Southern England. Autumn ’83. One cold and mizzling evening. A garishly lit and noisy Dedcot Railway Station disgorges yet another swarm of commuters out into the dusk. Half a klick away, in a disused section of the goods sidings, faint lights can be seen under the tarp on an abandoned train carriage. Inside it, a bunch of munching kids are gathered around an improvised table as they set off on their epic quest: to raid the Lost Temple of the Fire Opal™. Directing the action this evening is an amiable Dungeon Master, Andy Rawnsley, who has a knack for getting his mates to laugh at their misadventures. Seated amongst this tidal drift of discarded snack wrappers and pop bottles are:
Tom, aka ‘Tank’, playing a Cleric
Pete, aka ‘Scamps’ playing a Thief
Robbie, aka ‘Gobby’, playing a Ranger
Kin, aka ‘Flash’, playing a Fighter
Sean, aka ‘Yank’, playing a Paladin
Tommy, aka ‘Titch’ playing a Magic User
Ash, aka ‘Flake’, playing a Druid.
Together they set off down dark steps into a dungeon full of spiders, goblins, eels, and a gelatinous cube. The paladin got slimed. The thief acquired a cowardly goblin prisoner of war. The evening was a fantastic escape from the midweek grind of secondary school right up until their encounter with two blink dogs and an electric trap in a very wet 10’ passage. As the odd whine from the treasure chest rose in pitch and volume our brave adventurers attempted to flee. But suddenly:
They awaken sprawled on the floor and in the dark. Lit torches reveal a smooth, dry corridor painted vomit green — but fortunately everyone appears to be unhurt. Setting forth to explore this new darkness they are baffled to encounter a fire extinguisher clamped onto a nearby wall, at which point Titchy Tommy goes ‘hang on a minute’…. Shortly thereafter the green corridor reveals large glass windows either side. By shining their torch beams through the windows Kin and Robbie reveal an abandoned conference room and a gutted infirmary in the rooms beyond. By this point just about all the party were saying variations of “what the crap?!” or “Andy; what have you DONE??” Andy, however, is not amongst those present. Expressing bafflement and surprise in equal measure the gang continues to explore what turns out to be a 1950s Cold War bunker. Long since abandoned with anything useful stripped out, there are still enough outdated maps and faded notices around to confirm its original purpose. All too soon the kids find stairs up and out. With their torch batteries running low they reluctantly climb to the exit.
Outside, they discover their bikes piled in a heap next to the bunker door. Andy’s bike is not there, which has them a bit worried. They’re standing on a hillside above Dedcot looking down on the familiar lights of its cooling towers blinking in the gloom. The sky is distinctly lighter along the eastern horizon which tells them that it’s just before dawn. They have been out all night! And it’s a school day today. Slightly alarmed and substantially baffled they pedal madly off down the Holloway, peeling off one by one to get to their respective homes.
Each kid arrived home to deal with daily domestic life over breakfast. Some houses were warm and welcoming, some cold and empty, some were much too busy to notice late arrivals and one older sister collected a favour in return for not telling. Farm kids still had chores to do regardless. Sean discovered his family was being recalled to the US overwinter. Andy’s mum phoned around trying to find out where he’d been staying overnight. And, as ever, School loomed on everyone’s event horizon with the inevitability of a punctured tyre on the Ridgeway. At 8.40am all the kids met up again behind the bike sheds feeling tired and muzzy from the previous night. An animated discussion took place over what might have happened and what was up with Andy’s disappearance. It resolved with the kids doing what everybody did in all their favourite films: they split the party. Robbie and Ash pedalled off through town while streets were still busy with commuters, and the rest of the gang attempted to conceal their absence. This lasted all of 15 minutes until the morning register, which had to be altered afterwards to show Ash present. They didn’t bother changing Robbie’s entry, reasoning that teachers pretty much expected it by now.
Robbie and Ash cycled over to the hideout and had a poke about. They noticed that it was left, not tidy exactly, but with all the AD&D stuff cleared away and personal things removed as if everyone had left normally at the end of the evening. Nothing odd or new in or around the carriage. They set off towards the underpass back into town but noticed something strange in the mud between the underpass and siding tracks: it looked as if something very heavy had pulled off into the layby. Moreover, from that direction, they could also see that a bollard had been knocked askew and cream paint scraped across it. The two girls examined the layby track a bit closer and noted a bunch of smaller footprints and bike tracks half hidden behind a thicket of buddleia bushes: theirs! Clearly, this was the scene of the crime.
Back at school the rest of the gang sat a maths test, surprisingly successfully, and memorised dates about a bunch of mad medieval kings all named Henry or Edward. After a short playground break at which a Police car was noticed pulling up at the front of the school, they were herded back inside for double English Lit. Their set text was Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ which, the entire year group agrees, is just a ploy to get them to understand what their grandparents and other wrinklies are gabbling on about. At last the lunch bell rang and all of lower school swarmed into hall for first sitting of lunch: Toad in the Hole and Semolina Sick is on the menu. To absolutely no-one’s surprise Ash and Robbie reappeared in time for food. Much was said. Pete’s big sister ambled by with her clique to inform him that he will witness her attendance at gym training this evening even though she will be going to the cinema with the rest of the girls instead. He agreed readily.
After lunch, R.E. was on the timetable but almost immediately the gang were summoned out of class to meet with Sgt Williams and WPC Dobbs who had questions about Andy and where he might be hiding. Their attempts at building a friendly dialogue were foiled by teenage monosyllables, shrugs and general sullenness. The gang, however, did learn from the Fuzz that Andy’s bike had been found in Dedcot Station bike racks. They were sent back to class but this time all of them snuck away and cycled off to look at these mysterious mud tracks. There were deep indentations and adult boot prints where something had been unloaded. There were wide tyre marks and a dented bollard. There were also strange swirly patterns in the rusty scatterings left by centuries of railway work: a magnetrine lift! They deduced some sort of emergency vehicle which of course they would have stopped to watch.
Serious sleuthing ensued. They wondered if its magnetic field might have affected other things; they took a close look at the traffic lights on the town side of the underpass and indeed the amber lights were out of sequence. Looking about they spotted a CCTV camera pointing at the station car park which might have that road junction in its field of view. A cunning plan to create a diversion and sneak into the station office was drawn up and immediately put into action although not necessarily with the most adept kids at each stage. Nevertheless they succeeded in nicking the correct video tape off the shelf without being caught and scarpered back to Ash’s house to view it. Initially this was not at all helpful as it seemed to consist mainly of snow, but some adept tinkering resulted in a much cleaner view. At 21:15hrs the tape showed a distinct wavering, followed by an old-fashioned 1970s ambulance pulling up at the traffic lights and then turning to go through the underpass. About five minutes later there was an indirect reflection of a bright pulse of light in that direction. Five minutes after that that the ambulance reappeared and turned off towards Broadway. They also got a partial license plate from the TV screen: ‘…922L’.
The gang set off for Dedcot Cottage Hospital intent on finding Andy. Some went poking around outdoors while some tried to get as far as they could indoors. Almost immediately those outdoors noticed that modern NHS ambulances for paramedics were a substantially different design from those used just 10 years before. Moreover they had a reflective livery of green and yellow and a highly shielded and focussed emergency magnetrine lift. Indoors the frazzled medical staff had no tolerance at all for nosy teenagers and only a little time to spare to renew Robbie’s prescription. Kids were shooed out into the gathering dusk at which point everyone realised that they were very tired indeed. They decided to return home for a normal evening and regroup the following day. Back home almost all of them had to put up with variations on “you’re grounded!”, but the older generation did share local knowledge that old ambulances might still be used by the army, by the high security Littlemore Hospital in south Oxford, and by UKAEA Harwell’s medical ‘care facility’ called Zulu Farm just outside Dedcot.
Alas, no-one slept well overnight. All the kids were plagued by nameless fears and a feeling of something hunting for them. They awoke more tired than they’d gone to bed and hauled themselves off to school under the unusually close supervision of worried parents. On the way into school they noticed that a small group of journalists had appeared around its gates. Although clearly not allowed onto school grounds these hacks had no qualms at all about snapping ‘local colour’ on the street. A few more blokes approached from the direction of Dedcot Station. Ash reckoned she must be tired enough to hallucinate because, just for a moment, she thought one of them was trundling a chest with many feet behind him instead of a wheeled suitcase.
Once inside Robbie called a meeting behind the bike shed; the gang agreed to stay in school while she did some preliminary scouting during the morning. Off she went. Having once eyeballed Littlemore Hospital from a distance she had no wish to examine its extreme security more closely. She’d also had ‘a spot of previous’ with army guards who might still remember her at the Loop site, so instead she decided to start with Zulu Farm, out along the road to old Harwell village. This charmingly quaint Victorian Farm turned out to be a low security residence run by BUPA for ex-UKAEA Harwell employees. It uses market gardening as therapy and produce is sold in a farm shop across the road. Robbie made a sneaky search of its many barns and farm outbuildings and had just decided they were all clear when she was finally chased away by an irritated supervisor and his snarling guard dog. She spent a little time getting to know shop staff across the road and blagged a bagful of apples in return for sweeping up. While tidying she disturbed a rabbit amongst the carrot sacks which promptly shot away across a field. Strangely, it appeared to be wearing a blue jacket.
Back in school the academic day started with Assembly in the main hall. Police Sgt Williams was on stage with the Headmaster and urged “anyone who knows anything” about Andy’s disappearance talk to him afterwards. As one all eyes turn to look at the gang. A battered piano and equally worn music teacher leads the entire school in mouthing along to ‘We plough the field and scatter…’. Dispersing to class the gang then endure an English lesson of essay writing, slightly spooking their teacher when she discovered that, in a dreamy fog, they’d all written variations on the same ghost story. Well, all except Tank who had somehow wrangled a doomed romance into the plot also. She eventually decided that they had all copied from the same source and intends to make her disapproval clear just as soon as she discovers the original. This is followed by spoken French, once their teacher got the video player to work. The kids’ accents and grammar remained just as appallingly bad as you could ever imagine. Breaktime was spent trying to scheme behind the bike sheds but, without their leader, the kids had forgotten to set a lookout and were soon rumbled by a passing teacher. He hauled them back out to the playground and gave them all detention after school. As he strode away Tommy noticed that he was trailing copper chains from both ankles. A blink, and these resolved into brown shoelaces which had come loose. Break over, the kids get a Biology Dissection lesson with worms. They ace the practical and while away time splatting surplus worms against the wall, or each other. Lunchtime bell rings.
Robbie reappeared for the meal of Mystery Meat Stew, followed by a pudding of Spotted Dick. No-one would sit near them. Friday afternoon was designated for sports: football for the boys and hockey for the girls. Ash trotted off to get her weapon, the boys assembled to pick teams, and Tommy decided that truancy was the better part of detention. Robbie also bunked off to keep an eye on him as she had much more experience at not getting caught. First they tried to go back to the underpass, but by now the Police had it cordoned off so the nearest they got was a bench by the station. They lurked, trying to jog their memories, but only managed to get a slightly stronger recollection of the bright flash of light and a smell of ozone. Meanwhile, back on the sport field, Kin spent some time on the reserve bench making sarky comments to Pete who’d been covering a lot of pitch without actually getting near the ball. Their banter was interrupted by a stray hockey ball landing nearby. A Year 1 kid ran over to retrieve it but, instead of running back, she held it out to Kin. “Errand”, she said blankly. And just for a second it seemed to glow blue. Kin chucked it back into play and she skipped off.
After school, and despite detention, all the kids headed the long way round to their hideout. Tank appeared with Burger King meals, plus prawn cocktail and black forest gateaux scrounged from somewhere. Over this feast they tried to decide what to do next. The kids theorised that all the weirdness was somehow connected to Andy vanishing, and noted that it occurred at Zulu Farm as well as School. They resolved to raid the Farm and rescue Andy come what may. So at dusk they headed off down Harwell Road, pulling up a safe distance from the care home. Ash kept lookout while Tank used burger wrappers to lure the guard dogs away. The rest attempted to creep up on the Farmhouse but had to pause to pull Tommy out of a ditch; “He’s fallen in da water!” They observed that the facility consisted of an old Farmhouse, a ’50s dormitory extension, a low stable block converted to cottages with bars still on the windows, and an old Coach House also partially converted. All of these were set around a cobbled courtyard which just happened to be lit by a Victorian gaslamp just like the one in Narnia. A parked 70’s ambulance sported a dented side and the number plate ‘MLW 922L’. The kids had the barred stables pegged as their target almost at once.
The kids broke into the workshop section of the coach house and scrambled up to its hayloft, now being used to store all kinds of interesting scrap and machinery. They observed a slightly creepy janitor on his rounds. They also discovered a concealed service door leading from the hayloft into the stable block. They cracked it open to discover a gleaming white medical lab and in the middle were two couches supporting an old woman and Andy. Both had their heads covered with a scary looking colander of cables and wires connecting to an Alien Thing on the workbench nearby. Unfortunately, they’d also triggered an alarm, and the janitor jogged over to see what had been disturbed. The kids had a bare minute to come up with a plan to rescue Andy.
The plan was for Pete to jump down first, to dodge around and cause mayhem. Robbie to go next and attack with her penknife and Old Spice aerosol, and for Kin and Tommy to head for the alien machinery and figure it out. One by one they leapt down from the hayloft and a scrappy, chaotic, almost-fight ensued. The nerds manage to figure out that they needed to overload the feed of the Thing to extract Andy so they set about hacking that in. Everyone got sufficient successes to rescue their friend and almost enough to free the old lady too, but her medical signs started to crash. The Janitor switched his attention to her but not before pushing a button on a nearby gadget. A capacitor hum started up, rising in pitch and volume. Recognising this, and by now being throughly upset and scared, the kids decided to just run for it — straight through the staff who were now appearing in the courtyard to see what the commotion was. Pete supported Andy and managed to move fast for both of them. Robbie also sped away but Tommy’s squelching trainers slipped on the cobblestones. Robbie turned back to haul him up and out. The kids barrelled through the gawping adults and as they left the yard a bright flash went off behind them. They didn’t stop.
They phoned the incident in from the payphone in Harwell village, then staggered off to Kin’s house for a much happier phone call to Andy’s mum. There was much celebrating and watching through net curtains as various vehicles with flashing blue lights raced through the village and turned off at Zulu Farm. Andy’s mum has promised to take them all out for as much pizza and ice cream as they can eat over the weekend.