Corn Buntings and Surfers – South West Coast Path Day 15

Mawgan Porth to Newquay, 21,000 steps

To be honest, it’s really Day Fourteen and a Half. A short hike to Newquay, a long journey home.

2017-04-03 08.14.18I set off just after nine, already wearing shorts in the brisk morning sun. I climb the Path out of Mawgan Porth, making my way around Berryl’s Point. The sky is the watery blue of a baby’s eyes and there are very few clouds.

The Path doesn’t want things to be too straightforward, recommencing its switch-backing in and out of the crenellated shoreline. Luckily, I’m more rested than yesterday afternoon, and I find it less annoying.

I soon reach the broad expanse of Watergate Bay, a long beach backed by modern holiday developments. From the clifftop, I watch half a dozen surfers in the water. I’ve never surfed, and (like recognising birdsong) it may now be too late to learn. I’m not too bothered; I don’t mind the water, the cold, the wet-suits and waves. It’s just that the actual surfing looks a bit duller than surfer dude publicity would have you believe.

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Pastry Dogs and Pedantic Paths – South West Coast Path Day 14

Padstow to Mawgan Porth (32,000 steps)

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Padstow is a shock, after the vigorous solitude and scenic beauty of the walk so far. I am in another world: Holidaymaker Cornwall turned up to eleven. Ice creams, pasty shops, buckets and spades, crowded pavements and car parks. I suddenly feel very conspicuous and out of place in my muddy boots and trousers, with my wind-blown hair and my rucksack and stick.

I adapt, of course. A shower, tea, and clothes that don’t smell have a transforming effect. By happy chance, my football team are on the television this evening. I find a seat in the Golden Lion and pass a splendid couple of hours watching Reading beat Leeds. There are a surprising number of Leeds fans in Padstow (or at least in the Golden Lion), but they are friendly enough.

I am up and away early. I head west out of Padstow, initially along the road. My plan is to pick up a cross-field footpath that the map shows will take me into Trevone, cutting off a mile or so of the Path around the headland. I don’t feel too guilty: I saw a lot of the Camel estuary yesterday, from the other side. True, I will miss a closer look at the Doom Bar, the legendary sandbar downstream from Padstow, which has sunk many ship. But, on the other hand, I have already sunk many of the beers named after it.

“On foot everything stays connected…one lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it…When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back.”

– Rebecca Solnit, ‘Wanderlust’

Today’s walking is quieter, more reflective, than hitherto. The Path has calmed down, lulling me into something of a walking trance. There are no extremes of terrain or weather, and fewer prominent landmarks. I have lost the freshness of the first two days and I plod along with a mind strangely emptied. Walking is supposed to be good for thinking, and I make occasional efforts to prod my mind into a productive track; think about the next scene of the book I’m working on, flesh out the structure of a new story. But within minutes my thoughts drift away and I’m stolidly planting one foot in front of the next, listening to the rhythm of my breathing, as mindful as a hiking robot. It’s a day without much in the way of profound thought; instead, my attention flits from one small observation to another.

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The “footpath”

I walk along a two-lane road, passing occasional cottages. There are very few cars this early on a Sunday morning. The day is already warming up, the sun emerging from behind scattered clouds in a sky the colour of elegant Delft pottery. After about ten minutes, I find the footpath. It heads across a field that looks like day five of the Battle of the Somme. I decide to walk a bit further on the road.

2017-04-02 09.22.57I rejoin the Path at Trevone, a small village by a tidy bay. I see three young girls run into the sea in swimsuits. No wetsuits! I am seriously impressed. I have been in the sea on this coast on April. I thought I would never warm up again. And I was wearing a wetsuit.

There are more people in the sea at Harlyn Beach, mainly surfers. A camper van is parked with its open back to the sea. As I pass, I am greeted by a young man and woman lying in the back of the van, elbows on the sill, coffee cups in hand. They appear still to be in bed.

2017-04-02 11.03.02Further on, the Path runs along the beach for nearly 400 yards, following the high water line. Since the tide is in I have to scramble over rocks to avoid getting wet feet. I stop to take off my fleece. I am tee-shirted for the first time on the walk. After the miserable wet winter of the Tintagel to Port Isaac afternoon, I seem to have leaped within 48 hours into summer, bypassing spring.

At Mother Ivey’s Bay, I turn inland through a caravan site. It’s my last short cut, I promise. I wonder who Mother Ivey was, and whether she knew Quin and Isaac. There’s a sign at the entrance, fiercely insisting that the holiday park is ‘Family owned and family run, for families’. As if to confirm this, I hear the sounds of a typical family Sunday morning as I walk beside the fence. A small girl bangs on a caravan door and shouts, “Let me in, I need a poo!”

I stop at Porthcovan for a pasty and coffee at the beach cafe. This is the end of the guide book’s recommended walk from Padstow, and it’s only midday, so I must be motoring.

2017-04-02 11.40.26The coastline is gentler and tamer than before, although still attractive. But inland there are more caravan parks. And increasing numbers of dogs. Many Cornish beaches have dog bans from Easter to October. I get the strong impression that this weekend is some kind of last doggy beach hurrah before the summer begins.

In one small cove, two women have five dogs between them. I hear one woman say, “Doughnut, here boy. Muffin, where’s Muffin?” I really want to know the names of the other three dogs, but I don’t dare ask. Apple Turnover? Jam Tart?

2017-04-02 11.28.06I become irritated with the Path’s pedantic insistence on precisely following the line of the coast. Several times, it takes me out towards the sea, and then along a headland, before cutting back in again. After ten minutes walking, I find myself only a couple of hundred yards further from where the Path started this pointless manoeuvre.

I know it’s a coast path, but you can take these things too literally. Maybe I’m getting tired.

I stop for a rest on the top of Park Head. There are fine views south, over the jumbled rock stacks known as the Bedruthan Steps.

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Bedruthan Steps

I am lying on the grass near a bird sanctuary. One bird is very noisy and persistent, with a cry like a high-pitched auctioneer, running words together into whole paragraphs without punctuation. There is no discernible pattern, except when the bird occasionally loses inspiration and rapidly repeats one note, like a CD that’s skipping. I know very little about bird species or birdsong. I can’t name many wildflowers or trees. Maybe it’s too late to learn, and I feel there’s a gap in my education.

2017-04-02 15.01.17As I approach Mawgan Porth, I notice a crowd of wind turbines a couple of miles inland. I am sure I have seen them from the other side, driving towards St Ives on the A30. That seems like a very different Cornwall, only a few miles away.

The bay at Mawgan Porth, like so many others I have crossed today, is busy with children and dogs. The Merrymoor Inn is crowded and noisy. I get to my room and shower before an over-large meal and an early night.

There’s a lovely sunset.

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Mawgan Port Sunset (with dog)


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First Love, Buried Church – South West Coast Path Day 13

Port Isaac to Padstow
30,000 steps, one ferry trip

Those moments, tasted once and never done,
Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.
A far-off blowhole booming like a gun.

The seagulls plane and circle out of sight
Below this thirsty, thrift-encrusted height
The veined sea-campion buds burst into white

John Betjeman, ‘Cornish Cliffs’

Port Isaac

In the summer that I was fifteen, I had my first girlfriend. She was called Catherine. It was an intense time, not just because of that first love. My father had died two years before, and early that summer my mother remarried so disastrously that two weeks after the wedding we fled our home in the night to escape my step-father’s violent rage. We were homeless for several months.

In the circumstances, I clung to Cathy as an escape and a comfort. I needed her more than she needed me. Later, when my need reduced and she came to need me more, I dropped her. I’m not proud of it, but it was a difficult time and I was a difficult age.

All summer, we were inseparable. Except for two endless weeks when she went away on holiday. Her family was different to mine; to my young eyes, they operated in a different world. They owned their home, we were council tenants. Cathy played violin. My family, for reasons of money and bereavement, had given up on holidays. Catherine’s family always took their summer break on the Cornwall coast, in a place called Port Isaac. It sounded impossibly glamorous and romantic, and I wanted to be there too.

It’s taken me forty years. I’m finally here, and I can’t help thinking of that summer, decades ago. Port Isaac looks very pretty in the early morning sunshine, all whitewashed walls and slate roofs, and lobster nets on the harbour. I imagine Cathy’s parents liked it fine. But it strikes me as an odd place to bring teenage girls on holiday. There is, for one thing, no beach. It’s probably best that Cathy had those two weeks here without me.

Today’s agenda

I have decided that today I am going to pamper myself, and give my blistered feet a chance to recover. I set out from Port Isaac and almost immediately abandon the Path, cutting inland and uphill to a (shorter) field route to Port Quin. This path climbs through woods, lined at first with wild garlic. Out of the woods, the garlic is replaced by yellow primrose and gorse. There is a lot of mud after yesterday’s deluge.

I am soon walking across rolling downland, of a sort familiar from my hikes in south east England. The sky is heaped high with grey and white cumulus, but plenty of sun breaks through. It is peaceful, and quiet in a way that seems odd until I identify what is different: the sound of the sea is absent for the first time in two days.

I rejoin the coast path at Port Quin, regaining the familiar sound of waves on rocks below the Path. I wonder who Quin and Isaac were. Two rivals? Or brothers who fell out and founded competing fishing villages?

The Path rises and falls, but in a less severe manner than the two previous afternoons. I’m walking on soft turf, among yellow gorse bushes. The occasional rabbit darts for cover at my approach. There is a sumptuous view back along the coast to Tintagel and Boscastle. The day is warming up. Ahead, the promontory that leads to Pentire Point appears. I have made a sneaky resolution not to walk all the way round it, but to cut across the neck of the headland. Special request from my blisters.

I soon reach Polzeath,and suddenly I am back in Holidaymaker Cornwall. There are people in the sea, and on the beach preparing surf boards and zipping up wetsuits. The lifeguards are out in force, and there is even an ice cream van. It may be barely spring, but it is the first day of the school holidays, and the bulldog spirit on show is impressive.

I stop for lunch at the Galleon Beach Cafe (‘A Legend for 50 Years’, as the sign says). A young woman scrubs the tiled tables and cleans the windows. I’m the only one here. It feels like I’m the first customer of the season.

The weather is playful. Shortly before lunch I stop to take off my fleece in the growing heat. When I resume walking, it starts to rain. I stop and put on my cagoule. It’s again warm and sunny when I set out after lunch, and I briefly contemplate putting on my shorts. Luckily, I don’t bother. Ten minutes later I’m considering putting on my waterproof over-trousers, as a sudden shower sweeps in.

I enter Daymer Bay, a wide patchwork of grey-green sea, speckled with sunlight diamonds, and strips of yellow sand exposed by the ebbing tide.

St Enodoc Church

The Path follows a fairly flat coastline, with grassy dunes on my left. Ahead is the conical mound of Brea Hill. Since I’m so early, I take a short detour inland to visit a church.

St Enodoc Church dates from the 12th century. It’s tiny, crouched in a small square of graveyard in the middle of the golf course. Partly sunk in the ground, it looks as if it has paused in the process of emerging from the earth. The sand dunes in this area are prone to move, driven by the wind, and nearby sand banks rise almost as high as the church roof. From the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century, the church was in fact pretty much buried. The vicar and worshippers had to get in through a hole in the roof to hold a service at least once a year, in order to maintain the tithes. The church is attractive in an uncluttered way. It has a Tardis-like quality, appearing larger inside than it looks from outside.

The poet, John Betjeman, is buried here. Apparently visiting his grave is one of the top 25 things to do in Devon and Cornwall. I can’t work out what the other 24 are, but at least I’ve done this one.

I leave St Enodoc and, with the tide out, I am able to walk the rest of the way to Rock along the beach. The afternoon has become properly sunny, but with a brisk wind along the Camel Estuary keeping things cool. At Rock, I reach another milestone in my journey: my first ferry trip of the South West Coast Path.

A short and windy ride across the River Camel, and a brief walk up the beach, and I am in Padstow.

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King Arthur and Blisters – South West Coast Path Day 12

Boscastle to Port Isaac

38,000 steps, 2 blisters

“Human walking is a unique activity during which the body, step by step, teeters on the edge of catastrophe…Man’s bipedal mode of walking seems potentially catastrophic because only the rhythmic forward movement of first one leg and then the other keeps him from falling flat on his face.”

John Napier, “The Antiquity of Human Walking (quoted in Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit)

Part of my intensive preparation for this trip included researching the likely weather. I discovered that March and April in Cornwall have some of the lowest average rainfall. I shouldn’t be surprised; I’ve had enough summer holidays in St Ives to know how much it rains in August.

Boscastle Harbour

The big Boscastle flood was also in August; Monday 16 August 2004. Even though the weather wasn’t too bad elsewhere on the coast, a mass of dark cloud anchored itself above the hills inland, and delivered a month’s rain in two hours. The result was a deluge down the narrow valley that passes through the town, which swept away houses and caravans, and the bridge. Around 50 cars were swept into the harbour. Amazingly, no one died.

The flood was all I knew about the town before arriving here. I now discover that it has other notable features, including a museum of witchcraft.

Boscastle looks lovely in the early morning, a hidden valley bathed in new sunshine. I wish I could stay longer. When I set off, the sky is pastel blue and the sunlight makes the gorse up the valley side glow like amber. There is rain promised later. But I comfort myself with the thought that Cornish weather promises are not always kept.

As I start to climb out of Boscastle, a sign says ‘Tintagel 4m’. The first stretch, after this initial climb, is gently up and down, across fields with patches of mud. The sun is out, although the hillsides show the varied shades of green that bespeak much rain. The sea is a whispering presence below, in a small cove called ‘Grower Gut’. It is a proper coast path here, staying close to the sea, not disappearing into the woods in the way that irritated Sam in north Devon.

My morning’s to-do list

Rocky Valley

After an hour, the Path plunges into Rocky Valley, a place as well named as High Cliff. At the bottom, a woman struggles along the uneven path with the aid of a rough stick. Her male companion walks ahead of her, hands in his coat pockets, offering no help. I take an instant, and unfounded, dislike to him. When I pass them a few minutes later, neither acknowledges me. Nor each other.

Coming out of Rocky Valley, a sign says ‘Boscastle 2 3/4m’ and ‘Tintagel 2 1/4’. Somewhere the sneaky Path has slipped in an extra mile. But the walking is easy and peaceful, apart from a clicking sound from my leg. After a football injury many years ago, I get occasional percussive noises from my knee. These are particularly loud today, as if I have an invisible companion, slapping his palm with a leather belt.


The walk to Tintagel is straightforward. I have looked forward to being here. It’s a place rich in history and legend, mainly concerning King Arthur, who was supposed to have been conceived here.

I know that there are people who probably take inspiration from the stories of Arthur: a noble British king, fighting off invaders from Europe; an inspiring tale for our times. But there is no evidence Arthur existed. The Tintagel castle ruins date from the thirteenth century, and Arthur (if he existed) would have been around hundreds of years earlier. There is however plenty of evidence that the Saxon invaders came anyway (and it’s their descendants, not Arthur’s, who are now rejecting Europe).

You don’t need Arthurian legend to be excited by the sense of ancient history about the site, which was a stronghold in Roman times, and is a dramatic sight, with castle ruins clinging to a rocky promontory. I stop for a while in the the cafe, where I have coffee, and a cheese scone that is so large and craggy, it seems to be modelled on the castle ruins.  I don’t linger long. I am intimidated by what the afternoon holds: again the day has harder walking late on, with a series of steep valleys between me and Port Isaac.

It’s a brisk march across exposed clifftops, in blustery wind, to Trebarwith Strand, where I stop for lunch in the Port William pub. I eat soup and bread, with more coffee, sitting by a window with a view over the bay. Languid waves break a hundred yards out, filling the bay with foam and a breathy haze above the water.

Before leaving, I do a foot-check in the pub toilets. One of my toes earlier filed a damage report, warning of incipient blister. Foolishly, I ignored it and examination now reveals a blister on each foot.

Trebarwith Strand

Over lunch, I heard the man at the next table talking about walkers. “One thing I’ve noticed about the serious walkers,” he said, “they don’t always stop and take in the view. They’ve got their heads down.”

During the afternoon, I know exactly what he means. Simon Armitage, in his memoir of the Path, ‘Walking Away’ recalls being advised by a local that the walk to Port Isaac from Trebarwith Strand is “hard work”. The number of combes to be climbed down and up, he is told, is ‘too many, followed by another three.’

The climb out of Trebarwith Strand is arduous enough, but before I have a chance to recover control of my heart rate and breathing, there is a steep climb down into Backways Cove, followed by an even harder climb out again.

At this point, the rain finally sets in with a seriousness previously lacking. I put on cagoule, overtrousers, hat and gloves. It is impressive how quickly I become soaked through, even with this protection. The rain comes steadily, easing occasionally but always returning, for the next couple of hours. The wind blows the rain directly into my face for most of the afternoon.

For most of the walk to Port Isaac I become one of the heads-down walkers mentioned by the man in the pub.. The Path becomes something to be endured, overcome one panting step after another. The route by now is thoroughly corrugated, a nameless succession of valleys descended and climbed by means of steps and a steep path that becomes increasingly slippery. All thought of scenic beauty is forgotten; as I climb, all I see is the next muddy step up.  I am by now very clear that my boot choice was poor; the lighter pair have given me blisters and the soles keep slipping on the muddy slopes.

At the foot of one valley, I realise I have lost track and don’t know how many more there are before Port Isaac. At least one more, I tell myself, finding that thought strangely comforting. I’m right: there is at least one more. Three, in fact.

At last, I toil into Port Isaac and present myself at my B&B. It’s above an art gallery, and I drip a small pool of water on the gallery floor when I’m let in. It takes a shower, copious hot tea, and some dry clothes before I begin to feel life is worth living again.

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Nietzsche Can Do One – South West Coast Path Day 11

Bude to Boscastle

41,000 steps

The Brendon Arms, Bude


8.30, Thursday. Outside Bude’s Brendon Arms pub, where I have spent the night.  The clouds, which appear to be no more than a few feet above my head, are as grey as the belly of a battleship. My guide book says of today’s walk: “The coast path is easy from Bude to Widemouth Bay, then becomes progressively more difficult, with several short, steep ascents and descents…followed by some rugged, remote paths…”

I have prepared carefully. Accommodation booked, maps studied, rucksack packed with such care that I weighed both pairs of walking boots and found one pair was twelve ounces heavier, so I brought the lighter pair.

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Lenin’s Nurse – New Stories 3

The third recent story was a little darker than the others. It appeared in the online magazine ‘Electric Spec’ towards the end of last year. The title was ‘Lenin’s Nurse: Notes for a Dissertation’.

electric-specThis features the mysterious Elizabeth, from my novel ‘Among the Living’, but takes place a few years after that story ended. It was great fun to write. Not just because of the pleasure of renewing acquaintance with an old character, but also because the story features extracts from a range of historical documents. All made up, of course!

Here is a taster, of the opening paragraphs. You can read the whole story (and plenty of others, all for free) at Electric Spec online.  You can also read a blog post, about the writing of the story, here.

Lenin’s Nurse: Notes for a Dissertation

Chris Barnham


       ‘. . .it was said and printed that the Red Guards. . .had killed some of the ministers in cold blood. . .An astounding jumble of rumours, distortions, and plain lies. All these stories were swallowed whole, even preposterous tales of sacrifice and fanatical Bolsheviks who bathed in or drank human blood, such as the notorious revolutionary fighter referred to as Veta B. . .’
–John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, New York, 1919 (uncorrected draft)

“Priceless stuff. Now I see why you stuck at it after Moscow.”

Daniel drapes his flamingo body across the train seat while he reads my notes. He looks like he could be in his usual perch in the senior common room. We are fifteen minutes out of Croydon and already rattling through open countryside beneath steep hillsides furred with trees.

“Everyone said you were losing it. But I told them, don’t underestimate Will’s creativity.”

We shoulder our packs and step out of the train at Penshurst station, descending a ramp onto a quiet country lane. Daniel says, “Your little detour isn’t going to take too long is it, Will? You promised me lunch in the Spotted Dog.”

“The path goes right by the cottage. It won’t delay us much. Even if there’s anyone there.”

“Pity if they’re not. I’ve been looking forward to hearing you explain your, ah, quest.”

It takes us half an hour to walk to the village. Daniel keeps up a constant stream of chatter. Next week he’s playing golf with the chairman of the research grants committee, has he told me about his invitation to that reception at the House of Lords, pity I didn’t get invited, but never mind, it will come.

“Shame your Zoe couldn’t come today,” he says. “Always lovely to see her.”

Lovely, I think.

A hot wind blows into our faces. Whenever we step out of the shade, I feel my skin evaporating in fierce sunlight. I drank a whole bottle of water on the train but my mouth already feels as if it is lined with dry denim.

We don’t pass anyone, which is good. I thought it best to keep away from the roads. We approach Penshurst across fields baked yellow by the August heat and finally through a churchyard. Most of the gravestones around the church are old and faded. Daniel can’t resist reading aloud from the stones. He stops at one and squats.

“Christ! Look at this: the children of Frederick and Martha Cowell. Three of them, all died between May 1876 and February 1877, aged eight years, ten years and six months. Nothing like a bit of history to make you glad you live in the present.”

He walks on and I read the lines of verse at the foot of the Cowell children’s stone:
‘Blessed are the dead, no weal or woe
Can touch them when from us they go
And we that are left long more and more
To join the loved ones gone before’

We emerge into a narrow lane. On the far side there is a wooden gate in a high hedge. Beyond, a gravel path leads between rose bushes to the front of a two-storey house. All of the windows are blind with internal shutters, throwing back the sunlight as if from a mirror.

This is it: the childhood home of Charles Oates….

(Read the rest at Electric Spec.Com)


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Stanley Spencer – New Stories 2

I posted a link yesterday to my most recent story, in December’s Compelling SF magazine.

The second story I want to plug appeared in another new science fiction magazine (exciting times!). This was Phantaxis, which published its first issue in November 2016, and is already onto issue number 3.

phantaxis-magazine-1The magazine is well worth checking out. Over 150 pages, and packed with new fiction for a very reasonable price.

I was so pleased to have a story in the very first edition of the new magazine. It was – I confess – something of an oddity. The title is “How Stanley Spencer Painted the Cookham Resurrection.”

It’s a time travel story. To enjoy it, you don’t absolutely have to be familiar with Britain’s top painter of the 20th Century, and his famous painting (see above), which is currently in the Tate Britain. But it probably helps!

Here’s the opening of the story as a taster. To read it all, you’ll need to check out Phantaxis #1 here.


 By Chris Barnham

 There were three of us for the Spencer Op. The other two were Nancy Prior and Danny Marlowe. Danny and me go back a long way; we’ve both done enough years at the Office that nothing can surprise us, except maybe how long they might make us work for our pensions. Nancy is younger and keener.

“Are you sure I can’t get closer to the action?” she asked as we stashed our things in the lockers before the Jump. The Office’s Darnell Suite has seen better days and the flaking paint on the walls and the chipped tiles in the showers make me depressed.

Showers are necessary, as you know if you’ve ever done a Darnell Jump. Living things have to go separate from inanimate objects. If you’re carrying anything, the Jump won’t work. If you’re wearing normal clothing, it works but you spend the next two days puking up. My advice: go naked and scrub every gram of dust from your body.

Some people get away with a light covering, something natural, like thin cotton. Me, I Jump buffo and I knew Danny did too. I didn’t know Nancy’s preference, but I was hopeful. She was, after all, something of a looker.

“You’ve read the file, Nance.” I closed my locker door. “Case the area round the church. Danny and I do the scouting to flush out the bad guys. Once they see we’re on to them, chances are they clear out. Job done.”

“If they’re even there.”

There’s never any certainty about that, just the usual flaky OffTime intel; rumours that a gang of Christian nut jobs wanted to swipe Spencer and trash his painting. No clue who they were, or how many.

I went first, giving Nancy and Danny a mock salute as I entered the booth. Disappointingly, Nancy had opted for the calico cloak option and looked like a Halloween ghost. Danny wore what his mother had first seen him in, looking a bit cold, I had to admit.

Inside the booth there was a brief flash of violet light and a puff of air in my face, like a balloon popped silently nearby. I lurched sideways, as if the ground had shifted a few inches.

It was a week earlier when Daniels gave me the Op. We were in one of the glass pods the Office used for meeting rooms, and as we spoke I could see the OffTime offices emptying, people grabbing coats and disappearing into the gloaming.

“So this guy’s a painter?”

“Was,” Daniels said. “He died in 1959.”…..

(To read the whole story, and plenty of other fine new SF stories, check out Phantaxis magazine.)

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