Toby's Room

Toby's Room by Pat Barker Read Free Book Online

Book: Toby's Room by Pat Barker Read Free Book Online
Authors: Pat Barker
Tags: Fiction, General
they’d only done one session. Why not? But then, none of the other girls had requested a transfer, and they’d all, in their professional lives, be mainly concerned with women’s health, if only because no right-thinking man would let a lady doctor anywhere near him. If it made sense for her to work on a female cadaver, it made even more sense for them.
    Still, it couldn’t hurt to ask …
    After the other girls had gone, she lingered in the changing room, hearing their excited, chattering voices recede along the corridor. They knew each other now, were well on the way to becoming friends. When everything was quiet, she went in search of Mr Smailes.
    She didn’t have far to look: he was standing by the lift, wearing his overcoat and hat. Divested of the rubber cap and apron, he looked more, rather than less, strange. For a moment, it crossed her mind that he might have been waiting for her, but she didn’t let the idea settle. His face, as he turned towards her, wore its usual slight sneer. He gave every indication of disliking her intensely, and she didn’t understand why. It couldn’t be anything personal: he didn’t know her. Of course, unlike the other students, she didn’t have the cloak of serious professional intent to hide her femaleness. Perhaps that was it. She could easily imagine what Mr Smailes would make of lady artists studying anatomy.
    They got into the lift together. He pulled the door across with a clang and at once she felt trapped behind the iron grille as the lift began its slow descent. Neither of them spoke, and with every second of silence the awkwardness increased.
    ‘Mr Smailes?’
    He turned to look at her, his eyes snot-green behind pinky-beige lashes.
    ‘I was wondering if it might be possible for me to transfer to the female cadaver?’
    ‘Now, why on earth would you want to do that?’
    ‘Well, you know, I suppose, I draw mainly women – well, nearly all women – and so I just think it would be more …’
    She was gabbling, but it hardly mattered: he was already shaking his head.
    ‘Believe me, Miss Brooke, you do not want to work on a female cadaver. The fat gets under your fingernails and however hard you scrub you can never quite get it out.’
    But surely he would always wear gloves? She looked down at his hands. The nails were neatly trimmed and immaculately clean, but the cuticles had been picked raw. She found it disturbing: the carefully tended nails embedded in half-moons of bleeding flesh; and she knew he’d enjoyed telling her about the fat on female cadavers, how repulsive it was.
    The jolt of the lift arriving on the ground floor saved her from the need to reply. He pulled the gates open and stood aside to let her pass, but even that small courtesy struck her as sarcastic. She held her head high as she swept past him, but she felt her cheeks burn.

    At first, Elinor thought she’d never get used to the sight, sounds and smells of the Dissecting Room, but gradually, as the weeks passed, she became accustomed to them. As all the girls did. The cathedral hush of that first session had been replaced by chattering, even giggling. Left to herself for a moment, Elinor would slip into daydreaming, and at such times her thoughts invariably turned to Toby.
    We’ve got to get back to the way things were.
    I don’t know how they were.
    Compulsively, now, she scrutinized the past, searching for the moment when it had gone wrong. She saw them walking through the woods together, watched them as if she were actually a third party present at the scene, a ghost from the future. They were off to the pond to collect minnows and frogspawn and they were taking it in turns to carry the big jar. At the pond, they took off their clothes, because the spawn was at the far side among the reeds. They looked like little albino tadpoles themselves, stirring up clouds of milky sludge as they walked around the edge. At the centre there was supposed to be a deep well, hundreds of feet

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