No Time At All by Chris Green
Tara was finding it difficult to remember things. Friends of hers, in their fifties and sixties, suggested that her memory was unlikely to get any better. As you grew older those periheral places where the past was stored were harder to find, they said. They told her how they constantly forgot important dates and events and often asked for the same information over and over. increasingly they needed to rely on the internet and other memory aides to remind them of things they thought they knew.
‘A diary is essential,’ said Naomi, who was 58. ‘How else would I know where I have been, or who I have seen?’ Tara did not see Naomi as someone who led a particularly chaotic life. Taking the dog to the vet was a bit of an outing.
‘You can use a diary to express your feelings,’ said Emily, who was 61. ‘You can really let off steam when you put your mind to it, and I find this helps a lot.’ Married, as Emily was, to Colin, Tara could see that she might sometimes need this outlet.
‘A‘ve kept a diary since Ah was a wee lassie. an’ noo a’ve got no-ain tae gab tae at nicht, Ah fin’ mah diary’s a stoatin comfort,’ said Fiona, who was 64 and recently widowed. Murdo had died last year as a result of a hunting accident in the Highlands, or was it a rare blood disease.
Tara, who was still only 48, began to put aside five or ten minutes each night before she went to sleep to record the day’s events and to put down her thoughts. She became quite disciplined about this ritual. She quickly found that writing a diary simplified her life. No matter how late she went to bed, she would put pen to paper.
Memory is a fickle apparatus, its performance imprecise and unpredictable. Tara could remember some things from long ago clear as a bell and she was able to reconstruct large sections of her life around a particular episode from way back, but when she tried to remember what happened last week or earlier that day, she drew a complete blank. Sometimes the reverse was true. This was particularly frustrating. She would lie awake at night trying to piece together what happened in the Summer of 1984 or the Spring of 1997. Or what she had done in the months between splitting up with Hugh and meeting Grant. She would get so far and then draw a blank. She could feel a pulsing ache from the feverish activity taking place in far reaches of the hippocampus as the fruitless search for information progressed. As well as gaps in her recollections, Tara was also faced with the bewilderment brought on by false memory. Where did random rogue recollections come from? There appeared to be no way of checking the accuracy of her account of anything that happened long ago. She wished that she had started keeping a diary sooner.
It was June 6th, a Friday. Tara had had quite a full-on day. It had started well with the news that Alice and Alex were going to make her a grandmother, but had gone downhill with the shunt in the Lexus at lunchtime, and got worse when she found out her car insurance had lapsed. Why hadn’t she had a reminder? Perhaps she had had a reminder. Why hadn’t she put the renewal date in her diary? The office in the afternoon had been a nightmare. Her computer picked up a virus and the photocopier broke. Dinner with Denzel at the Dog and Duck had been a disaster. Denzel drank far too much and had embarrassed her in front of clients. The phonecall from Phil at eleven asking her to work in the morning was all she needed.
To put down her reflections on the day, she took out her diary, which she kept in a drawer in her bedside cabinet. To her almighty astonishment, she found that the page for June 6th had already been filled in – in her neat handwriting, as had the pages for June 7th, June 8h and June 9th, in fact every day up until July 5th. She read the day’s entry in horror. It gave an accurate description of her day, complete with an up to date appraisal on how she was feeling towards Denzel. Those were the exact words she had used, when he had asked her to run him home.
Charlotte, Tara’s friend from the amateur swimming club, was not pleased to get the call. She had been in the throes of passion with her new man, Piers, at the time, and had only answered on the premise that any call after midnight must be important. It was a few minutes before she put Tara’s call into this category, but Tara had been a friend for years and she could tell that she was distraught. Pleas for her to calm down only brought on another outburst.
‘What does it say for tomorrow?’ Charlotte asked finally. ‘I mean today.’
Tara read out the diary entry for June 7th.
‘Simple! Don’t go to work in the morning, then the diary entry will be proved wrong,’ said Charlotte.
‘I think I do have to go to work. Important deadlines, and all that. June as you know is always a busy time at East Asian Travel.’
‘Then you must make sure that you do not go to town in the afternoon and then the rest cannot happen,’ Charlotte said. ‘You don’t have to buy the surrealist painting of the naked saxophone player with the New York skyline by the unknown Spanish artist.’
‘I suppose not, but its one of a pair along with a blind trumpet player looking out to sea that I’ve already got. The pictures are quite amazing.’
‘OK. You’re right, Charlotte. ‘I won’t go, and I won’t buy the agave plant from Treehugger Nurseries. I won’t even pick up the Lexus from the panel beaters.’
‘And you don’t really need to get a wetsuit from Albatros Diving, do you? So that’s your diary day cancelled out.’
After a night of tossing and turning, and a dream about drowning in a rip tide off the Bay of Biscay, Tara made it into work. Her in-tray reflected the busyness of the summer season. She was faced with a long list of people to phone about their travel plans, and hundreds of tickets and letters to be sent out. Why couldn’t East Asian Travel operate over the Internet like everyone else?
Phil, normally so aloof, was being exceptionally helpful and had even brought in some cakes.
‘I’ll give you a lift in to pick up your car, my sweet,’ he said, putting his arm around her shoulder. Was he flirting with her? No, it turned out. He was just softening her up to work Sunday. She did not find this out until after they had picked up the wetsuit. bought the painting, been to the garden centre and she had helped choose a birthday present for Phil’s wife.
If Tara had remembered her diary entry for the day, depending on viewpoint, she would have seen that she was going into work, or according to what was written, had been in to work, on the Sunday. She would also have anticipated, or recalled, Denzel’s unwelcome call in the afternoon. And what was she doing at Frankie and Benny’s with Toni? She never went out on a Sunday evening and she hated pizza.
Following this, Tara decided to read the entries carefully for the whole period that was filled out. She tried to commit the events of each day to memory. But, over the next few days, no matter how hard she tried to contradict her proscribed schedule, circumstance conspired against her and she ended up doing exactly what was written in her journal. Even the most unlikely episodes took place. How could you predict that a TV celebrity was going to die in a balloon accident? And what were the chances of meeting your primary school teacher who you hadn’t seen for forty years in the traffic free area outside Monsoon?
‘I can’t see what the problem is,’ said Naomi. ‘It takes the hard work out of keeping a diary if its already filled in.’ Naomi hated surprises and liked everything to be just so.
‘It makes it seem like fate,’ said Emily. ‘I met a clairvoyant the other day. She does readings over the phone. Colin says its a load of old crap but I believe things happen for a reason.’ In Emily’s world, everything from tarot to tea cup readings could help to simplify life’s great mysteries.
Fiona was more sympathetic. ‘Ah can ken wa yoo’re scared. ,’ she said. ‘Ah woods be terrified. quantum leaps ur somethin’ ye expect tae bide in science fection where they belang.’
Much of Tara’s diary-week was predictable, inasmuch as it consisted of things she usually did, like go swimming after work on Tuesday, or go to her evening art class on Wednesday. She did not know why she put it down. About half of what she wrote was meaningless. Did it matter that she had cooked a casserole or had an erotic dream? Or that the cat had been in a fight or the parlour maple was flowering. After all, it flowered every June at about this time. Because it was written in the diary, she made a special effort not to call Eric, the cooker repair man in to replace the faulty oven fan, but he called round anyway on the off-chance that she might need a domestic appliance repair done. However, some of what she had apparently written for the week was unusual. She had the same dream that she had recorded in the diary of her travelling, as a man, on a bus in Barcelona, listening to The Cinematic Orchestra on a music player with oversized headphones, while the Christmas dinner was cooking. She was looking out for the railway station where she had to catch the 5:25 train to take her back to the place where she caught the bus. She calculated she would just about make it on time. The family, not her family but a family put together from unconnected people remembered from childhood, were waiting in the Las Ramblas apartment and when she arrived back the pheasant roast would be ready to serve. Not the kind of dream you would expect to have twice.
The Mariachi band marching past her house playing Bésame Mucho every morning was a bit random too, and the dead owl on the doormat definitely unexpected. And what were the chances of finding yourself in a lift with the author, Frank Biro? For the whole week, the mundane and the exceptional matched exactly what was recorded in the diary. It seemed her free will was gradually being broken. By Friday she was in panic mode.
‘Confusion of this nature is commonly caused by overwork,’ said Dr. Chandrasekar, the young locum who was filling in for her regular GP, Dr. Sadness. ‘What is your job?’
Tara told him she was in the travel business.
‘Ah!’ he said. ‘This is one of the worst jobs for work related stress and anxiety. And of course its worse in the summer months, am I right?’
Tara thought that perhaps he was stating the obvious, but agreed.
‘Do you drink alcohol regularly?’ he asked. ‘Alcohol as you probably know can make one delusional.’
Tara confessed that she had popped an extra bottle or two into the supermarket trolley in the past few days, to help cope with the trauma, but as a rule she didn’t overindulge.
‘How many units a week on average would you say?’
There was a time for honesty, but this wasn’t it, she felt. ‘About eight or nine,’ she said.
‘No recreational drug use, I take it.’
‘Absolutely none, not for many years.’
‘I think what I’ll do is write you out a prescription for some tablets. Now you take six a day and in a few days I think you should start to feel less anxious.’
‘Risperdal!’ said Charlotte. ‘He gave you Risperdal! That’s what they give to people with schizophrenia. Six a day! Definitely not, Tara.’ She listed the side effects. They included hypersalivation, insomnia, mood disorders and suicidal tendencies.
‘So what do you suggest?’ said Tara.
‘I’ve started seeing a Sand Tray therapist,’ said Charlotte.
‘What on earth?’
‘She gets me to to alter the positions of miniature objects which represent people and events. She says that will help me make the same changes in real life.’
‘And has it helped?’
‘Well its early days, but I do enjoy playing in the sand pit.’
Tara went instead to Aurora, a non-directive psychotherapist she found in Circles of Light. Sessions consisted of Aurora listening to a free-flowing narrative of Tara’s inner world, while she clicked a set of coral worry beads.
‘I am in a large institution, a sort of self contained metropolis, and I am being initiated into an elaborate catalogue of rules and regulations and procedures that apply there,’ said Tara. ‘Leader issues me with instructions for classes I have to attend. When I have finished one, he tells me I have to attend the next one which will start at 10pm and then the next one at midnight and then one at 2am and so on. I accidentally miss one and am reprimanded. He tells me I will have to go to extra classes as a result. The procedures are very rigorous. I have to walk this way or that way along corridors and up staircases by following arrows. I have to take particular colour coded emblems that I have been issued with along to each class. It has to be the correct colour, and I do not know how to choose. No one has told me and I keep making mistakes. I have to keep a record of my progress. In my small room, I spend hours filling out a spreadsheet, which in turn makes me late for my next class. Other people I meet seem to accept the regime as normal.
‘And how do you feel about it?’ asked Aurora.
”I feel trapped of course, as if I am imprisoned. I want to get out,’ said Tara.
‘Go on,’ said Aurora.
‘I am walking through one of the large covered spaces and I see a sturdy figure swimming with powerful strokes through a central channel, helped by the flow of a fast flowing stream. I try to point this out to one of the acolytes and he says there is no stream, it is a gravel path. I mention it to Leader, and he is pleased that I have told him. It means that someone is trying to escape and now he will be able to stop them. As a result, my status within the institution seems to change. I no longer have to go to classes. I am now in a massive glass atrium. I am sitting on the grass along with some others, eating doughnuts, with a texture like styrofoam. The atmosphere here seems much more relaxed. I notice there are tall glass sliding doors at the front of the atrium. I see people on the outside going about their daily life. They appear sketchy, like figures in an architects drawing. Someone in a harlequin suit says to me that it is an illusion, fate has no outside. You are always inside. I do not want to believe him, and I make for the doors, which slide open, but close just as I am about to reach them. I try this several times but there is no way out….. Then I wake up.’
‘I will see you again next Tuesday,’ said Aurora. ‘We can talk more about it then.’
Phil felt Tara might be able to distract herself by working longer hours, while Denzel suggested she ought to stop being so selfish and think about others for a change. Tara wondered if it might not be better to just go with the flow and see what happened. After all, according to the diary nothing fatal was about to happen before July 5th. She decided that she would not deliberately try to follow what was written, but neither would she try and avoid it.
This scheme worked well for a few days. Everything went according to plan. What was written in her diary and what happened each day continued to match, but on Thursday she noticed an anomaly. She had gone to see True Story at The Plaza and not Never Lose Focus at the Savoy. When she looked through the dairy entry again, the original entry had changed, which would mean that in her absence the diary was rewriting itself. It had changed, hadn’t it? Tara could not be sure of anything any more. Her memory, even over a few days, or hours, was not to be relied upon. This was the reason she had started writing her diary in the first place.
The cheque from the insurance company didn’t arrive on Friday and she didn’t win the ebay auction for the Gaggia Espresso machine. It seemed that her real life and the diary account were getting out of sync. When she checked later however there was no record of the cheque or the coffee machine on the page for Friday. She was certain there had been. And it was not the hottest day of the year on the Saturday as reported; in fact it was cold wet and windy. On checking she found this entry too had changed. On Monday she noticed that there had been an omission in the diary account. Surely she would have recorded something as important as winning tickets for Ladies Singles Final Day at Wimbledon.
‘You’re not really sure, are you?’ said Naomi. ‘I told you this would happen to you.’
‘ Join the club! I can’t remember what happened yesterday,’ said Emily.
‘It’s an early sign ay alzheimers,’ said Fiona. ‘Age creeps up oan ye, ye ken.’
‘You’ll have to start making copies of your diary,’ said Naomi.
‘I don’t think Colin approves but I know someone who does remote viewing,’ said Emily.
‘Ye coods keep th’ diary oan line,’ said Fiona. ‘An’ save it tae google clood.’
On Monday evening, Tara scanned the remaining the remaining eighteen completed pages on to her PC. She felt pleased with her resolution and that night slept without the usual apnoea or bad dreams. The next morning before work, when she checked, she found that the diary had an updated entry ‘scanned the remaining eighteen completed pages of the diary’. Her meticulous script (the rounded s, the well formed c, the curls on the a, the lazy elongated n) was unmistakable. The scanned version, to her alarm, also had the same entry. Summer it might have been, but Tara felt a January chill run through her. She was spooked.
Her apprehension was about to get worse. Tara had not given much consideration to why the diary entries finished on July 5th. When one possible explanation did occur to her, it hit her like a bombshell. It came as the result of a dream in which she was driving fast towards a level crossing. It was a crossing that she was familiar with, in fact she drove through it most days. Without the warning of the red flashing lights, the gates ahead of her closed. Realising the stopping distance at the speed she was travelling would not bring her to a halt, she tried to turn away from the crossing into a road to the right, but the car’s steering was not functioning, and when she tried to apply the brakes, she found the vehicle only had bicycle brakes. The car pushed through the gates and came to a halt in the middle of the tracks. Large black steam locomotives pulling freight headed towards her from both directions. They were approaching at breakneck speed. She had no time to get out of their path. She was going to die. On waking, it occurred to her that the out of control car signified that she had no control over her life. This was perhaps why her diary finished on July 5th. There being no record of July 6th, she was overtaken by a powerful foreboding was going to die the following day.
She examined the diary once more. The dream was now recorded in detail in both the diary and the scanned document. She unplugged the scanner and took it up to the attic. She shut down the computer. Files could not be updated and no new files could be created if it was not switched on. She turned her attention to the diary. She contemplated destroying it. She decided that this might not be the best solution, but from now on she would keep it with her at all times. She read each page again carefully, looking for clues. There was no mention of a degenerative illness or a scenario that would put her life in peril anywhere. She paid particular interest to the page for Thursday July 5th. What was written here now became of great importance to her. She felt she had to avoid the sequence of events on this day at all costs.
For the next two weeks she did not let the diary out of her sight except when she was asleep, and then, although it was uncomfortable, she had it strapped to her waist under her nightdress. Except for a few omissions and oversights her day to day experience and the account in the diary matched each other. The same things happened at work and she went to the same activities that the diary said she would. The Mariachi band now played El Jarabe Tapatio each morning and she had lunch at the new Albanian restaurant that no-one had heard of. She even had the same unexpected phonecall from Denzel in the middle of the night. While the synchronicity was still spooky, she was relieved that nothing untoward seemed to now be happening. She appeared to have established an equilibrium. She was even wondering whether she now had to avoid the events of July 5th.
On Friday July 4th in the early evening Tara was taking a shower after a hot sticky day at the office. Before stepping into the shower, she had left the diary face down on the top of the laundry basket, but when she stepped out, it was gone. There had been a few seconds that she had her eyes closed while she rinsed her hair, but no one could have got in to the bathroom and taken it. The door was bolted and she had not even drawn the shower curtain. Caught between panic and desperation, she emptied the linen basket and threw discarded clothes and bath towels this way and that, but there was no sign of the diary, and yes, the door was still locked. She was absolutely certain that she had put the diary face down on the top of the basket, hadn’t she? Once she had given up the search and composed herself, she booted up the PC to check the diary files. These too had disappeared.
That night, in her brief spell of sleep, she dreamt that she was on holiday in a foggy former Eastern bloc country. It was the last day of her holiday and her flight was due to leave in two hours. She had not packed, and her belongings were scattered everywhere. They had a charred look about them as if they had been in a fire. She could not remember who she was with. Her travelling companion’s identity kept changing. Alice was with her now and she produced a large shiny old fashioned black pram with lots of chrome fitments. She wanted to take it on the plane. Tara wondered how such a large item would fit into the luggage. It did not look as if it would fold away. Next, she was driving to an old church, which had recently been restored. Suddenly the sun visor in front of her dropped down. Somehow, it covered the whole of the windscreen. She could not see where she was going. She could not take her foot off the accelerator. She could hear the loud hum of the traffic ahead. She realised she was heading towards a busy main road. She woke with the sheets bathed in sweat.
Despite her shattered mental state, she made it into work. To her surprise, the day started well with the news that Alice was in fact expecting twins, but went downhill with a knock in the Audi at lunchtime, and got worse when she found she had not transferred her insurance from the previous vehicle. The office in the afternoon was a nightmare. Her computer monitor showed the blue screen of death and the fax machine broke. Her dinner date with Danny at Denny’s Diner was a disaster. Danny did not drink, and after a bottle of wine Tara ended up embarrassing herself with her outpouring of emotion. The phonecall from Phil at eleven, telling her that East Asian Travel was to cease trading and that she was out of a job, was all she needed.
Before remembering that it had disappeared, she instinctively reached into the drawer of her bedside cabinet for her diary to record the events of the day. But, there the diary was, in the usual place beside the night creams and lotions. She opened it up where it was bookmarked, only to find blank pages. Why, she wondered, had she not written in it for nearly a month.
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved