This is the first of several writings that have been written especially for my birthday. This is a most wonderful and amazing piece written by a young novelist from the UK, Mr. Ben Leto. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Maybe it was the light.
The words seemed harder to focus on in the blunt milky glow of the evening. Their bare stark scratches on the coarse paper stared up at her without meaning, without images, warmth or sound. She brushed a loose strand of hair from her face, crossed her legs and persevered with a sigh.
Maybe it was the wind, biting at her cheeks with the threat of rain, catching strands of long hair to float out of her like streamers and lifting up the pages of her book like a little girl’s skirt as she runs. Each time her eyes seemed to settle on the text, the page would rise to hover cluelessly on its spine, and her focus would be lost.
From the end of the road an engine roared as it turned the corner. She looked up. It was just a truck. A red truck. Another sigh. She let her head fall back against the bench and rolled her eyes at the clouds looming overhead – rugged bandages against a bruised sky, bulging greys and swollen like rotten fruit.
Slowly she closed her eyes and let the cool clutches of the evening grope indifferently over her. Her stomach was heavy with hunger, her knuckes mere white beads on fingers frozen red with the cold, clutching her disinteresting book like a handhold on the world. Her mind, dizzy and battered and numb, could focus only on the thought of getting home, getting off this damp cold bench, bitten by the perpetual hiss of the wind, and being warm and quiet before the clouds tore open and drenched her.
But there was nothing she could do but wait.
Suddenly she was aware of someone sitting next to her – a slight pressure against the wooden planks at her back, the sound of fabric being crumpled and folded – an undeniable yet inexplicable sensation of another person close by. She shuffled slightly in irritation at this new presence, too close to her own space but not close enough to warrant any more than that, and let out a deep but quiet breath. She would just keep her eyes closed until the bus arrived. If it arrived. Where was that bloody bus anyway? And how long had she been waiting out in the cold already? Another breath heaved through her. Not to worry, it would be here soon enough. Then she’d be home before she realised it, wrapped up safe and warm in her favourite…
“Interesting weather we’re having isn’t it?”
Her eyes snapped open, the milky light of the fading afternoon again flooding her brain.
“I’m sorry?” she asked, glancing to her left.
A short looking man was seated on the bench next to her. It was difficult to tell with him sitting down. He looked about fortyish – perhaps fiftyish with good skin or thirtyish with a bad diet – not too thin, but not too overweight. He was wearing what looked like a faded beige pinstripe suit and a grey motheaten shirt. His hair looked like it was thinning.
“The weather,” he repeated. “Interesting isn’t it?” He spoke softly, with a slight whisper, the way people mutter unconsciously to themselves when they’re deep in thought. Her gaze flicked up. His hair was definitely thinning.
“Um, yes, yes it’s very indecisive,” she smiled politely. His eyes were perhaps too big for his head, or seemed to somehow bulge out of their sockets. As she looked on she realised it was neither. The man hardly blinked at all, making his eyes appear heavy and unreal. She broke her stare and returned her attention to her book.
“Indecisive,” he mused, before chuckling suddenly. “Yes, I suppose it is that.” She looked up and smiled again briefly, before politely continuing to read, hoping that this peculiar conversation was now over.
“Is that a book you’re reading?”
She sighed, and closed her eyes briefly. “Yes, yes it is.”
“I only ask because a lot of magazines look very booky these days.”
“What’s it about?”
“I… I don’t know. I’ve only just started reading it.”
“Is it any good?”
“I really couldn’t say.”
“She dies at the end. I don’t like people getting unpleasant surprises so that’s why I’m telling you. She dies at the end.”
She looked up again. “Who does?”
“The girl in the book.”
“There isn’t a girl in the book.”
“Oh,” he replied, suddenly crestfallen. Then he smiled. “Perhaps you just haven’t got there yet. But you will,” he beamed.
“And when I do… I know she’ll die, right?”
“Right. Well, thanks very much for that.”
“You’re welcome. I do hate people getting nasty surprises.”
“Yes, you said.”
A pigeon slowly shuffled past their feet. It glanced up at her in that way pigeons seem to look at people as if pretending they’re not. She shot it back a look of irritation and it looked away again, pretending it had never looked at her in the first place.
“Hello,” the man said.
“Um, hello,” she mumbled. “Look I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I just want to read my book.”
“Oh yes, yes of course,” the man stammered. “Sorry, sorry I didn’t mean to annoy.”
“No, no not at all, it’s quite all right. I just want to be quiet. It’s been a long day.”
“It won’t be for much longer. You can tell by the weather.”
“The weather. The clouds,” he pointed towards the sky with a theatrical arc of his arm. “Look at how quickly they’re moving, like they’re in a hurry to get out of here.”
“That’s the wind,” she clucked irritably.
“Tch. Wind indeed.”
“Oh, oh yes,” he blurted. “Sorry, really. Please, please just ignore me.”
She shot him a sickly smile and carried on reading. Beneath the pages, the pigeon glared up at her, unblinking. She fired another warning shot and it looked away, pecking awkwardly at a piece of celophane with evident hunger before strutting away as if it knew it was celophane and not food all along.
“Bus is late isn’t it?”
She slammed the book shut in defeat.
“I’m sorry,” she sighed, “but are you mentally ill?” He gazed off into the distance, considering this very carefully.
“No,” he finally whined, yet somehow not entirely certain. He then began humming to himself, some half-familiar tune like the ones she never paid attention to at school. She looked down the road again and sucked her teeth. No sign of the bus. God knows how long it would be.
The man began to whistle.
With a sharp sigh and a heavy shrug, she dropped her book into her bag, hoisted it onto her shoulder and stood up, instantly leaving the bench and the man behind her.
‘To hell with it,’ she thought, shaking her head slowly, ‘I’ll walk’.
The sun was setting and human life was becoming scarce in its wake as she made her way irritably down the road. She took the steps down off the street to the footpath that ran along the canal, strolling purposefully between the current of dismal water and the nettles, weeds and mud that made up the bank on the path’s other side. The soapy smell of frogspawn in the water would probably have seemed almost pleasant in summer – a sickly sweet perfume, like the mix of cheap aftershave and chinese food that would sometimes drift past her window at night in her old flat in the centre of town. But now it just smelt dank, joyless and miserable. She wondered what her reflection would look like in the murky water, submerged beneath the shredded scraps of plastic bags as they drifted ever forward like abandoned wishes downstream amidst the silt, rainwater and animal urine. But she didn’t look. Then, spying another bench, she approached it and sat to rest her feet a while, lighting a cigarette as she did.
“God,” she exhaled slowly, her eyes closed. “Give me just one day where I don’t have to suffer a freak.” She let the smoke flood her lungs, relishing the fresh dizziness it brought, that brief moment where the world fell a little further from her consciousness. Then, after the chemicals fizzled out into nothing in her blood, she reached into her bag and retrieved her book.
“Smoking is very bad for your health,” a voice tutted suddenly from behind her. She span round and looked behind her. It was him – the same man from the bus stop.
“What the…?” she gasped. “Where did you come from?!’”
“I was born in Peterborough,” he said matter of factly, shuffling politely around the bench and sitting next to her. He stared serenely out across the canal.
“What the hell are you doing?” she cried as she leapt up, away from him. “You’re following me?!”
“I won’t harm you. You are safe.”
“Why are you following me? What do you want?!”
“I am not following you.”
“Why are you following me?” she demanded, ignoring his protestations. Suddenly he raised his fist into the air between them. Then he extended his index finger. Then he slowly lowered his finger upon his lips.
“Sssh,” he said simply, quickly, then used the same finger to point over to the canal in front of them. She followed his direction to see a trail of ducklings, all fluffy white fur and tiny eyes, following their mother downstream. She looked at the ducks, back at him and his odd somehow foreign grin, and back at the ducks. Then she snorted an exasperated laugh, and sat back down onto the bench, chuckling ruefully to the ground.
“I could walk somewhere else,” she said in a tired voice, “but I get the feeling you’d only be there whenever I got there.” She looked up. “Wouldn’t you?” He didn’t say anything – didn’t look at her. He just shrugged, still smiling at the ducks. “Jesus,” she sighed, taking another gasp from her cigarette. “Did they send you?”
“Who are they?”
She took another long, slow drag, and cast her gaze back out over the murky water. “I wonder how deep the water is.”
“Not deep enough to drown in, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Her eyes widened as she watched the canal. “Do I look suicidal?”
“I don’t know. What does a suicidal person look like, exactly?”
“Have you ever seen Eastenders?”
He smiled. “A joke. You really don’t do misery too well.”
“There seems to be very little I do well.”
“You seem to talk well.”
“I talk incessantly. Prattle even.”
“Please prattle at me. The human voice makes such wonderful noise when willing. It is one of God’s greatest gifts to man.”
She rolled her eyes. “Is that right?”
“I think it would be very arrogant of me to be certain of that, but I’m fairly sure.”
“Uh huh. Well I think you and God have a lot in common.”
“Yes, I do.”
“And what would that be?”
She inhaled deeply on her cigarette again and shrugged. “Aside from ruining any chance I might have for peace and quiet, I haven’t got a clue what you want from me.”
“Maybe God wants nothing from you.”
“Mmnn. And what about you?”
“Maybe I don’t either. Or maybe I just want to talk to you.”
“Do you find this approach works with a lot of girls?”
“No. Can’t say I do, specifically.”
“Ah, I should feel special then, is that it?”
He smiled. “I’m sorry, you’re very pleasant, but I have no interest whatsoever in seducing you.” She felt the smile on her face droop. It was ever so slight, and yet she didn’t know why what he said had stung her, even briefly, and hated herself for the reaction. It was surely unnoticeable, and she quickly composed herself with a customary shrug.
“I was joking,” she clucked, exorcising her annoyance.
He turned to her slowly and smiled. “I love people sometimes. They’re a lot like cats. I like cats too.” She looked away, staring down the path, absently twirling her hair. “But I’m sorry,” he continued. “I didn’t mean to disappoint you.”
“I’m not disappointed!” she cried in an indignant laugh. “And I wouldn’t worry about that. I’ve been disappointed by experts in my time.”
“You see yourself as an expert?”
Another jolt of exasperation surged through her, and she turned back to face him, mouth open yet unable to speak. Who was this stranger, this presumptuous little man? A voice in her head compelled her to stand up for herself – to demand who exactly he thought he was talking to her like that, making snide little judgements about her when he didn’t know the first thing about who she was or what she’d been through. Another voice told her to just get up and walk away again. But it also asked, as it so often did, what would be the point? She turned back to the canal and let her head fall into her hands with a heavy sigh. Can’t escape. Nowhere to go to. If she got up now and ran, would he really catch up with her? She opened her eyes and looked again at the canal, watching the flowing water, momentarily stemming the similarly dank and relentless flow from her own mind with another sharp drag on her ciagrette.
“I’ve annoyed you,” he offered gently. “I’m sorry.”
“You haven’t annoyed me,” she hissed.
“You’ve pissed me off.”
A brief silence hung in the frost above them.
“Is there a difference?” he then asked.
“Jesus, who are you?” she spat, turning wildly towards him. “What the hell do you want from me? Is this what you do? Disturb random people and get on their nerves every evening? Nothing else to do with your time?”
“Crosswords bore me.”
“Isn’t there anything else you can occupy yourself with?”
He paused a moment to consider this. “I like Schubert,” he then replied.
“The dead composer?”
“I sincerely hope so. He’s been buried for the past 200 or whatever years. He’d be pretty grouchy about now if someone buried him whilst he was alive.”
“Yes,” he mused wistfully, and then gave a polite chuckle. He leant back a little and seemed to contemplate this too. “Of course, no one listens to classical music anymore. Not really.”
“Oh dear,” she muttered indifferently. “And why is that?”
“It doesn’t sell very well.” She sighed again. It seemed all that she could do. She took another deep breath and held it in her lungs, closing her eyes and shutting the world out for just a few moments to put her weary mind in order. ‘This is just something that happens,’ she cooed internally. ‘Sit it out. Let it go and it will soon be gone. This doesn’t matter.’
“You’re still annoyed, aren’t you?” he cooed.
“Do you think?”
“I think too much. The useful thoughts are becoming mere byproducts of an ongoing process.”
“Tell you what,” he said gleefully, both snapping out of his and her out of her own reveries. “Let me make it up to you. We can play a game.”
“No thank you.”
“Oh, go on.”
“Really, I’m tired of games.”
“Okay, let’s call it an exchange. If you tell me what you’re thinking, I’ll leave you in peace.”
“I want you to leave me in peace.”
“Of course you do, but the game isn’t to tell me what you want. Just what you’re thinking.”
“Christ, you’re annoying.”
“I’ve been told this.” He paused, offering her an encouraging look and raising his eyebrows in polite anticipation. “Please?”
She indulged another long sigh. “And then you’ll go away?”
“I promise I will leave, yes.”
‘Why not?’ she thought, shaking her head slowly. ‘Why not?’
“Okay,” she said aloud, and her eyes briefly searched the swollen sky for the right words. Then she simply shrugged. “I don’t know where i’m headed in life.” She looked at him, biting her lip and raising her eyebrows as if to say ‘well, there you are,’ and waited. But he didn’t respond.
“You’re… still here,” she ventured.
“You haven’t told me what you’re thinking yet. You’ve only told me what you thought.”
“What on Earth is that supposed to mean?”
“I want you to tell me what you’re thinking.”
“I think that…”
“No,” he said softly, patiently as if teaching her to play the violin correctly. “No. Please, again.”
He shook his head and smiled. It was a kind smile. “I don’t want to hear your thoughts. I want to hear what you’re thinking.” She stared again at the canal and the dirty water drifting through it, half wondering what he was talking about, half wishing he would just go away so she wouldn’t have to. Eventually she pursed her lips and exhaled a long slow breath of unsmoked air and, softly, felt herself begin to release the thoughts in her mind.
“Everything happens too quickly.” The words fell from her mouth delicately at first. Looking over she saw he was nodding slowly, encouragingly, and an urge to continue turned her attention back to the moving water. “I can’t keep up with it – I can’t see it for what it is. I’m either too busy regretting things, or being neurotic about what might be.” She paused, raising the cigarette to her lips, but instead of inhaling the smoke simply lowered it again and carried on talking. “Sometimes I’m conscious only of the world spinning beneath my still feet and my desperate idiotic panting to keep up with it. Everyone else seems to move so effortlessly with the world.”
A silence descended upon them as the breeze held its breath and listened to their conversation. Unseen in the water beyond she heard a faint lapping sound – perhaps a plastic bottle or polystyrene container as it rose and fell upon the current, and imagined the commercial branding on its surface washed clean by the dirty water, scrubbed illegible like a gravestone left long untended. A piece of unremarkable uniform packaging that was destined to spend more time as just as unremarkable a piece of rubbish than it had ever spent fulfilling its purpose. She looked back at him in the stillness. His eyes were closed and his head slightly back, as if he were listening to something she couldn’t hear – something beyond the breeze, and the bottle and her voice – and yet listening to everything at once.
“There,” she shrugged. “Was that good enough?”
“Yes,” he smiled with a contended sigh. “That was very good indeed.”
“So will you leave me in peace now?”
“Of course.” Abruptly he stood up, opening his eyes as he did so, and dusted down his trousers of nothing at all. He then regarded her curiously, his head slightly to one side as he did, and adopted a broad grin. He stood like that for an awkwardly longer amount of time than necessary, and she found herself shifting uncomfortably in her seat under his gaze.
“Will you come with me?” he asked.
Her eyes widened. “No!”
“Oh.” He seemed genuinely surprised. “Why?”
“Why should I?” she asked, looking up and down the path quickly to see if anyone else was there.
“Because I want to show you something.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere with you. No offense but I think your mind is broken.”
“Mmn hmmn,” she nodded with a grimace.
“Like your heart? Like your will?”
Ouch. Something flared inside of her at these words, and her head began to spin. Who was this man? What did he want? And when was he going to stop kicking her in the ribs, for no good reason? She didn’t say anything. She just began to rock ever so slightly back and forth in the cool air, summoning the heat rising in her blood into the will to leap up and punch him in the face.
“Please, don’t feel as if I’m attacking you,” he continued. “There’s nothing wrong with being brokenhearted. I think being brokenhearted is a fine thing. It’s a human thing. People can’t resist being in love. No matter how strong they are or where they find it. I think they’re drawn to it. It’s a compulsion.”
“Like moths to a flame, huh?”
“Like children to their mother’s arms.”
Somewhere in the distance a bird cried. It was a hollow croak – a cry of raw hunger, or fear – a response of pure instinct rather than emotion to the world around it. As the light dimmed evermore upon them and the cold air begin to settle, she thought it the most savage noise she’d heard – something she’d only ever dismissed before as perfectly natural, blurring without definition into the world as she moved through it. The man sat down again beside her.
“I think God loves the brokenhearted,” he said. “And divine love is an expert polyfiller for the cracks and dents of clusy human love.”
“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned God this minute. Probably about the seventh in total. I’m sensing something of a religious persuasion.”
“You are?” he crossed his legs.
“I am, yes.” She exhaled smoke more into the world in frustration.
“Does that trouble you?”
“Trouble me? No. Surprises me a little, perhaps. How could you hold onto faith in a world like this?”
“Maybe I’m quite simple.” He gave a simple little smile. “Maybe I don’t see the bad things in the world.”
“You saw me.”
“Are you bad?”
She exhaled again. “I rather think I must be. I don’t think you’re simple though. If you were I would already feel envious of you, and I don’t.”
He smiled. “They do say ignorance is bliss.”
“I wouldn’t know,” she replied quietly.
He paused a moment, considering this. “I’m sensing a distinct absence of any belief in God.” She smiled.
“I think it would be more fair to say I don’t understand what God’s all about.”
“Would you want to?”
“Oh my God,” she cried, rolling her eyes dramatically, “I knew it. The God squad. It was only a matter of time before you found me wasn’t it? I should have known by that look in your eye. You’re going to give me a leaflet any moment aren’t you?”
“Would a leaflet allow you to make sense of things?”
“Because I might have one on me somewhere. It might not be very relevant – I think it’s about recycling. A young man with a lisp handed it to me on the street earlier. He seemed very nice so I didn’t want to just throw it away. Actually, if you give me a moment, I’m fairly confident I have one on learning yoga in my pocket too.”
“You are mad, you know that?”
He smiled. “I am relieved you said that.”
“Yes. Up until now I had been worried about you – sitting on your own wondering how deep that dirty canal is, not even able to articulate what you’re thinking. I had thought that because you weren’t civil to me that I couldn’t just walk on and believe I’d left you in peace. But for you to recognise me as insane means you must be very confident of your own sanity.”
“Look, I didn’t mean to be rude…”
“Yes you did. And it’s quite all right. It is necessary in fact. “
“I’m just not used…” She took a deep breath and looked down, composing herself. “You’re probably the first person I’ve spoken to in…” she shrugged.
“A week? Two weeks?”
“Probably going on a month.” He nodded, solemnly, but said nothing. “Do you know what it’s like to be left by yourself for a month? With only your own voice for company? To have no one else to talk to, or nothing else to think about – just the same questions running round and round your head?”
“Yes,” he replied, without blinking.
“Doesn’t it drive you mad?”
“I thought I was mad.”
“Oh yes, of course,” she laughed. A hollow laugh. Empty. “Is that my future then? Is that what happens to me?” A breeze blew between them, and he allowed it to pass before speaking.
“No,” he smiled.
“Look, I’m sorry for mocking your beliefs.”
“You didn’t mock anything I believe in,” he smiled.
“I mean, the religion thing – cool. That works for you. Cool. It’s just not for me. So if you are one of those street convert people, I’m really not even window shopping, thanks. Really, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, but I don’t have any money – or faith – left for investing. Just the very idea of God… it just doesn’t fit with me. It just doesn’t work. I mean – and yes, I know… this is a very juvenile argument… but why would God allow bad things to happen? Why would people believe in something like that? Something they invest all their time and energy and love in, and it still lets them suffer?”
“Why indeed? he replied, looking at her pointedly with a smile. She looked down, noticing the cigarette, limp between her fingers, had almost burnt all the way down to its filter. He took a deep breath. When he spoke again his voice was soft, his speech slow and considered. “Imagine trying to draw a straight line with a pencil. No ruler. Just your hand slowly moving from left to right as carefully as possible. The line will never be perfect, no matter how much you practice. Even at a closer glance it might look crude. But even if you finally get it right – a perfect line to the naked eye – if you look microscopically, at the interaction of each grain of graphite upon the paper, there will be huge instabilities – great peaks and troughs that look chaotic and entirely random so close up. But pull back a little, and you can see a perfectly straight line.”
“And that’s God, right?” she sighed with her last indifferent puff.
“No. It’s just a line.”
She nodded. “God is not linear.”
He smiled. The breeze around them stilled once again, and the cold fell away. In the tiny dank space beside the stagnant water of the canal, the world held its breath as it listened patiently to this interaction of two strangers, and the words that slowly, briefly, stitched their lives together. “By the way,” the man then asked, “do you ever have dreams where you lose your teeth? Where they fall out or are rotting in your jaw?”
“Er… no,” she replied, bewildered.
“Okay. He looked away, nodding to himself. “I don’t either. But I know many people who do. Psychologists say that when you dream about things like that, it represents a fear of dying. I think people are drawn to the idea of dying just as much as they are drawn to love.”
“Like children to their mother’s arms?”
“Like moths to a flame.”
“You know,” she smiled wryly, trampling her embering cigarette butt underfoot, “you don’t sound like any priest I’ve ever met before. Or street missionary.”
“And if I may say, you don’t sound like any brokenhearted person I’ve met before.”
“No. Far too rational.”
“That’s me all over. Always been my problem.” She looked down at her empty fingers, curling them round into her palm and absently inspecting her knuckles. As she stared on at the skin on her open hand growing red in the chilly air, and the many lines that criss-crossed haphazardly over it, he politely shifted on the bench beside her, crossing one leg slowly over the other.
“So,” she sighed to her palm, “if you’ve not been sent to find me, and you’re not a priest, who are you?”
“I am me.”
“Evidently, but what are you? What do you do?”
He took a moment to consider this. “I play the piano,” he then offered.
“And I travel through time.”
She blinked. “Of course you do.”
“Indeed, of course I do.”
“So I imagine you have a time machine hidden away somewhere?”
“Indeed I do.”
“And I have to keep it all in perfect working order.”
“Would you like to see it?”
“Er… no, no thank you. In fact, I think I can hear someone calling me.”
“Of course,” he smiled serenly. “I understand. You want to stay here where you are safe.”
“Yes, that’s right,” she said, not listening.
“Where you can look behind you and in front of you.”
“Mmn hmmn.” She began looking over her shoulder .
“Where you can be haunted by the past and petrified by the future. Where you can never live a day in your life.”
“What?” she choked, looking back at him in slow disbelief.
“Just stay in a place of inaction – never accepting the past or acknowledging the future that it pushes you towards. Just sit still and let everything come to you – let it drift towards you and wash over you, so you need never once reach out to grab a thing or make amends, gawping for ambrosia in ditches and gutterside puddles.”
The ground began to melt beneath her feet. She had an overwhelming sensation of falling – drowning, his words spinning faster and faster around inside her head leaving the world she glimpsed with her eyes nothing but a dizzying blur of shades and colours. She gripped the seat beneath her for support as her mind swelled more and more under the weight of his words.
“Who… who are you? Why do you keep…”
“Come with me,” he repeated gently. “I won’t harm you. You are safe.”
She looked up again at the water, moving ever forwards with a slow and steady current, mingling with the effluence and rubbish of the human world. Upon its dirty back, she watched the now distant ducks trailing behind their aimlessly drifting mother to wherever whim and instinct might lead them. And then, beyond the water and its animals, she saw that the sun had began to set, its embers glistening on the canal. She closed her eyes and exhaled all bewilderment in the cooling air.
When she opened her eyes he was gone. Quickly she looked to her left – nothing – then to her right. He was walking slowly up the path along the canal. Suddenly he stopped and turned to face her, smiling patiently, as if willing her to come with him once again by his motionlessness in the shifting winds about him. As she watched him turn and resume his slow pace, she heard it once again – the voice in her head, its words from which had come all manner of pain, failure and wasted time, but a logic she had never been able to resist:
‘Why not? What was there to lose? What was there at all anymore?’
She stood up, gingerly brushed herself down, and walked after him, the warm space on the bench heated by her body cooling instantly as she stepped from it. Soon it was just an unremarkable cold space by an unremarkable canal, a place where she had merely once existed. It fell away from the universe that she saw, soaking down into her brain to a place where only memories and their cold statistics and notes were kept.
She thought only of the slowly retreating man before her and her strange will to follow him, as he cut his way through the cold indifferent air.
The clouds hung like bandages in the slowly reddening sky. She watched them tear, and the dark crimson evening spread as she followed him, her head back upon her shoulders, not watching her feet as the trod the frozen pavement. The tips of trees seemed to sail slowly past her as she walked, their branches black and bare against the light, reaching up like jagged fingertips trying uselessly to pierce the uncut clouds. Ahead of her she heard his voice, and took her eyes from the silent conflict above at the sound of it.
“Not far now,” he smiled, and turned back to watch where he was walking.
He was leading her down a smart little terrace, thick oak trees lining the pavement like sentries to the procession of brightly coloured front doors – blues, pinks and yellows, the endless stream of colours reminding her of an emptied packet of Liquorice Allsorts or row of Sticklebricks against the plane shale masonry of the buildings. He paused outside one unremarkable house on the unremarkable street – a red door. Number ten. Reaching into his keys he then unlocked the door, and took one step inside, pushing it open.
He turned to her and smiled. “Won’t you come in? There’s not much to see except what you bring.” Apparently happy with this little statement, his smile broadened. She peered beyond him, inside, but couldn’t make out anything in the dim light. Above her the sky continued to bruise, and she looked back at the heavy clouds and the wide endless space beyond them, biting her lip. The man followed her gaze, and looked up at the sky too, as if noticing it was there for the first time.
“Oh yes,” he muttered. “It may rain soon. Do come in. Come in before it rains.”
Her head swirled as she looked at the giant canvas above her, splashed with the colours of dark and dangerous fruit, swelling their intent into the pure white rags beneath them. A breeze blew up around her, sending dead leaves swirling about her feet. Impulses, questions and half-acknowledged certainties flashed through her mind as the wind roared in her ears – a spasm of colours and sounds so quick and intense that for a moment she feared she might topple over under the weight of her own thoughts. Then she did something that she didn’t even think about doing. She walked towards the door. Her feet carried her away from the pavement, and into the dim tiny hallway of the house.
She heard the door shut behind her.
Her head seemed to clear in the quiet dimness of the house, away from the chaos of the world outside. She caught a stale scent as she crossed the threshold, something she couldn’t place. It seemed like the scent of something cooking, a rich and indulgent meal, but at the same time one long since cooked. Aware of him behind her, she walked into the dim hallway, sensing the scent dissipating as she did – as if like a dog it had rushed out to greet the new stranger in the house and, having satisfied its curiosity, left again to linger only in the crevices of empty cupboards or as grease in a darkened oven. As she inhaled deeper at the fading trail, it became somehow like tea, but not any tea she knew. There was the dwindling certainty of happy times having once occurred in this ordinary house, but that warm aroma of food and the sound of the laughter that she had always associated with such things had since left to cool and grow stale in this quiet and dim hallway.
Suddenly she felt dizzy again – a kick to the head as if her self-awareness had just awoken with a jolt and found itself standing in the house of a man she had met only minutes before. A very odd man. A man she hadn’t felt remotely comfortable around since the moment he’d invited himself to join her. As if reading her mind and recognising his cue, he crossed over from the doorway and past her to the end of the hallway, standing between two doors in walls at right angles to each other.
A silence hung in the dead air between them, more stark than the shrill sound of the breeze or the canalwater had been outside.
She cleared her throat. “Do you often bring people back…”
“In here please,” he interrupted, gently pushing the door to his left open.
He lead her into what seemed to be the living room. It had a different scent to the hallway – a musk of dusty cushions and rainwater long trampled into rugs – a hundred feet, the thousands of miles they had collectively walked, millions of words and expressions exchanged – scattered and settling on the cushions, carpet and tabletops like the fallout from a slow explosion.
Her head span wildly.
“Could I have a glass of water please?,” she asked quietly, clutching the side of her head.
“You shouldn’t drink the water here.” She thought of the canal – the dismal flow of water gurgling through the silt and rubbish. “I’ll get you something. Wait here,” he sighed serenly. He turned slowly and left the room, disappearing into the empty hallway. She heard a door open, and close softly behind him.
Whilst rubbing her head as if to stem the flow of thoughts racing within it, she took her first look around the room. A large mantelpiece protruded slightly from the wall opposite the door, black ironwork and probably original Victorian. Heavy curtains, bright red velvet and dusty looking, were half drawn across the window, letting a pale stream of light into the room through the netted veil behind. She followed the milky beam of light to the far wall, and saw it come to rest upon an ebony piano, and a stack of manuscripts piled on top of it. A comfy looking armchair, snug in the corner beside the open door, nestled against a large mahogany bookshelf, overflowing with veteran-looking hardback tomes, arranged in no immediately obvious order. Against the books leant several small portrait frames – a mixture of the ornate and the plain. She took a step towards them to look at the photos, but immediately saw the images within were so faded that the faces were already lost to time, unknown by an anyone who had never met them to remember. She could barely even make out the outlines of their figures. With a shrug she turned back and investigated the mantelpiece instead.
There were several clocks amidst the clutter upon its polished wooden surface, thick with the clots of yellow candlewax dripped from sticks long since absent. All the clocks seemed to have stopped. About a dozen or so jewelry boxes – tiny ones, the ones you get for rings or earrings and in assorted fabrics and colours – took up the spaces between the assorted clocks and spatterings of wax. She reached out to a red one and ran her fingers across the smooth velvet of its lid. A thin film of dust came away on her fingertips. She took a quick look behind her and, satisfied she was alone, opened it and peered inside.
She stared in disbelief at the box and its contents.
A pair of finger nail clippings – two perfect crescents of pale white keratin. And a series of numbers beneath them on a small piece of yellowed card, handwritten in faded brown ink.
“Nineteen eighty two,” she read aloud in a whisper. She opened another box. A lock of red hair nestled inside the white silk in a perfect curl. More numbers beneath this one – nineteen fifty seven. She looked along the procession and chose another at random, snapping back the hinge of its simple blue cloth lid and looking within.
Three tiny milk teeth, discoloured by brown decay nestled on the black satin interior. And the number beneath them, clearly another date, written in the same careful hand and faded brown ink. Nineteen seventy four.
Her self awareness surged within her once again, pounding at her spinning mind, demanding to know why she was still here. That this was not right. That something here was very very…
“Apologies for my filing,” came a voice from behind her. She jumped at the sound of his words, spinning around, her heart pounding, her mind racing. He was regarding her with a blank expression, a slightly vacant smile on his face. He was holding something. She looked down. It was a white china mug.
“I never really bothered much with keeping things in chronological order. It must be quite confusing for others, I’m sure.”
“No, no, of course, it’s fine,” she mumbled, breathless, staring intently at the floor and trying to will her furiously pounding heart and the blood rushing through the maelstrom that was once her head into calm. The carpet blurred in and out of focus as she avoided his gaze. It was dark red. It looked dirty.
“Drink this.” He extended the white mug into her field of vision.
“What is it?”
“Absolution.” His voice sounded playful. She reached out a languid arm and took the cup from him. It was warm in her hands, a faint veil of steam rising from its crater like a waking volcano. She tried to inhale it, without his noticing she was doing so. Blood began to throb inside her skull.
“Is this medicine?”
“This is tea.” She looked up in time to see him smile. His eyes seemed gentle. Gingerly she raised the cup to her lips, feeling the warm vapour against her nose. His smile broadened, almost encouragingly, as he watched her take a slow and careful sip. Instantly a memory flared inside her weary mind as she tasted the tea, a distant, hazy recollection of something from her childhood – something her mother used to give her when she was ill. It had the slight taste of what she came to know as mulled wine or baked apples.
“Tell me something, please,” he suddenly asked. She looked up briefly from her drink in tacit compliance, but for a moment he didn’t say anything. When he then continued, he spoke slowly and carefully, considering each word he uttered. “I’ve been wondering something. Do you think people are drawn to that which they think could damage them? Do you think they place an instant trust in these things – things that make them do what they wouldn’t normally as they pursue them, and act in a way that is contrary to sensible as they do?”
“Like moths to a flame you mean?” she smiled weakly.
He leant forward. “Precisely.” His eyes flared. She stared back at him. He didn’t blink. His gaze remained fixed on her like the static glare of a statue.
“Look, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“I won’t harm you,” he smiled, blinking once. “You are safe”
“And I promised to show you my machine.”
“Uh huh. Your… time machine, right?”
“That’s it, exactly. My time machine.” He motioned to the deep red armchair. “Please, sit down.” She obeyed, seating herself carefully on the chair and sinking slowly back into it. It was certainly comfy, perhaps even too soft. A slight fear of being smothered began to take hold of her as her head slipped deeper into the fabric of the chair with no sign of stopping. Then just before panic compelled her to pull herself upright again, it came to rest. She took a long slow breath. The warm padding all around her seemed to momentarily stop the spinning in her head.
He seated himself at the piano. Without ceremony or introduction he placed his fingers upon the keyboard and instantly began to play. A flurry of tinkling notes echoed about the tiny room – a happy tickling of the air around her. She felt the melody as it danced around her – through her, a classical piece she didn’t quite recognise and yet felt she somehow knew.
As she leant back in the chair and watched his fingertips trickle across the keys, images began to flicker in her head – vague and blurry at first, brief flashes of faceless men and women like the faded subjects in the picture frames on the shelf. Then she caught the scent of something, or perhaps it was just the dust in this room and on the chair settling in her lungs. No, this was a new smell. It smelt old and stale, and yet sweet – fragrant and heavy. It smelt like perfume – no, no it was something more simple than that, more familiar to her personally – another smell from her youth. It smelt like talcum powder. Talcum powder and old hair. The sound of the piano continued its slow massage of her pounding mind, its fingertips tapping like gentle raindrops against her ears.
A new scent entered the room as she began to inhale deeply, chasing at the memory of her childhood. It was a thick and cloying smell, warm and heavy in her lungs. Candle wax. It mingled in the room with the scent of powdered hair, making her think of a flurry of movement. The dim light about her seemed to take on a faintly orange hue as she imagined great brass candlesticks, spattered with hot drips of wax and cascading the muggy perfume up towards the ceiling. She imagined the chatter of the occupants of the perfumed wigs as they sat amidst the cloud of heady vapour, almost hearing the pompous boom of gentlemen and the polite titter of their wives over the piano keys, captured in the glow of candlelight like a portrait photograph in sepia. Her gums tightened at the tart taste of red wine that wasn’t there, and she felt a cheery glow from her cheeks as her mouth watered at the image of steaming meat served on a silver dishes – venison or pheasant – her molars throbbing in anticipation of a bite. She became aware of her heartbeat, slow and steady inside of her chest, beating its own counterpoint to the music surrounding her as it painted a scene inside her head.
Still he played on.
Gradually the music changed. It slowed from a flurry of notes into a soft and sleepy sigh. The wild partygoers and their lavish meals vanished into nothing more than echoes of the piano’s low keys as their ghosts resonated about the room, and the scent of candle wax and perfume was replaced by an earthier smell – of coal and mossy logs being crisped to embers in an iron fireplace. Instantly she sensed its light, and its heat toasting her cheeks and nose and making her drowsy. There was another warmth upon her cheek, a different sort of heat. It was warm and soft, like the body of another person through their clothes, that slight scent of another person – of clean skin and freshly washed hair. As the phantom fire crackled to the long and low sigh of the piano, she imagined an arm around her, and found herself taking a long and leisurely sigh as the blissful weariness overcame her, and the piano continued its soothing drone.
Was it the tea? The drink he had given her tasted like tea. Nothing that unusual. Her head grew heavy upon the armchair behind her, the music dizzying her senses into a blanket of sleep. And then, as if he sensed her losing consciousness…
The music stopped.
Her eyes flickered open and she lifted her head towards the piano. He was looking at her, smiling.
“I like that,” he beamed. “When music so abruptly stops, everyone always turns to look – to know why. For a split second, everyone is thinking the same thing. It feels like the world has stopped turning. But then it starts again, and the sound of the traffic, television blare of game shows and people shouting about local gossip and how expensive their fruit is drowns out that little pause when everything stopped just long enough for you to see it all for what it was. Before all that bustle and distraction slowly starts again.”
He took a long slow breath and closed his eyes, as if savouring the silence he had observed. And then, with a quick nod, he turned back to the piano and resumed his playing, choosing a slow and thoughtful piece that she was so certain she had heard before. Instantly she was reminded of something by the steady current within it – a strong trickle of something constantly flowing, weaving between the many notes, stitching sounds into an intricate tapestry of everything coming together to make something new.
“Life always starts again,” he breathed serenely as he played. “We always survive,” – he shrugged – “one way or another. I think this is why people stop to look when the music stops, the same way they stop to look at pain. It makes them think of rebirth. Pain is a very strong sign of life surviving.”
She tried to think where she had heard this music before, of what it was that it so strongly reminded her of. She couldn’t, her head was swimming. She pushed her head back deeper into the chair, trying to smother the throbbing in her head. She opened her mouth, about to cry out when something changed in the music. Something came alive in the sounds and melodies of the piece as it weaved through her ears, meandering through her brain, seeking out its resonance buried deep in the recesses of her memory.
Suddenly she remembered.
As the music settled over her like a blanket, smothering her senses like the soft nowhereness of a womb, her heart swelled with banished memories – thoughts of feeling safe, protected; memories of laughing without care or worry; the warmth of another person next to her. The certainty of being loved. They surged within her, soaring in her mind into a dazzling ballet of warmth and feeling. She felt her heart quicken and her lungs swell as a torrent was unleashed, the throbbing dizziness in her head suddenly wrapping itself into a spinning ball of light deep within her.
And still he played on.
“You must let go of hate,” he whispered, his fingers never moving from their graceful dance across the keys. “It is a heavy emotion. When you carry it with you, you can’t move anywhere – can’t even leave the chair you are in.”
As the many images swirled in blissful release inside of her she heard, no, saw running water – a stream through the blur of memories. No, not a stream. Rainwater. There were trees, and grass – a wood or a park, and it was raining. It was raining heavier than she’d ever known.
“Let go of fear,” he continued. “It is the bottleneck of all emotion. It traps anything laudable and pure and makes it rot, ferments it beyond sweet decay, makes you empty inside. It stops you from being able to even think.”
The smell of wet wool rose in her lungs, sticking in her throat as she felt the cold skin of another person’s hand in her own damp clasp, torrents of water crashing down from the grieving sky above – drenching her hair, soaking her cheeks. That strangely warm certainty of the knowledge that all things must end.
“Let go,” he whispered. “Let it all go.”
She felt the rain as it cascaded down her face, merciful splashes of saltwater pooling at her chin and dripping down her neck. She gasped as she felt something within her give way – a knot that slipped untied, a rock that fizzed into nothing. The surge flooded through her like warm water through frozen pipes, falling effortlessly, relentlessly upon her cheeks.
The music continued, never once stopping as she sobbed. His fingers trickled over the polished ivory like a stream, a fountain of bursting water heaving in her mind into claps of thunder and the splash of footsteps through puddles as they dashed through them, away. The music surged, fell, and surged again like a sigh, rising and falling in her like a breath with each and every key. And then it began again. The sounds formed patterns inside her head, and her mind slowly began to find order in the music. It repeated itself, and she felt the same surges again, but only less than before, rising and falling steadily now, predictably, like the crests of waves after a storm.
“Do you ever sometimes think that something big is coming?” he muttered absently, his eyes fixed on the black and white keys beneath his moving hands. “That the things that make us human will be made to look irrelevant – love, music, pork chops, Sunday morning cups of coffee and hating going to work?” His hands shifted and the tune rose in pitch. “Cling to them. Cling to them now, because one day they won’t matter anymore. Surviving is abundant. But this is the time to live.”
She felt the room swirl about her in a brilliant dance of colour to the music – and the very world itself spinning beyond it, alone in an endless void of other distant lights. As she felt the last of the last of the tears wash away what she had kept hidden inside her, she heard him kneel next to the armchair. Somehow the music continued, or did she imagine it? She felt so lightheaded, so tired and finally at peace.
“Sshhhhh,” he whispered as the wake of her sobbing shuddered through her, his speech gentle and delicate, the way a mother’s hand strokes the hair of her crying infant. “Do not be afraid. Things must end so that something else may begin. And a birth is a miracle. The creation of life is always a miracle.”
She took another deep breath, and clenched her eyes shut, feeling the last drips of saltwater sluiced though her lashes. The room had lost its illusions, its powdered wigs and its wet grass. Gone was the heat of the fireplace, the joyous laughter of dinner guests. All that remained was the faint dusty smell of the neglected room, and the sensation of the armchair behind her, gently supporting her weary head.
“Do not be afraid,” he said again. “Don’t be afraid that everything must always end.”
She opened her eyes.
Light beamed down upon her as the streetlight above flickered instantly into orange life. Beyond it, the red sky was cooling into a deep purple. She felt dozy, yet strangely alert. Her feet ached, and she had only the vague recollection of having travelled here, back to this place, back to where she had started. The day was in that odd uncertain state where it was nowhere near over, but still far from begun. The fire that earlier surged through the evening sky now dwindled to mere embers, burning at the seams of the horizon far beyond the everyday world she sat within.
She looked around, but he wasn’t there. Had he walked her here? Had she left him in his house? Where was his house? How long had she been here? She prodded at such thoughts absently in her head, but couldn’t remember. With a slow, contented sigh she reached into her bag and retrieved her book, opening it at the page she had last looked at. The words seemed unsettled on the page, wobbling slightly with giddy indifference as she tried to focus on them, remaining in obedient order as her gaze ran from left to right, but crumbling into dust when she tried to translate them into images in her brain. With a brief smile of resignation she closed the book with a satisfying thump and let it rest uselessly upon her lap.
A noise from the end of the road gave her reason to look up, and she saw the bus approaching. It heaved its way across the tarmac, limping to a stop in front of where she sat with a heavy groan. The doors creaked open.
Both parties sat there in the cooling air – the passenger and the giant metal beast. She regarded the bus curiously, letting her gaze wash over it as if not understanding what it meant, but accepting, somehow, that it was once very important to her for a time. Still she remained on the bench.
“Are you getting on or not, luv?” the driver shouted to her through the open door. She looked back at him, considering how he sat there, safe and warm in his big metal machine. Slowly she began to smile, and softly shook her head. He shook his own furiously in silent retort, and slammed the button that closed the doors. The bus’s engine growled from its steady panting back into life, and roared off hungrily down the road in a puff of black smoke, looking for other people to snare within its jaws.
As she continued to look at the now empty space in front of her, she noticed a pigeon staring at her from across the street. It appeared to be the same one as before, not that pigeons are noted for their individuality. As she looked back at it, she noticed it wasn’t just looking in her direction.
It was looking at her.
Somehow it was smiling, quite unabashedly. An unblinking and steady smile. She wasn’t sure what this should make her feel and, feeling not at all silly for doing it, returned the smile purely out of politeness. Apparently satisfied with this, the pigeon looked away and flew off.
Taking in one last breath of the cool evening air, and the scent of life thriving in the distant beacons of light beyond to the scrappy patches of grass at the side of the road, she heaved herself off the bench, catching the book in her hands as it fell from her lap, and depositing it swiftly in a nearby bin. This tiny act of anarchism made her want to laugh, and she didn’t stifle the sound as it rose gleefully from her chest.
She would walk home instead tonight, she decided as the last ripples of laughter surged through her. And why not? Looking up she still didn’t know if it was going to rain or not.
She just didn’t mind anymore if it did.