by Maeryn Lamonte
If the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas...
You know how, when you’re stressed, all your memories can blur into incoherence? That’s the how I recall that day. I remember sitting in a generic, open plan waiting room for what seemed like hours. The chairs were low and way too comfortable for anyone in my state of mind, there were coffee tables strewn with the obligatory out of date magazines, the walls were cluttered with health and safety posters, and behind a cheap, chipboard desk, a receptionist sat painting her nails. If only I had been less stressed, I might have been more amused by the cliché.
At least the magazines were scientific in nature. I tried flipping through one, but my mind was too distracted by the impending interview, and I couldn’t keep it focused enough to read more than a few words before it wandered off into the realm of what-ifs.
I glanced across at the girl behind desk and she looked up from decorating her body long enough to give me a sympathetic smile. Which I returned falteringly, then closed my eyes and swallowed as my stomach-full of butterflies began a new and more elaborate aerobatic routine.
I envied her the simplicity of her life right then. What I wouldn’t have given to escape from the terrors of what awaited me beyond the door behind her. What I wouldn’t have given simply for the distraction of painting the shining, viscous fluid onto my fingernails.
Not that I would of course – painted my nails that is. It’s not the sort of thing that men do, though I’ve never been able to figure out exactly why they shouldn’t. My dad was pretty clear about things like that though. There was a time I experimented with a Goth look for all of one day. When Dad saw me, he lay into me something rotten. Not physically – Dad was never physical with me – but verbally, and with every ounce of his highly creative and well educated brain.
Verbal abuse can be far more cruel than physical. I know that sounds easy to say since he never once lay a hand on me, but I’ve been beaten up enough times at school, and I would have gladly accepted every blow I’ve ever received, doubled in strength and frequency, in trade for just one of Dad’s tongue lashings. The scars aren’t visible, but they go so much deeper, bruising the spirit rather than the body. A bruised body lasts a few days, whereas a wounded spirit remains raw and enflamed for years after.
I’d not been that into the Goth thing in any case; it was just an opportunity to experiment with makeup, and black never really suited me. The light opalescent pink the girl was adding to her digital extremities was quite lovely though, and would have gone quite well with my complexion.
One of the butterflies managed a Cuban eight followed by a Lomcovak and even watching nail varnish dry couldn’t distract me anymore.
Butterflies! Such an oddly apt expression – having butterflies in one’s stomach. The feeling inside was just like the gentle touch of delicate wings, albeit a whole squadron of delicate wings, and in full aerobatic display mode at that moment.
Pretty much my first ever memory is of butterflies. I was about four or five – I don’t remember exactly – and Mum and Dad took me out for a picnic. It was a glorious, sunny, summer’s day, the sky a vivid blue with not the least hint of cloud, and there had been almost no wind.
Mum found us a spot under a tall tree and lay out a blanket with all sorts of delights to enjoy – jam sandwiches, chocolate cakes, all the sickly sweet pleasures of childhood. I’d just about finished eating, and Mum was hovering with a wet-wipe, ready to clean off the inevitable stickiness around my mouth and covering my hands almost up to my elbows, when Dad pointed at something.
A group of butterflies – four of five of them I seem to remember – were making their laborious way through the air towards us. Mum told me to stand up and stretch my hands out, which I did, and sure enough, the butterflies all settled on me, drawn, no doubt, but the magnetic promise of my sugar coated fingers.
It frightened me at first. In those days I was prone to running away screaming from things I didn’t understand, and this was definitely a new and unusual experience. Mum told me to be very still though, and I remember the calm eagerness in her voice settling my fears. I’m glad I did too, because I have the clearest memory of the gentle tickling of their feet on my skin as they moved slowly back and forth. I remember the impossibly vivid colours of their wings as well. It was captivating, and it held my full attention for several whole seconds.
I couldn’t help it, I was so delighted and excited that I squealed and did a sort of running on the spot dance, which disturbed my ephemeral visitors enough that they launched back into the air again and made their awkward way off towards a nearby copse of trees.
Mum ran over to me, her smile almost as wide as mine, and mine was wide enough that it made my jaw ache. She threw her arms around me, momentarily oblivious to my stickiness, and hugged the breath out of me. It has always been one of my favourite memories, and recalling it now seemed to settle my own insect infestation a little.
For my next birthday, my dad bought me a net and a pin board. I asked what they were for and was horrified when he told me.
“Why would I want to pin them to the frame?” I asked.
“So you can have them and see them whenever you want,” my father replied.
“But they'd be dead.”
“Yes, but they're only insects. It's just like picking flowers. They don't mind.”
“But they're alive. I don't want to kill them.”
I ran away at that point, partly because I didn’t want my dad to say anything else that would upset me, but mainly because I wanted to find a quiet corner where I could curl up and cry. I’ve always hated the idea of cruelty, and this was probably the first time in my life when it surfaced. I hated that Dad could talk about killing something as beautiful and gentle as a butterfly, and I was probably running away from this newly revealed, callous side of his nature as much as I was the thought of such atrocities being perpetrated upon the inoffensive creatures.
The door behind the receptionist opened and a young woman in a lab coat stepped through. She hid a pretty face behind a pair of glasses with large lenses and bulky plastic frames. She was probably as attractive as the receptionist, or at least could have been had she tried. She had her mousey brown hair pulled back into a neat and sensible, high pony tail, and she wore no makeup.
By contrast, the girl behind the desk had long, wavy blonde hair, dip dyed a mixture of pink and vivid green, and held loosely in place by a candy pink hair band. It fell in random cascades about her shoulders, framing an exquisitely painted face, filled with smiles and friendliness. Her skin was the sort of smooth you only find on certain parts of a baby’s anatomy, and most likely came out of a bottle, and her eyes and lips had been accentuated with a subtle hint of artificial colour that was just enough to draw the eye.
“Melanie.” The lab coated woman’s voice was friendly enough, but with a very slightly brittle edge to it. I couldn’t be certain I’d actually heard the undertone, but it drew my mind’s focus from the renewed lepidopteral turmoil in my innards.
The newly monikered Melanie looked up at the newcomer with a bright smile, which was returned, although with just a slight tightness around the edges – unless that was my imagination again. Lab coat lady passed across a pile of papers and leaned in close to talk in low tones. Probably explaining what was to be done with the paperwork in excruciatingly pedantic tones, but then maybe I was being unfair again. Your mind has a tendency to lash out when distressed.
I found myself warming to Melanie. She was about my age and, from the look in her eyes, was bright enough. She chatted amiably enough with her colleague, even sharing a joke with her at one stage. If the newcomer were being condescending, as I believed, she handled it with easy grace. I liked her name as well; if things had worked out differently, I thought, I would have wanted to be called Melanie.
Her assigned task complete, the Lady Lab Coat straightened and headed back towards the door, pausing to look over at me briefly before disappearing back into the building.
I took a chance and raised an eyebrow at Melanie. She glanced back at the closing door behind her and favoured me with a smile and a slight rolling of her eyes.
“She’s okay most days,” she said quietly, straightening the stack of papers. “I think it’s just the wrong time of the month.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say, besides my mouth was dry enough without adding further complications. I nodded and smiled, then picked up a magazine and started flipping through it, all the while fighting my jangling nerves.
Melanie set about organising the paperwork she’d been given and, after a minute or so, started typing.
The magazine’s capacity to distract me lasted just long enough. Lab coat lady reappeared and walked over in my direction.
“Michael Denbora?” I don’t know why she needed to ask. I was the only person in the room, and I doubt they were expecting other visitors today.
Up close I found myself taking in a few more details. Underneath the lab coat, she wore a plain black skirt and a silver grey silk blouse with a loose bow at the neck. I stood, inserting a finger between my neck and my own restrictive collar and envied her the comfort of her clothes.
“Erm,” I coughed. “Yes, er, yes.”
Behind her back, Melanie fought to hide a smile. I couldn’t blame her; it wasn’t the most eloquent of starts.”
“The professor will see you now Michael.” My guide’s voice softened as she took in my nervousness. She tried on a smile; not as disarming as Melanie’s, in fact more than a little forced, but I appreciated the effort.
She indicated the door at the back of the room and I started towards it. Autopilot cut in as my mind, in a last ditch effort to survive the overwhelming waves of dread breaking over me, sought refuge in my past.
The butterfly incident had been what started it all. A few days afterwards, while Dad was at work and Mum was hoovering in the lounge, I’d wandered into the utility room, where I spotted one of Mum’s skirts in the basket, waiting to be ironed. It had been way too big, but the pretty flower pattern in greens, blues and yellows had been too lovely to resist. I pulled it out of the basket and stepped into it, pulling it up to my armpits. Mum was slender, having swiftly regained and kept her figure after I was born, but even so the elasticated waist was way too large to hold in place, even around my chest. I clamped my arms down on it to stop it from falling down around my ankles, but even then, it was so long I nearly tripped over it a couple of times as I ran to show Mum.
“Look Mummy,” I called over the drone of the vacuum cleaner, “I'm pretty just like you.”
Mum switched off the whining machine and turned to look, breaking into an amused and delighted smile at the sight of me.
“Oh my, yes you are. You are so very pretty.” She scooped me up and held me to her. I could still remember the softness of her skin, and the delicate scent of her perfume.
A day or so later, Mum took me on a shopping trip into town. I never much liked excursions of theat nature, and Mum was fully aware of the fact. We had an unspoken agreement that if I was good and didn’t whine too much, we’d end up in the Disney store where I’d be allowed a few minutes unfettered exploration in the magical realm before we headed home. Of all the delights they had to offer, I was most drawn to the dressing up costumes and, on an indulgent whim, Mum bought me the Snow White outfit that had so obviously captivated me.
I was so delighted with it I refused to take it off for days, even sleeping in it, until Mum gave in and bought me another one – Cinderella I think – just so she could wash one while I wore the other.
Dad wasn’t too pleased; there had been uncomfortable looks, and raised voices after I'd been put to bed. Mum and Dad rarely fought, but the topic of my dressing up brought about more frequent and vitriolic arguments than any other I remember from my childhood. Mum held out for some days because she knew how much I enjoyed it, but eventually and inevitably she bowed to his will. I have a clear memory of her sad and serious face as she sat me on her lap.
“I'm sorry Michael, but I'm going to have to take away your dresses.”
“Why?” I remember feeling a yawning chasm open up inside my stomach. It was a little like the excitement I felt the first time I put on the Snow White dress, but strangely horrible instead of exciting.
“Well, because boys aren't supposed to wear them.”
“I don't know sweetheart. I suppose it's just something that is.”
“But I want to.”
“I know dear, but it's not something boys can do. I'm very sorry.”
“I'll be a girl then,” I told her emphatically. “I can grow my hair and you can buy me dollies to play with. I'd like to be a girl a lot more than being a boy.”
My mother blinked back a tear and pulled me into a close embrace. “I'm sorry Michael, it doesn't work like that. You're a boy because that's the way you were born, and you need to grow up to be a man just like your daddy.”
“But I don't want to be like Daddy. I want to be like you.” I buried my face in her chest and cried for a very long time.
Ever since then something had seemed off.
That was when the magic disappeared from my life, and over the years that followed, things went progressively more wrong. When I started school, I wanted to play with the girls more than the boys, which earned me nicknames like 'sissy' and 'girly-girl'. Secretly I didn't mind the second one, because it was just what I wanted to be. The girls let me play with them, and though I made friends with a lot of them, I never felt as completely a part of their group as I wanted.
I was different. My hair was short, theirs was long and flowing. I wore shorts and they wore skirts. The uniform was a plain, dark grey for both of us, but there was something about the way their pleats moved which made just enough difference. I envied them.
Parties were the worst though. My girl friends would invite me, and I’d be the only boy there. I’d come dressed in my smart shirt and trousers, and all the girls would have the most lovely party dresses with frills and lace and puffed sleeves. They’d run around giggling and having the time of their lives, and all the while I’d feel this ache in my chest, as though my heart were breaking. It was so unfair that I wasn't allowed to be like them when I wanted it so badly.
Dad spent a lot of time with me as I was growing up, playing football and cricket, taking me fishing, showing me how to do basic maintenance on a car. It should have been wonderful to have a father who was so interested in me, but there wasn’t much he showed me that could distract me from what I wanted, from what he had so emphatically denied me.
Tinkering with the car was interesting, although I didn't much like getting dirty, but the rest was hard on both of us. I had neither interest nor aptitude for sport and I hated kicking or hitting balls. In part, I was no good at it, but mainly I just couldn't see the point. As for fishing, well we only went the once. From my point of view, it was the butterfly kit all over again. I could never figure out why Dad found so much pleasure causing harm to living creatures?
“They don't feel it,” Dad had tried to reason with me.
“How do you know? And even if you couldn't feel it, how would you like it if someone poked a hole in your cheek? You can see they hate being out of water, otherwise why would they try so hard to get away?”
That ended the argument and Dad never tried to justify it again.
Lady Lab Coat had just asked a question, and I’d only just been aware enough of my surroundings to notice the upward inflection in her voice.
“I said, what do you know about Professor Sharp’s research?”
She led me down magnolia painted corridors with exposed pipes overhead, ancient stairwells with handrails and banisters of aged hardwood, so deeply stained they appeared black. The floor, for the most part, was of diamond patterned terracotta tiles. Everything about the building spoke of Victorian opulence and utilitarianism, very much at odds with the cheap and cheerful, somewhat tacky reception area.
“Oh! Er, well I’ve read the two papers he published , and his book; it’s what interested me in coming to work here.”
“You’re aware of how the general scientific public views his work?”
I nodded. Professor Sharp’s theories hadn’t made it into the public spotlight, but in scientific circles he was regarded as something of a crackpot. He had published two papers early in his career, presenting some radical new ideas which had piqued a number of scientists’ curiosity, but subsequently they decided he had stepped over the thin line dividing genius from insanity, and any further attempts to present his ideas in respected journals had been squashed. Which was why he had self-published those same ideas. Without respected peer review, though, what he wrote was considered by most to be pseudo-science and seriously flawed.
“You realise that you risk fatally damaging your reputation by associating with him, don’t you?”
I’d been expecting questions of this sort, given Sharp’s reputation, but I’d anticipated hearing them from the man himself. It was a little unnerving to have them come from his assistant. Still, I had my answer ready.
“I appreciate the warning, but it was Professor Sharp’s published research and theories which persuaded me to study physics in the first place. I don’t want to work in any other field.”
That was enough to satisfy her it seemed and we walked the rest of the way in silence. We entered an enormous basement area filled with large and complex machinery enough to rival the batcave. Walking between a couple of the smaller devices, we came to a partitioned off office area. My guide led me into one room then, indicating I should take a seat and wait, carried on through to the second office.
Left on my own, I returned to chasing memories in order to keep the butterflies quiet.
Puberty took my shattered dreams and ground them into dust. Broadening shoulders, thickening muscles and a face full of stubble greeting me in the mirror each morning, banished any hopes of becoming what I’d always wanted to be.
Depression loomed as the gulf between my inner and outer selves widened. School had never been easy for me, with the bullying from an ignorant minority, and the cruel snubbing from just about everyone else who might have become a friend. As my mood darkened, it simply became a place where my own black thoughts were reflected back at me from the grubby, graffitied walls and the ugly expressions people turned my way.
My grades slipped, then plumetted. At the outset I had been at the top of my class in almost everything, but my mood distracted me and kept me from concentrating. My parents showed their concern in their own different ways. Dad told me on numerous occasions to pull myself together or snap out of it; something I would have gladly done had it been within my power. Mum at least tried to understand
“Michael, please tell me what’s going on. “
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Well if you don’t tell me anything, I have no chance.”
She hadn’t understood before. The incident with the dresses, and a million lesser incidents since, had all ended with her going to Dad, with Dad telling her to take the hard line with me, with her doing as he told her. Is it any wonder I lost faith in her? Besides, it was too late anyway; the changes in my body were too far advanced. Only a time machine would enable me to fix things, and time travel was impossible, wasn’t it?
I scraped through my GCSEs more through innate talent than effort. My best scores were in science and maths, the subjects I most enjoyed and found easiest. They weren’t great as grades went, but they were enough to get me into sixth form, where I chose to study those same favourites.
College turned out to be vastly different from school. The dickheads who’d made it their raison d’etre to make my life unliveable left school to take up minimum wage jobs mopping the floors and serving an ungrateful clientele at Kentucky Fried McBurger Bell, which left me sharing classes with people who shared both my interest in and my aptitude for the subjects we studied, and I soon made friends. Parts of my life improved and, for a while at least, the storm clouds receded. I started to act more like the young man my father had always wanted me to be. I went out drinking and partying with my mates, I dated girls, although none of my relationships lasted more than a few weeks once it became evident that I was more interested in them as friends than objects to be snogged, rogered and dumped.
I wasn’t gay, at least I’m pretty sure I wasn’t. The whole idea of having sexual congress with another man felt wrong to me, although niggling at the edge of my thoughts was the suggestion that, had I been a woman, I would have been interested in guys. Girls were complicated though. While my body was ready and eager to climb into bed with them, my mind wasn’t. When I met girls for the first time, they invariably found me charming because I listened to them and I talked about topics that interested them; something they appreciated in their girl friends and didn’t expect to find in a guy. Something they found ‘refreshing’.
As soon as the relationships started to get physical though, the whole dynamic changed. The moment a girl started to see me as a potential sexual partner and began reacting to me as though I were a guy, I closed up like a clam. Most guys would have loved it, but it felt false to me, and each time it hammered nails into the coffin of our relationship until there was more metal showing than wood.
I wasn’t capable of the level of reasoning necessary to understand the whys and the wherefores until some years later. I was simply be aware that something undefinable had changed and I desperately wanted out of a relationship that wasn’t meeting my needs anymore.
Eventually I decided that I wasn’t going to find a partner who understood my by partying and I gave up on the dating scene; which was about the time that the depression crept in close enough to be noticeable again.
I sought escape and found it in science fiction, becoming an avid reader and watcher of anything in the genre. I found it easier and less depressing to read than actual science, and I didn’t feel ashamed of the indulgence either. One poster in my bedroom at home had a photograph of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue and a caption quoting him:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
And so I let my imagination have free reign. A great many modern scientific achievements were born in the imaginations of science fiction authors long before they grew into reality. Arthur C Clarke predicted communications satellites, space stations and space shuttles years ahead of their time, quite possibly contributing to their development by planting the seeds of the ideas into the fertile minds of the scientists and engineers who read his books.
It was the one glimmer of light in my otherwise dark world; that someday, someone – possibly even myself – might come up with a way of changing my predicament. Science was the magic of the modern age and whilst I had little enough patience with the sort of scientific research that did little but refine and develop existing ideas without ever trying to do anything new, there was always the hope that someone somewhere might have a flash of inspired genius.
That was another of my posters: Cute little kitten looking at a blade of grass with the caption, ‘Genius is looking at what everyone else has seen and thinking what no-one else has thought.’
I suppose I didn’t have to stay stuck as I was. There were options out there in the world, but none of them appealed; not after an entire childhood of my father driving home how wrong it was to want to be the me inside.
There were hormones I could take. Male hormones that might help change my personality to match my physique, but I hated the idea of becoming like my dad. I liked who I was and held just enough disdain for most things considered typically male that I shuddered at the thought of becoming even a little more like them.
I didn’t want to become someone else; I just wanted to fit as myself.
There again, different hormones might have helped. Female hormones would have gone some way to changing my body into something closer to a woman’s. Softer skin and features, perhaps even breasts and, with surgery, something approaching the full anatomy. But I was too far gone in becoming a man; the change would be too little and too late, and at best it would be prosthetic in nature – an artificial semblance of being female.
So what could I hope for? What promise existed in the hidden realm of scientific research? In all honesty I didn’t know. Science had made some astounding discoveries over the centuries, a great many of which had been totally unexpected, popping out of thin air and bringing about some of the most mind blowing enhancements to the human condition. I suppose I was looking for something entirely new, something that could spark off fresh ideas in my own mind, so I scoured the scientific publications, unsure what I was looking for, but certain I would know it when I found it.
And I did. Towards the end of my A2 year, whilst taking a short break from revision, I came across an article by Professor Sharp in one of the journals. Admittedly it wasn’t a publication that enjoyed a particularly solid reputation, and it didn’t take itself particularly seriously either, but the article itself was well written, supported by evidence, and totally captivating. It inspired me enough to plant the germ of an idea into my brain, and to focus my mind to the point where I sailed through my exams, achieving far better grades than I had managed at GCSE and securing myself a place in a respected university.
Three years hard study saw me earn a first class honours in physics, and a post graduate research position, which in turn led to a master’s degree, recently achieved, all of which had led me here.
The inner office door opened again, and an odd looking character emerged.
“Good morning Mr Denbora.” Professor Sharp stepped out of his office and approached me with hand extended. His handshake was short and perhaps a tad overzealous. He was tall with wild, wispy grey hair and an intense stare that made his smile seem just a little manic – the very caricature of a mad scientist.
He wasn't mad though; quite the opposite in fact. I had read everything he’d published over the previous few years and had decided that, while he was eccentric in the extreme, he was decidedly not mad. Rather he was a genius of the most unconventional sort.
“Good morning Professor.” The butterflies in my stomach began a routine that would have sent the Red Arrows scurrying home with their heads hung in shame.
“So I understand you're interested in my work?”
“Well yes. I, er, I've read pretty much everything you've published in the past five years, and I was hoping there might be an opening on your team. I've wanted to work with you since before I started university.”
“Yes, yes, that's all very gratifying I’m sure.” He waved a dismissive hand into the air. “Unfortunately I've heard too many young people say just that same sort of thing.” I wasn’t sure I believed that given his reputation in scientific circles, but I let it go unchallenged. “I don't mind flattery young man, but have no time for sycophants and sensation seekers. Tell me what you know of my work and let me decide whether or not you’re worth my time.”
Well some of his reputation seemed to be genuine, which gave me hope that the brilliance of his mind might also be as bright as some of the stories I’d hear told of him suggested. There was a white board bolted to one wall of the room and, by some happy chance, it had a small blank area. I picked up a marker pen and started to draw diagrams. My stomach was a maelstrom of turmoil. This was my moment to sink or swim, to shine or shatter. This was what the past five years’ hard slog had all been leading to. If I cocked this up, then it would all have been wasted effort.
“Well sir, the first paper I read of yours was about five years ago on the detection and appearance of tachyons. You postulated that an object travelling faster than the speed of light would be travelling backwards in time, and that as such it would still be apparent to us, only travelling in the opposite direction. You stated that in a high energy collision, even though such particles would be moving away from the point of collision, from our perspective of forward moving time, they would appear to be moving towards it, and just before the time when the collision took place rather than after it.
“In standard particle collisions, the focus of attention has always been on the period immediately following the impact, so no-one has ever spent much time looking in the right place. You then published a few images of collisions where the sensors had been recording just before impact, which showed faint traces of rapidly moving particles radiating from the point of impact. Close examination of these traces showed that the trace width was broader closer to the point of impact, indicating that the particles appeared to be moving towards the collision point.
“The traces showed particles of different sizes which you said suggested that tachyons weren't so much particles in their own right, but any of a random number of otherwise ordinary particles moving in extraordinary ways. The comments from other scientists weren't very encouraging, but I thought your ideas made a lot of sense and your data showed strong evidence to support your theory of particles moving back in time.”
By the time I had finished speaking, I had a sketches on the board showing both a standard collision and Professor Sharp’s pre collision image. He nodded noncommittally and waved for me to continue.
“The next paper I read was on the nature of time – that it isn't necessarily one dimension, but that we are only able to detect one dimension. You said that we were like particles caught up in a current of water, and just because the downstream only ever feels like one direction, we assume a single dimension to the concept. This doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't other directions in which it is possible to travel though. A river only moves along its length, but it also has breadth and depth.
“You said that when a high energy particle collision takes place, it's possible that some of the particles scatter in directions other than forward and back along the time stream we're aware of, and that if this were the case, we'd most likely observe them for very brief moments before they moved out of the range of our awareness, and that we would be able to recognise them because they'd be travelling slower than we'd expect. The slower they seemed to be travelling, the closer to ninety degrees to our time stream they'd be and the faster they'd vanish from our field of view.
“Again you showed bubble chamber traces, pointing out very short tracks, previously thought to be little more than interference artefacts, that appeared both before and after a collision. Again the evidence seemed to support your claims, but again particle physicists around the world disagreed, although I don't understand why, because it all made sense to me.”
“Your next paper was very mathematical, and I have to admit I only grasped a small part of what you were saying to start with. You talked about changes you could make to your experimental collisions that would allow you to control the angle to the time stream at which most of the particles would come off. Again you showed experimental results that seemed to support your theories, but nobody seemed to agree. That was the point when pretty much all of the physics community turned their backs on your ideas. I seem to remember some comment about the results being untrustworthy largely because you only had a cyclotron to experiment with, but they never explained why this should cast doubt on your work.
“I only found out about the third paper because I was aware that I hadn’t seen anything new from you in any of the journals for nearly a year. When I contacted the last magazine who published your work, they said they were no longer prepared to do so, but if I was really interested in your crackpot ideas – sorry professor, but those are the words they used – I could look them up directly on your website. When I did so, I found your self-published ebook, which at the time only consisted of the one paper, but I still have a copy of it on my reader. If you could describe an ebook as being well thumbed, this one would count. In fact I more or less copied it out by hand so I could add my own notes to it. The more I learnt in my post grad work, the more I returned to it to try and figure out the maths of it.
“Your next paper, or perhaps chapter in your ebook, was about how particles projected backwards at an angle to the time stream could be made to curve around and re-enter it. Again very mathematical and difficult to follow,” I jotted up the relevant equations to show that, despite my words, I had indeed managed to figure them out. “Your simple explanation was to imagine floating down a river just beneath the surface. If you were to throw a stone directly backwards or forwards inside the river’s flow, it wouldn’t move very vary due to the viscosity of the water. This, you postulated, could explain why particles projected along the time stream don’t move very far. If they did, then their effects would be observable over the whole time frame of their journey, and since we don’t observe this, something must be preventing it.
“You then suggested that if you were to throw a stone at an angle to the river’s flow, it would pass out of the time stream altogether and disappear into some dimensional frame that we are unable to detect. Again the evidence of short trails in most particles you’ve identified as being temporal in nature bears this out, but it doesn’t do us any good unless we can bring them back into the time stream.
“With the simple model of floating along just under the surface, if you were to throw a stone up and backwards, it would arc through the air and re-enter the time stream further back or forward along its length. The problem with using it as an analogy though is that there is no equivalent to gravity pulling the particles back into the time stream. In order to cause the particles to curve around, you had to give them a sort of spin of a temporal rather than spatial nature
“Your paper talked about having developed a method of doing this, but even that was just the beginning. The temporal stream is, you say, very convoluted. It twists back and forth, so aiming back, in order to hit it, you need to have a fairly clear idea of how it has moved about. Your hit rate has improved, but even now you can’t seem to get above fifty percent.
“You also discovered that your hit rate aiming forward, even a short distance in time where the position should be fairly easy to project, you haven’t seen any evidence of having picked up a future time stream. This could be just bad luck, but you are becoming progressively more convinced that, rather than a river flowing both ahead and behind us, the temporal stream is more like a raindrop running down the window pane, with us at its leading edge. This means that all there is ahead of us is a range of possible paths, but otherwise no events yet to detect.
“In your next paper, you dealt with the method of proving that you had been able to send particles back into the past, by using quantum entanglement. Particles that at the moment of their formation are paired in a such a way that any change that affects one instantaneously affects the other as well, regardless of relative positions in time and space. Separate the pairs immediately after generating them, then observe one lot while sending the others back in time. The interaction, largely with radio signals so far, is mirrored in the counterparts you keep here.
“Your early experiments dealt with very short distances and periods of time, but showed strong evidence to support your theories and techniques. Unfortunately the complexity and expense of much of your equipment makes it extremely hard to reproduce, and since the respected – and I use the word loosely – scientific world already distrusted your results, none of the main stream physicists who could probably reproduce your results are prepared to put their reputations on the line or give over the necessary time, effort and funding to try.”
“In the last couple of years, you’ve experimented with changing the angle of deflection in different ways and discovered how to alter, not only the period of time the particles travel into the past, but also the position in three dimensional space where you expect them to reappear, although the positional control is far from perfect since it’s hard to locate where your particles reappear in the past since position isn’t critical for picking up radio signals.
“All of this you self-published and made freely available to anyone who was interested, which unfortunately isn’t a great many people. The scientific community continues to laugh at your results, at least when they can be bothered to look. You have a reputation for being a joke, which is wholly undeserved. In my opinion, which I realise probably doesn't count for much, you've done more for the advancement of our understanding of particle physics and the concept of how time works than any other groups of scientists working today, including the guys at CERN with their Higgs Boson.
“I don't want to sound too much like an infatuated girl, but I really think you've discovered something worthwhile here. Once people recognise that validity of it, I believe it’s going to be lauded as the most important discovery in a century, and I want to be a part of it.”
The professor pulled at his lip thoughtfully.
“Even if it means that you get tarred with the same brush as they've used on me? Even if you can more or less guarantee that joining my little group here will destroy your reputation and any chance you have of working in mainstream physics research in the future?”
“Yes sir. I'm convinced that in time your theories will be proven to the point where being a part of your team will guarantee me the placement of my choice on pretty much any team I want. Not that I'd want to move away from this field. I think it's the most exciting area of study in physics at the moment.”
“So what would you want to be involved in, assuming I were to take you on that is.”
“I'd like to work on spatial targeting, sir. The most recent chapter in your book gave an accurate method of choosing the time the particles go back to, but that their physical location can be anywhere within about fifty miles of the cyclotron. If that puts the particles underground, which would happen on average half the time, then you don't have a radio signal to pick up. I think that if we can pinpoint where the particles reappear in the past as well as when, your results will be a lot more consistent and convincing.”
“And do you have any ideas on how to do that young man?”
“I have a few thoughts, but I don't know if they're worth anything, plus you may have tried them already.”
“Why don't you tell me about them then? Oh and take that stupid tie off. If you're going to work for me, you're going to have to adhere to the dress code, and I don't believe in ties. Anything that restricts blood flow to the brain is counterproductive to our purposes.”
That was three months ago, and I’ve been working with the professor since. Melanie and I are on a nodding acquaintance; I only see her in passing on the way in and out of the lab, but she always has a friendly smile ready for me. Little Miss Labcoat – more accurately named Susan – and I are colleagues and friends. We discuss, we argue, we share exciting advances, and it’s great. Sometimes I think I can see something in her eyes that suggests perhaps she’d like a little more out of our relationship, and I’ve been toying with the idea of telling her I’m gay just to stop her from hoping too much. The thing is I’m quite close to my real reason for working alongside with Professor Sharp, and I don’t want anything to distract me from it.
The targeting has improved immensely since I started working on it. My idea to detect and decode GPS signals in the particle interactions turned out to be spot on. It gave us our most accurate data yet on the time of re-emergence, and using the different signals to trilaterate the position, we were able to pinpoint the position as well – to within a few metres at first, then, once the prof managed to pull a few strings with the DOD and get the algorithm for undoing the positional dither in the satellite signals, within centimetres.
What then followed though, and what continues now, was a lot of repeat experiments and serous number crunching to see if we could come up with a pattern and a means of control for spatial as well as temporal targeting.
Between Susan and myself, we’d come up with a few ideas on positional steering techniques, and had redesigned and rebuilt the collision chamber three times already. Susan’s most recent modifications had proven to be dramatically effective, and we had the location targeting down to a sphere of about forty metres radius. It wasn’t close enough for my purposes, but it was getting there.
The slow progress was frustrating, but, it was progress nonetheless, and so was also encouraging. It also gave me time to explore a few other things that were necessary to my agenda; pieces of information I needed in order to be sure I could go ahead with my plan.
One afternoon, about a month ago, the professor and I took a coffee break at about the same time. The cyclotron was building power ready for yet another experiment and the office was just about the only place that offered even the slightest protection from the building whine.
I stirred some milk into my coffee and settled into a chair.
“Professor, would you mind if I asked you something?”
“Go ahead my boy.” The professor, who had a sweet tooth, was busy spooning white crystals into his own mug.
“All the experiments you've run here have been aimed at detecting events from the past. I was wondering if you'd ever considered actually influencing an event.”
“Hmm.” The professor sucked on his lower lip and settled into a chair next to me. “There are two parts to the answer to that young man.
“First, the number of particles we are able to generate and send back in time using the equipment we have is severely limited. With what we can manage, it's hard enough simply to listen to the past let alone consider actually altering something.
“Second, not enough is known about the nature of time. There are quite a few theories, but nothing proven. As such, we don't know how we might affect the past if we tried it. In the same way that a good lawyer doesn't ask a question unless he's sure of what the answer will be, so a good scientist won't conduct an experiment unless he's confident the outcome won’t have any adverse effects. When the CERN scientists fired up the LHC for the first time, there were scare stories of whether or not they’d generate a black hole among other things. I checked the maths myself and was reassured by the lack of risk in reality”
“But aren't we altering the past simply by observing it professor?”
“Ah the observer effect. Yes I did worry about that when I started on this endeavour. Especially when you factor in the possibility of the butterfly effect as well.”
“That's what I was thinking. Even the smallest changes will snowball over time.”
“Hmm. So I suppose you’re wondering how I justify all this then. I must say I'm impressed that you're considering such factors. Young people tend not to be so, ah, attuned to the more subtle nuances of cause and effect.
“I suppose when I thought it through, I considered all the theories I know relating to the nature of time. First was the idea that the past is immutable, that once an event has occurred, it can't be changed. My problem with that is that it stands in stark contradiction to the observer effect. If you can observe the past as we are doing, then you can change it. Second was the idea that all possible paths through time exist – that every time there is a choice to be made, the universe doubles itself and paths come into being for both choices. I've always considered this to be the most unutterable nonsense as it flies so blatantly in the face of conservation of energy. That leaves us with the third option which is the temporal equivalent of Feynman's sum over paths theory, that all paths are possible and may in fact be taken, but when you sum all the paths together, they collapse down into just one. This means that if you reach back in time to change the past, you influence it enough to give it a new path. Unfortunately this has its own issues in that you have to consider what happens to the old path, and if energy is to be conserved, it has to cease to progress at the point where the new path takes over. This would seem to mean that any successful attempt to change the past would create a different route into the future which wouldn't necessarily include the experiments we’re doing here. Effectively, it would seem that any successful changing of the past would create a future in which no-one would know about the experiment that create the change in the first place, including the new versions of ourselves who conducted the experiment.”
“I'm sorry professor I don't follow.”
“Yes, yes, it is a bit confusing isn't it?” He stepped up to the whiteboard and drew an uneven line across it. “Imagine this is our time line. Different choices are made along the way and they cause us to change direction as we go. Then we reach this point,” he tapped the end of the line, “which equates to the point in time when we undergo the experiment to observe the past. We send particles back to this point,” he tapped a point a short way back along the line, “where our particles re-emerge into the time stream and have their slight effect on their environment which deflects the time stream off in a slightly different direction.” He drew a second branch which moved away from the original line. “By the time we reach the point in time when we conducted the original experiment, we are at some distance from the reality where we actually conducted it. Nobody in this new time line, including the us from the old time line, is aware of the experiment that caused the branch.”
“So your saying that with this model, there's no way that we can know that an experiment was undertaken?”
“Exactly, except that we have performed those experiments, and we have observed successful results, which indicate that this theory is also wrong – or at least incomplete.”
“What do you mean professor?”
“Have you ever watched a drop of water running down a widow on a rainy day? How it weaves back and forth as it comes into contact with specks of dust and the like?”
I shrugged and nodded.
“Have you ever noticed when a second drop comes into contact with the path taken by the first? It doesn't continue to carve its own path, but rather it joins that path that was already there. I suspect that time is a little like that. Once a time line has been established, it becomes a path of least resistance into the future. I suspect that if you make a slight enough change in the past, the new path that's created has a tendency to rejoin the old one. Rather than creating an entirely new path into the future, you simply create a slight loop in the time stream.
“It may be that if you were to make a significant enough change to the past, you might create a completely new branch, and under those circumstances, the old time line would cease to progress and the new time line would take a completely new path with nobody in it being aware of the old one.”
“So if for instance I were to travel back in time and kill my own grandfather – to quote the old time paradox thought experiment – the time line that created me would exist up until the point when I travelled back, but there would be no way of rejoining it because the new time line didn’t contain a me as niehter my parents nor I were born. There is no paradox because the time line that created the assassin me exists, just that no-one is aware of it except the me that travelled into the past.”
“Precisely that my boy, and if you were to shoot your grandfather through time rather than travel back yourself, the new timeline wouldn’t have a you in it and no-one would be aware of the change. It's for reasons like this that it isn't worth trying to change the past. Even if you succeeded in doing so, you wouldn't be aware of your success, so why attempt something if you have no means of measuring your success? Especially when there is the potential to cause the most profound harm.”
The professor poured away half a mug of cold coffee and turned to the door.
“If you'll excuse me, I have work to do.”
“Sure professor.” I rinsed out my own mug and made to follow him. “I have too. Thanks for explaining your ideas sir; it's clarified a lot of things.”
It had too. I now knew there was no way I would be able to persuade the professor into supporting my plan. It didn't change my mind about going ahead with it though. I had a good reason for changing the past; good enough that even if I wasn’t aware of having done so, even if the me I was now should cease to exist, the change would still be worthwhile. My present was only endurable because of the hope of creating a different future, and a different past.
In the end it took over a year and a lot of experimentations and refinement of ideas, but finally the targeting was as accurate as I needed. The further back in time we projected the particles, the less accurately they could place in space, but our improvements saw us able to target a volume of space half a metre in diameter, twenty five years in the past.
It had been an interesting enough challenge to come up with a way of checking location to that accuracy, but I’d come up with a nearly infallible test in the end. There were a number of sixth form schools and colleges in the area, most of which had weak radioactive sources for demonstration purposes. Once I knew where the sources were habitually kept, I set experiments to look for the alpha sources.
Alpha particles cause a great deal of ionisation, but they only travel extremely short distances before being absorbed by pretty much anything. This made them ideal for my purpose as, unlike the radio waves we’d been detecting, I was only likely to get results if I was within a few centimetres, and good results if I was closer still. The intensity of my results varied, but calculations and experiments put the variance of my position at within the range already stated.
It wasn’t perfect, but it would have taken far more time, effort and expense than the professor was prepared to give to improve it further.
It was my twenty-fifth birthday, and time to do or die. I brought cakes in to share with the professor and Susan, and Melanie of course. I’d done this on other special occasions as a sort of personal research, and I now knew everyone’s favourites. Fortunately everyone liked different things, which made doctoring them easier.
I left Melanie’s custard Danish on her desk as I passed through. I’d done nothing to it as having her bright and cheerful personality sitting at the front desk was at least part of the cover I needed to complete my plan. She never came back into the lab, and she wouldn’t let anyone else through until she’d managed to contact the professor on the phone. If he didn’t pick up, and he often ignored it, Melanie would simply smile sweetly, apologise and ask whoever it was to wait.
We spent the morning prepping the cyclotron for yet another blast into the past. We had mountains of data by now, but the professor wanted more so that, when he finally published his findings, there would be no doubt as to the validity of his research. It was later in the morning than I’d anticipated before we took our coffee break, and I passed the cakes out – caramel éclair to Susan and a cream horn to the professor – and we sat down to indulge. The building whine of the cyclotron was a part of the scenery by now, and the world would have seemed somehow wrong had it not been there.
Congratulations and felicitations were directed towards me for having reached my quarter century, and we tucked in.
“So,” I asked, trying to distract the others in case they tasted something unusual in their cakes, “how much more do we need to do before this next excursion into the past?”
The professor held up his hand while he finished his current mouthful of cake. Susan and I waited, her chewing happily on her own, mine remaining untouched on the plate by my side.
“Well,” he said at last, wiping an errant crumb from his lips, “I think we're pretty much there. The cyclotron should be fully charged in an hour or so, and all we need to do is set up the quantum pairing, which we should be able to do easily enough. You wanted to try positrons this time didn't you?”
“Yes sir. I think the charge will make them more sensitive to any signals at the other end.”
“Good enough for me. I've already connected a positron source to the primary accumulator. It should take about thirty minutes to generate and separate enough, ten minutes to move the magnetic bottle across and connect it to the cyclotron, and another ten or fifteen minutes for final checks, so we should be ready to fire in about an hour. Are you not going to eat your cake?”
I glanced at my plate and looked up apologetically. “Actually I'm not that hungry. I always get excited before a launch and it affects my appetite.”
There was some truth to those words. I was excited, because this was my big chance. Make or break time, today was the culmination of all I had been working towards for the previous seven years. I didn't have much of an appetite, but that wasn't the main reason for not eating. I’d dose my own cake as well, just in case the prof or Susan had decided to break habit at a most inconvenient time.
“Well put some cling film over it to keep it fresh. You can have it later. This is very good.” He indicated the last bite of his own. “Something of an unusual flavour which I can't quite put my finger on.”
The professor popped that last morsel into his mouth, Susan having already done so. Time to let everyone in on the plan.
“That would probably be the sleeping pills, professor. Don't worry I was careful not to use dangerous amounts, but you'll probably be feeling a little woozy about now.” The professor obediently started to sway in his chair. “I suggest you both sit on the floor if you don't want bruises from falling off your chairs.”
“What? Why?” The professor's words were slurred. Susan had taken my advice; either that or she’d simply slid down, unable to control her limbs any longer. The professor attempted to stand and fell forward, but I managed to catch him and eased him to the floor.
“Why am I doing this? I'm sorry professor, it's something I have to try, and I knew you wouldn't agree to it and I need to use the equipment here, which means I'm my only option was to hijack it. I would say I hope you can forgive me, but if you're right, no-one will be aware that this ever happened.”
“Then why are you...”
“Because I have to try and change my life. Even if I don't remember that I did, I have to try. I have over twenty years of painful memories pretending to be something that I'm not, and I can't contemplate a future with more of the same.
“I hope you will believe me, professor, when I say that I really am sorry for doing this. You are quite the most brilliant man of our age, and without your ideas and your work, I never would have been able to come up with this solution to my problem. Thank you for everything that you've done for me.”
I doubt he heard the last sentence. His head slumped forward and he was snoring gently. I eased him over until he was resting comfortably in the recovery position, and did the same for Susan before standing up and headed back out into the main lab.
I’d estimated a dosage to keep my colleagues unconscious for three hours at least, which was more than enough time for me to complete my plans. My first stop was the cyclotron controls where I slowed down the rate of charge. I was going to need roughly ten times the number of positrons the professor had thought to send back, and it would take at least an hour and a half for the accumulator to build up that quantity.
Next I made my way to the targeting controls. I pulled a piece of paper out of my pocket and fed in a very specific time and place. That had been an unusually embarrassing conversation.
I didn’t get home often, but one night a few weeks ago Dad had gone out to his Rotary Club meeting, so it was just Mum and me. I know it hurt Dad that I didn’t want to spend time with him, but I found his attitudes – now calcified with age – just too hard to take. Mum at least was open to my little oddities.
Most of the evening we talked through the usual sorts of nothing, including the inevitable conversation about why I didn't have a girlfriend yet. That had ended with the equally inevitable short argument and an uncomfortable silence. Since things were unlikely to get any worse after that, I decided I might as well broach with the real reason for my visit.
“Mum, can you remember when I was conceived?”
“What an unusual question. Whatever do you want to know that for?”
“It's sort of for an experiment I'm trying at work.”
“What sort of experiment? What could this possibly have to do with your work?”
“It's difficult to say Mum. I'm not even sure if my idea's going to work and I don't really want to talk about it until then. Could you please just tell me?”
“Well I suppose so.” The suspicion in her eyes gave way to a dreamy smile as the memory came back to her. “It was August the seventeenth. Your father was away a lot back then, rushing around the country all the time, trying to raise business, and he found time to pop in for a surprise visit. We didn't have a lot of money back then, but he turned up with some fish and chips for us to share, and then we curled up on the sofa to watch television. Come Dancing it was, then when the program was over, I picked up the plates and carried them through to the kitchen to wash them up. Your dad stayed in the lounge to watch the news, then he came and found me just as I was finishing up. He whisked me off my feet and carried me up the stairs and... well I'm not really sure I want to talk about the rest.” Her smile spoke more eloquently than any words she might have chosen, and Michael couldn't help but smile in response.
“So you were washing up for, what, about ten minutes after the program finished?”
“What kind of question is that? Yes I suppose so. Well maybe a little less. Five minutes maybe. Really Michael you are such an enigma sometimes.”
“Yes Mum, you've told me that before. Where were you living then?”
“Seventy-two Caldwell Street. We lived there till you were about eight if you remember. Michael, what's this all about?”
“I can't tell you yet Mum, but I will if it works, I promise.” If I remembered anything about it, which was unlikely, there would be no harm in telling.
The following day I visited our old home and managed to talk my way in on the pretext of reconnecting with my past. The kitchen had been renovated since my youth, but the sink was pretty much where I remembered it. I stood in front of it and pressed a button on a modified GPS tracker I had in my pocket. It used signals from additional transmitters around the city to fix the location with greater accuracy.
A few days later I’d been tasked with running a few evidence gathering tests. The professor didn’t much care where or when we aimed as long as our results were consistent with our targeting. I chose a point twenty five feet higher than the kitchen sink in our old house, roughly the height of the TV aerial, and a time that coincided, more or less, with the end of my mother’s TV program.
I knew Mum’s habits; she wasn't one to sit still when there was no reason. She'd have stood up and gathered the dirties as soon as the credits had started rolling. I estimated that it would take her less than a minute to make her way to the kitchen and run a bowl full of steaming hot water, then she would have stood at the sink washing up for perhaps the next two minutes before drying and putting away.
I didn’t much like using guessometry, but fortune favours the prepared mind, and if I did everything I could to maintain accuracy, then any unpredictable variations should be minimised, hopefully enough. I reckoned that between one and a half to two and a half minutes after the credits was my optimal time, so I set that as the temporal aim point, along with the approximate coordinates of my mother’s cervix while she was standing in front of the sink as the spatial one.
I checked on the accumulator, tweaking it so that it would build just a little faster. I didn't need the particles to be quantum paired for this experiment, which was just as well as paring them would have added hours to the process. I just needed as many positrons as I could produce in the available time to go back to my chosen target.
When it came down to it, this was all a bit of a Hail Mary pass. When I’d first discovered there was even a slight chance of influencing the past, I’d researched factors affecting pregnancy, and specifically gender in pregnancy. Among my results, I’d come across an article indicating that Y chromosome sperm were more fragile than X ones. Some research indicated that reduced energy intake just prior to sex could decrease the chances of conceiving a boy as the more fragile male embryo was less likely to survive the reduced amount of available energy. Unfortunately I didn’t have the means to prevent my mother from eating, especially with a fish and chip treat on the table.
Another study indicated that male sperm were weakened in an acidic environment, and there I found my opportunity.
Acidity is caused by the presence of protons in solution; effectively positively charged hydrogen nuclei. Potentially I could have sent protons back, but the larger the particle, the harder it was to send in any quantity and with any accuracy. Positrons were a workable alternative since they had only the mass of an electron – roughly twenty thousand times less than a proton – but they still had a positive charge. The increase in positive charge caused by the arrival of a large quantity of positrons should create a chemical imbalance that would cause an increase in proton concentration. I’d done experiments in the lab during my time at university, ignoring the temporal element of what I eventually hoped to do, and had succeeded in calculating the quantity of positrons I needed to create the necessary environment. A sort of goldilocks zone between too little acidity having no effect on the Y sperm and too much killing both X and Y.
The number of positrons in the accumulator was very high, much higher than needed, but experimentation had shown that only a small fraction of the particles sent back in time actually made it, and the further back you went, the fewer actually arrived. Combine that with them being spread across a volume considerably larger than my mother’s uterus, and the variation with her moving about as she washed, I had a figure in mind that I was reasonably sure should work. All I needed was a bit of good luck, and heaven knows I was due some of that.
I spent the next hour and a half checking and double checking the settings and making sure that nothing could go wrong. I’d only have one chance at this, and even then I had no guarantee of my desired outcome. The whine of the charging cyclotron built in pitch and frequency until finally everything was ready.
One last check, everything was as it should be. I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers and threw the switch.
I sat behind the desk painting my nails. The varnish was called Candy Pearls, and I’d hunted through the shops for hours trying to find just the right shade. It was the perfect colour to match the coral earrings David had given me the previous night. David probably wouldn't even notice, but that didn't matter so much. It was the overall effect that counted, and the little details made all the difference.
I glanced over at the guy sitting in the waiting room. He was sweating like a stick of ten year old dynamite and looked just as likely to go off – that's what David would have said anyway. The poor guy looked so nervous. He wasn't my type, but I gave him a friendly smile anyway, which he returned, sort of.
I was so glad I didn't have to interview for jobs anymore. I'd been really lucky coming out of college, although Daddy says you make your own luck. I made good grades in my secretarial course and with the positive and cheerful attitude that I found so easy to maintain – life being so good and all – I landed the job as receptionist here five years ago. It was really interesting typing up some of the papers the professor gave me. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it was amazing stuff he was working on. I know my part in the grand scheme of things wasn’t immense, but I still felt like I was part of something really important. All to do with time travel and stuff.
It was a bit annoying when they fired up that big cyclowhatsitamathingy with all that whining for a couple of hours before hand, but they didn't do it every day. The pay was good, and the work wasn't that hard. Answer the phones, do a bit of typing and filing. Kinda cushy really. And it wouldn’t be forever. I had a feeling that David was building up to asking me a question sometime soon. We’d been going steady for about three years and I’d know if he was losing interest. More recently he’d had a look about him, though, a sort of nervousness. Even Mum had mentioned it and given me knowing looks and smiles.
The door opened and Susan stepped through. Susan was Professor Sharp's assistant, and between her and the prof, they were always rushed off their feet. All the more reason for them to hire this new guy then if he was any good. Busy she may have been, but Susan was always friendly and found time to stop and chat. I know she’s a lot smarter than me, but I’ve never sensed any condescension on her part. She was a tiny bit off today, but I think it may be her time of the month, and we all know what that feels like, don’t we girls? Easy to give her a little slack.
“Melanie,” Susan called, then leaned across the desk. I stopped painting my nails and smiled up at her. “The Prof was asking if you could have the notes for his next article typed up for Friday.” She went through the pile, going into a little more details than she needed, but then as I say, time of the month, let her off for being a bit close to the edge. “Are we still on for that double date Friday evening?”
I nodded. I'd already typed up half the notes, covering all those little niggly things she insisted on pointing out all over again, which meant I should get them done by the end of the day, which left me a couple of days to get them proofed. Like I said, kinda cushy. The double date thing was kinda neat too. David had quite a few good looking friends; none quite as good looking as he was though, I knew just how lucky I was to have snagged Dave for myself. But it meant that hooking Susan up with a decent, good looking guy was easy.
“That they guy who's come to interview with the prof?” Susan asked twitching her head gently in the direction of the nervously sweating visitor. I nodded again. “Poor guy. I remember being that nervous when I interviewed with Professor Sharp, only my antiperspirant worked.” I joined in a brief gigglefest. “I like your earrings. What are they? Butterflies? Dave give you those?” I went back to nodding as Susan pushed away from the desk. “I need to get back to work. I'll see you later.” She disappeared back through the door, glancing briefly at the guy in the waiting room as she left.
Butterflies were one of my favourite things. They featured in my earliest memory when I'd been five and my parents had taken me on a picnic. I remembered the vivid blue of the sky and the dappled green of the enormous oak tree under which we'd laid out the blanket. Best of all, I remembered when a group of five butterflies had come flapping along. There had been no breeze, but the poor creatures looked as though they were struggling to get anywhere even so.
My fingers were red and sticky with strawberry jam, attracting the butterflies as though to fragrant flowers. Mum told me to stand very still with a voice so calm and encouraging it took away all my nervousness, and I did as she said with my hands outstretched. The delight I felt when the delicate creatures landed on my fingers rates as one of the most magical moments in all my life. The gentle tickle as they moved across my fingers, fanning their orange and black wings gently.
“They're so pretty,” I breathed, almost too afraid to make any sound at all, and Mum had nodded her head, sharing the moment.
They stayed for a full minute, drinking their fill from my jammy digits, then parted as abruptly as they'd arrived.
The next morning Mummy woke me gently.
“I made something for you,” she said, holding the something up.
“That's your pretty skirt,” I said, recognising the flower pattern in blues and greens and yellows.
“Not anymore,” Mum said holding it out so I could see it properly. “I made it into a dress for you with pretty wings under the arms. Now you can be a beautiful butterfly too.”
I’d been delighted, running around all day in the home made costume, flapping my wings and refusing to take it off, even to sleep. Eventually, Mum had to make a second costume, just so I would take off the first one for her to wash.
Every day of my life had been pure magic since then, each one holding something new and more beautiful to enjoy. When I started school, I’d been a bit dubious of the grey skirt, but the way the pleats had swirled about my knees was a new delight. I didn’t much like the grey, but that was a small enough thing. My cardigan had been a lovely bright red which made up for it. I made friends easily, and even attracted the attention of some of the boys. They used to pull my pigtails, which hurt a bit, but every girl knows what that really means, so I'd waited patiently for them to grown up enough to speak to me sensibly.
Parties had been wonderful, and with all my friends, there had been many of them. I had so many party dresses growing up, and each was more lovely than the last. And I had so many friends to play with, and to talk to. There had been slumber parties and study parties and all the usual Christmas, Easter, Halloween and all the rest. Hardly a week seemed to go by without there being some reason for a party.
All through secondary school and college, it seemed, I had one boy or another on my arm, and with a very few exceptions, they'd all been wonderful. The hardest bits had been the way Daddy imposed restrictions on me. I hated that, but had to accept the wisdom of it when one after another boyfriend tired of waiting for what I neither wanted nor intended to give up. There had been days of sadness following each breakup, but there had been girlfriends to gather round, and soon enough there had been a renewal of the unending stream of nervous boys, mumbling out their requests to take me out to the cinema or some such.
Daddy had been something of a distant authority figure for most of my life, but he'd always been a source of strength whenever I needed him, and I’m pretty sure the hugs I gave him brought a much needed softness into his life. Mum and I got on famously, always shopping and lunching together. Sometimes I wonder if we leave Daddy out of things too much, but he’s a hard one to include most of the time.
All in all I can’t think of a thing I would change about my life so far. I didn't really excel at school – too busy snogging guys for one thing – but I don’t feel as though I’ve missed out on much. I have a job I enjoy, and time enough to spend talking with my friends. I have been with the same guy since only a short while after I left college, and, like I say, I’m pretty sure that he’s as serious about me as I am about him. He never asked to climb into bed with me like all the others, and he’s stuck around. I’m so pleased I saved myself for him, because that means I’ll be giving him something that I’ve given to nobody else, and it will make our love all the stronger.
Life is wonderful.
Soon – very soon I’m certain – there will be a ring, marriage, children. What more could any girl ask for?
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