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"I don't believe in ghosts,' said Gavin Hunter, as he followed Susannah Miller up the Abbot's Library stairs.
The lights weren't working, so the cold stone staircase was in almost total darkness. As Gavin's shoulders brushed away more cobwebs, he hit his head on the ceiling yet again. 'I wouldn't have minded waiting in the office,' he muttered, rubbing this new graze.
"A few more twists and turns, and we'll be in the reading room, okay?' Susannah turned to smile at him. 'You'll be able to stand up there.'
"It's all right for you,' scowled Gavin, hitting his head once more.
It was one of those dull autumn days that never gets really light, and in the reading room it was already dusk. Susannah switched on a lamp. 'This is it,' she said, picking up the folder lying on her desk. 'Dave thinks it might be a holograph.'
"I mean the author wrote it down himself, it's not a copy.' Susannah looked up at him, her brown eyes bright. 'So try to be a little bit impressed?'
But Gavin merely shrugged. 'What does it say?'
"I'll read it to you, shall I?'
"Yeah, go on.'
"My lady was the moon, she was the sun, she held my heart in her hands. The traitor turned light into darkness, drained wine to the bitter lees. Curse his foul name!
"We buried her at daybreak, with bound and mourning brows, in a manner fitting for a queen. The thanes stood weeping, casting flowers. The common people bowed their heads.
"Twelve white oxen, crowned and reverent, walked at her side. Twelve white doves and twelve black ravens lent their lightness, took her to her rest. My heart followed them.
"Where shallI go? There is nowhere. If I travel the swan's road for ever, her equal will never stand before my sight. For my lady has taken the light from my eyes. I am blind in the world. Boar-crested though I am, let no man envy me.'
"Poor bastard,' murmured Gavin. 'He's not happy, is he?'
"No,' agreed Susannah. 'But the great thing is, although you wouldn't know it from my translation, this is a really brilliant bit of Anglo-Saxon verse.'
"If you say so. What does he mean, if he follows the swan's road for ever?'
"If he searches the whole world.'
"Boar-crested means wearing a helmet, yeah? A special helmet, maybe? He's the guy in charge?'
"It must have been quite a party.' Gavin frowned. 'But did women have that kind of send-off? I'd have thought animal sacrifice and all that sort of stuff was only for famous warriors, or kings?'
"I don't suppose they killed the oxen. They probably pulled the hearse. The doves and ravens might have been symbolically released.'
Susannah tapped her pencil on her desk. 'But it is unusual, to give this sort of funeral to a queen. She must have been someone really special. A queen in her own right, perhaps, not just the widow of a king. Or a regent marking time, until her son grew up. Gavin, I'm wondering if--'
"Hang on a second.' Susannah listened hard. 'I think there's someone coming up the stairs.'
"So what are you going to do with yourself all summer?' asked Gavin, scooping up another pile of books. 'If you're not going away?'
"You'll never get all this lot into a 2CV.' Susannah glanced up at him and shrugged. 'I'll help George with his index, I expect.'
"Christ, that sounds like fun.'
"He will be paying me.'
"I should damned well hope so. Charge him by the hour, yeah? I would!'
"I'm not his cleaning lady,' said Susannah.
"If you're in his office, the lecherous bastard will be groping you all day.'
"I can deal with George.' Susannah began to fill a box with files. 'I need to earn some money, right? A place to stay this summer. George is providing both.'
"Yeah, I suppose.' Gavin sat back on his heels. 'I was sorry to hear about your parents.'
"Thank you,' said Susannah, not wanting to hear this, or start to cry in front of him.
"They chose a very bad time.'
"I hardly think it was deliberate.'
"I guess not,' murmured Gavin.
But Susannah knew what he really thought. What everyone in the faculty thought, in fact.
Her father's building firm had gone into receivership that March. One May morning, just before Susannah sat her finals, he'd collected Mrs Miller from her hairdresser in town and taken her to lunch at the best restaurant in the district. Afterwards, the pair of them had got into their brand new but unpaid for BMW, and gone out for a drive.
Joining the M4, they'd ploughed into a tanker, which exploded. There were no survivors. A lapse of concentration on Robert Miller's part turned out to be officially to blame.
They were buried in the local churchyard. As she'd stood at their graveside, Susannah thought she'd never stop crying. But eventually there were no tears left, and in their place was frozen, helpless grief.
She went back to college and finished her degree.
When she'd met Gavin in the corridor earlier that morning, he'd looked at her as if she were a ghost. 'I thought all you guys had gone,' he'd said.
"I'm staying until Friday,' said Susannah. She didn't like Gavin Hunter. He was a lazy, rowdy slob. 'George has cleared it with the registrar. But why are you still here?'
"I sort of overslept.' Gavin rubbed his bloodshot eyes and groaned. Susannah heard his lager-bloated stomach growl in sympathy. 'I'm moving out today. I just got a bit behind, that's all.'
"Do you need some help?'
Gavin managed a slow and lazy grin. 'Yeah, I'd appreciate that,' he said.
So they started packing.
"What about you?' Susannah asked him, as she folded jumpers and stuffed them into bulging plastic sacks. 'Where will you be going for the summer?'
"Turkey, with Neil and Magnus.' Gavin suddenly looked inspired. 'Hey, why don't you come with us?'
Susannah stared at him. In all their time as students reading English at Queen Alexandra College, she and Gavin had never been friends. She'd hardly ever spoken to him, in fact. 'I can't afford it,' she informed him. 'In any case, I don't much like abroad.'
"Why ever not?'
"All the horrible insects, for a start. To a mosquito, I'm a walking buffet.' Susannah shoved more clothes into a bag. 'Most foreigners are mean to animals, too. The sight of some poor donkey being beaten, or a waiter kicking a starving cat--it tends to spoil my day.'
"So it'll be George's index?'
"Yes.' Susannah picked up two black sacks. 'Where did you leave your car?'
"In Foley Street--I think.'
"You can't remember?'
"Neil was driving.'
"Come on, Gavin.' Susannah helped him stagger to his feet. 'Let's go and look for it.'
Eventually, they found the 2CV, unlocked and parked half on, half off the pavement. They piled the stuff inside, and Gavin finally found his keys.
"Have a good time in Turkey,' said Susannah. 'Send me a postcard, eh?'
"Okay, will do.' Dozily, Gavin grinned. 'Thanks for your help this morning. Good luck with the index, and watch out for wandering hands.'
Susannah left the hall of residence and moved into Professor Fenton's house in Russell Square. She got on with the index of his book on Anglo-Saxon runes.
She found the letter addressed to her in a bundle of George's post, one morning in July. She read it quickly, then tossed it in the bin. What did it matter now? She switched on the Apple Mac and started work.
"Well?' said George, when he walked into the room an hour later. 'May I suppose you're pleased with your result?'
"Of course I'm pleased.' Susannah forced a smile. 'But I--'
"But you weren't expecting what you actually achieved.' George rubbed his hands in glee. 'The best first this decade!' he beamed. 'You saw off that smug crowd from QMC--and all those tedious plodders at UCL. That bugger Roper's livid.'
"I'm sure Professor Roper is nothing of the sort.'
"He's raving, dear Susannah. Positively foaming at the mouth. Men in white coats are with him as we speak. What did your family say?'
Susannah shrugged. 'You know my parents died. I don't have any brothers or sisters, so--'
"Oh, my God!' George clapped a hand to his freckled forehead. 'My poor child, do forgive me! It had completely slipped my mind.'
"It's okay,' said Susannah.
"Now, I hate myself.' George's shoulders slumped. But then he grinned again. 'Well, you ought to celebrate. I tell you what, I'll take you out to dinner.'
"No, really,' Susannah murmured, 'there's no need.'
"There's every need! I'll book a table at an Italian place, for eight this evening. Must dash--I have a meeting at ten.'
Susannah didn't want to go out with George, who was as famous for groping students as for his seminal work on Saxon runes. She wore her dowdiest clothes--a skirt that hung on her like a sack, and a loose, grey jumper that hid her shape completely.
"Why have you got yourself up like the plainest of the Brontë sisters?' George scowled into his gin. 'All you need now is Emily's dandruff, Anne's buck teeth and Charlotte's bloody squint.'
"Did Charlotte have a squint?' Susannah picked up the menu.
"Yes, she did--and styes, her eyes were red, inflamed and tiny.'
"I'd like ravioli,' said Susannah, 'and a salad. No, I don't want wine tonight, I've got an awful headache, it must be the weather. Some mineral water would be fine. Professor Fenton, please take your hand away.'
George sulked all through dinner. But later, over coffee and amaretti, he relaxed. 'How's the index going?' he asked.
"It's almost finished,' said Susannah. 'The Mac did all the work, though. I just checked it.'
"What will you do next?'
"I'd like to do research, but is there any money at QAC? I'd need a scholarship.'
"A couple of years ago, it wouldn't have been a problem.' The professor sighed. 'But what with all the recent cuts--these days, chaps who've been in the department for years and years are crapping themselves whenever the post comes round. What do you want to study?'
"England before the Conquest,' said Susannah. 'Anglo-Saxon poetry and the European tradition.'
"God.' George shook his head. 'I'm sorry, sweetheart, but the poor old Saxons just aren't sexy nowadays. Imagine yourself before the University Grants Committee. They'll ask you why the taxpayer should finance your research into this Anglo-Saxon rubbish. What's it got to do with the twentieth century, they'll say. Do you know there've been massive spending cuts in education? These days, all research must pay its way.'
"Okay,' said Susannah. 'I'll join the Civil Service. In the meantime, they want bar staff at the Rose in Curzon Street.'
"Or you could spend the summer in a pleasant cathedral city, doing a little bibliography.' George grinned broadly. 'All your expenses would be paid.'
"But what would I have to do?'
"Well, a friend of mine is the new librarian at Marbury Minster. You've heard of the Abbot's Library? It holds some of the rarest books in England. As well as a big collection of manuscripts and maps.'
"Yes, of course. But what--'
"The library's just acquired a mass of new material. Mediaeval property charters, wills and family lawsuits, land registrations--all that sort of thing. Some of these are written in Latin, but there's lots of stuff in Anglo-Saxon. It's Marbury's millennium in 1988. The Dean's commissioning a history of the minster, to sell in the cathedral and the local bookshops.'
George segued into job description mode. 'The book will tell the minster's story, from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day. My friend David is the editor. But he's no Anglo-Saxon scholar, so--'
George looked at Susannah. 'I've been a bit presumptuous here,' he said. 'I promised David I could send him someone to make a translation of the Saxon texts.'
"But I should be trying to find a proper job.'
"You could make a proper job of this. You did the bibliography option. So you've worked on early printed books. You've handled manuscripts. You can read a page of English Insular. You're fluent in West Saxon. My dear, I think you'd be ideal.'
"Of course!' George grinned again. 'May I tell Dave you'll be in touch?'
"Perhaps.' Susannah smiled at George. 'I've never been to Marbury,' she said.