The Time Thief

The Time Thief has lived in a cottage on the edge of the forest since before my grandfather was born.  It is said that, back then, he was a young man. He was tall and straight and thin as a whippet with long, slender fingers as white as bone. Fingers unnaturally soft and smooth, for a man, and if they were to brush against your skin for just a moment, he could steal time from your very soul, make your life seep away ever faster until your final heartbeat left you a shrunken and shadowy memory. That is what my father told me.

My father was seven years old when my grandmother fell under the Time Thief’s spell one long, bad winter. He watched this once proud woman lying unmoving on her bed, her eyes growing weaker, while the town doctor closed up his bag and shook his head. My father stayed with her night and day, wetting her lips with water, brushing her soft brown hair, while her hours slipped away through the cracks in the walls as fast as flowing water. Unseen years racing across the ice speckled fields.

My grandmother had been a good woman, a kind woman.

The Time Thief had slipped on frozen ground outside the chapel gates on a Sunday morning in December, the cracking of his knee on the hard road like the snap of a twig. The townspeople, gathered in the doorway, had stopped on their way to worship and looked back, falling into silence, accusing looks, as the Time Thief struggled on the slippery ground. My grandmother was rushing, late, and as she passed by, pulling my father with her, she stopped. She let go of my father’s hand, laid her prayer book down on the chapel wall and, without a word, had slipped her arms around the Time Thief’s back, across his greasy, brown coat. Slowly, her breath puffing into the cold air, they had risen together, unsteadily, carefully, until he was back on his feet.

“Woman,” my grandfather had hissed at her from the doorway, his lips thin with anger, and shame. “Are you a fool? Come away now.”

“Mummy don’t. Please” whimpered my father, clinging tightly to my grandmother’s skirt. “He’s a bad man.”

“Pssh. He’s only a person like the rest of you,” my grandmother had announced, picking up her prayer book and bustling her way through the chapel doors, daring them all to fault her.

The Time Thief moved on slowly, wordlessly, watching his step.

My grandmother didn’t believe in curses. She was dead three weeks later.

The Time Thief is older now but yet not, it seems, so old as he might be. He is bent, his body beginning to twist like the root of a tree. His clothes are worn and dirty, encrusted with the dust of his work. His fingers, one hand clawed around the top of a gnarled walking stick, are no longer white, but tanned the colour of caramel, the skin loose and soft as cloth. He wears still that long, brown coat, boots with a hole buried into one toe, his white and wispy hair kept in check with an ancient hat.

He comes into the village only once a month, walking the three miles from his one room cottage, down the wet and muddy track to the road, which curves around and down and brings him to our farm. My father does not look as the Time Thief passes but I see his back straighten, his mouth tighten. He grips the axe or spade, sometimes just the cup he is drinking from. He grips so hard his knuckles are blotched deep red and purple. The Time Thief makes no noise as he passes but always I know to slip to the door or window, when I see this silent spasm of hatred across my father’s face.

No one speaks to the Time Thief, unless they must.

No one watches the Time Thief, as I do.

I have seen inside the Time Thief’s cottage. I have peered through its grimy window into the darkness beyond. I have seen the mill, grinding and grinding, crushing the grains and seeds and splinters of time, the great wheels smashing and pushing them down into the pit beneath. The hours and days and years and centuries. I have seen the great hourglass of life through which all time seeps and slips forever and ever more. I have seen the Time Thief at his work, keeping the fires stoked, shovelling the coal and wood, ensuring the flames are high and red and as angry as my father.

I have seen the Time Thief, his skin dark and damp with soot and sweat, black lines of coal etched into the creases of his face; his fine, white hair askew like threads in cotton. And I have seen him sit at his fire in the falling evening, his body crumpled and weary, as he stares into the great orange-red heart of the coals within with eyes as dark and bright as glass.

No one visits the Time Thief, but he knows I am there. Watching and waiting, he and I trapped in this game of certainty that one day, soon, he will be alone again.

“The South Shall Rise Again”

The fairy awoke and felt all of the earth around her, damp and cold and packed tight against her papery skin.

She awoke and her heart began to thud. It was time.  Frowning and scowling her angel face, she fought against that thick, cloying mud which had held her tight and safe and unforgiven for 150 years. Mud which had once sucked her down, spilling into her ears, her mouth, suffocating and clogging, pouring into her lungs as she screamed, slamming into her wide open eyes, cracking her fingernails as she scratched and tore at the sun baked ground.

Fear like a sickness, making her sweat and shriek. And pray.

“Help me.”

Down she went. Into that Kentucky mud. That soft, wet mud, dragging her down into its belly, drowning her in its blackness.

A century and a half. Little, lazy, rotten fairy who awoke as slowly as an unfurling snake.

Awake, she was strong. The mud became her strength as she sucked in its sweet, unpolluted water, sapped its  life giving nutrients, the very breath of all the living things around her and, with a flick of her pale white foot, she snapped the root of a tree that had dared to come too close.

And she remembered. Life.

She had been someone once. Powerful and strong, she had had the minds of men of government and war and wealth at her feet and, unbeknownst to all, she had slithered into their skin, creeping and crawling, whispering in their ear, shadowing their sight.  She had made them fear and hate and rage, she had rasped and clawed at their nerves, twisted their stomachs, inflamed their sex, their minds, their being  with thoughts of blackness, of subjugation and righteousness and rape.

“Kill,” she had whispered in her childish, honeyed tones. “For they would kill you.”

Yes, she remembered life. She tasted it still, the vinegar taste of fear in her mouth, as she scrabbled and dug, as she felt the warm, rough ground at her fingertips and with one great, engulfing effort, pulled herself to the surface.

She retched and gasped on her hands and knees, her stomach heaving and her throat on fire as that thick, black mud spewed out of her. Beneath her, the ground began to vibrate, sliding and slipping back into place.

She drew in a deep breath of that fresh, summer air; she felt the tingle of rough, rusting metal beneath her knees and, with a smile that revealed her coral, baby teeth, she looked up to the sky that would one day be hers.  Beneath her the ground began to rock and tremble, quaking with fear.

Power. She smiled.

Silly, little, malevolent fairy named Racist forgot. Time passes, times change. In a shriek that made her flinch, the metal wheel of the train grated against the rust of its tracks. Too late, she turned. Too late, she looked. Too late.

Dead and fuming. Into that black Kentucky mud.

The first time I met an American

I think Jeff is the coolest person in the world ever. He is from America and is tall with dark hair and a nice smile. He is grown up but not old like my daddy. He wears a red baseball cap. I can hear my mummy on the phone talking about him, saying how he things our roads are very small and windy. He gave me a Hershey bar, a real Hershey bar, like on TV. Me and my big brother ate the chocolate which tasted not very good but we loved it anyway. I kept the wrapper, which is silver tinfoil and then brown paper, and smooth it out until it looks like there might still be chocolate inside – only it is too crinkled and thin. I hide it in my room. I am a little bit scared of Jeff. Not scared like of ghosts though. He has a sister called Caramel, which is a sweetie. My mummy says I am not saying it right and says it over again but all I hear is caramel. I say it slow car-a-mel and she laughs at me. Geoff is staying in the spare room. He went away somewhere with my daddy and I sneaked into his room and looked at his stuff. I didn’t touch anything. I held my breath a little too. The room was warm, the curtains are closed and everything seems red the way the light is shining in and still and slow. I smile on the inside when I think of Jeff. I think that when I grow up I will marry him.

Beijing Dreams

I thought I saw Marilyn today. She was standing just a few feet from me, her pink lips breaking into a smile, the skin around her eyes crinkling like tissue paper. It was her eyes that caught me, off guard, just the way they had all those years ago.  Soft and grey-blue, like the unbroken surface of a lake in mid-summer then suddenly, a laugh, a whisper and a glimpse of the wildness underneath rippling through the stillness. She has changed of course but then, haven’t we all? Time is a killer.

We met her in Beijing. There were three of us, filling in a university summer backpacking in the Far East. Mike, the mouthy one with his golden tan and dark blonde hair, John, the clown, and me, Jack Kerouac under my arm and a postcard of Mao tucked into my back pocket.  She was just another drifter. Dyed blonde hair and fading Henna tattoo snaking up her arm, desperate to be liked, leaning in to listen, running at the slightest request to get a guide book or map to show the best route, the cheapest shops, the most authentic this or that. Nobody cared of course, nobody except me.

Beijing in March. I remember it still. The moment we stepped off the plane the icy greyness surrounded us, sky the colour of steel, a breeze that seemed to pierce to the very marrow of our being. Beijing was a city of smog back then, cracked pavements, roads thronged with roaring traffic, old men hawking up phlegm in the back of their throat and spitting it onto the street with a resounding smack. We were out of our depth in a country we couldn’t understand but, adventurers all, were determined to love it.

Marilyn, travelling alone, was almost a hostel fixture by the time we arrived, considering a train journey down to Tianjin, on first name terms with the staff. Then again, perhaps not, perhaps it was all show too. It was hard to tell with Marilyn – those unreadable eyes. She certainly jumped at the chance to pal around with us, relishing her role as travel guide and perhaps feeling accepted for once, as if we hadn’t noticed her accent, the cheapness of her clothes.

I remember so clearly even now, that night in the common room in the hostel we stayed in, mismatched furniture in a low ceilinged room with a bare hardwood floor and worn out rugs. She was beside me, lazing on a couch, near the heater, her bare legs dangling down the side the chair. A new group had arrived that day, Americans, loud and full of themselves with a girl amongst them –a girl with bright eyes and dark hair, a new challenge for Mike who was so easily bored.

I remember Marilyn had a sketch pad with her that night, she brought it with her everywhere, fingertips always smudged with charcoal, staring at people, at buildings as if she wanted to absorb them whole. It was the same intense look she had that night as she watched that boisterous American group from across the room, lost in her thoughts. “Draw me,” I said, breaking her spell, calling her back to me. She looked over the sketch book at me, appraising me for a moment then “Okay,” with a smile. She leaned back against the couch, biting her lower lip as she worked. “You look so serious,” she admonished playfully. I laughed and snapped her pad away, making her shriek in mock outrage as she leapt after it “I haven’t finished! It’s not ready!” But she had for there I was evermore, a muddle of dusty black, round glasses and unkempt hair. I studied it, feeling her breath on my ear, the weight of her arm leaning on my shoulder, “Do you like it?”

I nodded, “Yeah, it’s great, really good” and she smiled at my enthusiasm, taking the drawing back, unfurling herself across the couch, languidly stretching her legs over my lap, like a cat. “I always wanted to be an artist you know,” she said stretching her thin, ballerina limbs, “Living in a garret surrounded by my paintings.”

“Why don’t you? You’re really good.”

She absent mindedly dropped the pad onto the floor and shrugged, not answering. “What about you?” she asked after a moment, “What you goinga do when you get back home?”

Home was university, parents, a job in the city, a wife, a mortgage, 2.4 kids and a two week holiday in the South of France every year.

“I’m going to be a writer,” I revealed. Saying it there, to her in that gloomy, little room made it seem somehow real, possible. Beijing dreams.

“Cool,” she said, nonchalant, “You won’t forget me? When you’ve made your millions and I’m just a starving artist in my garret?”

“Of course not,” I was confidential, cosy.

“I think you’ll be a brilliant writer you know? I’ve seen you, always scribbling. Hey, maybe you could write about me!” She sat up and spread her arms dramatically as she spoke, as if addressing the hordes of adoring fans below us on the dusty, dull floor. “You could write about how you knew me before I became a celebrated artist with exhibitions all over the world, in Paris and New York and…”

She was cut off by a roar of success from across the room where Mike was playing cards with the Americans. They were all together now over there, laughing and joking, already we were set apart.

“And you won’t forget me?” I asked her, now so suddenly quiet, and she looked back to me, her eyes clear and still. “No, no, I won’t ever forget you,” she lied softly, smiling that sweet, fake smile.

To think of it now, our youthful bluster, unsure confidence. Was that really me? She unnerved me completely. I remember the goose pimples on her thin, white arms in the chilly, spring air that final evening, the red of her lips, the pinched pinkness of her cheeks. We were at the Night Market, rows of canopied stalls selling strange and wonderful delicacies, fried ants, skewered snake, starfish ready to be crunched under strong jaws. “I dare you to try one,” she whispered then squealed with delight and pulled me away with a laugh as I moved forward to accept her challenge. The sky above was the colour of spilt ink, neon signs flashing pinks and blues onto our faces as we breathed in those intoxicating woody, smoky smells. Black hot plates spat and sizzled under jets of dark gold oil, worn traders cajoled us as we peered at their wares, tireless chefs deftly shovelled unknown meats onto white polystyrene plates ready for hungry mouths. We lost the others in the crowd but didn’t care as we ate chilli beef, the spices igniting our mouths. Her breath was a soft cloud in the cold night and her lips, burning red and slightly swollen.

“Oh look,” she said pulling at my arm, “look Pete – they have scorpions on sticks, isn’t it horrible?” she turned to me, grimacing, her eyes bright, intrigued by the array of mysterious foods, jostled by the crowd,. “Let’s try some! She announced dramatically. “Come on, I dare you.”

She turned and began to forward, but still so very close. I felt my hand slide into hers, felt the warmth of her skin on mine, the gentle probing of her fingers in my palm.

“Yes,” I began. “Let’s…” Then a shout from Mike, or was it John, and it was gone, a moment lost as we turned, her hand slipping from mine, pulling away as we saw our friends beaming at us through the crowds.

I was wrong of course. It wasn’t her I saw today. Just a woman with grey-blue eyes. I smiled at her as she moved past me, feeling old and foolish and disappointed. For just a moment you see, I was that boy again, full of ideals and dreams, feeling the gentle touch of another’s fingers close around mine.

The Beginning

We were having an otherwise usual (boring) Sunday dinner in the middle of August when a girl fell through the ceiling and slammed straight onto the turkey with a great, fat splat.

My father had a fork poised at his mouth, ready to take a bite of that tasty white meat. Mouth slightly open, hand and fork oh so very near, tantalisingly close. He had his napkin tucked into this shirt collar. But that didn’t stop the gravy from going all over his face when the girl’s foot sent it flying.

Granny  wasn’t eating. Just sitting. All sad and alone in her best pink suit. She hadn’t touched even a pea, not a morsel or bite. Not yet, not then. Her plate ended up on the floor, peas, carrots running and bouncing, a hundred thousand pieces. Or maybe only four. Her eyes blue and fading, she looked at the girl on the table like afternoon TV. That’s all, that’s it. You can’t rattle granny.

Mummy was there too. And Uncle Peter. And Aunt Maria and their little baby boy with his blonde curls and fat cheeks. Squeezed into a navy sailor suit and stuffed in a high chair. Angry little fists grabbing at the mush on his tray. Baby mush all over his chops, in his curls, all down his front. Everyone thought he was the messy one. Everything thought he was going to be the family’s trouble and strife.

Everyone was wrong.

She was one of them.

The back of her head hit the varnished wood with a loud crack like a shotgun that rang around the room. The rest of her followed, awkward and flailing and hard as a rock. Whumph! She fell. She flailed. She flapped. Smashing and crashing into the turkey, all succulent and moist. Into the China, oh what a disgrace! Into the gravy, the peas, the mashed potato and butter, the sauces and carrots and diluting juice. A massacre! A shocker! A right royal mess!

Nothing on that table was safe.

Eyes wide open, she had slammed straight through a hole she tore in the ceiling and landed like a freight train, with a moan like a whisper.

It was only 1 o’clock.

Tea for two

The old lady in the pale pink twin set ordered tea for two in her prim, clear voice before finding a seat close to the window. The cafe was bright and warm, filled with the comforting smell of coffee and the quiet hum of conversation, windows clouded with condensation. Perching in her usual seat, June, for that was the lady’s name, crossed her legs at the ankles and smoothed out her skirt. She was always the picture of decorum. Her face, wrinkled and soft like an over- ripe peach, had a light dusting of powder, her jet black hair scraped back into a bun. June thanked the waitress who brought her tea and carefully sipped the hot, milky liquid. June was a regular, she lived close by, in a small flat with china dogs on the mantelpiece and doilies on the coffee table. The flat was the only thing June’s mother had left her. At times, June thought, it was as if her mother, a small, shrivelled woman who had refused to even utter her son’s name for 40 years, had banished him from their home, had left that flat to him (for June was a James in the will, mother would never submit her son was now the daughter she never had), as a curse from beyond the grave. It was if her mother had predicted June would end up just like her, alone and unloved, trapped by her own self imposed traditions. Oh well, thought June, a smile playing at her lips as she thought about Tim, who would be arriving any time now, his sandy hair damp from the rain, if only mother knew!

The Pier

I am running along the pier. I can hear my breath, the smacking of my bare feet on the dry, cracked boards, quick and dull like the thumping of a drum.  The wind streams my hair out behind me, the early morning chill catching at the naked flesh of my face and arms and legs with icy fingers. My muscles are young, lithe, they propel me with ease as I jump high into that still, clear air and plunge, feet first, into the lake, smashing through the serenity, whisking it into a sudden frenzy that bubbles and hisses like a witch’s brew.

Then the momentary thrill is over; the lake calms and slowly drifts to sleep again and I, the interloper accepted, am falling softly downwards, hair unfurling around my face like a fragile web. As I drift I feel the dark vastness of the lake all around, this ancient and ever waiting creature, swallowing me into its silence, coldness seeping up from below, slipping icy tendrils along my spine, my ribs, goose pimpling my legs. I look up, moving my eyes only, my body safe in its cocoon. And I see you. A shadow on the glittering surface, your legs, spread wide in an arc as you leap, surpassing my meagre distance with your effortless strength. A muffled whumph as you land, a watery bomb exploding to my left, spreading across the stillness, bursting, destroying, annihilating as you kick frantically, inelegantly and race to break back through the surface. Always in a hurry. I remember you.