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The Thirty-seven Steps

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She liked his strange, hesitant tenderness. She saw in his eyes a bleak landscape, tinted with wary hope. He was odd - his swift daring, his courtesy, his reticence in all things except his beloved animals. He was compelling.Pity he was now on the other side of the world.

 

But, but, perhaps he would write.


His first communication was a wire, delivered to Tina's desk like an official message. It came addressed to her brusquely by initial, surname, and division. Arrived Southampton. Travelling onwards London. Creatures glad to be home.

No name, no sign-off. The slip of cheap office paper, and his stilted words, rendered it completely impersonal. Yet she tucked the telegram inside her winter coat and carried it around next to her heart, just as if he had handwritten a page of breathless sentiment.

His next contact was a postcard, sent, again, to her chilly office. No Dear Tina, just the postal address on the right-hand side of the dividing line. On the left, in a blue-ink mixture of cramped vowels and extravagant gs and fs, was a paragraph of information: The facilities are excellent, everything one could wish for. My creatures are comfortable and there is no shortage of supplies for them. Work on the book proceeds steadily.

The picture on the front of the postcard was of London Zoo.

He gave no return address, no way to contact him, to reply. She had to wait, to be passive and accepting of one-way communication.

That was hard. Now that she was sure about him, as far as she could be on two days' acquaintance, she wanted to ask everything, to know it all. Instead she was cut off, by an ocean, and by him giving her nowhere to write to.

But at least he seemed keen.


The next communication came to her desk in the last week of the year. It was another postcard, this time illustrated with a drawing of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Like the others, it was not signed, but she was coming to know his handwriting.

Am locked up finishing the book. I think it will be over soon.

That was it. There was a smudge of blue ink at the bottom that might have been an impulsive N, or maybe an X - or a careless coat sleeve on a stray ink droplet.

She bit her lip, and rubbed her thumb over the card's postage stamp. It was a painting, of a glittering dragon, and it had one eye closed, and one eye open, and it was smiling.


Two months passed. She tried not to expect him, to look for him in the street or in the subway. She saw his blue coat everywhere. But he didn't come.

She read English newspapers, thinking that if anything bad had happened, or anything good, it might be reported. She was excessively casual at the newsstand. Yeah, the Tribune, and, oh, why not, I'll just take the London Evening News as well, what the heck?

British journalism was freakishly stilted. She imagined a foggy room full of men typing with gritted teeth. Details had to be dragged out of them. Grudgingly they listed the locations of soccer matches or street disturbances. Most news was only hinted at. Famous people were mentioned by their initials alone, out of some infuriating British delicacy over privacy. What was D, and why did it matter so much to Sir JF?

She sighed and ploughed through the dreary prose, but there was nothing about the creatures, or Newt.

She had too much self-respect not to take him at his word. He said he'd do a thing, therefore he would do it, and she had no need to project terrible - usually tragic - alternative scenarios onto it.

No, she had plenty of work to keep her occupied, and this peculiar British guy with his suitcase of creatures was way down her list of priorities. Way down, in his swirling coat and straggling tie, with his diffidence and his blue eyes.

"You're daydreaming," said her sister while they washed dishes one evening.

"I'm not."

"Why are the pots on the ceiling?"

"Oh."

Weeks ground by, work and sleep, work and sleep. A pain developed in her throat and lodged there, annoying and immovable, tending to worsen if she thought of him. She shrugged it away but it kept coming back.

Winter was harsh that year. She thought of the beasts, shivering behind their railings in London. Then she thought, if they are cold, he'll just put them back in his case. She put on more socks and called more flames to the fire. Her rooms had never seemed so frigid.

By February, winter was really getting into its stride: thick snow, subway delays, furnaces feebly trying to heat icy buildings.

She got home from work one night and found an advertisement in her mailbox. It was addressed to her like a personal letter, the way sales people always did, Dear Valued Customer, on the envelope. She would have tossed it straight in the trash but for one thing.

It was in his handwriting.


She ran upstairs, trailing dirty slush off her boots, shouldered open her front door, hustled through and slammed it shut. Her finger wouldn't come out of her gloves properly. She stood by the stove wiggling her fingers enough to get a warmth spell going. Then she ripped open the envelope.

Dear Customer, in blue ink, Send no money now! Write to the address below for your free sample of New Electric Winter Tonic. Don't delay! This deal is locked in! This product Heals Every Little Problem! You must check it out!

The address read, Flat 37, The Scrambles, Marshing, Scrimshire, England.

Beneath were further exhortations: You're In Danger of missing this great deal. Must Urgently Go Get this Limited Edition Soon - Take Our Offer!

In tiny block capitals along the bottom edge of the sheet, he had added, Please be cautious.

She stared at it.

It was not a difficult code to crack. The terrible grammar alone would have aroused her suspicion. Newt. Locked in. Help. Check it out. You're in danger. Muggles too.

Two seconds later she was at her kitchen table, whisking paper and pen towards her. Dear Newt -

She winced. Be cautious. The paper crumpled, then tossed itself into the hearth.

I read your ad with interest. I'm keen to see this product in person-

Was that horribly suggestive? Yes. -Into the flames.

Third piece of paper.

Your ad interests me greatly. I believe this new wonder product will be available by - the wall calendar thrummed through the days, pages flying - the twelfth of this month.

She hesitated, the pen hovering over the shadow of her signature. Then she threw down the pen, folded the paper, stuffed it into a new envelope, and scratched on the front the address he'd given.

She summoned an owl, and gave strict instructions to take the letter as far as the central sorting office only, and to send it onward by no-maj mail from there on. The owl gave her a dirty look - what was it there for, then? but swooped resentfully away.

Tina watched it go, over the frosted skyline, then turned and began to pack.


She worried about him all the way across the Atlantic. Research in her office had turned up nothing about him, only general news of unrest in the so-called muggle parliament. A new law had been passed but one party accused the other party of corrupting the vote, or something. It was hard to follow. The no-maj workers were threatening a general strike. The magical population seemed helpless, and every quote was a mishmash of meaningless platitudes.

At Liverpool she stood on the quayside with her case and tried to look like a regular person. The great green Liver Birds reared up on their turrets, and the elevated railway rattled past at seagull-level.

Everything here was small, like New York in miniature - fancy buildings, a kind of subway, ships lined up all along the docks - and smoky. She found the principal train station and bought a ticket to Marshing, in Scrimshire.

Hours later she dozed in a horse drawn cab - horse drawn! - bumping over frost -damaged asphalt, heading through dusky syreets towards the building called the Scrambles.

She had expected something quaint, some half-timbered throwback set among stately oaks. She quickly discovered her mistake.

"That's as far as I go, pet," said the cabbie. He clicked at the horse, and twisted his head to look at her. "You know someone in there?"

"I'm here on business," she said quickly.

He looked doubtful. "You'll not get much out of this lot, love. Rough, the lot of them. That's why all this."

He pointed at an iron gate in a high wall. Wrought lettering, arching over the entrance, labelled it The Scrambles. The wall was topped with rough render and chips of glass. The place looked like a prison. "These modern flats. No place for decent families."

"Thanks." She paid him in heavy, dull silver coins, and got down her small carpet bag, feeling alone and conspicuous.

"Watch yourself, love," he called after her. "Plenty of villains about, a young lady such as yourself-"

"I'm ok," she said, and walked through the gate.

Inside the wall loomed an ugly red brick block, modern. Ten storeys high, it was soot-stained and brutally square. Cabage smells wafted from open windows. Grubby kids hung about at the only doorway. Their trousers were ripped and ragged, their shoes open at the toes, but they all wore flat caps. British poverty.

There was no elevator. Tina walked up concrete stairs, peering hopefully at each landing to see if the numbers on offer included 37.

She reached the top floor and walked to the last door. It was number 36.

She clenched her fists in frustration. "Now what?"

"Psst."

She jumped.

The hall was empty, except for a smell of boiled fish.

"Psst."

She saw a tiny yellow crack elongate in a blank piece of wall between the two nearest doors. She glanced around. Nobody was here. She touched the glow with her wand, and it immediately expanded into a narrow doorway.

She stepped into bright yellow light, then the doorway zipped shut behind her, and she was blinking, blinded, at Newt Scamander.