By Brett Lock & Christopher Houston
It was an unremarkable day at the office. A mild sunshine created a pleasant patch of warmth in front of Rob Smith’s desk at The Greytown Observer.
The Observer was a typical small town paper: keeping an eye, (as its masthead said) on local events in a community where nothing much happened. True, there had been a murder in the 1950s — the details of which were concealed by the effort required to plug in the last functioning microfiche reader — but little of historical import had happened since. So while the staff reporters dutifully ‘kept an eye’ on Greytown, Rob’s job as sub-editor was to keep an eye on the laboured prose of the three hacks.
As a diversion from the tedium between inserting Oxford commas and dreaming up creative headlines for yet another ‘grand shop opening’ on the ever-changing Main Street of Greytown, Rob had signed up with examineyourpast.com. The deluxe package — which was not cheap, if truth be told — included a confidential DNA test and in due course the disposable kit and return envelope had arrived in the mail.
As Rob moved his chair into the centre of the sunshine his computer went ‘ping’.
Dear ROB SMITH
We are pleased to inform you that the results of your DNA test with examineyourpast.com are enclosed. Please login with the password and digital key you generated when registering.
We trust that this information will prove useful to you in constructing your family history at examineyourpast.com.
Customer Service Manager
Rob settled in with a coffee and a packed sandwich and idly clicked on the link. He opened the ‘results’ file It stated simply and matter-of-factly.
- Great Britain 40%
- Ireland 16%
- Europe West 12%
- Scandinavia 5%
- European Jewish 1%
- Caucasus 1%
- Unknown 26%
“There must be some mistake,” thought Rob irritably.
I don’t understand the results of this test. It says 26% of my DNA is ‘unknown’. Surely this is some mistake. Is it possible to have someone review this?
If you don’t mind me saying so, I didn’t pay all that money for inconclusive results. When one coughs up for clarity, so to speak, one does not expect more mystery.
With unsettling speed, a response popped into his inbox.
Dear Mr Smith
In accordance with our statutory obligation under the Personal Data Confidentiality Act (2007) we have not reviewed the results of your test. These will be available to you alone and are encrypted for your security.
Customer Service Manager
This was singularly unhelpful. But a production meeting for the Autumn Festival Supplement was scheduled for after lunch and he did not have time to reply immediately. But as the meeting droned on, Rob’s mind sought the diversion of his iPhone. In the modern meeting room, this too was unremarkable as half-a-dozen bored staffers and interns were buried in the glowing pixels of tiny screens. His thumbs glided over the keypad.
Hi Sarah & Gillian
I appreciate you’re constrained by various rules, but this “unknown other” result makes it sound like I might be from Mars or something! LOL. 😉
Can’t you look into it?
“Yes, we can use a gloss paper,” he said looking up. “It’s not that much extra.” And with that, the meeting adjourned.
When Rob got home that night, he reflexively flicked on the television but it did not hold his attention. He turned to his phone and tapped on his email. The final reply from examineyourpast.com was waiting.
I very much doubt you’re an alien. 😉
Believe it or not, most people have a small percentage which is hard to identify. We trust the balance of information will be useful to your research at examineyourpast.com.
Sorry I can’t be of more help.
Customer Service Manager
As far as he knew, all of Rob’s ancestors had come from England or Ireland at one time or another in the past century; so those results were unremarkable. What the unhelpful jobsworths at examineyourpast.com — if they were human beings at all — did not seem to grasp was that a missing piece comprising 26% could not be accounted for by some exotic traveller entering the family line in the dim past. It was a full grandparent’s worth and indeed, he did not know his paternal grandfather who had died before he was born. His mother’s folks were still alive and still sprightly in their nineties.
I hate to divert you from your work, and I know you have little time for such ‘frivolities’, but I’ve been poking around into our family history. I want to put something together for Bobby when he comes to stay over the holidays – something to connect him to our side of the family. You always say a boy should know his father. I’d like to talk to you about granddad. We’ve never really talked about him and to me he’s something of a mystery. Can I come for lunch? Sunday?
P.S. Give Mom my love. Hopefully see you both on the weekend.
* * *
“Bob Smith was a TV repairman,” said Robert Smith. “ He fought in the Korean war. Well, he didn’t fight as such, he was a quartermaster. He came back in ‘52 and married Grandma. I was born a year later.” The two men leaned on their elbows over the dining room table as Diane Smith fussed in the kitchen.
Rob squinted quizzically. “I don’t know what else to tell you,” chuckled his father. “My Dad was an unremarkable man. He was a TV repairman. The one remarkable thing he did was leave.”
“I had a DNA test, you know for this genealogy thing I’ve been investigating. The result is quite mystifying. I’m sure it must be a mistake because it can’t determine a significant part of my genetic makeup. I was hoping I could persuade you to do it too, just to compare,” said Rob.
“Let me sleep on it,” said the older man.
A few days later Rob was at work when an email arrived from his father.
I don’t think I will do a DNA test.
I am going to tell you the story my father told me the day he left. I was 18 at the time and it was ten years to the day that my mother, Mary had died. I am reporting this – to the best of my recollection – verbatim and you may make of it what you will. This is what he said:
“Son, I have to return home to my world. I have stayed longer than I planned and meeting your mother was something of a diversion from my mission. My mission was to blend in and to become invisible while I observed the culture of this planet. I had a great deal of discretion in how to achieve this, and acquiring an unremarkable job in and unremarkable suburban town with a wife and a child seemed the sensible strategy. What I did not account for in my calculations was that Mary WIlson, your mother, was a remarkable being. I do not know how, but we were able to reproduce and you were brought into existence. By cruel, but nonetheless random, chance Mary died on the eve of my mission coming to an end. I notified my superiors and explained the situation, including that my young child would be left alone by my return and they were quite understanding. They agreed to extend my research expedition by one Earth decade.
“I would have chosen to take you with me, but I could not bring myself to take you from a world you understood and where you belonged to an alien place. But you are old enough to go forward on your own now and I must go home. Remember, in one sense or another, I will always be watching you.”
Make of it what you will. Certainly over the years I’ve tried to make sense of it.
Rob picked up the phone and dialed. His father answered.
“You said nothing?” he asked his father.
“I said nothing,” he replied. “I thought he had lost his marbles or it was some elaborate jape, though I’d never known the old man to have a sense of humour. It wasn’t. I never saw him again.”
“Huh”, was all Rob could muster.
“My one regret,” his father continued, “was that when he leaned forward to embrace me, I pulled away. And so he walked away, leaving me dumbstruck and perplexed. When I got home I found, neatly laid out on the dining room table, the deed to the house; details of a small trust fund that paid for my education; and a book from the Greytown Public Library by Niels Bohr called ‘Atomic Physics and the Description of Nature’ open on page 57 and that famous line about particles underscored in pencil. There was a note to return it before the end of the week.”
The pause was uncomfortable but finally Rob blurted out the obvious question: “Why had you not told me this before?”
“What good could have come from it,” sighed his father.
Father and son stayed on the line for another minute listening to the other breathe. Then they said their goodbyes.
On the way home, Rob dropped in at the Public Library. The dusty red brick building had been a cornerstone of the town for over a century, and against the odds, thrived in the age of the Internet due to the generous support of a private trust. Its stock — rather than whimsically rotated according to the dictates of fashion — remained immaculately preserved and diligently curated, and card-indexed under the Dewey Decimal System. It did not take the librarian long to find their copy of Niels Bohr’s book.
“Wow. You’re the first person to check this book out since the 1970s,” said the clerk as he stamped the form on the flap.
Rob drove to his father’s house. The older man had not seen the book since he was half the age that his son was now. He opened it. A jolt of energy made the hair on his arms stand up as he touched the last object of this earth to share an interaction with his father. In that moment the son of the father and his own son knew the truth of the matter.
“Did he say why he was here?” asked the son.
“He did tell me,” said Robert Smith. “I just didn’t realise it at the time. They glanced at the page before them. Still underlined in fading pencil was the statement:
Isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems.
“What does that mean?” asked Rob.
“On the surface it means that quantum theory says almost nothing about isolated particles,” replied his father.
“I’m not sure that I understand that,” Rob conceded.
“I could not understand how a TV repairman might draw meaning from that. It made no sense to me in terms of the question I was trying to answer. For a long time I could think of nothing else, and I must confess in dark moments over the years this phrase has occupied my mind. But it is clear now. He was telling me the truth.
For indeed, Bob Smith, galactic observer, had come and gone from Earth leaving no mark, unremarked and unremarkable, and, were it not for the interactions he had with others around him, he might never have been noticed at all.
The two men sat in silence as the light faded, and the only illumination was the glow of the television screen flickering quietly in the corner of the room.