Authors: Jodi Taylor
The Very First Damned Thing
A short story from The Chronicles of St Mary's Series
Ever wondered how it all began?
It's two years since the final victory at the Battersea Barricades. The fighting might be finished, but for Dr Bairstow, just now setting up St Mary's, the struggle is only beginning.
How will he assemble his team?
From where will his funding come?
How can he overcome the massed ranks of the Society for the Protection of Historical Buildings?
How do stolen furniture, a practical demonstration at the Stirrup Charge at Waterloo, students' alcohol-ridden urine, a widowed urban guerrilla, a young man wearing exciting knitwear, and four naked security guards all combine to become the St Mary's of the future?
Thanks, as always, to all the good people at Accent Press, especially my editor Cat Camacho, who has never once mentioned my failure to spell cannon correctly anywhere in my manuscript.
More thanks to my technical advisor, Phillip Dawson.
And many thanks to Tom Williams, author of
Burke at Waterloo
, who took time out from his own busy schedule to keep me straight about the battle. Any errors are all due to my own pig-headedness.
List of Characters
|Dr Bairstow||A Director in search of an historical research organisation to direct.|
|Mr Strong||A man with more memories than money.|
|Major Ian Guthrie||An army officer in search of excitement.|
|Mr Black and Mr Brown||Two discreet government officials with varying levels of enthusiasm for âinvestigating major historical events in contemporary time'.|
|Mrs Green||A lady who wants to go to the ball. Ancestor of someone special to Dr Bairstow.|
|Dr Maxwell||Ginger-haired historian keeping her team together.|
|Mr Tom||Bashford Another historian. Concussed? Who can tell?|
|Mr Markham||Everyone's favourite.|
|Big Dave Murdoch||A really big security guard.|
|Mr Weller||Another security guard. Normal sized.|
|Mr Ritter||Another one.|
|Mr Randall||And another one.|
|Mr Evans||And yet another.|
|Mrs Theresa Mack||Former urban guerrilla about to get a new lease on life.|
|Professor Andrew Rapson||In desperate need of urine and calling for contributions.|
|Dr Octavius Dowson||A man pleading to be rehoused.|
|Dr Evelyn Chalfont||Chancellor of the University of Thirsk. Former leader of the resistance and still fighting.|
|Dr Helen Foster||Still not playing well with others.|
|Mrs Enderby||Head of Wardrobe.|
|Chief Leon Farrell||Late on the scene.|
|The Man from SPOHB||Wears cardigans knitted by his mother. No more need be said.|
|Miss Spindle||A young woman for whom the sight of four naked security guards was more than a revelation.|
|Mrs Partridge||She'll turn up when she feels like it.|
|St Mary's Priory||Abandoned, dilapidated, forgotten. But not for much longer.|
Various armies of various nationalities, urine-clutching students, and thoroughly bribed construction workers.
One of the most important events in the history of mankind â after the discovery of fire, the development of the wheel, and the invention of chocolate, of course â occurred in London on an overcast chilly rainy afternoon, and it is entirely typical that it should have been witnessed only by two bedraggled pigeons and a scrawny cat.
The cat, slinking his way across that almost unheard of London phenomenon, a half-empty car park, paused and considered the sudden appearance of a small stone shack in the back right-hand corner. Since cats possess intelligence far superior to that of the human race, he found nothing untoward in this occurrence, picked up the pace, and vanished out of the car park and out of this story.
The pigeons, it can be assumed, considered their options and then continued with their own plans for the afternoon.
For long minutes, nothing happened and then, almost on the stroke of three forty-five, a tall gentleman, clad in a long dark overcoat and well muffled against the cold, stepped out of the hut. For a moment, he stared about him, his expression bearing a more than passing resemblance to a middle-aged vulture waiting impatiently for the soul of an imminent corpse to get a move on and start heading towards the light. His disapproval deepened further as the rain increased and he opened his umbrella with something of a snap.
Nearly two years after the final victory at the Battersea Barricades, London was still a drab and dreary place. Damaged buildings glistened wetly in the drizzle. There was no colour. Many shop windows were empty. Cannibalised vehicles lined the pavements. Everything was broken down or worn out or just plain old and that included the people. In the aftermath of any major conflict, the younger generation are usually conspicuous by their absence.
The gentleman, leaning rather heavily on his walking stick, gingerly picked his way across the remains of the scaffolded Chelsea Bridge, contemplated for a moment the miraculously unscathed outline of Battersea Power Station, and descended a flight of steps to the cluster of inconspicuous buildings huddled between that and the bridge itself. Passing a newsagents, he paused to contemplate the headline, âWhere did all the money go?' compressed his lips, and approached an anonymous, shabby grey building amply decorated with pigeon product. The modest sign over the door read âBritannic Enterprises'. Just as he opened the front door, a nearby clock began to strike four. The gentleman allowed himself the satisfied nod of the habitually punctual.
In his tiny office to the left of the door, a grizzled, grey-haired man looked up, an expression of welcome on his face.
âDr Bairstow, sir. Nice to see you back again.'
âGlad to be back, Mr Strong. I believe I have another appointment with the panel in Room 29 at four this afternoon.'
âYou do indeed, sir. If you care to place your feet in the marked area â¦ That's it, sir â¦ And look up, please â¦'
The biometric needs of the security system having been taken care of, Dr Bairstow consented to be wanded, while agreeing that yes indeed, it was very chilly out, but that was only to be expected at this time of year.
âThere we are, sir, all done. I'll get the major to take you up.' He pressed a hidden buzzer and another door further down the shabby corridor instantly opened and a tall man with dark blond hair stepped out. Since Mr Strong had already vanished back into his cubbyhole and no actual conversation had been exchanged, Dr Bairstow concluded that the major had been watching proceedings via the discreetly concealed but always present CCTV cameras. Very shabby the building might be, but the security was top of the range.
âMajor Guthrie, isn't it?'
âThat's right, sir. This way please.'
âThis way' proved to be along a dusty corridor to an old-fashioned open cage lift at the end. Clashing the doors open, the major ushered his guest inside and pulled the doors to behind them. Ignoring the old-fashioned push buttons in front of him, none of which would have taken him to his destination, he said quietly, âSecond floor. Room 29. Authority Guthrie, bravo echo two.'
The lift purred surprisingly smoothly upwards.
Emerging, the two men turned left. Room 29 was at the end.
Major Guthrie tapped at the door and opened it, announcing, âDr Bairstow.'
The three people sitting behind an empty desk rose politely to their feet. In keeping with the office, which had surely not been decorated since the relief of Mafeking, they too wore grey. Grey suits, white shirts. The men wore plain grey ties â the woman a scarlet scarf twisted around her neck. Other than a set of military prints depicting scenes from Waterloo, this was the only splash of colour in the room.
Greetings were exchanged, the major left the room, and everyone sat down. There was a long pause. Dr Bairstow waited impassively.
The man sitting on the left, who had been introduced on previous occasions as Mr Black, began. âWell, Dr Bairstow, our experts have finally finished reading your proposals. Based on what you have given us so far, they say that what you propose could be done. The full details of how it could be done, of course, are the parts you have chosen to withhold.'
He waited politely, but so did his guest. Eventually, when it was clear Dr Bairstow was not going to speak, he continued. âHowever, since you have made it perfectly clear that nothing in History can be altered or removed, I have to ask you again: what is the point ofâ' he coughed and said with some embarrassment, ââtime travel?'
Dr Bairstow frowned. âYou might find it easier to think in terms of an organisation that investigates major historical events in contemporary time, rather than actually undertakingâ' his face wrinkled in distaste, ââwhat you refer to as time travel.'
âDoes it actually matter what we call it?'
âWe have been over this several times already,' interrupted his colleague â the one sitting on the right, and known as Mr Brown, âI think that what Dr Bairstow is saying â without actually being so presumptuous as to put words into your mouth of course, sir,' he added, âis that if nothing else, the value arises from possession. If we have it then no one else does. I'm sure I am right in thinking that should we say no to this extraordinary proposal, there are many out there who would say yes.'
Silence settled heavily. Whether it was the effect of the heavy curtains or thick carpet, sound died very easily in this room.
Dr Bairstow smiled thinly. âYou won't say no.'
Mr Black seemed to bridle. âYou seem very sure of that. I have to tell you, that given the current state of the economy, those whom we have consulted are far from convinced of the prudence of committing large â no, I beg your pardon
sums of money to this endeavour.'
âI'm sorry. I should perhaps have said, “You
âYou don't know that.'
âMy dear sir, I invite you to contemplate the nature of the â¦ enterprise â¦ I have placed before you. I
you don't say no.'
There was a pause.
Mr Black tried again. âBut the cost â¦'
âAstronomical, I should think,' said Mr Brown, cheerfully.
Dr Bairstow appeared to choose his words very carefully.
âThere is about to be a new renaissance. New ideas are sweeping aside the old. Political thinking in this country has changed forever. There is, at present, a power vacuum waiting to be filled. New leaders are emerging at every level. I believe a new young Chancellor has been appointed at the University of Thirsk. I intend to involve her fully in this project.'
Mr Black looked up sharply. âDo I understand that you support Dr Chalfont's politics?'
Dr Bairstow smiled slightly.
âI do not support anyone's politics. I generally find that governments are more than capable of making their own mess without any help from me. What I want to say is that for the protection of everyone, my organisation will be politically neutral. It will be written into our contracts. We will surrender our right to vote or partake in political activity of any kind. We will voluntarily disenfranchise ourselves. In return, no government will seek to influence us or our findings. We will not submit to such actions.'
âWhat sort of people will you employ? How will you recruit them?'
âI shall look for people who took part in the recent uprisings. Who fought for and value the peace and freedom we enjoy today. They will, I'm afraid, be people who will not appreciate the virtues of committees or debate. They will be people who get things done. They will be accustomed to overcoming difficulties and obstacles. They will be brash. They will be loud. They will be very disrespectful of authority in all forms. However, they will be dedicated. They will get the job done.' He smiled at Mr Black. âYou will get your money's worth.'
âBut of what
will it be?'
Dr Bairstow frowned. âThe truth is always important. It may not be popular, or fashionable, or convenient but it is always important. Somewhere there must always be a record of events as they actually occurred. Not the politically airbrushed record, or religious wishful thinking or the socially acceptable version, but the often inconvenient truth.'