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19/02/2014

North-North-West

Elizabeth Briggs

An extract from a novel, set in Oxford in 1935.

Christiana has been for a walk. When she arrives back at the house she takes off her gloves and leaves them on the hall table. She will go and sit in the drawing room. Since Mrs Cunningham has told her what a nice place it is, she has taken to spending time there. If she sits there enough, perhaps she will begin to believe it, to deceive herself. The drawing room door is open. She hesitates on the threshold, walks in. Heinrich is standing there. He is never there; he is always in his study, always. He only ever comes in if she is already there. She does not know what to do or where to sit.

Look, he gestures, his voice brighter than usual. Stollen, in Oxford. A miracle.

Oh, she cries, seeing the tea tray with the cake sitting on it, nestled happily alongside the cups and saucers and the teapot. She runs and kneels on the floor beside the table, leans in to the slice Heinrich has already cut to smell the lemon zest and spices and icing sugar, presses the soft sponge, scoops out a fingerful of marzipan. Different to the Stollen back home, but still recognisable.

Where did you find it, she says, sucking at the raisins and candied peel stuck between her back teeth.

There’s a bakery off St Giles’.

She picks up the knife to cut herself another slice. Mama always cut it at home, and she used to sit impatiently at the table waiting to see how big the slices would turn out, as the knife in Mama’s hand hovered and hesitated and sank into the cake.

She puts the knife down at the thought of Mama. Heinrich stands beside her, munching and murmuring with satisfaction.

Everything alright love, he asks, looking at her.

Yes, I’ve just had enough.

Well there’s plenty more if you change your mind.

Christiana goes to bed early that night without having dinner, leaving Heinrich in his study working away into the night. She lies alone in the bed trying to prise a currant out from between her teeth with her tongue. She doesn’t want it there anymore. She sticks her fingernail into her gum, scratching at it. During the Christmas season when she was little Mama had sometimes given her a piece of Stollen with a cup of hot milk in the evenings, as a treat. She used to lie in bed afterwards running her tongue over her teeth in search of the last traces. But now she doesn’t want to taste it. She has brought the memory of Mama and home into contact with Oxford, and now the memory is tainted and spoilt. She realises now that memory and the past do not travel, that they must be kept locked up preciously, unspoilt and untainted by any association with this place. She has learnt her lesson now, and will not make that mistake again. Heinrich meant well in buying the cake, he meant to cheer her up and make her time in Oxford better by bringing her favourite memories into it, but she wishes he hadn’t done it.

She flings back the sheets and runs across the cold corridor into the bathroom, where the nausea rises in her throat and she vomits up the cake into the basin.

 

The next day, Christiana meets Mrs Cunningham at ten minutes to four at the Walton Street tea shop, and they walk to Roger’s studio. The house in which he lodges is tall and thin, with a top floor perched up high, twin windows facing out over the street. Mrs Cunningham rings the doorbell with Roger’s name on it, and after a couple of minutes Christiana hears the inner door scraping open, and a rattle of the lock being undone. Roger’s head curls round into the open space, and he smiles.

Come in, he says, holding the door open.

He leads them through a hallway and up two flights of stairs. Christiana hears the noise of a family somewhere else in the house, and is disorientated for a moment, unsure of whose house she is in and who lives where.

I live just up here, Roger tells them, gesturing to one final flight of stairs.

Christiana looks upwards. She can see the sky out of a high round window on the landing above, and she quickens her pace as she follows him. All three of her homes in Berlin had been upper-storey flats, and neither she nor her friends ever manoeuvred their lives across different levels of a single house as she is forced to do in Oxford. Roger’s flat becomes Berlin now, a home which exists all on the same level. As she climbs higher and higher the view from the round window expands, and she can just see over the curved sill and down over a moving street of people, their foreignness suddenly forgotten in the familiarity of her vantage point. The flat smells of paint and some kind of chemical spirits, quite different to any other smells she has encountered since coming to England.

Roger leaves them sitting on a sofa in the studio, and Christiana looks around her at the paintings hanging on the walls and propped up on the floor, tries to see what they all are without craning her head too obviously. Mrs Cunningham appears happy to sit still.

The family here are very nice, says Roger, carrying in a tray of tea things from the kitchen. Very accommodating.

He pours out the tea splashily.

Christiana looks across the room to the twin sloping windows in the roof.

Have you seen the view? Roger asks her. Come and see.

She is happy that he has noticed her interest, and she comes over to where he is lifting the latch and swinging open the window.

Here, stand on this, he says, pulling forward a low chair.

Christiana sees that the chair is upholstered, and she glances at her shoes and hesitates.

It’s fine, he tells her. I stand on it all the time.

She puts a foot onto the chair, a hand on the sill, and swings herself up. The cold air blows in her face, and she leans forwards to see down over the street. It is a miniature town, and she feels as if she could reach down and pick up any one of the people taking tiny steps along the street, toy baskets and parcels in their hands and doll-sized hats on their heads. A ribbon of bicycles weaves along the road, and her eye skims after them.

Do be careful Christiana, says Mrs Cunningham’s voice from somewhere behind her.

She looks at Roger, but he shakes his head and so she stays up there, though she puts both hands on the window rail as an acknowledgement of Mrs Cunningham’s warning.

Roger climbs on a chair and pokes his head out of the adjacent window.

Look, he calls out at her emerging head, pointing. There’s the university press. And over there, see, is the book shop. And down there is –

A gust of wind blows and she can’t catch what he said, but she nods at him as if she has, not wanting to break up the flow of conversation by asking him to repeat himself.

Two birds soar across their view, from one treetop to a further one, and Christiana almost laughs at the sight. A larger bird flies after them, and the sky is suddenly threaded with winging birds.

Roger climbs down from the window and helps her off the chair. He closes the windows and turns back to the table where Mrs Cunningham is still sitting down, and hands Christiana her cup of tea.

That’ll warm you up, he says.

 

When she gets home she sees a round tin on the table in the kitchen. She opens it, and finds inside the rest of the Stollen. Heinrich must have put it in there. She looks at it and begins to cry, silently. She cuts a sliver off the end and puts it in her mouth and chews it.

 

Late one morning the next week Christiana hears noises coming from Heinrich’s study. The door is open, and she wanders by to see what is happening. Heinrich is putting some papers in his briefcase. A photograph lies in the centre of the desk. He looks up at her and smiles. She moves towards the desk.

What’s this? She reaches for the photograph.

He picks it up and holds it under the light, studying it closely. Herman sent it over, he says.

She sees a letter open on the table. She has not heard from any of her friends back home.

It’s an interesting thing actually, he continues, turning the picture this way and that under the lamp, eyes fixed on it. They found it in a Sicilian excavation, but it’s almost certainly Nordic in origin. We’ve no idea why it was there, how it got there. There’s nothing that points to a Nordic presence on that site.

This was the only thing?

Yes, completely out of place. I can’t explain it.

He takes a seat to hold the photo closer to the desk lamp, still turning it around and around, examining it from every angle. You know, he says, this could be a really huge moment. Finding out how it got there may point to some great pattern of migration and movement of peoples, something we’ve never heard of before, something really significant. I honestly think it might be a spectacular discovery.

He stands up, knocking the chair to one side as he moves. Christiana puts out a hand to catch it and reposition it.

Anyway, Robert and I are having lunch in college. I should go. He picks up his briefcase. Goodbye love. He kisses her on the cheek.

She keeps her eyes down, and he leaves the room. When she has heard him go down the stairs and out of the front door, she moves nearer to the table, puts out a finger to touch the photograph of the alien hairpin. It lies oddly in a hollow of the rock, like a fissure.

 

Christiana is sitting in the drawing room that evening reading Mrs Cunningham’s book of Keats when she hears a nasal grunting sound from outside. Without seeing, she can’t decide if it is barking dogs or geese returning home after the winter. She loves the sound of geese flying away in autumn and returning in spring. If it is geese that she can hear, they will soon be gone, and she will need to get outside quickly. She goes and rattles at the front door latch but it doesn’t give way.

Heinrich, she calls, hearing him walking down the passageway behind her. How do I open it? Let me out.

Heinrich makes a murmur and she hears him move towards the door. He takes his time, and she rattles at it again.

How do I open it? she repeats. His hand appears and twists the lock and pulls it open, before disappearing again as he walks away down the hallway.

As soon as the door opens she hears more distinctly, and it is not the growing and fading lilt of geese, but the grounded hoarse rivalry of dogs. She steps out alone onto the stone path and listens to them calling out in the night. She can’t see them; the noise comes from beyond the trees. She wants to stay with them, to feel less lonely. If she waits long enough out here something is bound to happen. The street can’t be empty for this long, endlessly empty.

She begins to shiver, and the dogs give up barking and go silent. No one has found her. She walks slowly indoors, turns back towards the gap in the hedge where the pavement is visible beneath the street lamp, but no one comes, and she can’t see anything, and she steps in and closes the door. Back inside, Heinrich is nowhere to be seen.

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