I poison everything I touch. It all goes to ruin. I used to have two lovely elderly parents who lived together on pensions in a nice little home and they were pretty happy and we all got along much better than we all used to get along when I was a kid and everything was so horribly fraught. It was nice, that life we all had. It was so nice I wanted to show it to my teenage self. Here, look, I wanted to say to him. Look at this. This is how it turns out. It’ll be okay. It’s bloody awful now. It feels unbearable now, and it is unbearable. But it gets better. It won’t always be like this. It’ll be okay, for all of you.
I was an idiot.
Some years back I read WAR AND PEACE. I got curious about this great big book I’d been hearing about all my adult life. The book you mention when you talk about big hard books. And it is big. 1300 pages. But it’s not hard. It’s no harder than LORD OF THE RINGS, and I’ve met people in the science fiction community who boast about devouring that book in a weekend. WAR AND PEACE is a love triangle book with occasional spectacular battle set pieces. The love triangle is the best I’ve ever read, because the two rivals for the lovely Natasha are equally worthy, both fine, decent men. You can’t decide between them. There’s no obvious good guy and an obvious bad egg. You feel torn between Pierre and Andrei because you sort of wish they both could succeed.
One of the characters in the book is Napoleon Bonaparte himself. He is portrayed as a remote, intellectual fool. In the midst of one of his most important battles, he sits at a distant campsite, alone, receiving status reports from officers. He’s frustrated that his grand and glorious strategy is not working out the way he had felt sure it would.
Thus the fundamental truth: the plan does not survive contact with the enemy. This was as true for Napoleon Bonaparte as it is for me.
And I had such plans!
I was going to fix my life.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t put enough thought into it, either. I’d spent years thinking about how to do it, how to intervene in my earlier life. How to do it, what to say, when to show up. How to do it in such a way as to not freak out the poor kid. It helped that I had always known and understood the ideas in the science fiction toolkit. The idea of time travel was readily graspable. The only hard part, it seemed to me, was convincing the boy that I had access to a working form of time travel.
But right now, tonight, this morning, with the first light of the day I’m supposed to meet Fiona glimmering in the east, I’m more shit-scared than I’ve ever been.
I have to rescue Robbie. He’s in this mess because of me. But even more than that I have to prevent him from being taken in first place. I have to stop this madness in its tracks.
It’s all my fault.
It’s me. I’m poison. I poison everything.
I don’t remember my captivity. Not a day of it. I’ve been told about it. I have weird emotional fugues and dreams. There are places I don’t like to go, though I don’t know why. I’ve spent years in therapy and other kinds of counselling without much success. I’ve even tried time travel therapy where you keep jumping back and back and back until you jump back through the barrier in your memory and you’re back inside the trauma–but at that point I fall unconscious and when brought out of the state remember only “TV static” and “channel 5A”. I, here in my present, remember channel 5A on the old analogue cathode-ray TV sets we used to have when I was a kid, when we could only get three stations on the rotary dial, 2, 7, and 9. But on the dial there was a 5 and, mysteriously, 5a. It was the only number to have a secondary station like that. There was no 7a, for example. I always wondered about it.
Where was I during my time away? I was at channel 5a. It was in the Twilight Zone. It was the Fifth Dimension. It was at right-angles to our normal reality. I don’t remember how I got there, and I don’t remember getting out.
My first memory of being “out” was one day I was at Curtin University in about 1983 or 1984. I was at a live music thing run by the Student Guild. It was a local punk group, and everyone was drunk, and wearing black plastic bin liner bags with holes in them for our heads. We were all of us screaming, jumping up and down, and it was the best thing ever, and I was with this girl, and I don’t remember her name, but I threw up on her, and fell down, and threw up some more, and just for the merest moment it was as if my mind was a camera and the aperture, the shutter, had flickered open, just for one-two hundred and fiftieth of a second, a brief glimpse, a moment within a moment, and then the shutter flickered closed again, sealed tight, admitting no further light.
And I remembered something.
But I don’t, all these years later, remember what that was. Only that it was a true something. It had been a genuine look down into what I had experienced, and where I had been. And all these years later it’s still there, still waiting. What was it that I saw?
Or was it something I felt, or smelled? Sometimes it seems like a memory of a smell. When I use the toilet and take a dump, sometimes there seems a certain weight of significance about the odour, as if my unconscious mind is directing my attention.
Why would I not remember my rescue? I can understand not remembering trauma, but why block out the rescue? The prisoners who were held in the Nazi death camps during the war all remembered and recounted their memories of rescue. There was nothing traumatic for them about that. So why is my memory silent? I would never suggest my suffering was greater or worse than theirs. Even without knowing what I experienced, I feel sure that I could never have been through anything worse than their experience.
Why won’t anyone tell me about my captivity? Why does everyone seem ashamed, as if they’re all complicit? Was my kidnapping like MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, and they all did it? I find that hard to believe.
Then again it is true that this, today, right now, is the first time I’ve been able to think these thoughts about that part of my story. Nearly forty years later, countless therapists and psychiatrists, endless numbing and upsetting hours of group therapy, and I’ve never felt able to get past a blunt, angry refusal to even address the questions arising from my kidnapping. Where I was and what was done to me. Even now I don’t know or remember all of it, or how it resolved. I have always flared up in violent anger and run off, yelling abuse at anybody trying to get me to talk about it, and this got to the point that people stopped asking me. But that anger was real. I still have it. I have it now, writing this. I feel churned up inside. It’s all I can do to sit here and put these words down, one at a time. I want to tear this notebook into pieces and burn them. I want to do anything to keep myself from knowing the horrible truth about my past.
But I also want to know about my past. I want to know why I can’t know. Why it’s such a big stupid problem.
I do know that all this time I’ve felt only a malignant, metastasising, angry shame about that entire part of my life. A shame that has grown and spread, like a cancer of consciousness. And as it has grown and spread to other parts of my history and experience, and, like a cancer, consumed them all. It has been consuming all the things in mind that I think of as me. This sense of furious incomprehensible shame. How could this thing have happened to me? I was just a stupid boy. I was minding my own business, in broad daylight on a sunny day. How could it have happened? It couldn’t have happened. It was preposterous. I was at school. I was safe (well, not safe from the likes of Mr Shit and Stuart Cross, but safe from the outside world). So how could this happen? It’s ridiculous. It’s stupid.
Because that’s what it is. It’s madness spreading through my body, metastasising, consuming me. I can no longer remember anything about it, can’t think about it because the memory of the experience has gone to noise, screaming, the way signal on videotape goes to noise over time. I used to be able to get much closer to that part of my life, but over the years the exclusion zone has extended outward ever further. It is indeed claiming my whole mind. It feels as if one day years from now it might fill me completely with this endless noise, this static, this refusal to look, to accept, what happened to me. I’ll be Mr Channel 5a.
I’m lucky to have that view onto that afternoon at Curtin when I vomited on that girl. Now I only know about that because my mum knows about it and has told me. I no longer remember that incident. Probably the girl in question, the vomitee, remembers, too, lucky her, but I who was there, the vomitor, may as well not have been.
Is that it, though? Australian men are notorious for being unable to deal with emotional problems, and I am no different. The fact that I was captured–at all–makes me feel weak. It doesn’t matter that I was only a boy. It doesn’t matter that I had no warning, or any means of defending myself. Nothing matters. The brutally judgemental part of myself, the source of the screaming voices, cares only that I was captured. That I was taken off the board. That I was weak. This last is the atom bomb of condemnations. As an Australian man you can be many things before reaching the true nadir of ultimate condemnation, but to be “weak” is about the worst. And I was weak because I had my power of autonomy taken away. I was a prisoner. I don’t remember the experience because I was ashamed, and I was so ashamed that that feeling was threatening to engulf my life.
There was only one thing for this. I had to stop myself, my earlier self, the one who tried to do the “good deed” for Robbie, and damn near got himself murdered. He had to be stopped. For that matter, Fiona, too, had to be stopped. I understood her position. I felt for her. I felt for her version of me, who killed himself after seeing how his “go back in time and do a good deed for Young Robbie” project worked out (ie, horribly badly). I think I understand her. To a great extent I think the best thing that could happen would be for she and I to just sit down and talk everything out until it’s all talked out. Everything. We’re from different timelines but we’re as close as we’re each going to get to being who we need each other to be.
But tonight she’s the one with the big idea.
God, she’s terrifying. I know she’s fully prepared to die in the course of fulfilling her mission. She’s prepared to burn down the world and throw herself on the fire because it’s pretty. I can’t match that level of commitment. That degree of rage. It makes me wonder if my Fiona had that sort of rage inside her. My Fiona truly hated her cancer. Hated that she would die, and leave this world far sooner than I would, and would leave me behind, growing old without her, doing things, experiencing things, without her. She hated having to give up all the things that she loved, that there came a time when she still felt fairly well when she knew this would be the final time she would have her (remaining) hair done nicely, her nails done, would attend a live orchestra concert (Mozart), would go dancing (swing), would eat chocolate (90% dark), would walk barefoot on a beach in winter, would have “mad, bonkers sex” (“four stars, would fuck again!”). My Fiona had always flung herself into things, whether or not there was a safety net. She didn’t care. Our first proper “date-date” after we were both out of hospital at the same time was a bungee jump. She went first and screamed with glee throughout. She said afterwards that if I did it, she’d marry me. I did it. She married me. She died on me. I never recovered.
Ethical uses for a time machine. This is where I started. Is there anything non-selfish you can do with such a thing, that would relieve general or specific suffering? It’s an essay question. My answer was about Young Robbie, who felt guilty for what was happening in his family, unaware that his parents each also felt that way, that everyone in the family felt the same. That someone should have come along and banged all of their heads together, sat them down in a group with some PowerPoint slides and said, “Now look here!”
Is the overall goal still worthwhile, though? Is it worth trying to persuade the boy Robbie that he is not in fact responsible for the trouble in his family? Can it be done at all, or is every possible approach bound to explode in your face with time travel-related complications?
(Extra-credit question: is it really so bad having a dad who’s a famous author, living in Rome, no longer a source of misery for your poor old mum?)
I don’t know. I just don’t know. It’s going to take a lot of work just trying to prevent everything so far, especially Fiona. And I feel like everything I do only makes everything worse. Even trying to make this situation better will only make it worse somehow, I’m sure. I have only the best intentions in the world, but I’m deep in shit, and it’s all my own work. I did this.
Maybe it’s not so much that I intervened at all, and just that I have poor control of the billiard ball of causation. Maybe there is a way to apply just the right amount of spin to the ball to get the right deflection, and the right outcome. Could that be? Or am I just operating on no sleep for three days, and a head full of static and screaming and fatigue and fear of Fiona, and I’m believing my own bullshit now?
Billiard ball of causation. Good God, I need a shower.