5 o' clock a.m. A cold sunny October day in 2011.
The milk van whined slowly up Atobry Hill. The van was the only thing making a sound at that time in the morning apart from the tweeting of the occasional bird.
6 o' clock a.m.
The sound of a door opening as a man left his house to go off to work. Once again silence reigned.
In a rundown house at the top of the hill an electric alarm clock went off. It was time for Patricia and Jemima to get up.
It had been Patricia's turn to sleep in the bed so Jemima was in a particularly bad mood. She hated sleeping on the floor. She also hated her new job as a domestic for the snooty gits up the road. She also hated cold mornings, especially when there was no glass in the bathroom window so you froze while you were under that dribble known as a shower. She hated not having a boyfriend. Come to think of it she hated most things that made her life what it was. But then she was born into a working-class family, was overweight and wore glasses so no-one would ever take her seriously in this world.
The eighteen-year-old had moved in with her best friend, Patricia, after they had both left school and started work. Patricia sold second-hand mobile 'phones from a little booth by the side of the road. Jemima wanted to do that too but the man running it had felt that her "bolshy" attitude would put the customers off. That had seemed really unfair to her. Patricia earned almost as much as she did and didn't get shouted at all day by a lot of toffee-nosed twerps. Admittedly she was out in all weathers but even so she would sacrifice the central heating of Wypers Hall for the quiet life that her friend had.
7 o' clock a.m.
Patricia and Jemima left their front door and went their separate ways for the day. Jemima angrily dismissed Patricia's comment that she was coming down with a cold and should see a doctor. Why would she waste the little money she had on that? Some lemon juice would sort that out and maybe a little vinegar. Much cheaper than going to the doctor. Anyway the waiting room would be full of ill people and you'd catch something worse and it would cost you even more money.
Bird song. Nothing else - no other sounds. After all this was Atobry Hill. Nothing ever happened here.
6 o' clock p.m.
Patricia came back first as usual. Then Jemima. Jemima made a point of saying that her cold was far better now that she had had some lemon juice thank you very much. Patricia was similing. She'd made £53 10 shillings and five pence ha'penny today. That's more than she'd ever made - for the first time she'd exceeded Jemima's £40 flat daily rate.
It was then that Jemima spotted it. There was a letter on the floor. She'd accidentally kicked it into the side as she'd come in. It looked very posh. It was addressed to both of them in the most beautiful font. She could hardly contain herself when she opened it. The quiet of Atobry Hill was broken by an unusual sound for Patricia actually screamed when she heard her friend read out the contents of the letter. Neither of them would sleep that night. Or indeed for the next few nights. Yes things were going to be changing on Atobry Hill.
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Lord Ashdown, the leader of the Whig Party and currently the nation's Prime Minister, was patting the craft that Dr. Nestern had built.
"I must say, Sho - and this is a very important point - that this vehicle will solve all our problems. Without fear of contradiction, Sho, I think this could change the lives of people up and down the country."
Sho Nestern smiled his agreement.
"Prime Minister," he said with a slight bow.
"Have you selected the pilots yet, Sho?" asked the Prime Minister.
"Prime Minister," said Sho Nestern woth a slight bow as he handed Lord Ashdown a card.
"Jemima Bond and Patricia Thompson, ay, Sho?" said the Prime Minister as he studied the card. And I met them when they came to give me some boxes of cigarettes three years ago. I see."
"Prime Minister," said Sho in acknowledgement as he gave a slight bow. "Given their, ah, family circumstances and their current work situation..."
"Yes, well, if it all goes well, Sho, they'll be national heroines. And if it doesn't... well, they'll still be in the nation's thoughts and prayers."
"Prime Minister," said Sho Nestern giving a slight bow.
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Jemima and her friend exited the posh car that had come to collect them. They were looking as smart as they knew how to. They had bth put on huge amounts of dark red lipstick on their lips, some whitening face cream that had gone off and that made them both look a little like ghosts and some rather nice earrings. Patricia had been so nervous she'd been going between giggling and screaming. Jemima had been loving every minute of the journey and making comments all the way through it. Now they had arrived Patricia was a little scared and so wanted to put her arm in Jemima's. A fixed nervous smile was on Patricia's face and her heart was thumping away. Part of her wanted to run away from the posh car and the tall wooden house in front of them and escape into the surrounding woods. But no she must see this through. This could be the opportunity of a lifetime.
The driver knocked on the door and a little man with a bald head, white coat, glasses and yellow-grounded tartan trousers opened the door.
"Here they are, governor," said the driver.
"Driver," said the little man giving a slight bow.
"Oh, well," added the driver, "I'll leave you all in peace then. See you, girls."
He pointed at Patricia.
"And watch out for that one, she's a right terror," he said to the little man and winked to the girls. "See ya."
And he was off (but not before the little man had bowed and said, "Driver," again).
The man ushered the girls through the door and closed it behind them. There were mousses' heads and red gas lights on the wall of the corridor they passed along. At the end of it was the most enormous hall. In it there were more mousses's heads, gas lights of all different colours, candles of all different colours, an open fire crackling in the hearth and, in the middle of the hall, an enormous round table.
"Miss Thompson" said the little man with a slight bow as he pulled a chair out for Patricia. She laughed nervously and sat at the table.
"Miss Bond," said the little man with a slight bow as he pulled another chair out for Jemima. "Ta. You're very polite, intcha?" she asked rhetorically.
"Miss Bond," said the little man with a little bow before pulling out a chair for himself.
They all sat in silence for a while. Then they sat in silence a while longer. Then there was yet more silence.
"It's nice here, innit?" suggested Jemima rehetorically.
"Miss Bond," said the little man with a slight bow.
They all sat in silence for a while. Then they sat in silence a while longer. Then there was yet more silence.
A door opened at the far end of the room and an elegant lady in a long white dress swept into the room. As she approached the table it was clear to all that she wore pince-nez. That is it became clear to the girls. The little man continued to stare forwards but then as he was part of this joint, reasoned Jemima, he probably already knew what the lady looked like.
The elegant lady peered at all three one after the other through her pince-nez. She plonked a boxed Monopoly game into the middle of the table.
"Monopoly-board-carrier," said the little man with a slight bow.
"Dr. Nestern," replied the elegant woman with a slight bow before sweeping away.
Still staring fixedly ahead Dr. Nestern opened the game up and started dishing out Monopoly money to each person.
"Who will be the hat?" he asked.
"I wanna be the hat," said Jemima.
"Miss Bond," said Dr. Nestern, handing her the hat with a slight bow.
"Who wishes to be the iron?"
"Miss Thompson," said Dr. Nestern, handing Patricia the iron with a slight bow.
"And I shall be the exceedingly fast car," he said slowly and without humour.
The game proceeded. Jemima's luck seemed to be in as she bought both the dark blues and started to build on them but as no-one ever landed on them that just seemed to leave her short of cash. Then it was Dr. Nestern's turn to be in the lead as he obtained two stations and the other two seemed to keep landing on them.
The elegant lady in the white dress came back in with two bottles of champagne and three glasses. She looked from one to the other of the players in turn through her pince-nez before pouring a glass out for each of them. Patricia giggled.
"Monopoly-board-carrier," said Dr. Nestern with a slight bow.
"Dr. Nestern," replied the elegant lady, bowing slightly before she swept out of the room.
Jemima thought this was the coolest thing ever - sipping champagne in this big old room. And everytime she finished her glass the little man would give her more. That worked out well because it was absolutely delicious and she was feeling thirstier and thirstier for some reason.
After a while the lady in the white dress brought in cider and then WKD and then red wine. Each drink seemed to taste better than the first. And then, of course, they were back to the champagne again. Her friend's nerves seemed to have gone and she was no longer giggling nervously all the time. She was talking quite openly to the strange little man, even being a bit flirty it seemed. And he had stopped bowing every ten seconds and was talking back in full sentences. Still no smiles of course. But what were they talking about? And what was she supposed to charge whoever it was who had just done whatever it was they'd done? And why was the table moving sideways up the wall? Wasn't that the elegant lady sitting there telling them her life story?
"Oy, where's the bogs?" asked Jemima. The elegant lady helped her to the nearest lavatory where Jemima was very sick. She cleaned herself up and tried to steady herself. The elegant lady was waiting outside to escort her back to the table again. She still felt queer though. The game seemed to have stopped because... oh well whatever. Something.
And then there was a clinking sound and the Prime Minister came in wearing a ridiculously long cloak which sounded as though there were bottles in it. Yes, of course it was the Prime Minister! What else? No, this couldn't be happening.
"Well, Sho, Jemima, Patricia - ah yes, and Monopoly-board-carrier!" said the Prime Minister as he bounded towards the assembled group. "You've been playing through the night I see? Excellent. You're playing Jemima's hand, Monopoly-board-carrier, are you? Excellent, excellent - and I think I can say this without fear of opposition - excellent. Nice to see you again, Jemima and Patricia. You won't remember me I'm sure but you did your nation a great service three years ago by handing in some goods to me personally and thereby keeping them from the hands of miscreants. I still haven't forgotten you. Cameras!"
A film crew immediately entered.
On the wall a huge screen showed whatever the crew were pointing their cameras at at the time. Jemima saw her friend Patricia's face on it.
"Hello, I'm Patricia Thompson - OMG I'm on TV and this is my friend Jemima who can't take her booze!"
Jemima felt Patricia's arm around her and felt quite sick as her friend laughed and laughed, causing them both to shake about.
Jemima then saw her own face.
"Oh yeah why not film me without asking me I mean to say!" she grumbled.
Then she saw the Prime Minister's face.
"Hello everybody and welcome to tonight's game! Patricia Thompson - this morning you were living in a cold flat in the Borough of Hendon. You could walk back to it this evening £1,000 richer if you wanted to because you have just won the Monopoly game."
"But we don't want to let you do that, Patricia. We want you to go back with a bigger prize. Let me explain."
The screen changed to an image of a space ship taking off but the PM's voice could still be heard over it.
"Eight years ago I was involved in a secret mission to send a group of adventurous people - and this is a very important point - to the planet Mars, Patricia. Scientists here had told us of great riches on the surface of Earth's cold neighbour."
"What neighbour?" asked Patricia.
"The planet Mars, Patricia. Anyway we sent a top-secret group of adventurous people out there as I've explained before - we've been through all that. This group stopped broadcasting and were feared lost. Down on Earth we had to cover up what had happened to them, Patricia, until now."
"The people who went to Mars as I've been saying."
"They went to Mars?"
"Yes, Patricia - they actually went to Mars. I never gave up hope of finding them. Three years ago, Patricia - and this is a very important point - I received a message from them. I have continued to receive messages from them. They are still alive and they have found fabulous fuel sources and precious metals out there. Riches waiting for us to pluck them. Riches that could change the lives of ordinary men and women up and down the country. But their ship has lost its fuel. It has enough life-support functions to keep them alive for another twenty years but it cannot move them."
"The people on Mars, Patricia."
"There are people actually on Mars?"
"Yes, Patricia. There are people actually on Mars."
"Who are they?"
"They're people who need your help, Patricia. Let me explain. You have met my most treasured scientist, Dr. Sho Nestern?"
"No. Who's that?"
"I forgot to introduce myself, Prime Minister," said Sho. The camera briefly showed him giving a slight bow and then returned to the space ship taking off.
"Dr. Sho Nestern has discovered a new revolutionary fuel that will power a ship. A power that will revolutionise fuel through space. A revolution that will alter the fuel we use and allow our ship to go into space and come down again, benefitting the lives of men, women and children day in, day out up and down the land, Patricia."
"What is it?"
"You may well ask, Patricia, you may well ask. Dr. Nestern has discovered a way of harnessing the powers of an oily liquid that can be mixed with water and then separated out again; one that doesn't boil until 477 degrees Fahrenheit and so allows our latest technology to work. Its chemical symbol is C10H14N2 - it is, in short, Patricia, nicotine."
Jemima noticed that the screen was now showing Patricia and the Prime Minister.
"It's the stuff you get in cigarettes, Patricia. It's the stuff I've been collecting from school children up and down the country for the last three years. It's the stuff that you and your friend Jemima Bond will use to blast you into space on your mission to rescue the people from Mars. There is, of course, an element of risk - there always is in any new undertaking. But what an adventure! What an adventure you and your friend Jemima Bond wil be going on. If you say yes you won't be going home from here in a car with £1,000 in your pockets. You'll be leaving here in a spaceship and return in triumph having rescued those intrepid travellers. When you return I give you my personaly guarantee you'll have not £1,000 but £1,000,000 in your pockets between you from my own pocket. The choice is yours. Riches beyond your imaginings and the adventure of a lifetime. So what do you say, Patricia, what do you say?"
"Yeah, all right," said Patricia without hesitation to her Prime Minister's offer.
Jemima felt sick again.