“Well that's no fault of mine,” its companion replied, “you used the last of it to polish your boots.”
“How was I to know that was the last bottle? You should have bought more when you were in January.”
“Oh yes, and have to carry it all the way through March? I don't think.” The second voice concluded his argument with a sound that might have been meant as contemptuous, but sounded more like a hiccough.
It struck Ethel, as she listened, that she hadn't ever heard voices like these before- they were more like a collection of scratches and gurgles than words. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more it occurred to her that it didn't sound like English at all. They must be speaking in another language, she thought.
Of course, most sensible people would follow this thought up with; 'how, then, can I understand them?' Ethel was she wasn't greatly inclined to think about such things, however. When she had known her way to the postoffice on their holiday in Corfe, even though she had never been there before, or looked at a map of it, she had thought nothing of it. It wasn't an inconvenience, so, why bother troubling it? These sorts of things were quite helpful without her interference- it would surely seem rude if she started voicing complaints about it now.
What did occur to her, however, was that she was no longer cold. Opening her eyes (which took a surprising amount of effort), Ethel blinked the sparks and green out of her retinas to see a churning amber glow lying a few feet away from her. It was a fire. Not one of those rickety white plastic things with the set of glowing wires, which you mustn't touch even if the shade of red they turn is ever so appealing: but a real, smokey, spitting embers and ash fire. It was laid on something that looked like a piece of slate, except that it was green, and moved occasionally. The three of them- she, and her two voices- were arranged around the fire on a fine grey sand. At least, it appeared grey in the firelight; the pervading darkness around them declaring it to be nighttime in this wherever it was.
“Ah, so you're with us then.” Said the first voice.
She sat up.
“I think so... thank you.”
“You're very welcome, though I'm sure I don't know what for.”
The first voice, the one which consisted primarily of gurgling, sank back into the undulating folds of the speaker's neck, his bulbous eyes dipping down into his soft skinned head as he blinked. Ethel tried to find some polite way to explain she was thankful for no longer being in a cold and very wet river, but it was difficult to think. Perhaps that was the effect of holding a conversation with a bullfrog and a gryphon.
“So,” said the scratch-toned gryphon, who had been accused of not buying enough sherry in January; “what happened to you?”
“Happened?” Ethel frowned and pushed her lips forwards, trying to remember. She often did this when remembering the last thing she did- which was what she was always told to do when having to explain, later, why she was in such a peculiar place, or hadn't finished her homework, or had been found writing poetry on the side of a train in pastel chalk.
“Well... the last thing I remember was falling off my dent and into the ugly river.”
“Oh,” the gryphon scratched in a vaguely disinterested fashion. “Do you make a habit of doing things like that?”
“No, I've never done it before.”
“Ah.” The two fireside dwellers chorused in a sombre tone, as if this explained the whole business.
“And after that?” The gryphon persisted; he had a way of looking at Ethel that gave her the impression that he couldn't quite see her. Not that she supposed he had bad eyesight- it was hard to imagine an eagle with bad eyesight, less still one which was the front end of a mythological creature.
“I'm... I'm not sure. I was certainly in the river, I remember that quite clearly, but then I was listening to you two.”
“You're missing your inbetween.” The bullfrog summarized, easing himself off the sand with no small amount of difficulty- his bones, beneath their slathering of fat and ligament, seemed to bend too easily, and his gait was a severely unpractised one. Then again, Ethel reminded herself, he was a frog; even if he was dressed in that old fashioned, button-ed up way, he was surely more suited for water than for walking. His companion the gryphon remained lounging on the corner of a dog-eared suitcase, occasionally deigning to dip an amber spoon into what looked to be the debated trifle. He gave Ethel a sympathetic, apologetic sort of smile as his web-shod partner investigated her. Gurgle (for that was what Ethel had, in wont of a name, decided to label him as), roamed a finger around her general direction as he scrutinised her. He made no move to touch her; it were more as if he were looking to find an excerpt in an unfamiliar book with too many paragraphs.
“Mm... nnm...” He chuntered, viscerally. He didn't appear to have any teeth. “Not made here, I'd warrant... I suppose you'll be wanting to go back?”
At this the gryphon, otherwise labelled Scratch, seemed quite amused. “I should imagine that's up to you.”
“Ah, but she is missing her inbetween, you know.” Gurgle wagged a finger remindingly, completing his investigatory circuit around Ethel. “She may not be allowed back without it.”
“I wouldn't be allowed-?” Ethel began, who was for the first time feeling a little worried about the circumstances.
“Well, people will ask you for it, even if you don't much care about it.” Scratch elaborated, setting the bowl down whilst swapping which way his tail was twisted. “I don't imagine you've considered that aspect- you don't look like the type to.” He tilted his head backwards for a moment, then back to where it had been. “Can you really not remember any of the middle?”
Ethel thought very hard about the part that she couldn't remember, but it did very little. She shook her head.
“Hmm...” Gurgle put a hand to the top of his head, one eye sinking down into the morasses of his scalp. “Have you tried thinking about what might have happened? It isn't what did, but it's closer than where we are now.”
This seemed a decent proposal, so Ethel thought about it.
“Well... I suppose I might have died.”
“That would account for it.” Scratch nodded, acceptingly. Gurgle too appeared to find the notion quite plausible.
“If that is the case, there really isn't anything else to think about- you shall have to go there.”
“Where?” Blinked Ethel. The firelight was strong, but small, and had begun to draw patterns on the back of her eyes which were quite distracting. At the expression she found herself returning to look at, Gurgle appeared to find this question indescribably stupid. Scratch had begun making a series of odd disjointed sounds which Ethel supposed was laughter.
“Why, there, of course!”
“That says maybe, but she'll never be allowed in; not looking like that she won't!”
Ethel looked down at her clothes. She had been wearing her dull navy ensemble of school uniform- a generic collection of scratchy acrylic, white nylon and starchy pleats- but to look at it now was to see a tonal exercise in sepia. Her formerly clean white shirt was now an unbecoming shade of beige, her tights were freckled with a chalky brown residue, and her skirt was so stiffened out by mud that it appeared to be little more than a scab.
“It'll shatter,” said the gryphon with a smug superiority. “You mark my words; it'll shatter.”
“It will not!” Ethel furrowed her brow adamantly at the golden feathered face, which raised its long ears in surprise at her outburst.
“Well, you'll have to find something else to wear, whatever the case.”
Neither of them appeared inclined to help her in this pursuit.
“But how am I to get there?” Ethel pressed- she didn't much fancy asking where 'there' was again. It seemed as if the pair of them knew much more than she did about everything in this place, but she wasn't about to verify it for them. At least, not any more than she had already. The bullfrog shook his translucent hand at the horizon in the direction of her shadow, but didn't take his eyes off her face.
“Half the way that way and then back again twice.”
The gryphon took up his spoon and trifle again; “-but don't think about how. It'll take three times as long, and you need all the length you can spare in a place like this.”
Looking from one to the other it appeared that this was her cue to leave, and being so very used to taking silent hints to vacate the vicinity of others, all that remained of the conversation was a politely nodded thank you, and a small wave once she had taken six steps.
As she walked feeling the colourless sands beneath her stocking-bound toes, Ethel became aware of the absence of her shoes for the first time, but looking over her shoulder at the diminished pool of firelight she could see no sign of the guttural amphibian or his glittering friend; only the suitcase, sagging and creased at the corner he had been leaning on.
Five seconds were spent with her head tilted to the side, then she turned around, gave the direction of her shadow a studious glance, and continued on her way.