Posts Tagged ‘Judith Field’

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.

The Father Paradox

clockby Judith Field

Dad always insisted that there was something priceless in the house. Towards the end, words that might have told me what and where, abandoned him. I couldn’t see anything worth more than a few bob, and neither could the house clearance dealer.

I stood by the kitchen window looking at the back wall separating the garden from the churchyard where he was buried. The sky was solid grey and a gust of wind bent the branches of the trees into arcs. Bloody English summer, I bet the sun was baking the pavement in Barcelona. I’d be looking at orchids, thyme and hibiscus, if I could buy a place there. But not on a medical physicist’s salary. Dad left his entire estate to the University. Congratulations, folks, don’t spend the whole fifty quid at once.

Archie, gardener and churchwarden, was in the final stages of wrenching a rose bush out of Dad’s flower bed. I banged on the window. “Come in and have a drink when you’ve finished.”

He wrapped the rose’s root ball in an old sack and stomped into the kitchen. I found a bottle of lemonade, not quite empty, inside the fridge. I poured him a glass, put the empty bottle on the table, turned off the fridge and pulled out the plug, ready for the new tenants.

Archie downed the lot and leaned back. “You sure you’ll be able to plant these roses properly at your place? Get someone to help you.”

“How hard can it be? I’ll do it on my own, I’m a big girl now.” Once both your parents are dead, you finally feel like you’ve grown up. Even when you’re in your fifties.

“I’ll go and dig that dwarf apple tree out for you next,” Archie said, “but then I’ll have to get off, I’ve got more gardens to do. Get another apple if you want fruit. I told your Dad to buy more than one.”

“He wanted to plant a mini-orchard. That tree was going to be the first of many. I’ve got to take it with me. The next tenant might want to chop it down, I couldn’t stand the thought of that. Dad loved his garden.”

“Oh, aye. Good at digging, your Dad was. I suppose he had to be, in his line of work. Bit different from Egypt here, though. I remember him planting this tree, just before he went mad…er, was taken ill. You know, there’s a lot of it about, in this little street. All started around about the same time as your Dad.” Archie pursed his lips and looked upwards. “There’s four others, no…five. Going downhill, really fast.”

“I suppose that’s what happens when folk retire to a place like this. All the same age, all getting senile.”

Archie shrugged. “Dunno about that. Kevin two doors down, he’s got the dee-mentia. He’s only forty-five. I’m going to do his garden next, sweep up the leaves.”

“That’s kind of you.”

He smiled. “Now your Dad, he never let the leaves lie, I’ll give him that. Always had a bonfire going.” He got up and headed for the garden. “See you, Kathleen. I’ll be back in a bit, help you get those books into the car.”

Dad used to call me Kat, but that stopped when people only he could see began coming through the bedroom wall when he lay awake. Then, he called me Kathleen, the Thief, who stole from him. He would get up in the night to hide money around the house–half a £50 note among the pages of a book and the other half inside the toaster. I told him he didn’t have money to burn. “Burn, yes,” he said. I wrinkled my nose as I remembered the time he set the kitchen alight. Saved by the smoke alarm.

Towards the end, he forgot my name completely, and the places where he had hidden things. One day he pulled every book off the shelves that lined the walls and I found him throwing them across the room. “It’s all true,” he muttered, “priceless.” That again. But nothing had turned up and now the house was nearly empty.

Every happy memory I had about the place seemed to have been blotted out by Dad’s becoming what I came to think of as ‘the Father-thing’, some alien creature who had assumed his appearance. Whenever I thought of the house I felt a cold hand clutching my insides.

One more room to empty and I’d never have to come back to the house again. I picked up the charity shop box and headed for the living room. A mouldy smell hung in the air and stains edged their way up the walls where the furniture had been. The front door, opening directly from the room onto the street, shuddered in the wind. The sky outside darkened and rain blobbed against the window. There was still work to do, on a shelf-full of books that the dealer had refused to take. A woman from the charity shop was coming to collect them. I looked at my watch–she was due in an hour. Better get a move on.

I saw a blue book on the shelf. The label on the front read “The Quantum Multiverse–could it resolve the Grandfather Paradox?” The Paradox was a time travel thing–if you went back and killed your own grandfather before you were born, how could you have been born to go back and murder him? It was my final dissertation for my degree, and I’d been much taken with the idea of an infinite number of possible universes, like bubbles, all coexisting but never interacting. Dad took one look at the dissertation, said “too many hard sums for me”, gave me a kiss and put the book on the shelf. It had probably been there ever since.

I pulled out a Bible bound in black leather, gold leaf letters on the spine. Inside, the inscription “Maurice Farthing, November, 1933”. He’d have been thirteen, I remember him telling me that was the age he was when he first became interested in Egyptology. I took it into the kitchen and put it on the table, on top of the pile of books to take home.

Back in the living room, in the gap behind where the book had been, stood another one, a battered hard-back with a dull red cover. The British Way and Purpose, consolidated edition, prepared by the Directorate of Army Education. The book fell open between chapters called ‘Working for a Living’ and ‘What we Produce’, held slightly apart by an envelope containing three dried leaves, burnt at the edges. Another toaster job.

A few pages further on, after ‘What We Do with the Products’, I found two letters. One was from the Royal Botanic Garden, at Kew.

We have been unable to identify the leaf you submitted as there is nothing comparable among our herbarium specimens. However, we believe it to originate from a species of thorn bush.

The letter was dated October 2013, a month before the dementia caught hold of Dad. It must have been the last thing he worked on.

The second letter, sent a week later, was from the radiocarbon dating laboratory at the University.

The papyrus, the ink used in the writing on it and the plant sample you submitted are between 3500 and 4000 years old.

I picked up a pristine copy of A Brief History of Time, flicked through it. Some of the pages hadn’t been cut  ad anyone actually read the book? Behind it was another copy of The British Way and Purpose. Between ‘Better than the Rules’ and ‘Does It Matter What We Believe?’  was a letter from the Department of Semitic Studies at the University, dated November 2013:

“we concur with you that the text on the “papyrus” allegedly from Mount Horeb, of which you sent us a photocopy, is Hebrew, written in a form of early Semitic script. You say that you found it in 1942 but the fact that you have not consulted us until now leads us to assume this is some kind of hoax.

In the margin, in Dad’s writing Yes – I took a break after El Alamein. And No carbon dating till now, you buffoon! I read on.

However, here is the translation of what we could read: “My brother Aaron, these leaves are from the bush I told you about…on fire and yet not consumed… I will be who I will be…my name forever, the name you shall call me… I am not a man of words—not yesterday, not the day before…speak to the people for me, speak to Pharaoh Thutmose…meet me in the desert.” We cannot discern a signature on the document but would be happy to examine the original.

I felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room and the floor seemed to rush towards me, then vanish into the distance. Where was the original papyrus? I struggled to catch my breath. I clawed at the books still on the shelf, dragged them onto the floor, but there were no more copies of The British Way and Purpose. Pages clattered as I hurled the remaining books across the room, but nothing fell out as they hit the wall.

I ran to the kitchen, grabbed the toaster, turned it upside down and shook it till the works rattled. Nothing. Had there been a dull red book among the ones the dealer took? Why hadn’t I made a note of his phone number? Where had I found it—Google? I wrenched my phone out of my pocket. No signal. I flung the window open. “Archie! Quick! Have you got a local paper?”

Out in the garden, he didn’t seem to have heard me. He knelt on the lawn pulling something red out of the ground where the apple tree had been. His stood up. “Your Dad. Daft old bugger.” He held out a clear plastic bag. Inside was a book with a dark red cover.

“Give that to me!” I ran towards him, my feet slipping and sliding on the wet grass. I snatched the bag and ran back into the house. Archie followed me.

My heartbeat pounded in my ears. The bag slipped out of my shaking hands onto the table. I panted as I tried to tear it open.

“Here, let me do it.” Archie took a lock-knife out of his pocket and pulled out the blade. I gasped. “Don’t look so worried,” he said. “I’ll be careful.” He slit the bag, took the book out and put it on the table next to the empty lemonade bottle. I grabbed the book and it fell open. The pages had been cut away, leaving a space containing a cylindrical grey pottery jar about three inches high. The lid of the jar was shaped like the head of a pointy-eared jackal, with long striped hair. I pulled the jar out of the book.

Archie peered over my shoulder. “Looks old. Valuable, is it?”

I took the jackal head lid off and upended the jar over the table. A roll of paper dropped out. It was brown with tattered edges. Through the surface I saw the outline of unfamiliar texts. Not paper. Papyrus.

My mouth dried. “More than you know.” I touched the papyrus with the tip of my index finger. The air glowed blue above it I felt a buzzing inside my head and an image of sand, and the occasional scrubby bush, flashed across my mind.

Archie leaned in front of me. “It’s clever, lighting up like that. Let me look at it properly.”

“No!” I reached out to grab the papyrus, knocking the pile of books to the floor. I looked out of the window. “I think it’s stopped raining. I don’t want to keep you. Kevin’ll be waiting. Time to go!” A phoney laugh stuck in my throat.

“OK, calm down. I’ll say goodbye.” He reached out to shake my hand. I felt bad. Archie had helped me find something wonderful, even if he didn’t know it. I’d send him some money, anonymously. Once I’d sold the scroll.

I put my arms round Archie and hugged him. He reddened. “Give over. I’m only going to rake up Kev’s leaves. Not create the hanging gardens of Babylon.”

I released him. “That was for me. For all your help. You must let me give you something,” I said. “Take anything you like the look of. Before you go.”

Archie tugged at one ear. “Sure?”

I nodded. He looked round, frowning. Archie picked up the Bible and leafed through it. “I wouldn’t mind taking this notebook, for my little grandson. Loves to draw, he does.”

“That belonged to Dad. I don’t think anyone should be scribbling on it.”

“Make your mind up. But I’m sure your Dad wouldn’t have minded a little lad having a bit of a draw. It’s not like it’s got writing or anything. Well, just a bit at the beginning and I’ll make sure he leaves that.” He shoved the bible towards me, flicking through blank page after blank page.

I took it. “Where’s the New Testament?”

Archie shrugged. “Where’s what?”

Genesis was there. Exodus stopped in the middle of a sentence about Moses tending sheep. After that, blank pages.

“But it was there. I saw it.” My throat tightened and I heard my voice rise in pitch. “Where’s the rest of the Bible gone?

Archie raised his eyebrows. “Bible?”

“This.” I jabbed a fingertip at the cover. “Look. Read.” I turned the book so that the spine was uppermost. No gold text. Had I imagined it? Dementia wasn’t contagious – was it?

The chair squeaked as I flopped into it. I pushed my fingers through my hair.

Archie put his hands up. “OK, OK, keep your Dad’s book. Didn’t mean to upset you.” He looked away from me. “I’ll leave you to it.”

He shuffled out of the back door. I locked the door behind him. I took a deep breath and told myself to think rationally, to remember I was a scientist. The Bible must have been printed in some kind of disappearing ink. And as for Archie, he must be losing his memory. Poor man.

I went back into the front room. A beam like a full-on car headlight shone through the window. The charity shop woman must have come early. I looked out of the window into the empty street. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, as though someone was watching me. I locked the door.

I put the Bible back on the table. I had proof that what it said was true. Dad was right, it was priceless. “It’s not too late,” I said to an empty room. “I’m going to make you a household name, Dad.” I decided to be patriotic and offer it all to the British Museum first. The jar alone must be worth something. I picked it up and reached out towards the papyrus again.

Pins and needles shot through my palm. My hand opened and I dropped the jar onto the table. After a second pause it rolled, apparently under its own power, onto the floor where it smashed on the stone tiles. The air seemed thick and I felt like I was moving under water. I heard a sound as though the air was tearing like cloth.

The shadow of a man appeared, black but edged with tiny sparks, but not on the wall. It stood in the middle of the room, on the air itself. A bright spot appeared in the middle of the shadow. It expanded till it filled the darkness and changed into the figure of a dark-skinned man. He stepped out of the space and into the room, flecks of light crackling around his shaven head.

He wore a white tunic, with fringes hanging down by his legs. He had bright green shadow on his eyelids, and a black line circled each eye. He held out his hand.

“Give me the scroll of the slave Moshe.”

“Can’t…move.”

He clapped his hands and I felt as though weights had fallen away from me. “You took the scroll from the jar. Give it to me.”

“Who the hell are you? Get out of my house.” He stood motionless. To get to the landline phone in the hall, I would have to get past him. He reached for the papyrus.

My breath rasped as I grabbed the empty lemonade bottle. I smashed it against the stone tiles of the floor. “You heard me. Get out.” I grasped the neck of the bottle and held the broken end outwards.

The man held his palm up and took a pace back. “I am Khusebek, magician of Pharaoh Thutmose. I serve Sekhmet, goddess of plague. You cannot harm me.”

“Don’t be too sure.” My mouth dried and I felt sick.

“The scroll is mine.”

“I’m not going to give it to you. It belongs to me. Me and my Dad.” I took a step towards him, jerking the broken end of the bottle forwards.

The man said a word I did not understand, which would probably take pictograms of reeds and eyes to write down. An invisible force grasped my hand, twisting it round. The bottle smashed on the floor, with a crash that seemed to go on and on. I rubbed my wrist.

His eyes narrowed. “You will not stop me. My magic is the breaker of bones. The tearer of flesh. Next time I will rip your arms from your body. The scroll is cursed. If you do not give it to me, the curse will fall on you.”

I backed away, my fists clenched, until I was pressed against the wall. “Go on, take it.”

He reached out. With a crack that made my ears ring, a flash of light burst out of the scroll. He jerked his hand back.

“The power is too great. I may hold it but I may not pick it up. You must give it to me.”

I dropped the scroll onto the table. “Then, you’ve got a problem, because I’m not going to. I don’t believe all that nonsense about curses. So just sod off.”

“I have waited many lifetimes. Dead. Asleep. Waiting for the scroll to be released from its captivity. The scroll is the destroyer of brains. It is a tool of great energy, it makes two times touch. Things are shaken loose in their time. You released the power when you took the scroll from its jar. It called to me through time, dragging me through an opened door between my world and yours.”

His gaze followed mine, to the shattered remains of the jar on the floor. “Why do you think your father, the tomb robber, kept it in the jar? Now the scroll cannot be put back, its power cannot be contained.”

“What are you on about, power?” I remembered my day job again. Caesium could give off blue light like the scroll had, if it got damp. “You mean radioactivity? Calm down. If that jar kept it in check I’m sure it’s nothing a few inches of lead can’t block.” The museum would be able to shield it. Wouldn’t they?

He moved towards me. I dashed to the other side of the kitchen, my feet crunching on the broken glass and pottery. The table stood between us. He leaned towards me.

“My master Pharaoh Thutmose found the scroll abandoned in the wilderness, after the slaves escaped. He kept it, hoping to use it to get them back. He never did. When he died, he took the scroll into his tomb. It watched over him for thousands of years. And your father crept through the doorway stole it.”

“Liar. Dad was no grave robber. He must have dug it out of the ground.”

He raised a palm. “It was in the tomb. And it was never in the tomb. The doorway opened and let your father steal the scroll before we could put it in. I have followed your father through the doorway.”

“So Dad got hold of the scroll before you had the chance to stash it. Although it was already stashed. And then, it appears here? I don’t think so.” My head ached, and I remembered the idea of the bubble universes. Perhaps, in one bubble, Pharaoh kept the scroll. In another, Dad got it. Somehow, the power of the scroll had made my bubble collide with the other two. “I don’t care how you got here, or why,” I said. “Just trot off back through that doorway. I’ve got to get home. I’ve got a press release to write.”

“You do not understand. The curse has already come on you and your people.”

“I don’t believe you. Stay here if you want, but I’m off.”  I slipped the scroll into my pocket and turned away.

“Then fear—” he cleared his throat “the power of Sekhmet. You will lose your mind. Your fellow-men have already done so. Your father looked upon the scroll too many times and was no longer your father.”

I had looked at it. The image was in my head, when I shut my eyes.

“Hear me,” he said. “The scroll released is more powerful than the gods. Your father’s wits were smashed. The spreading destruction that cannot be undone, the eater of minds, a swarm of locusts devouring all in its path. It attacks even the minds of those who have not seen the scroll. There is no healing. No escape, now. Without the jar.”

I looked at the shards on the floor. “I’ll burn it. And that’ll stop up your precious doorway as well.”

“Your father tried fire. And failed. As you will.”

I remembered the burning kitchen, the garden bonfires. Dad, Kevin, others…brains turned to mush. Archie, forgetting the Bible. Next me. Dementia, spreading.

“The eater of minds has taken root in me,” he said. “Only if I return to my own time, with or without the scroll, will it be checked. But I cannot travel without the scroll.”

I pulled it from my pocket. “OK, you have the vile thing. Then just get lost.” He put out his hand, palm upwards. I reached out.

The air shimmered silver. I caught movement in the corner of my eye and flicked my head towards it. I heard a noise inside my head, whining at a higher and higher pitch until I could only feel it. Then nothing. Another shadow appeared. A man stepped out, dressed in what looked like a woollen coat, over a knee length shirt. He had a close-clipped beard and on his head he wore a piece of cloth that draped round his shoulders, held in place with a cord round the forehead.

He thrust his out his hand and snatched my wrist. With his other hand, he grabbed my free arm and pushed it round my back. I let the scroll fall and kicked it across the floor.

He spoke from behind me. “I—I am Moshe. Do not give the scroll to Khusebek. If you do, we will b-be as nothing and s-s-so will you. Pick it up. Give it to me.”

Moshe. Moses, who stammered. His brother as spokesperson.

“Do not listen to this slave,” Khusebek hissed.

I turned my wrist, kicking out at Moshe.

“Listen, or I b-break your bones,” he said. “I beg of y-you. I am slow of tongue, b-but I have had to come alone, this time. This doorway is, is unsafe. It destroys. When two have entered it, in all but a single time, only one has come out.”

I bent forward as pain shot up to my shoulder. My eyes watered. “I’m giving it to Khusebek. For all our sakes.”

Moshe leaned forward, let go of my wrist and snatched the Bible from the table. “In his world, Pharaoh found the scroll before my brother could read it. And now his world, mine and yours are bound up with each other. If you give it to him it will be as though we Israelites had never lived. We, and our children, and our children’s children.”

Holding the front cover of the Bible, he shook it in front of me. The empty pages clattered in my face. Moshe dropped my arm.

“Now, will you listen?”

I nodded.

“Our worlds are woven because your father took the scroll from Pharaoh’s and from mine and brought it to yours. We never left Egypt. We withered and died out. God has forsaken your world. That is why the pages are blank.”

“Give the scroll to me,” Khusebek snarled.

Moshe reached out a hand to mine again, but I dodged and ran to where the scroll lay.

“Now listen,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss, but I have to stop the dementia.”

“You would help a few people, and condemn your whole world to eternal misery?”

I heard a voice outside in the street, crackling as though coming in on a badly tuned radio. “What could be worse than your brain turning to mush?” I said. I turned to Khusebek. “Just take this and get lost.” My hands shook.

The light shone through the window again. I ran to shut the curtains. A spotlight beam swept along the front of the house, coming from a streetlamp right outside the front door. Mounted on the lamp post was some sort of camera, swivelling to follow the path of the beam. I heard another crackle, from a loudspeaker mounted at the top of the post.

The voice spoke again. “Worship the one true goddess, people of the faith!”

I shut the curtains.

“Woman of dwelling 38! We know you are there. You were warned before.”

There had never been a streetlamp outside the front door, there can’t have been. How would we have got the car off the drive?  Dementia must have caught hold, in me. I felt my heart race.

“This is your final warning. Attend worship or pay the ultimate penalty.”

Something drew me, staggering, to the window. Outside, the colour faded from the world, draining away to a view like a sepia photograph. A van drew up outside the house. On its side, letters read “Honouring the One True Goddess is our Way and Purpose”.

Without sound this time, another shadow appeared, glowing blue round the edges. I smelled something aromatic and smoky, like tobacco. Moses and Khusebek froze. From the shadow a man stepped, aged in his twenties. He wore an open-necked khaki battledress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, baggy shorts, knee-length khaki socks and scuffed black boots. On his head was a black beret. Below that, a face I had seen in seventy year old photographs. Dad. With his whole life ahead of him.

“Hello, Kat,” he said. “I thought I’d better join the party, now that lot are at the door.”

I reached out and touched his face. The skin was warm and rough. “Dad? What’s going on?

He stepped towards me, leaving sandy footprints on the floor. “Is that it? No hug, for your Dad?”

I squeezed him tightly. He kissed the top of my head and unwrapped my arms.

“Let a chap breathe. Curious, I’d have expected to see myself here.”

“You won’t. It’s 2015 and you’re…you live somewhere else, now.”

“You mean I’m dead. Well, I had a good run for my money. I must have been…ninety three?”

I felt a lump rise in my throat. “I’ve missed you. Every day. But look, this scroll you found. I’m giving it back to the Egyptians. Sorry.”

“No. Give it to the Israelites, before it’s too late.”

“But, the dementia—”

Dad put his palm up, his mouth set in a line. “Shut up. The scroll, created on holy ground, became charged with great power. It can make a stammering man speak clearly. It can warp the fabric of existence so that space-time bends back on itself. But there’s just about enough time to undo it all. If you give it to Moshe.”

I folded my arms. “No, Dad. I’ve made my mind up. You haven’t seen dementia take away someone you loved. You haven’t mourned someone who was still alive.”

Dad reached out and squeezed my hand. “A cure might be found. But there’s no cure for world-wide tyranny. You have to do what I say.”

I shrugged. “Why? Things seem OK to me.”

“Listen. You’ve felt as though you’re being watched, haven’t you?”

I nodded. “Ever since I opened the Bible .”

“That’s because you are under surveillance. Every one of us is, now. Because Aaron never saw the scroll, there’s no Judaism. So there was never a Jesus. And there was no Islam. The other religions of the world never flourished—”

“—I don’t care. Religion is behind all the problems of this life. We’re better off as atheists—”

He grabbed both my hands. “Atheism? Forbidden. Because there was nothing to believe in, something cold and harsh arose to fill gaps. An evil that murders non-worshippers.”

I heard the letterbox rattle.

“They’re coming,” Dad said. “Give the scroll to Moshe.”

“But Khusebek will be left behind. And his presence is giving everyone dementia. It killed you. It’s taking everyone in the street, in the town, in the country. It will take the world. One by one.”

I heard footsteps outside the front door. The letterbox rattled. The loudspeaker bellowed. “You have twenty seconds to pray in repentance before we enact the ultimate penalty. May the one true goddess have mercy upon your soul.”

Dad bent down and grabbed the scroll. “I started this mess. I have to undo it. The line of time has been spliced and recombined. All realities are superimposed. You could call it The Father Paradox. The only way to sort it out is to cut it off and start again, to overwrite what might happen. I have to take it back myself, so that I never found it. This is the only chance we have.”

“Take me with you.”

Moses opened his mouth. “Fool! Did you not hear me? This doorway is unsafe. Two in, one out.”

“You said that once it worked for two people. I’ll take that chance.”

Dad’s hand trembled as he took mine. “If you come with me, who knows which of us will survive? And whether the scroll will come through intact?”

Tears ran down my cheeks. “Do you think I care what happens to the bloody scroll? I can’t let you go again. I won’t.”
Judith Field

Dad dropped my hand, and wagged a finger at me. “Language. I might be much younger than you are, but I’m still your father. Sorry, I’ve got to do it on my own.”

“Then come back again afterwards. Come back to me.”

He shook his head. “I can’t. I have to leave it there. And time travel’s not possible without it. Goodbye, Kat. Chin up. Who knows what life will be when the scroll was never in it? We’ll probably still be together, and you won’t be older than me like now.”

“Or you might have gone under a bus. Or broken your neck falling off some ancient temple.” And I might still be alone. “Take me.”

Dad shook his head. He put the scroll into his pocket. All motion stopped and he looked like a photograph. He dimmed to black and white. I saw the room behind him.

“No!” I grabbed his arm as he faded.

* * *

Archie unlocked the front door and stepped into the living room. A boy aged about ten looked up from the book open in front of him on a table, and smiled.

“Hiya, Grandad!”

“Hiya, Joe. Is your dad in? I want to chat to him about the New Year holiday.”

Joe shook his head. “He went to see the Rabbi.”

“OK. Getting on with your homework? Good lad.”

“Yeah. Nearly done. I had lots.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “maths—those flippin’ decimal sums—”

“—give you a hand, if you like.”

“No, you don’t do it the same way as Miss Bradshaw and I’ve got to show my working out. Anyway, I’ve finished it. Now I’m on history. I’m doing a project about the Egyptians.”

“You know they took your guts out when you died?”

Joe mimed putting his finger down his throat. “Yeah. They used to stick them in jars.” He picked up a postcard. “I got this from the museum. I copied the picture into my book.”

“Give us a look.” Archie took the card. It showed a stone relief of a man and a woman facing each other, smiling and holding hands. Each had placed their free hand on the top of a jar with the head of a jackal for a lid, standing on a table in front of them. Hieroglyphics ran across the bottom of the carving. “Perhaps that’s one of them gut jars, with the dog’s head on.” He turned the card over. “Yes, I was right. It says “From the New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties, 1550-1069 BC). Shows Canopic jar for preservation of body parts, with head of Duamutef. Inscription (possibly referring to the goddess Bast) reads Dad and Cat were here.”  His eyes narrowed. “If you’ve finished with this, can I have it?”

“If you want.”

Archie slipped the card into his pocket. “OK, I’ll be off now. Tell your dad I’ll pop in later.” He walked to the front door and reached out to the handle. He stopped. “Hang on.” His hand dropped and he walked back across the room.

“Why are you putting the card in there?” Joe said.

Archie put the book with the dull red cover back on the shelf. “Dunno, lad.” He frowned, and stroked his chin. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

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Judith Field