|The Man Next Door
A lockdown short story by Sam Hawksmoor
“Why me?” I asked.
My neighbour took a deep breath as he considered his answer, perhaps summoning something plausible that might appeal to my sense of duty. “You’re old. You don’t have kids, you don’t seen to know many people, no one will care if you go missing.”
Ok I was wrong about that. He played the reality card. I could hardly deny any of it. Hell I should have got the message when I had the heart attack and no one came to see me in hospital.
“It’s important,” my neighbour added, as if this presented some kind of fait accomplait.
“Is this connected to all that noise coming from your coach house during lockdown?”
He made a face; I took it as a kind of apology.
“You should see my electric bill.” He added. I assumed he thought this made it more reasonable I had to suffer all the screeching of the power drills and whines of electrical equipment. I stared at him a moment. We’d been neighbours for three years and I had no idea of his name. I think this was about the third time I had seen him and never so close and at my front door.
“Maybe you should come in,” I said. “Tea, coffee?”
“Won’t drink tea and coffee is evil.”
I shrugged. It figured.
“I just want you to consider it,” he said. “I’d set you up with appropriate clothes and money and …”
I smiled. “Assuming you have built a machine that works…”
“It works. All the tests worked.”
“But you said it was a one-way thing. How would you know?”
He smiled; it was slightly disconcerting. “I sent dogs and cats with notes attached to their collars and asked people to put a notice in the local paper with exact wording.”
I blinked. “Sent cats and dogs? Are those the same cats and dogs that people have been searching for? You must have seen the notices on the lamp posts.”
He didn’t seem to care about that. “They were strays. They are getting looked after now.”
“I don’t think people would put missing pets notices on the lamp posts for strays.”
“The point is that it works. I checked in the Evening Telegraph archives and in three instances I found the exact words I had written in the classifieds.”
“Very conscientious of people.”
“I was worried they wouldn’t do it but …”
“So you built a time machine during lockdown and you want me to be the guinea pig.”
“As I said, you’re old. You’ve had your life.”
“It might surprise you to know that I was planning on living a bit longer. I’m only 71 y’know.”
“Yes, but you’d be doing something for science.”
“And what, you want me to put a notice in the local paper? What am I supposed to do for my remaining years back in whatever year I land up in? Have you thought about that?”
“I’ve got a comprehensive list of horse race winners to help you with the money and you taught history, so you know what’s going to happen. You’d get by.”
I laughed. “Gambling? Ah yes, that turned out so well for Biff Tannen.”
“A guy who got hold of an sports almanac from the future and cleaned up. Isn’t that sort of a time travel no-no?”
“There aren’t any rules. I kept the list to a bare minimum, so you’d have enough to live on but not go crazy.”
I looked at this self-absorbed follicly challenged man who didn’t drink tea or coffee and wondered how his mind worked that he so casually could send a person and animals into the past and just discard them.
“The past isn’t great y’know,” I began. “People smoked, they didn’t wash, there are diseases, no food safety, the list is endless. I have no idea how people survived at all. No antibiotics and aspirin didn’t come along until 1926.”
“I debated about sending you to the future. I haven’t tried that yet.”
I winced. “The future? You really think there is one? Climate change, viruses, political instability and you don’t exactly have a list of Derby winners from the next ten years. Surviving the future as a seventy-one year old doesn’t exactly appeal. And you’d have no way of verifying I got there. You sure you don’t want a drink. It’s cold here on the doorstep.”
He backed away a little like a nervous cat. “Your right, I’d have no way of knowing you got there. The past is easier to measure and control. I have to go. Just tell me you’ll consider it.”
“I’ll consider it. You sure you don’t want to go yourself? I could flip the switch and send you.”
“Not yet.” He remarked as he backed away. “Soon.”
“Ok. Well I’m going back in now. Be happy to take a look at the machine sometime.”
A look of alarm crossed his face. “No, no, it’s a secret. You mustn’t tell anyone. No one.”
I smiled. “Rest assured neighbour, not a word will pass my lips.”
He turned and walked back towards his house. He glanced back once; clearly worried I’d be sharing this information on Facebook or worse (if there’s worse). I closed the door and locked it.
“I’m old, but not yet insane,” I told myself as I headed into the kitchen to make cup of tea.
I pretty much thought that was the end of it. I glimpsed my neighbour once or twice in his back garden that month and sensed that he studiously avoided glancing my way. I vaguely remember feeling a little guilty that I’d kind of let him down. Clearly irrational, I owed him nothing and let’s face it I hadn’t mocked him or anything. The likelihood of your neighbour building a time machine during lockdown was infinitely small, wasn’t it?
Two things happened on November First that altered everything. The first inkling that things had changed was when I had to sign for a letter. The faded envelope should have signified something unusual as I opened it up.
(It would seem he didn’t know my name, just as I didn’t know his). I am writing to confirm that I have successfully moved time. This letter is to be delivered to you on November 1st 2020 from my solicitor’s office. I enclose a cutting from the local paper from October 1st 1964. You will see it is on the announcement of my birth. Not a unique event but do look closely at the accompanying photograph from the christening the following month. *On a small personal note you were right about the smoking. I had forgotten how much I disliked it.
I realise that it is impossible for me to live long enough to reappear in your time, but if you would be so kind as to inform my niece – name and address supplied – and let her decide what to do with the house.
Earnest Kennedy Baird DSO
The photograph showed proud parents holding a baby and an Uncle Earnest standing to one side beaming and if I am not mistaken, clutching an Apple iPhone 12 quite prominently in his hand. In 1964!
I did not have to contact his niece Eliza. It was she who knocked on my door the same day, nervously standing back as I opened it and adjusting her mask.
“Umm, hi. I’m Eliza. Have you seen my Uncle?”
I invited her in for tea and admired her bright purple coat and matching Converse shoes. She had to be around twenty and her eyes were smiling, even if I couldn’t see her mouth. I contemplated showing her the letter and photo but thought it best to leave it aside for a while.
“Mum gets all his post,” she was saying. “He set it up when he went to Japan last year and never got around to changing the redirection. It was his electric bill that set off alarms.”
I nodded. “Yes, he mentioned it was high.”
“High? It was nearly a thousand for three months.”
“Really? Did you pay it?”
“It’s on direct debit, but even so, there has to be something wrong and he never answers his phone.”
“Well, he’s on a trip.”
“Yeah, I figured that out, but what with all the travel restrictions, where could he go?”
“Hmm, he was always quite private about that kind of thing.” I remarked. “He spent most of his time in the coach house. Built a new workshop there.”
“It’s got a keycode. I don’t have it.”
I remembered his photograph had some numbers scribbled at the top. “I may have that. You want me to try to open it up?”
She nodded. “Please.”
“Your Uncle was a bit of a loner.”
“God, total secret squirrel. Do you have any idea what he was doing? Or where he’s gone?”
“He mentioned something about the past.”
Eliza rolled her eyes. “Ever since he came back from Japan he’s been obsessed with wanting to know more about my grandparents. That’s why he went to Japan and some other place. My Grandfather worked for the MOD. So did Uncle Ernie. Secret science stuff. Beyond me, I’m a hairdresser, when I’m allowed. What a year. I may be allergic to plastic visors.”
“I feel guilty for not helping him. He asked, but it was a bit beyond me.” I confessed. “Retired history teacher, not really much of a scientist.”
“Well it’s safer. My grandfather was killed. I’m not sure how, but my grandmother died the same day. My mum was only five or six I think. Mum says she died of heartbreak but do people really do that?”
I shrugged. “In novels they do and tragic deaths occur a great deal in history. So I’d go along with heartbreak.” I smiled. “When you’ve finished your tea, I’ll have a go on the coach house door.”
“Best be careful, Mum says he might have built a bomb or something.”
“It’s something, I grant you that.”
“You take these photographs?” She was gazing at a photo of Venice in flood.
“About twenty years ago now. Venice often floods in November.”
“I went there when I was sixteen. Couldn’t believe the prices. Quickly learned never to sit down to eat!” She laughed. “God, the men stare so hard you just know they are undressing you. I was scared stiff half the time.”
“The other half?”
“Mostly passed out on the wine.” She giggled.
We went next door and it was quite a shock. The house was a perfectly preserved relic of the sixties. Formica tables, Canon gas stove, striped wallpaper, lots of clashing colours. I should alert the Design Museum I was thinking as we passed through.
“So cool,” Eliza was saying as she stared at the rooms and the G-Plan furniture.
“Well definitely cool, no central heating. No wonder he spent all that time in the coach house.” I remarked.
The numbers proved to be correct. The electronic lock clicked over to green and I pushed the door open.
“You go first,” she said, still anxious about that bomb.
I entered and immediately knew that everything was still on. The room was temperature controlled. The wiring wrapped around the entire ground floor space was impressive. The advanced quantum computers looked like they were straight out of science fiction, but were Fujitsu’s latest, the cooling system alone would be driving up his electric costs. This was no lonely inventor in a shed with a wheezing PC. Serious money had been spent here. Millions, if he’d actually paid for it. Surely something like this would have a sponsor. Someone like Musk, maybe? The floor was non-slip – the space spotless. Eliza followed me in and I heard her suck in her breath with surprise. I closed the door to keep the temperature even.
“What the fuck?” Eliza began.
“If you were expecting any inheritance money, it’s all in here, Eliza.”
“But what does it do?”
She was nearing a gated platform and I quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her away. “Not there. Stick to the centre, it’s safer.”
She looked alarmed as I checked the computer screen. I can’t read Japanese but I could plainly see 1964 had been selected.
“You knew about this?” It was an accusation.
“I knew, but didn’t realise that it was – well no, that’s not true, he said he’d tested it and proved it worked. There’s a lot of missing cats and dogs around her to attest to that.”
“Cats and dogs? He was doing experiments?”
“And they worked, he said.”
Eliza was staring at all the wiring and coaxial cabling. “Now I get why his electricity bill was so high.” She stared at the computer towers, floor to ceiling and the giant cooling fans.
“What kind of experiments?”
“I could tell you but I would have to ask you to keep it secret.”
“Secret?” She laughed nervously again, not sure if I was joking.
“And don’t go near that platform. Ever.”
“What the hell was he doing in here? He left the MOD.”
“Do you know why or how? He was only 56 ish.”
“They cancelled a project that he’d been working on for fifteen years. He was VERY angry about it.”
I nodded. “I suspect it was this project.”
“Which is?” She sat down on the rubber floor and seemed quite out of her depth.
“If I show you a photograph of your Uncle’s christening it might help.”
“His bloody christening?”
“Yes. It’s relevant. Your Uncle sent it to me as proof. It arrived this morning actually.”
“Proof of what?” She seemed irritated now.
“You think your mother would remember what her parents looked like? Them dying when she was so young, she might not.”
“She has a ton of baby pictures of her with her Mum and Uncle Ernie carrying her. They were all very close back then. Until they both got put into care. She never forgave them for separating them. That’s so cruel.”
“Yeah, I suspect that happens more than you think.” I took a deep breath. “If you could go back in time, Eliza, what year would you like to go to?”
She shook her head. “No thank you. All that sexist crap and people smoked in restaurants. I’m LBGT. They aren’t going to like me much are they? Why ask?”
“Your Uncle Ernie was very keen to go back.”
She looked around the room again and then turned back to me sharply. “So, what? He built himself a time machine?” She laughed.
I didn’t laugh. I didn’t say anything. She stared at me, the computers, the simple cage around the platform.
“He bloody well built himself a time machine,” she whispered, the awe quite obvious in her voice.
“A one-way time machine, actually.”
“I imagine the technology you’d need for a two-way machine was outside his budget.”
She laughed again, then frowned. “You’re serious?”
“He wanted me to test it.”
“He came over and said I was old and no one would give a shit if I disappeared and I declined.”
Eliza stood up uncertainly, staring at the platform. “He sent himself?”
I smiled and produced the photograph. Took it to the brightest part of the room and beckoned her over.
“His christening in 1964. Can you recognize him?”
Eliza stared at the photograph, then stared some more. “You swear this isn’t fake?”
“Look at the iPhone he’s using to take his own photo of the baby. He’s sending a message to us.”
Eliza frowned. “But how…”
“He sent a letter with the family photo and a cutting in it to his solicitor with instructions to post it this week in 2020 to me. He didn’t know my name. Just the house number.”
“Uncle Ernie built a one-way time machine to do what?”
“To see his parents. His father most likely. He could do it because he knew the precise time and place of the christening.”
“But why? Why?”
I shrugged. “In science fiction people build time machines to change the world. Stop something happening. There’s all kinds of reasons. But your Uncle wanted to see his parents, who died and left him to be placed into care with your Mum. Maybe that was the most important thing in the whole world to him. Maybe his obsession with it was what got this project cancelled. Maybe he wants to change that little bit of history. Stop your grandparents from dying, prevent him ending up in care where he had a bad time. Maybe you won’t ever know if he succeeded in changing anything or tomorrow you cease to exist because your Mum met someone else or lived somewhere else and her parents are still alive.”
Eliza closed her eyes. “You got anything to drink in your house?”
I smiled and put the photo away. “Wine. Italian actually.”
She headed to the door. “I’m never going to tell anyone about this. Lock it up.”
I took one last look around and followed her out, carefully locking the door. Maybe I should give the MOD a call but then again maybe not. How tempted would they be to use it? To what purpose?”
“Perhaps we might call my University. I’m pretty sure they could do a lot of reasearch with a supercomputer.”
© Sam Hawksmoor Dec 2020
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