This last Friday, must've been gone midnight, I stumble out the pub into the charcoal-orange of Kingly Street.
You know, back of Hamley's. Looking to head to that bar with the front, looks like a shop so you don't even know it's there. Nice place, quiet even this time of the week. Caipirinhas six quid as I remember. Been a reasonably successful evening so far, in as much as putting me where I wanted, wandering along the street, false energy and knowing I'll only hazily remember what happens between now and waking up.
Noise behind. A naked man sprints past, all pelt, followed about ten metres behind by a guy in a black puffer jacket. I smile - love this town. The puffer jacket stops, steadies, and slowly raises his arm.
The naked man half-somersaults, splats chest-down onto the wet pavement and tumbles over into a broken heap.
HolyFuckinShit did I just see that?
A white van screeches from the side street and spawns two more jackets, who quickly and silently roll the prone runner onto his back and into a white sheet, leaving him face up just long enough for me to notice two things. Firstly, that he wasn't entirely naked - he was wearing a condom. And, secondly - to my shame - that he wore the face of my city-boy friend, Jools.
And as I stared, the first puffer jacket loomed towards me, something in his hand.
Ow. Next morning - afternoon, whatever, they've been fucking about with the clocks this weekend - proper fucking headache, like a jubilee clip tightening round my skull. Teeth ringing and all sensible thought lost in the screamsplitting fissure between the two halves of my brain, fizzing and arcing hot white and angry like two hemispheres of enriched Uranium.
Jeez. No bastard water by the bed, tongue swollen like day three in the desert. Must've stayed for one caipirinha too many. Feels like ten. Dry paracetamol and fuck it. My rule of thumb is, if I can remember getting home, I couldn't have been that bad. Nope - can't remember getting home.
The... shooting? Jools. Ow Ow. Hangover guilt and lager-paranoia, crashing waves of anguish and fuckfuckfuck what happened. Look, I mean, don't get involved, that's the rule. Might not have been Jools. Can't have been Jools. And what was I supposed to do? No fit state to call the police. I mean I was hammered. Yes officer, some nasty people shot my naked friend and then disappeared. No, officer, just a glass of wine... Right.
I fumble with the mobile, checking for any rogue calls made or received. No, OK. Then I see I have Jools's number. Coffee, shower and dressed then, not entirely sure what I'm expecting to happen, I ring him.
"Um, hi Jools. Hi. It's OE. You... OK?"
"Yeah dude, great, Long time no anything."
I hate it when he says dude - too long at that American bank.
"OK, good. It's, um, well you know I occasionally spring some pretty weird shit on you yeah... but this time I'm serious. See - last night I thought I saw you get shot. Three times in the back, on Kingly Street."
"Fairly sure I'd remember something like that geezer. Maybe you should ease down, take it a little easier OE. Fancy a beer?"
Fine by me - I need to get the bubble in the middle after last night anyway.
Drag my frame over to a hotel lobby bar, more his budget than mine but like I don't care any more, alcohol has its own separate account in my mind. I'm late, Jools in a brown suit and tapping his Tag Heuer.
Rows of bottles and glasses against a mirror on the back wall of the bar - so much visual information, it's a few minutes before I can speak. Likewise, he manages to go the whole first hour without mentioning his bonus last year (400K).
Cocktails and me passing on the Caipirinhas, so far. After a few more I talk him through what I remember of Friday, man to van. Jools leans forward across the table and lowers his voice.
"Strangely enough, I wasn't far from Kingly Street last night... Using the private time machine."
Hem. Bit early in the evening. I look back at the mirror and the glasses, then back at Jools.
"Seriously. I know what this sounds like but I'm talking for real. Contraband technology - a light vortex, a glowing room ringed by a giant laser. Needs a fair bit of energy, some arrangement with the local reactor."
"Mmm. Perfectly reasonable, erm - aside from the fact it's impossible."
"Um, aren't you the guy that rang me ealier today to tell me I was dead?"
"But... no, for a start, what about paradoxes-"
"No, no, it's not like that. You know this shit better than me dude. In practice there are no paradoxes - the timeline's immutable. You can't just step back into the past, you can only step into your OWN past, and no earlier than when you first stepped into the time machine. So - I turn up for my appointment and say hello to... myself."
"Like in the Hitch Hiker's Guide. Meeting yourself, terribly embarassing."
He holds my eyes and strokes his finger with his mouth.
"What - you mean - you go back in time and SHAG YOURSELF?"
Cufflinks get a nervous fiddle.
"Um well, I think of it more as... the ultimate in personalised personal services. Imagine going to bed with someone who knows your body's responses perfectly - anticipates them exactly - the best sex you ever had.
"And trust me, there's nothing quite so horny as knowing that once the hour's up, you'll swap over with your future self, travelling back to meet your past. Get to experience the whole hour all over again, but from the other side. So all the parts where you were - ah - receiving, you're now giving, and vice-versa.
"But this time, you know exactly what to do and when. Which is why the first hour was so good, see - imagine someone who's so good in the sack, it's like they can predict the future."
"That's just posh wanking isn't it. More of your City-boy shitty bonus silly bank shitty-boy-wank-shit."
"No man, that's just the start. They do couples. Two of you become four. A woman can watch herself be taken by her husband simultaneously from both ends. Or she and her time-twin can both satisfy their man - while his "other" other half looks on."
"Blimey. You didn't get that on Dr Who. Not even when Billie Piper was on."
"Or there could be four of you, or eight, or other combinations, shit you can't hardly imagine - a whole orgy with only one or two guests. And all safely within the confines of wedlock.... or even, technically, celibacy. Your Holiness."
'Spose it takes the uncertainty out of dating.
"Obviously there's some conditions. Membership by recommendation only. Stiff release forms. At the half-way point, you absolutely HAVE to get in the machine. They're very insistent about that. Oh, and it starts at £15K for a session, although of course if you buy the first hour, the second hour's free."
"Shiiiit... 15K! What was wrong with fucking coke? I thought that was the kick?"
"Ehh... Since they started routine testing for operational staff, I have to go elsewhere. And this is healthier. Learn stuff about yourself dude... I mean, I'm bigger than I expected..."
"TheFuck? Man that's just plain wrong. There've gotta be side effects."
"No, well, OK, I shouldn't tell you this. I'm meant to report anything, ah, unusual. But I worry they'll kick me out if anything's going wrong. But, right: one week, I go to work Monday after my usual Friday night session, and notice I'm... Out of sync. I mean, half the time I don't know what day of the week it is, yeah, but this is worse. It's like I'm a whole week out. Weirdest thing is, everyone around me carries on like nothing happened. I've been blacked-out a whole seven days and everyone's too polite to say anything, some kind of fucked-up American Psycho scenario."
Secretly, they all think they're American Psycho. I let it pass.
"Then it gets weirder. The next week, I end up doing all the things I should have done in the week I missed. It's like I'm living the weeks in the wrong order - I've done the first week, then the third, then the second, then back on with the fourth. I swear, this month, it's happened again."
"I blame that fucking daylight-saving shit. Gotta be a factor."
Fast forward another dislocated week for Jules, his watch now - somehow - an hour slow. Come Friday, he arrived for his usual appointment at the club, checked in with security, and put his clothes in the locker and was greeted in the glowing room by his strangely-similar friend. After a particular vigorous hour, the operator opened the door and showed his friend out to the locker, where he puts on Jools's clothes and leaves.
"Now Mr Jones, if you'll step into the machine, we'll send you back for your second half."
"OK. But... I need to tell you something. I've been having problems."
"We know. We know about your ah, diary difficulties. And we know you've been talking to your friend, the one with the blog. "
"Yeah... He said he saw me, or someone who looked just like me, get shot in the street just round the corner from here."
The operator smiled weakly.
"Nothing to worry about Mr Jones, just a little temporal echo. We can put everything right. Simply get into the machine as usual, and we'll make the necessary changes. A small adjustment, and everything will be back on track."
"You're sure? It's just... I'm worried what might happen if I do."
The operator lowered his head, the smile fading slightly.
"Of course Mr Jones. Perfectly understandable. But I promise you there's no cause for concern. Now. Just. Get. Into. The machine."
Jules made slowly towards the glowing rectangle, but bolted suddenly for the exit. The operator dived at him and missed. Sprinting past reception, Jules burst through the double doors into the street, naked apart from a condom.
And pursued by a security guard in a black puffer jacket.