Present Company Accepted

Ivan Czirle sat at his kitchen table in his small home overlooking the Danube. Since his return he had sat, smoked, and watched the ticking wall clock eagerly. It was just before eleven and already the air was warm. As he smoked, Ivan flicked his feet between squares of sunlight that rested on the hardwood floors like discarded playing cards. Rula will be home soon he thought. He wondered how she would react to him. Would she be angry? Would she curse him? Would she attack him with a saucepan? Or would she be open to explanation? The small stone building hummed with silence as he flicked his gaze between pots and pans that hung above the cooker and logs that were piled up by the dusty hearth. From outside he heard the distant cries of children playing in a nearby park. He closed his eyes and ran his hands along the indentations on the kitchen table. All these years he thought. All these years and I never experienced these things! He smiled and flicked his cigarette ash into the small glass ashtray at the centre of the table. It felt wonderful to be home.

At just after eleven, Ivan heard Rula open the front door and moments later she entered the kitchen, breathing heavily. Ivan heard the rustle of bags as she wrestled them to the worktop.

‘Why do those shopkeepers never have anything you actually need,’ she said, breathless and flustered. ‘Four times I have been to the butchers for that minted steak you like and each time he says, “oh we just sold the last one. You must come earlier next time.”’

Ivan grinned. Her voice was still beautiful.

‘I managed to get some ham and olives and a piece of that cheese you like.’

Ivan said nothing.

‘Are you listening to me Ivan?’

‘Yes…I am listening.’

‘Then why do you not answer?’

‘I like hearing your voice.’

Rula laughed. ‘Have you been drinking already?’

‘No…But I would like to.’

‘Well you cannot. I don’t want you drunk when Erika arrives.’

‘I would not embarrass you Rula.’

Rula laughed again. ‘I’m sure you believe that.’

‘It is true.’

‘What is wrong with your voice?’ she said, unpacking again. Are you catching a cold?’

‘…Come and sit with me Rula.’

‘Let me unpack first.’

‘Please.’

Rula tutted and stopped unpacking. She walked over to the table and sat down but immediately stood up when she saw Ivan’s face. Seeing her face was equally shocking to Ivan who had spent  so long trying to remember it. The colour from her face drained and Ivan knew instantly that she did not recognise him. Rula stormed over to the door, opened it, and ordered Ivan to leave but he paid no attention and simply asked her to sit down again.

‘Get out you crazy old man! My husband will be here soon!’

‘Your husband is already here.’

Rula scanned the room. ‘What have you done with him?’

‘Do you not recognise me my little elderflower?’

‘What did you call me?’

‘My little elderflower.’

Rula stepped away from the door. ‘How do you know that name?’

‘Because I gave it you.’

‘…Who are you?’

‘Please sit down Rula.’

Cautiously, Rula sat down. Ivan remembered enough about his wife to know that he was dangerously close to her physically ejecting him so he needed to remain calm and clear. He smiled at her but it was not returned.

Rula took a cigarette and lit it. ‘Where did you give me that name?’

Ivan smiled at the memory ‘At your cousin Hugo’s house. We drank elderflower wine in his garden on a long summer’s evening. You said it was the sweetest thing you had ever tasted. I kissed you for the first time and said you were the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. From that day I have always called you my little elderflower.’

Rula studied Ivan’s face. ‘Who are you?’

‘Ivan Czirle…Your husband.’

‘That’s impossible,’ Rula said. ‘My husband is a young man and you are clearly very old.’

Ivan felt the wrinkles on his face. He could not deny Rula’s words.

‘What is your middle name?’ Rula asked.

‘Zolte.’

Her voice trembled. ‘And mine?’

‘Ildiko.’

‘…Where did we meet?’

‘At the fairground,’ Ivan said, smiling.

Rula’s bottom lip quivered. She reached out to touch Ivan’s face but pulled her hand back sharply. ‘How exactly did we meet?’

Ivan lit a cigarette and thought back to that day. ‘I was making my way through the crowds to meet Father when some crazy old woman attacked me. I managed to push her off but not before she gave me these.’ He pointed to two diagonal scars on his cheek.

‘I remember her,’ Rula said. ‘She was so angry. I guess you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.’

‘Or perhaps the right place.’ From his shirt pocket he took out a handkerchief and offered it to Rula who took it hesitantly and then opened it up. The blood stain was faded but Ivan saw the recognition of the memory in her eyes.

‘This is the handkerchief I gave you.’ She looked at Ivan and cried. ‘I will never forget the look of terror in your eyes as that woman attacked you. You were helpless like a puppy.’ She tried to return the handkerchief but Ivan told her to keep it.

‘It looks like you need it more than I do.’

She laughed and padded her eyes. ‘Do you know what happened to her?’

‘They took her to an asylum somewhere,’ Ivan said. ‘Somewhere up in the mountains with no chance of escape. I believe she is still there today.’

‘Poor woman,’ Rula said.

Ivan said nothing and rubbed the scars on his cheek.

They fell silent for a while. Ivan lit a cigarette and his expression became sullen. ‘That day holds so many memories for me,’ he said. ‘The crazy old lady, meeting you, and knowing that while I was talking with you my father was taking his own life.’

Gingerly, Rula ran her fingers across Ivan’s wrinkled forehead and cheeks down to the scar the old woman had given him. ‘Is it really you Ivan?’

‘Yes.’

‘What has happened to you?’

‘I got old.’

‘But I was only gone for two hours.’

‘Two hours?’ he said, disbelieving. ‘Is that all it has been for you?’ Everything he had seen, everything he had done had taken place in only two hours of time for her. Even for Ivan this thought seemed too difficult to comprehend. ‘What was I doing?’ he said. ‘The last time you saw me?’

‘What you always do,’ Rula said. ‘You were working on your weather experiment!’

Ivan laughed.

‘What is so funny?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Ivan said. ‘I was not working on a weather experiment.’

‘Yes you were,’ she said. ‘I have not seen the inside of my cellar for almost four years because you banned me from entering. Something about not wanting to electrocute me with the electricity you had harnessed from the storms we have.’

Ivan half-smiled. ‘That was a lie… I’m sorry.’ He smoked and thought, remembering how much he hated lying to her. ‘I’m sorry Rula,’ he said. ‘I spent all those years working on…well how can I put this? Well…I was working on a time-machine…Rula you are looking at the world’s first time-traveller.’

Rula laughed. Then she laughed some more. Then she laughed until she could not stop. And when she eventually did stop she stood up and fetched a bottle of wine and two glasses from a kitchen cupboard. She returned to the table and poured them both a glass, knocking hers back in two noisy mouthfuls. ‘My husband is thirty-four years old,’ she said, pointing at Ivan’s face. ‘And you are clearly many years beyond that age.’

‘If my calculations are correct I am seventy-six years old.’

Rula scoffed. ‘That would mean you are forty-two years older than he is.’ She drank more wine. ‘You are telling me that in two hours you have aged forty-two years!’

‘That’s right.’

Rula shook her head and laughed. ‘This is ridiculous! I have Erika arriving soon and I am having a conversation with a crazy old man which makes me wonder who is crazier? You with your time-machine story or me for sitting here and listening to you!’

‘Please let me explain.’

‘Be my guest.’

Ivan sipped his wine and collected his thoughts, searching for memories of that morning forty-four years ago when he had said goodbye to Rula. ‘When you left to go shopping this morning,’ he said. ‘I went down to the cellar and took my time-machine for its maiden voyage back to August the fifteenth, nineteen-twenty-three.’

‘The day we met,’ she said.

‘And the day father killed himself.’

‘And how did he kill himself?’

Ivan sighed. The memory was old but it still caused considerable pain. ‘He threw himself off the big wheel at the fairground. I travelled back in time to stop him.’

‘And did you?’

‘I thought I had.’

‘What do you mean? Either you did or you did not.’ Rula lit a cigarette.

‘I met father at the big wheel and persuaded him to have a drink with me. I disguised myself with a wig and a fake moustache and told him I was the son of one of his old war comrades. He was so pleased to meet someone who knew of him from that time. We spent the afternoon in a nearby cafe drinking palinka and chatting about many things, but mostly the problems he’d had since returning home from the war. When I left him I thought I had changed his mind but the next day he drowned himself in the Danube.’

Rula smoked. ‘So what did you do?’

‘I travelled back in time again and stopped him from drowning. Again we spent all afternoon going over his problems and I thought I had changed his mind…But the next day I learned that he had cut his own throat at home.’ Tears welled up in Ivan’s eyes. ‘The day after that he jumped in front of an automobile, the day after that he threw himself off the town hall, and the day after that he shot himself in the head with a pistol he stole from a policeman. The list goes on and on. No matter how much I tried to change the past, no matter how many times I persuaded him that he was a good man, no matter how many times I walked away believing he had listened to me, he always took his own life the next day. I tried and tried over and over to change the way he thought about himself. Every time he told me he was a bad person I asked him what evidence he had. Every time he told me he should be dead I persuaded him to be grateful for the life he had. Every time he spoke about how much he hated himself I told him to think of all the good things he had done. I always walked away thinking I had gotten through to him but the next day I would always discover he had taken his life somehow.’ Ivan took a mouthful of wine and swirled it around his mouth before swallowing. ‘After many years I realised that trying to change the past is like trying to change the thoughts in your own head. The more you desire them to be different the more they will remain the same.’

The pair sat silently smoking for a few moments. Ivan felt the warmth on his face and arms and he felt peaceful.

‘That sounds like an awful experience,’ Rula said. ‘Learning of your father’s death over and over with no hope of stopping it.’

‘It was heartbreaking and also immensely frustrating,’ Ivan said. ‘I have spent all my life fixing things and solving problems and I was unable to stop my father from taking his own life.’

Rula reached across the table and rubbed Ivan’s arm. If her pitiful expression was anything to go by then the sadness he felt had arrived at his face. Ivan cradled her hand and the pair sat silently for a moment. Outside, birds squawked and squabbled and further away an aeroplane droned in the distance.

Rula lit a cigarette and poured more wine. ‘So where is your time-machine now?’

‘It’s right here.’ Ivan tapped the side of his head.

‘Your head is your time-machine?’

Ivan smiled. ‘Not my head, but what is in my head. My time-machine is more like a time-device. It is a small piece of electronic circuitry that allows my thoughts to fuse with time itself. I think of a time and the device opens a doorway between the present and that point.’

Rula stubbed her cigarette out. Ivan saw suspicion bubbling behind her eyes. ‘And how did this device get into your head?’

‘Janos.’

‘Janos!’ Rula said. ‘His hands are not capable of surgery anymore.’

Ivan rubbed the scar at the base of his skull. ‘Perhaps. But he managed to perform the necessary surgery on me.’

‘I am surprised he agreed considering he blames you for your father’s death.’

‘Janos will do anything for whiskey and palinka.’

Rula nodded her agreement. ‘So if the operation was a success and you travelled back in time, what happened to you?’

Ivan smoked and thought. ‘Navigating through time is a highly complex affair,’ he said. ‘Far too complex for a human brain so I built an autopilot into the device.’ He sipped his wine. ‘But after several years of travelling back and forth trying to save father it malfunctioned and for the past forty years it has pulled me back and forth between the past and the future with no hope of returning to the present.’

‘You have been to the future?’

‘Yes and no.’

Rula frowned. She wanted answers in black or white.

‘My apologies,’ Ivan said. ‘Let me explain… I was only able to travel so far into the future because man is only able to travel within the confines of his own lifetime. I learned this when I tried to go back to stop father joining the army. I thought of the date he enlisted and the place where it happened and stepped through the time-door but found myself only in the year nineteen-hundred and thirty-five. The eighteenth of April, nineteen-hundred and thirty-five to be precise.’

Rula’s eyes widened. ‘Your birthday,’ she said. ‘I mean your actual date of birth.’

Ivan nodded. ‘I thought I could travel back to any point in time but I was wrong,’ he said. ‘Time will not allow anyone to pass beyond the limits of their own lifespan.’

‘So how far into the future have you travelled? Have you seen what happens to us? Do we have lots of children? Do you win the Nobel prize? Do I become an opera singer?’

Ivan laughed at Rula’s child-like response. ‘I never made it that far I’m afraid.’

‘When did you make it to?’

‘The twenty-first of August… Nineteen-hundred and sixty-seven.’

Rula went to speak but stopped as the realisation of Ivan’s words became apparent. Ivan saw the realisation in Rula’s eyes.

‘But that is today’s date.’

‘I know,’ Ivan said. ‘Today is the day that I die.’

Rula went to speak but emotion overcame her. She stood up and paced over the kitchen floor and into the lounge. Ivan lit a cigarette and poured more wine. He asked Rula to sit down but she ignored him and just paced back and forth.

‘Rula I need you to sit down.’

She continued her pacing.

‘Rula!’

She looked at Ivan and  walked calmly to the table and sat down.

‘I know this is all such a shock,’ Ivan said. ‘But I need you to do something for me.’

‘What Ivan?’

Ivan was about to speak when a gust of wind rattled the window. Rula stared but Ivan said nothing. He knew what the wind signalled. Time was coming for him.

‘Rula I need you to do something for me.’

‘What is it Ivan?’

‘I need you to remove the time-device from my head.’

‘Please tell me you are joking?’

‘No joke.’

Rula grimaced. ‘And what am I supposed to do Ivan? Just cut open your head with a kitchen knife and pull this thing from your skull like a lucky-dip prize?’

‘It would be a simple procedure,’ Ivan said. ‘A small incision at the base of my skull will reveal the time-device. You could simply reach in and pull it out with a pair of your tweezers.’

And then you will die,’ she said. ‘You told me you die today! I am pretty sure that cutting a hole in the back of an old man’s head is a pretty good way to make somebody die!’

Ivan nodded and made not attempt to convince Rula of anything different. The wind hammered at the glass like an angry ghost.

‘If you do not remove the device I will be pulled back into time where I will spend the rest of my days jumping back and forth between the past and the future. Believe me when I say it is a fate worse than death.’

Rula was torn and Ivan knew he had to work quickly. To his left a small black hole the size of a coin appeared and began to grow slowly accompanied by a wind that swirled around it. Ivan felt the familiar drying of his throat as the air thinned around him.

‘It’s ok,’ he said to Rula who looked terrified. ‘It’s just going to get a little difficult to breath for a small while but it will be ok.’

The hole grew until it stood in the centre of the room, flat from all angles and menacing in its blackness. What looked like a layer of skin peeled from the kitchen cupboards like shedded snake skin and was sucked into the hole.

‘Time is running out Rula.’

The wind swirled faster and noisier and pulled a layer of skin from Ivan’s face. On seeing this, Rula told Ivan she would do as he wished. ‘But not as you want me to.’ She opened a number of kitchen cupboards until she found what she was looking for.

‘What are you doing Rula?’ Ivan shouted over the wind.

‘Rula poured the last of the wine into a glass and then poured the contents of a small bottle into the glass. ‘This way you will not feel a thing Ivan,’ she said. ‘You will go to sleep and there will be no pain.’

Ivan shook his head. ‘Listen to me,’ he said. ‘I need you to remove the time-device from my head because dead or not I will be sucked back into time. So I need you to grab a knife from the cutlery drawer and cut this thing out my head before its too late.

‘I can’t do that Ivan!’

He went to shout but stopped himself. Nothing would be achieved by it and he knew that. So in a low and calm voice Ivan asked Rula to remove the time-device before it was too late. The change in tone seemed wasted at first but then Rula walked to the cutlery drawer and removed a knife. Ivan picked up the bottle of wine and took several large mouthfuls. He sat down and presented his neck for Rula to make the incision.

The wind swirled around room peeling layers of reality skin from both Rula and Ivan. Ivan felt the pull of the hole as the autopilot started to fuse his thoughts with time.

‘Do it,’ he said. ‘Do it now!’

Ivan felt her place the knife at the base of his skull and press against his skin. Then he felt it being pulled away.

‘I can’t do it Ivan.’

‘Yes you can. You must!’

He felt the knife press against his neck again and then the searing pain of the incision. Stars and lights flashed in front of his eyes and then an instant state of relief as adrenalin pumped through his nervous system. He took more wine and felt instantly drunk.

‘I can’t find anything,’ Rula said, breathless and panicked.

‘Up a little. Where the skull meets my head.’

The wind sucked a skin off the kitchen cupboards and pulled it into the hole.

‘Hurry Rula.’

‘I can’t find it.’ Ivan heard the panic in her voice.

‘Take a few deep breaths and don’t be distracted by what is happening around us.’

Skins of pots, pans, and plates were sucked into the hole. Ivan felt Rula’s fingers poking and prodding in the incision but he felt no pain. The hole pulled him closer and he was a second away from being pulled in when Rula yanked her tweezers from the incision.

‘I’ve got it,’ she said, triumphant.

Instantly, the hole disappeared and the kitchen fell silent. Clasping her throat, Rula stumbled to the window and opened it. Slowly the sounds of outdoors returned along with well needed oxygen. Ivan lay on the floor gasping with his head shrouded in a pool of blood. Rula rushed to his side and knelt down over him and ran her hand down his face.

‘I’m sorry,’ Rula said.

‘What for?’

’I think I cut a vein or something.’

Ivan smiled. ‘It is me who is sorry my little elderflower.’

‘What are you sorry for Ivan?’

‘…For always being somewhere else.’

Rula smiled and leaned closer. ‘But you are here now Ivan.’ She kissed him and he felt his body become light and he knew that death was near.

‘Let me see the device,’ he said.

Rula unfurled her palm and Ivan saw the small device for the first time in forty-four years. It was covered in blood and gristle but he recognised it none the less. Beneath the blood he saw the years of thought and labour that had led him away from his wife and into a futile attempt to change the past. Anger washed through him and he pitifully attempted to snatch the device from Rula’s hand but she closed her palm and raised it out of reach.

‘You must destroy it Rula.’

Rula said nothing and stared at the device. Ivan tried to speak again but launched into a bloody coughing spasm.

‘Shhhh now.’ Rula put her finger to his lip and wiped his mouth with her handkerchief.

‘Please Rula…’ Ivan became light-headed as he had when Janos had anaesthetised him. He reached up to take the device but his arms failed him. Darkness descended and the last thing Ivan saw was his wife smiling down at him. Before he lost consciousness he thought she said something about not worrying but her words trailed off like the final echoes in a cave. Ivan’s last thoughts were of that sunny day at the fairground when he had met Rula and how beautiful she had looked and how his life had looked so simple then.

A long forgotten feeling of guilt became present to him and as he lay there dying he simply observed it. He would not let guilt take away the warmness of knowing he would see Rula again before time turned her against him. No matter how much she would grow to hate him she would never take that day at the fairground from him. And this was his final thought as he died on the kitchen floor on a warm August afternoon full of the scents and sounds of summer.

The End.

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