Breaking into University House
A scent of recently turned earth may well have followed from damage we’d inflicted upon the lawn. After recent rain, my feet had sunk into the soft surface; shifting a heavy dustbin churned soil into mud. Beyond the window, a room lay in darkness. Gritty dirt from the bin chafed at my fingertips. Manoeuvring the mucky object into place, it struck the wall – producing an alarmingly loud metallic clang. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked its reply. A soapy taste filled my mouth: cheap whisky. In an upstairs window, somebody ignited a lamp – splashing light across what remained of the grass at our feet.
“Someone’s up there,” Beatrice said, “do you think she’ll have seen us?”
“Not so loud,” Nerys whispered, “or she’ll certainly hear us.”
“She can’t have failed,” I replied, “to hear the bin bash against the wall.”
“Whoever it is,” Heather said, “she’s probably used to student pranks – won’t pay us much mind.”
“This is not a prank,” Nerys sounded indignant, “we’re looking for the place where…”
“We all know what we’re looking for,” Beatrice shook her head. “Who’s going to climb up on the bin, and try to open the window?”
It was the mid-evening of Mistream the fourteenth in Year Twenty-Six. Perhaps three hours earlier, Beatrice, Nerys, Heather and I had completed our first day as students of the Imperial University at Berenice. Although I can’t speak for the others, it’s fair to say that I’d found the experience more bewildering than enlightening. Several hours, or so it felt, had passed in queuing. The seeming reason for standing in line was to register for a series of things, although I’d generally found myself only dimly aware – if that – of what, precisely, our object was.
“It makes a nice change,” I reflected “to know what I’m looking for. Half the day…”
“You climb up on the bin, Daisy,” Heather said to me. “After all, your mum’s a cavalry officer, and…”
“Modesty’s not my mother – she’s my genny.”
“Same difference… and your mum commanded the Warriors of Love, which is…”
“I don’t see what that’s got to do with it.”
“You’re probably used to leaping into the saddle.”
“We’ve all four of us ridden horses. In any case, I’ve spent more time – in recent years – at the Belle House School, with you lot, than in camp with my genny.”
“You took a gap year,” Beatrice said, “in Victoria’s Land.”
“I didn’t spend it clambering up on to bins.”
“Yes, but you must have had all sorts of adventures out in the wilderness – marshes, forests, wild beasts…”
“I visited the edge of the wilderness, but…”
“Anyway,” Heather said, “your mum led the Warriors of Love, so you’re the natural choice to lead us now.”
“I’ll give you a hand up on to the bin,” Nerys offered.
There seeming no point in further argument, I allowed Nerys to assist my ascent. She applied her helping hand primarily to my bottom. Doubtful as to the efficacy of her doing so, I was surprised – perhaps only seconds later – to find myself standing on the lid. The rubbish container swayed under my feet. A little shriek escaping my lips, two girls – Heather and Beatrice, I thought – hurried to steady my perch.
“Easy, there,” Beatrice said, “you’re a bit tiddly.”
“Perhaps,” I replied, “someone else should…”
“None of us are completely sober,” Heather reminded me.
“At least,” Beatrice added, “you’ve got us to steady the bin. The last one up won’t have…”
“None of us… apart from you… will be climbing up on to the bin,” Heather sounded impatient, “unless you get that window open.”
Prompted, I pushed the upper pane downwards. It failed to budge. Placing both hands on the window frame, I exerted my full strength. This time, it shifted perhaps a quarter of an inch, but no further.
“I think the latch is on,” I said.
“Try shifting the lower pane,” was Heather’s unhelpful suggestion.
“If the latch is on,” I replied, “it’ll jam both panes.”
“Try to slip the catch with my penknife.” As she spoke, Nerys extended her right arm in my direction.
Taking the penknife, I fumbled with its several blades. Opening – then closing – each in turn, I selected the most slender. At least, that’s what I thought I’d done. Whisky at work – or rather play – left me more than usually fallible. The knife slipped into the window frame easily enough. Inducing it to engage with the catch proved another matter. Just as I decided that I’d never manage it, the latch shifted. Astonished, I had no idea how I’d succeeded. The upper pane having slid down a few inches, I met no trouble in raising the lower one. Slipping my feet through the gap presented surprisingly little problem. Inside the room, closing the knife, I saw Nerys clamber up on to the bin.
“I’ll give you a hand,” I offered, reaching out of the window.
“Stop flailing about, Daisy,” Nerys responded, “get yourself right inside, and stand back from the window.”
Doing as bidden, I watched her wriggling through the gap. Two or three minutes later, Beatrice followed.
“I could do with a bit of a hand,” Heather said, “getting up on to the bin.”
“Well,” Beatrice replied, “seeing as how we’re all inside, you’ll have to shift for yourself.”
“In any case,” Nerys said, “you were always a dab hand at tree climbing. What’s the problem?”
“A bin is not a tree.”
“I’d have thought it would be easier to climb. The handle makes a good step.”
“A handy step,” Beatrice added.
“Trees have roots,” Heather reminded us
“Yeah, the bin does seem to wobble a bit,” Nerys conceded.
“Unless,” Beatrice suggested, “the wobbling is down to the whisky we’ve drunk.”
“Just leap up,” Nerys advised, “and set your bum on the bin lid.”
“I’ve got it,” Heather sounded triumphant. Then, her tone changed abruptly: “No I haven’t!”
Heather’s words trailed off into a shriek. A thunderous metallic noise presumably signified that the bin had fallen over. In the distance, dogs barked furiously. Nerys and Beatrice engaged in a flurry of activity, the nature of which remained hidden from my gaze. Heather’s disheveled head appeared at the open window. With a loud thud, the fourth member of our party hit the floor. Footsteps sounded from within the building. Light flickered beneath what was most certainly a door.
A muffled voice from the corridor: “No sign of burglars, so far.”
“Burglars,” a second voice replied, speaking more clearly, “would be a sight quieter. Got to be students.”
“Back in the day, we’d have sent them to Lady Isobel for the cane.”
“We live in the age of eaquellety, caning undergraduates has passed into history.” I thought to catch a note of regret. Did she view abolishing corporal punishment as a retrograde step? “Oh well, can’t be helped.”
“Whatever. It sounded as though it was from one of the rooms on the right-hand side of this corridor. Better check them all out.”
We heard a door open, then close: the next room, I thought. Without a word, we rushed to the opposite wall, pressing ourselves against the reassuringly solid surface. Evidently, the goddesses smiled upon our enterprise – none of us tripped. My breathing sounding unnaturally loud – with an effort, I attempted to control it. A door less than a foot from my left shoulder swung open. Lamplight fell across the floor, revealing a couple of dozen chairs facing a low dais. Was it really possible that – in darkness – we’d negotiated a passage through the seating? In rising panic, I realised that we hadn’t closed the window. How could the investigators fail to notice?
“No sign of anyone in here,” a voice said, almost at my ear.
“Yeah, if they’d blundered in here, the chairs would be scattered from Arrow Dell to West Ack Town.”
“Do you remember that time half a dozen undergrads smuggled a goat in here, in the middle of the night…?”
“Yeah. If I remember rightly, they thought it’d eat their exam papers. Must have been back in seven twenty-nine or thirty.”
“Some time at the tail end of the bad old days of the Democracy.”
“It wasn’t all bad, though, was it? Sending the culprits off to Lady Isobel…”
“A while before any of them sat easily… Anyway, best be getting on.”
The door shut. Footfalls sounded in the passageway. We heard doors opening and shutting. The investigators continued their conversation, but I was no longer able to catch the words. Remaining where we were – pressed against the wall – Nerys, Beatrice, Heather and I said nothing for what seemed a very long time.
“Well,” Heather said at last, “the goddesses certainly seem to be on our side tonight.”