The Ballad of Matthew Smith by Steve Trower - Read Online
The Ballad of Matthew Smith
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Summary

Matthew Smith is a largely unremarkable computer programmer from Surbiton, who just happens to have landed a rather lucrative contract for his latest game, Bootlesquith Manor.

To celebrate his good fortune, he pops down to Frank’s Outdoor to get a few tinnies, and share the news with his
good pal Frank – whereupon the off licence is robbed and Matthew knocked out.

Or so it seems; until he and Frank find themselves in a wholly more colourful version of Surbiton, watched over by the ominous looking house on the hill – Bootlesquith Manor itself.

The Ballad of Matthew Smith follows their strange odyssey through the fictional house and their attempt to return home for a well-earned beer.

Published: Steve Trower on

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The Ballad of Matthew Smith - Steve Trower

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Chronicles

1: The Off Licence

You know your day is going badly when you hope to get on the wrong side of a violent armed raid.

For reasons too mundane to warrant a prologue, Matthew Smith found himself with a 10 (for the price of 8) pack of Heineken in his hands when two fancy dress plumbers crashed into Frank's Outdoor waving their tools in a manner which suggested they may not be bona fide tradesmen. Straddling the line between heroism and stupidity, Matthew hefted the ten (for the price of 8) pack and lobbed it towards them, Donkey Kong style. At least, in his mind it was Donkey Kong style; in truth it was certainly more donkey than Kong. In any event he epically failed to stop what he now - against all natural instincts - hoped was an armed raid, and made a mess of the central display. The local wine feature was now more of an advertisement for the spill containing properties of Hungry Brand Pork Scratchings.

One of the robbers turned on him then; Matthew got an extreme close up of the business end of a pipe wrench before his vision folded up into incomprehensible flashes of blue and yellow, and the next thing he knew he was on the floor, in a pool of broken glass and blood.

After that, things got really weird.

Painfully, Matthew moved, almost surprised to find that he still could, taking a mental inventory of limbs and those internal organs he knew the approximate locations of. Everything seemed to be present and correct, although he thought his spleen may have vented at some point. He couldn't even identify any major lacerations; certainly nothing that would have caused the lake of blood he found himself in. Slowly coming to his senses, he realised the blood was far too watery to be blood, and remembered that, of course, it was wine.

'What just happened?' The voice belonged to Frank, owner of the eponymous off licence, but sounded somewhat muffled. He was either hiding behind the counter or had been buried under a mountain of crispy corn snacks.

'I'm not sure.' Matthew picked himself up from the puddle of wine, broken glass and Dorito crumbs. 'I think there was a robbery.'

'A rubbery what?'

'A robbery,' Matthew repeated patiently. 'We - well, you - were robbed.'

'Oh.' Frank was still muffled. 'Did they take much?'

'I guess they went for the till, and trashed the joint on their way through.'

'What did they do to me?' muffled Frank said nervously.

Matthew said nothing, not seeing Frank anywhere.

'I'm dead aren't I? They killed me. You bastards!' Frank shouted at the long departed plumber-crooks.

'I'm not sure about that,' Matthew said, looking groggily around the devastation, broken glass crunching under his feet.

'They must have done,' Frank's disembodied voice said. 'I've died and gone to hell.'

'Don't be silly Frank.' Matthew hoped his voice sounded calmer than he felt. 'We're still in the outdoor.'

'Then why is it so dark?'

Matthew looked around the still day-lit shop. 'Where the heck are you?'

Just at that moment a giant rabbit stood up behind the counter.

Matthew shouted in surprise and stepped back reflexively, slipping in a pool of sparkling white and landing right back in the remnants of the local wine display.

'Matt?' said the rabbit, using Franks muffled voice.

'Frank? Is that you?'

'Of course it is you idiot,' the rabbit said. 'What does it look like?'

'Well, if I'm honest,' Matthew said, 'it looks rather like a six foot tall rabbit.'

The Frank rabbit moaned a long, melancholy moan. 'I knew it, I'm dead!'

'What are you on about? You're not dead, you're just... a rabbit.'

'I always said I wanted to come back as a rabbit!'

'My - admittedly limited - understanding of traditional reincarnation beliefs is that you come back as the actual animal, not merely dressed as a pantomime version of it.'

'Yeah? Well next time I'm coming back as a pantomime cow,' Frank said. 'That should show the mystical powers who's boss!'

Matthew grabbed a nearby display stand that looked like a cross between R2-D2 on drinks duty and a deep space probe, and pulled himself back up onto his feet. 'You can't get your own back on karma,' he said, peering into one of the model's twin radar dishes. 'That's just a step too metaphysical.'

'Well I guess we'll soon find out how this afterlife business works won't we?'

'You haven't been reincarnated, Frank. You're just wearing a costume.'

'So they killed me and dressed me as a bunny?'

'You're not dead.'

'But I am dressed as a bunny.'

'I'm sure there's a perfectly rational explanation.'

'Yeah?' Frank said sceptically. 'Well until I hear it, I'm going with the explanation that I'm dead and being punished.'

'What exactly is wearing a giant rabbit costume a punishment for?'

'Could be any number of things,' Frank admitted.

'Really?' Matthew said absently, eyeing the Mars Rover thing suspiciously. 'I never had you down as a bad guy.'

'Yeah, well, being dead gives you a fresh perspective on life,' Frank said. 'And what the hell is that thing?'

'What?' Matthew very deliberately removed his prying fingers from the fake robot.

'Your pet robot,' Frank pointed at the thing.

'Mine?' Matthew backed away from as discreetly as he could. 'I thought it was the new display stand for Space Raiders or something.'

'I've never seen it before,' Frank had emerged from behind the counter and was making his way carefully towards Matthew.

'Well that's weird.'

'In a good way?' Frank said, hopefully.

Just then the robot turned, one of its dishes appearing to look at the two increasingly nervous men. 'I'm thinking probably not,' Matthew admitted.

'Do you think we should, you know...' Frank whispered.

'Make like the flow and scarper?'

'Just a thought.'

'A good thought,' Matthew agreed when the thing started to roll towards them. Without further discussion,  he ran out of the shop as quickly possible with his clothes glued to him with a literal cocktail of alcoholic beverages.

Eventually Matthew decided he had run far enough, and stopped to take in what was going on. 'What the crap....?' He muttered, looking around him.

His surroundings resembled the High Street he remembered, but in a blocky, brightly coloured, Lego-y sort of a way. 'If we have died, we've gone to day-glow Heaven.' As he took in more of his surreal surroundings, the sense of weirdness deepened as he realised he was the only person on the High Street (except the pantomime rabbit still loping clumsily down the road, pursued by a trundling robot thing in some hideous mockery of the infamous Hare v. Tortoise showdown that closed Croydon High Street for a fortnight in 1978).

'What the heck has happened to the high street?' Frank panted when he finally caught up with Matthew.

Matthew looked at the rainbow array of shop fronts that adorned the previously grey suburban High Street. 'Maybe they're expecting a visit from the Westboro' Baptists.'

'I don't recognise these shops,' Frank said. 'And I literally walk down Surbiton High Street every day of my life.'

'Where's the library?'

'This is no time to be borrowing paperbacks. We're dead, remember?'

'Well, maybe,' Matthew allowed. 'But even assuming that explains the predicament we find ourselves in-'

'Never mind the predicament,' Frank interrupted. 'What about the rabbit suit we find ourselves in?'

'I hate to break it to you like this buddy,' Matthew said, 'but I'm not wearing a rabbit suit.'

'Thanks for that.'

'As I was saying, maybe we could find something out about our predicament-'

'And the afterlife.'

'If we could find a library.'

'OK,' Frank said. 'I think it's this way.'

'You think?' Matthew said. 'I thought you walked down this street every day?'

'I walk down Surbiton High Street every day,' Frank corrected. 'I don't know that I've ever walked down this street.'

'Oh well, let's go anyway.'

'How about a book shop?' Frank said suddenly.

'That might do,' Matthew said brightly.

'Over there.' Frank pointed to a store front with a display of books in the window and the name 'Orwell's: established 1984' emblazoned across the sign over the door.

'Interesting....'

They went over for a look, and having seen nothing more useful than a handbook to programming the ZX81 for real time applications in the window, tried the door. It was locked. Matthew cupped his hands against the door and peered inside.

'I can't see a thing,' he complained. 'Must be closed.'

Frank knocked on the door, and immediately turned to Matthew, a look of bemused non-understanding failing to show upon his stuffed rabbit face.

'That doesn't sound right,' Matthew confirmed, and, just to be sure, he knocked too. Well, you never really know what a giant rabbit be-costumed hand knocking on a book shop door will sound like until you've tried it.

But Matthew's hand, too, made a strange, flat, kind of hollow noise where he would have expected the usual ring of a glass panel being heftily rapped.

'Weird,' he said, and started looking more closely at the store fronts.

'What is it?' Frank asked.

'Have you noticed anything strange about this street?'

'Well, duh! That's what I was trying to tell you!'

'I mean beyond it not being the street in which your shop usually lives,' Matthew explained.

'Yes, plainly there's something odd going on,' Frank said. 'But have you got any idea what it is?'

Matthew thought for a moment, looking up and down the street, before eventually settling upon 'None that make any sense whatsoever,' as the appropriate response to the question.

Matthew looked around, and saw... well, Surbiton. Rather more colourful than usual, and for the most part looking quite two dimensional in comparison to the off licence, but it was definitely Surbiton-shaped. He continued along the street, peering into shop windows, knocking on the doors, and getting that same strange hollow bang from each one.

'None of these are real shops,' Matthew said.

'What do you mean?' Frank asked.

'They're not actual buildings. They're just... facades. Like in a wild west show, you have the front of the salon and the bank and the sheriff's office and so on.'

'Right,' Frank looked around them. 'Except here we have the Blue Hedgehog pub, Zedek's Computer Shop, the Surbiton Kettle Emporium, and so on.'

'Roasta Coffee, Quidland, Angus, S&M Food,' Matthew read. 'It's like we're in a cheap knock-off of a High Street that someone bought on ebay for 87p and had shipped in from China.'

'Full of names that should be well known stores but are just different enough to not get in trouble if they were used in a video game,' Frank chipped in.

'Yes, or a... wait, what?'

'You know, like in those racing games where you're driving through London but they can't accurately represent Regent Street so they fudge the names, like Spamley's, the world's most annoying toy shop.'

'Bloody hell, Frank, you're right!' Matthew started skipping around excitedly. 'Do you know what this means?'

'Yes, it means I know where to take this stupid costume back to if I ever get out of it.'

'Well, that, yes,' Matthew said. 'Also: these are not real shops.'

'No kidding,' Frank said, as sarcastically as it's possible for a stuffed rabbit to be.

'Don't make me go all Elmer Fudd on your ass, rabbit,' Matthew said. 'That's assuming you're even real-'

'Hey, I'm real buddy!' the rabbit said.

'A real Halloween rabbit? Oh man, I'm not even sure if I'm real at this point.'

'Well that's a stupid theory.'

'Says the man who's gone to heaven in a bunny suit.'

'This is not heaven,' Frank said emphatically. 'I never said this was heaven.'

'We don't know what this is - heaven, hell, or just some weird beer-induced nightmare... But if what I'm thinking is even half right,' Matthew said, walking down the middle of the road, looking up as if trying to see over the row of fake shops, 'the answer - or something that can point us towards the answer - lies just over there.'

At the far end of the High Street, Holt Road peeled off up a hill into residential suburbia, followed this evening by Matthew and Frank.  The houses that lined the street grew steadily bigger the further they moved from the High Street.

'Presumably the houses are fake too?' Frank eyed them with suspicion.

'Most of them.' Matthew spoke