Time Management

The books are old and smell of charcoal and dusty violets. Sometimes the pages rustle when I turn them, but more often seem about to crumble in my fingers. Then I have to put on the soft gloves I keep by the desk. My skin is clammy and I worry this might spread to the books, infecting them like a childhood fever. When I need to write I take the gloves off and put them carefully aside before picking up my pen.

Downstairs, my wife is crying.

I turn another page. The binding creaks and a faint cloud of dust rises from the spine. There is thin writing on the left-hand page, a delicate cluster of broken veins on the coating of the paper. The right-hand page has a drawing of candle flame, scored with graticule lines and annotated at strange angles like a medieval anatomy. I’ve seen the picture before. Carefully I turn back to the previous page. I put on my gloves.

Downstairs, my wife is has stopped crying. Then I hear her voice. As usual, she is asking questions of thin air.

“Is it Gene Kelly? Is number two Ethiopia?”

I found the books in a stranger’s attic many years ago. There were twelve in all, leather-bound and swollen with age and neglect. They are the journals of a man called Terrigan Marchlever who lived over a hundred years ago. He travelled to lands I’ve never heard of. Whenever he returned to England he would write down his experiences, interspersed with pensées, notes for fabulous inventions and references to a collection or collections of fantastical objects. I don’t believe anyone has ever read the journals apart from me. I don’t believe anyone else apart from me has ever heard of Terrigan Marchlever.

“Is question three Bobby Charlton?”

My wife has her own field of interest, which is entering competitions. Generally we give each other a wide berth. My wife’s name is Margie. She subscribes to competition magazines that come through the post and paint pictures of wealth and comfort far beyond her dreams, or mine. Margie has been entering competitions for many years but has never, to my knowledge, won anything. The magazines keep coming and every day Margie goes out to buy the items on promotion which enable her to enter the competitions described in the magazines. Our house as a consequence resembles the lumber-room of a domestic museum.

Upstairs there is a desk, a chair, the twelve journals laid out like the Sibylline Books, my piles of notepads in various colours, a tray of pens, a table lamp, my gloves, a large bookcase full of reference books and atlases and, on the bookcase, a glass jar containing Terrigan Marchlever’s head pickled in formaldehyde. Much of the face is rotted away, giving the impression of a torture victim struggling to turn away from a flame. I now know this is because the brain had been imperfectly removed. In time it turned to an acidic jelly, gnawing away the cheek and jaw from the inside. Although the solution is now stable and inert, minute bubbles sometimes rise slowly from the neck like farts. Whenever I see one I take it as a good omen, a shooting star escaping from a dead world.

I did not find the head at the same time as the journals but some time later at a country auction. This I also took to be a good omen.

When my wife enters competitions she sometimes first shouts the questions at the cat. Then she might climb the stairs to consult me. I hear steps now, pausing outside the door. The floorboard creaks. My wife is holding her breath. She likes to surprise me. I bend my head over the journals.

30th October. Tumman Vowse depressed. The strawberries had not grown as he had expected. I reflected whether as a consequence my visit should be abbreviated or prolonged. Much of his fortune is sunk into the plantation. It is raining heavily, sheets of mist and spume washing across the bay and obscuring the outline of St Barnabas Island. I can hear the horses, and they sound restless. Some days never seem to start. I am keen to press inland and visit the artesian wells at Mala Gogorri, but dare not leave V. in this state. I cannot help wondering if he is suffering from an excess of pineapple.’

My hand reaches towards the bookcase, but then withdraws. I already know there is no record of St Barnabas Island, nor of Mala Gogorri. So far I had noted over two hundred place names from the journals but had yet to locate a single one in an atlas. This is starting to bother me.

Last week at just this time my wife had asked me: “In what country is Burgundy to be found?”

“Burgundy is to be found in France.”

“What is the capital of Burgundy?”

“The capital of Burgundy,” I had replied, “is Dijon. You have books of your own downstairs. Encyclopædias, dictionaries, mathematical tables – why not look these things up yourself?”

“Why, in no more than ten words, would you like to visit Burgundy?”

“Because the wine is sublime et la cuisine est sublime,” I had suggested.

“You were going to take me to Burgundy.”

I could not recall the promise. In any event, it hadn’t come true: like so many things.

“I could go to Burgundy,” she had said, “with an answer like that.”

And yet, a week later, here she still is, not in Burgundy at all.

‘An excess of pineapple is one of V’s greatest fears; and yet this does nothing to diminish his taste for the fruit.’

On the opposite page was a drawing of a pineapple, carefully coloured with yellow and brown ink.

Outside, the floorboard creaks. My wife is holding her breath. Then the door is pushed open.

“What is an artesian well?”

“An artesian well,” I say without looking up, “is a borehole drilled into an aqueous rock strata. Through this water may be drawn upwards by hydrostatic pressure.”

“Mmm.” She hovers like a bad cold, dissatisfied with my answer. “It says here…” she begins, but reads the rest to herself.

I sometimes ask myself about the competitions, whether there is any connection between them and the questions she asks me. I happen to know about artesian wells because Terrigan Marchlever devoted space in Journal VI to a consideration of their impact on the growth of the railways in the 1850s. The theory was illustrated with elaborate drawings of boreholes and annotated with calculations showing how a network of strategically placed wells had been planned by Thomas Urquart alongside the L.N.E.R. line from Flenswick to Staverley Junction. ‘Thirteen wells planned at exactly five and a half mile intervals.’

The ‘exactly’ had been underlined several times, but it is unclear to me why.

“A man,” my wife was saying, “walks one hundred miles down a steep hill in eight hours. How many hours will it take him to walk uphill?”

“How can a man walk a hundred miles down a steep hill? Mount Everest is only five and a half miles high.”

“That’s what it says here. That’s the question. I could win a mixer.”

“The question is absurd. A man walking a hundred miles down a steep hill would be coming from outer space.”

“I think it would take him two hours,” she says. “What do you think?”

“What does it matter what I think?”

“I want to know what you think.”

“About what?”

She looks at me, then away. “About everything. We never talk.”

I turn round. “Talk to me,” I say.

Her eyes are deep grey. She says nothing.

“You see? It’s not so easy.”

“You just sit there,” she says with a sudden, sad anger, “with these old books and that revolting head. Who is this man, anyway? What did he do?”

“I don’t know,” I answer truthfully. “He did a lot of things, but…he was…”

“You see? It’s not so easy,” she mocks. “I think it’s two hours. That’s what I’m going to put. One time is as good as another. I could win a mixer.”

The next week, a mixer arrives by special delivery. It is so large it can hardly fit on the dresser. I eye it with foreboding as I carve the duck.

“‘Congratulations’, she quotes from the letter. “‘You are a winner.’ You see?” She looks at me over the top of the page. “Are you a winner?” I look away. “And I just need to collect…”

I cannot listen any longer to this. I slice the knife down.

“…and then I can win a car.”

Ten minutes later I am upstairs with my books.

Five days later I am upstairs with my books.

I am reading Journal III. The date is 13th May 1871 and Terrigan Marchlever has discovered the secret of…something. I can’t make it out. I blink and turn the page. If only I could remember what he had just said, but now he has moved onto another point entirely.

‘Time consists of an infinite series of rippled circles, each one slightly overlapping and slightly deeper than the one before. On each we leave our imprint. Knowledge is the sense of depth engendered by the illusion of perspective; memory is the reflection this pattern casts in our minds. It is only the apparent fragility of the more distant circles which makes them seem inaccessible and only the apparent solidity of the one just formed which makes it viable. Our inability to revisit the past is, in the final analysis, nothing more than a crucial failure of nerve.’

The point is interesting. The opposite page is illustrated with circles just as he had described. There seems to be a mathematical connection between each set which governs the distances between their rims. I put on my glasses, then apply the magnifying glass.

A new world explodes under the lens. The pattern was now vastly more subtle. By slipping my eyes in and out of focus I can make out a graceful pattern of intersecting arcs on the edge of some of the more distant circles and a labyrinth of colour as the light refracts through what appears to be deep water.

As I take the glass away the image returns to a half dozen or so blue-ink circles overwritten with complex formulae in faded, ox-blood red. Below them is a blur like a dirty window pane. Without the glass, it seems more like the discolouration of the emulsion on the paper having oxidised, or years of damp causing the fibres to decompose like the face of Terrigan Marchlever’s shrunken skull. I look at this now.

A bubble pops from under a shard of skin at the stump of the neck, hovers for a moment, then rises up through the viscous embalming fluid before becoming trapped underneath the left ear. Often I have wanted to examine the base of the skull, to see the flapping nerves and arteries and the severed spinal cord but the bottom of the jar is opaque. It might be possible to give it a good shake. Then a shower of scurf might slowly drift through the formaldehyde like snow in a plastic souvenir. I have never done this.

Now I have the urge to do so. As I move over to the jar I notice a subtle change. The face seems more composed. A flap of skin under the right eye, previously hanging loose, is more firmly fixed to the cheek muscles. The liquid seems fractionally clearer. I give the jar a tap. The flap stays where it is. I sit down and open Journal X at random.

‘I explained my discovery to Tumman Vowse, fully expecting him to share in my delight. His reaction was guarded, and he questioned me with an air of suspicion. I now regret my candour. I half suspect him of having some similar designs of his own. I resolved to leave for Hav within the next few days. It continues to rain.’

No explicit description of this discovery exists in the Journals, yet it casts its shadow across many of his observations. I am convinced that these clues can be pieced together into an answer. All I can so far infer is that it has to do with Marchlever’s perception of the operation of time. I turn back to Journal I and start to read from the first page.

‘Vowse went on to say that…’

The idea now strikes me that this is a very odd way to start a book. There are several mysteries at work to which I am not yet privy. This quickens my enthusiasm.

That evening my wife tells me that if all the prizes won in the country that month were placed end to end they would stretch fifty-one times round the world.

“Are you assuming,” I ask, “that the money is in five pound notes, or cheques?”

She shakes her head and fingers a deep scar on her right wrist, the result of a misunderstanding a few days after we met.

I am now unable to stop. “Are the plane journeys actual journeys, or just the tickets? In other words, would a round-the-world holiday count as twenty-six thousand miles or as seven inches?”

She looks at me sadly. “Why are you so angry? I’m telling you something real. This is the way things happen. In the real world.” She stands up. “Next week, thanks to the mixer, I’m going to win a car. There are three questions. I know the answers. One – Henry Ford. Two – 1939. Three – Earls Court. How many questions have youanswered today?”

As it happened, none. As usual my research into the life of Terrigan Marchlever had posed more questions than answers. I shrug.

“None, obviously. Not one. All those books and – nothing. Next week, I’ll have a car.”

I look at her. In recent days a prescience has been added to her dejection that I am not sure I welcome.  “You don’t drive.”

“So what? Next week I’ll have a car. I can choose – red or blue.”

Next week, it is the red car that arrives. I am upstairs and see the man unloading it from the lorry, shaking her hand, giving her papers to sign. Then he reverses the lorry into the drive and pulls away. Margie is left looking at the red car. I go back to my work.

For some days after this we hardly speak, or even meet. My work is keeping me busy.

I have embarked on the policy of reading all the Journals as quickly as possible and in sequence without pausing or going back over any passage. This takes much concentration, as the thoughts often jump from point to point with unfeasible promiscuity. The top of page 645 of Journal IX begins

‘… without any possibility of repeal. It was not until 1143 that Duke Giovanni of Secce allowed the walls of Forizia to be rebuilt, using masons from the nearby Abbey of San Lorenzo of the Snakes…’

Again, there is no mention of Forizia in any atlas. I have heard of many Duke Giovannis in twelfth-century Italy, but none associated with a place called Secce. The Abbey of San Lorenzo of the Snakes could possibly be a mis-rendering of the Abbey of St Louis of the Serpent; but that is in Artois. In any event, construction there was not begun until 1213.

Underneath this is a French translation of Blake’s The Sick Rose.The rendering is fair, but I disapprove of asticot, rather than ver, for ‘worm’.

The page concludes with some scratched marks on hastily drawn stave lines suggesting Marchlever had set the poem to music. The key is Eb and the time signature – despite the meter of the poem – seven-eight. I play the tune on my flute. The melody is ragged but has an interesting modulation, implicitly to A major, in the fifth bar. I make a couple of mental readjustments and play the piece again, this time naturalising the sharpened C: I then ascend by an augmented fifth before gliding chromatically up to the dominant Bb at the start of the last line. On the whole, the effect is improved in the altered passage, but reduced in the conclusion. I play it again with the sharpened C restored. The bright tones of the instrument slice through the fugged atmosphere of the room like shards of ice.

I put down the flute and turn over the page.

I am confronted with a drawing of a butterfly. I am no lepidopterist but I have books that were written by people who were. The butterfly is beautiful, topaz and gold wings fanned with flaming tips, and is identified as Lepidea Inconnatus.

I check this in the books. Something in the detail is nagging at me. I study the picture again, then the expert entries.

There it is – the date. This species was discovered for the first time in 1892, long after Marchlever’s presumed death in 1875. Not for the first time I am aware of a frightful sense of dislocation in his life and, by extension, in mine.

Marchlever states that this item belongs in his collection, or Collection des Trouvailles, as he calls it. This is not the first such reference to this I have encountered. I reach across for one of my blue notebooks, the second in the sequence, C-D. These I use to record themes in the Journals, on each occasion cross-referencing the entry with others that appear to be relevant in an attempt to grasp the connections that exist with other entries.

I skim through the ‘Cs’, passing ‘Carolo di San Michele’, then one blank page; ‘Catamite’, then three blank pages; ‘Celepid’, then five blank pages; ‘Collection of Apuzia’, then no fewer than 31 blank pages before ‘Collectors of the Albian Empire’.

Why have I left 31 blank pages between ‘Collection’ and ‘Collectors’? There are only a handful of possible words that could, alphabetically, be intruded.

This leads to another thought. In all the time I have been keeping the blue notebooks I have never once needed to make an entry out of alphabetical sequence. As I allow one page per subject, no matter how brief the entry promises to be, this seems extraordinary. It is as if the blue notebooks are aware of where connections will fall and are allowing the correct number of blank pages in the alphabetical sequence to provide for connections not yet made. The idea is clearly fanciful and must be a coincidence.

How have I not noticed this before? How many other items referred to in the Journals are in the Collection? Is this important?

I look through my blue notebooks now. It takes some time as there are twelve of them. At no point are there more than ten blank pages between one entry and the next and many of these can be explained by the alphabetical gap: nine pages between ‘Selman Jaspero’ and ‘Sriz’, for instance. Nothing comes close to the 31 blank pages in volume two.

This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the number of blank pages allowed are both necessary and sufficient for all the connections under ‘Collection’ which my study of the journals will require my recording.

Again I am aware of a familiar sensation. The idea flits just away from my mind’s eye. It is as if I am trying to recall something from a dream. Of course – the Collection was the elusive Le Collection des Trouvailles. It now seems obvious. Marchlever was a noted collector. I know this, I knew this.

How did I know this? I do not know. There is so much I do not know.

I turn the next page of the Journal and at once a fog seems to descend. When it clears I am in a different landscape, breathing a different atmosphere altogether.

Marchlever had constructed a device to do…I do not know what it is intended to do. Many of the previous pages contained references to it and sketches of one elevation or another, but now I find myself looking at a drawing of the whole thing, from the side and also from above. The thing resembles…I can’t quite bring myself to think of what it resembles. Perhaps an…

I pick up the magnifying glass.

As with the concentric circles, the image suddenly becomes vastly deeper and more complex. I had underestimated Marchlever’s skill as a draughtsman. To construct a three-dimensional model on a flat sheet of paper seems impossible, yet this is indisputably what I am looking at. The magnified view of the circles was merely clever, a satisfying piece of skill: but this is frightening. As I stare more closely and shift the focus of the glass I can discern ever-more distant details, reaching down into the very depths of the page. I sense this is something not meant to be seen at all. It is akin to peering over God’s shoulder and glimpsing of the boiler room of the universe. I tear my eye away from the vortex of ink and put down the glass. I am left staring at an apparently clumsy drawing of an outlandish contraption which resembles a mangle, and a clock, and a steam engine.

I take a deep breath and stand up. Beyond the shock of what I had seen there lurks a deeper unease. I look at the book on the desk, the endpapers peeling slightly away from the vellum near the fore-edge, a few threads hanging loose in the space between the French groove and the thick leather spine. It looks much as always, much as the other eleven. It is getting dark outside. I move over to the window and flick the curtains shut, then turn back to the desk. During all this I know I am going to sit down and pick up the magnifying glass again.

I do so. The effect is much as before.

Two days later I am upstairs with my books.

The idea of Marchlever’s Collection has stayed with me – it would be more accurate to say, has reverberated through the sinews of my brain, while awake and while asleep – more than those of the other insights into his work I have encountered, insofar as I can recall what these insights are.

The references to his Collection are elusive, abstract, metaphorical. He speaks frankly of pineapples, owls and artesian wells, of butterflies, railway junctions and trees festooned with hats, of strawberry plantations, stained glass, shells and a host of other physical items; but the references to the Collection itself are…what is the word I am searching for? Implicit. They are implicit. Allied to this concept is ‘complicit’. I am complicit in this allusive connection. I am complicit and connected because of my possession of the Journals Perhaps others may have some connection more pure because of a synergy predicated on – on what? Philosophy? Botany? Art?

I now find myself staring at an entry which appears to have a direct bearing on the matter:

‘Tumman Vowse visits as the dusk is closing. After discoursing about my tour of the Iratian Islands, he seeks to draw me as to the nature of my Collection. My reticence irks him and to my evasive replies regarding a matter which appears to me self-evident, he suggests that it comprises: ‘Selective Chinoiserie, small miracles of unnatural selection, artistic lepidoptria, hypothetical conjunctions of shells, miniatures of all persuasions, aviarabillia, botanical puns, partial images of maids and mermaids lost and fecund millinery, all knitted into a whole by a series of connections vouchsafed only to one mind and which time has failed to prove.’

I profess a grudging respect for his words, despite their artful spontaneity, and so set them down as a record, however imperfect, of the reflection which my work casts in the minds of others. In particular I note Vowse’s appreciation of the operation of time as a modifier of perception, however accidentally he may have arrived at this summation and however imperfectly he appears to have understood its central importance.’

The mist descends, then clears. My wife is shouting at me. The mist descends again, then clears again. I re-apply myself to the books. I turn the page. Marchlever is writing about time. Marchlever has many things to say on this subject. This observation dominates page 612 of Journal II; indeed there is nothing else written there at all.

‘Time can be found in unlikely places.’

The implication is that time is not to be found everywhere. It is four a.m. This seems a suitable moment to go to bed.

“I’m unhappy,” Margie says the following morning.

It’s seven o’clock. A bleak, haunted November dawn is raging outside. I am getting dressed.

“What do you have to be unhappy about?”

Margie is sitting up in bed. “I knew it was pointless trying to tell you anything,” she says quietly. “In any event, what do you think you’re doing with your life? Who’s going to be interested in that dead old man, anyway?”

I say nothing.

“You see? I know what I’m doing, on the other hand.”

“Do you?” I have a lurking suspicion she may be right.

“Wait and see.”

Three minutes later I am upstairs with my books. Everything is just as I left it three hours before, and yet it is not quite the same.

I pick up Journal IX.

Marchlever is writing about old age: but strange preoccupations flow beneath the dry facts.

‘My hair falls out in handfuls, then grows during the night. Yesterday my hand was unsteady, my eyes week, my legs sore and tired. Now I feel like a younger man, half the years I have ever been. Age creeps up on me, and then backs off like a startled cat. In all conscience I do not know from where the next wave of time will come, nor in which direction it will impel me.’

The following morning, Margie asks me a question.

“Complete the following quotation: ‘But at my back I always hear…’”

“‘…Time’s wingéd chariot drawing near’.”

“In what book did the clocks strike thirteen?”

Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

“What is the French word for watchmaker?”

Horloger.”

I stand up and look at her. Her hair hangs down across her face like a bush against a wall. She is completing a form in a magazine.

Something about her silent intensity causes me unease. “What’s the prize?”

She looks up. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“A dream house?” I mock. “A year’s supply of pork chops?”

“You wouldn’t believe me, so I’m not going to tell you.”

“But I knew the answers.”

She gives me a level stare. “Anyone can know the answers. It’s answering the questions, that’s what matters.”

Five minutes later I am upstairs with my books.

A week later, Margie wins another prize. It is delivered in a box the size of a large suitcase. When I go downstairs later there is no sign of the box, nor of Margie.

Some days later we pass in the hall. There is a wild look about her that seems exhilarated rather than desperate.

“There is something I have to say.” She takes a deep breath. “My life is going backwards.” She turns away. “Time doesn’t work in the normal way any more.”

“What are you saying? You think you’re getting younger? I can assure you you’re not.”

“Yes, I’m getting older. But not in every way. And not at the same speed as everything else.”

I look at her carefully. In recent weeks I have become aware of a ravaged quality to her face. Now I can see that in a certain light she appears older; then she might change, to become a girl of fifteen. I turn away. The image, the conversation, her – the whole situation is unsettling.

“Time has not been under control in this house,” she says. “It’s escaping. It’s running out of control. But now…”

There is much in what she says. I’ve felt it myself, ever since I studied Marchlever’s diabolical invention under the glass. Things are changing.

Suddenly, I would like to talk to her about something that touches both our lives, apart from our hatred. Financially, we’re locked together. We have no family, no friends. We only have our hatred. It’s perhaps better than nothing. But at this moment, I need more. She appears self-sufficient. I feel anything but. I start to frame a response, but my mind refuses to co-operate.

“Willingly…” I begin.

I pause. There is nothing I want to say which could start with ‘willingly’. I cannot now move on to another idea. Margie pays no attention.

“But now things are changing,” she is saying. “Now I know how time can be made to change.”

The idea that my wife should understand how to control time, as she seems to be saying, is absurd; so I laugh. But her rambling talk of time has triggered off a thought. Possibly the key to Marchlever’s obsession about time might be found in the chronology of the journals themselves.

“Do you know what the phrase tempus fugit means?” she asks, as if to prove a point.

“I must go upstairs. I’ve had an idea.”

“It means ‘time flies’.”

“Yes.”

“And it does. By Christ, round here, it does fly, round and round like a mad bat. But how to control it? That’s the thing. Do you know? I do. Time management. It’s the only way I can escape.”

I should have paid more attention to this remark.

Once upstairs, I study Marchlever’s head. There is the suggestion, nothing more, of a shape to the part of the left side of the face that was previously corroded to jelly. The ear seems better formed, the grin more balanced. I sit down. I take down Journal XI and read where I had left off.

After twenty minutes I am struck by a remarkable perception.

For two days I do not leave the study except to visit the toilet or scavenge for bread and cheese in the kitchen. I do not see Margie at all, but sometimes hear a mechanical hum coming from the cellar. There is a chink of light under the door. I try not to speculate on what she is up to. Already too many strange things are happening.

At dawn on the third day I see Margie dancing on the lawn, wearing nothing but a chemise. I am reminded of the shape of a body I knew many years before. She dances like a young woman who has discovered the secret of love, or some such mystery.

Furthermore, she has abandoned all interest in her competitions. The magazines are piling up unopened in the hall. The titles are familiar to me in a dull way – Competition Winner, Prize Draws, Winner!, Time Management.

These are the magazines I am used to seeing, apart from Time Management. When I next go downstairs, this one has vanished but all the others are still there. I toy with the idea of examining them, but I really have far too much to do upstairs.

Two days later I am still working. When I need to I cat-nap fitfully in my chair.

I have discovered that Marchlever’s Journals work backwards.

That is not to say they are written backwards, nor dependant on anachronisms, but that most passages are in some way informed by later ones. On closer scrutiny I realise that experience and supposition work in opposite directions. At one point he narrates his arrival at Al’Hana some eighty pages before he leaves from the port of Turbino and some two hundred pages before he books his passage: and yet the idea which motivates this journey, that of developing a novel method of training racehorses by use of fire, progresses in the opposite – forward – direction. As a consequence, he realises the impossibility of the project before he leaves to investigate it, but considers the journey for the first time only after he has completed it. On other occasions travel is described in forward time, whereas thoughts that occur to him en routefold inwards like a flower returning to its bud.

There are times when thought and deed proceed in tandem, but these may be due to my misreading the text. In these new circumstances I am unwilling any longer to take anything in the Journals at face value.

The fact that no one train of thought is followed for more than half a page without digression had obscured from me this feature of the Journals’ construction. I had presumed the juxtaposition of cause and effect to be just another example of Marchlever’s mental lubricity.

I carefully considered the possible explanations for, and implications of, this new understanding of the Journals. On the sixth day, having studied two of them in some detail and found my theory unshaken, I began to make notes.

  1. Marchlever did not seem concerned by this time-shift, or at least made no reference to it. It followed that either he was unaware of it, or that the Journals were consciously created with an intention to deceive.
  2. If the latter were true, an audience would be required. However, as the Journals betrayed no sign of being written for the benefit of anyone other than himself and as there was no evidence of his having tried to publish them, they were a monstrously ingenious and time-consuming fraud executed purely for his own amusement.
  3. The deception hypothesis also implied the Journals had been written at the same time, probably near the end of his life; yet everything, from the number of the books to more circumstantial evidence of changing handwriting, inking and paper quality, indicated they had been composed over at least a decade.
  4. If, however, Marchlever had been unaware of what was happening, he had thus lived in a dichotomy of time operating beyond all known laws of science, which had found tangled expression in his writing.
  5. If this were true, it followed there was no one correct starting or ending point to the Journals, as every page contained both pre- and post-knowledge of thoughts or events. The Journals were, however, not circular, i.e. XII did not refer directly to I, nor vice versa. As this paradox was irreconcilable with any explanation of the rational operation of time, it suggested that Marchlever’s control over the forces he had unleashed was at best imperfect.
  6. If all this were true, third-party evidence might exist to support Marchlever’s singular attitude to space, memory, time and narration.

I spent three weeks travelling to libraries around the country. This re-confirmed that not one person or place mentioned in the journals had any reality that could be corroborated.

On returning home, the pile of magazines in the hall had grown. Of Margie there was no sign. I went upstairs. I did not choose to look at the head. I could tell, just outside my field of vision, that strange things had been happening.

I picked up my pen.

…not one person or place mentioned in the journals had any reality which could be corroborated…

  1. …in which case, Marchlever had inhabited an alternative existence where places and people real to him had, by cosmic subterfuge, superimposed themselves on what might be termed ‘real life’. The dislocation from the ‘real’ world in which he found himself trapped engendered the time-shift effect in his perceptions.
  2. …but this did not explain why the Journals were written backwards andforwards. No amount of confusion in Marchlever’s mind could have caused this. Applying Ockham’s Razor, one was left with but one conclusion…
  3. That Marchlever had, perhaps unwittingly, stumbled upon the secret of time travel.

Set down on paper, the thought was chilling. How could such things happen, under the same sun at whose dawn, only four weeks earlier, Margie had danced in her chemise? And yet, what other theory fitted the facts, such as they were? I considered the question more deeply. Three other thoughts struck me:

(a) that he had not at first realised what was happening to him; and

(b) that when he did he tried to ignore it; and

(c) that when he could no longer ignore it he was unable to control it.

I laughed quietly. These propositions were absurd, or at least true-and-not-true. Two contrary movements of time being involved, it could also be argued:

(d) that he was unable to control something he could not ignore, and then;

(e) that he ignored it, and then;

(f) that he did not realise that it was happening at all.

…and yet this might merely have been the way in which the expositionof events worked. His perceptions, on the other hand, might have proceeded otherwise. Events might therefore have worked backwards, exampling (d), (e), (f), but his realisation would have worked forwards, all because of the temporal duality which was causing the problem in the first (or last) place.

I went downstairs. I made a cup of coffee. The kettle took a long time to boil, I did not know why. I went back upstairs. I re-read part of Journal VIII, then Journal II. It now makes no difference in which order I examine them. Much later I fell asleep in my chair. When I wake up it is dawn. I look across the room towards the head.

There is no doubt about it: the head is regenerating itself. The sallow skin now seems tauter across the skull, the mouth more firmly fixed in an expression both knowing and vacant.

Something is happening in the house. A force is at work that is reversing the natural order. It is impossible to say whether this is causing Marchlever’s books to flow both up- and down-hill or whether, their secret nature now revealed, it is the books themselves which are responsible. It strikes me that the effect only became noticeable after Margie had won her latest, mysterious prize.

I went downstairs. The time was about midnight although it was hard to be sure as all the clocks in the house had long since stopped working. When I was not concerned with time, I did not notice the dull chimes of the grandfather clock in the hall, the shrill xylophone of the mantel clock above the fireplace, the buzz of the cooker timer. Now the house seems filled with their silence. Margie was curled up in an armchair like a cat, fast asleep in front of the flickering television. Her face, like Marchlever’s upstairs, was fresher and more composed than I had ever seen it. I studied her for several minutes. From time to time she twitched as if at something giving her pain. I examine my own face in the mirror but the glass reflects back an unclear image. Everything is expanding – or contracting – out of my reach. Every perception is shifting. There was nothing more to be done here.

Two minutes later I am upstairs with my books.

For the next few weeks, Margie takes care not to show her face to me. I understand that she had not intended me to see her asleep so I make no reference to it. We have brief discussions about basic domestic concerns through keyholes and in darkened rooms, but that is all. Meanwhile, the magazines still pile up unopened in the hall: all except Time Management. I don’t know whether she has cancelled the subscription or whether she is studying it to the exclusion of the others. Every few days I cart the unopened magazines out into the garden and make a small bonfire.

“What is time management?” I ask her one morning.

Her voice wafts out of the bathroom like a ballerina. “It consists of readjusting my life to fit my opportunity.”

“And what is your opportunity?”

“That of readjusting my life. Why do you hate me?”

I consider the question. I do not know why I hate her. I did not used to. The feeling just grew through inattention and indifference, like mould on a wall.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I replied.

“Indifference,” she replies. “Curiosity kills cats. Indifference nearly killed me.”

“And what will kill me?”

“Time management,” she replies.

“Why don’t you ask me about your competition questions any more?” I ask.

“I’m a winner.”

“What have you won?”

“Time management.” There is a pause. The observation conjures up a faint image as if from a dream. I know that she wants to pull open the door and confront me with what she sees as a semantic victory. “Don’t you see that, with all your books? Don’t you understand anything?”

I am struck with a feeling of overwhelming impotence. I feel like a shore from which the sea is retreating, leaving no evidence of its salty embrace. I feel like a fish that has beached itself at the wrong evolutionary moment.

I want to say some of these things to her, but I cannot. I no longer understand her. She is no longer the person I have failed for so many years to understand.

Five minutes later I am upstairs with my books: for it should not be supposed that I had abandoned my work on the Journals, despite these upheavals with my wife. They were in fact occupying more and more of my time, although it was often hard to see where that time went. Sometimes I would stare at a page for hours, then realise it was blank, or contained only one scrawled sentence. On other occasions I would discover I had covered page after page of my notebook with spidery handwriting quite unlike my own which, on reading back, made no sense whatsoever.

In truth, since my discovery of Marchlever’s temporal dislocation I am finding it hard to concentrate on the Journals. They are, apart from Marchlever’s grinning head, the only real things in my life and yet offer no security or guidance. Margie had said time in the house was flying like a mad bat. I can feel the flap of its wings all around me, disturbing strange currents in my mind. And yet, for all my studies, I am quite unable to understand or control the phenomenon. It is only my wife who is unconcerned. In fact, she seems to welcome it, as if she had been the prime agent in this change.

I am struck by another thought, to do with Marchlever’s Collection. I go downstairs.

“Margie,” I hiss through the cellar door.

To my surprise, she appears. She stands coyly on the threshold, her face largely in shadow.

“You collect things,” I begin.

She shrugs.

“The things you buy – for the competitions.”

“I don’t do that any more,” she says. “I’m a winner.”

What is she talking about? The observation conjures up a faint image as if from a dream.

“But you buy…bought things. It was a collection. They’re still laid out in the kitchen, abound the house. A collection.”

“I suppose it was.” She is uninterested in the conversation, which I suppose is not surprising.

“Did you collect…did you choose the things? No, I mean did you…how did you decide at what time…in what order to buy them?” I realise my questions were foolish as well as garbled. What connection could there be between Marchlever’s Trouvaillesand Margie’s more prosaic pursuit of – of what? Of being, as she said, a winner? Perhaps there was no higher achievement. She had succeeded in attaining the limited goal she had set herself. Perhaps it was not so limited. Whereas I; and Marchlever…my mind started to slip anchor.

Some of this confusion must have communicated itself to my wife, for she was now looking at me with an expression of fascinated contempt.

“Time management,” she said at last. “I understand that now. Do you?”

“No.”

She thought for a moment, as if considering whether to say more. When she speaks it is reluctantly and with the air of someone explaining something for the last time “The order in which things happen isn’t important.” She pauses to let this sink in. “Patterns aren’t always clear at the beginning. You have to feel what’s important, what matches. I got clues from one thing that led to another, but this couldn’t have been part of any plan. Unless you look at it backwards.” She gives me a bright smile, of the kind I distantly remember. “But, as I say, the order things happen in doesn’t matter. It’s like dreams – they don’t happen in a particular order. It’s a question of what you catch. Eventually they makes sense.”

Both of us are slightly breathless. We haven’t spoken like this for a long time. The opportunity passes for me to embrace her. Instead I gape, like Terrigan Marchlever upstairs, at someone who is struggling to make sense of a life they can never understand.

“Without the mixer,” she explains, ”I wouldn’t have won the car. Without winning the car I wouldn’t have won, well…”

“What? What have you won?”

“Time management.” She gives me a final smile. For a moment I think she is reaching out to me but then realise she’s only brushing away a cobweb. “I have a way out of here, out of this. Do you?”

I can think of nothing to say. She shuts the door.

Three days later I am upstairs with my books.

My mind is in ferment.

Terrigan Marchlever’s mouth gapes open at me in a grin of disjointed complicity. I stand up and place a cloth carefully over the glass, but know this will provide only a temporary respite.

I reach for Journal VIII and open a page at random as a despairing man might do with a bible.

‘Now, by application of my management of time, V has all but ceased to exist. I have now known him only for a week, and soon will not have known him at all. Then I may be free of what has become his prying into my discovery. I am unsure whether my memory of him will survive this transformation, or if he will be eclipsed from my mind like a water-colour canvas washed clean by rain.’

I think about this for a long time. Then I go back downstairs. Whatever Marchlever had been writing about, something similar was happening in this house. Now I feel I am stumbling towards the point where I could control it. Understanding was just around the next corner, in the next room. Again I shall try to talk to my wife.

My wife is in the cellar. I knock on the door. From inside I can hear the loud hum of her machine. This has been running almost without cessation for many days.

“Hello?” I said through a crack in the panel. “I need to talk to you!”

There is a slight reduction in the noise. I hear footsteps coming towards the door.

“What?” she says. Her voice is strange to me.

“I want to talk,” I said.

“I hardly know you any more,” she says after a long pause. The phrase is commonplace, but her tone conveys a deeper meaning that I recognise but fail to understand.

“We must talk.”

“I’m hardly here at all,” she says. “I tried to explain. Soon I’ll be gone. I must get back to my…to my…I must get back. You must get back to your books, your collection…”

“What? What collection?”

“The things you are collecting.”

“What things? What?”

“It doesn’t matter what they are. Ideas, scribbled notes, butterflies, mixers…mermaids – sooner or later it will all make sense.”

I feel suddenly struck by panic and start to hammer on the door, but it is thick and stoutly built. Then I gave up. In any event, I have now no conception of what I need to say to her.

It has been a most unsatisfactory interview.

Two minutes later I am upstairs with my books.

I open Journal II and start to read. I turn page after page, each one sucking me into the quicksand of Marchlever’s thoughts. Although I have read Journal II many times the passages seem unfamiliar, save for a faint echo here and there as if I am remembering something I have happened to overhear many years before. After several hours I reach page 544, where a passage catches my eye.

30th October. Tumman Vowse depressed. The strawberries had not grown as he had expected. I reflected whether as a consequence my visit should be abbreviated or prolonged. Much of his fortune is sunk into the plantation. It is raining heavily, sheets of mist and spume washing across the bay and obscuring the outline of St Barnabas Island. I can hear the horses, and they sound restless. Some days never seem to start. I am keen to press inland and visit the artesian wells at Mala Gogorri, but dare not leave V. in this state. I cannot help wondering if he is suffering from an excess of pineapple.’

The observation conjures up a faint image as if from a dream.

The books are oldand smell of charcoal and dusty violets. Sometimes the pages rustle when I turn them, but more often seem about to crumble in my fingers. Then I have to put on the soft gloves I keep by the desk. My skin is dry and I worry this might spread to the books, infecting them like a rare childhood fever. When I need to write I take the gloves off again and put them carefully aside before picking up my pen. I make a note of the passage in my book and put my gloves on again.

Two days later I am upstairs with my books.

‘An old man called Vowse called on me at Bayden’s Lodge this forenoon. He claimed to know me well, yet his face conjures up only a faint image as if from a dream.’

It is an hour or so after dawn. For some time the noise from the cellar has been getting louder: but now it stops. The silence is shocking. If any clock in the house were still ticking I would have heard it.

A van pulls up outside the house. A man gets out and knocks on the door. He has a short conversation with my wife. Then I see him leave, carrying a box the size of a large suitcase. I remember this as being the prize Margie won some weeks, or perhaps even months, ago. The man loads it into the van and drives off.

I hear noises in the hall. I go downstairs. Margie is carrying a suitcase outside and putting it in her red car. She turns to face me. He face is covered with a veil like a young bride’s. She looks young: slim and sleek. A faint pang of desire for something lost slides through me, then is gone.

“What are you doing?” I ask. “Where are you going? What was that man doing? What’s happened to your machine?”

She just looks at me through her veil.

“What’s going on here, anyway?”

She continues to stare at me with a shocked wonder as though I am a character from a fading nightmare sprung to life, some terrible echo of her past. If that is indeed the case, there is nothing to say; and she says nothing. She merely reaches for the door handle. I notice the scar on her wrist has vanished. I stand, transfixed.

“Where are you going?”

“I used to know you, perhaps,” she murmured in the sweet voice of youth. Then she stepped lightly out of the door, pulling it shut behind her.

I hear her get into the car. I hear the engine start up. I hear her reverse across the weed-choked gravel, then turn onto the road. I hear her change smoothly up through the gears. I hear the engine note fade away. Then I hear nothing. The house is as silent as an empty bell. All action and time is hanging in suspension.

I see myself thinking these things. The observation conjures up a faint image as if from a dream.

Five minutes later I am upstairs with my books.

Brian Quinn

• For further stories, please click here
• For songs, please click here

The images at the top are taken from the website of Hungerford-based artist and milliner Jane Corbett. Some of her remarkable creations influenced aspects of this story: I had already written most of it when I went to an open studio she held some years ago and was stunned to see amongst the exhibits many of the things which I had imagined appearing in Terrigan Marchlever’s journals. We later worked together on an exhibition she held in London, for which I wrote some curator’s notes for a collection of her her creations which were described as being from Marchlever’s collection. Three of these are below.

 

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