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The second chapter of a novel I wrote last year about drugs, blackmail, and mathematics.

A chapter index can be found here.

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CHAPTER TWO: ORIGIN

“What we know is not much. What we do not know is immense.” – Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827) 

The first day of October was uncharacteristically warm. Matthew had left Rebecca in bed and left for Salvin College earlier than normal in order to walk the journey instead of taking the underground. The sun shone down through the half naked, golden autumn trees than lined the Islington avenues, leaving dappled shadows on the slab pavements that he traversed. Matthew had half expected the infamous drudgery of working in London to get to him by this stage in his career, though it was yet to do so. Rather, he found the hustle and buzz of the city totally infectious and had no intention of leaving the ‘big smoke’ any time soon. As it was the first day of the academic year, Matthew had decided to make an effort, dressing well in a grey suit and tie with brown shoes. He couldn’t help but wince slightly whenever he saw a commuter travelling to and from work in a smart formal suit with conspicuously clashing white trainers, presumably with smart shoes in their bags for when they actually arrived at the office. Some three quarters of an hour after leaving his front door, he arrived at Salvin College. It was, Matthew acknowledged, a fairly unusual campus. The oldest part purpose built for the university was constructed in a gothic style at the turn of the twentieth century. Being in the centre of London however, there had not been space in the immediate surrounding area to construct new buildings, hence, as the institution grew in size through the decades it simply had to buy and move in to adjacent buildings, none of which matched in architectural style. The building that housed the mathematics department was, for example, an eight storey 1950s tower block of grey brick and concrete. Not especially attractive, but it served its function with perfect adequacy. Matthew entered through the front revolving doors and was greeted immediately by the frantic activity associated with the first day of the year. The foyer of the building, like its edifice, wasn’t especially impressive. Indeed, its low ceilings and paper-thin pile carpet tiles gave it the impression of an old office in serious need of renewal. Instead of heading straight for the elevators at the far end of the room, as he would normally have done in order to get to his own room, he took a turn and moved for an office to the left of the foyer. Standing by the door he could see the familiar thirty-something sitting behind a desk through the window blinds. She possessed an appearance that Matthew was indifferent to, being as she was neither ugly nor especially attractive. She was – as she always was – smartly dressed in power business attire with her dark blonde hair pulled right back against her scalp into a tight ponytail. As department coordinator, Jacqueline Sasco was required to be fastidiously well organised – the files and journals meticulously arranged around her office were testament to this. Matthew knocked and entered with a smile, which was quickly reciprocated.

“Good morning, Sasco!” he barked in mock-military tones, avoiding the accompanying salute that he had briefly considered in his mind.

“Good morning, Professor Quinn. Good of you to come back to work this year!” Her tone dripped with delightful sarcasm, especially given the fact that Matthew had actually spent nearly every day of his sabbatical year in his office on the sixth floor, and as such they had seen each other just as regularly over the twelve months as they otherwise would have done.

“Yes, yes… I just came to tell you how very much I had missed you and your sparkling wit over the summer break,” he responded with an equivalent irony. “I trust you’re keeping well?

“Naturally. Nothing really ever changes anyway does it? Except the faculty board and the members of staff, obviously… Oh, and all the students that you apparently teach… which reminds me, the introductory lecture that you’re delivering for all our precious freshers at one o’clock this afternoon?”

“Yes?” he replied, wondering if the woman actually memorised everybody’s personal timetables, or whether for some reason he had been singled out for special treatment.

“Good. Well it’s now been rescheduled to ten o’clock this morning, there was a clash with the History department or something I think. This isn’t going to be a problem for you, is it?” There was a short pause, in which time Matthew scanned Jacqueline’s eyes for any trace of humour. There was none.

“You’re not joking are you?” he finally asked. Faux-offence crossed Jacqueline’s face.

“I’m deadly serious,” she said with a smile.

“Of course you are… excellent. Well in that case, Jack, I’d better go and prepare it.”

“You do that,” she shot back. Matthew turned to leave. “Oh, just one more thing before you go, I’ve been taking calls from Neil Parry; he says that you’re not answering any of his emails. He’s starting to get a little testy,”

“What did he want?” Matthew asked without turning his head back to face her again.

“I believe, Matthew, that he was ‘eager to review your progress’, whatever that means,”

“Well he can do as he pleases, if he doesn’t mind spending half an hour talking to me, reviewing quite literally nothing.”

“Well, I think you should probably tell him that yourself,”

“Yes, yes…”

Matthew had been actively avoiding what had initially been regular contact with Neil. The thought of someone metaphorically standing over his shoulder did his already dubious work-rate no good whatsoever. Moreover, he had no desire to tell the man who had already paid a six figure bill for what was, as of yet, no return, that he was no closer to delivering the precious golden algorithm.

“Oh, and just one last small thing, Matthew,” Jacqueline called, just as Matthew had reached his hand out to the door handle.

“Yes?”

“Please, please stop calling me Jack, I really do hate it,”

“Oh, don’t worry, I know you do.”

Matthew called for an elevator, and somehow managed to remain the sole occupant of it right the way up to the sixth floor. He vacated the lift and stepped out into a large open plan office space. The extensive floor space was taken up by a number of round tables, themselves surrounded by plastic chairs, which were used for anything from the discussion of mathematics to the consumption of lunch. Around the edges of the rectangular room were several translucent frosted glass doors that led into individual offices, Matthew’s being one of which. Upon hearing his entrance, one of the already ajar office doors opened all the way, revealing the presence of one of Matthew’s fellow professors, Anthony Ward, a slightly eccentric individual who was more in love with his academic discipline than any other person that Matthew had ever encountered. Anthony was somewhere in his fifties with a white beard somehow trimmed into a perfectly circular shape around his mouth and onto his neck. Smiling through it, he ambled up to intercept Matthew’s path towards his office.

“Matthew, how are you my dear chap?” He shouted across the room, “I see you’ve decided to come back to work for us this year?”

“Anthony, let me stop you right there. Firstly, Jacqueline already made an almost identically lame quip to me not less than five minutes ago, and secondly, you yourself have had at least three sabbatical years in the whole time I’ve been at this university! Including, might I add, when I was a student here! Even when you were supposed to be my tutor!” Matthew smiled through his elegant comeback.

“Yes, yes guilty as charged I suppose… So, anyway, are you not going to tell me then?”

“Tell you what exactly, Tony?” Anthony leaned in closer,

“Well, have you found the golden algorithm yet?” He asked in a hopeful, excited whisper.

“Tony, us mathematicians are supposed to be an analytical bunch, so let’s think that question through. If I had have solved it, then I would have already told you. More importantly however, I would currently be somewhere off of the coast of the Bahamas on my yacht, with my WIFE, sipping champagne and rolling around on blankets of fifty pound notes,”

“You raise valid points,” Anthony replied with a palpable disappointment.

“Of course I do. However, as you can see, I’m still here. And as such you’re going to have to put up with me for the foreseeable future. Moreover, I have the joyous task of putting the obligatory fresher lecture together in the next… oh, sixty minutes,” he said, checking his watch with ironic vigour. Anthony wished him luck in a suitably ascorbic tone and scurried back to his own office.

Matthew had not been forthcoming with many of his fellow members of staff with regards to certain details of his research on the golden algorithm, mainly on Neil’s stipulation. Besides, he thought it would create a certain level of disdain amongst his departmental colleagues if they were aware that he had a ten million pound price tag hanging over his head. Indeed, the only people who knew about this finer point of his work were Anthony and Jacqueline; Anthony because of a close professional relationship brought about by the fact that Matthew had been one of his tutees as an undergraduate, and Jacqueline because attempting to keep anything secret from her would, frankly, have required some sort of unbreakable code, something Matthew had thoroughly established that he did not yet have. He continued on to his office, unlocking the door and stepping inside. Shutting the door behind him, he was immediately greeted by the boards of truth. Trusty companions in a raging, never-ending sea of falsehoods and dead ends though they were, they would have to be put on the backburner… at least for the next hour.

Matthew waited on the stage of the unimaginatively named ‘Main Hall’, situated in the university’s oldest building, feeling satisfied with what he had managed to prepare over the previous hour. He watched the new students gradually file into the hall to take their seats. He scanned the room, picking out individuals from the diverse selection of the two hundred or so before him. Those who were outwardly excited, those patently filled with nerves and those whose previous nights had been planned and executed with an afternoon start in mind. Members of staff had their favourite students, even if it wasn’t the ‘done thing’ to say so. Matthew traced around the hall once more, he knew that there must be raw talent out there somewhere – talent he was ultimately responsible for nurturing, as Anthony Ward had done for him over a decade ago. He clipped a small microphone onto his shirt collar and tapped it to test the sound. The resulting pop that emanated through the loudspeakers caused the chattering students to fall silent. Matthew began.

“Good morning everyone, and let me be the first to welcome you to Salvin College. My name is Professor Matthew Quinn and I am here to introduce you to the next three, four or maybe even more years of your lives. And may I congratulate you all! You have chosen to spend those precious years studying what I have come to love dearly, in a place that I love just as much. But perhaps, it could be the case that your motivations are misguided? Did you choose to study mathematics for the notoriously wild parties and associated hedonistic lifestyle that comes with a pursuit of mathematical study? Probably not… though maybe your decision was based solely on the fact that mathematics was something that you happened to do well in at school. Or perhaps you chose it because a mathematics degree is something that you think employers will smother with benevolent smiles when written on your curriculum vitae? Truth be told ladies and gentlemen, on their own, these aren’t especially good reasons for you to be sitting where you are now. I would hope that you are here because you, like me, have a true passion and enjoyment for this discipline. When, in a couple of years time, your friends and family ask you what you are doing with your life, you must be able to tell them with the upmost pride that you have been busy proving the fundamental theorem of calculus, or working with abstract algebraic structures, or any other such topic that you will meet on the way through your degree. I can tell you from personal experience that they’re quite likely to respond with “That’s nice”, “So what?” or words to that effect, but you’re going to know better. Because the thing that you are going to understand, that they are not, is that mathematics can change the world. It can change your life. And that is something that I can definitely tell you from personal experience…”

* * *

Rebecca Bonfield, unlike her fiancé Matthew, had elected to savour an extra half hour in her achingly comfortable bed and take the tube to her work (not that walking was ever a viable option). Again, unlike Matthew, as a Grauniad she had been keen to leave the world of education and academia behind her, though it took time to decide what she really wanted to do in earnest. Having spent a few years intermittently flitting between various uninspiring businesses and unfulfilling job titles, she had finally settled at the age of 25 after finding employment with a small independent publishing company, Mercia Books, evaluating manuscripts that authors and literary agents submitted to the company and deciding if they were worthy of a second draft, or even publication. It was an occupation that couldn’t have suited her better. People often comment on how fortunate professional footballers are to be able to earn extravagant sums of money for having a hobby that they happen to be good at, and Rebecca rather felt the same about what was essentially reading books for a living, albeit without the extravagant sums of money. That is not to say that she didn’t earn a good wage; the company’s recent growth had been undeniably very impressive. Having started small somewhere in the nondescript sprawl of North London, the demands of the business’ expansion had forced it to relocate to grander settings. It now occupied two of the five stories of a Georgian terraced building in Fulham, West London. The construction was quite beautiful and its edifice had remained totally unchanged by its inhabitants, save for a small brass plaque next to the door displaying the company’s distinctive logo. Arriving in good time, she let herself in with a key-card and ascended the narrow stairs to the first floor where the large, high ceilinged office was situated. It was a pleasant working space, chic and airy with exposed brickwork along the walls, a uniform row of contemporarily styled desks running down either side of the room and doors that led off to other parts of the building.

Though Rebecca arrived relatively early, she was not the first employee in the office, she had been beaten in by only one other person, her workmate Suzie Tan. Suzie was an attractive, outgoing woman of Chinese descent, who was a few years Rebecca’s junior. She was, as she normally was, dressed fashionably, though rather as if she were headed to an upmarket Fulham bar, as opposed to an office job.

“Hey Suzie,” Rebecca called to get her attention. She looked up from her desk where she was seated.

“Oh hi, Rebecca! How was your weekend?”

“Well, you know same as always, I guess…”

“Cool, cool… Oh, I meant to text you, you’ll never guess what?” Suzie asked. Before Rebecca could get back anything more than “Wha-” Suzie preemptively answered her rhetorical question. “David’s finally asked me to move in with him, how amazing is that?”

“Oh, wow… That is rather amazing,” Rebecca replied, feeling as if she didn’t display the required enthusiasm. Suzie was undeniably a very pleasant individual person to work with, providing comic relief without ever quite straying beyond the line at which it became irritating; moreover she had also been a reliable and loyal friend to Rebecca since joining Mercia little more than a year ago. However, in this time it had been difficult not to notice her questionable choice in men, men who had either lied, cheated, had the social graces of wild boars or had just been plain awful. This ‘David’ who she was now seeing had been an undeniable improvement from what Rebecca could tell, though there also seemed to be an obvious issue that Suzie had overlooked.

“I’m really happy for you, Suzie, but… how should I say?” she started, moving towards her desk that was just beyond Suzie’s. “You have only known each other for what, three months… I mean that’s fine and everything but-”

“Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca,” Suzie interrupted again, “Don’t worry, I’ve thought this all through, David’s not like the last guy… or the one before that.”

“Or the other three before that?” Rebecca joked, tongue sticking out of a mischievous smile.

“Rebecca, I officially take offense to that!” she retorted rising from her chair and pointing at Rebecca, who was walking by, in mock-outrage. “David’s different. I mean, come on! The guy’s on television!”

“Daytime television…” Rebecca replied, “Anyway, I’m just thinking of your wellbeing, Suzie Tan,”

“I know, I know, of course you are… but we all need some spontaneous passion in our lives, right?”

“I guess so,” Rebecca replied dimly.

“I mean, just look at Romeo and Juliet, beautiful, hapless, star crossed lovers…” Suzie sighed dreamily, dancing towards where her sceptical co-worker was still standing. Rebecca narrowed her eyes and leant towards her.

“You have read through right to the end of Romeo and Juliet, right?” Rebecca asked, causing Suzie to break off her daze.

“Well, yes… but I don’t think either David or I plan to feign suicide any time soon,”

“Well, here’s hoping not,”

“Anyway, I have been very rude haven’t I?” announced Suzie, “Would my poor, cynical friend-” she prodded Rebecca on the shoulder with the last three words, “-like a cup of coffee to wake herself up?” Suzie said sweetly.

“That would be delightful, thank you… Do I really look so tired?” she responded, somewhat muttering the last part of the sentence to herself under her breath.

Suzie wondered off into an adjoining kitchen. Rebecca felt herself being oddly envious of this seemingly misguided young woman. She loved Matthew. She wouldn’t have agreed to marry him otherwise. But there was something in the phrase ‘spontaneous passion’ that seemed to resonate within her. Matthew had been so consumed in his work that such acts – impulsive, passionate or otherwise – had been quite non-existent. Rebecca often had to tell herself that she was simply being selfish. Of course she was, she reasoned, the rewards of her fiancé’s labour that were at stake for the both of them were almost too gratuitous for words. Even so, she couldn’t help but wish for Matthew to at least occasionally come home before she had already fallen asleep on the sofa.

Rebecca’s meandering mind re-entered the room, and she completed the walk to her desk that was, for all intents and purposes, identical to all others in the room, it was far from enormous but had a large enough surface area for a laptop computer and two or three stacks of manuscripts. Sitting down, however, she found only one thing on it upon her arrival. It was a distinctive beige folder fashioned from thick card, with black chevrons that extended about an inch from the spine on the front. The words ‘For Rebecca’ were scrawled in large letters next to the black chevrons in bright red marker pen. She didn’t recognise the writing as belonging to any of her colleagues and so preliminarily satisfied herself that it hadn’t been penned by any of them. She placed her leather bag down by the front left table leg and sat on the expensive, ergonomically designed office chair having pulled it out from under the desk. She held the folder in front of her, eyeballing it.

“Suzie, did you leave this thing on my desk?” She called out to no response. She opened it and removed the paper contents from within. Handwritten sheets stapled twice on the left hand side to form a booklet confronted her. She looked further in to the now bare folder, searching for a name, return address, or any sort of indication as to the origins of this mysterious work, but found nothing. Rebecca knew that it couldn’t have been a serious piece sent in to the publishers for evaluation; for one thing it was far too thin, she estimated that it couldn’t have been much more than three sides of A4. There was a single heading at the top of the cover page. It simply read “Chapter One”.

* * *

Matthew’s first morning back was, by most measures, going well. Since his lecture, he had spent a further hour in his office. There had been no point in tackling the boards of truth; the hour break that he had been afforded was not nearly sufficient to even enter the required mind-set, let alone make any credible attempt at progress. Rather, the period between 11 o’clock and midday had been spent on a tedious combination of administrative work and staring out of the window. Looking down, he had a perfect birds’ eye view of the large pedestrianized zone below him that separated the mathematics department and the equally high, equally 1950s-esque building across that housed the university’s chemistry laboratories. Those at the college informally named the area ‘Salvin Street’, and it formed one of the main outdoor focal points of the university. Being the first week, Salvin Street was extremely densely crowded. Stands and stalls offering food, society displays and information to freshers were dotted along its length on both sides. He re-experienced the emotions he had felt in the earlier lecture. Down there, dotted amongst the throng stood some of the most brilliantly able young people in the country, even if they hadn’t chosen to study mathematics…

The first knock on the door broke his attention away from his procrastination.

“Come in,” he called from behind his desk. A male first year student put his head around the door. “Here for the tutorial, I assume? Or are you just lost?”

“Erm… The first one?” the student replied nervously.

“Good, good. Well come in then.” The student shuffled into the office quietly. The boards of truth immediately caught his eyes, which visibly widened in awe at the sheer complex aesthetics of the writing. “Don’t worry, that’s not for this class,” Matthew said, noting his reaction, “Take a seat please,” Matthew instructed, gesturing to one of the plastic chairs that he had arranged in the middle of his office in front of his desk. We’re just waiting on your classmates, what’s your name?”

“James Marsh, Sir,” he replied politely.

“Nice to meet you James Marsh,” Matthew responded. “A favour if you will though, please don’t call me ‘Sir’, it makes me feel old. Matthew will suffice,” Five further students followed James in quick succession, two other males and three females, giving an equal gender split. Matthew sat behind his desk and began to speak. The first seminar, in his opinion, wasn’t really for teaching any actual mathematics (there would be sufficient time for that in the coming months) but would be time better served letting the students know what it meant to be a proper mathematician, or as they themselves would have phrased it ‘letting the students know what exactly they were letting themselves in for’. So after the formality of introductions, he set about doing precisely that.

“So, I’m guessing given that you’re all sitting here, you were all good at mathematics at school?” a short pause and quickly exchanged glances was followed by uniform nods of heads. “Well, school mathematics is all well and good. But from hereon in our focus is going to be a little different. A simple question as an example: what is one plus two?” a longer pause followed. James answered,

“Three?”

“Mr. Marsh thinks three… It seems like a reasonable answer. One plus two equals three… Now prove it,” Matthew said, utterly deadpan.

“Prove that one add two equals three?” James replied in disbelief.

“Yes.” Another awkward silence followed,

“It just is, surely? I mean, of course its three?” Matthew let the words hang before confirming James’ hunch.

“Yes, sorry, of course. You’ll all be happy to hear that the answer is in fact three. Anyone surprised? No? Good. But the truth is, we went for thousands of years assuming and using the fact that one plus two equals three, without anyone actually PROVING it.”

“But surely that’s just unnecessary?” asked one of the girls.

“Well that depends entirely upon who you ask. What if that someone sat down without assumption, checked it, worked it through from absolute scratch and it turned out that one plus two didn’t equal three? Mathematics as we knew it would collapse, right?” Matthew could sense a disbelief and general air of confusion about the six students in front of him. “Admittedly, that was an abstract example. But it raises the point that nothing should be taken at face value without you thoroughly questioning whether or not it’s legitimate. Let’s think of a more interesting problem… Okay, here’s a good one. I want each of you to think of any number you like that’s less than, say, one hundred thousand. Got one? Right, now add up all of the digits that you would use to write that number down, so for example if you picked 153, work out 1+5+3. Have you all got your new numbers? Alright, now raise your hand if you can divide your new number exactly by three, in other words is your new number in the three times table?” Only James did so. “Okay James, I’m going to claim that I can divide not only your new number exactly by three, but that I can also divide your original number exactly by three. So what was your original number?”

“15,381” James answered. Matthew thought for a couple of seconds.

“Yes, so 15,381 divided by three is 5127,” The group seemed suitably impressed. “It’s a good trick. And it always works. But how do you know that it works every time? I mean, there are infinitely many numbers out there whose digits add up to make three, and you can’t go through them all and check that the trick works every time. And even if there were a limit on how big the original number could be – like our limit of a hundred thousand – it would still take you weeks non-stop to go through them all. That’s why you need what we call a ‘proof’, that shows that it will always work. And as it turns out, the proof for this problem is pretty simple. I’ll let you have a go for yourselves later and I bet you could all do it in five or ten minutes.[1]

“The search for proof, however, can be maddening. Goldbach’s Conjecture, that each even number is the sum of two primes, is not as obvious as one plus two equals three, but we know that it’s true for every even number less than 18 digits long. That’s a lot of numbers. In fact, us mathematicians are almost all in agreement that the statement is true for every even number. Yet in the 270 years since the conjecture was first posed, no one has been able to prove it, despite many mathematicians committing their whole lives to the problem. And there are dozens of these conjectures, many over a century old that we still can’t crack. People don’t realise just how many problems in mathematics remains to be proved… If you look behind you, you’ll see one of my own.” Matthew gestured to the boards of truth. “With any luck, that particular problem won’t take over a hundred years for me to solve…”

The students seemed sufficiently awestruck by the dense scrawls. One turned her head back around to face Matthew.

“Excuse me, what does that symbol mean exactly?” she pointed out to a small filled in black square, which appeared at the end of several different lines of writing.

“That thing? It’s called a ‘tombstone’. It’s written to show that a proof is finished. And if any of you are wondering why there are tombstones on the board when I’ve just told you that I’ve not finished the proof yet, it’s because what I’m trying to prove requires many smaller assumptions to be proved first. Though instead of a tombstone you could also use the subscript letters ‘Q.E.D.’, which stand for the Latin ‘Quod Erat Demonstandum’; literally ‘which was to be demonstrated’. Or if it was a very tricky problem that you’re especially proud to have defeated, it can also stand for Quite Easily Done.

* * *

Rebecca sat at her desk, the mysterious manuscript in her hands. She began to read.

Chapter One.

The 1970s was a decade of great change on planet Earth. Although the cold war was still in tense throes, and even against an ever-present backdrop of a potential nuclear holocaust, there was a hope and optimism of a more caring, harmonised and liberal world that had spilled over from the end of the 1960s. Man had landed on the moon; surely anything was possible? In the following ten years the Vietnam War finally came to an end, the first computers were being produced and some were even sending emails to one another. George Lucas made the first ‘Star Wars’ film…

 

This was reading more like an article rather than a novel. Rebecca skipped several lines that, upon scanning, merely seemed to continue along the lines of an abnormal historical essay.

 

… And in 1979 the people of Great Britain elected their first female prime minister, blissfully unaware of the contempt they would ultimately come to hold her in. And somewhere in that great country, just after those fateful May elections, a young couple got engaged, and fell pregnant. Their family, as it stood, was not well extended. Both of the partners were themselves only-children and the man’s parents had passed away in quick succession through illness shortly after the woman had conceived. This had been a truly tragic event that had tested the father to the edge of his emotional limits. But he had a strong resolve and nothing was going to stop him from being there for his fiancée, who simply grew to love him more.

 

And then, in the winter, just before the turn of the decade, their little baby girl was born. No complications, no fuss. She was of average weight, she was healthy and her parents were able to take her home in their brown Austin Metro when she was just a couple of days old. Measurements and statistics would tell an outsider that the girl was incredibly ordinary, but to her parents she was deeply special, a remarkable young life that they were able to hold in the palms of their hands. The father swelled with pride, for both his wife and his newborn daughter as he lay next to them in their bed on their first night after coming home from the hospital. After the heartbreak and grief that he had faced over the summer months from the death of his parents, everything seemed like it was going perfectly. The only unusual characteristic of the infant was the fact that she remained anonymous; indeed it was not until she was twenty-five days old that she was given a name. Her parents both agreed that it would be fitting for her to be named for her late Grandmother-

 

“Here’s your coffee!” Suzie suddenly chirped, startling Rebecca, who nearly jumped right back off her chair into her from the shock. Suzie expertly recoiled from her sudden movement, guarding the pair’s drinks without spilling a drop. She placed Rebecca’s mug down onto the desk, leaning in over her shoulder. “Hey, what’s that you’re reading? Is it a new novel that’s been sent in or something? I can’t remember the last time I saw anything handwritten in here…”

“Neither do I… But it’s not a novel. At least, it’s not the whole of one… I don’t know what to think yet. You don’t have anything to do with it though, do you? You didn’t put it here?”

“No, I didn’t, I suppose it must have been there when I arrived,”

“Fair enough.” Suzie walked back to her desk, whilst Rebecca took a sip from the piping hot mug. She looked back at the paper and found where she had been interrupted.

… Indeed it was not until she was twenty-five days old that she was given a name. Her parents thought that it would be fitting for her to be named for her late Grandmother, Rebecca.

The sound of the penny drop was audible. Rebecca’s mouth opened, and for a sickening few seconds she considered if it could even be possible. A December 1979 birthday, a small family with only-child parents, major family bereavements during the girl’s gestation, even the brown Austin Metro…

Was this the story of Rebecca Bonfield?

 

Rebecca stood up as calmly as she could. There had to a reasonable, logical explanation for this, surely, but even so there was a deeply uneasy feeling that swelled inside of her. There was such intricate detail in the writing, things that she certainly wouldn’t have told anybody who wasn’t close to her – certainly not the type of person who would document the events in a sinister document left right there on her desk as some kind of prank. She took the folder over to Suzie’s desk and cast it down.

“Suzie, I need to ask you again, are you quite sure you had nothing to do with this?”

“No, I told you I didn’t. Why what is it? Do you think it’s a novel?”

“Read it, Suzie.” Rebecca ordered, standing behind her impatiently as Suzie scanned the paper.

“But this is just like some weird textbook or something? What’s the problem? I mean, obviously other than the fact that we only print fiction, not history textbooks,”

“Well, keep reading!” A few more moments passed, as Suzie read quickly under her breath.

“… Her parents thought that it would be fitting for her to be named for her late Grandmother, Rebecca… Rebecca? As in? You don’t think?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Rebecca replied, just about remaining outwardly calm. Suzie turned around and caught her workmate’s eyes, which were filled with unease despite all contrary best efforts.

“Does the handwriting look like anyone’s at Mercia? I mean, I’d only be able to recognise a few people’s writing off hand… And we’re definitely assuming that this is about you? I mean, even if this isn’t fiction, there’d have been dozens of Rebeccas born in that one month alone, surely?” Suzie was unabashedly clutching at straws.

“What? Rebeccas born in that one month who also happen to work at one particular publishing company in West London? Rebeccas that work at that one desk over there that the folder somehow managed to end up on; folders with ‘For Rebecca’ written on the front in big fucking red marker pen?” There was a pause as the two women thought. Suzie was the first to break the silence.

“Okay, it is a bit weird…”

“A bit?”

“Fine, its very weird. But… I mean, you shouldn’t worry about it… there has to be a rational explanation, even if it is just some sort of misguided prank. You can ask everyone about it when they come in to work, someone must know something. No one can get into the building without a key card, right?”

“No. I suppose you’re right,” Rebecca answered, still quite dissatisfied and as far as she could tell, far from a decent explanation. She was willing to put it to the back of her mind for the time being. “Look, just give me the folder back,” she said, “I’ll ask around, see if there’s anything else I can find out,”

As more people entered the office in the next half hour or so though, Rebecca made no progress in discovering the origins of the folder; most people were as ignorant to it’s existence as Suzie had been, and had each been as unsuccessful in offering an alternative rationalisation. There was one final co-worker, Ben Frontman, who remained frustratingly absent. After waiting until well into the late morning for his arrival, and coming to the conclusion that he was clearly taking the day off sick, an impatient Rebecca decided to call him. After fumbling the number onto her phone’s keypad, it seemed to take a conspicuously long time to answer.

“Hello, Rebecca?” Ben said weakly, apparently out of breath.

“Yes Ben. Look, sorry for bothering you, but I need to ask you about something, it’s quite important,”

“Uh… What?” He asked, his tone decidedly shifty. Rebecca was not in the slightest bit fooled.

“Well, for a start, are you putting on a sick voice?” A short silence followed.

“…No?” With faultless timing, the sound of a woman entering whatever room Ben was presently occupying and muttering something explicit in nature – something about being ‘ready for round two’ – was embarrassingly audible, even over the relatively poor quality phone line.

“Oh, wow, that is just delightful…” Rebecca continued, “I think you can drop the act now anyway. I don’t really care about you throwing sickies in order to bed some poor girl… that kind of thing’s for Valerie to sort out,”

“Oh don’t tell Valerie, Becky? That’s hardly playing fair now is it?” He said, switching back to his usual voice in a pitifully swift fashion.

“Shut up ‘Benny’,” she shot back acerbically. She hated being called Becky at the best of times, and she especially hated being called Becky by Benjamin.

Ben was something of a professional anomaly, having gone straight from university into investigative journalism, only to leave that career behind in order to work at Mercia for reasons that had never been properly explained. He was about Rebecca’s age, perhaps a few years younger, and possessed a begrudging sort of charm, the precise nature of which was difficult to pin down – the kind that trod a wafer-thin line between confidence and sickly flirtatious smarm.

“Look,” Rebecca continued, “I need to ask you about a folder, a beige folder with my name written on the front of it in red pen. It got left on my desk for me to find this morning,”

“Well yes, I put it on your desk before I went home last night,” he replied, completely blasé. She narrowed her eyes, her mouth subconsciously opened.

“You did this? What the fuck, Ben?”

“Whoa! Hang on, you’re telling me off for putting your post on your desk?”

“What, you’re saying you didn’t write what was inside the folder?”

“I never said I did, did I? I was the last to leave last night, no thanks to bloody Valerie, and I saw it get posted through the front door at the bottom of the stairs, so rather than leaving it on the floor I decided to do you a favour and put it on your desk. I rather expected more appreciation if I’m completely honest…”

“Did you see who posted it?” Rebecca desperately enquired,

“Though the opaque wooden front door? Afraid not,”

“So, there’s nothing else you can say about it then?”

“No, I’m afraid not Becky. It got put through the letterbox at about six o’clock by persons unknown, it got picked up by me, it got put on your desk by me, and I literally can’t tell you anything else. What’s in this folder that’s caused you to interrupt a sick man in the middle of the day anyway? I hope it’s important,”

“Yes, yes it is as it happens actually. But seeing as you’re a little preoccupied with ‘round two’, I’ll not bother you with details. Also, I do hope that you had free hands to put inverted commas around the word ‘sick’, and you’re not just completely taking the piss?”

“Well Becky, I can only apologise for my irony, my lethargy and my inability to see though solid opaque objects,”

“Well. Good. Oh, and if you call me Becky again then Valerie’s going to find out exactly what you’ve been doing in your bed on her time,”

“I’m sorry Rebecca, it won’t happen again…” followed a coy silence.

“Good. Goodbye Ben. And for God’s sakes stop pulling this crap and come to work tomorrow.”

The rest of Rebecca’s working day was far from productive. In a profession where you must immerse yourself in another person’s world, the constant distraction of problems in your own can make the job very difficult. She felt that her current project, reading through a dense but quite brilliantly written novel by a prolific local author, was not gleaning the full attention that it deserved. So after an afternoon of slow progress, she decided that persisting with it was no longer worth her time. She wished her remaining colleagues a good evening, bundled the manuscript along with the sinister, mysterious beige folder into her bag and left the office, trundling lethargically down the steps out to the heavy front door. She made a point of checking the mat under the letterbox, though found it clear of mail of any kind. Pulling the heavy set wooden door wide open, she saw that the weather had turned. Far removed from the morning’s bright sunlight, the sky had become overcast, the clouds encroaching on every blue space that had previously been visible. With it, there was a cold breeze that blew through the street, sending a shiver right through her. Rebecca had not yet dug out any of her winter coats for the season, so she had to make do pulling the lapels of her thin woolen jacket across her chest, keeping her bare hands warm by burying them amongst tightly folded arms. She marched quickly to the underground station, not more than a five-minute walk from the office. Despite the short distance and familiar surroundings, she couldn’t help but feel exposed. She felt spying eyes watching her; eyes that she had to repeatedly convince herself weren’t really there. Even so, she knew that the deliverer of that folder had walked on these very streets – the person who had written about her early life in such detail with an unaccountably intimate knowledge. She sped up her already rapid pace, checking over her shoulder every few steps, paranoid.

She descended into Fulham Broadway underground station and regained her poise. In the expectation of Matthew’s absence upon returning home, she had frequented the small supermarket positioned by the ticket barriers and purchased a not inexpensive bottle of red wine, bundling it into her bag amongst the papers and folders that were also in there. Forced to wait for a delayed train, standing on the platform, undesirable thoughts began to swell and circulate in her mind once again. Overhearing random segments of strangers’ conversations as they walked by she felt almost non-corporeal, as if the bustling commuters were simply looking and walking straight through her. The train itself was dense with rush hour commuters, with the combination of the delay and the time rendering free seats completely out of the question. She muscled her way onto the carriage and stood perfectly still, the bodies of her fellow passengers holding her in place against the inertia of the vehicle’s movement. Every now and again she forgot about the folder that was contained in the bag strapped around her shoulder, but every recollection brought the unwelcome unease back with it.

Finally reaching her home stop, Angel, she fought her way off of the train and ascended the escalator – the one that Matthew always used to tell her was the longest in London… The cold breeze had followed her from Fulham and bit especially hard after the hot swelter of the underground journey that she had just taken. She checked her watch, which informed her that it was half past six and she supposed that behind the darkly oppressive grey clouds, the sun was just disappearing over the western horizon. The walk back to her home was thankfully short, and the first few seconds of warm air flowing over her after she opened the front door were heavenly. She closed the front door and removed her shoes.

And then, a surprise…

“Rebecca? Is that you?” The tone of the voice was instantly recognisable.

“Matthew? Yes, of course it’s me, who else would it be?” Matthew appeared around the door from the kitchen. “You’re… actually home before me?” she half stated, half asked in sheer disbelief. “Don’t tell me, you found that bloody golden whatever the hell it is, we’re now filthy rich and you’ve quit your job?” She asked with mock excitement.

“Well I hate to disappoint you, but I’m afraid not. Besides, you forget that I have to do full days of actual work now my sabbatical year’s over, so I felt like I had an excuse to come home and see my gorgeous fiancée before she fell asleep.” Matthew’s sarcastic manner belied the sweetness of his words. A knowing smile crept across Rebecca’s face,

“What exactly are you up to, Matthew? What have you done?” she asked with a sultry tone,

“Nothing! Dear, dear, Rebecca, such unwarranted suspicion!” He walked up to her and kissed her quickly, taking her bag off of her shoulder and hanging it up on the ebony coat stand by the door. “Whoever said that romance is dead?”

“Ah, so this is you being romantic then? I must admit I’d slightly forgotten what that was like,” she leaned in, kissing him back. He took her by the hand and pulled her along the hallway and into the kitchen. It was one of Matthew’s favourite places in the house. The room was a showpiece, incredibly spacious, with work surfaces hewn from pale granite and just about everything else gleaming chrome or stainless steel, with a small, tasteful glass chandelier hung from the high ceiling. Matthew turned it on, hitting the switch with his free hand as he passed through the threshold. Soft light danced through the suspended shards, refracting across the whole room. The sturdy oak dining table at the centre of the room was already set for the two of them. “Well I can’t say I was expecting to come home to this,” Rebecca said through a genuine smile. Matthew smiled back at her.

“Well, I can’t say that I’m quite ready just yet,” He gestured to the oven, alight with a porcelain dish resting on the middle shelf, “We’re going to have to wait a little while for that to finish,”

“That’s absolutely fine, of course that’s fine.” It had been the self-awareness that triggered the memory. Why did Matthew’s kindness feel so sweet today, on this evening? She remembered it once again, and the pleasant emotion was remorselessly taken in an instant.

The folder.

That fucking folder.

“Matthew, I need to show you something. It had… it has me a little worried,” Matthew looked puzzled,

“Well, of course, what is it?”

“Wait here a second,” She walked back towards the front door to retrieve her bag, and removed the bottle of wine before placing it on the table.

“You’re not normally one to be worried about red wine?” Matthew quipped somewhat flatly. Without rising to the joke, Rebecca then placed the beige folder on the table, taking care to not disturb the cutlery and glasses that Matthew had earlier set down. He took in the abnormal black chevrons and red marker pen adorned on the front cover.

“What is it?” he asked, taking it in.

“Well, look inside and read it?” she instructed. Matthew was a relatively slow reader in comparison to her workmates who she had earlier shown the folder to, and as a result he took a not insignificant length of time to take in the whole three pages, 1970s history and all. When he eventually finished, he looked back up at his fiancée.

“Rebecca, where did this come from? You don’t think-?”

“I don’t know where it came from, and yes, I do think it’s written about me. It’s a perfect description of my family, Matthew. You know it is. Even right down to the car.” Matthew looked dumbfounded.

“You have a stalker?”

“Well I don’t know, unless they’ve been stalking me and my family since fucking 1979?” Her tone cracked slightly with frustration.

“Well either way Rebecca, all I can really say is this. I deal with rational explanation every single day of my life, I mean, admittedly not quite in the same context, but still… there has to be something rational behind this, there just has to be,”

“You sound just like everyone else,” she replied, disappointed, as if she had expected Matthew to pull an explanation out of nowhere.

“Well in that case I think that ‘everyone else’ is probably right. And I think that it’s exactly what you should be telling yourself whilst you don’t actually know precisely what’s going on? Surely? Otherwise It’ll drive you… mad.” Matthew was trying to be reassuring, even though his quite obvious lack of ideas, though he provided scant comfort.

“Oh so what, the blissful ignorance approach? Just so long as I don’t go ‘mad’…”

“Rebecca, please don’t say that, you know that’s not what I meant,” he responded flatly – it indeed had not been his intended insinuation. She paused for a few seconds and sighed, removing her glasses and rubbing her face with both palms.

“Sorry, sorry of course I shouldn’t be curt. It’s all just been playing on my mind all day, and I’ve spent a seriously long while looking for that ‘rational explanation’. Of course I have. Because… well I agree with you, there must be one. But I just can’t find it.” She looked up to Matthew with glassy grey-blue eyes.

“It’s okay,” he said comfortingly. She fell forward into his arms frowning. He pushed her back, holding her shoulders and looked her straight in the face. “You know, I think I know how I can help you take your mind off of it?”

“No, go on?” she asked expectantly. He looked over to the counter behind the table, frowning a simulated grimace.

“Well, it’s just that those vegetables won’t peel themselves…” Rebecca let out a short laugh, hitting him with the palm of her hand right in the middle of his chest.

“Oh shut the fuck up!” she snapped back. The smile on her face was, of course, exactly what Matthew was hoping for. “I have an even better idea,” she continued, “I’m going to go upstairs and have a bath.” She kissed Matthew on the chest where she had just struck him. “And I expect dinner on the table by the time I come back down, complete with peeled vegetables.”

“Of course dearest,” he smiled. Rebecca pecked her fiancé on the cheek one last time and vacated the room.


[1] A proof for all numbers under 1000…

 

Let ‘xyz’ be a number less than 1000. Then ‘xyz’ = 100x+10y+z

Suppose the sum of the number’s digits is a multiple of 3.

Hence x+y+z=3K for some integer K.

 

We have 100x+10y+ z = 3K+99x+9y = 3(K+33x+3y).

Thus ‘xyz’ = 3(K+33x+3y), i.e. ‘xyz’ is a multiple of 3 as required.

 

A proof for N digit long numbers (hence all numbers) can be attained through an argument along the same lines. The initial number will always be expressible as a multiple of 3, plus the number’s digits with appropriate strings of 9s as their coefficients.

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