Professor Snyder introduces disillusioned sci-fi writer to the world of quantum mechanics.
Every time a time-traveller visits the past they are in fact re-visiting it, because they have already been there when the past was the present - that is why everything a time-traveller does when visiting the past is pre-determined. Every time-traveller is born with an obligation, they are destined to
The telephone rang. I rose from my desk and walked across the room to answer it, leaving the last sentence in my notebook unfinished. It was my good friend Miriam Winston, editor of the South Manchester Reporter. After exchanging a few pleasantries Miriam quickly cut to the chase: Tom Horrocks, the Reporter's science correspondent, was ill (ill meaning he was drying out in Withington Hospital's de-tox unit again) would I be an absolute darling and do her a great favour? I was about to put my hand over the mouthpiece and let out a deep sigh, but then thought, Well, it'll take my mind off the novel that's going nowhere.
'And what would this great favour be?' I asked.
'How about we meet for lunch, and I'll explain in full?'
'A pub lunch?'
'Although I won't be able to pay you a fee, I think I'll be able to stretch expenses to a meal at Panicos.'
'With a couple of pints in the Royal Oak aforehand?'
'Oh, you drive a hard bargain Michael.'
'Life is hard, and so am I.'
I heard a stifled laugh on the other end of the phone.
'Royal Oak, 12.45, bye,' she said, and the phone went dead.
Who'd be a provincial newspaper reporter? None but the brave and the foolhardy. The South Manchester Reporter had a paid staff of three: Miriam, who wrote the news items and the obits, as well as being the paper's photographer; Tom Horrocks, who liked to think of himself as the science correspondent, but his brief covered everything from homily features through to reviews of musical entertainment and theatrical events taking place in Chorlton and surrounding districts; and Corin Webster, who's sole charge was the advertising.
On various occasions when Tom Horrocks had been 'ill', I had written the music reviews for the paper under the byline Mick McGuinness (Miriam's invention, not mine). I didn't get paid for the reviews, but I got free entrance to the 'pay at the door' gigs - and got to know many of the local musicians, which had led to lots of late-night, post-gig drinking sessions, with and without my reporter's hat on. But on the debit side, Miriam had also sent me on assignments where I was completely out of my depth, like when I had acquiesed to review the Chorlton Amateur Dramatic Society's performance of what was billed as a 'Jacobean Revenge' play, the title of which I have long forgotten and shall never again bring to mind. I couldn't understand a word of what the cast were saying, nor what the play was supposed to be about, from start to finish. I wrote the shortest review that ever appeared in the South Manchester Reporter: "Perhaps very profound, but definitely short on laughs".
I had a wash and shave, made myself smell nice, and put on a clean shirt - the jeans and desert boots I had on were good enough for Panicos.
I was in the Royal Oak at just gone I2.30, and had almost finished my first pint of Guinness when Miriam arrived at 12.50. She spotted me straight away, sitting in the little alcove for two, opposite the Jukebox on the other side of the dancefloor.
'We'll be a bit cramped for room in there,' she said, 'Why don't we sit in the lounge
'I thought it would be more romantic with us sitting here - c'mon, park your bum,' I replied, patting the seat.
Miriam sat down, nudging me further along the seat with her knee. When she had herself settled, she opened her purse and extracted a £10 note, which she placed on the table next to my near-empty glass.
'Get yourself another drink. I'll have a bottle of Old Speckled Hen, please.'
'You've had your hair done,' I said, returning with the drinks, noticing Miriam's hair was shorter than she usually kept it, and there were several blonde highlights amongst her light-brown locks.
'Yes, I felt like a change. Do you like it?'
'Yeah, cool, really suits you. I don't know how you manage it, but you look more gorgeous every time I see you.'
'How's your novel going?' Miriam asked. 'The last time we spoke you had a touch of writer's block.'
'It's not going, it's gone. I pulled the plug on it. Time-travel fiction has too many inherent paradoxes for me to get my head around. And besides, I'll be 39 in a couple of weeks time, it's time I started on something a bit more serious.'
'Your "War and Peace" epic?'
'Yeah, I've got the title already, "Being and Somethingness". Now all I need is the first sentence. Anyways, what's this favour you're a-wanting of me?'
'What do you know about quantum mechanics?'
'Mmmm, quantum mechanics...a scientific theory concerning little things.'
'Sub-atomic particles, according to Tom Horrocks.'
'Yeah, little things. Why do you ask?'
'James Snyder is giving a lecture on the subject tonight at the Masonic Hall on High Lane. I'd very much appreciate it if you would cover it for the Reporter.'
'James Snyder, who's he?'
'He's one of the new breed of popular scientists, he takes complex concepts and makes them easily understandable to lay persons. Tom reckons he's a bit of a maverick, says he takes an heretical stance against the current consensus amongst quantum physicists.'
'Good for him, but why would the South Manchester Reporter's readership be interested in some dry as dust scientific theory? You'd be better off filling the space with a review of tonight's Minnie and the Ne'er Do Wells' gig at the Lloyds.'
'Michael!' She gasped. 'The cardinal rule of responsible journalism is that you should never underestimate your readers' intelligence and thirst for knowledge!'
I knew Miriam was right. She has worked in journalism since she left college over 20 years ago; and although she had as much reason, if not more, to feel as cynical about the profession as us punters who buy the newspapers, she had stuck steadfastly to her Old School principles throughout her working life.
'OK, I'll do it,' I said, holding up my hands. 'Are you coming along to take photos? We could go for a drink afterwards, catch Minnie and The Ne'er Do Wells' second set.'
'I'd love to, but I've got a date tonight.'
'Oh..anyone I know?'
'No, it's someone new.'
'Ah, hence the new hair style. Someone interesting?'
'He's a poet.'
'No one of interest then.'
'Oh Michael, you're awful!'
'Well, it's better than being full of awe.'
I arrived at the Masonic Hall just after 7.20, forty minutes before the lecture was due to start. There was no one on the door, so I didn't need to flash Tom Horrocks' press pass. I went into the auditorim, where there was 60 or so chairs arranged in three semi-circles, the front one being some 15 foot distance from the altar, or whatever the Masons call the table at which they worship their master. All the chairs were unoccupied, so I walked back towards the entrance hall and entered the bar. I ordered a pint of Guinness, and looked around the room. There was an elderly bloke sitting at a table by the window; the only other people in the room were a couple of guys standing at the far end of the bar to myself; they seemed to be sharing a joke as they were chuckling away merrily. They looked an oddly matched pair: one was a tall, thick-set guy, dressed in a black dinner suit, white shirt, black bow-tie and shiny, patent leather shoes; he had a severe combed-back haircut, flattened down with gel; his overall appearance gave me the impression that he could well handle himself if he got drawn into bother. The other guy was a good six inches shorter than his companion; his fair hair was piled up on his head Marie Antoinette style; he was wearing a pink sweater, a pair of gaudy, checked trousers and black and white two-tone shoes - he looked like he'd come straight off the golf course.
The two odd-bods were leaving the bar as I ordered another pint of Guinness. As they passed on their way to the door the smaller guy winked at me - although it might not have been a wink, it could have been a nervous tic, or he might have had something in his eye. Whatever, I nodded my head in acknowledgement, just in case it had happened to be a friendly gesture on his part.
I finished my second pint of Guinness just before 8 o'clock, and made my way back into the auditorium. Less than a quarter of the chairs were occupied, folk young and old sitting in twos and threes, spaced out more or less evenly amongst the three rows of chairs. I took the end seat at the left-hand side of the middle row. I took out my notebook and placed it open on my knees as a man walked from the wings and stood in front of the altar.
Fuckin' hell, Dick Crenshaw! My notebook almost slipped off my knees.
Crenshaw was a local independent financial advisor and licensed money lender, as dodgy as they come - he was so bent rumour had it that when he died they were going to screw him into the ground. Miriam and Tom had been on his case a couple of times regarding scams he'd pulled on his clients: he'd made the front page on both occasions, causing him maximum embarrassment for a time; but Crenshaw was ultra-hardfaced, his face was so hard you could chop meat on it - plus he had people he could call upon to cover his tracks before Miriam could get too far into his dealings. But as Tom had confided to me, you only get three calls on The Brotherhood, and then you're paddling your own canoe. Miriam and Tom were going to nail him good and proper eventually and, like them, for me the day couldn't arrive soon enough.
'Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Chorlton-cum-Hardy Masonic Hall. For those of you who have not visited our historic building before, please feel welcome to have a look around the hall after tonight's lecture has ended. Contrary to the beliefs of certain sections of the media, the Freemasons are not a secret society - but like most of you good people in tonight's audience,' (At this point Crenshaw raised his arm, and with his index finger pointing outwards he exectued a wide sweep from right to left.) 'we do have our secrets. So mote it be! But it is now time for me to introduce this evening's guest speaker, Professor James Snyder from the...' (Crenshaw read the rest of the introduction from a piece of paper he was holding.) '...Institute for the Advancement of the Popular Understanding of Science. Will you please extend a warm welcome to Mr Snyder.'
Crenshaw sat down on one of the front row chairs as Snyder entered to muted applause. It was the guy from the bar, the one in the black suit.
'Firstly, I would like to ask you all a question,' the guy started off. 'What does the term Quantum Mechanics mean to you?'
No one answered. A silence descened on the hall for thirty seconds or more. The guy's eyes flashed hither and thither around the audience in a manner suggesting that he wasn't going to carry on until someone spoke up.
'Little things,' I blurted out as his eyes alighted on me.
'Ah, I see we have a scholar in the audience,' the guy says, and a ripple of laughter spread throughout the auditorium.
Crenshaw looked around to see who had spoken. I kept a poker face, and gave him a sideways look. He quickly turned his ugly head back to face Snyder.
'Your words have it encapsulated in a nutshell sir - your name please.'
'Yes, Michael, little things. Things that one cannot see with the naked eye. Little things that do not conform to the law of physics that big things are deemed to do. How could a big thing be here and somewhere else at the same time? Impossible, a quantum mechanic would be quick to tell you. Yet the same person would not hesitate in telling you that little things, sub-atomic particles to be precise, have no problem in doing exactly that. So, our quantum mechanic is implying that there is NO universal law of physics, or further than that he is implying that certain things are "above the law", rather like the "don't do as I do, do as I say" attitude adopted by the pious, the religious and the downright arrogant sections of the society within which we live. But how could a universe exist for billions of years without a universal law to govern it? - You may well ask! Well, it might be a blow to his ego, but I'm afraid the quantum mechanic is wrong, wrong, wrong. The truth of the matter is that there IS a universal law of physics that governs our universe, on a one size fits all basis. It is the greatest untruth of our times that sub-atomic particles behave differently to bigger things, like milk bottles, biscuits tins and angle-poised lamps - the fact is that everything in this universe we inhabit has the propensity to be here and somewhere else at the same time. And without futher ado, I am going to prove my point by carrying out an experiment that you will most likely have heard about through various offices, and no doubt will have drawn many of you here tonight to witness: the experiment that has come to be known, without my approval I should add, as "Snyder's Dog". Mr Boyson, the cabinets, sil vous plait.'
The other guy from the bar, the one in the golfing gear - only now he was wearing a long, light-brown overall coat - came on pushing a glass box with castors affixed to the bottom. The box was at least six foot tall, and about three foot square. He wheeled the box past Snyder, leaving it a few feet away from his colleague. He then returned to the wings, and a few seconds later came back pushing an identical box which he positioned a similar distance away from his Snyder's left-hand side.
'And now let me introduce the protagonist in our experiment. C'mon Rex, here boy.' Snyder clicked his fingers, and a dog, some kind of German Shepherd crossbreed by the look of it, came bounding in from the wings.
'In you go my friend,' Snyder said, opening a door on the side of the box on his right-hand side.
The dog trotted into the box and sat down on its haunches facing the audience, his front legs holding him in a steady, stationary position.
The dog remained as he was for a good 30 seconds after Snyder had shut the door. After the initial silence that had fallen when the dog entered the box, impatient murmers could now be heard coming from several sections of the audience. Then, all of a sudden, the dog changed colour: he turned bright red; not just his dark-brown coat, but his eyes too. The murmers changed to gasps, as in the other box an identical dog appeared, but this one was coloured a very light shade of blue. My eyes moving from box to box, I discerned a slight colour change in both dogs: the blue dog appeared to be getting brighter, whilst the red dog's colour appeared to be lightening. This process quickened: the brighter the blue dog became, the red dog's colour faded in more or less direct proportion, until they reached a point where their colours were going through the full cycle of lightening and fading every 10 seconds or so.
'Point made, I think!' Snyder declared, as the blue dog turned dark-brown and the red dog disappeared completely. 'What did you make of that sir?' He asked, looking directly at me.
'Smoke and mirrors,' I replied.
The guy was obviously a fraudster. A well-worked trick, I'd grant him - as a showman he had quite a neat act, even though it was possibly just a one-trick pony - but I reckoned he had some brass neck on him trying to pass off a stage-managed illusion as a scientific experiment.
'You think so - Michael, the scholar, isn't it? Well, Michael, perhaps you would like to participate in my experiment, and prove to the audience that it is merely a matter of smoke and mirrors as you say?'
I had no intention of aiding him in his deception; but Snyder started goading me by raising his eyebrows and looking around the audience with a benign smile on his face, as if to imply that it was me who was the charlatan.
'He's certainly not as brave as you Rex - is he boy?' Snyder said, opening the glass box on his left-hand side and summoning the dog out.
'OK,' I said, rising from my chair and stuffing my notebook into my jacket pocket. 'What do you want me to do?'
'Ah, a change of heart. It seems I have underestimated your reslove sir. Come join me, if you will,' he replied, beckoning me towards him.
I walked up to Snyder where he was standing between the two glass boxes, stroking the dog's head. Snyder opened the door of the glass box on his right-hand side.
'Step inside,' he said. 'And face the audience, if you would.'
I went inside the box, and Snyder closed the door. Looking out at the audience I noted that most of them were smiling in anticipation of what was going to happen; Crenshaw on the front row had a smug grin on his face, no doubt looking forward to me being made to look an idiot when it was all over.
Nothing happened for 30 seconds or so, and then the glass all around me turned opaque.
So that's the trick!
I must have been standing there for five minutes, waiting for the glass to become transparent again, all the while planning how I was going to show Snyder up for the trickster he was. The box was soundproof, I couldn't hear a thing from outside; and once I'd fully worked out what I was going to say when I got out of the box, I soon started to become impatient. I rapped my knuckles on the box's door to elicit Snyder's attention - but drew no response. Getting fed up with the whole thing, I finally pushed open the door and stepped outside.
I was in what appeared to be a gents' toilet. I was facing the urinals, an old style three man piss-stone with a sloping trough at the bottom. I turned around; the glass box had gone; I found myself looking into a mirror above a washbasin. But it wasn't me staring back from the mirror: it was a kid, a teenager. A snappily-dressed teenager, wearing a dark blue mohair two-piece suit, sky blue shirt and a slim black tie. I looked down at the pointy-toed shoes I was wearing; hitching up my trouser legs I saw they were ankle boots with elasticated panels on either side. A blast of rock and roll music hit my ears: someone had opened the door. The music ceased, although I could still sense it as background noise, as soon as the door closed again. I looked at the young guy who had entered: he was dressed similar to myself, only his suit looked of a much cheaper cut than mine.
'Is that your bird out there mate?' he asked, thumbing over his shoulder towards the door. 'Only, if it is, she's not in a very good mood.'
I didn't answer him. I walked to the door, opened it to the music, and stepped out into a disco / nightclub - and immediately found a young woman confronting me - a very attractive young woman with shoulder-length blonde hair.
'What the hell have you been doing Edwin? I thought you'd died in there!'