Longlisted for the Guardian Not the Booker prize 2016
Selected for WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017
Wilven does a masterful job of keeping his readers as off-balance as his protagonist... an intense and satisfyingly off-beat examination of a man lost in a landscape of unresolved grief and his heroic fight to find his way back home.' Melissa DeCarlo, author of The Art of Crash Landing
Vince stops taking his lithium when he finds out about his partner's pregnancy. As withdrawal kicks in, he can barely hold his life together.
Somewhere between making friends with a blackbird in the back garden and hearing his dead son's footsteps in the attic, he finds himself lost and alone, journeying through a world of chaos and darkness, completely unaware of the miracle that lies ahead.
Featuring a foreword from Dr Eleanor Longdon; Dr Longden's TED talk, Learning From the Voices in my Head, was featured on the front page of The Huffington Post and has been named by The Guardian newspaper as one of 'the 20 online talks that could change your life.'; It has been viewed over 3m times and translated into 36 languages.
|Publisher:||Legend Times Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.08(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
He lives and writes in London.
Visit Matt at mattwilven.com or follow him on Twitter @mattwilven
Read an Excerpt
The Blackbird Singularity
By Matt Wilven
Legend Times LtdCopyright © 2016 Matt Wilven
All rights reserved.
An event horizon is a mathematically defined boundary around a black hole. It is the point from which light can no longer escape the pull of the centre and all possible paths lead further into the hole. Beyond it, gravity is thought to be so powerful that it stretches and tears matter into subatomic strings. Outside, observers see it as a black surface upon which things darken and disappear. They can use the boundary to calculate a few simple facts – such as mass, spin and charge – but they can only theorise about what happens in the space beyond it.
Lyd leaves the house for work around 7:30am. I'd been listening for the sound of her shower to stop but drifted off. I sit up and rub my face, annoyed about missing her. Lithium doesn't discriminate between the important and unimportant moments in life. My mornings are always fuzzy.
After using the toilet I look at myself in the bathroom mirror. The tired man behind the glass has aged a lot in the last two years. His black hair is mottled grey at the temples. The skin around his eyes is dark, bruised almost, but not on the surface; the beating has come from the inside. There is a discrepancy between the perceived morbidity of his character (someone in his late fifties) and the age of his physical body (somewhere in its mid-thirties) but his end is definitely closer than his beginning.
Downstairs, I make myself a coffee and a couple of slices of toast and listen to a John Lee Hooker compilation. The phone starts ringing after my first bite. I leave the music on and continue eating, letting it ring out. Lyd's left half an old packet of sultanas on the kitchen counter with a yellow Post-It note stuck to the front. It reads: For the birds. It's impossible to fault her pragmatism, thinking about feeding the neighbourhood birds minutes after seeing me sleeping through one of the definitive moments in our relationship.
I open the pack and smell them. They look sticky and are beginning to ferment so I open the sliding door and dump them on the frosty lawn. The majority fall out in one big clump and break into three pieces when they hit the hard earth. It's too cold to bother scattering them properly.
I slide the patio door shut, pull a chair away from the kitchen table, wrap my hands around my cup of coffee and watch the white lawn. Within seconds a blackbird arrives, and then another. Soon there are nearly a dozen of them fluttering about, raising tiny clouds of hoar frost and trying to win a few moments on top of one of the sultana clumps. I'm not sure how long I sit watching them but, for the first time in a long time, I experience the creative glimmer of a new idea.
After a couple of minutes the idea is outshining my interest in the birds so I venture upstairs to my writing desk. Words flow out of me all morning. There's no double-checking my email, no scrolling through news sites or vacantly gazing at lists of jobs. I don't even turn my computer on. I just sit down and write in my notebook for four hours.
Around lunchtime the broken images of the story stop appearing in my head and the words clog up. I realise that I've forgotten to take my lithium. I consider taking it now but what I just wrote felt like a breakthrough. I want to keep hold of this clarity of mind. I bite the inside of my right cheek and decide not to take it. I go out for a twenty-minute jog instead.
After a shower and some lunch I head back to my writing room. I stop at Charlie's bedroom door. It's been over six months since I've faced it, and Lyd doesn't like it when I go in, but I feel like I have to. My hand trembles as I reach for the knob. I wonder if I'm already withdrawing from my medication or if I'm genuinely afraid.
The room is exactly the same – off-white wallpaper with pleasant childhood objects dispersed like polka dots, planetary-themed carpet, Toy Story bedcovers, wardrobe cluttered with cartoon stickers and scribbled crayon drawings, plastic whiteboard with a picture of our family drawn in stick man form, a cheap wooden trunk too small for all the toys – typical stuff for a four-year-old raised in a London suburb. The only unique thing is the low-hanging moon I made for him in one of our make-believe sessions. I push it with the tip of my toe and watch it sway back and forth.
His favourite soft toy lies by the pillow on the bed. He was probably the last person to touch it so I don't want to disturb its position. It always looked like a limp, dead ferret, even when it was new, and we could never get it away from him. Where did it even come from? I look around and find myself sighing. The sound that comes out contains an unintended groan.
I pick up a retro 1960s robot from the windowsill; a toy we bought as an ornament. It's red, quite heavy and shaped like a squat cone. Its mouth is a chrome grill and the eyes are blue sirens. There is nostalgia in its naïvety, cuteness based on the fact that the original creator had been unable to form a clearer vision of the technological future. My jittery hands fumble and drop it.
The robot is motionless on the floor, part of the wrong future. I scowl at it, hate it, and find myself stamping on it three times. It doesn't break. It's surprisingly sturdy. The pounding hurts my foot through my shoe. Grimly amused by my failure to destroy it, I pick it up and put it back in the same position on the windowsill. My hands are steady again.
I begin to feel like I'm loitering so I leave the room and go back to my writing. I find myself working on another new story. It's set in a completely different time and place but it belongs in the same universe as the one I was writing this morning. I don't know how or why I know this. I just know that I feel alive in a way that seems forgotten. I'm focused and productive. Time is moving so fast that I almost can't believe it when I hear Lyd's key in the front door.
When people ask Lyd what she does for a living she usually answers with something self-deprecating like, "Sums." Sometimes, when pushed, she says, "I'm a physicist." Until four years ago she was an unsung hero in the world of particle physics and a some-time lecturer at Imperial College London. Then her book Mini-Novas: The End of Science or the End of the World? became a crossover hit (her publishers forced the subtitle – it upset Lyd for weeks but also ensured that she sold a lot of books). It's about the role of particle accelerators in the future of science and, specifically, the potentiality of mini black holes. Now she occasionally does interviews on the news when they need someone to balance out a regressive or scaremongering perspective. She used to work much longer hours but a mixture of success and grief has put her in a position to choose her own working pattern.
I rush downstairs to meet her at the door. She looks tired but her mood lifts slightly when she sees that I'm smiling. I pick her up off the ground with a hug. Outside's chill covers her.
"Wait," she protests. "Let me get my coat off."
I put her down.
"Hello?" she says, curious. "What's up? You seem pretty buzzed."
"It's just good to see you."
"I'm sorry I fell back to sleep this morning."
"It's fine," she says, hanging up her coat and grabbing her leather satchel back up off the floor. "What've you been up to?"
She walks through to the kitchen, dumping her things on the counter.
"Writing. A new thing. A couple of new things actually. They might be part of the same thing. I don't know yet."
"Oh? That's good."
"The first taste is always the sweetest."
"Great. Angela's going to be happy."
(Angela's my agent.)
She kisses me, a peck.
"How was your day?" I ask.
"Dull. Busy. Mostly dull. I think the problem I'm working on might be impossible. And pointless. Impossibly pointless."
"In the simplest terms?"
"Should I pretend to —"
"No. It's fine."
"Prawn stir-fry sound good?"
"Later." She pulls an opened bottle of white wine from the fridge. "I've got a headache."
I accidentally lower the right side of my mouth as she pours out a glass.
"What?" she asks. "One won't hurt."
"No. One's fine."
I can tell from her slightly aggressive manner that she doesn't want to talk so I go back up to my writing room for an hour. After a quiet dinner we watch a couple of episodes of a political drama that we've been hooked on for the last few weeks. I can't follow the story because our silence feels like the most prominent thing in the room. I rest my hand on her thigh. I kiss the side of her face. She doesn't turn to me once.
Around 10pm we go up to read in bed but I can't focus on my book either. I pretend to leaf through the pages for a few minutes and then put my bookmark back where it was when I started. Once she's finished her chapter she turns her bedside light off and lies with her back to me. I turn my light off and nestle up behind her. When I put my arm over her she rests her hand in mine but doesn't say a word.
It's 10:56am. I've slept in. I can feel the lithium depleting in me. It took me hours to get to sleep last night. I feel sluggish and depressed. I must have turned my alarm off and gone back to sleep but I have no recollection of doing it. Lyd's long gone.
I put some coffee on, pour myself a bowl of cereal and stand looking out into the back garden. One of the blackbirds is back. He keeps searching the grass and then jumping up onto our birdbath, turning his head sideways and, seemingly, staring at me in the house. He is more slight and agile than the typical adult male and moves quicker, with more poise and grace. I like the look of him.
After a couple of renditions of this lawn-and-birdbath routine I realise that he isn't searching the grass for bugs or food, he's pretending to. It's a show. He's begging, but not in a desperate fashion. He's like a busker or an entertainer. He doesn't want to work for a living, he wants to sing for his supper.
Intrigued as to whether I'm truly being manipulated by a blackbird (and amused enough to participate), I open a new pack of sultanas and throw out a handful for him. After cautiously flying up onto the garden fence when I slide the patio door open he quickly flies back down onto the lawn and hops from one sultana to the next, pecking and swallowing them. When he's done, before he flies away, he makes an oddly distinctive chirping sound:
– chink-chink, chook-chook, chink-chink, chook-chook –
The experience of watching him and being tweeted at cleanses my mind in some unfathomable way. The phased-out feeling I woke with dissipates. I close the sliding door, put my bowl in the sink, pour myself a black coffee and take it upstairs, ready to start writing.
It's already later than when I usually take my lithium and what I wrote yesterday felt so clear and concise. Right now, I need that clarity. The light fuzz of lithium can be a gift, it keeps me level, but when I'm trying to use my mind as a quick, sharpened tool it slows me down.
I spend all afternoon typing up and editing my work from the previous day. I cut all the abstract language and useless similes then eke out the right grammar and piece it into something more structured and interesting. Once it's in a readable state I go out for a jog.
I'm still in the shower when Lyd gets home from work. I can hear her on the telephone whilst I'm getting dressed. From her tone of voice and the cadence of her laughter (scathingly ironic but innocent of malice) I immediately narrow the person on the other end of the line down to her sister, Jayne, or her friend Gloria. I head downstairs.
"Yeah, he's here now ... No. How could he? He never leaves the house. Ha, ha ... Let me look at him ... Yeah, he seems to be on pretty good form ... Okay, I will ... Okay. Bye, love."
She hangs up.
"I'll have you know I've been out running," I say, "today and yesterday. Was that Jayne?"
"Gloria," she replies, quickly descending from a world of open and carefree friendship into a more stressed and evasive mood.
"Did you tell her?"
"Tell her what?"
"About the pregnancy."
"No. Jesus, Vince."
"Sorry. How is she?"
"She says hi. She's good. Sergio's being a dick though."
"He's hounding her. Asking who every text's from and if everyone in the office wears clothes like she does. I thought he was better than that."
"Come on, Serge is a good guy."
(Me and Sergio were friends before her and Gloria but now they meet up more than we do.)
"He's acting like an ape."
"She has changed though. She used to wear all those dark jumpers, loose trousers, everything covered up. They've been married eight years and she's suddenly started dressing provocatively. What's he going to think?"
"She can dress however she wants," says Lyd. "It's good that's she's coming out of herself."
"I didn't say she couldn't, or shouldn't, just that —"
"If Sergio can't deal with the fact that his wife wants to feel good about the way she looks —"
"It's not that. I think he just —"
She sees that I'm flustered by her aggression and restrains herself.
"We said we wouldn't do this," she says, smiling, changing tack. "And she does seem a little bit too relaxed lately, doesn't she? I wonder if she'd tell me if she was sleeping with somebody else. Sometimes you just can't tell. Who really knows anybody?"
"What if there were no rhetorical questions?" I quip.
Lyd rolls her eyes.
"So, good day?" she asks, insinuating that I'm chirpy again.
"I'm getting a lot out of these new ideas I'm working on. But I'm not really ready to talk about them yet."
"Still in the delicate stages?"
"Yes, like you," I say, moving in to hold her.
She tries to turn her head away from me.
"Hey," I protest, gently moving her face back towards me. "We've got to talk about it at some point."
"Maybe," she repeats, slipping out of my arms and grabbing some of her things to take upstairs.
"Do I not even get a kiss?"
She comes back and petulantly kisses me on the cheek. It's supposed to be funny but I watch her disappear with concern. Her wit is an act that has no joy in it.
I take my time making dinner to give Lyd some space. I cook an onion paste and a curry paste. I roast lots of sweet root vegetables in olive oil and seasoning. I mix them all together and add lots of tomatoes and cream. Then it's just a matter of waiting for it all to simmer down whilst I put the rice on.
Lyd loves curry and comes into the kitchen inhaling the aroma with her eyes closed.
"Smells delicious," she says, approaching the fridge and taking out a quarter-full bottle of white wine.
"Five–ten minutes," I say, adding some cloves and coconut milk to the rice and quickly checking to see if she's pouring out the whole quarter-bottle.
"What?" she asks, spotting my glance.
I open the crockery cupboard and begin setting the kitchen table. Lyd helps and then takes her large glass of wine over and sits down.
"You know," she says, "my mum smoked twenty a day back when I was a bunch of mushy cells."
"And you blame her for having a small lung capacity whenever you get the chance."
I give the curry a stir.
"I'd have found another axe to grind." She takes a sip with a smile. "She knows I love her."
"I can never imagine your mum smoking ... So, it's sinking in a bit?"
She looks at me blankly.
"The mushy cells?"
"A bit," she sighs, looking away from me, towards the steamed-up glass of the sliding doors.
I test the rice, there's still a tiny bit of crunch.
"We're going to have to talk about Charlie's room," I say.
Lyd skips a couple of beats before replying.
"No. We're not."
I turn to her.
"There's plenty of other things to talk about first."
"True," I concede.
"It's early days."
"You're always off in the future."
"I'm just trying to make sure we're ready for what's coming."
"Like I said, it's still early days. Try not to get carried away."
"Okay. But don't start using caution as an excuse not to talk about it."
"I hope not."
I drain the rice in a colander and begin dishing out our food. I've made enough for four or five. It will serve us twice so I get some plastic boxes out and put the surplus in them.
"Are you okay, honey?" asks Lyd. "You seem very ... lucid."
"Me? I'm fine."
Excerpted from The Blackbird Singularity by Matt Wilven. Copyright © 2016 Matt Wilven. Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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