It’s 2am and I’m still awake, trying to reconcile being here in 1986. I don’t know how it has happened. The two bottles of prosecco maybe? I’ve never read anything about a link between alcohol, depression and time travel but here I am, fourteen again, and it’s not a dream.
I stretch my hands above my head, absently tracing swirls on the embossed wallpaper I’d all but forgotten, my spatial awareness heightened in the constraints of a single bed. My arms are mine and yet not mine, slim and unfreckled. Soft and unmarked by the ink that will one day paint a narrative of commemorations across my skin. My bare fingers are strangers; no trace of the rings that will one day claim them. Not even the tell-tale imprint that remained once I took them off, a silvery reminder of what was. What will be.
Across the room, Sarah mumbles in her sleep and I face the sound, listening acutely, wondering about the thoughts jumbling in her currently ten-year-old brain. It’s a habit my sister retains until adulthood. I remember it annoyed me so much once that I sat on her in the dark to stop the muttering, frightening her awake. I don’t think that’s happened yet.
Privacy and a double bed won’t materialise until my sixteenth birthday, but I don’t dwell on that now because in the future my sister and I don’t speak. I haven’t heard her voice in more than five years and suddenly wish I’d spent more time trying to work out what she was thinking. I justify it as the self-absorption of youth. It doesn’t make me a bad person.
Maybe it makes me a bad person.
I turn away, my mind travelling the length of a life I apparently haven’t lived, like a train drawn inexorably down predetermined tracks. Pivotal moments stretch out in front of me, clearly signposted. Vivid memories that are yet to happen. I have no idea where or when or even if I’m supposed to get off.
What if I bypass the stations I know have a broken lift or cracks in the platform? Will intentionally missing my stop fuck with the entire schedule? Derail the train? I can’t possibly know.
Thoughts of Mark creep in. I wonder if I can still call him my ex-husband. We haven’t even met, haven’t fallen in love. Haven’t yet figured out how to hurt each other in exactly the right way. Haven’t figured out how to ease the hurt either, but then again we never really did. Or is that do?
Past tense. Future. Certainly never perfect.
At this moment Mark is a gangly sixteen-year-old, on the other side of the world. On a bus somewhere in Sydney’s western suburbs, heading enthusiastically to an apprenticeship he’ll one day loathe. He doesn’t know I exist, has no idea what’s coming. All he knows is what he’s already running from.
I can’t help thinking about what I might do when I eventually reach the year 2009. If I were a good person that is. Perhaps then it will already be too late. I make a mental note, 2008 would be better. I should write it down, after all 2008 is twenty-two years away, but something tells me I won’t forget. Not this.
2008 is three years before Mark’s wife dies. Not me, obviously. The other wife. The first one. Abigail.
I remember being told the cancer takes two years to do its work. ‘If my calculations are correct’ … I sound like Doc from Back to the Future but I push aside thoughts of fucking up the space-time continuum and instead imagine 2008 me, walking up the steep driveway of their house. Our house.
I can picture it in my mind - suburban and solid - even though it’s currently nothing but bushland. I see the pale pink brick, the tall portico and the shade sail that was torn at one side before I came along and never gets fixed; the invisible cracks in the walls and in the people behind them that won’t show themselves until it’s too late. It’s a house that won’t belong to me then and never really will, even long after Abigail is ashes.
I’ll hesitate before knocking on the familiar front door and he’ll answer and look different. Younger, but not by much. He’ll have that terrible long hair that I will laugh at one day when he shows me old photos. He won’t have a clue who I am. But he will look happy, I’m certain of that.
The sound of his kids will ring from inside and they’ll be smaller and louder and brighter because they haven’t yet had the rug pulled out from under them. They haven’t learned to be angry and spiteful, haven’t had to navigate being broken. They don’t know how much they are going to hate me. Or why. Or that I will hate them right back, even though they’re just kids, because their rejection of me cuts more than I want to admit and maybe I’m a terrible person after all.
I’ll try not to think about those brief months near the beginning when, carried away by new love and ill-fated optimism, we talk about having a child of our own, daydreaming about making a baby together as if it will cement the life we’re trying to build. We try names on for size and wonder whether it would be a boy or girl, and I choose not to say to him that it doesn’t matter as long as our hypothetical kid doesn’t turn out like either of the ones he already has. I should have known then.
But we try, we really try. Caution carried away by the hurricane. And each month the same result. The universe senses our failure before we do. No baby for you. One less complication we will have to deal with when the end comes. Hope turns to disappointment and then resignation. Never really regret. But I feel more for our pretend baby in those months than I do in eight years of battling to connect with his actual flesh and blood.
When I hear his kids’ laughter through the door, it will make me wonder if things might be different if I knew this version of them. But there’s really no point in what ifs, is there? Only in what I know is going to be.
So I’ll somehow convince Mark that although he doesn’t know me, I have things to say. Things he needs to hear.
He’ll walk outside, curious, and we’ll sit on the broad steps that won’t be broken by the postman for another six years. The pavers will be hot under our legs because it’s afternoon and the sun always fixes its gaze on that side of the house, baking the bricks until the air ripples above them in almost invisible waves.
He won’t believe me at first. Of course he doesn’t. He’s not one for magic or fortune telling or anything that requires suspension of disbelief. Which is ironic because I know how much he wants to be an actor even though he won’t have realised it for himself. Not yet.
Mark’s suspicion is hereditary because his father was a policeman. I won’t tell him about losing Peter in 2018; exactly when or where it happens or how it causes an irreparable rift in his family, because there’s only so much future grief you can hand a person all at once, isn’t there? I don’t really know the rules.
Instead I’ll tell him I know about hiding in his dog’s kennel as a kid, at the house on Pinnacle Street, to avoid Peter’s drunken anger; that he’d take his plastic Star Wars figurines in there with him for company and that he still has those figurines and Darth Vader is his favourite because there’s something about the dark that he likes.
But he doesn’t display them the way he wants to. They stay in their boxes because Abigail thinks they are childish. She’s older than him and doesn’t appreciate toys the way I do but I won’t say that part to him as it’s one thing he doesn’t need to know. It’s not why I am there.
I picture his confused face as I tell him more things a stranger shouldn’t have knowledge of. The quiet rage that still hides inside him. His love of lizards and the knotted appendix scar he’ll one day try to pass off as a knife wound to impress me. I’ll say all these things as an offering of proof.
See, I know things. Believe me.
Then I’ll become an oracle, a portend of doom, and I won’t relish it for a second. I’ll know there’s no going back once I say it out loud. The space-time continuum is completely and utterly fucked. I’ll be ruthless. I’ll tell him Abigail is going to die, that she doesn’t get checked when she should and she knows – she actually knows - but she does nothing. I don’t know why. But I do know when.
I’ll tell him it will be awful and that he’ll try to take care of her but he’ll fail and he will break and so will their children and it will not be like the movies, not at all, there will be no heroics and no revelations, it will be brutal and messy and then she’ll be gone.
I’ll want to scare him so that even if he thinks I’m crazy – which he will, because that’s one of the reasons he falls in love with me – it might sow enough of a seed to change it. And then it will all be worth it.
The house will stay their house. Their children will never have to hate me. The postman might never break those bricks and Han Solo and Princess Leia will have to stay packed in their boxes.
And I will never know what it’s like to fall asleep in his arms.
What if she still dies? What if somehow this changes nothing? There is something else and I have to warn him. It’s why I’m really there after all.
I’ll say ‘Run, don’t walk. Sell the house and leave. Take the kids and go far away with them and make a new life. And whatever you do - no matter what - do not fall in love again too soon. Even desperately joyous love that seems to promise to fix everything. You’ll know her when you find her but trust me, don’t do it. You will destroy each other."
Because sometimes love is not only love but distraction and control and manipulation and regret and it’s trying to fill a hole that can’t ever really be filled and, more than anything, sometimes love is not enough to make up for all the things I know are going to go wrong.
In that moment, Mark will realise I’m talking about myself and he’ll think I’m even crazier, but it won’t matter. I’ll leave not knowing if I’ve made a difference and, just in case, three years later I’ll try to avoid the place where we’re supposed to meet. I’ll derail the train to save us from the wreckage.
I close my eyes and sabotage myself before I’ve begun by wondering if I’ll be brave enough to do any of it. I’m honestly not sure it’s enough to know I’d be giving the kids their mother back, saving them all from the grief and the unstoppable avalanche that follows. It should be enough, but I think I’ve established that I’m probably a terrible person. Selfish. I know this.
I don’t think I’ll be strong enough because I still remember how he tastes and I know how desperately he is going to love me, and I him. I know that we will get drunk in Paris and we will fight and make up and we’ll love a lifetime in a matter of months. But we will also end. And it will be brutal and messy and then it will be gone. It’s just the way it is. I know this too.
I suppose it’s good that I have twenty-two years to decide.
~ the end ~