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Fiction

A traveller’s guide to fugue

I never travel that far, she said, but far enough that there is still time to change things, if people listen. The future is close. Listen to my stories, she said to me. Listen to them and write them down, and after I’m gone you must publish them by whatever means you can.

It was two months after I started working for M———- before I first saw her black out. The agency warned me that was a possibility. I carried her to bed, attached her drips, kept her hydrated, massaged her muscles. After nine days she came back. She asked for some tea.

“How are you?” I asked

Tired, she said. She’d been travelling.

“Travelling?” I prompted. “You’ve been asleep the whole time.”

M———- was a bright, lively woman, in her sixties she said, with a glorious smile and the eyes of a child. Today she looked tired and her eyes were not bright.

Travelling, she confirmed. She said she’d been to the near future to hear the wisdom of Solomon.

“The future!” I laughed. “If there was a Solomon, that was the distant past.”

Pull up that chair Antrim, she bade. She needed me to do something for her.

My name is Antrim Jones, an agency nurse paid to be a live-in carer. I am 48, born in 1970. The tale of my birth is a sorry one. My mother was a gymnast, a ballerina, an artiste and a muse, and it’s said she moved like the light of dawn on a rippling stream. None of that paid the bills so she travelled with a cheap circus and worked the high wire, the trapeze and the trampoline.

She was an enchantress, she was a spellcaster, and all those who saw her thrilled as she flouted physics and reason. She was dizzy, she was nauseous, and all those who saw her fall from the high wire feared that she would never even walk again. Seven and a half months later I was born.The circus was in County Antrim at the time and she named me for it. A poet, she was not.

Nor was my father. You’re no use to me if you can’t perform, he told her. I’ll give you some money so that you can get home. This is my home, she wept, and this is your son. He did not look back as he left the caravan and we did not see him again.

Whatever qualities the gods gave gave my mother, they held back from me. I had the rhythm of a cheaply-manufactured slow cooker lid with about the same natural inclination to perform. Fine by me. I was much more interested in learning about people than entertaining them. My mother was so proud when I told her I wanted to be a doctor! I studied psychology and psychiatry, voraciously, but when I left university I realised the only thing I’d learned was that I did not want to be a doctor. I was less interested in why they did things, and more why they said they did things. I wanted to hear their stories, which contained far more insight and so were far more help diagnostically than ECGs and X-rays. None of that paid the bills so I joined one of ZloCorp’s nursing agencies and became a carer.

For months I cleaned up piss and puke, tallied tablets, and slept in shifts. As I worked, I listened. I became known as a good listener and word got around. I participated in their stories through active listening and cross-examination. This, M———- said, was why she hired me.

Her family wanted no more to do with her, she said truthfully. They thought she was a mad old woman and while some would say they were probably right, she was not a lying mad old woman. She needed someone to look after her while she was not here, but moreover she wanted someone to talk to when she got back.

I never travel that far, she said, but far enough that there is still time to change things, if people listen. The future is close. Listen to my stories, she said to me. Listen to them and write them down, and after I’m gone you must publish them by whatever means you can. If you do that, if you promise to do that for me, I will leave you the money to publish them and the house to live in, and my family can rot in hell.

I sipped my tea and thought it over. I was 48, had no savings and nowhere to live. No one gets rich from agency work, save agencies. I fetched a notebook and a cheap ballpoint from the drawing room.

“Talk to me,” I said. “Tell me about the wisdom of Solomon 2.0.”

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