For chapter 1 visit https://readingroomcafeproject.com/2017/04/16/saving-time-chapter-one-escape/
It was a shop on a side street near the school Tag had once gone to, before it was closed down. The school inspectors said it was failing, because the exam results weren’t very good. Of course the exam results weren’t very good. No one could learn in this day and age. Even for those lucky few who had enough to eat there was no heating in the school anymore so no one could think properly. Have you ever tried to work out the length of the long side of a triangle – the hypotenuse – when your lips were blue with cold? Then the school had closed. Tag had been eight. So he could read and do sums. He wasn’t stupid. But there had been no money for a new school, so he hadn’t been for four years. He could read well enough to find that little shop, though. The street was cobbled and all the other buildings were ordinary houses, but one of them, on the far end, was a shop.
Tag sighed. He wished he’d eaten some of the bread he’d found by the dying fire. His stomach growled angrily and he felt sick with hunger. Too late now.
The shop bell tinkled as he opened the door cautiously. It was warmer and darker in here. There was a strong smell of mould and dust. Red rugs festooned the warped wooden floor, which creaked underfoot, and bookshelves and cases were piled high along a narrow walkway that was just about clear. The cases contained all sorts of things, from animal skeletons to marionette string puppets. A clockwork heart beat away in one corner. Tag swallowed nervously and took a deep breath. Aldo Reloj could have sent him anywhere, and he was never sure of him – no eye contact. Something moved in a dim corner. Tag crept closer. It was an ornate brass bird cage, swinging in the draft. Taxidermy – the art of stuffing and preserving dead animals – had always fascinated him and he leant in close for a better look. A long dead crow clung to the perch. Through the gathered dust the bird’s silky black feathers shone and the beak was smooth and sharp.
Tag jumped and spun around to see a live bird heading straight for him at speed. He gasped and dropped to the floor sending up a cloud of dirt around him.
A deep, kind laugh erupted from the other room. “He won’t hurt you boy.” the voice was deep and crackly. Tag recognised an accent, only faint, but he thought it was German, even though he hadn’t heard a German voice in a long time.
The boy stood up, gingerly. He brushed himself down and looked into the soft, grey eyes of this wizened old man, not much taller than he was, who leant heavily on a cane. It was a beautifully ornate cane, carved at the handle with faces of animals. Tag looked away from the old man and stared at it. The ancient wood, the bone handle, the faces. It was striking. The bird fluttered and the spell was broken.
“What’s it doing in here?” He asked.
“What are you doing in here?” croaked the crinkly man, still smiling.
Tag looked nervously at the bird. “You promise it won’t get me?”
“He’s very well mannered. He was a gift, from an old Spanish sailor I know.”
Tag’s eyes widened. “Not Aldo Reloj?” at last.
The man nodded. “That’s the one. You know Reloj?”
“He sent me to find you. I have this book, I, erm… found it.” he reached into the dark recesses of his coat, his hand felt the paper and it was a shock – he must have left the leather wrapping behind. He fished out the book and handed it to the man.
“My name is While. Fitz While.” he held out his free hand.
“I’m Tag.” Tag shook Mr While’s hand. This was already a strange day. People didn’t shake his hand. They didn’t touch him, he was grubby and he smelled bad. Even he knew that. Perhaps the old man was mad. Or anosmic. Anosmia stops people being able to smell properly. There had to be something wrong with him, anyway.
“Hello Tag. It’s very nice to meet you. Any friend of Reloj is a friend of mine. The bird is Mortimer. Shall we go through to the kitchen and look at your book in there?”
The kitchen was in the back of the shop, through a beaded curtain. It was a strange room that seemed to also be the dining and living room. There was a sofa against one wall, a large table in the middle, an oven, fridge and set of cupboards against another wall and a sink and some more cupboards next to the window wall that must have been the back of the house. The window itself overlooked a small yard. The sun was out at last and a girl was pegging some washing up in the bright, breezy morning.
Before the third term, when Tag had a home, had family, had a mother, she had pegged out their washing in their yard like that. Once upon a time.
She was a young girl, the girl in the yard now, maybe she was younger than Tag. Girls Tag’s age were mostly taller than he was but this girl was small. She was a beautiful, wild looking creature – there was a huge mop of tightly curled black hair scooped together in a ribbon on the top of her head, she wore mud splattered tights, the hem on her skirt was torn and her shirt was old and obviously far too big for her. Tag stood at the sink looking out at her, transfixed.
“Come and sit down,” Mr While began. “I’ll make a pot of tea. Lila made cake, would you like some?” Tag turned around. Mr While reached up and opened a cupboard. He took down a tin and placed it on the rough wooden table. It was a strange set up, with mismatched place mats and an empty dimply glass in the middle, on a little wooden pedestal.
Tag sat down while the old man filled the kettle from a noisy old tap that banged and spluttered and placed it on the stovetop. Tag peeked over the top of the tin. The cake was half eaten, it smelled of lemon and was sprinkled with little black spots. “Seed cake.” Mr While cut a wedge of cake and lifted it onto a small plate in front of the boy. “Eat up. It won’t last long anyway. I had forgotten how much children eat until Lila came here.”
“She’s the girl out there? Your granddaughter?”
“My Goddaughter. Sweet child. Takes very good care of me, makes my hair grey, though.”
Tag smiled. He was beginning to like this old man. He pulled the plate towards him, leaned over the table and began to shovel the cake into his mouth. It was delicious. Sweet and sharp and moist. The seeds on the top were crunchy and nutty and stuck between his teeth as he ate. His tummy growled appreciatively. The tea was hot and sweet and milky and chased the cold, at last, from his aching bones. The heat from the stove dried the last of the damp from his clothes. Tag sighed.
“Now,” Mr While scraped his chair across the stone floor as he sat down at the table opposite Tag. “We should look at your book. More cake?”
Tag smiled and nodded.
The door swung open and the girl, Lila, skipped in laughing. “You’ll get fat, Opa!” the bird swept to her with a flash of feathers. “Who is your guest?”
Tag recognised her now, out of the bright sun. Del, he called her. She was a monster! She pulled hair and ran with wild dogs. Or at least she had, until she disappeared from the sewers about 11 months ago. She was less skinny now, looked a little further from death, her hair was clean, but Lila was Del, it was definitely her.
“This boy was sent to me by an old friend.”
Tag stared at the girl. She knew he was… what did she know? well he wasn’t a thief, not really, but adults wouldn’t understand about that. And she knew. She stared back at him.
“Does he have a name, this boy?” she asked, winking at Tag and looking innocently at Mr While.
“Tag.” he said. “The boy’s name is Tag. He’s brought me this book, which he found.” the old man looked, for the first time, at the book. “Oh my…” he said in a whisper. “Vas is das?” he opened the cover delicately. “Das Totenbuch…” he swallowed hard. He looked at the children. “Das ist schlecht, sehr schlecht.” he cleared his throat loudly. “Where did you get this book from, Tag?” he asked kindly.
“I, erm…” Tag thought franticly. “Well, I was going to the, erm…”
“You won’t be in trouble,” Mr While began. “I just need to know where this has come from.”
“I don’t know. That’s why I don’t know anything about it, I didn’t even know it was a book. I don’t…”
“Calm down, boy.” snapped Del, or Lila as she was now. “Just tell him.”
“I didn’t get the book from the, erm… owner. Not the real owner. I don’t take things from their real owners, it’s erm…”
“Who did you get the book from?” coaxed the old man, kindly. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“There’s a house, down the road from the church, three men live there, I don’t know who they are. I don’t know. But I know that none of the things there belong to them, not really. Sometimes I, erm…”
“You pinch things from the Church Street Gang when you think they aren’t looking. Mostly they don’t know it was you.” Lila said. “Mostly.”
“Dear boy! They could hurt you…” the old man’s face went white. “They could kill you!”
Tag swallowed again. “I…”
“Don’t worry, Reloj was right, you were right to bring it here. I wonder why they took this book…”
“Hot tea for the shock, Opa?” Lila had already turned to the stove. Mr While stood up and joined her.
Tag helped himself to another piece of cake and strained his ears. He knew to listen to hushed words. He knew to listen when backs were turned. He knew to listen when a girl he knew changed her name and moved in with a strange old man to live above his curiosity shop.
“Perhaps he could be hilfreich.” the old man said in hushed tones. “He could help with the problem I was telling you about.”
“He might not be …hilfreich – helpful isn’t always…”
“Lila, that hour, if it isn’t returned, Lila, eine Katastrophe, Lila, oh Lila!”
“When you say my name like that, Fitz, it makes me worry for you. Sit down. Calm down.”
“Is everything ok?” Tag asked loudly, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
“The old man has a weak heart.” Lila said angrily. “And since my mother went to prison Opa Fitz is all I have. I won’t have him upsetting himself.”
“Is it anything I can help with? I’d help with anything for more of this cake.” he smiled. If there was a way to get more cake, Tag would find it. “I’m good at erm…”
“Getting back stolen goods?” Lila smiled at him and raised an eyebrow.
“Um. That’s the one.”
“What do you know about British Summer Time?” the old man asked.
“Opa, are you sure about this?”
“I can’t have you going alone Lila, it’s not safe, a delicate young girl like you.”
Tag suppressed a snigger, he knew Del. He’d seen her knock down boys much bigger than herself, she was not, in any way, delicate.
“He’s just a child too, Opa, just a little boy.”
“Lila, I am not having this discussion with you,” Mr While shook his head and sighed. “Not again.”
Mr While moved his chair in close to where Tag was sitting and leant on the table. “Let me tell you a story, boy, a story about the changing of time.
“You know, that in the spring, at the beginning of British summer time, an hour is taken out of time itself, it jumps from midnight to 1am in the blink of an eye, and then, at the end of British summer time, it is put back in, it is returned in the middle of the night and it is like it was never gone. Well during that time, I look after the hour. I keep time.”
“Time and clocks aren’t the same, no offense, old man, but an hour isn’t a thing. Its’s… it’s…”
“A construct. An idea made by man to measure out the day. Well it is. But not, you see, if you believe in a thing. If you believe in a thing strongly enough, the thing can come to be. People put so much importance in time, in being on time, in not being late, in clock watching, that time has intertwined with clocks and they have become the same. So someone has to keep it, to look after the hour and put it back at the end of the summer.” the old man’s voice was soft and kind, but it still made Tag angry.
“That doesn’t make any sense. Time doesn’t work like that.” Tag shook his head.
“Of course it does!” laughed Mr While. “Time is a fabric, a cloth, and when you cut a piece out you can stitch it back in.” the old man reached to the empty glass, the dimply one in the centre of the table. “And it belongs in here.”
“It’s my hour glass.”
“That’s not what an hour glass is, an hour glass is a curvy thing, with sand in, it measures out an hour…”
“And you’re an expert in that sort of thing, are you young man?”
“See Opa! He won’t be any good. He isn’t…” then she looked at the old man. Really looked at him and her face changed, she smiled and changed tack. Mr While really wanted this boy to find the hour and he wouldn’t let her go without him. She could see that. She could use that. Well then, she’d make the boy want the adventure too.
“He isn’t clever enough.” she blustered. “Even if he did believe in the fabric of time, which he doesn’t so this is a pointless conversation, he wouldn’t be able to understand what he needs to do, he wouldn’t be able to work anything out.”
“Yes I would. I could do it. I’ll do anything, I’m just as clever as her!”
“Are you indeed?” she smirked.
“And what will be your reward, Tag?” Mr While asked, kindly.
“Seed cake. And dinner. Every week.” the boy nodded to himself. “Every week.”
“Excellent. I must tell you what I know and what it is that I need you to do, you and my little Lila, but first, go up the stairs and have a bath, you stink to high heaven!”
“A bath? No one has enough hot water for a bath these days, and I don’t really fancy a cold bath, I don’t mean to be rude… but…”
The Old man smiled kindly, again, as he interrupted the child. “The aga has a back burner. The water for the bath will be hot. And there should be some clean clothes that will fit you somewhere, Lila can dig them out while you’re washing.”
“I can, can I?” Lila pouted indignantly.
Join me next Sunday for chapter three
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