It was the work of a moment; a tiny revenge for a much graver crime. She had never stolen so much as a packet of sweets before. She did not, as a rule, lie, cheat or steal. But this was different.
She wiped a film of sweat from the back of her neck, lifting the damp strands of hair in an effort to cool herself. Her cotton sundress – madras, designed for an Indian climate – clung to her legs, and a blister had formed on her heel from the strap of her sandals. She’d experienced this kind of heat before, had almost forgotten how it sapped the spirits, how it became an act of will to carry on regardless.
She barely noticed the thin strips of grass that had bleached to the colour of bone alongside the pavement, the wilted flowerbeds and the leaves hanging limply from the trees. The summer had sweltered on for forty days without rain. Things were so dire that the government had appointed a Minister for Drought. It was unheard of. Unprecedented. Records had tumbled.
She walked alone, her mind occupied with other matters, on her way to Beaumont Street. In her handbag was the newspaper clipping that had enticed her into the city on such an insufferable August afternoon.
She’d parked her car – a new Rover that purred like a kitten and was a dream to drive – along the wide boulevard of St Giles’, a few minutes’ walk from the museum. The city was subdued, students and dons long departed, their staircases silent, pigeonholes empty of the swathe of flyers and notes that cluttered them during term time. Tourists punted on the Cherwell with varying degrees of skill, or stopped for a beer in perhaps the Eagle and Child, The Bear or, if they could find it, The Turf. It was too hot to do anything but cool off with liquid of one kind or another…