FICTION: Chapter 17 (Big Rewrite, Better)

17: TIME CAPSULE

“Future Bastard”

This time I knock on their motel room’s front door at a civilised time in the evening, around six-thirty. It’s bucketing down rain outside where I am, and I have not had the forethought to bring an umbrella. I’ve got a time machine mobile phone in my pocket but no $20 folding umbrella.

There’s no answer from my knocking. Then I notice Dad’s car is not in the parking bay, and I don’t see Mum’s old heap, either. I try again with the door, knocking harder, only this time calling out, too, “Mum? Dad?”

Nothing. I check my phone’s calendar. Today is twelve days since this whole thing started, when I very nearly wound up dead in my teenage self’s bedroom where I was about to try to do a good deed, until bloody Fiona turned up.

I sit in my rental car, parked in the visitors’ carpark, and contemplate my options. My big idea tonight was to take the parents, my parents, out to dinner. We’d sit, all together, and discuss everything. Mum, the time-travel skeptic, could ask me anything. Anything that might help her understand that I’m her boy, just all grown up and out and grey. Maybe a bit less inward, a bit more outward.

My initial plan, like all such plans, never survived contact with the enemy. I’ve been making it up ever since. I feel a huge responsibility towards my earlier self. I made a very big intervention into his life, and changed everything, not always in ways that were intended. I wanted to try to help him get some help, but the impression I’ve had is that so far he’s gone deeper inward. I haven’t seen him since the night he and his dad had their meeting in Dad’s car, and they wrote to each other, that unbearable intimacy. I was nearby, and I watched it. I could hardly stand it. That scene never happened in my timeline. My dad was locked up tight inside the angry man he seemed outwardly to be. Our whole lives together passed by in tense, confused silence. I had never imagined the possibility space in the relationship between my father and I contained the dimension of warmth, of intimacy. And I had only learned of it because I meddled here, because I threw a pebble into a pond.

But what do I do about Mum and Dad? There’s probably only one place they might be, so I’ll try there first. I find myself, as I put the 70s banger in gear, feeling actually scared. The stakes are high. When I first had this idea, I’d just been thinking about trying to help a teenage boy with his mental illness problems. But now it seems like life and death. Fiona is in the mix. She will not hesitate if a human life is in her way, and certainly not if some iteration of me is in her way. Her version of me hurt her more than anyone, even I, can grasp. I think about him a lot. He and I have and had much in common, naturally. Our lives only diverged at the point where my Fiona died of cancer, and his did not. Up to that point we were in lockstep. We had the same thoughts, the same clothes, the same glasses, told the same jokes. We even wrote the same books. Fiona talks about her fellow “swimmers”, people who can traverse timelines (I’m still not sure I believe this; it’s controversial, with evidence for and against), as “sisters-in-time”, people who are the same but in separate timelines. Was Fiona’s doom-laden Rob my “brother-in-time”? Perhaps not.

I do fear her. No question. In my history, or at least what I can remember now, as I drive, speaking into my phone’s voice recorder thingy, I was never abducted, not by her, not by space aliens, not by anybody. She’s stirring up the currents of time, of history, what was and what will be. My younger self is already no longer fated to become me. And I am no longer the product of his growing up. I have no anchor in the past. I’m a kite blowing about in the wind, with no-one holding the string. I’m unmoored. Do I grow an anchor somehow? Does time fill one in for me, abhorring the vacuum? Will I wake up tomorrow, suddenly filled with memories of a strange childhood travelling with eccentric artist parents in Europe? Or will I just drift in the breeze forever? I don’t like this feeling.

I find Mum and Dad sitting on folding aluminium camp chairs on the front porch of the old house, drinking beer, and wrapped in blankets. They have Zonk on a lead, snoozing quietly at their feet. Even that surprises me. I’m sure, when I check my memories of this period, that Zonk passed away from the poison she ate. She wasn’t supposed to live. But here she was. So snoozy, in fact, that my arrival, the car pulling in, switching off the engine, and closing my car door, none of it woke her up for long.

Even as I get out of the car, even before I approach the porch, I can tell that those special crime scene cleaners the police recommended have been defeated by an enemy greater than themselves. It’s not a powerful, strong smell, but it is determined. Not a sprinter but a marathon-runner.

I walk up, shake hands with Dad, who is astonished to see me, looking up and down at me, saucer-eyed. Mum gets up to her full five-foot-two, and peers up at me. She says nothing, but her face says plenty, and says it loudly. She goes around me again and again, examining me the way she would have examined particularly nasty growths, boils, lesions, on various patients, things both huge and noteworthy, journal-worthy. She lifts up the back of my shirt, and yes, I do have a nasty scar from a childhood misadventure. She tells me to remove my shirt so she can see the freckles on my shoulder from a seriously bad sunburn I received in Mandurah one year when I was eight. I do indeed still have the freckles. She examines my hands, top and bottom, and smells my head. She gets me to breathe in her face.

But none of it quite convinces her, and she frowns at me, frustrated with her inability to spot what she is sure is the hidden proof of my counterfeit nature. She thinks I could be a very good fake, or a spy. Part of the trouble is that I am in my 50s. I have grey hair and beard. Mum at this point is not quite 40. How can her own son be older? It makes no sense.

I take out my iPhone and swipe it awake. It lights up with a grid of bright, crisp, colourful icons, one of them for the HG app, which features a stylised image of the famous HG Wells Time Machine. I show Mum and Dad. “This is how I travel in time. It’s a computer program running on my personal telephone. These other little pictures you see are other programs that do different things. This one handles my mail. This one keeps track of my daily exercise. I use this one to watch stuff on TV.”

Mum and Dad sit there, silent and stunned, exchanging looks. I am aware of talking down to them, and being a bit of a git about this, a conquering invading alien force. Dad asks if he can hold it for a moment. He promises to be careful. He handles it as if it were a newborn baby. He is captivated. The light from the screen illuminates his face. I wish I could take a photo of this very science fictional moment, 1979 Man caught in light from the Future. It’s a perfect vignette.

“I could use this to go and find the boy,” he says to me.

“Not in so many words, no.”

“Why not? You said–”

“No. What we can do is go to the timeframe where Robbie currently is, and then we can mount various kinds of searches to try and find him. We can even try to get a message to him.”

Dad looks disappointed, but he’s staring into the magic mirror of the phone. It’s a piece of the future that has landed in his lap, gleaming with impossible glamours. It’s powerful magic. Even here where there is no network, no web or 4G, no service of any kind. It’s still more computing power than anything in the whole country at this moment.

“If I could give you one piece of investment advice?”

“What?”

“Apple Computer, and Microsoft. As soon as you first hear about those two companies, buy as much stock in them as you can, and keep buying it. It will take a long time, and there are some terrible downturns that will make you feel very tempted to sell, but stay the course. In my time these are two of the most gigantic, planetary corporations, worth unimaginable sums of money. So get in on it.”

We end up at what an authentic Italian restaurant is like in 1979. I have the spaghetti bolognaise, which at the time is a primo authentico dish. I am amused by small things, and hate myself for being a superior wanker. The people here are doing their best with what they have. It’s the worst habit of iPhone time travellers, especially those visiting the past.

So far they’ve been on “party manners”, behaving with me more or less as if I were a stranger. They sort of understand (Dad more than Mum) that I’m their son. But it’s more that they know it like something they’ve read in a book. They don’t understand it as a fundamental biological fact of nature. They don’t simply know me. I’m not Robbie. I’m a long-lost cousin from far away who’s come to town for a visit. They understand that I’m related, like a third cousin umpteen times removed, but it’s a matter more technical than biological.

It hurts, seeing them looking at me that way. I had hoped they would recognise me right away, despite my age. I hoped they would accept me. Mum, especially, is almost rude. Because to her I’m impossible, so I must be either a stranger, a con man, or something even stranger. I can’t possibly be whom I claim to be.

I try several times to bring up my younger self. Where is he? Why isn’t he here with us? What’s going on? Because I have been wondering. The last I saw of him was the night I watched him and Dad in the car, writing to each other. Where is he tonight? They haven’t mentioned anything about him, but would they? They do look tense, not quite relaxed. But they’re with someone they don’t quite feel they can trust fully.

So I try to press the matter. I explain that when I was a kid (I don’t say when I was their kid) I sometimes had too much restless energy, and I did. I was bipolar, and that meant that sometimes I had intense manic episodes in which I could not sleep no matter what. I could not even sit down. The only thing that helped was exercise, loads of exercise, so I would head out in the middle of the night, the whole world asleep, and I would travel far and wide, all through the night, but always careful to be home in time to shower and get the bus to school. Sometimes I went three, four days without sleep. Without feeling even the faintest need for sleep. It was the most awful experience in the world. By contrast, depression was fabulous.

We talk a bit about this. Dad allows that he has had some similar experiences, but you can see how awkward he is about talking. I say I know. Mum does not look happy anytime I suggest I really am Robbie.

Maybe I should have presented myself as a journalist doing a story about Robbie.

I persist, trying everything. Mum folds her arms, and leans back. Dad is clearly embarrassed. He cracks, though. He talks. He tells me Robbie’s disappeared. That it looks like Robbie was taken by a woman working alone. I offer a description of Fiona, but Dad doesn’t know anything about her appearance. He says they only know it was a woman because a girl named

Eleanor happened to witness some of it on her way to get on a schoolbus. I smile. Eleanor Irving was a treasure. I wonder if she’s still in Perth in my time. I should look her up on Facebook.

I’m not happy to hear about Fiona. I remember warning Robbie about Fiona. I obviously didn’t warn him quite enough. He was not watching out for her. She is hell-bent, is Fiona, like no-one else I’ve ever met. Even when I first met her in hospital, the way she would just talk, and keep talking, without a break, without even a pause to get a coffee from the CafĂ©-Bar machine. She could just reel stuff off. And there was always this deep intensity, it was as if an acetylene torch could speak. She was one of the scariest people I met in hospital, and yet we ended up together.

I’m still, decades later, not quite sure how that happened. There did seem a certain inevitability to it. We were meant to me. Maybe I represented an ideal sort of blankness that she could endlessly fill up? I don’t know. I often felt angry and frustrated with her, because I knew she was still cutting herself. I understood what the cutting was supposed to do for her, the way it gave her a sense of control over her pain and anxiety, a sense that she knew what she was doing–but it always made me feel terrible. Wasn’t I enough? Didn’t being together with me make her feel less inclined towards that sort of thing? That was at least in part why we’d gotten together in the first place. I was supposed to be really good for her, put her in a good place mentally, sexually, made her feel so much more human, made her feel better about everything.

It was dreadful when the cancer got her. And not just your ordinary, routine sort of breast cancer, either. Fiona had to go big or go home. She had BRCA, she had inflammatory, they had to rip out her lymph glands, took both breasts, and there was all sorts of metastatic activity as well. It was like the bloody Leyland Brothers, that cancer: it went everywhere.

Which left me alone in the world. Friends Fiona and I had shared turned out mainly to have been friends of hers and not me as such. I took to writing again after a long absence from the keyboard. Characters can be company, and when they get boring you can kill them.

Over our super-authentic Italian dinner, I float my plan to contact Robbie. “I call it a Time Capsule.”

“We already have time capsules. They’re bloody stupid things. Always a disappointment.” This was Mum.

“That’s very true. Moisture gets into the container, and the container itself rots away, and it’s never good. But suppose it was possible to attach a message, or a number of messages, to Robbie’s notebook before he gets abducted, and that he finds it when he gets where he’s going. Messages dealing with how to help us find him!”

Mum and Dad stop and think about this. Dad looks like he’s for it, and has a few messages written already and ready to go. Mum is still skeptical. She says, “This time-travel thing.”

“You want proof?”

“Look, you’re a nice man. Thank you for the lovely dinner. The way things with us lately, the boy, the house, God, oh, and work’s a madhouse, and Phil’s a mess. We could use some pampering. So this is nice. But I don’t know if I believe this whole time-travel thing. I’d want some proof, yes. It’s a bit much. I studied a fair bit of science to get into Nursing. Everyone said it was impossible, a fantasy. Doctor Who nonsense at best. But here’s you, being all plausible with a magic box, and I just want to know where the catch is, the hidden trick, the trap-door beneath my feet, the betrayal. Because if you are my son it’s a genuine miracle and I am not worthy of such a blessing, and if you’re a liar and a con artist, if you’re trying to exploit our most sensitive weaknesses to hurt us, then I hope you burn, and I want to be there to light the fire and watch, okay? In the meantime, a little proof is not too much to ask. You are making the extraordinary claims, so let’s see the extraordinary evidence.”

I knew Mum would say this. This is Mum to a tee. I’ve heard versions of it, including the bit about extraordinary claims, all my life. She used to say she would have gone into science or philosophy if she’d had the marks to get into such lofty courses. Nursing was lucky to have her.

Because I knew Mum would say this, that she would demand proof, I had a spare iPhone with me. The HG app only works on one user at a time. No taking passengers. I pulled out the second phone, gave it to Mum and talked her through its use the way I had with Dad. If anything, Mum was even more entranced with the device than he had been. She wasn’t quite ready to believe that it wasn’t something clever I’d brought back from a trip to Hong Kong, but she was impressed. We went outside to the carpark. It was cold. In the harsh light I could see my breath. Mum kept staring at the screen of her iPhone, holding it one-handed, her free hand snug in her armpit..

I had my phone as well. I set up a wireless flocking tether that would keep us together during the trip, so we’d both wind up in the same timeframe. Then I set the destination time as one hour earlier, just before we arrived here at the authentic Italian restaurant. Then we just had to find a good observation spot where we could see our arrival but getting spotted ourselves. After some trial and error, we found a good spot, and I hit the green Go button. There was a brief flash, a moment of confusion, and there we were. The clock on my iPhone said it was an hour earlier, and invited me to rate the app on the App Store.

Mum spotted our car pulling up, and watched us getting out. She experienced, she said, “the weirdest feeling of my life” seeing her earlier self getting out of the car and walk across the road and go into the restaurant. She said she believed it was definitely her. No question. It looked like her, moved like her. It was so much like her it was creepy and a bit icky, she said. Even more creepy and icky, though, was watching the middle-aged Robbie getting out of the car, and walking across the road. From this distance, watching his gait, the way he moved his arm, the bob of his head, she gasped, her hand over her mouth. “My God, my God!” she said, over and over, more astonished than if she had seen actual God. She looked at me, eyes wide open.

“It is you, isn’t it?”

“Mum, it’s…”

“No, it is. You walk the same. The same carriage, the same gait. I’d recognise it anywhere. Walking as if it’s too much bother, as if walking makes you present too much of a radar cross-section, I think you said to me once. It’s you, all grown up, and come back to me from, well, from what may as well be the dead! God!”

“You’re still very much alive in my time, Mum. Dad, too. You both get on well. You do yoga for seniors on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Dad goes fishing off a jetty at Hillarys with a group from a local Men’s Shed. He fixes dolls and teddy bears for kids. And kids still like dolls and teddy bears.

“Dad’s much better in my time. He got help. Me, too. I’ve been trying to help your Robbie and your Phil do the same.”

“It fixes everything, this lithium? That’s not what I’ve heard about it, to be blunt with you.”

“No, course not. But it helps you build a stable floor. Something you can build on. A place you can begin again. It holds you together well enough to let you take a deeper look at the real problems. It helps.”

Mum nodded, thought about it, and what she’d seen. “Have I got one of those iPhone things in your time?”

“God, Mum, everybody’s got phones like this. The whole world. They do everything.”

“I want to see it. The future. I want to see it.” She said it as if confiding a terrible, shameful secret, something she dare not reveal to just anyone, not even to her husband.

“Would you like to come with us when we go to rescue Robbie?”

This stopped her. Her eyes welled. She covered her mouth. She breathed hard for a while, looking at the road, at passing cars, unable to speak. I hugged her from behind, saying nothing. She was warm, but shivering. I could feel her sobbing silently.

She nodded. Sobbed and nodded. I held her and held her, my mum.