..The Mouse 



One wet, windy day just before Christmas three years ago, I was on one my usual walks down at Hastings Old Town when I thought I saw a guy I hadn't met in almost 12 years.

The season's illuminations were strung all about, across roads, looped along the walls, drooped from lampposts, everywhere. Even in daylight the lights reflected and shimmered on the wet roads and pavements; so with all this around, it was surprising I noticed him. But was it him?

This kind of situation had happened to me before: you spot someone you vaguely recognise, they turn and suddenly it's someone else entirely. Even so, how often might we have missed out on a reunion with an old friend just to avoid the embarrassment of being wrong?

So the guy wanders dreamily out of this pokey little junk shop, whose window is solid with archaic military electronic paraphernalia (and a sleeping moth-eaten cat), and stops on the pavement right ahead of me.

I got a very good look at him as he stood there. He looked much older, thinner, sadder, than I could have imagined, but it couldn't possibly have been anyone else.

I should explain that I'm an insatiable street wanderer, and Hastings has been my home for eight years. So why hadn't I seen him before? I moved closer to him and said, "Hey, don't I know you?"

I gave him a moment to come out of his reverie, then he looked at me and said, somewhat listlessly "Oh, .. er.. hi ..er…Phil, isn't it?"

"Richard!" I said, "How are you?" I immediately regretted this habitual greeting. He looked terrible, as I said, gaunt and pale, his clothes tatty and badly fitting. I quickly added, "Still at the dreaded Corp then? What's brings you here?"

"Left the place soon after you," he said, " must be ten years now. I'm just down for the day looking for spares for an old amplifier." He smiled wearily and held out a big thermionic valve. "Just picked up this little gem for two quid." He was obviously well pleased.

The valve looked even older than me. "So what are you doing now you've left the Corp?"

"Nothing, really." he mumbled, returning the valve to its paper bag.

"Nothing?" I said, "Absolutely nothing?"

He shrugged.

"Well," I said, "This is quite a surprise. Fancy a drink?" I spoke kind of brightly, hoping to liven him up. He didn't respond straight away so then I said, "I know some damn good pubs around here, quaint and cosy. We can chat about old times."

"To tell you the truth," he said, "I'm a bit pushed, and it was a long time ago. What's there to talk about?"

He was right, but it was an odd reaction. He'd always dressed so well and seemed vigorous and cheerful when we worked in the Corp's tape department. Now he looked altogether neglected and run-down. As well as that, I had the impression there was something on his mind that he didn't want to discuss. Anyway, I was ready for a pint, and there was no-one else to talk to so I decided to try a bit harder.

I said, "Come on, you can't turn down a free pint. Are you by train or car?"

"Oh, well, OK then." he said, weakly, "Just a quick one. And I drove. Parked along the front"

So we walked the short distance to The Hastings Arms. I expected nothing more than a friendly chat, but we soon ran out of material. So I talked him into another drink and asked him what he was doing with such an ancient amplifier when modern gear would surely be so much more reliable. He replied that it was part of some equipment he'd inherited, then - after a third pint - he mentioned something about a huge project he was working on.

"Project?" I said, all ears.

He studied me strangely for a moment. Then suddenly he began to tell me about his dad. He said that soon after I had left the Corp, his dad had died and the event had left him stunned. He said it was recorded as suicide - an act, he insisted, that was entirely out of character. And because there was just the two of them, his dad had felt a sense of responsibility towards him and would never have even considered such a thing.

Apparently, he had been a physics professor employed on a series of short-term contracts to the M.O.D., researching magnetic wave theorems. It was only later, Richard said, after finding his dad's papers that he discovered precisely what he had been working on. It had all been top secret, but he soon learned from the papers that it concerned a joint project for the US and UK military, to find a method of swiftly transporting troops and equipment over large distances.

Absurd as this seemed, he said, it had been - according to the records - just when his dad was on the verge of a breakthrough that the whole project was shelved, ostensibly for financial reasons. But the venture had gripped him, he was onto something big - he'd told Richard this much when he was alive. So he set up the equipment in a spare bedroom and continued the work. Then… he shot himself!

Richard paused here. He was upset, even now, more than ten years on. He said that once he'd recovered from the shock, he took a long hard look at what it was all about. Soon, he became so intrigued that all he wanted to do was continue from where his dad had left off.

To begin with he was sceptical - but he had faith in his dad's technical integrity. And being an electronics engineer himself, he soon figured out the technical details and began to see how to put this amazing discovery together. That's when he decided to make a go of it. The next thing he did was resign from the Corp. Then he organised himself so he could survive on the small amount of money his dad had left.

He had to cut things very fine, he said, reasoning that if he could make it last until the work was complete and irrefutably viable, then he could sell the idea and become rich. So he'd spent the last decade on the breadline while developing and constructing this improbable device. It was sheer coincidence, he said before finishing his fourth pint and falling onto the floor, that he'd met me just as he was about to carry out a major test. It had already worked, he was keen to emphasise, in minor preliminary trials.

The only thing that puzzled me was when he mentioned me, especially when he'd been so reluctant at first. And why a coincidence? Anyhow, I took him home to recover. He slept the rest of the day and all night too.

He must have been zapped out. He was OK in the morning, though, and said he hadn't slept so well or long in ages - mainly because he'd been working so hard. Then he said he wanted to show me what he'd done.

Although he didn't know me that well, he added, I was one of the few people he'd ever felt he could really trust. All I could remember was that he'd lent me money on several occasions and I'd always spontaneously repaid. At the same time, he reminded me, I'd had some experience in physics - I'd once worked on the development of analytical devices. He then told me that he lived in a village only a few miles away. If only I'd got to know him better all those years ago, I thought, and kept in touch. And what about other people one loses contact with? Anyhow, after a quick breakfast we collected his car and set off.

It was a village off the beaten track where I'd never been before, though I'd passed the signpost often enough. The house was big, detached and secluded. He disabled the security alarms and led me into the hall and up the stairs. Already, I could hear an odd humming noise. We crossed the landing and, the noise becoming significantly louder, we entered a very big spare bedroom.

I could only gasp. It was more like a lab at the Cavendish when Earnest Rutherford was formulating his concept of the atom and experimenting with radioactivity. The walls were solid with piled up electronic gear, all old and rugged like military field equipment. There were tables strewn with what looked like ongoing projects and lash-ups with a chaos of wires and little modules everywhere, and heaps of components and papers with meticulously detailed diagrams of circuits and blocks and… then, through all this mayhem, there ahead of me (why hadn't I seen it when I first entered?) stood this massive arch of cables smothered in little silver boxes, each shining with several extremely bright coloured lights.

"What the hell… is that?" I cried, staring at this monster.

"Well," he said, calmly, "That is what I've been building these past years." He opened one of the units and plugged in the valve.

"But what is it? What does it do?"

"I want to show you something," he said as he strode around the room plunging circuit breakers which added another strange hum with every plunge. He'd really come alive now, like a different person. Several wall units resounded with rapid clicking like from the old uni-selectors in early telephone exchanges. Then he went to a small lash-up on a desk at the side, a panel of knobs and dials from which spewed hundreds of multicoloured wires that went in all directions. It all looked highly precarious and Heath-Robinson.

"These set the coordinates," he said, twiddling some very loose knobs with fine calibrations around them, "I'm adjusting them to the porch out front."

I could hear a creaking noise emanating from the big arch of cables, as if it was warming up or was being somehow stressed.

"There's a pair of 30 Farad super-ionic capacitors - actually a great stack of field batteries - in the garage that allow a brief 100 kilo-amp surge without blowing the transformer at the end of the street - and alerting someone to what I'm doing."

"At what voltage?" I asked, since it was voltage that killed.

"About 100 volts," he said, "not enough to do any harm should anything go wrong."

"That's 10 megawatts, though!" I said.

"Correct," he replied, moving some switches, "but only for two seconds. That's about five and a half kilowatt-hours, around 25p on the electric bill."

He picked up a ragged old teddy bear that sat on the arm of the only chair in the room. By now there had developed a weird faint-purple glow in the open central field of the arch - a little like those charged-up ornamental glass spheres that were so popular back in the eighties. "Now watch this," he said, stepping close to the arch and placing his foot above a foot-switch, "Ready?"

"I'm watching." I said, feeling slightly nervous of what was going to happen.

Then he pressed his foot on the switch and the whole house seemed to vibrate as he tossed the bear into the now brightly shimmering field. The bear seemed to hover in the glow for a moment and then vanished. Instantly, the glow returned to its former barely visible state - and the bear had gone. It wasn't on the floor nor behind the arch.

"So where did it go?" I said.

"Where I set the coordinates." He replied with a broad grin, "Let's go and see."

So we went downstairs and out onto the porch. And there it was, not quite on the porch, more on the drive. I picked it up. It looked unharmed. Could he have two the same? No, the piece of fluff on its ear was identical, he couldn't have duplicated that. Or could he have some conveyer mechanism that whisked it around the building across the roof, maybe, and onto the drive? But why should he do that? What would be the point?

"Can we do it with something else?" I said, "With different coordinates?"

"Sure," he said, "Why not? What do you have in mind?"

"A spider in a matchbox?"

"I can do better than that," he said, "How about a mouse in a cage?"

"OK." I said.

He went to the garage and came back with a cage the size of a shoebox. I looked at the mouse he had. It was piebald and had the skin missing from part of its tail. We went up to the 'lab' and he set the coordinates and I watched as he placed the cage, with the aid of an extending device, just in front of the glowing field. Then I went to the landing and looked out at the lawn. "OK." I shouted.

Suddenly, there on the lawn, was the cage. It didn't fade up or quiver or anything, but just appeared like a shot change in a film. And the mouse, the very same one, was absolutely fine, as if nothing had happened.

Then I said, "Can you send it back?"

"I haven't tried that," he said, "But if I don't touch the coordinates and just reverse the field, then it should work just the same."

Again, I watched the lawn while he operated the controls. And sure enough the cage with mouse popped out of existence as suddenly as it had appeared. As it did so I heard a rumble in the bedroom and when I rushed in, there was Richard picking the cage off the floor just in front of the arch. In spite of its tumble, the mouse was fine, as before, though the cage was broken and he pushed the damaged side carelessly together and placed the cage on the table beside the control panel.

So I told him it was the most phenomenal thing I'd ever seen, and how about we take a break and talk about it. So he shut it all back down to standby and we went out. An hour later, after a walk through some woods, we were in his local; he on orange juice, me on a pint of best with a well-needed chaser.

At first I quizzed him about how exactly it worked. When it really came to it, he didn't know. He'd followed his father's plans and had understood what each bit of gear was doing, but how in principle it actually worked was a mystery.

"But it works!" he said, "That's what counts. It works!"

When I questioned him further he admitted, very reluctantly, that he'd actually been through it himself.

I was amazed. "But the risk?" I said.

"I had to." He insisted, "I believed in my dad. I had to do it. I went to London, to Hyde Park. Couldn't really miss a big area like that. Lucky I didn't land in the Serpentine, but I was only a few yards away. I had to get the train back, of course."

"And no-one saw you appear?"

"Only a runner, a girl," he said, "she kept running but also kept looking back at me as if she expected me to vanish again. Maybe she thought I was an illusion, or that she'd somehow not noticed me as she approached?"

On our way back to the house he told me he'd already lashed together a timing device that would activate the system in reverse. Next time he went to Hyde Park, he said, he could return to the same spot at a predetermined time and be transferred back home. So when we arrived back he set this up. Then he adjusted the coordinates and said: "How about us taking a little trip then?"

"What?" I said, nodding at the arch, "Both together in there?"

"It could take more than us," he said, "a lot more. It's only small because of the size of the room." The humming was loud again now and the faint glow had returned.

I was examining and weighing in my hand a heavy transformer when he shouted, "Come on," he said, "It's ready."

There was no way I'd have agreed had I not been under the influence of several pints of best and chasers. As for Richard, he was cold sober. What could he have been thinking of? He set the timer, eagerly grabbed my hand and led me to the arch. I moved with some reluctance, but somehow was unable to resist his tug.

He placed his foot over the switch. I took a last look around the room, somehow sensing that I was about to die or at best experience something horrifying. To add to my acute apprehension, the mouse had escaped and was crawling across the control panel. At exactly the moment Richard trod on the switch, I saw those loose coordinate knobs moving under the mouse's feet - then half leaping, half pulled, I felt myself fall as though from a tall building over and over, still holding Richard's hand, weightless, formless, blackness… I was petrified, I must have crushed his hand to pulp, I tried to grab him with my other hand but there was nothing to grab, just nothingness…

Then, suddenly, soft and light and birds singing. We were suddenly sitting together on coarse grass surrounded by huge trees with parrots flying about and squawking. The air was warm, humid and thick, though deliciously fresh and full of buzzing insects.

"Richard!" I gasped, feeling dazed and gradually releasing his hand, "Where the hell are we? In a jungle?" And realising I still held the transformer, I dropped it on the grass.

"Something went wrong." He said, getting up, nursing his hand, and giving me a vaguely malevolent sidelong glance. "It's not supposed to be here."

"Seems like some place in Africa to me." I said, also standing, "Since when have the trees been in full fledge at Christmas time? And with parrots and… this is equatorial, tropical… it was the mouse…"

"What was the mouse?" he asked, gazing around and up into a glorious sky.

"It was walking on the coordinate knobs." I said, following his gaze, "just as we went through the arch."

"It what?" he exclaimed, now staring at me, "Oh damn, I'd forgotten about the mouse, it must have got out. The broken cage … Oh hell!" he frowned, then said, "Maybe we are in Africa…"

I said, "What if the mouse moves the knobs again while we're here, before the timer takes us back? How long did you set it for?"

"A couple of hours. I thought that would be about right. So we have to be precisely here in a couple of hours from now."

"And if the coordinates have been changed, then what?" I said.

"Then we're stuck." He said, "We'll have to get back by traditional methods. Got any dough on you?"

"A lot of good that'll be in a jungle," I said, "and the currency would be wrong. And what about anything retrieved from a different set of coordinates?"

"Simple." He said, "If there's nothing there then it won't retrieve anything. Otherwise it'll try to retrieve roughly the same mass as was sent out, maybe about 20 stone."

"So you could have a lion or a nest of tarantulas in your house in a couple of hours." I said, "Or a lump of tree."

"The chances of an animal is virtually zero." He said, "As for insects, who knows? And it wouldn't take a tree because of the energy needed to uproot it; it would have to weigh about the same as us even then."

"OK," I said, "So we'll stay here for two hours, and if nothing happens we make tracks to find out where the hell we are and try to get home."

"Right." He said.

So we waited.

After ten minutes or so we were getting a bit restless, so we decided to wander around a bit, making sure we knew the exact spot, and keeping a close eye on the time.

I said, "You ought to have set things up so it could be activated by mobile phone, and so you could adjust the coordinates remotely."

"That would have been the next part of the project," he said, "if I hadn't run out of dough… what's that noise?"

I listened. There was a distant wailing sound, like someone in distress. Then it stopped. "Some animal, probably." I said, "Let's go and see."

"We mustn't forget the way back," said Richard, as we pushed our way through some massive leaves and undergrowth, "Or the time."

It took about fifteen minutes of hard work getting there, but finally we could see a clearing with a little one-storey wooden house and a veranda with an earth road leading away through the jungle. The sounds had stopped again, but we could hear movement in the house.

Cautiously, we skirted through the trees and round to the front. Then we waited. Another wail. So we went from the side then up onto the veranda. The door was open wide. Richard went ahead and gazed in.

"Look!" he said, stepping inside.

I followed. In the room were two black men tied, each to two thick posts that were part of the structure of the house. They glared at us with expressions of what can only be described as horror.

"Why are you tied up?" said Richard.

They just glared.

"They don't speak English." I said.

"English tie us up." said one of the men suddenly.

"Where is he?" I said.

"He gone to get brother. They going to kill us."

"But why?" said Richard.

"He take our gods." He said, "We try take back."

"Your gods?" I said.

"In next room." He moved his head to indicate.

I went into the next room and there was an incredible heap of what looked like little gold icons encrusted with gems. I picked one up, about the size of a cigarette lighter. By my reckoning, it weighed half a kilogram. It was real enough. There must have been several hundred of them. I shoved a couple in my pocket and went back. Richard was looking at his watch.

"Help me untie them," I said to Richard, which he did, "What's the Englishman's name?"

"Calls hisself Lord." He said, pulling himself free, "Long time ago, we hear one man say Lucan."

"Lucan?" said Richard, "So this is where he ended up? My god!"

"You good men." Said the other captive as he struggled free and threw the rope aside, "We fine now. We ready for him. We go." They went onto the veranda, half squatting, listening acutely. Then the first one turned and said, "We come soon for gods. You good men. You stay away. Not safe." And they vanished into the jungle.

Richard ran out after them and towards our path, "come on, it's almost time, must hurry."

"But there's loads of gold and stuff in there." I cried, following.

"Sod the gold," said Richard, "We've got five minutes. Run."

It was a lot easier getting back because of the path we'd made. Gasping for breath we lunged at the spot where we'd first sat.

Richard just had time to take my hand and say "Just don't squeeze so hard this time, please!" and about five seconds later we were tumbling, over and over, weightless, in blackness and then… wham, onto the floor beside the arch.

But were we? It was all smoke. I was dazed. There was no air. "Quick." Shouted Richard, pulling me up, "Head for the door."

A big flame leapt up as we went through to the landing. Then there was an explosion and a great crashing sound followed by a huge whirl of smoke and sparks that seemed to chase after us as we rushed down the stairs. Richard dialled 999 on the hall telephone and just got out before the whole roof caved in. But we were safe out on the drive.

"Hell!" cried Richard, "Hell! Hell! Hell!"

* * * *

After the fire brigade had gone the place was almost unrecognisable as having ever been a house. Everything black and charred and mangled from the heat. Poor Richard was almost in tears. "Gone," he said, "All gone. All the papers, everything burned and gone!"

As we wandered over the smouldering remains Richard stopped and looked down, aghast. "The mouse," he cried, "That bloody mouse. It shorted the main power unit, look."

I looked. Poor bloody mouse, I thought. It was crushed across the terminals. "At least, we got back." I said. "It must have crawled there at the same time."

"It probably fell, startled by the timer snapping when it activated the system to bring us back."

I felt something in my pocket, two things in fact. Then I remembered the transformer that we'd never see again.

The house was insured, of course, and so was rebuilt. Richard is now working on reconstructing the project with new zeal. He's been at it almost two year now in the big new laboratory at the bottom of the garden with its own entrance and driveway. As for me, I help him from time to time, it's a short pleasant drive in the Rolls. Those little icons were 24 carat, and the gems were diamonds. They fetched 350 grand a piece, one each.

So now when I take a stroll down the Old Town, I think only of that day just before Christmas three years ago, and wonder… and wonder… and wonder…