I was nine years old and holding my mother’s hand in the supermarket. It was the second week after New Year, the second week of the twenty-first century. The first of the two specific details I remember was my yellow jersey dress. I was embarrassed by the hand-holding. It looks embarrassing when you don’t have to reach up your arm; I was too tall to have to hold my mum’s hand in the shop.
She tugged me to the washing powder aisle, took both my shoulders in her grip and gave me the command to “Stay here.” She reached up to the top shelf to get a carton of tablets, and I wandered over to the opposite side of the aisle to read a brightly coloured label.
And then when I turned around she was gone. Looking back, she was probably hidden behind someone passing by between us, but all I could see that day was a throng of strangers. For all my indignance before, my immediate reaction was panic. This particular supermarket was a big place, and if she wasn’t right in front of me, my mother could be anywhere in the building. Thinking that she must have left the aisle (forgetting for the moment all her constant attention earlier making it impossible to leave me alone), I followed the route I imagined she’d taken. Soon I was lost, dodging trollies and customers, eventually coming to a stop for sheer safety’s sake. It was at this point that I was keeping my head down, the yellow of my dress painted into my memory through the blurriness of brimming tears.
Then someone lifted my chin and I was looking into a smiling face.
The other specific detail I remember was this face; the whole of it as one impression. The shape, features and voice emanating from it collectively impacted on me so that I could recall them all together with absolute clarity for years to come.
“Jennifer, it’s okay.” It was saying in a man’s voice. He pointed behind me. “Your mum’s just over there.”
I turned, and there she was leaning over the customer service desk, her voice high and frantic. For some reason I didn’t run straight to her. I turned back. The man was crouched before me so that his head was level with mine.
“How do you know my name?” I asked.
He smiled again. “Before I tell you, you have to promise to believe me.”
I hesitated. Then nodded.
“I’m your friend. In eight years, you’ll meet a boy called Shane, and you’ll tell him that the most scared you’d ever been was when you lost your mum in a shop when you were nine. And I wanted to help you on that day, so I came back. To this day.”
At nine I didn’t question. I didn’t consciously decide whether he might be telling the truth. I just accepted it. So when I ran to my mum, looked back and saw him walk away, or even during any of the seven years later, I was never shocked by the idea of meeting a man from the future. My future.
I blinked my way through Monday’s first class. By the time it had finished I was awake enough to realise what I’d missed was probably quite important. It was the first week of term, so that didn’t mean as much as it could have, and I wasn’t worried as I chose a seat in as central a part of the room I could. This teacher was the embodiment of all teachers across the last one hundred and fifty years. He had a big black cape-like coat and revealed a sleeveless jumper over a patterned shirt underneath, topped off with jeans.
I’d scanned his outfit in a few seconds and had to stop myself smirking. Three girls in front of me didn’t try to stop themselves and, in a way which told me they’d be fourteen for the rest of their lives, hissed comments and sniggered to each other. I remembered being friends with those girls much earlier in school, but had drifted apart from the group when boys began to happen. It was a part of life they’d embraced openly, but no matter all the peer pressure of modern life there’d always been something in me saying “not yet”.
The teacher continued to be a specimen of tradition; he even brought out a proper register and called out our names. I was so immersed into thinking about how he must have been sworn into the Cult of the Wooden Cane that it took me a few seconds to realise when he called out “Shane Oak?”
Everything in me stopped. I’d never met another Shane before. In all the time since that day when that face was first put into my head, I’d never even seen someone on telly called Shane. It was just one of those names. And the voice sounding from behind me was undeniably familiar. To be sure, I tried to do the maths. Was it now? Did it fit? But the sums in my head were lost when my own name was called out. Thanks to my tactful choice of a seat in the middle of the room, I couldn’t turn in any kind of casual way to see if there was a face that fit the one from my memory. I fidgeted through the rest of the class, again not taking anything in, before everyone got up to leave and I could glance back and look at the definite shape of the man from the supermarket.
He was still a boy. There was acne and grease and all the trappings of a teenager, but it was him. The teacher had already hurried out to another class, and nearly everyone else had milled out, so I inhaled and touched his arm with a “Hi.”
He looked up and returned the smile I couldn’t keep off my face. “Hello.”
“I’m Jenny.” I tried not to let any of my excitement show as he gave me the name I’d already known since childhood. He didn’t betray anything either, so I carried on nervously. “I don’t really know anyone yet. I don’t think anyone does. Want to be class buddies?”
Shane’s continuing lack of identifiable expression make me regret every choice of word I’d made for every long second before he replied cheerfully, “Sounds good.”
“Great.” I grinned back.
“Okay. I’ve got to get to-“
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you then.”
We left the empty classroom and went in opposite directions down the corridor.
The next month was as drastic yet unnoticeable a change as I’d always heard and imagined. It was like the whole of my life since the day in the supermarket had been a prelude to this time, my waiting until now to have any sort of relationship now had the best payoff possible. The first time we went out was a week after we’d met. I met him at the cinema, which was something my old girlfriends had always called unimaginative and unromantic. This made me think we’d be taking things slow and getting to know each other before getting into anything ‘date-ey’, but as soon as we’d met up, he was holding my hand, and our arms were around each other all throughout the Disney songs and jokes that followed. I thought I’d have to hold back myself and all my years of forethought, but he seemed just as eager to spend every minute together, to hold me and talk about our deepest worries and hopes.
Once I was waiting outside the gates for Shane, and those same girls I used to be friends with went past, and I saw them try to glance surreptitiously at me. As they passed, I overheard the words “out of his league”.
I frowned. Me and Shane? I was well aware of how attractive and unattractive certain people could be, but I’d never thought of Shane as bad-looking at all. He was just Shane. Sure, his spot problem was something I definitely hadn’t remembered from my memory, and his hair turned out to be greasier than I’d imagined more often than not. But I assumed it would be a couple more years before I told him about the most scared I’d ever been, so his skin could have cleared up by then. So the girls could have only been saying something about me, which made the very odd thing of complimenting someone behind their back. I thought about this for a bit before Shane came along and we headed off to the Odeon.
The concept of time travel itself wasn’t something I’d thought about much; it was only Shane that I’d focussed on until the title of a book on the shelf in his room caught my eye. It was ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’. Shane was studying physics and had a lot of passion for it. He’d talked to me for hours about what he’d learnt or read, although I could never follow. With this book putting the idea in his head, I assumed that he’d discover whatever it was that would let him go back and see me as a child, so I decided to wait until then before I told him how we’d really met.
One weekend he told me that his family were going to Dover, so we had a night in before he left, and I was out on my bike the next day. It was midmorning when I ended up going past his house, and I saw that his parent’s car was still there. I rode on by, thinking that they must not be leaving until later. But after I’d done a circuit around the city centre and was heading back, it was evening, and the car was still there. I stopped outside it to think, wondering if they’d taken the train to be eco-friendly or something.
What I couldn’t dismiss was when Shane came out of the house and headed down the road away from me. I didn’t think about following him at first. But then I thought “He lied to me”, and set off at a slow pace on my bike. I wasn’t angry then, I just needed to know that he had a damn good reason for what he told me.
It was difficult staying far enough behind him, even at a slow pedal. But eventually he reached a deserted bowling alley and slipped inside an unlocked door. I was scared by now. It didn’t look like the kind of place where anything healthy could be going on inside. I left my bike, went up to the door and followed him in.
It was a service entrance, and I was in a thin corridor. I went along it slowly, listening carefully for sounds of whatever it might be that Shane had gotten involved in. Hearing nothing, I carried on until the corridor turned a corner and opened into a wide industrial space, where Shane was talking to an old man with greying brown hair in a ponytail. They were stood by something that looked like a large chair. I ducked back out of sight around the corner and listened.
“But how did you find me?” The voice of the older man asked.
“Because this is where you took me before. You spoke at our school, held me back afterwards cos I’d asked some good questions and asked me to meet you here. You showed me the machine, saying you’d just finished it.”
“I’m not due to speak at any school until next month. And I’ve still got to work out all the theoretical safeties I’d need to install before even thinking about-“
“I know, just listen. You told me you needed a test subject.”
“…So it works?! You came back here to tell me!”
“No. Well, sort of. You asked me if there was something in my life I wanted to change. And there was. There’s this girl I knew, this beautiful girl, Jenny. For ages she flirted with me, and then asked me as her date to her cousin’s wedding. So while we were there I tried to take things further, but she says the flirting was all just for fun and she only asked me to the wedding because she needed a date, and also it was her doing me this big favour. But at that wedding Jenny’s mum told me that she once got lost in a supermarket soon after New Years 2000, and it was the most scared she’d ever been. And I got the idea from this book-“
“You did a Time Traveller’s Wife?”
“You know it?”
“I can hardly invent time travel without considering all the possible variables.”
“Well, yeah, I read that and got the idea of going back to when she was a little girl and telling her I was her ‘special friend’ from the future. So now she’s grown up waiting to meet me, and fell in love with me when we first met. And she’s so much better now. Not that bitch she used to be.”
“You did it then? You changed events?”
“But you remember your old life when you didn’t go out with this girl?”
“The Alternate Timeline Theory!” The older man squawked with excited laughter. “I knew it was the only sustainable construct! This proves everything! I’ve got to write this down.”
I heard him hurry through a door, but only faintly as my mind was reeling. The truth of time travel that had been part of my life for so long now took on a completely new meaning. That’s what Shane had done to me. Purposefully influencing me, changing me totally for his own reasons.
I stormed around the corner. Shane stumbled back against the chair-machine in surprise. “Jenny!” He yelled. I noticed now how high-pitched and squeaky his voice could get. I had hot tears in my eyes, but my voice was steady.
“How could you? How could anyone do that?”
Shane was frozen, scared. He managed to get out, “But you’re better now, you are! You should have seen what you were like before.”
“Before you? Before your wisdom decided what I should be like? I might have been a bitch, but people change! It’s what you do when you’re young, you go through some stuff and you become someone better afterwards. Nothing gives you the right to change my whole life! That’s monstrous! Did you really think what you did was the only way to change someone? Did you want your own way that much?”
Shane didn’t answer. He just wheezed. But then he got some confidence back and stood, anger in his face.
“It doesn’t matter.” He said. “It doesn’t matter if you know, because it still happened. It worked. You love me, I know you do.”
He grabbed my arms, but rage filled me and I shoved him back. The person I’d imagined him to be throughout my childhood and teenage years, who I’d fallen in love with wasn’t him at all. So I pushed him, hard, away from me.
He fell like a weak, limp rag, right into the chair-machine, which toppled over. And that seemed to turn it on, because in a bang of light and sparks, the chair, and Shane, were both gone. Out of my life forever.