Isolation Tales 5: ‘A Century and a Second’
While I’m posting your self-isolation stories here, I have to consider the format. If they’re too long they’ll be hard to load and hard to read. A recent collection by Jeff VandeMeer solved the problem by stacking the text in newspaper-format columns, but I don’t have that capability. Many of the tales I like best are between 20 – 30 pages, so they’re of no use here. This is a short, simple tale I wrote quite early on in one sitting to a typically tight deadline for the Big Issue. When this story appeared in one of my collections, I commissioned a dozen artists to illustrate them after the publisher turned the idea down.
THE MINUTE HAND of the illuminated clock was three feet long, made of iron, painted with black lead and scrolled with an elaborate curlicue that resembled the astronomical symbol for the planet Mercury. It hovered before the midnight hour undecided, waiting for the rising ratchet in the mechanism behind its vast cream glass face to propel it into a new day.
One minute to midnight, on a bone-damp November night in 1895.
Nora cast another glance up at the clock, then back along the platform at the arriving train. She stamped her feet, trying to restore the flow of blood. Above, the vast glass steeple of the station roof was lost in a haze of brown smoke, the Midland Railway engine wheezing its last as it reached the buffers at platform two.
Nora tucked the shawl in about herself, staring ahead through smoke and steam. Gone mad tonight, she had, got herself a cab from Charing Cross at the cost of a shilling when a threepenny bus ride would have done, and it was too sodding cold to be standing about waiting for a silly little snit of a girl from the shires. But someone had to do it, and his nibs was too settled beside the kitchen fire to be disturbed for the task. Besides, there was an air about her husband that sparked suspicion in even the most trusting country lass. No, better that Nora should collect her, kindly Nora, plump and motherly in her best grey dress, ready to take the girl off to hot soup and a hearth, and the dream of future comforts; but if you checked the palms of Nora’s gloves, you soon saw the threadbare darns, knew that the dream came with cruel demands.
It would have to be a cab back, too, for the last omnibus had already departed. Bugger London, thought Nora, huffing out her lower lip as she straightened her hat. Bugger his nibs and bugger the train for being so late. Up and down the carriages doors had started slamming open and Nora peered ahead, trying to remember how Little-Miss-Country-Mouse had looked in her photograph. Annie was her name, just turned fifteen, and thought she was coming to the smoke to be a ladies’ maid, so of course she would protest at first; they all did, but they all succumbed after meeting the fine gentlemen. Soon Annie would have her britches around her ankles and her legs in the air with the best of ’em. The first time would earn the most; city gentlemen were prepared to pay a high price for a virgo intacta. And there was little danger of Annie being otherwise. No concealed bag of pigeon blood would be necessary for her deflowering. After that, the lassie’s country brogue and awkward ways would be enough to prove that she was fresh, not like those rouged old jades down the Haymarket, and after all, didn’t Nora and her husband try to run the cleanest private house in the Strand?
She peered again at the disembarking passengers. From waiting on ladies to pleasuring gentlemen in the space of a few nights, three at the most, for what was the girl’s alternative? Nora knew she would have spent her last coin on train fare. Where else was she to sleep? Above her, there was a loud metallic chunk as the minute hand jarred over into midnight.
Annie had tried to open the third class carriage window as the station approached, but a blast of freezing sooty air drove her back. The hour was late, but she had never felt less like sleeping. To while away the journey she had imagined herself in a starched black uniform, curtseying before the lady of the house; she had been fortunate in finding a friend like Nora, for even though they had only written to each other, she felt that a great closeness already existed between them. Annie had confided in her completely, explaining how terrible her home life had become, how desperately she needed to escape. How kind of Nora to take such trouble, offering a job and lodgings to a girl she had not even met!
As the train began to slow she checked her clothes. The dress, taken without permission, belonged to her eldest sister and was too long in the sleeve. She looked through the smoke to the end of the platform and the great moon of a clock, its hands juddering at the midnight hour, as if time itself was imparting electric energy. She studied the greeting crowd and tried to separate from it the woman who would change her life.
‘If you come near me with that skateboard again, the doctors’ll have to dig it out of your arse, sonny.’
Ronnie pulled what he felt was a menacing sneer and turned his back on the little bastard. Probably get back to the motor and find his quarter light smashed, radio nicked. Sodding kids were all the same these days, with their comedy trousers and backward caps and swaggering attitude, all on the make, all searching for the easy money. Except they didn’t want to earn it. What they wanted, what they wanted was to sit and watch the footie with a pizza on their laps while some other poor git did everything for them. He flicked his cigarette onto the rails and looked back at the clock.
One minute to midnight, on a bollock-tightening November night in 1995. The train was nearly forty minutes late, which meant that they wouldn’t get back to the club until half twelve, assuming that Mr Shit-For-Brains had managed to board the right train in the first place.
Ronnie regarded himself as a decent sort. It was nice of him to come and meet the train. Normally he told the boys to make their own way over to Earl’s Court. He flicked ash from the sleeve of his grey leather jacket and eyed the coffee stand. He fancied a cuppa, but knowing his luck the kid would get off the train and walk right past him.
He checked the photograph again, one of those passport-booth jobs that made you look like a murderer, but even in that he was still gorgeous, a sexy little pout, nice eyes, said he liked swimming in the letter so he probably had a slim body. He’d also said he was eighteen, but that was unlikely. Sixteen, perhaps, and he could pass for younger. There were men who’d pay much more for a boyish shape and an innocent smile. Boys could hold a look of virginity longer than girls of the same age, mainly because they were so gormless. He didn’t touch the lads himself, of course, it wasn’t his cup of tea at all. But he made a small fortune from the men who did.
Ronnie watched as the train pulled into the station and the doors began to open. Adam somebody, he couldn’t remember the surname. He supposed the boy would want a new mobile. There wasn’t a piece of rent in London that didn’t ask for a better one these days; they’d seen it on the telly. Ronnie assumed that Big Al had already cleared up this sort of detail. After all, the boy had phoned them, said he’d seen the ad in Guyz and was leaving home to come to London; didn’t mind working long hours, so presumably he knew the score. Imagined himself sitting in a coffee bar in Old Compton Street, no doubt, booking three punters a night on the mobile at eighty quid a throw on a 40/60 split with the club. Dream on, sonny.
Ronnie studied the arriving passengers, the back-packed students and knackered businessmen, and looked up at the clock as the minute hand clicked into tomorrow.
Adam had slept through most of the journey. As the train began to slow he rubbed his eyes and rose, pulling the cheap nylon sack down from the overhead rack. Not much in there; couple of pairs of socks, T-shirt, pants, toothbrush. He hadn’t risked emptying the wardrobe in case his dad had sensed something amiss. It had been hard enough getting out of the house without stepping on every squeaky floorboard in the hall.
As he pushed the window down, Adam tried to imagine what would happen when his old man sussed the disappearing act; not a lot, probably. After all, he hadn’t made much of a fuss about mum walking out, never mentioned it when he was sober, and never noticed what time his son came home.
The platform was almost deserted. There was one sleazy-looking bloke in a grey leather jacket and white shoes, sweaty faced despite the cold. Knowing Adam’s luck, that was his contact. He wasn’t daft; he figured they’d try and get him to have sex with their ‘clients’, but he’d already made up his mind about that. He’d tell them he wouldn’t, couldn’t. The ad said ‘young escort’ and that was what he’d be, going to dinners with tired business men. If he was going to have sex with anybody, it would be with someone of his own age.
He shouldered the bag and opened the carriage door, stepping down onto the platform. Leather Jacket was checking something in his hand, probably the photo he’d requested, and was staring back at him, appraising the merchandise. A chill wind swept the concourse, curling sheets of newspaper up into the night air, and for the first time Adam began to wonder if he’d done the right thing. But to have stayed behind in his father’s house for even another day would have been unbearable. Without his mother, he could not find a reason to remain. As the station clock thumped over into midnight, he quickened his pace and aimed for Mr Creepy. Now there was nowhere else to go but forward.
The great illuminated station clock had a thin red second hand, but it had become stuck at midnight ten decades ago, the immobile tin arm warped in its place, unmoved through the passing years. Now something happened within the dirt and oil of the gear shaft. The arm shifted. Freed itself and advanced a single second, exactly one century after it had become stuck. A chill wind swept the clock face. The red metal hand had stopped once more. A century and a second after it had last moved.
Mr Creepy had disappeared. And so had half the lights in the station. The walls were suddenly darker, the roof lost in smoky gloom. The train was – how could it be possible? – a steam-driven locomotive, for Christ’s sake, with a soot-rimmed funnel and a driver’s cabin and a coal truck. And the clothes of the alighting passengers – they were dressed like characters from Sherlock Holmes. Yet they were staring at him oddly, as if he was the one in the weird outfit! Outside he could hear horses’ hooves and what sounded like a barrel organ playing a tune he recognised; ‘Three Little Maids From School Are We’. Suddenly there were porters with trolleys and an Italian-looking guy playing a barrel organ. It was incredible. The century before! A time before everything got messed up!
Now this was what he called a real change of fortune. With what he knew about the years ahead, he could become a very rich man. The possibilities were endless. Lost in wonder, he walked on to the station exit, passing the maternal figure of Nora, who was frowning as she searched the faces of the arrivals.
Annie shifted her valise from one hand to the other and searched the platform through sighs of steam. Nora had promised to be here. It was after midnight and she was tired, looking forward to settling in a clean warm bed. But something inside her reacted with alarm when she tried to foresee her future. It was as if she knew that there had been an error in judgement on her behalf, trusting her fate to a complete stranger, but what other choice did she have, alone in a city filled with unknown dangers? Where was her new friend?
She looked up at the clock. The wind raced across the platform and plastered her dress against the backs of her legs. A blast of steam erupted before her, and for a moment it seemed that there was someone in her path, a boy passing by with a bag on his shoulder, someone just like her, but when the air had cleared he had vanished, and everything was different.
The poster plastered to the brickwork on her left, for example, an advertisement for the Alhambra Music Hall, Leicester Square, had changed into a colour portrait of a youth of fearsome demeanour. He was holding a container of something called Jolt Cola and pronouncing it to be ‘wicked’. Another poster showed a blonde woman in a shamelessly brazen state of undress, posed lewdly with her bare legs wide apart, beneath a blasphemous caption: ‘Madonna – The Girlie Tour.’
The orange brick walls and dark stone floor of the station had gone too, transformed into shiny surfaces of pale marble. Dazzling white lights illuminated the roof, replacing the dim electric bulbs and gas mantles. And instead of Nora, there to meet her was a puzzled-looking man in a jacket of grey leather. She passed him with the briefest of glances and found others in the corridor beyond, similarly dressed in loose-fitting clothes striped with bright primary colours. Some were sipping from straws affixed to red cardboard containers. Others were devouring buns filled with aromatic meat. The train times were printed on flickering glass screens. The new electric light was everywhere.
Annie felt in her valise for the meagre savings she had managed to amass at home. The coins would not last a minute in the metropolis. How would she ever survive in this strange new place? The shining city she could see beyond the station was doubtless as dangerous as it was enticing. There was only one thing for it – she would have to take each new challenge in her stride, be brave and triumph. Annie stepped outside and paused on the steps to fill her lungs with cold night air. Then she continued on, out into a world filled with the freshest of fresh possibilities.
Ronnie gave up waiting, flicked his fag onto the rails and turned to leave. So the kid hadn’t made the train; there’d be plenty more who would. For a brief moment he wondered who the weird bird in fancy dress had been. But who knew what kind of nutters hung around the station at night? He pulled his jacket tighter at his throat and set off. He only hoped that the little sod with the skateboard hadn’t slashed his tyres.
His nibs would not be pleased. Annie had already been promised to a gentleman anxious for a bit of fresh, sight unseen, and now excuses would have to be made. Nora was surprised by the girl’s nonappearance. Perhaps her nerve had failed her at the last moment. It was getting harder and harder to find virgins. A sign of the times we live in, she thought. She’d told his nibs they should have diversified, but given Mr Wilde’s trouble with the Marquess of Queensberry at the moment, the bottom had dropped out of the boy market.
Nora reknotted her shawl at the neck and searched for a cab, cynically reflecting on the difficulties of earning an honest wage in a modern city.
‘It’s about time somebody fixed that bloody clock,’ said one of the station workmen, looking up. ‘It wants replacing with a digital.’
‘You can’t get rid of that,’ countered his mate, looking up at the great cream face. ‘It’s an antique. Besides, it’s only the second hand that’s stuck, and who needs it?’ He pointed out at the mass of commuters churning along the station platform. ‘One lousy second ain’t going to make a difference to anyone.’