This is an excerpt from a story to be published in “Tales from Beyond Tomorrow!” Volume 2, coming from Excalibur Books, 2014.
The Day The Paper Factory Exploded
By John Paul Catton
An unusual title, you might think, from a man who’s spent most of his working life with banner headlines and cross-heads. However, I’m not writing this for my newspaper. I’m writing this in honor of the recently deceased Mr. MacLean … so I’ll dispense with the usual clichés and excruciating puns that we hacks adore.
Rodney MacLean was a good man. He loved his family, respected his friends, and although his tragic and untimely demise cut short his career at Hardiman’s, his colleagues said that as a customer accounts clerk – he was exemplarary.
To introduce myself, my name is Paul Hobbs, a senior reporter at the Chronicle & Echo, our county’s most successful evening daily – and this is my account of the extraordinary, unbelievable, but nevertheless true events of that summer of 1985.
The first time I met Mr. MacLean was in the dead part of a Saturday afternoon, a quiet part of a hectic day. I’d spent the morning in Northampton Crown Court covering a running story – a Building Society boss up for fraud, if I remember rightly. I was looking forward to the MacLean assignment because the story was what we call a ‘special’. A one-off; a good slice of human interest.
The MacLean’s house was in Oldthorpe – a suburb on the north side of town. Driving through the rows of crescents and peaceful cul-de-sacs to get to my appointment, the faint but unmistakable odor of money wafted from the front gardens and renovated porches. I found the address, parked my car, and cast my eye over the bright multi-colored objects flapping in the June breeze, some perched improbably on his roof, some stirring fitfully here and there on the front lawn. I crouched down for a look at one of the objects that was lying on the gravel driveway; it was an Argos catalog.
I rang the doorbell. A tall man opened the door, nudging away with his foot a small pile of free newspapers that still lay beneath the letterbox. He wore that vaguely bewildered look that most people have when they answer the door to a reporter; I found out afterwards, ever, that he looked like that all the time. I introduced myself and he invited me inside.
We sat in his over-furnished living room. His wife, attractive in a traditional kind of way, said she would make some tea. I looked towards the open kitchen door and met the stare of a small child, standing behind the door, fingers in mouth.
“Nice place you’ve got here,” I said, “in no hurry to get out my notebook.
Rodney MacLean nodded. He was in his early forties, I guessed. His gigure was still trim, no sign of mid-life spread. His hair was thinning though, brushed in long sandy-colored sweeps across his skull. He wore box-shaped gold-rimmed glasses that sharpened his gaze and disguised his long nose.
“Lived here long?” I asked.
“Not exactly, no. We used to live in Dotsworth – you know, the place famous for pies. We moved here about eleven years ago, I think. A bigger house, more local … um … facilities.” He had a monotonous tone of voice – the kind best described as ‘soothing’. “Still, nobody told us that things like this happened in Oldthorpe!”
“No.” I smiled, slipping the notebook into my hand. “Mr. MacLean, those are Argos catalogs on your front lawn, aren’t they?”
“And when you rang me up, you said they … fell from the sky.”
“Yes.” He snorted with embarrassed laughter. “Look, I know how it sounds, but …”
“Perhaps,” I said, pushing my shoulders back into the sofa, “you could give me some idea how it started.”
“It was early this morning.” He hesitated, as his wife Jackie arrived with the tea. She handed the cups out, put the tray on the coffee table, and sat beside her husband. “I’d just got up and was going downstairs to make the coffee – Jackie was still in bed – and I heard this … drumming sound on the roof.” Another pause. “I thought it was raining. That’s all … just rain.”
“You could tell something was wrong,” Jackie interrupted. “It sounded like hailstones, big hailstones coming down with loud thumps on the roof.”
“I got to the kitchen,” Rodney continued, “and I looked through the window and I saw books.” I nodded. Smiled and scribbled in Pitman as his voice climbed towards exasperation. “I thought it was kids having a lark, but they didn7t stop. It kept on raining catalogs for another ten minutes!”
“They made a thorough mess of our magnolia,” Jackie added petulantly.
“There don’t seem to be that many catalogs lying around,” I quizzed them.
“Oh, we put them in the shed.”
“Yes,” Jackie confirmed. “We put the ones that we could reach in the shed. We couldn’t leave them all lying around for the neighbors to see.” She frowned. “They’d think we’ve gone … funny.”
I collected a few more details, and finished the over-sugared tea they’d given me. Before I left, I arranged for a photographer to call the next morning, and Rodney asked if I wanted to see inside the shed. Well, I thought, I didn’t doubt his story but if the hard evidence was there, it was my job to cast the eye of the press over it.
We went through the back garden and I noticed that some of the more delicate plants did look in a bad way; stems snapped, petals everywhere, small bushes trampled. Rodney opened the door of a big shed, painted a lurid green. “There they are,” he said.
Inside, the beams of sunlight illuminated the floating dust and there was a sharp tang of creosote. Stacked in four tall piles were the Argos catalogs; stained, creased, but somehow very … ordinary.
“Yes, well,” I said vaguely. Rodney and his wife looked at me and I tried hard not to grin. “Yes, indeed.”
On a whim, I picked one off the top of the pile and asked if I could take it. They both said yes, with some delight. I suppose they thought I was going to rush down to Campbell Square police station and hand it over to their Forensics department.
I said my goodbyes, got back to the car and threw the catalog onto the back seat. What had made me take it? Was I expecting it to reveal the mysteries of the Universe?
Looking back, though, it did come in useful. My wife used it to order an exercise bike a few days afterwards.
The story made an ace filler. I’ve always been pleased when I can get my hands on a good special, because you can let the imagination loose and slap the corny lines and the puns in – a bit of comic relief for the reader. Lovely photo, as well; Rodney ducking in mock terror while his wife held an Argos catalog over his head.
Nearly ten days later, I saw Rodney MacLean again. Her rang me at the Star, asking for me by name, and told me that something else bizarre had happened to him. I made an appointment for him to come in the next day.
In the morning I met a couple of old dears for a fluff piece about their diamond wedding, and after lunch, at three o’clock, Rodney turned up. Reception gave me a buzz and I rushed down to greet him, then took him up to the interview room to talk things over.
“It was another shower,” he said. Rodney had a slack sort of mouth, and when he wasn’t smiling or talking, it made him look very tired.
“More Argos catalogs?” I asked.
“No, something different this time.” He reached inside the Tesco plastic carrier bag he’d brought with him and produced a slim, gaudily colored magazine. He passed it to me.
NUKE FOR JESUS! the magazine’s title declared, in hot crimson letters above a picture of a cross, superimposed over the planet Earth. I flicked through it briefly. It claimed to be the monthly international newsletter of the Inspirational Congregation of the One True God. Some loony cult from the States, no doubt. Its contents seemed to link current affairs to events prophesied in the Scriptures. I had seen it before, distributed free from corner shop newsagents.
“Did these … magazines … fall on your house?”
Rodney took a deep breath. “Well, I know this sounds barmy but the shower actually took place inside the house.”
“You mean they came through the window?”
“No, they … appeared in mid-air before our eyes, then fell to the floor.”
“Mr. MacLean, that’s impossible,” I said, a little curtly.
“I know it’s impossible!” His head jerked up as emotion flared behind his metal-framed spectacles. “I know that. But I saw it happen, and so did my wife and Eamonn, our son. If we can’t believe the evidence of our own senses, then what can we believe?”
Falteringly, Rodney told me how it happened. In the early evening on Sunday, Rodney had – rather ironically – just switched off the TV because it was the time when religious programs filled every channel. Jackie was in the same room, playing with their son, when a NUKE FOR JESUS! magazine fell, spreading its pages open at Rodney’s feet. He looked at it, then looked at his wife – then the magazines began to fall hard from every part of the ceiling for the next five minutes, making painful jabs on the body where they fell.
“Who have you talked to about this,” I asked, “apart from your immediate family and friends?”
TO BE CONTINUED
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