By William Gallagher
THERE’S a camera trick or something, I don’t know what it’s called, where real places are made to look like miniatures. Toys. You wouldn’t need it here. I’m at the top of the Cube in the best restaurant in Birmingham. Best, most expensive, highest. If I look like I belong here then it’s only because it’s late and dark and you haven’t looked at my suit.
I take another drag on my cigarette but the heat of it seems to evaporate on the wind. It’s a cold night even at ground level and as I look down at the ants across the city, I wonder why they bother. I wonder what they know that I don’t, what they’re doing that I’m not, and I wonder why in the world I came here.
That’s a thought. I take the letter out of my pocket, hold my cigarette against it until a flame starts and then I place the paper on top of the marble ledge. It’s not as if it really gives out a lot of heat but it’s my way of saying I don’t give a shit.
“The note says you shouldn’t burn it,” comes a man’s voice.
He’s maybe 20 years older than me, which puts him around 40, and I dislike him on sight. I give him a glance and turn away to watch the last moments of the small fire.
“Actually, to be entirely accurate,” says the man, “it says you shouldn’t burn it this time. I’d love to have seen it again.”
I grunt at that. “I suppose you wrote it,” I say. “And the sign. Can’t say this is the ‘party of the century’ I was promised.”
He laughs. He actually laughs. “Oh, yes! I forgot I called it that. You’ve got to smile.”
“Okay,” he says. “But tell me about the sign. I haven’t written that yet.”
“Big thing outside the lifts,” I say. I don’t want to know him and I don’t want to talk to him but there is some kind of authority about the man. It reminds me of friends who’ve got older brothers. So I answer. “Go to the rooftop restaurant, wait by the ledge near table 12.”
The man repeats it word for word. Then he repeats it again, like he’s memorising it.
“It’s not like it’s hard to remember,” I say.
“You can talk,” he replies. “What colour pen was it in?”
“Heavy blue marker, I think.”
“Jesus, where will I get one of them?”
“From whoever wrote the sign, what do I know?”
“Not much,” he says. “Sorry, I forget that. It’s been a long time for me, you see.”
“Tell me about it. I’ve been freezing my balls off for 20 minutes.”
He laughs again. I never knew that laughing could be so irritating. And then he says: “I’d say try 20 years, but you’re going to.”
I flick the cigarette onto the ground, stub it out with my toe and give the guy a sharp, sarcastic flick of a grin. “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested. You have no idea what night I’ve given up to come here because of that stupid letter.”
“Thomas Naughton,” he starts to say but I stop him.
“Quit the sales pitch, I’m already gone,” I say.
“No, I wasn’t talking about you.” He steps in front of me, blocking my way back inside and also waving away one of Marco Pierre White’s waiters. “I was introducing myself.”
“We’ve got the same name?”
“You could say that.” He somehow leads me back to the ledge and we lean on it like we’re old friends sharing a beer while we cool off outside a party.
“That’s right,” he says. “I should’ve brought us some beer. But I just left you aged 30 and, Jesus, you’re smashed out of your skull.”
“I didn’t say anything,” I tell him. I wish the mood lighting were clearer. I get out my lighter, flick it open and stare at him through the flame. But the lighter splutters and rather than admit why I was using it, I get out another cigarette and start it.
“Like I say, it’s been a long time, ” he tells me. “Long enough that I can’t remember everything I told you before, everything I’m supposed to tell you now. I’m just hoping that when you ask me questions, it’ll come back to me. Like then: you had that look on your face and I remembered how I’d thought we were like drinking buddies cooling off outside a party.”
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Easier to do it the other way around. You’re Thomas Naughton aged 20, in fact happy birthday.” He pauses. “I’m Thomas Naughton, aged 40. Exactly 40. Do I look so different?”
Got it. “Annabel put you up to it, she saw you on Tindr, you’ve got some ancient photo of yourself and she figured you were my double. Is she paying you for this? Because I’d expect a complaint tomorrow.”
“Jesus Christ in a biscuit,” he says. “I’d actually forgotten I went out with Annabel Stopley. Unbelievable what time does to you. And, oh, hey, you cannot imagine how successful she’s going to be. I wish I could tell you.”
“I’ll wait while you think up something.” I admit the guy is intriguing but I’ve had enough now. I’m going to go find Annabel and dump her if this is some crazy gag of hers or beg her to take me back if it isn’t.
“You stay where you are,” comes a new voice before instantly turning to a really heavy hacking cough. This man is easily 60 and he’s pulling one of those oxygen cylinders. I can’t help it, I stand still. It’s like he’s my father. I instantly listen and I instantly feel guilty, like I’ve been caught out. He coughs again, a really deep and sickening cough, like he’s got seconds to live or something, and then he takes a deep breath from an oxygen mask.
Then he ignores me, dismisses me from his mind, and concentrates instead on whoever this other fella is. “Don’t worry about it, he takes some persuading.”
“Who does?” I ask.
They look at each other and then at me. The first one, the guy who calls himself by my name but says he’s 40, waves his hand, gesturing for the other man to answer for them both.
“Easier to do it the other way around,” he says to me. “You’re Thomas, aged 20. He’s you, he’s Thomas aged 40. And hello. I’m Thomas Naughton, aged 60. This is your first time here but every ten years up to 60, you’ll come back to this night for our little school reunion. Our very select reunion.”
I look at him and nod, okay. Nutters, the pair of them. I take a drag on my cigarette to give me time to form precisely the right sarcastic response, the right killer line to give them before I walk out of here to the sane world. “That’s so funny,” I tell them. “Because only today I invented a time machine and I was just wondering what to do with it.”
To my surprise, that actually gets a laugh. From both men. But it’s like they’re not laughing at me, they’re laughing at some private joke only they share. While the old one’s laugh turns into another cough – Christ, it’s enough to make you feel like your own insides are turning foul – the other one turns to face me.
“Sorry, I didn’t remember saying that,” he tells me. “And you’ll laugh too, when you know. Why’d you think your 30-year-old self is getting smashed? He actually does invent time travel but he only cracks it in his 29th year. In my 29th, I mean our 29th year. He’s getting plastered because he thought he’d never pull it off in time to get back here on schedule.”
I’m standing on a kind of roof garden smoking area, so high up in Birmingham’s skyline that you can’t hear the traffic below yet you can hear the odd police helicopter above. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s a weird sense of isolation and detachment from the real world, but for one brief moment, I actually believe them.
“It’s not the cold,” says the 40-year-old. Says 40-year-old me. “This is the moment when you’re ready to believe. Would you like one last piece of proof?”
I nod. I’m afraid if I speak I’ll sound like I’m buying all this.
“You’re here every 10 years. At 30, though, you’re getting more drunk than you ever imagined possible because you are so glad to be back here. I’m us, I’m you at 40. I’m also saving you from your 50-year-old self. He has some strange ideas. Midlife crisis, I’m afraid.”
The older man takes off his oxygen mask and adds: “Whereas I’m you at 60. Want to know why you’re not here at 70?”
“Not particularly,” I manage to say.
Rather than reply, he raps his knuckles on the oxygen tank.
“Oh, lovely,” I say.
The 40-year-old puts his hand on my shoulder. “I can’t tell you how you get back here again in 10 year’s time, you have to work that out for yourself. And there is a gigantic amount I just cannot reveal. But amongst so many reasons for us having this reunion over and over again, there is this one. Are you ready? ”
I find I’m shaking so much that I’m knocking cigarette ash all over myself.
Middle-aged me – dammit, I’m thinking of him as me, I’m believing them – nods to my cigarette. He says: “Put that out and vow you will never smoke again. Really. It should be easy: you’ve seen what happens.”
Okay, I’m bouncing between belief and doubt but even if this is all Annabel’s joke, the state of that 60-year-old is enough to put anyone off smoking for life. So I do as I’m told. With one last glance at the man with his oxygen cylinder on a leash, I drop the cigarette to the ground and drive it into the stone with my shoe.
I look up again and am about to say “Happy now?” when I see it. The 60-year-old is still right there in front of me where he was but his mask is gone. His cylinder is gone. He’s wearing smart and very expensive clothes. He also beams like yes, he is happy now.
“Thank you,” he says to me. Then to the 40-year-old who I now see is looking slimmer, somehow taller, also better dressed, and he adds: “Can you take it from here? Our 50-year-old self is going to be chatting up the 30 if I don’t get in there.” He leaves and the 40-year-old glances at his watch.
“Time for you to go too,” says the 40.
“What, this is it? Every 10 years you get together for five minutes to freak me out?”
“Hardly. We all meet here because it’s the only time you can get to. We come have a look at you, we do what we need to get this started and fix any problems like that lung cancer, and then the rest of us have a party. Last time we found this fantastic place in Alexandria, about a week before the fire. Fantastic, you’ll love it.”
“Sure I will.”
“Yes, you will. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more but think about it from my perspective. I know you’ve taken on as much as you can handle for now. There’s so much more, Jesus there’s so much, but I’ll tell you all that when you’re 30 and when you’ve sobered up. Go find Annabel now, say hi for me. And remember, come back to this hotel, come back to here, come back to this very night again and go find the bar.”
He walks away from me and I call after him. “No. I will never come back.”
Without breaking stride, he calls over his shoulder: “Now, that one I remember saying.”
© William Gallagher 2016