I read my way into Caversham Heights. The air felt warm after the wintry conditions back home, and I found myself standing on a wooden jetty at the edge of a lake. In front of me there was a large and seemingly derelict flying boat of the sort that still plied the coastal routes back home. I had flown on one myself not six months before on the trail of someone claiming to have found some unpublished Burns poetry. But that was another lifetime ago, when I was SpecOps in Swindon, the world I had temporarily left behind.
The ancient flying boat rocked gently in the breeze, tautening the mooring ropes and creaking gently, the water gently slapping against the hull. As I watched the old aircraft, wondering just how long something this decrepit could stay afloat, a well-dressed young woman stepped out of an oval-shaped door in the high- sided hull. She was carrying a suitcase. I had read the novel of Caversham Heights so I knew Mary well although she didn't know me.
"Hullo!" she shouted, trotting up and offering me a hand. "I'm Mary. You must be Thursday. My goodness! What's that?"
"A dodo. Her name's Pickwick."
Pickwick plocked and stared at Mary suspiciously.
"Really?" she replied, looking at the bird curiously. "I'm no expert of course butI thought dodoes were extinct."
"Where I come from, they're a bit of a pest."
"Oh?" mused Mary. "I'm not sure I've heard of a book with live dodoes in it."
"I'm not a bookperson," I told her, "I'm real."
"Oh!" exclaimed Mary, opening her eyes wide. "An Outlander."
She touched me inquisitively with a slender index finger as though I might be made of glass.
"I've never seen someone from the other side before," she announced, clearly relieved to find that I wasn't going to shatter into a thousand pieces. "Tell me, is it true you have to cut your hair on a regular basis? I mean, your hair actually grows?"
"Yes"I smiled"and my fingernails, too."
"Really?" mused Mary. "I've heard rumors about that but I thought it was just one of those Outlandish legends. I suppose you have to eat, too? To stay alive, I mean, not just when the story calls for it?"
"One of the great pleasures of life," I assured her.
I didn't think I'd tell her about real-world downsides such as tooth decay, incontinence, or old age. Mary lived in a three-year window and neither aged, died, married, had children, got sick or changed in any way. Although appearing resolute and strong-minded, she was only like this because she was written that way. For all her qualities, Mary was simply a foil to Jack Spratt, the detective in Caversham Heights, the loyal sergeant figure to whom Jack explained things so the readers knew what was going on. She was what writers called an expositional, but I'd never be as impolite to say so to her face.
"Is this where I'm going to live?" I was pointing at the shabby flying boat.
"I know what you're thinking." Mary smiled proudly. "Isn't she just the most beautiful thing ever? She's a Sunderland; built in 1943 but last flew in '68. I'm midway converting her to a houseboat, but don't feel shy if you want to help out. Just keep the bilges pumped out, and if you can run the number three engine once a month, I'd be very gratefulthe start-up checklist is on the flight deck."
"Wellokay," I muttered.
"Good. I've left a précis of the story taped to the fridge and a rough idea of what you have to say, but don't worry about being word perfect; since we're not published, you can say almost anything you wantwithin reason, of course."
"Of course." I thought for a moment. "I'm new to the Character Exchange Program. When will I be called to do something?"
"Wyatt is the inbook exchange liaison officer; he'll let you know. Jack might seem gruff to begin with," continued Mary, "but he has a heart of gold. If he asks you to drive his Austin Allegro, make sure you depress the clutch fully before changing gear. He takes his coffee black and the love interest between myself and DC Baker is strictly unrequited, is that clear?"
Copyright Jasper Fforde 2003. All rights reserved.
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