PERHAPS THE LAST
Garner spent his days clock-watching in a room filled with timepieces, none of which could tell him how long was left on his shift. Hours crawled by. Maybe one day he’d be given a more agreeable timetable and things would go better – telling kids to stop climbing on the display cases, giving direction to the toilets, watching girls in their summer blouses take a turn around the exhibits on the balcony below – but until then it was was graveyard hours for him; in a room filled with relics from the past, Garner had never felt more dead.
In mind of the lower floor, he leaned over the railing and tried to see Della, but she was ensconced in the gloom. He could just hear the faint flick of magazine pages, the hot smell of cinnamon from the gum she liked to chew during work. He could occasionally spot her shadow, or the pale oval of her face as she moved around the exhibits in her domain, but more often than not she was lost to the hard shadows that filled that space.
The museum, situated in South Kensington, was split into two floors and again, laterally, between east and west. Ostensibly, four security guards patrolled each quadrant, but because of the various ways the sections were separated none of them could meet. The museum suits wanted it like that. The internal closed circuit cameras were switched off at night, for economical reasons. The lighting was also reduced by fifty per cent, to save fifty per cent. Management didn’t want any malingering, and knew that barring access to the other floors was the only way to ensure this.
Which didn’t mean that Garner couldn’t communicate, at least with Della, as she monitored the floor beneath his. In the crepuscular silence he would sometimes hear the softly squeaking tread of her boots as they passed from carpet to lino. He liked her measured stride – there was no rush to get anywhere – and the occasional sound of her nightstick as it lightly knocked against the wall, or the display cabinets. He had yet to meet her face to face; the shifts of the four were staggered by a couple of hours, again to prevent excessive crossover with the replacement guards. He had not drummed up enough courage to ask if she’d like to meet him for coffee. At least he could fill the stretches between ten and four shaping a face around that voice.
Now, he whispered: ‘Busy tonight, isn’t it?’
Her laughter rose into the domed ceiling like some soft unfolding: a flower, origami. ‘Yes, I’m run off my feet.’
He took a turn around his own area. He knew it well; could have walked it in the dark if the museum bean counters ever decided to go the whole hog and turn the lights out completely. Early on in his job he had paced the zone like a prisoner coming to terms with his cell, and found he could walk its perimeter in two hundred and seventy leisurely steps. The interior of his quadrant was dotted – seemingly arbitrarily – with display cabinets, others were lined neatly along the perimeter. All of them were filled with objects from the past devoted to the task of dividing time into chunks and offering it in a variety of faces in every way from the ingeniously simple to the shatteringly complex. There were Chinese water clocks, a congreve clock powered by a stainless steel ball that zigzagged along brass grooves. Stopwatches, pendulums, gnomons and pallets. Pocket sundials in beautiful leather boxes. Great iron intersections incorporating cogs and springs and gears. Every kind of escapement, from dead-beat to detent to recoil to floating balance. Cylinder watches, verge watches, repeating watches. Velvet-lined wooden boxes. Beautiful table clocks. Oscillators, winding barrels, anchors and counterweights. The turning of circles. Touch pins that had allowed the pre-electricity population to read the time in darkness. Skeleton plates, repoussé cases: silver and enamel, chased or damascened. Burnished zones where the fingers of people long dead had probed.
An incremental grinding of teeth. The bruxism of time.
It was all instantly recognisable and utterly alien in the same moment. Knowable and beyond him. But that was okay. All he had to do was guard it. He wondered if Della was similarly influenced by the booty she had to protect, and speculated as to whether he would prefer to be striding around glass cabinets displaying old surgical instruments. Bone shears, amputation knives, hacksaws. He didn’t like to think how his life might be coloured by that gruesome arsenal.
The high walls would sometimes dance with reflected light from all that metal and glass. Occasionally it would dazzle him, and leave him blinded for a second or two, his shocked retina flashing with greens and purples. The source of light, Garner mused, was sometimes difficult to identify. He guessed it must be generated by traffic, although the road outside the museum wasn’t exactly nose-to-tail, even at rush hour. It might belong to Della’s torch, but if so, her beams were wildly off target, lifting into his quadrant, twenty feet above her own. Perhaps it was tripping around the strange angles of her display cases, glancing off the ancient metal of her patrol a dozen times before rising to him. Perhaps she was just monkeying around, flirting with him. He could dream.
He paced. He drank the two-and-a-half cups of coffee that filled his flask. He ate his ham and English mustard sandwiches, his banana, his piece of fruit cake. He read the previous day’s Independent. He read a damning article about his team from When Saturday Comes, photocopied and sent to him in the post by a gloating friend. He read a chapter from a Michael Marshall novel. He paced. And another hour was measured out by countless immobile hands.
‘You know Frank Whittle?’ It didn’t matter what she said. How left field, how mundane. The way she spoke could have enlivened her recitation of a library’s opening times.
‘Not personally,’ he said. ‘But yes. Jet engine man.’
‘You know what he did when he retired?’
‘Um, no. Went to live in a really quiet place, I expect.’
‘Wrong. He bought a house at the end of a runway and watched planes taking off all day long.’
This was something else about Della that he liked. She was always coming out with this strange information. Trivia that had no bearing on anything they had talked about recently. It didn’t really help to pass the time, and he was never sure if she was telling the truth or pulling his leg, but it was fun to guess.
‘Well you won’t find me moving across the road from a security firm,’ he said. ‘Attractive though that might be to the ordinary man. What about you? What will you do when you retire?’
‘Long time off.’
‘I should think so. You don’t exactly sound as though you’re entering the autumn of your senescense.’
‘I’d like to live by the sea. Somewhere clean. And cold. I have a health problem. Ideally I should have fresh air. I’d like to spend whatever time I have left looking at the stars.’
The darkness at four o’clock in November seems so satisfied with itself one could be forgiven for thinking that daylight might never force its way back. Garner trudged home along main roads that could have passed for back alleys, so deserted were they. The refuse and shadows that once conspired to upset him on his return home now interested him only peripherally. He knew the darkness well. He had hung around at the end of his shift, knowing that Della would not be out for at least another quarter of an hour, but he didn’t see her leave.
Unusually, because of the light pollution in the centre of the city, the sky was brim full of stars. He stopped for a while and stared at them. The longer he stared, the more it seemed he could see. Patches of ostensibly black sky opened up to show him dusty whorls of light. The illusion of the curved sky flew away. There was no shape to what he was seeing any more. No end of depth. He reeled away when it occurred to him that his mind was too puny for the wonders he was being shown. He thought he had seen a pattern there, for one unbearable second. Something that put him in mind of fingerprints, or the bizarre constellations of brilliant muscle fibres that go to make up an iris. He felt cowed by the vision, such as it was, and the nearer he got to him home, the more he found himself doubting that he had seen anything. Another glance at the sky seemed to confirm this: just stars, just darkness.
He tried to do what most people who work shifts do: create the illusion that his working span was like any other day. So he took a bath, watched television, cooked himself some dinner and opened a bottle of wine. By six, although it still wasn’t getting light, the night’s thickness was loosening somewhat. Garner headed off to bed, pausing on the way when a sudden jolt of sound – a known, frequent occurrence – drilled through his head. He tried to find its echo on the short wave radio by his bed but nothing remotely matched it. He fell asleep thinking of Della, and the nature of her disease.
The sound of roadworks wakened him, or rather, the sound of the men powering the tools that tore at the Tarmac. Mechanical things he had never found disruptive of his slumber, but raised voices, swearing, laughter, especially the kind of forced laughter from labourers – as if it was important it compete with the ambient sound – always roused him.
A low parallelogram of light on the wall suggested it was around midday. He lay in bed wondering about Della. He wished he had asked her to accompany him for a coffee after work. The way they had chatted made such an invitation seem natural. He knew a great little place run by a Cuban called Paco that was open all night. He sold Turquino coffee that was so good it almost gave his life meaning.
It felt wrong to fantasise about a woman he had never seen, so when he felt the first twitches of an erection he rose and showered. He grabbed the Marshall novel and his digital camera, and headed for the river.
He could not shake off the feeling he had experienced the previous night. Although the stars were invisible now, he still felt able to see them. Garner walked down to the National Film Theatre and browsed the second hand books beneath Waterloo bridge. He found a film guide by Leonard Maltin and flipped through it but could find no reference to Guillame Angiers. He collected a film schedule and a pint of lager, took a seat, tried to immerse himself in the book he was reading. The words couldn’t bring him out of himself, which was what he always asked of a novel. It wasn’t the author’s fault. Della, and something inexplicable, capered at the edge of his reason, fouling anything he tried to focus on. He wondered what the other might be. Something to do with the strange light, perhaps. Or the snatches of sound that fizzed through his thoughts from time to time. He felt anxious, but in an amorphous way. It was as if the anxiety existed only because he couldn’t pinpoint the reason for it.
An old man with a white candyfloss beard played a violin in front of the book tables with violent panache. The river seemed hardly to move beyond him, but suggested its strength in the subtle ribboning of its surface. He shuddered as he watched the pedestrians crossing the Hungerford bridge to his left. Garner had always feared the bridges spanning the Thames. He thought they were too exposed. Any madman could wrestle you over the side and then you’d be done for, no matter how strong a swimmer. The London currents were brutal. In considering this, he suddenly felt close to unlocking the basis for his misery, but it wouldn’t come. He surreptitiously took pictures of women who passed him by, wondering all the time if one of them might be Della. It was beginning to worry him that he’d be disappointed if he ever found out what she looked like. Her anonymity was a powerful attraction.
The violinist stopped playing. Nobody applauded. He didn’t seem affected. He collected the change thrown into his violin case and walked away.
‘Have you had any more transmissions lately? On Radio Garner?’
‘Yes,’ he said, gingerly touching the back of his head. He wished he had never told Della about his accident, and the metal plate, and the occasional rushes of static, or voices, or music, that fled through his brain like something half-remembered. ‘I had one last night, before I went to bed.’
‘A film review. Well, part of one. I still get a bit of a jolt from it. Have to go and check the radio isn’t on. Before I believe it’s coming from me. Or coming through me, I should say.’
‘What was the film?’
‘A new film called Gnawed Hearts. By some veteran European director. Guillaume something.’
‘That’s it. Have you seen it?’
‘No. I hardly ever get out to do stuff. I spend a lot of time indoors. Just me, a glass of mineral water, a relaxing CD and a nebuliser.’
Garner winced, grateful that the dark prevented her from seeing his expression. Her health problems were clearly more acute than he had understood. Her voice seemed happy enough though. She sounded as if she were describing something desirable. Like a holiday, or an unattainable man.
‘Don’t waste your time,’ she said. ‘Take advantage of the fact that you’re mobile. That you’re intelligent. Healthy. Fill each minute, because I promise you if you don’t, you’ll regret it.’
In the dark he was aware of the minute movement of things. The slow slide of the moon’s light across the wall, the epically tiny repositioning of teeth and coils, the settling of age in his bones. He had always thought of time as this linear thing, a real thing, that measured out your span for you in handy chunks as you bumbled around from day to day. In the midst of its mechanical fashioning here in the museum, he got an idea of time that was more fluid and yet less recordable than that; something that reached out in many directions beyond forwards. Something instantaneous with the lifespan shorter than the smallest particle of its own, immense scale. He thought of something being born and dying almost instantaneously. He thought of a world 4.5 billion years old and yet never truly existing beyond the super-immediate moment.
It was strange to think of his city, his street, this museum, hosting people from different decades, different days. It must have happened – there was plenty of photographic evidence – but it still provided a mental block for him. It didn’t exist any more. It was dead time. When did one ever live purely in the moment? Weren’t we all just memory slaves?
At certain times during the night, usually in the two hours or so before his shift ended, Garner could hear the ministrations of time more clearly: the skittling of the ball bearing in the congreve clock, or the ticking of the newest additions to the cabinets, the Seiko Kinetic watches, design classics from just a few years previously. Garner could imagine future generations goggling at these in the same way visitors gazed at the ancient sundials while they took for granted whatever future technology allowed them to keep their appointments. Something behind the eyelid. Something implanted in the brain. Time moved on. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe time was static, and it was us that moved through it.
Garner closed his eyes against these difficult thoughts and became gradually aware of a new sound, another ticking, although this time irregular, muffled and, he could somehow tell, not from his quarter of the museum.
‘Can you hear that?’ he asked Della.
‘Yes,’ she said, equably. ‘What is it?’
‘I thought you might be able to tell me.’
‘It’s a clock, isn’t it? Of some sort?’
‘I don’t know. It sounds as if it is.’ Garner couldn’t put his finger on why the museum collected such a softness, a vagueness, at this time of night. More and more he suspected that it was him instead, relaxing, becoming more attenuated, more responsive to the sensory krill as it floated by.
He rose from his uncomfortable moulded plastic chair and strolled the usual figure 8, in case a different position within the room might reveal the source of the sound. It didn’t. It seemed to come from all angles, and none at all. For one strange moment he thought it was coming from his own body.
‘It must be heating, or water in the pipes. Something like that,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘It’s an old building. Sometimes you just aren’t aware of it, but in quiet moments it can surprise you. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here. How well you think you know a place.’
‘How long have you been here?’
She sighed, and the sound flitted around the heights like a trapped bird. ‘Too long,’ she said.
‘It would be nice to talk to you face to face,’ he said, haltingly. ‘I could buy you a cup – ’
‘I don’t think so,’ she interrupted him. ‘It isn’t what I’m looking for.’
He was confused and hurt by her instant rebuttal. How had he misread their relationship? They conversed easily, she laughed at his jokes, he was interested in her. What harm could a cup of coffee bring?
He resumed his patrol, walking close to the rail and looking down into her quadrant. He thought he saw the twin gleam of eyes turned up towards him, and the sweep of a shadow as it too returned to its duties. She would be the one to build bridges between them after that, he decided.
Half an hour later he thought he heard her clearing her throat, but she had retreated to the furthest corner of the room, where she liked to eat her packed meal. He moved around too, until he was standing over the area she was occupying. It was gratifying to him, hearing a woman so obviously enjoying her food. The enthusiasm with which she chewed and slurped, and cracked what must be chicken legs, was so uncommon among women as to be attractive to him. But it served only to underline her snub.
Suddenly it seemed that the hours weren’t moving as fast as they once had. There was little for him to do. The newspaper had been read, the crosswords and Sudoku completed. There was nothing left to eat in his bag and his flask of coffee had finally become tepid. His frustration had no release; what could he do but pace the same old route in his cheap serge uniform? Through the large ceiling window he again marvelled at the talcum powder stars. He thought for a moment he might have unleashed their secret; something was threatening, like the storm behind a wall of black cloud, but then it was gone; maddeningly, because the patterns remained, as well as his belief in his capacity to read them. He almost asked Della if she could see what he was seeing, but he stubbornly stuck to his guns, no matter how much he needed some support about what was being played out far above him. And at that moment he heard her voice, moving through his mind like a memory. He recognised the rhythms and melody of it, but not the words. It was as if he was hearing her speak through a hot flannel. He almost asked her what was wrong, but he suspected at the last moment that her voice had come to him from a different source. His head burned with confusion; he wanted to shout out, ask what it was she wanted, but he couldn’t because of course she didn’t want anything.
It isn’t what I’m looking for.
What was she looking for?
He waited again when his shift was over, but she must have left before him; the soft noises occurring within her quadrant being produced by the wind, or the badly remembered weight of her on the floorboards and chairs. He tested the fire doors but they did not give. Suddenly it was imperative that he see where she worked. It was hard to comprehend that he had spent such a long time employed by the museum yet had never perused its stock. He returned to the front of the building and tried the main entrance. He rapped on the window but the replacement security guard for Della obviously couldn’t hear him. Angry, he stomped to Paco’s coffee shop, drank three cappuccini and scanned the previous day’s newspaper that he salvaged from a bin. Another hour. He felt older. He went back to the museum and the lights were on in one of the ground floor offices. He tapped on the glass and a shape squirmed into the elaborately textured square.
‘Who is it?’
Garner could tell by the voice that it was Joyce, the cleaner. He asked her to let him in.
He thanked her profusely, explaining that he had left his watch in the museum. ‘Funny, isn’t it?’ he said, ascending the stairs and looking back down at her in the reception hall. ‘I lose my watch. In a room full of watches.’
She didn’t find it amusing, and returned to her brushes and buckets shaking her head.
Garner retraced his steps quietly until he was standing by the main entrance again, checking that Joyce had shut herself in the kitchen. Now he moved quickly under the stairs to the entrance to Della’s quadrant of the museum. He pushed lightly at the door, but it was locked. Who replaced Della when she went home? He didn’t know. He tapped on the door, not wanted Joyce to come back and force more unlikely excuses out of him. Nobody came. He rubbed his face. There must be some way of getting in. He couldn’t understand the force of his need. It sat in the centre of his head as if a hot needle had been embedded there. And then he realised the only way he could do it, short of breaking the door down. He returned to the stairs and hurried up to his own domain. He knew the combination on the door lock that would give him entry here. He slipped inside, and saw the beam of Lievesley’s torch picking out one of the display cabinets. What was he doing? The beam did not waver. Garner wondered if he should come clean to his shift partner, or go ahead with his plan and hope he didn’t get spotted. When he came across Lievesley’s torch a few seconds later, his dilemma was increased. Why would a security guard leave his torch on the floor? Why would he leave it on? Had he dropped it? If so, then where was he? Garner felt the first tremors of fear, minuscule, but relevant, like the tiny, shivering chip of quartz in a wristwatch. Something had happened here, in the time it had taken for him to clock off, drink a few cups of coffee and break back in. He edged to the railing and peered into the darkness. Nobody walked down there. He wondered if the replacement security guards had actually turned up. But if they hadn’t, what about that torch? Perhaps a burglar. Garner again scanned his area, but there was nothing here to suggest that anything untoward had happened. He retrieved the torch and switched it off. The complete lack of sound was distressing to him, occurring as it did within an environment where he usually felt so comfortable. The museum was suddenly an alien place to him. A feeling that was intensified a few moments later, when he vaulted the railings and dropped into the centre of Della’s little universe. His unease was replaced for a short time with unalloyed excitement. It was the closest he had ever been to the woman that intrigued him so much, a bizarre feeling, considering her absence.
‘Some of those stars up there died a thousand years before you were born,’ she said. ‘The light you can see is ancient, of a thing that no longer exists. It might be a thousand years after you die that the light will wink out. Time comes into its own where concepts like that are concerned. It puts on its best frock and flirts with the camera. Minor elements, like you for instance, trouble time hardly at all.’
She was not there, but it was her voice. He felt it convulsing around his mind like a severed worm. He pressed his fingers against the metal plate in his head as if certain he would trace her features in it. A soft click: light flicked on upstairs, so faint it seemed to cling to the ceiling. He looked around him but down here it was still too gloomy to see anything that might open Della up to him. No books that she had left. No diary. No receipts or bus tickets. He didn’t know what he had expected to find. By this time he was half-crippled with fright anyway. He wanted to call up to whoever was in his quadrant, but to do that was to give himself away and he feared what consequences that might bring. He was drawn to one of the cabinets that was larger than any of the others. The lid had been pushed back, which surprised him as he had never seen any of his own cabinets opened for any reason. Inside it was a 19th century operating table, complete with a tray of sawdust beneath to absorb any spillages. He reached in and touched the worn wood with its collection of nicks from the amputation blades that had sawn into it over the years. His hand came away warm and wet. His eyes snagged on a placard referring to a failed operation that had been attempted on a female baby suffering from a terrible condition known as ectopia cordis, a congenital state in which the patient is born with the heart outside the body. Even now, the placard read, such a condition is likely to result in death.
She said, ‘The cattle tic is capable of akinesis. It will sit on the tip of a branch waiting for the scent of animal sweat for as long as it takes. Decades sometimes. When the scent awakens it, it jumps towards the smell, drinks blood, gives birth to its eggs, and dies. Treading water for so long, waiting for one chance of life, of living.’
He shook his head and tentatively climbed on to one of the display cabinets. He had to leap to catch hold of the railing and pulled himself up as quickly as his unfit body would allow.
She said, ‘One man’s museum is another’s prison.’
Frantically, Garner stalked between the display cabinets, searching for something he didn’t have a name for. The clocks and watches all seemed different now the lights were on. Up ahead he saw shadows surge across the pale carpet, then recede into the relative murk against the wall, where the pendulum clocks were aligned. He heard the smash of broken glass. The torch had been switched on again. It was trained on the same cabinet he had seen when he entered the room.
Up ahead, the lid of one of the display cabinets had been shattered. At first he thought it must be due to something having fallen from the ceiling, but even as he approached he knew this was merely wishful. He tried to muffle his terror with the banal concern that the alarm had not been triggered.
Something had been added to the collection.
It was beautiful and awful in equal measure. A silver skull watch, blood-spattered and glistening. A latin phrase was inscribed into the metal. He could just make it out despite the splashes of red: ultima forsan. Next to it, another kind of timepiece had been crudely mashed into the broken display cabinet. Like the others, this one had also stopped ticking, but could never be fixed to do so again.
The hole in her chest roared wetly with air as she tried to fill her lungs. He could only glance at her, at the incisions in her body, at the twitching fist of meat that clung to her chest, beating so violently he thought it must tear itself away. His panic and fear were heavy, they dragged his gaze to the floor.
She said, ‘It’s later than you think.’