The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, part six: Helen was stirring up some unwelcome memories

In the final of six extracts from The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas, Sybil and Helen’s paths become in inextricably intertwined...
Author - Ruth ThomasAuthor - Ruth Thomas
Author - Ruth Thomas

‘Yes.’ I thought of the occasions I’d drifted around museum shops with Simon lately, picking things up – pyramid-shaped pencil sharpeners, key rings in the guise of Viking warriors.‘Would you like some earrings in the shape of hippo gods?’ he had asked me recently, holding one up to his earlobe.

‘Probably they’re just, you know, parting with their money because they’re having a nice time,’ I said now.

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‘Just being tourists. And feeling a bit flush because they’re on holiday. And wanting some sort of... souvenir of their time.’Helen smiled, as if I might be one of those idiots.

The Snow and the Works on the Northern LineThe Snow and the Works on the Northern Line
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line

‘The Beaker People never interested you much, did they?’ she said.‘Not really. The thing is,’ I added, making it worse, ‘they just kept making beakers all the time! And I’ve never been all that interested in bits of broken pottery.’Helen’s eyes were a quite spectacularly icy blue.‘Do you know how many museums we have under our belt at the moment?’ she asked.‘No.’‘Eleven.’‘Right.’‘And do you know how many we plan to have by the end of next financial year?’‘No.’‘Eighteen!’‘Right.’‘So, what are you up to now? By way of gainful employment?’ she added, stirring sugar crystals into her coffee. So I told her that I was – funnily enough – working in a kind of museum myself, these days: I was cataloguing fossils and belt buckles and old clay pipes, amongst other things, in an institute.‘Really? But that’s hysterical! That’s hardly a million miles from bits of broken pottery, is it?’Well, no, I confessed, it wasn’t. It’s just, there weren’t any jobs, when I was looking, that required an in-depth knowledge of Persephone or Zeus or Apollo, or even The Book of the Dun Cow.‘So where are you doing this?’ Helen asked. ‘The cataloguing?’‘Greenwich,’ I said. ‘In the Royal Institute of Prehistorical Studies.’‘You’re working at RIPS?’ she burst out. ‘At the Institute? With Raglan Beveridge? And Hope Pollard and people? How utterly bizarre! That’s one of our museums! It’s our latest recruit! So how come I haven’t seen you there, because I go there most weeks!’‘Well, I only started there quite recently,’ I said, suddenly alarmed, and wishing I’d kept shtum about the Institute and my opinion of the Beaker People. Or that I’d never turnedaround when Helen had called over to me from the Isaac Newton statue.‘So hopefully we’ll be seeing more of each other,’ she continued. ‘Isn’t that funny? Hey – we can go for lunch sometimes and bitch about Raglan!’‘Hmm… ’ I wasn’t sure I wanted to bitch about Raglan Beveridge, because although I didn’t know him well (he was, after all, the Institute’s director), and although he was a big manin his fifties and perfectly capable of looking after himself, I’d noticed a kind of vulnerability about him sometimes that made me feel it was unkind to talk about him behind his back. It was something to do, somehow, with the very careful way he wore his suits and the fact he was invariably the last person left in the building when everyone else had headed home.

Anyway, as my mother would have reminded me, if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. And already something was telling me that bumping into Helen had been a more troubling thing than I might have anticipated, that it was stirring up some quite unwelcome memories.Helen smiled.

‘You know, I’m so glad you ended up with that 2:1 in the end, Sybil,’ she said. ‘For that dissertation you wrote. All those years ago.’‘Are you?’ I asked, my heart thudding.‘I really am. You deserved it. Because clearly I was the one who got it wrong on that occasion, wasn’t I? As it turns out.’‘Well,’ I said, remembering the unseemly haste with which I’d cobbled it together, ‘that’s very—’‘I was too exacting. Not forgiving enough. It’s easy to forget sometimes that your students are only just out of school! Barely more than children! And the thing is, it’s important to own up to your mistakes, isn’t it? If we never made mistakes, we’d never learn.’‘No...’‘Seriously, though, I suppose what happened, that time, was I’d discounted that pretty interesting correlation you made between the Beaker People and stories about Ancient Roman cup-bearers. That “everything is connected” idea. It was just that Ancient Rome was not my area, of course.’‘No.’ I could hardly remember the correlations I’d made. They’d been a means to an end, conjured up out of thin air when I was 20. I just wanted to return to my life now at 26, and the people I knew and trusted in it…

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To continue reading The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, by Ruth Thomas is published in paperback by Sandstone, and now available priced £8.99

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