“Time,” Professor Braithwaite asked me. “What do you think about time?”
“I don’t understand,” I answered, taken aback.
Was it a trick question?
“Come now, Peter,” the professor went on. “You tell me that you want to join our graduate course in parapsychology, the branch of science that looks into unexplained aspects of the living world that aren’t covered conventionally. Paranormal phenomena, ghosts, poltergeists, all the unexplained happenings that have to be rigorously tested by science for authenticity, so they don’t call us all crackpots. If you’re not interested in time, I’m very surprised. Have you not heard of clairvoyance, getting glimpses into the future? Or the phenomenon known as retrocognition, where people go back into the past? Some people believe that during our waking hours, time travels linearly, moves onwards in one direction.” He put his right hand on the table and slid it forwards slowly. “But when we sleep, goodness me, there are no such rules! I think our minds slip backwards and forwards in time, hence clairvoyant dreams give us glimpses of the future, and past experiences come to life.”
“Well, when you put it like that, I’ll obviously think of time in a completely different way from now on.”
Was that the right answer?
“Ah-ha, Peter, I think you need a bit more persuading. So let me tell you a little story an old friend told me years ago, something I never forgot. . . .Indeed something that made me abandon a lucrative career and start out on my life as a ghost hunter. . .”
I was nervous, for this was the first time I’d talked to ‘Braith’, as he’s colloquially known by the others in my year. I’d heard all kinds of stories about the old man, his strange idiosyncrasies, his mad ideas. But I wanted to join his course, so I was keen to gain his approval.
But now, I wasn’t so sure. We were alone, in the deserted and ramshackle old library of Abernathy University, and I wondered if he really was, as was rumoured, insane. His strong voice belied his age and infirmity, and his long white hair and drooping moustache made him look like the archetypal wizard in fairy tales. I confess that the old man, who was a renowned psychic investigator himself, was scaring me quite a bit. There was something a bit ‘unworldly’ about him, something of the spook hunter’s madness in his eyes that unnerved me.
But as he recounted his old friend’s story, and the clock ticked rhythmically in the background, I relaxed a bit, enjoying the cadences of his rich bass voice as he told me the most extraordinary tale I have ever heard:
“I put my hand into the water of the harbour, just behind the boat’s keel, and suddenly the outboard motor came on, slicing two of the fingers of my right hand clean off. At the same time I heard this terrible screaming – a woman’s screaming that was so heartfelt I never forgot it, in fact I think it merged with my own screams,” the professor began his friend’s story. He went on:
I don’t remember much more about that day, but much later, I woke up in hospital, with Mum and Dad explaining that everything was going to be okay. I was eight years old, and ever since I could remember our family had been coming to the coastal town of Dulverton Lacy in Sussex for a fortnight every summer. I have so many happy memories of the place, all unfortunately eclipsed by the horrible experience I’ve just mentioned. We never returned to the town.
However, life moved on, years passed. I grew up, my parents died, and I studied for a career in law, and I never went back to Dulverton Lacy until one late September when I was in my early thirties. I had just broken up with my girlfriend, and was wallowing in the depths of loneliness and depression. I had a sudden yearning to return to Dulverton Lacy out of curiosity. I had the urge to recapture those happy family times.
So I walked all around the town, trying to remember places and scenes, but of course much of the town had changed in the twenty-five years since I’d last been there.
And on the first night in the hotel I had an awful, ghastly, nightmare. It started off with me reliving when I had the accident, losing my fingers under the boat’s propeller, and I almost felt the exact same pain all over again. Then it suddenly morphed into something else, something that was even more terrible. I dreamed that I was walking by the harbour when I heard screaming from the water, and saw a woman and child splashing in the sea, so I kicked off my shoes and dived in, and had a hell of a job, struggling to pull them back to the harbourside, by which time a small crowd had gathered. I felt real terror before we’d reached the shore, as if I felt we were that close to all three of us drowning, I felt as if I could almost taste what death was like. And then, suddenly the dream was over, just like that, with a bang!
Next morning, it was with a heavy heart that I went into the ‘Happy Time Tea Rooms’, that was one of the few places that hadn’t changed too much since I was last there as a child with Mum and Dad. I was sitting alone at a table in the corner, desultorily reading my book, still feeling the gloomy aftermath of my terrifying dream.
That’s when a woman in her forties accompanied by a younger woman came into the room, chattering away cheerfully. However, the moment the older woman looked across and saw me, she looked terrified. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she was clearly trying to stifle a scream as she stared at me.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, do forgive me.” At last she apologised, as the younger woman and I stared at her in amazement. “It’s just that for a moment, I could have sworn I’d seen you before.”
“No problem,” I told her, standing up and smiling, trying to ease her discomfort.
Then, with a shock that left me weak, I recognised her too.
She’d been in my dream of the night before! Only not as she was now, but much younger, slimmer.
As if mesmerised she walked across to me, still staring at me in disbelief.
“I can’t believe it,” she repeated. “You’re his absolute spitting image! And I never forget a face.”
“Who?” I asked, as they sat down at my table, an invitation seemingly unnecessary.
The older lady (Just call me Jean, she’d introduced herself, And this is my daughter, Marianne), explained that they lived nearby. Had been locals all their lives.
“Let me explain. About twenty-five years ago, Marianne was a toddler, and she fell into the harbour, just near here,” Jean went on. “I couldn’t swim, but I just dived in anyway, screaming my head off. You know what it’s like, if it’s your child you’ll lay down your own life without even thinking about it, even if you can’t do anything. So we were both floundering in the water, when this man dived in and rescued us.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Well,” she coughed and looked down, her face flushed. “You see what it is, the man who saved our lives – well, he was the absolute spitting image of you. His face, which I saw close up because for the minutes I was struggling in the water right next to him, was just like yours. He was your doppelganger. I don’t mean to be rude, but you have got a very distinctive face, with a rather large nose, haven’t you? And your chin – well there aren’t many chins that have a big dimple like yours. It’s quite strange. Ant the other funny thing is, straight after it happened you just disappeared.”
“But of course it’s utterly crazy, because twenty-five years ago, you’d have been a little boy. We asked the crowd of people if they’d seen where you went, but no one had seen you at all – they seemed to think I’d managed to get to shore on my own, which wasn’t true. My rescuer just made a very quick getaway, and no one saw him go.”
That was when I told them about my dream.
It seemed as if we’d all wandered into some madness that none of us could relate to.
“But it makes no sense, does it?” She shook her head. “I remember I was terrified of dying, and it was early morning, no one was around. I prayed in my head, I begged God to save us. Don’t laugh, but it’s almost as if no one was there at the time, and I was so desperate, that I somehow reached out into the future, grabbed you back in time, you rescued us, then you slipped back into your own time.”
“This is all ridiculous,” added Marianne into the stunned silence. “There’s obviously a rational explanation. You, James.” She looked across at me, and nodded purposefully, “You simply had a bad dream about the harbour, because maybe when you were a child you were afraid of the water or something like that, and seeing the harbour again, brought back all those old fears.”
I remembered my accident. She had a point.
“And as for you, Mum,” she went on, tapping her mother on the arm, “you recognised him, because he looks like the man who rescued us. Perhaps you have an uncle or a cousin you don’t know about, James?”
“Well, you may be on to something,” I told them, eager to escape the madness. “My parents always came down here every year on holiday. My mum said she used to live here when she was younger. So perhaps as you say I’ve got an uncle or a cousin, who looks like me, but no one has ever mentioned it, and my parents are dead, so I can’t ask them.” I sipped my coffee. “And yet how does that explain the details of my dream? Of me diving in and rescuing a woman and her daughter?”
“Hmm.” Marianne chewed her lower lip, frowning in thought. “One of life’s mysteries. Perhaps it was some kind of telepathy? Maybe last night Mum was thinking about the accident, perhaps in a dream, and you somehow picked up on it.”
“One other thing I do remember,” Jean said. “And this will settle it for sure, guaranteeing that the man couldn’t possibly have been you, saving us all from the lunatic asylum. The man who rescued us not only looked like you, but he only had three fingers on one of his hands. So unless you’ve only got three fingers on one hand, it proves that he must have been your uncle or your doppelganger, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.”
My left hand had been under the table all this time, and I placed it on the tablecloth.
* * *
“So do you have any explanations for what happened?” Professor Braithwaite asked me.
“Well, er. . .”
“Come now, Peter, a parapsychologist always tries to make sense of the impossible. That’s what we do.”
The clock in the old room ticked on sonorously, and I gulped.
“Is it true?” I asked him. “Or is it some kind of test to see if I can tell you’re lying? To see if I’ll believe any old story?”
“I don’t lie,” he answered, laughing and placing his hand, that had been out of sight all this time, on the table. The absence of two of his fingers was obvious. “Except as to the name of the person that the story was all about. However, don’t worry Peter. I’m glad you’re sceptical, that was a very good answer. Scepticism is healthy and vital for our work. You’ve passed the test. A naïve fool is no use to me.”
“Well I’m interested in time, professor. Very much.”
“Good. I think you’ll enjoy the course, Peter. Always remember: the world is full of questions, but only a fool thinks he knows all the answers. Welcome aboard.”
(Image courtesy of Rolands Varsebergs from Pixabay)