A Stitch in Time
18 months later
The sound of the door clunking shut behind her, the cool touch of the hall tiles underfoot, and the lingering aroma of last night’s curry, signalled she was home at last; another school day from hell was over.
Sarah wriggled her toes a little more on the smooth surface, and then dropped her sweaty shoes into the basket at the bottom of the stairs. Holding her aching back, she bent over, picked up the mail from the mat and flicked through the pile. Crap, crap and more crap. Never mind about the decimation of the rainforests, the two-for-one garden gnome offer at Paradise Garden Centre is much more important!
Bing-bong! She jumped as the doorbell chimed. Sarah rolled her eyes. Who the hell is this, now?
She sneaked into the living room and peeped through the blinds. It was damn near wine o’clock, and after the day she’d had, if it wasn’t Johnny Depp out there, she wasn’t interested.
Sarah could see that the caller was male, dark-haired, tall and suited. He had his back turned to her, and was tapping a clipboard on the side of his leg. Nope, not Johnny Depp, probably a time-waster, so he could bugger off.
Just as she was closing the gap in the blind, the man turned and spotted her. He smiled, raised his clipboard and waved hello with his pen.
Bugger...I’ll have to open the dammed door now!
“Hello,” she said, opening the front door slightly, “I’m sorry, but I’ve just got in. I’ve lots to do, so I haven’t got time to buy anything.”
“Well, that’s all right then, because time is my business,” he said.
Sarah noted that even though he wasn’t Johnny Depp, he wasn’t half-bad. He looked to be about thirty-five, had gorgeous sea-green eyes, a long aquiline nose and a full sensuous mouth. The mouth was curling at the edges in a slow smile.
She sighed. Never mind his smile, Sarah, he’s a time waster, get rid of him. “As I said, I am really busy, and as you have just said, time is your business. Timeshares I expect, so I really must...”
“I’m really not selling anything.” He placed the pen between a set of perfect teeth, lowered his eyes and traced his finger down the pages on his clipboard.
“Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but I must go,” Sarah said, already starting to close the door. What she needed was a big glass of red and her feet up.
He looked up from his board and smiled again. “I think you do mean to be rude, actually. Don’t worry, I just need to go over a few instructions with you. You have a huge task to complete, and we need to make sure you know exactly what’s going to happen.” He took a step towards her.
Sarah immediately slammed the door in his face. Who the bloody hell did he think he was, completely ignoring her? He was obviously a complete fruit-loop, handsome, but a fruit-loop nonetheless. A task to complete; now that was a new one.
Marching to the kitchen, she grabbed a wineglass from the cupboard and poured a big glug of red. Now, a comfy sofa and mind-numbing rubbish on the TV beckoned. Taking a mouthful of wine she walked into the living room, and nearly spat it out again. The fruit-loop was sitting casually on her sofa, grinning from ear to ear.
“Ooh, have you got a glass for me, Sarah? I could murder one.”
Managing to swallow the wine, she backed towards the door, gasping, “How the hell did you get in here, and how do you know my name?” Frantically, she tried to remember where she’d put her mobile, was it still in her school bag?
Fruit-loop held up his hands. “Hey, sorry, don’t be afraid, asking for wine was crass of me. You must be freaked out, look, I promise I’m not here to hurt you.”
Sarah inched out into the hall. Even if she could put her hand on the damned phone, she probably wouldn’t have time to dial 999. No, the best solution was to make a run for it. She set down her wineglass on the hall table and turned for the front door... only to see fruit-loop standing in front of it.
She felt the floor come up to meet her, and leaned heavily against the wall. This was impossible; he was sitting on her sofa in the living room, wasn’t he? “How the ..?”
He held up his hands again, silencing her. “I told you, time is my business,” he shrugged, “I can make it stop, go forward and back, but only by a few seconds, otherwise the dimensions get mucked up. I stopped time, walked round you, here in the hall, and then started it again. Same way I got in here too. Now, we really must get down to business. I am not here to hurt you, I repeat not here to hurt you, Sarah. My name’s John, by the way.”
John walked towards her, gesturing that she should return to the living-room. Sarah led the way on shaky legs and then sank down into her armchair. She figured that the fallout from the Neil and Karen trauma and her stressful job, had at last pushed her over the edge. Lots of her teacher friends had breakdowns...this must be her turn. Actually, now that it had happened, she felt relieved really...
“So,” John’s voice broke into her thoughts. “Sarah Yates, thirty-four, divorced,” he looked at his clipboard. “No children, history teacher at Grangeworthy High, stressed, disillusioned with the way teaching is going, though not with the subject of history, and not with most children, just the minority who eat you alive. The latest bane of your life is Danny Jakes of 9CM, who told you recently to ‘stick your detention up your fat arse!’’
John, now seated on her sofa, pulled a face of sympathy across the room, flicked over the page of notes and continued. “Err...husband ran off with best friend, they now have a child, you despise them both, especially him, because you gave him the best years of your life, and now think that your chance for kids has passed.” An even more sympathetic look found a home on John’s face. “Dear oh dear,” he placed the clipboard down and looked across at her again. “Now, I have got the right, Sarah Yates, haven’t I?”
Sarah wished that he hadn’t, but sadly he had described her life in a nutshell. Neil had indeed left with Karen about eighteen months ago now. It had been a drunken one night stand apparently; the pregnancy had come as terrible shock. They hadn’t planned to keep the child, but then time went by and Karen found it impossible to terminate. They started getting used to the idea, and Neil insisted on financial support, hence the trip to Mothercare.
Then, when Sarah had found out and everything was in the open, Neil and Karen had decided to make a go of it. So, it was Sarah’s fault really – how nice for them to have it all magically and neatly resolved like that.
It was old news, but the pain was still as fresh as a daisy on a spring morning. Hearing the facts read out like a shopping list, even though John seemed sorry for her, did not help. The pity of strangers...wasn’t that a poem, perhaps a film? She should audition for the lead role. Sarah sighed and rubbed her eyes.
“Yes...yes that’s me, unfortunately. Now, you need to disappear because I’m suddenly feeling very weary. I’ll make an appointment with my GP in the morning, but for now, I just want to sleep.”
“To get some antidepressants or something for this breakdown I’m having,” she shrugged. “I’m obviously talking to a hallucination.”
John threw back his head and laughed. “No, Sarah, I’m as real as you. It’s normal to feel shell-shocked, but you’ll get over it quite quickly, people usually do.
“So I’m not having a breakdown?”
“Not as far as I know...look, I am what’s known as a Time-Needle. It’s something you’re born into and can’t do anything about. My job is to sew together holes that have opened up in time with a stitch. If they remain open, people will die. I find stitches in time and you’re a stitch.
Sarah looked at him opened-mouthed for a few moments, and then, springing up, she wagged a finger at him. “OK, that’s it, and that’s all! I need a drink!”
She shot out. John followed her to the kitchen. He watched, frowning, as she pulled a wineglass from the cupboard and picked up the bottle, all the while muttering under her breath.
“Err...you have a glass out here in the hall already,” he said, going to the hall and returning with the glass.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I forgot. How silly of me, I mean I am behaving perfectly normally aren’t I? Talking to a Time-Lord, needle, or whatever the hell you are, listening to stories of sewing holes together in time, and what was the last thing?” she said, knocking back the wine in one gulp. “Oh, yes, I’m a stitch...yup, perfectly normal!” She poured more wine and glared at him.
“Oh dear, you really need to calm down a bit, Sarah. Do you mind if I have this one?”John asked, holding up the wineglass.
Sarah shrugged and stared out of the window. This was worse than she had initially feared. Not only was she having a full-blown breakdown, she couldn’t make the damned hallucination stop. Her mind was totally out of control!
She closed her eyes and breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth, counted to three, and snapped her eyes open. No, he was still there, sipping her wine as if he was real! Her addled mind had conjured up a gorgeous guy and called him John. Johnny was apparently too obvious. God, how sad was she? Sipping her wine, she decided that the best thing to do was go with the flow. If I play along, show myself...my mind, that I’m not scared; perhaps the stress will go away...and with it, the hallucination. And anyway, what choice do I have?
“You look a bit calmer now,” John said, setting his glass on the table and drawing up a stool.
Sarah sighed and opened the fridge door. “Yes, well I think it’s sinking in a bit now. “Would you like some crackers and cheese? Wine on an empty stomach isn’t such a good idea. I was going to dial a pizza later, but I’ve gone off that idea, funny, that.”
“Yes, please if you’re sure it’s no trouble,” John said, peering round her at the contents of the fridge. “Ooh, and a bit of that cold ham and pickles if there’s some going begging.”
“Anything else, you know, while I’m here?” Sarah asked, sarcastically.
“Err...is that Sainsbury’s houmous?” John asked, licking his lips.
A few minutes later, Sarah, seated opposite at the kitchen table, watched as John made short work of his food. Biting into a cracker, Sarah pointed a piece of cheese at him and asked, “So, you’re a time traveller, do you have a wife?”
“A wife?” John looked startled. “No, but I think we need to keep our relationship platonic, Sarah. It’s not that I don’t find you attract...”
“No! It’s a book and a film,” she said, horrified that he’d thought she was coming on to him. She sighed and shook her head. Hang on? What the hell does it matter what he thinks, he’s not bloody real!
“Oh, I see,” John was saying. “I don’t keep up much with books and films.” He popped a pickled onion in his mouth. “And, I’m not a time traveller; you are...or will be, if you agree to it of course.”
“Oh, right, yeah, I’m always zipping about the universe in my trusty TARDIS, more ham, John?”
“Now you are just being facetious, Sarah. Ham...mm, just a couple of slices will be lovely, thanks.”
“Anyway,” Sarah said, with her head in the fridge, “thought you said I was a stitch in time, not a time traveller.” She forked ham onto John’s plate, a thought suddenly occurring to her. “Ha-ha, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’! Mind you, that old saying means that if you don’t attend to a problem immediately, the problem will get worse. God knows quite what you meant, John.”
John thanked her and took a sip of wine. He stared at her across the table while she crunched her crackers. “Look, Sarah, I think you’re about ready to hear what this whole thing is about.”
Sarah drained her glass and folded her arms. “Yup, I think I’m ready too, John, fire away why don’t you?”
“OK,” he leaned forward and pushed his plate to one side. “The meaning of the old saying, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ has become corrupted over the centuries. It actually means that if a hole in time isn’t sewn up by a stitch, nine people will die. Those nine people may, or may not, be pivotal actors on the stage of history, but if they die, or are never born, the effect on the future is always negative. The stitch has to travel back through time to save them.”
Sarah swallowed a cracker and began to admire the capacity her brain had for such intriguing plots. She was even starting to enjoy it. Great looking guy, wine, interesting conversation, even if it was all in her head, it was better than watching Eastenders on her own...again.
“OK, John,” she said, rolling up a slice of ham and dipping it in the houmous. Sarah wasn’t fussed about what a hallucination thought of her table manners. “So, I’m this stitch. Why are there holes, why me, and what do I have to do?” She shoved all the ham in her mouth at once.
John raised his eyebrows slightly as he watched her stuffing her face but didn’t comment. “Why do holes appear? There are lots of theories too complicated to go into now. Why you? I have no idea, I just get the information. What you have to do, I can answer,” he took a dainty nibble of cheese and dabbed his mouth with a bit of kitchen roll. “A stitch or S.T.I.T.C.H. actually is an acronym for your task. You have to
Sarah frowned and dabbed her finger at the last few crumbs of cheese on her plate.
“Great acronym, it has just one dastardly flaw, Mr Depp.”
“Mr Depp?” John said, draining his glass.
“Yes, you said earlier that I had to close the hole to save nine, like the old saying. Well, now, you just said three important terrestrials.” Sarah sat back, folded her arms and giggled. Seems like my hallucination is having a breakdown too!
“No flaw, Sarah, you save three, and then the children that they go on to have, or sometimes, grandchildren, make up the nine,” John said smugly. “Is it OK if I pour another?” he held up his glass.
“Yes, why not? And get one for me, would you?” Sarah held her glass above her head as he walked past. She’d already had one large glass, but hey, the wine was helping her relax, and she definitely needed that. With any luck she’d pass out and wake up tomorrow, Johnless. “Oh, and I think we’d be comfier in the living room,” she called over her shoulder as she left the kitchen.
Sarah flopped onto the sofa, punched the cushions, and slotted them behind her back. She stretched and yawned loudly as John came in.
“Don’t get too comfy and go to sleep, you need to understand what’s going to happen,” he said, handing her the wine.
Sarah noticed it was a very small glass.
“OK,” he said, picking up his clipboard and sitting in the chair opposite. “Looks like the three that you are down to save are: a homesteader in the Old American West, someone caught up in the Sheffield Blitz, and,” he flicked paper. “ah, yes, a suffragette in early 20th century London.”
“Well, that confirms it then. I am having a breakdown,” Sarah sighed, yawned again, and closed her eyes.
“What does?” John frowned.
“Well, it’s a bit bloody predictable, isn’t it? I teach all those things in my job don’t I? My brain has neatly woven them into my hallucination.”
“No, Sarah, you aren’t having a breakdown. It’s partly because of what you do, that you have been chosen as a stitch. You have to know the period well, to be able to blend in.”
Opening one eye she said, “I thought you didn’t know why I had been chosen – that you ‘just got the information’?” Sarah waggled her index and middle fingers in mock quotation marks.
“Yes, that’s true, I only know little bits.” John sighed and looked at his watch. “Look, I need to know, are you going to do this or not?”
Sarah closed her eye. “Do I have a choice?”
“Yes...though you will have deaths on your conscience if you don’t.”
“Oh that’s nice then. Has anyone ever refused?”
“A few,” John said. “One had devastating consequences. There was a guy a few hundred years ago, Norman. He refused, and someone who should have been born wasn’t, and someone who shouldn’t have been born was.”
Sarah opened both eyes. “Who?”
“Hitler! God, how awful!” Sarah said, reaching for her wineglass.
“Yeah, you know that saying, ‘time waits for no man’? It was originally time waits for Norman, but unfortunately, Norman didn’t care.”
Sarah scratched her head. “But I don’t get it. If I go back to the Old American West and save somebody, their children or grandchildren will already have been born, had children of their own, grown old and may be dead by now. So how can all of that have happened if I haven’t even gone back in time yet? And what I do back in time will totally mess up the future...won’t it?
“No, Sarah,” John said, shaking his head. “You’ve just grown up watching films and reading books that assume that’s how time works. Scientists have no real clue. They say they do and provide lots of equations and write books to prove it, but unfortunately, they have it all wrong.”
“Wrong? So, how...?”
“Never mind all that now. We really don’t have the time...no pun intended,” John said smirking.
Swinging her legs to the floor Sarah leaned forward and ran her hands through her hair. This was beyond crazy now. She decided the best option was to agree to everything and then hopefully John would go. He kept glancing at his watch, so must want to be off. There you go again Sarah, he’s not real!
“OK, I’ll do it. What happens next, and who do I save first?”
“Now that’s a little tricky,” John said, looking sheepish. “We aren’t told that bit. It will happen unexpectedly and you’ll just have to cope the best you can...also, there’s no guarantee that you will pick the right person, and even if you do...no guarantee that you can save them.”
“Oh, this just gets better and sodding better.”
John ignored her. “Anyway, other stitches have told me that everything generally falls into place when they get there. So, Sarah,” he stood up and moved to the hallway. “I’ll bid you good evening, I need to check that everything is as it should be at the allotment. I have staff that lock up for me, but I always like to check everything.”
Sarah jumped up and followed him to the door. “Allotment?”
“Yes, I own a small market garden, that’s my job and I love it,” he said, grinning. “I don’t really like this time-needling stuff, but as I said, I was born to it and can’t do anything about it – awful really, so much responsibility.” John opened the door and stepped out.
Sarah shook her head. What kind of an imagination must she have?
John said goodbye and crunched a few steps along her drive. He hesitated and turned round. “Oh, and don’t mention anything about the future to anyone from the past. That would be problematic.”
“Yes, right, I can see how it would be. See you!” she called, quickly shutting the door.
Bewildered, Sarah walked round the house locking the doors and stacking plates and glasses in the dishwasher. Neil and Karen had a lot to answer for. She wondered if they would feel a tiny bit guilty when the men in white coats showed up at her front door with a nice strappy jacket. She poured a glass of water and opened her telephone/address book at the ‘D’ for doctor page, placing it by the phone. Snapping the hall light off, and the house into darkness, she trudged up the stairs to bed.
Ten minutes later, John stepped into the hallway. He flicked on a small torch and tiptoed to the bottom of the stairs. Reassured by thunderous snoring from upstairs, he carefully opened Sarah’s schoolbag and slipped an envelope into it. He extinguished the torch and then quietly let himself out of the house.