In the last episode of Karen Zipslicer’s adventures, Karen was told the bad news that there were no airships that could fly her back to Britain, and the shocking news that Britain was not even on their maps. Disconsolate, she needs some care and attention…
Karen left Thomas’ filing shed without a word, without needing to be asked again. She wanted to be outside, wanted to be alone, wanted to be in the rain, wanted to feel it crashing down on her head. The rain was coming down, and the world was coming down, as far as Karen was concerned. She stood motionless, her arms by her side, eyes unfocused, rain running down her face, colder every second. Until Desmond stepped up, and held his umbrella over her.
“You don’t look happy,” said Desmond.
Karen did not answer.
“You’ve had a bit of a shock,” said Desmond.
Karen did not answer.
“You’re going to catch cold if you stand around in this pouring rain. Why don’t you come with me and warm up with a cup of hot chocolate?”
Karen did not answer.
“And maybe a nice slice of cake?”
Karen did not answer. But she did not resist when Desmond placed one hand on her arm, leading her away. Her stomach growled. Cake would help to fill it.
The coffee shop rumbled with all the people and conversation that was packed inside. Desmond plonked Karen down at the only free table, then went to buy their drinks. Sitting alone in such a noisy, boisterous place made Karen feel nervous; she pulled out Whiteley for company. A sign outside had read “no animals allowed”, under the silhouettes of a bird and a four-legged creature with red crosses painted over them. Karen was more afraid of feeling lonely than being thrown out. She held Whiteley and stroked him firmly.
“Me not allowed in here,” said Whiteley.
“Why shouldn’t you come in here? You’re doing no harm,” answered Karen, wearily.
“Sign says not allowed.”
“I say differently. Why wouldn’t you be allowed?”
“Human beings think they’re better than animals.”
“People are better at some things, and ferrets are better at other things, like chasing rabbits.”
“People think they’re better. Doesn’t matter what at.”
“Relax. Nobody’s complaining, Whiteley.”
“Me complaining. Makes me plenty angry,” said Whiteley. “Gilbert the Good emancipated all animals in 412 P.G. but me still not allowed in here.”
“What does ‘emancipated’ mean?”
“He banned people from owning animals.”
“You mean like slavery?”
Desmond returned with a tray. There was a mug of coffee for him, a mug of hot chocolate for Karen, and a slice of battenburg cake for each of them.
“You’d better hide your rodent,” said Desmond, taking off his cap and sitting alongside Karen. “We don’t want to get chucked out.”
“He’s not a rodent,” said Karen.
“Me not her rodent,” said Whiteley.
“Don’t get upset. I’ve got nothing against animal’s lib. I only want to drink the coffee and eat the cake I bought.”
Whiteley climbed back into Karen’s pocket without speaking.
“You’re horrible,” said Karen.
“So horrible that I bought you cake,” said Desmond, calmly, his mouth already half full of battenburg.
“How much did it cost?” Karen dramatically unzipped her coat and reached inside for her purse. She wanted to show Desmond that she did not expect him to pay. At the same time, she hoped he would pay, because she doubted that her two little pfennigs would be enough.
“Don’t worry about it.” Phew. Karen put her purse away again. Desmond continued: “I’m fine with animal rights, I am. But I can’t change how the world works.”
The cake was good, generously sliced and covered in a thick layer of marzipan. The hot chocolate was bitter and greasy, but it warmed Karen and woke her up. She was not in the mood for talking, and Desmond was not the talkative type, so their table was the conversational eye of the hurricane. They sat in silence whilst all the other coffee shop customers roared around them. Desmond’s head bobbed as he tried to think of something to say.
“Your coat’s good. Looks like it’s still dry inside,” was the best he could come up with.
“It’s made of Gore-Tex,” explained Karen.
“Oh,” said Desmond, not knowing what Gore-Tex was. His head bobbed around some more, whilst he thought of something else to say.
“What’s England like?” was his next effort.
“It’s alright,” said Karen.
“Good.” Desmond was really stumped now. He had long finished his cake, and his coffee was turning cold by the time he could think of something else to say.
“The rain’s stopped,” said Desmond, nodding towards the window.
“Has it?” said Karen, not even looking. She was taking her time to finish her cake, pausing between each spoonful she swallowed. A fight broke out two tables behind Karen. An airship pilot, still in his uniform, broke the back of his stool over his co-pilot, also in uniform, and several others jumped in to pull them apart. Karen never noticed.
“Well. I’ve got to go now,” said Desmond, standing up.
Karen looked at him at last. “Have you?” she said. Suddenly she wanted him to stay.
“Yeah.” Desmond was good-looking. Karen had been daft to ignore him.
“It was really nice of you to buy me cake and hot chocolate,” said Karen. Desmond was putting his coat back on. Karen was now thinking of lots of things to say to him. “Do you have to go back to work this minute?”
“Thanks for everything,” and she stiffly held out her hand towards Desmond. It took him a few seconds to realize he should shake it. He had a very firm grip, which caught Karen off guard; the handshake hurt a little but Karen tried not to show it. He walked out of the door, and she sat down again. Her cake was almost finished. She put the last spoonful in her mouth.
“Wait! Desmond! I’ll walk back with you.” Karen had run down one street and caught up with Desmond a little way round the corner.
“Yeah, good,” said Desmond, who was caught unawares, but pleased.
Now Karen struggled to remember all the things she was going to say. They crossed the street in front of a horse-drawn carriage, and headed up the hillside of Airship Downs. The rain had stopped but the wind had picked up, forcing Karen to shout when she worked out what she wanted to say.
“I didn’t thank you enough for taking me to the coffee shop.”
“Really. I’m feeling a bit spaced out about having come here but not being able to find a way back. I don’t even understand where this place is, but that’s no reason to be mean to you.”
“You weren’t mean to me. You’re just upset. Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?”
“Yes, thanks,” and Karen started to cry. There was a rush of blood to her head and a tear squeezed out, though Karen did not want it to. She put one finger to her eye, dabbing the tear, but playacting at removing a stray eyelash whilst she turned her face away. Desmond kept looking and walking straight ahead, pretending not to notice, but he took hold of Karen’s other hand.
“It’s okay,” he said.
She rubbed the tear away. The emotion choked her. When she could speak again, she said: “it’s my eyelashes – they’re long and when you get one stuck to your eye it really hurts.”
Desmond squeezed her hand. “I don’t know about any way you can get back home, but I can ask people, if you like.”
Karen did not know how to express what she was feeling. “Thanks. Yes, please.” What she said fell way short. “How will you let me know, if you do find out?”
“Tell me where you’re staying. I can always send one of our birds with a message.”
“Desmond, why are you being kind to me, when I was mean to you?”
Desmond thought about his answer, before he said: “helping matters most when there’s nobody else to help.”
They were back at the top of Airship Downs, and though they were high up, it was hard to see beyond the edge of the fields, past the airships that kept rising up and landing in front of them, and into the haze that still hung over Lundern. Whatever bits of Lundern Karen could glimpse, they all looked grey.
“It’ll be alright,” said Desmond. “I’ve really got to go back to work now. But you should check down the river. One of the ships might be able to take you home.”
“My home is not even on the map.”
“Yeah, but I heard that some ships sail right off the map, beyond the edges of the map.” He did not sound like he believed what he was saying, but Karen did not argue. “Keep walking straight ahead, due South, right through the centre of town. The river’s not that far after that. You can’t miss it. It’s big and wet.” Karen smirked. She had a good idea of how to get there, but she pulled out her map with the excuse of making Desmond explain the route. He looked at the map as he spoke. She looked at him as she listened. And then she pointed out Winton’s place, so Desmond would know where to send a messages.
“… or I might come round on my day off, if that’s okay.”
“When’s your day off?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll send you a message, to let you know. I’ll send that as well as sending any other messages, if I find out about travelling to England.” And as he finished what he was saying, there was a ruckus between a pair of passengers queuing to board an airship. “I’ve gotta sort that out. I’ll see you – unless you find a way home in the meantime. Remember, for the river, first head for the column,” he said, pointing to a monument that Karen could not actually see, “and then it’s straight on from there.” She thanked him again, before walking away. As she headed down the hillside, she looked over her shoulder and wanted to wave, but Desmond was too busy breaking up the row with the unhappy passengers, so she pulled up her hood to protect her from the wind, and bowed her head down as she walked into it. A minute later, Desmond glanced towards Karen. He watched Karen march down the hillside, but lost sight of her in the muddle of people and animals and birds and airships and wagons and crates. He crossed his fingers for her.