Arthur was fascinated by more than naming things. He also loved seeing how names were passed through generations. What he loved about the dark Murkle sky, he also loved about the family connections of the Murkle people. He could remember all the surnames as easily as he could the stars. He had once been involved in the creation of family trees and had used them to try to track the progress of a particular trait.
Some time before his retirement, Arthur taught a Fifth Year class about genealogy for a term. Their biology teacher had volunteered to go off to fight in World War II. Arthur was the only one who understood the Moon so was required to stay at the school. He thought he could use the biology lessons to teach something he was interested in. Of course, all of the Fifth Years were from Murkle families so he thought he might learn something too.
He set them a project to work on for the whole term; to create a tree of their own ancestry as far back as they could. He enjoyed seeing the results. The Fifth Years gave nervous presentations to the rest of the class to go alongside their sprawling charts, with their own names always in the centre bottom and branches reaching up above them.
After they had finished, Arthur spent some of the Christmas holiday on his knees in the classroom trying to fit all the trees together. He had a vague idea that he might be able to pin them to the wall, all overlapping and interlinked. He hoped this would show the Fifth Years that as a class they had created something much greater than their individual pieces of work. Arthur would add in any information he knew about families who did not have children currently at the school. Ideally, it would become a massive map showing almost every family in Murkle.
But Arthur struggled. There were too many dead-ends; places where family names seemed to spring from nowhere and lots of pupils who had plotted their families mostly sideways. They were able to list many cousins or second cousins but not go as far back as their great-grandparents. Then Arthur got some unexpected help.
One of the Fifth Years, a quiet boy who was staying at the school over the holiday, started hanging round the classroom. He was pale and too tall for his width, growing quickly but in all the wrong places like a young tree.
At first Arthur thought he was probably lonely or bored. Not many children stayed over Christmas; usually the head teacher managed to send all of them somewhere if they could not go back to their parents’ houses.
“It’s Malcolm, isn’t it?” Arthur said without looking up and remembering the boy’s name perfectly well. “Do you want to see what I’m doing? Or just lurk in the doorway?”
Malcolm pushed himself away from the wall with his shoulder and joined Arthur on the floor with the charts.
That started one of Arthur’s most enjoyable Christmases since before the War. Malcolm was what Arthur might have described as eccentric, although anyone else might have seen two eccentrics in that classroom. He dressed smartly, usually in what Arthur recognised as parts of his school uniform mixed in with more informal things (perhaps the black school trousers and a neatly ironed white tennis shirt or his black school jumper and casual grey flannels). He carried a beautiful walking stick with a deep black shaft covered in tiny shiny stars and topped with an almost perfect sphere patterned to look like the Earth. It seemed to assist gravity to secure the boy’s sapling frame to the ground. Arthur wondered if it was an affectation or if a fifteen year old might actually need to use it.
Malcolm looked like he had just stepped out of a barber’s with his brown hair cut closely and evenly at the back and his fingernails always short and clean. He had not produced the best family tree, Arthur recalled, nor given the best presentation. Like Malcolm himself, his genealogy chart was clean and neat but did not really say much. He had talked too quietly during his short address and Arthur had to snap at a group of girls to keep quiet so he could hear what the boy was saying.
So it surprised Arthur that Malcolm was so interested in the poster-sized pieces of paper spread out on the classroom floor. He had just started to give up when Malcolm first awkwardly knelt down and started to rearrange the charts.
“You know, Sir,” he said as Arthur peered over his shoulder, “you’re looking at the wrong thing.”
“Am I?” Arthur was not sure if the boy was being rude. Did the same rules even apply over the holidays? Should Arthur just be grateful that Malcolm had called him ‘Sir’?
“Well, not wrong. Just not the most interesting.” Malcolm made a small move which Arthur did not quite catch. Then to Arthur’s horror, he saw that Malcolm had pulled out a fountain pen and was making tiny marks all over the other pupils’ work.
“You can’t do that Malcolm! These are the only copies... stop it... oh... you’re right, actually. That is a lot more interesting.”
Malcolm had started to place a little black ‘W’ next to about half the names on the first chart. It was the one done by a girl called Charlotte and she had taken the trouble to make hers look like an actual tree, complete with bumpy stick branches and brittle green leaves she must have gathered in the school grounds. Arthur had admired it at least artistically even if it had not gone as far back in time as he had hoped.
“This is what we should be looking for, Sir. Charlotte Broadway is a wolf, and so are both her parents. She talks about that a lot. But her brother isn’t, I don’t think. Can you remember? He must have left the school about three years ago. She’s written his name down; it’s Simon Broadway.” Malcolm carried on jotting the ‘W’s all over Charlotte’s tree. It looked as though the tiny letters were nesting on it.
“No. I mean, I remember him but he wasn’t one of the pack that year. He was on the rugby team though,” Arthur said, leaning closer.
Arthur could feel himself getting excited by all Malcolm’s ‘W’s. Could it be true that no one had thought to do this before? Everyone knew that things like eye colour and height were inherited. Murkle children were inheriting something else as well. Arthur’s mind raced ahead. He knew many of the older Murkle people and it looked like Malcolm knew a lot of the younger ones. By the start of next term maybe he and Malcolm would be able to predict which children would change. Those who were not going to would be free to go to different schools in other towns. The right training and attention could be given to the wolf children right from the beginning. It could change everything.
That was the year it snowed so heavily that Arthur stayed at school from Christmas Eve all the way through to his birthday on New Year‘s Eve. He felt sorry that he would not be there to watch little David open his stocking but in a strange way having Malcolm there at the school with him made up for it.
They lit a fire in the library and while Malcolm went to borrow some woollen blankets from the First Years’ dorm room, Arthur arranged two of the teachers’ armchairs by the hearth. They sat and talked with hot chocolate warming their hands until Christmas morning.
“So why are you here then? Surely you’d rather be at home than here with me?” Arthur said.
“Mum’s in a bit of a mess. Dad went off.”
“Went off to fight? Was he hurt? I’m really sorry, Malcolm.” Arthur looked up at the boy’s bony face in the firelight.
“No. Not that. He was going to come home but... he doesn’t want me the way I am. Mum doesn’t want me either, not now he’s gone.”
“That can’t be true. All parents want their children.” Arthur thought again of David and how much he and Agatha had longed for him.
“Not my mum. She’s gone. Left Murkle now. Dad’s still here somewhere, but he doesn’t want to see me.”
Arthur could tell the boy did not want to talk about it anymore.
On Christmas Day they worked on the family trees. It was all Malcolm wanted to do. He found a shelf of old books about Murkle and started reading. Arthur was surprised to see that Malcolm’s fascination had developed beyond the ‘W’ question; the books had titles like ‘The Murkle Truth’ by Goliath Swat and ‘Murkle: Wolves, Moons and The Tourist Trade’ by E. Spick. Arthur had read them himself a long time ago.
The Goliath Swat book, in particular, was well-known in Murkle and legends had grown up around the book itself. It meant a great deal to Arthur and had become something of a classic as it contained so many wonderful Murkle stories. Arthur was not sure whether Malcolm would find anything of interest in them. But Arthur was a teacher and certainly not one who would stand in the way of a teenage boy who picked up a book.
Arthur started to make new trees of all the families he could think of who had children in other years or whose children had left the school. He could, of course, remember them all. At lunchtime they went to the kitchens and Arthur felt like a naughty schoolboy as they took whatever they wanted from the cupboards and fridges. Rationing meant there was not much food but Malcolm found twenty chickens ready for the new term. The kitchen staff probably would not notice the missing one.
After lunch, Arthur wrapped himself up in his thickest jumper, his woollen coat and long stripey scarf, ready to trudge out into the snow. He managed to persuade his pupil that they ought to leave the charts and books for a while and get some fresh air. Malcolm disappeared upstairs and returned wearing every bit of his uniform, including his sports things, all layered on top of one another over his sprouting form. Arthur did not say anything.
They had a half-hearted snowball fight on the playing field but the snow had not stopped falling and was too deep on the steep ground for them to run around easily. When they came back inside their clothes were crisp with freezing snow. Arthur insisted Malcolm put on something dry.
While the boy was gone Arthur returned to his own large bedroom off the foyer and looked through his wardrobe. He pulled out a pair of yellow corduroy trousers and then changed his mind. Arthur knew what Malcolm would have to wear. They returned to their genealogy project in their pyjamas and dressing gowns.
By the New Year, it was obvious that they were not going to be able to find any pattern on their family trees although Malcolm covered every sheet with his ‘W’s and worked alone every night long after Arthur had gone to his bedroom. Sometimes two ‘W’ parents produced no ‘W’ children or a ‘W’ seemed to appear on a branch all on its own, just like the family names. Malcolm seemed to be disappointed. Arthur saw there was no ‘W’ written next to Malcolm’s own name and wondered if he had been hoping to find an explanation. It was hard to tell.
Some children seemed to hope that they would safely reach Malcolm’s age without ever howling and others took a long time to accept that their nights would never be on four paws. There was no ‘W’ next to Arthur’s name either and Arthur had never minded. He found himself hesitating before writing David’s name underneath his own and then felt guilty. He realised that it was time he went back to his wife and son.
By the time the newspapers were full of unravelling DNA and hopes for medical breakthroughs, Malcolm and Arthur had long since left the school. When he retired and moved to Brink Stenton, Arthur found a thin package propped up against the door of his bungalow and almost blushed to think that Malcolm must have noticed him admiring it. The note attached read, Sir, we did not crack ‘W‘. That was my best Christmas ever though. And who knows what the future might bring? The sky’s the limit! Best wishes on your retirement.
“It’s Barley. She’s called Jinger Barley,” Ms Flapp said as Arthur tugged out more and more charts from the chest of drawers.
Arthur stopped pulling. “Funny name. Barley isn’t on these. No one from Murkle has ever married a Barley, either.” He did not need to show Ms Flapp the papers at all. “We’ve got Baldwin, Barker and Broadway but no Barley. I know all the names on these and every other name in Murkle.” Arthur began to stuff the large sheaves back into the drawers.
Ms Flapp looked thoughtful for a moment. Arthur stopped stuffing and looked equally confused.
“What on Earth is Jinger doing here, then?” they said at exactly the same time.