The day she finally accepted her husband, Alex, was really dead, Thorne came across his old geometry set from his schooldays. She couldn’t remember clearing it out of the cupboard under the stairs, but it was balanced, precariously unstable, on the top of a box full of accumulated household junk. As she ran her fingertips across its battered and scratched lid, she smiled at the picture of Jon Pertwee as Dr Who beside his blue tardis, so typical of nineteen seventies childhood memorabilia. She prised open the rusting lid with a thumbnail. Alex’s name was written neatly in childish handwriting on a grubby, yellowing label.
Alexander Platek. Class 4. St Peter’s Junior School.
Tears welled in Thorne’s pale-grey eyes as an avalanche of crystal sharp memories swept her back to their schooldays.
A squared plus B squared equals C squared.
Alex’s dark hair had flopped over his black-rimmed glasses as he screwed up his face in concentration. Side by side in class, they had learned all about Pythagoras’s Theorum and drawn triangles with plastic rulers and rubber-tipped HB pencils in their maths exercise books.
“I really like your name,” he had said shyly to her after the maths lesson. “It reminds me of Pythagoras.”
“Why?” she had replied.
“Because a thorn is a triangle shape,” he had said seriously, but behind his warm, chestnut eyes had lurked a playful smile.
From that day Alex and Thorne had become best friends, flirting with each other’s curiosities about forests and lakes, clouds and winds, stars and planets, stupendous glaciers and feather-light snowflakes. As expected, Alex had passed his eleven plus examination. Thorne had failed, as predicted, having spent a good part of the exam staring out of the window at the fascinating shapes made by purple-grey clouds gathering in the distance. Alex had not only been the love of her life, but also the other side of a perfect equation. ‘Thorne plus Alex equals one,‘ he had always said.
They had married young, neither of them interested in pursuing the usual teenage distractions. Alex had become a professor of pure mathematics, eminent in an exclusive circle of international physicists, scientists and mathematicians working on a high level project to reverse the effects of climate change. Thorne had been content to trail dreamily along in his shadow, her skill with a sewing needle and love of the arts and classical music creating soft, cosy homes for them as, together, they had travelled the globe with his work.
At the beginning of February that year, a freak weather front from the north-east had swept across the country in a deadly, howling blizzard. Whilst Thorne was snuggled in the warm glow of their quaint country cottage, Alex’s car had skidded and crashed into a tree as he made his way home. His frozen, lifeless body had been discovered the next morning, entombed within the wreckage. A month later, the changing climate had refused to release the country from its icy fist of steel and a dwindling supply of natural resources had driven up the price of energy, causing hardship and misery to millions of people. In the cold, vacuous world after Alex’s death, Thorne felt naked and disorientated, lost in a timeless white wasteland as the climate around her swirled and whirled in colourless turmoil. Could she ever be whole again without Alex?
Pi equals 3.14. Thorne smiled through her tears as she clutched the geometry set to her chest, remembering how, as classmates, Alex had taught her how to work out the circumference and radius of a circle using a photograph of the planet as an example. Several times that day, as she continued to sort through Alex’s clothes and other possessions, she was drawn back to the geometry set, picking it up and caressing it as she reminisced.
That afternoon as she rested for a while, listening to classical music clutching the plastic setsquare from the geometry set, a Royal Mail van pulled up outside, its diesel engine erratic and noisy in the sub-zero temperature. The doorbell rang and Thorne answered the door.
“Sign here,” said the deliveryman, thrusting a clipboard and pen at her before blowing on his chapped, red hands.
“I haven’t ordered anything,” Thorne said, puzzled.
“Is that you?” The man pointed to the label.
“Well, yes …but …” Thorne’s words trailed away on the wind as she decided to sign for the unexpected parcel. In the aftermath of Alex’s death, a mysterious delivery was of virtually no consequence.
“What time is it?” she said, almost having to shout over the noise of the van and the raw, desolate wind whistling through the eaves.
The man glanced at his digital watch.
“Three fourteen,” he said with a shiver and glance upwards at the heavy, dull snow-laden sky. “Reckon it’s gonna bloody well snow again. As if we haven’t shovelled enough of the blasted stuff already, eh?”
In the dim light of the dining room, Thorne opened the parcel. It contained two books. One was entitled ‘Pythagoras of Samos’ and the other ‘The Great Pyramid and Other Earth Equations’.
She turned her attention to the receipt and shook her head slowly in disbelief. The order was dated a week after Alex had died, and she recognised the last four digits of his debit card number, printed on the document.
Thorne flung off her duvet in a fitful, restless sleep. In her nightmare, sharp triangular fragments of a shattered puzzle of planet Earth were repelling each other as if oppositely magnetised. Agitated, she tossed and turned as the jagged edges refused to line up and shot away from each other. She awoke in an exhausted sweat, her head muzzy with a pounding headache. She glanced at the bedside clock. It was 3.14 am. Frowning in disbelief, she slid out of bed, pulled on her dressing gown and shuffled downstairs to the kitchen for headache tablets before wandering into the cold dining room. Placed on the table, on the front cover of one the books was Alex’s plastic setsquare, covering a photograph of planet Earth taken from space. Had she left the setsquare on the book? Bemused, she absent-mindedly shook some pills out of the bottle into her hand. Three whole tablets and a small fragment fell into her palm, gently reminding her, yet again, of the value of Pi.
The next morning Thorne woke early, determined to shake off the unwelcome paranormal thoughts that had threaded themselves through her imagination during the night hours. She slid out of bed, pulled on a thick woollen sweater and warm trousers and made toast before picking up the first of the books. To conserve heat, she left the curtains drawn across the window and switched on a lamp in the corner of the dining room. Flicking through one of the books, she shivered at the dining table in the dull light as the grandfather clock ticked quietly in the hall and hard flakes of snow pattered across the windows.
Thorne spent the entire day engrossed in the contents of the books, which had been written years before by a renowned NASA physicist. Although she had never entirely understood Alex’s work and struggled to navigate her way around the concepts, the books revealed such startling theories she wondered why they hadn’t been taken more seriously when they had first been published.
Later that evening, Thorne felt exhausted. Her thudding head wobbled, eccentrically weighted as if it had been knocked out of orbit and sucked into a whirlwind of equations and formulae she didn’t understand. She powered up Alex’s laptop computer. He had been working on a document entitled ‘Calculating Interplanetary Magnetic Fields and Earth Crust Displacement’, its properties indicating that it had last been changed the day before he had died. She clicked on the icon and began to read the text. It was mostly beyond her comprehension, but the underlying rationale in the opening pages suggested that it might be possible to calculate, using mathematical equations, the precise location, magnitude and timing of earthquakes. The text stopped abruptly, mid-sentence, on page twenty.
Eventually, Thorne crumpled in her chair and rubbed at her eyes, overcome with a sudden exhaustion that seemed to absorb her thoughts and senses in a white infinity. A few minutes later she climbed into bed and fell into a deep sleep.
Thorne awoke the next morning to find herself stiff, cold and slumped over the table in the gloomy dining room, a thin shaft of sunlight capturing a kaleidoscope of dust particles through the closed curtains. Confused, she levered herself up to a sitting position: she had no recollection of getting up in the night and had no idea why she was in the dining room and not in her bed. Alex’s laptop computer was still switched on, the light from the screen casting an eerie, multicoloured luminescence across the room. She pressed the spacebar on the computer and her heart began to race as her eyes scanned the open document before her. Overnight, twenty pages had inexplicably increased to over three hundred. As she scrolled back through the text and calculations on the screen, disbelief gave way to incredulity.
’23rd January 1556. Shaanxi, China. 1m people killed …18th April 1906. San Francisco. 6,000 people killed, 200,000 homeless … 19th September 1985, Mexico. 9,000 people killed, 30,000 injured … 26th December 2004, Indonesia …’
Scepticism eventually succumbed to a huge suffocating weight as destiny crushed the breath from Thorne’s chest. Her eyes darted quickly from side to side through the document. Each historical earthquake quoted was accompanied by a complex mathematical equation, which not only revealed the location, but pinpointed to within a few hours the time the disaster had occurred, together with the likely magnitude.
‘Prediction is the Holy Grail. Up until now we have known where an earthquake is likely to happen, but not when.. Japan: 11th March 2011. More than eight on the Richter scale. Turkey: 23rd October 2011. Potentially ten times more powerful than Izmit in August 1999 …’
Thorne’s heart was beating fast, making her light-headed and shaky. She glanced at the calendar on the wall. Would a massive earthquake really hit Japan in just nine days’ time? And then in October, would Turkey suffer the same fate? She continued reading until her eyes rested on the final prediction.
’29th December 2012. San Andreas Fault. Cascadia. Pacific north-west coast. Nine or more on the Richter scale … Vancouver, Seattle, Portland. Devastation on a scale as yet unknown to man. May cause significant polar shift …’
The size of the two words seemed to grow on the computer screen – too vast, too massive, to take in.
Thorne sat, her eyes immobilised, staring at the equations and calculations as she realised the power of them. She thought about the lives that might be saved. Mankind may not be able to prevent earthquakes, but, because of Alex’s work, it could now prepare for them. Governments might be able to evacuate people from earthquake zones well in advance and protect important infrastructure from total destruction. Would she have time to submit Alex’s paper and save lives in Japan? Was the future of the entire world really in her hands?
After a few minutes she stood up and walked over to the window, her breath vaporising in a sudden blast of cold air. She flung the curtains back. Warm sunlight flooded into the room. Leaden, grey skies had turned to blue and the lying snow reflected a cosmos of sparkles on its dazzling whiteness.
A sudden energy force hit her from behind and passed into her body, causing her to stumble forwards with its velocity. She shuddered and steadied herself on the windowsill. Instantly, she felt whole again; re-energised and sparkly new, just like the blanket of snow in the sunlight. Happy tears rolled down her cheeks. Alex might be dead, but she knew without any doubt that his soul was still very much alive. Through her, his work would be honoured, embraced and revered as the human race benefited from his mathematical brilliance.
He had been right all along.
Thorne plus Alex really did equal one.
© Annie Ireson