Robert and Elizabeth

Robert Heinlein gazed at the woman who was just entering the drawing room, crisp long skirts sweeping the floor around her. “Well, ma’am, how DO you do?” he said, bowing deeply.

Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell paused in the doorway and regarded him carefully, then stepped forward and reached out her hand. “I am told you are Mr Heinlein? From the Oxford Writers’ Society?”

Robert took the proffered hand, unsure whether to shake it or kiss it, opting for a clumsy gesture somewhere between the two. She looked at him with amusement and a sparkle of curiosity.

“Well,” Robert said. “It might be stretching the truth just a tad to say I’m from any Oxford Writers’ Society, but I am a writer. I write science fiction. And I was interested in meeting you because I am time-travelling and thought that of all the 19th century writers, you’d be one I’d be most inclined to share a cup of good English tea with.”

Mrs Gaskell’s grey eyes regarded him closely. “Although I consider myself to be an educated woman and familiar with the many disciplines of the written word, I do not recognise what you call ‘science fiction’. Perhaps you could explain yourself, and if you are able to do so, without further splitting any infinitives, we will have tea together.” She stood resolutely between Robert and the tea table, laden as it was with delicacies. ”If I may speak frankly, I have thus far found you to be quite incomprehensible and therefore of no great interest.”

“Pardon my clumsiness, ma’am,” he said. “Let me begin again.”

“That might be in order,” she replied tartly.

Robert observed her cautiously. “I am a writer, and, like yourself, reasonably well-regarded. I have written some 50 books, many of them potboilers for young boys. However, if I say so myself, I’ve done a few novels of real value for thinking adults with a passion for life, two or three of which made it into university curricula and stayed there for decades. Are you following me so far?”

“You are reasonably clear ‘so far’,” Mrs Gaskell replied with some irony. “You must allow me a certain scepticism, as I haven’t heard of you myself. I take it from your rounded vowels that you come from America, and perhaps the obstacle of distance has prevented my making acquaintance of your work for ‘thinking adults’.” She paused. “Are you following me so far?”

Robert grinned. “Like a flea on a dog. Now, this part gets hard to explain. When I say I write science fiction, I mean I write fictional accounts of people who live in the distant future, and the technologies used by those people. The genre comes into existence in about 10 years, your time, with Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. Now, I myself was born, and will no doubt die, in the 20th century…you still with me?”

“Like a flea on a dog.”

Robert took heart from her humour and plunged on.

“Then some remarkable young scientist in the 24th century took a page from my book and developed a time machine.”

“A ‘time machine’ being…”

“…A machine able to travel back through time. Don’t get your skirts in a knot; stay with me. Now, because this young cracker got the idea from my writing, he did me the honour of coming back in time to visit me. And now, as I’ve just read and enormously enjoyed your novel ‘North and South’, I’ve borrowed his time machine and have come back to visit you.”

Mrs Gaskell stepped toward the tea table, her cheeks suddenly ruddy and her voice registering a slight quaver.

“Mr Heinlein, will you join me for tea? Please take a seat, if you can abide what I’m sure is a dreadfully out-of-fashion chair, and allow me to pour. After tea, we will visit your time machine, and I will show you my almost-finished manuscript of ‘North and South’. Then you will join Mr Gaskell and myself for dinner and we will plan a trip to visit Mr Shakespeare, a particular source of inspiration to me.

“Do you take cream in your tea?”

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1 Comment

  1. These need to be bound and published. Love this one


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