Karen was looking forward to the party despite the rather awkward journey. She had been a little surprised by the invitation as she didn’t really belong to that set, who were very much into modish entertainment, immersive theatre, fashionably weird drinking venues and the latest in exotic cuisines. Although they were all young middle-management like her, she was still seen as a newcomer to the firm and she was afraid they looked on her as uptight and dull, too concerned with being on time and correctly turned out. It was true she took some pride in organising herself and her day and managing her journeys efficiently; she always had the latest travel apps. She hoped she came across as less boring than she feared, but she knew that was probably wishful thinking.
The house was only about ten minutes from the station and it was well after nine when the train pulled into Belsize Park, which meant she had timed it pretty well. She didn’t want to get to the party too early, obviously; standing around with a drink waiting for other people to arrive while your hosts finished their preparations was deeply awkward. Things were still distinctly thin though when she was ushered in, but not embarrassingly so, she told herself. True, no-one was dancing yet but she was soon chatting happily to Malcolm, from Risk, and partner Jenny. She had started rather gingerly on her vodka and tonic, slightly worried by a brief bout of dizziness she had experienced leaving the station, but the alcohol slipped down pleasantly and she quickly relaxed.
Jenny was talking about a recent performance of the Tempest which had the audience wandering about the simulated island in search of the actors and the action. It was just the kind of thing members of ‘the group’ were always discussing at work. She thought it sounded a rather incoherent way of seeing a play but she managed to sound suitably excited about it.
Quite soon people started dancing and she allowed Malcolm and Jenny to persuade her onto the floor. She was in the mood to let herself go a bit, with the happy result that she was soon joined by a partner who could really dance. During a brief pause for drinks and catching of breath, she discovered he was called Greg and from Accounting. There was some chemistry she felt. Of course he turned out to be married, but she was happy enough to have found a decent dancing partner.
A couple of hours later took she took time out to visit the loo. Checking her phone for messages she saw it was just after 11; she was pleasantly surprised it was so early; time usually went faster when you were enjoying yourself – and drinking. She returned to the fray and was soon being swept along by the music on the dance floor, more often than not with Greg, who responded skilfully and naturally to her every move.
She caught the night train back some time between two and three. It was surprisingly full, in fact rather riotous at the other end of her carriage, where at least one male was lying on the floor singing. The very young Nigel Adams from SR had walked her to the station, saying it was on his way. She wondered if that was true, but he had seemed happy enough to leave her with no more than a polite peck on the cheek and had wandered off in a northerly direction.
She had definitely had a good time, she thought. She had talked with many of the group from work and several other people completely new to her. Overall the company in-group hadn’t spent too much time impressing her with their cultural modishness; Jenny was friendly and sensibly down to earth about anything but theatre; they even agreed to have lunch in town some time. She had really enjoyed the music and the dancing – and she had had just about the right amount to drink for once.
It was just after three when the train got into Brixton.
‘Just under seven minutes to the flat’, she thought. ‘In bed and asleep by half-past.’
As she was passing through the ticket barrier she felt again a moment of dizziness and disorientation. She stopped for a second, screwed her eyes shut, shook her head a little in an attempt to clear it and looked around. The empty station looked perfectly normal and she felt OK, a bit tired, obviously, but fine.
‘Maybe I’m coming down with something,’ she thought. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have been drinking – or dancing my legs off.’
When she arrived home she put the kettle on for some herbal tea and got ready for bed. As she put her phone on the bedside table she saw that it was already three thirty-five. She hurried into the kitchen; the clock said twenty to as she carried the tea past it on her way to bed.
‘Oh well, in bed by quarter to at least,’ she said to herself as she climbed in. She was soon asleep, the tea half drunk.
She set out later than usual on the Monday, knowing that this was a rather shameless attempt at impressing the group with a new laid-back Karen, one who didn’t care so much about being on time. Despite this stratagem she was still at work well before 9.30 and before most of the others; in fact a little earlier than most days last week, she realised. She just wasn’t used to leaving things to the last minute, she supposed, and maybe her relaxed, lazy Sunday had left her with too much pent-up energy. She had certainly been walking quite fast.
She saw one or two people from the party and they were friendly, genuinely friendly she felt; she bumped into Malcolm, too, who passed on Jenny’s message that her best days for lunch were usually Wednesday or Thursday and to give her a call soon. There was no sign of Greg.. Work itself had gone well and all in all it had been a good start to the week. She deliberately left slightly early, still faithful to her new approach to life.
As she was going through the Brixton barrier, trying to decide whether to shop on her way home or not, she felt again that wave of disorientation and dizziness, over in a second or two. She closed and opened her eyes and looked around her. Her head was clear again and the station was its usual drearily busy self, though the tall, dread-locked man who had been in front of her at the barrier had disappeared.
‘That makes four times it’s happened’, she thought. ‘ Dizzy and a bit confused, just for a moment or two.’ She had felt it that morning, perhaps a little worse, again just after going through the barrier in town or was it on the way up the stairs into the street? Maybe it was the escalators – she tended to go up them rather fast.
She would have to make an appointment to see the doc. Maybe she should go home and rest before heading out to the shops. Somehow, though, she didn’t get back until almost seven, so there was little time to rest.; M&S closed at eight.
“You seem healthy enough. Your blood pressure is well inside the normal range. I certainly think, though, you should avoid running up the escalators, at least until we have the test results. It’s most probably just a cold virus interfering with the balance mechanism in your ears but I think we should check for anything else. Have you been under any unusual strain or stress recently?”
“Not that I can think of, no.”
“Any other symptoms? Anything unusual?”
“Well, it sounds silly but my sense of time seems all wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well I keep getting to work early, earlier than I mean to.”
Dr. Rogers allowed herself a smile. “Well, that’s a little unusual – being accidentally early for work!”
“And getting home slightly later than I expect.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Same as the dizzy spells.”
“So, about a week?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Well, I suppose it could be a part of the disorientation you reported feeling, perhaps the virus again. We should have the test results by Monday. Give the forms to Reception and ask them to make an appointment for you any day next week from Tuesday on! Is that OK for now?
“Yes, thank you, doctor.”
She phoned up and the blood tests were normal but she kept the appointment on Tuesday. The dizzy spells had continued, no better and no worse, even though she had taken to riding the escalator the whole way up and she still seemed unable to get her travel timing under control. On the Wednesday she had left more than 10 minutes later than usual but still arrived before 9.30. She had started checking the time on her phone more and more frequently but it wasn’t until this last Monday that she had checked it just after a dizzy spell. She had looked at her phone before getting off the train coming home and was pretty sure it had been 6.35, but after going through she had noticed the station clock showing 6.54. and her phone agreed. It had apparently taken her 19 minutes from the platform to the concourse. True there had been a bit of a hold-up getting off the platform and a little queue to get through the barrier but even so it should never have taken her that long.
Dr Rogers was puzzled. If it was a virus she would have expected other symptoms by now. Her patient was showing signs of distress, but nothing in the way of illness except the brief but persistent balance disorder she reported, which had no obvious physical cause - and there was this temporal confusion and anxiety associated with work and home. She decided to try a different approach..
“Do you think it’s possible that this is partly caused by stress and anxiety? Work/home balance is one of the commonest causes of stress and can have a number of physical effects.”
Karen didn’t know what to think. She didn’t feel ill and she didn’t feel stressed by anything but the dizzy spells and whatever was going on with her sense of time on her journeys. She had always been good at time, at managing her journeys and her days and suddenly she couldn’t do it.
“I’m not ruling out a physical cause,” continued Dr Rogers, “ but it seems sensible to consider alternatives.”
“I don’t want to take tranquillisers.”
“No, no drugs for now – more in the way of help with diagnosis. I can refer you to someone on the National Health Service but I’m afraid there would be a long wait. You work for a large company. Do you have a therapist/counsellor in your HR department?”
Karen had been told there was one when she joined but knew nothing about them.
“I don’t want to give HR the idea that I can’t cope,” she said.
Dr Rogers had of course reassured her about the confidentiality of the consultation and had promised to phone up, explain the problem and make the appointment for her.
The counsellor was younger than she expected, mid thirties she thought, with an engagingly informal manner but a sharp, watchful face. He quickly latched onto her attempts to fit into her new friendship group and their fashionably easygoing approach.
“Do you think the old, punctual, conscientious you isn’t ready to accept this change to laid-back and casual...that there is inner conflict here?” he asked.
“I don’t see see how that explains what’s been happening to my timing.”
He looked at her carefully. “What do you think is causing those problems?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out.”
“Could it be the trains - running early or late?
“No, I’m sure it isn’t that. I’ve checked on my phone and anyway the differences are too great.”
“The only other variable is you. The brain can do strange things to our perceptions and time is notoriously subjective. I think we need to examine that possibility.”
She had ended up admitting that she might have been somehow fooling herself into believing she was catching trains to get into work fashionably late and leaving casually early but was actually being even more conservative than usual in her journey planning. He pointed out that the dizziness, with its ensuing confusion, was nicely calculated to prevent her from realising what she was doing.
So now she was, rather sadly, trying to get back to her old routine.
“Let your anxious, punctual self have its way for now, don’t fight it,” he had said. “Otherwise your symptoms may get worse. Reassure your cautious side and the time for more adventurous living will come.”
She wasn’t entirely convinced by the theory but he had seemed quite concerned, actually worried about her and she was ready to give any solution a try.
The only problem was that so far it hadn’t worked. In the first two days back in the old routine the dizzy spells at the barrier had continued and she had arrived at work even earlier and got home even later, as if her ‘cautious self’ was taking unfair advantage of her giving in to it. The third day, fed up with the whole business, she had set out in the morning around her normal time and had arrived before 9.15. She had left work on time and had unaccountably arrived home twenty minutes later than usual. She also had a growing feeling that there was something really weird about the disorientation she felt, or more precisely about the world around her as she recovered from the dizziness.
So this morning she had decided to collect evidence of exactly what was happening to her. As she left the flat she got out her phone and took a picture of the front door. It would of course be time stamped; after the counsellor session she no longer trusted her memory. Arriving at the station she took another of the crowded concourse before going through the barrier. She took photos of the train arriving and of the platform as she got off. She irritated several people by stopping to take another of the barrier just before going through and noticed the time on the phone - 9.09. A cross, tired-looking woman behind her muttered, “Some of us have got jobs to go to!” as she pushed past.
Then she went through. The dizziness hit her as usual and she had to wait for her head and vision to clear before taking the photo. The station was suddenly much more crowded and she was being swept along towards the exit, almost losing her footing in the scrum as she raised the phone to take the photo. She did a double take – the phone showed 8.56. 8.56?? She managed to turn round as she was carried along in the stream of commuters to see the station clock. It showed 8.57. Had she misread the time before the barrier? She must have done. What was happening to her?
The streets were packed and she decided to examine the photos at work, but her knees felt wobbly and she was shivering; she was in shock she realised. She still managed to take another of the front of the office building as she arrived, just to make the set complete.
No-one was in. She got out her phone and it showed 9.12. That must be right, she realised, fifteen minutes from the station.
She hung up her coat and then settled herself in her cubicle to look at the photos. She quickly scrolled over the most recent, carefully avoiding looking at them in any detail and started with the one leaving home. It showed a completely unsurprising view of the front door, time stamped 8.17. Brixton station concourse photo was taken at 8.30 and the one of the train arriving at the platform 8.34. The Goodge Street platform photo was 9.03. Then she came to the one taken just before she went out through the barrier and it was definitely 9.09, which made perfect sense. The next, a rather blurry view of the crowded station, was still the impossible 8.56. She felt a shock of dread again; her body actually clenched and shrank in on itself. Her phone was obviously working OK; the station clock had confirmed it. She had to be seriously ill; she was hallucinating. That was the only explanation. Some part of her was so obsessed with punctuality that her brain was reinterpreting the visual data from her eyes, lying to her, changing all the time stamps to later to force her to arrive at work early.
She went back to those two photos, before and after the barrier. There were the times, 9.09 before going through, 8.56 after. She looked at the photos themselves. The first actually showed the station clock and a part of what was presumably the cross woman pushing past her. The time by the clock was 9.10. The second photo was from a different angle, but it did include the concourse from a part of the barrier to one of the two exits. The crowd seemed totally different in the two photos except for one station employee, who was standing by an exit in the second and next to the barrier in the first. There was a tall woman she thought she recognised from somewhere in the 8.56 photo, looking straight across at her from the ticket office, but she couldn’t see her anywhere in the previous one. In what had seemed one or two seconds for her, the station had grown far more crowded than was possible, all the people had changed and the station employee had moved about 70 yards through the crowd. There must have been a gap in time. What had she been doing - standing in a trance? Someone would have noticed and done something.
She had no idea what was going on but a part of her was relieved it wasn’t her mind. Her brain couldn’t really be hallucinating completely different rush hour crowds, nor all those consistent times on her phone throughout the journey. The counsellor’s theory didn’t work – but that left a world that made no sense at all. Was a world where one could find oneself subject to random time fluctuations really preferable to a mad, hallucinating Karen?
She got through the day somehow. There was nobody she could talk to about it. She could scarcely go to the counsellor, or Doctor Rogers, with evidence of time travel. Trying to present her photographs as proof would probably be enough to get herself sectioned under the mental health act.
She tried not to think about it but going home proved very difficult indeed. When she arrived at the top of the escalators she couldn’t bring herself to go through the barrier at first. She had no desire to take further photos or learn any more about the weirdness. She kept her gaze down to avoid seeing any clocks. She started to shake as she approached the barrier card swipe and fumbled badly, almost dropping it. Eventually she went through and felt the dizziness she had been dreading; her own fear made the disorientation worse.
When she had regained some self-control and opened her eyes she found a woman standing close to her and looking at her intently. It was the woman from the morning photo, she realised, tall, very smartly dressed, almost power-dressed, and good-looking in an ageless way, an unlined face that yet looked full of experience. The movement and noise around them seemed to fade, as if they were in a private bubble.
“Are you OK?” she asked gently.
“Yes, just a little dizzy, thanks.” said Karen.
“Yes, it does that,” said the woman.
“Sorry?” said Karen. “What?”
“The er - shift. You must be terribly disturbed. It’s really inexcusable this kind of error.”
“Error?” repeated Karen, lost.
“Somehow you’ve been given the wrong card, well actually the wrong kind of credit. I know you must be burning with questions but I really can’t explain. It’s too complicated and I’m not allowed to.”
“What makes you think I have a problem with my card?”
“I watched you taking those photos this morning. It’s not the first time it’s happened I’m afraid. I suggest you just take this one as a straight swap.” She held out an ordinary looking travel card. “It’s got at least as much credit on it as that one. Or you could start using your contactless bank card and I could give you the cash for that one. Either way we need to put an end to all this silly distress you’re suffering - so unnecessarily.”
Somehow Karen trusted the woman. She didn’t know what she was talking about exactly but she did remember some very odd messages from the machine the last time she had topped up. She found she wanted to believe her. It seemed perfectly reasonable that swapping her card could restore her and the universe to sanity. She handed it over.
“Oh my goodness!” exclaimed her companion. “It isn’t even synced with this continuum. There must be constant readjustments, in both directions.” She opened her purse, tucked it hastily away and gave her the replacement.
“Anyway here you are.. Nothing wrong with this one, but I am required to tell you that I have lightly dusted it, a bit naughty of me but, honestly, considering what you must have been going through I don’t feel any guilt. It will reduce anxiety and produce a mild euphoria for a few hours. You are probably feeling the effects already. I can of course give you an undusted card if you prefer?” She looked at her inquiringly.
“No, that’s all right thank you,” said Karen decisively, suddenly very confident that she was doing the right thing. “Very well, then. I shall say goodbye and good luck.” She held out her hand and Karen shook it. “And our deepest apologies for the distress caused you by this frankly appalling error.”
She walked briskly away and was almost instantly lost in the crowd, which was odd considering her height, Karen realised, but she dismissed the thought.
She walked home in a curious mood, somewhere deeply, profoundly shaken but insulated against the shock, much more relaxed and cheerful than she should be - as the woman had said, a mild euphoria. She couldn’t bring herself to focus on what had happened - and she didn’t mind that at all.
Although the cocooning warmth had largely worn off by the morning, she no longer felt any deep concern about the time problems or the strange meeting; in fact she couldn’t quite explain to herself why she had taken the photos at the barrier or why they had so upset her; her whole obsessive anxiety about time was fading, like something safely tucked away in the distant past; things were back to normal.
She set off deliberately slightly late, got through the barrier at Goodge Street without a hint of dizziness and was gratified to see her beautifully timed arrival at 9.44 witnessed by several of the group, including her dance partner, Greg.
Her cautious self could go hang!