Authors: Emily Winslow
“George!” I called out. He was still in there somewhere. I followed the path between the telescope huts. No scientists use them anymore; kids and amateurs look at Saturn’s rings. Dad used to let me lie underneath the big one, in the cushioned bed made for a time when human observation was necessary, before cameras and computers. Once he let me pull the rope that swivelled the big domed roof, to position the opening. I think that was one of the first things I liked after Mum died. It was surprising how lightly that big metal roof turns with just a tug. They were pets to me, those great telescopes. I used to stroke the side of the big Northumberland.
Now children jostled in lines for their turns to look at the machines and pull the ropes. Like it was some sort of zoo.
“Mattie, what are you doing?” George snapped.
I lifted my shoulders up and down. “Nothing.”
He pulled me off the path, onto the scraggly grass. “I’ve been phoning. You never answer. Are you all right?”
“I need you to check something for me. I put a note on the board last week. I need you to see if it’s still there. Or see if there’s anything for me.”
“What kind of note?”
“It isn’t any of your business. It’s written on lined paper and folded. I wrote it with a pen. I wrote the name ‘Katja’ on it.”
“All right,” he agreed. “All right, but I need you to do something for me. I need to get some things from your father’s study. I need them. I’ve been phoning you.”
“No, no, no,” I said. “The door has tape on it,” I explained.
“Tape? Like police tape?”
“Tape. I taped it.”
“You taped the door?”
I don’t like answering questions. “I taped the door. It’s my door now. I need the note.”
“We all need things, Mathilde. I’ll get you your note, if you untape that door.”
“No, no, no,” I said. Because it was the second time I said it, I said it louder.
Darth Vader interfered. He walked up and said, “Are you all right?”
George backed off. “She’s … never mind,” he said. Darth Vader stood between us until George got inside the main building.
I waited for a long time, but he didn’t come back.
I had to wash my hair.
No one told me I had to, but I knew.
My hamper bag was full, and my small cache of wearable things had dwindled to my nightgown, which is all right to wear over and over again. I squashed the bag of dirty clothes inside the suitcase. I folded the beach chair and leaned it back against the wall.
Normally I would walk the straight line down Madingley Road to
Chesterton Road, but I wanted to see if Luke would be at John’s again. I cut through Maths instead.
The Maths complex is symmetrical, six pagodas flanking the main building.
I could work here
, I thought. There are porches with tables and benches and sunlight, but no one was outside. They were hunched at computer screens or in lecture-hall chairs. Or off with clubs or societies, but I wouldn’t have to do that. No one would make me. I could just work, if that’s what I wanted to do. Skinny open staircases dangle down from bridging walkways and a sloping rooftop lawn, also empty. Up there, up on that lawn, I saw him. I thought I saw him. I had to be sure. I dropped my suitcase. I ran.
I grabbed the thin, wiry bannister and skittered up the stairs, up, all the way up to the roof. I ran so fast I had to breathe through my mouth, like a dog.
There was no one. I whirled around. No one behind me, either.
That was all right, though. That was as it should be. Maths first-years don’t use this building. They take lectures in the Arts School.
I walked up the building’s prow, between two lawns slanting down from either side of an ascending pavement. I walked up it to the tip, and leaned over the railing.
A man was right underneath me. I felt suddenly warm.
He had brown curly hair. He didn’t look quite like he had on the Bridge of Sighs. I’d been foolish to think that had been Luke, anyway. Hundreds of students are at John’s. The bars that criss-cross the arches had mitigated my view. This Luke was bigger, hunched a little to hear what some girl next to him had to say.
She had long black hair. It was longer than her T-shirt, and hung in a shiny slick down her back. He stroked it, from her neck to her waist, and left his hand there.
He looked behind himself, and ahead, over her shoulder. He didn’t look up. Thinking they were alone, he put his hands on her cheeks and kissed her.
There are moments when the grasshopper clock groans to a pause, then rushes backwards, once around the dial, then hurtles forward around again, catching up, because some minutes are longer than others. This was a long minute.
John’s playing fields and courtyards blurred as I rushed through. I rounded shops and dodged buses. I slowed only when I was past Jesus Lock. The river changes there.
The river’s shallow middle part, snaking through the colleges, is crowded with tourists and students in skinny, flat punts, which are so numerous on the water that they nudge and bump and rub. The upper river, in the south above the Mill Pond, is quiet except for a few kayakers. But this part, my part, in the north beyond Jesus Lock, is deep enough for proper narrowboats.
Narrowboats are long, floating houses, brightly coloured and ostentatiously curtained, and they wear elaborate gardens on their roofs. Most of the country is navigable by narrowboat, because of the system of locks that lifts and lowers them. They moor along both sides of the river here, completely lining the banks. In the early, early mornings, the thin sculls and long oars of college rowers practise between them.
Here, set back from the water but peeping around Queens’ College boathouse, was home.
A dead plant blocked our door. It had a florist’s envelope tied to it.
I pushed it away with my foot. I stuck my key in the door, but it stuck when I tried to turn it. I tried it the other way; the bolt clicked into place.
I sprang back. The house had been unlocked. But I hadn’t left it that way.
I made myself reach and touch the key again. I twisted it to pop the bolt and opened the door. I had to push hard to shove the accumulated mail back against the wall.
The streetlight through the front window lit a tumble of baskets in the living room. Videotapes and old issues of the
spilled out of them in a streak.
On my right, the dining-room furniture was in silhouette. The back garden security light glowed all the way through the back door and kitchen to halo the sideboard, the drawers of which jutted out like a pregnancy. In the kitchen, curtains wafted. Sharp shards glittered on the floor.
A change in air pressure slammed the door behind me. I jumped up, straight up, and bumped my head on the hall light.
I flapped my hands to get feeling back. There was no sound. No traffic outside. No squirrels on the roof. Nothing even ticked; the wall clock hadn’t been wound; it lied about it being half-two.
I charged past Dad’s office, where the tape dangled and the door gaped. I pounded up the stairs and reared back when I faced the open door of my room. The wardrobe had blurted my clothes all over the rug. My bed stuck out diagonally from against the wall.
I stumbled forward. Dad’s door hung back, and his mattress tilted off the bed frame. The file boxes he kept under his bed had been opened and the contents strewn. Some of it, I realised, was already under me. I tried to kick it back into the room but slipped on an old bank statement, waving my arms, until I landed on my bottom. From the heap of his clothes, a striped sleeve reached out to me; ties slithered over the top. Empty upended suitcases looked right back at me.
exploded nearby. Fireworks. It wasn’t bonfire night, or the May Balls, or anyone’s graduation. The neighbours had no right. But there it popped again—a fizzy tattoo. Maybe a college boathouse was celebrating. The noise battered my head. I covered my ears.
Water sloshed behind the little window, while the whole machine vibrated with a dull buzz. The first load of clothes made circles. It calmed me down. I washed all of my clothes first, then Dad’s. While they swirled in the machine, I cleaned up the kitchen.
I swept the shattered glass and blocked up the broken window. I herded and restacked rolling tins that had been pushed out of their cabinet. I sorted the corkscrew and can opener and grater and wooden spoons back into the cooking drawer, and the forks, knives, and spoons back into their correct slots in the utensil drawer. The rubbish bin hadn’t been disturbed by the intruder, but it stank. So I put the bag out.
That was the start. That was the realisation that there was work to be done besides restoring what the break-in had put wrong. I bagged rotting celery and leftover rice and grey meat from the refrigerator. As Dad’s shirts and underwear and socks came out of the dryer, I bagged them separately, for the charity shops. I carried my skirts and shirts
back upstairs, hanging or folding them, then filled my arms with Dad’s shampoo and soap and toothbrush and razor. All of that came with me downstairs into the dustbin bag with the rotten food.
I’d have to sort through the household paperwork later. I refiled it all and slid the boxes back under Dad’s bed, which I’d righted and stripped. I boxed up the work papers from Dad’s study for George, and reshelved all the books. I sorted the mail. Most of it was for Dad and would never get to him.
That was the first moment I twigged that Katja might be dead.
My shoulders waggled in a shiver. I hadn’t yet had the shower I’d come for. I made it as hot as it would go.
It was when I was under the wet rush that the notes of the doorbell pealed. When we first moved here, the doorbell that came with the house upset me. I’d cover my ears and stomp, and not even hear when it stopped. Dad let me pick out a new one. We went to the shop and I pressed the button for each one twice. This one made a sound pattern, down-up-down-up, as if it were tracing the constellation Cassiopeia.
I padded wet footprints while pulling a knot into the belt of my dressing gown. My hair was clean but dripped. I opened the door and pushed my head out into the cool evening.
“Hello?” I ventured. No one was there. There were no new parcels on the step. No coupons through the mail slot.
I retracted my head back into my shell and shut the door. The knocking felt like it came instantly. I hadn’t stepped back into the hall yet. It rattled the door.
I turned the bolt to keep it shut. Then I stood on my toes to fix my eye at the peephole.
A man looked back. I reared from the lens.
“Mathilde?” he said, muffled by the door.
He knew who I was, so I squinted, and stretched again to reach the peephole.
It was Luke.
Not the Luke from the Bridge of Sighs, and not the Luke from Maths. This Luke was a little smaller, and with shorter hair and glasses. This was the real Luke, who’d come through this door six years ago with Amy Banning. He was right here. “Mathilde?” he said again. “I’m Luke. I’m Amy’s son. I don’t know if you remember me.…”
I unbolted the door and pulled it towards me. Then his smile fell askew and he looked away.
“Oh!” I said. I pulled my dressing gown together around my neck. “I’m going to get dressed. You can come in.”