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The concluding part of the story,….

Okay, that wasn’t too bad. The car goes like a rocket, doesn’t it? A little wild on the corners by modern standards, but plenty of kick! Anyway, here we are, just pulling into a space on Menses Park Terrace. The college is over there, and Menses Park is to our right. We’ve still an hour to kill, so I thought we’d take a look in the park because I’ve not been in there for ages and, well, the place is kind of special to me, for a number of reasons.

I’d forgotten how green this part of town is, all cherry trees and wide open spaces. It’s just a stone’s throw, and yet a million miles away from the bustle of the centre. And here,… see? Isn’t this a pretty park? Look at the lawns, and the colourful borders. You won’t find parks like this anywhere else in the world – it’s so English, so Victorian. See the bandstand? The ornamental lake? This is where I come at lunchtimes when the weather’s good. It gets me out of college, gives me somewhere quiet to be on my own and lick my wounds.

If you don’t mind we’ll just sit here on this bench for a bit. We’ve been lucky with the weather eh? Today’s exactly as I remember it: warm, and the scent of fresh cut grass. But it was always a pleasure tainted by the perpetual loneliness of being in love, and always disappointed by the reality of love’s apparent indifference to me. Still,… no need to dwell on that now: I’ll soon be seeing Serena again. She’ll be sitting beside me in the car, and I’ll take her to that little pub. We’ll talk over a decent meal and get to know one another,… we’ll feel so grown up and sophisticated – then I’ll bring her home and drop her on her doorstep and say: it was fun, wasn’t it? I really enjoyed being with you. And she’ll blush and maybe give me her number and we’ll arrange to do it again sometime soon.

What’s that? I said: We’ll arrange to,… what are you looking at? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,….

Woah!

Didn’t I tell you Faye was a looker? Crikey, I’d forgotten she used to wear her dresses as short as that! That’s her bench over there you see? Didn’t I tell you? This is where we first met. This is what I wanted to show you, just for completeness really, though it’s a while yet before our time comes, and I wasn’t expecting to see her today. She was sitting over there, reading Wuthering Heights. I was going through a bit of a Bronte phase myself and was reading The Tennant of Wildfell Hall – made a change from Newton’s Laws, and Mhor’s Circle.

Anyway, even from a distance we couldn’t help but notice one another’s books and we made a joke about swapping them when we’d finished. It was said light heartedly but – you know how these things work – I looked out for her every time I was in town after that, and in the end we did exchange books. Her telephone number was written on the very first page and the rest, as they say is history,… or rather my future.

Look at her legs as she sits down, and crosses them. Aren’t they sexy? You can nearly see her stocking-tops! And the way she dangles her shoe on the end of her toes like that! Oh,… but she looks so pretty,…. so young and absolutely devastating! I don’t mind telling you I feel a bit awkward now, sitting here, knowing I’m about to be going off with someone else shortly, and maybe you think it’s wrong, but you’re forgetting: Faye doesn’t know me yet and it would complicate things if I were to do what you seem to be urging me to do, and take my copy of Wildfell Hall out of my bag – yes I know it’s in there – I’ve seen it too. Oh, Faye: red high heels, big bushy hair, a slash of red lip-gloss, electric blue eye-shadow. How I used to ache for you! Where did you go, my love? What happened to you? What happened to us? Do we really change so much as we age – or are we the same, and we just forget who we are?

Okay, maybe we should move on. I’m beginning to feel really strange now, like I’m going to wake up. Talk to me will you. Say something. Why do you have to be so flipping quiet all the time? Oh,… I think it’s too late,… we’re slipping free,…. no sense in fighting it; once we start to slide there’s nothing we can do to stop it,… here we go.

Damn!

Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault. I think it was seeing Faye that did it. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Let me come round for a moment, then we’ll go back into the house and check on her. Does everything look as it should to you? I mean the shed. I could swear there was something,… oh never mind,… I think the tea was a little too strong. Do you have a funny taste in your mouth? Yak!

So, anyway, here we are. The house is all quiet. We’ve been away a bit longer than I expected and everything’s in darkness. There’s just a light showing under the lounge door, and I can hear the TV, so I don’t think I’ve been missed, but I’m feeling guilty about the Serena thing, so I’ll salve my conscience by asking Faye if there’s anything I can do. It’s a little weak I know and she’ll suspect me at once of something underhand but, really, seeing her as she used to be has reminded me of what it was that drew me to her in the first place. She was every bit as pretty as Serena – I’d forgotten that – but there was something else,… and I’m really glad I woke up in time before I had the chance to disgrace myself. Anyway, here we are:

“Faye,… I was just,…”

Okay.

You’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I think about this.

Yes,… I can see it’s not Faye. But who?…. Oh, I get it – It’s Serena of course! Nice one! She’s padded out a little, and there are lines around her eyes – not unattractive, I might add. Its more her expression that’s so shocking – the same dull, deadness – just like Faye: those lifeless eyes reflecting nothing but the crap she’s watching on TV. So,… I take it we’ve slipped forwards, not to our old future, but to our new one?

Fine, just so long as I know where I am!

On the up-side, it seems our courtship went well and we’ve managed to share a life together, but on the down-side, unlike my life with Faye, I’ve obviously not had the pleasure of remembering the best bits of it. I’ve gone straight from that tingling anticipation of our first date, to surfacing directly here into the featureless plain of our later years, a time when it’s all been said and done, and we can barely be bothered looking at each other any more.

“Serena?”

She’s barely aware of us,… fortunately, the TV is on so loud she didn’t hear me calling her Faye.

“Serena, can I get you anything?”

She waves her hand dismissively. Clearly I’m disturbing her and I suspect we’d be as well retreating back into the kitchen.

Now, given the rather shop-worn outcome of both these relationships, I agree it seems I’m most likely the one at fault here, since I’m the common denominator in them both. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that though. I mean I could do the decent thing while I’m here and try to perk things up with Serena, but since I don’t remember anything of our relationship, I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that without her knowing something’s wrong, and maybe making things even worse.

So that leaves me wondering about your part in all of this, and how we seemed to bump into each other at that particular time and place. And you must forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking it’s you who’s been married to Serena all this time, that this is your future, and that maybe lately you’ve been haunted by memories of a woman sitting on a park bench flashing her stocking tops, and reading Wuthering Heights? A woman who caught your eye and smiled at you as you were waiting to go out on your first date with Serena perhaps?

Okay. Fine. Well, I trust that, like me, you know what it was now that you really left back there in ’83, and now we’ve found it we can both avoid screwing up our lives any further. It was really weird bumping into you again, and you understand if I hesitate to suggest we do this sort of thing more often? For now, I’d be obliged if you’d just put the kettle on and hand me your almanac. With a bit of luck the moon’s not moved too far away from the ecliptic,…

….and Faye’s still sitting on that park bench.

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Still with me after part one? Much appreciated. Let’s see where this goes. So,…

We’ve skipped ahead a little now, consulted our almanac, and there’s a full moon on the ecliptic this evening. I’ve checked the earth’s geomagnetic signature on the Internet and sure enough, it’s been plummeting for days, so now’s our chance. I’ve tickled round the garden with a hoe, tidied up the borders and mown the grass, which ought to keep Faye off our backs for a while. If you think you’re ready, come down to the shed, and I’ll boil us up an infusion of hedgerow clippings. Take a seat, make yourself comfortable – go on – settle back.

Here we go,….

There! see how easy it is? We’ve slipped back to ’83 without much trouble. The only problem is we’ve missed the best bit and we’re already half way through Dodman’s lecture. Mhor’s Circle is up on the blackboard, which means Serena’s long gone. That’s a bit of a drag, but maybe you’re right and trying to cop off with a dream-girl from my past is like trying to run before I can walk. So, maybe I should start with something simple like,… I don’t know,… how about if I just,…. stood up?

Okay! That seemed to work. Here we are, standing up in the middle of Dodman’s lecture on Mhor’s Circle. Weird! It seems we’ve just created another future because Dodman, interrupted mid-sentence, is now looking at us over his spectacles in a way he never did in our original past, at least not at this place and time.

“Yes?” he asks.

He’s a pleasant chap, old Dodman, and we’ve no need to fear his wrath, but all the same it’s an embarrassing situation and I’ve no idea what to do next. To be honest I didn’t expect things to be as easy as this.

“Em,…”

“Is everything all right, young man?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Dodman. I think,… perhaps,.. I need,… to excuse myself.”

I could just have sat down again and maybe time would have flowed back into its normal course, but, really, this is too interesting a thing to let it go just yet. So, we’re outside the room now, breathing hard, sweating like we’re sick and shoving our college notes back into our bag. What now you ask? Well follow me and I’ll show you.

I’m of an age when I can look back fondly on the 80’s, and even though it doesn’t seem that long ago to me, the fashions, the styles, the cars,… when I see these things in movies or pictures from that period, they conjure up a feeling of such nostalgia it’s like I’m sure I misplaced something back here that was really important to me. I’m also sure I know what, or rather who it is:

We’re talking about Serena, of course!

The girls were mostly into big fluffy hair, and shoulder pads in those days. I remember it as a very glamorous, sexy and confident time. As for my car – I drove an RS 2000, painted a gloriously unsubtle shade of yellow. It had alloy wheels, fat tyres and a Cosworth engine. If I’m right I’ve left it parked around Avondale Road, where it’s all quiet and residential, and where the parking’s free. But that’s for later. For now though, I’ve just remembered a coffee shop in the old Market Hall which is nearer, so we’ll check that out first.

Okay, here we are. I know it’s not much of a place but the coffee’s really good, and is very straight forward to order – just coffee – none of the endless choice that’s supposed to be the mark of a sophisticated free-market society. It’s pretty busy, it being market day, you see? But if you follow me quickly there’s a table just over there. We can hunker down, sip our coffee and try to work out what to do next.

Excuse me,… coming through!….

Wow, did you see that girl? She looked like a movie star! I used to sneer at all this glam stuff – plastic people I used to call them – but now I really miss it! By the way, if you don’t mind my saying so you seem to know your way around here pretty well.

Anyway, where were we?

Oh,… hold on. Something really strange has just happened. Serena’s walked in. She’s over there, ordering coffee from the counter – baggy striped sweater and jeans, big satchel. Isn’t she gorgeous? Do you see the provocative tilt of her hips? Oh,… now she’s looking for somewhere to sit. Ever heard of a synchronicity? Well you’re in one. We shouldn’t get too excited though because, considering the way she last looked at me, I’ll be lucky to get a smile out of her this time. Still,… she can’t find a seat, and we’ve got this whole table to ourselves.

I wonder,… Okay, she’s looked our way now and I’m sure she’s recognised me. I can read her mind: she’s thinking she can either beg a corner of that table with those old dears by the window, or she can come and sit with me. If she’s kind hearted, she’ll know I’ll be hurt if she chooses the old dears, but I don’t want her to be uncomfortable either. And I don’t want her to feel sorry for me. I just want her to want me.

Right, she’s coming over! You’d better slip off into the background, while I deal with it. No,.. don’t go too far; I don’t mind you listening in and, anyway, I may need your help if I get into trouble.

“Hi,” she’s saying. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Of course not.”

I can feel myself tingling now, like she’s emitting a force field and it’s exciting every particle of me. Once again there’s that startling awareness of every detail of her, and she looks so cute and cuddly in her sweater. Surely, no matter how long I live, I will never desire anyone as completely as I desire Serena at this moment. No,… I’m not talking about sex here; it’s more that I can’t remember a time when I’ve ever wanted just to be,… with anyone so much as this. But I’m confused because, of course, this moment never happened. If this truly is, or was, my past, then it’s following a different track now.

And that’s progress.

Isn’t it?

Serena’s nervous. She can read my thoughts, she sees the desire in my eyes, and she doesn’t want any embarrassment. She just wants to sit and drink her coffee without some hormone-inebriated youth making a pass at her.

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”

Now it’s her turn to be confused. “Oh?”

“I’m not really here, you see?”

She smiles. She has a lively sense of humour and thinks perhaps I’m joking with her – thinks perhaps she’s misjudged me, been too hasty in setting a distance between us.

“Really?” she asks. She has the most beautiful dimples, and those lips? Do you see those lips – how wide her smile, how white her teeth?

“It’s true,” I’m telling her. “I’m actually sitting in my shed some time maybe twenty five years from now, thinking back on this moment.”

She takes a sip of her coffee, and I can see her running this one through her mind, her eyes making little oscillations while she weighs me up. She could easily think I’m a wierdo and recoil, but instead she tiptoes politely into my joke, and now she’s asking me: “So, what’s it like then: twenty five years from now?”

And of course I want to say something corny like: “All the poorer for not having you in it, Serena,” but that would be lame and this is a joke, after all, so I’ll have to say something light and smart and say it soon, or it’ll ruin the moment.

But what is it like, twenty five years from now? Do I say the world’s economy has collapsed, that the financial institutions these stripey shirted, brace twanging proto-tycoons are constructing around now will turn out to have been nothing more than a sophisticated con-trick? No,… too downbeat. But then I remember I was not particularly happy here in the ’80’s either – sure I wasn’t sinking in a sea of mortgage hell and torpedoed investments, but what I was, was forever falling in love with a long string of women, none of whom ever knew my name, which from where I’m sitting now, back in ’83, suddenly seems a whole lot worse than looking at my building society statement twenty five years from now and thinking: shite!

But she’s waiting – the moment sliding away and if you want to make a decent joke, of course timing is everything. I give her a smile, as warm as I can muster, and then I hear myself, like some ham actor from a ’40’s movie say in clipped English tones: “It’s all terribly dull I’m afraid.”

I’m a hit: she’s laughing now and my heart is swelling. How I wish I could simply hold this moment than have to take things any further, but the times are holding on to me, and it seems each moment from now will be whatever I choose to make of it.

“You’re a nutter,” she says, but flicks me a smile and a coy look that I take as permission to proceed – but carefully.

“Shouldn’t you be in class?” I ask.

“Study period,” she replies. “What’s your excuse?”

“Me? I’m meddling with the nature of space and time.”

But this raises barely a grin – too pretentious. Must keep it real! “Well,… seriously, I’ve attended this lecture so often I know it by heart.”

“Lucky you.”

“What time are you in college ’till?”

She pauses before replying. I’m being too obvious now but my gambit is rewarded by that coy look again. “Four,” she replies. “You?”

“I’m here ’till nine.”

“Nine?”

“I’m a day release student,” I explain. “We get twelve hours of lectures a week – all on the same day unfortunately.”

“Ah,… then you have a job?”

“Yes. I’m an engineer.” I might have said ‘designer’, but I’m worried she’ll think I mean fashion or something. But what’s this? She’s interested: she’s lifting her chin, fastening her eyes a little more steadily upon me.

“Reeeaaaally?”

Now, it’s not that engineering’s a sexy kind of job – it’s more that just having a job at all makes me seem a little more mature than your everyday college boy. I earn real money, while the guys she’s been out with so far have most likely all been full time students and dirt poor. Sure,… this is what she’s thinking – trust me. Now, I’m not exactly a rich man, but I can afford to spend money on her, and every woman likes to be made to feel she’s worth a million dollars – it doesn’t make her shallow. Anyway, that’s the female side of the equation. As for the male: one side of my head may be pushing fifty – which is the side that’s thinking straight, thinking ahead, and urging caution, but the other side is twenty three and thinking very little, except how much I want to show her the car, or preferably get her into it. I’m young you see and I want to wave my bright yellow, two litre metaphorical willy at her.

“Do you need a ride home?”

She shakes her head and I cringe inwardly. That was too much, too clumsy, but I note she’s careful not to push me so far away. “I mean I don’t know you, do I?” she says.

“True. True,…”

“Anyway,” she goes on, teasing. “If you don’t get off ’till nine how can you?”

“I’ll probably skip the rest of today,” I tell her. “What I really want to do,…” I mean if I blow it here, I’m thinking, “is take the car for a blast over the moors – there’s a little pub I know. Cosy. Good restaurant. I’ll probably hang about up there for the evening.”

“Sounds nice.” I can see her balancing the potential of my rather subtle invitation against the risks of being stranded in the wilds with a psychopath. “Well,…. I see you often enough in the refectory at lunchtimes,” she calculates. “So, I sort of know you already, a little.”

“Yes,… you do.”

“I don’t need a ride home though – I only live five minutes away.”

“Right. That’s very,… convenient.” My how this girl likes to tease!

Is she inviting me back to her place, then? No – don’t be an idiot. Her place will probably include a mum, a dad and an annoying little sister.

What do I do? Time is ticking. Her hands are curled around her coffee cup, her arms flat upon the table and I see her turning her wrist a fraction so she can tell the time. She’s so lovely, so perfect,… but I fear I’m losing her now.

“Study period almost over?” I ask.

She nods, and though she does not smile, there is a look in her eyes that betrays her pleasure in the time we have spent together.

“Sorry,” she says. “I don’t mean to be rude.”

Our eyes are lowered a fraction. She’s waiting to see what I’ll do: if I’ll try to blurt in a last desperate pass. She’s perhaps hoping I won’t, but being terribly polite in giving me the opportunity to embarrass myself. “Well,…” I say. “Maybe you’ll let me buy you coffee next time.”

She’s surprised by this. It gives her the easy way out, the chance to smile and say “maybe”, and retreat with both our dignities intact, also the chance of a follow up if she feels like it, or the chance to avoid me if she doesn’t. Really, I wish I’d had this much sense when I was younger, instead of being so damned gauche and backing girls into corners all the time.

“Well,…” she’s saying. “If you happened to be parked down Menses Park Terrace, say just after four,… you never know,… we might bump into each other again.”

And if I’m not mistaken I think I’ve just scored.

“You never know,” I tell her. “And maybe if you were passing, I could ask if you fancied joining me for a meal,… at that pub?”

“And maybe I’d like that,” she says.

She’s in a hurry now, drains her coffee, and with a last look at her watch, pushes back her chair, flashes me a smile, and says it was nice talking to me. I nod dreamily, and she’s gone before I have time to ruin the moment by saying something stupid.

Well, come on then! There’s no time to waste. We’d better pay up, and get out of here. I know we’ve hours to kill before four o’clock, but I remember it was always murder parking down Menses Park Terrace, and we’ll probably have to circle a bit before we find a spare slot. I don’t want to leave anything to chance, you see, and it’ll give us an opportunity to get a feel for the car again. And maybe,… sure,… while we’re there, there’s somewhere else I’d like to show you.

To be concluded tomorrow,….

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Blowing the dust off some old short fictions with a thought for getting back into the craft. I’ll be putting this one up in daily instalments. Each one is a five to ten minute read, so hopefully I can hook you early on. It’s about young love, old love and time travel. What’s not to like? So,…

I haven’t been to Wigan for ages, not since the ’80’s, in fact, and I can’t say for sure we’re really here now, except it seems pretty much that way to me. If I’m correct, it’s a Thursday, just after lunch, and we’re standing in a huddle of people waiting to go inside the old technical college on Parson’s Walk, but there’s been a fire alarm, and it’s chaos. It’s no hardship, though, because the sun is shining, and every second I spend out here is a second less I’ll have to spend in class.

Okay,… so, here we are; this is the interesting bit: there’s a girl looking at me, smiling. Do you see her? That’s Serena, and I’ve been in love with her for a long time. Her smile is heart-warming, it’s also completely unexpected because, until this moment, I’d not been aware of her having taken much notice of me. Clearly though, she is aware of me; dare I say she even seems to like me?

The crowd fades into the background and all I can see is her, except “see” isn’t the right word. Yes, I can see every freckle, every individual eyelash, but I can also feel the texture of her skin, her clothes, her hair,… and though she’s twenty feet away, and just one person in the midst of so many others, I’m aware even of the warm-womanly scent of her.

Emboldened by that smile I take a step closer, but the smile fades as if she’s read my thoughts, and is wondering how to avoid the embarrassment of my making an unwelcome pass at her. See? She’s gone now, swallowed by the crowd whose din fills my ears as the fire alarm is ended, and we all make our way towards the doors. I always was a bit of a klutz when it came to women.

Here we are then, shuffling along corridors, heading for my Materials’ Science lecture, which I warn you is going to be a couple of hours of grinding tedium, but you’re lucky because from my perspective things are made all the more unbearable by the ache in my heart, and the knowledge it might be weeks before I ever come that close to Serena again.

I’ve done this a few times now, slipped back to this moment, and what I’d really like to do is slow things down, savour the best bits, the glow of that smile for instance, and then pull out of it before this crushing disappointment kicks in, and I’m once more sitting listening to old Dodman explaining about Mhor’s Circle. I might have found a way of slipping back in time, but once I’m here, time ticks along at its normal pace, and I’m unable to control how long we remain, though boredom usually kills it and sends you right back to whatever time you came from.

It’s curious, these trips to what I suppose must be the early summer of 1983, and my final year of the old HNC course in Mechanical and Production Engineering. It’s curious, because although I am myself, as I believe I was back then, my heart heavy with the bitter sweetness of an unrequited love, there is also superimposed upon my memory the knowledge that for our entire lives, Serena and I will never say anything more than an awkward “hello”, that we’ll marry other people, have kids, and live our lives in complete ignorance of one another.

Now, don’t go thinking I regret the way things turned out for me, because I don’t – well, not exactly. This moment may be charged with a deliciously poignant nostalgia, but I could just as easily have revisited any number of similar moments from around that period. Indeed a few months from now I’ll meet a delightfully feisty girl who won’t disappear every time I try to say hello. On the contrary: she’ll take me to her bed at the first opportunity and keep me there – that is until we both wake up, a quarter of a century later, too middle aged and kid-tired for that sort of thing any more.

Nowadays she prefers watching TV and grumbles when I forget to take the rubbish out. Well, that’s middle age for you, and you either grow up, grow into it, accept its imperfections, its disappointments, and grow old grumbling at someone, or you ruin yourself on a mad fling with a girl half your age that you know won’t last, and then you grow old and alone, with only the walls to grumble at.

In the absence of any other alternatives, I know which of the two I prefer. But what if there was a third alternative? What if that mad fling were to take place in another time and place, dare I say even a different universe altogether? Then you could have your fun and it wouldn’t matter would it? And then what if it wasn’t a mad fling or a bit of fun at all? What if it turned out to be the single most important thing you never did?

Old Dodman’s lecture on Mhor’s Circle seems to do the trick – don’t misunderstand, this is technically interesting and professionally important stuff for me, first time around. It’s just the boredom of its frequent repetition I suppose, that has me resurfacing, safe and sound, in the shed at the bottom of my garden.

The light’s melting into amber over the messy backs of all the red brick terraces of my street. I can see a multitude of chimney pots, a tangle of drainpipes and a mad assortment of larch-lap fencing in various degrees of disrepair. It’s not exactly the most likely setting for an experiment into the nature of time and reality, but then I’m not sure there’s much of a precedent for this sort of thing.

Faye thinks I’m potting up Bizzie Lizzies – at least in so far as I imagine she thinks about me at all these days, and to be safe I have potted a few, but mostly I’ve just been sitting here in this old armchair, among the dust and the cobwebs, well,… daydreaming really. Except, as you’ve just seen, there’s more to it than that. So, maybe you’re wondering if it really is possible, to slip back in time, court girls, and have sex with all that sweet simplicity like you used to, and just,… be so damned young again!

Well, trust me, it’s possible all right, to go back and experience your past again. I’ll show you how in a moment, but I’m warning you, you can only amuse yourself so much with that kind of thing before you start to wonder how you might go about making some changes while you’re there. I see you hesitate? You’re worried about going back and, by changing something insignificant, ruining your present, or maybe even blotting it out altogether?

Don’t worry. That’s day one on the time traveller’s course, and if you don’t mind my saying so, that theory’s a bit dated now – I mean all those rational paradoxes the usual smart-Alec naysayers throw at you. No, trust me, if you change something in your past, you don’t change your present at all – you simply create another version of it. Setting aside all the philosophical musings for a while, there really seems no harm in it, provided you can always get back to where you started from, of course, and as we’ve just seen, all that takes is moment or two of boredom.

So, it turns out the business of time-travel is actually a lot easier then than you’ve been led to believe, provided you’re only interested in going backwards of course. Sure, it turns out the most effective time machine’s not a machine at all, it’s simply the mind, whatever that is, helped along by nothing more complicated than some herbal tea, and the right phase of the moon.

The phase of the moon, you ask?

Perhaps I should explain. At certain times of the month, your mind is less securely fastened down inside your brain. This has to do with the earth’s magnetic field, which forms a sheath of energy around the planet called the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere gets a regular kick from the Sun’s magnetic field, which generally keeps the magnetosphere lively, which in turn stimulates our brains through the pineal gland. What’s that? Well, it’s basically a magnetic sensor wrapped in nerve fibres.

With me so far?

Much of the pineal gland’s function is a mystery, but one of the things it does is keep our sense of self too busy to think of leaking outside of our brains to somewhere more interesting. Once a month though, just before Full Moon, the earth’s magnetic field hushes down a little and then, if your mind’s calm enough, it can slip into a state of dissociation, where any memories that happen by are rendered in ultra-realistic detail.

Okay, so, maybe now you’re thinking this isn’t really time-travel after all. It’s more simply a kind of hallucination? You might have a point, but how about this: if you can trigger a memory, like we just did, then amplify it to such an extent you experience everything, exactly as it was: sights, sounds, touch, smell, and the feel of it all, a feel so overwhelming it entirely blocks out the sense of your present self, well, what difference is there between that and reality, other than the passage of a few decades?

Okay, it’s cold sitting in the shed. Come into the house for a bit and warm up. Let’s try the lounge. Yes,… just as I thought: that’s Faye, reclining on the sofa, dropping bits of chocolate into her mouth, while she gawps rather unattractively at the TV. I’m sure you’ll agree she’s not a bad looking woman, and there was once a time when she was very sweet indeed, very energetic in her loving, only now I get the impression she isn’t really much of anything other than this dull automaton, with all the life squeezed out of her. And to be perfectly fair, she probably feels the same way about me – and not without justification.

Now, Faye and I will never split up. I mean we might have outgrown the idealistic stage when we both believed we had the power to make each other deliriously happy, all the time. And though we may be past all that, we’re far too polite and conventional to do anything so drastic as making each other deliberately unhappy, for example by having the bad manners to take off with someone else. We’re companionable enough, most of the time, but anyone can see there’s something,… well,… missing.

There’s no sense in disturbing her just now, so lets sneak back into the kitchen and check on the herb tea situation. Did I mention the herb tea? Look – I keep it all here in this cupboard where its cool. I get it from the hedgerows, dry it out slowly over the summer, then crush it in the usual way, soak it, drain it. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you there’s plenty of stuff growing in those hedgerows that will kill you, and make a pretty long and nasty job of it too, so you need to know what you’re doing. What’s that? You’re already familiar with this kind of thing? Well that’s fine. I suppose you must be, or we wouldn’t have met outside the college the way we did, or when we did for that matter.

But, tell me, do you also know about the ecliptic? No? Then allow me to explain, because a knowledge of the ecliptic might be just the thing you’re looking for to enhance your experience. You see, there’s something else about the moon you need to know. Over the course of a month it goes from rising south of east, to rising north of east, and then back again. When it’s half way, that is when it’s rising due east, it’s said to be over the ecliptic. When the moon’s at this point, more often than not, the earth’s magnetic field is once more a little quieter – like a with a full moon. So, if you want to skip back in time, you’re better doing it either with a full moon, or with a moon over the ecliptic. Got it? If you check your almanac you’ll see this gives you three or four chances a month. Okay? With me so far? Ah,… I see I’ve sparked your interest now. You’re intelligent and already making the connections: you’re wondering will happen when the moon’s full and over the ecliptic at the same time?

Well, you’re on the right lines. A full moon on the ecliptic only happens about twice a year, and I agree with you, that might be just the time to slip back in time if you wanted to do something other than simply experience your past, and instead see about making some changes while you were there. That’s what I plan on doing next time. Next time, I’m going to try a little harder with Serena, instead of being so damned passive about it. After all, you don’t create a fresh future for yourself by being timid in your past, do you?

To be continued tomorrow,…

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The discovery of an old trunk stirs unsettling memories,…

Crouching low in the attic, I play the torch over the roof beams, and find them fragile. Kathleen peers anxiously through the trapdoor beside me.

“Well?” she asks. “What do you think?”

For three generations this house has served her family well, but lately the roof has begun creaking ominously, in even the lightest of winds. She’d telephoned me to ask if I’d mind taking a look. It’s as well she did, for in all my years I had never seen a roof in poorer shape, at least not on a house that’s still standing.

“Well, it needs a bit of attention,” I say, trying not to alarm her. “I can start this afternoon if you like, but first we’ll have to clear all this stuff out of the way.”

I shine the torch over the mass of junk that always seems to gather in such places – the bits of carpet, the old-fashioned lamp stands, the packing-boxes crammed with all manner of forgotten odds and ends,…

She’s embarrassed by the mess. “I know,” she says. “I’ve been meaning to get around to it for ages.”

It’s while helping her to sort through everything that we come upon the trunk, a big old thing, secured by a hefty padlock. Curious, I trace my fingers through a thick layer of dust to reveal a rich, dark sheen of lacquered wood.

“This is a fine chest, Kathleen.”

Her face darkens. “Oh,” she says. “I’d forgotten this old thing.”

“Looks like its been up here a long time.”

“Since my grandmother was a girl. That must be ninety years, or more.”

“But whatever’s inside?”

“Just some old clothes and things, I expect. When we were children, we used to imagine all sorts of exotic treasures. Sometimes we’d beg her for the key, only to be scolded for our cheek and then she’d tell us that, so long as she was alive, the trunk would never see the light of day.”

“But she must have been gone twenty years,” I remind her. “Have you never thought to look since?”

“It didn’t feel right, somehow. It’s like she was still watching me.”

“Well, it’ll have to come out now.” But I can see she’s uneasy about it. I’d often heard folk say what a difficult woman Kathleen’s grandmother was, and it troubles me we might have disturbed memories Kathleen would rather remained forgotten.

Later, I sit in the kitchen while Kathleen makes tea. It’s been a long, messy job clearing the attic and we’re both covered in dust. The trunk had been troublesome, nearly pitching me off the ladder as I’d tried to get it down. Now, it squats sullenly in the corner, an uncomfortable presence hanging over it.

As I look around I notice a photograph on the wall of a young woman wearing a plain dress, in the style of the 1920’s. If I had not known better I would never have guessed this was Kathleen’s grandmother. She would have been about thirty then, and remarkably good looking, which never failed to surprise people, since most could only remember her as a bent and bitter old woman.

Indeed, the bitterness was a thing which soured her life, but it also weighed heavily upon those, like Kathleen, who’d cared for her in her sunset years. Looking at that picture now, I fancy I can see it even then, frozen into her otherwise handsome features,… a sort of tragic emptiness.

Kathleen sees me looking. “Ah,…” she says. “She was always reminding us how she might once have made something of her life. I can see her now, rocking herself by the fire, complaining about the rain and the draughts whistling through the door, and about how noisy the neighbours’ children were,… and all of us would be wishing that if only she could be a little more cheerful,…”

“Didn’t you once tell me she was a dancer?”

Kathleen sighs. In all the years I’ve known her, she’s rarely spoken of her grandmother, but now, the surfacing of the trunk has made her want to talk. Slowly, draws up a chair.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she begins. “But she worked at a theatre, in town. They say she had the music in her bones, and such a tremendous vitality on stage, all who saw her reckoned she was destined for greater things. And sure enough, she was spotted by an American lady who turned out to be the owner of a theatre in New York. There was a position going in a production they were putting on, and it was my grandmother’s, if she wanted it,…

“It must have seemed like a dream come true, starting out from such a small place as this. It would have been her first step on the road to fame and fortune. Who knows? First the theatre, then maybe, with looks like that, the movies do you think? Sure she might even have been a movie star. But she was only nineteen. That would be 1910 or 1912, and New York must have seemed a very far away place indeed,…

“My great grandfather had died, leaving only my great grandmother, a poor, sickly woman who didn’t want my grandmother to go to New York. But in the end, I suppose she must have agreed and, so the story goes, everything was set. The theatre company arranged her lodgings and I think they even booked her passage over – so they were keen to have her all right.

“But it was not to be. No sooner had she got used to the idea she was really going, than my great-grandmother was taken gravely ill, and since there was no one else in the family, the responsibility fell to my grandmother.” Kathleen shook her head. “I can imagine how she felt – all the conflicting emotions as she watched her ailing mother, while her own dreams slipped though her fingers.

“He mother lingered for years, finally passing away in 1914, by which time it was the war, and the world all upset, and my grandmother’s chance was gone,…”

Looking at the photograph again, I feel like I’m seeing it now for the first time. “The poor woman.”

Kathleen nods. “It ate away at her for the rest of her days. Oh, she settled down, met my grandfather,… raised a family, had all the things we ordinary folk enjoy,… But I don’t think any of it meant as much to her as it might have done. She must always have been thinking how different things could have turned out,… if only,…”

“And the trunk?”

“Well, they say she gathered everything up that was even remotely connected with her dreams of New York, and locked them inside. Then she had a neighbour carry it into the attic, and there it lay, out of sight, but never quite out of mind. I don’t know why she kept it. I would have burned it, if it had been mine.”

In a strange way, I think I understand, though. “Some dreams are just too hard to let go of.”

We sit for a long time, our thoughts inevitably focused upon that old trunk and, I for one, am burning with curiosity. “So,… will you be opening it, do you think?”

Thanks for reading so far. Part two tomorrow,…

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She was waiting by the shop, dropped into the car without a word, and turned her head half away from me, like in the old days, as if to discourage conversation. Not a good start, you might say. I preferred to think it was just her way – a little haughty, and ever so “cool”. The main thing is she was here, in my car, filling it with her scent, and with the mysterious tingle of her womanly being. She wore this crazy-short skirt. And I mean short, so it showed the tops of her stockings. She turned the radio on, found something with a beat and cranked the volume up.

There were two of me that night. There was the me who’d skipped after Lorraine to the bus stop when we were kids. Him, that kid, he was in the driving seat, carried away in the heat and the excitement of her presence. Then there was the other me, the guy who could only look on in a kind of stupefied horror, while this idiot got to work. This was the me who wore the jacket and tie of a white collar job, thought it smart and respectful attire for dating a girl, while everyone else turned out that night as New Romantics, Goths or Emos, all of them in search of this thing called “cool”.

We didn’t see a movie. She changed her mind, wanted a drink in a place well known in those days as a venue for plastic people who’d turn up and pose at one another. The music was loud, which made talking tiresome, everyone just nodding to the beat and looking glum. As for Lorraine, she was with me, but not with me. I was more the anchor around which she floated, while she showed herself off to the rest of the room. The only time she acknowledged my presence was when she tugged off my tie, and she didn’t look too pleased about it. I obviously hadn’t a clue how to be cool, and I’d better get with it.

Then it was on to a club – the only club in town actually – a dive, infamous for broken glass and drugs. I’d never been in before, but the bouncer seemed to know Lorraine and nodded us through. I recognized him as one of the bully-boys from school who nabbed my lunch money, but he didn’t know me now. Had the years changed me so much then?

Inside it was more loud music, and a wall of gyrating bodies. After a couple of drinks, Lorraine too was becoming more animated. I wasn’t drinking on account of driving. Sure, I could have done with loosening up a bit, but it gave me a clarity of vision I suppose everyone else lacked that night.

At some point she hooked up with a bunch of girls she knew, and they took to the dance-floor. I’d already made myself look un-cool over the tie business, indeed seemed unable to find my “cool” anywhere, and I didn’t want to make things worse by attempting to dance. So I propped up the bar, drank fizzy water, and then the God of Men broke through my thick skull, and woke me up.

There were pills circulating. Who knows what they were in those days? The kids probably had kid names for them, like they still do. I suppose you could only dance like that if you were off your head on something, everyone so completely gone. Was this what “cool” looked like, then? I wondered. If so, it looked disturbingly nihilistic, and certainly not pointing to any future I aspired to. Or more likely I just didn’t get it, and the notion of “cool” was beyond my small-town comprehension.

Sometimes, Lorraine would flick me a smile, but mostly she stuck to her mates, whom I guess she’d intended hooking up with all along, but with the added kudos of some guy in tow and what I had begun to uncharitably suspect was simply a ride home whenever she needed it. That smile was definitely an improvement in our relationship, but I reckon that was only because she was by now as stoned as everyone else, and she couldn’t tell me apart from all the other guys she was flirting with.

It was small-hours late when we spilled out. She was unsteady on her heels and giggly. It was the first sign I’d had she’d hit a point of happiness. But it had taken copious quantities of alcohol, and whatever pills she’d been washing down with it to get her there. Whatever this “cool” was, it was a hard task-master, and demanded a heavy price the morning after. I wondered what her mother would make of it when I dropped her off back home, if she’d blame me for not looking after her better. But that was real old-school thinking, and those days were already long gone. Anyway, Lorraine wasn’t done yet. When we sank into the car, she took my hand, clamped it between her thighs and stuck her tongue down my throat. She tasted of booze, and her perfume, so alluring to begin, had soured now with the cling of cigarettes.

“Let’s go somewhere,” she said.

She meant a dark country lane, and the back seat. But it wasn’t really her speaking. It was whoever took a hold of her when she was in this state. Still, the younger me might have gone for it, not seen what this other person wanted was simply “it”, and not necessarily me also, and worse, when the real Lorraine reappeared next morning, she’d either not remember a thing, or she’d be cringing with regrets.

I was entirely in the hands of that God of Men now, and I fear he’d not done such a good job up to now. Or was it that the God of Women was the more powerful, and I’d been unable to hear him above the noise of all that loud music? Anyway, he had me driving round on the pretence of knowing the perfect spot for such a desperate tryst. Just stall her, mate, he was saying, while you think this through.

Think? I couldn’t think. I was feeling the future shaking apart, and I was terrified of going too far with a girl who was sexy as hell, but seemed of a sudden darkly strange, and in exchange for what? For more nights like this? Is this what the world of Lorraine looked like? Was this “cool”? Then the fates intervened, as I realized of course they’d been intervening between us all our lives. The God of Men clanged the gates shut with her behind them, and me safe on the other side again. She fell asleep, woke as I stopped the car outside her mother’s, then she threw up all over her dress, stocking-tops and all. I would rather have spared her that last indignity, but the God of Men knew me better, knew nothing less than a serious sobering up was in order. And it worked.

So,…

“You’re looking a bit peaky, Mike. You okay?”

I’d just finished my second strong shot of coffee, and was already in danger of being not the best of company for Chloe. But she was bright, chatty as always, and I was starting to perk up, feeling better for being with her.

“I’m okay, just slept a bit funny, that’s all.”

That’s the only time I’ve ever lied to her, and we’ve been together now for thirty five years. We’ve seen children and grandchildren into the world, and by the grace of God we’ve dodged the worst of ill health and misfortune. We shared her flat for a while, were lovers from day one. Then we bought a house on the outskirts of town, fixed it up, and tended the garden. It’s been a happy sort of place, and we’ve never felt the need to move on from it. More recently, I got promoted a little beyond where I was comfortable, rode it out as long as I could, then took early retirement. Chloe had been working part-time since the kids were born, and now she’s done the same.

Next time you’re out, and you see a late middle aged couple, still smiling in one another’s company, that’s us. We’re still taking trips to the seaside with a flask of coffee and a blanket to sit upon, still reading and sharing books. Kind of twee, isn’t it? Certainly it’s quite ordinary, yet how little my life would have been without it. The thing is, I could have thrown it away that night with Lorraine, because I’m not the brightest when it comes to women, indeed I’m as easily seduced as the next man by the flash of a stocking-top.

Everyone has a love story to tell. Mine says we shouldn’t want to change ourselves when a girl comes along and makes us feel like shit. But when a girl makes you feel good just for being yourself, then you should take notice because she might just mean it. And if she’s genuine, she’s not the kind you chase with your eyes full of moon. You don’t need to. She just turns up one day, and it’s like you knew her in a past life or something, and you’re simply picking up again from where you left off last time around.

As for Lorraine, I never saw her again. When her mother passed, she took over the shop. For years then, she wore her mother’s blue house-coat, and an odd, tired little smile that seemed to say she knew things others did not. But I reckon some things we’re more at the mercy of than are worth the knowing, and the best we can hope for is we’ll grow out of them before they do us harm. I was afraid that was to be the story of her life, from the queen of cool to a corner shop and hair curlers. But then she sold up some time around the millennium, shipped out to Ibiza for all that party culture, and with a guy half her age in tow. She would have been in her forties then, good-looking. I’d like to think by then she knew the shape of what “cool” was, exactly.

And I like to think she found it.

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Now the thing with Chloe is I’d known her for years, but without realizing I knew her. She was one of the secretaries at the factory, a chatty girl, and ever so friendly. She’d talk to me, soak me dry actually, but she was like that with everyone, and I never thought anything about it. Neither, I’m sure, did she. I’d read novels in the lunch hours – quaint, I know, but this was before the invention of smartphones. She’d ask me what I was reading, ask to borrow the book when I was done with it, then she’d read it and talk to me about the story, and the characters like they were people we both knew. What did I think when he said this and when she said that?. I swear, Chloe found out more about me than I knew about myself during those chats, and all without either of us knowing she was doing it.

I was driving out one lunchtime to buy a wedding gift for a colleague’s upcoming nuptials. She came tapping on the glass saying she’d ride with me. She’d pick out a suitable card, she said, and was I going to the reception? And did I want to sit on the same table as her and her mates?

“Aw, go on, Mike. We’ll look after you.”

We got stuck in traffic on the way back, sneaked in late. Everyone saw of course, assumed we’d been up to something, and took no end of pleasure in teasing us about it. Is that what planted the seed in us? I don’t know. She was just easy to be around, and I swear neither of us thought about it until then, but something had changed. Whenever she came over to talk now, there seemed to be a heat in her, and I could feel it soaking through my bones.

She was renting a flat, but it was stretching her salary. She’d invited a mate to share with her, but it had fallen through. There was something both casual and pointed in the way she told me this, definitely a hint in it, I thought. I wondered how we’d moved on to the point of nearly moving in together, when you couldn’t even say we were going out. I’m not saying she was suggesting we’d be sharing like that, you know, like lovers. We’d be housemates, or something, that’s all. But the gods were also telling me it was a subterfuge, and deep down we both knew it. There was only one place we were heading, and what did that feel like? Well, it felt like pulling on a familiar glove. It fit just right, and I didn’t need to think about it. That’s not to say it wasn’t exciting too.

Still, not being the greatest reader of womankind, I thought I’d better ask if she fancied lunch, one weekend. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t mistaken in the vibes I was getting. I also wanted her to know what kind of guy I was outside of work. I mean, I wasn’t exactly the most exciting type, while Chloe was sparkly and fun. She could have had any guy she wanted.

“Lunch, Mike? Okay. Thought you’d never ask.”

So this was a Friday night, the night before we were due to meet at the coffee shop in town, and I’m thinking about it on the way home, wondering how I’d eventually tell my mother when the pace of things picked up, as I sensed they would. Moving in with a girl was still a racy thing back then, and my mother, born to the Edwardian generation, was bound to have some reservations. I found her fussing with the fire, and out of firelighters. So I said I’d nip to the shop for some. And there behind the counter, like I’d tried to game it so many times before, and failed,… was Lorraine.

She’d bloomed out in a way, travelled, seen things, done things I could not imagine – or so I imagined. And here I was, never left home, asking for a box of stupid firelighters, in an age when everyone else had moved on to gas. I felt like a loser, or at any rate seriously “un-cool”. Nothing new there then. And if I’d paused for a moment I would have realized that’s how Lorraine always made me feel.

“Hello, Mike.”

“Hi. Haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Well, you know, been away for a bit.”

Yes, I’d heard all the rumours by now. She’d dropped out of University, worked in a store down south for a while, then got mixed up with a guy in London. He’d turned out to be a bit of a stoner, and she was well shot of him. Now she was back home. All of that sounds a bit grungy, laid out plain like that, but remember, the god of women looking after her, painting that somewhat dubious history in more of an adventurous light, while making everything I’d done seem ever so dull and conventional.

“I don’t suppose,” she said,…

“Hmm?”

“You fancy going into town tonight? Watch a movie, have a drink, catch up a bit. You know? All those mornings we used to walk to the bus stop together. Remember? Seems so long ago now.”

She’d never said more than a couple of words to me before, and only then with her lids turned down and her head pointing the other way. Now she was full on, eyes wide.

What? She was asking me out? Were the gods having a laugh?

Well what would you have done? Maybe you’d have been right, too. Me? I said okay.

To be continued,…

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It was in the turn of her head as she got down from the bus, the way she blew the hair from her eyes, and pretended not to see me. They might have called it coquettish, back in the old days. But then those were the old days, forty years ago, when everyone still rode busses into town. We were both eighteen, and her name was Lorraine.

Her mother ran the corner shop. I’d make up excuses to go there to buy bits and bobs, on the off chance it would be Lorraine who served. But it was usually her mother – always a blue nylon housecoat, and this odd, tired little smile that seemed to say she knew things others did not.

“Here again, Mike,” she’d say. “What can we get you this time?”

I was not the only young man drawn to the shop, and for the same reasons. Lorraine was a good looking girl, had something of the unobtainable about her, something they used to call “cool”. Maybe that’s what amused her mother – her daughter, the queen of cool, and all these dreamy guys with not a hope in hell.

Some mornings Lorraine and I would be walking out for the bus at the same time. I’d manage a shy hello, and slip into step with her, but she spoke little, and those five minutes to the stop were an agony. Then we’d get there, and she’d slip into lively chatter with her girlfriends. Seeing that transformation, I mean from near-mute to sparkling, I’d die a little, while at the same time falling all the more deeply in love.

The bus would drop her off outside the sixth-form college. She was doing A levels. Then it would be University, I supposed, and on to the big wide world, or at any rate somewhere beyond the old town. Me? I rode the bus to the polytechnic. I was doing a day-release thing for my engineering studies. I had a car by then, but so long as Lorraine rode the bus, I’d ride it too. There was an urgency, you see? If I didn’t impress her soon, she’d most likely be off somewhere far away. Then I’d never see her again and my life, as I knew it, would be over.

I can’t say what kept me going. It was more hope than expectation, but also the belief in something supernatural. That I could feel something so profound, it was impossible to imagine she’d be unaware of it. More than that, it seemed impossible she could not return it, otherwise, what was I feeling, and why? What strange god was playing with us, lighting me up, and making her so cold? And had there not been that look? She’d seen and, in that instant, read my heart. I know she had! I couldn’t be wrong, could I?

I only went to the polytechnic once a week. The rest of the time I was doing an apprenticeship at a factory, miles away. I’d take the car those mornings, and as I drove I’d imagine her in the passenger seat. We’d talk then. She was sweet and understanding, easy to be with. Then, on the next poly morning, I’d set out thinking this might be the day, that I’d ask her out, and we’d ride together somewhere for real. We’d watch a movie, maybe a drink afterwards. All I had to do was ask the question. But then I’d find she’d not caught the bus that day, like some obstructive god was playing with us. Other mornings, when I’d timed it right, she’d seem even more frosty than usual, and I feared her scorn.

Lorraine’s awkwardness, her evasiveness, drove me mad, but it was not lust I felt. She was an attractive girl, but the thought of sex scared the life out of me. I only wanted her to want to be with me. I wanted to hear her say it: “I want to be with you , Mike.”

It never happened.

Rumour reached me by way of my mother how “that girl from the shop” had gone off to Aberystwyth, to the university. I would never see her again. It was over, or rather, it had never begun, and I had to face the fact she’d never thought of me at all, and that look,… well, she’d jut been playing with me.

For months, I was sunk in the most profound depression. Indeed, a part of me has never forgotten that sense of loss. I mean, why had the gods built me up to such a fever-pitch of expectation over so futile a cause, then let me down? If there was a god of love, I thought, he/she/it took care of the women-folk, while the men could go to hell, for that’s pretty much where I was when Lorraine went away.

Anyway, I carried on, finished the apprenticeship, signed up for more studies, found myself a position in a well paid, technical department of clever, decent men who inspired me. It was a slow, steady business, climbing that ladder. Maybe I was still doing it for her, building myself up to something that might impress her, make her change her mind and just look at me, dammit – I mean always supposing she ever showed up again. Or maybe it was bloody mindedness, to say nothing of an abundance of energy I needed to channel, after so long wasting it stoking the useless flame of love.

From time to time I’d hear snippets of news from my mother, who’d got it gossiping to others who’d got it from Lorraine’s mother in the shop. I told myself I didn’t care, that I felt nothing for her now. Except, I could always tell from my mother’s tone she’d never cared much for Lorraine. She thought her shallow, a bit of a flirt, getting by on her looks, that sort of thing – just like her mother, she’d say. That would hurt, and I’d be protective of her. Lorraine was misunderstood, that’s all. She was the queen of cool, she was everything a romantic man aspired to in a woman. Then we heard rumours of dubious boyfriends, of parties, drugs. But that was just the usual student silliness, surely,…

I was on the road a lot, travelling out to other companies. Most of the time I was alone, long weeks away, staying in big hotels, something my parents had never had the money for. It was an education for a working class lad, I mean beyond the studies. There was also learning the middle class ropes of expenses, hire cars, and first class railway tickets. Then came the business trips abroad. I learned French, German, got to know a little of Paris and Berlin.

It should all have helped me to forget – and in the most part it did. I felt an optimism about life, a sense of going places. But there’s something about a love gone wrong that lingers. You think you’re fine, then a thought pops into your head, and you’re floundering in a tide of sweet melancholy again. They say you never forget your last love until you love again. There’s something true in that. And if ever a fresh breeze could blow away the sticky cobwebs of Lorraine, her name was Chloe,…

To be continued – all episodes by Friday!

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Continuing from part one of my story, The Man Who Could Not Forget:

The bus station café was just across the street. It was not renowned for its cuisine, and even less for its ambiance, but it was rest and refreshment we sought, and she really looked like she needed to sit down. So we sat, and for a while we watched the buses swinging in and out. Her name was Clarissa and her memory was indeed every bit as perversely proficient as my own.

“You were reading art,” she said. “You were writing notes, in green ink. You had a lovely tortoise-shell fountain pen. The ink had stained your fingers.”

“An essay on Monet,” I recalled. “You were reading Wordsworth’s Prelude. You had on a denim jump suit, a blue scarf, and a little badge on your lapel, a teddy bear,… yellow enamel.”

As we continued to compare notes from that brief encounter, I began tingling with anticipation. Clarissa was different from all the other women I had known. We could understand one another, but almost in the same breath I saw the futility of it. A relationship with her was no more likely to succeed than any other. Indeed it seemed twice as likely to fail, neither of us ever able to forget a single word of all the words we might share, and especially the cross ones. As a distraction, I asked her why she had taken the book.

“It’s rare,” she said. “It’s the last copy in existence. I’ve searched everywhere for it and would you believe it? I find it on the day I’ve left my purse at home. It didn’t seem such a dreadful crime – and I was going to sneak it back when I’d read it. As you know, I need only read it once to possess it.”

“Woudn’t Brady have put it to one side for you?”

“You clearly don’t know him very well. I’ve asked him to do that sort of thing before and he’s always refused. He’s not exactly the most obliging of characters.”

“Actually, I do know him, and you’re right. He does have something of a cantankerous reputation.”

“It sounds irrational, but I was afraid it might be gone by the time I came back. You’ve no idea how important this book is to me right now. It’s vital to my work, to my client.”

She took the volume from her pocket and turned to the inside cover where I noted it was a first edition – 1946. Here also, the price was scribbled in the top corner: fifty pence. For all his faults and they were many – Brady did have an eye for a book’s worth. From the looks of it, J. V. Lanchester did not have much of a following.

“There’s one copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels,” I said. “That’s priceless. But this?”

“No, there are many copies of the Gospels – just the one original. But these essays are probably the last existing vessel of this man’s knowledge. Your paintings by Monet, my Wordsworth – those works have been recorded and printed many times and are in the minds of so many people, they will never be forgotten,… but Lanchester’s childhood in a Manchester slum? His experience as an overseer in a cotton mill? His views on social change in the nineteen thirties?”

“But they’re just some dead old geezer’s memories,… they’re not important. They don’t exactly make the world a richer place, do they?”

“Who’s to say?”

She broke off suddenly, overcome by a pain in her temples. She kneaded them with her fists and tried to shake her head clear.

“You’re unwell,” I said. “I should let you rest. Is there anyone I can call?”

“It’ll pass,” She looked at me. “I’m sorry to ask this when you’ve already been so kind but will you walk me home? Please don’t get the wrong idea. It’s just that I’m afraid I’ll pass out on the way.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”

“There’s nothing anyone can do,” she said. “It’s my mind. I’ve been filling it with too many books lately. Now and then it shuts down in protest, or like just now, it threatens to burst open. I’ll be fine if I can sleep a while. So, if you could just see me to my door?”

“You mean you still make a habit of reading books?”

“Of course. Don’t you?”

The thought was appalling. “Not books,… no way. There’s too much information in them. I collect pictures, that’s all. They’re a much more efficient way of saying something. You know? A picture says a thousand words, and all that?…”

It was essential to avoid filling one’s head with too much information. The numbers of the buses manoeuvring past our window? the faces of the passengers gazing back at us? I would remember them until the end of my useful life. And each day added inexorably to the burden, so it was enough without actually setting out to deliberately look for more. With care, I might have another twenty years before my mind burned out. After that lay only confusion in an asylum. Now I understood the nature of Clarissa’s sickness: she was nearing that stage already.

We walked slowly while she complained of dizziness, and paused frequently, crouching now and then on the pavement like a drunkard. Eventually, she led me to a respectable suburb and to the door of a tidy terraced cottage. It was here, while fumbling for her keys she collapsed, leaving me to carry her inside.

The house was impressively neat, though what struck me most, given her apparently suicidal thirst for text, was that there were no books. The walls were white and the floor was bare. There were just a few plain rugs ordered with geometric precision, and some simple chairs. It was much like my own home, nothing to arrest the attention, only blank spaces where one might safely stare and put the receptor circuits on hold.

There was no sofa to place her on, so I took her upstairs to her bedroom. This too was in the minimalist style with a low bed and a plain wardrobe. Everything was white, and without feature. I laid her on the bed, arranging her as best as I could, then sank down in a chair, beside her.

She was such a pretty woman, and we had so much in common, but all thoughts of pursuing a relationship with Clarissa, no matter how sweet, were pointless. We could become friends of course, but I already had a string of women with whom I shared a pointless friendship. I say pointless because all my life, I had craved so much more. Had I not been concerned for her health, had she simply passed out blind drunk, then I would have walked away, never to return, but under the circumstances, common decency obliged me to stay.

Perhaps it was boredom then that had me sliding Lanchester’s essays from the pocket of her overcoat. I admit I was also curious about him and I wondered if there might, after all, be something profound about his insights. I wondered too about the mysterious client she had mentioned. I mean what was so important here it could have driven Clarissa to possess these words at any price? I turned to the first page, and began,…

The Man Who Could Not Forget concludes with part three, tomorrow.

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Another of my short stories from way back, reviewed and rehashed for the blog. Printed here in three parts. Next part tomorrow:

I have a problem with my memory. It isn’t that it ever fails me – quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, my recall of events from all but the earliest years of my life is photographic. There was little doubt in my mind then, this  woman was the one who had stolen the book. I had seen her only minutes before in Brady’s Antiquarian Book shop, having looked up from my perusal of a box of eighteenth century prints to see her tucking the book down the front of her trousers. It wasn’t something I approved of, but one had to admire her cheek.

It was Brady who raised the alarm and ran out after her. She was on the street in a moment and would have got away, except she blundered into the arms of a passing policeman. It was all a bit of a farce, and might have been amusing except Brady then delved into her clothing to recover the book. I know she’d stolen it, but to my mind, his ungentlemanly conduct trumped her petty thieving, and I found my sympathy siding with the woman.

She fought back, managing to recover the book from Brady, and she kept him at bay, clinging steadfastly to the book. “It’s mine,” she protested.

“Nice try,” he said.

“No, really. I just hid it to avoid confusion.”

The policeman listened to this exchange before asking the woman if she could prove the book was hers.

“Well of course I can’t,” she said. “But can he prove it’s his?”

This was a good point. She had taken the book from the second hand section. The stock there was low grade stuff, and bore no proprietary markings. The constable turned to Brady: “Well, can you?”

Of course, he couldn’t prove it either, but shop-lifters were the bane of his life and I could see he was determined to make an example of the woman. That’s when he turned and jabbed a finger at me.

“He’ll tell you. He saw it all!”

Now, in fact, I had not seen her take the book from the shelf. I had only seen her slipping it down her trousers, so, to the letter of his request, I was unable to help. This may seem a little pedantic, but I felt I did not owe Brady any favours. Many were the times he had asked me, sarcastically, if I’d intended buying anything, this being a barbed a reference to the fact I only ever browsed. He was not to know I did not need to buy his prints, that the act of looking was enough for me to possess them. Also, the affair seemed overblown. The book in question was a tatty volume of essays by one J. V. Lanchester. The fly cover was missing, the spine broken. Why the woman should have risked prosecution for such a worthless thing, I could not imagine.

So, all eyes were upon me: the policeman’s, Brady’s, the woman’s. She looked pale and nervous and, all right, you might be thinking my sympathies were misplaced, but there was more. I knew this woman, and apart from a few wrinkles around her eyes, she looked exactly as I remembered her from our first, indeed our only meeting, a decade ago.

“I really couldn’t say,” I told them.

Brady turned an ominous bright red colour, like he was about to pop his cork. The policeman decided to give the woman the benefit of the doubt and let her go. Then he rubbed salt in Brady’s wounds, telling him off for interfering with the woman’s clothing. I turned to Brady and gave a helpless shrug, at which he gruffly announced he would be closing his shop for the rest of the day. Then he ushered everyone outside.

Walking back to my studio, I thought about the woman. Our encounter had been in the library at the polytechnic, where we’d been students. It had been a wet afternoon and the place had been busier than normal, with very few places remaining to sit. It was thus by chance we’d found ourselves facing one another across a cramped reading table.

I’d found her attractive of course, but I was already jaded by my experience of intimate relations. It’s my memory, you see? Everything is recorded, all the things you normal people are the better for forgetting. Every slight, every cross word, every bitter misunderstanding, they’re like rocks being added one after the other to the sack on my back, and it’s getting heavier and heavier. It’s our nature the negatives always carry more weight than the positives, so is it any wonder then my condition provides so little nourishment for the first delicate seeds of attraction to blossom into something more lasting?

It was for this reason I’d tried to ignore a growing and somewhat irksome arousal, that day in the library, but with little success. Indeed, such was the strength of her effect upon me, I had begun to imagine her undressed and in all manner of lurid poses. I assure you I was not normally given to such prurience. Indeed, at the time I had found the experience rather unsettling and was only able to overcome my distraction by gathering my books and moving away.

And that was it. I did not see her again, until the day of the incident in the book-shop. That I can remember her from so long ago, and after such a brief and, you might say, insignificant encounter is not so remarkable for me since I can bring to mind the face of every person I have ever met. What is remarkable, though, is I was certain she remembered me, and with equal clarity. But, if true, that would have been very strange, wouldn’t it?

As I walked, reminiscing over the incident, I came upon her. She was waiting a few doors down, having flopped onto the steps of a shop. The tatty memoirs were pressed against her bosom. When she saw me, she eased herself to her feet and fell in step with me.

“I should thank you,” she said.

“It’s fine. I saw nothing, really.”

“But I’d like to explain. I mean, I don’t make a habit of this sort of thing.”

She looked away, perhaps reading my silence as disapproval. Then she said what she had meant to say in the first place: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” She almost whispered the words, as if she couldn’t believe it herself. “I wouldn’t mention it,” she went on, “except I think you might also remember me, which would be rather remarkable, wouldn’t it? I mean, considering how brief that encounter was.”

“We have met, yes.”

“So,… we’re the same, you and I?”

“It would seem that way. I’d no idea there were others like me.”

As we walked, I noticed her pace slowing and her steps becoming erratic, as if she was growing dizzy. Eventually we stopped, and she took my arm to steady herself. I looked at her, wondering about the power of her memory. Could it be true?

“Obviously, we need to talk,” I said.

Part two follows tomorrow,…

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yarrow re 5

And finally, part three, the concluding part of my short story, The Choices:

It occurs to me of course I can save his life, and on a fair number of occasions I have done so. It’s not difficult. I go outside and let all his tyres down, then he can’t offer her a lift back into town in the morning, like he always does. She’s not a patient sort of woman, you see? A man only gets one chance with her. One slip, like having the bad luck to get four flat tires, and she marks him as a loser. She’s quick to distance herself then, in case she catches his bad luck. She can’t see that for the times being, she is herself the bad luck fate inflicts on others.

I sip this second malt slowly, and decide against helping him. That might sound churlish, especially since I know it will end with a knife in his ribs. But you see, even when it’s in your power to help someone out of a bad fate, it’s pointless unless they understand the trap they’re in, otherwise they’ll only be back next time, making the same mistakes over and over. Maybe you’ll be around for them, or maybe you won’t. But we can only do so much, and it’s just self indulgent to lose sleep over the immanent suffering of others, when you know you can’t do anything about it. We are, I fear, each of us alone, guiding our own fate towards its mysterious conclusion. The best one can do is enlighten others to the true nature of their reality and leave the rest up the them. But, hey, no one listens to me at the best of times, so who in their right mind’s going to believe a story like this?

The landlord picks up a hefty old bell and gives it a swing. My heart sinks at its infernal clanging: last orders again! Closing time. No new players will enter the story now. There is no fresh phenomena for me to collide against, and ricochet myself to freedom. Another night in the bar of the McKinley Arms Hotel. Same old, same old. There follows now only the climb upstairs, to the room, and to bed.

It is a small, white chamber, neat and clean. But like all single rooms, it’s depressing in its capture of the sense of melancholic solitude. It’s like a harbinger of the stagnation soon to follow. There’s the Reader’s Digest Book of Short Stories in the bedside cabinet, pretty much a fixture in time, like the hotel, and me, and the woman in the red dress. So I turn to the page where I left off the last time. I know all these stories now by heart of course, but there’s a certain comfort to be had from such continuity.

Okay, so be it. In the morning I’ll drive that long road to Fort William, and I’ll climb the tourist track up Ben Nevis, like I always do. The pleasure of some things never fades, even with their infinite repetition. But there will also be regret, because I’ll know I’ve failed, and no matter how hard I try to hide from it, it’ll be sitting on my shoulder for the rest of my life. Worse, I’ll know I’m as likely to fail again, next time round, because I am blind to my choices.

Settling back against the pillows, I wonder about the nature of the connections we make. I’ve established by now we’re not the passive victims of fate we sometimes seem to be. We can shape our way, if only we can grasp the subtle nature of the connections that present themselves. I just don’t understand the mechanism. I mean, by our expectations, do we each invite the path we most deserve? Or do we attract the one we strive the most to avoid?

I realize I am smiling at the spin of my thoughts. There is nothing more to be done now, and in the absence of my deliverance, I take comfort in memories of the coming morning, because it is always bright, and Loch Lomond is always mirror-calm and oily-black, and the breakfast always fills me nicely, and then there is the freshness of the road, and that glorious drive ahead,…

This subtle run of thought takes me by surprise. I don’t recall ever being so magnanimous before at this stage in the game. Then, turning the page of the book, a slip of paper falls onto my chest. It’s makeshift bookmark left by a previous reader, a scrap torn from a notebook, bearing the pencilled address of the Sligachan Hotel, on the Isle of Skye.

This has never happened before.

Dare I hope that by such an insignificant connection, a fresh path has opened? Do the walls of this strange attractor melt as I hold the paper and read the address? Do I sense a fresh future in the flow of the hand that wrote it?

The subtlety of this moment is the most significant thing worth noting. There has been only a ripple of thought, an emotion, a feeling like a gently rising tide. It’s a thing hovering on the very edge of perception, yet it has changed everything. I’ve no idea who or what is waiting for me on the Isle of Skye, but I do know all my choices between here and there will be correct. I’ve picked up the current again, and I’m going places!

Now, don’t go shooting off at this point and thinking the key to the future always lies in a destination, or in a person, because I’ve just spent the last three and a half thousand words trying to tell you why I think it doesn’t. What is it, then? Well, it comes down to a feeling, also to one’s interpretation of the choices as they present themselves. What sort of feeling is that, you ask? Well, it’s more of a letting go sort of feeling, than a holding on and it’s like never looking directly at a a thing, more inviting it in from the periphery of your vision. But whatever it is, without it, the right choice, the right connection is never going to come along and you may find yourself stuck in some hotel bar one night, not just for the rest of your life, but for all of your lives.

Until you finally wise up.

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