The Vertical Plane: A Ghostly Story of Microcomputers and Time Anomalies
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The Vertical Plane, Ken Webster, HarperCollins, 1989
I didn't say it was possible, I said it happened!'
– Sir William Crookes, talking about psychic DD Home.
Do you like getting emails? What if some of them turned out to be from the distant past? Worse, what if the spam showed up on your computer screen without the aid of a modem? This book describes an annoyingly impossible thing that happened – at least, according to its author and his friends. They have pictures.
According to The Vertical Plane, between 1984 and 1986, economics teacher Ken Webster and his girlfriend Debbie Oakes corresponded with a man named Tomas Hawarden, mostly by computer. What's bothersome about these communications is that they and Tomas lived in the same house – more than 400 years apart. This can't be true, right? No matter what you believe, the book makes for fascinating reading. Unless, of course, you simply can't stand an unsolved mystery.
Fun with a BBC Microcomputer
In 1984, Ken and Debbie moved into Meadow Cottage in Dodleston, Cheshire. It's a really old house, so a lot of renovation was going on. A friend, Nicola Bagguley, stayed with them for a few months. Nic wanted to do some writing, which led Ken to borrow a BBC Microcomputer B from his school for her to type on.
The computer was a boxy thing with a built-in keyboard. It wasn't connected to anything but a power source, a monitor (like a small, old television set, don't think flat-screen), and a floppy disk drive. The word processing program was called EDWORD. To create a document, it was necessary to type on the screen and save to a floppy disk. If the computer was shut off deliberately or by a power interruption, all data not saved to disk would be lost. In other words, this was a fairly primitive device.
The school had lots of these. Whenever Ken wanted to borrow one, he took 'Hobson's Choice', meaning whichever computer was closest to the checkout desk. This gives the experiment that follows a random nature, in case you're worried about anyone interfering with the computer. A lot of people were going to be worrying about this soon.
At first, however, nobody at Meadow Cottage was worried about the computer. They were worried about the poltergeist.
Things That Go Bump
There was a lot of disorder in the cottage and not enough storage space. One day, Ken and Debbie left some cat food tins out when they went to bed. In the morning, the tins had been stacked in a pyramid. No one would admit to having done it, including John, their guitar player (they had a band that practised upstairs). Over time, the stacking of objects and furniture became a regular occurrence. At first, this was amusing, then alarming. Finally they shrugged and let the poltergeist get on with it. They were more upset when it threw bits of copper pipe at them. Debbie got bruises once.
There is a photo of the stacked furniture in the book.
One day Ken became curious about Nic's writing project and decided to give it a read. To his astonishment, he found this message addressed to the inhabitants of Meadow Cottage:
Ken D eb nic
True A re The NIGHTmares Of a pErson T hat FEArs
Safe A re the BODIES Of tHe Silent World
Turn Pr ettY FLowER tuRn TOWARDS The SUN
For You u S Hall Grow aNd SOW
But T he FLOWer Reaches tOo hIgh and withHERS in
The B urning LIght
GET OU T YOU U R BR ICKs
PuSy Cat PUSSy Cat Went To LonDOn TO Seek
Fame aNd FORTUNE
Faith Must NOT Be LOst
For ThiS Shall Be youR REDEEMER.
Needless to say, this was a pretty disturbing message. But communications were off to a start.
Lukas and His Adventures
Over the course of the next couple of years, Ken and Debbie (Nic moved out) carried on an intense correspondence with a man who called himself Lukas. Lukas wrote in an odd sort of antique prose. He claimed to see the 'leems', as he called the microcomputer, in his cottage. Which was Meadow Cottage in 1546. At first, he was suspicious that Ken and Debbie might be 'devyls'. He tested them. Meanwhile, Ken and Debbie were testing Lukas.
Eventually a relationship developed among these three people, who may (or may not) have been on two sides of a time slip. Lukas admitted his real name was Tomas Hawarden. He communicated mostly through the computer, but also wrote in chalk on the cottage floor and even on paper that they left out on the kitchen table, if they also left a pen.
Their communication didn't go unnoticed in the 16th Century. While Lukas' cook and maid couldn't see the 'leems' or any time slip evidence, word got out. Lukas was arrested. Ken and Debbie intervened by threatening the sheriff with blackmail – they knew things about him from the history books. Things he wouldn't want the authorities to find out. Lukas was released from jail, but his days at the cottage were numbered. His landlord gave him only a few months before a threatened eviction.
Meanwhile, a sinister force had entered the conversation. Calling itself 2109, it appeared to be an autonomous collective of entities in the dimension where tachyons dwell. 2109 pretended omniscience. 2109 also threatened, cajoled, and listened in on their conversations, sometimes editing Lukas' messages. To avoid all this kibitzing, Lukas sometimes resorted to pen and paper. (There are photos.)
Ken and Debbie didn't keep the phenomena to themselves. A colleague of Ken's, Peter Trinder, helpfully researched the Early Modern English text in the Oxford English Dictionary. Trips were made to Oxford to verify information provided by Lukas, who had studied there. Then somebody called the Society for Psychical Research.
The Society, also called the SPR, were supposed to be the experts. They tried very hard to debunk the phenomenon of spontaneous 'emails': they failed. They were utterly uninterested in the travails of Lukas/Tomas Hawarden, which was the only thing that mattered to Ken and Debbie. When the SPR failed to explain away the computer mystery, they left in a huff, much to the glee of 2109, who suspected some of the people they'd brought in of working for an organisation whose name began with 'MI'.
Eventually, the newspapers wrote the whole story up, from the local paper to the Schweizerisches Bulletin für Parapsychologie and, of course, the Daily Mail. None of the coverage succeeded in throwing any light on the subject.
The End of the Affair
Ken and Debbie continued to talk to Lukas by computer. Debbie often had startlingly vivid dreams in which she visited their friend in his (their) home. Lukas appeared to be more than half in love with her. He also claimed that when she dreamed about him, he experienced these visitations.
In the end, Lukas had to leave Meadow Cottage. He wrote that he planned to return to Oxford and that he would write down his adventures, conceal the book somewhere in Brasenose College, and hope that the future would find it. For his part, Ken Webster promised to write his version and publish it, which he did. So far, no one has found Lukas' book – but there is still hope.
After Lukas' departure, Ken and Debbie refused to have anything more to do with the chatty tachyons of 2109. They retired the BBC Microcomputer and got on with their lives. When they were interviewed in 1996 for an episode of the British television programme Out of This World, they refused to show their faces. They'd moved on, but insisted that what happened, happened. Impossible or not.