This 4000 word short story ‘Partners in Time‘ eventually spawned a 43,000 word novel of the same name, which is now available for pre-order at just $0.99 / £0.99 until May 20th:
PARTNERS IN TIME, BY STEVIE TURNER
COPYRIGHT STEVIE TURNER 2019
CHAPTER 1 – February 1867
There’s ice on the inside of the windows again. Peggy needs to re-light the fires; it’s six thirty and she should have been up by now.
Emily Cuthbertson drew the ribbon of her nightshirt a little tighter around her neck and burrowed underneath the counterpane, sighing with relief when she heard the welcome light tap on the door.
Peggy, more red-faced and flustered than usual, carried a full scuttle of coal and kindling, and headed straight for a mound of white ash in the fireplace, scraping out the grate with practised ease. Kindling in place, she struck a lucifer and turned to Emily.
“Sorry I’m a bit late, Miss Emily.”
It had been her father, the formidable Reverend Cuthbertson, who had always dealt with recalcitrant servants. But the reverend was no more, and with her mother still prostrate in her room next door with grief, Emily sat up and realised it would probably always now fall to her to keep the staff on their toes.
“Don’t let it happen again, Peggy.”
“No, Miss. I’ll just go and get your hot water.”
Emily waited until Peggy had left the room, and then sank back on the pillows. Her life was not panning out exactly as she had hoped. She was twenty five, and as far as she was concerned, although the youngest in the family she was already quite the old maid. One by one her seven siblings had married and moved away, ensuring they were not the last one left at home and thereby duty bound to provide their mother with companionship. Emily felt a frisson of discontent; the chance to marry and have children of her own was passing her by. Her 64 year old widowed mother could live for another ten or twenty years at least, by which time her own youthful bloom would have all but evaporated in the ravages of time.
Days followed the same routine in that she would draw and paint as a means of escape, but try to be the good companion that her mother needed her to be. With the arrival of her clergyman brother Lionel bringing an end to the interregnum, and with her cajoling and encouragement, her mother Delia had started to raise herself out of bed. With life on a more even keel, Emily decided the time was right to offer a suggestion as she brushed Delia’s long silver hair one spring morning in March.
“It would be nice if Beattie could stay for the weekend. I think I’ll write to her. I know you miss her as much as I do.”
She took some pins from her mother’s hand and twirled a long ringlet around her finger before affixing it next to the others. When she saw the affirmative nod, a small wave of excitement coursed through her body.
That night as she climbed into bed, Emily looked forward to seeing her sister again.
CHAPTER 2 – July 2017
John could almost hear the design team rubbing their hands with glee at the expense of the task in front of them… to work with Kay on refurbishing the glut of empty rooms. He was happy to leave it all to them with one exception – his study. He wasn’t sure what the 7ft by 8ft room had been used for in the past, but now it was his and his alone. He wanted his handiwork spread all over that study like a rash; plain plastered walls painted in duck-egg blue to show off his certificates and trophies to start with. Then would come the matching vertical blinds he could angle to follow the sun, a dark shaggy carpet averse to showing any dirt, a huge Victorian desk with hopefully a secret drawer or two, and a long Chesterfield taking up one wall where he could imitate Wordsworth in vacant mood.
Simon, his agent, was working on his first million and sending ever-increasing emails. However, John knew he could never settle until his writing area was just so. This was why he found himself up a ladder painting the high ceiling instead of starting Series Two of Love’s Tangled Web.
He looked up as Kay stood in the doorway, hand on hip, in perfect imitation of Percival Ye Myint, the unusual-looking interior designer from un-exotic Hackney Wick.
“Percy reckons yellow crushed velvet curtains in our bedroom would set off the grey carpet beautifully.”
“Is that his real name?” John slapped on a liberal coating of emulsion. “Anyway…I’m leaving it all to you. Just don’t send him in here.”
He stepped down off the ladder, pleased with the outcome. The plasterer had taken out all the lumps and bumps in the walls, and they were now painted just the shade of pale blue that Percy disapproved of. John folded up a dust sheet covering the Axminster and prized Chesterfield, and lifted up the sash window to open it fully, taking care not to leave his fingerprints in the still-wet paint. Rays of afternoon sun warmed his face and to his great surprise illuminated transparent contours of a young woman wearing a kind of lacy neck to ankle smock lying prone on the Chesterfield when he swung back into the room. John blinked twice to ensure his imagination was not playing tricks. Sure enough the woman, unaware and fading slightly on his prized sofa as he watched incredulously, slumbered gently on.
“Fuck-a-doodle-do!” He whistled softly through his teeth and stuck his head out of the door. “Kay! Come and have a look at this!”
Deciding not to call again on hearing his wife in conversation with Percy on the top floor, he gently pulled the door to and studied the countenance before him in repose. It was a young face, no more than twenty four or twenty five. A dark brown plait of hair contrasted with the pristine white smock and fell over one shoulder. Black lashes fluttered against a pale, somewhat wan and sunless skin. A thin, noble nose and full red lips completed the most bizarre sight that John had ever seen in his life.
Footsteps sounded on the bare boards of the mezzanine corridor, and the door flew open. John turned towards Kay, still with his mouth open in astonishment and with one finger pointing at the Chesterfield. Kay shrugged.
“Did you call?” She followed the direction of his finger. “So? It’s a Chesterfield! Fancy a quick one on it then?”
John twisted around in alarm as Kay took a running jump towards the sofa and landed square on top of its three squashy cushions, flipping quickly over to lie seductively with a shapely leg draped up along its back. The woman in white, whoever she was, could no longer be seen.
“Well? What are you waiting for?” Kay laughed and undid another button on her blouse. “I haven’t got all day!”
John managed a nearly normal chuckle.
“Steady on, Percy’s still prowling about. Do your button up.”
“Oh God, I left him in the top bathroom when I heard you call. He has a friend who can get us a good deal on one of those long Victorian gentleman’s baths with the claw feet.” Kay leapt up from the sofa. “He’s probably more likely to be looking at your chest than mine, anyway.”
“Who, the friend?” John, bewildered, checked the Chesterfield for any sign of the woman wearing what he supposed must have been a nightdress. “Or Percy?”
“I’ll meet you on the sofa later.” She gave him a brief kiss. “Tie a knot in it for now.”
As his wife ran back upstairs, John sank down onto his office chair and gazed long and hard at where the woman had lain. He had a thumping headache. He rubbed his eyes, wondering whether he had inhaled too many fumes from the gloss paint. He swivelled around in the chair, folded his arms on the desk in front of him, and momentarily laid down his aching head.
A ten minute power nap eased his symptoms somewhat. Coming to with a start, he remembered the vision he had seen and swung around in the chair.
There she was again…as white as her nightshirt but definitely breathing.
John, heart thumping, crept over to the woman and touched a couple of the cool, soft fingers on her left hand with his own. Her lashes fluttered, her body solidified, and he found himself looking into two eyes of a rather unusual cobalt blue. A voice, rather shaky, whispered a question as their owner looked down at her nightshirt in horror.
“Where am I?”
John bit the side of his mouth to confirm he wasn’t still asleep and dreaming.
“You’re in my study.”
The disbelieving woman was close to tears.
“But how did I get here? Did I walk in my sleep? Who are you?”
Her form began to fade. John screwed up his eyes and then opened them again in disbelief; she had become translucent. He touched her hand, and her body reassembled as the energy flowed between them. He kept hold of her fingers.
“I’m John Finbow, the owner of this house. What’s your name? What year were you born?”
Emily’s voice shook as she got to her feet.
“Emily Cuthbertson. I was born January the twenty eighth in the year of our Lord eighteen and forty two.”
Warmth from her hand spread into his own as John recalled a quick perusal of the deeds and several generations of Cuthbertsons.
“And I was born September the fifth nineteen seventy seven.”
He looked at her features for the expression of surprise, which arrived with some alacrity.
“But that cannot be! Queen Victoria is still on the throne! How can she still be queen in nineteen seventy seven?”
He wanted to wipe away a tear that ran down her cheek.
“It’s nearly forty years on from that. “ John shook his head. “If I remember rightly, Victoria died a hundred and sixteen years’ ago.”
The woman stared at him open-mouthed, and the door flew open. John instinctively let go of Emily’s hand on seeing Kay’s eyes darting about the room.
“Who are you speaking to?”
Men in white coats with jackets that fasten at the back were never far from his mind.
“I’m going over a scene I’m writing. It’s better if I talk it through.”
“Oh.” Kay, mollified, shot him a smile. “Do you want me to help?”
“I’m done now.” John took a quick glimpse to his right. “Let’s go and talk claw baths with Percy.”
Lying in post-coital bliss with Kay’s head on his shoulder and one of her legs draped over his thighs, John gave his wife a contented squeeze and decided to broach the forbidden subject one more time.
“I love you. You’d make a wonderful mother.”
He thought he heard the faintest snort of disapproval emanating from the depths of his chest hair.
“I don’t think so.” Kay lifted herself up on one elbow. “John, you know how I feel about children. I love you too, but I’ve recently figured out that I’m not maternal. To be honest, I don’t really want a baby at all.”
His disappointment was overwhelming. Teary-eyed, he sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed, and reached for his dressing gown.
“I’m just going to make a cup of tea. Want one?”
“No thanks.” Kay yawned. “I’m sleepy.”
He padded down to the kitchen and punched the wall; the stinging pain in his hand deflated his anger somewhat. He took a cold beer out of the fridge and wandered into his study, then sat down at his desk and sighed. The reflection on his monitor picked out a now familiar supine figure upon the Chesterfield.
John swung the chair around and sprang up. He reached for Emily’s hand, and her transparent form solidified before his eyes.
“Hello Emily.” He chuckled and kept hold of her fingers. “My wife thinks I’ve started talking to myself.”
Her cobalt eyes blinked in recognition, and with a whisper of a smile she sat up.
“My sister likes your hair.”
“Eh?” John looked around. “Where is she?”
“I painted your likeness. She saw it.”
John’s anger had been replaced with an altogether more pleasurable sensation.
“Can I see?”
Emily pointed with her free hand.
“Your desk is where my bureau stands. Have a look on that thing behind you.”
An accurate replica of his features rested on top of his computer keyboard. John attempted to pick up the picture, laughing as it dissolved through his hands.
“You’re a very talented artist.”
“I just like painting. What is that contraption?”
John followed her line of direction.
“It’s a computer – like a typewriter but better. I type my novels on it.”
“I’ve read about the new-fangled typewriters.” Emily replied. “Mama won’t have one in the house. So you’re a writer?”
“I write screenplays for TV and film.” John nodded but then realised why Emily’s expression remained blank. “Sorry, I’m a playwright.”
He could not help but ask the question that begged an answer.
“When did you die?”
Her reply shocked him to the core.
“I’m not dead!” Emily’s features took on an air of indignation. “It’s eighteen and sixty seven and I’m twenty five years’ old! I’m too young to die! Look around you – you’re in my bedchamber and wearing only a dressing gown! If Mama knew you were here she would call the police!”
Her fingers felt warm and solid. John gazed past Emily to the Chesterfield, which had changed to a narrow iron bedstead complete with mattress, pristine bedlinen, and topped with an obvious hand-quilted cover. Embers of an earlier fire burned in the grate. Watercolour paints and a sketchbook were laid out on the fold-down lid of a teak bureau. A jug and bowl stood on a washstand next to the bed. A home-made multi-coloured rag rug covered up polished floorboards in the centre of the room.
John’s head spun, causing him to utter the first words that came into his head.
“W.T.F dot com!”
“Pardon?” Emily looked at him blankly. “I don’t understand what you’re saying. Sit down on the bed – you’re looking a little pale.”
He let go of her fingers and sank down onto the quilt. When Kay burst through the door the next morning and ran to sit beside him, he rose up with a start and realised he had spent the entire night asleep on the sofa.
She found herself making excuses during the day to sneak into her room, in order to unlock the bureau’s secret drawer and gaze at her new friend’s likeness. In her half-world of dreams, she remained unsure as to whether John Finbow even existed at all.
Beattie’s inquisitiveness came to a head on the last day of her visit, as they all sat together in the parlour. Emily, unprepared, was embarrassed and affronted beyond belief at her sister’s indelicacy.
“Emily has a beau. Did you know that, Mother?”
Delia’s face assumed an expression of horror, as Emily blushed and shook her head.
“It was a dream. Beattie’s made a mistake.”
Lionel shot Beattie a disapproving look.
“If Emily does have a beau, then I’m sure she’ll tell us in her own time.”
“Who will look after me if Emily marries?” Delia wailed. “I’ll be here all alone!”
Emily stood up and pushed her chair back, ignoring Beattie’s crestfallen features.”
“Lionel is here, and although the other boys are abroad, I’m sure Beattie, Eliza and Catherine will all visit as much as they can!.”
In high dudgeon, Emily sailed past her sister and fled upstairs to her room, but an inevitable tentative knock could be heard after a low rumble of voices had died down. Emily locked the secret drawer, laid down on the bed and closed her eyes.
The door opened slowly.
“So sorry.” Beattie’s voice whispered. “I’ve just popped in to say goodbye.”
Emily kept her eyes shut.
“I didn’t mean to pry.” Beattie whispered. “Forgive me?”
“I want no word of this to go to the rest of the family.” Emily flopped back down and opened her eyes. “You are forgiven. Now go.”
His computer overshadowed the various hues of her watercolour set and there he was, waiting for her again, just like before. Emily smiled.
“Hello John.” She sat up on the sofa and looked down. “At least I’m wearing my day clothes this time.”
She took his outstretched hand, warming up as he spoke in the soft timbre she had come to admire.
“Because it’s only five o’clock.”
“Yes.” She nodded. “I was horrible to Beattie though. Oh, how I wish Father was still alive.”
She enjoyed the sensation of him caressing the back of her hand.
“My sister.” Emily looked up shyly before continuing. “I was hoping I’d see you again.”
Both of her hands were now in his, and she gazed unashamedly at his features, as though memorising each curve for future reference.
“Do you know, you’re standing here as solid as I am!”
“Why wouldn’t I be? I’m not a ghost!”
She saw his face take on a more serious expression.
“Emily, where is your father buried?”
She tried to follow his line of thinking, but could only wonder at the reason behind his question.
“Why, in the village churchyard of course. He was the reverend here for many years. Follow me and I’ll show you.”
Bracken, nettles, spring crocuses and snowdrops fought each other for pride of place on top of the moss-covered grave. Emily, still holding John’s hand, led him to the stone.
“Here’s Father’s resting place. Why do you want to see it? It looks more overgrown than I remember though.”
She was surprised to see him searching nearby.
“Not particularly that one.” He announced enigmatically. “This one!”
She took a closer look and felt slightly dizzy.
‘Emily Maud Cuthbertson.
Born January 28th 1842
Died April 12th 1868
Rest in the arms of the Lord.
“That’s my name and birth date! It cannot be!” She shook her head emphatically. “I’m going to die next year?”
She felt a rising panic that she could not control, and burst into a flood of tears. Straight away his arms enfolded her.
“Hush. I had to show it to you, so that you realise what’s happening. This is two thousand and seventeen. You’ve already died, but somehow the energy between us causes you to stay alive in my world. I’m so glad that you do though.”
She felt more alive than she had ever been in her own time. The nearness to his body was causing the most unladylike thoughts to rush through her mind. She stood wrapped in his embrace on top of her grave and lifted her face towards his.
“Never let go of me.”
His kiss was soft and gentle, sweeping away her panic in an instant.
When autumn leaves crackled and withered, her belly began to swell with his child. The baby kicked and tumbled about, which proved to her undoubtedly that she was a healthy young woman. Distraught at the scandal and possible ostracisation by the villagers, and that Lionel might even lose his esteem and livelihood, Emily decided to say nothing of the pregnancy to her mother, not even to Peggy. She wore looser clothing and was grateful for the onset of winter and the chance to don a few more outer layers.
By Christmastime she could not hide her condition anymore when standing naked before the man she adored.
“John, I am with child; your child.”
The simple look of joy on her lover’s face was worth any amount of possible rejection by the good ladies of the church. She welcomed the touch of his hands on her taut abdomen.
“You’re having a baby?”
“Our baby. So, you see- there’s no way I can be dead!”
She could identify with his puzzled expression – she didn’t understand it either. Nevertheless, the baby was a gift from the God she thought had abandoned her. She laid her head on his shoulder and sighed.
“I am so happy.”
His reply was not what she wanted to hear.
“You will have to see a doctor so that he can examine you and aid with the birth.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I’ve decided to tell Peggy. She can help me bring our child into the world when my time comes. Nobody else must know. John – keep me here in your time. I don’t want to go back.”
She felt his arms encircle her, keeping her and their baby from harm.
“I wish I could, Emily. I really wish I could.”
By early April it had become unseasonably warm. Emily awoke at midnight on the twelfth day of the month; not on John’s settee as she had hoped, but to a soaking wet bed and griping pains across her abdomen. With no thought of her mother’s possible reaction to her disappearance, she threw on her boots and outer clothing over her nightshirt and, in some distress, made her way through the darkened village to Peggy’s cottage.
“Peggy!” She rapped loudly on the door with her knuckles. “It’s Emily!”
After an agonising wait, flickering candlelight could be seen through the window as Peggy made her way to the door.
“Miss Emily!” Peggy’s face was a picture of consternation. “Come in!”
Bent over double with another pain, Emily, frightened at a lack of control over her body, stumbled inside and held onto the back of a chair for support.
“The baby’s coming!”
“It’ll be ages yet.” Peggy replied. “I’ll stoke up the fire if you’re cold. You make yourself as comfortable as you can. The pains are natural. Go with them and don’t fight it.”
“I’m not cold! I want John!” Emily cried. “I need him here!”
Peggy, curiosity as far under wraps as she could keep it, ventured a few words.
“Where does he live, Miss? I could go and ask him to come.”
“He’s at the rectory with me!” Emily screwed up her eyes in pain. “He lives in the twentieth century! He won’t come now because I’m not lying in bed!”
Agitated beyond belief, she laid down on the horsehair sofa and felt the back of Peggy’s hand against her forehead and heard a gentle whisper in her ear.
“I ought to call the doctor.”
Emily shook her head.
“I’m not delirious! Truly I’m not.”
“Yes, Miss Emily.” Peggy whispered. “Let’s get those outer things off and then we can see what’s going on.”
She smelled the rubber of a mask as it was placed over her nose and mouth. Doctor Heslop, whom she realised would doubtless go straight to her mother, spoke in an authoritative tone.
“Chloroform, Miss Cuthbertson. I’m going to try and get the baby out.”
She floated up to the ceiling with her son and gazed dispassionately at the doctor, who after some manipulations of her body shook his head. Peggy let out a shriek. Emily began to run towards John, waiting patiently for her beyond the fog.
John started the Fireblade’s engine and thought of his son, the little boy that Kay would never know, the son who called him ‘Daddy’. Robbie’s delightful laugh filled the house every afternoon before Kay returned from work. The wheels of his red tricycle could be heard racing in and out of all the eight spare bedrooms, with his mother close on his heels to ensure he came to no harm. They visited whenever he summoned them, and he could see that the boy was the very image of him. Life was good. As he sat astride the machine that his son would never learn to ride, he concluded that if you wanted something badly enough, then sooner or later you would find a way to obtain it.
However… marriage and parenthood do not go quite the way John planned…