Frank Almond

Chapter One

It was Emma minus eight hours and counting, the worst Monday morning of my entire life, when my mobile rang. I hoped it would be Emma, my ex-girlfriend, because we'd just ended our two year relationship the night before, and for some reason I thought she might be phoning up to apologise, and then I'd apologise, and then we'd meet up and our life would be back to normal again. I know that all sounds unlikely in this imperfect world, but I am an eternal optimist, although you would never think that if you read this…


"No, it's Julian. Hi, man."


"Me. Julian."

"Sorry. Who is this?"

"Julian. Julian Duckworth."

Pause. I was trying to remember who the hell he was.

"Hello? Steve? Are you still there?"

Suddenly, a large bell started clanging in my head—an alarm bell. Although, come to think of it, it was more like one of those massive bronze things Buddhist monks ram with a swinging tree trunk—that sound like someone's opening the gates of hell. It was my misfortune to spend three years at college with a Julian Duckworth and he was the last person on earth I ever wanted to see again. My life was sad enough, without him adding to it. What the hell was he doing ringing me at six thirty in the morning? What was he doing ringing me at all? I hadn't seen or spoken to the guy for five years.

"Hello, Duck. What is that noise in the background?"

"It's Floyd, man. 'Dark Side of the Moon.'"

"Turn it down a shade."

"Uh. Right. Sorry."

"What do you want? I was just getting ready for work."

I heard Duckworth stifle a little chuckle. "I don't think you'll be going into the office today, mate. Look out the window."

"Look, I'm a bit late, Duck, let's meet for a drink sometime."

"Just look out of the window, Stephen."

Only my mother ever called me Stephen. Duckworth's nerdy voice was insistent and he sounded strangely sure of himself. Self-confidence was not something I associated with the Duckworth of our university days.
Humour him, I thought, and he might go away. I crawled out of my cold Emmaless bed and staggered over to the window, grabbing my pack of cigarettes and lighter on the way. "Okay. What am I looking at?" I yawned.

"The white Cortina," said the nightmarish voice from my past.

Believe me, this guy could be one of the most boring and irritating life forms on the planet. Everybody had made fun of him at college, but I could never bring myself to be quite as nasty to such a soft target as the others, so he had sort of attached himself to me, mistaking my basic humanity for a kindred spirit.

I saw an arm come out of the window and wave.

"Two litre engine, twin, overhead cams," said the Duck, in my ear. "Stereo speak—"

"You woke me at six thirty to show me a car?"

The head of Duckworth himself popped out the window. He was wearing bizarre red plastic spectacles and his long hair hadn't changed a bit—he still looked like a throwback to the seventies, the Age of the Dinosaurs of Rock. It was as if Punk, the New Romantics, Indie, House, Rave, Acid House, Dance and Hip Hop had never happened. Even at college he had been into ye olde groups, like Deep Purple, Yes and Pink Floyd, when we were all into the latest indie bands and techno stuff.

"Hey, man—you've gotta come for a spin."

"I don't have the time," I said.

"Yeah, you do. Watch this!" squealed the eternally juvenile Duckworth.

The retro car, which might have been cool back in 1972, suddenly raced away and disappeared. No, I don't mean it went down the road and turned the corner or reached a vanishing point, I mean, it simply disappeared right in front of my eyes. Before I could speak, the Pink Floyd music had turned to white noise down my mobile. The white Cortina and Duckworth were vapour.

I threw on some clothes and rushed down the three flights of stairs from my flat, and ran over to the spot where the Duck had been parked.

I was just staring down at the road to see if there were any burn marks—I was thinking the poor guy had spontaneously combusted—when I heard a whoosh behind me and a screech of brakes. I spun round and saw the maniacal face of the Duck grinning at me over the steering wheel.

"Quick! Get in!" he yelled, above the engine he was moronically revving.

"You can drive me to work," I said, throwing my cigarette away.

The Duck nodded madly. I walked round to the passenger side, climbed in next to him and reached for the seatbelt.

"No belts?"

The Duck had a peculiar and annoying way of giggling. He sort of sucked air in through his big nose and made a gurgling noise with it in the back of his throat—a bit like a quack—while beating something with his hand.

"Don't laugh like that," I said, like a father telling off a son. "It makes you sound like a right idiot."

He looked as sorry as a faithful old dog, when he knows he's done wrong.

"You do know it's illegal not to have seatbelts fitted," I said.

The Duck smirked and suppressed another gurgle.

"If you're going to make those ridiculous noises every time I speak to you, Duck, I'm going to get out and take the train."

"No don't! Sorry, Steve."

"All right. What the hell are you wearing anyway?"

"This? Er, just my seventies stuff."

"You look like a refugee from a charity shop."

I wasn't going to mention the apparent disappearance of vehicle and driver a few minutes earlier, because I didn't want to go down that road. Conversations with Duckworth were always pretty odd, and I didn't want this one to get any odder than it already was.

"Did you see it?" he said.

"See what?"

"You know, what I just did…"

"What was that?" I said, looking out the side window.


Suddenly, we lurched forward and, let me try to get this clear, we lurched forward and the building I was looking at across the road seemed to dissolve and become a brownish-grey blur. And then all sense of forward motion stopped and we were just drifting. I looked through the windscreen and saw—I flung out my hands to brace myself against the dashboard.

"What the—?"

Music started playing. I could see Duckworth's multi-ringed fingers tapping the wheel to the beat, out of the corner of my eye. A black and red whirlpool was swirling towards us. We seemed to be disappearing down a giant red plughole.

"What-what's that?" I said.

"It's a midi I downloaded off the net: 'Another Brick in the Wall, Part Three.' Classic Floyd."

"Not the bloody music—that!" I shouted.

"Dunno," he shrugged. "That always comes up."

I looked across at him. My life was in the hands of a lunatic and I was God knows where, doing God knows what.

I saw him look in his rear view mirror. "Hold on," he said.

He did a smart handbrake turn and we were shooting back towards daylight with the murky outlines of my street around us. The music suddenly changed to what sounded like a midi version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" by the Duck's favourite band of all time: Pink Floyd.

Duckworth had both hands off the wheel and was playing air guitar.

"I rigged it so this comes on when I hang one eighties!" he shouted, above the noise.
"Would you mind turning it off, you crazy—"

Duckworth turned to me, nodding and grinning from ear to ear. "Yeah—mind blowing—'Shine On You Crazy Diamond'! Sublime Floyd, man. It's about Syd Barrett. He left the band in sixty-eight, but remained their creative inspiration—"

"Turn it off!" I yelled, trying to look for the stereo to do it myself. It was then that I noticed the weird dashboard. "This is not a normal Ford Cortina, is it?" I said.

"This is true, man," smirked the Duck.

"Stop the car."

Duckworth nodded, and calmly performed: mirror-signal-manoeuvre, before pulling into what looked like a normal kerbside.

"What happened back there—?" I started to ask.

But Duckworth was staring expectantly in the rear view mirror, with one finger raised, counting under his breath.

"Now," he said.


"That's you," he grinned, jerking a thumb back over his shoulder.

I shuffled round in my seat and looked through the rear window. "What are you on a-bout?" My mouth fell open and I lost my ability to speak.

When I found my voice again, I told Duckworth to drive us away. He drove us round the corner—no melting buildings or red whirlpools this time—and then out of the neighbourhood. We stopped beside the town's municipal park. Duckworth offered me a packet of Smoky Bacon crisps. And we both just sat there, munching them for a few moments. Then Duckworth got a flask from a rucksack on the backseat and began pouring me black coffee.

"Worked it out yet?" he said.

"I think so," I said. "I don't know how you did the car bit, but I suppose you've rigged up some sort of liquid crystal display lightshow in these windows—and that must have been Matt or somebody back there—is Emma in on this, too?"

Duckworth giggled. "Who's this Emma bird then?"

I turned and looked into his mad magnified eyes, through the pebble glass in his spectacles. "I really have got to be getting to work," I said.

"I told you: you don't go in today, mate. You get to hang out with me," he said. "You don't have a clue, do you, Steve? It hasn't sunk in yet, has it?"

I forced a smile. "Tell Matt, or whoever that was back there, wearing my—" I was trying to work out how they knew what I would be wearing. Emma could have told them what I usually wore to work on a Monday morning. She had to be in on it. "Where's Em?" I said, looking hopelessly round at the trees and bushes through the park railings, expecting her to leap out and bring the whole stupid episode to an end. I was becoming disorientated, confused, and even a little anxious and…I just wanted to hold Emma.

"Who's Em?" said Duckworth. "Oh—yeah, your bird: Emma."

Suddenly, a midi version of "Hey You" by Pink Floyd started playing, and Duckworth's eyes closed in ecstasy. His head began rocking gently to the music, as he played a set of imaginary drums and cymbals.

"This is insanity," I muttered.

"No, it's Floyd, man," said Duckworth.

I grabbed him by the scruff of his big-collared, paisley print shirt. "Are you going to tell me what's going on?"

"Hey, man! Peace and Love, yeah?"

"Talk to me, Duck," I pleaded. "Or I swear I'll—"

"Time travel!" he blurted, nodding his head frantically and cringing, because he thought I was going to hit him.

I shoved him against his door. "You stupid—you dumb idiot!"

I flung open my door, threw my half-eaten packet of crisps back at him and tried to step out.

"No, Steve! You can't!" he screamed.

The road felt slushy, like swamp or deep snow. I looked down at my foot and saw to my horror that it had sunk into the marshmallow tarmac. My shoe crackled and gave off blue electric wriggles of light. Just at that moment, I felt Duckworth's hands grabbing me, hauling my ass back in.

"Aunt Bloody Nora!" I exclaimed—it's funny the things you say when you're terrified, isn't it?

Aunt Bloody Nora was a phrase I heard one of my grandmothers utter once. I remember practising it in the garden, one sunny afternoon, when I was a toddler.

"Don't ever do that again," I heard a voice saying.

I slumped back in my seat and closed my eyes. Maybe if I concentrated very hard, I thought, I could wake myself up and it would all be a dream.

"That was a close shave," said the Duck. "You nearly corrupted the temporal flux, man. Can't co-exist with the other one in the same real time. Easy mistake to make. Done it myself."

I nodded and smiled. "Of course you have. You're really quite mad, aren't you, Duck?"

He adjusted the red-rimmed spectacles on the bridge of his nose and looked severe. "I've always been mad, I know I have. Ha-ha. I'd better get you out of here. You've got a touch of time fever."

The Duck put the Ford Cortina in first and we shot off into the swirling red mist.


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