Billy Wells explained his theory of time travel to anyone who’d listen, anyone being mostly Dagmar Kessler, who seemed to seriously consider what he was saying. Perhaps she was just trying to understand him. Billy had a broad accent and a soft slur to his words. Dagmar had learnt her English in a Hamburg Gymnasium.
“Most people,” Billy would say, using his cigarette for emphasis, “think that travel to the past has to be impossible because of the paradoxes it would create. Take the grandmother paradox. If you travelled back in time and killed your own grandmother, you could not possibly exist.” Billy would raise his eyebrows and pause, waiting for Dagmar to nod her head in agreement. It was always Dagmar he’d end up talking to. No-one else in the whole of Bowraville took him seriously, except perhaps Kev Raymond who was into traditional magic, but who never went to the pub anyway.
“But what if what happens is that we don’t just travel back in time, we travel to another part of the multiverse? What if, at the moment of killing, you slipped into a parallel universe where she was not your grandmother?” He’d move some beer coasters around to illustrate his point, and Billy would raise his eyebrows again, his face crinkling with the question. Only it wasn’t a question this time, because Billy was sure of his thesis. Time travel, Billy reasoned, was not only possible, but was the very means necessary to travel to parallel worlds.
Billy claimed to be studying via correspondence for a degree in philosophy from Armidale. He’d been saying this for years now. No one could say if this was just another one of his stories, though Beryl Newman, who was studying Tourism part time at the same place, said she once saw someone who looked a lot like Bill on the campus. That’s what she said, but all she had seen was an older, skinny man carrying a sack over his shoulder. He looked a bit like Bill, but he also looked a bit like anyone.
Dagmar never much expressed a view on anything. As an illegal, it was in her own best interest not ever to be noticed. But that wasn’t the real reason she kept to herself.
Dagmar’s real reason was that she was afraid.
“You have to understand I am afraid. That is why I have come to this place,” she once said, pronouncing each syllable precisely, to Rayleen.
“Afraid of what, pet?”
Despite her problems – and she had a few – Dagmar managed to hold down a job working for Geoff and Rayleen at the Royal, which was lately Billy’s favourite watering hole, not because of the plasma screen or the society - there were better amenities at The Arms - but because of Dagmar herself.
Stefan, who was legal, had ten acres of scrub and cliff face a few miles out on North Arm. He had built himself a two-roomed cottage out of red gum, sawdust and cement, but found himself away a lot in Sydney, helping a friend renovate a terrace in Redfern. His deal with Dagmar was she could live on the property in return for looking out for bushfires and thieves. You wouldn’t think he had all that much for a person to steal, but he was adamant that someone was raiding his oats, which he kept securely stored in large plastic garbage bins.
Stefan helped Dagmar build a wattle-and-daub one roomer at the edge of the cliff, overlooking the Noble paddocks, but hidden enough that no-one driving by would ever guess.
Dagmar’s house wasn’t much bigger than a sink and a bed. Using rocks, an old enamel bathtub and some old railway sleepers, she rigged herself up an outdoor bathroom. She’d fill the bath with a hose from the water tank and light a long, low fire underneath. Done just right, the fire would provide a nice hot bath that could go on for hours. She would sit in the bath for hours, luxuriating in warmth and in the annihilation of time.
Which is why Billy was so keen to explain his theory of time travel to her. Billy was as in love as Billy could get. Billy also lived on the North Arm road, near Argent’s Hill. He didn’t have a bicycle so had to cadge lifts or walk into town. Sometimes he’d cut across the Noble paddocks, which saved him about a mile of walking. It was while walking through those paddocks on his way home one moonlit and frosty night that he turned to look up and behind him. Sound travels a long way on cold still nights like that; perhaps he had heard Dagmar having one of her many arguments with herself. Perhaps he had heard her hiss ‘Es ist unheimlich!’ The point is that Billy saw, not far away and seemingly hovering mid air in the darkness, Dagmar naked in her makeshift bath, haloed by candles. Bathing by starlight.
Dagmar was not what you would call beautiful. She was in her early twenties, but her body was thin and muscular, more like a boy’s. She had small breasts, a long back, and long thin hands and feet. Her blond hair was shoulder length and lank. But to Billy, standing silently in the field below, she was a vision from another world.
No-one could recall Billy ever being in love before. He wasn’t what most women, even in Bowraville, would think of as a good catch, and he had shown no interest in the opposite sex that anyone could recall in his fifty two years. Like Dagmar, Billy lived alone. His house was some converted cow bales, large enough that he even had an indoor kitchen. He had never held a job to anyone’s knowledge. Someone once claimed that his mother was one of the ‘mish mob.’ It wasn’t the sort of question you could put to him direct, but Geoff had once put the question to Kev, who said he definitely wasn’t.
“But I know who is,” Kev said. “There’s a few gubbas round here who ain’t so snow pure as they think they are.”
Even people who didn’t know Billy knew Billy. If, driving along the North Arm at night, scanning the verges for kangaroos or stray cattle, you suddenly slammed on your brakes to avoid hitting a skinny man with long grey hair and a sack over one shoulder: you knew it was Billy.
Billy’s luscious, lip-smacking tale of a floating Dagmar, naked in a bathtub, were soon circulated around the Royal bar. But not even Jack Donovan, who hid behind trees to gaze goggle-eyed at Jane and Sue Martin when they bathed at the Lane’s Bridge waterhole, was impressed with Billy’s description. There were better dreams on the calendar Geoff kept above the till. And when Rayleen discovered what Billy was huddling with the patrons about, she told him to stop it or be banned for life.
It wasn’t just that Dagmar looked a bit ordinary. It was also that practically everyone in Bowraville had seen her naked at some time. Many of them had seen her naked up close and in broad daylight. Geoff and Rayleen could count two times since they had employed her when she had turned up naked for work. Geoff had once seen a book called Die Nature and he reckoned it explained a lot about Dagmar in particular and Germans in general. Nonetheless, Bowraville looked after its own, and everyone now considered Dagmar one of their own.
Not only did Billy love Dagmar, but he was pretty sure that the feelings were reciprocated, because he was one of the few people Dagmar would talk to; one of the few people Dagmar would look in the eye.
“Your theory is… so… ludicrous, Billy,” she would say to him. “What is this multiverse? What is this time travel? There is only past, present and future. That is all. There is no time travel. It is ludicrous. You only have the wishful thinking to imagine that these things are possible at all.”
Billy’s face would crinkle up in a smile. “You just need to think about it Dagmar. It makes you think! You have to give me that.”
“I am sorry to say this, but it is all just stupidity, I think.”
“Maybe you could accompany me to the races next Saturday,” he’d say, within earshot of everyone the bar. “I could teach you how to bet on the horses.”
Dagmar always refused. She thought Billy harmless enough, but he was a man, and she was having nothing to do with men. Sue Martin, when she had found that little nugget, had tried to suggest Dagmar have something to do with the alternative, but she was having none of that either. Even, hypothetically speaking, were she to have a relationship, it would not be with the likes of Billy. It was all too complicated. Her head was filled with other things, like the reasons she had run away at seventeen, turning up at Stefan’s door a year later, dirt tired and completely broke.
Billy knew nothing of Dagmar’s history, or problems. He didn’t listen to anyone’s gossip except his own, and only came into town once a fortnight on a Thursday, more frequently since his unearthly vision in the Noble fields. He persisted in his invitations. She persisted in her refusals.
One Thursday Billy came in and asked where Dagmar was. He was told she was sick. He was not told that she had started screaming at one of the patrons for leaving beer at the bottom of his glass, eventually stating he was a fascist pig. Billy drank, as he always did, until nightfall, and heaving his hessian sack over his shoulder, started home the long walk along North Arm road.
On nights such as this Billy kept his eyes squarely at his feet. The drinking often made him unsteady, and he was getting old. He watched his stride, watching his feet fall one in front of the other, the old boots clomping on the asphalt, past the grasses on the verge, the rocks, mosses and puffballs growing on the side of the road, past the cigarette stubs and the naked legs of a passing girl.
Billy stopped, swaying slightly, and considered this. Had he really seen someone, a barefoot girl, walk past him, so close he could have reached out and touched her? He swung around. Not ten metres away he saw her, walking along the road, her blond hair shining in the moonlight, her skin the colour of creamy roses.
Billy extended a hand after her.
“Dagmar! Is that you? Hey, Dagmar! Hoo!” he said, but there was no reply, and the girl slipped from view.
Billy didn’t know what to make of this. He was too wrapped up in his own world to know, as most of Bowraville did, of Dagmar’s condition. He was reasonably sure she wasn’t an hallucination. Shaking his head to clear it of his muddled thoughts, he decided it could only mean one thing: a declaration of love. Why else would a girl cast all modesty to the wind and walk past him so close he could feel the heat from her body? And if she loved him, it only cemented and compounded Billy’s feeling for her.
Dagmar hadn’t answered Billy because she hadn’t heard him. When she had one of her turns Dagmar wouldn’t hear or remember anything. One minute she’d be at home, maybe stoking her little oven with the thought of baking some bread. The next, to her great shame, she’d find herself at the Banana Growers’ Co-op supermarket, surrounded by concerned staff offering coats and scarves with which to hide herself.
On a wet night when the bar was quiet Geoff said to Rayleen he was walking up to the paddock to bring the tractor back.
“Have to bring the tractor back, and get the steers into the top paddock. This rain keeps up there’s going to be a lot of land under water.”
“I could drive you, if you like pet.” She thought for a second. “No, scrap that. Dagmar was taken sick this morning. You’ll have to walk it. Make sure you have your Drizabone.”
In forty minutes Geoff reached his paddocks. He grabbed a large stick, and squelched through the soggy grass to the top lot, wrestling the wire gate open. His steers were standing head to head, as cattle do in the rain, beneath a solitary camphor laurel tree. Crying “Hey!” and “Yip!” Geoff walked in a curve, waving his stick, urging them to the gate. Finally one young steer bolted and the rest, seeing leadership, trotted after him, bellowing softly.
Geoff shut the gate and walked down to the road, where he had the tractor parked. It took a little coaxing for the rusted engine to cough into life. He sat there for about a minute, adjusting the choke. Squinting through the dark rain for the sheen of the asphalt road, he started the drive back into town.
It was at the bottom of one of the downward slopes, rolling at full speed, when Geoff saw a ghostly shape in the middle of the road. Someone was walking in front of him, apparently unaware of the loud belching noises his tractor was making. As he got closer, he could make her out, walking in the rain, stark naked. Dagmar.
It took Geoff a hundred yards to stop the tractor. He got down as she walked towards him. She didn’t seem to notice the rain, didn’t even seem to notice the rumbling tractor. Just walked, staring at the ground, as bare as the day she was born.
When she was close Geoff called her name. She looked up at Geoff, first blank, then intensely puzzled.
“Geoff? Where am I? What am I doing here? My god, where are my clothes?” Most women would have tried to cover themselves with their hands. Dagmar didn’t.
“You had one of your turns, Dagmar. Here. Let me take you back home. Take my raincoat.”
“But you will get soaking wet, Geoff. I cannot do this.” Dagmar started crying. “Sometimes I feel someone else is in control of me. It is so scary.”
“You’ll have to sit in the carryall, Dagmar. I’ll take you home and get you dry."
Geoff helped Dagmar up and draped her with a bit of tarpaulin lying in the carryall. turned the tractor around. Something had be done about Dagmar. Perhaps Stefan could convince her to go back to Hamburg. She was getting worse. She had already discarded the tarpaulin and was now standing, one arm holding onto the jib like she was at the bow of a boat. Geoff drove slowly. He tried turning the tractor’s lights on, but they didn’t work. At least the rain had stopped, and the night was warm. He would get Dagmar home safely.
When the rain stopped Billy grabbed his sack and started walking towards the Noble paddocks. Ever since his vision he was convinced Dagmar was in love with him. Perhaps tonight he would see her again. As he crossed the pastures he kept his head high, hoping to see his beloved Fraulein bathing on top of the cliffs, floating amongst the clouds.
She wasn’t there. It was just black where Dagmar’s bathtub should have been. Hoping she’d make an appearance, Billy aimed towards the road. He’d go into town and, a few beers later, he’d return, filling his sack with Boris’ bananas on the way. Billy lived on Boris’s bananas, except when they were out of season, when he lived on raw oats.
Billy often walked into town. If he heard a car coming from behind he’d turn, outstretch his thumb, ask for a lift. Tonight he heard a low-geared truck approaching. Though there were no lights he turned on instinct, his arm outstretched, expecting to see a possible lift.
Billy stopped, transfixed, as he saw Dagmar emerge from the gloom, stark naked and appearing to float a foot or two above the road. She was floating – hurtling – like a ghost, her arms outstretched in warning. He saw the look of horror on her face.
“Get off the road!” Geoff screamed, as Billy, confounded, took a step into the road.
“Please, Billy. Move!” Dagmar yelled. She was floating above him, and he could only stare.
Something happened that night, something scarcely talked about and not really understood by any of the people concerned.
The result was that even though she had saved his life, Billy wasn’t keen on Dagmar any more. Some thought it might be because, in a way, Dagmar had endangered his life in the first place. A woman – German or not – had no right to wander North Arm naked at night. But for Billy it was as if, at the moment Dagmar threw him off the road, there had been a shift in the order of things. Billy even stopped sprouting his theories, preferring to sit in a corner of the bar reading a water-damaged paperback edition of Lucretius. Dagmar would sometimes bring him a drink, sometimes on the house, but Billy hardly acknowledged her. She would linger by his little round table, maybe trying to think of something to say. Eventually she would turn on her heel, sighing, and return to the bar.
It wasn’t just Billy who had changed. Dagmar changed, too. Everyone knew she now had eyes for Billy, though no-one could figure out why. And for months she hadn’t had a single turn. Perhaps she had figured out the spectacle Billy had bragged about, because neither Billy nor anyone else skited about her bathing routines behind her back again. She had even written a letter to her parents in Hamburg, saying she was safe and well.
Geoff was shaken by the whole incident. He later told Rayleen he thought he’d killed both of them, and it was only when they got out of the ditch that he realised Dagmar had saved Billy. He still drove his tractor at night, but had the lights fixed properly. He also took down the Pirelli calendar above the till, saying he’d seen enough nakedness for the time being.