Read The Start of Everything Online

Authors: Emily Winslow

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MATHILDE OLIVER

I
’d been to Addenbrooke’s before, years ago, to meet with a counsellor after Dad broke up with Amy. At first he’d been angry with me. Then, when I tried to explain, he latched onto a word. I said Luke had
touched
me.

I meant he had been too loud and too close. But Dad grabbed the word “touched.” He thought Luke had tried to be … like a boy with me. That’s what he accused, when he broke up with Amy.

I knew Luke hadn’t, but later I wondered what that would have been like. Once, I lay on the couch, the couch where we’d sat, with a pillow tucked between my legs. I squeezed it there, thinking, and suddenly everything skewed, and my legs kicked in little spasms. Dad came in to see what was wrong. I pretended to have fallen asleep.

“Miss?” This person put a hand on my shoulder. I got still. “Can I help you?” she asked.

I looked around. I didn’t know where Dad would be. “My dad’s ill,” I said. Her hand got heavier. I shrugged it off.

“Does he need help?” she asked. “Or is he already here?”

“I think he’s here. I think he had a heart attack.” I told her his name and where we lived. She went to the large desk and typed things into a computer.

I stayed where I was, which meant she had to come back around the front of the desk to talk to me again. She came again with the hand. It landed hard. “And he’s your father?” she asked, trying to make me look at her. I looked at my other shoulder, the unweighted one. I nodded to answer.

“Dear, I’ll have his doctor come down to speak with you. Why don’t you sit …” My head was still going up and down, and so I changed it to side to side. I was all right standing here. I’d chosen my safe place at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

Dad thinks I’m the way that I am because Mum died, even though I was myself before she died. But he doesn’t pay attention, so he wouldn’t know. Six months after she died, I’d had a growth spurt and needed new clothes. He took me to Marks & Spencer. There was a sale going on, and it was mobbed. I hid in one of the dressing rooms, but so many people were waiting that they checked behind the curtain to hurry me up. I bolted outside and ran all the way to Chesterton Road and along the river. He called the police to look for me, but I was already home.

The doctor put his face in front of mine to get my attention. I jumped.

“Tobias Oliver is your father?”

I said, “Yes.”

He took my upper arm and steered me towards some chairs. I didn’t resist; it didn’t seem allowed. This is why I don’t like hospitals.

“Sit down,” said the doctor, pulling down on my arm to try to make me.

I pulled back. “Is my dad here?” I asked, looking around. This isn’t where I would keep a patient, but why else would he bring me over here?

“Not right here, no. Please, sit.”

I sat. Rules were everywhere in this place.

“What?” I asked. I hadn’t been listening.

He said it again.

“All right,” I said. “Thank you.” I stood up.

“Miss?” He was trying to make me stay for something.

“He’s not here,” I said. “He’s dead.” Which he’d just told me.

“Yes, he is. Would you …?” He waved at the nurse at the desk.

“Thank you,” I said, walking away. He couldn’t make me stay. I ran out. Behind me, the revolving door kept spinning.

I carried all of Dad’s books from the dining room and put them in his study. I took his slippers from the lounge and his coats and wellies from the hall closet, and put them into his bedroom. After an hour or so of transfers, I closed the study and bedroom doors. They didn’t have locks, so I put tape across where the doors met their frames, just by the knobs.

In the kitchen, I cooked rice and sliced an apple.

When the Big Bang was first theorised, it had been shocking because it implied a start to the universe, which had until then been generally assumed to be eternal and static.

Now everyone’s adjusted. It’s scientific fact: Something exploded, and that explosion contained everything that we know of, still rushing outward.

But that doesn’t mean everyone accepts that that explosion came out of nothing. Penrose posits a cyclical universe that expands and contracts and expands out again, over and over. Hawking suggests a multiverse, where an infinite number of randomly composed universes exist; it’s not surprising that at least one resulted in life and intelligence. Turok also lives in a multiverse, and he puts forward that our Big Bang was the point where two higher-dimensional spaces bumped into each other.

The point is, there’s no such thing as a start, no matter how far back you go. There are only continuations.

I laid out my clothes for tomorrow. I set up my bag by the front door. I waited until it got dark, and then I went to bed.

Trevor knew. When I returned to work the next day, he whispered it to Lucy, who whispered it to Enid, who gasped. She rushed over to where I was sitting. She leaned over me so far that everyone could see past her ruffled collar right down her shirt.

“I’m
so sorry
about your father,” she exhaled. I slanted to avoid her.

Trevor patted her shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “I think Mattie’s all right.”

She reached to take her newspaper out of my way, but I shot my hand out. “Is this the same body?” There was a sketch now, of a young woman from behind. The height, hair, red sweater, jeans, and shoe size were emphasised. It was all they had.

“You don’t need to see things like this,” Lucy told me. Lucy was always telling people what they should and shouldn’t do. Lucy always thinks she knows what’s best.

“You’re not my father!” I shouted. I stood up, panting. Everyone jumped, even Enid.

“Why don’t we all just try to get some work done?” Trevor suggested. Enid folded her newspaper.

I sat back down. The mail in my inbox was mostly advertising.

I moved to the database terminal and typed in “Katja” for the whole University. There were none at Corpus Christi, but St. John’s had two. King’s had one. I emailed all three to ask if they knew a Stephen, a Stephen who might think they were at Corpus.

Probably they all knew Stephens.

I tapped keys idly. “Tobias Oliver” appeared in front of me letter by letter. I clicked search, and his entry popped open. It’ll be weeks before he’s excised from the database.

I typed “Luke Banning.” It corrected me, by offering Luke Banning Harrow. He must be fond of his stepfather. He was at St. John’s. He was reading Maths. Dad had told me he liked maths. That’s why he’d thought we would get along. In Dad’s fantasies, we helped each other with homework. Enid passed behind me, pretending she needed something from the file cabinet. I minimised the browser window until she left.

This was when I pulled up Google and poked around for Deeping
House. The only reference I found was a six-year-old application for planning permission to convert Deeping House, a listed manor, into flats. The owner was named, so I Googled him, too. Ian Bennet. I got his phone number to go with the Deeping House address. The only other place Ian Bennet came up was in reference to his protest of the conversion of a nearby Little Chef into a sex shop.

The hard edge of a folded note nudged my little finger. It was attached to Enid, and nipped between two pink-tipped fingers. I quickly minimised the browser window again, but not before she saw what I was reading. The news article was one of those sites that has ads triggered by the topic; the sidebar had a photo of a near-naked woman talking on a phone.

“It’s a mobile number,” she said, tapping her note. “Before you came in, a man called George had phoned for you. I told him you’d be in later. I got his number for you.”

“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t want it, but if I didn’t take it she would keep poking me. “I don’t like using the phone,” I added, in reference both to George’s call and to whatever she thought I was reading on the Internet.

“It’s all right to be sad,” she said. She didn’t leave. She had a perfume on. She smelled overwhelmingly like Christ’s College’s jasmine tree. Sick climbed up my throat.

“I know,” I said. The scent gathered strength. “Thank you,” I added. Still she hovered. I pulled out my phone. That worked.

I didn’t want to call George, but I had to call someone, to keep Enid away. I faced the wall and phoned the number I had found for Ian Bennet, the owner of Deeping House.

A teenage girl answered, which I wasn’t expecting. She said Katja had worked for a family upstairs, as a nanny, but she wasn’t there anymore. “Of course not,” I said. “I know that. I want to know where she is now.” She said that I should call Mrs. Finley upstairs and ask. She hung up. This is why I don’t like telephones. You don’t know when you’re supposed to talk and when you’re supposed to listen, and abrupt things happen.

Real people can be abrupt, too, but you usually see or hear clues first. Lucy must have walked the long way to come at me from behind.
“Mathilde, we’re going out later, just for a drink. Would you like to come along?”

She’d never asked me that before. The only thing different is that my father is dead.

“No,” I said, putting my phone up against my ear again. I felt like if I took it off my head they’d try again.

So I looked up the Finley number. I got the woman who is the nanny now; she told me the name of the service Katja had used. Then another woman grabbed the phone and demanded my name. She said that if I was thinking of hiring Katja I should think again because she has
poor judgement
. She said that multiple times:
That girl has poor judgement
. I hung up, but the phrase kept repeating in my head.

I wanted to go home, but it wasn’t time to leave yet. I had planned to leave at four o’clock.

There was no new mail. I wondered if they were withholding it. That would be like them, to think they know what I need.
I’ll work whether they want me to or not
.

I dialled the number for the au pair agency. The woman didn’t tell me anything useful. She said she couldn’t dispense private information.
Dispense
, like a pharmacist.

Now
it was four o’clock. I left.

The next day, fresh mail was delivered to the office. I read it in my lap.

Katja

I’ve had a horrible day. I helped Alistair to deliver a calf. I’d no clue how to go about such a thing, but I’m willing. I thought it would be an experience I can use in the book
.
It had died inside its mother. We didn’t know. The leg broke off in Alistair’s hand. Then he pulled the head out. It was birthed in stiff pieces. He got the rest of it out with a rope
.
I’m back in my cottage now. Curtains drawn, blanket over my knees. I probably shouldn’t tell you what a coward I am that that sent me reeling, but I need you to know it happened. I need you, full stop
.
I can’t help but wonder why you’re doing this. It’s not right to start something and just drop it. It’s not right to treat a person like a new hobby you were trying out, like knitting or tatting that you can give up on and leave in the basket if it bores you. If you don’t want to see me again, say so. But it’s not right to say nothing. It’s not right to go silent
.
You know what to do
.

—Stephen

I put down the letter and cried, because it was horrible that the calf was dead.

CHAPTER 6

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