Back in Time for Tea by Chris Green
It was Monday morning, but I was not pressed for time. I was off work. An old Tai Chi injury had flared up, and I had been told to rest. I was sorting out things that in my busy schedule at the kite repair workshop, I never got around to. I had installed all the Windows updates on the laptop and the tablet, run virus checks, and got rid of the junk. I had arranged for a tree surgeon to take a few feet off the weeping willow in the back garden, switched to a new green energy supplier, booked the car in for its MOT, and cleared the mouldy vegetables from the back of the carousel. Although on the face of it, my partner Danuta was very thorough in cleaning the house, the kitchen cupboard seemed to escape her attention.
I spent the rest of the morning watching On Your Bike on Yesterday, along with a welcome repeat of The History of the Harmonica. I had just turned over to watch Back in Time for Tea on Now and Then when there was a knock at the door. I let it go. I was not expecting anyone. But Alan, our Labradoodle, started barking feverishly, so I got up to answer it. Perhaps it was Danuta, home early from her part-time job at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. Perhaps she had forgotten her key again. She had been in a bit of a fluster this morning after Alan had vacated on the hall carpet.
‘You should take him for more walks,’ she had shouted up the stairs.
I reminded her that I had been told to take it easy. Dr Shipman had been quite specific on this point.
I answered the door to find Eddie standing there. To say I was shocked would not be an adequate appraisal of the situation. I hadn’t seen Eddie since I was twelve years old. Not since the incident with Mrs Pocock’s cat. I did a quick calculation. This would have been 1966. The thing was, the Eddie that stood across the threshold with a football under his arm still seemed to be twelve years old. He even wore the same red Manchester United football shirt that I remembered with long sleeves and the number 11 on the back and the same green and white Gola Harrier trainers he had been so proud of back then. He hadn’t changed a bit. He had the same lank ginger hair and freckles. And the small mark over his left eyebrow where Nick had punched him outside our house and the blood had run down his face. The same gap between his front teeth which seemed too large for his mouth and made him look a little goofy.
‘Hi, Chris,’ he said, as if he had seen me yesterday.
There was no hint of surprise on his face. He did not seem to have noticed that I was fifty years older, with a fuller figure, less hair and one or two facial scars.
‘Wanna come down the rec,’ he asked?
Eddie had always been the one to organise the kick-arounds. He was the one who owned the football. If his team was losing or if he was having a poor game, he would say it’s my ball and head off home with it, leaving me and Marty, Mike and whoever else was playing, stranded. Before that, he had been the one who owned the Scalextric or the train set. He was the only one whose house we could visit freely. He was an only child, so his parents spoiled him. He was always the first one to have the new trainers or the new football shirt or the new Kinks LP.
Eddie was bouncing the ball now with some vigour, waiting for a reply. I thought that going to the rec was a little impractical, as the rec he was referring to was two-hundred miles away. And of course, there was my Tai Chi injury to consider. I asked him to come in for a minute, hoping that the improbable situation would somehow resolve itself.
He came in and made his way through to the kitchen. I offered him a glass of Tizer. He remarked on the groovy new bottle. This was the first sign that he might be noticing a time warp.
The phone rang. I let it ring, thinking it might make Eddie feel he was being ignored if I took the call. The phone kept on ringing and Alan started barking, so I went into the front room to answer it. It was Danuta to tell me she would be working late. Magda and Kinga had not turned up for work, and things were pretty manic at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. Fridge magnets had featured on a lifestyle programme on Sky and there was a run on them. She had to go, she said, as there was a queue of people at the desk wondering what would be the best thing to put on their Smeg. I did not get the chance to tell her about our visitor. I wondered momentarily whether Danuta might be having an affair. This was the third time this month that there had been a television-led demand for fridge magnet advice. I dismissed the thought. If she were playing away, there would be other signs, like lingerie catalogues coming through the mail, or new bottles of perfume with inappropriate names like Bitch or Hussy appearing on her dressing table. I made a mental note to phone the centre later to see who answered. Meanwhile, I had to get back to Eddie.
On returning to the kitchen, there was no sign of Eddie. Just an empty glass on the work surface by the fridge. I scurried around the house, then the garden, but there was no trace of him. He had vanished.
I did not think I would be able to concentrate on Back in Time for Tea, so I thought I might pop to the supermarket to buy some garbanzo beans and some taboule. I had also noticed when I was cleaning out the carousel that we were getting a little low on guacamole and cactus leaf strips too. Although Waitrose was not far, I decided to drive. Against advice of my friend Steve, I had recently bought a 2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser. It was not until later that I found out to my chagrin that the Honest John website had likened it to a Ford Prefect on steroids. And John’s was one of the better reviews. Now, even the novelty of its retro styling had worn off, which explained why I had got it so cheap. It seemed to get from A to B though, albeit with alarming under-steer on corners.
I had not seen Holly since the spring of 1974, when we had had a brief fling. So imagine my surprise when there she was at the delicatessen counter. With her shoulder-length reddish-blond hair and flirtatious smile, she was unmistakable. She was exactly as I remembered her. She had not changed a bit. Her eyes still sparkled the way that they had, and she still wore the same pale blue eye shadow and a light coat of black mascara around them. Everything about her seemed familiar. She even had on the same cheesecloth top that I had bought her from Jean Machine and a pair of flared FU’s jeans with a wide Biba belt. I remembered our first date. We had gone to see The Way We Were, and halfway through I had said, this film is rubbish, let’s go back to my place. To my surprise, she had agreed.
Back then she was studying to be a chef, and around May time, she had found herself with a heavy schedule of exams. With Holly busy revising, I had time on my hands, and one night went to the Uzi Bar. I came home somewhat worse for wear with a barmaid called Rosie. Holly found out that I had slept with Rosie when she came round the next day and found a bracelet in my bed. I did not hear from her again.
However, despite the intervening years, she now appeared to instantly recognise me. And despite my erstwhile infidelity, she greeted me with a big hug. She seemed keen to catch up. Still in a state of disbelief, I struggled hard to find the right words to say, in fact, any words at all. When finally I managed to ask her what she was doing now, she said she was studying to be a chef and had a heavy schedule of exams.
I don’t know if Holly became distracted by the new range of retro tableware in the store or if she was just spirited away. But during the time the delicatessen assistant was weighing out my pitted green olives and taramasalata, she disappeared. I searched the store high and low and even got the shift supervisor to ask for her on the tannoy, but there was no sign.
As I drove away from the store, my head was in turmoil. I ran through a red light by Bygones, narrowly missing a Murco tanker, and almost mowed down an old lady and her Jack Russell on the zebra-crossing by the Fat Elvis burger restaurant.
I had read enough of the self-help books that Danuta brought home from the community library to know that I had to pull myself together and get a grip. Perhaps Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle had not expressed it exactly in these terms, but I took this to be the general gist of their message. I put my Brian Eno CD on to relax me and tried breathing deeply as I had learned in Yoga. I pulled in by the stretch of water by the leisure centre and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the calming cries of the coots and the moorhens. I closed my eyes and tried to gather my thoughts. I told myself that whatever was happening, I was not in a life-threatening situation. Everything could be resolved in fifty-five minutes. This according to someone, whose name escaped me, was the time it should take to adjust to any new situation over which you had no control.
I stretched my legs with a gentle stroll around the park to gain my self-control. A few joggers were out taking their early evening exercise and one or two people were out walking their dogs. When I noticed that the black collie-retriever bounding towards me looked a lot like Barry, my first thought was that I must have been daydreaming. A lot of dogs look alike. I made a quick calculation. Barry would be at least 35. He would surely have died years ago. The dog barked excitedly as he approached. He nuzzled against my leg and then stood on his hind legs with his front paws against my chest, licking my arm affectionately. I identified the heavily chewed black leather collar and the gouge on his neck where the fur was missing, the result of Barry’s tussle with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier in the car park at The Gordon Bennett. In the next instant, we heard a loud whistle and Barry went bounding back across the park. I called out to the disappearing figure of Janice in the distance. Janice seemed not to hear. I called again. She did not look around. She was a hundred yards away. Yet I felt sure it was her, even though she had to the best of my information, moved to Spain shortly after we split up in 1991. The tie-dyed green denim jacket and the hennaed hair gave it away. This was how Janice would have looked in around 1991. She had a Discman on. Probably the one that she used to listen to her Joni Mitchell CDs on. I stumbled on a patch of rough ground, and before I knew it, she and Barry were getting into the black Orion that we had bought together at the car auction. I remembered our bidding nervously. Neither of us knew much about cars. We had bought it for £550. I hadn’t seen an Orion in years; they were not renowned for their durability. This one though seemed to be running well. It moved away with a healthy purr. I looked back. My car was parked too far away to think about driving after her.
The irregularities of space-time were disturbing. Supernatural forces should remain in the realm of the fanciful. But this temporal upheaval was seemingly real. It was happening, now, and to me. I was scared. I felt like vomiting, my hands were shaking, and I was sweating profusely. Had I unwittingly uncovered a portal for parallel worlds, been sucked into the hypothetical wormhole? I had read about such things in Asimov and Ballard short stories, but not given them much credence. It took a good deal of Pranayama breathing and another fifty-five minutes of consolidation before I could get up from where I was now crouching. People were coming up to me and asking me if I was all right. A gnarled old crone with a Bichon Frise attempted to call an ambulance, a scarecrow with a limp offered me a pull on his hip flask, and a rangy Goth tried to sell me some ketamine.
No amount of deep breathing, philosophical principles or stress management techniques could have prepared me for my next encounter, however. Returning to the Chrysler and noticing that the fuel gauge was low, I stopped at the filling station. There, at the adjacent pump, someone was putting fuel into a black Fiat Uno. I recognised the registration plate instantly. It was the Fiat I had owned in 1997. It took a split second, while I did a double-take, before I recognised that the figure in the brightly coloured paisley shirt and combat fatigues bore an uncanny resemblance to me, as I would have looked around twenty years ago. A lot slimmer and with considerably more hair. I felt a chill run the length of my spine. This was not like looking at old photos of oneself or a video. This was watching a real living, breathing human being in real-time. Wasn’t it? Reality was a fragile concept, it seemed. Albert Einstein called reality an illusion but a very persistent one. But even this statement suggested there was room around the edges of reality for leakage. Facing myself over a few feet of garage forecourt defied any rational explanation. I was frozen to the spot. I couldn’t move.
I watched as my doppelgänger fed the fuel into the tank. I studied his mannerisms and his gestures in slow motion, and one by one acknowledged them as my own. I recognised the flick of the neck, the squint against the light showing the lines etched on the forehead, the nervous shifting of weight from one foot to the other as he stood. I remembered buying those red Converse All Stars cut-offs from Clic Sargent. My heart raced, and I felt a tightness in my chest. No doubt about it; the individual I was looking at was me. Amidst the inner turmoil, rational questions like why hadn’t my 1997 personification noticed that the petrol was a little pricey or did the old Fiat run on unleaded tried to find a place in my consciousness. These were swept away by a tsunami of blind panic as I sensed my whole life might be collapsing into a single moment.
My doppelgänger replaced the nozzle in the pump, and as he did, he appeared to look right at me, or right through me. I couldn’t decide which. Could it have been that he did not recognise me? Or to look at it another way, should that be I did not recognise me, now that I was older. No one knew exactly what form their ageing would take. It was not something you would give a lot of thought to. But of course, Eddie had recognised me, and Holly had recognised me, despite my having changed significantly. And my smell must have been the same to Barry, although this in itself was inconclusive. Barry had always been what you might call a friendly dog.
My other swivelled round. I thought he was about to come over. What would he do? Introduce himself? What would I do? I felt my legs buckle. This was not like one of those dreams where you dream about a past episode, and the texture of the scenario as it unfolds is surreal. This was in clear focus in the here and now. I was watching myself in an everyday situation in broad daylight. He did not come over. He seemed to hesitate in mid-stride and turned to walk in the opposite direction towards the BP shop.
I determined that in 1997, I would have been with Saskia. We were happy back then in our second-floor apartment overlooking the park. At weekends, we would take the children to the pool or go walking in the woods. I remembered Saskia and I going to see As Good As It Gets at the Empire, and thinking how appropriate this seemed. Our contentment was of course not to last. I had been to see Saskia’s commemorative cherry tree in the park recently. Someone had tied a ribbon around it with a bow. It had made me feel neglectful of her memory. I had lost touch with Natalie and Josie. They would have left school long ago. At least none of them were in the Uno parked at the neighbouring pump. Their presence would have cranked my present nightmare up another notch.
My other emerged from the shop with an evening newspaper. I read the headline. It was about Diana’s death. Something about a mystery white car in the Alma Tunnel. As he passed, he seemed to look directly at me, or through me again. He could not have been more than twenty feet away. He got into the car. As he wound down his window, I detected a hint of recognition…. I didn’t detect a hint of recognition…. I wasn’t sure. My mouth opened to call out to him, but no words came. He drove off. The exhaust from the Fiat was still blowing, exactly as I remembered it. I put the pump back without having put any fuel in the car and set out to follow him.
He turned left down Hegel Avenue. I used to live on the Philosophers’ estate. I had lived there for over fifteen years, and it occurred to me that wherever we were headed was a run that I had made many times. I thought back to the types of journey I would have made in the Fiat in 1997. Mostly on account of the Fiat’s unreliability, these would have been short journeys. To and from work. To the shops at Kierkegaard Court. Where would I have been likely to have been going at six in the evening? I would usually be back in time for tea. But sometimes I didn’t finish until late. Perhaps I was going to visit Mick or Charlie. They both lived in the Schopenhauer Court flats. I might have been going to pick Saskia up from work. I tried to recall if she had her own car back then. Memories of her came flooding back once again. We passed the Occam’s Razor pub, where we used to sit out on summer evenings for a couple of halves of Old Poets.
The exhaust of the Fiat in front of me was now belching out black smoke. We seemed to be heading back on ourselves as we forked right into Rousseau Gardens. A Brimful of Asha (On the 45) read a poster outside The Codfather takeaway. This surely was an old poster. Shouldn’t they have taken it down? We passed the Mahatma Gandhi Primary School where Natalie and Josie used to go, and then right at the Karl Marx roundabout. It began to dawn on me where we were headed. Usually, I would have turned left at the Karl Marx roundabout, taking me home along Darwin Road. Turning right meant we were ………..
I woke up in the Lewis Carroll Memorial Hospital. I had sustained multiple head injuries in the accident. I could not remember much about the actual collision, but after a few sessions with Dr Trinidad, I recalled a little about the events leading up to it. An overweight elderly man driving an ugly black Chrysler had been tailgating me. It was a model I had not seen before. It was shaped like a hearse, and its registration plate was in an unusual format.
I had first noticed this sinister character with his receding hairline and unsightly facial scars at the BP filling station. My attention was drawn to him because he was behaving strangely. He stood there at the pump pointing the fuel hose into the air. He stared at me the whole time I was filling up. For a second I thought he seemed familiar, but I could not place where I might have seen him. The more I contemplated this, the more I imagined I had been mistaken. I put my imagined recognition down to the intensity of his gaze.
When I pulled off, he got into his car without putting any fuel in, and started following me. He kept his distance at first. I took a right at the Karl Marx roundabout into Nietzsche Avenue and ducked into Spinoza Crescent to make certain that he was really tailing me. He was closer now. I slowed down to give him the chance to overtake, but he stayed behind. I sped up trying to lose him, but the Fiat was not very fast. The last thing I remember, I was driving down Descartes Drive. He was tailgating me. Right up against my bumper, driving like a madman.
…… heading for Descartes Drive, where years ago I had been rammed by an old maniac in a forties-style gangster getaway car. About fifteen years ago. I had been trapped in my …. Fiat Uno.
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