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.
PART FIVE AVAILABLE HERE 7.00pm TUESDAY