Thursday 13 December 2012

Here's a very short story I wrote last year, which was - peculiarly enough - placed in an art exhibition. It's about London and time travel.


‘I think I shall go and sit on the Embankment,’ said Herbert George Smith, as he left the dusty office.
Relieved to be out in the open air, he walked down Milford Lane and settled on one of the familiar benches. He rested his briefcase against the cast-iron Sphinx and gazed at the dreary Thames. There was nothing particularly interesting in watching the dirty brown water – the occasional steamboat might chug past – but it gave him something to do whilst he ate his sandwiches.
It was a warm, summer’s day and, after he had eaten and taken a sip or two from his flask, he felt rather tired. He was loath to go back to the office before the lunch-hour was out; but did not possess the energy or discipline to take a walk round Temple Gardens.
Instead, he lolled back in the warm embrace of the sun and closed his eyes. It occurred to him that – if anyone were to walk past – they might think he was drunk.
He fell asleep, listening to the thunderous rattle of iron-shod wheels on the road behind him, and the steady clip-clop of horses’ hooves dragging them along.


Herbert felt a sinking sensation and awoke with a start. He was glad to find that he was still on the bench; but his relief turned to amazement. The scene before him had altered. The change presented itself to him subtly at first – a growing sense of disquiet – without any specific information permeating his conscious mind. Then it became stronger, as he experienced sudden flashes of confusion.
The bridge had gone!
Waterloo Bridge had been destroyed – how was it possible? – and a strange edifice of plain, unadorned concrete stood in its place, stone balustrades replaced by a set of white railings.
His eyes rested upon the southern shore of the Thames. The small fleet of coal-barges moored by the bridge – they, too, had vanished. The timber-yards and warehouses; the narrow wharves and the shot-tower of the great lead-works – all had been transformed.
It was, in truth, a neat and tidy transformation, a mirror of the embankment on which he was sitting. It was an improvement: a neat stone river-wall; iron lamps; trees in full leaf. At first, he wondered if some callous youths had somehow carried him, sleeping, across the bridge and he was merely looking at where he had begun. But no – that was the impossibility of it – the distinctive bend in the river –  he had not moved.
He tapped the Sphinx’s head to reassure himself that he was not dreaming; but he did not feel reassured.
The noise of the traffic forced him to cautiously turn around. A stream of automative vehicles – each and every one utterly unfamiliar, forged from coloured sheets of shining metal – were crawling along the road behind him. He looked about the Embankment, anxiously, desparate for some unchanging starting-point to grasp reality. The bench, at least, was identical – and the green lawns of the Temple – reassuringly untouched by whatever strange power had somehow intervened in the lives of men.
He wondered if he had gone mad.


He did not move; not at first. Then, at last, he stepped over to the stone wall and peered over the edge, looking down at the unchanging river.
The sudden movement was too ambitious. He felt slightly queasy and returned hurriedly to his seat. At the same moment, a woman sat down beside him.
She was a young woman – no more than twenty one or two years old – but dressed in a black costume which utterly dumbfounded him. The trousers were the most peculiar aspect – straight silken masculine trousers as might be worn by a junior clerk, her legs shamefully delineated.
It was not – he thought to himself – remotely decent. Not on the Embankment.
He looked at her and wondered if she was some breed of actress, come from rehearsal at the Gaiety or Lyceum.
Or was she something worse?
He studied her discreet decolletage – milk-white breasts just visible beneath a cream-coloured blouse – her arms concealed by a masculine jacket. He stared at her face – a painted face – painted!
No decent woman painted. He wondered how she dared sit next to him.
Did she have no fear of the police?
‘Can I help you?’ said the young woman.
The strange girl was rather beautiful. He felt ashamed of himself, staring at her.
‘I beg your pardon – I am quite lost –’


Herbert George Smith returned home in an instant of nausea and migraine, lights popping in his head.
He pondered the incident for many years. He would, in time, marry and have two daughters. But neither his wedding day, nor the birth of his children, remained so startling and vivid in his imagination.
In his dotage, as the bombs fell on the East, and his family struggled to get him to the shelter, they were mystified by the phrase he repeated to himself.
‘I think I shall go and sit on the Embankment.’


1 comment:

  1. Nice :) I do love how alien the past and present can be to one another, even down to the smallest details like trousers and make up.