Chalk Marks of the Mind


Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)

It’s 1995 or 1996, or thereabouts: I don’t remember for sure. Time has that way of just leaving chalk marks on the mind. I’m standing on a beach some way up the Danish coast. I’m here now, though I don’t know what this place is called. I’m looking out over the water and I can see the Swedish coastline. I’m thinking of the Latvian girl I’ve met here. That night, in the Copenhagen banqueting hall, she knew the games she played.

So I stand here, unstuck in time, and I’m thinking about how time doesn’t unravel in the ways we think it does. We can travel back and forth, but it all gets mixed up. It all stews and bubbles and, when it’s all strained through the holes, what’s left over is thick and slimy, lumpy, persisting in us. It is this to stain the inner skin. It won’t wipe clean.

I turn my face to the wind coming off the sea and here I am some four or five years later. I’m on a beach on the other side of the world, staring out over the Atlantic. I’m north of Salem, Massachusetts. I’m just empty of anything, except the strange idea of trying to peer out over the bend of the planet, three thousand miles eastwards, towards home. It feels odd and unreal being here. The world is small and huge.

A massive wave crashes against a massive rock and diverts my attention. It’s gone dark and then the string of blurry orange lights start to pock the immediate skyline. It’s been raining, I can smell it, and I see the rough lines of the old stone walls of Rhodes Town and the minaret out towards the edge of the harbour. It’s some year or so later. I’m standing on the stones at the lip of the island. There’s a Maltese liner docked nearby. I don’t know where it’s going and I don’t know how we’re going to get home.

Driving by the light of the moon, I’m overcome by tiredness, and I’m woken by the bark of a dog in 1993. It’s Celie, and it’s winter in Dangast, northern Germany. She’s hopping around on the wide empty grey beach, the stiff breeze cutting at my eyes. She must be young. We all must be young. What I still can’t express is what I never knew the first time round: how we would grow, how things would turn out for all of us. Celie’s still with us, and she’s happy in her youth.

I wipe my eyes with the flats of my fingers. It’s 2012 and I’m standing on the grass by the stony beach in Malmö, Sweden. I’m looking out at the long thin Øresund Bridge and at the coastline of Denmark in the distance. Somewhere out there, up the coast, I know I’m looking back at myself from 1995 or 1996, or thereabouts.

Time swills around me, stewing and bubbling, smoothing and blurring away precisions. I strain it through the holes of me, and it leaves just the chalk mark stories on my mind and on my inner skin.

Tell me something . . .

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