It was Chronomass Eve, so Munkin and the twins painted the floors and walls with Timepaint. They’d been saving up for months for it, denying themselves anything but the necessities, and finally, just a week ago, they’d had enough.
“Just in time for Chronomass, too,” Vampi, who was the younger twin by fifteen minutes, had gloated. “It’s like it was...meant.”
Rangi, the older twin, had snorted. “Only because we’d scrimped with Chronomass in mind,” she’d replied. “You always have to look for silly things to believe in. No wonder, seeing you’re the kid.”
But they’d gone off this morning to the Time Shoppe in town, and walked back all the way carrying the sealed dark blue tins of Timepaint. They could have bought sprayers to put it on, too, but Munkin said they’d do it the old-fashioned way, with brushes. After all, sprayers cost money, and they had brushes aplenty.
So as darkness fell outside, Munkin climbed on a chair and began painting the walls all around the windows and the doors, making sure not to leave even the slightest little gap through which the time might leak out. Meanwhile, the twins, barefoot and in shorts, painted the floor with brushes tied to mop handles. The heavy, oily paint spread reluctantly over the polished wood, and glowed faintly with a greenish-yellow glimmer afterwards.
“Remember the ad?” Vampi said, dunking the end of the brush in a can to pick up another load of Timepaint. “The years that have gone,” she quoted verbatim, “rolled away into the dark of the night, can be brought back again, to the present, which they had once possessed; the memories that hover in shadows, weeping because they have no home, will find themselves freshened, given birth to anew. The leaves which have withered, harbingers of the snows of yesteryear, will sprout green again from the branches of spring, the grass will push up once again from the dust-dry earth. The..”
“Yeah, yeah,” Rangi said. “We’ve all heard it often enough. Remember the precautions we’re supposed to take, not the promises they made.” She inspected the bottom of one foot, which glowed faintly green; and when she ran a finger over her sole, it, too, came away glowing. “What do I do about this?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Vampi said. “Remember what they said, that it’s harmless to the present. Just make sure you paint over the footprint you made over there – I can see the floor in a couple of places. We can’t have leaks in the barrier, you know that.”
By the time they finished, it was almost ten in the evening. The paint was already beginning to dry, as promised, and the greenish-yellow glow was intensifying. They ate a small supper and settled down around the dining table to wait. Most people put up decorations for Chronomass, but they didn’t have time after all the work, and they had no money left over to buy decorations. Besides, it didn’t matter anyway.
The first visitor arrived early, an hour before midnight. Rangi, looking over her shoulder, saw him sitting on the bed, watching them. He looked exactly as she remembered him, his toothless jaws moving constantly as though he was chewing, while his yellowing moustache drooped over his mouth.
“Look,” she said, quite calmly, with none of the wild excitement she’d expected to feel. After all, it was just the Timepaint working as it was supposed to. “It’s Grandpa.”
Grandpa peered myopically around the room. “Where’s my favourite chair?” he mumbled. “I want to sit in my favourite chair.”
Munkin and the twins exchanged embarrassed glances. The favourite chair had finally succumbed to age and dry rot, and they’d burned it months ago as part of a bonfire. “It’s...er, gone to the carpenter’s, Grandpa,” Munkin said, remembering to half-shout to get through the old gentleman’s wall of deafness. “It needed fixing. The joints were all loose.”
“We couldn’t get it back in time,” Rangi added.
“You call me back here,” Grandpa grumbled, “and without my favourite chair to sit in. And I’ve been looking forward to this for months.”
“We’ll get it for you next time,” Vampi promised, and was promptly rewarded by as hard a kick on the ankle from Rangi as she could manage under the table. “At least we’ll do our best,” she amended feebly.
Fortunately, Grandpa didn’t seem to have noticed. “Where is everyone else?” he asked. “Surely I’m not the only one who came?”
“No, no, they’ll be coming,” Munkin reassured him, and, as though on cue, Mama and Papa appeared together, just inside the door, side by side, as though they’d just walked in.
“How nice to see you,” Vampi and Rangi said, the latter much less enthusiastically than the former. “Was it hard for you to get here?”
“Don’t ask,” Mama said, flopping down in the nearest chair so hard that it squeaked, and mopping her red face with the same white lace handkerchief as she’d always used. “I walked and walked through the years, and now my poor feet are aching, and it’s not as though I got any help from you-know-who either, which isn’t surprising considering how he always behaved when we were alive, and...”
“We got here all right,” Papa said shortly, and sat down on the bed next to Grandpa. Munkin sighed. Death and the passage of years hadn’t changed the parents, evidently. As usual, they seemed to be straining to get as far away from each other as possible, and avoided looking at each other, but somehow still stayed together though they loathed each other and had never really tried to hide the fact.
“Isn’t there something to eat or drink?” Mama asked. “You call us here and you don’t even have anything ready to offer us?”
“I’m sorry,” Vampi said, and jumped up to rush to the kitchen. “I’ll get you some tea, the way you like it.”
“Children,” Mama said to nobody in particular. “How inconsiderate.”
“How’s the afterlife?” Rangi asked Papa curiously.
Papa shrugged. “It’s impossible to say. We aren’t from the afterlife, you know, just from the past, from where you dragged us. We’ve no idea what happened after we died.”
“It’s awful,” Mama said simultaneously. “Awful beyond belief.”
There was a brief pause, while everyone looked at each other. Grandpa’s jaws worked constantly, and his wheezing breath filled the room. “So, what are all you kids doing these days?” he asked eventually.
Munkin told him. He snorted. “No drive in young people, just like always. When I was your age, we’d achieved things by now, and you’re just marking time.”
Papa jumped up from the bed. “I’ve had enough of this,” he snapped. “To come back here, only to listen to the same old broken record...”
He was interrupted by Vampi returning from the kitchen. “What’s going on?” she asked, looking from one tense face to another.
“Never you mind,” Mama began. “I always think...”
She got no further. Although the paint was by now too dry to smudge, Vampi was still walking on the tips of her toes, and she was carrying the heavy tray with the cups and teapot. The accident was inevitable, and – though nobody would admit it – was welcome.
By the time the twins had mopped up the mess, and Munkin had replaced the tablecloth, the house was beginning to fill up. First it was crazy old Aunt Mashi, Mama’s sister. She still had the old grin on her leathery face, and she still spun round the chair and sat on it the wrong way around, which had always driven Mama crazy back in the old days. “Well, well,” she yelled. “I never thought you’d call me back. Nice to feel wanted, I always say.” She threw her head back and laughed. “Not that anyone else here is pleased to see me, are they?” She nodded at Grandma, who’d just appeared and was staring vacantly at nothing, the same empty shell as she’d been in her last years. “Except for her, I’ll be bound.”
“Well, it’s nice to see that you haven’t changed.” Munkin felt a snuffle and a cold wet nose pressed into his hand, and, even without looking, began scratching the hairy head under his fingers. He suddenly had the absurd feeling that if he looked down, if he saw the eager eyes and the lolling tongue, he might burst into tears. “Not that I expected you to.”
“Of course not.” Aunt Mashi leaned across the table and tapped Rangi on the arm. “I’d have thought you’d be hooked by now. How come you’re still single? Did you get jilted or knocked up or something?”
While Rangi was struggling to reply to this, Vampi saw someone on the far side of the room who made her mouth dry up. It wasn’t anyone she’d wanted to see again, and, after all, she’d only seen him the one time. And to look at, he wasn’t much – a small man with greasy hair, a little moustache, and a tiny pot belly. He looked across at her with a half-apologetic smile.
“Who’s he?” Munkin asked. “Someone you know?”
“Nobody,” Vampi muttered. She had a sudden, physical sensation of one of those two pudgy hands slipping under her skirt while the other twisted her nipple. She remembered his voice, insinuating, cold as ditchwater the day after a rainstorm. “You want it, don’t you?” he whispered in her ear, even as he smiled at her from across the room. “Tell me you want it, you little bitch. We both know you do.”
“Nobody,” she repeated. Was the man even dead? Was he just the memory of him come back alive? She hadn’t ever found out what had become of him, after all. She squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them again. The man was still there, but he’d pressed himself back against the wall, as though he would have loved to be gone. But of course that was impossible so long as the Timepaint barrier lasted.
Munkin was looking at the man as though debating whether to go and ask him what he wanted. He even started to get up from his chair, and Vampi had a sudden shaft of terror go through her at the thought of what the man might say. But then someone else came wandering out of the kitchen, and Munkin’s mouth fell open.
“It’s you,” he said blankly.
The young woman nodded. “Did you really expect I wouldn’t turn up? When you summon the past, you can’t really pick and choose.” She stepped towards him, ignoring everyone else in the room. Her face, under the tan, was pale, the skin drawn tight over her cheekbones. Her lips were a gash of red. She looked fierce and very beautiful. “You’re looking well, all things considered.”
“Who is this girl?” Mama demanded.
The young woman didn’t even glance at her. “Well, Munkin,” she said, “it’s been a while. Won’t you ask me to sit down? Or...” her eyes roved over the room, flickering momentarily as they touched Vampi’s and Rangi’s faces, “...would you rather discuss things in private?”
Munkin looked as though he’d been thrown a life jacket. “Come to my room,” he said. Ignoring Mama’s squawk of protest, he took her by the hand and drew her away. She, for her part, stepped past Mama as though she didn’t exist.
“Well!” Aunt Mashi hooted. “High drama at last! What do you think they’re talking about?” She winked at Vampi and Rangi. “Do you know?”
“I’ve never seen her before,” Rangi said, pushing away from the table so the dog could climb on her lap. The feel of the rough tongue licking her face was so familiar that she clutched him to her, hugging him as tightly as she could. He squirmed and whimpered.
“Vampi, Rangi...” Papa said. He looked acutely unhappy for some reason. “I’d have thought things might be...different. I don’t know. Better. But it seems it’s just like everything continued going downhill like always.”
The twins glanced at each other. “So it was always going downhill?” Rangi asked softly.
“And you still had us, even though it was going downhill?” Vampi added. “What were we then to you?”
“Ah, you’re a disappointment to him because you couldn’t do what he couldn’t, which is turn his life around for him.” Aunt Mashi propped her chin on her hands. “Isn’t it interesting what you find out when you get a chance to have a look at the past again?”
Rangi suddenly felt intensely hurt on their father’s behalf. “I’m sorry, Papa,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry you were like this. And I’m sorry we had to find it out.”
“Break the Timepaint seal.” Papa looked down at the floor and kicked the leg of the table. “Break the seal and let me go.”
“Not on your life,” Aunt Mashi said. “I’m enjoying myself far too much, and, besides, you can’t break it for just one person.”
“It’s going anyway,” Vampi pointed out. And it was, as the paint sank into the past, the glow fading, first slowly, and then with accelerating swiftness. And as it did, one by one, the visitors began to thin and waver. She reached out to the dog, but only managed a touch of fur before it faded under her hand.
“Goodbye, Grandpa,” Rangi shouted. “Goodbye! We hope you enjoyed your time with us!”
“Who was that girl?” Mama was still demanding, but her voice was fading fast. And, to Vampi’s vast relief, the man with the pot belly in the corner was already gone.
“Goodbye,” Vampi and Rangi called, as the visitors vanished. “We’ll see you next Chronomass. Goodbye!” And “Don’t go,” they both wanted to say. “Don’t go.” But it was both useless and too late. There was nobody left to hear.
Munkin came back into the room. He looked intensely unhappy. “It was a mistake,” he said. “A very bad mistake. We shouldn’t ever have done it.”
“A mistake?” Vampi said. “I don’t know that it was a mistake. We found out things we wouldn’t have otherwise. But even then...” She threw a glance at the far wall, where a small greasy man had pressed himself apologetically, “I’m glad it’s over.”
“Is it?" Rangi asked quietly. “Is it really?”
They both stared at her. “Of course it is,” Vampi said. “Or are you suggesting we do it again?”
“We don’t have to do it.” Rangi got up, went to the door, and opened it. The dark night flowed by outside. She stared into it for a few moments before closing the door and turning back to them.
“What about when it’s our turn to be called back out of the past?” she asked. “What do we do then?”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016