I walked along the beach last Tuesday. There was hardly a breeze and the late Autumn sunshine quickly warmed the nip out of the air. The tide was out and it felt really good to be alive. After setting a brisk pace for some minutes I slowed down and looked for a convenient rock to set myself down to contemplate the waves and offer the gulls a crust of bread.
It was wonderful just sitting there. The gulls once the bread ran out lost interest in me and flew off to fossick in the shallows or find other benefactors. I leaned back and shut my eyes, letting the sound of the waves and the warmth of the sun seep into me.
"Can you keep a secret?"
I opened my eyes to see who had said those words. By my side not two metres from me, also sitting down, was an old man. He must have crept up while I was drifting off. His small wiry body was enclosed in an old pair of striped trousers and a turtle necked sweater. He sat forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands, tortured with arthritis were clasped together. As I looked round at him, he too, looked toward me.
He repeated, "Can you keep a secret?"
"It wouldn't be a secret if you told me."
His face, care worn, tired, wrinkled and brown, seemed so sad I wished I had not tried to be clever.
"It will be your secret then, not mine," he said wearily.
"Somebody has got to take it, then I can go."
"Is it a good secret?"
"Why should I be the only one to keep it?"
"Because it is dangerous to let anyone else know about it."
"How do you know I will keep it a secret?"
"When you know the secret, you won't dare to tell anyone about it."
"I am sorry to keep asking these questions," I said, feeling now that I was talking to a looney. "How can you dare to tell me?"
He kept silent for some time. The waves continued to break unceasingly on the shore.
"My time is nearly up. There is only one person that can hold the secret. I have searched many years to find a successor. Someone who will keep the secret. I thought I had failed. Now I have found you. If I cannot pass the secret on it will mean the end of the world. It will be the end of time. You won't let that happen, will you?"
"How can you be sure," I interjected.
"Please say you will accept the secret. Do you want to risk the end of the world if you don't take it?" The old man now looked decidedly unwell.
"Is that the secret?"
"No. Will you keep it if I give it to you?"
I decided there and then to take the secret. Not because I wanted to know it, but more because I wanted to appease the old man. He was clearly getting upset. Perhaps he was unbalanced. It wouldn't hurt to take his secret from him.
"If I take it, when do I pass it on?"
"More questions?" he asked. "Don't you see,? You pass it on when you are likely to die. Will you accept it?"
"Yes," I blurted out. "What is the precious secret?"
He certainly seemed relieved when I said yes.
"Good, good," he nodded in satisfaction.
Once again a silence ensued. Then slowly he unclasped his hands, and thrust his right hand into his trouser pocket. He drew out an old tobacco tin. Then with an almost theatrical reverence he handed it to me.
"This is yours. Never ever share it."
I was about to open it up, when he shook his head violently. "No, No. Wait till I have gone. Look at it at home."
With that he got unsteadily to his feet and shuffled away over the sand, he painfully pulled himself up the ramp to the esplanade and then disappeared from sight. I thought about what had passed, and convinced myself I had been taken in by the old man's warped sense of humour.
I stayed where I was for a few more minutes then walked back along the beach, up the steps at the kiosk end to get back home again. As I was walking along an ambulance sped by. As I passed another walker said.
"Probably an oldie at the end of their time."
A shiver ran through me. Could it be the old man, who had told me that it was his time to go? Eventually I got home. Lucy greeted me at the door.
"You were a long time."
"I got waylaid on the beach."
Lucy then looked at me in very strange way.
"When you were out there was a phone call for you."
"Who was it?"
"I don't know. But all he said was to tell you, 'Don't even tell your wife. Remember Eve.' What secrets are you keeping from me and who is this Eve?"
"Nothing dear. I don't know any Eve. Did you recognise the voice?"
Lucy shook her head. "What have you been up to?" She asked suspiciously.
Then I remembered the tin.
"Just a minute," I said. With that I went into the hall and then into the bathroom, locking the door after me. I took the tin out of my pocket and sat down on the toilet seat. I slowly opened the tin. Inside was a little card. On it was written just four words. The words were..."No, hang on, I can't even tell you, can I?"
I turned the card over. It was blank on the other side. There was nothing else in the tin. What did the words mean? I said them out aloud. Then I read them again, stressing each word in turn. Over and over again I read the phrase. Lucy knocked on the door.
"What are you doing in there?"
"Won't be a minute."
That silly old man had set a poser just to niggle me. Meanwhile Lucy was getting fractious outside.
"I'll have to call the Fire Brigade!"
I came out of the bathroom. I told Lucy about the old man on the beach. She was most intrigued.
"So what is the secret?"
"I can't tell you."
"Oh! Come on. I'm your wife remember?"
"I'm sorry Lucy. I promised."
"You promised to keep a secret for a dirty old tramp on the beach. I can't believe this."
Lucy was certainly annoyed.
"Look Lucy, I don't know what it means even. When I work it out, perhaps I'll tell you then."
This seemed to satisfy her for the moment. But I had forgotten how persuasive she could be when we were in bed together. Sure enough when were cuddled up together she brought up the subject again. It's very difficult to keep a secret with a very friendly body wrapped round yours.
So I told her. Time just stopped at the very moment I shared that secret.
There was no big flash, no big bang. It became very dark indeed. No moonlight, no stars, no streetlights. The bedside clock radio no longer worked, the power was gone. There was no movement, no noise. The world had just died with just a little whimper. That whimper was mine, when I realised what I had done. Life cannot exist without time. Our lives were over, we were quite dead. There was no Time! All because I couldn't keep that secret! My last thoughts were of the old man looking at me and sadly shaking his head.