FICTION: Chapter 20 Photos (4th Draft, Even Better)

20: PHOTOS

Future Bastard

Today was my first visit to the Time Capsule I set up with Past Mum and Dad (I keep wanting to refer to them as Robbie’s mum and dad, as if they were never my own parents). It’s a bank’s safety deposit box vault room (get some info on how this is arranged, what kind of banks, etc), the only sort of secure facility we could think of that would stay in one place long enough, and be secure enough, where Mum and Dad could leave a message or item in a box and I’d be able to come along at some future point and retrieve it. Or it could work the other way: I could go into the vault, jump back in time, put something into the box, and go back home again. The deal is we each check the deposit box on the first Monday of each month. We can communicate across time.

I thought they’d be tickled to see a photo of themselves from their future selves. I went to visit “my” Mum and Dad at their small public housing rental home where they’d lived on disability for the past twenty years, since their previous public housing accommodation accommodation was sold out from under them. They liked this latter place. It was close to a good shopping centre and major public amenities. The neighbours were pretty good, not too bothersome, and for creaky old people with a million and one things wrong with them, they were pretty happy. Dad no longer remembered the bad old days the way Mum and I remembered them. When I talked to him about those days, when I’d lie in bed, listening to him and Mum fighting, and then him packing a suitcase, feeling like it was all due to my own terrible failings as a son and student, my dad just stared at me in shock, even horror. This was news to him. He had no memory whatever of these incidents. He believed we had always gotten on well the way we got on well these days. He was distressed to think he’d hurt me that way, that I’d had such a dreadful experience.

It’s good that he no longer remembers, but Mum and I remember. We’re stuck with it. There’s nothing you can do with such material. It’s like nuclear waste: it has a practically infinite half-life. It almost never decays. It just sits in your head, and your gut, humming and hurting away, eating at you, all your life. I have found that it helps to talk and write about it, somewhat. But what would probably help more is to either remove the memory, or at least the connection between the memory and conscious recall, or try and interfere with the events themselves via time travel. I know that these days there are government-approved psychological counselling services where trained psychologists will try to interfere with memory formation. It’s a very new form of treatment, the bugs still being worked out. Sometimes it works; sometimes not. Sometimes it makes things much worse.

The last time I saw my present-day parents was a few weeks back, before I started this whole project to try and help my teenage self. My last visit to see my folks, they had been in that small government house, wrapped in blankets, feeling the cold, shivering over mugs of cocoa, eating fruit toast with lashings of Danish butter, a rare luxury item.

But tonight, when I went to that house to visit them, the house was occupied by a different pair of elderly people. I asked after my parents by name. Perhaps they had moved out just recently–though it would have to have been very recently. No, sorry, the white-haired with the shaking head tells me, she and her “boy-toy”, 83 if he’s a day, have been in that house almost nine years, and they’re very happy there, and oh, here’s there little man, Felix, come on, Felix, say hello to the handsome young man! Felix was a chihuahua with nervous, bulging eyes that looked about to burst out of his head, but otherwise seemed fine. We said hello. I nodded my respects to the “boy-toy” on the couch, who smiled and rolled his eyes at the woman with a smirk.

I left, confused. Nine years! I had definitely been here within the past nine years. Of course I knew reality was a liquid. I had told Robbie that myself. Things only stayed put while you were looking at them, but they seldom changed quite so rapidly and dramatically as this. Nine years!

Well, if they weren’t here, where were my parents?

Nervous flutter of anxiety. Could they even be dead? Was that possible? If every possibility was up for grabs all of a sudden, why not consider everything? But not that, surely.

In the car I pulled out my phone and ran a whitepages.com search.

And found them.

No longer living together.

Dad was in Rome.

Mum had an apartment in the city. It looked like the sort of apartment very high up that would have a spectacular view of the river and sunsets.

I blinked, then laughter spluttered up out of me and it sprayed all over my phone. I laughed and laughed–not happy laughter, I hasten to add–as I wiped my phone on my shirt, and wondered what the hell was going on.

My parents were divorced? Was that it? They were divorced? How could they get divorced? I was from a broken home now? I was 54 but my parents had split up? How could this possibly hurt me as much as it was now actually hurting me? I was in pain. Sitting in my car, rain spattering on the glass and the metal roof, and I’m freezing cold, shivering, and I can feel hot tears coming, stinging my eyes, and my throat closing shut, and my chest heaving, trying to breathe. The shoe that had been falling for forty years had at last hit the floor. It had been delayed a long time, frozen in mid-air, mid-tumble, but it was always going to finish its flight. Gravity would always win, and now it had. It was like the famous pitch-drop experiment you heard about sometimes, where an Australian scientist had set up a glass funnel over a beaker, and put a big dollop of semi-liquid pitch in the funnel. The pitch’s job was to ooze down the funnel into the beaker. A camera would record every breathtaking moment. Several drops had been filmed across many decades. Because gravity always wins. Shoes always fall. Couples that look like they’re going to split, that have that flaw running through their otherwise perfect glass, are going to split.

But they had always been so comfortable. Dad had been treated. He had found contentment. He had a good doctor. He’d found stability. He was doing all right. This was the whole premise of my intervention with young Robbie. Mum and Dad were doing well, I believed. They were better than they were when he was a kid. They were close and happy. When I visited they were warm and close.

What happened? What went wrong? What had happened just recently? It must have happened just in the past couple of weeks. What could it be? For God’s sake? I checked my phone again. I looked up Mum’s address in the city. It was late. I didn’t care. I drove there, and managed just barely to find some expensive street parking in the vicinity. It was a Sunday night, which helped.

At length I reached the main entry for the building, which had an intercom and a video screen. I buzzed Mum’s apartment number until I thought my hand would go numb. After a while I switched to my other hand, and kept buzzing. Then, a click, and an old, only vaguely familiar woman in big ornate glasses filled the screen. “Who on Earth thinks this is an acceptable hour to be paying social visits?” she said.

“Mum, it’s me. Hello? Mum?”

“Step back a bit, I can only see your nose.”

I was spending a lot of time lately trying to persuade my mum that I was who I said I was.

And, thinking that, I had a sick feeling turn over in my gut.

Mum peered close, then she smiled. “Robert, it is you! Of course! Why didn’t you say? Come on up!” There was a loud click and a beep as the door unlocked, and I went in. It was warmer inside. The air smelled of serious money.

Up on Mum’s floor, even this late at night, the views were unmatched. I stood there, hands and nose against the cool glass, looking across to South Perth and points beyond, then down towards the Narrows Bridges, to the dark bulk of Kings Park. I remembered the illuminated ships on the Old Brewery. Remembered the living smell of the Swan River.

Mum’s front door. Mum’s whole new reality. Liquid reality. It was the phrase people used and abused, glib and slick, made for marketing, but here it was staring him in the face. Dad was supposed to be a guy on a disability pension who could no longer work as a motor mechanic, because of the illness and his age. Mum was a retired nurse. She’d hurt her back, too, on the job. So many nurses hurt their backs in the line of duty. So they retired and lived small, comfortable, circumscribed lives in retirement accommodation with government-regulated rent that was never more than thirty percent of their income. They had to be careful, but they could manage. That was what I remembered of their lives.

I knocked on Mum’s door. It took her a moment, but then there was a series of beeps and clicks as a whole system of locks disengaged, and she opened the door. And there she was, a tiny old woman in a huge dressing-gown and bunny slippers that had seen better days. She was carrying a large coffee mug of tomato soup, and she somehow managed to peer up at me in judgement. “When was the last time you ate a proper meal?”

“I eat fine, Mum, I’m fine, I just–”

She hauled me inside. I kissed her cheek and gave her a big hug. She was warm and fierce, holding me like her life depended on it. It was a little disconcerting. I could still feel it in my ribs when she let me go.

“So, woman trouble?” she said as she set about putting something in the microwave and turning it on. She leant against the fridge, arms crossed, suspicious, not impressed.

I wasn’t having it. I told her about my last visit to see her and Dad a couple of weeks ago. The retirement accommodation. The pensions. The warmth and closeness. The togetherness. And how tonight the current occupant said she’d been there for nine years with her “toy boy”. Mum loved that bit, and laughed and laughed.

I said, “It was that night when I came to see you when Robbie was only 15, and I told you to invest in Apple and Microsoft, wasn’t it?”

Mum looked a bit embarrassed.

“You went and bloody did it, didn’t you? For God’s sake!”

“We were poor, and suddenly there’s you, this thing from the golden future giving us investment advice. We thought, this is clearly bullshit, so we decided to just put in a bit of money we could afford to lose, so if we did the lot, it was no big deal, serves you right, but no big deal, and we could walk away.”

“But it more or less kept going up.”

“More or less.”

“You realise I could be done for insider trading. We both could.”

The microwave beeped. Mum opened the door, and pulled out a mug of fragrant steaming chicken noodle soup. She gave it a stir, and handed it to me with the spoon. “Get this into you.”

We stood in the kitchen for a long while in silence. I did say, in the end, “I only found out, tonight, about the divorce.” I was more shocked and upset about the divorce than I was about Mum and Dad being wealthy. The divorce went right through my sense of who I had always been. To some extent, I realised I’d been living with a picture of myself as “waiting for the divorce”, expecting it, knowing it was coming, that it was just temporarily delayed.

I was also starting to deal with the idea that it was sudden financial independence that had made divorce possible–and that I had provided that financial independence. This whole new timeline that I found so upsetting was all my doing. I did this. Good job, Rob! You broke up your whole family! Your dad now lives in Rome! Well done! It could be an event in the sport of athletics: the father-toss, where everyone competes to see who can throw their dad the furthest. Ten metres? Fifteen metres? Hell no, I threw my dad all the way to Rome!

“I see Dad’s living in Rome, now, of all places, is that right?”

She sighed, and left the kitchen, shuffling through to the living area, which was all plants and books and two or three beautiful pieces of furniture. There was no TV. She settled in a lavish armchair and picked up an iPad. After a few breaths she looked my way, exhausted by the entire business. “He’s a tortured artist and novelist now, don’t you know! He was exhibited in the last Biennale.”

I slow-blinked. “The Biennale? He was?”

“He’s impossible. Proper bastard of a man.”

“And he writes?”

She got up, and I could see the exertion cost her. She clutched at her back, her eyes squeezed shut. She went to a bookcase, and retrieved four large-format paperbacks with moody matte-finish covers, author-byline P.J. Bradford. Puff-quote from noted Australian literary luminary making favourable comparison with Knaussgaard. I swore, and Mum shot me a look. “Sorry, Mum.”

“You can borrow those. They’re signed, so look after them for once in your life.”

I bristled. When have I ever not looked after a book?

“Listen, Mum.”

“I don’t have any money on the premises.” She eased back into her chair.

“Could I take a photo of you, please?”

“Oh for God sakes,” she muttered. “I always look a fright in photos!”

“I want to show it to your younger selves.”

“I don’t remember you doing that.”

“I haven’t done it yet.”

“Is this something to do with that dreadful Fiona, rest her tormented soul?”

“She’s making life hard for my younger self, yes. I’m trying to help him.”

“Where is he at the moment?”

“Here somewhere. This timeframe. Fiona’s kidnapped him.”

“I know I’m very old, and my memory is not what it was, but I’m sure your Fiona died. She had one of the really nasty cancers, didn’t she?”

“She did. That’s right. This Fiona is from another timeline.”

“A likely bloody story.”

“So, a photo?”

“If you bloody well must. Just get on with it. Hurry up, it’s late.”

“Okay. Look, do you mind if I get in touch with Dad?”

“What do I care? He’s gone off on his own, so no, of course I don’t mind, love. Tell him, “Piss off you pretentious wanker!” from me, too!”

When I got home that night it was very late, after midnight, rain coming down like a steel hydraulic press crushing a Terminator. The sort of heavy-duty rain that makes climate change skeptics and denialists gleefully jest about how all this nasty weather sure looks like a hot dry planet, eh?

I live in a small home run-down home unit, one of eight, always in danger of collapse. But it’s cheap for a writer and sometime academic, when I can manage to scrape together some hours. I scramble up to my door with Dad’s books in a plastic bag from Coles. My dad’s books! My dad has written books!

I’m fumbling with jingling keys when I notice the manilla envelope stuck in the security door. I manage to pull it out. It’s A4 sized. Inside is single sheet of generic printing paper, on which is a photo and a message. On seeing the photo, I feel my memories reshuffle, liquid reality pouring and re-pouring itself from test-tube to test-tube, beaker to beaker, making something new from something old, something that wasn’t there before, and I remember something from a long time ago that until this moment was unknown to me.

The message is simple: I’M BROKE AND OWE A GUY SOME MONEY SO YOU GIVE ME FIVE MILLION FROM YOUR PARENTS THREE DAYS FROM NOW MIDNIGHT ON THE 13TH, OR HE DIES NO COPS OR HE DIES OR HE DIES ANYWAY WHY NOT MIGHT BE FUN YOULL NEVER FIND ME LOVER F

HA HA HA JUST KIDDING DUDE SERIOUSLY I DO NEED THE MONEY THO AND I DO ACTUALLY HAVE YOUR OBNOXIOUS JUNIOR SELF AND I MIGHT ACTUALLY KILL HIM WHO KNOWS GOD ANYWAY I DO WANT MONEY BUT THE DEADLINE IS RIDICULOUS OBVIOUSLY EVERYBODY’S GOT A TIME MACHINE DEADLINES DON’T MATTER YOU COULD PISS AROUND FOR YEARS BEFORE GETTING AROUND TO THE DEADLINE SO LOOK WHAT I WANT IS TO JUST MEET YOU ALL RIGHT I WANT TO SEE YOU IN PERSON I HAVE A PROPOSAL FOR YOU

PHONE ME BEFORE MIDNIGHT ON THE 13TH ON THE NUMBER BELOW NO COPS HA HA HA HA AND WE CAN WORK OUT A MEETUP I’D REALLY LOVE TO SEE YOU ROB LOVE F XXOO

The photo is, of course, the boy, Robbie, naked, black and white with bruising, streaked with blood, hanging upside-down, an inverted crucifixion, over what looks like a punji stake pit.

I stare and stare. I look at the shocking photo and then I read the strangely chatty ransom note. My hand is shaking. I drop the bag with Dad’s books, and sink to the ground in front of my door. I get rained on. The ransom note gets rained on. The printer toner smears.

She’s torturing me, but she’s laughing about it and calling me “dude”.

Memories are interpolating themselves into existence. I’m remembering this experience, but only in grabs, snatches, as if in still photos, freeze-frames, negatives. I can’t remember what must have been unimaginable pain. I remember only a sensation of feeling full of TV static. Of waking death, of a profound numbness. Longing for real death.

I don’t remember what happened. I don’t remember how it came out.

I try to get up, but my shaking legs don’t work, and I fall back on my arse, and I feel like I want to cry while also desperate not to cry, not now, not ever. I don’t want to give her the satisfaction. I’m upset as hell. I’m hung upside down, but she wants to catch up and chat. My heart is at full gallop with adrenaline in my throat. I feel sick with horror and revulsion. I don’t know what to do. I stare out into the traffic and the night. She could be out there watching me coming unglued, and laughing. I’m shaking apart. I can’t ask my parents for money. They’re wealthy now, but I can’t do it. It’s indecent. You don’t do it. It’s too much like begging. In the well-trodden grooves of my brain, where I’ve been used to thinking of my parents all my life, I’ve always thought of them as working-class people of limited means. It’s why it’s now so extraordinary that my dad has moved to Rome. I’m still used to thinking of them as aged pensioners, though. This new reality is coexisting in my head with that old reality. Soon, I know, the new one will be the only one.

I look at the bag I’m carrying with Dad’s books. I think about Mum’s riverside apartment. Dad’s life in Rome. It does my head in. I remember Dad living in his car at various beaches around Perth.

I unlock the door and go inside. I put the books on my dining table. Pull out my phone. Stare at it. I put it away. I’m ashamed of myself. Sitting down at the table, listening to the rain against the roof, against the windows, feeling it pounding into me, a million little but determined punches, I wonder what I’m going to do. I would rather die than ask either of them for money. I would also rather die than meet Fiona.o

She wants to meet me. She wants five million dollars, but she also wants to meet me. She has a proposal for me. The whole situation is a big joke to her. It’s to get my attention. To make me pay her some attention. She could have invited me to dinner. There was no need to torture my teenage self. I’m not unreasonable. I’m still full of what she did to me. I still remember the night she burned my notebook. I’m not done with that experience. I’m not over it. She burned that message from Dad, the first one.

The first thing she did in this timeline was a serious and nearly successful attempt on my life. I was lucky to get out of that with my life. If ai hadn’t known she was in town with that grievance over her Rob’s suicide, I would have been done for. Why didn’t she try again, or was this kidnap and ransom caper a better idea? Maybe we can talk about that when we meet. I’ll send in a drone. I imagine she’ll do the same.

I’m sitting staring and staring at this bizarre note, trying to make it make sense. It occurs to me that the first place I found my Fiona was in a psychiatric hospital. She was sick with anorexia and depression and anxiety. She was profoundly, life-endangeringly sick. Much sicker than I was. It’s possible that this Fiona is still that sick. I don’t know. I just wish I could help her somehow. I’ve always wished I could help my own teenage self, but now I find myself wanting to help this Fiona, too. She’s suffering.

I look at the bizarre “ransom note”, with its breezy tone. Until just now I believed I had spent years of my life married to “my” Fiona, the complex, difficult, wonderful person who befriended me in hospital, and who died from breast cancer. But now, as I sit here with this note and the bag of my dad’s books, my whole life is upended.

I was never married to any Fiona.

When I met her in hospital, I ran.