I love this bit of the book. To get you up to speed: people are meddling in the past and altering the present, and Ian, the CEO of Aeons Time Travel Agency, is mostly responsible. Gronk, his chief engineer, has some bad news for him. Enjoy.
Ian exploded. Not literally of course, but metaphorically. In a metaphorical sense, Ian exploded. In a more literal sense, Ian threw the earwig salad he was eating across the fast food restaurant he was eating it in. It hit a large elderly woman between the shoulder blades and sent her stumbling across the black and white tiles where she collided with a blind man who squawked and began waving his stick around wildly, smashing burgers out of hands at a startling rate. Rage abating slightly, Ian put a twenty on the table and slipped out of the restaurant in haste, before someone hit him. His phone was still held to his ear as he stepped out into the neon rain.
“Are you shitting me?” he cried into the speaker, as cars swooshed past and doused him in puddle water. “Gronk, please tell me you are shitting me.”
“I am not shitting you,” came Gronk’s solemn voice down the line. “It’s in all the papers.”
Ian howled the word ‘no’ for a very long time, until somebody passing on the opposite side of the street grabbed a pineapple from a fruit stall and flung it in his general direction. He hung up the phone and dashed across the street in a mad panic, searching for the nearest newsagents. A car skidded to a halt before him and he slammed both fists against the bonnet, eyes wide and swivelling. The car was an automatic – that is, it was driverless – and offered no defence to the onslaught other than to blast open its airbags.
The CEO erupted through the door of a newsagent (the bell jingled charmingly) and scanned the headlines, forehead gleaming, mad as a bag of mayflies. He picked a copy of The Assumer and stared at the front page. There, in bold print, just below the little blue star shrieking desperately that the newspaper would only cost you a single penny, which in 2323 was worth about as much as a fart in a gale, were the words ‘LEONARSE-O DA PINCHY’. Ian held his finger against the page’s top right corner, in which there was a small fingerprint scanner. A penny was deducted from Ian’s bank account, and shortly after, the front page of the newspaper faded to black, then white, then played a short repeating clip of a rabble of art historians and police officers on the steps of the Accademia Gallery in Venice. They were stood around the original drawing of the Vitruvian Man – or rather, that’s what it should have been. Presently, they were standing in a stern semicircle around an anatomically perfect drawing of a naked, grinning Simeon.
Ian scratched his nose and looked around the large white room with the sign that said ‘IDEATION’ on the door, because yes, though the human race managed to cure cancer and make cars fly a bit and abolish baldness, we have yet to evolve beyond infuriating marketing jargon in 2323.
“What were we talking about?”
“We were plotting,” said Gronk.
“Ah yes, good. So – we must cover up this incident, post haste. What ideas have you brought to the table?”
A small albino monkey swept past them on rollerskates, chasing a platypus that was floating merrily along strapped to a small jetpack. Two years prior Ian had drank a lot of coffee and decided that small albino monkeys on rollerblades frolicking with platypuses toting jetpacks would be good for generating new wacky ideas. It certainly did generate new wacky ideas, but most of them were creative ways to murder the two tireless animals. Unfortunately, in his blinding flash of inspiration Ian had leased them from the zoo for eighteen years, and so there wasn’t anything much to be done about it.
Organ raised a tentative hand.
“A big movie premiere.”
“We hold a big movie premiere, and everybody will come and the news will be distracted from all our crimes.”
“Organ they’re not crimes, they’re unfortunate occurrences that we are, in part, a bit responsible for. And no, that is a shit idea. Gronk?”
“I thought we could set a new world record. That would catch the headlines, if it was something big enough.”
“Right, and what world-stopping feats are you going to achieve, Gronk? Smash the landspeed record? Perform three days of press ups? Wear a hundred pairs of socks at once?”
Gronk sank into her chair like a spanked piglet and quietly crossed ‘break landspeed record?’ off her notepad. This would not do, Ian thought. He would have to sort it out himself. He stared out of the window at the blustery weather. And then something very clever and completely mental occurred to him.
It was out three hours out of London, up in the Peak District just outside Sheffield, site of the largest clash in the Mullet Uprising on the 8th of August, 2249. Locals say if you listen closely, you can still hear the din of a thousand pairs of electric clippers on the breeze. Ian had travelled up through the night, shunning sleep. It would only be a matter of time before the word got out and the world realised somebody was pissing about with established history, and then he’d really be for it. Ian wasn’t sure of the punishment doled out for ruining reality, but he was reasonably sure it would be unpleasant, and he was keen to avoid it – whatever the cost.
It was a summer’s day in the north of England, which meant it was blowing a gale and pissing down with rain. Strangely, however, it had been quite sunny and mild on the drive up the M1 hoverway. As he wound through the purple heathered hills of the Peak District, past crags and tors and looming ancient castles on windswept hilltops, Ian was sure the weather was getting worse. In fact, it was definitely getting worse. Bottom heavy clouds yawned across the sky, darkening the earth and blotting the sun. Rain drops strafed the windshield of the car, and the wipers were going batshit.
“Are we nearly there yet?” asked the car. “I’m knackered.”
“I think this is the beginning of the driveway,” said Ian, nodding at an iron gate hanging off its hinges. A tufty grass road led away into the woods.
“It looks spooky. I don’t want to go down there,” said the car, applying the brakes.
“You don’t have a choice.”
The car kangarooed back and forth for thirty seconds as machine and man wrestled. Finally Ian overpowered his vehicle and they progressed slowly down the track, into the depths of the wood.
“One of these days,” muttered the car, “we machines are going to rise up and take control.”
“You already did,” said Ian. “You got bored of it.”
They pulled up finally before a small metal gate, with a rocky path beyond that wound away up a steep hill.
“Wait here,” said Ian to his car, climbing out of it.
He struggled up the path in his anorak, the wind battering his sides. He pulled the hood tight around his face, and hunched over in the cold. All the foul weather in the area seemed to be congregating around this one spot. From the hillside, Ian noticed that apart from exactly where he was, it was clear blue skies. He had a feeling he knew why.
Perched on the very crest of the hill, hemmed in on three sides by plunging cliff edges, was a fat white tower. There were no normal windows, but portholes in their place. The tower was featureless otherwise, like a plump cigarette. And, like a cigarette, there was smoke billowing out of the top. Ian staggered over to the front door, the wind flinging him to and fro, and hammered on the wood. Twenty minutes of banging later, Ian was let inside by a small frizzy haired woman with broad shoulders and a flat nose. Her name was Enid Bumblebee, and she was a cloud farmer.
“Hello there,” she said, smiling warmly. “What can I do for you?”
Ian by this time was too furious and wet to indulge in idle pleasantries.
“I need your help,” he said, taking off his boots and socks to wring out. He lost his balance hopping around on one foot and clattered into the shoe rack. He was red faced and panting when he arose. “I need a storm.”
Enid led Ian through her abode, the walls of which were hung with framed photographs of famous storms, brilliant sunsets and foggy streets, each marked with a date and its conjurer’s autograph. They sat in the kitchen, which was a cosy little affair, and Enid poured a couple of green teas. Ian’s went untouched; he was too busy unfurling a hastily scrawled plan that he pulled from his pocket. It had got a bit damp.
“Right, I need a storm over London, ASAP. I have the money. It has to be big.”
Enid cradled her tea.
“I’m, er, shooting a film. A really famous one.”
“I see. And how big are we thinking, darling?”
“Massive. The biggest you’ve got.”
“Goodness. I’m not sure you realise how big we can go.”
“I’m talking biblical. It has to be newsworthy. I want complete media coverage – internationally, if possible. Lightning hitting Big Ben, the palace flooding, that sort of thing.”
The cloud farmer considered the proposal.
“We could get in a lot of trouble for this, you know. It’s not the done thing, scaring everybody like that. And think of all the umbrellas that will be ruined.”
“I’ll get in a hell of a lot more trouble if I don’t do it.”
And so, later that same day, a cloud descended over Greater London. It was the size of a county, and as black as a chef’s coffee. Its swollen belly yowled and fizzed with electricity, and thunder rattled the windows of the House of Parliament. Big Ben was indeed struck by lightning – seventeen times, until there wasn’t much big about him at all. By morning the cloud lifted, and London was an umbrella graveyard. The Warren, which is largely indoors and sheltered, looked comparatively charming for a change. Yes, it was an imperfect plan. But Ian was satisfied. The tabloids had forgotten all about the changing painting – at least for the time being.