Still Life: Somewhere A Clock Is Ticking

The other Still Life stuff is here. A quick explanation of the background for this is in Ongoing Stories. Both of these endings are true.

The sun rises stubbornly every day, a flaming ball in the sky, and Seth watches it, sometimes, when he’s working late. It’s comforting, somehow, to know it’s still there. He pushes his glasses up over his nose, making already messy hair even worse, and sighs, rubbing the heel of his palm into his eye.

A hand touches the back of his neck, and he looks sleepily up at his wife. She smiles, dishevelled blonde hair falling over her shoulders, eyes only half-open. Her hand moves into his hair – as if it wasn’t messy enough already – as she bends down to see what he’s doing. “Still going, huh?”

He re-adjusts his glasses and nods, mouth downturned as he neatly draws a cross next to yet another question about contour lines and map scales.

“Vi,” he says, his gaze drifting out of the window to the sunrise, “look.”

She does, and exhales softly behind him, a smile on her lips. “It’s been too long.”

– or –

Parents’ evening. God. She sighs.

Violet looks around, searching for the latest teacher; there have been bland, here-for-the-salary jobsworths, glamorous, lipsticked ones younger than herself, veterans with little hair and a weary smile. This one, however: this one is apparently the best thing since sliced bread – the most supportive, the one who did the old coin-behind-the-ear trick and left her little girl reeling.

She smiles, remembering a different time but the same trick.

Another sigh finds its way from her as Jo takes her hand, tries to pull her through the crowds of parents, and she smiles apologetically at them as her daughter chirps, “Mister Ford’s here!”

She allows herself to be led to the right line of parents and squirming, chattering children, taking a seat alongside Carol, one of the mothers. Jo, meanwhile, greets a boy with some kind of weird hand movement – he apes it – and a cry of, “‘Thieu!”

Carol watches them with a bemused eye before turning to her and saying, “Mathieu. He’s Gloria’s.”

Violet nods, pretending that this explains everything. “Ah. Right.”

When she’s swapped seats a dozen times and is close to the desk of this wondrous “Mr. Ford”, she pokes her head round the queue to get a look at him, and pauses.

A grey waistcoat that’s seen better days; a tie, slightly lopsided, under a loosened top button. Slim build, maybe even lanky. Dishevelled hair, black as an inkpool, and if it were a few inches longer, just a little messier, it would be like…

He looks up from his desk, pushes a few strands of hair out of ridiculously green eyes, the hint of a shadow round his jaw.

Oh. It caught her off-guard, she realises, as she sits back. He’s using his mother’s surname.

When she eventually reaches his desk, he gestures to the chair provided and smiles at her, not a hint of surprise or flash of recognition in his eyes. Has it been that long, that he’s forgotten her? “Mrs. White.”

“Mr. Ford,” she returns, shaking his hand and sitting. After all these years, it feels too… forward, calling him Seth.

“Joanna is doing well in some respects,” he begins, frowning down at a small sheet on the table, the paper crumpling slightly under his fingers. “Her English is above average, and she’s mixing well.”

Violet looks back at Jo and this “Mathieu” as they chatter excitedly, seeing that a couple of more children have joined them; they wave their hands about, animated and excited, wide smiles upon their faces.

She’s… happy, Violet realises abruptly, like she never was at school. Settled, comfortable. Remembering her own miserable years, always shuffling from school to school, she admits that she’s taken aback.

He looks up; his hand is moving at the desk, and she realises that he’s holding something, rolling it between his fingers – a nervous habit, like he wants to palm it and make it “disappear” again, like the old days. It’s an old, dull ten-pence piece; she watches the Faerie Queen’s head, appearing and disappearing as he turns it. Why is he in this universe? Why isn’t he in the other one, the one with only humans and normality and his family, the mother whose name he has taken? Why doesn’t he recognise her?

“Her maths…” he says, and sighs, shaking his head. “It needs work. Nothing we can’t help with a few lessons. She’s bright, and she’s happy, and she has an astonishing amount of potential.” He smiles, slightly crookedly, eyes meeting hers, and for a half-second she sees a quiet, awkward-fifteen-year-old. “I think she’ll make you proud.” He looks at the empty chair beside her. “Mr. White couldn’t attend?”

“Michael’s busy,” she says. “Work and all that; you know how it is.” She wonders when her husband will be back from Dublin; she misses him, misses his company. She misses having someone to moan about the world to, and he’ll be miserable about having missed this. He’s only ever managed to come to two of these evenings, and he sat through the queues and the pointless slagging off of other parents with a smile on his face and his hand tightly wrapped round Jo’s small one, looking for all the world like a proud father out of some nauseating vitamin supplement ad. She shakes her head, a smile coming to her face as she thinks of it. That man. “He’ll be sad to have missed it.”

“Ah,” he says, nodding. “It happens to all of us.” He exhales, and continues brightly, pushing a sheet of numbers with titles like “behaviour” and “progress” on it towards her, “You have nothing to worry about. All in all, her weaknesses aren’t going to hold her back, especially not at this stage. Her behaviour isn’t perfect, but she’s never majorly disrupted a class. She’s just…” He shrugs. “Well, young.” He looks over her shoulder at Jo, then back to Violet, a smile still on his face, and says quietly, “She has your eyes.”

Those eyes that had caused her so much misery and so fascinated him, the mark that she wasn’t human – neither is Jo. Sneaky bastard. She smiles widely, returning the favour with, “I hear you can palm a coin just as well as ever.”

He smiles bashfully down at the table, then meets her eye. “It’s been a long time.”

“It has. I wondered where you’d got to.”

He waves his hand in a nonchalant gesture. “Around.”

She has a sudden brainwave, and grabs her bag, searching round in it until she finds an old receipt for a supermarket, and gestures for his pen. Looking surprised, he gives it to her, and she scribbles down her number. “A drink?” she says, passing it to him. “To reminisce about old times?”

He looks to the ceiling. “Your terrible cooking, imprisonment by a Faerie Queen, being locked in the Magi’s wardrobe…” He sighs. “Those were the days.” He gives her that old, unchanged little half-smile – crooked and inherited from his father. “You know, I’d like that. Why not?” A shrug. “I wouldn’t mind meeting this busy husband of yours, either.” Then he leans round her, raising his eyebrows. “I’m afraid there’s a queue.”

She looks over her shoulder – a few of the parents glare back at her – and stands, offering a hand. “Thank you, Mr. Ford.”

He shakes it, and gently corrects her, “Seth. It’s still Seth.”

When she drags Michael – full-fairy Michael, who’s inherited his mother’s bright orange eyes but not her wings – to the pub to meet the human she went to school with, a couple of weeks later, Seth smiles and greets her with her name.

It’s the first time she’s been called “Vi” in sixteen years.

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