Duncan Fennister took another of his walks around the waterfronts of the North Sydney district in Sydney Australia. It was a Thursday afternoon. The global economic downturn had been rather unkind to his career prospects, and he had been spending more time working on the only scientific invention that he had ever pursued with any vigour. Yet he had been unable to make it work.
Duncan had been born in July 1968. At the age of ten, he had taken up electronics as a hobby. Electronic kits had been his Christmas and birthday presents for years after that. There was no career for him in science. Yet he had never been able to stay away from it for long.
He lived in a small town house in North Sydney, with his back lawn meeting at some arbitrary point with the little used waterfront walkway beyond. He’d gone to a private boys high school in North Sydney from 1980 to 1985, and occasionally taken a few short walks around the suburb at lunch time, to escape an unappealing environment at least for a little while. Now he found himself exploring it more, whenever he needed exercise. Yet the scenery had changed in the last 2 ½ decades. Some of it remained the same. Other parts, particularly the shopping malls of North Sydney, were vastly different.
He usually refrained from taking walks during the daytime. By 1990, he’d learned that the ozone layer was damaged. A television documentary had pointed out that the seven hottest summers to date had occurred since 1980. Since then he’d noticed brown dots appearing on a few scant parts of his body by 2004, and decided to avoid long walks in the sun. He’d learned that on overcast days, one could get burned even worse. So, on the whole, he tried to restrict his walks to night times, or the approach of sunset. He’d never been married, and wanted to preserve the white pallor of his skin, which was still largely unaffected. He had so often been mistaken for someone in his early 20s by social acquaintances, when in fact he was now 42. However, today was particularly rainy, not heavy, but consistent. An umbrella could protect him from both rainfall and sunlight seeping through clouds, and he could enjoy the pleasant atmosphere that fresh rainfall always created in his mind.
He walked around Blues Point Park, using the rocks and paths to stay as close to the water as possible. After looking across at the Harbour Bridge and the City, he moved around further, heading back towards the directions of Waverton and Balls Head.
Then Duncan saw it. He’d never seen anything like it before, not on his many previous visits. Yet lying in the shallow water just beside a low wall was a glowing loose coral formation of some sort. Why was it glowing? He wondered about that. He’d heard that underwater coral had been badly burned by global warming too. Yet this wasn’t burned. It was glowing. It would have been noticed by someone else, if it had been there for a while, even by Duncan two nights earlier on his previous walk in this direction. So it must have only recently washed up. It was submerged, lying on sand in two feet of water.
There was only one thing to do. Duncan took his wallet and handkerchief out of his trouser pocket. He took off his shoes and socks. There was no point in rolling up his trousers. They would still get wet during this exercise. He took off his shirt. He looked back at the back fences and some visible windows from houses and hoped he wasn’t making a scene. If he was, it would be worth it. Duncan was very squeamish about water temperature. Yet it was raining.
He placed his umbrella on the grass beside the wall, so that it protected his discarded items. Then, in one quick movement, Duncan jumped feet first into the water, bent his legs, kept his eye on the glowing coral, and bent down and grabbed it. He was out of that water as fast as was humanly possible, and back on the grass. He put the coral down, put his shirt, shoes and socks back on, and then replaced his wallet and handkerchief to the pockets. He picked up the glowing coral, and began walking back to his townhouse.
For five years, Duncan had felt sure that he had perfected his invention, except for finding a workable power source. None of the conventional sources had worked. Electricity had failed, even though the device was electrical in nature. What little he could acquire and safely connect in terms of radioactive substances had achieved nothing. Now he once again pushed his device (which was a small cabinet the size of a deluxe wardrobe, with four tricycle wheels attached) out of his workshop shed, to the very border of the garden and the public path behind the property, and then he unlocked it, and stepped inside.
He connected the jumper leads which ran from the controls of the device to the coral itself, and then activated his device, expecting the usual silence and lack of response. In the past the lights had lit up on the control panel, but nothing had happened. There was actually no real way to tell if something had happened, given what his device was meant to do. One had to step out and explore each time, and confirm that one had not travelled at all in time. Duncan’s device was a time machine, one that wouldn’t work. They worked on television, but apparently not in real life. The sun had come out, and February heat had already dried his trousers, even before he got back to his house. He could step out of his device and walk around again. Duncan waited until the lights went off, and then turned off the device, stepped out and locked it.
He knew he might as well enjoy the rest of his planned walk, while checking that he was still in 2011. There wasn’t much point in walking around in the out of the way places now. He’d be better off to go and look at the city buildings and the cars that populated the highly cherished parking spaces of every street in North Sydney. As he began walking the familiar streets which would take him to Lavendar Bay, he noticed a train crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, headed out from the city towards Milson’s Point and North Sydney.
It was red.
The 1920 single decker trains (most of them red, with an occasional blue carriage thrown in) and the few double decker carriages that were sometimes pulled along by single decker engine carriages had all been taken out of service in late 1991. He had taken films of them when he heard it was going to happen. In 2011 as he knew it, every train in service was silver. Some had yellow doors, but all were silver. The train he saw was red.
Now there was no denying that the glowing coral had powered the time device. Duncan Fennister was walking his own suburb at some time before 1992. He had always positioned the time device on the border of his 2011 property and the pathway, so that neither people on the pathway nor the past owners of his house would be likely to worry about its presence. Yet it had just been a pointless precaution until now. He was actually in the past!
Duncan looked at the money in his wallet. The notes had all been introduced since the old style had gone out of circulation in stages in the 1990s. The one dollar and two dollar coins that he had were all dated after 1991. Only the silver coins would be of any use to him, and he didn’t have many in his wallet. He would have to make a point of hoarding old currency in his own time before coming here again.
He had lived in Killara from 1970 to 1997. He may not have even enough for the cost of a pre-1992 train fare to Killara, and what would be the point of going anyway? For the moment, all he could do was verify the length of his time journey. He walked up to Miller street, and went into the newsagency. There were still some unsold copies of the daily paper on the shelf. He looked at the date. It was almost exactly the same date of the month of February, and it was the same day of the week: Thursday.
The year was 1986. He had gone back exactly 25 years into the past. He had known when he had designed the time device, that whatever powered it would determine the fixed length of the journey that could be taken into the past, which would be reversed by the same length of a journey from the past back in the future direction, when the reverse setting of the machine was activated. In other words, he now accepted that he could not go another 25 years back to 1961. He could not go to any point between 1986 and 2011. He could only return to 2011.
If Duncan stayed three weeks in 1986, and left in mid March 1986, the machine would bring him to mid March 2011. If he then waited another month until mid April 2011 before using the Coral Rift again, it would take him to mid April 1986. So the machine now worked and the boundaries had been established which would allow him to spend time in either 1986 or 2011. The machine needed an original name, a name for a time travel device that was derived from its most original component: the power source. He thought about glowing coral, and decided to call it the Coral Rift.
He did not have to think too hard for the most significant energy event of early 1986 in his life. He had recalled it many times in recent years, as he had approached and passed the age of 40. He knew exactly what his younger 1986 self was currently doing. Duncan 1986 had finished school in November 1985, worked in a book store for a month of casual work leading up to Christmas, enjoyed the summer holidays, enrolled in Darlinghurst University in mid February 1986, and then gone to the University’s orientation week in late February 1986.
On the last day of orientation week, Duncan 1986 had been sitting at an outdoor table near the University Cafeteria, when a lady had come over and sat at his table. She had long dark brown hair, friendly eyes, and was familiar to him. She had been manning one of the desks on enrolment day. He had been aware that she worked in the administration building, and that he wouldn’t have the same regular contact with her that he would expect to have with a teacher. He had been oblivious to any real visual awareness of women’s ages at that stage in life. As a teenage first year student, he’d had some idea that she was older than him, but had placed her somewhere in her 20s, if he even thought about it at all. Thinking back now, he would have estimated her age from the visual recollections of her incredibly beautiful facial features, at late 30s.
She had started a casual conversation, and asked which course and subjects he was starting, and seemed very friendly. Duncan 1986 had not even thought of looking for a wedding ring on her fingers. He had spent his teenage years too shy to approach girls at all, and here was a mature intelligent woman approaching him. At the time he had put it down to her just being polite to a new student, probably a nervous looking student. Yet now Duncan 2011 wondered why of all the hundreds of enrolling students there she had chosen to talk to a 17 ½ year old boy that she didn’t know at all.
After a few weeks of the course, he had found himself out of both his depth and area of interest, and wanted to leave university and go to work. His parents had said that he didn’t know what he was doing, and days of family debate had led to an agreement being made. His parents would let him drop out of university, and work for the rest of the year, if he agreed to start another course at the beginning of 1987 and see it through. If there had been any chance of him overcoming his shyness and finding his way to the administration building, it had been absorbed by weeks of struggling to get through the work, and then days of convincing his parents to let him drop out. Then he had left the university and applied for clerical jobs, until a finance company had asked him (just before Easter 1986) to start a position at a St Leonards office just after Easter. There was simply no chance to find out whether the lady was just being friendly, and he would have felt far too shy anyway.
But Duncan 2011 wouldn’t.
He would be able to go to Darlinghurst University any time after mid March 1986, by leaving his own time after mid March 2011, without any risk of meeting Duncan 1986. St Leonards was three suburbs further down the North Shore line from North Sydney, in the direction of his parents’ 1986 Killara home. He could make another trip first.
In 1983, Duncan 1983 had gone to a youth group, enjoying its social scene for the first time interacting with both boys and girls, unlike school. He had started in February, only weeks after joining a tennis club. So all of a sudden he had two social outlets with both boys and girls. The youth group had one rather aggressive bully in it named Alex McIntosh. There had never really been any conflict between them, only Alex’s overt insults of Duncan’s dress sense. Alex was broad shouldered. Duncan wasn’t, and had been the prime target of lots of bullying at school. In the youth group, he had stayed out of Alex’s way.
At the beginning of 1984, Alex stopped coming to the youth group. Duncan 1984 made new friends, as two new girls joined the youth group. By late 1984, he had acquired a crush on one of them, named Pearl Ward. Yet Pearl was largely unresponsive. He saw behavioural traits he didn’t like too. She had her own tennis court, and would boast that she enjoyed beating boys at games of tennis. “I love doing it. Guys feel so denigrated,” Pearl said on one occasion.
Unable to separate his crush from his awareness of her sadistic side, he had continued to hope, and been treated poorly by Pearl, snubbed in unnecessary cruel ways. On Easter Good Friday 1986, just before Duncan 1986 started his new job at General Finance Ltd, some leaders of the youth group and a few other familiar faces had gone back to somebody’s house to talk and nibble snacks until well into the night, including the long lost Alex McIntosh. As alcohol was consumed by most of them, not including Duncan, the conversations degenerated into obscenity and innuendo. Disillusioned, Duncan had gone for a walk down the street, only to spot from a distance both Alex McIntosh and Pearl Ward embracing under a street light, kissing each other.