Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Pinwheel 2: Sam Recognises Her Face

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February 2nd, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York

‘This is Alice,’ Bert says. He puts his hand on the small of the woman’s back and John instantly understands their relationship. ‘She is going to help me decide what the best course of action would be with you.’

Alice is not pretty enough to interest John – that nose, he says to himself – and he’s a little put off when her eyes widen at the sight of him. By the time she is sat opposite him, her expression has turned to stone.

She turns to Bert, who is still standing by her side like a guard.

‘I don’t think this is a good idea,’ she says.

Her accent is strange – to John’s ear’s, it sounds not quite Irish, a little bit English, altogether unplaceable. Another point against her.

‘What’s is it?’ Bert asks.

Alice squeezes her lips together, but does not answer. Bert murmurs in her ear, but she is unmoved.

‘No. Forget I said that. You call him a “magnet”?’

‘That’s right,’ Bert says, still softly. ‘You know –’

‘I know,’ she says, eyebrows pinched even tighter. ‘I know what it is. I remember.’

She leans forward, elbows on the table, and glares into him. John looks away.

‘I know the rest. You have been surrounded by small-minded idiots your entire life,’ she says. It sounds even blunter with her posture, her voice. ‘You have attracted their bad luck and taken on their bad thoughts. Sam is your one…lucky break?’

She looks at Bert for confirmation, as if English is not her native tongue. He nods. She continues.

‘If you stay with kind people, you will attract more kindness and become kinder in turn. If you work with money, you will make more money. If I put you next to the president, soon you will be a king.’

John likes the sound of that, but Bert frowns and says ‘Don’t play games, Alice.’

She flicks her eyes down and smirks.

‘So, the question is: what do you want? And what does Bertram want from you?’

She meets his gaze with curiosity this time. Her eyelids seem to go on forever. Like Vilma Banky, he thinks, like a real film star. Yes, for a couple of seconds he understands what Bert sees in her, though damn if he can stand such attitude in a woman.

‘More money might be nice,’ Bert says.

‘I’ll say,’ John adds, fidgeting with his jacket sleeve. He remembers the message he was sent yesterday from Al’s “accountants.”

‘Is money all you want?’ Alice asks.

‘At the minute, ma’am. I can go on to power later.’

He means it as a joke, but she does not find this amusing, and neither does Bert, it seems.

‘You’re working under me, remember,’ Bert says. The same menace, the same quiet anger that John saw the other night with Sam, is in his warning tone. ‘You’ve got something powerful, but if you don’t use it right, there’ll be nothing but ruin on us all.’

‘Yes,’ Alice says. She looks at him as if she is probing him for an answer, an explanation of some kind. John folds his arms and leans back.

‘Look, I’ll do whatever it takes for you to pay me, alright? I was kidding ’bout the rest. What do you want me to do?’

Bert nods at Alice, and she leaves without a sound. Bert takes her place and begins to delineate John’s new job, working in the back office. John hopes he won’t have to see Bert’s girlfriend again.

~~~

September 19th, 1996

Surulere, Lagos

Onyeka hums to herself as they walk home from college.

‘Oh. My. God. Mum is going to be so mad at you,’ her sister Grace says with a laugh, bouncing along beside her. ‘I cannot wait to tell Helen and Nnenna what she says. I bet she will kill you!’

Onyeka merely gives her a calm smile in return.

‘I did my best,’ she says.

‘May God have mercy on your soul,’ Grace replies, in Igbo.

She weaves between the human traffic on the pavement, disappearing from Onyeka’s sight then reappearing, as if she is blinking in and out of life. Soon, they have turned away from the busy streets by Queen’s College, and the pristine colours of the buildings beside it. Here, shingles are grey, and dark streaks run down the yellow walls. ‘You have better things to do than care about painting the house,’ mum has always said when Onyeka mentions it.

Grace bangs open the door of their home.

‘Tadaima, mes cheries!’ she calls.

Onyeka waits for the inevitable complaint, betting with herself whether it will come from their father or granny first.

‘I told you,’ comes a voice from the living room. Male voice – she has guessed wrong. ‘No funny talk! We speak English in this house!’

‘Ehihie ọma, nna,’ Onyeka calls.

A grumble is the only response. Grace smiles at her. Father wouldn’t dare say a word against her greeting him in Igbo – it’s not “funny talk”, after all.

Her mother appears at the living room doorway.

‘Well?’ she demands. She looks as if she is preparing her anger.

‘Get in here and help us make lunch!’ granny calls.

The two girls enter the kitchen. Granny throws a tea towel at them and walks to the side door, taking a cigarette out of her pocket. Their mother remains by the hallway, eyes burning into Onyeka’s back.

‘My results were good, mum,’ Grace says, leaning against the counter as Onyeka starts chopping the onions.

‘Oh shut up, you didn’t have any results,’ her mother says.

‘Ja wiem!’ she replies. ‘Soy un genia linguistica. Y no –’

‘One of these days, you and your languages will drive us to murder,’ granny says, puffing smoke out of the open doorway – a habit she has picked up only at her granddaughters’ insistence.

‘Onyeka,’ mother says. Her tone makes her demand clear.

Onyeka does not turn. If she turns, she might lose her calm.

‘I passed,’ she says, quietly.

‘What was your result?’ mother says again.

Grace giggles.

Onyeka pauses.

‘Onyeka….’

‘One hundred percent,’ she replies.

Granny chokes, coughs, then joins Grace’s laughter.

Mother is not amused. She glares through their chuckles.

‘Again?!’

‘I’m sorry,’ Onyeka says.

‘One hundred, again? Did you not try to be normal this time? They will think you have cheated again!’

‘Then I will take the test again,’ Onyeka says. Her composure has been hard-won, and she will not give it up easily.

‘No, mum, they know now that she’s just that smart,’ Grace says, nudging her with her elbow. Onyeka nearly slices her finger. ‘Mr Onodugo said sorry to her. In person! He said no-one thought it was possible – but she’s done it twice!’

‘I never thought my complaint would be that my daughters are too clever,’ mother says, joining them at the counter. ‘”What a wonderful problem to have,” I would have said. But I can’t understand a word one says, and the other is smarter than her exams and examiners combined. God help us all.’

Granny comes in and pats Onyeka’s back.

‘Now this is out of the way, you can think about universities again.’

Onyeka says nothing. Unfortunately, Grace has never learnt to be silent.

‘She wants to go to America,’ she says. ‘Or Oxford. Then we will go to Switzerland together.’

Onyeka can feel mother’s expression without having to look at her. Her feeling of content threatens to crack.

‘Why Switzerland?’ granny asks.

‘Oh, she wants to go because they have a big laboratory underground, and some big complicated physics project. And I have to go with her because she needs a translator.’

‘They’ll speak English there,’ Onyeka says, trying to distract herself enough to ignore her mother. ‘And I know some French –’

‘No, you need a translator,’ Grace insists. ‘What if you go into a cafe and –’

‘Grace,’ mother says, passing her the bag of scent leaves to chop. Grace takes the hint and shuts up.

No-one speaks for a moment. Onyeka waits for the inevitable.

‘Being a doctor is worthwhile,’ her mother says at last. She frowns as she tips beef into the pot. ‘Being a lawyer, as well. Even translating, like your sister, is good work. But physics…’

Onyeka knows she will not win this argument, but she tries nevertheless.

‘They are going to learn how the universe began,’ she says. ‘I think that is worthwhile.’

‘God made the earth, and He gave you this gift so you could give back to your people,’ mother says. ‘He did not bless you so you could run away to America and study atoms.’

‘What if I run away to America, mum?’ Grace asks, in a valiant effort to redirect their mother’s disappointment.

‘You already speak English. What would be the point?’ granny says.

‘What if I work for the UN?’ Grace continues. ‘While Onyeka works on physics. We’ll be close to each other, and you’ll have one daughter to be proud of!’

Onyeka passes her mother the onions and turns to leave.

‘I’m thinking of what’s best for you,’ mum says after her. ‘I don’t want you to waste your talent!’

She does not reply as she walks through to the living room.

Father heard the whole thing, but as usual he knows better than to comment. Instead, he raises his eyebrows at her in sympathy, and turns back to his program. He is watching TV before his evening shift. She notes he is hiding a bottle of beer between the couch cushions.

There is a comforting moment of speechlessness.

‘Oh,’ he says, ruining it. ‘A letter came for you earlier.’

He nods towards the side table. As she gets up to fetch it, she hears him hastily take a swig from the bottle.

The letter has no stamp or address – delivered in person, she thinks. It has both her name and Grace’s on the front, but she opens it anyway.

She reads it with a frown, then stuffs it into her pocket. Father raises his eyebrows again, and says nothing, taking another swig from the bottle.

Mother attempts to resume their argument over lunch, but Onyeka refuses to speak. She finishes first, and she takes father’s bottle out of the couch and outside to the bin before they have left the table.

‘Onyeka,’ father says, when he meets her in the hallway. He speaks quietly, under the rattle of the others cleaning up.

He says in Igbo:

‘I think you should do what makes you happy.’

‘Thank you, father,’ she says – more touched than she lets show.

‘You will be a great scientist,’ he adds, in English. Then he leaves.

She reads over the letter again, and she asks Grace to come outside with her as soon as they can peel away from the others.

‘Anteeksi,’ Grace says, as they sit on the warm concrete of the pavement. ‘That means “forgive me”.’

‘So I guessed,’ Onyeka says. ‘I forgive you.’

‘I shouldn’t have told her.’

‘I said I forgive you. And anyway, she might change her mind.’

‘What do you mean?’

She passes Grace the letter.

It is written in near-illegible cursive, so it takes her a few minutes to read it, then read it again.

‘A project at CERN?’ she says. A smile breaks across her face. At the start of summer she took out her school cornrows, and now her natural hair is like a halo when she beams like this. ‘They’ve sought you out!’

‘No,’ Onyeka says. ‘It is a fake. It has not even been posted – just put through the door. But they know who we are, they know our grades – and they know that I want to work at CERN.’

Grace’s smile fades.

‘You haven’t told anyone except me,’ she says.

‘Exactly.’

Grace looks over the letter once more.

‘“John Kaminski,” it says.’

‘He must be American. He uses their spelling.’

‘He says he wants to meet us both,’ Grace says, frowning once more at the handwriting. ‘Do you think that would be safe?’

Onyeka sighs. She can still hear her mother and grandmother talking indoors – likely talking about her.

‘I want to say, we should forget it. But it could be dangerous to leave it, if he knows who were are, and where we live. And I don’t understand how he could know what he knows.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Grace says, grinning again. ‘I know how to shoot father’s gun.’

Onyeka laughs, despite herself. In truth, she is more intrigued by the letter than worried. She has been taught that God provides, and for all her logic, she believes there are stranger things in the universe than have been discovered, even beyond particles and quantum mechanics. If, by some chance, the offer of work is genuine, her mother must take it as a sign that her wishes are valid – and if not, then the writer of this letter has still acquired some method of learning the secrets of others.

And if there is one thing Onyeka loves above all else, it is learning more than she is meant to.

~~~

January 29th, 1931

Prince George Hotel, New York.

‘Shit, shit, shitty-shit-shit,’ Tessa says.

‘It’s okay,’ George says. ‘We’re a month early. That’s better than a month late.’

‘But I met Bert! He knows something’s up now! Shit, what if he tells this John guy that I was looking for him? What if – if he realises where the necklace came from? We never should’ve done this. Next thing you know, we’ll go back home and–and there’ll be talking trees, and robot maids, and half my friends’ll have never existed because us coming here has made this–this butterfly effect where none of their parents meet, and – stop it!’

He can’t help it; he’s smiling. Nothing puts her off more than having her worry eaten mid-sentence. Another inhalation, another gulp, and the lot of it is gone. She hangs her arms at her side and gives him one of her looks.

‘We’re fine,’ he says. ‘All that matters is that we stop John from taking the necklace. We’ve got the whole month to stop him now, that’s all – and anyway, didn’t you say you wanted to see old gangster New Yoik?’

She rolls her eyes.

‘It was meant to be simple. Get here, find out when he takes it, stop him, get back. Should’ve taken us a day. But I’ve already ruined it.’

‘We’re fine,’ he says again. He lets her have this worry – he’s full, and he doesn’t like the bitter dark chocolate taste of her anxiety anyway.

She reaches out and flicks the lock of hair that curls under his right ear. She reminds him of a cat playing with a ribbon when she does that.

‘New York exhausted you last time,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to see you like that again.’

He can’t deny it. A street with twenty people on it is exhausting for a man who can sense the emotions of everyone in sight. The streets of Broadway in 2004 were like being water-boarded while on a rollercoaster.

‘If we stay in the same few places, quiet places – then I’ll be fine. Either way, you’ll get a feast.’

She grins, and despite himself he takes a bite of her anticipating joy. It tastes like a cinnamon bun.

‘A city full of dreamers,’ she says. ‘I can’t wait. I won’t be sleeping at all tonight.’

He takes her hand, glad she is calm enough for him to continue with their plan.

‘It might be better this way, than appearing suddenly and doing it in one night,’ he says. ‘That would be too strange – it might make people talk, and who knows what that would lead to. This way, we get in naturally, become regulars at the club, become friends with them all – then we’ll find out what happens, and stop him.’

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Okay.’

‘No matter what happens,’ we’ll be fine,’ he says again. ‘We can always go back home.’

When they first learnt that time travel was possible, she joked that it was never a problem to travel into the future, only the past, because then you could create all kinds of damage. And that was true…unless you found something so awful, you couldn’t help but try to stop it.

Tessa gives him another look. She knows he feels more obligation to do this favour than she does. After all, he was the one who had tasted Alice’s fear – a well more potent than any terror he had eaten before.

‘I don’t want to let her down,’ she whispers.

‘We won’t,’ he says, taking her hand. ‘I promise.’

~~~

February 3rd, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York

Bert recognises the blonde girl immediately. She is hanging off the arm of a tired-looking man who could be aged anywhere between twenty-five and forty, and she waves at Alice the second they come through the door.

Alice waves back. For the first time in days, she is smiling.

It fits together in his mind. The necklace left, and Alice left shortly after. He hadn’t wanted to consider that she was the thief, but here is the girl with the strange watch, and here Alice knows her, and the only way a girl from another time could get to here is through that spokewheel and chain. His timesplitter.

Bert says nothing as the couple approach them. The girl Tessa pulls Alice into a hug, and Alice does not flinch from it. Her Mona Lisa smile never wavers.

‘Hi, Bert,’ Tessa says, holding out her hand. ‘Nice to meet you again.’

Bert has no choice but to shake her hand.

‘This is my husband George,’ Tessa says. The man has an intense, yet displaced stare, as if he sees something else fascinating when he looks at you.

‘Husband?’ Alice says.

Tessa smiles and flashes the ring on her hand.

‘It seems we have much to tell one another,’ Alice says. ‘The corner seat is quiet – I’ll get drinks.’

She nods to the table by the stage, where Bert conducts all of his business. Normally he would take umbrage at anyone using it without his permission. Normally, he would forgive Alice for this misdemeanour, as he forgives her most everything. Tonight, he has bigger worries.

He follows her to the bar, and after Seamus has turned away to make her three glasses of gin and tonic, Bert leans close to her ear.

‘How do you know them?’

‘They’re friends,’ Alice says.

Bert knows all her friends. All the people she knows from 1928 until 1931, at least.

‘Where are they from?’

‘Britain. Tessa is from Fife, George is from Bath.’

Even softer, Bert asks:

When are they from?’

Alice does not answer for a moment. Seamus tells her he will take their drinks to the table, because he knows that making Alice happy makes an easy life for all the bar staff. She thanks him, and he walks away.

Bert waits for her response.

‘The year two-thousand and seven,’ she says.

Bert exhales. He had never considered that she would go so far forward. He never considered there was time that far forward.

‘Why have you brought them here?’

She turns to him.

When he first met her, he considered her a flower in need of saving, a child in the ways of the modern world, an ingénue with an incredible gift. But underneath her naivete lay an old soul, and ever since she disappeared last year, it is that soul which stares back at him every time he looks into her eyes.

‘To keep you safe,’ she whispers, before walking away.

Bert cannot keep his eyes off that table, as Alice sits with these future strangers, and smiles more easily than she has in months.

Tessa takes the necklace out of her pocket. Seamus walks in view. When he is gone, the necklace is in Alice’s hands.

The door opens and a familiar tap comes through. It is One-eyed Sam, and his cane.

Bert pulls himself away, forcing his mind to himself, and his present.

‘Sam,’ Bert says, walking up to greet him. ‘How are things?’

Sam shakes his left hand, as always.

‘As good as they ever go, for a cripple,’ Sam says, with a light laugh. They walk towards the bar. ‘I thought I’d come by and ask how John’s doing. I heard you saw him last night.’

‘He’s fine. I found out what to do with him, and gave him a handsome packet to take home. I reckon he’ll come back.’

‘Good,’ Sam says. ‘He’s a good kid, really. Hopefully this’ll be his lucky break.’

Bert can’t help but smile.

‘Alice said you were his lucky break.’

‘Your girl?’ Sam asks. ‘For all people say about her, I’ve not met her yet.’

Bert sees an opportunity to break up the soiree in the back.

‘She’s here tonight – just back there.’

He turns, and points to the three on the back table. Alice is at the side, the only one clearly visible from their position, while the other two are masked by the stage.

Bert hears a clatter behind him, and two hands grab his arm and pull him down.

The bar quiets as they turn and see Sam – good ol’ One-eyed Sam – fallen on the floor, cane scattered on the tiles. His face is white as milk, freckles stand-out brown, and he grips Bert’s arm like a five-year-old on his mother’s skirts.

Bert crouches next to him.

‘Come on, Sam,’

‘Shit, Bert, it’s her,’ Sam hisses.

He is staring at Alice like she’s the devil.

She looks at him like he’s a puddle of blood, leaking under a doorway.

Alice stands from the table, says something to Tessa and George, and the three disappear backstage.

‘Shit,’ Sam says again. He’s shaking like an autumn leaf. ‘I remember now. I remember.’

‘Stand up, man,’ Bert says, tugging him, embarrassed under the sights of his patrons.

‘She took my eye,’ Sam says. ‘She’s the one took my eye, and did for my leg. It’s her.’

Bert freezes.

Slowly, mechanically, thinking all the time, he turns and grabs Sam’s cane, the cane he paid for himself.

He unhooks Sam’s fingers from his suit, and pushes the cane into them.

‘Stand up,’ he commands.

He rises, and he waits, and after a few moments, Sam does as told: he plants the cane on the ground, and he tries, and falls, and tries again, until he pushes himself to standing. Then he adjusts his eyepatch, with a hand that has ceased to tremble. When he straightens, he faces his Bert dead-on.

‘I swear I ain’t lying,’ he says.

‘Are you accusing my girl of attacking you?’ Bert says, quiet enough so the people listening in won’t hear.

The muscles work in Sam’s jaw, as he clenches and unclenches.

‘I see what I see,’ he says, at last.

‘I say your eyes can play tricks on you,’ Bert says. ‘Don’t ever talk to me about this again.’

It is only a small change in Sam’s face, but Bert catches it. The light leaves his eye as his trust in Bert drains away.

‘Right…boss.’

He turns and clicks out of the club.

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Written by G.J.

26/03/2014 at 2:08 pm

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