Plus One, Minus One

By Judith Field

Far below the lighthouse lamp room, a voice called from the beach. But that was impossible. I was alone on the island, since Maggie had gone. She’d clambered down to the beach, two weeks ago. I didn’t see what happened. Missing. Washed away. Gone. I’d reported it to the Lighthouse Authority.

There’d been a storm last night, the raindrops drumming at the portholes of the lighthouse. Now, in the calm of the morning, as I looked from the lamp room window, the sea was clear. The waves that had lashed the sides of the lighthouse only a few hours earlier now rippled like molten glass. So high up and so far from land, as far as the eye could see.

Another shout drew my eyes downward, but there was nobody there. Yet another came, from the far side. I looked through the opposite window, but there was still nothing to see. They say that if you live alone for long enough, you begin to think there’s someone else with you. They call it a sensed presence.  It must’ve been my mind playing tricks.

Grey clouds half hid the sun, but I drew the curtains all around the lamphouse. Four wicks, eight lenses, which could magnify even a tiny ray of sun and cause a fire. That was something the Lighthouse Authority had drummed into me as soon as I started training. I picked up a cloth and dusted my qualification certificate. It stood in a frame on the table in the middle of the room. It’d taken three years, but I’d done well. Charlotte Grenville, Lighthouse Keeper, First Class.  I knelt and polished the brass plaque set into the floor, commemorating Albert Grenville: Keeper of Waymark Light, 1884-1971. My great-grandad. I hoped he’d have been proud of me.

Now the housekeeping was done, it was time to start the day’s work. My shoes clanked against the latticed iron spiral stairs as I ran down past level 9. I’d had to move my bedroom there, after a wave washed right over the roof of the living quarters.  Half way down, on level 6, a gust of fresh air blew through an open porthole set into the brickwork. I stopped and peered out at the sea. A small, black, doglike head poked out of the water. Captain, the seal, come for his breakfast. Hurry, hurry. But first, into the office on the level 2. Better find out how the night shift went. I called good morning to Trinny. There’d been no alarm, so there can’t have been anything she couldn’t deal with, but I’d better check.

Trinny sat on the desk in the corner, next to the two-way radio with the broken mainspring. She was a grey metal box, about a foot in each direction. On the right-hand side was the crank handle that wound her main spring. On the front, lights, and two dials in the place where eyes would be. On the left-hand side, a label reading ‘Trinity Control System v.3.0 with new improved escapement’. The pilot light above her eyes, I mean above the dials, flickered. Her spring must be almost run down. With a rattling sound like someone typing behind a door, she spat a paper strip from the space where her mouth would have been. I mean, a printout was ejected. I must stop thinking of it as a person. What would she say if she could talk? ‘I’m sick of being on permanent night shift’?

I read the printout. ‘[…Light flashed 4 time/20 seconds. Fog signal not required…]’. Nothing to worry about. More rattling. A second piece of paper edged its way out, as though Trinny was using up her last breath.

‘SOUTH COAST OF ENGLAND
————————
ENGLISH CHANNEL
—————————-
APPROACHES TO DOVER STRAIT TSS
——————————-
ABANDONED FISHING NETS
Latitude 50º 29.555’N., Longitude 000º 26.097’W 
————————————————
Abandoned fishing nets which have become entangled on the charted wreck of the “Duke of Buccleuch” which lies sunk in the position defined above, have been temporarily marked by means of two emergency wreck marking lighted buoys…’

I skimmed over the details. It was nowhere near us, so, again, no concerns. I’d leave Trinny unwound for a while. It felt right to let her rest. I looked along the shelf on the wall above her: International Code of Signals, Flags and Funnels, Bends, Hitches, Knots and Splices. Directions as for the use of the pistol rocket apparatus. I pulled out the Fog Signal Store Account Book and made a note that all had been clear, slid it back into place, and turned away to file the reports in the drawer.

On the top of the pile of papers inside was a photo of me, Mum and Dad, all smiles. On leave, the three of us, walking in the hills. It had been taken a few months before the accident. I kissed my finger tip and touched Mum, then Dad. At least I had my memories.

A buzzing inside my head made the hair on the back of my neck prickle, as though someone was watching me. I spun round, but only Trinny was there, and she was asleep. An image flashed through my mind of somewhere I’d never been. I saw a table, on which stood a pair of metal rods, sparks crackling between them, mounted on a platform shaped like a squat cylinder. A fine time to get a migraine. I waited a few seconds for the headache that was sure to follow, but it didn’t come.

I needed fresh air. I pulled on my waterproof jacket. It smelled of fish; lucky there was nobody else around. The bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling flickered and dimmed, telling me that I’d have to wind up the generator too, but that could wait till I came back. I dragged my boots on, turned my collar up and climbed down the worn wooden steps to the rocks outside.

A blast of wind blew strands of hair flapping round my face like ginger seaweed. I clambered and skidded over the rocks till I reached the sea. The waves rolled inwards, turning into foam that fizzed as it spread across the sand. I dipped in my pocket and found the reason for the pong – a piece of mackerel I’d brought out for Captain the day before, and forgotten. Seagulls squawked overhead – they could probably smell it too. I gagged. Captain poked his head above the water, let out a yarping sound, and pulled himself out onto the shingle.

I squatted and patted his head, the grey fur coarse and oily. ‘Sorry, too rough to catch anything yesterday. But hang on.’ I threw the piece of fish to him. ‘Quick, before a gull snatches it.’ He snapped it up and looked at me, all dark mournful eyes and long whiskers. If only he could talk back. ‘That’s all for now. I’ll see what I can get you a bit later. Come back tomorrow.’ His vile-smelling yawn revealed lethal looking sharp teeth as he turned and flapped back into the sea.  Catching fish for seals. An odd sort of thing for a vegetarian to do.

From behind me came a sound as though the air was tearing like cloth, and a voice, crackling as though coming in on a badly tuned radio.

‘Not yet!’ A man’s voice.

I whirled round. The air thickened, and I felt like I was moving under water.

The space between me and the lighthouse shimmered silver. The outline of a figure appeared, black but edged with tiny sparks, standing in the air itself. A bright spot appeared in the middle. It expanded till it filled the darkness and changed into a man, aged somewhere in his thirties. He stepped out of the space and onto the beach, flecks of light crackling around his bright auburn hair. He wore some sort of suit looking like it was made of white paper, which crackled as he moved. There was something familiar about him that nagged at the corner of my mind, just too far away to touch.

My ears popped and I felt the sensation of a bubble bursting between us, but there was no wet splash.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. His was the voice that I had heard a moment earlier.

I gasped, my breath rasping.

‘Do you speak English?’ he said.

I nodded.

‘I’d better explain,’ he said. ‘I’m a physicist. Just a few moments ago, I was testing a new method of…er…transportation, in a laboratory in the Morris Institute. We’ve been trying different settings. My idiot of an assistant set it off it too early. When, I mean where, is this?’

‘Waymark Reef.’

He pulled an object about the size of a cigarette packet out of his pocket and poked at it. The object glowed. He held it close to his mouth. ‘Waymark Reef,’ he repeated, to the object. He turned to me. ‘Never heard of it. You sound English, where are we?’

‘Er…about 30 miles off the tip of Cornwall.’

He nodded. ‘Ah. Perhaps one of the smaller of the Isles of Scilly.’

He had no cause to be rude. I wasn’t silly. I’d passed my navigation course with top marks and there were no islands anywhere near. ‘And I’ve never heard of them.’

‘OK, so we’re even.’ He frowned and shook the object. ‘I was trying to transport myself…somewhere. OK. I’ll call the lab. They’ll have to send a boat out. Lend me your mobile?’

‘Mobile what?’

‘Mobile phone.’ He waved the object at me. ‘This. I can’t get a signal on mine.’

‘Signal? You want me to send up a flare? There’s a box in the storeroom.’

‘No, no,’ he snapped. ‘I just need to get back. Can we ask one of your neighbours if I can use their phone?’

‘There’s nobody here but me. I suppose a craft might come near enough to hail, but we might have to wait some time. This is a place only the most experienced sailors and sea kayakers should consider trying to get to. Land in the wrong place, and it’s like trying to climb up the side of a bottle. You’ll have to wait for the next Lighthouse Authority transport boat.’

He exhaled. ‘Thank goodness for that. When’s it coming?’

‘They’ve been checking on me once a week so…next Friday.’ When the new assistant was due, and I could go on leave.

He frowned. ‘That’s no good, I can’t wait that long. I’ll have to see if the Coast Guard can send out a helicopter to fly me back. Any chance of using your radio?’

‘Mainspring’s busted, sorry. That’s why they’ve been coming around every week. Otherwise, it’d have been two months, so you’re lucky. But flying’s not going to work. There’s no way a balloon could land here.’

He shrugged. ‘I’m just going to have to wait. There’s a fail-safe in the system to pull me back. The lab will be able to get a fix on me. Eventually. Unless,’ His brow furrowed. He looked into the distance and muttered. ‘No helicopters. No mobiles. Time as well as space?’ He turned towards me. ‘What’s today’s date?’

‘Why do you want to know that?’

‘Never mind why. Just tell me,’ he snapped.

That had been tactless of me. Perhaps he suffered from some sort of memory problems. Early dementia – that might account for all the things he’d been on about. Poor man. Perhaps he’d just wandered into whatever this transport device was. ‘OK, sorry. It’s November the twentieth. All day.’

He drew in a breath. ‘And the year?’

‘Two thousand and eighteen.’

He exhaled. ‘At least that’s right.’

The sky clouded over. I shivered ‘Looks like rain. You’d better come inside and wait,’ I said.

‘Sounds like a plan. I suppose I should introduce myself. I’m Charlie Grenfell.’

I blinked. ‘You’re kidding. Really?’

 ‘Yes, really. Why?’

‘Because my name’s Charlotte Grenville. But everyone calls me Lottie. You’d better, too, otherwise it’s going to be confusing.’

‘Pleased to meet you, Lottie.’ He stuck out a hand.

I slid mine back in my pocket. ‘Sorry, better not shake. I’m all fishy.’ Just as though I was greeting a delivery person at the front door and not someone who’d just appeared from nowhere.

Captain stuck his head out of the sea and gave a bark. Charlie knelt in front of him. ‘Hiya, Fish Breath.’

I shook my head at his disrespect for a fellow creature. ‘You’ve no call to be rude to my friend. I call him Captain. He probably thinks you’re going to feed him.’

Captain edged back into the sea and disappeared below the waves. The tide broke over the rocks. Charlie stood up, brushing wet sand from his knees. Rain began to fall, in large drops that blobbed and splashed onto the sand.

‘OK, follow me,’ I said. ‘And watch your step on the rocks.’ I picked my way across the sand. ‘I’ll put the kettle on. I can get you something to eat, if you like eggs. Not fresh, of course. But the powdered stuff makes an OK omelette.’

He shook his head ‘Never touch them. I’m a vegan.’

‘Then you shouldn’t be calling seals names.’

I stepped inside the lighthouse, and climbed the stairs, Charlie behind me. I opened the office door. The generator must have wound right down because it was dark inside, but enough light came through the porthole for me to find my way . ‘Hold on.’ I gave the massive crank handle four turns. My arm ached. That would be enough power for the rest of the day.

Charlie ran his finger along the spines of the books on the shelves. ‘Some of these old books must be worth a fortune.’

‘Cheeky. They’re the latest editions.’

I filled the kettle from the barrel and put it on the wood stove to boil. I sat at the table. ‘Now, tell me what a helicopter is.’

He sat opposite me. ‘You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?’

I shook my head. ‘Nope.’

‘It’s a sort of…flying machine. Not a balloon.’

‘Yeah, right. And I suppose they use some sort of wind-up power?

Charlie frowned. ‘Well, they do have blades that rotate, but you must know that’s not what powers them.’

‘I don’t know anything of the sort. But it’s a clever idea.’ He was a physicist; I think he’d said. Maybe that was some fancy word for story teller.

The kettle boiled. Charlie stood up and took two mugs out of the cupboard. ‘I’ll make the tea. Black, no sugar.’ A statement, not a question.

He put a mug down in front of me. I took a sip. ‘You asked to use a phone. What’s one of them?’

‘Never mind.’ He looked around the tiny office. ‘What are you doing here? Stuck in this place, the back end of nowhere?’

I stared at him. ‘What are you, addle-pated? I’m the keeper of this lighthouse, of course.’

‘But, they’re all computerised, surely.’

I shrugged.

‘Oh, come on, you know,’ he said. ‘Automated. Mechanised. It happened back in the nineties.’

 ‘Well, it’s 2018 and here I am. Trinny is mechanical, but someone has to be here to keep her going.’ That reminded me, I’d better see what was happening. I walked over to Trinny and wound her up. 

She spat out a message. ‘Assistant keeper Patricia Pryce arriving 23 November 2018. May be subject to change, in adverse weather conditions.’ Not so long for Charlie to wait. ‘I don’t believe it. More clockwork,’ he said, his mouth turned down at the corners. ‘No electricity? No batteries, even? Even you must’ve heard of that?’

I put the messages on the table and my hands on my hips. ‘You needn’t talk to me as though I came across the Channel on a banana boat. We do have electricity. You just saw me busting my arm winding the generator. Not that you offered to help.’

‘Can’t you source one powered by diesel?’

Source. What, add ketchup? ‘The Lighthouse Authority reckons what we have is good enough, and I agree.’

‘But electricity comes from cables run under the sea.’ He ran jerky fingers through his hair and leaned towards me.

‘Now you’re freaking me out.’ I stood up and backed away towards the cupboard. Not dementia. Lunacy. How could I have been so stupid? Inviting some madman inside. Letting him sit between me and the door.

‘OK, sit down,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you. Let’s talk. You can’t get much of that, here on your own.’

My heart raced. ‘I’m not usually on my own,’ I managed to force from my dry throat. ‘I had an assistant, Maggie.’

He raised his eyebrows. ‘Isn’t she here?’

‘No, she…went away. I don’t mind being on my own.’

He smiled. ‘Yes, tell yourself that often enough and you’ll believe it. I know. Look, Lottie. Come back. Please. I’m sorry I scared you.”

He looked into my eyes, I felt something inside me relax, unwind like Trinny’s spring at the end of a stormy night. OK, crazy but harmless. I dropped back into a chair by the table.

‘Tell me about Maggie,’ he said. ‘About yay high?’ He held out a hand level with his shoulder. ‘Short blonde hair?’

‘Yes. Know her?’

‘I think we met once.’

‘When?’ On her last shore leave, I supposed. Trust her to pick up a weirdo. I’d spent many an evening listening to her tell me about the waifs and strays she seemed to attract wherever she went. At least I stuck to befriending seals.

‘It was about two weeks ago,’ Charlie said.

‘It can’t have been. She was here. And then she disappeared. I suppose you’ll be telling me you kidnapped her, next.’ Making up stories about fantastic machines was one thing, but including real people as characters? I was beginning to find humouring him too much like hard work. ‘Anyway, don’t worry about me,’ I said ‘I love the solitude of my situation. And the sea, constantly changing.’

He smiled. ‘You sound like you’re trying to sell it to me. Or to yourself.’

‘No. This is my place in life. I could spend all day looking at the sea, but I’ve got a job to do. It’s just that sometimes, I wonder…’ I looked away from Charlie. My words tumbled out ‘Living on land all the time. What would it be like? But it’s no good thinking like that. If the Employment Authority should ever so much as suspect…’

‘Who? Suspect what?’

‘Shh!’ I put a quaking finger up against my lips. My heart pounded.

He raised his eyebrows. ‘What’s the matter? Surely whoever it is can’t hear us.’

I lowered my hand. ‘You know who I mean. And, of course they can’t hear us, but you might tell them. When you get back.’

He steepled his fingers on the table between us. ‘You can trust me. I promise not to tell anyone.’ He looked into my eyes and, again, I felt my heart slow. ‘And I really don’t know who you’re talking about.’

‘The Employment Authority,’ I hissed. ‘If they thought I wasn’t content in my work, that I wanted to do something else…’ I shook my head.

 ‘So, what if you did? I don’t get it. People change jobs all the time.’

 ‘People change jobs all the time?’  I felt my face grow warm. ‘Name me one person who’s done it in the last fifty years. It’d have been in all the papers. All the time? The prison ships would be full to the gunwales.’

He slid his hand across the table, towards me. I felt a prickling sensation and he pulled his hand back, as though he felt it too. ‘OK, you’re right, I’m wrong. But, have you never lived on land?’

‘There’s land under this rock, of course. But if you mean the mainland, yes, I have, but never spent more than a couple of weeks there, for a holiday.’ I sighed. ‘No, things are fine here. I’ve got Captain to talk to.’

‘You talk to old Fish Breath?’ He raised an eyebrow and I was glad I hadn’t mentioned talking to Trinny.

‘Call him Captain. Yes, I have him to talk to.’

Charlie smiled. ‘But?’

I decided to tell the truth. ‘But I wish there was someone-’

‘Who’d talk back.’

I nodded. ‘It’ll be OK, my new assistant will be here soon. Anyway, I’m used to it. I was born in this lighthouse. My father was the keeper, my grandad before him. And there’s a plaque in the lamphouse honouring my great grandad. There’s been a keeper Grenville ever since the very first lighthouse, when my many greats grandmother volunteered for the job. Of course, that was before the Employment Authority was set up,’ I said, looking round as though the Authority might be peering over my shoulder, taking notes, ‘when you could take any employment you wished.’ I loved the lighthouse, of course I did. It was my home. But, to find my own way in the world? I shook myself. That was no way to think.

I turned back to Charlie ‘What about you?’ I had no idea what a physicist was, but new careers were created all the time, for people whose employment had become obsolete. ‘I thought you might be a sort of story teller.’

‘No – I’m a scientist. I’m concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy.’

I nodded. ‘You mean a kinematical engineer. I suppose you come from a long line of them?’

He raised his eyebrows. ‘No, I’m the first. What did you mean, take any employment you wished? You can.’

He was harmless, but insane. ‘O-kay,’ I said. ‘You don’t come from a long line of kinematical Grenfells. You can follow any career you want. You’re very lucky. Some are. Some aren’t. Just the way things are.’

‘You make your own luck in this life. I chose to study something interesting, and get a job based on it. You could get a different job.’

‘What? Move to another lighthouse? I like this one. I belong here.’

‘But it’s a lonely existence. So why do you stick at it? You could do anything. Or nothing, while you make your mind up.’

My face grew warm. ‘Did you just say what I think you did? Get a different job? Didn’t you hear what I said a few minutes ago?’ My voice came out as a squeak. ‘That’d be a short sharp trip to prison.’ I stood up and leaned across the table, jabbing a finger at him. My voice sounded like it was coming from a distance, as though someone else spoke. ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Much as I love this lighthouse and this island, I’d love to get off and do something else. But I can’t, and there’s no point thinking about it.’ I gasped and held my head in my hands. ‘Now look what you’ve made me say. Anyway, what about the shame on my family name? The Grenvilles have always been lighthouse keepers. Always will be.’ I paused, feeling my voice catch in my throat. ‘Don’t tell them. I didn’t mean it. All praise to the system. Nobody’s ever jobless.’

He raised his hands. ‘OK, don’t get off your bike.”

I lowered my hands and looked up. ‘Bike. Do you always talk such rubbish?’  And me, I’d said too much. I picked up Trinny’s print-out. ‘I’d better not leave this lying around.’ I opened the filing drawer.

Charlie peered across at the mass of paper inside and gasped.

‘I know it looks a mess,’ I said, ‘but there’s a method in there. I can find anything. Just pick a date-’

He shoved his hand inside the drawer and grabbed the picture of Mum and Dad. ‘How did you get this?’

‘You don’t have to act like I stole it. The people in the photo gave it to me. They’re my late parents,’ I said.

 ‘My parents,’ he croaked, poking at the photo with a quivering finger.

He flopped back into his chair.

I shook my head. ‘My parents,’ I said. ‘Liz and Dick Grenville. Dead five years ago.’

He shook his head. ‘Beth and Rich Grenfell. Very much alive.’

‘It’s a coincidence. Must be. Lots of people out there look like others.’

‘And who married each other?’

I shrugged. ‘People end up looking like their partners.’

‘That’s dogs and their owners. No. Our names are so similar. This is going to sound weird…I don’t know how it can be…but I think we might be related. And that, somehow, drew me here.’

‘This is going to be an amazing story,’ I said. ‘I hope you’re going to write it all down.’

‘No, I mean it. Have you got a brother?’

‘Why do you want to know that? I’d have liked one, or a sister. But there wasn’t the room here. You?’

‘No.’ He leaned across the table and reached out as though to grab my arm. The air glowed blue between our fingers. Pins and needles ran up my hand. I felt something push me away. A spark jumped between our hands and he looked up, frowning. I realised where I’d seen his face. It was the one I saw in the mirror each morning. My hands began to shake and I felt my heart jump. ‘How old are you?’ he asked.

‘You’ve got a cheek, when we hardly know each other.’ We didn’t. Did we? ‘But, I’m thirty-two.’

‘So am I,’ he said. ‘I was born on the second of October-’

‘Me too. Nineteen eighty-’

‘five.’ He shook his head. ‘There’s something weird about all this. I admit, I thought you had a screw loose.’

I drew in a breath. ‘And you’ve been talking concentrated rubbish since the moment you…er…arrived.’

He raised a hand. ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong. The transporter…’ He clenched his hands into fists. ‘I didn’t say anything before. Top secret. But this was the first test of a portal through time.’

I thought of all he’d told me. Asking the date. Stuff like in a story. ‘You mean…you’re from the future?’ How far? We were born at the same time and he didn’t seem to have aged.

‘No. Not the future.’ He shook his head. ‘From…somewhere else. I’ve never believed it before, but some people think there’s an infinite number of universes. Everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but didn’t, occurred in the past of some other universe.’

‘I don’t get it.’ I felt a migraine nudging at the edges of my brain, trying to get in.

‘OK, what about this?’ He rested his elbows on the table and leaned towards me. ‘We think time exists in the form of particles. They last a fraction of a second before they split.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Like radioactivity?’

‘My radio was active before the spring broke. I suppose it sort of split. That what you mean?’

 ‘No. Never mind. There are time particles.’ He stood and paced up and down. ‘Every time one splits, two halves go off in different paths, and meet different influences. And each of them splits too, like the ribs on a fan. So, there are millions of Lotties, millions of Charlies. All slightly different. That’s why we look so alike. Whatever my assistant did sent me into your world. On another rib.’

 ‘That much, I think I understand,’ I said. ‘Perhaps in some ribworlds Lottie never gets born at all. Her parents have no children. Or they have a boy instead. Or maybe there’s one where they have a boy and a girl.’

Or one where you could take any job. Or none.  ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Could you take me with you, when you go? You can send me back here. I can still keep the light. But I want to see your world.’

His voice cracked. ‘I’d love to. But you can’t come with me. I didn’t tell you everything about Maggie. I have met her, or rather, she’s been in our lab. When we first tried the portal, it opened on the beach right next to her. Pulled her straight in.’

‘So what? That’s great. You did it for her. Do it for me. At least there’ll be someone there I know.’

 ‘We didn’t mean to take her. It was an accident. We sent her back.’

‘Well, It’s my turn now.’

He stood up and paced up and down. ‘That’s the point. You told me Maggie’s not here. It looks like the way time flows in different ribworlds may not match up.  Without a machine at this end to get a fix on her, Maggie is probably on her way back –  but not for another five hundred years. Or five thousand years ago. It’d be a one-way portal for you, if you came with me. You couldn’t come back. Not to here and now.’

My throat tightened and I heard my voice rise in pitch. ‘I don’t care. I want to see a world where people can take whatever path inspires them. Where there are flying machines. I don’t want to do the same job as Mum and Dad, I want to hug them, to talk to them. There’s so much I want to say.’

‘I know you. I don’t think you could,’ Charlie said. ‘You couldn’t leave this place. Your conscience wouldn’t let you.’

I felt a cold sponge close round my stomach. I couldn’t leave the lighthouse unmanned. All those lived depending on its light. I spoke slowly, allowing the ideas to form in my mind. ‘OK. Maggie’s replacement will be here soon.’ I hoped there would not be another storm. ‘Come back for me.’

‘There’s no way of replicating the settings that sent me here. And even if I could, I can’t take you with me.’

‘You could. If you wanted to.’

He shook his head. ‘It’s not that. I don’t think we’re each other’s brother or sister, that we never had. There might be a world somewhere out there, where that’s true. But if it was, we ought to be able to do more than talk. Haven’t you noticed? Every time we try to touch…’ He reached out a finger tip towards me. Another spark cracked between us, blue and dazzling. ‘I know what you feel. I know what you think. And I think I’m you. And you’re me.’

I reached out to take his hand. Yet another jolt. I felt a wave of nausea rise in my throat. My tongue felt thick.

‘No, we can’t touch,’ he said. ‘We’re like particles of matter and antimatter. When they touch, they annihilate each other.’

I slumped ‘Now you’re trying to confuse me. Just making excuses you know I won’t understand.’

‘OK, we’re like two opposite halves of an equation. Plus one and minus one.’

‘I was never any good at algebra. You’ve lost me. But I do know that one and one makes two.’

He shook his head. ‘It’s an equation that adds up to zero. The portal will soon be opening. If I took you with me, we’d be combined when we went through. And both wiped out.’

‘You don’t know that. And who’s to say one of us is minus? We could both be plus. Then we’d end up with 2.’

‘Or both minus. And what would happen to minus two?’

I stared at him. He seemed fuzzy round the edges, flickering in and out of focus.

‘The fix. It’s happening already. They’re trying to pull me back.’ He stood up. ‘I need to get back to the beach, to the place where I came through.’ He dashed out of the door and down the steps. I ran after him, my breath rasping in my throat. He dimmed to black and white. I saw through him to the rocks behind. If I couldn’t go with him, then perhaps…

‘Stay with me.’ I reached out and touched his cheek.  A flash of light filled my head, brighter than a million lighthouses, forcing my eyes shut. I felt as though the air had been sucked away. I opened my eyes. The sand seemed to rush towards me, then vanish into the distance. I clamped them shut them again, struggling to catch my breath.

I sank to my knees. A flood of memories rushed in like a tidal wave. Mum and Dad, beaming with pride as I was awarded my PhD in Physics. Sitting in a flying machine, high above the clouds. Electricity on tap, coming out of an outlet on the wall. Getting the job at the Institute. Typing messages on a keyboard with a screen. Creating the portal machine.

I stood up opened my eyes, and blinked, trying to get my eyes to focus. I was alone on the beach.

Captain poked his head out of the sea. ‘Not now, Fish Breath,’ I said.

I’d catch something for him later. First, hurry back to the office. Switch on the computer. Of course not, grab a pen and paper. Work out how to make a time portal of my own. I turned away. I’d have to find a way to make all the components myself, but with luck I would. Even if I had to source all the parts from scratch. After all, you make your own luck. Starting with a pair of metal rods, sparks crackling between them, mounted on a platform shaped like a squat cylinder.

Captain turned and dived under the waves. Just us on the beach. Charlie had been wrong about one thing. And I was right. We’d ended up with two. I looked up at the lighthouse. On high, the light pulsed, sending out signals. ‘Home. Stay. Home.’ And I would, for now, but I knew I’d never be lonely again.

 

I stand on the beach at the edge of the rocks. The new Assistant Keeper steps off the boat. She puts out her hand. I grab it and pull her onto the sand. ‘Welcome to Waymark Reef, Patricia,’ I say. ‘Good to meet you.’

‘Call me Trish. I’m looking forward to working with you, Charlotte. Or is it Lottie?’

I shake my head. ‘Call us Charlie.’

THE END

Judith Field lives in England. Her non-fiction has appeared in magazines and newspapers in the UK and her fiction, mainly speculative, has been published in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand.

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