Fliss landed the biggest surprise on Julia, after showing her the granite time-pods: Dave Eastman, her one-time boyfriend—boyfriend, that is, until Fliss split them up—is coming to lunch. And Julia was in such a flummox she scarcely grasped that Dave Eastman is also part of this time-pod project.
Four months I’d been seeing him; sixteen weeks of walking on clouds. But that stopped the day I was rushed into hospital, my appendix ruptured. For while I was in hospital Fliss had her birthday. And of course, a party.
Her parents were away, her grandfather brought in to tend house and youngster. But Grandpa was old, and deaf, and could sleep through a thunderstorm, and Fliss was inclined to take advantage. She invited a crowd from school, more my friends than hers. Being at that age, of course she invited some boys—Dave included. And unaware of her plans, Grandpa went early to bed.
Mid-summer, the evening sultry, the party began on the lawn—which kept the risk of potential damage to Mummy’s precious Spode and Meissen down to an acceptable minimum when the drink started flowing. And the drink did flow, for everyone had brought bottles, smuggled in their parents’ cars. Unfortunately, no one had thought to bring food. Fliss provided Pringles and packets of crisps. The music ripped through the still country air. The girls danced—at least at first—while the boys went straight to the kill. Soon the tentative feminine sips became sozzling gulps. No one was really used to the stuff. It didn’t take long before all were smashed. All this I learned from my friend Vonny, afterwards.
The party then moved to Plessey Hall’s basement pool. Wouldn’t it be an outrageous howl if they all got naked and dived right in! But, as Fliss admitted, it wasn’t the screaming success she had wanted. The girls—those still conscious—phoned their parents to fetch them home. Ditto the boys. Which left only her and Dave, alone. It was her birthday; she wanted some fun. But a girl doesn’t strip off and make out with her best friend’s fella. It just isn’t done.
I should have slapped her right then when she told me, but I was just so angry. I rode straight over to the Eastman Nursery and helled into Dave. He was all hands up and innocence, total denial, trying to give his side of the story. But I was in no mood to listen to him. I dumped him. Back at school, a couple of weeks later, Vonny Cavanaugh told me the truth of that night.
“No, you didn’t miss anything, it was the total pits. Talk about embarrassing. So she says, ‘Let’s all strip off and go skinny dipping.’ Okay, so it was a stifling night, a swim would have been good—had it been just us girls. I suppose the boys thought the same; at least, I noticed several looking awkward. Then one of them says he’s got some booze back at home—ours had run out. Mass exodus, I tell you. And when Rhea heaved up, right into the pool, well, that sealed it. No one was going to dive into that. Some of the girls had already gone home; the rest of us thought it time to follow.”
“But what about Dave, did he stay?”
Vonny laughed. “Are you kidding, he was the first to go. His father picked him up early, with a couple of others. It must have been about eleven at the latest. He said something about an early start in the greenhouse next morning.”
I hadn’t been listening to Dave’s pleas of innocence, too busy freaking at him, yet I do remember he’d said something of working early.
Why did I stay friends with Fliss after that? Because, I guess, she hit some kind of spot, draped around my arm so I couldn’t shake her off. “Listen, we’re family, Jules-darling. Family stick together, don’t they.”
“Why?” For all my anger, I could feel myself caving.
“Well, blood, you know, it’s thicker—”
“Why did you lie?” I snapped at her.
She shrugged, like it didn’t really matter. “I suppose I just wanted you to think I’d had a good time. Even without your company.”
“But, with all the boys there, couldn’t you have named some other?”
There was another shrug. “Guess I was jealous. He was taking you away from me.”
I couldn’t believe it. I shook my head at her. “So you caused me to break with him?”
And now he was to join us for lunch. And she calmly asks if I remember him? Fliss might be stuck in a wheelchair but, no, she hadn’t changed.
The reunion was awkward. At least, for me. He, Mr Dave Eastman, breezed in. “Hey, Julie-poo’s!” he greeted me.
I scowled in return.
“What? Oh, the name. Hey, but you always liked it.”
“I was fourteen.”
He held up his hands in mock-surrender. No apology. “Hey, Julie, sweetie, great to see you. Ah, but naffed to hear your marriage k-o’d. Told you, should have wed me.”
My jaw dropped.
“What? That is why you’re back. Isn’t it?”
“No, Dave, it’s not. I’ve not even been married for it not to work out—”
“Ouch, lovie, awkward sentence construction,” he interrupted, wagging his dark-haired head, like a shaggy-haired sheepdog.
“—I remain ever single,” I continued regardless. Which was the wrong thing to say. I didn’t remember him being like this. Was it something acquired with age, like a protruding belly?
“Well, Julie-poo’s, given enough time I’m sure you’ll find the right one. Though I can see your desperation. Biological clock and all that.” He glanced through the door that led, via two more, to the kitchen. Even so, we could hear the scrape of plates and cutlery. Fliss had refused my offer of help (a woman ‘did’ for her; she’d not much to do). “So, lost love of my life, if it’s not to recover from a blown-out marriage—and, alas, not to regain my offered affections—why are you back?”
I might have frowned in return—or squinted, or screwed up my face. It was curiosity; I definitely didn’t remember him being like this. Maybe it was an attitude developed to cover his own desperation; I’d noticed he wore no ring. I’d also noticed the very tanned skin and had assumed his father was still keeping him gainfully employed at the nursery. I’d also noticed he’d grown since he was sixteen—in height and in shoulder-breadth. To cobble a quote from Ms Austen, he looked to be a fine figure of a man.
“I’m working,” I said.
“Museum,” I said.
“What? Taking the punters’ dosh, issuing tickets?”
I rolled my eyes.
“Well what then? I mean, what jobs are there in a museum? Ah, you’re a cleaner! No, no, you body-paint the mummies.”
“Close,” I said.
“Gads, I was kidding.”
The whir of Fliss’s wheelchair put pay to more of his probing. He pronto opened the door that little bit wider to allow her and the affixed frontal trolley to enter. “Hey, Fliss, you should have said . . .”
“Well Dave-darling, now you can lay the table.” She pointed to a plastic tray of cutlery. “And best not dawdle; I have a definite dis-preference for warm salad. Garlic bread underneath,” she said as I started to transfer the plates to the table, each with its stackable plastic ring like in a canteen.
I admit to surprise at our lunch: such simple fare. Though I suppose with it being prepared by her ‘woman’ (Mrs Sharmin, I later discovered her name) . . . and it had probably been stacked in the fridge since early. Fliss had only to warm the garlic bread. But I wasn’t complaining, it was the best I’d eaten since I moved into the Lady. I’d yet to replace the defective fridge.
Lunch served, butts seated, Fliss rubbed her hands, declaring it ‘great, darlings’ that we were rubbing along so well together, no lubricant needed. “But, now, I want no talk of our project until we have eaten. Then, Dave-darling, you may show Jules our garden while you explain it all to her.”
I looked from Fliss to Dave. She had said of Dave naming the time-pods, but I’d not yet got round to the sums. Dave knew of the project, enough to explain it to me? So was Dave a part of the project? But I couldn’t see it, not Dave, Nurseryman Dave. Yet that wasn’t fair on him. He had eyes and a brain like any other, he could see and remember. Actually, if these time-pods recorded only flora and fauna then a nurseryman would probably be best qualified for it. But, while that explained him, what about me? Why had I been ‘invited to view’? And what was it that Dave needed to explain to me?
Fliss had gone over the time-pods’ construction (most of which had gone over my head). They might look solid granite, she’d said, but they were comprised, in fact, of two separate layers. The outer was thick, to take the stress (I didn’t ask what stress). The inner was thin. “Kenneth, the patient darling, took an absolute age testing and retesting to establish the exact thinness of that inner layer. Then the two are held apart by papillae. Micro-sized blips, insufficiently large to call a knob. The water then flows between the two. Capillaried, you might say.” They used two sources of water. One, from a spring which ultimately drained from the Plain. The other, from a well in their garden, fed from the Vale. The user’s air supply was pumped into the pod’s upper chamber from what looked like regular scuba-tanks.
Fliss showed me the controls. Each had two digital time displays marked up as Pod Time, and Destination Time. Both time-pods displayed 15 minutes Pod Time, but differed in Destination Time. Another display was marked Destination Date. Both ‘pods displayed 4500 years. Exact.
Though Fliss’s explanation had left me confused, I’d have been quite happy to leave it at that. I didn’t like the implication of Dave explaining ‘it all’ to me. He and I were currently earning our lunch by loading the dishwasher with the debris of meal and post-prandial coffee. The swish of wheels softly sounded on the pavement outside. I perked my head.
“The therapist,” Dave said in decibels as absent as those of the therapist’s car.
“I bet he costs a bomb.” How else to afford such a silent conveyance.
“She,” Dave said. “Every day, 2-to-4.”
“Wow, Fliss must be rolling in it.” My voice had dropped to near-inaudible, not wanting to be thought impolite in discussing our host’s financial padding.
“Massage. Electrical stimulation of muscles no longer connected. Ah yes, and Jacuzzi.”
“Well if you must be disabled, best make sure you have the money,” I said archly.
“I do declare, Julie Cannings, you have developed a sarcastic—I might even say bitter—streak.”
“Oh, you mean I’ve matured?”
“Nah, more like one scant lunch with our patroness and already you ape her. Come on, let’s get you out of here before she catches sight of the mirror. You know there’s only room in this world for one Fliss.”
He guided me towards the back door and into the garden, his hand pleasantly warm on my back.
The garden, too, was pleasantly warm. Like everything else about the old priory, it rambled along in disordered fashion. I had already seen from the windows that the garden, hemmed by the hillside, scrambled up it. That hill was the northern edge of the Plain and, though not toweringly high, it rose sharp and steep. I had no idea on that spring day how many times I would climb it—nor of the world I’d discover just beyond it.
In the next episode: the bait is taken, she’s hooked and reeled in.