The weather forecast woke Martin at five fifty-nine pm. He wondered why he had switched on his radio-alarm clock when he had no reason to get up. He usually listened to the Six O’clock News, so he let it play. He sat up and stretched, smiling as he caught sight of the winning lottery ticket on his bedside table. Four million pounds, tax free, meant an end to working the night shift.
A grumbling rumble issued from Martin’s stomach and he wondered if his wife had left him something to eat before she went to work that morning. She usually took a homemade meal out of the freezer for him to microwave for ‘breakfast’. Barbara had devoted herself to taking care of him when they married, twenty-one years ago next week.
Big Ben sounded on the radio.
BONG. Freak lightning strike.
BONG. Hundreds die in bridge collapse.
Martin shivered. Barbara had been due to drive over the Dartford Bridge today. As he reached over to turn off the radio, he saw the cryptic crossword he had started when he went to bed that morning. Tricky puzzles always helped him get off to sleep. He picked up his newspaper and the electronic Crossword Solver he had bought a couple of years ago. The pocket sized device, with a keyboard and LCD, was invaluable for solving awkward problems. The clue that had stumped him was:
Four across, eight letters: Er, Red Rum? Confused! Killer or what?
Fresh from a good sleep, he made a start on the clue. ‘Confused’ signified that ‘Er, Red Rum’ was an anagram meaning ‘Killer’. He fed the letters into the anagram function of his Crossword Solver, but just then, the doorbell rang. He got out of bed and put on his slippers. With a deep breath, he headed downstairs to the front door, where two police officers were waiting to break the news of Barbara’s tragic death.
Martin was walking to work. Suddenly, he diverted from his usual route and quickened his pace. He went into the newsagent and carefully circled six numbers on a lottery chitty, then he queued up at the counter and handed the chitty to the shapely woman who was serving. She smiled broadly and sat up straighter.
“Lottery ticket for tonight please, Alison,” said Martin, keeping his voice calm and his hand steady.
“Anything else, Martin? No cigarettes today?”
“No thanks, Ally. My wife wants me to quit.”
Martin ran back to the house. He let himself in and dashed to the kitchen where Barbara was preparing his ‘breakfast’.
“Hello. Why aren’t you at work?” She said, and noticing his red face added, “What’s happened?”
“You can’t go to work tomorrow! You’ll die in an accident on the Dartford Bridge!”
“What? Don’t be daft. I’m not going anywhere tomorrow, just to the office.”
“Look! This is the winning lottery ticket for tonight’s draw! It proves I know what will happen! Tell me you won’t go!” Martin slammed the ticket onto the table.
Barbara smiled, tipping her head and narrowing her eyes. Martin clenched the ticket between them. Barbara took it. “Okay. I promise.”
The following day Barbara stayed in bed with her husband, making love to him and saying repeatedly, “But how did you do it? Why?” Martin kept hugging her and joking, “I can’t manage without you, darling. I’d have to make my own ‘breakfast’!” Later, when she saw the Six O’clock News, the rosy glow drained from Barbara’s cheeks. She leaned across Martin, her dressing gown falling open as she struggled to reach the remote control, but he held it away from her and tried to change the channel. She leapt out of bed and turned up the volume on the television.
“Oh my God! You knew hundreds of people were going to die and you only saved me?” Her voice shrieked.
“I couldn’t do anything about it. It was a freak lightning strike!”
“You have an obligation to tell people!” She yelled, pointing at him. “What if there was another 9/11?”
Martin’s jaw tensed as he pictured a future in which he lived every day over and over, running pointless errands and saving random lives.
“Fine,” he said, “I’ll go back.”
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Barbara, catching her breath. “I’ll help you. We’ve got nothing better to do now. We never have to work again.”
“Goodbye, then,” said Martin, taking out his Crossword Solver. “I suppose it has to be this way.”
Martin was walking to work. Keeping his pace even, he checked his watch and turned towards the newsagent. He went straight to the lottery stand and filled out a chitty.
At the counter, he queued up and handed over his chitty and a newspaper.
“Lottery ticket for tonight please, Alison.”
“Anything else, Martin? No cigarettes today?”
“No thanks, Ally. My w…” Martin hesitated and then smiled, leaning towards the woman. “Actually, yes. Twenty of the usual, please. And a lighter.”