Keeping Time

Imagine this. 

            That moment when the violin reaches its topmost note, drawing out harmonics as fine and as fragile as new-spun spider’s silk. The moment before the lark’s song fades into blue nothingness. Al Green dancing flame-like on a single note, like an angel dancing on the head of the pin.

            Do you hear these sounds—these moments— inside your head? Do they echo inside your skull like the wood of the fiddle resonates to the vibrations in a length of sheep’s gut? 

            Good. Now imagine this one note, this one moment, set free from time: a note that never wavers, never changes, knows no variation in pitch or intensity. This, my friend, is the condition of the angels in heaven. 

            And mighty fine it is sitting up in serried ranks of cherubim and seraphim, blissed out on eternity, strumming your golden harp, joining your voice to a myriad other voices, all in harmony with that key note struck by God’s first I AM. 

            This is Joe Jehovah’s Wall of Sound. Or, to our imperfect, time-bound ears, the kind of ambient drivel piped into empty departure lounges.

            At least there are no panpipes.

            But there are some in heaven who take a scientific interest in time. They peer down at this mortal earth, like biologists studying cultures of cells in petri dishes. And some have built up collections of different varieties of time: moments are stacked up for examination and comparison, classification and labelling, like glass slides held in wooden sample boxes. Elaborate taxonomies have been developed to categorize the moments that have been gathered. Seized by a donnish fervour, or the kind of obsession that compels the collector of rare Northern Soul 45s, they puzzle over the different varieties of sadness, the multifarious shades of mirth and grief, moments of betrayal, wild abandon, divine rage, languid reverie, speechless frustration or that uniquely lethargic boredom that settles on the human heart on a Sunday afternoon between the hours of four and five. They admire the pattern of contrasting emotions—bitter and sweet—that may coexist within a single instant, as we ourselves might enjoy the whorl of colours in a marble tile or the variety of scents that drift upon the breeze in a twilight garden. For every variation from joy becomes puzzling if all you have ever known is bliss eternal.

            I can see some of you do not believe that everything written above is entirely true: but this I find hard to understand. For the division between eternity and time— between angel and frail flesh and blood—is no more difficult or easy to believe in than the gulf that separates man from beast or beast from flower or flower from stone or stone from air or air from empty nothingness.

            Moreover, there’s really no reason for you to doubt this story. Apart from anything else, what would be my motive for making it up? No, the only difficulty my tale presents is why there should have been a pair of angels willing to give up eternal joy in order to enter the rough and tumble of time and change. After all, few humans would willingly change places with a cow grazing in a field or would dream of trading places with a goldfish, swimming round and round a plastic shipwreck in a globe-shaped goldfish bowl. And as for cows wishing to be dandelions, I’m willing to wager this question literally never presents itself to the cows' minds, so content do cows appear with their guiltless lives of sleeping, eating, defecating, and chewing the cud. (And goldfish simply don’t possess the imagination. Their intellectual horizons, I fear, are narrow.)

            Nevertheless, it would seem these two angels wished to throw themselves into the maelstrom of time much as canoeists cast off into white water, surfing on the current, buffeted by waves and spray, hurtling helter-skelter downstream through the shoot, over the falls, between the rocks, and down into the pool of tranquillity beneath the rapids.




And so it came to pass that Jude and Barnabas fell out of highest heaven like Satan and his second cousin and tumbled through various galaxies and nebulae for a distance of roughly 46 billion light years, give or take. Fortunately, Jude and Barnabas had brought with them The Big Book of Sudoku Puzzles, Travel Scrabble, copies of The Oxford English Dictionary and The Encyclopaedia Britannica, a much-thumbed edition of Penthouse, plus extensive reading matter of a rather more edifying nature. One of them—Jude, I think— managed to finish Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and, intrigued by the title, Barnabas got two thirds of the way through À la recherche du temps perdu. Both, I fear, quickly gave up on To the Lighthouse and also, more ironically, on Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. But these failures, however frustrating, only better prepared them for fitting in with the rest of humanity.

            But they also had with them some sheet music and a couple of handy teach-yourself guides. Jude had a tenor sax, a double bass for Barnabas. Neither had bothered to pack a metronome, which is hardly surprising in the circumstances, but would certainly have been of rather more practical use than Virginia Woolf’s modernist experiments with stream-of-consciousness narration. Eventually, after mastering their scales and arpeggios, they tumbled helter-skelter through empty space, piercing the earth’s atmosphere like a brace of bullet-headed meteors, activating their prayers and soiling their pants as they hurtled through the stratosphere. They deployed the power of positive thinking as they reached terminal velocity, breaking their fall on a soft and soggy cirrocumulus and slithering down the arched back of a rainbow, like a giant mountain slide.

            They splashed down somewhere on the southern edge of the Mid-Atlantic Gyre in the approximate region of the Sargasso Sea. Somewhat stunned by the impact, they clung to Barnie’s double-bass, as they tried to shake the water out of their ears and to recall why the holy fuck they’d traded a cushy little number in highest heaven for a splash-landing in a place only previously celebrated as a honeymoon destination for amorous eels. Fortunately for them, a passing pod of benignant porpoises took pity on Jude and Barnabas, taking turns to carry them on their arched backs, like Arion or Amphitrite, steering north by northwest, in the general direction of the New Jersey Bight. 

            And so it came to pass that two naked men emerged from the moonlit waves and threw themselves, gasping and shivering, on to the foam-streaked sand of Coney Island Beach. Each raised a weary arm in salute to the friendly porpoises (though it was impossible to pick out much more than one solitary splash of a tailfin in the blue-black gloom of midnight) and then each curled up, hands raised to their cheeks, knees tucked up under their elbows, to sleep until rosy-fingered dawn began to rise over the vast grey ocean.

            Even today, somewhere at the bottom of the ocean, quite covered over with barnacles and mussel shells, rusts Jude’s first tenor sax. The abalone keys are now encrusted with coral and an oyster bearing one huge white orient pearl has made its home inside the bell. Meanwhile, the last remnants of Barnabas’s double-bass, smashed to matchwood, now drift on the powerful ocean currents of Mid-Atlantic Gyre off the shore of Newfoundland.