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Elena Weaver awakened when the second light went on in her bed-sitting room. The first light, twelve feet away on her desk, managed only to rouse her moderately. The second light, however, positioned to shine directly in her face from an angle-lamp on the bedside table, acted as efficiently as a blast of music or a jangling alarm. When it broke into her dream–an unwelcome interloper, considering the subject matter her subconscious had been pursuing–she bolted upright in bed.
She hadn't started out the previous night in this bed or even in this room, so for a moment she blinked, perplexed, wondering when the plain red curtains had been changed for that hideous print of yellow chrysanthemums and green leaves lounging on a field of what appeared to be bracken. They were drawn across a window which was itself in the wrong place. As was the desk. In fact, there shouldn't have been a desk in here at all. Nor should it have been strewn with papers, notebooks, several open volumes, and a large word processor.
This last item, as well as the telephone beside it, brought everything sharply into focus. She was in her own room, alone. She'd come in just before two, torn off her clothes, dropped exhausted into bed, and managed about four hours' sleep. Four hours . . . Elena groaned. No wonder she'd thought she was elsewhere.
Rolling out of bed, she thrust her feet into fuzzy slippers and quickly drew on the green woollen bathrobe that lay in a heap next to her jeans on the floor. The material was old, worn down to a feathery softness. Her father had presented her with a fine silk dressing gown upon her matriculation into Cambridge a year ago–indeed, he had presented her with an entire wardrobe which she had mostly discarded–but she had left it at his house on one of her frequent weekend visits, and while she wore it in his presence to appease the anxiety with which he seemed to watch her every move, she never wore it at any other time. Certainly not at home in London with her mother, and never here in college. The old green one was better. It felt like velvet against her bare skin.
She padded across the room to her desk and pulled open the curtains. It was still dark outside, and the fog which had lain upon the city like an oppressive miasma for the past five days seemed even thicker this morning, pressing against the casement windows and streaking them with a lacework of moisture. On the wide sill stood a cage with a small bottle of water hanging on its side, an exercise wheel in its centre, and an athletic-sock-turned-nest in its far right-hand corner. Curled into this was a dollop of fur the size of a tablespoon and the colour of sherry.
Elena tapped her fingers against the icy bars of the cage. She brought her face up to it, caught the mixed smells of shredded newspaper, cedar shavings, and pungent mouse droppings, and blew her breath softly in the direction of the nest.
"Muh-owz," she said. Again, she tapped against the bars of the cage. "Muh-owz."
Within the small mound of fur, a bright brown eye opened. The mouse lifted his head. His nose tested the air.
"Tibbit." Elena smiled in delight as his whiskers twitched. "Mornun, muh-owz."
The mouse scampered from his nest and came to inspect her fingers, clearly expecting a morning treat. Elena opened the cage door and picked him up, scarcely three inches of lively curiosity in the palm of her hand. She perched him on her shoulder, where he immediately began an investigation into the possibilities presented by her hair. This was quite long and quite straight, its colour identical to the mouse's fur. These facts seemed to offer the promise of camouflage, for he snuggled happily between the collar of Elena's robe and her neck, where he anchored himself onto the material and began to wash his face.
Elena did the same, opening the cupboard that housed the basin and switching on the light above it. She went on to brush her teeth, to bind her hair back with a bit of ribboned elastic, and to rustle through her clothes cupboard for her tracksuit and a jersey. She pulled on the trousers and went next door to the gyp room.
She flipped on the light and examined the shelf above the stainless steel sink. Cocoa Puffs, Wheetabix, Corn Flakes. The sight of all of them made her stomach roll uneasily, so she opened the refrigerator, pulled out a carton of orange juice, and drank directly from it. Her mouse put an end to his morning ablutions and scuttled back onto her shoulder in anticipation. As she continued to drink, Elena rubbed her index finger on the top of his head. His tiny teeth gnawed at the edge of her fingernail. Enough of affection. He was getting impatient.
"Awright," Elena said. She rooted through the refrigerator–grimacing at the rank smell of milk gone bad–and found the jar of peanut butter. A fingertip of this was the mouse's daily treat, and he set upon it happily when she presented it to him. He was still working the residue out of his fur when Elena returned to her room and placed him on her desk. She threw off her robe, pulled on a jersey, and began to stretch.
She knew the importance of warming up before her daily run. Her father had drummed it into her head with monotonous regularity ever since she had joined the University's Hare and Hounds Club in her first term. Still, she found it horrifically boring, and the only way she managed to complete the series of stretches was to combine them with something else, such as fantasizing, making toast, gazing out the window, or reading a bit of literature she'd been avoiding for ages. This morning she combined the exercising with toast and window gazing. While the bread was browning in the toaster on her bookshelf, she worked on loosening leg and thigh muscles, her eyes on the window. Outside, the fog was creating a billowing whirlpool round the lamppost in the centre of North Court, holding out the guarantee of an unpleasant run.
Out of the corner of her eye, Elena saw the mouse scooting back and forth across the top of her desk, pausing to raise himself on hind legs and sniff the air. He was nobody's fool. Several million years of olfactory evolution told him that more food was in the offing, and he wanted his share.
She glanced at the bookshelf to see the toast had popped up. She broke off a piece for the mouse and tossed it in his cage. He scrambled immediately in that direction, his tiny ears catching the light like diaphanous wax.
"Hey," she said, catching the little animal in his progress across two volumes of poetry and three Shakespearean criticisms. "Say, g'bye, Tibbit." Fondly, she rubbed her cheek against his fur before replacing him in the cage. The piece of toast was nearly his size, but he managed to drag it industriously towards his nest. Elena smiled, tapped her fingers on the cage top, grabbed the rest of the toast, and left the room.
As the corridor's glass firedoor whooshed closed behind her, she put on the jacket of her tracksuit and pulled up its hood. She ran down her first flight of L staircase and swung round the landing by grasping the wrought iron banister and landing lightly in a crouch, taking the pressure of her weight in her legs and ankles, rather than in her knees. She took the second flight at a quicker pace, dashed across the entry, and flung open the door. The cold air hit her like water. Her muscles stiffened in reaction. She forced them to relax, running in place for a moment as she shook her arms. She breathed in deeply. The air–with the fog taking its origin in the river and the fens–tasted of humus and woodsmoke, and it covered her skin quickly with a watery down.
She jogged across the sound end of New Court, sprinting through the two passageways to Principal Court. No one was about. No lights were on in rooms. It was wonderful, exhilarating. She felt inordinately free.
And she had less than fifteen minutes to live.
Five days of fog dripped off buildings and trees, made wet lattice on windows, created pools on the pavement. Outside St. Stephen's College, a lorry's hazard lights flashed in the mist, two small orange beacons like blinking cat's eyes. In Senate House Passage, Victorian lampposts reached long fingers of yellow light through the fog, and the Gothic spires of King's College first rose against then disappeared altogether into a backdrop of gloom the colour of grey doves. Beyond that, the sky still wore the guise of a mid-November night. Full dawn was yet an hour away.
Elena pounded from Senate House Passage into King's Parade. The pressure of her feet against the pavement sent an answering quiver up the muscles and bones of her legs and into her stomach. She pressed her palms against her hips, just where his had been last night. But unlike last night, her breathing was steady, not rapid and urgent and centred single-mindedly on that frantic rise to pleasure. Still, she could almost see his head thrown back. She could almost see him concentrating on the heat, the friction, and the slick profusion of her body's desire. She could almost see his mouth form the words oh God oh God oh God oh God as his hips thrust up and his hands pulled her down harder and harder against him. And then her name on his lips and the wild beating of his heart against his chest. And his breathing, like a runner.
She liked to think of it. She'd even been dreaming of it when the light went on in her room this morning.
She powered along King's Parade towards Trumpington, weaving in and out of the patchy light. Somewhere not far away, a breakfast was cooking, for the air held the faint scent of bacon and coffee. Her throat began to close uneasily in response, and she increased her speed to escape the odour, splashing through a puddle that sent icy water seeping through her left sock.
At Mill Lane, she made the turn towards the river. The blood was beginning to pound in her veins, and in spite of the cold, she had started to perspire. A line of sweat beneath her breasts was trickling towards her waist.
Perspiration's the sign that your body is working, her father would tell her. Perspiration, naturally. He would never say sweat.
The air seemed fresher as she approached the river, dodging two dust carts that were manned by the first living creature she had seen out on the streets this morning, a workman wearing a lime green anorak. He heaved a haversack onto the pushbar of one of the carts and lifted a thermos as if to toast her as she passed.
At the end of the lane, she darted onto the pedestrian bridge that spanned the River Cam. The bricks beneath her feet were slick. She ran in place for a moment, fumbling with the wrist of her track jacket to get a look at her watch. When she realised she'd left it back in her room, she cursed softly and jogged back across the bridge to have a quick look down Laundress Lane.
Damn, damn, double damn. Where is she? Elena squinted through the fog. She blew out a quick gust of breath in irritation. This wasn't the first time she'd had to wait, and if her father had his way, it wouldn't be the last.
"I won't have you running alone, Elena. Not at that hour of the morning. Not along the river. We won't have any discussion about this. If you'd care to choose another route . ."
But she knew it wouldn't matter. Another route and he'd only come up with another objection. She should never have let him know that she was running in the first place. At the time, it had seemed an innocuous enough piece of information. I've joined Hare and Hounds, Daddy. But he managed to turn it into yet another display of his devotion to her. Just as he did when he got hold of her essays prior to supervisions. He'd read them, brow furrowed, his posture and expression both declaring: Look how concerned I am, see how much I love you, note how I treasure having you back in my life, I'll never leave you again, my darling. And then he'd critique them, guiding her through introductions and conclusions and points to be clarified, bringing her stepmother in for further assistance, sitting back in his leather chair with his eyes shining earnestly. See what a happy family we are? It made her skin crawl.
Her breath steamed the air. She'd waited more than a minute. Still no one emerged from the grey soup of Laundress Lane.
Stuff it, she thought, and ran back to the bridge. On the Mill Pool beyond her, swans and ducks etched out their shapes in the gauzy air while on the southwest bank of the pool itself a willow wept branches into the water. Elena gave one final glance over her shoulder, but no one was running to meet her, so she herself ran on.
Descending the slope of the weir, she misjudged the angle and felt the slight pull of a muscle in her leg. She winced, but kept going. Her time was shot to hell–not that she knew what her time was in the first place–but she might be able to make up a few seconds once she reached the causeway. She picked up her pace.
The pavement narrowed to a strip of tarmac with the river on its left and the wide, mist-shrouded expanse of Sheep's Green to its right. Here, the hulking silhouettes of trees rose out of the fog, and the handrails of footbridges made horizontal slashes of white where the occasional lights from across the river managed to cut through the gloom. As she ran, ducks plopped silently from the bank into the water, and Elena reached into her pocket for the last wedge of morning toast which she crumbled and tossed their way.
Her toes were driving steadily into the front of her running shoes. Her ears were starting to ache in the cold. She tightened the drawstring of her hood beneath her chin, and from her jacket pocket, she took a pair of mittens and pulled them on, blowing into her hands and pressing them against her chilled face.
Ahead, the river separated into two parts–main body and murky stream–as it flowed sluggishly round Robinson Crusoe's Island, a small mass of land thickly overgrown on its south end with trees and brush and its north end given to the repair of the colleges' sculls, canoes, rowboats, and punts. A bonfire had been lit in the area recently, for Elena could smell its remains in the air. Someone had probably camped illegally on the north section of the island during the night, leaving behind a residue of charred wood hastily extinguished by water. It smelled different from a fire that has died a natural death.
Curious, Elena looked through the trees as she dashed along the north end of the island. Canoes and punts piled one on top of another, their wood slick and glistening and dripping with the fog. But no one was there.
The path began the rise towards Fen Causeway, which marked the end of the first leg of her run. As always, she met the gradual acclivity with a fresh burst of energy, breathing steadily but feeling the building pressure in her chest. She was just beginning to adjust to the new speed when she saw them.
Two figures appeared ahead of her on the pavement, one crouched and the other stretched across the width of the path. They were shadowy and largely amorphous, and they seemed to tremble like uncertain holograms, backlit by the wavering, filtered light from the causeway about twenty yards away. Perhaps hearing Elena's approach, the crouched figure turned towards her, lifted a hand. The other didn't move.
Elena squinted through the fog. Her eyes went from one figure to the other. She saw the size. She saw the dimensions.
Townee, she thought, and rushed forward.
The crouched figure stood, backed off at Elena's approach, and seemed to disappear into the heavier mist near the footbridge that joined the path with the island. Elena stumbled to a stop and fell to her knees. She reached out, touched, and found herself frantically examining what amounted to nothing more than an old coat stuffed with rags.
In confusion, she turned, one hand on the ground, pushing herself to her feet. She drew in breath to speak.
As she did so, the heavy air splintered before her. A movement flashed on her left. The first blow fell.
It hit her squarely between the eyes. Lightning shot through her field of vision. Her body flew backwards.
The second blow crashed against her nose and cheek, cutting completely through the flesh and shattering the zygomatic bone like a piece of glass.
If there was a third blow, she did not feel it.
It was just after seven when Sarah Gordon pulled her Escort onto the wide section of pavement right next to the University Department of Engineering. In spite of the fog and the morning traffic, she'd made the drive from her home in less than five minutes, charging over Fen Causeway as if pursued by a legion of ghouls. She set the emergency brake, clambered out into the damp morning, and slammed the door.
She marched to the boot of the car where she began pulling out her equipment: a camp stool, a sketch pad, a wooden case, an easel, two canvases. When these objects lay on the ground at her feet, she stared into the boot, asking herself if she had forgotten anything. She concentrated on details–charcoal, temperas, and pencils in the case–and tried to ignore her increasing nausea and the fact that tremors weakened her legs.
She stood for a moment with her head resting against the grimy open lid of the boot and schooled herself to think only of the painting. It was something she'd contemplated, begun, developed, and completed times beyond counting ever since her childhood, so all the elements should have been old friends. The subject, the location, the light, the composition, the choice of media demanded her full concentration. She made an attempt to give it to them. The world of possibility was opening. This morning represented a sacred renaissance.
Seven weeks ago, she'd marked this day on her calendar, 13 November. She'd written do it across that small, white square of hope, and now she was here to put an end to eight months of paralysed inactivity, utilising the only means she knew to find her way back to the passion with which she'd once greeted her work. If only she could muster up the courage to overcome a minor setback.
She slammed home the boot lid and picked up her equipment. Each object found its natural position in her hands and under her arms. There wasn't even a panic-filled moment of wondering how she'd managed to carry everything in the past. And the very fact that some behaviours did seem to be automatic, like riding a bicycle, buoyed her for an instant. She walked back over Fen Causeway and descended the slope towards Robinson Crusoe's Island, telling herself that the past was dead, telling herself that she'd come here to bury it.
For too long she had stood numbly in front of an easel, incapable of thinking of the healing propensities inherent to the simple act of creating. All these months, she had created nothing except the means of her own destruction, collecting half a dozen prescriptions for pills, cleaning and oiling her old shotgun, preparing her gas oven, making a rope from her scarves and all the time believing that the artistic force within her had died. But all that was ended, as were the seven weeks of growing dread as 13 November approached.
She paused on the little bridge spanning the narrow stream that separated Robinson Crusoe's Island from the rest of Sheep's Green. Although it was daylight, the mist was heavy, and it lay against her field of vision like a bank of clouds. Through it, the rattling song of an adult male wren shot out from one of the trees above her, and the causeway traffic passed with the muted rise and fall of engines. A duck wak-wacked somewhere nearby on the river. A bicycle bell jingled from across the green.
To her left, the boat repair sheds were still closed and shuttered. Ahead of her, ten iron steps climbed up to Crusoe's Bridge and descended to Coe Fen on the east bank of the river. She saw that the bridge itself had been repainted, a fact she had not noticed before. Where once it had been green and orange and patchy with rust, now it was brown and cream, the cream a series of crisscrossing balusters that glistened luminescently through the mist. The bridge itself looked suspended over nothing. And everything round it was altered and hidden by the fog.
In spite of her determination, she sighed. It was impossible. No light, no hope, and no inspiration in this bleak, cold place. Be damned to Whistler's night studies of the Thames. To hell with what Turner could have made from this dawn. No one would ever believe she had come to paint this.
Still, this was the day she had chosen. Events had dictated that she come to this island to draw. Draw she would. She plunged across the rest of the footbridge and pushed open the creaking, wrought iron gate, determined to ignore the chill that seemed to be inching its way through every organ of her body.
Inside the gate, she felt the squish and ooze of mud sucking noisily against her plimsolls, and she shuddered. It was cold. But it was only the cold. And she picked her way into the copse created by alder, crack willow, and beech.
Condensation dripped from the trees. Drops splattered with a sound like slow-bubbling porridge onto the sorrel tarpaulin of autumn leaves. A thick, fallen branch undulated across the ground before her, and just beyond it, a small clearing beneath a poplar offered a view. Sarah made for this. She leaned her easel and canvasses against the tree, snapped open her camp stool, and propped her wooden case next to it. The sketch pad she clutched to her chest.
Paint, draw, paint, sketch. She felt her heart thud. Her fingers seemed brittle. Her very nails ached. She despised her weakness.
She forced her body onto the camp stool to face the river, and she stared at the bridge. She made an assessment of every detail, trying to see each as a line or an angle, a simple problem in composition which needed to be solved. Like a reflex response, her mind began to evaluate what her eyes took in. With their late autumn leaves tipped by beads of moisture that managed to catch and reflect what little light there was, three alder branches acted as a frame for the bridge. They formed diagonal lines that first stretched above the structure then descended in a perfect parallel to the stairs which led down to Coe Fen where through a swirling mass of fog the distant lights from Peterhouse glimmered. A duck and two swans were misty forms on the river which was itself so grey–a duplication of the air above it–that the birds floated as if suspended in space.
Quick strokes, she thought, big bold impressions, use a smudge of charcoal to suggest greater depth. She made her first pass against the sketch pad, then a second, and a third before her fingers slipped, losing their grip on the charcoal which slid across the paper and into her lap.
She stared at the mess she had made of the drawing. She ripped it from the pad and began a second time.
As she drew, she felt her bowels begin to loosen, she felt nausea begin its process of gripping her throat. "Oh please," she whispered, and glanced about, knowing she had not time to get home, knowing also that she couldn't allow herself to be sick here and now. She looked down at her sketch, saw the inadequate, pedestrian lines, and crumpled it up.
She began a third drawing, forcing all her concentration on keeping her right hand steady. Seeking to hold her panic at bay, she tried to duplicate the angle of the alder branches. She tried to copy the crisscrossing of the bridge balusters. She tried to suggest the pattern of the foliage. The charcoal snapped in two.
She pushed herself to her feet. It wasn't supposed to be like this. The creative power was supposed to take over. Time and place were supposed to disappear. The desire itself was supposed to return. But it hadn't. It was gone.
You can, she thought fiercely, you can and you will. Nothing can stop you. No one stands in your way.
She thrust the sketch pad under her arm, grabbed her camp stool, and struck out southward on the island until she came to a small spit of land. It was overgrown with nettles, but it provided a different view of the bridge. This was the spot.
The ground was loamy, matted by leaves. Trees and bushes formed a web of vegetation behind which at a distance the stone bridge of Fen Causeway rose. Sarah snapped open the camp stool here. She dropped it to the ground. She took a step back and lost her footing on what seemed to be a branch that was hidden beneath a pile of leaves. Considering the location, she should have been more than prepared, but the sensation still unnerved her.
"Damn it," she said and kicked the object to one side. The leaves fell from it. Sarah felt her stomach heave. The object wasn't a branch, but a human arm.
From the Trade Paperback edition.