PAUL BIRCHTHE CHRISTMAS TIME MACHINE
"They don't grow on trees, you know."
"Christmas Puddings," said the strange man looking over Callum's desk.
Callum frowned. "How did you get in here?"
"The door was open," said the man, removing a dilapidated deerstalker hat, looking around doubtfully for somewhere to deposit it, then replacing it on his ginger-haired head. "Is it disturbing you, I am?"
"No, no, just paperwork," said Callum. "How can I help you?"
"Certain, it's the other way round," said the man. "It is that you are the foremost Christmas Specialist of MacRobert's World."
The foremost Christmas Specialist of MacRobert's World nodded complacently.
"And I," said his visitor, "am the famous Professor McGillycuddy-Reeks."
"Never heard of you," said Callum.
The Professor shook his head. "Sure, and not many have. 'Tis a great burden being famous when it's quite unknown ye are."
"I . . . I imagine it must be."
"Indeed it is." The Professor pulled his deerstalker more firmly onto his head and seemed to stand up. "Now, it's to my castle we both must go forthwith."
"You have a castle?" Callum felt he was losing his grip on the conversation.
"Sure, and did you ever know a Professor that didn't?"
The jopper glided silently through the winter sky. There in the far south-east beyond the City, amid the rolling grassy hills, loomed the Professor's castle, a patchwork of glass and stone structures with a single tower at the east end. The jopper settled down into the courtyard and the Professor hopped out. "Well, well, time for dinner, I think."
Dinner was a large helping of Christmas Pudding in the Professor's cold ancestral hall. "Individual-style puddings, I see," said Callum, attempting nonchalance.
"Sure, and the larger ones go soft, I fear," the Professor told him. "If I'd started from watermelons, now, things might have been very different. True, but it's too late to worry about it any more. It's the failure with the white sauce I regret."
Callum shrugged. "It's not bad. Bit lumpy perhaps."
The Professor shook his head. "Sure, and isn't that just out of a packet? Still and all, it's in the puddings themselves that the mint flavouring is, which deliverance is the main thing, for certain."
"I suppose it must be," said Callum.
"Finished?" asked the Professor. "Come and see the orangery!"
The orangery was a large glass-walled building on the south side, overlooking a deep gully. From end to end it was filled with the foliage of curious trees, which perhaps by reason of the mist in the air and the sunlight streaming through the walls Callum was unable to make out very clearly.
On a bench close by stood a row of Christmas Puddings. Those on the left were still green, but the last ones on the right had darkened to moist if slightly waxy perfection. "It's pick them before they're ripe, I'm prone to do," explained the Professor. "Makes it easier to separate out the seeds."
"Oh, quite!" said Callum.
"You must have noticed them at dinner."
"I thought they were nuts of some sort," said Callum with a calmness that surprised him.
"Cooking makes them nuttier, for sure," said the Professor. "They're quite edible, of course." He took a green pudding from the left, squashed it on the bench and began picking out the seeds. Then he seemed to lose interest and turned away. "It's a secret I'll be letting you into," he said. "Leave them be even longer, and some of the sugar turns to alcohol. I'm scarce a drinking man myself, you understand, beyond the odd mug of whiskey, but I'm told that some folks are partial to it, and at Christmas time for certain."
"For certain indeed," said Callum.
"Unfortunately, through the hand of Providence, the trees, like the finest puddings, take many years to mature, and I am no longer a young man, if indeed I ever was." For a moment the Professor looked puzzled. "Or is it later that that will be? No matter. If it's seeing your clients eating of my puddings and the multitudes of MacRobert's along with them I want — and that it is for certain sure — I will have to have planted them long ago."
"No doubt that's true," said Callum. His mouth seemed to have a mind of its own. "But what can we do about it?"
The Professor nodded as if Callum had said something profound. "Time to go up to the tower." He looked round. "Bring that sack of seeds, won't you?"
Callum puffed up the last flight of steps into the tower room, dragging the heavy sack behind him. The Professor was there before him, as was a curious machine in as near to the exact centre of the circular room as was possible for a device with knobs and cogs and coloured wheels and peculiar scrolly whatnots jutting out all over every which way. In the middle was a double seat of old-fashioned design, like the ones in the back row of an ancient cinema.
Callum laughed. "It looks just like a time machine!"
The Professor looked at him with a new respect. "Sure, and you're absolutely right! A time machine is exactly what it isn't anything else but."
"A time machine," said Callum.
"Yes," said the Professor. "Put the sack in the back, won't you?"
"A time machine," said Callum again. "How does it work?"
"Ah," said the Professor. "It took me many years to develop, or, possibly, will do. Yet the principle is quite simple. It takes advantage of the multiplicity of calendars to latch onto an earlier day with the same date and bring them into equivalence, thereby moving backwards, or, of course, forwards, in time."
"That's ridiculous," Callum expostulated. "It's like trying to move backwards in time by crossing the dateline."
The Professor nodded. "Exactly so. However, on an ordinary planet there is only a single dateline, so the method is necessarily of limited utility. Furthermore, we are unable to find locations conjoining both time and date simultaneously, which is essential to my system. Out of all the universe, it is only here on MacRobert's World, where numerous parallel dating conventions coexist and every day is the 25th of December, that effective time travel is possible. And fortunately today is Christmas Day, so we needn't delay any longer. Hop aboard!"
The time machine growled back into the past, cogs grinding, wheels spinning, whatnots flickering and an ever-changing 25th of December whirling on the panel display. The tower room blurred with temporal turbulence and the past comings and goings of the Professor. A sudden jolt made Callum grab the seat. "That was a bad one," the Professor muttered. "It must have been that keep at New New York. Lots of Jews there nowadays — almost got derailed onto the Hanukah track. Still we seem to have got away with it."
For a while the time machine ran more smoothly and the stream of Christmases Past fell behind them; then the juddering began again and got gradually worse. "Unavoidable, I'm afraid," the Professor explained. "This far back MacRobert's hasn't so many keeps, so not every day is Christmas Day yet. The time warp's inertia can carry us over the odd missing day, but too big a gap and we'll stall. There, what did I say!"
The time machine slammed to a halt and Callum shakily prepared to dismount. The Professor stopped him. "You don't want to get stuck in the past, do you? Just you wait there and relax a bit while I find out when we are. We've gone back a hundred and twenty years or so, I think. Now, where's that seed sack?"
Callum woke to the sunlight streaming in his bedroom window. The bedside clock gave the date as the 7th of August. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Still the 7th of August. He sighed. "Thank Heavens! It was a dream. Just a dream. Those flipping Christmas Puddings! And those blasted accounts!"
He forced himself into a sitting position. "There never was such a Professor, with such a silly name. I should have realised that all along."
But the computer told him of one Professor McGillycuddy-Reeks who lived in a castle to the south-east of the City over a century ago. And as Callum's jopper whined through the winter sky towards the designated coordinates the landscape began to seem strangely familiar. The castle was now a ruin, its single tower crumbling, and the hills were darkly wooded. Callum set down on a patch of open land half a mile or so from the castle. From here the wood resembled an orchard that had long been left untended and had over-spilled its bounds. Strange conical fruit, speckled dark in purple, brown and yellow below a green papery husk like a Chinese lantern, hung from the laden branches. On the ground below, rotting windfalls filled the air with the scent of brandy.
"They say the castle there was never built," said the man ploughing the field. "It just appeared one day from nowhere."
"And what of the Professor?" asked Callum.
"He disappeared, I believe," said the ploughman. "They do say that it was from this very spot that Johnny Plumseed began his historic mission across MacRobert's World. Think of that! Plum Pudding was the old name for Christmas Pudding, you know. That's how he got his name."
"And those trees," asked Callum, "what kind are they?"
The answer, at once unexpected and predictable, seemed to come from a vast distance. "Why, they're Christmas Pudding trees, of course!"
© Paul Birch, 4th Dec. 2001.