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"YOUNG PEOPLE, this is a church! No kissing allowed here!"
Startled, I opened my eyes and hastily sat up straight, expecting to see some old-fashioned priest hurrying indignantly toward me with his cassock billowing, all set to deliver a stern lecture. But it wasn't the priest of this parish church who had disturbed our kiss. It wasn't a human being at all. The speaker was a small gargoyle crouching in the pew right next to the confessional, as surprised to see me as I was to see him.
Although that was hardly possible. Because basically my state of mind couldn't be called mere surprise. To be honest, my powers of thought had switched off entirely.
It had all begun with that kiss.
Gideon de Villiers had kissed me—me, Gwyneth Shepherd.
Of course I should have wondered why the idea came into his head so suddenly—in a confessional in a church somewhere in Belgravia in the year 1912—just after we'd been running full tilt in headlong flight, and my close-fitting, ankle-length dress with its silly sailor collar kept getting in the way.
I could have made analytical comparisons with kisses I'd had from other boys, trying to work out just why Gideon did it so much better. I might also have stopped to remember that there was a wall between us, and a confessional window through which Gideon had squeezed his head and arms, and these were not the ideal conditions for kissing. Quite apart from the fact that I could do without any more chaos in my life, after discovering only two days ago that I'd inherited my family's time-traveling gene.
The fact was, however, that I hadn't been thinking anything at all, except maybe oh and hmm and more!
That's why I hadn't noticed the flip-flop sensation inside me, and only now, when the little gargoyle folded his arms and flashed his eyes at me from his pew, only when I saw the confessional curtain—brown, although it had been green velvet a moment ago—did I work it out that meanwhile we'd traveled back to the present.
"Hell!" Gideon moved back to his side of the confessional and rubbed the back of his head.
Hell? I came down from cloud nine with a bump and forgot the gargoyle.
"Oh, I didn't think it was that bad," I said, trying to sound as casual as possible. Unfortunately, I was rather breathless, which tended to spoil the effect. I couldn't look Gideon in the eye, so instead I kept staring at the brown polyester curtain in the confessional.
Good heavens! I'd traveled nearly a hundred years through time without noticing because that kiss had so totally and absolutely … well, surprised me. I mean, one minute here's this guy grousing away at you, the next you're in the middle of a wild chase to get away from men armed with pistols, and suddenly—like, out of nowhere—he's telling you you're something special and kissing you. And, wow, could Gideon kiss! I instantly felt green with jealousy of all the girls he'd learnt to do it with.
"No one in sight." Gideon took a cautious look out of the confessional and then emerged into the church. "Good. We'll catch the bus back to the Temple. Come on, they'll be expecting us."
I stared blankly past the curtain at him. Did that mean that now he was carrying on as if nothing had happened? After a kiss (or before a kiss would really be better, but it was too late for that), you'd think a few basic questions might be cleared up, wouldn't you? Was the kiss some kind of declaration of love? Or had we just been snogging a little because we had nothing better to do?
"I'm not going on a bus in this dress," I said firmly, getting to my feet with as much dignity as possible. I'd sooner have bitten off my tongue than ask any of the questions that had just been going through my head.
The dress was white, with sky-blue satin bows at the waist and the collar, probably the latest fashion in the year 1912, but not quite right for wearing on public transport in the twenty-first century. "Let's take a taxi," I added.
Gideon turned to me, but he didn't object. In that early twentieth-century coat, and with those neat trouser creases, he seemed to feel he wasn't necessarily dressed for a bus ride either. Although he did look really good in the costume of the time, particularly now that his hair wasn't combed right back behind his ears like two hours ago. Locks of it were falling untidily over his forehead.
I stepped out into the nave of the church to join him and shivered. It was icy cold in here. Was that because I'd had almost no sleep over the last three days? Or because of what had just happened?
I guessed my body had manufactured more adrenaline in those three days than in all my sixteen years of life before. So much had happened, and I'd had so little time to think about it. My head felt like it was bursting with new information and emotions. If I'd been a character in a strip cartoon, I'd have had a thought bubble with a huge question mark in it hovering over me. And maybe a couple of death's-heads as well.
I gave myself a little shake. So if Gideon was carrying on as if nothing had happened—well, thanks a lot, I could do the same. "Okay, let's get out of here," I said brightly. "I'm cold."
I tried to push past him, but he took hold of my arm and stopped me. "Listen, about all that just now…" He stopped, probably hoping I was going to interrupt him.
Which of course I wasn't. I was only too keen to hear what he had to say. I also found breathing difficult when he was standing so close to me.
"That kiss … I didn't mean…" Once again it was only half a sentence. But I immediately finished it in my mind.
I didn't mean it that way.
Well, obviously, but then he shouldn't have done it, should he? It was like setting fire to a curtain and then wondering why the whole house burned down. (Okay, silly comparison.) I wasn't going to make it any easier for him. I looked at him coolly and expectantly. That is, I tried to look at him coolly and expectantly, but I probably really had an expression on my face saying, Oh, I'm cute little Bambi, please don't shoot me! There was nothing I could do about that. All I needed was for my lower lip to start trembling.
I didn't mean it that way! Go on, say it!
But Gideon didn't say anything. He took a hairpin out of my untidy hair (by now my complicated arrangement of strands must have looked as if a couple of birds had been nesting in it), took one strand, and wound it around his finger. With his other hand, he began stroking my face, and then he bent down and kissed me again, this time very cautiously. I closed my eyes—and the same thing happened as before: my brain suffered that delicious break in transmission. (Well, all it was transmitting was oh, hmm, and more!)
But that lasted only about ten seconds, because then a voice right beside us said, irritated, "Not starting that stuff up again, are you?"
Startled, I pushed Gideon slightly away and stared right into the face of the little gargoyle, who was now hanging upside down from the gallery under which we were standing. To be precise, he was the ghost of a gargoyle.
Gideon had let go of my hair and had a neutral expression on his face. Oh, God! What must he think of me now? I could read nothing in his green eyes, or at the most I saw slight surprise there—and annoyance?
"I … I thought I heard something," I murmured.
"Okay," he said, slowly but in a perfectly friendly tone.
"You heard me," said the gargoyle. "You heard me, you did!" He was about the size of a cat, and he had a catlike face, except that as well as his big, pointed, lynxlike ears, he had two round horns, little wings on his back, and a long, scaly, lizard tail ending in a triangular point. He was lashing the tail back and forth in excitement. "You can see me too!"
I didn't reply.
"We'd better go," said Gideon.
"You can see me and hear me!" cried the little gargoyle, delighted. He dropped from the gallery to one of the pews and hopped up and down on it. He had a husky voice, like a child with a cold. "I spotted that right away!"
Come to think of it, I had seen him before. In that church back in 1912. If I put a foot wrong now, I'd never be rid of him. I deliberately let my eyes wander over the pews with total indifference as I walked to the church door. Gideon held it open for me.
"Thanks, very kind of you!" said the gargoyle, slipping through onto the church porch with us.
Out on the pavement, I looked up at the sky. It was cloudy, so the sun wasn't in sight, but at a guess, I thought it must be early evening.
"Wait for me, wait for me!" cried the gargoyle, plucking at the skirt of my dress. "We have to talk! It's urgent! Hey, you're treading on my toes.… Don't pretend you can't see me. I know you can." A little water shot out of his mouth and formed a tiny puddle around my buttoned boots. "Oops, 'scuse me. Only happens when I get overexcited."
I looked up at the church façade. I guessed it was Victorian architecture, with stained-glass windows and two elaborate, pretty towers. Brickwork alternated with cream-colored plaster, making a pattern of stripes. But however high I looked, I couldn't see a single statue on the entire building, let alone another gargoyle. Odd that the ghost was haunting it all the same.
"Here I am!" called the gargoyle, clinging to the masonry right in front of my nose. He could climb like a lizard, of course—they all can. I stared at the brick next to his head for a second and turned away.
The gargoyle wasn't so sure that I really could see him now. "Oh, please," he said. "It would be so nice to talk to someone else for once, not just the ghost of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle."
Quite ingenious of him, but I wasn't falling for that one. I did feel sorry for him, but I knew what a nuisance those little pests could be. What's more, he'd disturbed me in mid-kiss, and all because of him, Gideon now probably thought I was a silly girl who didn't know her own mind.
"Please, please, pleeeeease!" begged the gargoyle.
I went on ignoring him as hard as I could. As if I didn't have enough problems already!
Gideon had gone to the edge of the pavement and was looking out for a taxi to hail. Of course a free one came along at once. Some people have all the luck. Or call it something like natural authority. My grandmother Lady Arista, for instance. She only had to stand at the roadside looking stern, and taxi drivers squealed to a halt right away.
"You can't just walk away like that!" The hoarse, childlike voice sounded tearful, heartrending. "When we've only just this minute found each other."
Very likely if we'd been on our own, I'd have let him persuade me to talk to him. In spite of his pointed fangs and clawlike feet, he was kind of cute, and he probably didn't get much company. (I'd bet the ghost of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had more interesting things to do than talk to gargoyles. What was Sir Arthur's ghost up to in London anyway?) But if you start talking to ghosts and so on in front of other people, they think you're a liar or just showing off. That's if you're lucky. If you aren't, which is most of the time, they think you're totally crazy. Besides, the last gargoyle I talked to had been so affectionate and clinging that I could hardly even go to the toilet alone.
So I got into the taxi with a stony expression and stared straight ahead as we set off, with Gideon sitting next to me and looking out of the window. The taxi driver raised his eyebrows as he examined our costumes in the rearview mirror, but much to his credit, he made no comment.
"It's nearly six thirty," said Gideon, obviously trying to strike up a normal conversation. "No wonder I'm dying of starvation."
Once he'd said it, I realized that I felt the same. I'd hardly managed to get half my breakfast down because of the edgy atmosphere around the family breakfast table, and as usual school lunch had been inedible. I thought rather wistfully of the appetizing sandwiches and scones on Lady Tilney's tea table. We'd missed out on them as well.
Lady Tilney! Only now did it strike me that Gideon and I had better discuss our adventures in the year 1912. After all, our visit to her had gone wildly off course, and I had no idea what the Guardians, who considered time travel no joking matter, were going to think of that. Gideon and I had traveled back to 1912 on a mission to read Lady Tilney into the chronograph. (To be honest, I still didn't entirely understand the reasons for that, but the whole thing seemed to be enormously important. As far as I could make it out, the safety of the world itself was at stake, at the very least.) But before we could do anything about that my cousin Lucy and Paul de Villiers came barging in. They were the villains of the piece, or anyway that's how Gideon's family and Gideon himself saw it. Apparently Lucy and Paul had stolen the other chronograph and hidden in the past with it. No one had heard of them for years—until they turned up at Lady Tilney's house and wrecked our little tea party.
When exactly pistols were drawn was something I'd suppressed out of sheer fright, but at some point, Gideon had held a gun to Lucy's head, a pistol that, strictly speaking, he ought not to have brought with him at all. (Like me when I took my mobile phone into the past, but at least you can't shoot anyone dead with a mobile!) Then we ran for it and took shelter in the church. But all the time I'd been unable to shake off a feeling that the Lucy and Paul situation wasn't quite as black and white as the de Villiers family liked to paint it.
"What are we going to say about Lady Tilney?" I asked.
"Hm." Gideon rubbed his forehead wearily. "I'm not suggesting we should actually lie, but maybe, just this once, it would be a good idea to edit a few things out. You'd better leave the talking to me."
There it was again, that familiar tone of command. "Oh, sure," I said. "I'll just nod and keep my mouth shut, the way a nice girl should."
I instinctively, defiantly, crossed my arms. Why couldn't Gideon act normal? First he kissed me (more than once, at that!), then he was back talking like a lordly Grand Master of the Guardians' Lodge again. What was the idea?
We concentrated on looking out of our respective windows.
It was Gideon who finally broke the silence, which gave me a certain satisfaction. "What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?" The way he asked, he sounded almost embarrassed.
"It's what my mother always used to say when I was little. If I was looking straight ahead and saying nothing, like you right at this moment."
"You have a mother?" Only when I'd said it did I realize what a silly question it was! Oh, for heaven's sake!
Gideon raised one eyebrow. "What did you expect?" he asked, amused. "You thought I was an android put together by Uncle Falk and Mr. George?"
"Well, it's not such an outlandish idea. Do you have photos of yourself as a baby?" Trying to imagine a baby Gideon with a round, soft, plump-cheeked face and a bald head made me grin. "Where are your mum and dad, then? Do they live in London too?"
Gideon shook his head. "My father's dead, and my mother lives in Antibes in the south of France." For a brief moment, he pressed his lips together, and I was just thinking he'd retreat into silence when he went on. "With my little brother and her new husband, Monsieur Do-Call-Me-Papa Bertelin. He owns a company making platinum and copper microparts for electronic devices, and obviously the cash is rolling in. At least, he called his showy yacht the Croesus."
I was really surprised. So much personal information all at once—it wasn't a bit like Gideon. "Oh, but it must be cool going on holiday there, right?"
"Of course," he said with derision. "They have a pool the size of three tennis courts, and the stupid yacht has gold-plated faucets."
"Sounds better than a cottage without any heating in Peebles, anyway." My family usually spent the summer up in Scotland. "If I were you, and I had a family in the south of France, I'd be off there like a shot every weekend. Even if they didn't have any pool or any yacht."
Gideon looked at me, shaking his head. "Oh, yes? And how would you manage that if you had to travel back to the past every few hours? Not so thrilling if you happen to be driving along the motorway at seventy miles an hour when it happens."
"Oh." Somehow this time-travel business was still too new for me to have thought out all the consequences. There were only twelve carriers of the gene—scattered over several centuries—and I couldn't yet fully grasp that I was one of them. My cousin Charlotte was supposed to have been the time traveler, and she'd prepared herself for the part with gusto. But for reasons that no one could understand, my mother had faked the date of my birth, and now we were in a real mess. Just like Gideon, I had the choice between controlled time travel with the aid of the chronograph or traveling back to the past unexpectedly at any time and from anywhere. And from my own recent experience, I knew that was not much fun.
"Of course you'd have to take the chronograph with you, so that you could always elapse to a safe year now and then," I said, thinking aloud.
Gideon uttered a joyless snort. "Yes, that would make nice relaxed travel possible, and I could get to know all sorts of historic places at the same time. But apart from the fact that I'd never be allowed to go around the country with the chronograph in my backpack, what would you do without it while I was away?" He was looking past me and out of the window. "Thanks to Lucy and Paul, there's only that one chronograph, remember?" His voice was heated again, as always when Lucy and Paul were mentioned.
I shrugged my shoulders and looked out of my own window. The taxi was making for Piccadilly at a snail's pace. Rush hour in the city, great. It would probably have been quicker for us to walk.
"You obviously don't quite realize that you won't have many chances to leave these islands in the future, Gwyneth." There was a touch of bitterness in Gideon's voice. "Or even this city. Your family ought to have shown you the whole wide world, not just Scotland. It's too late now. You'll have to accept the fact that the only way you can see all the places you dream of is on Google Earth."
The taxi driver reached for a well-worn paperback, leaned back in his seat and began to read, unmoved.
"But … but you've been to Belgium and Paris," I said. "To travel back to the past from there and get some of what's-his-name's blood, and put it into the—"
"Yes, sure," he interrupted me. "Along with my uncle, three Guardians, and a costume designer. What a fun trip! Apart from the fact that Belgium is such a wildly exotic country. Don't we all just dream of spending three days in Belgium sometime?"
Intimidated by his sudden bitterness, I asked quietly, "Where would you like to go, then, if you could choose?"
"You mean if I wasn't cursed with this time-travel gene? Oh, my God—I wouldn't know where to begin. Chile, Brazil, Peru. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Canada, Alaska, Vietnam, Nepal, Australia, New Zealand…" He grinned faintly. "Well, just about everywhere except the moon. But it's no use thinking about the things you can never do. We just have to reconcile ourselves to our rather boring lives without the chance to travel."
"Except for time travel." I went red, because he had said "our lives," and somehow that sounded so … so intimate.
"At least that's something like fair compensation for all this control and being shut up here," said Gideon. "If it wasn't for the time travel, I'd have died of boredom long ago. Paradoxical but true."
"Watching an exciting film now and then would be enough of a kick for me. Honest."
Wistfully, I watched a cyclist weaving his way through the traffic jam. I wanted to get home! The cars ahead of us weren't moving an inch, which seemed to be fine by our cabby, who was deep in his book.
"If your family lives in the south of France, then where do you live?" I asked Gideon.
"In an apartment in Chelsea now, but I'm hardly there at all except to shower and sleep. If that." He sighed. Over the last three days, he'd obviously had as little sleep as me. Maybe even less. "Before I got my own place, I lived with Uncle Falk in Greenwich since I was eleven. When my mother met Monsieur Po-Face and wanted to leave this country, of course the Guardians objected. After all, there were only a few years to go until my initiation journey, and I still had a lot to learn."
"And your mother left you alone?" My mum could never have brought herself to do such a thing, I was sure of that.
Gideon shrugged his shoulders. "I like my uncle. He's okay when he's not putting on airs as Grand Master of the Lodge. Anyway, I'd a thousand times sooner be with him than my so-called stepfather."
"But…" I hardly dared to ask, so I just whispered it. "But don't you miss her?"
Another shrug of the shoulders. "Until I was fifteen, when I could still go away safely, I always spent the holidays in France with her. And my mother comes to London at least twice a year, officially to see me, but to spend Monsieur Bertelin's money is more like it. She has a weakness for clothes and shoes and antique jewelry. And four-star macrobiotic restaurants."
The woman sounded like a real cozy, picture-book mum. "What about your brother?"
"Raphael? He's a real little Frenchman now. Calls Po-Face Papa and is going to inherit the platinum-parts empire someday. Although right now it looks as if he won't even pass his final school exams, lazy kid. He'd rather hang out with girls than study." Gideon put an arm on the back of the seat behind me, and my breathing frequency instantly stepped up. "Why are you looking so shocked? Not feeling sorry for me or anything, are you?"
"A bit," I said honestly, thinking of an eleven-year-old boy left behind on his own in England. With mystery mongers who made him take fencing lessons and learn to play the violin. And polo! "Falk isn't even your real uncle, just a distant relation."
There was an angry hoot behind us. The taxi driver looked up only briefly to move the car on a yard or so, without taking much of his attention away from his book. I just hoped he wasn't in the middle of a really exciting chapter.
Gideon seemed to take no notice of him. "Falk's always been like a father to me," he said. He looked sideways at me with a wry smile. "Really, you don't have to look at me as if I were David Copperfield."
What was that all about? Why would I think he was David Copperfield?
Gideon groaned. "I mean the character out of the Dickens novel, not the magician. Don't you ever read a book?"
There he went again, the old supercilious Gideon. My head had been reeling with all those friendly confidences. Oddly enough, I was almost relieved to have my obnoxious traveling companion back. I looked as haughty as possible and moved slightly away from him. "To be honest, I prefer modern literature."
"You do?" Gideon's eyes were bright with amusement. "Like what, for example?"
He wasn't to know that my cousin Charlotte had been regularly asking me the same question for years, and just as arrogantly. In fact I read quite a lot of books, and I'm always ready to talk about them, but as Charlotte always dismissed with contempt whatever I was reading as "undemanding" or "stupid girly stuff," the time came when I'd had enough, and once and for all, I spoilt her fun. Sometimes you have to turn people's own weapons against them. The trick of it is not to show any hesitation at all as you speak, and to weave in the name of at least one genuine, well-known, bestselling author, preferably if you've really read that author's book. Oh, and in addition, the more exotic and outlandish the names, the better.
I raised my chin and looked Gideon right in the eye. "Well, for instance I like George Matussek, Wally Lamb, Pyotr Selvyeniki, Liisa Tikaanen—in fact, I think Finnish writers are great, they have their own special brand of humor—and then I read everything by Jack August Merrywether, although I was a little disappointed by his last book. I like Helen Marundi, of course, Tahuro Yashamoto, Lawrence Delaney, and then there's Grimphood, Tcherkovsky, Maland, Pitt.…"
Gideon was looking totally taken aback.
I rolled my eyes. "Rudolf Pitt, of course, not Brad."
The corners of his mouth were twitching slightly.
"Although I have to say I really didn't much care for Amethyst Snow," I quickly went on. "Too many high-flown metaphors, don't you agree? All the time I was reading it, I kept thinking someone must have ghosted it for him."
"Amethyst Snow?" repeated Gideon, and now he was definitely smiling. "Yes, right, I thought it was terribly pompous too. Although I considered The Amber Avalanche remarkably good."
I couldn't help it—I had to smile back. "Yes, he definitely deserved the Austrian State Prize for Literature for The Amber Avalanche. What do you think of Takoshi Mahuro?"
"His early work is okay, but I get rather tired of the way he keeps going back to his childhood traumas," said Gideon. "When it comes to Japanese writers, I prefer Yamamoto Kawasaki or Haruki Murakami."
I was giggling helplessly now. "But Murakami is real!"
"I know," said Gideon. "Charlotte gave me one of his books. Next time we're discussing literature, I'll recommend her to read Amethyst Snow, by … what was his name again?"
"Rudolf Pitt." So Charlotte had given him a book? How—er, how nice of her. Fancy thinking of that. And what else did they do together, besides discuss literature? My fit of the giggles had evaporated, just like that. How could I simply sit here talking away to Gideon as if nothing had happened between us? There were a few basic points we ought to have cleared up first. I stared at him and took a deep breath, without knowing exactly what I wanted to ask him.
Why did you kiss me?
"Here we are," said Gideon.
Put off my stroke, I looked out of the window. Sure enough, at some point during our verbal fencing match, the taxi driver had obviously put his book down and gone on with the journey, and now he was about to turn into Crown Office Row in the Temple district, where the secret society of the Guardians had its headquarters. A little later, he was parking the car in one of the reserved slots next to a gleaming Bentley.
"Sure we're allowed to stop here, are you?"
"It'll be okay," Gideon assured him, and got out. "No, Gwyneth, you stay in the taxi while I get the money," he said as I started climbing out after him. "And don't forget, whatever they ask us, leave me to do the talking. I'll be right back."
"The meter's still running," said the taxi driver morosely.
He and I watched Gideon disappear among the venerable buildings of the Temple, and only now did I realize that I'd been left behind as a pledge that the driver would get his fare.
"Are you from the theater?" he asked.
"What?" What was that shadow fluttering overhead?
"I only mean because of the funny costumes."
"No. The museum." There were strange scratching noises on the roof of the car. As if a bird had come down on it. A large bird. "What's that?"
"What's what?" asked the taxi driver.
"I thought I heard a crow or something land on the car," I said hopefully. But of course it wasn't a crow dangling head down from the car roof and looking in at the window. It was the little gargoyle from Belgravia. When he saw my horrified expression, his catlike face twisted into a triumphant smile, and he spewed a torrent of water over the windshield.
True love knows no constraints, no locks or bars.
Past every obstacle it makes its way.
It spreads its wings to soar toward the stars,
No earthly power will make it stop or stay.
Text copyright © 2012 by Kerstin Gier