TRAPPED ON THE MERRY-GO-ROUND
Time doesn’t always travel in straight lines...
The TV was on but neither of us was watching too closely. It was on because it was always on when we were together in the sitting room. I guess it had always provided a legitimate excuse for us not to have to talk to each other, a comfortable background for each of us to immerse ourselves in our own thoughts and interests.
I was reclining in front of the fire doing The Daily Telegraph crossword, while Helen was hemming a pretty pink petticoat for our granddaughter, Maisie; and yet we both looked up at exactly the same moment to see the splendidly-clad hero – a musketeer type - take the poor bedraggled servant girl in his arms and ravish her. It was one of those lavish costume dramas that one is apt to see on television these days, the ‘no-expense-spared’ type. But there was something uncanny about the way we both decided to look up together. Perhaps it was the change of mood in the music, the sudden surge of strings in the soundtrack that alerted us.
“That’s strange,” I remarked. “I’m sure I’ve seen this bit already.”
“Quite possibly, dear,” said Helen, peering over her half-moon glasses. “They show enough trailers in the weeks leading up to the programme. You’ve probably seen it a dozen times already.”
“No, it can’t be that. I’m talking only about only fifteen minutes ago.”
“Well, perhaps you’ve got your wires crossed, Roger. There was probably a similar scene earlier. You’ve just got confused, dear. It’s your age.” Helen smiled to herself. She had made humouring me into a fine art.
“No, I’m sure of it. And we both stopped what we were doing to look up, didn’t we?”
“Did we? What? Then, or now?”
“I don’t think so, dear... but I’m certainly looking at it now.”
“But the time before?”
“What time before? I don’t know what you mean?”
“Darling, you can’t have forgotten. It was ten minutes ago – fifteen at the outside.”
“Well I don’t remember.”
“Yes, you do, Helen... You did look up... we both did.” I began to feel impatient with her.
“All right, Roger-dear… no need to bite my head off. I’ve been concentrating on this tricky bit of hem. I don’t want to mess up now I’ve got so far with it. Anyway, there’s such a thing as coincidence, you know.”
“I’m sorry to snap, darling, but you’re always trying to make light of things… explain things away.”
“That’s because there’s usually a logical explanation.”
“Exactly, someone their end has messed up big time... bad continuity, poor editing I’d say.”
“Does it matter, darling? I mean really?”
“Well I imagine it might just matter to the producers of the programme when they realise what a blooming great gaff they’ve made. I reckon it might be looked upon as something more than just a slip by the TV production company concerned, even though it’s not that important to us. Heads will roll. But you were looking too when the scene played the first time, I know you were... you must remember it?”
“No, I’ve never seen this bit before, dear, I assure you.”
“Yes you have, we were both watching. I distinctly remember because you said-”
“Darling, we’ve hardly been watching properly, have we? There’s you with your nose in a crossword, and me with my sewing. I can usually follow most things on the television just by listening to what’s being said and glancing up now and again for the occasional picture. If this bit had been on before I definitely would have remembered it, even if I hadn’t been looking. You are definitely mistaken, dear.”
“But you’ve just admitted you weren’t concentrating, so it’s you who could be mistaken.”
“Roger, I really don’t know why you’re making such a fuss about it.”
“There’s no speaking in this scene. See? They’re just kissing, so how would you know if this bit had been on before if there was nothing to listen to?”
“I would have known to look up. The mood of the music usually tells you when something dramatic or romantic’s about to happen.” Helen suddenly looked at the screen with renewed interest. “Hmm, just kissing, are they? My word, I wouldn’t mind being kissed like that by that gorgeous young man. Anyway, they’re talking again now, and this is the first time I’ve heard these lines I promise you, dear.”
“But you must remember, Helen... In fact I remember you saying, ‘I wouldn’t mind being kissed like that, etc.’ before, about a quarter of an hour ago, I’m sure of it. In fact I knew what you were going to say before you said it, just then... when you said it.”
“Déjà vu, dear. That’s what you call it when you think something that has just happened has happened before.”
“I know what déjà vu means, Helen. But you know I don’t believe in that stuff. Anyway, this was kind of different, at least it felt different. Somebody there end has messed up, I bet you. Their phone lines will be jamming up as we speak.”
“Well, make up your mind, Roger. You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to blame it on a fault in transmission, the production recording or whatever, then why would you say that I had repeated myself too when I know full well I haven’t? It doesn’t add up.”
Helen did have a point. I thought about it for a moment.
“Maybe the part about me thinking you said the same thing before is some kind of Déjà vu thing. I don’t know. But I still reckon they’ve messed up big time.”
“Oh, Roger... what a fuss about nothing, dear. I’m missing all of what they’re saying now because of you. Get back to your crossword and let me follow it. You’ve probably had one of your ‘moments’, again, that’s all, nothing to worry about.”
“And now you’re just humouring me to shut me up.”
“No I’m not, dear.”
“I know what I saw and heard. Nothing you can say will make me think any different.”
“Well, I think we ought to agree to disagree, dear... And now I’m missing it all with you talking and everything. Look, if it makes you any happier... have it your way - they’ve messed up... okay? There... happy now? Let that be an end to it. Now can you be quiet please, so I can at least catch the rest of the programme? You’re spoiling it for me.”
Now it was Helen’s turn to sound impatient. I felt as if I’d been slapped down as usual. It was even worse having Helen humour me just to shut me up. I wasn’t satisfied. There was a question to be answered and it had nothing to do with the crossword puzzle on my lap. Something weird had happened in the last fifteen minutes or so, I was sure of it and I didn’t want to be fobbed off with an illogical explanation.
I felt agitated. My left knee went up and down like it always did when something was bugging me. But I thought it best to bite the bullet and the peace. I shrugged and went back to 17 down (‘told by antique clocks? 5, 5.’), thinking vaguely about sand dials and water clocks, the history of time-keeping. But I couldn’t help keeping one eye on the TV because now I was suspicious.
The scene dragged on. The handsome hero and the servant girl were now muttering ‘sweet nothings’ to each other in between kisses. I surmised that perhaps the studio would be hoping that nobody at home would notice. Even so they’d be at least fifteen minutes behind schedule now.
Ten minutes later it happened again, the very same scene. I sat up straight, almost getting out of my chair. “This is ridiculous,” I said slowly. “I can’t believe they haven’t caught it yet? They can’t all be asleep at the studios, surely? I reckon they’ve somehow inadvertently looped a fifteen minute section of tape.”
“I thought you said it was all digital these days,” said Helen. “Didn’t you say they don’t use tape-recording for television anymore?”
“Maybe not analogue, or VCR as it’s known. But digital tape is still used and it can get looped electronically. It’s probably some corruption in the code encryption or something.”
“I’m afraid that all sounds a bit technical for me, dear.”
“Now that just proves it, doesn’t it? We’ve just seen this bit. Look, Helen... look!”
“What’s the matter now?” Helen asked, looking up from her needle basket, holding a thimble in the corner of her mouth. “Is something wrong with the set then?”
“I thought you were watching. I told you we’d seen this before. Now they’re playing it back for the third time.”
“No they’re not,’ Helen insisted. ‘I’m sure they aren’t. You must have read the book at some time. That would explain why you think you’ve seen it before.”
“It’s only this bit, Helen... not the whole bloody two hours!”
“Oh, Roger... I wish you wouldn’t use that language in the home. Oh this is hopeless... I’m missing it all with your talking. I might as well give up on it now. Shall I go and make a cup of tea? I think we could both do with one.”
I couldn’t believe Helen had not noticed what was going on, not even remembered the scene from just ten minutes ago. There would surely be an announcement at the end of the programme apologising for a technical fault. Something like: “... and we hope it did not interfere with your enjoyment of this programme,” it would say, or something to that effect - if ever it reached the end that is.
“I’m fed up with this,” I said to Helen. “This is beginning to do my head in.”
“Are you feeling all right, Roger? You look awfully pale, dear.”
“As a matter of fact I’m beginning to feel a little queasy... and fed up.” I got up and started towards the set. “Do you mind if I change the programme, Helen? See if anything else is on before I go completely potty.”
“Might just as well, I’ve lost interest now.” Helen huffed loudly.
On Channel 4 a panel of three professors and a spotty female archaeological student were sitting around a table discussing a Roman pot. The show’s resident expert, a suave-voiced Oxford don, was spouting a lot of inane drivel about scraping the bottom of the barrel. The professors seemed stumped, but the girl looked as if she knew a good deal more about the pot than she was letting on.
On Channel 23 - Extra there was a lot of ‘canned’ laughter as some contestant, a podgy-faced Japanese girl with large protruding teeth, munched her way through a plate of what looked like shiny fresh worms while sitting in a glass capsule. I couldn’t find anything remotely engaging, so reluctantly I switched back to the costume-drama on BBC2. The same scene was on, nearing the end of its run.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, not again... this is just driving me nuts. Now please watch it carefully this time, Helen, and if you still insist you haven’t seen the scene before, you’re either lying to me or I need a check-up from the neck up.”
“Darling, you know I have never lied to you. I wouldn’t. You’re probably having one of your moments again.”
“Don’t keep saying that. Don’t try and humour me Helen! It’s not funny.”
“I wasn’t trying to be. It’s you; you’re in a really funny mood all of a sudden and I don’t care for your attitude.”
And suddenly in a fit of exasperation, Helen threw her sewing down on the settee and went out to the kitchen to put the kettle on. I could hear her muttering to herself out there and although I couldn’t hear what it was she was actually saying, I was pretty sure it concerned me and wasn’t particularly complimentary.
Perhaps it was just me. Maybe I was seeing, or experiencing something in my own time zone, remote from anybody else’s, something outside the natural order of things. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
I jumped up and switched to Channel 4. The panel were still staring hard at their pot. The spotty female archaeological student was still having fun at the so-called experts’ expense. And on Channel 23 – Extra, the Japanese girl was still munching her was through a squirming myriad of slimy worms. Then I started to realise what was going on. All three programmes were repeating themselves.
“Helen,’ I called out to the kitchen. ‘Get me a scotch and water, will you, darling? I’ll pass on the tea this time.”
Her voice came echoing back. “What did you last servant die of? What’s up? Have you strained your back all of a sudden?”
“Quickly, quickly!” I shouted, snapping my fingers impatiently... or rather, they seemed to do it for themselves.
“Hold on... I’m just coming.”
I looked at the time. 9.12. Then I returned to the play and kept my eyes glued to the screen. Helen came back and put my single-malt down on the coffee-table, along with a small jug of water.
“There you are. Are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
When it switched again I thought I was ready for it, but the surprise must have knocked me flat. I found myself lying out on the sofa. The first thing I did was reach round for the drink. “Where did you put it?” I asked Helen.
“My drink? You brought it in a couple of moments ago. It was on the table.”
“You’ve been dreaming,” she said gently. She was sitting in the armchair as if she hadn’t moved in the last hour. She was still busy sewing. She leaned forward and started watching the play.
I went into the kitchen and found the bottle of Glenfillic. It was unopened. I searched in vain for a bottle opener. I cursed and instead half-filled a tumbler with water. I noticed the clock over the kitchen sink said 9.07. Yet it felt that somehow it should be at least an hour later than that. But my wristwatch confirmed the time and that always ran perfectly. And the clock on the mantelpiece in the lounge had also said round about the same time.
Before I actually got myself into a panic I pinned my hopes on Tom Davis in the upstairs flat.
I rang his bell and he opened the door to me.
“Hello, mate,” he said, looking down at my hand. “Let me guess... a corkscrew?”
I realised that I was still holding the unopened bottle of Glenfilic.
“Er, well... er, yes please, Tom. But that isn’t actually the reason I came up.”
“Oh? Roger..? If you don’t mind me saying so, mate... you look decidedly peaky. Is everything alright your end? I mean, you’re getting your share, still?”
I wasn’t really in the mood for Tom’s playful banter, so I said: “What’s the right time, Tom? Our clocks are doing crazy things downstairs.”
“Come in a moment,” he said. “Tom checked his watch. “Almost ten past by mine.”
“Nine or ten?”
He looked at his watch again. “Are you serious? Nine. What’s up?”
“I don’t know whether I’m losing my…” I started to say. And then I stopped myself. Tom eyed me curiously. Over his shoulder I heard a wave of studio applause and canned laughter, and then the unmistakable machine-gun patterns of Japanese syllables as a male compere began shouting over the top. I surmised that the girl had managed to eat all the worms to the delight of her audience.
“How long’s that programme been on?” I asked him.
“About twenty minutes. Were you watching too?”
“We had something else on,” I said, adding casually. “Have you noticed anything strange with your set tonight, Tom?”
He shook his head. “Can’t say I have. Why?”
“It’s just that mine seems to be chasing its tail. I don’t suppose it’s important. Anyway, if you just wouldn’t mind...”
“Oh, yeah, course. Give it here.” I handed Tom the bottle. “Stay for one?”
“Better not. Helen and all that... Another time.”
“Of course... Don’t want to upset the apple cart, do we? There you go mate... have one for me.”
Tom watched me go back down the stairs. I went into the hall, picked up the phone and dialled.
“Frank?” I said when someone picked up the other end. Frank was a trustworthy friend and member of the bowls club where I played. He was a stickler for detail. He’d know if something was up alright. “Yes, hello, Frank. It’s Roger… Roger Phillips.”
“Yes, Roger. What do I owe the pleasure?”
“What time do you make it?’
“Could you check the time for me?”
“What’s up? All the clocks gone AWOL in your part of the world?”
“No time to explain, Frank. Just tell me, would you?”
“Let’s see. Twelve past nine. By the way, are we pairing tomorrow?”
“Er, yes... I believe so. Listen, Frank... there’s something really strange happening my end. We were watching that period drama on Channel 2 when…”
“Yes, I know, I’m watching it now. “Hurry it up will you, I don’t want to miss anything.”
“You are? Well, how do you explain this repetition business? And the way the clocks are stuck between 9 and 9.15?”
Frank chuckled. “I don’t know, Roger,” he said. “You’ve got me there, old boy. But I wouldn’t mind a couple of shots of whatever it is you’re on. Might I suggest you go outside and give the building a shake.”
I reached out for the glass I had with me on the hall table, wondering how to explain...
The next moment I found myself back on the sofa. I was holding the newspaper and looking at 17 down. A part of my mind was thinking about antique clocks. I pulled myself out of it and glanced across at Helen. She was sitting quietly with her needle basket. The all too familiar play was repeating itself and by the clock on the mantelpiece it was still saying just after nine.
I went back into the hall and dialled Frank again, trying not to stampede myself, although I knew I wasn’t too far away from getting myself into a right old panic. I could not begin to understand how a section of time was spinning round in a circle, with me in the centre.
“Frank,” I asked quickly as soon as he picked up the phone. “I’m sorry if this sounds insane... But did I call you five minutes ago?”
“Who did you say this was?”
“Roger... bowls Roger... Christ, Frank, don’t you start.” I paused and calmed myself and then rephrased the question to make it sound logical. “Frank, old mate, did you phone me up about five minutes ago? We’ve been having some trouble with our line and I just wondered…”
“No, wasn’t me. By the way... are we pairing tomorrow?”
“I think so.” The question was unsettlingly familiar. I began to feel a cold sweat coming on. “Are you watching the play on Two, Tom?”
“Yes. I’d like to get back to it if I may. Catch you later. Don’t forget tomorrow.”
I went back into the kitchen and had a long close look at myself in the mirror. A crack across the mirror dropped one side of my face three inches below the other, but apart from that I couldn’t see anything else that added up to a psychosis. My eyes seemed steady, if a little hazy, but my heart was racing, almost palpitating, and I was sweating profusely. I think what made it worse was the fact that everything around me seemed real and solid and much too authentic to be a dream.
I waited for a minute and then went back to the lounge and sat down. Helen was watching the play. I fiddled with the remote. The picture popped and died.
“Roger! I was watching that! What are you doing?”
I went over to her. “Darling,” I said, keeping my voice as even and rational-sounding as possible. “Listen to me very carefully, please. This is very important.”
She frowned, put her sewing down and took my hands.
“For some reason, I don’t know why, we seem to be in a circular time trap, just going round and round, a cycling period of time. You’re not aware of it, and I can’t find anyone else who is either.”
Helen stared at me in amazement. “Roger... What are you on about?”
“Helen... Listen. For the last two hours a section of time about 15 minutes long has been repeating itself. The clocks are stuck between 9 and 9.15. That drama you’re watching has…”
“Roger, dear...” and here she smiled sweetly. “you really are a silly-billy sometimes. Now please, dear… stop this nonsense and turn the television back on.”
“Oh Helen… I give up!” I heard myself shouting, but it didn’t sound like me.
As I switched the set on I ran through all the other channels just to see if anything had changed. The remote shook in my hands. The panel stared at their pot, the Japanese girl continued to eat worms and the handsome hero was once again kissing the servant girl and whispering sweet nothings. I switched to BBC 4 which I had not checked before. Two newspaper men were interviewing a scientific pundit who occasionally guested on popular educational programmes such as Open University.
“…and what effect these dense eruptions of gas will have so far it’s impossible to tell. However, there’s certainly no cause for any alarm. These billows have mass, and I think we can expect a lot of strange optical effects as the light leaving the sun is deflected by them gravitationally.”
It sounded like a lot of twaddle to my ears but I was momentarily engaged. The scientist began demonstrating his theory with a model that he had to hand at a nearby table. He started playing with a set of coloured celluloid balls running on concentric metal rings, and fiddled with a ripple tank mounted against a mirror on the table.
One of the newsmen asked: “So what about the relationship between light and time? If I remember my relativity correctly, they’re tied up together pretty closely. Are you sure we won’t all need to add another hand to our clocks and watches?”
The pundit scientist smiled demeaningly. “I think we’ll be able to get along without that. Time is extremely complicated, but I can assure you the clocks won’t suddenly start running backwards.” He smiled wryly. “Or even sideways.”
I listened to him until Helen started to remonstrate. I switched the play on for her and went off into the hall. The fool didn’t know what he was talking about anyway. What I couldn’t understand was why I was the only person who realised what was going on. If I could get Frank over I might just be able to convince him.
I picked up the phone and glanced at my watch. It was 9.13. By the time I got through to Frank the next changeover would be due. Somehow I didn’t like the idea of being picked up and flung to the sofa, however painless it might be, so I put the phone down and went back into the lounge of my own accord.
The jump-back was smoother than I expected. I wasn’t conscious of anything, not even the slightest bump or tremor. A phrase stuck in my mind: Olden Times.
The newspaper was back on my lap, folded around the crossword. I looked through the clues. 17 down: Told by antique clocks? 5, 5. I must have solved it subconsciously. I remembered that I’d intended to phone Frank.
“Hullo, Frank?” I asked when I got through. “Roger again.”
“Is it about tomorrow?”
“We’re pairing, aren’t we?”
“As far as I know, Frank… as far as I know. Listen, Frank… Could you come round tonight? Sorry to ask you this late, but it’s fairly urgent.”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “Anything for my favourite bowls partner. What’s the trouble?”
“I’ll tell you when you get here. As soon as you can, eh, mate?”
“All right, sounds really important. I’ll be right over. Is Helen okay?”
“Yes, of course… she’s fine. I think it’s me that’s the problem.”
I went into the dining-room and pulled a bottle of gin and a couple of mini-tonics out of the sideboard. He’d need a drink when he heard what I had to say, I was sure of it.
Then I realised he’d never make it. From Earls Court it would take him at least half an hour to reach us at Maida Vale and he’d probably get no further than Marble Arch. I filled my glass out of the virtually bottomless bottle of Scotch and tried to work out a plan of action.
The first step was to get hold of someone like myself who retained his awareness of the past switch-backs. Somewhere else there must be others trapped in their little 15 minute cages who were also wondering desperately how to get out. I could start by phoning everyone I knew and then going on at random through the phone-book. But what could we do if we found each other? In fact there was nothing to do except sit tight and wait for it all to wear off. At least I knew I wasn’t looping my loop. Once these billows of whatever they were had burnt themselves out we’d be able to get off the roundabout.
Until then I had an unlimited supply of whiskey waiting for me in the half-empty bottle standing on the sink, though of course there was one snag: I’d never be able to get drunk.
I was musing round some of the other possibilities available and wondering how to get a permanent record of what was going on when an idea hit me.
I got out the phone directory and looked up the number of Television House, BBC2.
A girl at reception answered the phone. After haggling with her for a couple of minutes I persuaded her to put me through to one of the producers.
“Hello,’ I said. ‘Is the jackpot question in tonight’s programme known to any members of the studio audience?”
“No, of course not.”
“I see. As a matter of interest, do you yourself know it?”
“No,” he said. “Every single one of the questions tonight are known only to one person… our senior programme producer and of course the questions compiler, who is known to us only as Raymond X. They are an extremely closely guarded secret.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you. Try this. If you’ve got a piece of paper handy I’ll give you the jackpot question. Are you ready?”
There was a pause on the line. “What?”
I repeated myself.
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, but go ahead.”
I cleared my throat. “List the complete menu at the Guildhall Coronation Banquet in July 1953.”
I heard muttered consultations and the end of the line, and then a second voice came through: “Who is that speaking, please?”
“It’s Mr Roger Phillips, 124B Sutton Park Road, Harrow-on-the-Hill….”
But before I could finish I found myself back in the lounge. The jump-back had caught me cold. But instead of being stretched out on the sofa I was standing up, leaning on one elbow against the mantelpiece, looking down at the newspaper.
My eyes were focused clearly on the crossword puzzle, and before I pulled them away and started thinking over my call to the studio I noticed something that nearly made me fall into the fire.
17 down had been filled in.
I picked up the paper and showed it to Helen. “Did you do this clue, Helen… 17 down?”
“No,” she said. “You must know by now I never touch your crosswords, darling. It would be more than my life’s worth.”
The clock on the mantelpiece caught my eye, and I forgot about the studio and playing tricks with other people’s time.
The merry-go-round was closing in. I thought the jump-back had come sooner than I expected. At least two minutes earlier, somewhere around 9.13. And not only was the repetition interval getting shorter, but as the arc edged inwards on itself it was uncovering the real time stream running below it, the stream in which the other I, unknown to myself here, had solved the clue, stood up, walked over to the mantelpiece and filled in 17 down.
I sat down on the sofa, watching the clock carefully.
* * *
For the first time that evening Helen was thumbing over the pages of a magazine. The work-basket was tucked away on the bottom shelf of the bookcase.
“Do you want this on any longer?” she asked me. ‘It’s not very good.”
I turned to the panel game. The three professors and the spotty girl were still playing around with their pot. On BBC4 the pundit was sitting at the table playing with his models.
“…alarm. The billows have mass, and I think we can expect a lot of strange optical effects as the light…”
I switched the TV off.
The next jump-back came at 9.11. Somewhere in the time zone I’d left the mantelpiece, gone back to the sofa and lit a cigarette.
It was 9.04. Helen had opened the veranda windows and was looking out into the street. The set was on again so I pulled then plug out at the main. I threw the cigarette into the fire; not having seen myself light it, made it taste like someone else’s.
“Roger..? Would you like to go out for a stroll?” Helen suggested. “It should be rather pleasant in the park on an evening like this, don’t you think. We could do with some fresh air, I’m sure.”
Each subsequent jump-back gave us a new departure point. If now I bundled her outside and got her down to the end of the road, at the next jump we’d both be back in the lounge again, but probably have decided to drive to the pub instead.
“Yes, dear… sorry.”
“Are you asleep? Do you fancy a walk? The fresh air will wake you up... me too!”
All right, I thought. Why fight it? “Go and get your coat.”
“And what about you, dear?” she said. “Will you be warm enough as you are do you think?”
I assured Helen that I would be and she scurried off to the bedroom.
I walked round the lounge and convinced myself that I was awake. I even pinched myself on the back of the hand and watched the colour came back into the white mark it had left behind. The shadows, the solid feel of the chairs, the definition was much too fine for a dream.
It was 9.08. Normally Helen would take ten minutes to put on her coat. The next jump-back happened almost immediately.
I was still on the sofa looking at the clock which said six minutes past nine. Helen was bending down and picking up her work basket. This time the television was switched off.
“Oh darling,” said Helen. “I’ve just had a thought… Have you any money on you?”
I felt in my pocket automatically. “I think so, let’s see… How much do you want?”
Helen looked at me. “Well, what do you usually pay for a round of drinks at the Red Lion? I expect we’ll only have a couple though, won’t we? Unless Bertie and Eileen are there of course?”
“We’re going to the pub now, are we?”
“Darling, are you all right?’ She came over to see me. “You look all tucked-up. Is that shirt too tight in the collar?”
“Helen,’ I said, getting up. ‘I’ve got to try to explain something to you. I don’t know why it’s happening; I guess it’s something to do with these billows of gas the sun apparently keeps releasing.”
Helen was watching me with her mouth open, as if she was preparing to gobble me up.
“Roger,” she started to say. “Why are you looking at me like that? What’s the matter?”
“I’m quite all right,’ I assured her. ‘It’s just that everything is happening so quickly and I don’t think there’s much time left.”
I kept on glancing at the clock and Helen followed my eyes to it and went over to the mantelpiece. Watching me she picked up the clock and fiddled with the back of it. I saw the hands move round towards 10 o’clock, half-past ten, and then 11 o’clock. The floor trembled and I felt a rush of air pass by my ears.
“No, no,” I shouted, almost hysterical now. I snatched it from her and threw it against the wall. The clock appeared to bounce and shatter, and then almost immediately the pieces flew back to the mantelpiece and regenerated before my eyes. The wind whistled past my ears again, but this time in the opposite direction. Now the clock was whole again. Time had jumped back to 9.07.
Helen was in the bedroom. I had exactly a minute left.
“Roger, dear,” she called. “Tell me honestly, darling... Do you really want to, or don’t you?’
I found myself by the lounge window, looking out at the lights of a suburban landscape, muttering something incomprehensible. I was out of touch with what my real self was doing in the normal time zone – the ‘NOW’ time zone. This particular Helen that was speaking to me ‘now’ from the bedroom had to be a phantom.
It was I, not Helen, or anybody else for that matter, who was riding the merry-go-round of fifteen minutes.
Helen was standing in the doorway.
“…down to the…the…’ I was saying... was saying.”
Her voice sounded as if relayed through a faulty microphone cutting in and out.
Helen watched me, frozen in time. A fraction of a minute left.
I started to walk over to her...
... to walk over to her...
...ver to her...
I came out of it like a man catapulted from a revolving door. I was stretched out flat on the sofa, a hard aching pain running from the top of my head down past my right ear into my neck.
I looked at the time. It was a quarter to ten. I could hear Helen moving around in the dining-room. I lay there, steadying the room round me, and in a few minutes she came in carrying a tray and a couple of glasses.
“How do you feel?” she asked, making up an Alka-Seltzer.
I let it fizzle down and drank it.
“What happened?” I asked. ‘Did I faint or something?”
“Not exactly. You were watching the play. I thought you looked rather seedy so I suggested we go out for a drink. You went into a sort of convulsion. You really frightened me, Roger.”
“Guess how I felt,” I replied.
I stood up slowly and rubbed my neck. “God, I didn’t dream all that, surely... I couldn’t have done.”
“What was it about, dear?”
“A sort of crazy merry-go-round that I just couldn’t get off. I was stuck on it. It wasn’t nice, I tell you, Helen.”
The pain grabbed at my neck when I spoke. I went over to the set and switched it on manually. “It’s not easy to put into words what seemed to be happening. Time was sort of…” I winced as the pain bit in again.
“Sit down and rest,” Helen said. “I’ll come and join you. Like a proper drink?”
“Thanks... a large Scotch.”
I looked up at the screen. On BBC 1 there was a breakdown sign, a cabaret on BBC 2, a floodlit stadium on 5, and a variety show on 9. There was no sign this time of either the period drama or the Roman pot, or the Japanese girl gobbling her disgusting worms.
Helen brought the drink in and sat down on the sofa with me.
“It started off when we were watching the play,” I explained, rubbing the back of my neck.
“Shush! Don’t worry about it for now. Just try and relax.”
I put my head on Helen’s shoulder and looked up at the ceiling, listening to the sound coming from the variety show. I thought back through each turn of the roundabout, wondering whether I could have dreamt it all. I felt shattered, as if I’d been on a long journey and walked every single mile.
I was just mellowing nicely and about ready to drop off when Helen said, “Well, I didn’t think much of that. And they’re doing an encore. Good heavens, who would have thought it?”
“Who are?” I watched the light from the screen flicker across her face.
“The acrobats... The something or other Brothers. One of them even slipped. How do you feel?”
“Fine.” I turned my head round and looked at the screen.
Three or four acrobats with huge ‘V’-torsos and skin briefs were doing simple headstands on to each other’s arms. They finished the act and went into a more involved routine, throwing around a girl in leopard-skin panties. The applause was deafening. I thought they were only moderately good.
Two of them began to give what seemed to be a demonstration of dynamic tension, straining against each other like a pair of catatonic bulls, their necks and legs locked, until one of them was levered slowly off the ground.
“Why do they keep on doing that?” Helen said. “They’ve done that twice already.”
“Are you sure? Can’t say I’ve noticed. This looks a different routine altogether. In fact, surely this is a completely different troupe from before?”
The pivot man trembled. There was something wrong. You could see it in his face. One of his huge banks of muscles collapsed, and the whole act toppled and sprang apart.
“That’s live television for you,” I said, laughing. “Warts and all.”
‘They slipped there the last time,’ Helen said. “And at exactly the same point, I’m sure of it.”
“No, no,” I pointed out quickly. “You’re mistaken, darling. That last time was a headstand. This time they were stretched out horizontally.”
“How would you know?” said Helen. “You were almost asleep just now.” She leaned forward. “Well, what are they playing at? They’re repeating the whole thing for a third time now.”
It looked like an entirely new act to me, but I didn’t bother to argue. A chap has to know when it’s time to throw in the towel. I sat up and looked at the clock. It was five minutes past ten.
“Darling,” I said, putting my arm around her shoulder, almost resignedly. “I think you’d better hang on tight.”
“What do you mean, dear?”
“I’m pretty sure you’ve just climbed aboard the merry-go-round, only this time, you're driving.”
(...Adapted from a story by J G Ballard)