Between the ages of five and seven, I decided that I wanted to know everything. Before that point I had bombarded my parents, my teenage brothers, my reception teachers and pretty much anyone else who would listen with what must have seemed like a barrage of questions and follow-up questions, of the usual seemingly random variety: ‘what’s that for?’, ‘can I do this?’, ‘what are those thing made of?’. Some of these were of the more perplexing kinds that every parent probably dreads: ‘what are dreams for?’, ‘can I be friends with animals?’, ‘what are rainbows made of?’. Kids seem to operate like this from an early age, rapidly acquiring knowledge and filling in their maps of the world. It would be hard to see how we could get anywhere without this kind of early curiosity. I was also quite concerned with counterfactuals, to the point that it was a family joke that ‘but what if…’ was a banned phrase in our house, but I had not so far thought about the whole aggregation of knowledge, and what was or could be known.
Most of the questions were directed at my mum. Dad is an academic who works on mythology. He would come home and recount fairy tales and myths in a dramatic fashion (apparently I occasionally reprimanded him for going over the top with the ‘silly voices’). I learned about Thor and Loki, three grey swan-sisters who shared an eye between them and terrifying enchanted houses that got up and ran on chicken legs. The stories sometimes disturbed or captivated me in ways that I didn’t understand, and some of them, like Bluebeard and Pandora, made me angry (Pandora was the name of my favourite doll). But my mum, with her science knowledge, her gardening and her ability to create cakes from things that weren’t a bit like cakes, was my source of solid information on matters of fact about the world.
I don’t remember what I had asked, but I vividly recall sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor while mum was preparing dinner, when she responded to one of my questions with ‘I don’t know’. I remember it so clearly because it was profoundly shocking: I had taken ‘mummy’ to be almost synonymous with ‘oracle’, and she was saying that there was something that she didn’t know! The particular question was forgotten because of the jaw-dropping enormity of this discovery.
Still, my mother was only in her mid-forties, which was nothing compared with the unimaginable ancientness of my grandparents. It occurred to me that she still had plenty of time to fill in the gaps. I left the question for the time being – perhaps she felt sensitive about what she must regard as a dramatic failure. It was also a new and rather uneasy sense of power. I had been able to ask a question that a grown-up couldn’t answer. Later, when I assumed that the kitchen incident had been forgotten, I asked my mum how old I would be by the time I knew everything. The response was irritating – my mum did the closest thing to a giggle that I have ever heard her do, and then put her hands to her face and tried to suppress the laughter. What was funny? I would have understood this sort of thing from dad with his stories and silly voices, but mum answered earnest questions in the spirit in which they were asked.
She probably struggled not to laugh even more at the indignation of the small serious person, but she explained that nobody, even if they are really old, knows everything, and that like them, I never would. I think this must have annoyed and perplexed me even more, because she turned away from whatever it was she had been getting on with and gave me her full attention. She explained that there were some things that nobody knew – for example, exactly how many grains of sand there were in the world, or what people would be doing in a thousand years. This was a huge relief – obviously I didn’t mean everything like that. I meant everything that we could know about (like what people generally do now) and everything that mattered (like roughly how much sand there was, and how it was made). Mum asked me how I knew what mattered – I didn’t of course, I didn’t know everything yet… Oh wait.
I had always been told that if I didn’t know something, or if I was worried and didn’t know what to do, I should ask a grown-up. This had seemed sensible: I had thought that they knew the answers, and knew the right things to do, even when they didn’t act on them (my granddad used to wind me up by ‘cheating’ at dominoes). Now it wasn’t clear that I should believe them, or do what they said, even when I trusted their motives. Now I had to think each time about how likely it was that they would know something (as I had generally done with my brothers, who were not quite grown-ups yet, but who knew a lot of things).
Another thing on mum’s list of ‘things that nobody knows’ was the size of the universe. This struck me as something that obviously did matter, even if I didn’t know why, and it seemed like the sort of thing that we ought to be able to know. If you want to know how big something is, you just need to find out where the edges are.
It sounds like I’m beginning one of his stories, but my dad’s father and stepmother used to live in a cottage in the forest. We used to drive up to their remote area of South West Scotland for family visits. In one of the bedrooms, the curtains were printed with roses that seemed to resemble angry scrunched-up faces. I knew this was just how I had imagined them, but once I had seen them like that, the faces seemed to be out there in the world, beyond the power of my imagination to turn them back into harmless flowers. The curtains drew across an alcove in front of the window, and if I sat between the glass and the curtains I could only see the dusty pink lining, and the scornful roses were hidden from sight along with everything else in the house. At night I would creep into this space. There was a dim glow through the curtains behind me, and the black pane ahead was unlit by artificial light from outside. I used to listen to owls hooting in the pine trees in the dark.
It was here, in a nest of comics, Enid Blyton books and concealed lollipops that I thought about the edges of the universe. Dad had told me stories about men who sailed to the end of the world. As they got closer to the edge there were strange people, and even stranger monsters and giants. Beyond that the sea tumbled into an abyss, and our valiant adventurers had to struggle to stop their ship being pulled over the end of the earth.
I tried to imagine the equivalent, picturing myself hurtling through space with countless stars and galaxies leaving bright trails as I rushed by. This was probably influenced by Star Trek TNG, which I used to watch with my brother Tom (and probably disrupted with annoying questions). As I whizzed further and further toward the edge of the universe, it made sense to think, as the old storytellers had, that things would look less like the things that we are used to. I imagined scenes from Yellow Submarine, which I had watched with my brother Will (and probably asked no questions at all). It wasn’t so much that I thought the things at the edges of the universe might be like that – they would probably be like something that I couldn’t imagine – but the bright psychedelic images were a good stand-in where imagination stopped. The mythical beasts at the end of the world were composed of bits of different animals stuck together: people have to work with what they know. But some things would have to remain the same: there couldn’t be a place where one and one did not equal two (Tom used to help me with maths, and I think I asked him about this one). I tried to imagine a tiny submarine and another tiny submarine becoming three submarines, but it always involved another one cheekily appearing from behind the others with a devilish grin. This seemed to be more than just a failure of the imagination like mythical hybrids or the inability to placate roses.
But this was still the hinterland – what would it be like to get to the edge? I imagined my submarine-spaceship hitting a pane of glass with a dull clink, and beyond the glass was blackness. But then there would be another side of the pane, outside the edge of the universe, like the one concealing the forest in front of me. I imagined my reflection as a second self, staring owl-like from beyond the edge of the universe. If I could be outside, that would put the edge of the universe beyond the glass. The staring owl-child had expanded the universe. But how things really were could not depend on where one was standing. I started to get angry with my dad. This was his fault – if I hadn’t started out with the sailors and the mythical beasts, I wouldn’t have got into this muddle. I tried to imagine myself stripped of all the things that could lead me into error – what would the universe be like without a bank of silly stories corrupting my imagination, and without a body that had to stand behind or in front of curtains and windows? How would things look then? As hard as I tried, I found I was just imagining myself in a ghost-like body, or someone else’s body, and with a different set of stories. If I had been furnished with no version of the adventurers, I couldn’t have reached the edge of the universe in the first place. I decided my dad probably knew more than I had thought.