The Tense Writers

By John Rathbone Taylor

We were gathered by the large table, chatting in the minutes before our class was due to start. A stranger appeared, crossed the room and sat down. We all moved to seats and sat too — erect, still and silent — the tutor included. The stranger gazed at each of us in turn. We were each compelled to return his stare, a force not our own twisting our faces towards him.

Without our volition, our writing arms reached forward. Simultaneously, we all penned three words on the notepad before us.

The stranger lowered his eyes. His demeanour seemed less directive, yet he exuded a sense of waiting anticipation. We were drawn to look downwards ourselves – pointedly, to gaze at our writings.

Our notepads were all blank!

The tutor tried to mouth something to the stranger, but no sounds came from her. Others amongst us attempted to speak. Their lips and jaws moved, but in inexplicable silence.

Our confusion was becoming alarm, when the stranger jerked upright. His action again brought control over our movement. He tilted his head to gaze beyond us. This compelled us to watch him. I believe I saw a blue-ish glow emanating from his eyes. Or entering them? I’m sure his lips spread slightly. I remember his cheeks flushed. It was then that the riddle took a grip in me. What is always now yet always next? I wasn’t to answer this question – only to keep asking it.

The stranger focused on us again. What we all saw — and agreed on, afterwards — were his eyelids widening unnaturally, and his eyes blazing. It was like they were burning us – with a grammarly preoccupation.

It is what happened next that I must share with you … what I call “the telling.”

It came from Omar first. “I .. will .. do ..” he said, the pauses deliberate, his speaking decisive.

Then Elaine said loudly, “I .. shall .. be ..”

Our tutor shouted, “I .. plan .. to ..” just as my own forceful words – “I .. expect .. I ..”-  came from me.

In less than a minute we had all spoken, all uttered just three simple words. But we were quickly hushed again.

Omar attracted our attention. His face had turned pale. He was pointing to his notepad. The words “I will do” were clear to see, large-lettered, in blue-black ink, on the page. We all looked to our own writing pads. The words we had each just spoken were now distinctly visible, where we had each invisibly scribed them, only minutes before!

Our shock was compounded when we turned to the stranger for explanation. His chair was empty. We all confirmed quickly that we had neither seen nor heard the classroom door open or close during the minute or two of all this happening. “Now we see him, next we don’t!” the tutor said. 

“Ah! Write that in the present-anticipatory tense,” I said.

It wasn’t my voice, though.

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John Rathbone Taylor says he turned to the mischief of writing fiction after retiring from a management career in 2012. He has published microfiction, short stories and a novella on various lit sites and in softback anthologies. John lives in Sheffield, England and convenes a writers group called Many a Tale.

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