How often had he heard people say, you never know when your time is up? He thought that was a huge pile of bullshit. You can tell when your time is up; he sure could and it was coming fast. It was all a huge cosmic joke, he though, could God be some idiot child in the sky, playing with people’s lives. Were we his wind-up toys, running around until our parts exploded, or our clock shuddered to a halt? Jimmy could feel his spring starting to give up the battle; the tick-tock of his mechanism got a bit weaker every day. He slipped on his coat and placed his hat on top of his balding head, checking his reflection one last time. Tick-tock, tick-tock. “Bloody typical,” he said aloud, and left the house.
He shuffled along the streets, his head hung low, his eyes not registering the people he passed. Tick-tock, tick-tock. He hated London; he always had. He was a northern boy at heart, and before his spring wound down completely, he was going to visit the one place he had been truly happy in the whole course of his life, Indian Hill.
He sat on the bus. Nobody looked at him. He bought his ticket for the train, return. Not even a thank you from the ticket seller. He sat alone during the journey and was glad of the fact. He’d too much on his mind to listen to some hopeless case wittering on in his ear for hours, not that he would witter back in any case. Silence suited him.
When the train finally pulled into the station it looked just as it had done all those years ago. That day, he’d ridden the train with his parents, a wicker picnic basket in the seat between them, while they tried to coax a word or two out of him. They began the climb together, his parents stopping half way up, Jimmy continuing alone to the top. He was only a few hundred yards from the summit when she jumped out of a bush, thinking he was someone else, and scared the shite out of him. Tess, was her name, and she was effervescent. They sat on the wall and waited for her friends to find her; she giggled at his jokes, and shared the cigarettes Jimmy had been hiding from his dad. She let him kiss her, and a little bit more, before her friends appeared. She waved, and gave him a naughty wink, before vanishing from his life forever.
He never forgot Tess, or that half hour stolen on top of Indian Hill. He classed it as the highlight of his life. Today was cold and damp, and nothing like the day he had last made the climb, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. He stopped at a pub for a quick half before starting the climb. In his chest, Jimmy felt the spring of his life slip one more notch, and he sighed deeply.
The climb was not half as bad as the barman had said it would be, but Jimmy had more on his mind than a bit of mist. When he eventually reached the glade, he recognised the wall, even if the bushes had long ago been cut away. He settled himself down and looked out over the country below, and tried to bring back that day he fell in love, so many years ago. He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around.
“Boo!” she said, and smiled.
It was impossible, it could not be? It looked just like her. He felt his heart lurch as he struggled to get off the wall. She laughed, and her voice filled the air with rainbows.
“Tess, is it you?” he asked, his turkey gizzard neck quivering.
“Don’t be silly, of course it’s not,” said the girl, who looked just like Tess, as she sat beside him on the wall. “But seeing as you came all this way, I thought I'd help out a little.”
“So, who are you?”
“I think you know the answer to that particular question. I’ve loads of names, none of which I’m particularly fond of, so perhaps we can stick with Tess for now,” said the young girl, laying a comforting hand on the old man’s trembling leg.
“You look exactly like her. Exactly, even down to the clothes you're wearing.”
“I know,” said the girl with a smile that said she was humouring a simpleton. “I know everyone’s stories, everyone’s secrets, and darkest deeds. I know what lies in every man’s heart, and when the time is right, every man is due a visit from me. Jimmy, today's your day.”
He looked terrified and tried to back away from the smiling girl at his side.
“Ah, Jimmy. Don’t be frightened. I just wanted to talk for a while, nothing's going to happen, yet.”
“Why?” asked the old man, the word quivering on his tongue.
“Look around, Jimmy. It’s beautiful up here. Do you know, I spend most of my times hanging around in hospitals, nursing homes, war zones and traffic accidents. I nearly never get to come to places as lovely as this. I just wanted to chat, and sit for a bit. Is that okay?” she said, looking deep into his eyes.
“Do I have a choice?” he said, the fear still there but he starting to gain control.
“I guess not,” she said, turning away from him to look over the vista.
Jimmy let his gaze follow hers and a wave of peace flowed over him. “It was sunny, not like this,” he said, his voice dreamy.
“The day I met her…you.” The girl at his side frowned, and looked away from the view, giving the old man her full attention.
“You’re a fool, Jimmy, do you know that?”
“I’m not,” the old man said, his dignity hurt, anger quickly replacing the fear at his core.
“You are, but you don’t know it,” she said, her tone growing hard. “Look at me.”
The old man did as he was told, it was not a chore to gaze upon her face. “This is what you compared every woman in your life to, an ideal, a memory, shined by years of lust and little fact. You sacrificed everyone that could love you, for nothing, for a figment of your imagination, for one perfect moment remembered with rose-tinted glasses.”
“That’s complete rubbish,” he blustered.
“Is it? Where's your wife, Ann, and your boys, Josh and Kevin?”
“I don’t know and I don’t want to know,” said the old man, turning away angrily.
“I know you don’t, and the fact of the matter is, they don’t give a damn where you are either. You are a greedy man, Jimmy Gaskill, always looking for more than the world is willing to give, always griping about the bounty that is laid at your door, while envying the man beside you. You despised Ann, and still she loved you. She forgave your surliness, she forgave your cold looks and unfeeling ways, she endured your selfish lovemaking, if you could call it that. She hoped that one day you would become the man she believed you were, and when it became clear that would never happen, she did the only sane thing, she left you to rot in your misery.”
“Bitch,” snarled the old man.
“What about the others?”
“All of them, remember, I know all your secrets. The ones you pursued, lied to and tricked into bed. You plundered their bodies, hating them for letting you, always comparing them to this,” she said, indicating her own perfect body with outstretched hands. The girl moved away from the wall and stood in front of the old man.
“Do you want to see what your dream was really made out of?”
Jimmy didn’t have a chance to answer because the girl in front of him melted like wax, moving, shifting, and reforming before his eyes. When the transformation was complete, the old man looked on the vision with disgust.
“This was how she looked the day I came for her. Heroin is not an easy master to please,” said the hollow cheeked crone who now stood before him. Rotten stumps of teeth sticking out of bleeding gums, scab-covered hands, and filthy hair matted into her skull. “The real tragedy of the story is; you wasted the gift that was given to you.”
“What gift?” the old man asked, trying not to look at the woman who stood before him.
“Time…time to live your life. Seventy-two years, wasted on you. Do you know that some of the greatest people who ever lived, never got to speak one word? Remember, I know all their stories, what they were, and what they could have been. They were passed over by time, while you got so much, and wasted it all.”
“I could do better, if I had one more chance,” said the old man, his eyes moist with knowledge that his spring had just slipped its last notch.
“Sorry my friend, no do-overs. You must be tired after that long walk.” The old man staggered and put a hand on the wall to steady himself. “Why not lie down for a bit, you'll feel better.”
“Alright, if you think so,” said Jimmy, his voice heavy. He lay out on the grass, his head pointing up the hill, so he could look at the valley below. The crone shimmered once more, and young Tess reappeared. She sat on the grass beside him and rested a cool hand on his forehead.
“Will it hurt?” he crooked.
“Not even a little,” she said.
Tick-tock, tick-, and with that, he was gone.