Shadow (Part 3 of 3)
‘Well, come on then, Hubert.’
He pushed himself away from the banister post, feeling foolish. He was not normally a fanciful man. He began to suspect he was not cut out for mysterious adventures with enigmatic and intelligent ladies.
He stood by the door, his umbrella still dripping, and realised he now had a hand free to remove his hat. He could make out Athene’s dim outline on the other side of the room, and then the gas lamp on the wall flared, soon accompanied by a second on the other side of the small wooden mantel.
She turned to him, smiling.
‘Take your coat off, Hubert. There’s a hook on the back of the door. I’ll make some tea. It’s China – I hope that’s all right? I hope you don’t prefer Indian. I haven’t got any Indian.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t…Athene, what is it that you want help with?’
‘Oh goodness, Hubert, have a cup of tea first. I’ve got some biscuits somewhere.’ She crouched down beside the fireplace. The fire was nearly out. Beside the hearth was a small gas ring, and beside that, a tin kettle.
Athene gave the kettle a shake. ‘Enough in there for a pot,’ she said.
She put the kettle on the gas ring, and reached up to the box of safety matches on the mantel. The ring gave a slight bang as it lit.
Mr Gray thought about the five-thirty-seven. He looked around the room. The diaphanous light had settled into gloom, barely alleviated by the gas lamps. On one side the ceiling sloped sharply, just giving room for the small wooden table and two chairs beneath it. Two cups and saucers, one with a rosebud pattern and gold rim, one blue with a silver rim, were set out on the table. Beside the door stood a small, crammed bookcase and in front of him, facing the fire, a small settee covered in faded chintz. A curtain hung to the right of the mantel. It was pulled aside slightly, the gap just large enough to glimpse a recess containing an iron bedstead.
The sight of the bedstead unnerved him. Its intimacy seemed to reach out through the curtain, into the gloomy little room.
‘I’ve only those two cups and saucers,’ she said, waving at the table, ‘and I’m afraid they don’t match. You won’t judge me, will you, Hubert, for not having matching cups and saucers?’ She looked back over her shoulder and smiled.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Of course not. Athene.’
‘It’s so easy to judge people, don’t you think, Hubert? It’s so easy to judge even ourselves.’
‘I suppose so,’ he said.
He watched as she poured the boiling water into a small white china teapot, not unlike the one Mr Percy kept in the shop. It struck him that the kettle had taken no time whatsoever to boil. Almost as though it had already been warm when she lit the gas.
She looked around the room and frowned. ‘Now then. Where did I put those biscuits?’
‘Please,’ he said, ‘don’t bother on my account.’
‘Oh but Hubert, you must have a biscuit. It would be awfully rude of me not to give a biscuit to my knight in shining armour.’
He said desperately, ‘Athene, what is it you want me to do?’
She sat in one of the chairs by the table and said, ‘Well. What is it that you want to do, Hubert?’
Her voice seemed stronger and, strangely enough, she looked taller and more substantial now she was sitting in the chair.
He took a step back. ‘I’m sorry. Athene. I’m not cut out…I have to get my train…’
A zig-zag of lightening, barely held at bay by the glass, exploded outside the window. The room was frozen in metallic light.
‘Good God,’ whispered Mr Gray. He stared at the walls above the mantel and the table. His mouth fell open. He staggered back against the door. Thunder hurled itself against the window pane, and the frame shuddered as if in its death throes.
‘No!’ cried Mr Gray, flinging his arm across his face.
The sound died. When he peeped, tremulously, from behind his arm, the metallic light was gone. Nothing but two feeble gas lamps illuminated Athene as she sat on the chair by the table, pouring china tea into cups.
‘Here you are, Hubert. Come and get your tea.’
‘What was that?’ His voice cracked the question, even as he knew he didn’t want an answer. ‘Who are you?’ He struggled with the words. ‘What are you?’
She looked up, a puzzled expression on the pretty, pink-lipped face. ‘What do you mean, Hubert?’
He felt for the door knob. ‘I’m going to get my train.’
She sighed, and put the teapot on the table. ‘Oh, Hubert.’ She started to rise from the chair.
‘Stay away from me!’ cried Mr Gray.
‘But you came to me, Hubert. In fact, you called me.’
‘You wanted to be wanted. Needed to be needed.’
‘What was that I saw?’ he whispered.
She sat back down and smiled. ‘Well, tell me, Hubert. What did you see?’
Mr Gray closed his eyes. The room was in his mind, in the stark light where nothing could hide. ‘You. No, not you. Your shadow.’ His eyes snapped open. ‘So clear. And huge…’ his voice faded.
Athene raised the pink rosebud cup to her lips and sipped her tea. ‘And what else, Hubert? What else did you see?’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘Really, Hubert? Nothing?’
The words choked in his throat. ‘Nothing. Where my shadow should have been.’ He felt a wetness on his cheek that had nothing to do with the raindrops still caught in his hair. ‘Just darkness. No shape. Nothing.’
Athene pushed one of the cups towards him. ‘A nothing cannot cast a shadow, Hubert. There has to be something there, to make any kind of impression, even in the light, or the air.’
He shook his head. He could barely hear his own voice. ‘There was nothing.’
‘A lack of form, maybe. A lack of contour. An indecision about what shape it should be. The exact cut, perhaps. But not nothing, Hubert. Not nothing.’ She smiled. ‘Come and sit down, Hubert. Have your tea. You’ve missed your train, I’m afraid, but there’s always the six-thirty-seven. Or even the seven-thirty-seven. If you want it.’
He found himself sitting in the chair opposite her, with no clear memory of how he got there. The tea was steaming, and fragrant, and tasted nothing like the brew he made for Mr Percy.
‘You’re a kind man, Hubert. A decent man. Otherwise you would never have come to the aid of a damsel in distress. And with no ulterior motive, Hubert.’ She smiled. ‘That is rare. Believe me.’
‘That isn’t true,’ he mumbled. ‘I wanted…’
‘An adventure!’ said Athene. ‘Excitement! Something different from the five-thirty-seven to Stetchworth!’ She gave another of her tinkling laughs. ‘That isn’t an ulterior motive, Hubert. That’s living!’
‘I’m not sure,’ he said, ‘that I’m cut out for living.’ He put down the blue cup and stared at it morosely.
‘Hubert, why is it so important that you meet an intelligent lady?’
Mr Gray muttered something.
Athene leaned forward. ‘I beg your pardon, Hubert?’
‘To tell me what to do.’ He kept his eyes on the cup. ‘Tell me who to be.’
Athene sat back in the chair. ‘No lady, intelligent or otherwise, can do that for you, Hubert. In fact, no really intelligent lady will even look at you until you have some idea, yourself, of what particular shape your shadow should be. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The edges can be a little fuzzy, in need of a little trimming. No intelligent lady would mind that. As long as there is the intention of shape.’ She sighed. ‘Hubert, there are people who are content to spend their entire lives behind closed doors, who never wonder what’s on the other side, who run a mile if they see one slightly ajar. But you’re not one of those people, Hubert, because you’re here now. A door opened for you, and you stepped through it.’
Mr Gray raised his eyes to hers. ‘And now what happens?’
She smiled. ‘Well, that’s rather up to you, Hubert. Perhaps look at any open doors carefully, and decide which one you think is for you. Which one suits your shape best, at least for now, even if it isn’t a perfect fit. As long as you go through one of them, Hubert. As long as you don’t keep listening to people telling you you’re not cut out for any of them.’
Mr Gray looked round the little room. ‘Do you really live here?’
‘Oh yes. Well. Sometimes. And my father really is a professor, and my mother really is the more intelligent of the two.’
‘Who are you? Really.’
Another of those tinkling laughs. ‘I’m just me, Hubert. I’m just the girl you were prepared to miss your train for. Just the adventure you thought you might be cut out for.’
It seemed to him that the room was getting lighter, and colder. He looked across at Athene, and she seemed to be getting further away. He became aware of the water trickling down his neck, and his sopping trousers against his shins.
In Meredith Street the rain was hammering on his umbrella and people tutted as they navigated their way round him. There was still light in the overcast sky, and he knew he hadn’t missed the five-thirty-seven to Stetchworth.
He searched the street corners as he walked towards King’s Cross, but there was no sign for a Fortune Street. He reached the station with about five minutes to spare.
He could, of course, deliberately miss the train. He could get on a different train. He could approach one of the women who loitered around King’s Cross with, he suspected, a purpose that was different from Athene’s. He could run away to sea, or join the circus, or go to work in an emporium selling china tea.
Or he could catch his train, knowing that, the next time he waited in the book shop’s back room, his own shadow might be a little more distinguishable.
Mr Gray smiled, and stepped forward.