It was a Thursday that Barry Jordan vanished - I know that for a fact. I’d seen him the previous Wednesday evening – we’d spent an evening at the King of Prussia in Heanor, chewing over the latest set of football results, moaning about team performances, and generally acting as if we were the new Clough and Taylor. There had been nothing in his manner to suggest anything out of the ordinary, and now he was gone. No message, no phone call, nothing. I’d been round to his flat on North Street in Langley Mill to find the place locked. Neighbours hadn’t seen him in a week, and I could see a pile of mail inside the hallway, through the letterbox. I’m Joe Wilson – his best friend.
So, where the hell had he gone? And without a word to someone who’d been his best mate for over 40 years? I shook my head in frustration; it was so unlike him; so out of character – or so I thought at the time. Should I report him missing? What would I say? He was sixty-five, not some kid fresh out of school; he hadn’t stormed out of his home after a row with his parents; he’d just… disappeared.
“What’s up with you?” Tim Shepherd nudged me in the ribs at the bar of the New Inn on Heanor’s Derby Road that evening. “Look as if you’ve lost a tenner and found a penny.”
“Oh, nothing really,” I said, turning to find a table out of the way in a corner; I wasn’t in the mood for conversation. Undeterred, he followed.
“Come on, summat’s up.” He sat down opposite and plonked his pint in front of him. “You look like a wet Wednesday in Ripley.”
“All right,” I said. “But you’re going to think I’m somebody’s nanny.”
“Spit it out.”
“Barry’s gone AWOL.”
“Barry Jordan? Your footie pal?”
“The very same.”
“Christ! What’s the team going to do without him?”
“I’m serious, Tim. It’s just not like him.”
“Okay. Joe, Sorry.” He held his hands up in mock surrender. “When was this?”
I told him, what I’d found out since the last time Barry and I had been together, and he leaned back with one of those self-satisfied grins that make you want to put a boot right through it.
“What?” I said, frowning my displeasure at what I supposed was his attempted return to levity.
“How often do you two meet up? Match days? Once a week in between to put the team right?”
“About that, yes. Why?”
“Thought so. Not seen his workshop, then?”
“No… what workshop?”
“Well, I heard from a friend of a friend that Barry took out a lease on a workshop just outside Ripley some months back; Heage Road I think it is. He’s been spending a lot of time in it doing who knows what.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked, tetchily.
“That’s where the info dries up. Seems nobody’s been in there to find out, and it’s locked up tight as a drum.”
As far as the rest of the evening went, that was pretty much all I was interested in. I had one more pint and left for home, still none the wiser about Barry’s disappearance. I did take the time, the following evening, to look up the unit in Ripley and take a peek at the place. All the windows had blinds fitted and they were tilted upwards to prevent prying eyes from seeing into the premises. The door was secured by a heavy-duty lock and there was a sophisticated-looking burglar alarm high up on the wall just below the apex. I shook my head, disappointed that Barry had kept this place secret from me, his best friend. What was he hiding?
That question plagued me for the better part of a fortnight. Barry had a job; like me, he needed cash to pay his bills, but when I rang his place of work, they told me that he’d booked three weeks off and wasn’t expected back until the following Monday. I had, I thought, a further four days until I could give him a piece of my mind – how wrong I was.
The hammering on my front door was getting louder and more insistent by the second. I came hurrying down the stairs wondering who the hell it could be. I opened the door and the mud-splattered figure lurched past me and into the hall.
“Shut the door! Shut it and keep it locked!”
“Barry,” I said, unable to take in what stood before me. “What the..?”
“I need to clean up; get these filthy clothes off me. Christ! I must stink!”
“Well, I wasn’t going to mention it, but…”
“Can I use the shower? Will Mary mind?”
“She’s out with the girls tonight, so as long as we clear up she won’t know…”
“Great!” He smiled, but it wasn’t his usual one. There was a manic look to it, as if he’d been chased by all the demons from hell. Stripping off to his underwear, he headed off upstairs to the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.
“Don’t worry,” I said to no-one in particular. “I’ll tidy up; after all, what else was I doing tonight?”
Gathering up Barry’s discarded clothing, I rinsed them in the kitchen sink before dumping the whole lot into the washing machine. I set out to find clean stuff for my ‘absent’ friend and then decided upon some probing questions once he emerged from his clean-up.
He came back downstairs after what seemed an age; he appeared a little more relaxed, but I did notice a nervousness about him at any unexpected sound – the clicking off of the kettle had him jumping noticeably in his seat.
“Right,” I said, setting two mugs down on the table. “What’s going on? Haven’t seen you in almost a fortnight and you’re bulldozing your way through my front door.”
“Got anything stronger? We might need it by the time this evening’s done.”
“First things first.” I stood my ground. “Where’ve you been, and why did it take Tim Shepherd to tell me about this workshop of yours?”
“Oh,” he said, wincing. “Hoped you wouldn’t bump into him. I was locking up when he happed past one evening. It’s complicated.”
“Not some mass murderer, then? Got bodies piled up in a freezer inside that lock-up?”
“No, nothing like that,” he said. “But I think I could be in a lot of trouble because of it.”
“Just get on with it, Barry. We’ve known each other for too long for this kind of nonsense.”
He took a deep breath, emptied the contents of his mug in one go, and sat back. This was serious. We’d spent too much time in each other’s company for me not to realise that. At eighteen, we’d both been at university together; both of us studying mechanical engineering. While my time was spent on regular course work, Barry had combined that with more experimental concepts which, I had to admit, were considerably out of my league. I left him to his own devices on that score, and we both ended up graduating with honours. After that, we found jobs with different companies and our work took us down separate paths. I knew he was way ahead of me in the theoretical aspects of engineering, but until now I had no idea how far that had taken him.
“Remember those letters I showed you some time ago?” he said.
“Those letters your uncle wrote home during the war?”
“Yes. There must have been a couple of hundred or more.”
“Okay, what’s that got to do with it?”
“I read them all. They were amazing. They came to me when Maureen died.”
Maureen was the last of three maiden aunts of Barry’s and the letters were in a large shoe box along with other memorabilia which she had saved down the years. Barry had told me about them before, but I had taken only a passing interest.
“So?” I said.
“The last one was dated two days before he was killed in July 1943, and it set me thinking…” His voice trailed off, and he stared off into the distance. I snapped my fingers before his eyes to bring him back.
“What have you done?” My words were slow and measured – I had an awful feeling about his answer.
“I went to see him.”
I was having trouble assimilating what had just been said. Barry’s Uncle John had been killed in action in Sicily during the Allies’ push towards the Italian mainland in 1943. His platoon had been ambushed by a German patrol near the town of Catania, that much was told to Barry’s grandparents in an official letter after the end of the conflict. Barry’s dad and aunts had travelled to the cemetery in Syracuse in 1991 – the only time that they had been able afford the trip. John Jordan was dead – it was a fact; historically recorded and beyond dispute. Now my best friend had ‘been to see’ his uncle – my mouth opened, but no sounds came out.
“You’ll think I’m nuts,” he said.
I was back. “Yes, I do. You are completely bonkers. What on Earth do you mean? He’s dead. How can you possibly have been to see him?”
I hadn’t seen what he’d been holding, hidden in his palm, until now. I was a small, round dial. He’d clearly removed it from the dirty clothes before rushing off upstairs. It was flashing faintly; a bluish colour ran around its rim, pulsating as if on ‘stand-by’.
“What it is?” I asked, moving back a little on the sofa opposite his chair.
“Remember when we were at uni, and I started the research work for my PhD?”
“Yes, you were very secretive about it but you never finished, did you?”
“No,” he said. “That would have meant publishing the work, and when I realised what I’d got I decided that it would be best if no-one else knew.”
“And that was..?” He was beginning to exasperate me – he’d done it before but this time I sensed that we were approaching something far more serious than the relatively mild irritation which he succeeded in bring out in me.
It was as if the world had frozen in that instance. I stared at him in total incomprehension. Had he said ‘Time travel’? I’m not stupid, and I do love a good sci-fi novel or film, but Einsteinian theoretical treatises on the possibilities of bending space and time are, to me, quite literally out of this world. I laughed. He didn’t.
“I’m sorry,” I said, recovering from my momentary hysteria. “What did you just say?”
“I told you you’d think I was nuts,” he sighed, heavily.
“No, no, please. Go on; explain.”
“The theory is quite simple; Einstein’s work showed the way. It’s just that until now nobody has found a tool to make it practical.”
“And you did?”
“Yes. That’s why I had to drop the PhD work and destroy the evidence.”
“So where’s the device come from?”
“Up here,” he said, tapping his head. “I photocopied all of the work before I set fire to it back at Uni.”
“So, that little gizmo is…”
“A portable time machine.”
“Get lost!” I said, smiling.
“No, it’s true,” he replied. “It creates a portal and you simply step through. I’ve been testing it for about a month, going back a few days at first and then further back into the past – went to the 1966 world cup final a few weeks back. You wouldn’t believe how that felt.”
“Hang on, this is getting a bit beyond me,” I said. “Do you mean to say that you can go back to any time you choose and watch what’s going on?”
“I thought so, at first,” he said. “But then I wondered what would happen if I could change something in the past. What would the consequences be? Who might be affected?”
“Barry,” I said. “Isn’t this like chaos theory? You know, a butterfly flaps its wings in the USA and there’s an earthquake in Asia? What if you killed somebody in the time period you were visiting – have you thought about that?”
“Yes,” he said. “But what if, instead of, for example, killing Hitler, you managed to save someone who had been killed...?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“He was going to be shot; point-blank range by a German foot soldier. He didn’t even see the guy – just walked right into his line of fire. I appeared behind the German; just dropped a boulder on his head. John heard the noise and turned round. If I hadn’t acted quickly he wouldn’t have survived.”
“What did you do?”
“Grabbed him, dragged him through the mud and activated the portal into reverse mode. That’s why I ended up looking like I was when you opened the door.”
“So,” I said, hardly daring to think of the answer. “Where is he now/”
“Oh, bloody hell! I forgot about him! He’s outside your back door; he’s very confused and I wouldn’t leave him out there much longer with the nosey neighbours you’ve got. What time’s Mary due back?”
I opened the back door slowly – always best, I thought when faced with an armed and confused man suddenly wrenched seventy plus years into the future. There he crouched, in the shadow cast by the porch, back pressed against the wall and breathing so slowly that I wondered if he was alive at all. He turned his head and stared at me – a shudder ran down my spine and I stepped out into the back garden. He rose from his position, rifle tilted forward as if ready to defend himself. I raised my hands in surrender, and he looked beyond me to where Barry was now standing. He frowned and cocked his head to one side, as if trying to recall the circumstances of their meeting.
“Joe, meet Private John Jordan. John, this is my best friend, Barry.”
John Jordan nodded in greeting and lowered the rifle. He looked around the garden and then up at the house. His face was set – he was clearly struggling to come to terms with what had happened to him. Barry beckoned him inside the house and John made his cautious way through the door and into the kitchen. He spoke for the first time.
“Where am I?”
“Langley Mill” Barry replied.
“Home? How? I was fighting the Germans just now…”
“It’s hard to explain, and I’m not sure that you’ll understand even when I do,” Barry said. “Let’s go and sit down,”
Over the following half hour, and with the time of Mary’s return fast approaching, John Jordan was given a potted history of what had just happened and the reasons which Barry had for carrying out the task. After a prolonged silence during which Private Jordan had thought about the events which had preceded his arrival, he looked at both of us.
“But that was 1943. What year is it now?”
Barry paused, swallowed hard, and answered. “2018.”
“That is not possible. Seventy-five years later? Where are all the people I know?”
“That’s a tough one,” I remarked.
“No easy way to tell you, John - they’re all dead.” Barry said. “You’re the last of your generation of the Jordan family.”
“So, there’s no-one in 2018 who knows me? Why, then, am I here?”
“Because I saved you from a German bullet. Officially you died in July 1943 right where I saw you.”
“And you are?”
“You nephew – your brother’s son.”
John Jordan’s voice began to tremble, and at first I thought it was emotion until he began to flicker. The flickering stabilized into a slight fading of his form – he was becoming transparent.
“Barry,” I said. “How far did you go with your trials? Did you check on the stability of the portal field?”
“No,” he said, suddenly realising what I was going to say. “I thought that it would last long enough for us both to get through and remain here.”
“Looks like you were wrong. You belong here, but he doesn’t. That’s why you were able make the earlier trips and come back unharmed.”
“What is happening?” John Jordan asked, looking down at his vanishing hands.
“Time is righting itself, John. You’re being taken back to 1943.”
The remainder of his words were lost as an echo as the figure on the sofa faded into nothing. He was gone; back to the woods outside Catania where Barry had met him; back to the conflict which had taken his life – to the inevitability of death at the hands of a German who he never knew.
“Just a minute.” Barry brightened. “The Jerry who had him lined up is still dead; he died in his own time when I dropped the boulder on his head. He can’t shoot John, so our boy might be okay after all.”
“We’ll never know, will we?” I said.
“I suppose not,” Barry replied.
“So, why all the panic at the front door?” My question was interrupted by a similar hammering to the one which had brought Barry here some hours earlier. “Who the hell is that?”
There was the sound of heavy boots outside on the street, something solid banging at the front door, and raised voices in a guttural language. Barry froze, momentarily; pulling the portal device out of a pocket, he swore.
“What?!” I demanded.
“It’s the portal,” he said, turning it towards me. “I forgot to turn it off; the gateway must have remained open.”
“So, who’s that at the front door?”
“That’ll be the rest of the German patrol; they must have followed us through.”
“Won’t they disappear like John did?” I asked, desperately looking for an escape route.
“They should do, I’d imagine. In the meantime I’d follow me and get under the kitchen table. They’ll soon come a cropper if they run into Mary.”
Suddenly there was silence; I thought it was ominous at first – as if whoever had been trying to get into the house had succeeded and was now hunting us down. Then there was a rattling sound in the lock, and a click as a key turned. We froze – holding our breath as long as we possibly could in the vain hope of surviving what we believed to be a German bullet.
“Hello; anyone home?” The sing-song tones of Mary’s voice had us heaving a collective sigh of relief as we emerged from under the kitchen table. “What on Earth are you two up to?” she asked, coming through the doorway from the hall.
“Oh, nothing,” Barry said. “Just dropped something on the floor and Joe was helping me look for it. Good evening?” he asked, desperately trying to change the subject.
“No,” she said, slumping into one of the chairs. “Those women can be real bitches at times and I left early, feigning a headache. So, what have you two been up to all evening? Same sort of boring stuff, I’d imagine. Solving all the problems of that football team you’re always on about?”
“Something like that,” Barry said, giving me one of his sideways looks.
“Hmm; thought as much. Nothing exciting happens around Langley Mill, does it?”
“No, love,” he answered, stepping across to the fridge. “Fancy a glass of wine?”