Laura Barnett The Versions of Us Preview

Laura Barnett The Versions of Us Preview

Version One

Puncture

Cambridge, October 1958

Later, Eva will think, If it hadn’t been for that rusty nail, Jim and I would never have met.

The thought will slip into her mind, fully formed, with a force that will snatch her breath. She’ll lie still, watching the light slide around the curtains, considering the precise angle of her tyre on the rutted grass; the nail itself, old and crooked; the small dog, snouting the verge, failing to heed the sound of gear and tyre. She had swerved to miss him, and her tyre had met the rusty nail. How easy – how much more probable – would it have been for none of these things to happen?

But that will be later, when her life before Jim will already seem soundless, drained of colour, as if it had hardly been a life at all. Now, at the moment of impact, there is only a faint tearing sound, and a soft exhalation of air.

‘Damn,’ Eva says. She presses down on the pedals, but her front tyre is jittering like a nervous horse. She brakes, dismounts, kneels to make her diagnosis. The little dog hovers penitently at a distance, barks as if in apology, then scuttles off after its owner – who is, by now, a good deal ahead, a departing figure in a beige trench coat.

There is the nail, lodged above a jagged rip, at least two inches long. Eva presses the lips of the tear and air emerges in a hoarse wheeze. The tyre’s already almost flat: she’ll have to walk the bicycle back to college, and she’s already late for supervision. Professor Farley will assume she hasn’t done her essay on the Four Quartets, when actually it has kept her up for two full nights – it’s in her satchel now, neatly copied, five pages long, excluding footnotes. She is rather proud of it, was looking forward to reading it aloud, watching old Farley from the corner of her eye as he leaned forward, twitching his eyebrows in the way he does when something really interests him.

‘Scheiße,’ Eva says: in a situation of this gravity, only German seems to do.

‘Are you all right there?’

She is still kneeling, the bicycle weighing heavily against her side. She examines the nail, wonders whether it would do more harm than good to take it out.

She doesn’t look up.

“‘Fine, thanks. It’s just a puncture.’”

‘Fine, thanks. It’s just a puncture.’

The passer-by, whoever he is, is silent. She assumes he has walked on, but then his shadow – the silhouette of a man, hatless, reaching into his jacket pocket – begins to shift across the grass towards her. ‘Do let me help. I have a kit here.’

She looks up now. The sun is dipping behind a row of trees – just a few weeks into Michaelmas term and already the days are shortening – and the light is behind him, darkening his face. His shadow, now attached to feet in scuffed brown brogues, appears grossly tall, though the man seems of average height. Pale brown hair, in need of a cut; a Penguin paperback in his free hand. Eva can just make out the title on the spine, Brave New World, and she remembers, quite suddenly, an afternoon – a wintry Sunday; her mother making Vanillekipferl in the kitchen, the sound of her father’s violin drifting up from the music room – when she had lost herself completely in Huxley’s strange, frightening vision of the future.

She lays the bicycle down carefully on its side, gets to her feet. ‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I’ve no idea how to use one. The porter’s boy always fixes mine.’

‘I’m sure.’ His tone is light, but he’s frowning, searching the other pocket. ‘I may have spoken too soon, I’m afraid. I’ve no idea where it is. So sorry. I usually have it with me.’

‘Even when you’re not cycling?’

‘Yes.’ He’s more a boy than a man: about her own age, and a student; he has a college scarf – a bee’s black and yellow stripes – looped loosely round his neck. The town boys don’t sound like him, and they surely don’t carry copies of Brave New World. ‘Be prepared and all that. And I usually do. Cycle, I mean.’

He smiles, and Eva notices that his eyes are a very deep blue, almost violet, and framed by lashes longer than her own. In a woman, the effect would be called beautiful. In a man, it is a little unsettling; she is finding it difficult to meet his gaze.

‘Are you German, then?’

‘No.’ She speaks too sharply; he looks away, embarrassed.

‘Oh. Sorry. Heard you swear. Scheiße.’

‘You speak German?’

‘Not really. But I can say “sh*t” in ten languages.’

Eva laughs: she shouldn’t have snapped. ‘My parents are Austrian.’

‘Ach so.’

‘You do speak German!’

‘Nein, mein Liebling. Only a little.’

His eyes catch hers and Eva is gripped by the curious sensation that they have met before, though his name is a blank. ‘Are you reading English? Who’s got you on to Huxley? I didn’t think they let any of us read anything more modern than Tom Jones.’

He looks down at the paperback, shakes his head. ‘Oh no – Huxley’s just for fun. I’m reading law. But we are still allowed to read novels, you know.’

She smiles. ‘Of course.’ She can’t, then, have seen him around the English faculty; perhaps they were introduced at a party once. David knows so many people – what was the name of that friend of his Penelope danced with at the Caius May Ball, before she took up with Gerald? He had bright blue eyes, but surely not quite like these. ‘You do look familiar. Have we met?’

The man regards her again, his head on one side. He’s pale, very English-looking, a smattering of freckles littering his nose. She bets they gather and thicken at the first glance of sun, and that he hates it, curses his fragile northern skin.

‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I feel as if we have, but I’m sure I’d remember your name.’

‘It’s Eva. Edelstein.’

‘Well.’ He smiles again. ‘I’d definitely remember that. I’m Jim Taylor. Second year, Clare. You at Newnham?’

She nods. ‘Second year. And I’m about to get in serious trouble for missing a supervision, just because some idiot left a nail lying around.’

‘I’m meant to be in a supervision too. But to be honest, I was thinking of not going.’

Eva eyes him appraisingly; she has little time for those students – men, mostly, and the most expensively educated men at that – who regard their degrees with lazy, self-satisfied contempt. She hadn’t taken him for one of them. ‘Is that something you make a habit of?’

“He shrugs. ‘Not really. I wasn’t feeling well. But I’m suddenly feeling a good deal better.’”

‘Someone you know?’ he says.

‘A little.’ Something has changed in her; he can sense it. Something is closing down. ‘I’d better head back. I’m meeting someone later.’

A man: of course there had to be a man. A slow panic rises in him: he will not, must not, let her go. He reaches out, touches her arm. ‘Don’t go. Come with me. There’s a pub I know. Plenty of ice and gin.’

He keeps his hand on the rough cotton of her sleeve. She doesn’t throw it off, just looks back up at him with those watchful eyes. He is sure she’ll say no, walk away. But then she says, ‘All right. Why not?’

Jim nods, aping a nonchalance he doesn’t feel. He is thinking of a pub on Barton Road; he’ll wheel the damn bicycle there himself if he has to. He kneels down, looks it over; there’s no visible damage, but for a narrow, tapered scrape to the front mudguard. ‘Doesn’t look too bad,’ he says. ‘I’ll take it for you, if you like.’

Eva shakes her head. ‘Thanks. But I can do it myself.’

And then they walk away together, out of the allotted grooves of their afternoons and into the thickening shadows of evening, into the dim, liminal place where one path is taken, and another missed.