The Transmigration Of Richard Brookbank Chapter 1


Chapter 1

Touch the Light

Southern England, the late 1970s...

When my vision clears I’m alone.

And very much alive!

But my euphoria is throttled in its cradle. Something is wrong...





Clown: What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wildfowl?
Malvolio: That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird.
Clown: What thinkest thou of his opinion?
Malvolio: I think nobly of the soul, and in no way approve his opinion.
Clown: Fare thee well; remain thou still in darkness; thou shalt hold the opinion of Pythagoras ere I will allow of thy wits.
William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night)

HM Naval Base, Portsmouth
November 24, 1978

Less than fifty yards from freedom, I watch the burly young sentry in charge of Marlborough Gate lower the barrier. He turns and walks into the middle of the road, his palm held upright.

Great. That’s all I fucking need.

The guards have instructions to stop vehicles at random, mainly for security purposes but also to discourage pilfering among the dockyard’s civilian workforce. If on this occasion my conscience is clear — I admit to having borrowed a spanner, a screwdriver and various other bits and bobs I found gathering dust in corners of the warehouse that looked as if they hadn’t felt the tread of a human foot in years, but I intend to return them as soon as my stint here is done — I know from bitter experience that in situations such as this docile servility is the only sane strategy to adopt. The slightest hint of dissent will almost certainly mean that the two or three minutes I’ll be hovering about twiddling my thumbs as I wait for him to finish rummaging through the boot, the glove compartment and wherever else the Official Secrets Act gives him permission to poke his nose will be extended to something in the region of a quarter of an hour — and that’s time I can ill afford to spare.

I pull my battered old Hillman Hunter to a halt, frowning at the loud knocking noises I’ve started hearing when I lose speed. I suppose I’ll have to cajole my mate Graham into taking a shufti under the bonnet before we head off on our regular pre-match pub crawl tomorrow; there may be small children living in mud huts miles from the nearest dirt track who are more familiar with the intricacies of the internal combustion process than Richard Brookbank, but even I can sense that my trusty chariot isn’t in exactly tip-top condition.

Right now I have more immediate concerns. It’s already ten past one, and unless I reach Gosport by two o’clock my boss is likely to eviscerate me with a claw hammer and make party decorations out of my intestines as a prelude to my real punishment.

Hoping for the best, I wind down the window. My free hand taps an impatient rhythm on the wheel.

Yeah, that’ll help. Why don’t you rev up a few times while you’re at it, see how far that gets you?

The face peering in at me could freeze the Nile in full flood. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that its owner had been given special training in the art of how not to blink.

“Your pass, sir.”

I fish the card from my jeans pocket and surrender it to grasping, white-gloved fingers. My mugshot and the details printed beneath it are examined with Schutzstaffel thoroughness. Each strand of my long, disobedient light brown hair, each photon reflected from the lenses of my glasses, each bristle of my moustache is subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny. A few more like this cunt at the airports and ferry terminals, and drug smuggling would be as obsolete as serfdom.

“Everything okay?” I ask in an effort to ease my growing frustration. “It’s just that I’ve been told to deliver this dead expensive piece of machinery to HMS Almandine. I can’t hang around ‘cause apparently the order came from as near to the top as you can get, and if I’m late I know for a fact my bollocks are going to end up nailed to that flagpole. You can ring Derek Graveney at 20 Store if you don’t–“

The sentry’s gaze wanders to the plastic bag resting on the front passenger seat. His expression becomes more glacial than ever.

“Please turn off the engine and step out of the car, Mr Brookbank. If you’d be so good as to leave the carrier where it is…”

Well, that worked a treat. Now he probably thinks I’ve got a bomb in there. The headline materialises before me as plain as day: DOCKYARD BROUGHT TO STANDSTILL BY SUSPICIOUS PACKAGE. It’s followed by an equally vivid image of a P45.

Long minutes later I’m in danger of eroding a trench in the tarmac as I continue to pace up and down outside the oversized dog kennel where he keeps his phone.

It’s my own fault, of course. As near to the top as you can get. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more idiotic sequence of words if I’d sat there until Waterlooville reached the final of the European Cup.

What precisely is it about the motto ‘engage brain prior to opening mouth’ I always find so difficult to put into practice? A lanky, bespectacled twenty-two year old, wearing a jumper so threadbare a tramp might have second thoughts about using it as a pillow, and driving a car for which any self-respecting scrap merchant would demand hard cash in return for allowing it to jeopardise the reputation of his yard, expects a member of the armed forces, on guard duty no less, to take it on trust that he’s involved in matters pertaining directly to the defence of the realm? I may as well have attempted to pass myself off as Lord Mountbatten travelling incognito.

This is rapidly getting beyond a joke. What’s Derek trying to do, describe me cell by cell? Surely all he has to say is ‘scruffy git with a trace of a north-east accent’ and he can go back to the racing pages in peace.

On the other hand, with it being the last Friday of the month maybe he’s left the receiver off the hook so he can hold one of his so-called production meetings. These invariably consist of everyone in the warehouse begging him to get B Lift seen to so we’re not constantly sitting on our backsides doing bugger all because a gang of skates has commandeered the one that’s working, in response to which Derek will assure us that he’s reported the problem and been told they’ll send an engineer over in a day or two. My money’s on the first manned mission to Proxima Centauri being launched before it budges an inch.

The sentry finally emerges at twenty past, sporting the supercilious smirk of a professional bastard whose primary source of enjoyment is making life as awkward for other people as he can. Either that or he’s decided to come across all chummy now he knows I’m on a bona fide errand and not running high explosives to the IRA.

“I’ve been on the blower to 20 Store, Mr Brookbank, and you’re free to proceed,” he announces, as though his stupid hat gives him carte blanche to control the every waking moment of anyone not in naval attire. “I assume you won’t be taking the car.”

“Won’t I? Why not?”

“Well, judging by the racket coming from it I’d say your big end’s gone.”

I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about. It’s the kind of remark I’d expect Sid James to cackle to Hattie Jacques in Carry On Cabbie.

“My big end,” I repeat uselessly.

“It’s the bearing at the larger end of the connecting rod that…” He favours me with another patronising grin, like the one that might curl a mechanic’s lips as he slowly cottons on to the fact that his customer’s ignorance is so profound he can add as many superfluous items to the bill as he pleases and the poor sod will be none the wiser. “Put it this way, if you try and drive very much further you’ll be looking at a new crankshaft. It’ll save you a small fortune to have it towed in now, because believe me they don’t come cheap.”

My spirits sink faster than Labour’s standing in the opinion polls. They clutch at the only straw within reach.

“How much further?” I demand to know. “Think it’ll hold out till Gosport?”

It’s as if I’ve just asked him which was the quickest road to the Great Wall of China.

“Do what?” he guffaws. “Mate, you’d be lucky if you got as far as the Tricorn! Pompey to Gosport with a clapped-out big end, that’s a good ‘un!”

His attitude is beginning to rile me every bit as much as the idea of parting with hard-earned beer vouchers in exchange for a component I hadn’t heard of until a second or two ago.

“So how d’you suggest I get that box of tricks to Almandine by two o’clock?” I snap. “Tie a couple of lolly sticks and a hanky to it, and blow the bloody thing across?”

“I expect you’ll have to catch the ferry. Now you mention it, I’m not sure why you didn’t do that in the first place.”

It’s his turn to be annoyed, and I can’t really blame him. What does he care if my car has chosen this of all days to break down, or that there’s a good chance I’ll get the sack as a result? If I had a grain of common sense I’d be buttering him up in case I need him to put in a good word for me when the smelly brown stuff hits the blades.

“Yeah, well I only passed my test at the end of last month, and the novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet,” I explain. “I might’ve known something would go wrong. If it’s got moving parts it’ll conk out on me. It’s the same with anything electrical. You wouldn’t believe the bother I had with the telly I bought from that place on Albert Road. You know the one I mean, right next to the–“

He’s not listening. Instead his attention is focused on a trio of ratings so wet behind the ears it’s a miracle bulrushes aren’t sprouting from their temples.

“Oi, you three!” he bellows. “Yes, you! Get this heap of junk off the road!”

As I contemplate the doleful sight of the Hillman being pushed and steered onto a grass verge still sodden from last night’s rain, I remember that I have to be in Dorking on Sunday for mum’s birthday bash. That involves shelling out for a card and a present, not forgetting the train fare now I’m no longer independently mobile. To cap it all, the rent’s overdue. Looks like the old wreck will be staying put, for the foreseeable future at any rate.

Thinking of mum inevitably brings my stepfather Gerald to mind. No doubt I’ll spend most of the day fending off the by now customary barrage of sarcastic comments he loves to hurl at my failure to carve out a worthwhile career for myself in the sixteen months since I’ve been entitled to put letters after my name. Why is the pompous, opinionated prick incapable of understanding that when it comes to securing a well-paid job, a third-class degree in Geography is about as much use as a reference from a convicted bank robber? Or that if I lower my expectations and apply for less lucrative posts I’m consistently turned down on the grounds of being overqualified? And would he care to enlighten me as to how I can impress potential employers when I boast a CV replete with part-time bar work, punctuated by one delightful spell trimming grass and weeds around the graves in Highland Road cemetery, and another no less enchanting interlude sweeping the streets in the vicinity of Fratton Bridge clean of empty fag packets, chip papers, dead birds, dog shit and vomit?

It’s not that I resent mum for wanting to get married again as soon as her only child had flown the nest, nor does it require the combined intellectual prowess of Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Jacob Bronowski and Malcolm Muggeridge to work out why she began making plans to leave a godforsaken hole like Northcroft-on-Heugh on the cold, desolate Durham coast for the leafy Surrey lanes of her youth before she’d finished waving me off from the station platform. But did she have to tie the knot with a stuck-up, toffee-nosed management consultant — whatever one of those is — who plays squash twice a week with his insufferable true-blue cronies, proclaims that hunt saboteurs and secondary pickets should be shot on sight, and holds court every Friday from his corner of the Royal Oak harrumphing that the return of capital punishment, national service and the birch would solve all the country’s problems in one fell swoop?

So it’s seven or eight hours of Gerald’s scintillating company on Sunday, and the rest of the week either at work or incarcerated in a damp, draughty Campbell Road bedsit, feeding silver into a voracious electric meter and jamming my fingers into my ears as the cretin in the flat below regales me with his never-ending repertoire of ‘Three Times A Lady’, ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ and the interminable ‘Summer Nights’. Always nice to have plenty to look forward to.

Christmas shopping, for example. How I’ll be able to afford that and at the same time pay to have my car put right on the pittance I take home is a mystery that would have Sherlock Holmes hanging up his deerstalker and promising to attempt nothing more cerebrally challenging from now on than the Sun crossword.

First things first. If I miss my deadline I’ve a feeling I’ll be signing on at Wingfield House well before Santa gets round to redeeming his sleigh from the pawnbroker’s.

Determined not to offer a syllable of gratitude to the uniformed children sniggering at the Hillman’s mud-spattered number plate, rusted bodywork and cracked rear windscreen, I snatch up the carrier, slam the door shut, fasten my duffel coat and storm off along Admiralty Road wearing a scowl I suspect would stop a herd of stampeding buffalo in their tracks.

Arseholes, all three of them. One whiff of genuine action and those pristine white pants will be heading straight for the laundry.

A cigarette helps me put things back into perspective. Although the prison-high wall to my right acts as a conspicuous reminder that I work in one of the UK’s most important military installations, I feel confident that unlike my employment status the nation’s ability to defend its shores won’t be imperilled if I arrive at my destination a few minutes late. 20 Store deals with faulty and worn-out items of on-board electronic equipment such as oscilloscopes, transistor arrays and good old-fashioned diode valves. I open the boxes (thus making full use of my higher education), then the technicians test what’s inside them so they can decide whether or not it’s worth sending off for repair. According to Derek, the gadget I’ve been lumbered with was dispatched there in error — yet if it plays that vital a part in Almandine’s set-up wouldn’t they have arranged for one of their own staff to collect it rather than entrust its safe keeping to a casual labourer hired on a three-month trial?

At the corner of Queen Street and The Hard a light but persistent drizzle is falling. I hurry across the road towards the ramp leading up to Portsmouth Harbour station, its long, curved platforms and cramped concourse built on a pier they share with the landing stages used by the Gosport and Isle of Wight passenger ferries. As a busy transport interchange — many of the city’s bus routes also converge here — the area is normally thronged with shoppers making their way to or from Commercial Road, as well as day trippers down to visit the Royal Naval Museum and HMS Victory. Perhaps the deteriorating weather has got something to do with the relatively low numbers out and about this lunchtime.

The notice posted outside the station entrance puts forward a more plausible hypothesis. Due to unofficial industrial action, all train and ferry services have been suspended until approximately six o’clock. Anyone wishing to travel to Gosport is advised to purchase a ticket as usual and wait for one of the replacement buses scheduled to depart from The Hard on the hour.

Fan-fucking-tastic. What did I do in my previous life, break into orphanages and set fire to all the toys?

The first smidgen of responsibility Derek has given me, and I’ve gone and made a proper pig’s ear of it. Not even the most optimistic scenario my mind can conjure has me completing the fifteen-mile trek around the top of the harbour much before a quarter to three, especially with the delays the construction of the new link to the M27 is bound to cause. And after that I’ve got to trail all the way down Haslar Road, another ten minutes at least.

I briefly consider jumping into a taxi. The notion lasts as long as it takes me to envisage Derek’s reaction when I ask him to cough up the fare.

Calm down, Rich. What are you getting yourself into a lather for? You tried your hardest, didn’t you? What’s the worst that could happen? Are Almandine going to ring up at one minute past two insisting on your instant dismissal? Let the cunts. If even half the rumours surrounding the latest batch of MoD cutbacks are true, you’ve got more hope of becoming England’s next cricket captain than of being kept on in the New Year.

My watch tells me that it’s not quite twenty-five to two. I have enough time to buy my ticket, then go for another fag and a pint of HSB in the Ship Anson, which is conveniently situated just over the road from the bus stops. If I’m destined to be bored out of my skull looking at traffic jams all afternoon I don’t see why I shouldn’t indulge in a little liquid refreshment by way of recompense.

Silently cursing at the way fate seems once again to be conspiring against me, I walk up to the kiosk guarding the long, uncovered gangway that descends to the deserted pontoon. Naturally the attendant is nowhere to be seen. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. The girl rapping a coin on the counter appears to be a bit of a stunner, from the back at any rate: an inch or two above average height; tousled, shoulder-length honey blonde hair, laced with an intriguing hint of ginger; studded leather jacket; tight, bleached jeans she fills to mouth-watering effect. It’s an outfit many would regard as quite dated now that punk seems to have lost its battle with retro ‘50s high society glamour for the plaudits of the style gurus, but with a profile as tasty as hers I reckon she’d turn heads if she was kitted out in a Saxon nun’s habit.

When she swivels towards me on her high-heeled ankle boots, her face comes as a bit of a disappointment. Her bone structure is too lacking in definition, her complexion too pale for her to be considered more than moderately pretty. Any shortfall in that department, however, is compensated for in spectacular fashion by the snug black sweatshirt bearing the slogan LUCIFER’S BITCH curved across her prodigious bust in letters the colour of fresh blood. No two ways about it, tits like that could launch armadas. Given the right circumstances, they could set off World War Three.

“They’re a heavy rock band from the States,” she says, pointing to her chest. “In case you thought I was a devil worshipper or something.”

The glow that suffuses my cheeks as it gradually dawns on me that I’ve been caught staring at her breasts threatens to transform the entire Solent into a vast cloud of superheated steam.

“Er, yeah...I mean, um...” I stutter, simultaneously praying to Yahweh, Allah, Krishna, Zeus, Odin, Ra, Marduk, Quetzalcá²atl and every other benevolent deity whose name I can recall that she might take my adolescent drooling as a compliment and refrain from denouncing me as a sex maniac.

Unfortunately divine intervention is not part of today’s special offer. I can tell by the swiftness with which those ingenuous aquamarine eyes have narrowed into feline slits. Then they slowly widen in recognition.


What the fuck?

Snapper was a nickname Basher Howell thrust upon me during my first week at junior school when he claimed I was so thin he could snap me in two. It stayed with me until I bade my home town a less than fond farewell eleven years later. I thought I’d made damn sure no one down here knew about it.

“Snapper Brookbank! It is you!” she grins. “Don’t you remember me?”

With boobs that size? I bloody well ought to.

I shake my head, and she starts laughing.

“I’ll make it easy for you. Hart Street school. Miss Sutton’s class. She told us to sit together right at the back because you always came top in tests and I was always second. Ring any bells?”

I bang my head on the side of the kiosk three times as every cathedral clock west of the Iron Curtain chimes in unison. Although I recognise neither her face nor her voice, I know who she is at once.

“Ruth Pattison!” I exclaim. “Wow, talk about coincidences!”

“Actually I’m Ruth Hansford-Jones these days. I got married last May. He runs a restaurant over in Warsash.”

She shows me her wedding ring. It distracts me long enough not to see the two brick shithouses in black overcoats until they’re standing at my shoulders.

The lantern-jawed thug on my right prises the carrier from my hand before I realise what he’s doing.

“Hey!” I cry out. “That’s MoD prop–“

“Not any more it isn’t, sunshine,” growls his pug-faced associate, twisting my left arm behind my back.

“Careful,” Ruth admonishes him. “I don’t want any unnecessary damage.”

Jesus, she’s in on it!

And what does she mean by ‘damage’?

What have I blundered into?

Pug Face relaxes his hold, but doesn’t let me go. Meanwhile, Lantern Jaw removes the Almandine package and reads the serial number stencilled on the front.

“It’s the right one,” he says. “As far as I can tell it hasn’t been opened.”

“Excellent,” beams Ruth. “Use the tongs when you’re lifting it out. Don’t let it make contact with your skin.”

I catch a glimpse of something silvery and egg-shaped before my head is jerked around to face my former classmate.

“Are you ready, ma’am?” asks Pug Face.

Ruth looks me up and down with undisguised contempt.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”


Who do they think she is? What the hell’s going on?

She pulls a revolver from her inside pocket and points it straight at my groin. When she releases the safety catch I’m as close to wetting myself as I’ve been since my mother taught me how to use a potty.

Her aim never wavers as she steps towards me, speaking so slowly and clearly it might be her life at stake, not mine.

“This needn’t end in tears, Richard, but you must do exactly as I say. Now walk over to the top of the gangway, lean your elbows on the railings and keep your eyes trained on the boatyard on the other side of the harbour.”

“Why?” is all I can force out, and even doing that defies more laws of physics than Scotty broke in five years on the Enterprise.

“Because if you don’t, my darling, I’ll blow your fucking balls off.”

Pug Face pushes me away from him. I walk over to the top of the gangway, lean my elbows on the railings and keep my eyes trained on the boatyard on the other side of the harbour.

By Christ, do I.

Seconds pass slower than ice ages. Have they gone yet? Dare I turn my head to find out? If I do, will that be the last voluntary movement I ever make?

What was in that package, for fuck’s sake? What’s so valuable she’s prepared to risk holding me up at gunpoint, and in broad daylight too? And how in the name of Beelzebub’s bumboy could a girl I haven’t seen since her family left the north-east when I was twelve have known I’d bring it here?

Oh shit...

I feel the hair at the back of my neck being parted. A feminine fragrance fills my nostrils. At the first touch of cold metal against my flesh it’s all I can do to keep the contents of my bowels in their current location.

Survival becomes my only wish. What would I not give, how many hours of unpaid charity work would I not perform, what humiliation would I not willingly endure in return for the sweet sound of her telling me I’m free to go?

The pressure at the top of my spine increases, and the watery scene in front of me swims sickeningly in and out of focus. Then everything coalesces into a brilliant yellow light. I don’t feel any pain, just an overwhelming sense of dissociation.

So this is dying. No choirs of angels. No glittering ladder climbing to heaven. No loved ones dressed all in white beckoning me to enter the afterlife. Silly to think there would be, really.

Just my consciousness shutting down to spare me the trauma of an agonising last few moments of existence.

When my vision clears I’m alone.

And very much alive!

But my euphoria is throttled in its cradle. Something is wrong.

Throughout my ordeal I was too terrified to move a muscle. How is it, then, that I’m looking not out at the harbour but in the opposite direction at the row of pubs and shops lining The Hard? Where are my glasses? Why can I suddenly see perfectly well without them? And why does Ruth’s scent seem stronger than ever?

“Are you all right, my love? You look a bit peaky, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

It takes me a few seconds to appreciate that the middle-aged woman in the Burberry raincoat and matching round-brimmed hat is addressing me, and not some confused old biddy who’d forgotten why she came here.

“I didn’t much care for those three young men,” she continues. “Had they been pestering you for very long?”

Those three young men? She can’t have mistaken Ruth for a guy, not if she was Mister Magoo’s more myopic sister. So where was the third one hiding himself?

Another bystander, an elderly lady wearing a pacamac and a transparent plastic headsquare, arrives to put in her twopenceworth. Where were these people when I thought I was about to have my brains scattered to the four winds?

“It was all very different in my day,” she huffs. “When I was your age a girl could count on being treated with some respect.”

Girl? What girl? Who are they talking about?

The rain begins to come down more steadily. I reach back to pull up my hood. That’s when I notice the sleeves of the leather jacket I seem to have acquired.

What’s that doing there? Ruth didn’t have time to swap coats with me, surely. Come to think of it, why the fuck would she want to?

Yet by the smell of it she’s given you her perfume, Rich.

And whoever’s eyesight you’ve got, it isn’t yours.

I look down at my hands. They’re not mine either. These are smaller, more delicate and dusted with tiny freckles. Unbelievably, one of the fingers is adorned by a gold ring.

You’ve got to be kidding.

You have got to be fucking kidding.

Trembling violently, I draw back the jacket’s lapels. What I see next freaks me out completely.

To Be Continued...

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