Ian McDonald weaves a love story across an endless expanse with his science fiction novella Time Was
A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it.
In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.
Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)|
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They came like vultures, hesitant, hovering, drawn by the pheromone of dying books. Many I knew — the dealer world is a small one. Tall Lionel in that same charcoal suit, shiny at ass and elbow, working the plastic bins like a hunting heron: perfect stillness, the stab down snatch up of a cloth-bound volume. Louisa in Louboutins, wearing a dust mask, her heels and trademark red soles teeter-tottering around in the dumpster as she flicked over broken-backed volumes with a litter-picker. She feared fungi that grew in the bindings of old, damp books. Terry Prentice-Hall. I thought he died years ago. I'm sure I went to his funeral. Still questing for the mythical Harry Potter first editions. Some faces I knew by repute: Nancy and Flea, the Parasites of Enfield. Q. R. Rice, wafted in from Oxford. His cotton manuscript gloves left no one in any doubt that Spitalfields was unendurable to anyone of refinement. Some I did not know by face or gossip: a woman and man in their twenties throwing academic textbooks into a wheelbarrow. "Charity workers," Tall Lionel wheezed. For a big man, he moved quietly. I hadn't seen him slide in close to my ear. "They send them to Africa, India, some needy shit-hole. Fuck me sideways, there's Niall Rudd. Last I heard he was doing three years in Ford. Always was a shite forger."
Some were not even dealers. I recognized Martin Parr, the photographer; that Spitalfields blogger and his cat; Dan Cruickshank, the architectural historian and television presenter. The Golden Page first opened its doors in 1933: it had long been a beating organ of Spitalfields.
I have drunk the legendary Vietnamese coffee and supped the sulphurous vegetable broth on the collapsing sofas. I have sat through poetry readings when I couldn't afford the electricity at home, I have sat through fifty shades of red political theorists and jeered Bliar Blair and his warmongering. I have huddled over the gas heater on February evenings, high on carbon monoxide. I have dragged myself up through Saturday hangovers to comb through the house clearances as they arrived out of the back of a van: first refusal on anything with a hint of war about it. That was my specialism, the Second World War. You specialize. There are too many books in the world. Tall Lionel hunted old SF paperbacks, Chris Foss covers preferred. Louisa in Louboutins dealt in crime, the pulpier the better. War for me, in hardback. There will always be a market for war.
Now The Golden Page was dead. The stock Richie could not flog even at ten for a pound was stacked in plastic boxes, on trestle tables, dumped in a steel skip on Folgate Street under a quick November sky threatening rain. The Liberty has always been a liminal place, caught between the City and the city, a gutter of refuge, a huddle of difference, pressed from both sides. Jews and Huguenots. The towers of finance and Banglatown. Gentrification won. Richie had been unable to resist the offer for the building. I would have too. Fuck Vietnamese coffee. Cappuccino in Umbria for Richard Frowse.
When we were sated, when we could stomach no more books, Tall Lionel suggested the Hawksmoor, to raise a glass to the old place, but I was dispirited by my colleagues, by their small-minded acquisitiveness, by the weather, by the thin drizzle now turning old book covers to pulp in the slowly filling dumpster. I wanted away from these ghastly fossils. I was of a different generation from my colleagues, but I understood that irst day when I caught another acquisitive eye working the stacks in Clapham High Street War on Want: this would be my cohort, my college, my congregation, for the rest of my professional life. Fingers around hot whisky on a cold evening, carping and moaning about postage charges, eBay T&Cs and PayPal's ever-increasing transaction times.
I made my excuses. Loot to log, titles to research, purchases to post. And the possibility of wonder. My chilled fingers had detected a discontinuity in the bound leaves of one of my acquisitions, an otherwise unremarkable and, to me, unknown book of poetry; Time Was. By E.L. Anonymous initials were enough to trigger my curiosity, as was the date. May 1937, Ipswich. No publisher listed. Decent paper, hand-stitched binding, header tapes in fair order and good fabric binding. Gold-leaf low-relief of an hourglass, half run through. As a free book, a dumpster find, it was worth picking up. But my fingers had sensed something more rare and valuable: an inclusion. A bookmark, perhaps from a long-dead English-language bookshop in a European capital — perhaps farther afield. Istanbul. Cairo. Perhaps a hand-stitched sampler, marking a page. A postcard. A love letter. Dried flowers; a nosegay, a posy, a rose clipped the night before battle. Photographs; best of all with love, with signatures, with farewells. Provenances, I called them. If they were connected with the book — a history of a campaign, a military biography, a popular, long-out-of-print thriller or crime story mentioned in the letter or card--I sold them. They added value. The orphans, the refugees, I kept.
The Tube was crowded and smelly. I let the book fall open where the insertion demanded. The smell of fusty paper, damp cover binding, obliterated the stink of fast food and electricity.
A letter. A single sheet, still creased from the envelope despite years between pages. My hands shook as I read it.
I watched the lights along the Western Harbour drop away until they merged with the dark horizon. I made the taxi driver take me out along Al Max until I could see the lights no more. I never thought they would take you away like this, in a troopship. I suppose His Majesty needs his photo-boy more than I do. I suppose we should have made more of the time. We never do. We become so lazy in love. But love is laziness, the gift of each other's time, to spendthrift or invest. I remember your arms, I remember dreadful gin, I remember the perfume of your hair. Your skin smells of honey. Those precious times — those precious rooms — at Osborne House and the Heliopolis Club. Rev Anson always suspected.
The barrage balloons are going up all along the Corniche. The air is wonderfully still, I swear I can hear the guns from the front. Light sparks along the western horizon. Christ knows what's happening out there. It reminds me of Russia, when all we could do was watch the world burn.
In three nights I fly. I know what you'd say: Alex is the oldest of pleasure-cities: be bright, be gay, drink more of the dreadful gin, drink a skinful. This city holds no attractions for me. Next to you, its pleasures are dry and stale. I need to be where you are, wherever you are. Ironic that I will leave later yet arrive before you.
I fear the next translation is not far off — you develop a sense for it, like smelling a storm. I dread being apart from you. Should we become separated, I'll leave a copy behind me, here in the usual place.
Time was, time will be again, TomCHAPTER 2
I have lived twenty years on this street of stones. I have known it in all seasons and all elements, in its many temperaments.
I know it in the easterlies, when the sky is black as judgment and the wind seems to strip the land back like skin peeling from a jaw and the sea drives hard onto the shingle and the knock of rolling pebbles becomes a thunder so great I can hear it from Ferry Road.
I know it in snow, those rare days of undifferentiated grey when the turnstones face into the white whip of thin flakes thrown down from the Baltic, when each pebble wears a rind of snow, locked together by ice. How many pebbles from Bawdsey to Orford Ness? There are people who could number that, but I am not one of them.
I know it in rain, when it becomes an undulating black river, shiny as a swimming dog, and the boats, the nets, the huts and row houses and the Martello tower seem to hunker down from it, seeking shelter in a shelterless terrain.
I know it in high summer sun, when the sky and sea seem anchored together and the whole world lies exhausted between them and nothing stirs, even breathes, when sky is heavy as tidewater and the sea seems to lift free from mere geography. On those days Shingle Street is a broad blade of forged iron, and in the evening, the gulls lift on a wind only they can perceive.
In every mood, I take the bike out and ride the road of sea-rounded stones.
There's a skill to it, and an art. The skill is riding a 1938 Ariel Red Hunter at speed on a road of treacherous cobbles that could shift and spill you at any time. The art is reading the stones: what is constant, what has changed, what has moved where in conjunction with what. This is a landscape rolled and moved by the tides, each pebble lifted and dropped, lifted and dropped by the run and ebb, each advance and retreat carried a little farther upcoast. It is never the same twice.
* * *
I usually ride out to where the pebbles end and the Orford's sweet waters and the salt North Sea run into each other in eddies and silver swirls. But today I feel the presence of war like a weather front. The sky is clogged with contrails, the straight lines of the bombers, the circles and spirals of the fighters looping around them. Felixstowe took it three nights in a row. The Luftwaffe has moved on to Ipswich. Sky and sea feel polluted, stained and impure. I leave the bike by the Martello tower and walk up the beach towards the abandoned village. I peer through the window of one of the empty row houses. The tenants were evicted hastily. Overlooked things remain: cutlery in the kitchen, a loaf in the bread bin now a cube of blue mold, newspapers and coal under the stairs, calendars on the wall, permanently stalled at May 15, 1940. I shiver, a sudden feeling that I have somehow affronted the house, that the people who lived there, wherever they are, felt my intrusion and glared.
Vapor trails in the sky, the nightly flicker of anti-aircraft fire, rumors of barges massing along the coast of Holland, Kriegsmarine minesweepers probing the Channel defenses. This is the invasion coast.
I like it better empty. Emptied. When I came here as a boy, when I wandered and met and learned from E.L., I saw their faces pressed to these same windows, frowning out. Who was on their land, in their view, on their horizon. Suspicious, possessive people. Sandings folk. A landscape of grey resentments and long grudges. Gone now. Moved out. Fuck them. This is mine now.
E.L. would have liked it.
I have his book with me. I'm seldom apart from it; it sits neatly in the pocket of my service dress, as if tailored to it. Flap buttoned down, pressed against the heart. I take no comfort from its close presence today. There is war in every element, and I'm unsettled, itchy, headachy, like I used to be before a storm.
No images here. Nothing to take back and try to wrestle down onto a page. Sea and stone have said enough to me. I kick the engine to life and ride back through the deepening twilight. My blackout headlight is a slot of wan light.
* * *
War is no reason to change your drinking habits. I've been frequenting the Swan at Alderton since I was a fourteen-year-old selling fire lighters door to door up and down the Sandings. "Frequenting": an old man's word, thumbs in the waistcoat, arse to the fire. I know the beer; I know the landlord; I know the seasons and the temperaments. I used to be able to sit quietly in the window seat, or on the bench under the same window in the long summer, and whittle away at words, frown over rhyme schemes and assonances. Sometimes I read; sometimes I just sit, in the sun, like an old man. The girls from the Receiver Block come here, to the consternation of landlord Rydal, who considers women in his pub a trump of doomsday, also those of the enlisted men and the research divisions who find the messes too raucous and loutish.
"Ahoy, Tom the Rhymer," they greet me. I can hear the capitalizations. I smile, nod. I know I'm a figure of fun and that some detest me for imagined pretensions. I'm thought odd, even for Signals. I accept the ribbing, the murmurs. It's a wooden decoy duck, staked to the bottom of the fen. It's pleading guilty to a minor charge to escape a greater one.
The radar girls swing up the lane, dressed and made up, Victory rolls and painted-on stocking seams, chattering and laughing. From my summer bench with a sun-warmed pint on the end I admire their loud confidence. War has been the making of them, saved them from marriage or service or other menial drudgeries. They greet me from afar.
"What are you working on?" Lizzie always hails me.
I lift the notebook.
"War, time and memory," I say. She grins. Attempted art does not embarrass her. She knows me. I know it. You know these things. She isn't distracted by the decoy.
"Pint for the Rhymer," Lizzie commands Rydal. Arms linked, the radar girls march three abreast into the back room from which they have expelled the old drinking men and which they have claimed with the flag of RAF Bawdsey RDF Receivers, until kingdom come or war end, amen.
There's always a pint for the poet.
I can hear Charlie Nair from five fields away. I should imagine those stealthy Kriegsmarine minesweepers can hear him, out on the shallow sea. "You need to sort your chain," I tell him. "It'll break and take your leg off clean below the knee. Let me do it." I could do it easily, ten minutes' work. Charlie won't let me. I don't know Nortons, he says. I know Nortons and I know Charlie and he never will allow me to fix it. It would be a humiliation.
He pulls up in a clatter and racket and smoke and pushes up his goggles. I have to admit he rides that abused Norton well.
"Anyone got a round in?" he always asks. I never have. I never will. It's my Norton drive chain. He leaves the bike lying in the hedge and bangs down beside me on my bench. I barely snatch my pint to safety. Now I can hear the engines of the main drinking party and glimpse the green roofs of their cars over the hedge lines. There are two more cars than usual.
"We're breaking in the new boys," Charlie announces. The drinking party arrives in white dust.
I remember. I carried the dispatches myself. A new research division was moving into the Dairy. There had been rumors of secret projects, new ways of sensing, seeing the distant and concealed.
Car doors opened. New boots on the gravel. The scientists looked uncomfortable in uniform. All but one. Oh, one. One whose boots were firmly planted. One who wore the uniform like skin, like the sky, who stood tall and certain and lifted his hands to his eyes when he stared at this place he had been taken, who shaded his eyes and so could not see me staring. Staring as if there were nothing else in the world, staring like a radar girl at a lone blip on my screen, my stare reaching out across the world and returning an echo. Until he dropped his hand and I was not quick enough to look away — deliberately so — and his eye caught mine. We knew. We communicated through the airwaves. Then he was swept through the door into beery camaraderie: Boffins Corner, we called it, and I sat on my bench with my beer in the long evening sun and all my notes, all my words and rhymes and rhythms and images, all my thoughts and all the things I held in my heart, were nothing.CHAPTER 3
I missed my stop. I missed the stop after.
There were enough clues in the letter for me to place and roughly date it. The references to Osborne House and the Heliopolis Club immediately identified Cairo; Al Max and the Western Harbour landmarked Alexandria. The line about hearing the guns placed the time around either the first or second battle of El Alamein. The front was only eighty kilometers west of Alexandria — Montgomery's line in the sand — and on a still night, across the waters of Mareotis, notorious for how they warped sounds and closed up spaces so that a distant conversation was as intimate as a whisper, it would be possible to hear the artillery. I can't imagine any troops being rotated home in British Egypt's darkest hour, so I inclined more towards the Second Battle of El Alamein in October. A place and a time. Five minutes online would give me the British order of battle in Egypt in 1942. I glanced again at the letter. I suppose His Majesty needs his photo-boy more than I do. Ben served in Intelligence. This would be fun. It was then that I realized I had dreamed through my stops, and I regained enough presence of mind to push onto the platform as the doors were closing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Time Was"
Copyright © 2018 Ian McDonald.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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