Once upon a time, I read a science fiction story about a scientist who discovered that time passed in a helix pattern, rather than in a straight line. Through experimentation, he fused the present with an earlier time strand, and found himself in the past.
I can do that by reading a book. A month or so ago I had plenty of time on my hands. Unable to find my copies of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, Poor Fellow My Country or Clarissa (I did have them, didn’t I, somewhere?), I hauled out my copy of Lord of the Rings (the single volume 1970s Unwin edition with the yellow cover) and set off on the journey once more.
37 years is a good space of time between readings of a book; you remember the plot vaguely, but you have forgotten enough to enjoy the story again. And that’s exactly how it turned out. I hadn't forgotten about the Ring, of course, but I had forgotten characters such as Ghan-Buri-Ghan and Finuviel. (The new baby came this close to being named Finuviel or Galadriel. Four syllables was the compromise.) I had also half forgotten the geography; the landscapes, the rose tint on a snow-capped mountain at dawn, the rivers and the streams, the fine botanical detail, Mordor's writhing detritus. And throughout, Sam's longing for the manicured gardens back home in the Shire.
But while you might recall only vaguely the plot of a book you read long ago, you sometimes strike upon a passage that comes back to starkly, and you remember the first time you read it as if it were yesterday.
It was winter 1973. I was 17. I was at school in an upstairs classroom overlooking a grey valley and a line of shaking gum trees beyond and a road on the horizon on which the flash of a blue bus passed by every twenty minutes. It was a dragging afternoon; one of those interminable ‘study’ periods in which there is no formal lesson, and I had a large book in front of me. I turned the last pages of The Fellowship of the Ring as Meriadoc told of glimpsing Boromir clutching, instinctively, semi-consciously, at an arrow in his chest, slumped against the trunk of a tree. Then I opened the first pages of The Two Towers. Aragorn is holding the mortally-wounded Boromir, who apologises for failing even as he is dying, and Aragorn shows infinite forgiveness and praises his bravery; then Boromir's eyes close and later they would place him on an elven boat and he would pass out of that world. It might have been the saddest passage I had ever read, because of the clutching at the arrow, or the dying apology, or the forgiveness. A bell rang and I closed the book.
A lot of water under the bridge since then. And a lot of Ryan’s buses ploughing up and down the hill. The valley is full of houses now.
Back to the short story: the scientist, to his horror, found himself unable to return from the past and was destined to become his grandfather's grandfather, wiping out part of his own ancestry such that he would never be born.