She eats her toast and drinks her tea (she prefers coffee but is saving herself for a proper espresso at the university). As she does so, she leafs through her lecture notes, originally typewritten but now scribbled over with a palimpsest of additional notes in different coloured pens. Gender and Prehistoric Technology, Excavating Artefacts, Life and Death in the Mesolithic, The Role of Animal Bone in Excavations. Although it is only early November, the Christmas term will soon be over and this will be her last week of lectures. Briefly, she conjures up the faces of her students: earnest, hard-working, slightly dull. She only teaches postgraduates these days and rather misses the casual, hungover good humour of the undergraduates. Her students are so keen, waylaying her after lectures to talk about Lindow Man and Boxgrove Man and whether women really would have played a significant role in prehistoric society. Look around you, she wants to shout, we dont always play a significant role in this society. Why do you think a gang of grunting hunter-gatherers would have been any more enlightened than we?
Thought for the Day seeps into her unconscious, reminding her that it is time to leave. In some ways, God is like an iPod She puts her plate and cup in the sink and leaves down food for her cats, Sparky and Flint. As she does so, she answers the ever-present sardonic interviewer in her head. OK, Im a single, overweight woman on my own and I have cats. Whats the big deal? And, OK, sometimes I do speak to them but I dont imagine that they answer back and I dont pretend that Im any more to them than a convenient food dispenser. Right on cue, Flint, a large ginger Tom, squeezes himself through the cat flap and fixes her with an unblinking, golden stare.
Does God feature on our Recently Played list or do we sometimes have to press Shuffle?
Ruth strokes Flint and goes back into the sitting room to put her papers into her rucksack. She winds a red scarf (her only concession to colour: even fat people can buy scarves) round her neck and puts on her anorak. Then she turns out the lights and leaves the cottage.
Ruths cottage is one in a line of three on the edge of the Saltmarsh. One is occupied by the warden of the bird sanctuary, the other by weekenders who come down in summer, have lots of toxic barbecues and park their 4 × 4 in front of Ruths view. The road is frequently flooded in spring and autumn and often impassable by midwinter. Why dont you live somewhere more convenient? her colleagues ask. There are some lovely properties in Kings Lynn, or even Blakeney if you want to be near to nature. Ruth cant explain, even to herself, how a girl born and brought up in South London can feel such a pull to these inhospitable marshlands, these desolate mudflats, this lonely, unrelenting view. It was research that first brought her to the Saltmarsh but she doesnt know herself what it is that makes her stay, in the face of so much opposition. Im used to it, is all she says. Anyway the cats would hate to move. And they laugh. Good old Ruth, devoted to her cats, child-substitutes of course, shame she never got married, shes really very pretty when she smiles.
Today, though, the road is clear, with only the everpresent wind blowing a thin line of salt onto her windscreen. She squirts water without noticing it, bumps slowly over the cattle grid and negotiates the twisting road that leads to the village. In summer the trees meet overhead, making this a mysterious green tunnel. But today the trees are mere skeletons, their bare arms stretching up to the sky. Ruth, driving slightly faster than is prudent, passes the four houses and boarded-up pub that constitute the village and takes the turning for Kings Lynn. Her first lecture is at ten. She has plenty of time.
Excerpted from The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths. Copyright © 2010 by Elly Griffiths. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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