Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for May 2014

Pinwheel 5: Bertram Saves A Life

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July 31st, 1928

Lower East Side, New York.

Bert is prepared this time. He is wearing the closest approximation he could make for the peasant clothing of the time: long shirt, old pants, boots, flat cap inherited from his English great-uncle. He feels a little odd wearing two belts, but he deems it necessary: the first, over his shirt, makes him look more authentic, and contains an empty pouch and a small knife which he hopes he will not have to use; the other, under the shirt, hides his revolver – only for extreme emergencies. To truly blend in, he thinks, he should have a beard, but he isn’t willing to go that far for what will be only a short, experimental trip.

The date he has decided on is July 31st, the year 1600. Easy to remember. The place is a small village in the south of England, so tiny that hopefully no-one will believe the locals if anything does happen to go awry. He will go there, look around and revel in being the first man to see history as it was. Then he will return – and without the stink in his soul that came home with him after 1944. The past is known. Predictable. He will not take the risk of the future again.

He takes a breath, closes his eyes, and squeezes the necklace in his palm. Part of him still wonders if 1944 was a fluke, a dream, a hallucination. The second time is what makes it sure.

White space consumes him and he flies.

When the world comes to and ground is under his boots, he blinks and sees sunshine, and trees. The smell of dry summer grass, half-hidden under manure and sweat. He hears hooves in the distance. The lone strain of a lost folk song belts out over the air.

A smile breaks across his face.

When he steps out of the trees, he finds he is beside near to the entrance of the village. He chose this place at random from an old map, and he is glad to see that it is perfect. Low stone buildings, thatched roofs, pigs and dogs and horses – yes, perfect. And the people! Not many of them, but they wear tunics and aprons and Robin-Hood caps, and they talk to each other in gutter Shakespearean tongue. They sound nothing like the English people he has met, and that makes his smile even bigger. He could go back and correct all the historians – he could go back and correct everyone who has ever conjectured about this time – he could –

A middle aged woman and red-faced man stop their conversation to turn and squint at him. The cold glare of their suspicion is like an ice bath.

Bert tips his cap at them, and continues to walk, ambling with purpose, as if he has a right to be there. Maybe this place is slightly too small for this kind of expedition. Somewhere bigger might afford more opportunity for blending in. But he so wanted to see this kind of old-world farm existence for himself…

Or maybe he is too obviously outsider, with his half-made costume, short hair and shaven chin. A troop of children goggle at his passing. Everyone is looking, even if only for a glance. Muttering. I shouldn’t stay long, he thinks. A few more minutes, and I’ll go back to the trees, and New York. Finding out information to shame other scholars can wait for another time. This was only meant to be an experiment, after all. And besides, he thinks, as he looks again at the picaresque before him – it’s not as if those scholars would believe him.

The bitterness of 1944 threatens to sweep him away again. But before his mind turns the ground beneath him into bloodied sand, he hears a shout.

The people nearby perk up like dogs at dinnertime. A boy runs round the nearest house and cries:

‘They’re bringing her out!’

Everyone stops what they’re doing and take after him, round the corner. Bertram can’t help but follow, wondering what renaissance wonder he’s about to see.

Round the corner and past two more houses is the village square. A fair crowd has gathered there already, and he can see over the top of nearly everyone’s head. He didn’t think he was that tall, but that doesn’t matter – what does matter is that the people pass him and look him up and down, like he’s a giant. He remains still and wears a mask of calm, ignoring their shoves and insults.

Over the heads, in the centre of the square, he sees a gibbet.

An execution. No matter, he tells the squirm in his heart. This was normal back then. He has never seen a person die, and the same morbid curiosity that makes him stare at bar fights refuses to let him turn away. That would only attract more attention, he reasons.

A moment later, no-one thinks of paying attention to him. Hush. A door opens, and a roar rises from the people like an aural tsunami. Two men come out of the house, jostling the person between them. A person much smaller than they. A pale spot in a sea of rustic browns.

Bert pushes forward without realising.

The jailers barge through the crowd, and the hissing and yelling grows. Bertram swims through the people, keeping his eyes on the criminal, unwilling to stop until he sees exactly what they are. A clod of dung splats on the prisoners face, the gaolers curse, and the prisoner turns their head away – eyes scrunched – and gasps.

The gasp is high. It is a woman. Bertram could hardly tell, because her head has been shaved as bald as an egg. Even her eyebrows have been shaved. She’s wearing nothing but a greying smock, arms bare with bruises blue. As she wipes the shit off her face, Bert sees that her fingers are bleeding. Most of her fingernails have been ripped out.

The crowd’s howls morph into words: Witch, witch, witch!

He needs to leave, he knows it. Curiosity be damned, he will not watch this. He steps back, ignoring the anger of those around him.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, the crowd will not move quick enough, and he is like a post stuck in a marsh. On the first step to the scaffold, the prisoner glances up and sees him.

Black circled, red eyes, it doesn’t matter – she sees him, all of him, as if he is made of glass. He is naked. He is exposed. He feels he has been outed, yet no-one has eyes for him, but the condemned witch.

A new panic overcomes her, a frenzy of hope. She struggles for the first time, and reaches out a hand directly to him.

‘Help me!’ she screams, as they push her further up the step. ‘Help me!’

I can’t! he wants to yell back. You idiot, if you know, then you must know – but how can you–?

Her eyes are praying to him. She is on the platform. The lowing of the crowd intensifies.

Help me!’ she screams again.

His secrecy means nothing to her, when she is about to die.

I can’t, he thinks, history – paradoxes – I can’t –

The executioner readies the noose. The hope fades in her eyes, as she sees he is unmoving.

‘Please,’ she mouths – or speaks, it is too noisy to tell.

They start to read her crimes. She turns away from Bert, and her face creases up. One soundless sob, and she begins to cry. The crowd are calling for her head.

Damn it all.

God damn, damn it all.

He reaches for his second belt.

He throws everyone out his way and ploughs a straight path to the gibbet. Eight feet from the scaffold, the reader of crimes pauses. An official walks up to him, hand on his sword, snarling.

Bert points his pistol to the air, and fires.

The crack peals through the crowd and people scream and dive out the way. The official quails, and Bert fires again, before pushing the man out the way. He jumps onto the stage, and fires once more into the air before pointing it at the executioner. The jailers are yelling insults, calling him a demon and devil, but he can’t decipher well with the ringing in his ears. It’s not important. What’s important is that he has his other hand in his pocket, fingers hooked round the chain of his necklace, and he’s not sure if this will work or not but dammit he has to try.

Still pointing his gun, he takes out the necklace, and presses it against the woman’s arm as he grabs hold of her, medallion sandwiched between his palm and her scrawny flesh. July 31st, 1928, home, New York. Again: July 31st, 1928 –

White rush. The screams fade fast.

He is still holding onto her arm.

His legs wobble as they smack onto his floorboards. Back in his apartment. The clock says 8pm. He has been gone an hour. He exhales, and turns.

The girl came with him.

She snatches herself out of his grip, and backs away, terrified. When her back hits his armoire, she flinches, and sinks to the floor, curling into herself. Her eyes rove over his bed, his books, his desk. His maps, his whisky bottle, the cinema poster on the wall. She doesn’t seem to be breathing enough for the amount her chest is heaving, heart beat visible under her flimsy gown.

The witch turns her eyes to him.

Again, he is transparent before her, and she understands everything of where, and what.

Panting, she puts her head on her knees, and trembles.

Bert sits on his bed and waits. His own calmness surprises him. He has done what should not be done – he has changed history, even if it is only a tiny part. There must be ripples of that change now, somewhere, perhaps making drastic changes out of sight. Who knows what he has created and destroyed with that one act?

But, looking at her now, he doesn’t care. He knows he could not have done anything else.

She is still shivering. He takes the coverlet off of his bed and – gently as he can – drapes it around her. She shudders as the cloth hits her, then clutches on to its edges.

Her fingers are still crusted with old blood. He can’t stand the sight of them.

A minute later, he sits in front of her with a damp cloth, bowl of water and antiseptic, and bandages. She flinches when he takes her hand – and again, when the cloth is pressed against her wounds. A high-pitched noise escapes her. She doesn’t relax as he washes and wraps the tips of her fingers. Her head remains on her knees the whole time.

He returns to his bed.

He waits.

She stops trembling. She loosens her grip on the coverlet. She taps the bandaged fingertips against each other, as if checking they are there.

Eventually, she looks up at him. This time, nothing pierces him. A normal look. With her large nose, bald head and battered skeletal frame, she looks like a goblin. It is harder to look at her bloodshot eyes and browless face without the interference of magic

Magic?

He shouldn’t laugh. After all, time travel isn’t possible either.

The girl’s breathing has settled now. In her eyes, he no longer sees fear or despair – instead, she exudes a cool determination, for more collected than he would be in her situation.

‘I thank ye,’ she says. ‘Ye’ve saved me life.’

Her accent is so thick he can barely understand her.

‘You asked me to,’ is the only reply he can think of.

She turns her gaze back to the floor.

‘I’m in America,’ she says. ‘Year of our lord nineteen twenty-eight. Is that true?’

‘How do you know that?’ he asks. ‘And how did you know I wasn’t from your time?’

Her brows pinch together and eyelids flutter.

‘I’m a witch,’ she whispers.

‘There’s no such thing. Witches are meant to commune with the devil, make potions and curses. They don’t exist. That’s not what you are.’

‘I am,’ she says, a crack in her voice. ‘Please. I am.’

Bertram sighs. He has heard of the “interrogation” of witches before. Torture will make anyone agree to anything, anyone believe anything. There’s a fleeting temptation to go back to 1600 and beat the men bloody with his fists.

‘I can take you back to a different place,’ he says. ‘A different town in your time. You could start again.’

‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ll never go back. I’ve no family. Nothing. They’d find me a witch again ere long.’

She turns to him. Resolution makes her look larger, near imposing. The coverlet is her royal cape.

‘I owe you me life. If’t please ye, I’ll stay and help ye. Me powers can help ye much…if ye let me.’

He wants to take care of her. God knows, he cannot dump her with nothing in an age she doesn’t know. But he can barely support himself as it is, and…

The necklace in his pocket presses against his leg.

No. He can do this. He can do anything, when he has this.

‘What is your name?’

‘Alice.’

‘Alice,’ he says. ‘I’m Bertram. And you can stay here as long as you want.’

Happiness wells in her eyes – she does not smile, but her emotion is unmistakeable.

‘Thank ye, Mister Bertram.’

That night, she lies in his bed, in his shirt, while he dozes in his armchair, using his coat as a makeshift blanket. Alice opens her eyes and looks at his drooping mouth, his messy hair, his gaunt cheeks. One arm lies free of the coat, sleeve rolled past the elbow. Goosepimples dot the skin of his forearm.

With a little concentration, the coat shifts, and moves, and covers his bare arm.

She feels a little happier. Turning her back to him, she goes to sleep.

~~~

August 18th, 1928

Fort Greene, New York.

His third trip, on the first day of August, is not a disaster. Quick, at night, not seeing or talking to anyone. He takes a cigar-case from a Georgian house in the Civil War years, and sells it to a collector from Rhode Island. It gives him enough to buy Alice a wig and second-hand dress. The sale gives him relief so strong it feels solid, like steel plate around his shoulders. Astounding. It is the realisation that he will never need to go hungry or cold again.

The second through fifth trips yield coat buttons, china ornaments, Napoleonic handguns. He is a cat burglar of the past, appearing in the night and taking only what will be assumed lost. Different collectors, different auctions. Driving up the price beyond his wildest imaginings. A sheet of sketches by Degas – gold. A monogrammed handkerchief from Marie Antoinette – risky to get, but it puts the bidders in a frenzy. When he takes the cheque, his knees go weak.

After the sixth trip, he buys himself a new house, where Alice has her own room and he doesn’t need to sleep in his chair every night. After the eight trip, he no longer needs to work for the university. He tells his professors that he has inherited a large sum from a long-lost aunt. They say they envy him. If he was anyone else, he would envy himself. His good fortune shocks him.

His new home smells of recent paint when they walk in. Alice walks behind him, staring around her like a new babe. She has worn an expression of perpetual wonderment since her first morning in New York.

‘It is so large,’ she says. ‘The colours – the high ceiling – it is all glorious!’

The removal men glance at her – her accent, her wig, her half-grown eyebrows – but know better than to say anything. Honestly, Bert delights in her childlike joy. He has to work hard to stop himself from smiling, when he sees her like this.

As soon as the men are gone, Bert looks for the smallest box in the pile: white, flat. He hands it to her.

‘This is for you,’ he says. ‘A house-warming present.’

‘But I have none for ye,’ she says.

‘It doesn’t matter. Open it.’

Inside the box is a pale green dress made of silk. Alice gasps as she runs her hand over the material. Her missing fingernails are no longer as noticeable as they once were.

‘It feels of water made solid,’ she says.

‘You like it?’

‘Very much,’ she says.

He is disappointed when she doesn’t smile. Instead, she turns to him and her sight flashes through him. Bertram is becoming more used to the feeling.

‘Ye’re rich. But it is cause ye’re a thief.’

‘I am,’ he says, folding his arms.. ‘Do you dislike that?’

‘I do. ‘Tis sinful.’

Sin is meaningless to him, and he’d have thought a professed witch would think the same. His hackles are rising.

‘I don’t deprive anyone of anything. What’s worthless in the past is more valuable, and gives more happiness, here.’

‘I know. Still, I dislike it. I’d rather you stop.’

‘I don’t like the way you talk, but I don’t tell you to stop it.’

She frowns.

‘It’s you talks strange, to me.’

‘I speak normally. You’re in this time now. If you’re going to stay, you’re gonna have to learn to talk like me.’

She looks like a schoolmarm when she frowns like that. She closes the lid on the dress and drops it down onto the pile of boxes. Silence. A standoff.

His conscience chirrups. He tries to gulp down his natural spite.

A sigh escapes from him.

‘Listen,’ he says. ‘I’ll use the money I have to make a legitimate business. I’ll stop stealing, if that’s what you want, but only after I have some other income. But I want you to take elocution lessons in return.’

‘Electrocution?’ she says, alarmed. Bertram taught her what electricity was on Wednesday, and she has been mildly terrified of it ever since.

‘No, lessons on how to talk properly, how to act properly. You have to learn how to be a real 1920s girl, understand?’

‘I am not,’ she says.

‘I know, but we have to pretend. Do you think people would accept the truth that you’re an Elizabethan witch?’

Alice has no reply.

‘People don’t believe in time-travel, or magic – whatever it is that you do. We’re going to have to lie, and lie a lot, just to survive. Understand?’

‘I’ve always lied to live,’ she says softly.

Standing like that, staring at the box before her, arms dangling by her sides – she looks so lost and lonely that he instantly forgives her for annoying him. He has to resist the urge to take her in his arms that second.

‘Listen, Alice,’ he says. When she looks at him, his words fail. Instead, he gestures vaguely to the boxes.

‘I bought a bunch of new books. Want to read one with me?’

There. There is the light in her eyes, and a second later, the smile on her lips.

‘Yes, please!’

‘Which do you want? I got lots of history –’

‘No, tell me more of the world,’ she says. ‘The other countries, in Asia and south of India – that’s what I want to know today.’

They sit on the new couch together, and she leans over him, looking at the pages and pointing and interrupting. She is learning to read very quickly. Her brain sucks up information like a vacuum cleaner. Her questions are incessant, and demand more than he knows and can explain, but her amazement at the answers, and at all the little things he takes for granted – oranges and polyester and plumbing – light a warmth in his heart that stays with him.

After dinner, she disappears into her room, and returns wearing the dress. Her clavicles jut out on either side of its straps, and her first through third sets of ribs are clearly distinguished. Around the neckline are multiple small red marks. Pinpricks. She is still covered in bruises.

‘You look good,’ he says.

She twirls, and runs her hand all over the fabric of the skirt. When she looks up, she beams, and his lie retroactively becomes truth.

‘I love this,’ she says. ‘Thank you.’

She says “you”, forcefully changing her vowel to approximate his. The warmth he feels towards her strengthens, glowing in his chest.

‘It was nothing,’ he says. ‘And I will stop stealing. I promise.’

‘I will hold you to your word.’

He vows to keep it. Anything for her wonder, anything for her happiness.

~~~

Midwinter, 1592

Bitton, England.

Mary Bunyan hums a hymn as she leafs through her grimoire. Alice doesn’t recognise the melody, since she rarely goes to church – a habit which her grandmother is dearly trying to change. Alice prefers walking in the woods to hearing rants concerning her inherent sin and the weakness of her sex. She would much prefer to be there now, out in the bitter wind and frozen mud, instead of here with her cousin Judith, who eyes the jars of herbs on the shelf with a greedy blush.

‘Ah yep, here it be,’ Mary says, running her finger along a line of symbols and letters. ‘This spell should help ye considerably.’

She draws a picture of a flower in an intricate diamond shape on a scrap of parchment, and sprinkles some rosewater from the vial on her desk. Alice gazes into her, asking her sight to tell her more. She has been struggling to get her power better under control, but it is a long and lonely task, asking a stubborn nothingness to do your bidding. Now, as often is the case, it is silent.

Mary waves her hands over the completed drawing, saying nonsense words in a rhythmical fashion. A crescendo, a clap of hands, and it is done. She rolls the parchment up tight, and hands it to Judith.

‘Put that there in yer locket, and wear it round ye at all times. As long as it’s near, he willna stray again.’

Now the sight speaks up: Mary truly believes what she says, but her spell – all her spells – are useless. Alice agrees that this one can’t work – her sight told her two months ago that Bobby was melling Prim Stanfield because he is bored with Judith and Prim is prettier – but for all the spells to be useless? Surely that can’t be? What does that make Alice, then?

‘Oh thank ye, thank ye, Mary,’ Judith says, and takes out her purse. Instead of opening it, she hands the bag over the table. There’s near a whole crown in there – everything Judith has saved for half a year.

‘Ye can’t give her so much for only parchment!’ Alice cries.

Mary sniffs as she takes the purse.

‘I charge what’s right for the good I do. Like when Peter Bridges was at death’s door, was me who brought him back.’

‘He was never at death’s door, and was only the mint in the mix that cooled his heart.’

‘Hush, girl,’ Judith says. ‘As if tha knows owt on it!’

Mary narrows her eyes.

‘How’d ye know there was mint in it? Not a soul saw me make it up.’

Alice looks down and says nothing. She’d been to see Peter Bridges soon after, and held his arm while the doctor patched up the bloodletting. It had been obvious to her upon touch: a cooling mix around a burning chest. Indigestion so severe it felt like his heart was dying. She had wanted to laugh, truthfully.

‘Ey, she’s a snooper, this one,’ Judith says, giving her a light whack across the back of the head. ‘Always knows more’n she should, and makes tales for the rest. Month past, she told me Simon Grey was barren, not his wife, and that’s why they’d no luck with children. A man barren, y’ever hear of that? Not to say she’s with child now.’

‘Was my potion did that,’ Mary says, with a pointed look at Alice.

‘Was not,’ Alice mutters. Was Bill Ponsonby did it, but she knows better than to tell anyone that.

‘Come, let’s be off,’ Judith says, tugging Alice around. Alice refuses to move, wriggling her shoulders away. Mary’s smug look inflames her.

‘It’s thievery,’ Alice says. ‘Taking honest money for useless charms.’

‘Cunning work is God’s work, little girl,’ Mary says.

‘No. It’s robbery,’ Alice says. ‘And God’ll see ye reap what ye sow. I know it.’

Judith half-lifts her away. Mary’s face has become purple. She swears revenge in her look, but Alice knows she wouldn’t dare push anything – not while Alice’s grandfather holds the town gavel in his hands.

”Struth, Alice,’ Judith says, once they are outdoors and the wind hits them like knives. ‘Ye never learn when to keep peace. What’s yer granny always said, ’bout mouthing away like that?’

Alice feels adamant that her grandmother would be on her side for calling out a fraudster like Mary. But that night, when she sits by the fire, her grandmother gives her her Sad Eyes again. Whenever Alice says or does something thoughtless, the Sad Eyes come out.

‘My Alice,’ Granny says, ‘Judith told me what ye telt Mary Bunyan. Ye can’t go saying things like ‘at.’

Alice protests, but Granny merely nods in response.

‘Girl,’ she says, once Alice has finished her explanation. ‘If ye dinna go to kirk, and ye know things ye shouldna, what’ll folk say?’

Alice opens her mouth but does not voice it. Granny nods in reply.

‘I heard it more’n once already, girl. If not for me, and your granda’s status, and the love folk had for yer mother and father – if not for us, you’d be hung already, lass. They can’t abide witch-like talk.’

Alice gets off her chair and sits by Granny’s feet, resting her head against her knee.

‘I can’t help seeing what I see. And Mary took all of Judith’s money for nothing – it’s not right.’

‘No, girl, but so’s life. Look to yerself, first of all. Protect yer own neck above all else. Church. Praying. Not so canny, not so mouthy. Lie if needs be. Never let em on that you see what you do.’

Alice rubs her temple against Granny’s kneecap. Granny had the sight once, she’d said. That’s how she knew about these things. She had to keep it quiet all her life. And then…

‘Ye dinna see any more,’ she says.

‘No,’ Granny says.

‘Why?’

Granny strokes Alice’s long blonde hair. Her hands are strong, pushing Alice’s temple further against her bones.

‘What ye have is a gift, child,’ she says, softly. ‘Gifted by God. But, in turn, ye can gift it on.’

Alice attempts to turn her face up but cannot move for Granny’s pressure.

‘I can give it away?’

Granny’s hand stops stroking, still tense, still a heavy weight on Alice’s head.

‘Before yer granda, I had a man,’ she says. ‘The day he asked me to be his wife, I gave him my greatest treasure. Two month later, came plague. He said he could see it running over his own body, killing off his insides.’

Alice feels a shuddering tingle as she imagines it.

Her granny’s voice remains calm. Purposefully, intently calm.

‘Ye have a gift, Alice. Ye’ve more than one. If ye ever find someone worth giving your treasure to, then do it with all yer heart and dinna reconsider. But til that one comes, who can take what ye are without thought, one who’ll never think to judge ye…’

Granny swallows audibly. The flames burn bright, casting black demons onto the walls.

‘…keep yerself breathing, child.’

~~~

October 31st, 1928

The Club, New York

The workmen are packing up when Alice arrives. She comes in through the back door, because she has trouble enough walking in her heels, and doesn’t want to risk the long front stairs just yet.

Bertram looks at her and smiles. The longer her hair grows, the healthier she looks, the more he smiles. He offers her his arm – she takes it, grateful for the support – and gestures at the room around him.

‘Isn’t it swell?’ he says. ‘Once the tables and chairs are ready, all we have to do is stock the bar and staff it. Should be ready in less than a month. Now it only needs a name.’

Alice looks at the wood-panelled walls, the shining bar top, the heavy stage curtains. Names come a blank. She doesn’t know what these kinds of clubs should be called; she’s only used to public houses, after all. The need to keep the alcohol a secret mystifies her, and is one of the more infuriating aspects of the future, but she doesn’t mind Bert breaking a law so long as that law is new and stupid.

‘I was thinking “spokewheel”,’ Bert says, tapping the pocket where his necklace lies, ‘because that’s what brought us here, but it doesn’t ring right. “Dharma” or anything else like that sounds too Eastern. I don’t know – I need to think more.’

The last workman shuts the door, and they are left alone. Alice hears the wind howling outside, and half expects to hear a town crier along with it, ringing his bell and calling for people to remember the souls of the dead on this unholy day. Should they call a priest to bless the club, and protect it from witches like her? She had never much liked All Hallow’s Eve, even before people started whispering that she should be hanged.

This year, in a new country and a new time, she has only seen Jack-O-Lanterns on doorsteps, and children dressed in home-made costumes, giggling along the streets. No-one thinks of witches in the future. Few people talk of souls.

‘How was your lesson?’ Bertram asks.

‘I think it went well,’ she says, carefully – she always speaks carefully nowadays, thanks to these lessons. ‘Though Mrs Braun seems often frustrated with me. Once, she called me something I did not understand.’

‘What was that?’

‘She called me a “dumb mick.”’

Bertram’s arm tenses under her fingers. He turns to her. She sees a storm gathering in him, as if something awful has happened that he needs to avenge.

‘She called you what?’

Alice tries to explain. His anger worries her.

‘She was teaching me to say “I” correctly, it was perhaps the fifth time, and I didn’t say “ah-ee” open enough, and I slouched as I did it, so she called me a dumb mick. But I don’t understand – I speak easily enough, and what is a “mick”?’

Bertram’s cheeks are red. When he talks, it is as if he is trying to hold in half his breath.

‘You won’t go back to Mrs Braun,’ he says, softly. ‘That was an insult. “Mick” means Irish. And she said “dumb” as in stupid.’

‘Oh,’ Alice says, looking at the ground. She feels a little ashamed, not having recognised an insult, even if it was new to her.

‘You’re not Irish,’ Bertram continues. ‘And you’re not stupid, Alice. Don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you that. You’ve learnt so much, so quickly. You’re one of the smartest people I know.’

Alice knows he is exaggerating. Still, she squeezes close to his arm, and he helps her walk up the front stairs.

The wind is a gale outside, and she struggles to hold on to her hat. As they walk to their car, they pass the front of a toy store. Behind all the bears and wooden trains, are three wooden sticks, topped by a flower of plastic curls. Seeing her curiosity, Bertram points at them and shouts over the wind.

‘I’ve seen a few of these recently,’ he says. ‘They’re called pinwheels. They spin in the wind. I think tonight would break them, though!’

‘I would like to see that,’ Alice says. So he takes her inside, and buys her one as green as spring buds. Back in the street, the petals whirl so fast they become a circular blur.

Alice laughs.

Bert looks from the blur, to her, and back. The corners of his lips inch up, as if drawn like moths to the light in his eyes.

Once they reach their apartment, he calls Mrs Braun. Alice goes to her room so she doesn’t have to hear him angry again.

She looks at the now-still pinwheel in her hand, and spins it with her finger, finding its movement oddly satisfying. It is one of many presents Bertram has given her in the past three months. He has fed her, and sheltered her, and educated her – and he has never asked for anything in return.

Alice lies back on her bed. He has asked for nothing. Admittedly, she has very little to give, having come here with only her powers and her life. But even ugly women like her have what’s between their legs – and he has never asked for that either. Not once, not anything like that.

His kindness baffles her.

The door knocks. She sits up. ‘Yes?’

Bertram pokes his head through the door, and again he smiles at the sight of her, holding her new toy like a bouquet.

‘What do you think of “The Pinwheel Club”?’

~~~

August 24th, 1929

Fort Greene, New York.

‘What do you want to do today?’

Alice glances up from her breakfast plate. Bertram looks at her expectantly, and she wonders if he means something else besides his question. So often is she out of her depth, that she finds it easier to assume that every phrase and action has a secret meaning unknown to her.

‘I plan to go to the library, and then the park,’ she says. It is the same as most days. She loves to walk, and she loves to watch, and she loves to learn, and she never tires of any of the three. She has yet to find her existence purposeless, yet to learn of ennui – being alive is still enough reward for her.

‘Why don’t we go to the park together?’ Bertram says. He often looks happy, even if he does not always smile, even when he complains of problems with the club. He is not as gaunt as he once was, and he each day he wears an expensive suit. Alice enjoys this very much, thinking suits superior to doublet and hose.

‘But, your work…’

‘I took today off,’ he says. ‘It’s my birthday, after all.’

‘Oh. I did not know that. But then…’

That means she missed it last year. It is as if he reads her thoughts.

‘Don’t worry. We were both distracted last year.’

Still, guilt travels up her gut, lodging itself on top of her heart. It does not escape her that she has yet to repay him for saving her life, for feeding her and clothing her and sheltering her for the past year. It does not escape her that Bertram has not brought a girl home in the months they have lived here. Does he not care for romance, as some men don’t? Or does he know that bringing a girl home to her, to Alice, would look like bigamy? The staff at the club assume they are married. Maybe he should disabuse them. She would rather be thought a mistress or whore than hold him back.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asks, a few seconds later.

‘Nothing,’ she says, sniffing. ‘I was remembering my grandmother.’

‘You never say whether you miss your old time at all,’ he says.

She picks up his plate for him and goes to the sink.

‘I don’t,’ she says to the basin. ‘Only her. I miss nothing. I…’

She turns. He has his arm over the chair, turned back to look at her. The dark blue suit goes well with his colouring, marks out the V of his torso, adds to his satisfied air. God help me, she thinks, I am an awful person. I am an ungrateful wretch who didn’t deserve another chance at life.

‘I have a gift for you,’ she says. ‘A birthday gift.’

‘That was fast.’

‘Let’s go the bedroom.’

He raises his eyebrows and says nothing, not before he stands, not as he follows, not as they sit together on his bed.

She turns and takes his hand. Sitting together on the bed is safer than the dining chairs, if one of them is going to fall.

‘I know not if this will work,’ she says. ‘But I want to give this to you. My grandmother told me I could. She called it blood-reading.’

He is a stunned boy from a fairy tale, wide-eyed, offered a gift beyond imagining.

‘You can pass that on? To someone normal like me?’

Alice nods, though she is unsure. She fumbles with Bert’s cuff, and explains how it works, and how it works best on the forearm, by the wrist. She does not expect to see much on her last reading.

The images and messages come: sore knee, scarred hands…and an ardour rippling inside him, ready to swell into a tidal wave at a second’s notice, prepared to flood at any moment.

Alice takes her hands away from Bertram’s wrist. She has forgotten what she was doing, and is trembling instead.

‘Are you sure?’ he says.

‘Yes,’ she says, before she realises what she assenting to. When it returns to her, she says it again, with conviction: ‘Yes.’

So they sit up on the bed, and she looks him in the eye, and she asks her sight how it works. It says to call on her blood-reading, call it to her eyes and the front of her face until she can taste it behind her teeth. It rises like hot air. It tastes slightly like violets.

Bertram’s brown eyes are caught on her. A mist exudes from her eyes and passes between them. She breathes it, she pours it, and it sinks into his startled expression, fading away as he inhales, suckered into his skin.

They sag as the last of the mist fades. Overwhelm. Then he takes her arm, and runs his fingers from her wrist up to her elbow.

He’ll know, her mind cries.

Please, then let him know, she replies.

But he only smiles, joyous like a child, and she feels nothing of what he has seen, only his freezing fingertips.

He says: ‘This is amazing. Thank you.’

And then he says, ‘Let’s go to the park.’

In the park they talk of reading the illness in others, reading their potentials, and all Alice can think of is what she read in him. But nothing, nothing, she says nothing. Not for the rest of the day, she says nothing. He has a good birthday, they say goodnight, they go to their beds.

It is at 2am, or thereabouts, when she wakes with a jolt. The nightmares are less frequent now, but still she has dreams where knives stab into her body, and crowds cry for her blood, and no-one comes to save her, and not a soul mourns her death. So she wakes, frozen in bed, hot tears clogging the back of her throat. She cannot go back to sleep. But surely it is a dream, or some somnolent haze, that causes her to rise from bed and go to Bertram’s room.

He wakes with an enquiring noise as the door creaks, and sits up at the sight of her ghostly outline.

Alice wants to give speeches, paragraph-long explanations of how wicked she is, how kind he is, what she saw today and what she has been wondering this long past year and everything besides. Instead, she walks up to the bed, and kneels on its side.

‘Forgive me,’ she whispers, as she cups his face in her hands.

His stubble scrapes her chin, and his lips are thin, but his mouth opens and his tongue is oh, so inviting. His hands run up her thighs and find her hip bones and clutch on to her with a need that makes her liquid. He is warmth and safety incarnate, and she – and she – no, what is she doing?

When she rises and tries to break away, she finds his hands are locked behind the small of her back.

‘Don’t apologise,’ he says.

The “I’m sorry” stops at her lips. He strokes her hair, and in the darkness that touch means more than any smile or word. There is an inhalation, as if he is about to speak, to question or explain himself.

No.

He pulls her head back down to his. They kiss again.

Written by G.J.

31/05/2014 at 1:09 pm

Savage Writing: Babel

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I decided to take a couple of weeks off from writing for the Savages. I didn’t want to phone it in with my pieces any more, and I didn’t want to bring in the start of longer pieces because last time I did I felt I was personally psychoanalysed and got no real feedback for the piece itself. Luckily I found some real inspiration for this week.

This week’s theme was picture based. I chose this picture as inspiration.

__

It’s the contrast that does it. If both the sky and the ground were on fire, there would be some unity and I could convince myself that I am in a hellscape. But the sky is blue and cloudless while my tree has burst into flame.

I heard once that cavemen used to sit and watch fire in silence, mesmerised by the dancing twists and flickers. Dangerous ribbons, snapping towards you then back just as quick, teasing you the damage they could do but decided against. All while the fire douses you in noxious gas, stinging your eyes, raking your lungs.

I cannot move. He tells me to move, but I am hypnotised. I built that garden, and I loved that tree. This is myself, a part of me I broke off my soul and crafted into physical form, going up in smoke.

I tossed those beds with orange peel to keep away the cats. I sprayed poison on the slugs. I threw a tennis ball at a squirrel that was on the bird table, stealing food from the finches. I cut my wrists and knuckles on thorns and splinters and the dirt under my fingernails felt like it would never go away. More natural out here, in the garden, helping life to grow. More natural than stuck behind a plastic-coated desk in a room with artifical breeze blasting through a grate in the ceiling. More natural than getting tetanus shots and taking your antihistamine when the pollen comes.

He tells me to run, but I am Lot’s Wife, I must turn to salt and ash and he will taste the remains of me on the wind as he runs away, the dust specks of my love rubbing on his wet-stained cheeks.

This is God destroying what I made. This is my hubris repaid. This is fate returning me to the soil and dirt beginnings from which I sprung, from which I tried to distance myself, in thought if not in act or body. So natural, as natural as the strong scent of honeysuckle after a spring shower, as natural as the lushness in the air just before the heat of summer hits and dries and withers. Nothing as natural as destruction like this.

If the sky was black and clamouring, like a duvet pressed over your face, then I could say it was lightning. If it was red with sunset I would say that the tree ached so hard to emulate that beauty that it combusted into orange flickering insanity. But the sky is blue, and my bedroom window is smoking where the tree branch meets the open window, flower-patterned curtains a pale imitation of the shrivelling petals out here. It could have been a cigarette tossed over our fence. It could be a plug socket given up on existence. Either way, my tulips are burning, and my rhubarb plants will see no use again.

He says he has phoned the fire brigade, we need to run and warn the neighbours, we need to get away from the smoke before we inhale more. I say—but I cannot say, I cannot speak, but in my mind I say—I must stay and watch it burn. I must watch it all burn. Because in my life, I have seen nothing as starkly beautiful as the azure sky looking down, indifferent, as each cherry blossom flames from pink, to orange, to black, and nothing—again, again, oh Lord, again.

Written by G.J.

15/05/2014 at 3:00 pm

Pinwheel 4: Tessa Makes a Promise

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July 31st, 2007

City Centre, Bath

Alice chose the town for sentimental value: she used to live near here. Bath is just as beautiful as she remembers. The roads are concrete now, filled with cars instead of horses, but many of the buildings stand the same. White bricks gleam in the morning sun, and there are trees on every street, full-green and rustling. Down the odd narrow street, she spies stone-brick walls, still standing from years ago. The River Avon sparkles beside Parade Gardens. Alice leans on the side of the bridge, and closes her eyes. The din of traffic never escapes her, but with the sun on her face, and the smell of trees and water, she can almost imagine that she is back home. It is good to be nearby, on the anniversary of her escape.

She sighs, and strolls away from the river and towards the abbey, trying hard not to stare at everything she passes. A little familiarity helps to ease down the overwhelm of the future, and yet 2007 does not seem as different from 1930 as she had imagined. In fact, at this time in the morning, Bath is positively boring compared to old New York. Hardly anyone is around.

It is the little things that get to her: the brightly coloured road signs. The different types of motorcars. Large plastic bins with writing all over them, detailing which materials are permitted inside them (and why are they so fussy?). And the clothing. The people make the difference in the future, she realises. Nearly all the men wear similar blue trousers with t-shirts. Many of the young women have dresses and skirts so short it makes her blush. No-one is wearing gloves, and few people wear hats, even though it is sunny.

The other noticeable thing: many people tap into small blocks – metal or plastic, she cannot tell – as they walk or stand. Others talk into these things, as if they are talking to someone in front of them. It must be one of these machines of the future they always imagined in 1930. The people of said future look insane with these blocks, whether tapping on them or shouting into them.

She can’t help but love it.

When she thinks of Bert’s refusal to consider travelling to the future, the anger bubbles again in her stomach. The future’s a surprise, he said. I don’t want to ruin any of it. And I don’t want to find out something terrible will happen, if I can’t stop it. Alice cannot understand why Bertram is happy to return to times of plague and lice and violence, yet refuses to come somewhere like here.

But it doesn’t matter. She considers this her holiday to herself: a solo trip forward, just to see what it is like: not to learn of future history and future catastrophe, but only to experience it as every other citizen does; to walk around, silent and anonymous, without always struggling to talk in a different manner, without always pretending to know more than she does, without the constant threat of embarrassing her friend. He won’t even know she’s been here, once she goes back and returns the necklace.

It is good to be alone, and free, for once in her life.

A few people give her glances, as she ambles by, gazing at the world. On the high street, a young woman with exaggerated eyeliner and a thoroughly immodest hemline approaches her. Alice freezes on instinct.

‘I LOVE your dress!’ the stranger says, smile eating up her face.

‘Ah, thank you?’ Alice says, as quietly as she dares.

‘It’s so retro!’ the girl continues. Alice can’t believe that this is the Bath accent now. Perhaps she is too used to New York. ‘And the matching gloves, too! Where did you get them all?’

‘Um,’ Alice says, mind whirring, ‘a – a catalogue.’

‘Which one?’

She is silently panicking.

‘Sears,’ she near-whispers.

‘Sears? I’ve not heard of that one. Is that online?’

Clueless as to her meaning, Alice nods.

‘Great! You have a nice day – and stay classy!’

The girl walks back to her friends and, giggling, they continue down the street. Alice is struck still like a statue, heart beating fast. The euphoria comes soon afterwards. She did it! She didn’t make a huge fool of herself…she thinks. Who knows? It doesn’t matter anyway!

Smiling, she is about to continue down the street, when a niggling sensation appears at the side of her head. Turn around, it says. Turn around.

She is not one to deny that voice. She turns.

A couple is standing before a nearby shop front. The girl is short, with boyish blonde hair, and wearing a rainbow assortment of clothing – tutu over cycling shorts, with a pink vest top and blue fingerless gloves. She hangs on to the arm of the man beside her as she chatters about the items in the window. The man looks like a study in brown, olive green, and normalcy compared to her.

He turns and catches Alice’s gaze.

Her sight jolts. In an instant she recognises him: not for who he is, but what he is. She can tell by his wide eyes that he has caught something about her.

His girlfriend turns and looks as well. Alice takes a step backwards, preparing to flee. Two of them – two of them?

Her panic slips away from her.

The girl smiles and waves as if she is a friend.

Alice, no longer afraid but knowing that she should be, does not move as they walk up to her. Logically, she knows she should run away into an alley and travel back to 1929, but her bastard curiosity will not let her move. She has never met creatures like these two before.

‘Hi,’ the girl says, putting out her hand. ‘Nice to meet you! I’m Tessa!’

Alice, wondering if this is a trick or a joke, shakes her hand. Her accent is nice, she thinks. This must be the real Bath accent – it sounds much closer to home.

‘What’s your name?’ the girl asks.

‘Tess…’ her boyfriend says.

‘What?’ she replies, defensively.

The man looks at Alice. Old eyes, she thinks. Seen a thousand things. Looks as sleep-deprived as a new parent.

‘You know what we are,’ he says, grave as a minister. ‘Just by looking. But you’re not an eater.’

Alice shakes her head.

‘You’re scaring her,’ Tessa says.

‘You’re the one scaring her!’ he retorts, but he has a ghost of a smile on his lips. ‘I should know.’

Tessa rolls her eyes, and looks to Alice to speak. Alice does not speak.

Silence. The three look at each other awkwardly.

Tessa fidgets and breaks the silence.

‘Listen, we need to get out of here before it gets crowded. Do you want to come sit in the park with us? It’s a nice day.’

Alice considers. Reconsiders. Remembers that she is on holiday.

She nods.

‘Brilliant,’ Tessa says, grinning. ‘Like I said, I’m Tessa, and this is George. Don’t have to tell us your name if you don’t want to.’

‘I’m Alice,’ she says. She can’t help it; she has warmed to them.

‘You sure look like you’ve been pulled through the looking-glass,’ Tessa says, running a quick eye over her. ‘Come on.’

Half an hour later, the three are sat under a tree in the park, drinking assorted fizzy and fruity drinks, watching the occasional dog-walkers and joggers. It is well before midday, so not many people are outside yet. George’s shoulders have relaxed, which is no surprise.

Silence, again. They are not going to press her to talk, for fear of frightening her away. Strange to think they consider her like a bird. She knows she is more than that, stronger than that.

Alice takes a deep breath and plunges into conversation.

‘My grandmother told me about people like you,’ she says. ‘I always thought you were legends. And now you are both here – in this time. I…I don’t know what to think.’

‘Wow, you’ve heard of eaters? That’s something. Well, it explains something. Maybe explains how you recognised us on sight,’ Tessa says.

‘What kind of power do you have, if you’re not an eater?’ George asks, keeping his eyesight far afield.

Alice’s first inclination is to stay silent. But, when the thinks again, that seems foolish. She can disappear home at any moment, and these people will never see her again. On the other hand, she may never have another chance to meet someone with supernatural powers. If she remains silent, it is only her loss.

‘Nearly everything,’ she says.

‘What’s everything?’ Tessa says, sitting up onto her knees.

Alice looks at the grass. Openness. Honesty. They have always been so dangerous for her. She feels giddy with risk.

‘I have sight. I can see the futures and pasts of people, as long as I have no care in the outcome. It also tells me where I should be, if I tell it what my ambition is. It told me that you were behind me earlier.’

Tessa gasps, about to speak, but Alice continues, like a broken tap.

‘Also I can do blood-readings. If I feel your skin, and the blood running through your veins, it will tell me much about your potential, your health, your state of mind. Sometimes, when I want people to ignore me, they begin to act as if they can’t see me. As well, when I try hard, I can focus on an object and move it or change it with my mind – but only with small things. I have not learnt well in that.’

She looks up from the ground, to the blue sky.

‘And at this moment I can travel through time.’

There is a long moment of silence.

Tessa bursts out laughing.

Alice turns, and sees the girl bent over, face creased-up and hands covering her nose. George, meanwhile, is staring at her like she is about to sprout wings.

‘You weren’t joking!’ Tessa says. ‘Oh. My. God. You’re either crazy or crazy powerful or both. Fuck!’

The casual swear further undoes Alice’s composure. She sits back and shrinks into herself.

‘Oh, oh no, I’m not laughing AT you, Alice,’ Tessa says, shuffling over on her knees and touching Alice’s arm. ‘Fuck, how can I laugh at that? It’s just…it’s just so over-the-top! That’s like, that’s like a superhero just coming down and being like “Hey, I can lift entire buildings over my head – no biggie.” Jesus Christ!’

‘Tess,’ George says, another small warning. He turns to Alice and clears his throat.

‘Okay, number one: time travelling. I’ve never heard of anyone ever doing that. How?’

Alice pulls the chain around her neck, and brings the spokewheel – hidden behind her neckline – into view.

‘That’s pretty,’ Tessa says.

‘My good friend found it, and discovered what it does,’ she says. ‘I am…borrowing it, for the moment. But I will not show you how it works.’

‘When are you originally from?’ George asks.

‘Duh, the 1920s,’ Tessa says. ‘Just look at that dress! It’s perfect! You just need a cloche hat to pull it off.’

‘Is she right?’ George says. ‘About the time, not the hat.’

‘July in 1929.’

‘Ha! Bullseye – just!’ Tessa says, flopping onto her back.

‘Fine. Number two: if I take your sight as a given – since you knew what we were immediately – then I want to know if blood-reading is real.’

‘Please – put out your arm.’

She holds his forearm, then presses one thumb on his elbow, and another on his wrist. Flashes appear, like an overlay on the world: aches in his back, a slight astigmatism, previously broken bones, and an unexplainable ability to see and consume the emotions of people within sight.

She lets go of his arm.

‘Your hands are freezing,’ he says.

With a slight smile, she replies: ‘And you are much younger than you look.’

‘Huh. Thanks,’ he says sarcastically, as Tessa guffaws. ‘But that doesn’t prove anything.’

‘You broke your leg when you were younger – around twelve, maybe. The muscles on your right eye are not as strong as the left. Your favourite emotion to eat is enthusiasm, which tastes to you like milky coffee.’

His eyes widen again. He huffs out a breath of air, as if he has failed to laugh.

‘Right. Third. Telekinesis.’

‘…I’m sorry?’

‘Moving things with your mi-‘

Before he has finished, she has focused on the metal can in his hand and pulled it sharply up, and then down. It jumps three inches up out of his hand, and then plummets, contents soaking into the grass. Tessa scrambles away in glee.

‘…well,’ he says, picking it up again, and shaking it. It is nearly empty.

‘Forgive me,’ Alice says, failing to keep the smile away.

‘Energy drinks are bad for you anyway,’ Tessa says.

She kneels in front of Alice, leaning forward, looking into her face like an eager puppy.

‘Alice. You. Are. A-MAZING! I’ve never seen anything like this! I can’t believe it.’

‘It’s…definitely something,’ George says, rubbing the droplet stains on his t-shirt.

‘Look, you’ve made him grumpy. He’s so used to thinking he’s better than me because his power is actually useful. You’ve really shown him up.’

George glares at her and gives her a playful push in reply.

‘How long are you in Bath for, Alice?’

‘As long as I want,’ she replies. ‘In thanks to this.’ She pats the necklace at her sternum.

‘That’s so cool,’ Tessa says, longingly. ‘To be able to just go wherever and whenever you want…must be so freeing.’

Alice realises, in a sudden rush, that she likes these two people very much. It feels like a lifetime since she had more than one friend.

‘It is,’ she says.

‘Park’s getting busier,’ George says, frowning at the new picnickers as if he has a headache. ‘Should we go home?’

‘Alice, come back with us – come have lunch and stay with us for a bit. I mean, no-one’s going to miss you, if you go back right when you left, right?’

She speaks so quickly that Alice barely comprehends the last sentence, but she nods her head vigorously. She is on holiday. She is free.

‘I would love that.’

~~~

29th August, 2008

CERN Headquarters, Geneva

Grace has been trying to teach Sosuke how to say “cool” in an American accent for half an hour. Given that she does not speak in an American accent herself, and Sosuke is bright red and mumbling, this endeavour is hilarious – or would be, if the people around them weren’t worried about other things.

Onyeka tries her best to work, but it is hard with such distractions – and when she doesn’t understand the work they have been given. Her task is to modify the design of what seems to be an attachment for the Large Hadron Collider. The attachment is like an extra chamber, to be linked to the side of the LHC. Her task is to modify it in two ways: one, so that it is unaffected by the super-cooling liquid nitrogen and helium required by the machine’s magnets, while still being linked to the electrical current of the collider and being exposed to its electrical and magnetic fields; two, the data from the chamber is not to be sent back to CERN’s computers, but Sosuke’s, and will run its own machinery according to the program he is currently writing. Sholeh is meant to helping her with this engineering side, but she is on the other side of the room, trying to ignore the computer and hunching over her pad of paper instead. A window of wikipedia takes up half of her screen.

Onyeka frowns at her own screen. She doesn’t understand why such a chamber is necessary, when it won’t affect the particle accelerator itself. She has asked John multiple times, and every time he has shrugged and said he’ll tell her later – or that she should figure it out first. Such evasions worry her. John is not officially a member of CERN; she knows that much. His fake letter to her was only the first confirmation of it. None of them have badges, or security passes, or any official documentation, and yet security and the other workers all look the other way when they walk to the office. John has forbidden them from going anywhere without him. When she asked why, he laughed and said ‘Because I don’t want to explain where I picked you up from. I don’t want us getting thrown out.’

She pushes away the keyboard and looks over at her sister. Grace may be content to float about in time without question, but Onyeka cannot. Secrecy – ignorance – makes her anxious. Her father’s gun sits in her handbag, clean as the day she swiped it. She hopes there will be no need to touch it, but if John does not give her answers – if his intentions are less noble than he says – then she may have no other option.

John appears in the centre of the room and the four of them jump. He dusts himself off as if he has just stepped out of a dune buggy.

‘Sorry,’ he says, seeing their glares. ‘Last time. I won’t need to do it again.’

He puts the necklace in his jacket pocket, then removes the jacket and places it over the back of a chair.

His employees stare at it like hungry dogs.

‘Sholeh,’ he says, then devolves into speaking Persian. Onyeka turns back to her screen in annoyance. One polyglot is bad enough, and at least Grace works hard at learning every language she comes across. John is no longer aware when he is speaking English or not. Foresight, time-travel, and now accidentally learning languages…she had been awed at these supernatural abilities at first, but their allure has cooled, and their mystery seems ever more sinister with time.

‘Coo-LUH,’ Grace says, still sitting on Sosuke’s desk, swinging her legs.

‘Kuu-ru,’ he mumbles again, trying to drown himself out with his keyboard taps.

Grace laughs.

‘Do you want me to take you back home?’ John is asking Sholeh.

She is working on paper, typing with two fingers only when necessary. She shakes her head.

‘There’s no point,’ she mutters. Her eyes are red from late-night crying. ‘I can’t change anything. And no-one would believe me if I told them what I know.’

Sholeh was introduced to computers and the internet this morning. She has spent most of the her time clicking between webpages about her home, and trying harder not to cry.

‘I cannot even take the book back,’ she continues. ‘I would cause a…a…’

‘Paradox,’ John says, as if bored.

‘Yes,’ she whispers.

The letter from her future self was a paradox. She shouldn’t be here now, because that letter convinced her to go with him, but that future self and that letter don’t exist any more…

The world threatens to sink into sand again. She squeezes her eyes shut. No. Taking a book back, or a print out of a web page, or anything like that – that would be even worse.

‘Nothing I can do will change it,’ she says. ‘If I went back, I would only watch my mother’s disappointment. Her despair. One person cannot change so much.’

‘Not a normal person, anyway,’ John says with a smirk. ‘Only a couple people can ever change things, and we’re not usually one of them. At least, I never thought…’

He pauses, as if catching himself, and laughs.

‘Hah, what’s the point? It doesn’t matter. None of it will matter.’

He gets up and walks away. It is like a cloud has covered his sunny day. He is shrouded, dark and indiscernible. Sholeh follows him with her eyes. A spark of curiosity spits into her depression, lighting up her mind’s fire.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Onyeka looking at her. They share a worried glance.

‘Kuu-LAH,’ Sosuke shouts. Everyone stares.

Grace chuckles.

‘Now you’ve got it!’

~~~

February 13th, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York

‘Listen to me, son: this is the real secret behind everything,’ Bert says.

John frowns.

‘A necklace?’

‘Not just any necklace. The spokewheel necklace. Controller of time. It’s an ancient Burmese artefact, lost for centuries – and found three years ago, by yours truly.’

John thinks he is lying, but of course he’s not going to say that to his boss.

Bertram leans across the table, chain splayed across his palm.

‘The design is based on the Buddhist symbol for the noble eightfold path, the Dharma wheel, but I’m sure it was more recently carved into that design – and by “recently” I mean a thousand years or so, instead of hundreds of thousands. The monks had to disguise it as something religious, to hide what it truly is. See, I’d been reading about it for years, in legends and folk tales, never believing it existed – and then, in Old Bagan, I found it. It had been sitting under a slab in a caved-in stupa for over a century.’

He smiles and adds quietly, ‘It’s almost enough to make you believe in fate.’

‘But what is it?’ John says. He doesn’t see what monks, or Burma, or one unexceptional necklace has to do with anything.

Bertram sits back, drawing the necklace out of his reach.

‘It’s a kind of powerful magic.’

John snorts and Bert raises an eyebrow.

‘You don’t believe me? Last week, I saw you shake Abe Hodge’s hand, and tell him he’s ill and should go to a doctor. This morning he came to me and said they found a tumour on his kidney. You know how you knew that?’

John looks down and shakes his head. He didn’t know about Abe. He didn’t know anyone had noticed what he said to him last week – he didn’t know what to do about the images that flashed before his eyes that day.

‘You’re picking up my blood-reading. That’s how. How did you do that? How can I do it in the first place? It’s unexplainable. It’s supernatural. We might as well call it “magic” of different kinds.’

John can’t hear him very well over the sound of his skin crawling, over the panic of drawing an ability from another person without realising it.

‘This is the same,’ Bert says, shaking the hand that grips the necklace. ‘I can’t pretend I know how it works. But legend spoke of an enchanted stone that could take you across time, just by thinking about where you would like to be. I found one that looked like it, and out of curiosity I tried it – and I woke up in 1944.’

John still doesn’t believe him, but it’s the kind of disbelief an older child feels when thinking about Santa Claus. He doesn’t believe, because he is rational, but his desire to believe runs deeper than his logic, and he will pretend to believe and enjoy pretending until his logic becomes unbearably heavy.

‘1944?’ he asks. ‘What’s it like?’

Bert’s face clouds over, as if he resents the question, and resents remembering it.

‘That’s not important,’ he says. ‘What I learned was that it worked. Time-travel works. And when you can go through time, you can do nearly anything. I was a dirt-poor archeologist living off whatever the university was willing to pay me. After a couple of trips back in time, I had enough to sell to the museums to pay for the deposit for this.’

He gestures to the club around them, dead in the daytime, weak rays filtering through the windows like multiple dusty spotlights. Varnished wood and glinting glass, and original artwork on the walls.

‘So that’s what Sam meant by your “antiques”?’ John asks.

‘Just ordinary things,’ Bertram says. ‘Cutlery. China cups. Even toys. Take them a hundred years into the future, and they’re worth more than anyone could imagine.’

‘That’s nice, Bert,’ John says, ‘but why you telling all this to me?’

Bert puts his hand back on the table and reveals the necklace again. He frowns at it for a second before answering.

‘I’m going to be honest with you, John,’ he says. ‘The more I see you picking things up, and influencing everything around here, the more I…well, you don’t realise what’s you’re doing yet. But I think, with this and your power, we could make an actual difference. When I came back from 1944…’

Words fail him momentarily. John waits. He has tipped towards belief without knowing it. He wants to snatch the necklace from his boss’s hands and see what is so bad about 1944 for himself.

‘I couldn’t make much of a difference,’ Bert says. ‘People thought I was crazy, so I kept it quiet. I’m not one of those people who can change the world by myself. But I thought, maybe –’

A door shuts. Footsteps approach from the back rooms, and a voice along with them:

‘–it was just too apt, I’m there at four in the morning, eating and I haven’t slept in days, and this song starts playing on repeat, “We’re up all night to get–”’

Tessa and Alice enter arm-in-arm, and stop dead. Alice’s eyes light on Bert’s hand, and the necklace he is holding out to John. Her face pales.

She runs to the table and snatches the necklace away, stepping back and eyeing John like he is a predator.

‘Alice!’ Bert cries, turning to her. ‘What are you doing?’

‘We discussed this,’ she says. Her accent still irritates John.

‘Alice…’ Bert says. An undercurrent of menace lurks beneath his slight frown. He holds out his hand and Alice steps back, clutching the necklace to her chest.

‘I gave you this in confidence,’ she says.

‘It’s mine,’ Bert says, like a schoolteacher about to give out a caning. ‘And I decide what to do with it, and who is allowed to use it – not you.’

He gives Tessa a significant glance. She looks down and stealthily moves towards the front door.

Alice flushes. The meaning of this exchange is beyond John, but he knows when not to get involved. He stands. Bert and Alice are staring each other down.

‘John, come back tomorrow,’ Bert says, not looking away from his girlfriend. ‘I’ll need you for the harbour run, and the bank.’

‘Right, see you,’ John says, and makes his escape just behind Tessa.

The air outside is cool, despite the sunshine. Tessa puffs out her cheeks.

‘Woo, glad I could get out of that!’

‘Same,’ John says. Tessa’s pretty, but he doesn’t like the way she talks, either. Not enough decent Americans round Bert, in his eyes.

‘Hey, you’re that guy’s wife, ain’t you – George’s wife?’

‘Sure am,’ she says, glancing at her ring with a smile. ‘I’m not sure we’ve met before – I’m Tessa. George talks about you a lot.’

She holds out her hand, straight out and confident like she was a man. John looks her up and down. There is something definitely funny about her, says a voice in his mind. Something decidedly wrong about the way she talks, and acts, and looks at him with the same veiled worry as her husband.

‘Only met the man once,’ he says.

‘Oh,’ she says, bringing her hand back down to her side. ‘Well, it must be because of Sam, y’know. He likes Sam a lot, he’s a great guy.’

‘Yeah,’ John growls. ‘I know.’

Her eyes widen, ever so slightly. She is scared. Of him? Of…making a mistake?

Yes. And of course she’s scared.

A thin gauze, a veil, appears over his vision. Like the images he saw when he shook Abe’s hand, pictures overlay life: Tessa and George, sitting in a room covered in posters and books and plastic cases, wearing clothes so bright and tight they might be from the circus. Glowing screens on the wall and in their hands. A knock on the front door. Concern on their faces. A hand reaches out, holding the spokewheel necklace, and three hands pile on top of each other, medallion clutched at the bottom. Then, only an empty hallway is left.

The voice says: this is 2007.

‘John?’

John blinks and he is back in the present. Tessa’s fear has tripled.

‘Your eyes,’ she says. ‘They went like – like Alice’s, with the sight –’

Sight? Alice? She must be wrong. The sight is Sam’s – but it was like sight, something like it – oh God, if he took the blood-reading from Bert and didn’t realise –

‘John, are you okay?’ Tessa says, taking a step forward. He bats her hand away.

‘You freak,’ he says. ‘Don’t touch me. I know what you are. You’re from the future.’

Tessa freezes. John shakes his head. Magic didn’t exist a month ago, and now he is talking to a woman from the future and seeing things he shouldn’t know, learning things without even trying. It’s too much. He has enough to deal with, enough already – he doesn’t want any of this.

‘Stay away from me,’ he says. ‘Just…just stay out of my way, you and your freak husband. Leave me and Sam alone.’

He turns and walks away.

Tessa stamps her foot, groaning internally. She has blown it.

~~~

August 24th, 2007

Combe Down, Bath

Tessa has never heard Alice shout before. It sounds so unusual that she doubts it is her outside. Banging on the front door like she will break it, she shouts ‘Tessa!’ as if her life depends on it.

Tessa runs down the hallway and throws it open. Alice is red-faced, in a dress meant for warmer weather than this. Sweat drips off her long nose; tears threaten to drip from her eyes.

‘What is it?’ Tessa cries, ushering her in. She hears George walk up behind her.

‘You have to help me,’ Alice says, shutting the door behind her. ‘I’ve found something…something awful is going to happen.’

She wipes her eyes before the tears can spill.

‘What is it?’ George asks, putting his hands on Tessa’s shoulder. His presence relaxes her – but only a little bit.

‘Don’t eat this,’ Alice commands, pointing at him. ‘I need this. I need to feel this, and remember it, and use it.’

‘I won’t,’ he says. ‘But what’s wrong?’

‘There is someone else travelling through time.’

The couple glance at each other. Tessa is glad to know she has not missed something; George looks just as puzzled as she is.

‘What’s so wrong about that? If they have another means –’

‘There is only one of these,’ Alice says, pulling the necklace out. ‘Only one in existence. I asked him, and he said I gave it to him. He said he knew me from 1931. He said…’

She stops and swallows. Rubs her face. Straightens, and takes a breath. When she opens her eyes again, she looks like a queen ready for war.

‘Whatever happens in February in 1931, you must stop it. I can do nothing, else I meet myself and create a paradox. You are my only friends outside of that time. Please, you must help me.’

‘Of course we’ll help you,’ Tessa says. There is no need for consideration.

‘What’s so wrong about him taking the necklace? How do you know he won’t go back and give it back to you?’

George is being needlessly logical, and it is clear Alice is not in the place for logic.

‘I don’t care,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t matter. I do not matter. But if you do not go back and change things…’

She threatens to quail again.

‘…then the man who means more than the world to me – he will die. Bertram will die if I don’t do anything. And I’ve already…’

Tessa cannot read emotions like her boyfriend, but she sees two purities cross Alice’s face: pure self-loathing. Pure terror. Then Alice puts her face in her hands, and sobs.

Written by G.J.

07/05/2014 at 4:08 pm