“I never knew my mother. She was carried off by a flock of starlings when I was 8.”
And there you have it. As good a reason as any to ignore anything said by one of the Appraised. Time or space, or whatever messed with their heads, has jumbled their synaptic storage units and blurred the lines between their own experiences and those of others, equally confused. It’s like I always say, once you weigh anchor, you’re adrift and there’s no getting back to solid ground however many times you touch base or drop in for a father-son moment.
I half listen to him for another 20 minutes or so as he rambles on the subject of family duty, tradition and pride in being Appraised. What he might or might not realise is that I know this speech by heart. I’ve been listening to it on a regular basis for the past 12 years. Sometimes I lip sync along with him and sometimes I double up his voice with mine creating a pleasing thickened vocal effect in the small kitchen space – a sort of vocal soup. He doesn’t seem to notice. My father goes quiet as usual 9 minutes and 26 seconds into his monologue. I rise and have one finger on the light switch when he speaks again. New words.
“One-time Donny…” he says with a shake of the head then lifts his hands and let’s them fall back on the table before upping the volume and the exasperation.
He looks like a 13 year old boy, small, tired and hunched over the kitchen table like he’s finishing his homework before bedtime. In fact he’s probably at least seventeen by now. I leave him in the kitchen in the dark. I need to sleep. After all, it’s my birthday tomorrow. I’ll be 22. My name’s Donny and I still have all my own teeth.
In the morning I leave the unit and walk to the institute. I take the route down Molar row and display my best toothy grin all the way, mainly for the benefit of Albi who’s already hard at work preparing the checklists for this years Appraisal. I wave at him through the window. Same haircut, same gait, same white smock. It’s one thing following in your old man’s footsteps and becoming a dentist, it’s another to lose your identity altogether.
His father looks up at the same moment and gives me the look. I know that look.
Twenty minutes later I’m perched on a ladder holding a nameplate in place with a long handled broom. I think the glue’s dry now and I should know, glue’s my department. In this town if you want a solid career you get a job in dentistry or here at the institute. Most follow their parents and I’m no different. At least Albi’s father is around to follow. Mine stepped through the door of the Eisenstein, or whatever they called it back then, when he was sixteen and became an absent father, albeit one who shows up on a regular basis.
Sometimes we sit and watch films together. My early twenties father is quite approachable really, doesn’t give me the whole “you’re an embarrassment” guilt trip like the teenage one does. So one night the IMO was showing Battleship Potemkin and about a third of the way through he just started talking about Eisenstein’s pioneering montage technique, about how Eisenstein made sense of the present with the juxtaposition of unrelated shots in order to create what he called a metaphor for reality.
I’ve been naming the time capsules Eisenstein ever since. It’s not exactly in my job description but they seem happy to let me have that one small corner of creativity. I suspect that half of them don’t care and the other half think I’ve mis-spelt Einstein. Academics…you gotta love ’em
So where was I? Long handled broom, glue and a nameplate that reads Eisenstein VI. A name and a number for a spring day in this town, my home town. When I’m feeling optimistic I like to think that good old George Prakis my temporal teacher at school would be proud of me. After all here I am, working at the very heart of the institute, within a mere brooms length of the time capsule itself. But when father’s a company high flyer and son’s sweeping out the lobby you can be sure that pride is a hard word to pronounce. My father holds the record for more temporal plan fulfillments than any other Appraised. He’s quite the celebrity and while I’m not sweeping out the lobby it would appear that I am holding a broom.
“Ok Larry, let’s move it” I shout.
Larry’s a sweet kid, not a brain cell in sight but he smiles like it’s his birthday everyday and I like that in the big guy. He shifts his not insubstantial weight from the back wall and ambles over to where the capsule sits. He kicks the chocks away and begins to roll the metal cylinder towards the shutters which glide open to let him through. I take my lab coat off and follow Larry out into the sunlight.
You’d think that after all this time they’d have come up with a more practical or ceremonious way of getting the thing from the institute to the town square. Like say a monorail, a gold flecked water barge, a huge red velvet sedan chair conveyed by ivory tusked wild boars – even a trolley on wheels for god’s sake. But no, it’s just Larry rolling the thing along Amblin street and out across the small park area that gives onto the square. My biggest worry is the not the capsule itself, after all, as I’m always being told, there’s nothing in it, no moving parts, no valves, nothing that could crack and no gases or liquids that could seep out.
“Mathematics don’t leak.” That was one of George’s favourite sayings in class. I often wonder what’s really inside. I mean there must be something. So yeah I suppose you could say I’m curious – but not that curious.
My biggest worry is that the nameplate will come unstuck, snag on a cobble and that the capsule will arrive as an anonymous silver ball with a door in it. That’s what worries me. Everything should have a name.
The square’s looking good. Mrs Paulie has excelled herself in the flower department this year and the pennants sent up from the school are fluttering nicely; all the names of this year’s Appraised catching the morning breeze. Larry finds the usual patch of worn grass behind the stone steps, tilts the capsule into an upright position and slides the chocks back under. Job well done.
“You be joinin’ ’em this year Donny?” Says old Mr Coulter.
I manage to smile and crunch an apple at the same time then make my way over to the bleachers as he waves his walking stick in the air and calls after me.
“Mark my words…one of these days you’ll be looking up there and you’ll be seeing yourself looking down…mark my words so you will Donny boy.”
I step up onto the bottom row of benches, sit on the hard wood and look out over the empty square. They’ll all be here soon, parents, teachers, students, some of them twice. It’s the only time it’s permitted to occupy the same temporal space as a previous or future you. Why should that be a problem? You may well ask – I know I used to.
“Things would just get too weird and freaky otherwise.” That’s what George would say in class whenever the question came up.
Weird and freaky. That’s a good one. Like having your younger-than-you father show up in your kitchen on a regular basis isn’t weird and freaky?
The only truly weird thing is that after a while it just seems kinda seems normal, and that’s a phrase that more or less sums up this town. A town on the edge of the lake where we design and build temporal capsules and train twenty odd kids a year to become the Appraised, to step through that capsule door and end up God knows where or when. Personally, I like the here and now; the short life that runs from A to Z. In this town that’s not something you say out loud. Especially not when you’ve been trained in the art of temporal plans and are expected to step through that door yourself on your sixteenth birthday. I’m told I’m the only one to have ever backed down, told I’m the black sheep, the let down, the embarrassment. Some say it to my face and others have decided I was just too scared to have my teeth pulled. But that’s not it at all. I like my teeth but they don’t define me.
The sun climbs higher and floods the square. I stretch out on the bench, stare at the bright orange shapes from behind closed eyelids and before long I start to drift off.
The thing that bothers me most is not what bothers the boffins at the institute. That’s the teeth question for sure. I mean that’s definitely top of their list. Why, they wonder, when travelling through time do our teeth age when we don’t? Its like our teeth are rooted in the present and won’t be budged. The boffins get round it by pulling the kid’s teeth out a week before Appraisal and putting false ones in but it still bugs the hell out of them. It’s like they’ve mastered one of greatest things ever, time travel, but can’t solve something as simple as teeth. It’s a puzzle I admit, but that’s not what keeps me awake at night. This is what keeps me awake at night: why is my father never older than about twenty five when he drops by? I’ve turned the question over this way and that, even run it by a couple of the teachers at the institute – they start spouting physics at me – and I’ve spent whole weeks thinking of nothing else. But the way I see it, there’s a concrete reason that has nothing to do with any mathematical formulae. So far these are the possibles I’ve come up with…
A. My father dies in his mid twenties.
B. For whatever reason, my father gives up trying to convince me in his mid twenties.
C. At some point in the future he finally talks me into becoming Appraised so he no longer needs to visit me in the past to try to convince me to do so.
A and B are already fraught with problems but C just gives me a big headache. In fact scratch C, I don’t want to think about it anymore.
The sun’s still high but the wind off the lake has picked up a little and this is what wakes me up as much as the movement and noise around me. The bleacher seats have been cordoned off and one by one last years Appraised have begun to appear – quite literally. There’s never any warning, no ripple effect or soft shimmering, just a tiny ffffp as the space they come to inhabit has its air displaced. Pop, and they blink into existence. They’re seventeen now and have come back as tradition dictates to watch themselves take that first step through the capsule door. They’re in quite an enthusiastic party mood and joke around as seventeen year olds are wont to do. Some of them call out to their younger selves lining up down in the square before suddenly remembering hearing that very same voice coming from the bleachers exactly one year ago today. They always go quiet at that point. It’s a sobering moment I would imagine.
Down in the square, this year’s soon to be Appraised are being issued with their travel packs and getting the traditional last minute pep talk from the institute director.
“You are this town’s pearls, its finest, chosen to implement the temporal changes and deliver the service that our proud community has provided for generations…” At least that’s how I imagine it goes.
The director then performs twenty four handshakes and hands out twenty four packs. A twenty fifth sits on the table. I stare at it and imagine myself striding over, picking it up, looking the director straight in the eye and then walking calmly up the steps and through the door. To hell with my teeth. A part of me wants to, really does. I imagine the silence, the disbelief, the applause. I imagine all of those things.
A few days before, my annoyingly brash teenage father had turned up in the kitchen and given me the usual spiel but this time with the anger and desperation cranked up. There was even some pleading. I liked that bit.
Parents are used to being an embarrassment to their teenage offspring but this was a entirely new and complicated take on that situation.
“This doesn’t only affect you. It affects all of us.” He said it like he was reading it off his hand which he probably was.
“It doesn’t seem to bother your mid twenties self, he’s chilled about it, he even-”
“Don’t mention him! You know you’re not supposed to mention him in my presence.”
“Can I mention you in your presence?” “Oh grow up!”
“That’s nice, I like that, can I use it?”
“Ahhh! PLEEEEASE tell me what I can do to make you see reason. I don’t think I could stand another Appraised council where I’m referred to as the father of One-time Donny.”
“So you all meet up ? What do you talk about apart from me?”
“We compare temporal shifts and causal lines but…I’m not supposed to tell you and that’s not the point, the point is that they’re giving you another chance Donny. I’ve used my influence at the institute to get you this one last chance. I know it’s been six years since you finished your temporal training and you’ll be a little rusty on the basics but I’ll bring you up to speed once you step through.”
“Why can’t you bring me up to speed now?” “You know I can’t do that. It’s against the rules.” The rules…
So the rules have been stretched to allow me to step off the bleachers, move out of the cordoned-off zone, walk over and pick up my birthright where I left it on the table six years ago today. This should be a life defining, destiny on a knife-edge, will he won’t he moment, but it’s not at all. You see, I don’t have to make the decision or break a sweat about it. I only have to look around. If there’s a twenty three year old me here somewhere that means-
And with that thought I feel a tap on my shoulder and I freeze. I don’t want to go and I don’t want to turn round. That travel pack’s not mine, that place in the line is not mine.
“I like the here and now.”
Did I say that out loud? I think I did. The tapping becomes more insistent so I turn my head. There are two teenagers wearing “I met One-Time Donny” t-shirts. They grin and hold out autograph books.