PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Mike Mitchell
The Kiss of the Stone Woman
Franz Theodor Csokor
It was about two o'clock in the morning and the disc of the moon was dissolving beneath a bank of mist in the western sky as the Lieutenant and his platoon reached the enemy town.
Often enough in the course of the dreary march they had been asleep on their feet, and now more than one of them blundered into the wrought-iron gates of the suburb they were passing through, and yet they stumbled doggedly on. Here they felt even more deserted and forlorn than outside the town on the track bordered by the wall of dark trees. In the semi-dark the bare trees of the avenue looked charred. Small villas squatted palely behind the sparse foliage of clumps of bushes which raised their twigs like hackles in front of them. They all seemed to have been abandoned, and the Lieutenant did not even bother to stop, since none of them seemed to offer a billet large enough for the whole unit for the rest of this autumn night, already quivering with the approach of morning. So the column wound its way through a gateway in a massive tower into the old town. There was a soft clinking as the ranks broke step. Here marching was much more difficult than on the broad highway. Alleys suddenly shot off, confusingly h
aphazard. The cobbles were a hindrance, too, buckling the feet: they were bumpy, as if they were being squeezed up by the ancient houses flanking the street which cowered there beside the road, low and chalk-white, in an attitude of senile malevolence. And not a sound nor light in any of them; only here and there, outside gaping doors dripping with blackness, stood abandoned household effects. Wailing from behind broken window-panes suggested abandoned infants; when torches slashed through the darkness, it was cats that scurried out of bare rooms. The men would have liked to clamp a rest onto such incidents; mercilessly the Lieutenant drove them on. The houses looked ready to pounce, their exits yawning black like tunnel openings, and, although there seemed no reason to fear an enemy attack, in view of the many reports of partisan activity, he felt it was not advisable to halt outside them, let alone camp out in one. The main contingent could do that when they arrived the next day; the advance guard needed o
pen space around their quarters, in an emergency they would also have to serve as a fortress.
But such a place was not that easy to find, and so they marched on in growing irritation through this dead waste of stone, where the echo of their steps created an ambush at every corner. The skein of alleys became more and more warped and cramped, as if twisted by a gigantic pair of pliers, impossible to disentangle; then, after twenty minutes of weary tramping, around a tight bend the cathedral square abruptly opened out before the exhausted men, broad, sprinkled with nooks and crannies, paraffin lamps on its stone arcades glowing like bloody nails. And opposite them something needle-sharp steepled up from a huge dark mass, slitting the midnight-blue sky, whilst its unfinished twin tower peered at them dispiritedly over the high-pitched minster roof, as if it had made a similar attempt and then slumped back down.
The men straightened up, broke the silence; one sang. They were the first peaceful lights their eyes had seen in weeks of blazing forests and burning farmsteads. Soon the window of one of the dark houses round the square must surely pierce the night with its friendly yellow glow, full of the promise of rest! Their hope was not deceived. One building, detached from the others, had a red lamp burning over the lintel; as they approached they saw the bright spot of a lamp on the first floor and the glitter of light flashing through a gap in the shutters of a ground-floor window. The Lieutenant sent men to reconnoitre the house, and it turned out to be precisely what he was looking for, even though the exterior seemed so strangely derelict and eerie to him, as if it were the product of depravity and decay, that he made a cautious circuit of it himself. On all sides it was separated from its neighbours, with the additional protection against attack from the rear of a broad, dark canal; the façade was set against t
he cathedral, which returned its look defiantly. The single entrance was on this side too, high, well-preserved double doors. He ordered weapons at the ready as the bell was rung. After a while there was a shuffling of footsteps and the rasp of a key in the lock, then the doors creaked open.
An old woman appeared, wrapped up in a few clothes she had thrown on. "What do you want?" she murmured. "The girls have left." "What do you think?" growled the sergeant. "Warm beds and no bugs." The man next to him switched on his torch. "What do we need girls for? We've got you!" In the bright beam the old woman screwed up her face to such ugliness that the raucous laughter came tumbling out of the platoon and she joined in with a toothless giggle. "Stop messing around, men", said the Lieutenant urgently, then, turning to the old woman, "Have you room for us?" "And how long for?" added the comedian with the torch. She grinned. "Until Judgment Day, sonny, if you like." "Sergeant", ordered the Lieutenant, "take three men, comb the building and report back here." "And you can be our guide, my pretty maiden", said the Sergeant, pulling the old woman along by the shoulder.
When they had gone, the rest unbuckled their knapsacks and squatted down, their knees drawn up with their rifles across them. It was drowsily warm in the hallway; added to that was a strange, overpowering smell, which struck every one of them the moment they entered, a sickly, rotten smell that might come from the mouldy walls. "Make-up on old apples", someone had said. The Sergeant and his men reappeared from the stairs, grinning and winking, and solved the puzzle. He had not noticed anything suspicious, but he had figured out the previous use of the building and revealed it to his superior officer, only with difficulty maintaining the seriousness appropriate to an official report. His announcement was greeted with stifled laughter until the Lieutenant's command to find somewhere to sleep put a stop to it.
The old woman lit a lamp and hobbled along in front of them. On the first floor she unlocked a door which had the extra protection of an iron grille and the soldiers, apart from one whom the Lieutenant left on the landing, stamped into a spacious room with the light they had seen from the market square outside hanging from the ceiling under a red vellum shade. It was overheated and the smell etched itself even more strongly on the stale air than in the corridor, but the soldiers paid that as little attention as the garish prints of Rubensesque deities on the walls and all the tawdry splendour of the room. All they had eyes for were the six-foot-long plush armchairs grouped around circular stone tables; hardly had the officer given permission than they were stretched out on them, almost dead to the world. The old woman seemed disappointed. "Why all the hurry? Each of the fine gentlemen could have had a room of his own. The little doves have all flown." But none of them felt like getting up again and the Lieut
enant thought it better to keep them all together. "But it's no place for you here, Captain", she went on. He hesitated, "Only if there's a room nearby." "Along the corridor, Captain, it's just along a short corridor", she assured him. "Make up your mind. I'll get the bed ready anyway, just in case." With that she limped off without waiting for his answer. The Lieutenant still felt uneasy about the whole arrangement. "A second guard downstairs!" he ordered. "Outside the old woman's door. Any volunteers?" The young soldier who had teased her in the hall stood up. "Here, Sir! - I'm wide awake enough to catch any of you who fancies slipping into her bedroom", he joked, turning to his comrades, who grunted sleepy denials of any such intentions. The old woman appeared again, "Ready, Captain."
They went out into the corridor, followed by the young soldier. Through the window, that the Lieutenant ordered her to shut fast, they could see the mass of the cathedral looming over the roofs, dark and heavy, as if it were made of bronze. The Lieutenant indicated it to the old woman, "What do you call the church?" "It is the cathedral of Jehan the Warrior; he had it built seven hundred years ago in memory of his dead wife." "She was a martyr?" The old woman nodded. "They say her corpse had no head and in its place on the skeleton lay a swan's skull. The inhabitants believe she protects the town; they prayed at her tomb yesterday, before they fled." "And you, why did you stay?" She shrugged her shoulders. "I know your language; I've done nothing, you wouldn't harm me. This is the room, Captain." Turning round, she noticed the other soldier. "What does he want?" "He will be on watch in the corridor." "At your boudoir door", crooned the soldier. "God, such a young thing", said the old woman, touched with comp
assion, "wait, I'll put a glass of wine outside the door." The old woman held the lantern over the stairwell and let him go on ahead. Mechanically, the Lieutenant registered her shadow; curving round the snail-shell wall of the stairs, it seemed to pounce on the guard's shadow. "Such a young thing!" he heard her giggle through her cough; then, all at once, it was dark and still.
The Lieutenant opened the door to his room. A paralysing warmth clutched at him. A match replaced the weak light of his torch, but he almost jumped with fright when it flared up. It blazed back at him a hundredfold from all sides, and when the two candles on the oak tables cast their flickering light, he was astonished to see that the walls and ceiling of the room were covered with square mirrors. Looking up, he felt as if he were standing at the heart of a crystal, for above him were fantastically crinkled rooms ranged one over the other, with disjointed reflections of himself and the candles upside down inside them. In spite of this proliferation, the light from the candles did not bring brightness; it somehow seemed to contain darkness, as if seen through sooty window-panes. With a shake of the head, the Lieutenant began to inspect the room. Beside the door roared a well-stoked iron stove, its angled pipe eating a black hole in the wall. A wardrobe with a mirror front and a glass-topped wash-stand gave th
e room a touch of opulence, which was underlined by the blood-red velvet armchair by the window. The most bewildering item, however, was the massive four-poster bed, whose black drapes made it look as if some noble were lying in state there. In order to avoid the temptation to stretch out on it, the Lieutenant, overcoming his curiosity, did not touch the curtains, but first of all searched through the rest of the furniture to see if he could find a needle and thread, of which he was in urgent need. The wardrobe contained nothing but a pair of stiletto-heeled slippers and fragments of twigs; all the more numerous were the things the occupant had left behind on the wash-stand when she fled: make-up, soaps, bottles of perfume. But what he was looking for was not there, no more than in the drawer, which revealed a tube of lip-salve and the photograph of a jockey punctured with pins, documenting a wretched existence eked out among blows, exploitation and hysteria. These thoughts sent a rush of scorching blood to
the Lieutenant's face as they awoke the picture of the little actress he had left behind, unprotected; he tore open his uniform and went to the window, where he had to break the glass with his bayonet because the bolt had jammed in the heat. He breathed in deeply as he leant out. Below him the canal rippled darkly; occasionally something even blacker glided across it, but that could have been a delusion from his overheated brain. The only thing left to be done before going to sleep was to take the map and make a quick sketch of tomorrow's march. He pulled the armchair up to the table and started by plotting in the route they had taken since leaving the regiment yesterday. But he could not find the name of the town. Or were his shimmering eyes already failing him entirely? He was dully aware of a swarm of memories, plans, desires buzzing round his head: was he hearing them, thinking them, seeing them ...? He could not distinguish between them any more; the one thing he did know was that he had to get up out o
f the soft upholstery of the armchair if he did not want his eyelids to fuse together, and he felt himself stand up ponderously and set off towards the swirl of fresh air at the window. But the way there led past the bed, surely a soft bed with fresh linen such as he had not slept in for months. His hands refused to obey; they parted the curtains ...
He started back. There was already someone lying on the pillows.
The Lieutenant rubbed his eyes and forehead, but the apparition remained: a woman, a sleeping woman. All his tiredness left him, such was the spell her face cast over him. And yet it was hardly what he would have called beautiful. It had an ageless expression, and only the disheveled dark blond hair gave it a suggestion of youth, though there was also something virginally austere and capricious about its shape. The forehead was large for the rest of the features. The hard, thin nose that sprang from the slender, arched brows held a hint of crookedness, and deep furrows stretched down from the tight nostrils to clasp the lips. They, too, had something odd about the way they were set: compared with the full, rounded curve of the upper lip, the lower one looked as if it had been ground down and was pale, almost bloodless, giving the mouth a constant, almost frozen smile. The closed lids were bluish, as if stretched taut over brass spheres, suggesting deep sleep, but abruptly, as though they felt the brush of ot
her eyes, a movement appeared in them which quivered through the whole body, dislodging the blanket for a round shoulder to take shape over the black silk of the nightdress. At the same time the eyes opened; neither fright nor surprise clouded the greenish-grey pupils. The girl simply said, as if he was expected, "I'm sorry, I've been waiting too long."
The Lieutenant looked at her in surprise then, remembering the recent history of the house, could not suppress a smile at the clever way the old dame had presented her last remaining protégée to him. So he sat down on the edge of the bed and fell in with her intimate tone. "A good job you woke up, otherwise I would have taken you for a ghost." "You would have regretted it", she said calmly, "the people they appear to here never talk about it afterwards." "Why ever not?" he joked. "Do they die from it?" "You said it", she smiled. This took him aback, but then he told himself he was a fool to be chatting to a whore about ghosts instead of making the most of the opportunity. "So what?" he cried, "I'll risk it and more, my pretty little ghost!" and he drew her to him as she reared up with a snake-like thrust. But then he felt himself pulled down, as if he were clasping a block of marble, and he yielded to her, overcome by the self-absorbed, icy sensuality of the way she took him. As he entered her, he sensed her
lack of response; giving nothing herself, she received him coolly, eyes half-closed. Her coldness whipped him up to a furious compulsion to squeeze one groan, one sob of passion from her, but he spent himself in vain: she bestowed her favours with a sovereign disdain that made the slightest twitch of her high, taut shoulders an act of the utmost condescension. He sought her lips, but she withheld them with a sharp, "Not yet", and however much he twisted and turned, he could not manage to kiss them. He was about to plant his mouth on them when, with a shrill laugh, she slipped from under him and pushed him away. "Enough!" Her voice was so firm that he gave up any idea of a further assault. She lay back in the pillows and stretched, staring absently at the ceiling, as if she were alone. The Lieutenant felt he looked a fool; he racked his brains for a topic of conversation that would offer a bridge between them, for with this creature violence would just mean further humiliation. "Do you live here?" "No, acros
s the market place." She pointed towards the corridor. "But that must be where the cathedral is?" "Perhaps", she said in a flat voice. "It varies. Once I did live here, and every evening I used to feed the black swans with the purple beaks. Did you see my swans?" He recalled the dark shadows gliding over the water below the window. "Yes. But why do you call them your swans?" "My husband gave them me as a present. Oh, he was a wild lord and his swans protected me when he put out to sea. One of his brothers once thought he would swim down the canal till he reached my house, but my favourite swan sailed out to meet him, and beat him with its wings and pecked him with its beak until he sank. When my husband heard of it on his return, he killed the swan and me - and -" The Lieutenant felt everything around him dissolving into confusion until he was no longer sure who he was and whether it was not his own fate he had just been listening to. "Stop!" he croaked and clenched his fists at her as she went on speaking i
n a monotone, as stony as her embrace had been, "- since then I have belonged to anyone whose fate it is to meet his end in my lord's town; but first of all -" He had been about to throw himself at her, but some inexplicable fear grabbed him by the throat and thrust him into the armchair, where he collapsed as if his spine had been broken. "Stop!" he panted once more, but she finished what she had to say in the same soft, level tones, "- but first of all I kiss them. Wait!" As if she were a viper, he dashed her from his lips as she suddenly struck upwards at them. "No!" Then she began to laugh; softly at first; but then it swelled, becoming loud, shrill, and the Lieutenant could not stop her, he stared at the woman from his knees, and she laughed and laughed, her mouth unmoving; or was it still the woman laughing? That was more like a stone statue, the head and overslender body with its small, imperious breasts held rigidly erect! A spasm of hatred jolted his body. She must be silenced! She must! He thrust h
imself up and grasped at her throat - something dark seemed to crash down on him; blindly he clawed about him as he plunged into a bottomless abyss.
Finally he found a hold and shovelled his way up through invisible, glutinous mud towards the half-light - reached it - was sitting - at the table in his room - with a guttering candle - opposite a huge cross - no, it was the wood of the window set off against a pale red sky; but the laughter still continued. He stumbled over to the bed and tore back the drape - it had not been slept in. A dream then, apart from the laughter, that horrible laughter, now it was coming in hoarse gusts, from below by the sound of it. From the earth? No, the old woman's bedroom was down there! An icy hand laid itself on his heart; he turned the door-handle: locked. He kicked it in. From the corridor he could see something dimly flitting to and fro across the market square, which was veiled in clouds of crimson smoke; at the same time there was the crackle of a distant rifle skirmish. "Partisans!" was the Lieutenant's immediate reaction; they had presumably lit damp wood and were waiting until the smoke would force the trapped so
ldiers out. He shouted for the Sergeant, tripping, as he did so, over something soft in the smoky corridor; when he touched it, it felt sticky and warm. The light of the match revealed the guard from the hall who, with his throat cut through, had dragged himself to his doorway to report the attack. Now clouds of smoke were billowing up the stairs, and still the laughing continued, although weak and ailing now. He threw himself into the fumes of the stairwell, heard voices pleading his name; shadows whisked down to the hall, hung in the air, sank to the ground; and there was the door to the old woman's room, wide open - but where was the young soldier? He raised his light. She had gone, and a whimpering bundle was writhing about on her bed like a worm on a pin; it was tied hand and foot to the bedstead, its clothes hanging in tatters, dripping blood down to the knees. A scream of horror rose to the Lieutenant's lips, but before he could help the mutilated soldier, he was torn away by cries from his men as the
infernal uproar outside seethed ever closer. In the hall he met up with what was left of the platoon; they had managed to drive the insurgents out of the house, but only with difficulty, and they would be no match for them when they returned with reinforcements. Quickly, he glanced around to assess the situation. "Men!" he ordered, "we must get across the square. We can only hold out in the church tower. Save your ammunition! Fix bayonets!" A metallic click, and they set off.
In a few seconds they had stamped out the rampart of glimmering brushwood and were facing the enemy, who scattered in surprise, without waiting for the onset. Lips clenched, blackened with soot, fingers on the trigger, they set off for the cathedral, led by the Lieutenant. But now the partisans, after the initial shock of the platoon's sudden sally, had recovered their nerve. The one out in front was hurling screams from a mouth set like a foaming abscess in his face, and from around him black waves surged towards them. They approached in swaying clusters amid a cacophony of raucous shouts, jeers of abuse from the women and adolescent squeals; fists punched the air, here and there the gleam of firearms. The outnumbered unit seemed lost in the maelstrom of attackers, but finally the cathedral steps came down to meet them and they shoved their way up, hobbling, half naked, brushing the tangle of pursuers back with a few well-aimed shots. Then they were inside, hastily shutting the bronze doors, barricading the
m with pews and heaving a sigh of relief in the cool of this high nave which had probably not witnessed any fighting since the days of religious conflict. Now axes were smashing against the portal; it would surely hold until they were in the tower. Safe for a while, the soldiers swept their torches up and down the church. Along the side walls stone knights surveyed them from memorial slabs, hands on swords, small lions beneath their spurred feet. Impossibly emaciated saints gazed at them ecstatically from the niches in the massive clustered columns. Looking for the door to the tower, they came to the chancel and one of them lit the candelabra by the choir-screen. The high altar rose in terraces behind it, square grey blocks and faded gold, with a drop of blood floating in the air in front: the eternal flame of the sanctuary lamp. At the north side they turned back and found the confusion of figures on a baroque pulpit surging towards them: on the base Lucifer was being cast down into hell with a force that s
eemed to burst through the stone flags, whilst Saint Michael and all the angels thrust with their spears from the canopy; in the quivering candlelight it almost came to life. They opened the door next to it, but it was not the stairs they were hoping to find. It gave onto the curving, filigree stonework of a courtyard surrounded by cloisters and two figures running across into the adjoining convent; quickly they barricaded this door as well. But now the hammering on the west portal had stopped, a crescendo of noise surged in from the cloisters, the marble floor blazed in a swirl of colour from the flames shining in through the great rose window. Shots ripped through the side-door and clattered against the walls. Finally their assailants grouped together to batter the door down with brief thrusts, accompanied by the screech of metal and the groan of splitting wood. Then the Lieutenant found the stair and called to his men. But at that moment the barred door yielded under the impact of the cheering blow, cutti
ng them off and sweeping them back against the pulpit, which they quickly climbed to pour shot after shot into the howling mob. At this the attackers divided into two groups: the cautious mass squeezed along the rear wall farthest from the soldiers towards the spiral stairs leading up to the pulpit, thus shutting the door to the tower, behind which the Lieutenant was hiding, whilst the rest furiously stormed the pulpit head on. That brought the unequal struggle to a rapid conclusion, and the Lieutenant could do nothing but watch from the organ, where he stood panting. Amongst the tangle of plaster figures, which seemed to join in like demons, the struggle foamed its way up to the platform of the pulpit, swallowing up the defenders one by one. They were all engulfed in the storm of triumph echoing back a hundredfold from the groined vaults. It pierced the Lieutenant to the heart, and without thinking he raised his revolver and emptied the whole magazine into the snarl of bodies. The shock of the attack stunne
d the mob for a second, then their howling fury erupted against the tower steps. The Lieutenant threw away his empty revolver and set off at a run. There was only one thought left in his mind: to stay alive until the reinforcements arrived! But then this hell-hole would explode in fire and blood! Now he was inside the first of the gigantic twins, the mutilated tower. He flew up the winding wooden steps, past the thudding from the housing of the huge clock; rats squeaked below, bats swept up past him, kestrels shot mewing out through the narrow slits in the masonry, whilst nearer and nearer came the raging thunder of the pursuit. That did not worry him, he knew they could only climb the narrow spiral in the tower one by one. Moreover, where he turned into the open gallery along the facade that led to the completed tower, he managed to use his bayonet to dislodge the ladder giving access, thus putting a temporary gap between himself and the enemy. He was bathed in warm air as he stepped out into the open. He w
as standing in the full, strong light of the morning sun, which glowed through the dissolving mist like a sharply incised disc, whilst in the town laid out below him only the spikes on the gables were caught in its rays and blazed up, as if in a presentiment of the revenge to come. For grains and threads of grey were trickling down the hillside opposite. The Lieutenant realised what it was and screamed with delight. Fifteen - no - ten minutes hidden in the stone forest of the pinnacles of the second tower, and then the battle-cry of his liberators would freeze his pursuers to the marrow and drive them back into their hiding holes; but this time they would find them, all of them! They only needed to ask him, him! He rushed on, panting. Gargoyles jutted out in his way; he crawled underneath them. The royal forebears of the stem of Jesse stuck their sandstone arms into his chest; he broke them off with a blow from the bayonet handle and threw the crumbling rock to the ground below. Nothing could stop him now, n
ot even if the whole façade should come to life against him and swarm with men, as at the time when it was being built. Now he held the fate of this town in his hand, a remorseless, merciless fate! He had to steady himself for a moment. His lust for revenge was almost making him drunk, and his eye was already fixed on the square below, choosing the sites for the gallows.
But abruptly the enormous statue of a woman barred his path along the gallery, as if it had stepped out from the wall. Her profile seemed familiar, as did the imperious posture of her thin body, which pushed visibly against the thin folds of the drapery. He could only get past by climbing behind her, over the iron bar attaching her to the masonry. He quickly twisted himself into the gap; there was a crackling and crumbling of sandstone, but here was no place to pause for thought. For a mere heartbeat he had to step on the iron, but even that was too much. The bar bent and he was clinging to the woman in desperation. He swung round onto her front, the abyss below him: one more swing would take him onto the safety of the gallery on the farther side! To get a good push off, he pulled himself up until he was close to the stone face, that regarded him with a fixed smile. It was the face of the unknown woman he had spent the night with! He was about to scream out loud, but at that moment the overthin neck broke, a
nd, as he plummeted in a breathstopping fall, his last sensation was of those lips, which she had withheld from him, now harshly sucking at his own.
THE TROUBLE WITH TIME TRAVEL
"What strikes me when I read all this speculation about time travel," said Vladimir, "is that some problems are never touched on at all. For example, the problem of arrival. If you arrive in a different time, then there's only one way you can do it: suddenly. A moment ago you weren't there, now you are. So you'd be arriving at an infinitely high speed, even if it's not quite clear from which direction. But that would mean that a collision with even the lightest of atoms would be fatal. I'm a pilot, not a physicist, but I imagine if you were to collide with an atom at an infinite speed, an infinite amount of energy would be released and everything would explode. And I mean everything. Even intergalactic space is not so empty that I would risk it.
And that brings me to the second problem no one appears to have thought about: space. I just cannot imagine how, if you're going to travel through time, you can determine the place where you'll land. You see, it's time that holds us in space, time alone that defines space. To put it another way: we're here because immediately before we were in a similar place. Nothing stays the same. While we're sitting here in this bar, the walls all around are slowly rotting away, even if they are made of non-corrosible aluminium. There are atoms decaying, there's the constant bombardment by radiation, people are coming and going, leaving behind the vapours their bodies give off, the air is being shifted round by the ventilation system, though I think they ought to turn the thing up a bit, and so on. And all the time the planet's revolving round its sun, the sun is travelling round the centre of the galaxy, and the galaxy's moving round God knows what, and anyway, as we all know, the whole universe is flying apart in all d
irections and at one hell of a speed. The point is, space is different all the time, and, if truth be told, we're not in the place we were a moment ago any more. That place no longer exists.
Even if I only want to take a tiny jump in time, say ten minutes into the future because I want to see if Hopalong's going to cut his forehead open when he gets so fuddled he slumps onto the table, I still have to somehow extricate myself from time. But if I do manage to get outside time, how do I get my time machine to stay in this place?
The planet's gravity field can't hold me, if I'm outside time. Everyone knows gravity needs time to attract me, or, to look at it from the other side, that I need time to overcome it. The same is true of the force of inertia. As long as I'm in time, my body puts up resistance to every change in its state of motion. But outside time there is no motion, no state of motion, even less a change in the state of motion, to say nothing of resistance against it.
So, how can I program my time machine to stay here?
While I stay here, the bar will keep revolving and disappear from under my feet, the whole planet'll vanish into the distance at a great lick, the solar system, the galaxy - all depending on what it is I'm 'standing still' in relation to. I have the feeling that as soon as I step outside time, if only for a moment (for what kind of moment, if I'm outside time?), then it's a matter of pure chance where I reappear in time. Because there's no such thing as absolute space, because there's no fixed point in space I could hold on to 'while' I'm outside time."
'Hmm," said Tinhead - so called from his artificial frontal bone - reflectively. "But if we could solve that problem, then we could use time machines to travel through space at any speed we liked. I could, say, just hop over to old Ma Goddam's cathouse. It's three hours away from here, but if I also travelled back in time three hours, I'd be there in literally no time at all, and without any hassle."
"You'd even be here and in the whorehouse simultaneously - and at all the infinite number of points in between."
"Well if I had a time machine," Hopalong's rumbling voice came from somewhere under the aluminium table-top, "I'd go to Ginger at Ma Goddam's, and I'd get there yesterday evening, at nine o'clock precisely, and I'd screw the arse off her for an hour. At ten o'clock I'd hop into my time machine and travel back to nine o'clock again, so that simultaneously I could give it her from . . ."
"Okay man, okay. I think we all get the idea."
"No you don't. I wouldn't just duplicate myself, I'd . . ."
"You'd do nothing of the sort. One of you's more than enough. Ginger would throw up the moment a duplicate appeared, so you can scrub all plans in that direction, sonny boy."
"You just don't understand me," Hopalong muttered, slipping even farther under the table.
"The question that concerns me above all," Vladimir went on after the interruption, "is this: if I step outside time, what will hold me together? It's only temporal continuity that gives me my sense of identity or, if Popol insists, the illusion of a sense of identity. If I step outside time and then step back in somewhere else, am I then still me? That's what I ask myself."
A leaden silence was the only answer Vladimir received to his question. But then Popol the Aged said, "I arrived in Kruun about a year after they had invented time travel there. I've no idea whether they'd asked themselves any of the questions Vladimir has been airing here - or now - or here and now, I suppose I should say. It worked, and that was that. One of the first things I saw there was a demonstration outside the Kruun Historical Museum. Young people, mostly students of course, were demonstrating against what they called the plundering of Kruun's history. Kruun is not dissimilar to Earth. Naturally they don't have sphinxes or Venus de Milos there, but I'll explain the matter in terms of Mama Earth to make it easier for you to understand. The company that had the initial monopoly on the time machine patent launched the thing with a spectacular advertising gimmick: "What did the Venus de Milo look like when she still had arms?" Then they sent off an expedition which followed the history of the statue ba
ck into the past, all the way to the sculptor's workshop. There they bought it from him and took it with them back to their own time, where they installed it next to the one with its arms broken off that everyone knows. You'll have seen the photo of the two statues, it was in the papers all over the universe.
'But how can that be possible?' some people said. 'If they've brought the Venus de Milo here from the past, then it was never lost, it's arms were never broken off, and it couldn't have been found on Melos in 1820. How can it be here at all?'
'But you can see it! There it is!' said the admen, and there was no answer to that. Soon after, the market in antiques went haywire. Greek vases, Roman swords, Celtic spears, you name it, you could get it. The prices were horrendous, but the goods were brand new.
Before long the artists and craftsmen of all ages were spending all their time working for what for them was posterity. The Teutons spent their booze-ups lying on straw because their bearskins had disappeared into the future - until, that is, the dealers started supplying them with car seat-covers in orange PVC velours from the 1970s. And instead of beer and mead, they were soon swigging Synthecola with aspirin because the purchasers of their bearskins naturally also wanted authentic drinks from the period to go with them.
And that's the way it was in all periods. The Viennese Biedermeier family ate off tables made out of tea-chests, Aztec priests dumped the hearts of their victims in plastic buckets. There was soon a firm employed in dismantling the sphinx stone by stone, beginning with its nose, and transferring it into the future.
And then came the package tours. A few highbrows wanted to experience Shakespeare's plays live in the Globe, or the tragedies of Sophocles in ancient Athens, but the most popular by far were trips to see the gladiators in ancient Rome, bullfights in Seville at the beginning of the nineteenth century, niggers being lynched in the USA, and football hooligans in the later twentieth century. Tours of the three World Wars were also in great demand.
Eventually they started bringing the best gladiators from Rome into the present and getting them to fight against mammoths and dinosaurs, which had been transported from various geological periods. The authorities did actually soon ban them, but they just transferred them to the tertiary period, or to the twentieth century, when people weren't so wimpish.
And there was big business in dead babies. Mothers whose children had died couldn't wait for the chance to travel back into the past and see their babies again. They went back a few years and watched themselves changing nappies. That was relatively harmless. The problems started when they wanted to kiss and cuddle their little darlings. The kids went half mad with fright when a second mother - and one who in some inexplicable way had aged - suddenly appeared and clasped them to their bosom. Some children never recovered from the shock and died even younger. Then, of course, there were cases where the mothers simply flipped their lids and tried to abduct their children and bring them back to the present. The courts were swamped with the number of cases that caused.
There were even more people who travelled back to see their dead dogs and cats. Many got bitten for their pains.
Just as many tried to use time travel to solve their sexual problems. And I'm not just referring to the fat cats who had famous whores like Rosemarie Nitribitt or Christine Keeler brought to the present for them, or engaged Salome to do a striptease. People whose lovers had left them went back to happier times to vie with their formers selves for the favours of the object of their affections. Married couples who felt the magic had gone out of their relationship no longer took a second honeymoon to try and save their marriage, but travelled back to their original honeymoon, to relive their days of wedded bliss. Can you imagine on your wedding night a paunchy middle-aged couple in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses suddenly appearing from the wardrobe and saying, "Hi, we're your future!"
The hotels shut up their honeymoon suites and reverted to letting single rooms to travelling salesmen because they were fed up to the back teeth with all the double suicides and the hordes of policemen constantly tramping through the building.
But why limit oneself to the past? Trips to the future opened up undreamed-of opportunities. Firms shut down their R & D sections and simply brought inventions and new developments back from the future. They bought them or just stole them, the latter especially from those enlightened ages that had abolished money. And at the same time, naturally, they headhunted specialists who could handle the technology from the future. One after another the universities closed down, then all the schools apart from primary schools. No one bothered to learn anything any more. There was no point: without future know-how you had no chance of landing anything but a dead-end job. The one possibility was to get a place at a university in the future, but only very few managed to reach the standard of future entrance qualifications.
It was the same in the arts and the entertainment industry. Soon the only thing pop music companies were doing was sending out expeditions to the future to supply an insatiable public with next year's hits, or those of the year after, of the next decade, the next century. The natural consequence was that two, ten or a hundred years later no one wanted to hear such tired old numbers, so that quite different songs, often in completely different styles, made the charts - only, of course, to be immediately transported back to be sold to the disc-buying public as the real hits of the future. The musicians of the future soon got fed up with finding that all their most successful numbers immediately turned out to be ancient hits from the last century. The best among them fled to other epochs, which led to some surprising new developments in Gregorian chant and the Indian raga.
When I left Kruun after I'd finished my business there - given the circumstances, it was difficult to say exactly how long my stay had actually lasted- the situation was that the opponents of time travel had a small majority, and that it was about to be banned. Those in favour of it merely shrugged their shoulders and said that in that case they would simply stay in the time before the ban. That led to a fierce debate among its opponents as to whether it was morally justified to declare a retrospective ban on time travel, and if so, how to make it effective. Eventually the suggestion was made that the whole confusing epoch should somehow be chucked out of the time continuum. I quickly made my departure before they did something that might mean I had never been on Kruun. After all, I'd done some big deals on Kruun, and didn't intend to lose my profit."
No. of pages: 416
Publication date: 26.03.2003
Re-print date: 23.06.2008
978 1 903517 13 0
978 1 907650 60 4
Compilation and World English language in the translations.