Whittaker Prize 2008: Round 4 entry

Sunday, 10 August 2008

(Before anybody asks, there is no Round 3 entry. I sat out that round owing to illness.)

ROCKFALL (Prompt: going down an angle so sharp it makes Pythagoras puke)

“Do I have to go up there?”

Rachel tilted her head back and looked up. Before her the ridge struck upwards at an alarming angle, pimpled with jutting rocks and boulders and pock-marked with patches of crusty snow. Her legs seemed to have turned to a trembling jelly and beneath her ribs her lungs screamed “no more!” Some Historical Society weekend outing this was. Part of her mind was beginning to wish what she’d told Steve was the truth.

Craig was above her, one foot on a rock, looking down with a big silly smile on his face. “Twenty minutes, max,” he said. “You’ve done really well to get this far, Rach. You’ve done the really hard bit slogging up to here. Now the ridge should climb itself.”

“I really want to, Craig. But my legs are telling me they’ll strike if I push them any harder.”

“I love you, Rach.”

“I love you, too, Craig.” And she smiled, stepped forward, kicked her crampons into the ice and hauled herself up one step, pulling with her hands on the rock above. Craig was right. Now that she was climbing with all four limbs, it was easier than the long slog up the head of the valley. The way she was gaining height so quickly was exhilarating, too. One last haul. One last outcrop rounded, and the terrain flattened into a bare stony plateau. The wind, freed from all obstruction now, hurled itself at the mountain top so that Rachel, for an instant, was driven back on herself. Only with much stumbling and flailing of her arms did she manage to avoid an ignominious landing on her bottom, but Craig was there waiting with his arms held wide, so that she teetered forward into the warmth of his embrace. His mouth felt hot as it melted against her own.

“Are we alone then?” Rachel asked, pulling herself away from Craig’s face. She loved the way the wind picked up his long, fair hair and set it flying. She loved the way his blue eyes echoed the afternoon sky. She loved being with him, here, on this desolate mountain top.

“As alone as we’ll ever be,” Craig said. “In summer there’s a queue up the ridge, and the summit is heaving. But they don’t know what they are missing. Look!”

Craig unwound his arms from Rachel’s waist and waved a hand in a great sweep. Rachel tore her head from the comfort of Craig’s fleece and let her eyes follow the arm. In every direction, bathed in bright winter sunshine, lay succeeding rows of fells, a hundred shades of brown flecked with white and looking like toy mountains she could reach out and touch in the sharp crystalline air. Below, as if it were a puddle at her feet, Wastwater stretched along the line of the screes and pointed the way to the green coastal lands and the sea.

“What’s that over there?” she said.

“That’s the Isle of Man,” he said. “It’s about fifty miles away, but you could almost count the sheep on Snaefell. And that,” he swung his finger to the right, “is the coast of Galloway. And the other way you can even see the Welsh mountains. You won’t see that too often.”

Rachel cradled her head on Craig’s shouder. “I wish we could see our future as easily,” she said. “If I had a way of stopping time for ever, at a moment of my choosing, I’d choose now.”

Craig said nothing for a long time, but pulled her close and kissed her once more, slowly, succulently, and for an instant it seemed to her that her wish had been granted. Even the wind seemed to have frozen in its tracks.

“We have to go,” he said in the end. “If we’re to get back to the tent before it gets dark. And then…”

“And then we’ve all the time we need for each other.”

The sun was already dipping towards the sea. On the shadow side of the mountain it would soon be gloomy. Rachel heaved her pack onto her shoulders once more, and plodded off in Craig’s wake. There was a gully to descend, a steep and stony trail cascading between walls of slimy rock. Out of the wind it may have been but it gave off a chill that went right through all her protective clothing to the bone. It was not a place to be in bad light. She knew that a false step could meana twisted, or even broken, ankle, and help in this desolate place was a long way off.

“Rock fall,” Craig said, turning to face her. “Watch your step. It doesn’t look very stable”

The gully ahead was partly blocked by three or four large boulders; she saw one of them towering over Craig as he stood in front of it. From the way the broken faces of the rocks gleamed this was a fresh fall. The stagnant air of the gully was infused with an acrid, sulphurous smell, of stones struck together, that made her screw up her nose against it.

“Stay there,” Craig said. “I’ll go ahead and find the way through, and then I’ll call you.”

She watched him pass the biggest boulder to the left, then stepped towards a large flat rock at the side of the gully. It was slippery with algae; the ground vanished from under her and no amont of arm-flailing could stop her keeling over sideways, sending a shower of small stones tumbling downhill.

“Don’t make things worse,” Craig called. His voice seemed a long way off. Rachel sat on the flat rock and tried not to move as she watched Craig picking his way through the rockfall until he passed out of her sight.

The earth seemed to shudder. It was something Rachel could sense, but not see or hear, and it only lasted for an instant, but she could feel every muscle in her body clenching as if bracing itself for a crisis. Only then was a rumble, as if they were shooting over on the Eskmeals firing ranges. The big boulder seemed to stand up and flex itself, as if seeking a more comfortable position to sit, and then it was moving, shifting itself in slow motion a few feet further down the slope.

The sulphur smell intensified, ripping at her throat. And there was silence. Rachel breathed in, tuning her hearing to pick up the slightest sound. What she wanted to hear was the crunch of feet on stones, to know that Craig was still there, still moving about.

No sound came to her.

The light was failing. Above and behind her, shreds of cloud were drifting across the clear blue. A clammy chill seized her arms and insinuated itself into her windproofs. “Craig!” she called, and she heard the echo from the rocks but no answer from Craig. Rachel had felt alkone before; alone in her marriage to Steve, but for the first time in her life, she sensed what it was like to be completely, utterly, and helplessly alone.

She heaved herself to her feet. It was becoming hard to see the way past the fallen boulder in the growing shadow, but she inched her way towards it, feeling her way around the rock. Dread flooded her body, seeping up from her stomach. She wanted to screw her eyes tightly shut, the better not to see what she feared she would find, but she swallowed hard, breathed in, and edged around to the far side.

Her dread had steeled her. Craig was stretched on his belly, his head turned to one side, his face as pale as the moon against the damp rock. The lower part of his right leg was trapped under the boulder. There was nothing she could do to move it, not without the danger of the rock roll8ing forward and crushing him completely. Her first instinct was to check for a pulse. Her relief at finding one was tempered by the thought of the pain. Mercifully he was unconscious.

The blue had gone from the sky now, and fingers of mist probed the gully, bringing with them a fine drizzle. She knew the first thing to do was to keep him warm; the biggest danger in the fells was hypothermia, which crept up on you and made you feel warm and fuzzy and sleepy. His survival bag was strapped to his rucksack; it was a simple matter to unbuckle it and wrap it round him. The second thing was to fetch help, because there was nothing she could do for his crushed leg. That was a bigger problem. He had made her carry a whistle on a lanyard around her neck, and a torch in her own pack, but who was there to see or hear? In front of them, on this side of the mountain at the bottom of the gully, there was the empty expanse of Burn Moor, and the rugged desolation of Upper Eskdale. She doubted that there was even a shepherd out on those fells at this time of the day, of the year. She could try, but to have a real chance she needed to go back to the top of the mountain, alone and in the gathering darkness, mist and rain.

Six of anything, didn’t Craig tell her? Six flashes of the torch. Six long blasts on the whistle. She raised the whistle to her lips and blew as hard as her lungs would let her, but the mist seemed to soak up the sound like cotton wool. Again she blew. Three times, four, five, six. The breath drained from her body. A dull throb banged against her temples. Her arm seemed sapped of strength as she lifted the torch. When she pushed the button the mist lit up, punctuated by scintillations of ever more insistant rain. It was no good, nobody would see it here. She turned and looked up the gully, back to the top of the mountain, and the mountain frowned back at her, dark and fearsome.

“Here I come,” she muttered to herself, “for better or worse.”

Rain peppered her face and ran down her chin, seeking ways to penetrated her clothing and possess her. The rain made the stones of the gully even more slippery than they were before. Three times she slipped, sliding backwards down the scree and senting showers of stones tumbling down the slope. Once she landed face down on the bone-cold rocks. She closed down her mind, driving everything out of it but Craig, and by force of will-power she stepped out once more onto the summit. The wind was savage now, and she struggled to make headway, but she drover herself forward to the cairn from which she had looked on the Isle of Man. There was nothing to see now except a streak of paler grey over on the western horizon. Even in thick woolen gloves her hands struggled to grip the rubber torch. It took both hands to raise it and turn the light on and off, sweeping the beam six times over Wasdale and the neighbouring fells. The whistle stung her lips and clung to the flesh so that she felt a terror of the metal freezing to her mouth. The latest climb had sapped her breath leaving almost none for the six blasts, and when she had finished those she felt faintness wash over her. She wanted more than anything to sit in the lee of the cairn and rest, perhaps fall asleep, but she retained enough presence of mind to know that would be the last thing she’d ever do. Think of Craig, not me, she scolded herself. She’d done what she could. Now he needed her with him.

It was dark now. A black, enveloping, soggy darkness with no moon or stars. She had the torch and with that she could make her way down the gully, slowly and with infinite caution. The passage of time didn’t matter; she had lost all sense of that. It might be teatime or it might be nearly dawn, she didn’t care. All that mattered was getting to Craig as best she could, and if that meant easing herself down the scree on her bottom, then so be it. Inch by wet, miserable inch she crept downwards until she found the fallen boulder, and then she felt her way round to obstacle to find where Craig lay.

A new panic seized her. When her fingers found him, would he be as cold as the rocks now? It didn’t matter, she wouldn’t know; her gloves were sodden and inside them her fingers had very little feeling left. When she found his soft form she had just enough energy left to find her own survival bag, wrap herself in it, and lie down on top of him. He needed the warmth. She needed to sleep. She had just enough sensibility left to find his lips with hers, and to note with relief, before sleep seized her, that they were warm.

It took the roar of the helicopter to bring her round. The world was bathed in light that soaked through closed eyelids. Not the natural, healthy, light of the sun but the clinical glare of floodlights. She was lying down, wrapped in blankets and some kind of tin foil, and somewhere she could hear the crackly voice of a radio but the words made no sense to her. Her nostrils were full of the scent of wet grass. A woman’s voice cut through the murk as clear as a laser.

“You saved his life, you know.”

Whose life? It didn’t register. At last she forced herself to open her eyes. The woman standing over her had cropped, honey-coloured hair and wore a bright ornage jumpsuit. Next to her was the familiar face of…

Oh no!

Steve. Dear, kindly, dumb, Steve, smiling down at her, stupidly.

“I lied to you,” she said.

“You nearly died,” he said.

“I’ve been lying to you for years”

“That doesn’t matter. I’ll drive you home. You need looking after. We’ll sort things out later.”

She couldn’t look at him. Her head lolled to one side. She saw the stretcher, with Craig’s foil-clad body on it, being hoisted into the helicopter and she looked after it full of longing. The silence echoed around the fells.

“I’m not coming back,” she said.

“Rachel, he could have killed you.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But he showed me life. More life than you could ever give me.”

She looked at the woman in orange. “I’m going with him,” she said, with a flick of her head towards the helicopter.

And then she was being lifted into the air and carried towards the waiting helicopter, while Steve looked on with his mouth ajar.

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Whittaker Prize 2008: Round 2 Entry

Sunday, 10 August 2008

A Vision of St Wilfred (Prompt: stained ground beside Forsbury Chapel)

Miss Maddox saw it first, just after the curate had finished saying Mass for the Feast of the Madonna of Macclesfield.

She and Miss Weatherby were hobbling down the south aisle of St Wilfred the Less, and as they squeezed between the pew ends and the scaffolding tower put up by the electricians working on the Reverend Bob’s new lighting scheme, she clutched at Miss Weatherby’s elbow and pointed with her stick at the flags by the Forsbury family chapel.

“Oh my goodness!” Miss Weatherby said. “It looks just like…”

“Shh!” Miss Maddox rebuked. “Remember where you are.” She hoped that the dim light of votive candles would conceal the burning of her cheeks.

Miss Weatherby told Mrs Dunston all about it as they queued together for their pensions in the Post Office. Mrs Dunston passed it on to her husband over freshly-backed fruit cake at tea-time. Mr Dunston carried it with him to the dominoes match at the Fox and Ferret. It came to the ears of the Reverend Bob the next morning, when he gave his talk to the Mothers Union about his vision for modernising the church and attracting fresh faces. He was, he mused, the last to know about these things, as usual. Nobody knows who told the Daily Comet.

Nobody owned up. Doreen Maddox said that she wouldn’t be in the least surprised if if wasn’t Mrs Dunston, the brazen hussy, while Peggy Dunston could be heard muttering to anybody who would listen that it was surely that infernal busybody Alice Weatherby. Miss Weatherby, for her part, was quite certain that the leak came from the Fox and Ferret, because that was the kind of low place where you would find the type most likely to read a rag like the Comet.
It was Mrs Dunston, while she was cleaning, who spotted the pert young woman with the long blonde hair and the fuchsia trouser suit checking into the Forsbury Arms. By switching off the vacuum cleaner to attend to dusting the framed hunting prints she was able to gather that the young woman’s name was Eleanor Pegg, the dark-suited, shadow-chinned man at he left shoulder was Brian something-or-other, and that the Daily Comet would be picking up her bill as arranged. That evening, the bar at the Forsbury Arms was fuller than it had been since the Spile Troshing last St Wilfred’s Day. The men had found the energy from somewhere to abandon their fireside chairs and walk the dog. The women were all filled with an irresistible urge to chaperone them. When Ellie Pegg shimmered into the bar the chatter stopped and every head turned as if some mighty hand had flicked a switch on a huge automaton. At first it seemed that Ellie would have nowhere to sit, and then twenty chairs were scraped back across the carpet as one. But Ellie didn’t stop. The throng of drinkers parted like the Red Sea for the Israelites as she strode straight for the front door, and in her wake a column formed that made a stately procession across the village green and under the lych gate to the west door of St Wilfred the Less where the Reverend Bob waited with his jaw sagging under his nose. The procession didn’t break step as it marched past him into the darkness of the church, up the south aisle to the gate of the Forsbury Chapel. Some of the more agile parishioners climbed up the electrician’s scaffolding tower; the remainder of the crowd formed themselves into the best semicircle they could muster in the cramped space. All of them made free with their opinion, for Ellie Pegg’s benefit as much as in hope of getting their pictures in the paper.

“The Lord is showing his anger at the desecration of His church,” somebody called.

“It’s them women priests that brought this down,” said somebody else.

“God is going to destroy us for our deviant ways,” another shouted.

Under the photographer’s floodlight you couldn’t see anything very much at all, really. Just a faint shadow of rusty red. But when the space was illuminated only by the flickering of candles, if you screwed your eyes up and used your imagination a bit, you could see something almost lifelike. If you tried really hard you could believe that it was moving in some kind of gesture. What exactly you could see was another matter. Some saw an arm stretched out in supplication, with fingers that wiggled and beckoned. Miss Maddox swore it was something quite different, but flushed red and stammered when invited to name it.

The picture editor at the Daily Comet had done a good job as it could with weak material. They’d held on to the story for a week for maximum impact, and broke it on the front page on the day of the critical House of Commons vote on the Public Morality Act. The Prime Minister, ravaged by plummeting poll figures and the collapse of the government’s coalition partnership, was staking his jaded reputation on a campaign for a return to basic moral principles. The Comet was throwing its crusading weight behind him.

“Have you seen this, Sir Hector?” said the Chief Whip. He’d made it his personal mission to prise the Honourable Member for Loamshire East from his armchair at the Athenaeum for the vote.

“Saw something in the Times about it, old chap. Seems there’s charabancs full of happy clappies pouring into St Wilfred’s and trampling on the family brasses. What nonsense!”

“People are saying it’s God showing his displeasure at the vicar’s modernisation scheme. Ripping out the organ and the pews and so on.”

“Rubbish! Sir Hector said. “You don’t believe that rot, do you? It’s a call to arms to the Forsbury family of course. Country’s going to the dogs. It’s up to me now, you know. I’m the last of the Forsburys.”

“It’s such a shame you couldn’t have children,” said the Chief Whip. “What was the story again? A rare tropical virus you picked up while you were with the army in Malaya? Ah yes. Well, we wouldn’t want any tales of your exotic adventures in El Salvador reaching your constituents, would we. Now, it’s time to be going. We’ve squared up Madam Speaker to make sure she catches your eye. I think you’ll enjoy the day out, don’t you?

The House was muted when Sir Hector Forsbury was called. Members hadn’t seen him in the chamber for so long they weren’t sure whether they were supposed to cheer or jeer. He creaked to his feet at the very back of the government back benches, cleared his throat, and began. “Honourable Members,” he wheezed, “will have seen in this morning’s Daily Comet…”

It had been a long time, but after forty-eight years in the House you never really forgot how to do it. Even if the young turks had their own ideas. And weren’t they getting younger and younger. Barely out of short trousers, some of them. Sir Hector was putting his final flourishes to his line about how even God, in his, Sir Hector’s, very own constituency; speaking indeed from his own family chapel,.was urging the nation to embrace the government’s moral stand. And then his voice broke off in a rattling snore before he crumpled into a heap. Convention decrees that nobody may die within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. The whips wheeled him outside to the waiting ambulance, but not before they had wheeled him past the tellers to be nodded through the Aye lobby. Only after that could he be declared dead with full propriety.

The Reverend Bob was delighted to welcome Kelly Fisher, East Loamshire’s new MP, to the opening of the St Wilfred’s Ecumenical Centre. Hers had been a dramatic rise, and she had become, to her chagrin, the pin-up girl of the Daily Comet. When she won the seat narrowly at the by-election the government’s majority disappeared completely. Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition immediately tabled, and won, a motion of no confidence and in the general election landslide that followed, Kelly Fisher secured a comfortable majority.

Meanwhile, the Reverend Bob was more than pleased with the way the designers had transformed the interior of the church so that the space could be put to much fuller use while still being sympathetic to the architecture. It had been a difficult decision to make; one he had prayed hard over, but he was convinced it was the right one.

As the new lights went on for the first time they turned the stone walls to a rich honey shade and made the gilded bosses in the ceiling twinkle like stars on a frosty night, drawing oohs of appreciation from the gathered audience. They caught something else, too, and the jag of bright light from the floor in the south aisle drew Kelly Fisher towards its source. By the entrance to the new coffee bar she picked up a shard of glass, like a very thin piece of mirror, and took it to show the Reverend Bob.

“It’s a piece of broken Thermos flask,” Reverend Bob explained. “The electrician dropped his tea when he was working on the lights.”

“So, the stain, the vision, it was tea?”

Reverend Bob nodded.

“And you knew all the time? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“We wouldn’t have had all this fun, would we?” He paused to sweep his arm around the church.
“We’d never have achieved any of this if I had, I think. And a great deal more besides.”

“You mean you set all this up?”

Reverend Bob winked. “God moves in mysterious ways,” he said.

Whittaker Prize 2008: Round 1 entry

Sunday, 10 August 2008

A brief word about the Whittaker Prize. This is a competition run by the excellent writers’ website The Write Idea. Over a period of eighteen weeks, entrants have to submit a short story (or a poem but I’m not doing the poetry section) to a strict deadline. One story a fortnight. A selection of prompts is offered at the start of each round.

Augury (Prompt: Elephants and hens)

The hens weren’t laying lately.

Looking after the poultry was what she enjoyed most about living with Mother in the remote cottage on the fen. That was what got her out of bed early, even before dark on a morning as bleak as this one had been, with a stiff wind all the way from far-off Russia rattling windows crusted with frost inside and out. Perhaps the wind had passed over the old country, the land Mother told stories about. She remembered nothing of the War. She had no clear memories of the old country, although she could conjure up an image of a craggy face, full of blackened, twisted teeth and framed by a black shawl, scrutinising her and shaking from side to side. Life, she knew from Mother’s tales, was hard in the old country, and even harder after the tanks came trampling like a herd of elephants across the fields. Here in England there were fresh eggs to look forward to at breakfast.

Except that, lately, the hens weren’t laying. Perhaps a fox was upsetting them, but she hadn’t seen foxes on the fen. A bird, then. She’d seen birds of prey out there. Marsh hawks, Mother called them. Mother had taken her out to the cabin by the mere, and she’d watched through binoculars the pair of marsh hawks gliding low over the reeds. A flash of tawny wings uplifted into a proud vee, and a cruel, hooked beak, just like the heraldic eagle on an old flag.

She hoped the hens weren’t trying to warn her of disaster. The Romans, she knew, took such omens very seriously. Was it Cicero who told the story of Claudius Pulcher, Claudius the Handsome, who ignored the sacred chickens that failed to lay, and then lost an important sea-battle? No, that wasn’t quite right. The chickens wouldn’t feed, that was it, and Claudius threw them into the sea. Ut biberent, esse nollent. If they won’t eat, let them drink. Exemplary use of the subjunctive, which is just what you expected of Cicero. She liked her Latin. The nuns insisted that she was destined for Cambridge and she would need her Latin for the entrance examinations, but she enjoyed it for its own sake. She delighted on peeling away the language like the skin of a blood orange, revealing the stories within. Although she was proud of Mother being a distinguished biologist specialising in the ecology of the fenlands, and she loved to watch her at work with the dissecting knives, whose delicate edges could take your finger off without you noticing, she had no thought of following Mother into that field. A classical historian was what she would be. A Latin scholar. She decided that a long time ago. Perhaps she was really a Roman, a throwback from ancient times. That might explain her nose, as chunky and barbed as the beaks of the marsh hawks and out of proportion to her otherwise fine features. She’d shrugged off a lot of teasing about a lot of things but her nose wouldn’t go away and the other girls made her suffer for it. Often she dreamed of whittling it away with one of Mother’s knives into something more reasonable in scale and form. Then again, perhaps she should just be proud of being a Roman. Although she didn’t think she really believed in bad omens.

Tonight’s lecture passed without disaster. When she heard that Professor Fleischer was coming from Hildesheim to give a lecture on the Carthaginian Wars at the University, she had badgered and pleaded with Mother to let her attend. Mother had been firm in her refusal, until only that very morning when she had relented and agreed to take her along. Mother didn’t explain the sudden change of mind. With Mother, sometimes you just had to accept what was. Maybe it had something to do with the telephone call. She had woken into a night as dead as treacle, and only slowly did she realise that the jangling of the school bell in her dream had morphed into the telephone ringing in Mother’s study. Footsteps padded across the landing and down the stairs. She had strained to hear what was happening, but Mother’s voice was muffled and anyway she was talking in the forbidden language.

Once, that was the only language she knew, but now Mother wouldn’t allow it. When she started school she knew no English and was tormented for it. But she was bright, a quick learner, and before long she had a firmer grasp of English than the other girls did; was racing past them. Funny that there were only ever girls. It was only in the last year that she started thinking that there might be something a bit rum about there were never being men or boys around. Sometimes she would join the girls after school, talking to the boys from the Grammar School, but it was never very long before Mother swept alongside in the Morris van to pick her up. Mother never said anything and her tight lips told her that boys weren’t approved of and were not to be discussed. Men seldom visited them in the fen. Sometimes women came round, and then they and Mother would shut themselves in the sitting room; laughing over strange music on the gramophone, smoking and drinking from the the bottles of colourless liquid that lived on the top shelf of the kitchen dresser. She’d tasted it once and she’d choked and coughed as it burned her throat. Not like the sweet warmth of the sherry she’d been handed as she entered Professor Fleischer’s reception.

She was fine in the lecture theatre. She thrilled with surprise when she realised that she knew at least as much about the subject as anybody else in the theatre did, and she’d even put her hand up to ask a question. The faces of the academics turned to he with smiles and curiosity as she breathed in, swallowed away the lump in her throat, and asked her question about the war elephants that accompanied Hannibal’s march on Rome in the Second Punic War. That was her favourite amongst the Latin stories she’d learned. Perhaps what she loved about it was the upstart, the underdog, taking the fight to all-conquering Rome and winning. But it was the elephants that engaged her most of all. The mighty armed creatures must have seemed terrifying and unstoppable as they bore down on the Roman legions. Just like the tanks in Mother’s stories. That’s what her question was about: war elephants and tanks. The professor seemed perplexed, as if he’d been bowled one of Jim Laker’s slow googlies, but recovered to give a detailed and thought-provoking.

At the reception afterwards Professor Fleischer came over to congratulate her on sucha good question. The confidence that had supported her in the lecture theatre abandoned her. The ripples in her sherry glass betrayed her unease and her eyes flickered around the room in search of somewhere to hide her flushed face, but the professor had a gift for making his students feel they had something of significance to contribute, and he charmed her into an easy conversation about her interests and his experience. He knew exactly what she meant about the elephants, he told her, because he had been a member of a Panzer crew in the War, but maybe he realised he’d said more than he ought, because he changed the subject to her interest in classics and before she could steer the conversation back to his war exploits Mother had sidled up and started to engage the Professor for herself. There was nothing left for her but to watch as Mother drew him into a strange kind of dance; she advancing into his territory, he retreating before her advance. It was, she thought, as if Mother were pushing him, slowly but inevitable, towards the corner by the drinks table.

Without the Professor for company she felt chilled and alone, surrounded by a sea of grown-ups, fizzing and bubbling in tight knots of conversation that were closed against her. Like cities under siege, she thought, but she had no desire to conquer, for welcome and reassurance. Her eyes were stinging and watery, and she began to worry at the raw place on her nose where she had burst a spot earlier. They were repelled by her nose, she decided. The burst spot must be shining out like a beacon, drawing attention to it.

That’s why she had to withdraw to the safe territory of the toilet. Just to sit and think, on her own.

Somebody opened the door and she jumped. It made a louder bang and squeak than such a small door ought to. She had been about to return to the reception, but with somebody else in here she felt palpitations of fear, like a mouse cowering in the shrubbery when a cat’s about. She heard heels clattering across the tiles. The door of the next cubicle whined open and clanged shut. She held her breath, waiting. Water rushed; the door whined open again. More water gushed from the tap in the basin. The heels clattered once more across the tiles. She breathed out again as she heard the door squeak open again, and the heels trip away down the corridor. Odd, she thought. They were tripping away from the reception. Perhaps people were leaving now. Through the opened door she sensed a change in the muffled drone of chat. Something anxious, something that made goose pimples erupt on her skin. She wanted to go home now. It was time to look for Mother.

In the reception room a crowd had gravitated around the corner by the drinks table. She pushed forward to see what was happening. The little crowd parted easily. There, on the floor, Professor Fleischer sat. He wasn’t holding court, addressing the crowd. His head was bowed, his face the colour of freshly-milled flour to match the jacket of his suit. The cloth of his trousers was slit, as neatly as if by a dissecting knife, and he seemed to have a pile of ripe blackberries in his lap.

She looked around for Mother, but she couldn’t see her. And then she looked once more at the Professor. It was odd that she hadn’t noticed earlier. She’d been enthralled by him, that must be why, so taken in by his easy charm and absorbed in his words that she’d failed to spot was was now very obvious. His nose: it was as chunky, and barbed, and hooked, as the beak of a marsh hawk. Or an imperial eagle.

Perhaps the hens had been telling her something after all.