"Inner ear...balance...inner ear...balance..."
The monotonous murmur resounded through the chilled air of the huge house.
The dull words echoed eerily off the flat walls and high ceilings.
Footsteps provided a beat to the rhythm of the mumbling as it passed through the rooms of the great mansion. As the footsteps waved goodbye to the muffling carpet they resounded sharply on the floorboards in the darkness. The words, on the contrary, dulled, absorbed by a dingy beige wallpaper rather than reflected by the waterproof white paint.
A figure emerged from a passageway, then faded in the darkening light. Unseeing sky-blue eyes froze the blackness, intent on their quest. Then the mumbling rolled on, disturbing the darkness once again and letting it swirl around the solid shape of the figure.
The sound of the murmurs rose and fell as they moved through doorways. Every time the figure stepped over a threshold its head seemed to collapse on itself, then right itself as it continued on its way. A spectator may have laughed in his ignorance, yet the omniscient narrator knows that the figure is paranoid of doorways.
In the deepest regions of the labyrinth some called a haunted mansion, and others called a home of kin, the muttering and the footsteps faltered. A squeaking sound sliced through the air down five flights of stairs, and a heavy door opened.
The figure slipped inside, not omitting the customary ducking motion, and turned towards the wall, fumbling with a cloak. It slipped from slim shoulders and a young girl emerged. She swung round, and jumped backwards abruptly, the door rattling behind her back.
"Uncle!" she cried. "You frightened me!"
Behind a tall dark desk somewhere in the coldest region of the room sat a man.
The girl approached the fire, stoked it up with a black poker and rubbed her hands together. Her auburn hair blazed in the firelight, a radiant mane of life and animation. Then she turned to the desk.
The man, adjusting his glasses and pushing himself up on gnarled knuckles to his feet, approached the girl, draping a large arm around her slight shoulders.
"Rita," he said warmly, his thick beard scratching her cheek a little. "What do you want to know this time?"
Rita, who had been wriggling with the tickle of the beard, snuggled into its comfort. As soon as he finished her blue eyes took on a wild look and she jumped up, accidentally throwing her uncle aside in the process and knowing him off balance.
"I forgot!" she cried, biting her lip, and her breaking voice tore a rent in the air. "I...I..."
She caught sight of her uncle, tottering as he struggled to regain his poise on unstable legs.
"That's it!" she snapped. "What does the inner ear have to do with the equilibrium of the body?"
"Why, Rita," said the man in his rather gruff voice as he clutched at the frayed armchair. "I told you this three months ago."
Rita slumped back on the floor, despair deep in her eyes. "I know you did. I remember. I just..."
"Forgot?" suggested her uncle.
"No," she rejoined, getting up once again and moving over towards the tall bookshelves. Idly, she ran her long slender fingers lightly over the spines of the books. "I don't forget things."
"Perhaps you were preoccupied," hinted her uncle.
The girl scowled. An image of her mother in the slums of some remote third world country flashed before her, and she heard clearly the thunder of the 'dormant' volcano for whose sake her father had departed a few weeks previously. Her parents couldn't be called the 'settling' type. Rita wondered how they had ever decided t0 start a family, a family of one child though it was.
"How was school?" her uncle asked.
Rita tried to ignore him. He was trying to change the subject, trying to make her forget.
"I do my homework in lessons," sighed Rita. "And I didn't go to school today."
"And why not, young lady?"
She rolled her eyes. "Didn't feel like it. Good lessons today."
"Then why didn't you go to school?" Her uncle Diggory's voice was gentle and inquisitive.
"Interesting lessons are too painful to listen to," said Rita. "Miss Moxon can't spell to save her life, which probably isn't worth much in any case. Don't know why she was ever employed. She wrote 'complimentary peanuts' on the board for an example of some such, and when I told her it was wrong she refused to change it. I just can't stand her. And Dr Chancer doesn't know a thing about physics. Although he's supposed to be visiting from the varsity!"
"Difficult life," commented her uncle with a humming noise as he sucked thoughtfully on his pipe. "But it's the law that you must go to school, my dear. You really must go."
"I've been concentrating on the drama production," Rita said, changing the subject with a masterly air. "I keep having to make changes to the script. Thankfully Skip Peterson is a good director and sees that there are corrections to be made."
"You seem to be getting too big for your boots," remarked her uncle mildly.
"Dictum," dismissed Rita, moving towards the door with an independant air.
"Pride goes before a fall," warned her uncle from behind the back of his chair.
"Dictum," said Rita again, exiting the room with a terseness playing on the rude.
But the door was closed with a humble click.