The Butterfly TattooPhilip Pullman
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The Butterfly Tattoo
Chris Marshall met the girl he was going to kill on a warm night in early June, when one of the colleges in Oxford was holding its summer ball. The undergraduates were having their final fling before leaving to become merchant bankers or diplomats or advertising agents. They paid a great deal of money for tickets to balls like this – a hundred pounds, or even more in some cases. For that they expected a great deal in return, and the organizing committees worked hard to provide it: marquees with dance floors, champagne buffets, hot new bands and famous old ones, alternative cabarets – whatever entertainment was fashionable, expensive, and available.
This particular college had grounds that bordered a lake. There were going to be fireworks, there was a 1920s-style dance band on a floating platform, there was a cabaret-circus in a marquee; it was altogether a spectacular event, one which the undergraduates felt embodied the wealth and splendour due to them, at this time, in this country.
Chris Marshall wasn’t an undergraduate. He was seventeen, with a year still to go at school, and this was a holiday job of sorts, though the holiday was some way off yet. He worked part-time for a firm called Oxford Entertainment Systems, owned by a man named Barry Miller. Barry knew that Chris was saving for a decent bike, so he offered him twenty-five pounds for the night’s work, even though he didn’t really need help. Chris was glad to do it. He was tired of sitting at home with his mother and her new lover, trying to make conversation and feeling himself in the way all the time. He’d never felt like that at home before, and it was uncomfortable.
So on a warm evening in June, Chris found himself setting up the lights for the cabaret-circus: uncoiling lengths of cable, strapping them to upright stands with insulating tape, swarming up scaffolding to check the angle of a spotlight, plugging various cables into a dimmer board, replacing a fuse that had burned out, freeing a revolving colour wheel that had become caught, and setting up the flash-pans to make flashes of green fire, while Barry Miller talked cheerfully to the director of the cabaret.
Barry was a mild, energetic man in his late thirties, blond and lean and slightly shortsighted, which made him blink and open his eyes wide with what looked like innocent candour. Finally the director, twitching anxiously, went backstage, and Barry turned to see how Chris was getting on.
‘How’s it going?’ he said. ‘Got enough powder? Blimey, there’s too much in there. You don’t need much powder for a socking great bang.’
Chris spooned some fire powder out of the flash-pans. These were fireclay dishes across the base of which was fastened fuse wire between two terminals. Some powder – green, red, or white – was put on top of that, and when the current was switched through, the fuse wire burned out, setting off a big flash. Chris hadn’t used one before and hadn’t known how much powder to put in.
‘Have we got a script?’ Chris asked.
‘No. He’s going to give me a nod from back there. I says does he want a cue light, but it’s one more thing for him to fuss over and forget. I tell you one thing, this lot won’t make it professionally. Bloody shambles. I mean, they didn’t even want to rehearse the lighting cues. Shit, I mean, how careless can you get?’
The performance was due to start at half past midnight. Before that a jazz quartet would be playing in the marquee, followed by a gay comedian whose TV show had been taken off the air. Chris was bemused.
‘I thought people came to a ball to dance?’ he said to Barry. ‘There’s so much going on, it’s like a fair. I’m surprised they haven’t got dodgem cars.’
‘Not a bad idea. I done dozens of these, Chris. This is a bit more ambitious, but I like that. Look, I won’t be needing you till half past twelve. Go and have a wander. Mingle. Circulate.’
‘I’m not dressed for that,’ said Chris, but he did as Barry said, fascinated by the braying voices of the young men, the bare shoulders of the young women in their ball gowns, and the sheer beauty of the college grounds in the summer twilight, with torches flickering on the grass, lights glowing among the great trees, and the first snatches of music drifting over the water.
He’d lived all his life in Oxford, but there was a lot of it he’d never seen. The colleges were private places, except when tourists thronged them – bunches of bored Italian kids or interested Japanese adults – and Chris had no desire to mingle with them. Chris’s Oxford was rougher, louder, dirtier than all that tourist stuff. It was the Jericho Tavern, where good, new independent rock bands came to play; it was the football stadium; it was the Speedway, where Chris had gone every week till he tired of it and began to cycle seriously instead.
That was his Oxford, not this upper-class fairyland. Chris decided then and there that whichever university he went to, it wouldn’t be the one in his native city. For one thing, he didn’t like feeling looked down on, and he was conscious of the faintly curious looks he was getting, casually dressed as he was in jeans and a T-shirt, plainly neither a guest nor a waiter.
In fact, he looked as if he might have been a member of a rock band. He was good-looking enough, with rough dark blond hair, and fit and muscular from his cycling. He looked older than he was, and if a person’s character shows in their face, Chris’s face showed independence and openness and courage. It might have showed innocence, too.
When the night was completely dark and the ball was fully under way, Chris wandered down to the edge of the lake. There was a little boathouse under some great dark trees at the far end, and he wanted to see whether there was a boat in it. He left the floating bandstand, with its jokily suited orchestra and brilliantined, megaphone-holding singer, and made his way into the green darkness under the trees.
The air was scented with the heavy sweetness of flowers from the college garden, and with the perfume of girls, and with the warm, slightly rotten smell of the vegetation at the edge of the water. Chris moved more slowly and finally stopped altogether at the corner of the boathouse, not quite sure why he’d stopped, not quite sure of anything but intoxicated by something.
He stood looking back across the water, watching the dancers on the wooden floor by the bandstand swaying to the music of ‘Blue Moon’. From this distance they looked not offensively upper-class but tiny, glamorous figures, handsome men in black and white, and beautiful girls in coloured gowns, like some old-fashioned dream of elegance and grace.
They looked even more striking because of the vast darkness that surrounded them, as if they were the last people left at the death of the universe and they knew it, but they were dancing anyway because they were human and because the best way of being courageous was, at that moment, to dance. The distant words came over the water and Chris stood there entranced while the old song unwound, while the saxophone wailed like a ghost, while the dancers swayed. He knew he’d remember this moment for the rest of his life.
Then he turned away from the boathouse to go back, but he stopped because there were footsteps coming along the path. Someone was running towards him. The darkness among the shrubs and bushes was intense, but there was a glimmer, and there suddenly appeared before him a terrified girl in a white ball gown.
Her dark eyes were wide; her delicate shoulders were trembling. She cast a glance over her shoulder, and he heard stumbling feet and male laughter from a little way back. The line of her throat in the faint light from across the lake was enough, on its own, to make him fall in love.
you?’ he said quietly.
She nodded. Short dark hair, bare slender arms, those wide terrified eyes … He was lost.
‘Go around there, in the boathouse,’ he said. ‘I’ll keep them away.’
She darted past, so close that he could smell the scent she was wearing. She vanished around the corner. He stood in the path, waiting for her pursuers, perfectly at ease, perfectly confident.
Within a few seconds they were there, and then they saw him and stopped: three young men in dinner jackets and black bow ties, one clutching a champagne bottle, another smoking a cigar, all drunk.
‘Look, Piers,’ said one. ‘She’s changed into a chap.’
‘Do him anyway,’ said another, lurching forward a step, but the third held him back. He was the one named Piers, and Chris could see that he was fair-haired and handsome.
‘Who the hell are you?’ he said.
‘Not dressed properly,’ said the one with the cigar.
‘Chuck him in the pond,’ said the one with the bottle. ‘I would.’
‘I’m a lighting technician,’ said Chris. ‘I’m checking the lights down here. That’s who the hell I am. OK?’
‘There aren’t any lights down here.’
‘They’re not on yet, are they?’
The three of them stood there uncertainly.
‘Well, anyway …’ said the cigar smoker. ‘Anyway, if you’re a technician, you ought to keep out of sight, I reckon. You don’t pay a hundred pounds to see a lot of bloody workers slouching about.’
‘Where’s Jenny?’ said the handsome one suddenly. ‘Have you seen a girl coming this way?’
‘Bloody liar,’ said the champagne drinker. ‘She couldn’t have gone anywhere else. You must have seen her.’
‘Don’t tell me what I must have seen. I’m doing a job here. I haven’t got time to waste talking to people like you,’ Chris said. He was ready to fight them if he had to, and they must have seen it, because they began to move away.
‘Cocky little sod, isn’t he?’ said the one named Piers, the handsome one.
‘Oh, shut up, Piers, for Christ’s sake. Look, you, technician chap, we’re looking for a girl in a white dress. She’s—’
One of the others plucked at his sleeve and whispered.
He went on: ‘She’s not well. She’s had a spot too much to drink. She could hurt herself. You sure you haven’t seen her?’
‘Perfectly sure. I heard her, though.’
‘I thought you said—’
‘I said I hadn’t seen her,’ said Chris. ‘I heard someone running a minute before you turned up. Along the path, that way.’ He pointed away, along the edge of the lake. ‘And she didn’t sound drunk – she sounded frightened.’
‘Yes, well, she’s not quite, you know …’ Piers tapped his forehead. One of the others snuffled with laughter.
Chris stood perfectly still. After another moment or two, the three young men began to move on.
‘Bloody rude, you know. We should have chucked him in the pond.’
‘I’m sure there weren’t going to be any lights down here …’
‘They should either keep out of sight or be dressed like servants.’
‘Stupid little bitch. If she’s gone and …’
The rest of the conversation was swallowed by the bushes and the darkness.
When he was sure they’d gone, Chris moved along the side of the boathouse to the front. It was a small place, big enough to contain two punts, perhaps, with a narrow wooden walkway around the inside.
He stood in the entrance and looked in. It was very dark, but he could see the glimmer of her white dress at the end. It looked as if she were seated on the planking.
‘It’s all right, they’ve gone,’ he said softly.
She said nothing. Thinking she might not have heard, he moved towards her. He remembered what one of the young men had called her.
‘Jenny? Is that your name?’
Still no reply. He stood still, halfway along the side of the boathouse, peering closely to see if she was all right. Had she fainted? They’d said that she was not well, that she’d had too much to drink. She hadn’t seemed like that in the few seconds he’d seen her, and when she’d brushed past he’d smelled her beautiful scent, not drink. But could she be ill?
He was perturbed now.
‘Jenny? Are you all right?’
He stepped on the planks at the end of the boat-house, and with a faint rustle of fabric she fell forward, slowly. It was horrible. She was headless. He nearly cried out in terror, but then realized that it wasn’t her: it was the dress. She wasn’t in it. She wasn’t in the boathouse at all.
He stood trembling, waiting for his heart to stop thudding, and then stooped and picked up the dress, crushing the stiff fabric to his face, breathing in the scent he remembered. Then he put it down gently and looked around.
He was full of apprehension. The first fear of horrible death was replaced by another: Was she mad, as Piers had implied? Had she taken the dress off in order to slip into the water and drown?
She certainly wasn’t in either of the punts. The wooden bottoms gleamed faintly under the sheen of an inch or so of water. And she wasn’t in the lake, as far as he could tell – though if she was under the punts or tangled in weed, he wouldn’t have known.
Now what should he do? Raise the alarm?
Yes, of course, and right away.
But no sooner had he begun to move than he saw what he’d missed a minute earlier. There was a door in the far wall of the boathouse. She wasn’t necessarily in the lake after all.
A step or two, and he had opened it. The hinges were oiled; he and the three pursuers wouldn’t have heard if she’d opened it and crept away. He stood outside among the tangled bushes and paused, uncertain. It had somehow become comic now, like blind man’s buff. If she wasn’t drowned under the dark water, she was hiding in the dark bushes without her dress. But why take it off? Because it showed up clearly in the gloom, and it rustled. It made sense.
He didn’t know what to do. If he raised the alarm, it might be embarrassing for her.
‘Thanks,’ whispered a voice from the dark.
Then he jumped, so much that he banged his elbow on the edge of the door. There was a giggle.
‘Where are you?’ he said.
‘Never mind. Have they gone?’
‘Yeah. I think. D’you want me to go back with you in case they’re hanging around?’
‘No. I’m not going back.’
Her voice was low and soft, and her accent was northern. It was the most expressive sound he’d ever heard.
‘Why were they after you?’ he said into the silence.
‘Why d’you think?’
‘You don’t mean … Look, where are you? I can’t talk to you like this.’
‘You’re doing all right. But you’re going to have to go now.’
‘Can’t I help you?’
‘But they might come back!’
‘Jenny, my name’s Chris. Where do you live?’
Nothing. A silence as if she’d never been there. In the distance the band was playing another song, and somewhere in the green depths of the college grounds a nightingale was singing, but Jenny was invisible and silent. Had he dreamed her voice? No, for he wouldn’t have dreamed that Yorkshire accent, and he would have dreamed an answer.
So she was real. And alive. And it was – in the dim light, he peered at his watch – twenty past twelve.
‘I’ve got to go and work,’ he said to the emptiness. Then, self-conscious but knowing that he’d be untrue to everything that had happened if he didn’t put the feelings into words, he said, ‘Jenny, you’re beautiful. I hope I see you again. If I don’t, I’ll never forget you, I promise.’
Then he stepped away from the boathouse and felt his way through
the thick bushes until he found the path again. He looked back and saw only meaningless shadows, patches of silver, patches of black. She might have been anywhere or nowhere; close enough to kiss or so far away that she’d heard nothing of what he’d said.
The dancers on their little square of light were clapping. The band struck up another tune, and the words came clearly over the still water, singing of moonlight, and trouble, and love.
Chris’s parents had been living apart for a year, and in the month before the college ball took place they were finally divorced. Chris hated it far more than he could ever have guessed he would, far more than friends in the same situation seemed to; even worse than the betrayal was the calm, matter-of-fact way both his mother and his father now talked about it, as if the family had never mattered much in any case.
Chris had stayed with his mother in their large, comfortable house in North Oxford, while his father went to live with his girlfriend Diane, an ex-secretary from his architectural practice, in a small house on the other side of the city. Chris had been there a few times. The first time, Diane had been at home, and although he knew her from his father’s office he found it difficult to talk to her, and he could see that she found it difficult too. She was pretty and a lot younger than his father, and to know that she was sleeping with his father and having sex with him made it confusing to look at her. And to look at his father, come to that. The next time he’d gone she hadn’t been there. He’d asked, ‘How’s Diane?’ and his father had said, ‘Oh, fine, thanks’, and they’d both been cool and adult about the whole thing. But talking wasn’t easy for a while. It had been before, when they were a family, but in those days talking hadn’t been an end in itself; it had just happened naturally.
As for his mother, at first she’d been grief-stricken. She was inclined to dramatize things anyway, Chris thought, to exaggerate and pose, but it couldn’t have been easy for her to think about what his father was doing. She’d cried bitterly and locked herself in the bedroom a lot of the time, and when she came out she’d be brittle-cheerful and drink more wine than she used to. And her friends would come and see her more often and stay longer.