The trees had been reconstructed to their original shapes. Amanda could see the joints and fittings, deliberately exposed, as well as the steel pins holding them together with sap leaking from the wounds, giving off a pulpy scent. They were maples and planes, limes and oaks, all cut apart and jigsawed together again with integrity—nothing missing, nothing mixed. Their leaves hung in intricate tessellations like the paper snowflakes she had scissored as a little girl and taped to her bedroom window. The branches held sparrows whose feathers had been reattached. A stream ran in serrations along the floor with its cascades sieved to geometric patterns, the weeds along its banks fashioned wildly, the stones manufactured to a natural state, and though it all seemed harmless at first, surreal and trippy, as Amanda made her way through it amongst the murmurs of others attending the exhibition, none of whom she knew, she felt increasingly unsettled, as if nothing could escape becoming like this.
She came round a bend and halted at the pixilated wash of something blocking her way—a wall or barrier with shifting irregular forms. As she stood back from the gleaming shape it seemed to match her movement. She leaned in more closely to find herself duplicated, fractals of Amanda Nigh within larger likenesses whose composition seemed misaligned. It wasn’t quite a fun house mirror but there was something grotesque about the distortions. She stepped back again and looked around. There was nowhere else to go. She had heard people exiting ahead of her, the acoustics of another room, but she didn’t twig it until she happened to see a pair of black hinges hovering in space. And then a doorknob. She was about to reach for it when she heard a couple of other visitors come up behind her. They had been in tandem throughout the exhibition, overtaking each other repeatedly—an older woman with a baggy pullover and overbright lipstick and deep claws at the corners of her eyes, her partner suited, bald, fashionably long-bearded. Amanda wouldn’t have matched them in a million years but they were obviously an item. They marveled at the flecked optics for a moment.
‘Ah,’ the man said, as if they had come to the end of a scavenger hunt, ‘the doors of perception.’ He reached out and opened it, standing aside to let both women pass.
‘But there’s only one door,’ Amanda said. ‘Not two.’
He dipped his head in wry agreement. ‘Exactly.’
They came out to the sort of reception Amanda had expected at the outset instead of the cold open of the exhibition itself. There were a few dozen people clustered here and there, some servers offering drinks and hors d’oeuvres. She took a glass of white wine to steady herself. Contemporary art was very occasionally beautiful, more often boring, or else interesting in a strictly clinical way, but this one, Mysterium Cosmographicum, had given her the sort of hairline fractures she associated with a nightmare that lingered well into the waking day. The normal world was a relief. Of course she was also mucking through the low end of her cycle, the usual twinge in her back and then cramps tapering off with some messy visits to the toilet while simultaneously trying to get a reasonable amount of work done. She had skipped the gym. For the one billionth time she wondered how women coped in ancient days, if allowance was given for what amounted to a semi-serious illness each month, at least in her case—and her line of work wasn’t even remotely close to manual labour. She had posted a tactful lament to this effect on Well Nigh Impossible rather than Nulterior Motives, its antimatter twin, and she should have been more upbeat about the likes she was earning between the two blogs, a happy synergy, but instead she felt overly sweaty and dull in the face. The wine wasn’t helping. She grabbed a wafer topped with salmon off a tray as it passed. That was dinner, thanks.
As the crowd shifted she spotted Zach with a broad-shouldered man she presumed was Andrej, his new boyfriend as well as the exhibition’s artist. She made her way over to them. Zach brightened at her approach and, after giving her a kiss on either cheek, introduced her to Andrej who took her hand in both of his and welcomed her in heavily accented English.
‘You survive the exhibition without injury,’ he said, ‘though not without insult.’ He watched her reaction. ‘I speak playfully, of course.’
‘That’s good, because I was playfully insulted. And upset.’
He nodded in gratitude. He wore glasses with thin rectangular frames and a single stud in his ear, his expression struggling with both pleasure and anxiety, it seemed to her, confirming Zach’s claim that he disliked personal attention. His shoulders had bulk but otherwise tapered down quickly to a slim waist and the sort of leopard physique that Zach usually liked in men. He seemed to be the only one who wasn’t drinking anything.
‘That’s him,’ Zach said suddenly, nudging Andrej and jutting his chin at someone across the room. ‘That’s Goldfinger.’
Andrej squinted. ‘How do you know such things?’
‘Honey, I know. Remember that photo of him at his house in Chipping Campden? The one with the Picasso sculpture?’
‘He was small in that image. The face, tiny.’
‘I told you he was coming. Can’t you smell the money? Come on, we’re introducing ourselves. Excuse us, Mandi, but we’re off to see the wizard.’
She wished them good luck as Zach tugged him off. Sipping her wine, she crooked a leg behind the other and glanced down at her thick heels. This was her most pedestrian option, given the distance between HocusLocus and this gallery in Fitzrovia which she had found, or rather her phone had guided her to, a few blocks behind the retail anatomy of Oxford Street. She was streamlined this evening—her handbag lightweight, her hair drawn back and held with a clip, nothing fancy, because otherwise she would have chopped it off with a cleaver such was her attitude, plus her black jeans and a cream-coloured blouse from one of the clearance racks in Knightsbridge, not entirely convinced she was thin enough to pull it off, and although she knew it was supposed to be snug at the ribs and waist she couldn’t help tugging at it with her free hand. It had felt like a mistake by the time she was on the DLR that morning when of course it was too late to turn back. This was in keeping with her whole week. The items tagged for Zinger, her main platform, didn’t have that organic buzz anymore and she was ramping hard to compensate. You could see the steroids in her sentences. Did anyone notice? Mostly they were dealing with Spring Fever, a virus that had infected social media over the weekend, deleting proxies and surrogates, adjusting filters and privacy settings, reversing obligatory thumbs of approval, turning fake smiles upside-down, and replacing pseudonyms with legal names alongside photos culled from driving licenses and passports. It struck randomly—or selectively, according to certain reports—at some users while leaving others untouched, and though it was first identified in Australia, where it was named accordingly, further analysis revealed data signatures from China, India, Japan, Russia, Britain, and the United States in a series of mutating codes that overwrote encryptions and tunnelled through firewalls with such spooky finesse that some data engineers doubted it was a virus at all. Artificial Intelligence had arrived, they said, but instead of launching nuclear missiles or solving cold fusion it was performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. If nothing else, it seemed to explain why nothing even remotely playable was happening through her dating profile, though maybe she was too fussy and possibly also her aesthetics were pitched too realistically.
Another tray appeared in front of her and she took a hunk of goat’s cheese along with more salmon. She scanned the crowd. Nobody she knew. Normally she’d escape into her phone for a few minutes, but as all electronics were prohibited in the exhibition she was unarmed. Her wine glass was empty. She could reasonably go now but she had checked her coat in some antechamber when she arrived and the prospect of going back through that altered zone wasn’t appealing. She needed time to absorb it. Time to shake it off. The fractured trees, the replumed birds, the sawtoothed stream.
‘We’re cutting into the nerves of reality like medieval surgeons,’ said a male voice behind her.
She turned. He was talking into his phone and holding an empty glass, swaying amiably as he spoke. He met her eye and flicked a polite smile.
‘Right then,’ he said. ‘Cheers.’
He slid the phone into his pocket. ‘Forgive the manifesto, but someone wanted a sentence from me.’
His eyes were blue enough to suggest tinted contact lenses, his nose flared widely but not unattractively, his head shaved on the sides. It gestalted with his black turtleneck to suggest he might be gay, or perhaps not, but at any rate somewhere in the middle of the continuum, his style and substance all rolled together for better and for worse. There was a suggestion of age in his face. Mid-thirties, she guessed.
She nodded at the pocket where had stashed his phone. ‘You smuggled that in?’
‘I’m afraid so. Inadvertently.’ He paused for an instant and checked the room. ‘You know I once stole a packet of double-A batteries from a supermarket by accident? I was at the till with my hands full, so I dropped it into my shirt pocket for a moment. An hour later I discovered them at home.’ He spread his hands. ‘A smuggler and a thief.’
Just then a server passed with more wine. The man traded his empty glass for a full one. Amanda did the same.
‘What did you think of it?’ he asked. He kept his eyes on her as he sipped, his eyes raised slightly.
The glass was fresh and cool in her hand and she resisted an urge to press it against her cheek. ‘Disturbing,’ she said. ‘And real. In a terribly good way.’
He watched her expectantly, as if she was just getting started when in fact she was finished.
She realised she was tugging at her blouse again and forced herself to stop. ‘I’m guessing you’re an art critic.’
‘I write about art. And you?’
‘I write about nearly everything except art.’
He eased a smile at her. ‘Now I’m curious.’
She told him about HocusLocus and Zinger in particular, realising as she spoke how dodgy it must have sounded to him—recycling frivolous news items and other bits of debris selected solely by their viral potential, some of which might possibly have been his, she reckoned, but she was stumbling along, leaving phrases incomplete, backpedalling and half-correcting herself with changes tracked in multicoloured tags. She could see his eyes draining as she talked, his attention slipping to other regions of the room. Could she swipe all this and start over? She was about to apologise for nattering on when he perked a finger at someone in the distance and, smiling suddenly, excused himself.
As he slid off behind her she resisted an urge to turn and have a look at his rescuer. It didn’t matter. She was finished with the day. Or rather it was finished with her. She set down her wine glass and made her way back through the exhibition as if it were the duty-free gauntlet at the airport with her flight boarding. She popped back out at the entry hall and retrieved her coat from the rack. She checked her phone. Amongst the alerts and pushes and status updates were multiple texts from her sister Katy. Bloody hell. No doubt her latest boyfriend was off which meant she wanted to bleat to a captive audience and piggyback onto Amanda’s social life. Despite all sympathy Amanda knew she needed to deflect Katy for ideally a week, or at least until after the flashpoint on Saturday night. It required a costume with either facepaint or a mask, deep cover, which was exactly the sort of thing that would send Katy further off the rails, possibly taking Amanda’s reputation along with it. She’d text condolences on the way back to Shadwell and hope for the best.
First though, Amanda shut herself inside the toilet. As she was washing her hands afterward she met her own face in the mirror, plain and unmodified. She was too pale. She was too drained. Literally. She was suffering blood loss, after all. Yet it was more than that. She unclipped her hair and shook it out, as bland as ever, before drawing it back again. She wiped away a smudge of eyeliner with her little finger and then spent a minute renewing her lipstick. She was heading straight home but you never knew who you might see or rather who might see you. And that was the thing, wasn’t it? Though the art-writer was too wispy and self-important for her, she had wanted his attention, his male attention, which despite all her thinking to the contrary was always what snapped her potentials into solid state. She wanted to be interesting to men. She wanted to be watched. She existed in the fibre optic nerves of the world, supposedly neuter but with masculine dimensions vibrating in its subatomic strings, in the grain of reality itself. This wasn’t a thought exactly but an awareness that ruddered her voice, her expressions, her gestures and habits, her clothing, her makeup—the nuts and bolts of Amanda Nigh. And in ugly moments like this she wanted to switch it all off.
Before she reached Oxford Street her phone erupted with Katy’s ringtone—a horror-film theme which caused some amusement as she passed through a clutch of smokers outside a pub. She pulled it from her pocket. Normally she would let it go to voicemail but she could sense the escalation. Besides, her feet were sore, her gut still crampy, her eyeballs already aching from the wine. An early winter chill was blowing and the shops ahead were blaring with merchandise she couldn’t even afford to want. The Tube would be packed like sausage casings past the expiry date. Might as well get it over with. It wasn’t like she was spoiling a good evening.
‘Sorry,’ Amanda said, ‘but I was at this art exhibition which didn’t allow—’
‘Here’s the situation,’ Katy said.
Amanda took a breath. ‘I know the situation. You changed your relationship settings and—’
‘That’s just it. I didn’t change my settings. Spring Fever did it, right? Plus it shook my whole profile like a snowglobe with all the bits flying about for everyone to see. Him especially.’
‘Him,’ Amanda said. ‘The guy in question.’ She was trying to sound patient and understanding while inhaling the fumes of traffic logjammed back from Oxford Circus. She veered up against a few people avoiding a spot that she presumed was blighted with dog mess or some other calamity but seemed to be clear when she reached it. Even in the bright spread of the thoroughfare she couldn’t see anything there.
‘Christopher. I mean, he’s really keyed in, right? Cashy and fun, stable but not too serious. But then he reads these, I don’t know, these ripped conversation threads. Phrases with no replies. A bit of flirtation, totally harmless if you know the context, which he doesn’t. And then he wipes off the dinner we planned tonight. And actually . . .’ Katy was trying to be steady, but Amanda could hear her trembling ‘. . . I think he ghosted me.’
‘Because of these texts?’
‘Sent like five, six months ago. To my crush at the time. Remember?’
Amanda remembered. There had been some overlapping interests, hedging of sexual bets. If those circuits went even semi-public then Katy was finished. She played people off each other like a snooker champion, but she was also penny-wise and pound-foolish with her emotions. It would catch up with her—yes, it would all catch up with her some day, Amanda often said, like a mum even though Katy was only two years younger. Despite the shared genome they seemed to have inherent differences in their wiring which left Katy just a bit too quick and superficial, in Amanda’s opinion. Katy took celebrity mags as fashion guidance, gossip forums as tactical advice, the soaps on telly as etiquette lessons, absorbing them so fully at times that even when Amanda called her on it, pointing out a borrowed phrase or gesture from a film they had seen together, for example, Katy responded with ferocious sincerity that the source was none other than herself.
‘If he ghosted you, Katy . . . I think you need to move on, draw a line under it, you know? Lessons learned, that sort of thing?’
‘But I—’ Katy’s voice broke. When she spoke again it was tight and pained. ‘I love him. I really love him. Like if he said let’s move to Greenland I’d book the flight with my savings and start building an igloo.’
Amanda slowed her pace as she reached the Tube station at Oxford Circus, a stairway that was exit-only which she’d be tempted to ignore if not for the cavalry charge coming up. She could hear an ambulance somewhere. ‘I wish I could help, Katy.’
‘Actually, there’s something you can do.’
The pause was just long enough for Amanda to feel the dreadful weight of what was coming next.
‘That website of yours. Zinger. It’s hyperclicked. And epic.’
‘I wouldn’t say epic.’
‘But people read it.’ She paused again. ‘Christopher reads it.’
Amanda came to a halt. ‘Katy—’
‘I’ve written something. To him. An apology. A declaration of love. With some thoughts about honesty and Spring Fever, all that stuff. My friends are ranking it top shelf, spreading it everywhere. I didn’t even ask them. I just posted it, right, thinking it would reach him somehow but he moves in different circles. That’s one of the things that makes him so wonderful.’
‘Katy, I don’t decide what to pick up. You know that. It’s the algorithms—the sacred algorithms.’
‘But it’s got to be on the radar somewhere. And you can nudge it, can’t you? Ask your supervisor for a bit of wiggle room? I can see the tagline: Five Apologies That’ll Break Your Heart. And mine doesn’t even need to be number one.’
Amanda carried on walking. ‘I sympathise, Katy, I really do. But it doesn’t work that way. We’re not allowed to interfere. Editors can’t pollute the data streams, otherwise the whole ecosystem collapses, HocusLocus loses all credibility, revenue and investments dry up, blah blah blah. And I get sacked. You know?’
In the silence that followed she realised Katy was crying—not her dramatic exhibitionist sobbing but the real thing.
‘I’ve never loved anyone like this before,’ she managed to say, sniffling. ‘I’ll die without him.’
‘You’ve known him what, six months?’
‘It’s not time, Mandi. It’s space. His space. The way he occupies it, right? The dark wind misses so much of him.’
Amanda clamped a hand over her other ear. ‘Sorry, the what?’
‘All those particles, they just don’t shake him up.’
‘Katy, I’m not following.’
‘You mean, it hasn’t hit you yet?’
‘What hasn’t hit me?’
‘Never mind. I can’t explain. You’ll know soon enough.’
Amanda halted at the circus where traffic was sludging forward, the divided lanes opening up. She glanced at a shop window with ivory-toned mannequins in bras and knickers before turning away. ‘Katy, you’re freaking me out.’
‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ she said off-handedly, as if they were talking about a pair of mismatched socks. Then she drew a ragged breath. ‘He’s everything to me, Mandi. Everything. I’m sick without him. Please help. I’ll owe you my life.’
Amanda scuffed a heel against the pavement and tried to explain again. When she finished there was a long silence.
‘OK,’ Katy said at last. ‘I understand. It’s a big ask. Your job. Your career.’ She sounded defeated. ‘I don’t hold it against you.’
‘I’m truly sorry. If there was a way—’
‘I know you’re going to that flashpoint at the Docklands,’ she said without animosity. ‘I’ve got a line on that as well. But no worries, right? I won’t try to ride along. I’ve got a costume for you, though. Hillary gave me something which doesn’t fit, unfortunately. It’s right for you, though. I just know it. You’ll look supreme.’
‘Are you trying to bribe me?’
‘No,’ Katy said after a pause, as if she had just considered the option. ‘No bribe. I’m going to help you, regardless. I’ve got this outfit and I’m not using it, so it’s yours. No guilt trip, right?’
Amanda hesitated at the stairs leading down to the Tube. A moment earlier her exit strategy had been to drop the signal deliberately, but this wasn’t like Katy at all. And it didn’t seem like reverse psychology, either. It seemed as genuine and bare as Katy ever got.
‘I’ll bring the costume to work tomorrow,’ Katy said. ‘You can pick it up whenever you like.’
‘What is it, a chicken suit?’
Katy didn’t laugh as Amanda had hoped, but instead described the outfit in detail. Despite herself, Amanda liked the sound of it. It sounded sexy and concealing at once. She agreed to ding Katie with a rendezvous time and, after a few tender words of encouragement, ended the call, feeling downright wretched about saying no as she descended the stairs. On the crowded platform she noticed a clear space similar to the one she had seen on the pavement earlier. Was she missing something? She went over and, after surveying it for a moment, set herself squarely in the middle, thank you very much.
‘Tough girl,’ an older woman said, nodding in approval. She was wearing a plain overcoat and a hat with a floppy brim.
Amanda raised her eyebrows. ‘Sorry?’
‘I lasted about two seconds over there.’
Amanda checked the floor around her. ‘Why’s that?’
‘Oh please—the dark matter thick as molasses.’ She shook her head sadly. ‘My atoms just can’t handle that sort of things these days.’
Amanda watched her for an extra moment with the rumble of the approaching train, the tunnel clearing its throat. She glanced at others around her who didn’t seem to think anything was amiss. Had they heard what the woman said? A warm stink washed over her before the train came rattling in. The doors opened to a sedimented press of bodies, the eternal slogan sounding from the speakers overhead. Mind the gap. It seemed like a command. Amanda wedged herself in with the others and, twisting back, noticed the crowd jagging around the empty spot on the platform as if there was something repellent about it. Nobody said anything. It all seemed quite casual and natural.
The doors shut. The train whined into motion. She swayed between a teenage girl watching a video on her phone, earbuds tinning through the roar, and a man with his arm raised to the strap overhead. There was a baby crying somewhere at the other end, a mild ferment of sweat and breath and perfume. Otherwise nothing. No dark matter. No bright matter. This was dull matter if it was anything at all.
Thomas Legendre’s previous work includes The Burning, a novel published by Little, Brown in both Britain and the United States, and translated as Broei by Mouria in Holland. It was subsequently longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Writing. In addition, Thomas has written Half Life, a play performed as part of NVA’s art installation of the same name in conjunction with the National Theatre of Scotland, and a radio drama entitled Dream Repair for BBC4. Thomas is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham.