Dry heat. Dry wine. Dry talks. Summer conferences: the tumbleweed of another academic year. The picked-up pieces of papers that most wished they’d never written. These tinderboxes of tedium, the wasteful result of managers yelling at post-graduate students and staff to churn out ideas like a factory of citations and insights. It’s okay though, because everyone’s doing it. Amy knew she’d written her work in a rush – though so had everyone else.
All except Professor Timothy Whittaker. Tim (as he insisted everyone address him – he felt awkward around titles) prepared for conferences as if he was preparing to storm the Fed or the Royal Mint. His handouts were glorious – pages of dull, technical information. Reams of slides teeming with lifeless material. His speech, a continuous stream of information from multiple angles on issues desiring only the faintest of attention, and all of which delivered him vastly over the 20-minute slot he was given each year. But Tim didn’t seem to realise, or care.
But then again, neither did his audience.
You see, Tim was boring, but his work was somehow fascinating. Not the content as such – no that was so dull as to render his audience envious of the dead – but the original discoveries he managed to find, they were something else.
Tim had a “knack” (as one disgruntled reviewer once remarked) at finding original documents from the Middle Ages. Tim would visit some monastery or walk through some woods or – one time – move house, and see some kind of peculiarity. An odd-looking desk drawer high in an abandoned church. A stack of rolled papers behind a wall. A box hidden under a grand rock. He’d look closer and, yes, sure enough, it was a document relating to his area of research – the social history of medieval shoe-wear.
To say the least, this was suspicious. Finding original documents is rare enough. Finding them multiple times is bizarre. Finding them specifically relating to your – nuanced - area of research? Impossible.
And yet, all tests performed, all interrogation of the documents, checking of the ink, vellum, writing style, imaging, all revealed the impossible: they were genuine, as far as science and reason could tell.
Tim certainly had a “knack” and that knack had garnered him an impressive level of citations – an average of around 200 for a single paper – “famous” some of his colleagues said. If he were alive in his own period of investigation – others joked – Tim would be burned as a mystic, or wizard, or devil-worshipper.
They joked, though in the audience at Tim’s regular 35-minute, 20-minute speeches, many felt themselves day-dreaming of such vengeance. But not Amy.
Amy, a gifted student of History, decided to dedicate her life to its study. As a child she dreamed of what it would be like to rule a nation. As she grew, she fantasised of living in a world of the political manoeuvring of factions, marriages, charm, fear and religious strife that typified the age of adventure. She began to peer into the minds of those rulers. She found high-grades, and even higher-praise. She chose her university so that her degree was widely cast – she wanted context to prepare her for a world she wished she was in. A world she might strive to replicate, in some way, in the meaningful work of her own time. Perhaps politics, perhaps charity, or law, or innovation or industry. “The world was yet to see what Amy could be” her father embarrassed her always.
During her second year, she found herself in a lecture on the importance of social history. This was true rigorous context, she was told. Even the minor is important to the major, her lecturer learnedly informed the room. Tim was not an inspiring man, but Amy desired context – and this was apparently where to find it.
Book after book, after podcast after lecture. Her momentary obsession would probably have passed into a slight interest with due time, had she not attained such a high-grade on that paper. A high-grade which in turn led to an e-mail from Tim; and a discussion of an MA.
From there, through the promises of the meaningful nature of esoteric academic obsessions, came the tantalising elucidations of a future spent discussing fascinating topics, with intelligent, rational truth-seekers. Amy was sold on a PhD. She found her niche, marketed it to the appropriate bodies in the appropriate way (something, something, French philosopher), and thus found herself under the tutorage of a Professor Timothy Whittaker.
As Amy sat half-listening to Tim’s second off-topic multi-minute caveat, she made her plan for lunch. Staring idly off she caught the open laptop of another audience member – a speaker slated for the afternoon. He was hurriedly writing his PowerPoint presentation, only an hour and a half before his panel was to begin. She noticed he had stopped writing, mid-sentence. He had heard something. She remembered where she was. She sat upright and leaned in, chin on her hands, as if she had been listening – contemplating – all along. Tim was revealing another new source.
“Indeed, hidden amongst the stack, in the unfiltered bundle of trials, I found a discarded notation. The notation was indicative of an early form of “invoice” - if I can be so bold as to use that term.” Mild, learned laughter led Tim into his Latin quotation (without translation) of the “invoice”. After much forensic analysis of the different types of calligraphy, and linguistic choices, he was certain it came from the very period he had drawn attention to in his talk.
“These sources are a form of knowing. Indeed, they exclaim to us an understanding of the experiential feeling that one can get, only from a practical, or pragmatical, interrogation of the primary material. It is only through this, through these – shall I say – frames of the past, that one can discern the physicality, materiality and – consequently perhaps – the intelligibility of those cultural landscapes. A kind of, meeting between past and present and all that that entails in the researcher, the researched, and – dare I say – the researchee. Thank you for your time and I hope I can answer any questions you may have.”
There was no time for questions. Amy was not quite sure if she could decipher what he had said in the end, but she would pretend she did – as would the rest of the room, and they would all decide it was very clever, poignant and revealing.
However, neither the ending of the speech – nor really its content – was the talk of the day (or rather, of the lunch). It was the clock-work like reveal of yet another undiscovered, specific, primary source.
Despite the average age of the conference being over the other side of a half century, there were no chairs, and thus a standing buffet was the result for lunch. Distinguished elderly men and women huddled in corners, wearing name-tags of Professor so-and-so and Dr such-and-such, were cast across an empty hall, interspersed with networking students, dizzying from group to group, as the established stood, hand on paper plate, second sausage roll in mouth, wine balanced upon the table.
Amy, plate precariously in hand, navigated her way through the rushing winds of eager students, towards her supervisor, and his pack of hounds. They were not yet ready for the kill, and had, instead, opted for lighter conversation.
“Your talk was wonderful,” said Dr. Mildred Tooting, “Although I did want to ask..”
She was cut off, as another academic cut their way into the crowd.
“I can’t believe how they haven’t got any chairs!” Dr. Samuel Barnabas, in his early forties, was the only adult comfortable with making such a complaint – it didn’t invite discussions on his age or retirement. It also saved everyone else the indignity of young students attempting to show empathy in their chair-less dotage, in order to open conversations on topics those students hardly understood but would pretend to anyway.
Mildred wanted to continue, but her voice was small enough that no one else had taken much notice either.
“Samuel, I believe someone else was speaking,” Dr. Andrea Manwaring spoke with an authority that could only be garnered from moral superiority. She looked at Dr. Tooting, and smiled.
“Oh, sorry,” said Samuel, obliviously.
“It’s of no concern. Now, Professor, I did want to-“
“Martha! You’re here!” Screamed Andrea as Dr. Martha Hamstein approached, “Sorry, sorry, but it’s so good to see you! Everyone, this is Martha. She’s just got a position at Oxford working on – oh what is it again?”
“Oh, yes, it’s a wonderful little job – we’re putting together a database of mining operations in the North of England at the turn of the first millennium.”
“It’s very political,” Andrea proudly stated, “Even radical, perhaps.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” Martha was always so modest, “But it does raise interesting questions as to the treatment of miners in the 1980s by the Thatcherite government – were there mines a thousand years ago? Very interesting, you see, she could have killed an industry that had been around for a thousand-“
Dr. Samuel Barnabas turned to Amy as Martha captivated the group with biting political analysis “So, enjoying the conference?”
“Yes, definitely. I saw you in Tim’s talk.” She didn’t say she had seen him finishing his own talk throughout.
“Tim does wonderful work. And a great man to work for, I’m sure. Have you been teaching your own students yet?”
“Just started this term.”
“Oh fantastic stuff. Best part of the job. Have they started you marking yet?”
“Yes, got about 20 to do. All on an area I don’t really know much about either – but they needed the teaching so… Well, I also had to wait for a couple as they were a day late, and apparently we don’t do anything about that-”
“Oh yes, they pretty much gave that all up. Students are always doing work last minute. It absolutely infuriates me. Why can’t they just schedule their time properly? It’s a joke, it really is.”
Tim was about to leave to grab another Waitrose sandwich for his plastic plate, when Mildred Tooting finally got her chance, “Tim, just before you go to the queue again, I was wondering. How do manage to find all these documents?”
Samuel, Amy, Andrea and Martha somehow heard Mildred’s weakened voice, and stalled their own for a moment. Listening, but attempting to hide it, which they all did so, poorly.
“Ah” Tim said, with a smile, “Secrets!” And with a tap of his nose he shuffled off for a sandwich.
If you think of adults as grown up babies, the world makes a lot more sense. To let out their enthusiasm, to finally talk about the larger picture inspirations behind their work, academics flock to pubs. Here they can let out the child-like sense of wonder that cast their life into the never-ending search for funding. They pretend to forget it was ever there. Being infantile is sacrilege. Only the heretics can be impassioned. Alcohol is the cloud so many adults need to let loose what they keep under lock and key.
In the pub – old and young academics, mix with students. The higher-ups hate it. Everyone else enjoys it. And Amy and her group were taking full advantage.
Along with several other post-grads, Amy had been in deep debate about the merits of Agamben and his theory of Personhood. The relation to her own social history work was fascinating, but Dr Samuel Barnabas (a noted critic on all things philosophical) had been railing against the idea all evening thus far. Professor Whitaker had stayed mostly silent, watching from the side-lines – it somehow made him seem even more learned. Whereas Andrea had interjected whenever Samuel made a point too close to something approaching conservative analysis. It all came to a head:
“The truth is Samuel just thinks many of our most interesting questions aren’t interesting at all. He’d de-fund them in a moment.” Andrea knew her audience of post-grads. And she knew Samuel well.
“Some questions have no point,” Samuel was slightly drunk. And he knew his position: the provocateur was necessary when one was always made a caricature. And, though he’d never admit it, he liked playing the part.
“What?” Amy was ready. With the fires of youth – as Aristotle had once called it.
“We have a duty as academics – and sometimes…”
“There’s no such thing as questions that have no point! Everything is as useful to know as anything else. This ridiculous bias that science can tell us more than the humanities – or more than we can discover through our work is absolutely wrong. Besides, its our choice to use our minds in whatever way we best consider. They’re ours to do what we want with – we don’t owe anything to anyone. What matters is asking questions and enquiring.” Amy felt the support of the room behind her.
“We waste good intelligence on questions that are, basically, unimportant.” Samuel was used to head-winds.
“People’s minds aren’t yours to control. You don’t get to choose what is or isn’t a waste. You don’t get to dictate that.”
“I’m not trying to dictate it, I’m trying to encourage people not to throw away their intelligence – there’s more meaningful-” His drunkenness was placed aside for his actual points to rise.
“And there we go. You consider some work more meaningful than others. That’s the issue. It’s not your call. All of the funding bodies try to do that-”
“Yeah and they call work ‘meaningful’ whenever it sounds sufficiently close to a philosopher’s interpretation that they like. But there actually are more meaningful-”
“No. Funding bodies are faulted – but so is the general attitude towards academic study. We can – and should – encourage people to take up any question that might bear interesting fruit. Yes, science has its good and its bad, but you need interpretations, voices, stories, views on other parts of life too – even the areas that seem small and useless to you.”
“In a world of scare resources that seems just – I mean, all of that intelligence – there’s a lot of problems in this world, and a lot of progress that needs sharp minds. We have to reach the stars, cure disease, enquire about the big questions about our past – we don’t have to spend forever on the minor details or the-”
“Again: it isn’t for you to dictate what is and isn’t a waste, that’s for the person themselves. Our gifts are our own. Intelligence might be scarce, but people should use that resource for their own development, for the encouragement of their own beliefs, and on whatever questions they want to answer.”
Tim looked on. His smile grew at his student’s impassioned, honest, piercing critiques. He saw, in her, the defence of everything he stood for: enquiry for the sake of enquiry. A waste of intellect was an assuredly cruel take on his life’s work. A cruel, heartless take that would rid the humanities of all their worth. For Tim saw the protection of his research as the protection of the broadest possible conception of his subject. Intellect was a gift that was theirs to use as they pleased – and Amy had put it better than the professor could have hoped to. The next generation is refreshing not only for its new takes on old debates, but for its close-ness to that child-like past the elderly feel is too undignified for them to revive. That child-like past of passions and clear-sight.
Tim excused himself to the bathroom, with a joke about needing a break from the battle of the ages. It wasn’t funny, but everyone laughed as if tension was the best set-up for a comedy routine.
Just before he left, Tim tapped Amy on the arm, “I want to tell you something – well, more specifically, I want to show you something. Remind me when I get back – when enough time has passed that we can talk without drawing a lot of attention,” he said at that low-level speech that gets hidden amongst the louder noises of a student pub.
The group moved on – there were other discussions to be had. Discussions that didn’t involve any questions that attacked their livelihoods and life-plans.
After a while Tim returned. He stepped out and into the pub. He had taken uncomfortably long in the bathroom. No one would mention it.
As he approached the table, he sat next to Amy, and the group continued its debate into precisely how much of a failure the crusades actually were. Under the protection of her standing glass of cider, she asked, “What was it that you wanted to show me?”
Tim cleared his throat, leaned in, “After my lecture tomorrow, I can tell you. But you must promise me – you must promise, that you tell no one and do not bring anyone with you.”
With anyone else Amy would have been concerned, but Tim was trustworthy, old and frail. She wasn’t worried at all.
“Sure, where do you want to meet?”
“My office. Don’t be late. And remember. Don’t bring anyone.”
Tim smiled, Amy half-laughed “Why are we being so cautious?”
“I’m going to tell you my secret.”
Lectures were sometimes boring – especially ones you had already covered during your undergrad. But this lecture was especially boring. Not because of the contents, but because of what awaited for Amy at the end of it. The method.
Tim was close to retirement. Amy was his chosen student. She was the next in line. Her career stretched before her: work after work of incredible finds. But, unlike Tim, she’d be personable and approachable to all – she’d branch out a little, gain a wider audience. She’d post online about the documents as she found them. She’d promote history to others. Perhaps to other women – or poor people – or poor women – or, or. Possibilities flashed before her for the full 2 hour session. His secret.
It’d sound ridiculous from anyone else, but Tim’s career spoke for itself. He must have something else behind him – some strategy no one else had found. It’d be the kind of thing that would be so simple once you knew it, something that was obvious when seen. The kind of thing people would ask, in generations and generations time, ‘how could no one have known that?’. Like evolution, or a round earth. Well, some people might be sceptical of the method, but she’d be able to use it regardless. What an honour. What a guarantee of a future. What a wonderful generous thing.
When playing with building blocks, one of the first things anyone does is to build the highest they can. Just to see how high they can go. Amy, in that lecture theatre, and from the moment she awoke, from the moment she went to sleep, from the moment she’d placed her cider on the table in a subtle slow dawn of the gravity of Tim’s generosity; she had been building higher and higher.
Wisdom told her that such building rarely gave way to actuality. The tower never really reached the ceiling. Nevertheless, she permitted this dreaming in herself for now. Might as well enjoy the ride. And besides, how could Tim’s method not be anything but astoundingly good? After all, he had actual results. This wasn’t likely to be snake-oil.
The moment Tim’s lecture ended, Amy got up from her seat and rushed towards the door, across the campus and towards Tim’s office. She didn’t have to attend the lecture, but it felt rude not to. It also felt rude to be late. So she’d be early.
Even intelligent people do strange things.
Tim, saying nothing to Amy, slipped past her in the hallway, slid his ID into the thoroughly modern lock, and opened the door to Amy and himself.
Tim’s office was a room designed for a man of his stature. The founder of the university had been an exceedingly rich, and an exceedingly bizarre type of person. As a consequence of this, a handful of the older offices were built as if the occupants were the inheritors of great fortunes. For many, this led to inflated egos out of kilter with the reality of their achievements – for a few, such as Timothy Whitaker, the offices were instructive. Old, dark wood. Dark panelling, contrasted with fleur-de-lies Osborne wallpaper. A dark desk so heavy one imagined the floor to sag beneath it. Paintings on the wall of the founder and his children, all framed in gilded gold. Deep, dark bookshelves across the right-hand wall. A glorious, large window behind that monstrous desk.
Entering his office, Tim cast his satchel onto a moth-eaten Ikea sofa that sat, sadly, and obscure, behind the open door; and made his way to the cheap standard office chair that sat behind the desk. Amy made her way in, closing the door behind her, and sat herself on the foam padded, metal-framed chair that sat in front of the desk. Modern student fees hardly fed the room properly.
Tim stared at her for a moment.
Amy didn’t want to say anything. She thought of small-talk, but couldn’t quite manage it. Her nerves ate at her words.
Tim was, similarly, struggling.
“So,” He managed.
“So,” She replied.
“Well,” she replied.
“Yes,” He said
“Well, I was-“
“Let me tell you what I want to say,” He cut her off. He was the senior member of staff. He was her mentor and supervisor. It was on him to take command of this situation, he wouldn’t let the burden fall to her.
“You are going to think I am mad, but I am not. You must trust me. I will show you. And I will prove it to you.”
“Okay,” she said. She wanted to make a joke to break the tension and drama. But she wasn’t very funny.
“When I first passed my PhD, the university was a lot smaller than it is now. Most of the buildings were not built, and this office still had a nice chair” He paused for laughter. He wasn’t funny either though. “Anyway, there wasn’t much room for the new cohort of lecturers that were being hired. I was lucky, they gave me this office. This old, beautiful office.” Tim sat back, and scanned the walls as an old man reflecting favourably upon the blur of years that are framed by the very same view he cast his eye upon at this same moment – and a view he was aware retirement would take from him, permanently.
“The previous holder had come up for retirement. He was a literary professor who also wrote a great deal of science fiction. It was a lot more mundane than the usual sci-fi, but much more insightful.” Academics and side-tracking, Amy thought. “He came to collect one of his notebooks after he had left. He managed to turn up on the same day I was moving into the office. Quite strange, I thought at the time, as he had retired at the beginning of the summer and this was right near its end. Strange. But not when I understood.
“He looked at me, you see, after grabbing his notebook, and smiled. Not a usual smile. A kind of smile you give when you know something about the person you’re looking at. If I were a suspicious man, which I resolutely am not, I would have thought he had something over me – like some kind of terrible secret. The sad thing was, I would have been somewhat right.
“He told me to have a good career, that this office had brought him a great many successes and inspirations. And, if ever in doubt, I should consult the good book.”
Tim pushed himself up, and out of his dreary dull chair, and walked the few steps towards the bookshelf nearest the window. With the science building behind him and his fingers tracing hundred year old volumes across a shelf, he looked as if he were a cliché wrapped in a postcard.
The bookshelf was an old, chipped, impressive tomb of tomes. Dusty, out-of-date histories no one could possibly cite with a straight face, adorned the shelves. Tim spoke as his hand glided across those long-outdated, long-forgotten, never-to-be-read life works.
“Naturally I considered it a joke. Then, around fifteen years ago, I was writing papers I knew barely made sense. I was becoming less innovative, less smart. More and more stressed. It seemed like I was getting a lot done – but all of it was… well, terrible.
“I sat here, one evening, after receiving acceptance for another article I knew to be shoddy. I sat here and pictured my life. My future. What ending would I have? Another set of books, on another set of shelves – just, never read. Like all of these. Just never read.
“I sat here.
“And just stared at those shelves. At these shelves. I pictured a golden age that probably never existed. A time when one could justify one’s existence based purely on intellectual enquiry. Where one could avoid the dreaded cliché of publish or perish, and actually spend time on an enquiry of their own.
“My eyes caught an old bible. An 18th Century King James translation. The good book. I remember laughing and deciding I might as well look if there were any references to struggling academics – I’m ashamed to admit it, but I also wondered if maybe I could write a paper on a biblical line and its reception in shoe making in Gloucester… I didn’t imagine there was anything in it, but one must see what one can do to keep up citations.
“It was then, that-”
Tim held his hand above the frayed edges. Amy saw a slight grimace – regret? – flash across his face, before resolve won the day. Tim’s fingers levied the tome from the tomb.
Tim slid the heavy text into his palm, and looked ready to pull it loose.
“- I took it from the shelf,”
A piercing crack.
Amy’s hand blocking light from scorching her eyes.
Only light and silence.
And a storm. A thick blue storm that wrapped the room. A hanging breath of oil that clung to Amy’s lungs.
A thick blue haze seeped between her fingers, removing her hands in shuddering awe, she saw Tim standing calm. Standing calm within a storm, the air a translucent blue oil. In his hands remained the bible.
Tim spoke, in ghostly unknown wavering soundwaves. An echo of a convicted inflection: “Do—n’’’t worr—rry” Unintelligible disruption stretched the syllables, sound moving out of sync from the movement of his lips.
Tim slid the bible partially upon the shelf.
So many numbers.
Numbers on spines. Floating. Across the room, across spines. Numbers bathed the room.
Tim secreted the bible in the shelf. The oil blotted away. As if a rag swept the air, leaving only vapour trails as a wax-work reminder of the miracle that she had seen. The floating numbers from the shelves dissipated into the sullen dark green covers of the works of dust.
The air was light. And thin.
Tim stood before her. Small, old, wispy hair and crinkled skin. Just as he had before. But now. Now Amy shook in her speech.
“Tim…. What… The-”
“What the hell was that? What did you do to me?!” Amy spoke as if she was in one of those nightmares where try as you might you cannot manage a scream. That shallow dark under-breath of pure, unadulterated fear. “What in the fuck was that? What - Did you spike my drin- I don’t have a- my foo- What in the fuck was that?!” Amy rested her soul upon her legs, hid her legs behind her chair, and held the chair in place. A shield to the terror of the loss of continuity.
“Amy, focus. Did you see the numbers?”
“What the fuck are you… What are you talking abo-”
“The numbers Amy. You saw them, right? On the shelf?”
“Yes I saw the fucking numbers! The room was blue! The air was blue! THE LIGHT. WHAT THE-” She was gaining her voice.
“Stop. Amy. Listen.” He was demanding her silence. There was nothing in HR training on how to manage a student in this frame of mind. And besides, Tim had never listened to their patronising rambling anyway. He was too important, and they were too disingenuous.
“Tim,” She brought forth the guidance from her father – the lawyer came out occasionally. “You need to explain this right now. Or I’m reporting you for whatever the fuck kind of assault this is.”
Tim stood, undeterred. “The numbers Amy. Did you see what they were?”
Two breaths. That’s all it takes to steady yourself sometimes – to steady yourself for the journey you’re about to take. One for reflection. The second for preparation. The third is reserved for the start, “Chains. Chains of them. I don’t know, what the fu-“
“Amy. How many were in each group, or chain?”
“I don- like three – four -” The atmosphere had turned to something so familiar, Amy was falling into the position of the student, and Tim was now the Professor.
“Four, and some three. Some, sometimes are two. I’ve even had just one, once.”
“Tim – I want to go-”
“Amy, they’re not chains of numbers. Well they are, but they signify something.”
“What- Tim you can’t just act like this is all norma-”
“Tim, I need to leav-”
“Amy!” As a man whose talent was to put audiences to sleep, Tim never raised his voice, so Amy had no preparation for this event either. She stood, for just a moment. In a moment or so more she would probably have screamed back, and left, ready to sort this out herself. But Tim just needed that moment. That momentary pause. That silence in shock.
“Amy, they’re dates.”
She sat back down. Mute. She knew where this must lead.
“Each one is a date. They seem to be randomly generated each time, though the current year is always shown. I’ve seen one as high as 2250, and one as low as a 2 or 3 from memory. But they’re dates. Modern format dates. Whoever made this – whoever made it – made sure to standarise the dates. You press a single digit on a single number and you find yourself here, but… on that date, minus a day. After 24 hours, you’re back here, at the same time and place”
“Tim, what are you saying?” She knew, but she needed to hear it.
“I’m saying – well. You know. You can travel in time.”
She couldn’t decide if Tim had finally lost it – but those lights, that strange shift. She didn’t know of anything that could do that. No machine that she knew of. But it was at least more likely to be some odd machine than a… time machine. Some lighting or air modifying machine… Is this a practical joke?
“Is this a practical joke?” She finally asked.
“I told you I’d show you my secret. This is it.” He spoke as a man speaks when he is free of a burden. A kind of extended sigh.
“Tim – what. How?”
He opened the top left-hand drawer of his desk, the closest to the bookshelf – that bookshelf. In his hands was a metal box.
“I go back, go to local areas I know were involved in the shoe trade, and take – or buy sometimes – or sometimes well, you know, I’m ashamed to say. But it’s for history! Well, anyway, I take a document related to the work, and I put it in a box like this. Sometimes I place them somewhere then and there – somewhere that I know wasn’t over-turned or altered in the intervening years. That way the documents age properly, but I know exactly where to retrieve them from. Sometimes, something still happens to them. They still go missing. Some kids must dig them up, I suppose. Anyway, other times, if I run out of time, I simply keep them in my drawer, go back to another date close to the period and then squirrel the document away. You see, the owners don’t miss them, it doesn’t change muc-”
“Stop. Stop. Stop. Please,” His words were unrelenting. Too much to take in, “I need to go. This is too much.”
“No Amy, please stay. Please don’t go. I want to talk this through with you now. At this moment.”
“Tim, you’re telling me that you somehow have a time machine in your office – did you build it?”
“-No it was just here when I got here, I often wonder at wh-”
“Right. So you have this machine – somehow. And you’re telling me, you don’t have any ingenious method. You’re not some super historian. You’re telling me – let me get this as straight as I can – you’re telling me that you have a time machine in your office. That you use that time machine to go back to dates between the ninth and twelfth centuries. That you take documents, on shoe making from that period, hide them in the dirt, or in walls, or move them from place to place. So they age properly. And then you present these findings, on shoe making, at over-expensive conferences, and articles read only by a handful of people?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite as uncharitably as that,” Tim, Professor Whitaker, was offended.
“Yes. That is my area of research.”
“So – again, just for the record, you are claiming that you time travel, to steal, trade, whatever, find documents from around a thousand years ago, and store them, so you can retrieve them, and write articles on the social history of shoemaking.”
“Yes. I don’t know why you’re so hung up on-”
Silence, for the first time, fell between them. Strangely, Tim appeared to be in greater shock than Amy. The inversion of time was one thing, but the inversion of status – the indignity, the lack of respect, that was something else altogether.
“What – How dare you!” An old man shouting is more sad than it ever is threatening, “I invite you into my office, and show you-”
“No. Enough.” Amy stood, leaned her hands on the desk. The look on Tim’s face – the schoolchild bullied for his intellect – it flashed back, as if Amy’s command was enough to cast Tim 50 years hence. Learned behaviour kicked in, and he fell quiet once again.
“Tim, this is insane. If this is true. If this is true – what you are doing, what you have been doing is totally and utterly and completely wrong. You’ve not just misled other professors, historians, students…” Amy breathed deep, dropped her eyes to the dark wood desk, then back to standing, statue Tim, “But, it’s way worse than that. You say you have something here. Something absolutely incredible. Something huge. Something that changes the fate of us all. You can warn us of future dangers. You can end the lives of evil dictators. You can rescue people that die in random accidents – good people. You can tell previous generations of the real possibility of a future world without suffering. You can gift them modern medicine- you can- you can give them a glimpse of a reality they can strive for where the majority of children don’t die as a matter of course before the age of 16! We need to have an entire debate on how to use this, on – on - on how to get the best out of it. Of what we should do with it! On the ethics, on the implications of its use. On the necessities of its use! You have a duty to all future generations and all those generations before us that brought us here – you have a duty with this, with this thing. And instead – instead, you’re using it – I can’t even believe it – you’re using it to go back in time and look at the social history of shoemaking?!” She paused – two breaths – “That’s insane.”
Quiet, like the child running from the bigger kids, “I thought you’d understand.”
“What? Why – why would you ever think that?” It was Amy’s turn to be offended.
“How you spoke. Yesterday, in the pub. We can do whatever we want with our gifts. That’s what you said. Our intelligence is ours to use as we see fit. No one can tell us what to do with it. No one can decide how we should best use it. We don’t owe it to anyone – and anything we can research is worth researching if we can find academic interest in it. We can do whatever we want with our gifts. You said it.”
“But this isn’t-”
Passion, from the old professor. Adrenaline is as good as any drug, “Intelligence is not uniformly given. There are people dying right now – of famine, disease and malnutrition. There are technical innovations yet to be made, that will soar us to the stars, and cure us of all diseases. There are products to flood markets, to move capital to continue the obliteration of poverty – there are charities that save children from blindness, malaria, impoverishment and death. There are grave, looming existential risks that hang over us, casting their shadow yet wider every moment that passes. Not to mention endemic failures in our institutions and grave intellectual questions that attack the very nature of who we think that we are, what we should do with our lives and where best to focus efforts in order to improve our future and our chances of long term survival. There are problems only intelligent people can solve – and people unafraid to examine a problem from multiple angles. Aren’t afraid of being wrong. Are good, moral, researchers. There are problems -- do we owe previous generations for their sacrifices? Do we owe future generations our generosity? No! We owe only a duty to ourselves. To pursue questions, stories, views that we think are worthwhile. Ourselves! You said it! No one should tell us what to do with what we have! Enquiry for enquiry’s sake! We don’t choose our gifts. I didn’t choose this gift. But it’s mine. And I’ll do what I want with it. You have a principle – stick to it.”
When you’re used to being right, made your character all about being right, or are used to being so smart that no one dares question if you’re really right, it can be harder than usual to face that sinking feeling. That feeling that strikes your stomach, and blurs red across your cheeks. That embarrassing, anger inducing, terrifying fact of your own fallibility. The realisation that hurts. Leaves you weak. Exposed. Insecure. Amy faced it. Head on. “Maybe I was wrong.”
“I suppose, Amy, I need to reflect a little.” Tim turned, and put his hand upon the bible on the shelf.
“Wait – Tim, what are you doing?”
“I- I’m going to change something. Something that matters.”
A slight, confused smile from Amy.
Tim stepped into the machine, and out into the pub. He had taken uncomfortably long in the bathroom. No one would mention it.
As he approached the table, he sat next to Amy, the group continued its debate into precisely how much of a failure the crusades were. Under the protection of her standing glass of cider, she asked, “What was it that you wanted to show me?”
Tim cleared his throat, “Embarrassingly,” he said, “I forgot.”
[Original draft version was published on my substack]