This year, I turned 30, a development that came with a breathless sense of dread at time’s passing. It wakes me up in the early mornings: Nocturnal terror breaks through the surface of sleep like a whale breaching for air. My ambition and fear kick in together until I get up, pour myself some water and look out the window at the squid-ink sky and the string of lights along my neighbors’ houses. I lie down again after finding firmer mental ground, dry land.
So when a guy that my friend was seeing evangelized about “time slips” — a genre of urban legend in which people claim that, while walking in particular places, they accidentally traveled back, and sometimes forward, in time — I was a ripe target. Curious and increasingly existential, I Googled these supposed time slips. I found a global community of believers building an archive of temporal dislocations from the present. These congregants gathered in corners of the internet to testify about how, in the right conditions, the dusting of alienation that settles over the world as we age can crystallize into collective fiction.
I was initially skeptical of the vague language that time-slip writers employed to convey experiences I already found dubious: too many uses of foggy words like “blunder” and “sporting”; detail lavished on varieties of hats encountered. But I was drawn in by their secretive tone — I sensed that sharing these anecdotes was compromising, even shameful (“People would laugh at you,” one poster wrote). Disapproval became attraction, and I returned to the message boards throughout the summer.
Here’s a classic that, like the best of these stories, was related secondhand on a paranormal blog: In a Liverpudlian street in 1996, an off-duty policeman named Frank was going to meet his wife, Carol, in a bookshop called Dillons when “suddenly, a small box van that looked like something out of the 1950s sped across his path, honking its horn as it narrowly missed him.” More disorienting still, Frank “saw that Dillons book store now had ‘Cripps’ over its entrance” and that there were stands of shoes and handbags in the window instead of new fiction. The only other person not wearing midcentury dress was a girl in a lime green sleeveless top. As Frank followed her into the old women’s wear boutique, “the interior of the building completely changed in a flash”; it was once again a bookshop.
I found a global community of believers building an archive of temporal dislocations from the present.
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As with a spell of déjà vu, the experience was short-lived, and time was regained. According to the blogger’s detective-like report, Cripps “was later determined” to have been a business in the 1950s. In response to Frank’s slip, posters have told their own or related accounts they’ve heard from others: “This happened to my ex-boss, Glyn Jackson in London, England,” one begins. “Glyn’s story is Highly believable as Glyn is person who lacks imagination on such a scale that he could not put together a grade one story for English to save his life.” And on it goes.
I have never appreciated stories about the passage of time. I resent that I won’t ever get back the hours of my life that Richard Linklater stole with “Boyhood” — his two-and-three-quarter-hour film, shot over a 12-year period in which time is the force that overwhelms everything, not least the idea that our own actions drive our life stories. There’s a whole lot of unwelcome profundity there.
Time-slip anecdotes, though fashioned out of the ambient dread of living with the ticking clock, are childlike in their sense of wonder. They are light, playful and irrational, as frivolous and folky as a ghost story if it were narrated by the confused ghost instead of the people it haunts. One poster, as a girl, used to see a woman in a blue bathrobe in her room: “Her hair was long and messy, a reddish brown. I didn’t see her face because she was usually turned away. I used to mistake her for my mom.” Years later, grown up, the poster’s daughter slept in her former bedroom. “One day I realized ... I was wearing the same blue bathrobe,” the mother writes. Paranormal trappings aside, this story speaks to the feeling of whiplash brought on by time’s passing.
Slipping can be significant, as any Freudian will tell you, and these narratives are riddles whose answers might tell us about our relationship to time. I have begun considering the message boards on which they are exchanged to be narrow but important release valves, allowing posters to talk about the feelings that arise from being time-bound: depression, midlife crises, the dysmorphia of living in a human body. What ailed Miss Smith, whose car slid into a ditch after a cocktail party, and who witnessed “groups of Pictish warriors of the late seventh century, ca. 685 AD,” if not an understanding of her smallness in history’s vast expanse? Why did two academics, famous in the time-slip community for writing a book about spotting Marie Antoinette in the Versailles grounds, encounter trees that looked lifeless, “like wood worked in tapestry”? Perhaps in that instant, like the last queen of France’s Ancien Régime, they felt radically out of joint with their present moment.
If you suspend disbelief, you’ll find these threads constitute a philosophical inquiry about the place of the spirit in our physical beings. They debate the merits of subjectivity and objectivity and question the idea that time is a one-lane highway to death. These writers argue that our past and future can suffuse our present, unveiling an epic dimension of our quotidian existences in moments when we slip and, like Frank, feel eternity.
Lucie Elven is a writer whose first book of fiction, “The Weak Spot,” was published this year in the United States by Soft Skull Press and in Britain by Prototype.
Background photograph: George Marks/Getty Images