Time Machine: a short story

Through those last months with Matt I believed I would never again hear Westminster chimes with pleasure, reassuring sounds of my childhood seemed sullied forever.

I had thought the Personal Organizer he brought home last Spring was just another electronic toy that would soon bore him. But as our garden burned with Summer blooms, it was as if this latest obsession was a frozen waste between us. You could set your watch from his movements – up at seven, leave at seven fifty, home at six thirty – all heralded by the insistent peel of Westminster. Twenty minutes to shower and change, and dinner on the table at seven. Clockwork.

More and more of his evenings were eaten into with business calls and paperwork until I grew accustomed to the rhythm of computer keys lulling me to sleep.  Yet he was distant rather than tired and as the leaves fell, carpeting our world in bronze and gold, I became used to the lonely pre-sleep times.

That Winter was especially cold and sharp North winds brought an exceptionally heavy frost that third Wednesday of March. Matt had to scrape away the ice on his car making him untypically late for work.  I was surprised to see his precious machine on the hall table when I went to collect the post. As he’d left in such a rush I wasn’t surprised that he’d left it, but rather that he hadn’t phoned me about it. With everything vital to his life stored in it, it was like leaving part of himself behind.

By midday I’d forgotten about it.  With the radio as my morning soundtrack it wasn’t until I switched off after the one o’clock news that my world settled into silence. A voice from the hall startled me.  Matt’s voice. I thought he must have come back to get his organiser but when I went to look, there was no-one there. The voice was louder and clearer: ‘Back to work’ and it was coming from the machine. A message flashed across the screen – ‘Back to work’ – ‘press Escape to finish’.  I eventually found Escape.  I had killed the voice, but not the uneasy feeling that it aroused in me.  Had Matt done it for a joke?  But that was so not-Matt.

I pushed away irrational thoughts and lost myself in my book, curling up in front of the fire. The darkening sky forced me out of my cocoon – just enough time for another chapter before I headed back to the kitchen.  As I closed the pages over my bookmark I was again startled by the infernal machine springing to life.  A female voice this time, soft and enticing, breathed the message: ‘Get out of bed. Time to go home’.  It was five to six.  Now that was beyond a joke.

Back in the hall I pressed Escape again.  Heart pounding, I had to will myself to think clearly. Matt was adamant that I never phone him at work except in an emergency. Well, if I got through I’d have to make one up.  His office phone rang and rang.  Eventually a woman answered: there was no-one in the building – she was one of the cleaners – everyone finishes at five these days – last person to leave was a woman.

I had to act quickly. If he thought he’d left the gadget upstairs he would think I hadn’t heard it. At that moment I wished I had more of a head for technology – I just had to hope that the thing would normally turn itself off after a while. I jotted down all the details of the machine then placed it on his desk.

By the time he walked through the front door the vegetables were prepared, and the smell of roasting chicken greeted him.  After the obligatory peck on the cheek he headed upstairs.  This routine of showering after work had started last spring, and it was only now that I really began to wonder why. I’d mentioned it before and he’d said the new offices being nearer an industrial area made everyone feel grubby by the end of the day. How many of his colleagues were showering at the moment?

Thursday was my regular shopping day and I was awake early, going over my plan.  Driving into town would not be unusual and I was driving off soon after Matt left. I was headed for an electronics store. I searched the signs and displays until I found ‘Personal Information Managers’ and it didn’t take long for a very helpful assistant to come to my aid.  I showed him the make and model number I’d copied down and within moments I had the very machine in my hand. He was young and enthusiastic, keen to explain everything I needed to know about making a spoken message.  Oh yes, he loved the feature and often he made recordings for a bit of a laugh.  I placed my purchase at the bottom of my handbag, and set off for the weekly shop.

I felt more elated than I had for so long. I caught my reflection in a window; now conscious that I was smiling to myself I determined to be cool and controlled. Back home I put on a casserole, then set off again, this time to his offices. At five o’clock I was in position, to wait and watch.

At five past five he left the building.  Alone.  He drove out of the car park and my stomach churned as I followed, two cars behind. Ten minutes later he turned into a side street and parked outside a house about halfway down. I pulled up away from street lights and watched as he put a key in the lock and let himself in.  I didn’t have to wait long before an upstairs light flickered on and I saw my husband close the curtains. Numb, but more resolved than ever, I headed for home.  I checked the casserole and finalised my plan with five minutes to share before he came through the door. That left one thing to do in the morning.

Friday was the first day of Spring and for once the weather got it just right.  The sun shone, and my world looked brighter and more beautiful than it had for a long time.  As soon as he shut the door behind him I shot into action. Packing didn’t take long.  I had dressed as he dictated for six years so there was precious little that belonged with the new me. I was out of the house by nine, and by midday I was cruising down the motorway. I’d left our joint accounts considerably lighter, and purchased a new image on our credit cards.  A nice touch I felt that would hit him in a month’s time. I abandoned the car, and the old me, in the next big town. A hire car served for the next leg of my escape. One thing was certain, I did not want to be found.

My plan went like clockwork and by five thirty I was two hundred miles away and enjoying tea and pastries in a small cafe.  I regretted not seeing his face – and the mystery woman’s – as the final part of my plan fell into place.  Surprise – horror – fear – all had to be imagined, but satisfying none the less. The female voice from the machine I had substituted that morning was, this time, mine.  The tone may not be seductive but the message was loud and clear: ‘Hello, Matt, it’s five forty-five. No need to rush out of bed. You’ve nothing to go home to.’

My life was just beginning, opening like a spring flower, ready to blossom in beauty and freedom.

I hope you enjoyed my short story. Please like and share if you did, and add the title of your favourite short story in the comments box below. Short stories and novellas are a great way to enjoy good fiction.
Thank you for reading. Stay safe and well.

Marilyn X