Human Nature

Human Nature

by Paul Cornell
Human Nature
Alexander Shuttleworth leaned back in the easy chair and drummed his fingers rhythmically on his stomach. 'You may call it cake,' he told his small audience, regarding the small saucer with the last few crumbs that sat on his lap, 'but it goes beyond cake. Call it Ultrasponge, Victoria Maximus, empress of icing sugar.'
            The ladies of Joan Redferri's WI group looked at him and then at each other nervously. A few giggled or laughed in a more civilised fashion. Alexander felt as if he was addressing a flock of sheep in hatpins.
            'Well, Mr Shuttleworth,' Joan began, replacing her own plate delicately on the table, 'may we move on to the subject of our talk for today, the archaeology of the bronze age?'
            One of the ladies leaned over to her friend and whispered in her ear. 'I can't imagine what Joan was thinking of, inviting that man into our circle. One might as well call upon the Serbs to come and ravage us all.'
            'Oh, I don't know,' the younger woman replied. 'I think he's quite sweet.'
            'That's what all his conquests think, all those young girls ruined in their prime. His reputation should preclude him from the Institute.'
            'Reputations!' roared Alexander, causing the two ladies to jump guiltily from each other's ear. 'Reputations are made and broken in British archaeology on the matter of Bronze Age burials. Are we looking at a matriarchal culture, the kind of thing that led to Boadicea's easy assumption of the reins of power... or do we deal with chieftans?' He had stood up now, pacing back and forth before the curtains of the little front room in the sunshine.
            'Perhaps the inhabitants of long barrows are not even warriors, but priests. . . Oh, hullo, Wolsey.'
            He bent to smooth back the ears of the tabby cat that was rubbing itself against his ankles.
            'She's quite infra dig herself, of course.' The older woman had quietly resumed her conversation with her fellow. 'Mrs Redfern, I mean. A thoroughly decent sort.'
            'Mrs?' The younger woman was surprised.
            'Widow. Her husband died in the campaign against the Boer.'
            'And do you think that she has plans to civilise the notorious Mr Shuttleworth?'
            'Goodness, no! I hope not, anyhow. If she aims to remarry then I'm sure she must pick a more honourable soul. I have heard that she is linked to Mr Rocastle, her employer.'
            'The headmaster? He's a bit stiff.'
            'He doesn't go up in flying machines carrying piglets, if that's what you mean.'
            The younger woman stared at her, open-mouthed. 'How did you come to hear of that? I was ever so slightly squiffy, but -'
            'Piglets!' called Shuttleworth, standing to his full height once more. 'Sheep! And even horse skulls have been found in burial mounds. Now, were these animals owned by the incumbents?'
            Joan was following his gestures politely sipping at her tea, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Last night she had had a dream. She taught science at Hulton College and she disliked it, all those chemical mixtures, and no idea of anything behind it. Like the world was reductable to simple elements. She wasn't tremendously fond of the open declamation of ethics and, while watching all those young boys destined to be military officers mixing chemicals, she often associated the two. Two parts this to one part that, God and country and a straight back. No inner knowledge of what made these things elements, no questioning of how God's goodness translated into things like patriotism and bravery.
            Maybe when she met Arthur again in heaven she'd gain an understanding of the greater things, but for now she hated honour and sacrifice, the things that had made him die proudly. She knew the other women linked her and Rocastle. He'd proposed, the foolish man. That had made her life harder. But she had her dream. She'd dreamt of the constellations, of Orion hunting the animals. Amongst them was a new one, a group made up of stars from here and there, with two red nebulous hearts. A man had stood looking, staring up at Orion with a mixture of awe and whimsy on his face; a very British expression. He seemed also to be looking down at the spring of 1914.
            What had made this dream memorable was that the constellation was in some way associated - this was the unique thing about dreams, that they could suggest the feeling of association without any real connection - with Dr John Smith, Joan's new colleague at the school, the history teacher. Joan had woken up from that sleep feeling quite flushed but refreshed, as if something pure and distant had come to her like a falling star.
            Inspiration, in its most literal sense had filled her, and the notion it brought that morning was that, for the first time in several years, she no longer felt quite so alone.
            Dr Smith was small and Scottish, from Aberdeen as a matter of fact, and he had a charmingly mobile face. Full of laughter. If it ever stayed still, it would present a truly terrible image, a frightening strength. But it never did stop moving. That would be bad, if it stopped. Like a tiger. As it stood he was the sort of man that one wanted to mother. Very vulnerable, but with that potential to be exceedingly strong. A tiger cub, then.
            'Cubs, and their master -' Alexander stopped, turned a fraction, and looked down at Joan, puzzled. 'I say, I haven't said anything too risque, have I?'
            'No...' Joan flinched, broken out of her daydream. 'Why do you say that, Mr Shuttleworth?'
            'Because, my dear, you're blushing.
            'Oh.' Joan picked up Wolsey, and smoothed his fur, aware of the eyes of the other women on her. 'It's a medical condition.'
Source: Doctor Who Magazine #226