- Published: 2 January 2018
- ISBN: 9780143770930
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $19.99
Catch Me When You Fall
If you take photographs through a prism, you can turn people into ghosts. I’d taught Jamie that this year, my eighteenth year of life, and possibly my last. Whenever a bad memory crept into my brain, I held a prism up to it, and it would distort and soften. That way I could cope with it a bit better.
There were other memories, though, of which I wanted to remember every last detail. They gave me something to hold onto. Because one day soon, I knew, I might not wake up.
Jamie and I first met in the Canterbury Health Laboratories waiting room. I was having my three-monthly blood test, to check I was still in remission. It was after school, 3.30 p.m. The room was heaving with the usual collection of old people, a tired-looking mother with a screaming toddler, and a young guy with very blond hair, who was frowning at his cell phone.
I took a seat next to the blond guy, pulled my book out of my bag and settled in for the long wait. ‘Hey,’ a voice said in my ear. ‘Snap.’ I looked up, and into a pair of very blue eyes, like the crevasses inside Fox Glacier. The blond guy was holding up my book.
That confused me for a moment, until I realised my own book was still sitting in my lap. ‘IQ84,’ I said, then smiled. ‘It’s great, isn’t it?’ The guy, who didn’t look much older than me, threw up his hands. ‘It’s so good and now I’m nearly finished.’ He didn’t even seem to notice that his blood form had fallen onto the floor. ‘I’ve got about a hundred and fifty pages to go,’ I said, which was basically nearly finished, because the book was nearly a thousand pages long. ‘I bought it because I liked the title.’
The guy smiled back. ‘Yeah? Me, too.’ ‘James Orange,’ one of the phlebotomists called out. James gestured at the pregnant woman to his right, the one holding the sticky toddler. ‘You should go first,’ he said. ‘Huh,’ I said, watching the pregnant lady rush after the phlebotomist. ‘She didn’t even say thank you.’
James looked down at my blood form. ‘Do people call you Alexandria, or Alex?’ ‘Alex,’ I said, the inside of my stomach shimmering, like the surface of a pond. The boy extended his hand. ‘Jamie,’ he said. His hands were large, like my dad’s, and he wore a chunky ring on his right middle finger with odd symbols carved into it, like hieroglyphics. ‘So, what’s the best book you’ve ever read?’
So I told him about His Dark Materials, my favourite book trilogy, and Jamie told me about a book called The Road, and the next thing I knew my name was being called. ‘You should go first,’ I said, sneaking one last peek at his beautiful eyes. Jamie said, ‘Do you like coffee?’
That’s how I ended up sitting in a café with Jamie Orange, sipping coffee through cream. We were in the back corner, at either end of a battered brown leather couch. There was only one other customer in the café, a man with ginger hair and a receding chin sitting near the door. I was a bit nervous about how we were going to maintain a conversation once we’d exhausted books, but I needn’t have worried. Jamie seemed to be genuinely interested in me — me, scrawny Alexandria Byrd.
He kept asking me questions. Not the questions teenagers usually ask when they meet each other, like what school you go to and what bands you like. No, he wanted to know my favourite colour and my first memory and even what name I’d choose for a cat, if someone gave me one.
‘A cat?’ I frowned. ‘We had a cat called Morris, when I was little.’ Below the window, the sun-shiny Avon River slipped past. The leaves on the weeping willows were just starting to turn, cherry red and marmalade orange. Jamie leaned forward. ‘Yeah, but did you name him?’ ‘No, my Mum did. I think.’
I rolled my eyes towards the ceiling. ‘OK, I’d call him—’ Jamie raised his voice over the hissing of the coffee machine. ‘Him?’ ‘Yeah, it’d be a boy. A big ginger tomcat.’ Looking at Jamie out of the corner of my eye, I noticed he was watching me, too. Like, really watching me, in a way that made me feel hot all over.
‘I’d call him Schrödinger.’ ‘Schrödinger,’ Jamie repeated, drawing out the word like mozzarella. ‘Why?’ I shrugged. ‘It’s kind of a joke. You know about Schrödinger’s cat, right?’ His brow wrinkled. ‘Sort of.’ ‘Schrödinger was a scientist.’ I took a deep breath. ‘He thought up this experiment, where a cat is locked in a box with a source of radiation and a poison. The poison will be released if the radioactive source emits radiation, which may or may not happen.’
Jamie ran his finger around the rim of his cup. ‘Sucks for the cat. Why’d he do that?’ I bit back a smile. ‘He was proving a point,’ I said. ‘It’s to do with the laws of quantum mechanics. The cat is simultaneously considered alive and dead until the box is opened and you get to see what happened to it.’
‘So you’re a physics geek?’ ‘Not really,’ I said, bristling at the use of the word ‘geek’. ‘Lots of people know about Schrödinger’s cat.’ He shrugged. ‘I’m kind of retarded at science. What’s your favourite hobby?’ ‘Photography. How about you?’ ‘Um. I don’t know.’ Jamie ran a hand through his hair, so it stuck up in snowy spikes. ‘Acting, I guess. Is that a hobby?’ ‘If you don’t get paid for it, then I suppose it is.’ I could imagine Jamie being good at drama, with his swooping gestures and energetic personality.
Jamie tilted his head to one side. ‘Do you get paid for your photographs?’ ‘Not yet.’ Cutting my eyes towards the front of the café, I saw that we were the only ones left, and the barista was bringing in the sign. ‘Hey, I think they’re closing up.’ ‘Already?’ He glanced down at his watch, then back at me. ‘What’s the best photo you ever took?’ I laughed, and stood up. ‘Next time, OK?’ I flushed, because what if Jamie didn’t want there to be a next time?
Lowering my head, I started walking towards the door. Jamie snatched his bag off the floor and followed me outside and onto the bridge. ‘Text me when you finish IQ84, huh? I want to know what you think.’ I halted. ‘What if it’s the middle of the night?’ ‘Text me anyway.’
His pale eyebrows drew together. ‘Do you read books in the middle of the night?’ The trees stirred in the autumn breeze. I shivered and drew my cardigan across my chest. ‘Only when I can’t sleep.’ Jamie leaned against the railing and thrust his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. ‘Me, too.’
I pulled my beeping cell phone out of my bag, and frowned at the text message: Where are you? ‘That’s my mum,’ I said. ‘Here.’ Jamie held out his hand. I must have been giving him a what the? look, because he laughed, and said, ‘Relax. I’m just going to put my number in your contacts. If that’s OK?’
‘Oh. Yeah, that’s OK.’ I handed him my phone and watched his long, slender fingers move over the screen. ‘Do you play the piano?’ I blurted. Jamie handed my phone back. ‘As a matter of fact, I do.’ Then his cell phone dinged, and he sprang sideways, like a cat. ‘Crap, gotta go,’ he said. ‘Don’t forget to text me,’ he called over his shoulder, as he started jogging towards Oxford Terrace. ‘I won’t,’ I called back.
The bus ride to Sumner was less painful than usual, probably because I read IQ84 the whole way. The road hadn’t been the same since the 2011 earthquake, with all the bumps and road cones everywhere, and it took twice as long to get home. Luckily our house was still fit to live in, unlike many of the houses around us. Living in Christchurch was still pretty stressful, though.
Five years on and I still jumped every time a truck or a bus rumbled past our house. The February earthquake wasn’t the worst day of my life, though. The worst day of my life was when I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.
The sun was setting behind the hills when I got off the bus, the sea a mirror image of the tangerine-dappled sky. I could just make out a couple of shadowy figures sitting on top of Cave Rock, my favourite Sumner landmark. Whenever I was feeling stressed or down, I’d sit up there, apart from a few months after the earthquake when it was fenced off.
The beating of the waves on the rocks below would drive all the thoughts out of my head for a while. ‘Jamie Orange,’ I whispered, walking around the corner and on to my street. When I opened the front door, Dad was sitting on a stool in the hallway, pulling off his bike shoes. It was nineteen kilometres to the university, but he cycled most days, so Mum could have the car.
‘Going to be cold tonight,’ Dad said. I shrugged off my jacket and hung it on the coat stand. ‘It’s cold already.’ Dad followed me into the kitchen. ‘Did you have choir practice?’ ‘No, Mum made me go for my blood test.’ I perched on the edge of a bar stool and pinched a carrot out of the salad bowl on the bench. Mum shut the door to the oven and turned to face us.
‘And then?’ Her sculpted eyebrows shot beneath her glossy fringe. My mum had dyed her hair black ever since I could remember. I don’t think she would even remember what her natural hair colour was. ‘And then I went out for coffee, with a friend.’ I bit into the carrot. ‘Nicole?’ Dad filled a glass from the tap and raised it to his lips. Unlike Mum, Dad’s hair was au naturel, a curly mass of greying copper. The Mad Professor, my sister liked to call him, even though he was actually a microbiologist, not a professor.
‘No, a guy. Jamie,’ I said, my cheeks flaming. If only the chemo had killed my blushing cells along with my leukaemia. Hannah materialised at my elbow. ‘Ooh, Alex has a boyfriend.’ I scowled at her. ‘Aren’t you too old for pigtails?’ Hannah blinked at me through her mascara-caked eyelashes.
‘They’re in fashion, actually, but I guess you wouldn’t know about that.’ ‘Only if you’re three,’ I said, sliding off the stool. Ignoring Hannah’s imbecilic taunts, Alex has a boyfriend, Alex has a boyfriend, I flounced down the hallway and into my bedroom. Thirteen-year-old sisters were such a pain in the butt.
I closed the door and stood in front of the mirror, trying to see myself through Jamie’s eyes. If only I were even two inches taller than five feet. I was proud of my hair, though. I’d worn my coppery locks to my shoulders before I’d lost it all with the chemo. When it grew back I’d decided never to cut it again, and now it was halfway to my waist.
The ringing didn’t register until Dad knocked on my door and handed me the cordless phone. ‘Who is it?’ I asked. The only people who ever called on our landline were my grandparents, and people doing nosy surveys about the New Zealand flag and what washing powder we liked to use. ‘It’s Doctor McIntyre,’ he said.
My heart sped up. Why was my paediatrician calling me at this time of night? I snatched the phone out of his hand. ‘Hello?’ Doctor McIntyre’s Scottish burr curled into my ear. ‘Alex, hi. How are you?’ ‘I’m very well,’ I said. Wasn’t I? I was. Never better.
‘Are you calling about my blood test?’ ‘Well, yes, I am. Alex — look, we were a bit worried about a couple of cells on the blood film. It might be nothing, but I think it would be best if we had a check of your bone marrow.’
‘You want me to have another blood test?’ I said, not looking at Dad. ‘Sure, when?’ ‘No, Alex, I think you need a bone marrow biopsy. Tomorrow, if possible.’ ‘Tomorrow,’ I said, gripping the receiver. ‘At eleven. Does that suit?’ ‘Can we make it around lunchtime? I’ve got a test in the morning.’ Doctor McIntyre hesitated. ‘Twelve noon, then. Try not to worry too much, OK?’ ‘I’m not,’ I lied, and hung up.
‘What was that all about?’ Dad’s face was blank, but I could tell he was stressed because of the little wrinkle that had appeared in the bridge of his nose. Rolling my eyes, I said, ‘The lab stuffed up the sample, so they want another blood test off me. I’ll go at lunchtime, no big deal. I’ll need a note for school.’
‘Nice of him to ring you at this time of night,’ Dad said, his shoulders losing some of their tension. ‘I’m his star patient,’ I said, brushing past him and walking back towards the kitchen. ‘I’m starving — what’s for dinner?’
Of course I wasn’t starving, because my stomach felt as if it were crawling with snakes. A couple of cells? A bone marrow biopsy? I couldn’t have relapsed. It had been four years since I’d been diagnosed with leukaemia, and three years since I’d finished my treatment. In two years, I’d be considered cured.
Doctor McIntyre was overreacting, that was all. I had a cold last week — no wonder my cells looked a bit funny. After I’d stacked the dishwasher, I retreated into my bedroom with IQ84. I needed to get away from my parents’ prying questions (Dad: Did Doctor McIntyre say anything else? Mum: Another blood test? Are you sure everything’s OK?).
Also, I wanted to finish IQ84 as soon as possible, so I could text Jamie — Jamie of the Fox Glacier eyes and the snowy hair; Jamie, with his intense gaze and oddball questions. I wanted to see him again. I did, I did.
Reading wasn’t easy, though. My mind kept skittering off on tangents — funny cells, Jamie, bone marrow biopsy, Schrödinger’s cat, bone marrow biopsy, Jamie — and I kept reining it back in again. Don’t think. Just read.
Around eleven, I changed into my pyjamas and climbed into bed. It was half-past midnight by the time I read the last page. The house was silent. I found Jamie Orange in the contacts on my phone, but paused. Maybe it was too late to text, despite what he’d said earlier. I didn’t want to wake him up.
I started thinking about the bone marrow biopsy tomorrow, which was now today because it was officially Wednesday morning, and I stopped hesitating. I needed to feel like I was still normal, still alive, still well.
Have finished IQ84 & it was awesome. Wish I was in an alternate dimension, how about you? Alex. I set the phone beside my bed and turned off my light. Less than a minute passed before my phone dinged. Totally. Now have post-traumatic stress syndrome as I have nothing to read!!!
We can have a mutual counselling session, I texted back, before putting my phone on silent so Hannah couldn’t hear it through the wall. My phone vibrated.
Done. My dimension or yours?
How about Avon Café tomorrow @ 3.30 p.m.? I texted back.
OK. See you then, SC. ‘SC?’ I whispered, and then smiled.
Schrödinger’s cat. Of course.
Today is the first of September, the first day of spring, and it's been sixty four days since I last saw Sophie Abercrombie.
A prime number is divisible only by itself and by one. If I were a prime number, I’d want to be a five.
Chapter 1: Rebecca *Please note* that this extract contains adult themes and is suitable for readers aged 16+.
Jake lay on top of his board, feeling the swells move beneath him, like the air moving in and out of his lungs, like the blood surging through the four chambers of his stubbornly beating heart.
They see the fish on their first day, laid bare on the tideline. The seagulls have nearly picked the bones clean already.
There was no peace, even in the loo. Rory’s pager and phone were going simultaneously.
They were still 400 yards from the strip of white beach and the crammed jungle behind it when the fighter planes came.