I thought I’d have another go at Sue’s latest #writephoto prompt
Herbert Petticoat was a man who had found his niche both literally and metaphorically. As the senior geological archivist (northern section) of the Geological Survey, his office was a decrepit portacabin that nestled in a crevasse situated on the eastern flank of a craggy outcrop near Stromness in Orkney. It wasn’t everyone’s idea of a plum posting and he often found himself covering the roles of director, Secretary, HR department and tea person. Indeed one intern had suggested that Herbert had more acting experience than most of Hollywood. Herbert was a fixture, as steadfast as most geological formations and as weathered.
Pretty Short was anything but. Her hippy parents were loving and thoughtless as only the congenitally potted can be. They smiled at the boundless energy of their gangly, lopsided daughter, nodded knowingly at her academic diligence and agreed with her every request. In nearly every way she differed from Herbert: she was super enthusiastic about every aspect of life, embracing people and experiences with equal unquenchable gusto; while he, when asked in one appraisal what he liked, took several minutes to come up with ‘toast’. But in one regard they were the same; they both associated themselves with rocks. For Pretty it was their stability and permanence that contrasted with her flaky upbringing; for Herbert it was their lack of emotion and enviable immobility.
Pairing Pretty, as part of her basic training, with Herbert might have been the equivalent of putting Genghis Khan in charge of a mindfulness retreat but to both their surprises they seemed to strike it off. Pretty’s willingness to cover every field trip and adventure and each liaison with the public allowed Herbert to inhabit his happy place: his office with the minimum of human contact.
That was until October 21st. The world outside of Orkney, or at least outside of Herbert’s small enclave on Orkney was in a froth of excitement about the passing of a previously undiscovered comet. Even Pretty talked about little else. When the astronomers decided the best place to view the comet would be from Hoy just off the coast, Pretty happily organised an overnight trip. Herbert decided to stay in and catalogue some Russian quartz that he’d been asked to consider. Quartz and cocoa: what could be better?
The phone rang at just before midnight. Herbert blinked as he looked up from his microscope. He’d been engrossed in a helixated fissure for the last hour and hadn’t noticed the time. Suspiciously, for in Herbert’s experience phone calls after 9.30pm were usually harbingers of the unwanted, he answered, ‘Hello?’
‘That you, Herbert?’
Only one person in his circle of contacts – friends might be stretching into the realms of redundant intimacy – spoke with the breathy excitement of a consumptive groupie. ‘Yes, Pretty.’
‘We have a situation,’ she giggled.
Herbert felt the first flutterings of annoyance, a sensation he’d not experienced in seventeen months since Geraldine Twotrollops had stolen his parking space at Tescos. ‘Do you know the time?’
‘No, but listen. I was just finishing up with my group and I suggested we take a detour by the Old Man – I could show them how magnificent his stack is by my spotlight.’
Herbert waited. He had heard all the sniggering double entendres surrounding the endless wonder that was the rock sea-stack that made up the world famous Old Man of Hoy and had expected better of Pretty. Maybe she had imbibed?
Pretty, however, made no attempt at humour. ‘Only it’s not the Old Man, but Old Men…’
Herbert frowned. The woman must have had more that a tincture. ‘Men?’
‘I’m looking at them now and there are four, with a fifth growing as I speak.’
Herbert felt a cold shudder. Growing? Only volcanic activity precipitated visible growth of geological formations. He thought of Surtsey and the excitement that caused in his community. It was not the sort of commotion he wanted.
Before he could begin to articulate a question, Pretty continued, ‘and they have faces.’
Herbert’s brain tried to keep up. Rock faces weren’t unusual, so why did Pretty make it sound like it was a matter of awe? She immediately answered his unspoken question. ‘Their noses are huge!’
‘The lips, too. But the eye sockets are empty. Makes them look really freaky.’
Herbert knew, as Pretty gave further details that he would have to file a report. Several, possibly. And makes calls. And – and this is what made him especially uneasy – he would have to answer questions.
Pretty’s voice rose with the sort of frothing expectation Herbert abhorred. ‘I think they’re something to do with the comet. Aliens or gods or something.’
Herbert tried to imagine this sea-based Mount Rushmore and what the inevitable journalists would make of it. He couldn’t begin to visualise the extraordinary scene still being painted by Pretty.
Carefully, he laid the phone on the table and turned back to his microscope. Tomorrow. The world could contemplate the complete discombobulation of all its understood certainties tomorrow. For now he had a fissure to probe.