Madeleine Jones is pleased to present her fourth short story for Snowy Fictions: ‘Paused.’ It’s about time pausing at meaningful moments. All rights reserved, and any information regarding reprints and copyright should be sent to snowyfictions@gmail.com.

START

Time is continuous, and a working clock never stops ticking. It never pauses, not for anyone. Except for me.

The Great Depression engulfed London, and its streets were lit with poverty and decay. An odour lurked throughout the city, revolting everyone. Yet it never made us less hungry. At night, near the Thames, huddled groups ate scraps and discarded waste.

My father, Nicholas, told me he couldn’t put bread on the table today. Annie, my mother, maintained her smile, yet when I left the room, I overheard her weeping. Days without food were normal, but we faced violence from Charles Borough, a debt collector, who beat my mother until her body was red and sore. That was the day when my mother began to fake happiness, when my father couldn’t protect her.

The collector stormed in, grabbed my throat, and looked into my eyes with a vulgar ferocity. Yet he didn’t blink. Time paused itself, and nothing moved, except for me. As I tried to breathe, I gazed around. My parents were still like waxed dolls, similar to Charles Borough. Only I was awake. As Borough’s hands were motionless, I turned my neck back and freed myself from his grasp.

Questions rushed through my head. Did time pause for me? Would it ever resume? Could others pause time? I am just Thomas, a starving boy who tied his shoelaces the wrong way. There was little to understand about the situation.

I walked around the room, and a gun stuck out of Charles’ pocket. Without hesitation, I took the gun and found three bullets in it. One for my mother, one for my father, even one for me.

Unsure what was really going on, I took the bullets out and put them near a table of old wood. Being a child of London during the Depression made me well versed in weapons, yet a sharp blade made me anxious. I moved back to Charles Borough, and it was the first time I ever thought about murdering him. As I opened a drawer and grabbed a knife, I tried to be quiet. No one could disturb me, yet I knew my intentions were immoral.

I approached Borough, my hands sweating at the prospect of killing him. Every boy in London talked big about power and murder, yet truth is, none of us had ever taken a life. Only our fathers who fought in the war had. Yet Borough would kill my parents and even me.

I shivered from the concept of bloody murder. Killing Borough wasn’t right. I looked at the man who slapped my mother and spat on my father. Charles was easy to hate and difficult to show mercy to. Yet I could not kill.

I put the knife back, while my stomach churned. With time still paused, I could go out and steal bread, anything, even money. Although not ethical, it was preferable to killing Borough. I considered my parents and what they’d expect of their son. They fed me, and every year, they’d give some of their earnings to an orphanage in Sussex. They did not deserve such carnage. I couldn’t make them proud by stealing, but maybe I could stop them from being hungry. As thoughts of charity and love stewed inside, I kissed my mother’s frozen cheek.

A drop of water hit my head. My skin turned cold, and my breathing got louder.

‘You little brat, Thomas Wesley!’ Borough’s face was raging. A hateful man that reminds us that we could all be like him, he reached his hand into his pocket, the same one where I took a gun out. Borough took another gun out of the same pocket and pointed it at my head. My actions had meant nothing and couldn’t change the situation.

‘Tell your stupid father that if he doesn’t return my money, I’ll kill you and your worthless mother.’

Yet as Borough twitched his head towards my father, the handmade table grabbed my attention. The three bullets were no longer there. My breathing got louder, and Borough glared at me.

‘Panicking, are you, boy?’ he said.

‘That’s my son!’ my mother yelled. ‘Leave us alone, we’ll pay you back!’

Borough scoffed, knowing that he had heard my mother’s line before. Lofty promises are easier to make than keep.

‘Counting to three, Mr Wesley! One …’

‘No!’ my mother said, desperate. ‘Please, please have mercy.’

‘Stop!’ my father screamed.

Borough took the gun and pointed it to my father. He pulled the trigger, twice, and each bullet pierced my father’s chest.

My mother screamed, holding my father’s body. She wailed as Borough left, and I hugged her, cradling my arms around hers.

Time had played a cruel trick: false hope in the prevention of death.

*

Mother and I moved out of London and into Oxford, near the Christ Church cathedral. A gorgeous city, with green fields and medieval buildings, and Mother told me I am an intelligent man who could get a place at the university. And I do. I read English Literature and am captivated by Chaucer.

It is therapeutic to make your mother proud, as if it amended your previous failures.

For the first time since my father’s death, she was happy. She didn’t tell me that. Her enthusiasm, her laughter, and her eyes do.

In random and unpredictable bursts, time pauses. I never understood why. During an examination, the clocks stopped, and the examiner stood still. Did I cheat? No, I had no need to. Instead, I took a break. The less I took advantage of motionless time, the less pain for the people I cherished.

Throughout the 1930s, time paused at significant and insignificant moments. When I met my wife for the first time, Beryl, the world stopped moving. She laughed at my jokes, and for a moment, the world belonged to us. Not every time pause would be as pleasant. Yet worries matter little when your heart blazes with love.

Our happiness continued, and we enjoyed picnics on the Oxford lawns. I loved those balmy summers of lying on the grass, looking up at a blue sky, and holding hands.

In these pauses, her beautiful and fine features, like her sharp cheekbones appeared like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Beryl once told me I was too busy staring at her to acknowledge the rest of the world. She’d ramble about Neville Chamberlain’s foolishness and the threat of another war. Yet I cared little for politics. Instead, the language of poets, particularly Wordsworth, moved me.

*

‘No! You can’t go to war. I won’t have it. Don’t go.’

Those last words from my mother still haunt me. Teardrops scattered her face. My mother wore a mask of serenity and gave little thought to her own mental anguish. Her joyful smiles were a facade meant to cheer me up. It ought to have insulted me, yet I loved her even more.

‘I’ll be okay, Mother. It’s for Britain, and it’s for Beryl. Did you know that she’s pregnant?’ I asked, trying to appear happy.

‘No. That’s … great, Thomas. I am pleased for you. But isn’t that more of a reason for you to stay? You can raise a family and be free of … this.’

Her voice was quiet, and I grabbed her hand.

‘Look, Mother. My instincts are that Beryl will have a baby boy. We’ll call him Nicholas,’ I said. ‘I know that you miss him; I do too.’

‘He fought in the war. Didn’t meet him until afterwards, but he told me cruel stories. I don’t want your life to be nasty, Thomas. I don’t.’

‘I’ll see you soon,’ I said.

Time paused. My mother’s face had tears falling on her cheeks. Little samples of water, waiting to fall. Didn’t she know how much I appreciate and love her? She wouldn’t have heard while time was still. Once it resumed, I would have to return to the army.

There were millions of words to say, but we remained silent.

*

The 6th of June, 1944. D-Day. We landed in Normandy early, near Caen. We smoked our Lucky Strike cigarettes in silence. I knew little about this operation, except that the Allies had planned it since last year. Warfare was easy to hate: the lacklustre food, the nihilism of your brothers, and the never-ending dread that you’ll explode. The stories my father told me about the war tormented me. He’d never sit down and talk about them, but he’d give out snippets. Tiny fragments adorned with melancholy and horror.

Now, I understood the horror in my father’s voice.

The stormy weather did not settle. The beach was bigger than I thought. From a distance, it would be pleasant for a picnic with Beryl. Yet it wasn’t like Cornwall or the sweeping green fields of Oxford. This was a cathedral of bloodshed.

Bullets from the German artillery puncture my friends. Wilfred, then Georgie, and then Sam. Blood stained the beach water, and the waves crashed over their bodies.

I did not feel like a soldier there. Instead, I felt like the boy in my East London home, with a gun pointed to his head. A thousand conflicting thoughts rushed through. The most unnerving one was whether I should have killed Borough that day.

The Allied tanks and air forces struggled due to the sophisticated preparation of the Germans. Minutes felt like hours, and the chaotic day dragged on without mercy. My shoes were muddy, but I was no stranger to that. Yet the shouting, the gunfire, the rage, the panic, and the dead caused me trembles. No man can fully tolerate warfare. The sky was ablaze with smoke from a ground burning with slaughter.

A man in front of me shouted in German, grabbed his gun, and fired it. Before the bullet hit me, time paused. The soldier’s youthful face stared with a fiery determination. He was like me: in his eyes were fear and desolation. The same I saw in my father, and that my son would see in faded pictures of me.

As my feet stomp on the earth, the bloodstained army uniforms pollute my sight. The air is silent, and the only noise I hear is my breath. As moments go, I prefer the ones with Beryl. I’ll never see her again, or our son. When she’s old and grey, I hope she tells Nicholas the story of the man who inspired his name. However, his life turns out, I hope it won’t mar itself with war.

A dead man has a photograph sticking out of his pocket. With little thought, I bend down. The photo is of a woman, and she reminds me of my mother. Not in looks or in age, but because of her smile. I study the photo and decide that the woman in it is smiling out of choice. Yet that only brings more misery. Not the sort that causes tears, but the kind that lurks in your soul for years, troubling you while you sleep alone at night.

Soon, I sit down on the sand, waiting for time to resume. It doesn’t; my thoughts fester. Men cluster on the vastness of the beach. Some look young and boyish, whilst others look old, almost decaying. All of them have a haunting look, like they have seen too much of life. Even the mature military commanders had fear on their faces.

These men are me. From the German that has killed me, to the traumatised shooting military commanders, they all lived in me. Time has decided that on this day in Normandy, our paths must cross in the most unfortunate circumstances.

I do not know why time pauses for me, and I never will. Today is the day I die, but maybe I can perish knowing that I studied humans, caught in the spider web of time. Although my philosophy can’t share itself, I have faith that, one day, humans will discover how similar they are to each other. The world would improve if we knew that our enemies could’ve been our brothers in another life. And maybe I wouldn’t die as a killer. I thought, after showing mercy to Charles Borough, that I’d kill no one. Yet I was mistaken, and all I could do was accept my history of brutality.

Time resumes, and I hear the German again. His last name is Fischer, at least that’s what his uniform says.

He raises his gun and wraps his finger around the trigger.

I breathe, and the joys of my life appear: my father showing me a map of Oceania, whilst my mother hums a Jimmie Rodgers tune in the background. Beryl pinching my shoulder, teasing me. My son, Nicholas, saying ‘Dada’ for the first time.

As my body hits the sand, they disappear. A drop of water hits my face, and my heart tenders at seeing my father again.

FINISH

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