Nixon had never been to this part of town before. It was sunny though cold, and the snow on the ground glistened as though each flake were catching the light at a slightly different angle. It was pretty, but he worried that he ought to have worn warmer clothes. In his neighbourhood, the weather stayed fresh and warm, not too humid and not too arid. Dry warmth, no need for a light under the hearth, or for one overhead during the night. Fire was something he hadn’t seen, in fact, for years.
Nixon pulled out his cell phone and dialled the only number he could remember. It rang, then it rang some more. When no one answered, he flipped the lid shut and put the phone back into his pocket. He stumbled as he did this, his heel slipping on the ice beneath the snow beneath his feet. The sidewalk was covered in powder, and just to keep his footing in his soft brown loafers took an inordinate amount of effort. Underneath the glinting snow, itself a reflection of the sun half-obscured in the mid-morning sky, were the fossils that this town’s climate left behind—slates of ice then tarmac, concrete then sediment.
Nixon couldn’t recall how he had reached this part of town. He knew that there were buses and trains that came here, but the last time he had seen one running was… well, a long time ago. Weeks? Years? Perhaps it was only yesterday. Time seemed neither to fly nor crawl. The buildings were non-descript grey cubes, the kind that always seemed dirty in spite of themselves. This must be a horrible place to live, thought
Nixon, looking up at plexi-glass windows and reflections of clouds. Behind the cube on the other side of the street he caught a glimpse of a potential rain shower; he reckoned that it was a mile or two away and it seemed to be heading this way. Surrounded by clear blue skies he could make out the edges of the cloud, multicoloured and intent on pouring its contents onto whomever was unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. “Would you look at that,” he muttered. There was of course no one there who might hear, let alone reply, to
Nixon. He was alone on the sidewalk, no cars in the street, just the snow and the light and the dirty concrete for company. He considered pulling out his cell phone again but thought better of it. A moment later he wondered whether he had really just said anything at all. By now he had reached the end of the block and, climbing off the snow onto the zebra-striped crosswalk, he tripped and fell, feet slipping backward, body tipping forward on his toes until his elbows, half-braced for the fall, struck the concrete.
Nixon felt hands under his arms, felt his body being lifted from the ground. He didn’t know how long, or indeed if, he’d been unconscious. Time had crawled, then flown, then rewound like a garbled magnetic tape until his senses were so entangled that he was sure that he could hear the clouds, feel words being spoken in his absence and taste the man who was dragging him carelessly to his feet. “Well,
Nixon, it is you.” The words now sounded in his ears. “So yours was the missed call that I so nearly received.”
Nixon’s vision resolved from snowy static to high definition. He recognised his saviour, the young man with the thin black moustache and curled hair, a severe upper lip and an icy look behind his eyes. He mumbled a “hello George” followed shortly by a “much obliged”, and Lord Byron bowed curtly in response. They hobbled across to the other side of the street and found a conveniently located bench. Byron swept dramatically with his left hand until most of the snow fell to the ground and they sat. He pinched his eyebrows at the bridge of his nose and asked
Nixon: “what is your business, my friend, in this part of the world?”
Nixon replied: “I wanted to… get out a little, stretch my head.” Byron glanced at
Nixon, thought for a moment, and said: “The snow lies still. There is little to see in this vicinity, and from experience I advise that you head home.”
Nixon looked up, the blue of the skies now interrupted by a giant figure-eight cloud, sparkling beautifully with colours that he could never hope to explain with his limited vocabulary, no matter how often time spooled back and re-hit the play button. “In any case it is about to rain, a hard rain here as any I’ve seen,” warned his companion. Byron rose and jaunted across the street, the outline of his figure turning to static.
Nixon stared up into the cloud above him, hovering like a huge ball of cotton candy over the street. Its underside was full of what looked like enlarged pinpricks, points in black and silver protruding from the multicoloured nimbostratus. Here and there he could make out splashes of solid colour, pieces of what looked very much like silk. He thought perhaps a freak storm had pulled someone’s washing line into the sky to form a ball of precipitous clothing, but he couldn’t make out exactly what was up there, what exactly was inside this thing. Standing up,
Nixon took several steps until he was in the middle of the street, directly beneath the figure-eight cloud. The pinpricks were growing in size, the strips of silk too. One by one the black and silver nubs popped from out of the cloud, and as they fell there spread from the centre of each pinpoint a circle of coloured material in silky plastic. A second, and a third, then many more fell, each expanding from a pinprick of colour into a fully opened umbrella, each falling now toward
Nixon’s head. One, red and blue and shining in the midday light, landed by his feet, tip first. Another had left its sky-bound vessel sideways, flapping in the air like a dying bird, its handle a beak turning counter-clockwise as though telling
Nixon that time was running backwards, that the cuckoo clock was truly broken. Soon umbrellas were thumping him carelessly on the head, on the shoulders, scratching at his face and hands before bouncing to the ground. Cupping his hands around his eyes in makeshift goggles,
Nixon ran across the street out from under the cloud and then looked up, straining to see into the cloud, through the cloud. It was,
Nixon realised, as though for the first time, raining umbrellas. A figure, hazy behind the precipitation, seemed to be ascending from some place at the centre of the thing, batting umbrellas out of its way. Then, at the top of the cloud a head popped out, calling down to
Nixon in a strange accent. “I do apolojise, sir.” Beneath the bowler hat a man in his 60s smiled sadly. “We each are choosing a different mode of transporte in this place. I ‘ope you do not ‘old this against me.”
Nixon gazed at the bowler-hatted man as he drew on the pipe in his left hand. He looked over the multi-coloured cloud, and down at the foot-high stack of umbrellas on the snowy street. He said, “very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Magritte. My name is Richard