A short story
As I remember it, I was taking a photo of the square. In itself, it’s nothing special, just an open space, surrounded on all sides with ancient town houses with gardens and iron railings. In fact, it’s not really a square at all. It’s a rectangle. In the centre there’s a fountain that’s supposed to be a good example of late-twenty-first century Austere style but that’s about the only thing going for it. The only reason I go there is that I cross it every day as I go to and from the tramstop that connects to the university, where I work. I live close by: my flat’s two minutes walk the other way, down a sidestreet. That day, the sky was overcast, except for a strip of blue on the horizon where the late afternoon sun was shining through, throwing shafts of light through the spaces between the buildings the way they often fall through the spaces between the clouds. The pavements and the road were still damp from a recent shower of rain. The effect, almost monochrome, was uncanny. There were a few people about, walking across the square, but not many. It was cold. Most of them wore heavy overcoats and scarves. I took out my camera, an old twentieth century Leica M3 I’d picked up for next to nothing on a junk stall down by the river. I looked around, searching for a good angle.
It was not until later, after I’d developed the film and fed it into the enlarger, that I noticed them, a group of young people, casually dressed, some of them carrying shoulder bags. They were probably tourists, although why anyone would want to come to our town for a holiday beats me. They were laughing and talking together and one of them was taking a photograph of the fountain. Another, a man a few years older than the rest, seemed to be taking no interest in his companions. I checked the focus with a magnifier and, seen close-to, he looked positively out of place. He was dressed less casually than the others in an open-necked shirt and a grey, knee-length overcoat. He was staring intently, straight into the camera lens. It was impossible not to stare back into the black shadows that were his eyes. Impossible, too, to read his expression. I made a print. It was strange, I thought, that I hadn’t noticed either the man or the group he was with when I took the photo but that’s the thing about photography, where I’m concerned: it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been so preoccupied with the picture I was trying to take that I failed to see what I was actually looking at. It’s one of the reasons, perhaps, why I’m a professional computer programmer and not a professional photographer.
I mounted the print, as I usually did, in an album. The trouble was, I couldn’t get it out of my mind and, even though I found it sinister and unnerving, I found myself coming back to it repeatedly. I’d get the album down, open it up and stare back into those eyes again and again. I even took a shot of the print with my handheld: that way, I could carry it around easily for reference. His face looked familiar to me and, although I couldn’t quite place him, I had the odd feeling that I’d seen it many times.
As the days went by, my curiosity waned. I stopped returning to the image. I was reminded of it, though, whenever I walked across the square, and would glance around half expecting to see him again. I’m not quite sure what effect I thought it would have if I did, apart from reassuring myself that he actually existed. I wanted, I think, to dispel the sense of eeriness that surrounded the whole business.
One evening, on my way home, I dropped in at The Blue Ball as I often do. There are never many people there around that time of day. As usual, an entertainment stream was running silently on the screen that covered half the far wall, the bright, flickering light glancing off the dark surfaces of the furniture in the almost empty room. Daniel was stood behind the bar as usual, polishing glasses. Martin was already there, sat on a stool at one end of the bar with a bottle of beer, nibbling a snack out of a paper bag. The only other customers were a group of three sat round a table on the other side of the room, opposite the screen. It was not easy to make them out in the flickering, coloured light but there was no doubt in my mind: it was the group of tourists I’d seen in my photo of the square. The man who’d been staring into my lens, however, was not with them. I climbed onto the stool next to Martin’s and asked Daniel for the usual. He poured me a vodka then went out the back. He returned a moment later with a plate of fruit chips. He asked me, as he always did, if I’d had a good day and I’d just started to tell him that it hadn’t been so bad when the door on the far side of the room that leads to the toilet opened and a man came out. He made for the group sat at the table. It was the man in the grey coat. The group at the table were just making ready to leave and as they made their way out he tagged along.
‘They look familiar. Any idea who they are?’ I said, looking from Daniel to Martin. Martin shrugged. Daniel frowned and shook his head.
‘I can’t say I do. It’s usually the same people in this place, day in, day out, but I’ve never seen them before,’ he said. ‘They were friendly enough,’ he added.
Martin gave me a quizzical look. I felt as if an explanation was expected. I can imagine my ears going red under his gaze. Was he able to read my mind? I’d asked them about the group but I was really interested in the man. I probably didn’t mention him specifically because I’d be worried they might think I was turning into some sort of stalker but I was quite clear in my own mind that nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, rather than me pursuing him, it felt as if he were haunting me.
‘I just wondered,’ I said. ‘I think they were hanging around in the square the other day. I was taking a photograph.’
‘A photograph?’ said Martin. ‘Can we see?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘The light was quite something.’
‘So it was,’ said Daniel. ‘I was walking up from town at the time.’
I took my handheld out of my pocket and opened the image I’d taken of the print. Daniel and Martin leaned over, to get a better look.
‘Good photo – and it’s definitely them,’ said Martin. ‘Why are you so interested?’
‘It’s a weird thing,’ I said. ‘It’s just that when I took the photo, I don’t remember seeing them. When I developed it, there they were.’
‘Spooky,’ said Martin.
‘Well,’ said Daniel, ‘at least now you’ve seen them in the flesh. They’re real enough.’
One morning, a few days later, I was stood at the tramstop on my way to the university, deep in thought. The weather was still cold and overcast, so I had my collar turned up on my overcoat and my hands thrust deep into my pockets. My head was full of the lines of code I’d been working on the week before.
I was still deep in thought when the tram pulled up. I climbed on automatically and made my way to the nearest available seat. As I slumped down, I suddenly became aware of my surroundings again. Sat next to me in the window-seat was the man in the grey coat. His face wore the same slightly indifferent frown everyone seems to adopt when they are forced into a situation of close proximity with strangers. Every now and again he glanced towards the window. At one point, I remember, he rubbed away the condensation on it with the backs of his fingers, in order to see out.
Once I’d recovered from the initial surprise, I discovered that to actually encounter the man close-to in real life was something of an anticlimax. I knew nothing about him and had no desire or reason to strike up a conversation with him. In fact, I felt slightly self-conscious and ill at ease. I tried to glance in his direction as little as possible. Why had he been staring straight at me in the square? Okay, some men stare at you but it occurred to me now that back then perhaps he had been staring at something behind me, or simply staring into space. I hadn’t noticed him so why on earth should he have noticed me? Perhaps he’d been curious to see someone lift up a camera and point it at him. Perhaps not. Perhaps, as people used to think and some people still do, he saw the camera and thought I sought to steal his soul.
Davis stepped off the tram and, head down, made her way to the pedestrian crossing. She hurried across the road to the university buildings. She was getting tired of winter, and found the rows of leafless trees in the avenue oppressive. It was a relief, though, to be leaving the mystery man behind. It felt good, too, to push open the glass door of the department and enter the warm, bright foyer. Noonan, the security guard, looked up and smiled. Davis smiled back. The same every morning. She took the lift to the first floor. Like the foyer, it smelt vaguely of floral disinfectant. As she emerged onto the landing, she was met by the smell of warm peppermint tea. As usual, Eisler had got there before her.
‘Morning. Tea?’ said Eisler, holding out a mug he’d already poured.
‘Thanks,’ said Davis.
‘Today’s the day?’
‘We’ll see.’ Eisler was looking cheerful, as ever. Davis always found his colleague’s attempts at infectious optimism slightly irritating but his strengths far outweighed this. She was fond of the man. She smiled.
She looked round, as if unsure what to expect, but her room was exactly as she’d left it the day before. Her desk was clear but only on account of the fact that at the end of every day she scooped all the paperwork up off it. This she added to the growing stacks of paper piled against the far wall. It occurred to her that she’d reached half way. By the time she retired, she guesstimated, the stacks would almost reach the ceiling. She found that working with pen and paper helped her to think. Few others in the department did. Like her penchant for film photography, it marked her out as an eccentric – something she didn’t mind at all. She sat down at the desk. Behind her was a window overlooking the avenue. Beyond the desk, a single armchair.
She opened a drawer in the desk and took out a transparent box. The interface. You could see the circuitry inside it. Eisler had built the prototype but generations of computers had rebuilt and improved on it already. It was her link to the latest hardware in Eisler’s workshop next door. If it worked, she would not only be able to control the computer with her thoughts, she would be able to think as an inseparable part of it, retrieving memories and deriving insights from it. She put the box down in front of her, on the desk. She wondered what she was supposed to do to activate it. As she did so, lights began to glow among the circuitry in the box. She looked up. The man in the grey coat was sitting in the armchair. She hadn’t heard him come in and his sudden presence alarmed her. She had not seen him following her in and, moreover, hadn’t he stayed on the tram when she got off?
If she looked the way she felt, he didn’t seem to notice.
‘This is taking some getting used to,’ he said.
‘The inside world and the outside world. And how your inside world is my outside world,’ he said.
‘I saw you in the square…’
‘Yes. I’ve been walking around.’
‘And now you’re here?’
He looked puzzled. ‘Yes, I suppose so. You mean you’re here, not there?’
‘You mean you’re permanently connected to a particular point in time?’
‘I am. I take it you aren’t.’
‘It appears to be the case.’
‘The whole idea of all this,’ she lifted up the box as she spoke, and turned it round in his hands, ‘was to allow a human mind to interact with the computer…’
‘You’re talking about me?’ he asked. He smiled.
‘The trouble is, though,’ she said, ‘is that I expected to find myself moving through your inner world. Instead, you’re here, moving through mine. And you’re changing what I am. What I am is defined by how I react to the things that happen around me in the outside world and by what I remember. My identity relies on the fact that what happened to me in the past remains unchanged. The future is unknown to me. I create who I am from moment to moment.’
‘Eisler will soon be knocking on the door. I take it you don’t know that?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘So, who you are, who you see yourself to be, is shaped by your journey through time?’
Neither of them said anything for a moment.
‘This isn’t turning out quite how I expected it to,’ she said, half to herself.
‘Expectation is something I’m not familiar with,’ he said. ‘You, on the other hand, never know what’s going to happen next. It must be a source of anxiety for you. Anything could go wrong at any moment.’
‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘Existential angst.’
She needed time to think. She looked at the box on the desk with its glowing lights. In the brief time they’d been talking, the configuration of the circuitry inside seemed to have changed, become more dense. She wondered how she was supposed to deactivate it. As she watched, the box went dark. The man in the armchair smiled.
‘I’ve a feeling you’d like some time to yourself,’ he said. He stood up. ‘I’ll leave you to it.’ He smiled again and went out through the door.
She’d half expected him to disappear when the box went dark. Then again, she had no real reason to expect this, as her previous encounters with him had taken place even before she’d activated it. The technology was beyond her understanding and the man, whoever or whatever he was, seemed able to move freely in time and space through the world that existed in her mind. Could he move beyond it? He had just stepped out through the door. Was this a visual metaphor for the fact that he had moved into her memories? She could imagine him interacting with her mind like that. Or, perhaps, he had stepped out of her visual field and into her imagination. She could certainly imagine him there, engaging Eisler in polite conversation, or taking the lift down to the ground floor and stepping out into the avenue.
(c) Sackerson, 2020