Bab's New Year's Resolution 2.
“I don't know Ninah.”
Lola had taken to calling Barbara her 'Ninah' as a sort of personalised version of the the Italian 'Nonah' for grandmother. Barbara rather liked the name for it had a very personalised air, a private term of endearment that somehow strengthened the bond between them whist describing the age differential situation nicely. Lola continued.
“I'm studying hard for my GCSE's at the moment will she be coming sometime soon.”
“Well that's why I'm running it by you babe's. I've technically fostered you long term so it's only right for you to have a say about your life circumstances.”
“Yeah that was one of the best things to happen to me and I'm truly grateful. Will she be some sort of problem kid, you know fighting, rowing, breaking things? I like the peace and quiet here to study. Yeah, I know it's noisy by day but down this end by the lock in the evenings, it's okay. I can even sit out in the walled garden and do my revision if it's sunny”
“I take your point Lola, but the social services are pushing me a bit.”
“Have you met her, this thirteen-year-old lesbian?”
“No, they want me to either bring her down here or me to meet her up to London.”
“How did she discover she was a lesbian at thirteen.”
“I don't know petal. How did you and I discover we were transgendered. I was about four when I started wearing frocks. How old where you?”
Lola paused with embarrassment.
“Okay, Touché. Point taken. Perhaps I'm judging her harshly. I'll give London a miss.”
I'm sorry darling, you weren't invited. This involves Olivia. That's her name.”
“Well if you go up to London, it leaves me here alone to get on with revision and that's good. I've got two maths papers this Monday and Tuesday, then next week the remainder of the science papers. After that, the important exams are over for me. It's just stuff like history, geography and strangely enough woodwork.”
“History's important Babes, the only lesson we learn from history is -”
Lola grinned and rolled her eyes.
“Yes, yes Ninah. You've told me before – nobody ever learns the lessons of history.”
Barbara smiled indulgently. She knew that Lola was intending to take maths and sciences in years twelve and thirteen.
“Okay girl, I'll take the train up mid week after your maths exams and arrange to meet the kid. You'll have to revise on your own and don't forget to feed the cats.”
“Hah. As if they'd let me forget. Carbon's got a stomach like a chronometer and claws to make sure I'm punctual. Ammy and Amber are not far behind either.”
Barbara let slip another smile. The cats had grown to love the teen-aged whirlwind that had upset the calm tempo of the Lock-keeper's Cottage. Often Amethyst, or Ammy as Lola called her, was to be found waiting in the lane at home time. Even the narrow-boat community in the basin had grown fond of Lola and her orange 'marmalade cat' that often followed her like a trained dog.”
With the arrangements completed, Wednesday saw Babs joined by Joyce from the local Social Services, (S.S.) taking the train to London. They met the girl called Olivia in the offices of the SS in Brixton in London.
Olivia proved to be a wild child and resentful towards the social workers from Brixton but when she met Barbara she decided to give the old bitch a break and be just about manageable.
'After all', Olivia thought, 'if the bitch is prepared to try letting me live in her home, I'd be a fool not to suss out the situation'. She told herself.
Naturally Olivia was resentful at the idea of yet another upheaval in her tormented life and the thought of leaving her friends in the Brixton Children's centre simply added to her uncertainty. She wasn't happy at the thought of going to live with some old white bitch way out in the sticks but needs must when the devil cracked the whip. The idea simply reinforced her perception that she was simply some piece of flotsam or jetsam that Brixton SS were glad to get rid of. At first, the meeting was closely supervised by Brixton SS then later Barbara and Joyce from the Bristol SS were allowed to chat to the girl alone.
They explained the situation at the Lockside cottage and offered to let let Olivia come and visit after Lola's exams were completed. Olivia was not impressed and deduced that they were already showing preference and priority to Lola's academic needs.
“Whar'rabaat my needs?” Olivia whined.
Barbara quickly deduced that the thirteen-year-old was already trying emotional black-mail and she moved immediately to be firm.
“Let's get one thing right here and now Olivia. If you agree to live with us, you will be treated equally with Lola. At the moment, Lola's in the middle of her GCSE's and I'm sure you'll know how important they are to her. One day, if you decide to choose an academic route to adulthood, you'll be as nervous as Lola that nobody spoils your chance to escape the ghetto.”
“Yeah! Like that'll happen.”
Joyce had been surprised at Barbara's forceful approach so she let Barbara answer Olivia's challenge.
“Let's get another thing quite clear girl. There are not many routes out of London's inner city ghettos for kids in care. The academic route is one of the most certain because once you have qualifications, nobody can steal them from you short of killing you or damaging your intellect. No matter where you go, you'll always have what's inside your head.
The other escape routes are mainly sport or entertainment; the former is short-lived, the latter is strewn with dangers like drug addiction and parasites latching onto your wealth if you become famous. Only you can decide which route to take girl. I can only hold open the door and provide the means for you to escape. The rest is up to you. You've got until a week this Saturday to make up your mind. That's when Lola finishes her GCSE's so that's when you can come down and check us out. As I say, it's entirely your choice. I've got a short video-clip of the canal and the cottage if you'd like to see it.”
The idea intrigued Olivia and she stared unbelievingly at the clip showing a busy summer's evening with some twenty boats all queued up by the lock ready to leave or enter the canal from or to the river. In the clip, Lola was to be seen hopping about with mooring lines and lock paddle handles as she scored a few extra quid for very little inconvenience and a lot of friendly banter.
“Is that Lola in the hot-pants and trainers.” Olivia asked as she watched the idyllic summer scene.
“I thought you said she was a boy getting ready to transition.”
“Fuck me, she looks good enough all ready. I could fancy her right now. She's hot!”
“Well you're only thirteen young lady. You would be too young darling – to indulge in any sexual behaviour that is.” Joyce warned.
“Yeah. Tell that to the kids in here.”
“I don't need to worry about the kids in here.” Barbara declared firmly. “The rules in my cottage will be different, for they will be mutually agreed by you and Lola then enforced, mostly by me and of course Joyce in a supervisory role. Besides, as far as sex goes, I don't think Lola will take any nonsense from you; though I won't let her bully you either.”
“Huh! Is that a promise?” Olivia demanded as her bravado failed to hide her hope.
“As best as I can make. I'm new to this kids care thing so I'll probably make mistakes but I'm sure you and Lola will soon moan if I've got it wrong. Joyce of course will be the arbiter if there is discord.”
With this, Barbara and Joyce stood up as they prepared to leave for Bristol. As she turned to wish Olivia goodbye, Barbara spotted the brief flicker of disappointment ripple across the young teenager's countenance and she hesitated.
“Was there something else?”
Olivia's eyes brightened slightly with hope.
“Are you leaving already?”
“Uuhm yes,” Joyce confirmed. “We have to be back in Bristol this evening and then Barbara's got some more driving to do to get back to her cottage.”
On realising the girl did not want them to leave immediately Barbara thought constructively. She searched quickly for an excuse to extend the meeting for it might give them a chance to possibly discover some of Olivier's issues. Then she found a hook on which to hang her idea.”
“D'you have any hobbies Olivia?”
“Like what?” Barbara pressed.”
“Drawing, - well, - drawing and painting as well.”
Barbara noticed the slight surprise ripple through the Brixton team and it was obvious to Bab's that they had no idea about Olivia's artistic inclination. Realising this Barbara pressed her suit.
“Really. D'you have anything to show us?”
“Not here,” Olivia declared sullenly, “they're back at the children's home.”
Barbara nodded sagely as she caught Joyce's eye.
“Can we swing by the children's home on the way back to Paddington Station.”
“Well we've got a bit of spare time, there's a train every hour.” Joyce replied.
“Okay, we'll go there first then possibly the V&A or the National Portrait Gallery.”
Joyce glanced questioningly towards the Brixton social workers who frowned uncertainly then agreed. As they departed Joyce turned to Babs when they were out of Olivia's earshot.
“Watch'a got up your sleeve girl?”
“I'd like to see if the kid's telling the truth about her art hobby and if she is we could take her for a brief visit to the V& A Museum or maybe the national portrait gallery.
“Have we got the time?” Joyce asked.
“We can make the time, I just want the kid to think this visit isn't a complete waste of time. You know, another of those interminable bureaucratic exercises I can stay in a hotel tonight if necessary, what about you? Besides I think the kid might be warming to me.”
“I suppose so, let's see what the kid's artwork is like, shall we?”
Having agreed the strategy, both their mobiles were busy before they assembled again at the children's home. Joyce was clearing her overnight stay with her bosses while Barbara explained to Lola that she would be staying in town. When they reached the children's home, Olivia and the Brixton social team were waiting for them.
“So where's your art stuff Olivia,” Babs asked.
The girl hesitated then took them to a derelict garden shed under some large trees at the bottom of the neglected garden. After checking that none of the children were around she dug under some wooden crates and extracted a large, sealed, plastic folder. Inside were some excellent drawings, mostly caricatures of staff members but one or two were excellent portraits.
Joyce and the Brixton team let out low whistles but Barbara kept silent as Joyce exclaimed to Olivia.
“These are really good kid! Why have you been hiding them?”
“They're mine.” Olivia snapped as she hugged the portfolio tight to her and creasing the pictures inadvertently.
The social workers were long inured to obsessive possessiveness amongst children from care so they simply ignored Olivia's behaviour but Barbara could see an excellent prospect to lay foundations. She smiled a genuine smile as she studied one of the portraits and remarked.
“A small thing but thine own, a light unto thy soul; is it girl?”
Olivia wrinkled her brow as she grasped Barbara's words.
“Summat like that.”
“D'you want to come to the art gallery?”
Olivia glared at the social workers then shrugged despondently.
“They won't allow it. They don' ave time. They never 'ave time.”
“Joyce and I have got time.” Barbara explained. “We've spoken to Bristol SS and they've said we can stay in a hotel here tonight if there is hope for a solution.”
“Whadd'ya mean solution? I'm not some sort of Algebra equation thingy, I'm a 'uman bein'”
“Well said kid.” Barbara grinned.
Olivia was beginning to like this white haired old woman. She somehow seemed to notice what mattered to the young teenager and furthermore act upon it by offering encouragement and support. She turned to the Brixton social workers.
“Can I go to the art gallery?”
“Can I go to the art gallery PLEASE!.” Barbara corrected her.
Olivia glared at her but took the hint.
The Brixton exchanged more meaningful glances for they could already see that the young tearaway was reacting well to the old woman. They had also noticed how Olivia's attitude was altogether more amenable. They turned to Joyce the Bristol Social worker.
“Will you accept responsibility for Olivia during the visit?”
Joyce exchanged a questioning glance with Olivia who begged beseechingly.
“Pleeease! I promise to be good.”
“Are you happy with this Babs?” Joyce double checked.
Barbara smiled and reiterated.
“It was me that suggested it, remember?”
Joyce nodded and turned to the Brixton pair.
“Okay, where's the release form?”
The form was supplied then duly completed by Joyce and surprisingly, by Barbara also. Olivia looked on somewhat resentfully.
“All that paperwork just so I can go to the art gallery. It's like prison!”
Barbara sensed Olivia's resentment and quickly turned the argument around.
“No girl; it's because you are a valuable commodity; a young human being with a huge potential. Your well-being is paramount and that's why I signed the form as well. I wouldn't have it any other way. Your artwork is good, you've got prospects.”
This encouraging reply tore a huge hole in the wall of Olivia's resentment. For once Olivia felt good as she saw and felt the light of Barbara's praise and compassion shine through the huge, unexpected rent in her defences.
“Thanks Babs, d 'you mind if I call you Babs. Joyce does.”
“Joyce is an adult colleague young lady, you are still a girl, but, I don't mind. Call me anything you like, but don't call me before four o'clock in the morning.”
Olivia's lip gave a little wobble as she almost laughed then just managed to stifle it. The breach however, had not gone unnoticed by Barbara – '
'The wall is already coming down' Babs told herself.
The visit to the art gallery proved hugely enjoyable to Olivia where to her surprise both Joyce and Barbara proved to have some knowledge of the pictures. Unbeknownst to Olivia, Joyce had studied art at University while Barbara had travelled a lot in her earlier working life and seen many other works by the same artists displayed on the walls of museums and galleries in Paris, Antwerp, Venice and many other cities worldwide.
Inevitably the excursion ran late courtesy of several phone calls by Joyce to obtain an extension and it was long after normal curfew that Olivia was returned home for she had enjoyed a meal in a cafe up the west end followed by a show that Joyce had been wanting to see for months. By the time Olivia returned to the children's home she was bouncing with excitement despite the late hour.
After dropping Olivia off, Babs and Joyce were compelled to stay in a hotel and take an early morning train home to Bristol, After a long day sorting stuff in Bristol SS Offices, Barbara returned home late that Thursday. Lola had finished her maths exams and found time to give her septuagenarian friend the third degree about the girl in London.
“What's she like.”
Barbara grinned as she replied
“She's lively, cheeky, nosey, disobedient, stubborn, rude, full of bounce – a typical thirteen-year old girl, d' you want me to go on.”
“Huh! That tells me everything and nothing, I'll word it another way. What's she going to be like?”
Barbara grinned again.
“Ah! Now there you have me. Clairvoyance isn't my strong suit.”
Lola realised she wasn't going to get 'chapter-and-verse' out of her canny old mentor so she concentrated on the large 'ready-meal' that Bab's had brought home. After eating Lola went back into the parlour to continue revising while Babs settled in her favourite chair by the kitchen stove with Carbon and Amber. Amethyst was of course sharing Lola's lap in the parlour.
With so much afoot in the Lock-keeper's cottage it seemed as if no time had passed before Lola's science exams were finished. The following Friday Joyce and Babs met Olivia with the Brixton Social worker off the London train.
“Where's Lola,” Olivia demanded for she had been secretly looking forward to meeting the transgendered older girl.
“It's Saturday girl, and it's sunny. What d 'you think she's doing?”
Olivia paused before the penny dropped.
“Oh – yes; the lock gates, helping the boats with ropes and stuff.”
“A girl's got to make a living babes.” Joyce added.. “Come on, hop in.”
They signed for Olivia's transfer then the Brixton SS worker left them to it. In the car Park Lola dumped her back-pack in the boot (trunk) and settled in the rear seat. Throughout the journey to the cottage, she peppered Babs and Joyce with questions about Lola.
“Good gracious young lady!” Babs chuckled. “I think you should ask Lola these questions when we get to the cottage. For me it's more important that I ask questions about you that I need to know.”
“Questions like what?” Olivia demanded.
“Personal questions like, what's your favourite breakfast food, what sorts of clothes you like, do you want a mobile phone; stuff like that. Oh and also who's your best friend in London so you can invite them down to stay some time.”
Olivia fell into a thoughtful silence before opening up cautiously.
“What makes you think I've got a best friend?”
Barbara grinned with a disturbing transparency.
“Your self-declared sexuality young lady. You were probably good friends before you realised you fancied her as well. Is she a lesbian as well?”
Olivia froze and stared like a mesmerized rabbit caught in the gaze of a stoat.
“Are you going to ban her?”
“No. What made you think that?”
“Well, - you know, - in London – they wouldn't let us – you know; do I have to spell it out!”
Joyce's jaw had sagged with astonishment by now and she simply gaped disbelievingly as Barbara treated the whole issue without a flicker of discomfort or embarrassment.
“No baby, you don't have to 'spell- it – out', but it helps to get stuff sorted from the very outset.”
“Meaning?” Olivia's brow furrowed with further uncertainty.
“Meaning that I don't need to be dealing in misunderstandings, deceptions or downright lies. This chat will clear any obstacles if or when you need help or advice, especially about sexuality issues etcetera.”
It was Olivia's turn for her jaw to sag. Nobody had ever treated her with such candour or sincerity before. She felt truly adult and liked the feeling.
“Does that mean I can have my friend over to – you know?”
“It means you can have the same freedoms as any other 'thirteen-year-old' kid and that means pyjama parties. I know what goes on in kid's homes Olivia, I'm not dumb and some day you'll know why I know.”
It was Joyce's turn to frown uncertainly.
“I'm not sure this is safe. Legally I mean. She's only thirteen.”
Barbara shrugged and turned to Olivia.
“So what happens in the kids home in London?” Barbara countered.
Olivia interrupted vehemently.
“You don' wanna know. Kids get pregnant all the time. Sometimes jus' to rub the socials' noses in it, sometimes just to feel they're worth something. Then there's the gangs. “Gangs?” Barbara pressed.
“Yeah on the estate by the home girls aren't safe. Especially us girls from the children's home. Boys think we're all slags so we have no right to say no.”
Joyce's expression darkened as she glanced at Barbara.
“Same old, same old. It's the same shit here, just a different city.”
“Exactly;” Babs reasoned flawlessly. “So it's better to have a pyjama party with one partner under a safe roof than a bloody non-consensual orgy of rape in some secret corner of a public park. Far less risk of infection or pregnancy.”
Joyce nodded defeatedly. She knew better than Barbara what passed for 'care' these days.
“Having learned that she could have her 'best friend' over, Olivier's mood brightened considerably. When she finally arrived at the hairpin lane down to 'Lock-keeper's Cottage' with it's Idyllic setting, her expression widened with appreciation.”
“Fuck me this is beautiful! This is gonna be fab to paint.”
Barbara and Joyce shared a mutual, self satisfied smile as Barbara explained further.
“That view changes every hour kid, because the tide is ebbing or flowing all the time and those sand-bars in the river change shape every twelve hours. Oh! I've just had another thought.”
“What?” Olivia demanded, part in fear, part in expectation and somewhat suspiciously.
“Narrow boat owners love to paint their boats with scenes and decorative borders. With your painting skills, you might possibly find some paying work amongst the boat-owners' It'd be enjoyable work as well plus you'll meet interesting people; lots of them live on their boats.”
“What are they like? Are they like Vietnamese boat people or the Hong Kong bum-boats?”
“Good gracious young lady, where did you learn about those? Well the answer is no. Most of them love their boats and use them as their permanent homes. If you help paint the murals and signs on their boats they'll treat you well, especially if they learn you live with me.”
“Are there any lesbians living there? I've heard about these alternative communities.”
Barbara snorted with amusement.
“Ha! I don't ask darling. It's not my business to poke into other peoples affairs.”
“Can I go for rides on the boats?”
“That depends girl. If you get a reputation for good work and good behaviour, some of them might well invite you on a working trip. You help with operating the boat and they might let you ride with them up to Gloucester or even down river to Bristol and Avon-mouth.”
Olivia's eyes widened with hope but Barbara decided not to tell her that Lola was sometimes invited to help out on voyages as far as Birmingham and Bath along the canals and rivers. However, Lola had already demonstrated her usefulness to those particular narrow-boat owners as a mooring assistant and general handy-man in the tidal lock by the cottage.
By now, the car had reached the bottom of the 'hair-pin' lane and Olivia was studying the cottage as they approached. There was no sign of Lola as they entered and Olivia was shown her room. She plonked her back-pack on the bed and completed a brief inspection before re-appearing in the kitchen just as Barbara was making tea.
“My God girl, you can smell a cuppa can't you.”
Olivia grinned as she took the proffered cup and added her own milk and sugar.
“Where's Lola?” She asked Barbara.
“Probably down at the river - lock. It's quite busy as you'll have noticed so she'll be earning a few quid I suppose.”
“Can I go and see?”
“Sure kid. I've just got a few forms to finish with Joyce.”
Barbara had hardly turned to speak with Joyce but that Olivia had dashed out and was trotting along the tow-path towards the river lock. As she approached she saw whom she presumed to be Lola laughing with an unseen figure below the coping of the lock. Lola was lying on her tummy and reaching down to take something. Both Lola and the unseen person were chuckling.
“Just watch her claws Aaron.”
Curious as to what was happening, Olivia walked up and stood behind Lola as the girl was pre-occupied with the unseen situation below the coping stones edging the lock-side.
Then Lola wormed herself backwards from the edge of the lock and slowly a cat appeared in her hands.
“Have you got her?” The invisible voice asked from below the edge.
“Yes thanks. I cant thank you enough.”
Then Lola spoke to the bedraggled cat.”.
You silly moggy. That'll teach you not to try and jump aboard the boats. Gloss paint is slippery when wet with soapy water.. Haven't you learned that yet?”
With that Lola reached back and set her Cat Amethyst on the grass and the cat went streaking off along the tow-path back to the cottage. It was obvious to Olivia that the cat had fallen in the lock. It was only then that Lola noticed Olivia standing over her.
“Oh hello, - are you looking for Aaron or Shirley.”
Even without waiting for a reply, Lola rolled back on her tummy and called down to the unseen boat-owners.
“I think you've got a visitor Shirley.”
A woman's voice replied.
“We're not expecting anybody, we're off to Bristol for the weekend.”
“Oh. Okay.” Lola replied as she rolled over again to look up at the visitor. “Who are you looking for darling?”
Olivia was bemused and a little piqued.
“I'm looking for you; you are Lola I take it.”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“I'm Olivia, the girl from London.”
Lola had not been told that Olivia was black.
“Oooohh! Sorry Babes. I didn't know. I thought you were a friend or relative of Aaron or Shirley. Sorry.”
Olivia was a little nonplussed. She was mildly surprised that Barbara had not mentioned her ethnicity to Lola. Lola sat up and offered a muddy hand to the new arrival. Olivia wrinkled up her nose then delicately took the two cleanest fingers and gave them a limp shake. Olivia was then forced to attend to the boat in the lock.
“Just let me sort this boat out then I'll have some time before that motor cruiser comes in. We can chat as I work.”
Olivia still felt a bit miffed about her reception but she fell in with Lola as she started to open the sea gate. Olivia finally got a look at the two boaters and was surprised to see that Aaron and Shirley were black.
“Ah. I see.”
“See what?” Lola wondered as she motioned to Olivia to follow her.
“Why you thought I was visiting those two.”
“I didn't know. Barbara never told me. It's an easy mistake to make.”
“Even as she spoke she caught a mooring line from Aaron as Shirley manoeuvred the narrow-boat against the flooding tide.”
Once the boat was fast, Aaron spoke to Lola.
“Sorry you cant come with us. Babs did mention your exams.”
Lola nodded ruefully.
“It's only History and Geography but I've still got to revise. I'll join you next time maybe. Will you be waiting for High water?”
“We might leave a couple of hours to slack high-water otherwise we'll miss the last lock at Portishead.”
“Right. I'll just sort out that motor cruiser and I'll be back for a cuppa.”
Olivia was slightly surprised that Lola seemed so familiar with the black couple.
“Do you know them then?”
“Yes,” Lola replied without giving it a second thought. “Aaron's a registrar at BRI and Shirley lectures at the Uni. She's helped me prepare for my Chemistry exams.”
Olivia nodded thoughtfully.
“And sometimes they take you along for the ride.”
Lola nodded as she caught the cabin-cruiser's line and deftly looped it around the bollard. This would enable the boat to let go without assistance when the lock was lifted and they entered the canal. The boat owners were visitors and Lola didn't know them but she still maintained her cheery banter until the cruiser departed.
With the last boat sorted, Lola could relax.
“Come and have a cuppa with Aaron and Shirley, they won't be sailing for a few hours yet cos their kids have not arrived from school yet.”
“I'd rather just chat with you for now. Barbara's told me a lot about you.”
“Like what?” Lola wondered.
“That your trans.”
“Yeah. It's no secret. Everybody in the basin knows by now.”
“Can I ask some questions please?”
“Well not just now. Shirley will be wondering where I've got to.”
“When can we speak then?”
“After dinner tonight, when the cottage is calm and peaceful. Ninah should be there as well I reckon. Here we are. On Deck!!”
Shirley's head appeared and noted the second visitor.
“Her names Olivia, she's another one of Barbara's waifs-and-strays collection.”
“Hop aboard, any friend of Lola's is a friend of ours. D' you like tea or coffee girl?”
“Can I have coffee please.
“Sure. Sit down.”
As Shirley prepared tea and coffee, Aaron chatted mainly with Lola about her exams.
“I know I've passed maths because all the answers worked out and I wrote them down on the question paper.”
“Yes, my answers tallied with Ralph's, the head of physics.
“Easy. The Chemistry was harder but I acknowledge that. I'm weak on Chemistry.
“And the other subjects?”
“I've muddled through. There's still some exams left but I've done enough to go into year eleven.”
“Well you've done well for a kid who's had to face all those issues. Good on yer girl.”
Olivia wondered what Aaron meant by 'all those issues' but she kept silent and resolved to ask Lola at a more convenient time. Shirley reappeared with some fruit-cake and the drinks and she was much blunter than her husband Aaron.
“So young lady. You're another of Babs' waifs and strays. Might I ask how you got here.”
Olivia wasted no time on niceties.
“Shit parents then more shit. Fostering, care homes, you name it.”
Shirley nodded slowly then she asked.
“So how did you end up in Bab's tender care?”
Olivia hesitated but it seemed that Lola's stuff was no secret so why should she hide her past.?”
“OH yes and – without myself belonging to that community, dare I ask which you are..”
“El. El for lesbian.”
Shirley raised her eyebrows.
“Oh, in one so young.”
Shirley sensed the girl's defences rising so she nodded sagely and offered Olivia some fruit-cake while changing the subject.
“So, will you be staying full time at the cottage?”
Olivia's demeanour changed as uncertainty fell like a shadow.
“Dunno' depends on Barbara and Lola.”
Aaron weighed in.
“I rather think it depends on you young lady. Knowing Barbara as I do, I think the ball's firmly in your court. Barbara's a remarkable soul. Play fair with her and she'll play fair with you.”
“Even though I'm black?” Olivia almost whined with wounded anger.
Aaron exchanged a brief glance with Shirley before explaining softly.
“Hello-oo little girl, we're black.”
“Yeah, but you got treated okay, good schools and all that stuff.”
“You think so?” Shirley almost growled.
Olivia's aggression started to erode as she sensed that Aaron and Shirley might not have been born with silver spoons.
“Well – well, you obviously did okay.”
“We both grew up in care young lady, It was Barbara that motivated us at school. She taught us maths and when the physics teacher proved to be useless, she took us both under her wing for physics as well. The other teachers just presumed because we were black, we were lost causes. Fortunately, Barbara fought tooth and nail to fight our corner. She finally got the chemistry teacher and one of the English teachers on board and eventually we clawed our way out of the care ghetto.”
“What, you lived with her in the cottage.”
“No Barbara wasn't ready to make that big a step but that's another story, - her story. But remember this as I just said. Play fair with Barbara and she'll play fair with you.”
Olivia felt compelled to agree but it irked her to admit it to a virtual stranger. Now unsure of her ground she fell silent. Suddenly she found herself wishing for the certainty of Barbara's company and clumsily made her excuses. To have suddenly met two successful members of her own race had undermined her reasons for resentment.
“I suppose I'd better get back to the cottage and unpack. Are you coming Lola?”
Lola had totally failed to read Olivia's uncertainty and blithely declared that she'd be back for tea at five and she intended to continue chatting to the couple.
“Tell Ninah I'll be back for tea.”
Olivia stiffened slightly. Back at the children's home the kids had always endeavoured to maintain solidarity. When confronting authority; - 'One for all, and all for one'. By this culture, Olivia had managed to push her own agendas in many instances but here it seemed, the rules were different. Obviously Lola was not one who could be bullied or manipulated. Having finished her coffee, Olivia made her excuses.
“She's an independent young lady,” Shirley observed after Olivia had gone.
Lola shrugged and nodded. “Each to their own, that's my policy. Provided she doesn't hurt Ninah, things should rub along.”
“Or hurt the cats,” Aaron chuckled.
“Or the cats,” Lola concurred, “and they rub along okay. Well they rub up to Nina and me.”
The three broke up with laughter and the couple's children found them still chuckling when they got home. Their arrival prompted Lola to make her excuses and when she returned to the cottage, she found Joyce just about to leave. She and Barbara had been chatting about Olivia. Outside the cottage, Joyce shared a few words with Lola.
“Go easy on the kid. She's very unsure of herself.”
“Really, Lola intoned, I had her down for something of a bossy boots.”
“She's very frightened and very alone. You're nicely settled here now, aren't you?”
Lola nodded as Joyce pressed home her point.
“Olivia's never had a proper, full time home. She doesn't even know who her father is. Barbara's just about the first adult she seems to trust. If nothing else, I'm asking you to help the kid, if only to make Bab's job easier.”
Lola pulled a wry smile as she nodded whilst thinking.
'For Nina's sake only.'
As Joyce turned her car ready to leave, Olivia appeared from the cottage where she'd been pestering Barbara..
“When are you coming back?” She called to Joyce.
“Next Monday girl. You've got my number if you want to go earlier.”
Olivia stood silent as Joyce departed then she turned to Lola.
”Tea's ready. Babs sent me to tell you.”
“Thanks.” Lola replied monosyllablicly for Joyce's words had left her uncertain how to deal with the new arrival.
She followed Olivia back into the cottage and took her usual seat as Olivia settled next to her. Barbara served up the food and silence overtook the kitchen as the young ones ate hungrily. The silence only lasted a few minutes when a plaintiff 'Miaow' entered the kitchen followed by a still bedraggled and very wet, orange cat.
“Well dear me Amethyst. Where on earth have you been?”
“She tried to jump aboard Aaron and Shirley's boat but she slipped off and fell in the lock. Luckily the lock was down to sea level. Aaron pulled her out and handed her back to me.”
“Was she hurt?”
“No only her dignity or pride.” Lola chuckled as she grabbed a large, warm tattered towel from the Aga and invited the dishevelled feline onto her knee.
“Amethyst paused then decided to trust her keeper and leapt up. Lola promptly wrapped the warm towel around the cat who immediately settled onto her favourite lap. Olivia grinned as the cat demonstrated total trust.
“She likes you.” Olivia observed.
“Yeah, she's adopted me. The other two still prefer Nina. You can't please everybody.”
With Amethyst warm and dry again, Lola finished her tea then explained to Barbara that she was going to say goodbye to Aaron and Shirley. So saying she set off along the tow path with her inevitable orange shadow. On sunny days Amethyst followed Lola every where. Olivia remained seated at the kitchen table to ask about Lola.
“She's friendly with those nigga's.”
“That's not a term we use around here girl.” Babs admonished her.
“I can use it; I'm black.”
“Well Aaron and Shirley won't thank you for it and I doubt if you'd endear yourself to them.
“Can I go and speak to them again?”
“This isn't a prison girl. Of course you can. You'd better be quick though. Lola told me they're leaving two hours to high water.”
Within moments, Olivia was running along the tow-path playing catch-up with Lola and her marmalade cat.
“Barbara said I could come and see them off as well.”
“I'm sure they'll make you welcome.”
With these words ringing in her ears, Olivia ran ahead and stepped aboard before Lola could warn her. Shirley's head immediately popped out of the galley as the boat rocked from the intruder's arrival. Lola was shouting”g at Olivia.
“You should always ask before boarding. Say 'Permission to come aboard'? “
“Olivia hesitated and turned towards Shirley who nodded affirmation.”
“She's right girl. I could have been carrying hot water and spilt it as you rocked the boat.”
“Sorry.. I was just coming with Lola to wish you good bye.”
“We're only going to Bristol for the weekend. We'll be back Monday evening. You'd best come aboard and meet the family.”
Olivia waited for Lola and the cat to step aboard and they followed Shirley into the saloon. Two girls and a boy were sat with their father and an older woman so Shirley introduced them. With introductions complete Lola fell to discussing the week end.
“I'm in Bristol for Saturday afternoon. What time will you be at the floating harbour?”
“We leave Portishead at four hours to flow and catch the flood all the way up the Avon.”
“So that'll be about eightish. At the floating harbour. Early start then.”
“Four am departing Portishead. It'll be daylight though. Nice run with the tide.”
“ Have you booked a mooring, it's the regatta?” Lola checked.
“Yes. I've got a work colleague who lives on a narrow boat full time. I'm tying up next to him. I think you know him, Billy Jackson.”
“Is that Rubicon, she's moored in the basin a lot during winter.”
“The very same. He often talks about you.”
“Yes, I know him. I'll meet you in Bristol then, Bab's is going in so she'll bring me.”
“What about you young lady?” Aaron asked Olivia.
“I dunno. I suppose I'll be joined at the hip to Bab's. I'm only here for a week or so on Licence so they're not likely to let me loose in Bristol.”
As uncertainty flickered across Aaron's face Lola explained.
“It's not like a prison licence, she's here on trial to see if she gets on with us.”
“Aah. I see, and if she passes muster?”
“She gets to stay full time. That's if she likes us as well.”
As Lola said this, Shirley produced some biscuits to go with the tea and coffee.
“Help yourselves. We'll be sailing soon.”
They chatted around the table until the time to sail arrived and Olivia joined Lola in letting the boat go. As they returned to the cottage Lola decided to ask Olivia if she wanted to stay with her in Bristol or go shopping with Barbara.
“I dunno.” Olivia sighed. “Bab's might nor trust me.”
“You have to earn her trust. I did.”
“Did you ever do a runner?” Olivia asked.
“No. I was thrown out by my dad when I came out. Bab's is technically my carer, my foster mother. She's my first and I hope only carer.”
“So you've never lived in a care home or hostel?”
“No I was homeless then I was sofa surfing then made homeless again. Bristol SS approached Babs because I'm transgendered.”
“Oh, does she specialise in LGBT then? What special skills has she got?”
Lola's jaw sagged as she realised that Olivia hadn't sussed Barbara out. She quickly changed tack.
“I suppose she must have. I never asked.”
By now they had reached the cottage and Amethyst slipped through the cat-flap to inadvertently alert Barbara to the girls' return. Olivia wasted no time in pleading to be allowed to go around Bristol with Lola. Barbara had to disappoint her.
“Sorry darling. I've got other business in Bristol and besides, you need some new underwear. Yours is shot.”
“But Aaron and Shirley will be in the docks with their boat.”
“I'm sorry darling. You're still on trust and I'm very busy. On this occasion you'll have to stay by me. Later on, if you decide to stay with us and behave responsibly, things will get better, I promise.”
“Huh, so much for freedom.”
“Freedom, comes with responsibilities. For this weekend you'll just have to stay with me.”
Olivia fumed silently then went to her room. As darkness finally descended, she wondered just how to get away. Escape was obviously easy but her chat with Lola had already taught her of the dangers of life on the street. Staying safe was the tricky bit.
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