It was a Sunday afternoon and Gary was sitting alone in his shop 'Blitz and Pieces'. Why? Well, that was a good question. He was suffering from something that a two-timing, song writing, wartime-secret agent didn't usually have trouble with; boredom. Ron was out; he had called round at the Mayfair flat that morning, it wasn't like Ron to go off like that. No Yvonne either, she was away on an extended 'fact finding' mission and Phoebe had gone to see her Gran in Liverpool and had taken Michael with her. What was there left to do but open up the shop, it wasn't as if bigamy usually left him with enough time to entertain a hobby. Nobody had come in so far, he hadn't taken a single pound all morning; it was hardly surprising though, he was normally shut. He had half considered going back to the past to talk to Reg but he wasn't that desperate yet. Even the 19th Century was out of the question; to them he was Jack The Ripper.
Sick of staring at the displays in the shop, Gary decided to step out into the yard and have a cigarette. He didn't know why he hardly smoked in the present but even stranger was the fact that he never did it indoors. It was a lovely day; he couldn't blame Ron for going out. It was a shame; he would have enjoyed an afternoon of chat without the usual bigamistical overtones, he didn't even have a complicated problem to sort out. If he ever had to make his life solely in the past, he would miss Ron. Now, on a day like this, when he wasn't there for him, Gary realised how much.
Gary lit his second cigarette and his gaze fell upon the gate where the portal was. Could he? Should he? He could always get a train up to Liverpool. It wasn't a very good option though; he had had to make major excuses to Phoebe when it looked likely that Yvonne would want him to come with her. Then he had had an argument with Yvonne, whilst trying to arrange some good quality time in the past for the coming week and she had gone off on her own. He couldn't turn up in Liverpool when he had built his latest excuse up to sound like he was about to win the war single-handed. Now he came to think about it that ruled out a chat with Reg too, even if he did get that desperate. Again he turned to the portal with longing.
It was then that the idea struck him. A few months ago he had been dropped off in a taxi at the wrong end of Duckett's Passage. He had wandered through the portal and had ended up kissing a very likable Yvonne look-alike in a long dress in the 19th Century. What if he did the same thing in the present? All he would have to do was walk round the block to the back of the shop and approach the gate from the other side. Maybe he would find a Phoebe waiting for him in the future and he wouldn't be accused of murder before he got a chance to get his clothes off. Maybe she would be wearing a very short futuristic little dress. That thought cheered him up a lot.
Back in the shop he began to make his plans. What was he going to do for money? The answer to that little question lay all around him; a few selected items from his shop and directions to the nearest antique store would do the trick. For clothes, the jeans and shirt he was wearing should just about cut it, they were pretty timeless items. As for the rest, well he would have to buy a newspaper at the first opportunity he got and hope for the best.
Before he went, Gary ate the sandwiches he had brought for his lunch; he didn't know how long it would take to find some money. His thoughts fell on daydreaming about the future he was about to experience. Up to now he had never had the opportunity to ponder these things, he had always ended up in different eras as a surprise. He mulled over all the utopian dreams a lot of people churned out when faced with predicting the future. Somehow he didn't think the human race could pull off lasting peace. He would have to hold his breath as he walked through the portal in case the air was full of radioactive fallout. No matter what he thought 2052 might be like, however, one thing was certain, he would be proved wrong; future predictions were always like that.
By 11am he had crammed as much ham and coleslaw down his throat as he could manage, it was time to go. He was in the back yard and almost about to walk through the portal when he realised his mistake.
"Gary mate, you've been doing this too long," he said to himself, turned round and went back in the shop. He unlocked the front door, got out onto the street, locked it behind him and made his way round to the back.
Gary stood before the portal, it was deep breath time; he couldn't look as he walked through, at least with the past there could be no surprises on the appearance front. He walked three paces and stopped, the air didn't feel radioactive. There was a cool breeze in the air but Gary could also feel the sun on his face. He forced himself to open his eyes; he couldn't very well stand there in the dark all day. What did he see? Well it was his yard and his back door. Slightly let down, he peaked to the left and the right. Ha! No wall on either side, the two neighbouring yards had been joined with his by knocking down the walls; the doors had been bricked up too. Did he keep time travelling into his retirement and build an empire? No, he thought, this yard was far too tidy to be his.
Some more steps forward were inevitable; he was stuck in the yard otherwise. He tentatively approached his back door and peaked through the frosted glass. What he saw was a kitchen, like in a restaurant with big fridges and huge cookers. It was empty, he tried the door and it opened effortlessly. The kitchen was wide and thin; it ran the entire width of the three original units. Gary stepped forward to the opposite door, which he presumed led to the space that used to be his shop. He listened for a while, it sounded like he was in the back rooms of a bar but there was an odd herbal smell in the air and no hint of cigarettes or beer. He could see through the gap between the door and the door frame, the sole barman was sitting on a stool and paying far too much attention to the contents of the till to worry about a misplaced time traveller. He opened the door and snuck through.
Fortunately for Gary the hatch was up and it was directly in front of him. He got himself placed on the correct side of the bar without drawing any attention to himself. He looked to the barman; there was the man he could ask directions off. Gary approached him.
"Excuse me," Gary began.
The barman looked up from the accounts he was dealing with, "How may I help you?" he asked.
Gary's mouth dropped open at the sight. The man was fairly tall, quite thin in build, his hair was fair in colour and he spoke with a good quality London voice. More important, however, was the fact that he looked very much like Ron. Apart from the posh voice, the fact that he was slightly better looking and a little indefinable something it could almost have been Ron if he had gone on a diet and stretched a bit. Ron would never be able to sound that posh, he had no idea what else was different but there was something. Gary's gaping shock might have been more embarrassing had the Ron look-alike not looked him over too.
"I am new to the area and I was just wondering if you could direct me to the nearest antique shop," Gary stuttered.
The Ron look-alike smiled warmly, "Yea, no problem," he said. He then proceeded to give Gary perfect instructions using street names that were the same as those in 1999. Maybe this Ron was a little younger than the one he was used to, Gary thought, but that wasn't totally it, there was still something else about him. Gary said his thanks and turned to go.
"Come back and stay awhile sometime," the Ron look-alike called after him.
"Yes, I will do, it's a nice place you have here," Gary half turned to reply. Even if it hadn't been a nice place, he still needed to come back so he could sneak back into the yard.
Things out front hadn't changed much, well not as much as he had expected anyway. The units had different shops in them but they were still the same buildings. Cars still ran on the same side of the road but they were a different shape and dripped water from their exhausts. The air smelled slightly odd; clean in fact, it was the most bizarre thing. Gary felt quite relaxed; there was no scary factor in this future at all.
He found the antique shop easily and traded a few valuable watches in return for a shocking amount of money. He bought a paper at the first newsagent's he came across and went for a wander through the streets. Even when compared to the 21st Century prices he came across, his antiques had fetched a sizable sum. He was going to have a lot of fun in the future, if only he could find where to have it.
After an hour of wandering he thought it was about time he armed himself with some current affairs. A little bit of searching later he found a park and more importantly, a park bench to sit on. A man with a large steel urn on a trolley came round selling hot milky tea. Gary bought a cup from him and only three sips later realised that there had been something slightly odd with that. Still, the tea was very good.
Gary sat back and felt the sun on his face; it was nice to see that in 2052, people weren't actually walking around in total sun block. Did he really want to know the news of the future? Did he really need to know? He wasn't sure now. Each step toward the future had made his boring Sunday seem nicer; why spoil it, news always spoilt things. He was being stupid, he told himself, what could there be about this future that would spoil things, he hadn't even seen anybody of suspicious intent yet, never mind an actual crime. Maybe this was a peaceful Utopia and the human race had sorted itself out at last. Reassured, Gary unfolded the paper and took a look at the front page, it bore small ads columns rather like the Times had in the 1940s, he opened it to the first page.
"Oh bugger!" he said to himself and to anyone who was close enough to hear, ten people in fact.
The newspaper was full of war stories. Peace talks breaking down, threats of invasion, of air strikes. There were conscription articles, adverts for food that kept well in the air-raid shelters. Just the sort of the thing he had come to expect from the 1940s. Only this time it was the future, with future warfare and future bombs. Gary looked up to the sky; just within sight there was a barrage balloon. Down on the ground some of the more important buildings had sand bags up against them, how had he missed that before? All these preparations for war but no sense of danger in the air; what was this place he had walked into?
He must get back to the bar, Gary decided, have a quick drink with future Ron, then head back home. He didn't want to live through a 21st Century Blitz, it didn't sound amusing. The concept of him actually living through it struck him as an odd one; if man had achieved anything it was thinking of better ways to blow things up.
On second thoughts, he would visit the history section of the library first, and then he was definitely going home. He just had to find out what would happen after he left the 90s, whether Yvonne would be OK without him or not. Gary looked around him for somewhere to put his disposable plastic cup and was disappointed to find that the world had yet to move on from the good old rusty park bin, which any passing breeze could easily render useless.
The library was still in the same building as in the 90s Gary was relieved to find. It seemed that progress had become unfashionable at last and he was very grateful for it. His presumptions were premature, however, when he got inside, he found that the library didn't contain any books. In the place of bookcases were row upon row of computer terminals. Oh goody, Gary thought, he had always hated the things. At least they might have made them simple enough for a dog to operate by now. The good old keyboard had survived the fad for speech dictation he observed, there was something very weird about having to talk to a machine. He sat down at a terminal and had a good look at the visual interface.
To Gary it looked very much like an Internet browser from what he could remember from the two times he had been online. Had Bill Gates joined the masses and become bored with yearly updates? Out of pure mischief Gary typed 'Bill Gates' into the text box and clicked on search. The options shot onto the screen faster than he could blink. No longer the 'World Wide Wait' he muttered to himself. Which areas did he wish to search? He clicked on the 'news' radio button and received a list of newspaper articles in chronological order.
Not surprisingly, the poor guy was dead. Much to Gary's disappointment though, it was from natural causes at a very old age. What was it with the future? Didn't anybody lose everything and commit suicide anymore? What this century needed was a suave and debonair time traveller to save the day; maybe he would stick around for a while. After all, the portal back to the 1990s was only in the yard of the Ron look-alike's bar. He would just leg it in the opposite direction to everybody else when the siren went off.
This keyword search thing was all very well but now what did he do if he just wanted to find out generally what had been going down since 1999? Modern history perhaps? It was worth a try. He got the list of options again and chose 'books' and the high school age range; he didn't want to get bogged down in academic speculation and minutiae. Then he spent two hours reading and clicking on links. As he finished reading about the lead up to the current war he sat back exhausted, emotionally drained and astonished, above all.
The turn of the century? Well he had skipped that bit; he might yet have to live through it. Anyway, the human race seemed to have made it through to the 21st Century with progress still storming it forward. By the year 2010 the population of Britain was so out of hand, however, that the government and The Church of England led a campaign to promote homosexuality with cash incentives to same sex couples. As a result, previous estimates of the proportion of gay people to straight had to be thrown right out of the window. Around about the same time, maybe a bit earlier, the first child grown in a laboratory was 'born', it seemed that this method of child bearing had rapidly become the norm. A spin off of this was that it made it easier for the government to control birth rate. For every sperm or egg harvest, half of the produce had to go anonymously into a government bank. If you wanted one child you could choose the gender, if you wanted two you had to take potluck. Any registered couple was eligible for a child. Same sex couples made use of the government bank at no extra cost.
What else had been going on? Well, somebody discovered that it wasn't actually possible to make a PC processor that would go any faster. It appeared that this had the knock on effect of bringing to an end the constant upgrade process in software as well as hardware by removing the need to keep up with 'the competition', since there wasn't anywhere to go anymore. People still made discs that did different stuff, things just weren't moving at such a scary speed anymore.
And the war thing? Well it appeared to have been rumbling on for quite some time. The longevity of the build-up could be directly attributed to the trend for global decommissioning in the very early days of the century. By the time everybody realised that they did still hate each other after all, there wasn't much left. A few old bunkers of stuff were opened up and things got under way but it had taken a while for everybody to get up to strength. As Gary saw it, he had walked into the 21st Century at just the right moment, if he wanted to see lots of fireworks anyway. He just hoped they hadn't got to the plans for the really big nasty bombs yet.
The complacency of the population that Gary had observed seemed to be coming from something similar to 'The Phoney War' at the end of the 1930s. There was panic, a whole heap of preparations for all out war, then nothing much happened for a very long time. Not as far as the civilian was concerned anyway, there were many young men getting plenty of action overseas. Wouldn't you know it but the Germans were responsible for this lot too, he didn't want to get started on 'that' subject.
Gary felt that he definitely needed that drink now. He wasn't sure what he had to do to put the computer back to its original state so he just left it as it was and quickly walked away. He was looking forward to a chat with Ron's look-alike now that didn't feel so out of his depth.
Gary found the bar again easily. He stood on the other side of the road looking at the façade for a while. The bar was called 'Blitz and Pieces' of all things, the interior hadn't reflected this at all. As he crossed the road he could see Ron's look-alike still behind the bar. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon here just as it had been in the present; business was slow. There were plenty tables to be had but Gary took his place on a stool by the bar.
Ron's look-alike turned out to be called Xavier Wheatcroft, which placed him as more of a grandson than a mere look-alike. Gary took a quick look at his name badge before he noticed that he had returned, he was the manager of the bar. He also had a look at the types of refreshment on offer. The bar was lined with on-draft pumps but the back wall was a display of hundreds of varieties of cigarette. Xavier looked up and noticed him at last. Smiling he asked Gary what he would like.
"A beer please, what do you have that's cold and wet?" Gary asked.
Xavier laughed, "This isn't a retro bar you know, despite the name. What would you like to smoke?"
Gary was bemused, "Just pick me something I probably haven't tried before," He said trying to sound casual and confident.
"Well that's easy," Xavier replied leaning over to the display behind him, still sat on the stool, "Try some Peruvian, I can reach that and it's amongst the best you'll find."
"Sounds cool," Gary replied with enthusiasm as Xavier placed before him three cigarettes and a lighter served on a small side plate, "Can I have a drink too?"
"No problem, what would you like?" Xavier asked.
"What have you got?" Gary replied not wanting to take any more chances.
"Coke, diet Coke, Lilt, diet Lilt, Sprite, Tango all flavours…" Xavier began.
"I'll have a coke please," Gary cut in as it became clear that soft drinks were the order of the day.
Xavier served Gary a coke from the comfort of his stool then took the lighter and offered the flame to him. Gary placed one of the cigarettes in his lips and leant forward to take the light. He leant back and took a good long drag on the cigarette fully expecting to experience something more than your normal smoke, this bar was so specialised. He got rather more than he bargained for; this cigarette wasn't tobacco, it was a joint. Gary slowly let his head come forward again trying to keep the surprise from his face. This was only unusual to him, he must remember that.
"Good isn't it?" Xavier enquired.
"Yep, it certainly is," Gary replied as he felt the beginning of it going to his head, it was also very quick. He proceeded with much smaller drags then took a sip of coke. At least there was something constant, the coke tasted just as it always had.
Suddenly there was a loud noise from behind, Gary turned sharply to see three rough looking men striding into the bar having just banged the door unnecessarily. Gary smelled trouble.
"Drinkoes," Xavier whispered loudly to Gary as a warning. Evidently, 'drinkoes' was meant to mean something too him which it didn't. The future had just turned scary and he was on the wrong side of the bar. The three rough blokes were all dressed in military uniform. Trying to look cool more than eight decades after your birth is something you should try to avoid but Gary gave it a go anyway.
The men staggered as they approached the bar. They were obviously very drunk. Gary looked to Xavier in an attempt to gauge his mood, he looked terrified.
"Special Six all round, love," the tallest of them demanded in a threatening tone.
"You know I can't serve you," Xavier replied, he was looking longingly at the door as if expecting back ups.
"We've been given the authority to round up all deserters and draft dodgers and do what we like with them, so you better serve up quick civvy, or tomorrow will not be another day."
"Look Bee, we've got another of the treasonous little shits here," another of the group directed at Gary.
What could Gary do but fall back on an old trick and hope for the best, he was no fighting man and Xavier, though quite well built, wasn't coming out from his side of the bar to help. He turned to the men and stood as tall as he could.
"There are some very important aspects of the war effort which require that an officer should be able to blend into his surroundings and act with a certain amount of 'intelligence' if you get my drift. I would leave my colleague and I alone to continue our conversation in peace or I shall be obliged to report you to your commanding officer. I am sure he will take a very dim view of this blatant abuse of position against what you took to be an ordinary citizen of this good country." He said in his best and most important sounding voice. He didn't know what the hell he was doing trying that line here, it had worked in the 1940s but it wouldn't even cut it in his own time. The 'drinkoes' were quite rightly speechless but he didn't expect it to last long.
The door opened again and a large woman in uniform strode into the bar and pulled a gun on the soldiers.
"Get out and return to base before I have to have you court marshalled," She shouted at them. They weren't about to argue with a gun so they did as they were told. The women stepped through the bar hatch and approached Xavier still holding the gun in her hand. Facially she looked a bit like Yvonne but the build was all wrong, she was so tall and muscular. Her expression had softened considerably. She put an arm round Xavier and squeezed him to within an inch of his life.
"You OK, bro?" She asked him.
This was Xavier's sister? Gary thought this was very strange; she was quite clearly in her late forties and Xavier quite clearly was nowhere near that old.
"Yep, I'm fine," Xavier replied coughing as his sister released him from her grip.
The sister pointed the gun at Gary, "This one OK?" She asked Xavier.
"Yes Suzie, that one is just fine," Xavier replied smiling self-consciously at Gary.
"Good," Suzie said putting her gun away at last, "I'm on duty so I can't stay in here but I'll hang around outside for a while and make sure they've gone."
"Thanks, you're a saviour, pop in for a smoke when you can."
"I will, the girl's will be here soon won't they?" Suzie asked.
"Yep, any minute now I'll be finished for the night and on my way home,"
"You shouldn't walk home on your own." Suzie warned.
Gary was starting to sense weirdness, was there something about Xavier that made everybody but Suzie and him want to beat him up? He looked so harmless too.
"Sis, I'll be fine, you're going to see they're gone aren't you?"
"Yea, I know, I just worry you know, in case it all starts."
"I'll walk him home," Gary cut in surprising himself more than Suzie and Xavier.
"Oh right," Suzie said giving her brother a nudge and a wink, "I'll be off then."
"Bye sis," Xavier called as he watched her leave.
Xavier then turned his attentions to Gary who still wasn't pleased at having been left alone to defend himself despite what he might have volunteered himself for. He lit another 'cigarette'.
"Did you know for sure that she was coming?" He demanded.
"No, she could have been miles away," Xavier replied, "But you were fantastic," He beamed, "You stood up to them and I don't even know your name."
"It's Gary, and don't think I have forgotten about the distinct lack of help there, you forced me to break my cover." Gary snapped.
Xavier's complexion whitened and the smile disappeared.
"So you're really with the Service?" He asked nervously.
"Yes, I am as it happens," Gary replied still in a peeve, "As a matter of interest, why are you not in uniform? Why are you not serving your country like you should be?"
Xavier looked at him as if he was no better than the thugs that had just left, "I was," he said looking down at the bar.
A silence followed and Gary didn't know what to say, he was about to try a few reconciliatory words when there was a new commotion behind him.
Four women walked in loudly chatting and calling out greetings to Xavier, 'the girls' had arrived. By 'the girls' Suzie and Xavier had meant the nighttime staff that would take over. They bustled around the bar for a few minutes, more interested in themselves than how interested Gary was in them, and then went upstairs to get changed.
"I'll be going home in a minute," Xavier announced, "Does the offer of a walk home still stand?"
"Yes, of course it does," Gary replied feeling that it wasn't enough for some reason. Xavier looked like a downtrodden puppy dog and he was beginning to feel guilty for being so short with him. "Would you be at all interested in showing me some good places for a night out?" he added, "If you're not doing anything else of course."
Xavier's face lit up a bit, "Yes, I would like that very much," he replied, "I'll have to call in at home and get changed if you don't mind, you could come with me."
"No problem," Gary replied with a smile.
It didn't seem like a look-alike of Phoebe was going to show up, so what else was he to do? He might as well be on the town with a descendant of Ron than sat in Blitz and Pieces Bar, getting stoned and waiting for some more 'drinkoes' to turn up.
Xavier's resemblance with Ron faded every time they exchanged words. Apart from the occasional gesture there was very little non-physical similarity. What had appeared to be so subtle was becoming a whole separate personality and Gary liked him as much as Ron for all the difference. In a lot of ways Xavier reminded him of Phoebe when they first met, he couldn't really describe it. Maybe it had a bit to do with the war thing, and the bar thing, and not forgetting the fact that Xavier was impressed with his secret agent story.
It wasn't long before 'the girls' came back and insisted that Xavier should get away home.
"Go get your coat," Gary joined in as he protested. Another strange thing about Xavier, he had looked keen to be getting away but when it came to it he hesitated.
"Go, go, go," One of the girls shouted in his ear with a smile.
"My coat is in the back, won't be a moment," Xavier said to Gary.
Xavier eased down off the stool, leant down to a lower shelf and picked up an elbow crutch. Using it, he limped awkwardly into the back room for his coat. When he returned he was using two crutches and was wearing a casual jacket. They turned out to be about the same height. He found that Gary was staring at him with his mouth open and his spirits slumped dramatically.
"I'll understand if you find that you have changed your mind," Xavier said looking at the floor.
Gary was horrified, "No! I was just feeling so bad for giving you a hard time. You were serving weren't you?"
"Yep, I was," Xavier replied, "Then I took a leg full of shrapnel, lay in a ditch for a while, got scraped up and sent off back home."
"Were you fighting long?" Gary asked.
Xavier smiled, "No Gary, I was hopeless, I was only out there for a week after training."
"It's not for everybody, maybe you should join the secret boys."
"Yea, I've got a great cover, nobody would ever guess," Xavier said laughing.
Gary got the feeling that he was going to enjoy his night out with Xavier.
"Did you like those smokes?" Xavier asked.
"Yea, they were good," Gary replied.
Xavier turned to one of the girls who were now stationed behind the bar.
"Can we have twenty Peruvians to go, Phoebe?" He asked the one with long dark hair.
Gary nearly tripped over his own feet turning to get a look of her but she looked nothing like his Phoebe. She passed the smokes to Gary in silver cigarette case with the lighter off the bar. He took them, placed them in his pocket and followed Xavier out into the dusky London night.