It was a rainy day which broke in on a summer heatwave, and Martha chose 1601 as her locker code. She very nearly went for 1597, which would have changed everything. But 1601 was more memorable, and picking the more niche poor law legislation date when locking her things away was (she told herself) an act of pretension that was beyond even her. Though it was better to think about early modern laws than — But she wasn’t going to think about that at all. It was going to be a bad day later on, but there was nothing she could do about that now. She had already rehearsed everything she was going to say; she’d gone over it so many times last night that she’d barely slept at all, and dreamt, when she did, in snippets of broken conversation. She couldn’t do that again now. She would sit down in one of her preferred spots in the reading room (at the end of a row, so that she could only be bordered by one person at any time) and think only about Tudor social policy. She couldn’t afford to waste her day with worrying.
But she really hadn’t slept for very long. She couldn’t face going for coffee with anyone — what if they asked her about Ellen? should she lie to them? — and so she bought one herself and drank it in the doorway of a newsagent’s. It was a bad day already. If she’d chosen 1597 it might have been better: there was something to be said, perhaps, for historical dates as horoscopes. After a while she gave in and started going over what she was going to say again, how she could phrase it to be both very definite and as kind as possible. She was worried that she wouldn’t quite manage to say anything — that it would become an argument, neither definite nor kind, and that things would just stay as they were.
Back in the library, another girl was hurrying down to the lockers. Natalie had bought an unusually cheap advance ticket to stay with her parents in Cambridge for the weekend, but she had been so engrossed in a book about Shakespearean London that she was close to missing the train. She had used the year in which Shakespeare’s father died as her locker code today, which was, she reasoned, less guessable than the birthdates which she imagined most people chose. Though the reading rooms did attract a range of ages. She always wondered which of them were retired professors: did the elderly man who made people around him shift uneasily by swearing at his computer have an academic past? Part of her hoped that he did, and in as dry a subject as possible. A different part of her gave him stern looks, though only from a distance which made sure that he wouldn’t notice them.
Because she’d rushed out of the reading room, she now realised, she had left behind the piece of paper with her locker number on. All she remembered was that it had been somewhere near the end. She tried some of the lockers there, but none of them would open — a ridiculous reason to miss a train, and have to get a new ticket, and ruin her parents’ belief that she was now meticulously organised. And then one opened, and she stuffed her laptop into the bag inside and hurried out of the building. It was only after she had sprinted onto the train (though maybe, she thought later, she had noticed at once and her brain had suppressed it for inconvenience) that she looked down at the rucksack properly and realised that it wasn’t hers. She had stolen someone’s bag, and now she was moving at speed away from them. This was not meticulously organised. This was a mess. It occurred to her that, as she couldn’t return it to the library — it would be closed for the weekend by the time she could get back — she would have to look for identifying information. But it felt so intrusive, searching through someone else’s bag, even when she had already shoved her laptop into it and taken it on a train with her.
The journey wasn’t long enough for her agonising, in the end, and it wasn’t until she had gone up to her room in her parents’ house that she emptied out the bag’s contents on her desk. There was a tupperware box, a notebook, two sanitary towels (she felt especially bad for depriving the stranger of those), a novel, and a planner. The planner, it turned out, listed Martha Alleyne’s phone number and address on its very first page. But she was curious now, though it was even more morally dubious when she knew the girl’s name and would probably have to meet up with her, and she flicked through to that week. Martha had noted down a meeting with her supervisor, two social engagements, a therapy session, and — Natalie drew in breath slightly — for today’s entry, in tiny but insistent capitals, MAKE SURE TO BREAK UP WITH ELLEN. What kind of person, she thought, puts a breakup reminder in their planner? And what had Ellen done to deserve it being in all-capitals? She paused for a moment, reminding herself that this was still wrong, and then looked back at the week before. Ellen was mentioned once, on the Thursday, when Martha had talked to her on Skype. So it was long-distance, or maybe Ellen had been away — and cheated on her while she was on holiday, and Martha had been told by the mutual friend who had gone with her — But she shouldn’t make up stories about a real person who she had to get in contact with. She would call her now, before dinner, and sort things out.
Martha was at home when she got the call. It had taken her a long time to accept that her locker was really empty, even though she definitely knew which one it was. It was only when she tried the locker next to it and that opened, revealing a black backpack which wasn’t quite hers, that she accepted what must have happened. It felt like the culmination of everything that she had been feeling that day, and she cried a little, ridiculously, as she stood in the doorway of the lost property office. She had her purse, her phone, her keys, her laptop. She could easily have gone to meet Ellen anyway. But it felt so impossible — hadn’t she been through enough that day, she thought to herself, only half-ironically — that she ended up texting to say that she had lost her bag and needed to look for it. It was a lie, but it wasn’t the kind of lie that mattered; it was the kind people told to each other all the time. Except that they, maybe, told it to colleagues and acquaintances and not to the person who they were meant to love.
And then, just after she had sat down on her sofa and directed an exasperated sigh at herself, Natalie called. She introduced herself awkwardly, sounding, Martha thought, more embarrassed than she needed to. But a minute later Martha asked why she had chosen 1601, and two minutes after that she learnt that John Shakespeare had once served as an aletaster, and by the time they arranged to meet on Sunday afternoon she knew all about Natalie’s own history of playwriting. It was a lot easier, she thought afterwards, than the conversation she had planned to have.