A Cup of Tea.
Of course, time travel is impossible. If it had been invented or discovered, we would know about it. This is for the simple reason that no matter what time the invention was made, the existence of one would either be commonplace or at the very least, familiar to all in a post-industrial age. Before that of course, it would have been known as magic.
Ray was about forty years older than me and apart from his disfigurement, quite youthful. An accident had damaged his face to the point where people looked away but he was lean and fit and about the same height as me at 5’10”. He had only been in the job a few months. “Fancy a cup of tea?” he asked.
He was sitting in a small room in Beckenham, Kent, England (Elevation 124’, 57.649516° North, 3.757325° West) drinking tea with me and a few other fellows. It was 10h.48m.48s am on Tuesday, September 18th 1979. I remember it very well, but it is only significant now. “That’s a frothy brew” he exclaimed, after adding the synchronising word. I noticed the word, but gave it little thought. A colleague nodded at the cup of steaming tea sitting on the table. “Where did that come from?” he asked. “It’s OK, it’s mine” exclaimed Ray, dipping a thermometer in it.
I thought nothing more of the word until he said it a second time, nearly a year later in a dull, smoky office in Croydon. It made me wonder. He left a gap in his sentence before adding, rather incongruously, the word “Pop” and raising his hand in a curious manner. It was a bit like a salute. After that it was set in my head as a notable thing. I rarely forget such things; they are stored away at the back of my mind and triggered like a mental trip-wire. My thought processes began whirring away in a background routine.
My hobby was quantum physics but my job, as Ray’s, was as a humble engineer, albeit a senior one is Ray’s case. We installed, repaired and modified equipment for our employers and had built a reputation for doing good work quickly. I didn’t much care for my job, but it paid good money which allowed me to work in the evenings on my hobby. One day I hoped to invent something useful, the patent upon which I could retire.
Six months after the Croydon event, in a small café in Streatham High Road I knew something was afoot when Ray replied to the Polish lady who was calling out the food orders. “Sossige sandvitch”, she squawked. “Pop!” he replied, raising his hand. She handed him the plate on which sat the oven-baked and crusted sausage cut into two and placed between two slices of Mother’s Pride, the butter starting to congeal and vinegary tomato ketchup completing the image of a suppurating ulcer butty. He accepted it from her. “Thanks”. He looked to the back of the room as if he had seen someone before carrying on with our conversation about the pompous bank manager in Norbury.
“So I asked him ‘where do you want it?’ and he replied that he wanted it on the top floor, out of the way. Well I didn’t say anything, I just went down the stairs and started measuring around the downstairs desks. I did this for a while until the manager could stand it no longer and came marching over. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks, so I says. ’just estimating where the whole thing will land when it falls through the ceiling’. That shut him up and he agreed to site the equipment on the ground floor next to the vault, which is what the planner planned in the first place”. “Nice one” I replied with a chuckle. We had a tea slurping and sandwich munching moment before I asked him. “Why do you keep saying ‘Pop’ then?”
To his credit, he was very calm. He put his green china cup down on the green china saucer with a chink. His reply was quite unexpected. “Tell you what, let’s forget the job at the bank and go and fix my car”. He stood and we left the smoky fug of the interior for the carbon monoxide miasma of Streatham High Road. There was a light drizzle which turned the ground-up tyre and brake dust powder into an emulsion. We drove to Tooting in his 1970 Rover. It was dark green with a bit of rust and a very loud exhaust. It was very comfy and a perfect vehicle for 1980s London travel as few other drivers were willing to challenge such a dented car in a snarl-up. “Go no” he yelled at an aggressive driver who was evidently vying to cut us up “I don’t give a toss!” The ridiculous slow-motion tussle for position in the jam subsided when Ray got out of the car and punched the driver through the open window of his BMW. There was blood. Nothing more was said or done, as the other driver sensed that he had more to lose than Ray.
In silence we squeezed through the monoxide mizzle and made it to Tooting in just under 20 minutes. I was still quite shocked by the turn of events and suspected that I had misjudged Ray. Perhaps once he had been a geek like me but geeks avoid physical confrontation as it is futile. I was interested to see Tooting as I would inherit a flat there from my uncle Ralph. As we sat behind a belching number 249 Routemaster bus, my thoughts wandered into unexplained or unexpected occurrences and how we try to clarify everything through science and logic. Magic, the antithesis of logic, is an outmoded and somewhat Disneyfied concept these days. Yet, like religion, it keeps cropping up and was about to do so again.
We entered Ray’s flat and had another cup of tea and a digestive biscuit, continuing the conversation we were having in Streatham as though there had been no intervening period. Ray spoke after seeming to consider the implications of what he was to say next.
“Pop” he said “is a synchronising word. It is monosyllabic, has a simple, plosive sound which is easy to lip-read and has become my marker, along with a raised hand as I travel in time”.
I quickly tried to assess this bluntly delivered statement and also what I had actually been brought to this flat for. Did I really know this man? Had I misjudged him to be a bit odd but basically a good bloke? Was I about to disappear in awful circumstances?
“Follow me” said Ray, with some theatricality.
We walked out to his shed at the bottom of the shared garden, which didn’t help my concerns. It was an old shed with larch lap-wood walls all stained brown by multiple applications of weathered creosote. It had a moss-covered asbestos roof. He opened the heavily-locked door to reveal not a soundproofed slaughter house but an engineer’s workshop, full of wires, strewn components and the warm smell of burned Bakelite and oil. “This is my machine” he announced, grandly.
Relieved, I walked in. The air was still and warmer than outside.
“Watch this.” said Ray, consulting his watch. There was a long pause he before he vehemently said “Pop” and flipped his hand up. He looked to the small wooden table by the wall in the shed. It had a mug with some screwdrivers in it. I followed his gaze and was astonished as right next to the mug, from nothing, a lemon appeared on the table. There nothing to indicate a change except for a small amount of raised dust. “Pick it up!” invited Ray. I cautiously picked up the lemon and closely examined it. It felt right and looked right: it was a perfectly normal lemon.
“What did you do?” I gasped.
“I moved a lemon through time!”
“With this time-machine!”
“Yes, but how does it work?”
“Simple question, complex answer, but effectively it uses a PFM system” he added as we gazed upon the contraption which stood before us. It resembled an old film editing desk from the 1950’s. It had a 10” screen in the middle and many knobs on a grey metal fascia.
“Oh, OK” I replied, trying to sound as though I knew what that meant. Acronyms are all over the geek vocabulary, we use it to exclude non-geeks, but it bugged me that I didn’t know this one. I had heard of Pulse Code Modulation and Frequency Modulation but this one was a poser. Hmmm, Pulse Frequency Modulation? Or was it Printer Font Metrics?
“Pure Fucking Magic!” Ray blurted with glee. There comes a point in science where we just don’t know. We can’t call it magic because that would be unscientific. Instead, we say something like it is a known unknown or some such bollocks. “I have no idea how the bastard works” Ray added.
“What is it?”
“Well, if it’s anything, it’s a television for seeing through time.”
“A temporal television?” I asked, cleverly (I like alliteration).
“That would be impressive on its own but this can do even more! Yes, it can look into the past, but it can also affect the past. It is a time editing suite, if you like.”
“Blimey”, I replied, somewhat inadequately.
“Imagine the power!” he began to sound enthralled. “You can go back and change anything you want! All those regrets that you have- all those cringing errors you remember in the wee small hours, all those times where you wished that you had said something, or nothing at all, only thinking of a response days or even years later. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
I considered this and savoured the thought of who I would tell to sod off, or tapping myself on the shoulder as I am about to embarrass myself.
“There was no instruction book, so I had to do a lot of theoretical reading. Everything from Einstein to Hawking. You see, there are vast implications for anyone meddling with time in the classic sense, but this machine enables me to make changes in one time line whilst leaving all others intact”.
“Others?” I asked.
“Yes, there are any number of possible futures to every action you make in the present”.
“So there are lots of me?”
“Correct, but you never meet of course, nor could you. The Grandfather paradox makes it impossible, which if you are not familiar with it is what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather.”
“So parallel universes mean that you cannot move forward in time.”
“Spot on!” said Ray “Yes, only backwards. But time travel is not the problem: I can do that- it’s relatively simple”. I appreciated his geeky joke.
“No,” he continued “the problem is making the future change for you. It’s quite an existential concept really. We change the future every second of our lives, but we live with that as a continuity and therefore don’t really appreciate the effects, believing them to be the natural train of events. Only hindsight allows us to regret, thus causing a wish to return and alter the past.”
I was captivated. “No regrets because you have corrected them all!” I was well ahead of him, racing through all the possibilities in my mind.
“My machine allows me to pinpoint a moment in the past, enter it and then live with the results of changing it, whilst carrying the knowledge of what things would have been like had I not intervened!” It was a revelation and I marvelled at both the machine in front of me and the lemon in my hand.
Quickly changing track, Ray moved to the door. “Let’s sort out the Rover” he said, nodding towards outside. After he closed and elaborately locked the creaky pine door of the shed, we walked out to the car which was slightly listing on the driveway. Being out in the open air returned me to safe reality.
We bodged up the exhaust, as well as a wing mirror which he gaffer-taped together. After we had cleaned up, Ray said that he would drop me back at my car back as it was knocking-off time. How the country managed to be so economically successful was a mystery to me. Perhaps it wasn’t, or perhaps it was just PFM. The Rover’s V8 motor was noticeably quieter as we rumbled towards Tooting.
“Remember.” said Ray as I alighted to collect my car “Cause and effect is only inevitable in hindsight. Newtonian Determinism suggests that we can calculate the future from current information. But it doesn’t just follow that there is an inevitable progress of history”. He left me on the kerb with much to consider and a resolve to find out what Newtonian Determinism might be.
The next day we met in Dulwich where we had been given two weeks to complete a job. We planned to do the job in five. There was a good café up Gypsy Hill so it was to there that we repaired with much time in hand. We had been discussing time-travel on the walk up to the café and the inevitable subject of killing Hitler came up.
“Sure, I could go back and kill Hitler” said Ray. “But I would then only exist in that time-line to make it different for me, and with the knowledge of how things would have been. You, living now are unaware of my time-meddling and history remains the same because we are by then on different time-lines.”
I understood the principle, “I have one more question. How many times have you used the machine?” Ray pondered the question, once again giving the impression of considering the implications of his answer. “Ooh I lose count” he lied.
We completed the majority of the work in Dulwich over the next three days, skipping lunch to make time. On the Friday, after breakfast, we drove back over to Tooting to have a look at the machine again. My thoughts that week had been racing with theoretic time-travel and where Ray might have gone on his time-trips. I knew that I was about to find out and many ideas and questions formed in my head as I sat in Ray’s Rover in the drab south London traffic: Has he effected the time-line? How far back did he go? Obviously, he had not effected the present, so how did he do it?
Ray bumped the car up on the drive but instead of walking towards the shed, he started running away from it and out into the road. “Pop!” he cried over his shoulder “Hold on a mo’!” He ran, arm raised, onto the pavement. It was quite bizarre to behold.
To my amazement, he lunged at a man walking along the pavement, knocking his legs from under him who fell to the wet and grimy ground with a crump. He stayed there for a few moments, as did Ray. There was a strange dwell in reality before Ray got up and offered the man a hand-up saying “Sorry, I thought you were someone else.” The man, obviously winded and a little frightened muttered something like “That’s OK.” Strangely, I recognised the man, but couldn’t quite place him. Who is Ray? Once Ray had wiped some of the wet grime from his face and hands, we once again stood in the shed.
“After I found this machine I spent years finding out how it worked” he explained. “I imagined that the best way to return somewhere was to specifically identify the time and place in my own past. I made a point of clearly saying the synchronising word over the subsequent months, so that I could identify them with the machine. I did that only when I knew it was safe to inject into that time unnoticed and with minimal disturbance. Does that make sense?”
It made perfect sense and it confirmed what I had already formulated in my own general ideas. “It requires an awesome amount of power, surely” I asked
“Not as much power as you may think” he replied. “As I said before, it’s PFM”. “Pure Fucking Magic!” I replied proudly. “Yes, regard it as such and it makes the whole deal much more manageable. It seems to create a portal which is effect a mini black hole. This would be incredibly dangerous unless it were very securely contained” He motioned towards a large metal ring behind the console It was encased in thousands of bound wires. “This Torroidal Containment Field, or TCF, securely contains the unimaginable power of a collapsed star in the form of a black hole. In fact, there it is again: magic. Awesome, dark magic, profound and powerful. But scientists call it a black hole because it is black and appears to be a hole.” Ray disdainfully waved his hand at the imaginary scientists.
“At first I started sending objects back to specific points in time, to see if it worked.”
“What did you send?”
“Well, there was some trial and error” he said, with some hesitation. “When I operate the portal I need a lot of energy, very quickly. The more power you have, the further back you can go. It may interest you to note that behind this shed is a South Eastern Electricity Board sub-station. I have illegally, but discretely connected to it. The containment of the black hole requires a powerful field around it, perfectly balanced.”
“Then you just step into it?”
“Essentially, yes. But first, you need to view the scene into which you are stepping”. He operated a few switches and low hum emanated from the machine. The screen in the centre of the console blinked into life and I could see what appeared to be a blurry silent film. It was only when Ray adjusted the controls beside the screen that I realise that the scene was massively speeded up, hence the blur.
“I use global co-ordinates: elevation, longitude and latitude, to locate a place and this part of the machine here to select the time.” He gestured towards a separate panel of controls. “It has millisecond accuracy.”
“But what actually did you send?”
Evading the answer but like a politician, he continued, undaunted. “My third object was more successful than the first two. It had to be a combination of organic, inorganic and with a specific temperature, so that I knew a live person could make the jump”. I wondered what could you send back to prove that. He adjusted the controls and it was with shock that I recognised myself drinking tea in a room. I recognised the room. “The cup of tea! You sent a cup of tea back!”
“Correct! It was even a cup made before 1979- to avoid reverse anachronisms.” I liked that term.
“However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. My first, a ball-bearing, had been a disaster. The implications for error were highlighted when I sent it back in my own shed. It never arrived! I had got the time and elevation correct but the co-ordinates were slightly wrong. The ball-bearing had appeared in a man’s chest, killing him instantly. It made the papers: “Mystery death in Tooting” but it forced me to realise that miscalculation can be very, very serious.
“When did this happen?” I asked.
He looked at his watch. “Twelve minutes ago” he replied.
It was with some shock that I realised that I had witnessed the event.
“Yes” said Ray, seeing my realisation “I returned to correct the error: I could not live with having directly killed someone.”
“But you only killed him in that time-line”.
“Only time will tell” was his wry reply. “But it has made me extra vigilant. I exercised extreme caution with all my subsequent time-editing. The second thing I sent back was a…”
“Lemon!” I guessed. The implications of detailed reverse future thinking became clearer.
“Yes, the lemon was my second attempt. It was organic, so gave me a better idea of how safely such a thing could be sent. All my subsequent jumps were as prudent as they could be at the time. In fact, I have decided that the next will be the last.” He suddenly immersed himself in a fiddly job to avoid further explanation. I took the hint.
Eventually Ray said “It is entirely possible that I have made some irreversible mistakes”.
“How’s that?” I responded.
“I leave the future in order to change the past, which in turn changes that future.” Ray was quite intense and speaking slowly and clearly. “You see, if I disrupt the time from which I started then I don’t know in what way the time from which I started from will be affected”.
“I’m not sure I follow you.” I said. “You will find out when you return, surely.”
“So how do you get back?”
“I cannot. Especially now.”
“Why especially now?”
“Because I am going to destroy the machine.”
“What? You can’t do that!” I exclaimed. “How will you get back?”
“I have already told you, it is impossible to get back. The machine only travels to the past. Once there, there is no returning to the future. This isn’t a Ray Bradbury novel.”
“But I thought you had returned before.”
“No, it travels forward in time at exactly the same speed as everything else and me with it. It has been here at least since 1978 and I have no idea how it got here, but I am guessing from the styling of some of the components that it might have been here since the 1950’s.”
There was silence between us. There was a huge truth rising from the depths. Ray was on a pre-determined mission that I was integral to.
“There is some irony that I have returned to the past to erase some of my regrets when in fact it is time travel that I truly regret”.
“But this machine has the ability to do such good!”
“On the face of it, yes. But even in doing good things with the right intention, bad things happen. Bad things.” Ray’s brow furrowed.
“But why destroy it?”
“When I realised the massive implications of what I had done with simple tests alone, I thought: what the hell, the damage is already done. I might as well sort out all those little errors of judgement. Put something right, you might say.”
“Like that bank in Norbury. The floor actually did collapse, killing six workers. It was originally my doing, so in my second attempt, I argued the toss with the manager, thus averting disaster. I also punched that idiot in the BMW on Brixton Hill. He was going to speed around the outside of the traffic jam and would have killed little Fabian McDermott, who was crossing the road on his way to school. To be fair, his death was nothing to do with me, I just happened to view the accident on the scope.”
“So it can be used for the good?”
“I only did it to redress the balance- to try and claim back some good from the incredible bad this machine has done”. I reeled at the possibilities of what the machine could have done.
“The man who stands before you now, has only ever used the machine on himself once.”
“Once?” I asked, puzzled.
“And this is it.”
“A one-way trip?”
“Yes. I have returned to my past. Your present.”
The jolt of recognition hit me hard and the implications of what I now knew to be true overwhelmed me, destroying reality like the incoming tide on a sandcastle.
“You are me.” I said with certainty, my knees starting to weaken.
“Bingo! I know what you will do and how and when you will do it. Not exactly now of course, as I am here, changing things. But I have allowed for that.”
I was unable to speak, my head reeling from the repercussions of such a revelation.
Ray pressed on. “You will move to a flat in Tooting and in the back garden of that flat will be a shed. In that shed, you will find the machine. You will work day and night on this machine. It will become an obsession: it is in our nature. It will be sweat, toil- and… pain.”
He lingered on this last word and I feared to ask. “Pain?”
“Yes; the heat from a poorly shielded microwave beam will sear part of your face. It will hurt, but it has been fortuitous that the subsequent disfigurement has masked me.”
I looked at the ugly, burned left side of his face for the first time properly. Now it was clear: the eyes blinking behind that swollen flesh were mine.
“Forty years had made me unrecognisable to you, but I recognised you of course. Hindsight is so irritatingly clear. You never consider your own mortality, let alone what you might look like when you are sixty. Because of my accident, which by the way, you were due to have soon, I was familiar but unrecognisable to you. All I did was change my name.”
“My Dad’s name.” I stated rather needlessly.
“Our Dad’s name. Back in these days of naïve optimism, it is much easier to get a passport and documentation. In the time I left, the checks and distrust were immense, will be immense. Nigh-on impossible to falsify documents, let alone commit identity theft.”
“Doesn’t matter, but believe me, it will be big next century.”
“I found this machine; you found this machine” he continued “in 1979 but it was incomplete. I worked incessantly on it and it wasn’t until 2021 that it was ready. I used it to return to 1978. I wanted to beat myself to finding the machine.”
I found myself considering how in such circumstances, order and grammar became irrelevant.
“I no longer exist in the future, nor ever will I. You and I however are now in an eternal loop, to the last recorded syllable of time”. Ray raised his hand in salute. “Pop.”
Immediately there appeared in the middle of the shed a backpack. Ray went straight to it and opened it. Inside there were some wires and three small lights. They were all green but when Ray had finished fiddling with whatever it was, they were red.
“Bomb.” said Ray. I turned and ran.
The explosion happened seconds later, although not quite as Ray had planned. The machine was blown to smithereens and the shed didn’t fare much better. Ray was thrown into the garden shrubbery, minus some clothing. The door of the shed that I had just passed through took much of the blast but in doing so gave me a bang to the head and I was knocked out. Ray was in a poor state but present enough to construct a credible story as to what the explosion was when questioned by the police. Also why he was in his underpants in a back garden in Tooting. We would at the very least lose our jobs.
Once the emergency services had managed to bring order and the electricity engineers had begun to repair the power supply (hundreds of homes were blacked-out, apparently) we were taken to Penge police station, where we now sat handcuffed in an interview room.
“So: you were experimenting with explosives?” enquired the detective.
“Yes, that’s right officer” replied Ray.
“And you had illegally connected to the National Grid.”
“Yes, that too is correct.”
“And you say that you had planned to blow up Buckingham Palace”
“Death to the royal parasites!”
With visible disgust, the detective left the room, ushering in a PC. He stood by the door and glowered at us.
“What will happen now?” I asked him.
He stayed silent.
“It’s OK,” said Ray. “They are trained to say nothing in such circumstances- it’s easier that way.” The pain in my injury throbbed behind its dressing. I was feeling sorry for myself.
“Will we go to prison?” I asked Ray, dolefully.
“I would say that is quite likely.” said Ray “There are quite a few charges levelled at us”.
The detective returned and nodded to the PC, who remained in position.
“I’m afraid it’s not looking too good for you chaps” said the detective, jauntily. “We are just deciding what charges to bring, but they are all serious- especially the treason.”
“Treason!” I gasped.
“Yes, it was your stated intention to kill a member of the royal family, to whit: the Queen.”
I looked at Ray. “Yes,” he said steadily “And we have no regrets- death to the Queen.”
The two officers discussed something under their breath with their backs turned. Ray took the opportunity to do the same.
“Please let me do all the talking. The interviewing techniques of 1982 are surprisingly naïve, so if you just keep your gob shut, I will incriminate myself and make you seem merely an accomplice. They will be separating us for more questioning soon.”
I was speechless and remained so. A stern woman entered the room with a tray, which she sat on the table between us. On it were four cups of tea.
“So, you wanted to blow up the Queen did you?” she asked, much as a primary school teacher might. It was surprisingly effective in that I started to question if I wanted to stick with Ray’s story.
“Why would anyone want to assassinate the Queen. Our Queen? She is a wonderful person who upholds what’s left of decent standards in this country.” She plonked the two cups in front of us, spilling a bit.
“How can you live with yourself?” she scolded, glaring at us.
“I think we are going to find that out.” said Ray sardonically, before turning to me.
“Fancy a cup of tea?”
Robert Parker is a dyslexia specialist living in Sussex, England with his long-suffering wife and son. He has a rather eclectic resume, the indicator of either an indecisive- or an inquiring mind. He always tried to improve himself and he is now working on his prosopagnosia with, at present, little success.