Dr Judith Marsham was growing old. Or at least it seemed that way. She could no longer concentrate, even on small things.
Like when she touched her keyboard. (Judith was old-fashioned enough still to have a keyboard.) She had a momentary image of her finger coming down on all the keys, and on other places too, before settling on the key she had in mind. Multiple versions of reality fanned out before collapsing into one. It was most disconcerting.
One morning she shared the problem with her husband Herbert.
“Like just now,” she said, putting down the milk jug. “I wanted to pour milk into my tea. But I saw myself pouring into my cup, your cup, and other places as well, all at once.”
“Oh dear.” Herbert looked up, his oval face anxious. “I’m sure it’s just fatigue,” he said consolingly, “you’ve been working so hard.”
This was true. Judith was a professor at the state university, and her students were just completing their exams — always a stressful time for her. She sighed.
Her husband suddenly leapt up. “Let me do it,” he urged. “I’ll pour. Don’t you lift a finger!” He fussed about with the breakfast things.
Judith told herself she was fortunate to have an understanding husband. Although if he were a little less eager, it would be even more fortunate.
“I can’t keep up with the pace of modern life,” Judith confided the following day to her colleague, Professor Ann Potter. The two women were sitting in the English faculty common room, marking their exam scripts.
Her colleague looked up. “You think life in the past was better?”
Judith put down her pen. (She was old-fashioned enough still to have a pen.) “I know it was. There are too many things thrown at us nowadays. Just look at your clothes.”
Ann looked down at her clothes, which were alerting her to subtle changes in temperature, and to her portable, which was almost rising from the table in its anxiety to be heard. “You want to try an earlier time?”
Judith coloured. “It’s too expensive. Herbert would never agree…”
“He should be able to get it cut price. A retirement treat, perhaps?”
To change the subject, Judith confided her queer sensation of multiplicity. “Just now, when I picked up my pen, I had the distinct feeling that I was reaching out for many things. And only when my fingers closed on the pen did it become the pen.”
Her colleague nodded sympathetically. One had to expect that sort of thing at their age.
Herbert had asked to see his boss urgently. This gentleman, the Head of Time Corporation, was a busy man, but he was always ready to make time for his staff. (He had a heavy sense of humour). And Herbert was an exemplary staff member. Loyal and innovative, Herbert had turned around their time machine division. So the Head was ready to listen.
But what Herbert had to say was disturbing.
“You mean,” the Head broke in, “that your wife…?”
Herbert nodded miserably. “She doesn’t know it, but she’s detecting the alternative time streams we’ve been creating for our clients.” He coughed, and looked down at his shoes — which were at that moment alerting him to the overheating of the room.
The Head whistled, oblivious to the signals he was receiving from his shoes — and indeed, from the far wall, which was replaying clips of celebrities returning from their time trips. “You didn’t expect that. A woman’s sixth sense, eh?”
“Yes. We thought we had the ideal way to avoid time travel paradoxes — allowing the past to change and yet the present to remain the same.” He laughed bitterly. “It seemed marvellously simple, until… until…”
The Head looked at Herbert. “Until Dr Judith Marsham came along, with her sixth sense.”
Herbert sighed. “Yes. In a way, it’s amazing — she’s a remarkable woman. But it’s embarrassing. And it will get worse. There’s all our future clients to think of.” He squirmed in his seat.
The Head nodded. “Yes, it is embarrassing.” He looked Herbert in the eye.
Herbert swallowed. “I’m sure we can sort it out — recalibrate the spatial plane. But we need time.”
There was a pause. “Time is what we do,” the Head reminded him gently.
“I know, I know.” Herbert grimaced.
“Very good, very good,” the Head said approvingly. Herbert was a reliable member of staff. He got up and showed Herbert to the door.
The exam season was over, and Judith was allowing herself the luxury of a drink with Ann. She ignored the array of images that sprang to her senses every moment, and tried to focus on the heady sensation of the wine.
And she had some news.
“I wouldn’t have believed it of Herbert,” she said, “but he’s actually done it!”
“My, my!” Ann exclaimed approvingly. “What an understanding man!”
Yes, Herbert was understanding, Judith had to admit that. “He’s sending me back a hundred years. It’s more than I really wanted, but they had meds by then — and the main thing is, there were no portables. I’ll bury myself in some regional college, and just read books.”
“How marvellous!” Ann exclaimed again. “And he will join you?”
Judith hadn’t thought of that. “I suppose so,” she sighed. “It should be our retirement treat.”
“Or perhaps he can be in a side pocket somewhere, available if you need him,” Ann mused.
As Judith took a sip, a dozen wine glasses coalesced into one. Their oval shape reminded her somehow of Herbert’s head — and the thought of twelve Herberts at one time was disconcerting.
Of course, if it were the other way around…
Matthew Harrison is a writer and researcher living in Hong Kong. His published works include Queen’s Road Central and Other Stories and Benjamin Bunce.