Bloomsbury Days

Parallel Universe

When I was a child I had disagreements with my mother, as one does. I remember sitting in the bath arguing while she toiled in the next room over some chore to do with my baby sister. There must have been one too many comebacks from me, in the echo chamber of the bathroom. She stormed in, slapped me about the shoulders and shouted, "Animals are not as important as humans!" While capable of much storming and weeping myself, I was oddly unmoved on that occasion, calmly looking up and seeing the displaced steam, whirling and rearranging itself, sucked after her as she raced out the door again.  I remember driving her mad on the subject of size. "How can we have any real perception of size? We have no idea of scale. Because the universe is endless." I imagine her rolling her eyes, but I don't have any real memory of that, more the sense that she was mild and patient but had a breaking point as all normal mothers do, and that the longer I argued, the closer we got to it. I thought about the universe and about parallel universes particularly, because in life each tiny twist of fate (the trip, the wrong turn, the misunderstanding) created the beginning of a new story, and my idea of the multiverse was one of endless evolving fictions. If size is an illusion then so is reality, since it's simply the perpetual playing out of chance. I started writing fiction, to control and manipulate the variables.

Last week I wrote a story, about reinvention and love and regret. I set it in an old phase of my life, in London around 1996, when I lived in a flat in Ridgmount Gardens in Bloomsbury. The flat, a perfect matrix for fiction, was owned by the editor of the South China Morning Post. It was huge, with high ceilings, five bedrooms, separate dining and reception. A Picasso sketch hung in the dining room. I set the story in a long hot London summer, the air full of grit and seeds, whirling and rearranging itself as "I" (a fictional I) stepped out of the flat, which was real, walked through the territory of my once daily routines, also real – Gower Street, the School of Oriental and African Studies, Russell Square, Queen Square – and entered the parallel universe of the fiction, in which "I" meets a man who will "alter things fundamentally" (although how can he really, when no outcome is fixed or can reliably be expected?)

Later the pair will meet again, in New Zealand, and won't acknowledge they ever knew each other, but every time they meet at some Auckland function they will remember the hot grey light, the seeds streaming down in Russell Square, the sudden astonishing blackness of the sky over Primrose Hill before a thunderstorm, the growing panic in the Tube at rush hour when the crammed train breaks down in the tunnel, the hot bodies pressed together, the air beginning to smell of human distress. Or the sudden terror and comedy down by the Thames at night when they walk past a stack of cardboard boxes and a man in rags erupts out of it and charges at them, screaming. How they leap away, clutching each other in fright. Every time they meet they will remember. Their story will be the parallel universe they see in each other's eyes.
Fiction is memory and invention, blended into something completely new. I mixed the story together last week. Just as, back in 1996, when I walked around that patch of London territory I know so well, from Ridgmount Gardens and out through the grids of the city, I was busy, with one part of my mind, constructing stories set on the other side of the world, a novel for example, in which a young law student moves in with a criminal lawyer and helps him with a murder case, and discovers that before you live with anyone, it's best to learn how to live alone.
All those years ago I sat in the bath in silence, watching the displaced air blasted apart by my mother's exasperated outburst, and I had a sense of possibility. Noting my own surprising detachment (none of the usual fury or tears) and seeing the potential in the image of the crazily blowing steam, I thought, I will remember this. It was a moment to store away, and not only to use decades later in a piece of fiction, as "I" stands by the street door at Ridgmount Gardens and sees the late summer London air, a mesh of grit, seeds and diesel fumes, parted by the rush of the arriving cab, the door opening and the familiar figure emerging, back from the parallel universe.


First Published in Metro Magazine NZ 2013