Authors: Jodi Taylor
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Science Fiction, #Time Travel
JUST ONE DAMNED THING
BOOK ONE OF
THE CHRONICLES OF ST MARY’S
A story of history, time travel, love, friendship and tea.
Meet the disaster-magnets at the St Mary's Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around history, observing, documenting, drinking tea and, if possible, not dying.
Follow the catastrophe-curve from eleventh-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria.
Discover History – The New Sex!
I made all this up. Historians and physicists – please do not spit on me in the street.
'History is just one damned thing after another’
There have been two moments in my life. Moments when everything changed. Moments when things could have gone either way. Moments when I had to make a choice.
The first occurred when, after another disruptive day at school, I stood in front of my head teacher, Mrs De Winter. I’d done the sullen silence thing and waited for expulsion, because I was long past three strikes and you’re out. It didn’t happen.
She said, with a strange urgency, ‘Madeleine, you cannot let your home circumstances define your entire life. You are intelligent – you have abilities of which you are not even aware. This is the only chance you will ever have. I can help you. Will you allow me to do so?’
No one had ever offered to help me before. Something flickered inside me, but distrust and suspicion die hard.
She said, softly, ‘I can help you. Last chance, Madeleine. Yes – or no?’
No words came. I was trapped in a prison of my own making.
‘Yes – or no?’
I took a huge breath and said yes.
She handed me a book, a notepad, and two pens.
‘We’ll start with Ancient Egypt. Read the first two chapters and Chapter Six. You must learn to assimilate, edit, and present information. I want 1500 words on the precise nature of ma’at. By Friday.’
I whispered, ‘But … you know I can’t take this home.’
‘You can use the school library and leave your stuff there. Miss Hughes is expecting you.’
That was the first time.
The second time came ten years later. An email – right out of the blue.
My dear Madeleine,
I am sure you will be surprised to hear from me, but I have to say that, since you left the University of Thirsk, I have followed your career with great interest and some pride. I am writing now with details of a job opportunity I think you will find extremely interesting.
You will be aware, from your time at Thirsk, of the existence of a sister site; the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research; an organisation I think would appeal to anyone who, like you, prefers a less structured existence. Their work inclines more towards the practical side of historical research. This is all I can say at the moment.
The Institute is located just outside Rushford, where I now reside, and interviews are on the fourth of next month. Do you think you would be interested? I feel it would be just the thing for you, so I do hope you will consider it. Your travels and archaeological experience will stand you in good stead and I really think you are exactly the type of person for whom they are looking.
The pay is terrible and the conditions are worse, but it’s a wonderful place to work – they have some talented people there. If you are interested, please click on the link below to set up a possible interview.
I’m so sorry; where are my manners? I was so anxious to let you know about this opportunity that I forgot to ask – how are you? Congratulations on your academic record at Thirsk, Doctor Maxwell! It is always gratifying to see a former pupil do so well, particularly one who laboured under so many difficulties in her early years.
Please do not reject this opportunity out of hand. I know you have always preferred to work abroad, but given the possibility that America may close its borders again and the fragmentation within the EU, perhaps now is the time to consider a slightly more settled lifestyle.
Obviously I’m very keen for you to apply, but don’t let me influence you in any way!
With best regards,
Sibyl De Winter
I always said my life began properly the day I walked through the gates of St Mary’s. The sign read:
University of Thirsk.
Institute of Historical Research.
St Mary’s Priory Campus.
Director: Doctor Edward G. Bairstow BA MA PhD FRHS
I rang the buzzer and a voice said, ‘Can I help you, miss?’
‘Yes, my name’s Maxwell. I have an appointment with Doctor Bairstow at 2.00 p.m.’
‘Go straight up the drive and through the front door. You can’t miss it.’
A bit over-optimistic there. I once got lost on a staircase.
At the front door, I signed in and was politely wanded by a uniformed guard, which was a little surprising for an educational establishment. I did my best to look harmless and it must have worked because he escorted me through the vestibule into the Hall. Waiting for me stood Mrs De Winter, who looked no different from the last time I saw her. The day she took me off to Thirsk. The day I got away from that invention of the devil – family life.
We smiled and shook hands.
‘Would you like a tour before the interview?’
‘You work here?’
‘I’m loosely attached. I recruit occasionally. This way please.’
The place was huge. The echoing central Hall was part of the original building with typical medieval narrow windows. At the far end, an ornate oak staircase with ten shallow steps and a broad half landing branched off left and right to a gallery running round all four sides of the hall.
Various rooms opened off this gallery. An entire suite seemed to be devoted to costumes and equipment. People trotted busily with armfuls of cloth and mouthfuls of pins. Garments in varying stages of completion hung from hangers or from tailor’s dummies. The rooms were bright, sunny, and full of chatter.
‘We do a lot of work for film and television,’ explained Mrs Enderby, in charge of Wardrobe. She was small and round, with a sweet smile. ‘Sometimes they only want research and we send them details of appropriate costumes and materials, but sometimes we get to make them too. This one, for instance, is for an historical adaptation of the life of Charles II and the Restoration. Lots of bosoms and sex obviously, but I’ve always thought Charles to be a much underrated monarch. This dress is for Nell Gwynn in her “orange” period and that one for the French strumpet, Louise de Kérouaille.’
‘It’s lovely,’ I said softly, carefully not touching the material. ‘The detail is superb. Sadly, it’s a bit modern for me.’
‘Dr Maxwell is Ancient History,’ said Mrs De Winter. Apologetically, I thought.
‘Oh dear,’ sighed Mrs Enderby. ‘Well, it’s not all bad news, I suppose. There’ll be drapery and togas and tunics, of course, but even so …’ She tailed off. I had obviously disappointed her.
From there, we moved next door to Professor Rapson, in charge of Research and Development. He was so typically the eccentric professor that initially I suspected a bit of a wind-up. Super-tall and super-thin, with a shock of Einstein hair, his big beaky nose reminded me of the front end of a destroyer. And he had no eyebrows, which should have been a bit of clue really; but he smiled kindly and invited us in for a closer look at his cluttered kingdom. I caught a tantalising glimpse of a buried desk, books everywhere, and, further on, a laboratory-type set up.
‘Dr Maxwell hasn’t had her interview yet,’ said Mrs De Winter in rather a warning tone of voice.
‘Oh, oh, right, yes, no, I see,’ he said, letting go of my elbow. ‘Well, this is what I tend to think of as “practical” history, my dear. The secret of Greek Fire? We’re on it. How did a Roman chariot handle? We’ll build you one and you can find out for yourself. What range does a trebuchet have? Exactly how far can you fling a dead cow? How long does it take to pull someone’s brains out through their nose? Any questions like that then you come to me and we’ll find your answers for you! That’s what we do!’
One of his expansively waving arms caught a beaker of something murky that could easily have been embalming fluid, the Elixir of Life, or Socrates’ hemlock and knocked it off the workbench to shatter on the floor. Everyone stepped back. The liquid bubbled, hissed, and looked as if it was eating through the floor. I could see many other such damp patches.
‘Oh, my goodness! Jamie! Jamie! Jamie, my boy, just nip downstairs, will you? My compliments to Dr Dowson and tell him it’s coming through his ceiling again!’
A young lad nodded amiably, got up from his workbench, and threaded his way through the tangle of half-completed models, unidentifiable equipment, tottering piles of books, and smudged whiteboards. He grinned at me as he passed. In fact, they all seemed a very friendly bunch. The only slightly odd thing was Mrs De Winter preceding every introduction with the warning that I hadn’t had the interview yet. People smiled and shook hands but nowhere did I get to venture beyond the doorway.
I met Mrs Mack who presided over the kitchens. Meals, she informed me, were available twenty-four hours a day. I tried to think why an historical establishment would keep such hours but failed. Not that I was complaining. I can eat twenty-four hours a day, no problem.
The bar and lounge next door were nearly the same size as the dining room, showing an interesting grasp of priorities. Everything was shabby with heavy use and lack of money, but the bar particularly so.
Further down the same corridor, a small shop sold paperbacks, chocolate, toiletries, and other essential items.
I fell in love with the Library, which, together with the Hall, obviously constituted the heart of the building. High ceilings made it spacious and a huge fireplace made it cosy. Comfortable chairs were scattered around and tall windows all along one wall let the sunshine flood in. As well as bays of books they had all the latest electronic information retrieval systems, study areas, and data tables and through an archway, a huge archive.
‘You name it, we’ve got it somewhere,’ said Doctor Dowson, introduced to me as Librarian and Archivist and who appeared to be wearing a kind of sou’wester. ‘At least until that old fool upstairs blows us all sky high. Do you know we sometimes have to wear hard hats?’ he continued indignantly. ‘I keep telling Edward he should house him and his entire team of madmen on the other side of Hawking if we’re to have any chance of survival at all!’
‘Dr Maxwell hasn’t had the interview yet,’ interrupted Mrs De Winter and he subsided into vague muttering. In Latin. I stared somewhat anxiously at the ceiling, which did indeed appear to be blotched and stained, but at least nothing seemed to be eating its way through the fabric of this probably listed building.
‘Did they tell you?’ he demanded. ‘Last year his research team attempted to reproduce the Russian guns at the Charge of the Light Brigade, miscalculated the range, and demolished the Clock Tower?’
‘No,’ I said, answering what I suspected was a rhetorical question. ‘I’m sorry I missed that.’
I was moved firmly along.
We stopped at the entrance to a long corridor, which seemed to lead to a separate, more modern part of the campus. ‘What’s down there?’
‘That’s the hangar where we store our technical plant and equipment. There’s no time to see it at the moment; we should be heading to Dr Bairstow’s office.’
I was thinking about the botched communications that resulted in the Charge of the Light Brigade when I realised someone was speaking to me. A man of medium height, with dark hair and an ordinary face made remarkable by brilliant, light blue-grey eyes smiled at me. He wore an orange jump suit. And unlike nearly everyone else I’d met, he had eyebrows.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘I was thinking about the Crimea.’
He smiled. ‘You should fit right in here.’
‘Chief, this is Dr Maxwell.’
‘I haven’t had the interview yet,’ I said, just to let them know I’d been paying attention.
His mouth twitched at one corner.
‘Dr Maxwell, this is our Chief Technical Officer, Leon Farrell.’
I stuck out my hand. ‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Farrell.’
‘Most people just call me Chief, Doctor.’ He reached out slowly and we shook hands. His hand felt warm, dry, and hard with calluses. Working man’s hands.
‘Welcome to St Mary’s.’
Mrs De Winter tapped her watch. ‘Dr Bairstow will be waiting.’ I nodded at the Chief and we moved away. In seconds, I had forgotten all about him. I know – attention span of a tea bag.
So, this was Dr Edward Bairstow. His back was to the window as I entered. I saw a tall, bony man, whose fringe of grey hair around his head rather reminded me of the ring of feathers around a vulture’s neck. Away off to the side with a scratchpad in front of her sat a formidable-looking woman in a smartly tailored suit. She looked elegant, dignified, and judgmental. He leaned heavily on a cane and extended a hand as cold as my own.
‘Dr Maxwell, welcome. Thank you for coming.’ His quiet, clear voice carried immense authority. I never heard him shout. He was not a man who had to raise his voice for attention. His sharp eyes assessed me. He gave no clue as to his conclusions. I’m not usually that good with authority, but this was definitely an occasion on which to tread carefully.
‘Thank you for inviting me, Dr Bairstow.’ I do have some manners.
‘This is my PA, Mrs Partridge. Shall we sit down?’
We settled ourselves and it began. For the first hour, we talked about me. I got the impression that no acknowledged next of kin and a lack of personal ties constituted a point in my favour. He already had details of my qualifications and we talked for a while about the post-grad stuff in archaeology and anthropology and my work experience and travels. He was particularly interested in how I found living in other countries and amongst other cultures. How easy was it for me to pick up languages and make myself understood? Did I ever feel isolated amongst other communities? How did I get around? How long to become assimilated?
‘Why did you choose history, Dr Maxwell? With all the exciting developments in the Space Programme over the last ten years and the Mars Project in its final stages, what made you choose to look backwards instead of forwards?’
Pausing, I arranged and edited my thoughts. I was eight. It had been a bad Christmas. I sat in the bottom of my wardrobe. Something unfamiliar dug into my bottom. I wriggled about and pulled out a small book –
Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt
. I read and re-read it until it nearly fell apart. I never found out where it came from. That little book awoke my love of history and started a train of events that changed my life. I still had it. The one thing I saved from my childhood. Studying history opened doors to other worlds and other times and this became my escape and my passion. I pruned that lot down to three short, impersonal sentences.