Commissioned for “In The Beginning”: an evening of talks and discussion on the Big Bang, held @ The Dana Centre, London Science Museum.
In the beginning, there was Ewan’s Bar and Grill.
Ewan created the mood lighting and the beer cellar. He separated the lounge from the games room and the water from the whiskey. He created a small expensive lunchtime menu, and saw that it was good.
Ewan created a huge expanse behind the bar, and then I came into this world.
And then Ewan said “Let no one smile unless someone else has smiled first” and it was so. And the customers only paid cash, and the TV only ever showed horseracing, and no one touched the dogs.
So now Ewan‘s Bar was formless and empty, the spirits congealing in the optics, my towel endlessly wiping the surface of the bar—
But then Ewan said, “Let there be Maggie.”
And there was Maggie.
This is the story we tell people of how our world began. A story Maggie and I must have told around fifty dining tables. A story of two teenagers working in a dive bar in Slateford, who fell in love and escaped together into a more civilised, more hygienic society.
When people ask us whether it was love at first sight, we say, “Yes.”
Because this is a simple answer, and simple answers are usually correct.
However, if you were to conduct even a cursory examination of our lives, you would quickly find evidence that does not fit this account of instantaneous, true love.
Instead you would find two people that very much wanted something to believe in. Two people who were unhappy with the prospects offered by a grimy bar on the edge of Edinburgh, and resolved to pool their resources. Maggie and
I were at the mercy of more pressing conditions than simply love; conditions that included mutual low self-esteem, a drug dealer support network, and an unreliable late-night bus service, amongst others.
You could say that Maggie and I forced the facts to fit. We tinkered with the measurements till our equations balanced. We botched love and we stuck to our story. Over time we moved out of Slateford and into the Braid hills. I took a job at the university. Maggie went into PR, until the birth of our first child, a girl. Two years later, Maggie began work at a local cancer charity. Our child started talking. I took up gardening. We rearranged the furniture in the lounge every twelve months, and soon, the walls of our home became the furthest limits of our universe. There was no need to look beyond the bookcases, the cistern, the garden shed.
And I would find myself having sex with my beautiful wife on Christmas Eve in our warm two-bedroom Victorian maisonette with a tree bursting with electronics, a turkey waiting in our oven, and a young girl asleep in the room next door dreaming of what I suspect to be ponies…
And despite these things, I would find myself asking questions that I could not answer. Deep down, I could not shake the feeling that we had fiddled with the equations. I did not know what Love was. I did not know how I had got there.
Violet is five now. She is a chatterbox, without portfolio, although in amongst the nonsense, Violet retains an uncanny ability to nail my subconscious at the worst possible moments. Whilst waiting for our Christmas meal, Violet threw a keyring at the back of my head and demanded to know if I loved mummy. And without a seconds hesitation, I jumped straight into the story of Ewan’s Bar and Grill.
Because every child needs its own creation myth.
I lie to my daughter because the truth is messy. Its lack of aesthetic offends me on some deep subconscious level. The truth requires so many blind assumptions and predicates that it sounds no more credible than the fairytale that I usually dish out. I see no reason to change the party line, not yet.
How to break down this data. How to reach an answer that is elegant and correct. A theory that will unify all my questions:
How did I end up loving Maggie?
How did Maggie end up loving me?
What force holds us together?
How did our universe come to be?
It’s galling that the questions that have kept me awake at night for so long should sound like a Rod Stewart song.
Back then, whenever I thought about those questions, I would begin to feel ill, almost immediately. It was as if those questions had to be hidden from me in order to preserve my sanity.
But now, things are different. The last twelve months have been scored with breakthroughs. Slowly, piece by piece, I have begun to make sense of the data. At every stage in my reasoning,
I have tried to reach rational conclusions built on observable evidence. Yet, at the same time, I have never felt so passionate. My passion drives me not to simply believe, but to understand.
I do not want to simply accept my marriage. I want to prove it.
We are not at the centre of the universe
When I married Maggie, I thought that from then on, my life would revolve around making her happy. Then, when Violet was born, I thought that my life would revolve around keeping her happy too. They would be the binary suns around which my world would turn.
If that version of the universe was correct, then my family should be able to exact a huge influence over me.
Yet their direct influence, for better or for worse, is barely noticeable.
Despite being my protégé, I am generally unmoved by Violets force around the home. Although she swings through extreme emotional states, she rarely influences my mood. In fact, I find her problems to be extremely amusing. She is driven by insane levels of greed that are impossible to sympathise with. It is like living with a tiny loveless steel tycoon.
Maggie’s influence upon me is greater. The fact that she currently hates her job does aggrieve me, obviously. But it is not the same as me hating my own job. The death of Maggie’s mother was traumatic for me as well. Yet it was nowhere near as traumatic as my own parents’ death.
However, on the surface I will try to behave as if the problems of my family are tearing me apart. I will fake their influence. I will cry with them and drink with them, because I want them to feel that we are all together, in some sort of geo-synchronous orbit. I will make her spaghetti and I will laugh at her jokes, but none of things will make my wife forget that her mother is dead.
The influence, positive or negative, between the members of my family is negligible in the face of the unrelenting pull of my own guilt. At the centre of the world is not my daughter or my wife, but a re-imagining of myself as a better person: as husband, lover, father, protector.
I must concede that what I believe to be consciousness is just a tiny morsel of thought orbiting my own giant superego. My core mental image is miniscule compared to the colossal influence of the collected anxieties that I hold about myself. Raised on TV and hereditary hand-me-downs, my superego is the burning, screaming centre of my solar system.
The distinction between myself and my superego is an important one. Much like Sol in our own noonday sky, you can worship your superego it if you want, you can navigate by it, you can let it power everything in your home. But lets face it; you wouldn’t want to actually live there.
Occasionally, objects pass in-between me and my blazing superego (say, a bucket of chicken or the breasts of one of my students). During these moments, I am cast into shadow, where I momentarily can forget my larger desires. But this eclipse is only cosmetic. My true orbit is never altered.
Which leaves the question: where are my wife and my daughter if not in orbit around me, nor I around them?
Well, I believe the metaphor is not localised to our solar system, but expands to neighbouring galaxies, and that Maggie and Violet are distant minds in orbit around their own dreams, slaves to their own burgeoning conscience.
I designed this metaphor as an aid to meditation. It was supposed to make me understand the sheer vastness of my marriage; as if my family were grains of dust floating through a cathedral. It was supposed to help me understand how my world and the world of my wife can be so far away from each other, despite the fact that down on the surface of my planet, when my sun is asleep, she can look close enough to touch.
This new theory made me happy all through Spring. I stopped taking the sleeping tablets. I even started running. I was alone, but not lonely, imagining our house as the lens of a giant telescope, with Maggie and I twinkling at each other across the great vacuum of our dining table.
Soon Violet started school and I became too busy to dwell on these questions. My family and I were too busy bringing in shopping and hanging out laundry and holding down our careers and reprising things from cookbooks and going to school Open Days and turning on televisions to discover episodes of CSI that miraculously we have never seen before.
In moments like those, it was easy to convince ourselves that the universe was stable.
But by summer, a new theory was coming to light.
The universe is not static
In fact, everything in my life was slowly drifting further apart. The evidence was so minute that it could only be observed over extremely long periods of time. But the evidence was there, all the same.
My first observations regarded Maggie’s toilet habits. Maggie increasingly had ‘phantom’ urinations, going to the toilet when she did not need to go. There was a flush, but this sound was not precipitated by any evidence of passing water. When I first noticed this phenomena, I suggested that Maggie go see a urologist. Maggie made no attempt to do so, and I do not make these types of suggestion anymore.
Another observation: whenever we took a car journey together, Maggie would fasten Violet into her purple Biffo Bear car seat. Then she would close Violet’s door, walk around the back of the car, open the front passenger door and get in.
Over the last eight months, the length of time from the closing of Violet’s door to the opening of Maggie’s door steadily rose from four to fifteen seconds. On our holiday to Germany this August, the journey around the car reached a new high of twenty-seven seconds. In the rear-view mirror, I could see one of Maggie’s pale hands, pressed against the back of the car. Beneath the sound of the autobahn, I could hear Maggie counting to herself.
Were it not for her counting, I would not have been able to measure how long I sat waiting for her. My head was so cloudy with thoughts that I doubt I would have been able to measure that huge expanse of time on my own.
I began to believe that these small disappearances of Maggie were in fact indicative of a larger curvature away from the rest of her family. To put it scientifically (therefore least painfully) Maggie was suffering from an imbalance in time and space, and that this imbalance was pulling her further and further away from me. Even with the vast distance that already existed between us, the universe was continuing to expand.
These were not, in themselves, strong enough phenomena to deduce at what date Maggie would divorce me. Although, if the time that Maggie was taking to traverse our car continued to increase at the same rate, then it would be possible to plot the following:
January 2008 4 seconds
August 2008 27 seconds
August 2010 15.5 hours
August 2011 29.7 days
July 2013 47.6 years
Maggie’s position in bed had also begun to shift. Night by night, her knees had been slowly creeping away from me. By September, one of them had begun to protrude from under the duvet. It was easily detectable due to its paleness. It seemed to light up the entire room.
Each night, I could directly experience the growing distance between us. I could feel it in the springs beneath my body. Timelapse photography would show Maggie’s head to be slowly dragging itself away from me, across our dark goose-down pillow-cases, a trail of red hair billowing behind it, and me, staring blearily into its wake.
My mood reached its lowest point on the 26th of October 2007. I found myself unable to sleep, and wandered into the front room to examine my bookcase. I sat at my desk and began to write notes for the following day’s lecture on “Introduction to Tourism Geographies”. Eventually I found myself unable to type, and spent the remainder of the night cleaning the cupboards in the kitchen.
At ten o’clock the next day, I arrived at the lecture theatre, just in time to see the last few of my Second Year Tourism students filing out of the hall. Several of them cheered sarcastically at my arrival, exaggeratedly pointing at their wristwatches.
At that moment, standing in the doorway of Lecture Theatre 3, I had the final breakthrough of my miracle year.
You see, it was the first day of winter, and I had forgotten to wind back my clock.
At some point, everything was One
If we agree that my family is drifting apart, then we must also agree that they are being propelled from a point of origin.
To look upon my marriage now is to look upon the last stragglers of a class that has decided to dismiss itself. There is only so much we can learn from this data. But if we travel back along the timeline to the start of the lecture, we can actually see how many attended and how many were absent.
Therefore, let us imagine my marriage in reverse: Maggie floating back towards the centre of the bed, awkward silences retreating into our conversations, our bodies becoming inseparable as the years drop away.
If we run the clock backwards for long enough, then hypothetically, we would arrive at a saturation point; a period where our family were as close as they could ever possibly be. An origin point for our universe, which we can examine for traces of our love.
That evening, I paid a visit to my only remaining friend from Ewan’s Bar and Grill, a radio technician named Cliff Fitzpatrick. Cliff’s Super-8 camera had been a constant fixture of our Slateford days. I had successfully dodged Cliff’s suggestions of a nostalgia evening on several occasions. Now, however, Cliff’s old film canisters took on a new significance. They were the oldest archive of mine and Maggie’s relationship. From these records I could look unhindered into the past and witness the first blossoming of love between us.
Over dinner, Cliff asked me if Ewan’s death had anything to do with my visit. I told him that I had no idea. Cliff explained that Ewan had burned the bar to the ground five years earlier, claimed the insurance, then run away to France. There’d been no further news until the Evening Post reported a heart attack last week.
At that moment Ewan appeared, flickering silently across the wall of Cliff’s dining room. He looked a lot younger than I remember. Next to Ewan, a young man with bleached blonde hair. A distant echo of myself, made from light that had taken fifteen years to arrive.
There was a sound like ears popping, and the image changed. Now Maggie appeared, wiping down the bar, her red hair tied in a knot on top of her head. A few seconds later, the film ended. We watched several more. Some featured the bar, some Cliff’s old university flat, yet Maggie and I almost never appeared in the same frame. It was as if we had been hastily spliced together from different films.
I arrived home to find Maggie sitting in the garden. The sun was over the horizon by that point. Maggie was little more than a shape among the trees. In drunken broken English, I asked her if there was ever anyone in her life who she had loved unconditionally, right from the moment she first met them.
I remember a long pause, then Maggie kissing my cheek. Her lips were cold and I wondered how long she had been sitting in the garden.
“Maybe my first boyfriend,” she said.
”But things were different then. I didn’t know how the world worked.”
Then she said, “what about you?”
There, in the darkness, I began to modify my theory. You see, it was conceivable that by the time Maggie and I discovered each other, both of us were already adrift. Which means that the point at which my wife and I were joined spiritually may have occurred even before we met one another. And although we may not have experienced it at exactly the same point in time, individually, we each had our own moment. An origin point to our love.
Suddenly, I remembered watching Lucy Arnold
lifting her leg into her father’s car.
I was walking across the playground.
For one second, there was nothing in the world but that image.
And in that moment, there was no separation between me or Maggie, nor anyone else in the universe. In that moment, mass and energy were one. And from that spark, all of life began. From that point, we have all drifted out, further and further, creating new constellations, wishing things upon one another. But everything has been propelled from that initial moment. That first feeling. And for one second, looking at Maggie, I felt its force again.
Theories themselves only last so long. Eventually another model always comes along. The community adopts it, the old idea gets reduced to a footnote, then eventually it disappears altogether. Yet the fathers of those theories almost never give up. They cling to their outdated theorems, well past the paradigm shift, even when their tenacity begins to make them look like idiots. They take their theories with them to the grave.
And on that day in the garden, standing there with Maggie, I think I might have made a similar pact. And as Maggie stood there waiting for my answer, my eyes began to adjust to the light.