Excerpt of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
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Our Tragic Universe
I WAS READING about how to survive the end of the universe
when I got a text message from my friend Libby. Her text said,
Can you be at the Embankment in fifteen minutes? Big disaster.
It was a cold Sunday in early February, and Id spent most of
it curled up in bed in the damp and disintegrating terraced
cottage in Dartmouth. Oscar, the literary editor of the newspaper
I wrote for, had sent me The Science of Living Forever by
Kelsey Newman to review, along with a compliments slip with
a deadline on it. In those days Id review anything, because I
needed the money. It wasnt so bad: Id built up some kind of
reputation reviewing science books and so Oscar gave me all
the best ones. My boyfriend Christopher did unpaid volunteer
work on heritage sites, so it was down to me to pay the rent. I
never turned down a commission, although I wasnt at all sure
what Id say about Kelsey Newmans book and this idea of surviving
beyond the end of time.
In some ways I was already surviving beyond the end of
time: beyond deadlines, overdraft limits and ultimatums from
my bank manager. I hit deadlines to get money, but not always
to give it away. That winter Id been reduced to cashing all my
cheques in a high-commission, no-questions-asked place in
Paignton and paying utility bills at the Post Office with cash.
Although what did anyone expect? I was hardly a big-time
writer, although I was still planning to be. Every time a white
envelope came from the bank Christopher added it to the pile
of mail on my desk upstairs. I never opened any of these envelopes.
I didnt have much credit on my phone, so I didnt text
Libby back; but I put the book down and got off the bed and
put on some trainers. Id vowed never to go out in Dartmouth
on a Sunday evening, for complicated reasons. But I couldnt
say no to Libby.
The grey afternoon was curling into evening like a frightened
woodlouse. I still had fifty pages ofThe Science of Living Forever to read and the deadline for my review was the next
day. Id have to finish the book later and make sure I filed the
review on time if I wanted any chance of it being in the paper
on Sunday. If it didnt go in until the next week I would miss
being paid for a month. Downstairs, Christopher was on the
sofa cutting pieces of reclaimed wood to make a toolbox. We
didnt have a garden he could work in, just a tiny, completely
enclosed and very high-walled concrete yard in which frogs
and other small animals sometimes appeared miraculously, as
if they had dropped from the sky. As I walked into the sitting
room I could see sawdust getting in everything, but I didnt
point this out. My guitar was propped up by the fireplace.
Every time Christopher moved the saw back or forth the vibration
travelled across the room and made the thick E string
tremble. The sound was so low and sad and haunting that you
could barely hear it. Christopher was sawing hard: his brother
Josh had been for lunch yesterday and he still wasnt over it.
Josh found it therapeutic talking about their mothers death;
Christopher didnt. Josh was happy that their father was dating
a 25-year-old waitress; Christopher thought it was disgusting.
It had probably been up to me to stop the conversation,
but at the time I was worrying that I hadnt even looked
to see what book I was supposed to be reviewing, and that the
bread was running out and we didnt have any more. Also, I
didnt really know how to stop the conversation.
Sometimes when I went downstairs Id think about saying
something, and then Id imagine how Christopher would be
likely to reply and end up saying nothing at all. This time I
said, Guess what? and Christopher, still sawing madly, as if
into the back of his brothers head, or perhaps Millys head,
said, You know I hate it when you start conversations like
that, babe. I apologised, but when he asked me to hold a piece
of wood for him I said I had to take the dog out.
She hasnt been out for ages, I said. And its getting dark.
Bess was in the hallway, rolling on a piece of rawhide.
I thought you walked her this afternoon, Christopher
Excerpted from Our Tragic Universe
by Scarlett Thomas. Copyright © 2010 by Scarlett Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.