An Improving Outlook.
For the third time in a week – no, correct that – the third time in six days, the forecast had been substantially inaccurate. The prediction had been for a freshening, north-easterly breeze, bringing a “much welcome dry interlude”; that was the phrase that had registered. Miss Priestley surveyed the sodden land that surrounded her chocolate-box cottage. If she strayed from the pretty winding path, into her “idyllic” garden she would be lucky to emerge with her boots. She watched a parade of fat brown slugs, relishing the conditions; each individual one of the seven she could currently see, mocking her as they munched.
Miss Priestley had been retired since April. Five months, three weeks and two days. One hundred and seventy-six days, on nineteen of which the forecast had been largely incorrect. According to her notebook, those inaccurate forecasts were the output of five different meteorologists, with one man being responsible for eleven incidents – two of which were in the last six days. After a light lunch of soup and crisp-breads, Miss Priestley settled herself at her desk in front of the sitting room window, with its “panoramic view of rolling pastureland” and switched on her computer.
The meteorologist with the poorest record was a man of thirty-seven years, an Oxbridge graduate, interested in football, coarse fishing and good food. Miss Priestley could have found out much more, but the key piece of information came to light very early in her searches – Mr Nicholas Adderley lived in Peterborough. It was the work of a satisfying couple of hours to discover and to graph the relevant data. The picture was clear; on the eleven occasions that the forecast for her particular part of Yorkshire was wrong, the forecast for Cambridgeshire had been close to perfect on nine of them. The remaining two predictions were for heavy rainfall, which had, instead, turned out to be only moderate.
It was good to be working again. Not as many hours as she had put in before her retirement of course; an hour before her breakfast, then another couple of hours after she had finished with the Telegraph. If the afternoon was dry, she would take a walk after lunch; a brisk two miles to the top of Handley Wood and then back to a pot of strong tea, followed by another two hours at her desk before supper. She had always been a creature of habit; routines were critical to her, and although she had told herself many times throughout her life that she could introduce a little variety in her approach, she was truly happiest bound by her own strictly imposed order.
On her afternoon walks she would reflect on this aspect of her nature, and wonder why she had bought the cottage. What was it in the agent’s blurb that had seduced her? Why had she not baulked at the bulging walls and the clearly sloping roofline? She could, she thought, get the path to the door re-laid straight from the gate, eliminating the pointless curves, but then the gate itself would have to be moved; otherwise the angle at which the path met the porch would be out by as much as five degrees. She would speak to Ronald, who would, no doubt, know the best way to approach the problem.
It was Ronald who had suggested Yorkshire. He had sent a cheery e-mail to her before Christmas, dressing up the truth about the loneliness of his retirement in the knowledge that she was fast approaching her own. Ronald had an elderly father, frail and suffering with Parkinson’s disease and Ronald had moved to his childhood home out of a sense of duty, and also because he simply did not know what else to do. Whatever it was he had expected in returning home, the reality had fallen very short. His father, who had coped well enough whilst Ronald was in London, suddenly, now he was in the same house became clinging and needy. Ronald felt isolated, his old friends long gone, his ex-colleagues still in the city. He had been pleasantly surprised when Miss Priestley replied that she was coming up the Dales to view some possible properties; she said that “his e-mail had rekindled some happy memories of her youth, and, well, why ever not?”
They had taken to dining together on Friday evenings. One week at a small hotel near to Miss Priestley’s cottage and the following week closer to Ronald’s home where they were working their way through a list of recommended inns. For both of them, it was their sole evening out in the week, and although they made the pretence of remaining very casual about the meetings, for each of them it was an increasingly important and eagerly anticipated event. It would not be fair to say that this was a fledgling romance – neither of them were looking for that, it was simply a meeting of like minds. During the decades they had worked together, they had always had a cordial relationship, and it would be a pity to lose that as a result of retirement. Dining together was a new development, and a pleasant one at that, although Ronald was still trying to guess whether Miss Priestley would be offended if he took the liberty of using her Christian name.
On an early October Friday, Miss Priestley, quite unlike herself, arrived ten minutes late, just at the point where Ronald was starting to become to get seriously concerned. She looked flushed and excited, her hair not quite restrained by the tortoiseshell combs she always wore. Her dress on Fridays was usually impeccable, but on this particular evening her blouse looked creased and was barely tucked into her skirt. Placing a small stack of notebooks on the table she sat opposite Ronald and unable to contain herself any longer, before any “Hello” or “Good evening”, burst out, ‘Ronald, you simply must see my numbers. It’s so exciting.’
‘My dear Miss Priestley, do sit down for a moment and catch your breath. Let me get you a drink. Then you can tell me all about your interesting news.’
When he returned from the bar with a gin and tonic for them both, Miss Priestley had smoothed her hair, and secured the blouse back into her skirt. She looked less like an Elizabeth now, much more a Miss Priestley. He passed her the drink which she placed un-tasted on the table, and sat down by her side. The notebooks were now open, displaying columns of figures, lists of dates, observations, percentages and names.
It didn’t take Ronald long to hone in on the facts in front of him. True, the sample size was small, but he knew the results would still be significant. He had forty years’ experience of working with data like this in the Statistics Service and a year’s retirement hadn’t dulled his senses. Pushing the notebooks away from him, he leant back on the Chesterfield, picked up his glass and raised it in salute to the remarkable woman at his side.
‘Well old girl, I’ve got to hand it to you, this is very interesting indeed.’
‘Thank you, Ronald. Actually I’ve enjoyed doing it and I don’t mind saying it has quite perked me up. It’s been fun to get back to what I know.’
They were sitting by the huge stone fireplace, before going through to the dining room. The menus that Ronald had collected as he arrived were still closed – dinner could wait, this was far more exciting. In the firelight Miss Priestley looked younger, softer somehow. She was a tall woman – long angles and jutting bones, and he remembered her as the gawky new graduate who had joined his department, how she had jarred on everyone’s nerves with her rigid attitudes and her insistence on precision. But it was these qualities that Ronald admired. Even so, it took him a number of years to begin to feel relaxed around her. Miss Priestley was flicking through her pages of data.
‘This is particularly striking; let me find it for you.’
‘Miss Priestley,’ Ronald began, ‘do you have any idea, of the power of this information?’
‘The effect it would have if we were to go public.’
But Ronald missed the inflexion on the “We?” and began to explain the potential effects of the information if it was sent, by some method, to the press.
‘There would be uproar, industry – construction in particular, agriculture, most definitely, tourism of course. I think the whole Bureau may have to be re-modelled. Those people we all rely on would be exposed as charlatans, biased beyond our fears, self-serving’ – he broke off, this would be the right time, he could sense it – ‘Elizabeth? Would you mind awfully, if I called you Elizabeth, after all we have been friends for many years now.’
He had misjudged it and everything about her said it. Her spine had straightened, the slight smile had gone; the knees were drawn together and twisted away from him. In her hands, those large capable hands, the black covered notebook she held was closed and moved with its companions away from Ronald. Miss Priestley wasn’t an insensitive woman; she saw Ronald’s optimism drain out of him and she hadn’t the cruelty in her to demand he keep to the name he had used for so many years – but it wouldn’t matter anyway. She would not have the problem for much longer and a little delicacy of touch was a small sacrifice if it would buy her some time.
‘Ronald, I think I’d like to do a little more work – particularly on Scotland – the Highlands and Islands in particular. There wasn’t quite enough sample data and I would hate for us to cause the scandal and our figures to be proved less than perfect.’
‘But of course,’ he raised his glass to her again, ‘Elizabeth, my dear, you are a marvel.’
‘Thank you Ronald. Shall we decide what to order?’
It was the last time that they dined together, and although the rest of the evening was not unpleasant, Miss Priestley could not put out of her mind what Ronald had suggested they should do with her data. Where his mind had seen chaos, inquiries and ruined careers, hers had seen something completely different. So what if there was an indisputable bias in the Weather Bureau? If their forecasters were, almost without exception, statistically more accurate when predicting the weather close to their home town, then that simply meant one could get a more reliable forecast by exploiting that knowledge.
She had picked four forecasters who had high levels of accuracy and by drawing overlapping circles around their homes she had found that the place in Britain likely to get the most accurate meteorological predictions was a small town in Wiltshire. There was an estate agent in the town and she telephoned and arranged viewings of three neat, square built houses. By the following Friday, her own house in Yorkshire was on the market. She left a message for Ronald at the Handley Arms Hotel where they were due to meet. It seemed harsh, even to her as she wrote the note, but quite simply, she could not face being called Elizabeth again; even if it was by her oldest and dearest friend.