TG Universes & Series:
"There's a lot that doesn't hurt."
Marie knocked softly and opened Nathan’s bedroom door. He was still asleep. She crossed to the bed, meaning to shake him gently awake. He was lying curled up, facing away from her, and the sheets had slipped, exposing his shoulder and upper arm, and part of his narrow back. He hadn’t put a night-gown on then; he was either naked or in his panties.
She touched his arm, at the elbow, through the bed-linen. “Jenny?” It had been a long while since she’d had to perform a Naming for a housebound student. The combination didn’t happen very often. This task was usually left to the big sister, to engineer a chance encounter with the groundsman at Jane’s old house; but dear old Tom had retired after the disaster the previous year — it had been past time for him to do so anyway — and the new groundkeepers were as yet an unknown quantity. Jane had professed herself unwilling to take that chance. So Marie was trying something new.
Getting no response, she shook a little harder. “Jennifer, ma choupinette.”
“Mmm.” Groggy. He turned over towards her. Marie automatically guided the sheets higher as he turned, to protect his modesty as she would a girl’s. She was surprised to see him wearing a sleep-mask; she’d always put one in the students’ bedside drawer, but only to complete the excessively feminine setting, without a real expectation of their actually using it. Naturally it was sufficiently pink and lacy to be offensive even to her, but, she supposed, that didn’t matter to the wearer.
“Jennifer, c’est le temps du déjeuner.”
“Mmm.” His hair was damp, Marie saw; and she smelled pink peony talc. He must have had a bath after Jane had left him. “’Kay.”
“Je nettoierai ta salle de bains,” Marie said, and left him to do so.
In the event, he had hung up the towels over the rack by himself. Everything seemed to be in good order. She spotted a pair of panties hanging directly over the towel heater. They were still a little damp when she picked them up, and smelled strongly of the soap on the washbasin, as if they’d been scrubbed carefully. “Hm,” she commented to herself, and brought them with her back into the bedroom. The washing basket already held enough to be worth a wash, together with Valerie’s whites; so she dropped the panties in there and brought the basket just outside the bedroom door and came back out into the bedroom.
“Es-tu réveillée, Jennifer?” she asked Nathan. Evidently not. He was deeply, deeply asleep again, already, his chest rising and falling in a slow, steady rhythm. His hair had fallen across his face. Marie sighed and sat on the bed next to him, where she could gently brush the hair away. He didn’t even stir. “Je demanderai á Jane si tu peux dormir plus longtemps,” she said, giving up. She was never strong enough, that was the problem, she reminded herself. That’s what Jane was for. She took her leave, remembering the washing basket on the way.
She was in the middle of loading the washing machine in the utility room when she heard the phone ring and had to dash for the extension in the kitchen.
“Hi, it’s me.”
“Valerie? What’s the matter?”
“Have you given him a name yet?”
“Oh, shit,” Valerie muttered. That could only mean one thing.
“What happened?” Marie asked, putting on a faux-weariness.
“I, uh… I got boxed in.”
“I know!” There was a chuckle from the other end of the phone. “I’m sorry, okay? I ran out of reasons not to.”
“Okay.” Marie couldn’t help the smile that shaped the sound she made. “I don’t think he was awake anyway. I’m too soft-hearted for his own good.”
“Just tell me.”
A heartfelt sigh. “Natasha.”
“Oh that’s not so bad. Nathan/Natasha, that works.”
“Uh, that’s not how I thought of it. Heh. I’m really sorry. What did you have?”
Marie hesitated. “I shall keep that a secret between myself and a sleeping boy,” she decided romantically. “In any case, I think I like Natasha better. It’s more French.”
“Oh, I was thinking Russian,” Valerie admitted.
“That works too.”
“He must never know,” Valerie said. “Don’t tell him it came from me. Please?”
“All right, Valerie. I won’t tell Jane either, unless I have to.”
“Thanks. She’d only be more smug than I can stand today.”
Marie chuckled. “Where are you? Aren’t you still with your friend and her daughter?”
“She took Lizbeth to the bathroom. They’ll be a few minutes longer.” There was a sound as if Valerie was settling, relaxing a little more, then a lot more ruffling. “Sorry, hat malfunction. So, how’s it going where you are?”
“Taking an interest in your protégée?” Marie teased. Valerie made a rude noise. “He’s still asleep. I couldn’t bear to wake him.”
“What’s he doing asleep? I didn’t think that was part of the first-day fun and games.”
“Oh, he got sick during the speed drills. We put him to bed with some ibuprofen–”
“We think he might have a stomach bug. Jane’s going to go a little more gently on him until he’s recovered.”
“What was it?”
“Well, we’re not sure. Stomach pains, headache. He looked like he might pass out at one point, and he was actually sick in the bathroom.” She suddenly thought that maybe the presumed ‘accident’ he must have had in his panties might have been digestive in nature rather than sexual. “How many of those cookies did he eat last night anyway?”
“Uh, three or four… Or five…”
“That’s all? Hmm.”
“You’re sure he’s not faking?” Valerie asked.
Pause. “There speaks the voice of experience, I guess.” Valerie chuckled.
“Yes.” Marie smiled again.
“All right, all right.”
“So how are you enjoying the seaside?”
“It’s…” Pause. “It’s nice. Very retro. There are donkeys going up and down, and a little horse-drawn cart that’s painted to look like Thomas the Tank Engine, and there’s a kind of road-train thing on the promenade. Lizbeth’s having a great time.”
“And so are you?”
“Mmm, yeah.” The sound of Valerie thinking. “Yeah, I am.” Her voice was coming through a smile. “Let’s see, we just had a picnic, with cookies, which is how this happened, and I promised to help Lizbeth make a sandcastle when they get back. Then I think we plan on wandering up to the pier and looking at the tacky stuff. Probably when the tide comes in. The sea looks like it’s about a half mile away at the moment.”
“So are you wearing your new swimsuit?”
“I am wearing my new swimsuit.”
“And you went swimming too?”
“Uh-huh.” Again, through a smile.
“See? I told you.” The woman wasn’t born who wasn’t self-conscious in a swimming costume, Marie thought. In that respect Valerie was no different at all.
“Yeah, yeah. So did Val, but she’s a tart. There’s this guy hovering around? He keeps looking at me like he wants to chat me up, so I’m trying to stay on the phone until Mary gets back. Aloof, unattainable ice-maiden.”
Marie laughed. She hadn’t known Valerie had read that. “Is he terribly ugly?”
“Nah, he’s cute, I guess. If you’re into that kind of thing.”
“You could flirt,” Marie suggested.
“Why, Miss Marie, that would be terribly unmannerly, don’t you think? When I’ve come with a friend, to leave her and go in the company of some strange gentleman?”
Marie laughed again. “Jane would never approve.”
“Stop tempting me. Hey, I think I can see them coming back. I better get a book and look cultured or something.”
Marie could have passed comment on Valerie’s apparent, and growing, efforts to impress Mary, but she didn’t. And it wasn’t as if Valerie didn’t read for real anyway. Perhaps she had simply not found someone whom it would impress before. “I’d better leave you to your flirting then,” Marie said, cattily. Valerie made another rude noise and hung up.
“Valerie?” Jane asked from the door, making Marie jump slightly.
“Yes, just calling in. She’s enjoying herself.”
“Good. I snapped at her this morning. I should not have done that.”
“Would you like some coffee? Or tea?”
“Tea, thank you.”
Marie bobbed slightly and set about making it.
“I shouldn’t let her get to me,” Jane fretted. “She reminds me so much of Chris sometimes.”
“She did disobey you,” Marie observed.
“She isn’t required to be obedient,” Jane said. “But sometimes…”
“It would help,” Marie agreed. Jane only nodded and dropped the matter with a small wave of her hand. “I thought you were getting Jonathan up for lunch.”
“I’m sorry, Jane. He was so soundly asleep I couldn’t bear to do it. When I remembered he’d been up all night as well–”
“What is it about this child that inspires you both to these — these random acts of wanton kindness?”
Marie smiled at that. “He can be very sweet sometimes. Hadn’t you noticed?”
Jane sighed. “I had, actually; and of course we can hardly fail to reward that, when we see it, but it won’t do. He’s not here to be sweet–”
“Yes he is,” Marie challenged, grinning.
Jane blinked. “Yes, of course he is,” she chuckled, “but not yet, and on our terms, not his. He has a touch of ragamuffin charm about him, I grant you, but it’s not consistent, so it’s very probably just a ruse. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be seduced and lulled into making things too easy for him. He must be challenged and provoked into displaying his more negative traits before we can achieve anything.”
“Yes, Jane.” Everything else being ready, she turned the kettle on.
“How was he upstairs this morning? How’s the French going?”
“Trá¨s bien,” Marie replied automatically. “He finds it frustrating, of course.”
“Good. But he lacks the vocabulary to give full expression to his frustration?”
“Excellent. This was providential, but I like some of the possibilities it opens up. Is he objecting to the use of the feminine when you speak to him?”
“No, but of course he misses a lot when it’s spoken. Perhaps some written exercises…”
Jane nodded. “Any other observations from the morning?”
“Yes,” Marie replied, then she was interrupted by the kettle boiling. She lifted it off its base and poured immediately over the teabags in the teapot and, satisfied, left it to infuse. “He has some breast enlargement, I saw while he was changing yesterday, and just now when I went up. Of course he tried to hide it earlier. I forget what it’s called…”
“Gynecomastia,” Jane affirmed. “I thought so too. Not uncommon in pubescent boys, of course; and he’s not the first we’ve had with that ‘problem.’ It does make some things easier. It’s almost a shame we have to keep him on the housebound course. He’s a delicate little thing, and prettier than his photographs promised. If he were to put on a few pounds…” she added wistfully.
“I was wondering if it might be why he hardly eats,” Marie ventured, “if he thinks that will make them disappear.”
Jane nodded. “And why he’s so body-shy, yes, very likely.” She fell silent, thoughtful, while Marie finished making the tea and poured for Jane and handed her the china cup and saucer wordlessly. Jane smiled thanks and sipped, and nodded her approval, all as a matter of automatic behaviour while she was thinking. Marie was content to wait.
“All right,” Jane said eventually. “Let him sleep on over lunch. I don’t want to pressure him with respect to food.” Marie nodded. “Wake him at four at the latest, if he doesn’t get up by himself before then. For the future, we may as well make use of what Valerie found out in the night. See if you can enlist his willing aid here in the kitchen; involve him in the preparation of food as much as is practical. Feed his senses. Follow that where your instinct leads you.” Marie nodded again, smiling broadly. “Naturally I shall keep him too busy for you to have every day, and snatch him away from you peremptorily from time to time, to maintain my villainous image.” She smiled wryly. “Helping you will be a reward I can bestow or withold, especially later, when he has schoolwork to complete.”
“Before breakfast could be a good bonding time,” Marie suggested. “He could help me then without fear that you would take him away.”
“Indeed. But let that evolve in response to my interruptions. Maybe he will come up with it himself. You’re going to Name him when you get him up?”
“Yes. I thought I’d call his new name to wake him.” Again.
“Oh, that should be interesting,” Jane smiled. “Let me know how that goes. Have you decided on a name?”
Jane looked at her for a moment. “All right,” she said, chuckling. “As usual I’ll be the last to know.”
“Oh wait a minute,” Valerie said suddenly, and darted away to one of the little gift shops inside the entrance to the pier.
“Wha–?” Mary started, but she was talking to air.
“Where did she go?” Elizabeth said clearly, voicing her own thoughts.
“I don’t know,” Mary replied, and steered them both in the same direction.
They had dumped most of the stuff back in the car and got ready to set off relatively unencumbered down the promenade. Valerie had pulled out a spare floaty blue skirt and put it on, but left her top half clothed only in her black swimsuit. Mary thought she just looked so elegant; even with trainers on her feet and a small backpack slung over her shoulder. And the sun went crazy in her hair until she put her hat back on and smiled and said, “Okay, let’s go.”
She still seemed a little twitchy about all the motorcycles parked up and the clusters of bikers wandering around with fish and chips or drinking beer outside one of the pubs near the sea-front, but they were clearly just having a day out. There were a few younger teenagers — they had to be at least Valerie’s age, she realised suddenly, but they didn’t seem like it — on scooters making more of a noise every now and then, but nothing that couldn’t be ignored. It made her wonder. Mary had an excuse for getting grown-up fast. Having a child does that. It has to, in fact. She wondered, not for the first time, what had happened to Valerie to bring her to this place, away from her real family and friends, and everything she knew, and made her grow up so fast.
“Thank you,” Valerie was saying to the girl behind the counter as they caught up. “Oh, there you are.” She unslung her backpack.
“What did you get?”
Valerie held up a stick of rock. “I said I’d get some ‘rock’ for the new– for Natasha. This is the right stuff, isn’t it?”
“Aw, that’s nice of you.” Mary shoved her companionably. Valerie grinned and dropped it into her backpack and slung it back on over her shoulders.
“Can I have some?”
“No,” Mary said automatically. She liked her daughter with teeth, and not hyper. Definitely not hyper.
“But I want–” Elizabeth began, using a tone of voice that promised a scene.
“Hey, I got you something even better,” Valerie said quickly, dropping to Elizabeth’s side.
“I wan–” She thought about it. “What?”
“Valerie, are you bribing my daughter?”
“What?” Elizabeth demanded.
“Well, that’s no way to ask, is it?” Valerie retorted. Elizabeth just laughed. “It’s a secret. I’ll give it to you at the end of the pier. If you’re good.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Okay,” she said, in a tone of voice that said whatever it was would have to be good to beat rock.
“Come on then. Look! What’s that?” She pointed up the pier. There was a little land-train pulling around in an arc ahead of them. “Let’s go on the train!”
And they were off. Mary followed behind, glad to leave Elizabeth to Valerie’s attention for a while. ~She’s so good with her,~ Mary thought. ~So easy. Like she doesn’t have to think about what is the right thing to say to a child–~
“Come on Mary, we’re waiting for you!” Valerie called, and she picked up speed to catch up.
“What have you got her then?” Mary asked, sitting next to her.
“It’s a secret.” She grinned. “I don’t believe they’re playing canned music!” The music wasn’t on the train, it was coming from speakers above the central division running down most of the length of the pier.
“Isn’t it awful?” she said, as if saying ‘isn’t it wonderful?’ They were playing the theme tune to The Onedin Line.
“Is this part of the meme?”
The pier widened towards the end around a large games arcade. Valerie looked in as if she might be interested in that, but Mary wasn’t, and Elizabeth took a couple of steps in and clearly found it too loud for comfort. So Valerie came back out with them and they went around to the very end of the pier, which was occupied by some open-air games for small children. Elizabeth insisted on having a go on them, to the extent that Mary wondered if she’d forgotten about Valerie’s promised present.
Not a chance.
So Elizabeth was enthralled with her new pair of binoculars (they weren’t expensive-looking, Mary could see to her relief), and put them to immediate use inspecting the view from the pier towards the old part of town, where prettily-coloured buildings rose in uneven layers up the steep hillside and glowed in the afternoon sun.
“Natasha,” Marie called softly. ~I hope she wasn’t awake enough earlier to remember.~ “Natasha, chérie. Réveille-toi.”
There was just a long, resigned-sounding breath from the bed.
“Tu dois te lever, Natasha,” Marie said.
“I’m awake,” the girl said irritably. Another sigh and she rolled over and sat up, clutching the sheets up to her throat. “What the fuck?” She pulled the sleeping mask off and blinked at it for a moment, curiously. Then she looked at Marie; suddenly a calm, direct gaze. “I wondered when that was going to happen,” she said dryly. She didn’t seem at all put out by it. “Natasha,” she enunciated. “Hmm.” She stretched the sleeping mask out by its elasticated headband and fired it at the ballerina picture opposite.
Marie gave her a stern look, but didn’t comment, merely going across and picking it up. “N’est-ce pas un joli nom? Je pense qu’il te convient.” Marie smiled sweetly, bringing the mask back to put into the bedside drawers. Natasha just shrugged. “Maintenant, lá¨ves-toi. Madame veut te voir.”
“Can I have some privacy, maybe?”
“En français, s’il te plaá®t,” Marie felt it necessary to remind her.
Natasha just stuck two fingers up towards her, knuckles forward. “Agincourt,” she said, in case Marie missed the reference, and flopped back down.
~So much for ragamuffin charm,~ Marie thought. “Tu ferais mieux de surveiller tes maniá¨res, mon enfant. Tu ne veux pas que Madame soit fá¢chée aprá¨s toi.”
“Fuck off and die.” Marie was at a loss to respond for a few moments. It seemed so wrong compared to how he had been that morning: Tired and ill, as it later proved, but he had been trying nonetheless.
“Trá¨s bien, si tu ne veux pas de mon aide,” Marie said coldly, “Je m’en vais.” She turned to go.
“Thank you,” Natasha said to her back, with obvious sarcasm.
As Marie left to report the infraction to Jane, she couldn’t help but imagine wistfully that Jennifer would have reacted with more grace. But then, she wouldn’t need to be here, would she? she reminded herself, and felt better. Jane was right, as always. And she will mend her ways. It wouldn’t be satisfying if it was easy. By the time she reached the bottom of the stairs she was smiling her own approximation of an evil smile.
“Tide’s coming in fast now,” Valerie commented.
They were walking on up the promenade. The sea advanced to their left under a silvery lowering sun, and the pier fell away behind them as they continued around the wide bay. Up close, the picturesque buildings they had seen from the pier looked faded and neglected, but some charm lingered on them still. They were getting further and further away from the car, Mary noted. “I’m tired,” Elizabeth protested, as if to illustrate why this might become a problem. “I want to go back.”
“We’ll go back soon,” Mary promised.
“I don’t want to.” Elizabeth humphed and turned to Valerie, arms raised.
“Up you come!” Valerie managed, lifting the child aloft and supporting her astride her hip. “You’re really getting a bit big for this, you know,” she observed. Elizabeth did the sweet thing and hugged her.
“What do you want, little thing?” Mary asked.
“Mmm.” Elizabeth thought. “Chips.”
“Ooh, good call,” Valerie agreed.
“She means fries,” Mary said, just to be sure.
“I know.” Grin. “I say, I do live here, old bean,” Valerie declared in a comically English accent. Elizabeth laughed at it. Mary knew that Valerie could do a much more realistic accent if she wanted to; normally she didn’t. She said once she’d rather let it do its own thing than get caught out faking at a bad time. “What do you think? Chips okay for her?”
“A few,” Mary negotiated. “Or shall we make this proper dinner?” she asked Valerie.
“Proper dinner!” Elizabeth voted. “I want fish and chips.”
“You’re supposed to say, ‘Please may I have fish and chips,’” Valerie admonished.
“You’re so posh.”
“Watch out, or I’ll set Aunt Jane onto you.”
“Go on, say it properly,” Valerie insisted.
She humphed again. “Please may I have fish and chips please right now!”
Valerie gazed to the heavens for a moment.
“Yes all right,” Mary relented. “When we find a place that does it.”
“Which we could get to quicker if I didn’t have to carry you,” Valerie pointed out.
“Abbie wants some too.”
“Well, you and Abbie can share, can’t you?” Mary pointed out. At least since Elizabeth had made that concession they didn’t have to set out an extra place at mealtimes any more.
“Yeah. I want to get down.”
Valerie sighed and swung her down to the ground again, and straightened with a sigh of relief. Elizabeth ran on ahead.
“Don’t go too far ahead,” Mary warned.
“You should get one of those harness things,” Valerie suggested.
“Oh God, no. I hate those, don’t you?” They walked. “I probably shouldn’t be encouraging her.”
“Oh, this whole ‘Abbie’ thing.”
“I don’t know. It’s kinda cute.”
“I suppose. Sometimes I wish she had more real friends though. Having said that, I think Kim’s a worse influence on her than Abbie is.” She grinned. “And I like that I can leave her to play by herself if I’m busy. She’s not like some of the other playgroup kids, it’s just attention attention attention all the time or they turn into monsters, like they’re blackmailing you, and people seem to think that’s normal, and the supervisor comes to me and says ‘your daughter is always playing by herself,’ like that’s a bad thing and I’m doing something terribly wrong.”
“I think she’s fine. A little weird, but okay.”
“You’re saying my daughter’s weird?” Mary asked archly.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Valerie pointed out, echoing her own words. “I like weird. I like you, don’t I?”
“Yes, but you’re weird.”
Valerie cackled. “You have no idea.”
“No, but you’ll tell me one day.” Mary slid her arm casually through under Valerie’s and leant slightly against her as they walked. She felt a slight twitch of Valerie’s startlement, and felt rather than saw Valerie’s quick, curious glance across. She didn’t pull away, though. Progress, of a sort. She was usually so touch-shy. “Mum says if she’s anything like me she’ll grow out of it soon enough,” she said aloud.
“You had an imaginary friend too?” Valerie said.
“Shh. Don’t say the ‘I’ word,” she warned nodding ahead towards Elizabeth. “Thing is, it was all the wrong way round. I was the naughty one, and she used to tell me to be good and sensible when I didn’t want to be. I just wanted to have fun.” She chuckled lightly. “‘Girls just wanna have fu-un,’” she sang.
“Augh! Get thee hence!” Valerie made a warding gesture with her free hand.
Mary laughed. “Oh, God. Of course, I still blamed her when I got into trouble.”
“That’s moderately evil,” Valerie observed. “Did she have a name?”
“Donna. And she had bright red hair, I mean, really red, like glowing crimson, and when we used to drive somewhere she’d run alongside the car and keep up.” She chuckled. “Don’t ask me to explain how that works.”
“How old were you when you stopped believing in her?”
Mary sighed. “I don’t know. Five? Six? I can’t really remember.”
They walked on, following Elizabeth, off in her private world as she wandered.
“Bitch, you’ve got that song stuck in my head now,” Valerie muttered.
“Quick, sing something else.”
“Aah! Can’t think of anything!”
“Errr… ‘Teletubbies, Tele–’”
“‘Meeting you, with a view to a kill,’” Valerie began.
“Oh you’re kidding!” Mary objected.
“‘First crystal tears / Fall as snowflakes on your body,’” Valerie continued, speaking, not singing, in a quieter voice, and suddenly very serious. “‘First time in years / To drench your skin with lover’s rosy stain.’” She stepped aside lightly, taking Mary’s hand and turning towards her in one smooth, dancerly motion. “‘A chance to find a phoenix for the flame,’” she sang softly and stepped in close, close, “‘A chance to die…’” She let it fade on her lips. Mary found herself looking into those arresting blue eyes.
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth demanded. They both dissolved into laughter together. “What’s funny?” Elizabeth wanted to know.
“Bonjour, Mam’selle,” Natasha said, behind her. Marie turned to see the youth in the doorway to the kitchen. “Oá¹ est Madame s’il vous plaá®t?”
Marie blinked. There she was, looking innocently at her as if the earlier altercation had never happened.
“Er, je l’ai choisie,” Natasha said, with a loose gesture at the dress she was wearing; clearly misinterpreting Marie’s stare. “Est-il correctement?”
“Oui, oui. Tiens-toi droite,” Marie said. “Elle est dans le salon.”
“Merci, Mam’selle.” She managed a rough curtsey — ~Jane must have showed her earlier in the day,~ Marie thought — and left.
~What am I doing?~ Mary asked herself. ~Are we flirting? Is something happening?~
The setting sun made Valerie’s skin seem to glow. Her hair shimmered. Mary couldn’t take her eyes off her.
They had found an undisturbed spot on the seaward side of a small headland with some old, abandoned buildings. The decaying walls shone in muted reds and golds in the dying light. They could see the pier’s lights come on, halfway around the bay, and a distant sound of dance music from the sea-front clubs. Mary felt oddly divorced from that world. Clubbing, getting drunk, getting pulled. The usual definition of ‘having fun.’ It astonished her that she used to be so into that sort of thing with the friends she had back then. Making themselves up to look older to get into the proper clubs past the proper bouncers. It was as if it happened to a different person.
Sometimes she missed it.
It was nice being with Valerie, she decided. Just being with her. Like this. Especially when Valerie forgot to be so wary of people. She could be funny about serious things. Mary had always heard Americans were supposed to be bad at that. And sometimes Valerie was a little wistful and lost in a way that made Mary want to hold her and make it better. And always that smooth elegant carriage, that delicacy of movement that was captivating to watch, the careful, modulated voice, and eyes you could fall into–
~I’ve got a crush on her?~
“I’m not gay,” she said aloud.
“Pardon?” Valerie asked, turning her head to face her.
“Nothing. Ignore me.” She blushed and paid attention to her daughter. Elizabeth had finally had enough and had fallen asleep, half-sprawled across her lap. Valerie had produced what she called a ‘space blanket’ from her backpack and draped it loosely over the child. It was silvery and sparkled in the gold light.
She stroked her daughter’s hair.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?” Valerie said. She had a humoured look about her.
“Yes,” Mary replied. ~She did hear then.~ “Once.”
She shrugged. “It was nice.”
“Uh-huh.” She seemed to be enjoying a private joke.
“What? We were twelve. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“What about the first time you kissed a guy?”
“We didn’t know what we were doing. He was all over me.”
“So let me get this straight–”
“I thought that was exactly what you didn’t want–”
Valerie chuckled and went ahead anyway. “You kissed a girl, and liked it so much you never did it again, and you kissed a guy, hated it, and thought ‘I’ll get me some more of that.’ Have I got that right?”
“No! It’s not like that–”
Valerie grinned widely. She was teasing.
“All right then,” Mary said. “Kiss me.”
“Go on, kiss me. Convert me. Or what do you call it? Recruit me.” She grinned and closed her eyes. “I’m waiting.”
She waited. After a few moments she felt the heat from Valerie’s face, very close to hers. Then it pulled away. “No.”
“No?” Mary spluttered, opening her eyes. Valerie was sitting back again, next to her.
Mary flushed, embarrassed. She wasn’t sure if it was more because it was her idea, or because Valerie had chosen not to.
“I haven’t got a chance. You’re all scrunched up determined to hate it.” She grinned evilly. “I’ll ambush you later.”
“You–” Mary was lost for words. She settled for a scowl and shifted round to lean against Valerie, carefully so as to not disturb Elizabeth. The movement obliged Valerie to lift her arm over Mary’s shoulder and let it rest at her waist, next to Elizabeth’s head. It was nice. “Hah. Can’t reach me now, yer perv,” she crowed.
She felt a pressure through her hair near the top of her head for a moment, then it was gone. Mary felt as if a wave of heat tingled down her whole body from that point.
“So,” she said, trying to change the subject, but not too much, “have you ever been kissed by a guy?”
“It was nice,” Valerie echoed.
“So you never did it again.”
“Yes. I mean no. I mean, yes, I did do it again.”
“So who was he?”
“No-one you know.”
“Oh come on, Vee–”
“Travis. His name was Travis,” Valerie admitted. “And I was only seeing him as a favour to a friend.” Mary twisted to look at her. “Don’t ask. It was just a few times.”
“But you liked it.”
“Uh… Actually I freaked, the first time. It just… happened, before I could stop it. It was… intense.”
“Heh, yeah,” Mary agreed.
“Not as nice as kissing Debbie.”
“Who was that? Your girlfriend?”
Valerie nodded. “One and only.” A small smile.
“What happened? How come you split up?”
“We didn’t.” A shift in Valerie’s body warned her to sit up, and Valerie stood and walked the few steps to the parapet. She stood still, her gaze following where the sun had now set.
~Something must have happened to her,~ Mary thought. “I’m sorry. You must miss her.” Every time she was with Valerie, Mary felt it: A shadow of some unnamed cataclysm in her history, separating her from everyone and everything she’d grown up with.
“Mummy?” Elizabeth said, waking up.
“It’s all right, love,” Mary reassured her, her attention divided.
“When are we going home?” Elizabeth asked drowsily.
The moment was gone. Mary felt unutterably sad. “Soon, dear. Valerie? It’s getting late. I think–”
“Yes, of course,” Valerie said distantly. Then she turned back to face them both.
“I’m really sorry, Vee,” Mary started again.
“I know. It’s okay. You couldn’t know.” She essayed a smile. “I’m just being weird.” Deep breath. “And not really okay. Uh, look, it’s a long walk back to the car. Why don’t you two wait near here while I go get it?”
“No, we’ll walk back–”
“No,” Valerie said, a little too firmly. “It’s too far for Lizbeth. She’s too tired.” It was transparently a pretext, but Mary read the message clearly enough: Valerie wanted to be alone. She looked like she wanted to cry.
“Oh, Vee, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you, I feel really rotten now.”
“It’s okay, I’m not upset,” Valerie lied. Seagulls skittered across the darkening sky, and the deep rhythm of the music came from somewhere along the sea front. More lights were coming on, decorating the promenade and the pier as if in fairy-lanterns.
“I don’t want you to leave us,” she said. She didn’t like having to ask. It sounded pathetic even to her own ears, but she had Elizabeth, and couldn’t afford to be proud. “I don’t like the idea of sitting here alone with Lizbeth. She’ll be okay to walk, won’t you, dear?”
Elizabeth just nodded, bless her. She could read the tension well enough.
Valerie frowned thoughtfully and glanced at Elizabeth. “Of course,” she said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking straight.” She nodded, as if agreeing with herself.
“Let’s go home, then,” Mary said. “Up you get, little one.”
The tide had come all the way in. Waves sloshed and broke against the sea wall to their right. “Oh shit, the car,” Valerie said suddenly.
“It’s okay. They don’t let you park below high-tide. The sea comes up higher at this end of the beach.”
It was getting darker, but the sky to the west was still pale, and the lights along the pier glittered off the black sea. The pier was still in front of them, and somewhere ahead dance music boomed. Occasionally there was still the high-pitched whine of a motor scooter being thrashed. She was glad she’d made Valerie stay and not go ahead to fetch the car. If anything she’d have felt safer closer to all the music and clubbers and where the lights were bright, than where they had been at the quiet far end of the beach.
Something about being in Valerie’s company made her feel safe. It wasn’t really logical. There wasn’t anything going on that would worry Mary if she had been on her own, but she had to worry more, because of Elizabeth. And in any case, if anything happened, what could Valerie do, with her slight frame and delicate manners?
She took Valerie’s hand, without comment. Something like it had worked before. And again, Valerie shot her a curious look, but didn’t pull away. ~Maybe I didn’t completely make her hate me then,~ Mary hoped. Her other hand was already taken up holding on to Elizabeth, who was being blessedly quiet and contemplative, occasionally breaking off with a “Look,” and a point if they passed something interesting.
“I’m sorry,” Valerie said quietly.
“You don’t have to be.”
Another moment of silence.
“It takes a long time for me to really trust someone.” Mary felt a squeeze on her hand. “Longer than I’d like. It’s just the way I was…” Valerie didn’t complete that thought.
“That’s okay,” Mary said.
“No, it’s not because I want to get to know you better and I know that means you get to know me better and that scares the hell out of me.” It came out quickly, in a rush.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s really… really hard to talk about.” Mary looked across again. Valerie was actually sweating, as if saying as much as she was was a real struggle. “I left behind a lot of weird sh– stuff. But I did leave it behind. I’m here now. And, uh, when you push me about stuff that happened… before I came here. I can get a little weird, I guess.”
“Okay. I won’t ask.”
“Ask.” Quick, worried smile. “Just don’t push. I’ll get there. It doesn’t all hurt. There’s a lot that doesn’t hurt.”
“Like kissing guys.”
She smiled easier. “Yeah, that just itches.” Another quick, uncertain smile, as if asking ‘was that funny?’
They walked on in silence for a while.
“You probably think I’m crazy now,” Valerie said quietly.
“I’ve thought you were crazy from the day I met you,” Mary pointed out.
Valerie looked at her oddly again for a moment. Then she grinned widely. After that her step lightened.
“But in a cute way,” Mary explained.
“I’m not cute.”
“Yes you are. When you’re not trying to be all buttoned-down and normal. You’re not fooling anyone, you know.”
“Never did,” Valerie said quietly. Then she did a turn, almost dance-like, and then she was kissing her, full on the lips. In her surprise Mary could only gasp inward through her nose.
A thread of vigilance remained: her hand, holding Elizabeth’s. Her other hand was still in Valerie’s.
Valerie’s other hand was cupping the back of her head. ~Oh, what is she doing? Right here on the promenade with people all around?~
~In front of Elizabeth!~
It was delicious though, and not at all what she was expecting.
Then she was released. She took a step back, blushing, and a scattered applause went up from some of the nearby club-goers that had been treated to the unexpected spectacle. Valerie, next to her, dipped into a dainty curtsey directed at the audience, and the applause faded into laughter. Valerie straightened. She was blushing deeply, Mary saw, but she had a huge grin on her face.
“Mummy, Auntie Vee kissed you!”
“You still think I’m cute?” Valerie said aside to her. Their impromptu audience dispersed into the flow of people passing around them. She leaned close to Mary’s ear. “Tell me you hated it and I’ll never do it again.”
Mary started to speak, but her own grin got in the way.
“God,” she managed eventually, then she burst into giggles. She let go of Valerie’s hand to cover her mouth. “Cow. That’s not fair.”
“Tell me you hated it, and I’ll never do it again,” Valerie repeated.
Mary had to settle for thumping Valerie’s shoulder. Valerie snickered
“Mummy, Auntie Vee kissed you!” Elizabeth repeated, more forcefully.
Mary was recovering some wits. “Did she? When?”
“Are you sure?” Mary teased. “I didn’t notice.”
“Yes! She kissed you! Abbie saw it too!”
“Oh well, in that case it must be true,” Mary conceded.
“RAAR!” Valerie roared, and swung Elizabeth, squealing, up into the air.
Mary glanced behind her. Elizabeth had fallen asleep in the back seat. Worn out. Mary turned back to face front again. Almost. She settled slightly sideways in the comfortable seat, so she could watch Valerie drive.
“Valerie,” she said softly, “are you dating me?”
There was no answer, immediately.
“’Cause if you are you should tell me in advance,” Mary continued quickly, finding the silence unbearable. “So’s I can ditch the sproglet at home and get all dolled up.”
Valerie chuckled. “I’d take you somewhere nicer than a fish and chip stand,” she said lightly. “Besides, I like the sproglet.”
“Would you hate it?” Valerie asked.
Mary looked at that thought for a while. Turned it over.
“No,” she decided. “God.” She laughed nervously, then fell silent.“I don’t know if I can… do the sex thing. Um. With a girl.”
Valerie laughed. “I should hope not on a first date.”
Mary couldn’t help grinning at that. ~This is crazy. This isn’t me.~ “What about the second date?” she asked cheekily.
“The second date is where I turn up at your place driving a U-Haul. I’m told it’s traditional.”
Mary laughed aloud that time. “Actually that part sounds really attractive right now.” She sighed and snuggled in her seat.
“Oh, Mum and Dad.” She fell silent. “God, I need to move out.”
“Mmm,” Valerie agreed.
“How can I?” She sighed. “I’m stuck, aren’t I? I’m nineteen, and I’m stuck with a child, and I’m stuck living with my parents ’cause I’m not bringing her up in a bed-and-breakfast and I can’t see an end to it for years, and what am I doing messing about with Drama anyway? That’s like, guaranteeing I’ll never be able to support her on my own, isn’t it? I should be getting a proper job.” ~At least Mum and Dad never say that.~ “But…” She shook her head. “I just feel like I’m on the shelf already. People see I’ve got a kid and they run a mile.”
“Not me,” Valerie said quietly, but Mary was on a roll.
“They think I’m out to trap them or something. Can’t I just be horny?” Valerie chuckled. “Can’t I just be lonely?” came out before she could recall it. “Bugger. Sorry.”
“Not really,” Mary said, fighting back a sniffle. “Saw something on telly,” she said. “Someone was saying how a lot of teenage girls get pregnant just ’cause they’re lonely. Just so they can have someone who’ll love them. God. I thought, is that what I did? Is that how stupid I was? I mean. I wasn’t stupid. I knew about contraception. Sometimes I think I just…”
“Wanted a child,” Valerie said.
“What about your folks? Your mom and dad? They love you don’t they?”
“Yeah, but…” She sighed. “They still think I’m that stupid slag who got herself pregnant, you know?”
“What about you? You’ll move out when you go to university, I bet?”
Valerie nodded again. “I guess.” She sighed.
“What’s it like, though? Living there? Are you itching to get out too?”
“I can’t stop feeling…” Valerie started, but then stopped herself, as if still unsure she wanted to say it. Mary waited. “She’s capricious. That’s a SAT word,” she added, in a wry aside.
“Who, your mu– your adopted mum I mean?”
Valerie nodded. “I can’t help feeling that I’m just her latest public good works project. She’ll get bored of me or… or mad at me, which is frankly more likely.” Tiny smile. It faded. “She’s done so much for me. I just get scared she can take it all away if I don’t…” She trailed off.
“Do what she wants?” Mary asked.
“Be who she wants. She’s got some pretty… particular ideas about how ‘young ladies’ should behave.”
“And dating girls doesn’t feature, I bet?” Mary supplied.
“Actually I think she’d be okay about that.”
“Yeah? God, I can’t imagine what Mum would say if she found out about this.” ~That was stupid, kissing in front of Elizabeth,~ she realised suddenly.
“She’ll be fine. Your mom’s cool. Just don’t wait too long to tell her. You guys are close. Leave it too long, the fact you didn’t tell her is going to be worse than what you didn’t tell her.”
Mary sighed, fretting. “I can’t believe…” she began. “I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe I’m actually doing this. Talking about this.” She shook her head, and felt aware of Valerie being very quiet as she drove.
“If you don’t like it, don’t do it,” Valerie said eventually.
“Oh,” ~That’s not what I meant.~ “I like it. I just don’t believe it. I’m really surprising myself today.” ~Am I just jumping on the first person in five years to show an interest? Am I just that desperate?~ She watched Valerie drive. She thought about the increasing amount of time they’d spent together in the last month. ~It hasn’t all happened today,~ she realised. She thought about how Valerie paid attention to her when they were together. She thought about how special she felt in Valerie’s company; how witty and interesting she must be for someone as cool and elegant and smart like Valerie to want to spend time with her.
Singing to a gold disc, driving alone at night:
I kissed a girl, her lips were sweet
She was just like kissing me
~Actually that’s a testable postulate…~
Mike snickered. Valerie batted the empty air above the passenger seat as if he was physically there, and just sang louder and drove.
I kissed a girl, won’t change the world
But I’m so glad
I kissed a girl
For the first time…
~Not like Debbie.~ And a little of the old, habitual, ~If she ever finds out she’ll kill me…~ If she could reach across an ocean and… a wider gulf than that. “Testing the universe,” Mike would say. “You’re daring it to stand in her way.”
It was a silly, childish, superstitious faith to have in someone. Debbie had been like an extraordinary force of nature. Charismatic, troubled, energetic, alarmingly precocious, with a fiendishly clever sense of humour, she stole into Valerie’s life like Coyote and everything changed, utterly and beyond recall. But she wasn’t Coyote, and she wasn’t a force of nature, she was a high school student, and she could no more follow after Valerie than Valerie could find a way to return to her.
It was almost comical how unlike her Mary was, but perhaps it had to be that way. Anyone anything like Debbie would be a painful disappointment. And besides, Valerie wasn’t sure she could survive another Debbie.
Indeed, she’d passed up the offer to try.
But if anyone at home had heard she was embarking on a relationship with a single mother two years older than herself… There’d probably be an Intervention. But that was okay because they’d all get their socks charmed off by little Elizabeth. Mike would grumble that she wasn’t thinking again, but that’s just what he did.
It would be okay. Valerie chuckled. She turned the car through the gates and started along the winding driveway up to the house.
She put the car into reverse and drove backwards the short distance to where the drive widened inside the gates, turned the car around and put the handbrake on and put it out of gear. The headlamps were already on full-beam, and they illuminated the front of the small gatehouse. Out in the country there was almost nothing visible beyond the reach of the headlamps except the ever-present distant orange glow from some town far over the horizon.
Valerie got out of the car and looked at the gatehouse in the pale halogen light.
“Are you serious about this?” Mike asked.
“I don’t know. I think so.”
She reached back into the car and turned the engine off so she could retrieve the keys. She had a key to the gatehouse, but she’d only been inside once before, when she was first scoping the whole place. She crossed to the front door and unlocked it and shoved it open, against resistance. The door was warped with age and rain and sun and didn’t really fit the doorway any more. Well, that was fixable. The car’s headlamps flooded in through the open doorway and windows, and reflected enough for her to see the light switch just inside. “Aziz! Light!” she murmured, and pushed it. There was light, from a naked and dusty bulb hanging from the centre of the ceiling. “Cool.” The rear wall of the ground floor was actually part of the outer perimeter wall of the grounds, and had no windows. Dusty, worn-looking wooden floor, old-fashioned faded wallpaper, and boxes of junk. She’d been through them already on her first visit and stripped out anything of interest; and there hadn’t been much.
“You think she’ll go for it?”
“It’s worth a try. She might. It’ll get me out of the way so she can play with her new toy in peace.” She hadn’t meant to sound bitter, but it came out that way anyway.
“Not Jane. Mary.”
Valerie looked carefully along the walls. It was neglected, but it didn’t seem too bad. There was no sign of damp, at any rate. Presumably Jane would have a surveyor’s report on the place somewhere at home. “Got to be better than leaving it standing empty anyway,” she said. “Even if it’s just me.”
She wandered across into the back room. The kitchen, as it turned out, although it was rather rudimentary; a back door leading into a small yard fenced off from the open parkland of the estate, and bizarrely, another door leading from the kitchen into a small bathroom, apparently in an extension built more recently than the rest of the gatehouse. She remembered the shape of it from outside. The bathroom extension was on the ground floor only, and entirely hidden from the road.
She backed out of the kitchen and went up the stairs, carefully; but they seemed sturdy, which matched with her memory. At the top, the small landing led only into two rooms, each looking out both over the road and the fields beyond, and inwards onto the estate, although at the moment just at the headlamps of the Mercedes. She could just make out the lights of the main house in the distance. The smaller room had a window overlooking the gate itself, and the larger one had had the side wall knocked through to make a patio-style door onto the roof of the bathroom extension. She stepped around the junk boxes to get to it, but could see nothing outside the window in the darkness.
“You know, this could be nice.”
“What are you going to tell her?” She didn’t have any answer for that. Not yet. “This isn’t something you can put off.”
Valerie locked up the garage and cut through the walled garden to the back of the house. The kitchen lights were on, and she could smell the blossom and other early-blooming flowers, and Marie’s herb garden. Spring was here, and summer coming. She couldn’t keep from smiling.
Marie and Jane were in the kitchen, seated at the table, chatting. “Bonsoir, Valérie,” Marie greeted her.
“I’m back.” She grinned. “And to prove it, I’m here.”
“I take it you had a nice day,” Jane inquired.
“I did.” Valerie dumped her backpack by the table and fell happily into her accustomed chair. “I definitely did. Nathan gone to bed, I presume?”
“Natasha,” Jane informed her.
A look from Marie, and a small nod, then Marie got up and went to the working area of the kitchen.
“Oh, you got that done, then,” Valerie said. “Mm, Tasha. That works.”
“Would you like something, Valerie? Hot milk toddy?”
Valerie hesitated, then decided, “Ooh, yes please.” She flashed Jane a grin. “That reminds me,” she turned back to Marie, “I couldn’t find the nutmeg last night.”
“Oh, no, it’s here.” Marie retrieved it from the wrong cupboard. “My fault. I remember doing it now.”
“And yes, she went up about an hour ago,” Jane continued, as Valerie turned back. “We were just comparing observations. In view of what happened last night, I’m going to keep watch on him tonight.” Valerie didn’t comment on the mixed use of pronouns. It would take a few days for everyone to settle down.
“So…” Marie cajoled, returning to the table, “you’re looking far too pleased with yourself. What have you been up to?”
“Nothing,” Valerie said, automatically. She couldn’t keep the grin off her face.
“You look like the cat that got the cream,” Jane remarked.
“I might have…” Valerie drew it out for effect, “kissed a girl.”
Marie gasped. “Your friend Mary?” Like she was really surprised. Haha. Mike was convinced Marie was some kind of witch. She’d put a spell on Valerie; it was the only sane explanation.
“Uh-huh.” She sounded smug. She couldn’t help it. “I think I may have just earned enough points that we can finally get a dishwasher.” Grin. It was an old complaint.
“Oh, Valerie,” Marie said, and leaned over to hug her. “I’m happy for you.”
“Is she the one with the four-year-old daughter?” Jane asked.
“So when do we get to meet them?” Marie remonstrated, heading back to the cooking area.
“I only kissed her!” Valerie protested. “She’s probably going to be all ‘I didn’t know what I was thinking, can we just be friends,’ tomorrow,” she added, a little despondenly. “If I’m lucky,” she admitted.
“So, when do we get to meet them?” Marie repeated, ignoring her protestations.
“Well,” Valerie sighed dramatically and cast a meaningful look at Jane.
“It depends,” Jane said carefully. “What do you plan on telling her?”
“About Nathan? Nothing if I can help it. Is he going to stand up to that?”
Jane looked thoughtful. “It may be a little soon, then. Maybe next week, if she maintains her current attitude. I was only saying to Marie earlier that it’s a shame we have to keep her on the housebound course.”
“The what? What’s that?”
“Did you think all our students have been able to pass in public?” Marie called from across the kitchen.
~Ah. He’s not going outside then?~ For some reason she felt a little sad about that.
“I long suspected there was some cherry-picking involved on the part of my referrers in the States,” Jane admitted. “It was obvious my students included a statistically improbable number of boys who were, perhaps, relatively unravaged by puberty–” Valerie snickered. “–But I assure you it wasn’t a policy on my part. And yes, there have been students for whom the mountain had to come to Mohammed; we couldn’t realistically present them in public.”
“Even Edith White would have seen what was going on,” Marie remarked. Valerie flashed to a memory. Some day Jane was going to enjoy the story of Edith White’s reaction to one of Jane’s young ladies crashing through the hall on inline skates.
“But Nathan looked okay, I thought. Skinny, but…”
“Oh, yes, I’m sure Nathan would have been fine. I don’t doubt that Reggie has cherry-picked again. But this is a new country, and I don’t know enough people I can trust. I simply feel it’s… too rash a step to take, at this stage.”
“Too rash?” Valerie crowed. “That does it. Now I know you’re not the same as the other one!”
Marie chuckled and returned to the table with a steaming mug. “There you go, dear.
“Marie, you’re a star.” ~What an odd thing to say,~ she thought suddenly, trying to remember who she must have got that phrase from.
“Be in bed an hour after you finish.”
“Your secret ingredient?”
“Of course.” Marie sat, self-satisfied.
There. Right there, was a real Difference. She sipped and said nothing. Last year’s Marie didn’t do this whole herbalism, aromatherapy stuff. Not as far as Valerie had found out, anyway. The house had always smelled nice, but she’d put that down to flowers and, of course, Marie’s superlative cooking. Then there were the perfumes as well. But there was a difference. It reminded her of a dream. The house smelled different.
It was, to be fair, a different house. She wanted that to be a sufficient explanation. She wasn’t sure that that other Marie hadn’t used oils and herbs this way as well; she’d just never been made aware of it. It had implications.
~If Marie is different…~ She glanced at Jane. ~Can I trust Jane to be the same?~
“It makes things harder,” Jane was continuing. “Without any excursions into areas where there’s even the possibility of uncontrolled contact, it’s easy for the student to become too comfortable and complacent. I can only do so much by bringing outsiders for him to encounter here before he realises he’s safe from exposure. I have to compensate with more demands, more perfectionism, and more seeming caprice on my part, and I usually have to keep them here longer.”
Valerie still didn’t really understand why the kid had to feel unsafe. She had been so afraid, and all it did was make her worse, until something had to give. But she let it go. She wasn’t supposed to be involved. She sipped her hot toddy and felt herself relax and drift a little while Marie and Jane went on discussing Natasha around her, and their plans for the next day.
“Go to bed, Valerie,” Marie said, gently.
She nodded. She’d finished the hot toddy anyway. She was only staring into space. “What’s in this stuff anyway?”
“Just some herbs.”
~Deadly nightshade is a herb,~ she thought to herself. ~Should pay more attention.~ But she’d had this before, the last time her nightmares got bad. It helped a little. And she knew Jane sometimes took it as well.
She’d ask tomorrow. For now, bed beckoned. She remembered something and opened the top of her backpack, leaning against the table by her side. She pulled out the cellophane-wrapped candy. “I said I’d get him one,” she said, holding it up.
“What is it?” Marie asked.
Jane was chuckling. “‘A stick of rock,’” she informed Marie. “Valerie, you didn’t have to to that,” Jane said.
“See, the writing goes all the way through,” Valerie explained, showing Marie the ‘WESTON-S-MARE’ visible in cross-section at the end. She got up. “I’ll give it him now, if he’s still awake.” She still needed that shower. “Goodnight, then.”
“Goodnight, Valerie,” Jane said.
“Sweet dreams,” Marie wished.
“Thanks. Now I’ll get the sugar monster,” Valerie retorted, and left the room to go upstairs. “Aargh, the Pilsbury Doughboy!”
“Go to bed!” Jane called behind her.
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