I have heard people say that I am lying, that the story I tell you now is not how it happened, but I swear to you that this is the truth.
In a time when everybody still called the First World War ‘The Great War,’ and we all thought the Wall Street crash wouldn't affect us in our small corner of Europe, I was busy clearing tables. It was late afternoon, in a week where the rain had been falling long enough to soak through your socks and put you in one hell of a bad mood. My shoes had mostly dried out by the end of the lunchtime rush and the small cafe was sparsely populated with the usual bearded subjects.
Karl and Sigi were half-heartedly playing chess in their usual booth. My boss Freidrich - Fred - doesn't mind the old guys playing quietly and as long as they keep ordering coffee and keep their sex chat to a minimum, he is fine.
My God, the things Sigi comes out with; he once told me about this young boy and a horse! Enough to turn a girl’s hair blue, not that anyone had described me as a girl for years now, but I digress.
The bell on a spring above the door rang as a new customer strode in and paused next to the truly ugly wooden hat stand that Fred had rescued from the barber’s next door the day after they had been evicted.
Karl and Sigi’s hats were aligned in parallel until the newcomer shoved his dripping coat and homburg onto the stand, knocking Sigi’s hat to the ground. Luckily, Sigi was too engrossed in examining his bishop to notice.
I grabbed the fallen hat and replaced it as I asked the newcomer; “What’ll it be?”
He removed his round, rain-splattered spectacles and wiped them, smudging the water into smaller droplets and blurring his vision.
Standing long enough to gather himself, I watched him almost silhouetted against the plate glass windows. He had the same haunted expression my sister Joice had worn when her fiancée walked out on her a week before the wedding.
It was around now I noticed the odd looking box under his arm.
“You can leave that at the door,” I said helpfully.
“I'll keep it with me. Your coffee fresh?”
Near the kitchen was a long wooden bar complete with mismatched stools. Nothing in this place was new and the customer who ended up with a knife and fork from the same set was considered lucky.
Without further ado he squelched and slumped onto one of the more sturdy looking stools while I poured him a strong black. Silently, he took a napkin and wiped his face before lifting the menu and scanning the day’s specials.
“The onion soup is good today.” Fred had told me to push the soup this week as he had made far too much of the foul stuff and like he’s always saying - “If it doesn't kill them...” Like the good little waitress I am, I did what I was told.
The guy with the box stood like a statue, while a drop of water worked its way along a rogue hair and dropped onto the counter. In the kitchen, I heard the gentle buzzing come to an abrupt stop with a reassuring thud as an out-of-season fly discovered whether there was an afterlife. In the street outside, an unseen tram trundled past about its business. The bell above the door rang once more announcing the arrival of another customer, while Karl let out a moan, losing another piece to the grinning Sigi.
The newcomer strode purposefully to the counter, just as drenched as the first and carrying another, different box. Its mesh window made it look as if it should have had an animal inside. “You haven't seen a cat have you? Ginger thing? Mine has run off.” He took a deep breath as if realizing how heavy the rain actually was. A brief smile. “Hey, is that onion soup? I’ve not eaten for hours.”
The man worked his sodden way to the counter and sat down next to the first guy, still studying the menu.
“How about a sandwich?” I said to anyone with the courtesy to listen.
The first guy looked up as if I'd just said a magic word and asked for a cheese number on rye. I told him we were right out of Rye bread but I'd see what I could do. As the second guy had seemed so set on the soup so I headed off into the kitchen to kick Fred into action. On my return, the guys struck up a conversation.
“Ok, I'll go first,” said the second guy with a smirk. “What's in the box?”
“Nothing,” he mumbled into his mug and then considered for a moment. “Radioactive sauce and poison.”
“What?!” I exclaimed, letting the usual Waitress/punter relationship slip for a moment.
“It's all right, it's a tiny amount. Harmless.”
Now if you told me that someone had a harmless amount of radioactive poison these days I'd tell you straight, ‘…there's no such thing as a harmless amount of radiation,’ but this was decades ago and we didn't know better. I did however ask him “How can it be a harmless poison?”
“Oxymoron” shouted Sigi and let out another of his girly giggles as Karl sacrificed another bishop.
The guys at the counter ignored the occupants of the booth and continued.
“It's a harmless amount. Unless...” He tailed off. “Look, it’s easier if I show you.”
He lifted the suitcase-sized box onto the desk, released some metal catches and removed one side.
What I didn't expect to see was a puppy. Curled up in a ball of cuteness, one of the tiniest puppies I'd ever clapped eyes on – it must have been no more than a day or two old.
“You shouldn't take them from their mothers when they’re that young you know,” the other guy said and I agreed.
“Oh, that’s the least of my problems. Here, let me show you.”
Flicking more metal catches, he revealed the inside of a sealed compartment at the top of the box. Inside was a combination of an extremely small bottle and a hammer placed precariously above it, with a spring and wires leading in and out of a smaller box. This smaller box was clicking at an alarming rate.
He started pointing at various parts and described what I can only call his torture device.
“It's to demonstrate a theory.”
“What theory? Whether you can kill a puppy or not?” I whispered, feeling more than a little uncomfortable.
“No you don't understand,” he began, defending himself. “I may OR may not kill this dog.”
The other guy was clearly on my side “What, are you going to toss a coin or something?”
“It won't be my choice. I'm trying to prove how ridiculous the standard vision of quantum physics is.”
“You lost me at 'killing a puppy.'” My gut told me there was something very wrong.
There was no stopping now he had started. “Standard theory says that until someone looks inside this box the possibilities of the dog being alive or dead are equally likely. The animal is locked into the box with a fifty-fifty chance of this radiation detector,” he pointed at the clicking box, “…breaking this bottle of poison.”
“Or not breaking the bottle?” the other guy joined in, horrified yet intrigued.
“Exactly.” The guy with the open box continued, “We have a superimposition of states. The dog is as likely to be alive as dead, until we open the box we don't know if it’s alive or dead so logically – it’s both alive and dead.”
“Proving what...?” the other enquired. “That you have flawed logic?”
“That’s clearly loopy thinking.” I was having none of it from this puppy killer.
Fast asleep, the tiny dog flipped its tail as we talked. “Wouldn’t you hear the bottle break? Then you would know if it was dead or not.” asked the other guy.
“Can't you see this could be the start of multiverse theory? It could lead us to a whole new understanding of electron behavior, leading us to new horizons...to thinking machines!” It was clear he wasn't going to let this go.
“What are you - some sort of magician? Is this part of your act?” I hoped, waiting for a punch-line I'd understand.
“No – I'm a scientist,” he declared, as if that would explain everything. “Erwin S...”
I stopped him dead. “Look Erwin. That looks very much like a machine for killing puppies and we don't serve sickos like you. I think you’d better leave.” I grabbed at the puppy. “And take your death box with you.”
Like a spoiled child, Erwin snapped the box closed and started mumbling something about ‘…using the other guy’s missing cat instead,’ as he headed out of the door and into the rain, stopping only to take his hat and coat.
“God, some guys are just sick in the head.”
A joint “Thank God,” followed by a peal of laughter came from the booth.
I stared at the sleeping puppy in my hands. “What are we going to do with you?”
“Well, I could take him.” offered the remaining customer with a shrug. “I can’t see my cat coming back.”
Fred slid the soup and sandwich through the serving hatch and slapped the top of the service bell.
In my palm the puppy sprang into life, blindly licking at my thumb.
“Magnificent! That's exactly what I'm trying to research,” said the remaining customer with a wide grin.
“God - you’re not a scientist too, are you?” I asked dejectedly.
“Yes. But I really look after my animals.” He smiled, lifting his empty animal carrier onto the table and knocking the remainder of his coffee to one side.
Gently, I placed the bundle of cuteness inside.
“I try feed them exactly when the church bell rings; oh by the way my name is Ivan. Ivan Pavlov. Pleased to meet you.”
In all probability… a true story.