The Present Wants Out

Matt Harris

Like all time travellers, he had that unbearably superior manner. I know something you don’t know, he seemed to say, which of course he did. I tried not to rise to it.

‘So you’re saying that you’ve voted to leave the continent?’ he asked in his pompous fashion. Like all time travellers he was quizzing me on current events and the nature of our world. I was explaining Brexit to him.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Well, not a continent – a union that covers the continent.’

He looked perplexed for a moment and I added, ‘An arrangement between all the different countries on the continent, to form a sort of super-state, with some shared laws and arrangements and so on.’

‘Why didn’t you want to be in this union?’ he asked.

Oh Christ, I thought, this had better be worth the money. ‘Well, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Some people felt that the union made decisions for this particular state and they didn’t like that. Other people felt that leaving the union would reduce immigration into this state from people born in other states, which they think is a bad thing. I dunno, I didn’t vote for it personally so I’m just speculating.’

‘Hold on a minute,’ said the time traveller, sitting up a bit and causing his ridiculous hat to slip to one side, ‘are you saying not everyone voted to leave?’

‘Of course not,’ I said, ‘it was about fifty-one to forty-nine I think.’

‘And yet the whole state has to accede to the choice of this majority?’

‘Well, obviously,’ I said, irritated.

He snorted contemptuously and then produced a grating laugh. A few other people in the bar looked over, and I tried to sink back into the shadows of my corner seat. I picked up my empty glass and waved it at him.

‘How about another drink?’ I asked.

He nodded and, from his chair, unfurled his long narrow frame into a standing posture, from which platform he recalibrated his hat then set off towards the bar. He walked into an empty table on his way, and I realised he was drunk. It wasn’t like a time traveller to get drunk while in the field. They were all frustratingly tight-lipped of course, and no doubt they avoided the drink for fear it would loosen said lips. This one seemed even more conceited than most, so maybe he thought himself above such caution.

He was ordering drinks from the overweight landlady, who looked offended. I couldn’t hear him, but no doubt the time traveller was commenting on her weight. There are no fat people in the future, and time travellers are given to make blunt remarks when they encounter them here.

Perhaps, I thought to myself, I might extract something of interest from this well-oiled pilgrim.

He returned with my glass of red wine and his pint of lager, a choice of drink so affected that I’d winced when he first ordered it. He had seemed but a heartbeat from buying a flagon of mead.

He settled without grace into his chair, spilling something from each of the drinks onto his lap, then leaned forward and set them both upon the table.

‘So you don’t like our system,’ I said, ‘where a small majority vote to leave and then everyone has to do what’s decided?’

He blinked and looked at me a moment, trying to remember. His holographic triangle thing was glowing red in the gloom of the pub, and pulsing faintly. They wear these gadgets around their necks to prove they’re from the future, since they involve technology supposedly fit to bring forth awe in ancient folk. I think they look like ‘70s special effects, but I suppose the higher-ups agreed to all this when the time travellers first appeared.

‘Yes,’ he said at last, ‘I was just telling the fat publican the same thing.’

‘So what do you guys do instead? Do nothing unless you get a vote of one hundred per cent?’

I held my breath…the time travellers supposedly never answer any question about the future, including all the favourites:

  • what’s the future like?
  • are you altering the future by visiting the past?
  • why are you here and not at the birth of Jesus/Mohammed/Buddha etc.?
  • how do you travel through time?
  • why all the questions?

The last one always seemed most important to me. If they have all this mighty technology, why do they seem so ignorant on the fine details of the past? Don’t they have masses of historical data? I’ve always suspected that some future disaster has wiped out the records of the past. Or perhaps people in the future are just idiots. They certainly seem to have bad personalities. Meeting them is like seeing your drunken parents disgrace themselves at a party and knowing in your heart that you’re destined to become them.

‘What we do,’ said the time traveller, and I thought my god, I’m getting an answer, ‘is everybody votes for the kind of society they want, and then everybody who broadly agrees gets a bit of land and forms their chosen society there. So you have the socialists all living together, the capitalists, the racial supremacists, the Islamists, the anarchists – everybody gets a state where they like the way things are done. And if you don’t like it you have another vote and you change sides or form a new state.’

‘Really?’ I asked, agog.

‘Yes!’ he said, looking peeved that I’d questioned him. ‘It’s the only sensible way, and it works perfectly of course. Everybody gets their way. The white supremacists get the society they want, the anarchists too; the conservatives get a nice king with a big beard. Everybody’s happy.’

‘You mean people vote for racial supremacy, and you think that’s okay?’

‘Well I don’t, of course,’ he exclaimed, ‘but they do. And it wouldn’t do any good arguing with them would it? Much better they get to go and live on their racially pure island. Dreadful place, freezing cold, but they like it.’

I sat back and took this in, along with a draught of my wine.

‘But surely,’ I said, ‘this must take some incredible organisation, to find bits of land for whole new societies after every vote?’

‘You’d be amazed how well people can co-operate when they’re not arguing over politics.’

‘But what if the native people don’t want to leave? What if you want to move the white supremacists in, but the locals don’t want to go and don’t want to be white supremacists?’

‘Oh there’s plenty of space,’ he said with a grandiose sweep of his hand, ‘plenty of empty countries.’

Aha! I thought, there’s that disaster! Nuclear war, asteroid, robot uprising…

‘I can’t imagine,’ he said with a shake of his head, ‘half the people of a country voting to leave a continent…’

‘It’s not literally a continent,’ I said, but he wasn’t listening.

‘And the half that didn’t vote for it being forced to go along with it! I mean what kind of system is that! Up to half the people in every country would be unhappy all the time. It’s absurd!’

He threw his head back and produced the most infuriating, braying laugh, and his hat fell off.

‘It’s not the fucking continent of Europe that we’re leaving,’ I said, ‘they’re not going to tow the country into the Atlantic for fucksake. It’s just a union, a sort of state, that people voted to leave.’

The time traveller’s titters subsided and he fixed me with an expression of understanding. ‘We have people who don’t like states in my time too,’ he said, ‘the anarchists have their own islands, just as they should. Perhaps they would have voted for your Brexit.’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ I said, rather irritated, ‘it’s a slightly different thing. More of a nationalist angle to it really. And anyway, surely anarchists don’t vote?’

He sank a good half-pint of his lager in a great gulp then set it on the table and leaned back in his chair, ready to lecture me. ‘There are two kinds,’ he intoned, ‘one kind believes in voting, the other doesn’t. They live on two neighbouring islands. One of the islands has much the warmer climate.’

‘I see,’ I said.

‘I think they’re the ones who believe in voting,’ he added, uncertainly.

I finished off my wine. He patted his head, feeling the absence of his hat, and then began groping round for it at the base of his chair.

‘Hold on,’ I said, ‘how did the anarchists who don’t believe in voting manage to vote to form a society for themselves?’

He got off his chair and crawled round the back of it in search of his hat, burping loudly. The pulsing red glow of his holo-triangle spilled across the carpet. At a table by the window, a woman reading a book was looking over at us, naught but disdain in her eyes. That I was tolerating this future-oaf for a hundred quid was humiliating. Everybody knew that was the standard price they paid.

‘Also,’ I said to his empty chair, ‘what if the white supremacists decide that they don’t like this live-and-let-live approach and want to invade the black nationalists and kill them? Or what if the anarchists decide they have to save the capitalists from their own ignorance and start bombarding them with propaganda?’

The time traveller stood up, hat on backwards, and said grandly, ‘We would simply create a state for people who felt that way, and all would be well.’

‘That makes absolutely no sense,’ I said.

He collapsed back into his chair, downed the rest of his pint, and favoured me with a supercilious smile. ‘It’s rather complex,’ he oozed. ‘Someone like you wouldn’t understand.’

That was it, I’d reached my fill. I finished off my wine then said, quite calmly, ‘Right, that’s it. I’ve had enough of you, you pompous prick. Fuck off back to the future.’

He sat up, shocked, and said ‘Sir, I hope you do not forget–’

‘Oh go fuck yourself!’ I shouted, suddenly losing my composure. The woman with the book was smirking. The time traveller stood up and straightened his jacket.

‘I paid for a full hour of information,’ he said, ‘and it has only been– ‘

‘It’s been an hour and five minutes,’ I said, ‘an hour and five minutes spent with the Ghost of Dickheads Yet-to-Come, and I shan’t ever get that time back. Go back when you came from.’

‘I shall,’ said the time traveller, his voice heavy with foreboding, ‘but your behaviour will be noted. And there will be– ‘

‘Don’t talk to me of consequences,’ I snapped, ‘it’s in very poor taste when you’re a guest in the past.’

The time traveller rotated his hat until it sat true, then made to stride out. He stopped by the door. ‘Best of luck leaving your continent,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it would indeed be best if you were towed out into the Atlantic.’

‘I hope you changed something in the past and when you get back your people are ruled by lizards as a result.’

He huffed ostentatiously and stormed out of the pub. The landlady shook her head at me.

‘Can’t you be nice to them?’ she demanded. ‘They spend a lot.’

‘Did you not hear him?’ I asked. ‘Unbearable he was, so superior. They all are. I want nothing to do them.’

The woman with the book put it down on her table. ‘They’re our future,’ she said, ‘you might think about getting along. We’re all part of the same continuum.’

‘Well I’d happily leave their continuum if I could. Our future selves are wankers, the present wants out.’

‘Vote Prexit, eh?’

‘Vote Prexit,’ I insisted.

‘Well,’ she said, picking up her book again, ‘good luck on your own.’

Matt Harris is a writer based in Liverpool whose poetry and short fiction have previously appeared in HOAX, Confingo, the Alarmist, the Nottingham Review and others. He has been chosen as a semi-finalist in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest (2016) and The New Guard Contest 2016.

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