I hate to be in complete darkness, so I first saw the Milky Way in 1910 I thought I could sleep soundly if I was in the middle of all of those stars.
The 1920s were dark until I was allowed to come back into the light of civilised drawing rooms. I’d spent my confinement and 15th year in Norway during the winter darkness and returned alone. I'd been ill they said to explain my gaunt cheeks, and shadows; were love had been, curled under my eyes and refused to go.
My family thought me an abomination against God’s natural laws but the same affliction that separated me from them became my only comfort. Tired of the darkness, I travelled into the future and light spread before me. I watched candlelight replaced by Edison’s electric bulb. Some said electricity was witchcraft and full of dangerous vapours and I thought, if it was, then I was intoxicated. I watched the Industrial Revolutions with as much fervour as a nation being set free from beneath a shadow. I followed it to Chicago, 1933, where crowded in the Hall of Science courtyard, the crowd was so electric that I believed that we could light a star. Arcturus had travelled from 1893, a time traveller like me, and when they pointed their photocells at him, he obliged by producing a great white beam that cut across like sky like hope through the black.
I chased 3 months of 24 hour daylight at a time of the Arctic circle. I sat under the midnight sun in Norway. I time travelled through the dark nights and months but only lived half a life. I craved human companionship.
I came to London in 1984. 24-hour laundrettes and cafes. I stood at Piccadilly Circus at midnight. Neon signs and illuminated playhouses fed me like dining at the Ritz every night. All the lights burned in the big cities, where street lamps, scattered by dust and gas molecules made the sky glow and kept darkness at bay 365 days a year.
The BBC national anthem in 1994 was like saying goodbye to a friend, to the light, to people, every night and I felt abandoned. I went further out.
In 2050, people shut lights off because of light pollution, and then in 2060, people went all the way out to live in the darkness of space. The lights went out on Earth one by one and I was alone again. I tried floodlight therapy but felt like a fragile sea creature, having submarine lights shone on it for the first time.
When the Sanderson Research Institute regulated time travelling, I chose to be anchored in 2009. I found a job as a nurse and took the nightshift. The hospital, lit up in fluorescent lights like an all year round Christmas tree, protected me until each morning arrived as pink and wondrous as a newborn.
When I know that my former self is on nightshift I slip into our past, into our bed, like a thief stealing back mundane life; warmth, the smell of perfume, aftershave and morning sweat, all trivial things that are fading from my memory. I relive what memories I can like a double exposure. I watch for ways to stop the present and divert the natural course like a river.
The Anchor that used to stop me time travelling is encased in a plastic bag, floating in the pristine milk bottle warmer.
Where is the start when you’re a time traveller? Where does love begin and end? I binge watch my own life like a favourite box set- I even watch arguments. My lovers think I'm bolder- and I am, when they were alive I'd never have dream of touching them first, but now all I want is to touch them.
My partners are limbs I never knew I was missing. They are valves of my heart; they took empty space and filled it with meaning. They sat at the chairs in my flat and filled my sofa cushions with warm skin and laughter.
When we time travel, we synchronise our outer self with our external; in Tao, we are one with nothingness. All that is left is an outline of how people remember we look. The negative space between us is God. Though empty, it is full of meaning. We leave behind an imprint in the past that yawns for us.
I lay in our custom sized bed, imagining Faune's arm around my waist and Ernest's nose in my hair. In the morning, Ernest's alarm wakes me up, soft beeping signalling him to rise and walk to his writing desk. His leg is standing upright where I'd dutifully put it back without thinking.
How can he get up without his leg?
6 months earlier
34 night-lights glow through the gloom of the living room. The blue light makes my pale legs look like a ghoul so I fold them underneath me. Instead, I focus on my feet on the soft white painted floorboards. They’ve scuffed and worn with all of our comings and goings since Faune sanded and painted them 3 years ago. Wooden beams run above my head. It had been a marmalade warehouse in the 1700’s and then a fabric warehouse. The floorboards are still stained with fabric dye.
I’m sitting under the arm of our large corner sofa by the coffee table. Ernest’s books are precariously piled up before me. I try to ignore the sound of hundreds of marching feet on the street outside and instead focus on the book titles; The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Brief History of Time. I focus on the lingering smell of August’s incense that lingers longer than ze does.
Through the high rectangular windows of the room I can see the rustling of red white and blue, shorn hair and heavy black boots. I can’t rationalise these people away, they haven’t spent 4 hours in a make-up chair being transformed into something grotesque. They're just people. I pray for the warm red bricks of our home to protect me.
Looking up through the windows to the south I can see the full moon suspended over the spire of Nuffield College. In my parents generation in the late 1800s they called it Lunaticus or lunacy. The crowd outside swells and starts chanting. I can make out, “Immigrants, go home!”
They’re just people, I tell myself again. A newspaper headline this morning read; BRITAIN MUST BAN MIGRANTS - WE MUST STOP THE MIGRANT INVASION.
My generation fought to save Europe from the fascists, but now I daren’t put the light on in case they come up to our flat. They don’t know we're here- there’s no reason why they should think that we live here. I'm a British citizen, but in 2015 I'm a legal alien. Very few people know that about us- I’ve seen their picture in the Daily Wail wearing tin foil hats. Everybody thinks they’re crazy. I hope everybody thinks they're crazy.
The phone trills suddenly and my nerves ring with alarm. I stare at it so long, plotting my route across the room that it goes to voicemail. "Poppy- pick up the phone. Are you there? Poppy?"
Faune. I crawl towards it on my stomach and cradle the receiver against my damp cheek. “Faune?”
“Why didn’t you pick up the phone? Why are the lights off?”
"I turned off the main lights, I thought-"
"Are your night-lights working?"
The line muffles and I hear her say; “It’s ok, she has her night-lights on.” I hear a low chuckle. August.
“I’m here- Ernest and August are with me.”
I sink against the wall with relief. "Where are you?"
“Across the street. They're just protestors," Faune says with an easy confidence. "We'll be home in-"
The phone goes dead. "Faune? Faune!" I call her back but the phone just rings and rings. I sit and breathe, listening to the noises outside. What if they’ve been attacked by the mob outside? The wooden floor is sweaty under my palms as I think of what to do. A cry breaks the sound of chanting outside and I’m on my feet before I realise it, and I run down the stairwell and out the door. I’m met by a wall of people covering the pavement. Anger throbs from a crowd that smell like sweat, adrenaline and petrol. Protestors flank the whole road. Where are they? A child bumps into my hip and I steady them with my hands. I read the banner he’s carrying, ‘Jobs for British people.’
I see a flash of purple hair across the street, freshly dyed, the colour of our bathroom towels this morning. I press my way across the crowd, but it surges forward, and elbows dig into my shoulders, stomach and even my neck. Legs unintentionally kick at my shins as I press myself against the flow of the crowd. I breathe hard and fast as faces blur around me. August’s eyes focus on me suddenly and I strain my head to keep hir in sight. “Poppy?” Hir purple stained hand reaches through the people and I grasps hir with both hands, hooking my leg around hirs. August pulls me towards hir and we fall backwards out of the other side.
Faune and Ernest are standing beside the newspaper stand and bus stop on the other side of the road. Faune sighs at me and folds her arms around her paperwork, a bulging bag hanging from her shoulder by thin bag straps digging into her shoulder. “How exactly are you planning to get back across?"
"Like this," August says with a grin that chills my stomach. "Immigrants go home!"
Men look at hir and keep looking for definite gender signifiers. August’s hair is short and Cadburys purple. Ze's wearing a pair of cigarette trousers with a shirt tight over hir seemingly flat chest.
Ernest nimbly steps between them, long coat flapping, neat hair. He wears his long beige trench-coat like he's still in uniform. I imagine standing on a crowded platform of women in their Sunday best with mascara down their cheeks, watching him go off to war. He still wears his hair that way; neat and short waves gelled back against his head. The protestor gives him a once over. “You look vintage.” The air goes from my lungs like a punch. This man is a tin hatter.
The man squares up to him and takes two wide steps forward like he’s John Wayne. Ernest doesn't move at all at first. Then, his shoulders shiver under his trench coat.
"Think that's funny Nancy? With your nancy hair and bowtie?"
“I do actually, yes."
Faune steps between them and focuses on the man. “Do you have any previous convictions?”
The man looks Faune up and down, taking in her tailored suit and soft blouse. “Why’s that love?”
“Then I would advise against committing an unprovoked assault.”
“Is that right love?” the man says, swaggering his hips. “She with you?”
“Yes, she’s spoken for,” Ernest says with an ease that I envy.
The protestor moves towards him. “You, dapper boy- who won the world cup in 94?"
Ernest raises an eyebrow. “I don’t know. Germany?”
The man’s arm goes back and before his fist can land, Faune swings her arm back and punches him instead. The force of it makes her heels skid back on the pavement. The man falters backwards and cries out angrily.
We get home, breathless and laughing. Ernest laughs loudly. “We should leave the lights off for a while,” Faune says as she peeks through the curtains. She glances at me for my approval. I nod- I don’t mind the dim light so much if they’re here.
“Who are you and what have you done with Faune?” August demands.
Faune laughs and tugs her hat from her head, tight blonde curls resettling around her jawline. “They taught us ju-jitsu, during the struggle for the vote. Not that I ever-“
“It was impressive,” I say quietly.
I can make out Ernest’s grimace in the light from the window. “I fought the Germans in the trenches, I can forgive them for beating us at football.”
Ernest is also a time traveller, like August, Faune, and I. A big coincidence? I'll come to that.
“Have you eaten?” I ask them. Ernest keeps more regular mealtimes, but Faune and August have unpredictable schedules. I’ve shopped for a casserole this week, and I go to the fridge to pull out the vegetables. Tomatoes, onions and beans fresh from the market at Gloucester Green square.
The warehouse was converted into a living space in 1983. All of our plumbing and heating pipes are visible and run through the building like veins breathing life into the space. The large top floor is open plan and behind a mint coloured breakfast bar is my kitchen. My breathing steadies as I wash the vegetables at the antique butlers sink. Heavy oak shelves line the walls, carrying crockery from Parisian flea markets.
My Wedgewood stove was made in the first days after World War II. She has sleek lines and gleaming enamel and chrome. She was rebuilt in London by a small company that understood those stoves. She has four burners, two ovens, two broilers and a griddle. I like most modern technology, but a good stove can’t be improved upon. I can be roasting lamb in one oven while I bake tarts at a different temperature in the other. Though, I do have an imitation vintage fridge- some things are better modern.
“Something from a can will do,” August says, laying hir chin on my shoulder as I chop the tomatoes.
“No it won’t,” I say, but August just grins at me. I really don’t mind cooking- it relaxes me. A shout from outside startles me the knife slips. A droplet of blood appears on my finger. August takes my hand and puts the finger in hir mouth. Ze’s changed into hir blue Chinese robe, the one that clings to hir warm brown skin like cling-film over gingerbread biscuits.
I’m starting to relax when a bottle smashes on the pavement outside. Ernest walks calmly to the record player. “I think we need some music. Something loud.”
“Something modern. Please.” I don’t want them to know we’re up here.
“It was just one tin hatter,“ Faune tells me, but I don’t care. One is enough. August goes to hir bag and heads to the stereo with hir iPod. Fast paced RnB starts to play from the speakers. I see Ernest wince behind his thick framed glasses. Many of the arguments in this house are related to music. Ernest prefers classical music while he’s planning lectures, Faune prefers 90’s riot girl, and August just likes it fast and loud.
“The lady asked for something composed this century,” August says and sticks hir tongue out at him. Ernest shakes his head with a smile. “Anyway, you can still Charleston to this,” ze says, and demonstrates with practiced ease. August is originally from the future but has been to parties spanning the past two centuries. The Foxtrot, Waltz, the Time Warp, Macarena- ze is a dab hand at them all. “Come on Feathers, I know you have some moves.”
Even the sound of hir genderqueer pronouns were new to me- ze, hir.
August remains the only person that knew me during my ill fated career as a showgirl. I shake my head and instead bring the casserole to boil, feeling the steam on my already hot cheeks. I feel safe, like lying in a bath with warm water up to my neck while I know it’s raining outside. We are in love. I don't mean Faune and I or August and Ernest- I mean, we're in love. All of us. We love each other.
"The word is poly," August still corrects me. "Meaning lots of love, oodles of love, more than our fair share of love." If that seems strange to you, well, it used to be strange to me too. "Do people with two or three kids struggle to love them all? Can you only love one parent? One friend?” August asked me on our second date. You may have noticed that ze has an opinion on everything. Well, ze does.
This is what I do know: there is nothing but love here. This is my family.
Amanda is just 600 grams and 28 weeks old. I've been watching her for 672 minutes, for 70560 beats of her miniature heart. She is red with butterfly thin skin. She sometimes forgets to breathe and I pat her carefully until she gasps.
I've fretted through 28 half sleeps since she was born. She is the smallest and most perfect thing I have ever seen. Her rhythm falls in step with mine as though her heart is a tiny echo. She smells like incubator blankets, antiseptic and the undeniable smell of a baby new to the world.
I work on the neonatal unit of the John Radcliffe hospital, watching over babies who have been born too soon. Our most famous outpatient is Grace Angel Chopra, born 19 years ago and one of the few non celebrity babies to make the cover of Hello! Magazine. The cover has been enlarged to poster size and it sits beside the vending machine on the second floor. Grace watches over the ward, her liquid brown eyes living proof that miracles happen. But the problem with miracles are that they’re the exception.
The public see babies like Grace in glossy magazine spreads, but truthfully only 9 out of 100 babies born at 23 weeks survive. And of those 9, 6 will be moderately to severely disabled. Grace was born at 22 1/2 weeks. If she’d have been born at 22 weeks she would have been classed as a miscarriage and left to die. But Grace survived the odds, and sleep deprived parents stand under her poster as though they’re praying to a deity, making meagre offerings of cramped nights in plastic chairs, painfully swollen breasts and weak tea in place of bread, milk and wine.
"Poppy? We're ready."
My colleague has settled the baby's mother into an easy chair. I bring Amanda, but when I hand her over, part of me goes with her.
Carol is 23 weeks along and having a C-section because an infection threatens both her and the baby. Her partner, Oliver, a social worker from Milton Keynes, holds her hand, the paper cap falling down over his worry creased eyebrows.
The senior neonatal nurse Sandra and I stand to the side, our blue gloves still against white machines and blankets. I try not to draw any attention to myself, we’re only here in case things go wrong.
The surgeons’ hand reaches into the woman, bloodied arm disappearing as though he’s a magician rummaging for a rabbit in the bottom of a hat. The room is a still lake, no-one is breathing. The surgeon pulls out a red, glistening creature from it’s Mother, and the doctor quickly cuts the umbilical cord and wraps the baby in a tissue like blanket. Blood stains through it immediately. Sandra and I come to life.
The bundle is brought to our table and I can finally see tiny arms and legs moving as we quickly place it in a sandwich bag and a cloth cap for warmth. This baby is 22 weeks old; young enough to be aborted. The creature gasps, small mouth gaping like a fish out of water. She’s a girl.
I carefully press a tube down her throat to pump air into her paper new lungs. Sandra checks her pulse; her heart is beating. Her skin is tinged with yellow but her blood pressure is ok. Sandra nods at me. There’s no time to feel hope or relief as we take her to intensive care on the trolley with a squeaky wheel. We pass Grace’s poster, her brown eyes following us with content disinterest.
The parents wait outside the room for news as we work. Sandra weighs the baby; she’s just 1 pound and a third. I try not to stare at the parents. Carol is a primary school teacher who runs the after school maths club. This is their second child. Rose, their first, is hoping to get a new little sister.
We place the baby into an incubator. Her lungs have not yet developed so we administer a drug to help. If she lives, she’ll be in the incubator 4 months until the time she would have been born.
I stand back from the incubator and meet Carol’s eyes. She’s searching my expression for any news she can glean. An alarm sounds below me. Breath not detected.
We try everything to keep her alive. We fit a new breathing tube. We administer adrenaline and I massage her tiny heart. Her name is Katherine, I realise, remembering an early conversation with Carol. Come on Katherine, I coax.
Sandra goes outside and brings the parents, and Oliver wheels his wife into the room in a wheelchair. They are remarkably calm. They are too still, like a lake containing danger. The alarm continues to blare and my fingers are cramping. I grit my teeth through the discomfort as Sandra talks to the parents.
“Poppy,” she calls me. Just 1 more minute, I think, give me 1 more minute… “Poppy.”
I jerk my head to the sharp sound of my name, red hair stuck to my sweated forehead. Carol meets my eyes again. Something has gone from her expression, like a part of her has just died alongside her child.
“Would you like us to get her out for a cuddle while she's still got her tube in and she's got her heart rate, or would you like us to take the tube out first?” Sandra asks the parents in her gentle Liverpool accent. Carol doesn’t reply.
“Would you like to hold Katherine?” I ask. Carol is startled, but she slowly nods, knotting her fingers together in different ways. I don't hear her answer at first. Her voice is a sharp, high sound. She repeats it. "Without tubes please."
We disconnect the tubes and the machine blares a flat line. Carol gropes for her husbands hand. I'm sorry, she tells him with no sound. He shakes his head.
I lift Katherine from the incubator and place her into her Carol’s shaking arms.
"Hello Katherine,” she greets her daughter. Katherine can't look at her; her eyelids are still fused together. She lives for three more minutes, then passes away.
Sandra dismisses me and I step out into the corridor. The rhythms of my body shudder to a crooked pace. Grace smiles down at me with the calm of a benevolent deity, but I make no offerings. I have stopped looking for miracles.
sometimes feel like my partners and I are on different trains passing at high speed. I get in from work at 8.15am just as they’re leaving. I shut the front door, the thick goldbricks of our home muffling the sound of commuters. I climb the metal stairs up to the second floor as they shudder with the arrival of the London trains. I’m greeted by the smell of burnt cooking, filter coffee and brylcreem.
August is dressing in the kitchen while simultaneously trying to drink hir morning tea. Ernest is sitting at the kitchen table folding his trousers neatly into bicycle clips. I can hear the shower running from the bathroom- Faune's running late today.
"Sandra," I say to explain my lateness and my partners nod sympathetically.
"Feathers," August greets me as ze smooths hir dress down. Ze has finger-waved hir short purple hair and hir dress is 40's inspired. I can never be sure what August is doing day to day- ze's freelance and runs two small tech businesses as well as regular but mysterious consulting work. Ze picks up hir small overnight bag and steps into wedge sandals.
"Are you staying at the flat tonight?" I ask and ze nods. August values hir independence and keeps hir own flat down near the canal.
Ernest stands up and knots his tie. "I'll drop you at Queens’s Lane,” he tells August and hands hir a trouser clip for hir dress. Ze clips it up showing the top of her stockings like a… dancer.
My cheeks run hot and August kisses me gently on the lips. "Be good Feathers.”
Ernest leans in next, freshly shaven and smelling of old spice. "I'll see you tomorrow morning.”
It's always quiet once they're gone. I pick up the finished breakfast bowls and clean the pan where Faune has haphazardly cooked something. I can’t even tell what it was. Eggs? I always tidy away the morning rush, supposedly because I'm coming as the rest of the house is going, but the last thing I want to do after a long shift is tidy up after three perfectly capable adults. I put the long suffering milk carton back in the fridge for however long it'll stay there.
I find August's pyjamas laid between the bathroom and kitchen door, striped arms and legs splayed like a body at a crime scene. I pick them up and take them into the bedroom. The shower is still running, but I know Faune isn't washing anymore- when she stays in this long she's rehearsing for court. I often find closing arguments written on the shower tiles in her mauve lipstick.
I trip over something at the foot of the bed. It's the large plush crocodile that used to take up the left side of my bed when I was single. It lays upside down on my rug and its glass eyes stare up at me. I pick him up and vow to find a new place for him. He was my bed mate for two years, comforting me with his constant bulk when I couldn’t get a nightshift and had to sleep through the dark. I time travelled to 2015 to escape the dark, both of my former life and the night time.
I understand why my future self came to this age. I’ve never asked her what she saw in 2060, but every time I read a new journal about medical advances, I know I’ll have to leave here one day. August has told us that ze’d like to return to the future one day, but with my crippling fear of the dark I could never live in the middle of deep space, no matter how many lights a space station kept on.
The water stops in the bathroom and I hear Faune climb out of the shower. I fill a small watering can at the kitchen sink and head to my indoor garden. I crawl into the small tent I’ve set up around the weaker plants. I keep my seedlings in the airing cupboard until they’re ready to plant. The tent is already crowded with a bottle garden of plants growing in bell jars. The plants are largely from the tropics and need long hours of daylight and warmth. I use medium heat lamps and I have an app on my phone that tells me when everything needs tending.
Faune kneels down awkwardly in her pencil skirt. "I hope what you're growing is legal.”
"It's a Mallika- a mango tree.”
I planted it in a 25 gallon container to help it survive the winter frost. Mallika is an excellent variety that can grow to 10 feet in a container but can be pruned to 6 foot. I keep heating cables to keep it alive over the winter months, and during freezes I cover the whole plant with freeze cloth.
I also grow 3 varieties of roses. They all enjoy 6 or more hours of sun per day, but need to be protected from noon onwards. What the roses find stressful is not the heat or humidity, but the lack of winter coolness. My China roses are usually always in bloom. Antique Old Garden roses are the most resilient and sit plump in pink and yellow patches. I also have Belinda's Dream, which are almost as good as the Antiques.
"I have to go to court," Faune says before kissing the back of my neck. I have more love than I ever dreamed of. It has to be enough. I press back against her. I can tell from the feel of her breasts against my back which bra she's wearing- paper thin lace that clings to her skin. I want her. "I have to go to court," she says again with a lack of conviction that would lose her a case.
Touch me, I think. Faune waits even though knows I won't touch her first. Like the tactic I’ve seen her use in court, I feel her distance.
After a minute, she stands up. "It isn't the dark ages.”
"I'm late for court."
Five minutes after I hear the front door slam shut, the letterbox flaps and the sound echoes through our large stairwell. I tuck the crocodile back into the bed and walk downstairs to fetch the post. I can see the pile as soon as I walk out of the living area and look down the metal stairwell.
There’s an expensive looking envelope on top of the pile. I stand with my hand on the railing and stare at it before I walk down the cold stairs in my bare feet to retrieve it.
The weight of the substantial paper envelope in my hands confirms that it’s real. Sanderson Research Institute is written across it in beautiful gold letters. Should I wait to open it? My stomach is anxious with movement. I turn it over and pull at the flap, cautiously, as though the contents may hurt me. I slide the letter out and my fingertips leave sweated marks on the cartridge paper. I unfold the beautiful writing paper with its gold logo of a musical conductor on the letterhead;
Dear Miss Kusch,
Your child visa application appeal has been denied. We are unable to process further queries on this point while your future self resides alongside you in the same time period.’
The gold conductor blurs in my vision. I tilt my head back and my eyes are drawn to the clouds passing by the small second level window. I haven’t prayed to Him for 5 years. I thought I’d find a man, and we’d fall in love, get married and start a family.
My thigh muscles are shaking so I sink down on my heels on the floor. I don’t know how long it’s been before I hear the familiar clack of high heels and keys jangling. The door opens and Faune looks down at me as she steps through it.
“Poppy? Are you hurt?” she demands first. “What’s wrong?” She lets her heavy laptop bag drop from her shoulder and land with a frightening thud on the wooden floor. In a movement she gives me the distance that she’d withheld. I press my hands into her back. She’s in her burgundy pencil skirt and tailored jacket but she sits back on her own heels to envelop me. She takes the letter from my weak fingers, the paper vibrating minutely as she reads it. She swears loudly. Her fingers creep over my lap and I grasp her hands in mine.
She continues to curse, the kind of words that make Ernest shudder and start to drop things. I continue to hold her as she shakes with anger. Until finally, she crumples forward in her beautiful suit and her soft weight is against me.