We all know how our lives are turning out, but what if we examined all of the what-ifs, the chance encounters that can define who we are and who we become? That’s the task author Laura Barnett takes on in The Versions of Us, published in England last year to acclaim and brought out this month in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. You can find The Versions of Us in local bookstores, or you can order it here or here.
Cambridge, October 1958
LATER, EVA WILL THINK, If it hadn’t been for that rusty nail, Jim and I would never have met.
The thought will slip into her mind, fully formed, with a force that will snatch her breath. She’ll lie still, watching the light slide around the curtains, considering the precise angle of her tyre on the rutted grass; the nail itself, old and crooked; the small dog, snouting the verge, failing to heed the sound of gear and tyre. She had swerved to miss him, and her tyre had met the rusty nail. How easy—how much more probable—would it have been for none of these things to happen?
But that will be later, when her life before Jim will already seem soundless, drained of colour, as if it had hardly been a life at all. Now, at the moment of impact, there is only a faint tearing sound, and a soft exhalation of air.
‘Damn,’ Eva says. She presses down on the pedals, but her front tyre is jittering like a nervous horse. She brakes, dismounts, kneels to make her diagnosis. The little dog hovers penitently at a distance, barks as if in apology, then scuttles oﬀ after its owner—who is, by now, a good deal ahead, a departing ﬁgure in a beige trench coat.
There is the nail, lodged above a jagged rip, at least two inches long. Eva presses the lips of the tear and air emerges in a hoarse wheeze. The tyre’s already almost ﬂat: she’ll have to walk the bicycle back to college, and she’s already late for supervision. Professor Farley will assume she hasn’t done her essay on the Four Quartets, when actually it has kept her up for two full nights—it’s in her satchel now, neatly copied, ﬁve pages long, excluding footnotes. She is rather proud of it, was looking forward to reading it aloud, watching old Farley from the corner of her eye as he leaned forward, twitching his eyebrows in the way he does when something really interests him.
‘Scheiße,’ Eva says: in a situation of this gravity, only German seems to do.
‘Are you all right there?’
She is still kneeling, the bicycle weighing heavily against her side. She examines the nail, wonders whether it would do more harm than good to take it out. She doesn’t look up.
‘Fine, thanks. It’s just a puncture.’
The passer-by, whoever he is, is silent. She assumes he has walked on, but then his shadow—the silhouette of a man, hatless, reaching into his jacket pocket—begins to shift across the grass towards her. ‘Do let me help. I have a kit here.’
She looks up now. The sun is dipping behind a row of trees—just a few weeks into Michaelmas term and already the days are shortening—and the light is behind him, darkening his face. His shadow, now attached to feet in scuﬀed brown brogues, appears grossly tall, though the man seems of average height. Pale brown hair, in need of a cut; a Penguin paperback in his free hand. Eva can just make out the title on the spine, Brave New World, and she remembers, quite suddenly, an afternoon—a wintry Sunday; her mother making Vanillekipferl in the kitchen, the sound of her father’s violin drifting up from the music room—when she had lost herself completely in Huxley’s strange, frightening vision of the future.
She lays the bicycle down carefully on its side, gets to her feet. ‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I’ve no idea how to use one. The porter’s boy always ﬁxes mine.’
‘I’m sure.’ His tone is light, but he’s frowning, searching the other pocket. ‘I may have spoken too soon, I’m afraid. I’ve no idea where it is. So sorry. I usually have it with me.’
‘Even when you’re not cycling?’
‘Yes.’ He’s more a boy than a man: about her own age, and a student; he has a college scarf—a bee’s black and yellow stripes—looped loosely round his neck. The town boys don’t sound like him, and they surely don’t carry copies of Brave New World. ‘Be prepared and all that. And I usually do. Cycle, I mean.’
He smiles, and Eva notices that his eyes are a very deep blue, almost violet, and framed by lashes longer than her own. In a woman, the eﬀect would be called beautiful. In a man, it is a little unsettling; she is ﬁnding it diﬃcult to meet his gaze.
‘Are you German, then?’
‘No.’ She speaks too sharply; he looks away, embarrassed.
‘Oh. Sorry. Heard you swear. Scheiße.’
‘You speak German?’
‘Not really. But I can say “shit” in ten languages.’
Eva laughs: she shouldn’t have snapped. ‘My parents are Austrian.’
‘You do speak German!’
‘Nein, mein Liebling. Only a little.’
His eyes catch hers and Eva is gripped by the curious sensation that they have met before, though his name is a blank.
Excerpted from The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. Copyright © 2016 by Laura Barnett. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.