This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

August 30, 2011

Sweet Molly Malone.

The four Irish women on the train from Nottingham were real and behaved just as written. They did, indeed, disembark at Derby and catch the Birmingham train. The rest is an attempt to marry the concept of time travel with the philosophy of Determinism, and the explanation (which was unavoidable) might come across as a little dense to some tastes. Apart from that, the story is lightweight enough.

It was first published by Drollerie Press in Membra Disjecta in March 2009.

Approximate reading time: 45 minutes.

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To Benjamin Jennings, there had always been something magical about travelling by train, and the magic began with the walk into the station.

He saw railway stations as gateways to places far removed from the mundanity of everyday existence. As he walked through the door he felt himself entering a world of moving energy, of subtle but seductive echoes, of disembodied voices that spoke from unseen sources and with a curiously melodic tone peculiar to that environment. Even the flowing air seemed to have more purpose than the troublesome wind that pestered him in the street outside.

He would look at the strips of metal sitting in perfect symmetry between the platforms. He would follow their lines in both directions, marvelling at the knowledge that millions of other examples of their kind were fragmenting into a complex network, connecting him with every far-flung corner of the realm.

Then came the boarding of the carriage and the thrill of its initial movement. He would watch the landscape as the train moved out into a world in which only it belonged, and see the vista gradually gathering pace for his very own delight. Near and far slipped by at differing speeds, but one thing he knew for certain: the view that he held in any one instant could only be seen from that privileged position.

And when those pictures had played themselves to a standstill he would disembark again. He would walk through another door in another place - ten, a hundred or a thousand miles from where he started; and the world would be different.

*  *  *

That was part of the reason why he did as much of his travelling as he could by train. But it wasn’t the only one. He was also an inveterate student of human behaviour, and where better to study people than in the confined environment of a railway carriage? He was assured of his recreation for at least as long as it took to travel from one station to another.

The group of people he was watching as he sat on the 1834 Nottingham to Crewe service consisted of four women. He observed that they were endorsing a feature of human nature that was already instilled into his understanding of group interaction. Men and women behave differently.  

In all-male assemblies the participants tend to compete – to use the loudest voice, to tell the funniest story, or to have the upper hand in any serious discussion. Women, on the other hand, seem content to act like female elephants, letting one of their number - the alpha female, as it were - hold centre stage. Whilst one woman does all the talking, the others nod a lot or offer other demonstrations of concurrence.

This particular group of women were behaving entirely according to form. The alpha female was bold, brassy and blonde. She looked to be in her mid forties and was a little heavy around the shoulders and bosom. He couldn’t see the rest of her. She was not pretty, but she did have a certain worldly look that Benjamin realised might be attractive to some men. He didn’t see it that way, but what he did find attractive was her accent. It was unmistakeably Dublin – thick and rich, with darkly alluring inflections. He felt compelled to listen attentively to every word as he glanced around at her three companions.

They all had black or nearly black hair. Two looked to be in their thirties. One was tall and skinny, with a long, narrow head and nose. She was wearing a modern, pointed bonnet that matched her face in a manner of speaking, but gave her the appearance of an overgrown elf. The other had a pleasing, homely sort of face with a slightly ruddy complexion. Some foremost strands of her long, straight hair had been fashioned into narrow plaits that hung either side of her cheeks. She saw Benjamin looking at them at one point and smiled a radiant smile through her chestnut-brown eyes. Benjamin felt an inner glow and smiled back.

But it was the third of the companions that fascinated him. He estimated her age at around eighteen or nineteen. It was difficult to be sure, perhaps because she had the look of an urchin about her. She was the smallest of the group and easily the prettiest. But her face carried a haunted look, pale and undernourished, as though she had stopped growing at an early age. Her hair was short and untended, her eyes a piercing shade of mid blue, and when she smiled briefly at something the brassy blonde had said her open mouth revealed the small teeth so typical of the Irish waif. Benjamin had seen them before in the mouths of roughshod girls begging money from the Dublin tourists.

And something about her didn’t quite seem to belong to the dynamic of the ensemble. She spent less time concurring and more looking absent-mindedly out of the window, even though there was nothing to see save the flecks of rain staggering unsteadily across the glass from one side to the other. Darkness had long since fallen on the late autumn landscape. Benjamin wondered whether she was simply looking at her own reflection – considering, perhaps, why life had not made her more robust.

All three spoke briefly in turn – either to agree with some pronouncement of the older matriarch or to ask a question. They all had Dublin accents. The talk was mainly of the relative merits of various towns’ shopping facilities, as well as the sleeping arrangements for that night. Benjamin concluded that the blonde was domiciled in England, and that her companions were recent arrivals. It soon became apparent that the women would be leaving the train at Derby to catch a connection for Birmingham. Benjamin’s attention remained centred on the young girl.

She seemed familiar, but he decided that she was just an archetype – a poor girl from the impoverished back streets of Dublin who reminded him of Joyce, Yeats and O’Casey. She was different from the others in one respect, though: she was the only one who never looked at him as the vehicle rattled relentlessly along the invisible Trent Valley. Or so he thought.

The train began to slow and the announcement was made that it would shortly be entering Derby. The four women gathered their belongings and began to move out into the aisle. Benjamin had so enjoyed listening to their voices that he felt moved to offer his thanks. He was only two seats away, and so he stood up and spoke.

“Excuse me ladies. I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to thank you for the enjoyment you’ve given me on the trip from Nottingham. There’s nothing like a Dublin accent to set a man’s heart racing, even an old one like mine. The best of luck to you, now.”

The blonde and the overgrown elf glanced at him briefly, and then turned away. The woman with the plaits looked him in the eye and smiled warmly again. She said “thank you.” The young girl ignored him. They moved down the aisle as the train came to a halt, and then disembarked with a gaggle of other passengers.

Benjamin sat down again. He wasn’t due to get off until they reached Stoke, five more stops down the line. He watched as the group walked past his window. He thought he saw the young girl’s eyes turn briefly towards him. He couldn’t be sure; and the blonde was holding forth again, commanding the rapt attention of the other two brunettes.

Half an hour later he was driving out of the long-stay car park, a hundred yards from the entrance to Stoke-on-Trent station. He turned right to drive past the distinctive Victorian façade and was forced to stop and wait by the red light of a pedestrian crossing. He watched as two young people, students he assumed, crossed in front of him. He tapped the steering wheel impatiently and looked idly across to the main doorway into the station. There, standing rigidly and watching him intently, was the young Irish girl from the train.

For a moment he was startled, but then decided that her appearance was impossible. He’d seen her get off at Derby. She must be a trick of the light or his fertile imagination. She had made an impression on him, and this was simply another young girl who looked like her. It did seem odd, though, that the vision continued to watch him after the lights changed and he drove past the entrance. And she did look remarkably like the girl who had caught his attention so strongly. He shrugged and drove home to his modest terrace about two miles from the station. He was tired and spent an uneventful evening before going to bed early.

At 9.30 the following morning there was a knock on his front door. Benjamin was the deputy front-of-house manager at a theatre conveniently situated about five minutes walk away. His shift began at 10, and he was just settling his tie knot into his collar when he heard the rapping. He opened it to see a neighbour who lived across the road.

“Thought I might catch you before you went to work,” began the neighbour. “I thought you might want to know that there was a young girl hanging around your house last night. I saw her when I went to bed at about eleven. Just a kid, she was. Small, bit scruffy, long black skirt and a grey coat – at least that’s what colour they looked in the streetlights. I watched her with the light off for a bit. She was walking up and down, stopping every time she passed your front door. I thought she was going to knock at one point, but then she pulled back. Eventually she walked off towards the main road. Do you know who she is?”

Benjamin had thought about his encounter with the women on the train several times since he’d got up, and this was something of a bolt from the blue. But, intriguing as the neighbour’s intelligence was, he felt that the man’s final question was unnecessarily intrusive. He shook his head and said

“No, no idea. Maybe she got the wrong house or something.”

“Yeah, maybe. Oh well, just thought I’d tell you.”

“Right, thanks,” answered Benjamin curtly, indicating that there was no further conversation to be had on the matter.

Following the apparent sighting outside the station, this latest bit of news had Benjamin feeling both uneasy and excited in equal measure. There was something sinister about it – or was there? Could it just be the most outrageous coincidence? He frowned and shook his head. If it wasn’t a coincidence, who on earth could she be? Or should he be asking himself “what” could she be? Benjamin’s puzzled over it as he walked the short distance to the theatre.

He told his manager about the strange sightings when he got there, but she was a confirmed pragmatist who shrugged the whole thing off as a minor coincidence. Benjamin decided that she was probably right. That decision held sway for a mere five minutes, just until he was walking across the restaurant situated on the upper floor of the two-storey building.

He looked out of the floor-length windows that made up one side of the room. A young, scruffily dressed woman was standing outside the main entrance, looking at the double doors. She was wearing a long dark skirt and a light grey coat. It was full daylight, and he had no doubt that she was the girl he had seen on the train.

He stared at her for several seconds, until she looked up and saw him. Their eyes met briefly, and then she started to walk towards the doors. It seemed she was coming in.

He made all speed across the restaurant and hurried down the staircase that reached the ground floor close to the box office. He scanned the foyer in both directions, but it was empty. He enquired of the box office staff whether they had seen a young woman come in. Both of them shook their heads. He ran out of the double doors, down to the gate on the main road, and then back beyond the front of the building to the car park. There was no sign of the girl and he went inside feeling confused and irritated.

He told his manager of the latest sighting. She smiled indulgently and made some comment about his overcooked imagination turning every young female stranger into the pretty Irish colleen who had tugged his heart strings on a train. Having dismissed the subject, she introduced a more mundane topic.  She said that she had a meeting arranged with a marketing man from the bigger, city centre receiving house. It was to do with a reciprocal publicity arrangement, and was quite important. The meeting was arranged for lunchtime and something pressing had come up which precluded her attending. She asked Benjamin if he would go in her place and gave him a briefing on the topics for discussion.

Much as he liked the theatre atmosphere, Benjamin was glad of the opportunity to get away from the workplace for an hour or so. The meeting was scheduled for 1.30 at the Scala Milano coffee shop, and he was told he could leave half an hour earlier if he wished, to take advantage of the shopping facilities. He had no shopping to do, but gratefully accepted the chance to have a little time to himself.

He slipped away shortly before 1 pm and walked briskly to his car parked on the street outside his house. He made the short drive to the city centre and headed for a car park close to the coffee shop. It was 1.15 as he approached the entrance. He considered whether to go in and have a preliminary cup of coffee, or whether to browse around the nearby bookshop first. He knew that he tended to lose track of the time when he browsed bookshelves, and so he decided to relax in the heady atmosphere of coffee grounds and light jazz music while he awaited his contact.

There was no one at the counter when he approached and so he didn’t have to queue to order his regular Americano with pouring cream. Taking the steaming beverage and the small earthenware pot, he turned to look for a vacant table.

A prickly sensation ran up his back as he saw, sitting alone at a table for two, a small, slim, dark haired girl. She had her back to him, and so all he could see of her clothing was a light grey coat. It was enough to set his heart knocking, audibly it seemed, against his chest. He walked slowly to a point just beyond the solitary girl and looked into her face. She looked back and recoiled slightly.

“Oh, my God,” she exclaimed quietly. “It’s you. How the hell did you find me?”

It was the same girl and the same Dublin accent. Benjamin looked blankly at her for several seconds, unsure how to open a conversation with this wraith made manifest. She pre-empted his efforts by asking another question.

“Did you follow me in here?”

Benjamin shook his head.

“No, I’m here to meet somebody.”

“Oh well,” she said wistfully, “whatever happened, happened.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

The girl looked earnestly into his eyes. There was a hint of pleading in them, as though she had been discovered in some guilty secret. She rose and said

“Look, why don’t I just leave right now and you forget you ever set eyes on me? Then you can get on with your meeting and you’ll never see me again.”

Benjamin felt irritated. Surely, she couldn’t expect him to agree to that.

“You’ve got to be joking, haven’t you? You materialise mysteriously outside the train station, you creep about outside my house at the dead of night, you turn up at my workplace... I was beginning to think I was being haunted or something. The least you can do is give me an explanation.”

It was clear from the girl’s expression that she knew he was right, but she shook her head.

“There’s two problems with that. First, I doubt you’d understand; and second, there’s no way you’d believe me.”

“Well,” answered Benjamin, “on the first count, I’m reasonably intelligent. And on the second, whether I believe you or not is my problem. You still owe me.”

The girl looked at him for a few moments and then slumped back onto her seat.

“OK. There’s a chair. Sit yourself down and I’ll do me best. Where the hell do I start, though?”

“You could tell me your name.”

“Oh yeah, right! Even that’s unbelievable. It’s Molly – Molly Malone. Seems my mother had a thing about that stupid song when she was pregnant with me. Can you imagine how many times I got called ‘cockles and muscles’ when I was a kid, or asked where I’d left me wheelbarrow today?”

Benjamin smiled.

“I think it’s a nice name.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not important anyway. What’s important is how I’m going to explain to you what I’m doing here.”

“Well, whatever it is, at least I’m glad you’re not a ghost or a hallucination.”

“I’m not so sure about that. They’d be a bit easier to explain.”

The girl looked at him for a second, a gentle frown creasing the pale skin on her brow. She shook her head slightly, closed her eyes momentarily, took a deep breath, and began.

“Right, here goes then. First, I’m not from this time. I’m from two hundred years in the future. Second, my boyfriend’s the reincarnation of you in a future life. D’you want me to go on?”

Benjamin stared at her, thinking against hope that he’d misheard what the girl had said. As ludicrous as it sounded, he felt even more intrigued by the pretty, unassuming and forthright young woman who had followed his footsteps for several hours. The rest of the explanation might be entertaining, if nothing else.

“Of course.”

The girl took another deep breath and composed herself.

“Right then, I suppose I’d better give you a twenty third century history lesson if the rest is to make any sense.

“The first thing you need to know is that the world, especially here in the west, is going to change dramatically over the next hundred years or so. The history books of my time refer to the twentieth and twenty first centuries as the D Age – D standing for decadent. Briefly, what happened was this.

“By the end of the twenty first century, climate change was wreaking havoc everywhere – famines, droughts, floods, millions of refugees, that sort of thing. Eventually the pressures on the world economy crashed it altogether and there was a massive, worldwide depression. The economic growth that the developed world had come to rely on went completely out the window.

“That sparked major social unrest in the whole industrialised world. Governments lost control and martial law was brought in, but even that got swamped pretty quickly. The anarchy that followed was so depraved that it’s reckoned to have been the darkest period in human history. Only the mega rich were able to get off to their little boltholes. The rest had to put up with it.

“After a few decades of general mayhem, society became polarised into two factions. Some people belonged to vicious, lawless gangs who used their power and aggression to take what they wanted. The majority of people, however, had grown tired of all the shit they were having to put up with and mobilised their resistance. A few good leaders came to the fore, and some of them became legends – my grandfather for one. They, and the weight of numbers, took the gangs on and won the day.

“The whole thing made people come to their senses. They realised that the earlier obsession with prosperity and material values had caused all the trouble in the first place, and so they decided to create a new society based on a much simpler lifestyle. At first they took their cue - in a social and political sense, at least - from the Amish in twentieth century America.

“But there was also a desire to connect with a new and more organic form of spiritual tradition. The dark time had focussed people’s minds on the meaning of life and what might lie beyond it. Islam had grown stronger and more extreme in Africa and much of Asia, but Christianity had faded away altogether in Europe and America.

“They naturally gravitated towards a sort of combination of Vedic and pagan traditions. The religion – if you want to call it that – that developed included everything from shamanic practices and herbal medicine to an understanding of the multi-level nature of spiritual development. And it became commonly accepted that the process of life, death and rebirth was the simple key to understanding the nature and purpose of existence. 

“One effect of all this was that kids were encouraged from birth to cultivate faculties that had been repressed through hundreds of generations – psychic faculties that soon blossomed to a very high level. Most people are now able, for example, to remember large parts of their previous physical lives.

“And then a number of people came forward who knew the location of certain ancient texts – texts containing lost knowledge that even the D Age scientists had realised must have existed. It soon became apparent that the old reliance on hard technology had been clumsy and limited. The two keys to controlling everything – from personal wellbeing to the biggest civil engineering projects – were knowing how to use the vibrational rates of matter, and how to harness the power of will.

“And it was commonly understood that time was one of the great illusions. It doesn’t exist in any objective sense. There is only infinite reality; and even the concept of ‘infinite’ falls short of an adequate definition. Are you still with me?”

Benjamin had looked steadily into the girl’s eyes throughout the explanation. She seemed genuine.

“I understand what you’re saying, yes,” he said guardedly. “Whether I believe it or not is another matter.”

His statement reflected only a desire not to appear gullible. In actual fact, he did believe her. Everything about her – the simplicity of her dress, the lack of pretension in her bearing and, most of all, the wisdom and sincerity that shone steadily out of her young eyes - made her eminently believable.

“Go on,” he said.

“OK. Time travel, for want of a better way of putting it, isn’t so difficult once you’ve learned to adjust your physical vibrational rate and combine it with the power of will. The first enables you to switch into any other aspect of reality, and the second gives you the means to go wherever you want. It’s a big form of recreation in my time. People don costumes and join Napoleon’s army, or sit in on the great European courts – knowing they can leave as soon as the going gets tough or they get sickened by the blood and guts. What I wanted to do was a bit more personal.

“I’m very much in love with my boyfriend. More than that, I feel such a deep attachment to him that I know I want to spend the rest of my life with him – and maybe at least some of our future lives as well. And it’s obvious that he feels the same way, but for one thing. He keeps avoiding the issue of marriage. He says it doesn’t feel right, but he can’t tell me why.

“We both know that this attachment began in one of our earlier incarnations. I remember which one it was, and I remember the thrill I felt when I first set eyes on him and heard his voice. What I couldn’t recall was what he looked like then. He doesn’t remember our previous meeting, but then he isn’t as advanced as I am in the psychic side of things. Nevertheless, he says he’s sure that the unease he feels about us being married has its root in that earlier incarnation. So I decided to bring myself back to meet my former self and see whether I could find any clue as to what was troubling him. Not that I could make any difference, I just wanted to know.

“Connecting with one of your own incarnations is a pretty easy thing to do if you’re well practiced. You have a bond that draws you together naturally. I focussed on her and found myself walking out of a changing cubicle in a shop in twenty first century Nottingham. She was just coming out of the other one. She didn’t know who I was, of course. But she obviously recognised that there was something instinctive between us and we got to talking quite easily.

“It turned out that she was over from Dublin with a friend of hers. It quite surprised me that I’d been reborn in the same city; I hadn’t realised that. They were meeting a mutual friend and were planning to stay for a week shopping and seeing the sights in England.

“When she heard my accent she asked me if I wanted to tag along with them and I agreed. That was another thing that surprised me – how little the accent had changed. But then, we’re taught that there was a sort of cultural hiatus during the dark time, and the usual evolution in things like language hadn’t happened in the way it normally would in two hundred years.

“Her name was Moya, and she took me to meet her two friends, Lizzie and Sue. Lizzie was the older, blonde woman, and Sue was the tall, thin one. Moya was the one you latched onto, the one with the braids in her hair. Remember? On the train? Actually, it would be truer to say that she latched onto you. That’s how I knew who you were.

“It came as quite a shock, I can tell you. It didn’t take much of my psychic ability to feel the energy that was generated when you looked at her braids and she smiled at you. She was completely bowled over. I felt your reaction too, even though you kept it well under wraps.” Benjamin smiled and inclined his head. “And when you spoke to us later, I recognised the voice straight away.

“So there I was,” continued the girl, “sitting not only with my own former self but with Rory’s as well. For some reason I didn’t want to look at you - preferred to feel the energies, I suppose. They tend to give you more honest information. I kept an eye on your reflection in the window, though. And now we’re sitting face to face and I can feel the connection between us. I haven’t had that experience before. Bit freaky, actually.”

Molly went silent for a while and looked into Benjamin’s eyes, seemingly searching for the soul of her fiancé that she knew must be mirrored there. Benjamin felt the connection too, but he also wanted to hear the rest of the story and ask a few pertinent questions.

“So what happened at Derby?” he asked. “How did you get to Stoke?”

“Oh right, yeah. No magic there. I just made my excuses to the others and jumped back on the train in the carriage behind yours. I booked to the end of the line and waited to see where you got off. Then I followed you out of the station and caught one of the rank cabs to see where you lived.

“I was really torn that night. Part of me desperately wanted to meet you, while another part sensed that it might complicate things. I couldn’t see how or why, but I just felt uneasy. So I chose not to.

“But I wanted to know more about you, so I shifted to eight o’clock the next morning and hung around the street corner, waiting for you to go to work. It was bloody cold, I can tell you. And I wasn’t even sure that you would go to work. But then you did and I followed you up there.

“It was the same as the night before – the indecision as to whether I wanted to meet you or not. When I saw you watching me through the window I decided to take the plunge. Then I got cold feet again.”

“So where did you hide?”

“I didn’t. Like I said, it’s all a matter of controlling vibrational rates. I was there, you just couldn’t see me. I felt stupid and decided I wanted a hot cup of coffee. I got directions to the city centre and walked up here. And then you walked in and I realised we must have met after all.”

“Must have met when?”

“Now.”

Benjamin frowned and the girl explained.

“Sorry, I’m looking at it from my own time. Now is the past to me, you understand.”

“Oh, I see. At least, I think I do. But hang on a bit; that raises a big question. I’ve always thought the problem with travelling back in time is what I think they call the grandfather syndrome. If you go back in time and kill an ancestor before he or she has produced children, it means you could never have been born, and then you couldn’t have gone back and killed the ancestor – and that produces an impossible syndrome.

“And what about the bigger problem? Surely, every person whose life you’ve touched by coming back has had their life path changed as a result. That means the future is different than it would have been. Isn’t that a serious danger?”

“No. It’s all to do with determinism. Do you know what that is?”

“Vaguely.”

“It’s pretty simple really. Everything that happens has a cause. Every decision we make is made for a reason – even if it seems like a random choice. There’s always a reason. That’s why every single fact in the whole of reality is already there. We have free choice, yes, but the exercise of that choice is as dependant on the principle of cause and effect as everything else. If I travel back in time, I can only do it because it’s already happened – if you see what I mean.

“You say ‘suppose you go back and kill your ancestor. Then you couldn’t have been born.’ It works the other way round. The fact that I exist means that my ancestor didn’t die. However hard I tried to kill him, it would be impossible. I couldn’t do it because it didn’t happen.

“When I was telling you about Moya, it occurred to me that it would be nice to introduce you to her. But I remember my life as Moya, and I know that she only had that one brief meeting with you. So there wouldn’t be any point in trying to engineer something that would be doomed to failure. You’ll have to forget about her for now. The bond is established but it won’t come to fruition for a while. Moya becomes me, you become Rory. That’s when we meet in earnest. It’s written.”

Molly stopped talking and began to drink her coffee. Benjamin sat looking at her, his chin resting on his folded hands. The attraction was real enough; he could feel it getting stronger. But she was only a temporary visitor and he was, theoretically at least, old enough to be her grandfather. She drained the last mouthful and leaned forward towards him.

“I suppose all this must be a bit difficult to take in, eh? Don’t you have any questions?”

“I suppose I’d have plenty, given time. At the moment I’m still fathoming the logic. One thing that does occur to me though: what do you do for money – for the train, the taxi, the coffee?”

“Oh, that’s easy. For the earlier periods we have loads of facsimile stocks. It’s easy enough to make. And for this sort of period we have a clever card – made to look like a credit card. It can fool any pre-anarchy technology. I just got a load from a cash point up the road. Here, have some.”

She idly pulled a wad of fifty-pound notes out of her bag and placed them in front of Benjamin.

“I can’t take that,” whispered Benjamin.

He looked furtively around the room. Handing around large sums of money in a coffee shop would look more than a little suspicious.

“Why not?”

“Well...it isn’t mine.”

“It isn’t anybody’s. Money’s an illusion too, you know. It’s all just part of a game being played over your head by a few very powerful people. That’s something else people learned when everything was falling apart. Go on, buy yourself some new clothes or something. It’ll be no use to me when I get back.”

Benjamin frowned and shook his head.

“OK,” said Molly. “Suit yourself.”

She pushed the money back into her bag and folded her hands on her lap.

“Do you have any more questions?”

Benjamin was about to ask whether time travellers aged during their travels, when he saw a smartly dressed young man approaching the table.

“You must be who I’m meeting,” said the intruder, pointing to the badge that Benjamin was wearing for recognition. “I was expecting Judith Barker.”

Benjamin felt irritated. He had warmed to the young woman who had held his attention for the past fifteen minutes, and now he was going to have to discuss marketing arrangements with some smart young receiving house executive. Molly got up.

“I suppose I’d better leave you to it then,” she said as she moved out from the table. “Is there a toilet in here?”

“Top of the stairs and turn left,” said Benjamin.

This prospective parting felt painful. He wanted to ask “will I see you again?” but realised it would sound inappropriate.

“Will you be back?” he asked instead.

“Don’t know for certain. Maybe.”

With that she tripped lightly up the stairs. Benjamin watched her go and then settled himself to the matter in hand.

The meeting seemed interminable. Benjamin did his best, but he was conscious of the fact that his real attention lay with the staircase. He was anxious to see Molly come down them again. She didn’t and the two men eventually concluded the necessary agreements. The other man left and Benjamin went upstairs.

He saw that there was a female member of staff on her lunch break, and asked whether she would mind checking the ladies’ toilet. He explained that a friend of his had gone in there and he hadn’t seen her leave. The woman agreed and came out a few seconds later.

“Nobody in there,” she said.

“Is there another way out?”

“Only through the staff kitchen, but that’s on a keypad lock.”

“OK, I must have missed her then.”

Benjamin felt more deflated than he would have imagined. He took himself reluctantly back to work, but had little interest in his duties. He decided not to tell his manager of the meeting with Molly. He had no doubt that Judith, kind and generous though she was, would put a pragmatic interpretation on it all. He didn’t want to hear it. Instead, he got through the day, went home and spent the evening thinking of little else.

He ran over and over in his head what Molly had said about time travel. The logic kept on reaching dead ends here and there, and he felt that there had to be more to it. But it wasn’t the convoluted philosophy of temporal logic that was troubling him, it was the feeling that something meaningful was missing from his life, something that he had been granted briefly, before having it taken away again. He remembered her words.

“Don’t know for certain. Maybe.”

But when? If she was going to visit him again, when and how would she do it? And would there be any point? He knew there was nothing he could do to influence matters since he had no way of reaching through the time barrier. All he could do was carry on with his life and drop any notion of hope or expectation. They would probably lead only to disappointment. If he was ever going to meet Molly again, it would have to be at her bidding, and he would treat it as a bonus if it happened. By the time it did happen, he had long since given up on the idea.

It was three years later and around the same time of year. The Scala Milano coffee shop had become an even bigger favourite than ever, and a treat that he indulged at least twice a week. He had also taken, whenever possible, to sitting at the same table as the one he had shared with Molly. At first he had hoped that it might encourage history to repeat itself. More latterly it had simply become a habit.

It was shortly after lunchtime and the shop was busy. His favourite table was free and so he sat down, eased a small quantity of pouring cream into his drink and settled to the strains of Ella Fitzgerald singing Every Time We Say Goodbye.

He felt nostalgic. More than that, he felt a longing to see Molly again every bit as strongly as he had during the first few weeks after she had taken her leave. He swung his legs out into the aisle and crossed one over the other. He took a sip from his cup, savouring the cream-tinged richness of double-shot Americano.

He glanced up as he saw a dark skirt coming down the staircase to his right. The bottom of a light grey coat came into view and he prepared a dismissive smile on the presumption that it would be another false alarm. It had happened several times over the last three years. But then the full figure made its unbelievable entrance and Molly’s small mouth grinned as broadly as it was able.

“Hello Ben. D’ya want some more coffee?”

Benjamin stared open mouthed and shook his head slowly.

“Give us a minute then would ya, while I get one?”

It was at least three minutes before she returned and took the seat opposite. It seemed longer, and Benjamin had already smiled wryly at the irony of thinking what a strange commodity time was.

“Has your visitor gone then?” asked Molly as she prepared to spoon the top off her cappuccino.

“My visitor?”

“The man you were meeting. I tried to time my return for half an hour after I left. I thought I might miss you – that you would already have left. Then I’d have had to find where you lived again. It’s not that easy to latch onto somebody you’re not directly connected with.”

Benjamin looked at his watch. It was five past two. He glanced back at the girl.

“I think you got your calculations wrong. That was three years ago.”

“Was it?” exclaimed Molly. “Fuck. Oh well, that happens sometimes. It isn’t really a matter of calculation; it’s more instinctive than that. I thought you were wearing different clothes. Sorry. You must have thought I wasn’t coming, I suppose.”

Benjamin nodded.

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t planning to – not until I got to thinking and talking to Rory.”

She placed a spoonful of cappuccino froth into her mouth and savoured it.

“Wow, this is one reason for coming back if nothing else. We don’t get luxuries like this in my time. We don’t do luxury any more. Funny really, our technology is so far ahead of yours. But it’s AV technology now – that’s Advanced Quantum if you didn’t know. Means we can do all sorts of clever things without raiding the earth for materials. It’s responsive to the power of will you see, if you know how to use it. And it’s how we get by without needing money.”

She took another mouthful and then sipped the dark brew beneath. Benjamin decided not to ask about advanced quantum technology. He was still feeling light headed from the shock and pleasure of seeing her again.

“So why did you come back? What was this talk you had with Rory?”

Molly’s demeanour took on a more serious air.

“Mm, that. I’m going to have to do a bit more explaining, I’m afraid. I’ve decided to do something that isn’t exactly encouraged. It’ll affect you in a manner of speaking, though you won’t know it. At least, this you will know because I’m about to tell you; but the other one won’t.”

Benjamin lifted his eyebrows and shook his head in wonder. Molly had the look of someone with a heavy weight on her shoulders.

“Right,” she said eventually, “let’s see if I can make a decent job of explaining this to you. How much time d’you have?”

“All day if necessary.”

“That’s good, though it shouldn’t take quite that long.

“First, the stuff about Rory. I told him about our last meeting and it didn’t take him long to realise that my meeting with you was the source of his problem. How old were you then?”

“Fifty four.”

“That’s about what I thought. And I’m nineteen. You’re old enough to be my grandfather, right?”

Benjamin felt chastened to hear Molly give voice to a fact that he had already worked out for himself. He nodded.

“Rory realised he had some inbuilt perception of me based on a deep rooted memory of that meeting. He said he understood that it’s why he felt the way he did. Some inner part of his mentality saw a massive age gap between us, too massive to contemplate marriage even though his rational mind knew it wasn’t so.

“I asked him if he thought he could get over it, now he knew where it came from. He said he didn’t know. He said it was so deeply embedded that he couldn’t guarantee it; and, as long as he felt that way, he would always be uneasy about us being married, having a physical relationship and so on. In our time sex is something we tend not to do until we’re married, by the way. But then, lots of people get married as soon as they’ve passed puberty. We live more by the laws of nature than you do. I’m pretty old to still be a virgin.

“Anyway, the point is that I want kids and I want them with Rory. But I can’t do anything to change what exists. Remember what I told you about determinism?”

“I think I understood it, yes.”

“Well, there’s a bit more to it than that – and this is where it gets complicated.

“Remember me saying that you wouldn’t be able to go back and kill your ancestor before he’d been able to have children, because the fact that you exist means he couldn’t have died? Well, when time travel was in its infancy that was the established view on the matter.

“But some people weren’t satisfied. They did some carefully controlled experiments in which researchers were sent back with instructions to do something, and then go back again and do it differently. The scenarios were carefully worked out so that they would make a simple, but different, choice the second time around – say, turning left down a street instead of right. They were also instructed to do something pretty innocuous like chipping a small piece out of the base of a statue that was still standing in the future time. That change would be observable and would prove that the course of events could be altered.

“It didn’t work out that way. What happened was this.

“When we make a temporal trip, we return in the same instant that we leave. Even if we’re away for a year, no time passes in our own world while we’re doing it. What we do have, though, is the memory of all that happened during that year. Something interesting happened to the people attempting to make a return trip.

“They went into the usual T state, but then immediately came out of it again with a feeling of déjà vu. They said that they felt some kind of energy blockage that prevented the normal trip back in time. And, as you might expect, there was no chip in the base of the statue.

“At first it was assumed that it was some mysterious workings of the determinist mechanism preventing any meddling with the infinite reality. But then a different hypothesis was put forward – and one that found favour with the quantum scientists of the time.

“It was postulated – though everybody knew it would be quite unprovable – that simple determinism only works for the single reality line that we’re all on. So you can go back in time, do whatever you’re able to do, and it won’t make any difference to the future because it’s already happened. But if you go back a second time and do something different, then you create a different reality line – a parallel universe if you like. If that theory is correct, what was happening with the volunteers was this.

“The instant they did something different on the second trip, his or her consciousness created - and switched into - the new line. The version of that person who set out on the experiment had no knowledge of ever having gone back because, to them, it never happened. Meanwhile, the new version of the volunteer returns to their own time, the one that now exists in tandem with the original. They have full memory of what they did and go to look at the chip in the statue. It’s become worn and weathered over the intervening years and the person realises that it was he or she who put it there. But they have no knowledge of ever having been part of an experiment, because no experiment existed on that reality line.

“The problem with all this is that every person whose life that individual touched on the first trip, and whose path is changed on the second, also becomes part of the new reality line in an altered form. If you want to put it this way, another version of them is created which will now follow a different path than the one in the original line. Everybody else is an exact duplicate following the same path, except where they interact with factors influenced differently by the changed person.

“Have I lost you yet?”

“Well, it’s a bit hazy at the moment, but I think I get the general drift.”

“I know that’s a lot to swallow in one go, but I needed to explain it so that you can understand what I’m planning to do. You also have a right to ask me not to do it since you are the one whose alter-ego in the parallel universe will be affected – though I’ve thought about all the contact between us and can’t see that it should make much difference. And, in any case, the version of you that’s sitting here at the moment will be completely unaware of it. You’ll carry on with your life as though nothing has happened.

“The person I’m more concerned about is the taxi driver who brought me to your house that first night. The new version of him won’t make that trip, and his future path might be changed dramatically. I hope nothing bad happens to him.”

“Mm,” offered Benjamin thoughtfully. “You haven’t told me yet what you’re planning to do, but I assume it involves going back to that point three yeas ago and changing something.”

“That’s about it. I’ll do everything exactly the same as before except that I won’t get back on the train at Derby. You and I will never meet. Do you mind?”

“I suppose not. As you say, it won’t make any difference to this me, will it? And, if I’m getting the picture right, the fact that you’re able to do that – if you’re able to do it – will mean that it’s already happened anyway.”

“Er, not quite. This time we’re talking about creating a new time line, not altering the future on this one. It would be truer to say ‘because it was always going to happen.’”

“Oh, I see,” said Benjamin looking anything but enlightened. “So exactly how will this solve your problem with Rory?”

“It won’t, not for the Molly sitting in that timeless moment in the future and talking to you now. She’ll simply find the trip impossible and go about the life she’s stuck with. But she’ll know that a parallel version of herself might have been created and be organising a different future for the two of them. As soon as I make that one change at the station my consciousness will split. The here-and-now version of me will walk off with the three women, unaware of what I’ve just done. I’ll return to my own time where the situation between Rory and me will be different. That’s if the theory is correct, of course.”

Benjamin lifted his eyebrows again, shook his head, took a deep breath and exhaled it fully.

“This is pretty heady stuff, you know. At this point in history, time travel and parallel universes are the preserve of science fiction.”

“Not quite. Read up on quantum physics. They’re starting to get the picture too.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve heard that even physics students have trouble with that one.”

“You’re not a physics student, though, are you? Scientists have a lot of knowledge in their heads, but they tend to be stuck between the tram lines. There’s no limit to where your mind will go; it’s one of your more endearing features.”

Benjamin chuckled.

“I have others?”

“Yeah, sure you do. I was thinking after our last meeting - if Rory won’t set me on the road to motherhood, I might get you to do the job instead.”

The look of shock on Benjamin’s face sent Molly into peels of childlike giggles.

“You need have no worries on that score,” she said eventually. “It wouldn’t be possible, I’m afraid. Sorry.”

“Yes, well...quite right too,” Benjamin muttered, covering his embarrassment with a sideways glance.

Molly reached out with both her hands and laid them on top of Benjamin’s.

“I’m off to the ladies again now,” she said. “Can I come and visit you again?”

“I’d like nothing better, as long as it won’t screw anything up.”

“It won’t, just as long as I don’t go back to a time before our most recent meeting.”

“What would happen if you did?”

“Work it out for yourself. You’ve got a brain.”

She stood up and kissed his cheek.

“Thank you for providing me with so much pleasure on my trip. There’s nothing like a refined English accent to set a girl’s heart racing; even a young one like mine. The best of luck to you, now.”

Benjamin smiled gratefully at the recollection; it sounded so much better in a Dublin accent. And then she added

“I’ll be back.”

With that she tripped lightly up the stairs and was gone.

*  *  *

Benjamin Jennings was sitting in his car, waiting at a red traffic light outside Stoke-on-Trent railway station. As he watched the two young people, students he supposed, crossing in front of him, he reflected on the four women he had briefly encountered on his train ride from Nottingham.

They had all been Irish, and he had particular cause to remember two of them. One was young, pretty and quite fascinating. But she had remained aloof from everything and everyone around her. The other was a brunette with a rather beautiful, homely sort of face and braided hair. The way she had smiled at him when she caught him looking at her braids! He had felt something truly magical coming out of those eyes, something that suggested a permanence of connection. The memory sent a warm glow of romantic longing coursing through his body.

It seemed quite unjust that their encounter should have been so fleeting and of no consequence. He didn’t even know her name, and it was obvious that they would never meet again. He also remembered the fact that the young girl had stopped and regarded him intensely through the carriage window after she and her three companions had disembarked at Derby. Why she should have done that, he couldn’t imagine. And then there was the strange feeling of déjà vu he had experienced as soon as she’d turned away and hurried to rejoin her companions. He felt frustrated. Something was missing.

He glanced idly at the empty doorway of the station entrance, and the empty foyer beyond that. The lights changed and he drove home to his modest terrace about two miles from the station. He was tired and spent an uneventful evening before going to bed early.

Meanwhile, in another dimension further away than the furthest corner of the universe, and yet closer than his own skin, another picture was unfolding. Had he known that, he would have marvelled in the knowledge that maybe an infinite number of other examples of his being were fragmenting into a complex network, connecting him with every far-flung corner of existence.

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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