The first of an occasional series of silly stories.
The Professor was quite mad, of course. I believe he was an archetype rather than a stereotype but 'what the hell, Archie,' as Mehitabel was wont to say. I met him in the local supermarket. He was pacing the aisles muttering to himself. Now I'm one of these people who can't help but look at what other folk are buying. It fires my imagination sometimes. You see some little round housewife type with two bottles of gin and a tube of KY jelly hidden among the cornflakes and already you can envisage the party to come. See what I mean? And it never fails to crack me up when I see some crusty old Colonel buying sheer stockings. I bet he's a wow down at the club!
The Professor's trolley was full of unrelated odds and ends. Bottled water, about a dozen packs of needles, tins of beans, chocolate, fuse wire, frozen fish fingers, a disposable camera in a sickly shade of yellow, athlete's foot powder and that stuff for sticking your false teeth in so tight you can bite into a crisp apple without the embarrassment of leaving the old gnashers embedded while your gums slap together. If he hadn't looked like a Mad Professor I would probably have just dismissed as some old fart living on his own. Anyway, to cut a long story shortish, he caught me gawping at him and fixed me with his eye. He had the regulation number of eyes but only one of them seemed inclined to obey him. The other kind of kept wandering off to survey the shelves or the ceiling. It was slightly disconcerting.
I don't know if he thought I was one of the supermarket drones or whether he just thought I might be the type to know because he suddenly lunged towards me.
"Where do they keep the rheostats in this place? Can't find 'em anywhere!"
I was now rapidly forming the opinion that the old boy was off his trolley, despite the fact that he was clearly pushing one. I decided to humour him.
"I think they're between the voltmeters and the pickled cabbage."
He laughed. It wasn't a pleasant sound. It was the kind of laugh that you hear from someone who isn't used to finding anything funny. A kind of cross between a rusty gate and a flatulent donkey.
"You must think I'm mad," he said. I didn't contradict him.
He put his liver-spotted hands on his scrawny hips and thrust his wattled chin towards me. He looked like nothing so much as an oven-ready vulture. He was wearing one of those khaki safari shirts on top of a pair of ancient, faded blue shorts that reached just below his knees. Odd, thigh-length socks and Jesus sandals completed the ensemble. No fashion plate, then, our Professor. I could tell he was appraising me with his one ruly eye. Its unruly partner was now carrying out a detailed survey of the inside of his head.
"What's your name, boy?"
"Jonathon, although most people call me Jonty."
"Right, Jonty. Do you believe in time travel?"
I shrugged. My face must have given me away because he made the farting donkey noise again.
"Quite right. Healthy scepticism, that's what I like to see and that's just what I need. I have a proposition to put to you, my lad. Meet me in the coffee shop in ten minutes."
I still don't really know why but I agreed. I finished my shopping - typical bachelor - ready meals, deodorant and several bottles of wine, and made my way to the coffee shop. There was the usual crowd of aged crones sucking the ersatz cream out of sticky buns and mothers with small jam-smeared children that howled when denied another donut. I remembered then why I always avoided the place like a lazaretto. The Professor had grabbed one of the few tables and was sitting waiting for me. He'd even bought me a cup of the unidentified brown fluid that was the speciality of the house.
"Right, Jonty. What do you do for a living?"
"Not a lot, at present. I used to work for the local radio station."
"Bits and pieces. It's not the BBC. You have to turn your hand to anything. I did research, read traffic reports and weather forecasts and stood in when someone was too pissed to show up."
"And why did you leave?"
"I was too pissed to stand in for someone who was too pissed to show up. I made the mistake of showing it, though."
"Oh, that was you, was it? You're the one who invited the Lady Mayoress to show you her tits at the Agricultural Show! Ha, haven't laughed so much in ages."
I shrugged. One of the perils of live broadcasting with a stand-in presenter who is absolutely mullahed. The pompous old trout had got up my nose but I hadn't realised that my mike was still live when I muttered: "Shut up, you old bat, and show us yer tits," in the middle of her toe-curling opening speech. Three thousand odd attendees and all of our dozen listeners heard this little aside. Unfortunately, so did the Mayoress - well, she couldn't have missed it - and the owner of the station, who just happens to be her husband. It was no good protesting that I wasn't even supposed to be working that afternoon. I was just wandering around in an alcoholic stupor when the producer grabbed me.
"Jonty, Big Mel hasn't shown again. Get up there now and introduce the dignitaries."
I honestly tried to get out of it. I was almost incoherent anyway, but he wasn't listening or he couldn't understand my slobbering attempt at an explanation. Well, that's history now; and so was I thirty seconds after my last live broadcast. Back to the Professor:
"I would like to hire you."
"I said, I would like to hire you. Allow me to explain."
And he did. He told me that his name was Professor Gerald Humphreys, formerly Head of Quantum Physics at the local university. He'd retired two years before and had spent the intervening period perfecting a time machine. He'd worked on it for over thirty years and now it was finally ready. He needed an assistant, mainly to act as an objective observer but also to do any heavy donkeywork. I fitted his bill. I was young, fit and pretty well built. I was also a sceptic, which made me ideal.
With nothing better to do I agreed. I figured he was potty anyway and I might as well earn a couple of quid as sit around watching daytime TV. We arranged to meet early the following morning. He told me to dress for travelling, whatever that meant, and to be at his place at seven am sharp. We parted company at the door. His last words to me were:
"They don't sell rheostats in supermarkets."
I had nothing to add.
I presented myself at the Prof's pad at seven the next morning, as instructed. He was his usual picture of sartorial elegance clad in a green brocade smoking jacket, threadbare jogging pants and flip-flops. He grabbed my arm with a scrawny claw and dragged me through to his workshop. What little floor space there once had been was taken up by a large silver dome-shaped affair. It looked a bit like one of those Buddhist dagobas you see in the Far East and was emitting a low humming sound that was almost, but not quite, below the human audible range.
"Ah, I see you are looking at my Temporal Interface Terminal. Beautiful, isn 't it?"
It was certainly unusual. The closer I looked at it, the harder it was to see, somehow. The surface of the machine appeared to swirl in and out of focus leaving me with an impression of what I was looking at, rather than an image. The air in the workshop seemed charged with electricity. I could feel the hair on my forearms standing on end and experienced a weird tingling sensation all over my skin, like ants crawling all over me.
"What does it do?"
"Exactly what the name suggests, dear boy. It provides an interface - a gateway, if you will - between the present and other parts of the temporal multiverse."
"Yes, of course. Schrodinger's cat, my boy. You don't seriously imagine that this is the only reality, do you?"
"I've never been that strong on quantum theory. I just kind of thought that this was it, if you know what I mean."
"Limited intelligence often goes hand-in-hand with limited imagination, Jonty. Don't concern yourself. You don't need to understand how or why it works; you need only accept that it does. Once we enter the T.I.T., we are stepping outside this version of reality. We may then choose to journey either forwards, backwards or sideways, as it were."
"Sideways? You mean like to a parallel universe?"
"Crudely, yes. There is an almost infinite combination of reality states, each one slightly out of phase with the next. Under normal conditions we are totally unaware of their existence."
"OK then, Professor. What happens when you go back in time? Do you go to back to 'our' past or one of these alternates?"
"I'm sorry to admit that I really don't know, my boy. You see, I have done all the laboratory testing but, well, I haven't actually attempted a full voyage as yet."
"Whoa! Are you saying that you don't know if this thing works?"
"Of course not! It works but I haven't yet made the maiden voyage, that is all."
"Now hang on a minute. You're suggesting we climb into that thing, press the tit and hope for the best?"
"Crudely put, but essentially accurate."
I was on the verge of backing out of this little game but he grabbed me and propelled towards the machine. There was no door apparent but somehow we kind of glided through the outside and I found myself staring at the strangest 'room' I have ever seen. It was a combination of chrome and chintz. A kind of cross between a 1950's coffee bar and a down-at-heel Victorian country house. Knobs and dials and VDUs were everywhere. Two overstuffed armchairs slouched on a moth-eaten fake Turkish Carpet and one wall was covered in the most tasteless flock wallpaper ever seen outside of an Indian Restaurant. A little posy of flowers sat in a glass jam jar on top of part of what looked like an old mainframe computer, complete with ticking magnetic tape spools. The whole effect made me dizzy.
"Fuck a rat! What is this supposed to be?"
"Oh, just a few home comforts. I thought it would be less disorienting for you to have a few familiar touches."
"Uh, thanks, Professor. Jesus Henry Christ! It looks like a very bad set design for 'Doctor Who.' Are you absolutely sure it works and I'm not going to end up with my head in tomorrow and my todger back in a week last Tuesday?"
I've always had a real horror of having my atoms scattered about the space/time continuum.
He gave his donkey fart laugh again and told me to take a seat while he twisted dials, turned knobs and thumped keyboards. The T.I.T. kind of wobbled and I felt faintly sick. There was none of that reassuring mechanical retching noise you always got with the Tardis and no whistling theme music. In fact, there was no noise at all. Just this gentle wobbly feeling. The sensation seemed to last for a few minutes yet the second hand on my watch registered less than fifteen seconds. The wobbling stopped and the deep hum returned.
"Where are we, Professor?"
"A more apposite question might be when are we, my boy. Unfortunately, we have a malfunction in the Combined Location In Time array."
"What does that mean in English?"
"The C.L.I.T.'s fucked."
"Oh, right. You don't know where or when we are."
"Approximately, we are somewhere in ancient Greece, sometime around the end of the 7th Century, BC or possibly the beginning of the 6th. I can't be entirely sure."
"No need for sarcasm, Jonty. We'll just have to go and see. Do you speak ancient Greek?"
"No, sorry, they didn't teach it my school. We were more into PSE."
"What on earth is that?"
"Buggered if I know, Prof, I used to skive off."
"No matter. Take this Compact Universal Neural Translator."
It looked like a Walkman. It was a Walkman, or at least it had been. The battered case still bore the Sony lettering. I shoved the headphones into my ears and turned it on. I got one hell of a shock. Two probes rammed through my eardrums and slammed into my brain. The pain was excruciating.
"I do wish you'd stop using these abbreviations. If you must shorten it, call it 'the translator,' if you please."
We made our way outside and I experienced that weird sensation again as we passed 'through' the wall of the T.I.T. and into the bright sunshine. I looked around. We were on a low promontory overlooking the proverbial wine-dark sea. Behind us was a neat villa with lime-washed walls. We decided to go and ask the occupants precisely where we were.
A slightly built woman with a pile of dark hair was sitting in the garden of the villa. A small girl sat in the dirt by her feet, playing with clay animals."
The Professor's education did extend to ancient Greek, even if he had missed out on PSE.
"What a weird accent! Oh, sorry, didn't mean to be rude."
"My apologies, Lady. I am unfamiliar with your language. Would you be so good as to tell us where the railway station is? No, bugger! Wrong word. Um, what is this place called?"
"Where are we?"
"Oh! This is the Island of Mytilene, also called Lesvos. Are you shipwrecked, then, to not know where you are?"
"In a manner of speaking, Lady. Allow me to present my companion, Jonty. He doesn't speak your tongue but can understand it, thanks to that C.U.N.T. on his head."
"The what? Forgive me. I am Sappho, wife of Cholon, the Merchant. This is my daughter."
"Sappho? Not THE Sappho, the great lyric poetess?"
"I suppose so. Has my fame spread so far, then? I'm honoured."
"Lady, this may be hard for you to understand but we have travelled back here from far in the future. More than two and a half thousand years from now, you will be still famous. So much so that women who, um, prefer women, if you understand my drift, will be known as Lesbians. They will be described as Sapphic, even."
"Oh really. Why?"
"Because of your poetry in adoration of women, of course."
Sappho burst out laughing.
"You mean to say, people will think I fancy other girls?"
"Yes, of course."
"Hysterical, but why?"
"Code, sir, code! I have to put women's names in the verses so that old goat I'm married to doesn't catch on. Mind you, there have been times when I've resorted to a bit of sisterly affection with one of my pals, but that was when we spent a year in Thebes. Have you ever been there? It's a dreadful place, full of Nancy boys. A red-blooded girl can't get herself laid if she stands naked in the agora. No, they've got the wrong island entirely. It's Naxos you want for the rug-munchers."
"I think that news is going to burst a bubble or two, Prof."
"What did he say? Oh, never mind. If he doesn't speak the language he can't tell, can he? Do you mind looking after the brat for a bit, Prof, is it? Strange name. I like the look of young Jonty. Are you sure he can understand me? Hey, Jonty, I'm horny as bitch in heat, d'you fancy a quick tumble before Cholon gets back?"
I will draw a veil over what happened next. Suffice it to say my mother taught me never to refuse a polite request from a lady.
Sappho was a gracious hostess in more ways than one. Her slaves brought us lunch, goat's cheese, bread, olives and wine. The Professor made some quick calculations and decided that we'd missed his target, which turned out to be Athens, circa 390BC, by about 230 years and a few hundred miles. He considered this wasn't too bad in the circumstances. I said I didn't mind where we went as long it wasn't Thebes. Sappho assured me I would be equally popular there, which wasn't the best news I'd heard that day.
After lunch we took our leave of the fair Sappho. The Professor looked on enviously as she hurled herself against me and tried to probe my tonsils with her tongue while her hands did delicious things inside my jeans. I was just about to ask for a re-match when the Prof grabbed me and pushed me bodily back inside the T.I.T..
"Where to now, Prof?"
"Athens, my boy. The cultural epicentre of classical civilisation."
The wobbling started again and, this time, lasted only for the time it takes to draw breath. Then we were outside again.
"Spot on, my boy. Now all we need to do is find Socrates."
"Oh, him. All right, then let's go."
We found the great philosopher without difficulty. He was sitting in a shady spot at the edge of the agora, a bunch of young guys at his feet. I could hear him talking as we approached deferentially:
"So the actress said to the High Priest, 'I'm not sure what you're doing with that sheep, but it doesn't look like much of a sacrifice!' Ha ha!"
The young men around him fell about laughing. We had obviously just arrived while they were on their break. The old man looked up at us and said:
"What are you two gawping at? Fuck off!"
"Pardon me , sir, but are you Socrates, the world's greatest philosopher?"
For some reason this had everyone in stitches all over again.
"Philosopher? What the fuck's one of them? I'm Socrates all right and you're interrupting the matinee performance. Now sit down and shut up or fuck off out the way, you're putting me off. And, Zeus! Where did you learn to speak Greek, in an Egyptian knocking shop?"
"My apologies, sir, I appear to have got the wrong Socrates. Can you tell me where I might find the other one, the great philosopher?"
"Someone's been pulling your plonker, stranger. I'm the only Socrates in Athens and I'm a stand-up comic. Now bugger off, if you don't mind, I'm trying to do a gig."
"But I don't understand. You are renowned throughout the world as a great teacher and scholar. Plato wrote of you!"
"Oh, that explains it. Plato, you young bastard, have you been taking the piss again?"
A thickset, spotty youth peered guiltily at the great man from the back row.
"Sorry, boss. I was only having a laugh."
"Not at my expense, shagnasty. Looks like I've got a vacancy for an apprentice. On your chariot, matey, and take these two barbarians with you."
We walked away with a disconsolate Plato. The Professor was shaking his head, a man clearly in a state of shock. Plato kicked the cobbles and mumbled to himself, something about the old git having no sense of humour.
The Prof turned to Plato.
"Why did you do it? How could you write such things about that horrid old man?"
"The old bastard was asking for it. Anyway, all I said was that he asked questions about the human condition. I didn't really want to be a comic. What I really want to do is be a critic, write reviews of the other acts. It 's so hard to think up original material and I don't want to do what he does - nick other people's best jokes and re-work them. My dad's going to kill me, getting fired again."
We made our way back to the T.I.T. in silence. The Prof set the controls for home and the wobbling lasted longer. I was mighty grateful to see that we were back in the Prof's workshop as we staggered out of the T.I.T. one final time.
"Sappho, well I could vaguely understand, Jonty, but Socrates! How could the world be so wrong about him?"
"I think I can explain, Prof. You said you didn't know whether we would go back to 'our' past or some other parallel universe. Well, now I believe we know the answer."
"Great Scott, boy! Of course. Now why didn't I think of that? That explains everything. I can see that you are going to be a really valuable assistant. Same time tomorrow?"
"Suits me, Prof."
But, of course, that's another story.