Norbert Nobson was standing outside South Kensington Tube Station, at Sylvie Stolt’s suggestion. They’d met online of course, as professionals of their age increasingly did those days. For the most part, their friends had paired up and they no longer had comrades with which to explore London’s grimy nightlife and its inhabitants.
Norbert swung round, plucked from daydreaming about creating his own family of miniature Norberts and of weekends filled with trips to garden centres instead of restaurants and bars on fruitless dates. The suggestion of the Science Museum had pleased him, though. He was also pleased when he finally spotted Sylvie, whose crown only came up to his shoulder. He dipped his head down low to peck her on a porcelain cheek.
“Lovely to meet you!” he said. They exchanged the usual pleasantries about the weather and inquiring into one another’s health before deciding to make a move and beat the tourists.
Sylvie spoke a little about her work. Norbert already knew from their correspondence she worked as a researcher in the Met Office, so the venue she’d chosen was unsurprising. It was enchanting to hear her sweet, sing-song voice speaking with enthusiasm about her research.
The hands-on nature of the displays meant their date was less stiff that those Norbert had been accustomed to. It meant he didn’t have to speak much about his admin role with the police, a role which he was good at, and paid for his necessities, but set neither his soul nor female hearts on fire.
He watched her tiny hands press glowing buttons and smiles part lips she had painted a (surprisingly alluring) shade of eggplant. They wandered on and found a corridor they weren’t sure they were meant to enter at first, so poorly was it lit. But there was a glass case at the end, containing busts of Gabriel Farenheit and Anders Celsius. “How charming!” Sylvie remarked.
There didn’t seem to be much point to them, no disrespect intended to our physicist forefathers. Busts and plaques with names on was all. Funny little pockets in the front of the stands, which looked like coin dispensers. Perhaps the curator had thought the surnames contained all the information the tourists and schoolchildren with their crumpled question sheets and jutting rucksacks needed.
Sylvie began walking away from the exhibit to go to the Cosmos room, when Norbert noticed his shoelace was untied. He bent to fix it and cursed his inescapable scruffiness.
And, catching Norbert quite literally off his balance, this is when Anders Celsius piped up.
“Oi,” said a voice. A rather muffled sounding voice.
Norbert stood up and cast his doleful grey eyes around the room.
“No, right next to you mate.”
Norbert stared open-mouthed at the bust.
“Yeah that’s right. Come closer. I need to tell you something.” It seemed to say that without moving its lips.
Norbert checked the corners of the room for security cameras, and the corners of his mind for a shred of sanity. Strangely, there were no cameras looking back at him, but didn’t that Celsius chap just blink? Norbert slowly edged closer to the case.
“Put your ear next to the glass. I’ve got some top secret info to tell ya and I don’t want anybody else ear-wigging.” Norbert did as he was told, as was usually the way.
“Tell Sylvie ‘heat is neat, meta is better.’ That’s all. You can go now. And chop chop, I think more nosy parkers are coming through.”
Norbert flustered and blustered. “Heat what? Met a who? And how the devil do you know Sylvie?”
A small puff of wind. The statue sighing. “Look mate, I’ve no time to go into it now. Tell you what, I’ll just print it off. Dunno why I didn’t think of that in the first place.”
There was a whirring noise like the kind you get at cash points, then a small card with an elegantly printed motto popped out of the gap under the glass.
“Pretty neat, huh?” said Celsius. “They’ve just installed that. I reckon they want me to be some sort of fortune teller for the kiddiewinks.” He chuckled, or at least that’s what Norbert assumed the muted sound was.
Norbert retrieved his spectacles from his jacket pocket and read ‘heat is neat, meta is better’. What on earth…? Would Sylvie know what it meant? How would he go about telling her about the sudden birth of this business card in his fingers when she inevitably asked how he came by it? He put the spectacles and card away and strode out of the room to catch up with his date.
After pacing through a few rooms, he found her staring through a telescope. He paused in his walk to consider how beatific she looked in the rare London sunshine streaming in through a nearby window, and timidly adjusted his shirt cuffs.
“I wondered where you got to!” Sylvie smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners most becomingly, thought Norbert.
“I was giving out directions to a tourist in very bad French. My apologies.”
“No worries. Shall we go and investigate the canteen then?”
“My stomach agrees.”
Norbert tried to pay attention to Sylvie’s chatter over lunch about her family, past dates, and the research paper she was working on, but kept picturing the small beige rectangle in his pocket, and playing out scenarios in which he presented it. None of which worked out to his advantage. Sylvie seemed to sense his withdrawal, and after a few attempts to pluck him out of it with overenthusiasm about the attractions they continued to look round after lunch, left him to it.
The gift shop held nothing to eithers pleasing, and they parted ways after a subdued stroll back to the tube. Norbert once again brushed her cheek with his, and impulsively drew out the card to place in her pocket. Only the action did not go as smoothly as he’d envisaged, and he ended up fumbling it.
“Hey, get your mitts off me!” A few passers-by looked round, others pretending not to have heard.
“Norbert, I’ve had a lovely time with you but let’s take things slowly, yes?”
Instead of protesting her assumption of his character, he mumbled awkward things about arranging to meet again, and before he departed pointed at the pavement.
“I think you dropped that.”
Confused, she bent to pick it up, and when she stood up again it was to see the sloped back of Norbert scurrying to catch the tube.
Their correspondence trickled away after that odd parting, with Sylvie repeatedly blaming work. Some breakthrough she’d made. Her emails lacked the eloquence instilled in them previously, obviously rushed off so she could attend to other matters. Other men, corrected that mean little voice in Norbert’s mind. The same voice that taunted him about his paunch and encouraged him to spend ages looking at boxes of hair dye in the supermarket.
Sylvie hadn’t been fibbing about the workload. The message on the card she’d picked up from the pavement that day, had meaning only for her. It had provided her with a vital clue on the road to completion of the sideline she’d been working on. The ‘pottering about’ she told colleagues she was doing in the office after hours, was actually much harder work than her paid job. Potentially far more lucrative, if not in money terms, than at least for what Sylvie had in mind.
Funnily enough, Norbert bore witness to the results of Syvlie’s pottering. That was because the whole world was tuned in to the events unfolding on their television screens. A rain of scalding fire that had obliterated a small town in the Philippines. A cluster of tornados ripping up a town in Scotland. A tsunami wreaking havoc all over the south coast of Spain.
Norbert never found out what linked them all, but had a savvy investigator been delving into one victim out of a hundred thousand, and plucked another certain victim from another shocking event, and a third from the last, if the odds had been stacked up in that unlikely manner, he would have been led to a Sylvie Stolt. A woman thrice spurned by gentlemen she had met online – the very same website on which she met our hapless hero – who had fled to Gingoog, Inverness, and Marbella. In part to escape her ravenous clutches, her thirst for revenge.
Norbert looked up from his washing up soundtracked by reporters on the radio expressing their mystification about the weird worldwide weather. He’d been distracted by hail plinking on the window. Hail? In June? Norbert looked anxiously at the stormy clouds which had suddenly darkened the day. Peeling off his marigolds, he went over to his laptop in the living room, and double-checked the weather forecast. No, there’d been no mention of this. How random. The roof was beginning to rattle with the force of the hail which had startlingly and speedily picked up momentum.
Then he gasped as he heard a smash upstairs. A wind had picked up and was blowing the hailstones (now the size of cricket balls) into the side of his house, smashing a window. He clambered up the stairs to inspect the damage and was rewarded with a sideways rain of compacted ice that left him bruised for days.
Although not the way he’d describe it to bored, unbelieving colleagues for weeks to come, he’d gotten off lightly. For Sylvie hadn’t meant to kill; merely to issue a warning.