Now Reading
Fiction: “A Missed Subscription”

Fiction: “A Missed Subscription”

Nina Potischman.
Nina Potischman. “A Missed Subscription,” 2022. Digital.

Matty was in purgatory again, and it wasn’t even Sunday. As his eight ball fell into the north-east hole, he closed his eyes and wished he were somewhere beautiful. Or at least, someone.

“You’ve got the next round, mate!” Will said, squeezing Matty’s shoulders before re-stacking the billiards table. He had the hands of a former professional rugby player, incapable of doing anything lightly.

“I always do,” Matty said. His voice surrendered below cheers, gossip, and the clicks of cue sticks. Decent acoustics, echoes of lovelorn melodies and a state of awe spread throughout the room. The taphouse at happy hour seemed like a grand opera house during intermission. If you closed your eyes and stopped inhaling the smell of Heineken and hazelnuts for a minute, you could imagine it then. At least, Matty could. Before he unfortunately needed to breathe once again and so, inhaled the reality of his location. He opened his eyes.

Life always came back, didn’t it?

“That’s what happens when you’re the worst pool player in all of London. The black ball isn’t actually s’posed to fall in the hole first, mate,” Will said.

“Leave him ‘lone, Willy. You’re one to be talking,” Leo said.

Matty picked up the sunken black ball from the corner pocket and placed it in the center of the billiard table. Will spun it like a toy top.

It was Saturday night, and the underground pub was as dimly lit as a vigil Mass. Instead of a chapel’s incense and Murphy oil soap, it preserved the smell of stale peanuts and resinous trees, or a page removed from Esquire magazine—his father’s favorite. The old man used to tear out three cologne ads each month and collect them in his sock drawer, while his mother sang an early Beatles tune to herself in the kitchen. The rest of the issue was skimmed, then left on the back porch in a pile to be recycled. By morning, Matty and a red pen had devoured the too-thin Fiction section.

“I’m just trying to help a friend out,” Will said, his palms face up in resignation.

“Ah, right, thanks. I’ll try to remember that,” Matty replied. He gathered and racked the balls for the next game with Will and Leo.

In his childhood bedroom, there were numberless tallies engraved in gold Sharpie on the mahogany side of an empty bookcase. Five years later and his parents still forwarded the monthly subscription of The Economist to his new house, unaware of his preferred periodical, along with a brown bag of his mum’s irresistible oatmeal cookies that the guys consistently finished in less than an hour. Matty never had the guts to tell her he picked out the raisins.

It was funny, all the things he skipped over in what he’d imagined from his childhood bedroom. (His memories came back to him in the most inopportune times. Whenever he was in that bar, he was reminded of childhood. Maybe it was the smell.) In that room, he never envisioned a heaven or a place where dreams lived. He stared at the oak tree that bent towards his window. The branches were patient. Never wondering if time passed through them or against them. Never asking if time was more like water or wind. Death rarely crossed his mind back then. He only heard and hoped for a singular word that encompassed every feeling. Impermanence, perhaps. Some nights in the pub, he noticed the so-called life that he thought was still hiding from him. The walls were peeling. The football matches were interrupted by commercials for Kellog’s Corn Pops and Cadbury Creme Eggs.

With a little black comb from his back pocket, Matty smoothed the tangles of his dark brown hair. He picked up the tab and returned with four more pints, balanced between his two hands, while a rerun of a championship football game played behind a small screen. Cherry-colored cheeks and yellow teeth lingered around the billiard’s clean slate. Matty passed the cue to a stranger. Each man awaited his turn to strike the break shot, the savory sound of separation filling the crowded room.

“So what’s the plan for the weekend, boys?” Leo yelled.

“I say we hit Camden, then crawl on ‘til morning. And see who makes it to see the sun first,” Will said.

If we make it,” Matty corrected.

He took another drink. The subterranean burrow of the bar could have been nestled next to a pile of bodies. No one would know. Residual laughter across the room idled for a moment as a train car passed, shaking the tables and pool balls and every glass inside. The Piccadilly line ran so close to the tavern that Matty swore he could almost see the graffiti of the Tube’s tunnel seeping through the cheap wallpaper. The bartender paused while free-pouring a quarter shot from a bottle of brandy, the train rattling behind the wall.

Matty didn’t try to guess how many tablets of paracetamol the owner of the bar had to take after realizing that the earth-shattering noise would become routine in her pub. She told him that she bought the place after the King’s Cross Fire in ‘87. The line was under repair and out of service—she couldn’t have known it was right next door. No one believed her, no one believed that someone could buy a pub right beside the Piccadilly Line and not think that it might cause noise complaints from customers. Matty was the one who suggested she rebrand “Happy Hour” into “get a refund and a free drink if the Tube shakes the walls and spills your beer on accident.” However, in fine print it was written that the consumer had to prove it was the train that caused the spill by catching on video the still mug sitting on the table a moment before it was knocked over. Only Will had done it so far. Matty stopped trying months ago.

“How about whoever doesn’t make it back has to pay for next month’s rent?” Will said.

The boys moaned.

“Will, what a cheapo. Scrape your own rent. You went to Cambridge, didn’t ya?” Leo asked. “Oh wait, that’s right, he studied history.”

Will pounded his chest and took another shot of whiskey. “I know when to leave and when to stay in,” he sang, fudging the lyrics again. “You should know better than anyone, the past is all that there is, boys. At least, I hope so.”

That was easy to say when your paycheck was made out of your parents’ past, thought Matty. He didn’t say this.

“Get a real job, Will,” Leo said.

“Oh, piss off. None of that talk tonight. We’re on a mission this fair January evening. I’m going to learn the next lesson in the textbooks we’ve left behind at Uni. I’m going to find out what there is to remember and all that there is to forget. You can’t do that, Leopold, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.” Will so often spoke as if he were a Prime Minister with a never-ending term and a nasal infection.

Matty choked on a laugh and returned the glass to the mahogany counter. Leo rolled his eyes and they filed into a single line as the sounds behind them faded into that breathlike noise of the beginning of an evening. Matty took one last look around, inhaling the sweaty air of the underground pub, and followed them up the stairs, beneath a gold-rimmed clock, into another night.

A whiff of the sewage from the Thames made his eyes tear outside. When they opened again, he found himself in a countryside garden at sunset. He was lying on his back on wet grass, unsure if it was a memory or hallucination. The night had already begun. Had he gone backwards or too far ahead? The outline of faces and movements from the tavern became blurred and frosted with flakes of amnesia. The previous present just as well could have been a memory—it blended in politely with the rest of the weekends he’d spent with Leo and Will during Uni that had seemed to stretch four years into forever. The dawns never came on time anymore, but the same plans and pubs and parties all pretended to be a new adventure while the hours became a story he’d heard before. A light in the house turned on. Matty heard a voice and a bassline and walked through the garden towards the entryway steps.

He knew what he would find. In the same way one knows instinctively when a stranger is about to impart a secret—the breath drawn before the confession, giving it away more than any words possibly could. Yes, he knew about the dial in the garden, possibly before it had existed. It was irresistible. More than a warm buttered biscuit or a careless woman.

Between the hollyhocks and royal lilies, that silver glint caught his eye. It was a wristwatch. No numbers. On its surface, the name of each month was abbreviated and drawn in cursive letters with a golden gleam the same color as a pale lager. He stared into its glass face, alone in the garden, where his own brown eyes were reflected. They had been green once. Too many cups of coffee had converted them to their current state. Cream and sugar added sagging skin below. This is what his father said would happen. The mugs’ stains lingered on his mind. In college, he’d never even thought of purchasing a coaster. He didn’t believe his father anyway.

As he picked up the timepiece, a brand name he’d never heard before echoed in his head and transported itself from the gold engraving on the back of the exquisite antique into the membranous tissue of his cerebellum. The arrow spun from January to March.

“Matty! Fallen down the rabbit hole. Pick up the tab,” Will said. They were in a pub he didn’t recognize at first. Lurid green walls with black-and-white photos. Wine-filled glasses instead of pale pints. The fragrance of Damask rose and peony—his mother’s bottle of Miss Dior. He wondered if he was the only one who marveled at the way the colors and scents inside a bar changed with daylight, the way memories and conversations so often did.

Matty used to fear that he’d damned Uni to one night over the span of four years. He waited until graduation, when life thereafter would finally begin. Instead, he found himself with the same simulations of friends and contrived conversations and unanswered thoughts and Fridays out on the town, only no more exams. It was as if drunken nights had become the newest prescription everyone desired, or a chronic ailment that everyone despised. Perhaps, both.

“I need another,” Will announced.

“Get it yourself, for once,” he replied.

Matty closed his eyes. Rewinding in Eternal Recurrence was certainly one kind of forever but not the immortal kind he used to believe in. Paranoia and fixation felt like forgetting his jacket between a barhop. Once, back in Uni, he’d memorized the symptoms of neurosis just for fun and practiced them in his own body. But no one would diagnose him properly. He was too absentminded to be anxious and too far away in his head to know anyone at all, or to let them in.

Each Sunday morning at Cambridge, when he reached purgatory, he never knew if he’d made it to the other side. The campus chapel’s bell tolled—God’s gong struck within his head. 20 minutes to 9, every time.

He checked the watch. The single hand still pointed to March. His fingers traced the golden letters again and wandered to the crown upon the side of its face. Will started the next game of pool. The walls were peeling. Matty took a sip of Cabernet, then moved the arrow to May.

Crumbs from a cookie fell onto his polo shirt as the kitchen light flickered above. The only bulb left on in the manor. Again, he was unsure of how he arrived home. If anyone drove by, they’d see two Mattys—a single silhouette in a dim room staring at himself in a mirror. The silence was unusual. Will’s Cadillac was missing from the driveway, with skid marks replacing its shadow. He dipped the cookie into a glass of milk while instinctively checking his watch and biting around the raisins. He’d forgotten the new one wasn’t the numerical type. Searching for a clock, he saw Will’s autographed poster of The Clash duct-taped onto the kitchen wall. Not one band member smiled. The bassist was in the middle of a yawn. Their eyes looked lonely, faces grim, signatures boring. Did they know they were stuck inside a frame too?

He poured more almond milk and drained the glass.

The metal ridges of the watch scraped the skin between Matty’s thumb and index, and without realizing, his fingers spun the dial towards the bottom of the circle so that the arrow pointed to his chest: July.

On a train, a thin girl sat across from him reading the largest book he’d ever seen while a teacup rattled in their corridor coach.

“Excuse me, Miss, where are we going?” he asked.

“Darling,” she said with a laugh. “Don’t be silly. Go back to sleep.” Her blonde bangs held some of the sun’s amber light. The rest of the rays pierced through a crack in their vertical blinds. And it all felt quite like a movie, just before the tragedy occurred.

“Sorry, Miss, I’m quite serious. I don’t know where I am.”

“Stop with the jokes, Matty. It’s not funny. We’re on our way to Castle Combe to see my parents. It’s their 25th anniversary this weekend, I told you. They keep texting to see how close we are,” she said. Her phone was on the seat beside her, face down. Beneath the trolley table, black high heels crossed over each other, turning her ankles into the delicate shape of a heart. “They can’t wait to finally meet you.”

“Oh, right,” Matty said. “Must have just been drowsy then.”

He leaned his head back and stared into the train’s ceiling. He almost asked for the girl’s name before his own came bustling back to him, realizing he’d lost it for a moment. A few minutes later, his eyes fell closed, and the girl leaned across the table to kiss his forehead. In the windowpane, Matty squinted to see his reflection now stained with a set of burgundy lips above his eyebrows. He ran his fingers through the tousled hair; his left wrist felt heavier than usual and something cold stung his skin. The watch stared back into his eyes almost as if it had irises of its own. Then his fingers moved again, involuntarily like they had before, and turned the numinous dial three months forward.

With a rush, that old state of loneliness returned. The background light went back to normal—pale blue and dark purple.

Where was he now? The smell of barley flowed through his brain. Drowsiness in late afternoon. But it was the middle of the night. He was lying in the empty garden again, behind the house where cherry and vanilla and cigarette smoke fused—reminding him of the taste of the newest Coca-Cola flavor, or the lips of the first girl he had ever kissed. The grass was dry. The porch was bare. He wasn’t sure why he’d expected a pile of magazines to be waiting for him. And he didn’t remember ever placing the watch onto his wrist. Still it sat there with the hand almost through its rotation. Maybe this time, he should wait. February had disappeared along with the girl from July. And he’d already missed spring and summer. His birthday had passed in August. He tried to rewind the dial back to June, but the crown wouldn’t budge.

He went into the house, relieved himself, and while washing his hands, noticed through the mirror that the lipstick stain was gone. Matty had no memory of wiping it off with a cloth. He never had the intention of removing it at all because he liked the way it looked—the scarlet sketch of a foreign letter. In the living room, he found Leo lying on the couch.

“Hey, Matty. Glad you got back okay.”

“Sure, sure. Say, where were we again?” Matty asked.

“Brixton. Bollocks, have you forgotten already?”

“Ah, yes. Well, it’s goin’ to be a rough morning, I bet.”
“It always is, mate,” Leo said. “Mind grabbing me a beer from the fridge?”

“Sure.” Matty walked to the kitchen and switched on a light. The walls were empty. “What happened to Will’s poster?”

“The same thing that happened to Will. Geez, what are you on tonight?”

Matty was silent, staring into the blank space. “Leo, can I ask you something?”


“Take a look at this watch. I found it the other day. Could you tell me if there’s anything strange about it?”

“The one you wear every night?” Leo asked. “Hand it over. I’ve been ogling it for months. You’re not superstitious or anything, are you?”

Matty shook his head, hesitantly placing the watch on the table. Leo picked it up instantly and turned it in his hands, then drew it close to his ear as if it was a seashell holding the echo of the tide.

“Bloody hell. There’s no escapement,” Leo said.

“There’s no what?”

“Escapement. The mechanism inside every watch that translates rotational energy into impulses, which causes the forward motion in the gears. It’s impossible to work without one. This watch should be unwinding endlessly.”

“How do you know?” Matty asked.

“Listen,” Leo said and handed the watch back to its owner. “No ticking.”

Matty walked outside, into the garden, and sat on top of his hands that were tempted to scratch the mosquito bite on his right thigh. It was a beautiful night, after all. He thought that he might as well stay outside to watch the sun appear. He’d wait for the sobriety he didn’t know he needed and for a way out of this mess of a time frame. In the morning, he may even find that girl again. As he leaned back, he inhaled the pulp of morning air and felt a fine sleeping crust surround his eyes. The colors in the sky changed from shadows to a pastel pink to the army green that resembled the ocean in the rain.

When the sky was blue, he walked back inside.

“What’s the time, Leo?”

“About 20 to 9. You were out there all night?”

“Guess so.” He went to his room. The watch’s metal suddenly stung his arm, and he tried to pry it off but no luck. His fingers moved to the gold crown. December.

Matty opened his eyes, standing in a tunnel of the Tube. The train was coming. He could feel its hum on the rails. The smell of soggy toilet paper emanated while underground. A trumpet player near the station laughed behind a mouthpiece. The speaker down the line announced that the Piccadilly was to arrive in two minutes.

Matty ran towards the sound and slipped on the rail where his right ankle twisted, then fell on his back, paralyzed. His hands rested behind him, his scarred fingers traced the gold paint of a graffiti artist’s tag on the tunnel’s wall—a name recognized in tallies in lieu of letters. They seemed to be counting down the seconds as the train was nearing. They were identical to the ones he’d engraved into his parents’ bookcase as a homeschooled child. He placed his ear against the cold stonewall. He thought he could hear Will’s voice, just on the other side. He thought he could hear his name and the clash of pool balls on a green Elysian Field. Maybe taste a raisin in an oatmeal cookie he pretended to love, while his mum sang a repeated refrain of “Love Me Do” and made him a cup of black tea. Listening close, he knew he was in purgatory again. But that familiar feeling returned, when yesterday sounded like tomorrow and he couldn’t tell you which word death hid within. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe it was just the underground echo.

With nothing to lose but another missed subscription of a cheap magazine (presumably The Economist), Matty lifted his arm and turned the watch’s dial, again. January. He opened his eyes and saw that decaying mahogany bookcase from his childhood that he knew so well. His hands still cold, his fingers still stained in burgundy. The destination he’d longed for all along. He looked out the window. Perhaps, he had fallen backwards and bumped his head. The smell of oatmeal raisin cookies rose from his mother’s oven downstairs. Perhaps, he had fallen backwards and woken up as a young boy once again. Someone yelled his name. A woman’s voice, young and loud, definitely not his mother’s, called him twice from below. Then, the beautiful girl from July walked in.

“Matty, everyone is waiting. You must get up, what are you doing in the kids’ room? We’ve got to go, we’ll be late now,” she said.

He looked out the window. Everyone was waiting for him, she repeated. The young woman had a ring on her finger and watched him expectantly.

“Aren’t you coming?” she asked.

“I’ll be right there,” he said. She sighed and left the room, leaving the door half open. Matty unlatched the watch from his wrist, easily this time, and set the piece on the windowsill.

Perhaps he had fallen in love too at some point, he thought. But he couldn’t be sure. Even his own memory had learned to keep secrets from him.

This piece is a part of a month long fiction and poetry series curated by literary editor Nina Potischman.

You May Also Like:

New York – Time by Boetti: Libri Rossi on view at Valli Art Gallery through November 10th, 2018

What's Your Reaction?
In Love
Not Sure
Scroll To Top