Powdrill Close contained twelve houses and five boys and two of the boys were playing football in the road. It was a quiet place to live, the only noise came from a small electricity substation. There was no crime, and it was said that before the houses were built the fields had well behaved cows and birds that sang all day. Today the football players were almost breaking with tradition. Tim Poole was not happy with the shot his friend had directed past him.
"Gordon, how on earth can I stop that, it's too hard."
Gordon Cheam was the antithesis of Tim. Whereas Tim stood tall and carried himself well, with a fine jaw line and sense of presence which made him look like a head boy, Gordon was coy and gullible with no wish to take charge of anything.
"Sorry Tim, I'll get it," he said as he ran quickly into the front garden of number six.
Georgina was also playing football. She played it today because she thought Tim the most interesting boy she had ever set eyes on. In her mind he was grown up, so self-assured and capable.
Gordon reached for the football, which nestled within a bed of roses. He carefully extricated the ball and threw it back to Tim with an exaggerated underarm action. Over his left shoulder was the living room window of number six and it was toward that direction that his head now turned. Number six was the home of Professor James.
The professor had finished his illustrious career at the local university and, with his children grown up, settled down to retirement with his lovely wife. He had three teeth and these were situated at the front of his mouth; two at the top and one at the bottom. His hair was long and scraggy, and he was so skinny that the outline of his bones showed through his skin. Professor James had a project. The children had determined, after some discussion, that all professors must have projects. Well, this professor was quite secretive; when the boys asked him what he did all day in his shed he strangely replied: "Mathematicians hold the secrets of the universe, not the biologists."
Gordon could see Professor James at the living room window. The old man was kindly but irked by the regular retrieval of balls.
"The prof gave me a look," said Gordon to Tim as he ran back to resume play.
"He's a nice man. Daddy says he's very clever," said Georgina.
Gordon stretched himself up to his full height, which wasn't very tall at all, and proudly announced, "I've seen what's in his shed."
"Wood and junk, the same as all our dads have," retorted Tim.
"Oh... no, not that, something much more interesting. In fact something out of this world."
"Don't be daft," said Georgina. "You wouldn't go snooping around there anyway, but Tim would, wouldn't you Tim?"
Tim wasn't sure what he would do, his mind was engaged in appreciating what Gordon had said. “What sort of machine Gordon?" he asked.
“Complicated... I worked it out though...it’s a satellite link... must be." Gordon, for all his shyness, had a high opinion of his technical knowledge and was considered a geek by the other children.
Tim frowned slightly, "What do you mean Gordon?"
"He has a machine with so many controls it could be one of those starship consoles on your video game. It’s plugged in as well, he never turns it off.”
Tim bounced the football on the road and caught it. He thought....Georgina's eyes glazed over as she stared with admiration. "We'll look tonight," he said decisively.
The shed was set back behind rows of runner beans and not as far from Professor James' beehives as could be hoped. Before that night's stealthy reconnoitre of the shed they had argued among themselves of the efficacy of bee stings to produce instant death, and had decided that twenty stings was probably quite enough to do them in. The window of the shed was quite high and Tim couldn't reach.
"I'll lift you from the waist," he whispered to Gordon, who was as compliant as ever.
With more of a grunt than would have been wise for such a clandestine operation, Tim lifted him for all of five seconds before fatigue took over.
"Well, what did you see?" asked Tim.
"It's still there and it's going. I mean it's doing what it must be supposed to do.... I think. There's some sort of shadow thing as well."
Georgina was bored, she had signed up for this expedition to show Tim she could do what the boys could; all she had done so far was to watch the others. Georgina had long flowing blonde hair, a pretty face, and a smile which suggested she had more teeth than anyone else. It was her constant mission to show Tim that she could, in all situations, display leadership qualities which he would admire. It was to this end that she now made her mark.
"It's not locked," she said with effortless superiority.
The boys sighed and moved round to the door. Georgina had already opened it an inch and now she waited for one of the others to complete the action. Tim grasped the handle, pushed, and the door swung open. There was only a dim light but they saw the rush of green coloured air that flowed over their bodies. Professor James sat behind a table, on top of which was a chess board with no pieces. Behind him was a control panel with dials and cables.
Tim, who had been the first through, spoke too loudly. "Professor James....I...we...we're sorry, we thought we heard something."
The old man said nothing.
Georgina grabbed Tim's sleeve and pulled, "Let's go Tim, we've said sorry."
The professor's face was set into a grotesque shape, as if he was suffering from some terrible neuralgia. His hands rested on the barren chess board and wandered, feeling for the missing pieces.
"Go, children...now, go...now."
They turned to run. It would be two paces to the door, three paces to the hedge, another ten to the wall and they should be out. They sat down on the pavement and stared at one another. Gordon, who disliked exercise of any kind, was puffing, and his face was red as a beetroot.
Tim spoke first, "I thought we handled that rather well."
"But what we saw was horrible. What's the professor doing sat behind a stupid chess board in his own shed?" asked Georgina as she rearranged her dress.
Gordon's eyes were fixed on the surroundings. "This is terrible," he mumbled.
Georgina whispered again. "That's what I've just said, I'm never going near him again. In fact I'm going to walk on the other side of the road, completely."
"No...look...the squares...black and white squares," Gordon's voice trembled as he spoke.
Before them lay a familiar black and white pattern. They looked down to their feet and saw a gold edged border which formed one side of a gigantic chess board, stretching into the half light as far as they could see.
Moving diagonally across the squares was a halo of red with a centre which heaved as if to some unseen beat of an unseen heart. The circle passed over them and they were within a strange firmament of colours and shapes, which cleared to reveal an arcade of shops thronged with people.
The children looked at each other and were about to let out a combined scream when a young woman walked up to them.
"Hello, where have you come from?" enquired the woman, who was rather plainly dressed in well worn, if not shabby clothes.
Tim decided to take charge. "Powdrill Close... what is all this... who are you?"
"I'm the gatekeeper, well I am today. Once a week, we take turns. It's very dull."
"Are we unconscious?" asked Gordon, who really was quite excited.
The gatekeeper was a lethargic type of woman who spoke in a drawl. "Don't be silly," she said. "Oh... I see... the professor and the chess board. The professor is just an eccentric who sits in his shed trying to work out the meaning of everything which perplexes him, which for all his ability covers quite a lot of ground. The machine behind him is his old army surplus radio set. The rest was your imagination, and that is why you are here."
"Imagination?" said a puzzled Georgina.
The gatekeeper started to walk toward the arcade, the children followed, feeling less frightened now. She stopped in front of the nearest shop and stepped up two old stone steps which led through the door and into the interior. Georgina lagged behind, uncertain whether it was wise to follow the stranger. She raised her head to read aloud the proprietor's name, written in old-fashioned script above the dirty window; "Messrs. Stonyford & Pond... Dealers in Children."
Georgina screamed, not a blood curdling scream, more one of despair. She shouted to the boys, "Tom, Gordon, run, run with me, there's danger..run..run."
Gordon and Tom stopped abruptly, turned and stared at Georgina.
"Run, run..look!" implored Georgina, now with even more urgency in her voice. She pointed to the sign above the window and the boys saw. They could move fast, they were young and fit and weaved in and out of the crowd; bumping into people as they distanced themselves from the arcade. It was then Georgina saw who was missing from the throng; there were no children. All the crowd were adult of various size and age, each busily engaged in the business of moving from one shop to the next. They had ignored the children when the gatekeeper was with them, but now they stared at the escapees who ran as fast as they could away from the shops.
The opposite side of the road was less crowded and the children dashed for the alleyway which led downhill between two old buildings. As they left the main road and turned into the alley Georgina stopped to let the boys catch her.
"I know we don't understand what's going on but I think we're safe now, no one's following us," said Georgina, who was clearly out of breath.
Gordon was bent at the knees, breathing loudly, scooping air into his lungs as fast as he could. "I can't run any more, let's just walk fast. Like Georgina says we're out of the way now," he gasped to Tom.
A hand grabbed Gordon and pulled him through a door at the same time as a girl and two other well dressed boys took hold of Georgina and Tom. They emerged into a hall of about thirty metres square. The ceiling was covered in a lattice of cobwebs and the walls had a film of green slime which continued onto the floor. After some discerning thought Gordon came to the conclusion that they were in a disbanded leisure centre. In front of them was the pool area and alongside were rooms that must have been used for changing.
Gordon turned to one of his captors. "Are you friends... friends?" he yelled.
The tall boy, probably in his early teens, replied quietly. "If you want to be captured just keep on shouting like that, you idiot. We're friends and you're the luckiest children alive. What on earth were you doing, going with a guide to the arcade."
Tom walked a few steps up to the boy, having decided that now was the time to display his leadership qualities. "Look, a few minutes ago we were looking around the professor's shed and now we're in some ridiculous fantasy world where Georgina has terrified us into feeling scared for our lives. Just stop playing around, it's a kind of joke...yes, that's what it is... a joke."
"It's no joke," said the boy with some impatience. You're in a different world now and you had better forget the past and try, like us, to avoid the adults."
"We're in danger then, aren't we?" asked Georgina.
"You saw the arcade... well it's not just what you saw. The arcade stretches across the Earth, it took thousands of years to build and caters for the adults. All adults do now is shop. Extobots do the work; robots who mine the ore, manufacture and distribute the goods and man the arcade. The hospitals are run by them, the operations performed by them. The adults thought they had created a paradise but the birth rate dropped as they found children an inconvenience. Children meant less time shopping."
"Anyone would miss having children around," said Tom.
The boy sighed, "No, it wasn't the children they missed, it was our imagination; our ability to turn a cardboard box into ten different toys, our wonder. The adults found they had stopped dreaming, all their imagination had gone. They panicked and tried to produce children again. Few children came along; something must have changed within us, and now they steal children from other worlds. We hide from the adults because they treat us like commodities, buying and selling us as if we were houses. Not many have children naturally, those that do, boast, and those that don't go to the arcade to buy. I'm sorry... we were abducted and escaped."
"But why don't the adults hunt you down?" asked Tim, who was standing close to Georgina.
"They have no idea where to start looking, they have no imagination you see," answered the boy.
Tom decided to sum up their predicament. "So... we're in another world, where adults are desperate for the imagination of children but have so few children of their own that they steal from other worlds. We've been taken and we were to be sold. Now we have a sort of freedom... but where do we go from here?"
The boy stood up. "You make the most of it. It isn't difficult to outwit the adults, so food and shelter is no problem."
"But what happens when you grow up," enquired Gordon, who was seeking a scientific explanation.
"It seems we become the same as the adults. The older children just wandered off and joined the grown ups. When we tried to talk to them they raised the alarm. We think they can't remember being children because they can't imagine anything. It's a bit like life and death I suppose, once you're there you can't send a message back."
Gordon was staring at the ground. As the boy talked Gordon had studied his surroundings. He had seen the diving board and the empty pool and now his eyes settled on the faint pattern and gold stripe which led away to a far corner of the building.
"It's the chess board!" he exclaimed at the top of his voice. His head jerked upward to meet the stare of Georgina and Tom. "It's the professor's chess board. We're in with a chance... what did we do just before this happened?"
"We did nothing... we just saw the prof playing chess," answered Tom.
Gordon turned to face Georgina and said,"The board was empty but now we're the pieces. Look at this pattern, it's faint. Look at the gold stripe. Imagine we're back in the shed, the professor's shed."
Tim and Georgina's faces displayed a look of bewilderment which galvanised Gordon even more.
"Just do it...concentrate, we're back in the shed, imagine it... together." Gordon grasped the arms of his two friends and they seamlessly progressed into the world that only children understand......
They raised their heads and the professor had changed his mind. "No, don't go... stay," he said in a calm friendly voice. "I was curious as a child. If you have time we could try to contact my friend in Australia."
The children were looking at the chess board.
"I'm trying to think up an alternative game for the same type of board," said professor James, sensing again the curiosity of the youngsters.
"Next time please," said Georgina,"we have to get back... next time please."
The professor smiled, "next time," he said.
Tom closed the shed door behind them and they walked from the garden to the road.
"I think we had better shut up about this... not tell anyone," whispered Tom.
Georgina and Gordon nodded in agreement.
It was quite dark as they walked back to their homes in Powdrill Close. Georgina was thinking of the adventure and thinking of Gordon.
They said their goodbyes and Georgina placed her key into the lock of her front door.
It didn't fit.