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Episode 15: Enquiries at the Pickerel Inn
Season 1: The World Unseen
Mr Packham was right: the saloon bar of the Pickerel Inn did look respectable. A few clean looking men sat at well-scrubbed oak tables deep in conversation. An elderly couple at another table were playing cribbage, both frowning with fierce and competitive concentration. The atmosphere was amiable and relaxed. A log fire burnt in the hearth, sending flickers of light across the horse brasses and watercolours hung on the walls.
Mr Packham bought glasses of lemonade and they sat at a corner table, close to the fire.
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Now what? Miranda a wondered. It was all very well getting into the place, but what was she to do now? She realized she was all at sea, a ludicrous pilgrim waiting for a sign from heaven. She sipped her lemonade and felt suddenly crestfallen.
If I had come on my own, I could have snooped around a bit, she thought. But of course, I couldn’t have come on my own, not this first time. I had no idea what I might be walking into. She fidgeted with her gloves. This kind of anticlimax never happens in stories. When Sir Gawain reached the Green Chapel, he found the Green Knight waiting for him. I was sure something was waiting for me here, and perhaps it is, but what is it and how will I know?
Mr Packham was silent too, though he kept glancing at her as if he was about to say something. Finally, he checked at his pocket watch and said, ‘We really should leave now.’
Miranda nodded. ‘Yes, we should.’ She gazed around the bar, looking for a sign or a clue or something. But there was nothing.
Her notion of contacting Major Lock on her return to London shrivelled like an autumn leaf. I’ve been very foolish, she thought. But at least I have an idea of the place now. It’s not a dragon’s cave, not on the surface anyway. Perhaps I could come back on my own, when it’s quieter. Then I might find out something valuable.
Yes, I must find a way, she thought. We catch the five-fifteen train back to London tomorrow afternoon. But I must find a way.
Still absorbed in her own thoughts, she let Mr Packham guide her out of the inn and back onto the rain-slick streets of Cambridge.
* * *
That evening, the conference delegates gathered in a hall at the Old Schools building for a dinner of five courses. Miranda tried to enjoy the food and conversation, but found it an ordeal. She had never sat down to dinner with more than six people in her life. Here, dozens of people sat at long tables, all garbed in their best clothes, chattering away, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Before leaving London, knowing there would be a formal dinner, she had sewn some lace to the collar of her plain black dress. Now she compared the dress, the best she had, and her plain silver necklace, with the dresses and jewellery of the other women present, and found hers wanting. Oh lor, I do look a drab little thing compared with all these fine ladies, she thought, even if they are librarians and not duchesses.
A fire roared in an enormous stone fireplace, as if in some medieval banqueting hall. The oak panelling shone in the light and Miranda could see faint reflections on the surface, as if phantoms were trapped in the wood. Elaborate candelabra stood along the middle of the long tables, casting a warm and rather beautiful light on a collection of plates, bowls, glasses, and cutlery that made dazzled her eyes and made her head spin. Where do I begin with all this lot? she wondered. There was nothing for it but to watch what other people did and follow their lead.
She was seated between Mr Packham and a gentleman from Gladstone's Library in Wales. Miranda knew a little about the library, founded by the former prime minster, William Gladstone, and about how Gladstone, his daughter, and his valet had transported the 32,000 books from the family home to the library three-quarters of a mile away in wheelbarrows. She admired a man who cared enough about setting up a library to do such an amount of physical work himself.
The man from Gladstone’s Library was called Mr Davies and had a very soulful Welsh accent. He was a large man and seemed very pleased to be in the dining hall, awaiting a five-course dinner.
‘Have you dined anywhere like this before, my dear?’ he said to Miranda.
‘No, sir, I can’t say I have.’
‘Grand, isn’t it? But listen,’ he said in a confidential tone. ‘Don’t be intimidated. Enjoy yourself and if you don’t know which knife or fork or spoon to pick up, ask me.’
‘Oh, that’s very kind of you, sir. I might need a little help.’
‘Don’t mention it,’ Mr Davies said. ‘Now where’s that wine waiter?’
Mr Packham overheard this little conversation, and said to her, a little reproachfully she thought, ‘You could have asked me for help, you know.’
‘Yes, I know, Mr Packham. I do, really.’
Miranda tried to follow Mr Davies’ advice and enjoy herself, but she felt too self-conscious about the way she held her cutlery, the way she chewed her food, the way she sipped her wine. She would have preferred to drink lemonade but she would have felt childish asking for it in such a setting. Wine, on the few occasions she had tasted it, was always unpleasant to her taste, and nothing like as sweet and delicious as the poets made it out to be.
Still, she avoided any mishaps or etiquette failures, and was relieved when the remains of the last course were cleared away. Then came the after-dinner speeches. Miranda’s mind wandered.
Could there really be any connection between the Pickerel Inn and the obscure body that Major Lock was trying to trace? It had to be a coincidence. Admittedly, a very odd one, but a coincidence all the same. And yet… If nothing else, it was worth investigating.
But how was she, a fifteen-year-old librarian, supposed to investigate? For she would have to return to the Pickerel Inn on her own and — and what? Ask questions, she told herself, you’ll have to ask questions. And do it subtly, without seeming eccentric or suspicious.
But there was also the matter of the train she was due to catch the next day with Mr Packham. How I am going to pull this off? she asked herself. But beneath the doubt and anxiety, Miranda felt a rising excitement. This enterprise might seem nothing to the likes of Allan Quatermain, but for her it was a real-life adventure. Her first.
As she withdrew more and more into her own thoughts, the surrounding company, lubricated by wine, got louder and more animated. The air was thick with tobacco smoke and the sour base note of sweat now underlaid the scents of perfume and pomade.
She was relieved when Mr Packham leaned over to her and said, ‘You look tired, Miss Colston. Perhaps we had better leave.’
‘If you wish to stay, I’m quite happy to make my own way back to the guesthouse.’
‘At this time of night? No, we’ll walk back together,’ Mr Packham said firmly.
And so, with her arm in his, they walked the now familiar route, along Trinity Street and towards Magdalene Bridge — and the Pickerel Inn. Miranda looked up at the stars that pocked the night sky, far more stars than she ever saw in the London sky. It was glorious.
Mr Packham seemed as thoughtful as she was, until he said, ‘Do you think I was too vehement when I got into that argument about Shakespeare?’
Miranda barely remembered it, but said,’ Oh no, not at all.’
He nodded. ‘I do get irate with these people who think that just because Will was a glover’s son and never went to university, he couldn’t have written those plays.’
Miranda knew Mr Packham was the son of a bricklayer and was sensitive about his origins. She also knew that he felt his own lack of a university education. She admired the fact that he had educated himself largely through his own efforts and through attendance at many classes at the Workingman’s College at Camden Town.
What she wondered now was whether he was a secret poet. Gosh, aren’t people complicated? she thought.
‘You seemed very preoccupied this evening,’ Mr Packham said.
‘Did I?’ Miranda said as casually as she could.
‘Yes, you did. Is something bothering you?’ He paused. ‘If there’s anything I can help with, well…’
‘That’s kind of you. But really, I’m just tired.’
They passed the Pickerel Inn and Miranda sneaked a long look, but it revealed nothing to her gaze.
Soon afterwards, they were saying goodnight on the staircase of the guesthouse. Miranda went to her room, grateful that the day had ended, excited and apprehensive for the day to come. Expecting that she would lay awake half the night trying to think of ways to unlock the mystery of the Pickerel inn, she found herself so drowsy when she got into bed that she dropped off straight away.
She woke early, refreshed and optimistic, on Sunday morning. The sky was bright and dry, though there were some threatening clouds to the west. She decided to take a stroll in the little garden before the weather turned. And a plan formed in her head. It relied too much on luck for her liking and might well have unpleasant consequences for her relations with Mr Packham. But it was all she could think of in the time available.
It was during the break in the morning conference session, when the delegates took refreshments, that Miranda evaded Mr Packham’s attention, collect her hat, coat, and umbrella from the cloakroom, and slip out of the Old Schools building.
All the brightness of the early morning had vanished, and rain was falling again. The grey sky and chilly wind would have bolstered no one’s spirits and there were a couple of occasions when she almost turned back. The closer she got to the Pickerel Inn, the sillier the entire enterprise seemed.
Why am I getting so intrigued and worked up about a thing like this? she asked herself. Yes, there’s the adventure of it, of course, but there’s also something about that Major Lock that made an impression on me. He’s involved in something deep, I’m sure of it, and I want to help him if I can. I must go on now.
She reached the door of the inn, took a deep breath, and walked through to the saloon bar.
It had just gone eleven o’clock and there were only a couple of tables occupied, small men in smart suits, University employees, she suspected. Another deep breath and she was at the bar, hoping that the burly, bearded man behind it was the landlord.
‘Yes, miss?’ he said. If he was surprised to see an unaccompanied young woman, his expression did not betray it.
Miranda had decided earlier that for this phase of the escapade, honesty was the best strategy.
‘Good morning, sir. Are you the landlord of the inn?’
‘That I am,’ he said.
‘I wonder if you can help me. My name is Miss Miranda Colston. I’m a librarian from London, attending a conference at the University.’
‘Well, I had an enquiry recently, from a library member, who was trying to trace an organization called the Pickerel institute. Could you tell me if you’ve heard of them? With the inn name, you see, it was such a coincidence that I had to ask.’
The landlord mulled over her question.
Finally, he said, ‘Well, miss, this is the Pickerel Inn, to be sure.’
Miranda stopped herself from shaking her head. ‘Yes, sir, I know that. What I want to know is, have you heard of the Pickerel institute?’
He thought about this for a moment and then said, ‘No, miss. Can’t say I have. Not if you mean something different from the inn itself.’
‘Yes, it is something different,’ Miranda said.
‘What is it then?’ the landlord said, a look of sly amusement on his face, as if he was about to catch her out and show that he was the clever one here.
‘Well, I don’t know. But I thought you might be able to help me,’ she said, feeling quite inept.
‘I know nothing of it, miss. That’s the truth.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’ve got to change a barrel. Speak to the wife about it if you want. I’ve got work to do.’
‘Yes, could I speak to your wife?’ Miranda said.
‘Mary!’ he shouted. ‘Come round here!’
A stout woman, her dark hair piled and pinned untidily up, her face round and kind, appeared from the public bar side.
‘The young lady here wants to ask you something,’ he said curtly. ‘I’m going downstairs.’
He disappeared, leaving his wife with Miranda.
Miranda repeated her question and got the same answer.
There seemed to be nothing more to ask or do. She had to get back to the conference. Mr Packham would already be wondering where she had got to.
‘I believe they might be a group of scientific gentlemen,’ she said in a last, desperate attempt to gain something from her visit.
‘Scientific gentlemen?’ the landlady said. ‘Well, I don’t know, but…’
‘Yes?’ Miranda said. ‘Have you thought of something?’
‘Well, we have a room upstairs we let out for meetings and functions and suchlike.’
‘Well, there’s a group of gentlemen — they might be doctors or they might be scientists or they might be something else altogether. But they meet here every Sunday. I couldn’t tell you what they discuss but there’s a lot of talking and reading of papers and suchlike. I see them at it when I take up the drinks and the sandwiches. It’s all over my head.’
‘And what do they call themselves?’
‘Well, I don’t know that they call themselves anything, miss. But the man who makes the arrangements, books the room and so on, works at Addenbrooke's Hospital. Dr Reece, that is. But I don’t know if that’s what you’re looking for,’ she said doubtfully.
Miranda wasn’t sure either. But it was something. A slim lead, but a lead all the same.
‘You said they meet on Sundays?’
’So they’ll be meeting today?’
‘Yes, miss. Seven in the evening, every Sunday excepting during Christmas-time, and Easter-time, and part of the summer vacation.’
‘Oh, you’ve been most helpful, Mrs —’
‘Mrs Mackay, dear, and you’re welcome. You’ve got a bee in your bonnet about this, I can tell. Well, they’re all fine, polite gentleman, though what they get up to I couldn’t tell you.’
‘Oh, I’m sure they are.’
‘Will you be coming in this evening to see Dr Reece?’ Mrs Mackay said, a shrewd expression on her face.
Miranda coloured a little and shook her head. ‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Then you’ll not be wanting me to mention our little conversation?’ she said with a smile.
‘No, that won’t be necessary,’ Miranda said. Clumsily, she took her purse from her handbag, and fished out a florin.
‘For your time and trouble, Mrs Mackay,’ she said, offering the coin to the landlady.
‘Keep it, dear. I’m happy to help. I was only teasing you. You’re a serious little thing, aren’t you? But be careful, dear. That’s all I’m saying.’
‘I will, Mrs Mackay, and thank you again.’
Miranda, once Mrs Mackay’s back was turned, hurried up the staircase and carried out a quick survey of the inn’s upper floor before she went back to the Old Schools.
To her surprise and relief, Mr Packham, having got into another dispute, this one about the Dewey Decimal System and whether ILA members should adopt it, had not noticed her absence. Now that there was a meeting at the inn that evening, that might just be a meeting of the Pickerel institute, Miranda spent the rest of the morning formulating another more ambitious, much riskier plan.
* * *
The conference finished at four o’clock. Miranda and Mr Packham had brought their overnight bags with them and went directly to the railway station, where they sat in the tearoom.
Ten minutes before the train was due, Mr Packham went to the newsagent’s kiosk and bought a copy of Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper and a packet of fruit pastilles.
When he returned, Miranda checked her wristwatch. The train was due in five minutes. Now was the time.
‘Excuse me for a moment,’ she said. ‘I must visit the ladies’ room.’
She picked up her carpet bag.
‘Oh, you can leave that here if you want,’ Mr Packham said. ‘I’ll look after it for you.’
‘No, that’s alright,’ she said. ‘I’ll take it with me.’
She went off to the ladies’ room and locked herself into a cubicle. Then she watched her watch and waited.
When the hands reached thirteen minutes past five o’clock, she left the cubicle and hurried out onto the platform. The train had arrived. She hid herself behind a family who were waiting for another train. Mr Packham peered anxiously down the platform, looking out for her. She watched the London passengers, many of them delegates from the conference, boarding. Mr Packham stood and waited.
The station master shouted, ‘5.15 for London, all aboard, 5.15 for London, all aboard!’
Timing was everything here.
Miranda watched the station master as he strode along the platform, whistle in mouth, flag in hand, chivvying people onto the train, and slamming the doors after them.
Finally, praying her scheme would work, she hurried towards Mr Packham. He looked at her with relief and some irritation.
‘I thought someone had kidnapped you, Miss Colston. Quickly now. The station master will blow his whistle any second now.’
He held the train door open and Miranda clambered aboard. But she didn’t sit down. Mr Packham got in and shut the door.
He gave her a puzzled look.. ‘But where is your carpet bag?’
The station master’s whistle shrieked out above the sound of the train’s engine girding itself for departure.
‘Oh lor,’ Miranda said. ‘I must have left it in the ladies’ room.’
Mr Packham’s expression mingled confusion with horror. ‘But how on earth —’
Miranda swiftly opened the door, jumped from the train, and shouted to Mr Packham. ‘Not to worry! I’ll find my bag and get a later train! See you at the library tomorrow!’
She slammed the door so Mr Packham couldn’t follow her and watched with relief as the train, like a huge wheezing metallic slug, pulled out of the station, as Mr Packham leaned from a window, his arms outstretched, his expression forlorn.
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