The past has a sepia tint. The streets, the grass, the air: it’s coloured in shades of brown, in the past. People forgot that, once the past was passed. But those who lived there, those who hoarded the seconds to examine in some future moment, never forgot that. They could see it all around them, taste it in the air.
Some were collectors, putting time into individual glass jars with a neatly printed label. They would keep their moments on dusty shelves, each individually catalogued in an equally dusty tome. Rarely was the book consulted, even rarer were the shelves visited, but it gave a certain sense of contentment to know that at any moment, they could be. Should the need arise, the past could be relived, and that surety allowed them to continue on in the present.
Some were merely tourists, taking in the sights and sounds of another’s memories without ever understanding the culture, the nuances. They would wander in, dragging the dusty colours of future time in on their clothing, and take a flash-frame photograph of the event for their album. Sometimes the photographs would be re-examined later, sometimes the film would never be developed. Whichever, at least they could say that they were there.
Arnold Lee was neither of those. He lived in the past, yes. He breathed in its sepia-dust, yes, but he breathed out something different. He breathed out life, colour, vitality: he breathed out the future.
He watched: teams of builders all raised their hammers in seeming perfect synchrony, beads of sweat glistening in the sepia sunlight. On his command - his - each hammer swung down, connecting with the sepia masonry, rending the sepia brickwork. The building was so old - so steeped in history - that its walls were like the thinnest parchment. The heavy heads broke through the bricks, bursting them into dust that flew into the air and masked the rubble from sight. But once the dust settled, each wound in the ancient building would let through the most glorious light, the most brilliant colour.
Each blow brought the future one moment nearer.
‘Oh dear,’ someone sighed mournfully behind him, and Lee found himself in a panic.
His first thought was that something had gone wrong, that somehow one of the mighty hammers had missed in its pendulous motion, and somehow the future was still trapped inside the building’s dusty frame. As his eyes danced over the building site he could see no wrong. Each hammer fell as if triggered by the fall of the last.
Within moments, the crumbling ruin would be nothing but a seed bed for the new. No, there was nothing wrong.
Everything was as it should be.
Except somebody said again:
‘Oh dear oh dear,’
Lee couldn’t help himself: he spun around on the gathered crowd.
‘Is something wrong?’ he asked sharply.
A small man with a puppy-dog face gave him a mournful gaze. His fingers were dancing excitedly in a pristine white handkerchief, even as he let his deep blue eyes return to the building site. The hammers still fell, one after the other.
‘Oh dear, I’m so sorry,’ he said, his unruly mop of thick black hair shaking even as he swayed in apology, ‘I didn’t mean to interrupt. It just seems quite sad, doesn’t it? Such a fine old building, knocked down in her prime.’
Of course, Lee was disgusted.
Lee looked at him. No, no: Lee glared at him. Fire danced in his eyes: he fancied - just briefly - that he could see the little man’s black frock coat smoulder under the intense heat of it, the pin holding his bow tie together melting into water.
‘That building,’ he snapped, letting his finger point in a most ungentlemanly fashion, ‘is a monstrosity. Have you even seen the detailing around the windows? Mock Tudor? What did the Tudors ever know about building pubs anyway? That disgrace should’ve been torn down the second it was built. No, no, it should have been left until today so that when people see my arcade they’ll realise just what should’ve been there all along. That thing is the past. This is the future.’
Lee’s arm swung: his hand barely poked out of his striped blazer as his thin fingers pointed to the sign: Howkins’ Arcade, opening soon. Below the sign, an artist’s impression - a glory of steel and glass. Lee beamed proudly.
‘Oh dear,’ the little man sighed again, and turned on his heels and left.
Lee watched him go, trying his damnedest to keep his jaw tight shut.
Some people, he decided, just lived in the past.