Loosely based on the song on ‘The Juliet Letters’ by Elvis Costello:
I had a lecturer once who told me that time travel was not only possible, but commonplace. Of course, he was simply trying to startle the impressionable first years, but I never forgot his words. What he meant, I suppose, is that we are all time travellers. The only reason that it makes no impression on us is that we are all travelling in time at the same rate. If there was some way for someone or something to vary their rate or direction of travel, only then would things become interesting. I’m sure you’re reading this and laughing now. You can’t, as I believe someone may have pointed out before now, change the laws of physics.
Well, I used to think so too. I still do, I suppose, but what I know is that we don’t actually understand all of the laws of physics, which means that science fiction writers are not about to go out of business any time soon, and that what I saw all those years ago really may have happened.
Now, as you will come to understand, I’m going to seem some kind of unreliable narrator. I’m prepared to accept your scepticism here, but I’m also going to tell you what I saw and heard. It happened like this; I swear it did.
In my second year at University, I took up with the kind of friend my mother would have considered unsuitable. I’ll never know what she would have thought of James, because he was an Edinburgh friend, and – other than for those few brief months – our paths never crossed outside that city. He was a long-haired scientist from somewhere like Hamilton or East Kilbride; I was a neatly turned out linguist from Aberdeen. We had next to nothing in common, save a worrying penchant for noisy rock music and a Moral Philosophy class.
At that time – this would have been the early 1980s – those of us who were unsure or uncommitted about our final degree subjects could potter along in a ‘general arts’ or indeed a ‘general science’ strand. The only downside to this was that there had to be some fringe classes alongside the more mainstream. James studied physics and biochemistry, I think; I had English Language and Linguistics. This meant that we both needed a third subject to round out the portfolio. My choices were between maths and philosophy; I could just about add up three-digit numbers if I had a calculator, so I looked in the philosophy area.
The choices seemed unappealing, but the idea of looking at Plato and so on appealed slightly more than the others, and it must have appeared so to James as well – his options included some arcane philosophy of science modules, and he thought that a quick course on ethics might amuse him.
Those were his words – “it’ll be amusing”. After about twenty minutes, I was struggling to find the amusement in any of it; Plato could have been fascinating, I suppose, but not presented like that – the lectures could well have been written in the 1880s, and some of the lecturers seemed to have been born then. If ever a department needed to shake off the image of being dry and dusty, this was it. Unfortunate, then, that they had not the faintest clue how to do so.
James, however, seemed enthralled by the whole thing – Plato’s Republic seemed to him to be an ideal society; somewhere he could get on with what he wanted to do without interference, since he firmly believed that the study of physics, being for the good of all mankind, should be unfettered by regulations.
We spent many a drunken afternoon arguing over the atom bomb, to very little avail; James believed to his core that the Bomb (as we still called it then) was, on balance, a good thing, and the pinnacle of human understanding of the physical world.
We made an odd pair; I couldn’t get him interested in sport, he couldn’t get me interested in Dungeons and Dragons, which seemed to be the only interest he had aside from beer and physics. The physics he tried to explain to me made no sense, either. He would appear down on our campus (science was conducted on its own campus, some miles away) full of tales of electrons and uncertainty, and I would keep pointing out that theory was all very well, but how come I can stand on the table rather than falling through it, if all these things were not physically connected.
My understanding of atomic-level physics may have been a little sketchy, I grant you.
The philosophers droned on throughout the autumn; I guess we learned some things – I remember passing the exam at the end of the year, so we must have done – and James and I continued to argue the toss in the pub afterwards. He resisted all my efforts to take him to a football match; sensibly so, in hindsight; I was regularly going to watch Meadowbank Thistle at the time, with around three or four hundred other misguided souls. There weren’t even enough of us to huddle together for warmth, and the brisk winds which hurtled aroundEdinburghat that time of year seemed always to be directed straight at our faces. Most match days, I would be back in my residence, having walked a couple of miles through Holyrood Park before I could feel my toes again. If the alternative was staying indoors and playing some stupid board game with multifaceted dice and strange plastic creatures, perhaps I was the crazy one.
Nevertheless, our friendship grew. We went to a few concerts together – I shudder to remember the names of those bands now; it’s probably for the best that my memory or the amount of beer drunk at the dingy bars and fragrant smoke inhaled from the general environment has dulled my memory of the actual music somewhat. James was always wildly enthusiastic for the more extreme ends of the scene. The less intelligible and melodic, the better, as far as he was concerned, and his penchant for bands who tricked themselves out in pentagrams or carried goat skulls around seemed a little out of place with his seeming delight in discussing the finer points of ethics in tutorials.
One dull January afternoon, with the mist hanging low over the city, bringing with it that typical Edinburgh smell of brewery, we repaired to the Pear Tree in thoughtful mood. James had been vigorously debating some arcane point of David Hume’s philosophy with a tutor who was less than inclined to take him on, presumably having heard a hundred radical thinkers before him imagine that they had discovered some flaw or inconsistency in Hume. It had, as I recall – probably imperfectly – something to do with the colour blue. I’ll admit that I’m too lazy to go and look all this up, but it seems that Hume had some idea about a ‘missing’ shade of blue, while James was adamant that, from a physical point of view, there is no such thing as one shade. Or something like that, anyway. It hurt my brain to think of it then, and it hurts only slightly less now, I’m afraid.
But James had a gleam in his eye that afternoon. “Well, I know I’m right, but I’d love to ask him”.
“What, old man Husskinson? We’ve just spent an hour irritating him with that; he’s not going to welcome us back, is he?”
“No, I meant David Hume”.
I laughed. “Well, I think he’s buried just down the road; we could go and dig him up if you like.”
“No, no. There’s a way – or I think there is. I’ve been -” here, he broke off and looked furtively around him like a character in a third-rate murder mystery “- look, come up to the flat with me. I’ve got something I’d like you to see.” I didn’t see why I should go anywhere, and said so. James’ flat was a dingy, draughty affair way out beyond Haymarket station; I was comfortable, warm, and had money for more beer. But he prevailed with promises that he wouldn’t make me eat anything while I was there – James’ flat did not set particularly high standards in hygiene at the best of times, on top of which he was a vegan for some reason, so anything I was likely to be served there would be uniformly greyish-brown and tasteless.
I’ve met vegans since, and understand that they also eat vegetables and fruit and so on, but this was an alien concept to James at the time. No wonder he was thin enough to hide behind lamp-posts.
We trekked out to Haymarket; me grumbling steadily as the bus journey dragged on; the windows fogged up more and more with each stop, and the taste of the recently consumed beer turned to dull metal in my mouth. By the time we reached Gorgie Road, and were therefore much closer to the source of the smell of burnt hops, I had the beginnings of what I used to call a psychic hangover – the headache which can only be assuaged by drinking more beer, preferably back in the pub where we had been so warm and comfortable.
Inside, it was only marginally less cold than it had been outside. James was not a believer in heating; he would simply put more clothes on if he felt cold; this day, he plainly had other things on his mind, and cold was not an issue for him. He took me through into his bedroom – the flat essentially had three rooms; a kitchen and sitting area, furnished with a formica-topped table and a ropy-looking metal cooker, plus three wobbly stools and an armchair whose best friend would have called it ‘past it’; a bathroom, which doesn’t really bear description, and this bedroom, with the world’s narrowest bed covered in awful nylon bedding, and a huge pile of clothes of indeterminate status in the corner. Today, however, the bedroom was dominated by a contraption which, to call it ‘Heath Robinson’ would be doing the great man a severe disservice. Heath Robinson contraptions generally seemed to have some fixed purpose; there was a point to all the strings and pulleys. This, by contrast, was a tangled mass of rusty metal and old stereo parts. It served no visible purpose, save perhaps as a sculpture for the new Modern Art gallery – even then, it would probably have been rejected as hazardous to life and limb.
James scurried around it for a while, poking and prodding things, and then – to my dismay – plugged it in to the wall. The flat still had the old, round-pin 15amp sockets, and the way this device was connected felt somewhat ancient and precarious. James was unconcerned; he actually rubbed his hands together briefly before sitting, cross-legged in front of his device.
“OK,” he said, “say something.”
“What? Tell me I haven’t come all this way to see some kind of party trick?”
“No, no – listen.”
He reached into the middle of the tangle and snapped something from one position to another. Faintly, I could hear my own voice – “all this way to see some kind of -”
I laughed, in spite of my irritation. “Very good, James. You’ve invented the tape recorder. Well done.”
“No, look – there’s no tape, and no recording medium at all. Look more closely. Do you see anything?”
I peered at it. There certainly didn’t seem to be any kind of tape, but who knows what he might have been able to do with all this metal and wire. I remained unimpressed.
“I’ve been working on this theory for months. It works, it definitely does; all you have to do is give it enough power and then it’s all in the physics.”
“What is?” I was growing impressed in direct inverse proportion to how cold my feet were.
“Going backwards. Listen; you can hear what we said when we came in – before I turned it on.” I strained, and could barely make out some mumblings which could have been us arriving in the flat; equally it could have been the rumbling of a bus passing by at the end of the road. I snorted: “You dragged me out of the pub for this? I’m in need of more beer.”
“No, listen – the sounds get fainter the further back you go, but they are there. It must work; it’s all in the physics of it.”
“What, the physics of time travel? Forgive me, but I know a little about that; it’s not possible.”
“Well, not for solid objects, it’s true. But for sound waves, it should be, and I think it is. All I need is more cable, and some more power. It’s working; you’re the first person to be able to hear back in time.”
“Nonsense. You want to hear it, so that’s what you hear.”
“But you heard your own voice, didn’t you? It does work; it just needs more – something. I can’t quite figure out what is making it so weak.”
“I think, my old friend, that it’s inherently weak. It’s a neat trick, and I have no idea how you do it, but it’s a trick. I’m going home, unless there’s a pub between here and home.”
“Fine.” James was irritated, but not angry – he must have known that what he had was less than impressive – he’d given me no hint of working on anything, so he must have been hoping to have something more finished to show me. We adjourned to one of the two pubs called ‘The Haymarket’ and gradually I persuaded him to drop the subject.
Only a week later, however, he was back. He’d been getting increasingly dishevelled as the week had gone by, and it seemed that this was mainly due to his lack of sleep as he worked on the problem. This time, I was enticed to the flat with the promise of beer if it didn’t work, and a trip to the nearest baked potato shop – something of a staple in the student diet in those days.
The contraption had grown in that week, and it was now, somewhat alarmingly, plugged in to two different sockets. This struck me as somewhat dangerous, but James’ explanation of it went well over my head, and I merely shrugged and stood a little further back than before.
This time, the voices I heard were much clearer. James played me the same snippet as last time – my own voice complaining about party tricks – and he literally shouted with joy.
“I knew I could find it – it’s been a little harder to find each day – further back in time, you see, but I knew I’d get it as long as we were here by this time. He did the rubbing his hands together thing again, and I wondered if he was actually insane, or just cold. It couldn’t be cold, however, for the contraption – I refused to call it a time machine – was giving off a noticeable heat.
I still hadn’t heard anything which could convince me that he wasn’t playing me some kind of recording, and said so.
“OK, listen to this. I’ll go further back. I think I can go back about six months now, but it’s hard to know, because I wasn’t here then. I’ll try for the first time you came here. He put his head inside the machinery, which had the effect of causing his hair to stand out from his skull, and actually began to singe some of the ends a little. From inside, he muttered something about not having been able to track down the burning smell, but I told him not to worry – he’d work it out. He seemed satisfied by this – unless he hadn’t heard it, of course – and continued to tinker.
For a while, nothing much happened, then there was a distinct ‘pop’, almost like a very small balloon being burst, then I heard some more sounds. There was a kind of creaking and a rhythmic scraping, then a distinct yelp; not James’ voice, I thought, then a soft giggle, which definitely wasn’t James, then nothing. He pulled his head out.
“Don’t think you need to hear that” he muttered, reddening more than a little. He ducked back in and tried again. What came out the next time was less distinct and could almost have been anything, but I fancied I heard my own voice in there. Of course, hearing one’s own voice is always slightly artificial and odd, since you never sound the way you think you do, but we’d been doing some linguistics experiments based on breaking down recordings of our own voices into chunks, and I thought the voice I was hearing now seemed familiar as mine.
James struggled back out. “I can’t go much further in here, I’m afraid, but I can demonstrate that it works. There’s not much range – I can get conversations from the street outside, but only from a week or so ago, I think, and I can go back quite a way if I keep it in this room, but that’s about it with the available power.
“Very impressive, I’m sure.” I was determined not to be impressed, and still felt certain that it was just some kind of trick with recording tape or some such. James was not to be swayed, however.
“The only way to prove it, I suppose, is to find something from before I was here – go back to last year.” I tried hard not to scoff too loudly:
“But how can you know when something was? More to the point, how can I know? There’s nothing to say that you didn’t just record random conversations and have some clever way of playing them back that I can’t figure out.”
“But why the hell would I do that? There’s no point to it – I’m on to something here, and I know it’s difficult to believe, but these sounds really are from the past.”
“OK, let me suspend disbelief for a moment or two. What is the practical application of all this? What possible good can come of it?”
“We don’t do things just because someone might be able to profit from it, you know. But imagine the value to historians – finally answering some of the biggest questions of all time.”
“Lee Harvey Oswald. Just as an example – imagine if you could eavesdrop on his last few days. That’d answer a few questions, don’t you think?”
I thought about it. The idea was exciting, even if the execution of it seemed a long way off. But the reality was that I was sitting in a cramped and smelly student flat in Edinburgh with a somewhat unwashed physics student who plainly believed that he had achieved what all the great minds of the age could not, and figured out how to travel back in time. I shook my head. “Whatever it is you have here, I think it’s just a curiosity. Nothing will come of it. Nothing ever could, I think – it’s fantasy. Like your Dungeons and whatever out there. I’d like to believe you, James, but I just don’t. Sorry.”
He seemed to have half expected this response, and didn’t press it much further. He suggested a trip to the pub, and I readily agreed – apart from any other considerations, the heat his contraption gave off was making the already damp and smelly flat positively unpleasant to be in. I waited for him to unplug and disconnect as much as possible, and we escaped to the waiting arms of Mr. McEwan’s finest ales.
Strangely, after that evening, nothing much more was said of the device. He was curiously noncommittal about it whenever I asked, and I didn’t press it too far. I was convinced that he had been trying to con me in some way, and my stubborn refusal to fall for it had deflated him somewhat.
At the end of our second year, we went our separate ways. Finally able to specialise in our chosen fields, James no longer needed to visit the arts campus, and I doubted whether I could even find the science one. We would meet up occasionally, especially for evenings of unreasonably loud rock music, but apart from that, our paths didn’t cross again for more than a year.
I was just embarking on my final year of studies, certain that I would figure out what I wanted to do with all this arcane knowledge I had assimilated one day soon, when I next encountered James. He approached me on the top floor of the main library, where I was unsuccessfully trying to disguise my reading of back issues of Punch as genuine study. I didn’t at first recognise him – he had cut off most of his hair, and appeared to be wearing something closer to a suit than his habitual denim and leather. He greeted me warmly, and I had to peer at him for several heartbeats before I managed to put the voice together with a name.
“James! Good grief, what happened to you?”
“What? Oh, the hair. It was getting too dangerous for the equipment.”
“In the lab, you mean?”
“Yes, partly. And the other stuff. You remember that?” I did. “Well, it’s working, and I’d like you to have a look. If you don’t mind.”
“Well…” I tried to suggest that I was working, but I plainly wasn’t, and the inevitable offer of beer as a bribe worked.
“Where are we going? To your flat?”
“Hm? Oh, no. No, that’s too far away. I got another one, you know – managed to convince the authorities that the old one was a health hazard.”
“Well, it was. Some of it wasn’t environmental, you know.”
“Yes, I know. But they didn’t seem to notice. Anyway, I’m way out now, halfway to Corstorphine. No, I’ve got it in a room just round the corner.”
“Up here? In George Square?”
“Yes, kind of funny, really. The Physics department weren’t really interested, but there is some kind of connection to a lab down here doing work on artificial voices or something, and I managed to wangle my way in there.”
We walked together out of the library and then into the labyrinthine corridors under the unlovely 1960s complex which had been landed in one corner of George Square. After several twists and turns – enough to disorient me, as I had only ever been in the Linguistics labs at the other end of the building, we arrived at a room not much more than a broom cupboard. It was dark and hot; James turned on the light, and I gasped.
I had been expecting the chaos of the version of his machine which I had seen before, but what I saw on the table in the middle of the room was no bigger than my own portable tape player. It was connected to several power sources, and to two oscilloscopes. James reached over and turned them on.
“This one-” he indicated the one on the left “-calibrates time, and the other helps with range finding, although that’s not as successful as I might like. It’s still really difficult to get accurate directions. I keep hearing horse traffic when I’m looking for conversations.
I stared at him. He grinned, and went on.
“It’s good for what I feel sure is about 500 years now, although I’m still struggling to calibrate it, but I still only pick up around half a mile in any direction. At least, that’s what I think. I need someone to help me figure some of this stuff out, and you are the only person who’s really seen it in action, so here we are.”
I was still grasping for something sensible to say. I opened and closed my mouth a few times, then managed to get my thoughts into some kind of order.
“Five hundred years, James? How the hell do you know that?”
“Well, that’s the point. I don’t – this place is only about 200 years old, and there appears to have been nothing here before that. I get about halfway along my range and then activity stops. Before that, there’s largely nothing – odd blips and squeaks; presumably animal sounds or something; I haven’t really investigated too far. What I want to do now is figure out how to calibrate it more exactly. Which is where you come in.”
“I do? What use can I possibly be to you – even if I do accept your premise, which is not at all certain?”
“All I need is some clear idea of when these things happened -” he pointed to several tightly bunched spikes on the left screen. “I’m guessing that they’re the sound of the old buildings being demolished, and I know it must have been some time in the 1960s, but beyond that I’m stuck. Do you think you could find something out?”
Without being really sure why I was agreeing to it, I suggested that I could go back up to the library and take a look; something in the factual, scientific nature of those oscilloscopes swayed me – if he was going to this much trouble, this was less likely, I thought , to be a hoax. Or if it was, it presumably wasn’t directed at me.
It took longer than I anticipated to trawl through all the records of the destruction of the old houses in George Square– part of me wondered if the University was deliberately keeping some things hidden, such had been the controversy over the whole process. However, I was finally able to pin down a date of 1964. I wondered if that would be accurate enough for James, and went back to find him.
When I eventually relocated the room, and managed to gain entry – James had insisted on a secret knock, which caused me to laugh in his face – he was delighted with my discovery.
“OK, so 1964 must be this spike here -” he pointed “- and then if we step down into it, we can see various sub-spikes – presumably it took some days or even weeks to complete the job. Pity we can’t be more accurate, but it can’t be helped. It’s good enough. Look – there’s a long stretch of just background noise, and then the building work must start here somewhere. I’ll zoom back out. Here – no, here; look, the pattern changes. If we look at the last fifteen years, the pattern is remarkably similar; all the bustle of daily life looks pretty much the same. Ok, so if I find where that starts, I might be able to find something.”
He fiddled with various settings on the machine for what seemed like hours, and then gave a sudden yelp of triumph.
“I’ve got something! Listen to this.” James disconnected his elderly-looking headphones – a process which involved much fiddling with wires and some kind of connectors and suddenly I could hear a cacophony.
“Hear it? I’ll do it again. Listen.”
What I heard was a jumble of voices and extraneous noises, as if all the occupants of the building were talking at once. I said as much, and his face fell.
“OK, of course; I’ve been listening to this for much longer. I’ll tell you what I hear. It’s a female voice, quite high pitched, and she’s welcoming her class to the new academic year. Listen again.” I did, and this time I thought I could pick out what he was referring to. “Play it again,” I asked, and this time I heard (or perhaps I only thought I did): “Welcome to this class. I want to make sure everyone is in the right place – this is social policy unit 3; second year students. If you’re in the wrong place, please try to work it out quickly. Thank you. Now, while we get settled, I’m going to just complete some paperwork. Anybody know the date?” Then there is a mumble – the other voices push in, but the next time I hear her, it’s clearer: “January 8th, 1970. Oh, I’m going to be writing 1969 for weeks yet. All right, let’s get started.”
James snapped the machine off. There – perfect; unequivocal dating evidence – if only archaeology could be so accurate! It’s fantastic; this will take me a few days to adjust, but then I should be able to pinpoint all sorts of things. How about that beer?”
Beer was taken, rather shakily on my part, I have to confess, while James thundered on about this project and how much good he could do with it. My occasional questions were never really answered; he was far more interested in developing his dream for me. I wondered after a time whether it mattered that we could be overheard; James said not:
“I’ve discovered the most marvellous thing. If I look like this, and carry notes and a pen, then I can suggest to people that I’m writing a novel, and they just nod and smile politely.”
“How many people have you talked to in the pub about this?” For some reason, I was slightly alarmed by all this talk.
“No-one. Well, you. And my Physics tutor at Christmas time. That’s when I discovered this – we talked for a long time about the possibilities, and everyone around us just ignored it.”
“What does your tutor think? Do you have any kind of – I don’t know – official status?”
“No, none at all; he thinks I’m nuts.”
“He’s not alone.”
James just smiled. “This, my friend, is a real technological breakthrough – maybe the biggest one there’s ever been. Who knows what we can achieve with it.” I let that ‘we’ slide – although I was intrigued by his project, I had no real desire to be involved in it. None at all.
But, of course, life really doesn’t work like that. I knew about it, so I was involved. James’ proximity to my usual hangouts meant that I ran in to him frequently, and he would always take me aside and bring me up to date. One evening in December, just as I was leaving the library and contemplating whether there was enough change in my pocket for a pint before I walked back to Stockbridge, James accosted me in the entranceway.
“It’s ready”, he gasped.
“What is?” I asked, although I had a sinking feeling that I already knew the answer.
“The machine. I’ve got it portable enough that we can answer the question.”
“The David Hume one. Don’t you remember? I want to know about the shade of blue problem. I know where he was when he wrote that part – just up the road in the library in the Old College- and I have a place we can set it up. I reckon I can get it close enough to find out what he meant. Oh, and there’s one other thing. Really exciting – I can talk back to them.”
The colour must have drained from my face, because James actually looked worried for a moment.
“Oh, don’t worry; I can’t change anything. It’s just like they hear a voice from in their head, or something. I can show you.” Instantly, I heard James’ voice coming from somewhere over my left shoulder, saying “see? It’s perfectly harmless”.
I had to sit down for a moment while I tried to figure out exactly what was going on. James had – no, he hadn’t done it yet; he could do it in 30 years’ time if he wanted to, the only certainty being that he would in fact sit down at his machine, find our conversation and interject into it. I looked down at my feet. One of my shoelaces was untied, and I used the moment that took to resolve to gather my thoughts.
“You’re sure – I mean you’re sure that nothing changes? You could talk to someone and affect their entire lives, but nothing happens? OK, let me think about this. So” – I was working hard to keep up – “if you talk to people in the past, and nothing happens, then either this really is the hoax which I always suspected, or you’ve just got lucky. The one thing we know about time travel is that if you disturb anything in the past, it will have unforeseen repercussions in the future – hold on. Just hold on. When did you discover this?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Just – just everything. When did you know you could talk back?”
“Only in the last couple of weeks. Up to then, I only had the mike hooked up as a bit of fun – nothing ever seemed to happen.”
“James, when did you cut your hair off? When exactly did you cut your hair?”
“Er – I don’t know. A couple of years ago, I suppose – not long after the end of second year. But it really wasn’t that long; most people don’t really notice.”
I stared at him. “And – let me think – what kind of music do you like?”
“What? Why? You know what I like. We used to go to concerts together. Although, I’ve broadened my tastes since then, I think. I’m really interested in Bach at the moment; it’s something to do with maths.”
“Bach. OK. James, I don’t think it’s wise to talk to people in the past.”
“Oh, come on, I’ve just proved to you that nothing happens.”
“Except you haven’t done it yet, and how would we know that nothing happens? My shoelace, for example. Was that untied earlier, or did it change when I heard your voice?”
“What? Don’t be absurd; proving my theory to you can’t untie your shoelace. That’s just silly. Come on.”
“Where are we going? I was on my way home.”
“Yeah, well, we’ve got to talk to you in the past, and” –
“And what if we don’t? What happens then?”
“But – well, we do. Well, I do at some point. What do I say, incidentally? No, wait – don’t tell me. But I do it, even if I have to wait 40 years for you to leave me alone.”
“So by reaching back to the past you are predetermining the future? Am I understanding this correctly?”
“No – at least, that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. And if I don’t ever get round to it, then I imagine you’ll simply forget the whole episode.”
I snorted. I couldn’t see any point in pursuing this any further; apart from anything else, my head was spinning and I wanted to take the time to figure out what was going on and what I thought about it all. I said goodnight to him, and turned for home. I suppose he went straight back to his lab and ‘spoke’ to me. I remember the conversation more than twenty years later, so he must have at some point.
I didn’t see James again for several days. I hadn’t forgotten his plan to ‘talk’ to David Hume, but I probably hoped either that he would, or that he would consider me less than enthusiastic about it. However, James was not easily dissuaded, and he tracked me down in the library again one wet Wednesday afternoon when lectures were thin on the ground. I was pretending to do some preliminary work on my final dissertation, and was not as irritated as I might have been to see him strolling towards me.
I was, however, somewhat startled by his appearance. He had, in the brief time since we last spoke, managed to cultivate a reasonably full beard and I thought that his hair seemed suspiciously longer than it had been. I stopped him before he could even begin to explain what he wanted and asked the thing which had been most on my mind:
“James. When you reach back to talk to someone, who exactly is it you speak to?”
“Not sure what you mean. I’ve stopped that, since it appears you were right. I don’t really remember our conversation the other day; it keeps slipping out of focus when I try. I think I must have changed something when I talked to you – I told you it was possible, I think, but now I’m a little confused.”
“I’m not surprised. You seem to have grown a beard overnight. You must be the one who is affected when you do this.”
“The beard?” He reached up and stroked it. “I wondered about this – I have had it since I was old enough to let it grow, as far as I know, but I keep having these clear flashes of being clean shaven. I didn’t have it before, did I?”
“No. You’ve never had one as long as I have known you. You also aren’t answering my question.”
“I know. I think I see the problem now. I was talking to – oh, it’s stupid, really. I talked to myself. At home, when I was developing the machine. It’s why I’m interested in the subject. It’s why I did physics, and it’s why I did Moral Phil – to meet you.”
“Something like that had crossed my mind, although it’s some kind of paradox, isn’t it? If you tell yourself to build it, who tells you? You’re in an infinite loop here, and I suspect it will not be resolved until we find out who gives you the idea.”
“But that must have happened in the past. Mustn’t it?”
“But which past, James? You seem to have any number to choose from.”
I groaned. “No, James. It’s already too dangerous – all we need is for you to say the wrong thing to someone in the past, and I cease to exist. I’m quite fond of existing, thanks.”
“No, I have to do it.”
“What’s the name of the big tower in the corner of George Square?”
“The WST? What kind of a stupid question is that?” But suddenly it wasn’t a stupid question at all. The Walter Scott Tower seemed somehow to be the wrong name for it, although I had replied without thinking. Somewhere in my subconscious another name flickered briefly.
“It’s not, though, is it? It’s not called that. In fact, until yesterday, as far as I can see, it was called the DHT”
“DH – oh, I see. So you talked to him.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, I’m afraid I did. I didn’t mean to – I remembered all that you said, and I was only going to listen. But it was fascinating; he was muttering to himself about empiricism and the shades of blue – you remember. And I just blurted it out. I told him that it made no sense, and that it weakened his whole theory.”
“What are you talking about? Are you suggesting that you are the reason why Hume didn’t finish the Enquiry? That you are the reason that it took two centuries for his ideas to be discovered and publicised? I remember talking about him at great length in Moral Phil, but he seemed to be a footnote to the whole thing. And that’s your fault? You wrote David Hume out of history?”
“I think I may have done. And now I need to put him back.”
“How do you intend to do that?”
“I don’t know. It’s why I came back to you. I think I need to change some things, but I’m not sure I understand them.”
“Well, it’s no good looking at me. I only scraped a pass in it, and I really wasn’t listening to the Hume bits; it all seemed so unimportant at the time – I much preferred Nietzsche, if you recall.”
James thought for a moment. Then his thoughts started to drift.
“What if I could erase other people from history? Lee Harvey Oswald, for example. Or Hitler. Or” –
“Stop right there. No. You’re not going to do it. You’re going to erase one thing and one thing only from history, and that’s your damned machine.”
“Because you can’t hear what you’re saying. You can’t erase things from history. What would you do to Oswald? Tell him the voices told him not to shoot. What then?”
“A president doesn’t get killed.”
“And after that? What happens in Vietnam? What happens to Johnson or Nixon or – or the whole of history since 1963?”
“I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be fun to find out?”
“No.” I was very clear on this point. I had experienced the changing face of James in a way that he hadn’t, and I knew that his tinkering had also changed things that I was only dimly aware of, and all he’d done so far was to ask David Hume a question. I had to stop him.
“We have to find out where the notion for this machine comes from, and we have to stop it.”
“But it comes from me. I dream it up; I must do.”
“Nonsense. It has to have a trigger. When did you talk to yourself?”
“That’s just it – it’s already done. It was one of the first things I did. I remembered the voices telling me what to do, and I went back to fulfil that part of my life – my destiny.”
“It’s not destiny, and I think we can prove it.”
James was unconvinced, as well as being more than a little unhappy at the prospect, but I suddenly knew clearly what had to be done. Almost – but not quite – as if a voice in my head had told me what to do. I took him to the pub and explained it.
James was, as I had expected, less than enamoured with the whole idea. He had clearly been entertaining ideas of how he could modify history and perhaps change or, as he saw it, ‘improve’ the world we lived in. I had to keep reinforcing the fact that there was no guarantee of anything. I had witnessed enough changes in him – and, possibly in myself and everyone he had, however faintly, influenced in his life – to know that this kind of thing was completely unpredictable. And then there was the WST situation. Not only had he effectively ruined David Hume’s life, but I was aware that something was wrong. On the way to the Partridge, I asked a couple of passing undergraduates what the name of the big tower was. Both of them hesitated and looked slightly puzzled before answering, and I couldn’t help feeling that their reaction had been the same as mine – we all knew that it was the WST, but something about it didn’t feel right. Of course, they might have been wondering who this idiot was who didn’t know the name of one of the University’s biggest landmarks.
James persisted, however: “I know it seems wrong to you, but I really think I can make things different. What if I could change things enough that millions of lives could be saved in World War II? Wouldn’t that be worth it? Maybe there would be no Soviet Bloc; maybe the world would be so much better”
“And maybe no war means that Stalin decided to create one; to march on Germany in any case. Maybe things would be worse instead of better. Even saving the life of one person means that that person changes everything that they touch from then on – millions of saved, or changed, lives would utterly recreate the world we live in. Maybe neither of us would exist. Have you thought of that?”
“Well, yes, but it’s a risk I’m prepared to take. After all, if I don’t exist, then the machine won’t, so I won’t be able to change things, and we’d be back where we started.”
“I’m more concerned – forgive me – that I won’t exist.”
“No, you’re safe, I think – you’re clearly vital to the project, so I don’t see how you would fail to exist.”
“Or I’m the voice of sanity which brings an end to your ideas, and without me you’d have free rein.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way. No, that would be – I think I’m beginning to see what you mean here.”
“Good. Then let’s destroy it.”
“No – wait. What about some harmless things? If I disconnect the microphone, and we just listen. Wouldn’t you like to know the truth about some things? We could eavesdrop on the life of Jesus, for example.” My head started to spin a little at this.
“OK; let me run with that for a moment. Leaving aside the fact that neither of us speaks or understands Aramaic, or whatever language Jesus – if he even exists in the way we think he does – spoke; what do you think you would achieve? Proving the existence of God by listening to out-of context conversations? Disproving the existence of God because you can’t hear him on the tape. Even if we could see what was happening, it wouldn’t necessarily prove a thing”
Hey, there’s a thought – maybe my machine, or one like it, is responsible for the voices that those people thought were God”
“Stop right there. No way. This has got to be ended, and we’re going to do it now.”
“It’s last orders; I think we’ll have to wait until the morning.”
But I had the bit between my teeth now; I was not to be denied. As I saw it, all I had to do was stop James from talking to his younger self, but it turned out that he had been at his parents’ home when that happened – we wouldn’t be able to go there at this time of night. As we walked back to the lab where the machine was, I tried to think my way out of the problem. The trouble was that there seemed to be a block in my thoughts – almost as if the machine was trying to stop me from destroying it. I told myself that that was absurd, and resigned myself to keeping vigil over James until the morning came, and we would be able to get public transport back to wherever it was his parents lived.
Then a thought occurred to me.
“James,” I asked cautiously, “where is the literature on this? You can’t have created it all out of whole cloth. There must be something.”
He looked startled. “Well, there is, but I’m not sure where it came from. A physicist called Ayer – A.J. Ayer. He has done some theoretical work on this stuff, although I think I’m the only one to have tried to do the practical work, and I’d done a lot of it before I ever read him. The more I think about it, in fact, the more confusing I find it – I must have read him before I spoke to myself, but I don’t remember doing it.”
I thought about this. “Well, there’s the way in. I think you have a future in which you have created this whole thing, then you go back and tell your past self – your current self – how to do it, then that version of you contacts the boy in his bedroom, and so on. We need to stop that future you.”
“But I don’t remember that, and it must be in my past.”
“Just not this past.” I was feverishly trying to work it all out – was it possible that the event which started all of this had not yet happened? It must be; if not, then there really was no way out.
James seemed to be struggling with something as well. He turned to me:” I know what to do. There’s a journal in the library with the relevant work in it. I’ve only read the abstract so far, but it must be the one I use. All we need to do is prevent me from ever reading it, and then things will be different. I think.”
It seemed reasonable. All we had to do was go into the library and remove one journal from the stack.
But we wouldn’t be doing that until the morning, and in the meantime, I had to sit here with James and make sure he didn’t try to make a direct call to God, or something.
Morning did eventually come, and the library eventually opened. On the way over there, trying to work the stiffness out of my legs, I wondered if this would really be enough. I would have to do this, since if James saw any of the article, it might well be enough to trigger the whole process. I went to the top floor, and searched where James had told me to – he was standing at the end of the stack, watching with a pained expression on his face. I finally found the relevant journal, and pulled it from the shelf. My intention was to smuggle it out of the library and destroy it, but I didn’t need to go that far. As I took it off the shelf, and fumbled with my coat pocket, which was not quite big enough for it, something happened.
I’d like to say that the world swam in and out of focus, or that there was a loud bang, or something, but none of those things happened. Instead, I felt my memories shifting, as if my own mind was being rearranged. I looked back to where James was, but there was no sign of him. I looked down at my hands; I was holding an edition of the collected stories of James Thurber.
I walked cautiously out of the stack I had been in. I found myself in a part of the library I had never been in before, although it looked familiar enough – the configuration of desks and shelves was similar to the ones I used every day. I saw some books and a bag on one of the reading desks which I recognised as my own, although I wasn’t conscious of ever having seen them before. I wandered over to them, put down my Thurber, then headed for the central core and the lifts.
On the wall beside the lift was a notice detailing the location of items on the fourth floor. Fortunately, there was a chair nearby so that I could sit and gather my thoughts for a moment. Fourth floor? There was no fourth floor. I searched my memory, and most of what I have recounted here faded in and out. I ran back to the desk with my books on it, and scribbled down as much as I could remember before it all faded.
Later that afternoon, with my old memories somewhat hazy, and a growing certainty that I had imagined the whole thing – I can only compare the process of having one’s memory reconfigured as being like calcification; the memories seemed to slowly harden into certainties – I left the library and walked out into the cold crisp air of George Square. Everything seemed to be in its proper place, although one or two elements of it struck me as slightly odd; nothing I could put my finger on, though. A long-haired student of about my age passed me on his way in to the library; he was clutching a copy of A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic and arguing passionately with his companion about logical positivism. I recognised him; he didn’t even see me.
I shrugged and headed for the cafeteria under the David Hume Tower.