Although enslaved as a traitor, Hartlisse achieved eaquellety before I did.
Chattering girls filled our office with a low murmuring buzz. Some of the talk, I didn’t doubt, was work-related. Other conversations anticipated nights out at the Lark Arising Club in Lee, or the South End’s Victory Ballroom. There may also have been a little gossip. Beyond the window, a stiff breeze blew: tossing trees into motion, setting delicate spring leaves into a lively two step. Sunshine dodged its way through a rift in the cloud bank, but evidently did little to warm the air. Women scurried along the pavement, bundled in their winter coats and paying little heed to shop windows. One store displayed a pair of golden yellow boots I’d have loved in my teenage years. I sighed for my departed youth, as I reached for the honey bowl. My first sip of rosehip tea had proved insufficiently sweet. A fresh gust of wind rattled the window. For all of the glass pane, sheltering me from the blustery weather, I wrapped my cardigan tighter about my person.
It was a Sorday afternoon in early Drizzlemoon of Her Majesty’s sixteenth regnal year.
The window served as a dim mirror. My reflected features creased into a frown. I’d observed Helen Smith crossing the road, returning from lunch at least ten minutes late. Should I chide her for this tardiness, or let the matter pass? My duty indicated the former, my heart the latter.
When I turned from the window, I saw Debbie Chalmers approaching my desk. During the wicked kingdom period, as I understood matters, one of her forebears had been convicted of treason – on manufactured evidence. Was that Debbie’s grandmother, or great grandmother? Here, in Essex, nobody’s family history appeared unclouded by injustice, usually compounded with abuse. How fortunate I was to originate in Surrey.
“Miss Brewster,” Debbie said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…”
“No problem, Debbie. I’m at work. I’m here to be bothered.”
“Yes, Miss Brewster, of course. One of the ladies from the Belle House is here, and I thought…”
Under the wicked kingdom, the Belle House had been home to the Earls of the East Wood. Now, it housed a gynogenesis community, many of the ladies of which I counted as my friends. In a professional capacity, I received their taxes, but paid the women a much larger sum on Her Majesty’s behalf: mostly for the fine horses they bred. Betty Fletcher, now in charge of the equine business, had – almost twenty years before – served as my childhood riding instructor. Perhaps that was coincidence; others would see it as an example of the goddesses’ working – if those two can be distinguished one from the other.
“If you thought that I’d like to see her personally, you’re quite right, Debbie.” Then, as a doubt struck me: “All the same…”
“All the same, Miss Brewster?” Debbie asked. “Is there a problem?”
“Not exactly a problem, Debbie – but I suppose she’s looking downright swish.”
“She’s wearing riding things, Miss Brewster, not a ball gown.”
“Of course, she’ll have ridden into town, but that wasn’t exactly what I meant. Elegance of Berenice…”
“The Belle House ladies always wear Elegance clothes – you must know…”
“Yes, I do. I was more worried about me looking scruffy.”
“Scruffy, Miss Brewster? You’re looking good.”
Debbie’s glance flicked over my person. She smiled, clearly pleased by what she saw. My grimace, as mirrored on the window pane, seemed an inadequate response.
“Not covered in muck from the stationary cupboard?” I asked.
“No, Miss Brewster. Why, should you be?”
“That locket I usually wear, Debbie. The catch is faulty, and I was fiddling with it while I was in the stationary cupboard. The thing fell off, and I was down on my hands and knees…”
The locket had been a gift from Nicola, and contained small pen and ink portraits: of her to the left, and of me to the right. Not only was its vanishment a personal loss, but inability to recover the treasure would certainly displease my life partner. The stationary cupboard was, in reality, a small room crowded with storage racks. My assumption was that the locket lay under one of the lower shelves, but no amount of probing had revealed which. More than likely, my efforts had resulted in the keepsake retreating further into a dusty corner.
“Did you find it, Miss Brewster?”
“No, I didn’t, Debbie.”
“That’s a real shame, although I expect it’ll turn up, sooner or later. But, anyway, I can’t see any traces of stationary cupboard muck on your clothes. Your hands and face look clean, too, and…”
“Thanks, Debbie. That’s reassuring. I thought I’d brushed it all off, but I wasn’t sure. Show the lady up, please.”
As Debbie wiggled toward the stairs, I watched appreciatively. She was enticing me, playfully but deliberately. Of course, I love Nicola, my life partner, but my joy in looking at girls remains. There were at least half a dozen reasons why my sexual interest in Debbie should not pass beyond looking. The most obvious two, perhaps, were potential damage to my relationship with Nicola, and becoming unprofessionally entangled with a young woman whom I was supposed to line manage. Years before, I’d dated my executive officer, had suffered no obvious harm as a result, but my current subordinates might prove less fortunate.
“Miss Brewster,” a young woman said, as she approached my desk clasping a tax return. “I can’t find the last submission from…”
“Hockley area,” I said, after a fleeting glance at the form. “There was a bit of an accident two or three months ago. The Hockley and Hawkwell returns got mixed up, and…”
“Thank you, Miss Brewster. I’ll look under Hawkwell. And, if it isn’t there…?”
“You may have to plough right through the G to K drawer, although I hope it won’t come to that.”
Helen Smith emerged from the staircase. Whilst glancing nervously in my direction, she scribbled something on the time sheet. My gaze half turned, semi-automatically flicking toward the hour glass. I decided that ignorance of the time would probably save me from a trying confrontation, and so looked back down at the tax return and open ledger on my desk. Thus far, all of the calculations had proved correct. Was there any point in scrutinising further? My duty required no more than a few judiciously selected spot checks.
“Sorry I’m a bit late,” Helen said, her admission doing a little to salve my conscience, after I’d deliberately turned my eyes from the hour glass. “There was a crowd in the…”
“That’s all right, Miss Smith,” I replied, “I’m sure you’ll make up the time.”
“Of course, Miss Brewster. Only I can’t stay late tonight, because…”
“Tomorrow then, Helen?”
“Yes, Miss Brewster. In fact, I need to leave a few minutes early tonight, because…”
“That’s all right, Helen. I’m sure you have a good reason.”
As a matter of fact, I strongly doubted whether she could have advanced a solid and truthful cause, but I preferred not to listen to whatever fiction she might devise. Ignorance excused me from poking holes in the fabrication. It was unlikely that she’d make much of a career with the Ministry. Rather, my expectation was for her to leave in order to raise a family. My hope lay in her finding a caring girlfriend, and bringing a series of gynogenesis daughters into the world. The Empire would need the next generation of girls.