“Did I ever tell you,” Robbie says from behind the laptop. “I was nearly going to be an olive farmer?”
James takes a beer from the fridge and loosens his tie, “I didn’t know there were olive groves on Tyneside.”
“In the south of Italy, soft lad.”
He kisses Robbie and sits beside him at their kitchen table, “It seems unlikely.”
“In the end, I thought so too, so I didn’t go. But this is the house that came with the land I was looking at.” He pushes the laptop across to James. “It’s rented out for a holiday home now.”
The nineteenth century farmhouse is a small, two storey, stone-walled building. In one of the pictures a balcony overlooks a hillside of uninterrupted olive trees. In another, the sea is just visible on the horizon.
“We used to have an Italian lad in CID,” Robbie says. “He inherited the house and land and wanted to sell it. It was just after Val died and I was desperate to get away from Oxford.”
“But you went to the BVI instead.”
“That was policework at least; something I knew the first thing about.”
And we would never have found each other again, James thinks. You would have been alone with your grief in that rugged, heat-parched and lovely landscape.
“But I’ve always thought I’d like to see the place. We’re due some holiday and our anniversary is coming up. Maybe we could do a week in Rome and a week there?”
They click through the images. The house has been lightly restored with the simplest of amenities. White painted walls, cool in the heat of summer, shuttered windows, tiled rug-strewn floors, an open fireplace half the width of the kitchen, blackened with centuries of soot. It would not, now he thinks of it, be hard to see Robbie master here, peacefully overseeing the ancient trees and their fruit.
Robbie’s hand finds James’ to plant a kiss across the knuckle, to linger on the gold wedding band there. The ring is five years old but they had kissed for the first time ten and forty years ago.
“What do you say?”
“Let’s do it,” James says as his phone lights with a call from work.
Robbie’s phone rings a moment later and they never make the booking.
The fire has been extinguished by the time they reach Wells Brown Secondary School but it had spread through the building before the fire brigade arrived. There is no doubt it was started deliberately and with premeditation.
Lessons had finished for the day but the school was not empty. The orchestra was practicing in the music room, there was a gymnastics club in the sports hall and four children and a librarian were in the library. Not all of them escaped; there are twelve students and two staff members dead.
Flashing blue from clusters of emergency vehicles light up the evening, smoke chokes the air, police tape is threaded and tied around the perimeter of the school grounds and dozens of white-suited SOCO tend the scene. Tents are lined up in front of the building; one for each body, an encampment for the dead. Laura is one of a dozen pathologists on duty tonight. James has never seen the whole team together before.
Despite all this activity, there is an appalling silence. It is broken only by sobbing. A fourteen year old boy from a local children’s home, an orphan of a foreign war, refusing to believe his twin sister and only relative is dead, fights everyone who tries to keep him from her.
Joe Moody has summoned most of CID to the scene. When he briefs them, James can hear the tremor of shock in his voice. No other case matters, he wants a suspect in custody within twenty-four hours.
They are to start this evening by visiting the families of the victims and speaking to the headmaster and senior staff. Police drafted in from across Thames Valley will take statements from the pupils gathering nearby and the survivors in hospital. They will go door to door in the local area, start work on victim profiles, CCTV and social media and open a phone line for public information. If this does not result in an arrest they will do a public appeal tomorrow and set up a room to interview every child and adult with a connection to the school.
James and Robbie each take their assignment of interviews and meet back at the station when it is too late to do more. The team gathers in the CID office which serves as an incident room. A DCI directs the investigation, an administrator places fourteen photographs in two lines on a whiteboard and the major crime software grinds into action. When it is clear no lead has been found, Moody sends most officers and civilian staff home for a few hours’ sleep.
“I never thought I’d see children’s bodies piled up outside a school in this city,” Robbie says as James drives them home. “Especially not that school.”
“How long did Val teach there?” He asks.
“From her first month in Oxford until the day she died,” Robbie tells him. “Science to the littluns and Chemistry to the older kids taking exams. With our two both going there, it was home from home for a while. Parents evenings, school plays, football matches. It seemed like whenever I could get away from Morse I was there.”
There is a small rose garden on school grounds that some of Val’s students planted in her honour after she died. Thirteen years have passed; none of the current pupils and only a few of the staff remember her but Robbie goes now and then to show any interested children how to look after the flowers and to keep her memory alive. James has seen the garden this evening. It is oddly untouched by the calamity but this is surely the end of the school.
Sleep is hard to come by that night. James, sheltered by Robbie’s arm around him, listens to his memories of Wells Brown, which is the story of his life with Val. It is a subject he usually finds too painful to talk about and James listens silently, letting himself be soothed by Robbie’s hand stroking his hair.
The phone rings in the early hours when they have both drifted off for an hour or so. The word has spread through news and social media and it is Robbie’s son, Mark, calling from Australia. He wants to tell them about a former classmate named Eric Meyer.
“He was a few years behind me at school,” Mark says when he has both of them on the line. “But he had left by the time mum died. He was one of mum’s special cases because he was always getting into trouble. Do you remember him, dad?”
“Yeah, I do,” Robbie says. “Black hair, small, skinny, could sulk for England.”
Val was known for taking certain children under her wing; her special cases. Sometimes they were simply quiet, industrious scientists but some were kids permanently dicing with exclusion who she tried, with Robbie’s grumbling help, to turn away from darker paths.
“Do you think he could be involved?” James asks Mark. “He left school years ago.”
“He definitely could be. He went off the rails when mum died, went to prison for something or other. I don’t know what happened after that but when he friended me on Facebook he never stopped blaming the school and all of us for his problems. He went quiet again and now he’s deleted his account.”
“Is he likely to be in Oxford still?”
“He went to London after he left school, I remember that.”
Eric Meyer, it turns out, is well known to the Metropolitan Police with a history of arrests and convictions. He served a prison sentence for burglary and more recently committed an offence that led him to be admitted for a short time to a secure hospital. The offence included arson, which instantly puts him to the top of the Wells Brown suspect list. Meyer has a home address in East London but his aunt owns a bar in the West End, where he has worked on and off for years.
After a brief discussion with the DCI in charge of the case, Robbie and James drive to London. When they find no one home in Leytonstone they phone Tracey Moore who is still based at West End Central, and let her know they are on their way to Poland Street. She joins them there, greeting them both with a hug.
“I was so sorry to hear about what happened,” she says. “I’m authorised to offer any assistance.”
“That’s appreciated,” Robbie says.
“Do you like Meyer for a suspect?” Tracey asks. “You know about the arson conviction, right?”
“We just want to talk to him at this point, but yes.”
The bar is not yet open when they arrive and no one answers their knock and calls. James, Robbie and Tracey go back to the car to wait.
“The building society next door is the one that was robbed before Val died,” Robbie tells James pointing out a branch of the Nationwide.
“I thought it was on Oxford Street,” James says.
“Val was killed on Oxford Street. The getaway car had taken a wrong turning because Simon Monkford is an idiot. He panicked, mounted the pavement and hit her. You always suspected the robbers had inside help, didn’t you, Trace? Perhaps it was Eric Meyer next door helping them gain access in some way.”
Tracey and James exchange a glance, “Does that mean it might not have been a coincidence Val was there?” Tracey asks. “Would she have gone to see Meyer to try and stop him?”
This seems not to have occurred to Robbie, “She might well have come here to see him,” he says after a moment. “Particularly if she’d got wind he was going to commit a serious crime. She might well have done that.”
“She didn’t say anything to you?” James asks.
“No, but she wouldn’t have. She wouldn’t have put me in the position of having to either arrest one of her special cases or turn a blind eye. I did think it odd her going Christmas shopping in London though. That’s not a thing she did much of.”
James finds himself shivering. He looks outside, thinking the light outside the car has altered, that the temperature must have dropped. Nothing has changed. It is a calm day but some primitive gut-sense warns him of thunderstorm, earthquake, volcano; something on its way.
“Are you two still coming to my party on Saturday?” Tracey asks to break the silence. “Because if I have to be sixty I need people of my own age there for moral support. And that includes you, James Hathaway. I’m sure the time travel story is just a cover for being a vampire, you don’t seem to age.”
“And he shrivels up when the sun comes out,” Robbie says.
James first met Tracey Moore on his trip back to 1976. He saw her last at their wedding when she had just made the rank of Deputy Assistant Commissioner. She has finally given up her beloved blonde crop of hair, letting it turn defiantly grey but, like Robbie, she has otherwise changed in only superficial ways in forty years.
“Here we go,” she says. “The bar’s open.”
They find a solitary member of staff opening up, “He’s crashed out in the back,” she says when they ask for Meyer. “Probably sleeping off a hangover, as usual. Shall I get him?”
“It’s all right,” James says. “Just point us in the right direction.”
But when they get to the small stock room where there is a sleeping bag on the floor, Meyer has gone and the back door is open. They cover the area around the bar on foot but without any luck.
“Leave him to us,” Tracey says taking out her phone and heading back to her car. “He won’t have got far.”
Robbie phones the DCI in charge of the case. He agrees that the two of them should stay in London to run this end of the investigation.
“Give me a minute, James,” Robbie says before they start.
Whenever Robbie is in London he makes a pilgrimage to the spot where Val died. In Poland Street they are only a few steps away and James goes with him.
There had been a café here in 2002, a narrow corridor with a takeaway counter and space for a few small tables. Robbie would speak to the staff when he visited, take a tea with the manager. They had called the ambulance, held Val’s hand as she died and given evidence at the inquest. Now the café has closed, replaced by a phone shop and Robbie spends only a minute or two paying his respects.
Oxford Street is as busy as ever on this weekday lunchtime, but the milling crowds of shoppers and tourists seem to make room for him. James stands aside too, giving him space. His hand reflexively goes to his pocket for cigarettes. Even after four years as a non-smoker his body is yet to forget its rituals.
As he often does on this spot, he thinks about how, but for an accident of fate, but for Simon Monkford’s disastrous day, everything would have been different. How in a way, in his still surprising happiness, he is a beneficiary of Val’s untimely death. He keeps these pointless reflections from Robbie, but cannot ever entirely escape them.
Robbie’s phone rings and he answers it. There is something odd there, something significant about the ringtone which James cannot place. He notices again a tremble in the atmosphere, imagines an upset in the vibrations of London’s otherwise dependable atoms, a fizzing disorder.
He watches as a man walks erratically in his direction. At first, he thinks he is one of the many rough sleepers on the London streets; his clothes dishevelled, his look wild but then James places him. It is Eric Meyer. When he is close, James steps in front of him and shows him his badge.
“Eric Meyer, I’m Detective Inspector Hathaway, Thames Valley Police.” Meyer stares at him as if betrayed. “I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“I’m not in Oxford, am I?”
“What about yesterday evening, Eric?”
“I was at home, I had the night off.”
“Was anyone with you?”
“I live by myself.”
“We’ve got lots of people looking at CCTV back in Oxford. Are you sure you were home?”
James can see Robbie on the phone to Tracey calling for back up. He finishes the call and comes over. Meyer blinks at him, recognition dawning.
“Inspector Lewis?” He says.
“Hello Eric. Small world. How have you been?”
This seems to be one question too many for Meyer and he darts out toward the road. They both get hold of him but he shakes off James and drags Robbie with him.
A taxi is taken by surprise and hits its brakes, sliding slowly forward. Or perhaps it only seems slow, perhaps it is an uncontrolled skid. Just as James realises what was wrong with Robbie’s ringtone, realises it has changed to The Boys Are Back in Town, he moves to push Eric and Robbie out of the way of the taxi and the world dissolves.
When James opens his eyes, he is lying on the pavement. There is a woman holding his hand and talking to him. Her words are meant to be reassuring, he can hear it in their tone, but he cannot make out their meaning. He cannot see her clearly either, but there is something familiar about her. He looks for Robbie. He is sure he pushed him clear of the swerving taxi, but he cannot see or hear him. He must be off dealing with Meyer. He tries to move but he can’t and, eventually, his eyes close again.
When he is next fully awake he is in an A&E bay. There is still no sign of Robbie and he is on his own. He can hear the voice of the woman who was with him before; she is just outside talking to a member of staff.
He finds he is in possession of all his limbs and, apart from a headache, he is not in pain. But a sense of foreboding begins in his gut all the same. He is in St Thomas’s Hospital, the same place he found himself a decade ago, but this is definitely not 1976. The pulse of the twenty-first century is beating here. A desktop computer and a Starbucks cup both appear within his limited field of vision. Something though, perhaps only the absence of his husband, tells him it is too soon to assume all is well.
Waking later, he finds he has been admitted to a ward. Robbie is finally here, standing at a distance at the foot of the bed. The same woman who was there before sits with him.
The dark hair and green eyes, the expression of quizzical good humour. He realises where he has seen her before.
He understands why she is so familiar.
“I don’t know how much you remember,” the woman says. “But you were hit by a car on Oxford Street. You got bashed about a bit but nothing more serious.”
He recognises her from Robbie’s photographs and from a fleeting encounter in similar circumstances.
“I’m Valerie Lewis,” she says. “I was there when it happened. This is Robbie, my husband.”
She looks just as she does in their last family picture. The one Robbie keeps framed on the living room mantelpiece. The one taken days before she died.
“What’s your name?” She asks. “You weren’t carrying any identification.”
He’s not ready to answer that one.
“What’s the date?” He asks instead.
“Oh, it’s only been a few hours, it’s still the nineteenth of December.”
“2002,” Robbie adds quietly.
Robbie. Looking almost as he did when James first became his sergeant. Gazing down at him as if he is a troubling corpse at a crime scene, James can see the questions stacking up. He closes his eyes and turns his back to them.
He is feeling more alert when he wakes the following morning and he asks the man in the next bed to lend him yesterday’s newspaper. The date is there in black and white.
He knows there is no point wasting time with rationalisations. This is not concussion or a coma. This is not any kind of symptom. It has happened again. He has gone back in time.
2002. Only thirteen years back and the news is grim. The attack on the World Trade Centre is still an open wound and the groundwork is being laid for a doomed war. It is not a year he would have chosen to revisit but he doubts that was a consideration.
He is attended to by nurses and some basic checks and tests are done. He invents a name and address for their file. When a constable with the team investigating the robbery arrives to take a statement from him, he gives her the same false details. Then he is left alone to wait for a doctor to discharge him.
Mid-morning Val appears again. She too accepts his alias without comment.
“Robbie wanted to come,” she tells him. “But he’s busy at work. He’s a detective and he has a tricky case to deal with.”
“You didn’t have to come either, Mrs Lewis,” he says. “I’m fine, they’re discharging me this morning.”
“But what can I do for you? I brought the car in case you wanted to be driven anywhere. Or can I phone someone for you?”
“No, thank you, none of that is necessary.”
“Even for the sake of my conscience?” She says. “You saved me from getting hit by a car. Thank you, by the way. It was a getaway car of all things. Driving away from a building society robbery.”
“I know,” he says. “The police were just here. But you don’t have to stay and I don’t need anything at all.”
“Well you do, because you don’t have any money or cards or anything in any of your pockets, so I’m here to help you sort yourself out.”
“I don’t need anything,” he insists quietly although the news is disconcerting.
“All right, I think you mean that,” she says after giving him a long assessing look. “So I’ll leave you alone.” She takes an envelope from her bag and lays it on the bedside table. “This is our address and telephone number in Oxford. We would love you to phone us and let us know how you are getting on and you’re welcome to visit at any time.”
“Thank you,” he says.
“Look, you’re being very polite but I’m serious. If you need anything, anything at all give us a ring. My husband said I should make sure you knew that.”
He needs her to go away before she says, ‘my husband’ again.
“I do have to go. I have to give some information to the police about what happened yesterday. I’m sorry to say, I might know someone who was involved.”
“Mrs Lewis,” he says as she readies herself to leave. “Could you tell Robbie to look at Professor Diana Ellerby’s relationship with Judd. The boy’s dead and she knows where his body is.”
She stares at him, “How can you possibly know that?”
“I can’t explain, but can you tell him.”
“It’s so strange, you look so much like -,” she begins. “Never mind. I’ll leave you in peace.”
And she goes. Purposefully into the future she never would have seen had he not stumbled blindly into the past.
He is discharged that afternoon with a prescription and an instruction to rest. The clothes he was wearing when he arrived are folded in the bedside cupboard. It is all perfectly acceptable. Clothes he might have worn in 2002. A suit his younger self, a DC preparing for his sergeants’ exam might be wearing now. He feels a pang of longing for the green polyester monstrosity he was provided with last time this happened. At least that had seemed to herald adventure.
He dresses and checks all his pockets. There is nothing in any of them. He opens the envelope Val left for him. It contains the address of the house in Oxford they brought their children up in. It also contains a hundred pounds in tens and twenties. His bus fare and his reward.
James stands outside the hospital wondering which way to turn. Last time he knew what he was supposed to be doing. This time he has nowhere to go and no Robbie to guide him.
He cannot go to Oxford. He doubts his younger self would welcome an encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future. He has problems enough without the looming prospect of accidentally becoming a time traveller.
He presumes he has been sent back in time for a reason and perhaps he must simply wait until his purpose presents itself. In the meantime, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, he watches the river running dull and grey under Westminster Bridge.
The fall of a misty rain shower eventually starts him walking. North toward Parliament Square, through the West End and finally to Oxford Street. When he arrives with bruises aching, it is to a street decorated with lights and festive windows, overwhelmed with shoppers on this last Friday before Christmas.
The place where the car hit him is no longer a crime scene. Only a scrap of police tape hints at the drama of the previous day. He guesses it is about 4pm as it is starting to get dark but the café is still open. He sits at a table inside and orders tea. The staff who were there yesterday recognise him. They tell him about the excitement of the getaway car and his heroic actions. They say the car hit him at such a speed, it is a miracle to see him on his feet only a day later. He turns down their offer of a meal and is presented with a mince pie which he finds he cannot stomach. And as his tea cools, he lets understanding dawn.
He has saved Valerie Lewis’ life.
He has changed the future. She is alive when she would have been dead. She will reclaim her stolen years and all the things she did not do will now be done.
Robbie will not endure the trauma of losing his wife to violent death. He will not lose so many years to the darkness of grief. Grief will not sketch those beloved lines across his forehead.
Way leads on to way. Who knows what the future will bring without the current of a single violent event propelling it forward.
Except James does know some things. He knows Robbie and Val will carry on with their lives as if nothing has happened. Because nothing has happened. They will come home from their work each evening and, as the sun sets, drink a glass of wine together. They will retire and watch their family flourish and grandchildren grow.
Sorrow will not drive Robbie far across the planet and James will not be sent to meet him when he returns. They will be colleagues, perhaps not even that. The ten years James had as Robbie’s partner, then husband will belong to Val and – a singular cruelty - Robbie will know nothing of them. It had never seemed real. He has often expected to wake up and find himself alone and now it has happened.
Lost in these thoughts, James takes little notice of the steady traffic of customers in and out of the café until someone sits across from him at his table. When he looks up he finds Tracey Moore there. It is the Tracey he remembers from when he first came back from 1976; young for her rank, sharp edged and soft centred. Trim black suit and blonde hair just on the professionally acceptable side of spiky.
“Robbie asked me to find you,” she says. “I thought he’d lost it.”
“Hello Tracey. How did you know I was here?”
She continues to stare intently at him. He can see her busy mind forming and reforming theories that might make sense of him.
“Did you know I joined the police after I gave up stripping?”
“How does the pay compare?”
Her gaze does not waver, even when a waiter brings her order.
“Too young to be a twin, too old to be a son,” she says. “Long lost cousin?”
“You have an excellent plastic surgeon?”
“I went to your funeral, James.”
“But you didn’t die?”
“How is this possible?”
“I don’t know. It’s not.”
She pours coke into her glass and sips it.
“You look sad,” she says. “You’re not all right.”
He hadn’t expected that and he looks down into the remains of his tea. She takes his hand across the table and he finds himself gripping hers in turn.
Eventually she says, “Come on, let’s go.”
“Robbie says, back to ours.”
“Is he coming?”
“I expect so, don’t you?”
They walk to where her car is parked on Poland Street, “Did you catch the robbers?” He asks.
“Not yet but Val Lewis, of all people, gave us their inside man.”
“A man called Simon Monkford was driving the getaway,” he tells her. “He’s might try and run off to Canada.”
“How do you know?”
“I arrested him.”
“In about seven years.”
She stops to stare at him, “Time travel?”
She murmurs a curse, “Chrissie was right.”
They drive to the house James first came to in 1976. Tracey and Chrissie bought it together back then and have rented out its flats and rooms ever since. They used the money to buy the house next door which they converted into two flats, taking one each. Chrissie made property her work and life as she recovered from her encounter with Andrew Markham and Tracey climbed the ranks in the Met, married, divorced and brought up her children.
Tracey takes James to the flat at the top of the house. The rooms here are let out individually and the combined kitchen and living room form the only common area. He is nostalgic for the orange floral wallpaper and blue Formica kitchen cabinets that had been there before, replaced as fashions changed with neutral colours and honey coloured wood.
There are no Soho dancers here either. Just Chrissie and one of their tenants; an elderly man of South Asian origin. He sits with a pad of pale blue paper writing a letter, stopping to smile and say hello to Tracey and James.
James goes to Chrissie who has been standing against the kitchen counter, winding and unwinding strands of her long dark hair around a finger. Soon, James knows, she will shave it all off. Then she will spend a year growing it back before taking the razor to it a second time.
She touches James’ face with the tips of her fingers.
“Not a ghost,” she says smiling.
“But it’s you. I’ll never forget your face, though I only saw it once.”
“You saved my life,” James says. “I never got a chance to thank you.”
“And you mine. But we never knew what kind of magic you were.”
“Krish here has been telling me that even proper science can’t exist without magic.”
“Correct,” agrees Krish.
“A particle of magic. Wouldn’t that be lovely if it were true? But he’s from Oxford, so not entirely to be trusted. I’ve got a fiver on you being from the future.”
“You win,” James says and she is left speechless.
He declines drink and food, pleading exhaustion, and they show him to one of their rooms. Without even switching on the light, he lies down on the bed and falls asleep.
He wakes the next morning, aching and unrested. Robbie cured him of sleeping in his clothes years ago but now, he realises, he is free to resume all his questionable habits.
He gets up in search of a bathroom. The effort starts the world spinning. It is the same sickness that had him collapsing all over Soho on his last trip back. Last time the sickness worsened as the body he was occupying died and he was returned to his own time. But it must be too soon to feel this way. Surely, he has work to do first?
When he returns to his room, Robbie is waiting for him there.
He is standing by the window watching the watery North London sunrise. Without grey hair threading its way through the brown, he looks much younger than James is accustomed to. More uncomplicatedly handsome without the lines and shadows which were the physical manifestations of his grief. James has loved each iteration of Robbie Lewis he has come across, this one is no exception.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t know you?” Robbie says.
Robbie watches him as he goes back to sit on the bed. The expression of frowning deduction he wore at St Thomas’s has gone. It has softened into something tender; as tender and painful as each of James’ bruises.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes, all right. I’ve been a quarter of a century thinking you were dead.”
“I’m sorry, Robbie. I couldn’t help it.”
“What you said to Chrissie – about being a time traveller.”
“You know, I halfway thought it when we were together before, but it seemed such a ridiculous thing to say out loud. You don’t do it yourself, though, do you? You don’t have a –“
“Time machine? I wish. No. It just happens. Don’t ask me how.”
“And we’re not the same age anymore. How have I overtaken you?”
“Its only been ten years for me.”
“How were they?”
“Those ten years.”
“They were good. They were really good.”
Robbie has come to sit beside him on the bed. He takes James’ left hand.
“Who did you marry?”
“What makes you think –“
“Your ring finger.”
He looks at his hand. There is no ring there; nothing comes back with him. But there is a white band to show where he wears it. Used to wear it.
“I’m not married, Robbie. I won’t marry.”
“You’re not calling me ‘sir’ anymore. I miss that. Did you know, I married the woman whose life you saved?”
“Valerie. Yes, I knew. You deserve that happiness.”
“We are happy. You gave us that. And our kids, even my career. It all comes back to you. You remember Morse?”
“I’m hardly likely to forget him. You were his sergeant and then you made DI.”
“You know more about my life than I do. Tell me something about the future.”
“I can’t. Not really. I change it when I come back.”
“With Sellotape and glue? That’s what you said.”
“Did I? Now, I think it’s more blind chance. But if things don’t change too much, we’ll be meeting properly soon. In just a few years.”
“Will I know you?”
“You’ll remember all this but it won’t have happened to me.”
“And what will you be to me?” Robbie asks.
“Your sergeant, sir. I hope.”
Robbie smiles, “I’ll make sure of it. Although I don’t know what Ali will make of that.”
“Don’t trust her Robbie,” James says. “I’m sorry, but you can’t.”
“I should be more surprised,” he says. “Can you give me anything to go on?”
“But we wrapped up our case, thanks to you. We’ve got Diana Ellerby in custody.”
“Is that why you’re here, James? Like last time with Chrissie. Are you here for a reason?”
“I don’t know, I don’t get a briefing. I just fall under the wheels of a car.”
“We’ll ask Tracey,” Robbie says. “Though, honestly you don’t look up to stopping serial killers.”
He doesn’t feel up to it either. But struggling to keep upright in 2002 has to be better than facing what is waiting for him in 2016. The future constructing itself now will be built from the broken shards of his heart, he is in no hurry to confront it.
“Have you met Chrissie’s tenant?” Robbie asks. “The old man. Mr Subramaniam?”
“Is that Krish? Briefly, yesterday. I have heard that surname recently though.” He closes his eyes to try and locate the memory through a head full of cotton wool. “Why?”
“I met him in the kitchen just now and he seemed to know me. He gave me this.”
Robbie takes an envelope from his pocket. It is from the same writing set James saw the elderly man using yesterday.
“He told me his name and asked me to keep the letter until 2016 when I should give it back to him. What do you make of it?”
James takes the envelope from him. The names Krish and Priya are written on the front and it is not sealed, apparently inviting inspection. When he opens it, he finds a letter several pages long written in a dense code of numbers, letters and symbols he doesn’t recognise.
He hands the letter back to Robbie and goes out into the kitchen. He asks the first tenant he finds for Mr Subramaniam and is told he is too late. He left not an hour ago, giving up his room and taking just a bag with him. The door to the room is open and he and Robbie search it. He has left a few clothes, some domestic items and dozens of books behind.
“He’s widely read,” Robbie says sorting through the books left on the desk. “Philosophy, history, psychology, lots of stuff with equations.”
“There’s nothing here,” James says. “Are you sure you don’t know him?”
“Never set eyes on him. But what is he, more than eighty years old, would you say? He seemed very sure he’d be around in the next decade.”
“You think he might be heading there the quick way?”
“I’m ready to believe just about anything at this point, Hathaway.”
James and Robbie go next door where they find Chrissie and Tracey at Tracey’s kitchen table.
“Do you know where Mr Subramaniam has gone?” James asks.
“Krish?” Tracey says. “No idea.”
“He left a note with a couple of month’s rent,” Chrissie says, pushing it across the table to James. “All he said was that he was going to meet his sister. Though, I don’t know about that. He once told me his sister was dead.”
“Why do you need him?” Tracey asks.
“I think he’s the one who sends me back,” James says.
“Krish does time travel? He told us he was a postman.”
The room swims and James feels Robbie’s hand at his elbow, steering him into a chair. He is apparently ready, after a gap of twenty-six years, to resume his role of preventing James from cracking open his skull.
“How long has he lived here?” Robbie asks.
“Nearly a year,” Chrissie says. “He’s such an interesting man. He knows about all kinds of stuff. But he never did anything. Just stayed in his room and read. It felt like he was waiting for something. You maybe?”
“But why?” James asks, finding the light in the room suddenly too bright. “Why am I here?”
“It’s a bit early for an existential crisis.” Tracey says. “Have some tea first.”
“Last time, James was here for a reason,” Robbie says as Tracey puts the kettle on. “And it was pretty obvious what it was. This is your patch Tracey, is anything going on?”
“I work in the West End of London, Robbie, not Christ Church Meadow, something’s always going on.”
“Fair point, anything big?”
“You’ve still got to narrow it down.”
“What about the building society?” Robbie asks.
“We’ve got them all in custody thanks to Val and James’ information. And to be perfectly honest. I’m not sure they’re worth the effort of time travel. They were a bunch of chancers; hardly the Great Train Robbers.”
“I think we’ve got it wrong,” Chrissie says when the discussions come to a dead end. “I think James has already done what he was supposed to do.”
“What, get run over?” James says.
“Save a life. What happened both times you came back in time?”
James looks up, “Val.”
“Exactly. You saved Val’s life. If anyone’s got a big mission, its Valerie Lewis.”
“But Val wouldn’t have died yesterday,” Robbie objects. “The car wasn’t aiming for her like last time, it just swerved, it was an accident.”
James closes his eyes.
He doesn’t say anything but Robbie has never had any trouble reading him.
And Chrissie is right. Val has been central to everything.
His stomach lurches as the radio which had been quietly on in the corner of the room increases in volume. Thin Lizzy again, The Boys are Back in Town, what else. But that was a red herring, nothing more than a coincidence. The song should have been Valerie which someone somewhere will write in a few short years. Because she is the one with the universe circling around her.
Darkness closes in, a mug falls to the floor and smashes, someone calls his name and he feels Robbie’s hand, cool, on the back of his neck just before he loses consciousness.
He is being shaken awake, “Come on, Inspector, up you get.”
It is Tracey and he is still in her kitchen, head down on the table. In the rest of the flat there is a party going on. The music he can hear is a disco hit from the seventies but his body immediately recognises its own time.
The noise in his head has died down, the effervescence in the atmosphere settles, the world takes on a more solid form. Tracey herself is not the fortysomething he has just been talking to. This must be her sixtieth birthday party.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Tracey says. “You’ve already died in my kitchen once, it would be really bad manners to do it again.”
“How did I get here?” He asks, sounding stupid. It takes a while for a new set of memories from a newly made universe to catch up with him.
“I couldn’t believe it either. But you’ve been out cold since you arrived, which Robbie reckons is an excuse not to socialise.”
“Yes, of course he is, you came with him and Val. Look, you’re not having a stroke are you, because Chrissie baked two kinds of cake.”
He looks at her until she understands.
“God, James. You’ve just come back, haven’t you? From 2002?” She sits down heavily beside him, trying to sober herself up. “We didn’t even know you’d gone. We knew it would be soon but we thought there would be a coma like the first time. Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
“Let me get Robbie and Val.”
Before Tracey comes back, James slips out.
He walks quickly, only wanting to get away from the flat. A half hour later he has circled back to a nearby guesthouse. His re-establishing memory supplies a recollection of checking in for the night along with Robbie and Val and he finds a room key in his pocket.
He ignores the knocking at his bedroom door that soon follows, but sends them a reassuring text. He spends the night awake and goes back to Oxford by an early train without seeing anyone.
His lives in an unheatable Victorian flat with large, rattling windows and high ceilings. He has lived here for two years since he bought it anticipating an inheritance from his father. From the unpacked boxes, bare walls and threadbare carpet, he might have just moved in. He smokes here too; the smell clings to everything and there are too many empty bottles in the recycling. None of this surprises him; he knows how he was in his other life, before Robbie came into it.
Despite this, his career is flourishing. Since promotion to inspector, he works with grim determination as though his working life is a race he must win; a lifelong, joyless, one-man race, unrelenting in its physical and mental demands. He has been spoken of as DCI material but understands he lacks the ‘interpersonal skills’ to progress any further up the ranks.
Robbie was as good as his word. In 2006 he bagged James as his sergeant after both DI Knox and DS McLennan fell from grace and they became the team James remembers. Most of the cases from his other life were also theirs in this one. He is intrigued by the gaps; the murders that didn’t happen. He attempts to trace the life saved back to Val but is rarely able to make the necessary connections.
Robbie and Val retired together a few years back. James resigned at the same time on the pretext of wanting to travel but, in reality, because he did not believe he could work for anyone else. He drifted around Europe for a summer and came back as DI when he could think of nothing else to do.
Throughout these years, Robbie had Val and Val had Robbie. James was grateful for the couple’s friendship and never thought to question it. He viewed his own feelings for Robbie as laughable, even after the intensity of their seventies encounter. Now with the stubborn white circle on his ring finger, which should not be possible, life will be harder.
In one respect, James mistrusts his newly formed memories. He also mistrusts the evidence of the police computer and all the news on the internet. He does not fully accept this one new truth until he is standing outside Wells Brown Secondary School watching pupils streaming in at the beginning of a school day.
There has been no arson attack, there has been no fire and no mass murder. If the lack of an arrest record after 2002 is to be believed, Eric Meyer is living his life as a useful and productive member of society.
James’ relief at the sight of the flourishing school is profound. He finds the shouts of oblivious children a gift. But he soon starts to question it. This is a dangerous world, especially for children. Disasters are commonplace. Every day they are murdered, displaced and traumatised, sometimes in small quiet ways but often in big events which sweep away dozens at once. Why did this one tragedy deserve a twist in the laws of time while those others did not?
Four weeks pass in which James deals with the realities of his new situation in the way he deals with most things. He smokes too much, he drinks too much and works. When the murderers of Oxford let him down, he combs through cold cases, takes an interest in burglary, makes his sergeant’s life a misery and fends off friendly, concerned overtures from Robbie and Val.
Finally, he gets a ‘pint no arguments’ text from Robbie and they meet in the garden of one of the riverside pubs.
Robbie arrives wearing jeans and the Marks & Spencer casual jacket that keeps the weather off Robbie Lewis in any decade or version of reality he happens to crop up in. James can’t help noticing how well he looks. A bit softer around the middle perhaps, but more energetic, less careworn and with a readier smile. Val does a good job, he can see that. Better than he did, anyway.
“Call it an old copper’s nose,” Robbie says taking a seat beside James and a sip of the pint waiting for him. “But I can’t help thinking you’re avoiding me.”
“Or we could go with the more traditional, hello.”
“Never mind hello. Have you been ill or something?”
“It’s been busy at work.”
Robbie doesn’t dignify this with a response.
“I don’t recall falling out with you. So was it something I did in a previous - what do we call it – timeline?”
James smiles, “You haven’t done anything wrong in any of the timelines.”
“Then why did you run off like that? We didn’t know what to think.”
We. We equals Robbie and Val. This is why. The first-person plural will always, from now on, represent a sharp jab of pain.
“The first few hours back are confusing,” he says. “I needed to sort everything out in my head. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
Robbie is not satisfied with this answer either.
“Do you think I should have told you it was going to happen again?” He asks. “Val said you had a right to know, so you could have decided not to go ahead with it. But I didn’t think it was fair you having it hanging over you.”
“You were right,” James tells him and takes a long drink. “And don’t forget, when the whole thing started for me you didn’t know it was going to happen. I doubt we had a choice but to follow things through once this timeline got going.”
Robbie ponders the laborious logic of James’ explanation and announces, “Time travel does my flaming head in.”
“Did the same thing happen?” James asks. “Did I leave a body behind?”
“The same thing happened,” Robbie acknowledges.
“Where is it?”
“The body? Well you had a perfectly good grave from the first time around so we used that.”
“I have two dead bodies in one grave?”
“And a live one walking about. Only you, Hathaway. And you can imagine the job we had trying to explain away the presence, in a senior police officer’s kitchen, of a dead witness with a false identity and no cause of death. That malarkey was a lot easier in the seventies, I can tell you.”
“It must have been hard.”
“Aye, well, it doesn’t get any easier to deal with. But this time at least, I knew I’d be seeing you again.”
Robbie stops to watch two racing eights creating a brief disturbance on the river before vanishing.
“And I finally get to thank you,” he says. “You saved Val’s life. You didn’t want to tell me, but I’m right aren’t I?”
He takes James’ silence for affirmation.
“Then, everything I have I owe to you.”
“No, everything you have is because of who you both are.”
“I could have lost her twice over.”
“But it wasn’t anything to do with me, was it?” James says. “The whole thing was prearranged. The first time could have been a coincidence, but not the second.”
“You mean someone or something has made it their business to prevent Val coming to harm? I’d agree, but it doesn’t diminish what you did; the courage you showed.”
“Has Mr Subramanian turned up?”
James turns, “Really?”
“If you hadn’t been avoiding me, you would have known that by now.”
“Did you give him his letter? What did he say?”
“Come for Sunday lunch and you can meet him.”
“Mr Subramanian’s going to be at your house for Sunday lunch?”
“And so is Priya.”
“His – sister?”
“His sister,” Robbie confirms. “Is that enough to get you through our front door? Because Val says she’s coming to get you if you don’t turn up.”
“I’ll be there, thank you.”
“Be warned though, we’re going to have a house full.”
“Lyn and Mark?”
“And their families. Plus, we’ve got two new foster kids. They moved in last week.
Since retirement Robbie and Val have taken up fostering. This among other saintly activities, continues Val’s project of rescuing the troubled and troublesome youth of Oxford.
“What’s that going to be? Eighty-seven round the table. This is where you invite someone with social anxiety?”
“I can tell the kids not to come.”
“No, it’s all right, don’t do that.”
“Good lad. Although, we’ve had all four grandchildren today and I wouldn’t mind the peace and quiet.”
When Val didn’t die, Mark didn’t go to Australia and Lyn came back to Oxford after nurse training. They both live nearby with partners and children. Robbie, to his unending joy, has his family with him. Another thing James couldn’t give him, another mark down on the score sheet.
“I’m curious,” Robbie says. “Is the world very different to when you left?”
“Not so different. A few things have changed for the better which must be down to Val.”
“And it occurred to me,” Robbie says, his eyes fixed on James. “That you knew me for years when she was gone.”
“Don’t ask me to tell you about those times.”
“No? I can’t comprehend it. I suspect I should be thanking you for being there for me.”
“You were always there for me too.”
“What about your life? Perhaps that isn’t better. I thought you’d be with someone by now. Because of your ring finger.” He watches without comment as James slips his left hand into his jacket pocket. “And when equal marriage came in -. You’re not yourself, James. Have you lost something because of this?”
James takes out his cigarettes but realises he can’t be bothered with them, throwing the pack down on to the table. If he is not himself, who is he?
“I should probably head back to work,” he says.
“Can’t you tell me what’s wrong?”
“There’s nothing wrong, look around you. Everything is exactly as it should be.”
He is already on his feet and ready to go when Robbie gets there.
“You and I. We weren’t together were we, back then? It wasn’t me you were married to, was it?”
James lights a cigarette, sits back down. As he tries to find a way to reply, an idea forms.
“If I seem off-colour it’s because I’m finding it harder to adjust to being back this time. And I’m thinking I need a change. I’m thinking it’s time to move on.”
Robbie stares at him, “I don’t want you to go,” he says but it seems an automatic response. The real emotion is going on unfathomably beneath the surface.
A couple of days later, James smokes a last cigarette outside Robbie and Val’s house before going in.
In another life this house held symbolic significance. A building with the power to silence Robbie if they drove past it, a sacred site. In this life it is just home; a place to rest, a roof. A leaking roof at that. It is where the next generation scatter their toys and grown up children and former sergeants come and go.
Most of the family are yet to arrive but Lyn and Val call from the kitchen and a five-year-old girl, Lyn’s youngest, plays at their feet. James goes through to say hello. He gives the bottle of wine he brought to Val and accepts a glass in return. She looks well too. Like Robbie she is thriving on retirement, accommodating the slow increments of time instead of resisting them.
He stops to listen to the child’s burble of news and to have his offer of help with the meal turned down. Robbie, unusually, seems impatient for him to get these pleasantries out of the way.
“Come and meet the new kids,” he says.
“They came to Oxford with their mother when they were only toddlers,” Robbie tells him as they go upstairs. “They were escaping the Sri Lankan civil war but she died soon after, leaving them orphans. They’ve spent the best part of a decade in care, poor mites.”
They find them both in the room that used to be Lyn’s. Two brown-eyed, skinny kids in jeans and T-shirts, a girl and a boy. Fourteen year old twins.
James has seen the boy before.
He was the child he saw mourning his sister while the last embers of Wells Brown were extinguished. He remembers the girl’s picture on an incident room display of victims’ photographs. He finally understands why the school could not be allowed to burn.
The twins are arranged in teenage disarray across the bed and chairs, deeply involved in a daunting looking textbook. They shuffle themselves into upright positions as the adults come in.
James sees the resemblance between the Mr Subramaniam he met in Islington and the boy. He was of an age to be the twins’ grandfather but, of course, this is not the explanation.
“Priya and Krish. This is my friend, James,” Robbie says. They greet him with disinterested politeness. “You must have done your homework by now?”
“We’ve finished our homework,” Priya says. “We’re doing our own work now.”
“Science geniuses, the pair of them,” Robbie tells James. “They’re doing A levels now and going to university when they’re sixteen. They’ve got places at Magdalen.”
“Congratulations,” James says. “What will you be reading?”
“Not just any old physics,” Robbie says. “Priya here was telling me about the multiverse. You know the one where you’ve got lots of other worlds.”
“I’ve read a little about the theory.”
James has, in fact, read a lot about it, constantly stumbling across the idea when he was trying to understand how his journey back to the seventies had been possible. It seems to him to be an exercise in wishful thinking, a fable for those who don’t believe in heaven. The theory proposes the existence of an infinite number of universes where versions of you might live doing the things you never manage in this ordinary grey old universe.
“They reckon they know how you can travel between the different universes,” Robbie says.
“Only theoretically,” Priya clarifies.
“Krish is also interested in time travel,” Robbie says. “What do you think about that, James?”
James gives him a sour look but can’t help but ask, “How do you think it would work?”
“There are different ideas,” Krish says. “The behaviour of particles in quantum theory is an interesting starting point.”
“Although it’s hard to believe that the past and future exist as places to which you can travel,” Priya says.
“Unless there’s something everyone’s missed,” Krish says challenging his sister. “Something that makes it possible to go somewhere that no longer exists.”
“A particle of magic?” James suggests.
The twins look at him with renewed interest.
“Right you two,” Robbie says. “You’ve had your heads in your books for long enough today. Go out into the garden and kick a ball around before dinner. And take Lucy with you.”
They humour him, trotting downstairs to collect Lyn’s daughter and go outside into the late spring sunshine.
“I’m determined to get a teenage tantrum out of them before I’m done,” Robbie tells James. “I’ve never seen such a good-natured pair.”
James picks up their textbook. It is as indecipherable as an alien language.
“Careful, they’re one Siamese cat away from being super-villains so maybe don’t wind up them up too much.”
“Those two? Never.”
“Have you given them their letter?”
Robbie sits down on the bed, “Not yet.”
“Oh, you know, I thought I’d give them a chance to settle in and feel at home, before I present them with the secrets of the universe. It’s written in their personal code, as well. I’ve seen them using it. They’ll be able to read it straight off.”
“They won’t be able to reverse what’s happened, if that’s what you’re worried about,” James says, sitting beside him. “Even if the letter explains how time travel works, this is reality now. If they wanted to hurt Val, they would have to start from scratch altering history. And they wouldn’t do that.”
“You know why, don’t you?”
“I do, now.”
He tells Robbie about Eric Meyer and how the arson attack on Wells Brown school resulted in Priya’s murder. How Val’s survival somehow diverts the course of Meyer’s life.
“She’s always kept an eye on him, it’s true. Even after he served time for helping the building society robbers. It’s a thankless bloody task, he’s a little git. But he’s taken over running his auntie’s bar now, he seems to be doing all right at last.”
“There you go,” James says. “Happy endings all round.”
At this, Robbie looks sharply at him. He takes James’ hand in both of his; the left hand with its stubborn imprint of a marriage that never happened, its particle of magic.
“Did we have a good marriage?”
“It’s all right. Tell me.”
They sit, silently holding hands as the rest of the family arrive. There is noise and clatter from downstairs but he can hear Jack’s voice above the rest; the oldest grandchild, always the loudest, asking, ‘where’s grandad?’. James had been teaching the boy to play the guitar when he was his step-grandfather. He doesn’t know if anyone is now.
“We did,” he says. “We did have a good marriage.”
“James, lad,” Robbie sighs as a child’s footsteps come thundering up the stairs. “What’ve we done to you?”
James takes his hand away, “I’m going to go. This is too strange.”
Robbie gazes at him, “Goodbye, James,” he says quietly.
He anticipated a few glasses of wine so he doesn’t have the car. Now he slips out of the house to set off on foot. Drinking remains the plan and he is deciding on a pub near his flat when he realises Val is hurrying after him.
He walks back to meet her, “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“No, it’s okay. I just wanted to say goodbye. You’re leaving, aren’t you? I mean Oxford.”
“Not this minute. I have to sort everything out first.”
“But we’re not going to see you again, are we?”
“I don’t know.”
She looks searchingly at him, “I think I understand why.”
“I don’t think you do.”
“Because before you changed everything, I died in London and you were with Robbie.”
“He told you that?”
“He won’t talk about it so I’m guessing. You’re not denying it.”
“It took him years to grieve for you, Val. And they were long, tough years. I don’t think he can even contemplate it now, let alone talk about it.”
“I’m grateful for what I’m sure you did for him.”
“I was too late to really help.”
“I doubt that,” she says. “And I’ve always known he loves you. I’ve had to make room for that since the day he told me you had come back from the dead and were a sergeant at Cowley Road.”
“Val, he would never -.”
“I know he would never be unfaithful and I know you would never allow him to be. But I could easily see a different life for him.”
“Which means,” she says when he still does not contradict her. “I’m on stolen time and it’s you I stole it from.”
“That’s how I used to feel.”
“Oh, he’s a sod, isn’t he? Too bloody easy to love.”
He laughs although it comes out more of a sob.
“There’s no plan,” he says. “No design, no fate. It’s a throw of the dice and you just have to deal with the consequences in the best way you can.”
“Or if you can possibly manage it, invent time travel.”
This time he does laugh.
“Do you think those children are right?” She asks. “That all the roads not taken and the choices not made are playing out in universes out of our reach?”
“I don’t think either of us are in a position to dismiss a wild theory.”
“No, that’s true. I wish you wouldn’t go, James. Forget Robbie, I want you to stay. You belong here with us.”
He hugs her, thinking how easy it would be to let himself be folded into their lives. To be loved in a loveless life. Taking his place among their children and surrogate children. Easy and utterly impossible.
“I’m sorry, Val,” he says, turning to go. “Look after him for me, will you.”
To be continued.