While I was on my way to Boom’s to find out what his mysterious e-mail was all about, I reflected that my crane climbing days at Exeter were well behind me. After graduating I had had a year or two of wandering, doing nothing in particular, and eventually landed what my parents called a ‘proper job’ up in Lincoln. About a year after that, and quite by chance, Boom had ended up there too when the headquarters of the pharmaceutical giant he was working for relocated to that fair city.
Try as I might I could not imagine what it was Boom had discovered that could ‘blow the Files wide open’. The Ex-Files, I should explain, had started off as a sort of hobby while we were students. A group of us had decided it would be fun to see if there really was any truth behind some of the more fascinating cases of paranormal and unexplained phenomena, and while we were at it, cast our eye over the more intriguing conspiracy theories, cults, secret societies and just about anything else we believed made the world a more exciting place to be in. We chose the name Ex-Files as an ironic tribute to its more illustrious homophone. And also because ‘Ex’ was sometimes used as student shorthand for Exeter.
We opened ‘case files’ on a wide range of what can best be described as ‘fortean’ subjects: everything from the Rudolf Hess cover-up and the Nazca Lines to the Whitechapel Murders and ESP. It did not take us long to build up a thick portfolio of cases, but I must stress the Ex-Files never became a dustbin for every crackpot idea that happened to come along. Quite the opposite: nothing was accepted without first meeting strict plausibility criteria, which meant there was no place for crop circles, Loch Ness monsters, ley lines, alien abductions, lost continents of Mu or spontaneous human combustion. Surprisingly perhaps, we did open a file on the Abominable Snowman (whom Boom insisted on calling ‘Frosty’) but that was mainly to keep Mr Biggar happy.
Nevertheless, since everything we did choose to investigate had already been looked at so many times before, the reader is probably wondering why we bothered in the first place. The fact is we actually believed we had found a method of examining these cases that had never been thought of before. Thus far, went our reasoning, researchers into the paranormal and the unexplained always fell into two categories, which we termed ‘blind believers’ and ‘scientific sceptics’. We felt we could combine the strengths of these two very different and hitherto mutually exclusive approaches whilst eliminating their weaknesses, thereby gaining a unique insight none of our predecessors had ever enjoyed.
Blind believers comprised the legions of cranks, amateurs, opportunists and eccentrics who were prepared to go to any lengths to convince the world their pet theory or belief was true. Typically, they would overplay the significance of any information they thought supported their case, present speculation as fact and accident or coincidence as design. They also tended to ignore or suppress any evidence that contradicted their hypothesis, no matter how compelling. Some would even go as far as fabricating ‘proof’, with the infamous alien autopsy being just one of many such cases. These people had done a great deal of damage to the whole field of fortean research by discrediting it in the eyes of the general public and the specialist alike.
One would suppose a more measured, objective, scientific approach was just what was needed to bring credibility to such a controversial field. However we believed the objectivity of the scientific sceptics was also compromised because their whole attitude to all things fortean was at best unsympathetic, if not downright hostile. On top of that their approach was, if anything, too scientific to be of any real use when dealing with phenomena that lay at the very edge of what the rational mind considered possible- an uncharted land where imagination and faith would take you further than reason and logic. In short the sceptics simply did not appreciate the subtle, elusive, often fragile nature of what they were dealing with, or understand why it could so easily vanish beneath the harsh glare of scientific analysis.
We managed to convince ourselves that our approach was qualitatively different to that of both camps. Simply stated, we, like the blind believers, desperately wanted the cases we were investigating to be true, but would only entertain the possibility after we had done our damnedest, like the sceptics, to prove that they were not. And while I never fail to marvel at our naivety in thinking what we were doing was really so original, the Ex-Files did, on occasion, achieve some quite startling results. I can recall one particular breakthrough regarding the Voynich manuscript, but that is for another time...
After graduation we all went our separate ways and the Ex-Files became just one more aspect of student life that got left behind. Or so it seemed. Because when Boom and I became reunited in Lincoln I found out he had kept up an intermittent but keen interest in the files, with a growing emphasis on the study of esoteric cults and secret societies. I soon got back into the swing of things, and for a while it was just like old times, except that now we were able to bring a greater experience and maturity to our research. But lately my involvement had waned once again. I told Boom that work commitments were taking their toll, but we both knew the real reason: my girlfriend Kate, whom I had been seeing for about six months, was putting me under increasing pressure to ‘grow up’. She did not approve of Boom, the Ex-Files or any other reminders of my past life.
While I was waiting for the lift to take me up to Boom’s flat I cast my eye over the rows of post boxes lining the wall of the foyer. I smiled to myself when I read ‘M. Creswick’ on the box for Apartment 14: I could not imagine even Boom’s parents addressing him as Mark.
As usual Boom had left the door to the flat ajar for me. I found him playing one of his computer games.
‘Come and have a look at this baby,’ he said by way of greeting. ‘It’s called The Cabinet of Doctor Meubers. Meubers is this insane East German scientist who gets hideously mutilated when one of his evil experiments literally blows up in his face, and so he decides to take it out on the rest of the human race.’
‘Right...’ I began doubtfully.
‘Yeah. So– you have to get to his inner sanctum, called unimaginatively, ‘The Information Center’—there’s Germans for you—and do him in before he gets the chance to complete his experiments...’ He paused a moment. ‘Actually,’ he added on reflection, ‘Meubers is just like an organic chemistry lecturer we had in the first year. One day he came storming into the lab and—’
‘I thought this was urgent, Boom.’
He grinned but I knew was a little taken aback. He was not used to being cut short once he had started one of his invariably entertaining anecdotes. Least of all by me. The fact is I was on my way to see Kate and was worried about being late. Our relationship had hit a really rocky patch lately, and even the slightest thing I did wrong seemed to infuriate her.
‘Right then,’ he began, ‘it’s like this. I was on the Net the other day and purely by accident I got onto this site about etymology…’
‘What, the study of insects?’
‘No, etymology, the study of words. Their origins, that sort of stuff. Bo-ring! Anyway I was just about to move on when I spotted something interesting. Very interesting.’
‘Well, the site was all about something called Proto Indo-European... That mean anything?’
I shook my head. ‘No.’
‘Well, to cut a long story short, it turns out Proto Indo-European’s the original language from which all the other European languages—as well as a load of others I’ve never heard of—originated. The trouble is, no-one knows what the original language was like because it became extinct long before we got round to inventing the written word.’
‘Right...’ I had no idea where this was heading, but I was starting to get interested.
‘So,’ he continued, ‘the experts set about reconstructing bits of Proto Indo-European using a process called comparative reconstruction- basically, by comparing words from related languages that still do exist, seeing how they diverged over time, and using this to track back and speculate what the original source word must’ve been like.
‘A bit like a family tree in reverse?’
‘Sort of. Or something like how palaeontologists speculate on the nature of hypothetical species.’
‘Okay. So how do the Ex-Files fit in?’
Boom smiled, a little smugly, I thought. I suspect he was pleased that I had not been able to make the same mental leap he had. ‘That’s the clever bit– it suddenly occurred to me that we could apply the same process to the missing bits from that diagrammatical summary of secret societies I’ve been working on. I think I told you about it.’
He got out a piece of paper which showed a complicated hierarchical structure made even more difficult to fathom by the mass of scribblings that annotated it. Boom talked me through his idea, which did, eventually, start to make sense. He was just rounding things off when I suddenly saw a massive drawback.
‘I can see where you’re coming from, Boom...’ I began tentatively.
‘Well, the reason we have so many gaps in the jigsaw is precisely because we don’t have enough information to fill them in. And we don't know where to get it. How’s your model going to solve that?’
‘That’s where you come in...’
‘Well, as you rightly say, we have an interesting model, but we don’t know enough ourselves to fill in the blanks. But what if we were in the position to show it to the relevant experts and got them to fill it in for us?’
‘Aha.’ The penny had finally dropped. ‘You want me to build a website.’
Just then my mobile phone rang, like a contrived plot device in a film. It was Kate, and she was none too pleased. When the call was over Boom chuckled.
‘Cracking the whip is she?’
‘Give it a rest for once can’t you?’ I snapped. Boom was not being nasty but the fact that I felt both guilty and embarrassed made me petulant.
‘Suit yourself- but if you think jumping every time a girl snaps her fingers is going to do you any good…’
‘Look Boom, I’ve made an arrangement. Who likes it when you don’t turn up on time?’
Boom said nothing but we both knew that my not turning up on time was not the real issue here.
‘Anyway,’ I asked, ‘can’t you just give me a quick potted version of what you need?’
‘Suit yourself!’ I almost shouted.
‘Look, Sunshine,’ he said with a sigh, ‘we’ve talked about this before. When you get to the stage in a relationship with a girl, any girl, when you just can’t do anything right, when everything you do and say seems to irritate her, when she no longer finds your wacky sense of humour the least bit amusing, then basically you’ve had it. It means that, for whatever reason, she’s lost all respect for you- and there is no way on earth a girl can love someone she doesn’t respect. After that it’s just a matter of time…’
‘So why doesn’t she just end it then?’
Boom smiled. ‘Oh, she will, don’t worry, she will. But in her own time and on her own terms. What you don’t seem to understand is that girls’ minds work in a totally different way to ours. As far as she’s concerned, whatever it is that’s gone wrong with your relationship is entirely down to you. It’s as if you’ve betrayed her in a way, which means she now feels perfectly justified to take any action she sees fit.’
‘Meaning?’ I tried to sound defiant and unconvinced, but the truth is I was dreading what I knew he was going to say next.
‘Meaning she’ll keep on seeing you but in the meantime start actively seeking your replacement. Once he’s firmly in situ she’ll send you packing, saying—and no doubt believing—it was all your fault because you never cared about her in the first place. Hope I’m wrong but I wouldn’t bet against it…’
I left Boom’s in a pretty foul mood. What gave him the right to lecture me? Was he so damn perfect? To hell with him! I finished off my bout of righteous indignation by roundly cursing Boom, his know-it-all attitude to girls and most of all his pointless, puerile and thoroughly annoying fixation with the Ex-Files. Which was quite ironic I suppose, seeing as I was the one who had introduced him to the Ex-Files in the first place.