The Darling Buds Express


“You can go, if you like.”

It took a moment for Laura to comprehend what she had just been told, so intently had she been staring at the screen before her. She blinked, shook her head, and glanced over at her boss, before turning to check the clock on the wall; it showed there were still ten minutes left before the end of her shift.

“Are you sure?” she said; it had been a slow day, by any stretch of the imagination, but the biggest stories had a habit of breaking just as she was putting her coat on. She really didn’t want to get her hopes up, not with escape so close she could taste it.

Arthur smiled at her. “Yes, I am sure,” he said. “Reception just rang; Ward the one-man wonder is early, for a change.” He looked at her over the top of his glasses – he probably thought it made him look debonair, when it actually just emphasised his deepening wrinkles and thinning hair. “Go on, you’ve earned it.”

“You’re absolutely sure?” Laura asked again, even as she got to her feet. Maybe she shouldn’t be pushing her luck like this, but she’d feel guilty if she didn’t – and besides, she was certain Arthur wasn’t going to change his mind.

“Go on, get out of here – before I change my mind,” he said, half-laughing, just as she had anticipated; just as he had, in fact, every time since she started working at the Register.

She could feel him trying not to look at her as she walked over to pick up her coat and bag; he was getting better at hiding his attraction to her, but he still wasn’t very good at it. Still, he had never been anything but professional towards her – he’d even managed to make awkward small-talk over the past year or so.

“So, er...” he began as she was buttoning up her coat, “any plans for your long bank holiday weekend?”

“Nothing too exciting,” she replied. “I’m going home for the May Day celebrations. I’ve missed the last couple, so it’s going to be, y’know – pretty special.”

“Ah.” There was a brief, pregnant pause; Arthur really couldn’t do comfortable silences. “So… where is home for you again?”

“Up near Argleton.” That was true; it was also as much as she was willing to allow him. It wasn’t that she thought he was about to jump on a bike and follow her there – she just didn’t trust him not to laugh when she told him she came from Titfield. This seemed an unnecessarily short answer, so she added, “I’m looking forward to it – I haven’t been home since Christmas.”

“Really? Over four months? It’s not that far away...”

“Yeah, but...” Laura puffed her cheeks out and exhaled expressively. “It’s – what – nearly two hours to Argleton, and then another ninety minutes up a branchline… I can do it in a weekend, but it’s not easy.”

“Still, though...”

“I was supposed to be staying over New Years’, but I got called back – remember?” There was the merest hint of put-upon bitterness there; she hoped Arthur didn’t take it personally. “Then my boyfriend was going to come up over Easter, but he had to work...”

Maybe Arthur was getting better than she gave him credit for; his expression barely moved when she mentioned her boyfriend. She pitied him slightly, which she felt bad about – he deserved better than that. If she were single… and if he were five years younger… and if they had more in common and if they didn’t work together… and if- yeah, this wasn’t doing anyone any favours.

“How about yourself, you up to anything?” she said companionably as she made her way to the door. Arthur gave her a rueful look.

“In here – where else would I be?” She needn’t have worried about sounding bitter; her boss was leaving her in the shade.

“Oh, that’s a shame” - and it was, even if she didn’t sound like she believed it herself - “well, I hope it’s not too busy.”

That rueful half-smile was back. “I’m sure I’ll cope,” he replied. “Now go – enjoy yourself!”

“Are you-” Laura began, but he cut her off with a wave of his hand.

“Look, if the Prime Minister does a Harold Holt I will call you, all right? Otherwise, go!”

She nodded in assent, and made for the door; as she opened it, though, she turned back to him with a quizzical expression. “Who’s Harold Holt?”

“You don’t remember? He was the Aussie Premier who got his head chopped off by a helicopter rotor.”

Oh, now she remembered; she winced as she recalled the video somebody had shown her at college. “Why not just use Barry Goldwater? At least people have heard of him...”

“Well, firstly,” came the reply, bristling with mock outrage, “more people should have heard of Harold Holt, and secondly-” Arthur’s tirade was cut short by the first of the night-shift scuffling awkwardly into the room. “Right, you can definitely go now. Have a wonderful time – see you Tuesday?”

“Wednesday,” Laura replied, stepping out into the corridor.

“Lucky!” came the response; she smiled, and waved a farewell as the door closed behind her. As she reached the stairs, she heard the muffled exclamation: "How did you manage to get lost in a lift?!"

The light was fading as she stepped outside; the cloud-cover which had been around all week was breaking up, and the western sky was eggshell-blue streaked with gold and violet. She fancied walking home, but she was too tired; by the same token, she didn’t want to stand around waiting for the trolleybus, especially as the temperature was dropping. And now she was on holiday, she felt like treating herself.

She reached into her pocket for her brightphone, taking a moment to enjoy the feel of it in her hand. It was old, by the standards of its kind – she’d had it for nearly eight years now, and she could feel the dings in the aluminium casing where she’d dropped it on the pavement or flung it across the room (always by accident, of course; although there had been that one incident when Ward had managed to wipe ten thousand words of an article she’d asked him to proof) – but it still felt thrillingly decadent, as much for its copious plastic parts as the possibilities of a portable gratlink. Many papers had taken to carrying periodic articles decrying the evils of brightphone culture – the right-wing ones bemoaning the ‘anti-social tendencies’ of their proliferation, their left-wing counterparts raging against the ‘materialism’ of objects so frequently replaced and yet rarely recycled. She’d written a well-received article recently about the inaccuracies of the latter argument – yes, very few brightphones went through the Shinwell System (not that breaking them down for parts was all that useful), but the vast, vast majority were re-engineered and sent abroad to be resold in developing economies like China, South Africa and Nigeria – although the last on was ironic, for an awful lot of them were made there. That article had gotten her a lot of notice, and a job offer from the Daily Mirror which she had turned down with a certain vehement pleasure; it may have been the most left-wing Rothermere paper, but it was still a Rothermere paper.

She began to pull up her phonebook, but paused; she wasn’t sure she could face the hassle of calling a cab, or that it was warm enough to wait around for one. As if on cue, the coconut-shell sound of hoofbeats echoed off the tall buildings. She raised her hand to hail it, crying: “Taxi!”

The driver was good; he pulled up right beside her, his charge snorting gently in the shafts. She told him where she was going; he gave her a rough fare, and told her to ‘hop in’. It was at that moment that the horse decided to relieve itself on the pavement.

It didn’t end up anywhere near her, which was a blessing – they did have an occasional tendency to, ah, ‘splash’, especially on tarmac – but the smell was atrocious; despite herself, she wrinkled her nose in distaste.

“Sorry love,” said the driver, with nary a hint of bashfulness, “he’s been a bit sick lately. Vet says he’s got worms or something.” Without waiting for a response now he knew Laura was comfortably seated, he hauled on the reins and they set off.

It was a rather nice taxi, all things considered; the seat was comfortable, if weatherbeaten, and the fare-meter was pleasingly chunky, black metal with the numerals raised and burnished. She watched the pennies tick by for a few shillings’ worth of distance, but she increasingly found herself leaning over one side and watching the city go by.

There were regular moments of light and noise; pools of revelry as they passed pubs, bars and other hostelries. These were interspersed with spaces of solitude and silence; commercial streets, shuttered and deserted, with the occasional lightened window on the upper floors breaking the monotony. Vehicles passed on the other side; buses, their windows lit and decks half-empty, humming quietly, and electricabs with radios blasting pop music, several sporting intricate neon patterns on their roofs and sides. The clip-clop of hooves seemed to be the loudest thing on the road. Everywhere there was the scent of cherry blossoms; the trees lined the roads and filled gardens and parks, and their petals formed drifts on the pavements.

They couldn’t actually get down her street; a short, rotund man in overalls had stopped his traction engine across the junction and was having a furious row with a gangly, bearded pensioner on a battery-bike. Laura disembarked around the corner and walked briskly to her door; it had gotten surprisingly chilly with the sun properly down. She let the argument wash over her as she let herself into the building, and climbed the stairs to her chilly flat in near-darkness.

Whatever had caused the argument, it had ended by the time she got in; there was no sign of the cyclist, and the traction engine was reversing and attempting to make a turn with its trailer. The slightest scent of steam hung in the air; any stronger and it would have been a serious problem, but it was just enough to get the nostalgia flowing without getting into the fabrics.

She closed her eyes, and breathed deeply; for a moment, she was already aboard the Darling Buds Express on that final grand sweep into Titfield…

...She didn’t think she’d ever been as homesick as she was right now.

She stood there for a moment, enjoying the last moments of her reverie, before the vibrations of her phone brought her back to reality. She scrabbled to check the message.

Jus hearin frm govt leaks tht
Bethlehem Summit mite b on
verge o colaps alredy.rekn
mite b dun by Sun

Oh, god – she had barely been gone an hour, and already work was out for blood! She typed a reply with hands she tried to keep from shaking.

Do you need me to come back in?​
Nah wel b fin.Enjoy yr hols luv!

She stood staring at the response for a moment, then sighed with relief. She took a moment to let the sense of longing soak back into her soul, before
shaking her head and going to find a jumper.
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Starting another thing. It's basically me taking one notion from one of Mumby's TLs and running with it.

I'm being stupidly ambitious here, in that I'm aiming to do six updates in six days - this took me longer than expected, and it's one of the shorter ones I've planned. We'll see how it goes.

As ever, comments - criticism - whatever, it's all encouraged and I'll do my best to reply.
As ever, I'm envious of your writing style, especially the characterisation of Arthur. The lift line had me giggling, and I didn't clock that it was in some way non-modern until the horse shat itself (#SentencesIDidn'tExpectToEverWrite). Looking forward to seeing how this goes over the next nearly-a-week.


Interesting. I liked the...I'm not sure what the word is, maybe bathos? ...of the Harold Holt shocking swerve. Not sure where you're going through this overall, which makes me curious.
As ever, I'm envious of your writing style, especially the characterisation of Arthur.

That means an awful lot, especially seeing as you're no slouch yourself. Arthur's very much a one-scene character, but you'll hopefully like some of the others we'll meet.

The lift line had me giggling, and I didn't clock that it was in some way non-modern until the horse shat itself (#SentencesIDidn'tExpectToEverWrite). Looking forward to seeing how this goes over the next nearly-a-week.

I don't know if 'non-modern' is quite the right word... but I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll leave it at that. Glad to have you aboard!

Interesting. I liked the...I'm not sure what the word is, maybe bathos? ...of the Harold Holt shocking swerve.

I was originally going to just have the OTL Harold Holt reference, but then I remembered I was writing an AH story and it was a perfect opportunity to have a little fun. You know, by decapitating a man.

...This can be a very bloodthirsty pastime if you're not careful.

Not sure where you're going through this overall, which makes me curious.

I think this tale will push the boundaries of plausibility a bit; I also have to keep reminding myself to actually put the AH in because I keep getting too bound up with writing my characters... Either way, I hope you'll enjoy what I'm doing, although I encourage you and anyone else to bring up anything you find implausible or awkward.
Titfield? As in the Titfield Thunderbolt?

The name was a deliberate homage, but it's not the same place as in the movie. Well, on-screen Titfield never really got developed beyond 'quintessential English rural village at the end of a branch-line', which it does have in common with TTL's Titfield; but that is where the similarities end.

I'll update in the morning, promise.

The clouds of the working week were nothing but a memory; it was still a way off noon, yet the heat of the sun through the glass was almost unbearable. Laura squinted out of the window as her train slowed, shielding her eyes against the glare from the glass roof of the Arndale Centre.

We are now approaching – Argleton Junction,” said the automated voice of the train’s announcer, in the strange articulation of cheap software. “If you are leaving the train here, please take all your belongings with you.” Laura was leaving the train here, but she was also a grown adult and resented being lectured by a recording. She rolled her eyes, and reached for her suitcase.

She stepped down into shade; the platforms at the Junction had large canopies, well-maintained by – she read the burnished plaque hanging from the wall - ‘British Railways in partnership with Friends of Argleton & District Stations and The Darling Buds Line Society’, which provided welcome respite from the unanticipated heat. She stood for a moment, waiting for the hum of the train to fade; yet even before it had disappeared around the bend, another thundered past on the opposite track. It was a goods train, and it had two engines on the front; both sleek, elliptical-looking creations, with pantographs like angelic halos. They were the… the something class – oh come on, she knew this… the Badger class? Wait, that didn’t sound right…

She really had been away for too long; she was trying to fill in Henry’s annoying chatter for him, and he wasn’t even there. She didn’t even like trains.

She grabbed her suitcase by the handle and towed it after her across the concourse; the sound the little brass wheels made on Portland stone was surprisingly satisfying. The Titfield platform was not well signposted, but she knew where she was going. Head towards the overbridge; take a left at the bookstall; go behind the arches, and…

Okay, there was one train she practically adored.

Five carriages – old ones, from the first tranche built after nationalisation (in her head, her father’s voice added “Clem’s second-finest achievement!”), but beautifully cared for and restored – stood in the bay platform; not only was that more than on her last trip home, they’d been repainted as well. The blood and custard (it had a proper name, but she was damned if she could remember it) had been replaced by a startling scheme of white on the top half and dark purple on the bottom; it was actually surprisingly nice, once you got over the shock. And there, at the head of the train, was a sight she had been craving for months now – a little tender engine, its black paint shining and steam drifting lazily across the platform, and three familiar faces clustered by the cab door.

She had to force herself not to run the length of the platform; not that that would have been easy in this dress and these heels, to say nothing of the suitcase. The three figures must have been expecting her, though, because they started waving to her whilst she was still three carriages away; that, or the enormous grin she was no longer able to keep off her face was catching the sun like a mirror, and they were just shielding their eyes.

One of them, in a navy-blue uniform and with two flags under his arm, came to meet her by the tender; she threw her arms around him, which startled him enough to drop his flags.

“Sorry, Ollie,” she murmured, releasing him from the hug.

“It’s quite alright,” replied the guard, bending down to retrieve them, “it’s good to see you again.”

“What’s with the extra carriages?”

Ollie snorted. “It’s May Day weekend on the Darling Buds Line – we need the capacity. Every train this weekend is going to be rammed.”

“Even the next one?”

Ollie looked around the platform and then checked his watch. “Okay, maybe not the next one,” he said, bouncing his eyebrows at her.

“How have things been?” Laura asked, as they walked towards the cab.

“Busy. We’ve been getting a lot of tourist traffic – I think now you can download the film it’s generated a whole lot more interest. Which, of course” - and here Ollie indicated his colleagues on the footplate - “has absolutely delighted the gruesome twosome here.”

Now it was Laura’s turn to raise her eyebrows; driver and fireman alike caught her expression, and shared a look of their own.

“Yes, the Darling Buds Line is indeed the railway featured in the award-winning 1970 movie The Darling Buds of May, beloved by generations,” said Percy in a leaden tone, hefting his shovel.

“Based on the best-selling novel by H.E. Bates, and starring Jenny Agutter and Michael Douglas,” added Tom as he polished a bright red lever, sounding chipper and yet more sarcastic at the same time.

“Wow – so is this the first time they met?” said Laura in tones of mock breathless wonder. She saw Percy pause in his coal-hefting, just for a moment.

“This is indeed the place where the greatest romance in Hollywood history began,” answered Ollie, in the tone of someone who has said those words many, many times and at last spies a chance for mischief.

“Oh, wow! So this is, like, the place where they had that biiig smooch!” Laura replied, slipping into a terrible parody of an American accent. There was a clang from the cab, as Percy sent a shovelful of coal in entirely the wrong direction.

“You love this job, don’t you?” she asked Ollie, as the footplatemen swore at each other and tried to clean up the mess without scalding themselves.

“Madam, I regard it as nothing more than my duty to serve the good people of the Ell Valley on one of the last-surviving steam services on British Railways,” he said, in mocking tones. “But seriously, yeah, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

“One of the last steam trains? Really?”

Ollie gave her The Look; it was one she was more than familiar with back in Titfield, and it meant you work in The Media, surely you should know this? She had long since stopped pointing out to people that she was just one person, and she couldn’t possibly keep up with every single piece of news that skittered across the graticule.

“Yeah, the news came down a month or so ago – Derby finally reckon they’ve got a battery railcar that, y’know, works, which basically means the end for steam anywhere that isn’t here.”

“Haven’t they been saying that for ages, though?”

Ollie gave her a coolly appraising look. “Have you actually been listening to Henry for a change, or has he just repeated it so much that it’s sunk in? Don’t answer that. It’s been on the books for… ooh, a good fifty or sixty years now, ever since Harry Wilson’s first Modernisation Plan. It’s just that – as I’m sure you’ve been told – most battery engines have been… well, see for yourself...”

He gestured across to the little goods yard behind the opposite platform, where a tiny, boxlike engine was struggling to shift a wagon laden with detritus. As they watched, the front of the wagon gave way and the little locomotive shot forwards with a whine of electric motors.

“So they’re a bit useless?” asked Laura.

“Just a tad.”

“And what does that mean for you chaps? If they’re getting rid of steam?”

“Well, they’re not getting rid of the Darling Buds Express,” said Ollie, with a satisfied smirk. “All things considered, we’re virtually the only BR steam-branch that actually turns a profit.”

“Are you sure about that? Wasn’t there that place in Wales, um...”

“You’re thinking of preserved lines – loads of them turn a profit, yeah, but they aren’t nationalised services, so they’re not covered by the same obligations of price and service that we are. But anyway, the word from the top is that we’re safe for now, and there’s a handful of others who might make the cut as well – maybe half a dozen in total, I think? And beyond that, the National Collection isn’t going anywhere; those things are insane money-spinners. I was talking to a chap last week; he said that one Anglo-Scotch steam run for an engine could cover that engine’s running costs for the better part of a year. One run!”

Silence returned, broken only by the distant vocal exertions of the goods yard foreman asking why his sidings were now covered in rocks.

“By the way,” said Laura as the thought occurred, “what were those big engines that were double-heading that goods train a few minutes ago?”

“You mean the flying badgers?” replied Percy. “They’d be the AL-9s.”

“Flying badgers – that was it!” She met their stares. “What?”

“Missing Henry that badly?” asked Tom.

Laura nodded sheepishly. “Just a bit.”

“If it’s any consolation,” said Percy, “he’s just the same. He came out with us for a drink in Argleton the other week, and...”

“He still can’t handle his drink, can he,” she said, cringing inside.

“Put it this way,” said Ollie, “he still owes me fifteen bob for the mess he made of my guard’s van the morning after.”

Laura just groaned.

“Speaking of,” said Tom, checking his watch before stuffing it back in his overalls pocket, “it’s getting near time we were underway.”

“So it is,” added Ollie. “Fancy riding with me this morning?”

“After what you just told me? No fear!”

“It was just vomit!” Ollie considered this for a moment. “Well, mostly vomit...”

“I’m taking a compartment behind the engine and that’s that. I trust my boyfriend hasn’t embarrassed himself in any of those recently?”

“Not to my knowledge.” Ollie grinned, and retrieved his phone. “I’ll message him before we leave, because I’m sure you won’t have told him you’re on your way and I’m equally sure he’ll have forgotten you were coming in this morning.”

“You’re a star, Ollie,” said Laura, lifting her suitcase onto the carriage and climbing up after it.

“Oh, not me,” he replied, tapping intently at the device in his hand, “I’m far too nebulous.”

“Did I just hear you finally admit to having too much gas, Oliver?” said the stationmaster, coming up behind him. Ollie sighed, as driver and fireman snickered.

“I take it that’s our cue to leave, Mr Montague?” the guard asked resignedly.

“I should think so, boys! Wouldn’t do to have the Darling Buds Express be late, now would it? ALL ABOARD!” he bellowed to the waiting passengers.

May I have your attention on Platform Three,” intoned the tannoy, as if on cue, “The ‘Darling Buds Express’, calling at all stations to Titfield, is ready to depart. Platform Three for the ‘Darling Buds Express’ to Titfield.”


Henry was sat in his writing room, with the window open and a mug of coffee on the table beside his computer. The coffee had long gone cold, partly because of the breeze from the window, hut mainly because, like most writers, Henry had a tendency to get far too involved in his writing to the exclusion of anything else.

However, like all good writers, he also had several gratfaces open in the background lest he found himself in desperate need of immediate distraction. So, when his chatbox pinged to say he had a new message, it was a mere matter of minutes before he was able to tear himself away from a particularly knotty paragraph to read it.

Morning! The Darling Buds Express is
about to depart, and we have a
special delivery for you! Please be at
Titfield Station at 11:45 to collect her

Oh, and don’t tell yourself “just one
more paragraph”. I don’t care how
much you love Indo-Tibetan politics
post-Sinocommunism, DO NOT KEEP

He should’ve been annoyed with Ollie for mocking his latest book, but suddenly Indo-Tibetan politics was the furthest thing from his mind, as was anything that wasn’t the railway line from Argleton to Titfield.

He glanced at the clock. It was almost eleven now; if he left immediately, he could do it. He’d have to walk quickly, and he’d arrive awfully sweaty, but he’d be waiting when she arrived.

He paused only to save his work, and send Ollie a garbled reply:

im onm y way tel llauraa iamn comnng

And with that he was gone.


It took nearly ten minutes to leave the fringes of Argleton behind and begin climbing into the hills. The stations, all immaculately presented – Laura suspected that each of them possessed a discreet brass plaque identical to the one she had read at the Junction – had almost-whimsical names: Smithy Lane, Cherry Blossom, Ellsford, Three Lovers, Dreamer’s Bridge, Pleasington, Ottersgear… the litany came back to her as they made their way through verdant pastures, the steady beat of the engine marking time. She had a compartment to herself; she kept the window open, and perched on the edge of the seat, watching the countryside fall away.

They were close to half-way when there was a knock at the door, which slid aside to reveal Ollie.

“I think you’ll want to see this,” he said. “Come on!”

She followed him out into the corridor, and down to the end of the carriage, where he had opened another window. The train was crossing a viaduct over one of the tributaries of the Ell, and it afforded a magnificent vista over the sun-drenched valley – but, delightful as it was, it wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen many times before. She shot Ollie a confused look.

“Hmm” - he sounded puzzled - “they’ve shown up every day for the past- oh, hang on...” he gestured through the window at a yellow speck on the valley road. “Here they are.”

Laura looked at it as it came closer; then she peered in surprise; then she leaned out of the window to make sure. Finally, she stepped back in and stared at Ollie in disbelief.

“Is that a petrolcar?”

“The very same model from – guess what?” Ollie was smiling knowingly.

The Darling Buds Of May!” they exclaimed in unison.

“But… that’s a Rolls Royce! Whoever owns that must be loaded!”

“From what I’ve heard, they’re rich enough to make all but the filthiest Soviet petrocrats look Scroogelike. They’ve been doing this every day since Easter – just driving along beside the train, recreating that scene from the movie.”

“You mean the one where Jenny Agutter tries to jump onto the train?” said Laura, alarmed. An unfamiliar spluttering roar came to her ears; the road on this side of the valley ran parallel to the track, and the petrolcar was now about a half-dozen yards away. It sounded as antiquated as the engine she was riding behind.

“Nah, don’t worry – just the car-chase bit. I think it’s just three blokes with far too much money and nowhere near enough sense.” The car was close enough now that she could see the occupants – they did indeed appear to be three men, in various stages of mid-life crisis. For some reason, they were all wearing cricket whites and straw boaters.

“I think they might be… y’know,” Ollie very exaggeratedly mouthed the word – ho-mo-sex-u-al.

“You can say it, Ollie,” replied Laura, sardonically, “I don’t think they can hear you from here.”

“Yeah, well – this isn’t the city,” Ollie said darkly, “some people still don’t take kindly to that kind of talk, and you never know when some old biddy’s going to jump out and give you chapter-and-verse for treating them like people.”

Laura didn’t need reminding of that; her parents were very liberal about that kind of thing, but Henry hadn’t been quite so lucky – and as for poor Toby…

She found herself focusing back on the petrolcar, if only because she didn’t want the black clouds to start swirling round inside her head.

“Think how much that must be costing them, though,” she said, gesturing, “I mean, apart from the car, which must cost a bomb-”

“I know,” said Ollie, soothingly.

“-and then there’s importing the petrol, and even if it only comes from the Isle of Man that’s going to be mental-”

“I know.”

“-and that’s before you bring in the licensing, the taxes, the competency tests, the admin fees, the renewal fees-”

I know, Laura,” cut in Ollie, more forcefully now. He blinked. “Actually, I didn’t know that about all the fees and things. How do you know all that?”

“I’m a reporter, love; I have to know this sort of thing for-” Laura’s brag was cut off by the vibrating of her phone; they must have passed through a patch of reception somewhere.

Jus 2 rmnd u: Bethlehem Summit
story is MbargOd n cAs talks sukCd -
nt tht ud tL Neway!Nxt wk may b bZ 4 u

Her boss had evidently decided to try some kind of phonetic messaging again; it took her a few moments to decipher. Good job it had reached her when it did; she’d been about to blab the whole thing to Ollie – he was hardly a gossip, but he might mention it in passing, and rumours could start depressingly easily. Besides, she didn’t know who else might be listening…

“For what?”

“Hmm?” She looked up; Ollie was still waiting for an answer. She smiled coyly - “Sorry Ollie, turns out I can’t tell you just yet.”

“Aw, come on – you can trust m-”

At that point, the train went into a tunnel; this was not such a big deal, as it did this all the time, but Laura and Ollie were still standing beside an open window. As a result, both of them got a face-full of smoke, cinders and coal-dust. By the time they had regained the use of their eyes, they were out of the darkness and back in brilliant sunlight.

“I think I’d best sit down again...” murmured Laura, turning back to her compartment.


Henry strode through Titfield, regretting his decision to wear a black shirt today. It may not have shown his copious perspiration, but it was drinking in the heat, and he was beginning to suffer. He really needed to get in shape; change his diet, get more active, actually do these things rather than talk about them… Come now lad, the self-loathing isn’t going to help… That’s as may be, but he was hardly going to be the picture of composure to meet his darling beloved, was he? “Hello, my love, I brought you the lingering stench of perspiration to welcome you home...”

Actually, that reminded him… He stopped at the top of what passed for Titfield’s main street, and took a turn for the florist’s. It was hard to miss; it had a distinctive frontage – the door was set back from the street, and panes of glass curved out in a pleasing Art Deco style. The bell over the door tinkled gaily as he stepped inside; the cool darkness of the interior was near-bliss after the heat of the sun, even if his shirt did immediately cling to him uncomfortably.

“A bouquet of bluebells, if you’d be so kind,” he said to the girl behind the counter.

“I’m afraid we don’t have any bluebells in stock, sir,” she replied. Henry’s face fell.

“Blast… Look, do you have anything vaguely purplish in colour? Violets, lilacs, those other little flowers I can never remember the names of?”

“I’m afraid the closest we have...” - the florist leaned over and retrieved something from the cool recesses at the back of the shop - “is this bunch of pink roses. I haven’t been able to sell them because they’re rather darker than usual for roses...”

Henry regarded them with thin lips and frustrated eyes for a moment, before exhaling through his nose in the way people like him do when they are undone by their own lack of forward planning. “Yeah, I’ll take them. Thank you,” he added trying not to make it sound like an afterthought.

“That will be nine pounds, nineteen and six, please,” said the florist primly, ringing it through on the till. Henry handed over a crisp, fresh ten-pound note, and told her to keep the change.

Stepping out into the street, he regarded his purchase in sunlight. They did look darker than usual for pink roses, but you’d have to squint pretty hard to think they were even close to lilac, violet or anything of that ilk.

Absent-mindedly, he stepped off the kerb; immediately, the beep of a horn sent him scrabbling back to the pavement, arms flailing comically. An old milk-float converted to carry chickens hummed past, the driver cursing Henry out as he passed.

Henry felt the blush rising in his cheeks; suddenly his already-sweaty visage was as much a blessing as an embarrassment. He took a breath, and reoriented himself in the direction of the station – staying resolutely on one side of the road.

In the distance, a column of white smoke was visible, slowly making its way towards Titfield.


Laura had found a cheap pair of sunglasses, and she was using them to protect her eyes from the smoke and grit as she leaned out of the window. There was no more climbing now; the train was on its final run into town, sweeping around one side of the valley in a great, graceful arc and affording a picture-perfect view of the town from her compartment.

She remembered the times, as a teenager, when the six of them – Henry, Jay, Toby, Mikey, Gordy and her – would all pile into one compartment on a Saturday morning and head off into Argleton to experience civilisation; which, in reality, had meant weekly pilgrimages to the bookshop, the music store, and – in her case – the beauty parlour. She’d had to go on her own at first, being the only girl; after a few weeks, Toby had begun offering to go with her. He’d passed it off as guilt, at first, the two of them being best friends and all; it hadn’t taken long for him to confess he was gay, but his obvious flair for cosmetics – and his gossipy rapport with the hairdressers – had tipped her off even before that. It hadn’t taken him long to grow out of his drag-queen stage, insofar as a fifteen-year-old could be a drag queen – though he’d kept up the image until he went to college to wind up his antagonists; but when he’d stopped going, Henry had offered to go with her instead. She’d turned him down the first three times, thinking she was becoming one of those straight women whose friends were all gay men (a ‘fag hag’, the ladies at the parlour had said); but, after she’d realised how lonely she was on her own now, she’d relented. Of course, he hadn’t actually been interested in cosmetics – but they’d found an awful lot to talk about anyway. They’d kissed for the first time in the vestibule of one of these carriages, coming back from another Saturday jaunt on a wet and muggy September weekend not long before they turned seventeen. They hadn’t seen each other for two months before then.

The last four months was the longest she’d gone without seeing him since. She had forgotten what it was like not to pine for him.

The streets she could see as the train drew nearer were thronged – by Titfield’s standards, at least – with horses and with carts, and with cyclists and battery-bikes; the early influx of arrivals for Monday’s May Day event. She was looking forward to that, but in an abstract way; she just wanted to get off this train, now. She could almost taste the platform.

And then, suddenly, they were drawing in, and he was standing there, with his dark tousled hair and his thick-rimmed glasses, and a black shirt that must be agonising in this weather, and a big bouquet of the wrong kind of flowers.

She was out of the door almost before the train had stopped moving; striding across the platform and pulling her suitcase behind her, smiling fit to burst and trying so hard not to break into a run. He opened his mouth to say something, and she kissed him like she had never kissed before.

He tensed for a moment, and part of her feared she may have done something terribly wrong; but then he relaxed, and wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her back. And it went on, and on, and on, and she thought she would melt with happiness and love, and she never wanted it to end.

“Hey,” Henry said, after they finally came up for air.

“Hey,” she replied, her hand still on the back of his neck. His glasses had been knocked skewiff; he hadn’t seemed to notice yet. “You’re taller than I remember.”

“Maybe you’ve just shrunk,” he shot back, grinning impishly – an effect which was ruined by his fumbling his specs back into place. “But actually I think it’s ‘cos I’m wearing really thick soles.”

Several short blasts on the whistle broke the spell; Tom, Percy and Ollie were cheering. Laura and Henry gave them identical looks of mock indignation; then, catching sight of each others’ expression, they dissolved into laughter.

“I take it you had a good journey?” he said, as the giggles subsided.

“Pretty good,” she replied. “For a hundred and twenty years old, that little engine sure can go some.”

“Actually, the design’s a hundred and twenty – this particular engine is only about sixty years old,” said Henry, in tones of someone who cannot let a mistake go unchallenged. “Horwich Works dusted off the plans when they needed some smaller engines in the early Fifties – this is before the first Modernisation Plan, you understand-”

“God, I love you so much,” sighed Laura, wrapping her arms around him and resting her head on his chest, “now please shut up.”

Henry smiled, and hugged her tight. “I love you too, darling beloved light of my life.” There was a contented pause, a near-perfect moment, before they broke apart. He silently handed her the not-very-purple flowers, which were already starting to wilt in the heat; she regarded them fondly.

“Now come on,” he said, holding out a hand, “I promised we’d go and see your folks.”


The garden was still a riot of wildflowers; red, blue and yellow, with names she could remember but not place to the species, they sprung from an unmown lawn. Maybe it was the fact she was older, or the tiredness of her journey, but it seemed… smaller than she remembered, and shabbier too. Not for the first time, she felt a genuine stab of worry and shame that she might abandon her ailing parents for the bright lights of cosmopolitan rootlessness; this time, though, it was sharper than normal.

“Have they been alright?” she said, following Henry up the garden path.

“Your dad’s been having a bit of trouble with his back since January,” he replied. “I’ve been meaning to come and give him a hand, but this new contract’s eaten up a lot of my time lately...”

“You did promise you’d keep an eye on them for me...” Laura said, a touch reproachfully.

“I know,” Henry said, quietly. “I have. I spent a week last month setting up your mum’s new computer.” He knocked smartly on the door.

Laura was surprised. “I didn’t know Mum had a computer.”

“She’s got it,” said Henry, “I just don’t think she knows how to use it...”

There was a scraping of bolts, and the door swung open; a kindly older lady stood in the hallway.

“Mum!” cried Laura, throwing her arms around her.

“Oh, Laura! It’s so good to see you, dear,” the older woman replied, returning the hug.

“Hello, Mavis,” said Henry, still stood in the doorway. Laura’s mother regarded him slyly.

“For your information, young man, I know perfectly well how to use my computer,” she told him, in what Laura hoped was mock indignation, “it’s the graticule I’m having the trouble with.”

“I do think you should reconsider sticking with GPO,” Henry responded, stepping into the hall. “They really aren’t very good.” Mavis waggled a finger at him.

“I hope you’re not going to repeat that in front of my husband again, Henry – not after what happened last time...”

“No fear! I thought he was going to throttle me...”

“Did you criticise St Clement again?” said Laura to her boyfriend, who spread his hands in a proclamation of innocence.

“Look, I like Attlee as much as the next person who isn’t a raging acolyte, but last I checked he was not responsible for designing long-distance communication between computer terminals.”

“Actually,” said Laura, “where is Dad? Henry said he’d had some problems with his back...”

“The only problem your father’s had with his back is that he doesn’t want to muck around in the garden now,” Mavis said, rolling her eyes. “He’s been trying to fob it off on Henry for weeks.”

Laura turned to Henry, who raised his eyebrows at her, thin-lipped. She mouthed a quick apology at him.

“I left him in the kitchen, preparing tea,” finished Mavis, leading the two of them into the back of the house. They stepped into a pleasant, airy, primrose-walled room, filled with wooden furniture that had all, incongruously, been painted green. There was a scent of herbal teas and incense in the air; her parents’ elderly twin ginger tabbies, Bilimoria and Parabhen, rubbed up against Laura’s legs. For a brief moment, it could have been the morning of her seventeenth birthday when she’d finally plucked up the courage to introduce Henry to her parents. Almost instinctively, she clasped his hand tight; he turned and smiled warmly at her.

At the far end of the room, next to the Aga on which a kettle was starting to whistle, a figure in Oxford shirt and cords was rooting in a cupboard; his head was obscured by the open door, but at the sound of people entering he leaned back, revealing a shock of white hair and a face ruddied with age.

“Dad!” exclaimed Laura; it did feel a bit clichéd, but she felt she was owed this, having not seen her parents in so long.

“Laura!” her father exclaimed in turn, coming over to embrace her. “How is my darling baby girl?”

“I’m good, thank you Papa,” she replied. “How are you?”

“Now my daughter’s home, I’m the happiest man in the world,” he said, and she knew that as far as he was concerned it was true. They disentangled, and her father turned to her partner with an extended hand.

“Henry – it’s good to see you again so soon. How’s the book going?”

“Very well, thank you sir.” Henry was smiling faintly. “How’s your back?”

“My back? It- er...” Laura’s father grimaced, and suddenly began arching his spine as though suddenly suffering terrible pain. “Oh, dreadful – could barely move this morning… don’t think I’ll be able to-”

“I told him, Donald,” cut in Mavis. “The jig’s up.”

Donald pouted. “Why d’you have to go and ruin all my fun, woman?”

“Because he’s a good lad and you were in danger of taking advantage of him,” replied his wife tartly.

“I wouldn’t go that far...” murmured Henry; even after all these years, he was still dreadful at accepting comments from her parents. She squeezed his hand again, companionably.

“Since you’re here, Mavis,” said Donald, taking the kettle off, “do you know where the rooibos is? I’ve looked everywhere – I can smell it – but I can’t find it...”

“It’s in the box, Donald,” replied Mavis, in the tones of a woman who was struggling to believe she had been married to this man for forty years. “They didn’t have any loose-leaf, so I had to get the bagged kind.”

“That’s not the same, though,” moaned Donald, sounding for all the world like a spoiled ten-year-old.

“Dad,” Laura chided, “don’t be so ungrateful.”

“Oh, he doesn’t mean it, love,” said Mavis cheerily. “Now, would you two like a drink?”

“Yes please! Would you like a hand?”

“Don’t be silly! You’ve been travelling all morning – sit down, relax; your father can make himself useful for a change.”

Behind her, Donald made a face. It could be hard to believe, sometimes, that he’d been a headmaster for twelve years before he retired.

“Will you have a normal cuppa, dear?” asked Mavis, oblivious – or possibly just inured – to her husband’s childish antics.

“Yes please,” Laura replied, taking a seat at the table, “you remember how I take it?”

“How could I forget? Is it still a dash of milk and a tablespoon of honey?”

Laura smiled. “I’m sure you don’t need to ask at this point.”

“I’m getting old, dear,” said her mother, still cheerful, “you need to make sure of these things when you get to my age.”

Another faint stab of guilt; Laura’s smile faded slightly.

“And you, Henry?” said Mavis. “Black and strong?”

“Like I like my women,” Henry replied with a grin. She could tell he was joking, but she still fixed him with a raised eyebrow before very exaggeratedly examining her left arm, with its smooth, soft and – most importantly – undeniably white skin.

“That’s the third time he’s made that joke,” said Donald from behind her.

“Don’t worry, Laura, we’ve already told him off about it,” added Mavis archly, bustling over with a mug in each hand.

“It is slightly poor taste, I admit,” said Henry, sounding only slightly repentant as he accepted his drink.

“I don’t know,” said Donald, bringing over another two mugs and placing one in front of his daughter, “apart from the implication that you’ve been cheating on our only child – which I know you haven’t done, because you’d be dead – there is the question of where you’d find a black woman in Titfield.”

“And in any case,” said Laura, smiling at Henry in a way that suggested he best be very careful how he responded to this, “I could still kick your arse halfway back to Argleton.”

“Laura!” said her mother, mildly shocked. “Please don’t use that kind of language under this roof!”

“Sorry, Mum,” she replied, bashfully.

“Speaking of roofs,” said Donald, attempting to be tactful, “how’s your flat coming along?”

“It’s still freezing,” Laura answered. “There’s no sign of the insulation being put in, but even if the landlord did that the windows are so massive that they’ll just lose all the heat anyway. And the heating’s rubbish, and expensive. I just tend to wear jumpers and socks in bed – though back in the cold snap I had jeans on over my pyjamas, and two jumpers, and my dressing gown over that, and three blankets, and I was still freezing!

“Can you not speak to someone about it if the landlord’s dragging his feet?” asked her father. “Maybe get in touch with your local councillor, see if they can get it moving?”

“Ah, but my local councillor’s a Liberal,” she replied sweetly. “I thought you’d disinherit me if I ever had anything to do with them?”

“I think I can make an exception if the other side is my daughter freezing to death.” Donald sniffed. “Besides, it’s not as if it’s the Tories...”

“The Liberals still have Jez, though,” added Mavis, “even if he isn’t leader any more.”

“Ah, Jeremy Ashdown, the great white hope of the British left,” cut in Henry. He never could resist winding her father up. “I never did understand why he went by his middle name...”

“It was good enough for Harry Wilson,” added Mavis.

“It was also good enough for Enoch Powell,” countered Laura. Her mother conceded the point with a nod of the head.

“Ashdown’s a butcher,” commented Donald brusquely. He was evidently working himself up into a rant; he was going puce around the ears. “He was in India with the SAS in ‘67; he slaughtered the Sikkimites. He’s a colonialist oppressor, like all of them!”

“Okay, firstly he was in the SBS,” countered Henry, “secondly, they were invited in by an allied government to quash an uprising sponsored by a hostile power, and thirdly, the Sikkimites were a nasty, nasty bunch, even by the standards of most of Lazar’s buddy-boys.”

Laura was pretty certain Kaganovich had been replaced by Andropov four years before the Sikkimite revolt broke out, but she didn’t want to correct Henry about it – partly because, having a Masters in History, her boyfriend probably knew what he was talking about, but mostly because she vaguely recalled the topic coming up before and didn’t want to spend her weekend being lectured about various aspects of Kremlinology. It was boring enough now when she had to do it for work, let alone when it happened fifty years ago.

“I don’t think it’s fair to call Ashdown a colonialist, anyway,” replied Mavis. “He was calling for reform of our relationship with Nigeria and the other African dominions for years before the Whitsun Agreement.”


Laura flashed her father a Look; she still loved him to bits, but his petulance was starting to grate slightly. Laura’s Looks had become notorious down the years – the merest hint of annoyance in her brilliant blue eyes had been enough to send all but the hardiest of souls fleeing, including her own father. It didn’t seem to have much effect this time; possibly because it was neutered by yet another stab of guilt. Mavis had said he’d been taking retirement hard.

“Oh, I forgot – the Whitsun Agreement is inherently evil because it was Willie Whitelaw’s baby, isn’t it?” Henry jumped in, sounding almost mocking now. Laura gave him the strongest Look she could muster, but he brushed it off with a flippant “Oh, stop flirting you” - he never had found her Looks particularly intimidating; he just found them sexy.

“Nothing can erase from my heart...” began Donald, with Mavis joining in as she recognised what he was quoting, “...deep burning hatred for the Tory Party.” Henry’s combative bullishness had vanished as soon as it had come; now he just looked pained.

“Please don’t make me criticise Nye,” he said. Donald smiled triumphantly.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, young man. Just so long as you don’t get cocky.”

“Still, though – what exactly is the problem with the Whitsun Agreement? Y’know – beyond the fact it was made by people, uh...”

“Lower than vermin?” finished Mavis sweetly. Henry gave her the narrow-eyed sideways glower that was his own version of the Look; he was clearly thinking that’s my parents you’re talking about, but wisely didn’t say as much. Nothing would be more certain to turn things sour than bringing up his mum and dad.

“The Whitsun Agreement is yet another symptom of the Tories’ obsession with the oil industry, from the Fourteenth Earl Home” - Laura had never thought it possible for three relatively innocuous words to drip with such venom as they did in her father’s mouth - “devastating the North Sea floor to search for the stuff to Timmy Wheeler’s mad journey to Bethlehem to try and get the Soviets to sell us stuff by the barrelfull.”

“May it fail, and fail quickly,” added her mother with matching vehemence. Halfway through a gulp of tea, Laura’s heart skipped a beat. The bolus shifted unexpectedly at the top of her throat; she spluttered noisily, and it came right out again. Most of it ended up back in the cup, but that just meant her face was splashed with milky, sticky, lukewarm tea.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she choked, to three concerned gazes.

“Are you sure, darling?” said her father, as she nodded frantically in the manner of those rendered mute by an unexpected imbibing incident. “Well, basically,” he continued, as Henry passed her a tea-towel to wipe off with, “the Whitsun Agreement is the latest stage in British colonialism throughout Africa.”

“Which is where I think you’re wrong,” said Mavis.

“As I’ve told you countless times, woman, just because they aren’t called colonies-”

“Oh, I don’t think it’s perfect, but I do think Dominionhood for all Africa is a big step in the right direction.”

“Last I checked, our African dominions are still overwhelmingly dominated by the petrochemical industry that we founded and sustain there in a hopeless effort to replace the oil sources we lost to the Ankara Pact,” said Donald, “which – in case you hadn’t noticed – they can’t!”

“No, they can’t,” replied Henry, gesturing with his left hand, “and the Whitsun Agreement acknowledges that. Look,” he said, putting his half-empty mug down, “our relationships with those nations we once owned are less than healthy, and Africa as a whole is still dreadfully poor considering the vast bounties it produces, but you have to admit that on the whole Africa is doing better than South America.”

“South America still has a higher GDP, though,” said Laura. She wasn’t sure if this was a row, or just another of her family’s robust political discussions, and she didn’t want to risk escalating it by inadvertently saying the wrong thing; but she also didn’t want to spend it sat on the sidelines. People might think she was coming down with an illness – or worse, becoming a Tory.

“Fair point – but Africa’s is rising faster,” Henry said. “And at least in most of Africa you usually have a vaguely left-wing option on the ballot paper. In South America it’s a choice between ‘Pro-US right-wing nationalist’ and ‘pro-US right-wing populist’.”

Donald coughed, and muttered “Rhodesia” under his breath.

“Yes, okay, Rhodesia’s a mess, and one that we created, and one we shouldn’t have left for the South Africans to clear up-” began Henry.

“And yet South Africa is a perfect example of how we could have done it right,” cut in Donald. “Their regime was just as abhorrent as the minority Rhodesian government, yet we kept putting the pressure on until they gradually dismantled it.”

“That’s funny,” added Mavis tartly, “I seem to recall you being very keen on the idea of violent revolution to ‘overthrow the Boers’, as you put it, back in the 1970s...”

“Yes, well, times change,” said Donald hurriedly.

“And that still doesn’t change the fact that we’d have been putting ourselves in between a nasty white-minority dictatorship and yet another Moscow-backed insurgency,” added Henry, giving Donald a pointed look. Laura saw her father take on a sanctimonious expression.

“You seem to be under the impression, Henry,” he said in measured tones, “that I am somehow in thrall to the petro-kleptocracy that rules the Eastern Bloc. I assure you, that is far from the case.”

“I know that, Donald,” replied Henry, “but the thing is, you think that the modern policies of Moscow are something the Soviet Union has become, rather than something it’s always been. Brutality and vulgarity and cruelty and oppression and corruption on a grand scale have always been key parts of the Russian state; it’s just that now they have the petroroubles of the Ankara Pact keeping them afloat, they don’t have the veil of poverty to protect them.”

Sensing the conversation was about to tip over into yet another interminable argument about the Middle East, and British involvement there, and various dead and unspellable sects of radical Islamism, Laura decided to steer the conversation in a slightly different direction.

“Can we please talk about something else?” Not the most tactful approach, but it got the message across.

“Certainly, darling,” said her father. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“Anything,” said Laura fervently. “So long as it’s not something like...” - she flailed around for a topic - “Indo-Tibetan diplomacy or something else that’ll vanish down a rabbit-hole of you two refusing to agree.”

“No Indo-Tibetan diplomacy?” Donald smiled in what he probably thought was a cunning manner. “That’s a shame; I was just about to ask Henry how his new book was coming along...”

There was a lot more discussion; there was also a lot more disagreement, but it was good-natured and easily put aside. Several times, Bill leapt up onto her lap, trying to make his way up to the table in search of crumbs of lemon drizzle; Ben just sat on the windowsill, washing herself. There were more cups of tea, and Mavis produced cakes and biscuits from various cupboards and larders; it wasn’t until after four o’clock that Laura leaned over and whispered something in Henry’s ear that turned his cheeks crimson.

“Uh… so do you want to go back to mine?” he said, adorably nervous. She just nodded, mutely yet enthusiastically.

They made their goodbyes, as quickly as politeness would allow, and agreed to try and come back before Laura left on Tuesday; and then they were gone, in a flurry of snatched kisses – and, in Henry’s case, an oddly stiff gait.

“What was all that about?” asked Donald as the door closed behind them; he turned to his wife, who was idly examining the calendar.

“It has been four months, I suppose...” she said, to no-one in particular. “You know,” she added, turning to her husband, “I think we should buy them a new bed for their anniversary. I reckon they’ll need it.”
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In retrospect, I probably should have posted this in the writers' forum. All the AH has kind of sunk to the end of the post, and I'm worried that it's all going to be dreadfully confusing.

I'm also really far behind already - but I'm really enjoying myself (even if nobody else is). Hopefully the next update should make things a bit more clear, when I get round to writing it. As ever, comments encouraged.


Interesting. I see you're coming up with reasons to allow infodumps, which is always good to see to avoid As You Know Bob-ery.

The bit with a petrol car being unusual put me in mind of some of those future predictions in that Blue Peter book which I must remember to bring to the next meetup.
Interesting. I see you're coming up with reasons to allow infodumps, which is always good to see to avoid As You Know Bob-ery.

The bit with a petrol car being unusual put me in mind of some of those future predictions in that Blue Peter book which I must remember to bring to the next meetup.

I think I know the one you mean - I don't own a copy, but I read it when I was in school (thinking back, it must have been about twenty years ago...).

On allowing infodumps - I know exactly what you mean. Arguments are generally a good way of doing it, because that's when people naturally tend to try and explain the bloody obvious.

I've also done that thing where I come up with a great device of tying the whole piece together more tightly halfway through writing it. Ah well - I'll focus on finishing it first, and worry about that later.

PS: For anyone wondering, this isn't dead - I've just completely missed my six-day target. Should hopefully get the next update out by Wednesday.


I missed this before, and I love it. Wonderful bits of writing. Lots of dialogue that feels worthwhile even though it's not relevant to establishing the scene in a typical sense. I think what's good is how early in you start to feel interested in the characters. Plus, it recalls a wonderful idyll while being thoroughly weird. Good show.
In retrospect, I probably should have posted this in the writers' forum. All the AH has kind of sunk to the end of the post, and I'm worried that it's all going to be dreadfully confusing.

Certainly initially confusing (Laura using a computer but then taking a horse cab??), but in a fascinating way. Just noticed the underlined changes to the last update, which clarify things a little more. Clearly the Ankara Pact is a Soviet domination of the Middle East equivalent to OTL Warsaw Pact. I'm not yet finding it totally plausible that this would cut oil supplies sufficiently to make private petrol cars so unusual, or for BR to have no diesel locos (though I'm all for that), and there's obviously been some sort of problem with North Sea oil, so I'm interested to see how you handle that. Perhaps there are other factors at work? Also wonder why BR would have apparently revived an L&Y 0-6-0 design in the fifties, rather than something more recent, still, it's a nice mental picture ;)

Really liking the characters and dialogue, though I do think Jenny Agutter could have done better than Michael Douglas.

I'm also really far behind already - but I'm really enjoying myself (even if nobody else is).

Nope, really enjoying it (though could just be the steam trains), it's different, please continue.
For those who haven't noticed yet - I've made some edits to earlier updates in the hope of better world-building and setting up the plot. For those of you who don't want to go back and comb through the chapters to find them, I've put them in underlined text.

I admit, I'm not very good at writing serials.

I entirely missed that there was a second update to this.

I like it very much.

I missed this before, and I love it. Wonderful bits of writing. Lots of dialogue that feels worthwhile even though it's not relevant to establishing the scene in a typical sense. I think what's good is how early in you start to feel interested in the characters. Plus, it recalls a wonderful idyll while being thoroughly weird. Good show.

Again, coming from writers of such calibre as yourselves, that means an awful lot; thank you.

Certainly initially confusing (Laura using a computer but then taking a horse cab??), but in a fascinating way. Just noticed the underlined changes to the last update, which clarify things a little more. Clearly the Ankara Pact is a Soviet domination of the Middle East equivalent to OTL Warsaw Pact. I'm not yet finding it totally plausible that this would cut oil supplies sufficiently to make private petrol cars so unusual, or for BR to have no diesel locos (though I'm all for that), and there's obviously been some sort of problem with North Sea oil, so I'm interested to see how you handle that. Perhaps there are other factors at work? Also wonder why BR would have apparently revived an L&Y 0-6-0 design in the fifties, rather than something more recent, still, it's a nice mental picture ;)

You make some very good points, which I'm hoping to clarify in the next couple of updates - I don't want to spoil anything, so forgive me for not addressing these in detail now!

Really liking the characters and dialogue, though I do think Jenny Agutter could have done better than Michael Douglas.

I admit I'll have to take your word for that; I'm mainly disappointed nobody got the reference, although I've never been very good at making them to be fair...

Nope, really enjoying it (though could just be the steam trains), it's different, please continue.

Again, thank you - there should be another update (well, half an update) tomorrow.
Saturday (Daytime)

She awoke late.

She hadn’t had the chance to do that in ages; she’d been looking forward to the chance. In the end, however, it was a touch frustrating – she might feel rested, but she had also spent a significant chunk of the day asleep.

The curtains were open, and the other side of the bed was empty. Henry must have gotten up before her, and – she checked around the bed – picked their clothes up off the floor. That was unusual behaviour on his part; maybe there was hope for him yet.

Henry’s bedroom window looked out over fields and hills, so there was no-one to spy on her beyond a few distant cows; nevertheless, she wrapped the bedsheets around her to preserve her modesty, and made her way to the bathroom.

There was a spare bathrobe by the shower; she put it on as she got out. It was a bit itchy – she suspected Henry had gone back to using a biological washing powder, which put a dent in his shaky domestic credibility – but it was better than nothing. She stepped out onto the landing, tying her damp hair back in a ponytail, with the scent of bacon wafting up the stairs.

Henry was in the kitchen, cooking breakfast; from the next room came the rambunctious folkiness of the Esmedune Street Ensemble’s new record, lending the whole thing a vaguely Celtic air. He was evidently getting better at looking after himself; as she watched, he broke an egg open without a single piece of shell going in the pan. The bacon was still spitting everywhere, but he was clearing most of it up as he went. He even had some tomatoes frying on the side. She considered surprising him with a kiss, but then remembered how clumsy he got when he was startled; she didn’t particularly want a face full of cooking oil on her weekend off. Or ever, come to that.

“Morning,” she said quietly. He turned and smiled at her.

“You’re awake,” he said; it was stating the bloody obvious, but he sounded so happy that she couldn’t hold it against him. “Did you have a good night’s sleep?”

“I did,” she murmured, suppressing a yawn – badly. “You should’ve woken me, though.”

“You looked so peaceful it seemed a shame,” he replied, adding a dash of milk to the eggs and stirring. “Besides, we were in bed for about seven hours last night before we got any sleep; I figured you’d want some you-time.” She didn’t really have a reply to that, so she kissed him on the neck instead.

“Did you go and buy this earlier?” she said, indicating the food he was cooking.

“Yeah.” Henry turned the sausages over; it was a tricky prospect, cooking on an electric hob, but he seemed to be doing very well. “I meant to do it yesterday before you arrived, but I got a bit behind on my writing – believe it or not, the League of Lhasa is not an easy thing to describe.”

“Y’know, given what I know about the League of Lhasa can be written on the back of a postage stamp, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt there.” Laura surveyed the assorted pans. “No baked beans?”

“I had to give them up.”

“Why? You love baked beans.”

“Yeah, but...” Henry shrugged, embarrassed. “They were giving me really bad wind. Like, painfully bad. Properly foul, too; you couldn’t stay in the room after.”

Laura wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Well, I’m glad I’ve still got my appetite.”

“Sorry. But you did ask.”

“It’s a good job I love you,” she replied, nuzzling his cheek with her nose in a condescending manner; he brushed her off with an amused snort.

“And for that I give thanks every day,” he replied. “Now, go and sit down; I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

“Thank you, dear.” She stopped by the door and turned back to him. “Any plans for today?”

“Well, I promised my parents we’d drop in briefly this afternoon,” Henry said, not sounding all too enthusiastic. Laura pouted at him; he gave her a look in return. “You know, you look like your dad when you do that.” He smiled at her gasp in mock outrage, and carried on: “Toby, Jay and Joanne rang earlier; they want to meet at the pub tonight.”

“And Bertie-” too late, she stopped herself. It was the kind of awful, cringeworthy mistake that she knew had the potential to haunt her for years, resurfacing at inopportune moments such as pleasant lunches or important meetings. She was incredibly glad only Henry was around to hear it.

“No,” he said, not meeting her gaze. “Not Bertie.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, quietly, “I didn’t...” she found the words dying in her throat.

“It’s fine.” Henry smiled at her; there was an edge to it, but she could tell it wasn’t really directed at her. “Go and sit down. Please?” She didn’t need telling again.

The dining room looked out over a broad sweep of upper Ellsdale; above Titfield, the villages died out and farms ran up into the hills, with the occasional barely-defined hamlet to add respite. It was the kind of place where sealed roads were still a byword for modernity; they’d probably managed to get mains electricity by now, but the horse and cart was still the primary method of transportation, and the battery truck was less an unaffordable luxury and more an object of arcane power, to be shunned and distrusted. Most of the people she had met from that part of the world considered Titfield not only a vast urban centre but an irredeemable hive of sin and villainy. She wondered what would happen when these people encountered the internet; they were going to be in for one hell of a mind expansion.

This was probably an odd thing to be thinking about before breakfast, but she liked to let her mind wander; it helped to not focus on less pleasant things – like Bertie and Joanne…

It really was an astonishing view; she wondered how she had ever grown tired of it. It was hard to believe she was going to have to go back to the city in just three short days, to leave this perfection behind for the noise and filth and isolation that came with putting hundreds of thousands of people in close proximity. Just for a moment, the thought made her nauseous; but she recalled the fire and the ambition that had taken her away from here in the first place, and the thought of giving it all up… was inconceivable.

That reminded her; she and Henry had to have a serious conversation at some point. Not now, though – there was plenty of time before she left.

The record finished playing, so she got up and flipped it over. This was a delicate task; the record itself was actually two discs of shellac with some stiff, thick card in the middle, so it was rather unwieldy to change sides. The whole musical sandwich was an attempt to alleviate some of shellac’s horrendous fragility – and strengthen the vital Anglo-Indian shellac trade. Vinyl had never really caught on; the records were expensive, and had to be imported. Only the Northern Soul scene, which still had people going back and forth to the States in search of rarities, really had any affinity for the format on this side of the Atlantic. Henry, of course, had a whole boxful of the biggest floorshakers that he’d collected during his university days; of course, thanks to the advent of electromusic, he now owned most of them in two formats.

The needle crackled as it ran along the grooves; the gentle sound of an electric piano floated out of the speakers, sounding for all the world like aural sunshine.

It was a long hot summer,
God, it was a long hot summer...

The past tense was important,
But that's a different story...

She sat and stared out of the window, enjoying a perfect moment of contentment.


“Remind me again what their current bugbears are.”

It was slightly cooler today; not cold, not by any stretch of the imagination, but there was a fresh breeze coming down from the hills. The azure firmament was studded with clouds, the big fluffy cotton-candy types that children and lazy illustrators might draw; their shadows caused soft, shifting patterns to fall across the fells as they scudded overhead.

Henry turned to face her, which meant he was walking backwards; he took his hands out of his pockets in case this ended badly. “Well, apart from the perennial evils of any member of any Labour government, or any member of Willie Whitelaw’s government,” he said, “Dad’s got a bee in his bonnet about the Concert, and Mum’s been reading the new Peter Amery book and keeps harping on about how we should have destroyed the Ankara Pact while we had the chance.” His mood had changed since leaving the house; he’d retreated into the surly not-quite-sarcastic tone of voice that came out when he was worrying about something, and although he wasn’t quite scowling his brow was almost permanently furrowed.

“So the standard political stuff?” Laura tottered slightly; walking along a country lane in high heels had not been a palatable concept, but there was no way she was wearing flats to meet Douglas and Daisy. She had a nagging feeling that the wind was slowly destroying her carefully-coiffed hairstyle, but there was very little she could do about that.

“Pretty much. They don’t like Timmy very much, so be prepared for some anti-Irish slurs – and yes, I have pointed out the irony to them” - she could believe that; Henry might only be a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic now, but his Irish roots were very dear to him. He must have had some fascinating rows over the past year.

“We won’t have to stay long, will we?” She sounded like a whiny kid; at times like this she really was her father’s daughter.

He shrugged. “They’ve been feeling sociable lately, so they might be willing to put up with us for a whole hour today.”

“Joy.” She looked out over the drystone wall at Ellsdale, spread out beneath them. “At least the scenery’s worth it.”

Henry’s parents lived in a part of Titfield known as The Uppers. His mother insisted this was because the town’s upper-class residents lived there; she did not appreciate her son’s suggestions that it was actually because nearly every resident was living beyond their means, and thus ‘on their uppers’. It was enough for Laura to give thanks for her own bickering family.

It was actually a very nicely presented house; it had carefully-planted flower-beds, and a stout-looking tree near the gate, and a smartly-laid driveway where the lawn should be, and a relatively new Rover B8 parked near the front door. The streamliner revival since the turn of the millennium had been a bit naff, and the B8 was no exception; it looked deathly dull – especially in racing green – and terribly out of place in this prim and proper leafy corner of England. They paused at the front gate, trepidatious.

“Any last-minute tips for stuff not to mention?” Laura asked.

“The fact that we spent fourteen hours in bed last night,” Henry replied. Laura would never dream of mentioning their sex life in front of his parents, of course, but his preoccupation with their preoccupation with what the two of them got up to in private was a definite sign something was up. She didn’t say anything; she just stood there, waiting, looking at him.

“Look, let’s not do this today,” he said after a moment.

“You sure?” Laura was more than happy to blow Douglas and Daisy off – it wouldn’t be the first time they’d reached their front gate before deciding ‘nah, screw it’ and going off to enjoy themselves – but she felt obliged to at least give him the option.

He fixed her with an odd look. “If we do go in, my mother will ask you when we’re getting married.” He took in her horrified expression, and smiled. “Yeah, I thought so. I’ll give them a ring, tell ‘em something came up. Now let’s get out of here.” As they turned and walked back down the leafy lane they had just come up, he removed his brightphone from his pocket. “Hi, Mum? Yeah, sorry for the short notice...”


They repaired to a nearby picnic area several minutes’ walk away. Given the glorious weather, and the holiday weekend, it was almost deserted; two families occupied opposite corners of the space, giving each other and anyone else a wide berth. Henry went to the kiosk to buy some pop whilst Laura seated herself at a picnic table overlooking a similar sweep of Ellsdale to the one she had revelled in that morning. There were more clouds now; not enough for it to be overcast yet, but it was likely only a matter of time.

From the road nearby came the gentle whirring sound of a trio of battery-bikes; they hove into view from behind the hedge, two teenagers – a boy and a girl – buzzing along using the electric motors on the grade whilst an older man, presumably their father, was gamely panting away at the pedals. Maybe he’d run out of charge, or perhaps he was trying to exercise; either way, it was clearly taking its toll, for he stopped by the gate and braced himself, catching his breath. His daughter stopped with him, pulling in ahead with the exaggerated care of someone who had recently spent several months drilling the Highway Code into their skull in pursuit of their licence; by contrast, the lad – who had gotten ahead of them – turned back and popped an extravagant wheelie in his father’s face as he braked. He was obviously trying to gun the wheel – Laura heard the whine of the motor, and saw the spokes blur – but he hadn’t got the hang of it; the wheel was still spinning fast as it hit the ground, jolting the whole bike and almost throwing him off. The older man started to reprimand him for his recklessness, but at that moment a traction engine – painted and polished and with bunting strung between funnel and footplate in such a way as to avoid the vital workings of the wheels and motion – clattered past, drowning them out. She followed it as it rolled, chattering, around the corner. There was still calls for traction engines out on the farms, although they were getting rarer as electricals got cheaper and more powerful, but they very rarely came into Titfield; there were too many narrow lanes and sharp bends for such cumbersome vehicles.

Her mind drifted back to the incident outside her flat the night before last; she’d hardly even thought about it at the time, her head being full of holiday thoughts and half-addled by the bloody Bethlehem Summit, but seeing a traction engine in the city was a rare event – uncommon enough, if not to draw crowds, then at least to be worth commenting on. Of course, thinking of the city inevitably led to her thinking about having to go back again and it was so soon and she’d already wasted half the holiday and there was so much she needed to talk about and all the things she hadn’t done and oh god stop stop stooooooppppp---

She slammed her eyes closed, and took several deep breaths; an involuntary shiver ran along her spine. As if on cue, her brightphone vibrated noisily and uncomfortably against her hip; she extricated it in as ladylike a manner as possible – having a pocket in her dress was a great idea in principle, but whoever had designed this one had designed it in such a way as to be impossible to remove whilst sitting without going through some practically yoga-like contortions:

Bethlem news wil br8k
2moro:winkytongue:M comng bak erly
w no agremnt.Shd domnat
cykl 4 gd fu daZ

She stared at it for a moment, then sighed and excised it from her mind. She had all of Tuesday to fret about work; besides, if she wanted to worry about something, there were plenty of more pressing issues right here in Titfield.

She marvelled for a moment that she could still get signal in as near-as-damnit the middle of nowhere; she’d heard that service had improved drastically in rural areas, but it was still impressive when there weren’t even any houses in sight. Then a treacherous voice at the back of her mind reminded her that, even ten years ago, there had always been odd spots of coverage in unexpected places all around Titfield – something to do with the hills, apparently. Or possibly the valleys; she’d never really understood. For some reason she couldn’t begin to elucidate, she suddenly felt very out of place; maybe she really had been away too long.

The click of Henry setting the can of brown pop down on the picnic table disturbed her reverie enough to mutter a word of thanks, but the fug of misery could not be shifted so easily; she was so inwardly-turned, so shut off from the outside world, that Henry’s increasingly obnoxious slurping from his own can – a habit which would normally bring her to the point of contemplating battery – didn’t even register.

“Are you all right?” he said at last, setting his can down gently on the picnic table.

“Hmm?” The reverie broke at last, and she turned to him; then, seeing the concern etched on his face, she looked away, breathed deeply, and sighed. “Yeah. Sorry, I’m just...” she met his gaze again, and shrugged.

“You’ve been quiet this weekend,” he said; a dopey half-smile crept onto his face. “I mean, I know we didn’t exactly do a lot of talking last night...” he chuckled, sounding like a bashful teenager again. She felt her cheeks flush slightly, and looked away, smiling bashfully.

“I’m fine, I’m just really tired,” she replied. “The past couple of months have been so hard, you know? And I don’t want to complain about it, because really I’m so lucky to be doing what I’ve always wanted, but...” she trailed off again.

“Well,” said Henry, gesticulating with his half-empty can, “I think if you can’t needlessly bitch at your boyfriend, who can you?” He took another swig, and wiped away an errant dribble of pop with the sleeve of his jacket. “Anything you want to talk about?”

She met his gaze, and tensed for a moment; there was a lot she wanted to talk about, but right now didn’t feel like the right time. She shook her head, mutely.

“You sure?”

She wasn’t sure, not by a long shot, but she was seized by a sudden rash conviction that it could wait. She decided to change the subject.

“Did you ever sort out the issues with your book?”

“I think so. I hope so,” he replied, making a face. “It was just about worth staying here over Easter to fix it, even if my mum did have a fit about my not going to Mass, but I would much rather have been with you.” Laura felt a happy squirming sensation in the pit of her stomach; it almost immediately vanished as she realised the conversation was drifting back to where she didn’t want it to go.

“It’s going okay, though?”

Henry rolled his eyes. “It’s going about as well as could be expected,” he said. “The problem is, it keeps getting bigger. If I’m talking about Tibet, I have to understand China – which is daunting enough, I’m not sure anyone really understands China yet and they won’t until they get a constitution that lasts more than one election cycle – but if I’m talking about India I need to understand Pakistan, and it’s really difficult to understand Pakistan in isolation because it’s so tied in with the wider free Islamic world. You know Saudism, right?”

Laura pouted and shook her head. Henry looked shocked.

“I thought your job revolved around the Middle East?”

“It does, but…” she frowned. “It’s about what’s happening now – things like the Bethlehem Summit, or who’ll succeed bin Laden in Central Arabia, or whether the Hedjaz is going to drift out of Moscow’s orbit-”

“Don’t get me started on Kaganovich’s Follies,” muttered Henry, massaging his temples.

“My point is,” Laura cut in, “I need to know what’s happening there now – not everything that’s happened there in the past eighty years.”

“Fair enough,” he conceded. “In that case, d’you mind if I tell you about Saudism anyway? It might come in useful.”

“I’d expect nothing less,” she replied, smiling.

“Okay. Well, when the Ikhwan threw Ibn Saud out of Arabia in the early Thirties, he fled to Pakistan – well, it was all India then, but you get my point – and kind of gathered this community of Arab exiles around him in Karachi. He developed this weird ideology that’s basically Wahhabism mixed with hypercapitalism – it’s never been particularly popular, given how the Ikhwan were basically Muslim Nazis, but they have a certain amount of shadowy influence in the corridors of power in Egypt and Pakistan.”

“Hang on – if Ibn Saud was fighting the Ikhwan, why did he adopt their ideology?”

“That’s the thing – he was a Wahhabi too. The two sides in the Ikhwan Revolution both believed in the same things.” He caught her open-mouthed expression of disbelief, and smiled at her. “Now do you get what I mean about it being complex?”

She made a face at him, and he laughed and took another swig of pop.

“So why has your mum suddenly decided we should get married?” It was a breezy, gaily-addressed question, one to which she expected a similar answer – but judging by the way Henry seemed to freeze mid-swig, his eyes wide, the real reason was anything but. He set the can down gently on the table, and leaned forward.

“Henrietta’s annulment got turned down.”

“What?” Laura leaned forward too, genuinely appalled. “Why?”

“We don’t know,” he replied. “It only came back the other day. We’re trying to find out more, but...” his voice trailed off; the shrug he gave in place of words spoke volumes of the futility of holding out hope on the matter.

“Oh, Henry – I’m so sorry.” It didn’t feel like anywhere near enough; not that anything she could do or say would be. “Do you know how she’s doing?”

“Well, she’s utterly distraught and giving serious thought to joining a convent,” he replied, “so about as well as we could hope for. At least she’s stopped listening to my mother and is definitely going to get a divorce.”

“Good.” Laura tried not to smile too much, but she was very glad at the thought of Daisy’s children finally standing up to her.

“And of course Harold’s name is still lower than mud.” That was a surprise; not his younger brother’s disgrace, but that Henry had managed to speak his name rather than referring to him as ‘that bastard’. At this rate, they might actually bear to be in the same building as each other some time within the next decade.

“No more love-children coming out of the woodwork?”

Henry snorted. “Two was more than enough. He could at least have had them with the same woman...” He snorted again. “Actually, if we’re playing the what-if game, he could’ve had them with his wife...” He stared off at the distance for a moment, then shook his head. “So basically, the marriage talk is because you and I are currently their best shot at getting grandchildren.” He looked pensive for a moment. “Legitimate grandchildren, anyway.”

The conversation was drifting dangerously close to Things We Need To Talk About, so Laura tried to nudge it in a slightly less dangerous direction. “At least it’s only taken you mum – what, ten years to stop hating me?”

“Oh, she still hates you,” said Henry casually, “she just wants a genetic legacy more. What?” he said, in response to the Look she gave him. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. Now stop that before I jump your bones.” She couldn’t help but smile at that, despite herself.

“Seriously, though – what is her problem with me?”

“Their problem – my dad feels pretty much the same way, he’s just better at concealing it.” Henry plunged on, ignoring her pouting. “Basically, my parents are Austerity babies, proper ‘Attlee’s Children’ – born in the early Fifties, so their early childhood was the time when rationing was really starting to bite, only they’re from the kind of background where the idea of ‘all in this together’ is what you said so the neighbours didn’t report you for possibly sympathising with Jerry, not something you were actually expected to, y’know, experience. My mother still hates Manny Shinwell with the passion of a thousand burning suns because it was her job to sort the recycling as a child. She puts more venom into saying ‘Shin-Bin’ than ten men could fit into the foulest curse-words.” He paused to gather his thoughts; the wind seemed to be picking up as the sky clouded over, and Laura felt a breeze tug at the hem of her dress. “Then there’s the fact that Labour’s core ideology tends to be a bit too… ‘hurrah for autarky!’ for them to be comfortable with people who vote that way, and the natural tendency for Catholics of a certain disposition to wind up in the tank for the Right, and – to be blunt – the fact that you’re outspokenly left-wing, sorta-kinda-atheist, from a less wealthy background, and I’m their first-born son. They think you corrupted me, basically.”

“...Is that all?” Laura replied weakly.

“Oh, my mum also has a weird fixation on the fact that you went to a college in Argleton to get a journalism qualification and pursue your dream, whereas I went to Durham to read history and had so little idea of what I wanted to do or be that I did a Masters’ and got a publishing contract by accident.”

“I knew there was a reason we didn’t talk about this...” she murmured, trying her hardest to shrink under the table.

“Sorry,” said Henry, smiling apologetically, “but you did ask.”

“No, no, it’s fine – best to know these things...” Laura replied. She stopped still for a moment, realising something, then looked over at him quizically. “Wait, wouldn’t your mum be a Gaitskell baby?”

Henry tipped his head back, staring pensive at the sky. “First nine months of ‘56… You’re right!” he said, looking at her. “Not many people in that bracket – she’d be so pleased you know her that well.”


“...Probably not, no,” he conceded.

“So,” went on Laura, cracking open her can, “if your parents are such massive Tories, why do they hate Willie Whitelaw so much?”

“Two words,” replied Henry. “The Whitsun Agreement.”

“Of bloody course,” she growled. “Y’know, your parents would get on so well with mine if only we could restrict the conversation to that one topic.”

“I don’t think think my parents oppose it for quite such principled reasons as yours, dear.”

“No, fair point. After all, my folks are raging lefties, and yours are-”

“Empire Loyalists,” cut in Henry insistently. Laura cocked an eyebrow at him.

“Was that really better than just saying ‘racists’?” she asked sardonically.

Henry winced. “It’s how they describe themselves.”

“Good grief.”

“I know.” Henry nodded silently for a moment, before rallying. “They’re not racists, though – when my dad was the regional head of National Battery, they had more black and Asian employees in his division than the rest of the company combined.”

“And how many of those were making big decisions in the boardroom rather than swapping batteries on the forecourt?”

Now it was Henry’s turn to pout. Laura, feeling her point well made, regarded him coolly over the top of her can.

“They belong to a different generation, Laura.” He thought for a moment. “Admittedly, it’s probably two generations before the one they were actually born into, but...”

“All right,” she conceded; they were his parents, after all, and it would be unfair to expect him to critically evaluate their flaws as intensely as she did. “But I’m only letting you off because I know you’ve almost certainly spent a lot of time annoying them by quoting the Mombasa Declaration or something.”

Part of her half-expected him to sulkily point out that he hadn’t actually done anything to be ‘let off’ from; instead, he broke into a devilish smile that made him look extremely handsome.

“You know, every time my parents start complaining about the lack of principled politicians in the world I just smile and remind them Enoch Powell was our Man in Mombasa.”

She threw her head back and let the laughter peal out of her. She could just see Douglas and Daisy’s stricken expressions in her mind’s eye, and the schadenfreude was almost worth the anguish they’d caused her.

“You ready to go?” Henry asked, as the giggles finally subsided.

“Yeah, just about,” she nodded, wiping her streaming eyes.

“Cool.” He drained the rest of his can, and took aim at a range of coloured bins several yards away. “Bet you I can get it in from here.”

“Henry, be-” she began, but it was too late; the can was already soaring through the air. It clanged off the ancient, weatherbeaten sign that showed what each receptacle was intended for, skittered around the rim of the silver bin for metal recyclables, and finally toppled backwards over the edge and into the neighbouring composting bin.

“...careful,” she finished with a sigh. Henry turned to look at her, his expression bashful, before his shoulders sagged and he began taking his jacket off.

“You’re not seriously going to reach in there and get that, are you?” she asked incredulously. “Not when you’re wearing clean smart clothes...”

“Look at it this way,” replied Henry, rolling up the sleeve of his shirt, “it’s going to drive my mother round the bend.”

There was a moment of silence while this sank in.

“Good point,” Laura said at last. “Pass your jacket over – you don’t want to get muck on it.”


I feel I should comment, but there's just so much in here that would it be acceptable to just say this made me smile a lot?

Your characters are so fantastic and so believable. And I'm enjoying the ecological setting. Thanks.
I feel I should comment, but there's just so much in here that would it be acceptable to just say this made me smile a lot?

Your characters are so fantastic and so believable. And I'm enjoying the ecological setting. Thanks.

'Ecological' may not be the right word - there's less consumption of crude oil and its derivatives, but more consumption of coal and other combustible fuels. 'Ecological' politics are more widely accepted in this world, although very few people think of them that way because they came about for entirely different reasons. I imagine there is some form of 'environmental interests' party/movement in TTL's present day, but it's very different and nowhere near as successful as OTL's Greens.

Thank you very much for the kind words, by the way - both here and on the Politibrit thread. And thank you to those who've been reading, despite this project overrunning horrendously.
'Ecological' may not be the right word - there's less consumption of crude oil and its derivatives, but more consumption of coal and other combustible fuels. 'Ecological' politics are more widely accepted in this world, although very few people think of them that way because they came about for entirely different reasons. I imagine there is some form of 'environmental interests' party/movement in TTL's present day, but it's very different and nowhere near as successful as OTL's Greens.

Thank you very much for the kind words, by the way - both here and on the Politibrit thread. And thank you to those who've been reading, despite this project overrunning horrendously.

It was a very nice touch with the recycling bin being described as worn. It's a really clear reminder that this is a different world (if the traction engines and seeming continuation of post-war consensus politics wasn't enough)
Saturday (later)

They had an early tea at an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of town. At least, Laura thought of it as the outskirts. Maybe she’d been in the city too long, but it was hard to escape the feeling that Titfield was a town composed almost entirely of outskirts. She was starting to feel as though the place was pushing back at the edges of her mind, trying to shrink her life to fit back within its nebulous, never-ending boundaries.

The building in question had originally been built as a petrol station between the wars; it even still had the old canopy above the forecourt. The owners had decided, in keeping with this heritage, to outfit the interior with appropriate period décor – all very well and noble, until you realised you were eating spaghetti bolognese in a pitch-perfect recreation of Fascist Italy.

Actually, neither of them were eating spaghetti bolognese. Laura was making her way through a passable risotto, whilst Henry was labouring at a lasagne that had been made in the belief that quantity was the same as quality. They’d come here back when they were two gangly teenage lovebirds making the awkward transition from ‘dating’ to ‘relationship’, in the miserable summer after they left school – a season blighted by miserable weather and the interminable wait for the exam results that would decide the rest of their lives... or at least that was how it had seemed at the time. The quality of the food had been nowhere near as important as the veneer of maturity – the notion that they were Grown-Ups, and thus did Grown-Up Things like putting on their classiest clothes and going out to eat rather average Italian food.

“Remember how much our parents used to hate us coming here?” said Henry, as if reading her mind. He wiped away a lurid red smear of tomato sauce with a corner of his napkin.

“I don’t think I could forget, she murmured, remembering that, for once, Henry’s parents had been the comparatively calmer ones.

“I never understood quite why your folks were so dead set against it. I mean...” Henry paused, whirling his fork in small circles before him like the throughput animation of a cheap terse, “ parents didn’t like it because it was Italian and they were, y’know...”

“Empire Loyalists?” answered Laura sweetly, trying to sound as sincere as she possibly could. Henry smiled ruefully in response.

“Actually, I was just going to say ‘racists’.”

“Oh? Why the sudden change of heart?” She smiled, to show she was teasing him.

“They grew out of it.” Now he too looked out of the window, adding in a knowing tone of voice, “amazing what a cheap holiday at Lake Como can do for your sense of worldliness.”

“The Concert of Europe has its benefits,” she replied in a similar tone.

“Not that they’d admit it. Or even consider it. Believe me, I tried.” Henry’s brow knotted in that way it always did when he was about to share something he was cynically amused by; she found it indescribably sexy, which she’d thought of as odd until she belatedly realised it was no weirder than him being turned on every time he saw her annoyed face. “Mind you, it’s harder to take their fretting and moaning about economic interdependence or migratory labour seriously when it comes hot on the heels of them whingeing about how it took them an hour to get their passports stamped at the airport – coming and going.”

Laura rolled her eyes at that; having never been on a flight in her life, the thought of Daisy and Douglas finding something to complain about in the midst of such an extravagance was beyond despair.

“But enough about my parents,” taking a swig from his wineglass and making a face. For a moment he looked eighteen again; despite his best efforts, and the aid of numerous wine guides, he still hadn’t developed a taste for the stuff, and now probably never would. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“Hmm? Oh, that’s easy.” Laura shrugged, and reached for her own glass. “Ernest Marples.”

“...I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”

“Really? You’re surprised my parents dislike the most divisive Prime Minister in history?”

“I have to say, it does come as something of a shock.” His voice was dripping with sarcasm; she pouted, and he smirked back. “But what I mean is, yes he was a crook and a philanderer and just generally a bit shit” - the expletive, as was the habit of all words of its ilk, cut through the background noise of clinking cutlery and murmured conversation; two tables away, a father looked away from his brood of three for a moment to give them a dark look - “but what in the name of all that’s holy does that have to do with where we went for tea?”

“I’m glad you said that last part,” Laura added, smiling slightly, “Ernest Marples abolished the Ministry of Food and ended rationing.”

Henry paused for a moment. “Oh yeah,” he said, sounding surprised at himself, “I forgot your parents were, y’know...” the fork rotated in the air again, sending a drop of sauce onto the immaculate tablecloth.

“Socialists?” she suggested.

“Your parents,” he finished, cocking an eyebrow at her.

“Well, yeah. Do I need to remind you they were going to call me Clementine until someone pointed out that was the name of Churchill’s wife? They were both socialists raised in socialist households at the peak of Austerity and a Tory minister dismantling one of the key tenets of Austerity was not just politically offensive, it was dangerous to their very way of life. They’re really quite puritan when it comes to their food; they think haddock once a week is an extravagance.”

“Yeah, but… really? Going for an Italian is that much of a sin?”

“My parents got together because of their mutual love of Woolton Pie. Rich, tasty food? In a restaurant? They thought you were turning me into a Tory.”

“Really?!” Henry looked delighted, if incredulous, for a moment; then his face fell, and that gorgeous frown was back. “They do realise I’m not a Tory, right? By this point?”

She laughed and leaned over the table. “Yeah, they’ve accepted you identify as a socialist; they just think you’re a really bad one.”

“Oh, well there’s no argument there,” sniffed Henry with mock disdain, “I’ve never pretended to be the second coming of Barbara Castle or anything.” She snorted with laughter; it was a tired old phrase, one he was fond of trotting out and had been for years, but she hadn’t heard it in ages and the absurdity of the concept hit her in a way it hadn’t for years.

“Speaking of,” Henry continued, “what do your folks think of the Red Lady not reversing Marples’ abolition? I mean, Barbara is your middle name – if it meant that much to them...”

“That’s pretty much the reason Barbara is only my middle name,” she replied. “You should’ve seen their reactions when I finally told them I was sick of bloody Woolton pie...”

“Believe me, I can imagine,” he said, smiling. “But don’t let the Fennogs ever hear you say that – they lived off those recipes when we were living in Pity Me.”

“Now there’s a blast from the past – how are those boys?” Laura was genuinely interested; she genuinely liked Henry’s university friends, and hadn’t heard anything about them in quite some time. A small voice in the back of her head chided her, for the thousandth time that weekend, for letting herself fall so far out of the loop.

“They’re fine; they’ve moved to Paris now, said Amsterdam was getting a bit passé and the French have become much more liberal for their kind of lifestyle recently. Neville’s teaching at the English school, and Murdoch has a gratbiz doing purposed imagery – still mostly by hand, which is good ‘cos I’d hate for him to lose that skill, but he’s started involving computerised elements into it. Early days, but he’s got high hopes. We chat linkwise a fair bit – lass than we used to – we talk about visiting, but we’re all so busy that it’s difficult to find the time.”

“We should go,” said Laura with feeling. Henry nodded.

“We should, yeah.”

They paused for a moment, but there didn’t seem to be anything else forthcoming. Laura wondered why she’d expected anything different. Later, chided the voice in her head, you can talk about it later.

She looked around her, feeling as though she was taking in her surroundings for the first time. As she did so, she noticed a photograph on the wall, one that almost certainly hadn’t been there last time she’d come. It was from the mid-Forties, but it wasn’t the date that made it stand out from the Mussolini chic – more the subject matter, a group of soldiers raising a flag over a ruined city.

“That’s odd,” she said. Henry followed her gaze.

“The original owners – you know they sold this place a few years back? I’m not sure quite what went down, but they weren’t too happy about the Il Duce stylings, so that turned up as a compromise.”

“They asked for it?”

“I think they asked for the trappings of Fascist Italy to be stripped out – given they were refugees from Mussolini’s regime, the idea didn’t exactly thrill them. Of course they couldn’t really do much because they didn’t own it any more, but they held enough sway with the regulars that it looked like causing some serious problems with staying afloat. So, we get that picture” - he gesticulated towards it with his fork - “as a… y’know...” The fork was back to circling again, more slowly now.

“A compromise.” Laura finished the sentence for him.


She looked over her shoulder again, and this time he followed her gaze. It wasn’t an obtrusive photo, really; prominent, but not dominant. It was an image one saw so much one barely even looked at it any more; a grainy shot of three men, in the distinctive round helmets of the British Army, standing on the parapet of the ruined Reichstag, raising the Union flag over Berlin.

For a moment – just a moment – she felt uncomfortable looking at it; not because of the legacy of nationalistic chest-beating that had become attached to that photo over the decades, but because seeing it here – knowing why it was here – stripped them away, forcing her to challenge her own assumptions about it. That was not what she wanted to deal with right now, not on top of al the other stuff she hadn’t already dealt with.

“Your lasagne’s going cold,” she said, putting her knife and fork together on the plate. Henry scooped up a forkful of congealing pasta, lifted it to his mouth, then made a face.

“Y’know,” he said, putting it back down with a clatter, “I think I’m done. Could we get the bill please, darling?”