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Ruth Livingstone
Ruth Livingstone

Just finished the third year of the Creative Writing (BA) course at Birkbeck. I walk, read, write, blog and - in my spare time – work for the NHS. Currently trying to whip my first novel into shape and ready for submission to agents.

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Being Tim

Virgo, your key words are: observation, analysis, calculation, loyalty, tidiness and hypochondria.

The buzzing jolts him awake. Reaching under his bed, Tim finds his phone where he always puts it, placed in the middle of the gap between his slippers and his pile of carefully folded tissues. The display tells him it is zero seven fifteen.
          'You took long enough,' says the voice. His sister, Alice.
          'What do you want?'
          Tim's brain is still fuzzy with sleep and he hates being caught off-guard and without time to prepare for a conversation. As he struggles to wake himself up completely, he has an unpleasant feeling prickling in the back of his brain.
          'Just checking that you're going to be here this evening.'
          '“Going to be here?”'
          He opens his eyes fully and looks around his small room. The grey cover of his duvet is rumpled from the night and the curtains at the window (each with twenty-six vertical stripes of different shades of brown) have a gap between them where they don't quite meet and where the early morning sunshine is slipping through. The rumpling and the gap annoy Tim. Next to his computer screen are his notebooks, pens and puzzles laid out, ready, and he remembers it is Saturday. A day he normally has to himself. A good day.
          'No! Over here,' says his sister. 'You've forgotten. I knew it.'
          Now he remembers something else about this Saturday. His sister's engagement party. A sick churning starts in his stomach and rises up into his throat. His heart begins to thump and his fingers grip the phone so tightly he feels his knuckles go numb.
          'You are coming this evening? To the party?'
          'Yes.' he says, realising this is what he is expected to say.
          'Having my family around is really important.'
          He thinks of their long-dead parents and the brother who never lived. But she hangs up before he can ask her who she means. It is only later, when counting the number of Cornflakes in his bowl, that Tim realises she meant him.
          Your twin brother, Adrian, was born a few minutes after midnight on the twenty-third of September and, if he had lived, he would be a Libran, which is the seventh astrological sign of the zodiac. But you were born a few minutes before midnight, on the twenty-second of September, and you are a Virgo, which is the sixth astrological sign of the zodiac. You check your emails and look over the RSS feeds from and the Maths Challenger online forums, to see if there are any new questions posted. But this morning you can't concentrate on anything because you are too busy trying not to think of Alice and the party.
          So you pull out your A4 notebook (the one you use for making lists, not the one you use for coding, and certainly not the one you use for maths puzzles) and you draw a line down the centre of the page. On one side of the line you write 'Go to Party'. On the other side you write 'Don't go to Party'. You underline both these choices neatly, with two straight lines. Now you list the likely consequences under each choice.
          Under 'Go to Party' you write down the following: 'spill drink', 'talk to people', 'break something', and 'eat bad food'. Then you add, 'become ill'. After thinking some more, you write 'too ill to go to work' and then 'lose job'.
          Under 'Don't go to Party' you write: 'Alice gets angry'. You can't think of anything else to put there.
          Dr Watts showed you this method and told you it would help whenever you needed to make a difficult decision. You do exactly as Dr Watts instructed and add up the number of consequences in each column and consider what you have. It is easy to see that 'Go to Party' scores seven and beats 'Don't go to Party'—because that only scores one.
          Tim's heart thuds. The pen shakes in his hand. A clamp is squeezing his chest and he is getting pins-and-needles around his lips again. He wants to phone Dr Watts for advice, but today is Saturday and on Saturday you can only see the doctor if it's an emergency.
          Tim wonders if this counts as an emergency. Is he having a heart attack? How do you know if you're having a heart attack? Perhaps he should phone Karen, his care worker. But she isn't a doctor and, in any case, she isn't always on duty at weekends and Tim might end up talking to some complete stranger, which would be awful.
          Then you do what you usually do when you don't know what to do—what you always did before Dr Watts taught you his method. You phone Madame Stella to check your horoscope. Madame Stella is not, of course, a real person, just a recording. One of the great things about Madame Stella is that she never expects you to make conversation.
          Virgo, here is your horoscope for Saturday: Grasp any social opportunity because today you will find doors mysteriously open for you. Be prepared for the unexpected and don't forget to put yourself in other people's shoes.

Tim walks up the nine steep steps to his sister's front door. Worried about being late, he arrives one hour and twenty-two minutes early. Alice lives on the ground floor of a tall, Victorian terraced house. The door is painted bright yellow and is divided into six panels. To the side of the door are a trio of bell buttons, because Alice shares her house with the old man who lives in the basement and the young couple who lives upstairs with their two children.
          Tim envies the fact that his sister has a whole downstairs apartment to herself. She doesn't have to worry about meeting strangers in the kitchen or finding someone else in the toilet.
          Alice complains about the noise the children make upstairs. But they are not the reason she is moving out. She is moving out because she is getting married.
          Her bell is the middle one with the neat printed sign beside it. The sign is exactly ten centimetres long and three centimetres tall. Tim printed it on his computer and gave it to his sister as a present last Christmas.
          The sign says, 'This is Miss. A. M. Concord's bell'.
          Virgo: with your attention to detail, it is unlikely you will disappoint anyone this Xmas. But don't forget to let your hair down.
          That was your horoscope message for Christmas week last year. On Christmas day, Alice unwrapped your present carefully and spent some time looking at the strip of card. Then she looked at you, looked down at her name, looked up at your face and down at the card again.
          'Unlikely' is not the same as 'definitely won't' disappoint and, for a horrible moment, you wondered if you had spelt your sister's name incorrectly or used the wrong type of font. Also, you were worrying about the 'let your hair down' part of the horoscope; as an instruction it didn't make sense because your hair is very short anyway and no matter how you try to slick it down with water, it always bobs back up into tight curls as it dries.
          Dr Watts has explained to you that when people look at things—or other people—for a long time, it usually means they find them appealing or attractive. Considering the length of time your sister spent looking at her name on the card before she said anything, she must have liked your present very much. You thought she looked a little puzzled but you are not that good at reading expressions, so you may have misinterpreted this.
          Eventually Alice said thank you and gave you a hug. You fixed the sign next to the middle doorbell and it looked very neat. Now, ever since last Christmas, nobody has to worry about pressing the wrong button.
          You don't want your sister to get married because you want Alice to continue living in this same street and in this same house with your special sign next to her doorbell. It took you many months to memorise how to get here and if she moves you might never find her again.
          Tim is still standing in front of the big yellow door with his finger about to press the right button, when he hears loud voices coming from inside the house.
          First, a man's voice—harsh and thick, 'You're not his mother. What if they'd promoted me earlier?'
          Then a woman—shrill and thin, 'I've told you a million times, I can't leave him behind and take off to live in some distant country.'
          'New York isn't distant.'
          'It's a seven-hour flight.'
          'What difference does it make? He's not your responsibility.'
          'Of course he is. I'm all he's got.'    
          'He's a grown man now, for fuck's sake! An adult. With a protected job and a care worker.'
          There is silence for a few seconds and then the man speaks again, 'He lives in his own world. Hardly knows you exist. This is your chance to make a break—'
          'Wow. Thank you for offering me freedom—'    
          'Alice… I'm going…'    
          'You're asking me to choose?!'
          After a moment of silence, the man speaks again, 'I guess it's over then.'
          There is the crash of glass. A sharp cry.
          Then the woman's voice, 'You selfish bastard.'
          Tim hears doors slam. The shouting noises grow fainter, then louder, then fainter again. It sounds like they are moving around inside the house, going in and out of different rooms, and the grating noise of something heavy being dragged across wooden floors.
          Loud voices make you nervous. You shut your eyes and remember things Dr Watts taught you—things you can do to slow down your heartbeat and to make you feel calmer inside. You have added some variations of your own. Dr Watts told you to try counting backwards, slowly, from ten.
          You count backwards, but quickly, starting at one thousand one hundred and eleven in jumps of prime numbers—'one thousand one hundred and nine, one thousand one hundred and six, one thousand one hundred and one, one thousand and ninety-four…'
          Tim's countdown has reached three hundred and ninety-nine when he hears voices growing much louder and the yellow door suddenly jerks open.
          Virgo: Today you will find doors mysteriously open for you.
          A man with a red face runs past, knocking Tim's shoulder and sending him stumbling sideways against the frame of the door. The man doesn't stop. He is dragging a suitcase behind him and Tim hears the bang-bang sound, repeated nine times, as the suitcase bumps down the steps.
          Tim looks straight across the communal hallway and he sees his sister's door is open. He goes inside, forgetting to ring the bell in his confusion, and into Alice's flat.
          There is nobody in the living room. The furniture is pushed back against the walls and the wooden floor is bare, ready for the party. In the bay window is a table, laden with bottles and wine glasses. One of the glasses is broken and lying in pieces on the polished surface.
          Tim stands in the doorway of the kitchen. The work surfaces are covered with plates of sandwiches and sausage rolls and vegetables cut into tiny strips. There are pots of fish, mashed into some sort of paste. And a bowl of guacamole next to a plate of squashed tomatoes. The kitchen floor is chequered with black and cream tiles, and because the room is dead square with eight tiles along each length, there are sixty-four tiles in total. Tim counts seven different types of vegetable peeling on the floor and three separate mounds of breadcrumbs.
          Alice is standing in the middle of the room. She shudders between sobs, catching her breath with little gasping sounds. Snot and tears have gathered on the edge of her face and, as Tim watches, a glob falls onto the floor. It lands almost exactly in the middle of one of the black tiles—the one four rows away from the door and three rows in from the side of the room.
You stare at the green-grey blob and wonder how many millions of bacteria it contains. You know each bacterium takes twenty minutes to replicate itself. If there are ten million bacteria in that lump, in twenty minutes there will be twenty million, and three hours later there will be over six billion. Six billion one hundred and twenty million, to be exact.
          Be prepared for the unexpected…
          From your pocket you take out one of the neatly-folded tissues you keep handy for just such emergencies and, carefully avoiding the cracks between the tiles, you walk into the room.
          Alice lifts her head and sees Tim moving towards her with a concerned look on his face and a tissue in his hand. She gives a loud sob and holds her arms out towards him.
          But Tim is not looking at Alice. Squatting down, and careful not to touch any part of the floor with his bare skin, he enfolds the globule within his square of tissue paper. When he straightens up he sees his sister standing with her arms outstretched towards him. Tim—not recognising the look of confused disappointment on Alice's face—gratefully hands her the soft ball of crumpled paper.
          You are standing in your sister's living room and you know you have upset her once again. Alice has locked herself in her bedroom and you can hear her sobbing. You count the wine bottles on the table and work out how many glasses of wine can be poured, assuming an average glass holds 175ml of fluid.
          'Get rid of them, Tim,' your sister shouts through the door. 'Just tell them all to go away.'
          The guests will be arriving any minute. Your palms are damp and your throat is dry. You are having trouble breathing and the pins-and-needles have returned to your lips.
          You tell your sister you can't do it. You can't talk to strangers.
          There are forty-eight separate panes of glass in the bay window and the wooden window frames create nine different types of rectangle.
          Why does she want you to send them away?
          You remember what Madame Stella said today—'don't forget to put yourself in someone else's shoes'—and these words sounded familiar because it's almost the same advice as Dr Watts once gave you. He said to try to stand in other people's shoes. And you wondered how you could because different people have different-sized feet, until Dr Watts explained he meant you should pretend to be the other person so that you could understand them better.
          You try to pretend to be Alice. This is her big engagement party and she was happy and wanted you to come. But now she is upset and wants you to tell people to go away. You remember arriving and the angry voices and you suddenly realise that the man who came running out the door with a suitcase was Steve, the man who Alice is planning to marry. All the shouting must have made her cry and now she is going to call the party off because she shouldn't be crying during her party.
          Yes. You are pleased you have worked this out.
          The guests will be arriving soon.
          On the wall near the window you see a framed photo of a little girl standing next to a woman with an enormous belly. You are not very good with faces but realise you must be looking at a photo of Alice with your mother. You never met your mother. She died when you were born, Alice explained, but it wasn't your fault. You were pulled out first and they pulled your brother out next. He came out as blue as a Smurf.
          You think about Adrian. He was born a few minutes after midnight on the twenty-third of September. If he had lived, he would be a Libran, which is the seventh astrological sign of the zodiac. If you had been born a few minutes later, you would have been born a Libran, too.
          The key words for Librans are extroversion, energy, social grace, intelligence and inquisitiveness.
          You wonder what it is like to be a Libran.
          Alice's friends have been congregating on the steps outside the front door, greeting each other with cheek kisses and back slaps. They ring the middle bell but nobody comes to meet them and so, emboldened by their growing numbers, the guests decide to push through the open yellow door, cross the hallway and walk straight into Alice's flat.
          Tim has been busy standing in Adrian's metaphorical shoes and pretending to be a Libran. Now he sees a crowd of people filling up the room, some waving gift-wrapped boxes and others with bottles of wine, and they are all talking at once in a jumble of voices.
          'Hello there, hope you don't mind—we just let ourselves in.'
          'Where is the lovely Alice? Running late as usual?'
          'Where do you want us to put our coats?'
          'We brought a couple of bottles of champagne.'
          'Tim! Didn't see you standing there! How's the computer world?'
          'Here Tim, old chap. Put these bottles in the fridge for us will you?'
          'Where's Alice got to? And where is that lucky bugger Steve?'
          'This is Tim. Alice's brother. He's a maths genius.'
          'Ah yes, so this is the famous Tim!'
          'What have you done with your sister?'
          'OK, let's get this party started!'
          Tim stands with bottles in his shaking hands. His ears buzz with the noise of words, his eyes flit from one unremembered face to another and his stomach tries to push its way up into his dry mouth.
          'Alice told me to say something,' he says, too quietly for anyone to hear and his voice is muffled because his tongue feels thick and stiff.
          'What's that?' someone says.
          'Alice says…'
          'Quiet, everyone please. Let Tim speak.'
          A Libran. Sociable, extrovert and inquisitive. You find it surprisingly easy to pretend to be Adrian and are filled with excitement as you realise you truly understand—for the first time—what Dr Watts meant when he says you should stand in someone else's shoes.
          'Go home,' says Adrian, 'everybody must go home.'
          People have stopped talking. But nobody moves.
          'Just go away,' Adrian's voice is firm, confident, and very loud. 'Why don't you do what you're told?'
          'Hey. What's going on?' someone asks.
          'Alice told me to get rid of you. Go away.'
          They don't go home immediately. They ask questions and hang about and talk to each other. But they go eventually— reluctantly collecting coats and bags and shuffling out, until the room becomes peaceful and empty again. You can still hear a lingering group discussing the situation on the steep steps outside the yellow door.
          'That was awkward.'
          'I know, most odd.'
          'Tim is… you know… a bit strange.'
          'I hope Alice is OK.'
          'I'm just texting her.'
          'Bet she's had a fight with Steve.'
          'Yes. Looks like it's over.'
          'Oh dear.'
          After they've all gone, Alice comes out of her bedroom and stands in the doorway looking at you. Her eyes are red and her cheeks are white. She has black marks from smudged mascara in lines that lead from her lower eyelids down towards her mouth. You feel pleased you dealt with her friends so firmly and you hope she is proud of you.
          'For Christ's sake, Tim,' says Alice. 'Did you have to be so rude?'
          You stand perplexed, not knowing why she is cross and wondering what it was you said that was rude. Then you remember you are pretending to be Adrian and Librans are sociable and inquisitive.
          'Did Steve make you cry?' you ask her.
          'Yes,' she says. 'He is a selfish bastard and I hate him.'
          You are having difficulty working this out.
          'I thought you loved him.'
          She is quiet for a long time and you wonder if she has heard you.
          'I've broken it off,' she says.
          What is broken? You put yourself in Alice's shoes and try to see what she is seeing. She is staring ahead at the table under the window with the bottles. You notice the smashed wine glass, lying on the polished wood surface and you are already mentally reassembling the scattered fragments. There are six large pieces and two smaller ones, but it should be a simple job using superglue.
          'Don't worry,' you say. 'It can be fixed.'
          'Can we?' she says, turning to look at you. 'Do you really think so?'
          'Yes,' you say. 'I'll help you.'
          'Oh, Tim. I don't think you can help. But thank you.'
          'I can try. I'll do my best.'
          'I know you try. I know you do.'
          You have the uneasy feeling that you and your sister are talking about different things.
          'But I can help,' you say.
          Tim sees his sister walk across the room towards him with her arms outstretched and he remembers what he has discovered. He can be Tim and Adrian—both at the same time.
          He allows Alice to hug him and he doesn't mind, too much, when she wipes her snotty, tear-streaked face with its mascara stripes on his shoulder and rests her cheek against his chest for what seems like ages. Tim knows he can wash his shirt in the sink when he gets home tonight.
          Meanwhile, Adrian lifts up both his arms and clumsily folds them around his sister's body and hugs her back.
          'Oh, Tim,' she says. 'Thank you for being here.'
          'Where else could I be?' you ask.


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