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Finding Charlotte

 

It was Freshers’ Fair, and Emily was wandering round on her own. She stopped at the Science Society stall, which advertised its presence with a huge black and white photo of Albert Einstein poking out his tongue. In multicoloured lettering across the bottom was the caption, ‘SciSoc: not as boring as you think’. The boy sitting behind the trestle table wore John Lennon glasses and a Metallica T-shirt. He looked about as bored as it was possible to be.

‘Want to join?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, why not?’ Emily replied. She handed over her student union card.

‘Emily Brownlee,’ the boy said, reading from the card. He looked up, suddenly interested. ‘Do you have an older sister?’

Emily’s heart jumped. ‘You knew Charlotte?’

The boy handed back the student union card. ‘I’m Dan,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if Charlotte mentioned me.’

‘Of course she did,’ said Emily.

Dan picked up a SciSoc leaflet and scribbled something on the back. ‘I finish at five. Come and see me then.’

*

Dan’s room was on the seventh floor of one of the tower blocks on campus. A lard-faced stick insect of a boy let Emily into the flat. He indicated with a flick of his green Mohican towards the end of the corridor.

Three minutes later Emily was sitting in Dan’s armchair, trying not to wince as she sipped a mug of sugarless tea. Dan was perched on the edge of the bed, poking at a rip in his jeans.

‘It was the morning after the May ball,’ he said. ‘My mate Dave wasn’t in a fit state to walk home on his own, so Andy and I volunteered to help him. Charlotte said she’d meet me back at the flat. I didn’t think…’ His voice trailed off.

Emily was trying to think of the right words to fill the silence when Dan saved her the trouble.

‘I think I know what happened to her,’ he said.

Emily put down the mug of tea and leant forward.

‘When I met Charlotte I was working on a teleportation device, like the transporters in Star Trek. I’d managed to teleport a paperclip, but I was having problems with anything bigger; things would disappear at one end and wouldn’t reappear at the other. Charlotte was always pestering me to let her try it out, but I wouldn’t. A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning under the bed when I found one of the earrings Charlotte was wearing on the night of the May ball. She must have come back here before she went missing. She’d had a few drinks. She wouldn’t have been thinking straight. What if she tried to use the transporter?’

‘Can I see it?’ asked Emily.

Dan opened up the wardrobe. On one side was a haphazard pile of clothes. The other side was empty apart from three halogen spotlights screwed into the ceiling of the wardrobe, and a large brass switch at about shoulder height.

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ said Emily.

‘No, it’s for real all right,’ said Dan, closing the wardrobe door. ‘This is only half of it; the transmitter. The receiver’s in the shower cubicle.’

‘Any chance of some sugar in this?’ asked Emily, holding out her mug.

While Dan was in the kitchen, Emily opened the wardrobe door and flicked the brass switch. There was a low, throbbing hum and the lights in Dan’s room dimmed. Emily stepped inside.

*

Emily found herself in Grandma’s back garden on a warm and sunny afternoon in summer. The house had burned down years ago, and Grandma had spent the rest of her life in a rest home, but here were the house and garden, exactly as Emily remembered them. When she and Charlotte were little they used to spend every Saturday with Grandma while Mum worked an extra shift at the hospital. In the warmer months the girls loved spending time in the garden. Sometimes they’d help with the weeding, water the tomatoes, or plant snapdragons and sweet peas in their own little corner of the garden, but most of the time they’d simply play.

Something was moving near the house, so Emily decided to go and investigate. The next thing she knew she was looking in through the kitchen window without any knowledge of how she’d got there. She looked down. She could see her own body, but she could also see through it to the paving slabs below. She felt a wave of nausea.

‘Emily?’

Emily turned round. Standing in front of her, hands on hips, was a Charlotte-shaped apparition, wearing a strapless ball gown and a frown.

‘You’re an idiot!’ said Charlotte.

‘You’re alive,’ said Emily. The tears began to flow.

Charlotte softened her expression. ‘I would give you a hug, but I can’t touch anything. It’s good to see you,’ she added.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Emily.

‘I’m in two places at once.’

Emily looked blank.

Charlotte continued. ‘When I first arrived, I thought this place was all there was, but then after a while, I started to hear a noise which didn’t belong here – like waves breaking on the shore. So I concentrated really hard, and found I was able to ‘be’ in the place the noise was coming from.’

‘What place?’ asked Emily.

‘I don’t know. It’s totally dark – even with my eyes open I can’t see anything.’

‘Sounds freaky.’

‘Actually, it’s kind of relaxing,’ said Charlotte.

Emily peered through the kitchen window. ‘Is Grandma here? Have you seen her?’

‘No,’ said Charlotte. ‘She must be out.’

‘But she’s bound to come home some time.’

Some time, yes,’ said Charlotte, ‘But not this time. We’re in a time loop. The sun starts pretty much overhead, then moves over that way, and then there’s this sudden jump in all the shadows and the sun’s back overhead again.’

‘If Grandma’s out she’s probably down the shops,’ said Emily. ‘We could -’

‘Nope,’ said Charlotte. ‘Can’t get through the gate. I’ve tried. Can’t get inside the house, either. I can’t touch things properly, but I can’t pass through them, either. We’re stuck here.’

‘Maybe not,’ replied Emily. ‘If you’re in two places at once, then I’m probably in two places at once as well.’

‘I guess,’ said Charlotte.

‘Which means we’re both half a person. If we could find some way of joining together we might become one whole person. Maybe then we’d be able to touch things.’

*

I’m hungry, thought Charlotte.

That was a clever idea of mine, wasn’t it? thought the part of her that was Emily.

It worked, and I’m really grateful, but right now I need something to eat, thought Charlotte.

Spaghetti hoops! thought Emily and Charlotte together.

Walking was a real effort, but Charlotte thought it would probably get easier once she’d had a bit more practice. Grandma’s back door key was under the mat as usual. Manipulating the key in the lock was tricky, but eventually she got the door open and stepped into the kitchen.

What was that smell? Never mind, there’d be time to deal with that later. Food first. Grandma had a gas stove, and she kept the matches on the top shelf of the pantry, which had been out of Charlotte’s reach when she was little, but not now. At the back of the middle shelf she found a tin of spaghetti hoops. She had a long struggle with a can opener to get it open.

What was that smell? She almost had it now. It was on the tip of her tongue. This two minds thing was going to take a bit of getting used to.

She lit a match.

Still the smell. It was something you couldn’t see. It had no smell of its own, so they added an artificial odour to it. Ah yes, that was it. Gas.

*

When Charlotte and Emily’s grandmother got back from the shops an enormous cloud of black smoke was hanging over the street and three fire engines were pumping foam on the charred remains of her home.

*

After a while the ringing in Emily’s ears subsided, and was replaced by a new sound: a rhythmic swishing noise. She was floating in a warm liquid. She wasn’t breathing, but this wasn’t a problem, because she didn’t feel like she needed to.

A thought began to form. Is this the ‘other place’?

Yes, thought the part of her that used to be Charlotte.

Emily opened her eyes. Darkness. She kicked with her arms and legs. She was encased in a rubbery cocoon. Her heart started racing.

Calm down, there’s no need to panic, soothed Charlotte’s mind.

But Emily was already panicking. She knew where they were.

And then the contractions started.

 

(C) Helen Lewis 2009


Renaissance Man

 

Giovanni Gabbiano was a true Renaissance man. Not that he ever used that term to describe himself – he’d never heard of it. Orphaned at the age of two, Giovanni was brought up by his paternal grandparents, who ran an inn in a small town on the road between Siena and Florence.

Little Giovanni’s mind was like a sponge. When he was just three years old he taught himself to draw, and he began carrying a sketchbook around with him wherever he went, spending hours every day creating meticulous pencil sketches of anything that interested him. He was particularly fascinated by birds, bees and butterflies – anything that flew.

By the age of four he had taught himself to read. He started reading widely; whatever he could lay his hands on. By the time he was ten he had read all the classic works of philosophy in the original Greek and Latin. Giovanni’s Great Uncle Luigi was the village blacksmith, and as a teenager Giovanni spent countless hours tinkering in the forge, making contraptions out of metal. In his sketchbook he had begun drawing inventions; strange machines that sprung up from the fertile field of his imagination.

When Giovanni was nineteen Great Uncle Luigi died and left him his inheritance, and Giovanni at last had the opportunity to follow his dream, which was to move to a great city of culture and learning where he could pursue his studies in earnest.

Giovanni travelled to Florence and, by virtue of a quiet self-confidence combined with a dogged persistence, managed to get an interview at the university. Naturally, he took his sketchbook along to the interview.

*

The interviewer flipped through Giovanni’s sketchbook and stopped about three quarters of the way through.

‘This would appear to be a drawing of some sort of flying machine.’

‘That is correct.’

‘Hmmm…’

‘What do you think?’

‘I don’t know what to think.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m not entirely sure you’re living in the right century.’

‘I realise some of my ideas are a bit of ahead of their time, but if one takes an open-minded approach…’

‘Ahead of their time?’

‘I’m known back home as a savant.’

‘Are you sure it’s not idiot savant?’ asked the interviewer, putting particular emphasis on the word idiot.

‘Are you trying to tell me you’re not impressed by my work?’

‘Mr Gabbiano, if you had lived six hundred years ago your work may have been impressive, but this is the twenty-first century, not the fifteenth. Good day.’

 

(c) Helen Lewis 2014


Professor Itty’s Last Lecture

 

Professor Dagmar Itty mopped his brow

And squinted at his notes – a cryptic scrawl.

He cleared his throat and in a nervous voice

Addressed the overflowing lecture hall.

 

‘This morning’s talk should really be about

Cycloidal drives and epicyclic gears,

But since I’ll be retiring Friday week

I thought I’d stray off topic.’ (Raucous cheers)

 

‘I’ve been a fellow here since eighty-nine.

The day that I arrived I made a vow

To spend my leisure time indulging in

A project I’ve kept secret – until now.’

 

The students all leant forward in their seats.

Professor Itty’s hobby was the buzz,

A subject of debate; a hundred bets

Were placed this week alone on what it was.

 

‘So let me share with you,’ proclaimed the Prof,

‘This formula I’ve found; it’s very neat,

Although you’d be advised to stand well back,

Because it does produce a bit of heat.’

 

I tried to follow everything he did

But it was so involved I soon lost track.

I looked around at everybody else;

Like me, their eyes were glazed, their jaws were slack.

 

Then suddenly a blinding flash of light,

A sonic boom, a muffled cry of ‘Duck!’

And when I stood back up the sight I saw

Punched out my breath and left me thunderstruck.

 

A hundred thousand glowing points of light

Hung silently about us in the hall

Each one a slightly different shape and size –

Some spiral, some elliptical, but all

 

Rotated slowly as they moved apart.

‘Each one’s a galaxy,’ explained the Prof.

‘I’ve just designed a whole new universe,

And now I need some serious time off.’

 

© Helen Lewis 2010


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