A Temporal Feedback

by Bertil Falk

Inspired by and dedicated to Carmen Ruggero


As always, a big, lilac safety pin penetrated her left cheek. Her hair was green, eyes were emerald, eyelashes green, and so were her eyebrows and lips. Green things hung from her ears. Except for that safety pin, she was all in green. Just look at her high-heeled shoes! And she was young, but not that young. Her visitor knew that Billie Occasion was divorced.

On the other hand, the visitor was not at all young. She had passed her 86th birthday, and her visit was just in the nick of time. Her face was lined, which actually made her look better than when she was 40. Her white hair somewhat bluish. Her lips, pale.

She had never before seen a person like Billie Occasion. In fact, this was her visit to Manhattan. The first had been in 1933. The second in 1966. And now she was back in 2009. She had taken an early morning bus from Boston and arrived well in time to be at 505 5th Avenue at one o’clock.

The Empire State Building was dimly visible through a window. The hostess sat on an enormous white cushion in the room with incredible artworks: old castles, ghosts. And the sound of Bollywood music trickled at a low level through hidden loudspeakers.

”Please sit down,” said the lady in green. “You must be exhausted after walking all the way up the avenue from Chinatown.”

Amanda Kennedy looked very surprised, but Billie Occasion added, “I can see by the way you’re breathing and by the color of your cheeks. It shows that you’ve walked a long way for your age. And since Greyhound in Boston has competition from companies with cheaper bus fares, I imagined that you arrived in Chinatown and walked up the avenue. But what are you waiting for? By all means, sit down!”

Amanda Kennedy sat down and her eyes hit a book on a table. The Thinking Machine by Jacques Futrelle.

“As you can see, I’ve prepared myself by doing some reading. Have you read Jacques Futrelle?”

Amanda Kennedy shook her head. “Never heard of him.”

“Never mind. You said someone had recommended me?”

“My daughter told me that Carmen, a friend of hers, had tipped her off that you’re a different kind of... problem-solver?”

“Flattering, but your daughter’s friend has been exaggerating. Anyway, I must know more about your so-called problem.”

“As I told you when I called, it goes back in time and happened before I was born in 1923. My maternal grandfather, Sean O’Neill, was one of the sandhogs, who began digging the subway system at Boston Common in 1895.”

“The first subway in the United States,” Billie Occasion said. “So, your grandfather was there when the Park Street station was built.”

“What happened was this: in the year 1899 he told someone he had sent a message that would be delivered to his descendants at the beginning of 2009. How that would happen was never revealed. My daughter and I are his only surviving descendants, but now we are at the beginning of April 2009, and no message has appeared.”

“I see. I cannot promise you any results, but I can give it a try and see if there’s anything to find out.”

The loudspeakers were now performing A.R. Rahman’s serene Bombay Theme. Billie Occasion smiled, closed her eyes and covered her tear glands by putting the thumb and the forefinger of her left hand over the root of her nose.

Unflinching, The Thinking Machine, also known as Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., M. D., etc. looked at the woman who had suddenly materialized in his study. He immediately showed that he realized she was somewhat out of touch with the season.

“I’m afraid that you are too late,” he said. “Saint Patrick's Day has already been celebrated.”

He squinted through his spectacles. They were thick, like the bottom of a beer bottle. His body was small, his head oversized and covered with a shock of yellow hair.

“I can’t remember if we have an appointment,” he added. “Who are you?”

Billie Occasion introduced herself.

“From 2009... hmm... seems against the law of cause and effect. The arrow of time points in one direction,” argued The Thinking Machine. “And this is 1899.”

“With due respect to cause and effect, I am here,” Billie Occasion protested.

“So it seems, and you said that you want to know how to find a certain sandhog called Sean O’Neill. I never deal with such futile problems. I leave them to Hutchinson Hatch, a reporter.”

“Your sidekick, yes, I know.”

“I found him a year ago in very bad condition at Boston Common. I saved his life. Ever since, he has been my researcher. I concentrate on the thinking. Let me call him.”

* * *

“Some guy wants yer on the phone,” an office boy told the reporter.

“Who is it?”

“I think it’s the machine.”

Hutchinson Hatch immediately got to his feet and grabbed the receiver. He listened in disbelief.

“You’re kidding,” he said, paused and listened again. “But of course. I’ll be there as soon as I’ve found that particular Sean O’Neill.”

* * *

Hutchinson Hatch stared at the strange woman, who certainly looked like something from another world.

“As I said, this lady claims that she has defied the probabilities of time,” the unshakeable Thinking Machine said. “And I can see that you can see that she looks like it. You’ve found the man?”

“I have indeed,” the reporter said. ”Though Sean O’Neill is a very common Irish name, I turned to the Transit Commission and found that there was only one Sean O’Neill among the sandhogs. A young man. He’s waiting outside.”

“Let him in,” said Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen.

A young man wearing a dark work shirt, pants and leather boots entered. Incredulously, he looked at the lilac safety pin and then he scrutinized the rest of the emerald woman.

“Nice fancy dress,” he said.

“I guess you’re Mr. Sean O’Neill?” she inquired; and as he nodded, she asked him to sit down, whereupon she added, “I’ve something important to ask you.”

But no, Sean O’Neill, still unmarried, had never thought of sending any message to his still non-existent descendants.

Bombay Theme was leaking out from the loudspeakers. Billie Occasion took away her thumb and her forefinger from her tear glands and opened her eyes.

She smiled at her visitor and proffered an envelope. Amanda Kennedy had not seen it before and did not know where it came from.

“Yes,” Billie Occasion said. “Your grandfather did send a message to you, and I am the one asked to deliver it.”

“How strange,” said Amanda Kennedy.

“Not at all,” Billie Occasion replied. “This is a very trivial but also a very natural example of temporal feedback. Nothing extraordinary, if you are receptive.”

She paused before adding: “Most people are not very receptive.”

Slowly, Amanda Kennedy opened the envelope, unfolded the letter and read the few lines, signed Sean O’Neill.

She looked at Billie Occasion.

“Is this all?”

“I am afraid it is. As I told you, this is a very trivial example of a temporal feedback.”

“You want to know what it says?”

Billie Occasion smiled and shook her head.

“I couldn’t care less,” she said. “And I guess that you find that the fee you have to pay doesn‘t match the result of my effort.”

“I can’t blame you for the result,” Amanda Kennedy replied.

“Of course not. However, since you have not read Jacques Futrelle, please accept The Thinking Machine as a small gift.”


Copyright © 2009 by Bertil Falk

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