I hug my arms tight to my body. The early morning air is damp and cold, fingers of mist searching out my old bones like an ethereal octopus. I stamp my feet, wishing I’d worn my best coat, the one that fitted me thirty years ago before the weight dropped from me and I became just a bag of clattering bones wearing a sheath of skin. It’s April, there are pink blossoms on the trees, but all colour has been leached by the fog, and the landscape is dressed in sombre tones of black, grey, and opal. The trees vanish and reappear as mist sweeps past their trunks and boughs; it is a silent, watchful world, secretive and sly. Everything is stark and thin; I think that perhaps I am in the right place.

How much longer? I peer at my watch; the second hand sweeps around its face at the same pace it usually does. I wish it would speed up; I am so cold that I think about leaving.

But no. I cannot. I have to do this.

In the moist air, I hear a muted splash. I want to walk to the bridge, to throw sticks into the water and watch them as they come out on the other side. I want to be a child again, free to imagine possibilities, to believe that this time is all there is, because there is so much of it left, so much still to do. How quickly it went, decades rolling past faster and faster the older I got. My knuckles are sore, inflamed, and I wish I’d brought gloves.

There is a sun up there, above this layer of mist. In time, it will burn through. But I hope that I won’t be here then. Why else would I get up at six in the morning, come out in the cold? My slippers beckon, and hot black tea, and thick crusty white bread spread with honey. Later, a single malt and the company of the television. I check my watch again. Still not seven, still I must wait, always waiting now, and time is not on my side.

I stamp my feet again. Next time I will get here later so that I’m not waiting for so long. And what makes me think things will be different this time? That what I’m seeking will actually happen? How many times will I come here on the eleventh day of the month, for seven in the morning, wishing and hoping and being disappointed, time after time? Well, I am here, and there is always a chance. Always hope. Without hope, I have nothing.

A rustle draws my attention upward. A rook has settled in the tree behind me, a black, sleek-feathered bird sitting on a black, starkly-drawn branch. The bird caws, the sound reassuring through its familiarity, but it sends a shiver down my bony spine, as though the bird is a herald of doom.

I peel back the sleeve of my coat, check my watch again. It is almost seven. I stare at the second hand as it marks the hour. I hold my breath for a long moment, anticipating it … although I do not know how it will feel.

And then I do. It has begun. The air around me wavers and judders, and there is a sharp split in the mist, limned with gold and purple, the colours over-bright and harsh in contrast with the gloomy colours of this world. The split widens to a crack, sending light and some sort of warmth through to me. I move toward it, toward the heat, desperate to lose this chill. The light is strange, unearthly, and for a moment I doubt myself and distrust what I see.

I check my watch again; it has stopped. Time is now, and there is no future and no past. I have to make a decision. Do I move forward? Or do I remain where I am? But really, there is no choice at all. I made my choice on the eleventh day of May last year. It seems fitting that what I had wished for has come to pass precisely eleven months later. I clench my fists, my fingers burning with inflamed pain, and I step through to the other side.

I don’t know what I expected. I’m not sure whether this is real or not. Here, the sun is out, and birdsong spills from the trees, the branches draped in fresh green leaves and the thrusting growth of late spring. It is perhaps late May, or June. But what year is this? The park looks different; the lake is full, there are children on the bridge playing Pooh Sticks and I ache to join them; their parents would draw them away from this old man, faces showing fear and reserve and distrust.

I would like to have had grandchildren. It is not right to outlive your children, to be alone and without family at my age. Perhaps I should have married again, had a second family. But in my heart, I would always wonder whether I’d been trying to replace Harry and Clara. I think of Sophie, the wife I once loved, and my tired heart cracks just a little more, our divorce a bitter stain upon my mind. The twins brought us together; losing the twins drove us apart.

Well, she’s gone from me now, and I must focus on the present. When is here? For the first time, I wish my watch was one of those new, digital things, with a date as well as the time. But this watch is the reason that this is happening. Time ticks by in increments in the digital world; this process needs smooth time, no visible separation between one second and the next.

The laughter of the children brings me back. After the silence of my own world, the chorus of birdsong, the shrieks of the children, the sound of a distant bicycle bell … they are all discordant and harsh, and I almost long for the secretive moments I left mere minutes ago.

I need to know the date. It becomes a compulsion. I check behind me as I walk away from this tree, check to make sure I know where to return. Unless I choose to remain here …

I glance at the watch. The second hand is gliding backward, at half speed. I don’t know what this means. The backs of my hands are less liver-spotted, though, and the arthritic pain in my tortured fingers has subsided. I breathe deeply of the air, grateful for the freshness; the scent of life permeates it. The children’s glee reaches me, their squeals reverberating in my mind like an echo; a refrain from the past. Or a call from my future.

I walk toward the bridge.


This comprises the first part of a new serialisation of one of the short stories from our “Dark Perfume” collection. To read Part 2, please go here.
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