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'Cassandra In Reverse' looks at time travel through an autistic point of view

Here & Now‘s Deepa Fernandes speaks with Holly Smale about her new novel “Cassandra in Reverse.”

The book centers around Cassandra, a young woman who discovers she can travel through time. Cassandra, like the book’s author, is autistic, and the book is told through her voice.

The cover of “Cassandra in Reverse.” (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘Cassandra In Reverse’

By Holly Smale

WHERE DOES A STORY START?

It’s a lie, the first page of a book, because it masquerades as a beginning. A real beginning—the opening of something—when what you’re being offered is an arbitrary line in the sand. This story starts here. Pick a random event. Ignore whatever came before it or catch up later. Pretend the world stops when the book closes, or that a resolution isn’t simply another random moment on a curated timeline.

But life isn’t like that, so books are dishonest.

Maybe that’s why humans like them.

And it’s saying that kind of s*** that gets me thrown out of the Fentiman Road Book Club.

Here are some other things I’ve been asked not to return to:

• The Blenheim Road Readers Group

• A large flat-share I briefly attempted in Walthamstow

• My last relationship

• My current job

The final two have been in quick succession. This morning, Will—my boyfriend of four months—kissed me, listed my virtues out of nowhere and concluded the pep talk by ending our relationship.

The job situation I found out about eighty seconds ago.

According to the flexing jaw and flared nostrils of my boss, I’ve yet to respond to this new information. He seems faint and muted, as if he’s behind a pane of thick frosted glass. He also has a dried oat on his shirt collar but now doesn’t seem the right time to point it out: he’s married—his wife can do it later.

“Cassie,” he says more loudly. “Did you hear me?”

Obviously I heard him or I’d still be giving a detailed report on the client meeting I just had, which is exactly what I was doing when he fired me.

“The issue isn’t so much your work performance,” he plows on gallantly. “Although, Christ knows, somebody who hates phone calls as much as you do shouldn’t be working in public relations.”

I nod: that’s an accurate assessment.

“It’s your general demeanor I can’t have in this office. You are rude. Insubordinate. Arrogant, frankly. You are not a team player, and do you know what this office needs?”

“A better coffee machine.”

“That’s exactly the kind of b******* I’m talking about.”

I’d tell you my boss’s name and give him a brief description, but judging by this conversation, he isn’t going to be a prominent character for much longer.

“I’ve spoken to you about this on multiple occasions— Cassandra, look at me when I’m talking to you. Our highest-paying client just dropped us because of your quote, unquote relentlessly grating behavior. You are unlikable. That’s the exact word they used. Unlikable. Public relations is a People Job. For People People.”

Now, just hang on a minute.

“I’m a person,” I object, lifting my chin and doing my best to stare directly into his pupils. “And, as far as I’m aware, being likable is irrelevant to my job description. It’s certainly not in my contract, because I’ve checked.”

My boss’s nostrils flare into horsiness.

I rarely understand what another human is thinking, but I frequently feel it: a wave of emotion that pours out of them into me, like a teapot into a cup. While it fills me up, I have to work out what the hell it is, where it came from and what I’m supposed to do to stop it spilling everywhere.

Rage that doesn’t feel like mine pulses through me: dark purple and red.

His colors are an invasion and I do not like it.

“Look,” my boss concludes with a patient sigh that is nothing like the emotion bolting out of him. “This just isn’t working out, Cassie, and on some level you must already know that. Maybe you should find something that is better suited to your…specific skill set.”

That’s essentially what Will told me this morning too. I don’t know why they’re both under the impression I must have seen the end coming when I very much did not.

“Your job has the word relations in it,” my boss clarifies helpfully. “Perhaps you could find one that doesn’t?”

Standing up, I clear my throat and look at my watch: it’s not even Wednesday lunchtime yet.

Relationship: over.

Job: over.

“Well,” I say calmly. “F***.”

So that’s where my story starts.

It could have started anywhere: I just had to pick a moment. It could have been waking up this morning to the sound of my flatmates screaming at each other, or eating my breakfast (porridge and banana, always), or making an elaborate gift for my first anniversary with Will (slightly preemptive).

It could have been the moment just before I met him, which would have been a more positive beginning. It could have been the day my parents died in a car accident, which would have been considerably less so.

But I chose here: kind of in the middle.

Thirty-one years into my story and a long time after the dramatic end of some others. Packing a cardboard box with very little, because it transpires the only thing on my desk that doesn’t belong to the agency is a gifted coffee mug with a picture of a cartoon deer on it. I put it in the box anyway. There’s no real way of knowing what’s going to happen next, but I as-sume there will still be caffeine.

“Oh s***!” My colleague Sophie leans across our desks as I stick a wilting plant under my arm just to look like I’m not leaving another year of my life behind with literally nothing to show for it. “They haven’t fired you? That’s awful. I’m sure we will all miss you so much.”

I genuinely have no idea if she means this or not. If she does, it’s certainly unexpected: we’ve been sitting opposite each other since I got here and all I really know about her is that she’s twenty-two years old and likes tuna sandwiches, typing aggressively and picking her nose as if none of us have peripheral vision.

“Will you?” I ask, genuinely curious. “Why?”

Sophie opens her mouth, shuts it again and goes back to smashing her keyboard as if she’s playing whack-a-mole with her fingertips.

“Cassandra!” My boss appears in the doorway just as I start cleaning down my keyboard with one of my little antiseptic wipes. “What the hell are you doing? I didn’t mean leave right now. Jesus on a yellow bicycle, what is wrong with you? I’d prefer you to work out your notice period, please.”

“Oh.” I look down at the box and my plant. I’ve packed now. “No, thank you.”

Finished with cleaning, I sling my handbag over my shoulder and my coat over my arm, hold the box against my stomach, awkwardly hook the plant in the crook of my elbow and try to get the agency door open on my own. Then I hold it open with my knee while I look back, even though—much like Orpheus at the border of the Underworld—I know I shouldn’t.

The office has never been this quiet.

Heads are conscientiously turned away from me, as if I’m a sudden bright light. There’s a light patter of keyboards like pigeons walking on a roof (punctuated by the violent death stabs of Sophie), the radiator by the window is gurgling, the reception is blindingly gold-leafed and the watercooler drips. If I’m looking for something good to come out of today—and I think I probably should—it’s that I won’t have to hear that every second for the rest of my working life.

It’s a productivity triumph. They should fire people for fundamental personality flaws more often.

The door slams behind me and I jump even though I’m the one who slammed it. Then my phone beeps, so I balance everything precariously on one knee and fumble for it. I try to avoid having unread notifications if I can. They make my bag feel heavy.

Dankworth please clean your s*** up

I frown as I reply:

Which s*** in particular

There’s another beep.

Very funny. Keep the kitchen clear

It is a COmmUNAL SPaCE.

It wasn’t funny a couple of weeks ago when I came down for a glass of water in the middle of the night and found Sal and Derek having sex against the fridge.

Although perhaps that is the definition of communal.

Still frowning, I hit the button for the lift and mentally scour the flat for what I’ve done wrong this time. I forgot to wash my porridge bowl and spoon. There’s also my favorite yellow scarf on the floor and a purple jumper over the arm of the sofa. This is my sixth flat-share in ten years and I’m starting to feel like a snail: carrying my belongings around with me so I leave no visible trace.

I send back:

OK.

My intestines are rapidly liquidizing, my cheeks are hot and a bright pink rash I can’t see is forming across my chest. Dull pain wraps itself around my neck, like a scarf pulled tight.

It’s fascinating how emotions can tie your life together.

One minute you’re twelve, standing in the middle of a playground while people fight over who doesn’t get you as a teammate. The next you’re in your thirties, single and standing by the lifts of an office you’ve just been fired from because nobody wants you as a teammate. Same sensations, different body. Literally: my cells have cunningly replaced themselves at least twice in the interim.

The office door swings open. “Cassandra?”

Ronald has worn the same thing—a navy cashmere jumper—every day since he started working here a few months ago. It smells really lovely, so I’m guessing there must be plural.

He walks toward me and I immediately panic. Now and then I’ve caught him looking at me from the neighboring desk with an incalculable expression on his face, and I have no idea what it could be. Lust? Repulsion? I’ve been scripting a response to the former for a month now, just in case.

I am honored by your romantic and/or sexual interest in me given that we’ve only exchanged perfunctory greetings, but I have a long-term boyfriend I am almost definitely in the process of falling in love with.

Well, that excuse isn’t going to work anymore, is it.

Ronald clears his throat and runs a large hand over his buzz-cut Afro. “That’s mine.”

“Who?” I blink, disoriented by the grammar. “Me?”

“The plant.” He points at the shrubbery now clutched under my sweaty armpit. “It’s mine and I’d like to keep it.”

Ah, the sweet, giddy flush of humiliation is now complete.

“Of course,” I say stiffly. “Sorry, Ronald.”

Ronald blinks and reaches out a hand; I move quickly away so his fingers won’t touch mine, nearly dropping the pot in the process. It’s the same fun little dance I do when I have to pay with cash at the supermarket checkout, which is why I always carry cards.

I get into the lift and press the button. Ronald now appears to be casually assessing me as if I’m a half-ripe avocado, so I stare at the floor until he reaches a conclusion.

“Bye,” he says finally.

“Bye,” I say as the lift doors slide shut.

And that’s how my story starts.

With a novelty mug in a box, a full character assassination and the realization that when I leave a building I am missed considerably less than a half-dead rubber plant.

Excerpted from “Cassandra In Reverse.” Copyright © 2023 by Holly Smale. Published by MIRA, an imprint of HarperCollins.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Author Holly Smale. (Courtesy of David Myers)
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Author Holly Smale. (Courtesy of David Myers)