12NOW writer Ross Thompson gives Lagan Online an exclusive look at his recently finished novel, The Absence of Grief.
The Absence of Grief is described as a story of love, loss and counting. Stephen Joseph Murray is a young man growing up in a remote Scottish village with a loving protective mother, and a cruel repressive father. After a series of trauma, chiefly his father’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, he develops an obsession with counting and a desire to move as far as possible from his home. However, no matter how far he travels, the question of his father’s whereabouts continues to haunt him.
About The Absence of Grief, Ross said: “I initially set out to write a novel about grief and the way in which we cope with that terrible sense of loss. I also wanted to write about families, dysfunctional or otherwise, particularly the relationship between fathers and sons. However, the more that I wrote, the more that I found my thoughts turning to the idea of forgiveness and how we find compassion for those who have hurt us deeply. Loathing and bitterness are toxic if they are not counterbalanced by forgiveness and grace yet the working out of that process can be deeply painful. Lastly, I wanted to create a mystery that takes the narrator to strange, unexpected places and further away from himself than he could have imagined.”
Below is an exclusive chapter, ‘Numbers’:
There was a time, albeit a brief time, when I could control the numbers. I tried to push thoughts of counting, subtracting, multiplying, deleting and dividing to the very edge of my mind but those thoughts kept breaking through any barriers that I constructed, like wolves sneaking into the fold to devour the livestock.
And just like wolves, they were not to be tamed.
It was not long before I found myself thinking less about arbitrary sums and more about the numbers that make up the universe: the constants and variables and probabilities that hold the planets in place and cause the stars to shine, twinkle, twinkle, and the seas to roll, splash, splash. I tried to avoid doing thinking about these numbers, but my mind kept returning, like a tongue pulling at a cut on the roof of my mouth, to the idea of what would happen if one of those numbers was tweaked just the slightest bit higher or lower, if one of the numbers from which the very fabric of the world was woven was gently nudged out of alignment. A barely perceptible measurement here or there, a breath in the wrong direction, and chaos would surely be loosed upon the world.
And when I thought about that, as I did more and more frequently, it was the whisper at the bottom of the mountain that started the avalanche at the top.
One afternoon, I was toying with the abacus when I was assaulted by a vision. I saw lightning splitting the ground asunder, sending clouds of 4s and 16s shooting out of the earth. I saw mountains sliding off their foundations like slabs of uneaten cake from paper party plates, as the sea below boiled with 50s and 6s. I saw buildings toppling over, 35s and 2s pouring from their broken windows, 41s jumping from their roofs, screaming as they plummeted towards the earth. I saw meteorites tearing through the sky, pulling long trails of burning 9s behind them.
I have often thought about how one quantifies madness, if it can be measured out in tablespoons or seashells, in buckets or bottles. I know now that I could have, and should have, sought professional help at that early stage, before everything slid southwards, but the Murrays were not ones for speaking about their problems. My upbringing was, to put it kindly, unconventional, and that unusualness extended to my father’s opinion of medicine. He did not allow the swallowing of aspirin to alleviate the common cold or toothache so he certainly would not have granted me his permission to visit someone with a framed diploma hanging on their surgery wall.
“Why would anyone want to visit a joker of a headshrinker?” my father said. “Personal reflection and slow breathing are the remedy to all ills.”
But even if I had been allowed to visit a joker of a headshrinker, what would I have told them? How could I have accounted for my father’s mania when I did not understand it myself? How could I have described that I had become emotionally attached to an abacus? How could I have explained that I could not stop myself from doing equations in my head? Was there even a recognised medical term for the condition that afflicted me?
Then there was the small matter that I saw numbers. I saw them floating in the air. I saw them and I heard them and I almost convinced myself that I could feel them brushing against my skin. The numbers took on new shapes, inflating, sprouting limbs and appendages and painting themselves with new textures. Some of these were obvious: an 8 became an hourglass suspended in the air, and a 9 became an apostrophe, winking on a page. Some of them made less sense. For reasons unknown a 5 became a crocodile – or an alligator, I am not entirely sure which – and a 3 became a high rise building, not the glassy American monoliths but the council funded 1970s eyesores that used to taint the skyline of most major Scottish cities but have since been blown up and torn down. A 10 became a black-bellied raincloud, a 15 a lighthouse and a 44 a clump of trees. These shapes started life as small, jumping jacks jangling about inside my brain but in time they grew to the size of woolly mammoths. Occasionally, the numbers were a welcome distraction. During Wednesday afternoon History lessons in my father’s study – or rather, the jumbled alternative timeline that my father called History – out of the corner of my eye I could see 27s and 53s roaring and lumbering around the room, crumpling the rug, bowing the floorboards with their great weight, tipping over side tables and spilling the contents of bookcases.
My father, of course, could not see them. My mother, naturally, could not see them. No one else could see them. But I could see them.
On some days the numbers – or rather, the shapes that passed as numbers – chased me through the winding streets of the village, carving tracks in the ground like the ones left by sledges in the snow. The numbers squeezed their great bulk between houses and shops, knocking off roof tiles and dragging gutters out of their brackets. On other days the numbers wheezed in the long grass at the end of the garden, skulking like leopards, waiting to for the right moment to pounce.
It got to the stage where I was counting without even thinking about it. I could not walk without an internal pedometer measuring the number of strides I had taken to get from one place to another. I could not read a book without subconsciously calculating the number of words and syllables on each page. If a given page ended on an odd number I was unable to progress until I had made it an even number by factoring in the number of letters in the name of the author, the place of publication or some other perfunctory detail.
Prongs on a fork, drawing pins in a plastic tub, matches in a box… I would count them all even though, as my mother’s beloved Scriptures say, they outnumbered the grains of sand on the beach or the very hairs on my head.
In later years this aptitude for numbers allowed me to make an obscene amount of money. However, to get to the point of being comfortable with my curse or my gift or whatever term one might choose to call it, if indeed there was a term to accurately describe what I had, I had no choice but to succumb to its terrible power. The numbers led me through forests of frustration and into caves of madness. They were with me in the daylight and they were with me in the dead of night. The numbers made me feel powerful and they made me feel weak. They gave and they took away. They held me prisoner and they set me free. The numbers loved me and they hated me in equal, perfectly balanced measure. I did not blame anyone for any of this. I certainly did not wish that my illness would instead be visited upon someone else. I suppose that I could have told my mother about what was troubling me but she clearly had a dozen problems of her own to face so she did not need to shoulder my burdens as well. There was also the possibility that my father would overhear me disclosing my condition to her. No doubt he would have set about trying to thrash the numbers out of me. That would have been futile. I would only have counted the number of lashes of his belt.
I convinced myself that in the cosmic lottery that I then believed was the system that governed the universe, the mystical roulette by which all things were randomly decided, the clattering ball had bounced around the spinning wheel and finally came to rest in my slot.
It was my turn.