Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for the ‘Pinwheel’ Category

A Pinwheel Christmas

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December 23rd, 2007

Combe Down, Bath

Tessa giggles into her fourth mulled wine.

‘Put on Bodysnatchers!’

George is crouched at his laptop, and his laptop is on a coffee table that is too low and far from the sofa to be practical. He glances at Tessa, and when he turns back to his screen he is half-smiling.

‘No.’

‘It’s the only good song on the whole fucking album! Put on Bodysnatchers!’

‘No. We’re going to listen to it in order, all the way through, as albums were intended to be listened to.’

‘You are such a music snob.’

He turns and prods her foot.

‘And you are drunk.’

‘Am not. I’ve only had two.’

‘Then why is the whole bottle gone?’

Tessa giggles again. When George sits down beside her, she flings both legs over his lap before he can reach for the Xbox controller.

‘…do you mind?’ he says, smiling.

‘Nope!’

He stretches over her shins and grabs the controller. As the console boots up, Tessa looks at him, and from him into the sweet purple liquid, and as he loads up his game, a sombre thought comes streaming into her mind, unbidden, and soon it has ruined the carpet and is threatening to flood her happy little scene.

‘I wonder where Alice is right now.’

George’s eyes are fixed on the screen, mind occupied with less earthly matters.

‘She could be literally anywhere in the world in any time period. Why bother wondering?’

‘No, I mean…I wonder if she’ll spend this Christmas alone.’ Tessa takes a gulp of wine and relishes the warmth in her gullet. ‘I hated the Christmases I spent alone.’

George takes a second to pat her leg, but he cannot divert his eyes or hands from the screen for long.

‘She doesn’t need to have a Christmas ever again if she doesn’t want to. She can skip December 25th every year for the rest of her life, if she wants.’

‘But that’s shit, isn’t it? Even shittier, never having Christmas again.’

George shrugs as he shoots aliens in the face.

‘It’s just another day.’

‘It is not!’ Tessa says, flaring with heat though she doesn’t know why. ‘It’s a special holiday! It’s, it’s traditional, and historical, and magical! Time to stay with family, and friends, and loved ones you n-never see!’

‘It’s an excuse for everyone to get the day off work and drink,’ George says. ‘And even that doesn’t happen for everyone.’

Why does she feel so strongly about this? Well, nevertheless, his lack of caring is like an assault – and worst thing is, he must know it.

‘God, you are a total scrooge.’

George shrugs again and enters his spaceship. Tessa watches the screen for a few seconds, blinking away her drunken tears.

‘…I hope Alice is okay.’

George’s character comes to a stop in an empty, stainless steel corridor. George turns and takes the glass out of his girlfriend’s hand.

‘Me too,’ he says, and pulls her close to him.

~*~*~

December 4th, 2008

Madison Avenue, New York

Grace quickly shuts her e-mails tab as she hears someone walk up to her desk.

‘Grace, hey,’ Josh says. ‘You got a minute?’

‘What’s wrong?’ she asks, turning around. Josh turns his palms to the ceiling and gives a reassuring grin.

‘Nothing wrong, don’t worry, see, but the thing is, we’ve got this new programmer in – guy from Japan – and he’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, he’s perfect, but is English iiiiis a little creaky, if you know what I’m saying?’

‘And?’

‘Aaaaaand I was hoping you could go over some of the important docs with him, make sure he understands it all before it gets put into HR, know what I mean?’

‘I don’t have time to babysit your programmers,’ she says. She learnt, soon after coming to America, that her Nigerian accent is often perceived as stern. She uses this to her utmost advantage at work, where it seems people on every level are complicit in walking all over everybody’s else’s time and commitments, all with a broad smile on their face, while those walked over agree to it with a mirroring, terrified grin.

‘Hey, come on, Grace – just this once, today, I promise. You can kick my ass if I ask you again.’

Well, Grace is going to need to call in some favours in at Christmas. Might as well get as many people in her debt as she can.

‘I will hold you to that,’ she says, standing up. ‘You are lucky I’m not as busy as I normally am.’

‘Great, great,’ Josh says, leading her out to the door. A man is waiting for them.

‘Hey, Sosuke, thanks for waiting – Grace, this is Sosuke Ito, Sosuke, this is Grace Abani, she’ll be making sure your files, paperwork, are all understood and in top shape. If you need anything, just ask – she’s a great girl! Anyways, I’ve gotta run to a meeting, so, make sure everything’s alright by four, okay Grace?’

Josh leaves as swiftly as he arrived, before Grace can make any protest or further snarky remarks.

Sosuke is maybe a few years younger than her, though it’s hard to tell. He has a shaggy-haired, meek dog look to him that’s rather appealing. When she turns to him, he jerks his gaze to the carpet.

‘Ito-san, was it?’ she asks, in Japanese.

He looks up, surprised and relieved to hear someone speaking his native tongue, and the second his eyes are on her face again, they stick there. She has the strange sensation that she has met him before, though she can’t imagine where. Must look like someone I saw on TV once, she decides.

As they walk back to his office, she continues the conversation.

‘Have you been in New York long, Ito-san?’

‘Not long,’ he says. Then, with what appears to be burst of bravery, he adds: ‘But I spent a long time preparing to come here. Though I know I still need to improve my English…’

His eyes keep catching on her before he drags them to the floor.

‘Preparing to come to America?’

‘Yes, and New York. I wanted to come to New York.’

‘Why?’

He doesn’t reply for a moment, and she repeats the question.

‘Why-‘

‘I felt I had to,’ he rushes out. ‘I felt something drawing me here. I’m sorry, it’s strange.’

Her laugh catches in her chest before she forces it out.

‘No, I understand. I felt the same. Something called me to America, and New York.’

How strange, she thinks. I wonder if Onyeka would call me fanciful for wondering if it is only coincidence. The myth around this city is strong, she would say. Delusions.

Sosuke looks at her again, longer this time.

‘You are…not American?’

‘I am African. Nigerian.’

‘Ah. You…you speak Japanese very well.’

Truthfully, Grace feels her Japanese is rusty, after so long focusing on Mandarin and Hindi. Still, they work through his documents, she clarifies important legalese for him, and she tries to ignore how he keeps staring at her.

She finishes her explanation. She turns to him suddenly, and – mid-stare – he jumps. She says, in English:

‘Do you have any questions?’

‘Ah, uh, no, it is, uh…’

He pauses, and then – in another rush – he says in Japanese:

‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but you look very familiar to me, and I am trying to understand why, because I did not know any people l-like you, back in Tokyo, and I haven’t been in New York long. I cannot remember where I’ve seen you before.’

Grace feels a prickle at her skin. Her head throbs.

‘I don’t think we have met,’ she says. ‘Perhaps it is your mind playing tricks.’

‘Must be,’ he says. He repeats it in a mumble: ‘Must be.’

Grace gladly leaves him and returns to her desk. Double checking that no-one is behind her, she opens her e-mails again, and looks at the message from her sister:

Have booked the plane. I arrive late on the 24th. Details attached. Can’t wait to see you. Onyeka.

Grace reads it three times to wash out the unease in her mind. Coincidences. Tricks of the mind. Onyeka will say all these things to her to explain what just happened, and they will make her feel safe and certain…until the talk of physics and the tininess of their place in the universe begins again.

Still, Grace thinks, at least my sister wasn’t complicit in creating a black hole in the middle of Europe and destroying us all.

Three months after the first run on the Large Hadron Collider, the idea is hysterical.

~*~*~

December 24th, 1931

Sixth Avenue, New York

The store is sparkling with tinsel, lights, and pictures and figures of ruddy-cheeks Santas – just as Sam likes to see it. John shuts the door behind him, and flips the sign to “Closed.”

‘Helluva day,’ John says. His eyes are shining, despite the tired slump in his shoulders. ‘They just kept coming, and coming, and coming.’

Sam goes to the counter and opens the till.

‘You know how folks are with their – Jesus Christ!’

The machine is spilling with notes. They threaten to jump out at him.

‘Sorry, boss,’ John says. (He would never admit it, but he likes calling Sam “boss.” It’s a small token of the immense gratitude he has for the man.) ‘Didn’t have time to take it to the safe after five.’

‘This is just this evening?’

John nods, cheeks pink with pride.

‘Jee-zus,’ Sam says, with a happy shake of the head. ‘I swear, it’s like this stuff is attracted to you.’ Happy shake of a fist holding a hundred bucks.

John laughs. He stands taller, since he started working here. Or maybe it’s that he’s filling out, not so scrawny as he once was. Or maybe it’s the clothes, or the tidy hair. Maybe it’s his smile. Either way, whenever Sam gives him fifty bucks, he comes back looking a hundred better.

They count out the money, bag it up. On the way to the back safe, John says:

‘Should be enough here to keep you ‘n Marge happy tomorrow.’

‘We’ll see,’ says Sam. ‘We’ll see.’

His mind whirs at this reminder. He has been considering something whenever he mentions the store to his new wife. Christmas is for family, it’s said, and Lord knows he’s got plenty of ’em, even without considering Marge’s side. But peace upon earth and goodwill to fellow men and charity in the snow comes with it all. When he lies in bed at night, sometimes he still hears the sound of an angel-light step upon the stair, and a weeping blonde figure, begging him for forgiveness, begging him to makes things right. They said, a way back, an English woman in Brooklyn inherited a whole fortune and gave damn near the whole thing away. I couldn’t be as good as that, he’s said. But when he looks at this scrawny kid, and how good he’s turning out, all on account of the money Sam gave him – then he thinks, maybe, maybe I could try.

They tidy the last parts away, cover what’s needed. Sam stands at the back door, watching John turn out the lights, and he thinks that he has to try.

‘You seeing any of your family tomorrow?’ he asks, as John reaches him.

‘What family?’ John says.

The self-conscious turn of his head – the hint of darkness in his tone – the attempt to cover it with a breath-laugh – tell everything. Al really was the last of the dead, imprisoned, estranged lot. Sam’s heart twinges.

‘You got anybody to see tomorrow?’

‘Priest, maybe, if I don’t go to midnight mass.’

If you were ten years younger, Sam thinks, you’d be the lead in a Christmas sob-story, a seasonal fairy tale about the orphan boy with no-one in the world to care for him. Make it right, the angel said. Make it right.

Sam locks the back door and speaks.

‘What d’you say to coming round to mine tomorrow?’

White mist spurts out of John in his surprise.

‘Y-your place?’

‘It’ll be busy, but I’m sure we can squeeze one more your size in.’

Another burst of clouded breath, then another, like a steam train.

‘I – I can’t, boss, I can’t – I can’t barge in like that –’

With each stammer and refusal, Sam becomes more and more certain.

‘It’s no intrusion if I’m inviting you. In fact, I’m telling you: you’re coming tomorrow. I ain’t gonna have you sitting home by yourself all day.’

‘Ah – well uh – gee – yeah, yeah, I’ll come – if it’s fine by you.’

Sam claps him on the shoulder, and all doubt has fled his mind. Funny, how virtue always seems so obvious, so simple, so satisfying, after the fact.

‘We’ll be happier for having you. I gotta warn you, though, my ma – she’ll see the size of you and she’ll want to stuff you til you burst! And my kid cousins, you’ll be tearing your hair out…’

They walk off down the street, and John smiles at all the warnings and tales of Sam’s family, until he feels he knows and is part of them already. A further warmth bursts in his heart as he considers the kindness he has received, the luck he has gathered, and the hopeful future that waits for him. He knows better than to hope too far ahead, but that night he intuits the wonderful truth:

He will never spend another Christmas alone, or cold, or unhappy.

~*~*~

December 23rd, 1928

Fort Greene, New York

Alice wakes with Personent Hodie ringing through her head. The sky is dark outside, though the street lamps still shine through the night. It feels a long time since she saw true darkness. True midwinter.

She curls in her thick duvet, and remembers her grandmother and grandfather singing hymns together by the fire, waiting for wassailers that never came. Only a few years ago, in her life, but to the world she is living in, it is hundreds of years, a time passed and forgotten and mysterious. The weight of those years crushes her. All she knows and could tell, but cannot tell and cannot say she knows. All that has passed her by, that she must learn or pretend to know. A lifetime of hiding truth, hiding herself, never ending. She curls tight into a ball and remembers her dead family and dead past, and for two minutes continuing to exist seems an impossible task, like she has been sentenced to wade endlessly in a thick mud bog that stretches as far as she can see.

Then, through the folds, comes the sound of singing:

‘O, holy night, the stars are brightly shining…’

She takes the covers away from her head.

‘It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth…’

It is coming from the living room. Funny. She didn’t hear him come in.

‘Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, ’til he appeared, and the soul felt its worth…’

The soft tenor of his voice weaves through the walls of the apartment like a delicious smell. She sits up and the covers fall away from her, push her forward towards the sound:

‘A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices…’

His outline comes into view through the doorway: crouched before a pine tree, fiddling with something on the floor. He is still in his clothes from last night. Likely he hasn’t slept yet.

‘For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…’

With the press of a button, the tree blooms into light, as if a hundred stars have fallen from the sky to sit in its boughs. Bertram sits back on his heels and sings out:

‘Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices! Oh night divine! Oh night, when Christ was born…’

He turns and sees her standing behind him, and smiles.

‘Sorry, did I wake you?’

Alice cannot speak. In all her life, in all the years dragged to church, she has never felt the chills of her spirit lifting to heaven as she does now, seeing those lights, and hearing that song.

Bertram stands, and gestures to the fir.

‘I finally got us a tree. And look! Electric lights, instead of candles. I thought I’d surprise you with them when you woke up. Cost me a bunch, but it looks swell, doesn’t it? ‘

She feels she could stare at it all day. But now her soul is settling back into her body, she cannot deny the question:

‘But why take a whole tree inside?’

Bertram gives her a puzzled look.

‘Why? It’s just what we do. You mean you didn’t have Christmas trees back then?’

Her emotions are too raw to cope with even an innocent question. The smell of pine from the tree reminds her of home and the hot prick comes into her eyes again.

‘We hung wreaths, and branches of holly and ivy,’ she says. ‘And we roasted apples on the fire. And we sang.’

‘Roasted apples? Never done that. We can if you want, though,’ he adds quickly. He must have caught the weakness in her: he has a supportive look, as if he expects her to break apart any moment. She despises it.

Alice pulls herself straight and commands the tears to die.

‘What was that song?’

‘That? Oh, just an old carol. It was the first that came to mind. I suppose you won’t know the last century ones, will you?’

‘Please,’ she says. ‘Teach me them. That was beautiful.’

He sings her O Holy Night, and Silent Night, and Away in a Manger, and when he tries to teach her the cheerier songs such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Ding Dong Merrily on High, she stops him. The sun has not yet risen, and she prefers to keep the calm stillness in her heart, while she has both him and twinkling lights in the dark.

‘There are still a few hours until sunrise,’ he says, looking at the clock. ‘I suppose I should back to bed and try to sleep at least a little. It’s gonna be a busy few days.’

She agrees they should. She is exhausted.

At her bedroom door, they pause and look at each other.

‘Merry Christmas, Alice,’ Bertram says.

‘Merry Christmas,’ she whispers, and watches his bedroom door close.

Back in her bed, she stares at the ceiling, and – so softly she can barely hear herself – she whisper-sings:

‘O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining…’

*~*~*

December 24th, 2008

Times Square, New York

Grace watches the ice skaters and the lights on the trees, trying to remain happy as she waits. And waits. In the cold.

‘A-Abani-san?’

She turns. She shouldn’t be surprised – Times Square isn’t far from work, and work only ended an hour ago. But she feels that, in a city with eight million people, she should not be able to turn around and see Sosuke Ito standing in the street behind her.

‘Hi,’ she says, switching on her Japanese brain. She resumes leaning on the side of the rink.

‘Are you going ice-skating?’ he asks.

‘No. I’m waiting.’

‘Ah.’

He hesitates before asking his next question.

‘Waiting for a friend? Or a date – am I interrupting?’

‘No, no,’ she says, smiling. Most of the people at work find his awkwardness irritating. She can’t admit she finds it sweet. ‘I am waiting to go to the airport. My sister is arriving tonight, but her flight is late, so I’m waiting until traffic is quieter before I go to the airport to meet her.’

‘Ah.’

Sosuke stands beside her, and in silence they look around.

‘It’s pretty, isn’t it?’ he says.

Thousands of lights, from tiny white to palm-sized red orbs, strung up all over the trees both real and fake – a complement to the thousands of lights in the windows and billboards of the city. Even more explosions of colour, for the biggest holiday in the year.

‘Do you and your sister celebrate Christmas?’ Sosuke asks.

‘Yes. We are Christians.’

‘Ah.’

To his credit, he doesn’t look as surprised as many Americans do when she tells them that.

In the pause that follows, Grace watches the couples holding each other up on the rink, and a thought occurs to her.

‘Is it true that Christmas Eve is a romantic night for couples, in Japan?’

‘Yes,’ he says, then adds with a mumble: ‘Not that I’ve ever celebrated it…’

‘So you won’t be celebrating tomorrow either?’

‘I’m happy to have a day off to play some video games,’ he says.

Grace laughs, and the laugh gives her energy. She straightens, and says to him:

‘Let’s look around, while we wait. Are you busy?’

‘No,’ he says, with the face of a child who has just seen Santa. ‘No, I’m not busy. I…’

He blurts out:

‘I’ll wait with you until your sister comes, if you want.’

‘I think I would like that,’ Grace says.

And so they walk around Manhattan, pointing out the giant decorations, the toys in the windows, the billboards and advertisements, and gradually Grace tempts him to converse in English for practice, and before either knows what has happened, Sosuke is talking about movies, and as he speaks he trips over his words and his hands gesture so wide that he nearly hits the glaring pedestrians passing by.

‘And he has, uh, can, that shoot steam, and when they are in space, she flies but he use the can to move, and he shoot around space like “Shuuuuu, shuuuu…”’

Grace laughs as he gestures spraying a fire extinguisher around him.

‘That sounds fun.’

‘It is,’ he says, as they stop at a food truck. ‘But is also, uh…’

He pauses as he buys them both a warm waffle, smothered in chocolate.

‘Is sweet,’ he says. ‘The movie, it is romantic.’

Grace takes her first bite of the waffle and the syrup swells over her tongue, delicious warmth seeping into her hands and mouth. Sweet. It’s a Christmas Eve date, she realises, but without plan or title. And she likes it. Sweet.

They sit on a nearby bench and eat their waffles. Sosuke finishes his first and as he waits, he watches the people pass by.

‘I…this is strange. For me.’

‘It takes time to get used to New York,’ she replies, licking her fingers.

‘No, uhh, what I mean is…I made a decision. Three years ago. Before, I sat in my room, felt bad, did nothing. One day, I made a decision: I would go to New York. I sell everything, I take lessons, I work hard. Now, I am in New York, and I think: what do I do now?’

He looks at the sky and chuckles.

She doesn’t know how to reply to such things, so she says:

‘That was well said. Your English is not bad.’

‘Still,’ he mutters, in Japanese, ‘I feel better for meeting you – even if I’m going crazy and we haven’t met before.’

She smiles and pretends she hasn’t heard him.

They walk around for a little longer, and finally she looks at her phone and realises it is time.

‘I should go. Thanks for hanging out with me.’

‘You’re welcome,’ he says. His eyes scan her face again, and he seems to see something important as he does. He smiles.

‘Apartments in New York are very small, aren’t they?’ he mumbles, in Japanese.

‘What?’ she says, taken aback.

In English, clear as day:

‘I make a new decision: I will get bigger apartment. More money, bigger apartment. Big so I can have a girlfriend, and her friends and family to visit next Christmas.’

A sudden flush of jealousy for this imaginary woman and her imaginary, perfect family. Sosuke’s eyes are filled with determination, and at once Grace has no doubt that he will get exactly what he wants. Penthouse, blonde wife, corporate glory. After all, if he took himself out of Japan just like that…

Stubbornness digs its heels into her thoughts. No. I want to be part of that. I want to walk around Manhattan with him again. I want to watch movies with him and see him explain them to other people at work with the same enthusiasm. I want to know more.

‘Sosuke,’ she says, ‘let’s go see a movie next week. After my sister is gone. On the last day of the year. Let’s meet here, at this time, and go see a movie.’

He does not celebrate Christmas, but he grins as if he has been given the present he always wanted.

‘Hai – yes, yes. I will. Thank you, Abani-san.’

‘Call me Grace,’ she says. ‘In English and Japanese. Call me Grace.’

He blushes and nods his head, still grinning.

‘Yes…Grace.’

She checks her phone again. She needs to run.

‘Merry Christmas, Sosuke. I’ll see you on the thirty-first!’

‘M-merry Christmas…Grace.’

She turns and runs and looks back and waves and runs and wonders what just happened, but nevertheless she smiles and the people on the subway around her glare at her for smiling so publicly.

When Onyeka comes through the gate an hour later, Grace rushes into her arms.

‘I missed you!’

‘I missed you too!’ Onyeka says, hugging her tight. ‘Though I cannot believe you convinced me to come to America for Christmas. It is so cold! Next year, we are going back to Lagos with the rest of the family, hear me?’

Grace laughs.

‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘Or maybe they will come here.’

‘Here? No! If we bring them anywhere cold, it will be Switzerland. It is far more beautiful than New York in winter.’

‘I don’t know, nnwanne,’ Grace says, as they exit the building and the lights of the city descend around them. ‘I think there is magic here, in winter. Magic that can make strange things happen in New York at Christmas.’

Onyeka rolls her eyes.

‘You and your superstitions. Let’s go – I am freezing!’

Grace smiles to herself as they enter the airport train. She keeps her Christmas secret warm in her chest.

~*~*~

December 25th, 2007

Combe Down, Bath

There are four presents under the tree. One each from George’s parents – away on a cruise, as they do every year – and one to each other. The real present, of course, is Tessa’s happiness. She pops open the tin of chocolates she bought for herself and sweeps one into her mouth with a flamboyant gesture.

‘Ha! It’s the one day of the year you can’t have a go at me for eating chocolate for breakfast!’ she says, thickly.

‘So where’s my morning beer, then?’

‘In the fridge, where you left it,’ she says. ‘Hurry up, I wanna start!’

After George gets his beer, he fiddles with his laptop for a few minutes and drinks in Tessa’s exasperation as he puts on the same album he’s been playing for days.

‘Bodysnatchers,’ she requests.

‘Hurry up, then, open something,’ he replies as he sits at the tree. She hits him with a cushion.

Five minutes later, it’s done. Socks and perfume, and a new dress for Tessa. Socks, a body wash set, and three second-hand comedy DVDs for George.

‘Do your parents think we stink or something?’

‘And that we can’t afford to heat the house.’

‘It’s really sad that I’m actually glad to have socks. My child self would kill me.’

‘I’m guessing your child self also pulled the heads off of all new her Barbies by Christmas dinner, so I wouldn’t care what she thinks.’

Tessa crawls up to him and kisses him softly.

‘You know me too well.’

There is a slight twinge of disgust in her as she tastes the beer on his lips, but her happiness is still the most warming, rich meal. His own, personal Christmas dinner.

Three hours later, they have watched all the DVDs. Tessa is sweet-sick and George is groggy from beer and eating too much happiness.

‘Well, that’s Christmas over,’ Tessa says. Her disappointment is light grey, near-tasteless gruel. ‘Might go back to bed.’

George, not thinking what else to do, turns on the Xbox.

‘Let me know when you want dinner put in the oven. I’m stuffed.’

They have oven-roast ready meals prepared for their Christmas meal. No point putting in a lot of effort for just the two of them.

He hears something over the start-up sound. He pauses, and listens. Nothing.

Tessa yawns loudly, and he hears it again.

‘Did you hear that?’

‘Hm?’

They listen, and it comes a third time: a soft rapping at the front door.

A glance at each other – who would come visit them on Christmas Day? – and Tessa springs up and out to the hallway, George scrambling after her.

The door is thrown open, and Tessa screams in delight:

‘ALICE!’

Alice smiles, parcel held out in her hands.

‘Merry Christmas,’ she says

Tessa takes the parcel, tosses it into George’s arms, and throws herself on the woman.

‘I missed you! I was worried about you! Oh, thank God you’re okay! I’m so happy you’re here!’

She all but drags her inside. Door is kicked shut, cheeks are kissed. George places the parcel on the hall table and envelops them both.

‘Merry Christmas, Alice,’ he says, into their heads.

When they break apart, he takes a second look at their guest. Alice is older. Hard to tell how old, but she looks more adult than she used to. Her hair is long and tied loosely at the nape. She is wearing modern clothes: jeans, Christmas jumper with a snowman on the front. And her eyes…they show lifetimes of sadness, regret, resignation. Yet when she meets his look, she exudes only a calm determination. At least, that is the only emotion he can taste in her.

‘How are you?’ he asks.

‘Better than I was,’ she says.

‘We haven’t got you a present!’ Tessa cries. Alice laughs and her entire demeanour changes, warms.

‘Of course you haven’t – you weren’t expecting me!’

‘Or any real Christmas dinner,’ Tessa continues. ‘I’m sorry!’

Alice takes Tessa’s hands in her own and squeezes them.

‘I didn’t come for dinner or gifts,’ she says. ‘I came to see you.’

Tessa doesn’t reply. Her face flares red. Her lips tremble. Like an avil from the sky, George sees the emotions fall heavy from nowhere.

She bursts into tears.

‘Ah…ah…fuck, sorry,’ she says, frantically wiping her face and sniffing. ‘It’s just…I…I missed you. I missed…I miss people.’

George panics – he did not see this coming at all. But Alice embraces Tessa and pulls him into the hug and the three of them embrace hold each other for a long time.

As Tessa runs upstairs to reapply her makeup, George looks again at Alice, and wonders at the continued calm in her.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Everywhere,’ she says, with her enigmatic half-smile. ‘But let’s not talk of that. What matters is…I didn’t want you two to be alone today.’

‘We’re not alone,’ George says. ‘We’ve got each other.’

She gives him a knowing look and walks into the living room.

Tessa reappears later, bouncing and smiling and bright. That is all he recognises, but he knows that surely some lingering remnant of what caused her tears must be left in her heart, even if he can’t detect it.

And for the first time in his life, George wonders if there are depths of emotions he cannot fathom, feelings that even he cannot discover, feelings that burst and rage and disappear to their hidden spaces just as quickly as they came. Hurts that lie low, never addressed and never noticed, until suddenly they are exposed. He has never considered himself or Tessa lonely, but the swell of bittersweet sadness that spiked in his girlfriend just now speaks otherwise.

His ignorance breaks in his face like an icy wave, and he is confused yet invigorated. Acres of the unknown within the human mind open up to him, and like a child he goggles at this new, unexplored land.

That realisation is what Alice gives him for Christmas.

Tessa, ever simpler, receives an understanding and loving soul beside her for that day. It is all she wants. The number of those who care about her has doubled. That is all that is needed.

.

The afternoon whiles away. They watch TV together. They play board games. They argue over things to do. Around six o’clock, Alice excuses herself for a moment, and when she returns, she says:

‘Come through to the kitchen. I have a surprise.’

Intrigued, they walk through – and gasp. The kitchen is decorated with tinsel and streamers, and a full Christmas dinner sits steaming on the covered table.

‘How…’ George begins, then stops and laughs. ‘Where did you get this from?’

‘I ordered it from various places and times,’ Alice says. ‘I took me a while. I’m glad to be back.’

Tessa gives her a bear hug in response.

Once dessert is over, they sit back in their chairs, stuffed. Tessa sinks, sadness creeping into her again.

‘Will you be leaving soon?’ she asks.

‘I’m afraid so,’ Alice says. ‘It’s been a long day, and I have many places to be.’

‘Surely you don’t have to be anywhere?’ George says. ‘You’re the most free person alive.’

Alice looks at him knowingly. Sits up straighter. Regains her regal bearing. From pain upon hurt, she has burst forth the strongest. Confidence fills her completely.

‘I have plans,’ she said. ‘A great many. And much work to do.’

‘But, surely if you can see and go to the future, you know how futile your efforts are,’ George says. Despite Tessa’s glare, he is unwilling to let this slide. ‘What work can you possibly do that makes such a difference?’

Alice smiles, like she is looking upon a toddler.

‘I have changed things,’ she says. ‘I have made happiness where there should have been despair. I have fostered love where there would have been isolation. Your gaze is not so wide that you can see all I have done…but I have made, and continue to make, a difference, in a hundred tiny ways. And though it will never be recognised by the wider story of time…’

She looks to the ceiling, to sky, to heaven.

‘I know in my heart I am doing the right thing.’

.

Tessa cries again when she leaves. Only once they turn away from the door do they remember the parcel she brought for them, left on the hallway table. Alice didn’t mention it once.

It contains two wrapped presents of odd shape. Tessa rips her open first.

There are three gorgeous designer dresses, all folded strangely around each other like cloth origami. In their centre are two CDs of broadway musical recordings. And between the CD cases is a Christmas card. A kitten in a Santa hat sits on the front of the card. When Tessa opens it, two sheets of paper flutter out. Plane tickets.

There is a man named Geiri Sigurmonsson who lives in Selfoss in Iceland. He is a dream-eater, and he once knew your grandfather. He can’t wait to meet you.

‘Oh, Alice!’ Tessa says, near tears again. ‘Shit, why did she have to leave before I opened this?’

George’s parcel contains a new coat, wrapped around a book about travelling. More plane tickets fall out. Round the world tickets.

‘Looks like she wants us to be as well-travelled as she is,’ he says, picking them up from the floor.

‘That’s not a ticket,’ Tessa says, pointing to one blue slip.

They look at it, then each other, then both shake their heads and laugh at their friend and her ways.

It is a cheque for a hundred and fifty-five thousand pounds. Written along the bottom, it says: To do with as you please.

You’re awful, Alice, he thinks. What else can we do with this now – after what you said earlier – but spend it on other people?

Late that night, entwined in bed, Tessa says to the dark:

‘We’re going to be okay, now.’

‘We were always going to be okay,’ he replies, with the certainty of a man who has never known destitution.

‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘But we have no excuse to not believe it now.’

There is a pause, then she says:

‘I’m happy. I’m so happy. Not for us, but for her. I know she’s okay now. She’ll always be okay, as long as she keeps doing what she loves. I hope she only ever has happiness. I know,’ she says, before George can open his mouth, ‘it’s not realistic or possible or whatever. But I hope it anyway. I wish it.’

He holds her close, thinks of the opening future, and he wishes it as well.

~*~*~

December 25th, 2014

Central Park, New York

Her hands are still cold, though hours have passed since she tidied up his grave. Fresh red roses for a man eighty years dead. Such strangeness doesn’t both her any more.

My Bertram, she thinks. You always refused to look forward instead of back. And the future is where the good promises are. I have so many plans. So many, and not enough time in my life to do them all.

A couple walks into view of her bench. An East-Asian man and a black woman two inches taller than him, out for a Christmas Day stroll. He speaks softly, but intensely. She laughs loudly in response. They pause, and turn to look behind them.

A small girl toddles unsteadily up to them. She has a pink coat, a cloud of black hair, and a grin a mile wide as she barges between her parents and puts her hands in theirs. They lift her up, legs swinging, and the three walk on. A family. A stable unit. A home burrowed in one place and time.

Alice watches them, heart burning.

Magnetism, whispers a ghost from another life.

Enough, she thinks, loud enough to drown out the self-pity. She pulls out the spokewheel necklace from around her neck.

I have work to do.

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Written by G.J.

23/12/2014 at 5:56 pm

Pinwheel 9: Alice Makes Things Right

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June 1st, 1930

Fort Greene, New York

Alice does not go to the club that night. She sits at the kitchen table and replays everything she has learnt and seen, everything the other her learned and saw. Her sight brings more and more to bear until it is clear to her: her attempts to save Bertram indirectly create deeper and deeper spirals of death. Should she try again, she may not be able to stop John, or something worse, this time. And the image of what she would have done that night – of a young man writhing as his eye melted – burns itself into her.

With a shudder, she rises from the table.

She knows what she must do.

Late that night, she goes to Queens.

~~~

June 2nd, 1930

Ozone Park, New York

Sam wakes to a beautiful summer morning. He sits up, stretches, yawns, scratches, and sets his feet on the floor. They brush something cold. Leather.

Blinking his eyes into focus, he sees a suitcase on his bedroom floor. A note lies on it. Rubbing his right eye again, he picks up the paper and reads:

In another life, I wronged you.

Please accept this as recompense, and use it to help those you love.

– an unseen friend.

Wondering if this is an elaborate prank, Sam kneels on his floor and opens the briefcase.

Inside are stacks and stacks of twenty dollar bills.

‘Ma!’ he shouts. ‘Ma, come look at this!’

~~~

June 2nd, 1930

Fort Greene, New York

The door slams open, then shuts with a curse. Bertram storms into the kitchen a few seconds later. Alice is waiting for him at the table, her hands clasped together before her. He walks to the sink, runs the tap, and vigorously splashes his face. Then, he leans against it, looking out the window onto the neighbouring apartments.

She considers asking what’s wrong, but decides against it.

‘Twenty thousand is missing from the safe.’

She says nothing. He turns away from the window.

‘See, this is the problem with doing illegal things, Alice,’ he says, wrenching off his tie and throwing it on the table. ‘When twenty thousand goes missing from the safe, there’s no-one you can call to handle it. So now I’ve to pull up every single shill who works for me and try to figure out who took it, when I made sure to have a business full of liars. But which liar would be stupid enough to take a whole damn twenty thousand – twenty thousand –!’

‘I took it,’ she says.

He pauses.

‘What do you mean?’

She puts her clasped hands on the table.

‘I took twenty thousand dollars from your safe last night.’

The coiled chain feels pleasing in her palms. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Bertram has frozen.

He asks, in a deep, suppressed voice:

‘Why?’

‘To repay a debt.’

‘You have no debts!’

She hazards to look at him. Furious, yes, but not dangerous. She opens her palms.

‘From another life.’

The necklace spills onto the wooden tabletop.

Bertram breathes in deeply and runs his hand down his face.

‘You shouldn’t play with that thing,’ he says – still in the same dark tone. ‘You shouldn’t use it. I try not to use it. No-one should touch it.’

That is immaterial, now, she thinks.

‘What did you do?’ he asks.

She does not speak.

He slams his fist against the cupboard beside him.

‘ALICE! What did you do?’

‘Nothing, this time,’ she says.

‘Alice…’

‘Something came to stop me,’ she says. She is surprised at the instant clog in her throat. ‘But it showed me what once had been. I hurt people, I crippled a man, twenty people or more died because of my actions. I had to repay that debt.’

‘Let me get this right,’ he shouts. ‘You stole twenty thousand dollars from me, to repay for something you haven’t even done?!’

‘To save two lives I had ruined,’ she protests. ‘To do good for once in my life!’

He slams his fist into the cupboard again. The glass pane cracks.

‘Bertram, stop it!’ she cries. Disgust at his rage floods through her, overpowering her weaker emotion. ‘Stop it! You can live without twenty-thousand dollars! I took less than half of what was there! Between your money and a stranger’s life I will always choose a stranger! You cannot ask me to be so selfish!’

‘You stole from me, Alice,’ he says, turning back. Hand still in a fist. His knuckles are cut. ‘That is the problem. You took what was mine, and now you tell me I’m wrong to be mad?’

‘I love you,’ she says. Again, firm: ‘I love you, Bertram. I crippled people, I betrayed friends, I made paradoxes, all to keep you alive.’

His shoulders sag. He exhales. His fury dies.

Alice looks at the ground.

‘…it never worked.’

‘Of course it didn’t,’ he says. ‘I die in 1943 anyway.’

‘What?!’

He leans back against the counter and gives a bitter smile.

‘I told you to never go to the future, and that’s why. I went to 1944, and I’d been dead a year. A Jap stabbed me through the neck in a battle on the other side of the world. And I never found a way to stop another world war from happening, so I lived with it. I know I’m on borrowed time.’

The room is spinning around her. 1943. 1930. More than ten year’s difference. Ten years! But why the change – she had been told December this year – Sam saw the raid on the club, that’s why, the raid in December when he would have died, when he is going to die. She bought him three months more of life that time – but now she hears that, otherwise, he would have had thirteen years. Thirteen years to live! And what was the difference?

The club.

The club he opened, because of her.

Alice clasps her hand over her mouth. The room is spinning and spinning. I can only ever make things worse.

She stands, swaying. With effort, she walks over to him, arms out, searching for an embrace.

‘Forgive me,’ she says, struggling to keep the sob in her throat.

He pushes her away.

‘No,’ he says. Cold. ‘You’ve betrayed me, Alice. You’ve hurt me, for things that don’t even exist and people you don’t know. I won’t forgive that.’

He turns to leave.

‘I love thee!’ she cries after him.

The front door opens, and shuts.

~~~

June 3rd, 1930

Fort Greene, New York

They sleep in separate beds that night. He comes in late and he does not say another word to her.

On the empty sheet of paper that her dead-self has left, she writes:

December 13th, 1930

Police will raid the club.

I love thee.

She creaks open his bedroom door and allows herself one last look at him.

Then, she is gone. She takes the necklace with her.

~~~

September 19th, 1996

Surulere, Lagos

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

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

‘I shouldn’t have told her.’

Shuddering down time, ripples and ripples. Shadows of what could have been pass over minds, and thoughts alter without any conscious reason.

Onyeka shakes her head.

‘It does not matter. I have made up my mind.’

‘You have?’

In the silence when she sat with her father, ignoring his drinking as they ignored the bribe money he brought home. She has been taught that God provides, but it occurred to her in that moment that she has never seen proof of it. A distaste for the idea of the supernatural now sits on her.

‘I do not care what mother says. I will be a physicist. And I think – I think I will go to Oxford. I don’t think I’d like to be around so many Americans at Harvard!’

Grace looks out at the street, a rare frown on her face.

‘Then I won’t come with you, nnwanne,’ she says. ‘Because I want to go to America. I really…I really want to go to New York.’

‘Really?’ Onyeka asks. Grace has never shown this determination before.

‘Really. Something…something is pulling me there. I need to go.’

They sit in silence and look out at the shimmering heat of the day. Onyeka wants to trap this moment in her mind forever: she and her beloved sister, outside their home in their own country. Soon to be parted.

‘I will miss you,’ she says.

Grace turns and smiles.

‘We won’t be apart forever, nee-san! Think of it as the beginning of an adventure!’

Onyeka smiles. Still, she thinks, I will miss you. I will miss this moment, and this time that will never come again.

~~~

July 3rd, 2005

Nakano, Tokyo

Why don’t you try? Uzu says.

Sosuke puts his fingers on the keyboard, ready to type that it is too much effort.

A shadow passes over him. A realisation.

Why not?

He sits back in his chair and looks at his cave of a room. All the money sitting in plastic or paper form on his bookshelves. His eyes settle on the calendar his mother gave him for new year: scenes from around the world. Forests in Germany. Mountains in Argentina. Skyscrapers in New York.

I’ll be right back, he tells Uzu.

He walks through to the kitchen.

‘Mother,’ he says, ‘I need to get a passport.’

‘Why?’ she says. ‘You’re not planning on going anywhere, are you?’

‘I’m going to New York.’

She looks up from the TV in surprise, eyes lighting on him as if he is mad. Maybe he is. He feels a cool determination, strangely free from the babbling self-doubt that always plagues him.

‘What?’

‘I need English lessons as well,’ he says. ‘Can you book some for me?’

‘A-are you okay, Sosuke?’

‘I’m going to get a job in New York. I need to have a passport, and English lessons. I’ll pay for the rest.’

He turns back to his room. She calls after him.

‘Wh…a…and what are you going to do in New York? Clean toilets?’

‘I’ll program computers,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘I’m…I’m actually quite good at it, mother.’

Complimenting himself feels like the most blasphemous thing he has ever done.

When he gets back to his desk, he types to Uzu:

Do you want any of my manga? Or figures? Or DVDs?

You’re selling them?

I’m selling all of them. I’m going to New York.

Whoa! When did you decide that?

Right now.

Sosuke looks around his room and smiles. The hero begins his adventure – and who knows what will happen, or what people he will meet on the way?

~~~

18th September, 1978

Mahdia Town, Qom

Zahra sighs at the window.

‘I must go to Tehran, as soon as your father returns. Maybe you should come. Maybe you will be a politician. I think you would run the country well.’

Sholeh laughs and shakes her head.

‘I don’t want to be a politician, maman.’

A tremor of dread crosses over her. A premonition of black and white comic book frames. Her schoolbooks suddenly appear worthless.

‘But…I might come to Tehran.’

‘Truly?’ Zahra says, eyes lighting up. ‘Oh, what a happy day! My daughter joins the cause at last! And will you cut your hair now, too?’

Sholeh laughs. She cannot explain the awful feeling inside of her. But hard as steel in her soul, she knows she must take a stand this time. Even if it comes to nothing – even if her mother’s hope is destroyed – she knows she must fight.

As she abandons her books and joins her mother, a voice speaks in her ear:

Don’t you dare give up!

~~~

November 10th, 2007

Combe Down, Bath

‘Oh, honey,’ Tessa says, as Alice sobs into her shoulder. She wants to say “It’ll be okay,” but she knows it won’t.

Half an hour later, she leaves Alice on her bed, and goes downstairs to make some tea. George joins her. He puts his arms around her waist and nuzzles into her neck. She sighs.

‘It’s horrible, isn’t it? And she’ll never be able to go back.’

‘Don’t you go anywhere,’ he says.

‘I won’t,’ she says, kissing his cheek. They stand in each other’s arms, and watch the kettle boil.

‘Did you hear what she said?’ Tessa says. ‘She left us to die in another time. I don’t really think she’d ever do that, but still…it’s weird thinking of another version of yourself dying.’

He holds her tighter.

‘We’re never touching that thing,’ he says, voice feverish. Being near Alice’s emotions, and told what they’ve been told, has exposed a rarely seen vulnerable core. ‘I never want to know what comes next. I just – I want to hold onto you forever, and never let go.’

Tessa leans her head against his. Two years ago, she was homeless and friendless, before chance put her in his way. She treasures everything. She tries not to forget.

~~~

August 4th, 1930

Ozone Park, New York

‘Y–you mean it?’

Sam laughs and lies back in his chair.

‘Course I do. What else am I meant to do with the money? Let it lie there, til my brother steals it? And what else is a business good for, but helping your friends get dough?’

John laughs and shakes his head.

‘I can’t believe you bought the whole building! Store and apartments!’

‘The rest went in stocks,’ Sam said, still smiling. ‘Marco thinks I’m crazy, but I told him, I’ve got a good feeling about those soft drinks…’course, harder drinks give more money, but it’s more trouble than its worth, I think, when you’re watching your back all the time. Anyway, you in?’

‘I’m in, I’m in! Christ, I’ve been looking for a job so long, I’ll take anything you throw at me!’

His smile falls as another thought returns to him.

‘Say, Sam…I hate to ask more when you’ve been so good already, but Al…’

‘Al’s dead weight,’ Sam says. ‘You know I can’t trust him with anything worth more than a dime.’

‘I know, I know, but the thing is – it’s not work, but well…he’s gotten in some deep water with some bad sorts, and I’m the only one left to fish him out.’

‘Oh? What kind of deep?’

John mimes slitting his throat. Sam pales.

‘How much?’

John names a high – but not too high – number. Sam laughs in relief.

‘Here,’ he says. He fishes in a drawer beside him and bring out a wad of notes. ‘Give this to ’em as a deposit. Say the rest is coming in a few days, once you’ve shown you’re good enough to work for me.’

‘Th-thanks! Thanks! Gee, Sam, how’d you get so…so…’

‘Rich?’

‘No, no, I meant…good, I guess.’

John’s hands are in his pockets as he looks away, embarrassed. Sam looks up to the ceiling corner.

‘I had a helluva dream, last month,’ he says. ‘Dreamt my eye melted in its socket, my leg lost all feeling, and I was crippled for life. Next part, the mob broke into my house and shot me right here, right in the head.’ He taps the centre of his forehead. ‘Next thing I know, though, an angel with golden hair came to me, asked me forgiveness for putting me through such hell. Said she was here to make things right, and that if I could use the money make more things right for her, then she’d be able to forgive herself. When I woke up…the money was there.’

A wash of light fills John. In a world as dreary as his, one miracle is all that’s needed to make him keep trying. Hope blooms. Kindness swells.

Sam smiles and shrugs.

‘I’m just trying to share the wealth – of money and soul, I guess.’

‘You’re sharing it,’ John says, lifting his glass of coke to clink against Sam’s. ‘And me, I’ll do my best to pass it on.’

~~~

December 13th, 1930

Pinwheel Club, New York

The police shoot him when they come.

Bert is waiting for them. He sits in his usual seat by the bar, and leans back in his chair, smoking the best cigar he could find. Last night he told everyone else to go home, and gave them an envelope stuffed with money in place of their last paychecks. It was the least he could do.

‘Gentlemen,’ he says, as they come up to his seat. ‘I’ve a question for you.’

‘We ask the questions here, bub,’ the officer says, trying to pull him from his seat. Bert kicks him away and laughs.

‘What’s better: dying quickly, as a free and rich man, or having your throat sliced open on a frozen beach – penniless, honourless, and heartbroken?’

‘Quit yapping,’ another officer says, pulling on the shoulder of his suit jacket. ‘You know the answer.’

‘Yeah, I do,’ Bert says.

He fights.

They shoot.

He bleeds, and trembles. He imagines Alice crying, thinking she’s given him a worse death. The idea makes him laugh. He was reconciled to death long ago – seeing your own grave will do that. She merely gave him a better alternative. And without her…without her…the years seem worthless, anyway.

~~~

February 28th, 1931

21 Club, New York

‘Double. Gin,’ Alice says. The barman barely looks at her as he takes her money. She sounds more English now, since she’s been living in Bath. She has imposed on Tessa and George for far too long. The time for weeping is over; she must be strong, and forge another path. But today…today…

The grave was covered in flowers. Seamus said Bert had given them enough money to last six months before it happened. They all did their best for him and his memory.

‘He left you something too, miss,’ Seamus had said. ‘I know you never married, but he considered you his next o’ kin.’

She went to the lawyer. It wasn’t “something.” It was everything.

Told him to take a quarter of it out. Once she knows where she’s going, she’ll change that money into another form, something she can use. Something physical she can sell for more in another time. Like an antique.

She made the lawyer give the rest away.

Alice takes a swig of gin and wipes her cheeks. Was the money a way to keep her here, in his time? It was never going to work. After this, she will not return to 1931.

A familiar laugh behind her makes the hairs on her neck stand on end. She turns.

At a table behind her sit two young men. One has a high hairline and boyish freckles. The other is talking loudly, gesturing, giggling like a child. Both are wearing new suits.

Magnetism, she thinks.

They both pause and look up, directly at her. She holds their gaze, wondering what they might do.

Sam says something and John laughs. They turn back to each other, and forget about her.

Alice finishes her gin.

Outside, a cold breeze hits her. She hugs her coat to her body, and walks briskly along the street, only pausing once to look in a shop window, before continuing on.

Colourful pinwheels stand on display.

Written by G.J.

24/10/2014 at 2:45 pm

Pinwheel 8: Tessa and George Are Late

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February 28th, 1931

Prince George Hotel, New York

‘I hope Alice is okay while we’re gone,’ Tessa says as they come to the top of the stairs. ‘I mean, it has to be today, right? We’ve been here so fucking long that it’d just be typical if –’

George puts his arm out, blocking her. He turns and raises his finger to his lips. She doesn’t realise the door to their room is ajar until he has knelt in front of it.

She creeps down and ducks underneath him to put her eye to the crack. So they sit, head above head. He instinctively puts his hand on her shoulder. The touch is reassuring to them both.

Through the slit, she sees a young woman, twirling in Tessa’s second fur-lined jacket. The sleeves are too short for the woman’s long arms, and the material is stretched taut across her back, but still she smooths her hands along the fur, smiling. George makes the beginning of a motion to rise, when the woman calls through to the ensuite in another language. A voice answers her, and the woman calls back, her tone teasing, friendly, yet gentle. Soothing voice for a skittish dog. Now Tessa recognises the language as Japanese – she thinks. She feels a low-conscious dissonance, hearing a black person speak Japanese.

The ensuite door opens and in steps an East Asian man. He has one of George’s jackets slung over his arm. He shakes his head, blushing, and the woman teases him in the same gentle way. Yes, definitely Japanese. Tessa scolds herself for her prejudice, then basks in the wonderful strangeness of their conversation.

The woman digs in the wardrobe, and finds a trilby. She pats it onto the man’s head, and he half-cringes down, like a child. They talk more – tone of compliments from the woman – then she turns and fishes out one of Tessa’s cloche hats. She struggles to get it over the bounce of her hair, but once it is locked in place, she turns to the mirror, and twirls again, seeing herself as a true 1920s woman.

Tessa knows. She spent her first morning here doing the same thing. “Lookit me! I’m a DAME! I’m one step from being a flapper!” she’d cried to George.

‘Kirei, na,’ the Japanese man says. He has a faint smile, and the soft eyes that men rarely show in public.

When the woman turns to him, an unbelieving laugh in her throat, he burns red and looks down.

‘Thank you,’ the woman says, in African-tinted English.

Tessa can help it no longer. A high pitched squeak emits from her throat. George squeezes her shoulder in warning, but she has to whisper:

‘They. Are. A-dorable!’

He squeezes again; this time, in agreement. Her hair rustles as he bring his lips to her ear.

‘Infatuation…it’s amazing to taste. Deep, spicy chocolate.’

She glances to him. He gives her a quick smile, before returning his eyes to the intruders. She can’t remember the last time she saw him look truly calm.

Unease filters through as she remembers why.

‘George…’ she whispers.

He doesn’t hear her.

Tessa looks back at the pair in their room. Still chatting, still cute as hell.

‘George, we need to go.’

Still he doesn’t move. Faint delight lies in the curve of his lips, oblivious to all except the wonderful taste. Tessa readies herself to stand and force him out of his reverie, when the woman stiffens and fishes something out of her trouser pocket.

The spokewheel necklace.

She holds it in her hands, looks at it, then puts it away again quickly. Tessa recognises the feeling well: afraid that it will disappear if you take your eyes away, equally frightened to hold it too long, in case you accidentally spirit yourself away to another time.

‘That…’ George says.

He and Tessa look at each other. The same thoughts hit them both in order, heavy as hailstones: the intruders are from another time, most likely the future. There is only one spokewheel necklace. If they have it now, then at some point they, or someone else, must have taken it from one person:

‘John!’ Tessa says.

‘Shit!’ George says, scrambling to his feet. ‘We need to go.’

Tessa struggles to think as she runs after him. If they stop John, the pair will have no way to get back in time, and they wouldn’t have seen them. But they did, they were still there. Have they already failed, then, if the intruders didn’t fade away as they watched? But if they’re too late because of them – no – no – it makes no sense! None!

The air grows tight around them, as if the world has shrunk, like an ill-washed jacket. Tremors shudder across waves they cannot see.

~~~

February 28th, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York

‘Sam’s here,’ Bertram says. The tap-tap-click of his cane is audible in the back room. Bert glances to Alice. The hostility has not left him completely. She keeps eyes down like a serf.

‘You’d best stay here,’ he says, before walking through. Alice folds her hands in her lap, trying to remain calm, but a second later her hands are gripped tight on each other, knuckles whitening, tendons trembling. They’d only be a minute, she thought. Only a minute. Sam is here. She hears his voice through the wall and remembers John’s tears in Tokyo. No, it surely won’t be. She has changed the past before, she can change things again. But where are Tessa and George? They said they’d only be a minute.

‘You’re early,’ Bert says as he walks through. Sam turns. His expression is a shade more solemn than usual.

‘Thought it’d be best,’ he replies. ‘I’ve decided this is my last day here.’

Bert pauses for a half-second, then keep walking. He changes his direction to the bar.

‘Sad to hear that, Sam. Mind telling me why?’

Sam’s stare is withering as he says:

‘I think you know why.’

Bert sighs to himself as he round the bar and grabs a glass. Ever since Alice said those words – “I’ve only ever wanted to keep you safe” – he has felt fragile, as if he is one step away from falling off a high rope. He had counted on Sam’s sight to be a safety net, but that was naïve of him. Nothing to do but take it on the chin.

‘Well, I’d rather not lose someone with your abilities, but if you can make it on your own –’

‘I can. I’ve got enough stashed.’

Bert pours himself a slug and downs it.

‘Then I wish you well,’ he says, glad for the distracting burn in his throat. Sam still stares at him, not believing his well-wishing. Oh, the sight is something all right, but between anything and Alice it’s an easy choice.

Door clatters, and feet stamp halfway down the stairs before it swings shut. John runs into the club, hesitating when he sees Sam.

‘John? What’s wrong?’

He is pale, he is trembling, he has every sign of fear.

‘Shit, Sam, I didn’t want to get you involved in this, but – Bert, please, you gotta help me.’

Bert comes to the front of the bar.

‘What is it?’

‘I didn’t wanna get you all involved,’ he repeats, glancing at Sam again, ‘but I think maybe – they might be – aw, shit!’ He clenches his hair.

‘Hey, easy, just tell us what’s happened,’ Sam says.

‘I, uh, got some, ah, “accounting” issues –’

Two cars screech to a halt on the street outside, blotting the basement windows. John jumps like a cat and words are shaken out.

‘Oh no – they’ve – shit, Sam, it’s Al, he owed them all this money, I’ve given ’em every cent I have but it’s not enough, they got guys on the inside who’ll kill him if I don’t pay, say they’re gonna kill me if I don’t get it now–’

The door opens and multiple feet come down the stairs.

‘You gotta help me, you gotta–’

‘Easy, easy, I’ll handle it,’ Sam says, as ten – no, a dozen – men enter the club.

Bert folds his arms.

‘Afternoon, gentlemen. Sorry to say, the club’s not open yet –’

‘We’re not here for your club,’ says the leader, a broad-set man in his forties. At his side is a skinny rat-faced man, as twitchy as they come. Eyes dart around, hand flits to his holster, shoulders shrug, sniff.

‘Nice joint, this. Shame.’

He looks to John and John looks like he is about to piss his pants. He nearly does when Sam claps a hand on his shoulder, facing the speakers.

‘Shame there’s not more like ’em in the city, right? But enough of that – how can we help you?’

‘Shut your smart mouth, that’s what,’ ratface says, hand flitting to his holster.

Bert walks to the front of the bar, scowling.

‘The boy owes us a load,’ the boss says. ‘Personal business. Might be best if you take a step outside for a second, gentlemen.’

‘Don’t tell me to get out my own damn club,’ Bert growls.

The atmosphere drops to freezing. John’s eyes plead at Sam, but again Sam only smiles and grips his shoulder, looking the boss dead in the face.

‘See, the thing is I ain’t so good stepping about. Wouldn’t want to test your patience, understand? And the other thing is, this boy here’s like family to me. If you’ve got any problems with him, you can address them to me, and if you’re short a few cents, it might be I have some.’

John whispers, ‘Sam, you can’t –’

‘This guy be giving us the fuckin’ runaround for months and here he says he can just up and call in a favour?’ says ratface. ‘I don’t like being played for a fool, bub!’

‘What he means to say is, things have progressed beyond money at this point,’ says the boss. ‘This is about respect, capiche?’

‘Capisco, amico,’ Sam says. ‘See, we understand each other. There’s no need for you to bring all your boys here – I understand, and we can work things out.’

Boss’s features are inscrutable, but he is listening, and he emits an air of fatherly forbearance. John glances between him and Sam’s confident smile, and his eyes shine as if he hears angels sing.

‘After all,’ Sam continues, ‘as they say, ogni paese –

‘Jee-zuz, shut up!’ says ratface.

Sam ignores him. He fully lapses into Italian, gaze pinned on the boss.

‘Hey! You hear me?’ ratface says over the top of him. ‘You shut your whore mouth, else –’

‘I think you should get out,’ Bert says.

Ratface pulls out his pistol.

‘The hell did you say to me?’

The colour drains from Bert’s face as he looks on him. Breath spurts hard from his rigid body, like a bull preparing to charge.

‘What the hell did you say to me, pillface?’

‘I said, this is my goddamn bar,’ Bert says. Suppressed. Growing louder. ‘And if you can’t level like a goddamn grown man, then get the hell out!’

Ratface peaks. Pupils shrink, twitching halts, visibly snapping.

Sam’s Italian bubbles like a prayer over the scene.

Gun up. Sudden turn.

‘You motherfucking – will you SHUT UP!’

He spins to Sam and pulls the trigger. Only at the last half-second does Sam turn to face the bullet that ends him. The back of his head bursts over the shining floor and he thuds to the floor, lips still mid-word.

Ratface spins back to Bertram and shoots again. He slams against the bar and slides down, gripping his thigh and cursing

The boss sighs, and takes his pistol from his jacket. The gang straighten up, tommys pointed once more at John.

And John can only stare at Sam’s body, the blood oozing from him, his eyepatch skewed.

‘Now, as I was saying,’ the boss says. ‘We –’

The door bursts open. It’s Alice. She freezes at the sight of the mobsters.

‘Morning, ma’am,’ boss continues, not breaking stride. ‘Just a little business here. Best be on your way.’

She sees Bertram and cries out.

Boss sighs again and shoots ratface a glare.

Alice kneels beside Bertram, pressing her hand on his bleeding leg.

‘Sorry,’ he pants. ‘Sorry –’

‘C’mon, boss, enough stallin’,’ says ratface.

‘No,’ Alice repeats, again, again, again, ‘no, no – where are they? They said they would be here – Tessa promised me –’

‘Take him,’ boss says.

John is still staring at Sam. He sees the world unravel. He sees order shrivel and hope die. In their place lie shallow cruelty, and the chaos of swirling power.

He hears a step towards him. Without turning, he sees ratface reach a hand out to grab him. He sees the men take a step closer, forming a circle, excluding Alice and Bertram. Images flitting in his mind. Sam’s sight shows him what’s beyond Sam’s body.

Without moving, John reaches out.

Ratface’s gun arm jerks, springs back on itself. Before he can voice complaint, ratface pulls the trigger. First shouts are for that, second shouts – louder – are when he pulls every gun out of every hand and flips it around.

Don’t look. Don’t look.

He closes his eyes, and screams into the shots.

When he opens them again, everyone bar Alice, Bert, and himself are dead.

It doesn’t help any.

He sobs and grabs ratface’s gun.

‘Don’t,’ Bert gasps. ‘Wasn’t your fault – wasn’t your –’

‘Shut up,’ John says, voice thick with bitterness. ‘You don’t know anything! I could’ve…I should’ve…’

He straightens and turns to them. Alice shakes her head as she looks at him, then down at Bertram.

‘Again,’ she says to herself. ‘Again, isn’t it? I thought…I thought…’

Crazy girl, talking nonsense. John points the gun at her.

‘Give me the necklace.’

‘John –’ Bert starts.

‘If you don’t get him to hospital soon, he’ll –’

‘He’ll die,’ she says. Tears spill over her yet-unmoving face. ‘This is what you meant. I’ve done nothing. I’ve changed nothing. All for nothing.’

‘You idiot,’ Bertram says, with a cough-laugh. ‘After all that.’

‘Alice!’ John cries, stepping closer. ‘You know these things, right? Sam told me I’d bring people together. He said I’d do good. Is this what he meant, huh? Is it? I make everything bigger, better or worse – but it’ll never get better, will it? I can only ever make things worse!’

‘No,’ she says. Her face creases. She looks up at him and cries. ‘I’m the one who only makes things worse!’

‘Give me that necklace!’

‘You can’t undo it!’ she sobs. ‘You can never undo it. It’s not possible. Even if you don’t meet yourself – even if you don’t make a paradox – you can never undo it. You’ll never make it better, John!’

She curls into herself, tears falling on Bertram’s suit jacket.

‘Ha,’ he says, lowering his gun, happy to have his despair mirrored. ‘So what do I do? If I can’t make it better, and I can only make it worse – if I draw everything to myself, and I can’t stop it…’

He glances back at Sam’s corpse and laughs again.

‘I’m gonna do as he said,’ he says, quietly. ‘I’ll bring them together. Dammit! I’m a hole, a circling drain – I’ll bring it all together. I’ll bring every fucking thing together!’

He turns back.

‘So give me that necklace!’

‘No –’ Bert gasps.

Alice is defeated. She pulls the necklace over her head with a bloody hand.

Once more, the door opens and again feet descend the stairs.

‘Oh GOD!’

John spins and aims at the intruders: Tessa on the stairs, hands covering her mouth, quivering at her first sight of dead bodies; George gripping the handrail for strength, eyes on the necklace in Alice’s hands, wits firing haphazardly.

‘John,’ he says, ‘John, it’s okay, it’s o-‘

John shoots and Tessa screams. The bullet hits the wall five feet away from them.

‘Don’t you touch my feelings, you freak,’ John says.

‘John, please!’ Tessa cries. ‘Don’t do it!’

George sinks down beside her. His lips move, as he repeats to himself: Sam’s dead.

John turns to Alice.

‘Alice!’ Tessa cries.

Alice holds the necklace out to him. John snatches it from her. He looks at her, at Bert. Turns to look at Tessa and George. Looks at Sam’s body, one last time.

He vanishes.

‘We – we – shit,’ George says. The corpses make his brain misfire. ‘Ambulance. Ambulance.’

‘Alice…’ Tessa calls. ‘Why? You…you didn’t need to give it to him!’

‘It’s not use,’ Alice sobs. ‘It’s no use. Nothing changed. Nothing can ever change. It only ever grows worse. Nothing can be done.’

‘No,’ Tessa says, standing up. She hauls George up from the floor. ‘There is a way – there is a way, and we just saw it! If we’re quick enough.’

It takes George a second to understand her. He nods.

‘We’ll be back,’ Tessa says. ‘I promise Alice – I promise!’

They run out the club.

‘Best be quick,’ Bert wheezes.

Alice tries to respond, but only a wail escapes her.

~~~

February 28th, 1931

Prince George Hotel, New York

They are lying on the bed, top-to-tail, staring up at the ceiling.

‘I wish I could go out there, without fear,’ Grace says.

‘Historically, seventy years isn’t very long,’ Sosuke mumbles. ‘But between now, and 2005…it’s the difference between being able to walk around New York with you, without fear.’

‘I’ll come back here,’ she says, sitting up. ‘I will.’

He starts to speak, then hesitates.

‘What?’ she asks. He turns away, arm folded under his head like he’s trying to sleep.

She barely hears it: ‘Can I come with you…?’

Grace laughs. She likes him. She’d like to see how the world could mould him – what soul lies strong underneath the fear and self-hate.

She is going to say yes.

Two people burst into the room. They jump.

‘WAIT waitwaitwaitwait, listen to me!’ the girl says, in English, pointing at Grace. ‘We need your help. You’re from the future, we know you are. We know you used the necklace to travel here. Well, we’re from the future too, and John just took the necklace from this timeline – we need to find him!’

Grace pauses, struggling to understand the girl, hand in pocket but fingers not yet clutching the spokewheel.

‘What do you mean?’ Grace says. ‘What future?’

‘We were brought here from 2007. We need to find John, if you know him – he had that necklace, once.’

Sosuke still looks alarmed. Grace quickly translates. 1996 and 2005 look at each other, then to 2007.

‘John is in 2008,’ she says, slowly. ‘We have been working with him in Switzerland.’

Tessa clasps her hands in front of her. A prayer, a plead.

‘You have to take us to him. He’s lost it – we don’t know what he’s going to do – and we need to – to – to make things right. We were too late here – you’re our only chance!’

‘We need to go home,’ the man says, behind her. ‘It’s too late, Tess. We blew it.’

‘No way,’ Tessa says. ‘I made a promise. I won’t give up until it’s all fucking over!’ She turns back to Grace. Tears in her eyes. ‘Please. I’m begging you.’

Do worthwhile work, her mother always said. The right thing in God’s eyes.

‘Of course we will take you,’ Grace says.

Sosuke senses her agreement and begins to object. Grace takes the spokewheel out of her pocket and holds it in front of her.

The girl puts her arm around Grace’s shoulders as she grips her hand.

‘Thank you,’ she says.

The man adds his hand. Sosuke, panicked, clasps onto the pile with both hands.

Grace closes her eyes. So much for coming back to new New York. She knows their jaunt is over. The necklace is no longer hers.

CERN, September 8th, 2008…CERN, September 8th, 2008…

~~~

September 8th, 2008

CERN Headquarters, Geneva

‘Ah,’ John says, as Onyeka points the gun at him. The door bangs shut behind him. Sholeh cries out in Iranian – easy to ignore.

‘Now,’ Onyeka says, supporting the grip with her left hand, as her father told her to do. ‘You will answer my questions.’

John puts his hands up, but he smirks.

‘So if I say “shoot”, which are you gonna do?’

Onyeka gives him a withering look, unable to believe his nonchalance.

‘The chamber for the Hadron Collider,’ she starts. ‘Who is going to stand in there?’

‘Who d’you think?’ he replies, still smirking.

Her calm breaks.

‘Do not play funny with me! Do you intend to kill one of us? Or are you going to put yourself in there, as she says?’ She nods to Sholeh, who is tense and wide-eyed, like a cat ready to spring.

John says, softly: ‘If I’d wanted to kill any of you, I’d have done it long ago.’

‘So you intend to kill yourself, and leave us stranded here?’

‘You won’t be stranded,’ he says, equally soft.

A chill runs through her arms.

‘What are you?’ she asks. ‘You can do so many things…you learn without trying…you break all rules. What are you, and what are trying to do with the collider?’

John opens his mouth, then turns to Sholeh:

‘Sholeh, can you understand this?’

.

The air warps and turns around his voice. An echo behind each word. Speaking twice.

Onyeka grips the pistol even tighter in her hands.

Sholeh starts. The words bubble out clearer. Again, she understands. He has translated without meaning to, again.

‘Yes,’ she replies. ‘I can.’

John gives her a wan smile, then turns back to Onyeka.

‘I guess no way to put it off. Might as well say.’

Onyeka’s hands are trembling.

I’m a magnet,’ he says. ‘That’s what someone told me, a while ago. I draw everything to myself. And it seems it’s only getting stronger, and stronger. It doesn’t help anyone. It only hurts. So I…’

He hesitates, and looks again at Sholeh, as if the sight of her bolsters him. A light of madness, of desperation, dances in his eyes. Caught and cornered, she sees something in him pleading with her, begging her to help.

‘I stole the way the travel through time, looking for a way to make things right. But she was right. There was no way.’

He looks at the floor, turning back to face the barrel.

‘And all over time, I saw…I saw the same things, over and over. Endless suffering. Just, oceans and oceans of meaningless death and cruelty – if not in one place, then the next. Never ending. And I thought, I’d just like to sleep. If I can’t make it right, then let me sleep, let it go. But I couldn’t sleep with the memory of Sam’s – of Sam dead, Bert dead, Alice screamin’ at me…and I thought…’

Eyes turn to the ceiling, to sky, to God.

‘If you take a huge map, and you fold it together, the places that are far away from each other come together, sit against each other. And I wondered, maybe if I folded the world up right, the different ends would meet together again, and I’d see my family again and I’d see Sam again. And if it didn’t work, then at least we’d get nothing, be nothing – and there’s no pain when you’re nothing.’

He laughs.

‘And if anything, at least I wouldn’t be here anymore.’

‘How dare you,’ Sholeh says.

She can barely see John and Onyeka’s surprise behind her rage.

‘How dare you?’ she repeats. ‘You know you have done wrong – you see the suffering in the world – and you drown in self-pity? You look to hurt others because of your own pain? You – you see evil, and you bend beneath it? No – how dare you! How dare you give up!’

Her own words shudder into her, through her, lighting memories of Persepolis and Tehran and her mother and every pixel of information she has learned in the past ten days. Still, she screams it through her again: How Dare You Give Up?!

Onyeka takes a step closer. John is struck, eyes only for Sholeh. His weakness is spluttering, guttering, become unstable. She sees fight – then despair – then hate – then further despair, echoing and spiralling down, down, down.

‘You are going to give us the necklace,’ Onyeka says, voice firm. ‘When Grace and Sosuke arrive, we will all go back to our homes, one person at a time. Then you will return to your own time, and give the necklace back to its rightful owner.’

John laughs.

He laughs, and they do not know why. He puts his hand to his face, and chuckles, as if he has only now realised something essential.

‘What was it she said?’ he says, voice suddenly choked. ‘I remember now. “Again, again. I’ve done nothing. I’ve changed nothing.” I remember now.’

The gun jolts out of Onyeka’s hand. Suspended in air, the safety flicks off.

How dare you! Sholeh thinks again.

Onyeka fumbles forward, grasping for the gun. It it too late.

Sholeh slams her hands against John, pushing him aside.

Pain rips through her shoulder.

THUD.

Grace, Sosuke, and two other people thump to the floor.

Sholeh falls against the door, and slides down.

She grips her pulsing blood, and through her terror, she smiles in satisfaction.

.

How many times can a world end?

Sholeh is bleeding just like Bert did, almost unconcerned about it, just like he was.

And Tessa and George are standing in 2008.

‘You-!’ he cries.

George sways at the blood, the volume of people, the cacophony of feelings. He leans on Tessa, whispering ‘Shit, shit, shit, shit…’

‘Nnwanne,’ Grace cries. ‘What happened?’

‘You stupid, stupid motherfuckers,’ John says, seeing the jacket that Grace is wearing, his sight telling him the sense of it all. Spiralling down to that day again. How many times can a world end?

‘It was an accident,’ Onyeka says. She crouches beside Sholeh, pressing her cardigan into the blood. ‘An accident.’

Sholeh smiles.

‘John,’ Tessa says, hands out like he’s a growling dog, ‘John, we need to go back. Come back with us, and we’ll give the necklace to Alice –’

All for nothing, she screams. Sam’s brains blow across the club floor.

George’s head snaps up.

‘I’m never going back there!’ John shouts.

He lifts the gun into the air again – but George is already on top of it, muscles stronger than John’s mind. No – no – John pulls again. The gun jerks in George’s hand. Once strong push, and on the trigger – George pulls the opposite way. He spins. The gun fires.

Grace drops. The spokewheel necklace tinkles out of her palm.

Draw everything to you except bullets, it seems.

Inside John’s head there is nothing but screams.

How many times can a world end?

How many times can a mind break?

No. It can’t be. It must stop, sometime.

Onyeka wails.

Sosuke falls to his knees.

No more. No more.

John leaps for the necklace. Tessa snatches it first, grabs George’s arm.

No.

John leaps on them both: Tessa’s hair gripped in one hand, George’s neck in the other.

White rush.

~~~

Nassau, 2004

John prises Tessa’s fingers open.

~~~

Sydney, 2000

She digs her fingernail into his palm and wrestles it back.

~~~

Bath, 2007

George is hyperventilating. His back slams against his old Johnny Marr and Dylan Moran posters. John steps on his DVD cases and breaks one.

In a year’s time, I killed a girl.

John growls from the pit of his throat as he takes the necklace out of Tessa’s hand. She grabs onto his ears, one in each hand.

George hooks his arms around his girlfriend’s waist. He will not be left here without her. Not ever.

~~~

Rome, 1808

Enough screaming. George jerks the necklace chain and the medallion comes into his hand.

‘Yes!’ Tessa shouts, clasping her hand over his.

George grabs John by the shirt.

Her eyes are shining. He doesn’t want to go back. But she’s right. It’s the only way to set things straight.

~~~

February 28th, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York

‘Alice!’ Tessa shouts, taking the necklace from George’s limp hand.

The smell of blood. Alice’s despair, and the chaos that is John. Sam is dead.

‘No – not here! Anywhere but here!’

Alice springs from the floor and reaches for the necklace. John roars. Her fingers clasp around the chain. Near miss. John is touching the medallion.

~~~

Santiago, 1953

Three against one.

Neither George nor Tessa knows where they are going. Or who is touching the medallion now.

~~~

?????

They land behind a stage curtain. The place smells of beeswax and alcohol.

I know this smell, Tessa thinks. I swear, this is familiar. This day is familiar.

John pushes off the group, but Alice holds tight onto him. They spin away, and stumbling down the steps of the stage. Tessa and George run after them.

John freezes.

Tessa’s chest constricts until she can hardly breathe.

The air warps and swirls around them.

.

Before them is a small table. At that table sits Bertram, Sam…and John.

It is January 28th, 1931.

.

John stares at himself.

He looks back.

The colours of the world run, high-pitched ringing, gravity tilting.

A noise of animal terror rips out of his throat.

.

The world is ending, the world is ending.

Alice refuses to let it be.

I want to never exist.

Rescue, escape, gibbet. Something.

She grabs his hand.

They disappear.

Leaving Tessa and George behind.

.

The air settles. Ringing stops. The ground is stable.

John of January, 1931 suddenly breathes again. He panics.

‘The hell was that?’

Bertram and Sam are speechless.

‘No way,’ John says. ‘No way. I’m out’

He scrapes his chair as he rises from his seat, and he tries not to look at Tessa and George, still standing there.

The door to the club bangs shut.

I’m over at the bar, Tessa thinks. Right now.

‘What do we do?’ she whispers. ‘We’re stranded.’

George looks at his hands in reply. And laughs humourlessly. He brings them up to his face.

His fingers are fading away.

Tessa looks down.

Her feet are disappearing, like sand washed away at the beach.

‘No!’ she cries. ‘No! How –’

‘John sees himself,’ George says. He is back to normal: quiet, calm. ‘He leaves and never works for Bertram. The gang never comes to the club. Sam and Bertram live. John never takes the necklace. He never goes to the future. He never meets Alice there. She never asks us to stop him.’

‘No,’ Tessa says. ‘No – fuck! – no, that can’t – we’re dying!’ She looks again at her rapidly fading limbs. ‘We’re dying!’

‘We’re not dying,’ George says. ‘We’ll just…have never existed, in this timeline. Back in 2007, everything will be fine.’

‘No, no, that’s not fair,’ Tessa sobs. George pulls her close. They are floating in mid-air, now, torsos suspended without legs to stand on. ‘We got married! What about Paradise Island? What about Wicked? It’s not fair! It’s not fair!’

She sobs into his chest as the last of their arms disappear.

‘It’s alright,’ he says. He closes his eyes for absolution. Grace doesn’t die. Sam doesn’t die. He prays that, in 2007, he will appreciate everything he has.

‘It’s alright, Tessa.’

They are gone.

.

Sam and Bertram stare at the place where, moments before, two strangers disappeared into mist.

A clatter of heels.

Alice turns the corner.

‘I thought I heard crying –’

She stops. Sees Sam is at the table.

Sam takes her in.

He laughs.

He guffaws like this is the best joke he’s heard in a long time.

Bert puts his head in his hands, and Alice turns and runs, and Sam laughs and laughs and takes off his eyepatch and throws it onto the table, and he leans back in his chair and laughs and laughs as his eyelids open and white mist tendrils snake out and dissipate and he laughs and laughs as his useless, useless sight clouds up in the air before him.

~~~

March 13th, 1602

Bitton, England

John is raving insanity when she leaves him in the woods. Maybe the villagers or wolves will find him before he disappears. She doesn’t care which. The world spins tight and her hands are fading, and she has something she needs to do.

~~~

June 1st, 1930

Fort Greene, New York

Alice puts her hand on the doorknob to leave.

A crash in the kitchen makes her jump.

She walks through, tense, ready to flee.

Someone is curled up on the kitchen floor. Alice feels sick to her stomach at the sight of them, but she approaches nevertheless.

They leap up, and icy stub-fingers grab her arm.

Eyes.

Her own.

In one soul-curdling flash she sees death, the future, madness, and everything she was intending to do coming to naught.

Then it is gone. There is no-one on the kitchen floor but herself.

She would think it was a hallucination. But the frozen touch is still on her skin, and when she asks her sight for guidance it tells her:

It was all the truth.

Written by G.J.

23/10/2014 at 12:58 pm

Pinwheel 7: Alice Changes the Past

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The police shoot him when they come.

Their leader sneers at Bertram and calls him scum as they smash the bottles of whisky and rum and gin in a crash of glass and liquid smells. Two years of work on the floor, and who-knows-how-many future years in a cell, and though they can always begin again she cannot undo the damage of their wreckage, and their words. Scum. Tales of sobbing wives and neglected children. Tales of profiteers, of gangsters dumping bodies in the harbour. Accusations. Camorra. Cosa Nostra. Bertram cannot ignore that.

The chief of police wants him to swing. The moment he swings, the bullets fly. The moment they fly, the moment Alice realises bullets are too quick for her power. She does not see them; she cannot catch them. Bertram falls to the floor and she runs to him.

He bleeds and trembles. He dies in her arms.

Alice weeps. When the police step forward to handle her, she grabs the spokewheel from his pocket, and vanishes from sight.

~~~

June 1st, 1930

Fort Greene, New York

 

There is a note on her bed. It has been easily missed, now that she sleeps with Bertram, but as she walks past the open doorway, on her way to the club for the evening, the sunlight from the window falls bright on the paper and shines out to her, begging for attention.

She feels ill at the sight of it, but yet she picks it up. The writing is shaky and there is no name at the bottom.

Bertram will die on 13th day of December 1930 unless you do somethinge.

Please. I want to never exist.

Alice drops the letter as if it stung her. The writing bleeds away from the page, leaving only white space. The air is tense; her head feels as if it was squeezed in a vice. She breathes, and looks at the page again. White space.

The world settles together, and her headache subsides.

She continues on to the hallway, but as she reaches for the door handle, she pauses.

Crumples.

Sits in the hall, head on her knees, arguing with herself – did it say December? This year? It was definitely Bertram’s name written? And “somethinge” – with the cursive loops the extra “e” could have been a mistake – but still, it said “somethinge”…and the writer wanted to never exist…

She can do nothing. She knows this: without more information, she can do nothing. Even if she uses her sight, she cares too greatly about him to see his future. But if only, if only she could…

Her head jolts up with a gasp of realisation. She can’t – but a stranger could. Gift it to someone else, and let them see what will be. It would be a great sacrifice to no longer have that power, but when she considers the alternative – and the state of the person who came back to write that letter – she knows it must be done.

Alice stands, straightens her gloves, and seizes the door handle.

Later that night, she slips out of bed, and has her last consultation with her sight. It tells her of someone who would fit. It tells her what she must do. She gulps down her pre-emptive guilt, and reminds herself of the gibbet, the green silk dress, the lock of his arms around her back.

Alice opens the door and makes her way to Queens.

~~~

June 2nd, 1930

Ozone Park, New York

 

The door unlocks itself at her touch. She waits, tenses. No sound bar her heart, and the voice telling her to go upstairs, first on the right. She slips, clicking the latch behind her, and looks around. It’s a small home, tidy and well-polished, pictures of the Virgin Mary on the walls. Alice cannot eye them as she creeps up the stairs. First on the right. She hears the whistling, full-lunged breath of a deep sleeper inside. The breaths do not halt when she creaks open the door, nor when she steps up to the bed.

He cannot be that much older than her. His mouth is open wide, limbs splayed and weaving in and out of coiled bedsheets, unaware and helpless as one should be in their own home. I have to trust him, she thinks. Have to trust him with this gift – my greatest. But it is greedy to hoard her powers, she reasons, it is cowardice to hold onto her sight rather than do the right thing.

She kneels on the edge of the bed, and the springs protest under her, but no change in the sleeper. She leans over him, and considers what to do. With a hesitant hand, she prises open his eyelid.

He wakes with a start, and before Alice can prepare herself she is shoved away, and falls back on stumbling faun feet.

‘Who are you?’ he says, sitting up, pushing sheets this way and that in an effort to disentangle himself. ‘What are you doing here?’

His voice is a decibel louder than her heart can stand.

‘Quiet, quiet!’ she says, hands forward like she’s approaching a spooked horse. ‘Please, I need your help–’

‘Help? Get out my house, you crazy broad!’

‘Please, you don’t und–’

‘Ma!’ he shouts to the door. ‘Marco! Ma!’

‘Stop it!’ she cries, leaping on him, ‘be quiet, please!’

When he hollers again, she puts her hand on his mouth and tries to pin him down. Words are running out of her, trying to explain, but she barely understands herself, so desperate is she to keep him quiet. Even the scratching at her hand can’t move her. He shoves her again, but she has a deathly clutch on his shirt and they wrestle, jolt, and fall tumbling to the floor.

The floorboards are cold solid, he is a whole man of weight above her. For a strong second, she is in the courthouse cellar again, trying to scream as they stick needles in her thighs. Her muscles fail, the boy rises, and like they did then, he kicks her – barefoot this time, but her ribs ache just the same.

I’ll die this time, a voice within her screams.

He kicks again, softer this time. His breath spurts unevenly in fear.

Make it stop! Make it stop!

She reaches out with her mind, anything, anything to stop a third kick. The mind grasps his thigh, and slips through skin, through muscle – too large, too strong – and, finding a fundamental channel, squeezes, pinches, holds fast.

With a cry, he falls to the floor, grasping his leg in agony.

Alice releases the grip but still he wails like a babe and she is the stranger who can’t think what to do, only knows she must make it stop. Voices run through the house, steps, she has no time left. She scrambles to him, again with fingers stronger than she knows she prises open his eye. Her sight tastes of sweet apples and lime as it rises, and she aches for its passing. Mist falls out of her, collects and spirals down like a tornado into his open eye.

His brown iris blots white. The pupil expands, then contracts like a seismic wave, falling into itself. His eyeball boils, and melts in dribbling mess.

Sam shrieks like hounds have got him.

Feet, up, away, get away! Alice turns and bursts through the bedroom door, sprints down the stairs and out, out into the stifling night, past dogs and policemen and streetwalkers and prowlers, away, away, away. Five blocks down she careens into an alleyway and on the trash cans she retches, and spews, and shakes. Head screams, what have I done? What have I done? God forgive me, how did that happen? She sinks to her knees and slumps back against the brick, hiccuping through her tears and bile. God forgive me, please God I didn’t mean to, God forgive me…

She cannot face Bertram. She cannot face 1930 any longer. The spokewheel takes her from land to land, time to time, but still the sight of the eye boiling in its socket haunts her when she blinks. But the ache in her heart grows stronger than her horror, and when a greater threat emerges on a Tokyo train, she pulls herself back to the one she loves.

Not long after she returns, Bert mentions a crippled man with one eye is working for him now – says he’s got the sight like she does. She tries to smile, and takes great care when visiting the club from that day, so that he will never see her.

On December 1st, Bert tells her that Sam saw a police raid coming, and they need to prepare.

On December 13th, Bert laughs as the police leave in confusion, no trace of illegal activities found in his establishment.

Alice cries heavy relief into her pillow that night, and tells herself it was worth it.

~~~

September 8th, 2008

CERN Headquarters, Geneva

 

It can’t be, Onyeka thinks. It can’t. It must not.

She looks around the office. Grace and Sosuke are nowhere to be seen. Sholeh is staring at her computer screen as if it has secrets it will reveal in time. No-one is there to hear Onyeka’s revelation, and she wishes hard that it was ten years ago, and her father was here, her granny, anyone she could explain this to.

The attachment on the Large Hadron Collider is an upright coffin.

Whoever stands inside will be protected from the supercooling liquids, but will die from the radiation exposure nearly as quickly as hypothermia.

Sosuke’s program, as far as she knows, monitors the temperature, the radiation – but especially the magnetic fields. It is not interested in preventing the person’s death. Only in cataloguing their effect on the particle collision.

She must find Grace, she thinks. She must find her, tell her, get her gun –

Sholeh turns and beckons her over to her computer. Onyeka wants to refuse, run out of the room and do something – but Sholeh’s hand motions frantically, and her face holds a similar fear to Onyeka’s own.

Her screen, she realises, displays Google Translate.

She’s realised as well, Onyeka thinks. She knows, she’s found a way to communicate – since Grace is never here – yes, we can make a plan together. So, calming herself, Onyeka takes a seat beside Sholeh, and gestures for her to type into the machine.

I asked John why we are here. Did not tell me.

Onyeka suppresses her inner groan. Sholeh is a week behind her, so behind, just as everyone is always slower in thinking – but her large brown eyes contain deep worry, asking Onyeka to reply.

Calm. Patient. Comfort her, then find Grace and deal with the real problem. They have two days until the collider is turned on – a whole two days. Only two days.

Onyeka types and Arabic script appears on the screen.

He has not told me anything either.

Sholeh frowns and again and types for a while. Onyeka fidgets. When Sholeh deletes and retypes what she has just written, she wants to scream. But then the translation appears on screen:

Machine section is same size as a person, and I think John wants to kill himself. Possible?

‘What do you mean John wants to kill himself?’ Onyeka says. Her anxiety has doubled. Sholeh’s mouth is firm-set, eyes demanding response. Onyeka types her question, and Sholeh struggles to respond fast enough, searching out keys and flexing her fingers in frustration when she can’t find them quick enough.

Talked to him. He is sick in soul. I am worried for machine plan, for outcome. Said he will bring other element to machine and see the difference, but I think he wants to die and he is the element. I am worried.

Onyeka sits back in her seat, stunned. She hadn’t considered that John would put himself in the chamber. But why would she consider that he has a death wish? She barely knows the man. And yet Sholeh has figured everything out in half the time.

She digs her nails into the cushioning of her seat. What will become of the four of them all, trapped in a different time and country, without him to use the necklace and take them home? How could he be so selfish? And what kind of effect does he think he can have–

Onyeka loses her breath.

Sholeh’s eyes still burn into her, but Onyeka cannot straighten her thoughts enough to type them. Goosebumps creep over her skin as she considers what effect a man who has been jumping through time, who can see the past and future, who learns new languages without intention – what effect something supernatural as that might have on the fundamental blocks that make physical matter when they circuit at close to the speed of light.

Where is my sister, she thinks. I need my sister. I need her to smile, and laugh, and make light of things.

Her arms are heavy as she types:

It is dangerous. Dangerous for all of us. We need to stop him.

She stands before Sholeh can ask any more of her. Her handbag is under her desk. She picks it up, lies it on the table, and has her hand wrapped around its cool metal surface, when the door to the office slams open.

~~~

February 13th, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York.

 

Three seconds after the door has slammed behind Tessa and John, Alice and Bert break their deadlock. Bertram turns away, and looks at the shadow of his hand on the tabletop. He is struggling to remain calm. Her snatching the necklace away is the last in a series of insults.

‘I asked nothing when you came back, after you disappeared for two months,’ he says. ‘I said nothing when you brought those people into the club, and when you said you had brought them from the future. I have let you do whatever you wanted, without questioning it, against all my better judgement.’

He pauses and clenches his fist.

‘Give me my necklace back.’

‘I can’t,’ Alice says.

Another wave of fury, pushed down.

‘It is mine.’

‘But you want to give it to him,’ she says. ‘You gave me your word that you would let no-one else see it. You broke that promise.’

‘You stole it from me and used it without my consent.’

Alice cannot deny it. Instead, she clutches the spokewheel tighter to her chest.

‘I will allow you to use it once more,’ Bert says, ‘to take those two back to 2007.’

‘I will,’ Alice says, ‘but please – next month. After February is done, I will take them back, and I will never use it again, I swear.’

‘Why wait until March?’

He turns to her. Alice only trembles in response. The chair scrapes loudly across the tiles as he stands up. His fingers drag along the wood as he paces around the table.

‘This is why I don’t go to the future,’ Bert says. ‘What did you learn, leaping around the ages yet to come? The war surely isn’t the end of us, if you went past the millennium and brought back people like that.’

‘Bertram…’ she says. ‘My – my sight…’

‘Don’t lie to me!’ he shouts, slamming his hand against the back of a chair. It falls and skids with a clatter. Alice winces.

Bert takes four deep breaths, and resumes his calm.

‘You know you’re not good at lying,’ he says. ‘And I know that you don’t have the sight any more.’

Alice’s eyes follow him as he paces again. Heavy-lidded movie star eyes, threatening to cry, as the best actresses can do on a whim.

‘I should have known,’ he says. ‘When I heard Sam had the sight, I should have known. I ought to have suspected, at least. What I don’t understand is – why? The blood-reading was my birthday present, remember?’ He laughs bitterly. ‘The first thing you ever gave me. It was grand. It was a real gift. And yet, you gave your greatest power to a complete stranger – and you tore out his eye to do it? You crippled him to do it?!’

His voice is rising again. He must control himself.

‘I didn’t mean to.’

Her whisper is barely audible.

‘Mean to what? Give him your sight?’

‘Hurt him,’ she croaks.

‘Why did you do it?’ he repeats, feeling as if he will flip the table if she does not give him a straight answer.

Old eyes. Old soul. Full of unspoken pain. Alice, poor Alice, as helpless as the day he saved her.

‘All I have ever wanted,’ she says, ‘is to keep you safe.’

Bert’s shoulders slump. His rage leaves him like a slashed balloon.

If one is told one will die by a fortune teller, even if one does not believe them, it feels like standing at the edge of a cliff and staring down. L’appel du vide. The desire to know more and the fear of the oblivion in that knowledge collide so hard they give off sparks. He must not ask, but he must consider the possibility. After all, he went to 1944, and in 1944 he had been dead for a year, frozen and shot in the tundra of Attu – his family had pissed themselves at the sight of his living body. If he could change the future…if it was for her safety…

This is why he never goes forward in time. Letting the bad surprises take him must be easier than this eternal struggle.

It is too late to change what has happened. Sam has the sight. Tessa and George are in 1931. Alice has his necklace in her hands again.

‘Keep it,’ he says.

She starts.

‘Once Tessa and George are back home, give it back to me.’

She rushes to him and throws her arms around his neck. The press of her body against his, the warmth of her and her devotion, reminds him of how much he loves her.

‘I will,’ she says. ‘I will, I swear.’

~~~

September 8th, 2008

CERN headquarters, Geneva.

 

‘Gangsters?’ Grace says. He doesn’t know whether she is making fun of him or genuine. She smiles so often he cannot tell.

‘I’ve always thought they were…”cool”,’ he says, trying to pronounce the word they way she taught him. ‘Guns, and suits, and smuggling alcohol.’

‘And killing people?’

He blushes. No need to wonder this time. But when she makes fun, it’s light-hearted, almost…affectionate.

‘No, not that. But the feel of that time…it must be “cool”.’

She looks out the window, to the trees. They are still in the hotel, sitting in the foyer. He should be at work by now, as should she – but they started talking here after breakfast, and somehow they haven’t stopped or even mentioned stopping. Sosuke can’t remember the last time he talked to anyone this long in person.

‘You should ask John,’ Grace says. ‘He came from then.’

‘Really?’ Sosuke says.

‘You can tell by the way he talks, and the clothes he used to wear. But he was poor, and not a gangster.’

‘Oh,’ he says, sinking back down to his usual slouch. ‘I wish I could see it myself.’

A pause. The same second, they turn their heads and look at each other. The same thought crosses both.

‘No way,’ Sosuke says.

‘He said it was the last time he needed it,’ Grace says. ‘Why not?’

‘It’s too dangerous. And he’ll have it in his jacket – he always does.’

‘But he might have left that in the office.’

‘We should go to work anyway,’ he mumbles.

They walk across to the main building. No-one takes notice of the pair as they pass by, but Sosuke can’t help but think of the boys he used to know at school, and the stares and jeers they would have given them: “Why is she with him? Why is he with her?”

‘Why do you talk to me so much, anyway?’

He doesn’t realise he has said it out loud, or loud enough for her to hear, until she turns and laughs.

‘I’m the only one who speaks your language here. I don’t want you to get lonely.’

The thought of someone caring about his loneliness is absurd to him,

The office is empty. It is lunchtime.

The jacket is on the chair.

Grace hesitates.

‘Say it is there,’ she says. ‘We’ll have to be unseen. I don’t want to cause trouble, and someone like me, with someone like you, might get in trouble if people see us – back then.’

Her voice fades as she reaches the end of her sentence. Eyes on the floor. It never occurred to Sosuke to be seen in the 1930s. It has never occurred to him that Grace might host anxiety, or fear, or any weak emotion underneath her loud voice and pretty smile.

A rush of bravery takes him. He fishes in the jacket pocket, and brings out the necklace. It feels no different to a normal necklace, but just touching it terrifies him. He holds it out to Grace.

‘Do you know how it works?’

‘I think so,’ she says. ‘I’ve seen it enough times. We need to hold the spokewheel, and think of where we want to be. Anything we don’t think of, it will make random for us.’

She hesitates another second, then grasps the medallion with her hand.

I am the hero at the beginning of this adventure, he thinks. Chapter one, episode one, call to duty.

He puts his hand over hers, and enjoys the touch.

She smiles at him, and white space consumes them.

Unfortunately, random is not always random. A roulette spin is not random if the table is on a sloped floor. Gravity is like a stretched tarpaulin, with tennis balls and bowling balls sunk in its surface. Add a new marble to the surface, and it will be compelled to roll down to the nearest heavy object. So with time, and the bowling ball, the Jupiter, of February 28th, 1931.

~~~

…..????

?? February 28th, 19_+_31….[[##??##]]

??[[###Time…##**]] (since ChaNGed….#))

???

 

The windows of the club splatter red and the ringing aftermath of shots reels in the air. The tommy guns clatter to the floor as one, completing the pattern: outer circle, dead mobsters; inner circle, guns; centre: John, breathing hard, covered in blood and sweat and fever.

He looks again at Sam’s body, lying beside him. Blood still trickles out the hole in his forehead. His eyepatch is off-centre, revealing a swollen pink lid. John’s face creases, and he turns to the other side, by the bar, outside of the circle. Bert’s leg is bleeding badly – bullet hit him in the thigh. Alice is frozen, one arm around Bert, the other pressed on his leg, blank eyes like a statue as she stares at John, and what he has just done.

John sobs, and picks a pistol from the floor.

‘Don’t,’ Bert gasps. ‘Wasn’t your fault – wasn’t your –’

‘Shut up,’ John says, voice thick with bitterness. ‘You don’t know anything! I could’ve…I should’ve…’

He straightens. All reason is gone from his eyes; he is red-rimmed and wild. He points the gun in Alice’s face.

‘Give me the necklace.’

‘John–’ Bert starts.

‘If you don’t get him to hospital soon, he’ll die,’ John says to her. ‘Give me the necklace, and he might live.’

Alice looks down at Bertram, and shakes her head, still in shock.

‘I thought I had stopped this,’ she whispers. ‘I thought…’

‘Alice!’ John cries, stepping closer. ‘You know these things, right? Sam told me I’d bring people together. He said I’d do good. Is this what he meant, huh? Is it? I make everything bigger, better or worse – but it’ll never get better, will it? I can only ever make things worse!’

The barrel is half a foot away from her head. Still she looks at Bertram, despair slowly bursting forth in her features.

‘John,’ Bert spits, ‘don’t–!’

‘Give me the necklace!’ he demands.

Alice turns to him with a snap.

‘You cannot undo it!’ she shouts. ‘If you return to the past, you will meet yourself – you will make a paradox – you will ruin time! You cannot undo it, John!’

She presses her hand harder against Bert’s wound and breaks down.

John presses the gun against her head. Bert struggles to move through his fainting; Alice doesn’t flinch, trapped in her own depths.

‘I draw everything to myself,’ John says, soft, resigned, like an abused child. ‘And I can’t stop it. So I’m gonna do what he said. I’ll bring them together. Dammit, I’m a hole, a circling drain – I’ll bring it all together. I’ll bring every fucking thing together.’

He presses the muzzle into her temple, half-threat-half-sob. She bends underneath it, eyes screwed tight.

‘So give me that necklace!’

Alice yanks the chain at her neck, and holds it out to him. He pulls it up, and over her head. One last look at Sam, and he is gone.

Written by G.J.

15/08/2014 at 6:23 pm

Pinwheel 6: John Searches for Peace

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2nd September, 2008

CERN Headquarters, Geneva

John is sitting under a tree near the car park, with an air of melancholy befitting a Turkish poet. He does not see Sholeh until she is stood, arms-crossed, in front of him.

‘What are you doing here?’ he says with a start, legs snapping up like praying mantis hands. ‘Did anyone see you?’

‘Perhaps they did,’ she says. ‘And why would that be a bad thing?’

He opens his mouth to answer…and the answer hangs within him. His expressions sinks from panic to resignation, and his body sinks with it. He picks a stone from near his knee and gives a bitter laugh.

‘I suppose it doesn’t matter,’ he says. He stands up slowly, as if he has gained forty years’ weight in a moment. ‘None of it matters, does it?’

He launches the stone out into the cars, and it clangs off unseen metal. Sholeh examines her employer – her kidnapper – as he turns back to her. There is a deadly challenge in his expression, as if daring her to scold him, daring the world to hurt him. A spark flares in her. If he is issuing a challenge, she will meet it.

‘What is the purpose of this experiment?’

He groans and tries to walk past her.

‘I get this ten times a day from Onyeka already. Why don’t you puzzle it out with her?’

‘I cannot speak English well enough.’

‘Then learn.’

His ease infuriates her.

‘I cannot just learn without trying, as you do!’

Another groan. Another attempt to walk away. She grabs his arm and stops him.

True, perhaps he is older than her, taller than her, stronger than her, perhaps her heart is thumping with years of warnings and fables – but letting him go without word is unthinkable. He looks at her, and she holds ever stronger for her fear.

He smiles. And kindly.

‘I know. Sorry. Ask Grace, though – she’ll know. Or look on the internet. It knows pretty much everything – isn’t that crazy?’

She releases his arm and he strolls back towards the buildings. Does she dare voice it? “You are crazy”? Would he only laugh? Perhaps.

Sholeh catches up with him, and after a few seconds of silence, during which John seems content, she tries again. Her mother always told her that soft persuasion was better with the weak, and fights with tyrants. And she senses weakness radiating from John – weakness of soul, of mind, she reckons.

‘What is the purpose of the second chamber on the collider?’

‘You’re not letting that go, huh?’ he says, wry smile still on his face. Something warps in his speech, and again she suspects he is not speaking Farsi even though she understands him. ‘Fine, I’ll bite. I’m going to introduce another element to the collider, and see if it affects what happens with the particles. Simple enough, right?’

A metal box of four by two by six. A shivering sensations settles over her shoulders.

‘Is that safe?’

He chuckles, and looks at her like she is playing a joke on him.

‘Is it – is it safe? Listen, you know what a black hole is, right?’

She nods.

‘I tell you, so much of all this was news to me – and black holes, that’s scary, right? It sucks everything into it, and nothing ever gets out, it’s gone forever. I mean, it’s crazy – just crazy. And when the LHC is turned on, there’s a chance, they say, that it will rip open a black hole, and it’ll suck in CERN, and Geneva, and all of Europe and the world and everything. All of this, and us, gone like that.’

He gestures to the cars, the gravel, the trees, the cloudy sky.

‘It won’t happen,’ Sholeh says, folding her arms again. ‘That is fearful speculation. Nothing will happen.’

Where her conviction has sprung from, she doesn’t know. Part of her has worried about that outcome, secretly, but when faced with John, her instinct is to be brave, be dismissive. Scorn bolsters her.

‘All of it gone and as blank as the night sky,’ John mutters to himself. He looks upwards.

‘What is your aim in having us here?’ Sholeh demands.

‘Hn,’ he says, with another bitter smile. It is a long second before he tears his eyes away from the sky and to her.

‘I suppose,’ he says, ‘I’m looking for peace. Yeah, that’s it – peace. I’ve been running around a long time, not knowing what I’m doing. But that’s it, isn’t it? I’m looking for peace.’

Bags under his eyes. Exhaustion in every bone. Sholeh’s arms fall out of their fold.

As he walks towards the nearest door, she swallows, and debates with herself on what to do. The mystery of the experiment falls into unimportance, shoved aside by a new certainty, and the quandaries and decisions that requires:

John is a man determined to die.

~~~

February 11th, 1931

Ozone Park, New York

‘Hey Sam,’ John says, mind stretching out through his alcoholic fog. ‘You believe in God?’

Sam’s eye is caught on the ceiling corner, as if it fascinates him.

‘Old man in the sky?’ He shakes his head. ‘No. Things that I’ve seen…no way.’

Things that have happened to you, you mean, John thinks. If I was attacked and left to die and they never found who did it, and I had to live with being a cripple, I wouldn’t believe in God either. And yet, Sam can still smile, and talk, and make money, even without his leg and eye. But without someone on high…

‘So then,’ John pushes, ‘what happens after we die? If there’s no God, no heaven, no hell, then what is there?’

‘Nothing,’ Sam says. ‘It’s like a big sleep.’

The words burrow deep. The fog threatens to lift and reveal the dense core of pain and terror seated at the heart of him.

‘Ha,’ John says, ‘that’s fucking awful.’

Sam’s eye swivels to him, watching as he takes another full-throated glug.

‘It’s not too bad. No pain. No worrying.’

‘No,’ John says, wiping his mouth. ‘I hate that idea. No punishment, no reward either. I’d miss so much – it’d kill me, knowing I’d never eat or drink or screw again, I’d never anything again.’

‘You wouldn’t miss it. You wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t be anything any more. You don’t miss being awake when you’re asleep, do you?’

John considers it a second, then shakes his head violently.

‘No, still, no way. So everything I’ve been, is just gone? I can’t – I don’t believe it. I dunno how you can believe it.’

Sam shrugs. John wants to hit him. So constantly calm, so easy-going with life.

‘I can’t explain it, really. I was nothing before I was born, and I didn’t care. When I’m dead, I won’t care about being dead, because I’ll be dead – see? I’ll be nothing, and that’ll be…peaceful.’

‘So nothing is peace?’ John says, with a purposefully aggravating smile. Sam doesn’t rise to the bait. The bastard.

‘Suppose so,’ he says, turning his eye back to the ceiling.

John reaches for another bottle. Maybe the idea of peace appeals to him. No more suffering. But if he died now, he’d leave nothing behind to show for his life, and that galls him worse than the notion of no God and no heaven or hell. How can I bring people together, he thinks, when I can’t even look after my own family’s leftovers? How can I make a difference, when I’ve got next to nothing, and might have even less tomorrow?

He opens his mouth to say it. Say to Sam, “I’m in trouble, I’m scared for my life, if I don’t get this money my brother owes to the mob, I’m as good as dead.”

Sam’s doberman barks in the front hall. Loud as a gunshot. Both men jump. Sam’s shoulders seize up, and remain high after the subsequent growls and half-hearted yaps make it clear that it is a false alarm.

‘Ha, ha ha ha ha,’ John says, forcing the breaths out of him, forcing himself to calm down. Sam doesn’t move. Every muscle in him is tense. His eye is stuck on the doorway.

He lifts his bottle to his lips and takes a sip, never moving his gaze. Silence resumes in the hallway, as whatever irritated Barnardo passes by. Sam swallows loudly.

‘You know they came in through the front door,’ he says, his voice hoarse. ‘I swear it was locked, and they walked right in, and ran right out again.’

John doesn’t reply. Sam has never spoken of that night with him.

Sam sighs and runs his hand over his eyepatch, through his hair, down his neck.

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to get morbid.’

‘We were already morbid,’ John says. He clinks his bottle against Sam’s, and says, ‘Drink.’

Sam tips his head back, eye squeezed shut. When he’s taken a long drink, he coughs and gives John a wry smile.

‘You think that makes it better?’

‘I know it does.’

‘You’re right,’ Sam says, and takes another.

John smiles. Stupid to consider piling his problems on Sam, of all people. He won’t think of it again.

They talk of foolish things, and drink to push down what’s eating them.

~~~

July 3rd, 2005

Shibuya, Tokyo

Nothing in her wildest imaginings could have prepared Alice for Tokyo. She has grown used to 1920s New York, where at first it was a brick-and-concrete dreamland, but this – this is something else. Bodies and colours swarm her vision. Screens of moving colour pictures, some taller than her childhood home, light up the sides of glass buildings; huge cars all shades of the spectrum honk on the road; upbeat music blasts from open doorways, mingling with the constant buzz of chatter and movement. And the people…Bert once told Alice how many people existed in the world. Two billion, he had said. She didn’t know what a billion was, and even once he explained it to her, she didn’t comprehend what such a large number meant, didn’t quite believe it existed.

Walking through Shibuya, she now believes that two billion people exist – and that they all must live in Tokyo.

After two hours of walking in the humid air and brushing up against strangers, she is exhausted. Her lady’s posture – and all the etiquette drilled into her in 1928 – is sagging. Even when she sits down on the benches beside the dog statue, the stares of those passing never relents enough to give her peace. She had thought that a dress and hat would be perpetually fashionable as summer wear, but it seems she is mistaken. She decides to ask Tessa again, when she returns to Bath. Tessa knows far more about fashion than her, but then she has had an eight-decade head start. Everyone has had a head start, compared to Alice.

Still, there is no point in being bitter. Again, the future proves more amazing, incomprehensible, and yet familiar than she can imagine. Shibuya is a wonderful example of this. She sees dyed-haired teenagers taking surreptitious photographs of her on their personal phones, but then she sees them take sips of the same coca-cola she has tasted in 1930, and then she sees a grandmother walking with a child that smiles in delight at the sky and the buildings and the world – just as has always happened. It makes her smile. Whenever she thinks she cannot be more thankful to be alive, she is reminded of this again.

She if grateful to be alive. She is grateful that Bertram, back in 1930, is going to live. She is grateful neither God nor man has yet punished her for her crime. Every time she thinks about what she did to that boy in Queens, she wants to keep running. Run forever, and never go back.

She decides to visit the station.

Once inside, she follows the tide of people until she reaches the barriers. It doesn’t matter where I go, she reminds herself. I have this necklace. I will always be free. I will always be safe.

She buys no ticket. The barrier opens for her regardless. No-one behind her notices.

A train arrives moments later, and she piles in with the rest. Though it is busy, there are seats, and the crowd leaves a wide berth for the foreigner in the ugly patterned dress.

Alice gazes out the window, and wonders what would happen if she should tap the glass just right, and cause it to shatter. The loss of her sight is like a missing tooth; irritating, saddening, a wound she constantly pokes at to remind herself that it is gone. In its wake, the urge to use her other powers has increased.

She looks down the carriage, and sees a businessman with a loosened tie, snoozing in his seat. She focuses on him, on his tie, and under her gaze, the knot of the tie creeps up, millimetre by millimetre, tightening step by step, until it is no longer loose.

‘Huh,’ come a voice behind her – an American accent, speaking English. ‘Magnetism.’

The businessman sneezes and wakes up, immediately fumbling and loosening his tie again. Alice turns to the voice behind her.

‘Yes?’

It is a young white man. Something about him is familiar, but Alice is sure she has never seen his face before.

‘Alice,’ he says, nodding. ‘I didn’t expect to ever see you again.’

The person on the seat beside her stands, and the man takes the opening. Alice shrinks back.

‘Forgive me,’ she says. ‘I do not know you.’

‘What d’you mean you don’t –’

He catches himself and his eyebrows shoot up.

‘Oh. Oh! I get it. When did you come from?’

‘John,’ comes a voice. ‘What are you doing?’

Alice glances up. John’s companion is a young black woman. The Japanese travellers have created a large space around the three of them, as if they are plagued.

‘Grace, I know this woman – just, just give me a minute, alright?’

The girl sighs and turns to the windows, putting in her earphones. Alice wishes she would have helped her.

‘Alice,’ John says in a quieter voice, ‘I know you’re travelling through time. If you’ve come from before 1931, that means we haven’t met yet. But believe me, I know you pretty damn well. You taught me – well, more I learnt a lot from you. Watch!’

He turns to the dozing businessman. John squints, and the man’s tie flicks up and hits him in the face. He wakes with a start, looks around him, and sits forward, scowling.

Alice goes cold.

John turns to her with a smile.

‘See? I got that from you. Just like I got the sight from Sam, and the blood-reading from Bert. Wow, I want to just tell you everything – but I suppose that might ruin everything if you haven’t met me yet, huh?’

Alice cannot speak. The familiarity, she realises, was that he looks like he is from 1930, as out of place as she is among these futuristic urbanites. She swears, in that moment, that she will never, never gift her power to this man, whoever he is.

‘Come on, lighten up,’ he says, a little too forcefully. ‘What are the chances that we would meet like this? I – y’know, when I was stuck in my hole in Brooklyn, seeing the same faces day in and out, there was no way for me to make coincidences like this happen, no way for me to make anything happen. Now look at me! I was in Nigeria three days ago, and now I’m here, and now I got this voice in my head saying “Go, go to Persia,” showing me the exact place I’ve got to be, the exact person I need to talk to. So I’m gonna go to Persia, and see what this crazy power of mine does from there – I reckon I’ll collect a few more people and more tricks along the way, right?’

His smiles twists. Tears form in his eyes.

‘And you know,’ he continues, voice beginning to catch, ‘I’d give it up. I’d give it all up, just to be back where you came from. Just to be able to go back to 1931, back to February, and say…tell myself what I should’ve done. But I know it’s too late. You told me that – we can’t change ourselves in the past. But hell, I wish I could. I mean, we do whatever we can to save the people we love, right?’

Those last words strike a bell in her mind.

John sighs and takes out a necklace from his pocket. The exact replica of the one currently strung round Alice’s neck, hiding behind her dress’s neckline.

‘How did you get that?’ she asks. The bell rings again, and again.

‘You gave me this as well,’ John says. ‘Or more, I took it. I’m sorry. Like I said, I’d give it all up if I could…but it’s too late now. Magnetism’s not the kind of force you can stop. I’m just using this to take it to its logical end.’

‘John,’ Grace says. The train is about to stop.

John puts the necklace back in his pocket and stands up.

‘Well, this is our goodbye. Have fun back home, and when you see me, give me a thump and tell me to not be a fool.’

‘Please,’ she says, afraid to let this omen out of her sight, ‘what happened to Bertram?’

John shrugs.

‘Last I saw him, he was bleeding on the floor in your arms. After that, I can’t say.’

The doors open.

‘Take care, Alice,’ he says, and then he and his companion are gone.

Her joy is lost. Alice stumbles out at the next station, staggers to the first quiet place she finds (the women’s toilets) and holds her necklace in her hands like she is praying. 2007. August – the day doesn’t matter – say the 24th – Bertram’s birthday – her hands are shaking. Tessa’s house. The path beside Tessa’s house. Tessa, and August, and 2007.

Written by G.J.

02/07/2014 at 3:27 pm

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

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