STRAIGHT UP, you’re looking at first-person narrative, so you know that I, Carrie Thomas, get to live. All else is up for grabs, including celebrity historian Ryan Flagstaff, presently conducting a lecture in front of a mostly full, mostly female-attended audience.
When Doctor Flagstaff accesses his memory, he rolls his eyes up and to the left. I’m sitting where he’ll catch me in his peripheral, but not lairy-like, if that’s a phrase they use in these times.
Not that he’s a real doctor - not of history. He’s a doctor of mathematics, but that’s hardly going to bring the chicks in. The auditorium is humming with flighty females in their thin cotton summer dresses, all here to see and hear from a handsome, educated man of a certain age, promoting his latest book, Passion, Bloodshed & Tyranny: History’s Women. Did I mention he’s attractive? He’s got the looks to sell lots and lots of books.
“If I could call for a volunteer from the audience?” He asks.
A dozen hands shoot up in a heartbeat, followed by a wave of giggles. So eager to please. It’s the role-playing part of the lecture, and he selects a Rastafarian-looking woman to play Catherine of Aragon to his Henry the Eighth. Each lecture he gets worse; more nervous and less prepared to drift from his script; the natural regression of things.
The air conditioning in here could do with a tweak – such a typical Australian summer in Melbourne; dry as a chip one day, swimming in humidity the next.
Much later, when the crowds eventually melt away it’s just the doctor and me. His publicist leaves the hall to suck on a cancer stick. It was harder to get the intimacy in my previous trips, because he is too well known in years from now. This time, he’s younger and on the cusp of fame, so he’s more approachable and exploitable.
“Doctor Flagstaff, I enjoyed your lecture,” I say with a hand outstretched to shake his.
Ryan holds my hand in his firm, warm grip for that bit too long; the spritz of pheromone must be working. A welcome jolt of excitement races up my arm. Anticipation is everything.
“Have we met before?” He asks.
“I’ve attended a few of your lectures.”
“Oh, well, then. It was nice to meet you…?”
“Carrie. Do you have a book I can sign?”
“I like the way you conduct your lectures, with the play acting and all,” I continue, handing over my copy, “but I think Catherine of Aragon was Spanish, not Jamaican.”
“True, but our Jamaican Catherine of Aragon bought nine books today.”
The man is charm personified.
“I’m sorry we can’t talk more,” he says as he grabs his jacket and satchel, “but I have to see some people. It was nice meeting you, Carrie.”
Crap! Now he’s at the door and heading out. Do I chase him? Will I have to sit through another lecture? Ah jeez, I’ll have to get another copy of his book …better take a look and see what he’s written.
Dear Carrie, take time to smell the roses. R. How sweet, and me all out of insulin.
“Um, Carrie?” Dr Flagstaff is at the doorway, “Don’t suppose you have an umbrella on you?”
Praise Melbourne’s weather! “I have a tandem brolly, which way are you walking?”
“Towards Collins Street. My publicist is nice … but she smokes.” He shrugs.
Out on the street it’s a summer downpour; cars are aquaplaning along the road. Standing next to Ryan under the shop eaves, I open my umbrella, slide the top lever and extend the canopy for two.
Then everything happens really fast.
When I replay it to myself later, it’s so clear. Even the muddy smell of the rain and freshly charged air from the lightning are tattooed in my brain. There’s a burn of hot sick in the back of my throat and a look of white terror on the driver’s face as Ryan steps in front of her car.
My hand shoots forward and grabs Ryan by his jacket, yanking him backwards, sending him sprawling onto the footpath. A majestic arc of water sprays us as the car skids past. When my pulse stops hammering in my throat, I help Ryan back to his feet. That’s when we see the broken side mirror on the ground. We stare at each other in shock and he rolls up his sleeve to reveal an angry scratch down his arm.
“Do you drink?” He asks, his breath coming in short gasps as he finds his feet.
“Often,” I say, and can’t help laughing, maybe out of relief.
There are people around us, strangers, passers by, asking if we’re all right. Nothing’s broken, he’s just scratched and sodden. The shaking starts in the taxi, on the way to his house, where he shivers and stammers so much he gives me his house keys. At his front door I fumble with the two locks while he presses the keycode on the alarm.
I know Ryan’s house, but I pretend it’s new to me, “Where’s your room? You need dry clothes,” I say, and soon we’re in his bedroom and I’m rifling through his draws.
All he can do is sit on the end of his bed, a blank look on his face, like he’s trying to process what happened back at the crossing. I find a pair of sweat-pants and a clean pullover. That zonked-out look is still there, so I drag off his wet jacket to help. Sure has taken it badly.
That’s when he pulls me on to his lap and plants a kiss on me. A cold kiss that warms up as we go along. It’s the classic response: Fight, flight, faint or f…well, you know, because humans do one of these four things when faced with sudden trauma. This is the best outcome I could have hoped for, only it’s a little sooner than I anticipate. Not that I’m going to complain about it. In a flurry of arms and legs, his wet clothes are on the floor, as are mine … and up yours if you think I’m going to kiss and tell.
SOME TIME later, he says, “Where are you going?”
“To get us both a drink.”
“Good idea,” he says, pulling his clothes on, “The good stuff is in the cupboard above the microwave.”
The ‘good stuff’ turns out to be a half dozen bottles of Macallan, 1948.
“Holy hell, where’d you get these?”
“Got contacts,” he says, and grabs two tumblers from a shelf and fills them, “Down the hatch,” he toasts, clinking his glass to mine.
His drink is down in one quaff.
Me? I swirl the amber liquid around the glass, taking in the nose like a poseur. It has faint hints of citrus and apples, mixed with woody scents. I’ll probably never get my taste buds on anything like this again, so I may as well savour it. The glass is at my lips and the scotch is on my tongue. As it goes down, it feels like a fluid mink coat. My throat is heating in the nicest of ways. I take another sip and enjoy the lingering, woody aftertaste. It’s so good I bet God carries this in his hip flask.
Ryan makes a toast, “Here’s to tandem umbrellas and Melbourne’s weather.”
I answer, “Long may it rain.”
THE BOTTLE is half empty, we are hammered. Even better, Ryan is a happy drunk, with a lazy smile. His neck flops on to the back of the sofa and he looks up at me with heavy, puppy dog eyes. We talk about our love of history and women who have changed the world, either through inspiration or direct action. The crazy women, drunk on power, like Eva Peron, or empire builders like Catherine the Great.
“Tell me about the third Anne Boleyn”, I ask, watching his face for signs of alarm.
There is micro-expression of surprise, but is it panic? His eyes roll upwards and to the right instead of the left. He’s not accessing his memory like he does during the lectures; this time he’s calling on his imagination.
Lie to me, you know you want to.
With difficulty, Ryan rises from the sofa and heads towards the doorway. “Come on then.”
“Where are we going?”
“You know where. I knew you’d turn up,” he accuses, “Well, not you exactly, but someone had to come, didn’t they?”
“Yes, we did,” the game’s up, for both of us. “Show me the gear. We’ll dismantle it and I’ll be out of your life.”
It’s not like I’m a violent person, but each time I come back to Ryan Flagstaff, he ends up dead or comatose. This time I’d like things to be civil. He’d thank me for it.
When he shows me the room, there’s a hospital-style bed, hooked up to devices and tubes and monitors.
“You were expecting a DeLorean?” He asks, and throws me a smirk.
In all the assignments I made to Ryan in his subsequent years, this is the first time I’ve clapped eyes on the contraption itself. Some progress at last.
“So that’s how you avoid the power drain.” Normally, when I track down time hackers, the give-away is the spike in power bills. Sometimes I make a mistake and find a group of cone heads with rooms full of hemp and sun lamps. Their idea of time travel is to smoke themselves into Spam and watch everything happening really, really slowly. But Ryan’s method is different, it’s molecular. No big motors, no power drains, fusion or centrifuges. Just a bed and a chemical cocktail that wipes you from time. Geez this guy is good. Good enough to work for my mob.
“How does a doctor of mathematics know so much about genetics?” I ask.
“You know I’m not a doctor of history then?”
“You’re doctoring history. There’s a difference.”
There’s a pause and I’m tempted to fill the gap, but it’s important I wait for him to talk. When he does, his reasoning hits me harder than the shot of Macallan.
“It’s bi-product of long-term pain. My ex-wife and I couldn’t have children. So we did IVF and pretty much flushed our lives and a stack of money down the toilet.”
The memories are still fresh and his chin shudders with just enough grief to break his confident façade.
“The process made us feel totally out of control, so we did research, loads and loads of research, to get that control back, but there is no control because there is no logic. With mathematics, everything is logical. Everything has a formula, a pattern, and a finite answer. With infertility, there’s no answer, so I looked at it from another point of view. I always liked history, and felt empathy for women throughout the ages who couldn’t have children, and what that did to them and their husbands and dynastic dynamics. It almost seemed that some women were never meant to have children. That’s when I realised the link between infertility and time travel. You can’t send fertile women back and forth, because they could have children and that could throw the whole time line out of whack. But infertile women, they don’t have to worry about that. They’re perfect for time travel. So perfect they must have been made for the job.”
That’s when I see the photograph on the wall of Ryan and his ex-wife, and it’s no coincidence she bears an uncanny resemblance to Wallis Simpson. Because she is Wallis Simpson. The woman who, in the 1930s, caused King Edward VIII to abdicate. Ryan and I are amongst the lucky few who know the true, unadulterated time-line. The UK could have imploded if the elected government had been at odds with its Nazi-sympathising king.
Ryan sees me looking at the photograph, “We owe our lives to her. She was a remarkable woman.”
“The public hated her.”
“It’s how Wallis wanted it. It’s how she did such a great job. The press – when they did get around to reporting on it – focussed on the fact that she was divorced, twice, which was an easy scandal to whip up for those days. The king stood down, with Wallis to keep him company for the rest of his exiled but comfortable life.”
“Including a visit to Adolf Hitler, not to mention sharing a suburban fence with fascist Oswald Mosley,” I chime in. You learn a lot in a job like mine.
“Before my Wallis came on the scene, the unmarried David stayed on as King Edward the Eighth and kept the twice-divorced prior Wallis by his side as consort. He eventually arranged for her two marriages to be annulled. As king, he kept Britain out of the battle for years by refusing to give royal assent to the declaration of war. Think how many lives had been saved now that Britain joins the allies in World War Two.”
“But that’s not what happened,” I say, and he’s got his tenses all mixed up, which happens a lot in my line of work.
“Yes it is; my Wallis made it happen. And there was no damage done to the line of succession because she couldn’t have children.”
“What happened to the first Wallis?”
“She was um…” Ryan looks to the floor, “removed.”
“You’re not elected,” I start, as anger seeps into my veins, “You’re not appointed by anyone. You’re not representing anyone but yourself. You have to stop interfering.”
“Stop saving people’s lives, you mean?”
It would be too easy to agree with him, but I’m here to do a job. “If I pull this apart,” I say, detaching tubes, “You’ll just put it all together again, won’t you?”
“I may already have done so.”
In that moment I know he already has. Or will. Now I’m getting my tenses confused. “How many women did you send back… or forward?”
“Twelve so far, and the world is a much better place because of them. Well, except for Argentina. I really screwed up there. I tried to fix it, why do you think Eva’s body went missing for a decade?”
“I need another drink,” I say, and walk back to the kitchen where the bottle of Macallan is waiting for me. If he’s already sent twelve into time, I’m too late. I need to arrive earlier.
“I’ll give you next week’s lottery numbers,” Ryan says, attempting to bribe me, “It’s a forty million draw.”
“I’m incorruptible,” yet hypocrisy wins out and I pour his expensive whisky down my throat, “anyway, I’d only have to share the winnings with you.”
“You’d make a crap Anne Boleyn,” his voice turns nasty, “you give it away too easily.”
“You’re infertile too, aren’t you?”
This is getting personal, so I keep drinking.
“Of course you are,” he goads me, “Why do you think you’re here? Why they didn’t send a bloke to shut me down; because they’re using my technique, aren’t they?”
The phone rings, it’s his book publicist, wanting to know why he isn’t at the meeting in Collins Street.
“Something came up,” his voice is slurred.
Even though I’m drunk, the best thing I can do right now is leave. I don’t want this intervention to end up like the others. I know where the device is, I can come back earlier and sort things out. Maybe I’ll come back as an IVF doctor and steer Ryan and his Wallis down a different path. “I’m going to let myself out.”
“The hell you are,” Ryan says, his voice low and horrible.
The phone cord wraps around my neck and he’s strangling me. A messy, uncoordinated and frankly embarrassing fight ensues. I turn into his body to relieve the pressure around my neck, then try and hit him over the head with the telephone receiver. I miss. I push him away and we both lose our balance, knocking things over as we fall in a heap on the floor.
Then he laughs. Like I’m not humiliated enough, he’s laughing at me. I’ve really botched this one up.
“You son of a bitch,” I say, but can’t help laughing too, “I’m getting another drink.”
Then the feck-up fairy lands on my shoulder and Ryan’s on his way out. He’s so drunk; he’s fallen on the whisky bottle during our scuffle and not felt the broken glass pierce his lungs. Now he’s standing, and blood is running like a tap down his whisky-soaked back. Shards of glass stick out. Ryan tries to look at the damage, so he turns around on the spot, a pup chasing his tail. Dizzy, he falls into the sofa, where the jagged pieces drive in deeper. He laughs, like he can’t believe what an idiot he is. The only thing left to do is hand him another bottle of Macallan.
At least this time he’ll die happy.
HISTORIAN RYAN Flagstaff is giving his first lecture in front of a half-full student hall. I am sitting a few rows back, and he can see me smiling at him.
The poor bastard. He has no idea what he’s in for.
Ebony McKenna, 2006
Ebony McKenna, 2006