Fiction

Emily presents

MEG IS ALLOWED onto the tarmac to watch the unloading. It is a vast, empty space at this time of night, except for the cargo plane parked a short distance from the terminal and the scuttle of small vehicles around its base. A spotlight has been directed at the belly of the plane but fifteen minutes have ticked by and the hatch has still not opened.

‘Do they normally take this long?’ she asks. 

Astrid from Close Encounters raises her brows and speaks without taking her eyes off her screen. ‘There are seven racehorses to come out first. It could take some time,’ she says. ‘They’re not sedated like Emily is. They can get quite skittish.’

Astrid arrived last week, business class from Glasgow, and Meg is still trying to work her out. She feigns the warmth and empathy of an older, wiser woman but there is a brittleness about her, a kind of hermetic cool, a tightness in her waxy skin and her Scottish vowels that puts you on edge.

Meg glances at the terminal behind them. ‘Hopefully the protestors will give up and go home.’

Astrid snorts. ‘That lot in there? Don’t worry about them. I’ve seen plenty worse, I can tell yer. Last year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, at the airport when we arrived. You know how the Germans are, they get so worked up about these things. And there’s something about Emily that engenders pity in people. We have more trouble with her at airports than we’ve ever had with Jane.’

‘I was told Jane Austen doesn’t fly.’

‘She doesn’t, not often, not in Europe anyway. We don’t fly any of them if we can help it. It’s so much easier by road, nobody knows when you’re coming. But these demonstrations,’ Astrid says with a dismissive flap of her hand, ‘they’re all the same, they always stand in Arrivals expecting us to bring them out through the Duty Free. They did that in Frankfurt too. That’s how we gave them the slip. By the time they realised we’d landed, we were out the gates already and on the autobahn.’

Meg, too, had once imagined Emily arriving on a passenger plane, her voluminous skirts crammed into a narrow economy seat. That seems ridiculous now, but she was initially shocked to learn that Literones travel as live cargo. Thank God it isn’t common knowledge. Things are bad enough with the human rights crusaders without them picturing Emily Brontë travelling with a bunch of horses, tethered in a stall with her nose in a bag of chaff.

In fact, Emily’s container has been beautifully adapted for the purpose. Inside, it is said to resemble her bedroom at the parsonage – dimly lit, with a comfortable bed and embroidered samplers on the wall. This same container will carry her into quarantine and serve as her accommodation while she is in Sydney. Astrid describes it as Emily’s home away from home, although some of Meg’s writers’ festival colleagues, those less enthusiastic, continue to refer to it as her storage unit.

Luke is ringing. Meg turns to take the call. Another late night for her, another dinner gone cold. ‘You go ahead and eat,’ she tells him. ‘Just put it in the fridge. Yes, I know, third time this week. I’ll go in late tomorrow. I just want to see her onto the truck–’

‘Onto the truck!’ Luke chortles on the other end of the phone. ‘So she really is travelling cattle class.’

Astrid gives Meg a sympathetic smile. ‘Go home, girl, go on. You’ve had a long day. It’s a lot of pressure for someone your age, running an event like this. You’re very conscientious and you’re doing a grand job, but you should go and get some sleep and leave this bit to us. Oh Meg – no – are you crying? Those ratbags have got you all upset. You don’t have ethical qualms, do you? I certainly hope not. A few years from now, I guarantee, this will all seem commonplace. Remember the first IVF? Hah, no, you probably don’t. It was just like this – people calling doctors Frankenstein, accusing them of playing God – but sixty years on and look!’ She shrugs. ‘We hardly give it a thought. I’ve been with Close Encounters a long time now, and there’s one thing I know for sure: for every raving lunatic standing in Arrivals, there’s another fifty people out there with tickets to see Emily Brontë live at the Sydney Writers’ Festival – and those people are wettin’ themselves, they’re that excited.’

 

LUKE COMES OUT to the balcony with a bowl of reheated stir-fry and a glass of white wine for Meg. The cool change has arrived and the wind is picking up. The branches of the plane tree below them in Botany Road scratch against the glass balustrade of their apartment.

‘So tell me – what’s she like?’

Meg takes a gulp of wine. ‘I told you, she was asleep. I only got a glimpse of her before they shut the door.’

‘She was sedated then.’

‘For the flight, yes, of course she was. Have you got a problem with that?’

He blinks. She clenches her jaw. She mustn’t snap at Luke. He’s been holding the fort for weeks now and he’s been very patient. But deep down, Meg suspects that he’s not entirely onside. She hasn’t forgotten his tepid reaction when she told him about the job, or the dinner at Abbie and Jack’s the following night, when, on the pretext of being proud of her, he’d hung her out to dry.

It was a nightmare, that dinner. Everyone was on at her about the ethics of the thing: Abbie, Issy, Jack and that poisonous cousin of his. Come on, Meg. Are they human or not? If they’re clones, that means they’re human. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be telling people that this really is Emily Brontë while denying her human rights.

‘It’s all bullshit,’ said the rude cousin, his mouth full of crusty bread. ‘It’s just like identical twins, isn’t it? She’s not actually the same person.’

‘Except she has her memories.’ Abbie looked sharply at Meg. ‘That’s right, isn’t it? She thinks her thoughts. Isn’t that the case?’

‘That’s just simple AI,’ the cousin sneered, ‘like those pet clones they’re doing in China.’

‘No, Abbie’s right,’ Meg said. ‘She does have Emily’s memories, or some of them anyhow. It’s connectome genetics; that’s what makes it different. They have a fingerprint of the molecular connections in the brain and…’

Meg had stumbled through her patter that night. The material was still new to her and her garbled explanation of the Literones’ fractured consciousness fell distinctly flat with the guests around the table. She ploughed on nonetheless, explaining that they laid down no short-term memories, so no matter how stressed or upset they might appear in the moment, there was no residual harm. What thoughts they had were of the past, of their original lives and selves, and they came in fragments. She drew on the analogy used by Close Encounters: that their consciousness was like the reflection in an old mirror where the backing foil was peeling away in places. They came in and out, responding to certain triggers, sometimes lucid, sometimes miffed as if hearing voices in their heads.

Abbie, ever the lawyer, leaned on her elbow and toyed with the resin beads around her neck. ‘So you’re saying that they’re sentient but not self-aware. They can still feel pain then, can’t they? Like a tree – anxiety, stress.’

‘But they’re monitored,’ Meg insisted. ‘Emily’s cortisol levels will be taken twice a day.’

‘Creepy,’ muttered someone at the other end of the table.

‘Creepy, yes, I think so too.’ Abbie folded her arms. ‘Meg, I can’t believe you accepted this gig. I have to say, I’m very disappointed.’

That was when Luke blundered in on the issue of Meg’s career: it was an amazing opportunity for her; she’d be crazy to turn it down; it was going to open doors for her at festivals and literary events all over the world.

These were Meg’s own words, of course. She’d said all this to Luke, and more, arriving home the night before with a bottle of Bollinger. She had danced around the lounge room, fizzing with joy, while he stood back, bottle in hand, like a bemused waiter. Four years of hard slog and she’d finally broken through, been given the big gig – the biggest – and her chance to shine. No more free festival sessions for her, those stocking-filler events, panels discussing ‘writing place’ or ‘creating strong female characters’. They’d given her Emily Brontë – fuck! – the literary event of the year. Of the decade, the century! They’d given it to her. And Rosalie Spencer – oh my God – the look on her face when Vronny told the team. She tried to make out she never wanted it, but of course she fucking did. All of them did – Rosalie, Seb, Liana – they all had their names in the hat, but all of a sudden there they were, up on the moral high ground. Yes, Meg had said all those things to Luke. But spoken to this boho crowd in the middle of Marrickville, the same words sounded hard and ruthlessly ambitious.

She had laid into Luke on the way home that night. She thought he’d let her down. How could he be so obtuse and fail to read the room? Poor Luke. He was often wrong-footed among her friends, knowing almost nothing about books and publishing. He worked in the city, in finance, and while he claimed to have read Wuthering Heights at school, she suspected his knowledge went no further than the lyrics of the Kate Bush song.

Fucking Kate Bush. She was another one. Meg looks down at the wet street, at the people making their way to bars and late-night cafés. She’d applied for the rights to that song, to have it playing as the audience came into the auditorium. Over her dead body, Kate Bush had replied via her London agent, adding some caustic request that, when the time came, could they leave her dead body alone? Meg had had plenty of knockbacks over the past eight months, but that one really stung because her grandmother had loved Kate Bush and had taken Meg as a child to dance to ‘Wuthering Heights’ in a long red dress on a sports field in North Sydney.

The beef has gone tough in the microwave. Meg sets the bowl aside. She drains her glass and goes to the fridge for a refill. Luke comes out to say goodnight and eyes the bottle of wine.

‘What?’ she snaps.

‘Nothing. Don’t stay up too long.’

 

SHE WAKES HOURS later, having fallen asleep on the lounge. Beside her is the wine glass, empty again, and her copy of Wuthering Heights, face down on the coffee table. She reaches for the book and squints at the open page:

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

Meg has no memory of reading this, or the preceding page. Now, alone in the lounge room, she reads the words aloud, as Emily herself might have done all those years ago, her breath batting softly at the candle flame. Her words, her thoughts, the fevered workings of her mind. This was Emily Brontë. The words on the page. These were the true vestiges of her.

She had lied to Luke earlier. Emily wasn’t sleeping when she looked in on her at the airport. She was in bed but wide awake, staring at the wainscoted wall of the container, dark tendrils of hair escaping from under her cotton cap. In the corner sat a middle-aged woman in a grey flannel dress whom Meg took to be Tabby, the nurse employed by Close Encounters and named for the Brontë family’s only servant. She was engrossed in her tablet and didn’t notice Meg standing at the door. But Emily did. Her eyes grew wide. Bright hazel eyes in a wide pale brow. She struggled to sit up but the sheets were tucked too tightly and she fell back on her pillows with a moan.

‘That’s enough!’ Tabby leapt from her chair and came at Meg, hands flapping. ‘Away with you now! Go on, get out,’ and the metal door slammed shut. Meg stood in the ringing darkness, feeling the thick warmth of the night resettle on her skin. Behind her, she heard the arctic click of Astrid’s heels on the tarmac.

‘Landing is a tricky time. Best leave her be for now.’

‘She’s awake.’

‘Yes.’

‘She seems upset.’

‘They’re prone to panic when they first come round. A couple of days in the countryside will soon settle her down.’

The countryside, Meg sniffed, thinking of the quarantine station out at Eastern Creek, its squat buildings surrounded by dry fields of spiky grasses. The facility had been converted during the pandemic as an isolation hospital for the homeless. Fifteen years on, it was back in the hands of the Department of Agriculture again, but among the stables, exercise yards and enclosures for cats and dogs, remnants of its human occupation remained. There was a cemetery in a nearby paddock, classified by the National Trust, and two long, barrack-like buildings that now sat mostly empty. They planned to put Emily’s container in the courtyard between these and open up one of the dormitories for Tabby.

What would Emily Brontë make of the straggly gums of Eastern Creek, the shrieking cockatoos, the thin soils boiling with ants? No soft mists or marshlands here. No wet and bracing winds. Meg pictured Emily stepping out of her climate-controlled container and wilting in the searing midday sun.

She would spend the next five days there, undergoing blood tests, temperature checks and the like. It was just a formality, really, because she’d come in as livestock. The department had wanted to keep her there for the mandatory fourteen days but, on Astrid’s insistence, Meg had managed to talk them down.

‘You Australians and your biosecurity,’ Astrid had sniped the week before, after meeting with Nick Tsoukis, the head of the quarantine station. ‘It’s a complete pain in the butt. I probably carry more bugs than she does but they don’t take swabs from me. Ah well, you know what they say,’ and she wagged a mocking finger. ‘You can never be too careful with consumption.’

Meg replaces the book on the coffee table and sits up straight. The wind has come up again and the long white sheers are billowing into the room. She goes to shut the sliding door but steps outside instead, breathing the cool wet air and watching the foliage of the plane tree slap and scratch against the glass. She thinks of Emily Brontë out at Eastern Creek, lying in her narrow bed, her hands bunched under her chin, listening to the howling of the wind.

 

‘IT’S LIKE WITH my nan,’ says Jai, Meg’s assistant, as the two of them walk from their offices down to the festival precinct. ‘She’s got dementia. She thinks it’s the 1970s and you’ve got to play along. Except it’s – when did you say it was?’

‘1847.’

They pause at the top of the Hickson Steps as if on a threshold, and look down at the people milling below. Protestors, police, two media vans. The precinct itself was cleared at twelve o’clock and a metal barricade has been erected across the road. The Gadigal, Sydney’s newest theatre, thrusts like a blade of steel and glass through the silver skin of the harbour. Designed by wunderkind Li Song to replace the sinking wharves, it seats 5,000 people and dwarfs the surrounding studios and pavilions.

‘What do your friends think about this?’ Meg asks Jai. At twenty-four, he is only five years her junior, but he and his circle of boyfriends always seem much younger.

He shrugs. ‘They don’t care that much. They don’t come to things like this. Literary festivals, stuff like that, they’re more for middle-aged women.’

My friends come.’

Jai grins.

‘Shut up, I’m twenty-nine!’

‘Are they coming today?’

She falters. ‘Luke is. I don’t know about anyone else. I don’t imagine so. I expect a few of them to be outside the gates.’ Abbie will be there, for sure. Meg hasn’t spoken to her since that awful dinner but she’s seen her rants on social. ‘There’s Emily’s container,’ she says to change the subject. ‘On the dock near the portaloos, see?’

‘Geez, it’s small,’ said Jai. ‘Does she spend all her time in that?’

‘Not when she’s home in Yorkshire. And at Eastern Creek, she’s been outside with Tabby. I’m just glad she’s here. They were meant to bring her in last night but she wasn’t feeling well.’

‘Is she feeling better now?’

Meg shrugs. ‘Astrid says she’s fine.’

‘’Cos I’ve heard she’s bit hit and miss, Emily, not as robust as Jane Austen.’

Meg feels a quiver of nerves. This is very true. Jane Austen is higher functioning but she was booked for the next two years and Vronny, the festival director, decided to go with Emily rather than miss out. A UN committee was already examining the ethics of the thing, and while their deliberations were incomprehensibly slow, they could very well find the whole enterprise to be in contravention of the 1997 Declaration on the Human Genome.

None of this appears to cause Astrid any concern. She maintains that Emily Brontë was always the greater introvert. She would have been just as fragile in health back in the day, just as bewildered in front of an audience. All this was consistent and to be expected, and it certainly didn’t detract from the thrill of seeing her in the flesh.

Jai leans against the iron railings at the top of the steps. ‘There are people queuing already, look, and it doesn’t start for another three hours.’

‘We should get down there. Have you got your pass? Jai, where’s your lanyard?’

‘I’ve got it,’ he says, rolling his eyes. ‘Got the pass, got the ugly T-shirt. And I’m with you, for fuck’s sake, I think they’ll let me through.’

 

THE AFTERNOON SUN streams through the glass walls and the huge auditorium ripples with watery light. Emily has been moved backstage. She’s been there all afternoon. She will emerge only when the audience is seated and the walls are darkened: the harbour, the brilliant afternoon sun blotted out with the touch of a button. From her vantage point, a private box at the end of the dress circle, Meg contemplates the doors and feels the pressure building behind them. They’ll be checking devices for tickets and then confiscating them. No photography, no filming, no tweeting to friends. No applause or audience noise, or as little as possible. When the scrim goes up, it will be as if nobody is present but Emily Brontë and her publisher, George Smith.

The nineteenth-century offices of Smith, Elder & Co. sit on the darkened stage. This is grossly inaccurate, of course. Emily was dead by the time George Smith agreed to publish a second edition of Wuthering Heights. The first had been a debacle and its publisher, Thomas Newby, a scoundrel by all accounts. He never met Emily either and, at the time evoked, would have still believed she was a man called Ellis Bell. Best to skip that part of the story and go straight to the affable George. The pedants will whine, but this is how Close Encounters chooses to stage its author events, striving for historical context by approximation and conducting each interview as an intimate meeting of minds.

This is all explained in the publicity notes. An English actor called Robert Frith will conduct the conversation, asking those questions known to elicit a coherent response. Meg has watched footage of an Emily session in Bruges. She found Mr Frith a bit hammy in his waistcoat and powdered sideburns, but he comes as part of the package and it’s nothing to do with her. Nothing to do with her, nothing she can do. She lies back in the sprung chair and closes her eyes. The doors open with a gasp and she hears the murmuring surge of the crowd. She holds out as long as she can and then looks down. The industry women are marching swiftly to the front, cropped hair, chunky beads, bold statement glasses. Then come the male critics, editors, academics, sauntering to their seats with a world-weary air, ignoring those around them and choosing instead to immerse themselves in reading matter purchased from the festival bookshop. They are followed by a swarm of bright young things – Meg’s contemporaries. She spots Meredith Choo, who was in her year at uni and who, against all expectations, landed herself an excellent job at Pan Penguin. The milling crowd in the centre aisle suddenly parts like a sea, making way for Meg’s boss Vronny and the Minister for the Arts.

People are certainly excited; Astrid was right about that. And Jai was right too: there are an exceptional number of women of a certain age. Book club groups, mothers and daughters, pairs of female friends. They talk incessantly as they shuffle to their seats, cardigans over their arms and feet encased in comfortable Hush Puppies. They are not keeping their voices down, that was never going to happen. After all the fuss with Kate Bush, you can hardly hear the ambient music – Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 – but its relevance to Emily Brontë as an accomplished pianist would be lost on most of the audience anyway.

The stage manager’s voice comes bursting through Meg’s earbud. She nods to him across the hall and squints up at the techs. The high glass walls go dark, the houselights come down and the pool of light on centre stage glows like warm honey. As the burble subsides, you can hear the Beethoven. Meg looks around the audience as her eyes adjust and their faces resolve out the darkness. Lips parted, chins jutting, eyes fixed to the front, they appear almost hungry – voracious.

Emily comes on stage, stumbling slightly as though she’s been pushed from the wings. Robert Frith rises from his chair and invites her to sit down. He has her manuscript before him, a large pile of unbound papers that he turns, page by page. Then the questions begin and Emily appears to fall into a groove that she knows. She speaks very softly, with an archaic Yorkshire burr. Her mouth is small and pouched. She has an overbite and a nervous habit of chewing her bottom lip. She rallies at the mention of her sisters’ names and that of her dog, Keeper. Replying to a question about her nom de plume, she sounds almost feminist, triggering a smattering of applause. Meg stiffens in her seat but Emily appears oblivious and recites each of her sisters’ pseudonyms as well. It’s like a word association game and, as such, it’s interesting, but twenty minutes in, she begins to lose her way. Robert Frith keeps the prompts coming like a desperate clairvoyant, but Emily is letting them drop like balls and leaving them on the floor. At his request, she gives a faltering reading from Wuthering Heights but appears confounded by the words and her voice drops to a whisper.

‘Speak up!’ comes a shout from the back of the stalls.

Now, Emily raises her head and squints into the void, through the blinding dazzle of the footlights. Slowly she rises from her chair and walks to the edge of the stage. For a long moment no one moves or mutters or coughs or breathes. She stands there, slight and pale in her black bombazine dress, her gaze travelling over the sea of faces. Robert Frith comes forward to take her arm but she bats him away and begins to pace the stage, scratching at her forearms. She is all in fragments now; there’s no pulling her back together. The foil on the back of the mirror is in shreds. She turns to the table and runs her palms across its polished surface, her eyes fixed on the neatly piled manuscript before her. She raises one hand and smacks at it, sending the pages flying. The audience gasps and Robert Frith recoils. Slowly the flurry of papers settles to the floor. Emily’s brow gleams with sweat, and she starts to sway this way and that, her crinoline swinging like a bell. Then she lists to one side. The audience gasps again. Meg hisses into her mouthpiece and the stage lights come down, a full ten minutes before time.

 

MEG HURRIES DOWN the side aisle and slips out to the dock in time to see Emily being shuffled into her container.

‘Astrid, is she sick?’

‘No, love, she’s fine.’

‘I thought she was going to faint.’

‘She gets tired towards the end, she’s always been like that. Off you go to the green room. You look like you need a drink. I’ll join you when we’re finished here. We won’t be very long.’

‘Can I see her?’

‘Best not. Tabby’s with her now. She’ll settle her down for a nap while we wait for the crowds to clear.’

Resigned, Meg makes her way along the floating walkway that runs the full length of the theatre. Evening is coming on. She stops to take it in: the squiggles of light darting across the surface of the water, the hollow slop of the swell beneath her feet. Was it a total disaster? Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe she was the only person who experienced it that way, who felt every silence, every swoon, like a twisting knife.

The green room is packed. She elbows her way to the bar and casts around for somebody she knows. There’s no sign of Vronny or Jai. Who are all these people? The screen on the back wall is carrying a live feed, a vox pop from out the front of the theatre. Cameron Lucas from the ABC is interviewing two women with almost identical steel-grey bobs and calico shoulder bags.

– We were disappointed, weren’t we?

– Yes, you could hardly hear her.

– And she didn’t do a book signing. We were hoping for that. We brought our copies of Wuthering Heights. Look, my one from school!

– The Jane Austen signs books.

– They should have got Jane Austen. My cousin saw her in Birmingham and said she was quite good.

Luke comes towards Meg, wearing a goofy smile. What the hell was there to smile about? Her eyes well with tears.

‘I want to go home,’ she tells him.

‘Hey, don’t be like that. She wasn’t fantastic, but she was okay. It wasn’t all that bad.’

 

IT WAS THE quarantine station that rang her – Nick Tsoukis, the guy in charge. He apologised for calling at such an ungodly hour but Emily was missing and he thought Meg should know. He wasn’t sure how it happened – he felt that Close Encounters had closed ranks on him – but he’d heard that Emily was running a fever when they got back last night and, as the person in charge of her quarantine, he was very concerned.

Through the windscreen, Meg watches the passing chiaroscuro: the straggly yards and housing estates of outer Western Sydney drained of colour in the eerie pre-dawn light. She stops for coffee at a charging booth. She sits and checks her phone. She has messaged Astrid three times now but there’s been no reply.

Nick Tsoukis buzzes her through the gates and meets her at the door.

‘We’ve found her,’ he says, ushering Meg inside.

‘Thank God for that! Where was she? Where is she now?’

‘Up in the old cemetery. We’ve had to rope it off. I can’t let anyone near her until we establish the cause of death.’

Meg’s stomach lurches. The coffee she drank on the way rises like bile in her throat. Nick asks if she wants another and she shakes her head. He goes to the kitchenette in the corner of reception and makes himself a cup, spooning the powder into his mug with a trembling hand.

‘Does Astrid know?’

‘Yes, she’s here. She was with the group that found her. She’s sitting with Tabby now, I think. Tabby’s very upset.’

There’s sarcasm in the stress he places on these last three words.

‘Are there signs of a struggle?’

‘No. She’s just lying on the ground. It’s like she’s taken herself off to die, like a sick cat.’

‘I thought she was unwell yesterday. Something wasn’t right.’

‘And Astrid said she was fine, I suppose?’

‘Did you take her temperature when she came back? Isn’t that what you’re meant to do when people come back in?’

‘People don’t come back in here, Meg. People don’t come here at all. This is an animal facility with a minimum stay of fourteen days – no coming and going.’

‘I want to see her.’

‘You can’t. We’re waiting for the doctor.’

‘And the police? Have you called the police or has Astrid banned that too?’

Nick looks at her thoughtfully now, rubbing a stubby finger across his bottom lip. At last, he sets down his coffee and reaches for his coat. ‘Okay, I’ll take you up there, but you’ll have to keep your distance, understand?’

 

THE MORNING SUN is hot on her back as they traipse up the hill. The cemetery lies on the slope above them like an unfurled flag, grim rows of concrete blocks arranged in a neat square. No weeping angels for the pandemic’s homeless victims, just lasered plaques screwed onto the greying blocks, numbers without names.

Meg sees the hazard tape on the other side. She steps gingerly through the graves and stops when she is told. Her view is obscured but she can see Emily lying on the ground, one bare foot protruding from under her cotton nightdress, as small and pale as a child’s.

‘Don’t listen to them,’ says a voice behind her. Astrid, looking as taut and shiny as an apple. She’s ditched the business suit for a kind of farm-girl get-up: a checked shirt knotted at the waist and a pair of cropped white jeans. ‘Meg, she wasn’t sick. There’s no infection risk. Her time was up, that’s all. We all have our dates with death, some of us sooner than later. We were hoping this Emily might make it to thirty-one but it seems you can’t change the past. It is what it is. We’re not doing any more Brontës, their health is far too fragile. We’re not doing anyone now who didn’t live past forty.’

Meg stares at Astrid. What the hell is she saying? That Literones have expiry dates, inbuilt obsolescence?

‘So who are you doing next?’ she asks in a steely voice. ‘Whose hairbrush are you raiding now? Whose femur have you got? George Eliot? Charles Dickens? He lived to a ripe old age.’

Astrid’s mouth is a tight line in her waxen face. ‘I don’t have time for this now, Meg. There’s a lot to do. I don’t have time to deal with you and your swinging moral compass. I’m as upset as you are. We are all upset. Tabby is beside herself. She thinks it’s all her fault.’

Astrid turns on her kitten heel and swiftly walks away, out of the cemetery and down the grassy slope. Meg stumbles after her, shouting as she goes, hurling names of dead authors at her back like hand grenades. ‘Virginia Woolf? Too recalcitrant? How about Harper Lee?’

Meg’s foot clips a headstone and she tumbles forward.

‘Mary Shelley!’ she cries as she lands with a thud, spreadeagled in the dirt. Facedown, she feels only the weight of her own skull and the crumbling soil beneath it. Then slowly, the grazed skin on her arms and legs begins to burn. Mary Shelley, she breathes again, rolling to one side. A warm breeze blows over the field, stirring the dry grasses and sending tiny colourless moths fluttering into the air. The screech of cockatoos overhead, harsh and merciless, and around her, ants come boiling up from the depths of the unquiet earth.

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