The cat dashed into the middle of the road; I forced the pedals on my bicycle back to try and brake. The force of it twisted the bicycle, making the wheels skid as I toppled off. I landed on my side, gravel scraping into my palms.
I opened my eyes to see the cat standing there watching me. It gave a little chirp before darting away.
A cold wind started up, blowing the leaves across the road. It was a black cat, and I had let it cross my path.
I got to my feet, frowning at the smear of mud on my brand-new coat. I picked my bike up and got back on it, fixing my hat before I started back down the road that would take me to Morris School for Boys.
The day was cloudy and dry, a chill in the air that brought tears to my eyes as my bike whizzed down the road. I couldn't close my eyes, for fear of suffering another fall, and this time one at high speed.
I tried not to dwell on the thought of the black cat. I wasn't superstitious, but the mangy cat with its haunting yellow eyes still stuck on my mind. It was an ugly, almost frightening thing, its appearance almost coincidental with the approach of All Hallows Eve.
I rounded the bend of the road where the gates of the school appeared before me. I got off my bike to walk it up the drive of the school, knowing of the headmaster's disapproval of seeing young women riding bikes around all the boys, especially since riding a bike meant that the skirt would be hiked up to show the young woman's stockinged legs.
I walked along, the breeze scattering the leaves over my path. I could see the caretaker up near the school, standing next to a cart full of pumpkins and other types of gourds, looking about as if deciding where to put them about the building. I waved to him and he waved back, not saying a word to me. I hurried to the back of the school building, leaving my bike on the rack in the courtyard, before heading through a side door and darting up the stairs as fast as I dared, clutching my leather bag and my lunch basket tight as I made the ascent to the teachers' wing of the school.
I could see other teachers' secretaries opening the doors of the offices, the only other women in the building. In all my time working for Professor Ursler, I hadn't really made friends with the other secretaries, and I didn't even know most of their names. They all acquainted themselves with each other, leaving me behind.
I saw a young, yellow-haired woman struggling as she looked through her bag. I set my things down and went over to her.
'Can I help you?' I asked her.
She looked up, and I was surprised to see a large red mark on the side of her face. She looked very distressed, something akin to panic in her eyes. 'No,' she said. 'I…I just can't find my key. If I'm still outside the door when he comes…'
I looked up at the door of the office the blonde was trying to get into.
Professor Talbot was the literature studies teacher, and had a reputation in the school for being incredibly harsh with his students. It was rumoured that he did hit them sometimes, but no one had yet proven it. I looked at the mark on the blonde's face and could only guess where it had come from. I took the handbag from her trembling hands and reached around inside it, pulling out a key. She snatched it, looking almost on the verge of tears with relief. She fitted the key in the lock and hurried in, shutting it behind her without even giving her thanks.
I didn't blame her. If I worked for Talbot, I was sure to be as frightened as she was.
I returned to Professor Ursler's office and entered, setting my things on my desk as I opened the curtains. I pulled off my hat and coat, and pulled the sleeve of my sweater over my hand to try and wipe off the condensation on the window. It did no good, so I let it be and looked about the cramped space after turning on the radiator to warm the room up.
Professor Ursler had left his desk a mess, as usual. I began to pick up the books that were closed, returning them to the shelf and making sure they were in alphabetical order. I went around behind his desk, seeing a half-finished paper sitting in the typewriter. It was all in German; it might have been something so simple as a letter to an old friend, but the fact that it was in a language unknown to me teased my curiosity.
I gathered up the crumpled papers and tossed them in the wastebasket, which was close to overflowing. The professor had notebooks open on his desk, small doodles covering wherever his handwriting didn't. I lifted one of the notebooks and studied the tiny drawings, a disembodied grin here, pointing fingers there, and even a miniscule Scottish terrier.
Footsteps approached the office door. I set the notebook down and turned, pretending to straighten the cat painting (which didn't need any straightening) as the door opened. I looked over my shoulder to see Professor Ursler coming in, his glasses fogged from the sudden change in temperature, his pipe between his teeth. He looked in my direction, setting his briefcase on his desk so he could take his glasses off. He wordlessly handed them to me, and wiped them off with my sleeve.
'It's colder than last week,' he said, setting his pipe on his desk.
'I hope you don't mind me turning the radiator on, sir,' I said, handing his glasses back to him. He put them back on, hooking them behind his large ears.
'I don't mind,' he said. I came over to him and took his hat and coat, hanging them on the rack by the door. 'Better make use of it while we can.'
He popped his briefcase open and pulled out a folder, handing it to me. 'I didn't get a chance to grade these tests last night. If you would for me, I can have them back to the boys after lunch. There's a guide for you to know what to grade them base on their answers.'
'I'll make sure to, sir,' I said.
He was about to say something else to me when a muffled shout sounded through the walls. He straightened, looking towards the door. It was a man's voice, deep and thick with rage.
I saw Professor Ursler's face pale, and he flung the door open, stepping into the hall. I followed him, seeing Professor Talbot's door open and the young blonde secretary dart out, holding her handbag close to her. She dashed past us, one hand to her face. A sob followed her, and she rounded the corner of the staircase, disappearing from our view.
Professor Ursler stood in Talbot's doorway; I tried to see around him, peering around the professor's side. Talbot stood there, a stack of papers in his hands.
'What is this?' Talbot demanded.
'What did you do to that girl?'
'Sacked her. She wasn't doing her job right.' Talbot turned his attention back to the papers. He was a large man, nearly as large as Professor Ursler, even thinner than the professor, with a sunken face that reminded me of a skeleton.
Professor Ursler stepped into the office, and I remained in the hall. Neither man took notice of me. Talbot looked up.
'Did you hit her?'
Talbot let out a bark of laughter. 'What's it matter to you? She wasn't under your employment.'
'What matters to me is that you would raise a hand against a young woman.' Professor Ursler stood close to Talbot. Talbot set the papers down, shaking his head.
'And if I did?'
'I would be sure to see you sacked.'
'It seems more likely you would be sacked first, you being a Jerry and all.'
I could see that Talbot's words caused Professor Ursler a great deal of anger. He grabbed the man by the lapels on his coat, and I was afraid that Professor Ursler would strike Talbot. That would have gotten my employer into a lot of trouble, especially with his nationality making him an 'enemy' by default. I stepped into the room.
'Sir,' I said.
Professor Ursler looked over to me, releasing Talbot. Talbot straightened the front of his coat, giving Ursler an ugly glare.
'I think you had better get to your classroom, sir,' I said.
He nodded, but turned to Talbot, raising a finger at him. 'I don't like you, Talbot,' he said. 'If I had but once chance to see you out of here, I would take it.'
Talbot stepped forward and shut the door in the professor's face. Professor Ursler had his hands balled into fists, and I reached up and placed my hand on his arm.
'Sir, at least have some patience.'
'Patience?' He looked down at me. Something crossed his face, and he sighed, placing his hand over mine. I could see the small burn scarring that went up his wrist, disappearing into his sleeve. 'I will have to take the matter of it up to the headmaster. In the meantime, you stay away from Talbot.'
'I will, sir.'
He patted my hand before stepping away from me, returning to his office to get his briefcase. I went to my desk and sat down to grade the papers.
'Thank you, Miss McAuliffe,' he said.
'For what, sir?'
'For interrupting.' He shrugged. 'If you hadn't, I'm afraid I wouldn't have kept myself from strangling him.'
'I'm sure you wouldn't have, sir.'
He was about to leave when he stopped in the doorway, looking back at me. 'I had a question,' he said. 'Would you be interested in coming to my house tomorrow evening?'
I blinked, puzzled. 'Is there extra work for me to do, sir?'
He shook his head with a smile. 'No. I would like you to have dinner with me, that is all.'
'Oh. I'll see if I can make it, sir.'
'I'm sure you can. I'll see you at lunch, Miss McAuliffe.'
He was gone before I could bid him good-day, leaving me alone with my paperwork and my thoughts. I couldn't turn down his invitation, as odd as I felt thinking about having dinner with him at his house. I didn't think it suspicious at all, just odd. I shrugged to myself and pulled out my journal to write down the date.
Something hit the window; I looked up sharply from the papers towards the window, seeing rain hitting the glass. I frowned to myself; I hadn't expected it to rain, and my thoughts of going down to the water before I returned home went down the drain.
I looked up at the clock that hung on the wall behind my desk. It was almost noon; I paused my work and opened my lunch basket, pulling out my cold duck and pickle sandwich.
It was the only thing Mrs. Thomas let me take to lunch from her kitchen. I would have gone into the village to get perhaps a hot pasty for lunch, but the village itself was too far for me to make the ride on my half-hour for lunch, and by the time I would have returned to the school, any hot pasty would soon be a cold one.
I ate my sandwich in silence, waiting for the professor to return to the office, as he had promised to see me then.
The door opened and he stepped into the office, giving me a tired sort of smile as he set his briefcase next to his desk.
'Is everything alright, sir?' I asked.
'It is,' he replied. 'Those boys are quite the rowdy bunch. I wish they understood the meaning of the word discipline.'
'They are boys, after all, sir,' I said. He raised his eyebrow at me, giving me an amused expression.
'I wouldn't recommend you making assumptions on someone based on sex,' he said, seating himself at his desk. He opened his drawer, pulling out a paper bag and setting it in front of him. 'It's had its negative effects in the past. In fact, it still does.'
'I'm sorry, sir.'
He chuckled and shook his head. 'Don't be.'
I stared back at my sandwich, not wanting to finish it. The thought of having to eat more duck and congealed fat made my stomach turn.
I glanced up as the professor opened his paper bag. A knock sounded on the door, and the professor closed the bag, a look of irritation crossing his face.
'Come in,' he said, his voice tainted with annoyance.
The door opened and a policeman stepped in, taking off his hat. He had a box under his arm. Professor Ursler's face changed to one of alarm, and he rose to his feet.
'Can I help you, officer? Is there anything wrong?'
The policeman, a freckle-faced man who looked fresh out of boyhood, shook his head. His freckles brought my brother to mind, and I had a flash of worry go through me when I thought of my brother flying for the Air Force during this time.
'There's nothing wrong, professor,' he said. 'I've just…I just have to carry about some things with you.' He reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a crinkled piece of paper, handing it to the professor. 'This is a warrant to search your office.'
Professor Ursler took it and read over it, his brows lowering over his eyes as he did so. He handed the paper back to the policeman, and I looked between the two men, wondering what was going on.
'Are you carrying your citizenship papers with you?' the policeman asked.
'No, I left them at home.' Professor Ursler reached into the pocket of his suit jacket and took out his wallet, opening it to show the policeman. 'I have my license in here, however.'
The policeman nodded as he studied. 'That will do for now. But tomorrow morning you must come down to the station to be registered.'
'What's going on?' I asked.
The policeman seemed to notice me for the first time, but he didn't answer my question. 'Are you in possession of any maps of the United Kingdom, or at least this surrounding area?'
'I am.' Professor Ursler went to his desk, opening it and pulling out three maps; two were folded, and the last was rolled tightly. He set them on the desk in front of the policeman. The policeman looked at his paper again.
'We'll send some of our men down to your house this evening just to make sure,' the policeman said.
'You mean you don't trust my word?'
The policeman shook his head. 'It's not that we don't trust your kind,' he said. 'It's just, with us at war, we can't be too careful with refugees from enemy countries.'
He folded the warrant and returned it to his pocket. Professor Ursler moved aside as the policeman went to his desk. I stood, giving the professor a look of confusion. He simply stood there, his hands stuffed in his trouser pockets, his brows drawn together and a deep frown on his face. The policeman looked up from opening a drawer.
'Are you in possession of any firearms?' he asked.
Professor Ursler sighed. He unbuttoned his suit jacket, reaching inside to pull out his revolver. He turned it in his hand and gave it to the policeman, whose eyes widened when he saw it. It was the first time I had gotten a good look at the revolver; it wasn't English made, I knew for a fact. It was an ugly creation, with a stamp in the steel near the cylinder. The policeman looked up from it.
'Do you have a registration for this?' he asked.
'Yes,' the professor replied. 'It's at home.'
'We'll come around this evening to pick it up, then.' The policeman picked up the professor's books—the German-language ones—and flipped through them. He looked over the illustration plates, seeming to be satisfied that they were only history books. He set the books down and turned to the notebooks.
'What are these?'
'My notes. They're for teaching.'
'I'll take them down to the station to be translated.' The policeman gathered the professor's things, putting them in his box. 'Thank you for your cooperation, professor. We will see you this evening.'
He took his leave, closing the door behind him. There was a silence that followed him, and I was afraid to break it. Professor Ursler went to the desk, lifting one of his books. He suddenly flung it to the floor before sinking into his chair. The book landed with a loud bang, making me jump. He rested his elbow on the edge of his chair, putting his forehead in his hand. I went over and picked up the book, setting it on his desk.
'Sir, what was that all about?'
He didn't look up at me. 'I am Austrian,' he said. 'By default, I'm the enemy. The parliament issued an order for all German, Austrian, and Italian males to hand over maps, cameras, firearms…' He shook his head. 'And now I have to be registered, have a background check…I do not blame the parliament for taking such measures.'
I returned to my desk and sat down, watching the professor as he opened up one of his books.
'I believe things will get harder than this, Miss McAuliffe,' he said.
I noticed he didn't touch his lunch, but I didn't want to press him to eat it. I packed up my half-eaten sandwich and went back to work, the silence between us tense.
I didn't dare break it.