way their footsteps echoed in the cellar below, but this chap was different. The first I knew, was when his huge frame appeared in the doorway, dressed in a Gabardine raincoat, and he lifted his hat as he greeted me.
“Good afternoon. Do you have anything on valve radios?” he said with a mellow voice that rung through the twists and turns of the shop, almost making the light fitting sing in reverberant sympathy.
“I think, if I do, they’ll be on the first floor,” I said and he bustled past me with vigorous enthusiasm. “But first …excuse me,” I called, “could you leave your holdall at the desk please.”
I heard him halt and turn on the creaking boards as he reversed down the steps.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t wish to appear rude but it’s for your own convenience. Sometimes,” I continued into the silence of his stare, “…sometimes people steal things.”
He looked at me for a while and I was not sure what to say next.
“Of course!,” he boomed, “forgive me. I’m not a thief but I do understand. Please, take this - but do look after it won’t you,” he said moving closer and lowering his tone. “It contains something very valuable indeed.”
I heard the floor groaning as he paced energetically back and forth upstairs and flecks of dust began to fall, softly through the shafts of sunlight filtering in between the racks in the window. It seemed as though he were consuming the contents of each book as I heard the sound of volumes being dragged from their shelves as others tumbled, causing him to trip more than once. After a while, I thought I should investigate and see if I could help.
As I climbed the stairs, calling “Is everything alright up there? Have you found anything you like the look of?” I was stopped in my tracks by his yelps of delight.
“Eureka!” he cried. “This is even better than I could have hoped for.”
“Ah,” I said. “A rare volume: ‘Calculation of Astronomical Formulae’. Good choice,” I smiled.
“I was rather hoping to discover ‘Advanced Principals of Valve Technology’ and for a while was quite tempted by ‘Newton’s Optical Writings’ but this is a bobby dazzler. Just the ticket,” he enthused as he bent back the pages and sat himself down on a dining chair by the window. Behind him, the street carried on its daily business but for him, the world came to a standstill as his eyes widened. Hurriedly flicking the pages.
“Listen to this,” he said, (presuming that I understood his enthusiasm but as they say: the customer is always right.) “Ephemeris Time is a uniform time based on the planetary motions, whereas Universal Time only exists on Earth and is necessarily based on its rotation.
Because the Earth’s rotation is slowing down and, more importantly: with unpredictable irregularities, UT is not a uniform time and cannot be trusted. Since the calculation of the position of planets requires a uniform time, one must use ET for the calculation of accurate ephemerides. Therefore, the exact value of the differences ΔT = ET - UT can be deduced only from observations and extremely accurate recorded measurements. I KNEW IT!” he roared with a sunrise grin. “This,” he said, slamming the book closed with one hand, so close to my face that I felt the backdraft and smelt the years of neglect as the dust billowed from its pages, “…is the missing link I have been looking for.”
He was still babbling as we went downstairs and I started wrapping the book for him in brown paper. “What line are you in?” I asked as I melted the ceiling wax onto the string of the package. His choice of book was unusual and I wanted to be sure that I could earn a bit of repeat business.
“I’m on the radio don’t you know?” he said. (I thought I had recognised the voice.) “Suspenders? Have you heard of that? ‘Best new radio drama of 1951’ said the Radio Times last year. It’s very popular,” he smiled.
“Your name please? So I can fill out a bill of sale,” I asked, pen poised at the ready.
“My name? Yes, it’s: R.K. Merryweather.”
“Reggie Merryweather?” I suddenly realised, “Yes I have heard you. You used to present ‘Missed your chance’ didn’t you? That was a funny show. I liked that. What’s this new one then? More comedy?” He looked at me seriously for a second before answering.
“Oh no,” he said. “It’s mystery, suspense, drama, horror and…” he slowly waved his hands as if invoking evil spirits and whispered: “the unknown,” and there was a long silence as he let the impact of his revelation fill the room.
“Well, I do hope you’ll come back if you need more inspiration or …reference material. I usually have things on most subjects and if I don’t have it I can always order it,” I smiled as I passed him my calling card.
“Zelig Bernstein. Literary broker. I see. Well thank you Ziggy, I certainly shall be back,” he said as he reached down for his holdall but it slipped as he was trying to put the book away and the contents came tumbling across the desk - A paper bag containing seven cherry scones.
I was surprised that he shortened my name that way - the way that they do in the States, but for some reason I instantly forgave him the familiarity. There was just something magnetic about his presence.
“Oh, I do beg your pardon,” he said as he grappled with the tumbling cakes. “I’m afraid I can’t resist visiting Mary Marshall’s cake shop whenever I come in to Hitchin.”
“I’m quite partial to a bit of cake myself,” I said, “and she does make exceedingly good ones,” I nodded.
“Tell you what then,” said Reggie as he closed the bag and brushed the crumbs off his coat, “If you’re ever free at lunch next time I come into town, why don’t we go for tea and cakes? Then, you can tell me all about your rare and interesting books, and I can tell you all about my work. Hmm? How does that sound?”
“That sounds like a grand plan. I’ll look forward to it,” I said and I wasn’t kidding. His eyes, the voice, his style was fascinating and I was sure that he would be a good customer. ‘Repeat business, you see? That’s how you build’ - my mother’s voice told me in my head.
“Much obliged to you Ziggy,” he said as he raised his hat and headed towards the door.
It had started to rain and he hoiked up his collar and looked up at the sky with a frown before stepping out, chattering to himself as he went to the sound of the brass bell ringing closure to my first meeting with the ‘great’ Reggie Merryweather. But it wasn’t to be the last.
As I was clearing away the brown paper and putting the duplicate of the bill on the spike, I found a tiny tin box with red lettering on black, nestling between the register and a jam jar of pencils.
‘The Mighty Atom. Wireless crystal cat’s whisker,’ it read and as I slowly opened it, I was amazed to see a faint mauve glow coming from inside, but I closed it quickly. I knew it wasn’t mine and had to be Reggie’s. I wasn’t worried too much, I knew he’d be back.
For every writer, there sometimes comes a point where they take the ‘big picture’ and think “what the hell am I writing about?” Unfortunately for me, this has happened this week.
After spending a year and a half nurturing my baby with tender loving care, feeding and tending it on a daily basis, this week it looked up at me and said ‘what the hell have you made me? What is this body you have given me?” and I had to re-assess the entire story from the toes to the head.
It’s not as though my story is weak - far from it (in my humble opinion), it’s just that the way I have been building it, now seems clumsy and cluttered. It makes me realise how an outsider might come to visit my world and I see that it is not a tidy place. I feel as though I should have at least hoovered round and done the washing up.
My problem is not unique and I am sure that a lot of writers have experienced a similar ‘crisis of confidence’ at some point in the journey but for reasons that escape me, I am asking for your help before I hit the delete button and rid myself of the problem once and for all (didn’t we all feel like that at one time or another?).
Ok, so the story so far -
It’s a steampunk extravaganza. My main character was born in 1912, started out as a radio journalist and cod-scientist who dabbled with the emerging radio technology. During the war years he worked for the British Ministry of Misinformation and then after the war went on to have a speculative fiction series on radio which he wrote. However, when he (claimed) to have invented a time machine, he intervened in his own past and succeeded in erasing himself from history and eventually had a major breakdown in 1960 which resulted in his incarceration in a mental institution. Following a variety of twists and turns he re-emerged in the late 1990’s when a rock band discovered an album that was released of his vintage radio series from the 50’s and took their name from the series as their band name.
In the current version of the story, a journalist is sent a cd by the rock band to review for the NME and he starts to research the name and becomes intrigued by the snippets he finds and arranges to meet up with the old guy (now in his 90’s) to secure an interview. Things don’t go to plan and before long, the journalist is sucked into a frantic time-traveling adventure as the old guy goes in search of his long lost love from the war years.
Ok, so here’s my dilemma - I have almost a hundred years of journal entries for the old guy as well as a stack of short stories ‘he’ wrote. In themself, the journal entries are fascinating but don’t have a ‘plot’ that would engage an audience in anything other than a ‘faux-biography’. I also have a reasonably gripping tale of a contemporary journalist being hurled backwards and forwards in time as the old guy retraces his lifetime steps to save the girl of his dreams from his arch enemies.
At this point, I have several options: firstly, I could tell the tale of the journo, in a standard novel format, experiencing the twists and turns of a stranger and split the entire thing into a ‘Trilogy’ so that the journals become the second installment and the journo’s account (and essentially part of his ‘review’) as he ends up writing the ‘memoirs’ of the old guy with his stories as the third part of the overall trilogy.
OR - I could include the journal entries (and thereby thread the entire lifetime of the old guy) into the main story, as if the journo was reading the books as he went along. Much in the same way that The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide revealed bits of information as and when they were required.
The lifetime entries of the old guy are so strong (and bizarre) that they tell a tale of a man destroyed by his own intelligence and the stories that he (supposedly wrote) stand alone as credible enough to be worthy on their own merit. But the ‘plot’ brings the whole thing to life. Do I separate the immense backstory as a diary and keep the stories he wrote for the radio series as a separate, and final ‘part’ of a three part chronicle?
Today, I had an epiphany. The ‘inner voices’ told me that I should incorporate (what is essentially a ‘back story’) - the journals - into the main frame of the plot and abandon the short stories altogether as they are nothing more than a ‘vanity’ move on my part to include a bunch of stuff that I am attached to. I like the short stories very much and the content is very integral in cross-referencing various episodes in the old guys life (as he usually wrote from personal experience) but in the final analysis, their inclusion was more of a distraction than an enhancement of the overall piece.
As a result of this realisation, I have ruthlessly hacked at least ten thousand words off the total word count which is always good but I am concerned that the finished story will be impoverished without the depth of understanding that the stories he wrote (which made him famous) would bring.
What should I do? - Make the story a ‘trilogy’? Make the story a blend of past and present? and include the short stories as an appendix? or just spin the whole thing around the fact that a journalist in the present day meets a time traveler who gives him his journals and let us discvover ‘edited highlights’ as we go along?