They say your life flashes in front of your eyes before you die. I had been suffering with a chest infection for a few weeks and had been feeling very peculiar. Antiobiotics hadn’t shifted it. Lying in bed one night I found my memories cycling before my closed eyes. I sat bolt upright, my heart beating fast; 00:59 glowed softly on our alarm clock. My husband was snoring next to me. My cat, sleeping at the bottom of the bed, awoke, stared at me and mirruped.
I felt my pulse, it was racing fast but still strong. As my breathing returned to normal, I convinced myself it had just been a nightmare. A jumble of images from my childhood thrown into the dream for whatever reason Morpheus might wish. I lay back down as my racing heart slowed, and the cat climbed over my prone husband and began her rumble in my ear.
The images from the dream, or whatever it had been, perhaps more a nightmare, remained foremost in my head. Keeping me half awake and feeling slightly uneasy.
A monkey wearing a red jacket is placed into my pushchair; an enormous moon fills the sky as I walk back home with my father and little brother; a dog sits panting on a chair, looking out the front window… And on it went. Not everything I had ever done, but recognisable memories from my childhood and all in chronological order. My memories playing themselves in my head as if on a strip of film…
My heartbeat and breathing slowed. I shut my eyes and my feline friend keeps purring her rich vibration into my jawbone.
The images from my past continue like a silent film in front of my closed eyes.
There: my first embarrassment at love. A blond-haired boy who ignored me at the school dance. I can feel the flush growing next to my ears, covering my face and chest, as he dances with someone else, oblivious to me.
There: throwing a handful of dirt on top of my aunt’s coffin, tears obscured by the rain, as my family turn to go, and I linger, not wanting to say goodbye to her.
There: standing at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán. My friend Nishma and I had been planning to have a gap year before university, but then Nishma’s grandmother got ill and we had to cut short our trip. I lost touch with Nishma about ten years ago. I wonder what her life turned out like. Her parents and mine had planned our futures. We would both study medicine in London and live in a flat that Nishma’s parents would buy for her. But when it came to choose our advanced subjects, it had become obvious that medical sciences were not my thing, so I ended up doing Spanish and Computer Science at Exeter and Nishma had to go to London on her own. We kept in touch through the ‘90s and early 2000s; we went to each other’s weddings and I knitted small garments for her new babies, but slowly we stopped communicating.
Again. I am sitting there, on the top of the pyramid with my eyes closed, surrounded by other tourists and feeling the heat of the sun on my eyelids and bare arms. I can really feel the burning heat on my freckling skin. This dream is so vivid. Nishma taps me on the elbow.
“Do you want some water? And put some suncream on, you’re burning,” she adds.
I open my eyes. This is so real… I take a swig from the warm bottle of water. I squint against the bright sun. It really is, incredibly realistic, this memory. What did we do next? Nishma gets sandwiches and crisps out of her bag. Of course, we ate our lunch on top of the Pyramid of the Sun, that’s what we did.
I get suncream out of my bag and rub it on my face. I wonder how long it will be before I wake up from this pleasant memory. We finish our sandwiches, then make our way down the pyramid. We tour the rest of the site, taking photographs, I think to myself that this is a particularly rich dream. It’s going on a bit…
I relive the journey on the overcrowded bus back to Mexico City and our hotel, where we get ready to go out to eat. It’s evening. I must be sleeping so soundly. I wonder if my husband has woken up yet, surely he would have nudged me awake.
We go to the Zocaló and sit in a bar, watching the green Volkswagen beetles driving round the centre. We find a restaurant and eat. I have this feeling like, but not quite, déjà vu. It should be a vegetarian restaurant, shouldn’t it? But this place is serving meat.
We return to the hotel several hours later. I have that almost déjà vu feeling of having experienced everything before. Remember? This was the night before Nishma got the news that her granny was seriously ill. That must be why I remember it in such detail – even down to the bright zigzag colours of the embroidered wristbands that we bought that night in the market. We go to bed in our hard, single beds. I look forward to waking up in my king-size bed with my husband gently snoring.
The sound of building works wakes me up the next morning. Still in a hotel in Mexico City… Still in the dream. After breakfast Nishma goes to find a payphone and comes back crying.
“Nani’s in hospital, she’s had a heart attack.”
It was at this point in my life, in my life the first time, that we cut short our travels and returned to England. At least I’m sure that’s what happened. But not this time… This time, although she initially thought about going home, this time Nishma said that the family had said her granny’s prognosis was good. And even if it wasn’t, her grandmother would want Nish to carry on with her trip and see the world; you see, the only parts of the world Nani had ever seen were Chennai and Dalston. So this time Nishma and I continued our trip and I didn’t wake up from my dream. It was hard to believe. Was I sleeping still? Was I dead? No. I was 19 again. Somehow I had managed to travel back in time through my memories. I had no idea how, but I blessed my stars.
Although… little things started to alter, which were to have a big effect on my original timeline. This version of us stayed in Mexico for six months, not three weeks. And Nishma’s granny was fine on our return, just as she had been before. But there was no first meeting with Jon in the bar opposite the hospital, waiting for Nish as she visited her grandma. I went to the bar, but he wasn’t there. I went to his old address, but he had moved months ago, and the people living there didn’t have a forwarding address. I began to panic. Me, with my grey-free, long, brown hair and my creaseless face, my tanned arms, and my size 10 skirts.
I thought then that little changes wouldn’t make so much difference to the whole picture. That time is a river; even if you throw a stone into it to disrupt the flow, there will be a temporary splash, but the current will flow back the way it has always flowed, the way it is destined to flow. But I couldn’t find Jon. He decided to study at Exeter after meeting me, that’s where we got together. That’s where we lived together in a grotty flat from the second year onwards. And three years after graduation, and our wedding, that’s where our daughter Maisie was born.
If I can’t find Jon, then what happens to Maisie? I searched for him far and wide. I put a cryptic notice in the newspaper I knew he read, but no response. I started my degree, but he wasn’t there at Freshers’ Week, and he didn’t move into my halls of residence. We didn’t meet and fall in love. This was before the Internet and mobile phones. Only just before, but technology was too basic for me to find him. I thought about hiring a private detective, but I couldn’t afford that. I failed my first year. I was depressed. Trapped back in my past, with no hope of finding the father of my child. I started thinking perhaps another man could be her father. I became promiscuous. I slept with more men this time than I had done before. I took more drugs and drank more than I did when I lived it first.
Then one night after I’ve taken something stronger than what I was used to, I discovered how I must have done it. Slipping into oblivion. As the drug took me I started to see those images in front of my closed eyes. Events and places unspooled in front of my eyes like a roll of film. I was back as a child with a toy monkey thrust into my pushchair; I was a six-year-old, looking at an enormous moon; I was sitting on the top of the Pyramid of the Sun with Nishma, eating sandwiches. Then the film ran on. Places I remembered that were yet to happen. My graduation, when my father tripped, the first sign of the congenital illness which overthrew him not many years after. Sitting crying on the stairs in a student flat because I’ve argued with Jon, irreconcilably, I think. Then the film spools forwards, and there she is, I’m holding my little girl, my Maisie, and I stop the film.
It takes all my blissed out effort, but I stop the film playing in my head and I slowly open my eyes.
I’m not where I was. My hazy eyes look down my body, my hips are broader, they were broader after I had Maisie and I never really lost the baby weight. But there she is. Sitting in a high chair in the kitchen. I’m wearing a loose smock-type dress. My hair is tied behind in a ponytail. But there is Maisie. Eating small slices of carrot dipped into humus. I run over to her, pull her up out of the seat and hug her. The humus goes everywhere. Then the door opens and Jon walks in still wearing his uniform from his part-time job at the DIY store. He laughs when he sees the humus in my hair. He comes over, wipes the humus from my hair and starts to kiss…
I’m pulled away. Back to the room where my terrified dealer has done something to stop the OD. I choke, I wake up. I start screaming: No!
I leave the squalid flat. I stop taking drugs, although initially I thought they were the key. Then it takes me another five years. Five years before I realise how to time travel at will: a method I named the ‘Bio-kam Technique’ after an early pioneer of film, and the method that I now teach my students.
Think of yourself as a film projector, and time as a strip of film. Usually the strip of film plays relentlessly forward, propelling you towards your end and you’re not aware of it. But with the Bio-kam Technique you can learn how to watch the film spooling, then play the film backwards and forwards. You can only travel within your own lifeline, and it requires that you’re willing to make the supreme sacrifice in order to get access your personal film reel. I worked it out from my second experience. Even though the trip was very short, I realised almost immediately what happened. When I almost overdosed, once again my life flashed before my eyes, but I was sentient enough to leap my consciousness out at the memory of being in the kitchen with Maisie. That’s all you have to do. Simple.
Though my alternate visit to Mexico had changed things, it seemed like the filmstrip of my original life was still intact, so now I knew that I simply had to find a safe way to create a near death experience, then I could travel through my own timeline at will.
I tell my students that it is very dangerous. To choose your NDE method carefully. You need something slow, but not too slow; something gentle, rather than violent. I find that pills are usually my method of choice. You want something that leaves your body intact, in case your travel plans go awry.
Because what happens to your body in the present timeline when you travel by the Bio-kam? If you successfully alight in a time which is past, then the you that was there, simply disappears, so I believe. At least, when I’ve reached that place in time, I’ve never bumped into myself, so I don’t think that two versions of oneself can be created via this method. More research is needed though. You can only jump forward if you’ve already been there and jumped backwards.
So for example, in my first life, the original filmstrip if you are using my analogy, I was 42 before I began to travel so I can only travel within those 42 years; though in my second life, the one where I stayed in Mexico with Nishma and discovered the Bio-kam Technique, I lived to the ripe old age of 87 before I spooled back to my younger days; I had grown happy with the husband and family I had then. Though not the husband or daughter I’d had originally. So I could then travel anywhere within my new timeline of 87 years. And so on…
I missed Jon and Maisie of course, but I believed that there would always be the option to go back and find them again. And again. And so, in this life, I began teaching, I wrote books about the Technique; I married a colleague, Dr Paul Spicer, who also researched the field of time travel and became co-head of my Department of Time Studies at the University of Bristol. Over the years, working together on many temporal anomalies, our friendship developed into a sort of love and we moved in together, then in my mid-30s we had the twins, Lucien and Henry, named after both our fathers. I still thought about Jon frequently and I wondered how his life turned out without me. I wondered if somewhere he had had a daughter with somebody else, and they had called her Maisie.
In this iteration of my life I had grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I lived to see my dear husband Paul grow ill, so together, when I was aged 87 and he was 92, we said goodbye and took too many sleeping pills together. Paul said he wanted to go back to his childhood. He wanted to save the twin brother who died in a boating accident aged 12. It was something I always knew he would do; our life together had been a fun distraction, we loved each other and our family, but we both knew that we were scientists and that our research was more important than either of us. I told Paul to come and look me up at the University of Bristol, where I was sure I would return to do my studies in time, once I found Jon.
We were both interested to know what would happen to our children and their children. My hypothesis being that although we ourselves were removed from this particular timeline, once created, matter can never be destroyed, only mutated into other states, so that the children of those who travelled would simply be born to other families.
Paul’s theory differed slightly, he wondered whether the children would still be there, but have no memory of the time traveller. It was something to study on my next journey. I’m the first person to admit that to the non-traveller, time can be a tricky concept to grasp, and an even trickier one to practice.
I lived various other lives of different lengths, always knowing one day I would return to my original timeline and continue forward to the end of it. Perhaps I was too hubristic. I thought I knew all there was to know about time and space. In my several lives, I counted three full lives and around 20 shorter ‘visits’, I’d given birth to 9 children, and in my two longest lives I had over a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In most of these lives I was a respected academic, teaching at many universities in many countries and a leader in my field of Time Studies. I took to taking shorter visits back, to relive a few enjoyable days here and there, making sure to make no changes, before I re-spooled the film to the same moment I’d left.
But this last time was different. I wanted to go back briefly to my student days when I’d gone to university the second time to do my PhD. I had heard a song on the radio by Gorillaz, and it reminded me of a concert I’d attended back in the early years of the 21st century. I thought it would be fun to see them again. I carefully counted out the correct number of my prescription sleeping pills and placed them and a glass of water by my bed. I got under the duvet fully clothed and took the required amount of pills, followed by a glug of water. I felt so sleepy but the usual grey flickering projector light in front of my closed eyes didn’t start up. The images from my life didn’t begin to rush past. I felt my heart racing. I couldn’t breathe. Where are the memories? Where is the filmstrip? My chest hurts so much.
When I wake up I can’t move. I’m in a white room. There’s a tube down my throat. I start to choke. A woman in a starched uniform looks unconcerned as she adjusts a bag of clear liquid hanging by my bed.
Again, I sleep.
The next time I awake, the tube has been removed from my throat. My voice is croaky and I can’t call for the person I assume was a nurse. I press the red button next to the bed. I notice that my legs and arms are restrained by leather straps. I weakly try to shake the metal sides of the bed.
The nurse, or whoever she is, returns.
“Where am I?” I squeak.
The nurse looks a display screen placed beside my bed.
“You’re in the hospital” she replies, “You overdosed.”
“But I took the exact usual dose,” I croak.
“Yes,” she smiles, “Operatives were called in and I believe the dose was increased.”
I begin to pull at the restraints, panicking.
“I’ll get the doctor for you.”
The woman leaves the room. It seems ages before she returns. I wonder if there’s any way I can twist out of the leather straps. If I could just get my thumb through I could perhaps wriggle the rest of my hand out. I hear the door open.
“Kathy, it’s been a long time. A lifetime. Many, many lifetimes.”
I look up and it’s Jon. Jon who is older than the Jon I knew, Jon the father of my firstborn daughter, but a Jon who is still unmistakably my Jon. My eyes widen, my pulse quickens. The machine next to me begins to beep.
“Calm down Kathryn, you don’t want to excite yourself. We wouldn’t want you to be too ill for the… the Plan.”
“You can’t imagine all the damage your 27 trips back and forth have done. Or maybe you can, you’re supposed to be the expert. How many people who should have gone on to do great things were unborn because of you? How many people thrown off their course because you wanted to revisit a cherished memory? And if that wasn’t bad enough, you taught others to do it as well. Don’t you realise the time ripples your students created have messed up history. In some very serious ways…”
“But… but… one of the main tenets of the Bio-kam Technique is to do no harm by making no change.”
“How many of your students do you think ever adhere to that? Are you that naive?”
“I feel sick. She was going to fetch the doctor.”
“I am the doctor. I’m a Chrono-surgeon now. We’re an elite number. When I couldn’t find you after you disappeared… I searched for you for years. Then they came to me and told me about this time travel thing. I followed you across times. But I never quite caught up with you.”
“I couldn’t find you the first time I travelled. I didn’t know how to control it then. But I kept looking for you. I wanted to find you and Maisie… That’s the reason I started my research. To find you and her. How is she? Where is she?”
“Maisie was recruited by the Chrono-surgeons too. Somebody had to try to put things right. You know all about the Butterfly Effect, you wrote it into your tenets. But you soundly ignored it in your first…” he consults the screen next to the bed, “14 journeys. In fact, it’s only since that trip to 1972 that you stopped altering things. Do you want me to tell you how many butterflies in alternate realities you’ve stepped on?”
“Nobody was aware then… More research was needed…”
“Each time you travelled through your life an alternative timeline was created. That timeline doesn’t disappear or reset when you vanish from it.”
“Doesn’t it? I didn’t know… I was just trying to find you and Maisie, Jon.”
“We haven’t got long. The Chrono-surgeons want to lock you away. Keep you from making any further travels. I did love you, then, Kathy. I loved you so much. Maisie however, she barely remembers you, though of course, she’s read all your books.”
A buzzer sounds. Jon looks at his personal screen, then leaves the room. I wonder if he’ll come back with Maisie. I wonder what age she will be. Judging by the white hairs at Jon’s temples, he must be between 50 and 60. Which would make Maisie somewhere in her 30s. I wonder if she has children. If I am a grandmother to my firstborn’s offspring.
I had felt very little at seeing Jon again. It was strange. I started out on my researches in time because I wanted to get back to him, but I suppose that all the years and lifetimes in between had dulled what I’d felt, or what I thought I felt. But Maisie, I still felt a strong bond.
The woman who enters with Jon looks older than I’d expected. She is slim and tall and has entirely white hair, pulled back and off her face. She wears a dark blue, close-fitting jumpsuit. She doesn’t resemble me at all, this can’t be her. It must be some other Chrono-surgeon. But then she opens her mouth to talk, and she sounds just like me, or all the recordings of me doing lectures, and interviews at book launches.
“This is her?”
Again, Jon nodded.
The woman I knew now was my Maisie, my little girl, unclicked something resembling a gun from her waistband.
“Maisie” I murmur, as she points the gun at me.
“Mother, it’s a shame we meet in these circumstances… After all this time.”
I tug at the restraints. Jon puts his hand on Maisie’s arm.
“Maisie. Don’t. There must be another way. I don’t want her to go.”
“Dad, the Plan. We have to stick to the Plan. She has to be taken out of the picture, or nothing will change back.”
Jon moves between me and Maisie.
“But I find to my total surprise that I still love her… Even though she’s done what she’s done. I don’t want to do this,” he says. “There must be another way.” He begins to undo the straps holding my wrists.
“Dad” Maisie turns the gun on him.
“If you’re going to shoot her, then you’re going to have to go through me first.”
“Dad… if that’s what you want.”
By now I’m sitting up in bed. I’m interested in Maisie’s gun. It doesn’t look like any gun I’ve ever seen before.
I’m looking for my clothes. Jon tentatively hugs me. I hug him back for a moment, then I start to cry more than I’ve cried in all the lifetimes I’ve had. And I don’t want to let him go.
I think to myself, I did love this man, I do love this man. I wish I’d never discovered the Bio-kam Technique. But then what of my field of Time Studies? What would happen to all the journeys that my students have made, all the books written on the topic by former colleagues, by me, by Paul?
Maisie still holds the gun, but it’s been dropped to her side.
“Can I see that?” I ask.
She mutely hands it over. I notice her hands are lined, like mine. She’s older than I thought she was.
She sees me looking at her skin.
“I’ve travelled a lot. It takes its toll. Trying to catch up with you, this version of me came back to help dad with the Plan.”
“Why?” I ask.
Jon is crying softly now, he’s holding my hand.
“In an alternative timeline created by one of your students… Tomas, do you remember him?” I nod. I remember an old man, much older than me.
“Tomas went back to Germany in 1943… met Hitler. The real Hitler. Taught him your technique. Mr Hitler’s whole family are very grateful. His son set-up the Chrono-surgeons to make sure you never go back to your original timeline.”
“You work for the Nazis?”
“Not exactly,” smiles Maisie between gritted teeth. “Though they think we do.”
“I would never have hurt you,” says Jon. “I thought if we were on the inside, then we’d be able to make this better.”
I look closely at the gun. I don’t think it shoots bullets. It has numbers on a dial up to 27 and also two flashing bright green zeros.
“How does this work?” I ask.
I’m postulating a theory in my head about what the dial could mean, it is not lost on me that Jon said I’d created 27 alternative realities in my time travels.
“You’ve travelled too?” I ask. Maisie nods. “So how don’t you create these alternative timelines?”
“I always return to the moment before I leave. You can see the eventual flaw in that, I imagine? You being the expert.”
I nod, “It’s finite, getting younger and younger till, if you travel enough, there will be no more moments left in your life to return to. Can it send me back to the moment before I made my first trip?”
“All the discoveries I’ve made, they won’t have happened if I go back to the night of my first trip. I won’t be able to teach anyone to time travel.”
“Not the way you discover it” she muses. “But I don’t know for sure, Mum. Your theory that time flows back into its proper order, well, that was proved wrong a long time ago. Who knows what else might be wrong. Time is tricky to deal with.”
“It’s not going to work,” says Jon, as he grips my hand tighter, knowing what I’m thinking, even after all these years and years. “The first time you had a near death experience, you were very near death. The Bio-kam Technique saved you.”
“We have to try. I can’t be responsible for a world where Hitler lives. Maybe if I am removed, maybe everything will go back to being as it should.”
“That’s what the Chronos believe. They want to get hold of you and stop you doing that. So that you can’t spool back and Hitler will always have survived the war.”
“The classic nightmare scenario; I have several chapters about it in my books. Why do they always want to stop Hitler dying? What is the fascination with that little man? I don’t want to be the one who made that happen.” I look at Jon and I look at Maisie. “This moment will never have existed… Finding you Jon, meeting you Maisie.” I smile sadly.
“But we will have each other, back like we did the first time,” Jon says. “You will be able to watch your daughter grow up and we’ll grow old, together, as we always should have done.”
Maisie sits on the bed next to us, she smiles and I see that she does look like me.
“The first time it happens, I nearly die…” I say as I calibrate the dial to one and the numbers on the green display reset to 00:59.
I turn the numbers back a minute; 00:58 and point the gun at myself. My beautiful family, or is it just the dream of a beautiful family, the beautiful family to come, or the beautiful family never to be? disappears in a burst of white light.
I sit bolt upright, my heart beating fast; but I breathe slowly, and my pulse takes a few seconds to slow down.
00:58 is glowing softly on our alarm clock. My husband snores next to me. My cat, sleeping at the bottom of the bed, awakes, stares at me and mirrups.