A Preference for Cheese

Les Sklaroff

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." Albert Einstein

I had been without a cat long enough for both armchairs to be free from residual fur, and we sank back comfortably into relaxed positions, sipping at our iced fruit-juices. "So, Hollis. It must be what, five, six years? Quite a coincidence bumping into each other like that!"

Play a bit of tennis, eat a lot of cheese.
Hollis smiled wryly. "It's good to see you, Alex." Hollis told me he was here for a few days, visiting Meredith, his married sister, and his two young nephews before flying back home to Geneva.

"I must say you’re looking well." Privately, I wondered whether he'd been on a diet. He looked fitter than when I had last seen him, his eyes almost unnaturally bright.

"I try to keep in good shape," he said. "Play a bit of tennis, eat a lot of cheese." I raised an eyebrow. "For the tryptophan," he explained seriously.

"Ah." I nodded, not wanting to appear uninformed on the subject. "And are you still colliding those large hadrons?" I enquired, trying to add a touch of levity to his gravity.

He granted me another brief smile. "Actually, no. I left several years ago to pursue some independent research which doesn't need all that expensive equipment. It's ... unorthodox, you might say, but, well, fundamental."

I was intrigued. I was under the impression that modern physicists were practically inseparable from their cutting-edge technology. "Care to tell me about it? If it's not confidential, that is."

"Hardly confidential," said Hollis. "Let's see, you would need to understand something of quantum uncertainty, wave/particle duality, the Feynman sum over histories, chromodynamics, supersymmetry - and of course some of the implications of M-theory, but I suppose it would be an interesting challenge to explain it to, to a..."

"An old friend? An ignorant architect? A layman?" I supplied.

Hollis grinned. "Precisely, Alex."

It was a bright, cloudless Thursday afternoon in July. Beyond the French windows the sun continued to shine, as the good Sam Beckett reminded us, on the nothing new, but within the next few days whatever grip I thought I had on reality was due to slip from my grasp like a particularly well-buttered eel.

Hollis launched into an enthralling account of what the best scientific minds believe to be the nature of the universe. I realised he was simplifying it for me, skirting those elegant equations relished by true initiates, but nonetheless my brain was soon buzzing with fascinating bits of information. Variously ‘flavoured’ quarks: three to a proton, three to a neutron; unseeable, yet bound as if by elastic. Leptons and bosons. Model-dependence. Einstein’s abandoned cosmological constant reinstated to explain the accelerating expansion discovered by Hubble. The astonishing double-slit experiment: the behaviour of single photons, interference patterns, particles that take simultaneous paths, quantum probabilities. How mapping the temperature fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background radiation confirmed the age of the universe and showed the distribution of seedling galaxies. What unexpected things occur at the event horizon of a black hole. Eleven dimensions, some very small and curly. The no-boundary condition and the multiverse. The holographic principle, recursive layers. Infinite possibilities, ultimate interconnectivity. Information. "Matter and energy are incidental. Information is the key," said Hollis.

We paused for a round of sandwiches. I had run out of cheese, so we opted for smoked salmon and sticks of celery with a crême fraîche and paprika dip, washed down with a complementary Muscadet – a fortuitous gift from one of my clients. Later, as Hollis was enthusiastically propounding how holography could also be applied to the structure of neurons, and thence to memory-storage and consciousness itself, I noticed that it was now almost dark outside. We were both reluctant to interrupt this flow of information; Hollis had clearly warmed to his task. He used my ‘phone to let his sister know where he was, and agreed to stay for supper.

If you’re agreeable, I’ll come round again and give you a small demonstration.
One of the advantages of a slow cooker is the number of servings that it can hold in reserve, and fortunately there was a good supply of the experimental Stroganoff which I was glad to be able to share. Once fortified, we began round three.

"Where was I?" asked Hollis. "Oh yes, levels of consciousness, individual perception, and so on..." Soon we were encroaching on what had once been the exclusive province of philosophy, then psychology and latterly neuroscience. Reverting to the holographic principle, Hollis told how this neatly accounts for synchronicity and similar subjectively experienced phenomena which defy causal explanation. "All those anecdotal instances of telepathy and clairvoyance, the psychic research, the dodgy ESP experiments with their statistical anomalies and not-quite repeatable results; most of the experimenters were well-meaning, but pretty much groping in the dark."

"What about science-fiction writers?" I ventured. "Don’t some of their speculations come close to what you’re describing?"

"I can think of a few interesting attempts," said Hollis. "Pohl, Sturgeon, Simak, Brunner, Herbert – some of the classics. It’s a question of having sufficient background knowledge coupled with a really good imagination." He stretched. "Anyway, for a layman, I must say you’ve been quite attentive, and even convinced me you’re genuinely interested, so, before I fly back next Tuesday – if you’re agreeable, I’ll come round again and give you a small demonstration."

I tried to draw him out on this, but Hollis declined to say any more, other than to thank me for my hospitality, and to arrange for a visit mid-afternoon on Sunday. For the next couple of days I was restless and impatient. I kept reviewing what Hollis had said about the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the dizzying idea that all possible events in our space-time continuum occur in a simultaneous Now, and are somehow superimposed, and therefore theoretically accessible at every possible point. Or that alternative histories, each a fractional departure from any specified event, are continuously being generated. The plan on my drawing-board for the ecologically optimal refurbishment of a country hotel went untouched. What kind of demonstration did Hollis have in mind?

Sunday morning. I hadn’t slept well. I had a complicated dream which involved trying to retrieve a damaged kite, except that it was not a kite, but a scroll on which a short poem had been written. I reached up into the sky and caught it. It felt like fine silk. I knew it needed to be repaired, and headed for the building where such repairs were carried out, but as I approached a low cloud touched the roof with a molten glow, and it was too dangerous to move any closer. I awoke with my mind racing, trying to clear the disturbing images from my thoughts. After breakfast I decided to ‘phone Hollis, to confirm our arrangement. Luckily, I remembered that his sister’s number would still be on my ‘phone, and I hoped he wouldn’t mind the early call.

After a while a boy’s voice answered. "Hello," I said. "This is Alex, a friend of your uncle Hollis. Could I speak to him, or to your mummy, please?"

There was a silence. I heard breathing, then the ‘phone being put down, followed by a yell: "Mum. It’s a man."

Moments later a woman’s voice, a little distracted: "Not on the carpet, Robbie, and give Gareth back his… Sorry, can I help you?"

"Hello… Meredith?"

"Yes," she said. "Who’s that?

I explained who I was, and wondered whether I could have a word with Hollis about this afternoon.

"Hollis?," she repeated, uncertainly.

"Yes, I’m sorry to bother you, but he’s due to come and see me a bit later today, and I simply wanted to make sure…"

She interrupted. "I’m afraid I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. Hollis who?" I stared at the ‘phone, perplexed.

"Hollis. Your brother."

"There must be some mistake," she said. "My brother is in New Zealand, and his name is not Hollis. How did you know my name?"

I started to explain, and suddenly realised it would make no sense. I broke the connection. What was going on? It had to be the right number; she said she was Meredith, and there were definitely two boys in the house. Was it a practical joke? Had Hollis told her to pretend he didn’t exist? What would be the point? I took a deep breath, and tried re-dialling. Nothing happened. Somehow, I had managed to wipe the number, and I couldn’t remember it. Not only that, but I didn’t know her married surname, or her address. All I could do was wait and see whether Hollis would turn up, and if he did, what devious explanation he might have.

It was another warm, clear day. I went for a forty minute walk to clear my head. I had concluded that either it had been a good hoax, or they’d had a sibling row, and she had chosen not to acknowledge Hollis or his friends. I spent a few minutes at the drawing board, made myself some coffee, tried to read, caught up with the news, listened to Lucia Popp singing Strauss’s ‘Im Abendrot’, had a light lunch of boiled egg and salad, strolled round the garden, and finally sat down to wait. Mid-afternoon came and went. I must have dozed off, because the next time I looked at my watch it was five o’clock. I felt really disappointed. Hollis had been so stimulating, so full of thought-provoking ideas, and now he had failed to turn up with his promised demonstration, whatever it may have been. Glumly I walked to the front door and opened it. The street was deserted. I bent down to remove the flimsy piece of cloth that had blown onto the outside mat. It was a length of very fine torn silk on which some faded lines of verse had been written or printed. Even though they were frustratingly illegible, there was something worryingly familiar about them.

© L J Sklaroff 2011 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 14:19 Thu 01 Dec 2011
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