"But I don't believe you!" I blurted, "That's completely impossible!"

I remembered my brandy glass and took a large medicinal swallow.

"What, exactly, is it you don't believe? My impossible age or that I am possibly you?"

"Both! Neither!"

"Really? Do you remember that time in the headmaster's study after you - we - were caught trying to sneak out of bounds to see that gorgeous blond boy in the third form?"

"Michael," I breathed, suddenly caught up in the memory, "Michael the Angel. We called him Michelangelo."

The aged stranger nodded slowly. Was he really my older self? I should have been suspicious but some sense of inevitability nagged at me.

"That was just an aberration!" I said stiffly, "Nothing ever happened."

"I know that. You know that. But do you remember the nickname we got stuck with for years?"

"Diddler," I said promptly, answering the question promptly as if I was back in the classroom, "Diddler D'Eath."

"Indeed," he said with unruffled calm, "And we turned up expecting a beating, wishing we had remembered to collect an exercise book to stuff down the seat of the trousers. You remember the way the Head sat us down by the fire and gave us a talk about growing up and natural urges, and unnatural ones? And how we were so embarrassed that we limped all the way back to the dormitory, and told everybody that we just received six of the best?"

I nodded, again speechless. He turned his head, again listening intently or something like it, then his face returned to mine with those sightless yet somehow piercing eyes.

"You remember thinking, even before you set out on that ill-fated escapade, that being caught was unquestionably inevitable, and that you would be punished? Even though the punishment wasn't quite what you expected? And that ever since that time you have been fascinated with the questions of destiny and free will?"

He was unquestionably correct. After the incident that had embarrassed me so much, I kept my head down in the classroom and in the common room. I completed my schooling with a minimum of fuss and a certain amount of academic distinction, certainly enough to allow me to proceed directly to a very fine University, even though the family name and money would have made that a certainty in any case.

At the College, I read English and Philosophy, sitting up late with my books more often than carousing with my compatriots, gaining a reputation as a studious swot and finally graduating with a double first which I rather think may have taken my tutors something by surprise. After all, persons of my class and wealth are not normally expected to excel at such abstruse academic matters.

I stayed up in Oxford for several years after that, undertaking a number of postgraduate studies although without obtaining a further degree, and following whatever line of enquiry that happened to take my fancy: dallying, my tutors called it. Then, I retired to the D'Eath estate, the place in the country which has been in the family for generations, and which already had quite a substantial library, acquired almost by accident over the years. There, I continued my researches, disturbing the leather-bound volumes for quite possibly the first time in a hundred years.

Even more recently, I have been spending more time up in Town, digging into the dustier realms of the stacks at the British Library while staying in the town house that is also part of the legacy of the D'Eaths, living modestly with a scant handful of servants to take care of my everyday needs.

I had indeed developed a deep and abiding fascination with the philosophy and epistemology of free will: whether one's path through life was random, determined entirely by the accumulation of choices, decisions large and small, that one makes every day, every hour. Alternatively, whether one's fate was foretold, that life's outcome is the same no matter how one decides, or appears to do so, on any topic: a fatalistic, pre-determined, even defeatist view that whatever will be, will be.

After all my studies I had come to realise that there was no way of determining the truth of either of these competing hypotheses, short of an approach which would require the same person to be both observer and subject, experiment and experimenter: the same person exerting free will and determining whether the outcome was different.

"I do remember," I said cautiously, "And I am just beginning to suspect what you are doing here."

Part 2 Part 4