Suddenly, with one mighty bound, it was a dark and stormy night! Hold on a moment… How did that sentence end up in this story? I always pick clichés out of a text before I publish it with a special fork designed for the task. This one in fact: Ψ. Any isolated cliché that resists forking can be destroyed by reversing its polarity; but that’s easier said than done. More often than not, attempting to reverse the polarity of a cliché is like trying to get magma out of a heart…
Thornton Excelsior finally stabbed himself in the back once too often. Not with a fork but metaphorically. He has absolutely no loyalty to his future self, feels no empathy at all for the Thornton of tomorrow, his chronological successor, in the same way that his previous self, the Thornton of yesterday had no loyalty to the Thornton of today. He regards his future self as a being completely separate from himself, as little more than an unlovable neighbour.
This doesn’t mean that he ever bears him malice: he simply has no particular interest in that fellow’s welfare. “I don’t care about the man I’ll be tomorrow,” he would say, “and why should I? Does he care about me? Of course not!” And so he lived in a manner that might be regarded as reckless or irresponsible but which in truth was perfectly consistent with reason and logic. For we aren’t the same person tomorrow as we are today: this is real philosophy.
Everything about us that makes us what we are is mutable and transient. Our atoms, memories, location in spacetime: all are subject to constant change. Thornton Excelsior was no exception. But he acted in accordance with this insight, rather than simply acknowledging it as an intellectual fact that had nothing to do with his daily routine. Whenever he considered his situation in the world he realised it was the fault of a stranger, an unfriendly individual.
And that individual was his previous self, the Thornton of yesterday, who had unloaded onto him, the innocent Thornton of today, all the worries and responsibilities that he should have dealt with himself. Why should the Thornton of the present accept this burden? It was nothing to do with him. And so he too would pass it on: to the fellow in the following day who shared his name and identity but wasn’t really him, the Thornton of tomorrow, an unsuspecting fool.
In this manner, Thornton kept putting things off.
Unpaid bills, awkward confrontations, relationship problems: they were passed onto him from someone else, his earlier self, even though he never asked for them and didn’t want them. It was only fair that he, in turn, pass them on again, to his later self, also a separate individual. Otherwise he would be taking responsibility for issues that weren’t his. And the moment he did that, he would become a pushover, a fall guy or patsy for all the prior Thorntons.
And yet he knew that one day it would be impossible to pass the buck further. The very last Thornton in the sequence, the Thornton who was living through the final day of his life, wouldn’t have anyone else to unload the accumulated burden onto. He would be forced to sort it all out himself. Poor fellow! But why should the Thornton of today care about that? The Thornton of that final day didn’t care about him. Unreciprocated sympathy is degrading.
But something had gone wrong. It turned out that the Thornton of today was the last one after all: this was the final day of his life. He was dying rapidly. Extreme old age was the cause, and the stress of worrying about dealing with all the problems that had been put off until now made a tangible pain in his chest, a clenched fist that throbbed and burned inside him, a displaced hand of doom. Those other Thorntons were traitors, ganging up on him!
He considered his predicament frantically but carefully.
There was only one way for him to avoid the accumulated responsibility and that was to stay alive until the next day. It was almost eleven o’clock, one hour to midnight. If he could only survive those sixty odd minutes, his present self would be safe and free: the Thornton of tomorrow would have to deal with the crisis, not him. With grasping fingers he picked up the telephone and dialled the local hospital. “I need a doctor! Send him immediately to my sickbed!”
“No doctors are available at such short notice, unless…”
“I am a man of great wealth and dubious taste. I can pay millions, do you hear? Millions! But he must be an ethical doctor. Ethical. This is very important. Your best ethical doctor!”
“Very well. We will send him by powerful motorbike.”
And so they did, bless them.
The doctor arrived five minutes later; he pulled off his goggles and hastened to Thornton’s side, checking the dying man’s pulse, respiration, blood pressure and bank account. “Are you an ethical doctor?” mumbled Thornton during this process. “I once had dealings with two members of the medical profession, a pair of rogues, Vaughan and Frazer they were called, and they were most unethical. I don’t need the kind of attention doctors like that can offer me. What are you?”
The newcomer stood erect and saluted smartly. “I am Dr Heelsnap Pinktoes, the most ethical doctor this side of bashful modesty. No doctor in history has been quite so ethical.”
Thornton was satisfied. He explained his predicament and bewailed the landslide of tasks and responsibilities that had crashed down onto him from the past. Then he indicated the clock on the bedside table, uttered the words, “Until midnight!” and fell back exhausted on the pillows. Dr Pinktoes clucked his tongue, opened his medical bag and pulled out a contraption that resembled the collision of a thousand giant metal spiders. “Will that thing really prolong my life?” rasped Thornton.
“Prolong your life?” Dr Pinktoes was bewildered. “I don’t know anything about such matters. I don’t deal with health but with ethics. I’m an ethical doctor, which is what you asked for.”
“Yes, but…” Thornton was too weak to protest properly.
Dr Pinktoes lowered the contraption onto his patient’s bare chest. It adhered there, held firm by some strong electromagnetic or gravitational field. The multiple mechanical arms uncurled: they were extendable tentacles. A control was adjusted and the device hummed.
“The circuitry has been attuned to the frequency of your soul. These arms are operated by thought alone. Use them wisely.”
“But my health…” wheezed Thornton.
Dr Pinktoes answered primly, “I am not here to fix your health but to cure your ethics. I am an ethical doctor. There is no time to lose: you know what needs to be done. I suggest you do it.”
Thornton grimaced. Then he made a decision. The arms waved like the legs of an inverted beetle. Suddenly they speared through the open window, diverged out into the world, reached over houses, snaked out of the city and over the moors and oceans to other cities, entered rooms and offices. They paid unpaid bills, soothed mistreated girlfriends, cleaned dirty dishes in sinks, picked up dropped litter, wrote letters to neglected friends. An entire lifetime of deferred tasks. And then—
The clock struck midnight. Thornton Excelsior was dead.
Thirty thousand previous Thorntons, one for each day of his life, stared hard from the past at this moment. Then they pointed at the corpse and laughed, billowing the mists of time.
“I can’t believe he fell for it. What a loser!”