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Chapter Eighteen

A summer's day in Islington, full of the mournful wail of antique-restoring machinery.

Fenchurch was unavoidably busy for the afternoon, so Arthur wandered in a blissed-out haze and looked at all the shops which, in Islington, are quite an useful bunch, as anyone who regularly needs old woodworking tools, Boer War helmets, drag, office furniture or fish will readily confirm.

The sun beat down over the roofgardens. It beat on architects and plumbers. It beat on barristers and burglars. It beat on pizzas. It beat on estate agent's particulars.

It beat on Arthur as he went into a restored furniture shop.

``It's an interesting building,'' said the proprietor, cheerfully. ``There's a cellar with a secret passage which connects with a nearby pub. It was built for the Prince Regent apparently, so he could make his escape when he needed to.''

``You mean, in case anybody might catch him buying stripped pine furniture,'' said Arthur

``No,'' said the proprietor, ``not for that reason.''

``You'll have to excuse me,'' said Arthur. ``I'm terribly happy.''

``I see.''

He wandered hazily on and found himself outside the offices of Greenpeace. he remembered the contents of his file marked ``Things to do --- urgent!'', which he hadn't opened again in the meantime. He marched in with a cheery smile and said he'd come to give them some money to help free the dolphins.

``Very funny,'' they told him, ``go away.''

This wasn't quite the response he had expected, so he tried again. This time they got quite angry with him, so he just left some money anyway and went back out into the sunshine.

Just after six he returned to Fenchurch's house in the alleyway, clutching a bottle of champagne.

``Hold this,'' she said, shoved a stout rope in his hand and disappeared inside through the large white wooden doors from which dangled a fat padlock off a black iron bar.

The house was a small converted stable in a light industrial alleyway behind the derelict Royal Agricultural Hall of Islington. As well as its large stable doors it also had a normal-looking front door of smartly glazed panelled wood with a black dolphin door knocker. The one odd thing about this door was its doorstep, which was nine feet high, since the door was set into the upper of the two floors and presumably had been originally used to haul in hay for hungry horses.

An old pulley jutted out of the brickwork above the doorway and it was over this that the rope Arthur was holding was slung. The other end of the rope held a suspended 'cello.

The door opened above his head.

``OK,'' said Fenchurch, ``pull on the rope, steady the 'cello. Pass it up to me.''

He pulled on the rope, he steadied the 'cello.

``I can't pull on the rope again,'' he said, ``without letting go of the 'cello.''

Fenchurch leant down.

``I'm steadying the 'cello,'' she said. ``You pull on the rope.''

The 'cello eased up level with the doorway, swinging slightly, and Fenchurch manoeuvred it inside.

``Come on up yourself,'' she called down.

Arthur picked up his bag of goodies and went in through the stable doors, tingling.

The bottom room, which he had seen briefly before, was pretty rough and full of junk. A large old cast-iron mangle stood there, a surprising number of kitchen sinks were piled in a corner. There was also, Arthur was momentarily alarmed to see, a pram, but it was very old and uncomplicatedly full of books.

The floor was old stained concrete, excitingly cracked. And this was the measure of Arthur's mood as he stared up the rickety wooden steps in the far corner. Even a cracked concrete floor seemed to him an almost unbearably sensual thing.

``An architect friend of mine keeps on telling me how he can do wonderful things with this place,'' said Fenchurch chattily as Arthur emerged through the floor. ``He keeps on coming round, standing in stunned amazement muttering about space and objects and events and marvellous qualities of light, then says he needs a pencil and disappears for weeks. Wonderful things have, therefore, so far failed to happen to it.''

In fact, thought Arthur as he looked about, the upper room was at least reasonably wonderful anyway. It was simply decorated, furnished with things made out of cushions and also a stereo set with speakers which would have impressed the guys who put up Stonehenge.

There were flowers which were pale and pictures which were interesting.

There was a sort of gallery structure in the roof space which held a bed and also a bathroom which, Fenchurch explained, you could actually swing a cat in. ``But,'' she added, ``only if it was a reasonably patient cat and didn't mind a few nasty cracks about the head. So. here you are.''

``Yes.''

They looked at each other for a moment.

The moment became a longer moment, and suddenly it was a very long moment, so long one could hardly tell where all the time was coming from.

For Arthur, who could usually contrive to feel self-conscious if left alone for long enough with a Swiss Cheese plant, the moment was one of sustained revelation. He felt on the sudden like a cramped and zoo-born animal who awakes one morning to find the door to his cage hanging quietly open and the savannah stretching grey and pink to the distant rising sun, while all around new sounds are waking.

He wondered what the new sounds were as he gazed at her openly wondering face and her eyes that smiled with a shared surprise.

He hadn't realized that life speaks with a voice to you, a voice that brings you answers to the questions you continually ask of it, had never consciously detected it or recognized its tones till it now said something it had never said to him before, which was ``Yes''.

Fenchurch dropped her eyes away at last, with a tiny shake of her head.

``I know,'' she said. ``I shall have to remember,'' she added, ``that you are the sort of person who cannot hold on to a simple piece of paper for two minutes without winning a raffle with it.''

She turned away.

``Let's go for a walk,'' she said quickly. ``Hyde Park. I'll change into something less suitable.''

She was dressed in a rather severe dark dress, not a particularly shapely one, and it didn't really suit her.

``I wear it specially for my 'cello teacher,'' she said. ``He's a nice boy, but I sometimes think all that bowing gets him a bit excited. I'll be down in a moment.''

She ran lightly up the steps to the gallery above, and called down, ``Put the bottle in the fridge for later.''

He noticed as he slipped the champagne bottle into the door that it had an identical twin to sit next to.

He walked over to the window and looked out. He turned and started to look at her records. From above he heard the rustle of her dress fall to the ground. He talked to himself about the sort of person he was. He told himself very firmly that for this moment at least he would keep his eyes very firmly and steadfastly locked on to the spines of her records, read the titles, nod appreciatively, count the blasted things if he had to. He would keep his head down.

This he completely, utterly and abjectly failed to do.

She was staring down at him with such intensity that she seemed hardly to notice that he was looking up at her. Then suddenly she shook her head, dropped the light sundress over herself and disappeared quickly into the bathroom.

She emerged a moment later, all smiles and with a sunhat and came tripping down the steps with extraordinary lightness. It was a strange kind of dancing motion she had. She saw that he noticed it and put her head slightly on one side.

``Like it?'' she said.

``You look gorgeous,'' he said simply, because she did.

``Hmmmm,'' she said, as if he hadn't really answered her question.

She closed the upstairs front door which had stood open all this time, and looked around the little room to see that it was all in a fit state to be left on its own for a while. Arthur's eyes followed hers around, and while he was looking in the other direction she slipped something out of a drawer and into the canvas bag she was carrying.

Arthur looked back at her.

``Ready?''

``Did you know,'' she said with a slightly puzzled smile, ``that there's something wrong with me?''

Her directness caught Arthur unprepared.

``Well,'' he said, ``I'd heard some vague sort of ...''

``I wonder how much you do know about me,'' she said. ``I you heard it from where I think you heard then that's not it. Russell just sort of makes stuff up, because he can't deal with what it really is.''

A pang of worry went through Arthur.

``Then what is it?'' he said. ``Can you tell me?''

``Don't worry,'' she said, ``it's nothing bad at all. Just unusual. Very very unusual.''

She touched his hand, and then leant forward and kissed him briefly.

``I shall be very interested to know,'' she said, ``if you manage to work out what it is this evening.''

Arthur felt that if someone tapped him at that point he would have chimed, like the deep sustained rolling chime his grey fishbowl made when he flicked it with his thumbnail.


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