The toothbrush I wanted slept, along with all those other essentials I’d never thought of sampling before, in a vending machine in the Common Room.
Only, I lost the Common Room. I literally lost it. Pacing up and down the corridor where I’d last seen it proved no help, for I simply couldn’t find the door. It had to be here. I knew it to be here. Surely this was the place? Somehow, when I’d finally emerged from the bathroom, I managed to convince Tina to go back to her dad with an unconvincing promise that I’d be okay. As I watched her walk away, it struck me Henryk would now be free to emerge from keeping Ted company. The thought made me rush into the nearby corridors and stairwells, forgetting all about finding Tina’s security cameras. All I managed was to get myself totally disorientated.
Wiping away the tears on my cheek with my sleeve, I headed back to lab. At least that remained where it should be. Perhaps the smell of paint tethered it to the world, stopping it from slipping through some wormhole. Safely returned, I dropped my printing on the table. I then pulled my bag from under the desk and put Dave’s folder inside, at the same time ferreting around for some tissues. I hated to think how I looked. In Witness For The Prosecution, Marlene Dietrich refused smelling salts should her eyes swell; mine must be beyond recognition. I gave them a half-hearted dab, reasoning with myself as I did so. I’d found the Common Room by setting out from here before, and could therefore do so again. And once I’d found it, I may as well have a shower and get changed, for I couldn’t guarantee finding the place twice in one day. Plus, I just had to find it. My mouth tasted foul, and I stank.
I paused. Which way had I left the lab? Had it been through the back of the labs, trying to escape the smell? Swaying a little, I closed my eyes and leant my hand on the desk. No; I’d left the back way after talking with – what was his name? I was pathetic. His USB drive still hid in my pigeon hole. Did it? Suddenly unsure, I scampered over the collection of furniture and carpets to the outer room, as if rushing at this hour could make any difference. Putting my hand in amongst my collection of mail, I pulled out the envelope – the silhouette of the USB was visible through the paper. I sighed as I put the letter back. What a stupid game I’d invented. By enshrouding myself in conspiracy theories which didn’t exist, I’d addled my brain to the point of not even being able to find a simple room.
Tissues still in hand, I went back and, taking Dave’s folder from my bag, lifted up my computer and slid it underneath, where it lay completely invisible. I couldn’t face that folder. Not just yet. Not while I could still taste my own vomit.
Then, picking up my bag, I rushed from the room.
B Building Sixth Floor Section C, I remembered as I clambered round some boxes. A half-empty one fell on my foot as I did so. I’d passed through that area when discovering the Common Room. I think. I was pretty sure I had. After all, I passed through B Building Sixth Floor Section C just about en route to anywhere.
At this hour, B Building Sixth Floor Section C was actually empty. Without thinking or trying to remember what I’d done, I walked down the stairs and along one of the corridors. This had to be the one.
The corridor seemed familiar, but towards the end I turned and retraced my steps. A flight of stairs hid in the gloom. On the floor below I followed the same hallway, only in the opposite direction. Walking along it this way, the opening into the perpendicular corridor became obvious. In a few minutes I’d reached my goal. I’d been so close before, only I’d been prowling the wrong floor. Even in daylight the corridors all looked the same.
I swiped my card and pushed open the door. Fortunately, no bodies slept on a couch, and the television played to an absent audience. I wanted to be neither seen nor smelt. To add to my stress levels, in the bathroom the vending machine offered three types of toothbrush. I splurged on the more expensive, yet it still took all the toothpaste in the little tube to strip my mouth of its bilious coating. Feeling more human, I commandeered a shower cubicle.
Stripping off my clothes, I wished I could peel away the layers of myself as easily. As every shunned old witch in any old fairy tale foretells, a beautiful princess always lies hidden under an ugly exterior. Unfortunately, the harridans who stomped through my life never sprouted such helpful advice. To be brutally honest, the only trouble brewing in my sterile existence was my own existential angst, ridiculously trivial compared to the true troubles of the world. I never went without a meal, and clean water ran with the turn of a tap. I had a tertiary education despite being female, and hadn’t died in childbirth while still a child myself. No wonder working nights suited me. It helped me hide from that heaviness which tied me to this world, when by rights I should fly. Or at least feel ashamed for not doing so.
I took my time. Of course things would be queuing up back in the lab, waiting to be done, but they were no longer important. They never had been; their role had merely been to keep me going. Tonight I no longer needed them. Sick of this adventure, I decided on the line of passive resistance; everything could wait till morning. So what if they sacked me? Perhaps that’s what I’d been angling for all this year. Someone to make the decision for me.
The bathroom swam with steam before my body finally felt both clean and warm. I couldn’t put my old clothes back on, infested as they were with the murk of this night. Thanks to my morning appointment with the dean, however, I had clean clothes on hand. Even clean underwear; strange how such things make a difference.
After clambering into my clothes, I went to the long bank of mirrors stretching above the row of sinks. As I wiped clear a spot and considered making half an attempt with my wet hair, another peripatetic night-shifter pushed open the door and rested her bag on the bench near me.
“Oh, hi Steph,” she said, wiping the mirror in front of her. “It is Stephanie, isn’t it?” she said, half turning.
“Yes,” I answered, puzzled. I couldn’t place her at all.
“Glenda,” she answered, rummaging in her bag before pulling out a lipstick. She pursed her kips and began painting them a deep red. “I met you at your brother’s funeral,” she muttered around her pout. “But I guess you met a lot of people that day.”
“Yes,” I said, more because I felt something had to be said. I wondered why someone would bother with red lips in the middle of the night, with no one around to notice. I ran through a list of possible jobs. She didn’t work in the hospital – at least, not as a nurse. (Unless, of course, she was about to change into her uniform – she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. This seemed a strange time, though, to be starting a shift.) It was the wrong hour for a receptionist. Overnight in the library, perhaps – was it open overnight? Or in a cafeteria, maybe. Administration, supervisor, advisor; technical support, maintenance, electrician, IT. Just how many people worked here overnight, doing a range of things I’ve never dreamt of. Did their clothes give some hint? Since graduating I’d discovered there was so much more to a university that just students and teachers, just as doctors and nurses make up only a tithe of a hospital. Like a medieval monasteries, both places support a whole town of people, though most think only of the monks or the medical staff. Maybe Glenda had come in early to get some work done, like Tina. Or some study.
“I remember all the faces when my Mum died,” Glenda continued, giving her lips a final touch. “All these people came out of the woodwork that I’d never met before, haven’t seen them since. Bloody exhausting.” Putting her lipstick away, she pulled a hairbrush from her bag and set to work. “Hey, did you hear about the flashing lights?” she added.
“What lights?” My own piece of mirror had fogged up again, and I wiped it clear. “Sorry about all the steam, by the way,” I added.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Shocking ventilation in here. Anyway, apparently Francis – I don’t know if you know her, but she’s this bitch of a night supervisor – well, anyway, she’s been driving everyone crazy this week about lights flashing on and off in the ceiling. Kept calling in maintenance at all hours. I was kinda hoping she’d finally lost the plot and at any moment the guys in white suits would come to take her away.” Glenda kept tugging away at her hair as she talked. “Unfortunately, it simply turns out that some workmen were doing overnight repairs in a different section. Well,” and here she finally paused for breath, “unsurprisingly, Francis was always telling these guys off about something trivial, or what they’d done wrong, so whenever they had to go through her section they’d instead go via the ceiling space. With torches, of course. Who would’ve guessed some of the ceiling panels become transparent if the rest of the room’s pretty dark? But not all of them.”
“That’s pretty weird,” I said, making a pretend at doing something with my own hair. Reddened eyes stared back at me. Maybe some mascara might help them look less swollen.
“Unfortunately,” said Glenda as she picked up her bag, “it means the bitch isn’t mad; it actually did look like lights were flashing on and off. For her, anyway; no one else saw them. Well, I’d best get going. Break’s over. Hope the rest of your night’s okay.” She opened the door and some stale air rushed in, stirring the steam. “I’m really sorry about Dave. I didn’t know him that well, but he seemed a decent guy.”
The door swung to behind her before I could answer.
I leant my head against the mirror. The room didn’t crash around me. Twice tonight I’d talked to someone I didn’t know about Dave, and both times they’d carried on as if the world was normal. The heavens still stood above me, flashing lights and all. And Dom still hadn’t found me.
The blare of the television met me halfway down the hall, yet the Common Room remained devoid of life. I turned off the noise, and the silence cooled the ache in my head. Lowering myself onto a lounge I slowly counted my breaths. In, out, in, out.
As I sat simply trying to breathe, I thought about Dave’s boxes back in my room. About how I thought they’d been moved. Since Dave’s death I’d slowly crumbled, and the process was now nigh complete. This past year had so devoured me that after these few night shifts only a shell of exhaustion remained. I barely knew what day of the week it was: how could I sure what was in my room and in what order I’d stacked a few boxes? Worrying about my room being searched, trying to decipher a mystery from some fossils, looking for answers amongst out-of-date printouts in a forgotten folder; any moment I’d be in a lock-up ward with anti-psychotics spread liberally over my morning toast.
I reached into my bag and pulled out Ted’s drawing. The smiling face stared back at me, simple and happy. After a moment, I lay it gently to one side then opened my Filofax. Amongst the scraps of paper was the list of Dave’s stones.
I smoothed out the paper and read the names once more. Pyruvate, amber (with a trapped gnat, I added) a vial of saltpeter (so medieval, don’t you think?), an opal (Grandma’s, and wasn’t Mum furious when she gave it to Dave), nambulite, granite (think of it as an igneous rock), tigers eye, my fossil stenaster, azurite, limonite, limestone, fluorite (have you noticed its fluresence?), ulexite, (or, as I’d discovered in my reading, the TV Stone – was this at all relevant?) diaspore, glass, epidote (the crystals a pistachio-green) dolerite (Dave had collected this in Tasmania, and dated it back to the Jurassic era.)
I stared and stared, but, like the television, the blazing light of enlightenment remained distinctly switched off.
I fumbled through the other scraps of paper. One I’d unpinned from the notice board while hiding from Henryk yesterday. Only yesterday. At the time taking it had been more an attempt to look busy, but as I read it again I wasn’t too sure. It advertised a houseboat for rent. A place for one, which couldn’t be taken over by Bradley or Gillian. A place on the water, where landlocked evil spirits couldn’t find me.
Pulling my old cardigan form my bag I hugged it around me. I needed to keep my clothes clean before my morning visit with the Dean. Then, automatically, I turned to my watch, my faithful watch, to see the time. On a whim – indeed truly, as the cliché runs, without thinking – I fumbled with the band and took it off. I balanced the thing in my palm a moment then, after a glance at my bag resting by my feet, dropped the watch in amongst the other flotsam and jetsam.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time I’d taken off my watch, (whenever I had a shower or a swim, for instance) although I liked to believe it’d never left my wrist since Jason gave it to me. But I’d never taken my watch off properly, deliberately leaving it off my wrist – except once, when the gold band broke. For the four whole days it took to get fixed I felt so naked.
I was back up at home when the band snapped, staying with Mum and Dad for a weekend. That alone explains why it took so long to repair, for everything up there always takes forever. Plus, my visit coincided with Uncle Peter’s funeral. He wasn’t a true uncle, but rather an old friend of Mum and Dad’s – he and Dad had actually gone to school together. For my whole life Mum had hung on his every word of advice. Throughout the service Uncle Peter had glowered over us all from his large photo standing atop the coffin. Naturally it was the photo of Uncle Peter resplendent in his doctorate gown. Honourary doctorate, Dad always reminded us. Honourary. Like his ‘Aspro’ title – Associate Professor, purely decorative, bestowed by some company happy to tax-deduct for someone to speak at conferences. The distinction lay beyond Mum’s grasp. Dad kept reminding her it didn’t mean anything, and was usually rotated amongst the senior staff on a yearly basis. Somehow Uncle Peter kept the title for a decade.
The funeral had covered me with all that even then I was desperate to escape, and afterwards I needed to wash away the sticky pollen before it contaminated the rest of my life. When the watch chain snapped as I stripped for the shower, I simply sat on the edge of the bath, crying.
“Have you got your glasses, Derek?” I heard Mum call from the gloom of her bedroom.
The words swam through the bathroom wall and into my brain. Even sobbing in the bathroom, I could feel my parents as they moved about the house; the shuffle of Dad’s slippers on the kitchen tiles, the scrape of worn carpet as Mum paced her bedroom while divesting herself off all her funeral finery. She’d be changing into what she called her everyday clothes, there being no sense in wasting her good clothes on the like of us. My whole life Mum had slipped out of her step-ins and tight shoes and into her shapeless house wear as easily as she slipped from one self-deceit to another.
“For setting the timer, darling,” came her answer. “You are keeping an eye on the eggs?”
My Mum’s sigh moaned though the wall. “Just pop the timer on when the eggs come to a boil, dear,” came the resigned answer.
A fat drop splattered against the bathroom window, followed by another. It was, after all, the middle of winter. Rain had threatened all day, but held off as the clouds scurried back and forth across the sky. I rose from the edge of the bath and, after wiping my eyes on a towel, lifted the frosted window. It took a bit of force to open. Some tired leaves limped across the yard.
I heard Mum walk down the hall and into the kitchen. “Are the eggs boiling yet?”
“A good boil, or has it just started?”
“Well, have you set the timer for four minutes?”
“Four? I thought is was three and a half.”
“No, I’ve always cooked them for four minutes, dear. Three and a half when the water’s at a full boil. Just think, over fifty years married, and you still don’t know how long to boil an egg! How would you ever manage without me?” Her shoes snapped against the floor as she cross the kitchen to check the timer on the stove. I could almost hear her give it an extra half twist.
Happily forgotten, I sat back down on the edge of the bath, my head in my hands. The tormenting voices poked at me, desperate for a response. I felt as cold as the enamel.
“Such a lovely funeral, don’t you think darling?”
“Oh, yes,” came my Dad’s automatic answer. I doubted he was really listening. “Lovely.”
“The Catholics do such nice funerals. I’m glad we got there a little early. Hasn’t Sonya changed?”
“Sonya?” asked Derek. “Which one was...”
“Oh, you know darling, Peter’s eldest son’s second wife. She sat with her kids two rows in front of us. A little to the left. I remember how everyone commented on how beautiful she was when they first got engaged. How she should be a model.” Knowing the routine too well, I waited for the disapproving sniff. “Just another overweight hausfrau now.”
Not even bothering to hide my tears, I turned on the shower and hid under the hot water. Between visits Mum continued these performances over the phone, desperate for me to remain a backdrop to her prima donna performance. (Later, when Gillian invaded Dave’s life, Mum promoted her to understudy, dooming me forever to remain in the chorus. I had to keep reminding myself of the importance of a Greek chorus, and how they survived as the protagonists ripped each other to shreds.) Words were all my mum had left. Dad now lacked even those, and each time I saw him a little more had disappeared, corroded away by this incessant talking.
“Still, Charlotte and all her brood were well dressed, weren’t they? Must be hard on their budget. The clothes were probably from Target, but still, she managed to look lovely. And Miranda was asking after Stephanie,” Mum continued. “She didn’t recognize her – ‘I had no idea she was so blonde!’ Her very words. Of course I told her it came from a bottle.”
After a lull of inactivity, some more rain drops slit the silence as they danced across the kitchen window.
“The washing!” Even standing under the shower I heard the separate footsteps of Mum scuttling outside, Dad shuffling after her.
“Shall I put it in the drier for you, dear?” Dad sounded half-apologetic as he made the offer a few minutes later. He always got in the way around the clothesline, or anything domestic.
“In the drier? Don’t be ridiculous, it’s just underwear. They’ll dry off in no time if we just hang them in here.”
“Here, feel mine,” came Mum’s reply. I could just imagine her thrusting a tattered bra under his nose. “It’s barely wet. I don’t see why there’s any need to pop yours in the drier.”
I scrapped the last of the shampoo through my hair. Although Dad had stopped thinking about anything new decades ago, for a while the two of us could still sit quietly together, content. Then my mother’s words wormed between us, desperate to control a conversation of three dissonant tunes. Anything I said crawled back to me from the most unlikely people, analyzed and pulled apart by better people. Even Uncle Peter, now happily buried: on those rare occasions I saw him, the man had an opinion ready on all I’d done. Even on what I wore, and why I really should go back to my mother’s hairdresser when up here.
The voices kept boring through the wall. As the bathroom filled with steam, I couldn’t help but wonder how long till I was reduced to this: fussing about the washing, being gatekeeper to the drier, debating what to cook for dinner before I was even out of bed of a morning.
Carefully folding up Dave’s list, I slotted it, along with the other scraps of paper, back into my filofax. I doubted I could take much more of what this night had to offer. Wherever the Grey Nurse was tonight and whatever she was doing, she wasn’t looking out for me. What if I made my way back to the lab, and bumped into Henryk on the way? I’d been lucky enough reaching here – who knows where he now was? I must run into him sometime, but I didn’t want it to be now. Or tomorrow. Or the next night, either.
The thought slammed into consciousness like the proverbial thunderbolt: what if Henryk came in here? He seemed to be always everywhere.
With a stealth wasted for being unseen, I bravely left the cocoon of the Common Room and made my way through endless corridors and stairwells to the wrought-iron bridge. No Rebecca braved a Saxon stronghold as stealthily. In less time than I’d have thought possible, I sat bathing by moonlight, invisible to all. Fat and full, the Man In The Moon floated lopsidedly across a cloudless sky. He looked content. Maybe tomorrow night it’d rain and let Ted settle, so Tina could get some much needed sleep.
Pulling my cardigan tight, I snuggled my back against the railing, my chin on my knees, and closed my eyes. In this whole cosmos of buildings I was but a shadow.
How often had I talked with Dave at such an hour, about being tired. Of knowing exactly how sleep-deprived we both were by the dreams we no longer had. “I remember once dreaming about blonds in my bed,” Dave had once said. “Then it was blonds who were happy for me to sleep in my bed. Now I just dream of the bed.”
A year ago, or however long ago I started this odyssey, I’d enjoyed my escape into night shifts. I’d even enjoyed them as a junior doctor. Sometimes. I liked the mindlessness and the bonhomie which flows freely between anonymous people. I liked everyone’s strange ways which, like those of a werewolf, became visible only by moonshine. By day, no one sees them. Besides, I’d come here to run away from such empty days. Days of working with people who carried too much of my past in them, because of their history with Dave. Days spent wandering like Odysseus, gathering neither the glory nor the songs but instead caught in an endless wandering from school to uni to work, each completed quest delivering me to yet another challenge – or curse – to be conquered.
I reached for the predictable packet of Twisties resting in my bag. My stealthy route had led past one too many a tempting vending machine.
“And I thought only smokers came here.”
I scrambled to my feet as the door at the far end of the bridge snapped shut behind Kayl. “Oh, hello,” was the most enthusiasm I could muster.
“You don’t mind?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t strong enough to say no. Katherine Hepburn could, with her flaming hair and proud stance as Eleanor of Aquitaine. All I’d wanted was a few moments carved out for myself, so I’d have the strength to go open that folder smouldering under my computer. I simply needed to be left alone. Like Marlene Dietrich, but without the accent.
The iron footbridge shivered as Kayl jumped down the steps and clunked over towards me. “The best thing about this place,” he said as he leant on the railing beside me, “is the cigarette police still haven’t found it.”
I just stared into the darkness. Despite the peeling paint and rickety noises, I thought the bridge gorgeous. “I like out of the way places.”
“So I’ve noticed. Why is that?”
I simply shrugged my shoulders and began munching on my Twisties. A bit like Audrey Hepburn and her pastry in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, only minus the black dress and elegant hair-do. Just once I’d like to wear something elegant to work. Something lined with silk, which hid my butt while giving me a waist. Something which rustled as I walked, like the red petticoat Rhett Butler gave Mammy in Gone With The Wind.
“I’ve had an idea about a murder weapon for your who-dunnit,” I muttered around my munching.
“Yeah?” answered Kayl as he lit a cigarette.
“A nit comb.”
“You know – well you probably don’t.” I coughed and flapped at the smoke trailing around me. Why didn’t I cough when Dave smoked? Kayl made it look so easy to be nonchalant, being tall and lanky, and seemingly with no cares whatsoever. The bastard would look good in anything. Even Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had one.
“It’s a little metal comb for scraping nits out of a kid’s hair,” I continued. “Easy to hide in the palm of your hand, and it has these incredibly sharp points. Mum often drew blood on me whenever there was an outbreak at school. Anyway, in a fit of passion, the wife – or the husband or whatever – stabs the other, managing to hit the jugular vein or something equally destructive. The police have no idea what weapon they’re looking for, until someone, maybe months later going back over everything, comes across strange DNA in the pathology slides.”
“I like it,” Kayl said. “Better than the one I’m working on.”
“Well, I read about it in the paper. This guy’s cat died, and no one could work out why. Apparently, the cat used to lick the guy’s hair, and he’d started using this new hair dye which poisoned the cat.”
“Well, it’s different,” I said. “A bit difficult to make a victim lick your hair though. A hair-licking fetish, perhaps?”
“That’s the problem,” answered Kayl, blowing more smoke. “A bit too freaky. I prefer yours.”
“Thanks. I think that’s the first compliment you’ve ever given me.”
Kayl chuckled. For a moment we both stared into the darkness. I kept munching on my Twisties. “The light’s on,” said Kayl. “Seen the Grey Nurse at all?”
“No,” I said, “not a hint.” Her help tonight had proved remarkably absent. Instead I turned towards Kayl. “Tell me,” I asked, “what’s on Bradley’s clipboard? Why does he always carry it?”
“Ah,” came the deep, lazy voice. “Bradley and his clipboard. Now that would be telling.”
I’d have raised an eyebrow, only I knew the movement would be lost in the darkness. Besides, whenever I tried I simply looked silly. Instead, I kept leaning against the rail, and closed my eyes for a moment to ease the ache. “So, you have looked at it, then?”
I heard Kayl take a slow draw on his cigarette. “Aren’t you the least bit interested in what I see in his sister? Any other girl would’ve asked by now. Or guy, for that matter.”
I opened my eyes and turned to the tall lad silhouetted beside me. “No,” I said. “Honestly Kayl, I’m not in the least bit interested.”
Kayl smiled, his teeth a glint in the moonlight. “At least you’re direct,” he said. He dropped his cigarette butt to grind underfoot, only it fell through the ironwork before he had the chance. We watched the red glow disappear as it fell to the ground, far below us. Next, Kayl fished some tic tacs from his pocket and offered one to me before taking a few for himself. “Maybe you should take up smoking,” he said.
“These Twisties are toxic enough.”
“Everyone dies of something, Steph.”
“Are you always so sardonic?”
Kayl shrugged again. He was forever shrugging his shoulders, perhaps knowing how good he looked as he did it.
I tipped back my head and stared once more at the stars. What was it about this hour of the night which made time unfold its knots? A pre-dawn hour spent standing on an iron bridge in the middle of the city, yet I could feel sunshine falling across my back, hear the crashing of waves and the call of gulls, as if time had merely tied those moments together and hidden them away, to untie and give back to me now. Even the air tasted of salt.
“Okay,” said Kayl, sounding almost irritated that I wasn’t hassling him for answers, “so the front of Bradley’s clipboard has all this boring stuff, you know, things to do, forms for work, the like. But if you flip through those, now that’s when you get to the interesting part.”
“What?” For a blessed moment I’d had forgotten all about Kayl and Bradley and the boring clipboard. Forgotten that I’d actually asked.
“Right at the back there’s this really intriguing list.” Kayl paused, but still I said nothing. “A list of his sins.”
“You’re joking!” Finally I was shocked into responding.
“Seriously, though, Bradley has list of all his sins, and the dates along with the times, plus his thoughts at the time. Quite enlightening stuff.”
“And he just let you read it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course he didn’t. But he does have a habit of leaving his clipboard lying around.”
“Where you just happen to find it. Come on, Kayl, if Bradley wanted no one to read it, if he truly wanted this list of sins to be just between him and God, he wouldn’t put it on a piece on paper and tantalize everyone with it every day.”
“Don’t you want to know what his sins are?”
“No. But I’m sure he’s washed them, making sure to use fabric softener and, once they’re dry, given them a good press with the iron.”
Kayl pulled out another cigarette. As he lit it the light from the match fell on his nametag. He took a long, deep draw before speaking again. “Then you don’t want to know about yours?” he asked, blowing a stream of smoke to one side.
“My sins?” My squeak was embarrassing. “What on earth are you talking about?”
Kayl sidled up closer beside me. “I check the list occasionally, just to see what he’s been up to. It seems that, along with his own misdemeanours, he’s started keeping a list of your crimes against God. Plus a record of mine as well, and a few other people.”
“Tell me your kidding.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” Kayl said, hand to his chest. “Must admit, though, your sins are far more interesting than mine. Arrogance of thought, questioning the advice of someone more knowledgeable in theological matters...”
“So that bastard has the arrogance to think he knows what my thoughts are,” I said softly. “It’s insulting enough he thinks he understands the mind of God.” I dropped back my head and watched a grey cloud drift across a few stars. It took such an effort to hold the sky together. If I stopped, even for a moment, my whole world would shatter and the stars shower over me. “How the hell am I meant to share a place with him now?”
“You asked,” said Kayl.
I stared at the tall lad standing beside me for a moment, before turning and resting my back against the railing. “Yes,” I said finally, “yes, I did.”
Kayl tilted back his head as he blew out some more smoke. “What a glorious night,” he offered.
I looked once more at the stars sprinkled across the sky. Perhaps if I just closed my eyes...
“The ancient Greeks,” I said, knowing Kayl wouldn’t be in the least bit interested, “waxed lyrical about the music of the heavens. They layered everything around a series of concentric crystal spheres. Spheres, of course, being the perfect shape, move with perfect motion, and so send music across the heavens. Perfect music, naturally. During the Renaissance, the study of heavenly motion was so important the artisans created astrolabes out of gems and precious metals, not knowing how all the while the sun really does hum. A NASA space probe picked it up. The music of the heavens.”
“You know, Steph,” Kayl drawled as he flicked some ash from his glowing cigarette, “I have absolutely no idea what you’re babbling about.”
“No one ever does,” I answered desolately, dropping my almost empty Twistie pack into my bag.
“But that’s what I like about you,” Kayl said, dropping his cigarette end once more through the iron railing to join its companion on the ground far below. “You think on a completely different level, but it’s not at all threatening. I don’t normally like girls who are more intelligent than me. Maybe that’s why you can’t keep a boyfriend.”
“You’re really full of compliments tonight, aren’t you?”
Kayl shrugged again as he fished around in his pocket for his door pass. Even in the darkness, I couldn’t help noticing the muscles running over his lanky frame. His body was taut in the way mine was most definitely not.
He glanced at me as he pulled his card from his pocket, then paused and looked more closely. “Shit, Steph, have you been crying?”
“Oh, I, it...”
“Gees, honey, there’s nothing sexier than when a woman cries. Why didn’t you say something? I don’t even have a tissue to give you.”
Tears welled again under this unexpected concern.
“Listen,” Kayl continued in his deliberately slow way, “I’m cooking for Bradley tonight, plus Mum’s sent over one of her pies. I expect you to drag yourself away from your books or movies or whatever it is you do in your room, and join us for a little while. Especially if you tell all this stuff to Bradley. He’s so into Intelligent Design.”
“I should’ve guessed. The Blind Espresso Maker – I can just see it.” A god, I thought, who appeals to the white collar consumer and no longer preaches about camels and needles. Belief is easy when it comes with no threat. “Have you sorted things out with your, er, ex?”
“Not a problem.” He paused with his card in the door swipe. “You know,” he said slowly, almost hesitantly (if such a term could be applied to Kayl), “the thing about him is, well, I can tell him things. You know, just talk. Like the way I talk with you. Like I can’t with Louise.”
“Hold on, I’m confused here,” I said, running a hand over an aching forehead. “No, you’re confused. But, Kayl, you’re never confused. You can talk to your ex and not to your girlfriend?”
“Gosh, Steph, no wonder you’re doomed if you tell your lovers everything.” He finally swiped his card through the slot and gallantly held the door open. “Louise and I could be in for the long haul, you know,” he added.
I picked up my bag and followed Kayl’s lanky frame. Before being sucked back inside, I once more scanned the sky. I desperately wished to hear it hum.
“Well, I’m glad someone is,” I answered. I snuck another look at Kayl’s name badge as I spoke. “You meeting up with Bradley in the morning?”
“No,” answered Kayl, raising an eyebrow in the way I couldn’t.
“Oh, I see,” I said awkwardly as the door shut behind us. “It’s just... well, you’re wearing his name badge.”
“Well, will you look at that,” Kayl said, staring bemusedly at his ID badge. “Must’ve picked it up by mistake. Do you think anyone else has noticed? Want to swap? That would get the gossips going.”
Suddenly it all made sense, and I felt so stupid. I’d been in that house for how many months now, and I had no idea. With anyone else, I’d feel disgusted, not so much about the subterfuge, but about the pain that one, if not all of them, would soon be carrying – and loudly sharing. Yet as Kayl gave a languid wave and loped off down a different corridor, it just seemed so totally irrelevant. How these kids wasted their time now lay beyond my concern, or judgement. For that’s how I now saw them. Kids, living in a small world, where everything was both easy and always for show. From what I knew of Kayl and Bradley, and what I’d seen of Louise, they’d find a way, whether I worried or felt sickened or merely laughed at the folly. And if it all fell apart, my feelings would be of no concern to them. Only my unclaimed soul worried them, for theirs were saved.
Neither bravely nor reluctantly, but simply because I had no choice, I went back to the lab. For a few minutes I stood by my desk listening to the sound of some mice in their cages, before lifting up my computer and pulling out the folder, flipping it open as I did so. Inside were pages and pages of articles. I quickly scanned them, increasingly puzzled as I turned the sheets. Like the stones Dave had left me, I could see no connection between them. All were by different people, on diverse subjects. On top lay the article which begun it all: the one published by Dom which ruined my brother’s career. Yet some of the other articles were dated up to a year earlier – which, with a vague understanding of the lead time in academic printing, implied quiet a timespan. Tucked in at the very back was a copy of Dave’s original work, the work in progress which he’d faxed to his supervisor, the work Dom had stolen and published. Why on earth would Dave fax a copy of this to himself, in an out-of-the way place? I looked at the date – this fax had been a few weeks before his death.
Ignoring all the things I still had to do, I started reading. Despite all which had happened, I’d never read much of Dave’s work. Notwithstanding the technical jargon, I managed to follow most of it. I flipped back to Dom’s offering, wondering how much of it he’d actually bothered to change to claim authourship and not plagiarism.
Strangely, Dom changed a lot. Such as the entire conclusion. A conclusion not supported by the data, unless…
I pulled Ted’s painting from my bag, and pinned it on the wall beside my desk amongst the other child-like pictures. This was why Dave had sent his work to that out-of-the-way printer. The only safe place in a hurricane, as he collected more evidence.