A hot, dry wind blew through the room. Zeke dropped the scissors. "Break," he said.
He started to ask her questions, the same ones she'd asked him, where she grew up, what her mum and dad did. After all these hours it was too late to ask her name. Other topics too, he sensedher presence here, Ms. F's fatherwould be unwelcome. She told him she'd grown up near York. Her father had managed a golf course and then bluffed his way into teaching at a private school. His only qualification was being able to talk the hind legs off a donkey. Her mother, after years as a bored housewife, had opened a junk shop. "She'd invent the most amazing histories for her goods: this was Marie Antoinette's hot water bottle, this was Hitler's fountain pen. I take after both of them."
"Do you mean that?" Zeke said.
She looked up from the paper she was spreading with paste, her eyes narrowing as if to distinguish some distant landmark. "Yes and no. I grew up determined to be as different from them as possible, but since they died a few years ago sometimes I'll catch myself tying my shoelaces in the same fussy way my mother did. Or overtipping in a restaurant just so no one will think I'm my father's daughter."
"I'm sorry they're dead," he said.
She dipped the brush in the paste and drew it steadily across the paper. "I studied English at university. That's almost as useless as anthropology."
At lunchtime she opened a tin of tomato soup and he shared the ham sandwiches he'd brought. They worked on through the darkening afternoon. Oughtn't she to take a rest, he wondered, but now that they were putting up the lining paper she seemed determined to finish. She shrugged off his suggestion that they wait until tomorrow. The streetlights came on, buzzy amber splodges; in the houses opposite, curtains were drawn. He bungled the last piece of paper, a tricky corner, then bungled it again. "If at first you don't succeed," she chanted from the foot of the ladder, "try, try, and try again. My English teacher used to say that all the time."
While he mounted the ladder once more she described Robert the Bruce, a rebel leader hiding in a cave on some Scottish mountain, drawing inspiration from the arachnid's repeated efforts to anchor its web. Zeke smoothed the top of the paper into place and, slowly descending, pressed the seams together.
Now what, he thought, glancing around the bare room. Dismissal?
"Maybe you could make a fire," she said, "while I see if there's anything for supper?"
"A fire?" For a moment he saw himself soaking the dust sheets with petrol, the flames leaping at the pile of furniture, but then she pointed at the fireplace, the grate messy with cinders. She left the room and he knelt to roll newspapers, add kindling, firelighters, and coal, tasks he hadn't performed since leaving his drafty house at university. When he came into the kitchen, she was at the stove, stirring a saucepan. "Frozen lasagna," she announced. "Tinned spinach, fresh carrots. There's beer in the cupboard under the stairs."
"Thanks. I think I'll have some juice."
"Don't you drink?"
"Not often. It makes me..." He hesitated between weird and stupid.
Presumably he chose the latter, because she said, "Not so stupid you don't know it." She reached for a glass and he saw the golden-brown liquid topped with froth. Stop, he wanted to say. Ms. F doesn't deserve to start life with a hangover. But before he could think of a polite way, or indeed any way, to voice his concern she was shouting, "Christ!"
He watched, bewildered, as she grabbed the saucepan and began to bang it against the stove.
And then he was in the hall. He had seen her full mouth stretched wide, her eyes glinting, not gestures that had appeared on his poster but, combined with the shouting, fairly unequivocal. In the living room he bent to tend the fire, fighting the desire to climb out of the window and never come back. The first flare of the firelighter had died down and the coals were glowing dully when he heard her footsteps. Fourteen steps carried her into his presence.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...