Monday, 11 June 2012

A Time Capsule

They said he had the day off school, it was being fumigated. A shell-shaped nest of wasps was found above the sports hall, hanging above a basket-ball net and buzzing like a band saw. Apparently it wasn’t safe.

His mother was at work when they called, I was with a newspaper and a red pen. She could pick him up but then she had to get back to things and anyways it made sense for me to keep an eye on him and he was my son after all and I could spend some good time with him, the two of us boys. Us bucks. He had a letter from his teacher which I signed and we sat down together in the kitchen for an early lunch. I asked him what he wanted and he wanted bacon sandwiches so I put the frying pan on the flame and some bread in the toaster. Both of us liked it slightly toasted and with a big bottle of ketchup we ate them down quickly, the warm stretch of the crust down the throat and a hot gulp of coffee held for a second to savour. He with his milk like a priest at mass, so serious in expression, hands clasped, eyes focused.

They were starting a new project at school, something they should work on today and write up later in the classroom. A time capsule; a little box or tube with items and notes to be buried and dug up by future generations who would seemingly have great need for old tapes and books of stamps. He seemed pretty keen on it so I told him to go around the house looking for things he would like to bury. I attempted to look once more at the newspaper but it only made me feel depressed so I folded it away and set about washing the dirty plates and frying-pan, my hands soon wrinkled from the washing-up liquid, my arms submerged, vanished under the bubbles.

The suds clung beside my skin in a small patch and it seemed like a city, built quickly in the blink of an eye. Rapid developments stretching out from the centre like embryonic vines with only rows of freshly planted trees to guard the concrete intersections as they passed and swooped like migrating birds. I drove those roads, away from the new towers spanning the horizon, my bonnet pointed back to the centre, towards home and his hand suddenly pulling at my shirt, the fingertips felt through the material against the small of my back. Pointing at a delicate heap on the table behind he said he was ready. I told him that he had done that quickly, I’d only just finished washing up and again that look of seriousness, always so serious, a stout nod of the head and another tug of the shirt. The tip of the plug against my little finger and I let the water go down and away and out.

Collected on the table was a ball of string, a key, five small pebbles, a toy hippo, a tea-light candle, a tiny ceramic gnome and a ring. I told him that he couldn’t bury the ring and he asked why not and I told him just because, because it wasn’t his to bury and he went a little red and said he was sorry. I told him it was okay and picked up the ring, disproportionately heavy, placed swiftly in my trouser pocket. I understood the toy and I imagined the gnome was for similar reasons, for they were play-things that would not be missed, but I did not understand the need for the candle. With the patience of a saint he looked me in the eye and explained how it was reasonable to assume that the sun would become no more, and that the people who uncovered the time capsule would be in need of a source of light. I did not know how to respond to this so I patted his little head and asked about the string. For shoelaces was the answer.

I told him that he would need to write a note to go along with the items, and he scribbled away at the table while I went ahead and looked for something he could use as a container. Searching the high shelves above the oven I found an old cocktail mixer, the top half nowhere to be seen so I left it to collect dust undisturbed. Greater luck was to be found in the adjacent cupboard where a three-quarters-empty jar of peanut butter stood squat and golden. I unscrewed the lid and peered in at the rough and oily texture lain out like a martian landscape. There was still enough here for a sandwich, maybe two if stretched. Did he want a sandwich? No, and besides we were now out of bread so I used a spoon to scoop the contents into my mouth; him looking up at me from the writing with narrowed eyes and my mouth sticky around the gums. Washed and soaked for the label to be peeled off, we had ourselves a glass jar, the size big enough for the toy hippo with a squeeze. He said he was finished with his note, which was held in his hands like it was a baby sparrow. I asked if he wanted me to check his spelling to which he was at first unsure, but he eventually let me look and I saw that the note read well enough, the word TREASURE underlined several times in different colours of ink.

My garden was not big, but there was grass. I went to the tool-shed, the painted door cracked and it opened with a yearning ache as I stepped in to find something with which to dig. There was a shovel, but he said he wanted to make the hole himself so I looked for something smaller. After a quick search I found a trowel in an old plant-pot, its handle wooden and cold, the metal specked with brown dirt that crumbled in my hand like burnt wood. I passed it to him, standing in the doorway of the shed, his eyes wide and nervous of the shaded forms touching in the dark above my head. I told him that he might find a dinosaur-bone and he gripped the handle of the trowel as if he held a weapon, shoulders stiff beneath the school-jumper. I took a step forward out of the dark and he calmed, his eyes looking down at the trowel and his arm feeling its weight as he raised it and lowered it with the sunshine hanging above.    

He picked a patch of grass and set to work. I sat on a plastic chair near the wall of the house, cooler here than in the summer glare, my feet cut in half by the line between the shade and the sun, warm on my toes in their cushioned seats. His small form sat down on the earth, pushing the trowel downward and scooping up the dirt into a small pile. His jumper green like the grass around and I felt for a second sure that he had disappeared, down into the ground, so well did the colours blend. It may be that he would find something interesting in the garden, I remembered digging once as a young boy to plant apple seeds and finding some old China and a large nail. He may dig and find more. I thought again of a city, a motorway waiting beneath his trowel leading to where the buildings were taller and in greater density. There would be a big hole to find that, a cave in the middle of the green grass. I felt my stomach churn and tighten and in front of me lay the centre, quiet and still, a fortress of angles and I parked on the corner of an empty road and got out, ready to walk. The whole place was dark, lit only by a pinprick of light where the sun could enter, a thin beam cast ahead. I edged forward, following the maze of streets between the buildings, testing the route, my shoes hitting the pavement in a regular rhythm that echoed between the walls like a grandfather clock. Turning left and right, the shape of my home soon visible, him still there in his green jumper with the trowel in hand. If he had disappeared, I told myself, if he had disappeared I would have jumped down into the hole he had made to find him.

The heat had made me thirsty, and I told him I was going to get a drink and whether he would like anything. He turned to me from the lawn, his eyes tired and forehead wet. I beckoned for him to come over, saying that he could use a break and was he sure he didn’t want me to dig the hole for him? He came over, knees of his trousers grazed in brown and I said that he should go up to change out of his school-clothes and that by the time he came down I would have a glass of something ready. Him having run upstairs I was alone in the kitchen and set about finding two glasses and a big plastic bottle of orange squash which I poured into each. The sharp smell rising upwards I diluted the glasses with water from the tap and left them on the table surface. Looking out at the garden I could see the small hole, a gap in the grass, the trowel by its side. He bounded down and drank the squash, full once more with energy and little blue shorts beneath his belt. He thanked me, saying that he wanted to keep digging and I asked whether he had found a dinosaur bone and he shook his head with a serious weight once more saying no not yet. He went back outside and I watched him bend over the hole from behind the glass kitchen window, facing away from me, blue shorts against the green grass. With an almighty crack I pictured the ground of the lawn giving way entirely, his body sunk quick into the dark and the light of the sun falling through the opened hole down over the developing homes beneath, into a kitchen window where a woman stood next to a man, her hair lit like spring branches. All of a sudden he stood up with a jolt and called out for me loudly, my arteries kicking the blood down to my stomach I hurried out of the back door and straight on the grass to his side. I could not see any problem, no signs of an accident, only the trowel in his hand. What was the matter I asked, he had found a bomb he said.
At the bottom of the small hole the earth had stopped and part of a curved metallic object was to be found. The thing was clearly larger than the hole itself, and from this limited exposure it was impossible to make out exactly what it was. I looked at him, then down again to the hole. He said again that it was a bomb and I said it wasn’t but that I would get the shovel. He asked whether I could hear it ticking, I listened, but there was only birdcall from above. I walked swiftly to the shed, opened the cracked door once more, picked up the shovel, it felt solid in my hands; one on the handle one on the body and I held it from the hip like a machine-gun.  He with his trowel waiting for my return, I said it was certainly not a bomb but it would be good to see what it was, and I would dig around his pit. I set about pushing the head of the shovel into the ground, he watched for a few seconds before sitting down. I had surprised myself with the speed of my reaction and it felt good to throw the metal head downwards, a satisfying force in my arms. His eyes were fixed on me as I raised and lowered the shovel, scooping out the earth onto the pile he had already started. I had exposed a little more of the metal object, still hard to identify. He stood once more to look down curiously at the shape and then knelt with the trowel, his hands working the tool to lift the grassy soil.

Stories in newspapers about undetonated bombs forced their way into my mind’s eye, left from the war and buried for safety. His sleeves rolled up to the elbows I thought of a bomb falling onto the sprouting city-scape below, knocked out of its place in the lawn by the work of my shovel. Its descent seen from our vantage point here on the grass, a shell shape dropping into the dark, slow into the chasm until it disappeared from view. The angular side-streets below, squeezed between the glass faces of developing towers. Him older, beside the woman; her voice sounding out, warm in its tone and her hand in his. The bomb now hitting there, and all about was fire and wind, the buildings blown outwards, the streetlamps shot from pale amber to darkness and the concrete highways that stretched out all buckled and torn until they could bear it no more and crumbled to autumn leaves; a bright flower seen from the lawn that bloomed and faded until there was only quiet once more.

Wrapping my fingers around the object I lifted until my arms felt sore with effort. He stood there watching me, his gaze cold and distant. He looked once more solemn, no longer helping but waiting and watching, his expression closed. I strained and pulled, the sweat running down my neck and I suddenly felt foolish, a man at confession waiting for the judged. I heaved with the whole of my body and the object below me came loose with a low thud. Holding it aloft I could see that I had in my hands not a bomb but a metal sheet, curved and rusted beyond comprehension. It may have once been a bonnet or a barrel but I could not be sure, most likely scrap-metal dumped by a previous owner of the house. I let the metal sheet fall on the grass beside me and looked at him, waiting for the shrug I was instead met with open eyes and a widening smile, the first I had seen on his face that day. Following his gaze I saw that beneath the metal sheet was a number of other smaller piece of metal, and that amongst these was the skeleton of a small animal, I guessed a cat, crushed by the scrap. I looked at him and said that maybe he should go inside while I cleaned the mess and all he could do was reply with an excited pitch that rang out across the garden, dinosaur bones dinosaur bones dinosaur bones! 

He washed the remains of the cat, grabbed into an old plastic shopping bag while I moved the fragments of metal from the hole. There on the lawn with the peanut butter jar by my feet, I waited for his return to place it in the earth. I remembered the note he had written and the word TREASURE underlined and I looked at the face of the hippo pressed against the glass. Unscrewing the lid of the jar I quickly delved into my trouser pocket for the ring, a weight in my palm, and I let it drop down until it landed between the candle and a stone with a little clack. I placed the jar once more on the ground and continued to move the metal until I saw him walking once more out the kitchen door. I asked if he was ready and he said that he was, in his hand the skull of the cat like some sacred talisman. He placed the jar at the bottom of the pit and I asked if he wanted to say any words and he said that this was not a funeral and I responded that yes he was right but that it may be nice to say a few words nevertheless. He looked at the cat skull and down at the jar and said in a stately tone that he hoped they would enjoy the toys and that the candle would light their home and that the string would tie their shoes so that they would not fall down. I told him that it was a very good speech and he nodded, the two of us then filling the hole with shovel and trowel, heap upon heap, and I promised him biscuits when the job was done.