Mrs Woosencraft is forced to play the waiting game.
Sunk in her wing-backed armchair in the deepening gloom Mrs Woosencraft ran the numbers through her head again and again. She’d rarely felt her age, seldom even considered the passage of years. Now she was having palpitations. Her hands were clammy, her feet cold and her heart thumped in her chest.
Sheets of paper filled with diagrams and calculations covered her ancient kitchen table, the peculiar geometries of her chosen aspect of the finite infinities of Deg Naw Wyth.
Seated at that table decades ago Ethel Godwinsson had taught an eager Dorothy Woosencraft all she was able to learn. The table had been old even then. It was Ethel’s table, the place she had practised and refined her own craft, and it was steeped in her long-gone tutor’s lore and magic.
Somewhere in Ethel Godwinsson’s own house had been an even older table, one that had belonged to her tutor before her. It was lost now, sold off by Ethel’s family. She imagined it now quietly mouldering in some potting shed or an attic playroom where young children crayoned pictures of castles, fish and faeries, spilled paint and gouged railway lines into it with biros.
According to tradition the first tables had been circular and inscribed around the edge with compass points and other geometric markers.
The kitchen table had been the only thing Ethel left Mrs Woosencraft in her will. It was the only thing she had wanted and she used it as she knew Ethel intended, as a piece of ordinary furniture. It was the right way to let the power fade, seeping down the legs into the floor, up through the chopping board or carried away by the tea tray. Out and away, back into the world.
Ethel’s methods, her numbers, her steady, practical and at times crusty style still saturated the ancient pine. Mrs Woosencraft had her own table, the black oak table in the front room. It went wherever she went and it was where she explored the indivisible nineteenth way ever since that long-ago June picnic in the buttercup meadow when she and Ethel agreed the twenty-third way was beyond her.
There were still times when she liked to work at Ethel’s table. Times when the subtle shove of her old-fashioned ways, the memories of abacus, slate and chalk and the cracked saucers of tally stones were a help rather than hindrance. Times like now, when she felt she needed all the support she could get.
It was not as if Mrs Woosencraft had embraced modernity. She used compass and candles, a setsquare and ruler, a row of small brass bells, a diminutive set of knife-edge scales and, almost as old as she was, her slide-rule. Heaving herself out of her chair, she went back into the kitchen for another look. Perhaps she’d missed something, perhaps she was wrong.
Heptagons overlapped circles, parallelograms butted against the sides of triangles. Lines and arcs connected this to that. One place to another. The future to the past.
Every margins brimmed with calculations. Columns and streams of them, crossed out, revised, reworked, begun again from new seed-points, new assumptions. Everything led to the same conclusion. The angles might all be right but everything else looked badly wrong.
Koponen had been wrong too. Knowing she was right did nothing to help her sense of impotent frustration. Somewhere out there, wherever Tim now was, bad things were happening. For her there was nothing to do except sit and wait and see who came out of the other end.
Numbers didn’t lie. They might not tell you the truth, but they never lied. They simply were what they were. She should know. They had been her way, her life, from the moment an old lady had shown a very bored young girl how they could open a path from the questions brimming inside her head to what she would eventually come to regard as the observable universe.
It was the best wet weekend she’d ever had.
Some very specific numbers had brought her through the years to today, this room, this particular variant of that constant and ever changing subjective moment called ‘Now’.
Reality was a frenzy, a seethe, a simmering pot constantly rising and falling, combining and fading. Only some of it was random, the rest was probability and chance. Everything was connected, everything influenced everything else. Often it was in amounts so small they were subsumed by bigger events. Once in a while they combined to shake the earth.
One person in the right place at the right time looking through the right eyes could part the veils and see the shadows. It took enormous skill to glimpse the things that cast them.
Ethel Godwinsson had taught her how to access that layer. And how, with geometry, calculation and equation she could not only pose it questions, she could get answers too.
It was almost impossible, but only almost. The knack was to ask the exact right question. Absolutely exact. Compared to that, the rest of the nineteenth way of Deg Naw Wyth was as easy as pissing on your fingers.
‘Up you come, pet,’ Mrs Woosencraft lifted Morse onto her lap. ‘I’ll get you some supper soon, just give me a few minutes.’
He’d been all over her as soon as she had let him out of the cat box, under her feet, butting his head on her calves, winding his tail around her legs. Wherever he had been during the time he’d spent as her cat, he hadn’t been getting regular meals. Out of guilt, though she knew she shouldn’t, she’d let him eat all he could. Two bowls of tinned rabbit hadn’t lasted long. Now he was hungry again.
All her other cats were in the room as well. They sensed something important was going on and were there to bear witness. The two Siamese sat on the curtain rail, a cluster of tortoiseshells, grey Persians and mixed tabbies colonised the settee. Others sprawled on the piano. Pedwar the Manx sat like a moth-eaten sphinx in the doorway.
All the cats in the room looked at Morse, sitting on her lap.
‘All right, I’m not proud of what I did,’ Mrs Woosencraft announced. ‘I came here for a reason. We all did. I did what I thought was best.’ Her lips tightened, deepening the creases round her mouth. ‘We were down to eighteen, I had to do something, didn’t I?’
And yes, she finally admitted, she had been blinded by hope, too wrapped up in what she wanted, lost in dreams of what might be. And at her age too. She should have known better.
Now there was nothing to do except sit and wait. At times like these she hated waiting. For want of something better to do, anything, she got up, went back into the kitchen, tidied her papers away and baked some scones.
To be continued…