Stood outside my front door, basking in the late afternoon sunshine, I deployed a swift reflexive manoeuvre, relieving an itch on the side of my nostril. As it turned out, an awkward itch, the sort that splits into two under the pressure of a finger.
Mid-relief, I spotted my elderly and infirm neighbour crouched outside the door of her stone-built cottage, observing me. With a sudden roar, a brewery wagon laden with metal beer kegs drove past, splitting the peace apart and briefly obstructing our view of each other.
“My powers now are very weak.” She shouted across, as the raw sound of the diesel engine faded. “You know I am not long for this world.”
“I’m sorry, what was that Mary?” I could barely make eye-contact with her, so far was she bent over. “Are you okay there?”
“You are a kind man.” She said. Her arm reached out for support against a freshly painted door frame. Twisting her neck around, she squinted an eye. “Your life, since I have known you over the last fifteen years has suffered a fair number of bumps in the road, hasn’t it?” She lifted up her head another notch, waiting for my reply.
“Well…” A pleasantry or a reflective answer required? I wasn’t sure and the passing seconds in this conversational hiatus, demanded action.
“You know Mary,” I settled upon a mid-deep reply, “there have been a fair few setbacks, you’re right. Life’s not turned out how I’d imagined. If I could do it all again, avoiding the same mistakes, I would for sure.”
“Indeed.” Mary said, with the squinted eye fully closed. “Let’s see what we can do about that.”
“What’s that, Mary?” I was about to wrap up the exchange with a philosophical statement involving humbleness, when another vehicle divided us. A white delivery truck came to a halt in the road, its engine idling.
On the driver’s side, a window withdrew at a consistent speed. I watched as my desaturated reflection sank into nowhere, replaced by a skin colour rich in melanin pigments, the face of a woman sporting short cropped blond hair. She bore a pained expression, frustration and impatience disrupting her fine features.
“Mate, where is Abbey Lane?” She enquired, without introduction. “I’ve come across Abbey Street and Abbey Cul-de-Sac, but I cannot find an Abbey Lane.”
“I have good news, you’re nearly there!” I said with a beaming smile.
My gaze fell upon smooth hands and jewelled fingers, resting in the classic ten-to-two position on the steering wheel. What was this strange urge I felt? A sudden desire to place my hand on top of one of hers. An out-sized cake-mixer, paddles powered by affection began stirring clockwise inside of me.
“What’s your name, could I try and guess?” I asked. “Charmaine, right?”
“Mate,” she replied, “Do you know where Abbey Lane is, or not. I haven’t got the time-time, you know?” She cocked her head forward, raised both eyebrows simultaneously and froze all facial movement.
“Time-time?” Emotionally winded by her tone, I abruptly reassumed my senses. “Abbey Lane, yes, it’s, it’s just there.” I pointed to a narrow lane located between an end-of-terrace cottage and the local tavern. “See? Just over there.”
“Thanks.” She glanced into a rear-view mirror. As my reflection reappeared in the closing window, reverse gear crunched. The truck engine whined a familiar tune as it travelled backwards eighteen metres and parked.
Transfixed, I observed a well-proportioned physique climb out of the cab and slide open the side door to the truck. A pair of toned, muscular arms lifted out several parcels. Walking to the opening of the lane, she shot a glance in my direction. My interpretation of her expression suggested she whole-heartedly believed me to be an idiot.
Back across the road my old neighbour had disappeared inside, her front door closed. The memory of my conversation with Mary had begun to break down. Her words and mine flickered in abstract form floating around my consciousness, becoming more faint and rapidly losing their significance.
That night, I had trouble getting to sleep. Restless, plagued with racing thoughts, tossing and turning in bed, no matter how many times I rearranged the pillows, I found myself unable to settle into a position that would allow me to drift off. Amongst analysis of the day’s collection of minor events, my encounter with the courier emerged the strongest. The impressions morphed themselves into several alternate outcomes, slowly overpainting what had been reality.
Small curves of light caught in her eyes suggested coyness, her smile brought out my own blossoming smile. Her voice, soft yet with impressive range, held my attention as we discussed arrangements for a date at the local ten-pin bowling alley.
Naturally, the thought sequences showed her smashing the game, while I fed her individual French fries in an affectionate manner and made observational, jokey remarks for her amusement. Applying my last imaginary touches, the depiction of the first-date embrace, the gentle exchange of kisses, these moments cut and played on repeat.
Following a moment relieving myself in the bathroom, I decided upon a range of anti-insomnia exercises before returning to bed. Back in my bedroom, as I stretched and pulled, my peripheral vision noticed a faint glow emanating from Mary’s house. More precisely, from Mary’s own bedroom window.
Usually, I avoided any gaze in that direction across the road. On this occasion, so very late into the night, the glow and movement within the light had raised a quizzical thought somewhere inside my skull-space.
What was Mary doing up, at such a late hour?
Before long, I’d completed the relaxation cycle and forgotten about Mary. Like a small rowing boat left untethered from it’s mooring, I drifted free, out to the middle of a black lake named sleep.
In the morning I came-to abruptly, brought back to life by the doorbell’s synthesised rendition of “Scarborough Fayre”. Pulling on a pair of raw-edge jersey cotton shorts, I scampered down the stairs full of optimism hoping for a miracle: Might this be a delivery, might this be her, might this be my chance, finally, for romance?
By the time I reached the door, I had decided upon her name. I couldn’t keep her alive in my imagination without a name and my earlier guess, Charmaine, now seemed wrong and ill-fitting. While simultaneously depressing the handle and twisting the latch, I settled upon Janice.
To my surprise, the opening of the front door revealed a short, thickset, fully-uniformed police constable standing outside. Talking into a walkie-talkie radio clipped to a strap on her uniform, she ignored me until done with her coded conversation.
“Good morning, Brinkinfield, isn’t it? I hope I didn’t wake you. I am afraid I have bad news.”
“Bad news?” I braced myself, wondering what bad news I could expect.
“I understand you knew Mary, across the road, your neighbour?”
“I do.” Why had she said knew? I wondered.
“Unfortunately, Mary passed away in the early hours of this morning.”
“Oh no, that’s so sad!” I said, understanding the constable’s use of the past tense.
“Yes, it appears to be natural causes, we are waiting for the lab report to confirm.”
“Poor Mary.” I said.
“Anyway, I thought I’d let you know. It seems the old lady was fond of you.”
“Well, we were just neighbours.” Regretting the unnecessary understatement, I continued. “You-know, we said hello most days, little chats now and again, took in parcels for each other. Once, I helped her navigate the mobility scooter into the back of her sedan. We were neighbourly.”
“Right. Well, this is for you.” The constable handed me a handmade postcard. One side bore an abstract collage, the type that barely holds my attention more than several seconds. On the other side, a message.
I had a little thinky
and I want to thank thee
For being so neighbourly
A half-smile formed, Mary’s own handwriting confirming the status of our relationship.
For your kindness
Please accept this
It makes you timeless
And able to travel
“Oh! That’s um, sweet.” I scratched my chin. “A shame about the last line not rhyming, but then that was Mary for you.”
“Yes, well, I’ll be leaving that with you.” The police constable had lost interest and started to move off.
“What do you think it means?” I called after her.
“I haven’t a clue. All I know,” her walkie-talkie radio crackled into life, “is that she appeared to be mid-way through an activity, when she croaked.”
“Oh?” I said, the volume of my voice adjusting as the constable walking backwards, headed towards her police bicycle.
“Yes, honestly, it’s not for me to say, but if your asking, as silly as it sounds, I’d say she was part way through an incantation when she died. Candles arranged in a pattern, a number of leafy, twiggy, thorny items picked from the garden, a strange book – maybe a spell book?”
“I see.” I said.
“And the postcard, smack bang in the middle of the arrangement. Then, it looks like her heart simply gave out and she toppled over – luckily not onto the candles or we’d have had a blaze upon our hands!”
“Right, no, we wouldn’t have wanted that.” I said, wishing privately that there had been a blaze, dopamine junkie that I am.
Over a breakfast of scrambled egg, cheese and vegetarian bacon, wrapped in a wheat tortilla, I pondered over Mary and over the postcard, turning it over and over in my hands, several times over.
I’d never regarded Mary as a witch. A Madame, most definitely. I’d known that until a few years ago, she’d entertained a large roster of well-to-do regulars, mostly tweed-suited, walking-stick elderly men. Each, reappearing several hours later with wallets sliding back into inside jacket pockets, cheeks pinkened, knees wobbly and wrinkled smiles emblazoned across looks of satisfaction. Clearly, Mary was skilled in the services she offered.
Mostly all by herself – I hasten to add. Apart from a maid, I saw no evidence of employees. Whilst I had not actually seen what she’d got up to, with the average age falling into the retirement catchment, casual observation easily imagined a paid-for evening of frisky, upper class companionship.
I studied the image on the postcard and re-read the inscription on the back. The second half of the second stanza drew my puzzling attention:
For your kindness
Please accept this
…It makes you timeless…
…And able to travel…
Forget about the kindness, I reckoned, and the wish that I accept. A ticket perhaps? A timeless ticket? What could it possibly mean? One that never expires? A ticket permanently open-ended?
As I munched on my savoury breakfast, I drifted off into a blurry daydream, imagining myself at the far end of an unsteady wooden gangway holding a leather suitcase. With several blasts on a ship horn colouring the soundscape, I presented the ticket postcard to a merchant seaman resembling cartoonist Hergé’s Captain Archibald Haddock, and requested safe passage to México.
The man in charge takes a look at the postcard. He turns it over several times in his gloved hands, before giving his beard a perfunctory stroke. With course inhumanity, he casually instructs several of the crew to grapple with me, then throw me overboard and tumbling into the sea lapping against the harbour walls. The postcard is torn into quarter sections and rained down upon me as I look upwards, desperate and hopeless, bobbing in the frothy salt water.
Then, I remembered the squat police constable’s suspicion that Mary had been midway through casting a spell, at the time of death. Placing this information with the inscription, was the postcard actually a time machine? Granted, impossible to step inside, a very small time machine in the contemporary science-fiction sense. But even so!
A sequence from George Pal’s 1960 movie version of H G Wells’ late Victorian novel “The Time Machine” came to mind. Hadn’t that also been very small? Hadn’t the inventor presented a model to his colleagues, demonstrating how it could move across the dining table and the through the time dimension? This feat, if I recalled correctly, wholly rejected by the protagonist’s guests as an elaborate Christmas Eve jape.
If the postcard held a spell that could propel me through time, then maybe I ought ready myself and stand upon it? But then, where were the controls? I needed controls to navigate. With no obvious method of settings, no wheels, wings, steering, buttons, levers or dial, could this mean control laid within the hands of another life force, supernatural, or alien?
Or, was I getting ahead of myself?
Directionless, I thought back to another movie: Terminator, a glorious shocker for it’s time and remarkable progenitor for successful sequels that just kept on coming.
Now, undoubtedly one of the prerequisite conditions for time travel in these time looping franchised films of confusion, was nudity. Yes! Excitedly, I recalled how each main antagonist arrived near the start of the movies, delivered in a sizzling globe of electric-blue light. A perfectly toned, naked physique, humbly crouched in a position as if taking leave of an imperious, seventeenth century sultan. If I had any chance of experiencing time travel I concluded enthusiastically, it seemed worthwhile replicating this particular trope.
Soon, my cotton jersey jogger shorts were down around my ankles. Carefully, so as not to catch myself in the elasticated material, I stepped over the waistband and placed both feet onto the cheaply tiled kitchen floor. Stainless steel rings, twisted off my fingers, I laid upon the crumbless work surface where I create most of my culinary meals. Catching glimpse of my wristwatch, I unhooked the strap buckle and rested it against the kettle, face-forward.
Gingerly biting down on the left side of my lip, I placed the postcard on the floor, collage facing upwards. With one foot placed tightly against the other, I held my balance steady. Instinctively cupping my nether regions for protection the best I could with both hands. I closed my eyes.
Apart from the whirring of a power tool wielded by a neighbour and the monotone barks from a dog not too far away from my location, no other sound else registered in my brain. Correction, my breath passing through my nostrils, I could hear this also.
After a short period of time had passed and then some more, longer time, my patience finally gave way.
I opened my eyes, tentatively at first, unsure of what sight would meet them.
An orangey haze surrounded me, thick red lines criss-crossed, while black nodes chased after each other travelling along on thin black lines. The power tool I’d been conscious of earlier had transformed into the sound of an adolescent bee. Now, the bark of the dog seemed more like the fast drumming onto the bark of a tree by a woodpecker.
I wondered, could I move?
Answer: Yes, easily.
I raised my hands up from my groins and turned them over back and forth, forth and back several times up before my eyes, examining the tanning effect of that hazy colour upon my skin.
Through the haze, I caught glimpse of the wristwatch I’d positioned on the kitchen worktop and observed to my delight how the minute hand moved at the speed of a second hand. By my own reckoning, this meant the second hand was now travelling sixty times faster than usual. Time travel was happening, this was real. For half a moment, whatever the uncertainties of a future world, I believed my life had changed forever for the better, at long, long last!
Encapsulated within the aurora, thoughts began to form about where exactly I was heading and how I would stop the process. As I continued to ponder, a deceleration suddenly kicked in, affecting my balance. I stumbled, held onto a kitchen worktop and looked across to where I’d propped up my wristwatch.
The slowing speed of the hands confirmed my suspicion. My time travel experience was coming to an end, signalled by several loud cracks of electricity.
The air around me had cleared. I felt an urge to clear my throat, which resulted in minor coughing fit and a desire for a glass of tap water. Recovering, I scanned the kitchen, glanced out through the windows to the back garden, beyond the pond and fountains, to solitary fig tree marking the boundary of the property. I stood very still and listened.
My next realisation, brought me up with a start. There in the kitchen sink, right under my nose, the partially submerged crockery in the washing-up bowl from last night! I straightened up and grabbed the nearby wristwatch.
At half-past eight this morning the adventure had begun and now the time read as half past eleven. Half past eleven in a year far into the future? If so, how was it that the washing up remained exactly as I’d left it the night before?
There could be only one conclusion. I had time-travelled by only three hours.
“What fucking use is that?” I said irritably, out to nobody.
Later that day, I learnt that I could time-travel back three hours by stepping onto the postcard, having flipped it over onto its other side. Disappointingly, during experimentation it had transpired that nudity was not essential for time travel. Adding to my deflation, I established that all I could achieve was to go forward, then go back again, and in that order.
Could I squeeze-out more time travel by concentrating harder?
I struck several different poses, like a model in a life drawing class imitating statuesque Ancient Greek Olympian athletes. I steered my thoughts, funnelling them forward, held my breath, all attempts failing to break the purgatory sequence of three hours backwards and forwards.
Finally, by lunch time, I surmised that as Mary had met with quietus, she’d left behind an incomplete spell. One might say her heart was in the right place, but actually as far as a gift to change my life goes, what I had was pretty useless.
I still have the postcard somewhere, stored amongst other forgotten items in a chest drawer. But honestly, except by accident I rarely get it out nowadays. There just doesn’t seem any point.