Do you want more time?

When I was little, my Uncle Edgar made a time-machine.

Most people would make one so they could go back and see Stonehenge built and stop Dave from marrying that Nora or go forward and get the lottery numbers.

But Uncle Edgar didn’t.

His advert in the free paper said:

DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH TIME?
If not, call round to garage no 9
Willoughby Avenue
No charge. No catch.

Of course, aged five, I wasn’t interested. For me, there was far too much time. Holidays and Christmas and birthdays and getting to be a big girl were all taking an age to arrive.

In fact, I never would have remembered about the time-machine if I hadn’t found that box of newspapers in my parents’ attic today.

Uncle Edgar nearly made the front page. But unexpected heavy rain meant the headline was ‘April Showers Cause Car Chaos’ rather than ‘Local Man Makes Time Machine’, which was on page two. Things soon changed.

The first customer was a student. With just one week to write his dissertation, he was desperate. With help from Uncle Edgar, he managed three months’ work, several really good parties and a couple of brief romances in what was really just seven days.

Word spread. Young wives applied for more time to do housework (this was a long time ago you realise); couples applied for longer honeymoons; mothers asked for more time with their toddlers; people asked for time to sort out their incompetence before their bosses found out.

Uncle Edgar never asked a penny and everyone got exactly what they wanted. Yet it was all over in less than six months.

Reading the first article and seeing that long-forgotten face, I vaguely recall seeing him on some news programme in fuzzy black and white, in awe that someone I knew was on TV.

‘I thought people would want time to change things, to heal things…’ he kept saying

‘How do the requests seem to you, Mr Rudd?’ asked the interviewer.

‘Selfish,’ sighed Uncle Edgar, ‘just selfish.’

Flicking through the papers, I saw that the time-machine overtook politics, women’s lib, hippies and fox-hunting as the top reason for writing to the editor.

‘Sir, if I had paid any money, I would want it back. Something ought to be done about Mr Rudd. We have just returned from a week’s holiday in Spain. We saved up all year. Mr Rudd turned one week into two months. Now no-one is speaking to anyone else and I have an appointment with the divorce lawyer on Monday.’

‘Sir, an extra long honeymoon is a terrible thing. We ran out of things to say after six weeks and I’ve found out all his horrible habits. I wish I’d married the other bloke.’

‘Sir, I wanted to be with my children thirty-six waking hours a day. I am now going grey and I am only twenty-four. Don’t print my name. My husband always said they were little brats and I don’t want him to know I now realise he’s right.’

Only two letters stood out in praise.

‘Sir, having spent a weekend away from 3b which Mr Rudd had extended to a month, I now realise what objectionable little toe-rags they are. I have handed in my notice and am off to work in a country where children prize their education.’

‘Sir, I asked for extra time to improve my housewife skills. In the library looking for recipe books, I enrolled my husband on a cookery course while I learnt accountancy. We are both now much happier and about to open a hotel.’

But a final letter suggested sinister implications.

‘Sir, are Mr Rudd’s motives truly altruistic? Enemy agents are at this moment infiltrating our society with secret brain-washing machinery! How can we know that he is not central to this plot? All true Britons! For the sake of God, Queen and Country: boycott this fiendish device!’

Uncle Edgar closed down the garage in Willoughby Avenue.

I now live in a small town myself and know how scandals about nothing rumble round for what feels like forever and then blow over. In Uncle Edgar’s case, the indignation about the time-machine was overtaken when the local chip shop started offering curry sauce and ‘The Great Foreign Muck Food Poisoning’ debate began.

I realise as I wade through the yellowed newsprint, that I last saw the time-machine in 1976. Uncle Edgar used bits of it to make me a radio which he put in a 1950s vanity case. Being an unconfident teenager, I didn’t appreciate it. Already desperately uncool, I didn’t want to be seen with something so old fashioned it probably couldn’t pick up the ‘right’ station.

Putting the newspapers into a neat pile for recycling, I turn to the next set of things to sort. Deep in a battered cardboard box is the vanity case radio, covered in lovely cherry red leather. I am ashamed that I didn’t thank Uncle Edgar enough and that I was more interested in other people’s opinions than the work of art I possessed. Such is the regret of middle-age I suppose.

Clearing this attic is both sad and exhausting. I wish I could relish it more, that I didn’t have to go back to work tomorrow, that most of this stuff will go to landfill because I only have today to go through it all.

I run my hands over the case and opening it, turn those solid dials which speak of a less disposable era. My fingers find something out of kilter, a little bit of imperfection. Tucked down between the radio and its case is a tiny slip of paper.

It reads, ‘Dear Paula. Next to the left dial is a small button. One day, you’ll want more time. If so, just press the button while you tune in. Make the most of it. Love Uncle E.’

With a trembling finger, I press….

time machine2_edited-1

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Umbrella

Today I dithered.

From the screen, Dina with lowered eyes, chatted away, oblivious to my restlessness. She was doing some form of craft I think. Her hands were below the screen but occasionally, scissors and thread flashed above the edge or she leaned forward to check her work.

For all I know she was performing surgery. For all I know, she was projecting a stock image of the woman she wants me to think she is.

If she had looked up, she’d have seen the image I chose to be today. I created it about ten years ago. My skin is iridescent and my hair in silvered braids is formed into the ears and scales of a dragon.

In the evenings I like to project myself as a sleepy cat for online friends. Only for close family do I show myself as I nearly am.

I have never seen Dina in person but this morning, I agreed to meet after five years of dialogue.

She gossiped and I responded in noncommittal sounds. Putting my glare glasses on, I motored to the window and looked outside where vehicles glided, their occupants obscured behind tinted glass and robots rushed.

There are still some who choose to be in the open. There will always be some who have no choice. Here and there, those throwbacks whose lower limbs still function walked or ran, mingling with those on motor legs like me. I’ve got the impression Dina is a throwback. I will know when I meet her for the first time next week.

All the people on the pavement, legged or motorised, wore their shells like badges. Here was a rich person, here someone trying to look rich. Here someone who didn’t care what anyone thought. I have not been beyond these walls for three years.

Shells fit close but they can project a lie as easily as a digital image can.

Someone passed whose shell looked cheap and worn. Over his head, he carried one of those antique fabric structures on a stick which was designed to keep off the rain, in the days when we used to have rain. I imagine he’d bought it in a junk shop to keep the sun from penetrating his inadequate shell.

I willed it to work. Once my little sister ran outside into the sun without protection. I tried to get to her but our mother, sobbing, pulled me back. Whenever I look at the burn scar on my right arm, I hear my sister’s screams; her skin bubbling and blistering as she died.

Now I turned to motor over to my wardrobe. Inside, my collection of shells hung – the myriad possible me’s taunted. I could look rich or average, shy or confident, flamboyant or conservative. Which one? Which one?

‘How will I recognise the real you?’ said Dina, biting off a piece of thread.

I stared into my wardrobe and said nothing. I no longer knew who I was myself.

window face

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission