In the mid 2010s I worked on a government research team that developed a time machine. The product itself, kept in a combilocked basement at RAF Duxford, was startlingly basic: comprising an arrangement of flashing lights, old-style alarm clocks, wall calendars showing seasonal watercolours, a schoolroom globe and a chunky ticker which gave you today’s date to the microsecond, all held together with wires, springs and crocodile clips. The project director was a reedy, palefaced Sandhurst type who became flustery and defensive whenever anyone questioned the lo-tech nature of his design.
Research into time travel was not as interesting as it sounds. Humanity had dreamed of such a facility since Wells, yet once we had the machine we were reluctant to use it due to fears – inculcated from TV and SF novels – that one of us would step on a butterfly or something and screw the space-time continuum altogether. Our work therefore consisted of small, tedious experiments where we sent random objects or test mice forward or backwards in incremental half-hours. This work was kept in ironcast secrecy, for who knew what would happen if the common folk were to find out, and replicate our device somehow? We would have people bouncing around in time, trying to win the lottery or reverse old regrets, and the whole universe would basically collapse in on itself. The risk assessment alone was five thousand pages long.
No one ever said it, but I sensed the question coiled in our minds, an old idea, almost clichéd, but still resonatory, like all the best clichés were. For weren’t we wasting our time, fucking about with rats and clocks, when there was an opportunity to undo the greatest evil of the last century, and save countless millions of lives? I never spoke of this to the project director, because I knew what he’d tell me: that everything happens for a reason, that history is not about great men, and such an adventure would lead only to a far worse tyrant harnessing the prejudices of old Europe. He’d say I could return to my own time and find it in ruins, or ruled by an implacable totalitarianism, glittering and cold. The director might also, if he thought about it, doubt my motives, argue that I acted not out of altruism for those millions dead but from a desire to play the hero and redeem a life that had gone nowhere since I’d been thrown out of King’s halfway through my final year. And I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
But I held my resolve. A history without Sobibór, T-4 and Kristallnacht could only be a better alternative, and I believed the experiment worth trying in any case. Most of the guys on the project – the ‘temponauts’ as we were somewhat ridiculously called – were straight nine to five civil servants, who cared more for redecorating their bathroom, for West End shows and cut-price Mediterranean cruises than historical inquiry. All I had to do was wait until everyone had gone home, tell the director I’d lock up for him, and program in the time period I wanted to go.
I punched ‘1908’ into the ticker and lined up the globe so the clip pointed to where I thought Vienna was. Just before I pulled the main lever, it occurred to me that I would have no means of getting back to the twenty-first century from wherever I landed. But so what? I had no wife here, no family, nothing but a pile of books in two rooms off the Cherry Hinton Road. Fuck it. Let’s go back into the past.
I pulled the lever (which was large and red and stuck out of a large silver box with START painted on it in big black letters) and lights flashed, pages flew from the calendars, arms raced around clock faces, the ticker ratcheted back the years with a sound like hard rain on tight canvas, I swore I even heard a cuckoo somewhere, and everything went black. I awoke in a hospital ward, in some kind of private room, with stirrups hanging from the ceiling, ether fizzing in wall tubes, and two nurses in witchy collars and long white dresses smoking cigarettes and talking in German. I was straight out of there and towards the nearest exit: the staff didn’t know how to deal with me, and a couple of their thugs even tried to get me in restraints. Eventually I managed to fight my way out, and hit the ancient streets.
For many years I wandered and watched. I wasn’t a stranger in a strange land – in fact it was a surprise how quickly I managed to pick up the language, find work and lodging in this city, and become accepted. The difficulty was that I didn’t really know enough about my target to be able to find him. In my own time there had been scholars who could reel off the pensions and rooming-houses at which he stayed, the cafes where he nursed his drinks and raved about Asiatic-Bolshevism, and the streets he walked down: but I hadn’t been amongst them. I was not even sure what the man looked like now, for he wouldn’t have yet become the picture of iconic, pompous, plaintive and somehow comic evil that we all carried in our heads. I knew he had been a failed artist and opera lover, and through my bar work I became familiar with the city’s underground art and politics scene. I met many interesting people, and got into a fight with an aide to von Schönerer at a cabaret in Mariahilf, and once followed for a straight day a man in a long black coat and parted hair: the gaslamps on the Ringstrasse showed a pale, angular face that looked promising, but the man jumped a train at Westbahnhof and I did not see him again.
Men began to disappear from the streets. Ominous flybills in Cyrillic writing appeared at my local haunts. To avoid the Austro-Hungarian footpads, I crossed the border into Munich: I had no desire to die facedown in the trenches, and knew that he would return, gas-blinded and raging, when the war was over. I hid out in Schwabing for some years, hung out with the bohemian crowd, and got medical exemption papers, testifying to my ‘disorder of the vapours and arrant hallucinations’ from a corrupt sawbones who drank at the Osteria Bavaria. The sky seemed to have more stars, the air carried a different taste of dirt, smells of overwashed curtains and strange meat. The war ended, but there weren’t the great messy celebrations that I expected. The atmosphere in this city tightened. Resentment and fever flushed these cobbled streets. I knew he had come: the chef at the Schelling had complained that Adi, he never pays and I dove into the ideological shadow-play at beer-halls and meeting rooms, where pale, plaited women smoked long cigarettes and cawed wild laughter and men spun ideology and mysticism into heady, intoxicating counter-philosophy. To paraphrase Blackadder, how to find yet another madman in this place? A brief affair with the Countess von Werstrap got me into a Thule Society meeting at Hotel Vierjahreszeiten, a lot of drink was consumed, a minor aristocrat ran into the Tiergarden and shot himself; Heila and I quarrelled, and I was not invited back.
Now I was hearing his name, and places I could find him, but the bastard was always surrounded by Sturmabteilung goons, who hustled me out of a meeting with threats and menaces. By the time I found the courage to go back, he had been arrested and sentenced after the Bürgerbräukeller nonsense: an anarchist friend of mine had an idea of getting him killed in prison, but nothing came of it. Our safe frivolous enclaves began to dissolve. Suddenly economics mattered. You sat down at a restaurant and the bill had gone up by several thousands by the time your waiter presented the cheque. I began to feel I had missed my window, that I should have gone back to whatever Austrian cowtown he came from and strangled the fucker at birth. Too late now, the man now grown would survive numerous assassination attempts, and I watched the pathetic coalition intrigues with a growing dismay. I mean, you didn’t need to be a time traveller to see what was coming. The city kept changing in small, sly ways. Again people began to disappear. I was rounded up after they burned the Ohel Yaakov and the library, I spent some months building a labour camp in the ruins of a beautiful suburb where once there were homes and businesses and places where my friends and I could wander and eat and drink.
I fled the city and joined up with a group of partisans. We hid in forests, dodged air raids and rampaging Waffen-SS and carried out occasional raids on distribution centres, for ausweise and food: I was captured in ’43, sent to prison, escaped, was recaptured in Pomerania and shuttled around a series of forced labour-extermination camps – Auschwitz, Dora-Mittelbau, Mauthausen, Auschwitz again, finally Bergen-Belsen – and I don’t want to speak of these places: if you so wish, you can read about them, in Wiesel, Hilberg and the others, read about the selections and the experiments and the gas chambers and the pits of corpses, frightening stuff, and all true, every word. But when we first staggered, the living dead, into liberated Europe, most men were like me, we demonstrated the famous British reserve. It’s only now, twenty years later, that people are beginning to write about this long nightmare, and others are beginning to listen.
I married an auxiliary corpswoman from Indiana who I met when I was working as an orderly in the field hospital in Lublin. We shared a bottle of prunejuice and two cigarettes sitting on the half-ruined stone wall outside the complex. We went back to America, like a lot of people who came through that time. Forget all this gothic militarism – here was Little League games, hopscotch grids on sunny sidewalks, burger joints and blameless sunsets. I bought new suits and sold insurance in Marion County. It’s not a bad life, and particular as I grow older, I find that experience washes out memory like tides on sand. The whole idea that I came back through time – on some late summer midweek evenings, when I’m taking out the trash, it feels like that was the delusion, that I never came from the future at all, that I never lived in England, that I never drove a hybrid car or used a word processor or held such a gadget as an iPhone. When I think that one day there will be a year 2015 it feels fake and surreal, like something out of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books my sons like to read. I guess we are all time-travellers, going forward, one moment at a time, and it’s up to us to make good use of such moments, for ourselves and others around us. The truth is that I was never any good at history, and no longer read much about it. The stars over my house are beginning to be crowded out by soft, warm lights cast up by myself and my neighbours like slow fireworks. The present feels like a real thing on such nights, safe and elemental.