Ian McMillan: A phone call from the future for my Uncle Charlie

Here’s an intriguing what if; what if my Uncle Charlie, who was born at the end of the 19th century and died in 1973, had found, through what we scientists call a wrinkle in the space-time continuum, a smartphone on the bridle path as he walked home from a night shift at Houghton Main Pit sometime in the early 1960s? Somebody (me, actually) had dropped the phone down a grate in 2015 and it had landed, not in brackish water, but in the muddy water of the past.

And let’s pretend that somehow, in ways that even we scientists can’t understand, the smartphone worked. Uncle Charlie’s snap tin would be gleaming in the early morning and his flap cap would be wide and, indeed, flat.

Suddenly Uncle Charlie sees the smartphone beside the plum tree. He bends down and picks it up, warily at first because it seems to be glowing and Uncle Charlie isn’t sure whether it’ll be red hot to the touch. It’s hard for us, from our sophisticated 21st century perspective, to grasp that he would have no idea at all what it was. Suddenly it buzzes to show that Uncle Charlie has got a text message. A text message from the future. It’s from me, sent just before the phone-down-grate incident, telling my wife what time I’ll be home. ‘On later train. Home at 7.30ish’ it will say.

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Uncle Charlie stares at the words. He’s not a great reader, never having the need to read that well, hauled out of school at the age of 14 and sent down to the coal face, but he can eventually make out the message, reading it aloud to a startled blackbird. He wonders who will be on the train. He holds the smartphone close to his face and it rings. Because I’m almost as old now as Charlie was then I still use the word ‘ring’; of course what I really mean is that the phone plays a tune, in this case the opening guitar riff of Layla. Charlie drops the phone as though it’s on fire. The music carries on playing. Charlie approaches the phone gingerly. Somehow he’s starting to grasp that it might be a telephone; maybe he’s seen something like it on Tomorrow’s World just before he falls asleep on the settee, as a device that astronauts might use as they colonise Jupiter. He holds the phone in front of his face. It carries on ringing. He presses a button. There’s a voice: it’s mine. ‘Hello?’ I say, enquiringly.

Uncle Charlie almost drops the phone again. What strange magic is this? Imagine a Yorkshireman from 1567 being offered a lift in a Reliant Robin. What’s happening here is the equivalent of that, as two eras collide. I speak again ‘Hello?’ Charlie clears his throat and answers: ‘Heyop! Who’s spekin?’ ‘It’s Ian,’ I reply.

Now I have to tell you that when I was little Uncle Charlie used to delight in telling me what an unusual name Ian was. ‘I only know one,’ he used to say, ‘and it’s thee.’ ‘Ian? Olive’s lad?’ he says, incredulously. ‘Yes’ I reply, ‘and who’s this?’ ‘It’s your Uncle Charlie’ he replies. Ah, there’s so much I want to ask him, so many stories I want to hear again, so many songs I want to join in with.

But then the battery runs out and the phone goes dead. See you, Uncle Charlie, another time.