As I approached the shabby looking terraced house, I began to have second thoughts about going through with the visit. It was almost dark and a chill northerly wind was scattering the discarded rubbish that littered the old cobbled street. It cut its way into my thin coat, knifing me as it passed through. A steady drizzle had begun to fall. All in all a typical November evening in one of the least affluent parts of Manchester. I had serious reservations about this venture, and if it hadn’t been for the inclement weather and the long walk back to the university, I think I would have called it off there and then. Instead I knocked tentatively on the scruffy Victorian door and waited anxiously for an answer.
Three days earlier I had received the strange letter, hand delivered and pushed under the door of my room in the student halls of residence. It was written in a strong flowing hand and signed by a Professor Henry Wilson (retired). It read, ‘Come to my house at 22 Napier Street, Salford on Saturday 18th November 1989 at 4pm prompt, if you wish to learn something to your advantage.’ It had stirred my curiosity.
Slowly the door creaked open, severely protesting about the lack of oil on its hinges, and I was confronted by an old man, quite stooped and wizened with a shock of grey hair and a kindly smile that betrayed the long absence of his own teeth. He greeted me in a strong booming voice that seemed totally inappropriate for such a feeble looking body. “Ah William,” he boomed, “I knew you would come, welcome, welcome indeed, come on in out of the weather.”
I entered, and he led me along a cold damp corridor, that looked like it had last been decorated before I was born, and down some stairs into the cellar. Surprisingly it was quite homely down there. Part of the cellar was set up as a sitting room cum library with a huge open fire roaring in the grate. The remainder appeared to be a sort of workshop or laboratory with a number of unrecognisable gadgets in varying degrees of completeness. In the centre of all this stood, what looked like a very large black box with a number of electrical cables attached.
“Sit down in front of the fire and warm yourself, my boy.” He indicated a rather tatty armchair to one side of the fire, “and I’ll explain why I asked you here, I’m sure you’re very eager to find out.” He sat down, in an equally tatty chair, on the other side of the fire. He was silent for a short while as he sat observing me with blue‑grey eyes that, even at his obvious great age, seemed to twinkle with the joy and excitement of youth. When he began to speak, I sat there incredulous. At first I dismissed him as a crank or crackpot but later, warming to his enthusiasm, I began, against all my better judgment, to believe in what he was saying.
When he had finished, we sat in silence for a long time. I stared into the roaring fire and let my thoughts and the flickering flames intermingle as I thought over what he had said. Suddenly, and without warning, the door at the bottom of the stairs burst open and a rush of wind fanned the flames and blew ashes around the room. For an instance, a figure stood in the doorway and then he was gone and all settled back to normal.
I shuddered as a cold chill ran down my spine, raising goose bumps all over my body. I was sure I had seen myself standing in the doorway.
The professor seemed greatly pleased with himself. For the third time he reminded me, as he ushered me out into the dark, wet street, that I must return next Saturday at the same time. I doubted I would ever see him again, but I assured him I would return. He gave me a knowing smile. “You cannot avoid it,” he said.
I remember very little of the next week. My work suffered badly as I skipped most of my lectures. I avoided people whenever I could. My only peace from the troubled thoughts that ran unabated through my mind came when I was with Jenny.
Jennifer was a first year modern languages student, and we had been seeing each other for about ten weeks. We had met because we had the same birthday. We were both celebrating being nineteen at the same nightclub. I was deeply in love, for the very first time, and I think Jenny felt the same way. We had found an instant rapport that quickly led us into bed together. I had never known such happiness. Then the professor had shattered my life.
Then Jenny shattered my life ‑ on the Wednesday she broke the news, she was pregnant. It had been the very first time we had made love. We were both virgins and we had got so carried away we forgot about taking precautions. No one got pregnant the first time, or so we thought. Life seemed so unfair.
I didn’t tell Jenny about the professor. She probably thought my strange mood was because of the baby. We rejected the idea of an abortion immediately. We were in love; we would have to find a way to manage. If one or both of us had to give up our studies so be it, the sacrifice would have to be made for our baby. However, the professor suddenly seemed to be able to offer me a way out. On the Saturday evening I once again knocked on his door.
After we had settled at his fireside he began to explain more of his theories to me. He had perfected a machine capable of travelling back through time. I understood little of the physics involved and even less of the mechanics of the machine. I wasn’t even sure why he had picked me out to assist him with the project. He compared the effect of travelling back through time to a catapult. The further back you went the more force you were exerting against the elastic of time. Eventually something must give and you would be thrown forward again back to your own time or perhaps on into the future. The professor postulated that many chance events could cause the release of the catapult. Specifically any action which would cause predetermined future events to be changed would cause the effect. ‘The time continuum must protect itself,’ seemed to be his favourite phrase. As I sat there in his old fashioned sitting room, I suddenly felt like I was living an H.G. Wells novel.
The professor now began to explain what he wanted from me. I had already guessed and planned to turn it to my advantage. “I have successfully transported inanimate objects, and indeed a cat, back one week in time without mishap. The time has now come for a proper test.” He paused momentarily as if to choose his next words carefully. “I am far too old to make such a journey, much as I would dearly love to, and I would deem it an honour if you would make it for me.” He stopped and studied my face to seek my reaction. I had been prepared for the request and remained totally calm. He seemed pleased and continued. ” There is some danger of course, but we are already partly assured of success. You see I am going to send you back exactly one week, to the time you last visited me.”
Last week’s apparition now made sense. It was myself I had seen, my future self. But why had I vanished so quickly? The professor’s words broke up my thinking; he seemed to have read my mind. “Your rapid departure confirmed my catapult theory. As soon as you came into contact with yourself the laws of time were violated and you were repelled back towards your own time. The only unknown is where you will return to. I am being totally honest with you, William, so you may back out if you wish.”
He knew I wouldn’t back out. The fact that I had been there last week already assured him that I would undertake the journey ‑ or did it? What if I refused? Would that somehow change the past and possibly the future? Could something that had happened not happen? Was everything preordained by fate, or could we alter history? The questions were mounting up and I doubted if anyone had the answers.
The professor was still speaking. “If by chance you end up in a slightly different time frame you must make your way back here. Since you have not turned up during the week I must assume that you either make it back on time or slightly into the future. It is important that no one else finds out about my work yet and that therefore no one misses you.”
There was a third option he had not mentioned. I might end up dead. I felt an icy cold shiver of fear. Now some of the pieces began to fit together. Last week he had spent a lot of time quizzing me about family and friends, although he seemed to know most of it already. He knew I was an orphan and that I had spent all my life in institutions of one kind or another. He had found out that I was a bit of a loner and had no really close friends and before Jenny no girlfriends. For some reason I had not told him about Jenny and he hadn’t pushed me on it. Now I was glad I hadn’t. He must have chosen me because no one would really notice or care if I disappeared. If he could be so devious, so could I. I would not tell him about Jenny and the baby, at least not yet, but somehow I would find a way of going back ten weeks and preventing the conception of that baby. My only fear was that Jenny would take any disappearance as my running out on her because of the baby. But if my plan worked there wouldn’t be a baby, so there would be no problem. I decided I would make the first trip as the professor required and then insist on going back ten weeks to carry out my plan. If the professor refused I would threaten to expose his work to the tabloid press.
So it was that I came to be sitting inside his strange black box, as he carefully checked and rechecked the various dials, a slide‑rule juggling numbers in his hand. It occurred to me that it was strange to be sitting at the brink of technology without a computer or calculator in sight. It also occurred to me that I ought to be scared out of my wits. I wasn’t.
Finally he was happy and having wished me good luck and safe landings, he closed the door. The box would not travel with me, I understood. If anything went wrong there was no way back, except at the whim of time. I closed my eyes, said a short prayer and waited.
Nothing happened for what seemed like an eternity, although it was probably only seconds. Then there was a blinding flash of red light and pain like I had never experienced shot through every nerve and sinew of my body. In agony, I passed out.
When I came to, I was lying on the cold damp flagstones of a cellar floor. In the dim light I could make out a large pile of coal in one corner. If I was in the professor’s cellar I seemed to have gone back much farther at than one week.
I emerged from the house into a similar sort of evening that I had left behind. The street too seemed little different. Perhaps some of the houses seemed a little less dilapidated and the cobblestones a little less worn. It was only when I got closer to the city centre that it became clear that things were not the same. The buildings were different. Places that should have been there were not. The cars in the streets were all old models, even the ones that looked new. Clothes and hair‑styles looked distinctly old fashioned. A gnawing fear began to grip my insides. The time machine had worked but when had it sent me to?
Outside the station I saw a newspaper vendor and rushed to buy the evening paper. “H‑how much?” I stammered.
“Thruppence please mate”, the old man replied.
Pre‑decimalisation, I panicked and fumbled in my pockets for coins. Fortunately one of my ten pence coins was an old 1956 florin. I trusted that I had not gone back that far and handed it to the old man. He muttered something about people never having the right change and handed me a collection of coins that had gone out of circulation when I was a small child.
The thought rocked me like a boxer’s punch. The coins will go out of circulation when I am a small child. I am perhaps not born yet, but here I am. With apprehension I opened the folded newspaper. The front page was filled with a story about the moon landing. Fearfully, I sought the date for confirmation. It was 1969; I had gone back twenty years.
That night, huddled in the railway station, was the longest of my life. I was trapped in the past, with little hope of getting back to my present and to Jenny. I spent long hours then and on future sleepless nights, debating with myself whether I should try and do something that would radically change history, and so invoke the catapult effect ‑ if the theory was correct. My fear of ending up in an unknown future always won the day. I would get back to my present eventually, but then I would be thirty nine years old, old enough to be Jenny’s father. And what if I met myself? What would happen to either of me then?
For a time I worried about retaining my sanity. Finally reason prevailed and I resolved to pull myself together and make the best of my situation. At least I ought to be able to make a killing at the bookmakers, if I could only remember the results of some future horse races.
Eventually I sorted myself out. It wasn’t difficult fitting into life in 1969, so long as I was careful not to talk about things that weren’t invented yet. I found a job on a building site and rented a reasonable place to live. Life was pretty good, I knew what was in store and I felt that I was going to enjoy the seventies.
Almost immediately, I met a wonderful girl. It was like history repeating itself, or should I say preceding itself. Just like Jenny and I we hit it off straight away. The first time I met her she seemed almost familiar to me. Cynthia and I were soon living together and were deeply in love. We were both overjoyed when she became pregnant.
Time seemed to flow by, and before long the baby was due. I had grown used to living in the past, so much so that I began to doubt that I had ever travelled in time. I began to put my thoughts of the future down to mad ravings or strange dreams. I suppose I was subconsciously conditioning myself to my new situation. My life now centredaround Cynthia and of course the new baby we were about to have.
I paced the hospital corridor while Cynthia was in the theatre, the baby was a breech and they decided on a caesarean. I was strangely apprehensive, but put it down to the worry. It was my birthday.
Finally the door opened, inside the room I could see nurses and cribs. I felt tremendously excited. I was about to see my baby. Then the pain hit me, the excruciating agony I had felt once before. Somehow I managed to stumble into the nearby lift and out into the street before I collapsed and lost consciousness.
I awoke to find myself lying in a wet gutter. It was cold, dark and raining. The street was familiar to me. I was near the professor’s house. I knew where I was but not when. As I made my way to the house a great anger began to build up inside me. Because of him I had lost the only two people who had ever meant anything to me. I didn’t even know whether my baby was a boy or a girl. Why had I been dragged away just when I was to see my baby?
A horrible thought suddenly occurred to me. I prayed that it wasn’t true.
The front door was not locked. The passage was as I remembered it. I rushed down the stairs and flung open the door.
The familiar fireside setting was there. The professor was there. I was there. The now familiar pain hit me again and blackness engulfed me……..
I have been in this hospital now for seven years. They say that I believe I have travelled through time and that I am my own father. My only witness apparently died in an explosion and fire in his house on 25th November 1989.
Jenny visits me regularly and brings young William along sometimes. She is lucky to have such an understanding husband.
I think I have control of my mind now. For a long time I did believe I was my own father, it was the only logical explanation. It was when Jenny showed me her wedding photographs that I finally realised the truth.
Time had treated her mother well. I was happy to be a grandfather.