He went to the fridge to replace the milk. On the third shelf was a single man’s black leather shoe. It was a left shoe, it looked expensive and it had not been there this morning. Lipton knew without looking that it was size ten and a half. The rainbow trout stuffed head first into the shoe told him that.
It also told him that Camellia was back and she wanted to see him.
Lipton remembered the second time he had seen Camellia. It had been in a lecture about the East India Company in his second term at university. Given by one the departments more intimidating professors.
The lecturer was opening his talk, introducing them to his view of the economic boost that the company had given to the Orient. This girl, sitting in the row in front of Lipton, was tutting loudly. She had golden tea coloured hair and pale milky skin. Lipton had noticed her once before at a talk about the American War of Independence. But he had not seen her at any other of his lectures. He assumed she must be either be one of those less assiduous historians who did not bother with lecture, there were many of these. Or perhaps she was a graduate student sitting in on talks she found interesting.
Not that she was finding this one interesting. She was shifting in her seat, shaking her head frequently as the professor expounded on the benefits of colonialism. The lecture only went a little further before she had enough. She gathered her notepads, newspapers and books, all three of which she had been reading whilst listening to the talk. She stood up to leave.
At this point, the professor’s eyes lit up. Clearly, he knew he was courting controversy and was most likely hoping all along for a chance to humiliate a hapless undergraduate, who thought they knew better that him. That a pretty girl was so obviously angry with what he was saying was so much the better. But Camellia did not try to challenge him. She just made her way towards the door and his confrontation looked like it was escaping him.
“Has something I have said offended you, young lady?” he asked, unable or unwilling to hide the glee in his voice.
“No” Camellia had replied with just a single word, but making it clear that she was not in the least bit intimidated.
“Really?” The professor would not let go.
“Really.” Her voice was level. “If you are supporting this Victorian thesis merely to shock impressionable young minds then I pity your small town vanity. If, in fact, you believe what you are saying then I assume that you are either a fool or you haven’t read the relevant source materials. I am surprised but none of this offends me.”
“You know better?”
“It is not MY area but I have at least read Hawthorne, Narinder, Pallas and Chatham.” She spoke with a slight mid-Atlantic timbre. The professor picked up on this and rather than responding to challenge she offered he went on the attack.
“Ah, a Daughter of the Revolution. Your country has quite a history of resenting the ‘infamous’ East India Company.”
“I agree that the greed of the ‘incompetent’ East India Company lead to the Tea Act of 1773, but I think that the Americans probably thank Charles Townshend more for the incentive to escape from the authority of the pompous and out of touch English. And I think there is a lesson in that. Goodbye!”
The professor made some reply but she was already out of the door and though he blustered impressively for the rest of the lecture he had been comprehensively beaten and everyone in the room knew it.
Lipton knew that, in Camellia’s cryptic code, that the shoe meant she wanted to meet him. He knew where and when. Half past ten obviously. But was that tonight, tomorrow, some other significant date he should be able to deduce from the species of the fish? With Camellia this was not impossible. A rainbow trout was appropriate, they had always shared a thing about rainbows. But maybe there was to it that met his eye? Maybe a week next Wednesday was the start of the trout fishing season and so she wanted to meet him then. It would be the sort of thing she would do and he did not want to seem stupid for missing some deliberate fish symbolism. But assuming that there was nothing fishy about it then when did she mean?
It must be tomorrow morning. It could not be ten thirty tonight because she could not know that he would have got home early enough to get the message in time. For a second he worried that if it had been there this morning or even if it came to that the night before. But in a second second this thought was swept away by the shock that there was a shoe in his fridge.
Camellia had put it there.
She had broken into his house, bringing a shoe filled with sexual overtones and stuffed with a fish of significance and left them in his fridge. Granted that she could not have been expected to leave them anywhere else or the fish might stink. But could she not have left a memo stuck to the fridge door instead? Or maybe even posted through his letter box? She even had his phone number. It had not changed in the three or four years since he had last seen her, since she had effectively vanished from their social circle.
Now she had reappeared and wanted to see him. Tomorrow at ten thirty. Maybe for some nookie.
With a smile on his face, Lipton grilled the trout with some wasabi paste that Rose had brought back from Japan and ate it served with some cloudberry jam from Finland. He tidied the flat (just in case), had a bath and an early night.
Camellia was very tired, so very, very tired. The lack of peace was wearing her down. The murmur of the million alien thoughts that were invading her head never ceased. They had been for nearly a week now. She had not got used to the information onslaught. The minds of passing people were a cacophony of interior monologues on which somehow she could eavesdrop. A swirl of facts that never stopped. They were not interesting. What people had for breakfast and what they wanted for their tea. The worries of a policeman who was waiting for his boyfriend to call, the dead-reckoning of a teenager fighting his way through some video game maze, the worries of another struggling with Henry the Eight’s reformation.
She had often fantasised about what it would be like to go mad and had decided that maybe she would quite like it. Not for a while just yet and not for long time but a mild surreal psychosis or a blackening passing depression could give one an interesting new perspective on one’s sanity. She did not expect the experience to be pleasant but she was not afraid of madness in itself. As long as she did come through it, although maybe later she might welcome a gradual deterioration into dementia which had an appeal with its escape from responsibility. She had not expected madness to be like this.
It was not just her helpless inability to avoid reading peoples minds, information attacked her from all sides. Books talked to her from their shelves, songs sang from CD’s still in their cases, the bits and bytes on computers snapped at her, every radio and TV seemed to tuned to all channels at once. There was not a moments peace. All these things clamoured for her attention. She could not shut them out and had not been able to concentrate on anything or consider her predicament with detachment or clarity of vision.
She shuddered to think what it would like to use the VR-sensornet right now. Putting on the data hood when she was in this state could push her over the edge. Maybe it already had? She tried to think back over the last few months. Apart from those missing few days leading up to Boston, she could not remember anything untoward, no warning signs, no indication that this would happen. Yes, she had been getting deeper into it, pushing her limits and those of the system. But she had felt comfortable at the time. In fact the longer she had spent on it the better it felt. Getting more and more natural until..? Until the three day Boston black-out and coming round to find it had done this to her. And to think that she thought she had mastered it. She must have been mad.
Or else if this was madness then her mind had surpassed her imagination. But was that what it was? She did not think so. She had tested herself in every way she could imagine, in every way that she had dared. She seemed sane to herself but she knew that if it was madness then she would be the last to know. And if it was not madness then it was something even more terrifying.
Certainly not something she could share with someone else and expect to get an objective assessment. Quite apart from the taboos associated with madness that would twist the perceptions of even her closest friends, there were the implications of getting someone else involved in this. Maybe it would be better if she was mad. Would it? She really did not know. She needed to someone else to tell her that. The trouble was most people she met thought she was mad in the first place. Besides she did not like putting herself in anyone-else’s hands. Or putting them in her hands, a greater risk given the circumstances. And the other risks. That was why she had not gone back to The Library. Why she had fled back to London, covering her tracks as she went. She would have to go back there eventually or wait for them to come to her. But she certainly did not want to tell them the truth. Certainly not before she knew it herself. And if she was going to lie to them then she would need some time to think to figure out what that lie should be.
But she had not been able to get things straight on her own. Not with her head full of static, drowning out her ability to talk to herself. She needed to speak to someone else. Someone who would listen, who would not leap to conclusions, but who might be able to tell her something she had not thought of for herself. Someone who could provide themselves at least some protection from her employers.
Lipton had not sprung immediately to mind. She had barely thought of him more than once or twice in past few years. He certainly was not one of her closest friends. Nor the cleverest. But she liked him and had occasionally caught glimpses of wisdom in his artlessness. He also had a trusting child-like nature that would allow him to hear her out. As soon as his name occurred to her, she knew that he would be the best person to confide in, and hoped that in doing so she would not put the poor boy in any trouble.
Camellia remembered the first time they had met. It was in the cafeteria of the university library, he had not been able to make the self-service tea machine give him just hot water. Infuriated by his incompetence, she had shown him how to operate it and caused him to blush terribly. He had blurted out some lame and embarrassing flattery about some lecture she had walked out of a few months before. She was all set to dismiss him as yet another infatuated schoolboy but she was impressed by the fact that he, like her, had brought his own tea-bags to avoid the criminal dust they sold there.
So she had joined him at his table and although he blushed all the way through their shared break and said any number of stupid things, she saw that he was not stupid and he also made her laugh. By the time she finished her Darjeeling, she had decided he could be her friend. They had their ups and downs but looking back ten years later she felt her first instinct had been right.
Now she hoped she had got it right again. She felt that it was but normally she never relied on feeling alone. In this case, her reasoning seemed solid but she knew her own judgement was so clouded by her ‘madness’ that she was taking a risk. For herself this was acceptable but she hated taking responsibility for anyone else or asking them for help. Unfortunately, she had no other choice. She had another chamomile and tried to sleep.