A Brief History Of Thyme

A few years ago I was talking to my colleague Stephen (Hawking - the physicist). “Stephen,” I said (for that was, and is, his name) “you're very fond of salad. You and your wife made Vicky and me a wonderful salad the other day. It had ripped basil leaves on it.” I paused. “Stephen.” I looked at him through his bottle-bottom glasses. “Why don't you write a book about salads? Norman Tebbit wrote a brilliant book about game. You could achieve fame, notoriety even, by writing the definitive book about salad.”

Stephen got his wife to take his glasses off and wipe them. He looked at me with that disappointed look he has. Then his wife put his glasses back on him.

“Paul,” he said. “You don't know what you're starting here.”

He looked out of the window. There was a distant gaze in his eyes. The man who has stared into infinity and had it look back at him knows no fear. He turned to me. “No man,” he said. “No man has ever been able to write the definitive book on salads. Even Einstein had to stop when he got to tomatoes.”

I smiled at Stephen. My mom says you should always try to humor geniuses, because they're weird.

“Then maybe a girl could do it,” I suggested.

I'm not entirely sure Stephen likes my attempts at humor.

He snorted. “What would a woman know about salad?” he said.

I remained silent. I know when to let a clever bunny bide its time. Eventually he turned back to me. “Perhaps,” he said, “I could start at the beginning.” He shifted in his chair and stared straight at me. There was a peculiar smile on his face. His amanuensis stroked his hair. She could feel that there were ideas inside his head.

“You mentioned,” he said, “basil.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I merely mentioned that you did an extraordinary salad the other day, and … you put basil leaves on top.”

Stephen shook his head. Really slowly.

“Basil, Paul, is not the only herb.”

What really annoys me about Stephen is that I'm like a hundred percent fit, but I've only got one woman to sleep with. He's like a walking advert for ill health, and he's got two women.

But as the bard once said … we mustn't grumble.

“You could write a herb dictionary,” I suggested.

“I think Culpepper beat me to it,” he said.

There you go. That's the price I pay for not being well read.

“Perhaps you could just write about egg salads,” I suggested.

Stephen looked at me almost with disgust. “If you'd suggested I write a book about how to make the perfect Egg Benedict, maybe I could respect you,” he said.

I could see he was thinking.

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe I could write a book about thyme.”

“I'm not being funny, Stephen,” I said, “but everybody knows the only thing you do with thyme is have it with lamb.”

Stephen span his wheelchair round and pushed his face up against mine.







I went quiet. Stephen's wife and his amanuensis didn't move. They've seen him in this mood before.

The seconds passed, then Stephen's shoulders untensed.

He smiled at me. “I'm sorry,” he said. “Sometimes things get to me.” He thought a moment. “Do you know,” he said, “that thyme flexes like a whore?”

“I know it goes well with lamb,” I said.

“You know that atoms don't smell?” he said. “But what if I invented a particle and called it a farticle? It would mean that all scientists would have to work with the windows open.”

“Did you know there are no windows at the Hadron Collider?” I said.

“It's actually the Large Hadron Collider,” Stephen said, “and they have windows in the offices above it.”

“If I was going to name a boson,” I said, “I wouldn't call it Higgs. That makes it sound as though it comes from Yorkshire.”

“Some bosons come from Yorkshire,” said Stephen, “although most of them end up in London.”

“What does a thick boson look like?” I asked.

“Like an attractive boson that's been married for five years,” said Stephen.

I sipped my undiluted Campari. “I once simmered thyme in Sauternes wine, mixed it with minced Scottish veal, bound it together with egg yolk and toasted crumbs from Borodinsky bread, and ate it as stake tartar,” I said.

“How was it?” said Stephen.

“I threw up afterwards,” I said. “I think it might have been the thyme that did it.”

Stephen got up out of his wheelchair. He only puts it on for effect.

“Thyme,” said Stephen, “is not something to be taken lightly.” He smiled at me. “Rather like gravity.” He walked over to the window.

Stephen's house is beautiful. Like Sting's. It looks out on green meadows. If you were going to die, and you wanted your soul to rest until eternity began again, his house is where you would choose to die.

“You say Tebbit wrote a book?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Wasn't he the guy whose …”

“Yes,” I said.

Stephen looked at me. “So we have something in common,” he said.

“He,” I said, “was, and is, completely loyal, and devoted, and he still tries to find ways to serve other people.”

Stephen looked at me. Then he turned to his bookshelves. His wife and his amanuensis moved out of the way. Going over to the shelves, he stretched out a withered arm and pulled out a book.

He turned to me. “I,” he said, “have his book.”

He put it down in front of me.

“I have always,” he said, even now not being able to drag himself away from eternity, despite the fact that he was off duty, “wanted to contribute something to the collective mind of man.”

“Give them the gift of thyme, Stephen,” I said.

“Thyme?” said Stephen. “Thyme is a gift from God.”

He sat down in his wheelchair again. He looked like a crumpled, folded teenager's tissue.

“I'll think about it,” he said.


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