A cautionary tale for Christmas Eve Pub-Goers
I met Dennis one afternoon during the wettest December for seventy-eight years. Some would say ‘Global Warming’, but I would riposte, ‘Grant Application’. I knew as well as most, and better than many, that science in the 2010’s was the era of the expedient proposal. The EP, as I had come to call them, were proposals that we dreamt up over pints in the Eagle back at the Fen Poly. The outline took maybe thirty minutes and after that it was back to the Department for the usual three weeks of costings and administrative constipation.
Dennis sat by himself in the chair by the bar. Everybody else would have used a stool but Dennis was not intimidated by his low perch.
His personality was too big for that.
I sat opposite him and pretended to read. It was an mediocre thriller by an indifferent scientist, and before long I began to think that I was reviewing one of the eponymous ‘EP’s’ alluded to above. At length I laid the book down and, temporarily forgetting that molten torrents start from tiny lava seeps, I engaged the bespectacled stranger in conversation.
“It beats me how he can sell that.”
Dennis looked startled for a second. Engagingly like a Roe deer I had once met en route to a early morning deal on the Portobello Road. He looked left and then right with a winning smile adulterated by a pinch of hesitation that I soon learned was caused by childhood deafness. Eventually his eye caught mine and his smile intensified to a effulgent radiance I previously had only associated with Bible stories.
“What was that?” He lent forward and cupped a hand around his ear in the time honoured tradition of the aurally challenged.
“I said, ‘It beats me how he can sell that’.”
He looked at me speculatively for a moment and lowered three inches of IPA with a slurp redolent of satisfaction.
“You could do better?.”
His benevolent expression belied offence.
“On a good day. Perhaps. It’s all a question of time”. With a glance at his vacant jug I asked, “Can I get you another?”
He glanced at his in the same direction and then, with a peculiar dual gesture, simultaneously answered in the affirmative and invited me to join him. “Ah, time, yes indeed.” He seemed to find something amusing.
Bringing his pint and my own refill I lowered myself onto a stool that tottered in front of his chair. Raising his glass, he offered a silent toast, and then re-engaged his palate with relish. He looked at me, his eyes bright, as I took a more cautious sip. I wondered in that instant how old he was. Fifty, maybe sixty? Seldom had I seen a more ageless man.
“We’re all dead here, you know.”
I stared at him, startled, and at an infrequent loss for words.
He sighed breezily. “Oh yes. Didn’t the villager’s tell you?”
I hesitated. The truth was that the locals up the hill had recommended the pub to me, and that was why I had made the thirty minute walk through precipitation that, in a bygone age, would have been called ‘stair-rod’. The villagers had also said that the pub was unusually well preserved for its age and advised me to look out for ‘local colour’ at the bar.
“How do you mean?”
It was his turn to stare at me. “You require amplification?”
I nodded. “Much like you.”
“Well,” he said, and transfixed me with a gimlet stare. “You have the time.”
His glass was again dangerously low and I refilled it without request. With a low murmur of thanks he ordered his thoughts.
He looked at me thoughtfully. “Ever heard Hotel California?”
“You know that line, ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave?”
I nodded again.
The words were delivered with a flat finality that somehow shook me. I stood and made my way to the low oak-beamed door that sagged tiredly in the corner beside the notice board.
I looked back at him and he nodded once; imperceptibly.
I swung the door open and looked into infinity. Where before the tiny village of Muxborough had slumbered in the winter rainfall, now there was only a swirling void of painful white radiance dappled with speeding black flecks.
I whirled back to him. He nodded gravely and with a certain, not un-inebriated satisfaction, said, “Bit of bother over at Hinkley Point, some years back.”
“Hinkley Point. You know, our local, nuclear,” the words were smeared with contempt, “power station.”
“I don’t get it.”
“And why should you my dear chap? Why should you? The simple fact is that we appear to have left our local portion of the time-space continuum. You see,” he lent forward earnestly, “as that fellow down there has told us,” he nodded to where a tired man sagged, white-faced against the Lilliputian bar, “ we’re on a cusp”
“A cusp. You see, we were all here some years back, a Thursday evening it was, when there was a bit of a bang. We felt a jolt and then nothing, and thought no more of it. Until we tried to leave of course.”
“What happened then?”
He paused and looked meaningfully at another empty glass. I refilled it without demure. “Well, when young Derek opened the door to go home, he found himself staring into the white void that you yourself have seen. But he walked out anyway.” He shrugged.
“And what?” He looked slightly irritated.
He looked momentarily confused. “We never saw him again.”
I sat back and sank some of my own beer. “ So where did he go?”
“No idea. Although that man there,” He nodded in the general direction of the harassed gentleman at the bar, “thinks that he knows. Says we’re suffering from ‘cross-talk’ and that poor Derek’s trapped in Hilbert Space. Still, there is one happy consequence; we never seem to run out of beer.”
My interest was engaged. I sidled up to ‘the fellow’ and looked into red-rimmed eyes. I did not dissemble. “What’s going on?”
He knew instantly to what I was referring. Quietly, he said, “You hear that tune?”
It was Hotel California again. I nodded.
“In this case it happens to be true. When Hinkley Point blew it knocked us up onto a Hilbert cusp.”
I nodded in Dennis’s direction. “He keeps on about cusps. Could you be a little more specific?”
“Of course. We were moved up out of our space-time continuum onto a cusp. A bit like the ridge between grooves on a gramophone record. Neither one place nor the other. Hence: A cusp.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well the maths is a little involved but I’ll see if I can’t keep it simple. You know what a Mobius strip is?”
“Yes. It’s a strip of paper with a twist in it.”
He looked impressed. “Exactly. It’s a strip of paper which through a trick of topology has only one side and one edge. An unusual arrangement, as I think you’ll agree.”
I was beginning to get a headache but he continued remorselessly. “A Mobius strip is a distorted expression of Hilbert space. A place where the laws of physics don’t operate as they do in our world. The cusps between universes are in Hilbert Space. And that’s where we are now.”
“Meaning we are neither in once place or another. We’re poised between alternate universes. We can’t leave because there is no exit. Like a Mobius strip which has only one side, Hilbert space has no entrance – or exit.”
“What about Derek? The man who left to go home?”
He shrugged. “Never saw him again”
“How long ago was that?”
He smiled then, a narrow smile full of unfulfilled and unfulfillable longing. I glanced down the bar toward Dennis. He too was smiling, but in his eyes I could see now a yearning expression which impaled me with terror. I glanced back to the physicist.
Suddenly his smile had turned sad. “About twenty years” he said.
Copyright reserved. Richard Corfield