Read by Silas Hawkins
I was born at some point in the nineteen-sixties. I’m English, I’m from the north of England. My parents – I’m of unknown parentage. I’m learning, slowly but surely. Everyone here has been very helpful.
‘Do you remember it? Any of it?’ Doctor Wainwright asked me this morning.
I thought hard. I did not remember. I shook my head.
‘You don’t have to call me Sir,’ he said.
They call me Heriot, which is what I call myself. We are agreed that I am Heriot.
As regards the other data, I accept them without question; without the least question. And yet -
When I was first asked, I replied that I was born in twenty-one-nineteen, in South Utsire Province of the United Kingdom of Scandinavia and Storbritannien. I replied that my parents were both architects, Ophelia and Hablot Sterne; I said that they were both alive and well and living in the Boknjaford archipelago.
My opinions in this regard were at first contested and then dismissed.
I am grateful for the doctors, who are reasonable men and women. There is another man here. Danny, he is called. I am not sure how reasonable he is.
When I first arrived here he engaged me in conversation. This was before I had been briefed by the doctors. I told him the truth, as I then believed it to be.
I am Professor Martin Heriot, I said. In June twenty-one-sixty-three I, as the project leader at the Fysiska Institutionen at the University of Lerwick, submitted to an innovative treatment devised by our researchers. I did not enter into detail: I don’t think Danny would have understood the detail. It was intended, I said, that I should achieve retrogade motion in the temporal plane.
He gasped, and said: ‘You mean?...’
There was a long pause. I realised that he hadn’t the faintest idea what I meant. I told him that it had been intended that I should travel back in time. And that it appeared that that objective had been achieved.
He gasped again. I don’t think that he is a reasonable man.
That evening, Doctor Wainwright and Doctor Hayward invited me to their office. I told them what I had told Danny. They, in turn, told me what I, at the beginning of this account, told you. Data based on physical examination and other research. I was born in the nineteen-sixties – and so on.
‘Very well,’ I said. ‘I cannot, after all, corroborate my statement.’
They looked at me blankly.
Dr Hayward said: ‘Pardon me?’
It seemed that they were unaccustomed to answers of this sort.
I said that, in a rational balance, the uncorroborated and unreliable evidence of my memory was very little, indeed, against the facts of the case: that I had been found wandering half-dressed and bewildered in the suburbs of Aberdeen, that I seemed in no sense to be out of the ordinary – that I was, in short, only an unidentified vagrant with an incredible story to tell.
Identification, photographs and a statement from the President of the UKSS to the people of twenty-twelve had (I thought) been packed along with my person in the experimental capsule. But it seemed that they had not survived the treatment.
It seemed, I mean, that there had been no treatment.
‘Extraordinary,’ Dr Wainwright smiled.
Later that night, I sat at the barred window and watched the starry skies. I remembered that I had studied diagrams, beautiful diagrams, of how these skies would look. The diagrams, based on archive data, had been correct – but these skies were more beautiful than the diagrams.
Danny had come to sit beside me.
‘People have to know,’ he said. He nodded fervently. His gingery dreadlocks wagged.
‘That you’re from the future, man.’
I shook my head.
‘No, Danny. I’m not. I’m really not. I just thought that I was.’
He squinted, and rubbed at his right temple.
‘You ain’t going to believe,’ he demanded, ‘what they tell you, are you?’
I laughed. He hit me. I fell heavily on to the tiles. Danny was already blubbing an apology: ‘I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry – don’t tell them, will you? – don’t send them after me, man.’
Danny is, like me, mentally ill.
What troubles me is that Danny, unlike me, is not alone. He is visited, at least once weekly, by his family: a mother, a sister, a brother. He has told them about me.
This is what troubles me. They – they who are not ill, not insane, not confined in a hospital but free to work, marry, drive cars, vote – they believed him.
It is aberrant beyond my capacity for expression.
Danny told me that they are going to take the story to the newspapers. At first this didn’t bother me; what sort of newspaper, I scoffed to myself, would report – as if they were news, as if they were fact – the delusions of an incarcerated mental patient?
But then I thought of Danny’s family, who are not mad. They believed Danny’s story. They believed – for no other reason than that somebody told them – that I was a man from the future. I fear that I don’t yet have the measure of this world. I fear that the newspapers will believe them. And then where will I be?
Where am I now?
This morning Danny sat down cross-legged beside me.
‘You can’t, man,’ he muttered. ‘You gotta.’
I leaned towards him.
‘Can’t what? Got to what?’
‘You can’t let ‘em break you. You gotta fight ‘em.’ He looked up, staring fiercely, and jabbed a finger in the direction of my forehead. ‘You know, man. That’s what counts. You know.’
I am afraid of Danny, since he hit me. I didn’t speak.
‘You’ve seen things,’ Danny urged, nodding his head. ‘You’ve been there, you remember stuff, don’t you? Don’t you, man? It’s in there.’ Again he jabbed the finger. ‘And they can’t get in there. Remember that, man – they can’t get in there, it’s yours. Don’t let ‘em in, man. Don’t let ‘em in.’
Now he tapped his own forehead.
‘In here is what matters,’ he said.
My jaw may have dropped open in astonishment.
In there, I thought, is a diseased mess. In here, too. Uncertain and fearful, I murmured something (perhaps only to comfort myself) about evidence.
‘The only evidence I need,’ Danny said, ‘is what I see, what I hear, and what I know.’
I covered my face with my hands, for I could not contain my weeping.
I thought, once, that I lived in a time of consensus. Corroboration is truth. Reality is not a private property.
But I have woken from my madness and found this. A cult enslaved by the weak eye, the weak mind, the treacherous memory, the individual, the lonely and fallible one.
One man, I wanted to tell Danny, cannot know anything. But instead I only wept.
It’s nearly morning. I could be wrong, I tell myself. Perhaps it is only Danny’s deranged family that practise this deviancy; perhaps it’s only by good fortune and subterfuge that they have evaded the attentions of the mental health authorities. Perhaps, out there, other people – perhaps all the other people – feel as I do.
If they do not then I will barely know how I feel myself.
I fear that they do not. I fear that newspapermen will shortly be crowding at the doors of the institute. I watch the old stars, which I learned from history books, fade in the sky.
I was born in the nineteen-sixties, I tell myself. I am of unknown parentage.
Hopefully, I will one day forget the things that I used to remember.
(c) Richard Smyth 2012
Richard Smyth is a freelance writer and cartoonist. He writes a column for PUSH hockey, sets a crossword for History Today, draws cartoons for Claims Management and froths intemperately in New Humanist. His illustrated history of toilet paper, Bumfodder, will be published later this year.