Read The Universe Versus Alex Woods Online

Authors: Gavin Extence

Tags: #General Fiction

The Universe Versus Alex Woods (6 page)

BOOK: The Universe Versus Alex Woods
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‘An
act of God
!’ my mother fumed, scrunching the letter to the density of a neutron star.

‘Dr Weir said it was probably an act of Jupiter,’ I told her.

My mother looked at me for a long time with a strange crooked expression. Then she said, rather mysteriously: ‘I think, Lex, it was an act of Mars.’

My mother often said mysterious things, and usually there wasn’t much point asking for an explanation, which would in turn need explaining. Sometimes you’d find out what she meant, and sometimes you wouldn’t. In this case, I
did
eventually find out what she was talking about – it was to do with tarot and the Tower, and a truly bizarre act of prophecy – but you’ll have to wait a while to hear about that. First, I have to conclude the roof saga.

My mother isn’t usually quick to anger – she tends to kind of float around in this weird insulated bubble, like the ones they use to contain children without immune systems – but the day she received that letter from her insurance company, she was filled with righteous fury. She felt herself to be left with three equally unpleasant options: 1) tell the builder that he wasn’t going to get paid after all (this was never going to happen; my mother has never broken a promise in her life); 2) take out a second mortgage; 3) sell me and my exclusive interview to the highest bidder – and, as I’ve said, for a few hours, this third option was looking like the lesser of the three evils. People from magazines and production companies had been leaving messages on my mother’s answering machine for at least a month at that point. We both knew that she only had to give the word and
Richard and Judy
would happily pay to have our entire roof retiled in meteorite-proof armoured plating. But, for my mother, the issue was not primarily a financial one. She felt that even if the insurance company hadn’t broken the literal terms of the contract they shared, they had certainly broken the spirit of that contract, and this was just as serious a matter. She was not going to be happy until they’d been made to see the error of their ways.

She spent the rest of the evening deep in her own counsel, and the following morning, I knew from her changed demeanour at breakfast that she’d hit upon a solution. As it turned out, this solution was basically a form of blackmail or extortion, but for the reasons outlined above, I don’t think my mother ever considered it in this light. She saw it as the only way to balance the moral books.

She phoned the insurance company at nine o’clock on the dot and told them the following: if they (the insurance company) genuinely believed that they shouldn’t have to pay for our roof because it was some form of divine judgment on our family – and as such not covered in our policy – then perhaps they’d like to contact the press to make this opinion known? If not, she’d be more than willing to do it for them.

The next day, we received a second letter from the insurance company saying that while they accepted no liability for the damage to the roof, they would be happy to pay the bill as a gesture of goodwill. My mother wrote back saying that while she had serious doubts about the sincerity of their ‘goodwill’, she was nevertheless prepared to accept it at face value – although she also suggested that they rethink the wording of their documents in the future. She was still upset about the ‘Acts of God’ clause, and would remain so for some time.

By the time I’d woken up and been discharged from hospital and escaped the media and seen the satisfactory conclusion to the story of the broken roof – by then, it was pretty much time for the summer holidays, and my mother didn’t know quite what to do with me. Since she worked in the shop full time six days a week, and had done so for as long as I could remember, this wasn’t exactly a new problem. But that summer, the need for me to be fully and properly supervised at all times seemed especially high on my mother’s agenda. I could understand that she didn’t want me to be on my own, but to my mind, the best solution was also the simplest. In fact, this solution seemed so obvious to me that I was amazed my mother had not even considered it.

‘I don’t see why I can’t just stay in the house with Lucy,’ I said. ‘She’s in most of the day, near enough, so I won’t be alone – not really.’

‘Lex, that’s just about the silliest thing you’ve said all morning,’ said my mother.

‘It’s not
that
silly,’ I snarled.

‘I hardly think that Lucy counts as adequate supervision.’

‘She can keep an eye on me and I can keep an eye on her. You know, in case she’s got any ideas about getting pregnant again.’

Upon hearing this, Lucy turned her head and shot me an extremely withering look. My mother snorted. ‘Lex, we both know that if Lucy decides to get pregnant again, then there’s very little either you or I can do about it.’

‘Yeah, but maybe if she had a bit more company—’

‘Lex!’

And my mother gave me the look that meant
this conversation is over!
Lucy, meanwhile, rose from her chair and left the room, with her nose pointedly in the air. A few seconds later, I heard the cat-flap slam. This was typical Lucy behaviour. She never acted much like a cat – I never once saw her climb a tree or chase a bird – and, since I could remember, I’d always thought of her more as an older sister. I’m aware this may sound odd, but you have to bear in mind that our family was very small. I didn’t have any human siblings, nor a father, that I knew of. I also had no living grandparents and no aunts and uncles, and hence no cousins either. I had my mother, and she had me, and we both had the cat, and growing up in a situation like that, it always seemed obvious that Lucy was an integral part of our family unit, which I was loath, even in my imagination, to deplete. Furthermore, it was quite apparent, as has already been indicated, that Lucy shared my concerns that our family was a little on the small side. By the time I was ten, she’d already borne four litters, and at the time of writing, this number has risen to nine. This might seem improbable, but you have to bear in mind that cats remain fertile throughout their lives and are capable of reproducing several times every year. The world record for the number of kittens born to a single mother across her lifespan is four hundred and twenty.

Unfortunately, if Lucy had notions of increasing the size of our family, she was fighting a losing battle. My mother refused to have her spayed because she thought this was against the natural order of things, but neither was she willing to keep any of Lucy’s kittens – whether long- or short-furred, male or female, black, white or any combination in between. Each new litter was of unknown paternity and this threw up some pretty weird and wonderful genetic variations. These variations tended to affect how long each new kitten ended up being advertised in my mother’s shop window. Generally, the long-furred kittens were snapped up much more quickly than the short-furred kittens, because these were seen as having
pedigree
, although, in my opinion, the short-furred, scraggly ones were usually friendlier and more fun. The ones that inherited their mother’s long white fur also tended to inherit much of her aloofness, suggesting that there was a direct connection between these two characteristics. But, obviously, this is just speculation. I’m not a cat geneticist.

The main point is this: for whatever reason, my mother didn’t agree that Lucy was a suitable babysitter for me during the summer holidays. In fact, after the coma and everything, she seemed reluctant to let me out of her sight for even ten minutes, which I didn’t think was very fair
or
very rational. Later, after Dr Weir had sent me a big book all about meteoroids, meteors and meteorites, I was able to explain to my mother that the chance of me getting struck by another meteor – that is, two meteors in one lifetime – was about one in four quintillion (which is a four with eighteen zeroes after it), and that these odds would be unaffected by whether she was watching over me or not. If she was serious about protecting me, then she should keep me locked up in a metal box in the basement. I rehearsed this speech at least ten times before I aired it, so, let me tell you, it was pretty well honed. I don’t think the wording or delivery could’ve been bettered. But this made no difference to my mother. She didn’t care
how
many zeroes there were, I still had to go to work with her every day. It was that or spend the day at the Stapletons’, and, between you and me, this wasn’t such a great alternative. So I ended up spending most of the summer in my mother’s shop.

Sometimes I was allowed to help with little jobs like restocking the shelves or counting out change, and when my mother was doing a reading, I was in charge of lighting and maintaining the candles, but for the rest of the time I just had to sit quietly and read – either behind the counter or, if I was lucky, upstairs in Justine and Sam’s flat. Justine worked in the shop as well. I’m not sure what Sam did. She was quite a few years younger than Justine and seemed to spend a lot of time in the flat. Sam was short for Samantha. Sam and Justine were lesbians. As my mother explained to me when I was six, this meant that they preferred each other’s company to the company of men (though fortunately, at that age, I didn’t count as a man, so they were always quite tolerant of me). When I asked my mother if she was a lesbian too – as she also seemed to prefer Justine and Sam’s company to the company of men – she almost had a fit laughing. Then, when she’d picked herself up off the floor, she told me that these days she didn’t worry too much about the company of men
or
women because she was celibate. But this was another of those things that she wouldn’t explain any further, and when I tried to look up ‘celibate’ in the dictionary, I couldn’t find it. It certainly wasn’t where I expected it to be – in between ‘seller’ and ‘Sellotape’.

Rest assured: by the time I was ten, I had managed to find out what my mother meant. She meant that as far as our family was concerned, only the cat had a sex life.

My mother’s shop was down an alleyway just off Glastonbury High Street and was called the Queen of Cups. The Queen of Cups is a tarot card, as you may already know – especially if you’ve seen the James Bond film
Live and Let Die
.
Live and Let Die
was one of the few subjects on which my mother and I were always in agreement. We both thought it was the best Bond film. My mother liked all the tarot and the voodoo. I liked the bit where the main bad guy swallows a compressed-air bullet and explodes over the shark tank. But that was before I became a pacifist.

Anyway, if you’ve seen the film, you might remember that the Queen of Cups in an upside-down (or ‘ill-dignified’) position signifies a deceitful, treacherous or unreliable woman. But upright, as it was displayed on my mother’s shop front, it basically means the opposite: a woman blessed with wisdom and sensitivity – intuition, special vision and so on. It was this set of meanings my mother was trying to convey when she chose the name.

On the ground floor, there were four rooms: the large front room, a smaller back room, a stockroom and a toilet. In the front room we sold lots of different books about Wicca and astrology and numerology and divination and runes and, of course, tarot. We also sold lots of different decks of tarot cards and tarot accessories, as well as candles and crystals and incense and oils and potions. My mother mixed a lot of the potions and oils herself, but not in a cauldron. She used a seven-litre stockpot.

The back room, which wasn’t much bigger than the stockroom, was where she did her readings, and it was always very dim back there. The single window was permanently shuttered, the walls were painted dried-blood red, and, as I’ve already mentioned, my mother tended to prefer candlelight to electricity, which helped with the psychic vibrations. It also helped to create an appropriate atmosphere. Without all those candles, and of course the tarot table with its black silk covering cloth, the room would have looked too much like what it was: a modestly sized red closet.

Because of my role as keeper of the candles, I was allowed to sit in on most of my mother’s readings, but I should tell you that that is
not
normal tarot procedure. Tarot requires a lot of focus, and, usually, having a third person present during a reading is regarded as an unwanted distraction, for both the reader and the querent. When it came to me, however, no one seemed to worry too much. This may be because most people don’t regard a child as a whole other person. I sat quietly in the far corner and was easily overlooked, and when I had to perform my candle-lighting duties, I tried to keep my movements slow and solemn and silent, like my mother had taught me. In this way, I wouldn’t disrupt the delicate atmosphere of the reading. If anything, I probably
added
to the atmosphere, like some strange, mute goblin that would emerge now and then from the gloom to tend to the various flickering fires. As long as I didn’t touch the cards, there was really no chance of my presence affecting the smooth running of the reading. Touching the cards, at any time, was Absolutely Forbidden.

My mother always had at least three or four readings every week, even before my accident. And afterwards – or more specifically, after the interview she did for the
Psychic News
– she started to get many, many more. For a while, people actually came from quite a long way away to have a forty-minute reading with my mother.

In case you’re wondering, the
Psychic News
wasn’t a paper that told you the news for next week. It was a monthly magazine that told you what was new in the world of clairvoyance. My mother agreed to an interview a couple of months after I’d awoken from my coma, long after the general press interest in my accident had fizzled out.

I probably don’t need to tell you that of all the strange articles that were written about my accident, the one in the
Psychic News
was the strangest. This was the article in which my mother revealed that she’d foreseen the entire catastrophe. Of course, she didn’t realize that she’d foreseen the entire catastrophe until after it had happened. This was one of the reasons that she could not have taken measures to avert it. The other was that it was unavertable.

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