This is an excerpt from “The Elements of War”, a Dieselpunk/Weird War novelette from the “Futurist Manifesto” series of Alternative History tales by John Paul Catton. The story is available as an ‘e-short’, and is published in volume 1 of “Tales From Beyond Tomorrow”. Learn more about the world of the Futurist Manifesto here!
Auntie threw her rinds away,
To the lock-up she was taken.
There she is and there she’ll stay,
Till she learns to save her bacon …
In London, in the grim winter of 1940, there were two ways to survive. One was to do your bit as a plucky Londoner, to keep calm and carry on.
The other way was to fall in love.
That was the reason why Frankie was waiting in the Lyon’s Corner House on the Strand just before twelve, on a chilly Friday afternoon. He usually got there early, to make sure he got a table for two in a nice cozy place, and also to do a bit of reading. He wore his best suit, the one with the pockets just big enough to slip a Penguin Classic into. Today he got there in time to be shown to his favorite table in the corner, sat down, and proceeded to read while waiting.
He didn’t have to wait long. He saw her enter the café and stood up to beckon her over. She picked her way through the tables, smiling all the time.
“Hello, Frank.” She never called him Frankie.
“How are you, Liz?”
He held up his copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
“I’ve been getting on with the book you lent me.”
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s much better than I expected, to be honest. I thought it was going to be all maudlin and depressing but it’s jolly interesting. Especially the parts written from Septimus Smith’s point of view.”
She put her handbag and gas-mask case on the chair beside her and dabbed at her brow with a lace handkerchief. Elizabeth Hague, district nurse with the Smithfield Health Office, was really quite striking. She had an oval face with a clear complexion, eyes of an unusual amber color and rich, dark hair cut in the current bob and wave style. She looked adorable when she smiled, which was almost all the time; her wide mouth, her white, even teeth, her eyes crinkling merrily.
Liz had trained as a nurse in an infectious diseases hospital in Gateshead, Newcastle-on-Tyne. After her move down south, she had totally lost her Geordie accent, and now spoke in almost BBC English; northern accents, in those days, were too common for London society. She had applied to work as a District Nurse in London and had been stationed in Smithfield. Frank first spoke to her at a tea dance for the medical services at the Savoy Hotel because he’d seen her before, talking to some of the doctors and nurses at St. Bart’s, and also riding her bicycle around Smithfield. He’d asked her for a dance, they’d struck up a conversation, he’d invited her out to lunch, and that’s how it had all started. Romance was blossoming during wartime; Londoners knew they had nothing to lose but time.
Frankie took a menu from a waiter and said, “Let’s have some wine.”
Liz nodded enthusiastically. “Are you pushing the boat out?”
“Just a glass of the house white. Well, maybe two.”
He looked at the menu. “Good Lord. Beef and kidney pie.”
Her smile broadened. “I’m sure it’s still just potatoes and vegetables. Matron says that finding the kidney in a kidney pie is a bit like finding the threepenny bit in a Christmas pudding.”
“That’s a good one. Yes, and you’d probably have more luck with the pudding.”
After they had ordered, Frankie said, “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Virginia Woolf. I went to the Smithfield Public Library and looked her up.”
“I’m glad to hear the library’s still standing.”
“Yes, Jerry hasn’t got to that one yet. Anyway, I found out something rather interesting. Have you ever heard of the Dreadnought Hoax?”
She raised her eyebrows. “No, I haven’t.”
Frankie pulled the library book out of his briefcase and passed it over the table. “The Dreadnought Hoax, by Adrian Stephen,” Liz read from the cover. “That’s Virginia Woolf’s brother.”
“Yes. It turned out those Bloomsbury Set people pulled a bit of a wheeze on the Royal Navy. They disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and persuaded the captain of the HMS Dreadnought to show them around the ship.”
“Oh, they didn’t! Whatever for?”
“Apparently, it was the idea of this … let me see. … someone called Horace de Vere Cole, who was famous for his public hoaxes. Look at the frontispiece; that’s the Bloomsbury lot, with boot polish and turbans and false beards. That’s Virginia Woolf on the far left.”
Liz took one look at the black-faced and robed figure, white eyes wide and staring under the turban, and burst out laughing.
“The Captain took them all round the ship,” said Frank, laughing himself now, “and they spoke in a mixture of Latin and French and made-up words. And to cap it all, whenever they saw something exciting, they jumped up and down and shouted ‘Bunga Bunga! Bunga Bunga!’”
Liz was now laughing so hard Frank thought she might have to make a trip to the Ladies’. “Well I never,” she said. “Trust you to find something as queer as that.”
They tried to calm down when the first course arrived, and Frank lifted up the glass of wine as a toast. “Bunga Bunga!” he said, in a voice so loud the customers nearby turned to frown at him.
“Stop it, Frank! You’ll set me off again.” Liz tried to control her laughter as she started on the potted salmon.
After spending time on their food and discussing its quality, Frankie said, “Well, anyway, how about the Christmas Party?”
Liz nodded. “Matron says that it’s all right for me to attend.” She flicked a quick glance at his smiling face. “If you dare say Bunga Bunga I shall hit you.”
“Perish the thought!”
“In fact, quite a few of the girls want to come. The Smithfield Health Authority includes St. Bart’s, so it seemed reasonable to Matron to have one big party instead of several smaller ones. Get everyone together for a jolly time.”
“Safety in numbers.”
“In a sturdy main building basement behind the sandbags, yes.”
The main courses arrived and Frankie got to work on his pie. The crust caved in under his knife and fork and beneath it lay mostly air, but there was indeed meat swimming in the gravy at the bottom, and it did look recognizably like beef.
“I’m so looking forward to Christmas Dinner,” Liz said. “Real turkey! I can’t believe the Medical Board came up with one.”
“A rich former patient who owns a farm, I suppose. There’s a big meeting this week where they’re going to tell us what the menu will be.”
Liz went on, “As long as it’s not Snoek fishcakes, I don’t care. I can’t stand that horrible fishy stuff.”
“And what about whale, eh? Mr. Farrow tried to sell me some whale meat sausages the other day. He said I was lucky because they weren’t rationed. I told him I could see why they weren’t rationed.”
“You ought to be on the stage, Frank Cooper.”
“Well, it’s funny you should say that, because I’m thinking of doing a bit of a turn for the Christmas Party.”
“What do you mean?”
“Telling a few jokes. I’ve asked Wheeler if I can do a Max Miller act.”
“The Cheeky Chappie?” Liz looked at him slyly. “Don’t you think that’s a bit rude?”
“Well.” He shrugged. “It’s either that or Tommy Trinder.”
“Those lucky people!”
The time flew, and Frankie called the waitress over with the sweet trolley. “Fairy cake, pear tart or stewed prunes? There’s no ice cream today, and no Queen’s Pudding, I’m afraid.”
“Fairy cake, please.”
They both chatted away, with Frankie wanting to forget the clock on the wall and the shifts they both had to take later this afternoon, but he couldn’t. He sat back and laid his pastry fork on the crumb-laden plate. “Would you like more wine?” he said. “Live dangerously.”
Liz breathed out as a gesture to say she was full. “I think we’re living quite dangerously enough, thank you.”
“Liz … I really do appreciate you coming to the party. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Well, I’m really looking forward to it. Cheer up the patients. It’s the old Christmas magic, you know!”
“Have you ever thought about that?” Frankie said shyly, peering at Liz to watch her reaction. “Have you ever felt that maybe there was … magic? Not conjuring tricks, but real magic, in the world?”
“Angels dining at the Ritz, and nightingales sang in Berkely Square?”
She laughed, and he laughed with her.
“You know,” she said, “you remind me of one of my patients, old Mr. Kelly. He’s eccentric.”
Frankie’s eyebrows went up. “Me? Eccentric?”
“Well, you know. He talks about his dreams and he’s mentioned magic to me a couple of times. He keeps a pack of Tarot cards on the mantelpiece and he’s got some queer paintings in his front room, that sort of thing.”
“Makes a change from dirty postcards.”
They said goodbye with a quick peck on the cheek. After waving Liz off on her bicycle and turning to walk back down the Strand, Frankie felt both happy and depressed when thinking about Christmas. Eccentric, he thought. Eccentric! That wasn’t a word he wanted anyone to describe him by, but he knew Liz had good intentions. Oh well – he’d asked for that, he supposed. Never mind; he had other things to worry about.
His spare time to find a good present for Liz was running out. His main present wasn’t really a Christmas gift at all, but something special he’d planned. Then he’d saved up his chocolate rations to buy her a nice bit of nutty, but he needed something else. Something interesting. Something that would surprise her. A book, that was it. He would find a book that she’d never read before.
There was a huge crater in the middle of the Strand and the cars were driving gingerly around it. On the skyline, smoke was still rising from the direction of the South bank. Stepping over a pothole in the street, moving around the other shoppers and pedestrians walking along the Strand, feeling the heaviness of the pastry and stodgy potatoes digesting in his gut, Frankie was suddenly aware of how normal his thoughts were in this totally abnormal world. London was being torn apart on a nightly basis by a giant, faceless war machine from across the sea, and here he was daydreaming about bookshops and Christmas presents.
But then, what else could he do?
The whole of London was doing the same thing. Just as the bodies of the dead on the slabs at work had been blown into grotesque, eviscerated shapes, the lives of the living had been forced into new roles and routines. Everyone was now a ‘plucky Brit’. Everyone was now ‘helping the War Effort’. Even delivering the milk or driving a bus was a statement of personal courage. The lives of everyone in London were taking place mechanically, like the back and forth swing of a pendulum. Like a chess game in which every move had already been decided with mathematical precision.
On a whim, Frankie took a left turn, and entered the warren of little alleyways between the Strand and the river. Walking was something he loved; it helped him think and turn over things in his mind. Since he’d started going out with Liz, they’d taken long weekly walks in Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath, ending with tea and scones in one of the cafes. Before he’d met Liz, he’d regularly taken long walks around the city center to get the tantalizing feel of it, to soak in the atmosphere, the mystery. London fascinated him with its hints of staginess, of secret knowledge hidden in the architecture of the churches and the geometry of the streets. London haunted his dreams, and he haunted its avenues and alleys, drifting through them like a Dickensian spirit.
Just a few streets away from Frankie’s place of work stood Christopher Wren’s testament to the mysterious; St. Paul’s Cathedral. The massiveness of the stone interior, the Whispering Gallery, the inscription RESURGAM – I will rise again – inscribed on the south door … they drew Frankie’s attention and resurfaced in his dreams. What did they all mean? The statues of pelicans and peacocks, the cubes, pyramids and obelisks that colluded with the more familiar crosses and angels in the churches of Smithfield and Whitechapel – what were they all for?
The Blackout had made things even more primal, plunging London into darkness every night. Churchill’s boys in the press were trying to keep a lid on things, but Frankie knew there were burglaries and muggings all over the city. It was like the city had been thrown back in time several thousand years, to a barricaded cluster of huts with the tribesfolk huddling inside, guarding themselves against the darkness and hoping they would live to see the morning.
His perambulation today took him inevitably to one of his best-loved haunts, Cleopatra’s Needle, as if the obelisk were magnetized and he was a mote of iron that could not resist its pull. He sat down on a bench opposite the stone monolith, feeling a little flushed with the wine, the food, and his lady friend’s dazzling eyes, and stared at the obelisk, its stately dimension, its unreadable hieroglyphics, and the gouges and scratches deliberately left unrepaired after the Zeppelin raids of World War I. He breathed in the charred air, looked up at the sky, looked around him at the coat-and-hat wearing Londoners walking slowly along the Embankment, and let his tensed-up body relax.
Even Liz. He hadn’t even told Liz why he’d taken up the career of pathologist’s assistant.
But perhaps the time had come to tell someone.
If you’ve news of our munitions
KEEP IT DARK!
Ships or planes or troop positions
KEEP IT DARK!
Lives are lost through conversation
Here’s a tip for the Duration
When you’ve private information
KEEP IT DARK!
Frankie stood in the Egyptian desert once more, and he knew that he was dreaming, and he knew that he had dreamed this many times before.
He could smell and taste the dry heat and the mummy dust on the wind. The sun glared, flooding the landscape with a miraculous light.
In the distance lay a maw in the dunes, the entrance to a tunnel leading down beneath the sand. Frankie ran towards it in a loping, easy gait, bounding high into the air on each step. Everything was effortless in his dreams. He felt the warmth of the sun give way to shaded cool as he entered the tomb.
He reached out to touch the crumbling faceless statues that lined the tunnel, but their limbs had the dreamlike feel of glass beneath his fingers. A dim light shone in the darkness ahead and he grew aware of the pungent and almost overwhelming smell of incense.
One room was lit at each moment; the next room was dark but prepared. He walked from one to another, looked into the chamber that was lit, and then walked through it to the next, the chamber falling dark behind him. He did not know the rooms ahead, but he knew that he could not change them. There was also the awareness that he was not alone; he felt the presence of anonymous figures, left behind in darkened rooms.
Eventually he came out into a vast cavern, lined with massive statues, seated figures like the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. Their heads were not human, but jackals, hawks, crocodiles, and scarab beetles.
The statue nearest to him turned its jackal head towards him, the grinding sound of stone breaking the cold, incense-laden silence.
–I am the flame that burns in every heart of man, the statue whispered, and in the core of every star.
Frankie felt the words bubble up in his mind and opened his mouth to let them out.
-I am Life, and the Giver of Life, yet therefore is the knowledge of me the knowledge of death, he replied.
The jackal-headed god lifted up his arm and gestured to the left. Another door stood open, a light softly glowing. His head high, Frankie walked forward and entered the chamber.
He entered a vast chamber with a smooth floor of tiles, black and white, in alternating squares. Before him was a low altar on which was placed orchids, candles, incense, a chalice, and dishes of salt, bread and water. On either side of the chamber were statues of more seated gods.
Behind the altar, lying on stone slabs and receding into the distance, were the bodies of the dead. ARP Wardens, firemen, ambulance crews, old men, teenage girls, housewives, mothers, fathers. The wounds gaped open, distended with blood and burned flesh. Severed heads were laid next to their limbless trunks, freed from the mortal constraint of organic unity, waiting for the promised afterlife to begin. Frankie looked upon them, seeing the rows fade into the distance, the darkness of a chamber that had no end.
Again, he heard the whisper of the jackal-headed god behind him. – In the Sign of the Lion thou shall be purified, and in the Letter of Judgment thou shall be consecrated. Thou hast a task to perform, O man, for the Fraternity of the Inner Light.
From the darkness at the other end of the chamber came a golden radiance, like the dawn of a new day in the desert above. The light grew and warmed everything in the chamber around him …
And the mouths of the dead all began to scream; the vibrant, shattering howl of the air raid sirens.
TO BE CONTINUED IN …
“THE ELEMENTS OF WAR!”
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