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Mark the encounter

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It took Nicola longer than she had expected to adjust to the reality of the summer holiday. There was the simple fact that she would be returning to Kingscote after it—so long a period of uncertainty had made this thought apt to ambush her at a much earlier point in the vacation than she was used to, and while it was preferable to the alternative, she still resented the intrusion of school when the calendar had barely turned from July to August. Resisting the impulse to tell Lawrie the whole story when she expostulated yet again about the inadequacy of the Prosser as a reward for relinquishing Caliban exerted its own peculiar strain; reminding her that she had in fact only renounced Ariel rather increased than diminished Nicola’s desire to brain her twin with the facsimile Folio that remained in uneasy joint possession, though Nicola’s title in the Idiot had passed unquestionably to Lawrie. There was the new set-up at Trennels itself; though Rowan was still visibly, simmeringly unhappy about it, everyone else seemed to have settled to the likely permanency of Karen and the Doddy lot in the farmhouse. She visited occasionally to talk farm log with Edwin: his job was leaving him less time to work on it now, though, and he’d stalled with the marriage of two people whom Nicola realised, a freezing fog descending on her usual pleasure in old things, must be Malise’s parents. And there was Patrick, or rather, there was the painful, nagging absence and impossibility of Patrick, who was now unquestionably Ginty’s friend and not hers. The word boyfriend was not one Nicola permitted even to her thoughts; it was at once embarrassingly grown-up and unfeasibly juvenile: it brought into being a repulsive, clinging shadow-creature, the girlfriend, with whom she resisted identifying even her older sister, let alone herself.

A spell of thundery, unsettled weather was unexpectedly welcome: Nicola could rise late, saunter down to breakfast and immure herself in the library for the morning, revisiting Great-Uncle Lawrence’s Maritime Atlas or D.K. Broster. Afternoons were often given to practicalities in Colebridge: market, library, hairdresser, bank. Colebridge library held only one other novel by the author of The Mask of Apollo. It was a sequel; Nicola’s laws of reading thus forbade it absolutely, and about Theseus, never her favourite of the Greek heroes, so she wavered considerably over the fee to order the lost or stolen first installment, eventually capitulating. Evenings passed in a haze: Peter, though sometimes prone to experimental gambits that could be defeated by Rowan’s indefatigable common sense in four moves, no longer considered Nicola a worthy opponent at chess, and she was equally happy to lounge in front of a repeat of Softly, Softly or play Scrabble with Ann until ten o’clock. She flopped into bed sore as if she’d spent the day on horseback; perhaps these were the growing pains that people talked about.

The twins’ birthday was marked in a slightly workmanlike fashion with additions to Lawrie’s make-up box and Nicola’s bookshelf; fourteen was far too old for revolting little tea-parties, of course, and even Treats were regarded dubiously, though when Mrs Marlow supplied them with the necessary cash for a trip to the cinema and sundaes afterwards, they both decided to enjoy it self-consciously, throughly kiddishly.

It was with considerable dismay that, one morning, with just over a week of the holiday to go, Nicola greeted Mrs Marlow’s request to run over to Mariot Chase with a parcel containing a shirt of Patrick’s that Ginty had borrowed when they were caught in a downpour, and had repeatedly forgotten to return. It had been disagreeable enough to see her come in that evening, tousled and flushed in the known, but unfamiliar checked flannel, sleeves rolled up and open collar buttons on the wrong side, or to hear Lawrie thoughtfully remark ooh, Rosalind, modern dress, without having to take a walk across the fields in the wretched garment’s company.

‘—Helena must be harbouring a distinct conviction that I’m trying to economise by clothing all you younger ones from Patrick’s wardrobe—’

It occurred to Nicola, in one of the disquieting recognitions that she had recently begun to entertain concerning the feelings of adults, that her mother’s bright hyperbole might conceal a similar embarrassment to her own at the suspicion that Ginty’s apparent absent-mindedness was nothing of the kind. A genuine howl of protest (Theseus, an unexpectedly appealing narrator for one so conceited, was about to enter the Bull Court for the first time) became, in articulation, a hollow, token whinge, and within quarter of an hour, she found herself stumping down Brendan’s Pale with a paper bag tucked under her arm.

Patrick probably wouldn’t even be there; Ginty had ridden over on Catkin, so they were bound to have gone out, on a pleasant day like this, with just a hint of autumn crispening in it: she could simply give the bag to Mrs Merrick or Nellie. The reflection brought no comfort at all, and she turned her mind determinedly towards The King Must Die. It was queer to think there was a time when men weren’t in charge of most things, that there were terrifically powerful queens, like goddesses, whose husbands were just—decorative dolly-birds, really. She giggled, then shuddered. She wondered if she would like to have been a queen-goddess, and concluded, rather oddly, that she wouldn’t; her sympathies were all with Theseus, trying to break the system—but that was just the effect of a book with an I-narrator, perhaps. Ginty, now—

That thought, coupled with the sight of the high wall around Mariot Chase, brought her back to herself with a jolt. She hurried determinedly towards the wooden door into the stable yard, but found it, unusually, locked.

‘Oh, blow,’ she said aloud, rattling it furiously. She would have to go all the way round. She had just set off on the path running beside the wall when there was a thump, a creak and a shout. ‘Hi—Nick—!’ She froze. Oh, no.

‘—it is Nicola, isn’t it?’ Patrick never made that mistake; he'd often said, incredulously, that he couldn’t see how anyone could. She turned to see his father standing in the doorway: she hadn't noticed before how similar their voices were, though Patrick's was still somewhat lighter.

‘Yes—hullo, Mr Merrick. I’m sorry. The door was locked.’

‘Just jammed, I think. A bit swollen with the rain. Are you looking for your sister? She and Patrick are in the Walled Garden, I think.’

‘No—well, yes, Patrick, I mean—’ she stammered. ‘My mother asked me to bring over his—something of his—that Ginty had forgotten.’

‘Oh, well, you’ll catch him now—’ he stood back and beckoned her into the stable yard. ‘I think they’re planning to be out for lunch; I’m sure I saw Nellie packing sandwiches, otherwise I’d ask you to stay.’

Nicola felt herself flush, and was glad he was behind her, banging the door shut. ‘I—wouldn’t, prob’ly, anyway; I mean, Ma gets fairly irate if we put Mrs Bertie out at short notice.’

They crossed the yard, Mr Merrick asking amiably after the family, and Daks. They passed Catkin in one of the loose-boxes; he snickered in recognition; Nicola grimaced. As he turned for the house, Mr Merrick asked, ‘Oh, shall we see you next Tuesday?’

‘Tuesday—? I’m afraid I don’t—’

‘Oh, didn’t Ginty say? She is forgetful. Cubbing.’

Nicola wasn’t at all sure she liked the sound of it: hunting a wily old Reynard was one thing, but cubs— ‘Thanks, but I don’t ‘spect so. I haven’t a pony, properly, any more, you see; I swapped my share of the Idiot—for, well, anyway, I’d have to ask Peter or Lawrie if they wanted him that day.’

‘All right—well, give my regards to your mother, and if you do change your mind—’

The rest of this speech was lost in the approach of Sellars and one of the stable lads; Nicola, glad to get away, made a minimally polite farewell and hurried towards the kitchen garden. Might as well get it over as quickly as she could, she thought, trying and failing not to anticipate Ginty’s disgust and Patrick’s disdain at her tagging along and pushing in—but, then, if they could bear to be a little less exclusive for five minutes, she wouldn’t be tagging along and pushing in—oh, why couldn’t Ma have just left it for one more day and shoved it into Ginty’s hands as she was actually walking out of the door; it wasn’t as if an old shirt was likely to be missed if it hadn’t been for nearly a fortnight—

She stumbled on a gouge in the brick path and the bag flew from her hands, landing in a sticky-looking, newly-turned bed. Retrieving it and inspecting the contents for damage, she heard the vague murmur beyond the wall coalesce into Patrick’s voice.

‘So they’d be here and we—yes, that is a pretty splendid idea. Just one thing,’ it rose, gaining a familiar ironic inflection, ‘how on earth do we get out, Rosina, my love?’

Nicola felt sick, a lurching, heart-to-mouth, stomach-to-boots nausea that outdid one of her blue funks by some small but perceptible margin. They couldn’t be. Not at their age. Not after—not after—everything. She stared at the empty bed, its raked surface reminding her of the ridge of earth created by the Idiot Boy’s hoof coming down inches from her knee, of Patrick riding away with his fixed, somnambulant Rupert-mask, which in turn recalled the panicky sensation of her seemingly lunatic, though sound, intuition that the pistol had been loaded. She must have misheard. She knew she had not.

Ginty was speaking now. ‘—there’s a secret channel,’ there was a pause, ‘just—here: so narrow that you have to ship the oars. And it becomes a,’ her voice shook, and then went on with decision, ‘pitch-black, filthy tunnel, stinking of fish and seaweed, and we’ll have to pull the dinghy along, groping at spars of rock. It’s—it’s all right if there’s two of you.’

The sunlit, harvest colours of the kitchen garden leached away; Nicola stood shivering in anger, disbelief—and, yes, she supposed it was—fear. She didn’t imagine, even then, that Ginty could be such an absolute clot as to let Patrick know she was describing a real place, or how she had come to know it (and, a few years later, she would forgivingly recognise the episode as Ginty’s outgoing version of the exorcisms she herself could not perform except in the most ferociously-guarded privacy) but it was bad enough. She looked around frantically—if she made any noise betraying her presence now, they would know she had overheard—if she were to bolt, well, Mr Merrick would be bound to mention he'd bumped into her the next time he saw Patrick, and at the very least they'd think she had gone stark staring ravers.

‘Oh darling Rosina, how simply ghastly. How can we inflict it on you—’

He must think that fluting, brittle tone sounded romantic, Nicola thought dimly, as if he were the hero of the sort of old-fashioned film in which doomed lovers met in station buffets and Palm Courts. She tried to take a step forward, but her legs really weren’t so keen. She shoved the parcel between her knees, squeezed her eyes shut and blocked her ears. Not thinking very straight, she resolved to count to a hundred, and then peal out an oblivious, breezy halloo—

She had reached sixty-eight when the low door connecting the kitchen garden with the Walled Garden clicked open, and Ginty (who at that moment was laughing merrily, hoping that a burst of impulsive gaiety might serve as sufficient pretext to slip her arm around Patrick’s waist) stepped out.