Did you ever wonder how Corben came to be in that air raid shelter at the start of Traveller’s Duty? I’ve been toying with the idea as of late and I thought it might be fun to reveal a little more of his back-story. It’s a bite-size morsel really, but I thought it would be cool to post it here for your consideration. I hope you enjoy it. The little girl in question is named for a friend, because Corben is her favourite. 🙂
It’s not particularly spoilerific, but it’s probably best left alone unless you’ve read the original novella first.
Gillian chewed thoughtfully on a sweet and watched the strange man. He was lying on the pavement, face down and groaning, arms splayed at awkward angles from his body. Gillian wondered where he had come from. He hadn’t been there a few moments earlier, she was sure of it. She had been playing outside of the house with her ball and he most certainly had not been lying there. Then her mother had called her inside and handed her a bag of sweets – a present from her Uncle Jim in America, she’d said – and when Gillian had come back outside there was the man. As far as she was concerned he had no business being there. He was lying on her hopscotch board, smudging the chalk. She’d worked all afternoon on that. No, she thought, no business at all. She would have to do something about this.
She folded up the wrinkled paper bag that contained her all too rare treat and placed it carefully in the front pocked of her pinafore, then rolled up the sleeves of her jumper. Suitably unencumbered, she wandered over to the woodpile by the gate and snatched up a thick branch, then toddled out of the front gate. The man was still there, breathing shallowly, his face covered by long, red hair. Gillian liked his clothes; he was wearing some kind of uniform, dark and made mostly of what seemed to be suede and leather. It looked thick, warm and hard-wearing, like her winter coat. Gillian loved her winter coat. Her favourite thing about the end of the year was bundling up in the coat and one of her father’s huge woollen sweaters and having snowball fights with her brother on the common behind the house. Her brother was a strapping lad of eighteen and always let her win. Her parents didn’t talk about him much any more. Whenever she asked they always said he was fighting the Germans and then changed the subject. Gillian missed him and hoped he would be home soon.
The man had stopped moving. He looked dead. Gillian poked him with her stick. He groaned and rolled over on to his back, making her squeak in surprise and drop the stick. The front of his uniform was covered in coloured chalk dust. The man blinked in the autumn sun and turned his head to look at her. He had bright blue eyes that seemed to bore into her head, like when her mother caught her in a lie.
“Hello,” Gillian said. “Who are you?”
“Sometimes I am not quite certain,” the man replied. He smiled, gently. “Sometimes Travelling confuses my thoughts. What is your name?”
“Gillian.” She scratched her nose and frowned. This wasn’t how this was supposed to work.
“Hello Gillian. My name is Corben,” the man said. He struggled to his feet and looked down at his chest, then the pavement. “I am sorry,” he said. “I appear to have destroyed your lovely picture.”
“I made a hopscotch,” Gillian said. She cocked her head to one side. “Do you play hopscotch?”
“I am afraid not.”
“Oh.” She rummaged in her front pocket and produced the paper bag, which she proffered. “Would you like a jellybean? You can have a pink one if you like.” She leaned in and whispered conspiratorially. “They’re my favourite.”
“Oh,” the man said, extracting a sweet and tucking it into a chest pocket with reverence. “Thank you. I shall eat it later, if this will not offend you.”
“Okay,” Gillian said, satisfied. Anybody who liked pink jellybeans couldn’t be a bad person, she decided.
“How old are you, Gillian?” the man asked.
“This many,” she replied, holding up four pudgy fingers.
“As old as that?” the man smiled. “That’s quite grown up.”
“Ankyoo.” She was working on another jellybean. Her brown curls bobbed as she chewed.
“Can you tell me where I am?”
“This is my house,” Gillian said, pointing. “And that is Billy’s house. He has a dog.”
“My my. A whole one?”
“Yes. He’s called Max.” She giggled. “He did a wee on the carpet!”
“Oh. What a naughty dog.”
The man peered around at the street, taking in the brick terraces on either side. “Gillian, can you tell me where your house is? Do you know the name of this town?”
“I live in London. Do you live in London?”
“London,” the man repeated slowly. “No. I do not.”
“Where do you live?”
“Far from here,” the man said, kneeling down to look at here. “But I hope to live here for a little while, if that is alright?”
Gillian peered at him. “You could live in our garden,” she decided.
“A most generous offer.”
“Are you one of the magic people?” she asked.
“The magic people?”
“They come here sometimes,” Gillian said. “They come out of the sky. It’s magic. They always run away, though,” she finished, ruefully.
“Do they? Where do they run to?”
“I don’t know.” She looked around furtively, then whispered: “Sometimes there’s a monster.”
“What kind of monster?” the man asked, frowning.
“A big black one with big teeth,” she replied, pantomiming. “Ike iff.”
“And did you tell somebody about the monsters? Your parents, perhaps?”
“Yes,” Gillian said. “My daddy says they are no monsters. No real ones. But there are.”
“Yes, there are.”
“Your clothes look funny.”
The man looked down at himself again. “They do?” he asked. “Then I suppose I must find some new ones.”
He stood, brushing off as much of the chalk as he could, then turned towards the nearby road. Away in the distance, to the North, they could hear the sounds of traffic. “I think I shall explore this town of yours,” he said. “Thank you for your help. You have been an excellent assistant.”
“You’re welcome. Will you come and play with me sometimes?”
“Okay,” Gillian grinned. She waved at him with her chubby hand. “Bye bye Dorben.”
With his loose hair streaming in the breeze, the man walked towards the main road, eyes fixed forward and unblinking. Gillian ran back towards the garden, their conversation all but forgotten. She picked up her ball, a blue plastic affair with a satisfactory bounce, and began throwing it against the wall. Presently she turned her head at an unusual sound. She ran to the gate, hoping to see more magic people, and sagged when none presented themselves. She stared for a moment at the empty pavement and then sighed, dramatically.
“He went that way,” she said, pointing.
Gillian watched the pavement for a few moments, her head turning to follow something unseen. When her line of sight reached the end of the road she turned back to the house, glancing at her feet as she did so. Her chalks were scattered across the cracked concrete path. Gillian flopped herself down on the ground and reached for the nearest, then began drawing something large and dark on the slab by her knees.