I’m a big fan of Ian McDonald’s science fiction novels. The Dervish House and Luna: New Moon are complicated, intelligent stories about how societies cope with advanced technologies. McDonald’s next (and final) novel in the Luna trilogy, Moon Rising, isn’t hitting bookstores until 2019, but we will have a new story from him to tide us over while we wait: Time Was.
This book is a novella from Tor.com about Ben and Tom, two engineers who fall in love while working on a secret project for the British government during World War II. When they vanish during an accident, the two men are presumed to have been killed, but they’re still alive, simply cast apart in time. They search for one another across the decades, leaving clues in books as they try and make their two timelines come back together to be reunited. It looks like a heartbreaking story.
Here’s an excerpt from the Time Was, which hits bookstores on April 24th, 2018.
They came like vultures, hesitant, hovering, drawn by the pheromone of dying books. Many I knew—the dealer world is a small one. Tall Lionel in that same charcoal suit, shiny at ass and elbow, working the plastic bins like a hunting heron: perfect stillness, the stab down snatch up of a cloth-bound volume. Louisa in Louboutins, wearing a dust mask, her heels and trademark red soles teeter-tottering around in the Dumpster as she flicked over broken-backed volumes with a litter-picker. She feared fungi that grew in the bindings of old, damp books. Terry Prentice-Hall. I thought he died years ago. I’m sure I went to his funeral. Still questing for the mythical Harry Potter first editions. Some faces I knew by repute: Nancy and Flea, the Parasites of Enfield. Q. R. Rice, wafted in from Oxford. His cotton manuscript gloves left no one in any doubt that Spitalfields was unendurable to anyone of refinement. Some I did not know by face or gossip: a woman and man in their twenties throwing academic textbooks into a wheelbarrow. “Charity workers,” Tall Lionel wheezed. For a big man, he moved quietly. I hadn’t seen him slide in close to my ear. “They send them to Africa, India, some needy shit-hole. Fuck me sideways there’s Niall Rudd. Last I heard he was doing three years in Ford. Always was a shite forger.”
Some were not even dealers. I recognized Martin Parr, the photographer; that Spitalfields blogger and his cat; Dan Cruickshank the architectural historian and television presenter. The Golden Page first opened its doors in 1933: it had long been a beating organ of Spitalfields.
I have drunk the legendary Vietnamese coffee and supped the sulphurous vegetable broth on the collapsing sofas. I have sat through poetry readings when I couldn’t afford the electricity at home, I have sat through fifty shades of red political theorists and jeered Bliar Blair and his warmongering. I have huddled over the gas heater on February evenings, high on carbon monoxide. I have dragged myself up through Saturday hangovers to comb through the house clearances as they arrived out of the back of a van: first refusal on anything with a hint of war about it. That was my specialism, the Second World War. You specialize. There are too many books in the world. Tall Lionel hunted old SF paperbacks, Chris Foss covers preferred. Louisa in Louboutins dealt in crime, the pulpier the better. War for me, in hardback. There will always be a market for war.
Now The Golden Page was dead. The stock Richie could not flog even at ten for a pound was stacked in plastic boxes, on trestle tables, dumped in a steel skip on Folgate Street under a quick November sky threatening rain. The Liberty has always been a liminal place, caught between the City and the city, a gutter of refuge, a huddle of difference, pressed from both sides. Jews and Huguenots. The towers of finance and Banglatown. Gentrification won. Richie had been unable to resist the offer for the building. I would have too. Fuck Vietnamese coffee. Cappuccino in Umbria for Richard Frowse.
When we were sated, when we could stomach no more books, Tall Lionel suggested the Hawksmoor, to raise a glass to the old place, but I was dispirited by my colleagues, by their small-minded acquisitiveness, by the weather, by the thin drizzle now turning old book covers to pulp in the slowly filling Dumpster. I wanted away from these ghastly fossils. I was of a different generation from my colleagues, but I understood thatfirst day when I caught another acquisitive eye working the stacks in Clapham High Street War on Want: this would be my cohort, my college, my congregation, for the rest of my professional life. Fingers around hot whisky on a cold evening, carping and moaning about postage charges, eBay T&Cs and PayPal’s ever-increasing transaction times.
I made my excuses. Loot to log, titles to research, purchases to post. And the possibility of wonder. My chilled fingers had detected a discontinuity in the bound leaves of one of my acquisitions, an otherwise unremarkable and, to me, unknown book of poetry; Time Was. By E.L. Anonymous initials were enough to trigger my curiosity, as was the date. May 1937, Ipswich. No publisher listed. Decent paper, hand-stitched binding, header tapes in fair order and good fabric binding. Gold-leaf low-relief of an hourglass, half run through. As a free book, a Dumpster find, it was worth picking up. But my fingers had sensed something more rare and valuable: an inclusion. A bookmark, perhaps from a long-dead English-language bookshop in a European capital—perhaps farther afield. Istanbul. Cairo. Perhaps a hand-stitched sampler, marking a page. A postcard. A love letter. Dried flowers; a nosegay, a posy, a rose clipped the night before battle. Photographs; best of all with love, with signatures, with farewells. Provenances, I called them. If they were connected with the book—a history of a campaign, a military biography, a popular, long-out-of-print thriller or crime story mentioned in the letter or card–I sold them. They added value. The orphans, the refugees, I kept.
The Tube was crowded and smelly. I let the book fall open where the insertion demanded. The smell of fusty paper, damp cover binding, obliterated the stink of fast food and electricity.
A letter. A single sheet, still creased from the envelope despite years between pages. My hands shook as I read it.
I watched the lights along the Western Harbour drop away until they merged with the dark horizon. I made the taxi driver take me out along Al Max until I could see the lights no more. I never thought they would take you away like this, in a troopship. I suppose His Majesty needs his photo-boy more than I do. I suppose we should have made more of the time. We never do. We become so lazy in love. But love is laziness, the gift of each other’s time, to spendthrift or invest. I remember your arms, I remember dreadful gin, I remember the perfume of your hair. Your skin smells of honey. Those precious times—those precious rooms—at Osborne House and the Heliopolis Club. Rev Anson always suspected.
The barrage balloons are going up all along the Corniche. The air is wonderfully still, I swear I can hear the guns from the front. Light sparks along the western horizon. Christ knows what’s happening out there. It reminds me of Russia, when all we could do was watch the world burn.
In three nights I fly. I know what you’d say: Alex is the oldest of pleasure-cities: be bright, be gay, drink more of the dreadful gin, drink a skinful. This city holds no attractions for me. Next to you, its pleasures are dry and stale. I need to be where you are, wherever you are. Ironic that I will leave later yet arrive before you.
I fear the next translation is not far off—you develop a sense for it, like smelling a storm. I dread being apart from you. Should we become separated, I’ll leave a copy behind me, here in the usual place.
Time was, time will be again,
I have lived twenty years on this street of stones. I have known it in all seasons and all elements, in its many temperaments.
I know it in the easterlies, when the sky is black as judgment and the wind seems to strip the land back like skin peeling from a jaw and the sea drives hard onto the shingle and the knock of rolling pebbles becomes a thunder so great I can hear it from Ferry Road.
I know it in snow, those rare days of undifferentiated grey when the turnstones face into the white whip of thin flakes thrown down from the Baltic, when each pebble wears a rind of snow, locked together by ice. How many pebbles from Bawdsey to Orford Ness? There are people who could number that, but I am not one of them.
I know it in rain, when it becomes an undulating black river, shiny as a swimming dog, and the boats, the nets, the huts and row houses and the Martello tower seem to hunker down from it, seeking shelter in a shelterless terrain.
I know it in high summer sun, when the sky and sea seem anchored together and the whole world lies exhausted between them and nothing stirs, even breathes, when sky is heavy as tidewater and the sea seems to lift free from mere geography. On those days Shingle Street is a broad blade of forged iron, and in the evening, when the gulls lift on a wind only they can perceive.
In every mood, I take the bike out and ride the road of sea-rounded stones.
There’s a skill to it, and an art. The skill is riding a 1938 Ariel Red Hunter at speed on a road of treacherous cobbles that could shift and spill you at any time. The art is reading the stones: what is constant, what has changed, what has moved where in conjunction with what. This is a landscape rolled and moved by the tides, each pebble lifted and dropped, lifted and dropped by the run and ebb, each advance and retreat carried a little farther upcoast. It is never the same twice.
I usually ride out to where the pebbles end and the Orford’s sweet waters and the salt North Sea run into each other in eddies and silver swirls. But today I feel the presence of war like a weather front. The sky is clogged with contrails, the straight lines of the bombers, the circles and spirals of the fighters looping around them. Felixstowe took it three nights in a row. The Luftwaffe has moved on to Ipswich. Sky and sea feel polluted, stained and impure. I leave the bike by the Martello tower and walk up the beach towards the abandoned village. I peer through the window of one of the empty row houses. The tenants were evicted hastily. Overlooked things remain: cutlery on the kitchen, a loaf in the bread bin now a cube of blue mold, newspapers and coal under the stairs, calendars on the wall, permanently stalled at May 15, 1940. I shiver, a sudden feeling that I have somehow affronted the house, that the people who lived there, wherever they are, felt my intrusion and glared.
Vapor trails in the sky, the nightly flicker of anti-aircraft fire; rumors of barges massing along the coast of Holland, Kriegsmarine minesweepers probing the Channel defenses. This is the invasion coast.
I like it better empty. Emptied. When I came here as a boy, when I wandered and met and learned from E.L., I saw their faces pressed to these same windows, frowning out. Who was on their land, in their view, on their horizon. Suspicious, possessive people. Sandings folk. A landscape of grey resentments and long grudges. Gone now. Moved out. Fuck them. This is mine now.
E.L. would have liked it.
I have his book with me. I’m seldom apart from it; it sits neatly in the pocket of my service dress, as if tailored to it. Flap buttoned down, pressed against the heart. I take no comfort from its close presence today. There is war in every element, and I’m unsettled, itchy, headachy, like I used to be before a storm.
No images here. Nothing to take back and try to wrestle down onto a page. Sea and stone have said enough to me. I kick the engine to life and ride back through the deepening twilight. My blackout headlight is a slot of wan light.
War is no reason to change your drinking habits. I’ve been frequenting the Swan at Alderton since I was a fourteen-year-old selling fire lighters door to door up and down the Sandings. “Frequenting”: an old man’s word, thumbs in the waistcoat, arse to the fire. I know the beer; I know the landlord; I know the seasons and the temperaments. I used to be able to sit quietly in the window seat, or on the bench under the same window in the long summer, and whittle away at words, frown over rhyme schemes and assonances. Sometimes I read; sometimes I just sit, in the sun, like an old man. The girls from the Receiver Block come here, to the consternation of landlord Rydal, who considers women in his pub a trump of doomsday, also those of the enlisted men and the research divisions who find the messes too raucous and loutish.
“Ahoy, Tom the Rhymer,” they greet me. I can hear the capitalizations. I smile, nod. I know I’m a figure of fun and that some detest me for imagined pretensions. I’m thought odd, even for Signals. I accept the ribbing, the murmurs. It’s a wooden decoy duck, staked to the bottom of the fen. It’s pleading guilty to a minor charge to escape a greater one.
The radar girls swing up the lane, dressed and made up, Victory rolls and painted-on stocking seams, chattering and laughing. From my summer bench with a sun-warmed pint on the end I admire their loud confidence. War has been the making of them, saved them from marriage or service or other menial drudgeries. They greet me from afar.
“What are you working on?” Lizzie always hails me.
I lift the notebook.
“War, time and memory,” I say. She grins. Attempted art does not embarrass her. She knows me. I know it. You know these things. She isn’t distracted by the decoy.
“Pint for the Rhymer,” Lizzie commands Rydal. Arms linked, the radar girls march three abreast into the back room from which they have expelled the old drinking men and which they have claimed with the flag of RAF Bawdsey RDF Receivers, until kingdom come or war end, amen.
There’s always a pint for the poet.
I can hear Charlie Nair from five fields away. I should imagine those stealthy Kriegsmarine minesweepers can hear him, out on the shallow sea. “You need to sort your chain,” I tell him. “It’ll break and take your leg off clean below the knee. Let me do it.” I could do it easily, ten minutes’ work. Charlie won’t let me. I don’t know Nortons, he says. I know Nortons and I know Charlie and he never will allow me to fix it. It would be a humiliation.
He pulls up in a clatter and racket and smoke and pushes up his goggles. I have to admit he rides that abused Norton well.
“Anyone got a round in?” he always asks. I never have. I never will. It’s my Norton drive chain. He leaves the bike lying in the hedge and bangs down beside me on my bench. I barely snatch my pint to safety. Now I can hear the engines of the main drinking party and glimpse the green roofs of their cars over the hedge lines. There are two more cars than usual.
“We’re breaking in the new boys,” Charlie announces. The drinking party arrives in white dust.
I remember. I carried the dispatches myself. A new research division was moving into the Dairy. There had been rumors of secret projects, new ways of sensing, seeing the distant and concealed.
Car doors opened. New boots on the gravel. The scientists looked uncomfortable in uniform. All but one. Oh, one. One whose boots were firmly planted. One who wore the uniform like skin, like the sky, who stood tall and certain and lifted his hands to his eyes when he stared at this place he had been taken, who shaded his eyes and so could not see me staring. Staring as if there were nothing else in the world, staring like a radar girl at a lone blip on my screen, my stare reaching out across the world and returning an echo. Until he dropped his hand and I was not quick enough to look away—deliberately so—and his eye caught mine. We knew. We communicated through the airwaves. Then he was swept through the door into beery camaraderie: Boffins Corner, we called it, and I sat on my bench with my beer in the long evening sun and all my notes, all my words and rhymes and rhythms and images, all my thoughts and all the things I held in my heart, were nothing.
I missed my stop. I missed the stop after.
There were enough clues in the letter for me to place and roughly date it. The references to Osborne House and the Heliopolis Club immediately identified Cairo; Al Max and the Western Harbour landmarked Alexandria. The line about hearing the guns placed the time around either the first or second battle of El Alamein. The front was only eighty kilometers west of Alexandria—Montgomery’s line in the sand—and on a still night, across the waters of Mareotis, notorious for how they warped sounds and closed up spaces so that a distant conversation was as intimate as a whisper, it would be possible to hear the artillery. I can’t imagine any troops being rotated home in British Egypt’s darkest hour, so I inclined more towards the Second Battle of El Alamein in October. A place and a time. Five minutes online would give me the British order of battle in Egypt in 1942. I glanced again at the letter. I suppose His Majesty needs his photo-boy more than I do. Ben served in Intelligence. This would be fun. It was then that I realized I had dreamed through my stops and I regained enough presence of mind to push onto the platform as the doors were closing.
A love letter. Every war is a profound sexual revolution. Social mores are upset, norms overturned. Tucked into the end paper of Bill Slim’s Defeat into Victory I found a photograph of a couple in khakis before the Taj Mahal: the brief scrawl on the back hinted at love across class, religion, country. Slipped between the pages of a September 1942 final edition of Film Fun I discovered a gloriously uninhibited sexual fantasy of a Lincolnshire Land Girl for her Brooklyn Bomber Boy. Now, within a volume of small-press verse: Tom and Ben. Solid, unromantic monosyllables, dull as a spade. Twenty lines, yet they conjured up such a world to me: another love fertilized by the thrilling otherness of wartime Alexandria. The streets and souks opened into universes of possibility.
Costa was still open. I found my customary table closest to the Wi-Fi router. I photographed the book and the letter and prepared them for my vendor site, AbeBooks and eBay. A house party rocked the street with slow dub. In the bass and drum I saw barrage balloons sagging over the Corniche, two men clinking martini glasses at the bar of the Cap D’Or, grimacing at the dreadful gin. I saw them kiss in the dark of an alley, beneath an awning. I imagined Hurricanes roaring overhead. I took the letter down and clicked post. I wondered what became of Tom and Ben. Too many of the war loves I had followed did not survive. Peace killed them. People returned to their old lives and loves; quickly the old order reasserted itself, the very order for which they had fought.
A cursory search turned up nothing, but I hadn’t expected much. Photoreconnaissance was a classified area, and however romantic I found the idea of Ben flying out over the desert in the nose of a Blenheim light bomber, he was much more likely to have served in Interpretation. Or something more intriguing; Intelligence covered more esoteric and romantic disciplines, all spiced with the clandestine and therefore quite irresistible to me.
The poetry book sold before I was even through my first coffee. It made a decent price. I lingered until Michaela stockaded me in upturned chairs and dragged back to the flat. Police were arriving as I was departing. Two squad cars and a van with grids over the windows, to shut down a noisy dub party.
Flat, I say. Two rooms with shared kitchen and bathroom back of Littlebury Street. One room filled floor to ceiling with books, the other filling, pushing me deeper into the corner by the window. I slept among the tombstones of ancient wars. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa: I broke the rule to never use what you push. I loathed my rooms; I gave them as little time as I could. Rona my landlady wanted me out—she could get six hardworking Somali boys in my two rooms—but was too lazy to pursue it with anything approaching zeal. She claimed she was worried about the health and safety implications of my stacks collapsing and burying me. I knew she feared the weight of books was slowly warping her ceiling joists. She pushed the rent up religiously; I scraped and traded and paid. I dreaded having to carry several thousand books, double-rowed, down four flights of stairs. She dreaded having to help me.
I have become fixed in my customary vices. I work and read into the early morning; I sleep long and rise late. Book dealing is a business best conducted from your own bed. In the deep three o’clock, four o’clock, there is something old and feral and rather beautiful about Clapham. The wind seems to blow from a direction not marked on any compass; new, fresh, music carries far on it, imbued with a lonely splendor I never hear in the flat, tinny light.
I worked into the morning, diving deeper into regimental histories and the more obsessive corners of amateur military history. Mysteries you were, Tom and Ben. Leads turned blind; avenues of inquiry ran into blank walls, like a city lost in the dunes. Finally, as the dawn crept up the sky and the clatter and boom of commuter trains ousted the night musics, I posted the whole thing to Facebook—a dozen bibliophile and war history groups—and rolled into my bed.
I woke with my face in full, painful sunshine, Rona telling me the man had come about the wiring, and the ping of an answer in my notifications. Out on East Anglia Desert Rats Facebook Page, someone had recognized Tom and Ben.