Sunday, October 09, 2005

A different time

When they got back to the house the clocks had all stopped and the dust of yesterday lay thick on everything. They wandered through the house like ghosts, like burglars, afraid of fingerprints. He brought in the bags, she pulled the white sheets off the furniture with the air of a conjuror performing a difficult trick. Outside the snow fell with the precise delicacy of a ballerina's feet. Someone had laid a fire. As he crouched over the grate and tried to get it going she stood in the main hall, staring at the staircase and feeling incredibly weary at the thought of climbing it again, knowing already what she would find at the top.

As he came out of the room, she stared at the floor behind him, watching his footprints come slowly towards her. There was a vague, undefined menace in this, as though all his footsteps existed at once, as though there were an army of him marching towards her. Following in her footsteps. Looking back, it surprised her how closely their footprints had followed each other, running parallel or straying together. She did not remember them being that close.

"We'll have to do something about the clocks", she said. Her voice sounded high and unnatural in the emptiness of the hall. It was the first time she had spoken to him since they left the manor all those hours ago. He looked at her when she said this, and there was a pleading light in his eyes. Like the eyes of some proud schoolboy who will not cry out but is hoping to be punished no further. For a moment she wished she hadn't spoken, but then the thought of living without Time, the eerie silence of the house without the pulse of its clocks, strengthened her resolve. "You're going to have to go and find out the exact time from the village", she said, her voice even, neutral. They neither of them had a watch.

He nodded. It had to be done. For a minute, perhaps two, he stood there thinking, head lowered, the clockwork of his emotions running down. Then he started for the door. As he pulled on his heavy boots and reached for his coat, a sudden panic seized her. It was snowing, it would soon be dark. He mustn't go. But there was also an obscure impulse to punish him now, or rather, to let his pride punish him for her and anyway it was too late, he was already walking out.

Outside the cold was a gentle hand, patting him, making sure he was well protected. The snow drifted lazily to the ground, as if lost in a daydream. He turned up his collar, started down the path. It was four miles to the village - three if you took the shortcut through the woods, but that would be a bad idea in this kind of weather. He looked up at the sky, at the fading light, and wondered how long it would be before it was dark. As the sky changed colour, darkening like a bruise, he felt his indignation turn to relief. It had to be done, after all - they needed clocks to live by - and anyway it was good to be out of the house, with all its musty furniture and odd, awkward angles; out in the country where everything was simple and you could walk in a straight line. As he walked along, it occured to him how like the house his marriage was, how carefully one had to live in it, how easily its warmth turned stifling. He remembered his bachelor days with fondness now, though at the time they had seemed so bleak a winter.

By the time he reached the village, the light was already starting to fade. He stood staring at the clocktower that rose above the little roofs of the village like a gaunt old grandfather among playing children. Carefully, precisely, he waited for the half-hour to strike, and when it did, started off the count in his head that he was to maintain until he got home.

One hundred and one, one hundred and two, one hundred and three. This was the difficult part. Keeping this rhythm in your head, like the beat of some endless and monotonous dance, with the silence your only partner. As he stumbled back up the road to the house, the chant kept threatening to spill out of him, but he balanced it carefully in his mind, compensating for the occassional disturbance, knowing that if he dropped it he would have no choice but to go back.

Four hundred and five, four hundred and six, four hundred and seven. Four miles was a long way. It hadn't seemed like much when he was going down, but now with night gathering and the snow falling faster and the burden of this responsibility upon him it seemed interminable. The cold was worse now, there was a wind blowing and the chill tightened his teeth like a pair of braces. He wondered if she would have managed to get the kitchen started, maybe cooked something warm. He doubted it. Dinner tonight would almost certainly be sandwiches. Still, she might at least have put on some tea.

One thousand and ninety eight, one thousand and ninety nine, (CHANGE), one hundred and one, one hundred and two. And so the pattern began again. Everything was repeated, everything stayed the same. Time, that had seemed so intent on its purpose, so driven towards it final direction, turned out to be a circle after all. Far away in the distance he could see the lights of the house now. So at least she had remembered where the candles were. He was tired. His footsteps fell heavily on the snow, like a weight dropped and then lifted again. The count of the seconds flickered in his mind. He lunged to protect it. It would not do to lose it now. He thought of lamplighters, of how they would carry the word of the flame from streetlight to streetlight, like priests, illuminating the darkness of the city's soul. He too was a kind of lamplighter - did he not carry this this trembling light across a great distance to make the day and night visible? And was not Time a sort of fire after all, one that feeds on itself, one whose fuel is the entire world?

She had been waiting for him anxiously by the window. As he came up the driveway, she opened the front door, stood in the doorway in her pale white dress, watching him approach. A moment of irritation seized him. This was play-acting, was a badly done scene. He wanted to shout at her that it was cold, that she would catch a chill standing in the doorway like that, that she was letting the warmth out of their house. As he reached the door, her hand came forward to touch him, she started to tell him that she was worried, that she was glad now that he was safely back. But before she could speak he signalled her to be silent, brushed past her, heading straight for the big clock in the dining room, like a man with a burden to unload.

It was only when he was facing the clock that he realised that he'd let the count in his head stop. It was the irritation of seeing her that had done it. For a moment he felt defeat close in over him - all that distance for nothing. Then he thought, the hell with it. Did it really matter if their time wasn't exactly the same as everyone else's? So they would run a little out of step with the world. Did they care? He did a quick calculation to estimate what time it must be. Then he set the clock and wound it, with the confident air of one who knows exactly what he's doing.

As the clock began to run, he looked at his wife, sensing her tiredness, her relief. They stared at each other across the room, the ticking of the clock like a new heartbeat between them. Yes, he thought, it is going to be all right now. He smiled.


Karthik said...

The last two short stories have been pretty darn good.

If I had to pick between the two, I'd pick Response Time - it "flowed" much better, and managed to get hold of my attention and didn't let it go till the very end.

But like I said, pretty darn good, bot h of them. Thanks for sharing.

sa re ga ma said...

Nice - very nice...

Heh Heh said...

Outside the snow fell with the precise delicacy of a ballerina's feet.

Nice. I like.

Ph said...

Looks like not having a computer at home is working out to our benefit. Good stuff here.

Falstaff said...

All: Thanks.