A tale of time travel and regret
|Edward took long strides down the brick lanes of the grey industrial estate, his leather jacket flapping behind him. He almost broke into a run, but he wasn't that keen to reach his destination. An old lady in a charcoal coat squealed at him as he barged past her with arms swinging. He was tall and thin, with floppy black hair over his forehead that sometimes hit his eyes. In his haste he moved clumsily like a giraffe.
It was all Lucy's fault. Sweet, stupid Lucy. She annoyed him immensely but still he loved her. Everything had been going so well at first, then a few bad decisions and the two of them had been trapped together in a hellish relationship. If only he hadn't taken that job at the docks and pressured her into giving up her career. If only they hadn't moved into that small apartment. If only he hadn't gone to Steve's party. Steve wasn't even a friend, just somebody he vaguely knew. That was when the troubles had really started, and he had found himself falling in with a crowd of people he would once have avoided.
Of course, all of that was in the past now - or the future. Since he had been tattooed, he had been moving backwards in time. Imprinted on his flesh was the date when he and Lucy had started going out seriously. "23 July 2015" was scrawled across his ankle in blue. He had been regularly jumping towards that date for what felt like weeks now, although it was impossible to count the passage of time.
Sometimes he jumped back months at once, sometimes just a few days. The jumps were always backwards, but time flowed forwards at each stop. He would relive an hour here and an hour there from his past. Sometimes he would stay in the same time point for days at a time. He savoured his second live-through of the summer holiday they had in 2016, and their first Christmas together.
Lucy was a kind woman, but she had a fierce side. He had been initially attracted to her big green eyes and her sarcasm. There had been physical attraction at once, and in a short space of time he had found himself spending every moment thinking about her. As they got to know each other better, they had bonded over their shared loves of heavy metal, sushi and bad sci-fi.
Now it was a cloudy September in 2015, and for all he knew the next jump backwards would be the last one. Before the previous jump he had noticed a tattoo on Lucy's arm - "20 May 2015", the day they had met. It had been a shock to see it. She must be travelling back in time as well, to prevent the relationship from beginning in the first place.
He had looked at her arm that morning, but the tattoo wasn't there. Obviously that was the original Lucy, not the later version who was leaping backwards in time just as he was. He had to get back to the start date before she did, and make sure that things happened as he remembered them.
He arrived at the familiar black door of the tattoo parlour. Litter swirled around him in the breeze. The grubby sign above read "Terry's Tats" in a fat, punky font.
In the window, a set of intricate and detailed designs were on display in gold on black. The rest of the shop front was grubby and decaying. The nearby stores were all boarded up. Edward gritted his teeth and turned the handle.
"Hello, Edward," said Terry the shopkeeper. He was an ostentatious man in a top hat, a flowery shirt and a handlebar moustache. He stood behind a counter, tapping idly away at a computer.
"How do you know my name? I haven't been here before," said Edward.
"Not before, no. Be-after. Or if you prefer, after. You've been here after," Terry laughed. "What brings you back? Or forwards?"
"I was wondering if I can get a second tattoo."
"When is your first one for?"
"The 23rd of July 2015."
"Oh, so you haven't reached it yet, have you?"
"Then it's a definite no!" the shopkeeper said very seriously. "You can't have two tattoos at once, it's too risky. You'll need to wait until you reach your target date, then wait a week before you get another tattoo. You don't want to risk mixing the time streams."
"Here's what I'm wondering. If someone else has a target date before mine, then would they get there before I do? I guess they would, if I need to get another tattoo to move back again."
"Almost certainly, because you'll have to wait a week. Are you worried about this person changing the timeline?"
"Then just go back to before they change the timeline, and change it again."
"Ok." Edward accepted the explanation, but he stood thinking for a moment.
It was hard to consider all the possibilities, it just raised more questions. What if Lucy changed the timeline such that he couldn't move back. If he never met her, then he might never have got the tattoo to begin travelling back in time in the first place, so what would happen then? He was about to ask Terry, but another customer had entered the shop and was chatting to him quietly.
At that moment, a wild-haired man sitting beside the door gestured to him. "Psst!" he said, twitching.
Edward leaned over and the strange man whispered to him. "There is another parlour across town. 73 Oak Street." The man winked, then lowered his head and appeared to doze off. Seconds later, he lifted his head up suddenly with a start, as if waking up.
Without knowing why, Edward left the parlour and set out to the other shop. It sounded as though Terry wouldn't give him another tattoo, but the people in other shop might. They wouldn't know him.
He knew where Oak Street was, it was near Lucy's work. She had to take a job there as a cleaner in a large warehouse. She would begin it in about a year, he thought, and she would really hate it.
He didn't want to wait until Lucy had changed the past and then have to re-change it in his favour. He had been amazed that Lucy had liked him the first time, he was certain that she wouldn't like him the second time. Especially not with all the things she would know about him now, if she could remember their future relationship too. He began to panic and walk faster.
He had to get back in time before her. If he could correct the timeline the way he wanted it, then she would never get a tattoo to go back in time to try to change it. That would be the best way to fix things. He was certain of it.
The other tattooist's was much dirtier than Terry's. A stairwell led down to a mud brown wooden door. There wasn't even a front to make it look like a normal shop. No sign over the door, not even a bell. He knocked, then tried the old bronze handle after hearing no response.
Inside it was dimly lit but it looked like somebody's living room. An overweight bearded man clad all in black sat on a sofa. He was watching an antiques programme on TV with a can of beer in his hand.
"Hello," he said cheerily. "Here for a tattoo?"
Edward nodded, and closed the door behind him.
"When would you like?" the man said, plugging a needle into the electrical socket. He began revving it as it if was a motorcycle engine.
"The 19th of May 2015," said Edward, gulping.
"Where do you want it?"
"On my shoulder," said Edward, unbuttoning his shirt. He sat on the edge of the sofa and leaned over.
Before long the needle pierced his skin, and he screamed in pain.
Edward awoke in bed. He was back in his old house. He picked up the phone beside him and checked the date. It was 8:52 on the 21st of May. He couldn't remember how he had got here, but somehow he had managed it. He could begin his relationship anew, with the foreknowledge of all the mistakes that he shouldn't make.
If all had gone well, then he should have met Lucy yesterday. He looked through the contacts list on his phone to see if she was there. He could remember her number anyway, but he wanted to see if he had stored it.
It was then that he noticed his right arm. It was covered in tattoos. The 20th of May was repeated many times, as was the 21st. Other dates were inked there. What had he done? He looked at his left arm. It was covered too.
Edward awoke in bed. He was back where he had been a minute earlier. He looked at his arm in shock. It was still covered in tattoos. He checked his phone. It said 8:52. There was no sign of Lucy's number.
He awoke again. The words of Terry came back to him. "It's too risky", he had said.
He awoke again, and remembered the strange twitching man in the shop. Was he also stuck in a time loop?
He awoke again. He began to realise that he would never know the answers. It was still 8:52.
He awoke again.