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The Psychology of Time Travel
Author:Kate Mascarenhas

The Psychology of Time Travel

Kate Mascarenhas

For Matthew Murtagh




The laboratory, in Cumbria, was home to four young scientists. Margaret was a baroness turned cosmologist. Lucille had come from the Toxteth slums to make radio waves travel faster than light. Grace – who never gave the same account of her history twice – was an expert in the behaviour of matter. And the last was Barbara: the baby of the group, hair so fair it was nearly white, ruddy-cheeked and naively wholesome. She specialised in nuclear fission. All four women were combining their knowledge in a new, and unique, project.

They did so in near isolation. The lab overlooked the Lakeland Fells. Some nights, when Barbara’s head was too full of equations, she would run outside with Grace and yell at the darkness because they liked to hear the echo. There were no neighbours close enough to complain. No one visited by day either – not even the postman. Each month Barbara collected mail from the village five miles away: bills for Margaret, the latest Paris Match for Grace, and letters from Lucille’s grandmother in Montego Bay.

But one spring afternoon, a van stopped outside the lab with a delivery for them all. The driver jumped out and pulled open the rear doors. He unloaded a hutch full of rabbits.

When he left, the women carried the hutch to the workroom, and peered inside. The rabbits had crammed themselves into the darkest corner. Their ears and limbs lay flat against their bodies. Each hair trembled. The rabbits were watchful and chary of their new owners. They were right to be.

Barbara snapped on a pair of latex gloves. She opened the wire door and reached for the nearest rabbit. His fur was brown and his eyes black. He struggled for a moment then settled in her arms. Through her lab coat Barbara could feel the warmth of his body.

‘Shall we give him a name?’ she asked the others.

‘Yes,’ Margaret said. ‘For the history books!’

‘He’s a scruffy fellow,’ Grace said. ‘His name should be scruffy too.’

‘Call him Patrick Troughton,’ Lucille suggested.

Everyone laughed.

‘Patrick it is,’ said Barbara. ‘Shall we capture this on film?’

They all agreed, and Barbara fetched the camera. Through the viewfinder she watched her colleagues pose: Lucille, coiffed like Aretha Franklin with NHS glasses perched at the tip of her nose; blue-eyed Grace, her petite features framed by a dark pixie cut; and finally Margaret, smiling imperiously and smoothing her steel-blonde bob.

Barbara set the timer and ran to stand at Lucille’s side. This was a special occasion. The women erupted in laughter, from shared excitement, as the camera clicked.

‘Right then, ladies,’ Margaret said. ‘Let’s put Patrick to work.’

At the far end of the workroom was a hollow steel machine, about the size of a hatbox. The women had spent two years on its design and construction. It could propel a marble up to thirty seconds through time. On most attempts the marble arrived intact.

Today, Patrick would become the first living time traveller – just as long as he, too, remained intact.

Barbara weighed the rabbit. On examination, his mouth and nose were clean, and his feet were free of abscesses. His nails were recently clipped. She shone a torch into his ears to check they were clear. He appeared to be in excellent health. Finally she checked his respiration and heart rate, and wrote the figures down.

‘Normal range,’ she told the others.

‘Mine isn’t,’ Grace replied.

More laughter; nervous this time. The team needed a successful animal trial. Without it, they’d never get funding to develop human time travel.

‘We’re all set,’ Barbara said, and placed the rabbit in the time machine. She adjusted the dials. Now she must join Margaret and Grace and Lucille as spectators. There was nothing to do but wait.

At the machine’s whine Patrick’s ears twitched. He shuffled and sniffed the metal walls, but they were too smooth for him to climb.

‘Three… two… one…’ Barbara counted down.

Patrick’s fur was fading to fawn, like a coat lightened by years of wear. He grew steadily paler, towards translucency, until he resembled only a ghost of himself. He slipped out of existence. The dematerialisation was complete. The steel cavity shone with afternoon sunlight.

Please come back, Patrick, Barbara prayed. Come back safely.

The women edged closer to each other. Grace gave Barbara’s arm a reassuring squeeze.

And as surely as he’d disappeared, the rabbit returned. Whole. With an understandable expression of surprise.

‘Oh thank God,’ said Lucille.

‘Respiration and heart rate?’ Margaret prompted.

Barbara took the measurements. Patrick was so solid in her hands. He felt real – and he made their work, thus far theoretical, feel real too. To Barbara’s relief, his heart and breathing – though faster than before – were still in a normal range.

‘We’ve done it,’ Barbara said. ‘You bloody brilliant women. We’ve done it.’

They hugged, their voices mingling as they spoke over each other, and Barbara’s vision blurred with tears. She was so grateful – for Lucille’s superluminal research, and Grace’s thermodynamics, and Margaret’s utter, unshakeable conviction that they would succeed. The team were pioneers. They were going to be the first people to travel through time.

‘This occasion calls for cigars!’ Lucille said. ‘What’s on the menu this evening?’

Barbara wiped her eyes. ‘I’m afraid all that’s in the larder is sardines and baked beans. With evaporated milk and tinned peaches for dessert.’

‘All lovingly decanted,’ said Grace.

‘Speaking of feasts,’ Margaret said, ‘we should give Patrick a last supper. Check his digestion’s shipshape before dissection.’

‘No!’ Barbara exclaimed involuntarily.

‘No?’ Margaret repeated. ‘Why shouldn’t we feed him?’

‘Feed him – but don’t dissect him.’

‘We must, darling,’ said Grace. ‘The sooner we check for internal injuries, the sooner we can plan human trials.’

Grace was right, and Barbara struggled to reply because she was embarrassed by her own sentimentality. She’d conducted her share of dissections over the years. However, none of those animals had achieved anything as wondrous as this rather dim, rumpled rabbit: he was the first living creature to ever travel through time. A summary execution horrified her.

‘We have all the other rabbits for replication experiments,’ Barbara said when she found her words. ‘There’s going to be lots of dissections to choose from. Patrick doesn’t need to be one of them.’

‘Actually,’ Margaret said, ‘I can see the benefits to keeping him alive. The press will be interested in the first rabbit time traveller. You know how gaga the public go over animals.’

Press coverage would make it easier to attract funding. Up till now they had got by on a few small grants. They had been helped, too, by Margaret’s wealth. But they would require much greater investment to continue. Clearly Margaret thought Patrick could play a small part in winning the money they needed.

‘I suppose he’d make a sweet lab mascot,’ Grace said.

‘So Patrick lives,’ Lucille concluded.

Patrick swiftly became Barbara’s pet. She took responsibility for feeding and watering him, and for changing his bedding. He came to recognise her voice. His personality turned out to be a playful and affectionate one. He’d even sit on her lap if called, which gave her quiet satisfaction. Everyone recognised that Patrick belonged to Barbara. But when she was forced to leave the lab – before the completion of their project – she was not allowed to take Patrick with her.