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It all started the day my brother invented his Time Machine.
I know: Roland will be at his pedantic worst at that statement. First he’ll point out that large parts of what follows took place, necessarily, long before the day in question (Tuesday August 26th 1980, to be precise), and then he’ll draw my attention to the fact that this was only the day I had this profoundly wonderful new invention revealed to me, not the date it was brought into being. And all that will precede his ranting at me about what I’m doing letting outsiders in on his secrets, betraying his privacy, abusing the privilege I enjoy as his lab assistant and general dogsbody, etc. etc. etc.
But this is my story as much as it is his, and for more reasons than just my proximity to the action, and I intend to tell it. I saved the world, you know, not that anyone cares or, apart from Roland, even knows. Look what it cost me. And yes, I am aware his criticisms are justified.
As for the first, I will merely say that any attempt to organise this story according to the calendar will only leave everyone – and I don’t just mean the readers – totally confused. As anyone who’s ever had dealings with a Time Machine will agree, the order in which things happen is the order in which they happen to you. In any other direction lies madness.
And as for the claim that Roland came up with the Time Machine before he broke the news of it to me, I say, so what? There’s ever been a story yet that’s started from the very beginning without some sort of flashback involved. But Roland will explain, such as he does, the genesis of his invention. After all, it’s his Time Machine.
But I suppose if I have to choose somewhere to start, it really should be a couple of days further back, on Saturday: August 23rd 1980. So let us begin at Old Trafford, which is only appropriate in all the circumstances, and let us begin with the start of the Roses Match.
The Roses Match? You don’t recognise a reference to the twice yearly clash of the County Cricket Clubs of Lancashire and Yorkshire? Once upon a time, back in the Fifteenth Century, the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York did vie for the throne of England. Unfortunately, the Tykes won, but they went down at Bosworth Field in the then equivalent of a Lords Final to Henry Tudor. I’ve had a soft spot for Glamorgan ever since.
Saturday, August 23rd 1980. One of the few dry all day Saturdays of the season, even if it were cold enough to stay wrapped up against the breeze. Six and a half hours of cricket, no rain, and her.
Call it the calm before the storm, if you like.
Yorkshire won the toss, elected to bat and scored 346-7, innings closed after 100 overs. Boycott and Lumb put on 178 for the first wicket, Sir Geoffrey going on to 135, Bill Athey chipped in with 70 and Graham Stevenson was promoted up the order for a late slog. By the close, we had scored 30 for the loss of David Lloyd.
I was in my usual spot on the Warwick Road End, seven rows up from pitchside and diametrically opposite the stairs to the Ladies Pavilion, surrounded by the shell of my sandwich box (I always eat my tea sandwiches at lunch, having eaten my lunch sandwiches by 12.00). For my 21st, Dad’s promised to buy me Membership but I don’t think I’ll spend much time in the Pavilion – I mean, who wants to watch from square leg?
I first noticed the girl in the middle of the afternoon. She was sat six or seven rows behind me, to my right, long fair hair trapped in the sheepskin collar of a blue reefer jacket, framing a slightly rounded face dominated by silver shades. By careful practice, I found that by turning more than my head to look at the Scoreboard, I could see her as well. After tea, the shades came off. Her eyes were blue and sometimes she was looking at me.
After the close, I was gratified to find her walking ahead of me into Warwick Road Station. Given that she had to fold up her scorecard, cap her pen, finish her coffee, pack the flask, tie up her bag of fruit, collect the peels and cores, deposit these in the pitchside litter bin, deflate her cushion, shoulder her bag, open it again to check she had her ticket, close it and button her jacket whilst I had to shut my sandwich box, it wasn’t easy to ensure she left first.
We waited five minutes for a train, stood not really together, and just happened to get into the same carriage. We also just happened to compare notes on the days play and the prospects for Monday, and just happened to mention I was coming that day too.
Monday was August Bank Holiday. Traditionally, the family goes out for the day, unless Roland has anything else to do or Lancashire are at home so, after making my sandwiches with her customary good graces, Mam saw me off to the station and turned her attention to her, Dad and little sister Mary and their trip to Southport (well, Blackpool would be too busy, wouldn’t it?). Tiddles was already in it’s travelling basket. Tiddles is the family cat: Roland is 24, I’m 19 and Mary is 8; guess who’s cat it is?
Unusually, the Bank Holiday was a spectacularly hot and sunny day, and the cricket was just as good. Lancashire’s First Innings closed on 310-5, Frank Hayes left high and dry on 94 not out, and we captured three quick wickets to reduce the Tykes to 65-3, though they’d extended their lead to 139 by the close.
I bounded up the steps, looking around to see if the blonde was there, and was considerably surprised to find her already waving me over to her. Ten minutes conversation, from Warwick Road to Piccadilly, had been enough for me to decide I fancied her but this enthusiasm for my company? The Universe doesn’t work like that, at least not in my experience.
By the time she returned from the Ladies at lunch wearing a triangle and string bikini top, I was in love. Not even the way she followed Steve O’Shaughnessy around the field with her binoculars could make me doubt her.
Her name was Alison, Alison Davies. She was twenty, which was good because I’ve always had a thing about older women, not that any had let me get this close before. She lived in Oldham, which would mean I’d have to learn to drive now, and had been a secretary in the legal department of the Council since leaving school. Her dad was an assistant Museum Director and she was an only child.
In return, I told her my name was Jack Warrington, that I live in Didsbury with my parents, that Dad was a senior manager with W.H.Smith in Stockport and that I’m about to start the second year of a Graphic Design course at Stockport College. I told her about Mary and how well we don’t get along, I told her about Tiddles and I also told her about Roland.
Well, I told her Roland existed. Beyond that, I gave almost nothing away. There’s a lot I could have told her about my big brother, not all of it classified. For instance, I could have contrasted my modest and reasonable height with his freakish tallness. I could have contrasted his skinniness and general air of famine victim with my comfortably solid and modestly muscled frame. I could very definitely have contrasted his long, lank, brown hair with my own fair locks, not punk, more New Wave – and I don’t have to tie my hair back out of my eyes.
I could have contrasted Roland’s archaic choice of music – progressive rock and heavy metal in 1980? – with my own instinctive good taste, which found a corresponding spark with Alison over Elvis Costello, if not The Jam or The Undertones. And then there’s my well-rounded, balanced and thoughtful interest in cricket and football whereas Roland… Well, Roland is an obsessive. And not in a good way.
Alison didn’t need to hear any of this, not now, not at any time. In fact, I had no intention of ever letting her meet him. It’s not that I would have any fears about him pinching my bird, I just don’t think it’s good for my reputation to be seen to be related to a mad scientist.
When Roland was 7, he built a working computer out of a Meccano 5 set (at least, he claimed it would have worked if I hadn’t flushed the key to the clockwork motor down the loo). For his 9th birthday, Aunty Ethel foolishly bought him his first Chemistry set: we have suppressed the photos. On his 15th birthday, Roland got a home electronics outfit and promptly took over the garage as his workshop. Ever since, Dad has parked on the drive, to the confusion of his insurers, but as long as he gets the benefit of things like the only Video Recorder that runs on EMI C60 Soundhog cassettes, he’s happy to pay the additional premiums.
Mind you, we’re the only family in South Manchester that periodically gets raided by NORWEB, who can’t work out why we seem to use no more power than an HB6 battery. Roland assures us they never will but we all suffer because Mam gets nervous and we have nothing but packet meals for a fortnight after.
I didn’t keep completely mum about Roland. I did tell Alison how, on the strength of having seen fifteen minutes more of one particular game than I did, he calls himself a Manchester United fan, even though he doesn’t know what the ground’s called, he can’t name any of the players and it was 1977 before we found out he thought we play in all blue.
Alison’s not really interested in football either: she supports Oldham Athletic.
Shortly before the close, Alison retired to the Ladies to restore her modesty, to my deep regret. We caught the train to Piccadilly together. It had been an extraordinary day. Even more fascinating than Alison’s willingness to remove her clothing in my presence was her willingness to listen to me talk, and then talk back. We never stopped: considering we’d sat together for seven hours and I’d told her several of my best jokes, it had gone well.
I had intended to ask her out since before lunch, but something held me back. I think it was cowardice. Even though I was sure she would agree, I wasn’t used to things like this. But we were both coming to the last day, and I could ask her then.
Perhaps I should have spoken whilst I could. The next morning I was virtually out the door when Mam summoned me back to accompany her into Didsbury Village to the supermarket. Appealing that I would miss some of the cricket would have cut marginally less ice with Roland. Tell her I going to meet an attractive blonde young woman who, I was sure, would agree to go out with me, and I’d have been sent on my way without hindrance. With several questions mind, such as what’s her name, where’d you meet her, what’s she like and seventeen others, most of which I wouldn’t have got round to yet. You may understand why I kept my mouth shut.
I’d missed an hour when I got to Warwick Road Station. I could see from the train, via the Board of Control Stand Scoreboard, that Yorkshire had already added a hundred, without loss. Alison was in her place, binoculars trained on O’Shaughnessy, but only because she thought I wasn’t going to turn up, or so she said. And she only laughed once when I explained what kept me.
It was even hotter and brighter than yesterday. Jackie Hampshire declared ten minutes before lunch, with Jim Love 105 not out, as soon as Yorkshire had posted a 300 run lead. We argued the prospects of a Lancashire victory. Alison pointed out how fast Yorkshire had scored that morning. I pointed out (incorrectly as it happened, for once) that David Lloyd and Andrew Kennedy were not the fastest of scorers.
Alison cut short the argument by departing for the Ladies. My silent prayers were rewarded when she returned wearing not merely the bikini top but also a pair of denim shorts. This brazen display was enough to tempt me into removing my shirt and begging some of her Ambre Solaire.
At tea, Lancashire were 102-2, and Clive Lloyd was batting. Alison repeated her confidence in victory, rubbed another layer of suntan lotion into her legs and suggested promoting O’Shaughnessy in the order. I pointed out, unnecessarily but jealously, that he hadn’t got to bat in the First Innings.
Another seventy two runs were added, and Frank Hayes had given way to Bernard Reidy when the last twenty overs started at 5.00pm. There were 110 runs wanted to win, which was one-day stuff and well within our grasp. Lloydy cut and hooked and pulled, Reidy biffed and banged in his wake. Lloydy put up his ton but then was bowled off his boot by Sidebottom in the next over. As the sun lowered, and the clock ticked past 6.00pm, it began to get cold. Alison was shivering but she refused to go and change.
Four overs to go, 12 to win. Three overs to go, still 12 to win, Reidy lbw for 70. In came Fowler, hitting quick runs. Last over, two wanted. Hughes got a single off the first ball, Fowler caught and bowled off the second. In came O’Shaughnessy at last, raising goosebumps on Alison’s gooseflesh, scores level, four balls left. I no longer envied him.
He blocked the first and drove the second through mid-off for four. We had beaten the Yorky bastards for he first time in eight years!
Alison was in the Ladies, getting dressed before the teams had left the field. Ever the gentleman, I guarded her belongings until she returned, and we caught the train to Piccadilly together.
I could have stayed on the train all the way to East Didsbury, but that wouldn’t let me ask Alison out. We walked down the Station Approach and were halfway up London Road before I realised time was running out. I asked if she’d like to go out with me.
“Of course,” she said. I had a date for Friday night.
If there’s one thing in the Warrington household that’s sacrosanct, it’s tea-time (and tea around here is the evening meal: dinner is what you eat in the middle of the day). Woe betide the son who keeps everyone waiting, though it could have been worse. I got a bus down Wilmslow Road instead of having to walk it back from the station.
“Where have you been?” said Mam. “No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. Your Dad’s tea has been going cold waiting for you. Now take your shoes off, wash your hands and tell your brother to come in. I’m putting tea on the table.”
I blame Roland myself. Before he converted the microwave to fold out as an auxiliary sunbed, Mam would have been perfectly happy to stick my plate in there whilst they sat down and ate.
The Warrington’s live just off Wilmslow Road, in a four bedroomed house round the back of Didsbury Park, on a tree-lined street in the only Conservative constituency in Greater Manchester (boo, hiss). Dad bought the house not long after his promotion, when a large part of its appeal was the big detached garage at the side. Since Roland moved in, the double doors have been blocked off from within (all bar a glorified cat flap for emergency access) and he had the side door moved so it was no longer opposite the kitchen window: he said it was something to do with privacy.
My big brother need have no worries about that. We are probably the only family in South Manchester with a garage that locks from the inside, but after the incident with the Carbolic Stink-Bomb, even Mam agreed it was better for Roland to control when he could or could not be disturbed.
I opted for summoning the mad scientist first and let myself out again, signalling my presence at the door by rattling the handle loudly. I refuse to ring a doorbell that plays Led Zeppelin chimes. Not that it does any good: the security buzzer plays the riff from ‘Paranoid’.
I entered the portals of the cutting edge of back street science, without wiping my feet.
Roland was sat on his barstool by the workbench, a long handled screwdriver inserted deep into the workings of something that looked uncannily like the remote control off the video recorder. I craned my neck to look at what invention might be shaping itself for release upon an expectant public but to my disappointment, the three foot by four foot wedge of black plastic squatting on the worktop looked like nothing more than a hi-fi mini-system, albeit one equipped with more than its fair share of LCD’s and digital counters, not to mention a bank of faders looking like a serious graphic equaliser. I hoped he wasn’t working on 3D sound again.
As is customary on such occasions, Roland completely ignored me, so I scoped out the current state of play in the garage. Down one side are a million shelves of components: pipes, wires, valves, screws, nails, transistors, circuit boards, thermometers, instrument panels, clock faces, socket sets and even a dozen assorted cigarette lighters ripped from the dashboards of a dozen cars (I still have vivid memories of standing guard at the junkyard gate). Along the other side are the detritus of past and discarded inventions: the R-1 Rocket that used an old stand-up Hoover (how he got it to blow instead of suck, I don’t want to know but we never saw the guinea pig again), three dead televisions and the interior of a radiogram pillaged in the quest for colour-it-yourself TV, the Space Invaders game constructed from a bagatelle board.
All these things and more have their stories to be told, and I, to my eternal regret, have been intimately acquainted with all of them, mainly because of Roland’s unparalleled skill at blackmail and plausibility with suggestions to Mam about who upset Mary this time. His latest monstrosity accordingly aroused equal amounts of curiosity and distance.
I broke the silence. “Mam says she’s putting tea out so get your dirty paws washed and come in.”
“She said nothing of the sort.” he said, distractedly.
“You just have to know how to read between the lines.”
He put down the screwdriver and looked at his watch. “We should have had tea half an hour ago. You’re late.”
“As I’ve already been told that by an expert Roland, I know that.”
“If you’d been on time, I could have broken off. Now I need another ten minutes to finish this.”
“Suit yourself,” I laughed. “I’ve delivered the message, and it’s up to you what you do with it. I merely point out that I am in bad odour for delaying tea, and that her Elvis Presley film has already started, but don’t let me save you from getting into trouble.”
Roland cocked an eye at his handiwork, picking up a slim bladed knife and using it to prise two wires apart. Then he gave me that Hughie Green grin, the one that means he’s thought of something inconvenient for me.
“Tell her I’ll be in in…” he checked his watch, the one with the Francis Rossi hands, “in one minute.” He gave me the grin again.
I returned to the house,
I went back inside, conveyed Roland’s message, started washing my hands and was followed by Roland pretty much as he’d said. And still grinning.
Tea, both as a meal and as a family gathering, was pretty awful. I was not allowed to expound upon the day’s play, even if Dad was courteous enough to ask after the result. Other events of the day, such as my specific reason for being so late in the first place, were not touched on. Well, Alison was none of their business: young men whose mothers have already suggested several young women they could ask out if only they’d stir themselves and go out and meet people for a change grow up keeping their cards close to their chest. After all, it saves endless embarrassment when you turn up the next day to find that of course you’ve got it all the wrong way round and they didn’t mean it like that at all, and then what do you tell your family and close friends and several unrelated strangers in whom you’ve confided that you’ve got a new girlfriend? Silence is not just golden, it’s armour plated.
At the end, Roland and I paired off to do the washing up. A ferocious argument developed over whose turn it was to dry: he who washes finishes first and misses chapped hands and wet tea towels.
When he’d done, Roland surprised me further by heading upstairs instead of out to the garage. Over his shoulder, he said, “When you’re through, just slip out and get me a Phillips Head Screwdriver from the workshop.”
“Bog off and get it yourself,” I retorted.
“I’m afraid I have pressing demands upon my time in my room. You’ll have to fetch it for me. Key.”
He threw the key. Automatically, I caught it. “What did your last slave die of?” I enquired sourly.
“Mam finding out who hid Mary’s Bunty last week. I lose more lab assistants that way,” said Roland, and then he disappeared.
“Lab assistant, slave, same difference,” I grumbled, recognising a fait accompli when it kicks me in the kneecap. Then again, getting to explore the garage without Roland breathing down my neck doesn’t arise as often as Manchester City from the Second Division. I live in hope of one day getting some dirt on him that doesn’t implicate me.
Dry the pots, stack them in the cupboard, dry the cutlery, stick it in the knife drawer, hang up the miserably wet towel, dry my hands properly. Outside, sort out the key, unlock the garage door. How thoughtful of Roland to have left the light on for me. To my surprise, he had also put his feet up on the workbench and was doodling on his ideas pad.
“About time,” he said, looking up. “I’m getting really hungry.”
“What?” I said. “You’ve just eaten.”
“Not me,” Roland said, swinging his feet down onto the floor.
“What are you doing down here? Did you sneak out the front door or something? And what was the point of asking me to get something for you if you were coming out here after all.”
“Ah yes. This is what you’re looking for.” He handed me a green handled screwdriver and picked up the remote control from the workbench. “And I haven’t left the workshop since you got home this evening.”
“I have news for you then, Roland. Your evil twin’s just eaten your tea”
“Har har. That wasn’t my twin, that was me. And as I’m hungry, I shall go and eat now. Don’t forget to bring the screwdriver up to my room.” Roland flashed me the grin again, and then he disappeared.
No, this time I mean it. Suddenly there was only one person in the garage, and I was scared.