“OK. Well, my dad was a poet and my mum a scientist. They got together briefly in their hippie days, but when I was five weeks old he ran off to die in the Greek war of independence. Mum never forgave him.
“She brought me up to be a rationalist and a mathematician. I was really quite good at the maths, numbers can be magical, but you know, if you’ve got a romantic streak… My Aunty Mattie saw I had a craving for adventure and secretly took me under her wing. She’s not my real aunt. Her husband was Dad’s best friend, another poet, but he died in a boating accident. Anyway, Aunty Mattie was a feminist and a bit of a Goth as a teenager. She rather encouraged my reckless side.”
“Could we move on to your Thinking Machine?”
“Oh… It’s not really mine. Charlie invented it. Well, he thought he’d invented an adding machine, but before he could build it he invented a better one. Only I realised it was so much more. With enough storage it could compose music, write chicklit, solve puzzles, decrypt codes. Ah… Naval Intelligence bunged us quite a lot of cash for code breaking, but as Charlie never built that one either they never really got their money’s worth. It would have been so beautiful, with all those brass cogs and relays whirring and clacking away; and the polished mahogany and the strings of punch cards and a steam engine! If only he could have seen it as it is now.”
“And how is it now?”
“Lots of brass cogs and relays and ratchets and contacts and polished mahogany powered by a steam engine.”
“I see. Go on.”
“Well, we enjoyed a limited celebrity for a while. You know, sex, drugs and Donizetti. Then the money ran out.
“I had an idea that with maths I could beat the odds on the horses, but it all went horribly wrong. If I’d had Charlie’s Engine, but I rather lost my head… and shirt. My health began to suffer, too attached to the old cough syrup, and then one day these little Orientals turned up. Somehow they faked my death. I went to the funeral. It was quite moving. They whisked me out of London on a fast clipper to Calcutta. We travelled overland to Kathmandu and then yak train into the Himalayas. There’s a hidden cavern up there that contains a portal like yours and on the other side we emerged into a stunning hanging valley inaccessible by any other route, temples built into sheer cliffs, terraced gardens, waterfalls, fluffy bunnies and colourful birds everywhere. I had reached Shambhala.”