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Falling Sideways

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Falling Sideways

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Author: Tom Holt
Publisher: Orbit, 2002

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Comic Fantasy
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From the moment Homo Sapiens descended from the trees, possibly onto their heads, humanity has striven towards civilization. Fire. The Wheel. Running Away from furry things with more teeth than one might reasonably expect-all are testament to man's ultimate supremacy. It is a noble story and so, of course, complete and utter fiction. For one man has discovered the hideous truth: that humanity's ascent to civilization has been ruthlessly guided by a small gang of devious frogs. The man's name is David Perkins, and his theory is not, on the whole, widely admired, particularly not by the frogs themselves, who had invested a great deal of time and effort in keeping the whole thing quiet.


Her name was Philippa Levens, fifth marchioness of Ipswich; and as she smiled at him, here eyes were as clear and bright and brown as they'd been on the day she died, wearing her fire like a bridal veil, on the seventeenth of June 1602. She knew him better than anyone, he was convinced of that, and if only he could reach out and pull her through the glass -

He felt the rope brush against his knee, and pulled himself together. A few millimetres further and he'd have set off the alarm, again; and after the last time, he didn't want to do that. He took a long step back - it felt like a betrayal - and looked up at her again, but somehow the closeness between them had dissipated. She was disappointed in him.

(A middle-aged couple walked up behind him and stopped to look at the painting. He didn't want to resent them, but he did. English people seem to have difficulty telling the difference between art galleries and zoos; they don't often try to feed the pictures with bananas, but only because they know it wouldn't be allowed. English people are only comfortable in the presence of unruly, uncivilised things like animals or art if they know there's a sheet of toughened glass in the way, to stop the predators from getting out. The idea that they're the ones in the cage, or the frame, doesn't seem to have occurred to them yet.)

Ironically, it had been his mother ("David, isn't it about time you found yourself a nice girl ...?") who'd introduced them, twenty-one years ago, on his twelfth birthday. That was his mother's idea of a birthday treat; dragging round some dreary old art gallery, followed by tea and stale Black Forest gateau in the gallery café. They'd only stopped in front of Philippa because Mum wanted to get a bit of gravel out of her shoe.

"That's a nice one," he'd said.

"What?" Mum had looked up, a shoe in her hand. "Yes, dear. Willem de Stuivens, Dutch school. Quite derivative, of course."

He'd neither known nor cared what she'd meant by that. He'd been too busy staring at the perfect heart-shaped face of the young girl in the picture. It wasn't a very good painting; the enormous dress was flat and unconvincing, giving him the impression of one of those fairground stalls where you have your photograph taken sticking your head and hands through a big plywood cut-out of the Fat Lady. She - the girl - seemed to think so too, or at least her smile, or grin, or smirk, suggested that she knew perfectly well that her body had come out two-dimensional, and that the joke was on Willem de Whatsisname, not her.

And then she'd stuck her tongue out at him.

It had happened just as he was turning away, and he'd only caught a fleeting glimpse of it out of the corner of his eye. He'd frozen and burned with shame - he had, after all, only that day turned twelve and had just fallen in love for the first time - and he hadn't dared look back; and then Mum had put her shoe back on and said they'd better be getting a move on, they still had rooms fifteen to twenty-six to do before lunch, and they'd been parted, before he'd even had a chance to look at the label on the wall and find out her name.

So, here he was again, twenty-one birthdays later, and here she still was. She was exactly the same, of course; he wasn't. He was very self-conscious about that. It was his thirty-third birthday and already he had a bald spot on the top of his head and a little round tummy like a hobbit, and a quiet voice at the back oh his mind was pointing out (sounding ever so faintly like his mother) that it wasn't fair to expect her to wait for him for ever ... His birthday, traditionally the point in the year when he should be taking stock of his life, considering the path he'd come by and the road ahead; also, by a coincidence so huge it blotted out the sun, the day when a lock of hair, reputed to be that of the notorious seventeenth-century witch Pippa Levens, was due to go under the hammer at Larraby's, five hundred yards down the road from the gallery.

So: he took a step forward, as close to the rope and the invisible infra-red barrier as he dared to go, and looked her squarely in the eye.

"Shall I?" he asked.

She grinned at him. It's well known that some paintings have eyes that follow you round the room. Pippa Levens had a grin that followed him everywhere, like a butcher's dog, and it was never the same grin twice.

"Well?" he said, feeling just a little annoyed. The guard by the door turned her head and looked at him.

Of course, he should have known better than to expect a straight answer.

Copyright © 2002 by Tom Holt


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