Back in June I signed up for an online course on Writing Short Stories (the next steps), run by the Bishopsgate Institute. The course was excellent. There were six weekly zoom sessions of about 2 hours each, with 8 students led by Barbara Marsh, who is a wonderful tutor. I can honestly say that I enjoyed every minute. There was a fair bit of homework including, of course, writing - and a major segment of each class was critiquing each others' work.
Here below is the first of the three new stories I drafted for the course.
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Don’t you recognise me? I’m you.”
“Oh fuck off. I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“Yes you have – every time you look in the mirror.”
I wasn’t listening of course. I never did then. I was foul mouthed, arrogant, and full of myself (full of shit actually). I was a first year student: physics at Oxford. Won a scholarship for genius working class kids. Something I never failed to tell everyone.
“You’re full of shit. What do you want?”
He paused a moment and looked me in the eye. “I want to talk, you fucker.”
Now this old guy had my attention. The only person I knew who says ‘you fucker’ was me. It was (and still is) something I only say to close friends: a kind of insult of endearment.
I was speechless (which didn’t happen often). For the first time I looked hard at him. Same height and build as me. Clean-shaven and almost bald: not bad looking. Fuck, I thought, he could be my dad. But he died four years ago.
He read my mind. “No John, I’m not a ghost. I’m you age 60.”
I may have been a shit, but I was a quick learner. “So, you – future me – have invented time travel? Whoa – that’s so cool. But wait, should you be here – aren’t you changing the future or something?”
“Yes there are risks, but the risks of me not having this conversation are far greater”. Older me then took something out of his pocket – a kind of glass tablet – he prodded it with his finger and looked at the display. “Look – I haven’t got long – the energy costs of time travel are colossal. Another 10 minutes”.
He then sat down and talked fast. I listened hard. I asked him if I could take notes. “No please don’t – what I’m about to tell you is dangerous – it’s super important no one knows anything about this conversation”. (‘Super important’ – that’s another thing I say.)
Older me explained that yes, he had invented a time machine. It had made him famous. Protocols (rules – he clarified – 20-year-old me didn’t know about protocols) had been established. Following international ethical approval the time machine had been used three times to travel way back in time to settle deep scientific questions about evolution.
“Whoa – did you see the dinosaurs?” No, he said. “Only one person can travel and I’m not a palaeontologist”. But, he said, “one trip was to the Cambrian – far more interesting and controversial than the Jurassic or the Cretaceous”.
“Now”, older me said, “listen carefully”. “We’re in great danger – some very rich and powerful men are doing everything they can to build another machine.”
“Why? What do they want to do?”
“They intend to change history. You see they are white supremacists. They want to go back in time and stop the abolition of slavery. They’re not just racists, they also hate women, so they also want to go back and make sure women – and commoners like us – never get the vote. In short they want to turn the political clock back to the 18th century”.
“Shit”, I said, “that’s really fucked up.”
“Yes it is. And that’s why you must not invent the time machine.” Older me said those last words very slowly. I’ve never heard anyone then or since be any more serious than he was.
Then, anticipating precisely what I was about to say: “John, I know you’re a determinist – that you don’t believe in free will. But you will change you mind. Free will is real and the choices you make have consequences.”
“The burden you – we – bear are that those choices are perhaps the most important in the history of humanity.”
I joked: “So, I guess if I make the wrong choice we’ll be having this conversation again?”
“Yes, exactly”, he said – still deadly serious, “in fact this might not be the first time.” As if I wasn’t already freaked out enough by this whole conversation – that took me to the freaked out equivalent of Defcon 1.
Then his face brightened up. “Goodbye, you fucker” he said, and vanished.
I write this age 60, forty years to the day that I met future me. I have thought about that conversation every day. Often doubting it happened at all. I had so many questions – enough to sustain a career.
Yes I did a PhD in theoretical physics and won a bunch of prizes. My work was on the structure of space-time, and rumour has it I’ve been nominated for a Nobel. I did sketch out one paper setting out practical steps toward time travel but deleted the paper before anyone else even saw it.
The world is still fucked up of course, but things could have been so much worse if I had not taken older me’s advice.
As to those questions – it didn’t take me long to figure out that older me vanished as soon as he convinced me to take his advice: at that moment the time machine that brought him back to meet me no longer existed. But I will never know how many times he failed to persuade me. My guess is that each time we had that conversation older me tried out a different script – until it was word perfect. The bit about “I haven’t got long ... only 10 minutes” was bullshit. After god knows how many repeats the fucker knew exactly when to say goodbye.
© Alan Winfield 2020
The Gift (2016)