Read The Start of Everything Online

Authors: Emily Winslow

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This one wasn’t a test. This Stephen was desperate to find her.

In the first letter, he’d written:

Katja—
You know I lied when I agreed I wouldn’t try to keep in touch. You had to have known
.
I’ve got to see you again. Please write. I’m at a friend’s farm in Truro. The address is on the envelope. I’ll be here for two months more, and then who knows. I’m midway through the new book
.
Please write. Please
.


Stephen

I’m only supposed to look at the salutation and signature for clues. But I read it all. I copied it into my notebook. Then I put it into a file of work-in-progress back at the office.

The second letter came eleven days later.

Katja

Imagination can be a terrible thing. You haven’t responded, so of course I’ve imagined why. I miss you
.
I didn’t tell you about my book, because I wanted you to be impressed with me, not my reviews. I see now how ridiculous and falsely noble this was. I’ll be quite happy for you to adore me for my literary success. The
Times
loved it. There, I’ve said it. Will you reply now?


Stephen

Lucy noticed me reading the last one. That’s why I had to get out of the office, instead of trying to read the new one on my lap. But the crowd was in my way. Why would anyone want a photograph of something so ugly?

This new clock is based on an old pattern. A grasshopper escapement is a wide sideways X on the top of a clock’s main gear, turning it exactly one second at a time. But this one isn’t merely an X that squeezes and opens like the legs of a hopping insect. It’s an X made into a monstrous robot grasshopper that rides the massive clock face, blinking and biting and lolling its tongue.

The mouth snaps each minute. That gave it its name: The Time Eater. The tail lifts every quarter hour. Then, every hour, it stings. I’ve tried to find a pattern with the eye blinks, but I think they’re random. Every time I pass, I wait for a blink before I go by.

It took fourteen seconds this time. I counted the pendulum swings.

Another car intruded from Bene’t Street onto Trumpington Street, nudging the front row of gawkers up onto the kerb. This one wasn’t a police car, either. It was an ordinary car and had no right. The rest of us were squeezed back, feet tangling at the bottom of it all. I bit my lip. It felt like hours, which was the point of the clock. It keeps irregular time. It’s exactly right only once every five minutes. Sometimes it runs briefly backwards, then surges forward to catch up. It’s meant to represent the subjective experience of time, the sloppy lie of what people feel—pleasure passing too quickly and agony lasting too long—instead of what time objectively is. I hate it.

The crowd sprang apart. It always happened this way. The gathering, the press, then the release, over and over. I launched myself into the road and ran, following the college wall until the gatehouse breached it.

Cambridge is laid out opposite to the universe.

Light takes time to travel, so the farther out one looks into space, the further back in time one sees. Our view of the moon is just over one second old. Our view of the planets is minutes old. The sight of even the closest stars is years out of date. Distant ones, ones that have even
died by now, show us their infancy, millions of years ago, as the structure of the universe coalesced out of the gases of the Big Bang. If you want to see old, look far.

Cambridge is the opposite. The oldest colleges, shaped around courtyards and entered through formidable stone gateways, cluster in the centre; only when one squints and looks to the city outskirts does one find the glass and concrete of recent colleges.

Corpus is one of the central, old ones.

I sucked in a breath before entering through the massive portal. The last time I’d come here had been for my interview. I’d practised everything I was supposed to say. I’d eaten toast for breakfast and ironed my blouse. But when the student volunteer waved me over to join the group, and all the other applicants turned their heads to fling smiles at me, I seized up. “I have to leave,” I’d said, the way I’d taught myself to do, before running. Louis had been a porter on duty then. He was on duty now.

“Mathilde! I don’t think your father’s here right now.”

“I know.” Of course Dad wasn’t there. Louis must not have known he was in hospital; or, Louis knew and was keeping it from me, thinking I didn’t.

He didn’t say anything else. I hate when people wait for me to keep talking.

“I’m looking for someone called Katja,” I finally surrendered.

“Kate? Professor Jarvis?”

“No, not Kate … Katja. K-A-T-J-A. Does someone by that name work here?” She hadn’t been in the database of students and faculty, but maybe she was a bedder or in catering.

“No, love, I don’t think so. Why do you think she works here?”

“Someone told me she did.”

“Why don’t you ask your father?”

“No,” I insisted. We haven’t been speaking. When we’ve been home at the same time, I sit in the bathroom, where he won’t try to talk to me. I fell asleep in there two nights ago. I woke up with marks from the bathmat against my cheek.

Dad wishes I were at university. And I am. I’m starting with the Open University next term, online. He wishes I were studying at a
physical uni. Not Cambridge, necessarily, though I know he’d like that best. I didn’t tell him that I’d scheduled an interview, but I know he knew I was expected. After I didn’t turn up, he came home and shouted at me. I hid under the bed.

I don’t know why he’d thought it was going to work. I hated school from the start. The small tables in my first classroom had had two children crammed together on each of the four sides. All those feet kicking underneath. We’d had a communal pot in the centre for pencils, which were never put back right. I brought my own pencil, and I remember the girl next to me not knowing it was mine. She made me put it in the communal pot at the end of an activity. She actually grabbed it out of my hand and said I was stealing when I tried to get it into my pocket. I slapped her, and she bit her lip, which made it look like I’d hit hard enough to draw blood, which I hadn’t.

“Mathilde?” Louis said. He always wore the same suit, or ones that looked the same. I like Louis. “Do you want to leave a message for your father?”

“No,” I said again. “May I leave a message for Katja?” It was my responsibility to find her.

He gave me a piece of stationery. I wrote that I had mail for her, and asked her to contact me. I folded it and wrote “Katja” on the outside. He promised to pin it to the announcements board.

Louis doesn’t mind if I sit. He never minds. I made sure he wasn’t watching.

I took out the new letter. It had been folded in three to fit in the envelope, and the paper was so stiff that it popped open when I pulled it out.

Katja—
I rearranged the furniture today. I pushed the small table up against the wall, just under a window, just as it was at Deeping House. I don’t have Internet and purposely didn’t bring any books. This was supposed to force my mind to work, but I’ve only found other ways to procrastinate
.
I used to look out my uncle’s window at you. You made me smile
.
If you were in this garden right now, I’d climb right out of the window
.
If I turned my back to go out of the cottage door, who knows whether you’d still be there once I got round the back
.
I don’t want to lose you again
.


Stephen

I read the new letter twice.
Deeping House
. Perhaps they would have a home address for her in a guest book. I stuffed the page back into its envelope.

“Would you care to take your father’s mail?” Louis asked me. He said Dad’s pigeonhole was full. I didn’t say no, so he gave me the stack.

Three journals, wrapped in plastic. Two thick padded envelopes. He’s been getting a lot of these, from members of his childhood boarding school’s “Old Boys” society. Alumni were submitting memorabilia for an exhibit Dad was coordinating. Dad had loved school.

The letters on top had mostly typed or stickered addresses. They were announcements, invitations, conference materials. One was hand-addressed. I notice these things since working at the Registrar’s office.

I dumped the rest into my bag and held on to that one.

I wanted to open it, but Louis would see. I slipped outside.

A tourist group had gathered at the mouth of the college gate, one of those whose leader carries a distinctive oversized umbrella. This one had a pattern of birds all over it, flying in a swirl as though they’re being sucked up a cyclone. The group blocked the exit, so I stepped through into New Court. Courtyard grass has rules. No one but a college Fellow is allowed to cross it. I had to walk all the way around the huge rectangular lawn, even though the chapel was right across from where I’d started.

The chapel is stone-cool and symmetrical, and empty most of the time. Sometimes an organist practises or someone prays, but no one was there now. I sat in a back pew. The chandeliers weren’t lit, or the candles, but the vast stained-glass windows sprinkled coloured light all over.

The envelope had been sealed only at the point of the fold, so it was easy to pop. The letter inside was wrapped around half a dozen photographs.

The pictures were old. Dad and Amy Banning took them of each other on a narrowboat trip, laughing as they pushed the beam or wound the windlass to pass through locks. Some must have been taken by strangers on the towpath, because they’re together, touching. The boat was called the
Adorabelle
, which isn’t a word.

The letter read:

Dear Tobias

I’d wondered if I might hear from you. It was strange coming back to Cambridge, to drop off Luke. Memories rushed at me. I’m sure you understand that they weren’t all happy ones
.
I married three years ago. You would like Bernard. We’re very happy
.
For that reason, I don’t feel right keeping these photographs. But I appreciate the effort and the apology. If you’re indeed ready now to move forward in life, then I wish you luck
.
I never told Luke what you had accused, so you needn’t worry about any awkwardness if you run across him. He has only ever thought highly of you
.

Sincerely
,
Amy Banning Harrow

Luke. He was only a year older than I was. He would have started at uni already, apparently here. I was twelve and he was thirteen when Dad was going to marry Amy Banning. Luke was supposed to have become my brother.

I pulled out my notebook and copied the text of the letter into it. I wrapped the page around the photos again, and slid them back into their envelope.

The last time I saw Luke, Dad had rented us a film. He asked at the video shop what twelve-year-olds would want, a boy and a girl. I didn’t like what was on the screens. I went outside while Dad paid.

Dad had told me four times that I should be friendly to Luke, and that I should leave Dad and Amy alone while they were in the kitchen.

Luke sat on one end of the couch. I sat on the footrest for the leather chair. The TV was small, so Luke moved closer when the film started. I stayed where I was.

The movie started with slow music. Luke reached across me to aim
the remote and turn it up. I tucked my elbows in, out of his way. Music rumbled, then horses galloped. The hooves matched Dad and Amy chopping vegetables. Then the music and horses got louder than the kitchen work. Only Amy’s laughing was louder.

Dad had said I needed to stay and be nice to Luke. I covered my ears but I didn’t get up.

Luke said something to me. I couldn’t make it out through my hands and the horses. I shut my eyes. He shouted “Mum!” so loudly that I jumped.

Dad pushed past Amy. “What is it now, Mathilde?”

And, overlapping him, Amy said, “I think the volume is a little loud, Luke.”

Dad adjusted the TV, then went back into the kitchen with Amy. Luke moved closer and leaned over to hear it better. His leg almost touched mine.

“Don’t do that,” I said.

“What?”

“I said don’t do that!”

“Do what?”

I grabbed the footstool underneath me with both hands and lifted it, so I could crab-walk out of his range.

He picked up the remote but put it down again. The sounds from the kitchen now were of frying and talking. The horse in the movie fell to the ground. His snorting nostrils were six inches big on the screen, blowing dirt around with panicked exhales. I gripped the footstool again, to make myself stay. Dad had made me swear to be good.

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