It was the oddest assortment of people that you could imagine.
Firstly there was a woman in her early seventies with white hair with a pristine beige flowery dress, silver brooch and blue hat which all suggested a long-forgotten era. This was Miss Grannik. Everything Miss Grannik said was carefully thought-through. She couldn't abide bad grammar and sloppily-pronounced words. She also had a great eye for detail and had been known to make the most impressive deductions - nearly always correctly - based on the smallest amount of evidence.
Next there was Commander Len Trabban, a young man with black hair, a tight black outfit, an eye-patch and a permanent sneer.
Thirdly there was a woman in her fifties with long red hair, a bizarre accent, which seemed to combine Belgian, American, English and a general kind of "I've-smoked-too-much" element. Her name was Lynn Trabban, the Commander's cousin. She wore a fur coat which was half white and half black, a dress which was half white and half black (but with the black side and the white side opposite to her coat) and one black shoe and one white shoe, both of which were high-heeled. And, yes, she smoked too much.
The final member of the party was Peter Onion, a slightly overweight man in his early sixties with short white hair and glasses. He wore black trousers, a white shirt and a red tie. He was one of life's cynics. Nothing was real until it had been verified, mate.
There was one thing that Miss Grannik, the Commander, Lynn and Peter had in common: they all shared a hatred, bordering on the obsessive, with the BT masters of their planet.
"My spies tell me there's some new woman in the Complaints Department," said Peter. "Very patient, from what I hear. Could be a problem for us."
"Your spies!" laughed the Commander drily. "They seem to have discovered what any of us could have learned from hacking into HQ from the privacy of our own bedrooms."
Lynn lit her twentieth cigarette that morning. It was a long affair and gave off alternating black and white puffs of stinking smoke.
"Oh, behave!" she said. "I'm so not interested in two schoolboys showing off! When are we going to launch an attack against dese smoking people?"
"You would counsel an attack, would you, with just the four of us?"
"There may be a fifth but I'm working on that," said Peter, unwrapping a massive chocolate bar and putting the whole lot in his mouth in one go.
"Oh, please - you're an adult, honey. Dat so doesn't make a good impression on da smoking kids, still eating all dat smoking rubbish at your age," said Lynn as she blew some very black smoke all over Peter, who spluttered.
"You know, when you've quite finished choking us all, perhaps we could carry on with the meeting," said Peter.
The three of them carried on arguing, scoring points off each other and generally moving things as far forwards as a BT meeting would have done. While this pointlessness continued, Miss Grannik sat in her chair saying nothing. Her eyes were closed most of the time and her head nodded gently forwards. But everyone knew not to underestimate her: after half an hour she sprang to life and made several points which made it clear that she'd heard - and memorised! - every word uttered by anybody since the meeting had begun.
"Might I, at this juncture, call upon our meeting to come to order," she said, imposing immediate hush. "It would seem that we have the opportunity to strike and to strike now. I have permitted myself the chance to study a little of the situation and I feel we have within our grasp the freedom of the Isle of Wight IF we have the stomach for it."
Miss Grannik proceeded to outline her plan for using BT's own call-system against them by persuading the captains of three consecutive ships due to sail from Southsea to Ryde on Bank Holiday Monday that they needed some obscure part before their ships could sail. In each case it would be the same difficult-to-locate part. The ensuing calls from their captains as they tried to order this important part would tie each of them up for hours meaning that there would be no official shipping arriving on the island for a whole day (as there would normally only be three on a Bank Holiday anyway). Just for good measure, the double-agent Commander could arrange to be in Southsea doing a spot-check on behalf of the Efficient Services Unit (whose job it was to discover and fine or even apprehend anyone offering illegally quick or helpful service to a customer). (The Commander looked the part and struck fear into people when he and his black-suited ESU turned up anywhere in their hovering BT barges.) Miss Grannik recommended that she, Lynn and Peter make their way onto the island the day before using legal methods so as not to attract attention. They should behave normally there... but then, once the island had, in effect, been cut off, get together with local anti-BT militia (the island was a hotbed of dissidents) and sabotage all telegraph wires and block any BT mobile signals.
While she spoke, her audience were so spellbound that the Commander was able to sip his flask of vodka, Lynn was able to bathe everyone with white smoke from her long cigarette and Peter was able to stuff his face with chocolate without any of the three putting each other's habits down. It was then that Miss Grannik made Peter's mouth drop open as she quite casually mentioned the name of the person whom he wanted to recruit as a fifth member and gave quite a detailed background analysis of her. She also made it quite clear how their fifth member would be involved...
* * * * * * * * * * *
Jemima was bored. She strolled along the seafront looking at all the postcards in the shops. "A K4 in Yarmouth" read one. There was a picture of a large red 'phone box with a letter box built into it superimposed on the beach. "A cheeky look at a KX100," read another. On it a half-clad fat middle-aged woman was bending over and admiring a different sort of 'phone box, this time one which really was on the beach. "Sorry I'm sending a postcard from Yarmouth - I'd rather be making a 3p-per-minute weekend or evening call to you from Yarmouth on my great BT mobile," read one of the least catchy ones. Then there was something which must exist in every parallel universe: "Yarmouth by Night" - and it was completely black. Ha ha.
A familiar figure appeared in front of her. It was Marc Sethargis.
"Oh yeah, what d'you want, I mean to say?" she asked aggressively.
"Hello, Jemima," said Marc. "The island is so beautiful at this time of year, isn't it? Did you want those postcards? Let me buy the for you."
So saying he took them from her. He went to the counter. The woman there reached down for the CD on-button... then realised who her customer was, smiled and sold him the postcards properly.
"Let me buy you a cup of coffee," he said, taking Jemima to a cafe. She hated to admit it but it was nice being with him. You asked for a product, he offered the vendor the money... and that was the end of the transaction. Simple. He bought her lunch and tea and extolled the virtues of a healthy walk. He took her for a stroll along the promenade and, when the wind started to blow, he offered her his coat.
"You're bein' proper proper charmin' today!" she said. "I thought you didn't like me?"
Marc took his guest to yet another seaside cafe and bought her as many doughnuts as she could stuff her face with and some BT Cola to wash them all down with.
"Impossible to eat them without licking your lips, isn't it, my dear?" he asked as she embarked on her fifth doughnut.
The conversation moved on to how well her friend was doing and how they may have made a mistake in Jemima's case. The teenager looked suspicious. He took her into the Amazing Vectis World of BT. It was like any other BT theme park: loads of actors dressed up as Alexander Graham Bell, as a K6 telephone box or, of course, as Marc Sethargis and other modern-day senior BT officials. Marc then took Jemima to a section at the back for a private show. He made his guest comfortable and started up his slide show. It showed the nations of the world and the many wars that had happened, some in graphic detail. It was disturbing viewing. It then showed the world of 2008: no wars. Any nation trying to get an army together simply couldn't: an actor pretended to be a terrorist and was attempting to get a group together on the telephone. He kept being told to "hold on a minute, please - your call is very important to us." Marc laughed. He turned to Jemima.
"Efficiency was the enemy in the old days. How do you think the Spanish could organise the Armada in 1588? How do you think Queen Elizabeth organised a counter to it?"
Jemima didn't know any of that stuff had happened anyway. She'd never been very good at history. She helped herself to a ginger biscuit and crunched it loudly. Undeterred, Marc carried on.
"Efficiency!" he said. "And the result? Hundreds of deaths. You may think we simply want to stop there but we want to go so much further: take a look at our plans for parallel universes."
Jemima looked at a simullation of her own world. Lord Ashdown was there pontificating about war with Germany... and he picked up a 'phone to order the assault. "What is your account number?" asked a soothing voice. "I haven't got one. I want an all-out attack on Berlin," he said. "Certainly sir. I'll just hand you through to the right department. Ringing for you..." and Jemima couldn't help laughing at Lord Ashdown's face going purple with rage as he got passed from pillar to post. "Oh dear," she thought, "I'm starting to find all this stuff funny!"
Marc had noticed that she was laughing. An awful smile spread across his face and his eyes lit up.
"But I don't want to stop there. We could time-travel: look at this simulation of a better history!" he said.
On the screen came an image of Napoleon Bonaparte. Jemima vaguely knew that he was some French warmonger from the 18th century. Somebody was bowing, calling him "Empreur" and handing him a BT landline, which was supposed to be linked to his troops in Moscow. "The number you have dialled has not been recognised. Please check and try again," said the voice.
"ZUT ALORS!" Napoleon was shouting. He hurled the 'phone down and chucked all of his papers across the room in a fury.
"You see, my dear - efficiency was the enemy. We could stop efficiency once for all, throughout the universe, throughout time, across the multiverse..." He rose and his eyes now had a fanatical glint. "BT could make the whole of time and space dance to the god of inefficiency. You could join us..."
Just then the door crashed open and Peter Onion appeared, revolver in hand. "Ah, Sethargis - I can't think of a more appropriate place for your downfall, mate."
Marc made a dash for the back exit but that, too, opened up. Lynn appeared, cigarette held calmly in one hand and gun in the other. "Hi, Marc. Long time no see, honey. Your custom is very smoking important to us... NOT!"
There was no third door so the wall was simply cut through with a chainsaw. The door-shaped piece of wood was forced forwards and Miss Grannik, chainsaw in one hand and gun in the other walked through and, with her gun hand, straightened her hat and dusted herself down before it was trained upon her BT enemy.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Sethargis," she said.
"Well, Jemima?" said Peter. "Which side are you on?"