Ex-soldier Hugh Stanton learns from a Cambridge academic that time travel is possible and decides to return to June 1914 to prevent the First World War in this page-turning sci-fi thriller.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Ben Elton’s multi-award winning career as both performer and writer encompasses some of the most memorable and incisive comedy of the past thirty-five years. In addition to his hugely influential work as a stand-up comic, he was co-writer of TV hits The Young Ones and Blackadder and sole creator of The Thin Blue Line and Upstart Crow. He has written fifteen major bestsellers, including Stark, Popcorn, Inconceivable, Dead Famous, High Society, Two Brothers and Time and Time Again, three West End plays and three musicals, including global phenomenon We Will Rock You. He has written and directed two feature films, Maybe Baby and Three Summers.
He is married and has three children.
Read an Excerpt
Time and Time Again
By Ben Elton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Ben Elton
All rights reserved.
In Constantinople, on a bright, chill early morning in June 1914, Hugh Stanton, retired British army captain and professional adventurer, leant against the railings of the Galata Bridge and stared into the waters below. There was a stiff breeze blowing and the early light sparkling on the gun-metal river made the choppy crests twinkle like stars.
Stanton half closed his eyes and forgot for a moment that this was the mouth of the Bosphorus, ancient sewer of Byzantium, and imagined instead a heavenly firmament. A faraway galaxy dotted with infinite points of divine light. A gateway to an incandescent oblivion.
Opening his eyes wide once more he saw the river for the poisonous shit soup that it was and turned away. If he ever did decide to kill himself a bullet would be quicker and a great deal cleaner.
The morning traffic creaked and rattled across the newly metalled bridge and Stanton found his eye focusing on a woman in a burka on the opposite side. She had been bending low over the sweets and pastries on display at a coffee stall and now she turned away, a billowing black cloud followed by a small girl and an even smaller boy, both clutching paper bags into which they dipped sugar-coated fingers.
Stanton realized to his surprise that he was crying. Tears that had been prickling behind his eyes for months were all of a sudden glistening on his cheeks. Those children were so very like his own. Different colouring and clothing, of course, but in scale and attitude they could have been his Tess and Bill. Even the way the little girl put her hand on her brother's shoulder to restrain him at the kerb, so proud of being the older and the wiser of the two. That was exactly what Tess would have done. Probably all big sisters were like that.
Angrily he wiped a sleeve across his cheek. He didn't believe in self-pity. Not under any circumstances.
Just then the peace of the morning was disturbed by the throaty roar of an engine as on to the bridge from the northern side skidded an overloaded, open-topped tourer. Stanton recognized the model, a Crossley 20/25. Cars were a passion for him and he knew every British type ever built. The occupants of this one were all young men, well-heeled hooligans on a spree, braying and hollering, clearly still drunk from the night before. Feringi. Foreigners bent on mischief, coming down from the Pera district where the Westerner was king.
Pedestrians scurried for the pavements as the car clattered across the bridge, the driver beeping his horn and shouting as if this busy public thoroughfare were his own private driveway. Stanton heard English voices, merry laughter laced with effortless contempt. They were embassy staff perhaps, or servicemen in mufti; the British had a lot of military in town, advising the sultan on how to drag his army and navy into the twentieth century. Or, more importantly, trying to stop His Munificence from seeking advice on such matters from the Germans.
The young Muslim family who had been occupying Stanton's attention were in the process of crossing the street when the car came into view, Mother concentrating on ensuring that the children avoided the various piles of horse dung that lay in their path. Now she swept up the boy with one arm and grabbed the girl with her other and began to hurry them towards the opposite side, a scurrying black flurry of burka and kids.
But then the little girl dropped her bag and, being only about seven and not quite as grown-up and mature as she liked to think, pulled away from her mother to retrieve it. The mother turned back in panic and now the whole family stood in the path of the oncoming car.
The massive machine bore down on them. Nearly fourteen feet long and six wide, it seemed to completely fill the bridge. Almost a ton and a half of wood, glass, rubber, brass and steel, a monster, roaring and trumpeting as it approached its kill, the great shining black fender arches framing its huge goggling eyes. The thrusting tusks of its sprung-leaf suspension threatened to skewer any soft flesh and young bone that lay in its path. Black smoke billowed from its rear. Sparks spat from behind its grille. No dragon of ancient legend could have seemed more terrifying or more deadly.
The monster was still perhaps some fifteen yards away from the terrified mother trying to hang on to the squirming little boy while pulling at the girl, who was frozen with fear. Any car Stanton had ever driven would still have had ample time to brake. But this was a very different type of machine, with primitive steel and asbestos disc brakes fitted only to the rear wheels. What was more, the stunned-looking youth at the wheel was drunk, and the road was wet with morning mist and covered in slippery horse dung. Even if the driver did manage to hit the brake, the wheels would lock and the beast would surely skid wildly for tens of yards, taking the woman and her little children with it.
These thoughts occurred to Stanton all at once and only in the most fleeting and compressed form for his whole being was already in motion, his body accelerating away from the railing against which he had been leaning with all the energy of a man who by both instinct and training kept himself in a state of permanent physical readiness.
The young mother turned, her coal-black almond eyes staring out from the letterbox window of her face covering, wide with terror as Stanton, having covered most of the distance between them, launched himself into a long dive with arms spread wide. He hit them perhaps a half second before the car would have done, he and the little family passing in front of the oncoming machine with so little time to spare that the fender knocked Stanton's foot as it swept by. He felt himself turning in mid-air, the family still gathered in his arms, causing the whole group to spin almost full circle as they crashed down on to the stones together.
The monster bumped and skidded on its way, horn still tooting and its braying occupants shouting more merrily than ever, pleased if anything with the terror they had caused. It was time sleepy old 'Istanbul', as the locals still insisted on calling it, recognized that the pace of life in Turkey was changing. If they wanted to be a Western nation they'd better learn to act like one, and they could start by getting out of the way of traffic.
Stanton was lying on top of the woman. Her veil had been dislodged and his cheek lay against hers. He felt her hot breath gusting past his ear and her breast heaving against his body. The little boy was half caught between them and the girl stretched out alongside.
He got quickly to his feet. This was Ottoman Turkey after all and the woman was clearly highly orthodox. While he couldn't imagine even the most conservative of mullahs taking exception to the physical contact he had been forced to make, it was still an uncomfortable and threatening intimacy. He didn't want an irate husband getting the wrong end of the stick and reaching for the long curved knife so many of the locals wore openly on their belts.
He had a job to do, and currently his first duty was to leave no trace.
He helped the young mother to her feet as she stuttered her thanks. Or at least he presumed they were thanks. She was speaking Turkish, which he recognized but did not understand. However, the gratitude in her eyes as she readjusted her veil would have been clear in any language.
People were gathering round, babbling in a variety of languages. Besides Turkish, Stanton recognized Greek, French and Arabic, and there were certainly others. The Galata Bridge must have been the most cosmopolitan thoroughfare on earth. Babel itself could scarcely have been any more polyglot.
'I'm very sorry, uhm, madam,' Stanton began in English, not quite sure how to address the woman, 'but I don't speak —'
'She's saying thanks, although I'm sure you guessed that,' a voice said at his shoulder. Stanton turned to face a middle-aged man in the ubiquitous linen suit and straw boater of the European nabob. 'She says you saved her children's lives, and hers, which of course you did. Neat bit of work, I must say. You shot across the bridge like you had the bailiffs after you.'
A man in a uniform pushed his way through the crowd. Stanton thought he was probably a policeman but he may have been some sort of militia or even a postman. Turkish officials loved an extravagant uniform.
He felt someone take his hand and shake it.
Someone else slapped his back.
An old French gentleman seemed to be offering to stand him a drink, although by the look of the man's red and bulbous nose this was more by way of grabbing the excuse to have an early one himself.
This was all wrong. His duty was to pass through the city like a shadow and suddenly he was the epicentre of a crowd. He needed to get away.
But the young mother kept thanking him; holding up her crying children, her big dark eyes shining with gratitude, thanking him over and over again.
'You – my – babies,' she said in slow, faltering English.
Her meaning was clear. He had saved her babies, nothing in the world could be more important.
But he hadn't saved his own.
How could he have done? His family had never even been born.CHAPTER 2
In Cambridgeshire, in the early morning of Christmas Eve 2024, Hugh Stanton, retired British army captain and professional adventurer, was riding his motorbike through the frozen dawn.
There was thick mist on the ungravelled, icy road and the markings had long since faded from the potholed tarmac. If Stanton had deliberately sought out the most treacherous and deadly conditions in which to ride a powerful motorcycle at high speeds he would have struggled to find better.
Which suited him very well.
Death was the only prospect in life to which he was looking forward with any degree of enthusiasm.
It would be such a simple kill too. The road was empty, no other headlight beam illuminated the freezing darkness. There'd be no risk, no collateral damage. A clean hit. Not like on those awful desert operations he'd sweated through back in his army days, when there always seemed to be dead women and babies caught up in the tangled wreckage of exploded Toyotas.
This target was isolated and prone. Stanton had only to action the strike. One tiny turn in the direction of a tree. A little twist on the throttle for good measure, and oblivion.
What if there really was a hell?
Stanton was as close to being an atheist as prudence allowed but Cassie had been a Catholic. He therefore had to allow for the faint possibility that hell existed and, if it did, then self-murder would surely condemn him to it. Not that the idea of fire and brimstone bothered him much. An eternity of satanic torture might actually serve as a distraction from his own company, which he was beginning to find almost unbearable. The fear Hades held for Stanton was simply that if there was such a place then it was a certainty that Cassie and the children wouldn't be there.
Angels didn't go to hell.
The possibility of him spending eternity in a different place to his lost family was simply too terrible a thought for him to take a risk on, no matter how remote. Therefore, despite his longing for release, he kept his grip steady on the handlebar and his concentration firmly on the road as tree after tree shone briefly grey-bright through the misty dark, branches spread wide and welcoming. Like a lover's arms, promising peace.
Stanton flicked on his indicator. The Cambridge turn-off was approaching. He knew the road. He'd ridden it many times as a student, hurtling back from London in the small hours, a takeaway meal clamped between his thighs, feeding himself through the open visor of his helmet.
Now he was returning, on his way to have breakfast with an old tutor, Professor Sally McCluskey, an eminent military historian who had been his favourite teacher as an undergraduate. More than just a favourite, in fact, McCluskey was one of the few people in Stanton's life whom he'd ever felt close to. A large, jolly woman with bloodshot cheeks and a poorly bleached moustache who liked nothing better than to hog the fire with a drink in her hand and revel in the glorious and bloody past. To McCluskey history was alive and vibrant, a thrilling cavalcade of heroes and villains, deathly plots and brave dreams. She had held weekly debates for her students in her cosy drawing room in Great Court, which she called her 'What ifs?' Long lazy afternoons during which she'd serve beer and crisps and challenge terrified but delighted undergraduates to imagine and justify alternative historical scenarios. Scenarios which, but for chance and luck, might easily have made up the content of her lectures.
Stanton could see her still, standing before the fire, wearing an ancient military greatcoat, which she used as a dressing gown, vast arse placed firmly and unashamedly between the flames and the students. Cheery glass in hand. Barking out her chosen 'What if'.
'Come on, you dozy swine!' she'd boom in a voice that had developed its tone on school hockey fields and been honed to rafter-rattling perfection over decades of coaching ladies' rowing teams on the river Cam. 'What if King George had accommodated the American colonists' demands and allowed them a handful of MPs at Westminster?'
The debate that followed would always be loud and lively and end invariably with McCluskey ignoring her students' efforts at a conclusion and barking out her own.
'Well, there'd have been no bloody War of Independence for a start, and the US would have developed along Canadian and Australian lines. The hamburger would never have been invented, there'd be no chewing gum dotting the pavements, and the world would never have heard of high school massacres. Can you credit it? America, lost for the sake of an extra dozen members in the House of Commons. AMERICA! The richest prize on the bloody planet. Gone, for want of a few paltry seats on the cross benches. George the bloody Third wasn't just mad, he was completely tonto! Bugger him, say I! Who cares if he did a bit of farming and was nice to children? He lost us America and he was an arse!'
What fun those long, semi-drunken Sunday afternoons had been. The debates always degenerated into loud, name-calling battles between the Marxists, who contended that much of history was inevitable, the result of preordained economic and material forces, and the romantics, who believed that history was made by individuals and that a single stomach ache or an undelivered love letter could have changed everything.
Professor McCluskey had been firmly in the romantics' camp.
'Men and women make history! Not balance sheets!' she'd shout at some cowering Dialectical Materialist. 'The great and the flawed. The evil and the honourable. Josephine married Bonaparte because her previous lover was threatening to throw her on the street! She despised the little Corsican corporal. Is it therefore any wonder that two days into their honeymoon he buggered off to conquer Italy, thus sealing Europe's fate for a generation? If that old town bike had put as much effort into servicing Boney's boner as she put into pleasuring her numerous other lovers he might have hung around screwing her instead of prancing off to screw an entire continent!'
In Stanton's view, Professor Sally McCluskey had really known how to teach history.
He'd kept in touch with her after graduating, maintaining a sporadic email correspondence from the various parts of the world in which he'd found himself, and when her note had arrived asking that he spend Christmas with her at his old college, he'd accepted. Since Cassie and the children's deaths he had cut himself off entirely from what few old friends he had, but he couldn't help being intrigued by the urgency of the professor's tone.
I beg you to come, she'd written. We have matters to discuss of the utmost importance.
He was skirting through the edges of the town now. Early workers were shivering at the bus stops, hunch-backed figures bent in supplication over their phones, each face an ash-grey ghost illuminated by the screen.
It had been fifteen years since Stanton had graduated and Cambridge, like all towns, had become a wind-blown shadow of its former self. Faded signs promised books, toys, pharmacists' and fresh market produce but the only things for sale behind those broken boarded windows were drugs and semiconscious girls. Shops were history, just like horse troughs and suits of armour. Nobody bought their stuff in the physical world any more.
Dawn was breaking as he approached the College. A pale monochrome light gently stirred the frost-crisp sleeping-bag cocoons pupating in the alcoves of the old familiar walls. Venerable stone edifices that had stood since the Tudors. Graffiti -covered now but still deeply stirring to a man like Stanton, who loved the past. Those stones held within them the sonic echo of every footfall and every cry that had ever disturbed the racing molecules at their core. If Stanton had had an instrument sensitive enough he could have listened to the hammer blows on the very cold chisel that had shaped them.
Excerpted from Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. Copyright © 2014 Ben Elton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
My first time reading this author; will definitely look for more. Very interesting premise, very entertaining, worth the time.
This was an excellent novel! The characters are empathetic, the mechanics of time travel realistic, and the story intricate and hidden till the last few pages. I would recommend to anyone who enjoys SiFi, but also to those who prefer more reality in their fiction. This is an author I will follow.