It was May in Cambridge, and hot.
“When I was a student,” Gillian said, “the cold almost killed me. Everything’s different now, even the weather.”
“The summers are hotter,” Bee said. “The winters haven’t changed.”
They were walking through Christ’s Pieces, breasting a stream of shoppers moving towards the market square. A ragged man shambled over the neat green lawns, threatening the empty air. The flow of shoppers on the pavement halted to let him pass through and then swept on. Gillian glanced about, at the women with their arms full of parcels, the babies, the bare-legged students striding energetically, the spreading trees, the bright, precise flowerbeds.
“It’s lovely to be back.”
They crossed Emmanuel Road at the pedestrian signal and walked down Orchard Street. The houses were small, the street narrow. An astonishing variety of flowers was squeezed into the minuscule gardens. A man sat in a window reading the paper, hardly three feet from Gillian. He looked the wrong scale, as if he might have to put his foot up the chimney like Alice in the White Rabbit’s house.
Bee looked at her watch. “Are you in a hurry? I want to stop at Grafton Street to pick up a testing kit before we go to the pub. It’s not far.”
“Is someone you know worried?”
“Yes, a friend’s daughter. She’s two weeks late, and she’s supposed to go to Greece on Saturday.”
It was just past noon, and a pleasant meaty fragrance wafted from the Free Press as they passed by.
‘Tm hungry,” Gillian said. “I hope we get back before whatever smells so good is all gone.”
The Cambridge Counselling Centre, where the Pregnancy Information Service usually met its customers, was in a two-storey row house in Grafton Street. The door, in brilliant contrast to the muddy brick faicade, was painted in a neo-Klimt swirl of colour and symbols. Inside, the walls were scuffed and papered with notices. A smell of coffee and a murmur of voices drifted down the narrow hallway from somewhere in the back, but no one appeared.
“The space the PIS uses is upstairs,” Bee said, and trotted up the carpeted steps. Gillian followed. At the top there were several small rooms opening off the hallway. Bee went directly to the middle one. Gillian, at her heels, saw a pile of huge square cushions embroidered in sunset hues, a sprawling potted plant, a couple of metal chairs covered in orange canvas, and a sink. Bee opened the door of a little refrigerator under the counter.
“This is where we keep the kits.” She peered into the stark white interior. “They’re not here,” she said, puzzled.
Gillian looked. The fridge was empty. “How many do you have?
Could someone else in the group have borrowed them?”
“Two. I can’t think why anyone would want two. Besides, we’re not supposed to make off with the last kit on the premises without letting people know. Maybe they’re in our cupboard.” Bee shoved one of the orange chairs away from the counter and flung open the door under the sink. “We keep the book and the rest of the supplies in here.”
Gillian looked over her shoulder. There wasn’t much on the shelf: pipettes, empty specimen jars, and a timer like a large alarm clock with a sweep second hand and a stop button on top.
“The money’s gone!” Bee said, bewildered. “And the book.” “You had cash in there?”
“Very little. Not more than seven or eight pounds. I’m going to see if anyone downstairs knows about this.”
Gillian ambled to the back and looked out of the window at an unkempt yard and then glanced curiously into the front room. There were two desks mounded with papers, a telephone, an electric heater and more orange chairs. Either orange fabric had been a bargain, or the counselling centre thought orange was good for the psyche. She went downstairs, following the sound of Bee’s voice.
In the kitchen at the back, Bee was talking to two men in their late twenties and a slightly older woman wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the yin-yang symbol.
“I’ll check with everyone in the PIS,” Bee was saying, “but I don’t think any of us has been here since last Saturday’s testing session.” “We’ve used the room, of course,” said the woman. “Everyone’s in and out. But I never noticed the kits were gone.” She folded her arms and leaned broad hips against the kitchen table. “Are you sure they haven’t been mislaid?”
One of the young men noticed Gillian hovering in the doorway. “May I help you?” He was tall and thin, with a cleft chin and bovine brown eyes fringed with thick dark lashes. ‘Tm Peter.” ‘I’m Gillian Adams. It’s all right. I’m just tagging along.” Gillian nodded at Bee.
“Oh. Well, would you like some coffee?” He was already picking a mug out of the dishrack. Gillian glanced at Bee, who nodded.
“We might as well. We’re not leaving just yet.”
“This is Josie,” Peter said, “and that’s Ben. We’ re all counsellors here. Milk?”
“Who could have stolen your kits?” Ben asked.
He looked like Friar Tuck, Gillian thought: short and chubby, with a good-natured face and a round bald spot above a fringe of brown hair.
“The money, that’s one thing,” Josie said. “Somebody wanting a pint or a packet of fags might have whipped it, especially if the cupboard was open. We’ve got all sorts of people coming in and out every day, you know that. We can’t keep an eye on all of them.” “But why take the kits?” Bee frowned. “For one thing, you have to know how to use them.”
“Is anything else missing?” Gillian asked. “Anything that belongs to the counselling centre?”
“There’s really nothing worth taking,” Josie answered drily, with a sweep of her hand at the shabby kitchen.
“It’s very odd,” said Bee, “but there must be some explanation. Perhaps someone took the kits and the book and just forgot to bring them back. I’m going upstairs to telephone the rest of the group. Is that all right?” she asked Josie.
“Go ahead. We won’t need that room for a while.”
Bee and Gillian went back upstairs, this time to the front room, where there was a telephone. Bee sat down at one of the two desks after removing a stack of envelopes from the seat of the chair. Paper was everywhere: the floor, the counters, the tops of the cupboards. An enormous notice board bristled with pins; the announcements, letters, lists and greeting cards were several layers deep and had spread beyond its borders to the walls. The wastebasket was full. On the nearest desk was a pile of letters, unopened, addressed to several different names. Gillian wondered how many people shared this office and its two desks. She wouldn’t-couldn’t-share a desk. The mere thought of it made her feel fierce and territorial, like fish that swelled and turned bright colours at the sight of an intruder.
While Bee dialled and talked, Gillian roamed about the room sipping her cooling coffee and watching her friend. Bee had gained weight this year. It suited her. She had a big body, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, and a bony face that was all hollows when she was unhappy. Now she had a round-cheeked look, like a Brueghel peasant at a feast. Her coarse dark hair was cut shorter than ever, but she was wearing eye make-up, Gillian noticed, something she wouldn’t have countenanced some years earlier, and she had on a beautiful pair of big enamelled earrings. They hadn’t yet had a chance to exchange news, but Gillian guessed that Bee was thriving.
Whenever Gillian took the train from Liverpool Street to Cambridge she remembered the occasion, now almost ten years in the past, when she had come up from London to give a lecture and had landed on Bee’s doorstep to find Bee and Toby preparing to divorce. It had been such an uncomfortable visit that Gillian hadn’t been sure the friendship would survive. That had been the year of her first sabbatical in London. Since then she’d been back many times, most often in the summers, which she glimpsed on her way to and from the reading rooms of various libraries. Today, Thursday, she was still jet-lagged from her ten-hour flight to London. She had been in England for only three days. It was a stretch, holding the two halves of her life together, and she felt less elastic than she used to. But Edward was in London, and her job was in Vancouver.
There it was, for now.
Bee was dialling again. Gillian inspected the children’s drawings tacked to the wall. She’d hardly seen Edward since she’d arrived in England; he’d been working almost round the clock on a child killer case in Lambeth, and had come back to the flat only to snatch a few hours of sleep. Now he was going to have five days off. Gillian amended her thought: now he said he would have five days off. Edward was a Detective Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard, and she had learned not to put much faith in his holiday forecasts. Bee swung round in her chair. “That’s the lot. Except Wendy, who doesn’t answer. I’ve asked Caroline, Pat, Irene and Vicky, and none of them has been in this week or borrowed the kits. I don’t expect Wendy has either. I should call the police, I suppose, though I don’t think they’ll be awfully excited. A few items of small value stolen from a place where anybody might walk in there’s not much for them to work with. I wish the thief had just taken the money.” She turned back to the telephone.
Gillian sat down in an orange chair. She needed something to read.
“I want to report a theft. My name is Bee Hamilton.”
A stack of pamphlets filled a box on the floor beside her. Whirling eyeballs between pouchy lids stared up from a pamphlet labelled INSOMNIA in thick black letters. Insomnia was an old acquaintance of hers, but perhaps there were new cures nowadays. She picked up the pamphlet and scanned it idly.
“Curing insomnia can be a simple matter of avoiding caffeine,
alcohol, heavy meals and smoking,” one paragraph began, optimistically. Right, she thought, returning it to the box. And if you’re dead, you have no trouble sleeping.
”I’ve got to get my hands on a testing kit,” Bee said. “We can’t just shut up shop on Saturday. I’d better tell Joan-the one who’s going to Greece-that I can’t help her. And I’d better try Wendy again, just in case. She’s testing with me this week.” She rang Wendy’s office number and waited. “She must be having lunch.”
“Speaking of which-”
“Oh God, our lunch.” Bee looked at her watch.
“It’s getting on for one o’clock. There won’t be anything but crumbs in another half-hour. We’d better go. We’ll be fighting our way through the hordes.”
The Free Press was hot and crowded, but they arrived before the food ran out. They ate lunch perched on the end of a hard little bench in a corner.
“Another half-pint?” Gillian asked Bee.
“Why not? My meeting’s not until three, and I can stop at the police station on the way.”
Bee was a NUTO- “a Non-University Teaching Officer,” she’d explained to Gillian when she got the job. “Sounds horrid, doesn’t it? Like ‘neuter.”‘ It meant that she taught for one of the colleges but was not hired by the university. “I’m better off than I was when I only had supervisions,” she said. ”I’ve got an office, and a bit more money and a bit more respect. And that will have to do me, because I’ll never have a position in the Department of Modern and Medireval Languages. Not in this incarnation. It’s a bleeding miracle I’ve got this job-most of the women I know who hung about Cambridge for years doing scut work finally gave up.” She laughed. “They’ re all therapists now.”
Her position had improved her outlook, Gillian thought. And no wonder. She’d earned a pittance before, supervising “silly little girls,” as she’d sourly called them.
“What a bore this is,” she said now. “I’ll be very distressed if we’ve lost our book. Not that we need it to go on testing, but it’s the only record of what the group has been doing for the past eighteen years. Never mind. Tell me about your life.”
“The main thing about my life right now is, I’m here. I’ve seen enough of the University of the Pacific North-West for a while.” “Are you in England for the whole summer?”
“Yes, except for a trip to Italy.” “Is Edward going with you?”
“Oh, I doubt it. He’s busy. He’s been on that grisly child-murder case, you must have seen it in the papers, so I practically had the flat to myself for two days. And then I had to rush off to Cambridge or miss the Guinness lectures. Basil, my old supervisor, is giving them this year. But Edward’s writing up his report now, and then he’s coming up tomorrow for a few days.”
“I suppose it’s just as well you’re staying with Murray, then. I couldn’t invite you because we’re renovating, which is really a pity. I know I won’t see so much of you this way. But if Edward’s coming it wouldn’t have worked anyhow. You know Pamela,” Bee added awkwardly.
“Yes,” said Gillian. Pamela didn’t think much of men in general or the police in particular. “The last time we argued she called the police ‘establishment muscle.’ So what’s she if not the establishment they’re supposedly protecting? She’s loaded-and what about the Stubbs she inherited, for God’s sake? She’s hardly Emma Goldman.”
Bee shrugged. “Yes, well… She sold the Stubbs, did I tell you?” “Good Lord! She must have gotten a whopping price.”
“I’ll say. The Getty bought it.”
Gillian whistled. “But how could she part with it?”
“She cares more about her elephants. She’s putting a lot of the money into a preservation scheme in Tsavo. And there’s the orphanage for elephant babies. She was in Kenya for four months this year; she just got back in March.” Bee looked round the little room, less crowded now, but still occupied by several talkative clusters of undergraduates. “The world’s such a mess. The elephants don’t stand much of a chance. And even these students-” she nodded at a jolly group-“what are their prospects?”
“Better than most people’s.”
“You said you’d seen enough of your campus for a while. Are you still head of department, or was this your final year?”
“My term’s up next year. So I have to decide whether I want to do it again.”
“Don’t I remember you swearing that you wouldn’t?”
‘I’m sure you do. But the man who would probably replace me is a dinosaur. I don’t know whether I could stand by and let it happen. On the other hand, I’ll never finish my book if I don’t get out of administration soon.”
“Don’t worry. Historians improve as they get older, like wine. They don’t peter out like mathematicians. What’s your book about? Which aspect of our departed glory?”
“Women and political patronage. Or matronage. The influence of the great political hostesses. I’ve drafted a couple of chapters, but I’m still collecting material for others-hunting through diaries and collections of letters, and so on.” Gillian paused. “You know, I’m thinking about quitting my job at UPNW.”
“What? Not just department head, but the whole thing?” “That’s right.”
‘I’m tired, Bee. And discouraged. You have no idea how awful this past year has been.”
“But it wasn’t a normal year.”
“That’s true. Murder isn’t a regular feature of campus life. But I’ve been through a wringer. I’ve had to rethink a lot of my assumptions. Politics never lets up, either. Once you start, there’s always more to do. More issues, more meetings: the problem you started with becomes a smaller and smaller piece of an endlessly unwinding string. There just aren’t enough women around; the ones who have any sort of clout end up doing too much. It’s exhausting. Besides, the department hasn’t recovered; we’re all rubbed raw.”
“You sound burnt out.”
“Maybe. I think I’m entitled to be tired. But even normal years are starting to get me down. I want to settle down and stop moving back and forth so much.”
“But what will you do if you quit?”
“I don’t know. I have to think about it.” “Would you look for a job here?”
“Maybe in London, but there aren’t many openings.” “Don’t I know it. Could you survive without one?”
“Not for long. Like a lot of academics, I groan about the obligations, but I need the university structure. It’s great to have a year off now and then for research and writing, but an endless vista of solitary study would turn me into a quiet dipsomaniac. I’d twiddle with my file cards forever, hiding the empties under the sofa and fooling myself that I was getting on with it.”
“And there’s the money.”
“There is. I certainly couldn’t face not having any.” “Would you live with Edward in London?”
“Not in that shoe box in Pimlico. I’m used to more space. Anyhow, I’m not really sure about London. Or any particular choice. The truth is, I’m a victim of modern mobility. Sometimes I envy the people who grow up in one place and stay there. They know where they are.”