A Matter Of Time

The silent underground station held all the charm and colour of a mortuary slab. Running between the two empty platforms were a series of circular wooden benches each separated from the other by dull, concrete constructions no doubt used in times past to advertise some useless gadget or a piece of music from the fad-band of the hour. Despite their purpose nothing was on display and not a single shred of historical eco-solvent, self-adhesive, rainforest-aware billboard paper remained to indicate they had ever carried out their allotted task. It mattered little. Only one soul occupied the platform and she was oblivious to anything beyond the breath fogging in front of her face.

The lady in green was sitting on the first of the spherical benches with her back to the stairs, allowing her vision (if it were paying attention) the full run of the platform and the empty tracks on either side. She held her breath for a moment before puffing out the contents of her lungs with as much force as she could muster. As had happened with each previous exhalation her breath oozed out languidly before hanging in a viscous cloud an inch from her nose. She lifted a hand to her face and watched in fascination as tiny droplets of water formed on her fingertips and slid gently towards her palm.

“Weird how it does that isn’t it?”

She flinched at the voice from directly behind her and wiped her hand self-consciously against her leg.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the mellifluous male voice continued, “And no need to turn around, we can get along fine from right where we are.”

On any given day Lucy Peters would have confronted the stranger and given him a piece of her mind, but something in her seventy four year old brain told her that today was far from any given day. She turned her head slowly back to face the length of the platform before she replied. “How we’ll get along remains to be seen. I don’t hold too much truck with strangers.”

The man barked out a laugh at the abruptness of the response. “Atta-girl Lucy! Good to see you’ve got some fight left in you. I had a feeling you weren’t beaten just yet. Still,” the man paused to consider his next words, “it’s only a matter of time.”

“Life’s only a matter of time when you get right down to it so what’s the difference?” Lucy sighed and ran a hand through her short grey hair. She had favoured an elfin cut since Charlie had died four summers past. She had worn it long to please him for forty six years but without him to tell her how beautiful it looked the point was lost. “So…seeing as you’re so familiar with my name how about you tell me yours Mr…? It doesn’t look like a train’s coming any time soon so you’ve got time enough to make one up.”

This drew a warmer chuckle from the man. “You’ve always been feisty I’ll give you that. So let’s see…my name, my name, my name…” Lucy could hear the man drumming his fingers lightly against his cheek while he paused. “I’m not much for giving out names but seeing as you asked so nicely…I’m just plain old Harry.”

“Plain old Harry,” said Lucy with a hint of a smile. “Well, just plain old Harry would you mind awfully telling me what it is that you want so that I can get on with…” The sudden realisation that she had no idea what she had been doing before the fogging breath and the conversation set Lucy’s heart to an irregular thump against the cage of her ribs and her words fell away.

“Don’t worry Lucy,” the man’s voice held some sympathy. “It’s always strange at the start but you’ll settle in to it soon.”

“Settle in to what exactly?”

The man laughed but the hint of sympathy was still apparent. “You really don’t have any idea what’s happening, do you?” He paused for a moment sensing Lucy’s unseen and soundless shake of the head before adding, “At least tell me you’ve bought your ticket already?”

“Ticket?” said Lucy. “A ticket to where exactly? I wasn’t planning on making a trip I’m sure and it’s a bit difficult to decide on a to when you don’t currently know the where part.” Her voice rose in both pitch and pace as her heart thudded against its bony prison. “And how am I supposed to pay for a ticket? I’m in my best green dress! I don’t have room in it for pockets or purses and my handbag is on the table in the kitchen where I left it after…well, wherever it was I went before I came here and…now what was I saying before I lost my train of thought…train! Ha! That’s funny with me being in the station and all. Well alright, I’ll play along. Where do I get a ticket then plain old Harry?”

The stranger’s name reverberated through the tunnels on either side of where she sat. Each returning echo sounded closer to hurry than the one preceding it and Lucy felt a rising sense of urgency. She smoothed down her dress and rose to her feet. “Harry?”

The bench behind her was empty save for a large golden coin. She walked around the wooden perimeter and retrieved it with a growing sense of unease. The coin was perfectly smooth on both sides, heavy and cold to the touch. For a brief moment Lucy was convinced it was a foil covered chocolate left over from some forgotten Christmas and she let out a sharp, too-loud giggle that did nothing to calm her nerves. Facing the stairs she saw a worn sign for tickets pointing to the left of the staircase and as her eyes followed the sign’s instruction she saw a flickering bulb at the back of the platform highlighting a door in ragged white bursts.

“Guess I really am buying a ticket then,” she muttered.

The door was as worn as the sign. Below a small, square panel of opaque glass stood a once proud set of brass letters reduced now to a sorry looking ‘T KETS’. Lower still someone had knifed the words ‘dead reckoning’. Fighting down her rising fears Lucy gripped the door handle and stepped in to the room beyond.

***

The space that greeted Lucy beyond the door was far bigger than it looked from the outside. More corridor than room, it was at first glance as visually unappealing as the platform she had left behind. She was aware of a sharp click as the door closed behind her and then a voice rang out.

“Breaths taken two point seven billion six million four hundred and eighty three thousand and nine. Breaths released two point seven billion four million nine hundred and sixteen thousand three hundred and twenty two. You’d think it would be the same but it never is for some reason.”

“Hello?”

“Time spent on trains, twenty nine days four hours seven minutes twelve seconds. A bit below average but perfectly acceptable.”

The emptiness of the room caused the droning, metallic voice to bounce around making it difficult for Lucy to pinpoint the source. The space before her was high-ceilinged, surgically lit with dazzling, fluorescent strips and improbably long. On either side of her were blank white walls that stretched forward for a hundred paces at least. At the far end of the room was another white wall empty save for the word tickets in a large childlike scrawl.

“Total distance travelled on foot one hundred and twenty one thousand miles at an average moving pace of three point two seven miles per hour.”

“What has this got to do with anything? What do you want?” Lucy waited for an answer but the voice continued its statistical monologue.

“Pairs of shoes worn, three hundred and sixty eight at an adjusted relative cost of eighty three thousand…”

“I’m leaving, this is ridiculous,” said Lucy as the voice continued its even paced hum. As she turned back to the door she let out a moan and a fluttering surge of adrenalin coursed through her body. In place of the door was a bare white wall.

“Doors opened seven hundred and ninety eight thou…”

“Shut up! Shut up! What’s this all about?” Lucy could feel that she was close to tears and battled to keep them in check. The coin in her palm grew heavy and uncomfortable.

“…closed nine hundred and sixty three thousand seven hundred…”

“So what? What difference does it fucking make?” Lucy gasped as the unbidden expletive escaped her lips.

“Fucks uttered, sixteen…tickets purchased nine hundred and thir…”

Ticket. I need to buy a ticket.

The thought galvanised Lucy and she started to walk towards the far end of the room, hesitant at first but with increasing purpose.

“…books read three hundred and twenty six…”

“I never was much of a reader,” Lucy muttered to herself as she continued to walk forward. Charlie was the one for reading.

“Sexual partners, four…time spent kissing three hundred and fourteen hours exactly…”

Lucy picked up her pace.

“Opportunities lost…six hundred and seven…hearts broken none…times cheated on by Charlie twenty seven…”

Lucy let out a sob. “LIAR! Charlie was a good man. He was good to me. He was always good to me.” She started to run.

Sensing her urgency the voice quickened and lifted in tone. “Tears shed seven hundred and sixty eight thousand and nineteen…significant lies told seven…minutes spent laughing twenty nine and a half thousand…”

She was almost at the wall and the voice was now deafening, more akin to a physical assault than a noise and it dropped Lucy to her knees.

“Time wasted waiting for CharliegoodoldCharliehewasalwaysgoodtomeCharlie to come home five hundred and nine hours twelve mi…”

“STOP! Please just make it stop.” Lucy crawled the last six feet and used the wall to gain her feet. At about chest height was a dark recess in the shape of a downturned mouth.

“Time wasted time wasted time wasted TIMEWASTEDTIMEWAST”

Lucy fumbled the coin out of her trembling hand and thrust it in to the hole. By sheer instinct she jerked her fingers back out before the metal shutter slammed closed and the voice cut off.

“Have a pleasant day further!” said a cheerful female voice. Nondescript piped music began to play.

The metal grid slid upwards to reveal a white paper ticket. Lucy steadied herself and removed it from the alcove. It was unmarked except for the words “Valid – Serial Number: r1-V3r5T-yX” in small red letters at the bottom. Holding it between thumb and forefinger Lucy turned around to look for a way out. The door she had entered by was less than ten feet away. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath but when she opened her eyes again the room was just as small and the door just as solid. Confused and with tears still drying on her cheeks Lucy forced herself forward and stepped back out on to the platform.

***

The wooden bench she had sat on earlier was still unoccupied. Lucy walked towards it feeling more than her seventy four years. She sat down and put her head in her hands with a deep sigh. Feeling a warm breeze in her hair she sat upright again. She stretched her arms to out to each side and could feel the same faint zephyr against both her hands. At the edge of her still-blunted hearing she could make out a faint, screeching whine.

“Looks like the trains are finally coming.”

“You again?” said Lucy, “Why am I not surprised?”

The man gave another of his short laughs. “You’ve figured it out, that’s why. Sharp girl like you I’m surprised it took you so long.”

The breath of wind from the tunnel increased and the metallic shrieking sounded much closer. Lucy dropped her arms to her sides but said nothing.

“We can talk face to face if you like,” said the man, “Maybe you’ve got some questions…?”

“Not really,” said Lucy with a touch of sadness. “It was only a matter of time.”

“And there’s not much of that left.” The man had to shout over the rising howl of the approaching trains.

Lucy sensed her unseen companion getting to his feet behind her but she stared straight ahead and ignored the urge to turn around. At the far end of the platform she could see two white spots of light coming out of the shadows and the wind increased another notch. The eyes in the dark grew as did the sound of screaming metal and within moments the heads of two black, windowless trains hurtled towards her on either side before grinding to an eventual halt. There was a brief silence and then two puffs of air as the doors level with her on each side slid open in unison. Both carriages were glaringly lit rendering the contents indistinct to Lucy’s squinting gaze. Behind her she heard soft, steady footsteps.

“Have you made your choice?”

“Yes.” Lucy turned her head to stare along the platform once again.

“Then perhaps you should choose a carriage…?”

“No. I think I’ll sit here for a while”

 

Header image: “October 4th Tube Strike — Empty Underground Station (5050098785)” by CGP Grey from London, United Kingdom – October 4th Tube Strike — Empty Underground Station. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:October_4th_Tube_Strike_–_Empty_Underground_Station_(5050098785).jpg#/media/File:October_4th_Tube_Strike_–_Empty_Underground_Station_(5050098785).jpg

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10 thoughts on “A Matter Of Time

  1. Hi Nik, I liked this a lot; such an imaginative interpretation of the purgatory setting. I love the idea of the voice telling her about her life in numbers and the details such as the shape of the slot at the end of the passageway. The numbers must have taken a bit of researching! I also liked your use of the word ‘mellifluous!’ I will keep that one in mind for future use!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rebecca. Really glad you enjoyed this and that it still stands up to scrutiny – this one is a couple of years old but I’m enjoying periodically digging out older work and posting it to a new audience. The numbers are part science and (large) part artistic license!

      I still recall that one of the original comments I had on this (from a certain Literally Stories editor who shall remain nameless!) singled out mellifluous as being unnecessary. I love the word so I’m particularly pleased to hear you also liked it!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting – always good to hear from you and I appreciate you taking the time to do so 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Shannon – not sure I’ve elicited an audible gasp from a reader before so I’m very happy to add that one to my CV 🙂

      Really glad you enjoyed it – the stats were a lot of fun to weave into the story and I’m glad they augmented it rather than being a distraction.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment – always appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s extremely kind of you good Sir, thanks 🙂

      Very glad you enjoyed it so much and appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Hope the writing is going well!

      Like

      • I’ve liked your comment but let’s pretend it’s also a borderline dislike in solidarity with your writerly struggles. Good on you for persevering – some of us just resort to throwing two year old stories on to their blog as some kind of smoke and mirrors act to distract readers from the complete and utter lack of new material…

        Like

    • Good to hear from you Jason – appreciate you taking the time to read and comment and glad this one worked for you. The idea for the “life stats” had been with me for a long time but it took me a while to turn it into a story – I was reasonably happy with how it turned out and it’s great one another writer enjoys the imagery and the idea. Cheers, Nik

      Like

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