This is a story that was published originally by the most excellent K.C. Ball waaay back in 2009. It was the premier issue of 10Flash Quarterly, an excellent but sadly short-lived venue for themed flash fiction. The theme for the premier was “librarian on vacation in a foreign land.” Being invited to write for it was one of the cooler moments of my writing life.
The story was inspired, if I recall correctly, primarily by the very real Church of St. Anne, a clock tower with four clock faces, each of which is slightly off from the others.
Reprints are a tough sell and I haven’t had much luck with it, so it’s just sitting in my Dropbox gathering dust. I thought I’d reprint it here for your amusement. I have one more from 10Flash that I’ll post next week.
By Alexander Burns
Bridger Durnin adjusted his spectacles and squinted through a tangle of gears and pulleys. Beyond the jumble of brass, steam hissed from a broken valve.
“That’s your problem, sire.” The engineer wiped greasy hands with an even dirtier rag. “No way she’ll go above, say, forty feet with that leak. Take us a while to get through that bloody rat’s nest, but we’ll get her fixed up. We’ll tighten up the wings, too, they are a bit loose.”
Bridger sighed. “Ah, well, my lodging is across the city-”
“Pop on over across the street,” the engineer suggested. “Have a pint. I’ll send someone over when we’re done.”
As frustrated as he was, Bridger was happy to step out of the hot cacophony of the machine shop. The cobbled streets of London were little better. Boiler cars huffed through the street, dodging autocyclists and throngs of pedestrians, with little regard for life or limb. Balloons and aerial steamers drifted through the smoggy sky. To the east, the Battersea Power Plant belched greasy columns of smoke.
Bridger dodged traffic to reach the pub across the street from the machine shop. Inside he found a cramped chair at a small table by the window. Other patrons jostled him as they moved past and glared as though he were at fault. He sipped lukewarm beer and flipped through a book from his satchel.
A young woman with dense red curls lurched against his table. She stammered an apology as she regained her balance.
“Is it okay?” She slid into the empty seat without waiting for an answer. Bridger winced as their knees collided beneath a table barely large enough for his hat. The woman was slender, almost too thin to be healthy, but quite attractive. Bridger took a deep breath, unaccustomed to chatting with women in pubs.
“Where are you from, girl?” he asked, doing his best to keep his voice steady. He hid a gulp by sipping his beer. Her locks glowed in the diffuse light by the window.
“Caherdavin, boy.” She emphasized the affectation with an Irish lilt.
Bridger smiled. “I’m from Cork! Always good to meet someone from home.”
“Cork is beautiful. When I was a little girl, I rang the bells at St. Anna’s.”
“With deep affection and recollection/I oft times think of those Shandon bells,” Bridger said.
“Whose sound so wild would in the days of childhood,/Fling round my cradle their magic spells,” she sang. Her eyes grew distant for a moment before refocusing on him. “I’m Allanah.”
“Bridger.” He raised his glass. “I work at the library in Cork.”
“So you don’t memorize poetry just to charm young women, like.”
“Oh, no! I just-”
“Easy there,” she soothed. Her eyes lingered on his book a moment before wandering back to her glass. “You’re familiar with the four faces of the clock on Shandon tower?”
“Aye, the Four-Faced Liar. They don’t quite line up, do they? Never know which one is telling the right time. Some of that fine Gaelic engineering for you.”
“I used to think that was so strange,” she murmured.
Bridger didn’t know what to make of her statement. He gestured to the smoggy skies outside the window. “I’m here on holiday,” he said, “Afraid my aerocopter didn’t handle it very well. The air is a bit thicker here.”
Allanah frowned. “You shouldn’t be using those things. Your time is as polluted as your clouds.” She jerked her head toward the book. “What are you reading, like?”
Bridger shrugged and avoided eye contact out of embarrassment. “Oh, just an old mechanic’s book. Steam engines and boilers.” He turned the page to a convoluted motor schematic. “I’ve never taken my ‘copter out of town, so I brought this in case something went wrong. Thought maybe I could fix it if something happened. Silly.”
Allanah flipped to the inside cover and peered at the library card. She sighed. “‘Tis as I feared. Look.” She traced a finger up the list of previous date stamps.
Bridger fidgeted with his glasses and studied the blurry ink. June 14, 1897. May 31, 1896. June 23, 1896. January 20, 1895. Bridger frowned. The latest, his own due date, he’d stamped himself before leaving home: July 12, 1893, a week hence.
“Seems something went wrong with the stamps…” he said.
“No mistake,” said Allanah. “This book hasn’t even been published yet. It’s become unbound in time, wandering whenever it pleases.” She slammed the book shut. “It’s those damned clocks again,” she muttered, her voice so low that Bridger could barely hear. Allanah stood and tucked the book beneath one arm.
“Now wait a moment!” Bridger cried. “That book belongs to the Corcaigh Leabharlanna!” He attempted to lunge across the table, but his jacket caught on the windowsill. Allanah leaned over to pat his cheek.
“It does indeed, boy,” she whispered. “But not yet. Don’t worry, I’ll get all this fixed up. Again.” Before an astonished Bridger could make another move, Allanah spun and shouldered her way through the crowd.
Bridger leapt up and shoved his way through the pub. He staggered to a halt on the sidewalk, casting his gaze up and down the street.
A few people nodded in greeting as they strolled past, and a handful of carts and wagons squeaked across the cobblestones. A black kite soared through a beautiful evening sky as the sun drooped low in the horizon. To the east, St Paul’s Cathedral towered over the city.
“Lovely night, sire,” a passing coach driver called as he pulled his carriage to a stop. “Look like you might need a ride.”
Bridger frowned and stared at the driver, trying to remember what he’d just been so worried over. A rapidly fading image of a beautiful girl danced behind his eyes, then was gone. He reached into his satchel before remembering he hadn’t brought a book for holiday. “Yes, actually,” he said to the driver. “Westminster. I understand they have a fine library there.”