I am delighted today to share an extract of Keeping Time, the new novel by Thomas Legendre, published by Acre Books on 15th March 2020.
First, let’s see what the book is about:
A crumbling marriage. An ancient mystery. And a way to change the past . . .
When archaeologist Aaron Keeler finds himself transported eighteen years backward in time, he becomes swept up in a strangely illicit liaison with his younger wife. A brilliant musician, Violet is captivated by the attentive, “weathered” version of her husband. The Aaron she recently married—an American expat—has become distant, absorbed by his excavation of a prehistoric site at Kilmartin Glen on Scotland’s west coast, where he will soon make the discovery that launches his career. As Aaron travels back and forth across the span of nearly two decades, with time passing in both worlds, he faces a threat to his revelatory dig, a crisis with the older Violet—mother of his two young children—and a sudden deterioration of his health. Meanwhile, Violet’s musical performances take on a resonance related to the secrets the two are uncovering in both time frames. With their children and Aaron’s lives at risk, he and Violet try to repair the damage before it’s too late.
Then, more about the author:
Thomas Legendre is the author of The Burning—longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Writing—as well as Half Life, a play performed as part of NVA’s art installation of the same name in conjunction with the National Theatre of Scotland, and the radio drama Dream Repair, aired by BBC4. He is an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham. https://www.thomaslegendre.com/keeping-time
Now, let’s enjoy an extract from this brilliant novel:
If I make a circle it doesn’t matter where I start, so let’s begin with Aaron appearing from the future. How does a time traveller arrive? By buzzing the entryphone. It halts me during Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor for organ—or rather, a piano transcription that
seems too thin, too sterile—and I rise from the bench humming the final variation, trying to give it some life. I lose it completely, though, at the sound of Aaron’s voice bristling with static. This can’t be good news. He’s supposed to be in Mid Argyll. As his footsteps
come up the main stair, I think maybe the next phase of his Great Dig was postponed and he lost his keys in a Neolithic ditch.
But then the sight of him sends me backing into the sitting room.
He recites my favourite colour, my lucky number, my comfort foods, my shoe and dress sizes—as if I need convincing, when in fact the problem isn’t that I doubt who he is, but that I immediately believe it. Yes, it’s obvious. My future is his past. Though it’s April of 1988 for me, it’s November of 2006 for him—or almost November. Halloween night. That’s when our son will stay home with me, apparently, while he takes our daughter trick- or- treating, despite my protests, so he can introduce her to his American childhood ritual, his annual allowance of junk food and fright. I can’t imagine myself protesting such a harmless thing, which is partly why it seems like a di!erent woman in that time. An alternate self.
The mother of two children. I’m already suspicious of her. Where does she begin? Where do I end? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m here. I’m now. I’m making it up as I go along. If I make a circle it doesn’t matter where I start.
“But you need to know it’s really me,” he says. “And I can prove it. The first time we met was at that pub o! Buccleuch. You were upset about playing the Rach 3, and I told you…” He stops himself, clenching his eyes shut. “No, no. Wait. Anyone could know that.”
He turns away and grips the mantel, in the throes of some internal debate, then turns back and starts reeling o! details about something that happened to me before that—a private trauma I’ve never shared with anyone. Proof. Evidence. He needs to convince
himself that I’m convinced. He needs to believe that I believe.
“Aaron?” I wave him down. “This isn’t necessary.”
“But you locked the door behind him,” he says, “and you sat there hugging your knees until dawn when you could walk home safely, and you couldn’t even bring yourself to tell Clare or Isobel afterward, instead making up some story about, what was it, he
vomited and passed out. It was your first and last one- night stand. Am I right?”
His face is both familiar and strange. There’s a wider spread to his features, the continental drift of age, but otherwise he seems recast with sharper angles and ridges, with deeper definition. The endearing little curve to his lower lip is more pronounced, his hair reduced to a close- cropped style that actually suits him better. It’s the haircut he should have had from the beginning. I hesitate to mention it because I’m afraid he’s going to say it was my suggestion.
The other Violet. The older one. A deep unease comes over me, unreasonably, at the thought of her.
“Violet, please. Am I right about this?”
I manage to nod.
“Have you shared that experience with anyone?”
I shake my head.
“Anyone at all?”
I close my eyes to absorb not the fact but the feeling of it. A new time signature.
“I know it must be strange to have me describe it this way, like watching your own dream on television. But you’ll tell me in a few years. At a performance one night you’ll see someone who resembles him, and you’ll confess the whole thing afterward right here
in this room. Except it’s not really a confession because you didn’t do anything wrong. I should mention that now, ahead of time, to preempt some of the guilt. Because the guy tried to rape you, for Christ’s sake, so don’t be ashamed of that, and I still want to track
him down and break his kneecaps, which you’ll attribute to my crude notion of Appalachian justice. If memory serves.”
And his accent has changed. Those hints of southern comfort, those drawling vowels—all tempered to British speech. The sound of him, the sense. Yes, it’s the man he will be in eighteen years.
One of my legs is trembling like a bow string, and I have to collar it with both hands to make it stop.
He comes forward. “Are you all right?”
I step back and knock into a lamp. He lunges and catches it before it falls, then looks at it oddly as he sets it back.
“Tessa broke this. She was crawling under the table and—” He glances at an empty corner of the room. “The table we’re going to buy after we have the flat repainted. In 1996, I think.”
“Good thing you caught it, then.”
He snaps his attention back to me, flummoxed by the comment until it takes hold, and he laughs. Then his eyes widen with mischief.
“Hey, should I smash it and see what happens?”
“Please don’t. It’s hard enough living in an unfurnished rental—and excuse me, but how are we going to buy this flat if we can barely a!ord the rent?”
He hesitates, sensing a tripwire. “Did I say we bought it?”
“You said we repainted it. Eight years from now.”
“Oh. Well. Don’t worry about that. It’s not the sort of detail that matters.”
I fold my arms. “As opposed to what, my shoe size? Which you got wrong, by the way.”
“Your shoe . . .” He sways slightly and catches himself. “Ah, right. Before the children you’re a five, not a five- and- a- half.”
“Because your feet swelled with the pregnancies.”
“You mean permanently?”
“Leave o!, Aaron. Time travel is more plausible than that.”
He seems to drop a notch. It’s all crucial to him. Endings and beginnings, cause and e!ect. With renewed desperation he starts patting himself down, as if searching for a futuristic calling card.
But what can he o!er? He isn’t wearing any silver lamé. No spacey designs or insignias. Just a jumper with a hole in the shoulder, a collared shirt, jeans. The trainers are a type I’ve never seen before, but that doesn’t mean much. He could be from any time, any
place. He doesn’t even have a wallet. The only artefact he can produce is an electronic domino, which apparently is a mobile phone.
“Will you stop that, please?”
“I’m trying to provide hard evidence.”
“Hard evidence of what? That mobiles are shoddy in 2006?”
He holds it up. “The supporting technology doesn’t exist yet. If you brought a radio back to the eighteenth century and switched it on, it wouldn’t—”
“But it doesn’t switch on.”
“Or maybe the circuits were fried in the . . .” He gestures broadly. “I don’t know, the time warp or whatever you want to call it, because it sure as hell did something to my nerves. In fact, I thought that was the problem at first. It felt like a concussion.
A seizure, maybe. Except the weather was di!erent. The daylight.
I knew it was spring. I could taste it in the air. And then on the street I saw . . .” He trails, his eyes magnetized by something across the room.
I swivel but don’t find anything worthy of fascination. The stereo and records, the old armchair, the telephone on a faux Ancient Roman pedestal that he bought a few months ago at a charity shop. I turn back to him. “You saw what?” I ask.
He walks over and puts his hand on the phone as if he doesn’t quite believe it exists.
“That would be the real test,” he says.
“No room for doubt after that.”
“What are you talking about?”
He picks up the receiver, then immediately slams it down again and steps back with his hands over his mouth.
“Hey,” I say, coming over and touching his cheek cautiously, expecting some kind of metaphysical crackle, but it’s simply Aaron with extra weather in his skin, etchings around his eyes. “It’s all right. I’m here.”
He folds at my touch, settling against me. A firmness to his chest, a harder texture to his arms. Does he exercise now? I try to imagine him at the gym, substituting fitness for youth—a youth still intact in the other Aaron, working on an excavation three hours away. I run my hands all over him, him but not- him, finding the di!erences, the octaves between one and the other, as if playing the Passacaglia in a lower register to bring out the resonance, except something is missing from the transcription, because even though the notes are right as my fingers press to his shoulders, they don’t sound true. Do I still think this way in the future? Am I always this strange? When I pull back to ask him, though, I find the full presence I’ve always anticipated without realising it, his
face in mine.
“Ultra- Violet,” he says. “It’s you.”
There’s no reason to stop what happens next. He’s here and there, now and then. We’re making it up as we go along. By the time I work his shirt o! I’ve discovered a scar on his shoulder, old to him and new to me, and a mild subsidence in his body. But it doesn’t matter. Oh, it really doesn’t matter. He hits notes of pleasure in me that I didn’t even know were there, new pitches on my scale. Of course he has an unfair advantage. An extra eighteen years of practice, I think, as he carries me across the threshold of our bedroom like it’s our wedding night again, a replay of our honeymoon with all this messy, raunchy tenderness. Better than our honeymoon, actually. And gripping his hand against the mattress, I feel his wedding band—our ring of eternity, as Isobel phrased it,
in honour of our legal manoeuvre to keep him in the country. But it has lasted. It has endured. If only I could share the news with her and Clare, not to mention Mum, still unsettled by my lack of propriety and pageantry, my unserious life. See, Mum? He’s my
husband, after all.
Afterward there’s a sizzling purity to everything, all nerve endings and open strings.
Sunlight flickering on the wall, the howling raw motions of sky. A breeze sighing through the fireplace. Traffic rumbling like a waterfall in the distance. Everything acute and true. His leg still draped over mine. An octave occurs when one pitch has exactly double the frequency of another. But this is a different harmonic. A di!erent sequence of semitones. A perfect fifth. Yes. The interval above the root of all major and minor chords, and now excuse me while I smile.
He slides out of bed and starts gathering his clothes. “This isn’t a coincidence.”
I turn toward him. “What?”
“You mean, Good April Fool’s Friday?”
He gives me a perplexed look.
“That’s the joke you made when you called last night. Or may be I should say eighteen years ago? Because it’s Good Friday and April Fool’s Day, together at once—which proved, you said, that the Resurrection was really just a prank that got out of hand.
Why else would they celebrate the occasion when the saviour was whipped and beaten and nailed to a cross? If that’s a good Friday, I’d hate to see a bad one.”
He halts for an instant after stepping into his jeans, blinking the thought away. “I’m talking about spring 1988. Kilmartin Glen.
The excavation at Inbhir. Right now I’m discovering that it’s not only a chambered cairn, but also a . . .” He breaks o!. “I’ll tell you—I mean, he’ll tell you all about it when he comes home tonight.”
“Lovely. Something to look forward to. But why is that not a coincidence?”
“I go back there in 2006.”
He shakes his head. A forbidden topic. I’m about to press him when he reaches for something on his bureau—the mug he won at a state fair when he was a boy. Another casualty of the years between us, no doubt. Is he going to blame our daughter for this
one as well? As he runs his fingers over the raised lettering, I can’t help recalling that moment at the telephone. Who was he going to call? Then he sets the mug down and, still naked from the waist up, strides out of the room. I lean over and watch him through the doorway of his study, examining all the drawings and photos tacked to the wall—the collage he hopes will provoke some kind of insight—along with the Ordnance Survey map that he marks with the locations of all known rock carvings in Kilmartin Glen, like a general plotting troop movements. I am under solemn oath under penalty of death not to tell his coworkers for fear he will be mocked mercilessly. Because he is convinced the rock carvings occur not at random locations but at natural thresholds of the landscape, with the motifs taking on greater complexity at key approaches. Furthermore, he says, they have a systematic relationship to the cairns and standing stones along the floor of the valley. They lead you to those sites. They guide you in. They bring you down.
That must be it. The source of his accidental time travel. A mystical portal of some kind, marked by signs and stones—the very sort of wishy- washy New Age hokum he loathes, which would explain why he’s so tight- lipped about the whole thing. He’d sooner whip up a hypothesis of geological features and material culture than allow any kind of metaphysical mystery. But today’s superstition is tomorrow’s science. He probably just stumbled into it like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. After all, there’s a hidden aspect to that place, or rather something absent. Undisclosed.
Withdrawn. I kept looking for what I was missing even the first time I visited, long before Aaron, on a family holiday. It was Dad’s idea of a diversion before catching the ferry at Oban—some pagan viscera to o!set the tepid encounter with St Columba he knew
Mum would impose on us once we reached Iona. At least that’s my understanding of it now. At a layby he read out a placard explaining how the cairns were arranged in a straight line over a distance of two miles along the floor of the glen. A linear cemetery.
A valley of death. A natural amphitheatre fringed with terraces, as if designed by the gods themselves, whoever they happened to be back then, for ritual processions and ceremonies.
And what remained? A few standing stones. Some rock piles resembling igloos where prehistoric corpses were supposedly stored like tins in a larder but that now held nothing at all. Nevertheless, we made a go of it. We tramped among livestock and heaps of manure to lay our hands on the slanted monoliths. We squeezed inside one of the cairns with Mum holding her jacket over her shoulders and Dad declaring his wonder at what it must have been like, really, if you gave it a bit of thought. And of course the rock carvings, worn down and barely visible at midday, with their cups and rings and stray lines radiating outward. A few looked like dartboards, Peter said. Because he played darts. I spotted a treble clef, then realised it was just a part of the texture, of the cracks and fissures in the rock itself. The whole thing was a Rorschach test.
A trick of desire. I felt it most at the summit of Dunadd, when I stepped in the carved footprint used in the first coronation rituals of Scotland. Dad dubbed me Violet MacAlpin, conqueror of the Picts, founder of the Kingdom of Alba. Peter dubbed me a royal pain in the arse.
Aaron is the only one I know intent on assembling a larger picture, even as he distrusts larger pictures. It’s who he is: his helpless speculation, his urge to know. His pleasure in paradox. He doesn’t expect to solve the rock carvings but rather to become satisfied in
the e!ort. Yet he will never be satisfied, even in that. Does he know it yet? Does he know himself?
I hear a tapping of keys, a familiar staccato from his desk across the hall. What on earth could he be typing? I call his name. I wait.
I lean on the bed again but see only the scraped file cabinet, the chair plundered from a skip, the lamp with its paper shade burnt by a bulb that gives more heat than light. When we buy this flat I bloody well hope we can a!ord to furnish it properly.
“A friggin’ typewriter,” Aaron says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder as he comes back through the doorway, his voice flaring with Blue Ridge summer, the gut- level syllables of his younger self—all still inside him, of course. A ground bass of basic pleasures and straightforward thinking.
I work up a tolerant expression. “Yes, a typewriter.”
“And the circle jerks.”
“Those pages I tacked up. As if I had some great insight into the universe.” He draws a long breath. “All those years I was putting the cart before the horse. That’s one thing Tessa . . .”
I watch him carefully as he trails o!, a flicker of caution in his eyes.
“Anyway,” he says, “that typewriter still drops the f ’s. Oh, and look at this.” He goes over to his closet and flips through the hangers.
He pulls out a striped shirt—not one of my favourites—and holds it at arm’s length. “I really used to wear this, didn’t I?”
“You don’t have the greatest fashion sense, if that’s what you mean.”
He gives me a burlesque frown before setting it back.
“I gather you were typing a note to yourself?”
“Hell no. I just wanted to bang the keys again for old times’ sake.”
“But don’t you have some advice to o!er? Words of wisdom?”
I prop my head on my hand. “Stock tips, perhaps? There must be something you’d like to say to him.”
“I doubt he’d listen.”
“Then tell me instead.”
He straightens up with wry gravitas—about to make a joke, it seems, at the expense of his younger self—when a heavier notion takes hold instead. He falters for a moment before he finally says it. “Don’t worry about him while he’s on this dig. He’s not doing anything wrong.”
“I mean, he’s not misbehaving. That’s all.” He reaches for his shirt on the floor, trying to be nonchalant. But then our eyes catch.
“All right,” he says. “There’s a colleague—a woman working with him at the site. Pottery expert. They’ll flirt and have some laughs together, but that’ll be the beginning and end of it. Nothing is going to happen. No big deal. Ok?”
“Ok,” I reply, drawing it out with a light twist. “If you say so. After all, I guess it pales in comparison, doesn’t it?”
He stops with his arm in a sleeve. “In comparison to what?”
“This. I’ve just cheated on him, haven’t I?” I ru#e my hair and let the sheet slip down a bit. “And with good reason. Some things improve with age.”
He eases back and adjusts his shirt like a stunt driver checking his seatbelt. I seem to be a dangerous temptation now. A hazard in time.
“You still haven’t told me how it happened,” I say. “All I know is that it was Halloween night.”
“Sort of,” he says, fastening his buttons.
“Oh, dear. Suddenly you’re evasive. A while ago you were babbling away about a windstorm and guising—sorry, trick- ortreating—with our daughter. Tessa. I must have chosen that name. After my gran. And our son, what do we call him?”
He inhales. “Can we change the subject?”
“I’ve already told you too much.”
“What di!erence does it make if you tell me our son’s name?
You’ve already warned me about your pottery expert and her clay jugs, or whatever it is that you find so attractive. But really, Aaron. You can’t start that kind of thing and just stop.”
“I told you about Siobhan because it’s worth the risk. Now will you drop it, please?”
“Worth what risk?”
He holds up a hand. “Can you just trust me on this? I have to be careful. I don’t know how it all works. What kind of damage I might do. What damage I’ve already done.”
I roll onto my back. “Well, unless you murdered someone or robbed a bank on your way here, I don’t think you have much to worry about. The only di!erence is what you’ve told me. We’ll have a daughter and a son. Our daughter will break a lamp. We’ll have the flat repainted, presumably after we manage to buy it. Oh, goodness, think of the disruption, the great rip in the fabric of the space- time.”
Wrong thing to say. He crouches down and ties his shoelaces. What happened to his gleeful nihilism? His urge for existential mischief? All those late- night rhapsodies about geological time scales and the insignificance of the human race? He’s taking the wrong track. He’s confusing the score with the music, the treble with the bass, the right hand with the left. As if one thing causes the other. Oh, Aaron. That’s not how it goes. Let’s sequence the motif. Let’s try a di!erent key. Let’s improvise.
“Are you going to tell her?” I ask.
“Me. Her. The future Violet.”
“I guess I won’t need to. She’ll already know because . . .” He pauses to untangle the pronouns, the past and present selves.
“ . . . well, you’re her. Or you’re going to be her.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
He gives me an indulgent smile. “You planning on a severe case of amnesia between now and then?”
“I’m just saying we could be di!erent people. In fact, I’m quite certain of it.”
“And why is that?”
“Dad took us guising every Halloween when I was a girl, and it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d want for our children. I don’t know who that older woman is, but she’s not me. Don’t you get it? This isn’t just a di!erent time, Aaron. It’s a di!erent place as well.”
He opens his mouth to reply, but seems to lose track of the thought, his expression lifting free of its moorings as a pulse of sunlight comes into the room, bringing a higher voltage, a renewed circuitry to every surface and texture.
“A separate reality,” he says. “A parallel universe. Which would mean that whatever happens here . . .” He shifts his gaze back to me.
I flick my eyebrows at him and stretch out with a feline extravagance.
He comes over for what he probably tells himself is just a kiss, but then his face is buried in my hair and I’m working his shirt on again. He grips me with an almost helpless greed. I have to reach back and brace myself against the headboard, working into the
pleasure until we’re breathing together, his hands cupping my face as if he’s afraid of losing it, his body sliding down afterward, his forehead pressed to the space between my breasts. I feel him trembling.
Then something seizes him, and he shoves away. A fracture between us like shattered glass.
He dresses brusquely, giving his lapels a hard tug. “I need tools,” he says.
I run the words over, thinking I must have I misheard.
“A hammer,” he adds. “Or at least a screwdriver. Otherwise I can’t go back.”
“Well, you know where they are,” I manage to say. “Or were. I guess we might move them to a di!erent cupboard by 2006.”
I wait for more—an explanation, a response of some kind—but he finishes dressing in silence, his mouth clamped shut. And a terrible stillness comes into me. Something is wrong. Not now.
Then. In the future.
“What is it?” I ask, my voice falling to a whisper. “What’s happening to us?”
He leaves the bedroom without replying. I hear the creaking hinges of the cupboard. The rattle of the toolbox. The lid’s metallic thud. There’s a rustling, a scraping inside the closet itself. What could he possibly be doing? And then the sounds of him repacking everything slowly, with that special care of his.
No. I won’t let it end this way. I’ll bring him back. The other Violet and I can share him. What’s mine is hers, what’s hers is mine. Yes, that’s the key. It’s how everything falls into place. The sharps, the flats, the accidentals. The intervals and chords. The perfect fifth. As he walks down the hallway his footsteps become the rhythm, my heartbeat the time. The door shuts behind him with a click like a metronome. I can play it now. And it goes like this.