Read The end of mr. y Online

Authors: Scarlett Thomas

The end of mr. y

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Contents

Title PageDedication

Part One

Chapter OneChapter Two

Chapter Three: The End Of Mr. YChapter Four

Chapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter Eight

Part Two

Chapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter FourteenChapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenChapter Eighteen

Part Three

Chapter NineteenChapter TwentyTwenty – OneTwenty – TwoTwenty – ThreeTwenty – Four

Twenty – FiveTwenty – SixTwenty – Seven

EpilogueAcknowledgementsPraise

Copyright

THE END OF MR. Y

SCARLETT THOMAS

Edinburgh • London • New York • Melbourne

For Couze Venn

All Western faith and good faith become engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could be exchanged for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange – God of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say can be reduced to the signs that constitute faith? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer itself anything but a gigantic simulacrum – not unreal, but a simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real, but exchanged for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.

Jean Baudrillard

Indeed it is even possible for an entity to show itself as something which in itself it is not. Martin Heidegger

PART ONE

Not only is nothing good or ill but thinking makes it so, but nothing is at all, except in so far as thinking has made it so.

Samuel Butler

ONE

YOU NOW HAVE ONE CHOICE.

You… I’m hanging out of the window of my office, sneaking a cigarette and trying to readMarginsin the dull winter light, when there’s a noise I haven’t heard before. All right, the noise – crash, bang, etc. – I probably have heard before, but it’s coming from underneath me, which isn’t right.

There shouldn’t be anything underneath me: I’m on the bottom floor. But the ground shakes, as if something’s trying to push up from below, and I think about other people’s mothers shaking out their duvets or even God shaking out the fabric of space–time; then I think, Fucking hell, it’s an earthquake, and I drop my cigarette and run out of my office at roughly the same time that the alarm starts sounding.

When alarms sound I don’t always run immediately. Who does? Usually an alarm is just an empty sign: a drill; a practice. I’m on my way to the side door out of the building when the shaking stops. Shall I go back to my office? But it’s impossible to stay in this building when this alarm goes off. It’s too loud; it wails inside your head. As I leave the building I walk past the Health and Safety notice board, which has pictures of injured people on it. The pictures blur as I go past: a man who has back pain is also having a heart attack, and various hologram people are trying to revive him. I was supposed to go to some Health and Safety training last year, but didn’t.

As I open the side door I can see people leaving the Russell Building and walking, or running, past our block and up the grey concrete steps in the direction of the Newton Building and the library. I cut around the right-hand side of the building and bound up the concrete steps, two at a time. The sky is grey, with a thin TV-static drizzle that hangs in the air like it’s been freeze-framed. Sometimes, on these January afternoons, the sun squats low in the sky like an orange-robed Buddha in a documentary about the meaning of life. Today there is no sun. I come to the edge of the large crowd that has formed, and I stop running. Everyone is looking at the same thing, gasping and making firework-display noises.

It’s the Newton Building. It’s falling down.

I think of this toy – have I seen it on someone’s desk recently? – which is a little horse mounted on a wooden button. When you press the button from underneath, the horse collapses to its knees.

That’s what the Newton Building looks like now. It’s sinking into the ground, but in a lopsided way; one corner is now gone, now two, now … Now it stops. It creaks, and it stops. A window on the third floor flaps open, and a computer monitor falls out and smashes onto what’s left of the concrete courtyard below. Four men with hard hats and fluorescent jackets slowly approach the broken-up courtyard; then another man comes, says something to them, and they all move away again.

Two men in grey suits are standing next to me.

‘Déjà vu,’ one of them says to the other.

I look around for someone I know. There’s Mary Robinson, the head of department, talking to Lisa Hobbes. I can’t see many other people from the English Department. But I can see Max Truman standing on his own, smoking a roll-up. He’ll know what’s going on.

‘Hello, Ariel,’ he mumbles when I walk over and stand next to him.

Max always mumbles; not in a shy way, but rather as if he’s telling you what it will cost to take out your worst enemy, or how much you’d have to pay to rig a horse race. Does he like me? I don’t think he trusts me. But why would he? I’m comparatively young, relatively new to the department, and I probably seem ambitious, even though I’m not. I also have long red hair and people say I look intimidating (because of the hair? Something else?). People who don’t say I look intimidating sometimes say I look ‘dodgy’ or ‘odd’. One of my ex-housemates said he wouldn’t like to be stuck on a desert island with me, but didn’t say why.

‘Hi, Max,’ I say. Then: ‘Wow.’

‘You probably don’t know about the tunnel, do you?’ he says. I shake my head. ‘There’s a railway tunnel that runs under here,’ he says, pointing downwards with his eyes. He sucks on his roll-up, but nothing seems to happen, so he takes it out of his mouth and uses it to point around the campus. ‘It runs under Russell over there, and Newton over there. Goes – or used to go – from the town to the coast. It hasn’t been used in a hundred years or so. This is the second time it’s collapsed and taken Newton with it. They were supposed to fill it with concrete after last time,’ he adds.

I look at where Max just pointed, and start mentally drawing straight lines connecting Newton with Russell, imagining the tunnel underneath the line. Whichever way you do it, the English and American Studies Building is on the line, too.

‘Everyone’s all right, at least,’ he says. ‘Maintenance saw a crack in the wall this morning and evacuated them all.’

Lisa shivers. ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ she says, looking over at the Newton Building. The grey sky has darkened and the rain is now falling more heavily. The Newton Building looks strange with no lights on: it’s as if it has been stubbed out.

‘I can’t either,’ I say.

For the next three or four minutes we all stand and stare in silence at the building; then a man with a megaphone comes around and tells us all to go home immediately without going back to our offices. I feel like crying. There’s something so sad about broken concrete.

I don’t know about everyone else, but it’s not that easy for me just to go home. I only have one set of keys to my flat, and that set is in my office, along with my coat, my scarf, my gloves, my hat and my rucksack.

There’s a security guard trying to stop people going in through the main entrance, so I go down the steps and in the side way. My name isn’t on my office door. Instead, it bears only the name of the official occupier of the room: my supervisor, Professor Saul Burlem. I met Burlem twice before I came here: once at a conference in Greenwich, and once at my interview. He disappeared just over a week after I arrived. I remember coming into the office on a Thursday morning and noticing that it was different. The first thing was that the blinds and the curtains were closed: Burlem always closed his blinds at the end of every day, but neither of us ever touched the horrible thin grey curtains. And the room smelled of cigarette smoke. I was expecting him in at about ten o’clock that morning, but he didn’t show up. By the following Monday I asked people where he was and they said they didn’t know. At some point someone arranged for his classes to be covered. I don’t know if there’s departmental gossip about this – no one gossips to me – but everyone seems to assume I’ll just carry on my research and it’s no big deal for me that he isn’t around. Of course, he’s the reason I came to the department at all: he’s the only person in the world who has done serious research on one of my main subjects, the nineteenth-century writer Thomas E. Lumas. Without Burlem, I’m not really sure why I am here. And I do feel something about him being missing; not loss, exactly, but something.

My car is in the Newton car park. When I get there I am not at all surprised to find several men in

hard hats telling people to forget about their cars and walk or take the bus home. I do try to argue – I say I’m happy to take the risk that the Newton Building will not suddenly go into a slow-motion cinematic rewind in order that it can fall down again in a completely different direction – but the men pretty much tell me to piss off and walk home or take the bus like everybody else, so I eventually drift off in the direction of the bus stop. It’s only the beginning of January, but some daffodils and snowdrops have made it through the earth and stand wetly in little rows by the path.

The bus stop is depressing: there’s a line of people looking as cold and fragile as the line of flowers, so I decide I’ll just walk.

I think there’s a shortcut into town through the woods, but I don’t know where it is, so I just follow the route I would have driven until I leave the campus, playing the scene of the building collapsing in my mind over and over again until, realising I’m remembering things that never even happened, I give up thinking about it at all. Then I consider the railway tunnel. I can see why it would be there: after all, the campus is set on top of a steep hill and it would make sense to go under rather than over it. Max said it hadn’t been used for a hundred years or so. I wonder what was on this hill a hundred years ago. Not the university, of course, which was built in the 1960s. It’s so cold. Perhaps I should have waited for the bus. But no buses pass me as I walk. By the time I get to the main road into town my fingers have frozen inside my gloves and I start examining roads off to the right, looking for a shortcut. The first one is marked with a no through road sign, partially obscured by seagull shit; but the second looks more promising, with red-brick terraced houses curling around to the left, so I take it.

I thought this was just a residential road, but soon the red-brick houses stop and there’s a small park with two swings and a slide rusting under a dark canopy of tangled but bare oak-tree branches. Beyond that there is a pub and then a small row of shops. There’s a sad-looking charity shop, already shut, and the kind of hairdresser that does blue rinses and sets for half price on a Monday.

There’s a newsagent and a betting shop and then – aha – a secondhand bookshop. It’s still open. I’m freezing. I go in.

It’s warm inside the shop and smells slightly of furniture polish. The door has a little bell that keeps jangling for a good three seconds after I close it, and soon a young woman comes out from behind a large set of bookshelves, holding a can of polish and a yellow duster. She smiles briefly and tells me that the shop will be closing in about ten minutes, but I am welcome to look around. Then she sits down and starts tapping something into a keyboard connected to a computer on the front desk. ‘Have you got a computerised catalogue of all your books?’ I ask her.

She stops typing and looks up. ‘Yeah. But I don’t know how to use it. I’m only filling in for my friend. Sorry.’

‘Oh. OK.’

‘What did you want to look up?’ ‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘No, tell me. I might remember dusting it.’


Page 2

‘Um … OK, then. Well, there’s this author called Thomas E. Lumas … Have you got any books by him?’ I always ask this in secondhand bookshops. They rarely do have anything by him, and I’ve got most of his books already, but I still ask. I still hope for a better copy of something, or an older one. Something with a different preface or a cleaner dust jacket.

‘Er …’ She screws up her forehead. ‘The name sounds sort of familiar.’

‘You might have come across something calledThe Apple in the Garden. That’s his famous one. But none of the others are in print. He wrote in the mid to late nineteenth century, but never became as famous as he should have been …’

‘The Apple in the Garden. No, the one I saw wasn’t that one,’ she says. ‘Hang on.’ She walks around

to the large bookcase at the back of the shop. ‘L, Lu, Lumas … No. Nothing here,’ she says. ‘Mind you, I don’t know what section they’d have put him in. Is it fiction?’

‘Some is fiction,’ I say. ‘But he also wrote a book about thought experiments, some poetry, a treatise on government, several science books and something calledThe End of Mr. Y, which is one of the rarest novels …’

‘The End of Mr. Y. That’s it!’ she says, excited. ‘Hang on.’

She goes up the stairs at the back of the shop before I can tell her that she must be mistaken. It is impossible to imagine that she actually has a copy up there. I would probably give away everything I own to obtain a copy ofThe End of Mr. Y, Lumas’s last and most mysterious work. I don’t know what she’s got it confused with, but it’s just absurd to think that she has it. No one has that book.

There is one known copy in a German bank vault, but no library has it listed. I have a feeling that Saul Burlem may have seen a copy once, but I’m not sure.The End of Mr. Yis supposed to be cursed, and although I obviously don’t believe in any of that stuff, some people do think that if you read it you die.

‘Yeah, here it is,’ says the girl, carrying a small cardboard box down the stairs. ‘Is this the one you mean?’

She places the box on the counter.

I look inside. And – suddenly I can’t breathe – there it is: a small cream clothbound hardback with brown lettering on the cover and spine, missing a dust jacket but otherwise near perfect. But it can’t be. I open the cover and read the title page and the publication details. Oh, shit. This is a copy ofThe End of Mr. Y. What the hell do I do now?

‘How much is it?’ I ask carefully, my voice as small as a pin.

‘Yeah, that’s the problem,’ she says, turning the box around. ‘The owner gets boxes like this from an auction in town, I think, and if they’re upstairs it means they haven’t been priced yet.’ She smiles. ‘I probably shouldn’t have shown it to you at all. Can you come back tomorrow when she’s in?’

‘Not really …’ I start to say.

Ideas beam through my mind like cosmic rays. Shall I tell her I’m not from around here and ask her to ring the owner now? No. The owner clearly doesn’t know that the book is here. I don’t want to take the risk that she will have heard of it and then refuse to sell it to me – or try to charge thousands of pounds. What can I say to make her give me the book? Seconds pass. The girl seems to be picking up the phone on the desk.

‘I’ll just give my friend a ring,’ she says. ‘I’ll find out what to do.’

While she waits for the call to connect, I glance into the box. It’s unbelievable, but there are other Lumas books there, and a couple of Derrida translations that I don’t have, as well as what looks like a first edition ofEureka!by Edgar Allan Poe. How did these texts end up in a box together? I can’t imagine anyone connecting them, unless it was for a project similar to my PhD. Could someone else be working on the same thing? Unlikely, especially if they have given the books away. But who would give these books away? I feel as though I’m looking at Paley’s watch. It’s as if someone put this box together just to appeal to me.

‘Yeah,’ the girl is saying to her friend. ‘It’s like a small box. Upstairs. Yeah, in that pile in the toilet. Um … looks like a mix of old and new. Some of the old ones are a bit musty and stuff. Paperbacks, I think …’ She looks into the box and pulls out a couple of the Derrida books. I nod at her. ‘Yeah, just a real mix. Oh, do you? Cool. Yeah. Fifty quid? Seriously? That’s a lot. OK, I’ll ask her. Yeah. Sorry. OK. See you later.’

She puts the phone down and smiles at me. ‘Well,’ she says. ‘There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that you can have the whole box if you want, but the bad news is that I can’t sell individual books from the box, so it’s all or nothing really. Sam says she bought the box herself from

an auction, and the owner hasn’t even seen it yet. But apparently she’s already said she hasn’t got the space to shelve loads more stuff … But the other bad news is that the whole box is going to cost fifty pounds. So …’

‘I’ll take it,’ I say.

‘Seriously? You’d spend that on a box of books?’ She smiles and shrugs. ‘Well, OK. I guess that’s fifty pounds, then, please.’

My hands shake as I get my purse out of my bag, pull out three crumpled ten-pound notes and a twenty and hand them over. I don’t stop to consider that this is almost the only money I have in the world, and that I am not going to be able to afford to eat for the next three weeks. I don’t actually care about anything apart from being able to walk out of this shop withThe End of Mr. Y, without someone realising or remembering and trying to stop me. My heart is doing something impossible. Will I collapse and die of shock before I’ve even had a chance to read the first line of the book? Shit, shit, shit.

‘Fantastic, thanks. Sorry it was so much,’ the girl says to me.

‘No problem,’ I manage to say back. ‘I need a lot of these for my PhD, anyway.’

I placeThe End of Mr. Yin my rucksack, safe, and then I pick up the box and walk out of the shop, clutching it to me as I make my way home in the dark, the cold stinging my eyes, completely unable to make sense of what has just happened.

TWO

BY THE TIMEIGETto my flat it’s almost half past five. Most of the shops on the street are starting to close, but the newsagent opposite glows with people stopping for a paper or a packet of cigarettes on their way home from work. The pizza restaurant underneath my flat is still dark, but I know that the owner, Luigi, will be somewhere in there, doing whatever needs to be done so that the place can open at seven. Next door the lights are out in the fancy-dress shop, but there’s a soft light upstairs in the Café Paradis, which doesn’t close until six. Behind the shops, a commuter train clatters slowly along the brittle old lines and lights flash on the level crossing at the end of the road.

The concrete passageway that leads to the stairs up to my front door is cold, as usual, and dark. There is no bicycle, which means that Wolfgang, my neighbour, isn’t in. I don’t know how he gets warm in his place (although I think the huge amount of slivovitz that he drinks probably helps), but in mine it’s a struggle. I’ve no idea when the two flats were constructed, but they are both too large, with high ceilings and long, echoey corridors. Central heating would be wonderful, but the landlord won’t put it in. Before I take my coat off, I put the box of books and my rucksack down on the large oak kitchen table, switch on my lamps, and then drag the electric fire down the hall from the bedroom and plug it in, watching its two metal bars blush dimly (and, it always seems to me, apologetically). Then I light the gas oven and all the rings on the hob. I close the kitchen door and only then take off my outdoor things.

I’m shivering, but not just from the cold. I takeThe End of Mr. Ycarefully out of my bag and put it down on the table. It seems wrong, somehow, sitting there next to the box of other books and my coffee cup from this morning, so I move the box of books and put the coffee cup in the sink. Now the book is alone on the table. I pick it up and run my hand over it, feeling the coolness of the cream cloth cover. I turn it over and touch the back, as if it might feel different from the front; then I put it down again, my pulse going like ticker tape. I fill my little espresso maker and put it on one of the blazing gas rings, and then I pour out half a glass of the slivovitz Wolfgang gave me and down it in two gulps.

While the coffee heats up, I check the mousetraps. Both Wolfgang and I have mice in our flats. He talks about getting a cat; I have these traps. They don’t kill the mice; they just hold them for a while in a small plastic oblong until I find them and release them. I don’t think the system works: I put the mice outside and then they come straight back in, but I couldn’t kill them. Today there are three mice looking bored and pissed off in their little see-through prisons, and I take them downstairs and release them into the courtyard. I didn’t think I’d mind having mice in the flat, but they do eat everything, and one time one ran over my face while I was lying in bed.

When I get back upstairs, I take four large potatoes from the box in the vegetable rack and wash them quickly before salting them and putting them in the oven on a low heat. That’s about as much cooking as I can cope with now; and I’m not even hungry. My sofa is in the kitchen, since there’s no point having it in the empty sitting room, where there is no heat. So, as the room starts to steam up and fill with the smell of baking potatoes, I finally take off my trainers and curl up with my coffee, a packet of ginseng cigarettes andThe End of Mr. Y. And then I read the opening line of the preface,

first in my head, and then aloud, as another train rattles along outside: ‘The discourse which follows may appear to the reader as mere fancy or as a dream, penned on waking, in those fevered moments when one is still mesmerised by those conjuring tricks that are produced in the mind once the eyes are closed.’

I don’t die. But then I didn’t really expect to. How could a book be cursed, anyway? The words themselves – which I don’t take in properly at first – simply seem like miracles. Just the fact that they are there, that they still exist, printed in black type on rough-cut pages that are brown with age; this is the thing that amazes me. I can’t imagine how many other hands have touched this page, or how many pairs of eyes have seen it. It was published in 1893, and then what happened? Did anyone actually read it? By the time he wroteThe End of Mr. Y, Lumas was already an obscure writer. He’d been notorious for a while in the 1860s, and people had known his name, but then everyone lost interest in him and decided he was mad, or a crank. On one occasion he turned up at the place in Yorkshire where Charles Darwin was receiving what he called his ‘water cure’: he said something rude about barnacles and then punched Darwin in the face. This was in 1859. After that, he seemed to retreat into ever more esoteric activities, visiting mediums, exploring paranormal events, and becoming a patron of the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital. After about 1880, he seemed to stop publishing. Then he wroteThe End of Mr. Yand died the day after it was published, after everyone else who’d had something major to do with the book (the publisher, the editor, the typesetter) had also died. Thus the rumoured ‘curse’.

But there may have been other reasons for the idea of the curse. Lumas was an outlaw. He favoured the evolutionary biologist Lamarck (who said that organisms pass on learned characteristics to their offspring) over Darwin (who said they don’t), when even people like Samuel Butler – once described as ‘the greatest shit-stirrer of the nineteenth century’ – were coming around to the idea that we are all, actually, Darwinian mutants. He wrote letters toThe Timescriticising not only his contemporaries, but every major figure in the history of thought, including Aristotle and Bacon.

Lumas became very interested in the existence of a fourth spatial dimension and wrote various supernatural stories about it, somehow managing to upset people who did not believe in the existence of another dimension. His response was ‘But they are merely stories!’, although everyone knew that he used his fiction mainly as a way of working out his philosophical ideas. Most of his ideas were about the development and nature of thought, particularly scientific thought, and he often described his fictional works as ‘experiments of the mind’.

One of his most interesting stories, ‘The Blue Room’, tells of two philosophers who attend a party in a mansion. Somehow they get lost on their way to play billiards with the host and end up in a blue room in the (supposedly) haunted wing of the house. This room has two doors, on its north and south walls, and a spiral staircase in the middle. One of the philosophers says they should go up the stairs, but the other thinks they should leave via one of the doors. They can’t reach an agreement and instead end up speculating about the existence of ghosts. The first one argues that, as there are no such things as ghosts, they have nothing to fear. The second agrees that there is nothing to fear: he has never seen a ghost, and therefore has concluded that they don’t exist. Satisfied that there are no ghosts, and enthused by their agreement, the philosophers leave the room via the door they came in and try to make their way back to the party. However, the blue wing of the house seems to be arranged in a peculiar way. Once they leave the room they find a corridor leading to a spiral staircase. When they go down it, they end up back in the blue room. When they try the other door, the same thing happens. But when they go up the staircase, they simply find one of the doors.

Whichever way they go, they end up back in the blue room.

There have been a few academic papers written about Lumas as a historical figure, and maybe ten about his novel,The Apple in the Garden. There have been no biographies. Back in the 1990s, a

couple of Californian Queer theorists claimed him, or at least his journals, in which one can find, among other things, half-finished homoerotic sonnets about some of Shakespeare’s male characters. But I don’t know what happened to the Queer theorists. Perhaps they lost interest in Lumas. Most people do. As far as I know, hardly anything has ever been written aboutThe End of Mr. Y. What has been written has all been by Saul Burlem.


Page 3

‘The Curse of Mr. Y’ was the subject of Burlem’s paper at the conference in Greenwich eighteen months ago, delivered to an audience of four people, including me. Burlem hadn’t then readThe End of Mr. Y, but instead talked about the probable invention of the ‘curse’ story. He had a rough, sandpaper voice, and a slight stoop that somehow wasn’t unattractive. He talked about the idea of the curse as if it were a virus, and discussed Lumas’s body of work as if it were an organism attacked by this virus, destined, perhaps, to become extinct. He talked about information becoming contaminated by unpopularity, and eventually concluded that Lumas’s book had indeed been cursed, not in a supernatural sense, but by the opinions of people who wanted him discredited.

There was a reception afterwards, in the Painted Hall. It was packed in there: a popular scientist had been giving a talk at the same time as Burlem, and he was holding court in the large Lower Hall, underneath an image of Copernicus. I had considered going to his talk instead, but I was glad I’d chosen Burlem’s. The other people from Burlem’s talk – two guys who looked a bit like a pair of tax inspectors except for their almost white-blond hair, and a sixtyish woman with pink-streaked grey hair – hadn’t hung around, so Burlem and I started on the red wine, drinking too fast, hiding away in the far corner of the Upper Hall. Burlem was wearing a long grey wool trench coat over his black shirt and trousers. I can’t remember what I was wearing.

‘So would you read it, then?’ I asked him, referring, of course, toThe End of Mr. Y.

‘Of course,’ he said, with his odd smile. ‘Would you?’ ‘Absolutely. Especially after this.’

‘Good,’ he said.

Burlem didn’t seem to know anyone in the Lower Hall, and neither did I. Neither of us attempted to leave our corner and mingle: I’m not very good at it and often offend people by accident; I don’t know what Burlem’s reason was – maybe he just hadn’t been offended by me yet. The whole time I was in the Painted Hall I felt a bit like part of a huge box of chocolates, with the browns, creams, golds and reds of the vast paintings seeming to melt around me. Perhaps Burlem and I were the hard centres that no one was interested in. No one else came to the Upper Hall the whole time we were there.

‘I can’t believe more people didn’t come to your talk,’ I said.

‘No one knows Lumas exists,’ he said. ‘I’m used to it.’

‘I suppose you were up against Mr. Famous, as well,’ I said.

Burlem smiled. ‘Jim Lahiri. He’s probably never heard of Lumas, either.’

‘No,’ I agreed. I’d read Lahiri’s best-selling popular science book about the end of time, and knew he wouldn’t approve of Lumas even if he had heard of him. Popular science can say some pretty wild things these days, but the supernatural is still out, as is Lamarck. You can have as many dimensions as you want, as long as none of them contains ghosts, telepathy, anything that fucks with Charles Darwin, or anything that Hitler liked (apart from Charles Darwin).

Burlem picked up the bottle of wine, refilled both our glasses, and then frowned at me. ‘So why are you here? Are you a student? If you’re working on Lumas, I should probably know who you are.’

‘I’m not working on Lumas,’ I said. ‘I write these little articles for a magazine calledSmoke. You may not have heard of it. I’ll probably write one on Lumas after this, but I don’t think that counts as “working on” in your sense.’ I paused, but Burlem didn’t say anything. ‘He’s a great person to write about, though, even on a small scale. His stuff ’s pretty compulsive. I mean, even without the

controversies and the curse, it’s still amazing.’

‘It is,’ said Burlem. ‘That’s why I’m working on a biography.’ After he said the word ‘biography’, he looked first at the ground and then up at the painted ceiling high above our heads. I must have been frowning or something, because when he looked back at me he smiled in a crooked, apologetic way. ‘I hate biography,’ he said.

I laughed. ‘So why are you writing one?’

He shrugged. ‘Lumas got me hooked. The only way to write about his texts seems to be to write a biography of his life. It might sell. There’s a vogue for digging up these nineteenth-century eccentrics at the moment and I might as well cash in on it. The department could do with some funding. I could do with some bloody funding.’

‘The department?’

‘Of English and American Studies.’ He told me the name of the university.

‘Have you started on it?’ I asked him.

He nodded. ‘Yeah. Unfortunately there’s only one biographical detail about Lumas that really does it for me.’

‘The punch?’ I suggested, thinking of Darwin, imagining, for some reason, a huge splashing sound as he fell over after Lumas hit him.

‘No.’ He looked up at the ceiling again. ‘Have you read Samuel Butler at all?’

‘Oh, yes,’ I nodded. ‘Yes – that’s actually how I came to read Lumas. There was a reference in Butler’sNotebooks.’

‘You were reading Butler’sNotebooks?’

‘Yeah. I like all the stuff about the sugared Hamlets.’

Actually, what I like about Butler is the same thing I like about Lumas: the outlaw status and the brilliant ideas. Butler’s big thing was consciousness; he thought that since we evolved from organic vegetable matter, our consciousness must at some point have emerged from nothing. If we had developed out of nowhere like this, then why couldn’t machines? I’d been reading about this only a couple of weeks before.

‘Sugared Hamlets?’ said Burlem.

‘Yeah. These sweets they were selling in London. Little sweets in the shape of Hamlet holding a skull, dipped in sugar. How great is that?’

Burlem laughed. ‘I bet Butler thought that was hilarious.’ ‘Yeah. That’s why I like him. I like his sense of the absurd.’

‘So presumably you know the rumours about him and Lumas?’ ‘No. What rumours?’

‘That they were lovers; or at least that Lumas was infatuated with Butler.’ ‘I had no idea,’ I said. Then I smiled. ‘Does it matter?’

‘Probably not. But it leads to the biographical detail I’m most interested in.’ ‘Which is?’

‘Have you readThe Authoress of the Odyssey?’ ‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘The Authoress… ?’

‘You must read it. It’s Butler arguing thatThe Odysseywas written by a woman. It’s fucking brilliant.’ Burlem ran his hand through his hair and went on: ‘Butler published his own translation ofThe Odysseyalongside it, with some black-and-white plates showing photographs he took of old coins, and landscapes relevant toThe Odyssey. One of the landscapes, supposedly the basis for the tidal inlet up which Ulysses swam, has a man and a dog in the distance. In the introduction to the book, Butler goes out of his way to apologise for this, and to say that they only appeared when he developed the negative; that they weren’t supposed to be there.’

‘Wow,’ I said, not sure where this was leading. ‘So …’ ‘The man in the picture is Lumas. I’m sure of it.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t even know if they travelled together. But the way the man appears in the developed photograph, previously unseen … You can’t see the figure well enough to tell who it is but

… What if it was Lumas? What if it was even his ghost, but before he was dead? I may be a little drunk. Sorry. He had a dog, though, called Erasmus.’

At this point Burlem did a jerky thing with his head, as if he was trying to get water out of one of his ears. He frowned, as if considering a difficult question, and then made another face, suggesting that maybe the question didn’t matter, anyway. Then he raised an eyebrow, smiled, walked over to the table and got another bottle of wine. While he did that, I looked at the vast image beyond him, painted on the back wall. The scene showed what seemed to be a king descending from heaven, alighting on some reddish, carpeted stairs. The stairs almost appeared to be part of the room rather than the painting, and the figures in the image looked like they might be using them to step into reality; into the present.

‘Lumas can drive you a bit crazy,’ he said, when he returned.

‘I like the idea of the photograph, though,’ I said. ‘It reminds me of that story of his, “The Daguerreotype”.’

‘You’ve read that?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah. I think it’s my favourite.’ ‘How on earth did you get hold of it?’

‘I got that one on eBay. It was in a collection. I’ve got almost all of Lumas’s books, apart fromThe End of Mr. Y. I found a lot of them on secondhand-book sites.’

‘And this is all for a magazine article?’

‘Yeah. I do it pretty intensively. For a month I’ll live and breathe, say, Samuel Butler. Then I’ll find some link from him to take me to the next piece. The column is called Free Association. I started with the Big Bang about three years ago.’

Burlem laughs. ‘And what did that lead to?’

‘The properties of hydrogen, the speed of light, relativity, quantum mechanics, probability theory, Schrödinger’s cat, the wavefunction, light, the luminiferous ether – which is my personal favourite – experiment, paradox …’

‘So you’re a scientist? You understand all that stuff?’

I laughed. ‘God, no. Not at all. I wish I did. I probably shouldn’t have started with the Big Bang, but when you do, that’s what you get. At some point I went from artificial intelligence to Butler, and now here I am with Lumas. While I’m working on him I’ll probably decide on what link I’m going to follow through next so I can order all the books. I might do something about the history of photography, actually, following through from “The Daguerreotype”. Or I might follow it through to the fourth dimension, and that Zollner book, although that takes me back to science again.’

In ‘The Daguerreotype’, a man wakes up to find a copy of his house in a park across the road, with a large group of people gathered around it. Where has the house come from? People immediately accuse the man of losing his mind and arranging to have a copy of his house built in the park overnight. He points out that this is impossible. Who could have a whole house built overnight? Also, the house in the park does not seem new. It is in fact an exact copy of the ‘real’ house, down to some scuffing on the door panels, and some tarnish on the brass knocker. The only thing that’s different is that his key doesn’t work, and the keyhole seems to be blocked by something. The man initially tries to ignore the house, but soon it takes over his life and he has to try to work out where it has come from. Because of the house in the park he loses his job as a teacher, and his fiancée

runs off with someone else. The police also become involved and accuse the man of all sorts of crimes. The house has some strange properties as well, the main one being that no one can get into it. It is possible to look through the windows at the things inside – a table, a vase of flowers, a bureau, a piano – but no one can smash the windows or break down the door. The house behaves like a solid shape, as if it had no space inside.

One day, when the man in the story has almost lost his wits, a mysterious old man comes to his (real) house with a box full of equipment. He tells the man that he has heard of his predicament and thinks he knows what has happened. He takes out a velvet-lined folding case and explains to the man about the daguerreotype, and how it works. The man is initially impatient. Everyone knows how daguerreotypes work! But then his visitor makes an impossible claim. If humans, three-dimensional beings, can create two-dimensional versions of the things around us, would it be too impossible to assume that four-dimensional beings could make something like a daguerreotype machine of their own, but one that produces not flat, two-dimensional copies of things, but three-dimensional ones? The man is angry and throws the photographer out of the house, thinking that there must be another explanation. However, he is unable to find one and later comes to the conclusion that his visitor must have been right. He finds the man’s card and resolves to call on him immediately. But when the maid lets him into the man’s house, he finds something very strange. The photographer seems to be standing in the drawing room, holding the daguerreotype machine. But it’s not the real man; it’s a lifeless copy.

‘You know what I love about “The Daguerreotype”?’ Burlem said.

‘What?’

‘The unresolved ending. I like it that the man never does find his answer.’

Up until that moment there had been no music in the Painted Hall, just the crackle of voices and laughter echoing around the large rooms. But someone must have remembered that they were supposed to have music on, and the first heavy notes of Handel’sDixit Dominusseeped into the hall, followed by the first line, with all the choral voices tumbling over themselves:Dixit Dominus Domino meo, sede a dextris meis.

‘So,’ Burlem said, raising his voice over the music, ‘you work full-time at this magazine, then?’ ‘No. I just write my column every month.’

‘Is that all you do?’ ‘For the moment, yes.’ ‘Can you live on that?’

‘Just about. The magazine’s doing pretty well. I can afford my rent and a few bags of lentils every month. And some books, too, of course.’

The magazine started as a small thing, edited by this woman I met at university. Now there’s a distribution deal and it’s given away in every big record shop in the country. It has proper advertising now, and a designer who doesn’t use glue to put the layouts together.

‘What did you do at university? Not science, I take it.’

‘No. English lit and philosophy. But I am seriously thinking of going back to do science. I think I’m probably going to apply to do theoretical physics.’ I explained that I wanted to be able to actually understand things like relativity, and Schrödinger’s cat, and that I wanted to try to revive the dear old ether. I think I was feeling a bit drunk, so I wittered on about the luminiferous ether for some time. Burlem was familiar with it – it turned out that he ran the nineteenth-century Literature and Science MA at the university – but I still went on at length about how fascinating it was that for ages people couldn’t work out how light could travel in a vacuum, considering that sound couldn’t (you can see a bell in a vacuum, but you can’t hear it go ding). In the nineteenth century people believed that light travelled through something invisible – the luminiferous ether. In 1887 Albert Michelson


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and Edward Morley set out to prove that the ether existed, but in the end they had to conclude that it didn’t. While talking to Burlem I couldn’t, of course, remember the date of this experiment, or the names of the scientists, but I did remember the way Michelson referred to the lost object of his experiment as the ‘beloved old ether, which is now abandoned, though I personally still cling a little to it’. I got a bit excited about how much poetry there was in theoretical physics, and then I went on for a bit about how much I like institutions: especially ones with big libraries.

And then Burlem interrupted and said: ‘Don’t do that. Fuck theoretical physics. Come and do a PhD with me. I’m assuming you don’t already have one?’

It was the way he said it. Fuck theoretical physics.

‘What would I do it on?’ I said.

‘What are you interested in?’

I laughed. ‘Everything?’ I shrugged. ‘I think that’s my problem. I want to know everything.’ I must have been drunk to admit that. At least I didn’t go further and say that I want to know everything because of the high probability that if you know everything, there’ll be something to actually believe in.

‘Come on,’ Burlem said. ‘What’s your thing?’ ‘My thing?’

He took a gulp of wine. ‘Yeah.’

‘I don’t think I know what my thing is yet. That’s the whole point of the magazine column. It’s about free association. I’m good at that.’

‘So you start at the Big Bang and work your way through science until you end up at Lumas. There must be a connection between all the things you’ve written about.’

I sipped some more wine. ‘Lumas’s ideas about the fourth dimension are particularly interesting. I mean, he didn’t exactly pre-empt string theory, but …’

‘What’s string theory?’

I shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me. That’s why I want to do theoretical physics. At least, I think I do.’ Burlem laughed. ‘For fuck’s sake. Come on. Find the connection.’

I thought for a moment. ‘I suppose almost everything I’ve written about has had some connection with thought experiments, or “experiments of the mind”, as Lumas called them.’

‘Good. And?’

‘Um. I don’t know. But I quite like the way you can talk about science without necessarily using mathematics, but using metaphors instead. That’s how I’ve been approaching all my columns. For each of these ideas and theories, you find there’s a little story that goes with it.’

‘Interesting. Give me an example.’

‘Well, there’s Schrödinger’s cat, of course. Everyone can understand that a cat in a box can’t be alive and dead at the same time – but hardly anyone can understand the same principle expressed mathematically. Then there are Einstein’s trains. All of his thoughts about special relativity seem to have been expressed in terms of trains. I love that. And whenever people want to understand the fourth dimension nowadays, they still go back toFlatland, which was written in 1880-whatever. I suppose you can look at Butler that way, too.Erewhonis basically a thought experiment intended to work out ideas about society and machines.’

‘So write a proposal. Do a PhD on these experiments of the mind: I’d be very interested in supervising that. Work in some more novels and poetry. I’d recommend looking at Thomas Hardy and Tennyson, as well. Make sure you don’t get too carried away. Set a time frame, or some other sort of limit. Don’t do a history of thought experiments from the beginning of time. Do, say, 1859 to 1939 or something. Start with Darwin and end with, I don’t know, the atom bomb.’

‘Or Schrödinger’s cat. I think that was in the thirties. The bomb is too real; I mean, it’s where the

thought experiment becomes reality, really.’

‘Maybe.’ Burlem ran his hand over the stubble on his face. ‘So, anyway, what do you think? I reckon we could sign you up pretty easily. You have an MA?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Superb. So let’s do it. I can get you some teaching as well, if you want.’ ‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously.’ Burlem gave me his card. At the top it had his name in bold and then: Professor of English Literature.

So I wrote the proposal and fell in love with my idea. But then … I don’t know. When I went to start working with Burlem, he seemed to have gone cold on the idea of Lumas. My proposal had been accepted, of course – I was planning to look at the language and form of thought experiments, fromZoonomiato Schrödinger’s cat – and everything was fine with Burlem until I mentioned Lumas.

When I did, he stopped making eye contact with me. He looked out of the window, now my window, and said nothing. I made some joke relating to our conversation at the conference, something like ‘So, has the curse claimed any more victims, then?’, and he looked at me and said, ‘Forget that paper, OK? Leave Lumas until later.’ He recommended that I start by focusing on the actual thought experiments: Schrödinger’s cat, Einstein’sRelativityand Edwin A. Abbot’s bookFlatland. He also persuaded me to leave outZoonomia, Charles Darwin’s grandfather’s book about evolution, and begin later, in 1859, whenThe Origin of Specieswas published. He also reminded me to look at some more poetry. I had no idea what was wrong with him, but I went along with it all. And then, a week later, he was gone.

So now here I am, unsupervised, like an experiment with no observer – Fleming’s plate of mould, perhaps, or an uncollapsed wavefunction – and what am I doing? I’m reading Lumas. I’m readingThe End of Mr. Y, for God’s sake. Fuck you, Burlem.

THREE

THEEND OFMR. Y

BYTHOMASE. LUMAS

PREFACE

THE DISCOURSE WHICH FOLLOWSmay appear to the reader as mere fancy or as a dream, penned on waking, in those fevered moments when one is still mesmerised by those conjuring tricks that are produced in the mind once the eyes are closed. Those readers should not abandon their scepticism, for it is their will to seek to peer behind the Conjuror’s curtain, as it is the will of man to ask those peculiar whats, and wheres and hows of life. Of life, as of dreams. Of image, as of word. As thought, as of speech.

When one looks at the illusions of the world, one sees only the world. For where does illusion end? Indeed, what is there in life that is not a conjuring trick? From the petrifactions that men find on the seashore to the Geissler tube recently seen at the Royal Society, all about us seems filled with fancies and wonders. As Robert-Houdin has built automata with which to produce his illusions, I shall here propose to create an automaton of mind, through which one may see illusions and realities beyond; from which one, if he knows how, may spring into the automata of all minds and their electricity. We may ask what illusion is, and what form may it take, when it is so easy to dive into its depths, like a fish into a pool, and when the ripples that emerge are not ripples of illusion nor ripples of reality but indeed the ripples made by the collision of both worlds; the world of the Conjuror and the world of His audience.

Perhaps I mislead the reader by talking of the Conjuror in this manner. Let the creator become curator! And we creatures who live on in the dreams of a world made of our own thought; as we name the beasts and barnacles who creep on and cling to this most precious and mysterious earth; as we collect them in our museums, we believe ourselves curators. What folly takes light through ether to each eye from every horizon. And beyond this is not truth but what we have made truth; yet this is a truth we cannot see.

Can this place – this place where dreams and automata are one, where the very fibres of being are conjured from memories no more real or unreal than the dream in which we may observe them, and fish with noses and jaws and skin made only of thought play on the surface of the pooled fancies of our maker – can this place be real, created as it is in Aristotle’s metaphora?

Indeed, for it is only in thelogosofmetaphorathat we are to find theprotasisof the past, that glorious illusion which we call memory, that curtain of destiny, drawn tightly over the conscious

mind but present in every fibre of being, from sea-creature to man, from pebble to ocean, as Lamarck and E. Darwin have maintained. Can this place be real? Perhaps not. For this reason, it is only as fiction that I wish this work to be considered.

T. E. Lumas, July 1892

PROLOGUE

I see ahead a time-wrought shore; A fishing boat lifts on a wave;

No footprints on the sandy floor, Beyond – an unfamiliar cave.

Or – forest tree’d with oak and yew A dark mare waits to carry me, Where nothing stirs yet all is true,

A cabin door and here – the key!

Perhaps I’ll wander in a field, With poppy-flush on carpet green:

However thought has been concealed No sleeper’s eye can now undream.

In any place that I take flight The dark will mutate into light.

I finish reading the preface at about nine o’clock. ‘It is only as fiction that I wish this work to be considered.’ That’s how the preface ends. What does that mean? Surely anyone would read a novel as fiction, anyway?


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The main narrative begins with a businessman, Mr. Y, visiting a fairground in the rain. But I don’t read properly now. Instead I skim the first couple of chapters, reading the odd sentence here and there. I like the first line: ‘By the end I would be nobody, but in the beginning I was known as Mr. Y.’ I keep flicking through the book until I reach the end (which, of course, I don’t read), mainly just because I like the feel of the pages, and then I turn back to the first chapter. It’s while I’m flicking backwards that I see it. There’s a page missing from the book. Between the verso page 130 and the recto page 133 there is simply a jagged paper edge. Pages 131 and 132, two sides of one folio page, are missing.

I don’t quite believe it at first. Who would want to rip a page out ofThe End of Mr. Ylike this? Is it simply vandalism? I carefully check the rest of the book. There are no other missing pages, nor any other obvious sign that somebody wanted to damage it. So why rip out a page? Did someone not like that page? Or did they steal it? But if you were going to steal a page from a book, why not steal the whole book? It’s too confusing. I shiver, wishing it would heat up in here.

Downstairs, I hear the squeal of the main door that suggests Wolfgang is back. Then, a few seconds later, there’s a soft tap at my door.

‘It’s open,’ I call, puttingThe End of Mr. Yaway.

Wolfgang is small and blond and was born in East Berlin. I don’t think he ever washes his hair. Today, he’s wearing what he always wears when he plays at the hotel: a pair of pale blue jeans, a

white shirt and a dark blue suit jacket. When I first met Wolfgang, on the day I moved into this flat, he told me he was so depressed he couldn’t even get the enthusiasm together to kill himself. I became worried and started doing small, life-enhancing things for him, such as making him soup and offering to bring him books from the university library. For ages he said yes to the soup and no to the books, but recently he’s been asking me for poetry: Ginsberg and Bukowski mainly.

As Wolfgang walks into the flat, I keep thinking of Lumas’s words: ‘Of life, as of dreams.’ Shall I tell Wolfgang about the book? Perhaps later.

He grins at me sadly. ‘Oh, well. I’m rich in one universe. Are you cooking baked potatoes for me?’ The ‘rich in one universe’ thing is something I told him. It’s what the Russian physicist George Gamow said after he lost all his money in an American casino. It means that, as usual, Wolfgang has gambled his tips away in the hotel casino. In a parallel universe, perhaps, some other version of him has won thousands of pounds.

‘Mmm,’ I say back. ‘Potatoes with …’ I look around the kitchen. ‘Olive oil, salt. Um … I think I’ve got an onion somewhere.’

‘Great,’ he says, sitting at the kitchen table and pouring some slivovitz. ‘Gourmet.’ This is a joke between us. Very gourmet is worse, and implies a meal costing almost nothing. I can do something very gourmet with lentils; Wolfgang’s very gourmet meals usually include fried cabbage.

I open the oven and take out the potatoes. ‘I suppose you could say I’m rich in one universe, too,’ I say, through the steam and heat. I put the baking tray on the counter and smile at Wolfgang.

He raises a blond eyebrow at me. ‘You’ve gambled also?’

‘No.’ I laugh. ‘I bought a book. I’ve got about five quid left until the magazine pays me at the end of the month. It was … it was quite an expensive book.’

‘Is it a good book?’

‘Yes. Oh, yes …’ But I still don’t want to tell him about it just yet. I start slicing the onion. ‘Oh – the university fell down today as well.’

‘It fell down?’ He laughs. ‘You blew it up? No. How?’

‘OK, well, it didn’t exactly all fall down, but one building did.’ ‘A bomb?’

‘No. A railway tunnel. Under the campus. It all kind of collapsed inside, and then …’

Wolfgang downs his drink and pours another. ‘Yes, I see. You build something on nothing and then it falls down. Ha.’ He laughs. ‘How many dead?’

‘None. They evacuated the building in the morning.’ ‘Oh. So is the university shut down?’

‘I don’t know. I suppose it must be, at least for the weekend.’

I mash olive oil into the potatoes and put them on the table with some olives, capers and mustard. We sit down to eat.

‘So how’s life, anyway?’ I ask him.

‘Life’s shit. No money. Too many mice. But I’ve got my afternoon shifts back.’ ‘Fantastic,’ I say. ‘What happened to Whatshername?’

A few months ago some talented kid came along and took some of Wolfgang’s shifts. From her point of view, the narrative must have been exciting: teenage girl gets life-changing opportunity playing piano in public. But it meant that Wolfgang couldn’t pay his rent and his bills, so he stopped paying his bills.

‘Pony accident.’

I smile while he fills in the details. I’m not really listening; I’m thinking about the book.

‘Oh … Wolf?’ I say, once we’ve finished eating.

‘What?’

‘Do you believe in curses?’

He looks at me with his head slightly tilted to one side. ‘Curses? Of what sort?’ ‘Like a cursed object. Can something be cursed?’

‘Now that’s interesting,’ he says. ‘You could argue that everything is cursed.’ I had a feeling he’d approach the question from this angle. ‘Yes, but …’

He pours more slivovitz. I get up to sort out some coffee.

‘Or you might ask why curses even exist. What is their purpose? I’ve been wondering this myself for a long time, ever since I first saw Wagner with Catherine.’

Wolf has a girlfriend who is aiming to ‘improve’ him by taking him to the opera.

‘I suppose maybe we have to start by defining “curse”,’ I say. ‘Is it a word or a thing?’

Wolfgang groans. He’s had enough conversations with me before that have started in this way. We usually get into an argument about Derrida and différance.

‘Stop. Please. Don’t start hurting me with your French deconstruction. Just pretend for a minute that there is something called a curse and it exists and it is a thing. Where does it come from? That’s what we need to ask.’

‘Do we?’

‘Yes. Is it something magical, or is it a prophecy that comes true because you make it come true? Or is it even just nothing at all, just a way of explaining bad things that happen to us that are actually random. I may ask: why do I have an infestation of mice? Did someone curse me? Or did I just leave too much food out one day to tempt them? Or is life just as simple asthere are mice?’

I light a cigarette. ‘I found three today.’ ‘Three what? Curses?’

I laugh. ‘No. That would be very unlucky. No. Three mice.’ ‘And you put them where? Not in the corridor again?’

‘No. Outside. In Luigi’s backyard.’

Wolf starts talking again about getting a cat. After a few minutes the coffee pot hisses and I pour the coffee.

‘Anyway,’ he says, exhaling slowly as I put the cup in front of him. ‘This is what I am wondering about curses: can they exist if we don’t believe in them?’

I laugh. ‘How is that different from what I was saying?’ ‘It’s simpler.’

‘Not if you think it through.’

As Wolf starts talking about voodoo curses, and how they only work on people who believe in voodoo, I imagine something like a Möbius strip, the shape you get if you glue together a long strip of paper with one twist in it. You could be walking along one side of this strip quite happily for ever, without ever realising that, in a strange kind of way, you kept changing ‘sides’. Just as this world once seemed flat, so your world would seem flat. You could walk for ever and not realise that you kept going back to the beginning and starting again. Even with the twist, you wouldn’t know. Your reality would change, but as far as you were concerned, you’d just be walking on a flat path. If this Möbius strip was a spatial dimension, your whole body would flip when you travelled past the twist and your heart would be on the right side of your body for a while until you looped back. I learned this from one of the physics lectures I downloaded onto my iPod. At Christmas I made myself some paper chains that were all Möbius strips. I prepared to stay in on my own all day reading and drinking wine; then Wolf came round with a huge, misshaped plum pudding and we spent the rest of the day together.

‘What if it isn’t people who make curses?’ I say.

‘Ha,’ says Wolf. ‘You think curses are made by gods.’

‘No, of course not. It’s just a hypothetical question. Can something be created in language independently of the people who use the language? Can language become a self-replicating system or …’ I’m drunk, I suddenly realise, so I shut up. But I do wonder for a moment about this idea, that something could emerge within language – an accident, or mistake, perhaps – and the users of that language would then have to deal with the consequences of this new word being part of their system of signification. I vaguely remember some radio documentary about the Holy Grail suggesting that the whole thing was just a mistake: a wrongly used word in an old French text.

We sit in silence for a while, and a train goes past outside. Then I start to clear the plates away while Wolfgang finishes his coffee.

‘So, anyway,’ I say to him, ‘you haven’t said whether or not you do.’ ‘Whether I do what?’

‘Whether you actually believe in curses, or cursed objects.’

‘It’s not whether something is cursed that’s important,’ he says. ‘You have to find out why it is cursed, and what the curse is. Let me wash up.’

‘OK.’

Wolf gets up, walks over to the sink and squirts about half the bottle of washing-up liquid over the plates. Then he runs the hot tap, swears a bit because the water never gets as hot as he likes, and eventually boils the kettle and tips its contents all over the dishes. I’m thinking about whether or not to show himThe End of Mr. Y. In the end I decide that I won’t. Before he leaves he gives me a look, as if his eyes are made of electricity, and he says: ‘You do have something, don’t you? Something you think is cursed.’

‘I don’t know,’ I say back. ‘Probably not. I’m probably just feeling a bit weird after today, with the university collapsing, and after all this cold and too much of your bloody slivovitz, and …’

‘Show me any time you like,’ he says. ‘My life can’t get any worse. Don’t worry about protecting me.’ ‘Thanks,’ I say. But … Shit. What’s happened to me? The last thing I’d thought of was protecting Wolf. I just wanted to keep the book to myself and, if I’m honest, stop him stealing it. As I go to sleep, with a dry mouth, andThe End of Mr. Yunder my other, empty pillow, I wonder if curses exist after all.

FOUR

SOMETIMESIWAKE UP WITHsuch an immense sense of disappointment that I can hardly breathe. Usually nothing has obviously triggered it and I put it down to some combination of an unhappy childhood and bad dreams (those two things go very well together). And most times I can shake it off pretty quickly. After all, there’s not much for me to be disappointed about. So I never got any of the publishing jobs I went for after university. Who cares? That was ten years ago and I’m happy with my magazine column, anyway. And I don’t really care that my mother ran away with a bunch of freaks and my father lives in a hostel up north and my sister doesn’t even send me Christmas cards any more. I don’t care that my ex-housemates all got married and left me on my own. I like being on my own – that wasn’t the problem – I just couldn’t afford to do it in the big house in Hackney that seemed to sprout empty rooms like baby universes. Coming here has meant that I have been able to just get on with being on my own and reading my books, so it’s hardly as if I have anything to be sad or disappointed about.

Sometimes I like to think that I live with ghosts. Not from my own past – I don’t believe in those sorts of ghosts – but wispy bits of ideas and books that hang in the air like silk puppets. Sometimes I think I see my own ideas floating around, too, but they usually don’t last long. They’re more like mayflies: they’re born, big and gleaming, and then they fly around, buzzing like crazy before they simply fall to the floor, dead, about twenty-four hours later. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought anything original anyway, so I don’t mind. Usually I find that Derrida has already thought of whatever it is, which seems like a very grand thing to say, but actually Derrida’s not that hard; it’s just his writing that’s dense. And now he’s a ghost, too. Or perhaps he always was – I never met him, so how can I be sure he was real? Some of the most friendly ghosts I live with are those of my favourite nineteenth-century science writers. Most of them were wrong, of course, but who cares? It’s not like this is the end of history. We’re all wrong.

Sometimes I try my own thought experiment, which goes as follows: what if everyone is actually right? Aristotle and Plato; David and Goliath; Hobbes and Locke; Hitler and Gandhi; Tom and Jerry. Could that ever make sense? And then I think about my mother and I think that no, not everyone is right. To paraphrase the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, she wasn’t even wrong. Maybe that’s where human society is now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century: not even wrong. The nineteenth- century crowd were wrong, on the whole, but we’re somehow doing worse than that. We’re now living with the uncertainty principle and the incompleteness theorem and philosophers who say that the world has become a simulacrum – a copy without an original. We live in a world where nothing may be real; a world of infinite closed systems and particles that could be doing anything you like (but probably aren’t).

Maybe we’re all like my mother. I don’t like to think about her, or my childhood, too much, but it can be summed up fairly quickly. We lived on a council estate where reading books was seen as the most disgusting combination of laziness and hubris and only my mother and I – as far as I know – had library cards. While the other kids had sex with each other (from about eight years old) and the other adults drank, gambled, bred violent dogs and mangy cats, and thought up ways to get rich

and famous, my mother occasionally took me to the library and left me in the kids’ area while she researched the meaning of life via books on astrology, faith healing and telepathy. If it hadn’t been for her, I probably wouldn’t have even known that libraries existed. That’s the only good thing she ever did for me. At night she used to sit downstairs in her pink dressing gown waiting for aliens, while my dad would take me to the park and photograph me picking up aluminium benches and writing graffiti on the walls of the subway, so he could send the pictures to the local paper as proof that the council was losing the war against hooligans. My father, who was at his best when approximately fifty per cent sober and used to buy me toy cars and football stickers, believed everything was a government conspiracy. My mother believed that the conspiracy went higher than that. They taught me that everything you are told by anyone is a lie. But then it turned out that they lied, too.


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It’s not that I didn’t enjoy hanging around with the other kids, playing chicken in the main road, stealing rich children’s bikes, setting fire to things and letting the older boys grope me for fifty pence a go. In fact, I got pretty rich on the money and was eventually able to buy a bike that didn’t have to be given back or dumped in the river. After that I gave up sex and rode to the library every day. That was when I got into the habit of binge-reading. It’s easy to do when you spend hours of every day surrounded by more books than you can ever read. You start one, but you’re distracted by the idea that you could, equally, have started a different one. By the end of the day you’ve skimmed two and started four and read the ends of about seven. You can read your way through a library like that without ever properly finishing any of the books. I did finish novels, though. But I wasn’t one of those kids who read Tolstoy. I read the kinds of adult books that they didn’t let you actually borrow. The grammar school started off feeling sorry for me, with my secondhand uniform and my weird hair. But (thanks, Mum; thanks, Dad) I wasn’t allowed to attend assembly and never believed anything I was taught, which made me stand out as one of the ‘difficult’ children. I also had to do my own laundry after I was about thirteen, and usually I didn’t bother. The other kids didn’t care that my shirt collars were grubby, or that my too-short skirt hadn’t been ironed in weeks. But the teachers would occasionally take me to one side and say things like, ‘Maybe you could mention to your mother that school uniform should be … ?’ My mother? You could communicate with her, in theory, but only if you had a CB radio and could do a convincing impression of something from outer space.

So I did what you’d expect and ran away to university as soon as I could. But I couldn’t even do that properly. I expect that someone in my position should have sat on a coach quietly readingJane Eyreand occasionally sobbing into a handkerchief as she considered the nasty stains on her life. I drove down the M4 to Oxford in a car with no tax disc, stopping on the way to have a torrid weekend affair with a biker, get a tattoo, and have my broken tooth replaced with a silver one.

I sit up in bed slowly, feeling the disappointment trickle away like puddles after a rain shower. I have an old coffee-making alarm clock that I got from a jumble sale, so I’m able to lie in bed sipping thick black coffee while this happens and the fog of sleep and slivovitz hangover slowly thins out. I think it’s fair to say I hate mornings. I hate the honesty of the morning; the time before your consciousness switches on the light and gets rid of all the nasty shadows. Yuck. But my coffee’s OK.The End of Mr. Y. I take it out from under my pillow and slowly start reading from the beginning of the main narrative. I read the first line several times: ‘By the end I would be nobody, but in the beginning I was known as Mr. Y.’ Then I read on. The story begins with the protagonist, a respectable draper, on his way to Nottingham on the train. He has some business there the following morning. Once there, he can’t help but notice that the annual Goose Fair has taken over the town, and, the following day, after his business is concluded, he happens to wander past it.

There was a persistent drizzle hanging over the town, as if it were being gently smothered by a damp veil. Having no previous experience of anything like the Goose Fair, I nevertheless willed myself to avoid what I felt certain would be the most diabolical sort of entertainment, and instead resolved to find a respectable establishment in which to take tea. However, I soon found myself drawn into the fair, as if by mesmerism. It comprised side-shows and stalls with several mechanical attractions, and, fringed by the ramshackle vehicles of its considerable staff of animal trainers, performers and penny-showmen, extended to the edges of the Market Square. Once within its perimeter, it felt somewhat as though I had entered another world, one perceptibly warmer, and, once under cover of the various tents and stalls, certainly drier than the one I had just left. Curiosity’s crooked finger beckoned me further. A hand-bill, tacked to a post and flapping in the breeze, informed me of the appearance at the fair of Wombwell’s Menagerie, and assured me that this was the Queen’s favourite exhibition. Other gaudy posters alerted me to such spectacles as the Strange Girl, the Indian Snake Charmer, the Wonderful Talking Horse, a Beautiful Serpentine Dancer on a Rolling Globe with Lime-light Effects and Professor England’s Performing Fleas, including an ‘entirely new and original novelty’: the Funeral of the Flea.

The breeze reduced as I proceeded further into the fair, although the air seemed to darken and thicken despite the freshly illuminated naphtha lamps which hung from the openings to the tents, and which decorated the frontispieces of the various stalls. A glance upward confirmed the appearance of the darkest rain-cloud I had ever seen. Eager to escape a thorough drenching, I looked for a covered diversion. I soon came upon a wax-work exhibition, outside which stood figures of the most unhealthy complexion I have ever seen. This seemed singularly unappealing, as did the promise of the ‘living skeleton’ just beyond, so I continued onwards towards a tent in which there were taking place, a young woman promised me as I walked past, marionette shows of the very highest quality. She was playing an organ; an old, battered thing from which emanated the most harrowing bombilations. I was informed that the next show was about to start and, mostly out of pity for the girl, I paid my penny and went in. The show turned out to be a trivial moral spectacle involving a pair of village idiots who are stuck on a country road with a donkey that will not move. At some point the devil appears and offers to help the idiots. Needless to say, the story did not end well. The tent in which this took place was made from canvas, and included a small proscenium of a somewhat mouldy appearance, made of what seemed to be packing boxes draped with two pieces of worn black velvet. The closed space soon overwhelmed me with its peculiar olfactory mixture of old snuff, tobacco, treacle, sour milk and pomade and I was pleased when the show was complete.

I left the marionette show to find that the rain-cloud was, as I had feared, spilling its contents with an alarming intensity. In my attempt to keep dry, I found myself part of a crowd that had gathered under a dirty white canopy to the left of the marionette tent. There a man was offering an entertainment which he called ‘Pik-a-Straw’. He had, he claimed, various envelopes containing a secret so grave that the authorities would not let him sell them. Instead, he was selling – quite legitimately, he assured us – lengths of straw. The person to choose a long length of straw would win one of the envelopes. He who had the ill-fortune to pick a short straw would win nothing. The straws were a penny each. I observed several gentlemen and one lady approach him. Of these, the lady and two of the gentlemen drew the longer straws and were handed an envelope each. All eyes were on them as they drew out the paper from within and, after considering the contents for a few moments, made startled exclamations. I wasn’t about to be fooled by such an old trick, and I felt pleased when my suspicions were confirmed by a more thorough examination of the lady in question. The mud on her shoes,

combined with the redness and strength of her hands, suggested that she was either engaged in service, or she was a fair-ground girl. A wink from her accomplice soon confirmed the latter. Having turned away from this spectacle, my eyes were soon drawn to a far more intriguing advertisement outside a large marquee. It told of something called a Spectral Opera, featuring Pepper’s Ghost and Gompertz’s Spectrescope, and boasted royal patronage. It was a ghost show, the sort of entertainment I had heard men talk of in my club, but which I myself had never attended. Bowing my head under the pounding rain, I ventured out from under the canopy and towards the tent, which, after climbing several steps, I entered.

The make-shift theatre was half full and the lights dimmed as soon as I had alighted on the hard wooden bench. Shortly thereafter, the beginning of the performance was heralded by the most singularly spectral and dissonant music I have ever heard. I was reminded of a music box from my childhood, a small, silver contraption, used primarily by one of my sisters as a church organ for the extravagant funerals of broken dolls and dead mice. Soon, still bathed in this eerie music, I was able to behold a truly intriguing spectacle, as, by some ingenious science, transparent phantoms did indeed appear on the stage. There were three of them, each the height and breadth of a living man, but with flesh as pale and insubstantial as a dandelion clock. At first I half believed these to be actors in particularly perlaceous costumes; they were of human form and did not jerk about like marionettes. Indeed, they appeared to float across the stage, with their feet never touching the board beneath them. Then, quite suddenly, a solid actor strode onto the stage and put a sword through the nearest phantom with neither resistance, nor blood. I confess that I, along with the other members of the audience, let out a gasp of horror as the sword penetrated the frail and pitiable body of the ghost. It was at this moment that my reason must have deserted me. After the show was complete, I confess I dawdled, hoping for some indication of the construction of this elaborate hoax. I did not then believe in ghosts, and I had no doubt that science and reason were behind this display of phantasmagoria, but I became frustrated that I could not deduce the method for myself.

Very soon I was left alone in the tent with a thin-framed man. He walked over to me slowly and pointed in the direction of the stage.

‘It is certainly an intriguing spectacle,’ he said.

‘Indeed it is,’ I concurred.

‘And it is my guess that you are trying to find an explanation for it.’ ‘Yes,’ I said.

The man was silent for a moment, as if he was making a calculation.

‘For two shillings I will show you.’

Before I had even had time to protest at the price, I was following the man towards the stage. At first I believed that he was going to show me the mechanics of the illusion, and explain it in that manner: by a simple demonstration. Instead, he led me through a flap in the tent into a smaller canvas structure in which there was a medicine chest balanced on a small table along with a large lamp, a more vulgar example of which I had never seen. Its ceramic base seemed to combine the deep variegated reds of an old wound, and on this base were painted sickly yellow flowers of a sort, I felt certain, not known to nature. From the rim of its ceramic shade dangled several glass beads, clearly intended to refract the light in the manner of a chandelier, but in fact only managing to create an eerie spattering of shadow on the back of the tent.

Beyond the table was a slab that looked like a closed coffin, but which I assumed was intended as some sort of bed.

‘I don’t believe I caught your name,’ I said.

‘You can think of me as the fair-ground doctor,’ said he. ‘And you?’

His manner made me reluctant to introduce myself in the proper way and so I simply suggested that he address me as Mr. Y.

I was suddenly overcome with the peculiar sensation that everyone else had gone home and that I was the only man left at the fair-ground. I could hear the many fists of rain beating on the top of the tent but fancied that I could not hear anything else from outside: no laughter or voices. Even the infernal drone of the organ would have been welcome. I suddenly felt vexed, and I did not trust this doctor. Yet, when he motioned for me to sit on the slab I did as he suggested.

‘You wish to know the nature of the illusion you just witnessed,’ said he. ‘I can show you this, and more. But –’ Here he faltered. ‘Perhaps you do not have the constitution for the illumination I am about to offer. Perhaps –’

‘I have two shillings,’ I said to him curtly, and withdrew the money. ‘Now, do as you promised.’ The doctor opened his medicine chest and drew from it a vial of clear fluid. From this vial he poured a small measure into a glass which he then passed to me. With his other hand, he motioned to me to wait. He then withdrew another object from his chest: a white card with a small black circle at its centre. He then instructed me to drink the mixture and lie down on the slab, holding the card above my face, concentrating as hard as I could on the black spot. As I did as he asked, I wondered to what kind of trickery I was being subjected. I suspected mesmerism of the crudest sort. Not for one second did I believe that the mixture would have any effect, nor was I aware that the rest of my life would be altered as a result of drinking it.

By eleven o’clock I have finished the first chapter ofThe End of Mr. Y. The winter sun is peeping meekly through the thin curtains and I decide to get up. It’s freezing. I pick up my jeans from the floor and quickly exchange them for my pyjama bottoms; then I put on a random jumper. As I trot down the concrete steps to get the mail, I am suddenly possessed with a feeling that I’ve forgotten something. Have I locked myself out again? No, it’s not that. My keys are in my hand. I note the take-away flyers and taxi cards without picking any of them up, and go back upstairs. What could I have forgotten?

Porridge. Coffee. A whole day of reading ahead of me. Things could be worse. I already have the sleepy feeling I get when I’m reading a good book: like I want to curl up in bed with it and forget about the non-fictional world. At some point I still have to try to work out how to survive for the next three weeks on five pounds, but that could even be fun. Once I’ve had breakfast, I dig out my packet of ginseng cigarettes and light one. In fact, I’m feeling pretty relaxed when the buzzing sound starts in my bag. It’s my mobile phone, which is broken and can no longer ring. At first I think the buzzing represents a call and so I ignore it. But the vibrating only goes on for a few seconds and I realise it’s a text message, so I go and get the phone out of my bag. There’s a little picture of an envelope on the front and I press the button that metaphorically opens it.

r you still on for 2day where shall we meet

Shit. That’s the thing I’ve forgotten. It’s Patrick. I think quickly and then text back:Cathedral crypt 5pm. I can’t not see him. I cancelled last time, and anyway he’ll probably buy me dinner. His text messages aren’t very articulate when you consider that he’s a professor of linguistics, but then again he’s the kind of person who writes his e-mails in lower-case type because he thinks it’s the done thing. I’ve been seeing Patrick for about the last three months, and in that time we have had sex less than a dozen times. But it’s good sex; intense sex; the sort of sex you can only really get with an older man who isn’t worried about whether or not you will eventually get married; the kind of sex that is had for its own sake, and not as a deposit against something one party wants to gain in the future. Patrick is already married, of course, although his wife has affairs, too, which stops me from


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feeling guilty about our arrangement. Sometimes I think through the logic of all this and realise that there must be young men out there – the equivalents of me – who want infrequent sex and companionship without the complications of love and commitment. Would I sleep with one of these guys if I could find one? Probably not. There’s something too smooth about younger men. And anyway, older men really do know how to fuck. Crude, but there you are.

I don’t think Saul Burlem was married, and maybe it’s a good thing he disappeared: I did have a bit of a thing for him after all. But it is obviously a very bad idea to sleep with your supervisor, and I could have grown to really like him, if his books and online lectures are anything to go by. I would have gone home with him on the night I met him, though, before I’d had a chance to think any of it through. Did he know that? Maybe he knew it would be a bad idea, too. After we’d talked about my PhD, I excused myself and went to find the loo. I was drunk and I did get a bit lost, but I wasn’t gone that long. I do remember an amazing corridor, though. It was this low-ceilinged, whitewashed space that felt like the inside of an antique telescope: smooth and cold. I must have walked up and down it three or four times, wishing I had a camera, or a better memory. When I got back to the Upper Hall, Burlem had gone.

By half past four I have had a bath, got dressed again – this time with more sense of purpose – and completed a short inventory of the food items I have in the house. The list isn’t very inspiring. It tells me that if I am happy to live on porridge, tinned soup and noodles, I can do so for roughly one week. Can five pounds therefore stretch to cover the remaining two weeks? I could buy a big bottle of soy sauce for about fifty pence at the market and, say, fourteen bags of slightly out-of-date noodles at twenty pence each. That would leave a bit of change that I could use to buy a large bar of bitter chocolate. But what about cigarettes and petrol? What about coffee? I can’t buy bad coffee, but I certainly can’t afford the good sort. I could drink tap water and slivovitz for the duration, I suppose. And what about vegetables? How long before I got scurvy? The idea of suffering scurvy and both nicotine and caffeine withdrawal at the same time doesn’t give me happy thoughts. Is it all going to be worth it for the book? Probably. I’d make the same decision again in any case.

Mr. Y, I think, smiling.Mr. Y.

A mouse runs across the kitchen floor and I instinctively draw my legs up and hug my knees. I’ve read so little aboutThe End of Mr. Y. All I really know about it is the curse. It’s a strange experience, coming to such an old book without the benefit of a thousand TV adaptations and study guides and reading groups. What is it about? What thought experiment of Lumas’s does it represent? And what about this question of fiction? ‘It is only as fiction that I wish this work to be considered.’ I guess I’ll have to finish the book to find out what that means.

Already, though, the fiction has become blurred. Am I Mr. Y? Do I have to be for the book to work? When I was a kid I always made an agreement with myself never to identify with main protagonists, because bad things or, more troublingly, big things tended to happen to them and I couldn’t cope with the feeling that these things were also happening to me, to the self that you project into fiction when you read. So I would decide on a secondary character that I would ‘be’ for the duration of the book. Sometimes I died; sometimes I turned out to be evil. But I never had to take centre stage.

Now I’m older, I read more conventionally. Right now I’m scared for Mr. Y/me and I feel as though it must be raining outside, even though it isn’t. How does his/my/our life change as a result of drinking this potion? I remember the missing page and suddenly it means more, now that I am involved in the story. I hope I can work out the bit that’s missing. And I hope that Mr. Y’s end isn’t too painful, although I suspect it will be. Lumas’s books and stories never have anything like a happy ending.

I leave the house at about twenty to five and start walking up Castle Street towards the cathedral. In this town you can see the cathedral from almost anywhere. When I was new here, I used it to

navigate by. The sun has almost completely set, and the sky behind the pale gold spires is smeared with a cold, waxy pink. As on any other Saturday afternoon in winter, I walk past shops advertising the football scores, and young academics out buying a paper or something for dinner. My breath freezes in the air in front of me and I wonder when the university will be open again. I think of the free heat in my office, and the free coffee in the staff kitchen. OK – the coffee’s not really free: you are supposed to pay about five pence a time, I think, but most of us just put in a pound or two when we remember. Will Patrick buy me dinner? I can’t see why not. I usually insist on paying half, but I just won’t today.

Only a couple of weeks ago the courtyard outside the cathedral was full of carollers and Christmas shoppers; now the space is virtually empty. The cobbles have taken on a dark, pinkish hue in the sunset, and I hurry across them and through the Christ Church entrance. Then I cross the precinct gardens and enter the cathedral. I walk up the left-hand side of the nave towards the crypt and then down the stairs into its pale stone interior. I love the cathedral crypt, despite (or even because of) what happened here, which feels more like a story than a real thing. I love the soft, hollow sounds of the few people walking around, and the single candle burning in the Chapel of Our Lady Undercroft. A while ago it felt like everything in London was being blown up and the prayer desk seemed only to contain Post-it notes asking for world peace. I would come here just to sit quietly, but I’d always read the prayers first. I remember once imagining a bomb going off in the cathedral itself. But the place is so vast, and the walls so solid, that it would surely have as little effect as a firework.

Patrick is standing by the Eastern Crypt, so I walk over to him.

‘Hello,’ he says quietly, kissing me on both cheeks.

‘Hi,’ I whisper back.

‘This is a rather sombre meeting place,’ he says, raising an eyebrow. I smile. ‘I know. Sorry. I just wanted to light a candle, then we’ll go.’

I walk over to the small altar and pick a small tealight candle from the box underneath it. I put forty pence in the collection slot. I’m not sure why I am even lighting a candle: it’s not something I’ve made a habit of in the past. There’s no breeze in here, but I watch the small flame of my candle flicker uncertainly for about half a minute before it seems to decide not to go out and starts to glow, uniformly, along with the others. I look at it for a moment and then turn away, wondering what happens to all the energy generated in places like this. It’s as if we make God ourselves out of all that energy. Is God made from the thoughts of people, or are people made from the thoughts of God? I’m sure I came across that idea in my research, but I can’t remember where.

FIVE

PATRICK HAS BOOKED A HOTELsomewhere over by the ring road. We walk through town to the underpass and then, once we come out from that, down the main road towards the hotel. This is a night-time space, with neon signs hanging off takeaways, video shops, late-night supermarkets and nightclubs. We check in and walk up a broad wooden staircase to our room, which is airy and clean, if a bit shabby with age. While Patrick changes, I stand in the bathroom contemplating myself in the mirror. Am I cursed? I don’t look cursed. I look as if I have caught myself unawares, washed out and dazzled in the fluorescent light.

Would you read a cursed book, if you had one? If you heard that there was a cursed book out there and you found it in a bookshop, would you spend the last of your money on it? If you heard there was a cursed book out there, would you go searching for it, even if no one thought any copies existed any more? I think about my conversation with Wolf last night and wonder if life is as simple as ‘there is a book’. But again I think about stories and their logic and wonder if there can be any such thing as simply ‘there is a book’. Once upon a time there was a book. That makes more sense. There is a book. And then what happens? There is a book and it contains a curse and then you read it and then you die. That’s a proper story.

I come out of the bathroom and find Patrick wearing expensive-looking blue jeans and a pale pink shirt. He doesn’t look bad in jeans, but I preferred Burlem’s look: the black shirt, the dark trousers and the trench coat. But Burlem’s not here, and Patrick is. After flirting for a while, we go for dinner and have a strange conversation about nineteenth-century poetry, during which I go on and on about Thomas Hardy, and how the best bit of his poem ‘Hap’ is his invented word ‘unblooms’, as in: ‘And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?’ The whole poem is about wishing for evidence of a vengeful god – since there certainly isn’t any evidence of a benevolent one – because a higher power, even a cruel one, gives us meaning in a way we can’t give meaning to ourselves. This ends up with us talking about structuralism and linguistics (Patrick’s specialism), and then Derrida (one of mine).

‘How can you read Derrida?’ Patrick asks me at some point.

‘How can you not?’ I say.

We’ve finished dinner, and I realise that I am now having the conversation as if I were a robot taking part in the Turing Test. I can probably convince Patrick that I am human and listening to him, but really I’m thinking about Mr. Y.

‘Are you OK?’ he asks.

‘Yeah,’ I say. Perhaps I should try harder. ‘Have you ever listened to any of Derrida’s lectures?’ ‘No.’

‘You should. I’ve got one on my iPod. In it, he says that praying is “not like ordering a pizza”. I love that. I love the little image of Derrida spending an evening praying and ordering pizzas to prove they’re not the same thing. Not that he would have done. I mean, I can’t see him praying, or trying to prove something by experiment. I bet he ordered pizzas, though.’

Patrick is grinning again. ‘It’s unbelievable,’ he says.

‘What, Derrida praying?’

‘No. The fact that I’m about to sleep with someone who owns an iPod.’

Our roles in bed are quite simple. I am the eager young student and he is the slightly sadistic professor. We don’t go so far as to actually act out our parts, and his slight sadism doesn’t extend further than occasionally tying me up with silk scarves, but I like it when he tells me what to do. By the time I wake up the following morning, Patrick has had breakfast and left. There’s a card on the bedside table thanking me for a wonderful night and explaining that there’s been some sort of

‘crisis’ at home that he needs to attend to. I wish I’d brought my book with me. I have a large room- service breakfast and read a complimentary newspaper before getting up and making the most of the hot water. The water in my flat never seems to get anywhere beyond ‘fairly’ hot, but I like water with which you can actually burn yourself.

As soon as I am washed and dressed I walk back into town and along the dilapidated city walls towards my flat. The ring road runs next to me on my left, and the landscape I can see is a confused mess of cars, shops, road signs, bollards, a petrol station, some cranes in the distance, a pub, a roundabout and a pedestrian bridge. At some point a train goes past, emerging from behind a billboard advertising shiny cars and disappearing again behind a nightclub. Every kind of urbanity seems to exist in this space, from the city walls themselves to the remains of the Norman castle and the ugly red blocks of flats that have gone up next to it. Beyond the castle there’s a subway under the ring road, and if you go through it you can walk along the river towards the motorway, passing the gas tower and the encampment of homeless people who live in tents. I walked that way once, curious about the local countryside. There was a smell of gas all the way.

When I get back there’s no sign of Wolfgang’s bike, so it looks as if I’m going to be on my own with the mice. When I look, I’ve got two full traps, so I take them downstairs and release the mice out the back by Luigi’s bins. Back in the kitchen I reload the traps with stale biscuits and put them back under the sink; then I put coffee on the stove and arrange all my things around the sofa:The End of Mr. Y, cigarettes, notebook, pen. As soon as my coffee is ready, I curl up on the sofa and begin reading where I left off yesterday morning.

The moment the liquid struck my tongue I became aware of several new sensations, including a sudden aversion to darkness and a heavy, constricted feeling. At first I felt sure that these were simply delusions occurring because of the rather melodramatic manner in which the fluid had been prescribed, and that I was simply falling prey to fancies. However, after a time I began feeling increasingly anxious and experiencing something like vertigo. Nevertheless, I fixed my attention upon the black circle, as instructed, beckoned once again by curiosity’s claw. I remained convinced that, if this fair-ground doctor was, as I suspected, a fraud, then nothing he could do would cause me any harm.

After lying on the hard slab staring into the black circle for several moments I was startled to see it begin to disintegrate before my eyes. Two larger circles took its place, one pink and one blue, and these shapes then appeared to expand and contract with the soft translucency of jellyfish. I was suddenly overcome with the feeling that one has when moving downhill on a switchback ride, or in the dreams of falling that one has from time to time. It was not my physical being, however, which was descending, but rather my mind. It was as if the thinking, reasoning part of my being was closing with the finality of a heavy, locked door. In its place a small aperture appeared, growing larger and larger until it eclipsed the black circle on the small piece of card, and continued to enlarge until it was the size of a railway tunnel. I was alarmed to realise that I was now moving down this tunnel at a giddying speed.

The walls of the tunnel were charcoal-black at first but presently I became aware of various

inscriptions on the walls which appeared alongside me as if drawn by light. At first these were simply pinpricks, like little stars in the firmament, and I fancied that if one could connect them, then perhaps a picture would form. There were also oscillating lines of the sort one might observe in the crude representation of a wave in the sea. For one instant I fancied I saw before me pictures of the human genitalia. There then appeared various shapes, and, despite the tremendous speed with which I passed them, I observed several circles, spheres, triangles, pyramids, squares, cubes and rectangular parallelepiped objects until these faded and the walls of the tunnel then became adorned with what appeared to be ancient hieroglyphics, which I confess I could not read. These little pictures blinked like apparitions as I passed them: I saw things that looked like birds and feet and eyes. All of these impressions appeared before me as though drawn with light.


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I became aware of my anxiety paling as I continued my journey through the tunnel, and I was intrigued by the little symbols that flowed past me as if projected on a phenakistiscope. I saw many circles bisected with a cross or a line, and an abundence of other shapes including those which resembled little flags, stalks, boxes, and the reversed Roman letters g, E, r and P. I also saw what appeared to be Roman letters as if drawn in the hand of a child. However, it was clear that not all the Roman letters were present, and their expression seemed to vary between upper and lower case. I am sure I only observed the letters y, I, z, which was crossed in the French style, and l, o, w and x. Later there also appeared the upper case characters A, B, H, K, M, N, P, D, T, V, Y and X. Presently the Greek letters appeared in sequence, from alpha, beta, gamma and delta through to phi, chi, psi and omega. Then I observed the Roman alphabet in the correct sequence, from A through to Z. Still there appeared hieroglyphics here and there. The further I journeyed into this long tunnel, the more characters I perceived on the black walls, until there was more light than shade, and thousands of characters jostled before me. I saw Roman numerals and Arabic numerals and other shapes I could not discern, for they flew past me with such tremendous velocity. There were also mathematical equations. I recognised Newton’sF=mabut none of the others.

Presently I began to sense that my journey was almost at an end. The light on the walls of the tunnel eventually expanded so that I felt bathed in it. Indeed, for one curious second I fancied myself to be part of the light itself. I could no longer perceive anything around me but for this bright white glow. I remember quite distinctly thinking, ‘That’s it! The penny showman has killed me. Now I shall see what Heaven is like.’ I did not think of the other place. And, after a short time, it did appear that I had awoken in a heavenly landscape. I did not find myself confronting Saint Peter, however. Indeed, there were no other beings, mortal or otherwise, to be discerned on the softly rolling meadow I saw before me. Under a bright blue but curiously sunless sky, I observed grass, flowers and trees of species to be found anywhere in the nineteenth-century English countryside. I admit that at that moment I experienced the most profound sensation of peace, which was most welcome after the creeping dread with which I had become familiar at the start of my journey.

How long had I been travelling? I had no idea. In the depths of my mind something gnawed at me with persistent little teeth. Did I have an assignment in this place? I recollected the fair- ground doctor and his strange potion, and then the reason for my journey arrived once again in my mind. I was here to see the workings of Pepper’s Ghost, although I had no idea of how this could be achieved, and also felt that my appetite for solving this mystery was a very slight pang of hunger indeed in comparison with the greedy desire I now felt to solve the far bigger mystery with which I had been presented: where was I and how had I come to be there?

At the same moment that my assignment had reappeared in my mind, so a small piebald horse

had appeared in the meadow to the right of my current position. The horse presently came and nuzzled at my hand, and, noticing that it was fully tackled, I understood that I was supposed to ride it. I have some experience as an equestrian and I saw no option than to insert my foot into the stirrup, swing myself onto the animal and take the harness. With only the merest of nudges, the horse moved gracefully forward. Again I had the sensation that I knew something I could not know, and fancied that the horse would take me to the place I needed to go. This sensation was a powerful one and so I let the horse trot onwards, towards the brow of a small hill. All around me was calm and tranquillity and I felt as if I could remain in this place for ever and not want for anything. Yet I felt compelled to complete my assignment.

I soon became aware of several dwellings ahead of me. As my horse drew closer I saw that there was indeed a small hamlet of cottages clustered before a vast and tangled forest. I understood that I was supposed to examine these dwellings and so I dismounted from my horse and tethered him outside the first cottage. This was a dark little place, with a garden overgrown with brambles and thick, twisted trees. Even before I saw the name on the gate, I knew that this was the fairground doctor’s house. The next place was plainer, with a whitewashed exterior and a name on the gate that I did not recognise. Something told me to enter this gate and I did so. Again, this something that seemed to speak from within my mind told me that the door would be unlocked, and so I entered without knocking, knowing that according to the customs of this place this action would not be considered aberrant.

Then I experienced the most peculiar sensation of all. Language almost fails me when I try to formulate this sensation in words. The closest approximation is this: imagine stepping not into another man’s shoes but, rather, into his soul. Even as I write this, that paltry description appears feeble in comparison to the odd, but not at all uncomfortable sensation of expansion that I felt as whatever is ‘I’ grew, as if from a seed, into whatever was ‘him’ and the two of us became one. All at once I intuited what had occurred. Inconceivable and impossible though it may appear, I had entered the mind of another. I had entered the mind of the illusionist Mr. William Hardy, proprietor of Hardy’s Ghost Illusion and Theatre.

I can assure the reader that the telepathic intercourse one has with another is in no way partial, vague or insubstantial. For, although I still seemed to carry with me the portmanteau of my own being, once inside this man’s mind I had the palpable sense that I existed not in his place, but alongside him. Much though it vexes me to write these words, for I am a man who does not believe in ghosts, phantoms and the so-called fourth dimension of Zollner and others, I have no doubt that I shared the mind of this man. I could think what he thought, I knew what he knew, and, for the time that I remained a guest in his being, I experienced what he experienced.

He (although it seemed to me that ‘I’ did all that follows, I will not confuse the reader here with the first person singular or, worse, the plural) was hungry; this was the first sensation of which I became aware. Of course, I experienced the same hunger, now that I was inhabiting the same being, and, without thinking what I was doing, I cast my own mind back to the last time I dined. I quickly perceived something reminiscent of two transparent images placed on top of one another. Of course, this does not adequately explain the sensation but words will not allow me a fuller description. I saw, or felt, myself taking luncheon at the Regency Hotel, but at the same time experienced William Hardy, who, I understood, likes to refer to himself in his own mind as Will, or even ‘Little Will’, a pet name given to him by his mother, sitting down to consume a steamed meat pudding wrapped in paper. It is with some difficulty that even I myself believe my own recollection as I write these words, but I certainly experienced the

illusion of being able to taste the heavy, thick suet pudding and the dense brown gravy, as sweet as the meat inside. Nevertheless, I, or he, or we, still felt hungry. The meat pie was merely a memory and Little Will wanted his supper.

Before supper, Little Will had to pack up his ghost illusion. The fair would be departing the following morning and so everything would have to be carefully disassembled and stored in a large wagon. Will found the idea of this task rather overwhelming, as did I, and I quite understood his anguish and frustration as he barked orders at his underlings, wanting them to hurry this moment and take more care the next. I understood why he felt betrayed by his assistant Dan Roper, and I instantly knew that Peter, the boy helper, was too clumsy for this task. I do not believe that I shared William Hardy’s exact thoughts while the packing-up process was in progress; I was not ‘mind-reading’ in the crudest sense. Rather, I had access to his memories in the same way one accesses one’s own memories. Images came to me as fast as quicksilver. I saw, for example, the hapless boy Peter breaking a large sheet of glass, and was aware that this event had occurred at some time in the recent past. I saw Dan Roper creeping behind a grubby fair-ground tent with a woman. Then I saw Little Will with the same woman. Of course, I did not see him from above, like an omnipotent observer. I was his eyes, ears, nose and flesh as he coupled with this woman, barely a girl, whom I now knew to be called Rose.

I confess that I almost became lost in this new world, for, given access to another man’s thoughts, who would not roam endlessly within them? What anthropology or biology was this, that I was able to read another’s mind as if it were a play? I sincerely believed that the entire works of Shakespeare shrank in comparison with the tragedies, comedies, betrayals and desires of this one fair-ground entertainer. Still, however, I recalled my assignment. I was here, in the mind of William Hardy, to understand the ghost illusion that he peddled from country fair to country fair.

In an instant all was clear to me. I saw the intricate placing of the large, expensive sheet of glass, polished five times a day by Little Will himself. I saw it balanced on the stage, resting against a wall or structure behind. I saw, and understood, the forty-five-degree tilt. I had the most profound knowledge of the way the illusion worked, from the tilted glass to the actors underneath who danced in a projectionist’s light, thus creating images, like inverted shadows, to be reflected through the glass and onto the stage. I understood Little Will’s amazement when he himself first discovered the construction of these beings of light, and I recalled, as clearly as if thinking of a scene from my own past, the evening that Little Will opened the book that revealed the secrets of this illusion. I must say, however, that the sensation of reading a book in a man’s memory was a queer one, and although many passages were forgotten, and therefore appeared to be missing, I was able to read the most significant sections as if the book was in front of my own face.

There is a part of my adventure that I have not yet described for fear of entirely compounding the impression that I lost my wits that day in the fair-ground tent. However, I must now relate this curiosity, and I beg further indulgence from the reader. What I wish to describe is the way in which my field of vision altered when inside this ‘spirit world’ of other minds. At the beginning, I confess I had no idea of how far this world-of-minds expanded, nor how far within it I would be permitted to travel. However, on that first visit I became aware of some important factors, which I will now attempt to describe. When one sees the world in ordinary social intercourse, or in the comings and goings of a typical day, one sees the world as if that world were contained within a frame. The outside world therefore is a picture on a wall; or, perhaps, many pictures. If I were to look to my left I would see one picture. If I glanced to my

right, another. A philosopher may ask if indeed there is another picture behind me, one which I cannot see, but I shall not take this avenue of inquiry for the time being.

If one accepts this way of looking at the world as a frame with perceptible edges, albeit blurred ones, then one will more easily comprehend the altered frame through which I gazed on the world of Little Will. For Little Will’s frame also contained my own, superimposed on top of it. The result of this superimposition was the existence of a milky hue over all that I saw, as if I were looking through thick glass or a thin veil. Yet the peculiarities of this new frame did not end there. Around the edge of my perception of Little Will’s vision was a blur similar to that which creeps around the edge of ordinary vision. But the blur around the edges of Little Will’s frame was made more pronounced by the existence of layers of little pictures, like playing cards laid out in a game of Patience; one to the right and one to the left. There was another feature of this new kind of vision which perplexed me even further. When Little Will came close to another person and regarded him, a dwelling would appear faintly behind the already milky image that I had. I understood without fully comprehending that at these moments I could, if I so wished, simply walk into that house instead of the one in which I was currently standing; in other words, I could enter another mind. At least, this was the theory I constructed from the evidence before my eyes, but when I tried this on the boy Peter I seemed to bounce from an invisible wall and instead landed back on the small path connecting the cottages.

Again, I was overcome with a sense of peace and fullness. The hunger I had felt when joined with Little Will immediately subsided and I realised that spending time in another man’s soul was terribly draining. Out on the open landscape I felt no discomfort, but I remembered the sensation of privation and desperation I had shared with Little Will. I concluded that the further adventures I so craved were best left for another visit, and so I retrieved my horse and let him take me back to the place from which I had entered this world.

The journey back through the tunnel appeared of a far shorter duration this time, and presently I arrived, if that is the right term, for an observer would not have seen me leave, on the slab in the fair-ground tent. Once more I could hear the rain on the thick canvas, and I struggled to open my eyes on the familiar world I had left behind for a time. With my eyes still half-closed, and my head thick with fancies, I asked myself whether I had concocted an elaborate dream or whether I had in fact telepathed into another man’s mind, and resolved to interrogate the fair-ground doctor the instant I had fully regained my senses. However, when I opened my eyes I found myself alone in the dark. The vulgar lamp, which had been burning brightly before, was now extinguished. The doctor was nowhere to be seen. I withdrew my watch from my pocket, along with a box of matches, and, after striking a match close to the face of the timepiece, found it to be past eleven o’clock. Startled, I immediately got to my feet and felt my way out of the tent, using another match to guide me. How could I possibly have been unconscious for such a long period of time? I confess I felt frightened as I stumbled out of the large theatre tent and into the open air of the darkened, deserted fairground. I was determined to find this doctor and admonish him for leaving me alone and defenceless for such a long time. However, the doctor was nowhere to be seen and, now tired and desperately hungry, I made my way back to the Regency Hotel, resolving to find the doctor the next day.


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SIX

BY LUNCH TIMEIAMhungry and cold and I need to pee. From my bathroom window it looks as if the whole world is lidded with rooftops and hinged with back doors and fire escapes, as if it were one big higgledy-piggledy doll’s house. I can see the top of Luigi’s backroom and the dark metal staircase down which you could escape if there was a fire. Below a grey concrete roof is the back door of the Indian restaurant. I can see a guy standing there, puffing urgently on a cigarette, constantly looking around as if he’s about to get caught. I can see alleyways and small, uneven courtyards; but mostly there are rooftops and chimneys, red-brick and concrete, and it suddenly seems more like a three-dimensional puzzle out there. How is it possible to fit so many buildings into one small space? I think, not for the first time, about how many people there must be around me all the time, even though it often seems as if I am entirely alone. I wonder what it would be like to ‘telepath’. Would it make you feel less alone, or would the loneliness somehow become worse?

I cook some Puy lentils for lunch; then I go back to the sofa and balance my bowl on my lap as I continue reading about Mr. Y and his search for the fairground doctor. By the time Mr. Y gets to the fairground the following day, the whole thing has disappeared, including the doctor and his curious potion. Poor Mr. Y. He was so certain that he would be able to return to this world-of-minds that he didn’t bother to investigate everything while he was still inside it. He asks around and finds that most of the fairground people have moved on to a site just beyond Sherwood Forest. But when he gets to the site and finds the fairground, he can’t find the doctor. Indeed, when he asks people if they have seen this ‘fair-ground doctor’, most of them are perplexed and assure him that there is no such man.

Once he is back in London, Mr. Y becomes increasingly obsessed with the questions posed by his adventure. Had he, in fact, been given the ability to read minds (or, as he puts it, ‘to telepath’), albeit only briefly? Or did the doctor simply give him a strong sleeping draught? He doesn’t know, and does not have any way of finding out. But he becomes inclined to believe that he did in fact read the mind of William Hardy. Indeed, he is able to locate and read the exact book from which Hardy learned of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, and finds that his ‘memory’ of it (from reading it via Little Will) is exactly correct. Knowing that a man cannot have a memory of a book he has not read, he concludes that something supernatural happened to him that evening at the Goose Fair. But he simply does not know what this was. In the absence of any proper explanation, he does a good Victorian thing and starts labelling and classifying the parts of the new world he has encountered.

The name he gives to this other world is the Troposphere, which he derives by taking the word ‘atmosphere’ – a combination of the Greek words for ‘vapour’ and ‘ball’ – and replacing the unknown vapours with something more solid: the Greek word for character,tropos. It takes Mr. Y more time to conceive of a term for the journey itself, but eventually he names it Telemancy: tele fromtelos, meaning distant; and mancy frommanteia, meaning divination. In his mind this was divination at a distance, and he badly wanted to do it again.

At this point in the narrative we begin to learn something of Mr. Y’s business affairs. His drapery shop, located in the East End of London, used to be a very successful enterprise, but now it seems

to be failing, and soon he has to let several of his assistants go. A rival has set up shop just around the corner from Mr. Y, and his business is booming. The proprietor of this rival business, Mr.

Clemency, is roughly characterised in the novel as a shifty, spiteful individual who seems to enjoy the misery he heaps on Mr. Y, and believes that his method of making clothes – locking his workers in a small, hot backroom and paying them hardly anything – is superior to Mr. Y’s old-fashioned ways. Mr. Y soon has two obsessions: Telemancy and revenge, and he thinks that if only he knew what had been in the potion given to him by the doctor, he could concoct it himself and revisit the landscape of the Troposphere. Once there, of course, he would visit the mind of Mr. Clemency. He admits, with some shame, that he intends to blackmail his rival if he can find a way to do so.

Meanwhile, his business continues to deteriorate. On top of this, his father is taken ill and his usually meek wife becomes vexed and anxious. Mr. Y can’t cope with everything, and so neglects his father and shouts at his wife. He is clearly rushing head-first down the slope of his own ruin, but he can’t see this. Instead, he burns a lamp each night and readsMateria Medicaand herbals that might give him some clue as to what the mysterious mixture was. He finds none. But the world of the Troposphere, particularly the calm landscape on which he rode the horse, beckons him like a drug to which he has become profoundly addicted.

The light is fading outside my kitchen window and I look at my watch. It’s just gone four o’clock. I’ve got a reading lamp in my bedroom, so I go and get that and plug it in behind the sofa and then place it on the windowsill. That’s better. I can aim it directly at the pages of the book. One lamp can’t use up too much electricity, surely?

At about half past five I hear the sound of the door downstairs, and then the dissonant tinkle of Wolfgang’s bicycle bell as it scrapes against the wall. Although I really want to finish reading my book, my eyes are hurting and I haven’t spoken to another human being for hours. So when there’s a faint tap on my door a few minutes later, I call out that it’s open and get up to make coffee.

Wolfgang comes in and sits down awkwardly at the kitchen table.

‘Good day?’ I say, although his posture should answer the question for me.

‘Ha,’ is all he says, putting his head in his hands.

‘Wolf?’

‘What is Sunday for?’ he asks. ‘Tell me that.’ ‘Um … Church?’ I suggest. ‘Family? Sport?’

The coffee hisses and I take it off the gas ring. I pour a cup for each of us and sit down at the table facing Wolf. I offer him a cigarette and then light one myself. He does not respond to my suggestions, so I try to think of some more. Without meaning to, I effortlessly transport myself back to Mr. Y’s 1890s world, and summon up half-finished colouring-book images of women walking through parks in hobble skirts, children playing with hoops, and vague dot-to-dot trips to the seaside involving parasols and slot machines, although I don’t think they had slot machines until the turn of the century. It’s an after-church, afternoon world that I can’t even begin to understand. I try to think myself back out of the 1890s.

‘Sex?’ I suggest instead. ‘Reading the papers? Shopping?’ ‘Ha,’ says Wolf again, sipping his coffee.

‘What happened?’ I ask.

‘A weekend with Catherine’s family,’ he says, with some disgust.

‘It can’t have been that bad,’ I say. ‘Where did you go?’ ‘Sussex. Country house. And it was very bad …’

‘Why?’

He sighs. ‘Where to begin?’

I think ofThe Odyssey. ‘Try the middle,’ I suggest.

‘Ah. The middle. OK. In the middle, I run over the dog.’

I can’t help but laugh, even though this is obviously not funny.

‘Is the dog OK?’ I say.

Wolfgang looks sad. ‘He is now lame.’

I sip my coffee. ‘How exactly did you run over the dog?’ Wolfgang doesn’t drive: thus the bicycle.

‘In a … How would you say it … ? What is the word … ?’

This is something of an affectation of Wolf ’s. He speaks English better than most of the literature students in the department, but sometimes he’ll fish for a word like this, playing on his foreignness to add drama and, sometimes, melancholy to whatever story he’s telling. I don’t dislike the affectation; in fact, I find it funny. But that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with its mechanics.

He’s still at it. ‘A … Like a little tractor.’

‘You ran over your girlfriend’s family dog in a “little tractor”?’ ‘No. Well, yes. But I mean, what is the word for little tractor?’

‘I don’t think there is a word for little tractor. What do you do with it?’ ‘You cut the grass with it.’

‘Oh! A lawnmower.’

Wolf looks at me as if I’m simple. ‘I know lawnmower,’ he says. ‘You push a lawnmower. This other thing you sit on.’

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Yeah, like a lawnmower you sit on. A … Oh, God. What do you call those things?’ I think for a while. ‘I think they’re just lawnmowers that you sit on. What did Catherine’s family call it?’

‘I think they called it the “mower”. But I was sure there would be another term.’ ‘I’m not sure there is. So, anyway, why were you on the mower?’

‘The father, Mr. Dickerson, he had got it stuck and he wanted a “big strong lad” to drive it out.’

I laugh at the thought that anyone would call Wolfgang a ‘big strong lad’. He isn’t any one of those three things.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Ha ha.’

‘Sorry. So, anyway, what were they like, the family?’ ‘Rich,’ says Wolf. ‘From carpets.’

‘And is there a future with Catherine?’ I ask.

‘For me?’ He shrugs. ‘Who knows?’ He gets up and takes the bottle of slivovitz from the shelf. He pours himself a large glass, but when he offers some to me I shake my head. ‘Anyway,’ he says, when he has sat down again, ‘how is your curse?’

‘Hm,’ I say. ‘Can you keep a secret?’

‘You know I can. And I’ve already said that I don’t care if I become more cursed.’ ‘I don’t think you’ll become cursed just from hearing about it,’ I say.

‘So what is it? An object?’ ‘A book.’

‘Ah, the curse of knowledge,’ he says immediately.

‘I’m not sure if it is that,’ I say. ‘It’s a novel. I think the curse might just be some superstition. But the book is very rare and potentially very valuable – although my copy is damaged, so it’s probably actually worth nothing.’

‘And you bought this on Friday?’ ‘Yeah. With, basically, all my money.’ ‘How rare is it?’

‘Very rare.’ I explain to him about there being no known copies anywhere in the world, apart from the one in the German bank vault. ‘Even with the damage, it’s still a pretty amazing thing to have.

It’s by that author I’m studying: Thomas Lumas. I could be the only person in the world to write a paper on the actual book rather than the mysteries surrounding it. I must be one of the only people to have read it in the last hundred years.’ Just as I’m getting excited about it, Wolf interrupts.

‘And the curse is what?’

I look down at the table. ‘The curse is that if you read it, you die.’

The book is still on the sofa where I left it, and I notice as Wolf ’s gaze travels around the room and then rests on it. He gets up and goes over to the sofa. But instead of picking up the book, he simply looks down at it as if it were an exhibit in a museum. For a moment I imagine that he’s much more frightened of curses that he has let on, and this is why he doesn’t touch it. But then I decide that it must be simply a respect for the age and rarity of the object. Wolf isn’t scared of curses: he’s said so.

He comes back to the table. ‘What’s the story about?’

‘It’s about this man called Mr. Y, who goes to this Victorian fairground,’ I begin. I tell Wolf the story as far as I know it, ending with the last scene I read, where Mr. Y’s wife has implored him to stop spending all night poring over medical textbooks. Mr. Y tells her to mind her own business and go to bed. This she does, and he resumes his reading.

‘What does he think the mixture might be?’ Wolf asks me.

‘So far he has no idea,’ I say. ‘He thinks it might be based on laudanum, which is opium in alcohol, but isn’t sure. He knows it’s active as a liquid, so he has ruled out nitrous oxide – laughing gas – and chloroform, both of which you have to inhale. Other candidates include ether, a substance made from sulphuric acid and alcohol, and chloral. He’s also trying to obtain more exotic herbals from further afield, and concocts a weird theory about some foreign witch doctor giving the information to the fairground doctor. But if this is true, then the mixture won’t be something he can concoct from ingredients to be found in any Victorian pharmacy. This basically throws him into total depression.

But after a while he comes to the conclusion that it can’t have been an exotic mixture. For two shillings it was unlikely to have included Peruvian tree bark, African snake venom, unicorn blood, or whatever. He works out that, for two shillings, the mixture must have contained relatively cheap ingredients. But what?’ I shrug. ‘Even if the ingredients aren’t exotic, they could be anything.’

‘And you have no idea yet?’ Wolfgang asks.

I shake my head. ‘No. But I’m looking forward to finding out; if you ever do get to find out, that is.’ Wolf lights a cigarette and falls into a deep contemplation of his glass of slivovitz. I consider telling him about the preface to the book, and the hint that there could be something ‘real’ about it, but I don’t. Instead, I get up and rinse the coffee cups while Wolf drains his glass and gets up to go.

‘I can do something gourmet tonight, if you like,’ he offers.

I am tempted. What I’ve got here is at best ‘very gourmet’, but I do want to finish the book.

‘Thanks, Wolf,’ I say. ‘But I think I’m just going to keep reading.’ ‘And complete the curse?’ he says, with a raised eyebrow.

‘I really don’t think there is a curse,’ I say.

By eight o’clock it’s freezing and I have to switch on all the gas rings. I am nearing the end of the book and it seems clear that Mr. Y is well on his way towards bankruptcy and destitution as the result of his obsession with the Troposphere and the method by which he might return there. He has taken to experimenting with various drugs and potions and lying there on his couch gazing at a black dot, but none of the drugs he has tried have worked. At every corner he is assaulted by advertisements suggesting cure-all panaceas like Dr Locock’s Pulmonic Wafers, and Pulvermacher’s Improved Patent Galvanic Chain-Bands, Belts, Batteries and Accessories. What was in the wafers, and could the fairground doctor’s vial of liquid have contained it? And what about Pulvermacher’s electrical objects? Perhaps the fairground doctor had in some way electrified whatever fluid he had


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concocted. Mr. Y realises that there is no way he’ll be able to find the concoction by chance. The only way he will ever be able to revisit the Troposphere is by finding that doctor and persuading him to tell him how.

By the beginning of Chapter Twelve, Mr. Y has discovered that many of the people who travel the country with fairs in the summer end up in London in the winter, exhibiting their sideshow horrors in run-down shops and backstreet houses. As a last resort, Mr. Y has taken to spending his evenings, and much of his money, touring these establishments, trying to find some clue to lead him to the fairground doctor.

My search continued into November. The weather had turned bitterly cold but I kept at it every night, even as I began to doubt that I would ever find my man. It seemed to me that London had become a sort of Vanity Fair, with many of the establishments in the back streets of the West End – and beyond – dressed up with gaudy crimson hangings and advertising, by way of vast painted representations and pictorial facsimiles, such unsavoury offerings as the Bearded Lady, the Spotted Boy, the Giantess of Peru and various other mutants, savages and freaks of nature.

Although most of these establishments remained open all day, I had discovered that it was in the evening and nighttime hours that one should expect to encounter the fullest range of their offerings. And so it was that I would venture out after supper every evening and pay my penny at the doors of establishments both gaudy and drab, populated by crowds of people or empty. In every place I asked the same question, and in every place I received the same response. No one had ever heard of the fair-ground doctor.

November grew older and greyer, and each night it snowed a little more. I decided to confine my investigations to my own locality until such time as the weather improved, although I confess that by that time there was barely a waxwork or living skeleton in London that I had not already seen. However, I had been told of a new premises on the Whitechapel Road, opposite the London Hospital, formerly the site of an undertakers, and, previously to that, a drapery business with which I had been familiar. So, after a small supper of bread and dripping, I set off on foot towards Whitechapel Road. My journey took me past the Jews’ Burial Ground and the back of the Coal Depot and then along the Southern side of the workhouse behind Baker’s Row. Not for the first time I experienced the direst of premonitions that, if I did not succeed in my undertaking, my own family would be forced inside such an establishment. I did not imagine worse, because I knew of no worse.

I followed the railway line down towards the London Hospital, looking behind me all the time for the thieves who dwell in areas such as this. I was not carrying very much money with me but I had of course read the horrible stories of the new breed of East End thieves who, if they find you with only a few pence, will easily kick out one of your eyes – or worse – as thanks for it. The snow fell softly on me as I walked through the smoky air, with coal dust from the depot mingling with the smog already thick around me. I coughed a little, and rubbed my hands to keep warm. I thought then that if I were fully in possession of all my senses I would surely not have been out on a night such as this one. Yet on I walked.

As I turned into Whitechapel Road, my eyes almost immediately fell upon the establishment of which I had heard. The upper part of the house was adorned with a large sheet of canvas, on which various entertainments and spectacles were depicted, including yet another Fat Lady, along with the World’s Strongest Woman and various other oddities. It is alarming how one so quickly tires of these sorts of spectacles, especially when one visits these establishments with such regularity as did I over those months, and if one chances, as I did, to observe the dreary

reality behind the lurid and gruesome teratology presented by the showmen. Once, early on a Saturday morning, I happened to walk past an establishment I had visited two or three nights previously. There, in an overgrown garden, I observed the ‘amazing’ bearded woman, who by evenings was a sombre, backlit, half-human spectacle, pegging out her washing and engaging in an argument with an African ‘savage’ who was to be found after sunset adorned with a straw skirt, golden tunic and hoop earrings, and who apparently made only the utterances ‘Ug, ug,’ but was at that moment wearing the rather less exotic outfit of shabby stockings, corduroy britches and a grey cloth cap, and was demonstrating an advanced grasp not only of English, but of its myriad vernacular words and expressions. I also once chanced upon the Boy with the Gigantic Head, a child of perhaps twelve or thirteen years, outside of his darkened room, and removed from all costume, lime-light, and painted advertisement. He was no longer a gaudy freak but clearly a sick child who required medical attention.

Feeling rather half-hearted, I paid a penny to enter the Whitechapel establishment. On the ground floor, and requiring no further payment, were the usual trivial spectacles of ships-in- bottles, shrunken heads and the like. There were also various wax-works of prominent political figures, and a scene depicting the glories of Empire. There were also, seated at small card- tables, various scoundrels engaged in the dark art of hiding the ‘Lady’ from those gentlemen who would find her for a shilling, and other similar forms of petty embezzlement. As I left this room and made towards the stairs, a young girl attempted to entice me into a back-room in order that I might have my fortune told by a Madame de Pompadour. I assured the woman that all the possibilities of my fortune were already well-known to me and proceeded up the stairs. Here I found a troublesome display indeed: eleven wax-works, each depicting one of the victims of the Whitechapel Murders. I confess I had to avert my gaze after briefly regarding a mutilated copy of Mary Kelly lying on a bed in a chemise with thick wax blood coming out of her neck. However, something about this gruesome little scene – something beyond the basic horror of the spectacle – troubled me as I walked into the next room and beheld a red-headed young woman lifting weights with her long plait of hair. Presently I returned to the wax-work exhibition and regarded the scene of Mary Kelly’s demise once again. And, sure enough, there it was. The gaudy red lamp that I had last seen in the fair-ground doctor’s tent was now serving as a prop for this morbid tableau.

I immediately strode over to a woman sitting in an old armchair in the far corner of the room. I presumed that it was she who was keeping watch over the wax-work display. I stood facing her for some seconds before she looked up from a costume in her lap, onto which she was sewing sequins over frayed and greying sections of material.

‘Can I help you?’ she said to me.

‘I wish to enquire after the owner of that lamp,’ I said to her.

‘You mean that poor girl Mary Kelly?’

‘No,’ I said, quickly becoming exasperated. ‘No, a gentleman. A fair-ground doctor. Perhaps he is engaged here?’

The woman looked down at her embroidery. ‘Sorry, sir,’ she said. ‘I don’t think there is anyone of that description here.’

She then briefly flashed her small eyes at me and I understood what she wanted. I found a shilling and showed it to her.

‘Are you certain you do not know him?’ I asked.

She eyed the shilling and then reached out and took it from me.

‘Try the fortune-teller downstairs,’ she told me quickly, in a half-whisper. ‘The man who owns that lamp is her husband.’

Without hesitating further I made my way down the stairs and, full of impatience, burst into the fortune-teller’s salon. There sat a bony, pale woman, with her hair arranged in a colourful scarf. Before she even began to speak, I addressed her directly.

‘I am looking for your husband.’

As she began assuring me that she had no husband and that I could pay her directly for her services, which were of a most superior nature, there suddenly came a blast of cold air into the room, and the fair-ground doctor entered.

‘Mr. Y,’ he said. ‘How pleasant.’ ‘Good evening, Doctor,’ I said.

‘I understand that you have been looking for me,’ he said.

‘How –’ I began, and then stopped. We both knew the effects of his medicine. I quickly worked out how this present fortune-telling act worked. The doctor presumably read the minds of all the people to enter the establishment and primed his wife with their biographies, ready for her to exploit them. Therefore, I reasoned, he had already read my mind and knew what I was looking for. I guessed that there was a chance he would give it to me – for a price.

‘You want the recipe,’ he said to me.

‘Yes,’ I said, but hesitated to tell the doctor just how much I longed for it.

‘Very well. You can have it,’ said he, ‘for thirty pounds and no less.’

I cursed my own mind. This man, this back-room showman, already knew that I would give everything I had for another taste of his curious mixture, and, of course, he planned to take everything I had and no less.

‘Please,’ I said. ‘Don’t take all my money. I need to buy cloth for the shop, and to pay the wages of my assistant. There is also medicine for my dying father – ’

‘Thirty pounds,’ he said again. ‘Come here tomorrow evening with the money and I shall give you the recipe. If you do not come, I shall regard our business as concluded. Good evening.’ He showed me the door.

The following evening I withdrew the money from its hiding place and carefully stowed it inside my shoe, lest the East End ruffians take it from me. With a heavy heart, and a profound uneasiness, I made my way back to the establishment opposite the London Hospital. The previous evening I had witnessed only a young man playing the Pandean pipes outside; today, the girl with the organ was in attendance as well, her instrument wailing and buzzing with the same bombilations I recalled from the Goose Fair. I strode past all this, past the boys selling plum duff, the pick-pockets and the vagrants, and into the House of Horrors, paying another penny for the privilege.

I feared that the so-called doctor may have disappeared again, but the promise of thirty pounds must have been sufficiently enticing for him, as he greeted me as soon as I stepped into

And this is the place where the ripped-out page would have been. My eye keeps falling on the single sentence on page 133, the next existing page:

And so, in the freezing cold of that late November night, I walked away, each footprint in the snow a record of a further step towards my own downfall, the oblivion that faced me.

What am I supposed to do now? There is one chapter left, starting on page 135. Do I read it, and disregard the fact that what must be the crucial scene between Mr. Y and the fairground doctor is missing? Or … what? What are the other options? It’s not as if I can just go to a bookshop tomorrow

and buy a replacement copy, or simply read the page. This book is not on any library record anywhere in the world: it doesn’t even exist in rare manuscript collections. Is this page lost for ever? And why on earth would someone have removed it?

SEVEN

MONDAY MORNING, AND THE SKYis the colour of sad weddings. I’m going in to the university, although I’m fairly sure it’s still shut. But perhaps they’ll have the heating on, anyway. And, as long as our building is still standing, there’ll be free tea and coffee. Will our building be OK? It had better be, because I need to try to break into Burlem’s computer. He’s the only person I know who has ever seen a copy ofThe End of Mr. Yand maybe there’ll be something on his machine that will tell me where his copy came from, or whom I could contact to arrange to look at the missing page. I didn’t read the last chapter in the end last night. It wouldn’t be right without the missing page. Instead, I listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on my iPod and wrote out everything I thought about the bulk of the novel I had read. I didn’t get into bed until about 3 a. m., so I am not at all awake today. I have never walked up to the university; I don’t even know the right way. All I do know is that it is a steep climb, and I don’t want to go up the way I came down on Friday because I am convinced that the right way must be shorter than that. So I do the only thing I can think of and go to the Tourist Information place by the cathedral. There’s no one there apart from a woman with a grey perm and thin wire glasses. She is busy arranging a display of cathedral mugs, and I have to stand there for a few seconds before she notices me. It turns out that there’s a free map of walking routes around the city, so she gives me one of those and I start following it immediately, walking around past the cathedral walls until I see a sign for the North Gate. I follow the sign and walk past some terraced houses and a noisy mill race opposite a pub where my map tells me to turn left, then right. Then I walk over a bridge and past some stinging nettles up a hill until I come to a footpath, which takes me through a tunnel under the railway: a strange cylindrical space with smooth, graffiti- spattered walls and round orange lights set to come on as you walk underneath them (at least, this is what I assume; perhaps the effect is actually the work of a poltergeist, or simply due to the fact that the lights are broken). I walk along the edge of a shabby suburban park, the kind of place where kids play football and dogs fight on a Saturday afternoon, then down an alleyway, across a main road, past a hairdresser’s and into a housing estate. I think students live here, although it looks like the kind of place you’d come to only when you’d retired or given up life in some other way. All I can see as I walk up the hill are cream-coloured bungalows and front gardens: no graffiti, no playgrounds, no shops, no pubs. The whole place has the kind of stillness you’d expect just before the world ended.

On days like this I do not feel afraid of death, or pain. I don’t know if it’s the tiredness, the book, or even the curse, but today, as I walk through this housing estate, there’s a feeling inside me like the potential nuclear fission of every atom in my body: a chain reaction of energy that could take me to the limits of everything. As I walk along, I almost desire some kind of violence: to live, to die, just for the experience of it. I’m so hyped up suddenly that I want to fuck the world, or be fucked by it. Yes, I want to be penetrated by the shrapnel of a million explosions. I want to see my own blood. I want to die with everyone: the ultimate bonding experience; the flash at the end of the world. Me becoming you; you becoming we; we becoming for ever. A collapsing wavefunction of violence. On days like this I think about being cursed and all I can think isNow, now, now. I want that missing


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page.

Soon I find the beginning of the pathway up to the campus. Weather-beaten gates stop cyclists from zooming straight upwards, not that anyone would be zooming up here: it’s virtually a forty-five- degree angle. Tired though I am, I do feel a bit like running, just to get this hyped feeling out of my system. But I don’t run. I walk through two sets of these gates and then past a patch of woodland on my left, where I’m hidden from the pale sky under the thin fingers of the winter trees. As I near the top of the hill, it starts to rain a little, and in the distance I can see yellow construction vehicles trundling around the collapsed Newton Building like toys in a nursery. I get to my building and the crazy feeling starts to seep away. I realise that the walk has taken more than half an hour. I wish I could liberate my car for the way back, but I was going to put petrol in it on the way home on Friday and I can’t afford to do that now.

The English and American Studies Building is still standing, and isn’t locked. That means someone must be in. Mind you, someone usually is. Even on Sundays I rarely have to unlock the door myself, although I did have to when I came here on Boxing Day. Even though there must be someone here, I can’t sense anyone as I walk down the long corridor. It’s not just that I can’t hear the hum of electricity, or the monotonous sound of stressed-out fingers hitting cheap keyboards. I just can’t feel the presence of anyone down here. I go into my office and find that the heating is on, although I am actually too hot from walking up the hill. I go to open the window and I see that the rain has hit the pane in these spattered patterns: broken diagonal lines that look somehow deliberate, and remind me of the pictures in my books of photographs from particle accelerators. I start up my computer and go up the stairs to the office to check my post.

Mary is in there, talking to the secretary, Yvonne.

‘I suppose most people don’t check their e-mail at home,’ Yvonne is saying. ‘I mean, on Friday they were talking about shutting down campus for a week. I’d be surprised if you saw people in here before next Monday. I suppose some might come in on Friday, out of curiosity. But of course the academics don’t all come in during the vacation period, anyway.’

The department used to be run by senior academics, who rotated the role among them. Now it, like most other departments in the university, is controlled by a manager brought in specifically to run the budget. Mary has somehow adopted the air of an academic, perhaps hoping this will make us trust her. But she doesn’t really know much about academic life, and I often overhear Yvonne filling her in on what sort of things the academics traditionally do.

Mary looks pissed off. ‘So who is here?’ ‘Max is in. Oh, hello, Ariel. Ariel’s in.’

Mary and I both know that my being here is of importance to nobody. I’m teaching one evening class this term and that’s it. I don’t have any admin responsibilities and I am not a member of any committees. I’m simply a PhD student, and I don’t even have a supervisor any more. So I’m surprised when Mary looks at me as if I’m someone she needs to see.

‘Ah, Ariel,’ she says. ‘My office, if you’ve got a moment.’

I wait for her to walk past me into the corridor and then I follow her around the corner to her office. She unlocks the door and holds it open for me while I walk in. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in Mary’s office before. She’s got two of what they call the ‘comfortable’ chairs set up facing a low, pale coffee table, so I sit in one of these and she sits in the other. I’m glad the days of having to face your boss across a desk are over. You can’t do that kind of thing with computers in the way.

Everyone faces walls or screens in offices now. Mary doesn’t say anything.

‘Did you have a nice weekend?’ I ask her.

‘What? Oh, yes, thanks. Now.’ She goes silent again, but I assume that she’s about to say whatever

it is, so I don’t attempt any more small talk. ‘Now,’ she says again. ‘You’re in quite a big office on your own, aren’t you?’

Damn. I knew this would come up one day.

‘It’s Saul Burlem’s office,’ I say. ‘I’ve just got a corner of it, really.’

This is a lie. Once Burlem had been gone for a couple of months, I cleared the surface of his desk, moved his computer to the coffee table and made myself a large L-shaped arrangement out of his desk and mine. I’ve filled all the shelf space with my books, in case I ever have to do a runner from the flat in town, and generally populated the office with mouldy coffee cups and all my research notes. I have a whole drawer full of things I believe might come in useful one day. There are three small bars of bitter chocolate, a Phillips screwdriver, a flathead screwdriver, a socket set, a spanner, a pair of binoculars, some random pieces of metal, several plastic bags and, most worryingly, a vibrator that Patrick sent me through the internal post as a risqué present.

‘Well, it’s quite clear that Saul isn’t coming back to us for the foreseeable future, so that means that a large portion of your space is unused.’

I can’t do anything else but agree with this, at least as a theory.

‘Right,’ says Mary. ‘Look. All heads of department have agreed to provide temporary office accommodation for the members of staff who have had to leave the Newton Building. It’s going to be a squash for most of us but still, it has to be done. We’ve agreed to take four. Two are going to share the Interview Room and two are going to come in with you. OK?’

‘OK,’ I say. But I must look horrified. I love my office. It’s the only really warm and comfortable space I’ve got in the whole world.

‘Come on, Ariel, I’m not asking you to leave your office or anything like that. Just to share it for a while. You’d be sharing it anyway, if Saul was around.’

‘I know. Don’t worry. I’m not complaining or –’ ‘And we all have a responsibility for refugees.’

‘Yes, I know. As I said, it’s fine.’ I bite my lip. ‘So … who are they? Do we know yet? I mean, do I know who I’m going to be sharing with?’

‘Well.’ Mary gets up and picks up a sheet of paper from her desk. ‘You can choose, if you want. There’s … Let’s see. There’s a theology lecturer, a post-doctoral fellow in evolutionary biology, a professor of bacteriology and an administrative assistant.’

Well, I’m not having a bacteriologist in my office, although he or she would probably find a lot in there to study. And I fear an admin assistant might take the same view of my office as a bacteriologist.

‘Um,’ I say. ‘Can I have the theology person and the evolutionary biologist?’

Mary writes something on her sheet of paper and smiles at me. ‘There. That’s not so bad, is it?’

I leave Mary’s office, wondering if she speaks to everyone as if they are children. I do try to like her, but she makes it difficult. I think she’s been to some management training that tells you how to ‘empower’ staff and let them feel that they’ve made the terrible decision that, after all, they’re going to have to live with. Oh, well. I still haven’t even checked my post, so I go into the office to do that. Yvonne already knows about the new office arrangements.

‘I’ll come down later and help arrange the desks,’ she says to me. ‘And Roger will be in with another desk as well, and some more shelving. We’re going to put Professor Burlem’s computer into storage, and any bits and pieces from his desk, so if you could maybe start sorting those out … ?’

There is no post for me, in the end.

When’s ‘later’? Whenever it is, it leaves me less time to get into Burlem’s computer than I’d thought, especially now they’re going to put it in storage. I lift it back up onto the desk and plug it in and switch it on. This won’t be the first time I’ve tried to get into it, although the first time was really just

a half-hearted attempt to see if there was any clue to where he’d gone. Then, as now, I was confronted with the log-in screen that asks for your user name and password. I know his user name: it’s sabu2. But I have no way of knowing his password. The last time I did this I pretended I was in a film and confidently typed in several guesses before realising that it was a stupid idea. This time I am going to use a more sophisticated hacking technique. And I learned in a book last year that the most sophisticated hacking technique doesn’t involve guesses, algorithms, logarithms, dictionary files or letter-scrambling software. The most sophisticated hacking technique is where you simply convince someone to give you the password.

Who knows our passwords? Computing Services definitely do, but does Yvonne? I think for a minute. Yvonne can’t have our passwords, but what if she needed to get one for some reason? Presumably she’d just get in touch with Computing Services. It can’t be that big a deal: everything here officially belongs to the university anyway, including all the files on our computers. And Burlem has disappeared, so … Could I just ring up Computing Services and pretend to be Yvonne? Probably not. She probably rings them all the time. They’ll know her voice. Um. I think for a minute; then I run my fingers through my tangled hair a couple of times, set my expression to ‘very worried’ and go back upstairs.

‘Ah,’ I say, as soon as I walk in. ‘Yvonne?’

She’s drinking tea. ‘Yes, Ariel? What can I do for you?’

‘Um, I’m having a bit of a problem. A huge problem, actually, and I don’t quite know what to do about it.’

‘Oh. Anything I can help with?’

‘I don’t know.’ I frown, and look down at the brown carpet. ‘I think it might be hopeless, actually. But …’ I sigh, and run my fingers through my hair again. ‘Well, you know how Saul’s computer is going into storage later on today?’

‘Yes?’

‘Well, it’s got a document on it that I need, and I don’t know how to get it. I don’t think I can. Saul’s not here, and I don’t have the password any more. I used to have it, of course, but I’ve forgotten it and … Oh. How can I explain this? Basically there’s this anthology that someone at Warwick’s putting together, and I was supposed to finish the, er, bibliography for Saul and e-mail the document over to them. It doesn’t have to be there for another month, which is why I wasn’t too worried about it. But I was just starting to pack the things away for storage, like you asked, and then it just came to me.’ I shrug. ‘I suppose I really need some sort of miracle or something. I don’t suppose you’d know how to get a document from a computer with no password, would you? I mean, you’re not by any chance an experienced hacker in your spare time?’ I laugh. As if any of us would ever hack into a computer.

Yvonne sips her tea. ‘Well, you have got a problem, haven’t you?’

‘I know. I think I was just putting the whole thing off until I could just get in touch with Saul. I thought maybe he’d get in contact nearer the deadline, but of course he won’t know that his computer’s going to go into storage and … God. Sorry to bother you with this, but I thought if anyone would know what to do, it would be you.’

I’m being careful not to mention the word ‘password’ too much. I have a feeling that if I make this the problem it will sound a lot more dodgy than simply ‘I need a document and I don’t know how to get it.’ And I think joking about hacking helps, but it is a risk.

‘Have you tried Computing Services?’ she asks.

‘Not yet. I just thought they’d basically tell me to go away. I mean, to them I could be anybody. And it is a bit of a weird thing to ask for. I mean, obviously you understand, but I’m not sure they would.’

‘Do you want me to give them a call?’

‘Oh, would you? Thanks so much, Yvonne.’

‘I’ll authorise the new password request and get one of them over to sort it all out for you. When Professor Burlem comes back he’ll need to set a new password, but his old one will have expired, anyway. I don’t know when they’ll be able to get over to you, but do you want to let me know when they’ve been and we’ll come and do the desks then?’

By twelve o’clock the technician still hasn’t come and I’m beginning to feel hungry. If I could get hold of a bread roll, I could make a chocolate sandwich (which wouldn’t be the worst lunch I’ve ever had), but who knows if the canteen is even open. I try to open the university website so I can log on to the intranet and see which of the various restaurants and cafeterias are open, but all I get is an Error 404 message instead of the front page. No wonder no one’s here. Anyone who’d logged on to the university site to see whether it was open again would surely have feared the worst from this. I sigh. Even chocolate on its own wouldn’t be the worst lunch I’ve ever had – in fact, it’s practically gourmet – but some bread to go with it would be great, and the rolls in the canteen are only ten pence. I write a note for my door and pin it up. Back in five minutes. I just hope he doesn’t come and go away again.

The Russell Building is, like the Stevenson Building on the west of the campus, built in the shape of a four-petalled cyber-flower with a small set of cloisters in the middle. I haven’t spent much time in the Stevenson Building, because the students all say that it is exactly the same as the Russell Building but ‘the other way around’, which sounds impossibly confusing, especially considering that the Russell Building is confusing enough on its own. I only seem to get lost in the Russell Building at the beginning of the academic year, when all the new students are around and everybody seems confused, and it’s as if the confusion leaks out of everyone’s minds and infects everyone else.

Now I go out of the English Building through the side door and under the walkway that leads to one of the Russell side doors. I go up some concrete steps, and then down some more, until I come to the mouth of a long, white corridor with a worn tiled floor and whitewashed walls. When the students are around, this space seems almost normal, but now it feels like the medical wing of an abandoned 1960s space station, or someone’s idea of one. They keep broken university furniture in one of the rooms along here. I can hear my footsteps as I walk, and for the first time ever I get the sensation that there could be no one in the whole building apart from me.

The tables in the dining hall are laid out in a geometric pattern that seems accidental until you go up to the Senior Common Room and look down. From up there you realise that the long tables all point towards the cathedral, which is itself framed in the large windows at the back of the hall. It all makes sense, from up there, the whole thing, and you feel as if you are part of one picture, and nothing on the perfect line joining you with the cathedral really exists.


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You’re in the dark and the cathedral is framed in a rectangle of light. One time I had to go into this dingy room off Reception to search the slide projectors for a transparency I’d left behind after a seminar, because this librarian was basically going to kneecap me if I didn’t get it back. As well as my slide (The Runnerby Vittorio Corona), I found another one in the box: it showed the cover of Baudrillard’sThe Illusion of the End. On the way down to the canteen I held it up in the only light available, the window at the back of the hall, and that’s when I saw what it was. The slide was all melted on the back, but not the image: the image was perfect. But when I tried to pick out some of the detail I realised I was looking at the cathedral through the slide, and the two images became one. After that I fell in love with the slide and took it back to my office and tried to find a way of projecting it onto my wall. But I couldn’t work it out and I don’t know where the slide is now. I read more Baudrillard after that.

Today the tables are there in their usual formation, but there are no jugs of water and no people

and the whole thing is, as I had feared, closed. I could go to one of the other buildings, but it seems pointless for a bread roll, so I walk back to my room and eat two bars of chocolate on their own.

Then I have a coffee and a cigarette and settle down to wait for the technician. I try not to feel sad that this is possibly my last day alone in my office, but it is difficult. I suppose I won’t be able to talk to myself in here any more, or smoke out of the window, or fall asleep under the second desk. Will the new people want the blind set at a different angle? Will they want to bring potted plants? It’s all too much to think about.

To pass the time, I open up the Internet browser on my machine and do a search for the word Troposphere. I don’t expect anything to come up, but then I find out that it does exist. It’s a part of Earth’s atmosphere: the place where most weather takes place. Could Lumas have missed that? I assumed the word was made up. I do the search on the OED instead, and find that the earliest use of the word was in 1914. So Lumas invented it first, but no one took any notice. But then why would they? It’s only a novel, after all. After I’ve read the whole entry I do a search forThe End of Mr. Y, just to see if there’s any information online that I haven’t seen before.

When you search forThe End of Mr. Yon the Internet, you usually get three links. One is an old abstract of the paper Burlem gave at the Greenwich conference. Another is a thread from a discussion board on a rare-books site, where someone has left a request for the book and no one has replied. The third is a little more mysterious. It’s basically a fan site, with a black background and some Gothic flourishes, and as far as I know it used to have quite a lot of information on the book. There was a page on the curse, and another page speculating about why there are almost no copies left in the world. The author of the website seemed to have concocted a conspiracy theory that the US government had tracked down and destroyed all the known copies, including the one in the German bank vault (which, according to this guy, had once belonged to Hitler). He didn’t say why this would be so, but hinted at some powerful secret that no one knew. I think the real story is simply that there were not very many copies of the book printed in the first place, and when a book has over a hundred years to fall into obscurity, it’s pretty easy for it to simply disappear. Anyway, about six months ago, or maybe a bit more, the website closed down. I check it today and it’s the same as it was last time I looked at it. There’s no error message or anything, but the front page simply says ‘They shut me up and I went away.’

Today I am intrigued to see that there’s a fourth link to a page containing a reference toThe End of Mr. Y. It’s a blog called ‘Some Days of My Life’, and when I click on the link I am taken to a pink and white screen with various journal entries. I scan up and down, but can’t see the reference. I use Find instead and then I see it. It’s the entry for last Friday.

Had to work in the bookshop again today (thanks alot, Sam) despite humungous hangover. Spent the day dusting books which was oddly therapeutic. Had no customers apart from this student who came in and paid fifty quid for a book called ‘The End of Mr. Y’, which I’ve never heard of but must be pretty rare. Maybe I’ll go into the second-hand book business. How about it, Sam? We could be partners and give up crappy college and make fortunes out of people who are prepared to pay£££for old books. How hard can it be?

There’s a knock at the door and I immediately close down the browser. It’s the technician. ‘Ariel Manto?’ he says, looking at a piece of paper. ‘Yes,’ I say.

‘Come to set a new password,’ he says.

‘Oh, yes. Great,’ I say. ‘It’s this machine over here.’

I try to absorb myself in something else while he tinkers around with the system, thinking that the

less fuss I make about it, the less suspicious the whole thing will seem. So I don’t try to explain or justify why I need the new password on the machine; I just let him get on with his job while I make a start typing up my notes onMr. Y. Ideally, I’d like to write a whole chapter onThe End of Mr. Yfor my thesis. It would be easy enough to write, considering my obsession with the book, but it would also make a great article or conference paper on its own. The only problem is that I’m not sure in what way I could argue that it is a thought experiment.

Thought experiments or, in German,gedankenexperiments, are experiments that, for whatever reason, cannot be physically carried out, but must instead be conducted internally, via logic and reasoning, in the mind. There have been ethical and philosophical thought experiments for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but it was when people began using these experiments in a scientific context that they were first given the title ‘thought experiment’, a literal translation ofgedankenexperiment, although Lumas had always referred to them as ‘experiments of the mind’. The luminiferous ether is the result of a thought experiment of sorts, which postulated that, if light is a wave, then it has to be a wave in something. You can’t have a wave in water with no water – so where was light’s ‘fluid’? So people invented the luminiferous ether as an answer, only to discard it again when the Michelson–Morley experiment proved that, sadly, there was no ether.

Edgar Allan Poe used the principles of the thought experiment to solve the Olbers Paradox, and, some people believe, to more or less invent Big Bang theory a good hundred years before anyone else. His ‘prose poem’ ‘Eureka’ sets out his various scientific and cosmological thoughts, but Poe was no experimental scientist, and so these theories came in the form of thought experiments, or, perhaps, something close to the way he described infinity, as the ‘thought of a thought’. His Olbers’s Paradox solution is one of the most elegant thought experiments in history. In 1823, Wilhelm Olbers wondered why we see stars the way we do in the night sky. At the time, most people believed the universe to be infinite and eternal. So if the sky was infinite, surely it would contain an infinite number of stars? And if there were an infinite number of stars, then our night sky should be white, not black. Olbers thought it was all down to dust clouds, and wrote, ‘How fortunate that the Earth does not receive starlight from every point of the celestial vault!’ Edgar Allan Poe thought this through and decided that a simpler and more plausible solution for the ‘voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions’ was that some of the stars were simply so far away that the light hadn’t had time to reach us yet.

Perhaps the most famous thought experiment in history is when Einstein wondered what would happen if he could catch up with a beam of light. Einstein worked out that if he could travel at the speed of light then, logically, he would see the beam of light as if it were motionless, just as if you are in a train going at the same speed as another train moving alongside you, you see the people inside it as if they are not moving. So, what would light look like if it seemed to be at rest? Would it look like a frozen yellow wave? A paint spatter of particles? And what if you could look at yourself in the mirror while travelling at the speed of light? You’d seem invisible. Maybe you’d even be invisible. Einstein realised that there could be no such thing as an electromagnetic field that stood still.

Maxwell’s equations, which seemed to imply that you could, in theory, catch up with a beam of light, also showed that light was not something that could be stationary. So one of those points had to be wrong. It would be interesting if it was the other one, and you could catch up to light and see it frozen, but, for various reasons that I need more physics lectures to understand, it isn’t. Einstein’s theory of special relativity states that, no matter how fast you go, light is always travelling relative to you at c, the speed of light. It doesn’t matter if you’re travelling at one mile an hour or a thousand miles an hour. The light you see around you is always going faster than you, and it’s always going at

c. If you were travelling at half the speed of light, it wouldn’t seem to you that light going in your direction was therefore travelling half as fast. It would still appear to be going at the speed of light,

c, relative to you.

‘Let us suppose our old friend the railway carriage to be travelling along the rails with a constant velocity, v,’ says Einstein in his book,Relativity. He then goes on to explain that if you walked along the carriage in the direction of travel, you’d be going not at the speed of the train, nor at the speed you were walking, but at the sum of the two. If the train was going at one hundred miles an hour, and you were going at one mile an hour, you’d actually be moving forwards at a velocity of one hundred and one miles per hour, relative to the embankment you were passing. Similarly, if I were to drive on the motorway alongside the railway line at, say, eighty-five miles per hour, and this train passed me, it would appear to me to be going at fifteen miles per hour relative to me; and you, walking inside it, would seem to be going at sixteen miles per hour. If you looked out of the train and saw me driving along, I would appear to be going backwards. All this is Newtonian relative velocity and it does not apply to light.

Einstein’s equations, the end result of his original thought experiments, show that matter and energy are different manifestations of the same thing, and that if you tried to approach the speed of light, you’d just become heavier the closer you got as your energy converted to mass. He also showed that space and time are essentially the same. For Lumas, the fourth dimension was a space containing beings, or, at least, thought. For H. G. Wells, it was a greenish otherworld containing spirits. For Zollner, it was a place full of phantoms that seemed to like nothing better than helping out magicians. But for Einstein, it wasn’t a place at all. But it wasn’t simply time, either. It was the fourth dimension of space–time: not just the clock, but the clock ticking on your wall, relative to you. The technician clears his throat. ‘Almost there,’ he says.

‘Great. Thanks,’ I say back.

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be Einstein, sitting in a stuffy patent office looking out at the trains and the railway track. There’s something romantic about it, of course, in the way only other people’s lives can be. I briefly look up from my notes and out of my big, steel-framed window. Something comes to me, suddenly, some weird Lumas connection, and I look back down at my notes. I write:

Metaphor (as in Lumas preface) … Trope … (Troposphere! – weird) Ways of thinking about the world. You can’t use trains as metaphors if there are no trains. Cf. différance. Can a thought exist without the language with which to have the thought? How does language (or metaphor) influence the thought? Cf.Poetics. If there was no evening no one would think it was like old age.

‘All right,’ says the technician. ‘All set. If you just want to come over here and type in the new password …’

He gets up and moves to the other side of the room while I sit there and try to think of something. I should just use my own password; that would be simple. A few possible words go through my mind. But something makes me calmly type ‘hacker’ into the box. It comes up as six little stars and I hit OK and then tell the technician I’m done. He comes over and does a couple more things and then restarts the machine.

‘All done,’ he says, and leaves.

I have moved the mouse about a millimetre across the desktop when the phone rings. It’s Yvonne.

‘Has that technician been yet?’ she asks.

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘He’s just gone.’

‘You got your document all right then?’

‘Er … no. Not yet. I’ve literally only just logged in.’

‘All right, well, you sort it out and I’ll be down in ten minutes to do the desks. Roger’s here now, but I’ll just give him a cup of tea and we’ll hang on for a bit. You’re all right to wait ten minutes or so, aren’t you, Roger?’ I can hear a muffled ‘Yeah, if there’s a biscuit as well’ in the background. ‘OK, Ariel, see you soon.’

Ten minutes. Shit. I’m not going to be able to investigate Burlem’s machine in ten minutes. OK: plan

B. I take my iPod out of my bag and connect it to the back of Burlem’s machine. I pray (to what? to whom?) that it won’t reject the connection, and in a couple of seconds it’s appeared as the F drive. Fantastic. Now all I need to do is transfer the contents of Burlem’s ‘My Documents’ folder over and

… There. That took about twenty seconds. Would he have hidden any information anywhere else on the machine? I metaphorically poke around for a bit, but a few clicks on folders tells me that he doesn’t use anything apart from ‘My Documents’ for his files. I’m not completely satisfied, but that will have to do. I double-check that the files have copied OK; then I unplug my iPod and shut the machine down just before a knock on my door tells me that Yvonne has arrived.


Page 13

EIGHT

YVONNE IS UPSET ABOUT THEnumber of books in the room.

‘What do you think, Roger?’ she asks.

‘Well,’ he says. ‘You’re not going to fit any more shelves in here.’ ‘No. That’s what I thought.’

While they’re having this conversation, I’m clearing out Burlem’s desk drawers, something I should have done much earlier. I’ve already filed a few loose documents relating to his Literature and Science course, and now I’m onto the general debris. There’s a teaspoon, presumably stolen from the kitchen, which I hide before Yvonne can see it. There’s a bag of filter coffee, unopened, which I also hide, thinking something along the lines of ‘finders keepers’, but also that Burlem probably wouldn’t mind me having his coffee in an emergency. But there’s nothing else of interest in Burlem’s drawers: just lots of pencils and board pens. Oh! And an electric pencil sharpener. I’m having that as well.

‘What do you think, Ariel?’ says Yvonne.

‘Sorry?’ I say. I’ve been so carried away with looting Burlem’s drawers that I’ve somehow managed to tune them both out.

‘We’re just saying that Professor Burlem’s books might as well go in storage, too. If I bring down some boxes, do you mind packing them up? We’ll finish the rest tomorrow morning.’

By four o’clock I’ve packed most of the books. Or, at least, I’ve packed most of the books that I think I won’t ever want to use (mainly literature classics that I also have copies of, also in this room), and I am alarmed to see that they have only filled two of the five boxes I’ve been given. The shelf space they’ve left behind is minimal at best. I look again. There’s no way I’m sending all Burlem’s theory books into storage. I need all those. And the Literature and Science textbooks have to stay because I’m teaching the course in a couple of weeks’ time. What about the nineteenth- century science books? I suppose I do have a lot of them at home. Shit. What am I going to do?

While I’m contemplating the situation further, the phone rings.

‘So …’ It’s Patrick.

‘So,’ I say back, playing along.

‘Guess what I’ve got.’ ‘What have you got?’ ‘Keys.’

‘To?’

‘The Russell study bedrooms. So I was thinking …’

I laugh. He wants to fuck on campus. That’s new. There’s something in his voice I haven’t come across before.

‘Patrick,’ I say, as though I’m about to explain to a kid that you shouldn’t play with matches. ‘What if

… ?’

‘There’s no one around,’ he says. ‘Why don’t you bring that thing I sent you?’

Can I tell him I’ve got to pack boxes instead? Probably not. What about investigating Burlem’s

computer files? I open my desk drawer and look down at the object he wants me to bring. And then that’s it. Desire bites me hard and I feel its warm poison creep through my body. I ignore the fact that Patrick’s voice is weird, and that this is a stupid idea, and, after agreeing to meet him in a remote corner of the Russell Building, I pick up my bag and go over there, looking behind me a couple of times in case anyone is watching. I’ll do the boxes later. And how long can this take? A quick fuck might be just the thing to break up the afternoon. And other people have tea breaks, don’t they?

Afterwards, at six o’clock, still sitting in the small, slightly sordid room after Patrick has left, I wonder if the reason I tend to say yes to everything is because I deeply believe that I can survive anything, but I’m still looking for the definitive proof. It turned out that Patrick’s voice was odd because his wife is in the process of leaving him – not because she found out about me, but because she has fallen in love with one of her toy boys. Patrick had been angry; that was clear. And it wasn’t as if he’d called me up so he could take it out on me – he’s usually a nice guy. But once we were in the room, his fantasy world somehow collided with the violence and anger he’d built up in the real world and made everything more intense, more desperate, and a lot darker than usual. Had he known that this was the turn it would take? He’d asked me to bring the vibrator he’d sent, after all. But he’d also brought rope (not the usual silk scarves). Surely he hadn’t meant to go as far as he did? Did he want me to tell him to stop? I don’t know why I didn’t. Except … I didn’t tell him to stop because I didn’t want him to stop, because, well, maybe I like the darkness and violence, too. Maybe I need darkness and violence like food, like cigarettes. Maybe … Maybe I should stop thinking about this.

After a couple more minutes I leave the room and, after walking down a dingy hallway with posters telling the students not to leave their windows open because pigeons fly in and lay eggs, I descend the steep staircase to the main part of the building. I walk through the white corridor under the white lights only to find the side door won’t open. They don’t usually lock it this early. Shit. I kick it a couple of times, but it definitely is locked, so I have to walk all the way around again, my eyes moving like a thief ’s, knowing that if I bump into anyone now it will look odd, and I can’t even claim to have been to the vending machines because I’m not carrying any sweets or crisps. Am I walking strangely? After what I’ve just done, it wouldn’t be surprising. But the porter just nods at me as I escape through the main entrance and I glance blankly back at him. Back in the English Building I go and make coffee in the small, deserted kitchen, and then I take it down to my office, first ignoring the fact that I am now very hungry, and then deciding to eat the last chocolate bar.

I sit cross-legged on the floor for a while, just looking at the boxes while I drink my coffee and eat the chocolate. Then I examine the small rope burns on my wrists and ankles. There’s something interesting about the grazed areas of flesh; something pleasingly symmetrical about them. But I probably won’t see Patrick any more. I’ll do anything once for the experience, but that doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily do it again – even if at the time I enjoyed it. For a moment I think about Yvonne, who is probably at home now making tea for the kids in a bright kitchen with yellow lights everywhere and a dishwasher and a big TV ready to pump out brightness for the rest of the evening; I wonder at what point my life swerved to avoid that, and if that life would have been nicer than the one I’ve got.

It’s dark outside the window as I start putting more books into boxes. They are dusty from being on the shelves for so long, and my hands are soon almost black with the grime from them. Ignoring this, I fill the first box with as many of Saul Burlem’s nineteenth-century science books as I can bear to part with, although it takes a long time because I keep stopping to touch the pages, and to read the odd line here and there. I linger for longer than usual onTranscendental Physicsby Professor Zollner. Burlem’s copy of it is a small brown hardback from 1901. I randomly open it and read a short section about Kant, God and the fourth dimension, which is opposite a picture of some knots.

Another plate, further on, shows a small, freestanding table, with a wide, solid top and bottom, with two solid wooden loops encircling its thin single stem. It’s clear that if the table and loops are both solid wood, the loops would have had to have always been there; but they haven’t been. They’ve been conjured onto it somehow. I turn the page and read about the strange lights and the smell of sulphuric acid that preceded these loops being placed onto the leg by unseen, possibly higher- dimensional forces.

Somehow I manage to clear one whole bookcase via this method of selecting a book, reading a bit, then, slightly sadly, placing it in the box. After that, I try to arrange all my books, plus the ones I’m ‘borrowing’, onto one bookcase, but they won’t fit. I look again at Burlem’s books. If I boxed up his four volumes of the 1801 edition ofZoonomia, Erasmus Darwin’s book, that would leave a bit more space, especially if I boxed up some of his Aristotle as well. ButZoonomiais one of my favourite of his books, and one I was definitely planning to use for the PhD. Except … actually, I won’t be using it any more, since Burlem persuaded me not to include it. I remember his words. ‘Forget aboutMr.

Y.And forget aboutZoonomia, as well.’ He said 1801 was too early, and that I should stick within my time frame. Well, I suppose if I change my mind there is a copy in the library. So they’re going in the box. I have to stand on a chair to reach them and I try not to get too absorbed with touching their wide green spines, then opening them and running my fingers over the thick, pulpy rag paper that still seems to contain tiny bits of tree. Perhaps it’s because it’s the end of a strange day, or because my arms are tired, but I’m not as careful with the books as I usually would be, and the thick pages flap about as I lift each volume off the shelf. In fact, the volumes don’t seem to be in the best condition, because, as I take Volume IV down, one of its pages actually falls out and flutters down onto the carpet like a leaf.

When I get down off the chair and pick up the page, I see that it isn’t the right size, or thickness, forZoonomia. It doesn’t have that blotting paper feel, or the thick black type with the long letter s that looks like an f. In fact, I realise, it’s not a page ofZoonomiaat all. The small, thin typescript is familiar to me, however, as is, in some unconscious way, the jaggedness of the tear in its edge. It also has a very faint crease: the result of having once been folded into four. This isn’t a page that’s simply fallen out ofZoonomia. This is the missing page fromThe End of Mr. Y.

For about five whole minutes I just stand there looking at it; not reading the words, just touching the paper and allowing the circuit in my mind to be completed. The book was Burlem’s. The whole box of books from the shop was Burlem’s. And it was Burlem who, for some reason, tore out this page and hid it. It must have been him. He must have left the page here. No one else has a key to this room except me, and if someone else had taken the page out of the book, surely they’d have hidden it in their own things, not in Burlem’s. And I don’t actually know anyone else who has ever even heard ofThe End of Mr. Y, except Burlem. But why would he hide a page of a book? And how on earth did the rest of the book end up in an auction? I can’t work out how all these things could possibly fit together. Apart from anything else, the book would have been so valuable whole that it must have taken something mind-boggling to make him remove a page. And why not simply put the whole book on the shelf?

Forget aboutMr. Y. Sorry, Burlem. That’s not going to be possible now.

And, I now wonder, did he really want me to forget? He connected these two things,Mr. YandZoonomia, because he knew he’d left the page there. He connected them in language long before I connected them in the real world.

I can’t read the page here, although it is difficult to stop myself. Instead, I tuck it carefully inside the Zollner book, which I’ve decided to take home with me, and, as quickly as I can, I finish packing the boxes and leave.

An hour later, after a cold, dark walk down the hill, I sit down on my sofa in the kitchen with a large

cup of coffee. This feels like a ritual, but perhaps it should be a ritual. I never thought I’d readThe End of Mr. Y, and then I found a copy of it in what appeared to be the most improbable of circumstances. I never thought I’d find the missing page, but now here it is. And every one of these events is connected. But not by luck: it’s pure cause and effect. The only piece of luck involved in all of this was the university starting to collapse and creating the cracks of chaos out of which these things could emerge. Of course, I still have no idea of what happened to Burlem, but I know that whatever happened to him is the real cause for what’s happening to me now. Why did he disappear? It must have been something very bad, if whatever it was meant that his most precious book ended up in a box in an auction. And the books in the box are definitely his: I flicked through them as soon as I got in and found some marginal notes in his pointy, up-and-down handwriting that proved it. I take a big gulp of coffee and, as a train clatters underneath my window, I read the first line on page 131, the remainder of the broken-off line on page 130.

the darkened room with its single lamp. I bade him good evening.

‘Good evening to you, Mr. Y,’ said he, a cold smile spreading itself thinly across his face. ‘Shall we immediately begin this business? I trust you have the money?’

I reached down and withdrew the money from my shoe, almost losing my balance as I did so. This had the effect of thinning the doctor’s smile yet further.

‘I must say your purse is a little queer, Mr. Y.’

‘This is all the money I have,’ I told him. ‘I was not about to allow it to be stolen.’ ‘Indeed not,’ he replied.

Presently he motioned for me to sit down at the table, and he took the opposite side, as if a consultation were about to take place. I handed the money to him and felt a profound sense of emptiness puncture my soul. Would this fellow even give me what I wanted? I have to confess that at that moment I half believed that the next thing I would see would be a puff of smoke, and then the trick would be complete. However, there was no puff of smoke and the doctor continued to regard me across the table.

‘I have transcribed the recipe for you,’ he said. ‘It is quite simple and requires no special preparation. The ingredients are common, as you will see.’

I realised then that he was holding in his left hand a sheet of tattered blue note-paper. There was the information I had been searching for all this time! I did not understand why this man was sitting there in this pose, simply holding on to this knowledge, this most precious thing. Why did he not simply give me what I had paid for? All at once I felt some demon seize possession of me, and I was overcome by an urge to reach across the table and rip the paper from his hand. I confess that I further imagined wrestling him to the ground and taking back my money. Yet all this only happened in my mind, and in reality I did nothing but sit there meekly awaiting my prescription.


Page 14

‘This mixture,’ I said. ‘It will have the same effect as … ?’ ‘You wish to know if the mixture will enable you to telepath?’

‘Yes,’ said I. ‘If that is indeed what took place in Nottingham.’ The doctor’s thin smile returned.

‘This mixture will most certainly enable you to telepath, if that is all you require of it.’ ‘If that is all I require? What in heaven do you mean?’

‘The mixture will take you on many curious journeys, Mr. Y, I can assure you of that.’ For a second or two the doctor looked as if he may continue in this portentous vein, but then something queer seemed to happen to him. His whole body appeared to grow limp, like a marionette placed in a cupboard after a performance, and for a full minute he did not move;

nor did he say anything else. When he did come back to life it was with a little jerk, as if someone had once again taken hold of his strings. He looked at the piece of note-paper in his hand as if puzzled by it and then, without saying anything else, he handed it to me.

I had only the merest opportunity to glance at my treasure before he rapped the table twice with the knuckles of his left hand and made to stand up.

‘Well, then, good evening, Mr. Y. You have what you came for.’

I hesitated, understanding that this would be my only chance to ask the question that so burned on my lips.

‘Before I leave,’ I said, ‘I have one question to ask of you.’ The doctor lifted one eyebrow in response but said nothing.

‘I wish to know how many other people have this recipe,’ I said.

‘You wish to know how valuable is this knowledge you hold in your hand,’ said the doctor. ‘You wish to know how much power you now possess, and how it has been potentially diluted among the rest of the population. Well, I can answer your question quite easily. You are the only person to whom I have sold this recipe. Not everyone is as willing as you were to lie in a tent and imbibe a stranger’s medicinal concoction simply for the purpose of knowledge. For pain relief, this is common. For pleasure, also. But you can rest assured, sir, that you are my only customer to date.’

I had more questions, but the doctor made it quite clear to me that our business was concluded and I walked out into the cold, murky hallway. In a parlour on my right I saw a child trying to light a fire. The result of this was a low, persistent, hissing noise and enough smoke to make my eyes sting. When I was certain that no one was looking, I rubbed the grime from my eyes and briefly examined the document in my hand. It only contained four lines, written in an untutored, unorthodox hand, in pale violet ink.

Make the tincture in the following way:–

Combine one part Carbo Vegetabilis, that is, vegetable charcoal, in the 1,000th centesimal homoeopathic potency, with 99 parts holy water in a glass retort or flask and succuss the mixture ten times.

FD 1893

Then I slipped the blue paper into my shoe and made my way for the door.

I finish reading the missing page ofThe End of Mr. Ywith a dry mouth and my heart beating as if it’s trying to get out. I just can’t believe it. I immediately reread the page, trying to recreate the sensation I felt when I got to the recipe, rather in the same way you queue up to take a fairground ride that has just terrified and excited you. But it doesn’t quite work in that way. This isn’t a ride you can take again, but one, I am guessing, that is simply impossible to get off. And then I find that I can’t sit down any more. I get up and pace the room, feeling as though I should do something bigger, much bigger, to express the emotion I feel, but not knowing what that would be. Laughter? Tears? My brain is hysterical, but I don’t do anything to show it in the end; I just pace and smoke and think. I think about the strange preface, and all the hints thatThe End of Mr. Ycontains something real. I think about the trouble someone, probably Burlem, has taken to conceal this page, which contains nothing of any interest apart from the instructions for making up the tincture. I think of Lumas’s strange allusions to telepathy, and I remember this section about the ‘automaton of mind’.

As Robert-Houdin has built automata with which to produce his illusions, I shall here propose to create an automaton of mind, through which one may see illusions and realities beyond;

from which one, if he knows how, may spring into the automata of all minds and their electricity.

And when I’m certain that I understand why the page is important, and the potential reason it was hidden, I sit down and finish the rest of the book, distracted by my own desire to find the ingredients and make up some of this tincture for myself.

PART TWO

The matters of which man is cognisant escape the senses in gradation. We have, for example, a metal, a piece of wood, a drop of water, the atmosphere, a gas, caloric, electricity, the luminiferous ether. Now, we call all these things matter, and embrace all matter in one general definition; but in spite of this, there can be no two ideas more essentially distinct than that which we attach to a metal, and that which we attach to the luminiferous ether. When we reach the latter, we feel an almost irresistible inclination to class it with spirit, or with nihility.

The only consideration which restrains us is our conception of its atomic constitution; and here, even, we have to seek aid from our notion of an atom, as something possessing in infinite minuteness, solidity, palpability, weight. Destroy the idea of the atomic constitution and we should no longer be able to regard the ether as an entity, or, at least, as matter. For want of a better word we might term it spirit. Take, now, a step beyond the luminiferous ether –

conceive a matter as much more rare than the ether, as this ether is more rare than the metal, and we arrive at once (in spite of all the school dogmas) at a unique mass – an unparticled matter. For although we may admit infinite littleness in the atoms themselves, the infinitude of littleness in the spaces between them is an absurdity.

Edgar Allan Poe,The Mesmeric Revelation

As material things prove all to be connected and parts of one thing; as the pebble at our feet and the most remote and profitless fixed star are still united, so ‘Does it rain, my dear?’ and the most dreary metaphysical inquiry are still closely connected.

Samuel Butler,Note-books

NINE

YOU LOOK IN THE MIRRORand this time it tells you that, yes, you are cursed.

The sun is only just rising by the time I get to the university library on Tuesday morning, about five minutes before it opens. I’m a little mind-numbed by the experience of walking up the hill in the weak grey light, smothered by the winter sky and my own breath, which is itself a winter sky in miniature. For the first time ever I walked along listening to my iPod, and the music I felt most fitted this experience of walking up a hill at dawn, on my first day as someone who may be cursed, was Handel’sDixit Dominus, the same piece that was playing the night I met Burlem in Greenwich. I both love and hate this piece of music, and while it plays it feels as though it’s something that’s crawling on me, on the inside and the outside surfaces of my skin.

Patrick may think I am tremendously postmodern because I have an iPod, but I still prefer libraries to the Internet when it comes to research. And although I know what holy water is, and where I am likely to get some, I have no idea about the other ingredient in Mr. Y’s recipe: Carbo Vegetabilis (or vegetable charcoal). Well, OK, I understand that vegetable charcoal implies burnt wood or vegetation, but what is a homoeopathic potency? I guess the Internet probably would tell me this quickly, but it may not tell me accurately. I also need to know what a nineteenth-century writer would have meant by it – who knows? The term may not be in existence any more, or it might mean something different now. Look at how the word ‘atom’ has changed over the centuries. I have definitely decided that I am going to make this tincture and try it out. Even though this morning I was slashed into consciousness by that jagged honesty you sometimes get when you wake up, and something inside me told me to stop. But why should I? And it’s not as if this mixture can do me any harm. Charcoal isn’t poisonous, and neither is water. And it seems to me that this recipe is a part of the book, and that, for whatever reason, Lumas intended the reader to try it out.

The History of Medicine section of the library turns out to be on the fourth floor, beyond the religion and philosophy books, in a little corner by some stairs. There is a whole section on homoeopathy: lots of aged hardbacks with muted binding in dark green, dark red and grey. I pick up a thick green book and see the title,Kent’s Repertory, and the publication date, 1897. I sit cross-legged on the faded carpet and flick through it, intrigued by the odd format that I don’t understand. The book seems to contain lists of symptoms, grouped under headings such as ‘Sleep’, ‘Eyes’, ‘Genitalia’ and ‘Mind’. I flick to the ‘Sleep’ section and find a curious poetry there in a section entitled ‘Dreams’. I read down the page and see one-word or, occasionally, one-sentence entries saying things likeserpents, sexual, shameful, shooting, skeletons, smelling sulphurand, further down,stars falling, stealing fruit and struck by lightning, that he was. After each small piece of text are letters I don’t understand, but that look like abbreviations. Under the entry ‘dreams, snakes’ there are a lot of these: alum.,arg-n., bov., grat., iris., kali-c.,lac-c., ptel.,ran-s., rat., sep., sil., sol-n., spig., tab. I don’t know why some of these are in italics, nor what the abbreviations mean.

I flick backwards in the book to the ‘Mind’ section and, under ‘Delusions’, find some very odd entries, including the delusions ‘alive on one side, dead on the other’ and the more vague ‘fancy, illusions of’. In the ‘Genitalia, Male’ section I find references to erections that can be ‘impetuous’ or can only

happen in the afternoon, or while coughing. I like this, but I don’t understand it, so I close the heavy volume and browse some of the other books on the shelf. It’s strange: I always thought homoeopathy was some kind of cranky herbalism, but looking at all these books makes me realise just how seriously some people must take it, or, more accurately, must have taken it around the turn of the century when most of these books were originally published. All the authors have very grand or strange names: Constantine Hering, MD; John Henry Clarke, MD; William Boericke, MD; and even some women, including Margaret Tyler, MD and Dorothy Shepard, MD. They all have those letters after their names, implying that all the important people who practised homoeopathy at that time were doctors. Eventually I have amassed a pile of books from 1880 until the early 1900s; I take these to a small table and start trying to understand it all.

After two hours’ solid reading I go outside for a cigarette. The sky is now a uniform, artificial blue, and for a second it feels like something has been deleted from it. A grey squirrel runs along the grass in front of me, its sleek body rising and falling like a wave. My eyes follow it as it runs up a tree and disappears. Beyond the tree, and far down the hill, the small city shimmers in the false, low light. The cathedral dominates the view as usual, and in this light it looks sepia-yellow, like a JPEG of an old photograph. As I inhale smoke in the cold air, I think about what I have learnt this morning.

Homoeopathy seems to have been invented (or, perhaps, discovered) by Samuel Hahnemann in 1791. Hahnemann was a chemist who had written treatises on syphilis and poisoning by arsenic. He was unhappy about contemporary medical practices, especially bloodletting. Hahnemann believed that King Leopold of Austria had essentially been murdered by his doctors, who had bled him four times in twenty-four hours to try to cure a high fever. While he was translating Cullen’sMateria Medica, Hahnemann had an amazing moment of insight. Cullen said that cinchona bark cured malaria simply because it was bitter. But Hahnemann happened to know that poisoning by cinchona bark produced symptoms similar to those produced by malaria, including internal dropsy and emaciation. He realised that the thing that cured malaria also caused very similar symptoms. Could this be true in other cases of diseases and medicines? Could it be, he wondered, that like cures like? This was his first eureka moment. It led, eventually, to the development of a whole new system of medicine with the motto:Similia similibus curentur– let likes be cured by likes. Hahnemann’s second eureka moment was when he worked out that it is the small dose that cures. It was all very well giving someone some cinchona bark to cure their malaria, but since the bark is poisonous, it generally harmed the person as well. Curing poisoning with a poison didn’t sound like a very sensible idea, so Hahnemann experimented with dilutions of cinchona bark, and found that you could dilute the crude substance quite a lot and still get a reaction. Later, the nineteenth-century homoeopaths worked out that the more dilute the dose, the more effective the medicine: approach the infinitesimal, and you approach something very strange, and very powerful. Paradoxical, but there you are. Paradox never stopped the quantum physicists, or Einstein.

It’s freezing out here, despite the blue sky, and as soon as I have put out my cigarette I go back into the library and up to the fourth floor to continue reading. I get the first book I looked at back off the shelf and re-examine it. I now understand that this is something in which homoeopathic physicians look up symptoms and find the common substance listed under all of them. Those funny little abbreviations relate to homoeopathic substances, it appears. Ars. is Arsenicum; bry. is Bryonia; carb-v. is Carbo Vegetabilis. Once I understand how the system works, I am tempted to start looking up all my own strange symptoms – waking early; craving salt, cigarettes, and alcohol; liking transgressive sex; preferring my own company to that of others – but I don’t have time. My wrists and ankles have matching rope burns that glisten on my skin like little pieces of melted plastic.


Page 15

Should I try and find something to cure them? That might be quite quick. Maybe not, though. I almost like them.

I yawn and don’t bother to cover my mouth: no one’s been up here all morning. I still don’t know what Carbo Vegetabilis is, nor what the thousandth potency might be, so I flick through the pile of books on the desk until I eventually find two helpful documents. One is a short biography of Dr Thomas Skinner, a Scottish homoeopath who visited the United States in 1876 and developed something called the ‘centesimal fluxion machine’ for making what the book describes as ‘potencies in excess of the thousandth’. After a lot more flicking and reading, I come across the next helpful document. It’s a reproduction of a 1925 catalogue entry from the Boericke & Tafel Homoeopathic Pharmacists of Philadelphia, and it explains, in great detail, exactly how homoeopathic medicines are (or were) made. The process sounds crazy. It seems that a substance (cinchona bark, arsenic, sulphur, snake venom, whatever) is steeped in ‘the finest spirits, made of sound grain’, and then the medicine is made by taking one drop of this ‘mother tincture’ and combining it with ninety-nine drops of alcohol, then succussing (shaking or pounding) the mixture ten times; then taking one drop from this new mixture and combining it with ninety-nine new drops of alcohol, and so on. The thirtieth potency, apparently common in homoeopathic prescribing, is made by doing this thirty times. The thousandth potency, therefore (which they call the 1M potency), is made by doing this one thousand times. At least, I think I’ve got that right. It sounds impossible. I read it again. Yes.

That is right.

Shit. Do people even make this stuff any more? Is there still such a thing as Tafel’s High Potencies or the Skinner machine? Am I going to have to go out and find some charcoal and start messing around with pipettes and slivovitz (does that count as the finest spirits? Probably not). Could my wrists even cope with all that shaking? I don’t have bionic arms, and I have absolutely no stamina. Once I rubbed out the pencilled-in marginalia from a hundred pages of a book that I wanted to photocopy (long story) and afterwards it felt like I’d been wanking off a giant for a hundred years. I’m still thinking about this, and wishing there was a way of finding some sort of Victorian pharmacist to help me, when someone taps me on the shoulder. Even though I thought I was alone in here, I don’t jump. In fact, I am so absorbed in this new problem that I vaguely shrug the hand away from my shoulder and keep reading. I can already sense that it’s Patrick, anyway. I can smell his woody aftershave and the lemony scent of his clean clothes. He touches my shoulder again, and this time I have to respond.

‘Hi,’ I say, without really looking up.

‘Hello,’ he says, hovering behind my right shoulder. ‘What are you reading about?’

‘Nineteenth-century homoeopathy,’ I say, turning my hand over so it rests on the book, rather than holding it open. I don’t want him to see my wrist.

‘Gosh,’ he says. ‘Was homoeopathy around then?’ ‘I think it was its heyday,’ I say.

There’s a long pause. I wish he’d go away.

‘Ariel,’ he says.

‘What?’

‘Can I buy you a coffee to say sorry?’ I sigh. ‘I’m quite busy doing this.’ ‘Ariel?’

I don’t respond. He stands there behind me silently and I don’t know whether to turn and look at him or just to continue with this and hope he’ll just get the message and leave. I’m not quite sure exactly what message I want him to get. Something like ‘Leave me out of your fucking family shit.’ After I’ve ignored him for a while, he comes closer and looks down at the book in front of me, in the same way that people look at photographs in a lonely room.

‘OK, I’ll leave you to it,’ he says, without moving. ‘Hey,’ he puts his thin finger down on the textbook

in front of me. ‘Phosphorus; I’ve taken that.’

I look up. ‘You’ve taken homoeopathic medicine?’ ‘Yes, of course. I’m not sure it worked, but …’

‘Look. Maybe we should have a quick coffee,’ I tell him. ‘But you’ll have to give me a few minutes to finish up here and check out some of these books. Say, outside in five minutes?’

‘Wonderful.’

Shelley College (named after Mary, not Percy Bysshe) has a Fibonacci staircase, a 1960s chandelier and a bistro called Monster Munch. Monster Munch is the only bit of the college I don’t like. It’s all done out in clean orange and pithy white curves and edges, with new-looking pool tables and a plasma screen. I prefer the decrepit little bar in the Russell Building that has stand-up ashtrays and chipped MDF tables. The students don’t like the Russell Bar, which means it’s usually empty.

Occasionally they’ll go in there to revise, or to curl up on one of the stained old sofas with a hangover, but not that often. Anyway, you can’t smoke in Monster Munch. You can only do shiny things in Monster Munch; you have to be a shiny, clean person in here: the fluorescent lights and the mirrors on the walls prevent you from being anything else.

I sit on a stool at a small white table by the window and pull the arms of my jumper down to cover my wrists while Patrick gets coffee for both of us: some sort of frothed milk thing for him, and an Americano for me (they call it ‘black coffee’ in Russell). I have my pile of homoeopathy textbooks in front of me, and they look wrong in here, as do I. The mirrors reflect the unhealthy tone of my skin, pale against my red hair, and the fraying on the bottom of my jeans that I didn’t think was that noticeable. I put on this black jumper this morning without even thinking about it, but now I can see how thin the wool has become, and how smudged it makes me look. If it wasn’t for my hair, I’d basically resemble a bad-quality photocopy.

Patrick puts my coffee in front of me and looks out of the window.

‘Wow, you can see a long way today,’ he says, sitting down. The sky is still a hyperreal blue.

‘Yeah, but you can’t see the cathedral.’ All you can see from up here are fields with nothing in them and, further away, strange industrial towers.

‘Do you have to be able to see the cathedral?’

‘I think so. I mean, it’s the only thing to look at, isn’t it? From up here.’

‘Maybe.’ Patrick digs around in his froth with a thin silver spoon. I notice that his hands are shaking slightly and there’s a slight reflection on his forehead from a thin sheen of perspiration. ‘So.’

‘So,’ I say back. ‘Are you … ?’ What do I say? I was about to ask if he’s feeling any better, but then I realise that this is an absurd thing to say, because I don’t really care how he’s feeling. The ellipses hang in the air for a moment, and then Patrick fills in his own question and answers it.

‘Yes. Emma’s back. I’m …’ He prods his froth some more. ‘I’m sorry if I seemed to be in a rather strange mood yesterday. I wonder if you’ll ever forgive me.’

‘It’s OK,’ I hear myself saying. ‘It’s not as if I said … You know, I mean …’ ‘No, but. I shouldn’t …’

‘I mean, maybe we should try to avoid … In future …’

Monster Munch is not the kind of place to have this conversation. This is a post-midnight, post- watershed, jazz-bar conversation, and we’re trying to have it in a place that looks like it’s already been censored.

‘Anyway,’ I say. ‘I’m really sorry.’ ‘It’s OK.’

I think about Frankenstein’s monster, the fictional character who indirectly gave his name to this place.She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and

her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair … The murderous mark of the fiend’s grasp was on her neck, and the breath had ceased to issue from her lips. That’s what Victor Frankenstein’s creation did to his fiancée, Elizabeth. Maybe this is the place to have this conversation after all.

‘You …’ I begin, at the same time that Patrick says ‘I …’ ‘You first,’ he says.

‘No, go on.’

‘No, really.’

‘I just … I don’t want to be a stand-in for your wife. Especially not when you’re angry with her. That was never the deal.’

‘No. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.’

We’re silent for a couple of moments. I sip my coffee and vaguely wish I could have a cigarette. Two women walk in and order juice from the bar and then come and sit at the table behind ours.

‘So how come you took homoeopathic medicine?’ I ask Patrick.

He shrugs. ‘Someone suggested seeing a homoeopath a while ago.’ ‘What was it like?’

He sips his coffee and I notice that his hands are not shaking any more.

‘It was interesting.’ He frowns. ‘They ask you lots of odd questions. They want to know what foods you crave, what you dream about, what you do for a living and how you feel about it. It’s like seeing a therapist, in a way.’

I saw a therapist once. A gym teacher saw the scars on the tops of my legs and made me go to the doctor. The doctor referred me to some teenage unit at the local hospital. I remember watching a soap opera in the waiting room, which, as well as the smeary TV screen, had green plastic chairs and posters about AIDS. The guy who saw me was a young, moon-faced man with glasses. I told him how amazing it was to be able to give yourself pleasure through pain, and how I knew cutting was addictive but I wasn’t addicted yet. I laughed through an account of my childhood. Through all this, the therapist simply looked at me in a puzzled way, and a week later I got a letter saying they didn’t have the facilities to help me ‘at this time’. I still remember the boxy, thin-walled little room, though. It smelled of smoke, and I noticed a silver foil ashtray on the table by the box of tissues and the vase of plastic blue flowers. That was the moment it occurred to me to try smoking. That eventually replaced the cutting, but I still have the scars. Patrick likes them.

I sip my coffee as Patrick keeps talking about the homoeopathic interview.

‘I don’t know why they need that level of detail about your life,’ he says, and laughs briefly. ‘I only went there with headaches and insomnia.’

I finish my coffee. ‘So you ended up with phosphorus?’

‘Yes. Now I think about it, I haven’t had any headaches since, although I still don’t sleep well.’ ‘Do you actually believe in it?’

‘Mmm. I don’t know. I saw a documentary that said the remedies are just placebos, and there’s nothing in them that can have any effect on anything. They actually dilute the remedies so much that, in chemical terms, all that is left is water. Apparently, homoeopaths argue that water has a memory, which sounds pretty wacky.’

‘So what did the medicine look like?’ I ask him. ‘Where did you get it?’

‘Oh, the homoeopath gave it to me. She had this huge wooden cabinet …’ Patrick opens his arms about three feet wide and, with one finger pointing up on each hand, tries to show the scope of this thing. I notice that he doesn’t look at his hands as he does this, but at the wall behind me. It suddenly occurs to me that when people describe size this way, they’re relying on perspective to help them. He’s not saying ‘It’s this big.’ He’s saying ‘It would look this big from here if it was over there.’

He goes on. ‘It had all these little drawers labelled alphabetically. She opened one of them up and there were lots of little glass bottles inside, each containing tiny white sugar pills. She explained to me that the medicine is originally a liquid, but that the little pills absorb it and make it more convenient to take. Sorry. This must be boring.’

‘No, I’m really interested. I just had no picture in my mind of what any of this stuff actually looks like.’ I try to run my fingers through my hair, but there’s some huge tangle at the front, so I try to tease it out as I speak. ‘So, do you have to get these pills from a homoeopath?’

‘Oh, no.’ Patrick laughs. ‘Don’t you ever go into Boots? They sell homoeopathic remedies everywhere now. You can get them at any health food shop as well. I get Nux Vomica for indigestion. You just buy it over the counter.’

‘Hmm,’ I say. ‘That’s interesting. I never realised it was so mainstream.’

‘It’s big business now,’ he says. ‘I’ve got some Nux in my office, if you want to see what the tablets actually look like.’

‘OK.’

Most people’s offices tend to be a mess. I’ve seen people who seem to be trapped in their rooms, still working at 8 p.m. because perhaps there really is no way out across towering piles of old journals, books and printed-off e-mails. Patrick’s room, on the other hand, is large, square and spotless. It doesn’t exactly have the shine of the Monster Munch bistro, but you can see why he likes having coffee there. He has an L-shaped desk arrangement similar to mine, but his tables are larger and one has a glass top. The glass-topped one faces the door and has nothing on it apart from a heavy translucent paperweight and a white lamp. The other one faces the window, has nothing on it apart from his computer and looks as if it’s been polished recently. The room is so large that there is also space for a coffee table and four comfortable chairs.

He shuts the door behind us and walks over to his desk drawer.

‘Here,’ he says, taking out a small brown glass bottle and offering it to me.

I put my library books down on the coffee table and take the bottle from him. The label saysNux Vom 30. 125 tablets. An instruction on the side tells you to take a tablet every two hours in ‘acute’ cases and three times a day otherwise. I unscrew the cap and peer inside at a pile of tiny flat tablets, pure white like miniature aspirins.

Now Patrick is locking the door and closing his blinds.

‘How forgiven am I?’ he says.

‘Hmm?’ I say, looking up, but he has already grabbed me and is kissing me hard. ‘Patrick,’ I say, once he stops. But what am I going to say next? Despite – or, weirdly, because of – yesterday, a familiar sensation trickles through me, and instead of talking about how this isn’t a good idea, I allow him to remove my jumper and pull down my jeans and knickers and then bend me over the glass table, holding me by my hair. My breasts press against the cold glass, and, while Patrick fucks me, I wonder what they look like from underneath.

‘God, Ariel,’ he says afterwards, wiping his cock with a Kleenex as I pull my jeans back up. ‘I don’t know if you bring out the best or the worst in me.’


Page 16

‘I think it’s the worst,’ I say, smiling.

He smiles back. ‘Thanks for forgiving me.’

I laugh. ‘I’m not sure if I have yet.’ I pick up my books and head for the door. ‘Oh, well. Guess I’d better go and see what my new roommates are like.’

Patrick throws the Kleenex away. ‘Roommates?’

‘“Refugees” is what Mary’s calling them. People from the Newton Building. I’m sharing my office with two of them.’

‘Oh. Bad luck.’ Patrick leans against the glass-topped desk and looks at me. ‘Well, you’re always

welcome here.’ ‘We’ll get caught.’

‘Yes. Probably.’ He sighs. ‘Back to hotels, then.’

‘We’ll see.’ I soften this with a naughty smile, since something’s just occurred to me. ‘Oh, Patrick?’ I say, with my hand on the door handle, as though it’s an afterthought.

He’s fiddling with the buttons on his trousers, making sure they’re done up.

‘What?’

‘I’ve left my purse at home. You haven’t got like a tenner lying around, have you? It’s no big deal, but I’ve got to put some petrol in the car on the way back. I’ll give it back to you tomorrow or something.’

He immediately reaches for his wallet and pulls out a twenty.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ he says. And then, just as I’m leaving, and in a lower voice: ‘There’s always more where that came from.’

As I leave, I wonder if that was better than stealing from the tea and coffee fund in the kitchen, or worse.

TEN

THERE’S A YOUNG WOMAN INmy office. She’s about my age, or a bit younger, and has thick black glasses and short, blonde, curly hair. She’s putting books on one of the shelves I cleared. Around her feet are about five other boxes with all kinds of things spilling out of them: mainly books, but also CDs, a small stereo, a plush green frog and a scrunched-up lab coat.

‘Hi,’ I say, walking around the boxes. ‘I’m Ariel.’

‘Oh, my God. I’m so sorry about this. I’m Heather.’ Her accent is Scottish, possibly Edinburgh.

She grins at me, puts down the book she’s holding and holds out a hand for me to shake. I put my own pile of books on my now-single desk and take it.

‘Seriously,’ she says. ‘I’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible. It’s so nice of you to offer to share, though. I do really appreciate it.’

‘Er … That makes me sound like a better person than I am,’ I say. ‘Not that I wouldn’t have offered. But I was originally sharing this office with my supervisor and he’s not around at the moment, so, well, it’s logical for me to share, really. My head of department suggested it, though.’

‘Well, just, thanks so much. I mean, you could have said no.’ I couldn’t have said no, but still.

‘I’m just going to check my e-mail,’ I say, sitting down at my desk. ‘But I can give you a hand in a minute, if you like.’

‘No. You’re all right. I’ll try not to make too much of a mess, though. I don’t want to completely ruin your office.’

‘Honestly,’ I say. ‘It’s fine.’

Heather has already set up her computer on the desk that is now facing the window. The theology guy is therefore going to have the one behind mine, facing the other wall. Heather’s computer has got a large, flat-screen monitor, which appears to have gone on standby. I press the buttons to turn on my computer and then I get up and start picking my way through the maze of boxes to go upstairs to check my pigeonhole and get a coffee from the kitchen.

‘Do you want a coffee or anything?’ I ask Heather as I go.

‘Really? Oh, no. I couldn’t ask you to make me coffee as well as everything else.’ ‘It’s no trouble. I’m already making myself one.’

‘Oh, OK. But only if it’s no trouble. I probably need some to keep me going.’ ‘I know the feeling,’ I say.

* * *

Once I’m back at my desk, I immediately start searching the Internet for homoeopathic remedies. From what I can make out, they cost about three or four pounds a bottle. I could order them online, but I don’t have a credit card so I’ll have to go into town. I’m feeling so hungry that I think I might pass out, but I don’t think I’ll waste any of my money in the canteen. I think I’ll finish my coffee and then liberate my car, go home, and have some soup and a bath. Then I can go out and find the Carbo Vegetabilis. There’s a huge Boots and two or three health food shops in town, and if these medicines are as ubiquitous as Patrick says, I shouldn’t have any trouble finding what I need.

While I’m doing this, Heather finishes putting her books on the shelves.

‘Oh, dear,’ she says.

I glance up and see her looking at the shelves. ‘Is everything OK?’ ‘Oh, sorry, I don’t want to disturb you, if you’re working.’

‘I’m not,’ I say. ‘What is it?’

‘I haven’t left any room for the other guy.’

We both look at the shelves. She really has managed to fill a whole bookcase to the extent that there are even books lying on top of other books and volumes poking out awkwardly as if the other books are trying to eject them. Even the green frog is there, looking squashed. She bites her lip, clearly genuinely worried about this. Then she catches my eye and we both laugh.

‘Oh, well,’ I say, shrugging.

‘Maybe he won’t have many things. I only have mine because everything was in storage. My office was going to be redecorated over the holidays. I suppose if he has, I can always put some of mine back in boxes.’ She walks over to my desk and looks at my pile of homoeopathy books. She touches one of them as if she thinks it might be contaminated, and then she takes her hand away. ‘You’re an English lit person, aren’t you?’

‘Um, yeah. Sort of.’

‘Why the homoeopathy books?’

‘Oh, I always have weird books. I’m doing a PhD on thought experiments. I think the department wants to kick me out, actually. It’s all a bit too scientific, even if I do look at poetry and stuff as well.’

‘Thought experiments! How cool.’

‘Yeah. It is fun. You’re an evolutionary biologist, aren’t you?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got a post-doctoral fellowship in molecular genetics, so it’s kind of evolution from the beginning of time, or at least the beginnings of life, which gets pretty crazy. I get to teach a few of the kids – that’s what my old supervisor calls the students – in term time, but mostly I’m making these computer models. Actually, do you want to see something cool?’

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘What is it?’

‘Look.’ She touches the mouse on her desk and her flat screen jumps back into life. Suddenly I can see white numbers and letters covering the whole black screen, all changing, like numbers on a stock exchange, or information on a computer matrix, as if there should be a tick-tick-tick noise at the same time. ‘It’s working out the origins of life,’ she says. Then she laughs; it’s the kind of high- pitched laugh that ideally needs more people in a room to absorb it. ‘That sounds a bit mental, actually. Sorry.’

‘Wow,’ I say, staring at the screen.

‘Yeah. Well. My research proposal made it sound a lot more boring than that, but that’s essentially what I’m trying to do. It’s all about looking for LUCA. Or actually looking beyond LUCA, since no one really believes in LUCA any more.’

I’m still staring at the screen, but Heather now turns away. There’s a pencil on her desk and she picks this up and starts playing with it, leaning against her desk with her back to the monitor. The numbers and letters keep changing and repeating in front of me. It’s the kind of thing you could watch for ages. You’d watch it all night and then close your eyes and see thousands of letters and numbers still crazily scrolling in the darkness. ‘What’s LUCA?’ I ask.

‘The Last Universal Common Ancestor.’ ‘Like …’

‘The thing we all descended from.’

‘Aha,’ I say. ‘So this program on here. What’s it doing?’

Heather runs her hand through her hair. ‘God – there’s a question,’ she says. Then: ‘Oh, hello.’ A male voice says, ‘Hi.’

I turn around. There’s a guy standing in the doorway, holding a small box. He’s got shoulder-length black hair and he’s wearing haphazard layers of black, grey and off-white clothes. Under his black thigh-length cotton jacket is an open grey shirt. Under that there’s a thin black sweatshirt. Under that there seems to be a white T-shirt. Despite all these clothes, he is thin and angular-looking, with a slightly pointed nose and high, corpse-like cheekbones. He also has about three days’ stubble. He’s young, probably in his early thirties, but his brown-black eyes look millions of years old.

‘Hi,’ I say back. ‘You must be … ?’

‘I’m Adam. Apparently there’s a space for me to work in here?’

Heather immediately takes charge, pinging around the office like a squash ball.

‘Hi, Adam. I’m Heather. This is Ariel. Here’s your desk and your notice board is right here and I’m so sorry but look at what I’ve done to the shelves already …’ I’m vaguely aware of the high-pitched laugh again, and Heather saying something else. I’m not sure if Adam’s listening to her at all: his eyes are locked on mine. I have no idea why, but I have an urge to walk across the room and merge with him: not to kiss, not to fuck, but to merge. It’s ridiculous – he’s way too young for me. I think he’s going to break this deep, infinite stare any second, but he doesn’t. Could this go on for ever?

No. Suddenly I think about Patrick, and everything else to do with my sordid past, and I rip the moment in two by turning around and looking at my computer screen instead. For the first time, I notice all the dust around its edges. Everything seems dirty. I look back to Adam again, but now he’s busy reassuring Heather about the shelves.

‘I really don’t have anything,’ he’s saying. ‘Look.’

He’s showing her his box. Inside are three blue pencils, a university diary, a red notebook and a Bible.

‘You do travel light,’ Heather says.

Adam shrugs. ‘You keep the shelves. I’m just grateful for the desk.’

He sits down at the desk and starts up the computer. Heather keeps talking to him, and from listening to their conversation I learn that Adam is working on nothing more exciting than planning some MA seminars for the coming term. I’d usually find this kind of conversation boring, but Adam’s voice is so mesmerising that I can’t help but listen. I can’t place his accent. First I think it’s South London; then I revise it to South London with a hint of New Zealand. Then I revise it further to New Zealand with a hint of Irish. Then I give up and start thinking again about going home. I can’t develop feelings for a guy who carries a box around with a Bible in it, especially not when I can still feel Patrick’s spunk dribbling down my legs. Oh, I’m so gross. I get up and start putting on my coat. ‘So,’ Heather’s saying, ‘I think we should all celebrate.’ She’s looking at me. ‘Ariel? Oh, are you off? What do you think?’

‘Huh?’ I say, putting the homoeopathy books in a bag to take home with me.

‘Dinner, my house tonight? I was thinking that I can tell you about LUCA and Adam can tell us about how God made Man and we can all get really drunk. Well, we can. I’m guessing Adam doesn’t drink. What do you think, Adam?’

‘I’ll come only if I can drink,’ he says.

I smile at Heather. ‘Er, yeah. It does sound good.’

‘Fantastic,’ she says. ‘Seven? Here’s my address.’ She scribbles something down on a piece of paper and gives it to me.

This time when I get to the Newton car park there aren’t any men standing around and all the yellow tape has torn and is flapping loosely in the wind. Beyond that, the broken building stands unevenly with scaffolding half-erected around it. My car is the only vehicle now parked here and I’m

glad I can take it away. I always expect my car to be warm when I get into it, but as usual it’s refrigerator-cold, slightly damp, and smells of cigarette smoke. Still, it starts first time.

The traffic’s heavy going into town, and as I approach the level crossing I see the lights start to flash and the big gates slowly come down. Shit. That means I’m going to be stuck here for about ten minutes. There’s a bus in front of me, sticking out at an awkward angle and half blocking the other side of the road, and the few cars that got through before the level crossing went down start trying to manoeuvre around it. There’s a bakery on this side of the road, just beyond a pub, so I get out of the car and go to buy some bread. There’s a woman in the bakery who smiles at me as if everyone I’ve ever known has just died. On my way back I realise the reason for the awkward angle of the bus: it’s a white van, parked on the kerb outside the pub. The lettering on the side of it says ‘Select Amusements’. After a couple of seconds a man comes out of the pub wheeling an ancient-looking fruit-machine with wires hanging out of the back. He leaves it on the pavement while he opens the back doors of the van. As I walk past, I can see six or seven other upright machines inside, all with tarnished buttons, each presumably bearing the fingerprints of thousands and thousands of people. There’s a second man in the back of the van polishing one of the machines with a white cloth. Once he sees that his colleague is back with the new machine, he stops doing this and jumps down to help lift the machine into the back of the van and then strap it in. For a moment I suddenly think the machines are alive, and these men are taking them prisoner. Then the gates come up, the traffic starts to move again, and I jump back in my car and drive off. I get to the filling station without any problems and buy five pounds’ worth of petrol.

I rent a parking space from the Chinese restaurant around the back of my flat and luckily today no one else has parked in it by mistake. After I’ve had some soup, I go and get in the bath with two of the homoeopathy books: Kent’sLectures on Homoeopathic Materia Medicaand a rather strange- looking volume calledLiterary Portraits of the Polychrests. I’m going to read about Carbo Vegetabilis, then I’m going to go and buy some. It doesn’t matter how dirty I am, or that I want to pretend there’s nothing wrong with me, or that I desperately want to see Adam’s face again, or that I should think about getting back to my thesis and my new piece for the magazine. This is my mission. This isn’t real life. Real life is letting men fuck you over their desks (and enjoying it, which is somehow the worst thing). Real life is regularly running out of money, and then food. Real life is having no proper heating. Real life is physical. Give me books instead: give me the invisibility of the contents of books, the thoughts, the ideas, the images. Let me become part of a book; I’d give anything for that. Being cursed byThe End of Mr. Ymust mean becoming part of the book; an intertextual being: a book-cyborg, or, considering that books aren’t cybernetic, perhaps a bibliorg. Things in books can’t get dirty, and real life is, well, eventually it’s dust. Even books become dust, like the crumbled remains H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller finds in the museum. But thoughts are clean.


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Before I start reading, I think an experimental thought, just for a second. What if this is real life? What if I am cursed and I’m going to die, just like Lumas and everyone who readThe End of Mr. Yin the 1890s? If I thought this was real, some survival instinct would make me stop doing it, surely? But if it’s not real, why am I bothering? I pick up the first book, Kent’sLectures, and start to read about Carbo Vegetabilis.

We will take up the study of Vegetable Charcoal – Carbo-veg. It is a comparatively inert substance made medicinal and powerful, and converted into a great healing agent, by grinding it fine enough. By dividing it sufficiently, it becomes similar to the nature of sickness and cures folks.

The Old School use it in tablespoonful doses to correct acidity of the stomach. But it is a great monument to Hahnemann. It is quite inert in crude form and the true healing powers are not

brought out until it is sufficiently potentized. It is one of those deep-acting, long-acting anti- psoric medicines. It enters deeply into the life, in its proving it develops symptoms that last a long time, and it cures conditions that are of long standing – those that come on slowly and insidiously.

What follows is basically a long list of symptoms that can be cured by this medicine in homoeopathic doses. Not much of it seems particularly interesting, or gives any indication as to why this would be the ‘special’ medicine chosen for Lumas’s concoction. I read of sluggishness, laziness and vomiting of blood. Then I read down the page and learn that people who need Carbo-veg are also cold and cadaverous. I close this book and pick upLiterary Portraits of the Polychrests. The flap informs me that it should be possible to ‘read’ or decode characters in literature in the same way as one reads a person with an illness. I can see how that would work: all those little symptoms I read about before, all the emphasis on knowing whether someone feels worse at 11 a.m. (sulphur) or 4 p.m. (lycopodium). I open thePortraitsbook and read the following:

Carbo-v is known as the corpse-reviver – and any practising homoeopath will tell you why. When a patient appears to draw his last breath, this is the remedy that must be given in the highest possible potency. 1M or 10M is usually sufficient to bring about a revival, or, indeed, to aid the patient in his passing.

After an introduction, this chapter then lists the various famous literary personages who, in the author’s opinion, would require this remedy. Mina Murray and Jonathan Harker get a few pages to themselves, and the author spends a long time considering the dying character in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Mesmeric Revelation’. Then, of course, there’s a section on Elizabeth Lavenza fromFrankenstein. The section ends with this:

Is it any wonder that it is carbon that holds this mystique? Carbon is nothing less than the compression of life itself, which becomes the fuel for our furnaces and machines that themselves provide the fuel for life. Carbon, to which all living things eventually return (ashes to ashes, dust to dust), must be the most mysterious of all substances and in that respect the alignment with death is unavoidable. But carbon is also life. It is the beginning of life and its end. In potency it retains not physical substance but energy, which is meaning. And the meaning of carbon is both simple and complex. Life. Death. The limit of all things.

As I get out of the bath, damp and clean but not perceptibly warmer, I feel my mind tick-ticking like the screen on Heather’s computer. The corpse-reviver. Now that at least does sound interesting. And all that stuff about carbon being the essence both of life and death. I remember there was something interesting about carbon in Jim Lahiri’s popular science book, so, with my dressing gown on, I go into the kitchen and put on some coffee while I search my shelves for the book. Eventually I find it, and it tells me what I remember reading. In the furnace of the Big Bang, hydrogen was the first element to form from the hot plasmic soup of electrons and protons. It’s a bit of a no-brainer: all you need for hydrogen is one electron and one proton. The mass of this hydrogen isotope is one

– because it has one proton (electrons don’t really have any mass). In the incredible heat, hydrogen isotopes with masses two (deuterium – one proton and one neutron) and three (tritium and trialphium) also formed. Then helium, with mass four. But there is no stable atom with mass five.

Because there is no atom with mass five, no one understood how carbon could ever have been made. Each new element is made from fusing the elements that came before it, but you can whiz

hydrogen and helium around in a cosmic blender for as long as you want and you won’t make carbon.

That is a problem, because if you can’t make carbon in this way, then the rest of the periodic table looks impossible as well. But because the most usual mass of carbon is twelve, you’d have to get three helium atoms to collide at exactly the same time, at a vast temperature, in order to create it. It looked like it was impossible that this ever happened. Then the cosmologist Fred Hoyle reasoned that carbon had to exist since he was made of it, and worked out exactly how the ‘mass-five crevasse’ could be jumped. In response to all this, George Gamow wrote a spoof of Genesis, in which he had God creating all the possible chemical masses, but forgetting to create mass five in his excitement.

God was very much disappointed, and wanted first to contract the Universe again, and to start all over from the beginning. But it would be much too simple. Thus, being almighty, God decided to correct His mistake in a most impossible way. And God said: ‘Let there be Hoyle.’ And there was Hoyle. And God looked at Hoyle … and told him to make heavy elements in any way he pleased.

Now, of course, carbon is the basis for life and, as the homoeopathy book pointed out, the inevitable outcome of death. So if you were going to create a mysterious concoction of any sort, carbon wouldn’t be a strange inclusion at all – especially if you diluted it so that it didn’t even exist any more; so it was simply a memory.

I get to the health food shop at around half past four, but although Patrick was right, and they do have a homoeopathy section, there’s no Carbo Vegetabilis. After trying Boots and Holland & Barrett, I am feeling less confident about this mission. Boots didn’t have Carbo Vegetabilis at all, and Holland

& Barrett only had it in a 6C potency, about 994 times less dilute than I need it. It’s gone five by the time I drift into the little shop by the Odeon cinema. I’ve never been into this place before, and I don’t even know what it sells. When you walk past, it looks as if it is simply a door with no shop behind it, but if you look more closely there’s a glass display built into the wall next to it. Inside the glass display are a couple of jars of what look like herbs, a copy of theTao Te Chingand a pack of tarot cards. The name of the shop – Selene, Greek for ‘moon’ – is on the door, along with a faded sign in an ornate script inviting you to ‘come in and browse’. I am hopeful that the shop may have homoeopathic medicines, though, since the woman in Holland & Barrett told me to come here.

As I open the door, something inside tinkles feebly. Beyond the door is a thin wooden staircase, and I walk up in the semidarkness. At the top of the stairs I find another door, this one with frosted glass panels, and I open this and walk into the tiny shop where I find a thin bald man sitting behind a desk reading a book. The shop smells strongly of sandalwood incense and is arranged in a small rectangle with the desk on the near left-hand side. The desk looks like something a nineteenth- century architect might have used: it’s large and broad, with what seem to be many drawers in it; each is only a couple of inches high, but about three feet wide. There’s no cash register. Behind the desk is a frayed and curling poster in a script I can’t understand, and next to that there’s a wooden purple door covered with an orange bead curtain.

The man doesn’t acknowledge me but I start drifting around the displays, anyway. The far left-hand side of the shop has a wobbly set of wooden shelves containing little brown bottles of homoeopathic remedies. I find Carbo-veg, but this time it’s in the potency 30C. I sigh and walk around to the right, past plastic tubs containing crystals, and rows and rows of big penny-sweet jars of herbs.

Underneath the herbs there’s a small, dusty display of glass jars and vials, some stoppered with cork; others with simple screw-tops. I pick up a glass vial to use for the holy water. I can’t see any

other homoeopathic medicines anywhere. I walk over to the counter and wait for the man to look up.

‘I’m looking for a homoeopathic medicine,’ I say.

‘Over in the corner,’ he says, and goes back to his book.

‘I know,’ I say. ‘I need it in a higher potency, though.’

‘Oh,’ he says. He looks at his watch. ‘We’re actually about to close, so …’ ‘So you don’t have any higher potencies?’

‘We do,’ he says. ‘But we can’t sell them over the counter.’ I frown. ‘What, do I need a prescription or something?’

He shakes his head. ‘You pay for a consultation.’ He sighs. ‘Which remedy did you want?’ ‘Carbo Vegetabilis,’ I say, blushing as the unfamiliar word comes out.

‘Sorry?’ he says.

‘Carbo Vegetabilis. The corpse-reviver. At least, that’s what people seem to call it. I found it in one place, but not in a strong enough potency.’

‘The corpse-reviver? Where did you get that?’ ‘Oh, a book,’ I say.

So much for trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

‘Well, I’ve got it in everything up to 10M,’ he says.

‘I want 1M,’ I say. ‘The thousandth potency. That’s right, isn’t it?’

He frowns again. ‘You know that higher potencies can be dangerous, if you don’t know what you’re doing?’

I don’t say what I’m thinking, which is: ‘But it’s just water.’ ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I know. It’ll be fine.’

‘All right,’ he says. ‘But I’ll have to give you some sort of consultation. What seems to be the problem?’ He yawns while

I say something about a headache. He lets me go on for a while and then, while I’m still talking, he opens up one of the big drawers and takes out a brown bottle.

‘Yeah, yeah. OK. I prescribe Carbo-v,’ he says. ‘That’ll be eight pounds. That’s for the consultation. The remedy is free.’

‘Thanks,’ I say, taking the bottle. I pay for the ‘consultation’ and the glass vial I picked up before. Then I leave.

ELEVEN

SOMEHOW IT’S GONE SIX O’CLOCKby the time I’m back out on the freezing street. The light from car headlamps hangs mournfully in the thin mist and people are walking along wearing thick hats and gloves and carrying briefcases, or plastic bags full of lumpy shopping, or both. I decide to go home now and try to pick up the holy water on my way to Heather’s instead. The cathedral is on my way to her house, anyway.

Wolfgang’s bicycle is in the hallway when I get home. My hands are frozen, even though I kept them both clenched in my pockets all the way back, one holding the glass vial, the other holding the Carbo Vegetabilis. The first thing I do is hide the remedy in an old sugar tin at the back of one of my cupboards; I’m not entirely sure why. Then I put the glass vial on the table and run both my hands under warm water, trying to wash away the cold. I put some coffee on the stove and then go into the bathroom. I try brushing my hair but it’s too tangled, so I stick it up in a band instead. I look at myself in the mirror and, as usual, wonder to what level I am cursed. Common sense says that curses don’t exist. But then I think that later tonight I am going to make Lumas’s concoction, drink it, and see what happens. My reflection doesn’t seem to react to this thought, except I think I can sense a mild disappointment in my eyes. When the concoction fails to have any effect, then what?

Then it’s back to real life and real work without even an office to myself any more. I put some face powder on my already pallid face and then apply some pale pink lipstick. I remove my knickers and jeans and wash with a flannel. Then I put on some new knickers and the same jeans.

After I’ve had my coffee, I wander down the hallway and bang on Wolfgang’s door. He answers it almost immediately and invites me into his kitchen. Neither of us has a fitted kitchen, just a couple of shelves and cupboards. Wolfgang’s shelves are all crammed with nuts, seeds and dried fruit in clear packets. His cupboards only contain alcohol, and that’s why I’m here. As I walk in, I realise that the kitchen smells cleaner than usual. Usually it only contains one Formica-topped table and one chair, and if I come to eat here I have to bring my own chair. This evening, however, there are two chairs and there is a little pot of flowers in the centre of the table.

‘Do you think this is an inviting space?’ he asks me.

‘Yes, of course,’ I say. ‘Especially with two chairs. Is Catherine coming round?’

‘Catherine? No. I have finished with Catherine. I’m expecting someone much more special than Catherine.’

‘Your love life moves quickly,’ I say.

‘Ha! Yes. Quickly and unexpectedly.’

‘OK. Well, in that case, I won’t keep you …’

‘You were not coming for dinner? Because as you know, any other night …’

‘No,’ I say. ‘Don’t worry. Although I wish I was looking for somewhere to have dinner. I’m actually about to go and meet the people who’ve taken over my office.’ I shake my head. ‘I don’t know why I’m going, really.’

‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Then, if it is not one of my gourmet dinners, presumably you want something else?’ ‘Mmm. Yeah. I was wondering if you had any more of that dodgy wine.’

Just before Christmas, Wolfgang acquired about thirty bottles of Bulgarian red wine from person or persons unknown, and he was selling it to me at a pound a bottle. I haven’t bought any for a couple of weeks, but I need to take a bottle over to Heather’s and I don’t want to pay a fiver in the supermarket when I’ve now only got about ten pounds left in the world.

He shakes his head. ‘Dodgy? How can you say my wine is dodgy?’ I laugh. ‘OK, then. Your totally legal wine.’

His eyes flit horizontally to one of the cupboards. ‘I have a few bottles left.’ ‘Can I have one?’


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‘Of course.’ He pulls one out of the cupboard. The label is written in Bulgarian, which does make it look pretty authentic and, dare I say it, expensive. ‘So, how is life?’ he asks, handing it over.

‘OK,’ I say, giving him a pound coin. ‘Weird. Oh – did I tell you I finished the book?’ ‘The cursed book?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And this recipe was there? You have the ingredients?’

I don’t ask why on earth Wolf would make the accurate assumption that, once I knew these ingredients, the next thing I would do would be to track them down.

‘No,’ I lie. ‘Sadly, it wasn’t there.’ ‘So what happens to Mr. Y?’

‘Pretty much everything he feared would happen. There is one good thing: he makes up the concoction and takes it, and it does transport him back to the Troposphere. But it’s all horrible. He enters his wife’s mind and discovers how unhappy he has made her. Then he enters his business rival’s mind and realises he will never defeat him. Just before it becomes clear that he and his wife are going to have to go to the workhouse, he discovers a bit more about how the Troposphere works. You can, in fact, jump from one person’s mind to another, just as Mr. Y thought. And by doing that, you can travel across memories … It’s a bit like surfing, although Mr. Y gives it his own term: Pedesis.’

‘Across memories … ? So perhaps like time travel?’ ‘I think that was the implication.’

I remember the penultimate paragraph of the book.

I had not found happiness, or, indeed, my fortune, within the shadows of the Troposphere. Yet within it I felt something of what a bird may feel skimming in the air: for the time I roamed within this new world I knew I was free. And although in the world of flesh I had failed, in the world of minds I flew, perhaps not as a bird flies, but as a man moving fast over an infinity of stepping stones, each new stone providing a platform from which to jump to many others. As I became accomplished at this method of leaping further inside the world of minds, moving with the lightest and quickest of steps, with the ease of the surf on moving water, I decided to call this movement Pedesis, from the Greek***. This river with its stones, like the landscape with its dwellings, flowed forwards – yes – but also backwards. And so I have decided to take flight, pedetically, into the mists of time. Thus I arrive at my story’s end, for, this evening, at midnight, I plan to embark on this journey into the very depths of the Troposphere. I doubt that I will ever return to complete my story, so far will I be from its beginning.

‘So what actually happens to Mr. Y?’ Wolfgang asks. ‘In what sense does he meet his end?’ ‘Oh, he vanishes into the Troposphere.’

‘What, in his body?’

‘No.’ I shake my head. ‘They find his body later.’

Wolf ’s eyes open wide. ‘He dies?’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘There’s an “Editor’s Note” at the end that explains how he was found, cold and dead, on the floor of his cellar. He had locked himself in and taken his last journey from there. His wife thought he had gone missing, and then discovered the locked cellar door and alerted the police. He had starved to death.’

‘And the author of this book, he died, too?’ ‘Yes.’

‘It is a good thing you don’t have these ingredients, then, isn’t it?’ ‘Mmm.’

Sometimes at night the cathedral gates are like an open mouth: an exclamation of surprise in a street crowded with old lopsided buildings, patched up and filled in over the years like teeth. Tonight the mouth is closed. The big wooden gate is up and there’s a sign telling visitors that the precinct opens again tomorrow morning at eight-thirty.

No holy water tonight, then. No Pedesis.

But I know it’s not real, so perhaps I’m just putting off knowing for sure. I could have gone to the cathedral earlier after all. So it’s real life again for the evening, but real life with an implicit promise of something else, something fictional. Another night of that isn’t bad, although, now I see the closed gates, I wish I had the holy water: I wish I had something dangerous to do later on.

I walk on along the twinkling, frosty pavements, using my new map to find Heather’s street. It turns out to be in a side road just behind the cathedral: a small yellow-brick terrace with a black door. I knock twice with the silver knocker and then take a step back to wait for her to answer.

‘Ariel, hello!’ she says, when she opens the door. ‘Thanks so much for coming. Is that wine? Fantastic – I need as much as possible after the day I’ve had. How are you? Oh, sorry. Here I am, chatting away on the doorstep. Come in.’

The door opens from the street right onto the sitting room. It’s the kind of house lots of young academics seem to have before they get married and have children: pine floorboards, rugs, lots of bookshelves, framed Picasso prints, autumnal throws over the sofa and chairs, a coffee table with coffee-table books, and several lamps. It’s what my place would probably look like if it had heating and no mice and I could be bothered to inhabit more than one room. I can smell garlic cooking, mingled with something in an oil burner; some combination of peppermint and lavender. The house is warm. Jazz is playing on a small speaker system. There’s no sign of Adam.

‘White or red?’ Heather asks. ‘Oh, and make yourself at home, by the way. Put your coat anywhere

– it’s always a bit of a shambolic mess in here.’

Why do people always say their houses are messy when they’re not?

‘Er, red, please. Your place is lovely, by the way. I love that print.’

‘Oh, it’s cool, isn’t it?’ Heather says over her shoulder as she goes into the kitchen for my wine. She comes back and gives it to me in a huge glass with a silvery pink stem. ‘I love Picasso.’

‘I particularly like that one,’ I say, gazing up at it. ‘I like anything to do with four dimensions. It’s kind of an obsession.’

‘Four dimensions?’ she says. Then she groans. ‘Go on, tell me what I’ve missed. I never appreciate art properly: I just think “That’s a pretty picture”, and then hang it on my wall. This is what happens when you’re a biologist. You need humanities people to explain real life to you.’

I laugh and, after reassuring Heather that I only know a tiny bit about the cubists and the futurists, and not much else about art, say something about the way the woman’s head could be said to be moving through time, or that, alternatively, a fourth-dimensional being is viewing her.

‘Wow. That’s so cool. I likeThe Screambest. But I thought it would be a bit studenty to have it on my wall, so I went for something a bit more sophisticated. I so loveThe Scream, though. It’s how I

feel most days.’ ‘Why?’

‘Oh, um …’ There’s a knock at the door. ‘That’ll be Adam, I hope, and not some mass murderer.’ She laughs. ‘Hang on.’

For no reason I’m aware of, my hands start to shake. I put my wine down and then pick it up again. There’s a sharp blast of cold air as Heather opens the door and greets Adam. He looks exactly as he did earlier; the only difference is that his hair seems scruffier.

‘Hi,’ he says to me, taking off his coat.

‘Hello,’ I say back.

Heather tells him to put his coat anywhere and repeats her apology about ‘the mess’, and then goes into the kitchen to get a glass of white wine for him. We stare at each other without moving or saying anything.

‘So,’ she says, coming back. ‘I’m doing pasta and roasted vegetables. It’s just simple – I hope that’s OK with you, Adam.’

‘Yeah, thanks,’ he says, taking the wine while still looking at me. I’m looking right back at him, but this time he breaks the moment and focuses on Heather. ‘That sounds perfect.’

Adam settles into a corner of the big sofa across the room from where I’m sitting. Without looking at either of us, he leans forward and examines the books on the coffee table. Once he’s looked at them all, he picks up a large hardback book calledWeird Fishand starts flicking through it. None of us says anything for a couple of seconds. Heather must have her music on shuffle, because once the jazz track stops, a mournful acoustic guitar tune begins and a guy starts to sing about being alone in the small hours of the morning.

‘Better put the pasta on,’ says Heather.

‘Well,’ Adam says, once she’s gone, ‘how’s life?’

‘Fine, I think. How about you? Are you settled in OK?’ ‘Yeah. And thanks for sharing your office with us.’

‘It’s OK. Anyway, as I was telling Heather before, I didn’t exactly have a choice.’ ‘Ah. Right. So we were foisted on you?’

‘Yeah. But I don’t mind at all. Really.’

Small talk, small talk. And now he’s back to flicking through the pages of the book on his lap. Heather comes back in.

‘So, how’s the world of religion?’ Heather asks him. ‘How’s life with God?’ ‘How should I know?’ says Adam.

‘Aren’t you religious?’ she says. ‘I thought …’

Adam smiles. ‘I’ll give you the short answer: no.’

‘Oh, come on,’ says Heather. ‘What’s the long answer? Oh!’ Something in the kitchen has just gone

‘ding’ and she jumps up to go and deal with it. ‘Sorry – it’s my pasta, I think.’

Adam gives me a look as if we’re both about to rob a bank together. He also looks as if he doesn’t really want to.

‘Saved,’ he says.

I smile at him. ‘It’s a shame, though,’ I say. ‘I would have liked the long version, too.’ ‘Oh …’ He sighs and runs his fingers through his hair.

‘Hey – it doesn’t matter,’ I say. ‘I’m only playing around. You don’t have to tell me anything.’ ‘I’d rather look at fish, to be honest,’ he says.

I smile. ‘Yeah, I think I know what you mean.’ ‘They are weird, these fish. Have you seen them?’ ‘No.’

‘Come and look.’

As I move onto the same sofa as him, I’m reminded of all the times I’ve been with a man and chains of lies have led us first to the same house, then the same sofa, then the same bed.I’m tired. I’m cold. Come here, I want to show you something. It always ends in fucking. I’m sitting only a couple of inches from him now, but, of course, Heather’s in the kitchen. I pull down the sleeves of my jumper to cover my wrists.

‘Look,’ he says, pointing.

The book is open on a full-page image of a transparent fish. It looks like a used condom with red teeth.

‘Yuck!’ I say. But I actually quite like it. ‘Does it have a name?’ ‘I don’t think so. Look at this one.’

Adam turns the page and leans the book towards me. There’s what looks like a fish, but instead of a normal fish ‘face’ with bulging eyes and a little mouth, this thing seems to have the head of a stone monkey, as if someone just slapped two things together – the fish body and the monkey head – as a joke, or even as an accident.

‘What would you call that?’ I say.

‘I don’t know. Monkey Fish? Pretend Monkey Fish?’

He turns the page and there’s another picture. It looks like a worm with a disembodied vulva coming out of it. I want to laugh, but I don’t.

‘Orchid fish,’ he says. And then we’re called into the dining room to eat.

‘So please tell me you don’t approve of teaching creationism to kids,’ Heather says to Adam about five minutes after we’ve started eating. ‘Or whatever they’re calling it now: intelligent design.’ We’re eating pasta and roasted vegetables, as promised, with a large salad. Until this new conversational segue, Heather had been talking about her problems finding any decent men at the university. The pasta is almost as impossibly bouncy as she is, and the white spirals slither off your fork if you aren’t careful. The vegetables – cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, aubergines and roasted onions – have been coated with olive oil and lemon juice, and they’ve got that sticky, almost caramelised texture. There’s garlic bread, too, and I’m eating as much as I can. In fact, until this moment I’d been much more interested in the food than in the conversation. I tend to hate dinner party conversations, but even I can see that this one could get interesting.

‘In what sense?’ Adam says.

‘As part of science courses,’ Heather says.

‘Aren’t creationism and intelligent design different?’ I say.

‘Not really,’ she says. ‘Intelligent design claims to be scientific, but it’s not: after all, it deals with things you can’t ever know.’

‘The intelligent design people are the ones who say that evolution is too complicated to have happened all by itself, aren’t they?’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ Heather says. ‘Like, duh. Just because they don’t understand it …’

‘I wouldn’t teach religion as science,’ Adam says. ‘But we do teach parts of science on our religion courses, if that’s any help.’

‘Like what?’ Heather says.

‘We teach creation myths,’ says Adam. ‘And we include the Big Bang.’ ‘How, precisely, is the Big Bang a myth?’ Heather asks.

‘It’s a story,’ Adam says. ‘Just like the story that the world hatched from a giant egg, or that God said “Let there be light” and there suddenly was. They’re all just stories about the genesis of the world – none of us was there to gather the actual facts, so we have to conclude that the whole thing is unknowable.’

‘But we’re actually still part of the Big Bang,’ Heather says. ‘So we’re observing it all the time. We are “there” right now. And anyway, science can know things without experiencing them. No one actually saw the dinosaurs, either. By the way, help yourselves to more wine and everything.’ ‘Not that I want to cause a row or anything,’ Adam says, smiling. ‘But I can’t agree with Big Bang theory any more than I can agree with people who think the world is held up by giant turtles.’ ‘But you can’t not agree with Big Bang theory!’ Heather says.

‘Why not?’

‘Well, it’s not an opinion; it’s a well-established theory, with plenty of evidence. It’s certainly not something you can choose to agree or disagree with. You could try to disprove it, but that’s something different.’

‘So you can form an opinion on, say, creationism, or whether or not there’s a God, but I can’t form an opinion on whether the universe started as an unimaginably small speck that, for no reason at all, simply exploded?’

‘OK, I admit that the beginning bit is pretty far-fetched,’ Heather says.

‘And there is the problem of what came before the beginning,’ I say.

‘Yes, yes,’ says Heather. ‘But you can put all that to one side and look at all the evidence for the Big Bang. Once you realise that everything in the universe is moving, and every piece is moving further away from every other piece, then you realise that, well, yesterday, all the pieces were a bit closer together, and the day before that, a bit closer still. Rewind the tape to the beginning, and you see that logically everything must have been lumped together. So … Adam, you have to agree with that?’


Page 19

‘Do I? Oh, can I have some more vegetables, please?’ ‘Only if you agree with me,’ says Heather, laughing.

‘Oh, well, in that case …’ Adam holds up his hands as if to stop something big from crashing into him.

‘No, I’m only kidding about. Here …’ She pushes the dish of vegetables towards Adam. ‘But I still don’t see how you can disagree with scientific fact.’

‘“Fact” is a word. Science itself is just a collection of words. I’m guessing that truth exists beyond language, and what we call “reality”. It must do; well, if it exists at all, that is.’

‘Come again?’ says Heather, frowning.

‘Aha,’ I say, nodding and raising an eyebrow. ‘He may have you there.’

‘It’s all just an illusion,’ says Adam. ‘Creation myths, religion, science. We tell ourselves how time works – so, for example, you can imagine running your tape-of-the-universe backwards and be sure of what you’d get in this portion of time we call “yesterday” – but yesterday only exists because we made it up: it’s not real. You can’t prove to me that yesterday even happened. Everything we tell ourselves to believe is simply a fiction, a story.’

‘Well,’ says Heather, ‘you can’t argue with that – which makes me suspicious. And anyway, if all reality is just an illusion, then why do we bother?’

‘Bother what?’

‘Trying to work it all out. Trying to find the truth.’

‘You can try to find the truth outside reality,’ Adam says.

‘By doing what exactly?’

Adam shrugs. ‘Meditation, I think. Or possibly getting very drunk.’

I was going to say something pithy about Derrida, but Heather looks genuinely upset now, so I decide not to.

‘Meditation isn’t science,’ she says.

‘That’s the point,’ says Adam.

‘For God’s sake,’ she says, slightly breathlessly. ‘All that woolly, superstitious stuff … No offence, but you just need words and logic to do science. I teach this evening class on the scientific method for adult returners, and I always give them the example of the spiders’ webs outside the room I teach in. Basically, there’s this long passageway outside the classroom with these orange lights attached to the wall. The lights are always on. In the evening you can see the spiders’ webs stretched over the lights, and you can see all the daddy-long-legs and other night insects that get trapped in them. You could look at that and think: “Aren’t the spiders clever because they know to build webs where the other insects will fly because they’re attracted to the light?” Or you can go one step further and realise that you can only see the webs near the lights and that’s why you have assumed those are the only ones. A poet might stand there and dream about the cunningness of spiders. A scientist would record exactly how many webs there are, and where, and conclude that some of them are built over the lights just by chance.’

‘But all of that just proves what I’m saying,’ Adam says. ‘I wouldn’t conclude that the spiders intended to use the light to help trap the insects. I’d assume that I could never understand what the spiders were doing and why, because I’m not a spider.’

‘But scientists have to try to understand things. They have to ask why.’ ‘Yes, but they’ll never get a proper answer,’ Adam says.

‘Anyway,’ I say, in a louder voice than I intended. ‘Er… Anyway, I was just going to say that this stuff about science and language is really interesting in relation to something I read about the Big Bang. It’s a bit complicated, but it shows that if you start with a few basic assumptions about the Big Bang, then logic takes you to a situation where we’re either living in a multiverse, or a universe created by God. There’s really no other option.’

‘My head’s going to be wrecked by the end of tonight,’ says Heather.

‘Just drink more wine,’ says Adam, smiling at her.

I’ve just finished the last piece of garlic bread, and Heather and Adam have both put down their knives and forks. I pick up my bag and take out a packet of cigarettes.

‘If you’re into all this meditation, are you supposed to drink wine?’ Heather asks.

‘Oh, I do it very rarely,’ says Adam.

I don’t know if he means meditation or drinking, and although I expect Heather to ask him, she doesn’t. Instead, she picks up a stray rocket leaf and puts it back in the salad bowl.

‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ I ask her.

‘No, not at all. I’ll open the back door, though, if you don’t mind.’

She gets up to do that, and Adam and I briefly start making movements towards clearing the table before she tells us not to fuss and just leave it all.

‘No, come on,’ she says. ‘Tell me about this whole God-or-the-multiverse thing.’

‘OK,’ I say, lighting my cigarette. ‘Sorry – do you have some sort of ashtray? I can go outside, if you want …’

‘No, I’ll get you a saucer.’

‘God or the multiverse,’ says Adam softly as Heather gets a saucer. ‘Hmm.’

‘Are you both familiar with basic quantum physics?’ I say. ‘Not the really hardcore stuff, but the kind of thing you’d find in a popular science book. You know, the wavefunction and probability and that sort of thing.’

Adam’s shaking his head. Heather cocks her head to one side as if she’s trying to make the information roll down a hill in her mind and come to rest in a place she can access it.

‘I should know it,’ she says. ‘I think I did know it once. But you ignore all that stuff when you’re working on the molecular level. It just doesn’t have any perceivable effects, so it can be disregarded.’

‘I’m afraid I’m completely in the dark,’ says Adam.

‘OK, well, in a nutshell – and I warn you, I’m doing a humanities PhD, so you could probably get this from a more reliable source – quantum physics deals with subatomic particles; in other words, particles that are smaller than atoms.’

Adam now frowns. ‘Call me nuts, but I’m having this odd sensation as if I’d seen one of these particles once or something,’ he says. ‘Maybe I’m drunk. I must have learnt this at some point and then forgotten it. Anyway, despite all that, my brain is begging me to ask you: what on earth is smaller than an atom?’

‘Oh, well, everyone knows that an atom is made up of neutrons, protons and electrons,’ says Heather.

‘And those parts are all made up of quarks,’ I say. ‘Apart from the electron, which is indivisible – or at least people think it is. People thought the atom was indivisible a hundred years ago, and before that they didn’t think it existed, so it’s not as if we know everything.’

It’s cold with the back door open; Heather gets up and takes a small cardigan from the back of a chair and puts it on.

‘I think we’re pretty sure about the electron,’ she says. ‘Brrr. It’s cold.’ Adam and I exchange a look.

‘Anyway,’ I say, ‘quantum physics deals with those tiny particles of matter. But when physicists first began theorising about these particles, and observing them in action in particle accelerators and so on, they found out that the subatomic world doesn’t act the way we’d expect.’

‘How?’ asks Adam.

‘All that common sense stuff – the past happening before the future, cause and effect, Newtonian physics and Aristotelian poetics – none of it is applicable at a subatomic level. In a deterministic universe, which is the sort Newton thought we lived in, you can always tell what’s going to happen next, if you have enough information about what went before. And you can always know things for sure. It’s either day or night, for example: it’s never both at once. On a quantum level, things don’t make sense in that way.’

‘This is the stuff that does my head in,’ says Heather.

‘Yeah, it’s weird,’ I say. ‘It’s like … there are particles that can go through walls just like that. There are pairs of particles that seem to be connected and stay connected in some way even when they are separated by millions of miles. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance” and rejected it completely, as it seemed to suggest that information could travel faster than the speed of light.’ ‘And nothing can travel faster than the speed of light,’ Heather says. ‘I’m with Einstein on that one.’ ‘Anyway, one of the weirdest things about subatomic particles is that something peculiar happens when you observe them. Until they are observed, they exist in a smeared-out state of all possible positions in the atom: the superposition, or the wavefunction.’

Adam’s shaking his head. ‘You’ve lost me, I’m afraid,’ he says.

‘OK,’ I say. ‘Imagine that you are out on a walk and I don’t know where you are. You could be at the university, in the park, in the shop, in a spaceship, on Pluto, whatever. These are all possibilities, although some are more likely than others.’

‘All right,’ says Adam.

‘Well, conventional logic tells us that you are definitely in one place or another, regardless of whether or not I’ve seen you there, or know for sure that you are there. You are somewhere, I just don’t know where that is.’

Adam’s nodding and, for a second, I imagine a life so normal that I could be with someone like him, perhaps sharing a house like this, and have such a mundane, but somehow amazing, thought: is he in the shop or is he at work?

‘Anyway,’ I say, ‘obviously you’re standing in for the particle in this example … Well, quantum physics says that when your situation is unknown – so you could be in the shop or in the park, for all I know – you actually exist in all places at once until someone finds out for sure by observing you.

So instead of one clear “reality”, there’s a smear. You’re in the shop and the park and the university, and it’s only when I go out looking for you and see that you’re in the park that all the other possibilities melt away and reality is set.’

‘So observation has an effect on reality?’ says Adam.

‘Yes – well, in this way of looking at it. This idea that all probabilities exist as a wavefunction until an external observer looks at – and therefore collapses – the wavefunction is called the Copenhagen interpretation.’

‘Are there other ways?’

‘Yes. There’s the many-worlds interpretation. In a nutshell, while the Copenhagen interpretation suggests that all probabilities collapse into one definite reality on observation, the many-worlds interpretation suggests that all the possibilities exist at once, but that each one has its own universe to go with it. So there are, literally, many worlds, each one with a tiny difference. So in one universe you’re in the park, and in another you’re at work, and in another you’re on the moon, or at the zoo or wherever.’

‘Those are the only two choices, right?’ Heather says. ‘Like, most people believe in one or other of those two?’

‘Yeah, I think so,’ I say. ‘I think most people favour the Copenhagen interpretation, though.’ ‘So how does this relate to the Big Bang?’

‘Well,’ I say. ‘If you imagine the primordial particle: the thing that went “bang” fourteen billion years ago … That particle should be just like any other particle. It would have its own wavefunction – a series of probabilities about where it was and what it was doing. So what we know of quantum physics suggests that unless an external observer showed up and observed the exact state of the particle, its wavefunction would not collapse. In other words, it would exist in a state of all the different probabilities at once. It would be both fast and slow, moving left and right, here and over there all at once. An observer external to the universe must be God. So perhaps God collapsed the wave-function that became the universe. In other words, out of all probabilities God collapsed the original particle into one universe, in which we now live. That’s the Copenhagen interpretation applied to the original particle. If you reject that, you’re left with the many-worlds interpretation, which would suggest that there is no external observer and no collapse. Instead, all the probabilities exist “out there” – every possible universe you could think of exists alongside this one: some hot, come cold, some with people, some without, some that create their own “baby universes”, and some that don’t …’

Heather groans. ‘I knew there was a reason I’d forgotten this stuff.’ ‘What if you reject this quantum physics?’ asks Adam.

‘Then I guess your CD player and credit cards stop working.’ ‘I don’t have a CD player or a credit card.’

I grin at him. ‘Yes, but you know what I mean. Real technology is built on quantum physics. Engineers have to learn it. I mean, it is nuts, but it works out there in the real world.’

‘God or the multiverse,’ says Heather. ‘Which one would you choose?’

‘I’m not happy with either of them,’ I say. ‘But probably God – whatever that actually means. Call it the Thomas Hardy interpretation: I’d rather have something out there that means something than feel like I exist in a vast ocean of pure meaninglessness.’

‘What about you, Adam?’

‘God,’ he says. ‘Even though I thought I’d given all that up.’ He smiles without showing his teeth, as

if doing more with his mouth would break his face. ‘No, it does make sense: the idea of an external consciousness. I prefer that anyway, given this choice.’

‘Oh, well, I’m on my own then with the multiverse,’ says Heather.

‘You’re never alone in the multiverse,’ I say.

‘Ha ha,’ she says. ‘Seriously, I can’t believe that God made life, not with the research I’m doing. I mean, the evidence just isn’t there. And I get so many threatening letters from creationists that I just can’t align myself to them in any way.’

‘I don’t think this means aligning yourself with creationists,’ I say. ‘Surely some external being could have sparked the very beginning of the universe and then everything else just evolved as scientists think it did?’

Although, as I say this I think “Via Newtonian cause and effect”, and I realise that this is at odds with the idea of a quantum universe, and I suddenly don’t know what to say.

‘What is your research exactly?’ asks Adam.

‘Looking for LUCA,’ she says. ‘Well, that’s how the headlines put it whenever science journalists write about it. LUCA stands for Last Universal Common Ancestor. In other words, searching for the mother of us all.’

‘She’s got this computer model,’ I say. ‘You have to see it next time you’re in the office. I didn’t understand it when I looked at it, but it still gave me the shivers somehow.’


Page 20

‘The universal mother,’ says Adam. ‘Interesting.’

‘Don’t tell me – you’re thinking like the Garden of Eden, with …’ she begins.

‘No, no. The great mother. The beginning of everything. The Tao is called the Great Mother: empty yet inexhaustible, it gives birth to infinite worlds. That’s from theTao Te Ching.’

‘Oh,’ says Heather. ‘Well, that’s just as bad. Who wants pudding?’

TWELVE

AFTER PUDDING – BAKED APRICOTS WITHhoney, cashew nuts and brandy – and a long conversation about LUCA, and some other entity called FLO (the first living organism), Adam and I thank Heather and leave together, trying not to slip on the frosty pavement.

After we are out of earshot of the house, Adam laughs.

‘What?’ I say.

‘Well, I didn’t like to say, but I’m not sure I care about which type of bacteria we evolved from.’ ‘Biologists do always tend towards the most depressing explanations for things,’ I say. ‘I wasn’t convinced by Heather’s reaction to my idea about machine consciousness, either.’

‘No. She likes the status quo, I think.’

‘I think so, too. But I don’t see what’s wrong with the argument. At some point animals evolved from plants and conscious life was formed. What is consciousness? Obviously it’s made from the same quarks and electrons as everything else, perhaps just arranged in a different way. But consciousness is obviously something that can evolve. Samuel Butler said as much in the nineteenth century. If human consciousness could evolve from nothing, then why can’t machine consciousness do the same thing?’

There are obvious objections to this idea, some of which Heather did point out. For example: what if consciousness can only exist in organic life-forms? But what is an organic life-form? Machines can self-replicate. They’re made from carbon. They need fuel, just like we do.

‘Unless consciousness isn’t made from matter,’ says Adam.

‘Yeah, well, that’s possible, too,’ I say. ‘But I do sometimes wonder: if a computer read every book in the whole world, would it eventually start to understand language?’

‘Hmm,’ says Adam. Then, after a long pause: ‘It’s cold.’ ‘Yeah. I’m freezing.’

It’s almost silent as we walk towards the city centre. It’s past midnight and as we approach the cathedral the only sounds I can hear are the distant humming noises of trucks outside shops; the creaking sound of men unloading blouses and sandwiches and packaged salads and coffee beans and newspapers, so they can appear in the shops tomorrow, as if they came to be there by magic. ‘Do we know each other?’ Adam suddenly asks.

I pause, and then say: ‘In what sense?’

‘I mean, I thought I knew you when I saw you earlier today.’

I take a deep breath: cold air in my lungs. ‘I thought the same thing.’ ‘But I don’t know you. I’m sure of it.’

‘Well …’ I shrug. ‘Perhaps we did meet before and forgot.’ ‘I wouldn’t forget. I wouldn’t forget meeting you.’

‘Adam …’ I start.

‘Don’t say anything,’ he says. ‘Just look.’

We’re just walking past the cathedral gates. If you stop and look up where Adam’s pointing now, you can see Jesus looking down on you, carved in stone.

‘It is amazing,’ I say, without thinking. ‘Even if you don’t believe in all the rest of it, Jesus is a remarkable figure.’ Then I laugh. ‘That sounded so stupid and banal. Sorry. I’m sure no one even disagrees with that.’

‘You’d be surprised,’ Adam says.

‘Oh,’ I say, suddenly remembering standing in the same spot earlier on, but looking at the gates, rather than up at Jesus. ‘Do you know anything about holy water?’

‘That’s a strange question.’

‘I know.’ We start walking again, turning off down a small cobbled street towards my flat. It occurs to me that maybe we are going to go back to my place and sleep together; maybe I could do that. But instead of my usual excitement, I feel something else: the same feeling I got when I looked at my computer screen and saw how dirty it was earlier on. I’m dirty, and I’m busy doing something to help me escape. But we’re walking on towards my flat, anyway.

‘What do you want to know?’

‘Um, well, all sorts of things, but mainly where I would get some.’

‘Get some?’ I can’t see his expression in the darkness, but I can hear the frown in his voice. ‘Are you a Catholic?’

‘No. I’m not religious at all. My mother believed in aliens.’ ‘Ah.’

‘Yes. But why do you ask?’

‘Only Catholics have holy water. You’d find it in any Catholic church.’ ‘Not in the cathedral?’

‘No. Not usually.’

‘I was sure I remembered fonts in the cathedral. I was going to go there before, but it was all locked up.’

‘There are fonts. But they’re empty. The Anglican Church gave up on holy water centuries ago.’ ‘Oh. So, presumably, if you want to get holy water from a Catholic church, you have to go in the daytime?’

‘No. Not always. You …’ He pauses. ‘Do you want to get some now?’ ‘Maybe. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know.’

‘Can I ask why?’

‘Probably best if you don’t. It’s, well, something you probably wouldn’t approve of. Have you ever heard of the physicist George Gamow?’

‘No. While you tell me about him, shall we walk the other way? I’ll show you where to find holy water.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. I’ve got a key to St Thomas’s. This way.’

I follow him across a car park and through a small passageway onto Burgate. Burlem’s house is just across the ring road, past St Augustine’s, on a leafy residential road. I wonder what the house looks like now. I imagine it all boarded up and then realise that’s silly: people don’t board up houses nowadays. Maybe Burlem sold it. Maybe he’s even there. I did go and knock on the door last year, but no one answered. Adam and I turn left and walk past the comic shop: a whole window display of superheroes and villains; good guys and bad guys. As we walk, I put Burlem out of my head and instead tell Adam about George Gamow and how, when he was a kid, he once kept a Communion wafer instead of swallowing it and put it under his microscope to see if there was any difference between it and a normal wafer. I tell Adam that what I want with the holy water is somewhat similar to this – basically an experiment not at all in keeping with the spirit of Catholicism. Then we’re at the church.

‘I’ll understand if you don’t actually want to let me in now,’ I say.

‘No. I like the sound of your experiment. And it doesn’t matter to me, anyway.’

Inside the church doors it’s dark and smells of incense and cold stone. We don’t go right inside: it turns out that the holy water is in a little font just inside the entrance. I notice that Adam crosses himself in front of an image of the Virgin Mary. I take out my vial.

‘I’m sure this isn’t something you should be letting me do,’ I say.

‘It’s only water,’ says Adam. ‘There are no rules to say you can’t take some away with you. And like I said, all of this doesn’t mean anything to me any more.’

But he doesn’t watch as I dip the vial into the font. Instead he walks beyond me and starts fiddling with leaflets and copies of theCatholic Herald. There’s a poster on the wall with the words ‘Shrine of St Jude’ on it. Adam lifts his fingers to it and touches it briefly. I don’t think he realises that I’m watching him. I look away.

‘Can I ask why you have keys to the church?’ I say to him as we leave.

‘Oh, I’m a priest,’ he says. ‘Or, at least, I was. Can we go back to your place?’

Through someone else’s eyes my kitchen must be a dark, fetid, oppressive space that smells of garlic and cigarettes. There’s also a cursed book on the mantelpiece: a slim, pale volume that you don’t even notice, if you are someone else.

‘Sorry,’ I say to Adam, as we walk in.

But I’m not exactly sure what I’m sorry about. The thick grey dust on the top of the door frame? The broken arm of the sofa? The burn marks on the old kitchen work surfaces? The peeling green lino? I don’t even see those things when I’m on my own. I want to open a window, but it’s too cold. I want to turn on all the gas rings like I usually do, but I don’t.

‘Sorry it’s so cold,’ I say.

‘My place is freezing,’ says Adam. ‘I live on campus.’ ‘Do you? Where?’

‘I’ve got a room in Shelley College. It’s tiny and smells of macaroni cheese all the time. This is luxurious – believe me.’

‘Would you like some coffee?’ I ask him.

‘Just some water, please, if that’s all right.’

I fill a glass with tap water for Adam and then put on coffee for myself. A train goes past outside and the thin sash window rattles gently. I see a tiny movement in the corner of the room – there and then gone, like a phantom particle. A mouse.

‘I like this place,’ Adam says, sitting down on the sofa.

When my coffee’s ready I sit down on the old sofa next to him. I don’t think I’ve ever actually sat on this sofa with another human being. It feels a bit like sitting on a train, our backs facing the direction of travel, both being careful not to let our knees touch.

‘What’s the Shrine of St Jude?’ I ask him.

‘Oh, that. You noticed.’

‘I just saw it on the wall in the church. I’ve heard the name before: St Jude. What’s he the saint of?’ ‘Lost and hopeless causes. The shrine’s in Faversham. I go there whenever …’

‘What?’

‘Just whenever things go wrong. You’re not asking me the obvious question.’ ‘What obvious question?’

‘About me being a priest.’

‘I’m not very good at asking those questions,’ I say.

There’s a pause. I should say something else; I know that it’s my line next. And I do want to know. Usually I would want to know everything about being a priest and how it’s possible to be a priest

and then not be one. I want to ask why he still crossed himself in the church, for example. But now I’ve got the holy water and the Carbo-veg and it’s just like those days when I kept a razor in a box and I just wanted everyone to go away so I could do what I wanted, on my own.

‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ I ask Adam. He shrugs. ‘It’s your flat.’

‘Yeah, I know, but …’ ‘Honestly. Don’t mind me.’

He sips his water while I light up. I see the slight shake of his left hand holding the water, and then I look away, my gaze moving over the scarred kitchen surfaces: the time I burned the rice; the time I scalded myself; the time I cut my finger.

‘What was it like?’ I ask, forcing my thoughts to stop. ‘Or even, what is it like?’ ‘What?’

‘Being that religious; I mean, being religious enough to be a priest.’

He puts his water down and sits forward, leaning his elbow on his knee and propping up his face with his right hand. He uses his forefinger to draw around the edge of his face, as if he was blind and wanted to know what his own face looked like.

‘I’ve been thinking about this,’ he says. ‘I’ve been trying to put it into words, but I didn’t have anyone to tell and … Now I’ve met you, I think maybe you’ll understand. In fact, I know you will.’ ‘Why do you think that?’

Now he puts both his hands over his face and lets his head drop into them.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Adam?’

‘I’m sorry. I’m not even sure I want to talk about what you want to talk about. I didn’t even stop being a priest because I wasn’t religious enough … I was just being stupid back at Heather’s. I didn’t lose my faith because I wanted to have sex with little boys or old men or young women or anything like that. I studied theTao Te Ching– years ago, now – and decided to follow The Way alongside being a priest. It’s not unusual – lots of people do it. But it undermined my faith. I just wanted to desire nothing, but that was something that I desired, obviously, and it almost drove me mad. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about paradoxes. I thought about the virgin birth and the mystery of faith and everything else. I didn’t hate the paradoxes – they’re the basis for the church, after all – but I started wanting more of them. I wanted to see what a pure paradox would look like. Eventually I realised that I simply needed silence, so I joined a silent order for two years and thought about nothing. Then I stopped. I can’t explain this very well … And you’re right. Why am I telling you this? Where have I seen you before? Shit. I should go.’

‘Adam …’

He gets up. ‘I’m sorry for barging in here. This isn’t the right place for me.’

He’s right. I fuck old men and become obsessed with curses and rare books. He needs someone more sensible than me to talk to. I look at his old clothes and messed-up hair and imagine his dark, strong forearms. I wonder if he’s ever even been to bed with anyone?

I take a deep breath. Why am I always the wrong person?

And, without either of us seeming to do anything, we’re now pressing against each other, kissing as though it’s midnight at the party at the end of the world. I feel his cock get hard and I push myself against him. This feels different. There’s something real about this that I thought I’d forgotten.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says after about twenty seconds, pulling away. ‘I can’t do this.’

‘I don’t know what happened there,’ I say, acting as if I agree that this is a bad idea. I can’t catch his eye. I turn towards the stove, as if I’ve got something important to cook. Can you have a disappointment cake? A rejection cake? An unhappy birthday cake?

‘I’m sorry,’ says Adam, behind me. ‘I’m … I shouldn’t drink. I’m not used to it.’

By the time I say sorry, he’s gone. I’m a fucking idiot. Or am I? When attractive young guys offer me something, they always take it away again pretty soon afterwards, so it’s probably best that this never happened. What’s a man like Adam going to get from me, anyway? If you’re someone like Adam, you can sleep with anyone. If he had a shower and put on a suit or something, well, I can’t imagine any woman turning him down. With someone like Adam, it doesn’t matter about my iPod, or my smooth neck, or my tits that have not (yet) sagged. I don’t have cellulite, and men over the age of fifty therefore feel lucky to sleep with me. What have I got that Adam could possibly want? In the sexual economy, I’ve got millions in the offshore account called ‘Older Men’, but I think I’d get turned down for an account anywhere else.

I used to have a black marker pen, but I don’t know where it went. It was a big, phallic, chemical- smelling thing, and I used it to write the number of this flat on one of the bins in Luigi’s backyard. But that was, what, a year and a half ago? It’s not in the kitchen drawer, and it isn’t in the cup of pens on the shelf. Damn. The closest thing I can find is a black Biro. I do have a white piece of cardboard, however. It’s the backing from a cheap pair of fishnet tights I bought from the market last spring, and it’s been lying on my chest of drawers since then. So I draw the black circle on the card: it takes five minutes just to colour it in.


Page 21

I also have a black mark on my arm; the place where I dug the pen in experimentally to see what it would feel like; to see if it would be like it used to be.

The holy water looks murky in the glass vial. I get the page fromThe End of Mr. Yand lay it on the kitchen counter to check the instructions. OK, so I have to mix the Carbo-veg into the holy water and succuss the mixture several times. That’s just shaking, surely? I seem to remember from the homoeopathy books that it is. As I reach up to the cupboard to get the Carbo-veg out of the sugar tin, the single page from Lumas’s book floats onto the floor. I pick it up and note that the edge is now slightly damp. I remember seeing some Sellotape in the kitchen drawer, so I get that out and spend the next few minutes carefully repairing the book, matching up the jagged tear in the page with the jagged tear left behind between pages 130 and 133. You can see the join, obviously, but the page is now part of the book again.

I remember that you’re not supposed to touch homoeopathic medicines, so I tip one of the pills onto a metal spoon. It makes a tiny clinking sound. Then I unplug the cork from the vial and put the pill inside. It bobs on the surface for a second and then sinks, the water becoming cloudier as it begins to dissolve. My heart’s a little rubber ball bouncing against my rib cage. I don’t know why I’m nervous: all I’m doing is adding a little sugar pill to some water. Still, I stand there shaking the mixture for several minutes and then, remembering something I read earlier on, I give the vial a couple of little taps on a tea towel folded up on the work surface. I look, and see that the pill has completely dissolved into the water. So now I’m going to drink it.

Am I? Is holy water sterile, or even hygienic? How many people’s fingers have been in it? Probably not that many. Come on, Ariel. But … Does the priest put it out at night, or in the morning? This is stupid. I uncork the vial and force myself to drink a large mouthful. There. Now I don’t have to think about it any more. I take the piece of cardboard and lie down on the sofa, drunk and tired and now feeling a little sick.

Black dot, black dot. A smear. And then I’m asleep.

I dream of mice. I dream of a mouse-world, bigger than this one, with a faint voice saying to me

‘You have choice’, or something like that, all night long.

I don’t wake up until gone ten o’clock, shivering in my jeans and jumper on the sofa, with hard winter light glaring at me through the kitchen window. I must have dropped the piece of cardboard as I fell asleep, because it’s on my stomach now. In daylight it looks pathetic: a scribble on a cheap,

floppy bit of off-white card. I should have done better, really, but I was quite drunk. So it didn’t work. Or it didn’t work because I messed it up. How long do you keep trying, though, before you realise that you’ve been fooled by fiction (again) and it’s the familiar, disappointing world that is real?You have choice. I have the choice to stop obsessing about being cursed. I have the choice to stop drinking concoctions suggested by rare books. I could try to sell the book, presumably, even though it is damaged? But even as I think this, I know that nothing would make me give it up. So I’ll keep the book, but go back to normal. I’ll write something about curses for the magazine. I’ll get on with my PhD. A chapter on Lumas about the blurring between fiction and nonfiction, and the thought experiment that becomes a physical experiment. A trick that makes you see the world anew

Except I don’t feel like I’m seeing the world anew. I feel like I haven’t even been to sleep. And my stomach hurts, like period pain but slightly higher up. That water must have been contaminated. Maybe I should eat something. Maybe that will help.

There’s still some soya milk in the fridge, so I put porridge on the stove, and coffee. As I go to the bedroom for a different jumper, I realise how cold and tired I really am. I think I need a scarf as well. As I pull the thick black sweater over my head and wrap a long black woollen scarf around my neck, I look out of the window. There are little icicles hanging off the inside window frame: the kind of detail you vow to recall for people at some point in the future when your life is sorted out and you want to tell an anecdote about how poor you were that winter, and how dismal your flat was. But every day I grow less and less confident in that future. I’m not sure I want it, anyway. ‘Ha ha, when I was poor. Ha, ha, have you seen that play? Ha ha, I know this is really bad, but I’ve actually been thinking lately that it might make sense to vote Conservative.’ I want to swerve to avoid that life at all costs. Maybe I’ll just live like this for ever. So I’m not that interested in the meaning of the icicles.There are icicles. I smile briefly, even though no one’s looking, and wrap the scarf around my neck one more time.

I walk back down the long hallway and into the kitchen, through the wooden door that’s thick with decades of gloss paint. Then I have an odd feeling that the door is much too small or I am much too big. It feels exactly like déjà vu, as if I’m about to shrink and look up at a door that is a hundred times my size, rather than a foot or so taller than me. But it doesn’t happen; it just sits there in my mind: a parallel thought; perhaps something that’s happening to some other me, out there in the multiverse. The sensation reminds me of the time someone gave me mushroom tea, without telling me, and I spent the whole evening watching this pink and cream suburban sitting room grow and shrink around me. I remember the TV being on in the corner; some Saturday night game show where loud, happy, healthy families competed against one another to win a new car or a holiday. At one point the TV towered over me, as if I could walk inside the screen. But the image I remember most vividly is when the room shrank to the size of a sugar cube. I was looking down on it, on the room I was in, but I wasn’t inside the room any more. Afterwards I asked my friend how he thought that could have worked. Where was I, if I wasn’t in the room? He just smiled and said, ‘Inside a bad trip, man.’ What an idiot. I close my eyes and open them again. The door’s normal. I really must have drunk too much last night.

After breakfast I consider going in to the university, but instead decide to stay here. OK, so the heat costs money here, but as long as I use the gas it should be OK, at least for a day while I try to get my thoughts together. Did I throw myself at Adam last night or did he throw himself at me? I can’t be in a room with him today, anyway. It’s still cold, so I switch on the oven and then sit on the sofa with my knees pulled into my body, smoking and thinking about what to do next. I could write something, but I can’t. I could read something – but what do you read afterMr. Y? I could just sit here all day and wait for the curse to hit me. But there is no curse. The only curse in my life is me.

You have choice.

What was going on in my dream?

While I’m cleaning my teeth, shivering in the damp bathroom (by far the coldest room in the flat), I remember that the marker pen is in the bathroom cabinet. Of course. I bought that weird shampoo that came in an unmarked bottle and I wanted to write on it in case I bought something else from that market stall and became confused. It’s the kind of thing I do when I should be working: write labels on shampoo bottles; iron jeans; think about seagulls. I open the cabinet and there it is, a thick black pen lying there alongside some old paracetamol and a broken hairbrush. As soon as I open the door it rolls out and I catch it before it falls in the sink. OK.

Ten minutes later I’m sitting on the sofa again, this time with a fresh cup of coffee, a cigarette, and a perfect black circle on the back of a perfect white card. I went through all the random mail from downstairs until I found a birthday card, probably about a year old, inside a pale blue envelope. ‘Happy 20th, Tamsin’, it said. ‘We’ll come and see you soon.’ It was signed Maggie and Bill. But that bit’s in the bin now. I’ve got the other bit: a rectangle of card with a Victorian pastoral scene on one side, and bright white nothingness on the other. Well, now it’s bright white nothingness with a small black circle in the middle of it, perfectly filled in.

I stub out my cigarette and drain the last of the coffee, turning the card over and looking at the Victorian image again. It’s dated 1867 and it’s calledSummer Landscape, although its colours seem autumnal. It looks like such a peaceful place: red earth carpeted with thick grass and canopied with emerald and bronze trees; a path by a river where you could walk in complete silence. I turn the card over and there’s the circle again. Circle. Soothing landscape. Circle. Soothing landscape. I know which one makes the best birthday card. Right. Are you supposed to wait fifteen minutes before doing this? The homoeopathy books I read yesterday all said that homoeopathic medicines should be taken on a clean mouth, fifteen minutes after eating or drinking. But that’s OK. If it doesn’t work, then I can blame the coffee and start again later. As long as I keep doing it wrong, I’ll have something to do all day. Then, this evening, I can admit that my adventure is over and go back to normal life. Maybe I’ll rereadErewhon. That usually cheers me up.

So I pick up the vial and give it another little shake. What the hell – I bang it hard twice on the side of the sofa. I suppose I’ve probably done too much succussing now, but surely that makes it more potent, not less? I think back to the homoeopathy books and remember that if I were to take a drop of this mixture and put it in some water and shake it some more, the result would be stronger than this mixture, even though scientifically speaking it would be more dilute. How does that work? Come on, Ariel: stop thinking about it and just get on with it. It’s just you and the liquid. OK. I drink it: a large mouthful. Then I lie down on the sofa and stare at the black circle, concentrating as hard as I can. And this time, I do not fall asleep: I watch as the black circle splits into two, and I try not to blink as it kaleidoscopes around on the sheet, lifting and turning.

And then, in an instant that feels thinner and sharper than the edge of a razor, I’m falling. I’m falling into a black tunnel, the same black tunnel that Mr. Y described in the book. But I’m not falling down, if that makes any sense: I’m falling along, forwards, horizontally. The walls of the tunnel pass by as if I were in a car, but I’m not in a car. Wherever I am, it’s completely silent and I have no bodily sensations at all. I’m fairly sure my body is here with me, but it has no feelings and no desires. I’m not even sure if I’m wearing clothes. Only my mind feels alive. I see – although it doesn’t feel as if it’s actually through my eyes – almost exactly what Mr. Y saw: black all around suddenly pinpricked by little lights that turn into wavy lines that seem to go on for ever. Then a huge penis, drawn in the same style as that on the Cerne Abbas Giant, but rendered here in light. There’s also a vagina, which looks less familiar, and then it’s gone. Then I seem to be moving faster. I see the birds and feet and eyes that Mr. Y saw, but to me they look like Egyptian hieroglyphics, the kind of thing you

learn about in primary school. Then I see many letters: Greek, Roman and Cyrillic. I don’t recognise all of them, but after a while they organise themselves into alphabets and there are several minutes where nothing seems to change in the tunnel. Could I stop this experience, if I wanted to? I’m not sure I could. Can my mind even handle this experience, whatever it is? I’ve never much liked hallucinogens because of the lack of control you have, and the fact that you have to finish the trip; you can’t just switch it off. Now I’m here and I know I can’t switch this off. I could go mad. Maybe I have just gone mad. Maybe this is what it’s like crossing from sanity into madness, and maybe I’ll never escape. As I think, I begin to feel sick, so I try to stop thinking and instead just look at the walls of the tunnel again.

The alphabets look more familiar, and now include numerals, although in patterns I don’t immediately recognise. Odd combinations of Roman numerals that I don’t understand are interspersed with sequences beginning 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19 and 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21. At least, I assume they are sequences, but soon they dissolve into long lines of numerals that look like cosmic telephone numbers. In places I can see equations, but they only flicker and then disappear. I’m sure I see Newton’sF=ma, and, later, Einstein’sE=mc2. I can see mathematical symbols that I don’t understand, as well as those I do: the = and + signs, and later various pieces of set notation like I =

{1, 2, 3, … 100}. Then more series of numbers that go on for minutes and minutes. I see sequences that don’t make any sense at all, such as: 1431, 1731, 1831, 2432, 2732, 2832, 3171, 3181, 3272,

3282, 11511, 31531, 31631, 32532, 32632, 33151, 33161, 33252, 33262, 114311, 117311, 118311,

124312, 127312, 128312, 214321, 217321, 218321, 224322, 227322, 228322. At first I think they

must be dates, but then the numbers get too big again. Then something else happens, something not described in Lumas’s version of this: the letters from the alphabet all disappear and turn into numbers, and then the numbers, apart from 1 and 0, disappear as well until I am left with millions and millions of 0s and 1s waterfalling down the walls around me.

011101110110100001100001011101000111010001101000011

001010110011001110101011000110110101101101001011100

110110011101101111011010010110111001100111011011110

110111001110111011010000110000101110100011101000110

100001100101011001100111010101100011011010110110100

101100110110011101101111011010010110111001100111011

011110110111001110111011010000110000101110100011101

000110100001100101011001100111010101100011011010110

110100101110011011001110110111101101001011011100110

011101101111011011100111011101101000011000010111010

001110100011010000110010101100110011101010110001101

101011011010010111001101100111011011110110100101101

110011001110110111101101110011101110110100001100001


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011101000111010001101000011001010110011001110101011

000110110101101101001011100110110011101101111011010

010110111001100111011011110110111001110111011010000

110000101110100011101000110100001100101011001100111

010101100011011010110110100101110011011001110110111

101101001011011100110011101101111011011100111011101

101000011000010111010001110100011010000110010101100

110011101010110001101101011011010010111001101100111

011011110110100101101110011001110110111101101110

And then everything goes white and I’m out of the tunnel.

THIRTEEN

I’M STANDING IN AN IMPOSSIBLYdense, thin street, with tarmac under my feet. Ahead of me there’s a grubby tower block that may have been shiny once. On either side of me tattered shopfronts display postcards, newspapers, shoes, cameras, hats, sweets, sex toys and rolls of fabric, but none of them looks open. I think it’s night-time here: the sky is hard to pick out, but the light is artificial and I can see something black above me, although there are no stars, and there is no moon. All around me, broken neon signs crackle like acne scars. Two or three of them flicker in sexual colours – rouge, flush pink, powder white – but the rest of them just look like they may have last worked a long time ago. The space above the shopfronts is tangled with dim sodium lights, street signs, corrugated iron shutters, and windows of what seem like hundreds of apartments and stockrooms. There are signs everywhere, sticking out at right angles from the buildings like Post-it notes in an old book. But I can’t read them.

Can I move forwards in this space? Yes. I can take a step, and then another. I can see an alleyway off to my left: another impossibly thin space. At the end of the alley I can vaguely pick out what looks like a steel fence with barbed wire curled on the top of it. There are fire escapes everywhere: zigzags and spirals leading up and down tired brick walls. A blue light dances in an upstairs window: a television? So there is life here beyond me, although I don’t feel particularly alive. I don’t feel hot or cold, alive or dead, drunk or sober … I don’t feel anything. It’s actually pleasant, not feeling anything, although of course it doesn’t directly feel ‘pleasant’. It doesn’t feel like anything. Have you ever not felt like anything? It’s amazing. Perhaps I feel so calm because there are no people here.

I’ve been in spaces like this before – Soho, Tokyo, New York – but there were always too many people shopping, camera-clicking, talking, running, walking, hoping, wanting. I get claustrophobic in big cities, overwhelmed by all that desire in one small place, all those people trying to suck things into themselves: sandwiches, cola, sushi, brand labels, goods, goods, goods. But there’s no one here. There’s a bus stop, but no buses; road signs, but no traffic. I walk on, and I can actually hear the dull thud of my footsteps on the hard street. A turning on the right leads to a small square with a gurgling fountain in the middle of it. Here I see shadowy coffee shops with their tables and chairs crowding the dark pavements, and a couple of small city trees growing out of concrete blocks. I don’t want to get lost, so I soon come back to the main street, unsure about what to do next. I turn around, everything jumbling in my vision.

Where do I go?I think.

And then a woman’s metallic voice informs me:You now have fourteen choices.

My image of the street in front of me is overlaid, suddenly, with a console image: something like a city plan on a computer screen in my mind. A few areas flash briefly in a kind of pale computer-blue colour, like war zones on a map of the world. These are the choices, I understand. But … ? I don’t actually understand anything about what’s going on. The nearest ‘choice’, if that’s what this means, is the third floor of a block right next to where I started. I walk a few paces and start climbing the zigzag fire escape, the rubber from the soles of my trainers hitting the metal with a hollow, clanging sound. Soon I come to a green door with peeling paint. I push the door and it opens inwards. What

do I do now?

You now have one choice, says the disembodied voice. I’m inside.

You now have one choice.

You… I’m standing still on four bent legs and – oh, shit – I’m trapped. All around me are thick, blurry plastic walls and I can’t move. I can go forwards a bit, and backwards a bit – I know that – but I am still at the moment. Fuck. I can hardly breathe. I keep blinking because my vision doesn’t feel right: everything outside of my prison looks brown and warped, and there are reflections everywhere. And I’m hungry; a hunger of a sort I’ve never experienced before, from a place in my stomach that I don’t recognise. Whatever I am, this is a kind of hell: this is a feeling you could have in a nightmare for only one or two seconds before you woke up screaming. I can’t move. I can’t turn around. My arms/legs/wings are pushed into the sides of my body. I think I have a tail, but I can’t move it. It’s pinned down by something. And I think I’m probably going to die here, on my own, unable to move even my head. Come on, Ariel. You are still Ariel. Yes, Ariel plus … What? Who am I? Into whose mind have I telepathed? I – or at least ‘we’; I’m having the same problem Mr. Y had – want to scratch. I want to eat: I know that’s why I came into this box. There was something sweet and crumbly which I did eat, but not recently. But almost as much as that, I want to scratch. I love

it when my sharp foot rubs against my ears, taking away the itch, and I’d give anything to be able to do that now (not that I understand the economy of hope). I’ve tried – in fact, I keep trying. Why can’t I move? I, Ariel, can see the Perspex walls, but the other ‘I’ doesn’t know what’s going on. This being – the other I – panicked, hours ago. She couldn’t do what she always does in these situations, which is to try to run fast and look for somewhere dark and soft to hide. But it’s hard to think of this being, this thing I am now part of, as ‘she’. My fur (‘My fur’? Well, that’s how it seems) smells of fear now: a damp, sweet, biscuity smell. And I know this smell from the others, from the ones who return with teeth marks in their bodies.

Zoom out. Maintain third-person. For God’s sake, Ariel, you are not a mouse. But I am. I know how to groom my fur. I have been pregnant a number of times (I don’t think she can count, but I can. I’m not sure if she has language, but I have. I can count things in memories perhaps she doesn’t even know she has). I remember the aching feeling of giving birth, like pushing on a new bruise. I know I am going to die here, but surely I can’t know what death is? Only elephants understand death … Where did I read that? I’ve got no idea how long I’ve been here, but I want to get out. Let me out! I try to scream, but all I hear is the fast breath of the mouse, her heart beating instead of mine.

What do I do now? I know how to make myself calm in these situations. I’ve stood on crowded tube trains and in lifts thinking ‘Not long now’, and ‘Breathe’. But my consciousness has merged with this one and I know, because she knows, that this is danger; that it is imperative to escape now. But we can’t move. Shit, shit, shit. How do I get out of here? Where’s all the information Mr. Y said he saw on the edges of his vision? As I think that, something like a computer desktop snaps into focus. Now I can see what the mouse sees – a vast chamber warped by the plastic and browned by its tint (although she doesn’t understand that, and believes she is somewhere she has never been before because even the scent is different in this plastic box) – but with an overlay: a console on which I can make choices. It’s hard to describe what this looks like, since I have no idea how it works. It feels like a computer desktop, but everything on it is unfamiliar. I don’t know how to navigate it. But it does seem that when I call for it, it will come. And presumably it will get me out of here.

In the top right-hand corner of my vision is a blue square that twinkles when I look (think?) at it. The rest of the ‘screen’ is layered with small milky squares, each one very faintly showing a landscape I don’t recognise. It’s like a hundred science documentaries playing on the same screen.

What are these images? As I glance over each one it becomes momentarily brighter, like a link on the Internet, and I realise (I don’t know how) that I can choose to jump into one of them: presumably to perform what Lumas termed Pedesis. But I don’t want to do that. I need to get out of here – out of the Troposphere – and release the mouse from her trap. I look over the milky images again. One of them intrigues me more than the others: the landscape seems extra-terrestrial. But – oh, no – the moment my thoughts rest on it and I think ‘This looks interesting’, something begins to happen. I’m blurring – that’s the only verb I can think of – out of this reality and into another one. I think ‘Stop! I didn’t mean it!’ But it’s too late.

At least I’m not trapped any more.

Now my paws pad over a cold, hard surface. I feel my back end sway as my paws touch the ground top-right; back-left; top-left; back-right. I have a tail that I can move! This seems both familiar and unfamiliar to me: something I’ve always had; something I once had a long time ago. The pale concrete below me (and I feel myself putting my own word on that, concrete) is ice-cube (ditto) cold, and I walk faster on it because of that. But I am warm enough. I have only just left my nest and the memory of so much fur, and the smell of my family (I’m translating as I go, here, and ‘family’ is the closest I can get to this sense memory of togetherness and connectedness) soothes me like hot syrup (ditto). I am a mouse again (I think). But I am free.

There’s something between my back legs: familiar to this mouse, but not to me. It feels odd, like my tail, but while my tail is like an extra limb, this new thing feels powered-up like a clitoris, but there’s more of it, and it extends from my stomach to somewhere outside of me. It tingles now as hot liquid comes out of it and hits the concrete. And I’m thinking that this will keep others away, and I’ve always done it because of this. My fur twitches with abstract nouns, an untranslatable, non-human sense of pride, property, future planning, and a constant, musky desire for violence – my claws in the backs of my small, pale rivals, ripping their flesh – and sex. Perhaps that’s what I live for most of all: the way my brain trembles and softens as this clitoris-like cock moves in and out of the warm, tight hole in another being, and the feeling of oozing sweetness that eventually spreads in my stomach, back, legs and throat, so sweet that I fall over, clutching her, she, whoever. I have desires

– perhaps that’s all I am – but I don’t seem to dwell on them. My mind isn’t equivalent to ‘I want, I want’. It’s more like ‘I’ve got, I’ve got’. Only one thing is bothering me, as I wander around this space, with its bins on wheels that are bigger than me. Where is she? One down. One missing. One gone. I might not be able to count but I can certainly subtract. It’s not fucking good.

Even I’m shocked at the idea that a mouse would swear until I realise that these are my thoughts merged with his: his feelings in my language. I should be trying to get out, but the feeling of being here, being him, is almost addictive. Everything about him is charged. Even his/my whiskers vibrate with electricity and anticipation, like live wires coming out of my face. He’s moving now, so much lighter on his feet than I ever can be on mine, and it’s like being on a fairground ride. We move over the concrete towards the other bin, and I know where I’m going but at the same time I don’t know, and every movement is a surprise. It’s like being the driver and the passenger all at once. And there’s something so sure about these movements, and the sensation I’m now feeling: the sensation of biting into a stale piece of bread, marinated in rain – a piece of bread I recognise as being stale because I threw it out, but which now seems delicious: a savoury taste, like Marmite on toast.

But I do have to get out of here. This mouse is fine, but the other one isn’t. She’s in a trap I set and I have to get her out of it. I think ‘Console!’, like I’m playing Space Invaders or starring in an SF film, and yes, the thing appears, filming over my vision. I plan to ignore the milky images, but then two things happen at once: in the vision behind the console – the mouse’s vision – I see an orange blur, like a smear of marmalade; and in the console I see one square in which the image displayed is not like an alien landscape, one square in which there’s a grey mouse sitting by a bin wheel eating

bread. That’s me. Something is looking at me.

Now it all becomes confusing. My mouse has seen the orange cat, and it’s as if we’ve both had an injection of icy cold water and gone onto high alert. It’s fear, but a kind of fear I’m not used to.

Death, death, death is coming. Fuck. My whole insides have turned to this icy mush and I have to run; I have to hide … But hang on. The icy water is solidifying. I’m freezing into place. I know (some level of knowing that I haven’t experienced before) that I have to keep still now. And I, Ariel, want to just get out of here, but some instinct I didn’t know I had – some mouse-instinct mapped onto my own – sees that there’s also a doorway (grey, official) hovering over the cat. It makes me focus on the milky square with the statue-mouse in it, the square belonging to the cat, who is looking at the frozen sugar-mouse, whose terror I can feel in the tiny trembling in my own/our own body, and I think ‘Switch! Switch!’

And now I’m blurring again, into something bigger. My tail now feels lighter, and I flick it around as I crouch here, crazy with anticipation, my thin tongue licking my sharp teeth. This is going to be fucking fun, and I’m not even sure I can wait before I pounce. I move my bottom around in a repeating arc, balancing myself. Now? No. Wait. Need the right moment, totally the right moment.

I’ve done this thousands of times before, and I could never, ever get bored with it. I don’t plan my attacks in any detail, but when I remember them they are like bloody ballets, with me as the director, poking the dancer with my paw, making the food dance, making it pirouette on broken legs, because I like food that moves. I do eat that brown shit in the plastic bowl, but I don’t enjoy it: it tastes like death. I only eat it to survive, because half the time I have to wear a fucking bell that scares the food away. But I can take the bell off if I work long enough at it, picking away with my precise claws. So I have no bell and now there’s food in front of me. I anticipate the way the warm blood-gravy-liquid will taste in my mouth once I’ve torn the furry coating off this thing shaking in front of me, trying to appear still. I remember the taste … Oh, God. Oh, yuck. It’s like hot Bovril mixed with iron tablets and rust. And now I’m thinking that must be disgusting, really, but the synapses (or whatever) in my mind and the cat’s mind are now jumping up and down like kids in a junior debating society. After a couple of seconds, I’m almost convinced that blood is delicious after all, but whatever is left of me that is human and vegetarian thinks ‘No!’ I can feel this thought blending with the cat’s thoughts, and so, when the mouse decides this is the moment to leg it under the bin, I hesitate. And my cat-mind does a diving backflip, just for a second, but it’s enough to fuck everything up. There’s a voice in my mind telling me not to do it. I don’t understand this. I don’t have concepts likeWhy?in my language. This is like a headache, some memory of a white room and a table and being held down by my neck as something sharp jabbed into me. Well, no one’s holding me down now.


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Fuck off, passenger. No.

You’re like a flea inside my head.

Well … Maybe you’re right. Why save the piece of food, anyway? What is ‘saving’? Nothing makes sense … Ariel: you are not a fucking cat. You were that mouse. You remembered your nest. But I’m not a mouse, either. And now I want to taste its blood.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

A buzz in my head I don’t recognise. A chemical stronger than fear.

I’m moving forward slowly now. The food has moved under the bin. New strategy. NotGame Over. I crouch and my back is a perfect curve: one shoulder slightly higher than the other, my left paw in front of my right. I’m going to crunch your skull, and I don’t care how long I have to dance with you first. I’m … You’ve gone. Where are you? Where’s my fucking food … ?

The mouse has gone. He’s safe. My mind now has a celebration party and a funeral going on in the

same room.

Console. Now I really have to get out of here. The thing comes up in my vision again, jerking as my hitchhiker consciousness bobs up and down with the cat, padding towards the wall, and then – wow

– jumping up onto it. God, I liked that. But I have to get out of here. I’ve saved one mouse, but there’s still one more to release. I glance around at the desktop space again, ignoring the milky images in the centre. The only thing left is the blue object/image, and so I direct my thoughts at it.Quit now?says the female voice I recognise from before. ‘Yes,’ I think. ‘Yes, yes, yes …’ A door appears in front of me and I am me again, twisting the knob and walking through on two heavy legs, with no tail. But I don’t recognise this place. I seem to be in a long corridor with grey carpet and beige walls. Oh, shit. Where’s the fire escape? How do I get out?

I walk along the blank corridor; past notice boards with nothing pinned on them, past bright white office doors, until I reach a lobby with four lifts in a row. There’s nothing on these walls except for one safety image: a green stick man and a green stick man in a wheelchair both moving towards a bright white exit. The stick man is winning. Not knowing what else to do, I press the button to call the lift. Instantly, all four sets of doors open. I smile at this. Is there really no one in this place apart from me? A whole city to myself – if I even am in the same city I started in. But I can’t stay: I have to get back. I randomly take the third lift along from the left and press the G button. It drops down faster than I would have liked, but I don’t feel sick. I still don’t feel anything. Once I’m on the ground floor I find a set of revolving doors that takes me back out onto the street. And then I see something odd: a small white business card lying there on the ground. It wouldn’t look odd in a normal city, lying on a chewing-gummed pavement amid all the old crisp packets, fag ends, receipts and torn pieces of newspaper. In a normal city, you wouldn’t notice it. But here, it really stands out. I bend down and pick it up. The nameApollo Smintheusis written on it in brown ink. There’s nothing else. I pick it up and put it in the pocket of my jeans.

I’m on a deserted main road lined with quiet office blocks. There are signs for subways, but there’s no traffic, so I walk across the road, climbing over the barrier separating the two carriageways. Now, I could go left or right or straight on, down a smaller road. Something about the smaller road seems familiar, so I walk onwards, afraid but not actually feeling fear, like I’m watching myself in a film, until I recognise the alleyway on my right with all the fire escapes. That alley was on my left before. Now I see. Somehow I ended up in the large building I was facing when I first arrived here. So, presumably, all I need to do to get back is to keep walking onwards, onwards down the road and then – yes – into the tunnel with the zeroes and ones and all the letters of every alphabet I’ve ever seen. Then I open my eyes.

Back on the sofa. I’m alive. I’m home. I’m human. I feel cold. I need to pee. The sense of disappointment I often get when I wake up from normal dreams has now mutated into something else: the disappointment of being me, here, now.

My overwhelming thought:I want to be back in the Troposphere. And a weaker thought:But you wanted to get out.

Strange how I keep thinking about drugs, but that’s the connection Mr. Y made as well. This time I’m remembering a bathroom, a long time ago. In fact, it must have been just before I went to Oxford. I was in a bathroom in Manchester with a big guy who gave me a tiny little pipe, coated in green enamel. I remember sucking on the pipe and feeling something I’d never felt before: complete contentment, something similar to how you feel just after an orgasm, but more – where the whole world is a big soft duvet and you’re just about to go to sleep, and you feel as if nothing will ever hurt you again. I sucked this stuff into my lungs and it tasted like ammonia. And I asked the guy what it was.

‘Freebase,’ he said. ‘Like crack cocaine. You’d probably best not do it again; it’ll boggle your head.’

In the same way that I immediately wanted to have another go on that pipe, I now want to get back to the Troposphere. So maybe that’s the curse.

Muddled thoughts, muddled thoughts. It’s quite obvious that I’ve just been asleep again. I can’t have been in the Troposphere. It’s a fictional place, a place from a book. But I still get up from the sofa and, before going to the loo or anything like that, check the mousetrap under the sink. And I feel sick. There she is, the being whose memory and thoughts I shared, trembling in the little box, her tail caught in the catch. I don’t think I ever really looked at the mice in the traps before, or even thought about them very much apart from trying to remember to release them outside as quickly as possible. But now I’m looking. Whether it was ‘just a dream’ or not, I know exactly how she feels in there. I undo the box, my hands fumbling on the catch, trying to free her tail as gently as possible. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say to her. ‘I’m so sorry.’

I gently place the box on the floor and she walks out backwards, slowly at first, with her nose twitching. I expect her immediately to become a grey streak across the floor as she runs for cover, but instead she sits there looking at me, scratching – I know how much she wanted to do that – and then just sitting there, her tiny black eyes locked on mine. I recognise this stare from somewhere, and I return it instinctively. We stay like that for a full minute, and I’m sure she knows. I’m sure she knows, on some level, that I was in her mind, and that I understand her. She’s not afraid of me.

Then she does go, scuttling away under one of the cupboards. I check the other traps and find them empty, then I throw them all away.

There’s something wrong with the light. It takes me a while to realise – I go to the bathroom and pee, and spend about four or five minutes looking at myself in the mirror, wondering what someone else would find out if they got inside my head – but as I come back into the kitchen and put on some coffee, I notice what it is. It’s almost dark already. Then I look at the clock and see why. It’s four o’clock. That’s odd. I took the mixture at about eleven, I think. And I was in the Troposphere for about half an hour, or at least that’s how it felt. Maybe I am losing my mind.

I check my jeans pocket. There’s no business card there. I look out of the window: there is no cat.

But I will look up Apollo Smintheus later, to see if it’s a real thing.

The oven must have gone out while I was lying on the sofa, and now I’m shivering in the cold. I remember the way it was in the Troposphere: the no-feeling of the place, the lack of any temperature. I want that back. But if I can’t have that, I want to be hot, hot, hot. I turn on more of the gas rings and stand as close as I can to the stove. Soon my coffee’s ready, but I don’t go anywhere with it. I just stand by the stove, shivering and thinking. I should be warming up by now. Am I ill? Has that mixture affected me in some deep way? Is it fucking up my whole system?

And then I think that if I really have just travelled through some strange other dimension, into the minds of mice (and a cat) and out again, that would probably make me feel a bit weird. I mean, surely that would make anyone feel weird? This thought makes me smile, and then laugh. Only I could telepath into the mind of a sex-obsessed mouse and then a psycho cat. This would be a good story to tell, except that I don’t tell stories, and no one would believe it, anyway. I stop laughing.

Everyone else who has ever done this has died. If you added that to the story, then no one would laugh.

There’s a buzzing from my bag. A text message.

It’s Patrick.4give my persistence, it says,but i need u again asap. Oh, Christ.

After checking through all my encyclopaedias for references to Apollo Smintheus, I eat dinner early – a bowl of rice with the last of my miso. There’s something wrong with my flat this evening. It’s not just that time has passed too quickly: it feels empty, cold, and dirtier than usual. Not bothering to

worry about the electricity, I switch on the big kitchen light and the lamp, and I put on the radio while I’m eating. I don’t usually listen to the radio at this time of day, and I have no idea what kind of thing is on. I want something comforting: half an hour of eccentric people talking about travel books, for example, or gardening. Instead of that I find a religious discussion programme. Looking at the clock, I guess that it has been on for about ten minutes already. There are about four different voices, including the presenter.

… but Mantra II shows that the patients who were prayed for did not do significantly better than those who were not.

I disagree…

[Laughter] Come on. You can’t disagree with scientific findings. It’s there in black and white inThe Lancet.

For those who don’t know, Mantra II – Mantra, I believe, standing for Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings – was a study concluded earlier this year. It set out to discover whether or not prayer significantly helped a group of heart patients. The group of patients didn’t know whether or not they were being prayed for. The external prayer groups ranged from Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist …

Mantra II is not the only study in this area – I feel I have to point this out. What about Randolph Byrd’s classic 1988 study? Or William Harris’s Kansas City study of 1999? In Harris’s study, conducted in St Luke’s Hospital, the prayed-for group did eleven per cent better than the group who were not prayed for. Scientists have been researching this question for decades. They keep researching it because it has absolutely not been made certain that intercessional prayer does not help people. In fact, it is quite clear that prayer has some effect, although we are still a long way from knowing what that effect might be.

Certainly, what I have observed in my practice is that prayer does have effects in the world. Coming back to Mantra II …

But this is all ridiculous! Where is the proof? In the Harris study you mention, Roger – and which I looked at closely in my book – even the researchers themselves admitted that there was only a probability factor of one in twenty-five in the study. In other words, there would be a one in twenty- five chance of the result they obtained appearing on its own, by accident, by chance. That’s certainly not enough to convince me. The Lottery would not be profitable for very long if all it had were twenty-five numbers and you only had to pick one of them!

As I said, coming back to the Mantra II study – and I suppose this is relevant to the Harris study as well – you have to ask who is looking at the data and how they are interpreting it …

Oh – so it’s a conspiracy now? The researchers have ‘hidden the truth’?

No, of course not. But perhaps something like prayer can’t be understood in studies with data and graphs and probability factors. How do you even begin to measure something like this? For example, what is ‘one unit’ of prayer?

There is an interesting ethical question here about God, I think. Regardless of how we interpret the data from studies like Mantra II, we have to ask: supposing prayer did help people

what sort of a God would only help the people who asked, or who had other people to ask for them? Surely this implies an inequality of treatment of people by God, even though we are apparently all God’s children, all equal in his eyes?

Yes, that’s an interesting question. Perhaps the whole concept of prayer is in itself a paradox. Perhaps you can’t pray to a God who treats all equally. Perhaps then prayer becomes a redundant idea. If God loves all people equally, presumably one should not have to remind him to care? There should be no logical reason for intercession.

I agree that this is a profound point. However, you can ask: what if it isn’t God? What if the

success of prayer actually reveals something about the power of thought? Can thought actually influence matter?

Like spoon bending?

Yes. [Laughter] I suppose you could look at it as being a little like spoon bending.

I finish my rice and light a cigarette as the discussion goes on in the background. At least the voices are there, reminding me that there is a tangible world beyond this room, beyond my mind. Where the hell did I go this afternoon? And, I can’t help thinking now, how long before I can go back there? Maybe I should try again as soon as possible, and see if a) the place is as real as it felt this afternoon and b) whether, if it is real (whatever reality is in this context), I can navigate it with more success than I managed the first time.

A train rattles past and I wonder where it’s going. I haven’t been out today.

I smoke another cigarette and try to get warm, but it doesn’t work. I should probably try to get back into the Troposphere for that reason alone: at least I won’t be cold any more. If only I didn’t think the events of today point towards me being mentally ill (empathising with mice – I think that’s a tick in the box) – and if I wasn’t so bloody cold – then this would be, unequivocally, the most amazing day of my life. So I’ll do it again. I’ll find out if it’s real (although I will try to avoid cats). And then what? Freak out? Celebrate? Have a nervous breakdown? There is no obvious logical thing to do before, during or after this situation, other than stop everything I’m doing right now and allow there to be no more before, during or after. But that’s the one thing I will not do. I have to try to go back. As I settle back onto the sofa with the paraphernalia of my new addiction – the card with the black circle and the vial of liquid – there’s a knock at the door. Is it Wolf? Ignoring it, I sink back into the sofa, vaguely thinking about how I never did get onto a psychiatrist’s couch, and I drink more of the mixture and hold up the card over my eyes.


Page 24

The tunnel. The road.Console.

FOURTEEN

YOU NOW HAVE TWENTY-SEVEN CHOICES.

Why is it different from before? At least I’m in the same place, on the same deserted street, looking at the same signs. All but one of them are still in the language I can’t read. One is now illuminated and readable.Mouse 1is what it says. I really must be going mad. But in here, in the Troposphere, going mad doesn’t seem like something that should worry me. Like the fear I had last time – the fear that didn’t feel like fear – the worry is there but it doesn’t feel like anything. There’s no quickened heartbeat; no sweat. I’m watching myself in a film again. I’m playing myself in a video game. So I’ve got twenty-seven choices. I still don’t know what that means. And to be honest, I’d be happy just staying out here on this nowhere road, feeling this blissed-out nothing. Could I be happy not knowing? No. I have to find out how this thing works. What is the Troposphere? The blurred console is like a translucent map over my vision, showing me which places are ‘live’: which places I can enter. At least, that’s what it seemed to mean last time. Last time the closest place I could enter was the apartment now marked with theMouse 1sign. Now one of the shops just a few doors down the street seems to be highlighted. It’s a little music shop with a piano in the window. In my mind I ask the console to close and it flickers out of my sight. Now I can look at the shop properly. There’s the piano: a small black upright thing with sheet music propped up on the holder. I look more closely and see that the title is in German. The sign on the door is also German:Offen. I open the door and a small bell tinkles. I expect to see the inside of the shop but, of course, I don’t.

You now have one choice.

You… I’m now someone else: someone human and male. I’m sitting in a café, waiting. I don’t need to translate this person’s thoughts: it’s a strange sensation, actually being someone else, but that’s how it now seems. It’s certainly easier than being a mouse, or a cat. I can … I can speak German.

I’m even thinking in German. I know how to read music. I … OK, Ariel, just go with it.

So I’m sitting in a café looking at the dregs in a white cup smeared with old grey cappuccino froth, and I’m pissed off, but that’s nothing new. How could he do this to me again? Again. The word makes me want to weep. I can feel it on my skin, in my cheeks and running down my chest: little bugs of failure crawling on me, and they’re all repeating that word:again. He said it would be soon. Now it looks like never. It must be because of something I didn’t say. It must be because of something I didn’t do. The idea that this would have happened anyway is too repellent. It must be this shirt. He said he liked the blue one, so why am I wearing this red piece of crap?

At this point the waitress comes over and, just as Lumas suggested, a faint outline of another shop appears over her body, and I realise I could step into that doorway instead of remaining ‘here’ – whatever, in this context, is ‘here’. Shall I try that? What about when Mr. Y did it and got bounced back onto the Troposphere? I try to call up the console, but it doesn’t come. I’m not trying anything without that to guide me.

I call it again.

It doesn’t come.

At least I spent fifteen more minutes with him. But what’s fifteen more minutes of memories against

a lifetime of being together? The future I should have had. I should have said that to him. I know he wants this as much as I do, but he’s a coward after all. Maybe I should have said that. Robert, you’re a coward. Maybe I’m the coward. I couldn’t say something like that to him. Imagine his face if I said something like that. He’d storm out. He’d say I’d crossed the line. Stupid English expressions. Crossed the line. What line? Where? Oh, yes. The line that you drew between me and everything I want to say and be. The line between ‘normal’ life and the other one, the other choice. You could have crossed that line. You promised to cross that line. You promised me. You promised me. You promised me. And I’ve been so gentle with you over these last few weeks, talking when you needed to talk, kissing away your tears when I actually wanted to be sucking your dick. I’ve done everything you wanted.

I see him walking in an hour ago, already ten minutes late, as if I didn’t have anything else better to do (but I haven’t, Robert: the only thing I want to do is be in love with you).

‘I couldn’t get away,’ he said. ‘The kids were creating.’

Another stupid English word. Creating what? Shit? Works of art? Both?

His kids. They’re across some other line altogether. But I’ve pretended to be interested in them for long enough. All right. Well, I was sort of interested. I imagined weekends with them at some point in the future, when Whatshername had gotten over everything. Trips to the park. Big ice creams. It didn’t exactly compute, but I could have programmed myself to do it. I would have done that for you, Robert.

The table in front of me is a little piece of art in itself. What would you call it?After a Small Treachery. I like that.The Dregs of Betrayal. Two cups, two saucers, one man. You’d look at this and you’d know that two people were here a while ago, but one has gone. One has a meeting, an arrangement, a life. The other is me and I have nothing in the world apart from this coffee cup.

Perhaps you even saw him leave, the one with the thinning hair and the black jeans. An hour ago he was walking in and there was nothing on this table apart from the red-and-white checked plastic tablecloth, a laminated menu and a pepper pot (but no salt). He made his excuse and sat down, and I could see him shaking.

‘Coffee?’ I said. And I wanted to slap him, this shaking mess. I wanted to tell him to be a man. If I wanted to fuck girls for the rest of my life I wouldn’t be doing this, would I?

A waitress came. They all speak French here, or at least they affect convincing French accents, so he said ‘Café au lait’ in a stupid English-French accent, and then added, ‘Merci.’

What an idiot. And now? Now I want to piss on his face. I want to drown him in my shit. I want to take pictures of him drowning in my shit and send them to his girlfriend. I want to write a concerto all about him drowning in my shit and play it at his funeral, and out of a permanent speaker system at his grave, so all his relatives will have to listen to it for ever.

But I was still hopeful when he looked at me across the table.

‘How have you been?’ he asked me, as if I had cancer.

(You’re the cancer, Robert, you miserable little tumour. You’ve given me cancer of the heart.)

‘How do you expect?’ I said.

I think what I meant to say was: ‘Fine. Great. My life is full of pink balloons.’ Well, that’s more attractive, isn’t it?

He lit a cigarette with shaking hands. I taught him to smoke, of course. I taught him to smoke, and I taught him how to drink, and I taught him how to fuck me. I showed him what I’d suspected: that two men are more powerful than the cancelled-out yin-yang of cock-and-cunt. We discovered it together: the beauty of the male body. Don’t you remember, Robert? I even bought you a reproduction of Donatello’sDavidwhen I could hardly afford food. In return you bought me a bust of Alexander the Great.

And you said you’d move in with me.

Sitting at the table just over an hour ago, he didn’t look like someone who was about to leave his family and move in with me. On the other hand – I suppose he would be upset if he had just left his girlfriend (they’re not married, despite the two kids). Maybe that’s it, I thought. Maybe he’s upset because he’s told her and he’s going to have to come back to my flat tonight and I’ll give him vodka for the shock and suck his cock so hard that he’ll never leave me again. I just wanted the chance to convince him it should be me. I see Robert as a fish with the hook still in his mouth. If she tugs it, he goes back: I know that for sure now.

Robert’s sitting there with the cigarette, frozen in time. My mind won’t play this memory like a film: it pulls me around like an Alsatian, making me go here and there … And now I’m thinking I should write a guidebook for others in my situation. Or … Yes. A website. I could send her the link, just so she knows.

Howtotakeitupthearse.com

Probably exists. And that’s not what I want, anyway. Robertisabastard.com

Not general enough. Whenstraightmenpromisetogogayandthendonot.com

He sipped his coffee. I was facing the door; I’d placed myself there like a little welcome mat (another fucking stupid English invention) waiting for him to wipe his feet on me. So he sat there sipping his coffee, looking beyond me to the wall, covered in postcards from Paris, and I just watched people leave like bacteria looking for a new host to infect. No one new comes in at this time of day; it’s as though the place has taken an antibiotic.

‘Are you OK?’ Robert asked me.

‘I’m confused.’

Last night he was due to come over to my flat to celebrate the beginning of our new life together. I’d finished my relationship with Catherine, and all that remained was for him to leave his girlfriend. He didn’t come. Instead he phoned me at midnight and in a stupid whisper said that everything was too complicated and that he’d meet me here tomorrow. I said I’d bought flowers. He said he had to go. I suggested coming to my place rather than here – after all, this place is virtually next door to my flat. He said it wasn’t a good idea.

So there we both were. And I knew he hadn’t done it.

‘You haven’t told her,’ I said.

He was still shaking. ‘I did tell her,’ he said. ‘I did it last night.’ ‘Oh, my God,’ I said. ‘I didn’t know. Sorry. Shit. Are you all right?’

I leaned across the table to touch his arm. Obviously he was now forgiven. He had done it. He had told her. Well, that was what I’d wanted. Actually it was what we’d both wanted. But where did he go last night? Just as I started wondering about that, he moved his arm away from my hand. ‘Don’t.’

‘Robert?’

‘I told her. I told her I was leaving her.’

‘But that’s good, isn’t it? Unless… Well, obviously you will be upset, but I can help you with that. It’s all going to be all right now.’

‘I’m so sorry, Wolfgang. I’ve changed my mind.’ Microwave my fucking soul, why don’t you?

‘I told her. I said, “I’m leaving you,” and she said, “No you’re not.” Just like that. She knew something had been going on. She’s not stupid. We’re … Oh, God, I don’t even know where I am, I’m so tired.’

‘We’re what?’ I said. ‘What were you going to say just then? “We’re…”’ ‘We’re going to have another go.’

This idiot makes a relationship sound like a children’s spinning top. Oh, I’m just going to have another go! But I didn’t say anything, and so he just went on and on talking about how he thought he was gay, perhaps, or at least bisexual, but now he wasn’t sure. He said he thought he was probably bisexual, but that really meant that he could stay with his girlfriend and, after all, they did have two kids and she was right when she said that he should think of them rather than just following his cock.

Console! Console? Console?

Shit. I’ve got to get out of here. I had no idea that this is Wolf’s mind, although I suppose I could have read the fucking clues. Oh, God. Oh, God. I can’t believe I’m intruding on his life like this. I shouldn’t know any of this. I had no idea. Oh, Wolf… I’m so sorry. Where’s the waitress gone now? I can’t look around, unfortunately: all I can see is what Wolf sees, and he’s just looking at the table.

No doors. No milky images.

Console?

But it doesn’t come. I’m stuck.

Now he’s getting up to leave the café. But he’s still not looking at anyone.

And I recognise the way he feels. It would be what, seventeen years ago now… Christ, that makes me feel old. I was in love, totally, innocently in love, for the first and only time, with a guy who was doing a degree in town when I was doing my GCSEs. He had dark shoulder-length hair and drove a little blue Mini. Just seeing it parked in the university car park would give me a little buzzing thrill, like touching the heart of the fake guy (or the guy-shaped hole) in that Operation game. Then he dumped me because I was too young, and I spent a year or so semi-stalking him (including once leaving an amusingly shaped cactus on his front doorstep) before I decided to just give up on love altogether.

Wolf’s not doing any stalking, though. Wolf’s going to get drunk. We’re going to get drunk …

I’m going to get drunk.

It has started to snow. The bacteria-people on the pavement crush the flakes into instant slurry; it’s exactly the consistency of the lemon-ice drinks Heike’s mother used to make for us when we came back in the afternoons in our Pioneer uniforms. But the stuff on the pavement is dirty and brown.

And that’s it: life expressed in one moment. You start with pure crushed-ice lemon drink and you end up with a shitty mess. This is what you become. And I know where I’m going now, so I walk through the brown sludge on autopilot, not crying. I’m not crying yet.

But it will be OK. If you drink enough bourbon, your humanity starts to melt away. By three o’clock this morning, I won’t care. Perhaps in an hour I’ll be anaesthetised enough to stop thinking about when I am going to cry. There’s an icy wind along with the weak snow, but I can’t be bothered to do up the buttons on my coat. I think I left my scarf behind at the café. Good. Maybe I’ll freeze to death. Picture me frozen to death in the park, broken-hearted on a bench. Robert will read about it in the local paper and … Here’s a sadder picture. I die as before on a park bench, etc., and the fucker doesn’t even read about me. I could die and no one would notice. My neighbour Ariel might notice after a few days. Catherine won’t care now, though. She didn’t say anything after I ended our relationship. She didn’t even cry. She didn’t tell me I’d made a mistake. She didn’t implore me to stop thinking about men. This almost makes me go straight to the park and undo all the buttons on my hateful red shirt, but, despite what I tell everyone, I’m no suicide.

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