A four-hour journey, four at least, heading south. He'd almost missed the train. Missed the one before it and dozed while waiting for this one, and when it came almost missed it too. The carriage was stifling, few windows open, harsh sunlight turning scratches on the glass into wounds. He again grew drowsy.
'Is this seat taken?'
He started. Shook his head almost guiltily. The enquirer put an overnight bag on the rack above and seated himself across the table from him, stretched his legs diagonally, tried to get a conversation going, but he, more inclined toward sleep than inconsequential chat with a stranger, pulled up a newspaper stuffed down the side of his seat. He unfolded it, read the headline: HITLER ESCAPES EXPLOSION IN BEER CELLAR. He blinked. Read it again. And again. He sought the date of the paper. Thursday, November 9, 1939. He looked out of the sun-grazed window – bland countryside, pre-war housing that gave nothing away – then at the two people in the carriage within his limited angle of view. The sports coat of the man sharing his table was as timeless as his bad toupée. The woman in grey tweed across the aisle was reading what appeared to be a library book. The cover of the book bore a design that suggested history. He could just make out the title from there without his glasses.
THE VILLAGE THAT DIED FOR ENGLAND
The Unfortunate Fate of Rouklye
Rouklye? Never heard of it. Probably a novel.
The interior of the carriage also told him nothing. It wasn't what might be deemed 'modern', but as railway companies didn't update or redesign carriages very often, that proved nothing. More than a little alarmed, he considered the prospect that this was indeed 1939 and that he'd imagined his life. Or dreamed it.
It wouldn't be the first time.
That life. That year. As field days go, the second Tuesday of August was a corker for the British tabloids.
ARTIST CROSSES U.S. CHURCH
A CONDOM TOO FAR!
ART WORLD CRUCIFIXION
The broadsheets were rather more restrained, relegating the story to modest pieces on inside pages, but the rolling TV news looped it all day long. Some reports included the outraged face of Reverend Stoner of The Church of God's Great Light, based in Traverse, Mississippi, who offered a million dollar reward for the life of the artist. 'The bullet of the Lord shall be borne upon the wings of Salvation to the blasphemous heart of Willard Tench!' roared the apoplectic reverend. The work in question, Bones of Golgotha, was a two metre tall scarecrow made of animal bones, filthy rags and used condoms. Its head was a First World War gas mask. A large wooden cross, upside-down, dangled sporran-like from a chain around its waist.
When reporters, photographers and camera crews turned up and virtually camped outside the house in Alpha Road, Will, peeking out through the curtains, said, 'I don't believe this.'
'Well I bloody do,' said Nina. 'I warned you. Just asking for trouble, I said, remember?'
'Shortlisted for the Turner,' he reminded her.
'I can't believe you're actually proud of that,' she snapped.
'Not that it stands a chance. Far too pedestrian compared with pickled cows, light bulbs that go on and off, coats draped over chairs. It's just a spot of whimsy anyway. Christians can usually handle stuff like that.'
'Clearly not this Mississippi faction. Now come away from there, please!'
It quickly became known as the 'American Fatwa', a joke to many but not to Nina, who agitated for their absence from home until the kerfuffle 'died down' as she put it, generating a laugh from Will, who would have none of it – 'Are you kidding? You can't buy publicity like this!' – an attitude that changed the night they returned from an evening with Wendy and Don. No lingering reporters at that time. Always a relief for Nina.
'What the hell?' Will said, pushing at the front door.
Forcing their way in, they found their two year old Labrador, Brancusi, spread-eagled on the inside of the door, throat slit, all four paws nailed to the wood.
Of the two, Will was the quickest to react in any way that might be considered positive. While Nina ranted and wailed he put in a call to the police. A pair of uniforms duly turned up. The female officer was the more affected by what she saw, joining Nina in the kitchen while the PC stared without flinching. 'Not a dog lover meself,' he said.
Fury had taken hold of Will by this time, fury he turned briefly on the copper – briefly because the man was used to householder rage and unwilling to suffer it.
'Don't take it out on me, pal, I'm just responding to the call.'
Will told him of the threat on his life, which rang some bells – 'Oh, that's you, is it?' – after which the PC arranged for Brancusi to be taken away and promised to follow up any leads.
'Not dog leads,' he added, barely suppressing a smirk.
Nina was upstairs when people arrived to take Brancusi away. When she came down she was carrying a bulging suitcase. Will asked nothing, but his question was in his expression.
'You don't seriously think I'm staying here after this, do you?' Nina said.
'So where are you going? Back to Wendy's?'
'I'm getting out of Cambridge.'
'What about me?'
'What am I supposed to do?'
'Do whatever you want. Stay here or come with, up to you.'
'I'll get some things.'
AND THAT'S WHEN THINGS REALLY START TO GO WRONG...