Patricia and Jemima found themselves in a new world, one in which they were sisters to each other, the grass was unnaturally green, no-one swore, there was no chewing gum on the pavements and all the steam engines spoke to each other.
Patricia was totally unaware that she had ever had any life other than this perfect existence with no fat tummy, no glasses, a sister whom she adored, a father who was second in command on the railway and a mother who kept on baking cakes and who asked everyone about their day (which had always, of course, been just right). Jemima would occasionally lapse into using expressions like "OMG" or remembering that trains didn't normally speak or that she had once had a brother called Jeremy or realising that eating thrirty currant cakes and drinking ten cups of tea on a regular basis might be unhealthy and so on but these were fleeting memories of her pre-plastic past.
One day, however, something rather different from the norm happened. They had gone to meet their father from the local station (as they always did) and were walking along the road with him when a young man dressed like something out of the English Civil War rode past them on a horse. As if that weren't odd enough he turned left along the lane which had weeds on it. Nobody ever ever turned left. They always went straight on or turned right. The girls' father seemed quieter than normal all that evening, as if he were pondering the affair, but any attempt to discuss it was met with a wall of icy silence.
The next day the girls were on their way to school when they again saw the young man in 17th-century costume clip-clopping along the lane. They reported this to their teacher when they got to school. She, too, became very quiet all day.
When the young man and his horse appeared for a third day in a row, the girls were with their father, as they had been the first time. Their father raced ahead of his daughters and took a radio out of his pocket (something they had never seen before) and spoke into it. They caught up with him and his radio was nowhere to be seen. He would say nothing to them about it.
Presently an old man was seen wearing a long black cloak with the hood down, a bulge at the back and with filthy rags underneath. He was hauling a large cart slowly up the hill. It was full of old shoes.
As he passed, he nodded briefly to Jemima's and Patricia's father, who pointed back in the direction to which the 17th-century man had gone. The old man nodded and ambled slowly as directed.
"What was all that about?" asked Jemima.
"Sorry I've been a bit distant, old girl. I've been having the most awful trouble with Stavros the Stubborn Engine today. He told me..." began their father. They were soon engrossed in his story and all thoughts about 17th-century men, horses and carts full of shoes was banished from their minds.
Maybe I should begin at the beginning of this tale rather than so near the end.
Once upon a time when pigs were swine and monkeys chewed tobacco and little boys wore feathers in their caps to see which way the wind blew there was a young man. His name was Jack.
In those days the land was an unhappy land for it was divided in two. Some people fought for One Side; some fought for The Other. This is how things were. Jack was a brave fighter. He had slain many people on The Other Side. He had saved many of his friends from the enemy, too. But one day an equally good fighter from The Other Side raised his sword ready to bring it down and kill Jack.
Jack immediately remembered the amulet that the Lady of the Lake had given him and whispered into it... SLICE! There was a moment of pain, then nothing: just blackness.
Gradually he began to feel again. He felt a gentle rocking motion. He was in the lovely cool waters of The Lake.
The Lady of the Lake was looking at him earnestly and massaging his forehead.
"'E cut 'ee right here, that 'un from Th'Other Side, but there bain't no remembrance of't now," she said caringly.
"I thank thee, pretty lady," said Jack. "Pray how many years may I live now?"
"Tha'll live a few year with me 'ere yet: five, maybe six, before it be your time to go."
Jack thanked the Lady. He lived with her in the Lake for a couple of years before he grew restless. He was too young to die. He wanted more than a few years of life. He told the Lady, too. He wanted scores more years, not just a handful.
She became very sad, realising that her friend would be leaving her so soon and that he had become greedy for life so she ignored his questions and would not eat fish with him until he agreed to let the matter drop. But eventually she gave in and told him the answer. He would need to find the Lady of the Forest. She whispered a magic word which Jack woud have to say out loud when the time was right.
So Jack left the Lake and made his way to the Forest. The Lady there would not speak to him at first as she preferred her own company but he reminded her that the Forest was a large place and that they need not see each other for days. He told her the magic word wich the Lady of the Lake had given him. The Lady of the Forest reluctantly agreed for Jack to stay.
For many years it worked out well: whenever the Lady was at one end of the Forest, Jack was at the other; when she came to that end, he went to the other and so they kept out of each other's ways. On cold days they would sometimes sit by a log fire together. They would put their arms around each other and enjoy each other's warmth, momentarily forgetting, in their mutual fear of the cold, that they were both, by nature, solitary ceatures.
Then, one day, Jack grew weary of the Forest and of its Lady and of the thought of the ever-greater proximity of his death.
He asked the Lady how he could live for hundreds of years, and not just for scores of the things.
She looked shocked that any human woul want to live for that length of time but gave him the password that he would need without argument and sent him on his way to the Old Lady of the Mountain without a goodbye.
Jack walked up the glowing green mountain. At the top he found the Old Lady of the Mountain. He reminded her what a great area her Mountain had and that they could keep out of each other's ways. She said that that was a pity as she had had so little conversation these many centuries. So he agreed to keep her company whenever she wanted it and told her the password which the Lady of the Forest had given him.
The Old Lady accepted him. At first he was happy to talk and talk and talk and listen and listen and listen after all those quiet years in the Forest. The Old Lady of the Mountain was, however, less attractive than the two previous Ladies with whom he had been living for so long. Also she did go on a bit.
After many, many years had gone by Jack asked if he could ever leave the Montain and pop down into the Village below. She tried everything to dissuade him: all the people he knew would be long dead; all the buildings long-since destroyed; even his war would be long forgotten. His world was gone. It might be hard for him to see that. She also said how lonely she would be without him. She also said that he was no longer used to long journeys and might get tired. But Jack persisted so the Old Lady of the Mountain eventually relented and gave him permission to go down to the Village below. However he must only ride on the horse which she gave him. He must never dismount for any reason and he must never stay off-Mountain for more than two hour at a time.
Jack started down the lane with weeds on it with geat delight. However his delight turned to a strange feeling he had never encountered before when he saw new buildings, machines with faces and which could speak, signposts on his old road and new people with strange clothes everywhere. It was a feeling of... of... indignance. How impertinent! What to him had been a baker's was now a station for these horrible mechanical things with faces; the old battlefield had nothing to show that anyone from His Side or The Other Side had ever been here. Instead it was full of people playing a game called cricket. His fight was, indeed, all forgotten, as the Old Lady had said it would be. Nobody remembered his world or respected it or... missed it in any way even though it had been... well, the world. THE world. His world. All those great characters; all those exciting events. These people seemed like interlopers, and very inferior ones at that.
Somehow, though, he kept coming.
On one occasion he passed that boring father and those two dreary girls again but then saw something which caught his eye. There was a cart which had tipped over on the road. A whole lot of shoes had fallen from it. There was an old man trying to gather them all up.
"Excuse me, kind sir," said the man, "could you help me with these, please?"
Jack said that he sympathised but that he could not dismount. The old man said that that was all right - somehow he would do it.
Jack watched him trying to put the shoes back into the cart. The man seemed so impossibly old and the job so impossibly hard that he couldn't help leaping from his horse and helping the old man to put all the shoes back on the cart. He even helped to right the cart.
The man straightened up and thanked him. The old man's voice started to get stronger and more confident-sounding as he stood up.
"This is not your story, is it, Jack?" he asked.
"How know you my name?"
"You see these people as interlopers but really your story ended a long time ago. You are the interloper here. I say again: this is not your story. You have no place in it, no part to play."
"I shall be on my way, now," said Jack, turning towards where his horse had stood. But there was no horse. Just an empty, twisting lane with weeds growing on it. He turned round. The old man had walked silently up behind him and was practically on top of him.
"You have no role to fulfill; no destiny to realise. I say again: this is not your story."
"Who are you?" asked Jack.
The old man reached into the back of his cloak and pulled out his scythe. He then raised his hood.
Jack's eyes widened in horror.
The old man pointed to the cart full of shoes.
"Did you not realise when you saw these? These are the shoes I wore out looking for you all these many, many years," he said.
"Keep your distance from me, sir. Keep your distance!" yelled Jack.
"You have been running away from your true destiny," said the old man. "The ultimate adventure. One to die for, in fact."
The old man chuckled.
"There are others waiting for you, Jack. People who have been waiting a long times. Centuries in fact."
"O... M... G...!" called out a voice from behind them both.
Jack and the old man turned to see Jemima staring at them.
"Two for the price of one," said the old man. "Your story's gone on long enough as well, Jemima."
He smiled a thin smile before adding, "Some might say too long."