‘It’s very simple,’ he says gently. ‘Imagine I lend you ten pounds. I create an account for you here.’
He draws a column and writes her name over it, how lovingly she has no idea.
‘I write ten in there – that’s what you owe me.’
‘I’ll pay you back as soon as I can!’
Her laughter tinkles like musical bells.
‘Then in my column I write minus ten. When you repay the money, the process is reversed: I’ll put minus ten pounds in your account and add ten pounds to mine. You would have the same in your books, the other way round.’
‘That’s fascinating,’ she says.
As she sits next to him, open-mouthed and frowning with concentration, he glances furtively at the side of her face.
He thinks she’s too beautiful for words.
‘It’s a wonderful system. A crystalline world of paired figures, always balancing out. Like matter and anti-matter. It’s important to note that the accounts added together total zero at every stage, even before you pay me back. Some people don’t understand that.’
She smiles indulgently and he wonders if he’s betrayed too much enthusiasm and seemed nerdy.
He could go on and tell her that if there was such an entity, God would have to be an accountant. Think about it, he’d say: the maths, the binary nature of the universe, every particle with its partner, equal and opposite, such a complex picture created from nothing and always adding up to zero.
But he can only smile shyly and say: ‘So there you are.’
‘Oh!’ she says, jumping up. ‘I must go or I’ll be late.’
She skips across to her desk and picks up her bag, then takes her coat from the hook on the wall.
‘Have fun,’ he says. ‘See you tomorrow.’
‘Don’t work too late!’
There’s no time to say he won’t before the door slams shut and she’s gone.
He holds his breath so that he can catch the last of her footsteps on the stairs, straining to hear till there is just the faint white noise of existence.
A voice inside is reminding him that the total of everything is nothing but he stifles it.
With his pulse racing he draws a heart in her column and one with a minus in front of it in his. Then, his hand about to tremble, he adds the opposite to both columns so that they balance. He thinks he’s never been so sad, or so happy.
Julian Wakeling was born in Sunderland. He attended Central Saint Martins School of Art in London. He is also a street photographer. He was long-listed this year in the Fish, Storgy and Reflex flash fiction contests and has been published in the Nottingham Review. He currently lives near Lincoln. Twitter: @WakelingFiction.