The Problem with Time

Keith Burdon


I can never decide who was better, Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett. I suppose I should add Benedict Cumberbatch nowadays, but he is just Sherlock, not Sherlock Holmes.

The first Sherlock Holmes story I ever read was ‘The Speckled Band’. It was in a great big hardback copy of collected Conan-Doyle stories. Father had a lot of such books. They really were doorways to another world.

I am almost sure I never read ‘The Case of the Red Headed League’, but I could be mistaken. However, I do remember watching Jeremy Brett’s version of same.

Looking back (oh the irony – you will understand why soon enough), that should have been my first warning that all was not what it seemed.

Before we proceed, let me introduce myself. My name is Sydney Paget and I am a redhead. Not strawberry blond; not ginger, no, a proper redhead, and – like Jabez Wilson  in the Red Headed League – it has a particular flame like hue. 

If you don’t know the story, the basic premise is how a redheaded chap, an owner of a pawn shop, is conned by being offered a large wage to work away from his business for a while. In the meantime, the conmen dig a tunnel to the pawn shop’s basement so they can steal some gold coins. Of course, Holmes foils the miscreants in their evil deed.

So why did I not think twice? 

The advert appeared in the local newspaper. That should have been another clue; no one normal posted ads in newspapers.

As you might have guessed I am an avid reader, and in my teenage years I was an avid cinema goer too, in the good old days before the arrival of the soulless multiplex. We had three cinemas locally: the Savoy, the Odeon and the ABC, none of which exist anymore. 

My favourite of the three was the ABC and it was there that I saw that I saw Back to the Future for the first time. I loved that film, and the fact that I had a bit of a crush on the leading lady had nothing to do with it.

So, when I saw the advert, I couldn’t resist. It called out to me.

I don’t even know why I was reading the newspaper. Like most local rags, it’s full of crushingly dull articles that would be of very limited interest to anyone other than those people about whom the article is written.

I was waiting for a haircut and, with nothing better to do (I had left my phone at home! Another mistake, which I didn’t know was a mistake at the time), I picked up the paper and read. 

It took about two minutes to read the “news” part. Then I got to the classifieds. There were the usual For Sale and Wanted sections, followed by the Personal section. Who knew that was still a thing? I thought everybody did that online. I even tried it once – it was bad.

It was midway down the page, between an advert from a chap looking for no strings attached fun, 50 shades of unimaginative and an advert from an old lady who was looking for companionship in the twilight of her years. 

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke.

There followed some more details, a post office box number (again, who knew?) and some more specifics, including the disclaimer that safety could not be guaranteed. To be fair, I would have thought that was a given. I would imagine that any number of things could go wrong, not least of which, wiping yourself out of existence. Sometimes, though, it is the little things that get you.

Go back in time? How could anyone not be intrigued? It turns out quite easily, apparently, as I was the only one to reply to the advert, or so Frankie said when I went to his house. 

If I am to be completely honest, and I might as well be, after all who is ever going to believe me, I expected Frankie to be playing a joke, that he would be just another of one of life’s crazies. But he really wasn’t.

Frankie Shepherd was his name. He was in his mid-20s, handsome in an unremarkable way and obviously intelligent, with just one minor flaw. He greeted me warmly, if a little guardedly, understandable as we had never met, and he was, supposedly, planning on taking me back in time. I could have been a psychopath after all.

He took me outside to the garage. Thoughts of the serial killer John Haigh filled my mind, but a quick scan of the space showed that, fortunately, there were no obvious vats of acid; on the other hand, there was no DeLorean either, which, I will admit, caused me no little disappointment.

It was a Smart car. Admittedly, it was a Smart car that looked like it had been involved in an accident with PC World, but it was still a Smart car. I consoled myself with the fact that, at least, it wasn’t a Prius. Frankie explained that he had used the car because of its size: it would be easy to conceal or camouflage and it was cheap to buy. When I asked Frankie if he had even considered a DeLorean, he just looked at me.

The interior of the car had been extensively re-modelled, or, to be more precise, most of the interior had been ripped out. The dashboard had been replaced with an array of equipment, most of which looked like it had been salvaged from vintage computers. I swear there was a keyboard from a Sinclair ZX Spectrum where the glove compartment should have been.

There were, of course, two sets of dials, which were surprisingly non-digital. They reminded me of those vintage perpetual calendars. According to Frankie, they were a nod to H.G. Wells. It made sense at the time, or, at least, I didn’t think to question it. I really should have done.

When it came to that first trip, I don’t know how I felt. There was excitement, there was nervousness, but, most of all, there was a sense of not wanting to be disappointed. I didn’t expect Frankie’s machine to work. I will admit that when he pressed that final button, I closed my eyes.

My stomach dropped. It was that sensation you feel on a rollercoaster, or when you drive over a bridge too fast. I opened my eyes, but there was nothing to see, just…darkness. No, that isn’t right, it was an absence of anything. I glanced across at Frankie, his eyes were firmly closed. I closed mine again.

There was a slight bump, that was it, like hitting the ground floor in a lift, and then there was the most bizarre sensation, where the outside world swam back into focus, like an extreme close-up. One minute nothing, then whoosh, it was there, in glorious living technicolour.

In discussions with Frankie, prior to our departure, we had agreed on going back to 1966 so we could actually see England win the World Cup. We were to travel back to early June of 1966, the month before the tournament started, so we could find somewhere to stay and get settled in. We also considered a quick trip over to Germany to see The Beatles play some of their final concerts. We already had the clothes and the money, they were easy enough to pick up from vintage shops.

The 1966 World Cup began on the 11th of July and would finish on the 30th, with England triumphant. So the dials were set for 08.06.1966. Only, they weren’t.

It turns out that one problem Frankie had was numbers. Mostly he was fine, apparently, but every so often he would get it slightly wrong. Why he hadn’t thought to mention this before, I do not know. Why did I close my eyes? Why did I not check? Ah well, there is no point torturing myself over it. 


That is where we found ourselves. So, on our arrival, instead of being greeted with swinging London, we got burning London. I learned later that what would become known as the Great Fire of London had begun literally the day before we arrived, and we were now smack in the middle of it.

The heat was enormous. The windows shattered almost immediately, causing us both to shout out in alarm. I might have wet myself a little too, but let’s not dwell on the fact. Our cries were drowned out by the noise of the inferno, I had never realised just how loud fire can get. It really did roar.

We survived. I don’t know how; my memories of those first few moments are vague. I remember managing to get the door open and then I was running for my life. My hair was on fire as were bits of my clothing. Strangely, my only thought was at least I wouldn’t have to explain why my clothes looked different to everybody else. At some point I passed out. My body wasn’t used to this much exercise.

When I woke up, I was in a room. That was a miracle in itself, in a city that was missing just one or two of its buildings. Frankie wasn’t there. No one was.

I remember an episode of Doctor Who I watched, now many years in the future (that still hurts my head) where stone angels steal people’s lives and they end up getting sent back to the past to live out their lives. The victims went back to 1920 and 1969 respectively, and they both lived relatively pleasant lives in the past. I wonder how they would’ve fared here.

I am sat at the table writing this. The candle is nearly burned down and the quill is hurting my fingers, so I am going to end here. I am going to place this writing in a bottle and bury it in, what I suspect will be, the very vain hope that it will be found one day. I am going to bed, where Agnes is waiting for me. She cannot read so I have told her this is my will that I am writing. She believes me in much the same way that she believed I came from Wales when I said or did anything odd. 

Recently, I thought I saw Frankie. I cannot be sure, but the fact he legged it when he saw me makes me believe it was him. If it was him, I am glad he survived and hope that he is doing well, but not too well. I haven’t forgiven him that much.

Agnes has just called to me again, telling me she is cold. She is expecting our first child. I am hoping it will be a boy, but do we call him Basil or Jeremy?



Keith Burdon is an aspiring writer who, according to his pupils, could be anywhere from 28 to 76 years of age. He is actually 21 and a quarter. Sadly, that is a quarter of a century. The body may be falling apart but the brain is still relatively young. The reference to pupils will give you a clue that he is a teacher by trade, but of an evening, when all the books have been marked, you will find him working on his next opus, magnum or otherwise.