Falling Sideways


By Tom Holt

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From the moment Homo Sapiens descended from the trees, possibly onto their heads, humanity has striven towards civilization. Fire. The Wheel. Running Away from furry things with more teeth than one might reasonably expect-all are testament to man’s ultimate supremacy. It is a noble story and so, of course, complete and utter fiction. For one man has discovered the hideous truth: that humanity’s ascent to civilization has been ruthlessly guided by a small gang of devious frogs. The man’s name is David Perkins, and his theory is not, on the whole, widely admired, particularly not by the frogs themselves, who had invested a great deal of time and effort in keeping the whole thing quiet.



Her name was Philippa Levens, fifth marchioness of Ipswich; and as she smiled at him, her eyes were as clear and bright and brown as they’d been on the day she died, wearing her fire like a bridal veil, on the seventeenth of June 1602. She knew him better than anyone, he was convinced of that, and if only he could reach out and pull her through the glass—

He felt the rope brush against his knee, and pulled himself together. A few millimetres further and he’d have set off the alarm, again; and after the last time, he didn’t want to do that. He took a long step back – it felt like a betrayal – and looked up at her again, but somehow the closeness between them had dissipated. She was disappointed in him.

(A middle-aged couple walked up behind him and stopped to look at the painting. He didn’t want to resent them, but he did. English people seem to have difficulty telling the difference between art galleries and zoos; they don’t often try to feed the pictures with bananas, but only because they know it wouldn’t be allowed. English people are only comfortable in the presence of unruly, uncivilised things like animals or art if they know there’s a sheet of toughened glass in the way, to stop the predators from getting out. The idea that they’re the ones in the cage, or the frame, doesn’t seem to have occurred to them yet.)

Ironically, it had been his mother (‘David, isn’t it about time you found yourself a nice girl . . . ?’) who’d introduced them, twenty-one years ago, on his twelfth birthday. That was his mother’s idea of a birthday treat; dragging round some dreary old art gallery, followed by tea and stale Black Forest gateau in the gallery café. They’d only stopped in front of Philippa because Mum wanted to get a bit of gravel out of her shoe.

‘That’s a nice one,’ he’d said.

‘What?’ Mum had looked up, a shoe in her hand. ‘Yes, dear. Willem de Stuivens, Dutch school. Quite derivative, of course.’

He’d neither known nor cared what she’d meant by that. He’d been too busy staring at the perfect heart-shaped face of the young girl in the picture. It wasn’t a very good painting; the enormous dress was flat and unconvincing, giving him the impression of one of those fairground stalls where you have your photograph taken sticking your head and hands through a big plywood cut-out of the Fat Lady. She – the girl – seemed to think so too, or at least her smile, or grin, or smirk, suggested that she knew perfectly well that her body had come out two-dimensional, and that the joke was on Willem de Whatsisname, not her.

And then she’d stuck her tongue out at him.

It had happened just as he was turning away, and he’d only caught a fleeting glimpse of it out of the corner of his eye. He’d frozen and burned with shame – he had, after all, only that day turned twelve and had just fallen in love for the first time – and he hadn’t dared look back; and then Mum had put her shoe back on and said they’d better be getting a move on, they still had rooms fifteen to twenty-six to do before lunch, and they’d been parted, before he’d even had a chance to look at the label on the wall and find out her name.

So, here he was again, twenty-one birthdays later, and here she still was. She was exactly the same, of course; he wasn’t. He was very self-conscious about that. It was his thirty-third birthday and already he had a bald spot on the top of his head and a little round tummy like a hobbit, and a quiet voice at the back of his mind was pointing out (sounding ever so faintly like his mother) that it wasn’t fair to expect her to wait for him for ever . . . His birthday, traditionally the point in the year when he should be taking stock of his life, considering the path he’d come by and the road ahead; also, by a coincidence so huge it blotted out the sun, the day when a lock of hair, reputed to be that of the notorious seventeenth-century witch Pippa Levens, was due to go under the hammer at Larraby’s, five hundred yards down the road from the gallery.

So: he took a step forward, as close to the rope and the invisible infra-red barrier as he dared to go, and looked her squarely in the eye.

‘Shall I?’ he asked.

She grinned at him. It’s well known that some paintings have eyes that follow you round the room. Pippa Levens had a grin that followed him everywhere, like a butcher’s dog, and it was never the same grin twice.

‘Well?’ he said, feeling just a little annoyed. The guard by the door turned her head and looked at him.

Of course, he should have known better than to expect a straight answer. He looked away and, as he did so, noticed something for the first time. It was curious, maybe just a trick of the light or a fluke of incidence and refraction, but the painting to the left of Pippa was clearly reflected in the glass of the big display cabinet in the middle of the room, and so was the big, heavy battle scene to her right. He could make out quite a lot of fine detail in both reflections – the horses and the cannon of the battle, the little squashed-looking bird on the hand of the chubby baroness – but Pippa wasn’t there, just her frame and a gleaming, smeary blue glow.

He turned round and looked at her one more time. Now her grin was mocking him, telling him that she’d known all along that he didn’t have the nerve for a stunt like this; that it was all right, she understood, because it’d be a pretty wild thing to do. Remarkable, this ability she had to burn him up with embarrassment and shame; maybe because, in all his thirty-three years, he’d never found such an accurate mirror as Pippa’s glass

He had, of course, made his decision.

Bloody nerve, he thought. Even if she is over four hundred years old, a witch and quite definitively dead, she’s got no right to go smirking at me like that, like I’m something small and wriggly she found in a rock-pool.

Now she was laughing at him for getting upset. That was the trouble with her knowing him so well: she could read him at a glance. The one thing he’d never been able to figure out, after all these years and all these visits, was whether she actually liked him.

There was only one way to find that out; and if he hung around here much longer, that one opportunity could easily be gone for ever. What if someone else got the lock of hair – some American, or a museum? Short of burglary (he wasn’t cut out for burglary) he’d never have this chance again. At the very least, he had to buy the hair; once he’d got it, safely and permanently his, he could make up his mind about the rest of it later.

He looked up at the painting. Just for once, was she actually smiling now, with approval? He couldn’t really see for looking. ‘Just stay there,’ he said, ‘I’ll be back.’

It cost him twelve thousand, seven hundred and fifty pounds, exclusive of buyer’s premium and VAT. Just as he’d feared, there had been an American, and a museum, and they’d clung on like piranhas. It was the first time he’d bought anything in an auction. Probably the worst two hours of his life.

It was just as well that he’d got the necessary money (plus buyer’s premium and VAT). Fortunately, one side effect of having fallen hopelessly in love with a dead witch at the age of twelve was that he’d never bothered with girls, parties, people his own age, a life or any of that stuff, which only left work and sleep. He’d got into computers simply because he seemed to have an affinity with bright things on the other side of a pane of glass, and now for the first time in his life he’d actually wanted something, and he’d been able to buy it. So that was all right.

Apparently, you couldn’t just pick up what you’d bought and go home with it. You had to wait till the whole auction was over, though you were allowed to leave before the end. The man who’d come over and taken his credit details told him they’d probably all be through by four; that left him with two hours to kill. For some reason he didn’t feel like going back to the gallery. He knew he’d feel embarrassed facing her. She’d grin at him (‘You spent fifteen thousand pounds on a few bits of old hair? You must be . . .’) and he couldn’t bear the thought of that. Crazy as a barrelful of ferrets, he muttered to himself, and went for a beer.

The nearest pub to Larraby’s was the Blue Boar in New Row. He sat down at a table under the window; through the glass he could see the back door of Larraby’s in one direction, and the roof of the building two doors down from the gallery in the other. The beer was authentic, had a silly name, and tasted as if something leprous had died in it several years earlier. He looked at his watch.

‘Excuse me.’ He lifted his head. A man had slid into the seat opposite, and was looking at him. It was an odd way of looking, inquiring but familiar; as if he was an exhibit of some kind.

‘Excuse me,’ the man repeated, ‘but I believe you were at the sale just now. You were bidding on that lock of hair.’

The man was in his mid-fifties, very dark, with a big nose and a pointed chin; David had an idea that he looked Russian, though he’d never met a Russian in his life. The most noticeable thing about him was the big, ugly scar where his left eye should have been. It was the kind of disfigurement you couldn’t help staring at, however hard you tried. These days, of course, there was no excuse for leaving messes like that lying about where they might disturb sensitive people. The man’s hair was unconventionally long, and there was a light dusting of dandruff on the collar of his suit jacket; but the suit itself looked very new and extremely expensive. David wasn’t terribly good at accents, so he couldn’t place this one. It was very faint, in any event. If forced to hazard a guess, David would have said it was either Turkish, Portuguese, Australian or Newcastle.

David really didn’t want to talk to this person, but he couldn’t see how he could avoid it; the strange man was looking straight at him and smiling pleasantly. They were the only two people in the bar.

‘Um,’ David said. ‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘Did you get it? I had to leave halfway through.’

David nodded.

‘Ah, well done. I saw that Dr Weiss was bidding against you, and I noticed Neil Kovacs from the Sluys Collection had the lot highlighted and ringed in green in his catalogue, so I guess he was after it too. Did they give you a hard time?’

David shrugged. ‘Par for the course, I expect,’ he said. ‘I don’t go to auctions, you see.’

‘Very wise.’ The man’s smile widened. He had very white teeth, rather crooked. ‘I’m glad you got it, anyway. Or at least, I’m glad Weiss didn’t; he belongs to the Alcatraz school of art appreciation – lock it away in a dark place and throw away the key. I’m not sure I follow the logic behind that; presumably it’s to teach all those pesky paintings a lesson they won’t forget in a hurry. The Sluys Collection isn’t quite so bad; at least it’s an open prison. Actually, I’m not sure that’s any better, but then, I don’t really like museums. They always make me think of old-fashioned lunatic asylums, where people could pay to go in and look at the freaks. So; you collect seventeenth-century memorabilia?’

‘No,’ David said.

‘Oh. Well, presumably you collect something, or you wouldn’t have outbid Barracuda Weiss for a few strands of hair. So what’s your speciality? I imagine there’s a theme to your collection, rather than just a magpie’s fondness for shiny objects. Curiosities of Old Suffolk? Sorceriana? Bits of dead people?’

There was an intensity in the strange man’s one eye that David didn’t like one bit; but he was still smiling in a thoroughly pleasant, friendly way. Despite David’s rapidly growing panic, he couldn’t help thinking that the stranger reminded him of someone.

‘I’m sorry,’ the man said, leaning back, ‘I’m being most offensively nosy. It’s a fault of mine. My name’s Dean, by the way. Oliver Dean.’

David smiled feebly. ‘David Perkins,’ he replied. Looking at the man from a very slightly different angle (as he leaned back, the light from the window changed its emphasis just a little) he realised that he instinctively knew two things. One, Oliver Dean wasn’t the man’s real name. Two, the someone the stranger reminded him of – the resemblance was actually little short of startling – was Pippa Levens. The same chin, the same delicacy about the tapering at the bridge of the nose; the stranger could quite easily have been her father. No, belay that, obviously. The man could quite easily have been her thirteen-greats-grandson, except that she’d died childless – without siblings, too. Aristocracy, David said to himself; all those aristocratic families were related to each other, so it’s quite possible that this bloke really could be a distant relative. (Only someone with blue blood sloshing up and down his veins would dare to act so weird in public, so that fitted, too.) Not that that gave him the right to go around terrifying innocent people in pubs; but it might explain why he was so interested in the hair. Maybe the strange man wanted it because of some family connection, and was going to try and buy it from him. He sincerely hoped not; David hated saying ‘No’ to people, not because he was unusually compassionate or soft-hearted but because it was so embarrassing, especially if they got upset. Fortunately, there had been very few occasions in his life where he’d had anything anybody could conceivably want.

‘Maybe you noticed,’ the man went on. ‘There’s a family resemblance, isn’t there?’

David thought before answering. ‘Sorry?’

And the man had her smile. One of her smiles, anyway. ‘Between me and Marchioness Levens,’ he said. ‘Not surprising – we’re related. Distantly. In the past.’ He twitched his nose, like a rabbit. ‘Actually,’ he went on, ‘I think I’ve seen you in the gallery, looking at her picture. Is that it?’

David said nothing. For some reason he was feeling profoundly guilty, as if this man had just caught him with his teenage daughter behind the blackberry bushes.

‘It’s an absolutely fascinating painting, of course,’ the man went on, leaning back slightly. (Letting him off the hook? No, not really; just playing out the line a little.) ‘And with a quite remarkable history. Did you know it’s been stolen no less than thirteen times?’

No, David hadn’t known that.

‘And the really curious part is,’ the man went on, ‘every time it’s been returned, a few months or a year later. No attempt to sell it, no ransom demand, no explanation, even: it’s just turned up on the doorstep of the place it was stolen from, intact and undamaged. Except for the last time but one, of course; in 1977, I think it was. That time, when it came back, the painting was untouched, as usual, but someone had nailed bars across the frame.’

David breathed in slowly. ‘Really,’ he said.

‘The police reckoned it was something to do with how they planned to smuggle it out of the country; built into something, like a pallet or a crate. Well, it was the only rational explanation anybody could come up with. And Philippa herself,’ the man went on. ‘Such an amazing career.’

‘Is that right?’

‘Astonishing,’ the man said, ‘especially when you bear in mind that she was only nineteen when she died. Hardly more than a child. Except,’ he added, producing a small cigar and lighting it, ‘that now she’s been nineteen for nearly four hundred years. Personally, I’d have hated that. Twelve months of being nineteen nearly finished me off. Mind you, I’ve heard it said that some people just sort of stick at a certain age – mentally, I mean, like a default setting. Excuse me, I’m rambling. Can I buy you a drink?’

‘No, thanks,’ David said, very quickly. ‘I’m, um, driving.’

‘Ah. Very sensible attitude. Heaven knows, there’s enough mind-freezingly terrible danger in the world without going out and actively looking for it. Could you tell me the time, please?’

David remembered that there was a clock on the bar directly behind him, plainly visible from where the man was sitting. ‘Certainly,’ he said, glancing at his watch. ‘It’s a quarter to five.’

(Was it? Watch must be wrong; it’d been just after two when he came in here.)

‘Thanks. I’d better be going. I’m supposed to be retired, you know, but it feels like I’m busier than ever. So nice to have met you. Goodbye.’

The man breathed out a thick cloud of cigar smoke as he stood up; by the time it had cleared, he’d gone. Once he was sure of that, David spun round and looked at the clock on the bar. It said a quarter to five.

Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun?

He picked up his glass and put it down again. Maybe, he thought, I should take this as a timely warning; I’m not cut out for weird stuff, I can’t handle it, so maybe it wouldn’t be entirely sensible of me to go out looking for it. Maybe I’d be better off going home and doing some work for a change.

He remembered something else about the strange man. He’d lit a cigar and drawn on it a few times, enough to produce an awful lot of smoke; but there was no ash in the ashtray, or on the table or the floor, and the damn thing hadn’t got any shorter.

Weird indeed. What kind of god talks to you from out of a burning cigar? An unhealthy one, presumably, you’d recognise him instantly when he spoke to you on the road to Damascus because he’d be coughing all the time. More important, why should he choose to talk to me?

David sighed and stood up. He’d been around computers long enough to realise that there are a great many strange, terrible, inexplicable forces loose in the world, and not all of them (the vast majority, yes, but not all) come from the Microsoft corporation. But he’d found that if you ignored them and replaced the motherboard once they’d gone, they tended not to leave behind any lasting, damaging traces; they peered at you through the glass, grinned scornfully, and went away to pick on someone their own size. That was one of the advantages of being very small and insignificant – they only trod on you by accident, not on purpose.

Once he was outside the pub, away from the cigar smoke and the general ambience of weirdness, he felt much better. He checked the time once more by a clock in a shop window – it really was a quarter to five; maybe he’d fallen asleep in there, and the strange man had been a dream – and walked round to Larraby’s to pick up his lock of hair.

They were impressively efficient and polite about it, and fairly soon afterwards he was sitting in a Tube train heading west. He was being hustled towards a decision; he could stay on the train till it reached Ealing Broadway, where he’d get off and go home and promise to be good for ever after, or he could jump the train at Ravenscourt Park and go in search of destiny, darkness and danger (assuming he could find it, with only the directions he’d been given over the phone to guide him).

Another coincidence; that, two days after he’d seen the short paragraph in the newspaper about the lock of hair coming up for auction, he’d been coming home from town on the Underground and had been struck down by a desperate need for a pee, in the long, slow haul through the desert between Hammersmith and Acton Town. If he’d caught the Piccadilly rather than the District Line, of course, none of this would have happened, since the Piccadilly didn’t stop at the funny little stations in between, he’d have had to dig deep into his inner reservoir of stoicism and held his water as far as Acton. But it hadn’t panned out that way; instead, he’d bounded off the train at Ravenscourt Park (wonderfully evocative name, that; until you’ve actually been there, you can’t help conjuring up mental images of Gothic castles, forked lightning and gargoyles) and sprinted painfully out of the station in search of a public bog or a shady, unfrequented section of wall.

Successive governments have ignored the aspirations of Ravenscourt Parkers in the area of communal widdling; as David found on that memorable occasion, there aren’t any public bogs within awkward hobbling distance of the railhead. But there are walls and corners and nooks where the wild flowers grow, and it was after he’d found one of these and was beginning to feel a whole lot better that he saw the sign. It was quite some way away in the distance and he couldn’t really spare a hand to fish his glasses out of his top pocket; but what he’d thought it said was:


– except that it couldn’t really say that, what it probably said was ‘clowns’ or ‘cones’ (Honest John’s House of Crones? A cosy cottage built by the Three Little Pigs, using the latest in geodetic technology?) or something equally prosaic and mundane. Not clones, though. Surely not.

Once he’d done up his zip and made sure nobody had been watching, he snuck across the road and took a closer look:


– just as he’d thought; and under the big block letters, in fancy italic signwriting,

[Because everybody needs somebody]

– and a phone number. The building itself didn’t look all that promising: a tatty timber-frame lock-up with the paint peeling off in leaf-sized flakes, the double doors padlocked, a pool of oil soaked away into dust and grime out front. Back when David had owned a car, he’d been to quite a few backstreet garages that looked just like this.

Just then, for some reason, he thought about the lock of hair.

Absolute nonsense, of course. For a start, cloning people was pure science fiction – all right, they could do sheep, but people weren’t a bit like sheep (except once every five years or so) and the technology simply didn’t exist. And if it had existed, it would have needed to be a huge multibillion-dollar laboratory, and even if it would-n’t have, there’d have been all sorts of laws against it. And even if there hadn’t been, even if you could have just strolled into some private establishment and said, ‘I’d like half a dozen Mrs Williamsons, please, and can you have them ready by Friday?’, nobody in his right mind would have given his custom to an outfit calling itself Honest John’s.

And then the little voice spoke to him; not the one that sounded just like his mother, the other one, the quiet, sweet one that he’d suspected for a long, long time belonged to Pippa Levens. Fair enough, the little voice had said to him, somewhere inside his ears, if it’s all nonsense and completely impossible, what harm would it do, just writing down the phone number? Just writing it down, you wouldn’t actually have to call it. But you’d know it was there.

He’d looked up. And the writing on the door still said:


– just like it had when he first saw it. But this time he had a pencil in his hand, and the back of an envelope.

And sure, simply having the phone number in his possession didn’t mean that he was ever going to use it. He’d put the envelope down beside the telephone in the hall. Next time he tidied up (he liked everything nice and neat, because clutter grew in the dark like mushrooms, and next thing you knew you had to climb up on the kitchen table to reach the sink) he’d have forgotten what it signified and he’d throw it away. Nothing was going to happen. It’d all be all right.

Three whole days had passed, and every time he’d passed the phone he’d picked up the envelope and stared at the number, as if hoping it’d mysteriously vanished since the last time he’d looked. On the fourth day he must have been thinking about something else, because by the time he realised what he was doing, he’d already dialled the number.

‘Honest John’s,’ said a voice at the other end of the line.

Even then, he could have slammed the phone down and left the country for a week or so. But he hadn’t; contact had been established, and it was rude to put the phone down on people (said the little his-mother’svoice). So he’d coughed, and said, ‘Honest John’s House of, um, Clones?’


‘Ah.’ He hadn’t got the faintest idea what to say next.

‘Can I help you?’ The voice at the other end sounded bored, mostly, as if it had had conversations like this before. That only increased the embarrassment, which in turn increased the pressure on him to say something. Anything . . .

‘Do you, er, clone things?’ he’d asked.

‘Yes, that’s right,’ said the voice; and he could imagine the man at the other end of the wire, slumping his shoulders, thinking, Oh great, another bloody time-waster. ‘You want something cloned, then, do you?’

The correct answer, of course, would have been ‘No’. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘So you can do that, can you?’

‘Depends,’ the voice had replied, ‘on what it is.’

‘Ah. Right.’

‘What was it,’ the voice asked patiently, ‘you had in mind?’

(Bizarre, he’d thought; here I am, talking to a self-proclaimed clone artist called Honest John, and I’m the one feeling embarrassed because I’m afraid I’m sounding like a fruitcake.)


On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
416 pages

Tom Holt

About the Author

Tom Holt was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines interests which led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialized in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.

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