Cairnbaan rock art, panel 2, Kilmartin Glen, 3D model. Photogrammetry by Dr Aaron Watson

If I make a circle it doesn’t matter where I start, so let’s begin with Aaron appearing from the future. How does a time traveller arrive? By buzzing the entryphone. It halts me during Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor for organ – or rather, a piano transcription that seems too thin, too sterile – and I rise from the bench humming the final variation, trying to give it some life. I lose it completely, though, at the sound of Aaron’s voice bristling with static. This can’t be good news. He’s supposed to be in Mid Argyll. As his footsteps come up the main stair, I think maybe the next phase of his Great Dig was postponed and he lost his keys in a Neolithic ditch. But then the sight of him sends me backing into the sitting room. He recites my favourite colour, my lucky number, my comfort foods, my shoe and dress sizes – as if I need convincing, when in fact the problem isn’t that I doubt who he is, but that I immediately believe it. Yes, it’s obvious. My future is his past. Though it’s April of 1988 for me, it’s November of 2006 for him – or almost November. Halloween night. That’s when our son will stay home with me, apparently, while he takes our daughter trick-or-treating, despite my protests, so he can introduce her to his American childhood ritual, his annual allowance of junk food and fright. I can’t imagine myself protesting such a harmless thing, which is partly why it seems like a different woman in that time. An alternate self. The mother of two children. I’m already suspicious of her. Where does she begin? Where do I end? But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m here. I’m now. I’m making it up as I go along. If I make a circle it doesn’t matter where I start.

“But you need to know it’s really me,” he says. “And I can prove it. The first time we met was at that pub off Buccleuch. You were upset about playing the Rach 3, and I told you…” He stops himself, clenching his eyes shut. “No, no. Wait. Anyone could know that.”

He turns away and grips the mantel, in the throes of some internal debate, then turns back and starts reeling off details about something that happened to me before that – a private trauma I’ve never shared with anyone. Proof. Evidence. He needs to convince himself that I’m convinced. He needs to believe that I believe.

“Aaron?” I wave him down. “This isn’t necessary.”

“But you locked the door behind him,” he says, “and you sat there hugging your knees until dawn when you could walk home safely, and you couldn’t even bring yourself to tell Clare or Isobel afterward, instead making up some story about, what was it, he vomited and passed out. It was your first and last one-night stand. Am I right?”

The sound of him, the sense. Yes, it’s the man he will be in eighteen years. One of my legs is trembling like a bow string, and I have to collar it with both hands to make it stop.”

His face is both familiar and strange. There’s a wider spread to his features, the continental drift of age, but otherwise he seems recast with sharper angles and ridges, with deeper definition. The endearing little curve to his lower lip is more pronounced, his hair reduced to a close-cropped style that actually suits him better. It’s the haircut he should have had from the beginning. I hesitate to mention it because I’m afraid he’s going to say it was my suggestion. The other Violet. The older one. A deep unease comes over me, unreasonably, at the thought of her.

“Violet, please. Am I right about this?”

I manage to nod.

“Have you shared that experience with anyone?”

I shake my head.

“Anyone at all?”

I close my eyes to absorb not the fact but the feeling of it. A new time signature.

“I know it must be strange to have me describe it this way, like watching your own dream on television. But you’ll tell me in a few years. At a performance one night you’ll see someone who resembles him, and you’ll confess the whole thing afterward right here in this room. Except it’s not really a confession because you didn’t do anything wrong. I should mention that now, ahead of time, to preempt some of the guilt. Because the guy tried to rape you, for Christ’s sake, so don’t be ashamed of that, and I still want to track him down and break his kneecaps, which you’ll attribute to my crude notion of Appalachian justice. If memory serves.”

And his accent has changed. Those hints of southern comfort, those drawling vowels – all tempered to British speech. The sound of him, the sense. Yes, it’s the man he will be in eighteen years. One of my legs is trembling like a bow string, and I have to collar it with both hands to make it stop.

He comes forward. “Are you all right?”

I step back and knock into a lamp. He lunges and catches it before it falls, then looks at it oddly as he sets it back.

“Tessa broke this. She was crawling under the table and—” He glances at an empty corner of the room. “The table we’re going to buy after we have the flat repainted. In 1996, I think.”

“Good thing you caught it, then.”

He snaps his attention back to me, flummoxed by the comment until it takes hold, and he laughs. Then his eyes widen with mischief.

“Hey, should I smash it and see what happens?”

“Please don’t. It’s hard enough living in an unfurnished rental – and excuse me, but how are we going to buy this flat if we can barely afford the rent?”

He hesitates, sensing a tripwire. “Did I say we bought it?”

“You said we repainted it. Eight years from now.”

“Oh. Well. Don’t worry about that. It’s not the sort of detail that matters.”

I fold my arms. “As opposed to what, my shoe size? Which you got wrong, by the way.”

“Your shoe…” He sways slightly and catches himself. “Ah, right. Before the children you’re a five, not a five-and-a-half.”

“Pardon?”

“Because your feet swelled with the pregnancies.”

“You mean permanently?”

He shrugs.

“Leave off, Aaron. Time travel is more plausible than that.”

He starts patting himself down, as if searching for a futuristic calling card. But what can he offer? He isn’t wearing any silver lamé. No spacey designs or insignias. Just a jumper with a hole in the shoulder, a collared shirt, jeans.”

He seems to drop a notch. It’s all crucial to him. Endings and beginnings, cause and effect. With renewed desperation he starts patting himself down, as if searching for a futuristic calling card. But what can he offer? He isn’t wearing any silver lamé. No spacey designs or insignias. Just a jumper with a hole in the shoulder, a collared shirt, jeans. The trainers are a type I’ve never seen before, but that doesn’t mean much. He could be from any time, any place. He doesn’t even have a wallet. The only artefact he can produce is an electronic domino, which apparently is a mobile phone.

“Will you stop that, please?”

“I’m trying to provide hard evidence.”

“Hard evidence of what? That mobiles are shoddy in 2006?”

He holds it up. “The supporting technology doesn’t exist yet. If you brought a radio back to the eighteenth century and switched it on, it wouldn’t—”

“But it doesn’t switch on.”

“Or maybe the circuits were fried in the…” He gestures broadly. “I don’t know, the time warp or whatever you want to call it, because it sure as hell did something to my nerves. In fact, I thought that was the problem at first. It felt like a concussion. A seizure, maybe. Except the weather was different. The daylight. I knew it was spring. I could taste it in the air. And then on the street I saw…” He trails off, his eyes magnetized by something across the room.

I swivel but don’t find anything worthy of fascination. The stereo and records, the old armchair, the telephone on a faux Ancient Roman pedestal that he bought a few months ago at a charity shop. I turn back to him. “You saw what?” I ask.

He walks over and puts his hand on the phone as if he doesn’t quite believe it exists. “That would be the real test,” he says.

“Pardon?”

“No room for doubt after that.”

“What are you talking about?”

He picks up the receiver, then immediately slams it down again and steps back with his hands over his mouth.

“Hey,” I say, coming over and touching his cheek cautiously, expecting some kind of metaphysical crackle, but it’s simply Aaron with extra weather in his skin, etchings around his eyes. “It’s all right. I’m here.”

He folds at my touch, settling against me. A firmness to his chest, a harder texture to his arms. Does he exercise now? I try to imagine him at the gym, substituting fitness for youth – a youth still intact in the other Aaron, working on an excavation three hours away. I run my hands all over him, him but not-him, finding the differences, the octaves between one and the other, as if playing the Passacaglia in a lower register to bring out the resonance, except something is missing from the transcription, because even though the notes are right as my fingers press to his shoulders, they don’t sound true. Do I still think this way in the future? Am I always this strange? When I pull back to ask him, though, I find the full presence I’ve always anticipated without realising it, his face in mine.

“Ultra-Violet,” he says. “It’s you.”

from Keeping Time (Acre Books, $19/£16)

 

Thomas Legendre is Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of the novel The Burning, as well as Half Life, a play performed with the National Theatre of Scotland, and the radio drama Dream Repair, aired by BBC Radio 4. Keeping Time is published in paperback and eBook by Acre Books, University of Cincinnati.
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“A mind-bending time-travel love story.” David Nicholls

Also by Thomas Legendre:
How Boris Johnson ruined my book launch (and Vladimir Nabokov restored it)

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