Authors: Scarlett Thomas
Edinburgh • London • New York • Melbourne
All Western faith and good faith become engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could be exchanged for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange – God of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say can be reduced to the signs that constitute faith? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer itself anything but a gigantic simulacrum – not unreal, but a simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real, but exchanged for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.
Indeed it is even possible for an entity to show itself as something which in itself it is not. Martin Heidegger
Not only is nothing good or ill but thinking makes it so, but nothing is at all, except in so far as thinking has made it so.
OU NOW HAVE ONE CHOICE
… I’m hanging out of the window of my office, sneaking a cigarette and trying to read
in the dull winter light, when there’s a noise I haven’t heard before. All right, the noise – crash, bang, etc. – I probably have heard before, but it’s coming from underneath me, which isn’t right.
There shouldn’t be anything underneath me: I’m on the bottom floor. But the ground shakes, as if something’s trying to push up from below, and I think about other people’s mothers shaking out their duvets or even God shaking out the fabric of space–time; then I think, Fucking hell, it’s an earthquake, and I drop my cigarette and run out of my office at roughly the same time that the alarm starts sounding.
When alarms sound I don’t always run immediately. Who does? Usually an alarm is just an empty sign: a drill; a practice. I’m on my way to the side door out of the building when the shaking stops. Shall I go back to my office? But it’s impossible to stay in this building when this alarm goes off. It’s too loud; it wails inside your head. As I leave the building I walk past the Health and Safety notice board, which has pictures of injured people on it. The pictures blur as I go past: a man who has back pain is also having a heart attack, and various hologram people are trying to revive him. I was supposed to go to some Health and Safety training last year, but didn’t.
As I open the side door I can see people leaving the Russell Building and walking, or running, past our block and up the grey concrete steps in the direction of the Newton Building and the library. I cut around the right-hand side of the building and bound up the concrete steps, two at a time. The sky is grey, with a thin TV-static drizzle that hangs in the air like it’s been freeze-framed. Sometimes, on these January afternoons, the sun squats low in the sky like an orange-robed Buddha in a documentary about the meaning of life. Today there is no sun. I come to the edge of the large crowd that has formed, and I stop running. Everyone is looking at the same thing, gasping and making firework-display noises.
It’s the Newton Building. It’s falling down.
I think of this toy – have I seen it on someone’s desk recently? – which is a little horse mounted on a wooden button. When you press the button from underneath, the horse collapses to its knees.
That’s what the Newton Building looks like now. It’s sinking into the ground, but in a lopsided way; one corner is now gone, now two, now … Now it stops. It creaks, and it stops. A window on the third floor flaps open, and a computer monitor falls out and smashes onto what’s left of the concrete courtyard below. Four men with hard hats and fluorescent jackets slowly approach the broken-up courtyard; then another man comes, says something to them, and they all move away again.
Two men in grey suits are standing next to me.
‘Déjà vu,’ one of them says to the other.
I look around for someone I know. There’s Mary Robinson, the head of department, talking to Lisa Hobbes. I can’t see many other people from the English Department. But I can see Max Truman standing on his own, smoking a roll-up. He’ll know what’s going on.
‘Hello, Ariel,’ he mumbles when I walk over and stand next to him.
Max always mumbles; not in a shy way, but rather as if he’s telling you what it will cost to take out your worst enemy, or how much you’d have to pay to rig a horse race. Does he like me? I don’t think he trusts me. But why would he? I’m comparatively young, relatively new to the department, and I probably seem ambitious, even though I’m not. I also have long red hair and people say I look intimidating (because of the hair? Something else?). People who don’t say I look intimidating sometimes say I look ‘dodgy’ or ‘odd’. One of my ex-housemates said he wouldn’t like to be stuck on a desert island with me, but didn’t say why.
‘Hi, Max,’ I say. Then: ‘Wow.’
‘You probably don’t know about the tunnel, do you?’ he says. I shake my head. ‘There’s a railway tunnel that runs under here,’ he says, pointing downwards with his eyes. He sucks on his roll-up, but nothing seems to happen, so he takes it out of his mouth and uses it to point around the campus. ‘It runs under Russell over there, and Newton over there. Goes – or used to go – from the town to the coast. It hasn’t been used in a hundred years or so. This is the second time it’s collapsed and taken Newton with it. They were supposed to fill it with concrete after last time,’ he adds.
I look at where Max just pointed, and start mentally drawing straight lines connecting Newton with Russell, imagining the tunnel underneath the line. Whichever way you do it, the English and American Studies Building is on the line, too.
‘Everyone’s all right, at least,’ he says. ‘Maintenance saw a crack in the wall this morning and evacuated them all.’
Lisa shivers. ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ she says, looking over at the Newton Building. The grey sky has darkened and the rain is now falling more heavily. The Newton Building looks strange with no lights on: it’s as if it has been stubbed out.
‘I can’t either,’ I say.
For the next three or four minutes we all stand and stare in silence at the building; then a man with a megaphone comes around and tells us all to go home immediately without going back to our offices. I feel like crying. There’s something so sad about broken concrete.
I don’t know about everyone else, but it’s not that easy for me just to go home. I only have one set of keys to my flat, and that set is in my office, along with my coat, my scarf, my gloves, my hat and my rucksack.
There’s a security guard trying to stop people going in through the main entrance, so I go down the steps and in the side way. My name isn’t on my office door. Instead, it bears only the name of the official occupier of the room: my supervisor, Professor Saul Burlem. I met Burlem twice before I came here: once at a conference in Greenwich, and once at my interview. He disappeared just over a week after I arrived. I remember coming into the office on a Thursday morning and noticing that it was different. The first thing was that the blinds and the curtains were closed: Burlem always closed his blinds at the end of every day, but neither of us ever touched the horrible thin grey curtains. And the room smelled of cigarette smoke. I was expecting him in at about ten o’clock that morning, but he didn’t show up. By the following Monday I asked people where he was and they said they didn’t know. At some point someone arranged for his classes to be covered. I don’t know if there’s departmental gossip about this – no one gossips to me – but everyone seems to assume I’ll just carry on my research and it’s no big deal for me that he isn’t around. Of course, he’s the reason I came to the department at all: he’s the only person in the world who has done serious research on one of my main subjects, the nineteenth-century writer Thomas E. Lumas. Without Burlem, I’m not really sure why I am here. And I do feel something about him being missing; not loss, exactly, but something.
My car is in the Newton car park. When I get there I am not at all surprised to find several men in
hard hats telling people to forget about their cars and walk or take the bus home. I do try to argue – I say I’m happy to take the risk that the Newton Building will not suddenly go into a slow-motion cinematic rewind in order that it can fall down again in a completely different direction – but the men pretty much tell me to piss off and walk home or take the bus like everybody else, so I eventually drift off in the direction of the bus stop. It’s only the beginning of January, but some daffodils and snowdrops have made it through the earth and stand wetly in little rows by the path.
The bus stop is depressing: there’s a line of people looking as cold and fragile as the line of flowers, so I decide I’ll just walk.
I think there’s a shortcut into town through the woods, but I don’t know where it is, so I just follow the route I would have driven until I leave the campus, playing the scene of the building collapsing in my mind over and over again until, realising I’m remembering things that never even happened, I give up thinking about it at all. Then I consider the railway tunnel. I can see why it would be there: after all, the campus is set on top of a steep hill and it would make sense to go under rather than over it. Max said it hadn’t been used for a hundred years or so. I wonder what was on this hill a hundred years ago. Not the university, of course, which was built in the 1960s. It’s so cold. Perhaps I should have waited for the bus. But no buses pass me as I walk. By the time I get to the main road into town my fingers have frozen inside my gloves and I start examining roads off to the right, looking for a shortcut. The first one is marked with a no through road sign, partially obscured by seagull shit; but the second looks more promising, with red-brick terraced houses curling around to the left, so I take it.
I thought this was just a residential road, but soon the red-brick houses stop and there’s a small park with two swings and a slide rusting under a dark canopy of tangled but bare oak-tree branches. Beyond that there is a pub and then a small row of shops. There’s a sad-looking charity shop, already shut, and the kind of hairdresser that does blue rinses and sets for half price on a Monday.
There’s a newsagent and a betting shop and then – aha – a secondhand bookshop. It’s still open. I’m freezing. I go in.
It’s warm inside the shop and smells slightly of furniture polish. The door has a little bell that keeps jangling for a good three seconds after I close it, and soon a young woman comes out from behind a large set of bookshelves, holding a can of polish and a yellow duster. She smiles briefly and tells me that the shop will be closing in about ten minutes, but I am welcome to look around. Then she sits down and starts tapping something into a keyboard connected to a computer on the front desk. ‘Have you got a computerised catalogue of all your books?’ I ask her.
She stops typing and looks up. ‘Yeah. But I don’t know how to use it. I’m only filling in for my friend. Sorry.’
‘What did you want to look up?’ ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘No, tell me. I might remember dusting it.’