Stay with me, she thought. But the light continued to fade and a few of the buildings in the distance twinkled now like first evening stars. As she watched them their gentle yellow light shifted to red, the buildings were burning candles on a birthday cake. The red grew, licking the sky then expanding until it was all she could see. The flames engulfed her. She forced herself to turn away and slowly they subsided. Then everything was darkness, both outside and within.
Quickly, though not so quickly that her haste would be noticed, she rose from her seat and headed over to the light switches that operated the three banks of fluorescent lighting in the ceiling. As they flickered to life she relaxed. Kate returned to her work.
No one stayed late on a Friday if they could help it. Mary had plans for the evening consisting of beer, loud music and men. Not necessarily in that order. But she felt bad about leaving her friend alone, so she ambled over and sat down opposite her. "Did you ever hear the story of the traveller and the ocean?" she asked casually.
Kate let her pen topple out of her hand onto the desk, smiled, and eased her head back into her chair. "No, but I think I'm about to."
"A baker's son," Mary began, "dreamed of visiting the ocean. But nobody in the little village where he lived had ever seen the ocean because the village was in the middle of a vast continent. Everyone told him that it was impossible to travel so far and it was madness to imagine that it could be done. In all the history of the village only one young man, a farmer, had ever attempted it. He had left the village some thirty years before and he was never seen again."
"Is this going to be a long story?" asked Kate, sounding fatigued. It had been a long week.
"Not really," Mary replied.
"Carry on," said Kate wearily.
"Years passed and the boy grew and still he yearned to see the ocean. Eventually he could stand it no longer. He packed his bags and said goodbye to his father and his mother who wept at his foolishness. He travelled for years and years and still there was no sign of the ocean. Because he spent each day walking and he ate little, he grew lean and wiry. The soles of his feet became hard and leathery but he cared little of that. He was travelling to the ocean."
"He's persistent," Kate observed.
"One day," Mary continued, "some ten years after leaving the village, he was travelling through the most beautiful countryside he had ever seen on a glorious summer day. He stood on the brow of a hill and, looking down over the most wondrous sight he had ever seen, wondered if he had perhaps died and gone to heaven. In the distance he saw a farmhouse and called at the door to ask for some water to quench his thirst.
"An old farmer answered the door and was only too happy to provide the visitor with a glass of water. 'You are a lucky man to live in such a beautiful place,' the traveller commented. 'Yes I am,' said the farmer. 'I left my home village some forty years ago. I was lucky enough to walk this way and was so struck by it that I decided to settle down here.' The traveller became curious. 'Which village are you from?' he asked.
"They soon learned that they were from the same village, and this was the same farmer who had also left the village in search of the ocean. The traveller was at once angry. 'How could you travel so far,' he demanded, 'and then just give up on your dream?' The farmer replied, 'I have never seen the ocean, but I have seen this place and it is everything I have ever wanted.'
"The younger man declared, 'I will never give up on my dream,' and he left as quickly as his legs would carry him. He travelled for almost all of the rest of his life until eventually, in the distance, he could see the ocean. His old legs were filled with a new vitality as he covered the final mile, and at last stood on the cliff top and looked out as the waves crashed upon the whitest, sandiest beach. Seagulls sailed overhead, and the sun hung like a peach in the bluest sky he had ever seen. He lived only a few more weeks, but he lived them by the ocean. They were the happiest days of his life, and he died a contented man."
Mary sat back in her chair and smiled.
"Is that it?" asked Kate slightly baffled.
"Who do you think had the better life?" said Mary. "The traveller who settled for the farm or the traveller who continued on to the ocean?"
Kate's brow creased. At that moment the lights went out, including the light from the PC screen on the desk in front of her. As it struck her that she hadn't recently saved the work she was doing, her heart sank. The thought that she would have to stay and re-type it was almost more than she could bear. She looked out of the windows to the east once more, and saw nothing but total blackness. Kate sighed, "The whole neighbourhood's out."
"Spooky," said Mary enthusiastically.
I'm standing still and there are lights blazing all around me. How long has it been this way? At first I was scared out of my mind. All the lights whirling and exploding around me. But now it seems so fantastic. I never dreamed anything so wondrous could be experienced.
And then, instantly, it stops. And I'm on my knees in the middle of a field of green grass. Green as far as the eye can see. I look upwards and a bird sails overhead. I reach out my hands and feel the Earth beneath me. And the fragrance of the flowers is stronger than anything I have ever known, clear in the cleanest air I have ever tasted.
I made it.
"So who do you think had the better life?" repeated Mary in the darkness.
Just then the lights came back on. The PC on Kate's desk began to reboot. She ignored it, intent on the question she had been asked. After a while she merely said, "I honestly don't know."
"Perhaps you should think about it," replied Mary. "Perhaps you shouldn't think about it at all. If you only had a moment to choose, who would you choose to be?"
"There's a part of the story that's missing," Kate said softly. "We don't know what happened to the man who settled for the farm, after the second traveller left him. Maybe he lost everything. I would choose to be the one who kept going. Because... at least once he found what he was looking for, he had it for the rest of his life."
"But the rest of his life was only a few weeks, and everything up to that point was a waste," countered Mary.
"So you would choose differently?"
"I didn't say that. It's just... I wish you would allow yourself the possibility of a new place to settle."
Kate sat silently for a moment. "We all wish for things," she said eventually.
"Can't that wait until Monday?" Mary asked, referring to the work Kate still had before her.
"No," replied Kate, "not really."
Mary rose and fetched her coat. Slipping her small frame inside it she offered, "I could come and see you over the weekend if you like."
"Thanks, but I have plans."
"Well, see you on Monday then."
"Enjoy the weekend."
Kate sat unmoving in her chair for a few minutes after Mary's exit. Who had the better life? The traveller who settled for the farm or the traveller who continued on to the ocean? The analytical side of her brain examined the question, spinning it round and round until it slid out of focus. She supposed that it had been asked, in one form or another, for thousands of years. And thousands of years from now people would still be asking it, and they still won't know the answer.
She lied about having plans for the weekend. She just wanted to be alone. One of the fluorescent lights had developed an intermittent flicker since the power failure. It bothered her so she wandered over to the switches and turned them all off. When she returned to her desk the only light she could see was the PC screen in front of her, which illuminated her face like a sun reflecting on the surface of a cold moon.
One year later...
Morning. Kate hated the morning. Hated the ache inside her. As the day progressed she could bury herself in her work. In the evenings, well, it's always possible to push the thoughts from your mind. To cram other things in so they lose their place in the scheme of things. Or to scatter them, send them tumbling so they don't make sense. There are ways.
She drew back the curtains and looked out across the garden. It had been so tidy. It wasn't large, you didn't get large gardens in the neighbourhood, but it was difficult to maintain. Maybe she could rise a little earlier each morning and work in the garden before heading out. She liked the idea but the days were getting shorter and colder. Colder days. Her breath condensed on the window as the thought pushed against her. She'd been cold for so long.
She pulled her dressing gown tight around her and returned to the chair in which she had sat awake all night. In the sofa opposite her was the man who had literally fallen through her front door the night before. Despite the bruises she could see that he had a good face, the face of someone you felt at home with. Suddenly she dropped to her knees beside him, then delicately pinched a wayward strand of his black hair and pushed it back. She should wake him, he would have to leave soon.
She remembered how Patrick used to come home from work, lie back on the same sofa and watch the evening news. Often as not he would fall asleep for half an hour, then wake up full of energy. And then they would eat together. And after that they might do some decorating, or listen to some music. Or he might take her in his arms and make love to her. She would feel warm and safe afterwards, resting against him as she slowly drifted into sleep. And if she ever had nightmares they were forgotten in the morning, brushed aside by one of his smiles.
Now she saw a stranger in his place. Leaving him she moved into the kitchen. Water gushed into the kettle with a venom she found almost painful, cups clinked onto the worktop and she turned her attention to breakfast. Breakfast for two, she thought, just like old times. When the toast was ready she spread it with butter and jam and poured the tea. As she came into the room he woke with a start.
"Hello," she said, and he sank back into the sofa. "How do you feel?" she continued. He gave no answer. Dazed and confused he attempted to focus on her. "It's not every day a man collapses on my doorstep," she said prompting him.
"You..." He winced and carefully prodded his right cheek. Satisfied that he wasn't badly hurt he continued. "You let me stay."
She smiled. Behind the smile a question bubbled up from her subconscious. Why did you let him stay? Why? Something about him was... familiar. Some fragment of memory... No, of course they hadn't met. She would remember. To let a stranger stay in her house. What was she thinking of? What would Patrick say if he were...
"What else could I do?" she eventually responded. "Dump you back out on the street? I made you some breakfast. Sugar?"
"In your tea?"
"Oh, no thank you."
Kate felt embarrassed. She was not one to go into blustering overdrive to break the ice, but settled down into her chair opposite him. It would be very difficult for him to imagine what sort of person she was. Dressed only in her gown there were no clues. She wasn't tall, had shoulder length dark brown hair, and large light brown eyes. She looked up from her breakfast and caught him studying her. She had a coy kind of smile, hinted at for a moment at the corners of the mouth and then lighting up the whole face.
"This is good," he said, holding up a piece of toast.
"You're welcome. How do you feel?"
"Oh, I'll be fine, don't worry."
"You look like you've been knocked about a bit. You don't sound too good either."
"I do feel a bit shaky. This tea will sort me out though."
She returned to her breakfast. The moments dragged by and the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece grew louder. She glanced towards it. Her eyes flitted around the room. It shouldn't be so untidy. Dust had been allowed to settle for too many days. How long had it been since she'd thrown open the windows and let fresh, clean air back into the house? Her attention snapped back to her guest. He does have a good face, she thought, a kind face.
"What time is it?" he said, turning his head to look over his shoulder, but then wincing in pain.
"It's a quarter to eight."
"Um, I don't know your name."
"It's Kate, what's yours?"
"A quarter to eight," he mumbled, seemingly ignoring the question.
Again she smiled, but with a certain lack of patience. "I have to get ready for work. Finish your toast. There's more in the kitchen if you want it."
"It's Joe," he said, turning his head to follow her, but she had already left the room.
The living room had a soft charm to it, filled with the little touches that women bring to a home. Ornaments, lace and so forth. His thoughts went back to his birthplace, so stark and lifeless by comparison. Yet here too there was a sense of decay, a sense of emptiness. He tried to place it. He liked the carpet, a deep rustic burgundy colour. She had matching curtains tied back. Beyond the wooden window frame he could see the top of a garden fence covered in ivy. In the corners of the room to his left were hi-fi speakers mounted on stands. Near one of them was an impressive looking stack of equipment to drive them. On a cabinet there was a small television. The walls were pure white, but largely covered by wall units and pictures. The wall units held rows of books, mostly paperbacks, some videos, a vase of flowers. The pictures were mostly simple pen and ink drawings of old buildings but there were a couple of water-colours, one of which he particularly liked. It managed to convey the impression of vast rolling fields of wheat.
A sound in the kitchen drew him out of his reveries. He picked up his breakfast tray and struggled to his feet. As he approached the door it opened from the other side. Tray and contents were snatched from his hand. As they tumbled through the air he thought to catch them, but the next instant they crashed to the floor. Kate was laughing, as if someone had told her the funniest joke.
"I'm sorry, I..."
"Don't worry," said Kate, "I'll clean it up."
"Look, I should be going."
"Oh, yes, I'll show you to the door."
This morning, for Kate, it seemed as if the hall went on forever. She'd been cold for so long. A moment ago she had been laughing.
"Help! I can't seem to..."
"Oh, the latch, everyone has problems with it. Here..."
"Thank you. You've been very kind." Standing in the open doorway he added, "I'm very grateful."
"You could come back... some time... um... I'll cook you some dinner." The words had seemed to fly out of her mouth with a life of their own. Now they seemed to fly back into her brain. Echoing back at her. He didn't reply immediately. He was silhouetted by the light behind him. There was something about him. "Please, I'd like you to."
"I... I'd like that. Tonight?"
"Tonight it is. Eight o'clock sharp."
She closed the door, leant her back against it and waited for her heart to stop racing.
He climbed the steps onto the street. The night before he had fallen down them, had slammed against the door. The door had opened. He felt himself falling again but then clicked back into the present. Then the door flew open and Kate rushed out. She drew up suddenly, surprised that he was still there and not halfway down the street.
"Um, I still don't know your name."
"It's Joe. I'm sorry I didn't answer before, I was a little confused."
"You've a right to be. I'll see you tonight. Eight o'clock. Don't be late. Um, do you know where to go from here?"
"Yes, I was heading for the tube when... I'll see you at eight."
Turning, he stepped into the road and walked away. As he reached the other side he tilted his head back. There was not a cloud in the sky. He breathed in deeply and continued along the pavement. He noticed a cat clawing at the contents of a rubbish bin that had been turned over. He picked up the cat and held it in his left arm. It snuggled against him in a most agreeable fashion while he righted the rubbish bin with his free hand. Most of the rubbish was still inside the rim and so fell back inside as he picked it up. He clutched at the remaining debris and dropped it back inside also. Turning his attention to the cat, he asked it whether it had a home to go to. The cat replied in the affirmative so he released it. Noting that his shoes needed cleaning he continued on his way, happy in the knowledge that everything was right with the world. The clock was ticking.
Frank Garrett eased his aching frame off his chair and leaned forward through the open window. "Name please," he prompted, knowing full well who occupied the car before him.
"Chapman," said Kate, holding out her security pass.
The security guard smiled and the barrier swung upwards. She parked her car and proceeded into the research centre. "Surrender your humanity all ye who enter here." She had often thought of having a sign made up bearing that inscription. Then one night she would sneak in and nail it to the front door. But that would be treason. Tsk tsk.
Scholman Research was a large building holding over two thousand people. The corridors were oppressive, Kate hated them, but the staff had a free hand to make the offices themselves as homely as they wished. At least, this was true of the offices Kate had access to. Her security rating was fairly low. Certainly the computer systems she had helped design and develop were used by the military but they were not going to change civilization as we know it. It was possible that at some point she would be given work which she wouldn't be able to reconcile with her conscience, but that was a bridge to cross when she came to it.
She was first into the office. She set up four coffee mugs and boiled the kettle that she had donated when she first arrived there two years before. While she waited for it she settled down at her desk and sorted some papers. The phone rang: "Hello. No. Yes, I'll tell them. OK. Bye." Hmm. Well, it had to happen some time, my turn next, she thought.
"Oh, hi, Bill. How did your dinner party go?"
To all outward appearances, Bill Shore was essentially a kindly man. Married, with young Josey just started at school, he could often convince himself that he had everything he ever wanted. But then there was Kate. Her fierce independence kept her apart from him, and as far as he knew from everyone else, but there was always a vulnerability about her. It threatened to pull him in. Threatened to ruin everything.
"Very entertaining, you should have come along."
"Maybe next time. A man collapsed on my doorstep last night. Well, actually he fell down the stairs and hit the door with quite a thump."
Bill stopped halfway through the process of sitting down at his desk. "What?"
"Oh, he's OK. I kicked him out this morning. I think he had been in a fight. He was just a bit bruised."
"You... Didn't you call the police?"
"Uh, no. He just needed to rest a while. I kicked him out this morning."
"You must be mad," Bill said, clearly unsettled. "You shouldn't have let him in in the first place."
"I'm sorry Kate, it's just that..."
Interrupted by the arrival of the third and fourth members of the office, Kate turned away from Bill and looked out over the gardens to the south of the centre.
It was widely believed that Dave Kyle and Mary Whitehead (affectionately known as "Mop-head") were together because they each knew that nobody else would have them. It takes a crazy person to put up with another. They had taught Kate to laugh again and for that she would be eternally thankful, though Dave's love of the bad pun could be a little tiring towards the end of a long day. Mary's humour was drier and harder.
"Hey, Bill," said Dave.
"Hmm?" said Bill suspiciously, detecting a certain tone in Dave's voice.
"Why did the motorcycle have an inferiority complex?" Dave continued.
"I don't know," replied Bill half-heartedly. "Why?"
"Because it was a mop-'ead."
"Very good, Dave," said Bill in his best unimpressed tone.
"Hey, Bill," said Mary.
"Yes, Mary?" said Bill, now sounding distinctly weary.
"Why does Dave have an inferiority complex?"
"I don't know."
"Because he's useless in bed."
"Uh, have we interrupted something?" said Dave, glancing at Kate.
"Well," said Bill, "it seems Kate had some guy collapse on her doorstep last night." Bill could see that Kate was upset now and he was making matters worse. "He, uh, is OK though. Let's talk about something else. Did you two enjoy the dinner party?"
"We did indeed," said Dave. "Well, I did, I don't know about Mop-head here. Hey Kate, I've got to tell you about this little fat guy who turned up in the middle of dessert. There was this ring at the door and it was this little fat guy. Who was he again, Bill?"
"My father-in-laws's sister's husband," said Bill slowly, "don't ask me what that makes him."
"Right. He's going door-to-door selling encyclopaedias and Bill opens the door and I hear the little fat guy say: 'Hey, I know you, don't I? Don't tell me, weren't you at my wedding?' And he's inside the door already. 'Can I interest you in an encyclopaedia my good friend?' he says. 'Look, it's nice to see you again but I'm in the middle of a dinner party,' says Bill. 'Oh, maybe one of them would like a set of encyclopaedias,' says the little fat guy, and he's stood at the end of the table giving us all the spiel."
"Sounds like fun, guys, but you'll have to tell me the rest later," said Kate. "You two have been summoned by scheduling. They rang a few minutes ago."
"Looks like we're about to get ourselves a new project, Mop-head."
Mary shrugged and said, "Better be good."
Dave headed for the doorway.
"You needn't look so smug, Kate," said Mary, following Dave out into the corridor. "You'll be next."
Left alone with her again, Bill studied Kate for a few moments and then picked up their earlier conversation: "Kate..."
"What possessed you?"
She didn't like having to justify herself, especially to Bill Shore. "I like him," she said, a hint of defiance in her voice. "I'm having dinner with him tonight."
Bill was aghast. Eventually he responded, "You are out of your mind."
Kate thought about that for a moment, and then concluded the discussion with the words, "Yes, Bill, I suppose I am."
© Chris Butler 2001.
Any Time Now is published by Cosmos Books.
Elsewhere in infinity
Elsewhere on the web:
Elsewhere on the web:
Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
support this site - buy books through these links:
top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]