Alex Woolf is a UK-based author of over 150 books, mostly for children and young adults, which have sold in many countries. His fiction includes Chronosphere, a time-warping science fiction trilogy, recently translated into Mandarin, and a steampunk series, Iron Sky. He won a Fiction Express award for his story 'Mystery at Moon Base One’ and was shortlisted for the RED Book Award for his horror novel Soul Shadows. He is co-author of a crowd-funded 'novel-in-emails', Kitten on a Fatberg, due to be published by Unbound.
When Tomorrow Comes
When you go to sleep on a Friday evening and are woken the next morning by the sound of church bells, you know that something is wrong. My first instinct in life is always to blame other people. The bell-ringer in the village church must have made a mistake. She believes that today is Sunday. This will make for some hilarious banter down at the Post Office later – not a lot happens in Epping Bassett as a rule, and this cock-up should keep them laughing for weeks – but right now it's like a Chinese water torture. Just as I think it's ending, it starts up again louder than before. I let out a deep groan and place my pillow over my head to try and squeeze out the endless clanging. If I have a superpower, it is the ability to fall asleep in the most unpropitious of circumstances. I once enjoyed a peaceful afternoon nap in a building site near Piraeus. If anyone can slumber through a few bells, it ought to be me. Eventually, however, the calendrically challenged campanologist wins our little battle of wills, and I struggle out of bed and splash some icy water on my face. My shirt passes the armpit-sniffing test and I put it on, together with yesterday's underpants – I've been struggling to stay on top of the laundry situation ever since I was expelled from home eleven months ago, and this ordeal has only made me appreciate Jane all the more. I'm down to my last pair of chinos, and they have a blood stain on them, but it's fine because today is the day when I will make everything better. I will pay my debt to Whistling Steve, and persuade Jane to forgive the Ponders End Incident and let me move back in with her and little Frederick. I'm close to success on both fronts, and I can almost taste the Bollinger I'm going to treat myself to when this is all over. Chris Grigoryan said he'd have the loan money ready by midday, so I'll be able to pay off Whistling Steve by lunchtime and he won't need to break my legs. As for Jane, I feel that yesterday afternoon went rather well. She barely tensed when I kissed her on the cheek, and during our walk by the New River we even reminisced about the time when we went boating there after a few beers and I fell in. I could swear she was watching us and smiling while little Frederick was beating me up in the play area at the King and Tinker. I believe she's on the verge of taking me back, and when I meet up with them at 3 o'clock this afternoon for our planned shopping trip in Enfield Town, I'm going to be so punctual and well-behaved, not to mention charming in a rumpled sort of way (mainly due to my lack of ironing skills), she's almost bound to crumble, and I'll be back in the family home, sleeping in the marital bed with any luck, by tonight. That is the plan anyway. Epping Bassett is awash with spring sunshine as I step outside my rented cottage. In the driveway stands my pride and joy, a dark green Lotus Elan S3. I gave it a polish yesterday and it's catching the early rays beautifully, glittering in the morning dew with the same perfection as the daffodils and crocuses on the village green. It's one of those days that feels like a new chapter in the book of one's life – everything is so fresh the ink has barely dried on the page. I expect to hear some amused laughter at our bellringer's clanger as I enter the Post Office, which doubles as the village's general store, but no one is so much as raising a smile in the small queue by the checkout, and Peggy behind the counter is her usual bustling, serious self. I pick up a newspaper from the rack by the door, and get a jolt when I see that it's not the Daily but the Sunday Mirror. I check the date, 28th March, and I blurt out the nonsensical words: 'But this is tomorrow's paper. What happened to today's?' I get a few stares from the queue, but no one says anything. I look more closely at the newspaper. A photo takes up the whole page: the charred and burning wreckage of a passenger plane strewn across a runway. The headline reports a crash at London Britannia Airport yesterday evening in which all 157 people on board were killed, but this barely registers. All I'm thinking is, Damn! Can this really be Sunday? Did I just sleep through two nights and a day? It doesn't take long for the implications of my mega-kip to start hitting me, and they are calamitous: this means Whistling Steve never got his money yesterday, and I didn't meet Jane and little Frederick for the shopping trip. Double damn! On the plus side, I was able to walk to the post office this morning, which means my legs are, as yet, unbroken. I check my phone and find it alive and crawling with messages from yesterday – mainly from Jane, but also from Whistling Steve and Chris Grigoryan. I buy the newspaper and a pack of Lambert & Butler Kingsize and go outside to sit on the bench next to the war memorial. Neither the cigarette nor the morning sun can halt the growing chill in my bones as I read through Jane's messages, all sixteen of them. They chart a heartbreaking course, starting with a mild 'Where are you?' at 3.28 pm, and ending some four hours later with a much lengthier and less grammatical missive, casting aspersions on my fundamental nature and warning me that I'll be hearing from her lawyers about visitation rights for little Frederick and that I should refrain from contacting her again. The thread from Steve, proprietor of easycash.com, is far more succinct and to the point, limited to just three short messages. Steve, known in local circles as Whistling Steve owing to the peculiar speaking style he has adopted since getting shot in the mouth ten years ago, is an Edmonton-based banking entrepreneur who has managed to survive in a competitive industry despite the authorities closing down a number of his businesses for various regulatory infractions. Steve and I go way back, and I've been a loyal customer of several of his establishments over the years, including TurboBank, WeLendToAnyone, InstantLoans, Fast Finance, Sunny Money and Bad Credit Welcome Here. Due to my lack of conventional collateral, apart from the Lotus, which I refuse to offer as hostage to my undulating fortunes, I suppose it's only fair that Steve should wish to seek an alternative form of security, namely my legs. It's heartening, I suppose, that he's decided to spare them on this occasion, as it appears to indicate that he still has confidence in me, despite my recent catastrophic run of luck on the horses. He must know that I will always come through in the end. Steve's first message is a simple enquiry as to my whereabouts, similar to Jane's opener but a little more profane. That one arrived at 1.54 pm. His second, which followed an hour and a half later, reads, i am coming to get you you fuck – I can tell he's stressed at this point, as it lacks any punctuation. Clearly he didn't follow through on that threat, even though he knows very well where I am currently living. Steve's final message came through at 5.16 pm and is a repeat of the first, followed by: dont think you can hide from me you bar stool. I don't believe Steve meant to call me a bar stool, as it's not his style to mince his oaths. But his spell checker may have made an assumption based on his habit of putting the 'r' of bastard after the first 'a', and not the second. I can only imagine that Steve, despite his threats, had second thoughts about driving out to Epping Bassett yesterday, and has postponed his visit until today. In that case, it's possible I can forestall him by driving to Chris Grigoryan's house in Walthamstow to pick up the loan money, then heading to Edmonton to pay off Steve. I've been forced to turn to Chris Grigoryan as an alternative source of liquidity because Steve has lost patience with me in recent months. Chris, a former bookmaker turned money lender, is more understanding of the inherent ups and downs of the gambling life and is prepared to work with me until I can get my finances on a more stable footing. But the message that arrived from Chris at 2.13 pm yesterday is concerning: Jerry, he writes, I'm sorry, I waited for you but you didn't come, and now I must leave for Britannia Airport as I'm flying to Yerevan this evening. I will be back in a week's time and we can rearrange. CG Anxiety now seizes me as I recheck the main story in my newspaper. As I thought, the plane, which crashed due to a collision with a flock of Brent geese, was the 6.30 pm flight to Yerevan, the only one to that destination heading out from Britannia Airport that day. Every single person on board was killed. With my last chance of paying off Steve now just charred bones floating down the Thames Estuary, I'm extremely scared about the prospects for my legs. Even so, my first impulse is to try to repair the situation with Jane. As I start back across the green towards the cottage, I call her up, and the conversation goes like this. Me: Jane darling, I'm so completely devastated about missing you yesterday. Jane: Where the hell were you? No, don't tell me. I know exactly where you were. You were with your whore in Ponders End... I should at this point explain her reference to the whore in Ponders End, which dates back to an incident a year and a half ago when a young woman in that district was brutally assaulted by her boyfriend. The woman's flatmate, who was in the adjoining room, happened to be a part-time sex worker, and you can probably guess who was partaking of her services that night. Both of us were called as witnesses at the ensuing trial. Needless to say, this was a painful time for everyone concerned. I was shortly thereafter exiled to Hertfordshire. Now back to Jane: You make me sick, Jerry, with all your promises. You'll never change. Me: I will change, and I have. This, by the way, is absolutely true. Since moving to Epping Bassett in Hertfordshire, I have forsworn prostitutes, gin, and several other former pleasures. I've joined the village gardening club and the church choir and generally endeavoured to pursue a quiet and abstemious existence with the aim of restoring Jane's faith in me. The only one of my hobbies that I can't seem to shake off is the horses. Back to me: You might find this hard to believe, my darling, but I didn't stir from my bed the whole of yesterday. Jane: Are you saying Ponders End came to Epping Bassett? Me: Not at all. I think someone may have spiked my cocoa, because I swear on little Frederick's life that I was fast asleep from Friday night until I woke up this morning. Jane: Codswallop! And don't you dare bring Freddy into this. Me: I promise it's true! Jane: It's a lie, because I went over to your cottage yesterday evening to check if you were okay as you hadn't answered any of my texts. Stupid me thought you might be injured or sick. You weren't there, Jerry. You weren't in your bed or anywhere else. Me: Impossible. I don't believe you. Jane: I don't lie, unlike some people. If you want proof we were there, Freddy did a drawing, which he left in your kitchen. By this time, I'm back at the cottage, and on the kitchen counter, by the kettle, I find a drawing in colourful crayons done in little Frederick's inimitable style. It shows a small stick figure standing in between two larger stick figures, one with long hair and the other with short hair, and all three have big smiles on their round faces. The sun is shining in little Frederick's sky and the three of us are standing outside a house that doesn't look anything like our house, but maybe represents a house we could aspire to – a detached house with the front door in the middle and four big windows and a chimney emerging diagonally from the triangular roof. Jane: Do you see it? Me: I'm looking at it now. It's beautiful. Jane: I won't stop you seeing Freddy, but I don't want you ever calling me again, do you understand? Wait for my lawyer to contact you. Me: ... There's nothing more from me at this point. Just silence, until I hear a voice in my ear saying, 'The other person has cleared.' If I wasn't in my bed yesterday, then where was I? Because, as Spike Milligan once said, 'everybody's got to be somewhere'. Did someone slip me a sleeping drug on Friday night, kidnap me and then return me to my bed thirty-six hours later? Who would do that, and to what end? I have no enemies to speak of, nor friends who like to pull elaborate pranks. The only person I can think of who might wish to do something like this to me, perhaps as a warning, is Whistling Steve, yet he seemed as baffled as anyone about my absence yesterday. Nevertheless, I sense it's time I bite the bullet, much as Steve himself did ten years ago, and give him a call, not least to reassure him that I'm on the case vis a vis the whole debt repayment situation. My total debt to Whistling Steve currently stands at 80k, give or take, which I was repaying in regular monthly installments, but because of recent cashflow issues, I've missed a few of these and he's now insisting I make an immediate cash payment of 10k – or he'll take a baseball bat to my legs. I call him up, and he replies, 'This is Steve, what can I do you for?' He pronounces the sibilants in the first three words in a breathy whistle, like a stuttering pressure cooker. 'Good morning Steve, Jerry here. How are you?' 'What do you mean how am I? What the fuck's that got to do with anything?' Because of the mutilated shape of Steve's mouth following his accident, the voiceless labiodental fricative, namely the 'eff' sound, also emerges as a whistle, though at a lower pitch than the sibilant, much like the final dying note of an owl's call. 'Nothing, Steve. Nothing at all. I was merely being pleasant.' 'Where were you yesterday?' is the polite version of Steve's next enquiry. You should assume that every third or fourth word he utters is a curse, but these become tedious to transcribe. 'Where's my money?' he adds. 'On its way to you, Steve, have no fear. It would have been with you yesterday, only I somehow managed to sleep right through yesterday. Extraordinary, I know! You didn't by any chance drug me and kidnap me, did you, Steve?' 'What would I do that for, Jerry? How would that help me get my money back?' It's a good question, and not one I have any immediate answer to. 'Your time is up,' Steve says. 'I'm coming to break your legs...' 'About this whole leg-breaking thing, Steve, can we just clarify what we're talking about here? I assume we're talking about a minor fracture to each tibia, is that right? The sort of injury one might pick up on, say, a black slope at St Moritz – one that might see me back on my feet in six to eight weeks? I only ask because I have a business to run, and the quicker I'm back on my feet running it again, the sooner I can pay you back the rest of your money.' Steve's silence is punctuated by the mournful whistle of his breathing. 'I mean, how big is the baseball bat, Steve? Is it actually in fact a baseball bat, or more of a rounders bat? We are Englishmen, after all.' 'Just tell me where you are, Jerry?' 'You know where I am. I'm at the cottage, where I always am.' 'You weren't there yesterday. I came out there and you definitely weren't there.' 'You came out here?' 'Yeah. I even left you a message.' 'You left me a message? Where?' 'In your laundry basket. I planned on leaving it in your wardrobe, but all your trousers were in the laundry basket, so I left it there, on your trousers.' 'You left a message on my trousers?' 'Yeah. You'll get it when you take a look at them. See, Jerry, I'm getting tired of this little dance you and me have been doing these past six months, where you keep making and breaking promises to me and I keep forgiving you like I'm one of your bitches that you keep stringing along. It's no longer a baseball bat I'll be taking to your legs, Jer. Take a look at your trousers and you'll see what I mean.' As he's saying this, I'm heading into my bedroom and tipping the contents of the laundry basket onto the floor, and I immediately see what he means. The message could not be clearer. He's taken a scissors to every pair of chinos in there and turned them into shorts. 'Do you see what I'm talking about now, Jerry? Do I need to spell it out for you?' 'No. No, I get it, Steve.' 'Good. Now I'm giving you one last chance. You bring me the 10k you owe me tonight, in cash, or I'll do to your legs what I did to your trousers. Or to put it another way, by the time I'm finished with you, you won't be needing trousers any more.' 'Yes, Steve, I get the message, really. I get it.' 'I'm glad. Oh, and one more thing, Jerry, if you don't show, I'll kill your family.' 'My family?' 'That's right.' 'You can't do that, Steve.' 'I can and I will. I'm not fucking around any more, Jerry. Our dancing days are over. You bring me the money, every last penny of it, by six o'clock this evening, or it's surgery time. And if you don't show, it'll be curtains for Jane and little Frederick.' I end my conversation with Steve as quickly as I can, and get on the phone to Jane. I'm thinking that she can go and stay with her parents in Berkshire for a while until this situation with Steve blows over. But Jane doesn't answer. Her phone doesn't even ring. She must have blocked me. I hurry out of the cottage and climb into the Lotus. If I leave now, I could be at our house in North Enfield by eleven o'clock, assuming no breakdowns – plenty of time to warn Jane to remove herself and little Frederick from harm's way. I'm about to switch on the engine when I pause and study my pride and joy – the walnut veneer dashboard, the leather trim, the racing-car steering wheel so warm and solid under my hands – and I ask myself, who am I kidding? I won't even be able to drive it if I don't have legs. I love this car in ways that are hard to express. I know it's not reliable, and it breaks down all the time, but it's beautiful, and it's all I have left in this world that's mine. I've lost or sold practically everything else, including my late parents' house, but I've clung onto the Lotus through thick and thin, and lately things have mostly been really thin. As soon as I saw it on the forecourt of SD Classic Cars in Buckhurst Hill nine years ago, I knew I had to have it. It has grace and simplicity and power. It is everything I want and says everything I wish to say, and the impression it makes on people is the impression I want to make, or wish I could make. I wipe a tear from my eye with my jacket sleeve, then take a moment to collect myself before turning on the engine. The deep resonance of its growl fills my bones. I drive the car slowly out of the village, holding my head high. The owner of SD Classic Cars, Samuel Taylor Dixon, has maintained the car for me over the years, though not as regularly as he would like. I find him in the workshop underneath a Jaguar E-Type. 'Good day, Samuel,' I say. He emerges, oil-stained and blinking, spanner in hand. 'Jezza? How's the Lotus?' 'I have to sell it. How much can you offer me?' Samuel wipes his hands on a rag and follows me to where I've parked. He opens the bonnet and starts poking around in the car's innards for a disconcertingly long time. Finally, he raises his head and says, 'I'll give you 10k for it.' I'm staggered and affronted. 'But I paid 15 nine years ago,' I point out. 'These classic cars are supposed to appreciate with age.' 'Yeah, but you haven't looked after it, have you?' He then proceeds to list all that is wrong with the car, most of which is far too technical for me to understand. 'You kept the outside in decent nick, Jezza, but you never paid enough attention to what's under the bonnet. It's going to cost me to put it right, thereby the disappointing price.' 'Therefore,' I correct him. 'What?' 'Or Hence would be even better. Hence the disappointing price.' 'What?' 'Never mind,' I tell him. '10k it is, but I'll need the money straight away. In cash.' Samuel raises an eyebrow. 'I don't keep that sort of cash in the office. I can probably get you 8k by this afternoon. You can have the rest tomorrow.' 'That's no good Samuel. I need all of it today.' He starts heading back towards the E-type. 'Sorry I can't help you then, Jez.' I relent, and agree to return at 2.30 for the 8k. It's 2k short of what Whistling Steve is expecting, and I find myself wondering what that equates to on Steve's amputation scale: a couple of toes? A foot? I take luncheon at a fried chicken and ribs establishment on the high street. It has plastic, wipe-clean surfaces and photos of the products on the menus, and a fat, grizzled proprietor with a lazy eye who stares at me until I finally leave and go and sit in a park, where I smoke cigarette after cigarette, waiting for my watch to drag itself to the appointed hour. I worry a great deal about Jane and little Frederick. I wish I had contact details for Jane's parents or her friends, and reflect on the fact that in the seven years of our marriage she has never shared much about her family or her social life. Her friends are work friends or gym friends, never our friends. As for her parents, they had their doubts about me from the start, and the Ponders End Incident merely confirmed them in all their worst assumptions about my character. They were – they are – I think, right in these assumptions. I've failed everyone – my parents, my wife, and most of all my son. This past year I've tried very hard to be better. I always think I can be better. I've spent my whole life believing this. I am a fundamentally optimistic person about my own potential, and am always far more surprised than anyone else when I fail to achieve it. Yesterday was my golden opportunity. It would have been very easy to make everything right, but somehow I contrived to sleep through it – no, to entirely absent myself from it. I managed to pull calamity from the jaws of victory. This is something that only I could do. At 2.15, I return to SD Classic Cars and I drink a cup of coffee from the machine in reception while I wait for Samuel Taylor Dixon to come back from the bank. I wonder whether his parents were aware of what the initials they had bestowed upon him also stood for, and if their love of the romantic poet and desire to commemorate him in their son's name outweighed this consideration. I also speculate on how such a literary-minded couple managed to produce a car dealer, and what their Christmases are like. At 2.43, Samuel returns. We perform the necessary paperwork, and forty-five minutes later, I leave with the money, which I have secreted bulgingly around my various pockets. Feeling somewhat vulnerable and conspicuous, I strike out along the high street towards the bus stop that will convey me to Whistling Steve's headquarters, the nerve centre of his banking empire, in a back room of the Cock and Bull Tavern in Edmonton. Near the bus stop, I spot a branch of a well-known bookmaker. I go inside, purely out of professional interest, to check out the afternoon's horse races. I run my eye down the racing form and one particular horse catches my eye: Last Chance, running in the 4.30 at Haydock Park and priced at 10/1. Last Chance is a filly I've had my eye on for some time. Like me, she's suffered a disappointing run of late, hence the long odds. Some of her bad form has been down to the amount of rain we've had these past few weeks – she's always run better on firmer ground. Also, her trainer is currently on the cold list, due to some infection or other in his yard. Her handicap is consequently 7 lb lower than the favourite, Katie Rose. Yet there are a few factors that lead me to conclude she is underpriced in this particular race. Haydock Park, at a mile and 5 furlongs, is her ideal distance, and the going, after a few dry days, is now good. Also, I've learned through a contact that her trainer is back in form. I'd say she's definitely worth a flutter, and it occurs to me that if I put £200 on her, I'd stand to make up my cash shortfall for Whistling Steve. I take a roll of twenties from an inner pocket and start peeling off ten of them. As I'm doing so, I feel a sudden tingling sensation as if the goddess has just breathed softly on the back of my neck. It's the name, I suppose – Last Chance. I've always liked it, and it's never felt more appropriate than today. It's also the odds, 10/1, and the fact that 8k, the amount I'm carrying, when multiplied by 10 equals the total sum I owe to Whistling Steve. Lady Luck is telling me something here. She's telling me that in the next forty minutes, if I have the courage of my convictions, I could get that man out of my life forever – no more fear of leg breakages or amputations. I'd be free. I recall the feeling when I stepped out of my cottage this morning, before the disasters began piling up, the feeling that today was the first page of the next chapter in the book of my life. Perhaps it still could be. Last Chance is definitely underpriced. No one seems to have spotted this but me. I fill out a betting slip and go to the cashier's window. The cashier goes to speak with her manager, and the manager asks me if I'm sure about this. I say I am, and before I can think better of it, I start handing over the full 8k. It takes me a while, fishing around in various pockets for the rolls of notes I've got stashed there. It takes the cashier several further minutes to count it, during which time I have ample opportunity to think again about what I'm doing and withdraw the bet. But I don't. I'm committed now. I've rolled the dice. There's no better or worse feeling in the world than this one. For the next twenty minutes, I stand there in the betting shop waiting for the race to begin, knocking back the free coffee and veering between despair and elation. One minute, death is tapping me on the shoulder; the next, life is singing through my veins at a hundred miles an hour. Finally, the race begins. I watch it on the flatscreen TV along with half a dozen fellow punters. The horses fly out of the starting gate and, as usual, it's hard to see what's going on at first as they all manoeuvre for position. I seek out Lucky Chance, looking for the yellow and purple of her jockey's silks, and I'm overjoyed to see her emerge from the mass of horses in second place, just half a length behind the leader, Katie Rose. Last Chance and Katie Rose are soon four or five lengths ahead of the chasing pack. On the back straight of the oval course, as they come into the bend, Katie Rose starts extending her lead, but Last Chance is still on the bridle, which means her jockey has more up his sleeve and I'm expecting him to challenge. Sure enough, on the home straight he does, and soon they're neck and neck. 'Come on!' I whisper. In the final couple of furlongs, Last Chance begins to open up a tiny lead, no more than half a head. I go very still, like a statue. Caffeine and adrenaline are pumping through my system and my heart is banging like a door in a hurricane, but on the outside, I'm rigid. Terrified. Electrified. Daring not to hope. Barely able to breathe. Last Chance. My last chance. The stars are aligning for me and my horse. We've had it tough, Last Chance and I, but we're fighters. We don't give up. Back on the screen, Katie Rose isn't giving up either. The two horses are neck and neck again, with their jockeys giving it everything as they close on the finish line. There's nothing between them. It's looking like a photo finish. And then something happens, and it happens so fast I struggle to process what I'm seeing. Katie Rose's jockey suddenly falls off his mount and tumbles to the turf. The riderless horse then bounds ahead, distracting Last Chance and causing her jockey to fall. Both horses cross the finish line without their riders and are therefore disqualified. The winner turns out to be an unfancied gelding called Tomorrow. This serial loser went into the race at odds of 100/1. For a long moment I can only stand there, unable to move or think, as my fellow punters jabber around me, astonished at this bizarre turn of events, this complete up-ending of form and fortune. Finally, I leave the bookmaker and head down the street, smoking furiously and directing harsh, rhetorical questions at myself: what did I think I was doing? Was I insane? What am I going to do now? I seriously consider walking out in front of the next bus. It takes me a while to emerge from this fog of suicidal despair and self-loathing and remember that I have a family, a wife and a little boy of five, and in an hour's time, when I don't show up at the Cock and Bull Tavern in Edmonton, Whistling Steve is going to make plans to kill them. I should go to their rescue. That is more important than anything else at this time. Once they're safe, I can think about killing myself, but right now I need to get to North Enfield as quickly as possible. The trouble is, I can't afford a taxi and I have no idea how to get there from Buckhurst Hill via public transport. An app on my phone suggests a route, but it's complex, involving a tube ride, a walk, and three different buses. The estimated journey time is an hour and forty minutes.
It's already ten to seven – 50 minutes after I was supposed to deliver the cash to Steve – when I alight from the bus at the bottom of our road. I haven't been back here since my ejection eleven months ago, and I get hit by a flood of memories. Across the street is the Co-op where I made countless trips with little Frederick. Whenever we ran out of his favourite mini yogurt drink, he'd say 'Go buy sops', and out he and I would go to the Co-op to purchase more. One block south of here is the canal, home of the scary swan, and to the east is the park where little Frederick would climb up the ladder and slide down the slide and then climb up the ladder and slide down the slide, again and again and again, and to the north is the pub where Daddy and Mummy drink their beer, and to the west is the cemetery where the dead people live. This was our world, and I'm so sad because I haven't been sharing it with him and his mother, and he probably doesn't remember much about when I did. I'm also terrified because it's supposed to be a safe world and it doesn't seem that way any more. Whistling Steve will be here soon. I have to get my family away. As I start jogging up the road, past the terraced houses, I catch a smell of burning on the breeze, and I think to myself this isn't the season for bonfires. Then I see blue flashing lights up ahead and my heart catches and I feel this ice-cold shadow forming inside me. But I tell myself, there are hundreds of houses in this street and it probably isn't ours. Smoke is rising into the sky, and black fragments are drifting through the haze. I'm coughing, my eyes are streaming, but I don't stop running. I'm close now. It may be a neighbour. Mrs Bingham from next door was never too careful with her cooking. I remember the smell of burned rice sometimes drifting from her window. A big fire engine is parked in the road – little Frederick will be so excited. A firefighter comes out of the smoke and shouts at me to get back. They're directing powerful jets of water at a house. I can see it now and can no longer keep telling myself it isn't ours. The brickwork is scorched, the little porch has collapsed, flames are gusting from the windows like a bright, all-consuming wind. I scream at the firefighter, 'That's my house. What happened to my wife? My child? Did you get them out?' I see his face change, observe his discomfort. He doesn't know where to put his eyes. 'What happened to them?' I ask, but I know from his face what happened. He doesn't have to say. I think about little Frederick's drawing of the three of us. I think about him and Jane in there. The shadow inside me, it's so cold, and it has no end.
When you go to sleep in an Enfield hotel and you wake up in your rented cottage in Epping Bassett, you know that something is wrong. Not that I care any more what's wrong or right or where I wake up or what happens to me. Jane is gone. Little Frederick is gone. It's my fault they're dead. I may as well have lit the match myself. I'm all cried out now. My eyes are dry as I stare at the ceiling and contemplate the empty, dark and bottomless pit that is the rest of my life. After witnessing the fire, I was driven to a police station where I was asked lots of questions, very few of which I could answer. I didn't tell them about Whistling Steve. He'd deny any involvement anyway, so what was the point? I cried when they confirmed the deaths of my wife and son. I didn't stop crying until they gave me something to make me calm. Then they took me to a local hotel where they could keep an eye on me and make sure I didn't do anything stupid. They gave me some new clothes and some toiletries, and then the pills kicked in and I must have fallen asleep. And now I've woken up here, and that's strange, but also completely inconsequential. Whistling Steve still wants his money. He'll probably come here today and that's scary but also inconsequential, because I'm just flotsam now. Fate can do what it wills and dump me where it pleases and remove parts of my anatomy, and I am supremely untroubled about any of it. There is something odd, though, about what I'm experiencing, beyond the fact that I've woken up in a bed 14 miles to the north of the one I went to sleep in. It takes me a little while to figure out what that is, preoccupied as I am with staring into the empty, dark and bottomless pit of my future. The thing that eventually penetrates my depressed and nihilistic state is auditory in nature. There are odd sounds coming through my window. It's Monday morning, but these are not Monday morning sounds. I can hear the hum of an electric lawnmower, the shouts of children who ought to be in school, and the voice of my next-door neighbour, Mr Hibbertson, who is normally in the city by now trading in futures, but is instead chatting with Frank the postie. I reach for my phone, which I find placed on my bedside table. It tells me that the date is Saturday 27th March, the day before yesterday in other words, the day I slept through. I sit up very straight in bed, and a wave of giddiness overwhelms me. I blink several times and wait for it to pass. Then I look at my phone again. It's still Saturday 27th March. I leap out of bed and pull open the curtains. The sun is dazzling. I can see a young couple seated on the bench by the war memorial, and a mother and toddler feeding the ducks in the pond, and a group of teenagers heading into the Post Office, and Dr Willis in his shirtsleeves mowing his lawn. The cars in this commuter village are all in their driveways, including, quite astoundingly, my own Lotus – my pride and joy. I shout down to Mr Hibbertson and Frank the postie. 'What's the day today?' They squint up at me. 'Saturday of course,' says Frank. I dash back to my bedside table and pick up my phone. My fingers are shaking almost too much to press the required buttons on the touch-sensitive screen. On the third ring, Jane's voice answers. 'Hi Jerry. Is everything okay?' I can't speak. 'What's wrong?' she asks. 'Is it about this afternoon? I don't mind if you can't meet us.' 'No,' I say. 'I want to meet. It's just that I had a terrible dream. I thought you and little Frederick were...' 'Don't,' she interrupts. 'Don't think about it. We're both fine. Freddy's in the middle of his latest artistic masterpiece. He'll bring it to show you when we meet. He's still buzzing about yesterday, and he can't wait to see you. Is 3 o'clock still good? We can meet in the market square... Jerry, are you sure you're okay?' 'I'm fine,' I say. 'I love you both. And I'll see you later.' I sit for a long time on the bed, trembling with happiness, but also confusion. Yesterday wasn't like any dream I'd ever had. It seemed so real, so like life. I rise from the bed and go and check the contents of my laundry basket. My chinos are all intact. Fifteen minutes later, I'm sitting in the sun on a kitchen chair in my tiny front garden, cup of coffee in hand, and it's still Saturday 27th March. I find I must keep checking my phone to make sure of this. For the third time, I look to my right to check that my pride and joy is still sitting in the driveway. Time, the way it moves, suddenly feels so fragile and uncertain. And if this day vanishes, or turns out to be a dream, I will go mad. I call Chris Grigoryan, and he reassures me that he'll have the 10k ready for me by midday. Before he hangs up, I say to him: 'Chris, are you planning to fly to Yerevan this evening by any chance?' 'Yes, how did you know?' My coffee turns cold and bitter in my mouth. 'Are you booked on the 6.30 flight from London Britannia Airport?' 'I am.' 'Don't take it, Chris. Don't get on that plane.' 'Why?' 'If I tell you you'll think I'm crazy.' 'I'll see you at 12, Jerry.'
Everything goes like clockwork. I drive over to Walthamstow and pick up the money from Chris, who I'm pleased to see has torn up his plane ticket. Then I go to the Cock and Bull Tavern in Edmonton and pay off Whistling Steve. After that, I have a couple of hours to kill before I'm due to meet Jane and little Frederick. Normally I would kill this sort of time in a bookmaker, but after yesterday, or tomorrow, or whatever one should call that day, the idea of gambling sickens me. There is, however, one thing I can do with this time I have and it does involve a visit to a bookmaker, though you couldn't exactly call it gambling. Two hours later, I'm standing in the market square in Enfield Town when my little boy comes running up to me and I sweep him into the air and give him a big hug. Jane is more circumspect in her greeting, but she doesn't tense up like she used to when I kiss her on the cheek. 'Where did you park?' she asks. 'I didn't,' I say. 'I came here by bus.' 'Did the Lotus break down again?' 'No. I sold it.' She looks at me in surprise. 'But that car is your pride and joy!' 'That car is part of my past. I'm pinning all my hopes on Tomorrow.'
Postscript I went to bed that Saturday night, and woke up on Monday morning a much richer man, and I mean that in every sense of that word. I was still in my cottage, but my afternoon with Jane and little Frederick had gone so well that less than a week later I was back in our family home. I paid off my debt to Whistling Steve and invested the rest of my winnings in a rental property. Then I went out and found myself a regular suit-and-tie job. Never again did I gamble, and never again did I experience a mis-ordering of my days as I did that weekend. My Monday was followed by Tuesday, and Tuesday was succeeded in the usual fashion by Wednesday, and so it has gone on ever since, and I can't say I'm sorry about that.