A man returns to a tragic moment in his past, desperately trying to change what happened.
Kevlin Henney writes words and code. He is a software development consultant and writer with three books and hundreds of technical articles to his name. One of his short stories was selected and published as a runner-up in the New Scientist‘s 2010 Flash Fiction Competition. Somewhere in his past is a degree in physics.
Promises You Can Keep
Pull and pull again, tilt forward, pivot on the corner, swing, pivot on the other corner, walk out, pull and pull again. Not as young as he once was, but after all these years what mattered was experience over energy, mind over matter.
Pete leant on the washing machine, catching his breath, looking around. It was a big kitchen. Big and empty and incomplete, caught between one age and another, one owner and the next. It was clear the new owner wanted a modern kitchen, one gutted of the past, cleared of its reminders. Ghosts of fixtures past haunted the walls; dressers, shelves and cupboards cast negative shadows across age-darkened wallpaper. The house still clung to what remained of the old, but the new owner would win; the house did not have the energy to resist such determined change. Through the window Pete could see bygone furniture and fittings in the skip on the driveway, viscera and memories of the old house.
The kitchen had been stripped to its bare essentials — a Belfast sink, a cooker of sorts and shelves in a pantry whose days against modern designs were surely numbered. The old fittings were joined by a fridge, a microwave and the washing machine, transients from the move, to be moved on without remorse when the time came.
Boxes were stacked high in two corners, their contents packed and sleeping, waiting until the dark Victorian gothic had been banished by downlighters and sheen-surfaced, right-angled units before they would venture into the kitchen to find new homes.
One box was open on the tiled floor. The essentials — a couple of pans, cutlery and plates for two, a pair of mugs, a kettle and little else — were out and in use on a worn-out sideboard moonlighting as a draining board and all-purpose surface.
In a living, lived-in house — a home — the flotsam and jetsam of everyday things would drift and wash into place, sorted and settled by habit rather than formality. Each thing and each kind of thing would belong, would have a home. But kettle, post, keys, phone charger and kitchenware were scattered without ritual or care across the sideboard, the floor and, before he had cleared it, the top of the washing machine. Unsettled. Restless.
Atop one pile of bills and flyers Pete spotted a yellow card: Pete the Plumber – The Promise of Punctual and Watertight Service. He smiled. He had been so much more impressed by his wording than Angela: “Dad, it makes you sound like a promise is as far as you’ll get — all talk, no plumbing. Anyway, printing stuff out and pushing it through doors isn’t how to get the work these days. You need to get yourself online.”
He liked the slogan — he even made sure to “promise” in his phone calls — and the cards seemed to work well enough. Here he was, after all, making good on his promise of yesterday.
Boiling crescendo and a click from the kettle returned Pete’s attention to other rituals. He was sure no one would mind him making himself a cuppa. He had found tea bags and milk; no sugar though — clearly not an essential.
Placing his mug and tool bag on the floor, he knelt down to inspect the back of the washing machine. “Ah, off balance. Bet that wobbled something out of place. Let’s take a look.” The owner had said the machine had worked for a few washes after the move, but had shaken wildly and loudly — wildly and loudly, at least, until it went dead and silent. He adjusted the feet of the machine, pulled out a spirit level and nodded, satisfied, before unscrewing the back to pull the rear panel off. Looking inside he chuckled. “That’d be it then. Those screws have worked themselves right out. Surprised those fastenings didn’t shear right off!”
He reached for his tea, but caught something out the corner of his eye, something unexpected, not there before. A boy. A boy standing in the centre of the tiled floor. He wore a traditional school uniform with shorts, a blazer and a cap. Motionless, the boy stared at Pete, the look in his eyes deeper than his eight or nine years. Pete knocked the mug, jolting tea onto the floor.
“Oh! Hello.” The startled tea within the mug slowly calmed. “Didn’t hear you come in.” He forced a smile out of his surprise. “I’m Pete, Pete the plumber.”
“Are you here to fix our washing machine?” The boy’s voice was crisp and well spoken. Pete was not sure what he had been expecting, but he was almost as surprised by the boy speaking as he had been by his silent appearance.
“Err, oh, yes. It’s quite a simple fix really, just a couple of screws need putting back in place. They must’ve come loose during the move. The drum would’ve been jumping around like a mad dog in a cage — lucky the fastenings didn’t come off completely! Must’ve made a hell of a racket, eh?”
The boy looked at Pete, at his tools, at the machine, then back at Pete. Calm and controlled on the outside. Pete could see in the boy’s eyes inside was a different story, as if sadness had been bottled, shaken and put to one side, barely held in by a stopper.
“If you want, you can watch me fix it.” Pete nodded an invitation. The boy hesitated but accepted, walking over to one side as Pete pointed into the machine. “See here and here? There should be screws holding these bits together. I’ll use new screws rather than the old ones — the thread’ll be gone and we want to be sure it doesn’t break again, don’t we?”
The boy watched Pete fish into his bag for washers and screws.
“Pleased to meet you, Timothy. Just back from school?”
“Yes. We’re late. There were roadworks. And an accident. In the roadworks.”
“Roadworks and accidents.” Pete sighed and shook his head at Timothy. “There’s nothing worse than that. Nothing worse.”
Timothy nodded. Pete reached into his tool bag for pliers and another screwdriver.
“Got any brothers and sisters, Timothy?”
“So just you and your parents in this big old house?”
“Just me and Mum.”
“Your Dad…?” The words were out before Pete could stop them.
Timothy hesitated. When words finally formed in his mouth, his eyes had already told the story. “He’s gone.”
“Oh… I’m sorry.” Pete looked back at the machine. He started fitting the rear panel back on. Screws he could find, but not the words. “I’m almost done.”
“I… I think Mum’s on the phone. She said she had a couple of calls to make because we were late. She… she should be here… in a moment.”
Pete tightened the last screw, patted the machine then pushed and walked it back into place.
He knelt down close to Timothy. “You know you and your Mum are going to be OK, right? It won’t be easy, but right now you’re the most important thing in the world to your Mum, more important than you could ever imagine. And your Mum… your Mum is going to do everything she can to make your life the best it could be. You’ll miss your Dad, you’ll miss him something rotten, and so will your Mum, but you’re going to be OK. That’s a promise.”
“How… how can you promise that?” Timothy’s fists clenched, a storm gathering at the edge of his calm. “You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep.”
“When I lost Marjorie, my wife, my little girl was about as old as you are now. And that’s how it went. Angela was the most important thing in my world. She made life worth living. I tried to give her the best life I could, and she helped me have the best life I could. I look at you and I know you can be that person for your Mum.”
Timothy’s fists unclenched, the storm receding from his eyes. “You… you think I can be?”
“It won’t be easy. You have to promise to try hard — wherever you are, whatever you do, whoever you become — to look after your Mum. You think you can do that?”
“Yes… yes, I can. I promise.” The bottled sadness in Timothy’s eyes stirred with belief, with a tear.
“That’s a promise you can keep.” Pete smiled back at him. “Right, all done. Should work just as it did before the move. I’ll set it going on a short cycle just to check. Tell your Mum there’s nothing to pay — it’d be criminal to charge for such a simple fix! You’ve been great company, Timothy, and I know you can keep a promise like that.”
Pete turned the dial and pushed the button. The washing machine stirred to life with a gush of water and gentle anticipation.
“Timothy?” Timothy looked round. His mother was standing in the doorway, phone in hand, tears freshly wiped from her face, a look he knew too well. She tried to hide her crying, as if he would not notice, as if the absence of tears would not remind him of the absence of his father, as if the pretence would somehow dry their shared grief away.
“Mum, are you OK?”
“Oh… oh yes, Timothy. Yes.” She faltered a smile. “I’m just a little upset, that’s all… I was on the phone to someone whose father had just died. And that made me… anyway, it’s OK, it’s nothing to worry about — no one you know.” She cocked her head. “I heard voices?”
“The plumber.” Timothy turned back towards the washing machine. “He…”
“The plumber? I’m afraid he won’t be coming. I just spoke to his daughter. He passed away yesterday morning — a heart attack. It can’t have been more than an hour after I spoke to…” She frowned. Something was not quite right, not as expected. She stared at the washing machine marking time with a calm and rhythmic churn.
Timothy stared at the spilt tea on the tiles.
The two of them were alone in the kitchen, each one holding a question, each one missing a piece of a private puzzle. Timothy looked up at his mother and reached out to hold her hand — for reassurance, for life, for him and for her.
Pictures of 2011: Winner!
A work-related trip to New York in May afforded an opportunity to catch runners’ rituals. This chap’s posture is particularly cartoon-like.
“I don’t accept that you have to resort to animal experiments for explanation.”
“But no real animals are involved, let alone harmed! It’s an example to reason through, a thought experiment.”
“I don’t like your thinking. It’s unnecessary, not to mention cruel and unusual. There’s nothing reasonable about putting a cat in a box with a vial of poison and a lump of radioactive material, then wondering whether it’s dead, alive or caught in some weird zombie state between the two, further prolonging its torment by pondering the philosophical meaning of it all instead of opening the damned box and rescuing the poor cat! Thinking it is not much better. I’m sure Mr Schrödinger—”
[private]”Professor. Professor Erwin Schrödinger.” OK, that didn’t help. Jen’s glare confirms it. The argument is slipping away from me. Not that it was supposed to be an argument.
Jen came round an hour ago for what’s becoming our ritual end of weekend wind-down. Sunday night in after Friday and Saturday – and probably Thursday – nights out … Beer, pizza, TV and my flat to ourselves.
“Nice T-shirt,” she said when I opened the front door. “What does it mean?”
Wanted Dead and Alive – Schrödinger’s Cat is a favourite of mine, and this kind of geeky T-shirt has become my trademark in the physics department. I guess Jen hadn’t seen this one before. A sure way to kill a joke is to explain it, but not explaining would be worse – apparent elitism and a sure-fire romance killer.
The discussion started out well enough. I managed to talk around subatomic particles and metaphor my way through wave functions without Jen’s eyes glazing over. Quantum mechanics is now, however, threatening the evening, having somehow picked a fight with ethics and animal rights. Beer on empty stomachs is doing little to bridge the art–science divide.
“I’m sure he could have come up with something more humane to make his point,” Jen continues.
“The fact it’s a cat is not important –”
I’m boxed in and more in need of rescue than any gedanken cat.
The doorbell goes.
“Ooh, pizza!” Jen’s mood has found new prey.
“I’ll get it.”
They’re quick tonight – I’m only halfway through my second beer. I ordered the pizza en route to the fridge for more bottles. I grab some cash, go downstairs and return, pizza in hand, as the scooter whines off into the night.
“What did you order?”
“A large one, for sharing.”
“Well, duh. What kind?”
I pause. Pick up the conversation again or let it go?
“Schrödinger’s pizza.” Clearly something within me favours the risky option. “The box is closed and you can’t tell exactly what’s inside, right? It’s pizza, and smells generically of pizza, but you can’t be sure of the topping. You’re probably wondering whether it’s got pineapple or not. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Fifty–fifty. What’s the state of the box? Pineapple or no pineapple? Or both? Dead or alive, or dead and alive?”
I love pineapple on pizza. And the morning after, fresh from the fridge? Throw in coffee and sex and that has to be the perfect start to the day. For me. Jen prefers herbal tea and pizza without pineapple. Pizza in the morning is simply not on the radar. But the sex is good.
“If you loved me, you’d order without.”
The L-word catches me off guard. Jen hasn’t used it before. Not about us, not about me, not about anything – sex is sex, not making love. We’ve been playing around and playing along, having fun, nothing more. Just a summer thing, a summer fling. In September Jen is heading off to South America for a year and that’ll be it. We both understand that … or I’d thought so. Neither of us has actually said as much. On the outside it’s improv. But in this case I thought we were both sneakily reading from the same prepared script, nothing hidden.
“But I’m just the narrator! I’m outside the experiment.”
“No you’re not. And I’m not sure I appreciate being part of an experiment –although I guess it spares the cat … smart move.” A smile. I’m not totally out of favour.
“You said earlier that this Schrödinger paradox raises the question of observer-created realities,” Jen says. “As narrator, there’s no question: you ordered the pizza; you created the reality. You know the outcome. The pineappleyness doesn’t manifest itself one way or the other simply because I open the box.”
“In theory, but I don’t know if they got the order right. So at this point, like you, I guess I’m just an observer. The contents of the box are in a shimmering state of uncertainty, a superposition of different possibilities. Until we open the box, there’s no better description of the pizza than simultaneously topped with pineapple and without. And, if you imagine these possibilities played out across parallel universes, there’s one universe where the pizza has pineapple, another universe where it doesn’t and –”
“Don’t forget the universe where I thump you. In case you were wondering, teasing me with physics while withholding my half of the pizza, shrouding it with an air of undecided pineapple? Not a winner.”
“But at least it’s not pepperoni,” I say, trying desperately to regain favour.
A couple of weeks after the end of the summer term, the pepperoni discussion had not gone well. But I guess it had helped clarify some things. We’d been in the kitchen, having a beer, thinking about getting a takeaway or seeing if Niall, my flatmate, had left anything useful in the freezer.
The doorbell rang.
“Who’s that?” Jen asked.
“Don’t know. I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
I went downstairs to find out and came rushing back up.
“It’s a pizza delivery!”
“But we didn’t order pizza.”
“I know. It must be for one of the other flats. Hungry?” I grinned, grabbing some change.
“But it’s not ours!”
“I know. It’s probably for upstairs. And when it fails to turn up in half an hour, they’ll ring up and get the free pizza they’re entitled to for late delivery. It’s win–win!”
“Hugh, you’re bad,” she called after me as I disappeared out the flat door.
“Pepperoni!” I returned in triumph, mischievous grin on face, pizza box in hand.
“I’m vegetarian,” Jen replied.
I’d known that, but it hadn’t really registered as something I needed to care about. That was about to change. “You could pretend it was, err, fish?”
“First, I’m not going to pretend. This isn’t a case of being clever by being naughty. I’m not a vegetarian because someone else told me to be – it’s my choice. Second, vegetarians don’t eat fish.”
“Some vegetarians do. Niall says he’s vegetarian and he eats fish.”
“People who eat fish are not vegetarians. Just because some of them say they are doesn’t make it so. Mental hospitals are filled with people who claim to be Napoleon, Jesus and Elvis. Doesn’t mean they are.”
“You never know.” I smiled. Jen glared. “OK, if they’re not vegetarians and they’re not omnivores, what are they?”
“Pescetarians or fishetarians, take your pick. Anyway, I saw Niall eating bacon the other morning.”
“So what am I supposed to call him?”
Niall being away for the most of the summer is good for everyone.
I’m spending a lot of time in the lab at the moment, trying to get sensible results out of my current experiment. Low-temperature physics gives you easy access to helium, and where there’s helium there’s always squeaky-voiced fun to be had. The week after most undergraduates had gone home, Niall had dropped by my end of the building for mid-morning coffee and downtime.
“Hi, I’m Jen,” he squeaked. “I like Spanish, media studies, kittens and postgrads.”
Anything in a Mickey Mouse voice is funny, even jealousy. Jen standing behind him as he did this? Priceless, albeit unfortunate. Niall stumbled a high-pitched apology, a mockery that only dug him a deeper hole. Jen then suggested a sudden and intimate relationship between kittens and Niall she would be more than happy to arrange – one severely at odds with her moral stance this evening.
“Dead or alive?” I push the pizza box across the table to her.
“If it’s pineapple, you’re dead to me.”
She opens the box, smiles, leans over and kisses me. It’s an eight-slice pizza. Four with pineapple, four without.
“I love you too,” she whispers in my ear.[/private]
Kevlin Henney writes words and code and words about code. His fiction has appeared online and on tree, including stories with New Scientist, Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, Fiction365, and an audio piece in Litro (Remembrance of Things Past). His writings on software development span a couple of books and many articles.