Time Past

The following piece was awarded Second Prize in the OU Students Association Freshers Writing Competition for Freshers Fortnight 2023 (25 Sept – 8 Oct). The author,  Jackie, is from Rayleigh, Essex and has just started studying A215 (Creative Writing) for a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing.

Towards evening the light became clearer.  There was no wind on the lake.  There was also a great stillness which Frank could almost taste in the air.

He patted himself down, felt the comforting weight of spam sandwiches and flask of coffee he’d tucked away in the deep pockets of his old greatcoat and sighed heavily.  Frank couldn’t imagine any logical reason why he’d returned, especially after what had happened all those years ago.  But the dream he’d had the night before had called him, urgently it seemed and so here he was walking up the long, sweeping driveway from his memories.  “I shouldn’t have come” he scolded himself.

Frank looked over at the lake, the water reflecting the setting sun.   Wispy fog settled on the surface like little puffs of smoke from the breath of a fiery dragon.  “Steam fog” he thought, “I wonder if the lake is warm enough to swim in”.  Realising that this was a daft thing to be considering on a rapidly cooling autumn evening, especially at his advanced years, Frank changed direction from the lake, making his way closer to the abandoned structures beside it.  The evening sun cast long shadows across the front of the buildings so that the doors and windows could barely be seen.

Unsettled, Frank found himself listening intently.  A sudden indistinguishable noise startled him, and he froze.  Moments ticked by.  He heard nothing but the rustling of leaves on the ground, disturbed by an unseen animal scurrying about its business.    He walked on, concentrating, trying not to stumble over the hidden debris scattered on the ground.  And halted when he heard a faint tinkling sound which seemed to be coming from one of the buildings.

The world seemed to stop, and silence fell, heavy and expectant.  Frank held his breath.  He had a notion that everything around him was listening, waiting to see what he would do next.  He shook himself, literally.  “Don’t be so ridiculous, boy” he barked loudly, his moustache bristling and his tone clear and authoritative.  His booming voice startled a nearby moorhen sleeping in the reeds.  It took flight, skimming across the still waters of the lake, squawking in protest at being awoken from its slumber.

Frank moved forward, a little slower now and as he did so, the tinkling started again.  He realised that he was expecting it this time, almost willed it.  He couldn’t quite make out what the noise was, but it was familiar, and it bothered him like an itch he couldn’t quite reach.  Straining his ears, he heard another noise, this time behind him.  It was a low earthy thrum, the vibrations of which he could feel in his chest.

Frank turned around and instinctively looked up into the empty sky.  Nothing.  He could still hear it though.  He realised he could smell it too.  The distinctive odour of aircraft fuel assailed his senses, caught at the back of his throat, and seared his nostrils.  It quickly faded away and left an aftertaste of cigarettes and coffee.  He shook himself again,” You silly old fool” he said, speaking out loud, trying to anchor himself in reality.  He felt as though he wasn’t here, as though this was some mad dream and he pinched himself, hard on his forearm.  No, not a dream.  Frank heard the tinkling start up again behind him, louder now and distinguishable as music although the tune evaded him.  He slowly turned around.

The sight that greeted him seemed to change in the blink of an eye.  The buildings which had been ruined and deserted not moments before were now lit up.  Warm, yellow pools of light spilled out from the many windows of what was instantly recognisable as a dance hall.  Sparkling, twinkling lights hung like stars from nearby trees and shadows of courting couples could be seen holding hands in the secret pools below its branches.  People were milling about outside the dance hall and the music had changed into a song Frank instantly recognised as I’m Stepping Out with A Memory Tonight.  Frank drew a ragged breath and felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

A shout from inside the dance hall dragged Frank’s attention to the door where two men wearing RAF dress uniform tumbled out, laughing.  Frank recognised both.  Jim “Smudger” Smith and Bill “Jock” Fraser, his two best friends from 41 Squadron.  “That can’t be right” thought Frank, confused.  “Smudger’s dead”.  Just as this thought flashed through his mind, Smudger looked directly at him.  Frank took an involuntary step backwards as Smudger raised his hand in greeting.  “Franz, over here, old chap” he called “Where the devil have you been?”

Frank glanced behind him, sure that Smudger must be talking to someone else even though he had called Frank by his old nickname.  As he turned his head back again, he gasped audibly.  The vision was gone.  The ruined buildings were back, and the darkening sky had turned everything into shades of grey.

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