Measuring time

Measuring time

Measuring Time

One thing I can remember is that I went for a ride. I like cycling. Strike that, I adore cycling, it makes for the best part of my day and it’s been like this since I can remember. That’s just an expression, you must understand: it’s not like I was cycling before I could walk of course, and I actually have vague memories of crawling on the living room carpet, knocking toys aside and definitely not riding a bike just yet. And I am obviously not cycling now. I haven’t done that for quite some time. But the fact remains that mine is a lifelong passion.
I would cycle to school and take the extra-long route through the park, even though that meant a full ten minutes that could have been saved by just going in a straight line, instead of turning right after the antique shop. Teachers told me off for being late and, after a few years, I figured it out and endeavoured to wake up earlier, just for the sake of those ten minutes. They were the unspoken pivotal moment of my entire day. I needed those precious minutes to drink it all in. The peace, the light, the conspicuous lack of people in the early hours of the morning: I have always craved that particular kind of beauty, though I was not always aware of it.

The different scents of the seasons, the changes in the quality of the light and the music I carefully selected and played on a number of devices through the years, scan time in my memory far more effectively than common coordinates like days and months.
When did we move to the house beside the church? It was immediately after Neil Young’s Decade on tape, during the fall of the yellow leaves that clogged the pothole behind the house, in that week when the third bench by the lake stank of cat pee for three days. When did grandma die? Approximately between Louder than Bombs and Hunky Dory, but it was cds by then and it was when the lake in the park froze over and that kid tried skating on it and fell through. I graduated during Unknown Pleasures, surrounded by the smell of freshly mown grass.

And that’s the one thing I remember about that day and I can remember it because it was the last time I ever rode a bike. It seems so long ago, but I couldn’t say exactly how long. I’d had The Velvet Underground and Nico rolling on my iPod for about a week and the rose bushes were in full bloom and smelled intensely like themselves. So many things are made to smell like roses. And when we smell the real thing we hardly notice any more.

The lake. I remember the lake. It was just an artificial body of water in the heart of a city park, but it was so painfully beautiful, in the dying light of that summer evening, that I had to stop. There is only one bench on that side of the lake, by the bust of the writer, whatshisname, the one that might actually be a painter or possibly a general, now I come to think of it. But I get confused. You have to forgive me, it’s been quite a while and facts and names slide over one another in my past, because I no longer have seasons and songs to remember them by.

There was only one bench and an old lady was sitting on it. I wouldn’t normally sit on a bench that’s already half occupied by someone else, but I instinctively liked her. She sat smiling placidly at the water and sighing deeply from time to time.
“In my time – she said, as I sat next to her – young women did not cycle on their own through parks at this time of day and they certainly did not sit beside strangers on benches.”
Her voice was pleasant and amused, she didn’t seem to mind. I smiled condescendingly. She chuckled.
“Brave new world, that has such creatures in it! Of course – she turned to look at me with milky eyes and a benign smile – you figured a little old lady would be safe. And you are quite right, of course, I am safe. Oh, I am quite safe. Quite safe indeed, I am.”
Having said that, she sighed again and turned her gaze back to the water, smiling. Her teeth were slightly too big for her face and flawlessly white, in stark contrast with the yellowish tinge of her skin. Her cheeks drooped heavily and the web of fine wrinkles that covered her face grew thicker at the sides of her mouth and around her eyes, as is often the case with old people who smile a lot.

We sat in silence for a few minutes, then she spoke again.
“Isn’t it just lovely?” she nodded in the direction of the rose bushes “the smell just tells you that summer is coming. Young people don’t really notice these things, but when you’re my age you shouldn’t take anything for granted.”
“Mmmmhhh” I contributed, without taking my gaze off the shining, rippling surface of the lake.
“Each year, when I smell the roses for the first time in the season, I pat myself on the back and say ‘well done old girl! You’ve lived to see another summer!'” She sighed contentedly and lapsed back into silence.

The last of the sunlight sank beneath the city skyline and I shivered in the sudden cold. I turned to look at the old lady. Her face seemed almost blue, in the dusky shade of that hour whose name I cannot remember. Her smile was still in place, but it looked somehow fixed, as if she had simply forgotten to take it off her face when she no longer meant it. I motioned to get up and leave, with a noncommittal nod. She laid a small, wrinkly hand on my thigh and I stopped mid-gesture.
“Do you know” she said flatly “I can’t even remember how many summers I have watched go by, on this bench.”
I passed that bench twice a day, every day, and I had never noticed her sitting there before. I smiled politely and started untangling my headphones.
“Would you like to know my secret?” she giggled girlishly “My secret for living a long life and never minding the passing of time?”
“Sure” I answered, trying to hide my impatience “what is your secret?”
“Having a purpose.” She said simply. She proclaimed it with such obvious pride and contentment that I felt compelled to nod and hum admiringly, but still she wouldn’t take her hand off my thigh, thus preventing me from getting up without being ever so slightly rude.
“And do you know what my purpose is?” she asked, as I tried very hard not to roll my eyes “staying young!”
“Well, good for you.”
“And you know what keeps me young?” She pressed on. I could feel the warmth from her hand spreading unpleasantly through the fabric of my trousers “Young people!” She beamed.
“Right. Talking to young people keeps you young, that’s lovely.” I said, trying to stand up again. She chuckled.
“Bless you! Talking, indeed! No, my dear, that’s not it. What good is talking?” She seemed to find me hilarious. “I store them, you see.”
Her smile got a tad too bright.
“Of course you… sorry, what do you do?”
“I store young people” she explained matter-of-factly “and eat them very slowly!”

And that’s it, really. That’s the last thing I remember. After that, there was only… this. The lake. The light, filtering down, but never quite reaching the murky depths where we stand. I never knew just how deep this lake was. It looked like nothing special from the outside. It looked safe. And it is safe, really, in a way. The swans and the ducks are perfectly safe, for instance. The fat red fish that nibble at our fingers, consuming us slowly to keep themselves – and her – alive , they are quite safe too. She holds us in, she says we keep her young. Well, she doesn’t really say that, not in so many words, but I can feel her thinking it, and whenever this thought forms in her mind, she smiles. We don’t do much down here, we just stand and sway and turn blue, then green, then brown and then black. The kid is still here, but there’s not much of him left by now. He is still wearing his ice-skates: I expect they will be the last to go. There are other people too. Kids mostly, even babies. We don’t talk. Not to each other, at any rate. I talk to myself sometimes. I talk to the light, when I manage to sway back far enough and angle what’s left of my body so that it catches a fleeting ray of sunshine. It’s hard, I only manage that when the water is particularly clear. I think the lake froze again, some time ago, because I could see what looked very much like tiny feet running right above my head. I tried to shout at the kid to get back, but I could make no sound. I don’t really remember much about sound and how you make it happen, but I do remember music. That kid did not fall through though, which was a small consolation.
Others did. They keep coming, but I don’t know much about them except that they’re here. The young ones melt faster, they dissolve in two shakes of a goldfish’s tail-fin and, when they do, suddenly the whole body of the water shines brighter on the inside. She likes it, when that happens.

I blame it on the memories. I can feel nothing but memories. Babies don’t have many of those, so there’s not much to hold them down, once their bodies are green and bloated and covered in weeds. I don’t think I had a particularly long life or a particularly interesting one, but I have memories. They are strong and they are too many and they make up this thing that used to be me and they spread through the boneless mass of my body like tingling nerves and through them I can feel. Or I can remember feeling, which is a feeling in itself and I think it is a painful one, but I am not sure pain is supposed to feel like this. Maybe this is not pain, maybe it’s something else. It could be longing or sadness. Songs. I remember so many songs. I go through all the words and the tunes in my head and I sway. I counted them many times over: I know exactly four thousand three hundred and sixty-seven of them, all by heart. Luckily, they have started to fade, now. I don’t think I’ll be able to stop being aware of all this, until I have forgotten them all, but it’s not easy: with nothing else to do, I keep going through them over and over. Last time I counted I could still remember four thousand three hundred and sixty-six songs, but I can’t remember which one I have forgotten, which is good. I wonder whether the kid in the ice-skates had songs in his head when he drowned. I wonder if he can remember any.
The peace and the light. We drink it all in.
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