It was always the spring or the autumn when the signal came – something to do with the lengthening of days or nights, and the drawing in and tightening of air that came with the change of seasons. Dr Winterburn wondered if everybody felt this dreamy restlessness at such times, or was it just him? There was a tightness of definition to the dimensions of A&E reception as well, as he walked through it, doing his purposeful doctor’s walk and noticing things he perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise: the aggressive smell of cleaning products, the shit and blood and puke hosed down from the walls, a troupe of teenage girls squeezed onto two plastic chairs, all showing the inflammations of pellagra on their faces and hands, one of them doing something Jimmy Winterburn hadn’t seen since his own school days – playing with a paper fortune. Bite. Lift. Count.
He reached the main doors and walked out into the cool middle evening, never to return. The breaks, sprains, breakdowns, overdoses, sunstrokes in his waiting room would all have to wait a little longer; they would have to call Ms Burnell in for consultant cover, or even Mr Rowbotham, heaven save us and preserve us. Too bad.
When people asked why he had become a doctor, Jimmy would tell them that he wanted to do something useful with his life – and, if he was tired or not thinking straight, he would add: this time.
Now he was the top A&E consultant in the Nottinghamshire area, with a permanent post in a major teaching hospital, a happy marriage, three amazing children, a house he owned free and clear, far from the increasing disorder and unsafeness of the city.
And it didn’t mean a thing to him, any of it.
He walked until he reached the Trent Bridge. The A60 was closed, perhaps a new curfew, maybe because of the latest spontaneous demonstration – Jimmy Winterburn worked too hard to keep up with the news. Barriers had been flung up, too, as an anti-suicide device. This was no problem. Jimmy climbed the plastic walls with ease and levered himself onto the bridge parapet. He barely broke a sweat. His body was forty-seven, and he’d looked after it well.
Jimmy strolled along the bridge road, enjoying the night air, still noticing everything – a black zeppelin in the distance, the charred pillbox of the tollhouse, something black and crumpled near the sports end, perhaps the remnants of a small fire. He thought he heard music and that made him think of Louise Atherley, all those years ago… how on earth had he forgotten her?
Light caught his eye and there it was, a floating symbol in pink blocks and lines, like something from a 1990s video game… or an image you’d see if you closed your eyes too fast on a summer’s day.
He had to take a running jump to clear the bridge.
Bite, lift, count, Jimmy thought, hurtling over the river.
The pink covered everything.
Lines and bars disappeared and Dr James A. Winterburn, tall, handsome and distinguished, went with them.
Someone asked if he was okay and he heard his voice say something back; it had felt like a stumble, a headrush, and Mads said whoa, Scarborough warning! Someone else – it sounded like Rahman, Rahman was his name – grabbed onto him and said Jimmy, it’s only eight o’clock for fucksake!
But Jimmy was fine. He recognised now this other bridge, the motorway bridge that led to the high green space between LS6 and the city centre. He reassured his friends – god, how young everybody looked! – and said: ‘Rahman, there’s no way I would make the schoolboy error of getting hammered before the party! That’s more characteristic of an inept student type like yourself!’
‘Bloody stew-dents!’ Mads cried.
They were laughing now as they reached the grass, for students was exactly what they were, and freshers at that, living in a shared terraced house in the Hyde Park area of Leeds, and it was almost the end of that first year, and the Drydock had thrown itself open for the summer party and was shining like a happy lighthouse over the freeway, and now he could see clusters of other young folks, sitting and lying and laughing and dancing, and Mads was twirling her glowstick, the one she always kept with her just because it annoyed him and he’d said it was too Crasher ’95, and catching him looking, she said now: ‘If you’re not careful Jimmy, I’ll start blowing my whistle.’
The medical-scientific knowledge he’d gained on the last go round – all those man-hours, textbooks, shadowing, lectures and exams – was still there, but it was fading slowly, like the images on an old TV when you pull the base. And the memories of that life were being crowded out by sensation, by the energy and euphoria of this younger body. He was nineteen and fit and free in this year of ’99, and if he cared to buy a thing, he could.
Jimmy’s mission that night was something he never talked about, not even to Rahman or to Mads. His friends stopped to greet Flavia Johnson’s crew, and in their handslaps and exchanges of hugs and in-jokes and plans (something about a month away in a cottage somewhere) Jimmy slipped into the Drydock’s lower bar – and there she was, the girl who looked like Laura Prepon, dancing to Reef’s ‘Place Your Hands’, standing out from the shuffle and press of bodies, making even that stupid song look good. He ordered a beer from the old man behind the bar (a fellow of around sixty summers with cropped grey hair and a Roman nose who caught his eye and nodded in familiarity, though Jimmy didn’t think they’d met) and tried to work out how he would speak to her. That was the problem: he had the young man’s shyness again.
Someone clapped him on the arm. Monkey Harris was a guy who looked like a student but wasn’t. He was a guy who hung around the student and club scene. Monkey Harris said: ‘Jimmy! How’s your bones?’
And then, in what he perhaps imagined to be a discreet whisper, Monkey Harris asked if he wanted some drugs.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, and who knew, maybe the coke would give him the courage and articulacy to approach the girl who looked like Laura Prepon and win her over. In fact, once you got past the general dodginess of Monkey Harris, his product was pretty damn fine. Jimmy got completely aced on it, wandered around the grassland, bludgeoned the night with long, intense soliloquies. He didn’t see the girl who looked like Laura Prepon again that night, but Jimmy didn’t care. There was time. He was young again.
That summer Monkey Harris got him a job in a nightclub down by the docks – the place was called Club Eternal, although Monkey Harris, who’d read a little Nietzsche when he actually was a student, called it the Eternal Return Etcetera. Jimmy had an aptitude for bar work and enjoyed the scene; it was only much later that he realised the club was run not by the named licensee but by the tough, taciturn fellow who ran the door and who also happened to be the Leeds face of a major drug distribution operation.
By this point Jimmy had a fairly major coke problem, and had been ‘asked to leave’ the Hyde Park terrace after he kept bringing back bar staff and bouncers and other interesting characters at five in the morning. Around ’01 he realised the girl who looked like Laura Prepon was slipping from his grasp, because he was well into the sleepless hardcore elements of the student drug scene, from which most undergraduates kept a sensible distance.
By the time of his graduation, Jimmy was working the club pretty much full time. He had an apartment on Clarence Dock and a marble coffee table and a punk session girlfriend who was just as strung out as he was. As well as slinging drinks, he had secondary income from other jobs, such as collecting money from pubs, clubs and dealers, and certain one-off missions – perhaps the scariest being to drive from Leeds to White City at midnight with a kilo of heroin in a hidden well under the boot of his car.
The Eternal Return closed down in 2005, after a member of the United Service Crew was shot in the eye during an argument on the dancefloor in the middle of a Roni Size set. By then he had plenty of work, and the reputation that came with it. He was pulled over for minor motoring offences, searched in the street, at one point even arrested for jaywalking the Headrow. Just so’s we have your prints on file, the arresting officer laughed. You never know, Jim, they might come in handy!
As it happened, Jimmy’s print records were indeed used as evidence at the Crown Court, where he was put on trial for shooting Roger ‘Bendy’ Wharton in 2012. Jimmy couldn’t at all see what the fuss was about, because Roger ‘Bendy’ Wharton had, according to Jimmy’s intel, been arrested for importing herbal dope and subsequently done a deal with the CPS, which could have led to life sentences for most of Jimmy’s firm, as well as the seizure of homes, cars, the new place in Provence and god knows what else. Besides, he presumed that Roger ‘Bendy’ Wharton had millions of realities to be alive in, and it wouldn’t kill Roger ‘Bendy’ Wharton to get murdered in just one.
Not that Jimmy said this in court. He entered a guilty plea, hoping to be out of the joint inside a decade – ‘Ride it, mush,’ as a criminal acquaintance of his always said, ‘they can lock the locks but they can’t stop the clocks.’
But as the years went by, and his tariff came and went, and the parole knockback came time and again, he realised that he had pissed too many people off, that the authorities were going to make an example of him. He got older and felt his field of reference narrowing, his memories emptying. One day on the library computer he happened across a news story – experimental novelist Louise Atherley, 45, takes Booker Prize – and it took him a beat to recognise the name, and the face. Months went by when nothing mattered to him except prison politics and his little routines.
By the early 2020s he had a PlayStation, and played it through the long lockdown hours. At night, he dreamed of the video games he’d played as a child, Super Mario and Zelda and the New Zealand Story, where you could die but there was always an extra life, always a reset option and another chance.
He had served twenty-two years when the signal finally came. It had just turned April, and they were bussed out to pick strawberries on this farming complex near Middlesbrough, something to do with labour shortages (Jimmy knew all about this, he read the newspapers religiously every morning). He had been picking for almost five hours, his fingers were cramping and fruit juice was trickling and hardening inside his shirt, it was approaching the top of noon, and he glanced up and saw it – the shining pink symbol, hovering over a row of oblivious sweating men in plastic gloves and prison tracksuits.
The guard saw him run but never had a chance of catching him: Jimmy worked out whenever he could, and even in his fifties he could still move at a seamless, covering speed. Jimmy Winterburn raced through the field, trampling stalks and grass, shoulderbarged another prison officer who had been looking in entirely the wrong direction – and then leapt, and the guard chasing him saw Jimmy merge into a flash of pink light.
Then the light was gone, and it had taken Winterburn, J., HH12W26272, with it.
‘Went crazy, wouldn’t leave her alone,’ Flavia Johnson was saying when they reached her little gang, ‘lost his job, had a place in Kirkstall, watching that show over and over again,’ and he was tempted to go into the Drydock, he could hear the Reef song playing and knew that the girl who looked like Laura Prepon might be dancing to it, and it was so good to have this energy again after decades of prison time… but Jimmy knew what he was doing. Let her come to you.
They sat there on the grass with Flavia Johnson and her academic society crew, passing a bottle of wine from hand to hand, and Jimmy propped his back on his palms and took his time to enjoy the dry grass, the stars overhead, the noise of traffic and music and dialogue. He zoned out, and a little later felt somebody knock into him. ‘Whoa!’ Rahman shouted. ‘Scarborough warning!’
He looked up, expecting to see Monkey Harris, but it was her – the girl who looked like Laura Prepon, the girl he’d glimpsed on the concourse and in the Social but never actually spoken to. ‘Apologies, man, Jesus,’ she said, and her accent wasn’t American but the posh, throaty drawl of southern girls. ‘It’s hotboxed in there, I’m sweating like a bitch.’
‘You are a disgusting old baggage, Louise Atherley,’ said Flavia.
‘God, I know. Pass me the Lambrini.’
‘You better not act like this in the cottage,’ Mads warned.
Jimmy could have sat outside there all night, chatting about books and the scene and the state of the world. He clicked with Louise Atherley, clicked almost audibly with her, and when Mads tried to set up a game of spin the bottle with her damn glowstick, Jimmy demurred, not wanting to show the craving for intimacy on his face. But Louise Atherley said, ‘Goddamnit, don’t be such a gentleman,’ and she pinned him down and gave him a long, messy snog.
They spun the bottle for another couple of go-rounds, then started dancing (Reef had given way to a Manics retrospective), and as happens in the press and depth of the night, Jimmy lost track of her, and didn’t see her again all summer – he wasn’t close enough to Flavia and her group, who belonged to the high-end academic strata of the scene. When college opened again he went to every scheduled class, and also joined numerous literary and philosophy societies on a networking mission. Housemates and tutors alike were amazed by the new, sober and motivated Jimmy Winterburn.
He caught up with her finally outside a lecture theatre. A plastic sign outside gave the lecture title: ‘The Map and the Territory: Deconstructing the Choose Your Own Adventure series’. Louise Atherley recognised him, remembered his name, he could see it in her eyes. She didn’t remember spinning the bottle, but she was happy to go for a drink with him and to chat about her summer – they had gone to Flavia Johnson’s cottage in the Ribblesdale, and there she’d had an intense romance with a Rhodes scholar from Long Island who Louise just called ‘the Prep’. The Prep, it seemed, wore V-neck sweaters, had his hair cut at a specialist London stylist and treated his women poorly. Louise seemed glad to be shot of him.
That second year they got into a routine: drinks on the terrace bar and in the Arts Café, spoken word readings and galleries and arthouse movies. Jimmy didn’t press his suit, beyond the random brushing of fingers and arms. There was an obvious chemistry and warmth between them, but Louise had a focus that didn’t accommodate romance. For her dissertation she was writing a long, complex social novel based on ideas she’d had during the Choose Your Own Adventure lecture.
‘The concept would be like the original Montgomery-Packard series,’ Louise said, over dinner in the Japanese bar opposite the Drydock. ‘You get to a decision point in the story and choose from two or more options. But instead of space adventures or finding Atlantis, the story is going to be about real life – going to work, falling in love, the adventures and tragedies of the everyday. I mapped it out.’ Their plates rested on an enormous A3 cartograph of the book – a mad array of coloured lines.
‘Have you read Christopher Hitchens?’ Jimmy asked, remembering now that Hitchens wouldn’t publish this line for another ten years. ‘He says the real tragedy of life is that we have many more desires than opportunities. We only get to go round once. I used to love those gamebooks too, and that’s why they were so popular – it’s like video games, it’s a world where you can always go back, always reset yourself and take another path.’
Louise nodded. A strand of her black hair had got caught in her Laura Prepon-style glasses, and she took them off to deal with it. ‘But it’s not at all ideal, because books and video games are finite. Journey Under the Sea has forty-two endings, Grand Theft Auto has hundreds of secret missions, but at some point you’re going to reach every ending, complete every mission, and look under every rock. In real life, though, it seems like there’s endless possibility. This book will probably kill me to write.’
‘Because it’d be like a complete representation of life’s possibilities. Loops and switchbacks and dead ends. Hey. There is an ending in one of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that’s impossible to reach.’
Louise had unhooked her hair strand. ‘Really?’
‘Yep. The book is Inside UFO 54-40. There’s a two page spread of the city of Ultima. It’s like paradise. But you can’t actually get there if you follow the rules.’
‘So how d’you get to Ultima?’
Jimmy smiled, and took her hand. ‘You have to cheat.’
That was the first night they slept together.
Jimmy hit the first place that didn’t have shutters slung down and a plague mark painted on the door. The bar was packed, because it had solid walls and steel bars over the windows. The old man behind the counter said: ‘Back again?’
‘Again? I’ve never been here before.’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ But the old man was someone Jimmy almost recognised… the same long nose, cropped silver hair, skin like light on old wood. ‘Take your order?’
‘Give me a normal coffee. Can you do that?’
The old man nodded and turned to the coffee machine. Over the steam and clatter he said: ‘Crazy out there.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Jimmy said. He had the Westminster beat for a liberal daily, and he had been covering the bailout debate. It had ended abruptly when angry men overwhelmed the security guards, burst into the chamber and started shooting. A detachment of armed police arrived in seconds, started shooting back, and Jimmy had made a discreet escape through the Strangers’ Bar.
The old man served his coffee. ‘I’m just glad I got my generator round back. Enough for two, maybe three more days. After that, god knows. Maybe they’ll have got the power back on, and maybe not.’
‘It’s fucking crazy. I’m just glad my wife’s out of town.’
‘Want a game?’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘I keep board games. For, you know, hipsters and whatnot.’ Indeed, among the businessmen and public sector workers crowding out this place there were some playing Scrabble or Connect 4. The old man took a game from a stack behind the bar and handed it to Jimmy – The Game of Life. ‘I think you may enjoy that one.’
Jimmy perched on a table next to a woman sobbing into her cashmere wrap. He remembered playing The Game of Life when he was a kid. He even remembered the advert that had promoted it.
Louise called on his mobile. ‘Where the fuck are you, Jimmy?’
‘I’m in Shoreditch and I’m alive,’ Jimmy said. ‘Where are you, more to the point?’
‘Don’t worry about me, babe. I’m at the cottage – Flavia’s here,’ and he heard Flavia shout hello in the background. ‘And the Prep.’
‘The Prep?’ That was a name Jimmy hadn’t heard for a while. Hadn’t the Prep gone survivalist crazy and moved to the Hebden boondocks?
‘Yeah, he’s back now. He says everything that’s happened, the banking crash and all, it’s because society’s got too mechanistic and chemically orientated, that we need to get back to the land. He says he predicted the whole thing. He runs a craft shop now. But fuck his shit. How are you?’
‘Don’t worry about me. The power’s still on at our place.’
‘You have to leave the city, Jimmy.’
‘There’s no way – they’ve closed two of the gates, the others have been taken by the Levantists. You stay up there as long as you want. I’ll ride this out.’
‘As soon as, Jimmy. I’ll be back as soon as. I love you.’
But Louise did not come back for a long time. Jimmy stayed on in the city, thinking: we spent so long trying to get into London, trying to establish a life here, and now the cashpoints don’t even work. But those had been good years: the wedding in Soho House, the nights out in Hoxton and Shoreditch, the evenings of comedown sex and TV boxsets, the long, friendly, muddled lunches with friends and colleagues, Jimmy establishing himself as a serious journalist while Louise completed her postgrad work and held parties and salons and, whenever she could, worked on her novel – the Choose Your Own Adventure book, well over a thousand pages long, the map bustling with lines and loops and switchbacks, a novel she worked on well into the night.
The next time he caught up with Louise, in fact, was in 2017, at her book launch. By then things had settled down, and it felt churlish to complain about the suspension of Parliament and other bourgeois things, because at least the power was back on and the streets were not actually on fire. The launch was at the old Groucho Club building, now turned into a Community Meeting Point. Jimmy gatecrashed out of curiosity. He had thought that Louise Atherley’s complex postmodern novel would have been too controversial to publish in this day and age, and indeed it was. Instead Louise was promoting a memoir called Wickering: How I Survived Apocalypse on the Ribble Valley.
Another surprise was that Louise was introduced by the Prep, who hailed her book as ‘an indictment of the materialist and neoliberal regime that led to the financial crash of 2008, and an exemplar of socially responsible communitarian literature that will be studied and enjoyed for generations to come.’
Louise read from the memoir. There were long passages about making things out of wicker, and long passages about walking on the hills, interspersed with brief references to the credit crash and the riots. Jimmy listened as best he could and drank shots of whisky from a flask – discreetly, though, as alcohol had been formally banned in 2013 and everyone else was drinking from the juice bar. After Louise had finished her reading, she and the Prep did a short demonstration on how to make things from wicker.
Jimmy had to wait for the Q and A to pass before he could catch Louise face to face. ‘This is a surprise, and a departure – what happened to your social novel?’
‘Well, in the Ribble for so long, I had time to think,’ Louise told him. ‘About the novel, about our marriage – I mean, I’m so sorry I haven’t been in touch, and so glad to see that you’re safe. It wasn’t easy up there for a while – we had to hunt sheep by torchlight, and cook meat over open fire. Tucker – the Prep – he taught me a lot. He made me realise that I was torturing myself with this project and it would never end. He helped me burn it, Jimmy.’
‘You burned your novel?’ Jimmy’s voice rose; several heads turned. ‘But it was awesome! You used to read passages of it to me, and there was that one time, when you were crying and saying you’d never finish the book, and I held you in my arms and said—’
Louise’s expression sharpened. She pulled Jimmy down a corridor and out of a fire exit. ‘Listen to me. Things have changed. We, we had a good run, and I loved you, but you’re very much the sex and drugs and rock and roll part of my life – and like I say, things have changed.’ A man from a Community Patrol glanced at them, and Louise lowered her voice. ‘You know mine isn’t the only book that’s been burned in the last few years. This will be a good future, for many people, but if you don’t fit, bad things can happen. Tucker’s an important man – he’s going to get the Community Development ministerial post. And being with him has made me realise that the summer of ’99, the one I spent with him, it made a greater impression on me than I knew at the time, and I have a future with him, even—’ she held up a hand to forestall any objections – ‘even if I don’t agree with everything he thinks or does, he listens to me and I can change things.’ She hugged him. ‘Goodbye, Jimmy. Be safe.’
The next time the reset option came around, he was eighty years old and living in an exile commune in Finland.
‘Scarborough warning,’ Rahman yelled at him, but he wasn’t going to stumble, he knew exactly what he was doing now, the point was to get to Flavia and seduce her and make damn sure he was invited to the Ribble Valley cottage this time round, maybe kill the Prep, or at least turn the Prep around, be a change agent and shape whatever was going to happen in this world. But there were so many moving parts, he needed a beer to think it over, and so he strode into the lower bar of the Drydock where the Manics were playing ‘Revol’ and the girl who looked like Laura Prepon was dancing above and apart from the standard student one-two shuffle – Jimmy marvelled again at the fluidity and grace of her movements. The ‘Revol’ song ended and another one came on, a sample of dialogue from an interview with the writer Hubert Selby Jr.
The old man served him his drink, and said: ‘You’re back again?’
‘I don’t believe we’ve met,’ Jimmy said, but could he be sure? That was the problem with these constant iterations – you kept thinking you saw people you knew, and when you did know people, you kept confusing the different versions of them. You thought: is this the one where I spend five years hiking around Latin America, or do I wake up tomorrow in bed with the Amazon dominatrix?
‘Oh yeah, we’ve met many times.’ The old man wiped stray ale from the cover of his book – a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury. ‘You keep coming here and coming here and thinking this time everything’s going to be perfect. You never accept that life’s never going to be a succession of flawless, momentous moments. The princess is always in another castle. You can be happy and fulfilled all your life but at the same time there will be moments of boredom, torpor, anxiety, and at the end of it, you die.’
‘I can’t help but think you’re being a bit negative,’ said Jimmy.
Monkey Harris appeared at the bar. ‘I got the perfect cure for that, Jimmy. How’s your bones?’
‘And you can bugger off too,’ Jimmy told him.
The old man said: ‘Can I ask you something? How do you know this is even real? How do you know you ain’t hallucinating, locked up somewhere, or dying – or living in Kirkstall, taking too many antipsychotics, drinking yourself to pieces, watching Orange Is the New Black over and over again, developing an obsession with the actor who plays Alex Vause, and then with a woman you once glimpsed who looks vaguely like her? I mean, why this girl? You could have married Mads, she was the first person you slept with, she fell in love with you—’
‘That could be,’ Jimmy said. ‘Or it could be that everyone has this ability, this reset option. I don’t want to miss out on anything. I’m so afraid, and I don’t want to miss a thing.’
‘I’ve given you this little speech before,’ said the old man. ‘And you didn’t goddamn listen the first time around.’
‘Maybe. But when I hear the music, I’m gonna dance.’
He finished his beer and loped onto the dancefloor. When Louise Atherley saw him, her eyes lit up for a moment; she gave him a smile of amused tolerance, or diversion – and took his hand.
They were in Missouri this time, under siege at the university. There were rumours that the National Guard was coming, but their students were with them, there were amusing placards stacked like plastic chairs and lists of their demands pinned to the wall, and they had never felt so alive. He poured a glass of wine and walked onto the balcony, where a counter-demonstration was protesting in their favour.
‘Hey, Slipping Jimmy! Wine me, baby,’ said Louise, from inside – she often called him Slipping Jimmy, after the Better Call Saul character. He poured her some of the Chablis, but she was looking at her tablet. There was a fire on it. Louise glanced at him. ‘Fuck me,’ she said. ‘North Korea. There goes the eastern seaboard.’
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