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and it starts like this…
“I’m thirsty,” I announced to no-one in particular.
Without for one second allowing her binoculars to waver away from the Lancashire dressing-room where, at any moment, Steve O’Shaughnessy might wander past, wearing only his jockstrap, my wife extended her left arm in front of my face, rotating her wrist elegantly to permit me to focus upon the dial of her watch.
“I can’t drink that,” I observed, which I thought was a quite reasonable thing to say.
Alison smiled and, with an equally eloquent gesture, swung her hand so that she hit me on the nose with the back of her forearm (an part of the body that ought to have a specific name of its own).
“Ow!” I said, more for the look of it than anything else. “So that’s it, the honeymoon’s definitely over then. What happened to Love, Honour and Obey?”
“Check the contract, darling,” said my wife, at last lowering her binoculars. “Love and Honour, fine, Obey you agreed we left out, but I remember nothing that bars me from bopping you on the nose when you’re being a bit of a pratt.”
“You’ve changed,” I said, with mock bitterness. “I blame you going into the private sector, it’s made you hard. It’s that boss of yours.”
“Oh yes?” Alison said, raising an eyebrow at me for good measure. “Who didn’t fancy living in Oldham? Especially on the money I got for working for the Council.”
“Ah, the Great God Mammon,” I proclaimed. On the pitch, Clive Lloyd punched a powerful drive through mid off, the ball taking approximately three seconds to hit the ropes below us, in front of H Stand. An appreciative ripple of applause ran around Old Trafford, to which we contributed heartily, several times over if we’re being technical.
Whilst Alison was distracted, I surreptitiously removed the binoculars from her lap, resisting the temptation to stroke her thigh in passing. “What shall it profit a woman,” I orated, “if she shall lose that air of loving sweetness towards her lawful husband and start battering him at every opportunity? And I’m still thirsty.”
“Alright, what’s the time?” she asked, referring to a dog-eared notebook open in the top of her bag. Grateful for the excuse, I seized her wrist and twisted it round – gently – until I could focus on the tiny dial.
“Of course, precisely. You don’t get approximately twenty four minutes past three.”
“You’ll have to wait.”
“Are you sure?” I said, hopefully, knowing that Alison is twice as likely to be right about such things as Roland, but not half so irritating.
She gave me a look that would have been more impressive if she’d first had to raise those old triangular mirror shades of hers. “Until 3.26, you’re at the bar behind the Wilson Stand, getting four lagers, which you take back to the ringside seats at the Warwick Road End, arriving at 3.28. When you’ve sat down, you can go and get another two lagers, provided you don’t hang around until after 3.50, when you’re queuing for four lagers again, which we drank when we were up the back of the Wilson Stand itself.”
I knew she was right, in fact, I banked on it. But just to tease her, I leaned across and looked at the book. Its pages were ruled off neatly with rows and columns: a minute by minute timescale ran down the left hand side of each spread whilst both pages were covered with columns, blocked off by different coloured bars. Purple bars meant the bar under the Wilson Stand: one extended all the way down to 3.26pm.
“Satisfied?” Alison asked.
I shrugged. “You want a can as well?”
“Good boy. Now give me those binoculars back.”
Damn, she’d noticed. “Not until I get a snog.”
“During a Roses Match? What kind of heathen are you? That’s dangerously like enjoying yourself.”
“It’s alright. We’re allowed to enjoy ourselves during Roses Matches, it’s the Tykes who can’t.”
I got my snog, with Alison briefly but deliciously sticking her tongue halfway down the back of my throat, which almost had me suggesting we went home now. After all, we could always come back any time we wanted. But anticipation lends an altogether more delightful glow to going to bed, which is not something I’d ever imagined about married life, so – after checking that we’d just successfully used up the missing time – I levered myself out of my seat and headed for the aisle. She was already directing her glasses towards the dressing room.
Now, if I know my readership correctly, which I flatter myself I do, you’re already getting comfortable about my habit of starting in the middle of things and clattering on as if we all know what we’re talking about. My regular readers do, of course, and put up with my little stylistic flourishes – we call it in media res, incidentally – but each time I hope for more interested faces, for whom a few words of explanation must be inserted, before they lose the thread.
It doesn’t matter so much if I lose the plot, but the paying public need to be acknowledged once in a while.
What you are currently reading about is a surprisingly typical evening in the life of Jack and Alison Warrington, a married couple just approaching their mid-twenties, with eighteen months of connubial bliss, and the odd row, behind them. Yes, despite any impression to the contrary that you may have formed, this is all taking place in the middle of the evening. I grant you that we not only appear to be but are in fact enjoying a hot afternoon at the cricket, the Roses Match to be precise, on the afternoon of Tuesday 26 August 1980 (Lancashire are going to win, trust me). But this is actually happening on a Monday night in January 1985.
At the risk of undermining any dramatic tension you may already be feeling, Alison and I are Time-Travellers. Neither of us are a slightly bewildered young man in Edwardian cricket gear (nor for that matter a deep-voiced loping man with long curly hair and an attachment to overlong scarves that borders on the obsessive), but we are Time-Travellers nevertheless.
It’s just that we don’t go in for high drama with the Universe at stake – not if we don’t have to, that is – we just enjoy our cricket and have found a really convenient way of indulging ourselves in it.
Mind you, in the right light, Geoffrey Boycott can look uncannily like a Dalek.
So, with this vital piece of information made readily available, let us return to this simultaneously blazing September afternoon and freezing January night. If you happen to be fair-skinned, bring suntan lotion.
Whatever was going on in the Lancashire dressing room must have been pretty fascinating, because Alison hadn’t even noticed how long I was gone. I dropped back into my place at her side, handing over a lager that she accepted sweetly, placing it on the seat between us. I carefully opened my cold and lovely can, all the time keeping an eye on her face. She reached for the notebook, retrieved her little gold pen – cousin Elsie’s wedding gift – and looked at her wristwatch.
Her brow furrowed.
“You’ve been fifteen minutes!”
“This I know.” I took a long swig.
“What were you playing at? You could have got another one, probably two lots of drinks into that gap, and you’ve pretty nearly used it all up. What were you doing all that time?”
“Open your drink.”
“Tell me why you were so long.”
“Open your drink. You’ll need it when I tell you.” Alison hesitated for a moment, then hooked a finger under the ring-pull. The lager foamed briefly on the rim of the can. I gestured with my can, and she took a less-extensive mouthful herself.
“I met… someone,” I said. “And we had a bit of a chat.”
Her face fell, which was instructive. I didn’t know they could really do that. I wondered if the kiss of life could be of assistance, but on reflection it maybe wasn’t the right time.
“Oh no! You didn’t! Oh Jack, and I thought we were being so careful.” Alison took a slightly bigger drink from her can, which I thought was a sensible response. She was so going to need it when I’d finished.
“How on Earth could that happen? I was sure I’d been so careful, right from the beginning. I recorded all your booze trips.” She sighed. I savoured the way her chest moved when she did that, almost as much as the momentary advantage I held in knowing something that my very-well organised bride didn’t. Alison shook her head and frowned at me. “Have you come here on your own and not let me know? That’s just asking for trouble. If you don’t know just where you are, you could keeping walking into yourself all round the ground.”
I lifted my hands in the universal gesture of innocence, then brought the one with the lager back into reach. “Believe me, Alison, the only time in my life I have ever been here on my own was the Saturday of the very first time, before you came in at lunch.”
“Then it must be something that’s yet to happen as far as we’re concerned. Maybe we can prevent it from happening. You did ask him when he’d come from, didn’t you?”
I deliberately took another cold gulp, and let it ease past my Adam’s Apple. “Who said it was me?” I asked, looking away from her, over the pitch, where Bernard Reidy had just biffed another one for four. The score was coming along nicely, but then we knew that, didn’t we?
Alison frowned, not getting it. “It wasn’t you…? It couldn’t be Roland? No, he’d not be seen dead at a cricket match, and besides, California’s too far away, and he gave us the Time Machine. Who else?” She stopped abruptly. I could almost hear the penny bouncing, and then rolling away under the mental equivalent of the cupboards. “You don’t mean me?!”
I indicated with an indolent tip of my can – now sufficiently emptied that there was no risk of spilling any of it – that this was indeed so. Alison looked at me in flat-out disbelief.
“That’s not possible,” she said. “You must be mistaken. I just wouldn’t be so stupid. I couldn’t be.” Sensibly I said nothing, whilst trying to project the kind of look that suggested I was deeply hurt That she could even think I might be capable of not recognising my dear wife of eighteen months standing (and large chunks of it lying down).
She pursed her mouth in a show of denial that was decidedly adolescent. “Well, if it was me, I must have told you when I came from and how this could possibly have happened. We can still put it right, I can make sure I don’t come here that time. We can stop this from ever happening.”
It would have been interesting to see how she could actually change something that had already happened to me, though the explanation would probably have been incomprehensible, at least up to the inevitable you-just-don’t-understand-circular-causation. But I had a bubble to burst.
“Have another drink,” I suggested. “And don’t be so hard on yourself. You haven’t made any mistakes, not now or in the future. You’re not the problem. Or, rather, you are the problem but you’re not it, if you get me?”
“Which I don’t. Will you just tell me what you’re talking about?”
“Ok, at the risk of bringing up unpleasant memories. You remember how we met here, the first time we came, and I fixed up a date with you and then broke it?”
“For which I have almost forgiven you, but don’t push it, Jack.”
“Then, out of the blue, I just happened to bump into you at Ringway, great big coincidence, all excuses and talked you into giving me another chance, which led in due course to our marrying?”
“Which at the moment I’m holding against you.”
“Don’t be like that,” I said, reproachfully. “Just cast your mind back to that date you allowed yourself to be talked into. What did you discover?”
“Two of you. And it wasn’t even you that had tried to pull me again, it was your parallel world double from Earth-2…. Oh.”
Don’t need to hit my girl over the head too often before she catches on. “So the woman you met was actually Alison2?” she said, enlightenment dawning like Ian Botham battering his way to another century. “Oh dear.”
“Yes, oh dear.”
“And that means that, just like you got confused with Jack2, there’s too many mes in the same place at the same time.”
“Hey, I was going to say that! We’ve jumped back here so many times, the barriers between us and the nearest parallel worlds are starting to soften, and it’s getting a bit dodgy trying to keep the dimensions separated.”
Alison closed her eyes. When she re-opened them, there was a new expression in them. “Unfortunately, darling, much as I’d like to, I can’t fault your reasoning there.”
“If you were Roland, you’d find a way. I do so miss him.”
“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.”
“But I am not being sarcastic, sweetheart. I am merely being deeply and bitterly ironic. Irony, that’s what it is.”
“It’s sarcasm and you’re talking bollocks. Anyway, Roland probably wouldn’t be any use if he was here. Last time he visited, he’d definitely moved on from Time Travel and Parallel Worlds. Officially, at least.”
“You mean you understood what he was talking about?”
“Apart from it being about computers, of course I didn’t understand a thing. He’s forgotten all about the stuff he was doing back here, now he can play with real machines and not just jumped-up Meccano. Which leaves us stuck where we are. And it’s Tea.”
We broke off to stand and applaud the players off the field, with Lancashire’s innings in remarkably good stead, of course. I glanced over to our right, to the gentle sprinkle of folk on the Warwick Road End, two of whom – clearly visible with their shirts off – were our younger, browner selves. The only pair of us in the ground today who didn’t know what the result would be.
“We’d better jump back home,” Alison said, thoughtfully, but also with a great deal of sadness in her voice.
“What, already?” I asked. “Why can’t we stay for the end, like we always do?”
There was an odd softness about her eyes as she turned and looked round the ground, casting a rare glance towards her bikini-topped junior away over there. “I just don’t think we should take any more risks,” she said, closing her notebook. “If it’s already broken down so much that Alison2, and pretty obviously Jack2, are here, then we’ve already stayed too long, and I don’t want to do any more damage. We should go before we find the way out is through somebody else’s Earth.”
“But.” That was as far as I got. I knew she was right, or anyway, I knew she was going to be right after I’d stopped huffing and puffing and trying to get out of it, so why should I waste time making a fuss? Don’t get me wrong: we don’t argue that often, and when we do I immediately apologise, even when I’m in the wrong.
“God, I’m gonna miss this,” I said, helping her gather our things up.
“Me too,” my wife said, with a catch in her voice. “It just seems impossible that we’re not going to be able to come here again.”
“Shit,” I said, putting an arm round her as she fumbled out the remote, ready for the hug I knew we’d both need in a moment, “but let’s remember, really it was impossible that we got here more than once anyway.” She lifted the remote. “Oh,” I added, “I don’t know if it makes any difference, but it wasn’t actually…”
There was a lurch forward, and things looked very very different as our bedsit formed around us.
“…Alison2” I finished, just before Alison1 burst out crying and disappeared into my chest for the next long while.
And now, just like the multiple mes had turned Headingley 1981 into a one-stop place for all Jack Warringtons around, the presence of a couple of dozen Alison and Jacks had done the same for Old Trafford 1980. So we had had to fly away home, into cold and dark January 1985, and dark and cramped Heaton Moor, where Alison was crying in my arms at suddenly losing our secret little bolthole, and I wasn’t so sure I could go without a bit of comforting myself.
“What did you mean,” she asked me, between sniffles, “ it wasn’t Alison 2?”
“Let’s sit down,” I said, intending to make myself comfortable before realising that there had been a profound change of not only scene but also temperature. “Bloody hell, it’s cold,” I said.
“What do you expect? It’s not August any longer. I’m going to get a warmer top on,” said Alison, scampering for the bedroom. I called after her to bring me a jumper or something: t-shirts are not the ideal clothing for January.
She came back wrapped in her old and voluminous red dressing gown, and threw me mine. Whilst I pulled it on, Alison arranged herself on the sofa, drawing her legs up beneath her so that they too were covered. I was all set to manoeuvre myself alongside her when she instructed me to make her a cup of tea, so things were put off whilst I filled the kettle and boiled up a couple of cups, mine being coffee of course.
“Ok,” said Alison, once I was seated again and she was warming her hands around her cup. “Now you’d better tell me the whole thing, from the beginning. Maybe we’ve reacted prematurely. Maybe you’ve got it wrong.”
“Oh, gee, thanks! Are you Roland in disguise, all of a sudden? What’s up, you don’t trust me?”
“Of course not, darling,” she soothed me. “I’m just clutching at straws, that’s all. Go on, tell me all that happened when you sneaked off to meet this other woman behind my back.”
I was all set to get outraged, but she’d buried her face in her cup and was looking just that little bit too innocent, so I made a mental note to bring that up again later, if she wanted to start anything when we went to bed.
“It was nothing at first,” I said. “There was this guy being served at the bar, and two others waiting, so I was just enjoying the sun for a bit, when this woman behind me said ‘What are you doing here?’ Naturally I recognised the voice, but I couldn’t for the life of me think why you’d followed me down to the bar, nor why you were asking me a stupid question like that, because apart from the fact I was stood in front of the bar, you knew damned well why I was down there.”
“And you didn’t realise something was wrong, then and there?”
I smiled sweetly and, with my free hand, reached out to cup her cheek. Alison leaned into my hand a little, and I was just starting to draw her mouth a bit nearer mine when she said, “Details, Jack! Go on.”
“Ok. Well, I turned round and said I was getting the beer, just like I said I was, and she frowned at me and said, ‘But why are you here right now, you’re not supposed to be here now.’”
“And that’s when you realised it wasn’t me, because she was wearing…?”
“Exactly the same t-shirt and skirt you’ve still got on now. I assume you’ve still got that on? You look bloody good in that skirt.”
“Excuse me, concentration? So you’re staring at her legs like you do mine?”
“Of course I am, love. But then it’s my turn at the bar and she has to wait whilst I got our cans. And I step aside, and she gives me this look. Like you do.”
“This look? What look? Are you saying I give you looks?”
“A lot of the time. But sometimes they’re nice looks. This was was your Where Do You Think You’re Going? look. But I was just making room whilst she bought her booze, because I knew something had gone wrong and I figured I’d better find out what, because you’d only ask me when I got back to you.”
“Good boy. I can’t think why Roland thought you were so dumb. So, go on.”
“Well, she’s got her cans and we’ve stepped off to where they can’t overhear us at the bar, and the first thing she does is make the same assumption you did, that somehow your notes had gone wrong. Only she thinks that I’m the one from further in the future than her, and I know it has to be her who comes from further upline than me, because otherwise you’d have told me about meeting me if it had happened first. You’re good about things like that.”
“So I take it this was where you traded dates of when you’d come from, and…”
“Exactly! And she came from 28 January 1985 as well, and that’s when she started to look a bit bilious.”
“I know how she felt. I’m still feeling a bit sick myself. But, come on, why did you tell me she wasn’t your other Alison?”
“Because she wasn’t. I mean, I assumed straight away that it must be Alison2, but when I said that she started shaking her head and saying she was Alison1, and I should stop talking crap, because Jack had sorted it all out that time when he’d temporarily got sent to Earth2. At which point I stopped her and asked a few quick questions, and it turns out that she lived through the same experience as you.”
“As in, I get dumped, then a year later you come talking me into seeing you again, except it’s Jack2, not you, and that’s how I found out about Roland and the Time Machine?”
“You said you wouldn’t say dumped any more.”
“Ok, darling. Jilted do you?”
“You are never going to let me forget that, are you?” Alison shook her head very deliberately and with a deep grin which meant that if she’d only have finished her tea, we’d have been rolling onto the cushions without further notice. I ground a tooth or two, then nodded.
“Yes, that was more or less it. So if she’d had your experience, that makes her Alison3, or something like that, and so there’s a Jack3 out there somewhere.”
“And a Jack4, if you think logically.”
“I don’t do logic. I leave that up to you, dear.”
Alison drained what was left of her tea, giving me the chance to tale a welcome pull at my coffee. After an explanation like that, a young lad’s thoughts turn to Rich Tea Finger Biscuits to dunk, but I probably wasn’t going to be allowed into the kitchen cupboards tonight.
“Well well,” my wife mused. “I did hope that you might have gotten something arse about face, but it seems like you were spot on.” She looked glum, and for a moment there it looked like the tears would return, but instead she took a deep breath and wriggled herself into my arms, not that I was making it difficult for her.
“No more Old Trafford,” she said mournfully, from somewhere about my clavicle.
I stroked her hair, since all other more interesting places were being pressed up against me, albeit through the less than conducive medium of an oversized dressing gown. “It’s not that bad, surely?” I said. “We’ll have to give up this game, but there are others we can still go to. David Hughes? Cometh the hour, cometh the man?”
“We’ve already been there three times,” Alison mumbled “How many more times can we go there and not have it happen again. And this time is it going to be Jack4 and Alison3, or is it going to be another pair of us? I mean, Roland thought you got involved with Earth2 because it was the most contiguous parallel…”
“Why you just can’t say closest, I don’t know.”
“…but now we’re interacting with a totally different Earth.”
“Can’t be that different if the same thing happened there as here.”
Alison shook her head without removing it from my chest. “Urgh,” she said, drawing it out like someone practising to be sick. “This is going to make everything different. We’ll have to think about other ways to get the best out of the Time Machine. Urgh. Not now though, I can’t think straight.” She pushed herself up straight and looked me in the eye. “There’s nothing else for it,” she said.
I looked at her, considering a quick dash in for a snog, but she was holding me at arms length. “You’re just going to have to take me to bed and shag my brains out,” she said.
“Ok,” I replied, trying to sound cool. “As long as you don’t start wimping out and wanting to give up after three hours.”
“Promises,” Alison said, sliding her legs off the sofa and standing up.
This is one of the big reasons I really prefer to do my Time Travelling with her.