Book 10: Welcome Home

This is the final book in the series. Chapters posting Every Tuesday and Thursday.

Preface from Mooderino

426: An Englishman's House

Where was I? When was I?

The moon looked like the moon I had grown up living under. Well, probably. I can’t say I ever really took the time to study the lunar surface. Would I be able to tell one moon from another? It didn’t seem like the sort of skill you’d need in life. They probably taught it in social studies with all the other unnecessary stuff they insisted we know.

Was I really back in good old Blighty? It was quite possible this was a false reality created to make me think I was standing on top of a castle — every Englishman’s secret desire.

Maurice had that kind of ability. A little help from Peter would be enough to convince me I was home. Alone.

On the other hand, maybe the last few months of my life had been the hallucination. Returning could be the equivalent of waking up and coming to my senses. Although why would I wake up on a castle in the middle of god knows where? Shouldn’t I have woken up in my bed?

The fact it was the same castle I’d seen in my vision and also in the spire in Fengarad made me think I was in some kind of mental projection and the real me was still in Flatland, staring gormlessly into the middle-distance. They’d probably shuffle me into a corner and use me as an umbrella stand.

Whatever the truth of the matter, my reality was that I was here and I wasn’t going to figure anything out by waiting for someone to come explain it to me. I needed to deal with this world first, and this wasn’t Flatland.

I took in my surroundings, looking for clues. If this was a fake, I could snap myself out of it by spotting inconsistencies.

Flatland didn’t have a moon. Also, the sign on the door written in English. The door itself stood out as not of Medieval origin. I could try kicking it in, but I’d only hurt myself. It was a heavy safety door in unpleasant blue, nicely contrasting against the beautiful archaic architecture surrounding it. Nothing was more English than that.

This was definitely Earth. That didn’t mean it was my Earth. I could be in a parallel universe, or it could be a different dimension or an alternate timeline. I needed to do a little more research before I could be sure.

It was very quiet and there were no signs of life, not even animals or birds. It was the middle of the night, so that wasn’t so surprising, but it was a bit eerie. I was stuck on the roof of a castle with no idea how to get down. Wait to be found? Did people even live in this giant pile of stone? Or did they just open it up to the public every morning and man the gift shop?

I also didn’t know if this was the same year I had departed this sceptred isle. February 2016 was my departure date, along with the others. Someone must have noticed a bunch of kids suddenly disappearing. The others had families and friends and all that stuff. Optional extras, as I like to think of them.

Unless this was far in the future, after a monkeypox epidemic wiped out humanity and left the Amazon warehouse robots to rule the world. I looked forward to receiving my packages next-day delivery without paying for Prime, the first of many benefits I could expect from the end of human civilisation. First in line, every time.

Whatever the state of the world, I couldn’t hang around on a cold roof freezing my bollocks off. It wasn’t like I didn’t have experience in getting out of difficult situations.

The question was, which of my newly acquired skills had been transferred with me? I had already tried to use magic with no success, but that didn’t mean it was lost to me forever. I had also learned other skills and abilities. If I was back to being my old useless self, then that would be a strong indicator that none of it had really happened and I was a delusional nutcase.

I looked over the side of the castle walls. It was a long way down. If I still had access to my healing ability, I’d have been tempted to jump down and then heal my injuries, which was an insane thing to think in a non-fantasy setting.

If I did manage to get down from here, then what? I had no idea where I was. I didn’t recognise the castle, which is a terrible admission for an Englishman to have to make. We are raised to be respectful of our past, to be proud of the many accomplishments of the Commonwealth (sounds less evil than empire).

The use of heavy artillery to mow down natives carrying spears wasn’t the focus of the history lessons, it was more about our ships and bridges, and our fine stately homes, open to the public daily, for the tax breaks.

In school, we would often be ferried about in coaches that smelled of crisps and vomit, taken to see what our ancestors had been up to. You need a reason to terrorise whole nations of people across the other side of the world, and what better reason than the construction of a giant palace of crystal or a tall pole with a statue on top of it? Tyranny always makes much more sense when you bookend it with grand monuments of engineering and ingenuity. Makes it easier to hide the bloodstains.

I put one leg over the side of the ramparts, testing my ability to climb down, using the cracks in the stonework to hold onto. There was a tingling in my groin as I hung my leg over the side, and not the good kind of tingling. My mind wasn’t willing and my body wasn’t, either. Before I threw caution to the wind and hurled myself over the battlements, I decided to have a proper look around for an alternative.

Good thing I did, turns out Health and Safety have no respect for the beauty of fine architecture. There was an ugly metal fire escape on the far side of the castle.

It looked ridiculously out of place, painted yellow to really stand out, but you can’t leave people with only one way to get out of a confined space. You used to be able to, but there were numerous fires in train stations that killed hundreds of people and they realised it didn’t look good on the news.

I clattered my way down the metal stairs with a sense of elation, like I’d managed to complete a puzzle that opened up Level Two without having to look up the cheese-solution on a wiki. It was hardly the Great Escape, but reaching the ground in one unbroken piece was the kind of small victory big victories are built on.

It was starting to get light and I could see a gravel path going around the castle. There was a signpost pointing in various directions — toilets, cafe, car park — but no actual name of the area I was in. There was a map of the castle grounds with a ‘you are here’ arrow, which also showed the exit.

Since I didn’t know when people would turn up, or what they would think about me being here, dressed as some kind of hobo cosplayer, I decided to leave.

It was a long walk to the main gate, but not unpleasant. Walking was one of the things I had spent a lot of time doing lately, so a half-hour stroll was no big deal. The gate was an archway, no locked door, no guards. There were some cars parked in a designated zone, though. I’m sure the Normans or whoever built this place had similar white boxes painted on the ground to show where to leave your donkey and cart.

It was weird seeing actual motor vehicles again..

There was a small building that looked a lot newer than the rest of the place, with a light on in the window. I could have knocked and asked for directions, but I felt apprehensive about it. I didn’t really know how to explain myself.

“Hello, could you tell me which timeline this is, please? The darkest one? Second darkest?”

Back to the nervous old me? Was this a sign that my growth as a person had been a figment of my imagination and I had been unceremoniously returned to my factory settings?

I crept closer and checked the cars to see if they’d been left open. There was a small hatchback, which was locked, and a truck that smelled like cow shit, which was open on the passenger side.

Inside, I found various empty containers and food wrappings in the footwell, and a bag of coins like you get out from the bank in the slot next to the gear stick. I took it and scurried away. If anything indicated I was not the same old Colin, it was stealing from a car in not-quite broad daylight.

I headed out through the archway and onto a main road. It was only going in one direction, away from the scene of my crime. Exactly the direction I was looking to go in.

There were twenty £2 coins in the bag, which was a reasonable amount. If I could find a train station, it might be enough to get me to London. I tossed the bag, put the coins in separate pockets in case I got robbed, and looked up to see a sign. The name of the road was London Road, which was helpful. It didn’t say how far it was to the other end.

The air continued to smell like cow shit, so I was in the countryside. I’m not a fan, but at least the rabbits here wouldn’t try to bugger me to death.

A few minutes later, I saw another sign with the red symbol for a train station. Arundel Station. Never heard of it. I veered to the left and kept going. The occasional car drove past me. The people in them looked pretty normal, dressed as you’d expect. I was beginning to think I’d been returned around the same time I’d left. I hadn’t seen any new models of cars or anyone flying by on a hoverboard. Can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed.

It was a small station with no one around. The large clock said it was nearly six o’clock. There was no one in the ticket booth, but there were machines you could buy tickets at. There was a direct train to London Victoria for the low price of thirty quid. Well, £33.10, to be exact. The Great Train Robbery was celebrated daily all over the British Isles.

The next train was due… now.

I heard it pulling in and ran to the platform. It was acceptable to not buy a ticket in order to not miss your train. You could pay the inspector who came round to check tickets, or you could pay at the other end. If you had the cash, you were fine.

The train doors slid open to reveal an empty carriage, with free newspapers on each seat. I picked one up and checked the date. May 1st 2019.

Three years. It made me feel a bit dizzy. I slumped into a seat and went through the paper to find out how the world had changed. It was quite a shock.

In this world, Donald Trump had become the President of the US. An alternate reality? What else could it be?

That wasn’t the only ridiculous change, either. Brexit was a huge mess — that part wasn’t too hard to believe — but the new Prime Minister was shaping up to be Boris Johnson. Boris was, of course, very famous, always had been. For being a massive buffoon.

Trump over there, Boris over here, it smacked too much of a bad writer trying to force a theme into a story. Wildly inappropriate and incompetent leaders on either side of the pond, both open to allowing the worst of humanity to do as it pleased. If ever there was a set-up for a hero to ride in and save the day… The whole thing was very suspicious.

It wasn’t just Trump being president that made me think I’d been dropped into an alternate reality, it was the way it had been done. Reagan was also a famous person who leveraged his fame into political power, but at least he had some experience running a large state first. And he had competent people around him. Evil, but competent. Trump appeared to only appoint people who were dumber than him, which set the bar very low.

I was so lost in thought that I hardly noticed how packed the train had become by the time we pulled into Victoria Station. I was nearly home and I hadn’t even considered what I was going to do when I got there. Would there be an alternate Colin sitting in my flat?

Being surrounded by so many people had a disorienting effect. I stumbled along with the crowd as we exited the station en masse. First I robbed a man who delivered cow shit (educated guess), now I had added fare dodger to my list of crimes for the day. Perhaps I wasn’t the hero this particular side mission deserved.

I paid for my tube ticket and headed towards my home. I hadn’t paid my rent or bills for three years, and I didn’t have a key to get in and frighten the crap out of whoever was living there now, but I didn’t know where else to go.

As I rode in a packed tube train in the middle of the morning rush hour, every advertisement looked like it might hold a clue to the true nature of this reality. Every overheard conversation and every phone screen glimpsed could have held the key to the reason I’d been sent here. If they did, fuck knows what it was. It all seemed just as mundane and pointless as my version of planet Earth.

From Wood Green Station, I followed the route I’d taken every weekday morning and evening to and from work. Nobody gave me a second look. They probably thought I dressed strangely because I thought it was cool to be different, an excellent reason not to give me the attention I was so obviously craving. I suspected London was London no matter which reality you were in.

The small block of flats I lived in looked the same. I pressed the keycode into the pad and the door clicked open. Same number even in a different dimension?

My flat was on the second floor. I walked up the stairs and along the hallway. The familiarity hit me in waves. There were three other doors here. I had no idea who lived in them back then so it wouldn’t tell me much if there was someone different living in them now.

I knocked on my own door. It seemed the polite thing to do. There was no response.

If there was another me living here, he might have left for work already. I had no key. I did have a spoon hanging around my neck, which had attracted no attention whatsoever on the way here. Welcome to London.

The door was old and rickety. This one I might have been able to kick down, given a couple of hours and a tea break halfway through. You might think all the noise I’d make would get noticed, maybe the police would get called out. Not an issue. Unless I started playing reggae music at six in the morning when people were trying to cling to the last of their sleep, no one gave a shit.

However, I didn’t want do my ankle in with no way to heal it other than to go to the local drop-in centre. Six hours to have some newly minted doctor send you limping off with instructions to take it easy for a week and take two paracetamol four times a day wasn’t how I wanted to spend my first day back in the land of electricity and soft toilet paper. There was a massive dump with my name on it on the other side of this door.

I tried using the spoon to wedge the door open. If I splintered the wood around the lock I didn’t really care. It gave a little but refused to break open like it would have in a movie. Even though my magic wasn’t working, I used the same mental technique to get myself into a calm state of mind. Perhaps I could find the inner strength to break a couple of rusty hinges. The spoon seemed to be doing my hand more damage than the door.

I closed my eyes and pushed as hard as I could, the spoon wedged in the gap between door and frame. I could hear wood splintering (or possibly the bones in my hand) and then it gave way. Only the door didn’t.

My hand passed through the door and then back out again as I jerked it away. I had just phased through a solid object. Or I thought I did. My eyes had been closed, I yanked my hand away by instinct. I couldn’t say for sure.

There was a click and the door swung open.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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