"Anything in the offing?" Zoë asked. She and Isobel were huddling together on the sofa, with a quilt covering them both; the only light, not to mention heat, in the room was coming from a single candle. Outside, the world was blanketed in silence and darkness, the product of the mining unions' latest attempt to bring a hated government to heel.
"I thought we might go down to Brinshore."
"Coastal resort. In Sussex."
"Sounds nice. We could do with a day or two by the seaside. Though it won't be much fun if the weather's like this and the electricity's still off."
"It'll be more fun than here."
A note of suspicion entered Zoë's voice. "Why? What's going on?"
"They're having a beauty pageant. And a little bird tells me there might be a feminist protest or two. I think we ought to do our bit for the sisterhood, and with any luck we'll get a few snaps we can sell to the papers while we're at it."
"But if you're taking part in the protest, you can't be photographing it, can you? Or is that why you've been training me how to use the big camera?"
Isobel sighed. "The problem is, you're all right technically but you're hopeless at composing a shot. I think it'll have to be me taking the pictures and you in the protest. Or you could enter the pageant, if you'd rather."
"How would it help the cause of feminism if I joined the pageant?"
"You'd sabotage it from the inside, obviously."
"So I'd be the one who gets humiliated in public, or arrested for causing trouble..."
"Or both," Isobel said cheerfully.
"Thanks a lot. And you'd be the one who takes the award-winning pictures of it all?"
"Someone's got to, haven't they?"
"Heads you win, tails I lose. All right, then. What's the worst that can happen?"
Isobel shrugged. "Ask me once it's happened."
Thanks to the expertise in automotive engineering that was making British cars a byword throughout the world, Isobel's Mini was languishing in a garage awaiting delivery of a replacement distributor. Thus, they were forced to make their way to the Sussex coast by train, in the company of numerous other holidaymakers and their luggage. When a young woman scrambled aboard at Valley Fields and took the seat opposite them, neither Zoë nor Isobel paid her much attention.
"'Scuse me," she said, some minutes after the train had juddered back into motion. "Have we met? Only I'm sure..."
"I think we have," Zoë said. She set down her copy of New Scientist and put her fingers to her temples. "It was on a shoot for margarine, wasn't it? That's right. We were all dressed as vegetables — I've no idea why. You were a carrot, I think. Your name's Babs... I don't think surnames were mentioned."
The other girl's face lit up. "I can't believe you remembered all that. You're Chloë, aren't you?"
Zoë shook her head. "Zoë, Zoë Heriot. This is my partner Isobel Watkins. Isobel, this is Babs...?"
"Tucker." She held out a hand.
"Nice to meet you," Isobel said. "Maybe we've bumped into each other before, but I've got a mind like a sieve. Goodness knows where I'd be without Zoë to run the business."
Babs looked from one to the other, seemingly trying to determine their relationship. "You're in business together?"
"That's right. A photographic studio."
"Oh, of course. You going down to Brinshore?"
"Yes. Are you?"
"Not half. Booked for this beauty contest thing. Lucky for me I spotted it — the only other gig I had lined up was mud wrestling at Hull again." She laughed at the expressions on her fellow-travellers' faces. "I won't get anywhere, you just see. These things are always rigged."
"Really?" Zoë asked.
"Really. Last one I went to was at Seawood. You could tell what was going to happen there the moment they read out the names. No-one's going to look at Babs Tucker when there's Sylvia Pooley in the lineup, are they?"
"I don't recognise the name. Should I?"
Babs leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees. "If you went to Seawood you'd know it. Her uncle owns half the town."
"You mean he'd pull strings to have her win?" Isobel asked.
"'Course he would. But in the end he didn't get a chance."
"Why, what happened?"
"Bunch of crazy dykes broke in, that's what. Throwing flour and paint and I don't know what else. Shouting the odds about women's rights." Babs snorted. "Rights! Do me a favour. Don't I have a right not to get paint thrown at me?"
"I suppose they thought—" Zoë began.
"I don't. Bunch of jealous old maids who can't get a bloke, so they try and take it out on girls like me. If that's feminism they can keep it."
"That's nothing like—"
Isobel hastily broke in. "Do you think there might be something like that at Brinshore?"
"Dunno." Babs shrugged. "There's a lot of it about. What do they want to do, put me out of a job? Thought they wanted more women in work."
Maintaining a firm grip on Zoë's hand in the hope that that would keep her quiet, Isobel made to change the topic of conversation.
"Do you know anything about the setup at Brinshore?" she asked. "I mean, who's running the show, and who's got the surname to avoid?"
"David Clifton's the bloke I've dealt with." Babs extracted a typewritten letter from her handbag. "No letters after his name, so he can't be anything much. Probably just the one who does all the work and some lazy bigwig takes the credit. Why, you thinking of going in for it?"
"Zoë was thinking about it. I'm just here to take the pictures."
Babs gave Zoë an appraising look. "Yeah, if I was you I'd go for it. What's the worst that could happen?"
"She wins and you come second?" Isobel suggested.
"That'd be just my luck, wouldn't it?" Babs said, with a laugh.
"You'd better have this room," Isobel said. "The light's better."
"What's that got to do with it?" Zoë asked. There was, in truth, little to choose between their two rooms — inexpensive single bedrooms on the second floor of a boarding house, tucked away in a back street.
"We'll need it to get your makeup right for the pageant." Isobel crossed to the window and pulled the curtains back. "Oh, and you get a nice view of the estuary, too."
Zoë joined her at the window. "It looks more like a swamp to me."
"I suppose the tide's out."
"I wonder if smugglers come up the river at night?" Zoë mused. "This might be quite a good place to watch them."
"Smugglers?" Isobel gave Zoë a bewildered look. "Why should there be smugglers?"
"That's what they do, isn't it? Bring barrels of French brandy ashore after dark. I'm sure that was in one of my Introduction To History lessons."
"That was hundreds of years ago! I know we all look out-of-date to you, but we're not that far back in the past."
Zoë frowned. "We might as well be. Did you see the notice downstairs? Double rooms only available to married couples. Well, that's us told, isn't it?"
"You know what we agreed." Isobel put a hand round her shoulders. "While we're here, we're strictly professional. I don't think the landlady would appreciate anything... advanced."
"She's not the only one."
"Do you mean...?"
"That Babs." Zoë's two syllables carried enough contempt to implode a medium-sized comet. "The way she talked about feminism. She seems to think we're all evil man-hating lesbians with hairy legs who go about attacking people on a whim."
Isobel squeezed her shoulder. "Don't let her get to you. You know she's completely wrong. I mean, your legs aren't hairy at all."
"Isobel!" Zoë glared at her, then realised she was being sent up. "All right. She can't help being an ignorant primitive. I just wanted to shake some sense into her."
"I think you'd get better results if you try consciousness-raising. We may be primitives, but ignorance is curable."
"Yes, you responded quite well to treatment." Zoë slid her hand around Isobel's waist. "Didn't you?"
"Behave," Isobel said. "Strictly professional, remember? No hanky panky while we're here."
Zoë chuckled. "No. Quite apart from the landlady and everyone else here being so homophobic, I don't want to have to pay for the damage if we broke that bed. It doesn't look like it would stand up to much."