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The light of common day

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After a celebratory birthday lunch with cards and a small present from the Eliots, which touched her, she and Monica had walked slowly into Keswick – slowly because her friend had to use a crutch and stop every so often to rest her aching muscles – and they shared a pot of tea and a couple of hunks of ginger cake at a warm and steamy teashop.

Despite her best intentions, she couldn’t help thinking about the Merricks’ Twelfth Night party, which would be starting in a few hours, and what it would feel like to dance with Patrick again, the peacock-blue chiffon of her dress floating with the breeze of their movement. She supposed it would still have fitted her – she hadn’t grown so very much this year. She hadn’t heard from Patrick since the end of term, so he either hadn’t written or her beastly family hadn’t bothered forwarding any of her post: she’d tried hard not to torment herself too much with why, or even if they’d return to the same degree of friendship. Even to herself she dared not name it love.

Monica asked, abruptly, as though she had caught an echo of her friend’s thoughts, “Are you sorry to miss your neighbours’ party this year? It sounded super.” She grinned, wryly. “We don’t have those sort of neighbours.”

Ginty shrugged. “When we lived in London, we didn’t, either. It’s a beautiful house, and the Merricks have lived there for years – quite different to Trennels.” In a flush of enthusiasm and appreciation for their friendship, she added, “You must come to visit soon.”

“I’d like that. But tell me – is it all ball gowns and evening dress and ‘champagne in gold beakers’ and so on?”

Ginty laughed at the picture. “Evening dress and nice frocks – though some are nicer than others – but punch and fruit cup, more like, and lots of traditional dancing – your Sir Rogers and Paul Joneses and the odd foxtrot. No jiving or glitterballs or Abba on the record player.” She smiled at the thought. “It would be fun to see the local worthies getting down to disco, though.”

There was a moment when she thought Monica might ask another question which might not be so easy to answer. And then wondered whether she ought to just confess her feelings for Patrick. But then, it might be difficult to do that without also mentioning the utter mess she had made of last term, which thus far she had avoided telling Monica about. Though it was possible that Vee or Jocelyn had already written to her with the edited version. She spared a moment to thank heaven that Monica was not the inquisitive sort, who never pried into one’s feelings.

They walked home in the moonlit dark, enjoying the yellow streetlights and crisp chill of the evening air. The hills to the south, cupping the lake, were pale with snow, though so far the snow had not reached the lower slopes. The landscape was quite different to that of home, less tamed, more rugged than the gentle rolls of down and heath around Trennels. Dinner, later, was hot and tasty, and there was a delicious home-made chocolate sponge cake with fresh cream filling which Mrs Eliot had made herself. Ginty complimented freely, knowing that her own mother would never have been able to bake something like this, and was pleased that she had pleased the whole family as a result.

After dinner, Mr and Mrs Eliot played backgammon and left the two girls to their own devices. This turned out to be watching the television where they discovered Audrey Hepburn being charming in Paris, and settled down to watch amusedly.

It was only afterwards, about to turn out the bedside lamp and pull the blankets over her, that her mind insisted in connecting the film with Gondal. Surprised, since there was nothing much in art forgery and stealing statuettes to strike a chord, it was some time before she remembered. It was the antique pistol, going off accidentally and shooting Simon in the arm. Memory immediately showed her Nicola striking Patrick’s hand with the hilt of her sword and the appalling crash and echo of the bullet firing which followed. She lay, frozen, almost as they had been frozen in the aftermath of near-disaster. She shuddered. At the time she had been too surprised and shocked by the suddenness of it and the need to deceive Rowan to think seriously about the might-have-beens, but she forced herself to do so now.

She wondered if Patrick ever thought of the narrow escape he’d had. What if he had been shot? What if Nicola’s intervention had not, after all, been the cause of the accident? What if Patrick had pulled the trigger as he’d intended and the bullet had reached a target more precious than a Shippen window and a tree in the spinney? Aware that she was upsetting herself, but almost enjoying the emotion, she looked back on days she and Patrick had spent together and imagined the empty space where he might not have been. She turned her face and wept into the pillow for a while.

Did he ever think to himself that it had been Nicola who saved his life? Nicola who always seemed, irritatingly, and despite her youth, to occupy a certain place in Patrick’s regard which Ginty was vaguely aware he did not give her, and which, nevertheless, she craved desperately. If she, Ginty, had been the one to have seen the danger, and had rescued him, things would have been different, she knew.

She could see it now, how she could have done it in the context of their play, Crispian pulling at his wrist (ignoring the fact that he was a good deal stronger than she and it would have been much less easy than in her imagination), and demanding the pistol as a matter of right. Then Rupert would have been saved, and Nicola would not have broken up their Gondal, and they would have known what happened afterwards. Not just wondered and made vague tentative suggestions. And the dream would not have ended, unresolved, in the cold light of morning, and faded, taking with it all of the potential. Because she saw, now, that they had tried too hard to make things happen which should have transpired naturally. If the Gondal had gone on, she would have built a different relationship with Patrick in which Nicola had no place, and she would feel neither resentment, nor jealousy.

*

The thought comforted her for a while, until the return to school, and Lawrie’s ingenuous (if heavily edited) recounting of the events of the holidays made it so very clear to her that her dream of Gondal was gone, like frost in the sun turning to mist, and Patrick, as fickle and cowardly as Rupert, with it.