Behind me, in the corner, the parrot squawked.
'Give us a kiss!'
I looked over the rim of my teacup and narrowed my eyes at the green bird.
'Give us a kiss!'
I ignored the creature. 'Kisses' were the bird's code word for shortbread—and I knew Mrs. Thomas would not approve of it if her boarder was feeding the expensive Scottish shortbread to a parrot she barely cared about.
I continued my breakfast, the paper bearing the headline 'NAZI GERMANY SIGNS TRADE PACT WITH SOVIET UNION' at my side. It was from the previous day—Sunday—and while it came as a shock to a lot of people, I suspected something was amiss by it.
Across the table sat the Ellingtons, the newlywed couple who shared the room next to mine. Tina, the wife, ate her toast in silence, her face showing signs of a sleepless night. Daniel Ellington didn't speak, his eyes tired and brooding as he drank his coffee. The thin wall between their room and mine offered me a window—to my discomfort—into their private life, which was filled with financial debt and the fact that Daniel's father would not loan money out. For the past week, I myself could not sleep, thanks to the couple bickering for hours on end.
Mrs. Thomas was nowhere to be found that morning; I guessed the portly woman had gone out with her other lady friends for a day in town. Mr. Thomas, the large and somewhat intimidating man of the house, was outside, watering his tomato plants.
The boarding house was a considerable change from the cottage far south in St. Cyril Greene. Nearly four months of living at the Thomas' grand house that felt much like an inn made me miss the company of the shaggy sheepdog and the Barkleys.
I glanced up at the clock—it was nearly eight-o'-clock. I stood, leaving my breakfast mess on the table and gathering the paper. I needed to head to the school and once more to the side of Professor Ursler. It would be, as it always was, a breath of fresh air from the stuffy and uncomfortable setting of the Thomas' boarding house.
I climbed the stairs to my room, pulling my key from my sweater pocket. I had grown used to locking the door behind me when I left, suspecting that Mrs. Thomas had a snooping habit. She seemed the type, and I was the last person who wanted her short fingers going through my personals.
I entered my room and shut the door behind me. Already I was tired, having gotten up at four to be the first to bathe in the shared bathroom. Mrs. Ellington took an absurdly long time, and left water all over the floor when she was done.
The morning was bright and sunny; great white clouds drifted across the sky lazily. Summer was in full swing, but the temperatures remained cool and breezy.
A sure change from the Near East.
I gathered up my things, snatching up my handbag and the larger leather bag I had purchased for carrying about the professor's folders and papers and things. Hopefully I would be in time to catch Professor Cunningham, the handsome young art teacher who always seemed to have a bit of paint in his hair and always managed to flash me a smile when he saw me.
I left my room and locked the door behind me before heading down the stairs. So far, I was hesitant around young men, still unsure of how one went about getting to know each other. Professor Ursler, an older man, was certainly different, as he was my employer and I had already known him for a good four months. I had no interest in him, and I suspected he had none in me.
I saw no one else when I left the house. My bicycle was behind the house, in the large shed that the Thomas' kept for all their gardening supplies. I walked past Mr. Thomas and his tomatoes. The large man stared at me as I did so, as if getting my bicycle was some sort of crime.
I wheeled it out from the shed and hopped on, giving myself a head start down the drive to the street. I whizzed past the brick houses with their large front shrubs and bright flower gardens, the breeze whipping about the shorter curls that hung out from underneath the scarf tied over my head. I passed policemen walking their patrols and waved to them; they waved back. I passed a woman walking her dog, a young couple pushing a baby in a carriage, and the milkman going about his rounds.
It was all so normal, the way I liked it. No ghosts lurked about Morris School for Boys, and, though I knew Edgely definitely had its secrets, there were none that I cared to delve into. Whatever the town hid, I would be sure to keep my nose out of it.
I tried the knob. Its being locked told me that Professor Ursler hadn't arrived yet. Wondering why he might be late, I unlocked the door and stepped inside. It was untidy, as he had left it the night before. I shrugged to myself and set my handbag on my desk, pulling the scarf off my head. Books lay open on the professor's desk, and stacked in uneven piles on the shelf. I opened the curtains to let the sunlight in before putting the books back in alphabetical order. I left the books on the professor's desk—he had notebooks and pens left out too, and I guessed he had left everything out so he could come back to it.
I sat down and lifted the cover off my typewriter, pulling out the red folder from my leather bag. Professor Ursler was writing a book on the history of the Near East, and I was the one typing out his handwriting.
The door opened, followed by a small bouquet of white roses and, eventually, the professor himself.
'Good morning, Miss McAuliffe!' he said, setting the bouquet in front of me. I blinked and looked up at him, noticing he was carrying a large, flat item wrapped in brown paper under his arm. He set it down on his desk and positioned so it was leaning against the African statuette.
'Good morning, sir,' I said, puzzled at the things he had brought in with him. 'Is there a purpose for these?' I pointed to the roses.
'Of course!' He seemed surprised at my question. 'They're for you. And to brighten up the place.'
I liften the roses to my face and smelled them. 'They're lovely,' I said. 'I'll need to put them in a vase.'
'Naturally.' He turned to the shelf behind his desk of his various archaeological findings before taking a small china vase and setting it in front of me. I put the roses in it, and positioned them in a favorable spot on my desk.
'They're wonderful,' I said. I shifted my attention to the wrapped rectangle. 'And is there a purpose for this being here?'
The professor raised an eyebrow. 'There certainly is. I have been practicing with oil paints this time,' he said, 'instead of my usual watercolours.'
I folded my hands under my chin as he removed the paper and tossed it in the wastebasket.
Staring back at me was the face of a black cat, its large yellow eyes bright and inquisitive, looking like it was sitting in a field of green grass and white wildflowers.
I smiled at it, looking back up at the professor. 'Leonard sent me a picture of Clover,' he said, 'for the reference.'
'It's amazing,' I said. 'What are you going to do with it?'
'I am going to hang it in here.' He lifted the framed painting and looked at the empty space of wall behind his desk. He moved his photograph of his graduation from Oxford and put the painting on the nail, dusting off his hands.
'It looks better than this ghastly thing,' he said, waving the photograph. He opened his desk drawer and put the photograph inside. 'I must be on my way, then.' He took his briefcase and his big green book.
'Good luck,' I said.
He gave me a look of confusion. 'Luck has nothing to do with education, Miss McAuliffe,' he said. 'Do finish the chapter on the rise of Islam in Asia Minor before I see you at lunch.'
'I will, sir.'
'And make sure you get water on those roses before they wither.'
'I'll be sure to, sir. Good-day.'
He went through the door and shut it behind him, leaving me alone. I looked up at the cat. It was so different from his soft watercolours of storefronts and his messy ink sketches, but it was no less splendid.
The roses, as he had pointed out, needed water. I stood and lifted the vase from my desk, pulling the roses out and setting them on my desk, and opened the door. Being a boy's school, the place only had toilets for boys, but if I snuck in at the right time, I could perhaps fill the vase in the sink while the toilet was empty.
I went down the empty teachers' hall and down the stairs, passing a few boys on their way to class as the bell sounded out the notes to start the school day.
Morris School for Boys ran year-round, only offering a break for holidays such as Easter and Christmas. It meant more work for people like Professor Ursler and me, and more work meant more money.
I passed two older boys on their way back from the hall where the toilet was.
'Excuse me, miss,' said one of the boys. I stopped.
'Um, that's the way to the loo.'
'I know,' I said. 'I've got to fill this vase with water.'
'I'll get it.' The boy took the vase with a grin. 'You don't want to go in there.'
'I won't ask why. Thank you.'
The boys hurried down the hall, the vase being held carefully in the one's hands. I waited, looking about the hall as I did. The boys returned with the vase full of water, and I thanked them before heading back to the office.
The halls of the school were much less of an effort to walk; they were lined with windows so there were no pockets of eerie shadow I had to force myself to walk through. In all four months of working there, I had nothing to fear. I was happy to be at Morris.
I returned to the office, whistling a tune as I put the roses back in their vase. A stack of mail sat on my desk that wasn't there before—I lifted the stack and flipped through it. They were nothing but a few letters from charities asking for money. I had only enough money to get by, but I still felt like a wretch for turning down a chance to feed the poor.
Ah, yes—a letter from my brother Ralph! A grin broke across my face as I held it in my hands. It was from a post box number, not the address of the airfield where he lived. I snatched up my letter opener and pried the envelope open, unfolding the letter. I read over it—it was short and to the point; I sat on the edge of my desk to read it in full.
I haven't written in a dreadfully long time! I'm apologising for that. Life at the airfield has been very crazy because everyone thinks we're going to war. It's a scary thought, really, especially when you notice everyone sleeps with their boots on to rush to their stations 'just in case'.
So, anyway, in all this time, I've found time to ask a girl to marry me. I told you about her before—Kate Butler, the sweet little thing I met in Reeds. I've been talking to her a lot more and meeting her when I could and, well, four months later, I've asked her to be my wife. You'd like her a lot, Jean. She's bright and creative and full of sunshine.
If you'll look in the envelope, Kate and I sent you a wedding invitation. We really hope you can make it. Dad's coming too. It'll be wonderful—Dad told me you could bring Professor Ursler with you. Dad and I would very much like to meet him. You know Dad and his love of history. He would keep your professor talking for hours.
I hope to see you at our wedding.
I put my hand over my mouth, but couldn't stop the smile. Ralph—dear Ralph, taking a wife?
I looked in the envelope. As he said in the letter, there was the little card with the gold paint around its edge.
The wedding invitation.
I set them back on my desk. The wedding was all the way in Reeds, a good two days inland by coach, a day and a half by train. I didn't even know what I would wear. I checked the invitation for the date. It was in a little over a week. I supposed I had plenty of time, but enough money for good clothes was out of the question.
Unless I asked the professor for a raise. I'd also have to ask him if he would like to come. Somehow, the thought was a little daunting. My employer meeting my father and brother? I really didn't know how that would go.
I returned to my seat. I had until lunch to ponder everything. For now, there was work to do.
I cleared my throat. 'Sir,' I began.
He looked up from his lunch. 'Yes, Miss McAuliffe?'
'Is it perhaps possible for me to take about two weeks' leave?'
He set down his sandwich. 'Whatever for?'
'My brother Ralph—he's getting married at the end of this month.' I stirred the sugar into my tea. 'He's getting married in Reeds.'
'Reeds?' The professor's eyes widened. 'That's quite a distance.'
'I know it is, sir, but I would like to go.'
'The coach fare is going to be expensive, as well as train tickets.'
'I didn't think of that,' I said. My hope of going was beginning to fade.
'Well, don't get down about it.' Professor Ursler spread his hands apart. 'Did you think about driving?'
'I don't know how to.'
He folded his hands. 'Perhaps I could take the next week off as well,' he said, 'if you need someone to drive you.'
'Ralph did mention he and Dad wanted to meet you,' I said. 'If…if you would like to come.'
The professor glanced at the roses on my desk, putting his chin in his hand. 'So the wedding is in Reeds…I am sure there are a few things I can do in Reeds. What did you say the name of his fiancée was?'
'Butler,' I said. 'Her name's Kate Butler.'
A strange look came over his face, like that of shock. He straightened in his seat, lifting his chin from his hand. 'Butler?'
'Yes, sir,' I said, puzzled by his reaction to the name. 'Is there a…a problem with the name?'
'It seems…' He shook his head. 'Pay it no mind,' he said. 'I thought I recognised the name.'
'Butler is about as common as Smith or Jones,' I said.
He nodded. 'I'm sure it means nothing,' he said, though his thick brows were drawn together, forming a notch above his beak-like nose. He looked at his watch. 'I must be getting back to the classroom.' He stood from his seat and went to the door, taking his briefcase with him. 'And I will talk to Headmaster Grey about getting us leave.'
He slammed the door behind him, causing the roses on my desk to tremble. I raised myself from my seat to look at his desk. He hadn't finished lunch—his sandwich wasn't even halfway finished.
Whatever was bothering him?