Chapter 5

It’s hard to remember how many cops and quacks and priests I’ve spoken to in how many versions of prison in this penitential land, or how many times I’ve had to explain to psychiatrists come from all over that I’d not done it for ransom or because I was angry or in love, or whatever other reasons my counterparts had done it, but for the sake of the most important experiment in the world(s?): my set theory, the theory of the spiral — no, the spirals! My discovery of a loom…

True, my perception was suffering by then, at the hinterlands of the variations, where the labels of things changed. Logos and album covers were as different as they could be without being my negation, the taste of treats, the fate of villains in comics I thought I remembered: things fizzed. My interrogators merge and cut into one another, merge with every slapping detective or pipe-and-lab-coat with all the answers. Hence this singular title card: ‘The Interview’. They always began the same.

“Why Eddie Murphy?”

“He was a lead. I’m just a detective, like you.”

“You’re garbage who stalks for kicks.”

“Hahaha! I wasn’t stalking him! What would I do without him? No, no, no: I was making sure of him.”

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“It’d be proof. That my theory about the set I’m in is correct.”

“You’re in this world! One man: yourself. And there ain’t no world but this one.”

“You’re wrong there doc. I’ve been in other worlds. I’ll never think it was just my imagination.”

In this way, they wouldn’t change tack, year after circuitous year. Then again, neither would I. They wanted me to agree with them, to hoodwink me so they could be done with me. I wanted them to understand how I might have found a way out. (A way back to her so I could explain.) At this point, Bad Cop would usually tag in Good:

“Convince me. Tell me every last detail.”

“Back when I was picking between suicide and hope, I realised that what would swing it was whether this nightmare could theoretically end. To work that out I had to work out what defined the set I was scrolling, because that would mean I’d be able to work out the size of it too — again, in theory. So allow me to recall a few axioms; Murphy’s Laws, if you will.

“First, and most obviously: in all members of the set, Eddie Murphy exists, as does a counterpart me. Already this reduces the number of worlds that I might have to get through. Second: in all of them, my counterpart exists in the right co-ordinates, while Murphy exists at a variation. Third: in all of them, he and I co-exist, and this is key. You’ve read all their notes, you know the things I’ve seen: Murphy rivalling Letterman. The Michael Jackson concept album. Among the youngest to get tenure as a professor. But never Professor Murphy who found a cure for cancer, never Edward Regan Murphy who assassinated Ronald Reagan. Because those variations need such different pasts and make such different futures as to disturb the delicate circumstances behind the conceiving of a me.”

“Then the real problem with your theory is that it’s inconsistent as all hell. Sure, your folks living before Murphy’s time mightn’t been disturbed by his so-called variations. But as for you, ain’t you always said you knew about him since you were a kid?”

 “Quid pro quo, I tell you things, you tell me things: how influential is pop culture trivia on the course of our lives? Would Eddie Murphy never having appeared in any films meant my counterparts wouldn’t have emigrated? Fallen in love? Broken the law, sir?”

“Why, there’d have to be snowballing differences. On a long enough timeline, everything’s triviality drops to zero.”

“Precisely, ma’am, and such worlds do exist, but they do not belong in this set. Those aren’t the worlds that I’m scrolling through. Or can do, since a me isn’t in them, or is in them but not in a congruent way.”

“Then the real problem with your theory is that it’s rigged to fail. You proclaim the variations of Murphy are limited. But could there not be infinite gradations within said limits, infinite ways in which he could, for instance, have been in the employ of the police constabulary? Thus we’re back, with you ensuring that your febrile delusion cannot and will not end.”

“Thank heavens then detective for the theoretical geometry of possible worlds. Try to imagine existence as a volume of threads, unspooling down through time, each thread a different life you could’ve had, or rather, are having. What defines the proximity of other threads to your own is their similarity. And though adjacent, they’re separated, isolated, these might-have-beens to everything but themselves. Except with me. I have come unstuck in mine. Wider and farther than anybody in my place would dare to dream, to the remote point in a spiral, where he’s - well what? Why won’t you say? What harm can it do now?”

“A man with a wife. Children. Someone who simply made different choices to what you think he should’ve made.”

“Yes doc, ones that made not only his life but the entire universe different. In an equation as complex as the universe there is no such thing as just one variable; look at your lab coat: why is it red? The only worlds that can possibly be are those coherent combinations of variables. Take Carol’s ‘Cyberian Winter’: the granular difference needed for my counterpart to have been in the right circumstances, where an infinitesimal difference would not have sufficed. A new slogan therefore, for the workers of the worlds: Neither fractals nor determinism! My set is composed of an indefinite but not infinite number of members.”

“Then the real problem with your theory is that it doesn’t have the right evidence. If you do have all these threads around you that you’re spiralling through then, gosh darn it, you’d be in a constant blizzard of other worlds.”

“I’ve skewed across to a discrete thread with each scrolling and then gone straight down. Something else has been moving in a spiral. Something that keeps coming back for me. Catching me.”

“You’re not helping.”

“What do you mean I’m not helping?

“I mean you’re not helping. Damn it, you’re not being hounded; singled out for some goddamn trial.”

“Except for my legal charges... No, I’m being helped. Or at least something is trying. Trying to put me right, your honour. Searching through worlds for one to put me into.”

“Oh sure, some kinda benevolent filing system…”

“But multiform! Multi-thread, like a loom. One that’s meant to keep every self bound to its thread — perhaps ensuring we’re not conscious of all our other selves.”

“And would you say you are conscious: of yourself? Aware of yourself?”

“I’m aware that with me something has snagged.”

“Is that so?”

“Snagged, and ever since, this tie or bond’s been spiralling overhead, catching me on each pass and sorting me into a life it thinks is mine. I go down that thread irrevocably, one where circumstances seem to be as they were before. But the loom only compares with the world just gone and only achieves a near match. Concordantly, my counterparts and I are never identical; their similar-seeming circumstances are built on different histories — for how else could they fit into the wider world vis-à-vis Murphy again having varied? Ergo, I don’t stay, I’m reloaded, and the loom scrolls again; but taking longer now, having to look further afield, spiral even wider.”

“Then the real problem with your theory is that it’s a sublimation. You betray it as such. This ‘spiral’, a cry for order. This ‘loom’, a manifestation of a desire to be helped from the outside. Let us help you like you want us to!”

“Only the reeling power of the loom can help me further now. For its spiral-mechanics limit my already limited set. The loom cannot run backwards, since whatever happened, happened; it widens its search, but in doing so it scans through only the variations that are left. And it always fails. But if it could be tuned, it would become a powerful ally…”

“Don’t you see the danger, Kon, inherent in what you’re doing here? Mental delusion is the most stubborn problem the planet’s ever seen, but you court it like a girl who finds mind-games fun. ‘Ties’ and ‘bonds’? ‘Tuning’? Stop enabling your madness!”          

“But forwards is the only way outwards. Although the outer limits of the set must exist, they nevertheless might be too far away to reach in my lifetime. And even if I sat around and waited and did reach a limit, the loom might simply stall there at the last possible Murphy variation. But there’s another possibility. Something else might happen when I reach the widest gyre, the last Murphy eddy. The loom might recoil. With no options left, it might recoil and reel me back. Not back in time but back in reality.”

“And like that - phuh - it’s gone?”

“I’m afraid my dear that the two cones match: it’ll take as long to spiral back in as it did to spiral out. For all the poor Carols of all the worlds I’ve scrolled, it’ll be as though their Kons are regressing to a former madness.”

“Then I just don’t know if I can wait that long.”

“And I can? Even if the loom does recoil, I’d have to risk the Twilight Zone irony of finally getting back to her but just as I’m about to die. So there has to be a way I can start the process sooner, make the set run out quicker…”

“If you wanted this over quicker, you’d please just accept that you’ve gone insane.”

“It’s more comfortable for you to label me insane. If I’m insane how come I don’t know everything in much detail? Because I’ve never been here before: who the hell are you people? Why the hell’s this Kon been put away?”

“You honestly don’t remember? Because of your… issues with him.”

“No. That is incidental.”

“Sure. Then tell me in single words, only the good things that come to mind — about Eddie Murphy?”

“Let me tell you about Murphy: he was reliable, that’s all. When Carol got upset at me for not noticing her hair, I saw that OK it was different, but only in some worlds, while in others it was how I remembered. Eddie Murphy though always varies. He’s a trans-dimensional gauge. Hence one that could show by a repeat variation that my escape plan had worked. And you took him from me when you detained me, and I’d gleaned it in his face on the football field, and it’s tearing me apart.”

“An… escape plan, Kostya?”

“One of you give me your pen and I’ll show you.”

“You know we can’t hand you anything.”

“You watch too many movies, quacks. Well I’m going to have to put it down on paper at some point… My escape plan is to crash the loom. Say I made a change in the thread I was in; something major though, mad; the kind of plan cooked up by a mad scientist: I could blow the Hoover Dam perhaps, or deface Mount Rushmore. Because if I did so, then the next time the loom scrolled, it would have to find another world in my set in which another me had done the mad thing too, and had an Eddie Murphy locked in a motel room — but all for his own reasons! Surely there’s no way it could. Instead it would hit its limit early.”

“And yet here you are.”

“Quite. Between the two of us, I don't think those mad changes would’ve worked. It’s not as if the loom’s ever struggled to find me worlds where I’m some weird stalker Eddie Murphy obsessive. And what with me being so poor and high-strung of late, I’m sure I’d have messed up even a simple bank robbery. Then one dog of an afternoon I realised: like I was shot. Like I was shot with a diamond. A diamond bullet right through my forehead.”

“Realised what you did, Mr Desadeski?”

“Realised how to make a simpler change. One that’ll at least put a stop to this. Or maybe, just maybe, send me on my way back.”

“It seems to me you’ve overlooked a glaring third option.”

“… Meaning what?”

“I’m glad you asked. Maybe there are no real problems with your theory. And you can and do make whatever big or small change that forces the loom’s hand. But what if instead of stalling or recoiling it scrolls you somewhere else? Is forced to reach for an extreme?”

“Murphy and I together prohibit any.”

“Yes but not alt-histories or weird parallel dimensions. Something, as you said, simpler — and yet for you inconceivable. For there might be another world out there with a Kon in it who’s done whatever ‘change’ that you’re planning. In fact, he’s done all that you’ve done, he is in the right circumstances. But, unlike all the other Kons, he also claims he’s been going through the Murphy variations.”

“Wait, no, if there were identical worlds then the loom would’ve matched me with one the first time round.”

“I never said identical. It’s not. In a simple way. The Kon in that world claims he’s gone through the Murphy variations but for him they just never really happened.”

“…No.”

“In that world, Konstantin is just mad.”

“No, no, no.”

“So if this all works like you say, if you insist your theory is true, then what we believe will become true. You will scroll into him. Or you might even already be him.”

Things usually stopped there.

Awful tired, dog tired, I accepted the shot then limped out of the interrogation while trying not to cry. I once even turned round to add, “Fucking cops.”

Another time, though, it was they who turned round.

“Just one more thing. This ‘escape plan’ of yours... If it worked, if your calculations were correct: when you finally got back, to your centre, would you hold on?”

“How can anyone predict themselves in a world where this happens? It’s like a natural disaster. It can only be attributable to non-human error.”

“Or maybe it was your fault.”

“Me? What did I do?”

“Oh Kon. Kon, you are blind. Look where you are for Pete’s sake.”

 

*

 

The morning I got out was a wet and sunny morning. In the rainbow I could see a white castle. The years have been kind. She wasn’t mine though. I walked as if to her but then went past her, headed one last time for Eddie Murphy.

The authorities have not taken well to my recidivism. I hide in alleyways. I think about their third option. It’s got me up nights, that’s the truth. I’ve started to lose hope. What’s more, I still haven’t found him. Maybe I am wrong… about the set: Eddie Murphy’s not a condition of it. The dumpster goes dark and fills with sour threads.

Time’s up.         

Just remember the change. Simple, doable - and yet so unlikely to be repeated, down to the letter but for different reasons, in any world that’s left.

This is it. This, what you’re reading. What I’ve been writing. To be on the safe side though, some original last words (a victory cry, even?): colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

With that, the escape plan is done, held up where I can see, where you will see. I wait. Everything rests now on the incoming variation. Whether I return to a world I’ve seen before or whether the next scrolling won’t be the scrolling home. Akh, how I wish I’d found him.

I wanted to shake Eddie Murphy by the hand; to thank him for taking it as well as could be expected, and to tell him how I knew of him: not a resident of a hospice but the comedy Hall of Fame; not a defector to the Soviets, but a star; and one whom my father and I had loved watching together in Trading Places and The Shawshank Redemption – and then I’d have left, swapped with the last Konstantin to have kept my thread warm.

It’s to him I’ve been writing: to ‘me’, to you. You for whom I will also do my own ‘Eddie Murphy doing Bill Cosby’ impression:

 

“I HOPE these words don’t just end up with the Trashman, though to him Cyrillic may as well BE computer CODE. I hope you didn’t leave or FIND things with her… in too bad a SHAPE. I hope I’m corRECT… and you are the last and not the next. I hope the Manchester SHIP Canal is as grey as it has been in my DREAMS. I hope…        

“DAAAAAA

Chapter 4

Insolent Rabbit! Raging Duck! You were bested! See I did not forget to take a left turn at Albuquerque. I did though come otherwise unprepared: new passport but no hotel, and with so little money since being sacked that they almost didn’t let me in.

Into America. America’s psychic weight, like a holy mountain. The source of so much of the pop culture that I’d had to learn. Here passed a yellow school bus; there a dog hooked its leg at a red fire hydrant. Through the pane of a genuine diner I watched with watering mouth and eyes: they’re giving free coffee refills; they do give free coffee refills.

School was out for summer and what with my computer pawned and my tendency to get thrown out of libraries on Draconian hygiene grounds, I had little choice than to set up watch under the bleachers of the football field. Begging in town was distasteful but necessary; the shame though that I felt at not ensuring my solvency, even if on an interdimensional jaunt, was sometimes too much to bear, and I’d avoid mirrors in restrooms in case I saw my father’s disapproval in our eyes. Without money, hunger too became a constant, and I’d forage behind the diner, wondering if I’d even survive till this nightmare was done. At least I’d never scrolled into a world in which I was already dead. Yet no me was going to last forever, and the longer this went, the older I got, the fewer alternate lives there’d be left for me to scroll into. Like me, his parking spot was waiting, visible through the bleachers. The tarmac softened. His name on it wavered.

Had my progress, as I’d once thought, been linear, the variations would have led me only one way: away. While with a spiral, you at least got to ask yourself when the centrifugal might become centripetal… In other words, I had to stay positive!

And in the hot night, the sound of the crickets was recognisable and new. I know now why soldiers fear dying abroad. Not because they’ll be trapped as ghosts. But because dying is already lonely enough without having to do it in another world.

 

 

Janitors had begun appearing: it was the final run-up before school, and so I hid all my things in a dumpster, which looked like it might even be good for sleeping in since the sun wasn’t out for as long. The first day back was the last of this variation; it had its kids in cars and cliques and all the rest — but still no sign of him. Sabbatical? Suicide? Come late afternoon, the football team was practicing between my hiding place and his parking spot. I shoved them away in mime.

Screams, loud and high-pitched, like the schlocky trailer for a B-movie. It turns out the bleachers hadn’t hidden me from cheerleaders so much as censor-barred me.

He looked confused, the cop who was called, embarrassed by his redundant shouting and gun. I’d already gotten down on my front with my hands behind my head. See, I’d noticed just in time.

There he was! All twinkly eyes and compact motions, and he even saw me, Eddie Murphy, that nutty professor — my own mad scientist. He gave ‘the Bleacher Creep’ a worried look, almost a knowing look. I shook my fist at him as the cop dunked me into the patrol car and the fizzing on the radio got louder.

Until that day my experience of Eddie Murphy had been in 2-D, on repeats, out of chronological order, so seeing the Real up close, at odd angles, familiar but not quite right and alive, was like seeing a haunted doll or a creepy animatronic. (To think that he had veins and leg-hairs, that he sometimes farted.) Preoccupied with such, it only dawned on me later that the good few seconds now of varying upholstery and static meant that I was one more world along and yet still in a cop car.

This shouldn’t have been surprising; each scrolling had put me in a sham identical place to where I’d been before. But how the hell had my counterpart gotten arrested?

Pop culture, you liar! The prisoner gets no such ‘one phone call’; what I got was a lifetime-ban and deported. Only at the airport did I get a chance to speak with the person who would know. The gaps between rings are tensely long on international calls. Moments of our alternate life together ran like a romcom montage in my memory: under the sheets close-ups, hands held over wheat at the golden hour. I’d give anything to be back with her — back then. Oh my Carol, pull me back to you now: you’re my density.

“Reverse charges? You taking the mick?”

“Questions: questions that need answering.”

“Konstantin Onatoppovich,” (should never had taught her formal usage) “please don’t start that crap.”

“I suppose I have been acting odd. Or has he?”

“I think when you dumped me with no explanation-”

“Yes but where did I go?”

“The States.”

“Right. And why?”

“Cyberian Winter. The IT security conference?”

“An offensive name. Many of my-”

“Died in gulags — yeah you told me. Not many enough.”

“I never told you. Ah but this is perfect. Thank you, Ca- I mean, Miss Whitecastle.”

“Is that it? Wait a sec. Look, OK look. I know it’s been ages. And we still need to talk things out and things, but first… just come back, Kon.”

“Why? I’m not your boyfriend.”

Here she started giving me the nth degree — bickering that I won’t embarrass you with again (humourlessness, apparently, is my problem, that and avoidance). I let her hang, no doubt to answer the questions of the cops who’d failed to detain me.

What was her problem? She was going to find someone else, and long before me; to be precise, her Kon was going to come back just like she’d asked. Because if I was a usurper it was only temporarily, and the usurped all treated me in kind. My Carol had suffered more than any, suffered a whole series of impersonators, like me but not me, each swapped over for longer than the last, each unaware of the last or the next, each claiming, if you were to ask, his own facts about Eddie Murphy. But they all got back, got reunited, one by one, scrolling after scrolling. How long would she and I have to wait? How long can two people endure? Well, we shall find out.

My growing age and shrinking funds were already making it harder to keep on the trail, and what with the authorities too, I needed another solution to Murphy, a better one in any case than just hoping he’d want to stop and chat. Especially since what’d happened in the squad car had hinted at a good thing, maybe the best of things. Home.

Consider that after my arrest and escape, each new counterpart of mine was also on the lamb, but brooding, say, in a Californian motel with maps and memory aids, or absent in Wyoming from some project on cryptography or cartography. The question was, could I force a change, a major one? Determine what world would be next? Say I kept a man, in a room. The next scrolling along, would he be gone or would ‘he’ still be there, if for a variant reason?

What if the man kept in the room was Eddie Murphy?  

 

Chapter 3

Calls from work grinding the bedside desk, exponential nagging from Carol: I reckoned I’d probably convalesced enough days and got up and dressed. I almost trotted down the spiral stairs to the minimart, taking money she’d lent me, thinking well why shouldn’t I get champagne? Champagne and, and tubs of ice cream! It’s alarming how easy it is in moments of luck to forget the general spite of fate.

I was at the chiller cabinet baring my eyes to check a price sticker when the tub crackled louder, and for over a second there scrolled before me: frost, snow, wire diagrams, square dances in huge halls, white pyramids, then vanilla ice cream. Slumping on the cold door, I looked down the aisle. With sickly fear, I looked at the Bargain Bin.

Of course Eddie Murphy was in it: unnervingly doubled in a DVD double-pack. No longer a huckster guru in Holy Man but a singing monk in Brother Act and in Brother Act II - Kicking the Abbot. (Fade in sad piano: the Goldberg Variations.)

Bedtime had to be cut to an unspooned minimum, regardless of how much it hurt me and her. As for daytime, I’d hold open my eyes and pipette in water whenever they itched. Dozy fool, the storm hadn’t been passing at all. These ‘scrollings’ preceded each variation.

More than that: now I’d caught sight of them, they were showing me something. Using Carol’s diary, I started a log… After 88 hours, I caught another one.

Madness is disorder. There might be hints of looming structure, but they scatter like giggling children when your mind moves closer for a better look. But after the 88, the next scrolling came in 104 hours, then 120. Something else was happening here (‘else’ being an understatement). Deceleration. I cracked the pattern then extrapolated back and forth. The next variation came on time.

A breakthrough at last! Beyond all hope.

So did I go and tell Carol?

I opened a window to chat and got as far as swapping heys but then just sat there with it stupidly blinking.

Carol’s concern for me had of late gone through some troubling changes. She’d migrated her toiletries back to her flat. She’d even chastised me for giving her a compliment, staring at me, her tongue moving under her bottom lip, after she’d replied in front of our colleagues, “Why’s it always ‘adorable’ but never ‘I adore you’?” (I may have rolled my eyes at this so she added, “Oh you never get it when I’m making a joke.”)

We tried to see who could ignore the other for the longest; George and Lewis would have to keep me company for now. At least they were still familiar; when I got home, they were watching an episode of Star Wars for the (possibly literal) hundredth time.

She had no cause to be like that with me. Never mind — watch the film.

I too had seen it, though I couldn’t remember much of it, or its pre- or sequel, instead remembered the cavernous local cinema where it had begun, that whole saga. Even dubbed, that first trailer had been portentous: ‘Somewhere in space this may all be happening right now!’ Portentous but urgent.

Pointed, even. 

To my flatmates, I must have seemed naively shocked by the climactic paternity revelation, those howls of denial in fact proof of assent — confirming a live DNA test would be unnecessary for young Anakinovich, while repeating my own thoughts, like I’d been psychic: ‘No! That’s not true! That’s impossible.’

We were not watching actors pretending to be star warriors. We were looking through a window into another world just as real as our own.

Even if it was not an actual window, then at least what was happening onscreen had to be a coincidentally accurate depiction of events from a long time ago and to come in galaxies much further away than previously thought. All that was needed for this to be true - ‘all’! - was the total manifestation of the possible.

Search your feelings, you know it to be true: every space opera, sitcom, game narrative, advert, Saturday morning cartoon was somewhere happening right now; and worse, every trivial life story was a short story, a musical, an epic in verse, your personal melodrama the tragic opera you’d always thought it to be. Canon endings degraded to alternate ones on otherworldly DVD extras (somewhere the Empire not only struck back, it never ended (a lysergic vision meant for a complacent Rebel Alliance all along)). Not even our most intimate words or thoughts were safe; scripts and lyrics ripped them off, while in our chit-chat we inadvertently quoted lines from other, unfathomable pop cultures.

I hadn’t been going mad at all! Neither had I been witnessing a localised and ongoing warp in my own world. My mind was moving through a set of alternate worlds. Worlds where I was the constant and the variable was Eddie Murphy.

“Dear, did we watch Willy Wonka the other month?”

Charlie and the. Most of it.”

“And who played Mike TV?”

“My who?”

“One of the bad kids. Obsessed with - look, the clue’s in the name.”

“Some kid.”

“Not Eddie Murphy?”

“Who’s Eddie Murphy?”

Had Mrs Archimedes been so blithe? I insisted there was such a film star; she got angry back; we started shouting while George and Lewis popped eyes at each other. (How many of our lowest moments are gossip or comedy material to our friends?) When she asked what on Earth was the matter, I told her about my latest breakthrough.

“Well that’s just you to a tee: ‘I can’t be wrong’.”

“Carol, this is not like you.”

“‘I must have just dropped into a parallel dimension! See, I can leap around the universe!’”

“You mean the multiverse.”

“Oh fuck off.”

 

 

Why?

Why did Eddie Murphy have to be the variable? These worlds, the lives of their Kons, they were otherwise so similar, down to the pencil that would remain snapped after each subsequent scrolling. Was it a trick then, or test? Was he a sinister agent patrolling pan-dimensionally, tormenting me because he knew I’d jumped over a line when, unlike him, I was not allowed to do so?

I had to find him and find out.

Carol had been right, he wasn’t a film actor: he was a retired baseball player. An auction on a signed bat led to a fan-site (known in the past as ‘a creepy shrine’) where I learnt where he was, or rather would be: hosting a tribute show at a Brooklyn sports bar in just a few days.

The next scrolling was tomorrow.

Once it happened, he vanished off the internet. If existence was, after all, a predicate, then he may well have varied into nothing. Suppressing my terror at having been abandoned, I reminded myself he might just no longer be famous. I had to go deeper, I had to descend into the Deep Internet. There had to be a simpler way to keep track of him, or so I agonised until at last I discovered down forgotten data mines the home address of an ex-Father Murphy, diocese in the other England (‘The Church of Needful Prayers’).

You’d forgive me for no longer believing in coincidence. Who else but a real Holy Man could aid me in my quest? Filled with a new hope I went for the first time in a month to Carol’s.

She was displeased with the idea of a US holiday, asked if I’d even renewed my passport like she’d told me to, and said she wasn’t going to lend me ‘any more’ money. Any more! Well, it was to be expected. She really hadn’t been herself of late.

Like she was varying.

It came on like illness. The first tickle or pang that heralds an unavoidable period of suffering. There was a consequence to my discovery about the nature of these variations. If with each one I scrolled into another life then this Carol was not my Carol; I’d left mine, and long ago.

I had been unfaithful then, or, as it were, inconstant. Yet I still took refuge from this discovery in between her ersatz breasts. Lying awake with her asleep in my arms, I missed her so much it was like there was a rope in my guts that coiled up through realities, up to where it was attached to her, tossing and turning without the real me.

The final time I took refuge was the worst. She was quiet under me once we were done, though maybe because I hadn’t yet made eye contact. I was staring out the window, as if hoping to warm myself in the light of better suns. She walked two fingers up my back (whorls to my moles) but paused after a few stiff steps. We waited until she asked what I knew had been coming.

“Do you love me?”

And I told her no.

The look on her face: as if she’d been checking what time her parents were due and I’d replied that their train had crashed. Stab me, I told her no.

Controlling her voice: “And why not?”

“You’re not my Carol. And I’m not your Kon.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She turned and sat off the bed, head, shoulders and back in a gravestone. She was quiet for longer than I knew how to deal with so I got up and left. Only when I’d reached the last spiral of the stairwell did she shout down: “What have you done with my boyfriend? Where’s my Kon gone?”

There was a pause in my step, but I didn’t turn back. Or take it back. Or make excuses or lie or make her feel better. No, all I did was think: Good question.

 

How readily we’d fallen apart. Had my counterpart in this variation been a bastard too? Was I a bad boyfriend in all possible worlds? Fine, Eddie Murphy would be my companion now. He might have started this, he might be the shiftiest of all, but he was all I had.

On the platform I checked my calculations like a nervous traveller would their passport. If I missed him in this variation, it’d be a month’s wait now until the next. I looked for the train down the joining and parting rails, munching a travesty of a croissant bought with coins whose monarch I’d not recognised, and I asked myself where all this was going. Those lunatic lines - where were they drawing me to?

To Carol? My Carol?

If only.

To the Platonic Eddie Murphy. The ur-Eddie Murphy. The Eddie to end all Eddies whose Cosby-mocking cry of DAAAAAA would be the affirmation of the universe. His earlier variations had only been cosmetic, to trick me, to warm me up. He’d then started getting stranger as his masks and impersonations fell away. Because what I was being drawn to was the answer, the truth. What truth?

Eddie Murphy is the core value from which existence extrapolates. He is the principle that survives all the creations, all the dissolutions.

Still, I had my doubts, thoughts — ravings.

Sat in the quiet carriage, re-checking the time. Stood in the vestibule to be the first off, being stared at by an en vogue little girl. She leaked unfamiliar music, and her t-shirt had the latest idol, and all at once I felt a different pity for my superseded flatmates, a trivial mourning - “Erm I don’t know sir; is he one of the passengers?” She stared on through her toy x-ray specs, and so I checked the window. She had a point: I looked like Rasputin.

I tried to smarten myself up before Departures. Smoothed-down beard, tucked-in shirt — oh it was all so transparent. Queues threaded long and slow round the hall before reaching any of the desks. The clerk frowned at her screen, at me, then back. So much for the thaw. With smirks of relief at finding an excuse, she said my counterpart hadn’t renewed his passport.

Despair took me in Terminal One. Fearing signal, I left by foot; nearby farmland would have to make do for those black remembered steppes. I bought beers at a village shop and slotted my change into their domed charity box where coins spiral on their rims towards a central black hole. Dodging cowpats as I spun in my own circles, I waited for the sun to go down or even implode — better that than the next variation. And the next, and the next, and the next.

How many did I have to go through? How many worlds was ‘I’ even in? Star after star came out to spin Van Gogh-wise above. Considering the improbability tree that had led to my birth, there should only ever have been one world with me in it. But then, what did ‘me’ even mean?

There might be worlds that contain someone with my genes but not conceived by my parents; given enough chance, coincidental twins will occur. There might be worlds that fool me into thinking I’m home, but where in fact there’s a comma instead of a colon in a book written centuries ago, up there, around a star in a distant frond of the galaxy. This was never going to end — not till I died; I’d never get back to her to say I was sorry.  A whirlpool now in my stomach from all the spinning.

Yet, so far, I’d not scrolled into any extreme madworld. Nor into a distant future or past. The Murphy variations were each time only a degree more ‘out there’ than the previous. I had to get a grip. I had to stop getting dizzy, so I stood still and looked up.

The dome of night, slowing around me.

My God: it’s full of spirals!

Bursting through my bedroom door, looking for a roll of tape measure. On it I marked the spans of the variations so far then pinned the whole length to my wall. Why had I thought Eddie Murphy would have the answers? Pacing up and down, pressing my fingers to the markings, to my lips. Why had I so wanted him to? He wasn’t special. He’d never been exceptional. This was though.

Did I work it out, or had it worked itself out? There certainly was an element, as I drew an x and y axis on the wall at the start of the tape measure, of showing something to myself that I already knew. I took the tape down at the other end, let it dangle, then pulled it round and looped over. There was structure here. With more pins, I fixed the tape every time it crossed the negative y: every time was at the start of a variation. The storm forecast grew on my wall.

This thing of ours: it wasn’t a deceleration towards some core Murphy, it was the steady drawing out of a spiral. The centre was my original life; the further out I went, the more Murphy varied, and I was spending longer in each variation in the same way that I’d spend longer on each pass of a spiral.

Keys jangling, tapping for the lock, the shush of the front door and voices — I switched off the bedside lamp. Always the same avoidance tactics, my flatmates the boulder forever blundering back into my life. The spirals grew instead by laptoplight, the threads, theories, calculations, the name ‘Murphy’, now dashed, with a title of professor, to a New Mexican highschool. I managed a smile at what someone might think if they found such notes. From the sound of the stairs, ‘someone’ was most likely to be a Carol. I stopped smiling.

I had to go back — back to Eddie Murphy. Not because he was the man with the answers, not because he had a holy or sinister part in all this.

He was the proof.

Chapter 2

From then on, at work and at home, I hammed about in the black cloak of a bad mood. Perhaps my flatmates were up to something especially devious. (I sensed sometimes, from behind my eyelids, stuff quietly shifting around me.) George and Lewis had after all spent a rainy day assembling a domino run of CD cases that made a can of beer splash me awake. The two of them were in their late thirties.

Ignoring the matter was probably best. But how could a man who peeked at his girlfriend’s texts leave something like this alone? Especially with the internet, the bastard internet, ‘what a resource of information at your fingertips!’ — well now it became a taunting know-it-all, tempting me to keep checking whether I was losing my memory, if not my mind. Static jolted my head and my eyes swam: more sleep needed. But I stayed in bed only to avoid slipping up in front of my flatmates, while the threads I blankly scrolled through were alt-tabbed for search engines the moment Carol went downstairs.

No, Eddie Murphy hadn’t appeared in Cheers. He had, though, appeared in Dallas.

Had I been making mistakes about a set of things I would have admitted that my immersion in Western culture was not yet at an acceptable level and gone back to my secret studies. Had it been a set of mistakes about one thing, then I would have admitted that Eddie Murphy was a particular blind spot that needed remedy. But these mistakes of mine were not accumulating. They were varying.

I did not dare consult a psychiatrist. I did not want to give a smug lab-coat the chance to cash in on a new disorder. I did however leaf through one of Carol’s textbooks and learnt about people who could hear sounds but not songs, or who saw coded messages in cloud formations. Many of these people managed to function, within reason. By now that was all that I wanted: to know I would continue to function.

But after a post-work nap that didn’t take because my bored flatmates were from the sound of it speed-surfing TV channels, I read through blurring tears that there’d never been any Shrek films. In their place, something called Ogre and Out! - the title also the donkey character’s endlessly repeated catchphrase. The horror of it. Varying and worsening.

Received wisdom says that if you think you’re going mad then you’re not, because the mad have no idea that they are. Lies! Lies! When you start to feel the panic, that’s when it truly starts. And when you find a version of Willy Wonka with a child Eddie Murphy, and your girlfriend dumps groceries on the case, frees it, and says in a bright tone, “Ooh, let’s watch this!” what reaction other than panic do you expect? The worst confirmation of my predicament was that nothing was bothering her.

Our movie nights had once just been ways to extend our time spooning like we did in bed. She noticed though that the rhythm of my chest did not quite match her back. She asked if I was ok, rubbing my leg pre-emptively. I managed to claim I was fine while transfixed by the sight of Murphy in cowboy hat with his fellow TV-addict of a mother. By the point that Wonka was yelling the Latin subclauses of everybody's non-disclosure agreements, I was shivering. Carol went to get me a blanket, but I followed her upstairs, overtook her, then swooned to a static-crackling bed that looked as if it wouldn’t be there to catch me. She rubbed my back till I told her to stop asking me what was wrong.

It was the cage, it was starting to drop around me. There could be no more work-shy lie-ins. George and Lewis’s reaction at breakfast was to give me ‘funny looks’. Wish I could laugh. I resented them for not asking what was the matter as much as I’d have resented them for bringing it up. My bedroom became a gallery of printouts and showbiz mags. In my office, on overtime, I’d sit in the open-plan dark, yawning, crying and periodically refreshing Eddie Murphy’s Wikipedia page. Then one night, as my drooping eyelids almost hid it again, something changed.

It took less than a second. It was without the feeling of movement and with the sound of a radio scanning through stations: different offices scrolling around me, fewer desks, more desk plants, but then a hospital ward too, a balcony-view from a great height, the sea, in different tones and shades, like scrolling through microfilm, till the fizzing went and my office returned.

How I came crawling back: to bed, under the covers, where I foetal-positioned and refused all conversation. I did though take the laptop with me, and in that screen-lit cave learnt that Murphy had now won an Oscar. Bizarre times indeed, for this variation was qualitatively different to the previous: what deeper changes in the culture would there have to have been for Eddie Murphy to be the shrink to tell good Will Hunting that it was not his fault, it was not his fault? (Whose fault was it?)

Whatever changes they were though, they remained in place…

An hour passed. Another hour. I sat up under the covers and let them slip down. Reality showed a little clearer, more sensible, like an old TV that’d been slapped. The thing in my office — it’d been climactic. The last thunderclap of a departing cyclone. A whole weekend passed of adrenaline nausea and yet there wasn’t any further sign of him or his monstrous variations.

No reset button had been pushed exactly, or so it seemed. But that was not for me to decide. All I had to decide was what to do with the mess that’d been left me:

“Carol? Everything’s fine.” Yanking open curtains, ripping filmographies from the wall. “All this stuff is coming down. It’s all going to be like it was.”

But she’d already left for work without saying goodbye.

That last movie night, she’d waited for my shivering to stop to try for a goodnight kiss. But I’d rolled her off — she had to help me in a different fashion.

“For Pete’s sake, why should I know? He was in a few, wasn’t he?”

“In the ’80s.”

“Then Beverly Hills P.I.”

“You mean Beverley Hills Cop.

P.I.”

Cop.

P.I.!”

Cop!”

Maybe I wanted her to convince me with an Insolent Rabbit dialogue switch. Maybe I was just being cruel. She was the one who stopped the rally.

          

*

 

I think I’ve got some smoke in my eye. The dumpster’s needed propping open wider. This must have made it glow, because someone out there walking past while singing stopped in her journey just when the lyrics said not to.

She was coming closer. What the hell did she think she’d found? Some gold? An elf? There was a wet gust as the dumpster flew open.

No torches or cold gloves or dogs this time. Instead a woman so drunk she looked at once enraged and very sleepy. We took a moment to consider each other.

Then my voice cracking with a parody shriek: “Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?”

She shrieked back, and ran off, knocking the dumpster. It slammed shut and blew out all my candles.

Fool.

But then relighting in this cryptic space, I see the folds in the candle-wax. The creases in her belly when she leans over me to turn off the bedside lamp.

I don’t happen on such similarities. My mind seeks them out. What a ghoulish, vain thing love is.

Chapter 1

Dear me! When you find yourself in this dumpster too, please accept my apologies. Things outside were more dangerous than before and, well, at least it’s not too badly upholstered. Look: you will recline like I did on flattened boxes and savour a cool breeze, what with that beer can propping open the lid. Not to let us see mind you (is it still dark outside?) but to vent the smoke from the candles that I’m writing by. Counting by, too. Around the time they go out, the nightmare starts winding down. That is, if my calculations are correct.

‘If my calculations are correct’! Hardly are those words out when an image of a frazzled boffin in a disaster movie troubles my sight. He is saying them as I snort at the TV and roll my eyes. Forgive me now oh asteroid expert; forgive me inventor with your last-ditch plan. And bless my calculations, because if they’re incorrect then I might never get back.

In any case what will remain in this dumpster are these words and a confused old man. So I must start soon. Despite, or because of, how weird it will sound – that double bluff annoys us, but here it fits – I must ask an improbable question:

 

 

 

 

 

Does Eddie Murphy exist?

 

Akh what’s the point? I don’t see why I’m asking you, friend. You’re as lost as I am.

 

*

 

Friend, lives are labyrinths. Lives are labyrinths and your past is the thread you’ve trailed behind you, and telling your story is the attempt to walk back along that thread. My life was no different, a labyrinth too, till I turned thirty-four and the thread snagged and life became something else: a deck of cards, the wicked kind (with its Ladies, Drowned Sailors, and Spirals). So much has got mixed, why not metaphors too? What then was my first hand?

The Tower. A towerblock? A flat high above a canal in a northern city. A thrifty banner hangs over the window: ‘Happy Bday cK!’ it reads.

As is the fashion in our world, my girlfriend and I share a designer nickname, one perpetrated by my flatmates George and Lewis. Alone of course, she is just ‘Carol’. The name had made me homesick at first hearing; there was though that nice tension between its masculinity and her. I gave my name in return, adding that it might be easier for her to use Kostenka or Konstantinushka. She said these weren’t exactly diminutives and asked if she could call me Kon.

The four of us had met at work, a brain-draining web giant that shipped grunt work to foreign countries in exchange for senior staff. Eerie thing, emigration. My surroundings were familiar but not quite right; how apart I could be made to feel by a new toilet flush or the font on a road sign. Neither did it help that my variously coloured new colleagues responded to both greetings and questions with the same sort of panicked grin. Undeterred, I made three attempts to socialise, emailing the office about open lectures I’d seen advertised on physics or the new geometry. I was yet to learn of the absolving nature of the group invite. So it was probably out of compromise that two fellow programmers began asking my help with their lunchtime crosswords and cryptograms. I’d have them to thank too for breaking my run of evenings spent alone watching TV or napping since arriving in the UK.

The concept, George and Lewis explained after late-shift on our way to a pub, was for a sum of cash to be raised by exacting an entry fee from participants who, in elaborately named teams, could obtain the sum by answering a series of trivial questions. The catch, I think, was that everyone had to get drunk, thus increasingly diminishing their capacity for reasoning and recall. Good thing that we had my learning on our side.

George named our team ‘The Spinal Taps’. Not a medical reference, Lewis corrected me: my first mistake. The quiz’s theme, which the pub had not advertised beforehand, was Pop Culture. We did not win.

George and Lewis said I’d ‘brought nothing to the table’ (“not answers and not drinks”). I pretended to pay no mind. But little did they know of my resolve from that night to learn more trivia so as to avoid any further humiliations.

The task seemed impossible, infinite. I for one had never had the time or inkling to learn ad jingles or re-watch kids’ shows as a grown man - unlike George and Lewis, as I discovered once we moved in together. They’d stay up late discussing symbolism in The X-Files or the intrinsic uniqueness of any text. George was the greater expert though a grumpy one, as if trivia were not trivial but a state secret that’d been declassified against his advice, whereas Lewis pre-empted lines of dialogue with his own smug renditions or shouted out plots twists as if guessing them the first time round. We played ‘Name That Tune’, or rather I’d be hanging up my jacket when they’d come at me humming or whistling. At last I managed to recognise an old folksong. They said it was the theme from Tetris. Their disbelief at this reference having come full circle was expressed by them choking on laughter.

I think that was what I saw in Carol. When the other marketing girls said her name it was often followed by the words ‘bless her’ then a story about whichever latest gaffe or piece of slapstick — cue hands slapped over mouths, and much laughing. At least George and Lewis had noticed by then that I’d go quiet if they joined in. She laughed though; her approach to life, at first anyway, was refreshingly variant to mine. All winter I moaned about the way my flatmates sneaked film quotes into conversations no matter how serious or trivial, while my Christmas Carol neither sympathised nor shrugged but instead left under our spirally tinselled tree a big, floppy Film & TV guidebook.

Soon I was understanding more and more of those inane things my flatmates referenced. And admittedly I enjoyed some of them, and happy was my surprise on recognising this or that sitcom that my father had scavenged from the airwaves, but with the cast no longer dubbed, instead speaking American, as if possessed or revealed as spies. I had no gift for Carol in return but I quickly said that for me the holy day came later and on a different calendar to boot: a prophetic variation. She said don’t worry about it, but I told her I’d make it up to her on her birthday — it wasn’t like I’d forget: when HR had told me I shared birthdays with another member of staff, the coincidence, which had made me feel superfluous, made Carol laugh and say ‘Well!’ and so it became one of the first milestones of our happiness, and soon we were celebrating them together.

‘Celebrate’ is perhaps too strong a word, for I have always avoided parties, both of the house and dinner kind, the expense, the trivial conversation. But that year that in a sense was my last she convinced me to join her for a meal – after reassurances there’d be no kiddy cakes or numbered balloons – then maybe a pub afterwards (though I drew the line at a disco).

Chopping scissors circle my head like birds over a K.O.’d cartoon; cheep cheep they go then dive in to cut. She’d said I had to at least get sheared before going out. She’s asking over the top of her newspaper, “Are you sure you don’t want to go out-out?” I remind her we have a budget. Cheap cheap. Sulkily watching the motion of the barber’s pole over the door — to disprove her insinuations, I give the man a tip; he looks at the coppers as if I’ve returned the tissue for wiping stray hairs.

My temper flared at her for remembering her phone only once we’d got to the restaurant where, despite my warnings, she’d not booked us a table. She then made me accompany her back home - claiming it was dodgy down the canal at night - even though the flat was only minutes away and in any case it would have been rude for her to take calls.

I was explaining to her how she ought to plan these things as she held the door and looked at her feet. Lights switched on and dozens of voices named what I suddenly felt.

 

The party was over-crowded with our combined friends: dozens of Carol’s, plus my flatmates. I’d soon drunk so many beers that when looking at our birthday banner my eyes and ears fizzed, and I passed out on the couch but then later in bed couldn’t sleep. Wasn’t big enough for two anyway so, lured by the sirens of the television, I rejoined George and Lewis in the smoky ruins of the flat.

They weren’t watching TV so much as leafing through it, cop serials, chatshow paternity tests. This continued till an Eddie Murphy stand-up comedy special. It drew us out of our fug, prompting Mulan insights from George, and from Lewis bad impressions of Eddie Murphy doing his Bill Cosby and Mr T impressions. Lewis chuckled and sighed at himself then asked if we remembered Murphy’s appearance in Quantum Leap.

Sidestepping his trap, I declared Bullshit. They turned on me with incredulous stares. I replied that yes I was serious, and that in fact he was someone whom I’d viewed quite extensively. The outfits and fast cars of this streetwise entrepreneur were a capitalist aspiration my father had drilled into me, making my future dread of Eddie Murphy that much more a trial. George and Lewis were still staring at me as though I’d claimed the world was flat. But I, no longer the foreign naïf, refused to back down. We agreed to search the man’s history.

It was all there in black and white pixels. A few more clicks brought up some stills: Murphy in a tux, a band leader that Sam Beckett had to save from racists so he could go on to inspire Hendrix or something.

“Sorry Konman, a fucking ways to go yet!”

“Aw, and there’s you thinking you’d finally reached Shang Trivia.”

They high-fived. I told them I was going to bed. I vowed one day to best them. But while brushing my teeth, watching the spiral of mint spit, I saw the face of Eddie Murphy, spinning like a newspaper. Those squinting eyes, that bastard grin: it was like he was up to something.

Carol, having booked me the morning off, was getting ready for work, padding around the bed, hair darkened and thickened from her shower — she seemed tired. She saw the state I too was in, which made her laugh and give me the sort of hard humming kiss old aunts give wincing boys. Then she left me by myself in the party aftermath. My eyes were getting used to the light. My ears fizzed in the unnatural silence. To calm my nerves, I started logging my gifts.

I’d been on this thread once about The Divine Comedy predicting variant geometrical structures of the universe, and so I’d sent a link to Carol, adding that the book would look nice on our shelf, which otherwise held only a few used Sudoku books (mine) and a pristine Middlemarch (hers). The morning of the party, I’d been woken by the pressure of her through the duvet, which, after sleeping skin-to-skin, felt significant, but she was presenting me something. Blocky but bendy: I took off the wrapping, knowing what she’d bought.

The front cover wasn’t one I expected on a book of medieval verse. Two men in scuba gear windmilling their arms as they fell off opposite sides of a speedboat.

She prompted me: “The Diving Comedy.” Adorable expectant look on her face.

My kiss overshot, hitting a closed eye. “Just what I was after.”

Another look, different, longer this time. Now what was wrong? She kissed back properly. “I know.”

There followed birthday intercourse and breakfast.

If only this day could’ve been starting so well. It’d soon be time for my shift and yet I’d just started to nod off, fizzy dreams jolting me awake with that split-second feeling of not recognising what room you’re in. I debagged from my duvet and tried reading the novel. It was silly however. I leaned hard around the bed for alternatives. Yes, perhaps the Film & TV Guidebook would help me to keep my eyes open.

It should have warned me how relieved I felt looking at its front cover, Mickey Mouse as a sorcerer, billowing Monroe, a CGI T-Rex for that ‘modern’ touch — as if in some faraway place, by myself and in trouble, I’d met acquaintances I didn’t care for but jumped up and hugged them nonetheless. The pages were so soft I couldn’t exactly flick through them, more scraped them away in search for a particular entry.

‘Murphy; Edward Regan (“Eddie”)’

No mention of a part in Quantum Leap in the man’s otherwise varied and interesting career. So much for crowd-edited content. I gave a triumphant ‘ha!’ and folded a corner of the page so the evidence would be to hand. The corner, like an arrow, pointed at the next column — at another, more sinister entry.

“Hello Carol. Was Eddie Murphy in Cheers?”

“Oh doing fine myself.”

“Sorry, how are you? OK. But was Eddie Murphy in Cheers?

“Don’t think so. So I never really watched it. Not coming in?”

Never watched Cheers? my flatmates would have cried, but I was too relieved to dwell on them. Even print editors nod. Before I could say thank you, her voice went. She must have been pressing the phone to her breast because I heard a muffled shout:

“Roseanne. Eddie Murphy: in Cheers?”

Heat to my skin like a boiler switching on. The phone’s ears popped and her voice returned.

“Roseanne says yes.”

 

I believe the appropriate local expression is: ‘Ah shite.’