of Other Days
by Bob Shaw
by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. Originally appeared in Analog.
Copyright 1994 by Bob Shaw
Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into
a land of slow glass.
I had never seen one of the farms before and at first found them slightly
eerie—an effect heightened by imagination and circumstance. The car's turbine
was pulling smoothly and quietly in the damp air so that we seemed to be
carried over the convolutions of the road in a kind of supernatural silence. On
our right the mountain sifted down into an incredibly perfect valley of
timeless pine, and everywhere stood the great frames of slow glass, drinking
light. An occasional flash of afternoon sunlight on their wind bracing created
an illusion of movement, but in fact the frames were deserted. The rows of
windows had been standing on the hillside for years, staring into the valley,
and men only cleaned them in the middle of the night when their human presence
would not matter to the thirsty glass.
They were fascinating, but Selina and I didn't
mention the windows. I think we hated each other so much we both were reluctant
to sully anything new by drawing it into the nexus of our emotions. The
holiday, I had begun to realize, was a stupid idea in the first place. I had
thought it would cure everything, but, of course, it didn't stop Selina being pregnant and, worst still, it didn't even stop
her being angry about being pregnant.
Rationalizing our dismay over her condition, we had circulated the usual
statements to the effect that we would have liked having children—but
later on, at the proper time. Selina's pregnancy had
cost us her well-paid job and with it the new house we had been negotiating and
which was far beyond the reach of my income from poetry. But the real source of
our annoyance was that we were face to face with the realization that people
who say they want children later always mean they want children never. Our nevers were thrumming with the knowledge that we, who had
thought ourselves so unique, had fallen into the same biological trap as every
mindless rutting creature which ever existed.
The road took us along the southern slopes of Ben Cruachan
until we began to catch glimpses of the gray
"Why have we stopped?" Selina's neat,
smoke-silver head turned in surprise.
"Look at that sign. Let's go up and see what there is. The stuff might
be reasonably priced out here."
Selina's voice was pitched high with scorn as she
refused, but I was too taken with my idea to listen. I had an illogical
conviction that doing something extravagant and crazy would set us right again.
"Come on," I said, "the exercise might do us some good. We've
been driving too long anyway."
She shrugged in a way that hurt me and got out of the car. We walked up a
path made of irregular, packed clay steps nosed with short lengths of sapling.
The path curved through trees which clothed the edge of the hill and at its end
we found a low farmhouse. Beyond the little stone building tall frames of slow glass
gazed out towards the voice-stilling sight of Cruachan's
ponderous descent towards the waters of
As we approached the house through a neat cobbled yard a tall middle-aged
man in ash-colored tweeds arose and waved to us. He had been sitting on the low
rubble wall which bounded the yard, smoking a pipe and staring towards the
house. At the front window of the cottage a young woman in a tangerine dress
stood with a small boy in her arms, but she turned uninterestedly and moved out
of sight as we drew near.
"Mr. Hagan?" I guessed.
"Correct. Come to see some glass, have you? Well, you've come to the
right place." Hagan spoke crisply, with traces of the pure highland accent
which sounds so much like Irish to the unaccustomed ear. He had one of those
calmly dismayed faces one finds on elderly road-menders and philosophers.
"Yes," I said. "We're on holiday. We saw your sign."
Selina, who usually has a natural fluency with
strangers, said nothing. She was looking towards the now empty window with what
I thought was a slightly puzzled expression.
I laughed. "Does that mean we might be able to buy a little glass
without mortgaging our home?"
"Look at that now," Hagan said, smiling helplessly. "I've
thrown away any advantage I might have had in the transaction. Rose, that's my
wife, says I never learn. Still, let's sit down and talk it over." He
pointed at the rubble wall, then glanced doubtfully at
Selina's immaculate blue skirt. "Wait till I
fetch a rug from the house." Hagan limped quickly into the cottage,
closing the door behind him.
"Perhaps it wasn't such a marvelous idea to come up here," I
whispered to Selina, "but you might at least be
pleasant to the man. I think I can smell a bargain."
"Some hope," she said with deliberate coarseness. "Surely
even you must have noticed that ancient dress his wife is wearing! He won't
give much away to strangers."
"Was that his wife?"
"Of course that was his wife."
"Well, well," I said, surprised. "Anyway, try to be civil
with him. I don't want to be embarrassed."
Selina snorted, but she smiled whitely when Hagan
reappeared and I relaxed a little. Strange how a man can love a woman and yet
at the same time pray for her to fall under a train.
Hagan spread a tartan blanket on the wall and we sat down, feeling slightly
self-conscious at having been translated from our city-oriented lives into a
rural tableau. On the distant slate of the
"Some of the glass farmers around here," Hagan began, "give
strangers, such as yourselves, a sales talk about how
beautiful the autumn is in this part of Argyll. Or it might be the spring or
the winter. I don't do that—any fool knows that a place which doesn't look right in the summer never looks right. What do
I nodded compliantly.
"I want you just to take a good look out towards
"Two hundred!" Selina
was shocked. "That's as much as they charge at the Scenedow
Hagan smiled patiently, then looked closely at me
to see if I knew enough about slow glass to appreciate what he had been saying.
His price had been much higher than I had hoped—but ten years thick! The
cheap glass one found in places like the Vistaplex
and Pane-o-rama stores usually consisted of a quarter
of an inch of ordinary glass faced with a veneer of slow glass perhaps only ten
or twelve months thick.
"You don't understand, darling," I said, already determined to
buy. "This glass will last ten years and it's in phase."
"Doesn't that only mean it keeps time?"
Hagan smiled at her again, realizing he had no further necessity to bother
with me. "Only, you say! Pardon me, Mrs. Garland, but you don't seem to
appreciate the miracle, the genuine honest-to-goodness miracle, of engineering
precision needed to produce a piece of glass in phase. When I say the glass is
ten years thick it means it takes light ten years to pass through it. In
effect, each one of those panes is ten light-years thick—more than twice the
distance to the nearest star—so a variation in actual thickness of only a
millionth of an inch would …"
He stopped talking for a moment and sat quietly looking towards the house. I
turned my head from the view of the
The girl remained in view for a few seconds, dress glowing warmly, then moved back into the room. Suddenly I received a
distinct, though inexplicable, impression she was blind. My feeling was that Selina and I were perhaps blundering through an emotional
interplay as violent as our own.
"I'm sorry," Hagan continued; "I
thought Rose was going to call me for something. Now, where was I, Mrs.
· · · · ·
I ceased to listen, partly because I was already sold, partly because I had heard the story of slow glass many times before and had never yet understood the principles involved. An acquaintance with scientific training had once tried to be helpful by telling me to visualize a pane of slow glass as a hologram which did not need coherent light from a laser for the reconstitution of its visual information, and in which every photon of ordinary light passed through a spiral tunnel coiled outside the radius of capture of each atom in the glass. This gem of, to me, incomprehensibility not only told me nothing, it convinced me once again that a mind as non-technical as mine should concern itself less with causes than effects.
The most important effect, in the eyes of the average individual, was that
light took a long time to pass through a sheet of slow glass. A new piece was
always jet black because nothing had yet come through, but one could stand the
glass beside, say, a woodland lake until the scene emerged, perhaps a year
later. If the glass was then removed and installed in a dismal city flat, the
flat would—for that year—appear to overlook the woodland lake. During the year
it wouldn't be merely a very realistic but still picture—the water would ripple
in sunlight, silent animals would come to drink, birds would cross the sky,
night would follow day, season would follow season. Until one day, a year
later, the beauty held in the subatomic pipelines would be exhausted and the
familiar gray cityscape would reappear.
Apart from its stupendous novelty value, the commercial success of slow
glass was founded on the fact that having a scenedow
was the exact emotional equivalent of owning land. The meanest cave dweller
could look out on misty parks—and who was to say they weren't his? A man who
really owns tailored gardens and estates doesn't spend his time proving his
ownership by crawling on his ground, feeling, smelling, tasting it. All he
receives from the land are light patterns, and with scenedows
those patterns could be taken into coal mines, submarines, prison cells.
On several occasions I have tried to write short pieces about the enchanted
crystal but, to me, the theme is so ineffably poetic as to be, paradoxically,
beyond the reach of poetry—mine, at any rate. Besides, the best songs and verse
had already been written, with prescient inspiration, by men who had died long
before slow glass was discovered. I had no hope of equaling, for example,
Oft in the stilly night,
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me …
It took only a few years for slow glass to develop from a
scientific curiosity to a sizable industry. And much to the astonishment of we
poets—those of us who remain convinced that beauty lives though lilies die—the
trappings of that industry were no different from those of any other. There
were good scenedows which cost a lot of money, and
there were inferior scenedows which cost rather less.
The thickness, measured in years, was an important factor in the cost but there
was also the question of actual thickness, or phase.
Even with the most sophisticated engineering techniques available thickness
control was something of a hit-and-miss affair. A coarse discrepancy could mean
that a pane intended to be five years thick might be five and a half, so that
light which entered in summer emerged in winter; a fine discrepancy could mean
Selina still looked unconvinced when Hagan had
finished speaking. She shook her head almost imperceptibly and I knew he had
been using the wrong approach. Quite suddenly the pewter helmet of her hair was
disturbed by a cool gust of wind, and huge clean tumbling drops of rain began to
spang round us from an almost cloudless sky.
"I'll give you a check now," I said abruptly, and saw Selina's green eyes triangulate angrily on my face.
"You can arrange delivery?"
"Aye, delivery's no problem," Hagan said, getting to his feet. "But
wouldn't you rather take the glass with you?"
"Well, yes—if you don't mind." I was shamed by his readiness to
trust my scrip.
"I'll unclip a pane for you. Wait here. It won't take long to slip it
into a carrying frame." Hagan limped down the slope towards the seriate
windows, through some of which the view towards Linnhe
was sunny, while others were cloudy and a few pure black.
Selina drew the collar of her blouse closed at her
throat. "The least he could have done was invite
us inside. There can't be so many fools passing through that he can afford to
I tried to ignore the insult and concentrated on writing the check. One of
the outsize drops broke across my knuckles, splattering the pink paper.
"All right," I said, "let's move in under the eaves till he
gets back." You worm, I thought as I felt the whole thing go
completely wrong. I just had to be a fool to marry you. A prize fool, a
fool's fool—and now that you've trapped part of me inside you I'll never ever,
never ever, never ever get away.
Feeling my stomach clench itself painfully, I ran behind Selina
to the side of the cottage. Beyond the window the neat living room, with its
coal fire, was empty but the child's toys were scattered on the floor. Alphabet blocks and a wheelbarrow the exact color of freshly pared
carrots. As I stared in, the boy came running from the other room and
began kicking the blocks. He didn't notice me. A few moments later the young
woman entered the room and lifted him, laughing easily and wholeheartedly as
she swung the boy under her arm. She came to the window as she had done
earlier. I smiled self-consciously, but neither she nor the child responded.
My forehead prickled icily. Could they both be blind? I sidled away.
Selina gave a little scream and I spun towards
"The rug!" she said. "It's getting soaked."
She ran across the yard in the rain, snatched the reddish square from the
dappling wall and ran back, towards the cottage door. Something heaved
convulsively in my subconscious.
"Selina," I shouted. "Don't open
But I was too late. She had pushed open the latched wooden door and was
standing, hand over mouth, looking into the cottage. I moved close to her and
took the rug from her unresisting fingers.
As I was closing the door I let my eyes traverse the cottage's interior. The
neat living room in which I had just seen the woman and child was, in reality,
a sickening clutter of shabby furniture, old newspapers, cast-off clothing and
smeared dishes. It was damp, stinking and utterly deserted. The only object I
recognized from my view through the window was the little wheelbarrow, paintless and broken.
I latched the door firmly and ordered myself to forget what I had seen. Some
men who live alone are good housekeepers; others just don't know how.
Selina's face was white. "I don't understand.
I don't understand it."
"Slow glass works both ways," I said gently. "Light passes
out of a house, as well as in."
"You mean …?"
"I don't know. It isn't our business. Now steady up—Hagan's coming back
with our glass." The churning in my stomach was beginning to subside.
Hagan came into the yard carrying an oblong, plastic-covered frame. I held
the check out to him, but he was staring at Selina's
face. He seemed to know immediately that our uncomprehending fingers had
rummaged through his soul. Selina avoided his gaze.
She was old and ill-looking, and her eyes stared determinedly towards the
"I'll take the rug from you, Mr. Garland," Hagan finally said.
"You shouldn't have troubled yourself over it."
"No trouble. Here's the check."
"Thank you." He was still looking at Selina
with a strange kind of supplication. "It's been a pleasure to do business
"The pleasure was mine," I said with equal, senseless formality. I
picked up the heavy frame and guided Selina towards
the path which led to the road. Just as we reached the head of the now slippery
steps Hagan spoke again.
I turned unwillingly.
"It wasn't my fault," he said steadily. "A hit-and-run driver
got them both, down on the Oban road six years ago.
My boy was only seven when it happened. I'm entitled to keep something."
I nodded wordlessly and moved down the path, holding my wife close to me,
treasuring the feel of her arms locked around me. At the bend I looked back
through the rain and saw Hagan sitting with squared shoulders on the wall where
we had first seen him.
He was looking at the house, but I was unable to tell if there was anyone at