I was sixteen-years-old when I realised that I couldn’t see the future. The teacher held me back after the lesson finished. She was confused, disappointed even. I’d never sat in her classroom and refused to write on the page when asked.
“I know the future can be scary,” she said, leaning against her desk with her glasses on her head. “Is there something that’s worrying you? You know you’ve still got time. University applications don’t have to be in until January.”
I shook my head. I did not understand.
What followed was a series of tests, questions asked and unanswered. Four months later, they declared that no, I could not see into the future.
“But how is that possible?” my mother asked.
“It’s rare but not unknown. Some people just don’t seem to be able to.”
“But how can she make the decisions she needs to make?” my father asked. “How can she have a future if she can’t see it?”
“There are techniques we can look into. I’ll give you some contacts.”
After that, no one wanted to ask me to decide about anything. Little things, of course, like what to eat. As children we had made those decisions on an impulse. Let’s go out this weekend, into town. Let’s go and see that film that’s on, that everybody’s talking about.
But as adults, decisions are taken with far more care. Have you checked if town will be busy this weekend? Have you checked if the film is popular enough that we won’t get there and find we should have bought tickets? Why did you go in the shower when you knew the phone was going to ring?
“Just let me have a look,” my mother said when I suggested anything. She felt obliged to look into the future for me and declare it safe to go there. I sat down on the stairs to put on my shoes, shoving my feet in so hard my toes slammed against the ends. I pulled the laces tight, knowing I’d have to slacken them on the bus.
“I don’t care.”
I went to a Future Thinking workshop, at the doctor’s suggestion and with great enthusiasm from my parents. As if by going through a series of meditation steps and making bullet-point notes, I could learn to see the future the way everybody else did. I saw excitement in their eyes. They drove me down there instead of letting me catch the bus.
Six weeks later, I still couldn’t see into the future. We agreed I would stop going. They were quiet for a week but I was glad to stop spending two hours of every Saturday trying to push a rock up an icy mountainside.
I overheard them from the bathroom, after they thought I was fast asleep.
“What kind of future is she going to have if she can’t see it? What are we going to do?”
One Friday after school near the end of the summer term, me and Kat went back to hers with pick-and-mix and raided her DVD collection. The rest of our friends had caught the bus out to Westburn Park to shop for the holidays and for the beach. I had never enjoyed shopping but these days hangers were held up and decisions made on flashes of the weeks to come. They all knew already if we were in for a dry and blue sky six weeks off.
“What’s it like?” Kate unravelled a strawberry lace above her face.
“Not being able to see what’s coming.”
I shrugged. “Don’t you remember when you couldn’t?”
“Not really. Is it just, like, darkness?”
They don’t really understand. “It’s not that I can’t see the future. It’s more, like, I have no way of looking. I don’t know where to start.”
The tail of the lace dangled from her mouth as she chomped. “Maybe you’re just not old enough yet. You know, like periods. Everyone gets to it at different times.”
When I was seven, I wished that it was Christmas already, closed my eyes, crossed my fingers, tried with every fathom of me to make my wish come true. When I opened my eyes, and the trees and lights weren’t up, I didn’t conclude that wishes didn’t work. That would be silly. I believed in magic. No, I decided that must mean that Christmas would never come. I couldn’t jump into a future that was doomed to never happen.
Christmas came, of course. But as I sat back against Kat’s sofa, peeling flying saucers off the roof of my mouth with my tongue, I wondered if the reason I couldn’t see the future was that the future wasn’t coming.
The future came, like Christmas. I made my decisions about my future with reckless abandon. Everyone worried. They narrowed their brows and clenched their teeth and fretted that I was making a Terrible Decision that would Ruin My Life Forever. How could any choice I made be right? I couldn’t see the future.
“I’m going to be a marine biologist,” Kat had declared in Year Five, wrapped up in our big woolly scarves in the playground. She had to explain what both of those words meant. As the summer term of our sixteenth year ended, she did not tell me what her plans were. I had to ask.
She hesitated. “I’ve applied to study geology. I get much better results. My chances of a first in that are really high. Even top of the class a few times when I looked.”
After a month of crippling indecision, late nights, shouted arguments and abject, paralysing terror, I applied to study history. We went to tours of universities and the beaming student guides declared, “I’m sure you can see you’ll be happy here”. Everyone nodded, smiling and content. They really could. After the third instance of this, we stopped taking tours and I picked my university based on size, and the ratio of flowers and trees to concrete.
No one believed I’d made the right decision. I started second-guessing myself within hours of sending the confirmation. And when I didn’t learn to see the future in that first semester, everybody sighed and just knew: they’d been right.
When I came home for Christmas, I met Kat at Midnight Mass, both of us wrapped up tight against the chill of thousand-year-old stone. She gave me a card for my parents and I gave her one from mine.
“I’m not coming home in the summer,” she said. “Good luck, you know, with everything.” She could not see me in her future anymore. As I walked home through the slush and rain, I tried to look into the future. I could not see myself there either.
That was the year my granddad died, seven months after a wracking cough. We all saw it coming. The minister said “I’m sure we can all see a time when things will feel less painful than this”, and no doubt this was meant to be a comfort, but she was wrong. The years ahead, to me, were empty. No matter how many times my mother looked ahead and knew that I would be there. I watched her, sitting at the kitchen table with her cup of tea and magazines, and wondered how far the future full of her extended. I couldn’t look. I couldn’t prepare. I returned to university by train and cried to myself in a seat going backwards beside the window.
I was twenty-one when I discovered I could see into the past.
I’d spent a particularly miserable day at the library, trying to break down my reading lists and prioritise. It baffled me how everyone else seemed to get through it all while I got through none of it. There just wasn’t time. I had to read everything. There was no way of knowing which things were most likely to come up in that week’s seminar. Each week the reading built-up. Each week I looked down the list and knew, just knew, I couldn’t get through it.
So I didn’t try.
I spent whole days doing nothing and now, here I was, nearing the end of the semester with eight weeks of reading still to do.
As I sat at the desk in the quietest corner, watching everyone else intent on their work or taking a break they somehow could afford to take, I did something I hadn’t done for years. I closed my eyes and tried to see the future.
I let myself think, for a moment, that maybe I just hadn’t been trying hard enough.
That was when it happened. A flash, an image flickering around me even though my eyes were closed. I thought, in a brief giddy moment, that I was doing it, that finally it had come to me. The ability to see into the future. My entire life shifted in that second.
Then I saw it again and realised that wasn’t true. What I saw wasn’t the future. It wasn’t the seminar and the direction it would take or the first weeks of summer in pouring rain. I saw, with brief but perfect clarity, a vast room filled with machines, hammering away in silence, spinning, spinning. Women stepped forward with each swishing retreat of the machines, children dived beneath the net of cotton.
I opened my eyes and knew. That was the first time I saw into the past. It wasn’t a grand event, no Waterloo or Agincourt, or shouting crowds in protest. It was a mill in dark autumn, rain lashing silent against the windows. It flickered. I couldn’t focus on detail but I could seize the atmosphere, the busyness, and capture it.
Things got a little better after that. Not with the reading list. That was doomed. But after one excited phone-call, in which I told my parents what I could do and they asked what was the good of that, I stepped back regularly.
I sat in the exam, read the question, closed my eyes and went there. I saw. I knew. It brought back a passion I thought those first ten months of learning crushed.
From then on, I had something no one else did.
I was twenty-six when I met someone else who couldn’t see into the future.
Beth hid it better than me. She knew the answers to give and she’d mastered the art of making decisions based on emptiness. She told me not to fear the future just because I couldn’t see it and we spent the summer climbing mountains. No one but us thought it was a good idea.
“I just don’t know if you’ll be happy,” said my mother.
“Be careful, just be careful,” said my father.
As all around me, my friends and acquaintances gathered together for marriages that lasted decades.
“We’re going to have three children. Any more and they won’t get along. Any more and we won’t be able to give them our full attention. We have seen it. We will be so happy together.”
I looked back, at all the centuries of happiness and joy, of people just being people, together.
One day, not long after we’d met, Beth asked me what attracted me to history and I took a breath and told her. I hadn’t told anyone before. I thought maybe they’d accuse me of cheating, even though every one of them looked forward for the direction their studies should go.
I explained, and she understood as no one else did, how hard it is to find enthusiasm for something that might never happen. For something we couldn’t see. The future? It’s meaningless. It doesn’t exist. But the past. That’s there. I can see it, in glorious rainbow shades no photograph can convey. Deep purple knitwear, delicate cornflower blue embroidery, red hair. I sat on a train once, waiting on a bridge outside the station, while everyone around me collected their baggage and text-ed their homes to say they were coming. I looked down the river, saw the banks on either side, the other bridges vanishing to a time before they were built. Smoke and ships and cranes.
“I remember the day, the minute, where exactly I was sitting, when I really truly realised that the streets a hundred years ago weren’t black and white. Seeing it made it true.”
Beth didn’t try to do it at first. We hadn’t known each other long and perhaps she still didn’t believe me. It was a few years later, when we’d got a house with separate offices, two cats, and a whole set of matching crockery, that she learnt to do it too. She found one of my photographs in the front room, dropped from the folder after an evening of book edits.
She asked me about it and after letting me unspool my knowledge for twenty full minutes she nodded and closed her eyes.
She needed to know where to begin looking. History is vast and it’s helpful to know where you’re aiming for.
The useful thing about it was she saw things I didn’t. Even me, focused on detail, seeing everything around me, apparently didn’t see everything in the past. It was a matter of experience. Beth looked for different things, in different places.
After that, I hesitate to say, we were unstoppable.
One summer, in the Alps, we bumped into Kat. I’d heard dribs and drabs, of course. She’d done well in geology as she knew she would. She worked for an oil company and travelled the world.
“No one with you?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I’m happy on my own.” She had seen it.
“We should meet up for coffee, or something, back home.”
“I don’t go back much.”
Her parents worried. They had seen her all alone and that was not how things were supposed to be. They fretted. They asked if she wasn’t missing something, not looking hard enough. I tried to be sympathetic but how could I be? She didn’t see me in her life. She saw she would be happy. Both of those things, to her, were irrefutable. They were the future.
I was thirty-three years old when the future fell apart.
We knew something was wrong when the screaming started, the wailing through the walls and doors. People in their streets and homes, one by one, looked forward and saw only grimness. It didn’t matter what they tried, which future they tried to see. They stopped looking. They were too scared.
Our neighbour, a man with two cats, lived alone because his partner worked at a university in Ireland. We went around and knocked on his door and found him sitting on the settee with his head in his hands.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
Beth sat on the floor in front of him. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know. It’s just…all going to end.”
They didn’t agree on how. All agreed, the end was nigh, and started making plans.
I sat on the back doorstep, hands around my mug of tea, when Beth came back from checking next door again. His partner was flying home so they could be together when whatever happened did. The End of Days, for all their panic, but I struggled to believe it was that.
“Why aren’t they trying to do something?” I asked.
She sat down beside me. “I think they’re adjusting. Have you ever met a person whose family and friends have seen they’re going to die? They drift away from them. They cut them out. They’re used to looking to the future for solace and they can’t find it. They’ve stopped looking. It must be terrifying.”
Kat turned up two days later, fighting through a street party to get to our gate. There were puff pastry and crisp crumbs on the trestle tables. They played their favourite songs on loop, very, very loudly and I took to wearing headphones in the house so I didn’t hear her knock.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I thought I wouldn’t forgive her but Beth invited her in and gave her tea. After half an hour, we might have been sixteen again, sitting on the carpet with our pick-and-mix.
“So, how’s it going to end?” I asked.
Beth kicked me in the shin. “Don’t be so insensitive.”
“They could just not look,” I hissed.
“No, no. It’s fine. It changes and it’s all a bit of a blur anyway. You know…” but we didn’t so she stopped.
“What I don’t understand is how you never saw this coming before.” I picked my way through a plate of custard creams, separating each into three pieces.
“I don’t know.”
The future changed, according to the actions taken by the people reacting to it. So, I supposed, someone, somewhere, did something to shift the paths of everyone in the world. Imagine having that kind of power.
Beth glared at me from where she sat on the settee, with one arm around Kat’s shoulders. Kat was my friend, she was telling me without words.
I took Kat’s hand, as people do on TV. “We’ll get through this,” I told her. “It always feels like the end of the world, but it never is. We just have to stay together and keep on going. One day at a time. We just have to….” I was going to say believe in the future, but she never had to. She always saw it. She’d forgotten how to hope.
She sniffed and gulped and looked to me. “How do you know?”
I smiled. “I’ve seen it all before.”
I told her all the ways the world has ended and about the people I’d seen, walking through the ruins, living through the end. We would be them, I said. I told her how they looked when they woke one day, took a deep breath, and started to see the future again.
I hoped it helped her as much as it helped me.