“Not in money, but in time, is where the root of evil lies.”
So said the man, with the half-closed eyes.
“When time itself is dead, that’s when evil dies.”
There was no beginning, there was no end, there was no time; there was only the waiting and the perpetual aching of soles.
But the queue was moving, I assured myself, stretching out each foot in turn and waggling slowly from the ankle, solemn as a duck. The queue was moving as a continent moves; in shifts, infinitesimal; in its own, good, geological time. I glanced, with regret, at my new watch. It was sleek and stylish, with a confidence to the tick; but a watch is designed with an eye to the lives of mayflies, not of mountains and the tally of seconds and minutes and hours, seemed no longer to matter. I turned from the finite to the infinite and surveyed again the queue that extended forever and in which, naturally, I was near the back.
All around was a dispiriting view of monotony, an unrelieved and unrelenting grey. Charcoal grey graininess made up the below and murky grey slate, the above. The sky was smeared with patches of white or rather, almost, but not quite, white; a white that had slipped at one time into the mud and could never afterward come quite clean.
For the first half-an-age of waiting, the line of people simply reflected the grey. We sheltered inside ourselves, allowing but the briefest of forays into eye-contact; deflecting all interest with short smiles and turned faces. In time, however, the glacier dropped a liquid bead and we began edging out cautiously into the thaw. Our queue was wide-spaced and mostly single file, but there was a young couple not too far in front of me and two women were standing together behind. Beyond this pair, to the rear, was a tall man, gaunt and shuttered and mad.
The rainbow girl spoke first.
“Fog’s heavy. But it might not rain for a while, at least.”
She was a friendly-looking young woman, one half of the couple in front, and she smiled warmly at us all. I took the offering and gave a poor scrap in return.
“I believe that there are storms forecast for tomorrow.”
“Well. Let’s hope we’re not still here tomorrow.”
Her name was Felicity and she had been with David, her boyfriend, David – she practically licked the words – for six months exactly, to the day. She beamed, like a young sun, on her boyfriend David. Felicity was a rainbow shredded: all strips and stripes and scraps of vivid colour in glorious confusion. On the shoulder strap of her rucksack was attached a worn, woollen monkey with a red jumper and a mournful air.
Zebbie went everywhere with her, she said, and shared a few photos from her phone. Zebbie sorrowing at the Arc d’ Triumph. Zebbie pensive at the Colosseum. Zebbie in a mump in the rain on Brighton Pier.
David – Felicity’s boyfriend David – was a compact young man. He was a contrast and a complement to his beloved, composed of soft and sober hues. A small but varied wood of oak and chestnut, mahogany and pine and, within it, eyes as wide and wary as a deer. Felicity took his hand and he squeezed back, as she told us a lively tale of Brighton, which began, of course, with rain; and with a helter-skelter and an unexpected eel. There was an intoxicated drummer involved, of no fixed accent; and a mermaid, who turned out not to be.
I laughed quite hard, even though I’d been to Brighton, and the women behind me smiled a little, and closed the gap.
He went on, the gaunt man, though we did not encourage it, having only asked, politely, for a name.
“Perfection had been achieved, you see. They had it. Imagine: the incorruptible, unchanging beauty of perfection! And then they ate of the apple of knowledge and the worm in the apple was time.”
He cast a look of anguish at all of us and shook his head and returned to staring at the floor.
We coughed and turned to other matters.
The pair immediately behind me were a mother and daughter. They were tall and ungainly and bowed at the shoulder and they kept their arms tight in, close and stiff and shielding. Stiff altogether, they were, and bitten deep with lines; the mother lined from age and the daughter from acquired bitterness and inborn ferocity. They were dressed – but how, I cannot say. It was in clothes of such dullness or gloom or self-effacement that the brain cannot hold them without yawning; or else they had become merged in, and lost to, the grey. The mother had silver hair with fine, black threads rippled through and the daughter, rough black with silvered strings. But for that, you might have whirled them around and about, in a shuffle of Find-the-Lady, and never known mother from daughter at the end of it.
Grace was the mother and Patience the daughter.
“You might have thought that, after the inaptness of her own name, Mother would have known better.”
Grace’s smile was flavoured with sadness.
“The triumph of hope over experience.”
They had lived together for forty four years and experience had made up ground since then.
It was another epoch or so before the thaw began in earnest and we commenced a cautious shedding of layers. Moving gratefully on from the fog, we passed through pets and pests and petty things and “nothing’s ever on TV”, upward to the news and to politics and the terrible state of the world. Finally, having skimmed over the concerns of others, we settled down firmly to our own.
“We had been together only three months when David was diagnosed…”
“It’s hereditary, there was always a chance. It wasn”t really a surprise.”
“Oh, it was a surprise.”
Felicity’s warmth kindled into sudden fire and she turned her anger, not on us, but toward us; a passion bright and grieving and betrayed.
“I’d always believed in the world, you know? Like a child.” She laughed bitterly. “I really believed that at the rock of it, it was good. Until then.”
“You believed in stories.” David chided gently and with love and he rested his arm on her shoulders.
“That’s what they’re for, perhaps. Stories. Cushions for the lumpiness of truth.”
She stuck out her tongue.
“Then I shall sew more cushions.”
Patience sighed often and champed at an ache. Grace was patient and quiet and listened. Only in the long spaces, would they speak of themselves, the words forced out into the silence.
“It’s been a grind. God! All my life it’s been such a grind. And I had such hopes.”
Patience set her face into harder lines, looking inward at a bold, eager child.
“You expected too much.”
“You expected too little. If you’d fought more… not been so damn accepting…”
Grace flinched and closed her eyes for a moment.
“You know, we had an ordinary life, really. There were some hardships, some losses…”
“There were losses.
“But, mostly, day to day, it wasn’t bad, it was just… life. Wake up. Work. Eat. Sleep. Wake. No worse a life than most. Better than many.”
“Then most lives are not worth living.”
“Patience.” Grace reached out a hand and touched her daughter’s cheek and they stood like that for a while, silent as statues, as the fog curled closer.
It was much later, while I was absorbed in the problem of where the upper grey stopped and the lower grey began, that Patience spoke again.
“I’ve been so dull and so empty. I just wanted something. Something special. Just one small thing.”
Patience flashed a glance at my watch with covetous contempt.
“You see other people all the time, who have so much. In gravy, on clover, getting all the breaks. But it never happened to me.”
She pursed her mouth, no, her whole body, at the unfairness of it all. It looked to be an uncomfortable accomplishment. I spun the watch around on my wrist to keep from laughing, unjustly and inappropriately, at her assumptions. It had cost, no doubt, far more than all the watches she’d ever owned and a car or two besides. More than any mere marker of time had any right to cost. It was not mine, of course.
The man at the back of the group, the man with the half-closed eyes, stood and rocked, back and forth, tick and tock, tick and tock.
“That was a movement. Up ahead, I swear someone moved.”
Felicity’s scraps of colour flapped all about, in echo of her excitement. I shook my head.
“That, alas, was just a sneeze. A mighty sneeze, I’ll grant you. A sneeze with veritable oomph.”
“Well, perhaps we shall all develop colds in this mist and murk and then we can oomph ourselves straight to the head of the queue.”
“The fog is lifting. And are you really so keen to get there?”
Felicity tried looking askance, but had small success, her natural warmth and loving nature softening the blow. David, however, levelled Patience with a calm and steady stare, until she turned away, arms crossed and stiff as a shield.
The fog did clear, a little.
Felicity sewed us more stories. One was about a dog and, in another, she spoke of the time she and David had talked under the stars, weaving a path from air and grass and the stardust within themselves, to reach to the very brightest of them.
“We were going to conquer the world together.”
“You could have conquered it without me.”
“What would have been the point?”
Juliet and Romeo. We rolled our eyes.
Grace told us of her childhood dreams of being an astronaut and how she had often pictured the wonders of space, the view that would unfold from her window-seat view in the shuttle.
“The planets are out on parade, proud in their fresh-painted colours and neatly lined up for inspection. A comet soars past, flaring its tail in a burst of sheer joy. And the stars, the stars are just marvels, white-blue with heat and almost close enough to touch. You could reach out with a candle and borrow the starlight and carry it all the way home.”
She shook her head, smiling, at such fanciful notions. Later, she explained, she had gone on to work for a stationery firm and her dreams had come to nothing.
“Just like space.” Patience sneered. “Nothing stood on nothing, with a speck of grit in its eye.”
We were all restless by now but Felicity the most. It was Felicity who kept turning, her gaze drawn backwards, irresistibly, towards the man behind us, a man better left unnoticed. He stood quiet but still rocking; face warped and strained, the worm of madness at his core. Zebbie the monkey turned with her, sad and resigned and constrained by attachment to offer comradeship in misery.
We would have to talk to the madman again, eventually. Still, I felt an impulse to delay.
“It’s a curious thing about stars. I once…”
“Did you see it too? The child that you killed?”
He was staring at Felicity because she was brightest and noticing: but he was talking to us all.
The tall man spoke in a steady, rhythmic voice, each word careful-spoken and considered in its choice.
He had always done right, he said, he had followed the rules and he had spoken the words. He had eaten the good meat and he had worn the good cloth. He had dutifully slaughtered the unworthy.
“When I killed people – I have to kill them, it is in the instruction manual – when I killed them, I used to feel a moment of peace. But then, then there was no peace. There was always a child.”
The man turned towards us a face of such despair, that Felicity’s arms leapt towards him in responsive comfort; then she lowered them quickly, collapsed and confused; a rainbow dropt.
“I kill them, and it’s right, they are unworthy, they are adults and it’s right. But then the years fall away and time uncurls its claw. I see a child, always about two years old or a little less. Smiling. Trusting. And then they… sleep.”
His mouth formed words, tested and discarded them. He took a breath.
“You understand. I couldn’t… I would never kill a child.”
“Is that not in the instruction manual?”
Grace’s murmur was almost too quiet to be heard but he winced and looked almost at her.
He repeated it, growing stronger and more defiant.
“Yet, I am but an imperfect man and so I cannot do all that I should.
But I kill them. Those who are grown strong and tall and evil with corruption, I kill them and, now, whenever I do it, there. There is the child that is within them. The child that I have killed, whose blood that I have spilled. And at almost the last moment, don’t you see, of perfect, beautiful innocence? And I cannot bear it, I can not bear it!”
He began sobbing, not loudly, but muffled within himself and we moved, each, a pace away from the monster’s grief.
We had a recount and became a firm and exclusive group of five. No one wished to talk for quite a while and we kept to our thoughts and our solitude.
I had not lived a bad life, if you didn’t count theft – and what’s the theft of such small and petty things? – that and the blacking of my father’s eye. A well-washed sin, that and long ago. It was just another poor attempt to fend him off, until my small and gallant elbow crooked to a point and led the charge: unexpected and ferocious. It was broken immediately after, of course, and has never roared again, nor straightened fully.
And it’s a sort of kleptomania anyway, the taking things, and my doctor would testify to that, if I’d had one. A wallet or two. A watch, from time to time. Once or twice, a stray and lonely-looking car.
I didn’t kill any child that wasn’t dead already, long since, and I the only mourner – and the bearer and the body, the coffin and the priest.
Patience began keening, then, and we rushed together to hold her and keep the seams from ripping.
“You should have been thankful, Mother. You should have just said, good riddance. You should have let me go alone.”
Grace was crying too, gasping out her anger and grief and love, asking her child how she could believe that her mother could ever let her go alone, so hurt and so wrong, alone into the darkness.
Felicity and David soon fell to sobbing and they hugged each other so tightly, that I thought they might never be untangled; colours bright and colours soft, wound around and around in a mottled skein. Patience turned from her misery and spat at them.
“And you, you babies, what did you think? That you were weaving a path to the stars? Is that what’s at the end of the queue?”
“Perhaps it is.”
Felicity was muffled but defiant.
“Why not, after all?”
Because stories make better cushions if you don’t lean on them. But I said nothing and twisted at the strap of the tall man’s watch. A cheap one, that, a fake leather strap that chafed and a broken face, crushed, I would guess, with the futility of hate and the practicality of a hammer.
I could have had no conceivable reason of gain. It was an act of folly; and I was comforted.
“When I killed myself, I thought that I had the answer. I thought that that would do it, that it would stop time.”
It’s too late, I thought, you’re out of the group. No-one’s listening.
“An egocentric view. A fool’s view. And time still mocks and corrupts and destroys.”
And madness embarrasses and melodrama bores, but you can blank them out with the steely, determined, mindlessness of small talk.
“The clouds are coming in.”
“The clouds are going off.”
“The clouds are having little cloud babies, look! And that one looks like Winston Churchill.”
“All babies look like Winston Churchill.” David said.
There were more stories.
I laughed particularly at the imaginary giraffe that would follow Felicity to school and at Grace’s first attempts at cake, which bubbled up, high as the Eiffel tower and then sank. I offered up my own story of how I used to wish upon a star every day, a beautiful and bright one that was mine and mine alone; and how the funny thing was that nothing happened at all and in time, I lost hope.
“I meant to do the right thing and maybe I did.”
We could not but watch, as he lifted his hand high and brought it – sudden, violent – down, down, down to the breast.
“It was just as I plunged in the knife, that I looked down and saw him. Almost two and smiling. Trusting. A happy child, once.”
He spoke with wonder and his eyes almost opened for a moment; then ran to shelter.
“And time takes us and twists us and shapes out monsters. It stamps down, flat as dust.”
He drooled from time to time. Later he whispered.
“Time laughs at us.”
I approve, on the whole, of something that knows a good joke when it sees one.
“We’re killing time right now.” I told him.
“Here in this queue. Look, I’m actually twiddling my thumbs.”
I was. It can become hypnotic after a while. Then painful. Dully, mechanically, he began to rotate thin, bitten knuckles. Slaying the enemy.
Felicity and David loved each other too much. Patience loved her mother too little, or she would never have killed herself just there, on the living room rug, and left the blood-stained chariot behind for her mother to follow her in.
I wondered: if we had stopped time just when it had ground us to our worst, then perhaps we had stopped it ever building us up again. I wondered: had it been that same wet day on Brighton Pier, the day that Felicity and David reached, together, for the stars, that I slipped, unnoticed, from the Pier and from the world; that Zebbie was caught gazing out, sad and sodden and helpless, mourning for us all (or for no-one, of course, being woollen and free from such absurdities)?
If I stole enough watches, could I build a better time machine? And how far back would you have to go to stop the miseries of the world?
I thought, perhaps, that evil lay in thought, not time; and that was not a thing eternal after all, but would die when the thoughts of all mayflies died.
“We’re small.” Grace said. “We’re very, very small and the stars can’t see us.”
“We’re not small enough.”
This was the man with the half-closed eyes, edging closer, hopeful again.
“Not small enough to be a grain of sand that is not missed from the desert. A water drop that leaves no ocean thirsting. An ant’s small egg, that gives no parent sorrow.”
Patience sniffed and glared him back into place.
“No-one,” she said, “likes a queue jumper.”
“Hold on, we’re moving this time…”
Grace and Felicity believed that we really did. David shook his head, though and Patience just snarled. I shrugged and searched my pockets.
After the first half an age, we had finally reached an agreement on the rules to gin rummy and the game began.
Later, we asked the tall man to join us.
And we settled down and dealt a new hand; and waited, or hoped, for the stars at the end of the grey.