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.

Infinite Impossibility, chapter two

The end

The small kitchen was crammed with Christmas decorations. A tiny tree wobbled precariously on the little white fridge, every branch hung with a home-made decoration, some going back eight years to when Dot was just four, a few from her mum’s childhood. The window that looked out onto the garden was draped with fairy lights. Every wooden cupboard door was hung with an intricate, many sided, glass crystal in jewel-bright colours. The air was warm with spices.

Dot sighed happily.

‘And relax,’ she said.

‘Why aren’t you relaxed?’ Her mum had appeared next to her silently. ‘What’s going on?’

‘I am relaxed.’ She pulled out a tomato red, painted wooden chair and sat down at the table. ‘That’s what I just said.’

‘”And relax” implies you weren’t relaxed before,’ her mum said, peering at her and wrinkling her nose.

‘It’s a turn of phrase, mum. Relax,’ she added.

‘Hmm,’ was all she said. ‘Right!’ She pulled open the oven door. ‘Ham.’ She put it down heavily on the pine table.

Dot leaned over the criss-crossed, amber meat that was studded with cloves and breathed in the smell of twelve Christmases already passed and many more to come.

‘Oscar!’ her mum yelled, and reached into the oven again to pull out a dish of steaming, creamy potatoes. ‘Osc… Oh.’

‘Here I am.’ His dad pulled out the chair next to Dot’s. ‘And relax,’ he said.

‘Not you too. Why’s no-one relaxed?’

‘I just said I am relaxed,’ said Oscar.

‘Precisely,’ said Dot. ‘See?’

‘Hmm,’ her mum said again. ‘Right. Help yourself to potatoes. Let’s have a glass of champagne.’ She wiped her hands on the tea towel that was tucked into her waistband, brushed her brown hair off her forehead and opened the fridge door.

The cork popped. She sat down, leaned back in her chair and lifted a glass to her lips. ‘And relax,’ she said. They all laughed.

‘Aren’t you glad,’ said Jen, ‘that we’re here for Christmas for once, instead of going to Nadia’s in Norfolk? Not that there’s anything wrong with Nadia,’ she said quickly. Nadia was Oscar’s younger sister. ‘But it’s nice to be home.’

‘Plus,’ said Oscar cheerfully. ‘Nadia’s adorable, but she’s quite mad, of course. Did you seen what she was wearing when we Skyped her? A purple dress with yellow tights? Really?’

‘Imagine,’ said Dot dryly, and she reached across the table for the potatoes.

An hour later the table was crammed with half empty dishes, a deep bowl of sticky toffee pudding was still oozing caramel and the white jug had a dribble of thick cream down its neck. Dot’s traditional Christmas half glass of champagne had just one sip gone, but Oscar’s and Jen’s were empty.

‘So what was it Dot said?’ asked Jen. ‘That you needed to remember?’

‘Don’t worry,’ Oscar said. ‘I made a note, like you suggested. Sometimes I think that girl is a genius. She just instinctively gets things I labour over for years.’

‘I’m crap at physics, Dad.’

‘Now, Dot,’ said her mum warningly.

‘Sorry. I am though.’ It wasn’t the word crap Jen objected to, it was her describing herself as bad at something. But she was. She wasn’t a thinker like either of his parents – everything at school was a struggle for her. She just couldn’t join the dots and make sense of it all.

‘Different people develop at different paces,’ Jen said.

‘Yeah. I’m developing at the pace of an ant.’

‘Ants are incredible.’ Oscar’s face lit up. ‘Have you ever seen a model of an ants nest? Vast. Glorious. Like an underground cathedral.’

‘You’re a cathedral, just underground,’ said Jen, pleased with the analogy. ‘No-one’s seen it yet.’

‘I see it, Dotty my girl,’ said Oscar. ‘Believe you me, one day you’ll be a better scientist than either of us. Well, better than me at least. Your mother’s a bone fide genius, of course.’

‘I doubt it. Me not mum, I mean.’

‘I don’t doubt it for a second. Let’s take our glasses and the chocolates through to the sitting room,’ said Jen.

‘No. More. Food,’ groaned Dot, clutching her stomach.

‘There’s plenty of room in there,’ Jen said, tapping it with a finger and smiling to herself.

‘Mum!’ Dot objected.

‘What?’ She was unrepentant. ‘Here.’ She handed her the Christmas Chocolate Box, a wooden box that had once transported a vast quantity of tea leaves that Oscar had ordered, on impulse, from China, the way some people impulse-purchased a pair of socks. ‘I’ll bring the glasses. Find something Christmassy on TV. I’ll bring you some milk.’

‘Mum, I’m not six.’ She hesitated. ‘Okay,’ she said.

Dot pushed the kitchen door open with one foot. Scrawled in magic marker up the warm grey wall to the second floor was a sentence in spikey capitals.

A PARTICLE TRAVELS TO EVERY POSSIBLE LOCATION AND IT TRAVELS TO ONE SPECIFIC LOCATION AND IT TRAVELS NOWHERE, it said.

‘Uh oh,’ she said. ‘Dad, you’re going to be murdered.’ She shivered when she said it, as if her future self had whispered something horrific in her ear. ‘In trouble, I mean,’ she said quickly.

‘Oscar,’ said Jen wearily. ‘Not again. I said on the post-its.’

Oscar shrugged. ‘Too small,’ he said cheerfully. Dot rolled her eyes at her mum.

They settled down on the red sofa. The room was lit by the twinkling of candles and the glitter of strings of lights. Jen tucked her feet neatly under her and reached back to re-do her ponytail. She was wearing a cosy, dark blue wool dress that she always wore at Christmas. Its colour had always seemed like the midnight of Christmas Eve skies and the soft feel of it made Dot fill up with the happy sadness of old memories. Oscar leaned back, throwing an arm across the sofa behind Dot’s back, and undid the top button of his trousers. Dot reached for the remote.

She could still feel that creeping anticipation in her belly. Was it excitement? She brushed off, again, the thought that actually it felt a little bit more like dread. School was over for a couple of weeks at least. So why did she feel so ill at ease, like the feeling you have when someone’s watching you?

‘Did you read that article?’ asked Oscar.

‘What article?’ said Jen, reaching for the chocolate box.

‘The one that described me as “half genius, half buffoon?”‘

Dot snorted.

‘What utter nonsense,’ said Jen. ‘All genius, all buffoon, more like. Anyway, they’ll change their tune soon enough, when you turn everything they thought about time and space on its head.’

Oscar chortled in delight. ‘Indeed!’ he said. ‘Indeed!’ He thought for a second. ‘When we do,’ he corrected her.

‘Time travel?’ said Dot, interested. ‘Is that even possible?’

‘Well,’ said Oscar, ‘that’s an interesting question…’ He flicked channels and the television froze. ‘What the…?’ He pressed the select button again and again.

The room fell into dead silence. Dot looked around her, confused.

And out of nowhere an eerie wailing fell into the sudden quiet. It swept into Dot’s head and swirled around it, rising and falling, as drawn out and high and sweet as ghost church bells carried on an unreal wind. The world felt as if it had switched gear and slipped to one side.

‘What’s that noise?’ said Dot, but she felt as though her words didn’t make a sound.

And, just like that, the world clicked back into place and the room was just as it had been before.

‘What noise?’ said her mum. ‘Do you mean the carol singers?’

Outside, a single, high, clear voice sang, once in royal David’s city. More, older voices joined in. Stood a lowly cattle shed.

‘Oh yeah,’ said Dot. ‘Must be. Sorry. It sounded weird for a second.’

‘Let’s go to the window and watch.’ Dot’s mum loved carol singers; in fact, she loved anything Christmas related with a passion bordering on obsession.

‘No.’ Oscar leaned back on the plump cushions. ‘Let’s listen from here. It’s nicer. We can imagine them in mufflers, holding lanterns.’

Dot closed her eyes and listened, heart still pounding. Nothing weird at all, she told herself. Just voices singing. Not even perfect ones. You could hear coughing and breathing in the wrong places – she’d be told off for that in choir. But there was a sadness to it – a wistfulness. Carols were always sad, weren’t they, even the happy ones? She couldn’t think why, when Christmas was supposed to be joyful. She let the voices drift over her and imagined himself tramping through the snow of another world, years and years ago. A world of wood fires and biting cold. A world far away from the twenty-first century and decimal fractions.

A warm arm slipped around her shoulders and a kiss landed on the top of her head. She was back in the world of central heating and Tee shirts inside in the winter.

‘You’re drifting off,’ said her mum. ‘Off to bed with you. I’ll bring you a hot chocolate to have in bed, since it’s Christmas Eve. One night won’t rot your teeth.’ She said that every year. She gave her another kiss. ‘Merry Christmas, lovely girl.’

‘Happy Christmas, Dotty,’ said his dad. ‘See you in the morning.’

‘Have I got new football boots?’ she asked, for perhaps the hundredth time.

‘You’ll see,’ said her mum cheerfully. ‘Now, off to bed with you.’

Dot stumbled reluctantly towards the door, walking as slowly as she could. ‘It’s only ten,’ she said. ‘It’s not even late,’ but her eyes were heavy and her legs were leaden and she didn’t plan to put up too much of a fight.

‘Love you,’ Oscar called over his shoulder, and he switched channel to the news. Later Dot would kick herself that he hadn’t said ‘love you, too’ when it would have been the easiest thing in the world to say and when it would turn out to matter so much. But she just wandered upstairs sleepily, listening to the mutterings of the late news downstairs as she brushed her teeth.

She pulled on she pyjamas and fell asleep before her hot chocolate arrived.

She was standing in the playground at school, completely alone. Not alone, everyone-else-is-in-the-classroom-alone, but properly alone, like a plague had killed everyone on the planet and it was just her, the wind and the flies left. It was a weird light, dim but not dark. Like the eclipse she realised, half in her dream and half the normal, waking Dot. That odd light you got in an eclipse, as though someone had turned the dimmer switch on. It was not a light that was to be trusted. It was alien, threatening, cruel.

She started to walk across the familiar but strangely eerie playground. Her footsteps were heavy, as if the whole earth was shaking under them. She stepped on across the silent playground and towards the school field. Her shadow was long in front of her.

But it wasn’t her shadow. Her own shadow was there – small, to the side. Whose shadow was that, then, the one that loomed massively in front of her?

No, not you. She tried to run but her legs didn’t work. Dread seized her body.

Dot woke up with a start, heart pounding painfully. Her room was silent with that muffled quiet you only get after heavy snow. She lay unmoving, eyes shut, still reeling from the nightmare. She could tell from the quiet and from the thick dark that it was the dead of night, not morning yet.

There was a sudden heaviness on the end of her bed by her feet. That’d be her stocking. She kept her eyes closed for a few seconds, like she always did, wanting to believe in the magic, and then she opened them – couldn’t resist it.

Not her stocking, but her mum. She didn’t say a word. She just sat there in the dark and looked at her. It wasn’t the happy, alert, loving face that she was used to. It was a different face – a sad, wistful face. A private face. One she didn’t remember seeing before. She shut his eyes again. She didn’t want to intrude. While she was waiting for her to either say something or go, she must have fallen back asleep.

And when she woke up everything in her safe, happy world had changed.

Infinite Impossibility, chapter one

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!’

‘Coming!’

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.