The Engineer By Paul Gorman

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The first they knew of their visitor was when Sofia saw him lope around the outside of the house as if stalking something. She darted from room to room, tracking his progress. She hissed to Stephen to get his attention and they watched the stranger – a dishevelled-looking man with hair in long, lank ringlets – stop now and then to check his watch, peer up at the architecture of the house, and stride a few paces further. The man, whose clothing belonged to a time period not quite current but not yet old enough to attain retro chic, walked with a slight limp. They saw him look at the kitchen window and – though there was no-one in that damned room, of that they were certain – give a small, cheery wave at something he saw there.

Stephen was on his way to the front door – the back door was reached through the kitchen, into which they would not go unless their lives depended on it – when the bell rang. The man was on the step, his finger still on the button of the doorbell, stroking it. A long holdall, such as would hold football or tennis kit (or a pickaxe, thought Stephen. Or a rifle), hung from his other hand.

The man looked at the finger he was caressing the doorbell with. His face was not hostile, but nor was it exactly friendly.

“That’s a lovely declivity on that button, by the way. Very comforting, so it is. So smooth.”

He raised drowsy-looking eyes to Stephen.

“How’re you doing? My name’s James Malcolm: I’m here to rescue your kitchen.”

#

They’d no idea when it had all started. For weeks, maybe even months, they’d noticed that the clock on the kitchen wall, and the LED clock on the oven, ran faster than timepieces elsewhere in the house. When they found themselves resetting those clocks every other day, they became intrigued but not yet scared. Soon, other devices in the kitchen – phones and tablets – also told a different time from those in other rooms: only a few minutes, but noticeable if they’d been left in the kitchen for a while – overnight, say.

The radio was the first clue that something was deeply wrong. Keen radio listeners, they were familiar with the lag between different machines – analogue and digital devices would be slightly out of sync – but the kitchen distorted this. Entire minutes seemed to exist between a radio in the kitchen and one elsewhere. A song beginning in the bedroom would be ending in the kitchen. The lounge radio would broadcast the news headlines, the kitchen radio would be wrapping up the sport and weather.

It took an experiment – Sofia was keen, Stephen less so – to confirm their fears. They watched a football match in either room. Stephen saw the match end on the little TV in the kitchen, while in the lounge Sofia watched it tick down towards the final whistle. Stephen picked up his phone and was able to place an online bet on the outcome of the game he’d just seen the final score of. The conclusion was inescapable.

Their kitchen was four minutes in the future.

More betting followed. Stephen was not a gambling man; nor, an accountant by profession, a natural risk-taker, but the buzz he felt in the first few weeks was stronger, surely, than any drug. The surge of adrenaline when he bet on a match decided by a late, late winner – a goal which at that moment existed only in the kitchen of his house and nowhere else on earth – was like an orgasm. Soon though, the thrill faded; climax became impossible.

The kitchen – the situation – began to unsettle them. Restless nights followed, and days passed which they spent in a shifting state of anxiety. They stopped inviting people around. Relationships stretched and grew thin, to snapping point. They did not go out, unable to leave or do anything to fix the anomaly.

The crisis came when Sofia saw Stephen step into the kitchen and disappear. The fixtures and fittings were there, undamaged: her partner was not. She screamed: but her scream did not alert him and bring him back hurrying in concern. He reappeared a few minutes later unaware that, on the other side of a clear pane of glass, he had vanished from Sofia’s view.

They moved everything they could out of the room. Fridge, microwave and kettle were brought into the lounge. Food cupboards were emptied and the contents arranged in piles around the sofa. Their living space shrank as the kitchen’s grew and with it, its distance from their lives. They washed up in the bathroom, took their clothes to the launderette on the High Street, and avoided the kitchen as far as was practicable. But they couldn’t live like this forever. The kitchen was now seven minutes ahead of them, bent on a destination unknown and at an increasing rate. They drew close the threads of their lives, and turned their backs on the too-bright, too-empty silent room on the other side of the door.

#

Of course, his real name isn’t James Malcolm. That was merely one of the names he had adopted over the years. He’d picked it up a very long time ago, and it suited him as well as any of his others. It was a name so ordinary and so everyday that no-one in this corner of the world would notice it when written down, pay attention to it if spoken, or find it noteworthy in any way.

A few minutes before he discovers the couple’s doorbell, he sits on a number 36 bus directly in front of two – conventionally – old women, listening enthralled to their chatter. He relishes its mix of gossip, banal recollection and quotidian prejudice. He likes to travel by bus. Private transport insulates him from the pulse of an area.

As the bus gurns its way up the narrow hill of the High Street, he checks the lower of the watches on his left wrist. It’s a late 1970s Snoopy watch, designed for children. He is only just able to wear it using the outermost hole of the red plastic strap. On the face, the watch hands are the arms of Schultz’s beagle and slowly rotate in a tai chi dance around the blissful cartoon face. The bus is two minutes late, but he isn’t worried. The matter in hand – the unscheduled appointment that is his destination – is critical but not yet urgent.

He checks the watch on his right wrist, careful not to reveal it for too long in case it catches a stray glance. It’s a whole other affair and though it’s this one that he uses to tell him when to get off the bus, it cannot tell the time in any conventionally recognisable manner.

A rapid glance out the far window shows him a public park swooping down to a riverside. On his nearside is a small new-build housing estate alongside a fenced-in construction site whose panels are adorned with boards proclaiming the imminent appearance of luxury two, three, and four-bedroom houses identical to those in the neighbouring scheme. His right wrist tells him it’s time to get off. He drags his holdall to the front of the bus.

“Sorry, next stop isn’t until the next village.” The driver seems utterly unapologetic. “Be about five minutes?”

That’s not acceptable. “James Malcolm” leans over and speaks loud enough to carry over the engine growl but low enough not to be heard by the other passengers. He clutches a pole in anticipation.

The door hisses open before the vehicle has even shuddered to a halt. “James Malcolm” has walked some way along a steep grassy verge to the speed limit sign before he hears the bus move off again.

By then, “James Malcolm” has crossed the road. He studies the lie of the land: the new houses and, adjacent, the empty site hidden behind corrugated metal panels painted a pale olive green. He spins slowly on a heel, surveying the rest of the landscape: its rises and falls, boundaries and transgressions. He crosses the road again, checks all his watches, forces a gap in the panelling that surrounds the building site and peers through, then strides back across manicured lawns towards the uncut grass of Sofia and Stephen’s home, and that’s where we catch up with him.

#

He doesn’t sit down, and he doesn’t answer any of their questions. He stands at the glazed door between lounge and kitchen, inspecting the empty room.

Stephen hands him a mug of tea, which he stares at in bewilderment before muttering his thanks.

“Seven and a half minutes.”

“We thought seven,” says Stephen, glancing between the stranger and his partner. “How do you know?”

“Tell me this. What was next door? Before they knocked down whatever they knocked down.” The man’s movements are slow, like a river of unknown depth.

“It was a, eh, slaughterhouse. Abattoir. Old, abandoned redbrick thing. Huge. Eyesore. They knocked it down a few months after we moved in. Late last year.”

“And when did “this” start?” He made exaggerated – and to Stephen’s mind, slightly mocking – air quotes.

“A few months ago. You think there’s a connection?”

“That is a particularly good cup of tea, by the way. What blend is that, is that Ceylon?”

“It’s eh, I don’t know. From the shop down the street. Their own brand, I think.”

“Hm.” The stranger opens the kitchen door and peers in.

The hum of the boiler echoes off the hard, bare surfaces. Stephen nods towards the cupboard door behind which the boiler is concealed.

“We get heating and hot water in the kitchen seven minutes before the rest of the house.”

“Amazing,” deadpans the stranger. Stephen clears his throat.

“What is it you’re looking for?”

The man says nothing, and checks his watch. Stephen’s patience is wearing thin.

“If you go in, we won’t be able to see you.”

“That’s not necessarily true, you know.”

“What?”

“Tell me your phone number.”

“Eh…”

#

Sofia wrestles control from her partner, rattling off her mobile number to the visitor. “James Malcolm” steps over the threshold, pulling the door gently closed behind him. He dials the number and lets it ring until the voicemail kicks in, then says “Hello” and hangs up. He stalks the kitchen, sipping his tea. He peers out the window from which he saw himself looking minutes earlier, and to whom he waved, but of course cannot now see the earlier version of himself inspecting the back garden. The garden is a narrow strip of untidy grass with a whirly clothes dryer at the end of an arc of flagstones leading from the back door. He checks all of his watches as he paces back and forth. He steps back into the lounge. Stephen and Sofia both jump.

“Are you both vegetarian, by the way?”

Stephen laughs nervously.

“Have you been going through our fridge?”

“Your fridge is behind you,” says the stranger calmly.

Stephen’s goofy smile withers. He clears his throat again. “So, do you have any idea what’s going on?”

“Many. Most of them are rubbish, though. It could be your kitchen wants meat.”

“You’re winding me up.”

“No, well, not meat precisely. Blood. Tell me, have either of you seen ghosts since this began?”

“Like a white lady, or a headless corpse?”

“I was thinking more like a cow.”

“Okay, Mr. Malcolm, I think unless you explain yourself or can do something to help, then I want you to-“

“Woah.” The visitor holds his hands up in a placatory gesture. He checks a watch, pops back into the kitchen. A few minutes later he comes out, dripping blood onto the carpet from a sliced palm.

“Do you have any antiseptic wipes?”

“Jesus.” Stephen crosses to a corner of the lounge where the first-aid kit currently resides. A mobile phone rings and Sofia yelps in shock. She frowns at the screen.

“I don’t recognise the number.”

“It’s me,” says the visitor. “Don’t answer it. When it stops ringing, check your voicemail.” Blood continues to drip from his cupped hand.

She does so, putting the phone on speaker. A tinny simulacrum of the stranger’s voice says “hello”, followed by a crackly beep.

Stephen hands their visitor an Elastoplast from a trembling hand, and looks with disdain at the burgundy stains on the floor.

“What if I had answered?” Sofia asks. “What would have happened?”

“You didn’t.”

“But what if I had?”

“You didn’t, and you couldn’t have.”

“But I could, I could have accepted the call and spoken to you.”

“No, because I ended the call. You never answered, because just now you never answered.”

“That makes no sense,” says Stephen.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a, eh, Management Accountant.”

“That’s a job where everything has to add up, then, am I right?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Stephen shrugs, defensive.

The visitor merely nods.

“I’m going to check the site next door,” he says.

“I’m coming with you,” mutters Stephen.

#

At a certain point as they cross the grass, uncut stems whipping at their shins, “James Malcolm” turns sharply to look at the kitchen. Stephen stumbles, follows his gaze.

“Hm.”

“What is it?” Stephen asks, but the man strides away, and squeezes through a gap in the panels. Stephen hurries after, breathlessly forcing his body between unforgiving edges of metal. “What are we looking for?”

“”We” are not looking for anything.”

Stephen looks around, sweeping his gaze across acres of turned, dried earth and patches of yellowing scrub. He sees the narrow strip of grass on top of which the panels were erected – his and Sofia’s land – and remembers the phone calls and emails they’d launched in order to have the fence moved back a metre or two. To no avail. He detests this piece of ground; the slaughterhouse was an eyesore and the sooner the houses are built the happier he’ll be.

“Look at that!” The visitor cries, stopping suddenly. Again, Stephen trips, unable to synchronise with this weirdo’s movements.

“What?”

“Dandelions! Hundreds of them. Aren’t they pretty?” “James Malcolm” stands entranced, staring at a sprinkling of yellow flowers on the debatable borderland by the fence.

“I’ve spent hours trying to kill the damn things.”

“Hm.” The man’s head moves now in tiny jerks, like a blackbird analysing angle and distance before striking to spear a worm. “What are they calling this development, then?”

“Orchard Brae.”

“Orchard Brae? Wouldn’t Boltgun Alley be more appropriate? Charnel Bank. No: Carcass Bank. Meat Crescent. Cadaver Avenue!” He bursts into laughter. Stephen does not join in.

The stranger checks something on his wrist, squats and unzips the holdall. He pulls out something that looks like a voltage meter with a smooth oval pebble and a pine-cone gaffer-taped to the top. He adjusts a few dials, which look like they’ve been cannibalised from children’s toys.

“What does that do?”

“James Malcolm” lowers the instrument, and looks Stephen in the eye.

“Do you really want me to explain?”

“You’re extremely arrogant.”

The visitor sighs, like someone whose dog has just shat on the sofa.

“I have lived an extremely long time. I don’t have to rub along with everyone because I’ll outlive you all and although with longevity comes responsibility, it also gives me the right to be a cunt if I so choose.”

Stephen tries to hold the man’s gaze.

“I’ve got two theories,” the visitor continues.

“Okay…”

“I need to go back to your kitchen.” He consults the implement then slips it back into the holdall. He turns abruptly and heads back to the gap in the fence. Stephen trots after him.

“Can I ask? How did you find us? I mean, we haven’t told anyone. Nobody. It’s embarrassing.” He laughs nervously. “I’d almost prefer people thought we were splitting up. But we’ve told nobody.”

“James Malcolm” puts down the holdall and pulls up a sleeve to show the Snoopy watch.

“What does this do?”

“It…it tells the time.”

“Ah, no. It tells you the hour of the day in Greenwich.” He pulls the sleeve up further to reveal another watch. This one has an opalescent face. “This one tells the solar time. The local time right here. The time over the river there is different from here, just by a second or two maybe, but it all matters. Now this…” he reveals the watch on his other wrist, and Stephen sees it then looks away, feeling like his eyes are about to spin. He rubs his temples. “…this one does something different.”

“So, what…what causes something like this?”

#

“James Malcolm” has two theories. Just because the couple haven’t seen any ghosts doesn’t mean there aren’t any. But it doesn’t feel as straightforward as ghosts, or not only ghosts. Nor would they account for the anomaly: they’d just be symptoms.

The slaughterhouse was old, and not the first building with that purpose on the site. Long since abandoned, time had settled, thicker than dust. These shiny new houses, so bright and geometric their presence felt like a papercut, had been built hard against it – overlapping, in fact, as he glanced again at the stray fringe of greenery by the fence – and the disturbance of the demolition may have caused temporal disruption. Time was draining from their house. How long it would continue he had no idea, and he couldn’t predict the long-term effect.

He tells Stephen none of this.

“You expect me to use words like “vortex” here, don’t you? “

“I…”

“Okay, it’s a vortex. How long have we been walking, by the way? Shouldn’t we be at the fence by now?” He cocks a look back over his shoulder. “Don’t turn around.”

#

Naturally, Stephen turns around, and his head swims with something like vertigo. Behind him he sees dozens – hundreds – of images of the two of them, like a special effect from some 70s music video; one for each second they’d been walking, perhaps. An endless parade of images, less than a heartbeat apart. A child’s flick-book animation. Like being in a lift with mirrored walls. He turns back and the gap in the fence simultaneously looms and recedes. He feels sick.

“Run,” says the stranger.

Stephen runs. He’s scared, now. It’s as if something that had been hidden for a long time but he’d always suspected was there, is now aware of him. Terror gives him wings, but for far too many footsteps the gap comes no closer. He wails like a toddler. Then the visitor grabs his arm and drags him through the gap. He bangs his head and knee. Dizzy, he stumbles across the grass.

“Front door,” the other man grunts.

Sofia meets them in the hallway.

“What is it?”

“It’s a vortex,” Stephen pants.

“It’s not a fucking vortex.” The stranger catches his breath. “That was a joke. Time is running out.”

“For what?” Sofia asks.

“No, that’s what’s happening. Time is running out of your house. Leaking.” He holds two balled fists hard against each other, knuckles white. “Plate tectonics,” he says. “Pressure builds. Areas of adjacent time. These lovely shiny new houses hard against the mouldering old abattoir. Which gets knocked down – pow!” He moves one fist and the other shoots across the top of it.

“A “timequake”?” Stephen says, wide-eyed.

“Oh, please.” The visitor winces. He looks around the room, searching for something. He crouches and peers and opens drawers. “Happens all the time in cities, this sort of weird shit, so it doesn’t stand out so much, you know what I mean? Now, what do I do about it? I could leave it. It may all even itself out after a while, but your house, and probably those of your neighbours, would be utterly uninhabitable. And I don’t think you want to risk upsetting your neighbours now, do you, Stephen?”

Stephen ignores him.

“Is there another option?” Sofia asks.

“Could I trouble you for another cup of that tea, by the way? Thank you. Ah! Could I borrow those?”

Sofia follows his gaze. He crouches by an armchair, behind which is tucked a linen bag bulging with balls of wool and crumpled knitting patterns. He withdraws a long pair of needles.

“They were my Nonna’s,” says Sofia. “But, sure,” she shrugs. “If it will help.”

“Italian quality, then?” He smiles at Sofia. “I’ve been trying place your accent. Milano?”

“Torino.”

“Torino, ah. Close enough,” he says with a wink. She grimaces in mock outrage.

Stephen sullenly passes the stranger a mug of tea which he accepts without acknowledgement.

“And you?” Sofia asks “Is that Northern Ireland?”

He downs his mug of tea in one, and seems to ponder the question.

“You know, it could be.”

#

He passes slowly along the fence, moving the thing that isn’t a voltage meter from side to side and examining the timepieces on either wrist. Then he kneels, sets the meter down and with the knitting needles in one hand like giant chopsticks, describes complex angular motions in the air. The needles feel weirdly elusive in his grip, which he takes as a good sign.

If there’s a scientific term for what he’s doing, “James Malcolm” doesn’t know it, nor in all likelihood would he use it if he did. He knows he wasn’t strictly accurate when he described Time as ‘running’ or ‘leaking’. It’s far stranger than that.

The couple’s kitchen is the closest point in space to the construction site. There’s nothing inherently special about it: this could have happened to any of their neighbours had the layout of the housing estate been different.

The space between the kitchen and the site, with its residue of disturbed time-periods struggling for supremacy, is occupied by unsettling angles: points that shift and elide and vanish and reappear in other configurations which to look at would make a human stomach revolt. They’re mostly invisible, though “James Malcolm” wears glasses as he edges along the gentle grassy banking towards them.  These glasses have been retrofitted into a frame that could either be a just-past-fashionable pair of adult sunglasses, or a novelty childrens’ pair, such as you can buy at any seaside store.

He edges closer to another angle and with a deft motion of his wrist he unknots it. There.

The first he’s aware of the weirdness is when his holdall vanishes. It’s behind him, so he’s only aware of it in his peripheral vision, and he must look around to confirm that it hasn’t just slipped into a blind spot. It’s gone. But in the space where it was, the grass stems are flattened. As he looks, the bag reappears, as if an invisible veil was swiftly drawn aside.

“Okay.”

The bag vanishes again. He’s seeing the future: a time shortly ahead when he will have picked up his bag, but before the grass stems have stretched back upright. Is this encouraging? Hard to say. The reason people vanish when stepping into the kitchen is because the future is provisional and unwritten. People move: so many possible decisions could provoke so many different movements, that it is not possible to view someone more than a small period in the future unless they stay still: asleep, say. Or dead. He never had the chance to explain it to the couple; or rather, he couldn’t be arsed.

The angles have become agitated, as if aware of the threat he poses, with his Elton John glasses and his giant fuck-off chopsticks. They dart about alarmingly – he doesn’t want one passing through his body, really doesn’t want that – so he dives to the ground. As they move, Time ripples across the space. His bag comes and goes rapidly with no rhythm, and he knows that things are slipping from his control. He glances at the house: the couple stand at a window. Then, they are gone; and then back again. He can just detect the angles pulsing about the sky above his head. He remembers something; something he should have told them.

“Keep out of the kitchen!” he shouts.

They look blank; no, not blank, they just haven’t heard.

“Keep out of the fucking kitchen!”

Still they show no sign of having heard. The double-glazing can’t be that fucking thick, even if Stephen clearly is. There’s nothing more he can do to warn them. You can take a horse to…whatever.

And with that thought, a roar – a wail that comes from no single throat – echoes from the building site. He can smell something; coppery animal breath.

“Shitbulbs. Here come the cows.”

Every cow, pig, sheep, horse and whatever else that had passed into the slaughterhouse, has found collective voice. Not ghosts, precisely. He takes it as a compliment: the anomaly senses the danger it’s in as the man on the ground unpicks Time’s knots and corners. He looks around, trying to pinpoint the noise’s source, and notices that there is no-one – not even a curious child – at any other door or window in the estate. The roar comes again, louder this time.

“Angry beef,” he tuts.

#

They watch him from the spare room with increasing alarm.

“I cannot believe this is happening,” says Stephen. “Do you think anyone else can see?” He feels like an actor, mouthing words he hasn’t written and doesn’t believe, while actions that stretch his worldview to the limit take place in his back garden.

“Aren’t you worried about the house? Isn’t that more important than what the neighbours think?”

“You’ve changed your tune.”

Sofia says nothing. Her breath mists the window. The stranger on the grass flickers in and out of vision.

“Look! Do you think he needs a hand?”

“What could we do?”

#

He blocks out the farmyard alarum and prods and probes for another anomaly. He finds it, a streak of lead in the air so fine only one eye at a time can apprehend it. He teases it, before stabbing like a heron. It undoes with a gasp. He wipes dry his forehead and peers around. Only a few left, he thinks.

Something slams into the panel ahead of him, just a few metres away. It happens again, and the metal is crumpling as if something – an enraged animal, for instance – were charging it.

“Come on, that’s it. Good cow. Clever cow. “

For each packet he unknots, those remaining seem to become more energised. There’s another boom, and the whole fence wobbles. Then another, as if what’s on the other side knows that the time of time running out is running out.

“Almost there.” Another flick of the needles, another gasp as he persuades an angle to not be what it is, and he pokes it back to where it either came from or is going to.

“Can I do anything to help?”

He rolls onto his back to look all the way behind, needles raised. Sofia is stalking warily towards him. Her feckless partner is still at the window, coming and going. “James Malcolm” realises that there’s at least one more angle between him and the house, but also – as the bovine-ovine-porcine-caprine-equine noise reaches a crescendo – that he need not find it himself.

The fence takes a final blow, and the impact sends the panel into the air, tens of kilos of metal blown like a leaf. It sails over the roof. Sofia screams. Her face is frozen in terror. She turns, unthinking, and runs up the back steps. Before the stranger can shout, she throws the back door open. As soon as she enters the kitchen she staggers and falls. No arms are flung out to brace her, nor does she try to turn to land on her hip.

“Shit,” says the stranger.

By the time she falls dead to the floor, he has turned back to examine the scene before him.

#

Ritual is the repeated observance of a form, carried out in anticipation of effecting a change in the world. It can work by analogy. Ritual magic is one of the languages the world understands, and “James Malcolm” has, by means of borrowed knitting needles, at the same time as he undoes the weird little angles of Time, been speaking it.

The invisible but very angry, and very dense, manifestation of hundreds of generations of slaughtered animals, in breaking the fence, literally abolished any formal distinction between the house and the construction site. There was, as “James Malcolm” has already noticed, a tiny continuation of the house’s land inside the fenced-off area. The removal of the barrier erases the distinction between the two properties, and thus the anomaly, and the theft of Time from the kitchen ceases.

In doing so, the kitchen enters a brief period in which it waits, poised, for the world to catch up. In that period, time does not pass. Sofia’s heart stops beating, blood stops flowing through her body, and her brain functions stop.

As “James Malcolm” surveys the wreckage fore and aft, knowing that in just a few minutes time will have evened itself out to a degree of normality, he hears a desperate shout from inside the house. Stephen has seen Sofia’s prone form. He bursts into the kitchen and pirouettes gracefully before crashing into the worktop and coming to rest, dead, at a perfect right-angle to his partner.

“Fuck.”

“James Malcolm” sticks the needles into the grass and picks up his holdall. The grass stems, as he has already seen, do not immediately spring back into position. He hesitates, wondering if he should nip in the front door to pick up some of those teabags – the cuppa had been sublime – but hadn’t they said the shop down the High Street sold them?

As he strides away from the house his own words, belatedly spat out by the final unfolding curl of time, shouted minutes earlier in warning, echo off the pristine white walls of the estate.

“Keep out of the kitchen! Keep out of the fucking kitchen!”

glasses

Paul Gorman

Paul Gorman is a writer and reviewer based near Edinburgh. The Engineer will return.

* Details of previous publications & links

    • Short stories published in three volumes of the annual “New Writing Scotland” anthology.

* Social Media Handles & links

Image By Jean-Paul Jandrain at Pixabay

pencil


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