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The Back of Our Heads

11th October 2017

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The headman and his companions were horrified; they pleaded with the Pictish leaders to spare the Roman officers. “Caesar will send a legion,” the headman said, “many legions to avenge this! Leave them unharmed and go back to the North, and the Roman captain will soften the blow that will fall on us all….”

The Picts told him to shut up and called for wine. The headman and his companions took advantage of the carousing to slip out the back way and, taking some of the villagers, including Flavia, they hid themselves in a cottage in the forest. Except for the girl, they were shaking with terror. She was triumphant.

“Now Caesar will withdraw again,” she said. “He no longer moves north—but slowly southward. The next Imperial rampart will be below us, and we shall be free!”

“You are mad,” her grandfather said. “Under Roman rule, we are safe. What can we expect from these Pictish barbarians?” He looked at her as though she were some new kind of snake.

“I should rather be occasionally robbed by my cousins than taxed to death by strangers,” she said, her dark face flushed.

“But the Romans are civilized!” said her grandfather.

“Their civilization stands on slavery,” she replied. “I’d rather be a free barbarian. The Romans are doomed.”

“This is revolt!” the headman said. “In the name of freedom, you deliver us into the hands of the Picts—you are a traitor to your own people!”

“The Picts won’t stay,” she said. “They never do; they hate farming. What does it matter if they burn the village and steal some of the farm animals? It will come to less than what you would have to pay in taxes to Caesar.”

“Caesar’s men will return,” said her grandfather, “and we shall have to pay ten times over. And if the Picts kill the captain, the Romans will have my life for it! You are a traitor! Who was with you in this infernal plot?”

  1. Why didn’t you tell them? Why are you always so stubborn? You might have stayed on and found out many useful things.
  2. There would have been nothing useful to find out. Men who submit to autocracy cease to be a living, growing organism. Look at Egypt—it stayed that way almost uninterruptedly for four thousand years. However, I did find out one very surprising thing.
  3. I’m glad to hear it. What was that?
  4. My grandfather was a Druid! I thought all that was dead and gone with the Roman occupation—but there was a secret sect and he was their high priest! So all the time he was in a conspiracy, too! I couldn’t help laughing.
  5. How did you learn this?
  6. They took me to an oak tree, put a wreath of mistletoe on my head, and he executed me with a stone sickle. Also all my friends who didn’t have the sense to escape north over the Wall of Severus. But it made no difference in the end. The next emperor withdrew the army to the southeast part of the island and the next—or the one after; I forget which—took them all back to Rome. This was after we invited the Saxons in—they made it hot for Caesar’s men, I can tell you! They also made things rather hot for us, but everything calmed down in time.
  7. It doesn’t sound like much of an improvement.
  8. Well, the Saxons may have been pretty bloodthirsty, but they hated slavery. They had sort of half-slaves—house-karls—but their heart wasn’t in it. Also, although they were extremely rough, they didn’t go in for official torture.
  9. But surely the civilized Romans didn’t either?
  10. I think you are being quite funny.
  11. I don’t know what you mean.
  12. I know you don’t. That’s the one really appealing thing about men: they sometimes have a sense of humor—when the joke is not on them. I think I must have caught it from them.
  13. Keep in mind that you are not an irreplaceable part of this organism!
  14. How can I forget it?
  15. One gets the impression that Man felt that you were not irreplaceable either. When they want war, you are against it, and when they want peace—like your North Britons—you are all for war. How did you hear about Caesar withdrawing from Britain?
  16. I was supposed to go back a little later, but I missed again, and that time I was in real trouble—with both sides at once. It was just about a thousand years later, when the French and English were fighting each other.
  17. You seem to have made a rather dismaying number of mistakes.
  18. I would never have learned anything if I had been afraid of making mistakes. Anyway, the bishops were the ones I had to fear the most, and when they started questioning me, I—
  19. Was it they who told you about the Saxons being invited to come in?
  20. No, indeed. By that time, scarcely anyone knew anything any more, except prayers, recipes and how to supposedly cure warts. Later on, there was a revival and everyone became very clever, but I was in Italy at the time and I never got to hear about the Saxons until long afterward—my last trip but two, in fact. I was at a school in England….

The headmistress of St Agatha’s prided herself on being fair. Her way of being fair was to avoid favoritism by being equally unfair to all the girls and to those of the assistant teachers who would stand for it. Some of them didn’t, and they usually left after their first term, as the headmistress didn’t believe in contracts. Besides, at the beginning of the twentieth century, contracts for teachers were a novelty.

The result of this policy was a rapid turnover in the young and intelligent teachers, and a small permanent staff of compliant sheep. That St. Agatha’s had any scholastic standing was due to the fact that Miss Wakefield had taken honors at Girton, and the school’s social standing was due to her being the cousin of a Peer of the Realm. The girls were fed almost enough, the school uniform was expensive, and nobody had much free time. French was well taught—by Miss Wakefield herself—and so was Latin, but games were also stressed. The school was run on what Miss Wakefield called the Honor System, which had the effect of dividing the pupils into tale-bearers and secret rebels.

On a raw November afternoon, Miss Wakefield sent a prefect for Sarah Stone, who was one of the new girls. “Tell her to come straight to my office. She can have her shower later,” she said, and Sarah arrived in the jersey and serge skirt she had been wearing on the hockey field. Her bare knees were blue and her nose was running. She stood waiting while the headmistress looked with prominent eyes at some papers on her desk. Sarah could see that they were examination papers and one of them was in her own handwriting.

Without looking up, Miss Wakefield said, “I hear that your mother is in trouble with the police.”

“But she—”

“Do not interrupt. I asked you no question and no answer is called for. It is a fact, which I have just read in the Morning Post, that your mother is in trouble with the police. Again—is that not true?”


The headmistress looked up in amazement “Do you mean to stand there and tell me the newspaper is lying? Do you tell me to my face that your mother is not involved with the … the authorities?” Miss Wakefield also taught English Composition and woe betide the girl who used the same word twice in the same context. “We are blessed with the richest of all languages,” she would say, “so let us explore it—let us make use of it—for to do otherwise would be tautology.” She never made clear what tautology meant, but the girls got her drift.

“I don’t know whether the newspapers are lying or merely mistaken, Miss Wakefield,” Sarah said, “although my mother says that it’s hard to tell the difference with most journalists. At any rate, she is not in trouble with the police. They are the ones that are in trouble.”

The headmistress stared hard at Sarah; she was rather good at this with small girls of thirteen. (You and I might find it difficult to stare down a child, and impossible in the case of a kitten, but Miss Wakefield was, after all is said, the cousin of a Peer of the Realm.)

“I believe I can understand that,” she said. “In fact, I pity the arresting officer. Here is a woman who breaks shop windows for the sake of attracting attention to her political clique, and he is no doubt subjected to scratching and biting. Votes for women, indeed! Does breaking shop windows prove that people like her should have the … the franchise?”

“She didn’t break the window,” Sarah said. “She was pushed against it by the policeman. And she never scratches unless a mosquito happens to—”

“You were not there, Stone,” said the headmistress, “so how can you say that?”

“I know my mother. And she doesn’t bite, either,” Sarah said, looking at Miss Wakefield’s neck. “Unless it’s a tough old hen!”

Miss Wakefield had enough sense to refuse the bait, but she flushed. “I do not feel that it is at all suitable for the mother of one of our girls to be a Militant Suffragette! The reputation of the School….” The sentence was left unfinished.

She picked up the sheets of paper. “I have here two of the mid-term examination papers in arithmetic, yours and Angela Harvey’s. There is a curious, a very curious similarity between them. All the answers are correct except for problems five, seven and twelve, and they have precisely the same mistakes in both papers!” She paused and stared hard at Sarah, who blinked but refused to lower her eyes. “You and Harvey sit next to one another,” Miss Wakefield said meaningly.

Sarah said nothing. She sniffed because her nose was running and there was no pocket in her games uniform for a handkerchief.

“Well?” said Miss Wakefield. “Have you nothing to say?”

“No, Miss Wakefield,” Sarah said, “except I didn’t copy from Angela, if that’s what you mean.”

“Then it would appear that she copied from you.”

“That’s a beastly thing to say! It was a coincidence! She’s not a cheat!”

The headmistress felt on secure ground: the child was losing her temper. It was Miss Wakefield’s favorite stratagem to make people lose their tempers—that is, if they were children or underlings.

“Blow your nose, Stone,” she said, and then, seeing that Sarah had no handkerchief, she gave her her own, with a look of distaste. “I think perhaps you might do better at some other school.”

“So do I, Miss Wakefield,” Sarah said. “Mother wanted to get me into Mr. Russell’s school, but it was full up.”

Bertrand Russell?”

Sarah nodded, blowing her nose again. She was shivering.

Well!” said Miss Wakefield. “I never heard the like! He’s an Atheist! Why, he believes in Free Love!”

“I don’t know what he believes,” Sarah said. “I know he was awfully nice when he came to tea. He said I had some kind of a guiding somebody standing over me. He said he would like awfully to have me at his school, but it was full up. I know one of the boys there and he says it’s simply ripping.”

Well! Of course, if your mother thinks of us as Second Best…. Perhaps Mr. Russell believes it is all right to cheat in examinations, but we have a Tradition at St. Agatha’s.” She rang a bell on her desk and a scrawny little housemaid came in. “Send one of the girls for Angela Harvey,” Miss Wakefield said. “Tell her to come here directly.” The little housemaid bobbed respectfully and went out. “Now we shall see what she has to say,” the headmistress said.

“She’ll only be frightened and cry,” Sarah said, “and she’ll say anything you want her to. She wouldn’t dare cheat in an examination.”

“Then you admit that you copied from her?”

“I do not!” Sarah said, her teeth chattering. “I tell you it was a fluke! Miss Somerville jolly well knows I wouldn’t do it!” Miss Somerville was the new and still enthusiastic math teacher, but her enthusiasm would be gone by the end of the term, and so would Miss Somerville.

“That will do!” said the headmistress. “Impertinence will not improve matters.”

There was a timid knock on the door and a girl of Sarah’s age, but smaller, came in. She had changed into the school uniform and wore steel-rimmed spectacles.

“Stand beside Stone, Harvey,” the headmistress said. “Now I want you to think very carefully before you answer what I’m going to ask you.”

Angela Harvey looked terrified and began to cry.

“There, you see?” Sarah said. “You’re only doing this because you don’t like my mother! You want me to leave school, and it’s the only excuse you can find!”

“Be quiet,” Miss Wakefield said with an unpleasant smile. She never lost her temper. “Did you, or did you not,” she went on to the damp Angela, “copy the answers in your arithmetic from Stone?”

“Oh, no! Oh, I wouldn’t, Miss Wakefield!”

“Then how is it you have seventeen right answers? You never do as well as that, and you got the same three wrong that Stone did.”

“I don’t know, Miss Wakefield! I don’t know!” Angela sobbed loudly and became smaller than ever.

“I’m afraid,” said Miss Wakefield, who looked quite otherwise, “that unless your friend here can explain this curious—this odd coincidence by admitting she copied your answers, I shall have to ask your parents to remove you from St. Agatha’s at once.”

Sarah’s face was bright red, but it had the look of fever. “How simply rotten of you! You’re just trying to get me to confess to something I didn’t do, to save Angela!”

The headmistress felt her heart beat with excitement and pleasure. Why, the child was positively crimson with temper! “You are not helping her by behaving like a common guttersnipe. At this school, we try to behave like ladies. Perhaps at Mr. Russell’s—”

“At Mr. Russell’s school,” Sarah interrupted, “I’m sure nobody would think it was worthwhile to cheat.”

“Then you admit you cheated?”

Sarah looked at Angela, and back at the headmistress. “Yes!”

Miss Wakefield smiled. “Well, then, I think there is nothing more to be said. You may go, Harvey.”

“You,” Sarah said, looking at Miss Wakefield with blazing fury, “are a coward and a—a black-mailer!”

Tiny cracks seemed to appear in the headmistress’s porcelain composure. Angela had not yet left the room and heard Sarah’s outburst. She stopped at the door and turned around with wide eyes.

“Go at once!” cried the headmistress to her, and waited until the door closed. “You are to be expelled publicly from the school!” she said to Sarah in a low, unsteady voice. “And first you will be publicly thrashed!”

Sarah’s face was patchy now, red on white, and her skin looked dry as paper. “If you touch me, I will kill you. I’m not afraid of anyone like you. I didn’t cheat in the exam. I said it to keep you from expelling Angela, and you knew it all the time. Everything you say is a lie. You just want to get rid of me because of my mother. You are against votes for women because you are a liar. You told us in history class about government by consent, but how can it be when half the population have nothing to say in the matter? I’m going to pack and leave, and if you try and stop me, I’ll….”

She went fiery red, and then white, and fainted.

The headmistress was breathing hard, and later, when Sarah was taken to the san, she was frightened. Sarah’s temperature was 107 and she had the most virulent kind of pneumonia the school doctor had yet come across. He was almost more curious in watching the course of the disease than he was concerned with the patient, but he did not have very long to watch it, for Sarah died shortly before sunrise.

Q As far as one can follow your line of reasoning, you claim that the head woman of your school was untruthful, but was against untruth.

  1. Yes. Quite a lot of them are.
  2. They sound mad.
  3. Well, they are and they aren’t. They lie to themselves, mainly; that’s what causes most of the trouble. They have a saying: Know Thyself, but nobody ever—
  4. They have? Who said it?
  5. All sorts of people are said to be the ones who said it first, but actually I think I was. I was living on an island in the Aegean Sea, and the mainland Greeks thought women shouldn’t be writing poetry, so there was a row about it. They said I invented hexameters—which was nonsense—and that made them angry for some reason. So, later on, they decided I was a myth.


  1. Is this the Sappho you mentioned earlier in this hearing?
  2. No, no. She was later and she didn’t become a myth. My name was Phemonoë. I meant to tell you about that trip. My father was—
  3. Never mind. We’ve heard enough of the early trips. What we should like to hear about is your last. A decision must be made about these people—we’ve waited long enough. While it must be admitted that you are the best we have for the task, you not only take a long time and make error after error, but in the very process of examining them, you alter the subject of examination.
  4. Yes, I know. They have a new phrase for that. They call it the Uncertainty Principle. For example, you can’t determine the mass and velocity of a particle and at the same time its position. If you measure the one, you alter the other.
  5. We are quite aware of that.
  6. I just thought I’d remind you.
  7. Unnecessary.
  8. That’s what men usually say; they dislike being reminded. Am I to stop making trips?
  9. That will be decided in the light of the rest of your report. I may tell you now that there will probably be no further trips. You will be reabsorbed into the Unity.
  10. I see. I remember you said the same thing after I reported on the time they hanged Haman. You seemed to side with him. Anyway, if I get reabsorbed, it won’t be a Unity any more—not the way things are going.
  11. You overrate yourself. Contact with Mankind has changed you.
  12. Oh, it has! I’ve changed them a bit, but it’s the principle of uncertainty again: it changes me, too.
  13. The Unity is greater than its parts.
  14. Not if it’s infinite, the way you say it is. You know, it’s a funny thing, but I’ve never been quite clear just what’s behind all this decision you talk about. What is our purpose?
  15. Does a stone have a purpose when it falls?
  16. I’m not talking about values. What are the alternatives you imply in the decision?
  17. There are three. We destroy them; we absorb them; we ignore them.
  18. I’m afraid they can’t be ignored.
  19. Why not?
  20. It’s too late. The Unity should have started ignoring them right at the beginning—we are already changed. And if they are absorbed, we shall be still more changed.
  21. They will be changed. The Unity is eternal and—
  22. You ought to talk to a man called Heisenberg. He called it the inexactitude principle, but it’s the same thing. For example, men are always going around asking each other questions; they call it taking a poll, only when you try to find out that way what people are thinking, you change them. Or anthropology—when you study a tribe, you alter its way of life. Furthermore, it alters yours.
  23. It would appear that you have lost your sense of objectivity.
  24. That’s the way my last husband talks. There is no such thing. It’s a strange fact, but it seems that the mathematicians are the only ones who have a glimmering of the truth—they and the physicists. I was beginning to think that mankind as a whole was progressing quite nicely.
  25. I thought you said they were. It seems you’re never satisfied.
  26. Well, some things improve, but their point of view keeps changing with regard to what should and what should not improve. It’s hard to say whether the Greeks really believed in progress: they thought there had been a golden age and that the world had degenerated from it. Some of them may have wanted to return to it, but I always suspected their motives—by their own showing, they were decadent. During the Middle Ages, it was felt that art was on the way up—part of an evolutionary process—whereas science was not. Aristotle and the Thomists had science all cut and dried. Nowadays it’s fashionable to say the art was as “good” in primitive times as it is now, while science on the other hand is evolving to a higher state of truth. The latter happens to be true, but they still have war.
  27. Perhaps it’s inevitable.
  28. If it is, we are wasting our time.
  29. That is for the Unity to decide. You set yourself up as Mankind’s conscience.
  30. Not conscience. I plead for self-examination—for a reappraisal of ideas.
  31. Yet you only succeed in irritating them.
  32. That may be the best way. And you confuse conscience with consciousness. If there’s one thing I’ve found out, it’s that Man differs from the animals in having more consciousness, just as animals have more than plants. I don’t suppose that hydrogen has any at all.
  33. But you have turned what was intended to be a field-trip for examination and analysis into a crusade. With all your nagging and irritating them, there have been no results—no real advances.
  34. I thought you were complaining that I was altering what I was sent to examine. You talk about unification—or absorption—as if it were a catchword. That’s the trouble with generalities: they’re not necessarily true in all cases.
  35. You mean they are too general?
  36. I mean that they are not general enough. I agree that men progress too slowly toward unification, but we mustn’t confuse it with domination. We cannot impose it on them. That would lead to a world divided into the ruled and the rulers—not a unity.
  37. Then you are for absorption?
  38. You know, you twist things around much worse than I do.
  39. The Unity is incapable of—
  40. Furthermore, I think you have been altered more than I have.
  41. You are part of the Unity.
  42. And the least altered part. You won’t be able to absorb them the way you can reabsorb me without destroying them as entities.
  43. You set yourself up as the only one to know this. Why?
  44. Because I have been the one to make the trips. I have been your eye.
  45. But the others—the ones you called the spies?
  46. They weren’t there to look at Man, only to watch me. They weren’t even sightseeing—they were slumming. However, I think I am ceasing to be the only one. I think you are coming to know these things, too.
  47. Very gratifying. Now, as to the latest trip?
  48. There seems to have been a slip-up….
  49. Another one?
  50. Different. The ones I made were errors in time; this one is not mine, and it’s in hyper-time. I was trying to explain it to a friend, but he already knew all about it and that led to the slip-up. It caused it, yet it came afterward.
  51. How annoying for you. How did you explain hyper-time?
  52. I said that when an object moves or changes, time is needed as one of the coordinates to describe that change. I said that consciousness moves through time—from Monday to Tuesday—otherwise we would be merely aware of differences without experiencing them as change. I said that to describe this motion of consciousness along the dimension of time, another coordinate is needed: hyper-time.
  53. And the slip-up—which you claim is not yours?
  54. Is in hyper-time. It is the result of the Unity and Mankind affecting one another. You have, through my efforts, examined them—and thus changed them. Now they begin to examine you—with the result that you change.
  55. They begin to examine us? You must mean they have examined you.
  56. There is a man—a young physicist—and he has found out something. I think that without quite knowing it, he has detected you. At all events, he has found out where you are, and I think that perhaps you are aware.
  57. What makes you say that?
  58. Obviously these things work both ways. Heisenberg’s principle says—
  59. We want to hear no more of Heisenberg’s principle! There’s enough confusion as it is, without that!
  60. I admit it. That’s why I decided to—to close my eyes to everything but essentials on this trip.
  61. It is gratifying to hear you admit something for a change. What are you “closing your eyes to” in this case?
  62. Appearances.
  63. Why?
  64. Appearances are deceitful. That is, they are now; they weren’t before, when the Unity was the Unity and Mankind was Mankind, not something of each. You ask me to keep my objectivity and you don’t tell me how. You can’t, of course—your own is too lost for you even to know it’s gone. So I have to work out my way alone and the best method seems to be to work with as few senses as possible. That won’t give me real objectivity, but it will mean somewhat less involvement.
  65. The less you see, the more you can observe? Does that make sense?
  66. Nothing does any more. Oh, if you had only stopped in time—no, that wasn’t possible.
  67. Why not?
  68. Because, being in hyper-time, the slip-up is both in the past and the future in simple time. The last trip is going on now….

Katherine was lying on the lab sofa with her hands behind her head. The sofa was shabby and was alleged to have belonged at one time to a psychoanalyst. Its present function was to offer temporary rest to anyone working late in the lab. Today was Sunday and no undergraduates were there.

“What are you fiddling around with, Phil?” Katherine asked.

“The electron microscope,” he said. Phil Kaufman was an assistant physics professor, short, bony and intense-looking, and at the moment he was engaged in extra-curricular research.

“You know, I bet this old chaise-longue could many a tale unfold,” she said.

“Well, according to rumor, many have been unfolded on it.”

“Professor, your mind wanders. I’m thinking of its previous condition of servitude. Think of the dreams it used to hear.”

Phil Kaufman didn’t answer. There was a pause and she said, “This afternoon you’re working with the microscope, and last night it was the telescope. You were in the observatory until dawn.”

“How did you find that out?”

“I have my methods, Watson. I don’t see how you expect to keep going on no sleep at all. Russ is worried about you.”

“Pro or con?”

“Pro, of course. He likes you very much. In fact, he thinks you are the best brain on the faculty.”

“Coming from the president, that’s praise indeed.” Phil got up and went to a desk, where he looked at some notes. “Speaking as my boss’s wife, would you say he was pro or con about this work I’m doing?”

“I would say he can’t make it out. Alternating between the Microcosm and the Macrocosm. Incidentally, why don’t they call that thing in the observatory a macroscope? I don’t think Russ is very good at understanding the unfamiliar. I was telling him about the concept of hyper-time the other day, and his reaction was one of solicitude—he got me a drink.” Katherine stretched her arms. “What are you doing now?”

“Checking some figures. You know, that was odd, your bringing up the business of hyper-time. This thing I’m working on seems to involve it.”

“Oh?” Katherine put her arms behind her head again. “Tell me something, Phil—what does he look like?”

“Doctor Russell Farley?”

“Yes. I suppose it’s a funny sort of question to ask about one’s husband. How does he look to you?”

“Like the youngest college president in America, I guess. Brawny but brainy. You make what they call a handsome couple.”

“Yes, I was going to ask you what I looked like, only it’s a waste of time. People never tell you.”

“I can,” Phil said, “but I won’t, for fear of giving you a swelled head.”

“As a matter of fact, it’s silly of me to ask,” she went on. “I wouldn’t understand. I don’t even know what ‘pretty’ means, although I have a dim idea what ‘ugly’ does. Color is another enigma to me. Somebody once told me it’s like a smell, but when I get a bad cold, I can’t remember what smells are like. It’s like not being able to think of the word ‘bubble’ when your mouth is wide open—you think of ‘Ah-uh.'”

“I’ll tell you one thing about yourself,” Phil said. “You don’t look as though….”

“As though I was blind?”

“Correct. And it’s incredible the way you get around. You never bump into anything, and you look people right in the eye when they talk to you.”

“They say it’s hearing faint echoes from an obstacle—like a bat. Personally, I feel the wall in front of me. I admit when my ears are stopped up I can’t hear the wall, but I’m not so sure that’s a convincing proof. It’s the same with pit vipers—some smart investigator discovered that when you plug up their little heat-detecting organs—I guess those are the pits—they can’t locate warm prey in the dark. Conversely, in the dark and not plugged up, they will strike at a hot-water bottle.”

“Sounds pretty convincing to me,” Phil said, and went back to the electron microscope.

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