A Short Story
By Leighton Vaughan Williams
It was difficult to argue with Teddy. Whether he was right or wrong, I could never be sure. But I was sure of one thing, that if he said something was going to happen, it did. That was the problem with Teddy. He never got it wrong. And soon that would become a problem for me.
The problem with language
A dog can expect its master. That is certainly true. But it can’t expect its master next Tuesday,” said Teddy. “Why not?” I asked. “Because a dog has no concept of time?” “No,” responded Teddy, “it is because a dog has no concept of language.” “So can a lion expect a meal when it sees its wounded prey?” I enquired. “You could ask it,” he said, “but you would never understand the answer. Because even if a lion had language, it would be no language we could ever understand.”
“You see,” said Teddy, “language is how we experience the world, as well as the way that we choose to represent it.”
“So language represents the boundaries of what we can know?”, I asked. “You have said it,” he exclaimed. “In clear, plain language.” “This doesn’t mean that nothing exists that can’t be expressed in language, only that it is outside the limits of our philosophy. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” I offered. “Yes, than in all our philosophies”, he assured me. “But we can never use philosophy to find or explain them.”
“Can you be sure of that?”, I asked. “There is no way to verify that. And if a statement can’t be verified it is meaningless. That’s the test of a meaningful statement.” I felt clever now. “Why do you say that an unverifiable statement is meaningless?'” Teddy asked me. “Tell me how you verify your test.”
It was difficult to argue with Teddy. Whether he was right or wrong, I could never be sure. But I was sure of one thing, that I had never shown him to be wrong. Not to myself or to anyone else. That was the genius of Teddy, but it was also the problem.
“Shakespeare loved Wittgenstein,” he said as he took his leave. “And I love pineapples.” I replied. “I can be sure of that. But William Shakespeare pre-dated Ludwig Wittgenstein by hundred of years, so your statement makes no sense.” I was pleased with my observation. “You can’t be sure you love pineapples,” he said, “nor can anyone. But I, Teddy, can be sure that Shakespeare loved Wittgenstein, just as I can be sure that four and four make eight.”
“But, that makes no sense…” I shouted after him. He was gone. That was the problem with Teddy.
The problem with probability
“Even a double-headed coin can come down tails,” said Teddy when he entered our shared workspace, displaying his particularly sprightly gait. And his tap, tap, tap of ebony stick. Now, he didn’t need the walking stick. But he did like to tap, tap, tap it along the floor. That was another problem with Teddy.
“I don’t see how a double-headed coin can come down tails,” came my instant riposte. “It’s all about probability,” he said. “It’s a very low probability, but in the quantum universe, a double-headed coin can definitely come down tails.” I assumed he was right, but I couldn’t see how.
He read a lot, and was proud of what he’d learned. “The man who does not read the great thinkers has no advantage over the man who cannot read them,” Teddy once told me. “The same goes for a woman,” I said, trying to sound enlightened. I liked to sound enlightened in front of Teddy. I don’t know why. I never did. Even when I said something that I thought made some kind of sense. A glance from Teddy always made that abundantly clear.
But I did admire Teddy’s uncanny ability to distinguish what was going to happen from what was not. He had the gift of what some call prescient foresight but what others might call knowing a sure thing.
You see, when Teddy said something would happen, it happened. Like when he called double-six on the pair of dice I had brought from home. That’s a 35 to 1 chance, logic told me, but in my belly I knew it would happen. I knew that as soon as Teddy said six-six. And six-six it was. I guess you could call it a trick, or you could call it magic. I don’t know about that, but I did now something for sure. If Teddy said it would happen, it would. Never bet against Teddy. That was my watchword. Until I did.
The problem with wagers
“It’s usually best to back the favourite”, I told Teddy. “I had read it in a book. A book by an expert.” “That’s true if you’re taking probabilities,” said Teddy. So now I knew it was true. “But if you know something is going to happen, that doesn’t apply,” he said.
And so we went on Sunday night to the casino, at the insistence of the man who knew when things would happen. We never met at the weekend, but today there was a reason, said Teddy. He knew I would win.
“Let’s play roulette,” he said. And produced a wad of notes, a very big wad of notes. “”Red or black,” he asked. “You choose.”
I chose black. “I would choose red,” he said. “It’s your money,” I said. “No, it’s not,” he replied. “It’s yours now, a thousand pounds, to lose, to double, or to keep.”
“Can I just keep the thousand pounds?” I asked, and not risk it on red, or black. It was a joke, of a kind. Teddy was not a generous man, and certainly not generous enough to gift me a grand. And to me it was a lot of money, money I needed to live.
“You’ve struck lucky in the quantum world,” said Teddy. “The thousand is yours.To keep or to spin. I say red, and I say it’s a sure thing.”
“One spin of the wheel, for the lot, or take it home. Your choice.”
Now, when Teddy said something would happen, it did. And he was saying it was going to be red. But my common sense told me that Teddy could not know. The wheel had not yet even started to spin.
“I’ll keep it,” I declared. A thousand pounds. “OK, cash it in,” he said. “It’s yours.” I protested – what if we share it, I said? But he declined. Teddy didn’t need the money. Knowing what would happen had already made him a rich man. And he was not the kind to share. “Good night,” he said, and tap, tap, tapped off into the gathering twilight.
So to the next day, and I asked him how he knew the ball would have landed on red. “I knew we’d never find out,” said Teddy. “Because I knew you’d never wager a thousand pounds on the spin of the wheel.” “But what if I had spun the wheel?” I asked. “Then you would have won,” he said. “A universe in which you would spin that wheel is a universe in which you would be sure to win.” I thought I understood what he meant.
The problem with money
“Does it make you happy, knowing what’s going to happen?” I asked. “Isn’t it a burden?” “I don’t always know what’s going to happen,” he corrected me. “But when I know for sure that something will happen, it does,” he said. “It’s not at all the same thing.”
“But that’s enough to make you a lot of money,” I said. “Knowing some things for sure that others think are unsure has made you so much money.”
And so he told me the tale of Thales, the Greek philosopher, who made his fortune by the application of modern day principles of analysis to ancient day Greece. The story involved forecasts and finance and options on olive presses. I honestly can’t recall all the details. But Teddy could. “Which shows,” he concluded, “that it is much easier for a philosopher to become rich than for a rich man to become a philosopher. But the ambitions of philosophers are of another kind.” It was clear he was talking about himself.
As for me, I just wanted to be rich like Teddy. I knew I would never be as wise.
But all of his great knowledge, great insight, great wisdom – was a burden to him? He seemed to read my mind.
“Great wisdom does not necessarily bring great happiness,” was his now detached observation. “Nor does great riches.”
“So maybe I’m better off being ignorant old me,” I said. “Just seeking the simple things in life, and enough money to enjoy them.”
He shook his head now, disapprovingly.
“Which is better?”, he asked me, “to be a human being dissatisfied or a pig satisfied, to be Socrates dissatisfied or a fool satisfied?” He was quoting one of the great philosophers again. I could tell that by the way he spoke his syllables. But I didn’t really understand the question, let alone the answer. That, I am afraid, was the problem with me.
The problem with cars
We shared coffee and lunch that day, accompanied by the walking stick, the shiny ebony walking stick. I plucked up courage to ask him about the walking stick, why it accompanied him wherever he walked. “This is not a walking stick,” he replied. I did not ask again.
“So what if I told you that I am sure you will be knocked down by a car tomorrow?”, he now asked me.
“You can’t be sure of that,” I said. “I might not go anywhere near a car.” I suspected he was joking. Not a pretty joke, but Teddy and good taste didn’t always see eye to eye.
He reminded me that there was no way of reaching the office without crossing a road. “I’ll be extra careful,” I said.
“You will be knocked down by a car tomorrow,” he repeated, ” and you will be crippled for life.”
He was deadly serious and now I was scared. I was not scared because Teddy knew everything that was going to happen, but because when Teddy knew that something was going to happen, it always did.
“It can’t be inevitable,” I said. “What if I don’t even step outside my front door?” “You won’t do that,” he replied. “You are too curious to see if I’m right.” “Nobody’s that curious,” was my instant response. But I was, because I couldn’t see how he could know this. It was like predicting where the roulette ball would land before the wheel even started spinning. I told him so. “Or like predicting six-six on the dice,” he said. I shuddered. I suddenly felt cold.
How could he know? Had he heard of a plot to harm me? Did he know people who knew? Or was he planning to harm me himself. But if so, why warn me? I could make no sense of
the problem, no way through the maze. What would Socrates make of this, I wondered. And what advice would he have for the fool?
I asked Teddy for evidence, for proof. He offered none. He said he knew but said he could not explain. Not to me. He gave no reason, but this told me nothing, because he never did. He never told me how he knew that something would happen, but I knew that it always did.
I turned to close friends, close family. Ignore it, play safe, the guy’s just trying to frighten you, maybe he knows something. A mix of opinions, but nothing to help. Not one knew Teddy, nor his ebony stick. And not one knew that when Teddy knew something, he knew it for sure.
That was the problem with Teddy. And now it had become a very real problem for me.
The problem with fate
The day wore on and soon a decision had to be made. A choice to make. A choice between the evidence of my experience, that Teddy was never wrong, or my experience of the evidence, of which there was none. I asked Teddy one last time before we retired to our separate homes. Should I stay home all the next day, or should I brave life’s fate? Could I change destiny?
“All fates are possible,” said Teddy, “but the universe where you will come to no harm is not the universe in which you currently live.” I was thinking back now to that spin of the roulette wheel. In a universe where I spun the wheel, I felt sure I would have won. I chose not to. But I could have done. Surely this meant that life’s events were not pre-destined, written in stone and waiting to simply unfold. I could do something about it. I could have spun that wheel. But that would have been a different universe, where everything would be different. Would it even be me on that universe? I wanted to go back, to ask myself to spin that wheel. But I could never meet myself, because yesterday I was a different person, as are we all. We can never go back and meet ourselves, only meet ghostly shadows of who we were, shadows that made us what we are and who we might have been.
I no longer saw things as they were, asking why. I saw things now as they might be, asking why not.
“I can change the world,” I told Teddy. “I can spin that wheel.”
“Yes, we can change our destinies,” he said. “We have the freedom of will to choose.”
It was approaching six and the caretakers came to shut up the building. It was not the perfect arrangement, but it suited us.
He picked up his ebony stick and set off, with his usual jaunty gait. “You are quite the philosopher now,” he called back, “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.”
“But …” I started to say. He was gone already. That was the problem with Teddy. Always too quick on that stick.
The problem with thinking
I woke up at dawn next morning and thought of the double-headed coin that might come down tails. But I knew that I could do nothing about that. The quantum world was out of my control.
But some things were within my control, and one was the choice of whether to change life’s plan, to spin the wheel, to change the course of fate.
This could mean staying home, behind closed doors, away from the rush of traffic. This is what it meant to Teddy. But this is not what it meant to me.
Teddy saw things as they were, and he saw things that would be. I now saw things differently. I saw a world as it might be. Where I had the choice to use reason and faith and hope. To conquer fear, on my own terms.
But reason told me that Teddy’s foresight of my fate was not to be overlooked lightly. Teddy didn’t make that kind of mistake.
But Teddy’s universe wasn’t the one I had to inhabit. I could change my destiny. I could stay home, shuttering out the summer day. But I was becoming a philosopher. And the ambitions of philosophers are of another kind.
“A dog can expect its master, but it cannot expect its master next Tuesday,” Teddy had once explained. I thought of that now as I realised that Teddy was not expecting me today. I had become a philosopher, a thinker. Teddy would soon see.
So I called a taxi, all the way to my front door, and asked to be dropped off at the back entrance to our shared workplace. No cars to knock me down. I would be straight into that taxi, approached from the back. I would ask for the back door of the taxi to adjoin the back door of the workplace. I would give an excuse. Security. And the same when I returned home. Reason over fear. No room for error.
Until the taxi, en route from home to work, came to a halt. On the busy dual carriageway. Something rattling. So Teddy was right. Terrifyingly right. Could I get out and help him identify the noise, asked the driver. No, no, no, I screamed! He looked at me as if I was slightly mad. But this madness had method. To spin the wheel, to save life and limb.
And soon we got going again, me firmly in back seat.
So it was with some surprise, and my almost crazed relief, that we arrived at the door. To park with back door adjoining back door came as a curiosity to the driver. But he nodded sympathetically and I tipped him in thanks.
I skipped up the steps to our plush interconnecting offices, where Teddy wrote software, and I helped him do it. He heard my steps and tried to shut the door, but I was through first. “How are you here?” he shouted. “You’re at home!” Evidently not, I might have replied. Instead, I just stood there, in openmouthed shock at the scene that unfolded before me.
The problem with Teddy
Every drawer had been emptied, every cupboard laid bare, ornaments and accessories opened or turned upside down. If something had been hidden, it would by now have been found. “What is happening?” I would have sat down, but the seats were upturned, and I had no stomach to right them.
“A burglary,” he said. But I didn’t believe him. “Why would burglars turn everything upside down and take nothing?” I asked. “That beggars belief.”
“I disturbed them,” he said, “took about them with my stick. They fled.”
“Let’s call the police,” I insisted, “Check the CCTV.” “No,” he said sharply. “Let’s not.”
A short pause. “Is it safe?” he asked. “Is it safe?”
“Is what safe, Teddy, is what safe?”
He seemed unsure now, what to say or do. “They were my numbers,” he said, “I suggested the numbers. They came up on Saturday night. I know that you keep it here, you always keep your ticket here until you check the numbers on a Wednesday. And I know you never sign it. Be fair, Charlie, let’s share it.”
He looked at me menacingly. Teddy, I knew, was not the sort of man who shared anything. It was all about Teddy. The gift of the thousand pounds now made sense. He had made his case, that I should spin the wheel, that I could re-arrange fate. But a gift so generous. Now I saw. It was his back-up plan.
“No, Teddy, it isn’t safe. I didn’t buy a ticket last week. There’s nothing to share.”
Teddy lunged at me, screaming, before collapsing to the floor, thrashing around. Yet still looking up at me, the look of sheer menace still etched on his face.
I was relieved that I hadn’t bought a ticket. He would have found it, signed it, cashed it, if it had existed. I would not have seen a penny. He had suggested some numbers, but for once this was blind chance. He had not seen the future, the future had grasped him invitingly by the hand. Or so he had thought. And now he sought control, control of what was to come.
I peered now yet further into his soul, and saw it for what it was. I had glimpsed it before. But what I saw now was yet darker. Consciousness without conscience. A man with no love for anything higher or other than himself.
And I saw now how the things he forecast always came true. Because he made them come true. Until now. He was the sort of man who would sell shares in cruise liners and then plant an iceberg, if he could.
“But you would have been rich too!” cried the man who was already rich. The man who lived in a mansion and looked down on the homeless. The man who liked to rip up the charity envelope.
“What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” I asked him now. “Answer me, Teddy!” But no answer came from the man who knew when bad things were going to happen, who knew because he made those things so.
I picked up his stick. I wanted to hit him, to beat him with that shiny, ebony stick. He cowered. A coward, infused with consciousness, but devoid of conscience. I put it down again. It would have given me satisfaction. But it would have made me more like Teddy. For Teddy, his own personal satisfaction was all that mattered.
That was the problem with Teddy. I didn’t want it to be the problem with me.
I sat on the floor, and considered my options.
“I have something to report,” I told the operator. About some bad things that have happened, some things unexplained. Can I speak to the police?”