Infinite Impossibility, chapter three

The day after the end

It was that lovely, warm, gradual waking up that you only got the chance to have during the school holidays. Dot emerged slowly from sleep and dozed, half dreaming, half thinking. She burrowed into the warm duvet with her eyes still shut, thinking lazily about getting up. She always opened her stocking on her mum and dad’s bed, but maybe she was getting a bit old for that now she was twelve. She did it more for them, really, these days – not to let them down. Then breakfast, then chocolate, then presents (surely, the new football boots, she must have hinted enough), then chocolate, then lunch, then chocolate, then presents, then chocolate. She smiled, satisfied. She had a vague memory of a bad dream but it didn’t matter now. Nothing could touch you on Christmas Day, could it? You were invincible.

They normally went to Auntie Nadia’s in Norfolk for Christmas but this year they weren’t going till New Year. The idea of a Christmas at home in his pyjamas with no one to be polite to and her own bed to sleep in was actually pretty appealing. Will you be bored, just the three of us, his mum had said? I wish you had a brother or sister. She didn’t mind too much about being an only child. What was the point of worrying about something that you couldn’t change? How could you possibly know you’d prefer something you’d never known?

She yawned, rubbed her eyes and pushed herself up to sitting. Her room was washed with the eerie glow snow gives, as if someone had left the light on outside – football posters lit with a half-familiar, soft light. She leapt up and pulled back the curtains. There hadn’t been a white Christmas since she was four. So why was her stomach still laced with that peculiar dread? She tried to shake it off.

The world outside was thickly iced. The grass in the downstairs flat’s garden. The path down the middle of it. The brown fence where you’d sometimes see a squirrel eating a nut – even, once, a piece of toast with jam on. All white. The roofs of the next row of houses back – you could run across them, cutting crisp prints in the snow, dribbling a ball towards the chimney pots.

She pushed the window open to get the full experience. The silence sang in her ears. Dot revised her day’s plans to include snowballs. And building a snow dog. And getting rid of this stupid feeling in her stomach.

She pushed the window shut again, pulled on yesterday’s jumper – still flung across the chair by her desk – and went to grab her stuffed-full stocking. She was hoping for some football cards, a pair of football socks, the usual Satsuma no doubt and massive amounts of chocolate. But she stopped in his tracks, staring at the empty space on the bed where the stocking would normally be. It must be tucked into the hill of duvet she’d made when she’d thrown it back. No. On the floor then. Had it fallen under the bed? Was there a new place for it now? Had there been a conversation she hadn’t listened to properly where it was agreed she was too old for Christmas stockings? She’d have tuned in to that, she was sure.

Hopping precariously on one leg at a time, she pulled on a pair of thick socks and skidded out of the door, waiting for the wave of Christmas carols on the radio and the smell of cooking to hit her. Nothing. She glanced downstairs. The lights in the hall were off and the curtains were shut. The fairy lights on the big window were dull. It must be earlier than she thought. They’d be in bed having a coffee. Probably waiting with her stocking.

Dot took the mini flight of stairs up to the proper second floor two at a time, leaping lightly and easily up them. Her room was on its own, halfway between downstairs and upstairs, sitting on top of the kitchen like a second thought. The true second floor, up an extra five steps, contained her mum and dad’s room, Oscar’s study and the bathroom.

All the doors were shut and the landing was dark. She flicked the switch on, throwing a bit of yellow warmth onto the bare, wooden floor and the old chest of drawers where Dot stored toys she couldn’t quite decide whether to let go of or not. There was always a bunch of fresh flowers in a vase on top.

Dot could picture her mum standing in front of the drawers, leaning back a bit, pushing flowers into place, peering down the centre of her nose at them. She had a hundred pictures like that in her head, going back years. She’d have her hair a bit differently in one, an apron on in another, jeans and a jumper in one, her glasses tucked down her shirt in another, maybe a research paper tucked into her back pocket. She could flick through them like a set of postcards in her mind, going back further and further in time, selecting the moment she wanted to travel to.

Slowly, in case they were still asleep, she pushed their door open and peered round it. The curtains were drawn and the room was grey, but the bed was neatly made. No mum and dad. No stocking. No radio playing embarrassing songs that were actually quite cosy. She tried to push the panic down, and tell herself that her worst nightmare wasn’t actually coming true.

They must be downstairs. Of course! Wrapping presents. They were so disorganised, of course they’d be doing it at the last minute. They could all take the stocking back to bed. Or open it on the sofa with the radio on as her mum started boiling turkey innards or whatever she needed to do at eight a.m.

She thought maybe she’d creep up on them, make a joke out of seeing what they were doing, but not look really because she hated that disappointed expression they got when a surprise got spoiled.

The presents she’d bought were already wrapped up and waiting under the big tree by the bay window in the living room. A fountain pen for her mum – a proper one, a Parker. And for her dad, a compass. He’d like that because it was to do with the earth’s forces. She’d got him a book about navigating without a compass too, just using weird stuff like the direction the wind had blown a tree. Partly because it was funny to get the compass and the book that showed that you didn’t need a compass. And partly because she knew her dad would love it. She’d found an old photo of the three of them from five years ago when she was only seven – fat faced, dumb looking – and got it framed for her mum, but she wasn’t sure if she was going to give it to her. Her mum would love it. But it was a bit soppy and she didn’t know if she could handle the reaction. She’d play it by ear. See how the day went. There was always her birthday in April if she didn’t want to do it today.

She slipped down the stairs in her woollen socks, letting her feet slide over the edge of each step and drop onto the next. The stairs and the hall were silent. She’d literally never known their flat this quiet. This wasn’t right.

She stopped sliding and bumping and started to walk, rising dread tightening her belly. She walked into the living room. The thick, pea green curtains were shut, the white walls that were hung with framed photos were grey and sombre. The cushions on the sofa were tidy and the coffee table was clear of cups and glasses. The fairy lights were all switched off.

She returned to the hall and walked slowly to the kitchen, but she knew in his heart what she’d find. There were no twinkling fairy lights, there was no radio playing carols, the oven wasn’t on and there wasn’t a big dish of warm chocolate pastries on the scrubbed kitchen table.

There was no mum and dad.

She felt sick. It had actually happened. Her biggest fear. She felt like screaming, but she took a deep breath and told herself to be brave. Be logical. Be smart.

Dot sat down at the kitchen table and thought. Something must have happened. An emergency. Something that had forced them to leave in a hurry – to go somewhere unexpectedly. Someone had been taken to hospital. A neighbour was ill. There’d been a burglary across the road and they needed to give a statement to the police. The list of perfectly believable explanations was endless. There was no need to worry, like a little kid, that her mum and dad had disappeared into nothingness. She just had to wait – probably only a few minutes – and they’d be back. Feeling better, she helped herself to a glass of orange juice from the fridge and took a long, cool gulp. Then she stood up to search for the note that they would definitely have written.

She looked in the kitchen, in the living room, in her room and in her parents’ room. There was no note. She even looked at the marker pen scrawl on the wall. Never mind. They must have left in a hurry. They’d be back soon. She took a chocolate pastry from the bread bin into the living room, opened the curtains and switched on the TV, flicking channels till she found a film that she fancied. She pulled a blanket over her knees and settled down.

The film ended with a fanfare of over the top music and Dot pushed the blanket off her knees and stretched her cramped legs. The bubble of panic and worry and dread was starting to build again. She plodded in her socks to the hall and took the phone back to the sofa with the emergency post-it that had both of their numbers written down on it, along with Auntie Nadia’s and her dad’s friend Arun’s.

She dialled her mum’s number. It rang six times and then she answered.

‘Hello,’ she said.

‘Hi!’ said Dot. ‘Mum. Where…’

‘…this is Jen Whitby. I can’t get to the phone at the moment, but leave your number and I’ll call you back.’

‘Mum,’ said Dot to the answerphone, ‘it’s me. Where are you and Dad? I just wondered because it’s eleven o’clock now and you’re not here. And it’s Christmas day.’ She put the phone down. Should she have said to ring her? She’d know. She dialled her dad’s number.

‘Oscar Whitby,’ said the answerphone. ‘Leave a message.’

‘Dad, it’s me. Where are you both?’ She hesitated. ‘I’m scared,’ she said. She thought for a second but she couldn’t think of anything to add. She put the phone down.

She rang them at 11.30. At 12. At 12.30. At 12.45, 12.46, 12.47, 12.48. At 1.

Then she took the rest of the pastries to the sofa with the carton of orange juice. She stood up and switched on all the fairy lights. And then she sat back down, turned the TV on and tried not to think about it.

At 3 o’clock she rang them both again. Their phones wouldn’t let her leave another message.

At four o’clock the light outside started to drop and dim. Dot gathered the blanket round her a bit more tightly.

At five o’clock she walked back to the hall to pick the phone up again. As she was just a couple of steps away it started to ring, a startling noise in the quiet flat. Dot ran to pick it up.

‘Mum! Dad! Where have you been?’ She was already smiling ear to ear and ready to tell them about her weird, boring day – the worst Christmas ever. It was already a great story. The dread was gone, just like that. Everything was fine.

‘Dot?’ said a woman’s voice. It wasn’t her mum’s. Dot’s heart sank back down to her stomach.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Who’s that?’

‘It’s me. Nadia. I rang to say happy Christmas.’ She hesitated. ‘Where are Oscar and Jen?’

Dot sighed and took a couple of seconds to get her normal voice together. Be brave. Be calm.

‘Mum and Dad have disappeared,’ she said. ‘I’ve been here on my own all day. I was about to call you. Can I come and stay?’

‘What?’ she said, her voice as warm as melted chocolate. ‘What do you mean? Where have they gone?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said, trying hard to push the lump back down her throat. There was a pause while she tried to get it to stay down.

‘Have you rung them?’ Nadia said.

‘They don’t answer,’ she said. ‘They didn’t leave a note.’ She hesitated. ‘What station do I go to, Liverpool Street?’ She was pretty sure it was, but she didn’t want to get it wrong and end up somewhere she didn’t know in the dark. How much money did she have stashed in the tin under her bed? Would thirty pounds be enough?

‘Don’t go anywhere,’ Nadia said. ‘I’m coming to get you. There aren’t any trains on Christmas Day. Anyway, I wouldn’t have you travelling on your own any day of the week, especially today. I’ll be as quick as I can.’

‘Okay,’ she said. Then, ‘thank you.’

‘Where are they?’ Nadia muttered, almost to herself.

‘I don’t know,’ she said sadly.

After she put the phone down she sat down on the hall floor and felt very, very alone. Then she picked herself up and went upstairs to get dressed. She packed a ruck sack with clothes, thought for a second or two and went downstairs again. She put the compass, the book, the pen and the photo into her bag, put her coat on and sat down on the chair under the phone in the hall. Then she realised it took at least two hours to drive from Norfolk, probably more, and took her coat off again, feeling stupid.

The phone rang. Dot ran to it.

‘Mum!’ she said. ‘Dad!’

‘Dot, it’s Nadia. I’ve rung my friend Emma. She’s coming by with a plate of warm food and her two boys. They’ve got a DVD with them too. I thought you could do with a bit of company.’

‘Thanks,’ she said, the disappointment sinking like a stone in her belly. She didn’t really want any company that wasn’t her mum or her dad. Then she realised what it meant. ‘So you’re not coming?’

‘Of course I’m coming. I’m on the motorway now. Hands free,’ she added, as if Dot were likely to shop her to the police. ‘It’s empty. No one on the roads at all. I think I’ll be another hour and a half, maybe less if I put my foot down. Who’s going to issue speeding tickets on Christmas day?’ There was a pause. ‘Oh God,’ she said.

‘What?’ she said, panicking.

‘Don’t worry. Just a little red light. I’ll be there as soon as I can.’

‘Okay,’ she said, gratefully. She put the phone down. Then she saw, there on the little table in the hall where they kept the phone and the post-its, the small, black key that she’d last seen in the palm of her mum’s hand.

She picked it up and walked up the stairs, slowly at first and then two at a time, past the jagged words written in marker pen up the wall. How could her dad inhabit the house so completely just a few hours before and now there be nothing but empty space where he should be? As she passed her mum and dad’s room she closed the door quickly without looking inside. The sight of the empty, made bed would make her panic.

She wasn’t allowed into her dad’s study normally – the furthest she got was to stand in the doorway and tell him dinner was ready. She tried the door, in case it was unlocked – rare, when her dad was out, but they’d left in a hurry, hadn’t they? Or had they, she wondered? Everything’s so tidy. There’s no sign of a rush. The door rattled but it didn’t open.

It had always struck her as unfair that her dad had a study and her mum didn’t – they were both working scientists, after all. But her mum said that she liked working on the kitchen table in the hustle and bustle of normal life and her dad needed peace and quiet. Her dad said it was because her mum was a better physicist than he was and he needed all the help he could get.

Her heart beating a tiny bit faster, feeling like she was doing something wrong, even though she was doing it for the best of reasons, she fitted the small, black key with the curved bow into the lock and turned it.

Unlike the rest of the jumbled but tidy house, her dad’s study was a mess. The desk under the window, looking out onto the ground floor flat’s garden, was towering with precarious piles of books and papers. A red lamp had its face bent towards the desk and a black bow tie hanging off its angled neck. Dot could count three dirty coffee cups. No, four. In the near corner, just in front of Dot, a green, squishy chair was buried beneath more books and papers. Either side of the unused fireplace bookshelves lined the walls. In front of the books were the random objects that Oscar kept to inspire him – or distract him. A tiny snow globe, the size of a large marble. A tambourine. A small frame with two balls suspended in it – they’d swing against each other forever until you stopped them.

There’s no such thing as forever, he remembered his dad telling him. No such thing as infinity. Just vast amounts of time. And acres of empty space – of nothingness. But there’s always an end to it. Dot remembered rolling her eyes. Now she sort of wished she’d been nicer. She sort of wished she’d listened. She sort of wished she’d said replied last night when they said goodnight. She put the snow globe in her pocket.

She glanced at her watch. Nadia’s friend Emma would be here soon. She’d have to be quick. She switched on the computer and waited impatiently for it to start up. It was taking forever. She corrected himself. It was taking vast amounts of time. She hopped from one foot to another irritably. Come on! Eventually the home screen came up. Her dad’s name, a small icon of a parrot and the space for a password. What would it be? She tried her dad’s name. Her mum’s name. Her own name. Her dad’s date of birth. Nothing. She grunted in frustration. Hint, the computer wrote. Forever. Dot gasped. Infinity, she wrote. No. Vast amounts of time. She thought again. No infinity, she wrote. No. This was impossible.

The doorbell rang. Auntie Nadia’s friend Emma and her sons. And then before long Nadia would be here and there would be no time to hunt for clues. Why hadn’t she thought of this earlier instead of hanging around on the sofa watching films she’d seen a million times before? Maybe she could tell Emma to go away. That she didn’t need her. Maybe she could tell Nadia that. No. A night here alone – no. The bell rang again. She sighed in exasperation and strode across the room, desperately scanning the room one last time for a clue – a hint – anything.

There. On the back of the door. A yellow post-it. Yes! She ran and tore it off the white-painted wood.

Dot, it said. Gone – find your mum.

That was all.

The doorbell rang again.

She stuffed the note into her back pocket, locked the door behind her, put the key in her pocket too and took the stairs down to the empty, fairy light-lit hall two and three at a time. At the bottom of the stairs she paused to stuff the piece of paper with the emergency phone numbers on into her bag on top of her clothes and presents, and darted to pick up a random book from the pile of his mum’s work stuff on the kitchen table. Quantum Time by Arun Singh. You never knew what would be useful. She took a deep breath and opened the door.

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