It was one of those miserable Tuesday afternoons in February, one second before North London would inevitably tuck itself under a blanket of sleet and drizzle, the non-stop kind that would cease only after you stepped into the dry safety of work the next morning.
Lionel squeezed his collar onto his neck as he ducked into the newsagents for some basic groceries. Bread, Carling, some milk for coffee too, it had gone bad in the fridge. At least he hoped that was it, and the fridge hadn’t broken down. He’d find out soon enough, he guessed. Mr Patel was always polite in greeting him, always nice. How can he smile like that every day? Must be an Indian thing, bless him. They exchanged some customary pleasantries and Lionel was once again rushing through the cold.
The lane of narrow terraced houses was still and quiet. Lionel’s shift was an early morning one and most people weren’t coming home yet. Which suited Lionel fine, he welcomed the occasional quiet moment just after work. The neighbour from Poland with his retarded kid didn’t help. It wasn’t enough to hear people speaking Polish in the garden as if you’re living in some weird Russian movie, but that kid would YELL, as if the problem wasn’t his low IQ, but his parent’s hearing.
Still he had a few hours to spare now, coffee and a bit of telly or the old 80s CD, getting that Power Station smell off him with a quick shower, bit of a cheeky wank thrown in while we’re at it, why not.
The house smelled of damp and socks and he wondered how long it would be before he could air the place out a bit, let some air in. It seemed as if the weather was always timed to keep him shut in. You’d think we British would have figured a way around this problem by now, he thought, as he lifted his groceries out of their bag.
“This place needs a woman’s touch” his mother, rest her soul, used to say when she would visit and tidy up. It was true, but somehow it never happened. Women came with children, and by God, if it meant being stuck with something like the Polish retard next door, he’d rather not have any of it.
Not that he hadn’t flirted with marriage few times, but in the end something kept putting him off. Maybe it was perfectionism, or maybe he just wasn’t the type to settle down. But none of those girls had worked out. They say you can tell when you meet the one. Well if you can, he never did.
He took a long good sniff at the opened fridge. There was a slightly dodgy smell, but he suspected that came from the very suspicious-looking Chinese takeout. The Fridge certainly felt cool. He quickly shoved the beer and milk in. If the milk spoiled, he’d know the fridge had crapped out. Then he remembered he was about to make coffee and took the milk out again. Maybe he was going senile. Just then he noticed that he didn’t have any clean mugs. Piss.
Just as he was finally putting the kettle on, the doorbell rang. Heading to open it, he could make out two uniformed figures waiting outside. It made him quicken his pace a bit.
-“Mr Lionel Smith?”
-“We’re from Authority sir, could we have a minute of your time?”
That was a weird thing to hear; Lionel also worked for Authority, but he had never encountered these uniforms before. It wasn’t that the Power Department got many inter-departmental visitors, of course, but in his 20 years there he had never seen this kind of dark green uniform.
-“Of course” he said, and stepped aside for them to enter, “I was just making some coffee, would you like some?”
-“No, no thank you.” they seemed a little apprehensive, like they would be bringing bad news. But this wasn’t some interrogation: Had it been one, he wouldn’t be here, he’d be sitting in one of the dreaded Guesthouses.
-“I’ll just be a minute then, is that OK?”
-“Take your time sir.” The uniforms kept looking around at the house, like they wanted to buy it or something.
-“Cheers. Just got back from my shift. Sorry about the mess. Won’t be a sec. Please, make yourselves at home.”
He threw some clothes off the narrow living room sofa and gestured for them take a seat. They sat and began to unpack what looked like paperwork from a large briefcase. The two uniformed figures made a strange pair: One was considerably taller than the other, and their manner and bearing made them appear almost anachronistic: A weird mixture of old-fashioned British Bobbies and American Scientists, perhaps.
-“So where are you guys from, I didn’t spot any department insignia?” he asked a minute later, coming back into the living room with his coffee.
-“We’re from a special subdivision of Logistics sir” the taller one answered.
-“Oh? I don’t owe any more taxes, do I?” His attempt at levity apparently fell flat as he sat down.
-“No, it’s nothing like that I’m afraid. I ought to preface by saying that you are due for quite a significant amount of compensation.”
-“Compensation? For what? What happened?”
-“Well, it’s quite complicated…” The taller man seemed at a temporary loss for words, so he gestured to the shorter one who seemed to be expecting the cue. He was holding a thick red folder, which he opened to a marked page. He began to read from it:
-“In accordance with the Temporal Integrity And Compensations Act of 1994, you have been judged as entitled to sixty thousand pounds sterling of compensation for damages incurred as the result of time-line corrections which had to have been recently made for the sake of national security. This compensation has been awarded by the Automatic Court Nexus and is therefore declared objective, fair and independent of any specific timeline bias by the International Temporal Integrity Commission. Having been so informed of this compensation you are hereby bound to not contest or otherwise seek any other form of compensation or remuneration related to any and all damages incurred, or challenge the nature or list of said damages whether via traditional judiciary or through Facebook Courts. An exhaustive inventory of alterations to your timeline as well as other legally required material is hereby attached according to EU Directive 3972-B regarding Temporal Alteration Information Disclosure as well as HM government’s 3972-BA law implementing said directive.”
-“Please sign here to acknowledge receipt sir” The taller man had already extended a pen and a pink-coloured form to Lionel. Lionel absentmindedly signed.
-“So when do I get the 60 grand?” was his first question.
-“It should be in your bank account within three to five working days.”
-“Nice. So why the long faces? It wasn’t your money that I’m getting is it?”
-“No, it’s… just the nature of the damages may prove disturbing to you.”
-“What damage? What happened?”
-“Well, nothing actually happened as such.”
-“So is something going to happen to me in the future?”
-“No, this is compensation for… well, occasionally the timeline of the world gets altered very slightly because of national security interventions in the recent or distant past, and this means that the present ends up changing around a bit as a consequence. When someone’s life is affected negatively by these changes, they are entitled to financial compensation, as per the TIACA-94 act which my colleague referenced just now.”
-“You’ll find a detailed breakdown as well as substantial audiovisual material in this red folder. It’s required by law that you be provided with this. The European Union requires it, apparently” he said with some disdain, then more forthrightly: ”I think it’s a bit cruel to be honest with you, but what can you do.”
-“Don’t blame me mate, I voted Out.” Lionel said, and once again the joke seemed to fall flat as the men prepared to leave.
-“Look” the tall man said, as he and his companion stood, “If I were you I would just take the cash and not dig too much into the details in this folder. We don’t know why Authority had to visit the past and change the timeline on this occasion, but we assure you that such actions are undertaken after extreme vetting and forethought. As such, it is safe to say this was certainly in the best interest of the nation, and I dare say possibly the whole world.” Lionel accompanied them to the door.
-”As for you,” the tall man continued, “it won’t make much difference knowing about another life that could have been. That’s all this material is really, just something that could have been. As far as you’re concerned, anything in that folder is just stories, it never happened.”
The tall man lingered for a second on the doorstep and looked at Lionel directly. He had a hard stare that Lionel found disquieting: “Say it’s pretend, alright? All you need to know is that you’re sixty grand richer today. Go buy a flashy car or something, enjoy the life you have now, make the best of it!”
-“Oh, you can bet on that mate!” Lionel said.
-“Well, thank you for your time once again”
-“I ought to say thank you!”
They bid their polite farewells and headed out into the cold evening. Sixty grand, not bad. He didn’t have any debts -being a bachelor has its up sides- but he was sure he could splash out on a bit of luxury here and there. Perhaps nice 5-star vacations for 10 summers in a row, or yeah, a nice new car. And a fridge cold enough to keep the milk from spoiling.
So let’s see what 60 grand buys you these days. He sipped at the coffee and opened the red folder which the uniforms had left lying on top of the living room table.
First page was just the title and legalese, a carbon copy of the signed pink form. He flipped through more and more legalese, and then he flipped over to the pages that looked crooked and photocopied. In government paperwork you could always tell the bits that were meant for you because those pages looked like crap. He read the short list on the first of these pages:
You are hereby compensated at the aforementioned rates for:
1) Loss of Katherine Smith, 47 years old, spouse: 24,000 GBP
2) Loss of Hannah Smith, 14 years old, daughter: 14,000 GBP
3) Loss of Simon Lionel Smith, 12 years old, son: 12,000 GBP
4) Timeline degradation appraised as band R: 10,000 GBP
That caused him to pause for a moment. This was obviously wrong, he had never been married, let alone had two kids with some bint. He double-checked the details. They’ve obviously come to the wrong Lionel Smith. He’ll have to call Authority up and hold on the phone for a million hours just so he can get in touch with…
And then he turned to a page titled “Lionel Smith Temporal Delta / Unclassified” with two mugshots. One was the photo from his passport (what a crap photo it was). But what shocked him was that right next to it was another photo of… him, or somebody who looked very much like him. If Lionel had a clean-shaven handsome twin brother who went to the gym and didn’t eat rotten Chinese every day, that would have been him. “Branch #89753 merged into Master - Commit 075f262” said the text under his own photo. Who was that man? Was that him then? Before the time-line changed, like the uniforms said? When was that? At what point was this time-line altered anyway? He looked at the technical details: “Merged on Monday, 10th February, 2020 at 03:10:46 UTC”. Fucking yesterday mate.
For a moment, he forgot about the 60 grand. This paper was saying he had been someone else until yesterday, some spoilt pretty boy with a barely contained smug smirk in that passport photo. He wanted to know more. He forcefully flipped the page, almost tearing it out of the folder. Next page showed only one photo: This seriously fit MILF. Wouldn’t mind dipping his cock in that, he thought… but what sweet eyes too though. He shivered. Man, that was one beautiful woman. Seriously, he could fall in love with this one. She looked good even in her passport photo, and who takes good passport photos? He guessed the other smug pretty boy in the previous page did. The fucking happy passport photo couple, he thought and sneered.
Screw the coffee, he grabbed a can of Carling from the fridge. The can still felt warm, fucking fridge was broken after all. Couldn’t be bothered right now. Sat right back, took a long swallow from the can, and looked at the MILF again. Fuck she was gorgeous. Katherine eh? “Hi Katherine” he said. There was something weird in his voice, he must be getting a cold. He cleared this throat.
All of a sudden he felt a little pissed off. Who were these people to come here and give him a folder of crap that “could have happened”. He didn’t understand. Did this stuff happen or not? Are these real people or not? If so, where are they? Where is Katherine, for some reason he felt a need to keep looking at her. Did she exist? Easy answer, right under the photo with the ”commit” comment: Deceased, 2001. Almost 20 years ago.
He was so pissed off. He flipped Katherine’s page over to look at what he was sure were a bunch of smug little brats right out of a toothpaste advert or something. He wasn’t wrong. Pretty kids, like their parents. Pink blond and smiley. The girl looked a bit like Lionel’s mother. So Mr clean-shaven had the pretty wife AND pretty kids then. Barbecue in the garden then, was it? Vote Tory and give to Greenpeace too fucking was it?
He threw away the empty can, grabbed a fresh one from the fridge. On second thought, he grabbed the whole pack out of the fridge. It would only get warmer in there. Best to put it out in the garden, it would probably keep much cooler out there. He shoved the rest of the pack out and closed the door. This time he downed half a can. Something about those kids faces pissed him off. He turned back to the page with Katherine The MILF. So. Fucking. Pretty. But in that weird way, yeah? Like, she made him dizzy and this was just a fucking passport photo.
Shit. She’d been the one, innit. She had been it. He’d met the one. He’d been fucking married to her until bloody Sunday night. They’d have probably have fallen asleep on Sunday night, for the last time, after some lame suburban shite thing, Sunday roast with the kids or whatever these people do… What did these people do anyway?
That’s when he noticed a thicker tab on the folder named “media archive”. He flipped over to it, and found a collection of media sticks arranged in a thick cardboard folder section. The pages that lay underneath it were an index. He drank more as he scanned it: “May 10th 2017: Birthday party at Pizza Express”, “2018: Archive of emailed Christmas cards”, “July 17th 2019: Anniversary party at The Fowl And Octopus”, he skipped all the way to the end: “Sunday, 9th February, 2020: Family barbecue”
He laughed out loud and almost chocked on his beer. “I fucking knew it, Barbecue in February you spoilt clean-shaven twat, throw on the aftershave and everything yeh? Chat up the neighbours wives a bit while we stand in the rain, did we?”
He wanted to watch that. Oh he was going to watch that one alright, couldn’t wait to tell the boys at work about this one. Two days ago he’d been married to this total MILF and was having compulsive suburban barbecues. Then somebody saved him from this AND gave him 60 grand to boot. Oh this made his evening, this. He grabbed a fresh can of Carling from outside, stuck the stick into the TV, scrolled to… (fuck they didn’t make it easy… 3972-BA-0082646.M5V it was, apparently). Pressed play and as it loaded he drunkenly wondered if there was any raunchy stuff in the other sticks. He’d have to find out later on.
There was this happy family in the video. It was actually very sunny, it didn’t look like February, the bright image almost hurt his eyes in the living room twilight. Had it been like that this Sunday? He couldn’t remember, he’d had a massive hangover.
The camera kept showing the steaks and bangers on the barbecue, which pissed Lionel off, he wanted to see the MILF. Was it his clean-shaven Mr Perfect twin who was filming this? Lionel guessed it probably was. There were the brats from the photos, kicking the ball, and a woman’s voice “Hannah! Come and take the bread out” and the camera turns.
There she is again. Fuck. YES, the camera lingers on her for a second. She’s wearing an apron, just makes her waist look sexier. Her hair is bound in a ponytail, you can see her perfect neck. She looks at the camera: “Oi, you, turn that off. Seriously, stop filming the bloody meat and come and help”. Then a teasing man’s voice with a weird Slavic accent: “Awww Katrin, let de men hev the lagers eh? Ahahaha!”.
Who the fuck was that.
-“You men can have your lagers once the work is done, Sergei” she answers back.
Camera turns: It’s the Polish cunt from next door, sitting at a barbecue table!
-“HEH!” he says to the camera, “I love your wife Lionel, she reminds me of my poor Anna. Thet women hev… the fire, yes? I was laki to hev her. You are laki man too, he says, toasting with his beer.”
A muddy ball flies from behind the screen, hits a potted plant, it falls over. “Alek!” the Pole shouts, sternly. Camera pans again: It’s his retard kid. The fucking Polish retard in my garden breaking my plants. My spoilt toothpaste-ad kid runs up to the camera and says “sorry, it was my fault, I was throwing the ball to him, and I threw too hard”.
Then my voice: “Oh that’s alright boys, no harm done!” My voice, but I sound like I’m a TV presenter or something. “No worries Alek!!” - but the retard looks scared and keeps shifting on the spot. Then my voice again, sounding like I’m praising a Britain’s Got Talent guest or something ”Hey Simon, want to bring Alek over to grab a plate? These are almost done!”
No. No, it’s not alright, Lionel thought.
-“Not alright mate. This is not alright you spoilt little fuck. The fucking retard Pole playing in my garden and breaking my plants while we feed his fucking father who can barely speak English and the camera won’t EVEN SHOW THE FIT BABE AND THAT’S ALL I FUCKING WANTED WAS TO LOOK AT HER” and then the beer was flying at the TV and his hands were waving about.
He kicked out from where he was sitting and the table flipped over, spilling the red folder and it’s contents across the floor. “WE FUCKING VOTED OUT MATE YOU DON’T BELONG HERE MATE I DON’T WANT TO WATCH MY SON FEEDING YOUR RETARD CUNTSTAIN - OFF WITH YOU” and he grabbed a stool and threw it across the room. It hit the TV but did surprisingly little damage as it broke like some cheap movie prop. Lionel lunged at the TV image, stepping over the upturned table, stomping on the passport photo pages, slipping on them, tripping drunkenly and falling on his face.
He stumbled back to his feet in a white hot rage that made the world feel smaller, made the room feel narrower, made the twilight bright and all he wanted was to smash the bright image of the smiling retard who was right now putting his clumsy grubby hands all over the paper plate that his own smart beautiful boy was holding out to him. And at the same time Lionel wanted to snap the arm that held out that plate of food like a twig.
He wanted to shove the retard’s face into the barbecue and hear the lenses of those thick glasses crack against the lit coals, wanted to rip his spoilt son’s smug smile right off his spoilt suburban face, crack a tooth or two and then straighten out that bitch mother of his who had taught him to…
And his mind snapped back to that magical woman in the apron. He desperately needed to see her face again. He looked behind him and realised he had torn her face off from the page which he’d slipped on. He got on all fours and hunted for the torn-out piece. God, Katherine. What could have been, he kept thinking as he maniacally shifted old food wrappers and empty beer cans across the floor, looking for his wife’s face. Then he saw it once again, squashed, crumpled, and damp from the spilled beer. As he picked it up, the rage drained out of him like somebody had pulled out a plug. What could have been, oh what could have been, he kept thinking.
And momentarily there were sobs and tears.
Bollocks, he eventually thought. He stopped the video and turned the TV off. It hadn’t sustained serious damage, just some bad scratches. He’d have to wipe the beer off it tomorrow. Lionel pulled the media stick out. He looked around, dizzy and slightly disoriented. He managed to put the stick back in its place, grabbed the various pages that had spread around the floor and stuffed them back in the red folder. He set the folder to one side. Didn’t want to end up slipping on this crap again.
He fell back onto the couch. What an evening. Well, it must be getting late. The sleet and drizzle were already coming down by now, but you could barely see them in the fading twilight. The council was saving money now and turning street lights on only between 19:00 and 23:00, and the lane was still dark and quiet for the moment.
Lionel thought about getting up, turning on a light, turning on the heating. Not quite yet, he thought, as he lay sprawled out in the dark. He felt a deep need for more of that bracing cold, that reassuring quiet, that safe darkness. It had always kept him from spoiling, he realised.