Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula

Zero Sum

10 Out of The Fiery Furnace 02 (1962)

It was Catherine who noticed first.

Eric and William came out of the hallway into the living room. Mrs Morrow had turned on the overhead lights and the room was brightly lit.

“Heavens! That’s you, Eric.” Catherine said with some surprise, then paused, her eyes widening, her mouth dropping, just the merest bit. 

“Eric, what’s happened to you….., Oh my poor darling.” Catherine rushed to Eric.

William couldn’t see what the fuss was about so he came round the other side of Eric and then he saw what Catherine saw as she gently held Eric’s face in her hands. In the revealing overhead light Eric looked like he was a hundred years old. 

Eric couldn’t work out what the fuss was, so he quickly turned to look at his reflection in the glass panes of the hall door.

“Oh, bugger!” Eric frustratedly stamped a foot.

Eric turned back to Catherine and William with a gesture that comprised of shrugged shoulders, rolled eyes, a dumb smile, and finishing with a shake of the head.

“Sorry I forgot to…,ah,….” Eric half turned and pointed down the hall to the front door of the house. 

“I was so enjoying just sitting outside; the cool night air sighing in the Norfolk Pines, the ozone and damp sand. I love that smell; and the sound of the waves breaking and shushing up the beach, that last sibilance and silence as the water finally sinks into the sand… Well I forgot to reset.” Eric looked at the assembled company with a look of abject apology. 

“Mrs. Morrow, I am so terribly sorry you had to see me like this.” Eric ran his hands over his face, “Hhhmmmm…”  then said, “I want you to hold Catherine’s hand. This might be a little alarming, but I want to assure you that none of you are at risk. This won’t hurt a bit.” Mrs. Morrow, her distrust of Eric growing, took Catherine’s hand and gave Eric a sour look. 

Eric then shook himself like a wet dog; but instead of water flying off, there were shards of coloured light rainbowing off him as the angular momentum of the shake threw them from Eric’s clothing, his face and hair, and finally his shoes; before they twinkled out to nothing.

When the shaking stopped Eric adjusted himself, straightened his back and looked at The Staffords and Mrs Morrow. “There you are, all done.”

Mrs. Morrow screamed and pulled Catherine in front of her, clutching her arm and peeping out from behind Catherine’s shoulder. Catherine was dumbfounded and William looked like he’d just been plunged into the middle of the biggest problem he had ever faced.

To the three observers Eric had apparently just shaken away about fifty years. His face; no longer a contour map of wrinkles and lines outlining the terrain of a long life; appeared taught, his eyes brighter, teeth straighter, whiter. Eric was younger. In fact he looked younger than when William and Catherine had last seen him.

Catherine decided that comforting Mrs. Morrow would allow them both time to unconsciously deal with what they had just seen. “This is definitely more your line of country darling.” She said to William as she took the older woman softly by the shoulders and led her away to the kitchen. 

“Mrs. Morrow and I will go and get the brandy. I think we could all do with a drink after that little performance.” She looked at Eric with frank curiosity. “You areall right, aren’t you Eric?” She thought it best to check before she left them.

“Oh yes, fit as a flea, me.”

“Well…., OK…” Catherine still wasn’t sure; but then how could she be sure. She too had no idea what had just happened.

Catherine guided a babbling Mrs. Morrow through the dining room and into the kitchen. The older woman was in shock. A little comfort and hot sweet tea would take the edge off that, but Catherine was going to have a stiff snifter. 

Bloody Eric!, God love him. Nothing is ever simple with that man.” She was fond of Eric and had long ago accepted the major role he played in their lives. Bess adored him and Eric lived for the time they spent together; and William owed almost everything he had achieved to Eric and the Trust. Even though they had not seen Eric for a few years, he was family.

Back in the lounge room William had adjusted the lighting and the men had sat down by the cold fireplace.

“So lets start with what just happened.” William cutting to the heart of the matter. “You just shook off several decades of senescence; and I did note the photonic effects the shaking produced. I’ll assume that they were…., “time”…, though what manner of “time” they were you’ll have to fill me in on later.” William paused before setting off again. “Given how simple it looked to achieve, I’m also assuming that this is something you do regularly. Which begs the question, “why didn’t you…, “reset”, is that what you called it, “reset”; before we got home? Surely whatever it is that has you so concerned might better have been described by an Eric we could recognise, or at the least, one who wouldn’t destroy the equanimity of our housekeeper with parlour tricks. Poor Mrs. Morrow. You’ll have to work hard to get back in her good books.” 

William, as ever the practical, pragmatic humanist, had accepted that something entirely outside his experience was happening around him tonight, and he knew that it would take some time to understand what had just happened and what it might mean for his family; but Mrs. Morrow’s mind wasn’t up to such acceptance. What had happened was an assault on her reason, possibly her faith, certainly her everyday experience. William would talk with her as soon as the right opportunity presented itself. He was always able to soothe Mrs. Morrow when she became upset.   

“Yes, I really am sorry.” Eric looked genuinely sorry. “You’re right. I was hoping for a long quiet chat with you and Catherine before Bess gets up in the morning. This involves her too.” Eric looked frustrated with himself. “I just buggered it up; I forgot. I’ve been very busy lately.”

“What’s Bess got to do with whatever this is?”

“Just about everything.”

William was internally adjusting to the events of the last few minutes. There was no rational explanation for what Eric had just done, so it was either a kind of mass delusion, or it had happened and it was real; but as yet simply unexplained. 

“Eric, I’ve gotten used to the Trust and its funny ways and I’ve always thought, in the back of my mind you understand, that the work of the Trust and my part in it is of a larger scale than I’ve ever been able to accurately gauge. I won’t pretend to understand that scale, or the true nature of the work that you and the others do, and I’ve always been so very grateful for the welcome the Trust gave me and the support it has shown for my work, but what has happened here tonight requires detailed explanation. I’ve got all night, and you appear to have “time” by the neck.” 

“So do you William, so do you. You just don’t know it.”

“I’m in no position to debate that point so why don’t you just tell me what you mean.”

A short while later Catherine, having calmed and then helped Mrs. Morrow to bed; leaving a generous measure of brandy in a glass on the bedside table; rejoined William and Eric in the lounge room with the bottle of Hennessy and three balloons. 

The men were deep in discussion and seemed almost to be using a different language but Catherine, hearing a few key words, understood that they must be talking about folded space. It was William’s speciality and Eric had been his supervisor and mentor, so there was nothing unusual in their discussion, except the look on William’s face as Eric threw numbers and algorithms around with a kind of hurried urgency. Catherine could see that William was hanging on to every word as though his life depended on it, which incidentally, it did.

Catherine dragged a chair over to join the men and poured the brandy. William and Eric brought their discussion to a temporary close and gratefully accepted the proffered balloons of warming liquor, but Catherine could see that William was deeply distracted.

“You two look like a couple of conspirators. What have you said to William to so distract him?”

Eric offered a gesture suggesting that William might like to field that one.

William, rolling the balloon between his hands, warming the brandy and inhaling the vapours, looked at his wife over the rim of the glass. She could feel his anxiety as William looked directly at her; obviously trying to choose the right words to explain the inexplicable. As usual, William cut straight through to the heart of the matter. 

“Leaving aside Eric’s startling performance for the moment;” William said; his face looking as if he was trying to wrestle an answer into submission;  “apparently we’re meta-humans,” William said flatly, “both of us; though in different ways; and apparently our daughter is even more “meta” that us.” William stopped at that point to gauge Catherine’s reaction.

She looked at Eric with simple disbelief. “What is this nonsense Eric?”

“All too true I’m afraid.” Eric took a slow sip of the brandy.

“What does he mean darling; and what’s this about Bess too?”

“Eric, you’d better handle this. I’m not sure I’ve understood you well enough to convey even the smallest bit of the important meaning in what you’ve just told me.” 

Eric tightened his lips and nodded.

“Catherine, I see you’ve hung a new picture.”

At this both William and Catherine burst out, “Oh, for God’s sake, Eric…” but Eric put his hands up. “Bear with me,” He looked at Catherine more closely. “The picture Catherine; its one of yours, isn’t it? What do you call it?”

Catherine face became a mask of caution. She looked at the painting and then at William and finally at Eric, her face slowly freezing to a quiet stillness. Her reply, “The Fiery Furnace”, was a little anxious.

“Those twisted and tortured elements look like a car; an abstracted, folded car. A car being consumed by a chaos of flames. And those two other elements seemingly emerging from the maelstrom. What was your thinking as you worked on it.?”

A dream from a few moths ago came back to Catherine as if someone had just hit replay.

“It was critique. The ugliness of cars and car related stuff. To hell with it, I thought; burn it all up.” That sounded like bravado. Her quiet deceptive tone suggesting even Catherine didn’t believe that.

“It’s not like you to choose an “ugly” subject. Its quite confronting and yet very beautiful, in its own unapologetic way; but was that really what you were thinking, or did you…see, something else.” Eric was looking right into Catherine’s eyes. 

She thought she could almost feel him in her mind, and she knew he was right. The painting wasn’t some kind of social critique, it was history, a waking dream filled with a burning vision of flame and twisted, tortured metal. She remembered the look on little Bess’ face when she had finished the work and called her in to give her opinion. 

Bess had looked at the painting and turned to smile at her mummy and said, in all innocence, as though it were the child who had to reassure the mother, “You won’t die Mummy.” It had been a statement of fact, and Bess had given her mum a cuddle and gone back to play with Ellie, leaving Catherine a little perplexed and somewhat shaken.

The painting of the “The Fiery Furnace”, executed with an obsessive haste, had been in response to the vivid and disturbing nightmare that Catherine had had some months ago. The dream, in which she and William had been driving the Humber down Barrenjoey Road towards the little bridge behind Bilgola, had seemingly come from nowhere; and, while she’d “seen” the crash and the subsequent fire, she had been left with a deep uncertainty about the outcome. What had happened to William, what had happened to her? That uncertainty had become the defining theme of the painting. Could one survive death in a fiery crash?

What Catherine had thought or felt at the time, she could no longer accurately remember, but now it seemed that little Bess had already known, and Eric knew too, and William; she looked at William, the man she loved, the father of her child; he knew too it seemed. Catherine was trembling.

“Will we die tomorrow Eric? Or will it be something else?” It seemed a perfectly rational question to Catherine; and one that required an immediate answer.

“You weren’t in the car.” Eric tisked. “Sorry….; you won’t bein the car.”

Catherine looked at William who was nodding his head confirming that Eric was right, everything would turn out OK.

“This is too much!” she exclaimed.

“Yes it is; but I’m also afraid that it might not be enough.” Eric looked down between his knees , wringing his hands a little. 

“William you might remember that Einstein claimed, to a friend, that his wife, Elsa, was still alive, though she had died some time ago. His belief in the continuing life of his dead wife was almost certainly a cognitive coping mechanism; he wanted her to be still alive, so he believed it to be true. 

Of course I don’t think he really believed he might be able to access that continuing living reality, but it comforted him to think that somewhere, sometime, she was still living.

Einstein was completely right, but really had no clue as to the nature of that life; what it might be constituted of, how she might have lived.

He was still bound up in the sequential nature of existence. He was quite literally a man of his time. Her death, being in the past, simply made her inaccessible to him. Of course he knew just about all there was to know about space and time, at that time. He’d created most of that ontological mass. What he didn’t know was how simple it might have been for him to find Elsa, if he could only transcend the temporal dimension.”

Eric paused to gather his thoughts before plowing on. Catherine and William had been listening closely, probably in the hope of some explanation they could get their material brains around.

“Imagine for a moment that your Humber had a button or switch on the dash that you’d never pushed or flicked. It had just been there when you bought the car. Imagine that, having never had cause or thought to activate the switch, you had also neglected to learn from the manual what the switch was for. What it did. Imagine then that one day a person says to you, “Oh, I see you have the new Humber with the time switch.” and then went on to explain how manipulating the switch gave access to slices of time to which you could “drive” the Humber.”

“Sounds like the set up for a children’s radio serial. “The Horological Humber”; Adventures across the clock. Creates a whole new set of possibilities for the Sunday afternoon drive.” William’s joke seemed to lighten the moment a little.

“Funnily enough, it is about that simple once you get the knack; and believe me, you both have the knack. Let me show you. Let me flick that switch.”

And he did; and both William and Catherine just slumped back in their chairs, their eyes wide with wonder and amazement; their faces flipping from smiles to open mouthed awe, then consternation, then irreducible stupefaction. Whatever it was that Eric had started had nothing to do with the real world and both their minds were entirely taken up with visions; hallucinatory, impossible dreams; but for all the sudden uncertainty, they were in no danger.

Eric observed the couple for a short while, smiling, they’d be like this for a while. 

He then wandered back through the dining room to the kitchen and into Mrs. Morrow’s quarters. Slipping quietly into her room he noted with some relief that she had found sleep, though her brow remained furrowed and Eric could see that hers was a troubled sleep. “Well, that’s hardly surprising.” Eric said to himself.

He smiled gently at Mrs. Morrow’s sleeping form and quietly laid a hand on her forehead. 

Mrs. Morrow’s brow relaxed and a hint of a smile appeared on her lips. “There, that’s better isn’t it?” 

Satisfied, Eric rejoined William and Catherine who were still lying in their respective chairs, their eyes now closed, their breathing deep and regular. Behind their closed eyelids Eric noted the REM like flickering of their eyes and he wished more than anything that he could see what they were seeing in the way they were seeing it. It cast his mind back to his own Damascene moment; his own conversion to the new, bigger reality. That moment when all the contradictory, confusing uncertainties of his everyday human existence had transmuted into a new teleology that was both staggering in its extent and implications, and yet, uplifting and invigorating. A new life, a life without end.

But that had been so long ago, and his memory had discarded so much more than it held that his existence had become a day to day thing, always in the moment; until he had become aware of the coming trouble. 

He crept away from William and Catherine and found his way to Bess room at the rear of the house.

Slipping inside he sat down on the edge of Bess’ bed. Bess’ little Staffie, Ellie, was curled up with her on the bed. Bess was sleeping soundly and Eric could tell that she was dreaming, so he insinuated himself into her dream. He knew she wouldn’t mind.

Little Bess was playing with Ellie on a grassy hillside covered in wild flowers. In the distance there was a range of high snow covered mountains from which direction a light, cool breeze was blowing. Ellie was chasing butterflies, leaping and barking in an exposition of doggy joy. A glorious sun backlit the fluffy clouds as the breeze swayed the flowers in the sunshine. Bess turned towards Eric and seeing him, jumped up and ran to him, wrapping her arms around his middle. Eric stooped and picked her up, holding her out at arm’s length; Ellie leaping at his feet.

“How’s my favourite girl?”

“Perfectly fine, thank you Uncle Ecci” she offered rather formally, before he brought her in and they gave one another an enormous hug full of good feelings.

“This is a dream isn’t it Ecci?”

“Yes sweetheart, it is; but I just had to see how my favourite Little Miss was doing.”

“Is it time Ecci. Is that why you’ve come?” 

“Yes my darling, it’s time.” He put Bess down and Ellie fussed around her, then standing up against Bess, in that way that Staffies do, Ellie looked from Eric to Bess and back again. She barked once.

“Can Ellie come too Ecci. She loves adventure.”

“Yes Ellie can come too. In fact Ellie’s a very important little girl, we couldn’t be without Ellie.”

“That’s good. I wouldn’t want to be without Ellie, and Mummy and Daddy of course.”

“That’s right, we’ll all be going together; but I have some other things to do now, so you have fun and we’ll see one another when you wake up in the morning.”

“This is going to be the biggest adventure…” Little Bess stooped and grabbed up a stick, then threw it down the hill for Ellie to fetch. As she ran down the hill after Ellie she shouted over her shoulder, “See you then. Love you.”

Eric felt a swell of emotion. Little Bess was so full of innocent wonder and enthusiasm for life. Even the strangest things seemed unable to unsettle her. 

Eric slid back to his place on Bess’ bedside, smiling down at the little girl’s sleeping form. He stood slowly and crept from the room.