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A brief history of Tim

From the LabLit short story series

Simon Lord 15 July 2007

Tidings of Tim’s coming rippled out into the world, everywhere altering outcomes, provoking new and unforeseen eventualities

Tim’s present and Tim’s past are both perhaps contained in Tim’s future, and the pattern of his future encrypted, writ large in the dead light of past stars (1). But regardless of what bow first shot time’s arrow, for each of us, as for Tim, its flight begins with the dawn of day one, year one, OO point OO O’clock and no proton’s-decay later. Yet such measures, portions, time-shares are all but meaningless when the seconds up Everest amount to more than those in the Marina Trench. Clock-time is debased currency and must be excluded, where possible, from our observations.

And yet. This vague quantification has become the basis for human interaction – from pedal-boat hire to the launch of spacecraft, from meetings of lovers beneath town clocks to the psychologist’s practiced weekly glance at his watch, lips preparing the syllables ‘Well we’ve made a lot of progress this week’. To help men’s irregular lives tessellate neatly they have adopted the subjective clock-time of one man – an obscure Nazarene born in the reign of Herod I – to give numbers, names to their days and years. Even here, though, rumours still circulate that a monkish error during the so-called ‘dark ages’ (when time was especially obscure), mis-rendered the date of his birth (2).

However, to dwell on unavoidable error and uncertainty will surely tempt us to abandon this narrative before it is well begun. We must proceed as best we can, setting these ambiguities aside, only remaining aware that our conclusions are approximate, read wholly worthless.

So, for Tim: time, space, matter and meaning began at once in a single co-ordinate, when in a rush of colour and sound he broke the surface of life, screaming in a growing puddle on a sterile table in England. The fantastical green-suited figures stepped back, startled at his sudden arrival. Outside his father heard the siren-howl of beginning life, and started a chain-reaction as, via articulate sounds and the electromagnetic agency of telephone wires (and soon the slower transmissive capacity of newsprint) tidings of Tim’s coming rippled out into the world, everywhere altering outcomes, provoking new and unforeseen eventualities.

His own awareness, perception of existence came later, delayed. As when, after physical collapse or catastrophic accident the reawakening patient sees the world under ether darkly, coloured shapes and masses took time to sharpen under the lenses of his blue eyes (and the surgical orchestra of muscles operating them) tuning up to the great leaps and scales involved in seeing life. After recognising the great sphere of the breast as food-source, he began to know, in a shadowy way, the great shapes of Mother and Father, nourishment from the one, and the proud eyes of the other seeing this new creature of his making, that it was good. The imperatives of sustenance and identity established, the next fixation of the child’s mind (in tandem with a mysterious self-awareness of which it would be impertinent, at this early stage, to pretend an explanation) was the outside world. The first real ‘other’ was, in this case, the pattern of swarming stars which spun in their tight cycles and epicycles suspended from the ceiling above his cot. Hung from string, these pretty glowing bodies crossing and re-crossing baby Tim’s vision (3) in the half-dark of early night catalysed what we may boldly call his first Original Thoughts, divorced from animal imperative or inherent tendency. What are those shapes, who (inasmuch as he could then postulate identities) put them there, and made them move so? What hand rocks the cradle and pushes the stars? The thoughts were not thus formed and expressed, being more unfocused curiosity, but causing the child in his pure white cot-robe to stretch out a tiny plump hand, reaching into the celestial drama above him. Desire was born.

So we trace his growth from single screaming sentient point through a period of composed expansion. We can merely conjure, conjecture the precise process of this world-learning; but alone in a baby-chair, perhaps the shifting light on a plain wall caught and held his attention, as things are apt to do once memory begins to hold its shape, and as the mind expands these experiences remain undiluted within it like the innermost rings of a tree trunk. It is to this stage that many elements in the final outcome, the ‘profile’ of the grown tree, can be traced. Light striking wall rebounds into child’s sense organs (sublimely endowed, to match the speed of light!) collides with a new verbal memory, atoms knock, and the child in his chair said his first word – ‘wall’ – and indeed, in line with the common law of cause and effect, there was wall. While there is no direct way to reconstruct this event, its constituent elements, the word ‘wall’ and a fascination with light, outlived it, lived to become later memories from which earlier events can be deduced to a very high degree of probability. And later it was that word, not ‘light’ but ‘wall’, hard and sure, defined the gap, the mysterious divergence, the empty space between ‘him’ and ‘them’ provoked or suggested by the spinning mobile of stars.

The mobile, too, returns in developed memory form; after the first stint of education (when the field of awareness explodes, expands exponentially) at a display of fireworks, those feux d’artifices or contrived fires that mark each year’s darkening induced in poor Tim a sudden violent terror inexplicable considering the original stimulus. If the star mobile (the one-time existence of which we can postulate easily from a few loose faded stars on tattered strings observed long time after in the folds of an old packing-box) is factored in, however, we can project the child’s terror at the scale of these huge bangs and showering lights, like his own primitive tinfoil stars a million times louder and brighter, falling from above over the helpless watchers, like fiery cages lowered out of the dark sky.

Looking around he saw others not running or screaming, only staring as he had stared mystified at the mobile – they were self, and the fires were other, like acts of God or natural disasters – and the people watched, their arms like his pudgy baby limbs too short to reach these stars and halt their whirling. In the dread anticipation of those explosions, he first began to see, as we all do, into the future – clutching his mother’s hand and anticipating the next bang soon as the last one ended, leaving clusters of smoke which sank in the fresh erratic light like feathers falling from a ruptured pillow.

Thus an awareness of the not yet come to pass began to govern Tim’s thoughts – the next holidays, the end of the school day, a packed lunch, the end of a book. It is a curious phenomenon of mental perspective that shortly after our beginning we learn to anticipate ends, and as we are extinguished, find ourselves preoccupied with causes and origins. Soon the final school year loomed, and Tim and his young friends cried, imagining they would know each other forever. But affection affected his deeds, and these new ties and attractive forces acting between himself and those close to him represented a drastic new source of entropy within Tim. Inner inhibition began closing off certain available courses of action. For example, where the child could throw plates or scream in freezer aisles the older self, aware of the picture presented to others and the greater advantage derived from appearing docile, does not. For his mother such a development was welcome but in fact it represents a complication rather than simplification of action and thought – for each thwarted impulse becomes a secret, a hidden area of the mind invisible from without but source and symptom of entropy, which as we know increases when a system is left to itself (4), unattended and uncorrected. In an early practice of self-denial or developed self-censorship (the desire, repressed, to smoke cigarettes, or the smoking of them with school-friends and subsequent keeping of secrets by falsehood and gum) we may perhaps find the beginnings of intense later subjectivity, maybe even the first cause of the collapse which will later concern us. Of course, in such matters all we can do is postulate and reconstruct. In a world misruled by the uncertainty principle we are forced to predict past as well as future, and must await confirmation or destruction of our hypotheses. In the latter case we must simply begin again.

University, dynamo of knowledge, named after the sum of existence it is supposed to explain, was occasion for the forming of more bonds between Tim and the bodies of others, bonds strong enough to break his old school-ties, drawing him into new circles to the exclusion of his old course. He worked in laboratories, equated his way through the night, forgot many old friends by falling in with a few new ones. The process was incremental, but from further along the time axis appears a dramatic and well-defined shift. Even these new bonds though were not unbreakable, and the stable university system itself gave way to continued expansion when the confines of institution were removed. Once a set of friends begins to separate, a Doppler effect can be discerned in that, distance increasing, the frequency of contact between friends decreases – a shift whereby transmissions slow from a few calls and visits down to, in worst cases, a uniform rate of one card a year at Christmas, mute thwarted love and bitter nostalgia behind each merry Robin and biro greeting.

In Tim’s case one body continued to affect his subsequent course, his new suburban orbit, and his work at the Institute. Stella had always been the closest early on – they shared cabs, and eventually beds. As separation from the others grew, Tim and Stella settled into steady pairing. How, or why (which may be asking the same thing) we can only speculate – citing like Newton the desire of any body for other bodies, an aching (religious) need for something outside of the self (5) whose effects are readily observable, if not explicable. Tim and Stella, in any case, came closer, settling into a binary orbit, an engine powered by mutual attraction independent of or subordinating other bonds. What to say of those early years? Even by making so bold as to peek in, at the lovers in their bed, in a garden or on a beach, we alter the scene from the privacy of love to something cheap and tawdry, like a movie, Hollywood kisses and all the right words, made false by the presence of the camera like Heisenberg’s electrons. No, a good man once wrote that no-one external to such a co-dependency could ever understand it (6) – each is different, and here we must be content with doubts and uncertainty (7).

Tim had moved, been drawn through postdoctoral study, into the business of designing and launching satellites – perhaps still registering that crucial early impetus provided by the gyrating stars and the terror of fireworks. Now he was making stars of his own, and fired them into space covered in cameras. Occasionally when away at launch sites in Nevada or the Soviet Union, he would sit alone on a hillside on the bonnet of a rental car with a quiet bottle of vodka or bourbon in his hand, and watch the sky for those silently advancing stars he knew were put there by tiny men like himself. He loved his work. At home though he rarely, barely saw the sky, but drank wine in warm rooms with his own Stella, and on his knees brought to her a diamond which sparkled like the polestar, pointing them both the way ahead.

A wedding took place (this we can easily assert, light-rays from the event still visible fixed in silver-nitrate solution and recorded in heavy albums) regularising the relationship for the benefit of outside observers, making them one flesh, one mass, one god-joined-no-man-put-asunder. Each day Tim rose for work, and each evening set himself at her side, ready for sleep again. And according to the old understanding of things, that would have been it, steady state. Of course, we now realise the simplemindedness of our old theorems and beliefs, in the perdurable toughness of the marriage bond, and the force – love – which composed it. Progress in other fields – Theology, Philosophy and Genetics, has provided ample evidence that these bonds are not so permanent as has been supposed. Upholders of the old system still argue, however, that this breaking-down of the old unity, this new ‘relative’ view of relations, is only a sophistication, trick of numbers, an illusion built upon what-ifs and suppose-thats. Whatever the moral consequences, the new models allow us to dissolve marriages such that the two constituents re-emerge, alone and like new (in practice, though, often one of these freed bodies tends to self-destruct outside of the binary-orbit of marriage, for which no satisfactory explanation has yet been put forward).

So, after many years of marriage and star-launches, and his wife’s bored how-was-work, Tim was woken one hot night from a dream of ambulances, by a horrible yowling sound in the street. They were in a resort on the Mediterranean, rare time away from his cosmic profession. She had said they needed it. Looking from the window after the sound’s source sleepless Tim saw two black cats stare one another out, four metres separate. One cat crouched, cracking the flagstones with the twitch of its tail while the other approached very slow, closing the distance between them with velveteen softness, as the waiting cat rent the air with its terrible keening. Slowly this crouching cat began moving back and right, while the other still approached, so that they traced out a gradual fractal spiral over the cracked stones. Tim watched, and asked himself, was this slow orbit the prelude to fighting, or mating?

They stood motionless, the cats, but pregnant with power like springs under tension, the suspect vehicle in news footage before it erupts into a screen of fire, shaking the camera. And Tim saw, the force of this conjunction perhaps pointing his future course, that like their famous cousin in the box belonging to Herr Schrödinger, the cats were both fucking and fighting, the two states simultaneous and inextricable (8). He looked back into the hot room at his sleeping wife, and a thousand tiny events, disagreements and resentments, divergent tastes and tiny lies, his work and her home, her poetry and his lonely scientific passion, rose to the surface of his memory like twisted metal drawn from the depths by the bipolar magnet of the metaphorical cats. And this negative mass weighed on him, and the next day his demeanour was visibly altered, beginning the weakening of the attractive force.

Now, according to the paradox already mentioned, one or both of the resulting free-bodies from such a separation is liable to collapse, and in this case, yes, it was Tim who fell into a state of private decline after the separation, bright as ever but ageing aimlessly through empty rented rooms, propelled onwards only by his own inertia. More satellites went up, and he spent more and more time in the hills with distilled liquor bottles, staring into the blackness for answers, as though the night sky were a chalkboard of the past, on which if he drank and stared hard enough he might make something out.

And in this position, to which he periodically returns, we can spy him now. On certain nights of the year, at the passing of satellites or on an unnamed anniversary, we find him on high ground, face buried in the cold shoulder of the sky. And naturally we begin to formulate the question, where next? Is it possible to postulate a future for Tim – will he continue with his lonely research, stretched ever thinner until he simply dissipates, or will he, attaining his farthest stretch, begin a slow contraction into himself? The last signs, many argue, will be reversals of the processes characterising Tim’s progress thus far.

Old friends may get back in contact, he may see Stella again. He will not have her back – or so our current research predicts. Tim will not run backwards, undoing all that has been done – la tristesse durera, and the chaos will worsen, not improve (9) (for is this not what the second law dictates for systems left to themselves, as Tim has been?). However, it is submitted that things will speed back towards a centre, much like the point of origin. Ageing will quicken, seem to reverse, as this point is approached – does not Shakespeare call his last Age of Man ‘second childhood – sans eyes, sans hair, sans teeth, sans everything’(10)? Indeed the Tim whom we see approaching his unbirth, or death, his disappearing back into the single point like that from which he came, is in many ways like he who first emerged – the ‘other’ (that which is not ‘self’) will again become obscure, and Tim will stare with the old unfocused vision at the objects presenting themselves to him. Watching from the dark window of a nursing home, perhaps he will see the car headlights sweeping across the distant dual-carriageway, and they will remind him of his own satellites, or the circulation of his star-mobile, and he will idly wonder who is driving them and where to.

And yet, even as faculties and physical mass contract into this postulated termination, Tim’s behaviour appears outwardly serene, innocent of that terror which, for example, fireworks once provoked in him, and which reason suggests a body approaching extinction ought to feel. It is as though (impossible, this!) he could see beyond that final, white point of light, beyond the incidental details of crumpled sheets and sudden surprise, and before descending into darkness was able to visualise what lay on the other side of it, beyond the black hole, where our laws and these my equations shall have no more dominion. Indeed it seems strange to me, thus living on in the face of extinction, the readiness at the bourn, the border of space and edge of time. No, there is no explaining – I must confess, gentlemen, that here my model breaks down, or declares itself no longer to apply. What lies beyond that final point of light, back beneath the surface of the ocean from which Tim emerged so many years ago, he may know, but I fear that there will be no word, number or sign by which he can make us understand it, or himself, before he becomes one with his destiny, and blinks out, and our telescopes can no longer read him.


1. Fractal: “geometric shape that can be subdivided in parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole” Mandelbrot, B. B. (1982). The Fractal Geometry of Nature. W. H. Freeman and Company

2. Dionysius Exiguus et al., Anno Domini method of time quantification, (Rome, 675)

3. cf. JM, PL, Book VIII:

Hereafter, when they come to model Heaven
And calculate the stars: how they will wield
The mighty frame: how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appearances; how gird the Sphere
With Centric and Eccentric scribbled o'er,
Cycle and Epicycle, Orb in Orb.

4. Clausius, R. (London 1865) "Mechanical Theory of Heat – with its Application to the Steam Engine and the Physical Properties of Bodies."

5. Newton, I, Letter to Bentley, Correspondence III, p.234

6. E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

7. Keats, John, Letter to George and Tom Keats, 22 December 1817

8. E. Schrödinger: "Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik", Naturwissenschaften, 48, 807, 49, 823, 50, 844 (November 1935)

9. Van Gogh, V, July 27 1890 & Woolf, V, 28 March 1941

10. Heminges and Condell (eds.) Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, Edm. Blount, (London, 1621)