Times Past

Soft summer rains falls on warm grey roads. The black stains fade as the heat evaporates the water and the smell of softened tarmac dominates his senses. He wrinkles his nose, puzzled by why he is there.

“Do you want a drink Peter?”

He doesn’t know the woman who is talking to him. He doesn’t much like her.

The smell reminds him of fresh creosote, clinging to fence panels by the bus stop. The woman is still there. She won’t leave him alone. But he is not sure it is the same one he has seen before.

A long quiet night, broken by tears and sweat. His pillow is damp and cold, his dreams uncertain.

He is waiting for faceless friends while sitting on the grassy slopes outside the lido. Summer drought has opened crevices in the sun-scorched lawns. Peter’s fingers search through the dry, baked soil, but the cracks are too deep, his fingers can’t fathom the depths of the fissures in his world. A finger snags on the bed frame, trapped by the mattress. He frees his hand and turns onto his side. The pillow is winter cold against his cheek.

Plunging into the pool the sharp-cold water of the lido refreshes and shocks him, washing off the heat and dust of the day. Other voices are drowned as he sinks below the surface. Peace in the middle of the crowded pool. A silent world where he is removed from strangers.

“Susan sent her love.”

He pulls the sheets over his head. He wants to hide from the woman, from her persistent demands on him. His breath is hot under the covers. Water, he wants water. He says it out loud, hoping someone will understand. But nobody does. They bring a glass and put it on the table beside his bed.

Clouds of vapour form from between his lips, they dampen his woollen gloves when tries to warm his fingers. He is breathing steam. Summer is an unreliable memory. Smog. Muffled signs of life. Houses hidden. Time a mystery as he walks home from school through streets without edges. The black soot has darkened his handkerchief by the time he arrives home. 

“Do you remember me? Peter?”

The voice demanding attention makes him cry. He wants to be alone again.

Winters were always quiet. No crack of iron-shod horses hooves on the hard street when the rag and bone man’s cart approached. Footfalls softened by snow, silent cars waiting patiently in driveways. Sulphurous smoke hangs low in the crisp morning air, reluctant to rise above the chimneys from where it escapes. His eyes sting and the taste the coal infused air of winter is on his lips. Whole days can pass without the sun rising above the level of the roofs. 

“How are you this morning Peter. Are you ready for some breakfast?”

The remembered, quiet tones of his father voice a haven against the demands that busy round him now.

His mind lurches to a spring morning, so long ago, so near, more real than his surroundings. Sharp sunshine with sky so blue you could dip a paintbrush between the white stencilled clouds. Days of running freely on grass, through woods, drinking warm lemonade from a glass bottle. Jars of tadpoles, released and forgotten in the water butt by the greenhouse. Butterflies briefly illuminating the edges of the garden. And still that voice he does not know, begging, pleading, wanting him to acknowledge its existence.

“Peter, your wife is here.”

The seasons of his childhood are as clear as the interlocking links of the chain that still hangs round his neck, his fingers turn the chain, feeling memories caught in its intricate loops. A record of his life. Counting the years as rosary beads count prayers. 

The voice worries him. Each request a poisoned dart striking at him. He wants them to stop. He wants to be alone, alone with his memories. He cries out in frustration and fear. Tries to push the voice away.

“I’m sorry Mrs Bishop, Peter’s not having a good day.”

There was a girl he married, he loved. She went away but he can’t remember when or why. Peter frowns, his throat catches at a breath. She was his life, the guardian of his memories. He can’t remember what she looked like, how she sounded. She smelled of flowers, always of spring.

There was music, they danced, her body close to his. Now there were only imposters, strangers, touching him, pawing over his body.

“Peter, Sally is here, your daughter. Do you remember her?”

“Daddy?”

“Sally? You should be in school? Does your mother know you’re here?”

“Mum’s here, beside me. I don’t go to school now Daddy. I’m married, do you remember Charles? And I have two children, your grandchildren.”

He had sunstroke once. It was somewhere else, somewhere they didn’t use normal words. His skin was on fire, his head so filled with fever that he was afraid he would die.

“Peter? Are you okay?”

It was Joanna who had soothed him then with a cool cloth, nursed him through the fever.

“Joanna? Is that you?”

“It’s me Daddy. Sally.”

“I’m not feeling well. I’m hot.”

He started to peel off his top, fingers getting trapped in the folds of cloth. He began to cry in frustration.

The woman, Joanna, his wife, took his hand, smoothed his clothes. He had missed her, wondered where she had been. Why was she now called Sally?

There was an older woman there too, a stranger.

“I’m Sally, Daddy, your daughter. Mum’s here too. Do you want to talk to her?”

Peter wanted everyone to go away. There was too much noise, too much confusion. Why would this young woman pretend to be his wife. She must be after something, his money. A newspaper was in the process of sliding off his bed. He grasped it and folded  in half, then in half again. He pushed it under the sheets. The newspaper was valuable, he had to hide it from them.

Both women were hugging each other. They weren’t looking at him now. He could hear one of them crying. He cried too. One of the women turned back to him, took his hand. He pulled away and felt her release him, her fingertips lightly resting on his hand until he escaped her touch.

“I want…”

Peter couldn’t finish the sentence. There was something he wanted but he couldn’t remember what it was. He was scared of the emptiness, the confusion. He went back, a long way back, back to a place he knew.

He was swimming, breaststroke, his favourite. Every time his head cleared the water he took a breath. The water cleansed him, supported him, refreshed him. He felt it rush through his fingers and he closed his eyes. The women couldn’t get to him in the water. He was safe, comfortable. If he stopped swimming he might sink, down into the cool water, all sound silenced forever.

He was better there. Nobody talked at him, nobody scared him. He would stay this time. Submerged forever in the cool caressing water.

Published by Bruce Aiken

A maths and physics student who ran away to art college and has worked as a freelance creative ever since.

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