What do you think would be the Number One choice of superpower? Oh yes, most of us think it could be both fascinating and useful, not to mention thrilling to be able to fly, and the benefits of being invisible are – not the most appropriate of expressions! – glaringly obvious. Or perhaps not as paradoxical as it seems – did you know that during World War 2 they camouflaged ships by something called “dazzling”?
Then there are the variants on making people fall in love with you, or being able to outrun the swiftest jet plane , or outwit the most advanced computer – all very appealing, if you like that kind of thing.
But let’s be honest about this. The most craved and longed for superpower is being able to travel in time. You may be one of the exceptions, or think you are, but really? Deep down? When you are not holding hypothetical conversations but when you are lying wakeful at night or trying to think about something else in the daytime?
And I don’t mean travelling forwards in time, though that’s undeniably intriguing. “They” reckon it’s theoretically possible, too, but still so theoretical and (now there’s the irony) so far in the future that we have no need to trouble ourselves with the moral and practical implications.
It’s the other side of the coin. The one that’s supposed to be entirely impossible; the grandfather paradox and all that – travelling backwards in time.
But very often not because folk hanker to meet Queen Elizabeth I, or King Tut, or whoever their historical fixation of choice is, nor to do something noble and history-changing like making sure that Lincoln wasn’t assassinated and that Hitler was.
Just a few years will do. Just a few months. Sometimes just a few days. To put things right. To say and unsay things, do and undo them, have a second chance (or a millionth one after all the others you didn’t take). To be kind to someone you would never meet again. To think twice before trusting the person with that financial plan that seemed too good to be true.
Let me tell you about a woman – who had already ceased thinking of herself as a young woman – called Joyce. There was nothing about her that would either attract or repel you, you might think that she looked miles away, though politeness – or was it more a wish for nobody to realise just how much was wrong? – meant that when you spoke more loudly or gently nudged her elbow she paid attention and apologised and made light of it.
Joyce wanted to turn back the clock. Oh, how she wanted to turn back the clock! To the week before last when she had finished with Edgar, and not even said anything about remaining friends. Joyce had never quite grown out of notions that were both fanciful and banal, and in the end she had decided that Edgar just didn’t reach her high standards. His conversation wasn’t always interesting. He didn’t always say the words she wanted to hear, and did go on about things like making sure bills were paid and grass kept trimmed. He also had a fixation on checking his tyre pressures.
And she’d had enough. She knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t Edgar.
For a couple of days it had all felt very brave and very liberating, and for a few more it had seemed like a new chance and the right thing to do. But too late she had realised just how much she was missing dependable, trustworthy, practical Edgar. All her friends said he was a good man, and a few of them probably thought she was an idiot, though others understood and had even said they wondered how she put up with such a stick in the mud for so long. And when they said that, she realised with a lurch in the pit of her stomach that she didn’t want to agree with them, but to defend him.
I have probably thrown away my last chance of happiness, she thought, as she wandered aimlessly out of a shop where she had bought something she didn’t really want. She immediately told herself not to be so melodramatic. She might not be a young woman any more, but she was hardly in her dotage, and for heaven’s sake, even if nobody else did come along (and they well might!) it would hardly be catastrophic.
She told herself all that, but didn’t have to believe it. She had planned to stay out longer, but decided that she wanted to go home. Or at any rate, that she didn’t want to be out any more, buying things she didn’t want from over-priced shops in an obscure part of town. She hadn’t realised quite how far she had walked, as the wanting to turn the clock back mantra drummed deadly in her mind, and was weary. I will treat myself to a cab, she thought, and then discovered that she had forgotten to charge her phone.
As she made that discovery, a little red minicab drew up on the road beside her. You may say alarm bells should have rung, and she had heard the warnings everyone had about unlicensed minicabs, but this one seemed legitimate. It had the driver’s photographic ID clearly displayed, along with what was still quaintly called his hackney carriage license. He was called Conrad Cornelius. And he looked vaguely familiar anyway. Despite what Edgar said, sometimes you could be too careful.
She got in, and told him her destination. It was a couple of minutes before she realised he was not heading that way, but she didn’t panic – after all, cabbies famously knew short cuts others didn’t. But she did make a point of oh, so casually, in a conversational way, repeating her destination.
“I did hear you,” he said, but not in a confrontational or piqued way. “And don’t worry. I can take you there. I am more than happy to take you there. But I think you really want to go somewhere else. Or perhaps – and I know this word doesn’t exist, but don’t you think it should? – somewhen else?”
“It would be nice if we could,” she said, though she didn’t like the way this conversation was going at all. Or did she? “But we can’t. Everyone knows that.”
“Oh, child, the famous things that everyone knows – doesn’t that make life easier?” She realised that he had not called her child because he thought she looked young, but because he pitied her inexperience and ignorance. “I think – and I tend to be right about these things – that you would give a great deal to go back in time. And it’s not impossible you know. You should question things. It’s not even really that difficult if you know the right things to say and the right things to do – and meet someone who can tell you. Einstein knew it. But he thought it was best not to make it public knowledge. He had a young assistant who found out, and there’s no point to looking for him in any books or with any search engine. People can be written out of history, you know, and that’s what happened to Conrad Cornelius ….”
“But that’s …..”
“Indeed. And to answer the question I know you both want and fear to ask, no, that isn’t me. He didn’t discover the secret of immortality – which doesn’t mean to say it isn’t there. I am the fourth generation. We have lived in different countries, done different jobs. And now you have a choice. You can ask me to initiate you into the secret, or you can ask me to drive you back home straightaway. It is your decision to make, and this will be the only chance you have to make it, and you may well regret either.”
“You’re not exactly doing a good job of selling this, Mr Cornelius,” said Joyce.
He looked mildly surprised but not in the least offended. “My dear child, I don’t see how I need to sell you anything – after all, I am offering you either the fulfilment of your original plan, or of what you believe to be your heart’s desire. As an act of good faith I am even quite prepared to waive the fare – and you are entirely at liberty to leave the cab – the door is not locked.”
This will be the only chance you have to make it.
Joyce drew a deep breath and said, in a tone of voice that suggested he was probably off his rocker, but also probably harmless (although she believed neither) that she would see if he was talking absolute nonsense or not.
Because, after all, there was the tiniest, most minuscule and infinitesimal chance of not and – well, for all Mr Cornelius went on about regretting either what did she have to lose?
“Go on, then,” she said, “Take me back in time. Let me be a time traveller.”
She half-expected him to query “Final Answer?” as if she were on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but he didn’t. He did, however, tell her that she must do the deeds and speak the words herself.
This would be a wholly inappropriate place to reveal them, so please, reader, do not build up any hopes or fears. You will not be tempted.
Suffice it to say that she did them, and she said them.
She got out of the cab, and was in a scene that was wholly familiar. She realised that she was wearing the clothes that she had worn when she had that conversation with Edgar in the café – after all, it was maybe best to do such things in a neutral spot. It did not occur to me that doing it in a public space, even one that was quiet at the time, showed a certain callousness, she thought now. Now it was too late. Except – maybe it was not!
She was wearing the midi length dark blue pleated skirt and the muted floral top she had been wearing that day – and it was warm, just as that day had been, not cold and squally as it had been when she got into the cab, wearing warm trousers and a parka.
She glanced up at the clock on the market square, and saw that it was ten to eleven. She had arranged to meet Edgar at eleven o’clock. Eleven sharp as Edgar would say.
He had been early, of course, already there when she arrived, and she was not remotely surprised to see him sitting in the Silver Spoon Café – but he was not alone. He was with his friend Charlie who (though neither of them would have used such a term) was something of a soulmate.
The windows of the Silver Spoon were open as it was such a warm day, and she paused outside. She could hear what Edgar was saying to Charlie.
“It’s no good, even though I feel like such a mean person, such a heel,” (he was the only person she knew who used that expression, and it had begun to annoy her, but ever since the stabs of regret assailed her she had found it, and all his other little ways, endearing and longed for them). “But Joyce and I – well, it isn’t working, and it’s not going to. She’s not at all a bad person – she has that good sense of humour they go on about in the small ads, and she’d never do anyone a bad turn. But – I have to say it, Charlie, she is so, well, childish! She has no sense of responsibility and puts everything off – I thought it wouldn’t bother me, and I was the one in the wrong, but after all, she’s a grown woman, and though I’m the first to admit I can be too much of a fusspot, she goes to the other extreme. I know that saying about attraction of opposites, but I’m not convinced.”
“I didn’t interfere when I thought the two of you were definitely an item,” Charlie said, “But even when I met her, though yes, she has a charming way about her, I thought there was something – well, lightweight. It was as if every other sentence she said it can wait or it doesn’t matter.”
“Exactly. Well, it’s no good, Charlie. We’ve arranged to meet today, and I’m going to tell her that we have to face the fact we’re not remotely compatible and it’s over.”
And there Joyce stood, taunted by her superpower, furious with Edgar and brimming over with self-pity, and yet not able to deny that there was truth in what he said.
But it’s okay, she told herself, I can go back in time again and put things right and be different.
But did she want to be different? Could she cope with being different? Did she love him that much?
I don’t know, she thought, I just don’t know.
Perhaps it would be better to go further back in time, to a time long before Edgar, to a time when she was still a child, to the best holidays she had ever had. But what if all that turned out to be tainted? And what if she could only witness and not change things? And what of the unbearable responsibility of being able to change things?
Mr Cornelius had warned her that you had to take your choice, backwards or forwards. So she did not have that escape route.
Passers-by noticed the not so young woman wearing the midi length dark blue skirt and the floral top sitting on the bench on the market square and thought she looked troubled, but either out of respect for her privacy or because they didn’t want to get involved, they passed by.
And how do I know all this? I suspect you have already realised. One day you may be bitterly regretting the things you have done or not done, said or not said, and think that there would be nothing sweeter and more wonderful than being able to turn the clock back, and maybe, just maybe, I will pull up beside you in my little red minicab just at the moment when you are weary and footsore, and have wandered further than you intended, and will offer you the chance you are longing for.
And I wonder what you will decide.