Middlesbrough Meteorite

by Ian Robinson

I.

James Farley worked on the railways. He was a plate layer, and he would go out with others like him, and a Permanent Way Inspector to keep the track and land around it in working order. His job mostly involved muscle work, low-level engineering; it was the Inspector who did all of the paperwork.  

It was a grey, drizzly day in mid-March and he had been sent to service a switch heel, near the signal box on the Middlesbrough to Guisborough branch-line.  Now alone, fellow plate layers Frank Henwood and Henry Obren accompanied the Inspector, William Ellinor.  The four had disembarked the train at Ormesby station and walked the short distance alongside the track to the spot known as Pennyman's Siding, just under 3 kilometers from Middlesbrough town.  

Eleanor climbed up to the signal box cabin and when the three laborers gave him the thumbs up, he pulled the lever for the track point they were inspecting.  Henwood spotted the problem straight away―two bolts had worked themselves loose probably from heavy freight trains trundling over, and the snow and ice of February; water could settle in the threads and around the bolts, only for it to expand when frozen and buckle the surrounding fittings. Obren and Farley went to work unfaltering the bolts and taking a rag to wipe round the gaps, then coat it and the new bolts with oil before going to replace them.  

Henwood stood up from his work done, frowning at Farley, who seemed to be frozen on the spot.  He shouted at him, but to no effect.  He drew breath to raise his voice, when a sound like a loud rushing through the air caught his attention.  It lasted several moments before a distinct and definite thud ended it like a profound punctuation mark.  Henwood looked around but there was nothing to be seen: no passing trains or men, though what the rushing and thud sound could be, if caused by men, he could not guess.  He joined Henry Obren further along the track, who was also curious about the strange sounds.  Inspector Ellinor was leaning out of a window of the signal box when he called out to the men.  

"It sounded from over there." The large bearded man informed them, pointing.  When Henwood and Obren looked, they saw Farley further down the line, in the direction the Inspector had pointed, though none had seen him pass them.  But he was quite still, like a statue, much how Henwood had left him at the points.  The two men walked toward him, Obren stopping to see what was wrong with him.  But to Obren's confusion, Farley remained frozen, literally statuesque.  It unnerved him, he did not appear to even be breathing and had not blinked once in the minute or so he had been staring at him.  Obren was about to reach out a hand to him when Henwood called out to him.  Obren turned and saw him kneeling by the embankment, down and away from the signal box.

"Come see this!" Henwood called.  Obren shrugged and hurried over.  Frank pointed at a small, quite circular, hole in the embankment that faintly smoked in the damp March air.

"What is it?" Obren asked, standing with his colleague at the gravel slope.

"There's a lump of rock in there." Henwood told him.  Obren got down to his knees and peered in.  Sure enough he could see it, rough hewn and quite unlike the surrounding earth or ballast from the track.  Obren rolled up his sleeve and found he could delve his arm down into the smooth, tube-like hole. The rock was buried up to the depth of his elbow and he found he could grasp the mystery rock.  It was warm, like new milk, to touch and so he grasped it with strong fingers and withdrew it from the hole it lay in.

Suddenly, everything changed.  Obren was standing beside a grey building on a grass verge beside a road of solid packed, black material.  He gasped, dropping the stone and in a heartbeat he was by the embankment again.  Henwood was staring at him, wide eyed.

"My God, man!  Where did you go?"

Obren could only look at him, bewildered and in shock.  He looked down at the rock, inert and seemingly harmless, where he had dropped it.  It was approximately six inches in diameter and was a dull, almost the color of gun-metal. Then Farley was there, now unlike a statue, now a figure of agitation and nervousness.  He appeared, to the two workmen's eyes, to be twitching violently, jumping minutely from one blink of an eye to another.  Then he was beside the rock, on his knees.  Obren thought to cry out a warning but instead could only gape as Farley vanished before their eyes.  

Obren stumbled around on the uneven ground, eyes scanning the area frantically.  Henwood tried shouting, calling out his name, with increasing fear.  They could only look to each other in utter confusion.  The stone, too, had vanished.  The two men stumbled back from the hole in the ground, certain that the thing had been the cause of this un-godly event.  Henwood looked down the line to the signal box, where he could see Inspector Ellinor  on the signal box steps, gesticulating wildly.  They had to tell him, though what would they say?  How to explain a man is disappearing into thin air.  And that rock…

And then, in a heartbeat and a desperate, anguished cry, Farley was there again.  He was clutching himself, arms wrapped tightly around himself.  His hair wet and bedraggled, as if he had been through hours of trauma.  He re-appeared as if leaning against something and, with a cry, he keeled over onto the ground, heaving and sobbing in terrible shudders.

Obren stared while Henwood scrambled to him, kneeling by his side but afraid to touch him.

"Farley! Farley, man!  Can you hear me?  What in God's name happened?"

With a deep breath hauled into his pounding chest, Farley rolled over to look at the other plate layer.  

"I... I was in a hospital."

"What?  When?"

"Now.  Just now.  I .... I wasn't here."

Obren nodded,  "Bloody right you weren't here!"

Then Farley's hands opened and they saw that he was clutching the strange grey rock. Henwood and Obren backed away from him, afraid.

"It's the devil's work! From hell!" Obren hissed.  "Throw it aside before it takes you again!"

And he pushed the stricken Farley with his boot, loosening the rock from his hands, letting it roll down the slope. The two men stood aside, eyeing it fearfully.

"Come on," Henwood said "Get him up, Henry."

Obren looked at him, eyes wide.

"Me?  No - I'll not touch him.  Been marked by the devil, he has!"

Henwood swore, pushing the trembling Obren away and, with gritted teeth, he took Farley by the arms and pulled him to his feet.  Farley stood, shaking, a glaze of sweat on his face, breathing hard and erratically.  

"And give over with your devil stuff, Henry!  That rock was probably from a site, blasting.  Put too much explosives in."

Obren glared at him, unsure if he was being serious.  Henwood felt more confident as he elaborated on his fiction.  "Aye, I'm sure that was it." He laughed.  "There'll be bits raining down across Marton, I'll wager!"

Obren gingerly took Farley's elbow and helped him walk along the rail line.  

"Aye," he muttered, far from convinced.  "If you say so."

They walked over to the signal box, where Inspector Ellinor hurried down the stairwell, ready to unleash invective on the three men, but he stopped on seeing Farley.

"What the devil happened to you?"

"Farley," he breathed with unfamiliarity; he was new to this group and they still had not gotten used to his name. There was a moment of fearful silence then Obren burst out.  

"Was the devil, aye!  Yon 'un Farley vanished, into thin air, right 'fore our eyes.  Then 'ee came back! Was that rock we found, from hell it is!"

Henwood sighed.  He had really wanted to keep this nonsense under their hats.  True, he had no explanation for his or Farley's disappearing act and, if truth be told, it scared the life out of him, but... telling Inspector Ellinor all this was surely nothing but trouble.  So they sat Farley down on a wooden step of the signal box, Obren and Henwood perching on other steps, as Ellinor stood over them, occasionally setting off to pace as he demanded their account of what Obren was gabbling on about.

"And you saw all this?" the Inspector looked at Henwood, who seemed the more calm of the two, munching distractedly at an apple.  Henwood took a breath, remembering his own brief episode, and considered lying, considered putting the eye of inquest onto Obren.  But with Farley's account too, he would be outnumbered when it came to evidence.  And besides, if he agreed, the onus would come to Farley, to explain himself.  

"It's like he said." Henwood muttered.  

They took a walk back to the rock, still resting where it had fell from Farley's hands, near the foot of the rail embankment.  Farley stared at the rock, a tremor beginning in his fingers that spread up his arms, slowly taking over his whole form.  Inspector Ellinor looked at him, watched him quake, eyes fixed and unblinking on the rock.  Obren started to mumble under his breath, eyes flitting from Farley to the rock and back, threatening to take him.

"Come on!  Let's go!" Ellinor snapped, much to Obren and Henwood's relief.  But as they went to move away they found Farley inert, quite immobile, much like how Obren had seen him before.  Inspector Ellinor demanded to know what was going on and then, in an eye-blink, they were above the rock, limbs paralyzed, the buzzing sound making them wince.  And then, before any reactions could form, they were all further along the track, backs to the embankment on Pennyman's Siding, where that accursed rock had been left.

Once back at Ormesby station, the four men sat in the staff room and gripped mugs of hot, strong, sweet tea, the silence thick and heavy with uncertainty.  No questions had been asked, none had been able to meet the other's eyes.  Just the weight of that impossible occurrence around the mysterious rock.  As the cups were emptied past stoic lips, the inevitable drew nearer.

Ellinor finished his tea first and, with a deep breath, announced

"I'll put in a report in the morning.  Say about that rock landing, like how you've said."

"And... the rest?"  Henwood asked, eyes boring into the dregs of his drink.

"Don't see no need to worry anyone 'bout that." He said to Henwood's relief.  Obren's head snapped up, at last able to glare at his colleagues.  

"But what about—"

"No, Harry, leave it.  That siding's... middle o' nowhere.  No one lives near there.  Let it get lost in the ballast."

Henwood fronted his agreement before draining his own mug noisily.

"What about 'im?"  Obren asked, indicating Farley. Inspector  Ellinor regarded the fellow, silent and mostly back to normal.  The paleness and sweat had gone, and only the occasional twitch ran through him.

"You're alright, aren't ya" Ellinor said, more than asked.  Farley looked up, his sallow eyes in his angular, high cheeked face, glancing fearfully at the others.

"Aye," he said, without conviction, but that was enough for Ellinor.

II.

"And that was that." Obren said, flustered, his words falling over each other to be heard.  "There's something wrong 'bout it, I swear.  Man don't just vanish like that, an' come back.  And what we did, moving like that. I can't explain it, 'cept to say it's... it's evil, is what it is.  It's devil's work, Father."

Father Stone nodded, patting a hand on the plate layer's hands that clasped and trembled on occasion.  This railway worker was clearly upset, disturbed.  Whatever he had witnessed, it was enough to send him to his priest.  They sat on a pew in the middle of the cathedral in Middlesbrough, the darkness of evening held at bay by dozens of candles.  Although in the great empty hall of the cathedral, their voices were small and confined, keeping their words intimate and secret.  

"Tell me about the fellow, the one who... disappeared." Stone began gently. Obren frowned, thinking back.

"Not much to say.  This was our first job wi' him."

"You don't know him?"

"His name.  Can't really think of 'owt more."

Stone rubbed his chin; interesting, he thought.  Or at least, a curious coincidence.  And in his opinion, and experience, he did not believe in coincidence.  Stone inquired if they were working together the following day.  Obren answered in the affirmative and told him where and when they clocked on.  The priest assured the plate layer he would come and meet Mr Farley; he wanted to investigate the rock at the centre of the bizarre behavior.

The following morning Vincent accompanied Stone to the depot and met Obren, who introduced the pair to Ellinor and Henwood.  Inspector Ellinor was not amused, he thought he had made himself quite clear that this would go no further.  Obren shuffled uncomfortably, but Stone interceded on his behalf, reassuring him that anything found or learned would be kept between them, unless they themselves decided otherwise.

"Consider it a side interest," Father Stone answered when asked why he was involving himself here.  Strangely, Farley was not there.  He's vanished, Henwood offered darkly.  They waited then decided to head off to their first job, which they could detour from a little and visit Pennyman's siding and the rock.  All agreed and they boarded the train to Ormesby station where they debarked and walked back down to Pennyman's, off the Marton line.

The day was bright and clear, first hints of spring in the blue sky and the bold colours of daffodils and crocuses along the verges.  Vincent actually found himself smiling and whistling to himself as they walked, much to Father Stone's amusement.  It was good to get out from the urban industrial sprawl along the banks of the Tees.  Looking west, the great scowling bank of smog that was ubiquitous with Teesside seemed, if only temporarily, distant.  Out here, just a couple of miles from Vincent's office and the cathedral in the heart of the old town, the rolling fields of North Yorkshire, the grounds of Ormesby Hall and the village of Marton were all fairly untouched by the industrial revolution.  With your back to the town, one might even believe it could be any time from the previous century, or more.  As Ellinor indicated they were nearly at their destination, Vincent wondered how long this would remain green and untouched.  Middlesbrough was a phenomenon in terms of growth - the fastest growing town in British history, the "infant Hercules" as Gladstone called it.  Who could say how far and wide it might grow, when but fifty years before, there was naught but farmland and salt marsh.

They reached the location, just beyond the signal box, and saw the rock in question, lying innocuously on the ground amongst the gravel and smaller stones of the railway embankment.  Obren and Henwood pointed it out to them, though they and Ellinor stayed a good few yards away from it.  Both priest and detective stopped to inspect the item, nothing but the smoothness of one hemisphere, as if moulded by hands that plumed its material backward.

"Like a head of hair in a strong wind." Vincent surmised.  They then asked to be shown the hole that it had been found in, and were duly shown to it.  Vertical, Vincent noted, and smooth; not particularly deep at just over a foot, and nothing by way of debris or ejecta sprayed out from around the impact.  They returned to stand over the rock and Father Stone noticed his friend acting strangely.  He was twitching somewhat and on occasion, he would distractedly rub the top of his head or his ears.  He looked around and noticed Obren and Henwood behaving likewise.  Ellinor, who had kept more distant, was only watching, uncomfortably.

Vincent then let out a groan and complained about an incessant noise, like a buzzing or drilling, though there were no works near enough to affect him so.

"He hears it, too." Obren said to Henwood.  Then, "It's the rock, it makes that noise, at the top of your head."

Vincent and Stone looked at the railway men, who both nodded.  They all retreated the few yards it took for the buzzing sound to fade, where Vincent suggested moving the rock by picking it up on a shovel and depositing it in a sack, thus avoiding the physical contact the railway men so feared.  The signal box would likely have those materials, Ellinor suggested, turning to walk over to the building.  When, admittedly, all backs were turned from the rock, a strange white blink and a surge of the buzzing sound was followed by a voice crying out and the sound of a person tumbling down the embankment.

All turned and were astonished to see James Farley coming to a stop at the foot of the embankment, curled up in a protective ball.  Stone ran across to the stricken fellow, despite the warnings from the railway men.  Vincent looked on, and at the surrounding area, climbing the scree slope to the track to stand where, logically, Farley would have had to have been to begin his tumble.  The slope was barely six feet high, not enough to conceal someone had they been following them closely.  Just where, then, had he come from?  Father Stone tried to calm Farley down, who was breathing hard and whose matted hair and red face exerted immense distress.  He tried to question him; where had he been, had he "appeared" again, as before?  He could only gasp.

"I was there - that place.  A building, many of them, and a black road.  I... I was inside, it was a hospital, and I was inside!"

Farley  gripped Stone's hands, they were hot and clammy, then his eyes darted around, searching.  He cried out and scrambled across the gravel to the rock and before Stone could prevent him, he had grasped it in his hot hands.  To Stone's relief he did not vanish, as the men had said happened before, and he was able to wrest his grip of the object loose.  It was only as it tumbled from Farley's hands that Stone noticed he seemed to have gone temporarily deaf in the brief seconds with Farley.  The voices of the workers and of Vincent burst back at him as he pulled Farley away from the rock.

"Are you alright?  My God, did you feel anything?  What did you see?" Vincent was calling out.  Stone looked at him confused, asking what he was talking about.  "You become slow, the both of you, like... like mime actors performing all slowed down!  Did you not see anything different?"

Stone said he had not, but the four others all agreed that he and Farley had been locked in this strange performance for several minutes.  Obren and Henwood helped Farley a few feet along the embankment, loosening his shirt to help him breathe, when a thought occurred to Vincent.

"Do you have your pocket watch on you, Father Stone?"

"Always."

"And you set it each morning by the town hall chimes?"

"You know I do."

"As do I." Vincent told him, producing his own pocket watch and bringing them together for comparison.  The two watches differed by almost four minutes.

"Roughly the length of time Farley and yourself spent in that slow tussle."  Vincent said, the potential import of his words dawning on him and the priest.  Could it be that the rock, whatever it was, possessed the ability to alter time?  Perhaps that was where Farley had "disappeared" to - another time?  Stone and Vincent recalled his panicked description of buildings and a black road, not the railway siding they currently resided.  Was that of the future, or the past, somehow?  Both agreed this was such a wild theory as to not discuss it with the railway men.  It needed investigation - by experts, men of science.  Stone stood watch over Farley, joined by the other men, while Vincent took himself to the signal box to inquire about a shovel and sack.  He found the signalman beside the box, angrily chopping up a young tree.

When Vincent returned with the two items, he relayed the signalman's angry activity with some amusement.

"An apple tree," he told them "poking up through the embankment, close to the tracks.  He must have noticed it before today but no, someone planted it there overnight -" he stopped, seeing the awful expression on Henwood's face.  The plate layer asked in a wavering voice where the signalman had cut down the apple tree.  Just there, a couple of yards up from where the rock lay, actually, Vincent replied, which only made Henwood quail further.

"What is it man?" Vincent pressed.

"Yesterday, while we were here, I was eating an apple.  I discarded the core, pips and all, on the embankment, at that very spot."

Vincent looked, astonished, then to Stone, whose fingers clasped his crucifix in anxiety.

"Time!" the priest said.  "Changing time."

Vincent nodded, though now he was unsure if he wanted to move the rock, even with a shovel and sack.

In the end, Inspector Ellinor insisted the workmen do the job.  By rights, he told them, the rock was on North East Railway land and was such was N.E.R. Property.  Furthermore, discussion as to where to take the rock came down to a matter of property.  Until further officialdom could pass judgement on the matter, the rock really could only go to one place: the lost property office at Ormesby station.

Gingerly, after some heated discussion ending with a coin toss, Obren picked up the rock with the shovel and deposited it in the sack held by Henwood.  It was given to Farley to carry as they made their way along Pennyman's Siding and along to Ormesby station.  As they left, Vincent noticed one more unusual, inexplicable, matter.  The embankment was made of gravel and ballast - rocks no bigger than the palm of a man's hand.  Normally, the odd weed, a dandelion or nettle, might make a desperate life there.  But around the area the rock had landed, for several yards around, tufts of grass were to be seen, protruding between the ballast.  Also, truly inexplicable, a pair of pink roses stood tall and bold on the slope.  None of the workmen recalled seeing them before today.

The rock deposited, with a stern warning not to touch it, Obren, Henwood and Ellinor departed to continue their work for the day.  Stone and Vincent took Farley on the next train back to Middlesbrough with them, where they paid for a doctor to check him over.  By this time Farley's temperature, breathing and pulse had all went back to normal, and the doctor declared him to be a relatively healthy man in his forties.  This seemed all well and good until, Farley protested that he was in his early twenties.  Regardless, he said he felt well enough to walk home and to return to work the next day, and away he went.  Stone and Vincent retired to Vincent's office, where they mulled over the strange events with a glass of brandy.  

James Farley was never seen by another soul again.

III.

The dull persistence of the early spring drizzle turned the roads and buildings dark and dull but the grass on the verges looked alive and green for the first time that year. PC Webb peered through the windscreen.  One of the wipers on his old Escort mark II was knackered, scraping across the rain soaked glass, almost entirely failing to remove any of it.  He leaned over to look for a rag or a cloth in the glove compartment and, in the blink of an eye, a man was on the road ahead.  Both feet slammed on the brakes, and he pulled the wheel to the right, coming to a screeching stop.

Webb was out of his seat in a moment, running to the front of the car, fearing what he would find.  But instead of an injured person prone on the road, he found nothing.  Confused he looked under the car, then to the curb, the grass verge beyond.  He stood up, scanning the road along the back of the hospital buildings and spotted the figure, stumbling blindly along the back road some dozen or so yards away.  The constable sucked a breath in through his teeth.

"Oh God, I've hit him, he's stunned."  And he set off through the drizzle after him.  Webb drew level with the errant figure, turning him around as he stumbled along, increasingly slowly.  It was a man, perhaps in his late twenties, a bushy mustache on his angular, high boned face.  His eyes were shot and staring all around him.  Webb guided him to his patrol car, sitting him down in the back.  When he got in his driver's seat himself he found the young man in a frantic state, hands and eyes all over the inside of the car like a caged animal.  Webb managed to calm the gentleman, noticing in the process that his hands were hot and clammy.  He made a cursory inspection, finding no blood or obviously broken bones.  He tried asking him some questions, but the man was quite frantic and was veering from barely audible mutterings to fearful crying and shrieking.  Unable to either calm him or get anything sensible, the policeman decided to take him into the hospital he was parked in the grounds of.  

As he drove to the front entrance he noticed the sound of the rain and the car engine suddenly increased in volume. Though, thinking back, it felt more like everything else had gone utterly silent while handling the errant stranger.  He also noticed a strange buzzing, like a faint vibration, above his head.  Like the temporary deafness, the buzzing lifted as he drove.  As those two symptoms cleared, he was alerted by the insistent voice coming over the police radio, requesting he call back, with increasing urgency.  Keeping his eyes on the road, Webb picked up the receiver and returned the call.

"Where have you been, PC Webb?  We've been radioing you for twenty minutes!  We were about to send a car to your last known location!"

"I had a problem with my windscreen wipers, I got out to try and fix it, I was only a minute or so."

"Try, twenty."

Rubbish, he went to reply, when he checked his wristwatch.  3:44pm, it read, while the LCD display on the dashboard read 4:05pm.  Webb frowned; it was a good watch, Seiko, got it for Christmas and had only put a new battery in the other weekend.  And besides, it was digital, it wouldn't slow down it would just stop if the battery ran out.  Strange.  Like all officers, he set it by the station clock syncing it with the dash clock, too.  Twenty-one minutes out, somehow.

The stranger was able to walk, with some assistance, to the reception, where Webb sat him down and rang for attention.  A nurse came and the constable explained how he had found him wandering the grounds on the back road, panic stricken and ranting.  He had no evidence that he had struck him, so he declined to mention that little snippet.  After a few minutes, a doctor and an orderly arrived and they moved toward the stranger, when his eyes popped wide open, all his energy returning in an outburst of feverish ranting.  The medical staff were able to subdue him quickly enough, placing him in an empty secure room with soft, padded, walls.  PC Webb gave his account of how and where he encountered him to the doctor, who did not recognize him as a patient.  The place was not a hospital, as such; it was Saint Luke's and was the mental health hospital for Teesside.  It was an aging Victorian collection of buildings off Marton Road, a couple of miles from the centre of Middlesbrough.  Webb was only on the grounds looking for somewhere to park and try to repair one of the windscreen wipers and had ended up driving all round the facility.

"He says his name is Jim, but we don't have any Jim or anyone of his description here.  Nor do we have any missing patients." Doctor Calby told Webb.

"Just a lost wanderer then?" he asked.

"Possibly so but he seems to be suffering from delusions."

"Delusions?"

"Yes.  He talks about things, when he is coherent, as if he has never seen them before."

"What like?"

"Your car, for one. The electric lights."

Webb scratched his cheek absently, bemused by the whole scenario.  The doctor said they would keep him in, overnight at the very least, and passed the constable a sheet containing the patient’s details - height, weight, hair and eye color, distinguishing features - to put out on missing persons lists.  Webb thanked Calby and left, saying he would call in again tomorrow.

IV.

 The drizzle that had persisted all day dried off overnight and the following day was bright and clear.  The first hints of spring were in the blue sky and the bold colors of daffodils and crocuses on the grass verges beside some roads.  Webb actually found himself smiling and whistling to himself as he went about the day's patrol, much to his partner's amusement.  It was good to get out from some of the poorer estates like Easterside and Brambles Farm.  Places that had grown and grown since the War, but since so many of the steel works and chemical plants along the Tees closed down in the 1970s and in the past two years of Thatcher, poverty had begun to dominate so much of the once great town.  Unemployment was around ten percent nationally, double that for Teesside.  And there were estates Webb patrolled where whole streets were jobless, row after row of them, with anger and resentment and despair growing and seething in the increasingly run-down and crime soaked streets.  As a policeman, what could he do, but respond to the thefts, vandalism, fights, carried out by desperate, frustrated, men and women.  When he drove out to some of the suburbs (yes, even a town like Middlesbrough had them), he wondered if this was what it had been like in the past, before the War, perhaps before the First World War, when steel and ships poured out from Teesside, when kids had full bellies and safe homes and a future that was forged in dozens of steel mills.  Was there ever a such a golden age, thought.  That was how his dad had always told him it was like.  His grandad regaled him with such golden tales of iron and steel security.  A hundred years ago, was the Boro of cobbled streets, terraces, steam engines, coal fires and dozens, hundreds of factories, mills, furnaces and stacks, pumping the ubiquitous smog into the air so great?  Who could say.  It was all so long ago.  After dropping his partner back at the station, Webb turned his thoughts away from past and future and returned to 1981, to this mystery man he had almost run into yesterday.

He parked at St Luke's and asked the receptionist for Doctor Calby.  He only had to wait a few minutes before he arrived, deep furrows lining his brows.  Webb had to tell him that he had had no success in finding anyone who matched Jim's description on any of their records.  No missing persons files, no outstanding warrants and no absconded parents from nearby hospitals. Calby looked more troubled, and took him through the locked security doors and down a long and sterile corridor lined on both sides by individual rooms (he refused to call them cells, but that was what came to the policeman's mind).

"The building is Victorian," the doctor said by way of explanation on seeing Webb's somewhat disparaging looks.  "Built late 1880s, so almost a century old, called the Cleveland Asylum at the time and, yes, Victorian attitudes to mental health left a lot to be desired."

They stopped and looked in on the man known as Jim, laid flat on on a hospital bed, his wrists and ankles bound to the frame by broad leather straps.  The doctor explained that as soon as the mild sedative wore off, the patient became increasingly frantic, proclaiming that he did not belong there and he was a railway man.  Webb looked at him, but Calby shook his head.

"I took the liberty of calling around the British Rail depots, but no-one is missing from work there, either.  He is quite a mystery."

They looked at him for a few more moments until doctor Calby asked if the constable could show him exactly where it was he first encountered him.  And so it was that Webb drove Calby round the back of the buildings, parking at the very spot where he had come to a sudden stop, believing he had struck the man.  As they got out, Calby assured Webb that he had not hit the man.

"The only marks or scars on him are on his hands; they are quite calloused, indicating a manual labourer."

"So he could be a railway man?"

Calby shrugged and they took to walking around, Webb indicating where he stopped , where he saw him on getting out and where he had caught up with him.

"The funny thing is," Webb mused "is that when I got to him, he was fairly dry.  His trousers, shirt and donkey jacket should have been soaked in that rain."

"And there was no mud on his boots." Calby added "But there were some grey stones, like gravel, wedged into the treads."

They stood where Webb had caught up with Jim and the policeman's memory of the day before came back with surprising clarity.  He recalled the silence, though he had not noticed it at the time. The faint buzzing at the top of his head, too. He thought about mentioning these, but remembered Calby was a psychiatric doctor. He especially did not want to mention that weird twenty-one minute disparity, and how much it troubled him, for fear he would very quickly end up in those gloomy Victorian corridors alongside Jim.

There was nothing but fields and verges over the back of the hospital fences, across to the Berwick Hills estate and the beck that ran through the green belt.  He looked for any footprints in the mud, but found none.  When he turned to Doctor Calby, he found him staring at the back of the hospital building.  But, when he asked, it turned out it was the grass verge between the building and the road that had taken the doctor's attention so.

"Pink roses." He said, curiously.  "Just at that patch there, they've blossomed early, a month or two early."

Webb looked at the rest of the rose bushes and, yes, they were barely sprouting buds after the winter.  But no answers seemed in the offering, so they got back in the police car to return to the front of the hospital.  As they pulled away, Calby glanced again at the area where the roses were in full bloom and noticed the ground was also littered with small apples, as if freshly fallen from a tree.

At the reception desk an orderly was waiting, in a state of panic.  On seeing Doctor Calby he ran over to him and explained the cause of his concern: a patient was missing.  Both doctor and constable knew before being told who it was that had gone: Jim.

At the room where he had been placed, a small knot of nurses and orderlies were gathered, all murmuring and talking in hushed tones.  They fell silent when the orderly returned with the doctor and the policeman, parting to admit them.

"I don't understand." Calby said, staring at the vacant bed.  Webb moved to inspect the leather bindings, which were still fastened, locked in place with a key only the orderly and the Wing desk possessed, both of which were present and accounted for.  There was no damage or movement to the window, barred and locked as it was.  And the door itself, locked and slide-bolted from the outside, was still locked and bolted when the orderly had peered in on his rounds twenty minutes ago.

"Twenty minutes? Why didn't someone call for me?  I've only been gone five minutes!" Calby exclaimed.  Webb felt a strange, sinking, dizzying sensation as the orderly disagreed, saying that they had been looking for him as much as the patient, using the tannoy and sounding the alarm bell.  Calby's ire rose and he consulted his wrist watch, then checked the time with the orderlies and nurses.  As Webb knew, they were twenty one minutes different.  Calby waved the matter away, returning instead to the Houdini-like problem of Jim's disappearance.  PC Webb returned to his car and radioed in a description of the man, telling all units in the area to be on the lookout.  Webb himself took to the surrounding streets in his patrol car, but to no avail.  Jim had vanished.

Epilogue.

    A week later PC Webb called in on the hospital again after searches, tv and radio reports and the like had failed to turn up anything.  Webb told the doctor that the forensic team had lifted some prints from the frame of the bed and a cup he had drink from, but no match appeared on their records.  The doctor had been quiet, somewhat distracted, while Webb divulged his information in his office.  He asked him what, beside the obvious, was bothering him.  Did he know something?  Webb's thoughts leaped back to the anomalous twenty-one minutes they had each experienced, together and Webb alone.  But no, Calby rose from the chair behind his desk and took him through some corridors to a lounge room where, he said, families visiting loved ones, outside of a hospital ward environment.  Webb was confused as to where this was going, but Calby brought him over to a wall between two barred windows and directed the constable to a framed item hanging there.

"Read it," was all Calby would say.

Webb frowned but stepped in front of it and saw it was a replica of an old newspaper article, from the Northern Echo, apparently.  It was a news item, concerning a meteorite that had struck the ground just seventeen yards from the signal box on a piece of track called Pennyman's Siding, back in March 1881.  It mentioned that four railway workers heard a woosh and a thud, nothing more, and located a hole six inches across and as deep as an arm, where  new-milk warm rock of unremarkable gun-metal grey was found.  Left overnight, then taken to the lost property office air Ormesby station, the rock attracted the attention of Professor Alexander S. Hershel, professor of Physics and experimental sciences at Durham college of physical science in Newcastle, grandson of the famous astronomer William Herschel, pioneer of telescopes and discoverer of the planet Uranus.  Professor Herschel was able to assess the rock's composition and, thanks to the hole it made on impact and its size and density, calculate its velocity at 412 feet per second, or 281 miles per hour.

A photo accompanied the article, of four gentlemen in typical Victorian workman's attired - abundant facial hair, top and bowler hats, thick jackets and tailcoats and the like, with accompanying names.  Webb's pulse quickened and his eyes raced ahead to read.

"William Ellinor—permanent way inspector.  Frank Henwood and Henry Obren, plate layers, and a fourth plate layer, identity not included or known."

Webb almost cried out in anguish, until Doctor Calby directed his eyes to the photo itself, and a chill coursed down his body.  The constable stepped back from the wall, took a deep breath, then leaned in close to check again, but there was no doubt.

"That's our Jim alright." Calby said.

Webb paced the hospital's lounge, unable to fathom any of it.  The only question he felt he could ask that might get a rational answer was "Why do you have that article hanging up here?"

Doctor Calby smiled, one that did not allay any of Webb's questions or confusions, but seemed to revel in the absurdity of it.

"Well," he began, seated in an armchair "I wondered that, also.  So I asked.  It turns out this is where Pennyman's Siding used to be."

"What?"

"Indeed. I looked at old ordnance survey maps in the central library in town.  The siding ran from the Middlesbrough to Guisborough branch-like, until 1893 when the land was bought and what you see around you was built."

Webb could only sit on a chair arm, in wonder.

"So the meteorite—"

"As far as I can work out, given the accurate description given in the article, that would place it right—"

He got to his feet and strode to a window and pointed outside.  Webb got up and followed, looking where he pointed.  The constable followed his finger and looked out at the road behind the facility, at a grass verge with a handful of early blooming pink roses and a scattering of apples.

" —There."

 

Photo courtesy of Kristína Kliská

Caitlyn Garcia