[a short story]
I feel like my story should start with a deep quote about time.
Rather, it starts with the words “I wish I’d never met you.”
I think after that should follow a deep reflection.
Unfortunately what followed was “I know, darling.”
I am the 32nd licensed time traveller of my day [the Lord knows how many unlicensed ones are out there]. I make ludicrous amounts of money going back in time and changing small mistakes or travelling to the future to see how investments work out, what happens to the next child superstar, what a woman will say when she’s proposed to. Humanity avoids risks by paying a few of us to take large ones regularly. And yet I couldn’t even avoid the disaster of my own marriage.
And so the story goes that when I asked her what I could do to fix everything, she says, “go back to that day-” and we both know exactly which day she means- ” and tell me not to go to work the next day.”
So I went.
I see her from across the room, over the tops of twenty something cubicles, typing away on an old fashioned desktop PC. She has her hair swept up in a bun and her cheeks crinkle as she laughs at something a coworker has said, in lines that aren’t permanent yet. Her eyes glisten in the sunlight, a clear ice blue without glasses to shield them. She isn’t wearing make up but her face is rosy and her lips are pink and she takes my breath away as I know she would have the next day when she walked into my cafe for the first time.
It’s almost impossible to break the spell and walk over but I do, before I’ve even thought of a proper way to introduce myself.
“Hello,” I say.
She looks me in the eye and sweeps a stray piece of hair out her eyes, something she is yet to do a million times in front of me, when she’s distracted.
“Hey,” she replies and smiles. Her lack of familiarity catches me off guard for a second.
I decide to go with the company protocol- my name, a piece of information to establish authenticity and finally, my mission.
“My name is Andrew, although in the future you will come to call me Sourpuss-” here she laughs, and it sounds like melted honey and butter, and I almost turn around and run as fast and far as I can- “and I’m here to tell you not to go to work tomorrow.”
“I used to call my-”
“Your dad Sourpuss, I know. You used to… well, you would have said I have a lot in common with him.”
She smiled again, a dimple forming in her cheek. She smells like lemons and the mints she used to religiously keep in her handbag, back when she was working for that promotion.
“I’ve heard about you people,” she says, standing up to meet my eye more easily. One day she will spill wine on the collar of this shirt. “Well, yea, if it’s my destiny I’ll chuck a sickie.”
Her destiny, I think. Of course. Her destiny is to be happy.
“Sure, right, well, I’ll be off then,” I say, shaking her hand. Her touch still sends shivers up my arm.
As I turn to leave, she says “yea, bye Andy.”
She hasn’t called me that in years.
And I suppose now she never will again.
It’s freezing out and my coat is just thin enough to leave me sweaty under the armpits but shivering. I wish I’d shaved before I left the house, I think as I catch my reflection in a shop window. I wish I’d have combed my hair and cut my nails and gotten three hours more sleep, but it’s too late now.
There isn’t room in my tiny flat for anything much more than a bed, toilet, stove and sink. When I got back, of course our house wasn’t there because we hadn’t bought it. Every pot and pan she had bought was gone, and on short notice all the money in the world couldn’t get me much more than a one bedroom on the top floor on short notice. Even though it’s been roughly six months since I returned to the day we would have had the catalytic fight, I haven’t bothered to look for anything more. My clothes are falling apart because she used to get me a shirt every Christmas and her parents would buy me a pair of socks or tie. I don’t even get photos because no one remembers any were taken apart from me. Such is the struggle of being a time traveller- you collect memories and see possibilities that no one will ever know.
I hurry to the bus stop and huddle in the corner as I wait for transport that is already twenty minutes late. Today I’m meeting a new client who wants to see how much money their father leaves them in his will. They’re not close at the moment, and they want to know how hard to try. The obvious answer is that if they have to ask, they probably won’t get much, but a job’s a job. The rain is pouring down in sheets and I can barely see the approaching headlights of my bus before it’s almost passed. I wave my wallet in front of the reader and look for a place to sit before I see her.
The bus swings into motion before I have a chance to sit, so I helplessly swing into the seat opposite her.
“You.” She says, her mind searching for the source of recognition.
“Me.” I reply, not meeting her eye.
“You were the one who told me to miss work.”
Her hair is pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck and she is wearing a sharply cut suit. She must have made her promotion by now. Her nails are manicured and she has this handbag she wanted for a long time but convinced herself she couldn’t afford. Apparently she can afford it while not waiting for me to finish my time training. She is still beautiful but there is a coldness, a sense of being put together that she didn’t have when I knew her. She probably has a planner in that bag.
“I am,” I finally reply.
“You’ve got to thank whoever employed you to do that,” she says, her lips curling into some semblance of a smile I’ve never seen the likes of. I guess it’s the smile of success. “Two weeks later, there was this huge stuff up at work and they went back to check the records, swept through the whole place sacking people who were responsible. I was on the team, but I wasn’t there that day. In fact, I was instrumental in putting it all back together and soon after, they promoted me. I haven’t stopped climbing that ladder since.”
That’s not how it’s meant to happen. She’s meant to be part of that team and fight to keep her friends in work. She fixes it without sacrificing her mates. Of course, I’m trained not to reveal alternates, so I just smile, nod, and look at the ground.
“I’ll be sure to let them know,” I tell her and get off the bus when it stops.
I’m about an hour away from my destination, so I slump at the bus stop and weep until the next bus comes.
“You can’t put that there,” I say to my spotty intern with a fern in his shaking hands. I take it from him before he drops it out of nerves.
I own my own company now, with a couple of people under me. I honestly didn’t see this in my future. [It’s recommended you don’t check your own status. Apparently it’s been known to drive time travellers insane. It also drives your insurance premiums up.] We work on making time travelling more comfortable for your average man. Wouldn’t you prefer to arrive in your time with the clothes already tailored and in your bag? Wouldn’t it be good to have a handbook on the culture and politics you’ll be arriving in? I work on helping the people who change the world every day. Of course, the recognition goes to the people who secretly employed them and took their tips- prime ministers who checked future trends before writing their mission statements and chain restaurants who explored the future acceptance of possible locations before spending their millions to make billions.
I heard the first time traveller wanted to see how humanity develops, stop world wars and provide for the poor before they were even born. But this is where we are.
I put the pot plant down on the windowsill and smile at the small cafe across the road.
The day she was meant to walk in was going to be our last day. We had balloons tied to the doors and a huge sign in the window. She walks in and says “I always meant to try this place.”
I say, “if there were more people like you, maybe we wouldn’t be closing.”
I hand her a coffee, she takes a sip, and she says “it’s definitely a shame you are.”
I reply, “I make coffee just as good wherever I am. This doesn’t have to be your last.”
She asks for my number so she can give me a call next time she wants one.
She calls me the next morning.
I make her coffee for the next ten years.
That’s how it was once upon a time, anyway. I’m glad to see they still serve coffee though. Some things never change.
I realise it’s past lunch time, so I decide to go and grab a sandwich. On the way out I see my reflection in the glass doors of the building I now own. It’s different to that of three years ago- my face is clean and my suit is dry cleaned. My shoes shine in the sunlight and my hair is slicked back to a fashionable extent. I practically skip into the cafe, and head straight for the line leading to the till, staring into the display at the array of options.
When I get to the front, I look up for the first time and she’s behind the register.
She is wearing make up, but it doesn’t make up for much. I can see the bluish circles under her eyes patchily concealed, and her bright lipstick attempts to draw away from a face that is filled with darkness. Her hair is forced into a clip to keep it out of her eyes and her nails are painted but chipped and bitten.
“Hi,” I say quietly.
“Hello sir, what can I get you today?”
Her tone hurts for a second before I remember she probably has no idea who I am. I try to remember what sandwich I wanted but it takes long enough for the woman behind me to tap my shoulder and tell me she’s in a hurry so I step to the side and take a seat at a small table.
Her apron is dirty and her shoulders sag- she is nothing like the woman I left on that bus or the woman I married in another life. She looks broken, and I can’t help but hurt for her. She doesn’t have those smile lines that were destined for her eyes, only the harsh pattern of a crumpled brow.
Before I realise it, the sun has gone down and everyone has gone home. She comes over to where I have been sitting for what must have been hours, even though I can’t remember much of it. I’ve been watching her for most of it, not even having ordered. She smells like baked goods, and coffee. She should smell like lemons and chamomile- she was drinking a cup before bed every night by now. I try to shake my head clear of memories from a non-existent past.
“You’re the time traveller, from before.”
“Well, things didn’t work out so well for me in the end I guess.”
She laughs. “Oh, gee thanks sourpuss.”
After a pause, I ask, “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened?”
“I think, in the end, they just realised I wasn’t the right person for the job.”
That’s not meant to happen, I think.
“I see,” I say. “And relationship wise?”
She looks at me curiously but in the end shrugs and says, “there never really was anyone. At one point, I had a bit of a fling with someone at work.”
Her boss. He always had a thing for her.
She never even looked at him twice, I protest.
Yea, because she was with me, my mind recognises.
I should have been there.
“And what about you?”
“Oh, I run the company across the road now.”
“I meant relationship wise,” she says with a shy smile.
“Oh, ah, no, nothing really… stuck.”
We look at each other for a while. She will never know how much every date I considered felt like I was cheating on my wife. Especially since technically, I have never been married. I don’t wear a ring but I still sleep on the left side of the bed. I celebrate anniversaries alone and visit old date haunts by myself, and still stop in the shops when I see something I know she would have loved for her birthday.
Something breaks the silence-a car honking outside, or a dog barking- and she sighs. “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to lock up soon.”
I nod and slowly stand to leave. I can’t stop staring- how did she get that scar on her arm, and when did her hair start to grey?
As I reach the door, I feel a light hand on my arm.
“Could you… is it possible to tell me who sent you, all those years back?”
I turn to look at her. Is it against privacy to tell someone that they sent me themselves?
I take a deep breath and say, “well, it was you.”
Her face falls. “Why?”
“Because the next day you would have met me.”
Her face crumples. “So?”
“We get married, and we don’t live happily ever after.”
She begins to cry. “So?”
I pull her into me and wrap my arms around her shaking shoulders. Her head automatically fits into the curve of my neck. “It guess it just wasn’t working out.”
We stand there for a little bit until I can hear her start to breathe regularly again. I stand back.
She looks at me with such sadness I take her hand and we sit down together.
“I wish I had met you,” she says.
“I know, darling.”
There’s a pause, and I finally decide to ask.
“What can I do to fix everything?”
“Go back to that day-” and we both know exactly which day she means- ” and tell me to go to work the next day.”
So I went.
So when we inevitably have that fight again, all those years later, and I’m dropped in the moment after I left, with her standing there, in our house, with years of shirts in the cupboard and socks in the drawer, I walk over and kiss her. I don’t know when the last time is she was kissed like that by me, but for me it feels like years. In a way, it has been.