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Today in Alternate History
Day in Alternate History Blog
The Temptation of Reggie Smithers
by Nicholas Sumner
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before
the Lord, and Satan came also among them. And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence
comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in
the earth, and from walking up and down in it.
And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there
is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth
God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear
God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and
about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands,
and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and
touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.
And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only
upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of
The Book of Job, Chapter 1 verses 6-12
The Devil was sitting on the end of Reggie Smithers bed. When Reggie had
woken in the darkness of his bedroom he knew immediately that something was
amiss. He couldn’t put his finger on it at first – everything seemed exactly
as it should be. The soft light of an English summer's morning streamed through
the drawn curtains, found its way through the little kinks in the fabric and
dappled the wallpaper. A breeze stirred the leaves outside the open window and
the sound of birdsong drifted into the room. The comforting shape of Reggie’s
wife was outlined beneath the covers next to him, it rose and fell with the
gentle noises of her breathing as it had for the past thirty years. Everything
was in its place except that there was a figure sitting on the edge of his bed.
Reggie sat up with a start. It was definitely The Devil, there could be no
mistake, he wore a white fedora, a flamboyant goatee, a rather too assertive
cravat and his off-white tropical suit was obviously from Jermyn Street, Jermyn
Street was for tourists and the hoi-poloi, a real gentleman would not be seen
dead in anything other than a product of Saville Row. Despite these minor clues
it was his eyes that gave him away, small, coldly calculating, filled with hate
- yet strangely humorous. The Devil lit a small cheroot, exhaled the smoke
luxuriously and said;
"You're a problem for me Reggie, a dilemma."
Reggie shook his head to banish the last cobwebs of sleep,
"What are you doing in my bedroom? Who the devil are you?"
"Who the devil am I?" Replied The Devil, mockingly. "Very funny
Reggie, you know bloody well who I am." Reggie was speechless but The Devil
continued. "The question Reggie, is not who I am, but what I’m going to
do with you.
"You're a good man Reggie, an honest upright decent sort of a man and I
hate people like you, you're a problem, a pain, a bloody nuisance." He
paused, appraising Reggie as a snake might appraise a mouse, drew again from his
cheroot and continued.
"You bear no malice to anyone Reggie, you're fair-minded and considerate,
you don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't fiddle your income tax return, you’ve
hardly an ounce of pride and you haven't even noticed that Maud - the secretary
at your work - lusts after your horrid little body Reggie. You weren’t aware
of that were you? Not a clue eh?" The Devil shook his head contemptuously.
"You’ve said a perfunctory ‘good morning’ to her every day of the
week for nearly twenty years now and you haven't even noticed that she would far
rather you’d bend her over the copying machine and give her a damn good seeing
to have you Reggie?"
Reggie was appalled
"The copying machine?" He spluttered but The Devil just smirked and
"No Reggie I’ve had to think up something special for you, something very
special, it's rare that we have to do this but there's precedent. Oh there's no
point protesting Reggie, it's been cleared at the highest level, the most
high level if you know what I mean, but he said I had to warn you, if it
was up to me you wouldn’t get a warning but I have to do as I’m told, so
there, I’ve warned you - don’t say I didn’t warn you Reggie - now you have
a nice day." And with that The Devil gave a devilish grin, there was a
faint popping sound and he disappeared in a puff of sulphur smelling smoke.
Reggie sat transfixed, speechless and unable to comprehend what he had just
seen. He was a good Anglican so of course believed in The Devil in an abstract,
theoretical kind of way but to find him in his bedroom at half past six on a
weekday morning was to say the least surprising. Beside him Mrs Smithers
stirred, she sat up with a yawn, adjusted her curlers and looked at her husband.
"Why are you sitting there with your mouth open like that? She demanded,
then paused and sniffed the air. Her face clouded with annoyance.
"For goodness sake Reggie, I’ve asked you a hundred times if you must do
that leave the room. And with that she got up and went downstairs to make tea.
It had been a dream of course, it was the only rational explanation but what an
odd and unsettling dream, perhaps the cheese sandwich he had eaten before bed
time was to blame, Wenslydale had never really agreed with him. The dream stayed
with Reggie through breakfast and as he drove his little car to the minor public
school where he taught French and history. It had made him feel uneasy and out
of sorts and when Maud the secretary greeted him with her customary cheerfulness
he was unable to meet her eyes, stammered his own greeting and fled the office
as quickly as he could.
In the staff room he checked his schedule for that day, 11th June 1987 and
exchanged some small talk with the other masters before hurrying to room nine
where he taught a lesson to the fifth form history class on the origins of the
Second World War. Today they were covering the rise of Hitler, the Rhineland
crisis and the Munich agreement. It was subject matter that Reggie knew well, he
had been fascinated by the period since his days at university and by the
morning break he had quite recovered his usual good spirits.
He had coffee in the staff room and went to use the convenience before his next
lesson, but as he flushed the toilet and turned toward the sink his vision
greyed out, a sudden intense feeling of nausea gripped his stomach and he felt
as if he were falling in some bottomless void, he staggered and grabbed at the
edge of the sink for support as his legs nearly buckled beneath him. Eyes
tightly shut he fumbled for the taps and splashed water on his face. For a
moment he considered calling for help but he could feel strength beginning to
return. As his wet hands moved over his face they felt strange, alien. His face
too didn’t feel quite right, he felt odd, as if his clothes fitted him
differently, as if his own movements were unfamiliar. Was he having a stroke? He
turned away from the sink eyes still closed, reaching for the towel but where
the towel should have been hanging from its chrome ring his hands grasped empty
air, as he opened his eyes he felt a sudden fear. His vision was strangely foggy
but even so the bathroom was not as he remembered it.
For a start it's fixtures were completely rearranged, it was larger than the
staff bathroom and the fittings, when he looked more closely, seemed oddly
old-fashioned. He looked down at himself and saw that his clothes too where
different, he had donned a light grey summer weight suit that morning but now
his body was clad in dark brown worsted - and his hands! What had happened to
his hands? Reggie had beautiful hands, when they were courting, his wife had
complimented him on his slender artistic fingers but the hands he saw before him
now were thick and stubby, the coarse hands of a blacksmith or a carpenter.
Reggie spun round and lurched towards the mirror, a thick layer of condensation
covered it and he wiped it away but still the image in the mirror seemed
blurred. There was a pair of spectacles beside the sink and for some reason he
felt compelled to put them on. As he did so he gasped in shock and
incomprehension for he could now see with complete clarity but the face that
looked back at him from the mirror was not his own face, the face that looked
back at him was the face of Albert Sarraut.
Reggie knew Albert Sarraut, or at least knew of him, caretaker Prime Minister of
France between January and June 1936, a member of the Radical Party a worthy,
competent, uninspiring man who had shrunk from difficult decisions. But what, in
the name of God, was Reggie doing inside his body?
Another wave of nausea and shock swept over Reggie, he tore at the stiff old
fashioned collar that constricted his neck, shut his eyes tightly and opening
the taps to their fullest extent splashed water on his face with the quick
panicky movements of a terrified man. This was absurd. Preposterous. He was
hallucinating; he would have to see the doctor, had someone sneaked a drug into
his coffee? One of those degenerates in the fourth form perhaps - or one of the
staff - he had never trusted Williams the geography teacher, or what about that
new long haired fellow in the art department, yes this was the sort of dreadful
practical joke that he would play.
He looked again in the mirror, desperately seeking his own familiar face but
still the jowly, sceptical features of Albert Sarraut looked back.
There was a window in the bathroom. The staff bathroom at the School was
windowless but the bathroom in which Reggie now found himself had a window. He
rushed to it and stared out. The window was on the fifth or sixth floor of a
building that stood on what was unmistakably the Avenue de Marigny in Paris.
Reggie knew Paris well, he and his wife holidayed there every year, he loved
Paris, its gorgeous layout, superb food and beautiful buildings lifted his
spirit and the opportunity to practice his French was always welcome. But the
Avenue de Marigny that he saw before him now was at once familiar and unknown.
For a start the Place Clemenceau, which he could see quite clearly in the
distance was missing its statue of de Gaulle and the streets, instead of being
crowded with boxy modern Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens had only a few cars and
these were the graceful Delages and Hispano Suizas of the 1930s.
His mind wrestled with what he was seeing and clutched feebly at the evidence of
his senses – if he were on the fourth or fifth floor of a building on the
Avenue de Marigny, roughly 400 yards from the Place Clemenceau then he was in
the Elysees Palace! The official residence of the president of France!
He sat down heavily on the toilet and cradled his head in his hands. On a small
table a newspaper had been left opened and refolded to a central page. The date?
What was the date? His hands fumbled to turn the pages, and there beneath the
masthead Le Figaro 8th March 1936. The headline read ‘Crisis: Germans
The newspaper fell from his hands, its pages scattered on the floor. He leapt to
his feet as the realisation hit him and looked again from the window. There
standing quite still amid the hurrying crowds on the Avenue de Marigny stood a
figure looking up at the window. The white suit, the goatee, the too assertive
cravat, of course…
The devil raised his white fedora high above his head and smiled a smile of
absolute malice, then turned abruptly away. Reggie strained to keep sight of him
but suddenly there was a pounding on the bathroom door and a voice was shouting
"Monsieur Sarraut! Monsieur Sarraut! Are you alright? Monsieur ? You’ve
been in there a long time; the Cabinet is waiting Monsieur, please…"
Reggie had never seen the interior of the Elysee Palace before, he couldn’t
help think that it was perhaps a little over done and had crossed the line from
sumptuous to gaudy. As he walked behind the flunkey who had beaten on the
bathroom door he noticed the atmosphere of tension in the corridor. Everywhere
groups of men stood in uneasy knots, many wore uniform, they spoke hurriedly and
with a nervous intensity but as he drew close their conversation would die away
and they would simply stare in his direction, tense expectant stares that
contained an unspoken question.
As they reached the end of the corridor and the flunkey threw open the double
doors a man in a suit lunged towards him, a notebook brandished in his left
hand, a pencil poised in his right, he was shouting.
"Monsieur Sarraut! Has the cabinet come to a decision? All of France awaits
your decision!" but the flunkey pushed him away gruffly and Reggie passed
into the room.
Reggie stopped in his tracks as he saw what the room contained. It was a large
room, opulent with gilt statuary from before the revolution. A line of large
windows took up one entire wall and a huge polished table scattered with maps
and documents took up much of the space. Around it a group of men, some sitting
some standing, their faces weary, drawn and frightened.
There sitting at the head was the aristocratic countenance of President LeBrun,
the upturned tips of his moustache quivering with agitation, next to him, dreamy
eyed and vaguely uneasy was Camille Chautemps, the Minister of Public Works.
Here too was the supercilious visage of Joseph Paul-Boncour - Minister of State
and Permanent Delegate to the League of Nations; beside him the weasel faced
socialist Marcel Déat and Georges Mandel, Minister of Posts, Telegraphs, and
There were a dozen others in the room that Reggie did not recognise but standing
to one side his arm upraised, his face full of anger was the glowering Pierre
Flandin, Minister of Foreign Affairs, he was shouting across the table at
Marshal Gamelin, the Commander in Chief of the Army of France whose slumped
shoulders and downcast gaze were that of a man already defeated. The words
seemed to flow over and around him as he shifted his feet uneasily and weakly
shook his head.
"Gentlemen Please!" It was President LeBrun his hand upraised. Flandin
broke away from the table as if the effort of keeping silence caused him
"Sarraut, you have returned at last, come now gentlemen it is time for a
decision, Flandin, I think we know your view already…"
"My view Monsieur President is that we must fight!" said Flandin.
"Thank you Flandin." said LeBrun, clearly annoyed at being
interrupted. "Mandel? What say you?"
Mandel looked down at the table and shook his head. LeBrun shifted his gaze to
the next man.
"Déat?" Déat too shook his head.
"Paul-Boncour?" Boncour stiffened and sat up in his chair.
"No Monsieur President, I am not in favour of action yet, we must see how
the situation develops…"
"Thank you Boncour, Chautemps?"
And so it went, each man around the table was asked his view and without
exception they were either undecided, ambivalent or simply against action. As
each one spoke Flandin’s countenance grew darker and more surly, as if an
emotion was growing within him that he could barely control.
"Gamelin?" The room fell silent but the Marshal did not raise his eyes
or square his shoulders.
"It is difficult to know what the Germans really mean by this, the
Rhineland is German territory after all, no one denies this…"
"But the Treaty of Versailles is quite explicit!" shouted Flandin,
"It is to remain demilitarised, by deploying their soldiers there the
Germans are mocking us, they are mocking us…"
"Flandin!" Said LeBrun "Have the courtesy to let the Marshal
finish." Gamelin sighed, paused and when he finally looked up he said.
"We are not ready. We are not ready for war." His words hung in the
air, the silence accentuating their terrible finality. LeBrun nodded.
Every eye in the room turned towards Reggie and in that instant he understood.
This was not a hallucination, not a dream; he was being given the chance to
change history, to remake the world, to save the lives of the millions who had
died during the Second World War. He swallowed, his palms were suddenly wet, his
mouth dry, but he must find the words, he must.
"Monsieur President. We must fight!"
Reggie awoke in the darkness of his bedroom to find The Devil once more sitting
at the end of his bed. As he sat up the Devil looked evenly at him, the smallest
of smiles playing at the corners of his mouth. "Well done Reggie, well
"Well done? What? Where am I? What do you mean…"
"Your back home Reggie, its June the 11th 1987 and your back in your own
"But Sarraut, the Rhineland, 1936…"
"Oh you fixed that Reggie, you fixed that well." The Devil paused and
he took a drag on his cheroot, his expression did not change. "But of
course you want to know what you did don’t you Reggie, of course you do."
"Well you talked them into it Reggie, you should have seen yourself, or
rather you should have seen Sarraut. Eloquent? You were stunning, ‘course you
got a few of your verbs mixed up but no-one noticed. French verbs eh Reggie –
hateful eh, ‘course they are, I invented them.
"Gamelin banged on a bit but you shut him up, you seemed to know more than
him about the military situation and that went over a storm. You were a hero –
well, Sarraut was, he won the next election in a landslide. Hitler? Wound up
with a knife between his ribs, Germany was in chaos, dead Nazis everywhere, you
should have seen it Reggie and in the end a weakish centre left government came
to power no interest in military expansion and all was well with the
Reggie gasped "So the Second World War was avoided? I did it, I saved
"Hang on a minute Reggie, hang on. Lets not get ahead of ourselves shall
we." Again the Devil drew on his cheroot, Reggie turned and put his hand on
the bed next to him where his wife should have been sleeping.
"Your wife? You’re a bachelor Reggie."
"What?" Reggie gasped.
"You remember where her parents met don’t you Reggie? Yeah that’s
right, in a bomb shelter during the Blitz, only the Blitz didn’t happen Reggie
and you’re a sad lonely old bachelor but I digress.
"Everything went well up until 1940, world at peace all that sort of stuff
but then the Russians invaded Poland. They were rubbish of course, made a bigger
cock up of it than when they invaded Finland in 1939. Attacked in the spring,
made hardly any progress until September when Stalin bought Zhukov over from
Siberia to pull his chestnuts from the fire and he had the job done in four
"Of course Joe didn’t want to stop there, he was a good fellow, Joe, one
of my own, so next year they start in on Germany. Now the German army is, as per
the Treaty of Versailles which you were so keen for them to stick too, 100,000
men, no tanks, no planes not much artillery. They fought well but they didn’t
stand a hope really and by Christmas the western border of the Soviet Union was
on the Rhine.
"Do you want a glass of water Reggie you look a bit sick? No? OK then.
"So you can imagine the panic Reggie, with the threat of Germany gone the
rest of Europe hadn’t done much preparing for war, but everyone was heartened
when Joe had Zhukov shot – I mean he was just a bit too clever and Joe just
hated that – you might like Joe, you’re going to meet him later today -
anyway, without Zhukov they reckoned the Red Army would just be a rabble but
they hadn’t reckoned on something Reggie.
"When Germany surrendered most of their senior military talent went into
prison camps in Siberia, but because Joe had shot every Russian officer with an
ounce of ability the number of competent commanders in the Red Army was pretty
low. So Joe made the Germans an offer, rot in the Gulag or join the Red Army. It
was perfect, a marriage made in… well, you know… the Germans got to
reorganise the Red Army and Stalin had nothing to fear from his senior officers
because they were basically a slave class within the Soviet system. They were
followed at all times by a commissar with a loaded gun and orders to shoot them
if they even looked like they might be up to anything Joe wouldn’t like and
they had no political credibility because they were German.
"So when the Red steamroller started moving west again in the summer of ’43
it was led by Von Rhunsdedt, Rommel, Leeb Von Bock, all the familiar gang, only
they weren’t leading the German Army of 1940 they were leading the Red Army of
1943. How long do you think the allies held out Reggie eh? How long? Six months?
Five? No guesses? Cat get your tongue Reggie? Come on old son don’t look so
glum! They reached the Algarve in six weeks."
Reggie held his head in his hands and groaned. The devil slapped his back
"Now come on Reggie don’t take it so hard, the story’s not over.
"The British army fell back on Dunkirk but unlike Adolf, Joe didn’t
hesitate, the whole lot of them went into the bag. Spring of ’44 they rolled
up the Balkans, Mussolini cut a deal with them so they left him alone but the
main event for 44 was the middle east and India. The Brits tried to defend
Persia but they had Covenanters against IS2s – after Hitler was gone the Brits
didn’t do much tank development but they tried to hold a defensive line in
Baluchistan, by Christmas they had a pretty good set up and they knew the
Russians were at the end of their logistical tether but it was all a feint.
"Summer of ’45 they invaded Britain, and no it wasn’t some half arsed
effort like Sealion. Of course it was still pretty dicey, the Royal Navy ripped
the first couple of invasion convoys to shreds but unfortunately for them the
Soviets had command of the air, the RAF was about the same size as it was in the
Battle of Britain that you remember but The Red Air Force was three times the
size of the 1940s Luftwaffe, still it was close, but the Prime Minister, Atlee,
surrendered while the outcome was still in doubt. Churchill, never got to be
P.M., died in an air raid.
"Of course the Japanese weren’t idle, with France and Holland gone and
Britain on the ropes they bombed Pearl harbour and went for the ‘Southern
Resources Zone’ in late 43. That story would be quite familiar to you really,
details are different but the outcome was the same, Japs went bezerk for six
months then got rolled up in three years. Didn’t help when the Soviets invaded
Manchuria in ’46 then the home Islands in ’47, that was quite a fight
Reggie, quite a fight.
"So there we were in ’47 with my mate Joe in control of the entire
Eurasian land mass plus the British Isles and Japan. So the Yanks dusted off
their A-bomb plans – after Hitler went they didn’t do much but got in a
right old tizzy in 43, there wasn’t as much co-operation between them and the
Brits as in your time Reggie so progress was a bit slower, consequently they
hadn’t even tested one by the time Japan got plowed under and the war
"It was ten years before they got the chance to use one of their nukes, The
Chinese went Communist in the late 40s and started pushing their weight around
in Indo-China. They invaded and pretty soon the USA and the USSR got drawn in,
the war lasted a year before the Yanks decided to bomb the Soviet Union, they
wiped out 50 cities in Russia and so the Communist Bloc was quite willing to
talk peace after that seeing as their own atomic bomb program hadn’t got going
at all, not at that time anyway, delivery was their problem but they’ve fixed
all that Reggie - done a marvellous job actually.
The Devil drew on his cheroot again and looked at his watch; "I’m going
to have to cut this story short Reggie, because we don’t have much time but
for the last thirty years the Soviet Union has been atrophying, the atomic raids
gutted it, but its taken awhile to collapse, anyway it’s falling apart,
ramshackle mess, massive military spending off the back of a weak economy and of
course there’s been uprisings all over that are getting harder and harder to
put down. Long and short of it is that the Kremlin blames the satellite states
like Britain, France, Japan, Hungary and the rest for the mess, so they’re
going for the Sampson option Reggie, they’ve targeted every city on earth
outside Russia and (he looked at his watch again) the missiles are flying right
about now." Again the Devil smiled, the smile of one who has done his job
"You’ve got, oooh, ‘bout two minutes to live Reggie, you and half a
billion other people actually and by the end of next week the body count should
be pushing two billion. Anyway, must dash, today’s going to be a busy one for
me…" and again the Devil disappeared in a puff of sulphurous smoke.
Reggie sat in his silent room for a moment and then got up and went to the
window to look one last time on the world he had created. He was actually very
grateful that he would not have to look at it for long.
If the road rises to meet you, doesn't that mean that you've fallen over?