“A Time Before” by Vincent Pendergast

It’s the glint in the surf that draws my eye, the flash of afternoon sun on cracked glass. Dropping to my knees on the wet pebble beach I break up the tangle of muck to expose the treasure within — a Casio with a shattered face, its hands pointing to three and eleven, the time all watches show. Into the bucket it goes, to join the others there. A Nautica, its back cover missing, insides choked with mud. A Rolex with one band still attached. A fake, but a good fake.

You stand aside, looking not at me but at the jagged headland cliffs that rise from the lake like shards of volcanic glass. Still kneeling, I watch you a while. The way the cool desert wind pulls at your long hair. The inky surf lapping around your bare ankles, signalling that the tide has turned.

Drifters came today.

“Oh?” You feign detachment, but I catch the briefest of sideways glances before your gaze settles once more on the far-off headland. “Did they buy a watch?”

The little Seiko. The one from that day.

The hint of a smile. “Yes, I remember it.” And just like that the light is in your eyes, the spreading smile just as it always was. I smile too, and rise to my feet, the spoils of an afternoon’s combing jingling inside my rusty bucket.

It’s a moment. I want to hold it as it is, forever, but already I feel the sky slipping away. There are things I must say.

Stay this time.

As quickly as it came the light is gone. You turn your back to me and stride away, kicking through the surf.

I want to yell after you. I could say so much. I know every bitter point to drive, because I’ve said it all a hundred, a thousand times before. But I know how it will end, this time and the next. I hold my tongue and hurry after.

We climb the boulders strewn below the cliffs before you stop, to reach out with a slender hand to touch the stone face. Still you won’t speak. I clench the handle of my bucket. You know I’m struggling but I won’t give you that victory.

“It’s just like black jade.”

My surprise – that the silence is broken by you, not me – proves the falseness of my convictions. Frustration, confusion, they boil up inside me. I push on past you to stand by the rocky ledge, to take in the crater-lake before me — ripples expanding from the churchyard island to spread across the dark surface like the rings of a tree, to crash upon the beach and cliffs as waves. Black jade? You know I don’t know the things you know. Already I regret my impulsiveness – but I am young.

“Come with me.” Your voice is by my ear, you’ve moved in close behind me.

Where? I don’t try to soften my tone. Don’t think I’ve forgotten my anger.

“Anywhere. I want to see people. I want to talk, and dance, and…”

And what?

You look away and sigh, but not so softly I won’t hear it. “And nothing. Forget it.”

The anger falls away. There are no people. Not anymore. I glance down at the crown of your head, your hair spilling down your back. Your blouse is loose, the top buttons undone. You meet my stare.

Why can’t you just want to be with me?

Your lips go taut. I know what you’ll say, but before I have to hear those words again you walk away and go to your knees. Something hidden in the cracks and crags has caught your eye. Brushing pebbles aside you lift your find — a little watch, a woman’s watch — and lay it over your wrist.

“You’ll sell them?”

I hardly give the watch a second glance, but… Yes, it might sell.

“To the drifters?”

We talk to avoid talking, we both play the game.

It’s why they come.

“But why?”

Oh come on. I shake my head, not hiding my exasperation. You know all this.

“No, I don’t. You think I wouldn’t remember if I did?”

Your voice holds such fire, your eyes such hurt, that I’m taken aback and can say nothing.

But I know I’ve told you a hundred, a thousand times before. Since that day so long ago when you wandered into my little shack of tin and driftwood. Standing in my doorway, uncertain, I could tell you were not from the same place as the others. I did not speak, somehow knowing that if I did you would be gone; just watched as you took those first steps, moving in and out of shadow cut at slants by tall narrow windows. Your eyes fixed on the walls, the watches there – watches hanging from hooks, lying on shelves, nailed to posts and piled in boxes and dangling on strings from the ceiling. Past them all you were drawn to one, a woman’s Seiko, its face cracked, the numerals on its dial faded. You raised a hand to touch, and just that same moment a cloud outside moved, or the sun itself did. Shadows jumped, slants of light ran across the walls, and a thousand watch faces flashed around you. I saw your eyes come alive with wonder, as if remembering something from another world.

But now your eyes say something else. Perhaps you’re right, perhaps I never told you.

Before the lake there was a town.

And just like that the hurt is gone. You grin mischievously, the winner this round. The dance we’ve danced for an eternity resumed once more.

“When was there a town?”

I don’t know when. Forever ago.

“Who lived there?”

I don’t know who. It doesn’t matter. They’re all gone now.

You lean back against the sheer cliff wall. You don’t look at me but at the lake, the ruined rooftops that now barely break its surface. Perhaps you remember what I don’t.

It doesn’t matter when and it doesn’t matter who, because the black water came, and that was the end of time and the end of people.

“But it wasn’t. You’re still here.”

A shrug. Nothing more need be said.

“And the watches?”

They wash up with the tide, and I sell them to those who drift through from the endless desert. Those who take something to prove they’ve been. To prove they ever were at all. And no-

I raise a hand to still your lips.

I don’t know who they are, either. I don’t care. I don’t like people.

“That’s not true either,” you say softly, but not so softly I won’t hear. “You like me.”

Maybe.

I can’t help but grin at the flash of irritation in your eyes at that. The winner this round. But… your look turns distant. My grin fades. Already your mind is somewhere else. You’re slipping.

“I’ve been to the ocean, in another life,” you whisper. “I saw the beach, and there were no watches in it.”

I know I shouldn’t ask, I know I’ll regret it even as the words come.

What’s “the ocean”?

Half between a laugh and shriek, you come back to the world, clapping your hands together. “You’re joking! You don’t know what an ocean is?”

I know this pang well, but it’s too late now to take the words back. I don’t know the things you know. I’ll never see the world you see. Maybe you sense that. Maybe that’s why you turn away.

In silence we watch the lake. Already I regret my hesitation – but I am old. The tide is rising, the rooftops are gone, the church steeple just a tiny far off thing.

Without warning your body is against mine, your head touching my shoulder, your hair spilled down my chest. I can feel your breathing, your warmth. It’s a moment. I want to hold it as it is, forever, but already time is slipping away, and there are things I must say.

“Will you sell this one too?”

My surprise – that the silence is broken by you, not me – is forgotten the instant I look down. My breath catches. In your upturned palms you hold your find, a woman’s Seiko, cracked and faded. The hands point to three and eleven, the time all watches show.

Carefully I lift it. Perhaps I’ll sell it to the drifters… But not just yet. One day it might catch someone’s eye, perhaps… But not for a long time yet.

I pocket it. I know just where it will hang in my shack of tin and driftwood, but for now we watch the water. Only the pinnacle of the steeple peeks above, and soon it too will be forgotten.

It’s time for you to go.


Vincent Pendergast lives in the south-eastern corner of Australia — sometimes in the rural Riverina, other times it’s the coastal Illawarra. His stories have appeared in Shimmer, Shock Totem, Pseudopod and elsewhere.
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