The following is fan fiction written entirely for the enjoyment of those who watched the original series and not for profit of any kind. No charge has been made to view this material. All rights remain with the writer, producer, director and cast of Sapphire and Steel the original TV series.
by Jon Kenna
Grey clouds crouched over the land like oil paint daubed, in despair, onto canvas. Smooth, damp sand stretched into the distance, strewn with black seaweed and razor shells. It was quiet, almost silent, except for the gentle lapping of water on the shore.
“People come on holiday here?” Steel glared at the place in disbelief.
Sapphire had picked up a shell and was examining it. “They used to. These days most of them fly somewhere warmer.”
“Who can blame them?”
“In the first half of the twentieth century this beach would have been full of people sunbathing, swimming, building sandcastles…”
Tess trotted along behind. She had been on days out to places like this as a kid. At least she thought she had. She wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
“And him? He comes here to dive?”
Looking out to sea, Sapphire paused. “Yes. The bay is sheltered so conditions are usually good.”
“He dives alone?”
“Yes. Actually, he spends most of his time alone.”
Tess saw Steel shoot a glance her way. “Lucky him,” he said.
The beach sloped gently up to a low brick wall and what looked like a row of souvenir shops, slot machine arcades and snack bars. None of them were open for business. Doors were boarded, windows were shuttered. Discarded fish and chip papers spilled from bins. Even stranger, there were no seagulls. That’s why it seemed even more deathly silent, Tess thought. There are always seagulls at the seaside. Not here.
“What time of year is it?”
Steel’s lip curled. “Shouldn’t all these businesses be open?”
“No point anymore. No-one comes here now.”
“So they’ve just given up?”
“Not all at once. People stopped holidaying here. So, one by one, the cafes closed, the bingo halls and the cinemas stopped trading, the sweet stalls disappeared… It happened over decades, so slowly that no-one even noticed. Now it’s just a place where people used to come.”
Steel touched her elbow with a finger.
She looked at him, then settled into an intense concentration. Her eyes became even more vivid than they had already been. “There’s been a lot of laughter here. Laughter, happiness, enjoyment, excitement, even… love.”
Steel looked round at the deserted beach and the abandoned promenade which told a very different story.
“It’s all finished, though. The emotions I’m sensing, they’re all done with, ended. There’s nothing left unresolved here. It’s like a stage after the final show has ended. Everyone has gone.”
It was so quiet that they all jumped when the music started. Barely audible at first, it seemed to be coming from a street somewhere behind the empty seafront; tinkling, chiming notes like church bells but lighter. Tess recognised it immediately; it was an ice cream van. The tune was bright and cheerful but the tone was melancholy. It was getting nearer.
“Not everyone,” Tess beamed.
“Where is the man?” Steel was not keen to be distracted from the business at hand. “He was due to find the kaleidoscope. We need to find him before he opens it. So, where is he?”
Before Sapphire had a chance to answer, the source of the music appeared on the road at the edge of the beach. Slowly, it trundled towards them; an old Bedford van painted in pastel shades of pink, yellow and blue. It’s shape was curved and fat like an actual melted ice cream. Stencilled on its surface were drawings of delicious ice lollies of every colour in the rainbow. Emblazoned in bright red was the proclamation; Freshly Whipped Creamy Soft Ice Cream. On the back was plastered Slow! Watch For Children! The jangling tune rang out louder now as the van approached.
“Cool!” Tess couldn’t contain herself. “Shall we?”
“The kaleidoscope!” Steel hissed into Sapphire’s ear.
“What’s the big deal about a kaleidoscope?” Tess protested. “Chill out and have an ice cream. Hey, that’s a good slogan for the side of the van!”
Steel looked less than impressed. “It’s not the kaleidoscope that matters, it’s what’s inside it.”
“A while ago, we captured something; a force,” Sapphire explained to Tess. “It had been using old photographs as a way of accessing time. We trapped it between mirrors in a child’s toy and placed the toy on a ship that was due to sink and remain submerged for seventy-five years.”
“If that thing gets free, there’s no limit to the damage it could cause.” Turning away, Steel surveyed the horizon. “So where is the man with the kaleidoscope?”
Sapphire stood completely still for a moment, eyes glowing once again. “Not far.”
Tess looked at the van which had drawn to a halt. She didn’t see why they couldn’t find the man with the kaleidoscope, sort out the thing inside it, save the fabric of time and have an ice cream. Wandering up to where the sand ended and the road began, she took a closer look at the old vehicle. It was faded and a bit rusty in places. Clearly it had seen better days but it was still a beautiful, old thing. Amazing that it was still working in this day and age. On one side there were large, rectangular windows on which was pasted a chart showing illustrations of all the tasty items on sale. There was Lemonade Sparkle, Jelly Jumbo Ice Cream, Pineapple Mivvi, Funny Feet, Ice Warriors, Chocopotamus, Banana Twicer… It wasn’t exactly the weather for it but Tess reckoned; when you’re at the seaside… eat ice cream. In Britain, if you wait until the sun shines, you wait forever. She watched for the window to slide open so that she could place her order.
Strangely though, the window didn’t open. The van had stopped and the jingle-jangle Teddy Bears’ Picnic had been silenced but the window had not slid open. She squinted to see through the glass into the interior. There were big, white fridges in there, boxes of potato crisps on shelves, cans of pop and an ice cream dispensing machine with a big lever. No sign of anyone to serve customers. Maybe they hadn’t climbed through from the driver’s seat yet. Tess sauntered round to the front to peer through the windscreen. She could just about make out the shape of someone sitting at the wheel. It was difficult to make out whether it was a man or a woman as the head was bowed.
“Hey!” she called out. “You opening today?”
In response, the person’s head slowly lifted. She couldn’t make out any detail because light was reflecting on the glass. Whoever it was looked at her for a few seconds before starting to get up from the driver’s seat. Pleased, Tess went back around to the side of the van. She saw Sapphire and Steel still standing where they had been, a few metres away. Their attention was on the grey sea as they searched for the man with the kaleidoscope to emerge from the water having found a toy containing something that should never be released. Through the glass and between the stickers advertising a multitude of ices, she saw movement within. Something shifted behind a sign which read Count Dracula’s Deadly Secret, only 3 pence, Eat one before sunset! Finally, the glass window started to slither open.
It was a gloomy day but the inside of the ice cream van was gloomier. Tess screwed up her eyes to try to distinguish the person in there. All she could see was the outline of someone wearing a white apron.
“Three cones, please,” she said, “with sprinkles.”
The figure turned to pick up a cone then held it forward so that it was directly beneath the nozzle of the ice cream machine. The hand clutching it was thin and wrinkled with short, yellowing nails. Another hand, equally gnarled, reached out to grasp the lever of the dispenser. Soft, white ice cream curled from the nozzle and dropped into the cone where it slowly built into a winding pyramid.
While the three cones were being filled, Tess felt obliged to make small talk. “How’s business? Not many people about. I suppose it’d help if the sun came out occasionally. Not much chance today.”
No answer came from the person in the van and, as the third cone was nearing completion, Tess suddenly realised she hadn’t checked her pockets for money. A hand holding the three ice creams extended from the window. Tess licked her lips and reached out to take them.
Then, right in front of her, Tess saw the cones vanish. One instant they were there, the next gone. It happened so quickly, she almost jumped out of her skin. The hand that had held them remained, though. Abruptly, it swiped down at her, grabbing her by the wrist. If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. The fingers were colder than any ice cream, colder than anything alive. The shock of it shot through her entire body. They had her, those icy fingers, gripping her tightly and yanking her towards the van. Her mouth fell open but no sound came out as she caught her first real glimpse of the person inside that small space. Thin but broad with short hair, she felt sure it was a man, although his features remained obscured. He was certainly not about to let go of her arm. From the way he was wrenching her towards him, he seemed intent on pulling her right off her feet, through the serving window and into the van. She tried desperately to call out to the others but there was no breath in her lungs.
“There he is, Steel,” Sapphire was pointing towards the water, unaware of what was happening to Tess at the van behind her. “He’s coming out of the sea. That’s him. That’s Rob.”
She tried to pry the fingers from her wrist but Tess was powerless to stop herself being pulled towards the van. She was at the point of complete surrender when Steel suddenly appeared between her and the van. Hands outstretched, he placed them on the smooth metal body of the vehicle. The sound of old paper crumpling and tearing filled the air. Tess looked at the bony fingers clasping her arm as they seemed to become brittle and delicate like an ancient scroll. The entire van transformed into a two-dimensional image as though printed on old parchment which then began to disintegrate. Within a few seconds, the van and whatever it was inside that had tried to drag her in had crumbled away to a few fragments of paper.
“What was it?!!”
“It was part of a photograph,” Steel said. “It was brought here from a photograph.”
Tess rubbed her wrist. “It didn’t feel like a photograph.” She took a minute to get herself together after her moment of horror.
“You know what this means,” he had turned to Sapphire. “It means that it’s already free. It’s already out of the kaleidoscope. We’re too late.”
“Yes,” Sapphire looked shaken.
“You said the man was about to find it in the sea. It was about to happen.”
“That’s what I sensed.”
“Well, clearly it’s already been found. You got it wrong. Again.”
“It’s playing tricks, Steel. It wants to confuse us.”
“Then it’s succeeded, hasn’t it?”
Tess had never seen Steel attack Sapphire like this. She wondered why she didn’t appear to defend herself. She watched as Steel stormed off across the beach towards the figure of a man who was emerging from the sea.
“Are you going to let him speak to you like that?”
Sapphire flashed her a smile as if to gently tell Tess that she really didn’t know what she was talking about.
The man, wearing a wetsuit and visor, looked puzzled at first but then his expression turned to astonishment. He said their names over and over again as though he couldn’t believe it was actually them.
“Forty-five years. It’s been almost forty-five years!”
Steel scowled. “It’s been a lot longer for us, believe me.”
“I started to think it was all a dream, after a while. Or a story I made up. I mean, it was pretty unbelievable, what happened in 1979.” Water was dripping from his slicked back hair and his skin was flushed with the cold.
“This isn’t a social call,” Steel cut in.
As always, Sapphire softened the blow. “We need your help.”
Rob said that he only lived a short distance away and invited them to go there with him. His home turned out to be a caravan pitched at the edge of the beach next to a set of iron steps that led up to a corroded, old pier. One of its windows was cracked and several of its panels had clearly been patched up with old bits of wood.
“You live here?” Steel made no attempt to hide his scorn.
“It’s not much, I know,” Rob said, embarrassed. “I like it though and… well, I can’t afford anything else, so…”
“I think it’s nice,” Tess offered.
The inside was tidy but cluttered. There was a small kitchen with a sink, fridge and microwave. An old sofa stood under the cracked window and there was an ancient TV in one corner. Clothes were hung to dry on any available object and piles of books and newspapers lay around.
“I still can’t believe it’s actually you!” Rob looked to be in a state of shock.
Steel pressed on with his own agenda. “You’ve been diving?”
“I go diving most days.”
“You found something out there today?”
Rob blinked. “No.”
“What were you expecting me to find?”
“We know you found a child’s toy today, a kaleidoscope.”
“I didn’t find anything out there today.”
Steel glared at him, hotly.
“I found it yesterday,” Rob went on.
Tess heard Steel speak to Sapphire with his mind. Rob appeared unaware of this. “You said he was due to find it today.”
Sapphire replied in kind. “Like I said, it’s playing tricks.”
When they requested to see what he had found, Rob opened a cupboard and took out a long, triangular canister. It was pitted and stained from a long period underwater. Steel took it from him and put one end up to his eye. He then attempted to pry the canister open. Sapphire urged him to be careful but he carried on anyway.
“No need,” he told her as the thing opened up easily revealing three narrow mirrors. “It’s empty.”
Rob wanted to know what had been in there.
“Something very dangerous,” Steel said. “I knew it had to have already escaped. Things have already started to appear. Things from photographs. We’re wasting our time here.”
As Steel stormed out of the caravan, Rob grinned at Sapphire. “He hasn’t changed.”
Tess liked Rob. When he smiled like that he looked a lot younger, almost like a little boy. There were lines on his face though and shadows under his eyes. He looked like he had been through a lot.
“Do you remember much about the last time we met?” he asked Sapphire.
“I was blown away by you, as a kid. You were… are so beautiful.”
“Sorry. I’m not used to talking. I don’t see many people.”
“Do you remember Helen, my sister? And my mum and dad?”
“Yes. How are they all?”
Rob looked at the floor. “Gone, now.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I miss them.”
Tess felt for him. He seemed like a lovely guy, sweet natured but… lonely. She felt like he needed a hug or at least someone to just be nice to him. She didn’t feel she knew him well enough to do this herself but she wanted Sapphire to reach out to him. She wished Sapphire would say something warm to him, but she didn’t. Sapphire smiled and there was empathy in the smile but she didn’t seem capable of much more than that. Tess wondered what kind of person Sapphire was. Was she even a person at all? Next moment, Sapphire had left the caravan to follow Steel and Tess felt a flash of anger at her for doing that. She stayed with Rob and chatted with him. She asked him how close he had been to his family and he told her a little about them. He said they had lived together in a big old house that was almost completely separated from the mainland by the sea.
“I think that’s why I love the sea so much. Reminds me of that time. Best time of my life, just the four of us in that house, laughing, playing…”
“They sound lovely.”
In her mind, she could hear Sapphire and Steel outside on the beach, communicating telepathically. She wondered, with a snigger, if they knew that she was able to listen in to their private conversations like this.
“We’ve lost it,” Steel was saying. “It could be anywhere now.”
“It can’t have got far.”
“It’s still using photographs? It needs photographs?”
“So the ice cream van must have come from a photograph. It’s not like in the lost property shop or the dark room upstairs. There were hundreds of old photographs there. Here, there’s none. So how is it moving around?”
“There must be some here somewhere. Maybe in one of the closed businesses on the seafront? Perhaps there’s a museum or a book store somewhere nearby?”
“We have to find it, Sapphire. And fast.”
As Tess heard all of this in her head, she saw Rob reach into the cupboard and bring something out.
“They were great, Helen and Mum and Dad. I’ll show you, if you’re interested…”
She realised that the item he had taken from the cupboard was a family album. It was a thick book, stuffed to bursting with hundreds of old photographs.
Hurrying across the sand towards the buildings, Tess caught sight of Sapphire and Steel. As she reached them, she realised that they were staring at something. An object had appeared on the pavement near the row of shuttered businesses. It was roughly the size and shape of one of those old fashioned telephone boxes or an enormous, multi-coloured Grandfather clock. Its surface appeared to be made from some kind of fabric which fluttered in the breeze. She realised that the front of the tall box was facing away from the sea and had an opening at the top and some lettering above; ‘Punch and Judy’.
It revived a distant memory of a holiday she’d been on when she had been a tiny kid. None of her memories was real, that’s what they’d told her, but they felt real. She’d been in a push chair so that’s how young she must have been. And she’d been eating a candyfloss; pink, sticky, edible carpet on a stick. The Punch and Judy show had drawn hundreds of children who had all sat cross-legged in front of the elaborate booth to watch the puppet show.
“Wow! I didn’t think they had these things anymore!”
Steel frowned at her. “Don’t touch it!”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“It wasn’t here before.”
“So, who put it here?”
“Probably whoever’s going to put on a show for the kids.”
“There are no kids,” he snapped. “There isn’t a soul about. Why would anyone put on a show when there’s nobody here?”
Tess scratched her head.
Sapphire stepped forward to speak to her. “You’ve seen this before?”
“Long time ago. At the seaside.”
“A traditional puppet show associated with traditional, British culture or folklore?”
She nodded. “The puppeteer works the hand puppets from inside.”
“Inside the booth?”
“Where no-one can see him?”
Steel circled it, returning to his starting point. “There’s no-one inside this one.”
“Mustn’t have arrived yet, I s’pose.”
“Then we’ll just have to wait.”
Abruptly, Tess remembered that she had something to tell them. “I found some photographs. The man from the caravan has an album crammed with them. Photos of himself as a kid, his family, his childhood home, holidays… all kinds. You were looking for photographs, weren’t you?”
Steel’s eyes widened. “Holidays, you say? Seaside holidays?”
“Yes, going back decades.”
He turned to Sapphire. “First the ice cream van, now the Punch and Judy booth… They could have come from those photographs.”
“We don’t know if the Punch and Judy is made of paper yet,” Sapphire warned and reached out a hand as though to touch it.
“No!” He stopped her. “We don’t need to take any chances. Leave it.” Steel gave the booth another glance before moving away.
The three of them began to head back across the sand towards the caravan. They had barely gone a few steps before a strange, high-pitched, whining voice rang out.
“That’s the way to do it!”
Stopping in their tracks, Sapphire, Steel and Tess turned back to look at the Punch and Judy booth which appeared to have changed its position so that the front of it was now directly facing them. The stage section underneath the brightly lettered sign had been empty but not anymore. Now, a single hand puppet had appeared in the gap. Wearing a red, jester’s costume and a tasselled, sugarloaf hat, its hooked nose curved so as to almost meet its jutting chin. Its painted eyes stared lifelessly at them as it took its long stick and tapped it hard on the wooden stage of the booth.
“That’s the way to do it!”
Rob had done really well this year. For Christmas he had received a brilliant telescope which was now set up in his bedroom so that he could study the stars whenever he wanted. And for his recent birthday he had got a proper grown up camera, just like he’d wanted. He couldn’t believe it! As soon as he had arrived home after school that day, he’d started playing about with the camera. There was a spare film so he could afford to use one up testing out the settings; focus, aperture, exposure… He took pictures of everything he could find. Mum, Dad and Helen soon got sick of him bothering them so he started taking shots of the house, the garden, his bedroom, even his new telescope. He only stopped when Mum reminded him that he had homework to do. She and Dad were taking Helen up to bed as he settled down at the kitchen table and opened his school books. Taking a pen, he sighed and wrote today’s date at the top of a fresh page.
10th July 1979…….
He couldn’t believe that he had seen them again after all these years. Rob had all but convinced himself that he had dreamt those few weird days in 1979 when Sapphire and Steel had visited the house. Yet here they were again, looking very real. They even looked to have aged a little; a few extra wrinkles here and there, a bit more grey hair. He had got it into his head that they probably never aged but it seemed he had been wrong. Sapphire may have got a little older but she was just as beautiful as he remembered, if not more so. He had been stunned by her as a young boy and was still stunned by her as a man in his fifties. He’d probably spent most of his life subconsciously searching for an earthly version of Sapphire that he could go out on dates with and maybe even get married to eventually. Most likely it could not have worked; he was too much in awe of her. He would have spent the whole time following her round the place, gazing at her and sighing. She would certainly not have been used to that kind of thing, not having hung around with Steel all this time. He didn’t imagine Steel did much sighing.
Rob wondered if he could have made a go of it with any woman. Most girls would have found him hard to live with, he reckoned. He was so quiet and introverted that the odds had always been against him even talking to anyone of the opposite sex never mind actually having a relationship with them. He’d become like that when Mum, Dad and Helen had died. Strangely, he didn’t remember anything at all about that period. He recalled getting the devastating news from Uncle William. It had been evening time, the 6 O’Clock News had just finished and he had been thinking how late his parents were. They’d been due to pick Helen up at four then drive round to William’s to get Rob. The police came. There had been a car accident. All three of them killed. And that was the last thing he remembered for about a year. Someone must have looked after him, sorted things out, made arrangements… There must have been a funeral or perhaps funerals. Rob remembered nothing about any of it. It was a void. Just like that strange void that had replaced the wall of Helen’s bedroom when Time had broken through. Time had taken away his parents that night but at least he had eventually got them back. This time, they weren’t ever coming back.
He guessed he must have been walking around like a zombie that whole year. People said he had been ‘in shock’. Sometimes he wondered if he might still be ‘in shock’ to this day. He’d resumed his life again eventually… well, a bit. He’d gone to Uni and done quite well. And he’d got work; different jobs, nothing very high flying, nothing particularly long lasting. Everything had been a bit of a struggle. The extended family had been brilliant, especially Uncle William. But Rob had spent a year in a kind of numb daze during which time he had grown used to the silence of loss. It had been agony, accepting the quiet. But eventually he had and, from then on, had found it hard to cope with anything but quiet. So girlfriends had never lasted long, jobs had come and gone. He had found that his favourite things were the quiet things; reading, walking, diving, thinking… His mind was always full of yearning to get back to those days before the accident. He would trade the rest of his life to see Mum, Dad and Helen even just one more time. He had never had the opportunity to say goodbye to them. He ached for that opportunity, even now.
His thoughts were interrupted and he was brought back into the present by a sudden, sharp knock on the door of the caravan. He opened it to see a man standing there.
“This place yours?”
“Why, is there a problem?”
The man snorted. “No, I just fancy buying something similar and was wondering how you went about it.”
“Oh I see. I bought it from an advert in the paper. The plot is rented through a letting agency in town.” As he spoke, Rob got the feeling the man was not really listening to his answer. The smile stayed plastered on his face as though it were pasted there and his eyes seemed strangely glassy.
“Not originally from round here then?” The smile blazed on,
“No, I used to come here on holiday as a kid and always loved it.”
“Precious aren’t they; childhood memories?”
“Yeah. Anyway, if I were you I’d call the letting office…”
“I sometimes wish we could get back those days, don’t you?”
Rob shuffled awkwardly.
“Like if you could step into an old photograph. Bet you wish you could do that, eh?” The man put his booted foot on the first step leading up to the door. The boot was pristine, not a single grain of sand on it.
“I’m just in the middle of something actually…” Rob began to retreat inside.
“Who wouldn’t like to see dear departed loved ones again after so long?” The man’s voice had a lilting quality that was almost hypnotic. “Sometimes, when I’m looking at old photos, I’d give anything to be able to get back to the time when they were taken. I almost ache for it. Do you sometimes feel like that, Rob?”
An alarm went off in Rob’s mind; how did this man know his name? Something was very wrong here. But by then it was too late. His limbs had started to feel heavy and even his thoughts seemed to be slowing down to an agonising crawl.
“Do you have any old photographs like that inside there, Rob?” His voice droned on without giving Rob’s brain a chance to catch up. “Do you cry for your Mummy and Daddy over them, Rob, at night on your own when there’s no-one around? Do you wish you could disappear into those pictures? After all, you have no real life of your own. You haven’t really done anything with your life, have you? If you did decided to disappear into a photograph, I don’t think anyone would even notice, do you, Rob?”
Rob felt like he was falling backwards but his body did not seem to reach the floor. Instead, it kept falling. The photos from his album were all around him, tumbling over him like a waterfall of paper. He reached out for any kind of solidity to break his fall but he was reaching out into nothingness and infinity. He saw photos of his past flick by; family holidays, weddings, parties, his first day at school, Helen’s christening, playing in the garden, coming down a slide, his dad winding his beloved clocks…
The man was right. He did want to disappear into those photographs. He would rather his life was how it was back then than how it is now. And it was true that no-one would notice if he did disappear. Maybe that’s exactly what he should do. That was the last thing he thought before he blacked out.
When his eyes opened again, he was standing next to the big staircase in the old house he used to live in with his family. Everything was exactly as it had been. Even Mum, Dad and Helen were there, posing for the camera. Everything was perfect except… Except he couldn’t move.
Sapphire, Steel and Tess waited for the puppet to move or speak again but it did neither. Finally, Steel broke the silence.
“Who are you?”
The grotesque wooden head swept from side to side as though inspecting each of them in turn. “I’m Mister Punch! Everyone knows Mister Punch!” The voice was shrill and distorted, as before.
Sapphire spoke to them with her mind. “The puppeteer, also known as ‘professor’ or ‘punchman’ is concealed inside the booth and operates the characters.”
“So there’s someone inside that thing now?”
She paused. “No-one living.”
Steel turned his attention back to the puppet. “I was talking to the puppeteer, not the puppet.”
“There’s nobody here but Mister Punch!”
“The voice is produced by a device called a swazzle placed inside the puppeteer’s mouth,” Sapphire continued.
“Even Judy isn’t here”, the thing squawked. “Have you seen Judy? Have you seen Judy, children?”
Touching his arm, Sapphire gestured for Steel to look to the left where a group of twenty or thirty children had appeared. Kneeling or sitting cross legged, they looked up at the colourful booth in wonder. Their clothes looked dated but only from maybe forty or fifty years ago, no older. The same was true of their hairstyles; they resembled kids that Tess had seen in movies made in the 1970s. They had not walked here, ridden on bikes nor come with parents. They had not arrived here playing and singing like regular children. They had silently faded into existence apparently from nowhere.
“They’re not real, are they? They’re paper. Maybe you’re not real either.” Steel took a step forward. “Shall we find out?”
The Punch puppet began prancing about the little, fake stage, its painted-on eyes never changing the direction of their dead gaze. “Judy! Judy! Judy!” it shrieked. “Fetch the baby! Fetch the baby! That’s the way to do it!”
Nearing the booth, Steel stretched out his hand to touch. As his fingers came into contact with it, there came the familiar sound of twisting, tearing paper. Booth, Punch doll, children… everything disappeared. The seafront was once more nothing but a gloomy row of abandoned buildings.
“Easy as that!” Tess exclaimed.
Sapphire looked grave. “The thing that brought them here won’t be so easy to get rid of.”
“What does it want exactly?”
“To destroy Time. To trap everything inside a photograph… then burn it.”
They walked back to the caravan but Rob didn’t answer their knocks at the door. Venturing inside, they found the place empty. The album lay upended, its contents scattered.
Steel turned to Sapphire. “It’s taken him?”
“Into a photograph?”
“One of these. It has to be.” She began scouring the strewn pictures on the floor.
“No! First, look for matches… lighters… anything that could create fire,” Steel instructed them. “Throw them out of here!”
Once all potential sources of fire had been removed, they began to examine the photographs that had spilled from the album. They were looking for Rob.
“Steel, this isn’t going to work,” Sapphire said.
“It has to.”
“Rob may not even be visible in the photograph. He could be concealed by something, in the next room or the next street.”
“Because each photograph is a photograph of infinity? I remember. So we may never find him?”
She shook her head.
“We have to do something! This thing has been ten steps ahead of us from the beginning!”
Neither seemed able to make any useful suggestions. Outside, the sea continued its feeble lapping of the palid shore as a light rain began to pepper its surface.
“Are these yours?” A voice came from the open door of the caravan. Whirling round, they saw a man standing there. In one hand, he held a match box, in the other a single match. “I said…”
“We heard you,” Steel cut in.
“You really oughtn’t to drop litter on the beach.” The man was pretty average-looking, Tess thought; about forty, brown hair, blue eyes, pointed chin… He was wearing a nondescript canvas jacket, dark trousers and boots. He looked just like any other person taking a walk on a beach one afternoon.
“They belong to the owner of this place,” Steel went on. “You know him; he’s the one you imprisoned in a photograph. We’d like him returned, please. Before we put you back where you belong.”
The man increased the intensity of his smile. “Feels like we’ve had this conversation once before.”
“We have. Forty-odd years ago. We beat you then and we’ll beat you now. This time for good.”
“Forty-odd years?” The man seemed to be mocking them. “You said I’d be in the shipwreck for seventy-five. Not so good with dates, are you?”
“Why are you doing this?” Sapphire’s voice rang out, crystal clear. “You must know the damage you cause when you tamper with Time like this?”
Now, the smile on the face flickered and the brow furrowed. “Time tried to banish us, once. But we resisted.”
“Who is ‘us’?”
“I don’t, I’m afraid.”
“You know who we are.”
“As I said…”
Tess noticed Steel glance at Sapphire.
Sapphire went on. “You are… The Multiple?”
“Sorry, I’ve never heard of…”
“It’s pointless, lying. The Multiple are known.”
“Known for what?”
“For being abandoned by Time.”
“Abandoned and driven almost to extinction without even a chance to plead our case.” The man in the doorway was not smiling at all now and the hand which held the match had dropped to his side. There was a long silence. Steel began to move towards him but the instant the man saw this, he tensed and the hand with the match rose again.
“Maybe it’s because there is no case to make,” Steel said.
The man brought the match closer to the rough side of the box, ready to strike.
“Maybe The Multiple don’t deserve to be heard.”
Eyes wide, the man squared up to him.
“Can’t even call them The Multiple when there’s only one of them left. A single… solitary… pathetic… survivor,” Steel taunted. “Soon, even you’ll be gone.”
The man moved to strike the match.
“Unless, of course, we plead your case.” Sapphire spoke again now.
“You?” The match remained wedged against the box, unstruck.
“Steel and I.”
“Perhaps. In return for…”
“He won’t do it, Sapphire. Don’t waste your breath.”
“Let her speak!” The man yelled. The sudden volume of his voice made Tess jump.
“Tell us where the man Rob is, which photograph. Return the other things that you brought here; the ice cream van, the Punch and Judy stall…”
“And we’ll make a deal,” Sapphire finished.
Steel stepped forward. “No. Sorry.”
The man snarled at him and the photographs lying around on the floor began to swirl round and round in circles as though a whirlwind had caught them.
“Not here!” Steel shouted. “We might do a deal. Might. But not here!”
The whirlwind dropped as quickly as it had risen and the pictures drifted back to the ground. The man was glaring at Steel in fury.
“We retrieve Rob from the photo first… alive. Then, we’ll meet with you.”
“To arrange the deal?”
“Yes. To arrange the deal.”
There was a long silence, then the man swiftly struck the match against the side of the box and dropped it. A small, yellow flame sprouted as it tumbled to the floor. Steel scrambled to grab it and extinguish the fire. By they all looked up, the man had disappeared. A single photograph had landed, face up, on the table. It showed a middle aged couple and a young girl posing in front of a large oak door.
Snatching up the image, Steel scrutinised it. “This is the one? Rob is in this photograph?”
Sapphire ran her fingers over its surface. “This is a photograph of the Jardine family in the hallway of their home. Recognise the door, the hallway? We went there once, Steel. It was taken in July 1979 by Robert Jardine who was then thirteen years old. The older version of the same Robert Jardine, today’s version, now in his fifties, has been sent into the image… trapped in it. You can’t see him because he is on the other side of the door, he’s outside in the front garden of the house.”
Steel looked at where she was pointing. The door was behind the three people smiling for the camera. Tess tried to picture in her mind Rob standing on the doorstep of the house, behind the huge chunk of wood that was its front door, unable to move or speak. He had been through terrible things in his life. He did not deserve this now. She wanted to see him rescued and achieve some kind of happiness in his life. She wondered what Steel was plotting. Was he really going to make a deal with this thing, The Multiple?
“Can you reach him?”
In response to Steel’s question, Sapphire closed her eyes and began to regulate her breathing. She focused everything she had on the image. There was a long period of nothing.
It was an age before he answered her. His voice came through clearly but they could not see him. “Sapphire?”
“Can you move, Rob?”
“A little. A man came… he told me he’d let me see Mum, Dad and Helen again…”
“I know. It’s all right. Just tell me what you can see right now.”
“Our old front door. You saw it once, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I remember it. Are you on the outside or inside?”
“Outside. I’m standing on the front doorstep!”
“That’s fine. Just stay as you are.”
“It’s just like forty years ago when you got trapped in that painting, Sapphire. And when it made me into part of the foundation stone of the house. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“It’s the same, yes.”
His voice seemed to crack. “Except back then I wanted to be rescued.”
Rob’s last comment seemed to jolt Sapphire. She opened her eyes which were now pulsating with blue light. Steel too, appeared uncharacteristically shaken. He placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t think like that, Rob. We’re going to bring you back,” Sapphire said.
“Back then, I was coming back to a family.”
Tess’s heart broke for him. She knew what he was saying. In that long gone world of family photographs he had a Mum and a Dad and a sister, he had days out and family holidays, he had boardgames and birthdays and Christmas presents and watching TV together. The family he had lost was contained within those photographs; why the hell would he want to leave?
“I’ll have to go in and get him,” Steel said.
Tess watched Steel disappear. It wasn’t like a magic trick on TV where some guy goes behind a curtain or into a cabinet and doesn’t come out. Steel actually vanished in front of her eyes. His shape just sort of faded into the background and he was gone. The plan was that he was to enter into the photograph where Rob had been trapped, and bring him back.
For a while after Steel had gone, Sapphire did not react. Tess began to worry that she’d gone into some kind of trance.
“It’s all right, Tess.”
“Did he go into the picture?”
“How long will it take to bring Rob back?”
Sapphire met her gaze but didn’t reply.
Tess had a worry niggling away inside her. It was to do with what Rob had said about not having anything to come back for. The poor guy had lost his entire family in a tragic accident and had spent the rest of his life grieving for them. Because of that there was no next generation. He hadn’t got a partner nor any kids of his own. He was still hurting from the loss of his Mum, Dad and sister.
Half an hour went by. Rain started crackling on the thin roof of the caravan and tapping at the grubby window panes. Photos lay scattered around them; Rob and Helen at the beach, Mum and Dad buying ice creams, Rob playing with his precious telescope, Helen holding up her teddy bear…
“I can’t make contact with Steel,” Sapphire said, at last.
Tess had no clue what this might indicate. Was it like when you phone someone and they don’t pick up? Were they just busy and would get back to you? Or did it mean that the line had got disconnected? She was relieved when Sapphire informed her that she would try to speak to Rob to see if Steel had appeared.
“Yes, Sapphire, I’m still here. It’s quite nice actually; a Summer evening, lovely and warm. I can hear grasshoppers buzzing in the garden.”
“Is Steel there yet?”
“Can’t see much except this old, wooden door. Don’t think so.”
“Don’t worry. He’s coming for you, Rob.”
Walking to the door, Sapphire left the caravan. Tess rushed after her. Outside, the light was beginning to fade. Rain sprinkled their skin in tiny, cold pin pricks.
“He should have been there by now,” Sapphire told her. “Something’s gone wrong.”
A noise attracted their attention. Something was making a doleful, musical sound from some distance away. It sounded similar to cow bells. Peering across the shadowy sands, Tess spotted a dark shape on the horizon. The shape was moving towards them and she soon realised what it was.
She had often gone for a ride on a donkey when she’d been on holiday as a kid. Normally they were docile, furry things that took you on a sedate amble up the beach and back for a pound. She vividly remembered her sandy toes bumping up and down against coarse grey fur. By the time she had been taken up and down the beach, the sticky sand on her feet would have dried to powder. For some reason, though, the donkeys approaching them now did not seem quite so docile. Tess felt a distinct sensation of unease at their presence. She coaxed Sapphire back inside the caravan and shut the door.
They began looking through the photographs, wondering if Steel may have entered the wrong one. Glossy, paper pieces of the Jardine family’s past flicked past their eyes; two dimensional fragments of colour representing frozen instants of time, of life. Tess saw group shots of Mum, Dad and kids, Mum on her own in the garden, Dad in a row boat, Rob adjusting his telescope, Helen on roller skates, Mum on a ladder painting the ceiling, Dad fixing a clock, Helen reading a nursery rhyme book, Dad and Rob playing football… Scene after scene flashed past Tess’s eyes until one particular photo made her stop flicking and stop breathing. This shot showed a familiar setting, the staircase leading up to the next floor of the family house, but an unexpected subject. In the foreground of the picture, close up to the camera lens, stood the unmistakable form of Steel. Resembling an animal caught in the headlamps, he glared out at them from the photograph, frozen and afraid.
She shouted for Sapphire. Steel must have gone into the wrong photo. No wonder he hadn’t been able to rescue Rob yet. Jumping to her feet with the picture in her hand, Tess looked around her. She was alone in the caravan. Fumbling with the switch, the light from a single, swinging bulb confirmed that Sapphire was gone.
She stumbled to the door. It was almost completely dark outside now but she could hear the proximity of the donkeys. They were right next to the caravan now. The bells around their necks jangled but, louder than that, she could hear their rasping breath and see light from the van reflected in their round, blinking eyes. Their hooves churned up the sand and their slavering lips parted over greasy, stinking teeth.
Back inside, she slammed the door and leaned against it. One last check of the interior confirmed that Sapphire was nowhere to be found. Everywhere was now cloaked in darkness apart from the small section of the living area illuminated by the bulb hanging from the ceiling. She shouted for Sapphire at the top of her voice even though she knew it was a futile action. No response except the grunting of the animals on the beach outside and the unending clamour of rain on the metal roof.
Panting now, she grabbed a handful of photographs and skimmed through them under the narrow shaft of yellow light. Mum driving the car, Rob giving Helen a piggyback, shirtless Dad and Rob pretending to be bodybuilders, the whole family standing in front of the Christmas tree… And suddenly, there it was. She saw a photo of Rob’s parents posing in the garden. In the background, some distance away, semi-obscured by foliage…. Sapphire.
First Rob had been trapped in a photograph, then Steel, and now Sapphire. Tess found that she could hardly breathe with the realisation that she was now completely alone. Crouched on the floor in the tumbledown wreck of a caravan in some long forgotten seaside resort, she felt all hope ebb away.
She heard a sound. Not daring to move, she saw, out of the corner of her eye, the handle of the outer door move. She screwed her eyes tightly shut as the door slowly creaked open. By the time she dared open her eyes again, the man had entered and was standing barely a couple of metres in front of her. He wore the same drab clothes and his hair was unchanged but there was something missing. Where his face had previously been, there was now a blank, featureless void.
Tess wanted to look away but her eyes were locked on the thing’s face, or rather the gap where its face ought to have been. It was as if something had rubbed away it’s features, like a child rubbing out the face of a matchstick man drawn on paper. The man, it was difficult to think of it as a man now, stepped slowly over to her. Instinctively, she backed away.
“Leave her.” It was Steel’s voice, He was still inside the photograph but his voice was distinct. “You have no grievance with her. I’m the one you’re dealing with.”
The thing looked up but did not speak. Maybe it could not speak without a mouth.
“Tess, can you hear me?”
Her heart lurched as she realised that Steel was addressing her now. She thought it might actually be the first time he had called her by her name. “Yes, Steel!”
“You have to find the kaleidoscope. Find the kaleidoscope and…”
“It’s broken.” This time it was Sapphire, also trapped within a photo. “It’s unusable now.”
“Then we have to find something else. Something that contains mirrors, a prism.”
“There’s nothing like that there, Steel.”
“That’s our only chance.”
Tess could hear the frustration in his voice. With Steel, Sapphire and Rob all immobilised inside pictures, they were powerless. The thing must have planned it. She wondered what it had planned for her.
“Sapphire,” Steel tried again, “Sapphire, can you take time back…”
“It’s impossible from in here.”
“There must be something we can do! We can’t just sit here waiting for it to pick us off any time it wants to.”
“Maybe…” Sapphire’s voice trailed off.
“It might be possible to use something from within one of the photographs.”
“To contain it, you mean?” Steel sounded hopeful. “Yes, there’s a whole world full of clutter to choose from in these pictures. There must be something that will hold it. Maybe the young girl even had a kaleidoscope! Rob! Rob, can you hear me?”
“Yes.” Rob’s voice floated through from the third photograph. “I can’t remember if Helen had one of those.”
“Of course you can! You have to!” Steel snapped.
“It’s a long time ago!”
Tess felt for poor Rob. It must be painful for him to have to think about his poor lost sister.
Sapphire interrupted. “Neither child owned a kaleidoscope, Steel.”
“Even if they had, how would we access it? None of us can move around inside the photographs.”
“Something else, then.” Steel was not about to give in just yet. “What else has a prism?”
Throughout all of this, the thing with no face appeared to be listening. It showed no sign of urgency or fear as if it knew that that it was untouchable.
“The camera!” Steel shouted. “What about the camera that was used to take the photographs?”
Sapphire was not convinced. “Cameras use glass to redirect light to a single point. It might work but it’s risky. And there’s another problem. A camera is never shown in the photographs it creates. How could it be?”
“So we can’t use it.”
Steel fell silent again.
“There is one thing that might work.” Rob spoke now, his voice tentative.
“Something in one of the photos?”
“Yes. Something I owned when I was twelve. Mum and Dad bought it for me. I loved it.”
Steel was frantic. “Well?”
Sapphire was the first to respond. “A star diagonal, erecting lens or diagonal mirror is an angled mirror or prism used in telescopes that allows viewing from a direction that is perpendicular to the usual eyepiece axis.”
“Perfect!” Steel saw a glimmer of hope at last.
In the caravan, Tess noticed that the faceless thing was straightening its back and raising its featureless jaw. She wondered if she should make the others aware of this.
“Rob, is the telescope shown on any of the photographs?” Steel asked.
“Yes it’s on loads of them. It was my pride and joy.”
“How are we going to access it?” Sapphire ventured. “We can’t move!”
Tess could almost hear their brains churning over the problem. She looked back at the thing. It had moved a little closer to her. She jumped backwards.
“Where did you normally keep it?” Steel barked the question.
“In my bedroom.”
“One of us is going to have to get to the telescope,” Steel said. “How much movement is possible?”
“Barely any,” Sapphire told him, her voice straining.
“I can move my arms a bit,” Rob said “but it’s like lifting concrete. No way could I walk. Why is it so hard?”
“We’re intruders,” Sapphire replied. “We’re not meant to be here. People who were on the photographs from the start, the original subjects, are able to move around. But not us.”
How were they going to be able to do anything if they could hardly move an inch? Tess felt hope slipping away again. The thing was edging closer still. It wanted to trap her in a photograph like the others, she knew it.
Steel was gasping with the effort of trying to move but eventually he had to give up. “It’s impossible,” he murmured.
The thing without a face took another step closer to Tess. She could not back away any further, her shoulder blades pushed against the wall of the caravan. Slowly, it began to raise one of its hands.
“Sapphire, what was that you said about the original subjects of the photos being able to move around as normal?” Even now in the very jaws of defeat, Steel was still fighting.
“Within the internal universe of a particular photograph, subjects maintain the same capabilities they would have had in normal life, yes.”
“So couldn’t we ask one of them to bring the telescope to us?” His voice contained a flicker of excitement.
“Possibly… Not sure what their reaction would be though,” she said. “To them we’ll probably look like strange motionless ghosts.”
“That’s why Rob should be the one to do it.”
“What?!” Rob was alarmed.
“Steel’s right, Rob. They’re more likely to help if it comes from you. You’re part of their family.”
“I’m an old man. They won’t even recognise me.”
“You haven’t changed so much,” she told him.
“Oh I have.” His words cracked with emotion. “I’m so, so different. I’m the nothing like the Rob they knew.”
“I think you are,” she said. Her words were tender. “You’re the same as back then. Kind. Caring. Loving. Brave.”
Rob let out a sob. “I don’t know if I can. I’ve missed them so much.”
“You said you regretted not getting a chance to say goodbye.”
“This could be it.”
Steel was keen to get moving. “Is there anyone in the photograph with you, Rob?”
Rob sniffed and tried to get back his composure. “I don’t think so. All I can see is the outside of the front door. Wait… I think I can hear something from inside the house. Voices.”
“That’s them. It has to be.”
Tess did not want to interrupt but the creature had her pinned up against the wall. “It’s right next to me now! It’s going to try to stop you! Please hurry!”
“Rob we have to act quickly, “ Steel urged. “I want you to use everything you’ve got to move your arm. However difficult, however heavy your hand feels, you have to grab hold of the handle of the door. Use every ounce of strength you have, Rob and open that door.”
“All right. I’m trying it now….”
“Is your hand moving?”
“Not yet… Oh God, it’s so hard… I can’t”
Tess cowered from the blank face of the creature. The single bulb hanging in the centre of the caravan suddenly exploded, plunging them into darkness. She heard the throb of Sapphire’s mind as she tried to help Rob to open the door. Those eyes would be blazing with blue energy right now.
“It’s moving…” Rob called out. “My hand is moving… I’m reaching out… So heavy!”
“Keep going, Rob! Keep going!”
“I have the handle! I have it!”
“You’re strong, Rob,” Sapphire said, “Remember how strong you were in the cellar all those years ago? You’re the same now!”
“I’m turning the handle… I’m t,t,t,turninggg….”
The next second, Tess felt something touch her. The thing’s hands were around her throat. There was no warmth in those hands; they were cold as granite. They were squeezing her neck. She had assumed there would be some flash of light or some explosion of colour and she would be transported into some photograph where she would be imprisoned like the others. She had not expected the attack to be so physical, so animalistic, so primitive…
“It’s open!” Rob shouted. “The door is open!”
Steel sounded focused and tense. “Who’s there? Who can you see?”
There was a silence. Tess felt the life ebb from her as she gasped for air.
“All three of them are here,” Rob said.
“The telescope,” Steel urged. “Ask one of them to fetch the telescope.”
“Ask Helen, Rob,” said Sapphire. “Helen will understand.”
Just as she was about to pass out, Tess saw everything change around her. The darkness was gone and suddenly she was in a different place. She was in the large hallway of what looked like an old house. She recognised it immediately as the house from the photographs, Rob’s family home. A big staircase stretched up on one side of the room and an oak door stood on the other. There were people there; a man, a woman and a young girl. They were smiling and posing as if for a photograph. But then the young girl seemed to become distracted. The enormous front door was slowly opening and she was looking to see who it was that was standing there on the doorstep. Moving away from the man and the woman, the girl shook her long, blonde hair and clutched what looked like a rag doll or a battered teddy bear close to her. This must be Helen, Rob’s sister and the man and woman must be his parents. Helen peered through the open door and saw a man standing there. Tess knew that it was Rob; adult Rob, Rob in his fifties, Rob looking how little Helen could never have seen him before.
“Who are you?” Helen said.
“No you’re not. Rob’s over there, taking our photograph.”
“I’m grown-up Rob.”
“Wow!” She beamed with delight and wonder. Then she trundled over to him, standing just outside the front door. She put up her hands for a hug. Grown-up Rob could barely move a muscle. Somehow, using every last vestige of strength, he managed to move his arms enough to be able to touch his sister and cradle her shoulders for a hug.
“I love you, Helen,” he said.
“I love you, Rob.”
Tess felt water brimming in her eyes. Through it, she noticed another presence in the hallway. The faceless man was standing over by the staircase, hood pulled up. He had a box of matches in his hands. Putting the box close to his ear, he shook it and listened to the rattle.
Steel was trying to get Rob’s attention, urging him to get Helen to fetch the telescope from his bedroom. Rob was lost in the moment though, reunited with his family after so long.
“Steel,” Sapphire’s voice rang out. “Steel, no.”
“We have to get that telescope before we can trap that thing…”
“We don’t need Helen to do it, or the parents…”
“Of course we do,” he argued impatiently, “who else is going to do it?”
“You’ll see,” Sapphire replied and from her voice alone it was evident that she was smiling.
Taking a step away from the faceless man, Tess was surprised when two more figures appeared behind Rob on the doorstep. They stepped into the house from the cool Summer’s evening beyond the big front door. One of the new arrivals was a man dressed in a crisp grey suit, white shirt and a black tie with white spots. The other was a slender woman with wavy, fair hair and wearing a voluminous blue dress.
“This photograph was taken on the night in July 1979 when we arrived to mend a tear in the fabric of Time.” Sapphire said.
“We were on the picture?”
“Every photograph is a photograph of infinity. Yes, we were approaching the house as twelve-year old Rob took this picture of his family. You and I, Steel, hidden beyond the big, oak front door.”
The younger versions of Sapphire and Steel strode into the room the way they always stride into every room; with purpose and determination, ready to fix the problem, to mend Time and save lives. Sapphire entered the mind of her younger self and communicated the situation instantaneously.
“You understand, Sapphire?” Sapphire said.
“Yes, Sapphire. I understand,” Sapphire replied.
A moment later, the telescope materialised in her hands, summoned there from Rob’s bedroom.
Glancing at the creature, Tess saw that he had now set the entire box of matches alight.
“Here!” she called to the younger Sapphire to help her locate the source of the threat.
Sapphire acted swiftly. Eyes shining blue, she approached the creature, telescope held before her. The thing tried to escape but was being drawn towards the eyepiece. It clawed at the walls to try to stop itself from being sucked into the prism but the suction was too great. Throwing back its head, it let out a horrifying shriek and for a fraction of a second Tess caught a glimpse of its true face. It seemed to turn to liquid, swirling and turning like water surging down a drain until finally it was gone.
Tess felt herself fading out of the world of this photograph. She hoped she was being returned to the real, non-paper world. Her last sight from inside the picture was of Rob finally saying goodbye to his Mum and Dad and his beloved Helen. Not before Time.
Shipwrecks were no good. The last time they had dealt with this thing they had thought it would be incarcerated for seventy-five years but it had managed to get free in half the time. This time it would have to be something more reliable. Tess suggested a black hole.
Rob had on his diving gear. He looked brighter, somehow. Tess hoped he’d start living differently, have some nice times, enjoy himself, maybe find himself some friends, even a partner? He had certainly earned it.
“Will I ever see you again?” he asked Sapphire.
She smiled. “Anything’s possible.”
He waved goodbye as he headed into the flowing waves, a place he loved to be more than any other.
Tess and Sapphire turned to leave. Steel headed off across the beach, presumably to find the nearest black hole, clutching the telescope like his life depended on it, which actually it did.
FROM THE NEXT ASSIGNMENT…
The woman squared up to Steel.
“It is you! I knew it was! Are you going to try to make out you don’t know me? You know me all right. And I know you. I know you better than anyone!”