‘The Second Law’
I WAS in the shop mostly to warm myself – the mall was heated, the weather bitter – but I also had a dumb, nostalgic fondness for places like this. Miniature pool tables, World’s Greatest Dad mugs, aprons fitted with plastic boobs. That kind of thing. I was playing with the old-school executive toys, making the spheres of a Newton’s cradle clack back and forth, when the store assistant came over.
“Something for your boyfriend?”
Cheeky, I thought. He was a spruce young guy in a royal-blue polo shirt, tucked in to show off a neatly solid chest. Ryan was sewn on the breast pocket.
“No boyfriend,” I said.
“No? That’s a shame.”
“I need a get-well gift, actually. For my dad, he’s been in hospital.” I looked past him at a gadget on the shelf. “What’s that?”
A Perspex wheel the size of a saucer was mounted upright on a metal stand. It was hollow, and inside you could see a dozen or so ballbearings, trapped in separate compartments.
“Perpetual motion machine.”
Now I smiled. “Come on.”
“No seriously, it’s the real thing.”
He reached out and spun the wheel. The motion was silky and frictionless; the balls made a controlled clatter as they went around, like a miniature hailstorm. Its cheerful flicker brought back something I hadn’t thought about for years: a Christmas ornament my dad made for my mother, with his own hands, a long time ago. Tin angels on a roundabout, propelled by the breath of little red candles. Those hot, bright southern Christmases.
“It’s actually from an original design by Leonardo da Vinci,” Ryan was saying. “See, the balls get carried up to the top, and then their weight pulls the wheel around again, and it just carries on and on. Perfect system.”
I let him talk. Leonardo. Momentum, action, reaction. Energy something something. I hadn’t been in the UK long, and the accent in this town escaped me at times. Words got lost, especially when people spoke fast, and also when they were talking rubbish. Nice hair, I thought: coppery, razored at the sides and gelled in the front. Soft gold on the backs of his fingers. The guy was in good condition – no chips or scuffs, white teeth, bright eyes. He stood close enough for me to catch his warmth, and his citrus aftershave.
“It’s clever, sure.”
“And it goes forever,” he said with a wink.
It was a good one, as winks go. A little voltage passed between us, and something started up inside me in response: a flywheel, a spinning top. It didn’t last. As I headed home with my plastic carrier bag, the buzz of the shop bled away and the town set coldly around me. It was one of those white-skied, soundless days, everything still and empty, no one on the streets or at the windows. It felt like I was the one moving thing in a winter painting; or as if the locals had gathered in a crowd some streets away and were standing there in silence, listening to my footsteps, waiting for me to pass.
Back at the flat, I checked my emails. There was an update from the home carer, Yolisa. Dad was out of hospital, she wrote in her calm, direct way, but frail and sleeping much of the time. Dad liked Yolisa; we’d employed her to nurse him several times before. She was a driven twenty-something, pulling night shifts and studying by correspondence in the hopes of getting into medical school. I often wondered what she thought of me and Martin, so far away, when surely our father needed us there. I wrote back to tell her that my brother was on his way.
Martin Skyped me that evening from some alien time zone, a stopover on a crooked path from Vancouver to Cape Town – tickets purchased last-minute, flights zigzagging east and south and west and south again. I was lying on the couch wrapped in a duvet, laptop held up so that my brother’s face floated above mine. Behind him, a tall viewing window was filled with that melancholy departure-lounge light I knew too well, the runway sun perpetually setting. Airside time. Over his shoulder I could see a tiny aeroplane in peach-coloured space, catching a spark.
“Is it late?” he asked. “Did I wake you?”
Time differences: we were always getting them wrong, mixing up a.m. and p.m., adding three hours instead of subtracting seven, or whatever. You lose track. Martin lived in Canada and we both travelled a lot, two roving corners of a triangle, with Dad back in South Africa the one fixed point. Between us, in the last eighteen months we could count off Indonesia, Russia, Japan, Venezuela. At times we were as far from each other as it’s possible for three people on planet Earth to be. To calculate the lag before phoning, I had to close my eyes and picture a globe, then turn it in my mind to make the sun appear on the right and progress to the left, rising and setting on each of us in turn.
“Should I come too?” I asked. “Maybe I should just get on a plane.”
“Let’s see when I get there. How bad it is,” said Martin.
This was the drill: we alternated crises. My last trip home had been four months before, when Dad dislocated his shoulder in a fall. This time it seemed worse, some kind of heart failure.
“When will you get there?” I asked.
“Uh, eleven hours? Maybe twelve?”
“Dad would know.”
“To the second.”
I couldn’t make out Martin’s expression with the light behind him, but his voice was weary and distant. My ears felt blocked and my throat tight, like something was stuck there. Perhaps I was getting sick.
These were the only conversations we had nowadays: complications and medication and insurance and visas. The logistics of keeping a rickety family up and running, across three continents. We were always in transit, voices warped over long-distance lines, connections breaking; faces pallid in airport lounges or reflected in the black windows of night trains. Neither of us had lives that were complicated to leave for a week or three – single, self-employed – but we were tired, my brother and I. It was taking long years for my father’s clock to wind down.
I sound cold, I know. I was. It was my first winter in England, and I was bloody freezing.
“Tell Dad I got him a present,” I said. “For next time.”
And it seemed like that plane was still hanging there, in just the same place above my brother’s left shoulder, catching the last flash of sun.
Nothing to do but wait. I took my boxed-up perpetual-motion machine out of its bag. On the front was Leonardo’s sketch of the device, fine arcs of umber ink, with underneath some lines of his mirror writing. I was feeling light-headed and empty, almost weightless, while the box seemed heavier than it ought to be. Inside, the ballbearings, supernaturally dense, vibrated with desire to move and keep moving. I didn’t want to open it up – it was meant for Dad – but my hands were drawn magnetically, were already lifting the flaps.
Inside, there was a leaflet, explaining: Leonardo himself had known that perpetual motion was a myth, that it outraged the laws of physics. Designing these machines was a way of demonstrating their impossibility. For entertainment and educational purposes only, the small print emphasised; no claims of inexhaustible energy were made. Screw the laws of physics, I thought. I’d seen the thing work. Overleaf was an exploded diagram which I ignored, having no brain for that kind of thing. How hard could it be to assemble, even for me?
Two halves of the Perspex wheel had to be snapped together and secured with tiny screws. The axle, a steel pin that went through the middle, rested in slots in the metal base. The silver balls came separately, in a plastic packet, and of course I’d forgotten to feed them into their compartments, so was forced to dismantle everything and start again. Eventually I had it set up on the kitchen counter. But when I gave it a turn, the wheel was sluggish, as if the ballbearings had lost their vim. No matter how briskly I snapped it around, after a few revolutions the thing faltered and stopped. No hum, no clatter.
Dad, I thought. I need a hand.
Dad in his workshop under the house, tinkering. It was a serene space, sawdust scattered on the cement floor, bolts and nails gleaming coolly in the lined-up jam-jars. Sparks flew, though, when my father got to work, a big man bearing down with his drill or his soldering iron. An engineer by trade, in his free time he was timber whisperer, clock surgeon, motor magician, always whistling a tune between his teeth. He built our bunk-beds and our radio, he put my first car together from parts and later, when Martin blunderingly drove that same car into the side of the garage, he bricked up the hole and splinted my brother’s broken nose himself. He could fix the world.
There was only a year between us, Martin and me. As little kids, we’d often be down there with our dad, messing with wood offcuts and clamps and dead spark-plugs. We liked the weights and textures of these things; we used them to play House and Fashion Show and War, and then Dad had to shout at us to clean our mess and put the tools back on their pegboard hooks. We were feckless, dreamy kids, easily bored. As adolescents, we largely retreated to our bedrooms, those less demanding spaces.
Still, we’d ask him for help with things we couldn’t do. Dad was patient but unyielding. “Figure it out,” he’d say when I showed him the electrical diagrams in my grade-eight physics workbook. “I’m not going to give you the answer. Concentrate. Look at it.” Or to Martin, despondently poking at his jammed-up bicycle gears: “Take your time, don’t panic. The answer’s right in front of you. Just use your eyes.”
But looking hard at things clarified nothing. Martin’s dislocated bike chain and my circuit diagrams were flourishes of the same arcane script, more cryptic than Leonardo’s trick writing. It was perhaps the true text of the universe, but one we’d never learn to read.
“You’re like your mother, both of you,” Dad conceded. “She was helluva creative.” Our mom had left when we were very small, too young to really remember. Dad didn’t speak about her much, and it was better like that: it was shocking to us, to hear even brief uncertainty or sadness in his voice. “You get that from her – the artistic side.”
And we did try to make that true. It felt like I was doing it for him, to spare him somehow, when I dropped the science classes and studied art instead. Martin ended up in advertising, and I became an art buyer for a big hotel chain. We found these jobs easier to do at a distance from Dad’s workshop, on the far side of the world.
Our father stayed where he was. Cut perfect dovetail joints. Made engines turn.
We came home from time to time. I brought him gifts, usually faux-mechanical trinkets from museum gift-shops and novelty stores. A wind-up robot, a tiny music box with its pretty machinery exposed, a puzzle involving magnets. They were gestures, the closest I could get to a shared language. I worried that they might seem trivial, derisive even, but Dad always glowed with pleasure to receive them. He was starting to grow old.
The webcam showed a bedroom curtained and dim; it might be day or night.
“He’s asleep,” Martin said softly, tilting back in the chair to let me see the bed.
There was a body under the sheet, a head sunk in the pillow. The webcam was cheap, and my father’s face was indistinct.
Yolisa was standing in the background, pixelated, busy with pill-bottles.
She raised her hand and I returned the salute; it didn’t seem right to smile.
Martin leaned in privately, blocking my view. He didn’t quite meet my eyes though, in the strange way Skype imposes: that shifty, lowered look.
“Should I come? I can come,” I said. “I can buy a ticket right now.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. The doctor says wait and see.”
“But you’ll call me? If anything happens, call me straight away.”
After he’d logged off, I touched my forehead to the faint warmth of the screen. Imagined an airplane window. At altitude, there’d be tiny shards of ice trapped between the panes, but on our descent the plastic would be hot with sun. There’d be sunlight on my eyelids and my lips, and below, the plane’s shadow falling down the curve of the world, crossing invisible lines of latitude. South. I wanted to be in flight right now; to be converging on the still point where my brother was, where my father lay. Our dad, who in his whole life had never travelled on a plane.
I called up the shop to complain. I recognized Ryan’s voice at once, quick and light, although I still couldn’t make out everything he said. He was having trouble understanding me too: this knot in my throat made it hard to get the words out.
“Sorry?” I said.
“The machine doesn’t work,” I repeated.
“No shit? The one here is working fine, it’s been going non-stop. Listen.”
I heard footsteps as he crossed the shop, and then a different noise. Through the phone, the wheel’s clatter was muted. It sounded like the needle on an old LP, scratching out revolutions after the last song has stopped.
I said, “Mine doesn’t sound like that.”
“Maybe you’re not doing it right. I should come and take a look. Make sure it’s set up properly.”
I thought about it for a minute. The background vibration stole into my ears, and I felt in my chest an answering hum.
“Maybe you should,” I said.
Night passed, then day. I woke at four a.m., fell asleep at noon, woke at six, dreaming through patches of dark and light. My body was unsure where it was, or when, drifting in the slow time of my father’s house, where things changed at the pace of a quietening body: tiny collapses and depletions, barely perceptible from hour to hour. Whenever I logged in, either Yolisa or Martin was sitting awake, keeping vigil. On top of the bookshelf next to the bed, along with the meds, I could make out a row of the gadgets I’d got for Dad over the years. Silver balls suspended. A metal stick figure on a bicycle, balanced on a pin. Nothing moved.
And in the small hours, this wintry vision. Yolisa, upright in the bedside chair, a textbook in her hands, reading aloud. Face lit like the moon by blue computer light, her voice gently chiding: Every process occurring in nature proceeds in the sense in which the sum of the entropies of all bodies taking part in the process…
He never quite woke.
Ryan arrived in the evening, a screwdriver in his top pocket. It was strange to see him in my house, in his bright blue shirt. I showed him the stuck machine.
“Can you get it working?” I asked.
And there must have been a strangeness in my voice, because he looked at me, and without hesitation put his hand to my throat, thumb resting in the space where my shirt collar fell open. As if he could tell, as if he knew I had something lodged and hurting there.
“I can give it a go,” he said.
I swallowed, and felt a pop in my ears. Then everything started up again with a rush.
We went upstairs to the cold bed and took off our clothes. His torso was whiter than I’d thought, English pale, and hair dark at the groin. I’d imagined him golden all the way through. Still, his skin was hot and I pushed my chilled self against it, face, breasts, thighs. This was as easy as sitting down hungry to a meal. A simple magic, one I could do, one I was good at, even. Action, reaction. We moved, held still and moved again; and in the held moments – mouth to mouth, hip to hips – I felt the spin inside.
Waking again, in a dark and placeless hour. Up on one elbow, starting the computer. The camera on but somehow no one there, Yolisa’s textbook splayed on the arm of the empty chair.
What filled the screen was Dad, asleep. His face was tilted towards me. I could see it clearly despite the low light, as if the thin air of these small hours had pulled the webcam into focus. Every shadowed dip and ridge, each crease and hollow. The sheet was pulled down, the bones of his shrunken chest exposed. He’d always been such a strong man. On my last visit, he’d let me cut his toenails, holding his ruined feet between my knees. All intimacies allowed.
I watched his chest for movement, and wondered if he was gone; if I was sitting with my father’s corpse. But then his eyes cracked open. I wasn’t sure how much he could perceive. If he saw the young man sleeping pressed against my back, arm draped across my breasts. It felt right, though, to lie like that, my father before me, and for us to be watching each other, uncovered and frank. Him in his dying and me in my living, in the midst of life. When does a parent ever have that chance, to see a child so naked; for a child to see a parent so? I looked, and he looked back, half a world apart but together, breathing softly, breathing yet.
I blinked, and he answered: eyes fluttering, shuttering, shut. He seemed to sleep.
After the screen went dark, I turned back into the circle of Ryan’s arms. My palm on the sweat-damp base of his spine. My bed smelled of him now, his true body: under the aftershave, salt and sour. We’d worn each other down a little, through to the real skin.
“Are you crying?” he asked.
I took his erection in my hand and we started up again. The pleasure was different now, more delicate; it was something we passed between us, balanced on the tips of our fingers and on our tongues, not letting it drop. And it seemed like we could do this forever, falling and catching, light and heavy, the wheel spinning in place and not ever moving forward. As if in this way we could hold back the hours; as if in this way the morning might never come.
But the earth did turn. The sun came up. It was a clear day, too, the first pale warmth of the year.
For long minutes I lay in my childhood bed, a summer day, listening to Dad in his workshop. Taps and knocks and grinds; that breathy whistle as he chivvied some stubborn clockwork child into compliance. But the tune was wrong, not one of my father’s. It was a something new off the radio – a song for a young man.
Oh right, I remembered, waking properly. I’m here. It’s him. A few brisk brushing and sorting noises, and then a shipshape silence downstairs. Job done, screws tightened, good to go. I lay still, wondering what came next. If Ryan would come back up the stairs, would fall on me, if we would fall for each other again.
Instead I heard the front door open, then quietly shut. Click of the latch. I breathed.
He’d left something changed, though. The silence was not absolute. There was a silvery whisper, like a tap running, growing more insistent the longer I lay there, until at last I had to stand up and go downstairs to see.
The repaired machine looked like it might take off from the table and hover. It was spinning so fast – the spokes a solid blur – that it might as well have been standing still, but for the ripple of distortion in the sunbeam that fell across it. And that chirring music.
I made myself a cup of coffee. Sat down before the machine. Let my eyes fill with its hiss, let myself get dizzy with it, lose my bearings, the hub a fixed point in a turning world. For a moment my eyes flipped the rotation so the wheel seemed to shiver into reverse, then cycle forwards again.
Stop that, I said to myself. Concentrate. Look, think. Work it out. I’m not going to tell you the answer.
And I did look. I watched the wheel turn until I understood. I saw how one might believe that the balls could fall forever, but that they could not, logically; that drag and friction bleeds the will from any system, in the end. Once I’d thought this through, once I’d got it, I put out my hand to stop the spin.
Silence, immediate and profound. Stillness spread concentrically from the machine: the blood in my hands slowing, the steam ceasing to rise from the coffee mug, the air in the room a held breath, the cars stopped dead on the street outside and every leaf on every tree poised at a precise angle to the sun; the sun itself cooling in its heaven and the planets grinding down, grinding slower, gears disengaging, everything losing power and drifting, drifting to a halt.
And then in the corner of my eye the green light of the computer blinking on, and sound returning, and I guessed that was Martin calling.