A rip in the fabric of Time, unnerving but fascinating

It appeared as the third and last clock stopped its ticking. Steel saw it first, then Rob. Sapphire was also aware of its presence. It was a moving, flickering shape that appeared high up, near the apex of the end wall. It seemed, as first, to be a part of the wall texture itself. As if the plaster of the wall was shifting. Then it appeared to take on a series of quick, broken images. Robe felt that it looked like pieces of old and faded moving-film, except that these images were three-dimensional. Rob also thought that he heard, under the rumbling of the skin-like fabric, the sound of voices that seemed to squeal with laughter of pain, or both.

Sapphire nodded. ‘Time.’ She put her arm about Helen’s shoulders and drew the child close to her as she continued to address Rob. ‘You can’t see it. Only now and again. Perhaps a glimpse, that’s all. But even that is dangerous. Also, you cannot enter into Time.’ The smile left her face. In its place was the calm, cool look. It was a look that somehow helped to illustrate her theme. The look itself seemed ageless, as if the blueness, that she radiated, was somehow both the colour and the secret of time.

There were no large cupboards in the room, not even a wardrobe. Helen’s clothes were hung in a built-in unit on the landing outside. The door through which Rob had entered was the only door. The room also had only one window. This was fitted with half-length curtains which were drawn to. Rob moved across the room and snatched the curtains open. The small window was shut tight. There was also a child-guard screwed to about two thirds of the window height. Rob tested the guard. It was still fixed firmly in place.

Steel passed the picture. ‘I doubt it,’ he said as he began to descend the first flight of stairs. Rob followed him. He still felt tired, but he did not fancy sleeping in his own bedroom. Not at the moment. He passed the picture, thinking that there was another couch in the sitting room. Maybe if he fell asleep on that, or even pretended to sleep on it, Sapphire might make him a bed there and tuck him up for the night. He was even wondering, though he would never admit it, what a kiss goodnight from Sapphire would be like.

Rob waited, feeling like someone who was fixed to a spot. Fixed there forever. His mind was filled with a jumble of thoughts. Perhaps this was the time-corridor thing. This place. A nowhere place. Perhaps he was to be left here now. Perhaps it would never be morning, and never be night again. Perhaps it would always stay like this, the very same time. So therefore he would never feel hungry, never feel tired, never feel anything but this strange sense of isolation, of not belonging. Perhaps it would be like that for him forever.

Rob and Helen were back in the kitchen again with Sapphire. Constable Daly had driven back to Scars Edge. He looked slightly puzzled, in the way that people do when they feel that they have been somewhere, or done something before, perhaps in a dream. But he had left feeling satisfied. Rob had watched, without being able to say a word, as Steel moved into action. He had literally stepped into Daly’s arrival at the door, like a fair-owner stepping on to a moving roundabout. Therefore it became Steel, not Rob, who had opened the door, Steel who had asked Daly what he wanted, who told the policeman that everything was alright at that house, and that he, Steel, was a friend of the family who was visiting, in the hope of some peace and quiet in the country.

Rob looked around him. The large, illustrated book of nursery-rhymes, that his mother always read to Helen, was lying on the floor, as if it had been dropped suddenly. Whenever the book was being read, Rob’s father would also be listening and joining in. He would sit upon the very edge of Helen’s small dressing-table, as if he had no intention of staying long. Yet he would always be there, his pipe and tobacco pouch set down neatly on the dressing-table beside him, until the child’s light was switched off.

On the wall, above the earthenware jar, was a framed picture. It was one of many pictures, paintings and prints that Rob’s parents had collected and hung on the walls of the house. This particular picture was of an old, seventeenth-century dwelling. It was a small thatched cottage with a cluster of rickety outbuildings. The picture had always fascinated Rob because it was not the usual pretty, thatched cottage. This building looked uncared for, unloved. Because of that, it seemed somehow forbidding. When he first saw it, Rob had thought that it was a painting of a derelict cottage until he noticed the small chimney and its thin spiral of smoke.

‘Mother.’ Rob thought of her, there in the strange, cold atmosphere of the room. He thought of the sense of fun that she provided when she was in one of her frequently good moods. He remembered her vitality, the spontaneous games, the jokes, the fun and the laughter, all generated by her sometimes wild charm. And suddenly it seemed right that Dad would be here asking for help. Not her. It was not like her to be the one who brought the warnings, or to have to talk in such a furtive, pleading fashion. Dad, yes. But not her. And so it seemed right.

As Steel handed the book to Sapphire, Rob remembered how his mother would read from the book, with his father sitting watching, and he realised fully at that moment just how much he missed them and the warm, safe comfort that they always seemed to provide. He also realised that he had taken that comfort too much for granted. He never once wanted to stay around while nursery-rhymes were being read. He had felt that he was slightly above all that. Now he wished that he had stayed. Just once. Just on that last occasion. Perhaps he could have helped, could have done something when this Time thing, whatever it was, came into the room.

Rob would never know why he walked slowly back to the dark doorway. It was not just the strict voice of his mother that made him. It was something else. Like the feeling of alarm and uncertainty, it was something that he could not quite understand and never would. It was as if he was drawn towards the door. As if the door and the room beyond it and whatever was in that room were his only concern. Nothing else mattered. And, strangely enough, not even his mother seemed to really matter. Only the door, this nailed and boarded door was important. That was his main objective.

It was almost a two mile trek back to the house, along a dirt- track approach road, the only approach road. Rob’s father had chosen the house because of its isolation. He liked seclusion and preferred to know, as he would put it ‘when he was being invaded’. His firm belief was that, between the time it took any visitor to first arrive on the approach road and then reach the house even by car, the inhabitants of the house could have made a cup of tea, a sandwich and settled themselves down by a window to see just who the visitor was. Even at night, the noise of any object on the rough surface of the track road provided enough warning.

The book hit the carpeted stairs, bounced down two or three steps and rested there, face upwards. It was the kind of book that might have appealed to Helen, had it been fairly new, with brightly coloured pictures. But this book was quite old and dull-looking. Its few illustrations were small, bleak pen-and-ink drawings. It was the kind of book that a grandmother or a great aunt might have possessed as a child. The title of the book, picked out in faded gold on the upturned cover, was ‘Miscellaneous Rhymes and Fables’.

It was during a part of this spell, during the two or three minutes that it took for Rob to relieve Lead on the landing, that the other two patches of light had moved out from under the cupboard-stair door. They had moved swiftly, and with a sense of purpose, down the two flights of stairs and into the hallway. Once there, they had paused for a moment, as if to listen to the voices in the kitchen. The patches of light had then glided quickly to the cellar door, slipped beneath it and moved on down the stone steps to the darkness of the winding cellar.

The patch of light was not very bright. Neither was it very large. About eight inches in diameter, it resembled the sun’s reflection from something like a small hand mirror. But this was more than a reflection. It stayed still on the landing for a moment, as Rob hurried down the stairs below. The patch of light then began to move, almost leisurely, across the landing. As it moved, it made a faint, rumbling, fabric sound. It reached the top of the attic stairs and proceeded to slide, like mercury might, over the ridge of the landing and on to the first step. It paused for a moment, as if listening, and its sound ceased.

Sapphire shook her head once more. Rob held her gaze for a moment, then had to look away, quickly. Helen’s crying had stopped but Rob felt tears inside himself. His throat was tight as he tried hard to fight the choked, helpless sensation. He had to fight it. He had no intention of breaking down in front of his sister and this woman called Sapphire. He did not trust her or Steel. Not completely. He accepted her and he was fascinated by her, but he could not trust her. Not yet. And, because of the young, and therefore strange, feelings that he had for her, she would be the last person to see him weep. Perhaps later, in the privacy of his own room, and in his own bed, he would allow himself the painful but necessary luxury of crying.

Then it made one mistake as it dipped too low and skimmed across the surface of the table. Sapphire’s hand moved quickly, snatching up the scissors that were embedded in the table-top, and jabbing downwards with them, in one quick movement. The scissor blade pierced the page, causing it to spin and twirl frantically, like a child’s paper windmill, in an attempt to free itself. But Sapphire seized it and tore it from the scissor blade. Then, hurrying to the stove, she threw the ball of paper deep down on to the hot coals and slammed the hob lid into place.

It appeared as the third and last clock stopped its ticking. Steel saw it first, then Rob. Sapphire was also aware of its presence. It was a moving, flickering shape that appeared high up, near the apex of the end wall. It seemed, at first, to be a part of the wall texture itself. As if the plaster of the wall was shifting. Then it appeared to take on a series of quick, broken images. Rob felt that it looked like pieces of old and faded moving-film, except that these images were three-dimensional. Rob also thought that he heard, under the rumbling of the skin-like fabric, the sound of voices that seemed to squeal with laughter or pain, or both.

And Helen was there in the room, cradling the teddy, her face reflecting the light that was already spilling from the wall. The light breeze blew through the room and the jumbled, restless shapes were there, like a part of the radiant light. But the shapes moved faster now, so that the wall was beginning to lose its natural form. To Rob, it no longer resembled a wall. It was like a lot of different places somewhere else. A lot of voices. A lot of people. A madness. A confusion. It was, to him, like the worst of the cold, feverish dreams that you woke screaming from during an illness. The most disturbing nightmare snatched from sickness and thrust forward and magnified a thousand times.

Rob stood there in the doorway, unsure. His first reactions, on seeing his father once more, were those of shock and pleasure. Yet something was wrong. He was not sure yet, but something had to be wrong. Although to turn and run now, to call for help seemed, in Rob’s confused state, equally wrong. In a way, it would have been an act of betrayal. Whether he was looking at an image, or even a ghost, it was still the figure of his father, whom he loved and needed, that stood there in this lonely room. And that mattered. Therefore there was time to stand there, time to look. And that also seemed natural to him. That also mattered.

Rob and Helen had half-carried, half-dragged the freezer lid through the kitchen, into the hallway and on to the cellar steps. It had been hard work, but at least the effort had made them warm. Rob had asked Sapphire, while she was directing them through the kitchen, why Steel could not do, to the attic room wall, what he had done to the patches of light. ‘That would only suspend it for a while,’ she had answered, explaining that even Steel’s talents could not stop Time for always. ‘That would be like trying to freeze the universe with one cube of ice,’ was her final comment and she had returned to stoke up the fire for Steel’s benefit, leaving Rob and Helen to struggle out into the hallway with the freezer lid.

Steel made no immediate move back on to the landing. He stood at the top of the first flight of stairs and took a careful look at the landing area. Rob noticed that there was no surprise on the man’s face, only the look of calm determination that was always there whenever he was confronted by a difficult and dangerous problem. And it seemed as if this particular problem was of a kind that he was used to, that he might possibly have experienced before. Once more, he was like an expert examining a minefield before attempting to cross it.

He recognised the vehicle even though it was one-point-nine-four miles away. It was the small, blue and white police car from Scars Edge. Rob watched it dip and bump off the small ferry-boat. Then it disappeared from view for a few moments as it moved down the slope at the side of the causeway. Rob waited and, sure enough, the white roof of Constable Daly’s car bobbed up again as it climbed the short incline on to the wooden bridge at the end of the dirt track road. The only road. The approach road to the house.

Then, among the shapes and half-seen figures that moved within the area of light, Rob saw the shadow of his mother. He recognised her by the slow, easy way she walked. Like someone who was never in any hurry. She was moving towards him. She then disappeared and reappeared again further back among the shapes, moving forward once more but smaller in perspective, as if the mass of light had a depth of its own. Then she was gone again. To Rob it was like watching a distant swimmer on a hot day, when sky and sea and haze merge with equal brightness. He thought, too, that he heard her voice under the shrill sound. On impulse, he pressed his hands hard against his ears and stumbled towards the area of light.

There was a change in his father’s voice that made Rob turn to look. His father’s face had a slightly pained, resigned expression upon it. And it was an expression that Rob had known of old. His mother would always refer to it as, ‘Your father’s sulky look. He can’t get his own way.’ But Rob had often disagreed with her, privately. He had always read that look differently. His mother was a very outward person. If she was upset, she would show it, she would let the entire house know it. Not in an angry way but in a theatrical way that was almost flamboyant with gestures and protests. She could hold the floor, grab their attention and amuse them in any way she chose. And she knew it.

The picture of the cottage had been burned, by Sapphire, in the kitchen stove, and its frame and glass stacked in the cellar. Since early that morning, another fifteen pictures had suffered a similar fate. So, too, had most of the books. At first, Rob had been concerned about how his parents would have felt about some of their most cherished possessions being destroyed. Then it had dawned on him that those very possessions had been instrumental in the disappearance of his parents. Each one of those treasured objects, a potential trigger. The rare old sea prints, the framed eighteenth-century maps, the few first editions, even the small book of sonnets, that his father had bought as a love token for his mother during their courting days, were possible traps.

He moved to the window, rested his elbows upon the ledge and looked out. He could not see much from this viewpoint. There was a dip in the terrain, a hundred yards or so past the cattle-grid, which cut off the view to Deadman’s Point and the bay. A string of decayed, wooden fences crossed the skyline. Whenever the wind blew at something near gale force, the loose fencing would rattle violently and break away. Rob had heard one piece bowling along the rough track road one night, making a noise like a football rattle. And Rob remembered, now, how his father was always planning to go out with an axe and a barrow and chop down all the fencing to use for firewood.

As the sound grew to a high pulsating screech that seemed to cut through the ears and the skull and the nerves, Rob found that he could not look away from this tumbling mass of light and noise. It appeared to be advancing into the room, advancing towards him, gaining ground and space as it spread itself, so that the room appeared to be proportionately smaller. It was as if the attic bedroom was being absorbed, as if the shifting, growing light was soaking up all that was real and sane and safe. And, above it all, was the terrible tearing sound.

And Rob, although he could not understand, accepted it totally and without question. Whoever she was, whatever she was, he knew, deep inside himself somewhere, that he accepted Sapphire. He also knew, then, that this complete acceptance that could not be accounted for, would be with him for the rest of his life. Perhaps he could not trust her. He was not sure of this now but somehow it did not seem to matter. Whatever the cost to come, he accepted her and believed in her at that moment in time. And, as his mind and his soul and his body told him this, he found that he was looking into her eyes and beyond them. It was only a glimpse. A hint. It was as if those eyes were clear blue shutters that were capable of opening and showing him times and worlds that he had never seen and never would see.

The top bolt had been easy to slide back. The lower one, though, was proving difficult. Rob wanted to open the door without being heard from inside the house. He then planned to bundle Helen outside as quickly as possible. Just run to the policeman, that was all they had to do. Then Constable Daly could ask his questions, making sure that he got straightforward, sensible answers. Steel and Sapphire would have to explain things. After all, they were only people. They weren’t the police. Once they saw that uniform and the notebook, they would have to stop doing things their way. In fact, Rob was quite looking forward to seeing how the cool, immovable Steel would react when he was confronted by proper authority.

And he was reminded of other days, other evenings. When he was younger. When he was a small boy and it was holiday time. It would be dusk, growing into evening, and his father would be walking him back to the holiday chalet. There would be lights on in windows, and it would be late, well past his time for going to bed. But it was the summer, and it was a holiday, and no matter how tired he felt in the warm evening air, he would be comforted by the knowledge that his father would be taking him to some strange, but bright and cosy room where his mother would be waiting.

Helen was blown to the ground, like a part of the debris. She put her arms about her head and screamed as Sapphire, the breath blown from her, ran and grabbed and snatched at the page. But the page dipped and dived and swung fast in the whirl and blast of the cold wind that blew crockery from the table and from the dresser shelves, smashing and bouncing the sharp, broken pieces across the floor. A work-box pitched from the top of the dresser, showering its contents as it fell to the floor. Helen, peering through covered eyes, saw pins cascade and reels of cotton bounce and spin across the floor, like tops on endless pieces of thread, while a pair of scissors plunged downwards, one of its blades thudding and sticking into the table-top, like a thrown knife.

It appeared as the third and last clock stopped its ticking. Steel saw it first, then Rob. Sapphire was also aware of its presence. It was a moving, flickering shape that appeared high up, near the apex of the end wall. It seemed, as first, to be a part of the wall texture itself. As if the plaster of the wall was shifting. Then it appeared to take on a series of quick, broken images. Robe felt that it looked like pieces of old and faded moving-film, except that these images were three-dimensional. Rob also thought that he heard, under the rumbling of the skin-like fabric, the sound of voices that seemed to squeal with laughter of pain, or both.

Sapphire had said that the burning of the books and the paintings was an emergency measure. A precaution. Looking at the large picture that Lead had removed from the wall, Rob was inclined to agree with her. The picture was of an old sailing ship that had been wrecked in a storm. The artist had painted dark, ominous clouds, wreckage and sailors drowning in a wild looking sea. ‘What if a patch of light had got into this picture,’ Rob thought, and wondered how long Sapphire would have survived, had that one been chosen instead of the cottage.

Peter J. Hammond

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