A short story by Andy Darlington

The Océan de Temps offers access to past and future, and perhaps a way of escaping this terrible bereavement

There’s a stone in my throat that I can’t cough free.

It’s the day of the Victory Parades on the cliffs overlooking the Océan de Temps. I’ve never been suckered by jingoist patriotism, but have to admit that it’s impressive, in a Comic Opera way. The marching bands are drilled to perfection, in their dress uniforms with tufted cockade hats, vivid medal-strewn sashes and ceremonial swords. The Lord Mayor, wearing his gold-chain of office, takes the salute from a podium. And yet you wonder… what victory is it that leaves the world split apart? Amusement, even in an ironic sense, is not something I’ve had much of recently.
We travelled by steam locomotive down from the north. The scenery spins away in a pleasantly distracting way. Eleanor is frail and sad in the way she’s been ever since Christopher’s passing. It tears me apart to see her that way. My helplessness is a hurt that never heals. We take lodgings in a comfortable hostel in nearby Crosswhitch, the closer you get to the phenomenon the more accommodation prices become unrealistically high, but this is close enough. We stroll down the cobbled way past the market cross to dine that evening in a tavern. The food is good, there’s a blazing log-fire in the grate. We strike up a conversation with a more elderly couple who’d travelled from Winchester for the weekend. They join us at our table. Eleanor eats very little, and barely speaks, until they mention their bereavement. They had a son conscripted into the defence corps during French incursions intent on restoring monarchy to the English Republic. His body has never been recovered.

The two women speak in low confidences, and while I’m encouraged by her animation, I fear the nature of what she’s being told. My doubts confirmed when, back in our room, she begins by telling me of the strange denizens said to lurk within the Océan, fishtailed chronomaids and luminous manta rays with multiple eyes capable of cross-temporal visions, then of the psychic properties that offer gateways into recent past-times. Chances to relive yesterdays. Séances using Océanic fluids, that enable meetings with those who’ve passed, just one more time. I’m careful not to deny outright, while suggesting my reservations.

The following morning we shower and dress. After a leisurely breakfast we catch the local omnibus down to the cliffs. She’s nervous, flicking small brave smiles at me. I see the drawn skin of her shoulder. The locket around her neck that I bought for our tenth anniversary, which flips opens to show me, and Christopher’s bright smile, so close. She’s lost weight. Although we’re both victim of the same random and meaningless tragedy, nothing I can say, nothing I can do, can ease her pain. Nothing, other than this.

At first it seems disappointing. Just high grassy cliffs overlooking the curved bay of an endless tide. A fret makes it appear gauzy beneath lowering clouds. We hadn’t anticipated the parades. We idly watch the units strut up and down the square, presenting arms in immaculate formation. Flags and regimental pennants swirl in the breeze, and the crowds behind barriers applaud and lightburst photos. On the grassy slope above us, children imitate the drill, carrying dancing balloons in lieu of firearms.

There’s a cluster of stalls. I buy two sets of viewers from a portly vendor, and two ice-cream cones as an afterthought. Higher on the brow we discern a line of small observatories overlooking the Océan de Temps, enthusiasts seated in canvas deckchairs with telescopes, they take detailed notes in longhand in heavy ledgers. There are tethered hot-air balloons providing elevation, observers with binoculars visible as agitated distant shapes black against the sky. It’s said that attempts have been made in dirigibles, but that atmospheric distortions set up by the anomaly makes navigation impossible, and the few who’ve ascended higher on expeditions to bridge the ocean to the distant Americas were never seen again. It’s theoretically possible to reach the far continent by travelling east across the fractured globe, but the labyrinth of possibilities combines with the uncertainty of what remains across what was formerly the Atlantic, sufficient to discourage such foolhardiness.
I spread a tartan rug on the grass in a sheltered area between flowerbeds, and we sit together, my hand ineptly clasping hers in a failed gesture of support. The mist obscuring the surface of the Océan drifts in lazy coils, sometimes lapping up over the broad beach as far as the coves and outcrops, before receding. Setting the viewer in place, adjusting them around my ears, the shock of immediacy is startling. Until I focus out over the cliffs. At first I can see nothing. Then the first of the drifting formations I recognize from sensationalist accounts I’ve read of them. A floating island. A drifting iceberg. Except, of course, they’re neither.

Since the temporal disruption weapons were unleashed by the departing Others in the final phase of the long hostilities, scholars have studied and analysed them. And it was here, at this point, that some Gulf Stream current determines they pass sufficiently close to the shoreline to allow the scrutiny of amateur observers. It seems the images are stuck within the translucent geology of the bergs, as insects in amber. Except there’s movement too. So they’re less solid, more lenses. Vouchsafing glimpses into other ages. Both academics and laypeople argue with equal authority, interpreting them into past and future histories, although it’s never as obvious as they claim, rival theories are angrily debated and fiercely contested. The well-documented sightings of mechanized warfare are generally agreed to exist in centuries of forward time. But the huge crabs scuttling vast deserts could be at world’s end, or it’s primordial origins. There are glittering citadels and fortresses laced in sweeping skyways, flecked by the flitting firefly lights of aerial cars. And others of reptiles thrashing in dense rain-forests. Prairies thronged with dense herds of shaggy tripod creatures. A war between flying machines beneath an incandescent blazing sky and a supernaturally huge moon…
We are also inescapably lost in time, Eleanor and I. We can hear the muffled sound of speeches from the public address. But we are elsewhere, elsewhen, located in happier times. Our silences are fraught with undertones we both know, but are unable to voice. It’s a form of pain to be so close, yet so far apart.

We don’t speak of it, but I’m already aware of her intention when she stands and leads the way towards the cliffs. There’s a rough footpath hewn from the chalky face, delineated by clumps of bright dandelions, it zigzags its way down to the beach. I steady her as we descend. There’s a slight breeze that blows her short hair around her face in a way that has me thinking of times lost. Before this dreadful thing happened to rip us apart. The sand is soft and powdery. The lapping of the strange sea, seen so close, glows quite beautifully. Running in quicksilver ripples that either carry their own incandescence, or catch the sun and reflects it back in dazzling bursts. Surely, a fluid so lovely could never be malignant?

We walk a little way along the shoreline, her hand so cool and slender in mine, until we find ourselves beyond an outcrop, alone in a sheltered cove. We undress and leave our clothes in two neatly-folded piles just above the shingle. I scarcely dare look at her. Yet our eyes meet in mute acceptance. A stone in my throat that I can’t cough free.

There’s almost no sensation as we wade out into the shallows, although I feel warm welcoming fingers closing tightly around my feet, my ankles and knees, drawing us down beneath the rippling surface.

This is the third short story gifted to the Stranger Views site by the excellent Andy Darlington. The first was the excellent Ravenous and the second the also excellent (but a little bit insane) The spacer who fell from grace with space and the girl in the golden asteroid.

Andrew Darlington is a published writer who, when not writing short stories like this one, has interviewed  many people from the worlds of Literature, SF-Fantasy, Art and Rock-Music for a variety of publications. You can visit Andrew’s blog here.  You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.

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