Half a mile from my home is Lewisham High Street. There’s nothing special about it – shabby, even by London standards: a street market, people getting on and off buses, phone shops and chain stores. It’s seen better days.
One day that definitely was not better – indeed, it was probably the street’s worst – was Friday July 28th, 1944.
On the wall outside Marks and Spencer, is a plaque. There used to be a brass plate, set into the pavement, but the inscription became worn from the footfall of thousands of shoppers. I must have walked over the plate dozens of times before I stopped one day and bent down to read it.
July 1944 was already nearly five years into a ruinous war. London had suffered terribly in 1940-41, when the German air force bombed the city nearly every night for months. But the Battle of Britain had been won, and the fighting had moved elsewhere in Europe. As the war dragged on, and the advantage slowly tipped towards Britain and America, it was increasingly German cities that suffered destruction from the air.
But, late in the war, when the Germans were clearly losing, London suffered a short but terrifying reprise of the aerial bombardment, when Hitler unleashed his long-rumoured new weapons, starting with the V1 – a jet-propelled, pilotless plane. For a few months, these flying bombs rained on London. Although they did little to affect the course of the war, they were perhaps the most frightening aspect of the war for Londoners. They came at any time, droning across the city’s sky until their engines cut out, and the V1 spiralled blindly down to explode wherever it landed. There was no protection – they contained more high explosive than any previous individual bomb, and they fell indiscriminately, meaning blackout precautions were no protection.
After I first read the inscription on that brass plate, I stood up and looked around, seeing the street with new eyes. I counted the people I could see around me, losing count in the forties. I tried to imagine what it must have been like – 9:41 on a Friday Morning, a bust shopping street, explosive death falling from a clear sky, killing in an instant everyone I could see and more, and wounding hundreds more.
It stuck in my mind, the thought of the terrible few seconds as the bomb came down. I knew I had to write a story about it, which I duly did.
It was a ghost story – a short piece called ‘Fifty One’ – in which a boy accidentally causes his girlfriend to run to the precise place the bomb fell, bringing about her death. He’s haunted by the thought of what was in her mind as she died – the belief that he had betrayed her and she died before he could explain. The twist in the story is that the narrator is also killed by the bomb, and forever he is frozen in place, able to see his similarly ghostly lover, but unable to reach her.
The story won a Dark Tales contest, and appeared in an anthology a few years ago. You can find it here.
But the V1 stuck with me, nagging away at the back of my mind. I knew there was more to write about that incident. A couple of years after the short story, I started writing the novel that would eventually also be called Fifty One. It’s due to be published by Filles Vertes Publishing before the end of the year.
It often happens that a short story provides the seed for a longer work. Fifty One was a little unusual – at least for me – in that it grew out of two short stories. The Dark Tales piece (Fifty One) provided the V1 disaster. But I took other important elements from another, very different short story, which appeared in the November 2016 inaugural issue of Phantaxis, a science fiction and fantasy magazine.
This story was called ‘How Stanley Spencer Painted the Cookham Resurrection’, it was a light-hearted time travel romp, in which a team of timecops go back to 1920s England to prevent religious fanatics stopping England’s top 20th Century painter completing his masterpiece. Instead (spoiler alert!), they inadvertently provide the inspiration!
Mixing time travel with the stark power of that bomb falling on a London market street, gave me the germ of the novel that became ‘Fifty One’. In this story, the main character is Jacob Wesson, a timecop sent back 100 years from 2040 to wartime London to foil a plot to assassinate Winston Churchill. The assignment plays out with apparent ease, but the jump home goes wrong, leaving Jake stranded in the war-ravaged city of 1944. His team, including his partner and his live-together-work-together girlfriend, are back in 2040, frantic to trace him.
Stuck in the past, Jake must pull from his training and blend in. He clings to the one familiar face he can find, Amy Jenkins, a war widow whose wedding he crashed during the Churchill assignment. Drawn to each other by their loneliness, thrown together amid the terror of war, Jake and Amy fall in love. He embraces a future with Amy, living out a life in the years before he was born.
Until, that is, Jake is suddenly jumped back to 2040, where his girlfriend and team await him. But Amy is jumped, too. When they learn that Amy should’ve been killed by that July 1944 V1, Jake faces a terrible choice: take Amy back and assure her death, or save her and risk changing the past and unravelling the modern world.
It’s a twisty tale, as time travel stories should be, with romance, excitement and tragedy. And a surprise ending that I’m willing to bet you won’t see coming!
We’re currently deep in editing, but aiming for a November publication. I’ll post more news as it comes.