Strange thigs are happening to Arthur Mills and he hasn't even had breakfast. Science fiction short story

The Butterfly Effect

Short Stories

Have you ever been stuck in a time warp before breakfast?

The subject, or maybe the victim of our story, goes by the unprepossessing name of Arthur Mills. He is in fact unremarkable in many of his characteristics and those that do make him noticeable are not necessarily his most attractive.

Arthur is currently a guest in a hotel in Berkshire but if you were to ask him why he was currently resident at that particular hotel, or indeed any hotel, he probably would not be able to give you an answer.

‘Good morning Sir are you checking out?’ The receptionist smiled; the same strange mechanical grimace that Arthur had noticed when he checked in.

‘Err — No I haven’t had breakfast yet. It is free isn’t it?’ Arthur peered at her name badge — Sindy with an S. Perhaps to differentiate her from the doll? Although the thought occurred to him that with her impossibly long legs, straight blonde hair and vacant expression the S may possibly be the only difference.

‘It is sir.’

‘And . . . where . . . is . . . the restaurant?’

‘Breakfast is served in the garden room sir.’

‘Which is?’

‘Through the green doors marked garden room sir.’

‘Good morning sir — your table.’ The waiter indicated a table beside what appeared to be the door to the kitchens.

For a moment Arthur wondered whether the waiter’s name was Ken. He looked around the nearly empty room. The man obviously wanted to sit him close to the kitchen so he did not have to walk too far. ‘I’d rather sit by the window.’

‘The window?’ The waiter raised his nose an inch.

‘Yes, by the window. I mean there is only one other guest in here so you’re not short of seats.’

The waiter glided to the other side of the restaurant ‘Your table sir.’

Arthur sat down and looked across at the only other guest who was sitting two tables away tapping on a laptop keyboard. ‘Morning.’ Arthur said.

‘Morning.’ The man did not look up.

‘Your bacon and eggs sir,’ said the waiter, placing the plate in front of Arthur.

‘But I haven’t ordered yet.’

‘Haven’t ordered yet?’ The waiter’s voice was oddly stilted, almost mechanical.

‘No — I’d actually like smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.’ Arthur pushed the plate towards the waiter. ‘Ow. That’s hot.’

The waiter picked it up, apparently unconcerned by the heat, swivelled around and walked away with a strange bouncing gait that left Arthur wondering if human-like robots had been perfected whilst he was asleep. That’ll upset the Eastern Europeans he thought.

Arthur looked across at the man again.

‘How does he carry that without a cloth; he must have asbestos fingers?’

There was no response and the man continued typing.

‘Are you here on business or on holiday?’ Arthur raised his voice slightly.

‘I came here to work.’ The man still did not look up.

‘Oh,’ Arthur said.

‘Because it’s quiet.’ The man stopped typing.

‘So what do you do?’

‘I’m a writer.’

Arthur was about to ask what the man wrote but noticed that he was now totally absorbed in whatever he was typing again.

He looked around — there was no sign of the waiter. ‘What’s he doing, catching it? He said loudly. ‘Oh I think I’ll skip breakfast; too much hotel food is not good for the waistline. It looks like it’s going to be a nice day — I think I’ll go for a stroll.’

The writer did not look up as Arthur wandered out of the garden room and into the reception.

The hotel was a curious mixture of stylish modern furniture housed in a large, gloomy, Victorian house. Even the reception seemed to manage to remain dark, despite facing a large wrought iron conservatory on the front of the building.

He looked around; a television bolted to the wall above a group of sofas was showing 24-hour news but there were no other guests to be seen. Had an effusive interior designer actually planned the look or had the owners just picked up mismatched items on eBay he wondered? It looked like the hastily assembled set of a play by an amateur dramatic society.

‘Good morning sir are you checking out?’ The receptionist looked at Arthur.

‘No. Don’t you ever turn any lights on in this place; I mean how can you see what you are doing?

Somebody ought to clean that conservatory roof; that might let a bit more light in.

There was a distant rumble of thunder followed by a loud series of splats. Arthur looked up; storm clouds loomed in the sky above the conservatory and large drops of rain made a sound like pebbles hitting the rippled panes of glass.

‘I thought the forecast for today was good,’ Arthur said, still looking up; the clouds seemed to be descending towards him and he had the uneasy feeling that a bolt of lightning might pierce the flimsy partition at any moment.

‘It was your decision,’ the receptionist replied.


‘Would you like to order now?’ Said a voice close to his ear.

‘Jesus.’ Arthur jumped and turned to see the waiter a few inches behind him. ‘Do you have to creep up on people like that?’

‘Do you want breakfast, sir?’ The waiter asked blandly.

‘No,’ Arthur snapped, ‘I’ve changed my mind.’

‘You don’t want breakfast?’

‘No, I don’t want breakfast.’ Arthur was aware that he was shouting.

‘Your bacon and eggs sir’

‘Why am I sat at this table?’ Arthur asked.

‘I do not understand Sir.’

‘Why am I here?’

‘Presumably to eat breakfast,’ the waiter said helpfully.

‘But I don’t want any breakfast.’

‘Do you just want to sit here Sir?’ The waiter looked confused.

‘No — I — I was in the reception.’

The waiter’s left eyebrow twitched. ‘Yes, and now you are in the dining room — where we serve breakfast.’

Arthur wondered if the waiter was actually a robot would he be capable of sarcasm?

He really had gone right off the idea of breakfast. Flinging his napkin down on the table he pushed past the waiter and marched towards the reception. He glanced over his shoulder warily as he went through the door but the waiter was just standing staring vacantly after him.

‘Good morning sir are you checking out?’

‘No, I am not checking out.’

Rain was already hammering on the conservatory roof but Arthur’s attention was caught by the headline ‘Financial Meltdown’ on the television news. A harassed looking female reporter was standing outside the Bank of England gesticulating at the building and talking excitedly into a microphone. Behind her, an almost continuous stream of men in dark suits were entering through one door whilst almost identical men were exiting through another.

Arthur smiled; were they the same men simply briskly walking through the foyer and out again? He could not hear what the commentator was saying but the ticker tape scrolling along the bottom of the screen proclaimed millions wiped off shares and that the pound, dollar and Yuan were all competing to see which could hit the lowest all-time low.

‘I’m glad I haven’t got any stocks or shares,’ Arthur said jovially to the receptionist.

She raised her head and then swivelled it to look directly at him. ‘I was your decision,’ she said mechanically.

‘Well actually it wasn’t . . .’ Arthur was distracted by the noise of the rain on the conservatory roof suddenly stopping.

He glanced back at the TV. The same reporter was now interviewing a grinning man who seemed to be spending most of his time trying to look down her cleavage. The caption announced that he played for a football team Arthur had never heard of.

‘Well Danny, Hampshire Wanderers have had a great season so far.’

‘Yeah well, you know Lucy.’

‘And what are your predictions for the future.’

‘Uh, yeah, well . . . I might buy a Ferrari.’

Did you see . . .?’ Arthur said in the general direction of the receptionist as he scanned the scrolling news. There was no word of the crash.

‘Your bacon and eggs sir.’

‘Oh for God’s sake.’ Arthur grabbed the menu from the table in front of him and waved it under the waiter’s nose. ‘I ordered smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. Does that say smoked salmon and scrambled eggs?’ He pointed at the card.

The waiter rotated his head and looked at the menu but did not answer.

‘Then that is what I want — smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.’ He was conscious that he was starting to sound like a petulant child but he had never made a scene in a restaurant before. He couldn’t remember making a scene anywhere but he was sure there were so many times when he had put up with poor service; when he had made excuses for lazy staff; they were busy; they did not understand; they were poorly paid. Well now, this man only had him and one other guest who was totally absorbed in his laptop to serve so he, Arthur Mills, was finally going to stand up for the little guy and make a scene. He felt a little piece of him was starting to enjoy it. ‘Capiche?’ he added with what he hoped was a Godfather like flourish.

The waiter turned and, without a word, bounced off towards the kitchens.

‘Have you seen the news?’ Arthur said to the man opposite.

The man sighed and looked up, ‘The news?’

‘Yes, the news about the financial crash?’

‘Didn’t that happen in 2008?’ The man said.

‘No, the latest one.’

‘It’s news to me. Are you sure you’re not thinking of the past?’ The man looked back down at his laptop.

Arthur looked past him through the dining room door and into the reception . . . where he had been standing. Was that in the past or was his life repeating?

He fumbled in his pocket and grabbed his phone. He tapped BBC news. There was nothing about stock market crashes or the end of the financial world. He remembered the TV and, hoping that the waiter would not assume he had left when he finally came back with his breakfast, leapt up and ran through into the reception.

There was nothing on the television about financial chaos but this time it seemed that global warming had accelerated.

The screen was filled with the face of an anxious journalist; oddly it seemed to be the same one who was outside the Bank of England. She was reporting from a helicopter and the camera panned around to reveal that they were hovering over vast acres of floods from which only the occasional church spire protruded. Her words were drowned out by the now ferocious rain and hailstones that were bombarding the hotel’s conservatory roof but the ticker tape pronounced that large areas of East Anglia, many low-lying islands and Holland were now underwater.

‘Bloody hell,’ Arthur said out loud. He looked down at his phone; there was nothing about a global catastrophe. He looked back at the TV; where did they find all these footballers to interview?

‘Your bacon and eggs sir.’

Arthur ignored the waiter. Suppose he was stuck in a time loop. Not a normal train of thought for a Monday morning unless you are Dr Who or Captain Kirk he had to admit but it seemed to him to be a reasonable assumption; although a more likely explanation would have been that he was dreaming or sleepwalking. After all time loops might be as common as aggressive aliens in science fiction but they are not often, if ever, encountered in real life. None of Arthur’s friends had ever posted on Facebook ‘sorry couldn’t make the party — got stuck in a time loop’ and there had never been an item on the news saying that the NHS was a mess because the health secretary was stuck in a time loop; although he had to admit that scenario did seem a little more feasible. There was of course one other explanation . . .

‘Excuse me . . .’ Arthur looked at the man typing opposite.

The man looked up.

‘Are you writing this? Arthur asked.

The man sighed again. ‘Well… yes’

‘Does that mean I’m fictional?’

‘ — mostly, although you are loosely based on me.’

‘So what’s this about?’

‘It’s about making decisions and how they affect our lives and those around us. Have you heard of the butterfly effect? The idea that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world will eventually cause a hurricane on the other.’

‘So what I have for breakfast could affect the future?’

‘Almost certainly. Maybe millions of people eating bacon and eggs tips the world into global warming; maybe that salmon you want was due to poison the next Hitler or it could just be that you don’t eat the grilled tomato, the waiter drops it on the floor, the kitchen porter slips on it, bangs his head, has to spend a day in hospital, doesn’t meet the love of his life and fails to father the next Einstein — but then the smoked salmon could just give you a stomach upset.’

‘That’s a hell of a responsibility. Maybe I’ll just have the muesli. So why the time loop?’ Arthur said.

‘Well, it is also about the little people; those that get lots of their decisions made for them and are effectively trapped on the ride.’

‘So which am I and what if I don’t want to eat the bacon and eggs?’

The man tapped on the keyboard of his laptop. It occurred to Arthur that there were two possibilities . . .

‘Excuse me . . .’ Arthur said, ‘will you stop doing that.’

‘Doing what?’

‘Writing about me when I’m here.’

‘Sorry but you’re always here when I’m writing about you otherwise it may create something of an existential crisis.’

‘Oh, OK. So what are the two possibilities?’

The man tapped on the keyboard again. It occurred to Arthur that there were two possibilities. One was that he was trapped in this weird hotel as part of some cosmic experiment to see what happened as a result of his breakfast choices and that he would not be let out until he made the right one. The other was that he, Arthur Mills, held the fate of the world in his hands and was being given the gift of foresight to help him make the right choice.

‘So the future of the world is in my hands?’

‘I said that was one of two possibilities that occur to you. The other is that you may just be a lab rat in a cage.’

‘Yes, but the second is more likely. I mean it has to be. But what is the choice?

Smoked salmon or bacon and eggs?’

‘Or muesli.’ The writer smiled.

‘You’re not being very helpful.’


‘Anyway, if you’re writing this you must know what is going to happen.’

‘I’ve no idea. The story is developing as I write it just as your character is starting to
write itself.’

‘So I’m in control of my own destiny as well as the fate of the world.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t go that far. You are a fictional character that is trapped in a hotel in Berkshire which is then contained within a fictional story. I mean I could suddenly decide to go off in a completely different direction.’

‘Your bacon and eggs Sir,’

‘Oh not again,’ Arthur groaned. ‘Look give them here. I’ll just eat the bloody things — especially if it saves the world.’

Arthur could feel a warm breeze in his hair. There was the sound of waves breaking gently in the distance. The writer was sat on the sand with his laptop balanced on his knees.

‘This is nice.’ Arthur said.

‘I thought you’d like it.’

‘So what happens now?’

‘Well I thought I might turn this story into a radio script and we are getting close to the end. ­ I’m trying to make it about fifteen minutes long.’

‘Fifteen minutes — is that all I get? Fifteen minutes in which I have to save the world and eat a breakfast that I don’t really want.’

‘You could say it’s your fifteen minutes of fame.’

‘Oh very funny and what happens if this gets rejected and I end up as a dusty script in the back of a cupboard or even worse a bunch of bytes that get wiped from your computer?’

‘It’s ok, you’re backed up on the cloud.’

‘Oh, cheers, that makes me feel so much better. So, I’ll ask you again, what happens now?’

‘Well. it seems as if you saved the fictional world, if you want to look at it that way, or that you at least made the right decision and kept the world’s governments and multinationals from collapse. Now I guess you stay on this beach.’

‘What forever?’

‘Unless I start writing your character again.’

‘Oo . . . you mean a sequel. Arthur Mills saves the world two. Look if I’m going to be stuck here for a while, well forever, is there any chance of meeting someone nice? You know . . . a girl.’

The writer started tapping on the keyboard. The girl’s floral-patterned dress moved lazily in the warm summer breeze as she walked across the sand and her blonde hair shimmered as if she had just walked out of a shampoo advert. She was a few inches shorter than Arthur and not beautiful but pretty. Her blue eyes sparkled with mischief. She walked up to Arthur. ‘Dobré odpoledne,’ she said.

‘Oh very funny.’ Arthur looked at the writer.

‘You could always learn Czech. OK OK. Delete, delete, delete.’

‘Good afternoon,’ the girl said.

‘Good afternoon,’ Arthur smiled and turned to the writer. ‘Thank you… One more thing.’


‘Could you write ‘And they lived happily ever after?’

‘Oh come on. You’re on a beach with a girl from a shampoo advert and now you want me to add yet another cliché. I’ve got some standards you know.’


‘Oh… OK.’

The writer began to tap on the keyboard. And they lived happily ever after.

Simon Pocklington is an author and photographer. He is a qualified adult learning tutor and runs Creative Writing, Photography and English as a Second Language courses.

©Simon Pocklington 2023.

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