Eden Starling is selfish.
On the evening of her parent’s funeral, after her aunt throws her meager possessions into her sparse bedroom and locks the door behind her, Eden hikes her black skirt to her knees and climbs out of the window.
She’s not a graceful child, not then at least. She’s only ten years old, and wearing the uncomfortable black heels her aunt insisted on isn’t helping, but her parents wanted her to be able to run no matter what she wore so she makes it work.
She lands on the ground hard, on her knees. Luckily, her bedroom is only on the first floor, and she doesn’t hear a bone crack, so she stands and dusts herself off. She’s not trying to run away, she just didn’t want to cry in front of Aunt Marie, who would hit her, call it weakness and punish her for getting her house wet.
Eden’s parents had never hit her, but Aunt Marie is so far removed from either of them in temperament that she has spent the time since her parent’s untimely deaths wonders how they could have been related at all.
Eden is alone for the first time in her whole life. She breathes in the quiet winter air and tries not to collapse into the snow in grief.
“Are you alright?”
Eden turns sharply, and she sees the most beautiful girl she has ever laid her eyes on. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cry I—is this your land? I can go, please don’t tell anyone I was here.”
“Please don’t go,” The girl says and then she smiles at her. “My name is Catherine, Catherine Beadnell. This isn’t my land, but I live right over there over the hill. You look upset, would you like to talk?”
“You don’t have to,” Eden starts. Aunt Marie might be home any moment, she knows she should go, but Catherine’s eyes are pinning her in place. “I don’t want to bother you with my problems.”
“It’s no bother,” Catherine says. “I have problems too. My little brother ate most of my birthday cake last year and then tried to give it to me anyway claiming they only sold half cakes.”
Eden cracks a smile at that. “I was crying because I just came back from my parent’s funeral. And my Aunt is horrid. I hate that house, I want my parents and their house back, and I only want to curl up in my old bed in my old room and feel normal again.” She’s crying again now, and it’s humiliating, but she feels Catherine’s hand on the small of her back.
“Oh my! I am so sorry,” Catherine murmurs. “You don’t deserve this. You deserve better.”
“I will survive,” Eden repeats. “Thank you, though.”
Eden wipes her eyes with the sleeve of her awful black dress. She doesn’t care if it messes it up, black isn’t her colour. It never was.
“You’re welcome,” Catherine replies. “Would you like to stay with my family for Christmas Day? You could invite your Aunt, too, if you must, but I would love to get to know you more.”
“My aunt has forbidden Christmas,” Eden says, sadly. “But I would love to go, truly. I’ll go and she won’t stop me.”
“My parents would be thrilled to have you!” Catherine says eagerly. “I’m so sorry, though. Why has your Aunt forbidden Christmas?”
“She says I can’t have any distractions if I am to achieve my goals,” Eden responds and tucks a strand of loose hair behind her ear.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Catherine seems intrigued. “But, pray tell, what are these oh so important goals?”
Eden poses in the snow like one of the women on the opera posters her parents took her to see for her birthday last year.
“I’m Eden Starling,” Eden announces, raising her head up up. “And I’m going to be a star!”
Her first Christmas Day at the Beadnell’s is the best day of Eden’s life.
Catherine’s parents are clearly deeply in love with one-another, and coo over Eden’s soft blonde curls and polite manner. Eden isn’t allowed any money so she painted everyone something generic and hid the paper up her sleeves. They pin the paintings on their walls; Eden decides she likes them instantly.
“I’m afraid I can’t paint very well, Mrs Beadnell,” Eden laments.
Mrs Beadnell doesn’t admonish her the way her Aunt would. She only grins at her and taps her on the nose lovingly. “It’s the thought that counts.”
Eden smiles back but tears well up in her eyes. The Beadnells are so warm and kind and wonderful, so unlike her own home that she never wants to leave. Eden isn’t allowed much rich food lest it ruin her singing voice so she takes the opportunity to gorge herself on chicken and peas and beef.
Catherine has clearly spoken about her to her father, a tall and semi intimidating man until he smiles at her. He leans down to reach her level and says, “If your Aunt hurts you again, please tell me and I will try and do something about it. I have connections in the council, surely something could be sorted.”
Eden nearly cries again. If this man knew half of what her Aunt subjected her to, she wonders what he would do. She has heard terrible stories of orphanages, and her Aunt likes to threaten her with sending her there, and she would sooner cut out her vocal cords with a penknife than leave Catherine.
So, she doesn’t tell him.
“Thank you all for being so kind to me,” Eden says, as she leaves early so her Aunt won’t catch her. “I love—“
The door closes before she can finish the sentence. She decides it’s for the best. She feels too much, it’s why she cries when her Aunt criticizes her or when she’s been left alone all week.
“I look forward to seeing you again, darling Eden,” Catherine calls from the opened living room window, and Eden hopes she isn’t blushing.
Catherine first hears Eden sing in their church choir.
Eden gets all the solos and receives frequent praise from their small town every year.
“You don’t hate me, do you?” She asks one night after a performance. “For stealing all the solos from you.”
Catherine scrunches her eyebrows in confusion. “I could never hate you, Eden. You have a beautiful voice.”
“We should perform together this Christmas!” Eden says hurriedly. She knows her Aunt will find them soon. “Just one song. Jolly Old Saint Nicholas!”
Catherine nods. “I would love too!”
“Truthfully, I love sewing and making dresses, is that not strange?”
“Oh, of course not! The dresses are almost as beautiful as you. Besides, my aunt said that even the Princess Anneliese made dresses once. Well, she wasn’t very good at it but still...”
“And the Songbird Queen Erika was once a lowly seamstress, I know, my parents told me that story too.”
“You could never be lowly, Catherine.”
Her Aunt takes an eternity to stop screaming at her, and Eden spends a week or so being regularly tied to radiators or the piano legs by her leg so she can’t escape her confinement. It’s horrible.
She’s considering throwing herself off the roof of this awful house when the note arrives. It’s slipped under her doorway as she hears her Aunt’s carriage go away.
Eden would recognise Catherine’s handwriting anywhere.
I am so sorry. I love you, Eden, I do.
Your dearest friend, Catherine
Eden mulls over her use of the word friend until she passes out from exhaustion on the piano keys.
Her Aunt moves them to London soon after the incident without telling a soul and Eden hides her face in her kitten’s fur the whole way there.
Eden is twenty-one the first time she kisses Catherine.
On the check.
She does this to her whole team every time she gets a standing ovation, which is often. She’s drunk on the celebrative alcohol and the lights and the season and the fresh snow.
“I missed you so much,” Eden whispers in her ear. Catherine is smiling again, even brighter than last she saw it.
But Eden bites her tongue and runs out of the room before Catherine can respond.
It’s a shock to the London public when Eden Starling takes a break from singing at the height of her career. It’s even more of a shock to learn the reason why.
“My best friend recently adopted an orphaned girl, Tammy,” She says. The cameras flash in her face, hurting her eyes. Her throat feels raw. “She has asked me to be her Godmother. I accepted, of course. I will be joining them for the holidays.”
She leaves before she can answer anymore questions.
Catherine is waiting for her in the carriage, Tammy on her lap and Tammy’s walking stick nestled next to them. Tammy is falling asleep. Catherine is always smiling now, it looks beautiful on her.
Eden sits beside them both. Catherine’s holding her hand. She hopes she isn’t dreaming. The ghosts are far from her mind, all that matters is Catherine.
On the doorstep of Catherine’s parents house, Eden kisses her.
She is selfish, after all.