Just across the road from the house where we used to live before Dad died (the first time) is an alleyway that leads to the next street with a patch of grass with some bushes and straggly trees growing on it. I called it “the jungle” when I was little because in my mind that’s what it was like, but looking at it now, I can see that it’s just a plot of land for a house that hasn’t been built yet.
And that’s where I am, still in my full-face motorbike helmet, sitting hidden in a bush in the dead of night, waiting to break into my old house.
There’s an old fried-chicken box that someone’s thrown there, and I can smell something foul and sour that I think might be fox’s poo. The house is dark; there are no lights on. I’m looking up at my old bedroom window, the small one over the front door.
By day, Chesterton Road is pretty quiet--a long curve of small, semidetached houses made of reddish bricks. When they were first built, they must all have looked exactly the same, but now people have added fancy gates, garage extensions, even a massive monkey puzzle tree outside old Mr. Frasier’s, so these days they’re all a bit different.
Now, at nearly one a.m., there’s no one about, and I’ve seen enough films and TV shows about criminals to know exactly how not to behave, and that’s suspiciously. If you act normal, no one notices you. If I wandered nervously up and down the street waiting for the right time, then someone might spot me going backward and forward looking at the houses, and call the police.
On the other hand, if I’m just walking down the street, then that’s all I’m doing, and it’s as good as being invisible.
(Keeping the motorbike helmet on is a gamble, or what Grandpa Byron calls “a calculated risk.” If I take it off, someone might notice that I’m nowhere near old enough to be riding a moped; if I keep it on, that looks suspicious--so I’m still of two minds about it. Anyway, it won’t be on for long.)
I’ve worked all this out on the journey here. About a year ago, when we still lived here, the local council turned off every second streetlight in a money-saving experiment, so where I’ve stopped the moped it is really pretty dark.
As casually as I can, I come out of the bushes, take off the helmet, and put it in the moped’s top box. I pull my collar up and, without stopping, walk over the road to number 40. There I turn straight up the short driveway and stop in the shadows, well hidden by both the hedge that divides number 40’s front garden from the one next door and the small Škoda that sits in the driveway.
So far, so good--the new owners of our house have not yet got round to fixing the garage doors. In fact, they’re even less secure than they were. There’s a brick in front of them to keep them shut, and when I crouch down and move it out of the way, the right-hand door swings open, then bumps against the Škoda. For a dreadful moment I think the gap will be too small to let me in, but I just manage to squeeze through--and there I am, in the garage, which smells of dust and old oil. My torch is flashing round the walls to reveal boxes that still haven’t been unpacked and, in the middle of the floor, the dark wooden planks covering up the cellar entrance.
Here’s another tip if you’re thinking of breaking in anywhere: don’t flash your torch around too much. A flashing light will attract attention, but a still light won’t. So I put my torch on the ground and start to lift up the greasy planks.
Under the planks there’s a concrete stairway, and once I’ve gone down it I’m standing in a space about a meter square and to my right is a small metal door that’s about half my height with a dusty steel wheel for opening it like you get on ships. The wheel is secured in place by a stout bolt with a combination lock.
I try to give a little whistle of amazement--a “whew!”--but my lips are so dry with nerves and dust that I can’t. Instead, I set the combination lock to the numbers Dad instructed in his letter--the day and month of my birth backward--grab the wheel with both hands, and twist it counterclockwise. There’s a bit of resistance, but it gives with a soft grating noise, and as it spins around, the door suddenly pops open inward with a tiny sighing noise of escaping air.
I grab my torch and aim it ahead of me as I go through the little doorway, crouching. There are more steps down and a wall on my right, and my hand finds a light switch but I daren’t try it in case it’s a switch for something else, like an alarm or something, or it lights up the garage upstairs, or . . . I just don’t know, but I’m too nervous to flick the switch so I look at everything through the yellowy-white beam of torchlight.
The steps lead to a room about half the size of our living room at home, but with a lower ceiling. A grown-up could just about stand up.
Along one long wall are four bunk beds, all made up--blankets, pillows, everything. There’s a wall that juts out into the room, and behind it is a toilet and some kind of machinery with pipes and hoses coming out of it. There are rugs on the white concrete floor and a poster on the wall. It’s faded orange and black with a picture of a mum, a dad, and two children inside a circle, and the words “protect and survive” in big white letters. I’ve seen this poster before when some guy came to talk about peace and nuclear war and stuff in assembly once, and he made Dania Biziewski cry because she was scared and he was really embarrassed.
This is what people built years ago when they thought Russia was going to kill us with nuclear bombs.
I turn round and see what’s behind me. The torch beam picks out a long desk with a chair in front of it. On the desk is a zinc tub, like you would bathe a dog in or something. In it is an old-style Mac laptop--the white one--and a computer mouse. There’s a cord coming out of the back of the computer leading to a black metal box about the size of a paperback book, and coming out of that are two cords that are each about a meter long, with strange sort of handgrips on the end.
Next to the tub is a coffee mug printed with a picture of me as a baby and the words “I love my daddy.” The inside of the mug is all furred up with ancient mold.
And beside the mug is a copy of the local newspaper, the Whitley Bay Advertiser, folded in half and open at a story headlined “Local Man’s Tragic Sudden Death” above a picture of my dad.
I sit down in the swivel chair and run my hands over the underside of the desk. When I can’t feel anything, I get on my knees and shine the torch upward, and there it is: an envelope, taped at the back, just as Dad said there would be.
But there’s no time machine. At least, not one that looks how I imagine a time machine might look.
That’s how I end up staring at the zinc tub and its contents.
Surely, I’m thinking, surely that’s not it?
But it is.
And the craziest thing? It works.
One Week Earlier
This whole thing--the breaking and entering, plus robbery, arson, stealing a moped, and killing someone (sort of, anyway), not to mention time travel--started on my twelfth birthday.
That day I got a hamster, and a letter from my dead dad.
I suppose if you were being precise--and precision, as Grandpa Byron says, counts--it started when me and Mum moved in with Steve and the Stepsister From Hell, Carly. That was just after Mum and Steve got married in the world’s smallest wedding (people there: Mum, Steve, Grandpa Byron, me, TSFH, Aunty Ellie).
If you were being super-precise, it kind of started when Dad died, but that was a long time ago and I don’t really want to get into that. Not yet, anyway.
So there we were, on my twelfth birthday, which is May 12, so I was twelve on the twelfth, which only happens once in anyone’s life, and some people have to wait until they’re thirty-one, by which time I guess it’s not so much fun.
Steve is always trying to make me like him, so he spent a lot of money on my present, a replica Newcastle United shirt with my name and age on the back: “Albert 12.” Except my name’s now Al, not Albert, and I don’t really like football. I’ve sat and watched a few games with him, because it makes Mum happy to see us “bonding,” but to be honest I don’t really see the point of the whole thing.
“Well, put it on, Al--see if it fits!” says Mum, and she’s smiling this too-smiley smile, and I’m smiling too to make up for the fact that I don’t like the present, even though I know it’s kind of him, and Steve’s smiling a sort of puzzled smile, and about the only one smiling properly is Carly, probably because she can tell I don’t like the present and that makes her happy.
It’s on the big side, so there’s no chance I’ll grow out of it soon, which is a shame.
Mum’s present is much better. It’s there on the countertop: a big box, wrapped up in colored paper, with a ribbon and a bow, just like presents look in drawings, and I have no idea what it is until I unwrap it and the box inside says “hamsterdam--the city for your hamster.” There’s a picture on it of tubes and boxes and a cage and everything, and I’m grinning so hard because I have guessed what’s in the small box that Mum’s holding, and sure enough there’s a hamster in there, a cute, small one that’s not fully grown yet, and he (or she; I don’t know how to tell yet) has got this twitchy nose and light-brown fur and I love him (or her) already.
I’m wondering what to call him when Steve says, “I’ve got a great name for him!”
“Steve,” says Mum, “let the boy choose his own name.”
Steve looks a bit disappointed, so I say, “It’s OK. What’s your idea?”
“Alan Shearer!” Steve sees me blinking, blank-faced, so he repeats, “Alan Shearer. Greatest striker the Toon ever had? Premier League’s all-time top scorer?” I still look blank. “Bloke on Match of the Day?”
I nod and force a smile, but as I’m doing so, it kind of turns into a real one, because whichever way you look at it, giving a hamster a proper name like “Alan Shearer” has got to be better than calling it “Fluffy” or “Hammy,” which was as far as my imagination had got. So Alan Shearer it is.
I notice that Carly has stopped smiling. She comes over to me as I’m unpacking the plastic tubes and bends down close so that only I can hear. “A hamster?” she murmurs. “They’re just rats for babies.”
You know what, though? I don’t care.
Then Grandpa Byron arrives to give me a ride to school like he always does since Mum and I moved farther away to live with Steve and Carly.
I open the front door and he’s standing there in his long saffron-colored robes, gray hair in a plait, little round sunglasses, and huge biker boots. Under one arm--the bad one--he’s holding his motorbike helmet, and under the other--the good one--is a birthday card in an envelope.
“Happy birthday, bonny lad,” he says, and I give him a huge hug. I love Grandpa Byron’s smell. It’s a mixture of the minty oil he puts in his hair and these sweet-smelling cigarettes he sometimes smokes called beedis, which he buys in boxes from a man who runs a Lebanese takeaway, even though he’s from Bangladesh, and the licorice-flavored toothpaste he uses, which I have tried and is pretty gross, but it smells nice.
As I hug him I take a deep breath. He waves through to the kitchen, which isn’t far from the front door. “Morning, Byron!” calls Mum. “Come on in!”
Carly shimmies past me to go up the stairs. “Hi, Byron,” she says sweetly. “Lovin’ the robes, dude!” It’s only when she has passed him and is out of his sight that she turns to me, wrinkles up her face, and wafts her hand in front of her nose, as if Grandpa Byron’s smell is something bad, which it totally isn’t.
He’s got a funny way of talking, my grandpa: his Indian accent sounds Geordie and he uses Geordie expressions and old dialect words all mixed up together. He’s my dad’s dad, but my dad didn’t really talk Geordie, not much.
Grandpa comes in and sits at the breakfast bar. “Sorry, mate--I wasn’t having a chance to get your present.” He wobbles his head in that Indian way, probably just because he knows it makes me laugh, and he’s smiling as he does it so I can see his big gold tooth.
“S’OK,” I reassure him, and I open the card. Out fall two twenty-pound notes.
“Thanks. Thanks a lot!” And I really mean it.
Then Mum says, “I’m glad you’re here, Byron. It’s time to give Al the letter,” and she gets up and goes over to a drawer. She’s behaving a bit strangely, like flighty and excited and nervous, when she skips back with this big fat envelope. Steve’s watching her, smiling quietly, but it’s clear from Grandpa Byron’s face that he hasn’t got a clue what this is about. Mum puts on her serious face.
“Now, Al. This is for you, from your dad.”
I don’t know what to say.
“We found this in your dad’s things after he died. He must have written it ages ago.”
I’m staring at the envelope in her hands. Grandpa Byron’s expression hasn’t changed.
“What is it?” I say eventually.
“I don’t know. It’s personal, addressed to you. But I think you should regard it as highly private”--and here she pauses--“not to be shared with anyone else.”
I take the envelope carefully and read the spidery writing on the front. My dad’s handwriting, and my full name: Albert Einstein Hawking Chaudhury. Below my name is written “IMPORTANT: Do Not Open This Envelope Until Sixteen Hours After Receiving It. To Be Delivered on His Twelfth Birthday.” --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.