So I thought it best to finish out July with another of Gerard Klein’s best works, “Party Line”. As I mentioned previously, Klein is a French scifi writer whose first story “appeared in 1955, when he was nineteen. He published nearly sixty more in the next decade” and now works as an editor in France for a “publishing series that continues today, a series which supports developing talent in France while seeking out works in English for translation”.
“Party Line” is one of my favorites. I say this about a lot of stories because I have many favorites. But this one in particular is on my favorites list because of its central dealings with time travel and time paradoxes. In this story, Jerome Bosch is offered insight into his future by two future versions of himself, and he must make a decision that may or may not lead him to one of those futures, and it all starts with a phone call…
Jerome Bosch sits at his desk at five after nine in the morning ready to begin another long, dull day when both of the phones on his desk begin to ring. It doesn’t happen often that both phones ring at the same time, so he decides to pick them both up and hold one to each ear. One voice, full of hysteria, the other full of static and confusion with only the odd word or phrase making it in here or there.
Would you recognize your own voice if it called you up out of the blue? Neither would I. And neither did Jerome, at first. He chooses to ignore to oddity of the double calls and familiar voices.
Jerome is a writer (aren’t we all), stuck at a sad job where he feels isolated from the world and his coworkers that surround him. He plans his morning around the reports he will compile, the letters he will write, and then…the phone rings. This time, the voice confirms his suspicions:
“…I’m calling from the future. I’m you, older than…It’s better you don’t know too much.”
Jerome-from-the-future has a wonderful life, so he says, where he writes for a profession, owns a villa at Ibiza, and has a family. This can be your future, he says, but when the phone rings at eleven fifty-eight am you must answer and you must accept the offer, he tells him. The second phone begins to ring and at the protests of future-Jerome, Jerome hangs up and answers the next line. This time the voice is faint, much harder to hear and harder to comprehend:
“You mustn’t go…under any circumstance…don’t leave…”
The call ends and Jerome is left with a dial tone. Is this some kind of joke? He self-consciously imagines his coworkers howling with laughter next door.
At eleven fifty-eight on the dot Jerome receives a call from out of town. Sure enough, it just so happens to be a filmmaker named Wildenstein who’s smitten with one of Jerome’s books and wants to make it into a movie. He asks whether Jerome can get on a plan to see him in the Bahamas that very afternoon, to which he replies that he’ll have to think it over. After the call Jerome-from-the-future calls him back and insists that now that he knows what the offer is he must take it without question. I need more time, he pleads.
The call ends, and Jerome’s secretary enters, stating that now she’s received a call and has a message for him. All she was able to understand though, was the word “accident”. Was there an accident? Will there be an accident? Is it something to do with the plane? It had to have been the voice telling him to not go under any circumstances, but why? Before he’s able to think it over, a butler, sent by Wildenstein arrives to escort Jerome to the airport to board the plane to the Bahamas that very afternoon. He produces a paid-for ticket and urges Jerome to make haste.
At the airport future-Jerome calls him up one last time to ensure that he will get on the plan. He knows Jerome very well, after all, and so he knows that Jerome is a very indecisive individual which is why he’s called one last time to make sure he gets on the plane. Jerome pleads with him that he needs more time, and tells him of the second call, the hysterical voice that spoke of an accident. Future-Jerome admits that that’s possibly Jerome calling from another future, but neither man can be sure.
The passengers waiting to board the plane are divided into two groups, each will be taking a different plane though both will have the same end point. Jerome panics. Which side should he go to? How is he supposed to know which plane to get on, will one of them have an accident? What if he gets on the wrong one? He ends up on one of the planes, tries to relax but is agitated nonetheless. The first voice, the one urging him to take the offer, had gotten less and less clear over each call, he realizes. Could that have meant something? An air hostess approaches him with a telegram-like paper, a message she says, from a call for him. All the operator was able to comprehend was “soon…”. With a lump in his throat Jerome sinks into his seat. The pilot makes an announcement:
“A second of attention, if you please, ladies and gentlemen. We are going through a zone of perturbation. Please fasten your seat belts and put out your cigarettes.”
Jerome is no longer listening, but staring out the window into the vast, black night, awaiting what’s to come. Did he make the right decision? How will he ever know?
While there is no real concrete ending to this story, I believe that the best endings are the ones we come up with on our own. Did Jerome make it to the Bahamas? Did the “accident” even have anything to do with him? Was it really all a practical joke being played by his coworkers? *Shudders at the thought of public humiliation*. What do YOU think?
*All quotes are from my copy of The World Treasury of Science Fiction, edited by David G. Hartwell. All photos are as always via Pinterest or Google and do not belong to me.