The Road Not Retaken

This was my entry into the Nibfest writers competition where the prize was a lunch with a real life agent from Watson, Little. I was terribly disappointed when after reading the tweet below and counting my chickens, I wasn’t even shortlisted…

There was obviously more than one time bending story entered...
There was obviously more than one time bending story entered…

Ah well. Hopefully I’ll get over it.

The Road Not Retaken

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The Road Not Retaken – in a Yellow Wood

It was a bright day in May, and the clocks were striking twelve. My phone chimed in sequence, making it sound like thirteen. I looked at it for the third time. This was my last chance. I had a choice to make.

Midday had felt like the perfect time to place the bookmark. If I’d set it too early I would have to relive too much dead time, allowing fate to place its banana skin distractions. If I’d set it too late, there might not be enough time to correct my mistakes or memorise some new relevant information.

So here I was, for the last time, standing at the entrance to St Pancras Station. The previous eight hours of my life had been erased. The next four could define me forever.

I groaned. If I walked left I would encounter the old man. Any other way and I’d avoid him, but his presence cast a dark shadow across my conscience.

In a different lifetime, the first time I’d arrived at St Pancras I’d been nervous about simpler things. The thought of meeting a real life literary agent was exciting and the potential thrilling, even so no matter how many times I reread my invitation, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had made a horrible mistake.

I braced myself against my nerves and marched through the concourse, past the shops and cafes, past the carefree passengers and out onto Euston Road.

It was a bright day in May, and the clocks were striking twelve. My phone chimed in sequence, making it sound like thirteen. I fished it out of my pocket and looked at the screen.

“Time bookmark inserted at 12:00pm 31/05/2014 – TimeTabber™”

It seemed very ordinary to hold so much power over the law of time. I shrugged. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to use the rewind feature anyway. Hopefully the meeting would go according to plan. Hopefully…

I turned left and strode purposefully towards the restaurant. I’d memorised exactly where I was going after checking and rechecking the address the night before. I crossed the busy road and strolled down a side street. I’d researched a pub nearby where I was going to prepare for an hour before the next stage of my quest for publication.

My daydreaming quickly accelerated to the international bestseller lists when I thought I heard a moan. I stopped walking and listened.

There it was again; a low, hopeless sound emanating from the car parked right next to me.

“Hello?” I felt vaguely stupid whispering, but the further I’d walked from the station the fewer people I passed and I now found myself alone.

“Help. Me.” The car groaned. “Please.”

I looked up and down the street, but there was no one in sight. Even the rumble of traffic seemed further away than it had before.

If it hadn’t been for the grimy hand that trembled out from behind the front wheel I would have started walking again.

I fell to my hands and knees and peered under the car. An old man was squashed beneath the front axle. His wispy white hair was long, and his skin flushed but frail.

I grasped his hand. It was all I could think of to do. “Hang on there, feller. You’ll be fine.”

I pulled my hand away to get at my phone and he moaned again. There was even more anguish in the sound now, as if the slight hope I’d given him had focussed his terror.

“Don’t worry mate. I’m still here. I’m just calling for an ambulance.”

I dialled 999.

“Which service please?”

“Er. Ambulance please.”

“Connecting phone number 07796 95012.”

There was a click.

“Ambulance emergency. Hello caller, what’s the emergency?”

“There’s a man under a car. He’s trapped I think.”

“Where are you caller?”

“I’m on…” I looked up at the buildings surrounded me. “I can’t see the name of the street. I don’t know the name of the street.”

I saw a young couple walking towards me on the other side of the road.

“Hey! Hey!” I leaped to my feet and shouted at them. “Hello! What’s the name of this street?”

They looked at each other for a second and then turned around and walked away quickly.

“There’s a man here! For God’s sake. What…” I ran after them towards the end of the street. I could see a sign on the railings.

“Hang on.” I panted into the phone. “It’s… Harrison Street. We’re on Harrison Street.”

I ran back to the car.

“OK, I’ve got help on the way.” The operator said calmly. “I need to go through some questions with you, but that won’t delay the ambulance. You’re at the scene at the moment, yes?”

I nodded.

“Are you with the man now?”

“Yes!” I said impatiently.

“OK. Is he conscious?”

I’d got back down on my hands and knees and retrieved his hand. “Are you conscious? Can you hear me?”

There was no answer.

“I’m not sure.” I said into the phone. “He’s not answering.”

“OK. Is he breathing?”

The old man’s breath was loud and ragged, but at least he was breathing. “Yes. But not very well.”

“OK, like I said, the whole time we’re talking, the paramedics are coming on lights and sirens OK?

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“When did it happen?”

“I don’t know. I was just walking past and I heard him groaning.”

Then the car rolled forward a few inches and the man’s breathing changed gear.

“Something’s happening!” I shouted. “The car’s moved and he’s breathing differently. Where’s the ambulance?”

“They’re on their way…” I didn’t hear the rest. The car had started to roll again, and this time the old man had stopped breathing. I lunged forwards and wedged my shoulders into the gap between the car and the one in front of it and tried to push them apart.

It felt like I was in the grip of an iron giant. The recklessness of what I’d done dawned on me and I frantically tried to wrench myself out. I could not move. Fear gave me more strength but I only managed to wriggle deeper into the trap.

I’d dropped my phone in my mad scramble to stop the car from crushing forwards and now it lay just out of reach. I could still hear the operator mumbling away; almost clear enough to make sense.

“Help! I’m trapped.” But the iron giant was pushing the air out of my lungs making my wails sound feeble even to me.

The pain was becoming unbearable. My shoulder blades were being forced together, twisting my arms up against the unyielding metal on the underside of the cars.

I heard the sirens first and they gave me enough strength to clench myself tighter. Each breath I took ratcheted up the pressure on my lungs, forcing the next one shallower. A blue light flickered off the tarmac. I didn’t know if my face was wet with tears of pain or tears of relief.

The ambulance drove straight past.

“Help!” I took a stupidly deep breath and felt my shoulder blades grind against each other.

I heard the ambulance stop and its doors opened. Then feet pounded the ground, getting closer.

“Here!” A voice shouted. “He’s here.”

The ambulance reversed back.

“It’s alright mate. We’ll have you out of there in no time. Have you broken anything?”

I couldn’t control my sobs. I couldn’t answer. These, I was sure, were tears of relief.

The paramedic squeezed in next to me and heaved his weight against the car. Nothing happened.

A moment later his partner jumped in next to him and the air rushed back into my lungs. I collapsed to the floor, landing on top of the old man.

“It’s not me.” I gasped. “I’m OK. It’s him.”

“My God, Charlie. There’s two of them.”

I struggled off the old man, hoping I hadn’t done any more damage. “I found him like this. Then the car started to roll forward so I tried to stop it. Stupid. Sorry.”

“I don’t think it was stupid, mate. You saved this guy’s life. Look.” He pointed to a dirty mark on the old man’s face. “That’s a tyre mark. If you’d let the car roll another inch, I think we’d have definitely been too late to help him.”

We were all sitting in the gap now, using our legs to brace the cars apart. The weight was getting serious again.

“I think we’re trapped too, Charlie.” The paramedic said.

“The water fairies will have field day with this.” Charlie said.

On cue a fire engine roared down the street and screeched to a halt behind the ambulance. Half a dozen black garbed figures jumped out. Jacks and chocks were produced and a steel tow line attached to the rolling car. As easy as that we were rescued.

Charlie was right about the jokes, but it was good humoured and quietened down as soon as the fire-fighters realised there was still a serious casualty to be attended to.

I sat slumped against the railings and watched the paramedics secure the old man’s head, and somehow manoeuvre a board under his body. Carefully they slid him out and lifted him onto a trolley.

Things started to go wrong when the police arrived.

Charlie had a hurried conversation with them, indicated something on the injured man and then pointed me out to the officers. They strode over.

They both peered at me and then the taller one spoke. “Good afternoon, sir. The paramedics tell us you found the victim.”

“Yes. I was… victim?”

“It seems he’s been the target of a rather violent mugging, sir. Do you know anything about that?”

I shook my head. “No. I was just passing… I heard him moaning from under the car.”

“Did you see anyone fleeing the scene?”

I shook my head again. Over the last few minutes I’d got used to the fire-fighters congratulating me on my impulsive heroism. Now, all of a sudden, it seemed that I’d become a suspect in a mugging. I thought I could feel everyone’s disgust boring into me.

“No. No. Look. I just found him here. Why would I try to save him, if I’d mugged him? Is he going to be alright?”

“I suspect, sir, you’d try and save him if the mugging had got out of control. Perhaps you just wanted to scare him, and he resisted. I’m sure you didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”

“No. Look. I… how could I mug him? I haven’t got a weapon or anything.”

“There’s plenty of places to conceal a weapon around here, sir. But I’m sure forensics will find something.”

“I haven’t done anything.” My voice had become extremely high pitched. “Ask him!”

“We will do sir, if he ever regains consciousness. Until then though, I’d like you to accompany us down to the station.”

“Are you arresting me?”

“I’d prefer not to do that sir, but if that’s how you want to play it…” He spread his arms wide and shrugged, indicating that he’d be more than happy to arrest me if I wanted to play it like that.

“Look,” I said. “Look. I’ve got an appointment. With a literary agent in…” I glanced at my watch. “Oh, two minutes. I need to get to…”

“You have two choices sir. Neither of them includes attending your meeting.”

I blinked at them furiously and helplessly.

“I dropped my phone when I was trying to help before. Can I at least get that before we go?” I thought I’d managed to sound graciously resigned, even though I was feeling utterly aggrieved.

“Where did you drop it?”

“Just next to the car… There.” I pointed. “It’s still there.”

And for the first time since leaving St Pancras, I remembered about the TimeTabber™ App. Relief, so strong it made me feel queasy, surged through me. If I could get my phone back, I’d be able to erase this nightmare and start again. Next time I wouldn’t go anywhere near Harrison Street.

A familiar groan reminded me that if I didn’t come this way, then the old man might lie under the car, undiscovered until he died.

“Look. He’s waking up. Can’t you just ask him if I mugged him?”

The taller policeman turned to look at the old man. The paramedics were wheeling him to the back of the ambulance. He was wriggling against the restraints which were keeping him safely strapped to the trolley.

“OK.” He said to his squat partner. “Keep an eye on him. I’ll go and talk to the vic.”

I struggled to my feet, using the railings for support. Every part of me ached. I felt like I’d aged fifty years.

“Just wait here, sir.” The squat policeman said.

“I’m not going anywhere. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.” I winced dramatically to show how much pain I was in.

The taller policeman was talking to the paramedics. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but from his gestures he didn’t look as though he was trying to be very persuasive.

My ringtone vibrated from my phone on the ground. The policeman guarding me looked at it.

“Can I get that?” I asked. I was delighted how calm I managed to keep my voice. This could be my chance to delete these events.

The policeman looked back at me and shrugged. “Yeah. But don’t try anything funny.”

I hobbled over and picked it up. Unsurprisingly the screen had smashed, but beneath the web of cracks I could see who was calling: Laetitia Rutherford, the agent I was supposed to be having lunch with.

I fumbled to answer, convinced that the ringing would stop, and this would be the last time I heard from her.

“Hello?” I managed.

“Hello? Is that… Mr Yates?” It was the first time I’d actually spoken to Laetitia, but I could sense some impatience.

“Yes. Hi. Look. I’m really sorry. I found a man under a car and had to call for an ambulance and I nearly got squashed…” I paused to construct a more coherent sentence before continuing.

“I’ve been waiting for you for half an hour. Could you have given me a ring to say you were running late?”

“I didn’t have my phone… I was trapped under a car.”

“Really?”

“Yes! Honestly.” It sounded ridiculous even to me. “Look. It’ll be different next time.”

“I don’t think there’ll be a next time. Some things are just not meant to be, I suppose.” She was about to hang up.

“Couldn’t we do the interview over the phone?” I blurted.

There was a sigh. “It wasn’t an interview; it was supposed to be a nice, relaxing lunch where we got to know each other. It was meant to be enjoyable. That’s why it was a prize.”

“Yes, yes. I know. I was really looking forward to it. You can’t possibly understand how much.”

“Well, we did like your writing.” She paused. “And to be honest, unless you’d turned out to be an absolute idiot, I was really hoping to be able to take you on.”

“I’m honestly not an idiot.” I suppose that’s what most idiots say.

Another sigh. “No. I suppose not. How far away are you?”

“Hang on.” I put my hand over the phone and turned to the squat policeman.

“No!” He said before I could even ask him anything.

I glanced towards the ambulance. The other policeman was now having a conversation with the old man. They were both looking at me. The old man was shaking his head.

“Can I ring you back?” I said. “I just need to check something. Give me two minutes.”

I was rewarded with another sigh and a deeply resigned “OK.” Laetitia hung up.

It’s difficult to stride purposefully and with confidence when you can only move like Quasimodo, but I tried. The squat policeman was at my side in a moment and wrestled my arm around my back.

“Oh no you don’t.”

“Look. Please. You’re not helping. I just need to find out what they’re saying.”

The squat policeman looked over to his colleague. He was beckoning to us.

In the interests of public safety, I was marched over in an arm lock. Every step highlighted just how much my shoulders were hurting.

“Has he told you it wasn’t me?” I blurted. The old man looked to be in agony. His face contorted as he held his breath against the pain. Bandages had been placed about his body, most of them beginning to blossom red. The paramedics were hovering around nervously.

The policeman nodded slowly. “He says he was attacked last night. He says he’d been under the car for hours. Until you came along and tried to help.”

“Well, great! Yes?” I tried to rein in my selfish enthusiasm. “I mean not great, it’s horrible for him, but… I’ve only been in London for a couple of hours.”

“We’d still like you to come with us to the station, though. If you wouldn’t mind? It could help us with our enquiries. You’re not under any obligation.”

The squat policeman unfolded me out of the arm lock and patted me on one of my sore shoulders.

“Look. I… I just don’t know what happened. I don’t know how I’d be able to help.”

“Our detectives at the station are trained to ask questions that might lead to you giving us something useful. Maybe the way he was lying? Maybe he said something? Surely justice is worth a few minutes of your time.”

“Really?” I asked, hopeless in the face of his amateur dramatics.

The taller policeman nodded, obviously pleased with himself.

I slumped. “OK. How long will it take?”

“It shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours.” He shrugged.

“Right. OK. Hang on.”

I rang Laetitia back. She picked up after the first ring.

“Simon?”

“Yes. Hi. Er, look. Um. The police want to have a chat about the man under the car, so I’ve agreed to go ‘down the station’ with them.” I said “down the station” in a cockney accent for some reason.

“Right.” Laetitia said slowly. “OK. Well. It’s been nice talking to you, but I can’t wait any longer.”

“Yes.” I said. “I thought you’d say that. Look. I know I’ve made a complete mess of this, but… well, could you just give me a few clues about what you might have been looking for at the meeting? I mean, in case I ever get to meet another agent or something?”

“Don’t get arrested.”

I laughed appreciatively. “Yes. Let’s suppose I manage to get to the meeting. What would have impressed you?”

“Punctuality.”

I laughed again. “Please?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” I could feel the shrug through the phone. “Enthusiasm for your craft. Originality. A feeling that we could work together.”

“OK. Thanks. Oh. One more thing. What’s your favourite book? At the moment?”

“Oh, that’s a hard one… but at the moment I’d have to say: ‘The Wicked Girls’. Good luck with your writing. ”

I recognised the end of the conversation. “Great. Thanks very much. Bye!”

I hung up. I’d wanted to ask more than that, but at least it was something. I’d be slightly better prepared for my actual meeting with her.

The paramedics had loaded the old man into the ambulance now. The fire brigade had secured the rolling car and were all piling back into their fire engine.

“Will you come with us, sir?” The taller policeman’s tone was genuinely polite now.

“Yes. One second.”

I scrolled through the icons on my phone until I got to TimeTabber™. I took a deep breath and pressed it.

The web of cracks on the broken screen dissolved along with my throbbing aches and pains and the light changed from late afternoon to midday.

It was a bright day in May, and the clocks were striking twelve. My phone chimed in sequence, making it sound like thirteen. I looked at the screen.

“Reversion back to Time bookmark @ 12:00pm 31/05/2014 – 1/2 – TimeTabber™”

I think it’s to my credit that my first thought was for the old man stuck under the car in Harrison Street.

I dialled 999.

“Which service please?”

“Ambulance!”

“Connecting phone number 07796 95012.”

There was a click.

“Ambulance emergency. Hello caller, what’s the emergency?”

“There’s a man trapped under a car on Harrison Street. He was mugged last night and has been left there. You’ll need a fire engine too.”  I spoke clearly and confidently, giving all the facts.

“Where are you caller?”

“What? Never mind that. This is an emergency.”

“Sir, we have to make judgements on the veracity of…”

“Oh. I see. Right, well I was passing and saw him there. Please hurry, if you don’t get there soon the car he’s under is likely to roll forward and crush him.”

“Sir…” I hung up.

I was shaking and my throat was dry. The phone call had not gone exactly as I’d expected, but I told myself that I’d got the message across. Surely they’d send a crew to investigate. I’d absolved myself of my responsibility and could now concentrate on my lunch meeting with Laetitia.

My phone rang. The number was withheld so I cancelled it. It rang again, so I turned it off.

I turned right, the opposite way to my planned route to the restaurant, and strode quickly and determinedly along Euston Road on the lookout for a bookshop.

As it turned out the nearest bookshop was in St Pancras station, so because I hadn’t just asked to begin with, I wasted half an hour wandering the streets in vain. The only bookshop I found without assistance was the Quaker Centre. “The Wicked Girls” was not on their recommended reading list.

I bought a copy of “The Wicked Girls” from WH Smiths on the station’s concourse and sat with a Cappuccino at Starbucks and read. My planned half an hour inadvertently stretched to an hour and probably would have devoured the entire afternoon was it not for the striking of the clocks. I thought the book had probably not given me any deep insights into Laetitia’s character, but at least I would be able to talk about it a bit.

I ran through the streets, giving Harrison Street a wide berth. It took ten minutes to get to the restaurant and I got there with a minute to spare.

I recognised Laetitia from her profile picture on the Watson, Little website. So, huffing like a steam engine, I navigated the tables to where she was sitting. She smiled at me as I approached.

“Hello!” She said exuberantly. “You must be Simon. So pleased to finally meet you in person.”

“Hello!” I panted. “How’s this for punctuality.” Then I realised I was trying to share a private joke that she could not possibly know about, and tried to think of something less stupid to say. I didn’t say anything.

“You’ve done very well. Have you been running?”

“Yes. I got caught up reading this in the coffee shop. Got totally carried away.” I dropped my copy of “The Wicked Girls” onto the table. I was pleased with my cunning.

“Oooo, yes. Really sucks you in, doesn’t it.”

I nodded and sat on the seat she’d been proffering.

Once I’d cooled down a bit and taken a few sips of water I started to relax. Laetitia had obviously experienced the panicked anxiety of the unpublished writer before and guided me gently through the conversation. We talked about the short story I’d written to win the lunch, and chuckled about how it strangely mirrored what we were actually doing. She asked leading questions about my completed novels and what plans I had for the future. She made me feel as though I knew what I was talking about and by the time the coffee arrived my jaw was aching from talking and grinning so much.

“I knew I was going to like you from the moment you brandished Alex’s book at me.” Laetitia smiled. “It showed me that you were serious enough about this to research the type of clients I’ve got. But most of all, it proved to me that you’re too honest to fool me.”

“Well, I…” I shrugged. “You got me. I was reading it though, and it nearly made me late again.”

“Again?”

“Oh.” I snorted. “I’m always late. For everything.”

“Well, you can’t have everything. I think we’ve talked enough for today, but I have to say, Simon, I’m very impressed. I like your ideas and I think we’ll make a good team. Provisionally I think I’d like to take you on. Can you send me your current work and we’ll set up another meeting for next month some time?”

I was speechless. My mouth was moving, so I stopped that because I had no idea what noise was going to come out of it.

I nodded vigorously. “Of course!” I managed eventually.

“Great.” We shook hands and she left. I sat at the table for a few minutes running over everything I’d said and began to worry that somehow I’d misunderstood what had happened. I knew that was going to get me nowhere. So I blew out my cheeks, stood up and went outside into the bright May sunshine.

I pulled my phone out and switched it on. I’d got ten missed calls and been left five voice messages, but I didn’t bother checking them. I dialled home. My family had been almost as excited about the meeting as I had. I’d been talking about little else for the last two weeks and they’d be desperate to hear how it had gone.

The phone rang at the other end. It rang more times than I expected until my wife answered.

“Hello?” She said. “Simon?”

“Yes. It’s me.”

“Are you OK?”

“Yes. I’m fine. I’ve just finished.”

“Finished?”

“The meeting. With the literary agent.”

“Oh right. That was today was it?”

“Yes! Where did you think I was?”

“I don’t know. In the study I suppose. It has been nice and quiet though.”

“Well, don’t you want to know how it went?”

“Yes. OK.”

“It was brilliant.”

A police car hurtled down the road towards me then, its siren wailing and lights flashing. It was difficult to ignore. And then it was impossible because it skidded to a stop right next to me and two policemen jumped out. One was tall, the other squat.

“Simon Yates?”

I stared at them.

“Are you Simon Yates?” The tall one shouted at me.

“Yes.”

“Right. Come with us son. We don’t want any trouble.”

“Any trouble? I… why would I cause any trouble?”

“We’ll talk about it in the car.” The squat policemen advanced and I realised he was going to put me into his favourite arm lock. I put my hands over my head.

“It’s OK. I’m cooperating. You don’t need to force me.”

I was bundled into the back of the police car and the two police officers took their places in the front.

“Did you make a 999 call this afternoon?”

“Yes.” I sighed. “Look, I saw the man there but I was in a rush so I called for an ambulance. I’m not proud of it, but I don’t see how I could have helped him. Surely the paramedics were more use than I could ever’ve been.”

The taller one nodded. “Yes. They would have. If they’d got there in time. Unfortunately Mr Frost was pronounced dead at the scene. The car had rolled onto him.”

“Oh, no.” I said quietly. “Oh, that’s terrible.”

I looked at my phone. The TimeTabber™ icon seemed to be winking at me.

“The thing that we don’t understand,” the policeman continued, “is how you knew he’d been mugged the night before.”

“I… I didn’t. I just assumed. I mean you don’t just fall under a stationary car, do you?” But I knew that a mugging wouldn’t be the first thing I’d think of.

“You see, your story doesn’t really stack up son. So I’m arresting you on the suspicion of wounding with intent to rob. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention…”

“No. I didn’t do anything.”

I pressed the TimeTabber™ icon on my phone and the policeman’s voice faded away.

It was a bright day in May, and the clocks were striking twelve. My phone chimed in sequence, making it sound like thirteen. I looked at it for the third time.

“Reversion back to Time bookmark @ 12:00pm 31/05/2014 – 2/2 – TimeTabber™”

So there I was, for the last time, standing at the entrance to St Pancras Station. The previous eight hours of my life had been erased. The next four could define me forever.

I groaned. I looked left along the road as far as I could to where it bent in the distance. Then I looked the other way which reached on just as far. Both ways looked equal that afternoon and I knew that I would never come back.

In years to come I’ll be telling this story. “Two choices I had,” I’ll say with a sigh, “and I – I took the one that made all the difference.


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