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.’