His horse was skittish, pricking its ears back, glancing around, and dancing sideways at the sight of a branch on the path.
‘Steady on, fellow, steady on Jack’, he murmured soothingly.
They were not nearly home. They were miles away, and at this rate, would still be riding in the dark. Louisa would have barricaded herself in by then. The convict servants would be locked in their quarters, away from the house. The children would be in bed asleep. Even John, the faithful servant who had not put a foot wrong since he earned his freedom, would be relegated to the back cottage and the doors of the main house would be bolted and latched. They should be galloping to cover the distance, but he didn’t want to exhaust his mount. Once they were out in the open maybe he’d try a brisk trot. Apart from anything else, it might calm the horse.
Thomas glanced around him. What was wrong? They were emerging from the bush now and the road ahead was straight and quiet, skirting the edge of farmland surrounded by open hills. The last few trees were widely spaced. The afternoon sun was gentle on the eye. Natives were not common in these parts. He stroked Jack’s neck.
There was a shout. Thomas looked up, alert. It came again.
Strange. The horse whickered.
‘Is anybody there?’
So, an Englishman at least. The voice appeared to have come from the nearest hill. Thomas squinted and rubbed his forehead with his handkerchief. His eyes were not what they used to be. Finally, his gaze rested on a small figure waving vigorously. Thomas stayed on his horse, on the road where he could see in all directions. The man made his way briskly down towards him, waving like a windmill.
‘Hello! Hello! Thank God I saw you! Thought I was the last person on earth.’
Thomas looked quizzically at the stranger. He was talking as he ran, still waving his arms about as if he didn’t know what to do with them. As he drew closer, it became clear that he was wearing some kind of costume. He had no jacket but had a woollen undergarment on his top. His trousers were of a thick blue fabric, threadbare at the knees, and his shoes were a creamy white as if they had been cut from canvas sails. Thomas had never seen such garb. His own clothes were fashionable and well made, sent by his sister from London, with the exception of his shirt, that was stitched lovingly by his wife. The horse, Jack, backed up anxiously as the man approached.
‘Good day to you sir. My name is Thomas Kempton. Can I be of assistance?’
‘Well hello, I’m Ben, Ben Saunders.’
He was panting for breath. A little portly. His hair was remarkably short and even, as if it had been trimmed with shears like a hedge. There was a bag attached to his back with straps.
‘Where are we?’
‘You have just joined the main road. We are around three hours’ riding from Kempton Town.’
Thomas squinted again at the sun.
‘If you are on foot, you will not reach there before dark. Where are you coming from?’
Ben Saunders gave out a groan.
‘Good question. What year are we in?’
‘1822, sir. Late Summer. I ask again, where are you from? Are you newly arrived?’
Ben Saunders sat down on the grass.
‘Get off your horse and I’ll tell you about it.’
‘Thank you Mr Saunders, but I prefer to stay mounted.’
‘Please yourself’ (what a strange turn of phrase he had, hardly English at all but more like some foreigner having half learned manners)
‘I was trying to go back to 2028, for a holiday. It’s too hot at home and the power supply’s not great and I just thought, you know, go back and reminisce a bit. Find somewhere cool and green. The app. takes you back as far as 2020 but you’d be stupid to go there so I figured, 2028. Give covid a wide berth, miss the protests, visit your gran. Did you say 1828? Eighteen twenty eight?’
‘Well I stuffed that up then, didn’t I?’
Thomas did not know what to say. There was a new lunatic asylum in New Norfolk but the man could never have travelled this far. Perhaps he had heat stroke, or delirium.
‘Do you need food or water, Mr Saunders?’
‘No thanks, all good, brought a couple of cokes actually. I should probably get back though before my battery dies. Have you seen the new apple watch?’
Ben laughed uproariously at this as if he had made a joke. Definitely a lunatic, possibly dangerous, thought Thomas.
‘You really don’t get out much, do you? Tell you what mate, since you’ve been so helpful, I’ll leave my gear behind for you. Here. See ya later, have a good one.’
And he swung the bag off his back and passed it to Thomas, slapped Jack heartily, and walked off up the hill. Jack wheeled round, a full circle, and dashed ahead in a determined canter. Thomas, without the heart to reign him in, let him pick up speed. At the next bend, he looked back. There was a quick flash from the top of Mr Saunders’ hill, like the reflection of sunlight on a looking glass, and then nothing more.
They reached home that evening just as the moon rose, large and red, over the tree tops. Jack clattered into the courtyard huffing and heaving, and Thomas dismounted stiffly, calling for John to help with the horse. It was not until he had washed and dined and unpacked his other saddlebags that he showed the strange man’s gift to Louisa. Unwilling to frighten her with tales of lunatics, he pretended to have purchased it in Hobart Town, for a song. It was full of wonders; two bottles made of a strange, malleable, substance like flexible glass, filled with a fizzing dark liquid, a small hard bar of oats, perhaps for a horse, a stack of fine paper held together with glue at one edge, a delicately turned stick of wood inset with graphite, and finally a garment knitted from cotton thread with stitches so even that Louisa swore it had been made by fairies.