Meadows of Fantasy



CYNTHIA DAYTIME ANGRILY slapped another brushful of paint on the panelling.

It was Easter Sunday. The others would be whooping it up at the Convention now. But not Cynthia. It was her parents, of course. If her friend Mine (whom they liked and trusted) brought back a favourable report, she could probably go next year. She'd be seventeen by then, anyway. But on this occasion, no. Bloody no. She slapped on another brushful. What a way to spend a week-end -- all by herself painting the Turtle's interior. She'd spent the whole of Saturday behind the counter -- that was another thing. One free Saturday in four wasn't her idea of civilised hours. She was taking typing and shorthand classes now, Tuesday and Friday evenings, and by next Easter, she sincerely hoped, she'd have become a steady five-day-week girl.

Still, painting the Turtle was preferable to hanging around at home all the time, helping her mother with all the hundred and one things that would never be entirely done, whether with or without her assistance. It wasn't much fun all by herself, even so. With the gang around, she'd thoroughly enjoy helping them paint. Or sitting around idly while they painted. Or sitting around equally idly with them while they should have been painting. Or even, now and then perhaps, painting while they sat around idly. It was the company more than the painting -- or whatever else they might be doing -- that she enjoyed.

Why had she got to be sixteen and a girl?

Damn it -- there weren't even any Sea Scouts to talk to. Any evening there were usually one or two around their barge, doing something or other there. But now they were all away at their week-end camp upriver. Sea Scouts weren't fans -- fen -- of course, but some of them were moderately intelligent. She caught a trickle of paint that was heading towards the floor. Deck. Smoothed the brush over a patch that stood out. Turned back to the paint-pot.

The Nullgray Mouser was sniffing gingerly around the pot. The Nullgray Mouser was the Turtle's resident caretaker, a brownish-sandish-stripish sort of kitten who rated as a full honorary member of the Thisbury and District Science Fiction Circle. Cynthia's thoughts veered. "My cat is but a kitten yet," she murmured, then began improvising to the old tune: "His ears have not been bitten yet, his Lives are still unwritten yet, he's gonna be a great big Tom pom pom". Or was he? He was just as likely to be a hen, or a nanny, or whatever the females were called. They'd only know for sure when she started having kittens -- or when he didn't.

She laid down the brush and scooped up the kitten in one fluid movement. It -- whether he or she -- started purring. She held it gently on its back, innocently inspecting its nether regions. It looked female -- but then so did all cats at that age, Cynthia understood. Personally she hoped it would be a Tom -- she liked kittens, but didn't relish the thought of having to deal with surplus specimens in the traditional fashion. Steps Could Be Taken, of course, but she gathered that enlightened opinion -- what she regarded as enlightened opinion -- didn't care for that either.

"It's a shame, isn't it, Nullie," she murmured. "Just the two of us left, all by our little selves. There ought to be a Cats' Convention for you to go to -- talks by feline professionals, a fish banquet, all-night parties on the tiles. But then, your parents would stop you going or something. That's what they're for. Never mi..."

At that moment a crash shook the barge from stem to stern, and something went bump, bump, bump as the vessel rocked heavily. In an instant Cynthia had laid down the kitten and was shooting up the ladder like a rocket. A motor-launch was slowly backing away from the Turtle. Cynthia materialised on the barge's deck in shirt and jeans and took in the scene.

"That was a damn stupid thing to do," she blazed.

"That's all right," said one of the youths from the launch. "We do damn stupid things at times. We're like that."

"If somebody like you popped up each time," added his friend, "we'd do damn stupid things more often."

They didn't look more than twenty, either of them. Both were well-built and athletic-looking, one with light-brownish hair and an impudent grin, the other with dark curly hair and an equally impudent grin. The launch stopped and began to move slowly forward again, coming round to lie parallel with the barge.

"Are you alone?" continued the second youth.

"Well -- yes -- so to speak, for the time being."

"Why not come for a spin? It's fabulous out on the river now."

Cynthia made a split-second decision. They certainly didn't attract her as boys -- she was as yet somewhat retarded in that department. She doubted if she'd find them particularly interesting as people. But what the hell -- she was bored, and a short spin up an down the river would make a break.

"OK," she agreed cheerfully, and leaped nimbly down onto the launch, taking her balance automatically as she landed and ignoring the proffered hand. A couple of steps and she was sitting on the stern, her feet dangling into the cockpit. The light-haired youth put the motor into gear and the vessel began to move forward. His curly-haired mate slipped down beside Cynthia.

"Come down where we can all talk comfortably," suggested the driver. She shrugged, and descended to the seat, a youth on either side of her.

"That's better," the driver approved. "I'm Brian and he's Don. What do they call you?"

Cynthia played cautious. If she told them her name, ten to one they'd start calling her "Cynth" or "Cyn". Her closest friends -- mainly the gang -- called her Cynth, but that was a privilege. And as for Cyn, anybody called her that strictly at his peril. So she chose the first name that came into her head. "Connie," she told them.

"You don't look like a Connie to me," commented Don -- the curly one. "I'd say that you were more like a Pat." Conversation seemed to come easily with them. Brian steered the boat out into the Meadows lake. They by no means had it to themselves -- several sailing-dinghies and rowing-boats were dotted about, and a cabin cruiser was nosing her way upstream. The town bank was lined with assorted craft moored temporarily or permanently, and the Meadows themselves contained a fair number of people, kicking balls around or picnicking or angling or simply digging the scene. Brian swung the boat's head downstream, towards where the river narrowed into its more regular width. They exchanged washes with the cabin cruiser, then momentarily they had the lower end of the lake to themselves.

Don threw an arm over Cynthia's shoulder.

"Give us a kiss, Con," he urged. "Don't worry about him -- he won't mind, he's my mate."

Brian's arm in its turn slipped round her waist.

"It's share and share alike on this jalopy," he announced.

"Fair enough, Bry-oh," assented Don. "Give us a kiss, Con, then you can give him a kiss." His hand began gently to guide her face in his direction.

Cynthia slipped a shapely young arm round the neck of each of them. Then in an instant her fingers had clamped tightly about both necks, and her head moved neatly out of the way as their two skulls came together with a perceptible clunk. Like a flash she was out of the cockpit and cleaving the water, making for the nearer bank -- the out-of-town bank. A nuisance that, but it seemed the obvious place to make for. It was not to be, however. The launch came up in a narrow turn and nosed between her and the bank.

Don was standing up rubbing his head. "No hard feelings, Con," he called, reaching down a hand. "It was only a game. Honour bright."

Cynthia promptly turned about and began to make for the town bank. Momentarily she lost sight of the launch as she concentrated on her swimming. Then it was looming over her again, and a strong hand closed round her wrist.

"Come on, Con -- we were only larking about."

"Let go," she breathed fiercely.

"Don't be a little goose -- we won't hurt you."

Somehow, it never occurred to Cynthia to call for help. Not that she would necessarily have done so even if it had -- after all, she had walked into this business with her eyes open, and it was up to her to get herself out of it again. She caught hold of the side of the cockpit with her free hand and began to rock it.

"No -- come of it Con -- be a sport. Con! Stop it!" Don nearly lost his balance and was forced to leave go of her wrist. Cynthia caught hold of the cockpit with both hands now, and rocked all the harder. For a moment it looked as if Don would have to assault her. Then the corner of the launch dipped right under for a moment. Don kept his station only with difficulty. Cynthia gave the boat another violent rock, and the corner went under again -- easier now, and it would be still easier the next time. Already the boat was perceptively lower in the water.

She would dearly have liked to sink it completely. However, caution prevailed, and she let go, turned hard about and struck out once more for the distant town bank. As she swam, she noticed that the engine had suddenly cut out. Good. Give them something to think about.

She was a fair enough swimmer, and had no trouble in gaining the desired bank. A couple of the sailing-dinghies had wandered down and were observing her. She gave them a cheerful wave. The motor launch seemed to have drifted further downstream while she was swimming -- both its occupants could be seen bailing furiously. Dripping, she plodded along the bank. It was decidedly chilly -- there was quite a lot of sun about, but a wind brisk enough to shudder in, clad as she was.

Gaining the Turtle, she dropped down into the interior and promptly stripped herself to the buff. She rummaged in a locker among several bathing-costumes -- left over from the previous summer -- for one of her own. It was a trifle on the small side now -- had been last year, she remembered -- but it was one-piece, and thus somewhat warmer than Mine's two-piece. She strung all her clothes out on a line up on deck -- they'd soon dry in this breeze -- then plumped herself down in the lee of the hatch and inspected the water for signs of the launch. She thought she could just discern it vanishing into the narrow river.

The Nullgray Mouser strolled daintily up to her.

"I don't care what sex you are, Nullie," she told it. "I'm not having you crawling all over my naked limbs." By way of precautionary measure she picked it up, held it before her with both hands, and gravely regarded it.

"It's a monotonous life, Nullie," she commented with absolute seriousness. "The place is half dead without the gang to help liven things up."

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