The Forgetting Flower


When he was younger, Jimmy believed that the wind made the Earth rotate and whenever it dropped to a mere breeze the days and nights became longer. This was because his science teacher neglected to mention anything about planetary climates when inculcating his class on astronomy. He was more interested in the mathematics that predicted the planets' orbits than the wonder of Saturn's rings or Jupiter's Big Red Spot. For all he cared, the surface of Mercury could have been treacle toffee and the atmosphere of Neptune candyfloss clouds. So Jimmy filled in the gaps with his own imagination. If he had been taught by anyone else, he would have found astronomy even more astounding, but Mr Young made the subject sound as dry as dog biscuits and just as difficult to digest.

Then Jimmy met Swanda; tall, lanky, brilliant Swanda. She was in the stream a year ahead of his and organised the school's astronomy group. Having lived so long with his own fantastic ideas about the Cosmos, Jimmy was wary of joining at first for fear of learning something that would bring him back down to earth. But he couldn't have been more wrong and was introduced to the real, amazing, mysterious phenomena that filled the Universe. The group's early winter evenings were spent studying stars and constellations and the summer evenings, when it was still daylight, online with Galaxy Zoo in the addictive search for anomalies. Then, as soon as new satellite data became available, they tried to detect small planets the professionals didn't have the time to look for in other solar systems.

Soon Jimmy was scouring freshly fallen snow for meteorites and gazing for hours at the  night sky through the reflecting telescope he received on his 14th birthday. Just knowing that there had to be other people somewhere in the depths of the space, and the other universes beyond it, was far more interesting than thinking up fantasy worlds. Did the galaxy clusters go on for ever and ever, beyond the observable universe, or only exist in our own finite, cosmic bubble, to eventually explode and be reborn from the atomic ashes like the Phoenix, or carry on drifting apart forever? Not even Swanda knew, and she read all the reports of new astronomical discoveries.

Then there was dark matter and dark energy - what was that all about? Perhaps the Universe was being expanded by forces that could not be detected in a hadron collider. This was beyond any fantasy Jimmy could have thought up. Reality was weird - really weird! He lacked the maths to comprehend Pythagoras's theorem because his imagination needed something familiar to work with. Arithmetic was only devised by adults, after all.

Then Swanda introduced him to quantum theory. The mathematics of that may have been impossible to fathom, but what it predicted was extraordinary. She persuaded Jimmy to enter a thought experiment and imagine he was travelling through a black hole where he could visualise what happened to matter sucked into its gravitational whirlpool. The experience so unsettled Jimmy, the only black holes he was willing to deal with after that were the ones he had to fill in after the family dog's attempts to bury a bone, only to decide it preferred to keep chewing on it instead. Anything discovered at the bottom of those were better re-interred.

So Swanda introduced him to the concept of consciousness. She had a theory that the human brain was not designed to comprehend something as vast as a multiverse, and only by dispensing with pesky thoughts would true reality be revealed. It was at this point Jimmy decided she should meet his elderly uncle who was in the process of doing just that. Uncle Bruce now had so few thoughts he sometimes forgot his own name. Meeting him might distract her from insisting on another thought experiment which would give Jimmy another nightmare about being sucked into oblivion.

Uncle Bruce certainly seemed contented and at peace with the world, though dispensing with thoughts due to onset dementia probably wasn't what Swanda had in mind. He could still hold a conversation, and be quite entertaining at times. Everyone at Uncle Bruce's care home was patient and condescending, but only Jimmy seemed to understand why he chose to spend most of his time contentedly inhabiting an alternative reality.

As his uncle described that other dimension and the realms in it, Swanda became intrigued. To Jimmy's gratification, he was somehow confirming her belief that reality, the Cosmos, and everything they were aware of, was actually constructed of nothing but thought. He was also surprised that the most rational person he had ever known was actually taking the old man's fantasies seriously.

Swanda realised, as they listened to Uncle Bruce, sitting in his comfortable wicker chair on the home's patio, that he was sounding too sensible for someone supposedly detached from humdrum everyday concerns. Uncle Bruce's favourite planet in his thought world was pale green, its sky filled with the floating cities in which its inhabitants lived, subsisting on the nutritious emanations raining down from the cumulus above them.

The dreamer in Swanda managed to overpower the scientist and she listened, entranced, at the old man's account of these alien worlds. Given that the Universe was full of infinite possibilities, they might well have been real. If the conditions were right, life would always find a way.

Uncle Bruce was delighted that someone at last took his other worlds seriously. The reality everyone else lived in seemed so small it wasn't surprising so many rejected the idea of people on other planets. Better to confine the eccentric relative to a safe environment and not have their narrow preconceptions challenged.

"How do you know about all these worlds?" asked Swanda.

"It was the forgetting flower," Uncle Bruce explained. "I only started to remember my home world when I became old and very ill."

"They thought he was going to die," Jimmy whispered to her.

"What is this flower?" Swanda asked.

"It makes you forget. Anyone leaving our planet was immersed in its perfume."

"What is it like?"

"Strange, beautiful, and with white petals edged by gold."

"So the perfume wore off?"

"I wasn't expected to be kept alive so long on an alien world."

"Do you still have it?"

"Oh yes, but I mustn't let you see it."

"Why not? Would it make me forget as well?"

"Oh no. The perfume has no effect on humans. I'm just not sure whether the people of this planet are ready to accept that other civilisations exist."

"We're always looking," Jimmy joined in enthusiastically, "But why you were sent here if you weren't allowed to remember who you really are?"

"I'm just an observing tool. Anything I hear or see on Earth is also heard and seen by a twin on my planet. I had to forget so I could live as a human."

"Sounds like telepathy," said Jimmy.

"More like a quantum effect," Swanda suggested. "Where atoms can exist in two places at once." She obviously believed Uncle Bruce.

"So, the other self on your world will still retain your memories?" Jimmy asked.

"That's right."

"But now you remember who you are, does it really matter?"

"Oh yes. Now my memory is returning I can no longer function as an observing tool. It would create too much of a paradox if I continued to exist."

"Don't say that!" Jimmy protested.

"Nothing else for it. I've reached my expiry date."

The matter-of-fact way Uncle Bruce accepted his fate was unsettling for the young people with no experience of death.

As Swanda and Jimmy said goodbye they knew that they would not see him again.

Within two weeks Uncle Bruce was dead.

However much they had been expecting it, the friends were still unable to take it in until the funeral was over.

It was only then that Swanda's innate objectivity returned. "Of course, a DNA test might have persuaded your Uncle Bruce that he was human after all."

"Why do that?" Jimmy asked. "He was happy where he was. Anyway, he's been cremated so no one will ever know for sure."

Weeks later, Swanda was still wondering how she could have believed the implausibility of Uncle Bruce being an alien when a recorded parcel arrived. It was carefully wrapped and very light. The box came with a letter from the old man's executor. Uncle Bruce had bequeathed his new, thoughtful, young friend the one possession he should have disposed of before he died. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if humans knew about other life forms if they were open-minded, like her.

Swanda carefully opened the box and pulled out the tissue paper inside. It had been protecting a strange, white flower with beautiful paper dry, gold-edged petals.