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The Music Is Reversible

But Time Is Not

By Steven Christopher McKnightPublished about a month ago 6 min read
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The Music Is Reversible
Photo by Ed Phillips on Unsplash

I met a man who lived his life all backwards. The last day I saw him, he’d let me keep my bags behind the desk at the hotel, even after checkout, because my ferry left at 2, and there was still so much of Stornoway I wanted to see.

“You can’t rightly enjoy yourself on the castle grounds if you’re lugging a fifty-kilo suitcase behind you the whole time,” said the backwards man, a clerk at the County, and I couldn’t not agree. When I collected my bags later, he told me knowingly that I had a good time, that I was able to say goodbye to one of the little vacation-companions I’d tend to make, and then he told me that when I go to Glasgow—not if, when—that I should check out the Necropolis.

“Oh,” said I, “have you been?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said the backwards man with a wink, and the woman beside him at the County check-in counter rolled her eyes as if to say, “Not this again, Maurice.”

I did enjoy the Necropolis. I wish we celebrated death the same way these days.

***

Everything is closed on the Isle of Lewis on those pensive Sundays, a holdover from the isle’s Calvinist Protestant roots. Every time a local would explain it, they’d bring up, “Back in the day, you couldn’t even put the washing out on a Sunday without the neighbors talking about it.” It rained all day that day, and I chose to stay in my hotel room and write if I could. I couldn’t, and feeling myself falling into the rabbit hole of whatever time-wasting vices I’d had at the moment, and finding myself jarred out of that authorial reverie whenever I could fall into it by the clanging of church bells all around the town, I checked the time. The hotel bar would serve three modest meals a day at least, while everything else had shut its doors.

The backwards man was the only one working that day. He introduced himself as Maurice, the first time I’d heard his name since coming to this hotel. But that was neither here nor there. The hotel bar was empty this noontime. Tourists cleared out on Sundays, took the frugal ferries back to the mainland, and the hotel was in the middle of some kind of rebirth as a result. In a day, there’d be new characters in the rooms. I felt like a sitcom character.

“I have a theory,” said Maurice as I wolfed down the modest sandwich he’d given me. I nodded at him, my mouth full, my elbows on the counter, my feet dangling helplessly off the bar stool on the other side of the dark wooden counter. “Go on,” I wanted to say.

“My theory is,” continued the backwards man, “on prophecy, and the gift or curse of it.” He shrugged. “Imagine, if you will, walking headlong into a strong gust of wind.”

I imagined.

“And to move forward, you brace yourself, right? You plant your feet, lock your knees, zip up a big, billowy coat so it won’t open up like a parachute and throw you back.” I took a bite of my sandwich. “And,” added Maurice, “when the wind blows you back, sends you careening into the past, that’s when you get a glimpse of the future.”

“I don’t follow the metaphor,” said I between mouthfuls.

“Yes. It’s unclear.” He cleared his throat. “Time flows in two directions, not one, through the man. Always stronger forwards than backwards. And to some people the past, carved out by a strong flow forward, is so entrenched that they cannot imagine something-” Maurice paused. “I’m losing the metaphor again.”

“It’s okay,” said I. “Take your time.”

“I’ve already lost it.”

There was some silence between us.

“If you’re looking for something to do today,” said Maurice, “you can always attend church.”

I let out a brief, sardonic laugh which I’d hoped expressed the firm stance of hopeless agnosticism I’d adopted the past few years. “I don’t think I will.” A pause. “Everyone in Stornoway is off today. Why are you out here working on the Sabbath?”

“Let’s just say, I’ve met God before,” said Maurice, his eyes glistening with prophecy. “I didn’t like what I saw.”

***

Saturday is my first full day in Stornoway. I spend the early morning taking a pensive walk along the water, watching the Sun rise from wherever it rises from. The air is cold and misty. People have told me Stornoway would be like this, even in early August, but I hadn’t expected it to be quite like this. Locals tend to embellish, like I embellish the potholes and the winters from where I come from. I realize that breakfast is being served at the hotel and, retracing my steps, I find myself back at that hotel bar.

Tourists mill about the hotel’s restaurant, and I know I’m one of them, but I don’t want to feel like one of them, like my trip here has more profound meaning than seeing some sights and snapping some photographs. I look for petty differences between me and the people around me. None of them are American, I note. I hear some snippets of French, Italian, something Slavic, and some crisp London accents, but nothing remotely American. Also, I’m on a stool at the hotel bar. Everyone else is on couches or sitting at tables. Not me. I’m above them.

The backwards man places a plate in front of me loaded up with bacon, sausage, eggs, fried tomatoes, beans. Not sure why beans are a breakfast food out here. I spurn them.

“Was that you listening to ELO this morning?” asks the backwards man.

“Oh. Maybe a little,” I say, thinking back to my morning routine. “Did I bother you?”

“No,” said he. “No.” He pauses. “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back, turn back, turn back, turn back.”

“Pardon?”

“That’s what the backwards-talk is saying in Fire On High,” he explains. “I’ve always been very good at picking up backwards-speak.”

“Oh,” says I. “Interesting.”

“Not just backwards-speak. I’m very good at finding Satanic messages in those old rock songs. In Another One Bites the Dust, Freddie Mercury sings that it’s fun to smoke marijuana, but only if you listen to it in reverse, and no normal person would do that willingly.”

***

I’ll arrive in Stornoway on Friday after twelve hours of travel up from Edinburgh. Trains, buses, boats, the whole nine yards. My knees will hurt, my feet may bleed, but I’ll be there, in Stornoway, checking into the County Hotel, greeted by the plump and friendly face of a man in a crisp-ironed blue button-down and a nametag that reads, “Hello! My name is: Maurice.”

“Good evening, Mr. Jackson,” Maurice will say without even checking the guestbook, and he’ll hand me my room key and direct me to my door. His voice will droop a little bit, but I’ll just imagine that’s how they sound on Lewis.

My room will overlook the old country church courtyard across the street. My bed will be small, but I’m small, so it will all work out. I’ll wonder for a moment why hotels all have that same color scheme of off-white and deep maroon. Hides the blood-and-cum-stains, I’ll conclude, and then I’ll check for the Wi-Fi. One network, secured, with no password listed anywhere in the room. So I’ll descend the regal staircase of the County Hotel to ask Maurice, in classic young-person fashion, “You got the Wi-Fi password?”

He’ll look at me sadly and say, “Why do we celebrate births and mourn deaths?” And I’ll blink a couple of times as if he hadn’t just asked me that.

“Because,” I’ll conclude, “one’s a beginning and one’s an ending.”

“But,” the backwards man will add, “if you look at time from its mirror, if you look at time backwards, death is the beginning and birth is the ending. Or maybe they’re just both ends. Like a string. Two ends of a string, two ends of a life.”

“Well, we don’t experience time backwards. Can I get the—”

“You don’t.” Maurice will sigh. “On the other end of things, the womb is just another tomb where we decompose in a whole new way. My nephew was born today. I’d forgotten entirely. Had I known, I’d’ve been there, but— The video—”

“I’m… so sorry?”

“He kept crying.” Maurice will look at you with a thousand-year-young gaze and say, “I cried my whole birth, too, you know. I just didn’t want it to end.”

Thank you so much for reading! Please remember to leave a like, and if you want to help me never have to work again, consider reading some of my other articles. Here's a short story about a boy who's electric!

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About the Creator

Steven Christopher McKnight

Disillusioned twenty-something, future ghost of a drowned hobo, cryptid prowling abandoned operahouses, theatre scholar, prosewright, playwright, aiming to never work again.

Venmo me @MickTheKnight

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Comments (2)

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  • The Writer about a month ago

    Beautiful !!!

  • Rachel Deemingabout a month ago

    This is a curious tale with the enigmatic Maurice and the atmospheric setting. It leaves me with many questions, like an unsettling encounter, which is not a criticism but my observation as a reader. Sort of Twin Peaks meets Wicker Man.

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