Out of Time (short story)

Ellie plays by my feet, pretending that the screwdriver set is a family of dolls.  I kick a bent nail away from her.  She has tracks of sawdust all over her dress and I make a mental note to brush her down before she goes back upstairs.

Since John left to visit his mother I haven’t slept; the proposal deadline is at the end of this week.

Checking the remote wiring one last time, I notice that my hands are covered in oil. I stand up and wipe them on my apron, blinking away the lights dancing in front of my eyes.

‘I want to show you something,’ says Ellie, tugging at my skirt.  I snap at her to leave me alone.

When Ellie cries, it is impossible to concentrate.

*

The glass of water on my workbench has sawdust floating on top, but I drink it anyway.  My head clears a little and I take off the apron and put a sweater on.  I almost step on the plate from Ellie’s sandwich and end up kicking it out of my way.  It clatters under the workbench and I think I’ve probably chipped it.

My hands are shaking as I lean in to press the button, almost falling forward, into the mechanism.  My arms are cold and I can’t remember if I’ve left a window open, or if I ought to turn the heating on.

The engine purrs like a barely-there cat.  I keep my ears open for those tell-tale glitches in the rhythm, but this time there’s nothing, but the velvet noise of everything going perfectly.

I’d do a victory dance or whoop but the exhaustion hits hard and I have to sit down.

*

When I call John to tell him, the line is bad and keeps cutting out.  I punch the wall lightly, barely leaving a mark in the plaster, and keep hitting redial.

He wants to talk to Ellie so I give her the handset and stretch out my shoulder muscles, swinging my arms in circles.  My fingertips brush the lampshade and it swings, making erratic pools of shade swirl over the walls.  Ellie prattles on for ages.  When I finally take the phone back, the line is dead.  I call John back and he claims he barely caught a word of what she said and asks to talk to her again.

‘The wiring is working,’ I tell him.  ‘I’m all set to go.’

‘Tell Ellie I’ll be back in time for the concert on Friday.  I don’t want her to think I won’t make it.’

‘I thought the new fuse wouldn’t hold, but it’s fine after all.’

‘Mum wants to send her love to Ellie.  Can you put her back on?’  I hang up.  When he calls back, I tell him he’ll have to get a taxi from the station.

‘Pick me up when Ellie finishes school.  I don’t mind waiting an hour,’ he says. I don’t tell him Ellie won’t be going to school, that she hasn’t been to school since he left.  I say the car has a flat tire.

*

Without setting an alarm I think I could have slept until lunchtime.  Ellie hits the snooze button for me and we both go back to sleep for another ten minutes.

I only get up because she wets the bed.

It’s hard not to let my disgust show.  I sit her in the bath and strip the bed.  She follows me around as I make breakfast, neither of us saying a word.

Once I’ve had some coffee, I get the box of colouring pens out and tell her to keep busy while I sort out my paperwork.  I update the wiring specs and re-check the small print in the proposal guidelines.  The first test run has to be witnessed by at least five accredited society members before the application will be processed.

John has promised to pull some strings once he gets back.  I’m finished early.  I wonder if I should take Ellie in to school this afternoon to make sure he doesn’t have anything to use as an excuse for not calling up his society buddies.  Last time I had a break through, he refused to call them as punishment because I missed her nativity play.  The time before, it was because I forgot my mother’s birthday.  He is better with dates than I am, but I know I’m better with the other numbers.

I can’t refill the kettle in the sink because it’s piled high with dirty plates.  Ellie’s school uniform needs ironing. My hands have stopped shaking, but I still look like I haven’t slept.  I decide that another day off school won’t hurt anyone.

‘Remember what we tell Daddy when he gets back?’ I smile at Ellie and smooth her hair back.

‘I felt sick.’

‘What else?’

‘We played monkey in the garden.’

‘What didn’t you do?’  She says she didn’t go into the workshop.  I tell her she’s a good girl and that she can go through to the sitting room and watch a DVD. She puts all the crayons back in the box first and tidies her drawings into a pile.  The top one is stick figures.  All she ever draws are people.

*

Hammering a nail into the car tyre makes me feel like a teenager.  I’ve put the tools downstairs and come back out to check on my handiwork when one of the neighbours spots a woman messing around with a vehicle and comes to check up on me.

‘Problem with the car, Jeanie?’

‘Slow puncture on the left, I think.’

‘Checked the pressure?’

‘John’s back this afternoon.’  He accepts that as an answer which, in itself, would normally piss me off.  So long as nobody tells John they saw me vandalising the car our neighbours can be as sexist as they like.  I use Ellie as an excuse to escape small talk and go back inside.

*

The dishes take ages.  I give Ellie a packet of chocolate biscuits and tell her to keep out from under my feet.

John calls from the station to tell me he got an early train and he’ll be home in half an hour.  I stick the bed-sheets in the washing machine.

The trails of sawdust in the hallway clog the hoover and I waste precious minutes fixing it.  I call to Ellie, telling her to bring her duvet downstairs.  She doesn’t answer.  I wash the dust off my hands and go to check.  Ellie has eaten the whole packet and thrown up on the sofa.  There is half-digested chocolate everywhere.

I didn’t mean to shout, but this is meant to be the most important day of my life.  Ellie shuts herself in the bathroom.

*

The machine starts up without a hitch, just as I knew it would.  I’m not asking it to move mountains, just to buy a little time.  Nobody will ever need to know I ran an unsupervised test; I’ll factor in enough time to clean the house, grab a shower myself, and then wipe the disk memory.

The excitement blinds me to everything.  Afterwards, I try to work out if I knew on some subconscious level.  I try to think if I heard John’s key turning in the front door and rushed.  I try to think if I saw something out of the corner of my eye and ignored it.

I set the timer and I fasten my seatbelt.  This time, my hands shake from excitement as I press the first button.  The air pressure thickens slightly.  There’s a flash of light and a scream.

I feel like I’m swimming through treacle.  Automatically, I switch over the ignition key and the purring noise of the engine chokes off.  My first assumption is that I’m the one who has screamed and I stare at my hands and try to work out if I’m in pain.

John runs down the workshop stairs at the same time as I reach to unfasten the seatbelt.  Neither of us can remember which of us reaches Ellie first; our memories are too full of the sight of her leg stuck in the half-bastion at the front of the machine; a mess of white and red.

*

Our daughter looks so small in the hospital bed.  Ellie shuts her eyes whenever I come into the room, so I can’t help but picture her as a corpse and am reduced to hiding round the corner and looking through the observation window for proof that she really is alive.

I am not surprised that John refuses to speak to me.  Every time the doctor says a word I can recognise, like ‘septicaemia’, I wince.

It is decided that Ellie is better off staying in hospital for a few more nights.  I wonder if they are going to call the police.  I’ve never hurt a child before and I’m half-expecting social services to come and say we can’t take her home.  I wonder if we have the money for lawyer fees.  John turns his face away from me in the car when I bring it up.

*

I take the mattress from Ellie’s bed down into the workshop.  John puts fresh sheets on our bed.  I try to tell him about Ellie wetting the bed, but he turns his back as if he can’t hear me and goes to get pillowslips from the linen cupboard.  Her duvet is pink with large, purple flowers.  I don’t remember where we got it from.

When John has finished washing the dishes, he leaves the house without leaving a note or telling me where he’s going.  Once I’ve finished downstairs I call the hospital. They refuse to give me any details about Ellie’s operation.  Even when I tell them I’m her mother they tell me I’m not allowed access to her files.  I ask if John is there and they say they’re not at liberty to give out any personal information.  When I say I’m coming down, they hang up.

John has taken the car.  I come back inside and look for spare cash for a taxi.  I find that John has also cleaned the sitting room.  It still smells of vomit, but I can barely make out the stains on the carpet.  I always thought that cream carpets were a bad idea, but the salesman said they looked classy.

I decide to wait for John to call and tell me what’s going on.  Perhaps he has gone for groceries.  I sit on the damp couch and look at the box of toys in the corner.  There’s a family of dolls which John’s mother gave Ellie at her christening.  I have an epiphany.

Now that the sink is empty, I take the washing up bowl downstairs and start sponging off the machine.  I have to work slowly, picking out small splinters of bone with tweezers.  One last spray of oil and the machine is as good as new.  One of the cogs is a little bent, but it spins fine.  Only a perfectionist would notice.

The sawdust has absorbed most of the blood so there isn’t much of a stain on the floor. I bend down under the workbench and retrieve the plate.  There’s a small chip on the edge but nothing too bad, nothing that can’t be fixed.  I take it upstairs and rinse it off.  Now that I’m about to sort this whole mess out I’m feeling full of energy.  I decide to factor in enough time to clean the house, as a treat for my family.  It’ll be a secret penance; they’ll never need to know what I’m apologising for because it will have never happened.

The police arrive when I’m updating the paperwork.  I make a note that the bent cog is purely an aesthetic issue, and sign at the bottom of the page.  The blue lights coming through the window make me realise how dark it is and I’m surprised that I’ve missed suppertime.

I leave the application forms on John’s desk and look out the window.  There are two police cars out front, and one of them is more of a van than a car.

They knock again, and shout through the door, but I don’t bother trying to work out what they’re saying.

*

Down in the workshop, I turn on the light on the workbench and bolt the trapdoor from the inside.  The caramel purr of the engine is soothing.  Lying down on Ellie’s mattress, I unclench my fists and smooth the duvet over me.  It’s tempting to fall asleep like this.

I take my time, waiting and listening to the sound of the engine for a good thirty minutes or so; making sure I can’t hear anything snagging.

The bedding smells of Ellie; sour milk, but sweet.  The footsteps upstairs sound very far away.  I hope they didn’t do too much damage to the door getting in.  John will be so embarrassed if the neighbours heard anything.

It’s time.  I prop up on one elbow, and kick my legs out from the tangle of sheets.  I scuff fresh sawdust over the stain on the floor and re-set the timer on the main control system.

Clicking the seatbelt into place, I remember the struggle to get it undone.  I wipe my sweaty palms on my skirt and practise.  Seatbelt locked, seatbelt unlocked.  It’s easy.  I wipe my hands again and lock it in place.

As I press the final button, I’m suddenly very aware that I still haven’t showered.  I can feel the streaks of oil on my legs and my eyes itch with dust.

The world turns black.  My life flashes before my eyes until I shut them, screwing them up as tight as possible. I feel very heavy and then the engine cuts out.

The world is silent.   My fingers fumble along my side and undo the seatbelt.  My mouth tastes of pepper.  I realise my eyes are shut, but I’m reluctant to open them.  I remember Ellie’s white face in the hospital bed.    Eventually I open my eyes and get out of the machine.

The workshop looks the same.  I feel like a fool.  Then I see the small figure creeping down the stairs, trying to be as quiet as possible.  I sit down on the floor.  I can’t believe I didn’t see her before; she doesn’t exactly move quietly.  I want to call out straight away, but I can’t open my mouth.  This is just too much.  Both of Ellie’s legs are functioning perfectly.

Watching myself standing by the workbench is creepy.  I watch Ellie sidle round the room.  Then I remember why I’m here so I stand up and walk over to her.  It’s hard to remember that she and I are from different times; I hadn’t allowed for emotional impact in my calculations.  I must remember to add a footnote into the paperwork when I get back.  I’m shaking and I feel weak.

Ellie stands by the front of the machine, drawing patterns in the sawdust with her foot.  I see that she isn’t wearing shoes, and I’m scared she’ll step on a stray nail.  She bends down to pick something up and I turn round to see myself stepping into the machine.  I look awful.

Hearing the seatbelt click into place, I know I’m running out of time.  I shout to Ellie to move.  She doesn’t react.  I go right up to her and grab her arm to pull her out the way but my fingers fade through her.

She can’t hear me.  I can’t touch her.  I can’t do anything but watch the excruciating details as Ellie crouches in the dust, absorbed in the pattern she is tracing.

The engine starts up and the heavy air around it starts to pull Ellie in.  I reach through her pointlessly; trying to stop what I already know is going to happen.  Despite everything, I can see how beautiful the machine is in action.

The snap of the bone is much louder from this position.  I’m sobbing on the floor when John comes in.  I barely even notice the engine stopping.

Once the ambulance has left, I step around the blood stains and get into the machine.  My fingers connect with the buttons but I don’t feel anything on the inside, not even a sense of relief.  I pull the seatbelt across my body and while I’m aware it is there, I don’t care that it is.

I press the button but nothing happens.  I press it again.  The engine stays silent.  I undo the seatbelt and get out again.

I know the cog is from my machine because I can pick it up.  I trace the slight bend on one edge.  I squeeze my fist around it then hurtle it across the room.  My fingers go straight through the tools on my workbench when I try to pick them up.

I kick my time machine hard enough to break a toe, but I can’t feel anything.  I run my arm against the sharp edge of the front plating on the machine; it cuts and heals seamlessly.  I don’t bleed.  I bite down on the inside of my cheek and it doesn’t hurt. I think that I ought to write this down somewhere but I didn’t bring any paper with me.

Hours later, when the light is switched back on and I watch myself dragging Ellie’s duvet down into my workshop, I can‘t move.  I talk to my former self in a monotone, listing what is going to happen. I watch the time machine disappear into what I’m starting to fear could become an endless loop.  I don’t sleep; I’m already in a nightmare.

*

For the first couple of week, I stay with my machine.  Then I realise that Ellie can’t come down through the trapdoor in her wheelchair.  I have to go to her, for a change.  The irony is not lost on me.

To begin with, I keep trying to fix the machine, but without my tools I am useless.  Certain parts I can unscrew and screw back on.  I can do up and undo the seatbelt. I can kick it. I can pound my fists on it.  I can’t make it work.

Even after I’ve given up hope of fixing the machine, I still go back down into the workshop to sit in the chair and press the buttons.  Once a year, to remind myself that I used to have a life, that I used to be able to feel.  After a decade I stop bothering to do up the seatbelt before pressing the buttons.

I follow Ellie and John like a ghost.  It is impossible to stop trying to touch them, to stop believing that they can, on some levels, sense that I am there.  I carry the bent cog in my pocket and wave it in front of their faces.

I hoped that John would use the plans I left on his desk to find me.  He burnt them.  I never saw him question what happened to the machine in my workshop, and Ellie never asks him.

One day I look at John and realise he has turned into an old man.  I look at the streaks of oil on my legs and the dirt I can’t get out from under my fingernails and it sinks in that I’m not turning into an old woman because I’m stuck outside of time, no longer moving in the dimension of potential and possibility.

He retires to Spain, with his new wife.  Ellie gets breast cancer and I sit by her side every night, stroking the air above her hair and pretending to myself that she can sense me.  The operation is not a success and I watch my daughter fade away.  Neither she nor John ever mentioned my name.  It’s as if I never existed.

 

*first published online on The Sleep Club in 2011

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