That Thursday morning, I was waiting at the top of the stairwell outside her office door. It was labelled with a small brass nameplate which read: Dr. A. Nolan, Mutology. They'd put her in this turret, she said, to keep the lesbian at arm's length.
I used to come and visit her whenever I had a spare moment. It wasn't enough seeing her crouching over the newspaper in the morning, and curled up on our futon at night. I needed to talk to her to get through the day's round of mindless assignments. But today her door was locked - she must have gone over to the main department in the centre of town.
I sat looking down into the darkness. The windows in the stairwell were nothing but open slits in the stone stuffed with leaf litter. There was a pool of light at the bottom, where the stuck-open door let in the cold air, and lit dust particles that rose towards me, floating free of the ground.
At first I didn't notice anything in particular about the silhouetted figure that climbed the stairs. I thought it was Amanda, but the way it moved up the stairwell was thinner and lighter. Was it male or female? I couldn't tell, and found myself wanting to know. And then it was sitting next to me on the stairs and extending a hand to me, and in the darkness I made out a soft face, smiling with big cheeks on high cheekbones.
"You must be Dr. Nolan," it said.
"No, I'm not - I'm waiting for her. I'm her - I'm a friend." I was going to say 'partner' but my heart started pounding as if in defence of my personal details. I decided that she must be female.
"I'll have to wait with you," she said. "I've got an appointment."
"Oh, so you're one of her patients then?"
"Yes, she's studying my - she asked me to come in for some tests."
Of course that made me look for a mutation, and then I saw it. Thin antlers, of about thirty centimetres in length, protruded from the top of her head. I couldn't believe that I hadn't seen them before. Not pointed, but blunt-ended, like a pair of bony hands reaching upwards and inwards, branching in two places.
"I'm sorry, I didn't see them before." I didn't know what to say. I’d seen some of Amanda’s patients before, going quickly in and out of clinics at the main department, but had not met them personally.
I hesitated, and then asked, "Have you always had them?"
"No, they've been growing. I thought they were just spots and I scratched them horribly at first, but then they turned into lumps and my doctor diagnosed me with cancer."
"I'm so sorry."
"No, it wasn't cancer. I took two weeks of chemotherapy and then they really started looking like antlers and I stopped taking the drugs."
"They don't hurt?"
"You must be tired of telling everyone this," I said.
"People don't always ask. Only children," she replied. I wondered if that made me a child.
Amanda's heavy, dark body thumped up the stairs and nearly tripped over both of us - she can't have seen us at all. I could tell from the way she unlocked the door that she was flustered and unhappy, that the meeting had been a battle of wills, that she needed a hug and that she was embarrassed to see us together. What I couldn't tell was whether she was angry with me or with someone else.
We got up off the landing and walked into the office. Amanda covered her windows with cardboard to protect the books and folders from fading. The light in there, though dim, was better than in the stairwell and I stared at the newcomer. I felt for the camera round my neck, longing to photograph her - but without my external flash, I knew it would be pointless. The antlers themselves were what stirred me. They were as delicate as fine ceramic and they moved with her head, making her appear taller and - I searched for the word - almost threatening. Her face was pale and lightly freckled; she was probably about twenty years old.
"Kate, honey, sorry, I'm going to have to ask you to leave; I've got an appointment with Tristan."
"I could photograph her," I said quickly. "For your records."
Amanda was flicking through her patient folder, an enormous concertina file with names on little white labels. "No, no - it's ok. I always take detailed notes." She didn't look at me but I could see the suppressed irritation in her fixed gaze. I said nothing.
"Let her take some photographs,” said Tristan. "Shouldn't people know what it looks like?"
Amanda raised her eyebrows. "It would be strictly for your own records. We don't require them for our metrics."
Tristan, as if reading my mind, went suddenly to the windows and stood on the workbench. She ripped off the cardboard from the windowpanes, leaving behind large strips where the double-sided sellotape was stuck to the glass. The light romped in and filled every dusty corner, showing up all the books, dust and the deep scratches in the floorboards. I lifted my camera and started taking photograph after photograph, not caring to make them look scientific, capturing the way Tristan was standing, the angle she made against the bookshelves, the texture of her cheek, the colour of her antlers and the pattern they made against the white wall-chart. Her expression of awakeness infected me. She seemed to be conscious of every nuance of light in the room and to know where to move. She stood up against the bookshelf with her eyes half-closed. When I moved closer, she instinctively rotated her head in the other direction. Not once did she pose. Not once did she look self-conscious.
"I need that cardboard put back the minute you've finished," Amanda said, tight-throated, annoyed.
After I'd photographed Tristan I left them to their interview. I closed the office door and walked down the stone staircase in a trance. For the eighteen months that Amanda had been working on this project, I'd hardly taken any more notice of her job than if she'd been an accountant. In fact, I viewed her job as a rival for her attention, and tried to distract her from it as much as possible. I now realised the grave importance of what she was doing. Or not doing.
Outside, it was cold and bright, with a few leaves scuffing about the street. I walked towards County Hall, drawing my coat over my camera. My feet felt pinched in my patent leather loafers. I hummed to keep warm. I had Tristan's number on a scrap of paper in my pocket.
The photo shoot was miserable. The councillors grimaced and posed next to the huge ribboned wreath, and Mrs. Carmarthen and the scattering of other wives stood primly in their make-up with tired, preoccupied smiles. "Are you all organised for Christmas?" I heard her asking one of the other females in the room, and Mrs. whoever-it-was hesitated, and nodded her large head up and down, and said, "More or less; Vossie and I did most of our shopping in Whitstable this year. I'm so glad we got it out of the way before this cold snap."
When I stood in front of a tiered silver stand of canapés and crouched to photograph the smoked salmon close up in the reflected glimmer of the candelabra, my ears filled with clanging noise. I found myself bending over, afraid I would pass out.
"You all right, sonny?" One of the waiters put a gloved hand on my shoulder.
I felt nauseous. "I'm fine, don't worry," I said, straightening and steadying my camera. He scrunched up his face in embarrassment, realising I was a girl.
The way out was through a corridor into the back yard. A couple of heavy councillors were puffing out cigarette smoke on the steps, wearing huge shirts that hardly buttoned over their bellies. Next to the trade dustbins was a line of sycamore trees. I walked over to them and put my palms on their reassuring bark.
I met Tristan at Poyntons, supposedly for coffee, but neither of us wanted to stay inside so we went for a walk, heading down behind town and through the spindly gates of the University parks. She talked about herself: she came from a farm town a few hundred kilometres away; she was studying for her Master's in Ethnology; she sheared sheep in the holidays to make ends meet. She wanted to go to the far north for her thesis project.
I didn't want to seem obsessive but despite myself I asked about her antlers. "Do they weigh you down?"
"I hardly notice them. They were heavier when they were covered in velvet."
"Yes, that's what they were like at first. They grew so fast, then at the end of the summer the soft stuff came off in my hands, all in one go. I'm wondering if the antlers themselves will drop off by spring. That's what happens to the barren females."
I nodded. Somehow I'd known what 'animal' she was. Her antlers must have reminded me of the countless pictures I'd seen on the television. But Tristan had said the word barren so smoothly, that it sounded like a cool thing, even a good thing. It was the first time she'd shocked me.
She asked how I met Amanda, and I told her we'd met at a party in a wine warehouse.
"She's very thorough."
"You don't like her, do you?" I accused her.
"She must be a fascinating person to know."
I thought of Amanda, in bed, hugging the big concertina file she always kept by the bedside table, flicking through the records obsessively, and the fierce look she'd give me when I came in the bedroom door.
"I think I like being afraid of her."
"Like Beauty and the Beast?"
"Something like that."
I looked over at her, and saw her blue eyes, and that she was laughing. I threw an arm around her leather-jacketed shoulder, and her antlers knocked slightly against my head. We tramped round the park and our breath made clouds among the shadows of the dimly-lit woodland.
We walked clamped together, stumbling at small talk.
It was snowing by the time I got home to the flat. Amanda and I shared the rent in a converted barn in Port Pine, at the end of the bus route. It took ten minutes to walk from the bus stop to the familiar crunch of our gravel drive, but with the sharp flakes blowing straight in my face it felt like longer. My feet were freezing. I wanted to upload my day's work onto the laptop and warm up in the shower. I found Amanda sitting at the kitchen table.
I stood on the doormat, holding my snowy coat. "Oh. Hello."
"Did you fuck her?" she said loudly, as if asking me if I'd remembered to buy milk.
"God, no, Amanda. I haven't had the time."
"But if you did, you'd fuck her."
"Yes," I said. "If she wanted to."
There was a silence during which nothing was said, and neither of us dared to look away.
"If I asked you not to, would you not?"
"Maybe," I said. "Obviously you'd be upset."
She held onto her mug tightly.
"Give it to me. The camera," she said suddenly. I gave it to her, then immediately wished I hadn't.
She scrolled calmly back through my day's work to the photos of Tristan and started systematically deleting each one. I felt each beep as a blow, but by holding on to my trouser pockets, I was able to keep myself from knocking the camera from her hands.
I burst out: "You're protecting those – mutants – even though they don't want to be protected. Do you actually know you're barking mad?"
Amanda didn't stop.
"What's the point of collecting all this data, sweetheart?" I said with venom. "Are you ever going to publish a paper? Are you planning to let people know what's happening? Or are you going to just sit and eat the numbers?"
She went on deleting photos. There were 627 hi-res photos on the camera, over 150 of which had not been backed up. I couldn't afford to lose them.
The kitchen was warm and we'd put a tub of red geraniums on the windowsill behind the sink. I went over to stand in front of them, bending closer to them so that my nose was almost on their soft leaves. At that moment, a thought about reindeer floated into my mind, as if through the darkened window. Migration. Thousands of kilometres of snow-covered forest, and huge ice-cold rivers.
I turned around to look at Amanda, who was still sitting small and hunched over her coffee. Her expression was different, though. Her eyes were shining.
In response to her words, my fingers moved quickly to my lower back where my shirt had ridden up, and I felt fur.
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