They’re late as usual; Colin simply refuses to go above sixty five on the motorway, infuriatingly meeting her impatience with proverbs. Better late than never. More haste less speed. When they finally turned off the motorway and Colin murmurs “slow and steady wins the race,” Rachel sighs in resignation, biting deeply into her egg sandwich to stop herself arguing. What does it matter anyway? They’ll end up rushing whatever time they arrive, while the other dealers sit chatting calmly before the doors open.
Quarter to eleven – park on double yellow lines, unpack the stands, lug three boxes out of the van and haul them up the four steps into the back entrance of the hall. In the ballroom stand after stand of second-hand and antiquarian books are already smugly in place leaving only one remaining five foot gap. Forty five minutes left to set up.
“Stay with the boxes, Rachel. I’ll bring the rest” Colin announces calmly. Everyone is too preoccupied to notice their existence, the other dealers tweaking their books into place, bullying them into sections: Topography, Philosophy, Modern First Editions, Hunting…. The dealer of the stand adjacent to theirs looks like a hawk, flushed and feathery, beaky nose interrogating his books. He pounces on unsuspecting volumes, contorts the neck of his display light in a sudden violent swoop, pecks irritably at his prints. Then abruptly his light goes out.
“Now now – I say. My light! What’s happened?” He darts across to the plug in the dark corner next to Rachel and scrabbles about on his knees. Another light further along promptly goes out.
“Who’s messing on there? What is going on?” another dealer calls out crossly. The hawk jerks his head round, purple with annoyance. “Keep back. Now keep back. My light’s gone out. I must have my light on – I’m in a hurry here.”
“That’s all very well but you’ve knocked mine out now” complains the voice.
“The adaptor – faulty connection – there – it’s on again.”
“No, it bloody well isn’t. Mine’s off now. Let me have a look.”
“Keep back, keep back. I’m in control here. I’ll have it fixed in a minute.”
Rachel moves quietly away. She’s seen it all before and it sets her teeth on edge.
Rachel sighs with relief as Colin comes back with the last load of books. Fifteen minutes left and they have the stand to erect, the books to unpack and shelve, the postcards to set out and the prints to sort. With five minutes left, they shove the boxes into the side room, Colin dashes out to move the car into the car park and the organiser announces with a flourish:- “Ladies and gentlemen, it is two minutes to twelve. The public are about to enter.”
A genteel stampede, less vicious than a jumble sale, more determined than a cinema queue; the public amble in and drift towards the stands. Hands pluck at books, ripple through pages, stroke leather and touch illustrations. Soon the initial burst of noise subsides to a comfortably satisfied hum, bees with their nectar. Rachel looks at her watch.
“You don’t need me for a bit do you, Dad? I think I’ll go out for a walk. Get some fresh air. See you later yeah?”
Out on the street, alone in Oxford. The sense of release and freedom is so exhilarating that Rachel just stands for a moment and breathes in deeply before swinging into step behind the Saturday shoppers. The crowd carries her across the street and deposits her on the corner of Cornmarket Street and Broad Street. According to her map, the graceful dome in front of her is the Radcliffe Camera – Readers Only. Rachel glances behind her and then steps into the nearby doorway of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin gripped by a sudden sense of urgency. There’s no time to lose.
“Just the one ticket, miss? You’ll get a lovely view up there today – a bit chilly maybe but clear. Do you know Oxford well?”
“Not well no. How much is the view guide?”
“Two pounds. It’s worth it – tells you everything you can see.”
“Thanks.” Rachel casts a quick glance behind her. No-one – yet. She dips her head to avoid the low doorway and climbs the first wooden steps at the base of the tower. How long has she got? Arrows direct her across a landing and through the bell ringing loft, the ropes tied together and looped back out of reach.
She begins the ascent, placing her foot awkwardly on each shallow step. One hand on the curving wall, the other hauling on the vertical chains that run in sections around the central pillar. Breath coming quickly now, Suddenly there’s a slit of light and she’s standing on the narrow balcony at the base of the soaring church spire. She grasps the parapet and gazes down on to the twin towers and pinnacles of All Souls. All around her the college quadrangles make a dazzling checkerboard of creamy stone and grassy spaces. She hears a cough, the shuffle of feet – there’s someone around the other side of the parapet.
Rachel presses herself against the wall, holding her breath. A man comes around the angle of the wall and pauses underneath a gargoyle, all bulging eyes and outstretched scaly wings. With a murmured ‘excuse me’ he manoeuvres past Rachel and clatters down the stairwell. No contact, no message passed. Rachel checks her watch. There must have been a change of plan. No time to let her know or perhaps the whole thing has been postponed. At any rate there’s no point in staying up here any longer.
By the time she reaches the pay desk, her leg muscles are aching and she feels out of breath so she heads to Debenhams for refreshment. She perches on a stool with her latte and slice of apple pie; she knows the caffeine could be fatal at this stage of the illness but she’s feeling reckless. With so short a time left she has been advised to indulge herself. She has accepted the worst, but it torments her to think of the children, Dominic, Abigail, Flora and Nathaniel – what will they do without her? And it is just too painful to dwell on thoughts of her doctoral thesis on comparative inter-planetary anthropology which will now never be completed. “Brilliant” her tutor has called it. “Such a tragedy” he murmured, turning his head away to hide his emotion.
Rachel checks her mobile. No messages but she knows what she has to do next. After a quick visit to the powder room she heads back past the Sheldonian theatre and across to the Ashmolean museum. Passing through the echoing lobby, Rachel walks straight into the Egyptian sculpture room. She’s not too sure what she is looking for exactly but is confident of recognising it when she sees it.
Uniformed attendants sit glumly around the room, inspecting the visitors with indifference. Rachel stops at several showcases, glancing nonchalantly at the contents. It would not do to look too obviously excited. She examines the tiny amulets, the exquisite figurines and the canopic jars holding the organs of the dead, aware of the ghostly reflection of her own face in the glass. The vibrations are getting stronger.
More Egyptian antiquities: death masks and jigsaw fragments of wall inscription. In the corner behind a glass wall stands a deep painted box with four bright-eyed birds guarding its corners: the coffin of Djeddjehntefankh, Lord of Thebes. Each of the three lids hangs suspended above the coffin; the two lower are effigies of the dead priest, the uppermost one painted with symmetrical designs and guarded by the figure of the black jackal-headed god of the dead, Anubis. Rachel stares, raising herself up on tiptoe to peep down into the coffin where the mummy lies, wrapped in its age-old shroud. The force waves almost knock her backwards. With an effort she makes herself keep calm; any announcement would only cause instant panic and chaos. It could be days before the moment is finally right to act. She decides that for the moment it is better the public and museum staff are left in ignorance of the appalling danger they are in. Thank God her training has taught her to mask her feelings so effectively.
She buys a postcard on the way out: an Indian statue of Buddha which she has not seen but she likes his enigmatic smile. Probably about time she checked on Dad – he’ll want her to take over for a while so he can get some lunch. Back in the ballroom there are fewer people around now, the slack period around lunchtime. Rachel makes her way between the stands to the far wall. Colin is chatting to a woman dealer and raises his hand to her – ‘Be with you in a minute.’ The hawk dealer is perched on his chair, wings folded, bright eyes darting to and fro. Rachel catches the end of the dealer’s conversation with Colin:
“Our son’s here of course. Christ Church – studying natural sciences. I’ll be meeting him tonight. Is that your daughter?”
“Yes yes, my daughter Rachel.”
“She here too? Which college?”
“Oh no nothing like that – she helps me now and then. Can’t seem to make her mind up what she wants to do. Very capable but we do despair of her sometimes.” Colin lowers his voice – “it’s as if she lives in a dream world most of the time.”
Gwenda Major lives in the Lake District in the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and educated at Durham and Manchester Universities, Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications, both print and digital, the most recent being The Carrot, Retreat West, Toasted Cheese and Brilliant Flash Fiction. Several of her stories have also been broadcast on local radio.
Gwenda has written four novels and two novellas, all currently unpublished, although three have been either longlisted or shortlisted for national competitions in the UK. Offcomers won first prize in the National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Novella competition in December 2016. Gwenda has a website and blog at http://www.gwendamajor.wordpress.com
‘Dreaming Spires’ came out of a visit to Oxford when she was gripped by a strange sense of dislocation.