The start of the end
‘Well?’ said Dot’s dad. ‘What did you think?’
They were walking towards the station, past snow-flecked cinemas, theatres and galleries, and through crowds of scurrying people with slush-tipped shoes. Dot’s hands were stuffed in her pockets. She’d deliberately forgotten her gloves, as usual.
‘It was alright.’ Dot wasn’t a fan of the theatre, but it was a Christmas tradition and she didn’t want to let her dad down by refusing to go.
She felt something small, round and hard in her pocket. A rogue sweet? A forgotten pound coin? She ran her thumb over its smooth surface. Just a button. She flicked it back into the gritty corner of her pocket.
‘Just alright?’ Dot’s dad wasn’t a fan of short, non-committal answers to questions. He gave Dot a sharp, sidelong look. ‘You mean you hated it.’
‘No, not really. Hated sounds like I just blanket thought it was terrible. And you know mum hates the word ‘hate’.’ They both laughed. ‘You know.’ She tried to think straight. ‘It’s not like real life, is it? People don’t stand and stare into space in a meaningful way when someone asks them a question, do they?’ Her dad was walking through the slush, past pockets of sparkling white snow on either side of their mushy footsteps. He was staring at the yellow-grey sky in a meaningful way. ‘Dad. Dad! Do they?’
Her dad gave her a comedy side-eye.
‘Okay. Sorry. Not funny. You’ve got a sharp eye. I like that about you. Nothing gets past you.’
‘Hmm.’ Dot knew only too well that plenty of things got past her – maths, science and English, for a start.
The tall red brick buildings rose to either side of them, soaring into the sky like they were stretching their necks above the cafes and shops. The white spire of the church loomed up in the dark air, a reminder that they were nearly at the station. The thought of the walk at the other end put an idea in Dot’s head, an idea that cheered her up and distracted her from strange feeling of eeriness and discomfort that had been following her around for the last few days.
‘Can we have fish and chips for dinner?’ she asked. Crunching through hot, salty batter, the ketchup sweet on her tongue, more chips than anyone could possibly eat. Yes!
‘Fish and chips?’ His dad sounded incredulous. ‘On Christmas Eve? Are you actually insane? Your mother would kill us.’
‘Oh, yeah.’ She must be getting old if she’d forgotten it was Christmas Eve. She’d had too much on her mind lately – it was hard to be an average, or below average student in a house of scientific geniuses. And it could be hard to be a football fan in a year group full of very different kinds of girl, but Dot didn’t honestly care too much about that.
‘Come on. We’ll miss our train.’
He pulled on Dot’s arm and they hurried across the road as the green man started to flash. A woman with crinkled, pale brown hair under her wide, purple hat hurried past them, her mouth pursed and her nose pointing towards the sky. A short man, almost as wide as he was tall, ambled slowly ahead of them. His sausage dog ran ten tiny steps to every one of his. The man heaved himself onto the pavement and smiled at the two of them as they picked up pace, the sausage dog offering them a wide-eyed stare at the same time.
‘We’d better run.’
‘For a change,’ Dot said wryly.
Always the almost missed trains and the screeching up for appointments. Always the running for the school gates and dashing into the cinema as the film started. In twelve years she’d not once arrived at the doctors without a red, sweating face and the fear of being prescribed medicine for a fever when she just had a bad ankle. It was one of the perils of having scientists for parents. People who thought for a living didn’t have any thoughts left over for everyday life.
Suddenly Dot stopped dead in her tracks and stared around Charing Cross Station. She was alone. The world whirled around her.
Where had her dad gone? He’d been right beside her. Startled, she looked all around her, behind her in the distance, even, stupidly, in her pockets.
The snow was starting to swirl outside the arched doors and inside the station it was all glittering lights and hurrying people in brightly coloured scarves. Dot looked up at the snow hitting the outside of the vaulted glass ceiling. She felt like she was trapped in her own snow globe. The panic rose.
Where was her dad? How could he just vanish into thin air? A rush of worry pushed up from Dot’s stomach to her chest. She pushed it back down. He must be somewhere. Where? This had always been her worst fear, for some reason – someone just disappearing and leaving her all alone.
‘Sorry!’ Her dad’s angled face was lit up with a wide grin. There were a couple of flakes of snow on his thick, brown hair, which was a mess as usual. His brown eyes were crinkled with years of smiles and his hand-knitted stripy scarf was neatly tied at the neck. He wore a long, shapeless grey coat and perfectly polished brown leather shoes. He held out a paper bag. ‘Cinnamon Danish?’
‘Dad!’ She was half relieved, half annoyed. ‘You risked us missing a train for a … a … a … a lightly spiced pastry?’
‘Live a little,’ her dad said. ‘Come on. Platform six.’ He bolted across the station concourse, two cinnamon pastries held high over his head in their brown paper bag and his black rucksack bouncing on his back. Dot sprinted after him.
They leapt onto the train as the doors were closing, her dad pulling the brown paper bag through the snapping doors just in time.
‘Exhilarating!’ he said.
‘Erm, if you say so.’
‘We made it, didn’t we?’ Her dad leaned back on the blue, chequered seat and threw Dot a wide smile. ‘See? It was never in doubt. Here.’ He tossed Dot the paper bag. ‘Consider it an early pudding. A late lunch. High tea. Whatever.’
Dot pulled the brown paper back and took a bite of the crumbly, sweet pastry, iced with pure, white sugar and laced with warm spice. ‘Mmm,’ she said. ‘Cinnamon.’
‘I used to have a box of sushi and a cinnamon Danish for lunch every day when I worked round here,’ his dad said, gazing out of the window. ‘Before You Were Here.’ They always said it portentously like that, her mum and dad. It’s because we’re happy you’re here, we like to remind ourselves, her mum had said once. Remind ourselves it could have been different. So it’s always before Dot and after Dot. It reminds us that we’re lucky. And she’d grabbed her and planted a fat kiss on her cheek. She’d wriggled away and rolled her eyes, but inside she was pleased.
‘Sushi and a Danish?’ said Dot now, back in the moment. ‘Dad. That’s disgusting. Also – every day? It’s not like there isn’t any choice. You were in the middle of London.’
‘It’s easier to have the same thing every day. One less thing to think about. And aren’t they delicious? Why have anything else?’ He took the bag off Dot, crumpled it into a ball and rolled it back towards her. He stared at it with an unnatural interest. ‘It knows it’s going to stop there,’ he said under his breath. ‘Or does it stop everywhere?’ Dot, used to this kind of apparently random interjection, said nothing. Her dad picked the bag up and went to flick it back over the small table towards her.
‘Or both,’ said Dot lazily, gazing out of the window himself now. The snow was coming down thickly. With a sudden flurry of excitement she realised that it was going to be the first white Christmas in years. Sledging. Snowball fights. The biggest snowman in the street. She pondered the possibilities.
‘Both,’ her dad was saying slowly and deliberately, pressing the balled up bag between his finger and thumb. ‘Both.’
‘Dad!’ Dot leapt to her feet. ‘It’s London Bridge. We have to change here. Dad!’
They jumped out of the doors just as they were sliding closed. The ball of rolled up paper bag stayed on the table, sliding out of sight as the train pulled out of the station into the snow.
‘There you are.’
They slammed the front door shut behind them, a gasp of flakes slipping into the warm hallway alongside their damp coats. The sky out there was full of millions of tiny, crystal, six-sided drops. And it was full of promise. Dot could feel the creep of expectation in her belly. So she was finally feeling Christmassy. The feeling wasn’t gone forever. She pushed aside the strange feeling of dread that was haunting her for no reason and reminded herself to feel happy.
Warm arms were thrown around shoulders, kisses planted on faces. ‘You’re so cold!’
‘It’s snowing,’ said Dot. ‘Like properly snowing. Thickly. Like it will settle.’
‘I heard on the news. It’s going to be the first white Christmas in eight years.’
Dot’s mum’s brown hair was tied back in a ponytail with strands escaping around her face. She had the sort of face that looked permanently excited and happy. Her mouth was always in a big O; her eyes were always wide open. She was small and neat and her clothes always looked tidy, whether she was wearing a smart dress to give a speech or a pair of old jeans round the house. Now she gave Dot a warm kiss on the cheek and beamed at her.
Dot took her wet parka off and hung it on the wooden bannister. The oak floor of the warm hallway was lined with shoes and boots and bags. The spherical post at the end of the stairs, rubbed smooth by hands and years, was strewn with red, purple and yellow scarves. A tall window with brightly coloured stained ruby, emerald and sapphire glass panes looked out onto the side street down below, only one of two houses that had that extra window, because they were at the end of the terrace. The windowsill was hung with tinsel and fairy lights, the green cord trailing across the polished floor. Dot and her mum and dad had the ground and first floor and an attic that they said they’d convert one day, though Dot had always liked its dark, dusty corners. A couple lived in the basement and used the tiny, overgrown garden.
‘Not on the bannister! On the coat rack.’
Dot couldn’t see what difference it made, since both were places to hang something, but she reached for her coat anyway.
‘And hurry up,’ her mum added. ‘Dinner’s nearly ready. Your face,’ she added, out of nowhere. ‘You’re lovely.’ She was always throwing that kind of compliment at her, her mum.
‘I’ll be right down.’ Her dad was leaping up the stairs. ‘Just need to note something down. Something Dot said…’
‘No idea,’ Dot said under her breath. ‘Something about a ball of paper? Makes no sense to me.’
‘Ah. One of those.’
‘He might be a while.’
Her mum smiled. She held out her hand. A small, black key lay in its palm. A rattling sound came from upstairs.
‘It’s stuck! Jen! It’s stuck. Come up here and help me.’
‘Shall we help him?’
‘Yeah,’ Dot smiled.
‘Okay, open it up for him,’ she said, ‘but give him his five minute warning. It’s Christmas Eve. Family time.’
‘Okay,’ said Dot, taking the warm, metal key. ‘I’ll put him out of his misery.’
‘It’s okay,’ Jen called up the stairs. ‘Dot’s got the key. And I’ve got a post it and a pen in the hall. You can write down anything important that comes to you before it goes out of your head. So what did you say exactly?’ she added to Dot, more quietly.
‘God knows,’ she said. ‘Something about a ball of paper. Something about it knowing where it’s going to stop?’
‘Ah,’ said Jen slowly, and then, ‘ah!’ like a light bulb had lit up over her head. ‘Maybe that is what’s missing.’ Living with two scientists, Dot was very used to people seeming to find perfect sense in what sounded like nonsensical ramblings. Her mum shook her head as if she was shaking off the rain. ‘It can wait. Five minutes, tell him,’ she reminded Dot. ‘He’s not going to have that big breakthrough on Christmas Eve. This can wait for a few days.’
‘Dot!’ called Oscar. ‘Help me!’
Dot walked up the stairs, trailing her hand along the warm wood of the bannister and wondering vaguely how many people had done that before her. Maybe, she thought, fighter pilots in the wars, maybe nineteenth-century scientists. She imagined Victorian versions of her mum and dad, sitting in their study, poring over books, trying to get to grips with a theory about how the universe worked.
Oscar was sitting on the top step, staring into space. He had a sunflower yellow shirt on, done right up to the top button, and a pair of neat, maroon trousers –standard fashion choices, for him.
‘Dad,’ she said. ‘I’ve got the key.’
Oscar leapt to his feet.
‘Fantastic. Thanks, Dotty girl.’ He grabbed the key from Dot and slipped it into the keyhole. It turned smoothly and Oscar disappeared inside.
Dot hesitated then went to stand in the doorway. Crossing the boundary was forbidden; Oscar’s office was almost holy to him. He had strange, superstitious beliefs about things not being moved, even though the room was a complete mess and Dot found it hard to believe he actually knew where he’d left anything. Oscar would blame all kinds of bad luck on a snow globe being shifted to the left or a Chinese ornamental cat with a waving paw being slightly out of place. When he was supposedly on the verge of a breakthrough, like now, he was even more wound up.
Dot peered round the door. Oscar’s dark head was bent over the computer by the window.
‘What are you working on?’ she said.
‘Oh, you know,’ said Oscar cheerfully. ‘The meaning of existence. The way the universe works.’ He tapped at the keyboard with two fingers. ‘Time travel,’ he added casually. ‘Trivial stuff.’
‘At school, physics is about calculating fuel costs,’ Dot commented. ‘It’s like the most boring thing in the world described in the most tedious way possible. I mean, who cares how much energy a light bulb uses?’
Oscar glanced up at her, as if waiting for the answer.
‘No one,’ Dot confirmed. ‘Light bulb designers, maybe.’
‘Ah’ said Oscar, without slowing down his two-fingered typing, ‘but at its heart physics is about the very stuff that makes you exist. It’s about travelling through time and space. It’s about whether the impossible is possible, about whether the finite is infinite.’
‘Is that what you’re working on? A time machine?’ Dot joked.
Oscar sat up straight and turned round, face deadly serious. ‘I’m working on a theory that will change everything,’ he said. ‘A theory of time…’
‘Oscar!’ Dot’s mum yelled up the stairs, her small frame throwing out a lot of volume per cubic inch. ‘Dot! It’s Christmas! Work is over! Christmas has started!’
‘Coming,’ Oscar called back. ‘Coming.’
He turned back to the computer. ‘You go,’ he said. ‘Appease her. Say anything. I’ll be down in two minutes.’ And he was tapping away at the keyboard again, completely absorbed in something that removed his mind entirely from Dot, from the room and from Christmas and dragged him to another place and time. Reluctantly Dot backed away from the doorway and ambled back downstairs.
A time machine, she thought. If it were possible, it would be pretty cool.
Only a few hours to go till Christmas. And the fluttering rose in her belly as she skidded down the stairs. Was it festive excitement or a stranger, more unformed dread? She couldn’t quite tell.