If I had a time machine…

 

They had met on the Tube. He had squeezed into the empty seat beside her and Kaylah shifted slightly, but their legs touched with a frisson of electricity. He tucked his bag behind his calves and settled back into the seat. She watched him every day, on the train, but this was the first time he had sat next to her. She stared at the poems and adverts printed on the curved ceiling of the carriage and shifted in her seat, using each fidget to hide her sideways appraisal; the tiny scar on his left eyebrow, the freckle on his ear, the way he played with the hair under his lip as he read.

With the poise of a courtesan, she let her scarf slip down her leg to his shoe. She stole a look at him, ready to smile and apologise from behind her fanned magazine, but engrossed in his book, he didn’t seem to notice. Her heart quickened and she turned her head towards him to breathe in the faint aroma of sandalwood and musk. He was easy on all the senses.

The green and white ceramic tiles of her station came into focus through the windows, as the train slowed to a stop. With a twinge of regret, she made her way to the door and glanced back over her shoulder. The doors hissed open, but he was busy scrutinising the station name through the window and did not look her way. She stepped onto the platform and was lost in the crowd. She joined the heaving throng of commuters. They bustled and shoved, teeming towards the light, a swarm of hungry rats jostling through the sewers of the underground, driven by the collective consciousness; work home, home work, work home. Kaylah was tired, bored, lonely, and something had to change. If I had a time machine… she thought, knowing full well that she did.

At home, she had rummaged through the clutter in the attic for the small wooden box that contained the Timepiece, letter, and instructions from her mother.

The letter was explicit, ‘If you ever need to use the Timepiece, please do so with extreme caution. With time travel comes great responsibility: there are ALWAYS consequences, however careful you try to be. You get ONE use only, so please choose wisely. I hope, from the bottom of my heart, you never need to use it.’

Kaylah turned the Timepiece over in her palm. It was heavy. A large, silver fob watch with a beautiful case and ornate engravings that looked like planets in orbit. The face of the watch was complicated, like a diver’s watch; there were three smaller dials and what appeared to be corresponding crowns and pushers to change the settings. She read the instructions several times.

Looking back, she may have been impetuous, but she had turned the knobs on the ornate fob, held her breath and pressed the crown. Then she was back on the Tube, next to Charlie. She had touched his leg as she picked up her scarf, started a conversation and asked him about his book. Names and numbers were exchanged. That was the start of Kaylah and Charlie. That was the start of her life. That was five years ago.

This morning had played out like any other morning; warm pyjamas crumpled behind the knees, hot tea and crumpets dripping with butter, an invitation to their friend’s wedding in the post and a text from Charlie confirming his flight should land in an hour and he would get a taxi from the airport.

 No time to say goodbye. There’s never enough time. Time is of the essence. If I could turn back time. Kaylah sat and stared at the now empty hospital bed. She hadn’t cried this hard since…since ever. She had asked the nurse for a little more time and, ironically, had been told to take all the time she needed. What she needed was Charlie, back, alive. What she needed was Charlie in a different taxi, on a different road, nowhere near a jack-knifed lorry.

They hadn’t stripped the bed yet and there were smears of blood and other secretions on the sheet. The pale-blue, waffle blanket lay in a heap at the end of the bed. It had settled neatly over his corpse for a couple of hours, folded under his toned, mottled arms and tucked tightly under the mattress either side. Perhaps they thought his cold, still, empty shell of a body might drift to the ceiling. She focussed on the imprint his head had left in the pillow and rubbed gentle circles over the taut skin that protected their growing child. She thought of the Timepiece now with contempt. She had already tried the little knobs, shook the fob, tapped the glass, but time had become obstinate and linear. There was no going back again.

Kaylah sat at the kitchen table with her tea and crumpets. She dripped butter on her pyjamas. The wedding invitation from her friend was embossed in gold, expensive. The timing was awful; she would either have a new-born or be overdue. Still, she couldn’t miss it; they went back years.

There was a knock at the front door. Kaylah groaned as she heaved herself up. The girl at the door looked vaguely familiar.

“Hi, I’m Hannah,” she said, “Wow, you look so young.”

Kaylah was confused but the girl continued.

“I have a really important message for you. I’m afraid something awful is going to happen to Charlie this afternoon. You have to stop him from getting the taxi at the airport; make sure he gets the train or maybe go and collect him.” Kaylah’s phone pinged the text alert sound.

“Mum, it’s me Hannah. You gave me the Timepiece and a card. Dad dies in a car crash this afternoon unless you stop him getting into that taxi. Please answer his text, now. Please change that.”

Kaylah could not take her eyes off the girl. She could see it; the shape of her mother’s face, Charlie’s eyes, and her own chestnut hair with that maddening cowlick in the fringe. Mouth open in wonder, she picked up the phone and told Charlie she would come and get him, to which he responded with a kiss.

Kaylah stared at her daughter. “You are so beautiful, Hannah.” She laughed, “We haven’t even decided on that name yet, we don’t know if you’re a girl or a boy. How old are you? Tell me everything. No wait, don’t tell me anything.”

“Mum, I have to go. I’m twenty-one. You know the rules.” Hannah was fading. “You’ve spent your whole life blaming yourself for using the Timepiece selfishly. I’m here to put things right.” She was almost gone. “And don’t bother with a new hat. You don’t make it to the wedding, you’re too busy having me!”

Kaylah found a pen and turned the wedding invitation over. On the blank side, she scribbled the words she hoped would set things right. The message was simple, ‘If you ever need to use the Timepiece, please do so with extreme caution. With time travel comes great responsibility: there are ALWAYS consequences, however careful you try to be. You get ONE use only, so please choose wisely. And remember, Hannah, if you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.’

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12 thoughts on “If I had a time machine…

  1. Well, not sure that any of us need to bother entering Week 2 now! A whole short story vividly drawn in very few words. Very absorbing, great circular plotting, lovely details – the blanket tucked tightly over Charlie’s body as though it might drift to the ceiling, the description of the Timepiece.
    Have you come across http://forbookssake.net/weekend-read/? A weekly short story delivered to your inbox, and you can submit…
    Two editorial thoughts – I like the introductory paragraph, with its rainbow of houses passed on the train, the analogy with the passage of time. But I also think it works just as well without it (I thought there was going to be a train crash.) And in para two, we have the Tube and then, (possible confusion) the train.
    Loved it! (did you link to the Thanet Creative Writers post, though? I spotted it by chance.)

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  2. Wow, Jess. Just everything KentishRambler said really… Firstly none of us need enter this week and secondly it really does read better without the opening paragraph. It’s lovely writing but – more than that – it’s just beautifully structured. I” still going round and round it in my mind. So flipping clever – i can’t fault it. Bravo!

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  3. Another nice one, Jess: we do all lean towards the Dark Side, don’t we! I too was struck by the images – the ‘horizontal rainbow’. and the ‘hungry rats jostling though the sewers of the underground’ – I think I will always have that picture in my mind when I use the Tube from now on! Your Timepiece (nice name) has strong echoes of Phillip Pullman, but none the worse for that. And the masterpiece: ‘time had become obstinate and linear’ – just as we may hope or believe it isn’t! Great story, thanks.

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  4. This is lovely. The details are exquisite. I don’t know if it would improve it, but I’d consider putting a break of some sort at the moment where it changes – **** between “There was no going back”, and “Kaylah sat at the kitchen table…”. It’s clear enough as it is, but sometimes refelcting a scene change in the structure on the page helps.

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    1. Sorry about the blue font. I have changed the colours back to black and white so shouldn’t have that problem again! It’s important that things like that don’t detract from the writing. 🙂

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  5. I’m quickly falling in love with the way your mind crafts stories. I’m the world’s biggest sucker for time travel theory so this piece had me gripping my phone, hoping it all works out I the end! Absolutely wonderful 🙂

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