‘Empty Air’

This story was first published in Issue 16 of the wonderful literary magazine Structo. You can buy yourself a copy here.

 

1

The city is a ragged mouth of unmatched teeth.

Dear Sir, I used to write. Old-fashioned but then I used to be old-fashioned. Dear Sir, it has come to my attention. It has not escaped my notice. I have had cause to observe.

All this began with the letters. It might have ended with them, too, had things played out a little differently.

I sit with my elbow hooked around the side-rail of an iron ladder and look down at the city smiling up at me. Cavities and impaction. Decay. The long clean fang of a new office building.

There’s a robin singing somewhere beneath my feet, in the wiry crown of a car-park poplar. It’s still a couple of hours till dawn but then robins sing at all hours. People think that that’s just nightingales – that, if they hear a bird singing in the darkness, it must be a nightingale – but it’s not true. There are no nightingales around here. There aren’t many nightingales anywhere, not any more.

Actually the robin isn’t singing in the darkness. There’s plenty of light: streetlamps, billboards, takeaway signs, unblinded office windows. That’s why the robin is singing. Darkness, proper darkness, is almost as hard to find these days as a nightingale.

Absentmindedly I wind my watch. I enjoy the crickety noise and grainy texture of the winding.

The watch and the letters are how all this began.

 

I let things get to me. It’s a fault, I think. I let things get to me, and then, in trying to put them right, to seek redress, I get carried away – I go too far.

Another letter, James?’ Helen said, one morning. She’d seen it on the mantelpiece, propped behind the clock, stamped, addressed, ready to be posted.

‘I’ll stop talking,’ I said, ‘when they start listening.’         

They never did start listening, of course – and the thing was, I stopped talking anyway. I stopped talking, and I started doing.

*

It’s a clear night, still: stars, a moon, an aeroplane tacking westward. The stone of the tower, off-white and textured like cartridge paper, is cool to the touch. There’s a breeze – but then there’s always a breeze when you’re this high up.

I had intended the Comfistay hotel – the tall, glowing prism on the ring-road, with its desolate car-park and lone stop-out robin – to be my last visit of the night, but on dropping to the ground and checking my watch I realised that I was a little way ahead of schedule; some forty-five minutes of darkness remained.

I could have gone home, I supposed. But I always prefer if possible to use my time productively.

The university was my first thought. True, it stands at the far end of town from the Comfistay, and uphill, too – but I am physically fit (and getting fitter), so I knew the effort wasn’t beyond me. I took out my notebook, rubbed the university from the top of next week’s list, and, inverting my pencil deftly, added it to the bottom of this week’s – that is, tonight’s.

So here I am.

This isn’t the tallest tower in the city – I don’t believe it held that title even back in the ’sixties, when it was built, and today it doesn’t make the top fifteen – but, by virtue of the hill on which it stands, it may be the highest.

It feels terribly high, but then they all feel terribly high, and, after all, it’s just a question of one rung at a time.

Helen and I met at university. Not this university, a different one, although I don’t suppose they can really be all that different. We took the same history course.

‘It must have been awful,’ she told our tutor, this girl with a rough-cut bob and slate-coloured eyes that matched her blue-grey dress. ‘Not only to have to live through it, but but to believe that it was your fault, too.’

I felt my too-prominent adam’s apple bob painfully in my throat as I watched her. I hadn’t had much experience of girls.

What was she talking about? Fourteenth-century England, I think – or some other terrible time in some other terrible place. People suffering famine, plague, war, the worst things you can think of, and all the time being told that they’d done something – no-one knew what, but something – to deserve it.

And so even as they starved and bled they set about trying to make up for whatever it was they’d done wrong. They prayed, they held Masses, they whipped themselves. They built great churches with mighty towers.

And what good did it do? Well, you can guess.

A tawny owl in a tree nearby calls sharply, and I lose my footing – it’s all right, because I’m gripping the rung above with both hands, but my left foot slips from its rung, and waves for a moment over empty air.

Salutary. It’s good to be reminded sometimes of the possibility that I might fall. And if I fall, I’m a goner – no-one knows I’m here.

Another owl, over to the west, deeper into the parkland behind the university, shrieks in reply to the first. I’m ready for this one. Besides, I’m at the top of the fragile iron ladder; there’s still perhaps twenty feet of tower above me, but this is as high as the ladder needs to go. The rails bend into Us and are bolted to a shallow shelf cut into the stone. There’s a little door in the tower wall.

I straighten up, carefully, conscious of the open acres of air at my back. I think – madly, transgressively – of holding out my arms and simply falling backward, as one might drop on to one’s mattress in a new house, or, for fun, into a deep snowbank.

I don’t, of course. It was only (is only ever) a thought.

Before I open the little door, which won’t be locked, they never are, I look up at the sky. Doing so reminds me that ups as well as downs can give us vertigo. I put a steadying hand to the stone of the tower.

There are a couple of constellations visible that I recognise. The out-of-shape W of Cassiopoeia; the desk-lamp Lyra. The lurching Y of the Crab.

I think of the scholars who work by day in the shadow of this tower – and then I think of the scholars of long ago who would have read so much in this starry sky, much more than anyone, even those with PhDs and radio telescopes, can read in it now.

When I pull open the little door and duck my head and step inside I am still thinking about those long-dead scholars, who knew the stars and had no need of clocks.

 

2

‘Evening, sir.’

Goodness knows what Gav thinks I do for a living. He’s a security guard, a nightwatchman as he might once have been known, at the Manningly Place building. The first time we met it was an accident – a mistake, I mean, my mistake. I was incautious, having descended the tower, in returning to the road. From his post at the front doors, he saw me rounding the building.

‘Oi. Hello. Oi, you.’

I’m no runner. Halfway to the pavement, in the middle of a swath of decorative grass I should probably have been keeping off, I froze, and turned.

I look trustworthy. I can’t take any credit for that. I’m old, I’m slightly built, I’m educated, I am, and have always been, at least moderately well-off – there are no tells, no marks of prison or poverty, in my appearance.

Marks of other things, of course. Plenty of those. But nothing to alarm a nightwatchman.     

He advanced a pace, frowning at me in the false light.

‘You all right there?’

‘Yes.’ I nodded, grinned what must have been a ghastly grin. ‘Yes, fine.’

‘Knocking off late, aren’t you?’ He grinned uncertainly. Teeth in a bad way – I could see that from fifteen yards’ distance.

I must – this was his guess – have been working a late shift in whatever sort of business occupies the Manningly Place building; I must have come out of the rear door, and now be on my way home (to, he perhaps supposed, a warm home, a loving wife).

‘Yes,’ I managed to say. ‘Yes, rather late.’

And then he was ambling over, hands in pockets, heavy-shouldered and reflective in his manner, and it became clear that a conversation was on the cards.

In fact, an unlikely friendship – as they say in the blurbs of paperback novels – was on the cards.

Gav was in the army, years ago; homeless for a short while thereafter, and in prison for three years after that.

‘It weren’t as bad as I expected,’ he told me, with a sniff, of his time at HMP Everthorpe, out there in the windswept east. ‘Honestly, it were more’n I deserved.’

He’d learned to lay bricks, in prison. And once a fortnight he’d played six-a-side football.

I asked Gav, once, if he thought that prison had made him a better person. That was what it was for, I explained to him – that was why they didn’t flog him or or let him rot in irons, that was why they treated him with kindness. It was to help him become something more; something better.

‘Someone else, you mean.’

‘Well, in a sense.’

He sniffed again.

‘More’n I deserved,’ he said.

You didn’t deserve to become a better person? was the incredulous question I wanted to ask. I suppose Gav thinks that being a bad person in the future is the fairest punishment for having been a bad person in the past. I have never looked at it like that. I have never thought that becoming a better person – kinder, cleverer, stronger, whatever it might be – was something that had to be earned. Worked for, yes. But earned?

It sets one wondering about what other things one might and might not have earned, and might and might not deserve.

Now, in any case, I know the ropes well enough to see Gav (or rather, for Gav to see me) only when I choose.                       

I chose to, tonight. I feel tired and rather alone.

‘Evening, Gav,’ I say.

We take it as read that yes, I have been working late again at whatever it is I do, up there in the tower.

‘You well, sir?’

‘As well as can be expected, thank-you.’

‘Chilly night, innit.’

‘It is, rather, yes.’

Beneath my gloves my hands are raw and chapped. I wear the gloves for climbing but for manhandling the workings I find that only bare hands give me the required purchase. Chilled iron is not kind to the complexion – and besides that, I caught my knuckle on the thread of the crank and cut open the skin.

‘Nice and toasty up there, though, I’m sure,’ Gav says, lifting his eyebrows with a nice-for-some expression.

I smile vaguely.

I’m sure it is, too, in the corridors and offices. I have seen this city’s rooftops; I’ve looked down on them from still-higher places like Quasimodo looking down from Notre-Dame. There are teetering cranes, improbably balanced, building up, or pulling down; there are old spires, lichened mansard roofs, dishes and aerials for televisions and I don’t know what else – but more than anything, there are air-conditioning units. Hundreds of them, peopling every roof: slat-fronted steel cabinets, lined up in fours and sixes like petrol-pumps or robots waiting in file. Them and their uncomfortable furniture of metal pipes and chimneys.

All for what? Well, for comfort, of course. There’s nothing wrong with that; nothing wrong with keeping out the winter (or the summer). Climate control, they call it. It’s problematic that in controlling our internal climates we are – as I understand it – pushing our actual climate out of kilter, and far beyond control –

But change of one sort or another will happen anyway. Looking ahead is hard; it’s difficult enough to keep pace with the present. I speak as one who knows. Look how I spend my nights.

‘I’d better be getting off,’ I say to Gav, rubbing my sore hands together.

‘You do that, sir,’ he says. ‘Get off home. You don’t want to be hanging about here, this weather.’

I don’t, it’s true. But I don’t want to wish away the weather, either. I feel that without it I wouldn’t know where I was. As everything else changes I feel that the weather at least has to stay the same.

I know, really, that the weather will change too, eventually. The stars will change if we wait long enough.

As I leave, heading back to the road, I glance at my watch: 11.37. Then I glance up at the abstract clock-face built on to the south wall of the Manningly Place building: 11:37.      

We can’t do much, in the face of all this. But we can do something.

I wish we could do more.         

 

3

When you look up at a tall tower on a windy day the sweeping motion of the cumulus above can make you dizzy – convince you, almost, either that the tower is falling, or that you are.

It’s April, and I find that there have been a lot of those days recently.

This is my last job of the night; just as well, as there’s a muddy suggestion of breaking dawn over the estate to the east. It’s just a two-storey climb, this one, and that’s just as well, too, because my God I’m tired.

A church, on the edge of the town centre. I find I can forgive churches when they fall behind, more readily, at least, than I can forgive those leaping, future-facing office towers, so urgently, desperately modern – and yet without the gumption to even keep their clocks running to time. It used to drive me mad, that. Hence the letters; hence all this.

This one is just ten minutes slow. I’m in the clock-room, crouched in a familiar crouch, feeling familiar aches in my knees and back. It’s a biggish dial, too big for a friction clutch, so I’ve loosened the locking nut and uncoupled the hands.

I hold the key to the setting dial in my right hand. It’s old, cold, heavy. I ought to get on with the job, I know – but I don’t. I just stand here.

Swifts nest in this tower. I’ve seen them, hawking for insects high above. Just back from Africa.

They do all right, swifts. Swallows – which are similar-looking birds – are doing less well. It’s because of us, of course. Swallows feed low down, skimming the tops of tall grasses, only a few feet from the ground: where we live. We’ve crowded the air here – we’ve filled it not only with ourselves but with stone, brick, glass, steel, more of it every day. More stuff, less space.

Swifts, on the other hand, feed terribly high up, where there’s still plenty of empty air. For now, anyway.

I don’t suppose they feel safe – wild things never feel safe – but, if they did, I’m afraid they’d be mistaken. Taking up space is what we do. Outward, upward – the difference is only a question of knowhow. That and time, too, of course.          

The clock is still. Stuck ten minutes behind time – nearer fifteen now, in fact, since I’ve been stood here like a fool.

I turn the key over in my hand. What’s fifteen minutes?, I think. It’s a heretical thought. It sets my heart beating a little faster, which means that time moves forward a little faster, too.               

*

Helen had a fear of heights. Even the walkway from one platform of our local railway station to the other was difficult for her.

Early on, when we’d just started going out, I would try to take advantage of her phobia. I’d seek out places to go that required us to cross bridges, climb steep staircases, sit in the gods. She’d never try to back out, would never even complain; she was a brave girl, but not so brave – as I well knew! – that she wouldn’t have to take my hand, or grip my arm, to steady herself, make herself feel safe. Sometimes she’d grip so hard her fingertips would leave marks, but of course I didn’t mind. It made me feel safe, too. Stable – on solid ground.

Now it’s pretty clear to me that she knew my game all along.

She held my hand at the end, too. When she was frightened. She only held it gently. She didn’t have the strength for much more. And of course on that occasion, too, she left marks.

*

I never took an oath or anything like that, not even to myself, not even in the privacy of my own soul. I just wanted the clocks to tell the right time. That was all.

And yet what I’m doing now feels profoundly wrong.

This is the dial of the clock in the turret above the covered market. It’s a very pretty turret, tiled bottle-green in the faience they used to make hereabouts. They don’t make anything much hereabouts, now, except money.

The hands are uncoupled. I slot in the key. Turn the setting-dial. It’s stiff; my wrist aches. I can feel my pulse in the ball of my thumb and it’s rattling along.

I turn the clock back.                              

It’s not much, in the scheme of things.

*

The swish riverside headquarters of an insurance company display a digital clock the size of a small car. The squared-off digits are spindly and red. One spot of its central colon blinks to tell the seconds. I don’t even know how to begin re-setting its time. So instead – dispassionately, without malice – I take a half-brick to it. This, I think to myself, is another way of turning back the clock.

*

There’s more to time than clocks. I know that. Tonight, at just after three (though the dial told nine-twenty), I climbed the town hall. I haven’t the skills, yet, to adjust the clock in there – it’s old, and grand, and huge, and just too complicated. I climbed up anyway, I don’t know why. The gritstone I had to clamber over scraped the skin from my palms. And having got to the turret I just sat there. The glowing city at my feet.

I sat there for hours – I did no work that night. I sat there and the stars wheeled by overhead. Everything keeps turning, I know, whatever you do.

*

I can see Gav far below. He’s got a bald-spot. It gleams in the pink-white light from the lobby doorway. Vapour from his e-cigarette drifts about his head. He must be coming off shift; a taxi – a black-and-white Dinky from this distance – has just pulled up by the road. 

This was my last job of the night, too. It’s been a long one; I’m exhausted. I started all this because I wanted the clocks to tell the right time – from a simple sense of rightness, of proper order. And now none of them tells the right time, and it’s all my doing.

What changed? It would be foolish to say everything changed, because that should go without saying – everything always does.

I lost Helen. Now she won’t change, not ever, not so much as a hair, a fingernail, a freckle (she had a lot of freckles). She slipped out of time, ducked out of its stream, and I kept on being carried along.

It has started to give me another kind of vertigo – something akin to motion sickness.

I sit on the shelf of concrete outside the service door, twelve storeys high, my legs dangling. On a still night like tonight I don’t feel the need to hold on to the ladder-rail. I just sit.            

As the eastern sky pales I see dark-grey signatures of smoke or steam rising from the chimneys that fringe the town. Six gulls – too far off and too starkly back-lit to be properly identified – rise from the still-dark skyline.

The bottom line, the fundamental point, is that a man can’t stop the sunrise. Everything else follows from that.

But if a man could stop the sunrise?

After a while, first light starts to pick out facets of glass in the grey town centre. The varying angles of open windows and glazed facades show sulphur-yellow, here, and gold, here, and here the colour of clear tea.

Looking through narrowed eyes I see, beyond the chimneys, beyond everything, the leading edge of the rising sun. I stand up, slowly, painfully. If anyone were watching, they might think that I am standing to welcome it.      

  

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