Read The Square Root of Summer Online

Authors: Harriet Reuter Hapgood

The Square Root of Summer

 

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For my parents, for everything

 

{1}

PARTICLES

The Uncertainty Principle states that you can know where a particle is, or you can know where it's going, but you can't know both at the same time.

The same, it turns out, is true of people.

 

And when you try, when you look too closely, you get the Observer Effect. By trying to work out what's going on, you're interfering with destiny.

 

A particle can be in two places at once. A particle can interfere with its own past. It can have multiple futures, and multiple pasts.

 

The universe is complicated.

 

Saturday 3 July

[Minus three hundred and five]

My underwear is in the apple tree.

I'm lying in the grass, staring up through the branches. It's late afternoon and the rest of the garden is lemonade sunshine, but under here it's cool and dark and insecty. When I tilt my head back, the whole garden is upside down—and my laundry with it, festooned like the world's saddest bunting.

Déjà vu flattens me, and I have the stupidest thought:
Hey, Grey's home.

When our clothesline broke a few years ago, my grandfather Grey was underneath it. “Balls and buggery to the flames of hell!” he roared, flinging the wet clothes into the trees to dry. He loved the effect so much, he insisted we repeat it every time the sun came out.

But Grey died last September, and we don't do things like that anymore.

I shut my eyes and recite pi to one hundred decimal places. When I open them, the apple tree still blossoms with underwear. It's a throwback to how things used to be—which means I know exactly who's responsible.

Then I hear his voice saying my name, floating towards me over the bushes.

“Gottie? Yeah, still a total Mensa patient.”

Rolling onto my front, I peer through the trees. Across the garden, my brother Ned is coming out the back door. Six foot of stubble and snakeskin leggings, and a clothespin clipped to his T-shirt. Since coming home from art school a couple of weeks ago, he's been making a pastiche of Grey's summers: dragging our grandfather's things out of the shed, rearranging furniture, playing his records. He settles himself on the grass, swigging a beer and air-guitaring with his other hand. Perpetual motion.

Then I see who's following him and instinctively duck into the grass. Jason. His best friend and bass player in their band. He slouches slowly to the ground, where I stare a hole in the back of his leather jacket.

“It's past seven,” Ned is saying. “Grots'll be home soon, if you wanna say hi.”

I wrinkle my nose at the nickname.
Kla Grot—little toad.
I'm seventeen!

“It's that late?” Jason's voice is a low rumble. “We should call the others, have band practice here.”

No, don't do that
, I think.
Shoo
. It's been one thing, having Ned home these past couple of weeks, bringing the house alive with music and noise and mess. I don't want Fingerband here too, squawking their guitars all night and talking, talking, talking. Not when I've been an elective mute since September.

Then there's Jason. Blond, bequiffed, blue-eyed. Beautiful. And, if you want to get technical about it, my ex-boyfriend.

Secret
ex-boyfriend.

Ugh.

Aside from the funeral, this is the first time I've seen him since the end of last summer. This is the first time I've seen him since we were having sex in the sunshine.

I didn't even know he was back. I don't know how I missed it—our village, Holksea, is the size of a postage stamp. Barely enough houses for a Monopoly set.

I want to throw up. When Jason left for college, this was not how I pictured us seeing each other again—with me lurking in the shrubbery like Grey's vast stone Buddha. I'm frozen, compelled to stay where I am, staring at the back of Jason's head. It's too much for my heart to take, and not enough.

Then Umlaut appears from nowhere.

A ginger blur through the garden, landing with a
meow
next to Ned's cowboy boots.

“Yo, midget,” says Jason, surprised. “You're new.”

“That's Gottie's,” Ned non-explains. Getting a kitten wasn't my idea. He appeared one day in April, courtesy of Papa.

Ned stands up, scanning the garden. I try to blend, a five-foot-nine-inch leaf, but he's already strutting towards me.

“Grotbag.” He raises one cool eyebrow. “Playing hide-and-seek?”

“Hello,” I reply, rolling onto my back and staring up at him. My brother's face is a reflection of mine—olive skin, dark eyes, beaky nose. But while he lets his brown hair fall unbrushed around his shoulders, mine hasn't been cut in five years, and is twisted up in a permanent topknot. And only one of us is wearing eyeliner. (Clue: it isn't me.)

“Found ya.” Ned winks. Then, quick as a flash, he whips his phone from his pocket and snaps me.

“Uuuhhhnnn,” I complain, hiding my face. One thing I haven't missed while he's been AWOL all year: Ned's paparazzo habit.

“You should come and join us,” he calls over his shoulder. “I'm making
Frikadeller
.”

The prospect of meatballs is enough to coax me out, despite myself. I stand up and trail him through the shrubbery. Out on the grass, Jason's still lounging among the daisies. He's obviously found a new hobby at college—there's a cigarette half-smoked in his hand, which he lifts in a half wave, half smiling.

“Grots,” he says, not quite meeting my eye.

That's Ned's nickname for me
, I think.
You used to call me Margot.

I want to say hello, I want to say so much more than that, but the words vanish before they reach my mouth. The way we left things, there's still so much unsaid between us. My feet grow roots while I wait for him to stand up. To talk to me. To mend me.

In my pocket, my phone weighs heavy, untexted. He never told me he was back.

Jason looks away, and sucks on his cigarette.

After a pause, Ned claps his hands together. “Well,” he says brightly. “Let's get you two chatterboxes inside. There's meatballs to fry.”

He struts off to the house, Jason and me walking silently behind. When I reach the back door, I'm about to follow them into the kitchen, but something stops me. Like when you think you hear your name, and your soul snags on a nail. I linger on the doorstep, looking back at the garden. At the apple tree, with its laundry blossoms.

Behind us, the evening light is condensing, the air thick with mosquitoes and honeysuckle. I shiver. We're on the cusp of summer, but I have the sense of an ending, not a beginning.

But perhaps it's that Grey is dead. It still feels like the moon fell out of the sky.

 

Sunday 4 July

[Minus three hundred and six]

I'm in the kitchen early the next morning, scooping
birchermuesli
into a bowl, when I notice it. Ned's reinstated the photographs on the fridge, a decorating habit of Grey's I always hated. Because you can see the gap where Mum should be.

She was nineteen when Ned was born and she moved home to Norfolk, bringing Papa with her. Twenty-one when she had me, and she died. The first photo I show up in after that, I'm four and we're at a wedding. In it, Papa, Ned, and I are clustered together. Behind us towers Grey, all hair, beard, and pipe—a supersize Gandalf in jeans and a Rolling Stones T-shirt. I smile toothlessly: prison-cropped hair, shirt and tie, buckled shoes, trousers tucked into grubby socks. (Ned is in a pink rabbit costume.)

A couple of years ago, I asked Grey why I'd been dressed as a boy, and he'd chuckled, saying, “Gots, man—no one ever dressed you any which way. That was all you. Right down to that weird jam with the socks. Your parents want to let you and Ned do your own thing.” Then he'd wandered off to stir the dubious stew he was concocting.

Despite my alleged childhood insistence on dressing like Mr. Darcy, I'm not a tomboy. They might be in a tree, but my bras are pink. Awake all last night, I painted my toenails cherry red. Hidden in my wardrobe—albeit underneath a hundred doppelgänger sneakers—lurks a pair of black high heels. And I believe in love on a Big Bang scale.

That's what Jason and I had.

Before leaving the kitchen, I flip the photo over, sticking it down with a magnet.

Outside, it's an English cottage–garden idyll. Tall delphiniums pierce the cloudless sky. I scowl at the sunshine and start heading to my room—a brick box annex beyond the apple tree. Almost immediately, my foot hits something solid in the long grass, and I go flying.

When I pick myself up and turn around, Ned is sitting up, rubbing his face.

“Nice dandelion impression,” I say.

“Nice wake-up call,” he mumbles.

From the house, through the open back door, I hear the phone ring. Ned cat-stretches in the sun, unruffled. Unlike his velvet shirt.

“Did you just get home?”

“Something like that,” he smirks. “Jason and I headed out after dinner—Fingerband rehearsal. There was tequila. Is Papa around?”

As if cued by a hidden director, Papa floats from the kitchen, a mug in each hand. In this house of big stompy giant people, he's a
Heinzelmännchen
—a pixie-pale elf straight out of a German fairy tale. He'd be invisible if it weren't for his red sneakers.

He's also about as down-to-earth as a balloon, not batting an eye at how we're scattered on the grass as he perches himself between my upside-down cereal bowl and me. He hands Ned a mug. “Juice. Here, I have to talk both of you to a proposition.”

Ned groans but gulps the juice, emerging from the mug slightly less green.

“What's the proposition?” I ask. It's always disconcerting when Papa tunes in to reality enough to run ideas past us. He seriously lacks
Vorsprung durch Technik
—German precision and efficiency. Not just a blanket short of a picnic—he'd forget the picnic too.

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