“Stop crying, Kumiko! It’s quite simple, I can’t understand why you’re having such trouble, two people who are alike may dislike each other or like each other without being alike—to like is not to be alike, just as likeness—to be like something—is different from liking it; likewise, a likeness, like a picture, is unlike alikeness, the state of being alike. Now try again, it’s perfectly straightforward: ‘In the unlikely likelihood you—like me—like me, you may like to be unlike me in not disliking you.’ Now what exactly’s being said there? No, Yumi—no, Aiko—no, Tamiko—I want Kumiko to answer!”
And he stood with his hands on his hips at the front of the classroom, like an outlaw in a gunfight with a sheriff in an old Western, legs spread, eyes narrowed at his enemy, gnawing a toothpick.
His enemy was an eighteen-year-old Japanese girl sporting, like everyone in this private ESL school, a pleated tartan skirt, white blouse, and matching knee-socks. She was his enemy because she was the cutest girl in the class, with breasts twice the size of the next most amply endowed girl. He desired her and she scorned him, as any girl would scorn a squat, fat, pimply, orange-haired thirty-four-year-old, especially one with bad teeth, an unsightly mustache, a nervous twitch and an irritating way of constantly clearing his throat.
A classroom of Japanese students suffered en masse when any member of their group suffered—a humiliation to one was a humiliation to all. He knew this, and he knew, furthermore, that by inflicting this pain on these girls he stood even less chance than before of endearing himself to any of them, even the homeliest and loneliest, and was therefore destroying his last hope of getting one or more of them to go out on a date with him after they graduated (a practice which, while not contravening any school rules, disgusted many faculty members and had yet to meet with success). Nevertheless, he persisted, perversely, in shaming pretty Kumiko, who was on the brink of bolting from the room with her face in her hands.
“All right,” he sighed, when he deemed she could bear no more and would fall apart if he waited another second. “Let’s try something simpler, Kumiko. Repeat after me. ‘I like you.’”
The girl, drying her tears with a Hello Kitty-patterned Kleenex, swallowed and inhaled shakily and blinked, fearing a trick from her teacher—whom she knew hated her, and why. “I…rike you.”
“I rike you.”
“I like you a lot.”
“I rike you a rot.”
“With more feeling, Kumiko. I really, really, really like you a lot.” He nodded sternly when she hesitated. She hesitated because she grasped that this was no longer instruction but another piece of cruelty, or creepy flirtation, on the part of her strange teacher. But, like a lot of bullied children, she believed giving in to the bully might satisfy him and make him stop. “I reary, reary, reary rike you a rot.”
“No, no. Everything you just said—then Mr Bogg.”
He could hear the tremble in her throat as she inhaled, and sensed the squirming of bums on chairs as everyone endured the slow torture of mass embarrassment. “I…reary, reary, reary rike you a rot, Mr Bogg,” Kumiko managed, in a voice wobbly with tears.
“Well, I really, really, really like you a lot, Kumiko,” he replied in a leering way. “Maybe we could go out to dinner sometime!” And then he burst out laughing—as if this was the punchline to some harmless joke, and any girl who thought otherwise was being too sensitive, and would be described as such to the principal, if anyone dared report this incident. The girls, as bullied as Kumiko, managed some forced laughter. Kumiko tried, but her laughter turned to sobs.
The bell rang. He delighted in the looks of utter relief on the faces of all as they scrambled to get their books in their bags and their feet out the door. Ah, the bitter, corrosive, exalted bliss of revenge! Was there any feeling finer—apart from being happy and not needing to wound people’s feelings because one wasn’t constantly full of spite and resentment? No, thought Lionel Bogg, there isn’t. At least not for me.
The classroom was mostly cleared when he turned to his desk and saw his cell missing. It’d been sitting there seconds before. He slapped his pockets, scanned the floor, felt and saw nothing, and panicked. “Hold on, girls! Hey! Has anyone seen my—?”
The few students still in the room cast him looks of sweetly innocent incomprehension and hurried on. Could one of them have—?
The school P.A. system crackled into life. Rather than the sound of the elderly secretary reading out announcements, he was greeted by the voice of a girl from his class—he couldn’t tell which one; they all sounded alike. “Herro, I am Mr Bogg’s personar assistant, returning your carr—prease give me message for him.”
“Oh,” said a voice that Bogg recognized. Dear God, no! “I…didn’t realize he had a personal assistant now.”
“Yes! Message prease!”
It only took a second for Bogg to realize that a girl had stolen his phone and—somehow privy to his frequent-caller list—selected the name on it most likely to cause him embarrassment if publically exposed. She’d then locked herself inside the school office, where the P.A. microphone was, and was broadcasting her conversation through the school, indoors and out. He fought the need to vomit, and sprinted for the office.
“Uh,” said a slightly timid-sounding voice out of numerous speakers as Bogg ran, “well, I’m secretary-general of W.A.W.A.W.A.W., and Lionel of course is one of our founding members, and so I was just—”
“W.A.W.A.W.A.W.?” The girl giggled. “What is, prease? It sounds rike wawawa—you know, sad trombone sound, when somebody make mistake!” She sang the descending notes, and giggled again.
The man on the other end of the line became even more flustered than he already was. “We’re a support group and political collective, we help men with relationship issues…we’re called Women Are Wonderful And Weird—open bracket—And Worrisome—close bracket.” He sounded sheepish.
The girl was having difficulty not laughing. “Poriticar? How?”
“Look, I—do you really need to know this? For a message?”
“Well, we organize rallies—anti-Valentine’s-Day rallies, condom boycotts, ban-Victoria’s-Secret-ads petitions, anti-bikini marches, and so on. We’re trying to stop any kind of public encouragement or even mention of sexuality, basically, because—” He’d grown bolder as he spoke and his feelings were evidently driving him to more frankness with a stranger than he felt comfortable with, and now he hesitated, on the brink of blurting deeply held beliefs. A second passed, in which some inner scale tipped, and he grew passionate. “I mean—you women are so sexy! And if we’re ugly—you hate us! You only like handsome guys, or rich ones! You know what that does to us? Have you ever ached for someone, only to have her—” The sound of the girl’s gasping laughter stopped the caller’s speech. He muttered, “Fine,” bitterly, and hung up.
And then the girl signed off and unlocked the door and, still laughing uncontrollably, tossed Bogg his phone. A couple of school admin staff, and the principal, stood, glaring in outrage and open-mouthed in disbelief, and pointed the girl toward a room, presumably for a disciplinary meeting that would see her expelled. Or so Bogg hoped. Not that it mattered anymore. The damage was done. She’d humiliated him beyond what he could bear. He thought he might kill himself, if he could just get out of this damn school.
It was all true, of course. After two decades of bitter sexual frustration, he’d founded a politico-therapeutic collective for the erotically aggrieved—men without women, men without hope, men whose sex lives were all masturbation and hopeless public staring at the pretty and unattainable. They weren’t misogynists. They weren’t a hate group; they were a self-pity group, and the enemy wasn’t women it was the cruelty of sex itself, which invited everyone to the same dance but didn’t let all the dancers take the floor; a miserable minority were ruthlessly snubbed. Lionel remembered his one, traumatic encounter with an actual woman—a plain girl in college, half-drunk—and he’d ejaculated all over her hands as she tried to remove his underpants. Her disgusted laughter still haunted his dreams. He tried a second time to lose his virginity, but when he showed up at the call-girl’s door with a wallet full of cash and a big, terrified grin, she’d wrinkled her nose and turned him away, complaining of “a bad vibe.” It was the final blow to his dignity. Even prostitutes abhorred him! He was worse than a leper! Bitterness entered his soul, and he determined to loathe all women. But this resolve lasted barely a week. Try as he might, he couldn’t blame them for the strange unattractiveness that characterized his personality as much as his appearance—it seemed something inborn, passed down from his ancestors somehow, a genetic flaw, like elephantiasis or dwarfism, and nothing he could do anything about. It felt like punishment and filled him with hate. But at who, and for what?
He went back to his classroom and loaded papers into his briefcase. Students filed in for the next class, but he didn’t lift his head to acknowledge them. His hands shook so badly he almost couldn’t slot the sheets into the pouches. Revenge? Yes, the clever girl had certainly gotten her revenge on the cruel teacher who’d shamed her friend. It was a masterstroke, and nearly a fatal one. He wandered out into the hall in a daze, like a boxer punched too many times, reeling on the ropes. I need to get out without seeing her, he told himself.
And who was “her”?
Only the woman he adored above all others—who made the Kumiko’s of his life mere cute, momentary distractions. The goddess he truly desired was a colleague, a woman of twenty-seven named Harmony Uphill, the gorgeous daughter of two former fashion models named Jack and Jill Uphill—once the poster-persons for a brand of blue jeans that made them momentarily rich, now retirees (and repentant stockmarket speculators) awaiting their first grandchild. Since Harmony was engaged to an engaging young chap—a handsome fitness instructor, as it happened—the prospect of such a thing seemed imminent. Harmony was as kind as she was beautiful, and no less friendly and pleasant with colleagues than they were with her—for her manner won everyone’s immediate and lasting fondness. It broke Lionel’s heart just to look at her. She wasn’t a flirt, she wasn’t cruel, she didn’t flaunt her loveliness or dress to make herself any more stunning than she already was; but even understated and modest, she’d unwittingly put most of the male teachers under her spell. Yet none of them worshipped her as utterly as the ugliest and oddest of them all, Lionel Bogg.
Who was making for the front door as fast as he could. Had he quit? Would he bolt from the building so he could stride into traffic and get flattened by a semi-trailer? Even he didn’t know. He only knew he had to escape the aghast stares of colleagues, the smirks and points of students, the horror of having to face Harmony in a staff meeting, sooner or later, and know she knew he was an utter loser, a sexual failure on an unprecedented scale. He charged for the front doors.
Just before he reached them, the staff-room door flew open and Harmony sailed out, nearly colliding with him. He reeled back as if shot. She—with iPod earbuds in her ears—blinked and stared at his crazily disproportionate reaction to their harmless near-miss. “Oh, hi, Lionel,” she said, and smiled.
“Huhh—” he exhaled, trying to say hi but losing his breath halfway through, and managing merely a sound like a punctured tire.
“Are you—leaving?” She looked alarmed. Probably because he looked alarming. He knew his face was white and stricken, and he was hunched forward as if at gunpoint, getting marched out to face a firing squad.
“The parking lot!” he sort of wailed. “Did you hear—the announcement?”
She blinked rapidly, trying to grasp his panic. “Oh, no. I was on my lunch hour—listening.” And she grinned and gestured at her earpieces, one of which was still in her ear. From the other issued tinny music, a faint rock beat. “It’s this awesome new Canadian band somebody told me about, Adolf Harper and the C-51s, ever heard of them?”
“Is everything OK? You look—”
He turned and ran. He didn’t look back. It felt—as he gripped his briefcase like a baton and swung his arms and gathered real speed, sprinting through the parking-lot where more than one car honked warningly—it felt as if he were being pursued, and not by a pleasantly concerned Harmony, either, but something large and terrible. It felt like his own life was following him—his past, his whole history, gathered together in a giant ball, a knotted tangle of upsets and unresolved tensions and despairs, and it was going to land on him like a boulder and crush him, unless he raced as hard as he could.
How he jaywalked—or jaysprinted—across four lanes of busy traffic without suffering a scratch he wasn’t able to determine later. Not that he was relieved—he would’ve preferred collision with a car to collision with that ball of horror that pursued him—his fate, it almost seemed, in physical form.
One way or the other, though, he ended up on a bench in a park a few blocks from the school, lying on his back, one arm cast across his face, gasping for breath. Nobody approached—either because the world was a cruel, heartless place with no one in it merciful enough to inquire about the wellbeing of someone sprawled, like him, on a bench in a state of collapse, or else because he was so deranged-looking there was no one brave enough to do so. Maybe it was fate that not a soul seemed to notice his nervous breakdown. Maybe fate subtly, unceasingly steers our lives—mysterious higher forces that manifest themselves as everyday luck and chance.
By chance, or something, someone sat down beside him. One of Lionel’s legs drooped off the bench, leaving enough space for a bum to fit. The owner of the bum cleared his throat. “Sit up, Bogg. It’s gone now.”
These words were said with such quiet conviction—as if obedience would be instantaneous and there was no need to raise one’s voice much above a whisper—that Bogg stopped hyperventilating and removed his arm. A man of maybe sixty—closely cropped hair of gunmetal grey, posture as erect as an athlete’s, face stern as a general’s—was looking at him. He heaved himself up. “I—what? How do you know my name? What’s gone?”
“You know what. And do you know why it’s gone?”
He felt mild panic but held it down. “No. Do you?” There was a weird enough mood to the encounter for him to ask such a question. He thought, for a second, he might be hallucinating. That at least would make the situation comprehensible.
“I do. It’s gone because I’m here.”
“That’s right. I’m it.”
“I’m it. You know what it is? I mean—are you prepared to admit to yourself that you know what it is, what I am?”
“You’re not sure. I get it. It’s a bit of a shock. That these things happen. But let’s get real. You’ve been running from your fate. You’ve been running from certain laws of the universe. But you’ve run out of energy. You can’t run anymore. Which means—what?”
He shook his head. “I feel so weird. What’s happening to me?”
“You’re happening to yourself. I’m happening to you. You have two options. Would you like to know what they are?”
He nodded, weary, terrified, confused.
“You know what the options are, but you don’t want to tell yourself that you know what they are, just like you don’t want to tell yourself a lot of things. That’s why I’m here. The options are, one, you listen to me, two, you refuse to listen to me. The only way you can refuse to listen to me, since I’m here now, and you can’t get rid of me—is to kill yourself. Those are the options. Which would you like?”
“I…” He tried to assert himself, somehow, against all this weirdness. “I could kill you!” he cried, in a voice he tried to make bold, but wasn’t
“You can’t kill me,” the man said.
“You know why. Now which option is it going to be—suicide, or a listening ear?”
He inhaled, shakily. “Go ahead. Say what you came here to say.”
“What I came here to say is: I know who you are. And I know who you’ve been.”
He frowned. “I’m Lionel Bogg. And, yeah, sure, I’m not proud of myself, but you try living my life, man, and you’d see—”
“I don’t mean I know who’ve you been before today. I mean I know who you’ve been before you were Lionel Bogg. The only reason you’re Lionel Bogg is because you used to be Lucille Zone, and then, of course, the infamous Melody Swobe.”
Lionel stared. This was much worse than getting hit by a car—this might even be worse than getting laughed at by Harmony. Now he was being harassed by a large, sinister individual—an agent of some kind, since he knew his name—but an agent for what, or who?—and he was messing with his head. Lionel had been taunted, abused, ridiculed, threatened, over the course of his thirty-four years—who hasn’t?—but he’d never been subjected to this kind of abuse. The guy’s stare, voice, and manner were like a hypnotist’s—and he was making him believe, damn it, he was making him believe what he was saying. He hadn’t realized, till this moment, how psychologically fragile he was, how vulnerable to a determined, intelligent harasser. He had no answer to it—he nodded, as if spellbound.
“You remember, right, a little—now that I mention it? I am your fate, Lionel, I am the thread of your personal karma, personified. I know your past lives, the lives that brought you to your present one. I know the depths of you, which a single life can’t contain. I’m your friend, your enemy, your double, your conscience, your id, your intuition. I’m not a hallucination, I’m right here, physically present, a person. These things happen, though not often. You’re a rare case. Which option would you like now? Listen some more, or kill yourself?”
The spell had deepened. Things were beginning to make sense which shouldn’t have made sense, that didn’t seem possible, but which he accepted, at least in a provisional way. “Go on,” he said.
“You were Lucille Zone. You were born in Arizona in 1850, lived your whole life there, and died in 1890, of suicide. It’s a habit of yours. That’s why I asked if you were interested again. If you’re not, well, maybe we’ve made some progress. Anyway. You were a farm girl, kind of. Daughter of a rancher. His eldest, his prettiest, and he had four very pretty daughters. Every cattleman within a hundred miles of the Zone ranch wanted you for his son. You refused them all. You accepted them, one after the other, from the your fifteenth birthday on, but then you kept turning them down—toying with them, driving them crazy, sending some of them to their graves with self-inflicted wounds, and never taking anyone’s hand in marriage. I could show you a picture of you but you might not believe it, it’s a worn daguerreotype, but your looks still shine through—uncommon beauty would be putting it mildly. Your were painted by Ezekial Shroud, a leading portrait-painter of the day, though the picture was lost in a fire in the 1940s. John Singer Sargent proposed to paint your likeness when he happened to see you holidaying one summer in Boston, but his wife and rich friends dissuaded him, though only after bitter feuding—you weren’t a society lady, after all, you lived on a ranch. Your French tutor left his wife and six children to throw himself at your feet. You laughed at him. He hung himself. I could go on. Do you remember any of this?”
He was in a trance. Or that’s what it felt like. He was sitting upright, palms calmly laid on his thighs, looking straight ahead—but the park’s trees and flowerbeds in front of him seemed only a reflection overlaying a setting altogether different, of oaks and elms and shaded lawns and tall wrought-iron fences, beyond which stretched grassy prairie, herds of moving cattle, high cloud in cerulean sky. “I would sit on the verandah, with Sally our coloured maid, and watch them come—carriage after carriage, sending up clouds of dust as they plied the prairie road, carrying shy fathers and sheepish sons from all the best families of Arizona. It was like being paid homage to, as if I were an empress receiving booty from the four corners of the empire. Men would stare, speechless. I could make hardened generals, with sabre and bullet scars from the Civil War, drop their eyes, abashed, by merely fixing them with a steady gaze for a few seconds. Men who wrestled bulls to the ground or fought Indians, I reduced to tears. They shook, from their great shoulders to their boots, and pleaded, why, why, like little boys slapped by fathers, when I refused them. Sly old Sally would rock in her chair, her knitting needles unceasing, and snicker, ‘More sacrificial victims, miss,’ as those carriages came.”
“And how did that make you feel?”
He inhaled—and seemed to smell not the city that surrounded this small greenspace but watered lawn, wet topsoil, mown hay, horse manure, alfalfa bales, oiled leather, endless fields of phlox and wild rose, and air fresher than any he’d ever breathed. It filled him with a strange exaltation. “I felt so powerful,” he murmured. “Power is a physical feeling—a tingle on your skin and a throb that matches your pulse. Every soft thing you touch feels a thousand times softer, everything delicious you taste has its savour multiplied a thousand times, every perfume is more heavenly when you inhale it than it would be for anyone else. Music transports like a drug. Laughter oozes through you in liquid spasms. There’s no need for sex when the simplest pleasures are like orgasms. Power is the supreme joy of life. Oh, God, how I once rejoiced to be alive.” Grief overcame him, the momentary apprehension of a past existence fading faster than a snowflake on a hand, and he wept, covering his face and shaking.
The palm on his shoulder was roughly corrective, not commiserating. “You got older. You looked lovelier at forty than many girls do at twenty-five, but the real force of your attraction had spent itself. You were beautiful, yes, but not in the commanding way you’d been—men didn’t fatally succumb to your smiles, throwing away their lives and wives and friends if you lured them on. Suitors still vied for your hand, but, when you scorned them, as you always did, they recovered—and sometimes they recovered within the day, and you heard of them paying visits to other ladies, younger ones, with whom they thought they had a better chance of success. It galled you—it vexed you to the bottom of yourself, because it was all you’d ever had, that lust to rule, to play with lives, to drink desire as drunkards do liquor. You could see your future and it was a barren prairie. You sweet-talked a doctor into prescribing you laudanum, then horded your doses, for one fine day.”
“Late September,” he groaned, his face in his hands. Then he lowered them, inhaled, and stared, in a resigned way, straight ahead. “Always the worst time of year for me. You can feel the warmth and light leaving, the days start to shorten, and you know an endless gloom of fall and winter will interpose between you and a distant spring. Oh, God, I want to kill myself!” He clutched his chest as if stabbed, and canted sideways. “I want to kill myself!” he screamed across the park. A stroller or two turned their heads, but kept on.
“You did, Lucille. You’re gone now. Come back, Lionel.”
Lionel came back, but his face was a cramp of anguish. “So…this is karma, this life of mine, a punishment for…that’s why I’m me now, a monster…?”
A shrug. “Nothing’s so simple—it’s all tendencies, percentages, likelihoods, but harm always hurts both ways, and you’d spread a lot of damage, steered a lot of lives toward darkness, when they could’ve sought the light. But you were given another chance.”
“Melody Swobe!” sighed Fate, his face lifted and lit up with a faraway look, a mild smile, mystified and marvelling at the same time. “1891 to 1939, her dates! A young German-Italian adventuress in the thick of the Belle Époque, at its extravagant, outrageous epicentre, Paris, and joie de vivre oozing from your every pore—opera houses, casinos, cabarets, bistros and music halls your haunts, and a great troop of smitten fools, young and not-so-young, fawning over you, begging for a night, nay, an hour, in your bed.”
“Every man in Paris at my feet?”
“You specialized in seducing women. Then you blackmailed them. Decent aristocratic ladies, respected socialites—mothers and daughters of the haute-bourgeoisie or the nouveau-riche, married or engaged to industrialists, bankers, and landowners, and very few of whom ever entertained a single lesbian thought before you got your hooks into them. Afterwards, with those who fell to scandal and ruin, they couldn’t conceive what’d come over them—they didn’t desire women, they said, they still loved their husbands or sweethearts, they were not, they insisted (to themselves and any friends they might still have), members of that depraved species of female hinted at in the ancient Greek stories of Sappho and her intimates on the Isle of Lesbos.” He laughed. “Ah, you were a force of nature, Melody, and introduced many a young girl and married madame to pleasures no man had ever quickened in her before. In the thick of their brief, doomed passions for you, ladies would protest that you acted on them like absinthe or Vin Mariani—like some drug they longed to overdose on. They’d abscond with you—hustling you into private railway coaches and whisking you off to Biarritz, Deauville or the Riviera, to make love to you in grand hotels.”
He was nodding. “I remember the smell of the sea. We’d leave the balcony doors open and watch the guaze curtains dance in the breeze and drink wine in bed and kiss. What a sweet fate that was for a while—a pair of wine-wet lips on yours, and salt spray tickling your skin, and the chatter of crowds down on the boulevard, innocent of what we did two stories above them!…a thin curtain alone interposing between our audacity and their naiveté…ah, the thrill of it! All the sex a girl could want without the risk of pregnancy! How I miss those days.”
“And then what did you do—you cold-hearted harlot?”
He shrugged, smirked. “I would leave in the night, steal out a side way, hire a carriage, buy a train ticket…leaving only a letter behind, in which I noted that I’d copied down the names and addresses of loved ones…mothers, fathers, husbands, children…and would tell all, if I didn’t receive a large sum by the end of the month, in a bank account in Paris. I ensured the sum wasn’t utterly ruinous—merely exorbitant. I learned my lesson on that score from the Princess des Cygnes, who drank poison when I betrayed her, and drove both her mother and father to do the same. The news rocked the city. I spent two summers in St Petersburg as a result, laying low. The Hermitage was lovely but Russian ladies proved a little less seducible, I’m not sure why. I was getting older.”
“The Princess was just nineteen, a woman of immense intelligence—she was destined, had you not crossed her path, to marry a French scientist and produce three children, the eldest of whom would follow in his father’s footsteps and make certain discoveries in biochemistry which would open the door, decades later, to the cure of all cancers. Are you still nostalgic for your glory days, Melody?”
Lionel curled up in a ball on the ground. Waves of pain went through him that might, he imagined, rival childbirth in their brutal intensity. Was it grief for past sins, or just the agony of passage between worlds, the throes of rapid transformation back and forth between selves? He struggled to sit up at last, sweating, his mouth agape, shedding a thread of drool. “I feel horrible.”
“A spot of epilepsy, my dear? Or are you remembering the prussic acid you drank in Petersburg? You can only be young so long, you said, and poured some in your champagne—your last words were au revoir, jolie jeu, characteristically flippant and shallow. Bodies sometimes bear traces of previous lives which can be reactivated by hypnotic suggestion, but don’t worry, it’ll soon pass. Karmic indigestion, call it.”
“Have you hypnotised me? Is that why I…revert?”
“Ah, but how do you know I’m even here? Notice nobody looks at me when they pass.”
“You said you were here—repeatedly.”
“I repeatedly said something like that. But it depends how I’m here, doesn’t it?”
“You said you were physically present.”
“Physically present to you. A sunrise is physically present to a blind man, but only in the form of the light he feels on his face, not as a visible phenomenon. Everyone has a fate, Lionel. It follows them through their life—across their lives—and sometimes it even leads them. It’s your fate, now, to see your fate. To speak to it like a friend. You don’t have any friends, except a few fellow kooks in that club of yours, and things are taking a dire turn, Lionel. Choices must be made this very hour that determine your future, your futures.” He took out a notepad, whose pages he flipped. “We’re at a pivot, and those can be tricky—if you channel dark energies into your life, they’ll sweep you toward some pretty ghastly fates. Zone and Swobe were dark pivots, and you owe your present unhappiness to them. Not that they’re your only recent incarnations—you were also a schoolboy in Morocco who died of polio at the age of ten. He was sweet-tempered, dutiful, kind to a crippled cousin, and taught a younger brother to read. You were also a five year old boy in India who was hit by a train in Calcutta, but harmless enough before that. You have those two lives to thank that you’re still human, and not a cow awaiting conversion into meat in a commercial ranch somewhere, or a woolly hare clinging to life on the frozen plateaus of Nepal—or a centipede, or a bacterium, or a virus. You can always fall lower, and you’re falling now. Worse or better’s up to you.” He clapped the notebook shut and stood. “That’s about it.”
“What? Where are you going?”
Fate laughed at him. “That’s a pretty funny question! Don’t ask why. Look, Lionel, the solution is as plain as it ever was—basic acceptance of who you are, wretched or otherwise, breeds a calmness that can inspire kindness, and kindness is how you rise. Cruelty’s how you fall. The rest of the universe is a mystery but the principles of karmic realignment aren’t.” He brought his palms together in front of his chest and half-bowed from the waist. Then winked and walked off.
“Hey!” Lionel called.
Fate turned. “What?”
“Who was Harmony Uphill—did I know her before?”
“Her name was James Brushwood, one of your suitors when you were Lucille Zone. You broke his heart when he was twenty but he refused to let it destroy him and eventually he met a nice girl, married, had a family, lived a decent life and ended up kind and resigned, not bitter. He never forgot you but he accepted his fate—not to get the girl of his dreams. It takes a large heart.”
He nodded, and Fate, unhurried, strolled out of sight. Lionel Swobe picked up his fallen briefcase and started collecting together the papers that had scattered from it. He heard urgent Japanese chatter long before he saw Kumiko and a half-dozen friends stroll into view, laughing and clamouring around a smartphone she was holding. When they saw him—dishevelled, red-eyed from crying, frozen in panic and shame—they stopped and stared, uncertain. But then their faces hardened and—it started with Kumiko—they smirked.
“Rook,” she said, and thrust out her phone at him, “you.”
And he watched the video she played—him racing through the parking lot, howling and looking back over a shoulder, chased by some unseen horror.
“You posted me on YouTube.”
“You don’t like me, do you, Kumiko?”
“No.” She was a kind girl, he could tell, but hurt, and determined, despite herself, to hurt back, to spread as much pain as possible. It was a strategy he knew well.
“I don’t like me, either. I’m not a nice teacher or a nice man. But you’re a nice girl, Kumiko, and I’m sorry I embarrassed you. I won’t be mean again. I hope you’ll forgive me eventually—not for my sake but for yours.” He got his briefcase shut and was ready to leave, and go back to school—back to the acceptance of his fate. He realized, after a couple of lopsided strides, that he had only one shoe. The girls laughed at him scornfully, and he laughed too, which made them stop. “Could you do something for me, Kumiko?”
She frowned, suspicious. “What?”
“You don’t have to like me. Just don’t be like me.”