"The purpose of having the sun go low in the evenings, in the summer, especially in parks," said the voice earnestly, "is to make girl's breasts bob up and down more clearly to the eye. I am convinced that this is the case."
Arthur and Fenchurch giggled about this to each other as they passed. She hugged him more tightly for a moment.
"And I am certain," said the frizzy ginger-haired youth with the long thin nose who was epostulating from his deckchair by the side of the Serpentine, "that if one worked the argument through, one would find that it flowed with perfect naturalness and logic from everything," he insisted to his thin dark-haired companion who was slumped in the next door deckchair feeling dejected about his spots, "that Darwin was going on about. This is certain. This is indisputable. And," he added, "I love it."
He turned sharply and squinted through his spectacles at Fenchurch. Arthur steered her away and could feel her silently quaking.
"Next guess," she said, when she had stopped giggling, "come on."
"All right," he said, "your elbow. Your left elbow. There's something wrong with your left elbow."
"Wrong again," she said, "completely wrong. You're on completely the wrong track."
The summer sun was sinking through the tress in the park, looking as if - Let's not mince words. Hyde Park is stunning. Everything about it is stunning except for the rubbish on Monday mornings. Even the ducks are stunning. Anyone who can go through Hyde Park on a summer's evening and not feel moved by it is probably going through in an ambulance with the sheet pulled over their face.
It is a park in which people do more extraordinary things than they do elsewhere. Arthur and Fenchurch found a man in shorts practising the bagpipes to himself under a tree. The piper paused to chase off an American couple who had tried, timidly to put some coins on the box his bagpipes came in.
"No!" he shouted at them, "go away! I'm only practising."
He started resolutely to reinflate his bag, but even the noise this made could not disfigure their mood.
Arthur put his arms around her and moved them slowly downwards.
"I don't think it can be your bottom," he said after a while," there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with that at all."
"Yes," she agreed, "there's absolutely nothing wrong with my bottom."
They kissed for so long that eventually the piper went and practised on the other side of the tree.
"I'll tell you a story," said Arthur.
They found a patch of grass which was relatively free of couples actually lying on top of each other and sat and watched the stunning ducks and the low sunlight rippling on the water which ran beneath the stunning ducks.
"A story," said Fenchurch, cuddling his arm to her.
"Which will tell you something of the sort of things that happen to me. It's absolutely true."
"You know sometimes people tell you stories that are supposed to be something that happened to their wife's cousin's best friend, but actually probably got made up somewhere along the line."
"Well, it's like one of those stories, except that it actually happened, and I know it actually happened, because the person it actually happened to was me."
"Like the raffle ticket."
Arthur laughed. "Yes. I had a train to catch," he went on. "I arrived at the station ..."
"Did I ever tell you," interrupted Fenchurch, "what happened to my parents in a station?"
"Yes," said Arthur, "you did."
Arthur glanced at his watch. "I suppose we could think of getting back," he said.
"Tell me the story," said Fenchurch firmly. "You arrived at the station."
"I was about twenty minutes early. I'd got the time of the train wrong. I suppose it is at least equally possible," he added after a moment's reflection, "that British Rail had got the time of the train wrong. Hadn't occurred to me before."
"Get on with it." Fenchurch laughed.
"So I bought a newspaper, to do the crossword, and went to the buffet to get a cup of coffee."
"You do the crossword?"
"The Guardian usually."
"I think it tries to be too cute. I prefer the Times. Did you solve it?"
"The crossword in the Guardian."
"I haven't had a chance to look at it yet," said Arthur, "I'm still trying to buy the coffee."
"All right then. Buy the coffee."
"I'm buying it. I am also," said Arthur, "buying some biscuits."
"I like them. Laden with all these new possessions, I go and sit at a table. And don't ask me what the table was like because this was some time ago and I can't remember. It was probably round."
"So let me give you the layout. Me sitting at the table. On my left, the newspaper. On my right, the cup of coffee. In the middle of the table, the packet of biscuits."
"I see it perfectly."
"What you don't see," said Arthur, "because I haven't mentioned him yet, is the guy sitting at the table already. He is sitting there opposite me."
"What's he like?"
"Perfectly ordinary. Briefcase. Business suit. He didn't look," said Arthur, "as if he was about to do anything weird."
"Ah. I know the type. What did he do?"
"He did this. He leaned across the table, picked up the packet of biscuits, tore it open, took one out, and ..."
"He ate it."
Fenchurch looked at him in astonishment. "What on Earth did you do?"
"Well, in the circumstances I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do. I was compelled," said Arthur, "to ignore it."
"Well, it's not the sort of thing you're trained for is it? I searched my soul, and discovered that there was nothing anywhere in my upbringing, experience or even primal instincts to tell me how to react to someone who has quite simply, calmly, sitting right there in front of me, stolen one of my biscuits."
"Well, you could ..." Fenchurch thought about it. "I must say I'm not sure what I would have done either. So what happened?"
"I stared furiously at the crossword," said Arthur. "Couldn't do a single clue, took a sip of coffee, it was too hot to drink, so there was nothing for it. I braced myself. I took a biscuit, trying very hard not to notice," he added, "that the packet was already mysteriously open ..."
"But you're fighting back, taking a tough line."
"After my fashion, yes. I ate the biscuit. I ate it very deliberately and visibly, so that he would have no doubt as to what it was I was doing. When I eat a biscuit," Arthur said, "it stays eaten."
"So what did he do?"
"Took another one. Honestly," insisted Arthur, "this is exactly what happened. He took another biscuit, he ate it. Clear as daylight. Certain as we are sitting on the ground."
Fenchurch stirred uncomfortably.
"And the problem was," said Arthur, "that having not said anything the first time, it was somehow even more difficult to broach the subject the second time around. What do you say? `Excuse me ... I couldn't help noticing, er ...' Doesn't work. No, I ignored it with, if anything, even more vigour than previously."
"My man ..."
"Stared at the crossword, again, still couldn't budge a bit of it, so showing some of the spirit that Henry V did on St Crispin's Day ..."
"I went into the breach again. I took," said Arthur, "another biscuit. And for an instant our eyes met."
"Yes, well, no, not quite like that. But they met. Just for an instant. And we both looked away. But I am here to tell you," said Arthur, "that there was a little electricity in the air. There was a little tension building up over the table. At about this time."
"I can imagine."
"We went through the whole packet like this. Him, me, him, me ..."
"The whole packet?"
"Well it was only eight biscuits but it seemed like a lifetime of biscuits we were getting through at this point. Gladiators could hardly have had a tougher time."
"Gladiators," said Fenchurch, "would have had to do it in the sun. More physically gruelling."
"There is that. So. When the empty packet was lying dead between us the man at last got up, having done his worst, and left. I heaved a sigh of relief, of course. As it happened, my train was announced a moment or two later, so I finished my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper ..."
"Were my biscuits."
"What?" said Fenchurch. "What?"
"No!" She gasped and tossed herself back on the grass laughing.
She sat up again.
"You completely nitwit," she hooted, "you almost completely and utterly foolish person."
She pushed him backwards, rolled over him, kissed him and rolled off again. He was surprised at how light she was.
"Now you tell me a story."
"I thought," she said putting on a low husky voice, "that you were very keen to get back."
"No hurry," he said airily, "I want you to tell me a story."
She looked out over the kale and pondered.
"All right," she said, "it's only a short one. And not funny like yours, but ... Anyway."
She looked down. Arthur could feel that it was one of those sorts of moments. The air seemed to stand still around them, waiting. Arthur wished that the air would go away and mind its own business.
"When I was a kid," she said. "These sort of stories always start like this, don't they, `When I was a kid ...' Anyway. This is the bit where the girl suddenly says, `When I was a kid' and starts to unburden herself. We have got to that bit. When I was a kid I had this picture hanging over the foot of my bed ... What do you think of it so far?"
"I like it. I think it's moving well. You're getting the bedroom interest in nice and early. We could probably do with some development with the picture."
"It was one of those pictures that children are supposed to like," she said, "but don't. Full of endearing little animals doing endearing things, you know?"
"I know. I was plagued with them too. Rabbits in waistcoats."
"Exactly. These rabbits were in fact on a raft, as were assorted rats and owls. There may even have been a reindeer."
"On the raft."
"On the raft. And a boy was sitting on the raft."
"Among the rabbits in waistcoats and the owls and the reindeer."
"Precisely there. A boy of the cheery gypsy ragamuffin variety."
"The picture worried me, I must say. There was an otter swimming in front of the raft, and I used to lie awake at night worrying about this otter having to pull the raft, with all these wretched animals on it who shouldn't even be on a raft, and the otter had such a thin tail to pull it with I thought it must hurt pulling it all the time. Worried me. Not badly, but just vaguely, all the time.
"Then one day - and remember I'd been looking at this picture every night for years - I suddenly noticed that the raft had a sail. Never seen it before. The otter was fine, he was just swimming along."
"Good story?" she said.
"Ends weakly," said Arthur, "leaves the audience crying `Yes, but what of it?' Fine up till there, but needs a final sting before the credits."
Fenchurch laughed and hugged her legs.
"It was just such a sudden revelation, years of almost unnoticed worry just dropping away, like taking off heavy weights, like black and white becoming colour, like a dry stick suddenly being watered. The sudden shift of perspective that says `Put away your worries, the world is a good and perfect place. It is in fact very easy.' You probably thing I'm saying that because I'm going to say that I felt like that this afternoon or something, don't you?"
"Well, I ..." said Arthur, his composure suddenly shattered.
"Well, it's all right," she said, "I did. That's exactly what I felt. But you see, I've felt that before, even stronger. Incredibly strongly. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a one," she said gazing off into the distance, "for sudden startling revelations."
Arthur was at sea, could hardly speak, and felt it wiser, therefore, for the moment not to try.
"It was very odd," she said, much as one of the pursuing Egyptians might have said that the behaviour of the Red Sea when Moses waved his rod at it was a little on the strange side.
"Very odd," she repeated, "for days before, the strangest feeling had been building in me, as if I was going to give birth. No, it wasn't like that in fact, it was more as if I was being connected into something, bit by bit. No, not even that; it was as if the whole of the Earth, through me, was going to ..."
"Does the number," said Arthur gently, "forty-two mean anything to you at all?"
"What? No, what are you talking about?" exclaimed Fenchurch.
"Just a thought," murmured Arthur.
"Arthur, I mean this, this is very real to me, this is serious."
"I was being perfectly serious," said Arthur. "It's just the Universe I'm never quite sure about."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Tell me the rest of it," he said. "Don't worry if it sounds odd. Believe me, you are talking to someone who has seen a lot of stuff," he added, "that is odd. And I don't mean biscuits."
She nodded, and seemed to believe him. Suddenly, she gripped his arm.
"It was so simple," she said, "so wonderfully and extraordinarily simple, when it came."
"What was it?" said Arthur quietly.
"Arthur, you see," she said, "that's what I no longer know. And the loss is unbearable. If I try to think back to it, it all goes flickery and jumpy, and if I try too hard, I get as far as the teacup and I just black out."
"Well, like your story," she said, "the best bit happened in a cafe. I was sitting there, having a cup of tea. This was after days of this build up, the feeling of becoming connected up. I think I was buzzing gently. And there was some work going on at a building site opposite the cafe, and I was watching it through the window, over the rim of my teacup, which I always find is the nicest way of watching other people working. And suddenly, there it was in my mind, this message from somewhere. And it was so simple. It made such sense of everything. I just sat up and thought, `Oh! Oh, well that's all right then.' I was so startled I almost dropped my teacup, in fact I think I did drop it. Yes," she added thoughtfully, "I'm sure I did. How much sense am I making?"
"It was fine up to the bit about the teacup."
She shook her head, and shook it again, as if trying to clear it, which is what she was trying to do.
"Well that's it," she said. "Fine up to the bit about the teacup. That was the point at which it seemed to me quite literally as if the world exploded."
"I know it sounds crazy, and everybody says it was hallucinations, but if that was hallucinations then I have hallucinations in big screen 3D with 16-track Dolby Stereo and should probably hire myself out to people who are bored with shark movies. It was as if the ground was literally ripped from under my feet, and ... and ..."
She patted the grass lightly, as if for reassurance, and then seemed to change her mind about what she was going to say.
"And I woke up in hospital. I suppose I've been in and out ever since. And that's why I have an instinctive nervousness," she said, "of sudden startling revelations that's everything's going to be all right." She looked up at him.
Arthur had simply ceased to worry himself about the strange anomalies surrounding his return to his home world, or rather had consigned them to that part of his mind marked "Things to think about - Urgent." "Here is the world," he had told himself. "Here, for whatever reason, is the world, and here it stays. With me on it." But now it seemed to go swimmy around him, as it had that night in the car when Fenchurch's brother had told him the silly stories about the CIA agent in the reservoir. The trees went swimmy. The lake went swimmy, but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be alarmed by because a grey goose had just landed on it. The geese were having a great relaxed time and had no major answers they wished to know the questions to.
"Anyway," said Fenchurch, suddenly and brightly and with a wide- eyed smile, "there is something wrong with part of me, and you've got to find out what it is. We'll go home."
Arthur shook his head.
"What's the matter?" she said.
Arthur had shaken his head, not to disagree with her suggestion which he thought was a truly excellent one, one of the world's great suggestions, but because he was just for a moment trying to free himself of the recurring impression he had that just when he was least expecting it the Universe would suddenly leap out from behind a door and go boo at him.
"I'm just trying to get this entirely clear in my mind," said Arthur, "you say you felt as if the Earth actually ... exploded ..."
"Yes. More than felt."
"Which is what everybody else says," he said hesitantly, "is hallucinations?"
"Yes, but Arthur that's ridiculous. People think that if you just say `hallucinations' it explains anything you want it to explain and eventually whatever it is you can't understand will just go away. It's just a word, it doesn't explain anything. It doesn't explain why the dolphins disappeared."
"No," said Arthur. "No," he added thoughtfully. "No," he added again, even more thoughtfully. "What?" he said at last.
"Doesn't explain the dolphins disappearing."
"No," said Arthur, "I see that. Which dolphins do you mean?"
"What do you mean which dolphins? I'm talking about when all the dolphins disappeared."
She put her hand on his knee, which made him realize that the tingling going up and down his spine was not her gently stroking his back, and must instead be one of the nasty creepy feelings he so often got when people were trying to explain things to him.
"All the dolphins," said Arthur, "disappeared?"
"The dolphins? You're saying the dolphins all disappeared? Is this," said Arthur, trying to be absolutely clear on this point, "what you're saying?"
"Arthur where have you been for heaven's sake? The dolphins all disappeared on the same day I ..."
She stared him intently in his startled eyes.
"No dolphins. All gone. Vanished."
She searched his face.
"Did you really not know that?"
It was clear from his startled expression that he did not.
"Where did they go?" he asked.
"No one knows. That's what vanished means." She paused. "Well, there is one man who says he knows about it, but everyone says he lives in California," she said, "and is mad. I was thinking of going to see him because it seems the only lead I've got on what happened to me."
She shrugged, and then looked at him long and quietly. She lay her hand on the side of his face.
"I really would like to know where you've been," she said. "I think something terrible happened to you then as well. And that's why we recognized each other."
She glanced around the park, which was now being gathered into the clutches of dusk.
"Well," she said, "now you've got someone you can tell."
Arthur slowly let out a long year of a sigh.
"It is," he said, "a very long story."
Fenchurch leaned across him and drew over her canvas bag.
"Is it anything to do with this?" she said. The thing she took out of her bag was battered and travelworn as it had been hurled into prehistoric rivers, baked under the sun that shines so redly on the deserts of Kakrafoon, half-buried in the marbled sands that fringe the heady vapoured oceans of Santraginus V, frozen on the glaciers of the moon of Jaglan Beta, sat on, kicked around spaceships, scuffed and generally abused, and since its makers had thought that these were exactly the sorts of things that might happen to it, they had thoughtfully encased it in a sturdy plastic cover and written on it, in large friendly letters, the words "Don't Panic".
"Where did you get this?" said Arthur, startled, taking it from her.
"Ah," she said, "I thought it was yours. In Russell's car that night. You dropped it. Have you been to many of these places?"
Arthur drew the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy from its cover. It was like a small, thin, flexible lap computer. He tapped some buttons till the screen flared with text.
"A few," he said.
"Can we go to them?"
"What? No," said Arthur abruptly, then relented, but relented warily. "Do you want to?" he said, hoping for the answer no. It was an act of great generosity on his part not to say, "You don't want to, do you?" which expects it.
"Yes," she said. "I want to know what the message was that I lost, and where it came from. Because I don't think," she added, standing up and looking round the increasing gloom of the park, "that it came from here."
"I'm not even sure," she further added, slipping her arm around Arthur's waist, "that I know where here is."