by Tom Anderson
Welcome to the latest in our series of first chapters showcasing our books. Today, we have Not An English Word, by Tom Anderson
HE’S BACK IN TOWN
With the Liberal Democrats facing electoral annihilation, Nick Clegg resorts to desperate measures. He plots to use a forbidden Celtic ritual to resurrect one of the Victorian Prime Ministers who made the Liberal Party great. But he gets more than he bargained for when a mysterious MP named Harry Church appears on the scene to turn British politics – and the world – upside down…
Featuring creative live news subtitles, the importance of choosing a cheap colour dye for cult outfits, penguins in microwaves and the Second Crimean War.
This book can be enjoyed alone but also comes with a soundtrack: each chapter has a suggested, thematically related song in a footnote which may be played alongside it to enhance the reading experience.
Prologue March 27th, 2016
The spring rain beat down pitilessly upon the pleasant hills and fields of Wiltshire. They cared not. The innocent-looking grass, criss-crossed with roads and fenced into neat pastures, lay atop not merely soil but vast deposits of chalk, chalk that would drain away the watery assault before it could settle. All those compacted skeletons of tiny little creatures from the ancient world...Wiltshire had known the endless deeps of time long before humans had walked the earth. It had owned many names. What the Romans and the Atrebates had named the land they had warred over was now not even remembered by anyone, perhaps, the land itself. Centuries later, King Cynric of Wessex had won the land for the Anglo-Saxons and named it Wiltunascir. Centuries more of conquests and counter-conquests had followed, as Vikings and their sophisticated Norman cousins followed in the footsteps of those who had come before. The language was buffeted back and forth by the tides of time and Wiltunascir became Wiltshire. It is debatable whether the land itself cared. It knew it would exist long after the folk currently laying claim to it had passed into history, then legend, then myth.
Though the days were growing lighter, the rain was now illuminated not by natural light but by the shining beams of two powerful headlamps. Individual drops danced in the glow for a moment before passing into memory, as ephemeral as human lives.
Now the big machine casting the light could be discerned. Cresting a hill, cautiously moving up a hilly B-road to prevent aquaplaning even in the fleeting puddles of water, was a four-by-four. A sensible vehicle for this weather. It was not one of the fashionable, expensive vehicles of the poseur, manufactured in Germany by designers who had sold their soul to the cult of vogue and designed through gritted teeth vehicles that merely looked as though they could safely handle off-roading. No, this was a tough, ageing Land Rover of the type now too embarrassingly practical to see on urban roads.
But then, this was about as far from urban as one could get in south-west England, regardless of how many Scots or Scandinavians would laugh at the description of this countryside as rural. It had walls and roads and pastures, after all! Regardless, it seemed remote to the driver as he carefully manoeuvred his vehicle around the next corner. He did not bother to consult his road atlas, never having gotten into the satnav habit. He knew these roads fairly well, even if most of his business had historically been one county over in Somerset.
Historically. He narrowed his eyes in emotion for a moment, without ever taking his eyes off the road. That was the word. All he had worked for, all his achievements...all history.
But he had never been the maudlin sort. To distract himself, he flicked on the reassuringly solid radio dial, none of these newfangled buttons on the steering wheel where you could accidentally turn off the life support on the International Space Station if you weren’t careful. He attempted to hit the memory button for Radio 2, but after a brief blast of static realised he had tapped the tuning search rocker by accident. The radio soon found a signal, however, and the driver winced for a moment lest he have his ears violated by something loud and unpleasant.
He needn’t have worried. “—FM” said the announcer mid-sentence. “And up next we have a request from, hmm, Nick C. in Sheffield...”
The driver, who had been listening idly, suddenly sat bolt upright. He slightly revved the engine as his foot slipped marginally, startling a damp pheasant which had been giving his Land Rover a bemused look.
“Yes, it’s a Chris de Burgh song, but hmm, not one of our more requested ones, really had to dig the CD out on this one, folks,” Fake laughter. “Sure you wouldn’t prefer ‘Lady in Red’ or something, Nick? No? Well, here we go then with ‘The Leader Trilogy’ Chris de Burgh, from the 1986 album ‘Into the Light’.”
Nineteen eighty-six. There was a year. Chernobyl. The Challenger disaster. Those were the things everyone remembered. Not everyone remembered speaking against Reagan’s F-111 bombing of Libya from British bases with the consent of the Thatcher Government, or long nights patiently working away on the printing workshop to ensure a miracle would not be a flash in the pan. But that was what the driver thought of. His reverie distracted him for a moment, and the words of the song slid through his subconscious like an assassin’s blade.
The driver narrowed his eyes once more. Almost reluctantly, he craned his neck slightly to the right—for what he knew was coming. He did not need to consult a map or compass to know what direction north-west lay in. Even without his orienteering training in his youth, his ultimate destination was visible by now. The hill loomed up before him.
Over his shoulder was the distant glow of Salisbury, its city lights battling against the gloomy rain. But there was another light, a light that should not be, a light that afforded no explanation. Atop the hill, now ever closer, the glow shone out into the night.
The driver ran out of road. He turned the keys in the ignition perhaps a little more rapidly than was necessary, cutting off the song. Perhaps he was afraid of what he might hear next.
Those Scots and Scandinavians really would be laughing. The hill was hardly as remote as it had once been. There was a tiny private airfield, even a Land Rover dealership—now there was an irony. But there were still hidden nooks and crannies. The driver pulled up the hood of his anorak, donned his good walking boots that resisted water as well as wellies, locked the door behind him and set out.
His birth certificate would have informed a curious observer of two things: his name was Jeremy, and he was seventy-five years old. Many would have been surprised to learn the first, and everyone would have been surprised to learn the second, for he clambered up the rougher patches of the hill like a man half his age. He followed the glow, though he already knew the way, having learned it long ago. Now that glow was distinct enough to take on a perceptible colour. It was a rich shade of fluorescent orange, almost but not quite evocative of a sodium lamp-post. For a moment ‘Jeremy’ indulged himself in the fantasy of some dreadful ‘modern’ update of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which replaced the old Victorian lantern with a modern lamp-post in the middle of a remote forest. He smiled briefly before his expression of concern returned.
It was a closely guarded secret that there were standing stones up here. They were easier to conceal than one might think. The hill was already covered in chronologically later ruins, some of them signposted by archaeologists. It was always easier to hide a painting in an art gallery, or a corpse in a morgue (‘Jeremy’ winced at the latter choice of metaphor). Besides, the circle did not sit out on the open hillside, but the stones had been partly covered up by the Normans’ motte-and-bailey building activities, and were only visible from a small inlet in the hill. Thus they had escaped the fate of nearby Stonehenge or even Avebury, coated in graffiti, bigged up by disappointed American tourists and surrounded by neo-pagans whom the original druids would probably have quite happily sacrificed after spending five minutes in the same room.
No, this circle was secret, and it was secret for a very important reason. It did not appear on Ordnance Survey maps. This might seem like the act of some vast and all-seeing conspiracy to the Englishman who treated the Ordnance Survey’s products as being copied from tablets granted by divine providence, but in fact was very easily explained when one considered whom had served as Master-General of the Ordnance for many years.
Now ‘Jeremy’ moved stealthily. As before, his age was not apparent as he crept up to the sole entrance of the hidden haven of the stones. The rain continued to conceal his profile as he carefully examined his surroundings and risked one glance around the corner—
“There you are,” said a familiar voice. “I was worried you weren’t going to come.”
Paddy Ashdown looked around the inlet and sighed. It was even worse than he’d expected. He’d predicted there would be at least a dozen of them; in fact there were closer to twenty. He’d expected the occult paraphernalia so beloved by the youth who first learned of the secret, and indeed it looked like a rejected scene from some edgier ripoff of Harry Potter. He’d even predicted the loaves of bread carefully placed atop each of the stones half-embedded in the side of the hill, though the Kit-kat biscuits placed on top of the loaves was a bit of a surprise.
But he hadn’t predicted what they would be wearing.
“Are you out of your tiny mind, Nick?” Paddy said tiredly. He looked back and forth around the tiny, crowded clearing. “They don’t even match.”
Nick Clegg pulled the triangular orange hood from his head, his usual slightly pained expression turning defensive. “It’s not my fault if people can’t follow simple instructions!”
“For the record, the local shop was all out of Pantone 1235C,” said a muffled voice behind a more buff-coloured hood which sounded suspiciously like David Laws.
“And besides, have you seen the prices of that stuff?” asked Probably Danny Alexander from inside a cone of hi-vis jacket-coloured luminous yellow.
“Quite apart from that,” Paddy said patiently, “what on earth made you think that dressing up like Klansmen would improve perceptions of the Liberal Democrats?”
“Well, of course there are some negative connotations,” Clegg conceded, wincing as he emphasised the words, “but I mean it is an acceptable cultural garment in parts of Spain, and on the whole I felt it was a must, really, given the whole atmosphere this thing demands, and, and...”
“And he really enjoyed the “Sherlock” Christmas special,” piped up Possibly Julian Huppert from inside a reddish-orange outfit.
Clegg turned and glared at him for a moment, then shrugged. “Yes. Yes I did. The notion that Benedict Cumberbatch can solve his problems by going back to the past, even if just in his head...that appealed to me.”
Paddy’s eyes narrowed. Up till now, he had only suspected, but... “You really want to do it,” he said in wonderment. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” He glanced around the group of hooded Lib Dems. “Forget I asked. If just one of you had run into a journalist on the way here...”
“At least the media would have to cover us then,” Clegg said harshly. “At least they would have to acknowledge that we exist, that Tim exists...”
“I can’t help noticing that Tim isn’t here,” Paddy said nastily. “Not up for your little act of blasphemy, I imagine. On Easter Sunday, too...”
“A time for new beginnings,” Clegg said, as colourlessly secular as a stereotypical Anglican vicar. “A time for...comebacks.”
Several of the hoods moved slightly. It was subtle, especially considering how they repeatedly dented and smoothed out from the rain, but it was there. The others were nodding.
“Now look,” Paddy said, suddenly conscious of unsteady ground below him. Not the good chalk he actually stood on, but figuratively. “Are you really talking about using the Rite of Caer Caradog just to reverse a bad election result?”
He knew the words were a mistake as soon as he spoke them. The others recoiled. “You call that a bad election result?” said one voice. “He didn’t have a seat to lose!” said another.
“Have you forgotten the taste of marzipan so soon?” Clegg said softly. He shook his head. “I wouldn’t contemplate this if I thought there was another way. Tim tries his best. He does! So do the activists. But nobody’s listening anymore. Now there’s no voice for liberalism in Parliament, not one loud enough to hear. And we might end up leaving the European Union at this rate.” He shook his head. “This is my fault. I was the one who didn’t see it coming. I’m proud of what we did in government but...now we have this. And I need to take responsibility for my actions.”
“By tearing apart the space-time continuum?!” Paddy bellowed. Almost everyone except Huppert gave him a puzzled look. “One of our Birmingham councillors explained this time travel malarkey to me once,” he explained. “It never ends well, all right?”
“How could it end any worse than what we have now?” Clegg said ironically.
“Do you know what happened to the original cult?” Paddy interjected after a brief hesitation, changing the subject. “The ones who first made the rituals? The Welsh who wanted to bring back King Arthur?”
“They succeeded, according to the old books.”
“Yes, they succeeded,” Paddy bit out, “they succeeded in bringing back one King Arthur who was summarily killed by Henry the Eighth so he could steal his wife and kick off that whole dark period—”
“That’s never been proven—”
“—then they brought back one who denied himself and brought the country to the brink of revolution by opposing the Reform Act—”
“—but surely you admit he was a great war leader—”
“—oh yes, so was the third one, but he also turned on them!” Paddy said viciously. “Troops at Tonypandy, striking miners, all a ruse to kill off the last members of the cult. To ensure it could never happen again. We only know about it because of Lloyd George preserving the—”
“Well quite,” Nick said. He held up a book, a battered special edition of Who’s Who with a subtitle that specifically mentioned the Liberal Party. “We don’t need another King Arthur.” He lowered the book. “But we do need another Lloyd George.”
“Don’t be thick, Nick,” Paddy said, waving his damp arms at the glowing object between the stones. “Lloyd George split the party. At least you always managed to hold us together, when they were all predicting we’d break up. We can’t survive that!”
Nick looked a bit discomfited for the first time. “Well, all right then, how about a Gladstone—”
“He split us as well! The Irish Question! Let the Tories back in! Look, Nick, it’s no use idolising the past. We have to work for the present.”
Nick looked crestfallen. He sighed. “You’re right, of course. We have to stop idolising the past.”
Paddy smiled. “Well, I’m glad you’ve agreed—”
“Starting with you,” Nick said, a moment before Paddy blacked out.
He came to what surely must be only a little later. He was furious at himself for letting himself be jumped, even if it had been under cover of the rain. What would his old instructors have said? At least these bonds tying him to a standing stone seemed rather amateurish. Kids didn’t learn knots these days. He’d have those off in a jiffy.
“He’s come around,” reported Probably Danny Alexander from beneath his hood.
“Good,” Nick said. “I wanted you to see this.”
Paddy squirmed theatrically at his bonds and then pretended to give up with a sigh. In reality his fingers kept working subtly away. “Is it human sacrifice now, Nick?” he bit out.
“Of course not,” Nick said, “that would be quite illiberal, and besides, don’t you remember the papers? They learned how to do it without after the Tudor attempt.” He gestured grandly at the standing stones bearing their soggy loaves and damp Kit-kats. “The Loaf of Free Trade and the Kit-kat of the Whigs. Together they will open a way.”
“Are you sure about this?” muttered Possibly Julian Huppert in the background. “It all seems a bit Tredinnick to me...”
“Be quiet,” Nick said without rancour. “We need to focus.” He glanced down at a crib sheet on an iPad carefully protected with a waterproof plastic wallet. “Let me see... Ynys Afallon...” Nick’s gift with languages helped him master the Welsh words. As he chanted, Paddy felt uncomfortably as though the stone beneath him was vibrating. The bones of the hills themselves were listening.
The chant was short. There were words in there which Paddy recognised, names mostly: Camelot, Excalibur, that sort of thing. There were others that seemed to have been added in later, and the vibration of the stone shifted discordantly as the spell tried to incorporate them. “Dychwelyd! Dychwelyd! Dychwelyd!” Nick concluded. “Return! Return! Return!”
The stones were vibrating so rapidly now that Paddy almost felt as though his fillings would be shaken out. At least it meant that the bindings on his hands were slipping off more easily, though. Just a little more...
It was a pregnant pause. The stones had been prepared and now awaited their mission. One of the hooded Lib Dems finally pulled away the cloth bundle that had been guarding the object emitting the vivid orange glow, even though it had not truly dampened it.
There! It looked like a cut diamond, though if it was a diamond, it would be the most valuable in the world. A perfect octahedron in shape, mounted upon a discreet wooden base, and pulsating with vivid orange light. Paddy could barely stand to look at it, though all the hooded heads turned to look. It was hard to look away from that sickly yet fascinating light.
Which meant this was his chance.
“We call him home,” Nick said ritualistically. He raised the copy of Who’s Who again and flicked through the pages, a frown on his face. “Mind you, he did have a point,” he said to himself. “So who would be the best—”
He was interrupted by a rugby-tackle. Paddy’s years meant nothing as the bonds finally parted and he launched himself at the MP for Sheffield Hallam. Nick went down, his legs tangling in his perfect Pantone 1235C robe. The Who’s Who almost slipped from his fingers as Paddy grabbed at it, but Nick managed to hold on. Now both had half of the book’s cover and yanked it back and forth as a tug-of-war. Both men were bibliophiles and, despite the stakes, winced at this mistreatment as the cover began to part beneath their fingers.
The final indignity came from outside, however. Quite Possibly Danny Alexander and Maybe David Laws grabbed Paddy and pulled him back, away from Nick. The book ripped and tore perfectly down its middle. Half ended up in Nick’s hands, half in Paddy’s.
Except, not quite. For, by some quirk of how the leaves were bound, one single page had torn free of both halves. Now, in the striking orange light of the diamond of power, buffeted by the wind and rain, that page drifted leisurely towards the ground.
It touched the diamond. The words lit up with brilliant light and were...sucked away into the crystal, leaving a blank, untouched page behind.
The diamond’s glow brightened, and brightened, and brightened, and the thrumming vibration of the stones in the background grew louder and louder with it, becoming a whine of building power...
Squeezing his eyes shut against the glare, grabbing the other half of the book from the unresisting Nick, Paddy reassembled the book and furiously studied it. What had the missing page been? He flicked to the contents page, traced the missing number...
And lowered it, his ashen face turned as orange as Robert Kilroy-Silk’s by the blazing inferno that had been the diamond.
“Oh, no,” he said softly. “Not him...”
The diamond exploded.
This in itself was not such an unusual event. Things explode every day. In some parts of the world, far too many of them for comfort.
What was slightly unusual, however, was how the explosion did not start in the present and end in the future. Instead, it propagated backwards through time, boorishly ignoring all the one-way arrows like a boy racer about to become a statistic.
Back to a time when coalitions were that ridiculous thing that everyone predicts in British politics but never happens.
Back to a time when Tony Blair had made Labour invincible for generations.
Back to a time when the poll tax would destroy the Tories in 1992.
Back and back and back and back...
Just an eyeblink as far as the hill was concerned. The hill which had once been named Caer Caradog, and was now known as Old Sarum. But for the humans who walked upon this land, it was a lifetime.
Changing history, in the end, is not so difficult.
Sometimes it just needs one man.
Suggested soundtrack: The Leader, The Vision, and What About Me? written and performed by Chris de Burgh (1986). These three form a suite, but only the first is relevant for the Prologue.