Chaos in Cambridge
IT OCCURRED TO Annabelle, as she sprinted across the city that confronting a professor at a popular pub, pursuing a suspected thief, and trying to catch someone before they left with a priceless artifact was a rather effective way of getting to know a place. She doubted it was what her father had had in mind when he had suggested that she explore the city, but she also doubted that had he known how she’d spent the hours since he would have been much surprised.
As she ran, Annabelle recalled every unique landmark, all the patches of green, and each of the alleys she had navigated earlier. Dodging and weaving, she ran past students and tourists. She skidded around corners. She leap-frogged bollards. She jumped over a cat.
Annabelle ran to the secondhand bookshop that Clara had shown her earlier, but when she got there, there was no sign of her friend. Working on a hunch, Annabelle continued on. Eventually, she reached the green she had helped Clara carry her books across—the one outside her Bodley’s Court window. She saw the funky, pale-blue Westfalia van parked as it had been earlier, on the side of the road. Annabelle slowed to a jog, pink-faced and panting through a relieved smile, until to her horror, the van began to maneuver from its spot. Annabelle’s smile vanished. Once again she set off, her long legs carrying her at head-turning speed.
By the time she reached the other side of the green, the van had driven down the street and was about to disappear around a corner. “Clara!” Annabelle called, waving her arms as she ran, hoping Clara would notice her in her rearview mirror. “Clara!”
For half-a-mile, Annabelle chased the van, running down the middle of the streets, drawing the attention of everyone she passed, causing at least one bystander to comment, “Freshers grow nuttier by the year.” Another bystander, a startled student, recognized Annabelle from her altercation with Professor Styles at the Cat and Custard, and silently hoped that she wasn’t in his class.
Annabelle had never much cared for the opinions of others, however, and certainly not when accomplishing a goal. Unfortunately for her, though, the small streets were mostly clear of traffic, and Clara drove on without hindrance. It took another half-mile of wild, flat-out, lung-bursting sprinting to catch up with the van. Finally, when Clara stopped at a T-junction, Annabelle drew up close.
“Clara!” Annabelle called out. She slammed her palms against the back of the van before rushing around to the driver’s window.
“Oh! Annabelle? You scared me!” Clara exclaimed clutching a hand to her chest. “What’s the matter? Did I hit something again?”
“No, no,” Annabelle said, bending over as she caught her breath. “The book… Professor Baskerville’s book… When we went to his office today, he was looking for a book… A text he was translating for the conference tomorrow. It was the last surviving copy of the writings of a Byzantine monk from the fifth century.”
“Gosh. But what does that have to do with me?”
“I think you’ve packed it away with your belongings.”
Clara frowned but parked and got out of the van. Together, they moved to the back and opened the doors.
“Where did all the books go?” Annabelle cried. The interior of the van was still a jumbled mess full of small furniture items, bags of clothes and bedding, and stuffed animals, but there were very few books.
“I took them to the secondhand bookshop. But I still have loads. These are my favorites. I can’t give these away.” Clara opened up a cardboard box, then another, and another.
“Right then, we’ve got to search every box,” Annabelle commanded.
The two women clambered into the back of the van, sifting through the boxes in search of Baskerville’s text. It was hot, hard work. There was little space to move around. Annabelle, especially, was too tall and had to hunch over as she steadied herself against a headrest, her knee on a seat. She had to duck her head to avoid hitting it on the sunroof.
“It’s not here,” Clara wailed when they had gone through every box. She wiped her face. Her hand left a streak of dust that ran from her eyebrow to her jaw. She looked close to tears. “Do you really think I have it?”
“I think you had it. Are you sure we’ve looked through all the boxes?” Annabelle was close to tears herself. It had been an interminable day.
“Well, what do you think?” Clara responded. She gestured at the van. It looked like someone had let off a grenade inside a library. There were books everywhere—on the floor, on the seats, on the dashboard, on the roof, on the ground outside. Clara had even removed the spare tire to make more room. There were books in the spare tire well.
“What about the secondhand bookshop? I bet you dropped it off there. We need to go look for it.”
“Oh my, it closes in five minutes!”
“Then let’s go!”
They jumped into the front of the van. Clara put the shift stick in gear and took off in a jerky movement that would have shamed a learner driver. She drove to the little black bookshop and parked at an angle to the curb. Custard still sat on the step outside the shop.
“Stop, Lavender, stop!” Clara cried. The bookshop owner held a key in her hand and was about to lock the door. “We have to get inside. I gave you a priceless historical book by mistake!”
LAVENDER LET CLARA and Annabelle in the shop. “But I ‘ave a meetin’ in an ‘our. You’ll ‘ave to be done by then. I’m missin’ my tea as it is,” she said in her rural Cambridgeshire burr. Now that she was up close, Annabelle saw that Lavender wore round rimless glasses. She carried a crocheted patchwork bag over her arm.
“Have you already shelved the books I brought in earlier?” Clara asked.
“Course I ‘ave. What do you take me for? A tortoise?”
Annabelle looked around the shop. It was a lot larger on the inside than it looked from the street. Shelves of books lined every wall that Annabelle could see. It was clearly a former home whose rooms had been transformed, but Annabelle knew the floor plan intimately. She knew that beyond the room she was standing in—the “posh” front room that back in the day was used only when guests visited—lay a second reception room and a long narrow kitchen at the end of a long narrow hallway. Upstairs there were two, maybe three bedrooms. The house was identical to hundreds of thousands of others built during Queen Victoria’s reign to accommodate the needs of the growing British population.
“I bet you’ve got books in every room, haven’t you?”
“Stuffed to the gunnels,” Lavender said.
“How many books do you think?”
“Ooh,” Lavender breathed in through her nose and rocked on her heels. “Thousands.”
Annabelle and Clara looked at each other and sighed simultaneously. “I’ll take downstairs, you do the bedrooms. We’ll meet on the stairs,” Annabelle said.
An hour later, Annabelle and Clara sat side by side on the bottom stair, their chins in their hands propped on their elbows. Custard watched them from the doorstep. She flicked her tail, her smooth, glossy black coat a striking contrast to the disheveled state of the hair belonging to the humans in front of her. Clara rubbed her nose. The dusty bookshop was making it itch. Annabelle stared straight ahead, thought now beyond her.
“Right, you two, you’ve had your time. I’ve got to go to my meetin’ now.” Lavender shooed the women out of the shop. After she’d picked Custard from the step and dropped her in the hallway, Lavender locked the door behind her and scurried away down the street.
Clara wearily unlocked the van and leaned against it, cooling her forehead on the window. Annabelle opened the passenger door and sat on the running board, her back slumped against the seat. “Oof, I’ve got a headache.” She leaned forward and put her head in her hands.
“I’ve got some painkillers. You can have one. They’re above you, behind the sun visor,” Clara said.
Annabelle reached up and pulled down the hinged flap above the windshield. “Ow!” Something heavy hit her on the nose before landing in her lap along with a small bottle of painkillers.
“Uh, sorry. I got that one out for the journey. There’s a layby I like to stop in. A good book, a mug of tea, and a bacon butty from the roadside café—perfect.” Clara took the leather-bound book from Annabelle’s lap. “I’m looking forward to reading this. The CEO’s Secret.”
Annabelle sat up straight. “Open it up!” she demanded.
“What? Hey, you don’t think… Are you saying…?” Clara flicked the book open. She turned it to show Annabelle. Barely legible symbols and hieroglyphs crossed the page in orderly rows. The edges of the pages were brown and feathery. The paper was transparent in places.
“It’s the text Professor Baskerville was looking for!” Annabelle exclaimed. She reached over to embrace Clara. “We found it!”
“I must have got this mixed up with one of my romances,” Clara said. “You know, I used to put leather covers on them so the professors wouldn’t catch me reading in class. And the cover for this text looks exactly like the one I used for The CEO’s Secret. I must have grabbed it from the professor’s office after my tutorial, instead of my romance novel.”
“And Noah went in after you and took your book thinking it was the text. Well,” Annabelle said, taking the book from Clara with her thumb and forefinger, “I’ll return this to Professor Baskerville.”
“Oh… Yes… Please don’t…”
“I won’t, don’t worry. It was an accident. I won’t tell him anything, he’ll be happy enough just to have it back.”
“Thank you, Annabelle,” Clara smiled. “I’d best be off. I hope you enjoy your time in Cambridge.”
“Don’t worry,” Annabelle said, waving happily. “I already love it.”
Again, Clara showed that clutch control was not a skill she had yet mastered. She drove off as jerkily as she had last time and only narrowly avoided hitting a student on a bike. Annabelle winced as she watched the van drive away. She was contemplating her walk back to Professor Baskerville’s office when, behind her, a voice called out.
“Dixon, wasn’t it?”
Annabelle turned to see the track-suited figure of Jean Watkins running over to her, eyeing her with a little less disdain than she had earlier in the day.
The hockey coach paused before speaking. “I heard about an impromptu display of your athletic abilities from one of my scouts. I understand you were, ah, running through the streets,” she said. “I won’t say the word ‘impressive’ was used, but they recommended I reconsider your potential. Parker’s Piece, Tuesday morning, 7 a.m. Got it?”
Annabelle stood up straight and beamed. “Yes, Ma’am,” she answered. She felt like saluting.
Jean Watkins nodded primly and set off again on her run. Annabelle set off too, but in the direction of the Faculty of Divinity. She had to return the text to Professor Baskerville. Then she had a call to make. My, she had a lot to tell Mary.
THERE WAS A smart rap at Annabelle’s bedroom door. “Mum! Dad!” Annabelle hugged both her parent’s tight. She was enormously pleased to see them and had been preparing for their visit all week. “Why don’t you sit down?” Annabelle’s mother and father stared at the seating arrangement before making a choice—a vintage, high back, wing chair upholstered in a brown fabric printed with a hunting theme for her father, a tall-legged but low-backed stool covered with pink fur for her mother. Annabelle took the lime green beanbag in between.
In the days since her father had dropped her off, Annabelle had transformed her room from a drab, spartan space to one that announced her personality loudly and clearly. Since she wasn’t permitted to paint the walls, she had draped them with large, soft scarves. Above her bed was a baby pink one with silver tassels. On another wall was a similar scarf but in lavender and gray. A cross hung above her bed. A Bible sat on her bedside table.
From their vantage point, Annabelle’s parents admired the room, cooing over the photographs that seemed to cover every available surface, and marveling at the size of the textbooks that lay open on Annabelle’s desk.
“Looks lovely, darling,” her mother said. “Very homey.” She handed Annabelle a chocolate sandwich cake filled with buttercream. “Here, I made you this. Your favorite.” Annabelle swooned and took the plate from her. “Mary sends her love,” her mother added.
“I see you’ve broken the habit of a lifetime and made your bed,” her father said.
“Not just for our benefit then?”
“No, of course not.” Annabelle grinned.
“All that nagging wasn’t for nothing, Raymond,” her mother said. “Eventually.”
“Oh! I’m forgetting myself. Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve laid a tray out specially. I thought you might be thirsty after the drive. I got your favorite biscuits in, Dad.” Annabelle’s words tumbled out in a rush. She so wanted to show her parents how grown-up she was. Annabelle pointed to a plate of custard creams on a tray next to three mugs, a box of tea bags, a carton of milk, and a kettle.
“Let’s do that later. I’d like to have a look around. Will you show us? I really liked the look of that chapel when I was here last week,” her father said.
And so it was that Annabelle gave her London born and bred parents a tour of the city of Cambridge. She showed them the glass Faculty of Divinity building that shimmered in the bright morning sun and its circular library where she would spend many hours studying. They walked carefully by the cows grazing on Midsummer Common and admired The Backs as they walked down the towpath next to the river. For a minute or two, they listened to a speaker who was shouting about the end of the world outside King’s College, its grand, ancient spires contrasting with the speaker’s modern-day soapbox that comprised two plastic milk crates taped together. Annabelle nodded with approval at the passion with which the speaker made his proclamations, even if he wasn’t making much sense. At lunchtime, after admiring the vast vaulted ceilings of King’s College Chapel, they ate a ploughman’s followed by sticky toffee pudding on the terrace at the Cat and Custard.
“Next time we come, you could take us on one of those,” Raymond Dixon suggested, pointing to a punt gliding along the water in front of them. A look of abject horror crossed his wife’s face. “Ooh yes!” Annabelle lit up. “I’ll make sure to get in some practice so I don’t tip us in the water. I’m training with the hockey team now you know, that’s sure to help. And I’m cycling everywhere. I’ll be as fit as a fiddle.” On her third day in Cambridge, impatient to get around quicker than even her long legs would carry her, Annabelle had bought a second-hand bike from a former student.
After lunch, Annabelle took her parents through the quiet back streets. They passed the bed-and-breakfast cottage to which she had tracked Noah. They also walked by the black-painted secondhand bookshop. Custard still sat on the step, her jet-black fur gleaming, her yellow eyes staring.
“These look like our houses back home,” her mother said.
“Yes, they’re very similar.”
“So what have you done this week besides decorate your room?” her father asked.
“Oh, you know, this and that. I met my professors and there were lots of orientation activities. I got to know some of the students.”
“So everything was perfectly normal? Nothing out of the ordinary?”
“Doesn’t sound like you, Annabelle,” her mother said. “No disasters, accidents, or chaos?”
“She’s all grown up now, Petronella. Look at her,” her father said. “We’re as proud as punch to have you as our daughter, aren’t we?”
“We are, proud as punch. You’ll have a wonderful time here, I know it. Cambridge seems very nice, very sedate.”
Annabelle smiled to herself. “You’d be surprised, Mum.”
Later that afternoon, the tour of Cambridge complete and the custard creams all gone, it was time for Annabelle’s parents to get back to London. Annabelle gave them a big, squeezy hug. She’d been dreading them leaving, but now the time had come, she found that she was also excited. Life was an adventure, wasn’t it? And it was for enjoying, she was quite sure of that. What would the next days, weeks, and years have in store for her? She didn’t know. But she knew it would be thrilling. She could hardly wait.
“Look after yourself, Annabelle.”
“I will, Dad.”
“Don’t work too hard, love.”
“I won’t, Mum.”
“Watch out for Henry VIII, now. He was a rascal.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine, Dad.”
“Laundry. Do laundry.”
“Come on, Petronella, let’s leave the girl.”
“Alright, alright, I’m coming. You sure you’ve got enough clean knickers, Annabelle?”
“You can’t have enough clean knickers, you know.”
“Call us in the week, Annabelle.”
“Will do. Bye Mum, bye Dad. Speak to you soon.”