Read The Universe Versus Alex Woods Online

Authors: Gavin Extence

Tags: #General Fiction

The Universe Versus Alex Woods (9 page)

BOOK: The Universe Versus Alex Woods
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Because I could no longer leave the house, I could no longer go to school; and because I could no longer go to school, my mother had a problem on her hands. She could not afford to stop working, but I was much too young and much too ill to be left on my own. A full-time babysitter was also out of the question. My mother wanted me close by so that she could be there the second I had my next fit, and home and work were separated by a ten-minute drive.

Our house was (and is) located in the village of Lower Godley, about six miles northeast of Glastonbury. You may not have heard of it, but that’s okay. Lower Godley is a very small village. It’s basically just a long, straight road with houses on either side, fields beyond the houses, and a little bulge in the middle where there’s a shop and a church and a post office. It has a population of about four hundred and twelve and a very infrequent bus service. About the only interesting thing I can think of to tell you about Lower Godley is the following: Lower Godley implies the existence of an Upper Godley, but (for some reason no one in the village knows) there is no Upper Godley. If it ever existed, it doesn’t any more. It’s also possible that whoever named our village thought that Godley on its own was a stupid name for a village, and so added the ‘Lower’ more or less on a whim. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, the village ended up with a somewhat misleading prefix, and this is by far its most interesting feature.

Anyway, to return to the point, our house in Lower Godley was too far away from my mother’s work for me to stay there in the daytime without her worrying, and this is why we ended up swapping homes with Justine and Sam. My mother, I should tell you, owned the flat above the shop as well as the shop itself. She had bought both with her inheritance money, which she had come into when my grandfather (her father) died from a heart attack, soon after he discovered she was pregnant with me.

Sam and Justine didn’t mind swapping houses for several reasons: first, our house in Lower Godley was much bigger and nicer than the flat above the shop; second, it had a garden filled with interesting wildlife; third, they were happy to help. They also didn’t mind looking after Lucy. Lucy couldn’t come with us because the flat was too small and was surrounded by unfamiliar roads and alleys, so it wouldn’t have been safe to install a cat-flap. And since Lucy had always been an outdoors cat, my mother didn’t think she’d like being confined.

‘At least it would stop her from procreating,’ I told her, very sullenly.

I was upset because I wasn’t crazy about being confined either. But after we’d moved, I realized that the flat really wasn’t big enough to accommodate the cat. It was barely big enough for my mother and me. Apparently, we’d managed to live there before, up until I was about three years old, but I didn’t really remember this. And I was much smaller then, so it probably didn’t feel quite so cramped.

The five rooms in the flat varied in size from small to extremely small, in a gradually descending hierarchy, like a set of those Russian dolls. My mother’s bedroom was the only room approaching normal size. After that, the kitchen was a little smaller, and the living room smaller still. The bathroom was so pokey that you could use the sink, the shower and the toilet all at the same time, though not without consequences. And finally – bottom of the heap, smallest doll in the set – there was the ‘box’ room. Sam had managed to squeeze a desk and chair in there so she could use it as an office for whatever it was she did. I, however, managed to squeeze an entire bed in there. This left a foot-wide corridor of floor space and a door that could not be fully opened. Originally, my mother had insisted that it wasn’t possible to fit a bed in the box room and said we’d have to share, but she had underestimated the extent to which I valued my privacy. Possible or not, I was determined that my bed was going into that room, and after I’d removed the wheels from its base and taken the finish off the doorframe, it slid in like a Tetris block. Then, after a great deal of soul-searching, I decided to sacrifice the strip of room in which I could walk to a very thin bookcase. On the bookcase I put a lamp and my meteorite. This left just one corner of my room in which I could stand up – a space considerably smaller than the inside of a phone box.

All of my clothes had to live in a chest in the living room, but most of the time, I just stayed in my pyjamas.

My world had become very small, and it stayed like that for a long, long time.

After a while, anything can become routine – even fits. I got used to them, and eventually, my mother did too. As Dr Enderby explained to us at a very early stage, epileptic fits look a lot scarier than they are. They can’t really hurt you unless you happen to fall and hit your head or bite your tongue while you’re unconscious. Serious injuries are rare, especially in short-lived episodes, and my fits never lasted more than a few minutes.

I learned how to recognize the early stages of my seizures many months before I learned how to halt their progression. The early warning that some people get before a seizure is called an ‘aura’, and it usually manifests itself as a very specific sensation or emotion – a ringing in the ears, a loss of balance, a sudden feeling of déjà vu. In my case, the aura was always the same – a sudden, powerful smell. This might sound strange, but it isn’t. Dr Enderby told me that lots of people with temporal lobe epilepsy experience strong olfactory – smell-related – hallucinations. The aura I experienced told him that my seizures were originating in my olfactory cortex before spreading to the other parts of my temporal lobe – the parts responsible for memory and emotion and so on.

Once I became able to recognize my aura and understand the progression of my seizures, they became much less disorientating. Sometimes when I experienced partial seizures without losing consciousness, it wasn’t that different to falling asleep – at the stage when you’re still half awake and tiny pictures just kind of pop in and out of your head like scraps of film. These visions were still strange, but once I knew what was happening, they were rarely disturbing.

My mother bought me a book about epilepsy that Dr Enderby had recommended, and in this book it said that people suffering from temporal lobe seizures often experience deeply religious visions. The nature of these visions depended on the religious background and upbringing of the patient, and people had reported seeing all kinds of curious hallucinations: angels, demons, dazzling white lights, pearly gates, bearded men, many-armed elephants, the Virgin Mary, Jesus playing a trumpet – that kind of thing.

In my most frequent recurring vision, I saw a scrawny, dirty, naked peasant hanging by his feet from a tree.

‘That’s the Hanged Man,’ my mother whispered when I told her.

‘I know it’s the Hanged Man!’ I snapped. And I realized straight away that I shouldn’t have told her. Now she’d want to make a big deal out of it.

‘It often signifies inertia – a life held in suspension,’ my mother pointed out.

‘I know what the Hanged Man signifies,’ I assured her.

‘You’ll tell me if you see anything else, won’t you?’ she asked.

I decided at that point that I probably
shouldn’t
tell her if I saw anything else. I knew what she was thinking. I could see the cogs turning. Despite everything that Dr Enderby had told us, she was still thinking that I’d inherited ‘the family gift’. She was thinking that my brain had started to predict the future, or at the very least, the present.

The period of my confinement was also the period in which I developed my insatiable appetite for reading. Reading, it turned out, was one of the only things I
could
do. I couldn’t go anywhere, and I didn’t really like watching TV unless there was a James Bond film on. About the only programme I liked to watch regularly was
The Simpsons
. Sometimes my mother watched it with me after she’d closed the shop. But most of the time, watching TV in my pyjamas made me feel like an invalid.

Reading, on the other hand, never made me feel like an invalid. And I found that the quiet concentration required actually helped to reduce the number of daily seizures. It put me in a state of mind that was good for me.

After I’d read through my book on epilepsy a few times, I had my mother order some more of the same from the mobile library, along with an introductory guide to the brain and neurology, called
The Brain for Dummies
. I also read and re-read the book on meteors and meteorites that Dr Weir had sent me. It was by a man called Martin Beech who lived in Wiltshire, right next door to Somerset. My favourite chapter was the one in which Mr Beech discussed the probability of getting directly struck by a meteor heavier than one gram, which, if you lived for one hundred years, was about one in two billion. Mr Beech (who had written his book before the Woods Impactor) said that although there had been several near misses, there was only one well-documented case of a person being seriously injured by a meteor strike. The person in question was Mrs Annie Hodges of Sylacauga, Alabama, USA, who was struck in the stomach by a four-kilogram meteor on 28 November 1954. She was reposing on her couch at the time. Her meteor, like mine, burst through the roof, but she wasn’t so badly injured on account of the fact that the stomach can take a blow better than the head.

Martin Beech included a photo of Mrs Hodges in his book. The photo showed her standing below the hole in her ceiling with the Mayor of Sylacauga and the Chief of Police. The mayor and the Chief of Police are smiling at the camera, but Mrs Hodges is not. She’s looking very intensely at her four-kilogram stony meteorite, which she’s holding in both her hands. She looks kind of pissed off.

This is what Martin Beech wrote about Mrs Hodges and her meteor injury: ‘This story reminds us that even very low-probability events can, and indeed do, occur.’

I liked that sentence a lot. I underlined it in black biro.

I didn’t just read about brains and meteors, though – my interests were slightly wider than that. I also read
Alice in Wonderland
and
Through the Looking Glass
. (My epilepsy book said that Lewis Carroll also had temporal lobe epilepsy, which was probably one of the reasons he had such a strange imagination.) Then, after I’d finished with Lewis Carroll, I started to read a lot more fantasy books, most of which Sam lent me. I read
The Hobbit
twice. Then I read
The Lord of the Rings
twice. Then I read
His Dark Materials
twice. I read all these books twice because I liked them so much that as soon as I’d finished them, I immediately wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. When I look back at the year I spent in the box room, I think these were the books that stopped me from feeling sorry for myself and got me to thinking that, on the whole, my life wasn’t so terrible. When I read these books, I no longer felt like I was confined to a very tiny world. I no longer felt housebound and bedbound. Really, I told myself, I was just
brain
bound, and this was not such a sorry state of affairs. My brain, with a little help from other people’s brains, could take me to some pretty interesting places, and create all kinds of wonderful things. Despite its faults, my brain, I decided, was not the worst place in the world to be.

My correspondence with Dr Weir started after I was released from hospital and has continued through to the present day. I enclose now carbon copies of the letter I sent from the box room (2005) and the reply I received.

Dear Dr Weir,

Thank you for my Christmas card. Jupiter is a very pretty planet, but not quite as pretty as Earth. I was very surprised to hear that the Great Red Spot is three times bigger than the whole Earth. That must be a very impressive storm. Jupiter is even more massive than I thought. If you have any more photos of the planets, I’d like to see them very much. Usually I’d Google them, but unfortunately I don’t have access to the internet at the moment.

I’m sorry I haven’t written to thank you sooner, but I have been suffering from quite a lot of epileptic fits. In case you don’t know, an epileptic fit is where the electricity in your brain gets overactive and causes convulsions and hallucinations, et cetera. I was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) just after Christmas when I fell unconscious in the kitchen. I think I’m starting to get better now, though. Dr Enderby, my neurologist, is very nice. He prescribed me some carbamazepine, which is an anti-epileptic drug. It used to make me feel very tired and sick, but now that I’ve got used to it, it’s not so bad.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to go to school for many months because my fits have been too frequent and severe. Dr Enderby says that stress is one of my main triggers at the moment, but there are things I can learn to help with this. The good thing about being off school is that at least I’ve been able to do lots of reading. I’ve read Martin Beech’s meteorite book at least five times, and also lots of books about the brain. Dr Enderby says that it’s good for me to know about my condition and I’ve enjoyed learning about my temporal lobes and neurons and synapses, et cetera. I never realized the brain was so complicated. Dr Enderby told me it’s the most complicated collection of atoms in the known universe. That blew me away!!! I think when I grow up, I might like to be a neurologist, unless I decide to be an astrophysicist instead.

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