Few now will remember those years when real time machines were all the rage: not those beloved of fiction writers that could physically transport people into the past or future. Scientists know that’s impossible, and it’s why George refused to call his invention a time machine at all. But the name caught on, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He called it a photosynchronoscope, and you can see why a name like that never became popular.
George, surprisingly, wasn’t one of those computer nerds with glasses and a high squeaky voice. He was tall, with a square rugged jaw and wavy, light brown hair: fit and good at sports too, although he’s gone downhill since those days because of spending so much time in front of a computer. And he had a girl-friend, Cathy, a Ph.D. in Literature like myself, but with a determination, a sense of purpose, that I didn’t possess.
In love with her myself, I’ve never ceased to regret that I introduced them. She was tall like George but younger: simply beautiful, with gorgeous shiny black hair. Of course, I never suspected that she’d fall for George instead of me. And now they were going to get married—I’d remained single—although I never discovered who’d proposed to whom.
It was my fault too that Cathy and I got George interested in the idea of time travel to start with: “The kind of thing that Daphne Du Maurier suggests in her book The House on the Strand,” I’d said to him once, and Cathy added “Or even in musicals such as Brigadoon.”
“I must read them,” he said at once, surprising both of us, since he had little time for art or literature, being interested only in scientific texts. But after he’d read them, he exploded in disgust: “My idea’s completely different. Du Maurier makes it all a matter of a drug that affects a person’s consciousness. Mere psychology! Her hero just returns to one event that somehow connects with his brain, with no control over when it happens. Nothing scientific at all!”
“She’s mainly interested in telling a story, of a particular group of people in the fourteenth century,” I defended Du Maurier, one of my favourites.
“A good story-teller perhaps, but not what I’ve been working on. I’m interested in the traces an event has left on the environment, back to the beginning of the Earth. With the proper equipment, it should be possible to pick that up. Any event. With her there’s no question of selecting such an event, let alone recording it.”
Cathy and I both thought George crazy, and it was hardly surprising that he had difficulty getting anyone to give him a hearing—so he had to promote his first lecture, and pay for the rental of the room, himself. But the press had a field day announcing it, even though his title, “Observing the Past—Travelling Back in Time,” didn’t talk of a time machine at all: which at least got the attention of a number of serious historians who were expecting the standard, dry, academic lecture.
George started with a lot of calculus and technical details I’m not qualified to comment on, and then explained his thesis of every event leaving its mark on the natural surroundings. Thus with proper calibration of dates and times, he went on (the first major difficulty, which could be overcome only by computers), one should be able to “tune in” to whatever date one selected. “Like tuning in to a radio. At the moment it’s all rough and read. I’m still working on the calibration, and then I have to sort out the sound as well as the visuals.”
His audience was already interested, for here at least was something original.
“There are limitations, of course, because of the way the Earth developed. Try to go back too far and you’ll only find yourself in a solid mass of ice and, before that, fire and volcanoes, which might be exciting to try but is useless from the historian’s point of view. And you won’t be able to see into the future, since there are no traces of events that haven’t happened yet. Think of my photosynchronoscope—or time machine if you insist on calling it that—as a tape recorder, registering what you’ve recorded but unable to play back things you haven’t. And then, of course, you have to find your place on the tape.”
He went on with something else that was equally logical.
“The problem is that you’re listening to the recorder in real time. If the recording takes an hour to play, it will take an hour to watch. You can fast forward through the boring bits—something I’m still working on—but you can’t be sure you haven’t missed something important.
“Say, as a historian, you’re observing Richard III (one of my own passions) to see if he gives instructions to some murderer to kill the princes in the Tower of London—and then it takes no more than a couple of minutes. Easy to miss if you’re fast forwarding. Or perhaps he never ordered the execution at all: you’d be sitting there for days on end with no result, like a police stakeout where they never catch a criminal.
“And even if you get a machine built, you come to another difficulty. You couldn’t touch the figures, since they’re only images, you could walk right through them—although this might interrupt their transmission, I don’t know yet. Amusingly, you could also see yourself: your own past!
“But the greatest difficulty is that the landscape has changed between then and now. Take my example of Richard again: he didn’t confine himself to one residence but travelled, often, so you’d have to follow him all over London, or indeed all over England. You’d either need a modern road, since you’ll no longer be travelling on horseback, or your path might be blocked by modern construction—Bosworth field is now a housing estate. You’d need an observer outside the machine to drive you and tell you where to go. Even if you go no further than the Tower of London itself the machine wouldn’t go up the narrow staircases, so you’d need a kind of gantry (I think “scissor lift” is the technical term) to get to the upper storeys. You could move right through walls that have since been destroyed, but again you’d be obstructed by any modern building. And what of the river? You’d need boats capable of carrying a huge machine without capsizing.”
The audience departed feeling well entertained, never imagining that George would manage to build his machine. It was only many years later that he did so, while still teaching at the university. But he started providing articles for the press, reckoning that wider publicity would give his machine greater credibility—for which he was paid considerable amounts of money, which he spent on its construction.
* * *
I became quite familiar with the machine as it developed over the years. No doubt realizing he’d be driving around the countryside, George had forethought enough to use one of those cube vans about 12ft high, which gave him sufficient length as well. He’d installed a scissor lift on top, which he still had to try opening up. From the outside the machine looked huge, but inside it was cramped, for there were so many wires, switches, computers and dials, plus enormous television screens, that there wasn’t much room for people.
It was on George and Cathy’s wedding day that his first real success came. I was his best man, and when I arrived at his house, already dressed in my tails, there he was inside his machine tapping away at the computer keyboard, in his dress-coat but without any trousers at all. He was quite a comic sight—he’d left the machine’s door open—wearing glasses that never seemed to be focussed properly and constantly stretching forward to peer down at the keyboard.
I sprang into the machine and grabbed his shoulder: “George!”
He gave a start of annoyance, shaking me aside, and suddenly I was aware of vague transparent figures like flashes of light sliding round the walls.
“It’s still very hit and miss,” he said without looking at me. “A bit like table-tapping with one of those Ouija boards, where the glass goes shooting around but all you get are nonsense words.”
“George, it’s time we were going!”
“It’s time, it’s all time,” he muttered as if he hadn’t heard me.
“We’ve got to get to the church, the cars will be here any minute. Why you had to work this morning!”
“Just a minute, I’m almost there!”
“Not at the church you aren’t!”
“I told you I’d only be a few moments.”
Which was typical of him, for he was already sinking into that confused state of mind that was to be a problem for him throughout his life. He hadn’t told me he needed a few moments, but he’d already forgotten about that. I gave a long sigh as he typed in something.
“Just one more thing I need to check.” He was dictating various mathematical calculations and every move he made into a tape recorder, since he never had time to write it all down. He turned a couple of knobs, pressed a couple of buttons, and all at once the vague shadow-like figures became brighter. “George, shut the door, then we’ll see better. By God, George, it’s working!”
I shut the door, and there on the television screens you could clearly see figures as if they were real. I was excited in spite of myself, but I had to get him to the church. “You know how nervous Cathy is. The church will be almost full by now. She’ll never forgive you if you’re late.”
“How the hell was I to know that it was suddenly going to start working? It’ll mean success, Harry, fame and fortune. I’ll even be able to pay what I owe you for all your help!” Typing away furiously, he added “Cathy will forgive me for being a quarter of an hour late... well perhaps half an hour... when she realizes there’ll be no more scrimping and saving. What’s half an hour when we’re talking of a whole lifetime?”
“But you can go back to your machine later!”
He paused again, considering. “Later? I wonder. An hour for the service, then the reception, the dinner... Perhaps I could slip back here while Cathy’s relatives are all stuffing themselves.”
“Don’t even think of it, George.”
“No, you’re right.” He muttered to himself: “So six o’clock, six-thirty, before the dinner’s over. No, I have to do it now or I’ll have forgotten where I am.” He was typing, dictating into his recorder, and peering intensely at the screen. “Or perhaps I can come back after dinner and work then. We could delay the honeymoon.”
“You can’t delay the first night of your honeymoon, man, for God’s sake!”
“Ssh! Something else is beginning to happen. After all, what’s another night with Cathy when we’ve been sleeping together for months?”
I was upset inspite of myself, although I suspected it already. “Anyway, as best man it’s my job to get you to the church,” I said lamely.
George stood up, his mouth open, looking into space. “My God, my God… !” He moved sideways, then whispered into the air: “Where are you going? No, of course he can’t hear me. Shit, and I can’t follow. I’m going to have to find a way of moving it, you’ll have to drive it for me.” He returned to his keyboard. “If I reset it, I can play it over again.”
“No, George, you can do it later. Now, how do you save what you’ve done?”
He moved to look into the distance again. “Perhaps he’ll come back? Oh, just press F3. I did it, Harry,” he shouted as I pressed the key. “I did it! Now Cathy will really have something to love me for.”
“Not if you forget to marry her! Now come along!” I almost had to force him to leave the machine.
“Let’s go then. What are we waiting for?”
He was late, of course. Cathy was upset, but relieved that he turned up at all. They went away for a honeymoon, and he solved the problem of remembering all his notes and calculations by taking his computer with him. “To keep me from being bored in those moments when I have nothing to do,” as he put it.
I only told Cathy many years later how he’d considered postponing the honeymoon altogether. It was at the beginning of our affair: well George deserved it, didn’t he?
“I doesn’t surprise me. Even when he tried to pay me some attention he wouldn’t really be listening to what I was saying because he was considering some new problem.”
“He did that with everyone: his moments of silent creativity, he called them.”
“And yet,” she continued, “I did enjoy his success, and the money it brought. And when I needed something more …”
“That’s when you discovered me.”
“You remember how you said we’d even be able to see images of ourselves in the machine? Can you believe that’s what he did with me? Rather than spend time together he’d replay the best bits of our honeymoon and watch them without me. Said it saved him time since he could choose when to play them and how long for, without my interrupting his work.”
But that was only years later. Cathy and I continued with our affair, of which George seemed to be ignorant—or perhaps he was merely indifferent. We even managed to go away together, and he was grateful that I was looking after her while he was busy “researching” in the machine.
Cathy and I once returned from a trip to Scotland, when we’d expected George to meet the train at King's Cross, but since he didn’t we took a taxi back to their London flat.
We found him asleep on the couch, which annoyed Cathy, but hearing her key in the lock he started awake. To my surprise the time machine was no longer there: he must have driven it somewhere and left it.
“What time is it?” he asked, sitting up. “I was planning to meet you.” “It's nice you're home,” Cathy said, already working herself up into one of her aggressive moods.
“They cancelled the time I’d booked at the Tower of London because of some special event—they only let me have two hours a day now, after it's closed, because of the tourists. So I came back here. I must have dropped off. So how was Scotland?”
“Rain most of the time.” Sarcastically: “You didn't mind Harry coming with me?”
“Of course not. Travel's not much fun by oneself.”
“Not even time-travel? I thought you might have been jealous!”
“Why should I be? I know it's not much fun for you when I'm busy. I've missed you, though, when I've had nothing to do ...”
“I’m glad I’m a good stand-in when there’s nothing else to do!”
“… and it gets lonely even during the day.”
“What about nights?”
I tried to interrupt him, hoping perhaps to warn him about Cathy’s mood, but he ignored me and went on enthusiastically: “It took me a week to discover the exact day of the murder. Sometime after Richard was crowned king in July 1483. But that's a hell of a long time to search, ploughing through day by day in that damn room in the Tower.”
Cathy was still curious, despite her mounting annoyance. “Surely you could pick a time each day to see whether the princes were there or not. Once you find they're not, that's the day they've been done in.”
“That's what I started doing. But their guards often took them out of their cell, so whenever I found it empty I had to check again later and see if they’d come back.”
“Then you check at night! Surely they’ll be there then.”
“Now you tell me.” George was getting irritated too, which at least kept him from asking how Cathy and I had spent our holiday. “It's not that easy! But I caught on eventually. The two princes did nothing but quarrel and mope. No wonder they were murdered! I'd have done the deed myself if I could have entered the past with a real time machine.”
“Did they say anything revealing?” I asked.
“Lots of carping about Uncle Richard, whom they berated for incarcerating them in the Tower. Nothing definite. Their fifteenth-century English was difficult to understand.”
“But you saw them killed?” Cathy insisted.
“It didn't help, but I got the date. Smothered by pillows, that was correct—three murderers, though, not like in Shakespeare. But as Alison said, no clue about who gave the order.”
“Who’s Alison?” Cathy asked.
“Just a neighbour. Now that I’m a celebrity, she was interested …”
“Sniffing around like a bitch on heat, no doubt! Did you sleep with her too?”
“Of course not! Nothing happened, Cathy! Although she did rather come on to me.” He gave a huge grin: a mistake, I thought.
Cathy, still aggressive, changed her tactics. “You could have followed the murderers!”
George struck back. “How could I have got the machine down all the steps in the Tower? When I'm in the machine I can see where part of the wall's missing, but the king's chamber is twenty feet in the air, too high for the scissor lift. I'd have to build some scaffolding and hoist up the machine. Or put wings on the damn thing.”
“We’ll move it tomorrow to where the murderers would probably have gone,” I suggested, hoping to calm George down.
He’d already thought of that. “Richard could have spoken to Tyrell anywhere, in the palace, in the Tower of London, outside. Then he was out of town, making a tour of the provinces. Before that, the court was in Warwick. Even to follow Richard in the machine when he's moving all over the place would be a major effort, I'd have to listen to every single conversation. And if he didn't order the murder, what do I do then?”
“For God’s sake just follow the murderers in your damn machine and see who they take you to!” Suddenly Cathy stopped: “Harry? I'm home, you know.”
He’d gone back to studying his notes. “Of course. I'm pleased to see you.”
“Yes, well.” She went to give him a kiss, but then changed her mind. “George? I should tell you something.”
Here we go, I thought.
“I did go to bed once with Harry while we were away.”
I wondered how George would react, but he was still immersed in his notes. “That's nice,” he said.
Finally losing her patience Cathy almost shouted at him: “George, Harry fucked me, do you understand?!”
“Do you know,” he said with a sudden interest, “that they were using that word in Middle English? I distinctly heard the older of the two princes...”
Another long pause, as at last he seemed to take it in. For a moment I felt sorry for him.
“I guess that kind of thing happens,” he said. “Perhaps I should have gone to bed with Alison too. Instead we just talked. Mainly about plans for developing the machine further.”
Cathy was sarcastic again. “Intimate as that, was it? Harry only told me how much he was in love with me. It was rather nice, really. Made me sad I don't feel like that about him.”
I know the score, I thought. I wasn’t sure she felt like that about anyone.
George’s work on the machine progressed immensely, but it wasn’t until miniaturization that its production became possible. Now there were computers so tiny that a number of them could be installed in it, linked together and calibrated so that an exact time in the past could be found within a few seconds. With this the machine could be made smaller: small enough to cope with the narrowest of passageways and, with a scissor lift on top, it could be raised to upper storeys if stairs were no longer there. But of course, an outside driver was still necessary to steer it.
“Did you hear about the crash?” Cathy asked on another occasion.
“No. What crash?”
I hadn’t heard of it either, and I wondered if she were making it up.
“Someone thought he could use the machine and drive at the same time. He somehow built one into a limousine, with a small hole cut in the window so he could see where he was. He only went on back roads, but he got excited and tried to follow a horseman across a field. Only now it’s a housing estate, and he drove into someone's living room.”
“Thank God he didn't try it on the motorway!” George resumed reading his notes in silence.
“Anyway, they're now going to bring in a law that you must have an outside driver who's not actually in the machine.”
So production went ahead, and the demand was enormous. With mass marketing the machines became… well not cheap, but available for the price of a luxury car, so at least the rich were able to afford them.
Soon enough, every police force in the country purchased one, or even several in the larger cities. At the site of any crime scene, they immediately drove there, set the dial for the time when the crime had taken place, and watched the criminal committing the crime, all the while recording the details. Oh there were the usual complaints, of course, particularly by defence lawyers, about civil liberties and police invasion of privacy, that kind of thing. But the police were not going to give up their major new tool for solving crime, while the public largely accepted it as a new necessity.
Ironically, it was the machines’ becoming cheap enough for the public at large that finally put an end to their production, again because of the whole issue of privacy. Those who were simply curious—and who was not?—could take their machine anywhere they pleased, set them for some time in the past, and see what their neighbours had been up to. Hotels purchased them too and, for a price, were happy to rent them out. Suspect that your wife was having an affair—or simply want to see an attractive woman without her clothes on—follow to see where she was going, watch as the clerk handed her the room key, and you could see exactly what had happened. There was no need to buy pornography any more since you could simply create your own, and many people spent their time on just that.
Couples started to drive farther and farther into the countryside so as to make out together without being spied on by others. But if you discovered one of these huge tank-like machines lurking in an unexpected place, like an animal huddled down so as to be invisible from the air, all you had to do was wait until it moved, and then there’d be a rush of other machines to get into the spot where it had been.
Everyone had a story to tell, one stranger than another. People wrote articles for the press but all so similar that, after a time, they became boring and no one bothered to read them. Genealogists had a wonderful time researching their family members. But of course all this took up so much actual time, as George had pointed out in his very first lecture, that living in the past became almost an epidemic, since it was so much more interesting than living in the present.
For the side effects were totally unanticipated. There were so many machines on the streets that traffic jams became common. More important was the practical consideration of people being so fascinated with the past that they forgot to go to work—and to eat. They might observe elusive figures having huge banquets, but of course they couldn’t participate in them, so they’d leave the machine for a quick snack or something they could take back into the machine and gobble down while they observed what was going on: nothing nutritious, so the general health of the population rapidly declined.
The strange thing was that the above events took place over many years, and I reckoned that all those I knew, and I too, must have been about 150 years old. Yet we certainly didn’t look it. People had started living longer, although ages were difficult to calculate since census records hadn’t been maintained when clerks “forgot” to turn up when living a more interesting past. It was as though everyone had been affected by the old idea that if you flew round the Earth fast enough in the right direction you’d get back before you set out: ignoring Einstein’s conclusions about the speed of light. Remembering what had started the whole thing, I couldn’t help agreeing with Daphne Du Maurier that it had to be more a matter of individual psychology. In short, everything was a mess, and the impossible became life’s new reality.
“Funny how few people remember the machines now, when they once almost took over our lives,” I remember saying to Cathy. “While George thought his invention was going to revolutionize our understanding of history.”
“But didn’t academics try to do just that?”
“Some did, but despite the many unanswered questions in history there were few in the universities who had the money and the energy to cope with all the difficulties. A few scholars of enormous means or with huge research grants set off to Russia, the Far East, China, Israel, wherever their fancies took them. But there just wasn’t enough money for anything considered non-essential.”
“George was really a sad case. Thank God you insisted he keep a copy of the master programme for himself. A genius with a computer, an engineer, a passion for history: he should have got the Nobel. What’s going to happen to him now?”
“He’s content. There’s still enough money for him to be well looked after. He’s discovered a few things, they tell me. But he never has the time to write them down and publish them.”
“The last of the time machines. He’ll die with it, and it will all be over.”
What people won’t know is that one of the machines still exists, despite the ban that governments put on them years ago. George was allowed to keep it as a special concession. He rarely comes out of it except to eat—he even sleeps in it, which he defends by saying his best ideas always come at night—and of course he won’t notice anyone outside unless he’s moving it and making an effort not to run into someone.
His house is the site of Theobalds, belonging to Queen Elizabeth’s minister Lord Burleigh, so he can go through any of the documents relating to his beloved Shakespeare by looking over Burleigh’s shoulder. The estate’s mortgaged, but of course the money enabled him to build his machine in the first place. Finding him isn’t difficult, since he had most of the trees cut down to give him access to travel about wherever he wants: often with just an outside mirror, like a car’s, managing with only a small gap to view it. There’s plenty of parking, for if he sees a car he’ll just regard it as another obstacle to avoid.
Like others he’s had many accidents, but then I usually go with him as driver—largely to indulge my own obsessions, which are the same as his: was Richard responsible for murdering the Princes in the Tower, and did Shakespeare really write the plays attributed to him? But we’ve never found a clear answer to either of them, and I doubt we ever will.
Cathy left George years ago to marry me. After our divorce she married again, to a computer genius this time, with a passion for unanswered questions in history.
A. Colin Wright © 2015 www.acolinwright.ca