written by: Peter Astle
I was thirty-one when I first met my future self in a Derby backstreet pub.
The guy sat down on the empty barstool next to me and quietly ordered a pint. It was the day before I was to marry Heather and my head was full of wedding plans. I barely noticed the guy, but when I heard his voice––my voice––I turned to look.
It was me. No question about it. A very much older me, maybe twenty years older, but me, nonetheless. The hair was grey and cut in a different style to my dark floppy mop––shorter, swept back, spikey on top––and the face was thinner, the wrinkles around the eyes magnified by rimless reading glasses. He seemed in fairly good shape, if a little thin. The colour must have drained from my face because he held up a calming hand, just way I do when want to appease someone.
“Try not to be alarmed,” he whispered.
I would’ve been less alarmed if he’d jammed a shotgun against my forehead. I was speechless. I needed a cigarette. I placed my pint on the bar, surprised I’d not dropped it.
“You recognise me then?” His smile was my smile. The teeth were somewhat different, slightly worn, shorter, stained, but they were my teeth. I caught the glimpse of a gold crown I’d had fitted a couple of years ago. “I thought I’d pay you a visit,” he said.
I found my voice at last. “The DeLorean parked outside?”
He laughed–– my laugh––only slightly different to the way that I hear it. Like when you hear your voice on a recording. Something to do with how we hear our own voices mainly through the bones in our heads rather than just our ears. “Let’s just say, in 2037 they . . . found a way.”
I did some calculations. It was 2005. “Looking pretty good for sixty-three.”
The barman served him a Stella Artois. Same as mine. He took a sip. “This is a huge risk.”
He didn’t need to explain it to me. The old time-travelling ‘grandfather paradox’ was a favourite of mine. A person travels back in time, kills their own grandfather before the father was born, thus preventing the time traveller’s existence. “Yeah, I get that. I trust you’ve not come back to kill grandpa?”
“No, I’ve not.” He placed his pint on the bar next to mine. I noticed the wedding band. Same thick silver ring Heather had just bought for me two weeks ago. “You know I shouldn’t be visiting you.”
“I guess not.” And suddenly I had a thousand questions. “So why are you here?”
He thought about that. “What would you have done if you could go back in time right now to when you were, say, eighteen or nineteen? Your misspent youth. Would you pay yourself a visit? Would you be tempted? Even though it’s against the rules?”
I didn’t even have to think about it. “I guess so. I like breaking the rules.”
“Rules are for the guidance of wise men––”
“And the obedience of fools,” I finished.
“It’s forbidden, of course. Strictly forbidden. We’re allowed to watch ourselves from a distance, and we’re encouraged to wear disguises on our secret excursions, but under no circumstance are we allowed to communicate with our younger self.”
“And yet you’re here, talking to me.”
“I knew you could handle it.”
I inspected him more closely. He looked to be more early fifties than early sixties. I was pretty pleased with the way I’d worn. “So, there are others?”
“Thousands of us. Excursions are not cheap, but people find a way to go visit. Hidden, of course.”
“But not you?”
“I have my reasons.”
“Are we still together. Me and Heather?”
He smiled. “You made the right choice. Enjoy the wedding tomorrow.”
“And your reasons?”
He paused so long I thought he wasn’t going to say anything. Then he tapped the right-hand pocket of my jacket, where I kept my cigarettes. “Give them up,” he said.
“I imagine you giving me advice is the biggest breach of all.”
“You wouldn’t believe it.”
I frowned, considering this. “If I gave up smoking now, every penny I would spend over the years, every journey I would make into a newsagent to buy cigarettes would not happen, right? It would cause major ripples in the space-time continuum.”
“Not as bad as killing grandpa before I was born, but yes . . . there will be consequences.”
More calculations. “I smoke around twenty a day. That’s around three thousand pounds a year, thirty-thousand in ten years. If that money just disappears . . .”
“It’s just my advice.”
I lit up a cigarette. In 2005, you could still smoke in pubs.
“Besides,” he said. “I knew you wouldn’t listen to me.”
We drank in silence for a while. I somehow knew not to ask too many questions. When he finished his Stella, he told me he had to go, that the price of an excursion doubled after half an hour. He left the bar, leaving me smoking my third cigarette, staring at his empty pint glass.
On the night Charlie was born I celebrated alone in the same backstreet bar in Derby. Same barstool. The indoor smoking ban was now law, but it didn’t matter to me. I’d given up six years earlier, not long after I’d seen my future self.
The man who now sat next to me on the empty barstool was much older than the one I’d seen before. The hair was thinning, he’d gained some weight, but it was still me.
“Congratulations, Paul,” he smiled. “Charlie has such a wonderful future.”
Though shocked, I was nevertheless curious. “How old are you now?”
“Eighty-three,” he grinned. “I made another twenty years. The doctors were stunned. Completely baffled. When I got back last time, they ran a dozen tests. The lung cancer had completely disappeared.”
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