Read The Universe Versus Alex Woods Online

Authors: Gavin Extence

Tags: #General Fiction

The Universe Versus Alex Woods (3 page)

BOOK: The Universe Versus Alex Woods
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‘I’m not being naïve,’ I said. ‘You think one way; I think another. It’s a genuine difference of opinion.’

Needless to say, they wouldn’t let the drugs thing go for ages. It was a strange situation where the more open and honest I tried to be, the more convinced they became that I was lying. Eventually, I told them that I
wanted
to take a blood test: I figured they could argue with me until Judgment Day, but they couldn’t argue with science. But by the time I was demanding my right to a blood test, I think they had pretty much decided to move on anyway. The fact is, we still had one more thing to discuss. It should have been the very first item on the agenda, but like I’ve said, the police can be pretty dramatic if they think it’ll get results.

‘The final item on the inventory . . .’ Chief Inspector Hearse began. Then he rested his elbows on the table and put his head in his hands. He looked down and didn’t say anything for a very long time.

I waited.

‘The final item,’ Chief Inspector Hearse began again, ‘is one small silver urn – retrieved from the passenger seat. Weight approximately four point eight kilograms.’

To be honest with you, I’m not sure why they bothered weighing it.

‘Alex, I have to ask: the contents of that urn . . .’

Chief Inspector Hearse looked straight in my eyes and didn’t say anything. It was pretty clear that he
wasn’t
going to ask, despite what he’d said, but I knew what the question was, obviously. And really I’d had enough of all these psychological games. I was tired and thirsty. So I didn’t wait to see if Chief Inspector Hearse was ever going to finish his question. I just nodded my head and told him what he wanted to know.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That was Mr Peterson.’

After that, they had about a million more questions, as you might imagine. Obviously, the main thing they wanted to know was exactly what had happened over the last week, but, to tell you the truth, I’m not ready to talk about that yet. I don’t think there would be much point – and there was even less point at the time. Chief Inspector Hearse told me that he wanted a ‘clear, concise and full explanation’ of all the relevant circumstances that had led to my being stopped at customs with one hundred and thirteen grams of marijuana and Mr Peterson’s remains; but that was a lost cause from the word go. Sometimes when people ask you for a full explanation, you know damn well that’s the last thing they want. Really, they want you to give them a paragraph that confirms what they already think they know. They want something that will fit neatly in a box on a police statement form. And that can never be a full explanation. Full explanations are much messier. They can’t be conveyed in five unprepared, stop-start minutes. You have to give them time and space to unfold.

That’s why I want to start back at the beginning, where the police wouldn’t let me start. I’m going to tell you my story, the full story, in the manner I think it should be told. I’m afraid it’s not going to be brief.

IRIDIUM-193

I could start by telling you about my conception. My mother was always extremely forthcoming about this aspect of my existence – possibly because there was so little she could tell me about my father and it was her way of compensating. It’s kind of an interesting story, in a weird, slightly unpleasant way, but for all that, I’m not sure that’s the best place to begin. It’s not the most relevant place to begin, anyway. Maybe I’ll get to it later.

For now, there’s a more obvious place to begin: with the accident that befell me when I was ten years old. Of course, you probably know at least a little about this already. It was planetary news for several weeks. Still, that was more than seven years ago. Memories are short, and since it was so pivotal in determining the direction my life was to take, I can’t very well ignore it.

I’m calling it an accident for want of a better term, but really, this isn’t the apposite word. I’m not sure there
is
an apposite word for what happened. The press mostly called it a ‘freak accident’, or occasionally an ‘accident unprecedented in recorded human history’ – even though this second claim turned out to be not quite the case. There must have been hundreds of thousands of words written about it during the two weeks I was unconscious, and, for me, this is one of the strangest things to get to grips with. Because my own memory of what happened is entirely non-existent. The last thing I remember with any certainty is a school trip to Bristol Zoo where I was reprimanded for trying to feed a Mars bar to a spider monkey, and that was at least two weeks before I was taken into hospital. So a fair amount of what I’m going to tell you next I’ve had to reconstruct from other people’s accounts: from all the newspaper articles I read afterwards, from the doctors and scientists who talked to me while I was recovering, and from all the thousands of different eyewitnesses who saw what was to strike me in the moments before it did. A lot of those eyewitnesses wrote to me, or to my mother, when it became clear that I was going to pull through, and we kept every letter. Along with the hundreds of saved newspaper cuttings, these form the basis of a scrapbook three inches thick, which I must’ve read through a dozen times. It’s funny, because by now I must know as much about what happened to me as anyone else, but it all comes from reading and listening. As far as my personal awareness of the incident goes, there’s nothing there. I was probably the last person on the planet to find out what had befallen me. The first I knew of it was when I woke up in Yeovil District Hospital on Saturday, 3 July 2004, having just lost a whole month of my life.

When I came to, my first assumption was that I was in heaven. I thought it had to be heaven because everything was painfully white. Some experimentation revealed that I still had eyes and working eyelids, despite being deceased, and I could squint in cautious, half-second bursts, which seemed the best option until my eyes had had a chance to adjust to the afterlife’s billion-watt glare.

They’d taught us a little bit about heaven in school, and we used to sing about it a lot in assembly, but I wasn’t quite sure that I believed in it until I awoke there. I hadn’t had what most would term a conventional religious upbringing. My mother didn’t believe in heaven. She believed instead in an invisible spirit world that we passed over to when we died, but that wasn’t completely separate from the world of the living. It was just another plane of existence, and even though we couldn’t see or smell or touch it, there were messages coming through from there all the time. My mother made a good part of her living from interpreting these messages. She was ‘receptive’ to the other world in a way that most were not. I always imagined that it worked kind of like the radio or something, with most of us being tuned to static.

Anyway, I was fairly sure that I’d ended up in heaven and not just another plane of existence. I could see further evidence for this hypothesis through my squinting eyes, in the form of two angels – one fair, one dark, both clad in turquoise – who were hovering either side of me, though I couldn’t figure out quite what they were doing. Deciding that further investigation was required, I ignored the pain and forced my eyes wide open. Immediately, the fair angel hopped backwards and let out a tremendous, high-pitched yelp. Then I felt a sharp, tugging sensation, but I had no idea where it was coming from. I shut my eyes tight.

‘Oh, shit!’ said the fair angel. ‘Shit, shit, shit!’

It was then that I realized I had a left hand, because the fair angel had taken hold of it.

‘Jesus! What the hell happened?’ the dark angel asked.

‘He’s awake! Didn’t you see?’

‘He’s
awake
? Shit, is that blood?’

‘His cannula came out!’

‘It came
out
?’

‘He scared the hell out of me! It was an accident!’

‘It’s all over his sheets!’

‘I know, I know! It looks worse than it is. Just find Patel – quick! I need to stay here and keep pressure on his hand.’

I heard quick footsteps, and a few moments later, a man’s voice was talking to me. It was deep and calm and authoritative.

‘Alex?’ he said.

‘God?’ I responded.

‘Not quite,’ the voice said. ‘I’m Dr Patel. Can you hear me okay?’

‘Yes.’

‘Can you try to open your eyes for me?’

‘They hurt,’ I told him.

‘Okay,’ said Dr Patel. ‘Don’t worry about that now.’ He rested his hand on my forehead. ‘Can you tell me how you’re feeling?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied.

‘Okay. There’s nothing for you to worry about. Nurse Jackson has gone to find your mother. She’ll be here very soon.’

‘My mother?’ I was starting to think that this might not be heaven after all. ‘Where am I?’ I asked.

‘You’re in the hospital. You’ve been with us for thirteen days now.’

‘That’s almost two weeks,’ I pointed out.

‘That’s correct,’ Dr Patel confirmed.

‘Why am I here?’

‘You had an accident,’ Dr Patel said. ‘Don’t worry about that now.’

I fumbled in the darkness for a few moments. ‘Did something happen at the zoo?’

There was a long pause. ‘The zoo?’

‘The zoo.’

‘Alex, you’re a little confused right now. It might take some time for your memory to come back. I’d just like you to answer a few quick questions and then you need to rest. Can you tell me your full name?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

I thought that was a strange question.

‘Can you tell me
now
, please?’

‘My name is Alexander Morgan Woods.’

‘Excellent. And how about your mother’s name?’

‘Rowena Woods.’

‘Good. Very good,’ Dr Patel said solemnly.

‘She’s a cartomancer,’ I added.

‘When’s your birthday, Alex?’

‘Not until September,’ I said. ‘Am I going to die?’

Dr Patel laughed. Nurse Angel squeezed my hand. ‘No, Alex, you’re not going to die!’

At that point, I heard more loud, quick footsteps, followed by a strange scream and lots of sobs. I didn’t need my eyes open to know that that was my mother. Nurse Angel let go of my hand, and a second later I felt my neck pulled to one side and lots of soft, frizzy hair fell across my face.

‘Mrs Woods, please!’ Dr Patel warned.

My mother kept on sobbing. I could feel warm tears wetting my face.

‘Mrs Woods, you have to be careful of his stitches!’

But my mother had decided that she wasn’t going to let me go for at least the next twenty-four hours. She was still holding me when I fell asleep.

I soon discovered by touch that my head had been bandaged all the way round, ear to ear. Above and below this, my scalp had the texture of Fuzzy Felt. What hair I’d had was mostly gone.

‘We had to shave your head so that we could operate,’ Dr Patel told me. ‘It’s standard procedure.’

‘You had to operate?’ I was very impressed by this.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Dr Patel cheerily. ‘You had to be taken into theatre the moment you arrived. It took a team of surgeons four hours to patch you up. Your skull was fractured just above your right ear – split clean open, like an eggshell.’

My jaw hit the floor. ‘Like an
eggshell
?’

‘Like an eggshell,’ Dr Patel repeated.

‘Dr Patel, please!’ said my mother. ‘That’s not a pleasant image. Lex, close your mouth.’

‘Could they see my brain?’ I asked.

‘Yes, I believe they could,’ Dr Patel said gravely. ‘But only after they’d drained away the excess fluid and removed all the grit and dust that had accumulated in the wound.’

‘Grit and dust from the Rock?’ (The Rock had been capitalized in my imagination from the first moment I’d heard about it.)

‘Actually, most of it was ceiling plaster.’

‘Oh.’ Needless to say, this was a little disappointing. ‘Are you sure it was just plaster?’

Dr Patel glanced across at my mother, who had her arms folded and her eyebrows up. ‘We’ll know more soon,’ he told me. ‘I believe some swabs were sent away for analysis.’

‘Swabs?’

‘Some little rubbed-off samples,’ Dr Patel explained.

‘They took swabs from my brain?’

‘No. They took swabs from your scalp and skull. When there’s grit in your brain, it’s best not to rub it.’

‘Dr Patel, really!’ said my mother. ‘Lex, stop touching that.’

I took my hand away from my bandages. Everyone was quiet for a few seconds.

‘Dr Patel?’ I asked.

‘Yes, Alex.’

‘If they weren’t allowed to touch it, how did they manage to get all the grit out?’

Dr Patel smiled. My mother shook her head. ‘They used suction.’

‘Like with a
Hoover
?’

‘Yes. Exactly like that.’

I wrinkled my nose. ‘That doesn’t sound all that safe either.’

‘It’s a very small and precise Hoover.’

‘Oh.’ I looked across at my mother. She’d unfolded her arms and was pretending to read her book. ‘Then what?’ I asked. ‘You know, after they’d taken the swabs and drained the fluid and Hoovered up the grit?’

‘After that, it was really quite simple,’ said Dr Patel. ‘They cleaned the wound with salt water, attached a special plate to your skull to cover the fracture, took a small skin graft from your thigh to patch up your scalp and then sewed you up good as new.’

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