Jeremiah picked up the grimy old tin. It was dark blue and covered in a patina of dirt, as if it had been kept above a cooker for decades. He gave it a shake. Sounded like cards or perhaps some other, smaller boxes in there. To open it, he had to wriggle his nails under the lip of the lid. The edge was sharp and it needed some coaxing, pulling first from one side and then the other, until eventually it came away with what almost sounded like a fizz. The air, that had been trapped in there for perhaps a hundred years, wafted out and hit Jeremiah full in the face.
Have you ever had that sensation when you’re looking for something and you just can’t find it – a cup on a table perhaps, a pair of glasses, or your phone – and then you see that it has been right there in front of you, all along? On that table, unseen, until, at the third or fourth search there it is, fully materialised. Somehow, you had just blanked it. Well, the past is like that. It’s been there all along and then, suddenly, you just notice it for the first time. That’s how it felt when Jeremiah opened that old biscuit tin.
There were a couple of old photos in there, faded and brown. One, of a tall, stiff looking woman with long hair. She felt familiar to Jeremiah and not in a pleasant way. He couldn’t place exactly why, but he knew he didn’t like her. Had he seen a picture of her before? Was she famous for doing something? Probably something bad, like a politician or something. The other, a larger picture, on card, was of what appeared to be this room. This basement, lit by candles, with a circle of old women, sitting around a big table, wearing blue robes with symbols embroidered on them. There was a low hissing sound, as if the air was still being released from the old tin.
“Is anyone there? Are you there?” A high wavering voice seemed to come from behind the photo card. Jeremiah couldn’t work out whether the sounds were outside or inside his head. In fact, his head felt swollen, incubated from the surrounding atmosphere. As if he had a high fever.
“I see him! Speak to us!” A second voice; female, old. The hissing noise grew louder until it became an unignorable ringing.
“I see him too! What is your name, oh spirit?” A third voice, also female. The hissing was now a thundering torrent.
Jeremiah tried to speak. “What?” He mumbled. “What just happened?” As soon as he spoke, the roar stopped. As if the resonance of his own voice inside his skull had swallowed it up.
“He speaks!” said the first voice, which had the accent and precision of a BBC children’s presenter from the early days of television. “Speak to us, if you are there! What is your name?”
“Jeremiah Bourne,” said Jeremiah, hearing his own voice now inside his head, like wearing noise compression headphones; “Who the hell are you?”
“Language please, young man!” said the first voice, from in the room now, “you may be dead, but that is no reason not to mind your Ps and Qs.”
Dead? Jeremiah looked at his hand. It didn’t look like a zombie’s hand. No dripping flesh there. He looked around him. The light had changed. He was still in the basement, but, with increasing clarity, he could see the robed women from the second photograph, sitting around their table . They were holding hands. There was a candelabra on the table with five candles burning, which gave the room an eerie, flickering ambience. The women were all staring at Jeremiah with total focus. They could see him. They were definitely talking to him. He could see them. They could hear him, he could hear them.
“Oh my God! That is so freaky!” he said, “where am I?”
“You are in the Blackfriars Road. London.” The second voice belonged to an old lady with her hair pinned up behind her neck. She had several layers of necklace drooping across her chest, and lace sleeves, visible at her wrists. The robe she was wearing over her dress, like all of the other women’s, was a pale blue silk with silver moons and stars sewn onto it. Itwas more like a loose poncho, slung over her shoulders. “And where are you from?”
“I’m from here. I mean, Blackfriars road. In fact, this is my house. I think. Is this some kind of prank? You’re joking me, right?”
The first woman spoke – the one who’d told him to mind his language. “None of us are laughing, are we ladies? So perhaps you can explain your appearance among us.”
“Are you from the after-life?” asked the third woman to speak. She was smaller and rounder than the others, with a large under-carriage to her chin, like a pelican.
“What did she say?” A fourth old woman joined in. She was the oldest of them, dressed entirely in black – apart from her blue silk poncho. She broke their circle of hand-holding to pick up an ear trumpet and hold it to her ear.
“She asked him if he was from the after-life, dear,” number two shouted into the trumpet.“What can you tell us of the after-life, young man?” Asked the first woman, who seemed to be in charge, or at least chairing the meeting.“I just opened an old biscuit tin – there were a couple of photos in it – and then, whoosh! Suddenly I’m here. I’m not from the after-life. Definitely. This is really, really weird.”
“Is my husband there in the here-after? His name was Ebeneezer. Ebeneezer Tandy. Do you know him?”
“And mine? Mr Stimples. Tell him I’ve not forgiven him.”
“And my dear brother Charlie, is he there? He was such a lovely boy.”
“Look, I’m not dead, alright? At least I don’t think I am.” Jeremiah butted in, beginning to doubt it himself. ‘I wonder if I’ve been killed by a biscuit tin’, he thought.
“What did he say?” The one in black, with the ear trumpet.
“He said he doesn’t think that he is dead, Mrs Morepath.”
“Ladies please! One at a time” said the first woman. She was perhaps a little younger than the others, and her dress was more plain – no jewellery, no lace, nor satin. “Well, Jeremiah Bourne...” she had remembered his name, “...thank you for visiting us. We were expecting one Petroc Grimstead, a fisherman from 17th century Cornwall. That was who was summoned, but you will have to do. How did you get here? Magic trick was it? Are you with the circus?”
“No,” said Jeremiah, “I don’t really like circuses. The clowns aren’t funny.”
“From which century do you hail, oh spirit?” said the woman with the chin.
“I hail from the 21st century, of course,” said Jeremiah, “where do you lot think you are?” This seemed to perplex them.
“How is that possible?” They all looked to number one for a lead on this, “Mrs Stokes?” “What did he say?” asked the ear trumpet woman.
“He says he is not dead. He says he is from the future”.
“Oh. So are we all dead, then?”
The one called Mrs Stokes decided to step in and take control. “No dear, you are not dead, yet. Although, with any more surprises like this, the time could be soon. This young man, it would seem is not a spirit, but flesh and blood.”
“He don’t look real to me. Nice looking boy, but not very real. His clothes are strange.”
“Disgusting, if you ask me,” said number three. Jeremiah was wearing T shirt, trainers and jeans. They were a bit disgusting, actually, from the wire wool residue.
“He looks real enough to me. I like ‘em with a bit of flesh on ‘em,” said chin woman.
“Yes, he’s quite a good looker,” said trumpet, who seemed to have gathered the gist. “Well built, but sensitive. Big. Sweet looking. Just my cup of tea.” Jeremiah wasn’t sure about the ‘sweet looking,’ but it was true, he wasn’t exactly skinny. In fact, his nickname at college was ‘Jellymiah’, which stung a bit. But which, if publicly laughed off, stung less.
Jeremiah could feel his breath shortening and neck tightening with anxiety; “Excuse me, aunties, and it’s a pleasure to meet you and everything,” he started to sidle towards the door, “and I’m sorry not to be any help about the after-life and everything, but...”
“But is he merely a phantasm, Mrs Champney, a chimera?”
“Try putting your hand through him, Mrs Stimples, that’ll soon decide it.” Mrs Stimples reached out with a wavy, old hand to dig Jeremiah in the abdomen. He made a dash for it.
“Woah! No thank you! Sorry but gotta go!” He lurched towards the door that led to the stairs, knocking over the candelabra as he went. He escaped in the general kerfuffle as the women picked up the candles, trying not to get hot wax on their clothes.
“Mind you don’t catch fire, Tabatha!” was the last Jeremiah heard of them and he went quickly up the stairs towards the front hall.
Dado rails! There were dado rails all the way up the staircase. And stripy wallpaper. Step- dad Pete would be in ecstasy. The door at the top of the stairs was closed; ‘we never close that,’ he thought, and then, ‘actually, I don’t think we have a door there.’ It opened outwards into the front hall and there was an immediate change in the acoustic.
He was standing in his own front hall, but it was different. The floorboards were sanded and varnished for a start - something Pete had been meaning to do for ages - so there was a slight echo. There were some thin Turkish rugs over by the front door. A tall grandfather clock with a pendulum, tocked, ponderously. It was weird; this was undoubtedly his house, but all the points of reference had changed. The banisters and hand-rail were polished and fresh, and there was no carpet on the stairs, which were painted white. It was quiet, and there was a faint smell of ammonia.
At the top of the first flight of stairs stood a girl with glasses. She was looking down at him, shocked. She was wearing an ankle length black dress with white apron and cotton cap. Her knuckles were tight on the bannister. They stared at each other for three or four seconds in silence. Then, suddenly there were other girls with her, giggling and looking down at him.
“Look! A man! Daisy’s seen a man! Oooh!” They stayed, clustered at the top of the stairs, pointing and laughing.
“Hello,” Jeremiah managed, “Who are you?”
The one called Daisy spoke up for them all. “Sir? Surely, it is we who should be asking who you are, sir? And what is your business here?”
“What is he wearing?!” one of the others said, which set them all off laughing again. “He looks like a floor mop!”
“Why does he have writing on his shirt? Is he a convict on the run?” “Ooooh!”
Jeremiah tried his most polite voice; “I’m really sorry, but something really weird just happened. I’m not exactly sure where I am...”
“How did you get in here? You are not supposed to be here,” said Daisy. “Yes, how did you get in?” one of the other girls backed Daisy up.
“I live here. This is my house. Well, it’s exactly like my house but...”
He was interrupted by the loud voice of a woman calling down the stairs, “Girls! To your rooms!” it boomed, “what is going on?” A daunting woman in a tightly waisted skirt and blouse appeared at the top of the stairs. She stopped mid flow on seeing Jeremiah. “Young man! You must leave at once! There is nothing for you here!” Her face was dominated by a large, assertive nose, down which she glared at Jeremiah. Her voice alone would put fear into all but the largest of household pets. She came down a few steps and stood, protectively, in front of the girls; “Girls! To your rooms!” she said, again, without losing her focus on him.
“Hello, erm... madam. I’m really sorry about this, but I’ve just had a completely mad experience...” Jeremiah felt small.
“Go! Now! I shall call on the services of Mr Grout, if you persist.”
“I’m not persisting, honestly,” said Jeremiah, feeling the oncoming possibility of a panic attack, “but, where do I go?”
“Through that door instantly!” The woman pointed at the front door. She started to descend the stairs, meaningfully, towards him. The girls did not go to their rooms, they stayed chatting and whispering behind her. She stopped momentarily and turned back to them, with a fierce look, not even needing a single word to disperse them.
They understood her message and ran up back up the stairs. No doubt the look was more frightening than the shout and meant possible punishments later. “Yes, Miss Quentinbloom, sorry Miss Quentinbloom, ma’am” they mumbled, as they disappeared. Then the woman turned her full attention, and her nose, towards Jeremiah and hissed “Be gone!” Her hostilepower could be felt from all the way across the hall and Jeremiah backed away in the wake of it towards the front door. His breath was high in his chest as he fumbled with the door catch. It was not at all like the one he was used to.
“Where’s the handle?” he said, his fingers struggling with the bolt. His simmering anxiety started to boil up.
“I haven’t actually been outside for five weeks....” He was gulping air now.
“Go!” the woman said quietly, proving that emanations can be more terrifying than shouts. Eventually, Jeremiah’s shaking fingers found a latch which opened the door and he tumbled out onto the front steps.
Jeremiah stood on the step gasping for air. He leaned on the metal railing.
‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’, said Franklin D Roosevelt at his inauguration. It’s a nice phrase which might or might not be true, but can sometimes help in times of distress. What had just happened to Jeremiah was so much more alarming than any of the things which he was normally afraid might happen, that he stood there, confused, for a longminute, before reaching for his inhaler in his pocket. It wasn’t there, he’d left in the basement. So he focussed on his breathing, as he’d been taught at the GP’s; concentrate on exhaling, in long steady breaths and try to forget about breathing in, just exhale.
Then, try to think about something else other than breathing; ‘Where’s the Shard?’ was the first thought that came to his mind. Jeremiah liked the Shard, he remembered it going up, bit by bit when he was a kid. It’s a nice shape, like a church spire on a vast horizon. You can see it from Archway, you can see it from Richmond. It was like a homing signal to him. *
(*Footnote; The only thing bad about the Shard is that it seems to have opened the door for all the other tall, glass, buildings with funny names. The Gherkin was first, fair enough, but since the Shard went up there seems to have been an architects’ feeding frenzy; The Heron, the Electric Shaver, the Pregnant Lady, the Cheese-Grater, the ominously named Tower 42, and the winner of the Ugly Carbuncle award, The Walkie Talkie – the one that bulges out at the top as if it had American Football shoulder pads and which is said to melt the plastic fittings on cars below in the summer with its reflective glass.)
The street was definitely Blackfriars road, but not like it is now. There were no cars. No lorries. No buses. No tarmac road for them all to ride on. No yellow lines, no traffic lights, no cycle lanes. No office block opposite, no concrete health centre with its windows all boarded up. What there was, was an unbelievably strong smell. It was fierce. Sort of, burnt rubber and horse manure. There was horse manure everywhere, in separate piles up and down the road in both directions. There weren’t that many people either. On the other side of the street, a couple of boys a bit younger than Jeremiah were hanging about, staring at the house. But they disappeared down a side street as soon as he came out.
About twenty yards away, on his side of the road, there was an old woman, dragging herself down the street carrying an enormous basket on her hip. Then a horse and carriage went by towards Blackfriars bridge. The horse’s hooves and the wheels made a great racket. And in the distance another wagon with an old bloke on it shouting out something incomprehensible, which sounded like ‘Yagboons!”.
(*Footnote; what he was actually calling out was ‘Rag and bone’, which had morphed into ‘Yagboons’ over the decades of tramping the streets. The sound of his call had about as much connection to the original words as the street cry ‘Buck Shoe’ has today with the magazine Big Issue. Rag and Bone Men or ‘Bone-Grubbers’ were common right up until the 1960s in some parts of London. They collected unwanted household stuff and sold it on to merchants. A sort of mobile recycle drop-off.)The differences in his surroundings were obvious, but what was also remarkable were the similarities; same sky, the same clouds, same temperature. There were even most of the same trees, and the same pigeons flapping about. One of them crapped on his shoulder as he was managing to control his breathing. Thanks for that. It’s meant to be lucky isn’t it?
He stood there on the steps for another minute, taking it all in, control his breath. His hands were still shaky. He assessed the evidence in front of him, rationally and logically. There seemed to be no other conclusion possible. He had travelled in time. But not in space, obviously. He was in exactly the same place as he was before. Blackfriars Road. Sotravelling in time wasn’t some kind of time/space/continuum warp thing. Not like in fiction. In fiction there would have been a dark purple sky, and asteroids, and Zylons, Silurians, or Clockwork Droids on the streets by now. No, he’d just opened a tin, seen a couple of photos and then sort of, ‘noticed’ the past. As if it had been there all along. Well, of course it has been there all along. Pete was right.
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