On the bell Claudia leaps in: "OK, OK, let's pin this one down; our two world wars are beacons in time. So what have we learned from them? Homes fit for Heroes were promised - which never amounted to much, and we still have thousands of people living on the streets which is a total disgrace. So what's the price of progress?"
"Steadfastly careless about the fate of other people! My dad was out of work and we lived in a rented house in Beeston and he went around on his motorbike with an ice box selling Dutch butter door to door! All those people out of work. And it's no different now!"
"Too many things got in the way, votes for women for a start, the general strike for another. Three hundred years from now will there still be housing lists, strikes for more pay, protest marches, flu jabs for kiddies and old people?"
"Interesting question! What will people be like three hundred years from now? What will they do, for God's sake?"
"By then God may have given up and gone home! I mean we can't go there and find out, can we?"
"But their science may find a way back to us. I mean, a parallel universe doesn't have to be of the same period as ours, dammit! They could be donkeys' years ahead of us."
"There's nothing steadfast about time," says Manfred. "Time is funny stuff. There may not be any old people three hundred years from now. There may be no people at all! Mother Nature may have drawn the line. There was a fascinating article in Science Today about stem cells. It's only a question of time before they can reproduce human body parts. Just imagine" - he looks woeful - "a world full of permanent kids!"
Many voices clamour: It's these Astutos Basy was talking about - Long-Headed People, I mean, how long? - Manfred suggests they have been here many times before - a sort of holiday venue, yes, why not - spend time in Tenerife away from boring old Britain! - away from the frightful future! - The Astutos who came here must have had Sun-Save, 'cos it gets bloody hot here! As for disappearing at will, we just don't know what tricks they could get up to! I mean, do they eat bread like we do; bread, the staff of life, with tuna and garlic and stuff? And what about toast and Marmite with all that vitamin B12 -
Claudia's bell brings a sort of order. "What do you mean: 'Away from the frightful future?'"
"What about the higher gods?"
"Is there a case for the higher gods?"
"No, Your Honour. And with only one alleged case of theft what we have is only second class evidence."
"Not even that! Who appears for the defence?"
"Well me, of course. I bet it is frightful three hundred years from now, they must get awfully bored with nothing left to do. Maybe they just have picnics with tuna sandwiches. Though there must be more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy!"
"Thank-you, Joan. Brush up your Shakespeare and we'll all bow down!"
Bernardo speaks: "It was with Basy that we hear about these Astutos. It was her aunt on her ma-ma who drown herself and put all her jeweleria on this goose on the sea who said many years ago for antepasados - previal, no: previous peoples, to have seen these big-head peoples but not common for now in these years. Some peoples say these was angels from Heaven come to help these Guanche peoples from these Spanish who take the land. These peoples were the same with us, not big heads, they were men without beards. Normal - ordinario. This is the common sense, OK? She did not want the man to have it."
"What man is this?"
"I'm inclined to agree," says the Bench. "I take it Manfred is seriously proposing time travel?"
"I'm no physicist, only a poor hardworking geologist, so we must treat the subject of time travel as a playground for curious minds."
Lizzie, who has spoken with Michael, the family nerd, about scientific matters, is puckish about time travel: putting a girdle round the Earth in forty minutes has far greater appeal than time travel or the deeper speculations of science. "These Guanches were noble in character according to Father Espinosa, he said their singing was melancholy - as if they knew the end was coming. But it was the Spanish they feared, not time travelers. It's all speculation, of course."
Dark Energy and the Unknown Power of Gravity tends to suit the masculine rather than the feminine mind, is that sexist? The Bench nods: "Dead sexist! Claudia would have something to say if - "
"I heard that! There is poetry in dark energy - and gravity holds us with its unseen power. Maybe Astutos were made welcome in the land of the noble savage, for these savages were noble in character according to Father Espinosa. Everything is sacred between people of like minds." She repeats the salient point, knuckles tapping the table, "He said their singing was melancholy - as if they knew the end was coming - as Lizzie says - it's all speculation, of course. But they were aware, don't you see? They knew they were doomed."
Not my turn but I've got to stand firm on this: "Lizzie knows I'm often preoccupied, if I have something in my head I just have to get it down before it vanishes - yet I'm an optimist... Is that an oxymoron? I mean, can you be a melancholy optimist, is there such a creature? Seriously we're all doomed, but I think melancholy is the truly creative force for if we could travel forward in time we would find no human beings, for all humanity is in our backyard, OK. History is our joy, the future is barren. I mean happiness is non-productive. It's only when you're worrying about things that the mind starts working. Jumping up and down dead happy is mental stillness, don't you think?... Mind you, when I met Lizzie, wasn't that happiness enough for a man's lifetime?" I cringe theatrically to deflect the slap.
"You are a lucky man," says Manfred, "may we all enjoy such fortune!" He speaks about his personal history as openly as Maeve speaks about hers!
Poor old Espinosa! I wonder how much of his writing was suppressed as detrimental to the holy church. Would be nice to raid these holy archives and take a look. I think of the brave few who disagreed with orthodox church teaching and found themselves on the Inquisition hit list.
"Do you do Latin, Alan?"
"Erm - no."
"But I take your point. I wonder how many revealing secrets are hidden away. In the good old days people who deviated from holy writ were hung, drawn and quartered, and the drawing bit was done when the victim was still alive! God bless the Inquisition for its holy works!" he raises a glass: "And it was our Treason Act of 1795 which replaced burning at the stake by civilized hanging or transportation to New South Wales."
"Nice! Aren't we lovely people! If Fred Hoyle is right and all life evolved from space maybe we are finding a way back into space - or should that be forward into space. And maybe you need to remember to ring the bell so the bus will stop and you can get off at the right place! Yes. I wonder how they do it. Maybe time travel was created as a form of therapy. I mean, all those nice people I was rude to, very good to go back and say sorry."
Smiling, Claudia speaks: "Alan, that sounds like an unburdening of guilt, the retrospection of older people." She is writing something, pencil over notepad. "Might turn into a decent piece," she stops writing, rings her bell; "Let's keep to the subject, people. We are Steadfast in Time, right?"
"OK, what's steadfast about it? I mean how do Human Rights apply when you're back in the eighteenth century?"
"They don't. Human Rights belong to this century: If they travel from their time back to our time, well OK. But if they go further back where Human Rights hadn't been invented yet - then life could be a bit hairy if they broke the law, like stealing a loaf of bread. Talking of bread, Lizzie, this stuff's damn good," she crunches her curly crust and collects what remains of the egg mayonnaise. "I hope they haven't run out of eggs yet. Do they still eat eggs three hundred years from now? They must study their history books to find out how the law applied in the period they are returning to. And what about recipes and picnic lunches?"
"I did an A level in anti-social behaviour," says Joan. "I wrote a few bits of graffiti in the loo and something rude on the blackboard about Miss Higgins: time travelers can't touch anything outside of their bailiwick, well maybe they can't be touched either! It's going to take some work to sort it out. I mean, Human Rights apply only when you're back home from the eighteenth century - with your empty spray can!"
"The law cannot be applied retrospectively," says The Bench. "Back then we had only the Magna Carta to go on."
"Kimble is Innocent - I can see it sprayed all over eighteenth century London! Poor old Dr Johnson would have something to say."
"Why not go forward in time? Find out when El Teide is going to blow!"
"We can't go forward in time, Barrie. There's no pathway, no imprint. The past is behind us like a footprint. Don't you see? It's where we've been already because the past is part of us. The future is part of nothing. 'Cos we aint been there yet." Harold's logical certainty levels the discussion.
Innocently bland, Joan enquires: "But aren't we in their footprint?"
No answer from the Bench. The crackle of garlic bread accompanies time standing. Lizzie breaks in: "Anybody prefer tea? These Astutos - I wonder if they brought their children? I suppose Tenerife was their holiday resort even centuries ago."
It's a send up. She doesn't believe any this parallel universe stuff. Her table is what counts. Thank God for cooks!
Manfred nods appreciatively: "And where is Macdonalds three hundred years from now?"
"Buggered if I know! If there's still a God-figure do they go to church of a Sunday? And can you still get ant powder from Boots the Chemist?"
"But, if they mixed with ordinary humans on the beach they couldn't have looked so very different from us. And it's the same God-Figure innit? Like the Buddha; now that's a real god figure for the Chinese, there's always a picture of the Buddha in most Chinese restaurants."
"But nobody went on the beach in those days. The Guanches hated the sea. The Astutos could have had the whole coastline to themselves. Right?"
"Like Barrie says, they may all be Chinese! Remember what Napoleon said: While China sleeps the world is safe! But what if these fairy folk decide to wake up and invade us in force, will we be safe? And how will the church deal with people who aren't born yet? And I mean what about tombstones? Will people still be motivated to stand and mourn three hundred years from today?"
"There's a bloke I know," says Barrie "who signals when the coastguard boat patrols in our area. He's got a mobile phone and - "
"Barrie! You're not getting involved are you? I warned you!"
"Only a few cab jobs. Quite legal."
In Joan's face I see the prospect of family trouble. From Harold, a warning look suggests that we should not get involved in Barrie's affairs. "Ahem! Unfortunately, as peasants we're not mentally equipped to join the shifting sands of scholarly speculation, so let's play it by ear, OK folks? I was a simple engineering draughtsman before I was called to the Bench. And I went to church of a Sunday morning because it was expected."
"And I was a simple blacksmith's lad, before I went into the building trade. My dad always said 'Get a trade, lad. With a trade you're never out of a job.' In the Boys' Brigade I went to bible class after church parade. Hated it. Mind you, there was a girl-guide I was rather keen on to so it wasn't too bad."
"I was in the Hitler Youth, but we'll leave that behind us: It was so simple in the good old days!"
Joan's worry is creeping into anger: "It was simple when we arrived here, now Barrie is in with the mobs."
"No I'm not! I did a few driving jobs - to the airport and back, OK!"
"You weren't carrying anything, were you?"
"Got more sense!"
Claudia bells the meeting to order. "As you say - the good old days, no interest in time travel in the good old days. All we have is Basy and her aunt Maya. Now, are you seriously considering a meeting with Basy?"
"Is there anything to be gained? Josef is now part of the equation."
Negative exchanges all round. "We think not," declares the Bench.
"OK. If these people are so well equipped they must have conquered old age. Science has got us to the edge of extending life. Even in Scotland average life-expectancy has increased to seventy-two."
"Yes, but think what life-expectancy is like three-hundred years from now! You could take life tablets in water. Trouble is it would lead to problems. I mean how can the truly youthful person trust another who may be an older restored person - like a newbie - as an Australian might call him. And how many restorations can you get before the newbie falls apart? And how about babies? Won't the genes have something to say on the matter? And won't psychology create a lot of misery? I mean what about expectations? No longer finite, just drearily infinite! People will want to escape. Migrants fleeing the future! No - fleeing their present for our present. Don't you see? Maybe they want escape to our lives with its old age, with its arthritis, walking-frames, and chiropodists for the feet. I mean people who need help, special seats on buses, and young people courting, having babies, feeling sorry for old people. I mean we want to be nice, I mean nice to other people. For us, don't you see, life has peace at the end. I mean, where is peace three hundred years from now?" Joan's emotional force carries weight. We all nod, thoughtfully, except Barrie who shakes absently: "Can't get my head round this stuff. We had a seaman's chapel near the church and beach parties for the kids!"
"Newbie! That's a good description!"
Lunch is well over, empty tea cups stand with empty wine bottles: attention is slackening, Basy and Aunt Maya left dangling. As with any speculation and visions in a waking life, this group of mixed adults, unlike a scientific body, is not functioning in a unified space. No consensus of opinion is to be delivered, but that's OK, for this is a fun thing really. And time is funny stuff, as Manfred said; and it's far deeper than simple minds can handle.
"Talking of Australians, has anybody met Peter's doppelganger?"
"Only in passing. He's got Peter's motorbike."
Still thinking, still nodding, the group is drawing to a close. "God! They could be over here by the millions of millions!"
"Erm - I think not."
"Give us a ruling, Your Honour."
"I'm a magistrate, not a lawyer. Well, they won't be coming in boats like the present lot, however, there's always an administrative hurdle to cross: firstly, migrants need to prove their identity, secondly prove their place of origin; next we need to decide whether their invasion is a right, a civil wrong or a criminal wrong. I mean we can't deport them back to their place of origin like the Gold Coast migrants we're getting, we can only detain them. And finally, I'm sure these Newbies will have population under control by now - for they no longer have 'huddled masses yearning to breathe free' so maybe they will be kind enough to give us notice of their intent and provide passports."
"God bless the good old USA. Lords of Creation! Thank you. Your Honour."
Migrants: the ugly word. It was the only time I'd ever known Maeve to be upset. Very strong on migrants is Maeve, for we send millions and millions of pounds and dollars into Africa and it all disappears, and now they are all coming here - thousands of them! She doesn't like them crowding the beach bars waiting for somebody to feed them, and we heard the story of one desperate migrant who wouldn't let go of her bag until she yelled abuse. Some people found it hilarious - I mean, Maeve actually yelling - . Doesn't bear thinking about!
Poor Maeve, her sense of fulfillment in the community seriously upended, first into disdain, then hatred when migrants got too close. I remember that feeling of disdain against certain clients whose clutching expectations from social work were unrealistically elevated to Human Rights level. Children at risk and the legal framework surrounding them were the only reasonable deployment for social work intervention.
Amid the pale sound of people rising we are pleased for Basy's sake that she now has Josef. Josef's boyish good looks rather appeal to Lizzie, his smooth unlined face, cropped hair and brilliant smile so unlike his father's heavily bearded face which made them look almost unrelated. The link came up almost immediately, We looked at each other, fingers raised: That small girl from a village in the mountainous north who had never visited the surrounding countryside who wept when she saw a man who was beardless. A police officer took her to the comisaria to meet police men who had no beards. It made the local press.
"If the Astutos were, as we think, relatively hairless..."
"Ah, yes! They would look - you know - long-headed, right?"
Berenca speaks of risk-taking when lives are at stake: "These Astuto people come here because they want the excitacion, for there is none of this hundreds of years from now, like war and politics, and some people stand away from perfection and prefer life in peligro to be in!" She taps her glass with a spoon producing a bell-like ring: "Is this not so, dear people?"
We nod agreement. Life in jeopardy, right! Risk-taking is when men join the army because they want to dice with death. Well - not just that, but yes, risk-taking is at the back of it all. Right!
Miss Booflums has put aside her magnificent sulk and is creeping back pretending we haven't seen her. Lizzie proffers the cat bowl in the corner with another shred of tuna. Our beloved Siamese, tail erect, has achieved justice.
We think Joan is right; Basy has a lover in tow, but she is old enough to be his - aunt? Well, OK. Best not to push matters. But what happened to Aunt Maya's piano?
Basy has the answer. Must ask her.
A sort of Diaz Felices - Halcyon Daze if you prefer. And these newbie guys aren't stupid. They've had a grip on things that matter, and now they've lost it. They've reached the summit of human living and are not happy. They need to return to our backyard.
"Do you believe that? You think they've lost their grip on things that matter?"
"Well, yes. Evolution is at an end."
"What on earth will they do - return to savagery?"
"Apolokips - I mean Apoc-a... I mean there's an end to all things!"
"Harold, steady on!"
"Sorry, dear ...Apoc-o-lypse ...Right?"
"Nearly right. Let the wine serve as a warning!"
He persists: "I mean - an age of innocence has died. I always assumed Tenerife's history in the fifteenth century had only little kin with reality, I mean a report from a servant of the Church would have to go before some local cardinal for approval - OK? But the risk would be too great, so they stash it. OK, rational thinking suggests that the Cro-Magnon and the Hunter-Gatherers who invented the potter's wheel and the fire-bow probably thought that they were the regular bees-knees in rational thinking, and then, onwards through the era of fountain pens and starting handles, to where we are standing right now with our DNA and rocket science and we are daft enough to reckon we've cracked it? Then tomorrow something fantastic will come forward to knock us flat. Melancholia is at the absolute end. If they could travel forward in time they would find nobody there! All humanity is in our backyard... Sorry, in their backyard. I agree with the previous speaker: Melancholy is the truly creative force, I mean have any of us ever been happy? "
"As I said before - I met Lizzie, isn't that enough?"
"Happiness tends to be passive, don't you agree, Alan?"
Claudia clips in: "Harold, behave! Or I shall take you home in a minute!" - he ignores her warning shot - "I mean, would they have got their science to bring them back here if they were happy with their lot? I mean, science is man-made is it not?"
"Few are happy with their lot, Harold. One should observe and question."
Bernardo nods, "I look for this and do not find it. Why, I ask?"
Harold persists: "These newbie creatures can't go forward in time, only back, for the past lies behind them like a great vapour trail and we are part of that great vapour trail - don't you see? I would say that forward is impossible for there's nothing to link into. You know, there's a lot of juice in this argument!"
"There's a lot of juice in you, my darling. Come along now!"
"Do they have horses and pussy cats and fairies at the bottom of their gardens?" Joan is on her way out, Barrie in tow. "I mean one of them might steal Miss Booflums here and carry her into the Never-Never land."
"I bet there are lots of options. If they want the fifteenth century they could come as Robin Hood and his merry men. OK!"
"I wonder if they ever visit places like Auschwitz. Good for a laugh if you're a Nazi!"
"What happens if they die here?"
"That may be optional."
"Or pre-pubescent adventures?"
"Paid work, is that optional, does it have any relevance in the future? I retired at age fifty-five and I've worked for forty-one of them. So, assuming I live to ninety, that's forty-one years work, plus thirty-five years retirement. I'm not good at sums but it's a long time to get bored in, unless you find something interesting to do. I remember this old guy who ran a sort of chauffeur service but made more money building model coaches. He got his drawings from the British Museum, including a set of drawings of Napoleon's coach. And he sold his stuff mostly to Americans. He was still building model coaches when I knew him and he was in his early sixties then. I really envied that guy. I mean he found useful and creative work when finding a day job was difficult."
Our geologist leans forward: "We should think about future communication. The Web which is - or was - quite incredible is being invaded by all sorts of hacking. It's not safe any more. If you have a scientific secret how can you keep it secret? I'm sure we'll find a way to beat it, then the hackers will find a way to beat what we've beaten and so it will go on. Before long we'll be back to writing letters with stamps and envelopes just to keep it private!"
"We had to speak very quiet and keep the moving," says Berenca. "We called it stepping voices to keep away from nationalistos. We consume all papers written on lavatory rollers for we are the traitors and will be killed."
Manfred speaks: "I don't think our distant newbie comrades will ever want to come back into our bloody era, but they could use Tenerife as a conference centre, for example they could book into the Tenerife Sol for a week with discount rates for groups! I guess they wouldn't want to return to an earlier era either, where sickness and death were permanent risks. They have to be adaptable, these newbies. They would need anti-flu jabs. So find me an era when there was no Asian Flu or Thousand-Bomber Raids!"
Now it's my doom-laden go: "I think their world is too perfect. I reckon there's an almost touching nostalgia for a world that's vanished. I think they are very unhappy, for there is nothing left to do, everything is at a standstill. I wonder about the suicide rate."
"Shall we end it here?" Claudia's rather stern closing bell cuts off the Grim Reaper.
"And what about Flu jabs and female plumbers?"
"In the old days women were in the home cooking their husbands' dinners. They were at the very centre of all civilized life: They were Home and Stability and always around when needed. Children learned at the mother's knee, not the father's, for the father's role was peripheral; as breadwinner he left the home and returned to it, left the home and returned to it. His role was not home centred but world centred - "
"Listen to him. One of the few remaining polar bears of the frozen north!"
"I'll ignore that! Consider that all the world's great philosophers are men; all the great biologists are men; all the great inventors are men; all the great architects are men; all the great builders are men; all the great engineers are men; all the great composers are men; all the great artists are men; all the great chefs are men; and all the great plumbers are men! So put that in your pipe and smoke it!"
"What a load of old cobblers! Women do these things too. We're not all brainless tarts!"
"So let not delicacy restrain us. Freedom of speech is not worth having unless it causes offence!"
"Thanks, Alan, a good subject for the next group: Freedom of Speech."
"If they are as we assume three hundred years ahead of us we can also assume that their science has kept pace for, as Galbraith insists 'A society that does not care about the health of its people can hardly call itself civilized', and they must be dead civilized by now. They may even have female plumbers!"
"OK, Alan. Maybe newbies don't have flu - but we bloody well do! And what about medical care, I mean, how do you treat a newbie with flu, and what about social work?"
"Doomed as a public function: social work is like cowshit in a field - all over. It was far better when it was three separate departments, Child Care, Mental Health and Welfare, but I hope they don't stop my pension. I reckon, if they have no permanent addresses our newbies would be living in cardboard boxes in Charing Cross station. Mind you, if they stop my pension we'll be living in cardboard boxes too!"
"You should worry! Somehow I don't see Lizzie living in a cardboard box."
With thanks for having us and a final tinkle of her bell from the door Claudia and Harold are gone. Manfred, politely: "A very interesting party. Many thanks." He pauses. "I am thinking a bit. Science has made great leaps. Maybe we are newbies transmogrified and living in the past and somehow we've lost the plot."
"A moot point!"
"I see trouble ahead," says Lizzie, as Barrie and Joan depart.
"Who is this man you speak of?"
Hands raised, Bernardo forestalls enquiry: "He is gone. It is Josef you will meet for this stuff. Basy has seen maxios in her garden."
Berenca nods: "We have spoken of this. They come where there is water.They throw-ed her birds."
"You mean - scared her birds?"
"Very much, yes."
I deplore my lack of Spanish but approve their cock-eyed English and their adoration of Marks and Spencer and Rolls Royce. Their nationality is proud but admiration rests on the Englishness of all matters of international stature. Americans are our children and owe respect to their forbears. Why do I receive respect: this middle-aged misfit who has achieved bugger-all, is there anything left in him worth cherishing?
Berenca, our steadfast Spanish neighbour stays to help clear up.