Read The Universe Versus Alex Woods Online

Authors: Gavin Extence

Tags: #General Fiction

The Universe Versus Alex Woods (7 page)

BOOK: The Universe Versus Alex Woods

Although I was present at the reading in question, which occurred eight days before the meteor, it’s one of those memories that I assume ended up in the hospital Hoover. So you’ll have to bear in mind that the following account is based solely on what my mother has told me. In other words, you should take it with a pinch of salt.

The querent’s name was Mrs Coulson, and she was a regular. She came for a reading once every couple of months, usually for help with specific problems. Tarot isn’t all about predicting the distant future. Lots of people come with particular questions they want answered – about their careers, or relationships, or even their finances. On this occasion, though, Mrs Coulson didn’t have a specific problem or question in mind. She was going through an unusually calm period and just wanted a broad overview of the forces operating in her life at that moment, along with some clues as to what this might mean for the weeks to come. Mrs Coulson was a woman not keen on surprises.

As an experienced reader of the cards, my mother was used to delivering a certain amount of bad news in a non-threatening manner. But in Mrs Coulson’s reading, there was
bad news, and minimizing its impact was no mean feat. In her retrospective interview, my mother went so far as to say that not only was this the worst spread she’d ever encountered, but it was pretty much the worst spread imaginable. Some years later, I worked out the odds of drawing at random any particular seven-card spread (such as my mother was using that day), which turned out to be a little over a million billion to one; and based on this knowledge, I can go further and tell you that, if my mother is to be believed, then the spread she uncovered that day was the worst ever drawn, and will remain so for the rest of human history.

It’s a common misconception that Death is the worst card in the tarot pack. This is not true, although it’s easy to see where the confusion comes from. Most traditional tarot decks, those with pictures derived from medieval illuminations, show Death in his familiar guise – bony and cloaked, passing through a barren landscape and wielding his scythe to sweep away the skulls of the departed. But if you look more closely, you’ll see something else. You’ll see that in Death’s wake, small shoots are beginning to grow again. Because in most tarot spreads, Death is not as scary as he seems. Death simply means change – and often a release or rebirth: the end of one thing and the start of something else.

In contrast, all the
bad cards in the tarot pack tend to have pretty innocuous names – like the Tower, for example, which always spells calamity. Its picture depicts the eponymous tower being struck by a bolt of lightning from the clear blue sky, often accompanied by two figures plummeting headlong from the windows. Needless to say, Mrs Coulson drew it in her spread. It was preceded by the ill-dignified Chariot, signifying a sudden and terrible loss of control, and the Moon, portent of fear, delusion and evil astrological influences.

‘You’re a Cancer, aren’t you?’ my mother asked Mrs Coulson, keeping her voice admirably steady.

Mrs Coulson answered in the affirmative.

‘Hmm,’ said my mother. ‘That’s . . . interesting.’

‘It is?’ Mrs Coulson rejoined, twitching nervously.

‘Mars is in your sign at present,’ my mother clarified. ‘It’s also associated with the Tower, just as the Chariot is traditionally ruled by Cancer. I fear these things are no coincidence. This may be a trying month for you, though things should come to a head by the twenty-third, when Mars moves into Leo. After that, things may start to improve.’

Having thrown Mrs Coulson this scant reassurance, my mother flipped the next card, and immediately went several shades paler.

‘The Nine of Swords,’ she announced, again controlling her voice.

‘That’s not good, is it?’ Mrs Coulson gulped.

‘It’s not a particularly welcome card,’ my mother equivocated, ‘but neither is it the worst card in the deck. We should proceed to the resolution before rushing to any judgment.’

Upon saying this, my mother hastily flipped the final card, which was the ill-dignified Ten of Swords.
was the worst card in the deck. The inverted Ten of Swords is another sign of impending catastrophe, with the added twist that this card, unlike the Death card, often signifies a literal death. By the time my mother had registered this final jigsaw piece, her mind was doing somersaults trying to turn the abomination before her into the kind of five-minute summary that would not induce a heart attack. The only consolation she could find was that the cards had offered up little in the way of specifics. This was extremely unusual for a tarot reading. There were several clear omens of doom, but the combination of cards left this doom unnamed. Furthermore, the card in the present position – which was supposed to provide precise information about the nature of the querent’s enquiry – was the most baffling in the spread. This was the Page of Coins, which usually denoted a serious and studious young man, perhaps a close friend or relative. But Mrs Coulson was forty-five and single, with no immediate family and ovaries that were surely borderline extinct. She had no significant young men in her life, and this seemed unlikely to change.

So at the end of their allotted time, after a lot of questioning and fruitless head-scratching, all that my mother could really tell Mrs Coulson was the following.

In the near future, there was going to be some kind of mishap. This would be unexpected in nature and completely outside of her control. It might be connected to a young man, or it might follow on from some
good news – Mrs Coulson would be wise to trust neither. It might also be connected to some kind of poor decision in the distant past. In the longer term, Mrs Coulson would have to prepare herself for testing times, and perhaps a certain amount of uncertainty.

Privately, of course, my mother feared the worst. She embraced Mrs Coulson at length before she left the shop, and felt awful that she had to accept payment for the reading. But there was no way out. To refuse payment would have looked ominous in the extreme. And the gesture would have been futile. By my mother’s best estimation, Mrs Coulson had less than eleven days left to live.

In hindsight – barring one or two minor details – it was a prediction of stunning accuracy. The only significant problem was that it had been misdirected. Several times afterwards, my mother wanted to know if there was any chance – any chance at all – that I’d been playing with her cards before she and Mrs Coulson had entered the room, at the time when I was supposed to be preparing the candles. Obviously, because of my amnesia, this was not a question I could answer to her complete satisfaction. I could only reassert my awareness that touching the cards was, in all circumstances, Absolutely Forbidden.

As to the wider significance of this episode, I’d rather not venture an opinion. In summary, I’ll simply reiterate the facts, such as they are.

My mother uncovered a terrible tarot spread – easily the worst she’d ever seen. Shortly afterwards, I was hit by a calamity from the clear blue sky. Meanwhile, Mrs Coulson had a rather uneventful week.

Some months later, after much soul-searching, my mother was still turning over her recollections of
incident, and was fast coming to the conclusion that my presence at her readings might no longer be viable. It wasn’t just that my mind was maturing and my own psychic vibrations were becoming louder and more intrusive. There was something else too – something she was close to intuiting. There were several instances, during quiet times at the shop, when I caught her looking at me with a pensive pout and furrowed brow. Then, one day, she came straight out and asked me if there was anything she should know. This was the kind of worrying question that my mother liked to ask me from time to time, and usually I’d have been happier just to reply in the negative and leave it at that. But these were not usual circumstances, and I knew that this matter would not be dropped until I’d at least given it its due consideration.

So, after some moments of creasing my own brow, I decided to tell her that I’d been having some pretty funny dreams recently.

‘What sort of dreams?’ my mother asked eagerly.

‘Like daydreams,’ I said, ‘but peculiar ones.’

I could tell from my mother’s expression that this was not precisely what she had in mind. I tried again.

‘There was also a bit of a strange incident the other day,’ I said, after a short hesitation.

My mother nodded that I should continue.

‘When I was going to the stockroom,’ I explained, ‘I thought that I could smell the candles burning next door. But then when I went in to investigate, all the candles were out.’

I knew that I hadn’t done my story its full justice, but took some consolation in the fact that this made it less likely that my mother would persist in her enquiries.

‘It’s probably nothing,’ I concluded.

‘Oh, no,’ my mother disagreed, her furrows deepening. ‘It’s definitely something.’

‘What kind of something?’ I asked, rather cautiously.

,’ my mother repeated.

Once more, my mother’s intuition proved itself a powerful force; because approximately six months after my accident, aged eleven and one quarter, I had my first epileptic fit.


It happened at around nine o’clock one weekday evening, not long after Christmas. My mother heard me fall in the kitchen. It was like the meteor all over again, just on a much smaller scale. Having checked the roof, my mother kneeled beside me and held my head while I shook and jerked and frothed at the mouth, my eyes wide open but rolled back in their sockets so that only the whites were visible. I was oblivious to all this, of course; I’d lost consciousness by then. I wasn’t aware of anything until several minutes after the convulsions had stopped, and the last thing I remembered from before was walking into the kitchen to get a glass of milk. I had a headache like a hammer in my skull. I was very cold, and my pyjama bottoms were wet. I’d lost control of my bladder at some point while I was unconscious. I should tell you that having a generalized seizure is not a very dignified experience.

Dr Dawson, who lived just across the street, came over to examine me about ten minutes later. He gave me some diazepam, which is a sedative that makes you very sleepy and also helps to prevent fits. Then he made us an appointment to see him at the surgery the next morning. He suspected straight away that I’d had an epileptic seizure, but said that I’d have to be referred to the hospital for further tests.

I wasn’t referred to Yeovil District Hospital this time. I had to go to Bristol Royal Infirmary because they had better equipment and lots of specialist doctors. The doctor who talked to me and my mother, before and after the tests, was called Dr Enderby, and he was actually a
specialist. He was a neurologist who specialized in epilepsy, with a particular focus on childhood epilepsy. I think that it was very fortunate that I fell into Dr Enderby’s care. There weren’t many other doctors in the country who knew as much about childhood epilepsy as he did.

At this point, I should definitely take a bit of time to say some more about Dr Enderby, as he was to become an important figure in my life over the next few years.

I liked Dr Enderby a lot. But having said that, I liked most of the doctors and scientists I met; and I met quite a few between the ages of ten and eleven. For a time, it seemed as if I collected doctors and scientists the way normal kids collected football stickers. But what I mean to say is that from the beginning I felt Dr Enderby and I had quite a lot in common – despite the fact that he was a prominent neurologist and I was still in primary school.

Like me, Dr Enderby was quite bald. I was quite bald because after my accident my hair never grew back properly above my right ear. I had this peculiar missing clump. My mother said that it was hardly noticeable and that I should just give my hair a chance to grow back to its former glory – after a few months, the thin patch would be completely covered. (My mother wasn’t keen on short hair.) But the fact was that after my accident I never felt comfortable once my hair started to get past a certain length – grade four, or thereabouts. I felt less self-conscious about my visible scar than I did about the uneven way in which my hair tried to grow. So ever since the accident, I’ve kept my hair in a permanent crew-cut. I own some clippers and never go more than three weeks without shaving my head.

Of course, my baldness wasn’t exactly the same as Dr Enderby’s. While I could have grown hair if I’d chosen to do so, Dr Enderby no longer had this option. He’d started to go bald at the age of eighteen, and was completely hairless by the time he finished medical school. And while my hairlessness was (like Lex Luthor’s) the result of a terrible accident, Dr Enderby was bald because of genetics. He didn’t need to examine his DNA to know this. He had two bald brothers, who were also doctors at Bristol Royal Infirmary. Dr Enderby (the neurologist – Dr Enderby Number One, as I thought of him, even though he was actually the youngest brother) told me that he and his two brothers made a point of never meeting up within the hospital grounds. This was because most patients found hospitalization to be an unsettling experience, and seeing three bald doctors with identical name badges could only make this worse. Dr Enderby was a pretty funny man when he wanted to be.

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