Time was all around them. It had always been and would always be there, ebbing and flowing. The kiosk man knew this as he guarded it. He watched the comings and goings of instants being played and replayed before being played again. The newspapers that never sold, captured headlines of eras that had long fallen into darkness. The underground people continued to tread their patterns around him; a stone in the midst of it all, he would always be. There were the long dead, the recently passed and the ones that were living death. Even a stone could see. Even a stone could feel.
This morning, the boy was not there.
“Almost time for what?”
He was talking to himself. He was dreaming. He was not himself.
“Almost time for what?”
There would be no reply as there was nobody there to answer.
“You can change it,” two voices responded.
He wanted to continue this game, this guessing self-mockery of a game. It could go on for the entire morning, the day, weeks, months years, lifetimes. Hadn’t he been playing this for his entire life? The word stuck in his thoughts, ‘life’ what was that?
“It is the thing that you can change,” the woman’s voice came at him. “It is a chance to make a connection before the flame dies. You are one of the few.”
“One of the few?”
“Who is still, almost alive,” the boy said.
Behind the boy, in another part of the morning, the fragile peal of bells crept across the city.
He woke to a bed in which only he slept. Beside him was a bedside cabinet but no tea. The warmth that he felt was his own and there was no shower flowing into the tide of morning. He reached for the lamp that he had forgotten was there and a fresh world flashed into existence. The night had gone.
He shaved and showered in the vacant bathroom, a feeling of gratitude washing over him. He made a mug of tea, in a mug that he felt was his favourite. He toasted bread and buttered it just the way he liked to, large smatterings that slowly melted into the surface. He heard movement in the flat and was relieved for the realisation that this was one of his flatmates, probably the woman to who he had never dared to speak. None of the people sharing the flat really did speak, such is the way in these things. When he had breakfasted, he set off for work. The streets were emptier than before, hardly a soul around.
He was wanting to offer a good morning to somebody, anybody, but the world did not offer up this opportunity. Instead, he walked along, his head held upright in hope.
A few streets away, he saw the entrance to the underground, gaping like an open jaw. For a moment, he hesitated. The breeze that had been propelling him faltered. Somewhere, a bell was tolling. A woman, dressed in running gear, glided past him.
He was shocked. A stranger and a greeting. She had travelled some way along the street before he found his voice.
“Morning,” he shouted.
The runner slowed, again, smiled and continued along her path. He smiled to himself. Then he steadied for the descent into the darkness. Each step he took, he made as if for the first time. The smell of humanity was all around him. Eddies of sweat, cigarettes, and urine. He ought to have gagged from its insistence, but he didn’t. A step at a time, he left the surface and reached an area that was a familiar as a dream.
“Morning. So how is today treating you, sir?”
It was the man in the kiosk. The kiosk was in the middle of the thoroughfare and was blazing with light, a light that could have been blinding.
“And you, madam, how is it treating you?”