"The Perfect Day" (1981) by A. E. van Vogt - never before published in English
Monday 19 March 2018, by
Lee Baines is a solitary bachelor who spends his evenings alone before the TV set feeling cynical about the world in general and TV programs in particular. And one night he sees a university professor talking about his new time-traveling machine and asking for volunteers who, unlike the mice he has been using so far for his experiments, could come back and report on the result of his experiments.
That night Lee decides to go for it: to go back to the day of what was for him his perfect wedding day – and night – only to have woken up the next morning to find that his beloved Marsha had gotten up sometime during the night and gone away, never to be seen again.
Nothing could be more important for Lee – and by this time for the reader too – than to be able to find out the why and the where and the with whom of that very special day and night, which he finally manages to do, with the help of a very gifted and unusual professor and his incredible apparatus.
Published in November 1981 in a glossy German-language anthology “Gateway to the Stars” (Tor zu den Sternen) of mostly-original short stories by well-known American and European science-fiction writers, this was one of van Vogt’s last stories  – and the only one never to have been published in English.
This is the first time this interesting and even moving story has ever appeared in English, even if only in a translated version of the published German text .
An e-book of this story can be downloaded below.
THE PERFECT DAY
For Lee Baines it should have been the usual evening spent being sarcastic. He was sitting there in front of the TV, his body tensed from his years of critical irritation at the world and the people in it, above all, in the latter category, the women.
The curtains were drawn. Baines had turned off his reading lamp and was wearing his house jeans with a T-shirt; a lank, wiry man whose face had barely altered over the years, apart from the ingrained expression of knowing just how dumb other people were. He was sitting in his TV-armchair and was watching the bright screen, currently showing a Professor Andrew Shadall in his university laboratory, with glowing machinery in the background that fully corresponded to the requirements for teaching physics to students.
The Professors of the local university were particularly the targets for Baines’s mockery. As the sense of Shadall’s presentation became clear, the cynical onlooker in the half-darkened room opened his lips and uttered the first “Hah!” that he was in the habit of shouting at the screen: “You must be nuts! A time machine! Poor H. G. Wells!”
In his lab the forty-something Professor Shadall was just saying: “We have done experiments with it to transfer inanimate objects and small animals both in the past and in the future. But what we now need now are volunteers who can come back and report on what they have experienced.”
“Yah, sure!” scoffed Baines.
With these words he hit the channel-selection button of the remote-control unit. And spent the rest of the evening watching a series of comedy programs that just made him sneer at human nature. And as usual finally went to bed.
. . . Baines woke up in impenetrable darkness and thought: time machine!
It was a pure instant. No trace of his . . . endless . . . animosity was left in his mental makeup. There was only an overwhelming awareness: I could go back to that day and find out exactly what happened to . . .
The vague thought hovered over a name. In a way the identity was there, and the identification was hovering in the background, on the verge of becoming firm in his mind. But the haziness of the thought was in line with his decision long ago never, but never, to think of that person again.
. . . During their wedding night, after what had been for Baines a perfect day and an evening of great happiness and even joy, his newly wedded wife had secretly gotten up from the marriage bed while he was sleeping and gone away.
. . . I could go back and observe and follow her and – the sarcasm came suddenly back – see where the damned woman went off to!
Suddenly he realized that could hardly wait for the morning to come.
And there he was now. And there was Professor Shadall.
The preparation had been expertly done. The clothing of those days wasn’t all that different from that of today, so he wore his everyday business suit.
The time span of 28 years, 4 months, 7 days and 3 hours didn’t seem to bother Shadall. Baines watched closely how the physics professor turned the knobs on the machine in the back of the delivery van, as it took them to the town of Milbrite 87 miles away. He was cramped, but also impressed. One had the impression of dealing with a very solid apparatus, as in the case – the comparison came naturally out of his daily work at the airport – of jumbo jets that flew daily and faultlessly supported the strain of countless take-offs and landings.
. . . If time travel is like that then the process will be an everyday event in coming years –
The lean-faced Shadall half-turned his head and nodded to Baines. That was the sign. He cautiously got down from the platform at the back of the truck and stepped onto the street at the edge of the town. (It occurred to him that this street had already been there in 1953).
Slowly, with a curiously cramped feeling, Baines went over to the white mark that Shadall had only minutes before drawn on the road. He stood there, with his back to the vehicle, and waited.
He could feel how his body was being twisted – a new kind of sensation. He was usually indifferent to his inner self and was even contemptuous of people who never stopped musing over their sub-consciousness. But now –
He became aware that he was waiting for an impulsion. For something, anything, a feeling . . . For God’s sake, he thought, get on with it! And with that he turned his head.
It has been his intention to point out that fear was a part of the life-process. And that the damned machine, if it wasn’t able to function accurately enough, was perhaps not suited to dealing with people.
The criticism, that was on the tip of his tongue, remained unspoken for when he had half turned his head he saw out of the corner of his eye –
No, not quite nothing. There was the road. And undeveloped land. And in the near distance were some isolated houses.
But there was no delivery van.
A moment passed. At first he remained where he was, troubled by another thought. He had the feeling that if he had really gone back 28 years, it had curiously lasted a frighteningly long time.
The reality around him was like eternity. Now that he was here and that the delivery van was there, how could the two ever get back together again? But when he thought about it, the fact that the markings on the road were there –
And also that thought broke suddenly off. For he had glanced down.
And there were no markings.
That should have convinced him, but doubts swelled up: in fact I don’t believe it at all . . .
The street had a downward slope, and the feeling now said: I bet the driver let go of the brakes and the van has noiselessly rolled downwards, behind the bushes over there.
It was his cynicism coming back. And a few sarcastic thoughts even ran through his mind as a 1949 Buick purred up the incline and drove past him. Shortly afterwards three other old models followed. Baines could determine the year for only one of them: a 1951 Chevrolet.
The other two were certainly old models, both shining new!
The memory came back: Shadall had said, “You will be able to determine that it really is your wedding day when you buy a newspaper.”
While he was standing there with this new objective in mind, a light breeze wafted over his face. Fresh air, thought Baines. A nice moment. All those awful years, when he had had to observe how he was being progressively enveloped by smog, were suddenly no longer there. And here he stood in an unpolluted world. Well all right, perhaps not quite unpolluted, but certainly much cleaner.
In this town good things had happened to him. Back from the Korean War, he had stood here in his uniform of an Air Force lieutenant next to Captain Dan Thatcher. They had served in different theatres of war, but the previously distant and very wealthy Thatcher family had from that instant onwards treated him as an equal.
And Dan Thatcher would be best man at his wedding on this perfect day. And Dan Thatcher’s house would be at the disposition of the bride and bridegroom this night.
It was this house that Marsha would leave sometime between midnight and dawn.
With that Baines tried a step forward away from the spot. Then another. And more. After a dozen steps he looked around. But that was all that he did: he only looked around, and only for a second.
He proceeded quickly towards the town . . . I am here to find out why and to where my wife disappeared.
He bought the newspaper in Trowgard’s drugstore.
Just to go into the shop was a kind of test. This was not a place that he had often gone to in the days of 1953, or before the Korean War. So the old Trowgard only gave him a quick glance, as he had hoped he would, when Baines paid for the paper with a dollar coin from his pocket. Of course, it was only shortly after the opening of the store – the man presumably had other thoughts in mind.
“Thanks,” said Baines. And went out.
It was a few minutes later. Content, Baines hurried across a side street into the entrance of the nearby Milbrite Park. As he remembered, the park was empty at this time of day. He sat down on a bench and unfolded the newspaper.
The date read: September 18, 1953.
No question about it, this was his wedding day. Then he was overtaken by a long moment of bewilderment. What an unbelievable accomplishment of Shadall and his co-workers . . . to have brought me back exactly to this precise date, more than ten thousand days in the past!
Several minutes went by before the feeling of intense bewilderment abated. And he could realize that the headline highlighted a Milbrite local event:
MARRIES TODAY AT 3 PM
AIR FORCE LIEUTENANT
And here was the half-length portrait of Marsha, and of himself in his uniform.
. . . Interesting, that the druggist Trowgard hadn’t made a comment, even though he had the photo right in front of his eyes –
Perhaps – I can only hope so – I now don’t look as much like I used to as I thought.
That would certainly be the best solution. Shadall and he had agreed on what he should do: in the daylight, avoid places where he used to be well known. But to explore the town, in a manner of speaking. To get to know the main streets again.
At the time of that discussion everything had been so far away, and the whole undertaking had taken on an unreal aspect. Then he had finally abruptly and even impatiently agreed. But now –
Another thought came to mind. No one then could know just how well a given individual in a city of 7000 inhabitants was known. But the recollection that suddenly came back was that Lieutenant Lee Baines and Captain Dan Thatcher, who had both just come back from the Korean War, had been prominently in the public eye.
As a result the wealthy Thatcher family had taken him on as head of department in their aircraft business, and as his wedding day came closer Dan Thatcher had offered them his house for the wedding night – Thatcher and his wife were going away on holiday after the ceremony.
And that had been the cause of Marsha’s visible discomfort. Precisely because it should have been us to have gone away on a trip, and to have stayed a few days in their splendid house only when we came back.
At the time Baines had quite reasonably pointed out that their future wellbeing depended on the Thatcher family – “so we had better fit in”.
She had then reluctantly agreed.
It was an oppressive souvenir. In a way, he had for a long time afterwards banished that reaction of hers from his memories of their perfect day together.
Okay, okay, perhaps that was the reason why she went away. But it was nevertheless curious. In general, women were seen to have more practical sense than men.
In the park, surrounded by quiet and foliage, he had nothing else to do than contemplate Marsha’s photo. And that led up to the thought: perhaps I should sneak over there and catch a glimpse of her.
Naturally he rejected the impulse as soon as it arose. And the second time too. And the third. As the minutes slowly ticked away, the idea seemed finally to have gone away.
He stayed over three hours in the park and became ever more bored. Apart from the wedding the newspaper articles had no interest for him. Although he didn’t care about politics, he knew that apart from Vietnam nothing special had happened as far as Europe was concerned, and that after the death of Stalin at the beginning of 1953 the Soviet Union had no longer posed a serious threat to the United States. As for the presidency – the Eisenhower years were drawing to a close, and to hell with the thought of how unforgettable it was to have spent a night with him during the Second World War.
While he sat there waiting for time to go by, he at least counted his money: not quite twenty dollars in silver coins. Shadall and he hadn’t been able to find paper money from the period. And the silver coins had come from a little purse in which he was collecting them until the next significant increase in the value of precious metals.
He would need more silver dollars for the next step. He would have to rent a hotel room for a day. That, too, would help to avoid attracting attention.
It was past ten when he could hold out no longer . . . If a test is necessary, so be it. I’ll go for it.
With that he got up and left the park.
Just as if he had a goal.
The sun had come up and stood high in the sky, but to his right, as he crossed the side street through which he had passed earlier to get to the park.
The big moment would come, thought Baines, when he reached one of the Milbrite main streets just before him. And while he was preparing himself for it he hardly noticed a man who had just come out of a small office building in the street. Naturally he saw him: a medium-sized man with a mustache. And he was turning automatically to his left when the man suddenly stopped short and said: “Hello, Lee.”
Astonishment. Worse still, no recognition.
The man continued.
“I say, what exactly are you doing out on the streets today? You look as if you haven’t slept the whole night.”
Baines still had no inkling of who the other might be. But he forced a wide grin and said: “I thought a walk would do me good.”
“Fine, but how come you’re looking like summer’s last rose?”
Baines suddenly vaguely recalled not the name, but the face. It was the mustache that had hindered the recall: it was recent. As far as he could remember, this was a casual acquaintance, not a friend.
Instantly that clarified the situation. Baines said: “You’re right. I woke up early this morning with the thought: Good God, this evening I’ll be a married man, with all the responsibilities that that entails. And I was suddenly changed.”
The nameless acquaintance laughed.
“Better put on some make-up, or, oh, grow a mustache.”
Baines smiled. Waved good-by. And continued on his way.
Not smart to hang around and to push my luck too far, he thought.
After a dozen more steps he had a more pleasant reaction: Hey, that was a test. And I passed the test . . .
No question, the man had recognized him and with a couple of little jokes had dismissed what 28 years had done to his face.
. . . People really accept the most astonishing things at face value from others –
And there was the main street, now only fifteen yards away – no longer a major obstacle. Be careful, certainly, but –
It was a way to prepare himself. As he turned the corner and saw “Slahdi’s Restaurant” he even went a few steps past it before a big thought occurred to him: do I remember rightly how dark it is inside there?
He turned back. He went in. He walked over to the swinging door beyond the cash register and pushed it in. A world of shadows. Obscure, murky, with indirect lighting. Exactly as he has suddenly remembered it. Result: permanent semidarkness. Just right for the idea that had suddenly come to him.
Suddenly excited, he left the door open and went up to the wall telephone near the entrance door. Stuck a coin in the slot. And dialed her number. Then he waited with his heart pounding as he heard the free tone ring.
He didn’t have to wait long. There was a click and the voice of her mother said: “Hello!”
Involuntarily Baines hesitated. After the disappearance of their daughter, Marsha’s parents had been just as shocked as he was. Afterwards the situation had changed however: they blamed it on him. They withdrew from him. They no longer spoke to him. And five months later they had left the town, so that there would no longer be any occasion to run into him.
He needed a moment to realize that all that happened later. He managed to say “This is Lee. Is Martha there?”
A pause. Then the familiar voice. Only it didn’t sound exactly as he had remembered it. The young woman at the other end of the line was twenty years old, but her voice vibrated with the magical tones of a teenager. That was something that hadn’t stayed in his memory. Or rather: he had then, 28 years ago, seen her as a completely grown-up young woman.
This new discovery left him speechless for a short moment. Then he swallowed. And could make his proposition.
“You sound so odd, Lee,” said Marsha. “Somewhat huskier. Is something wrong?”
Baines was conscious of a feeling of relief. Her remark showed him that the 28 years had left his voice in a recognizable state, while the slight change distracted her from thinking through his request. So he could quickly say: “We’ll meet in ten minutes at Slahdi’s.”
And hung up, before she could realize that she had no time left to think about it.
. . . She entered the half-darkened eatery with quick steps. Outside it was late morning, but here in the windowless restaurant, separated from the entrance by a door without windowpanes, only tiny threads of light shone out from their numerous hidden emplacements.
As Marsha opened the swinging door, she was briefly silhouetted for a short instant and her profile was completely recognizable. She only needed a glance at their customary booth to recognize him in the semi-gloom. In this decisive moment Baines had the presence of mind to raise his hand and wave to her.
Right away she came over and the door swung shut behind her. Quickly she slid into the seat opposite him in the booth. And said: “I think this is a crazy idea.”
Baines opened his mouth. Instead of words – nothing. He couldn’t speak. A huge thought filled his mind: O God, this is the first time in over a quarter of a century that I see this – this girl.
He was suddenly filled with anguish at the thought: was it because of him that he was here breakfasting with her? That he was looking at her like this, so near to him. Speaking with her. Shadall had said: “Don’t do anything that could change the future.” He had added: “We don’t know yet, if that is possible. But it is remarkable that a mouse in a cage can be transported there and back only once.” (‘There’ in this case had been the future.)
Similarly – so it seemed – inanimate objects could be transported either in the past or the future – there and back . . . but only once. Even stranger was the fact that dirt and bacteria, brought back clinging to a sticky surface, could never be returned to their original time period.
Thus the pressing advice: “Don’t take any risks.”
Shadall’s basic principle could only tolerate small exceptions. He had said: “When you see someone you knew passing by, nod to them and say hello, and then carry on walking or driving; the danger that something will be affected by that will be practically null. That is all the more the case when it is someone you don’t know – a car driver who stops to let you cross the street, or a stranger you see passing by.”
This breakfast with Martha was such an exception. And here in this nine-tenths darkness it would only be a dim recollection in her memory.
In any case she had never mentioned anything about it to his younger self, so far as he knew.
The waitress arrived then out of the dark. So there was an interlude while they both ordered an omelet and coffee.
In the meantime a saving thought came to Baines. He was able to understand how an older man could manage things.
“It suddenly became clear to me that you wouldn’t eat anything at breakfast or lunch unless I undertook something,” he said. “You see, I have your well-being at heart, even before the marriage.”
As he finished the deceptive answer, he became conscious that she was examining him closely in the semi-darkness. She said abruptly: “Lee, what is it with your voice? And why do you have that suit on here?” She added: “On the telephone your voice sounded peculiar.”
It was the old, experienced cynic who answered one of the questions, not both of them.
“Elegant, no?” he said. “I wanted to surprise you.”
It seemed advisable not to dwell on the question about his voice, for naturally there was no chance he could ever remember how it had sounded 28 years ago.
The girl didn’t seem to notice. She looked intently at him, hindered by the darkness.
“Your face seems somewhat older,” she said.
Somewhat! That was the way out for him.
“I woke up early today,” said Baines, “and thought: My God, this evening I’ll be the husband of the wonderful Marsha. All of a sudden I felt myself to be much more mature.”
“Please, Lee,” she said with a sudden mental leap, “don’t tell anyone at the wedding that we did such a crazy thing.”
He had been searching for a way to convince her just that. And she had just saved him the trouble. Naturally he had to act as if he didn’t understand.
“What crazy thing?” Baines said.
“That we stole over here and secretly had breakfast together.”
“This will always be a special memory for us,” said Baines. “But all right, if you want, I won’t talk about it. And now, may I –“
There was his goal again. His intention to determine what was basically troubling her. Here was a girl who was certain to say “yes” at the wedding ceremony. But while she sat here, and also later, while the festivities were rolling on about her, something was going on in her head that would drive her completely out of his life during the next 24 hours.
While Baines was thinking about that, he made the mistake of pausing to seek the right words.
Before he could say anything, Marsha said: “Okay, Mr. Baines, drop the playacting. I am glad that Lee’s father is showing such interest in our marriage as to come here on the wedding day. I will just say this: later on, as soon as we are married, I’ll try to convince Lee that he should let you back into his heart, in spite of the way you left him and his mother in the lurch when he was little. That’s it. Good-bye.”
It happened so quickly that Baines could only look on helplessly and speechlessly as she pushed herself out of the booth, and could only manage to utter a sound when she was already in the aisle.
“Oh!” he said then.
She had straightened up.
“I don’t think you should come to the church,” she said. “You resemble him too much. Good luck, Dad.”
She was leaving. The swinging door opened. She rushed out. An instant later he heard the entrance door slam shut.
There was no further sound. The shadowy waitress was all of a sudden standing there at the table. She put the breakfasts down.
Baines ate both omelets, somewhat triumphantly. Done, he thought again. He wasn’t quite clear as to exactly what he had achieved. But he had broken the time barrier and even spoken with the girl. More importantly – from the point of view of the time paradox – was that she herself was careful about all necessary secrecy.
He paid his bill with a silver dollar and two silver quarters and left on top of that a quarter for the waitress. Three of the coins were marked 1950 and one 1951 – and in the eighties were worth many times their face value. Here, however, one could get six times as much to eat for what the same things would cost later.
Once again out on the street, he stood and looked around at what was for him a typical small-town scene. What he saw was a concrete stone-paved sidewalk on either side of an asphalted street. This was one of Milbrite’s two main streets.
Northwards there were two blocks of shops and small office buildings.
‘Small’ was the only proper description. Only two buildings had more than two stories, and one of them was the one he was looking for.
. . . The Milbrite Hotel, three stories tall.
Surprisingly he had never stayed in one of the local hotels. When one works in a town, as he had after his father had disappeared, it was not so much that hotels were out of the question; they were simply not there for the local inhabitants. So Baines was not surprised, as he went up to the reception to register, that he didn’t know the porter. The room cost him 3 silver dollars, no questions were asked about the name he used: Lee Gregory – after his mother’s maiden name.
His room was on the first floor. He had intended to sleep a lot, to be able to stay awake no matter how many hours in the night it took until Marsha slipped out of her man’s bed and went into hiding.
And while he stayed in the hotel, he wouldn’t attract attention.
As it turned out, sleep wasn’t so easy. The trouble was that he couldn’t get the situation out of his mind.
. . . In the fifties people are as just as smart and clean and well-brought up. Almost everyone bathes regularly and wears dry-cleaned or washed clothes. His own suit, made to measure quite some time ago, had been put back in shape only three days before . . . it looked new hanging over there in the cupboard.
He came to the thought that another deeper-rooted awareness was in him: of the continuity of things. Including life itself.
. . . My parents arrived after an endless number – well, practically endless – of generations of life on the planet. And before anything had moved, there must have been inanimate processes that later became alive.
Out of this mix of life processes his genes had been created. And what disturbed Baines while he lay on the bed with the curtains drawn was that because of Marsha . . . they stopped here and now.
This long row ends with me, all the same, whatever year it may be.
Perhaps, if ever I get out of this, I should look out for any kind of motherly woman whatever, and marry her.
He had bought women – oh no, not those of the usual kind. No, women in difficult circumstances or solitary ones who needed someone, ones he could help a little. And a man who only has to pay for an apartment, a color television and a car could certainly afford to spend two hundred dollars a month for feminine company.
He was no problem for a woman, no burden. He arrived at half past ten in the evening, drank a glass with her and was gone around midnight. If she was smart – and most of them were – the neighbors in her building never found out about it. In case of need, an occasional visit that had been observed could be explained away.
Inevitably the woman ended the relationship, when she finally saw that he really had no intention of marriage.
Baines slept effectively a little, but at 3 pm was awake, and lay there going over the wedding in his mind. Afterwards, during the reception, he found himself thinking that he was skipping over that part. But he was sleeping when the shrill sound of the telephone woke him up at 11 pm. It was the porter who was calling, as agreed.
Baines got up, showered, got dressed, found the back stairway and left the hotel forever. He had left the room key on the chest of drawers.
Outside it was almost midnight. Over there in the Thatcher’s house the festivities had come to an end; bride and bridegroom had retired to the big bedroom. In a few moments they would be going to bed.
In the house one light was still burning as Baines hurried over from a side street. While he was cautiously waiting behind a tree, the light went out. That meant that the bridegroom would soon finish his act of love, turn over and fall asleep.
But this same bridegroom, only 28 years older, was waiting in the bushes below for the bride, who, fully dressed again, would slip out of the house into the wide world.
With this thought Baines came out from behind the tree and went to the previously chosen hiding place on the Thatcher’s property. Kneeled down behind a bush and prepared himself to spend the whole night there if necessary.
He waited. He looked at the extensive house, stared at the well-kept garden, and observed that part of the front lawn he could see from his hiding place.
That meant that he was looking to the extent that he could in the light of the two streetlamps at the corner. His thoughts drifted.
. . . There must be something different. The fifties simply just couldn’t be exactly like the eighties.
Everything seemed so sensationally identical . . . Could it be that it really made no difference in which period a man lived? That in fact everywhere, in all times, certain duplicates of the same living bodies went about and were?
It was later. Baines was going slowly back and forth, ever watchful, ready to duck down as soon as a car hummed by or a light went on anywhere. But the implication of his thoughts disturbed him. He felt that the flow of insights seemed to be leading him to the discovery of basic universal truths.
The ground under the feet of a stone-age man felt just as hard as it did here . . . I could go away into the future or the past, wherever I wanted, and would meet people just like me, every single one living out his limited life span.
How long exactly these . . . philosophical reflections occupied his mind, that until this night had been taken up only with television or distractions – if it had been active at all – emerged as a question that soon took hold of him. A quick look at the watch wasn’t very useful. It was a quarter to two. He reacted despondently, realizing that dawn was still a long time way away.
Nevertheless he reacted just as if it was late. He quickly went back to his hiding place and observed the house from there.
In theory she should come out at any instant.
The seconds and the minutes ran their measured way and of the girl there was nothing to be seen . . . That is quite absurd, thought Baines. If she had a motive for leaving her newly married husband then it must have something to do with something that happened when the poor guy was still awake.
Vaguely he recollected having read a long time ago that a woman got nothing out of a man who sought his satisfaction and then wanted to go to sleep right away. If Martha thought like that, she would have already reacted at least two hours ago. Insofar as he could remember, they had separated a few minutes after midnight. Then the emptiness of sleep had overcome him; perhaps there was a metabolism process that caused the man to feel sleepy afterwards. It seemed to be so in most cases.
His thoughts repeated themselves tirelessly and without a break. At no moment did he feel sleepy; in the street no movement was perceptible, no noise audible.
. . . A small town really goes dead at night.
Suddenly – it was apparent as soon as he noticed it – the sky was lighter.
He was startled for a short moment, then he began to tremble . . . That cannot be. For she did go away. In the morning after the wedding she had disappeared. In this morning. Gone forever.
What particularly shook him was the horrible feeling of uselessness . . . For that I gave up my right for one single time-trip – there would never be another opportunity for him, unless (as Shadall had expressed it) “we manage to discover why it is that the same energy structure cannot be transmitted twice.”
. . . I have thrown away my only chance to visit the 30th century – as soon as he returned to the eighties, he would have to stay there ever afterwards.
About a half hour after this understanding had overwhelmed him, he suffered a second shock: this spot was the best hiding-place that he and Shadall had been able to find, from his recollections of the Thatcher grounds, when later changes were taken into account. But in 1981 the delivery van couldn’t come so far in. They had thus taken precise measurements and sought out an area near the street corner for his return to the year 1981. Not too close to the street lamp, but nearer than where he now stood.
. . . Now I should be standing precisely over there – Shadall can never be certain that the time-measurement indicators here and” up” there are exactly in line.
Baines reluctantly got his lean form up and went unsteadily, with an unsure feeling, over to the spot.
He sank down on the grass at the edge of the sidewalk. And thought bitterly: so that was my perfect day!
An interval. Emptiness. Then, reluctantly: that really was something, to have seen her again and to realize how young she is, with her scarcely grown-up voice.
Gloomily he glanced at his watch. Still a minute and 20 seconds to go before 5 o’clock.
Still a minute more here in this old universe.
He had become resigned. It was pointless to rebel. Now the only important thing was to get back – back in the time – where he belonged.
The thought was interrupted. Over there – a noise! A rustling in the grass. Light steps. And then –
Behind him, Marsha’s voice: “Mr. Baines – Dad – are you not ashamed of yourself?”
He couldn’t move. A harrowing feeling came over him: understanding!
The melodious, youngish voice continued: “A grown man, spending the whole night in front of the house where his son is having his wedding night. Mr. Baines, that is simply awful.”
He had automatically turned around. She was wearing her nightgown, something white and fluffy.
He stood there, staring at her, and understood, yes, he understood, and it was clear to him how she must be feeling what he was feeling. Understood it perhaps for the first time in his life.
Hopelessly he thought: the instant before you die, when you realize that the end of your life has arrived, must be like this: the moment of truth. A terrible truth. I was the one. It happened with me . . . How could I not have realized it sooner?
While he was standing there, momentarily paralyzed by the realization, he saw how Marsha’s eyes widened. Slowly Baines turned around to see what had startled her.
Anguish rose up in him – anguish for her – as he saw the delivery van.
Professor Shadall stepped down. He walked slowly over. His face had a bizarre expression.
“Well,” he said finally, “welcome to the eighties, Mr. and Mrs. Baines.”
Mr. Baines thought: It will take some time to explain things to Mrs. Baines.
But as he was thinking that, it occurred to him that he had once heard that women were quicker to adjust to reality than men.
Then another possibility occurred to him: perhaps there is a baby underway.
That would really take hold of her.
Aloud he said: “Marsha, I have a long story to tell you.”
And that would take quite some time.