Ever wish you could go back and start again?
Irving woke suddenly. His first instinct was to sit up but he found he was already propped up with pillows behind him. There were two figures at the foot of the bed. He couldn’t tell who they were; he didn’t recognise either of them. He realised, furthermore, that he’d no idea where he was. This was not his own bed, certainly not his own room. There was an oxygen cylinder beside him and an intravenous pole on his other side, a tube from which was attached to his arm, delivering some colourless liquid into it. And what an arm! Not his own. He raised both: skin and bone, fingers like arthritic spindles. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He was 49, for God’s sake!
‘Dad?’ one of the figures said. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Dad?’ Irving repeated with a weak, quaking voice that was also not his own. ‘I’m not your dad. I don’t even know who you are.’
‘It’s me, dad. Mark.’
Mark was his son’s name all right, but Mark was only 24, not like this imposter who was himself in his forties. ‘No,’ Irving growled, tugging at the tube attached to the valve in his arm, and wincing at every painful movement.
‘Grandad, best not,’ said the second stranger, reaching towards him.
Grandad? What were these two up to? His grandson, his daughter Emma’s boy, was only just turned 3. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ he growled, ‘but I’m not your grandad.’
The pair exchanged glances. Irving ignored them, hoping they’d grow tired of their game and go away and bother someone else. Instead he took in the room around him. With a jolt he realised where he was. This was the hospice, where his own father had spent his final days a few years earlier. Suddenly, something about this made sense; he was here for his own last days, his mind was failing him. Perhaps it had already; the last 30 years wiped from his memory. In that case, the strangers might be who they claimed to be. Though it was still hard to believe that this bearded giant was the little blond boy he looked after at weekends.
‘Davey?’ he asked cautiously.
‘Yes, grandad. It’s me.’ He seemed pleased to have been recognised.
‘Where… ‘ Irving began. ‘Where’s your mother?’
Davey looked at his uncle again, unsure of how to respond. ‘He doesn’t remember,’ he said.
It was true: Irving didn’t remember, but he was sufficiently aware that something bad must have happened. He felt the room turn and his consciousness begin to drift. He gave into it and allowed himself to slip into the dark.
When he woke again, there was someone else in the room. ‘It will be tonight,’ they were saying. ‘If you like, we could increase the dose a little, make it easier for him.’
‘No,’ Irving shouted, ‘Not yet. I don’t belong here. I want to leave,’ but the sound that came from his mouth sounded nothing like the words in his head. They were more like a series of desperate groans, and before he lost consciousness for the last time, he heard his son say that it would be for the best.
* * * * *
Irving reasoned that he, like everyone else, was a time traveller. Everyone was travelling into an unknown future at the rate of one second per second. The direction of travel was always forward, or at least it appeared to be. There was no-one who travelled in the opposite direction, from present to past, not even at the same stealthy pace. Irving, however, had begun to entertain the possibility that it need not be so. If travel was possible in one direction, into a future that until it was reached had no actual existence, then movement back into a past that had demonstrably existed up to only a second earlier seemed more than a viable proposition. A visit to a known destination was much more of a sure thing than a mystery tour to somewhere that as yet had no didn’t exist. He spent many hours calculating how to reverse the direction of travel at a mere second at a time. He was not over ambitious. He did not seek to move in millennia or even decades like the time travellers of science fiction; he knew, from the everyday journeys of everyday people, like himself, that it was best to take things slowly; to work first with seconds and to build slowly and gradually to hours and then days.
The work progressed satisfactorily until matters came to a head with a greater sense of urgency the day after the department’s mid-summer party. He had not intended to drink quite so much, but after the award of a generous grant as a result of a successful research bid, everyone was in celebratory mood. The alcohol flowed more freely than was usual at these events. He eventually took a taxi home and after a pint or so of water, turned in.
It was the following morning that he hit the child. He just hadn’t seen her coming, darting out from between parked cars. Irving’s reflexes were slower than he anticipated; the result of the previous night’s alcohol consumption, and despite the fact that every aspect of the collision, every movement of the child’s body, jerking mid-air like a lifeless marionette, took place over several elongated seconds. Eventually she landed with a cracking thump on the side of the road while Irving sat motionless behind the wheel. He knew then, as time began to resume its normal flow that he would take advantage of its distortion and press backwards through it, leaving behind the accident one second at a time into the immediate past and beyond, to a time before he had hit the girl. On arrival at a time when the strands of time that had led to this point had unravelled, he would relive the last few hours so that they did not result in a dead child at the side of the road. He would not take the fateful car journey and the girl would live again. These thoughts were instantaneous; he was already moving, letting time peel away, first in slow seconds and then accelerating so that he felt himself moving rapidly. He began to lose consciousness, trusting in time itself and in his own calculations to propel him safely to a new beginning.
* * * * *
He woke suddenly. His first instinct was to sit up but he found he was already propped up by pillows behind him. There were, he could make out, two figures at the foot of the bed in which he found himself.