This story was directly inspired by the occasion of my birthday and my musings about the way we measure time. It is rigorously logical but uses the logic of associations between ideas rather than the logic of empirical causality. As I have explained elsewhere, this is a common working method of mine. This tale also disproves the old adage that there are no 'new' plots. The central conceit relies entirely on the possibilities that exist because of the telephone and would have been inconceivable before the invention of that instrument. Technology opens up new narratives not merely in terms of the usage of the technological objects themselves but in the unexpected consequences that arise from their application in the world. These consequences are epiphenomena of the invention and can rarely be predicted accurately.
It was the day before my fiftieth birthday. I sat in the most comfortable chair in my house and tried to focus on enjoying the fact that I was still in my forties. I wanted to squeeze every last drop from that decade before I finally reached the half century point.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on doing this, as if the pressure of my tight eyelids was the mechanism by which the juice of youthfulness was extracted from the flesh of the year. Not that one really is a youth in one’s forties but time is relative, as we know, and the impending leap into my fifties did seem a considerable one.
Then I realised that there wouldn’t actually be a leap. There could be no abrupt switch from my forties to my fifties, as if I had to jump a hurdle and land on the far side with slightly more weary bones. The process was in fact gradual, like gangrene, and had commenced during my sojourn in the chair. Parts of me already were fifty.
This requires an explanation. Let me provide it.
I am not referring to the truism that ‘age’ is how you feel rather than a simple measurement of how long you have existed on the Earth. It is clear that the number of times our planet orbits the sun is merely a convenience of administration when applied to people.
It is useful to society to define an exact age in this manner but it is not accurate. We age not astronomically but biologically and for some people the process is slower than for others. This may be unfair but it’s the truth and there is no point arguing. Genetics, fitness and luck all play a part, of course, but this is not what I discovered.
No, the insight that was granted to me in that chair at that moment had a spatial, one might even say geometric, foundation, rather than any direct association to biology. On the wall opposite my chair hung a large map of the world and it confronted me when I opened my eyes. The map showed lines of longitude clearly marked, thin strings connecting the north pole to the south, and strong enough not to snap.
Forgive that absurdity. Those lines are not real, of course, but they aid our understanding of the cosmic body on which we thrive. And they help divide this spinning orb of ours into time zones. As I blinked at the map, I saw that my former conviction that acute mindfulness would allow me to fully experience and enjoy the last day of my forties was a delusion and a naïve product of geographical ignorance.
For now I knew that the time zones across the globe were loading my fiftieth year into my body and life the same way that a program loads on an old-fashioned computer. It was happening by increments, percentages. Already I had been fifty in Kiribati, the easternmost of all lands, for the past hour. Soon I would be fifty in Fiji.
Thus I was able, by examining the map in conjunction with a clock on the mantelpiece below, to closely monitor the spread of the infection, for want of a better word, of this invasion of my present reality by a fiftieth year I wasn’t ready for. I turned my mind inwards too, trying to analyse and confirm the effects on my system.
The aspects of my soul that shared something or anything in common with those Pacific islands in terms of… what? culture or aesthetics? were older than the rest of me. They had forged ahead, those pesky pioneering aspects, deciding to be a vanguard pushing into the future. Or maybe they had merely grown wearier more easily.
The Earth continued to revolve and my fiftieth birthday moved like an indomitable explorer across the map. Now I was fifty in New Zealand but not yet in Australia. My kiwi was older than my kangaroo. But what was my ‘kiwi’ and what my ‘kangaroo’? They were totems, metaphors, signs and symbols of something deep in my psyche, and although I was unable to say or even guess what they represented, it was mathematically certain that one was older than the other. I felt that the kiwi part of my soul was a more mature portion than the kangaroo.
But the kangaroo caught up. They always do. Then I became fifty in Japan, in the Philippines, in Thailand and Burma. And I kept examining my soul to determine how it was changing. My pagoda was older. Unlike gangrene, the change didn’t creep but selected discrete blocks of aspects and transmuted them, aged them, but these blocks might not be adjacent to each other. My stupa was stupefied…
A quarter of my life was fifty, then one third. I was uncertain whether this was a less painful method of crossing into my fifties than the sudden midnight plunge. Then the logic of the time zones reached India and my chakras turned fifty. A shiver ran through my frame. There was a subtle disconnect now between my chakras and the body that housed them. The idea was troubling, too troubling to bear.
I had to take action at last. I have a friend in Madras who is a guru of sorts. My friend would hopefully give me the advice I craved. I picked up the telephone and called her and although it was late where she was, she answered without a sleepy voice. I spoke to her, telling her of my distress and the feeling of discomfort in my nerves. She listened with a repressed laugh that I could hear despite the fact it was silent. But she is a good and sweet friend and didn’t mock me openly.
As I was babbling to her, it occurred to me that although I was sitting in my chair at the age of forty-nine, my voice on her end of the telephone connection was fifty! This thought made me break off in mid sentence. A voice older than the throat that utters it. I don’t mean older by fractions of a second but by an entire year and decade.
So my voice was older than I was. It would have stayed the same age if I hadn’t called India. What a fool I was!
Or perhaps I had been wise without knowing it. The reason my voice was older wasn’t necessarily because it was more of a feeble duffer than the mouth that had projected it. That was one way of looking at it, true, but one could equally declare that it existed in the future, an explanation that fitted all the facts just as plausibly and far more conveniently for my purposes. The sound of things to come…
“Shubha, listen to me,” I said to my friend. “This voice of mine now has a temporal advantage over my ears.”
She answered with some witty retort, but I found that I was concerned more with listening to my own words than to hers. I made hasty apologies and put the phone down. My voice was fifty and it was a part of me, so it must be fifty here too as well as in India.
Anything I now said to myself would feature words that existed in the future, that originated from tomorrow. We often daydream about what it would be like to offer advice, from our more experienced perspective, to our younger self. I had a chance to do so.
“The weather tomorrow will be sunny,” I intoned. I grinned at this, for the forecast predicted rain, but that was merely the educated estimate of a meteorological team using mathematical modelling, whereas my assertion came from the time itself, from tomorrow.
In other words, my voice had looked out of the window and seen there was sunshine. No mathematics necessary.
Had I been a gambling man I could have taken commercial advantage of the fact my voice existed in the future. Horse race winners would have contributed enormously to my funds. But that’s not my character. I have a philosophical outlook on life and feel contempt for the amusements of the acquisitive consumer society that has evolved to envelop us like a malign growth. My voice wouldn’t stoop so low.
“I will meet the love of my life tomorrow,” I told myself and the news excited me. It is one thing to encourage oneself with a positive statement, to bolster one’s confidence and keep away despair, but quite another to receive that statement from the future, from a time when the happy event has actually happened, to be told it as a fact.
After all, it had to be true. To my voice it wasn’t a future event but a contemporary observation. I wondered how exactly I would meet her, but then I realised I wasn’t required to do anything to make it happen. It was fated to occur. My voice had promised me.
She was a vague outline in my imagination but the parts coalesced as I concentrated, the outline firming while remaining soft, and I found to my surprise that she looked a lot like my friend in India. Then I reasoned that my voice had very recently been within Shubha’s ear and surely still was basking in the afterglow. This was natural.
I told myself many things that would enormously improve my life on the following day and I realised that I had a truly spectacular day to look forward to. I supposed that the source of many of these promised boons would be my friends bringing me gifts.
The time passed in this manner and I turned fifty in Turkey, Italy and Spain. Only one hour remained before I turned fifty where I sat. Slightly less than half of me was fifty now, the rest still in my forties, so there was a neat balance. My doumbek, spaghetti and flamenco were a little older than my bagpipes, stout ale and riverdance, and rather more elderly than my banjo, burger and chicken strut. I was like a jigsaw man, with pieces that were both newer and yet older replacing those that already comprised the picture of myself. A curious paradox.
Then the inevitable moment arrived and the clock struck midnight and my forties slipped off my bones like a silk negligee from the curves of the woman I was destined to meet very soon. Except that… not all my forties went away. By no means! Almost half remained. They were declining on the other side of my official birthday but they were still there. The world was revolving and embracing them in turn.
I quickly phoned a friend in the United States of America. My friend was wide-awake because the night was relatively young over there. With breathless urgency I asked, “How old am I?”
“Forty-nine,” he replied.
“Then my voice is now younger than me.”
“And you prefer for it to be the same age? Don’t worry, it will come back into synchronization soon.”
“No, I want it to be older than me, to exist in the future, so it can tell me about events that will happen.”
“Well, now it can tell you about events that have happened instead. It is good to know what has been.”
“I already know what has been. The problem is that I no longer know what will be. It’s worse than that. I don’t even know what is. My voice is a past voice and so knows nothing of the present. No more than it knows about the future. What have I done?”
I put the phone down and chewed my fingernails.
Anxiety made me feel nauseous for some minutes. I told myself that I was worrying about nothing and that I should calm down, but such advice came from a voice existing in the past. How could that voice understand clearly what was happening right now?
I ignored my own voice. I disdained its ignorance.
Sleepiness finally overcame me and lulled the turmoil in my brain. I went to bed and although I muttered to myself in my sleep, as I always do, I didn’t wake with the feeling that I had missed out on some topic of importance. My voice was behind the times.
Or was it? I jumped out of bed and consulted the clock and discovered that I was fifty in the USA too now. In fact I was fifty everywhere in the whole world. My voice had returned to me.
I had planned to go for a birthday walk, to visit my friends and receive their blessings and gifts, to go for a special dinner, to celebrate. But none of this was required now. All these things would come to me wherever I was and whatever I did. My future voice had told me so. The love of my life would come to me no matter my location.
So I stayed indoors and slouched on my chair and waited. The phone kept ringing, no doubt my friends wanting to know where I was and why I hadn’t met them at the designated hours. They were probably worried about me. But I sat tight and ignored their attempts to get in touch. There was no need for me to move a muscle. The events that were fated to occur would occur no matter what action I took.
It rained heavily all day. I kept my faith until the end.
When night fell I finally began to suspect that my voice had lied to me and had played a horrid trick on its owner. Probably it desired Shubha for itself and didn’t want me to have her…
Even advice from the future can be mistaken, especially if the giver of the advice is deliberately deceitful. The rain against my window was like the tears of frustration I felt like weeping.
Calling my friends one by one, I humbly apologised.
I had wasted too much of my intimate time with the future and past and missed out on all my presents.