The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes (2)
My novel, The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, will be released on June 1st. You can find the opening chapters and synopsis here. In the chapter below, we meet the novel’s second protagonist, the reclusive Japanese teenager and maths prodigy, Shuji Nomoto.
Shuji Nomoto stands with his head pressed against the door. He has been listening for ten minutes to his mother, Junko, and his older brother, Yuichi, argue about something inconsequential downstairs. At last he is satisfied there is no one on this floor, but still his muscles pull against him as he puts his fingers on the handle. His grip falters; the sweat on his palm slides against the metal. He swallows hard and listens to the sound of blood in his ears, the quick, quick, quick beat of his heart, the only fragile thing that separates life from death.
Silently. Silently – every day he uses oil from his fried tofu lunch to keep the door from making a sound. A crack of strange light appears from the corridor and Shuji winces. Cooler air and the smell of bean curd catch his face and he feels giddy. He closes his eyes, pushes, feels for the tray with his feet, pulls the door, eases the handle back, turns the lock, and leans back against the door, fighting back shameful tears as he waits for his heart to slow.
Eventually he is calm. He sits at his desk, his back rod-straight, and moves his finger in a perfect nautilus spiral on the mouse pad to bring his laptop back to life. Three years ago, this was the highest specification Sony laptop money could buy. His mother bought the latest model every year for their brilliant son, delighted by the interest he showed in learning, unlike his baseball-obsessed older brother. Now, though, Shuji’s external hard drive is full and he has filled enough of the internal memory to notice the loss of speed sometimes.
Occasionally he looks longingly at the new models, and imagines what he could do with the extra speed and capacity. But he knows how his old machine works, nkwos it’s reliable, and ordering something from the outside world is just too risky. Besides, if he is ever going to prove the Nomoto-Byfield conjecture, it will be brain power, not artificial processing, he needs.
Agnieszka Anonymous has reappeared on Shuji’s screen. He scrolls through the forums. The journalist has posted again. Shuji checks his moderator’s control panel. The journalist’s IP address is in England. It must be deep into the night there. Edgeofdarkness. It’s an interesting name. To Shuji it has a dreamlike quality, although the five syllables of Theedgeofdarkness would be better still.
He imagines the new user for a moment, sitting in a study somewhere on the other side of the world, or perhaps a 24 hour internet café. Another of the ghosts that come out at night to stalk Agnieszka through the hours of darkness. He wonders what it would be like to meet one of his fellow-travellers, to talk over coffee, to share a meal, to touch. After a few moments he turns to the large work surface where his work is laid out and, with a seamless transition, his thoughts return to mathematics.
Shuji’s father, Taichi, was a successful banker. When he died six years ago, Junko was left alone in their large home in Kobe with her two sons. The home wanted for nothing. Each of the three bedrooms had its own bathroom, and the living area was large enough to take the many colleagues of Taichi’s she had regularly entertained.
After Taichi’s death, Junko rattled around the house like the seeds of an honesty plant in their transparent shell. Perhaps it’s because it’s been so long since Shuji has spoken with another person, but now, when he hears his mother and Yuichi’s voices rising up the stairs, they sound so distorted by the vast, empty space of the house it seems they come from a different world.
One morning, when he was 14, Shuji stepped out of the shower and towelled himself dry. He pulled on his underwear, trousers, socks, a vest, and a clean white shirt. He stood in front of the mirror, pulling wax through his short hair, expertly teasing it into spikes between his fingers. Without any warning, he stopped, stared, and saw someone he didn’t recognise staring back at him from the mirror. It was like he was looking at a mannequin in a shop window, a model on a billboard. There was a stranger in his room, and the stranger was him.
He took off his school uniform, emptied the identikit outfits from their drawer, bundled them into a bag, placed them outside his bedroom, closed the door, and locked it behind him. He washed the gel from his hair, dressed in jeans and a Nirvana T-shirt, sat at his desk, fired up his laptop, and began scouring the internet for every reference he could find to the Byfield Effect. He hasn’t spoken to, seen, or been seen by, another person since.
At first he was fascinated. He devoted every second of his time to understanding the Effect. It felt to him as though knowing it better than he knew anything else in or about the world was all that mattered. He had been given a task of monumental importance, but he had no idea what, or why. All he knew was he had to prepare for it by mastering this theory.
The Byfield Effect, named after the English astrophysicist Professor Sydney Byfield, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on the subject, is the phenomenon whereby a cluster of waves – to an observer travelling at close to the speed of light, and in the same direction as the waves – appears to behave like a solid object. It marks the point where the Doppler Effect, whereby waves appear expanded or contracted according to their velocity towards or away from an observer, breaks down. The Byfield Effect notes that as the velocity of the observer approximates the velocity of the waves, a point of turbulence occurs and the waves no longer appear as lengthened or shortened versions of themselves, but begin to appear as particles. Known as the Byfield Point, this is the place where quantum physics and the chaotic mathematics of turbulent systems intersect.
Two years later, Shuji saw the clip of Agnieszka Iwanowa’s death. He played the clip through five times. Each time Agnieszka turned her head to the camera, he pressed his face closer to the screen, trying to decipher her words, to make out what she was saying to him. He knew what he was watching change his life forever, but he had no idea how.
Eventually his eyes hurt so much from the concentration he cradled his head in his hands, massaging his brow with his fingertips. Through the gaps between his fingers, he saw on a piece of paper handwriting he recognised as his own: Nomoto-Byfield Conjecture.