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Out of Time (extract)

by John Marsden

Browsing through The Book of Lists late one night, James read this paragraph, as he pulled at his bottom lip with an anxious finger:

‘On July 6, 1944, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus was giving a performance in Hartford, Conn., before 7,000 paid [sic] customers. A fire broke out: 168 persons died in the blaze and 487 were injured. One of the dead, a small girl thought to be six years old, was unidentified. Since no one came to claim her and since her face was unmarred, a photograph was taken of her and distributed locally, and then throughout the U.S. Days passed, weeks and months passed, but no relative, no playmate, no one in the nation came forward to identify her. She remains unknown to this day.’

James put the book down and gazed out of his open bedroom window. It was dark outside, a kind of molten dark that slid endlessly through the window. James sat at the edge of the island of light created by his desk lamp. He turned the light off and let the black fill the room. It was a warm night. The flyscreen that had been on the window sat propped against the wall where it had rested for two months, discarded and dusty. There was a huge tree outside the window. It blocked much of the view but was itself a view. Old and oak, it was a treasury of hollow places. In its dark green curves dwelt old air, unbreathed pockets. Possums ran along the branch that led right to James’ window. When not fighting or mating they fed from his long friendly fingers.

It seemed that the tree itself was reaching into the room: if the windows were closed it brushed and scratched against them. When the windows were open it became a living curtain of green. The boy was not sure whether the tree was friendly or not. On the whole he thought he liked it, but sometimes when he was in bed and the lights were out, it scared him with its incessant rubbing on the glass.

The soft sweet dark air flooded around James. He was no longer sure where his room ended and the night began. Across the square in one of the old laboratories a light came on. Directly above it a thin rind of crescent moon showed pale in the sky; pale compared to the solid artificial light in the distant lab. ‘Artificial light,’ James wondered, ‘what does that mean, “artificial”?’ He held out his hands to the darkness and let it wash between his fingers. Then, possum-like, he swung out across the windowsill onto the nearest branch of the oak, crawled along it and squeezed down the trunk to the ground. Behind him the house still squatted.

James ran around the edges of the square, like the last line of a wave on a beach, that is, in shallow curves and fretting lines. Nowhere did he take the shortest distance between two points. He merged with shadows and slipped easily through the cool patches under the trees. The big brick lab, Building H, two dull stories high, opaque and severe, kept its blind eyes closed as he swerved past it. He was running towards the light. The light came from an old weatherboard building at the centre of a cluster of small storage sheds and garages. It was, as James knew, Lab 17, the smallest of the network of old laboratories. The night was warm, and so the door, defying the regulations, was half-open. James, head down, with the over-confidence born of familiarity, came sliding in as if on a skateboard. He tumble-turned against the first workbench and ran into a corner, hiding between two globes of the world, one old, one new. From there he peered at the man working at the front bench.

Mr Woodforde at first glance looked more like an accountant than a physicist. A man of about seventy, he was completely bald and dressed in a neat dark pinstripe suit. He was small and wrinkled and had a mouth full of gold-capped teeth. His skin had the greyish colour of a heavy smoker. His eyes hung like fried eggs, in bags of age.

At James’ entrance he looked up briefly, then returned to his work. He wrote down a series of numbers before speaking. His voice was surprisingly rounded and rich and resonant.

‘How fortunate that I wasn’t delicately balancing a vial of sulphuric acid above a tray of water,’ he remarked. James smirked from between the two globes. He liked the formal way Mr Woodforde spoke. For the next few minutes there was a silence in the lab: only the little sounds of pen on paper, the door whining with an occasional movement of air, trees giving a shrug of leaves outside the windows. James emerged from his shelter shyly, by degrees. He doodled with his finger along a side bench, traced an oblique path towards the blackboard at the front of the lab, followed his own course there. He took a piece of chalk and wrote on the blackboard: ‘MY NAME IS JAMES, ABSOLUTELY.’ Then he wriggled around the front sink to where Mr Woodforde was standing, and stood behind him, looking around his elbow at the papers and equipment spread across the table. Mr Woodforde showed no awareness of his presence, except to mutter:

‘Look on, you enforcers of the Official Secrets Act, and despair.’

He continued to work in silence on a small circuit board, until, his eyes tired, he nudged it away and put down his pliers.

‘I can’t believe it’s going to work. Everything tells me it’s going to work, except for my instincts. With every thing else I’ve achieved it’s been the other way round.’ He sighed and turned to James, who gazed impassively into his face. ‘You know, James,’ he said, ‘revenge is a wonderful motive. If they hadn’t rushed me in here to make room for all the fancy Americans, I would have happily eked out my time doing research on superconductors. Now, there they are in their brand-new maximum-security fortress, working out how to detect low-flying mosquitoes, while the forgotten old man works in a shed out the back winning a Nobel Prize. And the second greatest satisfaction I’ll get out of all this is to be able to clench my fist and render my radius and ulna perpendicular to my humerus.’ He chuckled and interpreted: ‘Bend my arm at the elbow.’ Then he added thoughtfully, ‘I know the greatest satisfaction will be to... well, I’ll use the cliché... “go where no man has gone before”. But there’s a failure of my imagination somewhere. Maybe that’s why I don’t really think it’ll work. I can’t imagine it.’ He glanced again at the boy, who was watching him with respect. ‘I’ve said too much again. But who knows how much of it you absorb? And I don’t think you’re likely to be suborned by foreign agents. You’ve got the perfect defence. Funny,’ he mused, ‘I hadn’t thought about this being used for defence purposes, but no doubt someone will think of an application.’ He sighed and turned back to his work. ‘No sleep, no food, no exercise. I can’t run on adrenalin all the time.’