Here’s a short story from Paul, based on his Jowler universe. It’s an interesting approach, and well worth a read. Feedback and comments gratefully recieved.
10.30 pm. Runcorn Central Police Station. Interview Room One.
“Look I’m no Fenian, couldn’t give a toss who runs Ireland. You want to know what
it was about, you want the real jake? Alright, but you won’t believe it. This electric copper with you, is it true he records what I say? What, and can tell if I’m lying as well? Walker! Just let me tell it as it happened, in me own words like.”
“The names of the blokes don’t matter now, do they? It was Nipper what found it, Nipper Horrabin, I mated for him for years. Did you know that’s what I was? A fitter’s mate? There’s more to it than carrying some tradesman’s tools you know, a good pairing is like a good marriage, stands to reason doesn’t it? You spend ten hours a day with another human year in, year out you’re either going to want to kill them or you get on, complement each other like. That was me and Nipper, we had each other’s measure, respected each other, worked well together.”
“Now we had just started a run of nights, do you know how the shifts run? A week of earlies, a week of lates, then a week of nights, me and Nipper worked well and could usually do the our allocation by midnight, one at the latest. I would get me head down for a couple of hours, then Nipper would sign the job off around five and we’d be ready to leave at six when the early boys come on.”
“Nipper never slept, said the shifts played havoc with his sleeping. It was bad enough on days but nights put his system right out. So he would wander, chat to the process men in the control room, just look around the place to see what was about. No, he never stole anything, others did but not Nipper, well at least, not then but we’ll come to that.”
“He’s in K-Unit sub-basement and there it is this big circle on the back wall, nine foot across he reckons, sunlight pouring through it and good air, a rarity in these parts eh, gentleman. This puzzles Nipper, he steps nearer and looks through the circle, after he’s stared at this countryside for a minute or two he realises why it seems so familiar, ‘cause it is familiar, it’s here! He’s looking at the Mersey Delta with no chemical yards cluttering up the view. I’m sure you gentlemen know that Castner’s is the biggest yard in England, probably in Europe, now Germany’s gone. It covers eight square miles, all the way from the hills to the river. Yet there’s Nipper looking at a day time picture with no works at all, just the gentle slope to the river. What’s more is that he could just walk into the picture as easy as I could walk through that door, not that you gentlemen are going to let me I fear.”
“So Nipper walks through the circle and he’s somewhere else, no smoke, no soot, the air crystal clear and sweet. No people either, but he does bag a pair of coneys, always was a swift bugger Nipper, hence the name. He doesn’t go far from the circle nor stay that long either. He comes back and puts the rabbits in his tool bag. Then he rigs up some canvas sheeting that was down in the basement, on a bit of scaffolding to shield the light like. He wakes me up and carries on as if nothing has happened.”
“You know about foreigners? No? Well, a foreigner is an outside job, you bring it into work and supposedly work on it in your own time. You either walk in through the gates with it in your pocket and trust the watchmen don’t stop and search you or you carry it in plain view and get a docket. That was what Nipper did next, he arrives at the watchman’s hut with half his rifle. You knew he was a shooter, used to roam about the Frodsham marsh? Told them he needed to free the mechanism, needed a big vice to do that. No problem, here’s the docket mate. The other half of his gun is under his baggin’ in his bergan. Oh you don’t know what bagging is, his grub, his snap.”
“Now when it’s all quiet and I’m a kip, Nipper slips into K-Unit sub basement, assembles his gun and there’s no light from behind the canvas. Now Nipper is puzzled by this, but thinks, well, them coney’s were real enough. So he strips the rifle locks it away and chats with the process men in the control room.”
“Next night he checks again and there it is large as life, so through he goes. He later told me, when he let me in on the circle, that he’d shot a stag that time. It’d galled him to leave the head there but no way was he going to get a bloody stags head past the watchmen.”
“The next night was Thursday and Nipper disappeared, just gone. I covered up for him, that’s what you do, he’d have done the same for me. Can’t say I wasn’t worried, ‘cause this was not his usual m.o. But I signed the job off, took his lock off the switch gear, filled in his time sheet.”
“The next night there is no Nipper, I am worried but I play it cool. You know me, Jimmy Chrome, a smile and a song, not that there were many smiles that night. I was put with “Clever” Trevor Turnstaff, another first class fitter, precise, but dull, obsessed with making sure everything is perfect that and those French Dergerotype photos, you know what I mean? His locker was bursting with them. No way I was going to get any shuteye that night I can tell you, proper fitter’s get I was: “get me this, get me that”.
“Soon as the shift is over I’m round Nipper’s house, all dark and quiet like, trying to figure out the lay of the land. It’s early but the old bird next door still clocks me. “Mrs Horrabin is away in Hough Green, nursing her sick mother and Mr. H ain’t been here since Thursday”-she glowered at me. “Yeah, that’s right, the breakdown on J Unit has had him working flat out. He asked me to call and check the place was alright.” Thinking on my feet I replied “and I guess it is.”
Now I was puzzled. This was so unlike Nipper. Anyway that night Clever Trevor’s working on a ceramic pump, all micrometers and yank spanners, so he has no need of me. It’s gone midnight and I’m trying to retrace Nipper’s footsteps and getting nowhere fast I can tell you. So I wander into the sub basement. Suddenly there’s this light, summer sunlight, I could only compare it to the light in Addis when we was dealing with that uprising, a harsh light somehow and it appeared to be coming from behind this canvas awning. I walked towards it and who should appear from the other side-Nipper!”
“Bloody Hell!” cries I “where you been Nipper?” He looked different, calmer, purposeful and sunburnt, yes I know it sounds stupid but he was. Sunburnt in February and him working on the night shift.
“You wouldn’t believe me Jimmy” He smiled “I’ve been with the Vikings!”
I didn’t believe him, I thought of those bhang boys I’d seen on the streets of St. Helens and Liverpool, they would say stupid things like this. But Nipper Horrabin? No he was too sane, too sorted for any of that malarkey.
“The flamin’ Vikings Nipper?”
He led me round the canvas and I saw it, the circle, awe inspiring it was. The concrete wall of the sub basement had become something else, instead of being thirty foot underground it was a window to somewhere else. Another place with the summer sun shining and the world a strange garden, yet as I stood there looking into that untouched world I realised it was here, Weston Point, rolling down to the Mersey Delta. I’d always said that this place would be beautiful without the yards and it was. The skin of the circled rippled, blue light and just blinked out. One second, no it was quicker than that, it was a circle then it was the dirty sub basement concrete wall.
“That’s where you’ve been isn’t it, for these past two days”
“Two days!” says Nipper, “Jimmy I’ve been over there for two weeks!”
“Well its Friday night this side” I reply, “When is your misses back from her mam’s?”
“Not for another week, she’s near the end and Joan doesn’t want her looked after by strangers. I’m supposed to go over after the nights. Jimmy, how does it stand with work?”
“I signed the job off, filled in your time sheet but it’s been two days and no word from you. You need to contact Brian and say you’ve been ill or the mother-in-laws got worse.”
“Aye I will, first though I’ve got to sneak out of here and get some shuteye.”
This is a different Nipper thinks I. The old one didn’t sleep well, as I have said. Getting him out of K Unit wasn’t difficult, nor was it any harder to get him out of the yard. There’s places and there’s ways. I left him at the fence agreeing to meet around one pm at his house.
“The old bird was there, beady eyed as ever. I smiled as I raised the knocker. Nipper and I sat in the parlour, the front room, we’d usually sit in the back kitchen but as I say I this new Nipper seemed changed in ways I could not define. “
“He told me the story, he’d taken his rifle and wandered away from the circle, no game though, Nipper said he thought the local wildlife was wising up to him, anyroads he turned back, only to find the circle gone. Nipper wasn’t that worried. It had been there it would be again. That night Nipper slept under the stars, clearer and brighter than he’d ever seen, though the same constellations we have.”
“I never got the full story save that on the first day he ran into this Viking who was on a quest, well Nipper said he looked like a Viking but Unjal – that was his name – called himself Ainglish. These Ainglish were at war with some other godless heathens-the Mowers, fighting for the lives were the Ainglish, the Mower’s were pushing them back year on year. Unjal had gone out on a quest to help his people and he’d found Nipper. Seems he knew about firearms, the Mower’s had some primitive bespoke version, nowhere near a powerful or accurate as Nipper’s old Lee Enfield. He was quick at languages this Unjal too, soon got his head around English. Equated Nipper to Weyland, smith of the gods, and Nipper being a skilled tradesman was feted by these Ainglish.”
“Nipper had swapped his rifle for this twisted gold band that Unjal’s people, well the men any roads, wore around there neck, solid gold it was. “Worth a bob or two that is Nipper” says I, he only smiles and replies that it’s nothing to what they have, these Ainglish. He added that they have some good looking women too, tall and blond. Ah, thinks I, that’s why you’re so chilled out eh? You’ve been making the two backed beast with some young, blond Viking I’ll be bound. Your misses is short, dark and stocky, in love with the church. This spot of R and R has certainly repointed your compass.”
“We are going to melt this down tonight Jimmy, then I am going to sell it. As if it was some cheap trinket. But it’ll get me the seed money for what I have planned. I did some thinking in Aingland and I think we have a chance, a chance to end up in the gravy.”
“Go on Nipper, what’s you plan then?” asks I.
“All in good time me boy, all in good time.”
Interview suspended for the evening. Suspect returned to the cells. Time 23.40
Time: 10.45 am
“Ah gentlemen, you’ll want me to pick up where I laid off last night I takes it?”
“Very well. After Nipper cast the gold bracelet into a rough shape in the boilermakers workshop the following evening, things went quiet. Nipper’s wife returned from Hough Green and they both went to the funeral. Nipper spent his spare time talking to different blokes about the unit. Did you know that Castner’s has a habit of taking on old soldiers? You did, well Nipper was talking with the serious army men. On the process side are two sergeants and a couple of water dogs, very fit blokes, bored with civy street, longing for the days when they had the buzz of the action. You probably know the type, never happier than when they are in the thick of it, landing from the hovercraft at dawn and taking some local warlord down before breakfast. Nipper was also spending his time talking to Clever Trevor, who up until this point he’s got nothing in common with at all, yet here they are the best of friends.”
“I got to thinking, you could look at the six of ‘em as a gaggle of blokes with their best behind them, or you could see them as a very experienced group of old soldiers. What if Nipper buggers off through that circle with this gang and never comes back? Would anyone care? Well, the Ainglish would as they would have an edge.”
“The atmosphere changed, not abruptly but slowly over time, there was this silence that fell when I entered the bagging room, K Unit sub basement was declared off limits due to mercury vapour-rubbish, there’s mercury vapour everywhere below the deck in any of the cell rooms, everyone knew that. It was more like a closing down. That trust was not there and I began to figure out what their game was. The Conan Doyle Irregulars Drill Hall, an easy pad to crack. I had heard them mention the TA barracks in Peelhouse Lane but I know for a fact that has a watchman and they would never get the ordinance over the bridge before the roadblocks were in place.
“I ain’t gonna lie, I just don’t feel comfortable with it. Yes spun the shilling in the slot and called. I am a loyal English man, I stood there in the line at Addis, the thin sliver line, bayonet fixed and that calm that descends when it’s hopeless. I owe my life to the airships and that last mad charge. I expected to die that day, that’s why I’m Jimmy Chrome, I polished my ceramour until you could see your face in it, said if you buggers are going to kill me then my light will blind you, I’m Jimmy Chrome.”
“I just didn’t like the idea of stealing for an easy berth and some bird. It’s not what we did it for.”
“I don’t know it wasn’t for the Empire, or England, I don’t know. We do what we have to. I ain’t got any answers. Like I said yesterday, it’s like a marriage the relationship between a fitter and his mate, but sometimes in a marriage you want different things and then it’s the parting of the waves. I reckon the parting of the waves came for me when that circle opened up on the wall. We choose how to respond and I chose to call it in.”
“Not that it did any good, they got in to the drill hall easily enough, and loaded the arms in to the steamer Nipper had bought with his gold. Two dozen repeating rifles, twenty revolvers, and a hundred rounds for each weapon, least that’s what I heard. What they hadn’t expected to find was a Gatling gun. Looking at you two gents I suspect it was not on the inventory of the club.”
“I imagine it was easy to get the steamer past the watchmen, they had papers, legit ones they had written themselves. They were through the gates before the alarm was given, vanned it over to K Unit where it was just more material. Nipper must have told the misses that he was doing overtime as it was our days off. I was not aware of the blag until the next day, I was drinking in the Long Pull- yes I know you’ve checked.”
“The next night I was drinking down The Weaver, Nipper had invited me. The atmosphere was like a bank holiday, or the last night of a shut down, when you know the plant will come back on line cause you’ve spent the last six days and nights working flat out to make sure it does and you’ve got all that overtime pay coming to you. The lads were edgy, tense, the whole lot of them, they were more like that last night before you embark for some part of the Empire you’ve never heard of but you know will be full of crazed locals with a grudge and a supposed line in invulnerability to bullet and bayonet. Bluster and bravado, so I suppose you’d call it strained -but Nipper was as calm and cool as ever, sat there with a pint of mild, savouring every sip.”
“You know what we’ve done don’t you Jimmy?” He says to me. I thought, I’ve known you too long to lie, the water dogs are watching me, intense like.”
So I says “Reckon that commotion last night was your doing. I think you’ve got the hots for some little blonde girlie the other side of that circle and that item will purchase you an easy billet.”
Nipper shrugged and finished his pint. Then said “There are no flies on you are there, you were always sharp Jimmy. Come on we’re leaving.” The water dogs were either side of me, so I stood up and we left the pub and walked toward the works. Getting in was no problem. We skulked through the shadows to K Unit.
“In the sub basement Nipper spoke again “Jimmy, there’s no turning back for us, we’ve crossed the line. There is a world out there so different from this. We can have a good life Jimmy. We can be aristocracy over there, here you can work till you die and no one will remember you, or even thank you for doing a good job.”
“That’s the lot of the working man Nipper, isn’t it? You may be respected as the best fitter in the yard but to the bosses you’re still just a no mark, a number. That’s the reality, it is the way this country has always been. They’ll fete you when there’s killing to be done then when you land back at the dockside you’re just some out of work ex-soldier on the scrounge. If you’re lucky they’ll dole you out some job or other, but remember to thank them and be ever grateful.”
“As we spoke the others began to move the armament through the circle on low trucks. I noticed they now all had rifles, the water dogs had revolvers tucked into the back of their belts. No of them were taking any chances. In the distance I could see a wagon train of Vikings moving up the valley from the shore.”
“Come with us Jimmy, there’s a world to win. You can be a Lord.”
“Nipper” I replied “I am the bloke who carries your tools, who goes to the stores for the new bearing and slopes off for a pipe when he can. I am no Lord. That isn’t my world.”
“Jimmy you’re in trouble, you’ll be taken in and questioned. They’ll think you’re a Fenian.”
“I can look after myself” I replied, I was not sure if it wasn’t wiser to go through that circle. I am still not sure it wouldn’t have been. I wouldn’t be here would I?”
“Anyroads Nipper steps through the circle, turns and raises his hand. The circle ripples and closes. That was the last I saw of him and the others. I was left looking at the wall. I left the yard and was on my way home when you gentlemen invited me here. I don’t suppose I can go now can I?”