Once Upon a Timepiece

Read the first story from "Once Upon a Timepiece"

           Conrad Sands slipped off his watch and placed it on the desk in front of him. He stared at the second-hand ticking neatly, inevitably, dispassionately round the face, measuring out increments of life with blank indifference. How many seconds had passed since he had last seen her?

           Conrad pulled a sheet of paper towards him and began to scribble dates and numbers. He worked absently, only half-engaged with the task. June 22nd 1992 he wrote at the top. That was the last time he had seen Mariana Carson. He couldn’t remember the exact time. Perhaps it was 8.30am when she had climbed into a London cab with her bags and sped off to Victoria station, and then to Gatwick for her flight to New York.

           He had stayed with her that last night in her rented apartment above a newsagents on Wardour Street in Soho. They had risen early and walked round to the Patisserie Valerie café on Old Compton Street just as it was opening. It was her favourite place for breakfast—always pain au chocolat and a caffe latte, sitting at an outside table, watching the day come to life. The street had a grubby cheerfulness, the gutters full of beer cans and cigarette butts from the night before that would be cleared away by roadsweepers as the crisp morning air brightened with the sun.

           Today was January 12th, 2012. Nineteen and a half years had passed since that morning—7,143 days. Conrad put down his pencil. It was a quarter of a lifetime.

           He had only known her for nine months, and yet the memories he had of her were as clear today as they were in the moments after she had slipped away in her taxi that summer morning. At least they felt just as clear. He pulled open the desk drawer and took out a second watch, cleaning it on his shirt. He had never worn this one, but he had held it countless times

over the past 19 years, staring at its features. The watch was a 1946 Breitling Chronomat made from rose-coloured gold. Mariana had told him it was designed during World War II for aviators. It had two extra dials on its face and a rotating bezel marked with various scales and measurements. In the right hands, the watch could be used to work out speeds, distances, percentages, fuel consumption and numerous other calculations.

           Mariana had given him the watch over their last breakfast. It had belonged to her grandfather, who had left it to her in his will. Mariana had worn it every day that Conrad had known her. It was one of his defining memories of her—a slim 23-year-old woman wearing an antique men’s gold watch that dwarfed her wrist. The leather strap showed clearly where she had punched an extra hole to make the fit tight enough.

           Conrad had protested at the gift, but Mariana had waved away his concerns and insisted he keep it to remind him of her. At the time it had felt like a promise to keep in close contact, that their parting was just a temporary break. He had been 21, and thought they’d be apart for a few months, perhaps a year at most. He certainly hadn’t expected to be 40 years old when

they reconnected.

           He wound up the Breitling and set the time so that it now ticked in unison with his first watch. It was 5.30pm, and already dark outside. He was due to meet her in two hours.

           Conrad showered and shaved and stared at his reflection through the bathroom steam. At 21 he’d been athletic, choosing to cycle whenever he travelled across London. He had been a keen windsurfer at home in his native Cornwall, and was a regular in a five-a-side soccer league. Now the mirror showed a man in much poorer shape. These days he jogged to keep fit, but it hadn’t prevented his paunch from filling out and his skin from losing its elasticity. His hair was still thick and dark, but his face seemed more bloated.

           How would Mariana have aged? At 23 she had been striking, if not classically beautiful. She had given Conrad the strong impression of a native American Indian, a hunter—slim, with sinuous limbs, long black hair and olive skin. She caught people’s eye and held it, but it wasn’t so much prettiness or good looks as it was an impression of something exotic, a determination, a confidence. She saw the world in her own way, and meeting her made you want to understand how and why.

           He had first met her in the student bar at the London School of Economics. It was the winter term of his final year. He was playing pool with a friend when she’d challenged him to a game. She lost the first, but challenged him again and again, until she beat him on the fourth try. Conrad was a good player who rarely lost. He maintained that he’d let her win out of pity, but it wasn’t true.

           Mariana, whose swarthy complexion was a blend of Venezuelan mother and Anglo Saxon father, was an American exchange student from Duke University studying economics at the LSE for a year. She shared several classes with Conrad, and after that first encounter over the pool table they had spent more and more time together.

           She was endlessly curious about London and its history, taking Conrad to museums, art galleries, churches and buildings that he had never seen. One of her more unusual interests centred on the graves of the famous. At Westminster Abbey she sought out the resting places of Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. At St Paul’s Cathedral, she visited the graves of John Donne, Alexander Fleming, William Blake and Christopher Wren.

           Once, Conrad had taken her to see a football match, a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. She had loved the gruff cynicism of the life-long supporters as they watched the match, and afterwards they had drunk in a local pub called the Pickled Pelican with a boisterous crowd of fans. Mariana liked to drink—Jim Beam bourbon and beer. On leaving the pub, she had taken Conrad to Brompton Cemetery next to the football ground to seek out the grave of Emmeline

Pankhurst, the suffragette. It had taken them some time to find it, and when they did, Mariana had sat on the ground and smoked a cigarette, suddenly quiet, the rowdiness of the stadium and the pub lost to personal contemplation.

           On another occasion, a Saturday morning, Mariana had announced that she was going to Highgate Cemetery to see the grave of Karl Marx. The great European experiment with communism had collapsed in the previous two years and she wanted to see where its architect lay. They had stood together in front of the austere cuboid of grey granite, topped by a giant bust of the man, and talked about Marx’s theories, his delusions and his legacy.

           As an economics student, Conrad was familiar with Marx and had denounced his ideology. So too had Mariana, but her arguments had seemed so much more passionate and nuanced, so much more intense than Conrad’s text-book clichés.

           Conrad knew that she was well-read. Her father, an engineer who ran a company in New York that made electricity transmission machinery, had banned television from his household. He believed in the merits of discussion, debate, reading and study. Conrad had found it somewhat ironic that a man who spent his life improving the delivery of electricity to people’s homes, should forbid the watching of television in his own, but Mariana had clearly benefitted from his discipline.

           In one or two instances, Conrad had found himself reading ahead so as to impress Mariana with his own erudition. When she made plans to visit Kensal Green Cemetery, and the graves of Charles Babbage, the mathematician, and Anthony Trollope—“an economist’s novelist”, as Mariana described him—Conrad spent a week reading and improving his knowledge of both of them.

           Conrad hadn’t thought to ask her why she was so keen to see these graves. Looking back, he supposed it was to bring the figures of history to life for her in some way. She seemed to admire great achievement. She seemed to hold great respect for men and women who had used their “brief candle”, their “hour upon the stage” as Macbeth put it, to make a difference.

           Conrad flipped the Breitling watch over and looked at the back where an inscription read “May your brief candle shine brightly”. Conrad had only seen the inscription after she had given him the watch. No doubt it had been engraved by her grandfather, or by whoever had given it to him. But Conrad had often wondered over the past nineteen years if the dictum had held a special resonance for Mariana. The inscription was part advocacy, urging the wearer to

live life fully, and part prayer. Perhaps it was a sense of life’s brevity that had so animated Mariana’s interest in the graves of London’s great achievers.

           It certainly seemed that Mariana’s candle had shone brightly. In the past few weeks Conrad had learned a little about her life since they’d parted. Her year studying at LSE was the last of her undergraduate degree, and before she left London she had secured a place at Harvard to study for a masters degree in law. That much Conrad had always known. He had tried to stay in touch, writing letters to her family address in New York. He wrote six times in the first eight months but never heard back from her. He had no idea if the address had been wrong or if she had simply lost interest in him.

           Those were the days when the web was still in its infancy and keeping in touch with distant friends was hard. As the internet blossomed, however, Conrad had come across traces of Mariana and the work she was doing. An online search on her name in 1998 showed that she was working in Bosnia, helping to re-establish property rights for families displaced by the

Yugoslavia conflict.

           Three years later, in 2001, another search revealed that she had set up an organisation called Rule of Law—its motto was “Nobody above the law, nobody below the law”. Its website described a group of lawyers fighting for the formalisation of property rights in the world’s squatter settlements and conflict zones. The philosophy behind the group was exactly what Conrad would have expected from Mariana: clear deeds and ownership rights to land were the

foundation of wealth. Without formal property rights, the poor had no assets against which to borrow, they were unable to set up or to own legally-recognised businesses, and they were excluded from the formal economy. Only by establishing property rights for the poor could they improve their lives. Marx would be turning in his grave, Conrad had thought on reading it.

           As the years had gone by, Conrad’s thoughts had turned to Mariana less and less frequently, but her presence still lingered at the edge of his consciousness. Every few months he would trawl the web to see what new mentions he could find of her. Disappointingly, he had never found any photographs. She wasn’t registered with any of the social media sites, and although she was quoted periodically in news stories, they never carried a picture.

           At various times he had composed emails to Mariana—some of them long and heartfelt, others short and pithy—but he had never sent them. He had always arrived at the same conclusion, that Mariana had forgotten about him and moved on. Why else had she ignored his letters? He had given her his family’s address in Cornwall before she’d left London. She could easily have written to him, but she never did.

           Over the years, Conrad’s impression of his nine-month relationship with her had grown gradually less certain. Had he simply been a friend of convenience, an easy companion in a foreign city? Perhaps he had been even less than that. Certainly it was she who had initiated the friendship, but was it he who had sustained it? Had Mariana invited him to accompany her on her explorations of London, or had he invited himself?

           Throughout their time together it was a frustration for Conrad that they never had sex, not once. It wasn’t through any sense of prudence or chastity on her part. Mariana had been happy to kiss him, and to share a bath with him as they smoked joints and drank wine and listened to The Grateful Dead and Neil Young and Funkadelic. She had been happy to sleep in the same bed as him, both of them naked, caressing each other and talking. But anything more

and she had gently declined.

           The reason she gave for her restraint was the ending of a long relationship just before she came to London. Mariana had said she wasn’t ready to step straight into a new one, and Conrad had believed her. But in the years since, he had wondered whether the previous boyfriend had really existed. He had also considered the possibility that this boyfriend had been all too real and waiting for her in New York or at Duke. Conrad imagined him as tall and tanned, an impressive man with great charisma.

           But if all that were true, then why had she given him the watch? Surely such a treasured heirloom handed down from her grandfather wouldn’t be so easily lost to a passing fling of no significance? If only they had made love. Somewhere deep inside himself, Conrad suspected that some of his enduring interest in Mariana was thanks to the unrequited nature of his love for her.

           Conrad padded through into his bedroom. It was still littered with boxes and packing cases that had arrived a few days earlier. He’d spent the past fifteen years in Asia, working in Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong, before deciding to return to the UK. He’d sold most of his possessions before the move. All that remained were a handful of books, two paintings, an antique chest from Nepal, his golf clubs, and several cartons of photographs and papers. At the time, Conrad had thought it a good idea to get rid of all the clutter in his life, but surveying the items that had survived his cull, it didn’t seem like much.

           He shrugged to himself and began to get dressed. He could always buy more things if he wanted to. A career spent working as a fund manager meant he was already wealthy. He didn’t have a job in London, but nor did he need one. His return to the UK was a chance for him to reassess his life and decide what he wanted to do next. He needed a change of scene.

           For some time, he’d felt a growing disillusionment gnawing at his soul. Partly it was a sense that his job, indeed his whole industry, had lost its way. It no longer provided social utility. But more than that, Conrad was consumed with a gathering sense that he wasn’t the person he thought he’d be at the age of 40. He hadn’t lived the life he’d wanted to live, and time was getting shorter.

           Occasionally he’d hear a piece of music and be transported back twenty years to a different era, to a different version of himself, a younger version, a better version. It might be Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” or Blue Cheer’s “The Pilot” or any number of other songs. More and more, these tunes took him back to a place that increasingly looked nothing like his life today. They unlocked a time of possibility, a place without borders, a world of potential and greatness and passion. It wasn’t only music, it was also books and art and conversations. More and more they filled him with a sense of a past vision for his life, a hope, an expectation that he had failed to achieve. Conrad was filled with a sense that, if his younger self could see him now, he would have been disappointed.

           On returning to London six weeks earlier, Conrad had contacted many of the friends he’d lost touch with over the years. He had emailed Mariana too, spending a long time crafting his message, trying to get the tone right. He wanted to appear friendly but casual, interested but not overly so. He avoided any mention of his unanswered letters, or questions of why she had never been in touch. He was just an old friend re-establishing contact.

           She had replied almost immediately, her email full of enthusiasm and delight at hearing from him. She said she’d missed him and wanted to know what he’d been up to in the years since university. Her response made Conrad feel ashamed that he had pretended to be so blasé, and so they had emailed back and forth, filling in the history that each of them had missed.

           Mariana was still unmarried, and still lived in New York, although she spent most of her life on the road, meeting the donors who funded her organisation, recruiting lawyers to join it, and leading efforts to represent the poor and displaced in their legal disputes. Much of her time was spent in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana and Suriname. She described her work as frustrating and rewarding in equal measure. Occasionally it was dangerous too.

           Mariana told how she had come to truly understand the importance of land rights in the months between leaving LSE and attending Harvard. She had been visiting her mother’s family in Caracas in Venezuela and had witnessed first-hand a riot in one of the barrios in the hills rising out of the city. She had travelled to the barrio alone, wanting to understand the plight of the urban poor, and had become caught up in an outbreak of violence that had put her in hospital.

           She had spent the next five months recovering from her injuries—a slow, painful and frustrating experience that had delayed her start at Harvard. But the experience was an epiphany, it had changed her life. She had witnessed the desperate anger of people trying to protect the pitiful plots that they and their families had worked for, but which the law said they didn’t own.

           Conrad had still not spoken to Mariana. All their communication had been via email, and it seemed better that way. It had allowed him the space to grow comfortable with her once more. Tonight, however, they would meet face-to-face for the first time in nineteen and a half years. One week earlier, Mariana had emailed saying that she was coming to London for four days. She was meeting several law firms that wanted to get involved with her cause. She

wondered if she could see him too?

           Conrad strapped the Breitling onto his wrist and checked the time—one hour to go. It seemed right to wear the watch tonight. It would show how important she had remained to him, and that he had never stopped thinking about her. He didn’t know what to expect from the evening. The two of them were both single. Possibly it would lead to a rekindling of the past. Perhaps he had held a place in Mariana’s heart for the past nineteen years, just as she had in his. He felt calm as he set off to meet her.

           The venue for their reunion was a wine bar in Notting Hill called Wild Thyme, just off the Portobello Road. It served tapas-style food and was a suitably casual place for the occasion. On a Thursday night it would be busy but comfortable.

           As Conrad approached, he stopped outside to peer through the plate-glass windows. The lights inside were dimmed, but thick church candles flickered from sconces on the walls and from tall wooden candlesticks. It looked warm against the icy darkness of the street. Many of the tables had people sitting at them.

           Conrad stepped inside and surveyed the room, looking for her. The space was large and irregular, and parts of it were obscured by columns and corners. Mariana wasn’t in the front part of the bar, and Conrad moved further in to get a better view of the back. And then he saw her. She was at the bar alone, sitting on a bar stool, straight-backed, with a glass of red wine in

front of her. She looked poised and comfortable, and Conrad watched as she sipped her wine and tapped at her phone.

           She was wearing jeans tucked into knee-length boots and a tight-fitting grey jumper. On the stool next to her lay a black overcoat. If anything, she looked more imposing than Conrad remembered. Her face was noticeably older, but her hair was still long and black and her figure still slender. Her expression was immediately familiar, but had gained a wisdom that Conrad realised had been inevitable. Her confidence at 23 had matured into a powerful presence.

           “Can I find you a table, Sir?” A waiter said, approaching Conrad.

           “No, no,” he stammered, ducking behind a pillar. “Thank you, I’ll sit at the bar. I’m meeting somebody.”

           “Can I take your coat?”

           “In a minute, thank you.”

           His calmness had given way to trepidation. There she was, Mariana Carson, the woman who had lit up his life so brightly nineteen years earlier, and whose memory had stayed with him so persistently ever since. Conrad peered round the pillar again and was struck with familiar impressions: a hunter, a fierce intellect, an exotic beauty, a deep passion and energy and curiosity for life. But now he saw something else too, a sense of accomplishment that

magnified all her earlier traits. She had grown in stature.

           The more Conrad looked, the more his desire to meet Mariana drained away. She had achieved so much of value with her life. She had done such important work. Conrad felt thin and insignificant. Hers had been a life that deserved a grave worth visiting. Would anyone visit his in the years ahead?

           Conrad called over the waiter, borrowed his pen and tore a page off his order pad. He leant against the pillar and wrote a note onto the page, before folding it in half. He unbuckled the Breitling watch, and cleaned it for the last time on his shirt, watching how the flickering candle flames on the wall above him reflected off the glass.

           He stole one more glance at Mariana, and then gave the note and watch to the waiter and instructed him to give them to the woman at the bar. He made sure the waiter had understood the instructions clearly, and then pulled open the door and strode away into the cold.

           “Where is he?” the woman asked when the waiter handed over the watch.

           “He left. You might still catch him if you run.”

           She opened the folded note. It read:

 

Mariana—I saw you this evening sitting at the bar and you looked magnificent. You have become the woman I always imagined you’d be. I wanted to join you, with all my heart I wanted to, but I think too much time has passed. Or perhaps not enough time. I’m returning your grandfather’s watch. You deserve it more than me. Conrad

 

           “Do you want me to see if I can catch him?” the waiter asked.

           “No… no thank you,” the woman shook her head. “It’s fine.”

           She read the note several more times and studied the watch, turning it over and reading the inscription on the back. She sipped her wine slowly, casting her eyes over the rest of the room, and when her glass was empty she asked the barman for her bill. A leather bag lay on the floor next to her barstool and she picked it up, dropping the letter and watch into it and pulling out her purse. She paid the bill and was putting on her coat when another woman joined her at the bar.

           “Has there been a man in here looking for someone? Looking for a woman? He’s about 40, tallish, dark hair,” the second woman asked the barman. He shook his head. “If anyone does ask, maybe you could point him in my direction. I’m sitting in the corner over there.”

           “Sure,” the barman said. “What’s your name?”

           “Mariana. And his name is Conrad. I’m worried he might have been in and missed me.”

           On hearing the conversation, the first woman turned and stared at Mariana. She had a face that wasn’t easy to look at. Beneath her greying hair, her right cheek and temple looked as if they had been scalded by boiling water. While one side of her face had smooth skin the other side looked stretched and distorted like melted plastic.

           “Has someone stood you up?” the first woman asked.

           “I hope not,” Mariana replied. “Hopefully he’s just late. He’s an old friend.”

           “Bloody men. I’m sure he’ll show up.” The first woman smiled, picked up her bag and walked out.

"Once Upon a Timepiece" is written as 12 short stories that all link together to tell a bigger narrative.

1. January: Seize the Day