Excerpt // The Space Between Time by Charlie Laidlaw
Part One: Thesis
Density parameter of the universe
I have decided, somewhat reluctantly, but after careful consideration and under the influence of strong medication, to begin here:
Yippee! Mummy is taking me to the cinema and has told me that it’s a surprise. This doesn’t really make sense, because if taking me to the cinema is a surprise, why has she told me?
But this is typical Mum; opening her mouth and saying something, then realising that she shouldn’t have said it and wishing that she could un-say it. Even in my short life, I know she’s confused a lot of people – and offended many others. Nothing nasty, but if someone at the shops says what a nice day it is, Mum will often disagree, and I’m old enough to know that you’re not supposed to disagree about the weather.
Even if it’s been pouring with rain for hours, you’re supposed to agree that it’s just a passing shower. It’s not intentional, she simply doesn’t think, then realises she may have been rude, and sometimes goes back into the shop to apologise, or doesn’t go back and then frets that she should have done. Mum spends a lot of time worrying, usually about things that aren’t worth worrying about.
My Mum’s called Caitlin, by the way, although most grown-ups call her Cat. It’s a better name than Dog or Mouse, I suppose, and Mum does look a bit feline with her big eyes and unblinking gaze.
But it is a surprise to be going to the cinema because we almost never go to the cinema, and then only to see cartoons about dogs and cats – and big cats like lions. I keep telling her that I don’t like cartoons but – another Mum habit – she’s rarely listening or, if she is, then the information just wafts around her brain like smoke and quickly gets blown out her ears.
She told me recently that her brain is a bit of a butterfly, as if that neatly explained things, which it didn’t. I’d been telling her something really interesting about frogspawn and she’d been nodding and smiling in – mostly – the right places when the phone rang. It was Dad, who Mum spends most of the time worrying about, and who’s rarely here, but does try to phone from London or New York, or wherever he says he is.
When Dad phones, one of Mum’s feet taps on the floor, faster and faster. We have wooden floors, so it’s like living with a large woodpecker. For some reason, Mum rarely believes that he’s where he says he is.
Mum put down the phone and stared at it with narrowed eyes, as if it had done something naughty, then said bastard very loudly. ‘It’s a term of endearment,’ she told me, ignoring my sceptical expression. ‘Now, what were you telling me about toads?’
That’s also when she told me about the butterfly inside her head, which I also didn’t believe, because butterflies are only colourful insects and even stupider than frogs – and Mum is cleverer than a frog – but it also made a kind of sense. One minute I can be talking to the Mum-butterfly, admiring its plumage; the next I am talking frogspawn to the empty flower on which it had been sitting.
The drive to the cinema from our semi-posh flat in Edinburgh shouldn’t take long. When Dad drives to the cinema it only takes a few minutes. But it’s different with Mum. We drive in silence because she’s stressed and, when agitated, doesn’t say much and, because she’s driving, also doesn’t like to be distracted. It takes all her concentration to keep to our side of the road, change gear, not hit the car in front, and avoid pedestrians legitimately crossing at traffic lights. Consequently, she is driving very slowly.
She also utterly hates driving Dad’s Bentley and always wears dark glasses when she absolutely has no option but to drive it. Her own car is in the garage being repaired for something-or-other. Mum doesn’t like to be thought of as posh or a show-off, even though the Bentley is second-hand and a bit scratched.
She’d prefer not be noticed, and certainly not be stared at in a fancy car. She’d much rather be in the background, hiding in shadows, or baking cakes. She’s rather good at baking cakes but pretty useless at cooking anything else. She also drives like she walks: a sort of uncertain bustle – hence the scratches. She’s either walking – or driving – at full speed, or ambling along like a snail, biting her lip. Other cars often sound their horns at her, which makes her even more nervous, and is sometimes the cause of more scratches.
Dad doesn’t much like her driving the Bentley, which he’s only recently bought and is his pride and joy. Out of the car, she teeters if she wears high heels and sometimes trips over in long dresses. She’s not very co-ordinated, and how she passed her driving test is a matter of bewilderment to Dad.
Apart from being borderline neurotic – not sure which side of the border – she is quite incredibly beautiful. Not catwalk beautiful, because they put stuff from jars on their faces; but flawless beautiful, like a fairy queen in one of the cartoons I don’t like. Tall, long dark hair, wide lips – Dad calls them sensual, whatever that means – and large oval, dark eyes. She also has a perfect figure, according to Dad, who is very proud to show her off in public and sometimes puts a hand on her bottom, to show everyone who her bottom – and the rest of her – is married to.
It’s her saving grace, her beauty. Her absolute redeeming feature, and the only reason – probably – why Dad married her. Even I can’t think of any other reason. Strangely, she’s quite unaware of how attractive she is, and sometimes wonders aloud why men keep staring at her, and then worries about that as well, and then checks herself in a mirror to make sure that there isn’t bird poo on her head.
As far as I know, she’s always been kind and unfailingly faithful to Dad, always saying nice things about him – at least in public – and smiling sweetly, making men blush and stammer and their wives look uncomfortable. She’s always, always, been kind and loving to me and always kisses me goodnight and tells me that she loves me as if she actually means it.
I adore her utterly, although she can also be a bit dim, even by my standards. Once, we had guests around for an early evening drink, which is why I wasn’t in bed. Someone asked what her father did for a living, and she said that he was a banker. ‘Oh, is he high up?’ this man asked. ‘Yes, he works on the fifth floor,’ she replied to much laughter. Everyone thought she’d made a joke, but Mum doesn’t do jokes. But maybe I’m being unkind. Maybe it was a joke.
I can’t remember either her banker father or mother: they didn’t approve of Dad, and didn’t go to the small registry office marriage. They never came to visit us, and Mum only rarely visited them, usually alone. I only have one picture of Mum’s parents, taken on a holiday somewhere that could have been Blackpool or Barbados – but probably Blackpool. They’re standing on a beach, wearing grey cardigans, and Mum and her little sister Fran are standing below them, in their shadow. The parents, my grandparents, loom over them, trying to look happy. The children are wearing swimsuits and are also trying to look happy, but with less effort.
It’s an unsettling photograph, hinting at something that I can’t discern but am too young to ask about. Was it thwarted ambition, still only working on the second floor, or something more? Mum doesn’t much talk about her parents and I suspect that they didn’t get on, probably because of Dad. Shortly afterwards, they were both killed in a car accident, and Dad didn’t bother going to the funeral.
All I know about them is that they loved reading, according to Mum. Never without a book in their hands! she would say brightly, as if it was the best thing she could say about them, and which is maybe what they were doing when their car collided with a mobile library.
We surprisingly arrive at the cinema in one piece, but it takes ages to find a parking space, and Mum is hopeless at parking. She’s bad enough in her own small car and the Bentley is simply huge in comparison. We drive past several spaces large enough before Mum finds one big enough for a bus.
‘It’s like trying to park a fucking battleship,’ she remarks as we reverse into the space for about the millionth time, with other cars honking and the Bentley no doubt picking up a few more scratches.
I don’t say anything in reply because only last week on TV I’d seen a real battleship being parked, and it looked quite easy. I can feel nervous tension beaming from her; it’s like sitting next to a neurotic radiator.
We hurry away from the Bentley, without Mum checking to see if we are parked legally, and she is finally able to take off her sunglasses. ‘That’s better,’ she remarks, when we’re far enough away from the car to not to be associated with it. ‘Driving is so stressful.’
Dad, on the other hand, flings the car around bends, one hand vaguely on the steering wheel, and seemingly not looking where we’re going. It doesn’t look stressful when Dad’s driving. It’s the opposite of stressful, whatever that is.
Mum takes my hand in hers, which is still shaking, and we cross the street to the cinema. Of course, we’re now late, having spent hours parking the battleship, and she’s now having to deal with another source of nervous tension. She hates being late. If she has to go to meetings, which she sometimes does, she invariably arrives hours early and then has to sit in her car. Mum’s comfort zone could only accommodate a hamster.
We bustle into the cinema, Mum tripping slightly on a loose paving stone outside, and the cashier behind the cinema desk looks doubtfully from my mother to me and suggests in a low voice that, perhaps, the film might not be suitable for someone so young. Mum then mouths something in return which I don’t hear because I’m looking suspiciously at the cinema posters to see if we’re going to see yet another cartoon about dogs and cats or talking penguins. I don’t know why I don’t like cartoons because everybody else my age seems to like them.
It’s always exciting going into the auditorium; the squeals and yabbering of other kids, the slurps of soft drinks and the low crunch of popcorn; the dimmed lighting and tiered seating. This time I’m surprised because there is only a reverential hush, and then I realise that everybody else is an adult. I am about to see a grown-up film! Another yippee! The film is called The Octagon Project. I have no idea what an octagon is, and Mum doesn’t know either, which doesn’t surprise me.
Almost immediately, the lights fade completely and for a few moments we’re in complete darkness. I can barely control my excitement and am bouncing in my seat. The woman next to me gives me a dirty look. She’s not bouncing in her seat which, I suppose, is one of the main differences between children and adults.
The film starts with a man and woman sitting outside a Paris café, drinking coffee, and talking about a shipment of arms that are about to be delivered to a local mobster. I have no idea why someone would want a shipment of just arms, when they could have a shipment of arms and legs. I don’t bother to ask Mum because she’s biting her lip, which is another sign of inner turmoil. She’s clutching tight to her handbag, as if frightened that the local mobster might actually be in the cinema.
MAN: We want the money transferred to Zurich. Bearer bonds only.
ME [thinking]: Barer bonds. Sounds rude!
MAN: In four days’ time. The shipment will then be made available to you through the usual channels.
The man lights a cigarette and leans back in his seat. In the background is a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower – which is why I know they’re in Paris. Now that they’ve finished talking nonsense, I wait for them to say something that I can actually understand.
MAN: There is also the small matter of the Octagon Project.
I lean forward in my seat. I’m about to discover what this rubbish film is actually about.
WOMAN: The project is an inter-government network of intelligence agencies, with a remit to prevent the illegal transfer of weapons without end-user certificates from one jurisdiction to another. You know this.
I lean back in my seat. I have learned absolutely nothing, and sigh loudly.
MAN: Our organisation is merely concerned that information might have leaked, and that some of our activities may therefore have been compromised.
I am beginning to feel my eyelids close. This is absolutely the worst film I have ever seen. I am also beginning to wish we had come to see a cartoon, even with improbable talking animals.
Then the scene changes. The man is walking into a hotel. He picks up his key at reception and takes the lift to the fifth floor – I see which button he presses. He opens the door to his bedroom, throws his room key onto the bed, opens a small cupboard at floor level, and takes out a very small bottle. He opens the bottle and pours the liquid into a glass. He takes the glass to his large bedroom window, with a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower. I therefore know that he’s still in Paris.
There is a knock at the door and the man turns, crosses the room, and opens the door.
I gasp. ‘It’s Daddy!’
A few people around us look round. One tut-tuts. Even through the cinema is mostly in darkness, I can see that Mum has conjured sunglasses onto her nose.
MAN: Haven’t seen you in a while, Jim. How are you?
DADDY: Just fine and dandy, Gus.
Dad is speaking American, and his hair is slicked back. He’s wearing a grey suit. He moves into the room and lights a cigarette. Mum tut-tuts.
MAN: You want a drink, buddy?
DADDY: Sure thing. Whisky, straight up.
The man crosses to the floor-level cupboard and lifts out another small bottle. When he turns round, Dad is holding a gun with a silencer. I know about silencers; I saw a film on TV.
DADDY: But first I want information.
MAN: I thought as much. And if I give you information, do you still intend to kill me?
‘Mum, is Daddy going to kill that man?’
More murmurs of disapproval from around us.
‘No, of course not, Emma,’ says Mum in a very low voice. I don’t know how she can possibly see the film in her sunglasses.
DADDY: That depends on the information.
MAN: I see. But I may not have the information you want. And I suspect you’ll kill me anyway.
DADDY: Then let’s start with the Octagon Project. Tell me what you know.
MAN: I don’t know nothing.
DADDY: That’s real disappointing, buddy.
MAN: Instead, I’ll give you what I know. He indicates a briefcase on the bed. Daddy nods. The man goes to the bed and opens the briefcase. The camera angle allows us to see that he’s taken out a gun and, quick as flash, he’s turned and shot Dad twice in the chest. Dad slumps to the floor. His gun falls from his hand.
‘HE’S KILLED DADDY!’ I scream and burst into tears. The murmurs around us have now become a chorus and an usherette appears and says that we’ll have to leave. I’m still crying loudly as I lead Mum down the stairs to the exit. Walking down stairs in the dark while wearing sunglasses can’t be easy.
Of course, I already knew that Dad was an actor. I’d been taken to see him at the Dundee rep, in a play that my parents thought might be suitable. (It wasn’t). But I’d always thought that stage actors were different creatures to film actors. He’d played at several theatres around the country. I knew that too. But in a theatre, you know that the people on stage are play-acting. In film, it seems so real. So it felt like Daddy had been killed. That’s why it was such a shock.
When we were outside the cinema, I tell her that she should have said something. I am still sobbing.
‘I thought it would be a surprise.’
‘But not a very nice one.’
We now have the rigmarole of remembering where she’s parked the car (in a bus stop), peeling the parking ticket from the Bentley’s windscreen and getting the car from its parking space, watched angrily by several people waiting at the bus stop (for a bus, not a Bentley). This takes some time, before Mum realises that she’s still wearing sunglasses and it’s getting dark. With a sigh she takes them off.
‘Not all surprises are nice, sweetie.’
‘I just don’t like bad surprises,’ I say back to her. I’m feeling a bit angry now. She could have told me that Dad was going to be killed. I would have expected it, and not been shocked, and we could have seen the rest of the film. Or maybe not. Without Daddy in the rest of it, it probably wasn’t worth watching.
‘Is Daddy famous now?’ I ask.
My sobs have subsided, but there is still a knot of anger and panic in my stomach, which is also rumbling. Mum hadn’t had time to buy me popcorn, which she mostly always does.
‘Not yet, Emma.’
‘Did the film people give him a lot of money?’
Mum taps the Bentley’s steering wheel with one manicured finger. ‘Enough to buy this fucking thing.’
She inches the battleship from its moorings, engages Full Steam Ahead, and we bustle off home. I have seen the worst film in the history of films – well, a bit of it – seen my father killed, and nearly had several car accidents.
It hasn’t been a good day.
© The Space Between Time Charlie Laidlaw Accent Press Ltd.
Charlie Laidlaw teaches creative writing and lives in East Lothian. He is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and was previously a national newspaper journalist and defence intelligence analyst. He has lived in London and Edinburgh and is married with two children. His other novels are The Things We Learn When We’re Dead and Love Potions and Other Calamities.