Back in Time for Tea

Chapter 13

The next few weeks went go in a whirl of activity. Mum moves in with us, there is school uniform, shoes and stationery to sort out. Mum, Gran and I spend an age in the uniform suppliers, with me trying on every possible uniform combination. It is hot today and my new school clothes feel stiff and constricting, although not nearly as constricting as Mum’s fussing over me. ‘Are you too hot? Is it too much? We can come back another day if it’s too much? You must say if it is.’ Then, to the shop assistant, ‘She has these turns, you know. I’m worried about her overheating.’

Gran and I exchange sneaky smiles and the shop assistant, completely missing Mum’s point, says, ‘It’ll be cooler in September and they let them remove the blazers in lessons.’

‘Well, well,’ says Gran, seeing me in the final and full get-up, ‘you look grammar-school smart!’

I’m not going to a grammar school: there have been no grammar schools in this area since before Mum was born although, going by my peculiar timeline, I suppose you could say, ‘since a couple of weeks ago,’ but let’s not. Then Mum and Gran exchange a look and I notice they’re both dabbing at their eyes, Gran with a little hanky and Mum with a rather frayed tissue. I roll my eyes and Mum does a sort of snivelly laugh, ‘Oh, you’re a teenager now, are you?’

I’m glad when that’s over and the new clothes are bagged and paid for. Gran and Mum have a little argument on the way out, over whether sewn in labels are essential or whether a biro on the clothes label will do. No prizes for guessing who’s in which camp, there! I take advantage of the confusion this causes, to fleece them both for an extra-fancy pencil case. Mum is worried it’s the, ‘wrong thing,’ and I won’t ‘fit in’. I assure her it’s perfect and that I’m sure I will fit in just fine. I’m sure of nothing of the sort but if there’s one thing primary school taught me, it’s that it’s not just your pencil case that can mark you as different. Anyway, this one is really nice, with three zips and several compartments, so I don’t really care. Gran admires it, squeezes my shoulder and says, ‘She deserves such a beautiful pencil case,’ so that’s that sorted although, really, I think, it is just a pencil case!

Finally, suited, booted and kitted out, we head home, where there’s an envelope on the doormat, with a Canadian stamp and the now-familiar handwriting. ‘June!’ Gran and I say together and there’s a scramble to be the first to open it. Gran wins, because Mum tells me to mind my manners and then asks,

‘June who?’

Gran and I both look guilty and then talk over one another.

‘June!’

‘Canadian June!’

‘You know – June-June.’

Mum shrugs and then flops into a chair, declaring herself worn out by the heat, the outing and the stress of seeing her daughter grow up before her eyes. I’m briefly glad that everyday things tire her out, before feeling guilty for thinking that at all.

‘Read it, Gran, read it!’ I plead. Gran shoots me a look, which is when it occurs to me that it might be full of clues that we don’t want to tell mum about. Not just yet, anyway. We’ve both agreed to let her settle in and make sure she’s feeling up to it, before we hit her with news that her daughter spent the summer time travelling, hanging out with a much younger version of her mother. Yeah, you put it like that and it’s not the easiest thing to explain, is it?

Gran opens the envelope and scans the letter. ‘…weather’s very hot here…forest fires…not near enough to be a danger to us but we keep an eye on the news…’ she reads aloud. She’s editing it as she goes along. Mum thinks she’s missing out the boring bits, I know she’s missing out the really interesting bits. ‘Ellie, go and pour your mum a glass of water,’ she says, and slips me the letter as I walk past. I tuck it into the waistband of my shorts, fetch a cold drink for mum, and then slip quietly upstairs to read it in peace.

The envelope was hand-addressed, but the letter is typed on a computer, which seems odd when you think that, until recently, June was a scruffy 9 year old, running around a farm and I’d never even see her pick up a pencil. How on earth did she catch up on all the intervening years? I’d asked her that in my last letter to her. Gran had agreed that might be a good thing to ask about since she’d tried to explain it, but not really managed. I read the letter as I lay on my bed: ‘Dear Lillian and Ellie,

‘Thank you for your letter. I was so thrilled to receive a reply from you both! I have to tell you, I’ve hardly been daring to wait for the mailman, although, if I’m honest, that’s pretty much all I’ve been done, I look back on my life and it seems, at times, like a dream – no one could live a life that full of adventure, surely? For many years, I hardly thought about it, it seemed so fantastical an idea. I genuinely viewed my adoption in Canada as the true beginning of my life and have celebrated the anniversary of that as my ‘birthday’ ever since. I never told my adoptive parents all of what happened to me before, which is something I’m sure you’ll understand. Mostly I pretended it hadn’t happened, but of course a small part of me knew that it had and, however hard I tried to forget, I always wondered. Receiving your reply was like a homecoming to me and it reminded me that all that upside-down, here and there stuff really happened. (You know what I mean by that, of course!) You asked me some questions, which I’ll do my best to answer, but first…

‘YOU’RE ALIVE! YOU’RE ALIVE AND I’M SO HAPPY! Ha – I had to get that off my chest.

‘You asked me what Canada is like…’

I skim read this bit. It’s not that I’m not interested in Canada, the wildlife (very interesting!), the weather (very varied!) and the wildfires (very scary!) but that belongs to a more ordinary kind of letter and life. I need to cut straight to the juicy stuff because, trust me, I have questions!

‘You also asked me how I managed to fit in a full life here, while you were meeting me between now and 1944, in an English park and farm. That’s a very good question! I’ll be honest, I don’t really know. All I know is we did it – we really did it – and that we share a bond that goes beyond being family. How many time travellers have you met? Besides myself, I’ve met two: you two. Perhaps we’re bumping into them all the time – perhaps there are many of us – but nobody ever talks about it, do they? I haven’t spoken about it in over 70 years. Imagine that, Ellie! Mind you, I also haven’t done it for over 70 years. I gather it’s the same for you, Lillian? Shame – I always thought you had such potential. I wonder if we stopped for the same reason? We no longer needed to: we were safe.

‘That’s thanks to you, Ellie. I stopped running away, I suppose. Once you fixed things for me, I stopped all of my time travelling – all of it, just like that. Ellie, we should be having a hero’s parade in your honor really, shouldn’t we? Except then we ‘d have to answer some very awkward questions and no one in their right mind would believe us.’

At this point I think I’m glad I just got a fancy pencil case. A parade would be so over the top! Eleven years perfecting the art of being invisible and then a parade? I laugh at the thought.

You know what, perhaps that’s another reason why I stopped! I never thought of it before now, but perhaps I shut myself off from the possibility. I don’t think I could do it again now if I tried. Could you, Lillian? Well, either way, you should try not to stop, Ellie. You should keep on travelling through time, solving mysteries and saving the day – it’s like your superpower. Try not to get pushed off swings by your assistants, though. Yes, I remember that, old as I am! So sorry, Ellie. I hope you’ll forgive me the grazed knees (and so much more). I remember that lie it was only a few weeks ago. Mind you… ha ha ha!’

 

I read to the end, which was mostly an invitation to go and see her in Canada, ‘if ever you can,’ and then put it down. I’m slightly disappointed by the lack of an explanation but I think she’s right: we don’t know, we just did it. We may well have to make do with this explanation and any other we think of, because asking anyone else for an explanation is likely to result in some awkward conversations. So we’re kind of on our own here, except there’s three of us and maybe many, many more, falling through time and wondering If they’ll bump into anyone else doing the same thing. I’m not sure yet, whether to stop time travelling, or whether to see if I can do it again. Maybe I’ll just see what happens. I won’t be so scared next time, though, because you’re never alone in time, are you? Think of all the people who’ve gone before you and imagine meeting some of them! It could be fun, I guess. Well, it wouldn’t be boring, put it that way. I’m open to the possibility, you know? If there’s a mystery going down on the family tree, I like to think I’d be ready and maybe a bit more clued-up this time, at least on the practicalities of time travel, if nothing else.

And so it was that the first proper day of school rolls around. I’m nervous at first – too nervous to eat much in the way of breakfast – but after being fussed over by Mum and Gran and having to pose for a photo in my new uniform, I’m more than ready to go. Mum asks if I’m sure I knew the way to the bus stop and I tell her, ‘Of course, I could find it any time,’ and then added, ‘In any time, even,’ which makes Gran snort with laughter and Mum look at her funny. I slip out the front gate and wave good bye. I’m nervous, of course, but I can see they are each nervous enough for all three of us, so I pretend otherwise and head off for the bus stop. I’m starting to wonder if pretending you’re brave is the key to everything.

As I round the corner, I can see some kids there already. Only a handful of them, because we’re at the outside edge of the school catchment here. I hope that means I‘ll get a seat when the bus arrives. I automatically slip into my invisibility act. I don’t know any of the other kids and I’m not about to strike up a conversation with any of them. However, one of them turns around as I arrive and I recognise her as the girl from the park. She must recognise me too: she smiles at me and sidles over. ‘Hey, kid!’ she says. ‘You’re the one I met at-’ and she nods in the direction of the park. I nod back. ‘You’re looking a lot better. So, what do you do? You know – what’s your superpower?’

It was such an odd and unexpected question that I answer her honestly. ‘I time travel,’ I say, as casually as I can manage and I’m still doing the ‘fake brave’ act, so it comes out rather well, I think.

‘No way? Kid, you’re going to be so helpful to have around! Anyone annoys us and we can send you two minutes into the future to punch them on the nose, then hop back to the present and they won’t know what hit them.’

‘Literally,’ I add, and she cracks up laughing. I’m secretly so pleased with this I imagine I must look like one of those fish, all puffed up with pride.

‘You got anyone to sit with on the bus?’ she asks. I shake my head. ‘Great! Can I claim you? Every superhero needs a sidekick, right? You can be mine. Actually, I’ve no discernible powers as yet, so maybe I can be yours,’ and she laughs again. I grin back. ‘I’m Talia, by the way.’

‘Ellie,’ I say.

I sit with Talia on the bus and she gives me a running commentary on the other kids who get on at later stops. I’m giggling so much at her assessment of most of them that I hardly notice the journey. The bus pulls up outside school and I’ve forgotten to be afraid. Talia points out which way I should go and then says, ‘See you at lunch, Time Traveller. Unless you’ve made your own friends by then, in which case, feel free to ignore me but be prepared for me to yell a greeting across the canteen, OK?’ She winks, so I know she’s either joking or she means it and it will be funny.

A teacher on the way in calls out, ‘Good morning and welcome back, Talia. Are we suitably attired this morning?’

‘All out, Sir, specially for the occasion,’ and she gestures to her nose and ears, where I remember she wore various piercings that time I saw her in the park. ‘I’m taking pride in my uniform, Sir.’

I’m trying not to snigger at her sarcasm. The teacher rolls his eyes, but there’s a hint of a smile there, I think. I can tell Talia is going to be a good person to have on my side. She’s a bit different, but she seems to manage it OK and people seem to like her, or she knows how to ignore the ones who don’t. I wonder if she can teach me to do that too. That would be a very useful superpower to have! The teacher turns his attention to me. ‘And you are?’

‘Ellie,’ I reply.

‘Well, you look like you belong here – great first day effort, Ellie,’ and he smiles, before directing me to the hall, where he says all the year sevens are to start the day.

To be honest with you, I’m still not sure where I belong, but I’ve an idea I might belong somewhere and this feels like a good start.

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Back in Time for Tea

Chapter 12

We had a quiet few days after the drama of June’s rescue. Gran keeps telling me to rest and take it easy, while she herself is all of a flutter. She switches between insisting we sit and watch films together, to bringing me drinks, to fretting about everything from my health, Mum’s recovery and impending arrival and whether I like the flavour of ice lollies she keeps bringing me from the freezer, ‘To cool your throat, after the fire.’ I can’t decide if being Gran’s patient is nice or stifling.

One morning, when Gran can’t seem to focus on the film we’re watching, I press ‘pause’ and ask her, ‘Are you absolutely sure that June’s OK?’

‘I’ve told you,’ she replies, almost snapping at me. ‘June is OK.’

She’s half way to the kitchen as she says the last part. Gran never snaps at me! Either I’ve asked the wrong question or… or she’s not sure either! I want to ask how she can be so sure, but since I don’t believe she is sure and since I’m a bit hurt by her cross tone, I don’t push it. I might have done once. Old Ellie probably would have gone after an answer, not knowing when or where to stop, but new Ellie knows better. Instead I say,

‘Sorry, Gran.’ It’s not what I want to say, but it feels good anyway. There’s a bit of crashing in the kitchen, rattling of tea cups and, yes, there she goes again, opening of the freezer door to fetch me another ice lolly. I’d like to tell her to give over with the frozen treats, but now is not the time. After a few minutes, she comes back into the room, tea cup and ice lolly on a tray. She hands me the lolly, sits down with the cup of tea and says,

‘I’m sorry too, Ellie. I can’t seem to relax. It will be better when your mum’s here, won’t it, and we’ve something else to think about? I think the past few weeks are catching up with me.’

I nod, although I don’t think poor Mum is going to solve our problems. I wish Gran would admit that she’s still worried about June. I wish she’d let me out of her sight so I could slip out to the park and see if I can find any clues. Not a chance of that, though, not with the mood she’s in. We go back to watching the film. It’s about some children who live by a railway. Gran says it’s one of her favourites and that it will make me cry towards the end. Neither of us are really watching it though, so I have a feeling that maybe it won’t. We’re both busy not watching the film, when I hear the post. I get up to fetch it. There’s something that looks like a bill, a leaflet about pizza delivery and a letter that catches my eye.

‘Gran,’ I call, as I walk through the hall way, ‘do you know anybody in Canada?’

‘Cana – no, why?’

‘You’ve got a letter with Canadian stamps on.’ One of them has a picture of a baby bear, climbing over a tree branch. It’s very sweet. I hand her the letter. Gran examines it, as if she’s trying to work out who it’s from. She studies the back and front, the stamp and the post mark.

‘No idea,’ she says before putting it down on the table and picking up the pizza leaflet.

‘Er, Gran, aren’t you going to open it?’ I laugh, for the first time in days. Gran looks surprised and then laughs too.

‘Oh yes – silly me.’ She opens the letter and begins to read it. On the screen in the background, three children are waving red cloths at a steam engine, but nobody really notices them. Gran’s eyes are on the letter and mine are drawn to Gran. I was half-watching the film but then Gran made that choking noise she does when she’s in shock. I’m hoping it’s not bad news, but Gran doesn’t say anything, apart from a whispered, ‘Goodness me!’ I wait for her to finish. It won’t be about anyone I know, anyway. Then she hands me the letter and says, ‘You’d better read this.’

‘Dear Lilian,’ begins the letter. ‘I am sending this letter in the hope that it will find you, that you are well and that you can forgive me for leaving it so long to write to you. You see, I have thought about you for many years and wondered how you were but I had no way of contacting you. Now, however, I am getting on in years and find that I have little time or enthusiasm for leaving things unsaid and undone. This letter is my apology and update and I hope with all my heart that you will accept it as such.

‘I had some trouble tracking you down over the years. Well, to be honest, I tried only once. I sent a letter to the last place I saw you, but I gather it is no longer there, since my letter came back to me with, ‘address unknown’ on the envelope. I drew a blank after that and I began to fear the worst. However, I have recently been talking to my grandson about the past – he’s been tracing the family tree, you know – and he told me there were ways of finding people now, using the Internet and such. I didn’t think such a thing would be possible, as you may well have married and changed your name, but he says that’s no object if you know where to look. I should add my congratulations on your wedding, by the way, although I am many, many years too late.’

I stop reading and look at Gran. ‘Is this from-‘

‘Keep reading,’ she says.

‘I don’t know if you will remember me clearly – you were just a little girl – but I have fond memories of the time I spent with you on the farm and I’m sorry I never got to say goodbye. After the fire, everything was such a rush. There was the stay in hospital and then I don’t think Aunty Doris would have me back. I suppose I can’t blame her, although I was pretty cross about it at the time. I seem to remember I was pretty cross about most things, back then. I don’t know if you ever heard, but they tried to find my mum and there was no trace of her. Our street got hit by a German rocket – Doodlebug, I think – and they think she might have been caught up in it. They didn’t tell me that at first. I suppose they thought it was too much for me to take in. Anyway, I was passed from pillar to post for a bit. I don’t have many happy memories from that part of my life.

‘After the war though, I was selected for an overseas adoption programme. I was sent all the way to Canada, would you believe? I wound up in British Columbia, in a little town called Clearwater. I was one of the lucky ones and, for the first time in my life, I was able to learn what it’s like to be truly loved. My adoptive family were good people, Lillian, and I was able to turn my life around. I tried very hard to forget that I was ever an unhappy little English girl who once tried to burn down a barn. I’m an old lady now, though, and I find myself looking back on the past and thinking perhaps I’d better make peace with it.

‘Lillian, if you remember me at all, I would love to hear from you and just know that you are alright and had a good life. You can write to me at the address above if you like.

‘One last thing and I hope you don’t think me odd, but do you remember that funny little girl who used to come and see us on the farm? It feels strange to talk about her now. Sometimes I think I must have imagined her…’

I stop reading and look at Gran. I point to my chest, unable to get any words out. Gran has tears in her eyes, but she’s smiling too. She nods. ‘Go on,’ she says.

‘…but I’m pretty sure we saw her together. I’m not sure if you remember my odd little episodes and I’m reluctant to talk about them too much, in case you don’t and decide that I’m even more strange than you remembered. Anyway, I stopped having them after the fire, but I never forgot them altogether, or that little girl. I wonder what she’s doing now?

‘Anyway, the past is an awfully long time ago, don’t you think? For now, I’d like to wish you well and to urge you to write to me if you have the time and inclination.

‘Yours,

‘June Thompson (formerly June Buckle)’

‘So she…’ I begin, but I just don’t know what to say.

‘She lived,’ says Gran. ‘You saved her, Ellie. You did it – you got back in time.’

‘More than once,’ I say. Gran laughs at my joke and suddenly I have the strangest sensation. It’s not like a time travelling sensation, in fact it’s completely different. It’s the opposite, somehow. It’s like – it’s like I’m rooted to the spot and I’m…I’m here. I’m right here, right now, and it feels good. It feels very good. I feel as if I’m bubbling over and I can’t sit still. I hop up and down a bit, making Gran laugh even more, and then I throw my arms around her. ‘I’m in the right place,’ I whisper into her ear and Gran says,

‘More than once, Ellie,’ and I’m honestly the happiest I’ve ever been.

The Cabinet Room

Larry sat at the head of a long table that took up much of the cabinet room in Number 10. The gang were seated along its length. Barrymore was pouring out shots of Havana Club at the very cocktail cabinet after which, so it was said, the room had been named. It was all 1950s Formica and mirror glass on spindly legs.

“Rum for the boys,” said Barrymore, “and what will you girls be wanting?”

“A Mah-Jongg cocktail for me, please,” said Flo.

“Ooh, what’s in one of those?” asked Beryl.

“Dry gin, white rum and Curaçao.”

“Oh yeh, I’ll have one of those too.”

“Tiger beer for me please,” said Lady Augusta, “And Zelda will have a dandelion and burdock.”

The young punk sighed, “But…”

“Small sherry please,” said Aunty Stella, “I’ve things to do this afternoon.”

“Now,” said Larry, “let’s get down to business. Situation reports please.”

Boz coughed, “The counter revolution has collapsed. The Yanks are somewhat averse to failure, particularly spectacularly embarrassing and public failure. Following on from the Überkatzen disaster the Multinationals have withdrawn funding from the British Government in Exile. There will be no more trouble from that quarter. Consuella and the Kittens will shortly be returning from Jersey, by air.”

“Les Chats have remained conspicuously inconspicuous since their ticking off,” said Lady Augusta. “I think now would be a good time to take Zelda home and for me to return to Shambhalla.”

“Looks like you can go back to not being in charge, Mr Acting Prime Minister,” said Flo.

Larry gave a satisfied sigh.

As the pals sat back, tucked into their drinks and wondered if biscuits would be arriving any time soon there came an edgy whistle from outside. They crowded the windows in time to see a fireball glowing emerald green and gouging a smoke trail across the sky. As it passed there was the double bang of a sonic boom and the whistle tone dropped an octave. Soon after the object passed beyond the horizon there was a momentary intense white flash that cast deep, sharp shadows even within the cabinet room and, some seconds later, a dull rumble like distant thunder.

“What now?” asked Larry.

*

The good ladies of Maldon clustered at the landward end of Northey Island’s tidal causeway. A sudden shockwave had shattered windowpanes, dislodged roof tiles and chimney pots in their town and a disgruntled deputation had marched to the source of the explosion. Many carried infants within the folds of their shawls, most were knitting ganseys for their men folk as they surged forwards. At the far end of the causeway a menacing assemblage of junkyard scrap metal crafted into the form of a humanoid robot stood sentry, gleaming chrome-like in the watery Essex light, Behind it a freshly ploughed crater still glowed dimly and smoked. The mayor’s wife pushed through the crowd and stepped onto the narrow land bridge. A small creature dressed in a silvery space suit with a bubble helmet approached from the island.

“Now look here. Someone’s going to have to pay for all our broken windows.”

“Madam, we have come to negotiate the retrieval of a long lost artifact, whose power is beyond your comprehension. Take me to your leader.”

Back in Time for Tea

Chapter11 (Edit)

When I regain consciousness, I am lying on the ground at the park. Someone is crouching beside me and they’re saying something, but I can’t understand it.

‘Gran,’ I try to say but my voice is a mere wheeze and my lungs and my throat hurt, just for trying.

Then the voice again. It isn’t Gran. I open my eyes and immediately blink them shut again. The pain is excruciating. I feel as if I have a thousand flecks of dust in them.

‘Hello?’ the voice says again. I must be more ‘here’ than ‘there’ now. As I can understand it now. ‘Hello? Are you OK? Can I help?’ I open my eyes just the smallest amount. There’s a girl there. She’s not Gran and she’s not June. June! I try to push myself up onto my elbows. I need to find out what happened to June! The girl puts her hand on my shoulder, steadying me and holding me back, I think. ‘Easy now,’ she says. ‘You look like you’ve been in the wars.’ In spite of everything, this prompts a small smile from me. If only she knew! ‘That’s a bit better,’ she says. ‘Look, I don’t know what happened to you, but you were lying on the floor and I saw you as I walked past.’

‘There was a fire,’ I croak out. ‘I got out, but my friend-‘

‘A fire?’ the girl sounds shocked. I find I can open my eyes a little more now, so I take a good look. She’s a bit older than me. She has died black hair, with purple streaks in it. Her clothing is black, despite the warm weather, and she wears a black choker and dark red lipstick. She looks kind of cool and edgy, I think, whereas I look…a state. ‘A fire?’ she asks again. ‘Where?’ She looks around, as if trying to detect a mysteriously hidden inferno. I decide to change the subject; this could get awkward.

‘I need my Gran,’ I tell her.

‘Do you know where she is?’

‘Home,’ I’m not coming over too well here, I know, but you try talking to someone when you’ve just fallen out of a burning barn and the past. I’d like to see you try! Just as I’m trying to think of a way to sound less like doofus, I hear the gate squeak and in comes Gran, almost at a run. As much at a run as Gran can do, anyway.

‘Ellie!’ she calls.

‘I found here like this,’ says the other girl. ‘She’s been asking for her Gran. Are you…?’

‘Yes,’ Gran replies. ‘Thank you so much for keeping an eye on her. I got here as quickly as I could.’

How on earth did she know, I wonder?

‘You’re welcome,’ says the girl. ‘Is there anything more I can do for you?’

‘No, I think we’re – actually, could you help me get her to her feet? If you wouldn’t mind?’

The girl nods and drags me upwards. This is neither comfortable nor dignified. I have to hope we never meet again. Then again, she is kind and didn’t even flinch at touching dirty old me.

‘Thank you,’ says Gran to the girl. ‘Thank you, I can manage from here.’

The girl nods, gives me a smile and a wave, and leaves the park. Gran helps me to walk, fussing over me an awful lot. She suggests calling an ambulance but I shake my head. I’m not burned. I have sore eyes, a dry mouth, stiff limbs and I look a sight, but I’m pretty certain I’m OK. Gran fusses for most of the way home. Then she sits me carefully in a chair and brings me a cold drink of water. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life!

‘Now sip that – no gulping!’ she instructs, and watches me carefully to make sure I comply. When the last of the water is drained, Gran throws her arms around me and sobs. I will not get used to this, I think: Gran crying. ‘Oh Ellie,’ I can’t believe the danger I put you in! There must have been another way! How are you? Are you all right? What happened? Tell me everything! No – don’t rush – go carefully. Tell me exactly what happened.’

I manage a smile at Gran’s eagerness mixed up with her concern. Then I tell her everything. I tell her about how pushing June out of the way didn’t work. How it just brought us back – or forward – to the park. I told her how Lilian came with me one time. Gran nods, as if she remembers that. Perhaps she does, I think. After all, it happened. Then I tell her how I forgot her the second time, so she’s still in the henhouse. She touches my arm, by way of reassuring me that this is alright, that she doesn’t mind being left behind. In the henhouse was where she remembered being, anyway. I tell her about my solving the mystery of her telling me to be, ‘back in time for tea,’ and she looks surprised.

‘Why did you say that, Gran? Why didn’t you just tell me what to do?’

‘I didn’t know,’ is her reply. ‘I just thought maybe…maybe we needed more help, you and I. Maybe it would work if we could get the adults in on it, but you were gone too fast for me to elaborate. It wasn’t really a plan, Ellie, just an idea – half an idea, really. You were brilliant to work it out like that.’

I smile, feeling kind of brilliant for a moment, but then my story turns to June, the matches and the barn. I think she got out OK, I tell Gran. I think Billy saved her. I want to go back and check now, but Gran is adamant that this won’t be happening – not today, at any rate. Then, for the first time since I arrived at Gran’s, I burst into tears. I sob and sob. I’m crying for exhaustion, for June, for not being able to tell Gran for sure if I did the one things she’s been waiting for all these years. Eventually, between sobs I manage, ‘I don’t know if Billy did save her, Gran. I don’t know for sure.’

‘He didn’t,’ says Gran. ‘Billy didn’t save June, Ellie: you did.’

‘How do you know, Gran?’ I plead. ‘I didn’t stay for long enough to find out.’ I hang my head. I am ashamed and afraid. In answer, Gran hands me an envelope. I look at her and she nods, so I take it and turn it over in my hands. On the front is Gran’s address and a foreign stamp. I peer at it closely, my eyes still smarting from the smoke. ‘Canada?’ I ask.

‘Oh, open it!’ says Gran, and she’s almost bobbing up and down with excitement. The envelope has been opened already. I take out the letter, which is on thin blue paper, unfold it and begin to read.

All’s Well That Ends Well

The auditorium had rapidly emptied and they were alone on the stage.

“The Andromeda Geräte an omnipotent alien artefact is. Buried for millennia beneath the Neuschwabenland ice it was, until discovered by Kapitän Alfred Ritscher almost eighty years ago. Over this machine the Dark Lords have power and Armageddon it brings.”

“But not in time to save you little man.” The brutal black shape of a Beretta Pico pocket pistol was in Mr Fluffy’s hand, the red dot of its laser sight quivering on Master Dorje’s forehead. Startled, his Tibetan companions ducked, but Dorje refused to flinch. Lady Augusta moved swiftly between Fluffy and the ancient sage.

“Really Mrs King? This baby holds six rounds. I can waste you all.”

There was a metallic swish and in an instant the edge of a Yoshindo Yoshihara katana blade, cold and hard as a stockbroker’s heart, sharp as an Italian suit, was at Mr Fluffy’s throat.

“Drop the peashooter General.” The tiny automatic clattered to the boards.

“Flo?” asked a relieved Augusta.

A shadowy ninja stepped into the light, still keeping her blade under Mr Fluffy’s chin. “Just keeping an eye out. That was quite a performance Master Dorje. How long do you reckon before Les Chats realise they’ve been duped?”

“Oh, keeping their heads down for a while they will be, so long as Mr Fluffy here does not attempt to stir them up again. The real Merovingian Lizard Kings re-establishing normal relations within the Atlantian tunnels soon will be.”

“Don’t worry about Mr Fluffy. He’s going to be on the next airship flight back to Canada.” Dark Flo sheathed her katana. Augusta had retrieved the Beretta and was keeping a cautious eye on the self-styled general.

“But… I… This is not over yet.”

“Yes it is, Mr Cat.”

Boz, Ferdy and Phoebles were standing around on Greenwich Pier.

“It’s all gone very quiet,” observed Ferdy.

“Can’t just sit around here,” said Boz. “Let’s find out what’s going on.”

The sentry boxes were deserted when they reached the gates of the Naval College. They peeked gingerly beyond the entrance just in time to see Dark Flo, Augusta and the Tibetans crossing the courtyard. Mr Fluffy was in front, manacled with the pink, fur lined handcuffs that Flo always kept about her person should the occasion call for their use.

“Ferdinand,” she called out, “can you call up Silvertown Airways? Mr Fluffy wants to go home.”

The two parties had barely had time to exchange pleasantries when a third group rushed towards them across the square.

“We’ve been having so much fun,” shouted Zelda. “Professor Flosso was amazing.”

Professor Flosso was, in fact, still sobbing. Near to collapse he was being supported between Beryl and Ginsbergbear.

“Did it go all right then?” asked Beryl.

“Champion,” replied Lady Augusta. “It would appear that, for the moment at least, catastrophe has been averted. Les Chats are fled and Mr Fluffy is in chains.”

“But what about king Charles?” asked Phoebles. “What’s happened to him?”

“His Imperial Majesty turned out to be a bit of a disappointment,” Mr Fluffy cut in on the conversation, “He was last observed hiding in the ladies’ toilets, disguised as a common sailor.

“Let’s go get him then,” said Boz.

“No need. He has already escaped.” No one had noticed Slasher McGoogs joining the group. “He is, at this very moment, making his way in a small rowing skiff towards Tilbury docks.”

“Slasher, long time no see,” said Boz. “We could still catch him.”

“He had help, my help,” continued Slasher. “Agents on the docks will assist him in stowing away aboard a certain merchant vessel there, the SS Kandelfels. Once safely out to sea he will discover that the Kandelfels is really the commercial raider Pinguin. A spell in the Kriegsmarine under Kapitänleutnant Felix Graf von Luckner will put hairs on his chest, and if all else fails he can be marooned on a cosy little atoll somewhere mid Pacific.”

“That’s OK then,” said Ginsbergbear.