“Have you always been unmarried, Miss Smith?” asked the manager of Vista-Mare Rest Home, Broadstairs.
“Yes,” Sarah Jane Smith answered. “The ‘Miss’ is usually a give-away.”
“Many of our ladies use ‘Miss’ when they have been widowed for some time. They feel it better reflects their status than ‘Mrs’. You have no children, then?”
“No. I never found the time,” Sarah Jane continued. “I had a very full career in scientific research. But now I find I’m getting too old to keep up a big house with three flights of stairs. A nice suite of rooms with full board catering, maid service and twenty-four hour assistance….”
“Yes, that’s exactly the sort of service we offer here. Many of our clients DO have families, but prefer not to be a burden on them. Others have liquidated their property assets in order to enjoy their twilight years in comfort.”
“Oh, I don’t think I would ever sell my house. I’ll probably let it to the university for student accommodation or something. Isn’t that a lovely view.”
It WOULD have been a lovely view if it wasn’t teaming with rain. Sarah Jane looked out over a bleak, grey English Channel. It was late July, but the weather was as unpredictable as ever. Two hardy souls with umbrellas were playing bowls on the green, even so, and there was an elderly lady in a plastic poncho and rain hood walking in the rose garden, but most of the clients, customers, residents, patients, inmates, whatever word was chosen for those who signed themselves up for ‘semi-independent living’ at Vista-Mare were making use of the indoor facilities today.
Sarah Jane had seen those already. The two lounges and the glass-roofed, open-sided smokers’ extension for those who had reached retirement age despite the government health warnings were very nicely appointed. There was a music room where residents could play a piano to their hearts’ content. The kitchens were spotless and well above standard. Meals were, Sarah Jane was assured, as good as any Michelin rated hotel restaurant.
And so they should. It cost as much as staying in a five star hotel suite to live here.
But Sarah Jane had heard some things about the place that weren’t in the brochure, and when Luke and Sky, with K9, went off to spend three weeks in Pieter’s German castle and Rani and Clyde flew to Riemes for a film festival that Rani was covering for her newspaper, Sarah Jane decided she might as well get on with some old-fashioned investigative journalism of her own.
Of course, it depended on what was going on here whether the article would go in the Metropolitan Magazine where she still occasionally sent the odd piece, or into U.N.I.T.’s ‘strange but true’ file. If the reason why so many residents were never seen or heard of after coming here was an ‘angel of death’ nurse bumping them off, then it would be an ordinary sort of scandal to expose. If it was aliens abducting them for experiments, it was another.
In case it was the latter, she had a scrambled line to U.N.I.T. on the speed dial of her mobile phone, but she was really suspecting some kind of Human nastiness underneath the bright smiles and the glowing recommendations.
“If you’re happy, I’ll leave you to unpack, Miss Smith,” Mrs Brondon told her. “Would you like tea brought up to your drawing room, or will you join our other guests?”
“I’ll be down at four o’clock,” Sarah Jane answered. “I’d like to meet everyone else. And, please, call me Lavinia. Miss Smith is so… anonymous.”
“Of course, Lavinia. The long term guests usually call me Lou. I hope you’ll be staying long enough to be on first name terms with everyone.”
“Indeed.” Sarah Jane smiled again as Lou Brondon left her in the bedroom of the suite – consisting of bathroom and drawing room and a balcony under a sun-shade/rain-canopy with pot-plants and outdoor furniture for private relaxation. She unpacked her case, leaving the pictures of Luke and Sky under her pillow out of sight of prying eyes, but putting the photograph of Harry Sullivan in his navy uniform on the sideboard.
Harry was the reason she had remained a ‘Miss’, though that was something she had never really told anyone apart from her adopted son. Even people at U.N.I.T. who knew them both in the old days didn’t realise how much she had grieved for him when he died, or how much of a hole he left in her life.
She certainly wasn’t going to tell Mrs Lou Brondon things like that. There was something about her ‘we’re all one happy family, you can tell me anything’ act that made Sarah Jane reluctant to share her full name with her, let alone anything else. That was part of the reason why she was Lavinia Smith, with her late aunt’s scientific background adapted as a cover story.
The other reason being that the name Sarah Jane Smith was quite well known as the by-line on articles exposing scandals in business and industry. She didn’t need to be recognised as a journalist.
It was still a half hour to the four o’clock tea. She stepped out onto the covered balcony. The sound of the rain on the opaque plastic roof was actually quite pleasant. It would also serve to ruin any listening devices that might be hidden.
She checked for them anyway with her sonic lipstick. It registered nothing of that nature – whether made by humans or aliens.
She sat in the lounger and relaxed, looking out at the dismal view. It was probably quite pleasant in sunshine, but as a writer, she was perfectly well aware that Charles Dickens wrote some of his most unhappy characters at his house in Broadstairs with a very similar view.
“Sarah Jane Smith!” She turned as she heard her name spoken in a loud whisper and was startled when an elderly man from the balcony next to hers climbed over the wrought iron divider. “My dear girl, you are NOT ready to give up the ghost and move into a place like this, yet. You MUST be investigating the same thing I am.”
“Mike Yates!” she cried in surprise as she placed the voice before the face. “Oh, Mike, can EITHER of us be THIS old? It only seems like yesterday that you were a dashing young captain looking so handsome in your uniform.”
Actually, the last time Mike had worn his uniform had been the old Brigadier’s funeral, but they both skipped that in their minds and thought of their younger days when they met at U.N.I.T. Their thoughts immediately went to The Doctor, of course. For a few minutes their conversation turned to him, as it always did when she met anyone from those days.
“I’m actually here FOR U.N.I.T.,” he said as he sat beside . “You’ve met Colonel Magambo, of course. She’s heading up the section for England and Wales now. She asked me to poke around here and see if there’s anything that comes into their purview. My old sins are forgiven and it seems I can still be some use to Queen and Country. But knowing I was picked because I’m one of the few of the old guard left alive in my dotage….”
“We ought to demand the years back again,” Sarah Jane said. “The youth of today just don’t seem to appreciate what they have. We could make such better use of it.”
“I sometimes think that way,” Mike admitted. “I feel it in my bones, these days. Climbing over that fence was a bad idea.”
“I won’t make you climb back,” Sarah Jane promised. “We can go down to tea together in a minute. I’ll look out and make sure there’s nobody in the corridor in case you’re seen coming out of my room.”
“It’s not against the rules to have guests in the room,” he told her. “I’ll introduce you to some of the other inmates over cucumber sandwiches and tea.”
He meant that word ‘inmates’ jokingly, of course, but Sarah Jane wondered about it as she walked downstairs with him at the sound of a tinny dinner gong being rung in the hall below. How free were the residents to come and go, or even to state an opinion about the establishment? That was the first thing she wanted to find out.
It certainly seemed as if it was all right. The tables in the dining room were arranged so that groups of four or six could sit together. Mike introduced Sarah Jane to a pair of elderly men called Bob and Carl who had been a couple since before there were polite words for their sort of ‘arrangement’, and Maddie and Esther, two sisters who were both widowed and had decided to come to Vista-Mare instead of rattling around a big house by themselves – the very reason Sarah Jane had given as part of her cover story.
They talked quite happily about their decision to move to Vista Mare. They praised the staff and the quality of the food, the accommodation, the medical care available, the regular visits to theatres, cinema, concerts, to stately homes and gardens and all sorts of perks of living there.
“It all sounds idyllic,” Sarah Jane agreed. “I just wonder if I’m really ‘old enough’ to be here. I never really thought of myself as elderly before.”
“You’re as young as you feel,” Maddie said.
“You’re as young as the man you feel,” Bob added.
“Which makes you seventy-four, Bob, my old fruit,” Carl responded. “Don’t worry, you’ll settle in after a while, no matter what age you feel you are.”
“And if you don’t…” Esther began to say something, then stopped. She pursed her lips and looked away towards the window, making a remark about the dreary weather that side-tracked the conversation. Sarah Jane really wanted to get her to explain herself further but her years as a journalist told her that this was one of those times when somebody would clam right up if pressed. She left it for now, but the idea that there was something that one person, at least, didn’t want to talk about, satisfied her that there was something to look into.
She spent the latter part of the afternoon with Maddie and Esther, enjoying the delights of the in-hour hairdresser and beauty parlour. It actually was quite pleasant to have her hair done by somebody else. She usually never had the time, between being a parent and a journalist as well as an alien hunter. For once she had absolutely nothing to do except enjoy the pampering. Since she had to spend quite a bit of time under the dryer, it meant that she didn’t get to talk to Maddie or Esther, but that also meant she didn’t have to listen to their chatter. They were nice enough people, but they just made her feel old. They were only five and seven years older than she was, but they seemed to have given in to retirement, spending most of their days looking back on what they had done in their youth instead of looking forward to adventures to come.
Of course, The Doctor taught her to think that little bit differently. But she was sure that, even without his influence she was sure she would still have been less backwards looking than these two women.
Over supper, sporting their new hairdos, Maddie and Esther filled Sarah Jane in on their younger days when they had been part of a dance ensemble that played the seaside shows. They had albums full of pictures of the two of them in short dresses, showing plenty of well-shaped leg, on pier-end stages from Brighton to Blackpool.
“Oh to be eighteen again,” Maddie sighed. “To dance like that.”
“Eighteen year olds don’t dance like that now,” Sarah Jane pointed out. “Have you heard the music these days?”
“They said the same about the stuff we had in the 1960s,” Maddie reminded her. “Rock and Roll was the end of civilisation as we know it. Still, I would like the chance to ‘rave’ or whatever it is they do now.”
“Oh, me too,” Esther added. “I expect we’d be good at it. Everyone said we had a great sense of rhythm. If I had the chance….”
Again, Esther clammed up mid-sentence, as if she knew something that she shouldn’t tell. It was strange, Sarah Jane thought. This was all just reminiscing. What harm was there in it?
After supper, Sarah Jane excused herself from the chance to take part in ‘talent night’ starting with Bob and Carl on piano and viola. She wanted to get a quiet lie down, perhaps even a few hours’ sleep, and then snoop around the place after everyone was in bed.
Mike was the only one who noticed her slip out of the music room. He waved to her before he was drawn back into a conversation with one of the female residents. He was, Sarah Jane noted, still a very handsome man. He was popular with those ladies who still thought life was for looking forward to.
If she hadn’t been so very stuck on Harry, maybe she would have hit it off with Mike. Things might have been different. But she had no regrets. Her life had a lot going for it.
Yes, there was no giving in to old age, at least not for another decade. She still had Sky to look after, and plenty of aliens to chase away from this planet, and plenty of writing to do inbetween. She had a life.
She slept with an alarm clock under her pillow, set for one o’clock in the morning. It woke her with a start. She dressed by the light of one bedside lamp and then switched it off before she slipped out of her room.
There were security cameras in the corridors, to prevent theft, of course, or perhaps the odd sleepwalker who needed sending back to their room.
Sarah Jane didn’t want to be observed. She used her sonic lipstick to send the cameras into a loop, repeating the three minutes before she left her room, when nobody had been around.
She did the same on the ground floor when she reached it. Then the sonic proved useful again in opening the door to Mrs Brondon’s office as well as the locked filing cabinets containing the personal details of all the residents of Vista Mare.
What Sarah Jane was especially interested in were the files recording former residents. There was a section for those who had died, of course. Such things were inevitable. A copy of the death certificates were kept along with cancellations of the direct debit payments for their accommodation and disbursement of their personal effects. All of these seemed quite above board.
But there was a far larger section – three drawers alphabetised a-g, h-o, p-z, for residents who had left Vista-Mare of their own volition. Among those were a few perfectly normal transitions. Three had moved on to rest homes in more exotic locations like the South of France and Florida. One had gone to Scotland to live closer to relatives. There were any number of other quite normal reasons for somebody not to live out their twilight years in Broadstairs.
But the vast majority of cases in these three cabinets had as the reason for leaving ‘gone to the carousel’, a peculiar notation that Sarah Jane knew she would have to follow up. Those who had ‘gone to the carousel’ cancelled their own direct debit instructions. There were copies of their signatures on the forms. They arranged for their personal effects to be boxed up and sent into storage at one of those places that had become common on the outskirts of most towns in recent years. The fact that they had all chosen the same self-storage company, Ever-Safe, was the one other thing that connected them, apart from the ‘carousel’ – whatever THAT meant.
Sarah Jane was startled by the door opening and closing behind her. She spun around and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Mike Yates with a small penlight torch in his hands.
“You had the same idea as me,” he said. “But you beat me to it. Want to share what you found?”
Sarah Jane had no objections to doing that. She showed Mike what she regarded as the normal turnaround of an establishment like this, the natural deaths, the change of residency. Then she showed him the former residents who had ‘gone to the carousel’.
“We’re talking about a hundred and fifty in the past five years,” he said with a low whistle. “That’s more than a coincidence. Somebody here must know what’s going on.”
“Mrs Brondon for a start,” Sarah Jane confirmed. “All of these records are in her hand-writing, and she has compiled this filing system. She knows these are unusual.”
“Yes,” said Mrs Louise Brondon as she snapped the overhead light on. Now both Sarah Jane AND Mike turned in alarm, but if either had any cover story it was meaningless. They had broken into the locked office, then into secure filing cabinets. They couldn’t pretend to have got lost on the way to the kitchen or taking a late night walk in the gardens – it was still pouring down out there, anyway.
“Yes, I KNOW,” Mrs Brondon added. “I know that residents are leaving almost every week, sometimes two or three at a time. I find out when they miss their mealtimes and their beds aren't slept in. And then I get the cancelled accounts.”
“You’re saying this is nothing to do with you?” Sarah Jane asked.
“I don’t know if I have to say anything to either of you,” she pointed out. “You ARE trespassing. Are you from the police, social services… private investigators?”
“U.N.I.T.,” Mike Yates answered. “Military intelligence if you like. When this many British citizens, all of them independently wealthy, go AWOL, we are naturally concerned.”
Mr Brondon didn’t question Sarah Jane’s credentials. Mike had apparently identified them both as part of U.N.I.T.
“They have disappeared without a trace,” Mrs Brondon admitted. “I don’t know where to start.”
“Well, judging by these files you DO have some idea,” Mike pointed out. “But….”
“They haven’t, in fact, disappeared without a trace,” Sarah Jane added. “Every one of them is living somewhere in or around Broadstairs. Never mind how, but I’ve done some research. All of your former residents have accessed their bank accounts regularly. Their pension funds continue to be used, their share portfolios maintained, long term investments made as if they are still planning for the future. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Somebody bumped them all off and is collecting their pensions. But that can be ruled out. Signatures on documents all match. There is no sign of any crime being committed. But there is no record of where they are living. They’re not registered for Council Tax purposes or running a car, anything that suggests that they’ve returned to independent living.”
“Is it possible they all just moved to another rest home?” Mike suggested. The idea was eagerly grasped by Mrs Brondon. It wasn’t complimentary to her establishment, but it was a simple explanation of a complicated mystery, and it meant that she wasn’t being accused of ‘bumping off’ her residents.
“No,” Sarah Jane answered. “I ruled that out, too. The one thing that IS interesting is that all of the people who left Vista Mare have made either lump sum or regular monthly contributions to the Carousel Children’s Fund.”
“Carousel?” Mike queried, recalling the word written in Mrs Brondon’s records so often.
“That’s perfectly legitimate,” Mrs Brondon assured them. “Many of our residents take an interest in it, especially those with no children of their own. The fund was set up five years ago by a local businessman. It pays for a children’s home and a rather nice pubic park nearby.”
“Very nice,” Sarah Jane commented dryly.
“And there’s nothing funny about either?” Mike asked.
“Carousel House, I know it well,” Mrs Brondon said. “We have a sort of reciprocal arrangement with them. Some of our residents visit there from time to time, with little gifts for the children – sweets, small toys, art materials, that sort of thing, and once a month the children come here for a musical afternoon, joining in with old songs along with our residents. Modern music is so very removed from the sort of things our age group listened to in the fifties and sixties, but the youngsters seem to enjoy it. They know the words to love songs from Pat Boone or Cliff Richard when he was a teenage heartthrob.”
“Those WERE the days,” Mike admitted. “When songs had words with meaning.”
“Oh, indeed,” Sarah Jane countered him. “Shoop, Shoop and Bang Shang A Lang were very deep and meaningful lyrics.” But she was just teasing him, of course, and they were no nearer understanding what was going on, except that Mrs Brondon, unless she was a VERY good actress, was innocent of any involvement at all.
“WHY does the word carousel appear in your records for so many of your residents?” Sarah Jane asked. “And what’s the connection with Carousel House?”
“None that I know of,” Mrs Brondon answered. “Except, for a day or so before they go, the residents talked about going to the carousel. I don’t think it IS anything to do with the children’s home. It’s just a word. This is a seaside resort, after all. There ARE a couple of carousels around, in the funfair and on the promenade. There’s an old, antique one in the park, too, the one near the children’s home. I suppose that’s where the name comes from. They might even mean the musical by Rogers and Hammerstein for all I know. But the phrase just stuck in my head and it was the only thing I could think of to write as an explanation for their sudden departures.”
Again, it struck Sarah Jane that either Mrs Brondon was a very good actress or she was completely innocent. But she wasn’t convinced there was no connection with the Carousel Children’s Fund.
“I don’t think there’s anything else to be learnt here,” Mike said. “Come on, Lavinia. I think we should get back to our beds. We both need our beauty sleep. Mrs Brondon, if you think of anything….”
“I will TELL you,” she assured them. “If either of you had told me you were undercover, I would have co-operated from the start.”
Of course, they couldn’t have done that. They didn’t know who to trust. Mrs Brondon was the most likely suspect until she chose to share her concerns with them.
They went to bed. Sarah Jane listened to the rain on the balcony roof and puzzled about it all for a little while, but she soon found herself falling asleep. The days when she could stay up until dawn and still function normally the day after were long gone.
She was a little bit late for the breakfast hour as it was. Most of the residents were finishing their meal when she arrived. Mike was among them, sitting with Bob and Carl. She sat at the same table and ordered toast and coffee to save the kitchen the trouble of a late breakfast just for her.
“Have Maddie and Esther already finished?” she asked just out of conversation.
“We haven’t seen them this morning,” Bob answered. “Maybe they had their breakfast in bed. Some residents do, especially if they’re feeling a bit out of sorts. It is unusual for them, though.”
Sarah Jane filed it in the back of her mind. She had enough unusual things to worry about without residents uncharacteristically choosing to eat their breakfast in bed. Besides, the rain had stopped some time after dawn and it looked like turning into a sparkling morning.
Mike suggested a walk, and she accepted. She suspected that there was an ulterior motive and wasn’t at all surprised when he said he planned to go up to Carousel Park and have a quick look at the children’s home.
The park was beautifully laid out with children in the forefront of the planning. There was a large playground with swings, slides, roundabouts. Elsewhere there was a maze and a nature trail with animal sculptures.
The centrepiece of the park was an antique steam carousel with beautifully painted wooden horses and magnificent decoration around the canopy with the words ‘Learner’s Magnificent Carousel’ in curling letters. It was closed and switched off just now, but Sarah Jane could easily imagine how lovely it would look with the lights on and the calliope playing, the horses moving up and down, and the one exception to the line of horses, a gilded open topped carriage fit for Cinderella herself, glittering joyously.
“Learner was the name of the man who set up the orphanage,” Sarah Jane noted. “Perhaps he made his money with fairground attractions.”
“Makes sense,” Mike agreed.
“But nothing else does,” Sarah Jane protested. “What DID Mrs Brondon mean? What does ‘gone to the carousel’ mean? Is it this carousel? What would it have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know,” Mike admitted. “Before breakfast I did a bit of a check on Carousel House. It’s got glowing recommendations from all concerned. The children are happy, healthy and well-adjusted and most go on to be fostered or adopted into new families.”
“Sounds perfect.” Sarah Jane looked towards the large Victorian House at the far end of the public park. It looked like a pleasant enough place to live while waiting for a new home. She was well aware of what it felt like to be an orphan. Without Aunt Lavinia, she might have gone to a children’s home, and she would have been satisfied if it had looked like Carousel House.
Close up, the impression was just as positive. There were children playing in the garden beyond the fence that defined the private grounds. They were, as Mike had described, happy and healthy. She watched a group of boys playing cowboys and Indians in the trees, and a pair of girls pushing toy prams with dolls in them. Another two, teenage girls of about fourteen or fifteen, were dancing on the lawn.
Sarah Jane looked at them closely. They had an old-fashioned radio on the grass between them, tuned to a channel playing nineteen-sixties songs. In the short dresses and bare legs that teenagers these days were happy to be seen in, they were dancing to the song ‘Sugar Sugar’ by The Archies.
Sarah Jane could remember dancing to that song in the 1960s when she was a teen. She had danced much the same as these girls were dancing.
“They must have learnt that from the old folk at our place,” Mike said. “That’s not the music or the dancing style of modern kids.”
“No,” Sarah Jane admitted. “It isn’t. I guess Beyonce doesn’t have it all her own way.”
She turned away. So did Mike. Both felt a little odd about watching youngsters at play. In their youth nobody would have thought twice about two people of pension age doing that, but these were different times in more than musical tastes.
All the same, as they walked back across the park, Sarah Jane turned and looked again. There was something else about those two girls. She wasn’t quite sure what it was, but something nagged at her about them.
They took a leisurely walk back to Vista Mare, a genuine walk instead of one with a motive. They talked a little about the old days, about The Doctor, about U.N.I.T., about Daleks and dinosaurs and giant spiders from Metebelis Three.
“Oh, I want the last forty years back,” Sarah Jane said. “Except for the good bits… Luke and Sky, being a mum to them. That was worth it. But I’d happily have the rest back.”
“I think if I had it over again I’d be more suspicious of General Finch and that Golden Age lot,” Mike admitted. “If I could have THOSE days over I could make up for the worst mistake of my life. But… I don’t know if I could live through those decades again. The eighties and nineties weren’t my favourite years. To have the youth and vitality and the future from this point on to live it in, that would be something.”
“Totally impossible,” Sarah Jane said. “There was a man who tried it a couple of years ago. It ended badly for him and for a lot of innocent people. It would have been worse if The Doctor hadn’t been around to save the day.”
“He’s the only one we know who gets to be young again. Do you remember when he was the white haired old man and we were the callow youths. Now it’s the other way around. He could be our son – or grandson.”
“Scary thought. But wishful thinking apart, maybe we’re better off as we are. Mistakes and all we’ve had our shot at life and made what we could of it. We don’t need to ask for more.”
Mike agreed. They walked on in a companionable silence, arriving back at the rest home in time for mid-morning tea and crumpets.
Maddie and Esther weren’t there for that, either. Sarah Jane wondered if they were sick and walked up to their room on the third floor.
She was alarmed to see Mrs Brondon and two of the housekeeping staff putting all of the two women’s possessions in packing boxes and stripping down the beds.
“What’s happened?” she asked. “They haven’t… died….”
“They’ve ‘gone to the ‘carousel’,” Mrs Brondon answered her. “I got the message this morning to pack up all their belongings.”
“Gone… when?” Sarah Jane asked.
“Early this morning,” the manager of the rest home answered with a deep sigh. “They signed the firebook at four-thirty and let themselves out. This isn’t a prison or a hospital. If residents want to go out at the crack of dawn the firebook is our only legal requirement, in case of an emergency. But they didn’t come back, and now there’s two more gone. I have a waiting list. Plenty of people want to come here. I’m not going to be out of pocket, but I am still worried. This isn’t right.”
“WHAT carousel?” Sarah Jane asked. “This is mad.”
“You’re telling me,” Mrs Brondon sighed. “If I just knew that they were all right, I wouldn’t worry. If this is some way of taking money from them, or if they’re being hurt….”
“I mean to find out,” Sarah Jane said with a determined set to her face, the sort even The Doctor knew better than to argue with. She turned and marched down stairs again and into the common room where Bob and Carl were sitting playing dominos.
“Maddie and Esther went to the carousel this morning,” she said, ready to judge their reaction.
“Yes,” Bob answered. “We know. I think we might follow them tonight. Why don’t you do the same?”
“I think I WILL,” she said. “Just tell me when.”
“After supper if it isn’t raining. Last night it was too wet, that’s why the early morning session.”
Bob didn’t say anything else. Sarah Jane didn’t ask him anything. She found Mike and told him.
“So the residents DO know about it?” he queried.
“It seems so. Bob obviously thinks I know. If I ask any questions he’ll know I don’t and he’ll probably clam up. I think we have to go along with it.”
“It might be dangerous,” Mike told her.
“Since when did that stop either of us? We both came here half expecting somebody killing off elderly people for their pension funds. That was dangerous enough. Anything else….”
“Well, you’re not going on your own. I might have disgraced my Queen and Country once, but that doesn’t mean I’d let a friend, especially a lady, go off into the unknown on her own.”
“You’re an old fashioned gentleman, Mike,” Sarah Jane told her. “And I’ll be glad of the company.”
They passed the day quietly, occasionally feeling a little anxious about the evening expedition with Bob and Carl, still uncertain about what to expect, but giving away none of the anxiety to the residents they talked to. They didn’t talk about the carousel, either. They felt that it might be counter-productive to bring it up now that they had a direct invitation to find out what it was all about.
After supper, with the sun going down over the bay, they headed out. Neither Sarah Jane nor Mike were surprised when they headed towards Carousel Park. If they hadn’t guessed that the whole affair was something to do with that place, they would not have been the people they were.
“Those lights,” Sarah Jane remarked as they came into the park. “The carousel is running. But why wasn’t it open in the day time when there were children around? They’ll all be in bed by now.”
“This carousel isn’t for children.” Bob told her. “It’s for us. We’ve been a couple of times before, but we didn’t ride it to the finish. We weren’t ready. But now, I think we are.”
“Ready for what?” Mike asked, but Bob and Carl didn’t answer. They broke into a run – as much of a run as two men in their seventies, neither of them especially athletic, could manage. Sarah Jane felt she ought to run after them, but the moment she started to do that she tripped over a clump of grass and yelped as she went over on her ankle.
“Oh, how stupid, how dumb,” she complained through tears of pain as Mike helped her to her feet and let her lean on him. “That’s the sort of thing silly young heroines in period romances do. The Doctor would be disgusted with me.”
Carl came back to help. Bob was already at the carousel, talking to somebody who had to be the ride operator.
“You’ll be fine when we get on the carousel,” he said. “All your aches and pains will disappear, even if you only stay on for a few minutes.”
“What do you mean?” Sarah Jane asked.
“Yes, what’s all this about?” Mike demanded. “I really think this is too silly.”
“Come to the carousel,” Carl insisted. “I promise, it will be all right.”
“Maybe the ride operator has a first aid kit,” Sarah Jane pointed out through her agony. “At the least, I can sit on the step for a few minutes. It’s the nearest place I can do that.”
“Yes, all right,” Mike decided. He and Carl helped her limp towards the beautifully lit carousel. The steam calliope was playing a jaunty old song as it slowed to a stop.
“Wait a minute….” Sarah Jane’s watch was beeping, signalling the presence of an alien species. The sound grew more insistent as they drew closer to the carousel and its operator. The man wasn’t Human.
“Sit the lady down in the princess’s carriage,” the alien ride operator said in a soothing, kindly, and thoroughly disarming voice. Mike lifted her into the gilded carriage. The seats inside were padded velvet and she could put her foot up on the opposite seat, taking the pressure off it. Mike sat with her and hugged her gently.
“This isn’t right,” she insisted. “That man isn’t right… and what did Carl mean about the carousel making aches and pains disappear?”
“I don’t know, but just sit still a minute. You’re in no fit state to deal with anything just now.”
He was right, but they were both alarmed when the carousel began to move again. Mike looked around. Bob and Carl were on two painted horses, holding onto the rains and smiling happily at each other.
“Hey, stop,” he called out as the carousel completed one turn and they passed the ride operator. “We don’t want this. Stop the carousel. We need to get off.”
But either he didn’t hear or didn’t listen. The man just waved and smiled. Mike stood up, but the carousel was going quite fast now. He would break something trying to jump.
“Mike,” Sarah Jane called out. “My watch is indicating some kind of alien energy, now. And… my ankle isn’t hurting.”
Mike turned and looked at it. The swollen, twisted, misshaped look was gone. The ankle was as good as new. He looked at her face. She looked at his.
“Mike…” she began.
“I think we have to get off this thing,” Mike insisted. “Come on.”
Sarah Jane was surprised when he actually lifted her into his arms like a proverbial knight on a white charger. She squealed as he chose his moment and jumped from the carousel, rolling as he had once learnt to do in his military training so that both of them were bumped and winded but no bones were broken or joints sprained.
They lay there for a few moments before scrambling to their feet and turning to look at the carousel and its two remaining passengers. As they did so, two people came through the dark and stood next to them. Sarah Jane recognised them as the two girls who had been dancing on the lawn.
Then she recognised them again. Maddie and Esther as young chorus girls in the seaside show had looked just like them.
“Yes,” Maddie said. “Mr Learner is an alien. He comes from a world called Óige. People live a long, long, long time there, because of something in the air that is so very good.”
“Mr Learner made a machine that reproduces the thing that is in the air,” Esther continued. “In concentrated doses. It… well, you can see. It can turn back time for people like us who think we ought to have more of it. He enclosed the machine in the carousel. When it runs….”
“I get it,” Sarah Jane said. The evidence was before her eyes, in any case. The carousel was slowing, and instead of two very elderly men, a pair of handsome young men got off, grasping hands and smiling warmly at each other.
“When we were this age, our kind of love had to be hidden,” Carl said. “Now, we can live in the open, proudly.”
“Yes, I see,” Sarah Jane answered him. “Yes, of course.”
“We’re going to buy back the house we sold when we moved into Vista Mare,” Bob said. “And start all over again.”
“We just wanted to dance again,” Maddie told her. “We’re young enough to audition for a dance school and be so much more than just seaside hoofers, though that was fun in its way.”
“I understand,” Sarah Jane told them. “I… wish you luck, all of you.”
“Nobody comes to any harm, and they only come here to the carousel when they really want to,” Bob explained. “Some of us do it just for a little while, to turn back to before the ailments of old age set in. Mr Williams, back at the home, did it just long enough to get rid of the cancer he’d been diagnosed with.”
“What do you have to say about this?” Mike asked, turning to Mr Learner.
“I just wanted to help people. On my world, we don’t let people get old and sick and forgotten like they are here. I wanted to give them the gift of life – if they chose it. Nobody is forced to come. It’s a gift….”
“But you can’t keep doing that,” Sarah Jane insisted. “If nobody died, the world would be over-populated. You can’t….”
“It’s just this one place,” Mike said. “He doesn’t have franchises all over the world. I suppose we could leave him be. Even Mrs Brondon said it would be all right if she knew they were safe. The ones who go right back to their childhood… they’re living in Carousel House?”
“Yes,” Mr Learner said. “I made it into a nice place for them.”
“And their shares and pension funds are there for when they grow up again, so they can live their second lives without struggling as they might have done the first time around.”
“Thinking of it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad,” Sarah Jane admitted. “But it MUST just be this one. The world population can’t be allowed to get out of shape.”
“You are welcome to continue your ride,” Mr Learner told her. “Both of you.”
“It did you good already,” Maddie told them. “It’s taken at least five years off you.”
“No,” Sarah Jane insisted. “I’ve got a family. I have a good, satisfying life as I am. I don’t need to have the years back.”
“Me, neither,” Mike agreed. “It’s tempting, but it’s not for me. The old Brigadier is gone, a lot of my other friends. I’m an old soldier. I’m just going to fade away like I’m supposed to.”
“Let’s get back to the home,” Sarah Jane said to him. “In the morning we’ll tell Mrs Brondon all about it, set her mind at rest. You can think of something to tell U.N.I.T. so that they don’t decide to come and shut down the carousel.”
“Yes,” Mike agreed. He took Sarah Jane’s hand and they walked away, turning back just once to look at the four young people silhouetted against the beautiful colours of the carousel.
In the morning they told Mrs Brondon the whole incredible story. She almost didn’t believe it at first, but they assured her it was true.
“The next time you visit Carousel House, talk to some of the youngsters. They’ll assure you that they’re all right.”
“Yes, I think I’d better do that.” Mrs Brondon paused and looked at Sarah Jane and Mike. “He was right. It DID take five years off both of you.”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane agreed. “I thought so when I looked in the mirror this morning. When I get home, I expect everyone will say my holiday did me good.”