Jamie sat alone at the edge of the dance floor and wondered how long it would be until Nigel arrived. The band had been upping the tempo as the night wore on, keeping pace with the room’s rising alcohol level, and even the dance-shy souls were shaking their limbs by the speakers. Jamie closed his eyes and the room pulled into focus. To the left, his uncle was regurgitating insights from the morning’s sports pages; Tom, one of his distant relations, was attempting to seduce a girl with jokes about statutory rape; and somewhere near the bar his sister was giggling uncontrollably. A throat was cleared in front of him, and he opened his eyes.
There, wearing the same old double-breasted suit as always, was Nigel. Jamie looked up at his shapeless face, with its doughy peaks and sallow creases. His skin was so speckled and drawn it looked photocopied.
‘Hullo James,’ said Nigel. A half-chewed canapé churned in his parted lips. ‘Good spread.’ He flicked a tartlet into his mouth and glanced at the low tables. ‘Nice venue.’
‘It’s alright,’ Jamie said. He glanced at his watch. Nigel had said he would arrive before midnight.
‘The band are pretty good.’ Nigel’s knee began to jostle in time with the snare. ‘That’s real music, that. Course you’re in to all that mindless drug music. Umph umph umph. Mind if I sit down? I’ll just take that chair. Or is it a stool? I never can tell with this modern shit.’ Nigel slumped down with a sigh. ‘Been chasing the girls much? I’d say you’re not prohibitively ugly.’
‘So where are we going?’ Jamie asked.
‘Who said I was taking you anywhere?’
‘I just…,’ Jamie began, looking puzzled. ‘You want to talk? No weirdness?’
‘An honest-to-goodness chat. Is that too much to ask?’
Earlier that year, without ceremony, Jamie had passed into his twentieth year, but when he frowned he looked double that age. His forehead bunched at the bridge of his nose, and there was weariness in the downturned mouth. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask you something,’ he said. ‘About the presents.’ He saw the shrouded heaps he lugged up to the attic; his mother’s face when yet more packages arrived; the lifts he hitched to car boot sales with suspicious uncles.
‘Ah.’ Nigel shucked up his shirtsleeves and leant back, knocking a glass of wine into an open handbag. ‘What about them?’
‘It’s getting difficult to conjure up plausible explanations. The fuselage from Amelia Earhart’s monoplane. The lost Fabergé eggs… I’m still not sure why you give them to me.’
‘Isn’t it obvious?’ Nigel asked. ‘Hard work deserves a reward.’
Jamie had spent countless hours with Nigel, finessing equations and streamlining data, but he never thought of it as work, exactly. It was more to learn and, through learning, escape. ‘I didn’t ask for any of it,’ he said finally, raising his voice above its habitual mumble.
Nigel leant forward so close that Jamie could see the darker blades in his wintry irises. ‘Out of seven billion people,’ he said, ‘you’re the only one that I talk to. So stop being ungrateful. People who complain about privilege really get on my tits. Especially you, Einstein.’
‘They don’t call me that any more.’
As early as primary school, Jamie’s teachers had described him as ‘borderline gifted’. His grades hovered in the second percentile, he took to differential geometry like a fish to water, and by his sixteenth year he had programmed his own software for solving metre-long equations that gave lesser mathematicians migraines. If his spelling and grammar were slapdash, and if, when it came to sports, he was about as coordinated as a newborn foal (his PE teacher described his attempts to play tennis as ‘the biggest tear-jerker since Gone With the Wind’), then his mental arithmetic, logical reasoning and retentive memory were formidable. He inhaled information, treasured minutiae, and was known to skip parties in favour of quiet nights in with post-graduate tomes.
So it came as a shock to his family when instead of going to Oxbridge or MIT, entering a shadowy branch of the government or number-crunching for a multinational, he took a job ripping ticket stubs at the local multiplex. At nights he spent hours updating a diary so dense with detail (much of it numerical) that its entries read like miniature audits.
‘Well whatever,’ Nigel said. ‘Work it out for yourself. I’m sure you can manage.’
Before Jamie had time to respond, a lizardy man in a wet-look shirt materialised from the crowd. He halted, gawped at Jamie and swaggered over. ‘Well well well, if it isn’t the man himself.’
He was familiar, but only vaguely.
‘Hi,’ Jamie said.
‘Hi? Hi? Get up and act like you mean it. Come on, up you get.’
Jamie stood and felt the man grip, squeeze and pat his back.
‘It’s been what, six months?’
‘I suppose it must have been, yes,’ Jamie said as they sat down.
Nigel brushed crumbs off his lap and said: ‘His name is Beppe. Which isn’t the name he was born with, incidentally.’
‘You must be the proudest little brother on the planet right now,’ the man, Beppe, said. ‘She’s an absolute princess.’
‘Birth name Donald Dutt,’ Nigel continued, ‘which after merciless Disney-related bullying he had deed-polled to Beppe Alcamo. Upped sticks from Broadstairs and reinvented himself as a second-generation Sicilian, which is total bollocks.’
‘I am, Donald,’ said Jamie.
Beppe leant forwards. ‘Sorry?’
‘I am honoured. I’m glad that she’s happy.’ Jamie had the unfortunate habit of sounding sarcastic when being sincere.
‘He’s Aunt Mary’s toyboy,’ said Nigel.
Aunt Mary was a chain-smoking horror-show of a woman, all talons and eye shadow, and she chewed through boyfriends bi-annually. Jamie had never been able to be in her presence for long without developing a twitch in his left eyelid.
‘Is who?’ Beppe asked.
‘Oh, nothing. I just…’
Nigel continued: ‘Sometimes your aunt ties him to the bed with luggage straps and rides him like a jockey on fast-forward. Also he’s armpit-deep in a convoluted tax fraud operation, which, like the name thing, no one here knows anything about.’ Nigel reeled these facts off in an absent monotone, as if reciting a timetable.
‘– or dance,’ Beppe was saying. ‘Strut your stuff. Young lad like you should be dipping your rod like Ghengis Khan.’ His eyes narrowed to inky slits when he smiled.
‘Tell him to piss off,’ Nigel said.
‘I’m feeling a bit worn out, to be honest,’ said Jamie. ‘Under the weather.’ He gestured towards his throat. ‘Got this virus.’
‘Bullshit.’ Beppe gripped Jamie’s arm. He had alarmingly thick thumbs for such a slight man. ‘It’s a party.’
‘Shall we clear out of here?’ Nigel said.
‘No.’ Jamie shook his head. ‘Just give me a minute.’
‘A minute?’ said Beppe. ‘You’ve been sulking in the corner all night. Clamber down off the high horse and enjoy yourself, just this once. Is it a drink you need? Sambuca?’
‘No it’s just –’
‘That studded belt he’s wearing was £4.99 from Primark but he tells everyone it’s vintage Gucci. Sometimes he lies awake at night so –’
‘Stop it, please! Stop it!’
‘– so anxious he can’t get to sleep until dawn. Curious places he has masturbated include: on a coach to Brighton, up a tree in Hyde park, his sister’s bedroom. On the third of January, 1992, he deci–’
‘Nothing,’ Jamie said, his eyes clamped shut. ‘I’m sorry.’
Beppe drained the suddy remains of his pint. He murmured some indistinct swear words, and after peering at Jamie for a while, he vanished into the crowd.
‘Wanker!’ Nigel made the appropriate gesture.
‘I need some air,’ Jamie said.
The velvet curtains and bruise-purple walls made the room feel subterranean, despite being two floors up. Jamie undid the top buttons of his shirt and loosened his tie. A marshy odour was rising up from his groin.
Nigel’s eyes brightened in his overcast face. ‘I know somewhere we can go,’ he said.
The dancefloor shifted in time with the lights. There was Beppe, oozing through a crowd of teenagers as Aunt Mary gazed hawkishly on. Jamie’s sister beamed under a hairdo of Mandelbrotian complexity, the stray train of her pristine dress imprinted with stamping shoes. He imagined how the situation would change if he spontaneously vanished; if anyone would even notice. He arrived at the usual conclusion.
‘Ok,’ he said.
Nigel dusted off his shirt, made a sniffing sound, and said: ‘How about –
– this for a breather?’
They were way, way up over London and falling fast. The earth lay flat beneath them, scattered with embers.
‘Yseh–’ The wind choked Jamie’s words.
Slowly at first, with increasing momentum, the sky and earth traded places. Jamie threw out limbs to steady his pinwheeling fall, until he was prostrate on up-rushing air. He had to squint against the wind.
‘This is the life, James.’ Upside-down, arms crossed, Nigel plummeted alongside. He twisted into a seated position, legs folded neatly. His blazer flickered like insect wings.
‘It’s been a while since we came up here, hasn’t it? At least five years. I’m getting nostalgic.’
‘YOU SAID TALK!’ Jamie’s yells whispered against the wind’s dry roar. ‘JUST TALK!’
‘Well now.’ Nigel chewed off a crescent of nail and watched it bullet up into the star-freckled sky. ‘Isn’t that what we’re doing? Just talking, you and me. I find this very – what’s the word, invigorating. Good for the lungs.’ His nostrils dilated to double their size. ‘That’s the stuff. Clear out the cobwebs.’
Jamie looked this way and that, thinking, in an insanity of desperation, that escape might present itself; but there was nothing between them and the earth but clumps of dissolving cloud. Further off, beyond the city’s lume, the black plains glimmered with cities and lamplit motorways.
Nigel reclined, crossing his legs and using his hands as a pillow. ‘Don’t be offended by this, but you look like you’re about to shit your pants. Enjoy yourself! People pay good money to skydive.’ Falling at this speed, between the domed sky and flat earth, everything shuddered with blur. The horizon trembled as if a pulse was running along it. ‘You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?’
Jamie shook his head.
‘Attaboy.’ Nigel looked down. The city was serenely still, its lights constant, its edges neatly defined. ‘It almost looks intelligible from up here. Quite a place. A lot going on for a young lad such as yourself. A veritable smorgasbord of sensory delights.’
‘I HATE YOU.’
‘That’s not very nice, is it? Think of your mother.’
Far behind Nigel, cresting a coastline of cloud, a plane rose wing-blinking into the night. Jamie wondered what chance there would be of anyone seeing them from this distance; if the pilot would question the briefest blip on the radar.
‘Watch out,’ said Nigel, looking down. ‘We’re about to encounter some atmospheric dist–’
Silence. Nothing but white, depthless haze for a minute or more.
Jamie snapped out of the blankness, his suit leaden with water.
Closer now, blurry with sheeting rain, the city spread like a toy of itself. There were matchstick street lamps and sugar cube homes, and each tower was tall as a thimble. But as he fell and the detail sprouted more detail, and as the abstract blobs of light broke gently apart into buildings and roads, each teeming with specks of motion, the scale became worse than the falling. Roads fanned out from the hub of Elephant & Castle roundabout, traversing the city from Vauxhall to London Bridge, and these roads, in turn, divided and multiplied. The network was vascular, irrepressibly complex. He could see the rooftops clearly now, with their patchworks of vents and aerials, the neon signs and traffic cones, the constellated chewing gum stains. He fell and fell and –
The whisper of traffic and nightlife. Litter lining the seams of curbs. Headlights on fresh rain.
Hair cuts and handbags and fag ends and tarmac and –
‘I’M SORRY I’M SORRY I’M SORRY!’
‘Glad to hear it.’
Jamie collapsed on the floor of a conference room. He tried to focus on the points of colour that swarmed through the carpet’s weave.
‘I’m going to be sick,’ he said.
Nigel, gazing out at the city, shrugged.
‘Be my guest.’
The fluorescent lights created an echo of the room in the window. Laminate panels, several layers of glass, communal desks and identical chairs: each floor in the towers opposite was composed from the same features.
‘You’re going to think I’m a pussy for this,’ said Nigel, ‘but it’s hard not to feel like I’m drowning, sometimes.’ Jamie, still heaving up bile, briefly mewled. ‘I wish I could turn it off, this overload of lives.’ He covered his ears with his palms. ‘It’s like tinnitus.’
Jamie drew his wrist over his mouth and stumbled over to Nigel. The glass deadened all outdoor noise, but the building wasn’t entirely quiet: cleaning staff were roaming through the office behind them, erasing the traces of another day. Jamie looked through his reflection into the tree-softened forecourt.
‘You told me no weirdness,’ he said. ‘This is definitely weirdness.’ He leant against the glass and closed his eyes. ‘I’d appreciate some warning.’
‘I gave you plenty of warning – I sent you a message, as usual.’
Jamie watched the cruciform lights of a plane climb skyward. As the visits became more frequent, less focussed on theory than conversation, Jamie began to sense in Nigel some unspoken need he could hint at but never explain. ‘My shoe fell off,’ he said. ‘Someone is going to see it drop from the sky and have absolutely no idea where it came from. What if it hits somebody?’
‘The unknown quantity,’ Nigel shrugged. ‘The rogue result that skews the graph.’ He slapped Jamie hard on the shoulder. ‘I’m not saying you have to run away or anything. This isn’t a kidnapping.’
Past the offices, beyond the fields of foreshortened roofs, stood darkness so pure it looked empty. Jamie realised again that if he was alive, thinking, feeling, fearing, remembering, then so was everyone. You could analyse a life for centuries, and still never account for each detail, consolidate the parts with the whole. Nigel once described it as a flood, but whenever Jamie attempted to visualise the second-by-second aggregate of all human thought, he pictured the senseless rage of a sandstorm. Peace only came from zooming out instead of in, seeking solace in the pursuit of general rules. If you could locate patterns in chaos, then you could locate meaning.
‘Look at this place,’ Nigel said, ‘this land of sorrow and progress.’ He pressed his forehead to the window. ‘The closer you get, the more of a mess it becomes. Don’t you ever get sick of it?’
Jamie often spent whole afternoons at the train station or in the botanical gardens. He would sketch diagrams and formulas, trying to tease out the rules that underpinned what he observed – the self-organising principles of a bus stop queue, for example, or the centripetal motion of leaves on a windblown pond. It was on one such occasion that Nigel had first appeared, sidling up to Jamie and proclaiming himself impressed with the teenager’s ‘work’. Nigel’s job, in so far as he could explain it in understandable terms, was to develop taxonomies.
‘Sometimes,’ Jamie replied. ‘But it’s all there is.’ He tapped the window and imagined concentric vibrations spreading out through the glass. ‘Can you take me back now? It’s an important day.’
Nigel paced to the conference table. ‘Listen… The others think I’m either insane or incompetent, but I’ve been thinking.
‘I get nervous when you say things like that.’
Nigel, after pausing in thought, looked up at Jamie and narrowed his eyes. ‘If I said that there was an opening, an opportunity to come and work for me full-time. Would you take it?’
The air was spongy with pent-up moisture. It flecked the pavements and windowpanes, and made the street’s odour of petrol and grit so rich you could practically taste it. Jamie looked up at the windows, where chinks in the curtains flickered with limbs.
His dad had given up years ago, but here he was with the others, smoking away in the patio out front. ‘Where have you been?’ He gestured his son to one side.
‘Sorry. Got a phone call. Very important.’
‘Important? This is your sister’s wedding. What could be more important than – how did you get so wet? And that smell.’ He leant forward, sniffed and recoiled. ‘Have you been sick?’ He fixed his son with a champagne-and-cognac gaze.
‘Yes,’ Jamie said. ‘I had too much to drink.’
‘Where’s your shoe?’
He looked down at the grubby sock, from which the tip of a toe poked out.
‘I lost it.’
Usually, after one of Jamie’s inexplicable fuck-ups, his dad would embark on a righteous dirge, but for now he just clicked his tongue and said: ‘Jesus. Go and sort yourself out.’
After washing his face in the downstairs gents, Jamie slipped back upstairs. He checked his watch. It was almost one in the morning: the party would be winding up soon. The lights had been dimmed to their lowest setting and the band, still sweating elaborately, had slowed several gears to a ballad. At the heart of the cleared dancefloor, the newlyweds swayed. They looked delirious, drugged on love.
Jamie slid through the crowd for a closer view, and found himself standing beside Aunt Mary. She gripped his shoulder and stared into his eyes, her own fat and glossy with tears. ‘Don’t they look beautiful?’ she said, and Jamie nodded. His sister was hugging her new husband close, swaying sleepily, and as the crowd started cheering they leant together and kissed. Dozens of cameras flashed at once, and for a second they shone, bled of colour, a radiant white.