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As they say in the movies, `any resemblance to any person living or dead is entirely coincidental'....
It was cold, unseasonably cold, and rain fell in uneven torrents from a sky heavy with dark clouds. A street-sweeping machine made its way down the hill, the various brushes and hoses protruding from its bulk trailing pointlessly in the cascades of water pouring through the gutters. Beams of yellow light from the rotating beacons on the roof of the machine illuminated individual droplets of rain as they fell, occasionally sweeping this way and that in a gust of wind. The wind rendered Martin's umbrella almost useless and by the time he reached the door of his accommodation he was soaked through, from the top of his round, untidily hirsute head to his toes some five foot ten beneath. He reflected on his bad luck -- his supervision had ended after a twenty-minute overrun, just as the rain was starting, and the trip from Founder's Court back to his room had not been pleasant. There were a few people clustered at the doorway, looking out despondently into the gloom, as he punched the combination on the entrance door. Martin estimated that at least a quarter of the students in the University knew the combination, and the rest could have worked it out from the pattern of wear on the buttons of the keypad. No matter. At least the internal doors locked -- some so securely that their occupants occasionally had difficulty leaving and entering their rooms.
The stairs up to his room on the third floor were slatted, and through the slats one could see a drop all the way down to the ground floor. As Martin climbed, others rattled past on their way up or down. The whole stairway shook, in a familiar but faintly ominous way, making him glad that he did not live higher up. The building -- constructed during the 'sixties by a well-known architect, had won an award from the something-or-other trust. None of its residents could imagine why -- sited among trees and old residential properties, it was six floors of concrete monotony, lacking either the facilities or the proximity to town which would have made it popular. But almost the whole College lived here, since the buildings on the old site, comprising Founder's, New and Garden courts, had little accommodation and were used mainly for the convenience of the Fellows. Nevertheless, the College's canteen was located there, in an ugly flat-roofed brick building which added to the impression that nobody in authority there had any architectural taste.
Term had begun only the previous week, and already Martin had earned a bollocking from his supervisor. The man was an obnoxious creep -- that everyone was agreed on -- and through his thick Latin accent he had whinged about the deficiencies of Martin's vacation work. This seemed hardly fair -- his supervision partner, Amy, had handed in nothing -- but at least it meant Carlos would lay off her for the duration of the supervision. Dr Julio Carlos -- who was known universally if inappropriately as ``The Jackal'' for obvious reasons -- was not a popular man. When work was not handed in, he whinged about it and complained to the Director of Studies; when it was he whinged about it and complained to the student in question. Martin's work had suffered from a number of apparent deficiencies, including being written in the wrong colour of ink (red was apparently in conflict with some complicated scheme of colour-coded marking, or perhaps it offended Carlos's political sensibilities) in the wrong orientation on the page (Martin had written it `landscape'-style in order to avoid breaking lines inconveniently in equations) and he had apparently taken the wrong approach to some of the questions (loosely defined as being `different from the approach that Carlos took when he was an undergraduate').
The sheet of paper left on Martin's door bore a new message, scrawled in spidery green ink apparently only a few minutes before. ``You were not in at 12:36 on Thursday. Also, there is no pen on this door. See attached.'' Lloyd's messages were instantly recognisable, this one doubly so by the green ball-point pen he had left dangling by a strip of paper from a drawing-pin in the notice-board, its disgustingly chewed end angled up towards the ceiling. Martin took the pen and -- noticing that it was almost exhausted of ink -- took it into the kitchen and placed it in the bin, being careful to hold it by the writing end so as not to cover his hand in Lloyd's saliva. The kitchen was filled with the satisfied gurgling of the coffee machine, and from this Martin inferred that someone else -- probably Al -- was in, and seeking caffeine. He poured himself a cup from the almost-full jug, and was not quick enough to catch the stream of brown liquid as it cascaded onto the hotplate. The cursed machine did not check for the presence of the receptacle beneath the filter, a fact which might have explained its former owner's readiness to part with it at an apparently good price.
Al was in, as it turned out. Inferring from the cup in Martin's hand that the coffee was done, he departed for the kitchen leaving his visitor lounging in a chair. Al's room had an ill-defined quality of untidiness; unlike Martin's, which was dominated by mess -- on the floor, on the desk, in the cupboard; everywhere, in fact, apart from the bookshelves -- Al's room was neatly organised, but nevertheless suffered from the occasional misplaced piece of paper, or the cup left in the middle of an otherwise clear patch of floor. Perhaps, he reflected, there was some deep significance to the fact that a single untidily placed object could give the whole room a sense of disarray. Probably a fundamental consequence of the Second Law.
``Shitty weather'', remarked Al superfluously.
``Tell me about it.'' Martin was still dripping, and the steady trickle of water from his clothing was threatening to turn some of Al's beautifully inked notes into a messy chromatography experiment -- a fact which did not go unnoticed for long.
``Ooops. Didn't see those there.''
``Don't worry. You only got a couple of paragraphs.'' Martin looked down guiltily at the spreading patch of colour beneath the neatly-ruled heading: `PREDICTING VALENCE PROPERTIES USING THE NEARLY-FREE ELECTRON MODEL'.
``That looks interesting.'', he lied.
``No less interesting now it's blotted out.''
``Oh...? Well, it can't have been that dull if you managed to take all those notes on it.''
``I was late, ended up sitting right at the front. There was nothing else to do. Well, apart from pretending to be from Trinity and verbally abusing the lecturer.''
Martin gave Al a blank look. He'd never encountered the stereotypical creatures to whom Al referred, and anyway didn't understand why, after two years, he was still apologising for his fastidious note-taking.
``Oh, Lloyd came round earlier looking for you.''
``Yeah, he left a message. And a pen.''
``Yeah, he was complaining there wasn't one on my door. so he left one. Chewed to splinters of course. I wonder how much ink he ends up swallowing doing that?''
``Hmm. He mentioned that...''
``No! There being no pen on your door. Had you noticed, every other door has a pen on it?''
``Not true. Yours has a pencil.''
``Yeah, well, if there are so many pens around, he can use one of those. It's not as if he isn't over-supplied with pens himself, to go leaving them around on peoples' doors.''
``Whatever. He had some ice-cream.''
``Ice-cream? In this weather?'' Through the window of Al's room, rainwater could be seen flowing down the sides of the building in great sheets, and Martin gave an involuntary shudder at the sight of it. Although it was only half-past one, the sky was as dark as twilight.
``Well, he's not exactly Wonko the Sane, is he?''
``How can you tell?''
``Takes one to know one.''
``Yeah. Anyway, he said he was looking for someone to share it with.''
``Hmm. I'm sure I wasn't his first choice for a special ice-cream endowment.''
``I guess not. It was... strawberry or something. Quite nice anyway.''
``Oh, he gave it to you?''
``Well, obviously. It might be cold out there, but it wasn't going to stay frozen forever, was it?... And in lieu of any more suitable targets for donation of ice cream, I guess he had to make do with me.''
``I guess he's still chasing what's-her-name?''
``Emma? Yeah, she lives somewhere round here I think.... Can I check my email from here?''
Al's computer, sitting in what he hoped was an unobtrusive place on his desk -- ``I didn't want it to be a computer-centred room'' -- was connected to the network, but unfortunately did not score high on the `functionality' category.
``Well, it's sort of working, but why not use yours?''
``I'm here now, aren't I?''
Martin, interpreting Al's grunt as permission, sat down in front of the machine and logged in to check his email... ``Look at this....'', he remarked, in between laughing....
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Louise Malloy) To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Date: 8 October 1998, 12:01 +0000 Subject: another silly >reported in the massachusetts bar journal > >22. >Q: "Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?" >A: "No." > >Q: "Did you check for blood pressure?" >A: "No." > >Q: "Did you check for breathing?" >A: "No." > >Q: "So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the >autopsy?" >A: "No." > >Q: "How can you be so sure, Doctor?" >A: "Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar." > >Q: "But could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?" >A: "It is possible, I suppose, that he could have been alive and >practising law somewhere." > louise firstname.lastname@example.org ... your worst day skiing is always better than your best day working
``Very good. Haven't you seen that one before?''
``Hmm. Not that I can remember.''
``That all the email you got then?''
``None of your business.'' Al went back to his desk, still trying to reconstruct his lecture notes. Martin kept reading his email, which included one from Lloyd, repeating a fact which he was already aware of (``You weren't in when I called earlier.'') and suggesting they meet up in the bar at St. Anne's College. The text of the message -- mentioning no-one by name but implying other people would be there -- led him to believe that he had somehow trapped Emma into spending the evening with him.
``Want to go to the bar with Lloyd later?''
``Lloyd!? Why would I want to go to the bar with him?''
``Um, to pay him back for his gift of ice-cream by making him feel loved? Anyway, I think Emma will be there, though I'm not sure, so you can think of yourself saving her from him. Or trying to.'' Al, allegedly, also fancied Emma, who already had a boyfriend at Bristol and, so far as anyone could tell, wasn't particularly keen on any of the people chasing her.
``Cough. Splutter. Anyway, I've got work to do.''
``For fuck's sake, it's the beginning of term. You can't have that much to do.''
``It's bloody miles away. What if it's still raining?''
``So you'll get wet. What's new? You row, don't you?''
``Yeah, the river's colder and the water in it comes with 300 free dangerous chemicals. So look at getting rained on as a blessing by comparison. Anyway, you've got an umbrella.''
``Yeah, so do you, and look at all the good it did you.''
``Well, I expect the wind will have slackened off a bit by then.''
``So you're Mr. Optimist now are you? That's a bit of an about-face.... Well, I'll come for half an hour.''
``Right, well I'll come and find you later.''
Martin's prediction had not been entirely correct -- the wind was as strong as ever, but the rain was gone. High clouds glided through the darkened sky, occasionally obscuring the moon, and the trees along the road into town sighed and swung in the breeze. Breaths hung, clouds of pearly condensation in the chill air and the streets were almost deserted: evidently people had better things to do -- inside -- on a Thursday evening. St. Anne's was about a mile away, and Martin was wondering why Lloyd would invite Emma over there -- even if it was his college -- since he was normally so keen to go out of his way to inconvenience himself to her advantage.
``Can we go by College? I have to check my mail.'' Undergraduates' pigeon-holes were all in the Porter's Lodge -- the `Plodge' -- in Founder's Court, turning their journey straight across town into a giant dog-leg.
The Porters' Lodge was located in Founder's Court, accessible by a door in the wall of the arch leading into the court. Inside, Harry, the head-porter, was sitting, brooding over CCTV monitors. There were five of them, showing scenes around the college -- the bridge over the river, the cycle racks, the Hall -- but there were neither suspicious intruders nor noteworthy happenings, and the porter looked very bored. The Lodge was divided in two by a desk behind which were the porters, their television screens and coffee-machines and fridge, and in front of which was anyone who happened to walk in. Undergraduates' pigeon-holes were in this `public' area, and, perhaps to emphasise the distinction, those of Fellows were behind the desk.
``Evening gentlemen!'' said Harry in the finely insolent tone adopted by porters all over Cambridge; new undergraduates soon learned that whatever hierarchy the Colleges claimed to have adopted, in fact the porters were right at the top -- they had, after all, the power to make anyone's life particularly easy or difficult, as the whim took them. Harry had evidently been in the College's employ for a lengthy period of time, and his mop of untidy white hair and academic-looking frame-less glasses gave an impression of an absent-minded, easy-going nature which could not have been further from the truth.
``Cold out there.'' remarked Martin, shivering ostentatiously, while Al checked his pigeonhole.
``Och, not nearly so cold as the winter of 1948. But you'll no remember that.''
Harry's thick Scots accent sounded contrived, and Martin felt sure that the head porter remembered the winter of 1948 no better than he did himself -- he wasn't that old -- but it was best to humour him. He excused himself from the small-talk and walked over to his pigeon-hole.
The amount of junk mail which accumulated every day was beyond belief -- Martin had cleared his mail after his supervision and even so there were already two communications from UCCU (the `University of Cambridge Christian Union') inviting him to join their `Change Your Outlook' campaign, which he filed absent-mindedly in the bin. That done, he went out into the archway to wait for Al, who had an aggravating habit of reading letters in the Porters' Lodge.
The college's cat -- named Zeus -- was lying on the flagstones under the arch, his belly exposed to the world and clearly in need of a good tickle, a requirement which Martin was happy to meet, until Zeus tired of the game and decided to attack his arm instead; he stood back rapidly while Zeus rolled lazily about for a while before deciding that the Porter's Lodge was more likely to provide the twin goals of food and a warm place to sleep than was the archway. Al left the Lodge just as Zeus entered it, though whether this implied anything about conservation of cats and physicists was not something which Martin felt ready to consider.
``No, just the usual UCCU crap and careers nonsense.''
``Hmm. I only got the UCCU crap. What career have they got you marked down for, then?''
``Cochrane Merrill Smith. Specialist Loss Adjuster. Whatever that is.''
``Sort of high-powered debt collector for an insurance company, I think.''
``Oh. Sounds like an exciting way to use my degree.'' By the third year, Martin had noticed, most students lose the tone of sarcasm in which they first discussed career prospects. Normally -- as with Al -- it was replaced by dumb resignation. There was, apparently, no money in physics, although physics undergraduates were forever being told -- normally by the likes of Cochrane Merrill Smith -- that there were exciting (read `highly-paid') ways to `leverage' their `expertise' in one of many fields intimately connected with making lots of money and suffering from stress-related-disorders at an early age. Jobs in physics, it seemed, were concerned either with making things for the military -- which, although perhaps interesting in its own way, was not an appealing thought to most -- and doing exceedingly dull industrial research (`Impact properties of Tipp-Ex'; `Adhesives research for the 3M Corporation' -- making new sorts of Post-It notes, no doubt).
Al and Martin mulled over this on the way to St. Anne's.
St. Anne's was one of the newer colleges, originally founded in the nineteenth century by a northern bishop as a theological college. Since then, it had almost abandoned its religious roots, although a few vestiges remained. Scholars -- those lucky enough to earn a First in the previous year's exams -- were forced to say Grace in Hall, and some of the religious terminology of its foundation was still evident in the names of the various officers of the College. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a hive of UCCU activity, although the bar -- den of iniquity as it doubtless was -- was normally fairly safe from the missionaries' attentions.
Not this time, however. The bar, which was quite large and adjacent to a small hall which was available to be hired by student groups, was bedecked with banners bearing the logos of UCCU, and its sister organisation, SAROC. (SAROC being, of course, the mind-numbingly titled St. Annes Reach Out for Christ -- how many St. Annes were there, and were they all reaching out for Christ? If so, why? Anyway, the society presented a sort of inverse target for the Campaign for the Abolition of the Abberant Apostrophe.) In the hall were lots of earnest looking men and unattractive women hanging around in clothes which looked suspiciously as if they had been bought from Oxfam. Or perhaps, Al mused, embezzled from some UCCU `clothes for starving refugees' campaign, except of course for the fact that most members of UCCU lacked the imagination to be dishonest, and those who did not were usually too busy in-fighting on one comittee or another to waste time on crimes of property.
``Let's get out of here.''
``Shouldn't we wait for Lloyd?''
``If you're that desperate to see him we could leave a message with one of these trustworthy-looking individuals.''
``Hmm. What are we planing to do, anyway?''
``Off-licence? Pub? Petrol station, then firebomb UCCU's best and brightest? Etcetera. Etcetera. Who knows? The night is yet young.''
``Well, we could fetch Lloyd -- and Emma, no doubt -- and then go to the Duck and Locomotive.'' The latter hostelry derived its rather contrived name -- and ludicrous pub sign -- from its proximity to the railway line and a duck-pond. The two cats kept there did much to make up for the surly landlord and poor choice of beer.
``Lloyd doesn't like the `Duck'.''
``Emma does though.'' Al, who was well aware of this, raised his eyebrows a little at the suggestion. ``OK, that's a plan I suppose. Better than sitting in Lloyd's room drinking alcohol from the bottle store.''
``Or sitting around in that bar being preached at.''
It turned out to be very easy to locate Lloyd and Emma -- they were walking into the bar just as Martin and Al were leaving. One look at the Christians was enough to convince Emma to leave, and Lloyd followed obediently.
``So what's the plan, guys?'' Lloyd's nasal whine must have been audible to many of the occupants of nearby buildings, if not other colleges. Emma stood by trying to look neutral.
``Well, now we've found you, we were thinking of going to the `Duck'.''
Lloyd grimaced slightly and Emma replied ``Cool. Haven't been there in a while.'' The four set off out of St. Anne's. Fog had been building up while they had been out, and it closed in around them. Martin was left chatting to Lloyd as Al and Emma trailed behind, chatting in slightly hushed tones; occasional, disconnected, snatches of banal conversation -- `yeah, my dog's a terrier too'; `you were at that concert?...'; `no, we have to pay for central heating' -- drifted toward them in the fog. This, judged Martin, amused him as much as it irritated Lloyd, who, after a few hundred yards, turned around and tried ineffectually to bludgeon his way into their conversation; Martin was left mercifully free of his company, and would no longer have to listen to exciting stories of Lloyd's -- frankly dull -- summer job `policing the Internet frontier' or whatever it was he pretended to be employed to do.
Presently, they reached the `Duck'. The pub, set by the side of a small green in the centre of which was the eponymous duck-pond, was a mess of several centuries of architecture. It claimed to be `Cambridge's oldest tavern', putting it in dispute with many of the town's other (and more ancient) hostelries -- at least, most of those which were likely ever to be touched upon by tourists. The ploy was, in this case, mercifully unsuccessful, and anyway the pub's single bar was too small to accomodate a tourist party of any size.
Inside, they were surprised to find James sitting at a table on his own nursing a pint. James was a friend of Martin and Al who Lloyd had also invited to the St. Anne's bar; they had assumed that he'd cried off in order to avoid an evening in Lloyd's company, and would thus now be in trouble. Instead, he marched straight up to Lloyd.
``Hi. Knew you'd end up coming here.''
``Well, I went to St. Anne's bar, figured you probably weren't in there with all those UCCU people--''
``Most of them are from SAROC! I know some of them!''
``-- and then came here on the basis that this is the only decent pub in the locality. Nice to see you, anyway. How was your summer?'' Al and Martin groaned inwardly, and exchanged knowing looks; Emma raised an eyebrow. They had already heard all about Lloyd's summer, barely avoiding a total brain shutdown while listening.
Lloyd had just started describing his job -- ``Well, basically what we were doing was building intrusion-defence firewalls for various blue chip companies, including Bradfinch Dunn and Grand Met -- oh, don't mention that, I signed an NDA...'' -- when James turned to Emma.
``Long time no see. You're looking great.''
Emma blushed slightly. ``Yeah. And you.''
``So how's life?''
Lloyd, flustered, interrupted: ``Right, what do you want to drink?'' The question was, pointedly, directed at Emma.
``Pint of Old Shaggy Dog.'' replied James, Al and Martin in unison. Emma's request for an Archers and lemonade followed, but quietly, and after a short interval.
Emma had picked up one of the cats -- barely a kitten, in fact -- and had it sitting in her lap. She was purring softly, although the cat was not reciprocating.
``You purr beautifully, darling.''
``OK, sorry I spoke. Oh look, our drinks are almost poured.''
The glacial pace of the Duck's bar service seemed slightly improved upon normal. This was possibly explained by the fact that the landlord was nowhere in evidence; it was speculated that when he wanted a drink, he found it more convenient to pop round to the St. George, a couple of hundred yards down the road, than to pour it himself.
Lloyd had also brought a packet of crisps. He brought Emma's drink over, and set it on the table with the crisps, before retrieving four pints. It turned out that he was drinking the Old Shaggy Dog too. Apparently it was the only thing they had left on tap. Al started feeding crisps -- smoky bacon and barbecue sauce flavour, apparently, though they tasted slightly salty just like any other sort -- to the cat, who seemed to appreciate them.
``This is a really crap pub. I don't understand why you come here.''
``I don't think so. The beer's good.'' James was something of a Real Ale fanatic, for whom quality of bitter correlated strongly with obscurity. ``And they have nice cats.''
Lloyd -- not normally a cat person -- looked suitably adoringly at Martha, the kitten, but evidently felt it would be a little bit forward to stroke her while she was reclining in Emma's lap. James felt no such compunction and soon he and Emma were doting over the animal. Lloyd got up to use the gent's, and by the time he had returned, David, a postgrad of Al's acquaintance, had arrived. The kitten was sitting in his lap, purring affectionately while he stroked -- kneaded would have been a better description -- her energetically. Emma and James looked hurt.
``How do you do that?'' Emma seemed pained.
``What...? The cat?'' The kitten, indulged in ecstacies of affection -- was perhaps the most striking feature of David and his surroundings at that point, though his straggly -- probably long unwashed -- hair, threadbare orange jumper and maniacally twinkling eyes might each have come a close second.
``Yeah. What else?'' Evidently none of these alternate categories had occurred to Emma.
``Oh. She can smell my cat on me.'' David lived in a big graduate house on Madingley road, convenient for whichever physics laboratory he was doing his PhD in, and was therefore able to keep a cat, a privelege denied to those in college accomodation.
``Oh right. So it's mistaken you for another cat?''
``No no. It would hate me if it... err, sorry, she would hate me if she thought I was another cat. After all, I'm obviously not her mother. No, she just finds me comforting. Quite different.'' David was always ready with an explanation for any phenomenon, and normally nobody felt ready to argue with him.
``Right. After all, most of us aren't sure which species you belong to and would be pissed off if a mere cat was able to figure it out.'' Lloyd, who had returned just in time to hear his last comment, disliked David as much as he disliked the Duck and Locomotive.
``Oh God, you again. I remember why I don't normally come to this pub. What have we done to deserve the pleasure of your company?''
``Actually, I invited these people to St. Anne's bar. What are you...''
``Unless I am very much mistaken, this fine establishment is the Duck and Locomotive Public House. Not an appendage of some two-bit theological college. So why are you here?'' David addressed this to Lloyd in the tone which one might use to address a retarded chihuahua or an employee of Tandy-Radio Shack.
``Oh. Well, you see the bar was full of UCCU people and Emma, um... we didn't want to stay there.''
``Pity she brought you along.''
``Yeah. So what are you doing here?''
``Oh calm down for fuck's sake. You'll upset the cat.'' Martin's and Emma's eyes were glazing over and Al felt duty-bound to intervene.
``She seems fine.'' Martha was playing with the ends of David's hair, and surprisingly seemed to be feeling no ill effects. Nonetheless, David and Lloyd stopped bickering. In fact, all conversation stopped for a time, with Martin, James and Al staring morosely into their pints, David playing with the cat, and Lloyd gazing absent-mindedly at Emma, who tried to look serene and calm.
Eventually she gave up. ``Sorry guys, I've got to get back. I have to finish my holiday essay.'' This was a lie, since she had methodically finished all of her vacation work during the first week of the vacation. A lie is a sin unto the Lord and a very present help in trouble, as she kept reminding herself.
She rose and left the table, deliberately leaving via David's side so as to force him to get up, displacing Martha. He scowled in an ungentlemanly fashion as Emma disappeared into the night.
Al, ostentatiously, looked at his watch. ``Christ it's late.'' It was quarter-past nine. ``I have to do some preparation for my presentation tomorrow.''
``Presentation? What for?'' Lloyd was a Computer Scientist and not subject to the occasional strange whims of the Cavendish Laboratory.
``Literature review. Collisionless processes in polymers.''
David leaped in with an explanation: ``It's easy when you think about it. Collisionless. Without collisions. A collision is what your beer glass will shortly make with the floor unless you put it somewhere more secure.'' He gave the table a hearty shove and Lloyd just managed to grab the empty glass as it fell. ``Processes -- well, as a CompSci you should be familiar with the concept of processes....''
``Oh cut it out. I'm sure Al will explain, and anyway it's not your field.''
``Related, actually. But I'll let Al tell you all about it.''
``Frankly I'm not sure I can. I haven't the slightest idea what's going on, though happily my supervisor admits it's `very challenging'. `Very boring', more likely.''
``Oh. It sounds it.'' Almost every field was boring to Lloyd. With the possible exception of the -- few -- parts of Computer Science he was good at.
``Yeah....'' As if he would know, Al mused silently.
``Anyway, I've got to go now I think. Work calls.''
``I may as well go back and finish my unpacking. And make sure Al doesn't get lost in this fog.'' Martin had been searching for an excuse and had managed to find one; since Lloyd hadn't visited his room yet, he wasn't to know that it was as unpacked as it was likely to get. His snide comment on Al's sense of direction -- or lack thereof -- was merely in character.
And so, fastening coats and scarves against the inclement weather, Martin and Al departed. Outside, the fog was thicker than ever, and the path back into town seemed to disappear into the orange glow of a streetlamp just in front of them.
A few minutes after leaving the `Duck', a scruffy-looking figure on a bicycle shot past them, narrowly avoiding a collision; the glow of the cycle's tail-light disappearing abruptly in front of them. In a moment, they came across David standing by his bike.
``Aha. Thought it was you two.''
``Yeah. And only a loony like you would be cycling around like that on a night like this.''
``What do you mean? You are standing on a cycle path, you know.''
Sure enough, there was a painted icon of a bicycle on the tarmac of the path. ``This was never a cycle path before!''
``Well, it is now. Part of the council's plan to evolve a race of humans incapable of moving around without bicycles.''
``Huh? Why do they want to do that?''
``To justify another great bicycle give-away.'' By legend, the Cambridge town council had once set up an excellent scheme which aimed to encourage the use of bicycles by giving away several hundred -- bright green -- bicycles to anyone who wanted them. They trusted to the honesty of the public not to steal the bicycles, but to leave them around for others to use when they were done with them. Predictably enough, all of the bikes were gone within a day of the scheme becoming operational. More surprisingly, this didn't stop the council repeating the scheme during the following week.
``Yeah. Well, it's a bloody nuisance.'' To punctuate the point, another bicycle shot past -- in the other direction -- to be quickly swallowed in the fog. ``That one didn't even have any lights, for fuck's sake.''
``So what was that all about, anyway? I wasn't expecting to end up in the pub with Lloyd!''
``Oh, I sort of invited you along to liven things up a bit.''
``More like you were hoping for a fight.'' James had also emerged from the fog which, although it deadened his footsteps, did not appear to have prevented him from hearing the latter part of the conversation. ``Lloyd was furious. I'm sure I could have spent the whole evening listening to him complaining about you and Al. What's the plan now we've escaped, anyway?''
``Another pub?'' Martin's suggestion was not exactly novel.
``Nah, can't be bothered. I've got some port in my room, though.'' David's suggestion gained the warm reception expected of an offer of free alcohol. The four continued along the cycle path, taking a left turn to join Madingley Road after a half-mile or so.
David's house was an imposing, ivy-clad 1930s pile which was rented from a commercial property agency. Fortuitously, it was almost opposite the Astrophysical Institute where he was doing research for his doctorate; some of the other occupants, working in departments on the other side of town, were not nearly so lucky. He left them on the doorstep and walked around to the back of the house, climbed up a drainpipe and into an open window on the first floor. Two or three minutes later he came downstairs and was surprised to find Al, Martin and James standing in the hallway.
``How did you get in?''
``Abbie let us in. She said you'd probably forgotten your key again.''
``Oh. She was right. I climbed in through the back.''
``What, burglar-style? I'm impressed.''
``Oh, it's not hard. A lot of people overestimate the skill required of your average burglar. Mind you, I expect they have a hard time getting insurance.''
``Burglars? Yeah, I bet.''
They made their way upstairs into David's room. It was fairly large -- it had probably been a drawing room in the house's original design, and had two large sash windows facing onto the garden. Below one of the windows was a floodlight of the type activated by an infra-red motion sensor; at the moment, it was glowing brightly, illuminating the fog and doing nothing to assist visibility. Presumably David had activated it during his ascent.
``Brrr. It's cold in here.'' David made his way over to the open window, and closed it with a crash. He checked the radiators -- which were on -- and turned on his hi-fi and computer. A Schubert string quartet blasted out from the speakers, and he leaped to turn the volume down. ``Best way to warm the room up -- power up all the electronics.''
David's cat -- which had been sleeping under a desk on a cushion nestled among the cables of the hi-fi -- stirred and began to wind itself around David's legs as he attended to a bottle of port and various glasses. Typically, of the four glasses he profferred, no two were the same. Two had been bought -- doubtless by parents, in the distant past -- from Ikea.
After handing the glasses round, David picked up the cat. Unlike the `Duck's' cat, it was evidently a little antisocial, quickly leaping down and returning to its nest under the desk.
``Is it a he or a she?''
``He's a,... uh, he's a he.''
``Walt.... As in Disney.''
``I thought Walt Disney was a mouse obsessive.''
``I suppose so. Walt seems perfectly happy with the name. At least, he doesn't object to being called it. Doesn't respond, either, of course, but can't be helped I suppose.''
Walt had left the room. Al asked -- ``Where's he off to?''
``No idea. Out, I expect.''
``How does he get out?''
``Broken window downstairs. Actually it was only cracked originally but I enlarged the hole while no-one was looking.''
``Uh... what does the landlord think about that?''
``I don't get the impression that thought enters into the landlord's management of the property.''
The port was acceptable. Close examination of the label revealed that it hailed from one of Lord Sainsbury's fine establishments, rather from the more up-market retailer which might be expected of David's alcohol purchases.
``Two hundred free Reward Points on the port.'' David had noticed James's surreptitious inspection of his bottle. ``Soon I shall have enough of them to get...'' -- David wracked his memory -- ``a flight to Luton.''
``But you live in Luton.''
``Quite. But the port's OK.''
Abbie walked in, carrying Walt, who purred affectionately. ``Want a glass?'' asked James, always ready to disburse other people's drink.
Abbie looked at David, and nodded -- ``Yeah, that would be nice.'' She found a glass from among the rubble which represented David's possessions, and stalked off to wash it in the bathroom. She returned, and sat down cross-legged in a corner. Walt joined her and sat in her lap while James poured her a glass of port.
``How's life? Good holiday?'' Abbie was still an undergraduate and benefited from the three-month long vacation; she had spent hers working in a public-relations firm.
``Pretty dull. I can't imagine how these PR people stand it.''
``What were you doing?''
``Working for a PR partnership in Nottingham. No fun. I even developed a taste for surfing the web, seemed to be about the only thing to do to keep myself sane.''
``Surfing the web kept you sane?'' David seemed surprised.
``Well, compared to you, it probably did.'' Al interrupted; much as he liked David, it was hard to imagine him as the arbiter of sanity, and anyway he was being annoying. Leaping in to defend Abbie was, perhaps, also in character.
Conversation continued inconsequentially, and the level of port in the bottle fell ever lower. By the time it was nine-tenths empty, David was looking very sleepy and Walt was already recumbent amongst a pile of laundry. The others filed out.
``Where are you living now, anyway?'' Abbie glanced unsteadily around the various members of the group, and James leapt in with a reply.
``Up on Castle Hill. Hopkirk building.'' The same answer held for all of them; in fact, they lived in virtually adjacent rooms, having chosen them in the previous year's ballot.
``Oh yeah, I know the one. Well, I'll come and find you sometime.''
``Third floor.'' called out Al as they left to trudge back through the fog which seemed, if anything thicker than ever. Navigating almost `by feel' -- so all-enveloping was the fog that streetlights were barely visible across the street, and cars approached unseen and unheard out of the opaque darkness, the glow of their headlights in the fog suddenly enveloping the party before disappearing just as abruptly -- they made their way home.
Ten o'clock saw Al and James in a lecture theatre in the Cavendish Laboratory, for the beginning of a new lecture course, promisingly entitled `New Developments in Quantum Theory'. Less promisingly, it was being given by the Department's worst lecturer, an elderly professor with the air of a maniacal pixie. Unfortunately that was the most energetic thing about him, and as he droned on, sometimes so quietly as to be almost at the limit of perception, Al and James's attentions began to wander, as did those of the majority of the audience. In fact -- and with the exception of the small Trinity contingent -- students from all around the room were using the opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
The lecture theatre -- which had recently been renovated in anticipation of some sort of inspection -- was unusually full. The beginning of the course meant that attendance was, instantaneously, quite high, since there were lecture handouts to collect. Professor Johnson, who was probably under no illusions about his own lecturing style, had long since given up on the idea that students would take notes for themselves, and instead produced a lengthy and impeccably typeset handout which contained everything anyone needed to know about the exam on his course other than the questions themselves. It was even rumoured that one year the exam questions for the course were accidently included -- they were mixed up with questions from a previous year -- but it wouldn't have made very much difference. The problem sheets were always so difficult that no-one could do them, in the exam or at any other time.
By the time ten minutes of the Professor's lecture had elapsed, Al was soundly asleep. Operating perhaps under the theory that if he slept in the lecture theatre -- rather than in the far more comfortable confines of his room -- knowledge would somehow diffuse into his brain by some process unknown to science, he dragged himself out to the Cavendish every morning without fail. James, still -- barely -- awake, judged that the only way to stay that way was to leave, so he adjourned to the `Student Common Room', also known as the corridor outside the lecture theatre, where there was a coffee machine. The vending machine served a variety of substances which were mutually distinct but bore little relation to the drinks they purported to be. The coffee tasted synthetic, the tea was sour and lumpy, and the hot chocolate was neither hot nor chocolate. The worst offender of the lot was a flourescent green liquid described as `Lime Refresher' which -- although in fact disgusting -- gave an almost narcotic kick and was widely regarded as the only way to survive the interminable experiments which undergraduates were forced to work their way through.
James absent-mindedly pushed coins into the machine's slot, pausing only to note that the Department had increased its prices yet again, and punched in the code for `hot chocolate' -- being careful not to type in the price of the item instead, a mistake which would have left him clutching extra-milky decaffeinated saccharine-sweetened coffee, a combination unlikely to do him any good at that time in the morning.
The weather outside -- the buildings of the Cavendish are largely glass sided, affording the occupants the pleasure of looking out, and those outside the terror of looking in -- was bright and clear. It would most likely deteriorate later on.
A few moments later, Amy arrived, clutching a folder out of whose sides bits of work and lecture notes hung precariously.
``Windy out there?'' James's enquiry was prompted by the humourous disarray of Amy's hair. Cambridge was always windy, although it seemed to be windier near long-haired people.
``Yeah.'' She pulled a hairbrush out of her bag and began to untangle her hair, a problem which looked as though it might well be NP-complete. ``Did you just get here too?''
``No, I couldn't stand any more of Johnson's lecture.''
``It can't be that bad. Remember Materials Science.'' The Materials Science course taken by most physicists in the first year was widely regarded as one of the most boring in the University, if not the universe; in essence, it consisted of interminable lectures on crystal structures and practicals which rarely rose above the level of measuring blobs on photographs. Furthermore, the coffee machine in the Department of Materials Science was exquisitely awful, much worse than even the Cavendish's.
``What's the lecture after this, anyway?''
``I think it's Fluid Dynamics. Apparently the lecturer's quite good.'' This normally meant that the lecturer told jokes, ended his lectures early (or even on time) or did something sufficiently out-of-the ordinary as to attract attention. This normally translated to blowing things up, giving particularly interesting (or inept) demonstrations, or playing videos in the lectures.
Al appeared from the door of the lecture theater, looking dazed.
``Just woken up?'' Amy's inquiry was meant sarcastically.
``Um, yes, in fact.''
``I wonder why you bother coming to these lectures. You're always asleep!''
``I didn't know you came here often enough to notice.'' Amy's lecture attendance was well below Al's almost-perfect record; she believed, probably correctly, that sleeping at home did her more good than sleeping in the Department of Physics.
``Now that's unfair. Plus, you owe me a hot chocolate.'' This latter, at least, was accurate, though that Amy could remember this from the previous June was remarkable. Unfortunately her superb memory had been of little help in the previous year's exams, which were widely held to be marked on the roll of a couple of dice, and she had earned a reprimand from her tutor on her return.
The three sat around, drinking hot chocolate and perusing the lecture notes for the course -- `proof of theorem 14.5 is trivial from theorem 14.8' seemed to be the highlight -- until the start of the Fluids lecture. As predicted, it was entertaining; the lecturer, a drawling Texan who was just one stetson short of a stereotype, wisecracked his way through an introduction to the subject, then finished off the lecture with a demonstration which drenched the lab technician, who then exited stage left muttering theatrically. In fact, the apparatus malfunctioned tactically every year, an effect which had required considerable trial-and-error experimentation to achieve but had proven worthwhile in keeping students' interest up.
By the end of the lecture and the question session afterwards, it was half-past twelve, and time for lunch. The Cavendish canteen was a long, dingy room which served a variety of foodstuffs -- in the sense that the slop handed out went under different names and sold for different prices from one day to the next. The safest culinary option was widely held to be salad and chocolate, on the grounds that the chocolate came in sealed wrappers, and even the Cavendish's catering contractors -- believed to be Budget Rent-A-Cook -- couldn't really mess up lettuce. Added proteinous matter was -- allegedly -- occasionally to be found in the form of a still-moving insect or two, although nobody could quite remember encountering any themselves.
Al, James and Martin -- who had joined them at lunch after his lectures -- found themselves in the Cavendish computer room, checking email. This was, usually, the only thing undergraduates did there, since the extent of their exposure to Information Technology in the physics course was being given advice on which fonts to use when word-processing experimental reports. That said, some of those on the course acquired computing skills elsewhere; as far as Martin -- who worked in IT when not at Cambridge -- could judge, glancing nosily around the other people in the room, one was trading shares on-line, another seemed to be conducting a video-conference with an attractive blonde postgrad in Denmark, and a third seemed to be in the process of hacking in to the Christian Union's website whilst listening to a pirate radio station in Singapore via the Internet. And one miserable-looking individual -- Martin recognised him as the dreaded Dr. Teukolvsky, theoretical physics lecturer -- was poring over a lengthy dot-matrix printout, clutching a copy of `Fortran 90 in Twenty-Four Hours' and occasionally tapping dejectedly at the keyboard.
Indeed, with all this activity going on, Martin had to wait for a terminal to become free; soon enough, however, the religious hacker -- having copied the entire home page of `Satanism Online' to the UCCU website -- departed, and he sat down to read his email.
Apart from the usual electronic junk-mail, he only had one message of interest--
From: Peter Thompson
To: Undisclosed recipients Date: 9 October 1998, 10:37 +0000 Subject: 21st Birthday Dear All, It's my 21st next Friday (the 16th) and I'm going to hold a party. It will be black tie, and in the ballroom of the Cambridge Arms; if you want an invitation, drop me a line with your postal address and I'll send one out. The thing will start at 9pm and according to the hotel people, they can keep the bar open until 1am. Yours, Pete.
Just as he was reading it, Al, who had got the terminal next to him, asked
``What does `unidisclosed recipients' mean?''
Martin glanced at his screen and verified his surmise that he had received the same email from Pete. ``It means that Pete was paranoid enough that, when he sent the email to however many tens of people he expects to pitch up for his bash, he didn't want person A to know whether persons B, C, and D have been invited.''
``Oh? That's a bit weird....''
``Not particularly. Why should he want to reveal his guest list?''
``So that if I discover that, say Lloyd had been invited, I would know to steer clear.''
``That's the point though, Pete probably doesn't want half his guests to decline the invitation because they don't like the other half. Plus, it means that people won't bitch at each other over whether they received invitations, at least not unless they mention the fact.''
``Well, it sounds like it should be entertaining whoever is going, I would have thought. Anyway, it's just down the road and we can see what the Cambridge Arms's bar looks like now they've fixed it up.'' (The aforementioned establishment had been closed for renovations for some time, following a drunken rampage by members of the St. John's Boat Club -- who had been forced to drink there after trashing their own College bar.)
By Saturday, the weather had improved markedly, and was actually fairly pleasant, at least by the standards of Cambridge in October. Martin found himself in the tiny Sainsburys which supported the town's student population on an unending diet of Pot Noodles and stir-fry. Real people went out of town to a gigantic Tesco, but this option wasn't open to students, who were, by and large, prohibited from keeping a car in town.
Consequently, Sainsburys was at times a hive of social activity, though on a typical Saturday morning most undergraduates were too hung-over to make it to the shops. Martin's Friday evening had been spent working on part of his vacation work which had escaped his attention the previous week, and so he hadn't had a chance to visit the pub. Plus, he had heard that Lloyd was in the area visiting Emma, and so felt that steering clear might be a good idea after Thursday's fun and games.
Turning down the breakfast cereal alley -- Martin had been charged with purchasing the Rice Krispies which were the early-morning staple of those who shared the tiny kitchen on the third floor of the Hopkirk building -- he bumped into Emma, who was also purchasing cereal.
``Hi! How was the pub last night?''
``Awful. I shouldn't have gone. Why weren't you there?''
``Um... I thought that Lloyd probably wouldn't have appreciated my company.''
``Hmm. You're probably right. I don't think I appreciated Lloyd's company much. He kept on talking about his stupid job; I can't imagine why he thought I'd want to know about it.''
``Who else was there, then?''
``Oh-- no-one. I think he'd invited some friends he was working with, but evidently they had better things to do. Apparently they'd invited him to go clubbing with them, but he'd somehow figured that it would be more fun to meet me.''
Martin suppressed a smile. ``Hmm. Well, I wouldn't have thought that clubbing was Lloyd's style, would you?''
``No, but I would have gone along. It might have been fun.''
``You think so? Have you met any of Lloyd's friends-from-work?''
``No. Why, have you?''
``Well, not as such, but from what Lloyd says about them, I'm not sure I want to, particularly.''
``I see....'' The sentiment trailed into silence.
By this time, they had drifted down towards the alcohol section of Sainsbury's, which was kept discreetly in a corner of the store.
``I was going to have a cocktail party tonight. Do you want to come?''
Emma's cocktail parties frequently ended in disaster of one sort or another, but were usually quite good fun -- even if they meant trekking what seemed like miles to Rayleigh College, where she lived.
``I'd love to. Should I bring a bottle?''
``Yes. Come over here and I'll tell you what to buy.''
Martin, laden with vodka and varied fruit juices, emerged from the check-out a few moments after Emma, who had managed to make a wiser choice of queue. Just before getting on to her bicycle to ride back to Rayleigh -- bottles of spirits perched precariously upon the handlebars -- she called out to Martin, ``Bring your friends! Don't worry, you-know-who won't be there! I'll email you!''
Looking forward to the latter treat -- Emma's emails tended to be composed all in lower case, with far too many exclamation marks (`i'll be holding a party! bring a bottle! make sure you can remember where i live!') and were sometimes somewhat opaque in meaning. Martin realised with irritation that he'd neglected to ask when the party was, and he wasn't even sure where exactly Emma was living. He figured that James would probably know.
Martin, having returned to his room and browsed the web for a couple of hours, while fending off questions about other peoples' work (`How would I know how to do that question?' `You did it last year.' `That was a long time ago', and so forth) was somewhat surprised when David knocked on the door of his room.
``Hi David. Bit early for you, isn't it?'' It was two o'clock.
``Well, I got back from London this morning, and I realised I don't have any coffee at home. Any chance of some here?''
``Only if you tell me what you were doing in London.''
``Oh, a friend's birthday party. Entertaining, I suppose, but not enough champagne. Unremarkable.'' David looked even more untidy than ever, and it dawned on Martin that he was still wearing his dinner jacket and the remains of a bow tie. His eyes, normally bright, looked dull and tired.
``Up all night, then?''
``I got a bit of sleep on the train. But otherwise, yes.''
``Hmm. A posh party, in London, which didn't end until this morning. Sounds like good fun.''
``No, not really. Though the hosts made a good attempt at it.''
``And the hosts were...?''
``No-one you know. Now about that coffee?''
They made their way to the kitchen, and Martin busied himself with the coffee machine. By the time he had found filter, jug and coffee, he noticed that David was slumped against the wall, apparently fast asleep.
James wandered in. ``What's he doing here?''
Martin peered over his glasses at David in a mock-professorial manner. ``Sleeping, I would say.''
``Really. What's he been up to, dare I ask?''
``Some sort of party, apparently.''
James started poking around at the bags of shopping on the tiny work-surface. ``Why the vodka? You planning a party too?''
``No, I bumped into Emma, she seems to be having some sort of cocktail party at Rayleigh. Everyone's invited -- except Lloyd apparently -- but I was unlucky enough to bump into her in the supermarket, so she got me to buy booze for her.''
``Oooh. Sounds like fun. I'll try to fit it into my busy schedule.'' James's eyes wandered round the kitchen, and then alighted on the fridge. ``Had any breakfast yet?''
``Not yet. I went into town to buy some cereal.''
``Hmm. I might do some bacon. I think there's some in the fridge, isn't there?''
David woke up, presumably disturbed by the smell of brewing coffee and loud chatter. He looked around, in the manner of a rabbit suddenly caught in a floodlight, before figuring out where he was.
``Afternoon.'', said James in response. ``Want some breakfast?''
``Um, yeah, sounds good.''
By this stage there was a sizzling pan of fat on the hob and James was searching around for fryable matter in the fridge, turning up a pack of bacon and three Sainsbury's Economy Potato Waffles, which he put in the toaster in blatant violation of the cooking instructions on the reverse of the packet. The bacon was thrown into the frying-pan, where it began to emit crackling noises and thick black smoke, prompting Martin to slam the door -- the corridors were full of smoke detectors, wired to what was often colloquially referred to as the `toast alarm'. Frying bacon was detected with enormous efficiency, and typically caused a visit by an irate porter, and on occasions the Cambridge Fire Brigade.
Coffee was passed around, and David perked up, swallowing half a cup almost reflexively as it was handed to him. However, despite or perhaps because of his somewhat more conscious state, he didn't respond to probing by James as to why he was still attired in (the remains of) evening dress at this particular hour on a Saturday afternoon.
Conversation returned to the subject of Emma's party-- ``Any idea why she's holding it today?'' Martin, despite his meeting earlier, had no idea why there was a party.
``I expect she's going to be celebrating the fact that Lloyd hasn't been invited.'' was David's take on the matter.
James had indeed known where Emma was living, and consequently where her cocktail party was being held. Her room -- large by the standards of the college -- overlooked Rayleigh's sole claim to fame: a large concrete dome designed by an overenthusiastic architect. The dome enclosed the hall, which was chiefly notable for food of very limited nutritional content, and an annual bop for freshers, widely regarded as the worst disco on Planet Earth.
``Nice view.'' James apparently hadn't actually seen Emma's room before.
``Yeah, if the idea of spending the day gazing at a giant concrete breast is your idea of fun.'' (Rayleigh is an all-womens' college.)
``Uh. Yeah. Whatever.'' James did not reveal his views on staring at giant breasts.
``You know it's collapsing?''
``The dome. It's collapsing. The architect they employed was incompetent, and the whole site is subsiding.''
``Couldn't they get implants for it?''
``So, if this isn't a silly question, what's the party for?'' Martin, presumably, did not want to believe that his alcohol purchases had been explicitly purposeless, and tried to steer the conversation back on track.
``To celebrate the giant breast, of course.'' David suggested helpfully.
``No, Tom's coming to visit. He gets back from Canada today.'' Tom was Emma's sometime boyfriend, who had a habit of disappearing to far-flung places during vacations.
``Oh right. Cool. So when's he getting here?'' James rather liked Tom, and had corresponded with him by email over the vacation. His time in Canada sounded rather more varied and exciting than Emma would perhaps have liked, but anyway Emma's wayward behaviour was of itself legendary, and presumably the couple had learned to work around their patchy approach to monogamy.
``Dunno. His bus should be here by now. Half an hour, maybe.'' This sounded optimistic to Martin, whose recollection was that -- despite the worldwide traveller image -- Tom's sense of direction was absolutely hopeless. Indeed, on one occasion when he had been very late visiting Emma, it emerged that his route from the bus station in the center of town to Rayleigh had consisted essentially of a giant spiral centered on the bus station, and circling slowly outwards.
``Ah well, that explains why you didn't invite Lloyd.''
``No, I did invite him. He just seemed very keen not to come.'' This was hardly surprising, since Lloyd's view of Tom was strongly clouded by his opinion of Emma. Indeed, displaying a directness of expression which was very unusual for him, he had once told Emma that he was `no good' and that she should dump him forthwith -- while he was standing just a few feet away. His reaction, of course, was to laugh at Lloyd's (by that stage much advanced) inebriation; Emma had found it terribly embarrassing.
Tom's arrival was heralded by a heavy clumping of boots on the stairs. It was apparent that he'd come straight from his flight into Heathrow -- he was unshaven, grubby, and still attached firmly to a gigantic rucksack. He dumped his luggage by Emma's bed and kissed her, while the others looked discreetly away.
``Hey, you didn't say you'd planned a party!'' Tom had picked up something of a Canadian accent while he'd been away, and Martin, who found it grating, muttered, under his breath ``I hope he loses that accent!''
It turned out that the worldwide traveller in Tom had again been daunted by Cambridge's geography -- this time, he'd subjected himself to one of the city's many tortuous bus routes, and had ended up at a `Park and Ride' car park near Madingley. From there -- exploiting his travel-worn appearance and Canadian accent -- he'd hitch-hiked back into town, catching a lift from someone who by description sounded disturbingly like one of Lloyd's friends. His take on this was that backpacking was much easier than getting around Cambridge: ``At least in airports they have signs saying where the aeroplanes go.'' Anyway, as a result of this experience, he was knocking back whisky-and-cokes at an alarming rate. Emma was struggling to keep up.
After a few minutes, Edward arrived. He was a friend of Emma's from her home near Manchester who lived just down the road. He had in tow a girl no-one had met before, and who he introduced as Anna. She seemed a bit bewildered by the company, and refused any drinks.
Soon after, Amy and Louise arrived; Amy's hair was just as confused as ever, serving as a useful indication of the wind strength. Louise's cropped hair looked the same as it ever did, though for some reason she was carrying a comb which she lent to Amy for an emergency hair adjustment. They'd bought with them a large bottle of gin, and a small bottle of tonic, which they put on the table with the other booze.
``Were you planning to have particularly strong G and T's, then?'' Emma couldn't stand gin, and didn't understand how Amy could like it.
``No. We thought you'd have some tonic water already, and anyway we couldn't be arsed to carry any more. You don't seem to have any lemon, either.'' Amy poured herself a G and T -- in normal proportions -- and Martin grabbed one too. Louise, meanwhile, started looking through a book called `How to make cocktails', looking for the most brightly-coloured concoction she could manufacture using the materials to hand. Presently, she brewed up a bright-green, lethal-smelling liquid which was apparently called a `Chicago Squealer' and tasted somewhere between rum (of which it was principally composed) and washing-up liquid (of which it was not). Oddly, it proved popular and Louise found herself serving the stuff out all round.
The party proceeded, careering downhill with each new chapter in Louise's book of cocktails; the drunker Louise became, the more erratic the quantities of alcohol in each drink, until they were pouring Long Island Iced Teas which consisted entirely of gin and vodka.
It was at about this stage that Lloyd arrived. He looked somewhat out-of-breath, and it seemed that he had run much of the way from St. Anne's. Upon his arrival, Tom glared at Emma, who glared back and shrugged her shoulders.
Lloyd's first words were, ``Sorry I'm late, I only just got your email. I brought some whisky.''
Martin looked at James in despair, and whispered, ``Well, I was told he wasn't coming.''
``I didn't think he was even on the recipients list for the email.''
Lloyd, still standing in the doorway, fished a -- small -- bottle of whisky out of his bottle, and held it in front of him, in the manner of a peace offering. Until he spied Al, whereupon he muttered ``Oh God, not you again.''
Emma's party had, predictably enough, broken up shortly after Lloyd's arrival; she was, quite out of character, incandescent with rage, and her guests had departed in order to let Tom calm her down. Lloyd, never a sparkling conversationalist, had departed in a huff and muttering darkly.
Anne and Edward had turned out to be more fun that initial impressions had suggested. Most of the party had departed with David, returning again to his house, and consuming more of his store of Sainsbury's alcohol, and also the large bottle of vodka which Edward had seen fit to appropriate from Emma's (in fact, the bottle was one of those purchased by Martin).
David's room, apparently, was too messy to fit anyone in, and instead the party sat in the kitchen, which was the only communal area in the house ("not counting the bathroom" as Abbie pointed out). Abbie herself had just finished writing an essay and so was also in the mood for drinking. David's other housemate, Graham, was apparently in Stockholm, attending a conference on some exciting scientific topic which nobody could quite remember.
Copyright (c) 1999-2000 Chris Lightfoot. All rights reserved.