My client, John Barleycorn, ran out into the road at the level crossing, right in front of my car. As my screaming locked wheels sent a cloud of burning rubber into the sky, I knew that there was no way that I could stop in time.
The last thing I remember is the slam crack of impact as the car behind smashed into me, just before I ploughed into something ahead.
What a tragedy.
Especially when John Barleycorn had been one of the nicest men I had ever met, a month ago now.
When I’d first met the old man I’d discovered that he was bonhomie personified, from his large white beard and avuncular smile, to the big floppy hat he habitually wore and the shabby old jacket and flannels. Long retired from full time work, he’d been a struggling writer of children’s books all his early life until, at the age of 45, he’d written that first ‘Marmaduke the Wonder Cat’ adventure, and become famous overnight. The ‘Marmaduke’ books sold all over the world, and he made money too from ‘merchandising’, that is selling the right to use the logo of Marmaduke’s furry face, that was applied to all manner of children’s toys, clothes, sportswear, and even a brand of coffee.
“You see,” John explained to me as we chatted, “all my life I’ve been a timid sort of fellow, scared of my own shadow. But secretly I always longed to be a hero—the kind of character who goes around rescuing people from danger, diving into trouble. I’ve always loved cats, and Marmaduke is based on my last wonderful black-and-white moggy, who used to sleep on my lap for hours while I sat at my desk working. Hence ‘Marmaduke the Wonder Cat’, who goes around the world helping people out of trouble, saving children from harm, and doing it with his own dash and flair.” As we sat together on the sofa, he looked downwards, smiling wistfully. “Do you know Jamie, I would absolutely love to do something heroic—just for once in my life. To be able to save someone’s life would be such a wonderful thing, wouldn’t it?”
“But how many people get to save someone’s life?” I asked. “Even for doctors it must be quite a rare event.”
After his wife died, he’d decided to sell up his London penthouse flat and buy ‘a project’ as he called it.
That’s where I came in: John had bought the Stavely Estate, a Victorian built ‘gothic’ castle in its own capacious grounds, constructed by the eccentric Lord Peter Hathersage in 1860, near to the Kent cost. The house itself was fine, what John really needed my services for was the wonderful tower, famous throughout Kent and Sussex as ‘Lord Peter’s Folly’.
Built of brick and 300 metres in height, it served no practical purpose whatsoever except as a peculiar kind of landmark. It was just about large enough to allow the spiral staircase within it to reach the top, and its flat roof allowed space for a couple of chairs, so you had space to sit out and see far and wide across the county. On a clear day you could even see the Millennium Wheel in London in one direction and the sea in the other. Absolutely breath-taking views. And a great place to sit with a friend and talk, as I had done with John several times now, chatting away and watching the world go by.
But unfortunately Lord Peter’s Folly was on the point of collapse, and I’d called in a civil engineer friend to help decide on our best course of action for saving it.
That afternoon, I’d been at the top of the tower with John to give him the bad news, warning him that it could collapse literally at any moment, and the best thing to do would be to not enter it again until the repairs were done. He pointed out that since it was on his own land, if it fell it wouldn’t hurt anyone on the public road, so he alone would be killed, and the view was so wonderful, he’d take his chances.
“Because I just love it up here,” he’d told me, beaming. “I doze off, and sometimes I feel as if dear old Marmaduke is asleep in my lap, just like he used to be. Sometimes I wake up and for a moment and it’s almost as if I can see him and touch him, the dear old boy. . .”
So when my car smashed into his body, all I was aware of was my failure to stop in time. The next moment there was the crash of the level-crossing gate smashing into the front of my car, making the airbag explode, crushing up against my chest. Then there was the astonishing sight of the windows of the express train careering within an inch of my car, the rattling roaring scream nearly deafening me.
After a minute or two, as I tried to fight my way out from the exploded airbag, I struggled to work out what had happened.
For some reason it seemed that the train’s arrival had not automatically triggered the level-crossing gate to close and the traffic lights to stop the traffic.
And if John Barleycorn hadn’t jumped in front of my car, I would never have stopped in time.
But where was his body?
I couldn’t understand what had happened to it, for when I got out of my car and looked around, it was nowhere in sight.
An hour later I found out that Lord Peter’s Tower had collapsed a few minutes before my accident. And in doing so it had destroyed an electricity substation, which had happened to be powering the controls for the level crossing, which was why the traffic wasn’t stopped. John Barleycorn’s body, I had been told, had been seen somewhere inside the pile of rubble that had once been the tower.
No way could he possibly have jumped out onto the road in front of me.
Yet I’d seen him.
And when I walked across to see what was left of the tower there was a black-and-white cat walking slowly across the rubble.