Needing help, Jemima ran to the first place she could think of: the corner shop where she and Patricia had bought their food and drink. It was surrounded by large wooden boards. She saw the back of the head of the man on the stepladder who was putting the boards up.
"Oy, mate - I need to see the guy that owns this place."
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!
"Oy, are you listenin' to me? OY! Are you deaf or somefink?"
The man stopped hammering and turned slowly to face her. She took a step back. In her world this was Lord Barnet, the old Prime Minister who'd been there before Lord Ashdown and his Whig Party had come in. She'd never seen his hair as he'd always had it covered in a grey wig and sometimes some other elaborate headgear but she'd know that face anywhere - the piercing blue eyes and the small nose and little red mouth surrounded by a black beard but cleanshaven cheeks. His hair, she could see, was a shining black and complemented his beard very well. He seemed to be wearing a white apron over a black velvet suit.
"Oh, er..." said Jemima, momentarily nonplussed.
"You wish to enter this establishment?" he said in his plummy, gentle and yet slightly sinister voice. He still had that slight whistling "s" sound that she associated with him in her world.
"Closed due to sudden death of the owner," he said, turning round and carrying on hammering.
"Maybe 'e drank some of this drink!" she shouted above the noise, dropping her "h"s as she often did when she was rattled.
Lord Barnet, or whatever his name was, stopped hammering and turned to face her.
"That drink... yes... come with me and we'll sort this little problem out for you."
He jumped down from his stepladder and dusted himself down. He approached the girl.
"I ain't goin' anywhere with a man with an 'ammer, I mean to say!" she said.
Lord Barnet handed her the hammer.
"Then you hold onto it. That'll save an old man the bother."
Lord Barnet wasn't really that old as politicians went - he was about forty if that. Jemima, however, didn't argue. She decided that holding onto his hammer for him was rather a good idea.
"Where are we goin'?" asked Jemima.
"Where I'm surprised you didn't go in the first place. Your home. Are you Miss Thompson or Miss Bond?" he asked.
"No comment," said Jemima Bond.
"It is of no consequence. Clearly one of you drank your drink and the other one didn't. Bring the bottle; you may feel like drinking it later."
Jemima had forgotten that she was still holding the bag with all the groceries in it, including the drink which had made her friend disappear. She opened it and started pouring it slowly onto the grass. Lord Barnet turned round and watched her. Their eyes locked as they tried to stare each other out.
"Well done," he said, turned round and carried on striding forwards. Jemima had to run to keep up with him.
They arrived at the tower block where she and Patricia lived. The building looked very similar to the way it looked in her own time. She wondered if her former Prime Minister already knew which one she was. However, he led her to Patricia's flat. He seemed to have the key.
"Oh, yeah," said Jemima, "why not let yourself into someone else's flat, I mean to say!"
"Thank you, I will," said Lord Barnet, ushering his unwilling guest in.
Inside the place was an echoing empty shell. The decor was not what Patricia' family would ever have chosen. The cobwebs told a story completed by Lord Barnet.
"Empty due to death of owners," he said.
"I'm still 'oldin' that 'ammer," threatened Jemima.
Lord Barnet took them into the main bedroom. In it was an odd-looking dark walnut device with a whirring wheel on it which was covered in soft blue lights, punctuated by the occasional glaring red light. It had a projector on the front of it.
"Sit down and enjoy the show, my dear," smiled Lord Barnet. He shone the projector on the wall. It showed a black-and-white image of a young man and woman from the 1940s. Both had big bellies and wore the unfashionable glasses of the period.
"Oh, yeah - that's Patricia's great-grandparents..." said Jemima. "Oh, sugar!"
"Thank you, Miss Bond - I had guessed it was you. What happened to the couple we're looking at?" he asked.
"Nuffink - they 'ad her grandmother shortly after this photo was taken. Her mum's always goin' on about it. Aparently, they kept on eatin' and eatin'!"
"It's difficult to credit," said Lord Barnet, knowing that the irony of this would be lost on his guest.
"And what happened to their daughter?"
"Nuffink - she was a domestic or somefink. She used to be my nan's best friend. They used to love sweets, my mum says. She 'ad Patricia's mum. Apprently she was always losin' stuff - 'er eyesight weren't very good and stuff. But she was always bakin' all this proper proper good food. Patricia's mum's always goin' on about it. It was so good - everyone kept eatin' and eatin'..."
"And eating? I'm sure," said Lord Barnet silkily.
He altered something at the front of the wooden projector.
"This will put us in the picture," he chuckled.
Jemima felt a rushing sensation in which her innards seemed to be speeding ahead of her body. Suddenly they were in the room with Patricia's fat great-grandparents, who suddenly seemed less fat. They were three-dimesnional yet black-and-white. Jemima tried calling out to them but they couldn't hear her.
"We are simply observers, my dear," said Lord Barnet.
Patricia's ancestors were listening to a radio.
"We shall fight on the beaches," said an unfamiliar voice coming from the ancient device. "We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!"
"'Ere: 'o are they listenin' to?" asked Jemima.
"Their Prime minister," said Lord Barnet reverentially, "Winston Churchill."
"Oh, 'im," said Jemima, not wishing to look ignorant. She'd never heard of him but then she wasn't the world's greatest historian and anyway no-one studied the 1940s - nothing of note had happened then.
"I'm surprised you know of him as he didn't exist in our world," said Lord Barnet.
"OUR world? You mean you really... you are Lord Barnet... the same Lord Barnet that I know?"
"Hush, my dear - let's witness what's going to happen."
Patricia's great-grandparents had switched off the radio (which they referred to as a "wireless"), put their coats on and moved towards the front door... but there was then a blinding flash and the biggest loudest bang Jemima had ever heard. The building caved in around them. Jemima screamed out to the two black-and-white occupants. They, of course, couldn't see or hear her. Firstly they were part of a hologrammatic memory of the past.
Secondly they were dead.
She called out to Lord Barnet. He couldn't somehow have been killed by this image from the past could he?
There was then an awful wailing sound, unlike anything Jemima had ever come across before.
She found herself back in Patricia's flat in 2008 again. The wailing sound had stopped. It seemed eerily quiet. She realised she was curled up on the floor.
Lord Barnet was standing over her and she leapt to her feet, never wanting to show weakness in front of this sinister man.
"Drink, my dear?" he asked gently.
"No thanks, mate."
"Maybe later, then," said Lord Barnet, putting it to one side.
"The air raid siren was sounded too late, you see," said Lord Barnet, "so they didn't know an incendiary device was coming. They were killed that day. Their daughter was never born; nor was her daughter; nor was your friend, Miss Thompson. They are not the family whose deaths caused this flat to be empty, you see. Miss Thompson's branch of history had its final chapter during the Second World War, long before these flats were built."
"What Second World War?" asked Jemima.
"The one which secured the freedom of Britain and America; the one which brought about the arrival of democracy in West Germany; the one which caused the State of Israel to come about; the one which led to India being in a position to ask for her freedom; the one which gave Communism a free hand in Eastern Europe for forty years before it, too, was crused and democracy instituted there as well; the one which meant that the Europeans have never fought each other again. Ever. And never will again. Unfortunately many people died on the way. In the London Borough of Waltham Forest alone they were deprived of a short-sighted family all of whose members could eat and eat and eat. A loss, definitely, but think of the gains in the long run. A drink, my dear?"
"No, of course I don't want a flippin' drink! I don't trust you as far as I can throw you, mate."
"Let me show you something else," said Lord Barnet.
He projected them both back into the machine again. This time the three-dimensional image was 3D.
They were clearly once again in the Victorian house which had been blown up during the Second World War. Presumably it hadn't been blown up this time. A man who looked just like the Duke of Edinburgh was on the 'phone. Jemima waited for him to start speaking nonsense, something he was notorious for in her world. However, he seemed perfectly sane and rational, if slightly rattled by the person at the other end. It was strange hearing that aristocratic voice sounding logical. The person to whom he was speaking sounded far madder!
"As one's just explained to your colleague, one would like to book a skiing holiday, if one may," he said.
"Your name is Norman and you'd like to upgrade to BT broadband, did you say?" asked the voice. Jemima could have sworn it was the voice of Crispin Drummond from her school.
"No, one didn't say that. One said that one's name is Mr. Windsor and one would like to book a skiing holiday."
"Transferring your call now at no extra cost to you," said another voice.
Jemima frowned. What was going on? That was the sound of Stella Drummond, Crispin's sister.
The sound of some old-git classical music was heard.
"What is this?" asked Jemima.
"Another parallel 2008," said Lord Barnet. "This time the Duke of Edinburgh is completely sane but is not the Duke of Edinburgh. He is merely Mr. Windsor. The planet is run by BT, and very inefficiently, too. Due to the confusion caused by call centre staff, people regularly die in this world before an ambulance or fire engine is called."
There was a rushing sensation and they were in another world again. This time a group of people including a parallel Jemima were marching about in Communist uniforms with pictures of a dissident called Paddy Ashdown.
"OMG!" said Jemima. "It's Lord Ashdown!"
Sure enough the scruffy-looking dissident in the huge pictures, whose name was inspiring her counterpart to say, "Seek! Hate! Apprehend!" to a chorus of repetition by the local Young Pioneers, was a casually-dressed Lord Ashdown.
There was another rushing feeling and this time Jemima and her ex-PM were watching a large wicker man burn. It was filled with people.
Jemima looked away.
"In this universe," said Lord Barnet, unmoved, "the Romans never invaded Britain: instead it was the Britons who invaded the rest of Europe. Druidism is the only religion permitted and Welsh the only language spoken. Sacrifices blaze before the cameraphones of the masses and everyone is assured of a good harvest."
Jemima couldn't look. The faces of the victims were far enough away for their expressions not to be visible but their screams were becoming audible and the smell nauseating.
"Please, Lord Barnet - get us out of 'ere!" begged Jemima.
They arrived back in Patricia's family's room.
"There's so much more I wanted to show you, my dear, but, as you haven't the stomach for it, I shall leave you to rest here. I shall collect you at 6 o' clock to take you to dinner."
Jemima cried as she lay there curled up. She now didn't care what happened to her.
"Oy, Jem, er, what's the matter?" asked Patricia.
Jemima looked up. She was, indeed, in the room where she expected to be but Lord Barnet wasn't there. Patricia was. The familiar decor was back. She cried and hugged and hugged and hugged her friend, wo giggled nervously.
"I've never seen you like this! Mum's really worried about you!" said Patricia.
Jemima tried to work out what had happened to her. She mumbled something about needing to go to the toilet. Was she cracking up? The others mustn't see.
Inside the bathroom she mopped her brow. She took her jeans off and got changed into the pretty dress that she'd kept at Patricia's house. She picked up the jeans and folded them. There was a chinking sound as the coins inside went rolling along the floor. It was her change from that grocery shop... no, that hadn't happened, had it?
She glanced at it. Yes, it was her currency, all right. There was the Queen's head on the little shilling piece. She turned it over... her heart started thumping. It said "5". 5 what? It never normally said "5" on a shilling coin. She checked another. It was a ten-bob coin. It said "50". This time it clarified its position: "FIFTY PENCE" it stated in large letters above the familiar picture of Britannia.
She decided to put them in the bin. Somehow if she threw the last of her nightmare out, she thought, maybe it would all go away?
The doorbell rang and she exited from the bathroom, her pretty dress on. Patricia had got changed and had put some lipstick on.
Patricia's mother waddled out of her room.
"Now, you'll be wanting some tea and current cake before you go," she said, piling some massive cakes on a tray. The girls ate and ate and ate and drank and drank and drank while their mother went to get the door.
"Oh, Lord Barnet," she said. "Hello."
"Mrs. Thompson, my dear - you look younger every time I see you!"
"Now, Lord Barnet," Mrs. Thompson giggled delightedly as let the former PM in.
The girls wiped the crumbs from their mouths and mumbled, "Orble mormph wello Lomp Barnet".
Lord Barnet joined them for a few drinks and cakes before taking the girls and Mrs. Thompson away in his bendy limousine. Jemima couldn't help noticing it seemed to have a face on it.
As they drove she could hear Lord Barnet on the 'phone trying to get directions to where his chauffer needed to go. The sounds of Stella Drummond and her brother could be heard giving useless information.
When Jemima stepped out of the limo she stepped into another world. There was the poshest dining hall she had ever seen. It had the most glorious food laid on, the most expensive-looking wine, waiters everwhere, a hammerbeam celing, Mediaeval shields around the sides of the room and golden curtains drawn across all the windows.
Jemima assumed this was still a dream but was determined to enjoy it. She looked around her. There was Marc Sethargis, one of the Whigs, talking on two 'phones at once; spaking to him was a strange-looking woman with one black shoe and one white shoe and a dress that was black down one side and white down the other. Hovering sinisterly around them both was a man with an eyepatch.
On another table all by himself was a man with a brown trilby hat, who was smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper.
Jemima and Patricia went up to a tall German in full military regalia who was looking very out-of-place. They felt sorry for him and decided to speak to hm while Patricia's mother was exchanging recipes briefly with someone Jemima recognised as the mother of Marty from school.
"What's your name?" asked Jemima.
"I am Markus von Strahlheim, gentle Fraeulein," bowed the man, his manners impecable. "And who are you?"
"Jemima. No offence or nuffink but how come a German's 'ere? I thought you lot didn't get on with us?"
"There are matters of which I must not speak, gentle Fraeulein," he said. "Here: please join me for a drink."
"Cheers!" said Jemima.
"I haven't poured it out, yet," said von Strahlheim.
"No, I mean thanks," explained Jemima.
A man with a blue-and-white jacket and a straw hat sauntered over.
"Not interrupting anything, I hope, old bean?" he asked.
"YOU!" said Jemima.
"Yes, me, my dear," said the man.
Now Jemima knew it must be a dream.
Von Strahlheim poured four glasses out.
"Chin chin," said the man with the straw hat. All four of them drained their glasses in one.
Lord Barnet came to the front.
"Ladies and gentlemen. Everyone in this room knows a secret, a secret that they have refrained from sharing with the rest of the world. We all know of BT World; we all know there is a world in which von Strahlheim over there is to become the Prime Minister."
Von Strahlheim bowed and only a few glanced his way. Jemima missed that - she was glancing at Patricia and her mother. Were they in on all this?
"We all know of the world where the Confederate States won their independence from the North."
That's a new one, thought Jemima, but she just nodded knowledgeably anyway.
"We all know of the Communist-run Britain. We also know that the universe is in peril of cracking and that there is only one true world. Let us all celebrate together as the universe is righted and the one true world wins out over its false rivals."
The Duke of Edinburgh came in wearing a silver foil suit and accompanied by a white-haired and white-bearded man holding the projector from the other version of Patricia's flat. He was also clad in tin foil.
"What is this?" asked Lord Barnet.
"Welcome, lightning. One reads the skies, you see," said Prince Philip.
Lord Barnet looked uncomfortable for the first time but decided to plough on.
"A toast," he said. "To the one true universe."
Everyone drank except Prince Philip and his friend.
Jemima noticed that there was an untouched bottle behind them and made to open it.
"No, no, my dear," smiled the man with the straw hat. "This is our tipple."
He produced a bottle of his own. Patricia, Jemima, Patricia's mother, the man who hadn't introduced himself and von Strahlheim all drank a glass from that bottle and then went to open up one of von Strahlheim's.
Lord Barnet approached Jemima drunkenly and farted loudly.
"Ugh!" she said.
"It's all right for people like the Duke and you," he said. "You have versions in the other world. Maybe some bit of the other you will remember this version. Every single other person in this room only exists in ths fiction or those other fictions - look at Sethargis over there. He doesn't exist. Look at von Strahlheim. He doesn't exist. The Thompsons... well, you know what happened to their family." He hiccoughed and nearly fell over. "And this room. This unbelievable room. This amazing room with its high ceiling and expensive curtains." He farted again.
"Are you talkin' rubbish?" asked Jemima.
"SSSHHH! Don't tell anyone!" he said. "I thought you'd worked it out: the one true universe..."
"It... it ain't this one, is it?" trembled Jemima
"It's the one where the Europeans don't fight each other. I did try to tell you. I thought you understood. But you didn't undersand, did you? I've had to keep it to myself all this time... all this time... my whole period in office - that was a fiction... all this time..."
"This is, l-like, a death p-party for all of us?" stammered Jemima.
"You DID understand!" cried Lord Barnet, hugging Jemima a bit too close.
"Let's carry on drinking to the end, ay? What a way to go, Jemima! I may call you Jemima, mayn't I? Good old Jemima. Dear old Jemima. It's all over, you see. PARTY ON!"