Inquest - Index   |  chapter 12   |  chapter 14

Chapter 13

Plans become fixed and official - and preparations are slowly finalized.
Meanwhile, Annabelle finds a pen-pal


       The offices of Clotwold & Berne answered with almost alarming alacrity when Soraya contacted them regarding our decision re. Morgenstern's Rystwycz-proposal. Her telephone call to their offices led to a flurry of activity: learning that Clotwold was not at his desk she wanted only to leave a message but the previously unflappable secretary begged her to hold the line while she contacted him and connected her. Clotwold, when he was found a few minutes later (excusing himself from a board meeting to take the call, he told Soraya -- explaining why he had to be brief, for the moment), was very pleased. He repeated the dates we had agreed on as if to fix them fast, making sure that we wouldn't stay a moment less, and assured Soraya he would get the necessary paperwork to us as soon as possible. Soraya said there was no rush, he should mail or fax them at his convenience.
       Clotwold clearly thought differently: a quarter of an hour after speaking with him Soraya received a call from a partner at a local law firm (of the uppermost crust), explaining that he represented Clotwold & Berne in some of their American dealings and requesting an audience -- if possible, the same day. Soraya said that around lunch-time would be fine, wondering whether he could scurry over that fast. He did, an associate in tow.
       Soraya had me come as well, though the lawyer said -- a bit too quickly -- that my presence wasn't really necessary (smoothly adding then that it was nevertheless very welcome). As white shoe as they come, he wore a suit that might have cost more than even Soraya took home in a week. Someone was no doubt being billed an enormous amount for these few minutes of his (and his associate's) valuable time. It seemed a waste: other than to impress us his presence seemed to serve no purpose. The papers could just as easily have been messangered (or mailed) over.
       We were, admittedly, a bit impressed. The lawyer thanked Soraya profusely for making time on such short notice, and explained that there were simply some documents requiring Soraya's signature, and that Clotwold was eager to receive these as soon as possible. He handed over a folder and said he hoped that the contents would be self-explanatory, though he added that we might, just might, want to consult our own attorneys (it sounded like a sort of legal disclaimer he felt obligated to make but didn't want us to consider too seriously). If we had any questions, his associate was at our complete disposal (at which point the associate stood up and handed us each a business card) -- as, of course, was he (though the implication was clearly that it was his associate we should turn to, not him). He hoped we would be able to return the signed papers by late afternoon. "If my associate could come by to pick them up around ... would five be convenient ?"
       Soraya said we'd have to look the papers over but that, unless they were too mystifying, five o'clock should be doable. The lawyer quickly got up -- before we had to time to look at the papers or consider what might mystify us about them -- and thanked us for our time. The associate said he would be back -- unless he heard otherwise -- at five, and off they went.
       Soraya had a meeting, so she left me with the papers and I looked them over over lunch. I almost hoped to find soul-selling demands and prohibitive clauses and sinister stipulations, all couched in ultra-legal jargon, but I found nothing of the sort. The documents were written in almost plain English, entirely clear: even I felt confident in claiming I could understand each of the paragraphs. More surprisingly, to me, it was our interests that were protected at every turn. Far from binding us, the contract allowed us easy release for any and all reasons we might have -- and none for the counter-party (however one might identify them), regardless of how we took advantage of what we were being offered. And the terms, here finally set fast in black and white, were truly generous.
       Soraya returned and asked me how far I had gotten. All the way through, I admitted. She was hoping for some questions or qualms, I could see. Like me, she felt it couldn't or shouldn't be this easy. But I had to disappoint her. There was nothing troubling to be found here -- if anything, only comfort.
       "This isn't a Faustian bargain we are striking ?" she asked.
       "No such luck."
       Soraya didn't quite believe me, and looked the papers over too. After a few minutes she put them down, as surprised at I at how little was expected of us, and how much promised. "Shall we sign ?" she asked, and I saw no reason not to. Turning to the last page of each of the three separate sheaves (each dealing with a different aspect of the arrangement), however, we found on one side of each of these pages a signature -- Clotwold's, on behalf of Morgenstern -- and a single line on the other side, with only Soraya's name typed underneath.
       Soraya called the law-associate, to inquire whether her signature sufficed, or mine (or possibly even the children's) were also required. Only hers, she was assured, was needed or expected. That. at least, struck us a little odd -- though since the papers barely committed anyone who signed them, and since the benefits were expressly for us all, it did not seem to make a difference.

       Over dinner Soraya reported that the associate had come, punctually at five, and let her know that the papers would be flown to London that very night, reaching Clotwold's desk by the beginning of the business-day tomorrow. The rush baffled all of us: we'd agreed, after all, and the papers, signed or not, barely strengthened our commitment. But perhaps lawyers need this sort of reassurance.

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       Soraya had added a note for Clotwold to the set of papers that were returned to him, jotting down a few of the questions we had come up with -- what we might take, what we shouldn't, what other preparations we might make. By the time she got to her office the next morning he had already called and left a message, thanking her for the contracts and assuring her that he would respond to her questions shortly. Soraya said he sounded much-relieved, almost celebratory -- pleased like one might expect a lawyer to be after negotiating some huge deal.
       The fuss was somehow flattering, and yet also disconcerting, seeming so misplaced. Perhaps, Annabelle argued, it was meant to give the impression of the import of the matter as Morgenstern saw it, and this the only way the lawyers handling it saw themselves able of conveying such a thing. But if that was the aim these efforts fell short of achieving it: the kids were hardly impressed by any of the contractual mumbo-jumbo, and Soraya and I largely simply perplexed.

       A package arrived a few days later from Clotwold. Included were our plane tickets (Tancred making sure they were round-trip), booked for the dates we had given, as well as maps, cash in a variety of currencies (of all the countries we'd be travelling through on our way to Rystwycz), and folders filled with information on every conceivable subject: from what might be done if we needed medical attention to where we could obtain our groceries locally. There was a checklist, too, asking us to make sure our passports were in order, that they had the correct bank-account numbers (for the transfer of monies), and all sorts of details that I wouldn't have even thought of (though Soraya -- who handles this sort of stuff -- probably would).
       Included also was a list of what we would be provided with in Rystwycz, including two computers (with Internet connections) and a shortwave receiver -- but no television and no stereo. Music and video was apparently -- beyond Internet downloads (and scratchy shortwave radio reception) -- out; the literary in. Well, we hadn't expected much different.
       We were free to bring what books we wanted, but it was suggested that we not weigh ourselves down. Any books we required could be ordered and delivered on short notice. We wondered how much we could rely on that, none of us quite willing to risk finding ourselves even briefly without an adequate supply of reading matter. Predictably, it was this that we focussed on, agreeing that we would plan in concert, so as to both avoid an overlap of titles and assure that we could rotate books should the situation ever get desperate (meaning that personal preferences and limitations (of the linguistic sort, for example) would be taken into account, so that all books might be enjoyed by all).

       Most of what needed to be done at home was arranged by Soraya. She made the preparations for closing the apartment over the summer, diverting the mail, suspending any number of magazine subscriptions, arranging for the plants to be watered. As always, I was impressed by her executive thoroughness and command: left up to me we would as likely return at summer's end to find three month's worth of full and rancid milk bottles blocking the door (not that we normally get any delivered), the stove and television on, and half our goods repossessed.
       There were also clothes to shop for, the growing children's wardrobe needing its seasonal replenishment in any case, now adjusted for the more temperate Rystwyczian climate we were told to expect. This was, again, a duty I could not be charged with: even the not overly style-conscious kids balked at my selections.
       Soraya looked ahead, and I concentrated on the day-to-day -- making sure the kids didn't get too far ahead of themselves and kept up with (or at least on top of) their schoolwork, and that what needed doing -- from laundry to grocery-shopping -- got done. Since we were more likely to discuss how we might stock the refrigerator in Rystwycz than the one at home this too proved, occasionally, to be a challenge. But we didn't go hungry .....

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       A few days after we received Clotwold's small package a letter from Rystwycz itself arrived for Soraya and me. It was from Penelope von Urnvalg. She wrote:
       Dear Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair:

       It is with much dear pleasure that I hear from Papa that you have agreed to come this summer to be near us. We all and I most extremely are looking forward to your arrivals and the large pleasure we will be having this summer. My excitement already is very great. I am barely knowing how to express it !
       My reasons for writing to you are of course to share our anticipation of your impending presence but also a request. I am asking permission that I may write to your daughter, Annabelle, and introduce myself and perhaps we may correspond in advance of her and your arrivals.
       I hope that I will also be friends with your son, Tancred, but as Annabelle is closer to me in sex and age I hope especially to find a friend in her and by communicating prior to meeting perhaps we already shall feel long-acquainted in time for her coming.
       I would like this very much but I if you believe it to be inappropriate I understand and will wait silently until we may meet in person. I await your instructions.
       Hoping you are in good health and looking forward to seeing you soon, I remain respectfully yours,


       (von Urnvalg)
       Needless to say, it wasn't the usual sort of letter we got. Soraya was a bit surprised by the more stilted English: Penelope had sounded more fluent in person, she said, though she thought that perhaps many of her expressions then had been practiced phrases while this was a letter written more on the fly and/or sly.
       There seemed no reason to keep it from the kids, and we let them have a look. Tancred wasn't bothered that his sister was favoured, and Annabelle was excited by the idea of this pen-pal, the odd English and extreme parental deference notwithstanding.
       Penelope provided an e-mail address and Annabelle promptly wrote to her; an epistolary dialogue soon blossomed -- or exploded. Penelope, it turned out, was an ambitious correspondent and appeared to have no end of time on her hands. She displayed a remarkable eagerness to communicate at greatest imaginable lengths with her new-found confidante: it was not unusual to find, twice or thrice daily, forty or fifty or sixty kilobyte attachments waiting in our online mailbox -- sometimes replenished quicker than Annabelle could dash off even token replies. With the demands of school and homework, and various personal pursuits, Annabelle often had trouble merely keeping up with reading all that Penelope wrote, at least during the week.
       Penelope did not mind, and she wrote as much. The exchange of letters and ideas -- the back and forth -- was important to her, but it did not need to be neat and ordered. As best as Annabelle could and wanted to do was all Penelope asked for. She even noted there would be time enough "the summer over" to catch up .....
       For now, it seemed, the exercise of communication was enough for her: it did not yet have to be quite the real thing.

       Annabelle kept us informed of what Penelope wrote. There were no teen-secrets hidden here, apparently -- unless I misjudge how she's matured, I don't believe Annabelle could have kept them to herself. Instead, she seemed almost annoyed by the banality of what few older-girl confidences Penelope offered.
       For all she wrote, Penelope didn't share much. She did not attend school, and she remained vague regarding tutors and almost all questions of learning. There were hardly any other people in her accounts (beyond Papa) either, and though the letters were entirely self-absorbed, remarkably little of her came across either.
       Annabelle hoped at least to learn more about Rystwycz and what we might expect, but the majority of her questions remained unanswered. Penelope could go on for paragraphs and pages about a favourite tree by a brook on the von Urnvalg property, and how a halo of butterflies had danced around her head once when she had sat in its shade when she was six, but offered almost nothing that might be called information. Penelope didn't make a single mention of any playing companions, or of goings-on in town, or even servant-gossip from home. Hers were letters of almost completely isolated innocence.
       Annabelle (and the rest of us) were slightly frustrated by the lack of substance to these letters, but Annabelle was flattered by the attention (even if -- as she very well knew -- she was just a figure of convenience: Penelope would have written just as eagerly to our potted palm). Penelope had nothing to say on almost anything, from politics to pop culture -- not even boy-band pop, which Annabelle, in some desperation, had feigned some interest in -- but they did finally find a common interest that excited Annabelle as much as it did Penelope: books. They didn't immediately find themselves on the same page, as Annabelle's mentions of current reading and favoured authors long elicited no reaction from Penelope. Allowing herself finally to be drawn out, Penelope admitted to an equal ardour -- except that it was focussed elsewhere. It became clear that Penelope was not familiar with any literature less than a hundred years old. Here was a rare personal question that Penelope did answer: it turned out she was forbidden (by her father) to read anything written after 1900. Curiously, she was allowed to read anything written before that cut-off date -- she likely only had access to generally decorous literature, but it was the date, not the books her father cared about.
       In our household authors and title-names flew fast and furious, thrown back and forth, books and notes and comments continuously exchanged. Penelope's environment was clearly of a different sort, and as in her writing, so in her reading too she lingered at great length over one title at a time. Annabelle's book-spouting must have intimidated her, because even here she was only reluctantly responsive. Finally, however, she mentioned: "I have recently been reading Middlemarch by the George Eliot." Annabelle pounced on that: she hadn't read it but quickly did (which, given all her distractions, still took the better part of a week) and finally found a basis for something closer to true conversation.

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