The Ghosts of Christmas
Which is harder: seeing your own future - or truly knowing your past? Enjoy this year's Tor.com holiday story “The Ghosts of Christmas,” a new original story by Paul Cornell (Doctor Who, Saucer Country, London Falling).
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
It was because of a row. The row was about nothing. So it all came from nothing. Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say it came from the interaction between two people. I remember how Ben's voice suddenly became gentle and he said, as if decanting the whole unconscious reason for the row:
'Why don't we try for a baby?'
This was mid-March. My memory of that moment is of hearing birds outside. I always loved that time of year, that sense of nature becoming stronger all around. But I always owned the decisions I made, I didn't blame them on what was around me, or on my hormones. I am what's around me, I am my hormones, that's what I always said to myself. I don't know if Ben ever felt the same way. That's how I think of him now: always excusing himself. I don't know how that squares with how the world is now. Perhaps it suits him down to the ground. I'm sure I spent years looking out for him excusing himself. I'm sure me doing that was why, in the end, he did.
I listened to the birds. 'Yes,' I said.
We got lucky almost immediately. I called my mother and told her the news.
'Oh no,' she said.
When the first trimester had passed, and everything was still fine, I told my boss and then my colleagues at the Project, and arranged for maternity leave. 'I know you lot are going to go over the threshold the day after I leave,' I told my team. 'You're going to call me up at home and you'll be all, “Oh, hey, Lindsey is currently inhabiting her own brain at age three! She's about to try to warn the authorities about some terrorist outrage or other. But pregnancy must be such a joy”.'
'Again with this,' said Alfred. 'We have no reason to believe the subjects would be able to do anything other than listen in to what's going on in the heads of their younger selves-'
'Except,' said Lindsey, stepping back into this old argument like I hadn't even mentioned hello, baby, 'the maths rules out even the possibility-'
'No. It's becoming clearer with every advance we make back into what was: what's written is written.'
Our due date was Christmas Day.
People who were shown around the Project were always surprised at how small the communication unit was. It had to be; most of the time it was attached to the skull of a sedated rhesus monkey. 'It's just a string of lights,' someone once said. And we all looked appalled, to the point where Ramsay quickly led the guest away.
They were like Christmas lights, each link changing colour to show how a different area of the monkey's brain was responding to the data coming back from the other mind, probably its own mind, that it was connected to, somewhen in the past. Or, we thought only in our wildest imaginings then, in the future.
Christmas lights. Coincidence and association thread through this, so much, when such things can only be illusions. Or artifice. Cartoons in the margin.
How can one have coincidence, when everything is written?
I always thought my father was too old to be a dad. It often seemed to me that Mum was somehow too old to have me too, but that wasn't the case, biologically. It was just that she came from another time, a different world, of austerity, of shying away from rock and roll. She got even older after Dad died. Ironically, I became pregnant at the same age she had been.
We went to see her: me, Ben, and the bump. She didn't refer to it. For the first hour. She kept talking about her new porch. Ben started looking between us, as if waiting to see who would crack first. Until he had to say it, over tea. 'So, the baby! You must be looking forward to being a grandmother!'
Mum looked wryly at him. 'Not at my age.'
'That's all right. You two can do what you want. I'll be gone soon.'
We stayed for an hour or two more, talking about other things, about that bloody porch, and then we waved goodbye and drove off and I parked the car as soon as we were out of sight of the house. 'Let's kill her,' I said.
'I shouldn't say that. I so shouldn't say that. She will be gone soon. It's selfish of me to want to talk about the baby-'
'When we could be talking about that really very lovely porch. You could have led with how your potentially Nobel Prize-winning discovery of time travel is going.'
'She didn't mention that either.'
'She is proud of you, I'm sure. Did something-? I mean, did anything ever . . . happen, between you, back then?'
I shook my head. There was not one particular moment. I was not an abused child. This isn't a story about abuse.
I closed my eyes. I listened to the endless rhythm of the cars going past.
The Project was created to investigate something that I'd found in the case histories of schizophrenics. Sufferers often describe a tremendous sensation of now, the terrifying hugeness of the current moment. They often find voices talking to them, other people inside their own heads seemingly communicating with them. I started using the new brain-mapping technology to look into the relationship between the schizoid mind and time. Theory often follows technology, and in this case it was a detailed image of particle trails within the mind of David, a schizophrenic, that handed the whole theory to me in a single moment. It was written that I saw that image and made those decisions. Now when I look back to that moment, it's almost like I didn't do anything. Except that what happened in my head in that moment has meant so much to me.
I saw many knotted trails in that image, characteristic of asymmetric entanglement. I saw that, unlike in the healthy minds we'd seen, where there are only a couple of those trails at any given moment (and who knows what those are, even today?), this mind was connected, utterly, to . . . other things that were very similar to itself. I realised instantly what I was looking at: What could those other things that were influencing all those particle trails be but other minds? And where were those other minds very like this one-?
And then I had a vision of the trails in my own mind, like Christmas lights, and that led me to the next moment when I knew consciously what I had actually understood an instant before, as if I had divined it from the interaction of all things-
The trails led to other versions of this person's own mind, elsewhen in time.
I remember that David was eager to cooperate. He wanted to understand his condition. He'd been a journalist before admitting himself to the psychiatric hospital.
'I need to tear, hair, fear, ear, see . . . yes, see, what's in here!' he shouted, tapping the front of his head with his middle fingers. 'Hah, funny, the rhymes, crimes, alibis, keep trying to break out of those, and it works, that works, works. Hello!' He sat suddenly and firmly down and took a very steady-handed sip from his plastic cup of water. 'You asked me to stay off the drugs,' he said, 'so it's difficult. And I would like to go back on them. I would very much like to. After.'
I had started, ironically, to see him as a slice across a lot of different versions of himself, separated by time. I saw him as all his minds, in different phases, interfering with each other. Turn that polarised view the other way, and you'd have a series of healthy people. That's what I thought. And I wrote that down offhandedly somewhere, in some report. His other selves weren't the 'voices in his head'. That's a common fallacy about the history of our work. Those voices were the protective action that distances a schizophrenic from those other selves. They were characters formed around the incursion, a little bit of interior fiction. We're now told that a 'schizophrenic' is someone who has to deal with such random interference for long stretches of time.
'Absolutely, as soon as we've finished our interviews today. We don't want to do anything to set back your treatment.'
'How do you experience time?' is a baffling question to ask anyone. The obvious answer would be 'like you do, probably'. So we'd narrowed it down to:
How do you feel when you remember an event from your childhood?
How do you feel about your last birthday?
How do you feel about the Norman Conquest?
'Not the same,' David insisted. 'Not the same.'
I found myself not sleeping. Expectant mothers do. But while not sleeping, I stared and listened for birds, and thought the same thought, over and over.
It's been proven that certain traits formed by a child's environment do get passed down to its own children. It is genuinely harder for the child of someone who was denied books to learn to read.
I'm going to be a terrible parent.
'Will you play with me?' I remember how much that sound in my voice seemed to hurt. Not that I was feeling anything bad at the time; it was like I was just hearing something bad. I said it too much. I said it too much in exactly the same way.
'Later,' said Dad, sitting in his chair that smelled of him, watching the football. 'You start, and I'll join in later.'
I'd left my bedroom and gone back into the lounge. I could hear them talking in the kitchen, getting ready for bed, and in a moment they'd be bound to notice me, but I'd seen it in the paper and it sounded incredible: The Outer Limits. The outer limits of what? Right at the end of the television programmes for the day. So after that I'd see television stop. And now I was seeing it and it was terrible, because there was a monster, and this was too old for me. I was crying. But they'd be bound to hear, and in a moment they would come and yell at me and switch the set off and carry me off to bed, and it'd be safe for me to turn round.
But they went to bed without looking in the lounge. I listened to them close the door and talk for a while, and then switch the light off, and then silence, and so it was just me sitting there, watching the greys flicker.
With the monster.
I was standing in a lay-by, watching the cars go past, wondering if Mummy and Daddy were going to come back for me this time. They'd said that if I didn't stop going on about the ice cream I'd dropped on the beach, they'd make me get out and walk. And then Dad had said 'right!' and he'd stopped the car and yanked open the door and grabbed me out of my seat and left me there and driven off.
I was looking down the road, waiting to see the car come back.
I had no way of even starting to think about another life. I was six years old.
Those are just memories. They're not from Christmas Day. They're kept like that in the connections between neurons within my brain. I have a sense of telling them to myself. Every cell of my body has been replaced many times since I was that age. I am an oral tradition. But it's been proved that a butterfly remembers what a caterpillar has learned, despite its entire neurological structure being literally liquidised in between. So perhaps there's a component of memory that lies outside of ourselves as well, somewhere in those loose threads of particle trails. I have some hope that that is true. Because that would put a different background behind all of my experiences.
I draw a line now between such memories and the other memories I now have of my childhood. But that line will grow fainter in time.
I don't want to neglect it.
I'm going to neglect it.
I don't want to hurt it.
I'm going to hurt it.
They made me this way. I'm going to blame them for what I do. I'm going to end up being worse.
I grew numb with fear as autumn turned to winter. I grew huge. I didn't talk to Ben or anyone about how I felt. I didn't want to hear myself say the words.
In mid-December, a couple of weeks before the due date, I got an email from Lindsey. It was marked 'confidential':
Just thought I should tell you, that, well, you predicted it, didn't you? The monkey trials have been a complete success, the subjects seem fine, mentally and physically. We're now in a position to actually connect minds across time. So we're going to get into the business of finding human volunteer test subjects. Ramsay wants 'some expendable student' to be the first, but, you know, over our dead bodies! This isn't like lab rats, this is first astronaut stuff. Anyway, the Project is closing down on bloody Christmas Eve, so we're going to be forced to go and ponder that at home. Enclosed are the latest revisions of the tech specs, so that you can get excited too. But of course, you'll be utterly blasé about this, because it is nothing compared to the miracle of birth, about which you must be so excited, etc.
I looked at the specs and felt proud.
And then a terrible thought came to me. Or crystallised in me. Formed out of all the things I was. Was already written in me.
I found myself staggered by it. And hopeful about it. And fearful that I was hopeful. I felt I could save myself. That's ironic too.
My fingers fumbling, I wrote Lindsey a congratulatory email and then rewrote it three times before I sent it so that it was a model of everything at my end being normal.
I knew what I was going to be doing on Christmas Day.
Due dates are not an exact science. We'd had a couple of false alarms, but when Christmas Eve arrived, everything was stable. 'I think it's going to be a few more days,' I told Ben.
I woke without needing an alarm the next morning, to the strange quiet of Christmas Day. I left Ben sleeping, showered and dressed in the clothes I'd left ready the night before. Creeping about amongst the silence made me think of Father Christmas. I looked back in on Ben and felt fondly about him. That would have been the last time for that.
I drove through streets that were Christmas empty. My security card worked fine on a door that didn't know what day it was.
And then I was into the absolute silence of these familiar spaces, walking swiftly down the corridors, like a ghost.
The lab had been tidied away for the holidays. I had to unlock a few storage areas, to remember a few combinations. I reached into the main safe and drew out the crown of lights.
I paused as I sat in Lindsay's chair, the crown connected to a power source, the control systems linked up to a keyboard and screen in my lap. I considered for a moment, or pretended to, before putting it on my head.
Could what I was about to do to my brain harm the foetus?
Not according to what had happened with the monkeys. They were all fine, physically. I could only harm myself. We'd theorised that too long a connection between minds, more than a few minutes, would result in an extreme form of what the schizophrenics dealt with, perhaps a complete brain shutdown. Death. I would have to feel that coming and get out, or would have to unconsciously see it approaching on the screen, or just count the seconds.
Or I would fail my child completely.
I nearly put it all away again, locked up, walked out.
I put the crown on my head, I connected the power source, I took the keyboard in my hands and I watched the particle trails in my own mind begin to resolve on the screen, and I concentrated on them, in the way we'd always talked about, and I started typing before I could think again. I hit activate.
The minds of the monkeys seemed to select their own targets. The imaging for those experiments showed two sets of trails reacting to each other, symmetrical, beautiful. That seemed to suggest not the chaotic accident of schizophrenia, but something more tranquil, perhaps something like a religious experience, we'd said. But of course we had nothing objective to go on. I had theorised that since it turns out we evolved with every moment of ourselves just a stray particle away, the human trait of seeing patterns in chaos, of always assuming there is a hidden supernatural world, was actually selected for. We'd devised a feedback monitor that would allow a human subject to watch, and, with a bit of training, hence alter the particle tracks in one's own head via the keyboard and screen. I had hypothesised that, because the schizophrenic state can be diagnosed, that is, it isn't just interference like white noise but a pattern of interference, there must be some rule limiting which past states were being accessed, something that let in only a finite number. It had been Lindsay who'd said that perhaps this was only about time and not about space, that perhaps one had to be relatively near the minds doing the interfering, and thus, perhaps, the range was limited by where the earth was in its orbit.
That is to say, you only heard from your previous states of mind on the same calendar date.
Which turns out to have been what you might call a saving grace.
It was like being knocked out.
I'd never been knocked out. Not then.
I woke . . . and . . . Well, I must have been about three months old.
My vision is the wrong shape. It's like being in an enormous cinema with an oddly shaped screen. Everything in the background is a blur. I hear what I'm sure are words, but . . . I haven't brought my understanding with me. It's like that part of me can't fit in a baby's mind. This is terrifying, to hear the shapes of words but not know what they mean. I start yelling.
The baby that I'm part of starts yelling in exactly the same way!
And then . . . and then . . .
The big comfort shape moves into view. Such joy comes with it. Hello, big comfort shape! It's me! It's me! Here I am!
Big comfort shape puts its arms around me, and it's the greatest feeling of my life. An addict's feeling. I cry out again, me, I did that, to make it happen again, more! Even while it's happening to me I want more. I yell and yell for more. And it gives me more.
Up to a point.
I pulled the crown off my head.
I rubbed the tears from my face.
If I'd stayed a moment longer, I might have wanted to stay forever, and thus harmed the mind I was in, all because I wasn't used to asking for and getting such divine attention.
Up to a point.
What was that point? Why had I felt that? I didn't know if I had, really. How was it possible to feel such a sense of love and presence, but also that miniscule seed of the opposite, that feeling of it not being enough or entire? Hadn't I added that, hadn't I dreamt it?
I quickly put the crown back on my head. I had a fix now, I could see where particular patterns took me, I could get to-
Oh. Much clearer now. I must be about two years old. I'm walking around an empty room, marching, raising my knees and then lowering them, as if that's important.
Oh, I can think that. There's room for that thought in my head. I'm able to internally comment on my own condition. As an adult. As a toddler.
Can I control . . .? I lower my foot. I stand there, inhabiting my toddler body, aware of it, the smallness of everything. But my fingers feel huge. And awkward. It's like wearing oven gloves. I don't want to touch anything. I know I'd break it.
And that would be terrible.
I turn my head. I put my foot forward. It's not like learning to drive, I already know how all this is done, it's just slightly different, like driving in America. I can hear . . .
Words I understand. 'Merry Christmas!' From through the door. Oh, the door. The vase with a crack in it. The picture of a Spanish lady that Dad cut off the side of a crate of oranges and put in a frame. The smell of the carpet, close up. Oh, reactions to the smell, lots of memories, associations, piling in.
No! No! I can't take that! I can't understand that! I haven't built those memories yet!
Is this why I've always felt such enormous meaningless meaning about those objects and smells? I put it all out of my mind, and try to just be. And it's okay. It's okay.
The Christmas tree is enormous. With opened presents at the bottom, and I'm not too interested in those presents, which is weird, they've been left there, amongst the wrapping. The wrapping is better. This mind doesn't have signifiers for wrapping and tree yet, this is just a lot of weird stuff that happens, like all the other weird stuff that happens.
I head through the doorway. Step, step, step.
Into the hall. All sorts of differences from now, all sorts of objects with associations, but no, never mind the fondness and horror around you.
I step carefully into the kitchen.
And I'm looking up at the enormous figure of my mother, who is talking to . . . who is that? A woman in a headscarf. Auntie someone . . . oh, she died. I know she died! And I forgot her completely! Because she died!
I can't stop this little body from starting to shake. I'm going to cry. But I mustn't!
'Oh, there she goes again,' says Mum, a sigh in her voice. 'It's Christmas, you mustn't cry at Christmas.'
'She wants to know where her daddy is,' says the dead auntie. 'He's down the pub.'
'Don't tell her that!' That sudden fear in her voice. And the wryness that always went along with that fear. As if she was mocking herself for her weakness.
'She can't understand yet. Oh, look at that. Is she meant to be walking like that?' And oh no, Mum's looking scared at me too. Am I walking like I don't know how, or like an adult?
Mummy grabs me up into her arms and looks and looks at me, and I try to be a child in response to the fear in her face . . . but I have a terrible feeling that I look right into those eyes as me. I'm scaring her, like a child possessed!
I took the crown off more slowly that time. And then immediately put it on again. And now I knew I was picking at a scab. Now I knew and I didn't care. I wanted to know what everything in my mother's face at that moment meant.
I'm seven and I'm staring at nothing under the tree. I'm up early and I'm waiting. Something must soon appear under the tree. There was nothing in the stocking at the end of my bed, but they/Father Christmas/they/Father Christmas/they might not have known I'd put out a stocking.
I hear the door to my parents' bedroom opening. I tense up. So much that it hurts. My dad enters the room and sighs to see me there. I bounce on my heels expectantly. I do a little dance that the connections between my muscles and my memory tell me now was programmed into me by a children's TV show.
He looks at me like I'm some terrible demand. 'You're too old for this now,' he says. And I remember. I remember this from my own memory. I'd forgotten this. I hadn't forgotten. 'I'm off down the shops to get you some presents. If I can find any shops that are open. If you'd stayed asleep until you were supposed to, they'd have been waiting for you. Don't look at me like that. You knew there wasn't any such thing as Father Christmas.'
He takes his car keys from the table and goes outside in his dressing gown, and drives off in the car, in his dressing gown.
I'm eight, and I'm staring at a huge pile of presents under the tree, things I wanted but have been carefully not saying anything about, things that are far too expensive. Mum and Dad are standing there, and as I walk into the room, eight-year-old walk, trying, no idea how, looking at my mum's face, which is again scared, just turned scared in the second she saw me . . . but Dad starts clapping, actually applauding, and then Mum does too.
'I told you I'd make it up to you,' says Dad. I don't remember him telling me. 'I told you.' This is too much. This is too much. I don't know how I'm supposed to react. I don't know how in this mind or outside of it.
I sit down beside the presents. I lower my head to the ground. And I stay there, to the point where I'm urging this body to get up, to show some bloody gratitude! But it stays there. I'm just a doll, and I stay there. And I can't make younger me move and look. I don't want to.
I'm nine, and I'm sitting at the dinner table, with Christmas dinner in front of me. Mum is saying grace, which is scary, because she only does it at Christmas, and it's a whole weird thing, and oh, I'm thinking, I'm feeling weird again, I'm feeling weird like I always feel on Christmas Day. Is this because of her doing that?
I don't think I'm going to be able to leave any knowledge about what's actually going on in the mind I'm visiting. The transmission of information is only one way. I'm a voice that can suggest muscle movement, but I'm a very quiet one.
I'm fifteen. Oh. This is the Christmas after Dad died. And I'm . . . drunk. No, I wasn't. I'm not. It just feels like I am. What's inside my head is . . . huge. I hate having it in here with me. Right now. I feel like I'm . . . possessed. And I think it was like that in here before I arrived to join in. The shape of what I'm in is different. It feels . . . wounded. Oh God, did I hurt it already? No. I'm still me here and now. I wouldn't be if I'd hurt my young brain back then. No, I, I sort of remember. This is just what it was like being fifteen. My mind feels . . . like it's shaped awkwardly, not like it's wounded. All this . . . fury. I can feel the weight of the world limiting me. I can feel a terrible force towards action. Do something, now! Why aren't all these idiots around me doing something, when I know so well what they should do?! And God, God, I am horny even during this, which is, which is . . . terrible.
I'm bellowing at Mum, who's trying to raise her voice to shout over me at the door of my room. 'Don't look at me like that!' I'm shouting. 'We never have a good Christmas because of you! Dad would always try to make it a good Christmas, but he had to deal with you! Stop being afraid!'
I know as I yell this that it isn't true. I know now and I know then.
She slams the door of my room against the wall and marches in, raising a shaking finger-
I grab her. I grab her and I feel the frailness of her as I grab her, and I use all my strength, and it's lots, and I shove her reeling out of the door, and she crashes into the far wall and I run at her and I slam her into it again, so the back of her head hits the wall and I meant to do it and I don't, I so terribly don't. I'm beating up an old woman!
I manage to stop myself from doing that. Just. My new self and old self manage at the same time. I let go.
She bursts out crying. So do I.
'Stop doing that to me!' I yell.
'I worry about you,' she manages to sob. 'It's because I worry about you.'
Is it just at Christmas she worries? I think hard about saying it, and this body says it. My voice sounds odd saying it. 'Is it just at Christmas?'
She's silent, looking scared at how I sounded. Or, oh God, is she afraid of me now?
This is what did it, I realise. I make this mind go weird at Christmas, and they always noticed. It's great they noticed. What I grew up with, how I was brought up, is them reacting to that, expecting that, for the rest of the year. This makes sense, I've solved it! I've solved who I am! Who I am is my own fault! I'm a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Well, that's pretty obvious, isn't it? Should have known that. Everybody should realise that about themselves. Simple!
I find that I'm smiling suddenly and Mum bursts into tears again. To her, it must seem like she's looking at a complete psycho.
I tore off the crown. I remembered doing that to her. Then I let myself forget it. But I never did. And that wasn't the only time. Lots of grabbing her. On the verge of hitting her. Is that a thing, being abused by one's child? It got lost in the layers of who she and I were, and there I was, in it, and suddenly it was the most important thing. And now it was again.
Because of Dad dying, I thought, because of that teenage brain, and then I thought no, that's letting myself off the hook.
But beyond that, my teenage-influenced self had been right: I'd found what I'd gone looking for. I'd messed up my own childhood by what I was doing here. That was a neat end to the story, wasn't it? Yes, my parents had been terribly lacking on occasion. But they'd had something beyond the norm to deal with. And I'd been . . . terrifying, horrible, beyond that poor frail woman's ability to deal with.
But that only let them off the hook . . . up to a point.
Hadn't that bit with there being no presents, that bit with the car, weren't those beyond normal? Had me being in that mind on just one day of the year really been such a big factor?
Would I end up doing anything like that? Would I be a good parent?
Perhaps I should have left it there.
But there was a way to know.
In A Christmas Carol, we hear from charity collectors visiting Scrooge's shop that when his partner Marley was alive, they both always gave generously. And you think therefore that Scrooge was a happy, open person then. But Scrooge doesn't confirm that memory of theirs. When we meet Marley's ghost, he's weighed down by chains 'he forged in life'. He's warning Scrooge not to be like he was. So were the charity collectors lying or being too generous with their memory of Christmas past? Or is it just that they sometimes caught Scrooge and Marley on a good day? The latter doesn't seem the sort of thing that happens to characters in stories. I've been told that story isn't a good model for what happened to me. But perhaps, because of what's written in the margins there, it is.
I sat there thinking, the crown in my hands. I'd been my own ghost of Christmas future. But I could be a ghost of Christmas past too.
Was I going to be a good parent?
I could find out.
I set the display to track the other side of the scale. To take me into the future, as we'd only speculated that some day might be possible. And I put the crown back on before I could think twice.
Oh. Oh there she is. My baby is a she! I'm holding her in my arms. I love her more than I thought it was possible to love anything. The same way the big comfort thing loved me. And I didn't understand that until I put those moments side by side. This mind I'm in now has changed so much. It's hugely focussed on the little girl who's asleep right here. It's a warm feeling, but it's . . . it's hard too. Where did that come from? That worries me. She's so little. This can't be that far in the future. But I've changed so much. There's a feeling of . . . this mind I'm in wanting to prove something. She wants to tell me it's all going to be okay. That I have nothing but love inside me in this one year in the future. And I do . . . up to a point.
Oh, there's a piece of paper with the year written on it sitting on the arm of the chair right in front of me. It's just next year. That's my handwriting.
The baby's name is Alice, the writing continues. You don't need to go any further to hear that. Please make this your last trip.
Alice. That's what we were planning to call her. Thank God. If it was something different, I'd now be wondering where that idea came from.
Oh, I can feel it now. This mind has made room for me. It knew I'd be coming. Of course it did. She remembers what she did with the crown last year. But what does this mean? Why does future me want me to stop doing this? I try to reach across the distance between her and me, but I can only feel what she's feeling, not hear her thoughts. And she had a year to prepare, that note must be all she wants to tell me. She wants me to feel that it's all going to be okay . . . but she's telling me it won't be.
Ben comes in. He doesn't look very different. Unshaven. He's smiling all over his face. He sits on the arm of the chair and looks down at his daughter, proud and utterly in love with her. The room is decorated. There are tiny presents under the tree, joint birthday and Christmas presents the little one is too small to understand. So, oh, she was born very near Christmas Day. We must make such a perfect image sitting together like this. I don't think I can have told Ben about what I know will be happening to me at this moment on Christmas Day. I wouldn't do that. I'd want to spare him.
But . . . what's this? I can feel my body move slightly away from him. It took me a second to realise it, because it's so brilliant, and a little scary, to be suddenly in a body that's not weighed down by the pregnancy, but . . . I'm bristling. I can feel a deep chemical anger. The teenager is in here again. But I look up at him and smile, and this mind lets me. And he's so clearly still my Ben, absolutely the same, the Dad I knew he'd be when he asked and I said yes. It's not like he's started to beat me, I can't feel that in this body, she's not flinching, it's like when I'm angry but I don't feel allowed to express it.
Is this, what, post-natal depression? Or the first sign of me doing unto others what was done to me? A pushed-down anger that might come spilling out?
I don't care what my one-year-older self wants me to do. She can't know that much more than me. I need to know what this is.
Alice is asleep in her cradle. She's so much bigger, so quickly, two years old! Again, that bursting of love into my head. That's reassuring. Another year on, I'm still feeling that.
But the room . . . the room feels very different. Empty. There's a tree, but it's a little one. I make this body walk quickly through the rest of the house. The bathroom is a bit different, the bedroom is a bit different. Baby stuff everywhere, of course, but what's missing? There's . . . there's nothing on that side of the room. I go back to the bathroom. There are no razors. No second toothbrush.
I start looking in drawers, checking my email . . . but the password's been changed. I can't find anything about what's happened. I search every inch of the house, desperate now, certain I'm going to find a funeral card or something. She knew this was going to happen to me, so wouldn't the bitch have left one out in plain sight? Why doesn't she want me to know? Oh please don't be dead, Ben, please-!
I end up meaninglessly, uselessly, looking in the last place, under the bed.
And there's a note, in my own handwriting.
I hate you.
She's deliberately stopping me from finding out. I can't let her.
Alice is looking straight at me this time. 'Presents,' she says to me. 'I have presents. And you have presents.' And I can see behind her that that's true.
That rush of love again. That's constant. I try to feel what's natural and not be stiff and scary about it, and give her a big hug. 'Does Daddy have presents?'
She looks aside, squirms; she doesn't know how to deal with that. Have I warned her about me? I don't want to press her for answers. I don't want to distress her.
I need to keep going and find out.
I'm facing in the same direction, so it's like the decor and contents of the room suddenly shift, just a little. Alice, in front of me, four now, is running in rings on the floor, obviously in the middle of, rather than anticipating something, so that's good.
Ben comes in. He's alive! Oh thank God.
I stand up at the sight of him. Has she told him about me? No, I never would. He looks so different. He's clean shaven, smartly dressed. Did he go on a long journey somewhere? He hoists Alice into his arms and Alice laughs as he jumbles up her hair. 'Happy Christmas birthday!'
Alice sings it back to him, like it's a thing they do together. So . . . everything's all right? Why didn't she want me to-?
A young woman I don't know comes in from the other room. She goes to Ben and puts a hand on his arm. Alice smiles at her.
'We have to be gee oh aye en gee soon,' he says to me.
'Thanks for lunch,' says the girl. 'It was lovely.'
The fury this time is my own. But it chimes with what's inside this mind. She's been holding it down. I take a step forward. And the young woman sees something in my eyes and takes a step back. And that little movement-
No, it isn't the movement, it isn't what she does, this is all me-
I march towards her. I'm taking in every feature of her. Every beautiful feature of that slightly aristocratic, kind-looking, caring face. I'm making a sound I've never heard before in the back of my throat. 'Get away from him. Get your hands off him.'
She's trying to put up her hands and move away. She's astonished. 'I'm sorry-!'
'What the hell?!' Ben is staring at us. Alice has started yelling. Fearful monkey warning shouts.
Something gives inside me. I rush at her. She runs.
I catch her before she gets to the door. I grab her by both arms and throw her at the wall. I'm angry at her and at the mind I'm in too. Did she set me up for this?! Did she invite them here to punish me?! So she could let her anger out and not be responsible?!
She hits the wall and bounces off it. She falls, grabbing her nose. She looks so capable and organised I know she could hit me hard, I know she could defend herself, but she just drops to the ground and puts her hands to her face. I will not make her fight. She can control herself and I can't.
Ben rushes in and grabs me. I don't want him to touch me. I struggle.
'What are you doing?!' He's shouting at me.
I can feel this mind burning up. If I stay much longer, I'll start damaging it. I half want to.
I ripped the crown from my head and threw it onto the ground. I burst into tears. I put my hands on my belly to comfort myself. But I found no comfort there.
But my pain wasn't important. It wasn't! The mistakes I'd made were what was important. What happened to Alice, that was what was important.
I got up and walked around the room. If I stopped now, I was thinking, the rest of my life would be a tragedy, I would be forever anticipating what was written, or trying . . . hopelessly, yes, there was nothing in the research then that said I had any hope . . . to change it. I would be living without hope. I could do that. But the important thing was what that burden would do to Alice . . . If I was going to be allowed to keep Alice, after what I'd seen.
I could go to the airport now. I could leave Ben asleep, while he was still my Ben, and have the baby in France, and break history . . . No I couldn't. Something would get me back to what I'd seen. Maybe something cosmic and violent that wouldn't respect the human mind's need for narrative. That was what the maths said. Alice shouldn't have that in her life. Alice shouldn't have me in her life.
But the me who wrote the first note wanted me not to try to visit the future again. When she knew I had. Did she think that was possible? Did I learn something in the next year that hinted that it might be? Why didn't I address that in future notes?
Because of anger? Because of fatalism? Because of a desire to hurt myself?
But . . . if there was even a chance it might be possible . . .
I slowly squatted and picked up the crown.
I've moved. I'm in a different house. Smaller. I walk quickly through the rooms, searching. I have to support myself against the wall in relief when I see Alice. There she is, in her own room, making a wall out of cardboard wrapping-paper rolls. Still the love in me. I don't think that's ever going to go. It feels like . . . a condition. A good disease this mind lives with. But what's she doing alone in here? Did I make her flee here, exile her here?
She looks up at me and smiles. No. No, I didn't.
I find the note this time on the kitchen table. It's quite long, it's apologetic. It tells me straight away that Ben and . . . Jessica, the young woman's name is Jessica . . . understood quite quickly after I left her mind and she started apologising. She apologises too for not doing anything to stop what happened. But she says she really wasn't setting me up for it. She says she's still working at the Project. She says she's still looking for a way to change time, but hasn't much hope of finding one.
I put down the letter feeling . . . hatred. For her. For her weakness. For her acceptance. That whole letter feels like . . . acting. Like she's saying something because she thinks she should.
From the other room comes the sound of Alice starting to cry. She's hurt herself somehow. I feel the urge from this mind to go immediately to her. But I . . . I actually hesitate. For the first time there is a distance. I'm a stranger from years ago. This isn't really my child. This is her child.
The next few visits were like an exhibition of time-lapse photography about the disintegration of a mother and child's relationship. Except calling it that suggests a distance, and I was amongst it, complicit in it.
'You get so weird!' she's shouting at me. 'It's like you get frightened every Christmas that I'll go away with Dad and Jessica and never come back! I want to! I want to go away!'
But the next Christmas she's still there.
'Will you just listen to me? You look at me sometimes like I'm not real, like I'm not human!' The mind of the future learned that from her memory of my experiences, I guess, learned that from her own experience of being a teenager with added context. Alice has had to fight for her mother to see her as an actual human being. I did that. I mean, I did that to her. I try now to reach out, but she sees how artificial it looks and shies away.
'Do I . . . neglect you?' I ask her.
She swears at me, and says yes. But then she would, wouldn't she?
And then the next year she's not there.
A note says the bitch arranged for her to stay with Ben and Jessica, and it all got too much in terms of anticipation, and she's sure she'll be back next time. She's certain of that. She's sorry, and she . . . hopes I am too?!
I go to the wall in the hall. I've always used bloody walls to do my fighting. I stand close to it. And as hard as I can I butt my head against it. I love the roaring of the mind I'm in as the pain hits us both. Feel that, you bitch, do something about that! I do it again. And then my head starts to swim and I don't think I can do it again, and I get out just as the darkness hits.
That was why she 'hoped I was sorry too', because she knew that was coming.
I wonder how much I injured myself? She couldn't have known when she wrote the note. She was so bloody weak she didn't even try to ask me not to do it.
I am such a bully.
But I'm only doing it to myself.
There's no sign of Alice for the next two Christmases. When the bitch was certain she'd be back next time. The liar. There are just some very needy letters. Which show no sign of brain damage, thank God.
Then there's Alice, sitting opposite me. She wears fashions designed to shock. 'Christmas Day,' she says, 'time for you to go insane and hurt yourself, only today I'm trapped with you. What joy.'
I discover that Ben and Jessica are on holiday abroad with their own . . . children . . . this year. And that the bitch has done . . . some sort of harm to herself on each of these days Alice wasn't here, obviously after I left. Is that just self-harm, am I actually capable of . . .? Well, I suppose I know I am. Or is she trying to offer some explanation for that one time, or to use it to try to hurt Alice emotionally?
'No insanity this year,' I say, trying to make my voice sound calm. And it sounds weird. It sounds old. It sounds like I've put inverted commas around 'insanity'. Like I'm trying to put distance between my own actions, being wry about my own weakness . . . like Mum always is.
I try to have fun with Alice in the ten minutes I've got. She shuts herself in her room when I get too cloying. I try to enter. She slams herself against the door. I get angry, though the weak woman I'm in really doesn't want to, and try to muscle in. But she grabs me, she's stronger than me.
She slams me against the wall. And I burst into tears. And she steps back, shaking her head in mocking disbelief at . . . all I've done to her.
I slipped the crown from my head.
I was staring into space. And then my phone rang. The display said it was Mum. And I thought now of all the times, and then I thought no, I have a cover to maintain here, I don't want her calling Ben . . . I didn't want to go home to Ben . . .
I took a deep breath, and answered.
'Is there . . . news?' she asked. I heard that wry, anxious tone in her voice again. Did I ever think of that sound as anxious before? 'You are due today, aren't you?'
I told her that I was, but it didn't feel like it was going to be today, and that I'd call her immediately when anything started to happen. I stopped then, realising that actually, I did know it was going to be today; Ben said 'Happy Christmas birthday'' to Alice. But I couldn't tell her that I knew that and I didn't want to tell her I felt something I didn't feel. 'Merry Christmas,' I said, remembering the pleasantries, which she hadn't.
She repeated that, an edge in her voice again. 'I was hoping that I might see you today, but I suppose that's impossible, even though the baby isn't coming. You've got much more important things to do.' And the words hurt as much as they always did, but they weren't a dull ache now, but a bright pain. Because I heard them not as barbs to make me guilty, but as being exactly like the tone of the letters the bitch had left for me. Pained, pleading . . . weak. That was why I'd slammed her against the wall, all those years ago, because she was weak, because I could.
'I'm sorry,' I said.
'Oh. I'm always sorry to hear you say that,' she said.
I said I'd call her as soon as anything happened.
Once as she was off the phone, I picked up the crown and held it in my hands like I was in a Shakespeare play. I was so poetically contemplating it. I felt like laughing at my own presumption at having opened up my womb and taken a good look at where Jacob Marley had come from.
I had hurt my own mother. I had never made that up to her. I never could. But I hadn't tried. I had hated her for what I had done. And I could not stop. And in the future, the reflection was as bad as the shadow. I had become my mother. And I had created a daughter who felt exactly the same way about me. And I had created a yearly hell for my future self, making sure she never forgot the lesson I had learned on this day.
I would release myself from it. That's what I decided.
I put the crown on for the last time.
I'm standing there with my daughter. She looks to be in her late twenties. Tidy now. A worried look on her face. She's back for a family Christmas, but she knows there'll be trouble as always. She's been waiting for it. She looks kinder. She looks guilty. The room is bare of decoration. Like the bitch . . . like my victim . . . has decided not to make the effort anymore.
'Get away from me,' I tell Alice, immediately, 'get out of this house.' Because I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to stay inside this mind. I'm going to break it. I'm going to give myself the release of knowing I'm going to go mad, at the age of . . . I look around and find a conveniently placed calendar. Which was unbelievably accommodating of her, to know what I'm about to do and still do that. I will go mad at the age of fifty-six. I have a finish line. It's a relief. Perhaps she wants this too.
'Mum,' says Alice, 'Mum, please-!' And she sounds desperate and worried for herself as well as for me, and still not understanding what all this is about.
But then her expression . . . changes. It suddenly becomes determined and calm. 'Mum, please don't do this. I know we only have minutes-'
'What? Did I tell you about-?'
'No, this is an older Alice. I'm working on the same technology now. I've come back to talk to you.'
It takes me a moment to take that in. 'You mean, you've found a way to change time?'
'No. What's written is written. Immediately after we have this conversation, and we've both left these bodies, you tell me everything about what you've been doing.'
'Why . . . do I do that?' I can feel the sound of my mother's weakness in my voice.
'Because after you leave here, you go forward five years and see me again.' She takes my hands in hers and looks into my eyes. I can't see the hurt there. The hurt I put there. And I can see a reflection too.
Can I believe her?
She sees me hesitate. And she grows determined. 'I'll stay as long as you will,' she says. 'You might do this to yourself, but I know you'd never let your child suffer.'
I think about it. I do myself the courtesy of that. I toy with the horror of doing that. And then I look again into her face, and I know I'm powerless in the face of love.
I'm looking into the face of someone I don't expect to see. It's David. Our experimental subject. The schizophrenic. Only now he's a lot older, and . . . oh, his face . . . he's lost such tension about his jaw. Beside him stands Alice, five years older.
He reaches out a hand and touches my cheek.
I shy away from him. What?!
'I'm sorry,' he says. 'I shouldn't have done that. We're . . . a couple, okay? We've been together for several years now. Hello you from the past. Thank you for the last four years of excellent family Christmases.' He gestures to decorations and cards all around.
'Hello, Mum,' says Alice. She reaches down and . . . oh, there's a crib there. She's picked up a baby. 'This is my daughter, Cyala.'
I walk slowly over. It feels as odd and as huge as walking as a child did. I look into the face of my granddaughter.
David, taking care not to touch me, joins me beside them. 'It's so interesting,' he says, 'seeing you from this new angle. Seeing a cross section of you. You look younger!'
'Quickly,' says Alice.
'Okay, okay.' He looks back to me. And I can't help but examine his face, try to find the attraction I must later feel. And yes, it's there. I just never saw him in this way before. 'Listen, this is what you told me to say to you, and I'm glad that, from what Alice has discovered, it seems I can't mess up my lines. It's true that you and Alice here fought, fought physically, like you say you and your mum did. Though I once saw her deny that to your face, by the way. She sounded like you were accusing her of something, and she kept on insisting it hadn't happened until you got angry and then finally she agreed like she was just going along with it. Oh God, this is so weird-' He picked up some sort of thin screen where I recognised something quite like my handwriting. 'I was sure I added to what I was supposed to say there, but now it turns out it's written down here, and I'm not sure that it was . . . before. I guess your memory didn't quite get every detail of this correct. Or perhaps there's a certain . . . kindness, a mercy to time? Anyway!' He put down the screen again, certain he wouldn't need it. 'But the important thing is, you only see one day. You don't see all the good stuff. There were long stretches of good stuff. You didn't create a monster, any more than your mum created a monster in you. You both just made people.' He dares to actually touch me, and now I let him. 'What you did led to a cure for people like me. And it changed how people see themselves and the world, and that's been good and bad, it isn't a utopia outside these walls and it isn't a wasteland, she wanted me to emphasise that, it's just people doing stuff as usual. And these are all your words, not mine, but I agree with them . . . you are not Ebenezer Scrooge, to be changed from one thing into another. Neither was your mother. Even knowing all of this is fixed, even knowing everything that happened, even if you only know the bad, you'd do it all anyway.'
And he kisses me. Which makes me feel guilty and hopeful at the same time.
And I let go.
I slowly put down the crown.
I stood up. I'd been there less than an hour. I went back to my car.
I remember the drive home through those still empty streets. I remember how it all settled into my mind, how a different me was born in those moments. I knew what certain aspects of my life to come would be like. I had memories of the future. That weight would always be with me. I regretted having looked. I still do. Despite everything it led to, for me and science and the world. I tell people they don't want to look into their future selves. But they usually go ahead and do it. And then they have to come to the same sort of accommodation that a lot of people have, that human life will go on, and that it's bigger than them, and that they can only do what they can do. To some, that fatalism has proven to be a relief. But it's driven some to suicide. It has, I think, on average, started to make the world a less extreme place. There is only so much we can do. And we don't see the rest of the year. So we might as well be kind to one another.
There are those who say they've glimpsed a pattern in it all. That the whole thing, as seen from many different angles, is indeed like writing. That, I suppose, is the revelation, that we're not the writers, we're what's being written.
I write now from the perspective of the day after my younger self stopped visiting. I'm relieved to be free of that bitch. Though, of course, I knew everything she was going to do. The rest of my life now seems like a blessed release. I wrote every note as I remembered them, and sometimes that squared with how I was feeling at the time, and sometimes I was playing a part . . . for whose benefit, I don't know.
I remember walking back into my house and finding Ben just waking up. And he looked at me, at the doubtless strange expression on my face, and in that moment I recall thinking I saw his expression change too. By some infinitesimal amount. I have come to think that was when he started, somewhere deep inside, the chain reaction of particle trails that took him from potentially caring dad to letting himself off the hook.
But that might equally just be the story I tell myself about that moment.
What each of us is is but a line in a story that resonates with every other line. Who we are is distributed. In all sorts of ways. And we can't know them all.
And then I felt something give. There was actually a small sound in the quiet. Liquid splashed down my legs. And as I knew I was going to, I went into labour on Christmas Day.
Ben leaped out of bed and ran to me, and we headed out to the car. Outside, the birds were singing. Of course they were.
'You're going to be fine,' he said. 'You're going to be a great mother.'
'Up to a point,' I said.
“The Ghosts of Christmas” copyright © 2012 by Paul Cornell
Art copyright © 2012 Scott Bakal