Chronotopia

Chronotopia

We will give the name chronotope (literally ‘time space’) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature. This term is employed in mathematics, and was introduced as part of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The special meaning it has in relativity theory is not important for our purposes; we are borrowing it for literary criticism almost as a metaphor (almost, but not entirely)
Bakhtin

 With different frames of reference there can never be fundamental agreement on the simultaneity of events
Einstein

Train station, wet morning in early autumn. Carriage fills with screen-staring, Metro-clutching commuters, a clumsy shuffle up and down the aisle as they jostle for position, part apology, part blame, stuffing bags and coats onto the narrow racks, perching plastic-lidded tubs of coffee on fold-out tables. Two girls, bleary and giggly, jigsaw details of a misremembered last night. An old man puts on his glasses and taps at his phone. On the train now. Yes love. In about an hour. See you then. See you. Yes, love you. Another man, younger, his suit and haircut all angles, apologises via Skype for the poor Wi-Fi. With a side-eye I can see his colleagues’ frozen faces, superimposed by a slowly-ticking buffering circle.

I watch the windows of the train on the next platform slide away, their reflections blurring into abstract patterns of light. We are leaving, I think, and it is not until a few seconds later when the windows disappear that I realise we are not leaving: it is the other train that is pulling out. Its departure is a curtain opening on a new scene, revealing an out-of-breath man just missing his connection, others standing in front of the Pumpkin Café, distractedly checking watches and overhead monitors to see when their connections will arrive or leave.

*

She had no idea what time it was when she woke up. Her phone had died during the night, not enough battery to raise an alarm. Perhaps it was still early, she thought, noting the semi-darkness beyond the curtains.

Once up, she checked the clock in the kitchen and found it was late, despite the dark. She made tea and waited for the day to clear, and when it didn’t, she pulled some clothes on and headed out anyway.

*

In time, we roll on. I’m in for the long haul, so lean into my corner, up against the cold window, get out book, newspaper, banana, then stuff my bag under the table. Others will get on and off, only making parts of my journey, but I am the only person on board travelling from terminal to terminus. The train heads out of town and into the land, through empty industrial estates and diminishing suburbs until nothing but low grey cloud, flat fields and thick hedgerows surround us.

The unspooling view is tediously familiar. I turn away and look up and down the carriage: the girls have fallen asleep, the businessman stares angrily at his still-frozen screen, the old man gazes emptily out of the window. This is a sealed environment, hermetic, temperature-controlled, everyone doing their best to ignore the outside or the people near them. Ears are clamped to phones, eyes fixed on iPads, fingers occasionally jabbing to find more, other music, chatter, games, movies. I see the backs of a young couple on their way to the buffet car. I hear the unwrapping of mints and one side of several different conversations, none of them making any sense. I can smell browning banana peels and coffee dregs, the print of the freesheets, their crosswords now scribbled on and abandoned.

Time passes; clouds gather.

*

She felt the plash of mud around her ankles and cursed her shoes, canvas wrong for this place at this time of year. The cold rose and got into her clothes – coat, scarf and knitted hat were no barrier against the damp chill of early autumn. She cursed herself for not having taken more care dressing, but hadn’t planned to come out so far. There had been no reason to, other than the physical urge to get out of the house, to move, to get some light, air, to feel her muscles moving, to make her sluggish heart pump. Before long she’d found herself passing along familiar tracks, the way well-worn in her memory even though she hadn’t been out this way in a long time. Summer it had been then, the weeds wild and thick, the narrow path dry beneath their feet. She remembered her blouse getting snagged on branches that now only poked at her, telling her not to go on. The path hid itself in black puddles and oozes of mud. Another gust of cold, but this one scrubbed at the sky and took the low clouds with it. In a minute, she hoped, there’d be more light.

*

I take this train often. I never look at my watch because here, on this long and over-familiar journey, its hands move so slowly. I mark the accumulation of time and distance by the reappearance of familiar landmarks, the wind turbines just after the river, the distant church spire up on a ridge, the red farmhouse that always looks abandoned apart from one single light, the incongruous junkyard, hulks of rust in the middle of a field. I hardly need even look any more, it’s enough to take an occasional glance to know where we are, how much longer I have to travel. I could, I suppose, look more carefully, register the tiny shifting nuances of colour and gradients of time as the seasons pass, but today, at least, I prefer to read.

*

It was a path they’d taken often, back in the early days. She’d wanted to move to the country, he’d wanted to stay in the city, and they’d found themselves in neither one nor the other, on the edge of a small town that had all the disadvantages of one mixed with the disadvantages of the other. Sundays afternoons they’d taken to exploring, getting out as far as they could. They normally ended up somewhere near here, a spot she was looking for, even if she hardly admitted it to herself. The edge of a field, near a bridge over the train tracks.

*

The book is attempting to explain the theory of relativity. I understand little of the maths, the physics, the equations, but I like the stories. Imagine twins, the book tells me, one travels into space at a speed close to that of light, the other stays on Earth. The first twin returns, they meet and see that time has elapsed differently for each of them. Their clocks and calendars show disagreeing times and dates. The twin who stayed on earth has aged more rapidly; time slowed for the one who travelled.

My eyes grow tired and I am easily distracted. I wonder why the couple whose backs I saw have never returned from their trip to the buffet car. I measure my progress with a bookmark and a glance through the window. I remember this spot, I think. I’d often imagined going walking out here, trying to find the church whose spire we could see or the farmhouse with one light always on, wondering if they only existed through the train windows. Perhaps we did it once, and found nothing. Little in this strange light seems real.

*

She couldn’t be sure if it was the place or not when she got there. The quick steep ridge which dipped giving way to a footbridge they’d stood on, yes, here, surely, though everything seemed so different now, the place no longer the place where they had once been. It was their presence, then, in that moment that had made it so. Alone now, it was another place.

*

The clouds scud away and the page is illuminated by the fresh light reflecting onto my face. The couple return, but on seeing their faces I realise they are not young lovers, but middle-aged, their faces lined with worry and regret. I look out, surprised by the now-silvery sky covering the low fields. Day has come again.

*

The sound first, the distant voice through rails, overhead wires and the ground itself beneath her as it grew closer. She couldn’t be sure at first: the intent clear, the direction uncertain. A storm coming, maybe, but then the train appeared, catching up with its echo, a nub of shadow on the ridge.

*

And there, in that unexpected light, a figure, though so shadowed at the deep bottom of the field I can scarcely be sure. But yes, there, at the foot of a tree, her, pale as a ghost, the red hat a bead of colour. Too far to see her eyes.

*

The thought came to her, or perhaps it had always been there. He was on that train, again, always, forever passing through that exact place. The sudden burst of light hit at the wrong angle. The windows were all reflection and moved too quickly. Though she tried, she couldn’t see in so merely raised her hand, a child again, waving at passing trains.

*

I squint to see more clearly, shade my eyes with my hand but an empty bottle, a pair of glasses, maybe a mirror hits a sudden shard of light through the parted clouds. A flash lasting a tenth of a second illuminates the perfect centre of this self-contained, sealed carriage, unmoving, the world seen in a quick glancing light.

*

She saw a figure through the window putting his arm across his eyes, perhaps waving, perhaps to avoid seeing. She saw the flash tear from a window then the rest of the train speed to catch up with it. Lightning? It hit the back of the train, or leapt from there up toward the sky. Less than a second later it had gone, trailing its streak of light across the retina of her eye, leaving the late afternoon around her even darker.

*

The moment passes and I can’t be sure I saw anything, a scarecrow perhaps, or a trick of the falling light. Why would she be waiting, right now, at this perfect hour? How could she have known? There had been something blurred about her, as though not really there, but then perhaps it is my own failing sight or the grubby windows of the train that deceive me. The train picks up speed and moves into open fields, the landscape slowing around me.

*

It was the wrong time, she told herself as she turned and walked away, the wrong train, the wrong place, the fleeting figure she had glimpsed surely not him, not the man she’d said goodbye to in another time, another place.

C.D. Rose has recently published short fiction in Gorse, 3AM and The Lonely Crowd. He is the editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure and author of the forthcoming Who's Who When Everyone's Someone Else (both Melville House).

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