Increments

What if life started running away from you? This is a short story about ageing and the passage of time. Contains content which may offend.

Getting stuck on the A-road seems to define your existence these days.

As you drive home from work, you assume the roadworks must have finished by now. No such luck. You can be forgiven for being so optimistic – after all, it’s only a few weeks since the birth of your baby boy.

Becoming a new father certainly doesn’t make the hour-long commute any easier. All you want to do is get home to your family, but obviously that’s a big ask.

Irritated, you pull the handbrake up.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ you mutter, sat helplessly in gridlock.

You lock eyes with the equally helpless driver sat in the Volvo next to you, nodding to him in world-weary acquiescence. He doesn’t appreciate it. He flips the ‘V’ sign at you. It’s easy to forget there are no comrades in traffic jams. There are only dickheads.

The sky turns a darker hue as you feel yourself yawning. You catch your reflection in the mirror; a guppy fish caught in the slipstream, mouth gaping open, black bags under your eyes.

Being a new parent is like no other tiredness you have ever experienced. Not that you’d ever admit it to your wife. It’s probably down to all that crying in the middle of the night – it’s little wonder both of you looked so dreary-eyed when you left for work this morning.

You’ll be first to admit tending to a new born often feels like it’s draining your lifeblood like a leech on your thyroid gland. But perhaps it’s best to keep all these observations to yourself. It must get easier, right?

* * * * *

You walk in the door, as usual, dog tired. Mind you, at least dogs don’t have to worry about earning sales commission, so you reckon you’re even more tired than that.

‘Hey, love,’ you say, unbuttoning your coat. ‘I’m home.’

Your wife greets you with a grin. ‘Hi, darling,’ she says. ‘How was your day at work?’

You don’t bother sugar-coating it. ‘Shit,’ you say.

You notice her frown slightly, but she continues to give you a spirited half-smile which goes some way towards making shit days worth enduring.

A stray hair falls in front of her face and she brushes it aside, her nose crinkling in the same adorable way you remember from your wedding photos. You give her an impromptu kiss.

‘You look… different,’ you say to her.

‘In what way?’

‘Oh, I dunno. More colour in your cheeks, perhaps. You look more sprightly than you did this morning anyway.’ You hook your coat on the hanger. ‘How’s the baby?’

‘What baby?’ she says.

You hear the sound of CBeebies coming from the living room and guess she must be joking.

‘Joshie’s not a baby anymore,’ your wife continues. ‘Look at this picture he did at nursery today.’

She brandishes a sheet of paper and you stare at it hazily – it’s a picture of two multi-coloured scrawls, one of which is apparently you, and the other, your wife.

You gawp. How was this possible?

This must be a jape. When you left for work this morning, Joshua was only a few weeks old –– a life-like Berengeur doll –– limp, passive and barely conscious, but animated enough to chirrup like a chicken and puke milk over your shoulder.

You poke your head around the living room door and see Joshua toddling about. Your heart melts. He looks around 2½ years old, clapping his hands along with Mr. Tumble and shouting gobbledegook.

He looks happy. You’re not.

You turn back to your wife with your face as ashen as her dream kitchen plan.

She can tell something is wrong.

‘What is it?’ she asks.

You don’t know what to say. ‘I think I’m gonna poo myself,’ you reply.

That was the best excuse you could come up with at short notice. You nudge past her to go upstairs, sit on the toilet, and pretend you’re having a massive bowel movement.

Unfortunately, that’s the least of your worries. Somehow, your boy has aged two years in the space of one day. He’s clearly much older than the baby whose tiny head you kissed goodbye this morning.

This has to be a prank. Had you driven through a time vortex in the snarl-up or something? Surely not. This is reality, you tell yourself, not an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Maybe you’re just tired. Your mind is playing tricks on you. Perhaps if you sleep on it, things will be better.

* * * * *

As it happens, a night’s sleep only makes matters worse. You wake up late, and you come downstairs to see an older Joshua slouched lugubriously on the sofa wearing his school uniform.

Time has jumped again by about a decade. You know this because your little boy is now aged 12 and is magically capable of stringing a full sentence together.

‘Y’alright, Dad?’ he says, before noticing your flushed expression. ‘What’s the matter? You okay?’

Act normal, you think to yourself. You don’t want your family to think you’re going mad. Just pretend it’s not happening. This must be a dream.

‘Oh, nothing,’ you say, forcing a pained smile which probably looks more like your appendix has burst.

Hurriedly, you find your wife sat at the kitchen table wearing her work outfit.

There are now slight tinges of grey in her hair and she has a letter open in front of her. She’s dampening her eyes with a tissue.

‘What’s wrong?’ you ask.

‘Read it and weep. I just did,’ she says, showing the letter. ‘We’re in so much trouble with the mortgage, darling, I’m so worried, I just don’t know what to do. The rates have gone up. There’s no way we can make the repayments.’

Your wife wipes away something else from her face – not a stray hair, this time, but a tear.

‘We’re going to lose the house the way things are going,’ she says, pools forming in her eyes. Soon, she starts weeping uncontrollably.

You put a hand on her shoulder and try to reassure her. ‘Stay calm,’ you say, ‘I can always apply for overtime, my job pays quite well. Plus, I must be due a bonus soon. There’s an easy way around this. Trust me, please don’t cry.’ You tenderly put a hand on her cheek. She regains some composure and smiles back at you.

Your innermost thoughts are screaming, a billowing panic rising through your blood. You want to tell her about the time jumps, about how jarring it is to see your family ageing so quickly, but you know you must be strong. She’s in no fit state to process this. She’s depending on you.

You take a half-distracted look at the clock. ‘Oh, shit, is that the time? Christ, I’m going to be late, honey,’ you say.

‘It’s fine,’ your wife replies. ‘You best get going. We can talk about this later.’

You very much doubt it, especially if time keeps moving as quickly as it does. But for the sake of keeping the peace, you give her a resigned nod. ‘It’ll all be okay,’ you lie. ‘Try not to worry.’

You’re just about to leave for work when your innards churn at the thought of how much of Joshua’s childhood you’ve missed.

‘You’re looking so grown-up now, Josh,’ you tell him, intently observing his expressions.

‘Whatever, Dad,’ he says.

Taking a seat on the sofa next to him, a maelstrom of unaccomplished paternal instinct swims in your head. There’s a chasm of filial taciturnity you’re dying to bridge.

A sudden idea strikes you. ‘Listen,’ you say. ‘I want to give you something.’

You unhook your wristwatch and pass it to Joshua. He looks bemused. ‘I’ve had this for years, but now I want you to have it. It’s a gift. Promise me you’ll wear it. Please. It will mean a lot to me.’

Joshua looks at the wristwatch for a moment. ‘Err, okay,’ he says. ‘Thanks? I suppose.’

You lean over and look at him, his eyes strangely alien yet familiar at the same time. ‘Josh,’ you say, ‘Don’t let time get the better of you.’

You reach over and give your son a hug, which he doesn’t seem very pleased about, but reluctantly accepts. He pats you on the back until you break free.

Standing up, you resist the urge to cry and make your way to the door. ‘See you later, Josh,’ you tell him unsurely, a grim look of valediction in your eyes he’ll never fully understand.

You massage your temples as you linger in the hallway. Maybe you have a brain tumour which is messing with your time perception. What else could it be?

* * * * *

Before long, you’re wondering if Alzheimer’s disease might be a distinct possibility. The look on your boss’s face when you apologise for being late to work suggests you have a track record for not being punctual.

The strange thing is, you don’t remember ever being late before. Is it possible this is a symptom of early-onset dementia? Maybe you’re too young to get it, sure, but that might explain the memory loss.

You decide to cheer your wife up by buying her some flowers – a summer bouquet with pink roses, scented lilies and purple Chrysanthemums. You hope this goes some way to reminding her how much you love her.

Upon returning home, however, you realise to your horror the flowers have shrivelled and wilted; their once-green foliage now dry brown clumps; the colours drained to sepia-tone; their stems drooping and lifeless.

Dejectedly, you discard the flowers and, with some trepidation, turn the front-door key clockwise.

Joshua is not home, and he hasn’t been for some time.

In the hallway, there is a picture of a grown man dressed in university robes wearing a familiar-looking wristwatch, clutching a diploma in his hand with his garbs cherry-topped with an academic cap.

Inside the living room, your wife is sat upright on the sofa, her eyes closed in repose.

She’s in her eighties now and has white hair, and it’s only until you glimpse your face in the glass cabinet you realise you’re old too – wrinkles appearing like cracks in the scales of a carp drying out on a jetty, as if pulled perilously out of water.

You inspect your wife’s face closely. Her lips are blue, her eyes sunken, and suddenly it’s as if you swallow a fishhook.

‘Honey?’ you say. You reach over and rest your hand on her forehead. It’s cold. You panic, trying to find a pulse. ‘No… please…’

Floundering, you throw your arms around your wife and feel your shoulders start heaving. It’s too late. She’s gone.

‘I’m sorry,’ you say. ‘I’m sorry for everything. I’ve missed out on so much.’

It’s then you see your wife has the house deeds in front of her – all mortgage repayments have been fully met.

You cry for what you’ve lost, for what you’ve missed, and for the time rapidly ebbing away from you – increments evaporating, moments unfulfilled.

Closing your eyes, you gasp for air, cradling the corpse of your wife like a long-lost friend, tears drying on your cheeks.

* * * * *

A horn sounds inside your skull, reverberating cacophonously through both ear canals and giving your brain a jolt.

Your heart skips a beat as you momentarily forget yourself. You glance at the rear-view mirror to see the driver behind – a hooded figure – gesturing obscenely.

‘Move!’ he mouths, pointing his finger, as he honks his horn again.

You realise the car in front has pulled away by some distance, the tide of traffic parting to reveal a carriageway illuminated by light.

Somewhat relieved, you release the handbrake, sighing in capitulaton. You move as if following a current and take the crossing, making the journey home.

Then you see the flowers; not lifeless at all, but bright, colourful and thriving.

You smile thankfully. Well, at least they haven’t died. At least, not yet.

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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