In the flickering candlelight Arthur was lying on an old carpet, not moving. In fact, he had not so much as blinked in some time. His long silver hair spread out on the floor around his head as though he was somehow floating on the stains, patches and pulled-out threads. When he finally finished counting, he turned his head, snorted and playfully nudged the young woman lying next to him.
“Your turn to count, Ms Flapp, my dear,” he said a little gruffly, having not spoken for such a long time. He slid out of the way, being careful not to disturb the telescope from its carefully calculated position. “I counted five thousand and three stars, although six of them were shooting and two of them disappeared. Awkward buggers.”
Ms Flapp smiled, tucked her short hair behind her ears with both hands and shuffled gently on her back, a little to her right, to the warm patch of threadbare carpet Arthur had occupied so recently for so long.
She put her eye to the rubbery black cup at the end of the enormous instrument and let herself adjust to the vast blackness it showed her. “One, two, three er... four,” she murmured under her breath, knowing that Arthur’s long life had taught him almost nothing about patience.
“Let’s write down five thousand and three, shall we?” Arthur suggested before Ms Flapp had reached her first dozen. He looked at her hopefully, his vivid dark eyes like flicks of calligraphy. “We have other matters to attend to tonight. It’s nearly time to go down to supper, anyway. We mustn’t be late on the first night of term. Besides, my back hurts,” he added, staggering to his feet.
He generously leant back down, his hand on his globe-topped cane, offering Ms Flapp his other to help her join him vertically. She had often been struck by how naturally Arthur did this sort of thing. It had embarrassed her at first but he pretended not to notice her embarrassment to save her feelings. She thought she might as well pretend not to find it embarrassing to save his.
“That’s fine,” she said, meaning it. “I’ll add that figure to the log sheet and we’ll look at what’s next. I think we have some naming to do.” Ms Flapp sat down at her desk, dreading the discomfort of what was to come. “So, Arthur, we have fourteen new stars and a constellation. Possibly a planet too but we’ll need to order some more equipment to be sure.”
It pleased her immensely to be able to watch the eminent scientist Arthur Oldham sit back in his chair and fold his arms and think. But it also made her anxious.
She had been unsure about his returning to the school, having arrived herself many years after he retired. Fortunately, the observatory itself decided to welcome him back. It was oddly complete with him there, although Ms Flapp had never noticed that there had been something missing. It was Arthur’s shape which fit so perfectly on the most worn place on the carpet and in the dip on the leather desk chair. He seemed to be able to woo the stars out of the sky with his snake-charmer’s telescope. When Arthur returned to the school the sky suddenly looked breathtaking, and Ms Flapp felt that she need not have bothered to look up before.
Arthur settled himself in his chair and closed his eyes for a long moment. Ms Flapp had time to scroll through her emails. She wondered whether it would be safer not to reply to the one she was not pleased to see. Then Arthur flung his eyes open and raised his eyebrows.
“How about ‘Granny’s Glasses‘ or ‘Weird Bicycle’?” he cried.
Ms Flapp turned from her computer, clapped her hands and gasped at how fitting the names were for the shiny faraway dots they had discovered in the Murkle night sky. However, it was the very appropriateness of the names which caused Ms Flapp’s problem.
She could not choose.
Arthur would always declare the names in pairs or sometimes, when he was feeling particularly inspired, in threes. “How about ‘The Vicar’s Allotment’, ‘Songbird’s Tummy’ or ‘Santa’s Map’?” and Ms Flapp would try desperately to conceal her rising panic.
When Ms Flapp had been a red-welly-wearing little girl her father had found her at the back of the garden staring at their old oak tree. He had been keeping an eye on her while he raked the autumn leaves from the lawn. He saw that she must have been standing there for quite some time.
“Have you spotted an insect you like, sweetheart?” he asked, striding over to her and running his rough hand down the rougher bark.
“No, Daddy,” she said, turning to gaze at him with a strange look in her eyes. “I don’t know which way to go.”
Her father knelt down beside her and put his arm around her. “Mummy is calling us, Anna. You have a lot of school work. You mustn‘t fall behind. It‘s very important. We don‘t want to be ashamed of you.”
But the little girl did not stir, as though the tree was a wall she could not climb. “Both ways round the tree are the same, Daddy. How can I decide?”
Ms Flapp could mostly hide her problem now. She wore the same outfit to school every day, washing five sets of the identical clothing in the school laundry room at the weekend. She could cope quite well in lessons because it was usually clear whether a pupil was being helpful or cheeky and the relative certainty of Astronomy meant that she taught facts not opinions. Even if there was something in doubt, like when a First Year girl had raised her hand and asked if the Murkle Moon would ever wander again, she could simply present both sides of the well-rehearsed argument. If anything, she reasoned, that was what a good teacher should do.
But sometimes a decision between two seemingly equal options had to be made. Ms Flapp could easily hold up the queue in the canteen for the whole of lunchtime while trying to choose between the two stacks of trays. Neither one was better than the other. The other staff and some of the pupils knew it was best to reach round and put a tray in front of her on the metal counter. But when there was no one there who knew what to do, a lot of pupils would have a very hungry lunchtime.
Like most people, it had not taken Arthur long to realise that Ms Flapp was unusual. Unlike most people however, he did not try to solve her problem for her. More times than Ms Flapp could remember, a well-meaning person would slip their hand into their pocket and triumphantly produce a suspiciously flippable-looking coin and present it to her. Ms Flapp would not sigh or roll her eyes but patiently explain that if she could not decide between crossing her left leg over her right or her right leg over her left, how could she ever choose between the Queen’s head or tail?
“‘Weird Bicycle’ we’ll have then, shall we?” said Arthur, kindly letting Ms Flapp feel as though it was possible she had helped make the choice.
“Yes,” Ms Flapp replied quickly, pushing her hair behind her ears again. “It’s perfect. So, we’ve got fourteen stars still to name, Arthur.” Ms Flapp prepared to wait fourteen times for Arthur to use his wonderful skills to help plot the dark map they had been working on. It looked so much closer to completion with names instead of numbers.
But Ms Flapp knew Arthur had not returned to the school to name stars. He had come back to help Ms Flapp uncover why the Moon had moved on Millennium Eve. This overall aim had been put on hold somewhat when it appeared that the Moon was sulking.
It had been very upset by the allegations about its behaviour made by Arthur in the early part of the new Millennium. In fact, the Moon was so offended that it no longer responded to Arthur or Ms Flapp’s cajoling.
Seemingly in protest at what it felt were a series of unfair accusations about its inability to stay within its permitted waxing and waning range, the Murkle Moon appeared randomly in whatever shape it felt like, sometimes setting with the sun and sometimes remaining full for months on end. Arthur and Ms Flapp despaired and, resolving to return to the Moon problem shortly, had embarked on plotting everything they discovered in the Murkle night sky instead. Its planets and stars had never been so thoroughly examined as when the two teachers found themselves unable to solve their lunar puzzle.
Arthur, however, was not most interested in the prospect of naming a mere Murkle star. Ms Flapp knew he worked best when he was excited by his task and tonight there were so many nameless stars on their list looking pretty much alike. This had happened on other occasions. She had dutifully typed in names like ‘Eeny, Meeny, Miney and Mo’ before realising that Arthur probably was not giving it his full attention. It looked like this might be one such night, and Arthur was not in the mood.
“Did you say something about a possible Murkle planet without a name?” he asked hopefully.
Ms Flapp sighed indulgently, knowing full-well that Arthur remembered perfectly that she had.