Meadows of Fantasy
FANDOM JOINS THE LADIES
"THERE WAS A bird in Jonesy's shop yesterday dinnertime," said Dave Portable. ("Bird lives," intoned Ian Omlet ritually.) "And..."
"Now what sort of bird would one be likely to find in a bookshop?" put in Owen Mole.
"Dunno," said Bert Duckbarrow. "Some sort of literary vulture perhaps."
"Perhaps a Moorcock?" suggested Ian.
"Or a Swift?"
"Or even a Penguin?"
"Have you quite finished?" asked Dave loudly.
"All right, all right, keep your whatsit on," Owen soothed him. "Let's hear about this tart in Jonesy's. Was she buying of?"
Dave seemed somewhat taken aback at this. "Who said anything about a tart?" he demanded. "I said a bird -- you know, feathers and things. Sparrow or something. When I went in it was flying backwards and forwards across the room, then it suddenly dived past me and was out of the door while I had it open. Old Jonesy was looking absolutely furious -- 'If I catch that perisher in here again, I swear I'll wring its neck with my own two hands, so help me,' he was muttering. 'Why,' I asked -- 'what's it done?' 'Done?' growls Jonesy. 'Done is right. Thing comes in here, bold as brass, perches right on the sign over the prestige display, and lets go its breakfast right plop all across the thirty-guinea Michaelangelo book. Then it looks me straight in the eye, winks at me, and says Cheap. Just like that. I'll give it cheap...'"
The oration broke up in laughter all around.
"Anyway," said Owen presently, "does Jonesy ever sell anything from his prestige display?"
"Of course not," said Bert quickly. "It's just for the birds."
Tom, Dick and Harry came in at this point, and when everybody was settled Dave called the meeting to order.
"Objection," said Owen immediately.
"Oh what grounds?"
"Lack of quorum."
Dave Portable spoke slowly and carefully. "I freely and frankly admit," he announced, "that I don't happen to have Robert's Rules of Order -- or anybody else's -- off by heart -- in fact, I don't think it's even in the library. But if precisely one hundred percent of the paid-up membership in good standing does by any chance not constitute a legitimate and acceptable quorum, I'd very much like to know what does."
"We need a fem-fan," said Owen. "You know -- a female-type member of the opposite sex."
"Just because we happen to be meeting in a Women's Institute," put in Tom quietly, "there's no need to adopt protective colouring you know." Tom was middle-aged, and -- it was understood -- heavily henpecked, and raised a sympathetic laugh.
"Perhaps somebody can remember to borrow one next time," said Dave. "But in the mean time..."
And further proceedings were thereupon promptly interrupted by a knock at the door. Owen, who happened to be nearest, went to answer it, to find himself confronted by a girl or young woman wearing a crash-helmet. She peered rather dubiously at him, then past him at the patently all-male gathering seated around the far end of the little hall.
"Er --" she began "-- have I got the wrong department? I'm looking for the Upside Down Women's Institute."
"That's us," said Owen. "That is -- you've come to the right place. Anything we can do for you?"
"Well, I'm supposed to be speaking here tonight."
"She's supposed to be speaking here tonight," Owen called back to the others, and one or two of them got up and drifted down towards the front door.
"First thing we've heard about it," said Dave as he joined them. "Are you sure you've got the right day -- er, night?"
"I think so, er..."
"I'd better see if I can find my aunt or somebody," said Dave.
"There's a notice-board over in the corner," Ian suggested, and they all -- their visitor included -- drifted over to that. "Here we are," said Owen. "Saturday the 2nd -- cookery demonstration by Mrs. King, knitting competition entries blah blah blah. Thursday the 7th -- talk by guest speaker, Miss M. Smith, subject The Women's Institute of the Future, One Hundred Years From Now. Satur..."
"That's it," said their visitor. "I could have sworn she said Tuesday." She stopped, while everybody gave her a puzzled sort of look.
"But today's Wednesday," said Dave quietly.
At this their visitor gave a start, and her hand flew to her mouth. For a moment absolute silence reigned. Then -- "You don't happen to have somewhere where I can go and be quietly hysterical for half an hour, do you?" she asked.
"Do it here if you like," said Owen. "We're broadminded."
"Hey," said Bert Duckbarrow, "That's my line you're pinching."
"Shut up you fools," said Dave under his breath.
"You'll think me seven different kinds of an idiot," said their visitor, who didn't seemed to notice this exchange. "School started back yesterday, and I've been going on all the time thinking it was the beginning of a full week. Don't ever take up teaching, any of you -- it rots the brain before its time."
"Excuse my being curious," said Dave, "but I do understand from all this that you're the lady who's going to give a talk about Women's Institutes of the future?"
"You don't happen to be at all interested in science fiction I suppose?"
The visitor gave him a long look. "I suppose you could say I am rather, really. Why?"
"I just wondered. Because this happens to be a meeting of the Thisbury and District Science Fiction Circle."
Several assorted prozines and things were held up by way of evidence, and at last her face broke into the beginnings of a smile. "Well," she said. "If that's so, perhaps I could stay and listen for a bit." Assent was naturally unanimous, so she lifted off her crash-helmet and hung it on a peg alongside the notice-board. A mass of long hair tumbled about her shoulders, framing a face that seemed to be somewhere in its middle twenties. Dave, as Chairman, conducted her to a seat -- next to his, everybody noticed -- and they all sat down again. "I don't know if you can remember all of us at once," said Dave, "but my name's Dave Portable, this is Ian Omlet..." and so on round the group.
"Well, I'm pleased to meet you, It Says Here," said the girl. "I'm Mine Smith."
A chorus of "Huh?" "Didn't catch" and the like was now heard. "Would you mind repeating that?" Dave asked her.
The girl was openly smiling now. "Mine Smith."
"What was your first name again?"
The girl laughed delightedly. "I'm used to this," she explained. "My name is Mine -- M - I - N - E."
"Why?" asked Owen Mole rudely.
"Well," she began, "once upon a time I used to be a plain Mary Smith. But I had a boy-friend, oh, he was the sweetest little thing. And one day he came up to me when I was alone, went down on his knees in front of me, took one of my hands between his, and whispered -- 'Mary, if only you'd change your name to Mine I'll be the happiest man in the world'. Well, of course I couldn't possibly ignore such a heartrendering plea, so I got up straight away and went to my solicitor, and we drew up a deed there and then changing my name from Mary Smith to Mine Smith."
"You didn't!" Owen exclaimed.
"I'm not going to argue," stated the girl with mock hauteur. "My name really is Mine, and you can take it or leave it."
They took it. Indubitably, Miss Mine Smith had the makings of a fan. Furthermore, when the meeting broke up she readily agreed to come back the following week.
And duly, one week later, she steered her scooter on to the little patch of parking-space adjoining the Institute and presented herself at the door again. It was not locked, so she walked straight into a deserted hall. For a moment there she thought she was the first, then she dimly recalled having seen a bicycle or two outside. She spoke loudly; "Either I've got the wrong day again, or somebody's coming the mickey."
"Right the first time," came a muffled voice from somewhere.
"What are you doing here, then?" she asked it, interested.
"It's my turn."
"To watch for you. We're all taking it in turns, to see what day you come. The one that gets you first keeps you."
"How frightfully exciting. And who is the lucky watcher?"
"Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." Annexe-doors and cupboard-doors all around her slid open a crack, and she found herself all of a sudden surrounded by four grinning youths. "Welcome to the Wednesday night's entertainment," said Dave Portable. "Have a pew."
"Be a devil -- have the entire floor," amended Owen Mole.
"And spoil her floorless perfection?" asked Bert Duckbarrow.
"Hello, everybody, anyway," said Mine. "By the way, I've got something to show you." She snapped open her handbag and pulled out a long piece of pinkish paper. "Proof positive." The four crowded around to look at the proffered birth certificate. "And when you've quite finished doing the mental arithmetic," she added, "you might have a look at the next column."
And there, sure enough, was officially acceptable evidence that upon a certain date a certain Mrs. Smith, wife to a certain Mr. Smith, had given birth to a female child upon which had been bestowed, alone and unqualified, the first name of Mine. The inevitable mental arithmetic also indicated that Mine was some twenty-four years of age, a good three years older than anybody else then present. But what the hell, they thought -- we're not marrying her.
"But really -- why are you called Mine?" asked Owen.
"I was found abandoned in a colliery shaft near Doncaster at the very early age of some six and a half minutes," said Mine, and somehow that seemed to close the subject for the present.
"At least there's one good thing about it," said Bert. "You'll always be Mine."
"Very much on the contrary," returned the girl. "I'll always be Mine." She made a face at Bert. Somehow she found herself strangely drawn to these people. Then the door opened again and Tom, Dick and Harry trooped in, and the meeting was soon underway.
Presently Ian Omlet held up a hand, interrupting a ding-dong argument about the Brunner series that was currently running in "New Worlds". "I hear sounds," he declared. "Methinks another visitor is upon us." Everybody listened, and indeed movement could be heard among the bicycles. "Hope it's another girl," mooted Owen. "Hope it's another musical type," countered Ian. "Are you musical?" Mine asked him. "Utterly," said Ian. "What sort of music d'you like?" "Madam, there is only one sort of music -- to wit, the sort that is sometimes termed modern jazz." "Do you take drugs, too?" "Modern jazz is a drug," said Owen. "He's taking a long time to find the front door," said Dave. "I'll go and look," said Bert, and he went and looked. He opened the door, peered outside. Then he went right out and round the corner. Then he dashed back.
"Owen!" he shouted. "Your bike's gone!"
It should be mentioned here that three bicycles were regularly pedalled up the long hill to Upside Down every Wednesday -- Bert and Ian had their own, and Owen usually managed to borrow his sister's. For the rest of them, Tom, Dick and Harry always arrived together on the bus, and Dave, who lived in the village anyway, had no need of transport. And now, of course, Mine had her scooter. But whatever their transport arrangements, those present were on their feet as one man -- or woman. Headed by the panicking Owen, they stampeded for the door. It was true. Where three bicycles had leaned in the darkness, now were only two. Ian and Bert made for theirs at once.
"Which way d'you think he went?" asked Bert.
"Down into town, of course," said Dave. "It's too early for the airmen." (It was, of course, an understood thing that bicycles that vanished overnight were usually found the next morning near the RAF station down the road.)
Mine had unlocked her scooter, and was straddling it. "Come on, Owen," she called. "Get up behind me." She kicked the starter, and the engine roared cosily into life at once -- some people can do that. "Sit close up -- that's right." And she moved neatly into gear and out onto the road, turning downhills towards the town. She hadn't bothered to get her crash-helmet, and Owen yelled "It's a woman's bike!" into her naked ear. "OK!" she yelled back, and her headlight beam leaped ahead as she changed into top and piled on the revs.
It was a wild, furious ride. Round left-hand corners -- far too many and far too sharp. Round right-hand corners -- likewise. And all the time tending downhill. An occasional vehicle passed sedately by in the other direction. Owen hung on to the passenger-strap, Mine's hair blowing in his face, craning to see over her shoulder. Then all of a sudden the headlight picked out a bicycle travelling equally furiously ahead of them. Mine slowed her headlong pace somewhat as she drew level. Owen took a good look -- or as good a look as was possible in the darkness.
"Looks like it!" he screamed into his pilot's ear.
Mine brought her speed down lower still, edging her machine skilfully into the other to bring them both to a stop. Then the bicycle was lying on the verge, and its rider was leaping desperately up the bank. Owen slid off and raced in pursuit. There was a crashing from the hedge at the top of the bank. A gasp. A shout of "I've got 'im!" Another gasp. Then -- "I think it's a girl."
Two figures, one in front of the other, slid down the bank. The squeal of more bicycle brakes heralded the arrival of Bert and Ian on the scene. Ian lifted his wheel and spun it to work the light. What it disclosed was indubitably a girl -- a very young girl, possibly a schoolgirl even. She was crying softly.
"I suppose it's no good saying I didn't -- wasn't going to keep it -- only wanted to get home," she observed bitterly.
"Not really," said Mine, who had switched off her engine preparatory to going up the bank to help if necessary. "The point is, now we've got you, what are we going to do with you?"
"Well," said Owen, who was holding her arms behind her. "I'd suggest that as she's ridden my sister's bike all this way downhill, it's only fair if she rides it back up again."
"I suppose it would be, really, come to think of it," said Mine. "However, I think this time it'd be better if you rode it back up yourself." She moved back to her scooter, heaved it off its stand, and remounted. "Come on, kid -- get up behind me. And don't try sliding off or anything stupid -- I'll be going slow enough for these young men to follow right behind, and you won't get very far."
Sullenly, the other girl mounted as she was bid. Mine kicked the engine to life again, and the cavalcade slowly wended its way back up the long hill to the Women's Institute, where Tom, Dick and Harry -- and of course Dave -- were waiting to usher everybody back inside.
"That's right," said Mine, as they shut the door. "Let's get her into the light where we can have a proper look at her. Leave go, Ian -- Owen -- she can't escape unless we want her to." The young girl stood dejectedly in the middle of the hall, with everybody around her. She was dressed in a soft-leather jacket, a flannel skirt and flat shoes, and looked about fifteen.
"Hey," said Dave suddenly, and made a grab for her pocket, lifting out several science fiction prozines. "Which of us did she pinch these off?"
"Didn't," said the girl, who was silently sobbing again. "They're mine -- I bought them."
For a moment nobody believed that, but when asked, everybody disclaimed proprietorship of those particular issues.
"Where did you get them from, then?" asked Mine.
"Chipping Melton. It's early closing in Thisbury," she volunteered, "so I took the bus over to visit the market. I didn't take a return ticket, because I thought I could thumb a lift back. So I spent all my money. Then I got a lift back as far as Laymans Cross, but couldn't get one any farther, so I walked from there." ("Nearly ten miles," murmured Dave.) "Then I got here and I saw these bikes, and I was late already, so I b-borrowed one. And you caught me. And h-here I am." Her tears stopped flowing momentarily, and she looked vaguely defiant. Then she deflated again. "Are you going to turn me over to the police? I wish you wouldn't. You can b-beat me if you like. I'm sorry I took it. My m-mum and dad will be expecting me. Please?"
"Just as a point of academic interest," Tom interrupted, "where is the nearest police station?"
"There isn't one," said Dave. "Nearer than town. Spoil the meeting."
"You think we'd better let her go, then?" asked Mine.
"There's just one point, though," said Owen, turning to the younger girl again. "Why did you buy all this science fiction?"
"To read of course."
"Then you like it?"
"Y-yes." Defiant again.
"I think you'd better go home," said Mine. "Any dissenters?"
"How's she going to get home?" asked Harry.
"A very good question," said Mine. "The same way she came here, I think."
"She's a bit young to be out walking alone at this time of night," Tom protested.
"Not walking. On the back of my scooter. It's all right, boys -- I'll be back later on. You can carry on without me in the mean time."
"Why not bring her back with you?" asked Owen.
Mine looked at him hard. Then she swung her gaze slowly round each of the others. What she saw there seemed to reassure her.
"Or you could try to persuade her to come up next week," Dave suggested.
"Why?" put in the subject under discussion, understandably enough.
"I'll see what her parents say," said Mine. "Come along then -- by the way, we don't even know your name." But the girl was sobbing openly now. Mine collected her crash-helmet and propelled her gently in the direction of the door. The younger girl suddenly stopped and turned. "I -- I don't quite..." she wailed. "Are you d-doing me a favour? Sh-should I thank you -- you?"
"Come along, dear," said Mine. "I'll try to explain." And they went out of the door together, Mine closing it gently behind them.
"Right," said Dave. "Where were we, if anywhere?" And then the door opened again, and Mine was back, and her face was a study.
"I don't know whether to laugh or cry," she announced. "My scooter's gone."
Pandemonium really broke loose this time. "And I only left it unlocked for a minute..." Mine wailed by way of Famous Last Words or something as the massed ranks of the Circle surged out the door. Then they were milling around the parking-space.
"It's no use going after it on a bike," said somebody.
"I'll go for the police," said Owen.
"Why not use the telephone?" suggested Tom -- or possibly Harry -- reasonably. This was an idea, so Mine started back for her bag, remembered that "999" calls are free, and went into the phone box that stood just outside the Institute. Owen, Bert, and Ian got their bikes and stood vaguely in a group wondering what they ought to do with them. Tom, Dick and Harry stood in another group wondering equally vaguely what they ought to do without them. Dave joined the first group.
"Lend me your bike a mo, Bert."
"Because I feel like a ride, of course."
Bert hadn't decided on any particular use for the thing himself, so he obliged. Dave mounted, and pedalled off into the night. He turned downhill towards town. And before he'd gone a quarter of a mile he found what he was looking for. She was walking briskly along the roadside. She turned at his approach, then looked at the hedge uncertainly.
"It's all right," said Dave, coming to a stop but not dismounting. "I only want to talk to you."
"I -- I want to get home."
"It'll take you a good hour. By that time the bus will have beaten you to it."
"But I told you, I haven't got any money."
"These things can be arranged," said Dave gently. "If you don't like accepting money from strangers you can leave a couple of your magazines as security." (Accepting money from strangers was, of course, vastly different from hi-jacking their unattended bicycles.) He dismounted now, and swung the machine around. "I'll try and explain what it's all about. Come on."
His friendliness, plus the lack of condescension, seemed to convince her. With a shrug of her shoulders she turned slowly round and, side by side, they began to stroll back to the Institute.
They never did find who took Mine's scooter -- though the scooter itself was found easily enough. The police rang her at school the next morning to tell her it was in the next town towards the coast, and the headmistress rather grudgingly gave her the early afternoon off to go and fetch it. And next Wednesday evening as before she piloted it competently up to the Upside Down Women's Institute.
This time, though, she brought a pillion passenger.
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