When Lives Collide

BRADFORD-ON-AVON is an old town, and not all of its ghosts sleep the sleep of the just. Nestled in the rolling hills and valleys of the county of Wiltshire, in the ancient heart of the southwest of England, many kinds of people have lived in Bradford-on-Avon down the centuries, and some of their past deeds live on to trouble the present. The Romans have been here, and the Celts and the Saxons and the Normans. And other, stranger folk, less willing to be recorded in official histories. In this small county town, far and far from the seat of those who like to think they run things, the fate of two worlds will be decided, by one ordinary man who dares to love a woman who is so much more than she seems.

She was there on the train again that evening, in her usual seat—the woman with the most perfect mouth in the world. Not too wide and not too small, not too thin and not full with the artificial plumpness of injected collagen or surgically implanted tissues from cows’ buttocks. Just a wonderfully warm and inviting mouth, exactly the right shade of deep red that made the fuller lower lip look soft and tender and touchable. Toby Dexter wasn’t usually preoccupied with mouths, as opposed to the more prominent curves of a woman’s body, but there was something special about this one, and he liked to look at it and wonder what it might sound like, if he ever worked up the courage to introduce himself and start up a conversation.

Toby was traveling home from work on the 6:05 train, heading back to Bradford-on-Avon after a hard day’s work in the famous Georgian city of Bath. It was a tribute to that city’s relentless public relations machine that he always added the prefix Georgian whenever he thought of Bath, though the city was of course much older. The Romans built their famous baths there, that still stand today. They did other things there too, some of them quite appalling, in the name of the Serpent’s Son; but you won’t hear about those from the tourist board. Georgian society made visiting the baths the very height of fashion, and that was what people preferred to remember now. The past is what we make it, if we know what’s good for us. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Bath is a busy, bustling, prosperous modern city, and Toby was always glad to see the back of it.

The early-evening train was crowded as always, all the seats occupied and all the aisles blocked, carrying tired commuters home to Freshford, Avoncliff, Bradford-on-Avon and Trowbridge. Packed shoulder to shoulder, perched on hard seats or leaning against the closed automatic doors, men and women forced into physical proximity concentrated on reading their books and magazines and evening papers, so they wouldn’t have to talk to each other. The seats were fiendishly uncomfortable: there was no room to stretch your legs, and anyone who felt like swinging a cat would have clubbed half a dozen people to death before he’d even managed a decent windup. It was a hot and sweaty summer evening, and the interior of the long carriage was like a steam bath. Toby didn’t think he’d mention it to Great Western Railways. They’d just call it a design feature, and charge him extra for the privilege.

Toby was pretending to read an unauthorized X-Files tie-in edition of dubious veracity and unconcealed paranoia, while secretly studying the woman with the perfect mouth who sat opposite him. He didn’t have the energy to concentrate on the book anyway. He’d been on his feet all day, and the constant rocking back and forth of the carriage was almost enough to lull him to sleep, safe in the arms of the train, but he fought it off. Dozing on a train always left him with a stiff neck and a dry mouth, and there was always the danger he’d sleep past his stop. And you couldn’t rely on any of this bunch to wake you up. Toby looked briefly around him at the neat men in their neat suits, with bulging briefcases and tightly knotted ties, no doubt listlessly considering another endless day of shuffling papers from one pile to another … and sometimes back again. Deadly dull people leading deadly dull lives … Toby envied all of them because at least they had some kind of purpose.

Toby worked at Gandalf’s bookshop, right in the busy center of Bath. He was officially in charge of the Crime & Thrillers section, but really he was just a shop assistant with a few extra duties. It wasn’t a bad place to work. The other assistants were pleasant company, and the shop itself was full of interesting nooks and crannies and intriguing out-of-print treasures. Gandalf’s consisted of four sprawling floors, connected by old, twisting stairways and the occasional hidden passage. It was an old building, possibly even Georgian, with many unexpected drafts, and floors that creaked loudly as you walked on them, despite the thick carpeting. And everywhere you went, there was the comforting smell of books; of paper and glue and musky leather bindings, of history and dreams compressed into handy volumes.

Every wall was covered with shelves, packed tightly with books on every subject under the sun, and a few best not mentioned in polite company. There were standing displays and dump bins and revolving wire stands, filled with more knowledge, entertainment and general weird shit than any man could read in one lifetime. Gandalf’s prided itself on catering for every taste and interest, from the latest paperback best-sellers to obscure philosophical discourses bound in goatskin. From science to mysticism, Gothic romances to celebrity biographies, from aromatherapy to creative knitting to erotic feng shui, you could be sure of finding something unexpected in every genre, on any subject.

Gandalf’s had books on everything, including a few it shouldn’t. The shop’s owner was fearless, and would stock anything he thought people wanted. There’d been a certain amount of controversial publicity just recently, when the owner refused to stop stocking the new English translation of the infamous Necronomicon, even though it was officially banned. Toby didn’t care; he’d already survived far greater scandals over selling copies of Spycatcher and The Satanic Verses. He’d flipped briefly through the Necronomicon, just out of curiosity, but found the dry prose style unreadable and the illustrations frankly baffling. People were still paying twenty quid a copy though, proof if proof were needed that you could sell absolutely anything if people thought they weren’t supposed to be reading it. He’d been much more taken with The Joy of Frogs, a sex manual where all the illustrations featured cartoon frogs going at it in unusual and inventive ways. Some customer had ordered the book over the phone, but so far hadn’t worked up enough courage to come in and pick it up. Just as well, really—the shop’s staff had pretty much worn the book out between them. One had even made notes. The real money still came from the never-ending turnover of brand-name best-sellers: Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, J. K. Rowling and whoever the hell it was who wrote those marvelous children’s fantasies about Bruin Bear and the Sea Goat.

The only thing Toby really disliked about his current occupation was having to get up so damned early in the morning. He lived alone, in a characterless semi-detached he’d inherited from an uncle, and most mornings his bed felt like a womb. He’d had to put his alarm clock on the other side of the room, so he’d be forced to get up out of bed to turn it off. So, up at seven a.m. to catch the train at eight, in order to get to work at nine. No doubt there were those who had to get up even earlier, but Toby preferred not to think about them because it interfered with his self-pity. Shit, shower, and shave, not necessarily in that order, grab the nearest clothes, and then downstairs to breakfast. A quick bowl of All-Bran (motto: eat our cereal and the world will fall out of your bottom), two large cups of black coffee, and then out of the house and down through the town to the railway station, with eyes still defiantly half closed. The body might be up and about, but the brain still wasn’t ready to commit itself.

Though he’d never admit it, Toby quite liked walking through the town first thing in the morning. Down the seemingly endless Trowbridge Road, with its ranks of terraced houses with their bulging bay windows and gabled roofs on one side and old stone houses on the other, each one almost bursting with proud individuality. The street was mostly empty that early in the day, and there was hardly any traffic as yet. The town was still waking up, and only early risers like Toby Dexter got to see her with a cigarette in the corner of her mouth and no makeup on. Down the hill and turn sharp left, past the old almshouses, and there was the railway station, supposedly designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunei himself, on a day when he clearly had a lot of other things on his mind. So far it had successfully resisted all attempts at modernization, and the small monitor screens offering up-to-date train information had been carefully tucked away in corners so as not to detract from the building’s ambience. The occasional recorded announcement sounded almost apologetic for disturbing the peace.

The station’s general elegance and smug solidity was entirely lost on Toby, who tended to stand oh the platform like one of George Romero’s zombies, all dull-eyed and listless. Most mornings he had to be nudged awake to get on the train when it arrived, sometimes on time, and sometimes not. It all depended on how the train company felt about it. And if you didn’t like it, you were, of course, free to take your custom to some other train company. Except that there wasn’t another train company.

By the time the train lurched into Bath, the city was already wide awake and bustling with, eager, impatient people hurrying to their jobs, positively radiating motivation and can-do. Toby tried not to look at them. He found them depressing beyond words. The streets were crowded, and the roads were packed bumper to bumper with snarling, cursing commuter traffic. At this time of the day, the air was so thick with pollution that even the pigeons were coughing, and the noise level was appalling. Head down, shoulders hunched, Toby trudged through the din, wearing his best get-out-of-my-way-or-I’ll-kill-you look.

Toby didn’t care for cities. They had far too much personality, like a bully forever punching you on the arm to get your attention. Toby had spent three years living in the East End of London, back when he was a student, an area that would have profited greatly from a heavily armed UN peacekeeping force. Lacking the funds necessary to reach the more civilized areas of London, Toby endured three very long years to get his B.A. (English Literature and Philosophy, Joint Honors) and then ran back to his hometown at the first opportunity. Cities crammed too many people together in too confined a space, and then the powers that be wondered why people fought each other all the time. Toby thought cities were like natural disasters; enjoyable only if viewed from a safe distance. Bath, for example, had interesting places to look at like a dog has fleas, but for the most part Toby couldn’t be bothered to fight his way through the crowds to get to them.

Toby had worked in Bath for over a year, but had never once considered moving there to live.

By the time he got to Gandalf’s, ready for the great unlocking at nine a.m., Toby was usually awake enough to know where he was, but not nearly together enough to interact with customers, so the other staff usually provided him with useful, mindless activities to occupy him until he was fully conscious. “Carry these boxes down into the cellar. Carry these boxes up from the cellar. Plug in this Hoover and follow it around for a while.”

Toby quite liked working in the bookshop. Stacking shelves appealed to his sense of order, and he liked dealing with customers, even the ones who came in ten minutes before closing time looking for a book, but couldn’t remember the title or the author’s name, though they were almost sure they could describe the cover … But at the end of each and every day he was still just a shop assistant, another faceless drone in the great hive of the city, doing the same things over and over, achieving nothing, creating nothing. Every day was just like every other day, and always would be, world without end, amen, amen.

Toby had just turned thirty, and he resented it deeply. He didn’t feel old, far from it; but his youth, supposedly the most promising part of his life, was now officially over. When he was younger, he’d always thought he’d have his life sorted out by the time he was thirty, that all the important decisions would be made by then. He’d have a chosen career, a wife and kids and a mortgage, just like everyone else. He’d have worked out who he was, and what he wanted out of life. But thirty came round as just another year, just another birthday, and brought no special wisdom with it. He’d had jobs, but none of them meant anything, and girlfriends, but none of them came to anything. He had ambition, but no focus; he had dreams, but no vocation. He drifted through his days, and years, and didn’t realize how much time had passed until he looked back and wondered where it had all gone.

Most of his contemporaries were married, usually for all the wrong reasons: companionship, regular sex, baby on the way. Peer pressure, fears of growing old, alone. There were remarkably few great loves or passions that Toby could detect. Some had already divorced, and were on their second or even third marriages. Sometimes Toby felt like a late developer. But in his own quiet way he was stubbornly romantic, and was damned if he’d marry just for the sake of getting married. It helped that women weren’t exactly beating down his door to get to him. And as for a career … Toby was still looking for a role to play that interested him; something to live for, to give his life purpose and meaning. He didn’t know what he needed, only what he didn’t want, and so he drifted through his life, sometimes employed and sometimes not, achieving nothing, going nowhere. Knowing that his life was slipping away like sand through his fingers, but somehow unable to do anything about it.

Toby looked at his own reflection in the carriage window, and saw only a pale face under dark hair, with no obvious virtues; just another face in the crowd, really. He wore a rumpled jacket over T-shirt and jeans, the official uniform of the anonymous, and even his T-shirt had nothing to say.

He looked through the carriage window at the passing countryside, stretched lazily out under the dull amber glow of the lowering sun. Summer was mostly over now, and heading into autumn, and already the countryside was unhurriedly shutting up shop for winter. But still, it was home, and Toby found its familiar sights comforting. There were wide woods and green fields, and the River Avon curling its long slow way toward the town. There were swans on the river, white and perfect and utterly serene, moving gracefully, always in pairs because swans mated for life. They studiously ignored the crowds of chattering ducks, raucous and uncouth, darting back and forth on urgent errands of no importance to anyone except themselves—and perhaps not even to them. Ducks just liked to keep busy. Every now and again a rowing team would come sculling up the river, the long wooden oars swinging back and forth like slow-motion wings, and the swans and the ducks would move ungraciously aside to let them pass. The rowers never looked up. Heads down, arms and lungs heaving, all effort and concentration and perspiration, too preoccupied with healthy exercise and beating their own times to notice the calm beauty and heartsease of their surroundings.

There were animals in the fields. Cows and sheep and sometimes horses, and, if you looked closely, rabbits too. And the occasional fox, of course. Giving birth, living, dying, over and over and over, Natures ancient order continuing on as it had for countless centuries. Seasons changed, the world turned, and everything old was made new again, in spring. And everywhere you looked, there were the trees. Not as many as there once were, of course. The ancient primal forests of England’s dark green past were long gone. Felled down the years to make ships and towns and homes, or just to clear the land for crops and livestock. But still many trees survived, in woods and copses, or slender lines of windbreaks; tall dark shapes, glowering on the horizon, standing out starkly against the last light of day.

A single magpie, jet of black and pure of white, hopped across a field, and Toby tugged automatically at his forelock and muttered, “Evening, Mr. Magpie,” an old charm, to ward off bad luck. Everyone knew the old rhyme: One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy … Toby usually got lost after that, but it didn’t really matter. It was a rare day when you saw more than four magpies at once. Toby watched the countryside pass, and found what little peace of mind he ever knew in contemplating the land’s never-ending cycle. The trees and the fields and the animals had all been there before him, and would still be there long after he was gone; and some day they’d lay him to rest under the good green grass, and he’d become a part of it all. And then maybe he’d understand what it had all been for.

The train paused briefly at the request stop for Avoncliff, a very short platform with stern DO NOT ALIGHT HERE signs at both ends, just in case you were too dim to notice that there was nothing there for you to step out onto. The usual few got off. There was never anyone waiting to get on, at this time of day. The train gathered up its strength and plunged on, heading for Bradford-on-Avon like a horse scenting its stables. Toby closed his paperback and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. Not long now; almost home. He felt tired and heavy and sweaty, and his feet ached inside his cheap shoes, already on their second set of heels. He looked out of the window, and there, on the very edge of town, was Blackacre. An old name and not a pleasant one, for a seventeenth-century farmhouse and surrounding lands, all set within an ancient circle of dark trees, cutting Blackacre off from the rest of the world—dead land, and dead trees.

A long time ago, something happened in that place, but few now remembered what or when or why. The old farmhouse stood empty and abandoned, in the center of a wide circle of dead ground, on which nothing grew and in which nothing could thrive. The deep thickets of spiky trees were all dead too, never knowing leaves or bloom, scorched long ago by some terrible heat. Animals would not go near the area, and it was said and believed by many that even the birds and insects went out of their way to avoid flying over Blackacre. Local gossip had it that the house and the land had a new owner, the latest of many, probably full of big-city ideas on how to reclaim the land and make it prosper again, to succeed where so many others had failed. Toby smiled tiredly. Some things should be left alone as a bad job. Whatever poor fool had been conned into buying the place would soon discover the truth the hard way. Blackacre was a money pit, a bottomless well you threw money into. Dead was dead, and best left undisturbed.

Sometimes the local kids would venture into the dark woods on a dare, but no one ever went near the farmhouse. Local builders wouldn’t have anything to do with the place either. Everyone knew the stories, the old stories handed down from father to son, not as entertainment but as a warning. Bad things happened to those who dared disturb Blackacre’s sullen rest.

Which made it all the more surprising when Toby suddenly realized that there were lights in some of the windows of Blackacre Farm. He pressed his face close to the carriage window, and watched intently as a dull yellow glow moved steadily from one upper-floor window to the next. Some damned fool must actually be staying there, in a rotten old building without power or heat or water. Toby shivered for a moment, though he couldn’t have said why. A dark figure appeared against a lit window. It stood very still, and Toby had a sudden horrid feeling that it was watching him, just as he was watching it. And then the light went out, and the figure was gone, and Blackacre Farm was dark and still again.

Toby’s upper lip was wet with sweat, and he brushed at it with a finger before settling back into his uncomfortably hard seat. He would soon be at his stop, and he wanted one last look at the woman sitting opposite him. She was reading the Times with great concentration, the broadsheet newspaper spread wide to put a barrier between herself and the world. In all the time they’d traveled on the same train, Toby had never seen the woman speak to anyone. Most of the Time’s front page was given over to a story about unusual new conditions on the surface of the sun. Toby squinted a little so he could read the text of the story without having to lean forward. Apparently of late a series of solar flares had been detected leaping out from the sun’s surface; the largest and most powerful flares since records began. There seemed no end to these flares, which were already playing havoc with the world’s weather and communications systems. Toby smiled. If the flares hadn’t been screwing up everyone’s television reception, such a story would never have made the front page. People only ever really cared about science when it bit them on the arse.

He looked away, and surreptitiously studied the woman’s face, reflected in the carriage window beside her. She was frowning slightly as she read, her perfect mouth slightly pursed. Not for the time first, Toby thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She had a classic face, with a strong bone structure and high cheekbones, and a great mane of jet-black hair fell in waves well past her shoulders. Her eyes were dark too, under heavy eyebrows, and her nose was just prominent enough to give character to her face without being distracting. For all her serious expression, there was still a smile tucked in one corner of her perfect mouth, almost in spite of herself.

She wore a pale blue suit, expertly cut but just short of power dressing, with the kind of quiet elegance that just shrieks money. There was no jewelry, no wedding ring. Looking at her was like diving into a deep pool of cool, clear water. Hard to tell her age. She was young, but still very much a woman rather than a girl, and there was something about her eyes that suggested she’d seen a thing or two in her time. Her fingers were long and slender, crinkling the edges of her newspaper where she held it firmly. Toby wondered what it would feel like, to be held firmly by those hands.

She changed her outfits regularly, and never looked less than stunning. But no one ever hit on her. No one ever tried to chat her up, or impress her with their charm and style, the kind of stuff attractive women always had to put up with, even if they wore a large sign saying, GO AWAY; I HAVE AIDS, LEPROSY AND THE VENUSIAN DICK ROT, AND BESIDES I’M A LESBIAN. Men would always try it on. Except no one ever did, with her. Toby could understand that. He’d been secretly admiring her for months, and still hadn’t worked up the courage to talk to her.

Sometimes he thought of her as the Ice Queen, from the old children’s story. In the fairy tale, a boy looked at the distant and beautiful Ice Queen, and a sliver of her ice flew into his eye. And from that moment on, he had no choice but to love her with all his heart, come what may. Toby was pretty sure the story ended badly for both the boy and the Ice Queen, but he preferred not to think about that. What mattered was that he and she were fated to be together. He was sure of it—mostly. He turned away to look at his own reflection in the window next to him, and sighed inwardly. He was hardly worthy of a queen. Hardly worthy of anything, really.

He often wondered who she was, really. What she did for a living; where she went when she left the railway station at Bradford-on-Avon, and why he never saw her anywhere else in town. Whether there was someone else in her life … To stop himself thinking about things like that, Toby often indulged himself with harmless little fantasies. On leaving the station she’d be accosted by some mugger, and he would bravely see the villain off and comfort her afterwards. Or maybe she’d stumble and break the heel on her shoe, and she’d have to lean on him as he escorted her home. All the fantasies ended in the same way, of course, with the two of them having amazing sex on some huge, luxurious bed. Always her place, rather than his. His place was a dump.

The train finally pulled into Bradford-on-Avon station, the carriage jerking to a halt in a series of sudden jolts as the driver hit the brake pedal just that little bit too hard. Toby often thought that train drivers went to a special school, where they were taught how to stop a train in the most distressing way possible—there was no way you could be this annoying without practice. Finally the train stopped, and everyone surged to their feet. Toby waited until the woman with the perfect mouth had closed and neatly folded her paper and stuck it under her arm, and then he rose to his feet as she did. They stood side by side as they waited for the automatic doors to open, but she didn’t even know he was there.

The doors opened, and a rush of passengers streamed out onto the narrow platform. Toby let the flow carry him along, as the crowd headed for the black iron gate that was the only way out of the station. (Being only a small station for a small town, the station building itself always closed at midday.) The air was suddenly cool and bracing as they filed out into the parking lot beyond, and Toby looked up to see the last of the summer sunshine swept away by dark, lowering clouds. At once the rain fell heavily, as though someone up above had just pulled out a plug, and the commuters ran for waiting cars and buses with shocked cries of surprise.

Toby tucked himself away under a convenient railway arch, and struggled with his stubbornly awkward umbrella. No waiting wife or family for him. The umbrella was a collapsible job, just right for his coat pocket; but every now and again it would refuse to open so he wouldn’t take it for granted. He could have made a dash for one of the waiting local buses, but unfortunately he was supposed to be on a diet. Eat less and exercise more—he didn’t know which one he detested most. Either way, his waistline was still expanding, so he had no choice but to walk home, regardless of the weather. If he started allowing himself to make excuses, he’d never get any exercise. He knew himself too well.

Cars were already jostling for position as they fought their way out of the car park, as though it mattered one jot whether they got home in twenty minutes rather than fifteen. The two local buses were revving their engines impatiently as the last few commuters climbed aboard, filling the wet air with heavy exhaust fumes. It was Friday, the beginning of the weekend, and everyone was eager to start celebrating finishing the working week. They’d all survived another run of nine-to-fives, and now they couldn’t wait to forget it all in pubs and at parties, dinners and clubs, and with special treats they’d been promising themselves. Or perhaps they just wanted to get home, bury themselves in the bosom of their family and batten down the hatches for two precious days of small domestic things. Toby had no plans. He was tired of pubs, of the same conversations with the same people, and no one invited men like Toby to dinner parties. There were no clubs or parties on the horizon, and no one at home to care whether he was in or not. Toby often felt that life was passing him by, while he reached out with desperate fingers for someone to throw him a lifeline.

Soon enough all the cars and buses were gone, and a blessed peace fell over the parking lot as a small scatter of pedestrians trudged off homeward through the increasingly heavy downpour. There was an unseasonal chill now to the early-evening air, and overhead the sky was almost pitch-black. Toby fought his umbrella and the umbrella fought back, just to spite him. But Toby was dogged and determined and quite prepared to beat the umbrella against the nearest wall until it realized he was serious, and finally it gave in and sprang open with bad grace. Toby relaxed a little as the rain drummed loudly on the stretched black cloth over his head. The walk home was tedious enough without having to do it soaking wet. And it was only then that he noticed he wasn’t alone.

The woman with the most perfect mouth in the world was standing not ten feet away from him, holding her folded paper above her head, and glaring about her as though the rain were a personal affront. Her light blue suit was no match for a downpour, for all its expensive elegance, and it was clear she’d be soaked through before she could even get out of the lot. Toby could hardly believe his luck. It was raining, she was stranded, and he … he had an umbrella! All he had to do was walk over to her, casually offer to share his umbrella, and they could just walk off together. It would be perfectly natural for them to get talking, and maybe agree to meet later, so she could … thank him properly. He might even finally find out her name. If he could just bring himself to cross the gaping abyss of the ten feet that separated them.

Toby stepped forward into the rain, and then watched in utter amazement as the woman glanced at the station house, not even seeing him, and snapped her fingers imperiously. The sound seemed to hang on the air, impossibly loud and distinct against the din of the driving rain, as she strode toward a door in the station-house wall that Toby was sure as hell hadn’t been there the moment before. He’d been buying his ticket here for years, on and off, and there had only ever been the one door, and one way in. Only now there were two doors, side by side. The woman pushed at the second door and it swung open before her, revealing only darkness.

And all through the parking lot, and perhaps all through the world, everything stopped. The noise of the town and the rain was suddenly gone, as though someone had just thrown a switch. The silence was so complete that Toby could hear his breathing and his heartbeat. The rain was stopped, every drop suspended in midair, glistening and shining with a strange inner light. It seemed as though nothing was moving in the whole damned world but Toby and the woman before him. The air was full of anticipation, of imminence, of something vitally important balanced on the edge of becoming. There was a feeling deep in Toby’s bones and in his water that, perhaps for the first time in his life, what he did next mattered.

The woman walked through the door that shouldn’t be there, disappearing into the darkness beyond, and the door slowly began to close behind her. Toby ran forward, desperate not to lose his chance with her, and plunged through the narrowing doorway. The door closed behind him with a loud, definite sound, and in that moment, everything changed.


Toby stepped through the door and found himself standing in the lot again, with the station building behind him. He stopped dead, and blinked a few times. The feeling that the world was holding its breath was gone, but something new and rather more frightening had taken its place. The parking lot looked just as it had done before, and the distant sounds of the town had returned, but it was no longer raining. It was bright and sunny, with a clear blue sky and not even a trace of dampness on the ground. Everything looked just as it normally did, but everything felt different. And the woman with the perfect mouth was standing right in front of him, studying him silently with an unreadable expression on her face.

“You really shouldn’t have done that,” she said finally, and her voice was everything he could have hoped for: deep, warm, music to the ears.

“Done what?” said Toby. “I mean … what just happened here? Where are we?”

“In the magical world. It’s all around you, all the time, but most people choose not to see it, for the sake of a sane and simple life. But sometimes people from the everyday world find their way here by accident. Go where they shouldn’t, follow someone they shouldn’t … and then nothing can ever be the same again.” She looked at him almost sadly. “You now have a foot in both worlds; in the real world of Veritie, and the magical world of Mysterie. And it’s a dangerous thing, to be a mortal man in a world of magic.”

“OK,” said Toby. “Hold everything. Let’s start with some basics. I’m Toby Dexter. Who are you?”

“I’m Gayle. I should have noticed you were here, but I was … distracted. The weather was supposed to be sunny all day. There wasn’t even a chance of rain. And I am never wrong about these things. But today something changed, in your world and in mine, and it worries me that I can’t see how or why such an impossible thing should happen. Why did you follow me, Toby Dexter?”

“I wanted to talk to you. Ask you if you’d like to go out, for dinner, or something …”

Gayle smiled and shook her head. “I’m afraid that’s quite impossible.”

“Oh,” said Toby, disappointed but not incredibly surprised. “Well, I suppose I’ll see you around.”

“Yes,” said Gayle. “I’m rather afraid you will.”

She turned and walked off into the bright sunny evening, and didn’t look back once. Toby stood there, with his dripping umbrella, and there was no sign of rain anywhere at all.