A magical knot

Once, when I was around 13 or 14, I came across something wondrous and magical. And, as tends to be the case for most of us, but perhaps particularly for a blasé young teenager, I almost, but not quite, failed to recognise its significance.

I was idly playing with an elastic band on the fingers of my hand, performing a cat’s cradle. I was close to my grandmother growing up and so had a raft of skills beloved of the average Georgian schoolgirl. As the band snapped off my fingers I noticed something rather odd. It had formed a simple knot – the simplest form of knot that you might tie in any piece of string – along one side of the band.

I had then never heard of topology – the mathematics of deforming space – but I knew that this was weird. You shouldn’t be able to tie a simple knot into a simple band without breaking it and reattaching the ends. I twisted it around. I stretched it and pinged it back. I gently teased the knot into a larger shape – but the knot remained. There was nothing I could do to return the elastic to the shape of a simple circular band.

An itchy tightening of the scalp told me that something quite extraordinary had happened. Something that absolutely should not have happened had nonetheless blithely given two fingers to physics and damn well happened. I knew I had proof literally lying in the palm of my hand that there was more to reality than is within our usual ken.

Some children, the lucky, happy, ones retain a sense of wonder in the world. I did not. During these early teenage years it seemed to me that almost daily I was presented with proof that cupboards not only don’t usually lead to Narnia but in fact never do. I suspect I must have been a drag for my parents in this respect. It wasn’t a case of being ungrateful or over-demanding, more one of a child who had lived in a fictional world built by many, many wonderful books during a happy childhood failing to relate those depictions to a world which was mundane by definition. And now I had proof that there was indeed magic and wonder in the world, and for a precious half an hour or so I knew that.

Then I was called away, I forget why or how, and I put that elastic band in a drawer as a reminder that you should never stop expecting magic. I promptly forgot about it for some months. Then one day, when I felt in need of a little wonder, I went back to find the band but it was no longer there.

Some might say that a brother with more generation-appropriate pass-times had used it to make a catapult, some that Dad had used it to tie a rubbish sack. A cruel few others who have only ever known the mundane might even say it never existed at all. But I know that magic can and does happen and that that simply knotted elastic band slipped through a little twist of space-time – probably the very same that allowed it to be knotted in the first place – and lies like an enchanted twist of conjured spaghetti-hoop amongst the biros, second socks, keys, and other lost detritus that have found their way to a real place of mystery.

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