“I hesitate to awaken you at such an hour, sir, but I have discovered something most disturbing.”
I opened a lassitudinous eye. “What time is it, Reeves?”
“Ten o’clock, sir.”
“Is there a dead body in the library?”
“Then come back at eleven.”
I rolled over, nestling back down into the comforting folds of the Worcester bed.
Reeves coughed — one of his portentous coughs that suggested a nearby asteroid was on an imminent collision course.
“What is it, Reeves?” I muttered peevishly into the pillow.
“There appears to be a problem with the timeline, sir.”
I sat up swiftly — a tad too swiftly for a chap who’d been partying into the early hours at the Four Hundred Club. It felt as if the rag time band from the previous night had followed me home and were now practising inside my cranium.
“I think your hangover cure is required, Reeves.”
“I had anticipated such an eventuality, sir,” said Reeves, looming by my bedside with a tray. He handed me a glass.
I blinked. Reeves’ pick-me-up was usually a fiery red in colour and steamed in a reassuring fashion. This one looked more like a cocktail.
I took a tentative sip. Not only was it a cocktail, but Reeves had been decidedly generous with the gin. I looked inquiringly at my valet.
“It’s the hair of the dog, sir.”
I noticed he had another two glasses on his tray. “Large dog, was it?”
“Indeed, sir. The situation calls—”
I had to interrupt him. “Reeves, there are drums playing eight to the bar between my ears. This is not the time for hirsute canines.”
“If I may explain, sir. You will recall that on previous occasions when the timeline has changed, people’s memories were rewritten to reflect those changes. The only memories unaffected were those of a mechanical nature — such as mine — and those fortified with sufficient alcoholic lubrication to resist the aforesaid modifications.”
All became clear. Last year HG Wells’ aunt stole his time machine and played havoc with the Middle Ages. She’d even married Henry VIII, which Reeves informed me was frowned upon in all editions of the Time Travellers’ Handbook. Temporal visitors were advised to tread softly and limit their interaction with the native populations — especially the butterflies who, according to Reeves, could whip up a tornado from a single flap of a disgruntled wing.
The only way I’d managed to keep abreast of the changing timeline was by frequent alcoholic libation. The police, not being allowed to drink on duty, hadn’t had a clue to what was happening.
“Who’s she married this time?” I asked.
“If you are referring to Mr. Wells’ Aunt Charlotte, sir, the answer is no one. This particular temporal problem appears to be of an entirely different nature. Not so much the past being rewritten as the present repeating.”
“Today is Friday, sir, the second of February, nineteen hundred and six. As was yesterday and the day before that. At first I thought my internal clock was malfunctioning, but I have performed extensive tests and rebooted all my subroutines. We appear to be mired within a time loop.”
“A time loop?”
“Indeed, sir. All the day’s events are repeating themselves. No one, with the exception of myself, appears to have noticed.”
I drained my glass and reached for the second. I had scant recollection what day it was at the best of times. Did it feel like a Friday?
“Do you recall a telephone conversation with your aunt requesting your attendance at Stumpley Bagpuss this weekend, sir?”
I did not. And telephone calls from aunts were not something one easily forgot.
“Was it a deathly summons or a friendly invitation, Reeves?”
“A summons, sir. For both you and Miss Emmeline. Mrs Onslow expressed a wish to discuss the matter of your forthcoming nuptials.”
This was not good. Not good at all. No wonder the calendar had had second thoughts about turning the page.
I drained the second glass. I still had no recollection of this telephone call and if anyone’s brain should have been alcoholically fortified it was mine. I’d had several cocktails and a bot or two of Burgundy’s finest the night before. I should have been at my peak of alcoholic fortitude.
“When did I go to the Four Hundred Club, Reeves? It was last night, wasn’t it?”
“That was Thursday night, sir. On the last two nights — which were both Fridays — you dined with Miss Emmeline and her family.”
Again the Worcester memory cupboard was bare. I hadn’t seen Emmie’s family in weeks. I reached for the third glass.
“Are you certain of all this, Reeves? Gippy Gipperswick hasn’t slipped you a fiver to play a prank on the young master, has he?”
“No, sir. I have laid out your clothes. The telephone call from your aunt will commence in seven and one half minutes.”
The telephone rang exactly as Reeves predicted. The stentorian tones of Aunt Fuschia boomed down the line, dislodging all the starlings from every telephone wire between Stumpley Bagpuss and London.
I moved the ear piece a further inch or so away from my ear. Aunt Fuschia, whose “View Halloo!” could be heard from several counties away during her fox-hunting days, was in far too good a voice for a chap with delicate grey cells.
“What ho, ancient relative,” I replied. “Did you speak to Reeves earlier?”
“No, I did not speak to Reeves earlier. Now stop babbling and listen. Your presence is required at the Hall tomorrow evening to discuss your wedding. I take it the girl hasn’t come to her senses yet and given you the elbow?”
“No, aunt. The church is booked and the bishop is straining in the stalls, awaiting the off.”
A disapproving hum came down the line, whether from Aunt Fuschia or a peeved starling I wasn’t quite sure.
“What on earth this Evelyn girl sees in you escapes me. She can see, can’t she?”
“Perfectly, and Miss Dreadnought’s name is Emmeline not Evelyn.”
“Is it? Well, be certain you bring her with you tomorrow. We will expect you both at five. There will be twelve for dinner.”
The line went dead. Twelve? There’d never been twelve at the Stumpley Bagpuss trough before. Aunt Fuschia abhorred large dinner parties. Were the whole family going to be there? Maybe a small flotilla of Dreadnoughts?
And twelve sounded far too much like a jury.
“I don’t like this, Reeves.” I said. “Does anything else portentous happen today?”
“Later this morning, sir, Miss Emmeline will express considerable concern about this evening. An invitation has been extended to the two of you to dine with her family. Apparently her great aunt and uncle from the principality of Wales will be there.”
“Ghastly, are they?”
“Miss Emmeline finds them disconcerting, sir. They have an uncompromising religious perspective and rather strong views on temperance. Miss Emmeline’s mother holds their opinion in very high esteem.”
“When you say temperance, you don’t mean they’re teetotallers?”
“I do, sir. Your evening will be an exceedingly ‘dry’ one.”
“Do I survive it? Presumably you’ve seen me come home twice from this fiasco?”
“I have never seen you return, sir.”
“You haven’t? I can’t see a dinner party at the Dreadnoughts lasting beyond eleven. The last time I went, half the family were nodding off by ten.”
The Worcester grey cells boggled. Had I stopped off somewhere on the way home? Or had something unexpected happened at dinner?