Shadow (Part 2 of 3)
Mr Gray raised his umbrella slightly.
What he could see of the young woman in front of him, through the waterfall from his umbrella, indicated a small figure in a blue coat slightly too big for her, with a blue felt hat that stayed on without any hand to hold it. There was, he noticed, a small bow, of a slightly lighter blue ribbon, on the left side of the hat. Brown curls peeped from beneath the brim. She had no umbrella, and she was standing in a puddle, but still the brown curls stayed in place, just brushing her forehead, and she stood confronting the rain, rather than being bowed by it.
‘Hello?’ said Mr Gray. He realised he hadn’t answered her question. ‘I mean, yes, yes of course. How can I…?’
‘Oh thank you, thank you.’ Pink, full lips broke into a smile that shone through the rain. She took a step forward, and slid her arm through his. ‘I’m so grateful.’
Mr Gray stood, leaden footed.
‘It’s just this way,’ said the young woman, tugging him forward slightly. Her voice was cultured. Educated. ‘Just down here, and then the first on the right. Thank you so much.’
‘I,’ said Mr Gray. His feet seemed to be moving forward of their own volition. ‘I.’
‘I didn’t know what to do,’ said the young woman, maintaining the pressure on his arm. ‘And then I saw you, and you looked so kind, and I knew I’d found my knight in shining armour.’ She huddled in closer to him, under the umbrella.
‘I,’ said Mr Gray. He felt her head against his shoulder, her shoulder against his arm, her hip just below his. To his knowledge, Mr Gray had never had so much physical contact with a female person in his entire life, not even his mother.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked. ‘I must know the name of my saviour.’
‘Gray,’ he said.
‘Gray? Just Gray? Your whole name is Gray?’ He heard the smile in her voice. A smile, not a laugh.
‘Hubert. Hubert Gray.’
‘Hubert. What a lovely name. A distinguished name. Hubert Gray. That’s a barrister’s name. Or a doctor’s. Sir Hubert Gray!’ she announced to the clouds.
He tilted the umbrella, the better to cover her head, and drips ran down the back of his neck. The rain intensified, and it seemed to Mr Gray that it was forming a wall around them, around him and this creature who had appeared from the water and told him he should be a barrister. Or a doctor. He could barely see the road beside him, or the other people on the street, but he could see the side of the blue felt hat, the skirt of the blue coat, and her small white hand on his sleeve, with complete clarity.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked, and then recoiled in horror at the question. ‘I mean…I don’t mean to…I didn’t mean to be…please don’t…if you’d rather not.’
She laughed then, a clear laugh that cascaded like the gentle drops of a summer shower. There was no malice in that laugh.
‘Oh, you darling silly. Of course I don’t mind! It’s only fair. After all, I know who you are, Hubert.’ It sounded wonderful from her lips. ‘I’m Athene.’
He looked down at her. ‘I beg your pardon?’
Another gentle cascade of laughing droplets. ‘Ah, theen, ee. Like the goddess. My father’s a professor.’
‘Although sometimes, you know, I think my mother’s the cleverer one. It’s a shame we can’t have lady professors, don’t you think?’
‘Would any ladies want to be professors?’
She hugged his arm. ‘Only the intelligent ones, obviously. Here we are. This street.’
Mr Gray looked up at the sign. Fortune Street. He felt himself channelled to the right, into the unknown street, and away from the train to Stetchworth.
The rain seemed to lighten as they turned the corner. It was a street of large, slightly down at heel redbrick town houses, the sort that had once been homes of substance and would now be lodging rooms. Mr Gray could dimly see a motor car parked about fifty yards ahead. It was nearly, but not quite, dark enough for the street lamps.
‘Here,’ said Athene.
They had stopped in front of Number 8. Two creamy stone steps led up to a black door in need of a lick of paint. The dull brass number hung slightly askew.
Athene produced a Yale key from her pocket. She slid her arm from his and almost danced up the steps. The door opened.
She turned. ‘Come along then. Into the dry.’
Mr Gray looked at the house, at the open door, at the figure in the blue coat, with her brown curls and her full pink lips. He had promised his mother he would be on the five-thirty-seven train. There had been plenty of time when he left Coburg Mansions, but now he was afraid of looking rude if he consulted his pocket watch. In any case, it would be too dark to see properly.
‘What,’ he said, ‘what exactly is it you would like me to do?’
Even in the gloom, he could see her luminous brown eyes widen and fill.
‘Oh. Oh Hubert. You don’t want to help me after all.’ In the rain, drops ran down her cheeks and into the collar of the blue coat.
‘No!’ he said. ‘I mean, yes, of course I want to help you. Athene. I’m just not sure…’
‘It’s just up here, Hubert. I’ll show you. Please. My knight in shining armour.’
Mr Gray felt the weight of his damp overcoat, and his trouser legs wet against his shins. He felt the trickles of water down his neck. He noticed, fleetingly, that although he had not been holding on to his bowler hat, it had remained in place.
‘I’m not sure I’m cut out for a knight in shining armour,’ he said.
The pink lips trembled. She came back down the steps, and slid her arm through his again. ‘Hubert, I knew the moment I saw you that you were my Lancelot.’
The hallway smelled musty. A single gas lamp hissed on the wall, casting a sallow, flickering pool of light on the doormat and the first few treads of the staircase. He could see that the floor of the hallway was a pattern of black and white tiles.
Athene shut the front door behind them. ‘There. Oh, Mr Fergus won’t like that. Somebody’s left the lamp on. He’d much rather we all broke our necks in the dark.’ She took his hand. ‘It’s all right. I can find my way up these stairs with my eyes closed. Mind the linoleum. It can be a bit slippy.’
Mr Gray became aware he was still wearing his hat, but with one hand resting in Athene’s surprisingly long, firm, curved fingers, and the other clutching his dripping umbrella, there was no opportunity for niceties. He could hear the dull thud of his own shoes on the linoleum, and the light tap of Athene’s feet.
‘You live here?’
Her voice came out of the gloom. ‘Temporarily.’
‘But your father, your mother…surely they don’t approve…’
There was a slight tug on his hand. ‘Oh, Hubert. Now don’t tell me you’re going to be a bore. I would be so disappointed if my Lancelot turned out to be a bore.’
Mr Gray was silent.
‘There we are,’ said Athene. ‘First stairs done.’
There were four flights altogether. With each one Mr Gray became more aware of the darkness and the silence. All he could hear was his own breathing changing into a rasping panting as they climbed. Athene did not falter, or make a sound.
She dropped his hand, and he reached for the banister post to steady himself. His lungs were burning, and his chest felt as though it would explode. There was acid in his throat. He had genuinely failed the army and navy medicals.
She opened a door onto soft grey light filtering in through a grubby window. It was only when he saw it that he felt the grip of the darkness behind him, pulling him down the stairs, drawing him back into itself.
Part 3 is here: https://www.abctales.com/story/airyfairy/shadow-part-3-3