22 December 2005

My father's hobby time-machine: A *madeleine-free remembrance

at the crack of a crab

To get the saliva flowing in a reader's mouth, it is best to have it flowing in one's own when one writes a story about, say, medlar tarts. If the writer has never tasted a medlar tart, an overworked and perhaps dangerously resentful Imagination must substitute, on unpaid overtime, for that blithe, self-confident, maddeningly know-it-all Experience, who's probably being massaged by hummingbird tongues while gorging on medlar tarts and rabbiano cheese. So it was a bittersweet taste of sympathy and relief (glad it wasn't me being fried) that bubbled up from my craw when I read criticism of a recent short story: flawed by its unsophisticated treatment of time travel.

To that writer, I extend my sympathies and advise a sentence of penitential rusks for your Imagination. But don't let that miscreant imbibe them. Instead, rub briskly on its tender parts. If only you, dear writer ill-served, had grown up a bit earlier, or as another daughter of my father . . .

He'd converted his mother's icebox to electricity before he was tall enough to reach its top. Then he made radios before radio-tinkering became a hobby. He built radios for all his family and friends, and was bored with radios well before he'd built his last one, for twice-removed Aunt Zira and Uncle Eldo. And he wasn't even fourteen. Surrounded as he was by a family of tailors, and especially, by men who designed the earliest versions of ballistic brassieres, it was natural that he built his first time machine before he was old enough to be drafted into the family business.

He went to wars with the first one, but only at night.

Then one day, war started for him during the day, and he went to that.

His family, not knowing that their apartment possessed a time machine, destroyed it during a spring clean.

After the war, in those first years of marriage, he was too busy to build another. And for quite a few years he forgot all about them. Those were busy years for many hobbyists. The painted duck decoy that cleverly opened to reveal that it was a cigarette holder. The cobbler's bench coffee table, the hutch, the Williamsburg-inspired lathed pieces . . .

My mother loved antiques, so many weekends were taken up with driving, antique- shop hopping. My father always took the 'shortcut', which meant that we spent most of the time being lost, which was much more fun at first, than watching them look for something to buy. At first, he was interested too. Old handtools. He'd fondle them, but unless they could be properly displayed on the wall (framed) or made into a lamp, they were judged worthless as buys. By the time I was eight, Daddy's shortcut was a joke as thin as his hair was becoming. And that, I think, was when he decided to build another time machine.

He was still in the military, and wore missiles on his shoulder. One or two, I can't remember. I was too young to ask the questions I would ask now, when I can't, so I can't tell you what his first time machine was made of or looked like.

But the one he made when I was eight was more sophisticated. It was also miniaturised, since this was the beginning of the 'pocket-sized' age, and he was some sort of techie in secrets. I know they were secret because once when I visited his office, I looked at the wall behind him, and there was a curtain covering it, and a sign beside the curtain that said SECRET.

I remember when his time machine hobby became our secret— his and mine. I had just finished, under his tutelage (and mostly using his hands) a birdfeeder supposedly made by me.

We were sitting at the kitchen table, demolishing a crab and a couple of hard-boiled eggs. He'd just given me his tumbler of vodka to sip. This was a meal we both enjoyed, but my brother and mother retched at the smells, so we were alone.

"Want to go fishing this afternoon, or play with your friends?" my father asked . . .

* Warning: May and might include traces of nuts, and will include offal.


Adam Browne said...

this is phenomenal - i have no idea what is real here, what isn't - starting a timetravel story with a sympathetic comment for another writer - just such a great idea! Belief is suspended, but not from a great height; we feel perfectly safe reading this, enjoying the whimsy, knowing we're in the hands of a master wordsmith...

anna tambour said...

What a blast! This post has been sitting here for years (and is one of the reasons I started Medlar Comfits, for where else would this fit?), so how surprising and wonderful to have a reaction to it, and from such a fabulistimo science-oriented writer!

I'm glad you feel safe. I am above all, my father's daughter; and though he was an adventure addict by trait, he was paid to be a safety engineer for the wars of progress--the ones that cart humanity on the road to Armageddon. And though he worked with secrets, he was the soul of honesty. So being whoIam, everything I've reported here is 100% truthful too.

Adam Browne said...

Reading fantasy, I'm often on the lookout for new ways to introduce the Fantastic Idea into the story. In this one, you do it while writing an apparent essay - though now I'm not sure if it's a faux memoir or real; in Klokwerk, you just bloody do it; the stone statues just come to life - simple as that - and it's not some bittersweet compassionvision of his dying mind - they're really alive, winging down to take him to his wife, who sees them too! Which means they're real! It shouldn't work, but it does. So that's another technique noted by me - introduce the Idea without apology; just make it happen.

anna tambour said...

Your words are so flattering, Adam, but I must confess that there's no "new ways" about my supposed technique, which I also can't claim to have.

In answer to your "I'm not sure if it's a faux memoir or real", I think every memoir is as real as a horizon is the edge of the earth.

And as for those statues that just come to life, of course they're real. It's not technique but more like the law, which is often a proverbial ass, but in this case, makes good sense. Many people called to the stand spout bullshit, but they generally lose credibility. A credible witness (in a perfect world) states only what that cw knows to be true because that cw was there and saw it. If only technique saw it and the w got it from technique, that's hearsay, and is inadmissible as evidence.

That doesn't mean that a great and fun book can't be packed with a glorybox of characters who lie like a becalmed sea, and others who see an apple drop and die fleeing from the beast with no legs. But that's them. We's just authors, and to truth we must be true.