The Parallel Lives of Clara McDonald

Illustration of a child curled up in bed in a red nightgown
Illustration by Nicole Lobos

You can call me Sol and think of me as a healer with a patient with a raging fever. In reality, I’m a pan-dimensional entity tasked with making a handful of universes flourish, and one of them is seriously ill. Every universe, you see, splits into two once in a while, a bit like how your cells divide. It doesn’t happen often, because universe membranes are robust. They have to be. But, occasionally, conscious beings en masse face a choice about what kind of world they want to live in. If the choice is momentous enough then quantum pressure builds, the membrane warps, and one universe silently becomes two.

What does it look like? Well, every living being – humans, non-human animals, and even plants – emits a colourful strand of consciousness. These strands weave together, forming a strong membrane, so that each universe resembles an iridescent bubble. A healthy bubble floats, shimmering but stable, through the mysteries of space-time, exploring and delighting in Life. I wish you could see it. It’s startlingly beautiful.

My ill universe has a membrane that is dull and fraying though, and it’s wobbling alarmingly, like a soap bubble about to burst. It split from its twin, which thankfully is thriving, about 50 solar years ago, when enough humans decided that there was no such thing as society and that the Earth was merely a source of wealth.

But all this talk of bubbles and consciousness is abstract. What’s it like to actually live in these two universes, I hear you ask. Good question. Let’s zoom in on one particular girl in the ill universe first. Her name is Clara McDonald and she’s 16, living in a tenement block of flats in central Edinburgh. It’s late November 2025. She’s trying her best to flourish, to care for other people and the planet, but the dominant worldview, baked into society and economic structures, is stacked against her.


Clara leans back on her star-patterned pillow and messages Liv, trying to block out the gaming gunfire from her brother’s bedroom. ‘No way am I spending that much on a dress I might only wear once!’

Liv’s response is immediate. ‘It’s Christmas! You have to!’

Clara starts to type a reply, but is distracted by the sound of her mum coming in from work: the familiar dumping of a bag on the table, the fridge door opening, and an exasperated sigh.

‘Clara! Can you give me a hand? There’s nothing for tea!’

Clara groans, knowing what’s coming next. She heaves herself off the bed and finds her mum fumbling in her purse in the kitchen. ‘Can you just nip to the supermarket and get some ready meals?’ her mum asks, without looking up. ‘Dad’s flight isn’t in until 10, so we don’t need to worry about him. I’ll have a shepherd’s pie, whatever you want, and… ’

‘Pizza with pepperoni!’ shouts Josh from his bedroom, and Clara realises that he must have turned the volume down on Grand Theft Auto as soon as he heard the front door open. She’s weary of the long-running battle – her parents insisting he can’t play it until he’s 13, Josh complaining that all his friends do.

‘There’s a surprise!’ says her mum, rolling her eyes at Clara, as she hands over her card. ‘Shouldn’t he be at football?’

Clara rifles through the dozens of coats in the cloakroom. ‘He said he’s feeling wheezy and the weather will make it worse,’ she calls over her shoulder. She finds her favourite red one, glad of an opportunity to wear it. Liv had said it set off her long black hair and blue eyes, but since her dad teasingly called her Little Red Ridinghood she’s been too self-conscious to wear it to school.

‘Well, he was coughing all last night, and his asthma is always worse when the air is cold and heavy like this. I’ll go and take a peak flow. Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.’

Clara trudges down the communal stairwell, with its grimy cream paint and a chilly dampness seeping from centuries-old stone. Outside in South Clerk Street, the grey tenements glower over the hunched commuters in the fading light and drizzle. The traffic moves slowly, and the acrid exhaust fumes catch at the back of her throat. Without thinking, she buries her nose into the top of her coat.

In defiance of the weather, ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’ is playing in the supermarket. It might as well be the Beach Boys, for all the relevance it has, Clara thinks, feeling cheated. She vaguely remembers sledging one Christmas when she was six or seven, but recent ones have been mild and grey. She finds Josh’s favourite pizza, and as she walks past the aisle labelled ‘Seasonal produce’ picks up a purple tub of sweets for dessert. In the Ready Meals section, the shelf is blocked by an elderly man squinting at the instructions on a carton. His brown coat is missing the top button, and a shred of tissue is stuck to a shaving cut on his chin. He shuffles out of the way as Clara tries to reach round him, but then catches her eye.

‘My wife died last month. I’m not a very good cook,’ he blurts out, his voice raspy from disuse.

‘That’s a shame,’ mumbles Clara, cringing at how inadequate this response is and wishing she could offer some comfort to this bewildered stranger. Instead, she quietly adds a shepherd’s pie and vegetarian curry to her basket, feeling his sadness in her wake as she scans the food and heads home. One of the students from the upstairs flat arrives at the same time and awkwardly holds the street door open for her before bounding up the stairs, rucksack bouncing on his back.

As the kitchen fills with an unlikely fusion of microwaved spices, beef and pepperoni, the three of them eat in silence, scrolling through social media. The meal over, her mum shoves the plastic containers in the bin, and Clara’s mind immediately leaps to images of ugly, smoking landfill sites.

‘Mum, it takes hundreds of years for those things to break down!’

‘I’ve no time to clean off all the food, and hardly any of it is recycled anyway. It’s fine. Tonight I need to finish some work and order a new iron, and you need to get your act together and do some research on universities. It would be good to get the form in before Christmas.’

‘What’s the point?’ Clara sighs. ‘The way things are going there won’t be an inhabitable planet by the time I’m your age.’

‘Oh you’re always so dramatic Clara! We’ll come up with new technologies. You’ll enjoy university, and with your results you have plenty of choice. Go and look at courses and let me know what you think. You need to be a strong, independent woman, remember!’

Clara goes back to her room and collapses despondently on the bed. She makes a half-hearted attempt to look at university websites but ends up doom-scrolling, her stomach in knots at the sight of graphs of temperature rises, images of expressionless families in shock perched on rooftops in Pakistan, soot-smeared fire-fighters in California, climate immigrants rioting in detention centres. She wishes she could join marches or make speeches, do something, but she feels panicky in crowds. She curls up in a fetal position. The problem is just too big. She can’t solve it.


Well, as you can probably see, Clara is indeed independent. But not in a good way. Her relationships with her family, her community, and the natural world are superficial, and she feels that the world’s problems are down to her to solve. Fortunately, life is better in this universe’s healthy twin.


Clara leans back on her star-patterned pillow, trying to block out the gaming noises from her brother’s bedroom, and laughs at Liz’s enthusiasm on the video call. ‘Ok,’ she agrees, grimacing. ‘9 O’clock on Saturday at Pop-up Christmas Hires. There will still be plenty of good dresses left at 10 you know.’ As she ends the call, she hears her mum come in from work: the familiar dumping of a bag on the table, the fridge door opening, and an exasperated sigh.

‘Clara! Can you give me a hand? There’s nothing for tea!’

Clara groans, knowing what’s coming next. She heaves herself off the bed and finds her mum fumbling at the tablet mounted on the kitchen wall.

‘Let’s see what’s available,’ she is saying to herself, bringing up the NeighbourShare app. ‘Dad’s train isn’t in until 9, so we don’t need to worry about him. It looks like Heather has two portions of lasagne, and Andrew has a pizza – Josh will be pleased. Does that sound OK? Now for dessert’. A pause, more scrolling. ‘Excellent! Three chocolate muffins going spare at Alan’s. They’re all one token.’

She pulls down a jar and tips out four wooden tokens, with ‘EH1 NeighbourShare’ inked on the front. ‘There you go.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ says Josh, emerging from his bedroom. Clara realises that he must have turned the volume down on Citizens of Earth as soon as he heard the front door open. She knows how much he enjoys teaming up with children in different countries to complete tasks, communicating through their avatars’ facial expressions and gestures, but he doesn’t like to admit to still playing it now he’s 12.

‘What?’ he exclaims in answer to Clara’s surprised look. ‘We need to make sure we get the biggest muffins! You’re way too polite, and I’m starving after football.’ He pulls an insulated bag and a selection of tiffin boxes out of the cupboard.

Clara grabs the red winter coat she hired a few weeks ago. Her Dad had said it set off her black hair and blue eyes, and the compliment has made the coat feel even cosier. They clatter down the communal stairs, with their painted murals of forests, hardly noticing the occasional puff of warm air powered by the city-wide geothermal pumps. Out in South Clerk Street, two lanes of electric buses hum quietly up the centre of the road, and on each side bike headlights twinkle through the fading light. A few dried-up coppery leaves still cling to the tips of the lime trees that separate the lanes, and Clara tilts her head back and breathes in deeply, savouring the earthy smell of late autumn.

At Heather’s, a smiling woman with an elegant grey bob opens the door. Faint sounds of laughter and jazz escape from inside, along with the smell of roasted garlic and tomatoes.

‘Here you go!’ Heather says to Josh, handing him two tiffin boxes in exchange for two tokens and two empty boxes. ‘It was cooked an hour ago, so shouldn’t have dried out. The twins decided to go out at the last minute, so I thought I might as well put these up rather than freeze them. How are you doing Clara?’ she continues, barely pausing for breath. ‘Have you decided what you’re doing next year?’

‘I’ve got a session with the talent advisor tomorrow, actually. All the quizzes I’ve done are showing me up as an introvert and a logical thinker with a strong environmental conscience, so I’m thinking of specialising in maths or physics. Maybe I’ll end up doing research on the next generation of solar panels.’

Heather nods approvingly, ‘There are always improvements to be made, and you’ll be putting your abilities to good use. Tom, my eldest, is doing something similar, so come and chat to him if you want.’

Back in the street, Clara makes out an elderly man sitting by the steamed-up window in the community café, a brown coat over his chairback.

‘You get the rest,’ she tells Josh. ‘I’ll just pop in and have a quick chat to David – his wife died last month.’

‘OK’ shrugs Josh easily, as he saunters towards Alan’s flat.

Clara pulls out a chair opposite David, who smiles and pushes a plate of misshapen biscuits towards her.

‘They taste better than they look,’ he says apologetically. ‘I’m taking cooking lessons here. Betty loved to cook so I just let her get on with it, but I’m making up for it now. I’m even doing a practice Christmas dinner next week! Turkeysynth and all the trimmings, with the veg from the allotment at the back.’

Clara hides her amusement. It’s only the old folk who add ‘synth’ after a meat name, those who can remember what it was like to eat real animals most days rather than on special occasions.

‘You look well,’ she mumbles through a mouthful of crumbly biscuit.

‘Yes, I’m not too bad, thanks. Coming here has helped.’

They gaze out of the window in companiable silence. The supermarket opposite has a display of seasonal produce in the window – there are recipe cards, wicker baskets overflowing with crinkly dark green kale and plump purple cabbages, and an electronic poster of farmland on the outskirts of Edinburgh, the rich brown soil blanketed in sparkling frost under a hazy early-morning sun. Most of the tenement window-boxes have been cleared of summer flowers and lettuces and are now planted with pansies or trailing ivy. Nearly all are draped in solar-powered fairy lights, softening the forbidding facades.

After a few minutes Josh taps on the window and Clara gets up, bending over to give David a quick hug.

‘I got huge muffins,’ Josh grins triumphantly. ‘Good thing you did that baby-sitting and restocked the jar by the way. I thought I’d have to walk Murphy for Mrs Forrester, and last time I had to clean a massive jobby off an EV charger!’

Clara groans and shoves him affectionately. As they reach their flat, one of the students from upstairs is just in front of them. ‘Hi Chris,’ says Josh, reaching up to high-five his hero.

‘Hi Josh, hi Clara. Tell your mum I’ve fixed the iron. It was fairly simple, so just one token. Oh, and Lilly can fix that sledge you gave such a hammering last year Joshy.’

Back in the flat, the three of them relish the NeighbourShare meals before Clara and her mum sink contentedly into a battered red sofa.

‘I hope your guidance session goes well tomorrow,’ sighs Clara’s mum. ‘I’m so envious of you having all these opportunities ahead of you!’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll come back and visit,’ grins Clara happily. ‘This place is too deeply woven into me for me not to!’


  • OK, I’ll be honest. I’ve described two universes, but neither of them is yours. You’re close to the first, but there are whispers of the second, strands of consciousness that swirl through the membrane, tugging at hearts and minds and bodies. So, if you long for a life more deeply interwoven with others and your marvellous planet, listen for and enact your own story of belonging. If enough of you do, then the membrane will heal. And your universe will thrive.