Victoria and Catherine had been friends since childhood. Side by side, they had poured endless cups of tea and collected watercress for their glass-eyed, porcelain-faced guests while Victoria's brother and his friend scratched in the dirt with sticks. It was obvious even as children that Richard was fond of Catherine, although he had none of her penchant for chatter. He was drawn to silence, and the mystery of numbers, drawn in orderly procession on any available surface. Victoria's brother Albert - had their parents not a speck of originality? - worked alongside Richard, lank hair perpetually falling across his delicate features, manufacturing nonsense and presenting it as his own theoretical machinations.
"Shall we try the elephants?"
Victoria had come up to London to see Albert off. He had been in high spirits despite some trepidation; assuring her that he would be home for Christmas, perhaps with a medal and certainly with a more manly frame and better opportunities for employment. Chastened by his courage, Victoria had put aside her sorrow and decided to pay a visit to Catherine, who maintained a flat in London for herself while Richard (whom she had married as soon as she turned 18) pursued academics at University. Catherine had been about to set off for the zoo with her sketchpad; she appeared put out at finding an unexpected guest at her door, but cordially invited Victoria to accompany her.
The lions, in typical feline fashion, had removed themselves to the furthest point in their cage and lay with backs turned, sides heaving in the day's unnatural warmth. The women made their way to the elephant enclosure.
"Such a majestic creature," intoned Catherine, flipping through a multitude of penciled figures to a clean sheet on her pad.
As if on cue, the beast swung its hind end toward them and deposited an enormous pile of excrement. A child shrieked in delight as its mother hastily turned away and pointed elsewhere.
"The monkeys, then. They always seem intrigued by people."
Victoria had been staring at a khaki clad figure nearby. An ethereal frame, pinned to the ground by enormous boots. A schoolboy, really, dressed for the school pageant and hardly fit to drive a bayonet into a bloodthirsty Hun. The safety and future of England had now been entrusted to these youth. At least that was the premise. But if she were to voice her innermost thoughts on the matter - well, leave Belgium and France to sort out their own mess. The Germans were hardly of a mind to cross the Channel and take England, were they? What had the British to do with a dead Archduke in a city which few could pronounce or spell?
Catherine sighed, a moist sound which irritated Victoria.
"I said, let's try the monkeys. I would like to get something drawn today."
"I find the smell distasteful. Still, they do tend to be comical. And we haven't eaten yet, so I suppose I could tolerate them for a bit."
"You always were the delicate type. You and Albert both. I wonder how he'll manage on army rations. Not very well, I would imagine. I hope that you'll be able to send him packages. I know Richard has been complaining about mutton on the menu thrice a week. And fish! Of course, he's never really been keen on eating. If he could manage it, he'd have his slate with him in the Hall and work on mathematical proofs. Instead he's drawn into endless discussions of the war with that awful Bertrand Russell. You do know that he's joined up?"
The scent of urine and animal musk alerted Victoria to their arrival at the monkey exhibit. I wonder if monkeys think that we smell. And of what? Catherine smells of rosewater and old onions. Perhaps I smell of last night's cabbage. Albert often smells of pipe tobacco, an affectation he picked up to make him seem more mature, I'm sure. Will the other men smell his fear when he is forced to go into battle?
"I said, Richard has joined up. Are you feeling all right, Vicky? " Despite the words of concern, Victoria (she hated Vicky) detected a sharp note in Catherine's voice.
"I'm sorry Catherine. My mind wandered a bit. I shouldn't worry, Richard will adapt. And when he comes home, he will still have a place at Oxford I'm sure."
"Cambridge. And don't be silly! Richard going overseas? He's far to brilliant to be sent into danger. No, with his genius for numbers he'll be put to use for anti-aircraft gunnery calculations, ballistics, mortar trajectories - he was trying to explain triangulation last week, but I simply do not have a head for mathematics."
Victoria felt a stab of pure hate, tasted metallic rage, watched monkeys swing hooting from branch to branch while others threw garbage and feces or copulated frantically in corners.
"Catherine." She looked the woman in the face, that plump placid face, the visage which had always presided over tea parties, taken the best doll for her own, carelessly wiped out Albert's dusty figures with the toe of her expensive little shoe. And, of course, devoted wife of Richard the Magnificent.
The slightly protruding eyes regarded her.
"Catherine, as your friend I think it only fair to tell you that Richard has been spending some weekends in Cornwall."
Good. The doughy jowls were quivering even though she replied in a light voice.
"He works with another mathematician. They are very close to a proof concerning prime numbers."
"I'd no idea that he had a female collaborator. No wonder I see them strolling with their heads bent together. How wonderful!" A bell tolled in the distance. "Goodness, I must run if I'm to make my train. Catherine, it really has been so good to see you. Give Richard my love when you see him."
With a dry peck on the cheek, she whirled and strode down the path, ignoring the prickles of sweat forming beneath her blouse. A brisk walk to the station followed by the tedious train ride home. Time to imagine Catherine's careful questioning, Richard's puzzled responses, her increasing anger and tears, his stubborn denials, mutual sullen silences, the torn sketchpad and the scraps of paper filled with integers bearing mute witness to the dissolution of a marriage.
And who was to say that Richard was not seeking out female company on occasion?
It was only right that everyone bear the costs of war.