Courage and KitKats
"Are you going to eat that, Faithie?"
Brianna nudged Faith with her finger before pointing towards the last KitKat stick on the table. Claire had set five of the chocolate wafer fingers before her daughters as soon as they finished eating Mac N' Cheese for dinner, just to see how the they were going to deal with the last piece of evening dessert after each of them getting two pieces of it. Bree kept wary eyes on her sister, who, seemed to be trapped in a great dilemma on what to do with the favored piece.
Pouting morosely, she looked towards Brianna. "I want it." She slightly stretched her words.
"So are you going to eat it?"
"I do not know."
"Make up your mind!" the toddler with the longer hair grumbled. "Or I will eat it!"
"No! Lemme think!" Faith slammed her hands repeatedly on the table, her face growing to a nasty red each time she was feeling unsettled over something. Claire wanted to interfere so badly, wanting to ease the tension between the twins over one sad-looking wafer bar. She was dying to give them a clue that they could just cut the piece into two equal halves, but as much as she wanted to mediate, she also longed to see the girls' dynamics in situations like this. They may be stubborn and hot-headed at times, but if she were to take them to forest school, with them making new friends during the day, she had to know whether they were capable of sharing or not.
Surely Leoch wouldn't try to make ends meet just for the sake of two homeschooled girls joining the gang, so she had to prepare them for moments where generosity and humility was to be required of them.
Brianna waved her hands in an attempt to get Faith's attention. "Are you even thinking?"
"I am thinking!" replied Faith, who suddenly realized there was another person seated with them on the table. "Wait. Mummy. Mummy doesn't have a KitKat yet, Bree."
Okay, now this is interesting. Claire's eyes widened at this brand new discovery. The two little redheads exchanged silent glances, before Brianna pushed the plate towards their mother. "Mummy, for you."
Claire felt a lump on her throat, and she tried her best to stop tears of joy from trickling down her eyes, not wanting to worry any of them. "Oh, sweetheart. Thank you so much! Both of you!" Claire honored their decision by taking the offered snack with both hands, while the girls looked proud of themselves, affirming each other with their happiest of smiles at how they thought they made the right decision.
Coming home from a tiring twelve-hour shift tonight felt all the more delightful upon being a witness to her daughters' kindness. The hours spent at the hospital may have proven itself useful for Claire to get rid of any unwanted painful memory, thanks to her occasional repartee with Joe by the doctor's lounge, as well as the increasing workload given by the hospital's head director and chief physician Doctor Gascogne—who prefers herself to be called Doctor Hildegarde.
When Claire asked why Hildegarde, the older doctor simply gave her a slight raise of a brow before saying with a deep and resonant voice: "It's just as you want yourself to be addressed as Doctor Beauchamp, even if we all know that isn't your surname."
"It will be, Doctor Hildegarde." She countered playfully. "Soon."
Being in her late fifties, Doctor Hildegarde exhibited a gaunt, overawing frame with the way that she moved and walked around the hospital, causing stolen glances from both patients and hospital staff. Her features were overwhelmingly that of a typical Hollywood witch, but behind the formidable visage was a caring woman with stalwart character. She was passionate about healthcare and medicine and it could be seen with the way she dealt with the doctors under her supervision, giving them timely updates on hospital regulations and patient concerns. She welcomed Claire to the workplace in a unmoved exterior, but in character she did feel the same warmth and sincerity that of a mother, and Claire could never be grateful enough to be led by a chief physician as hands-on as the great Doctor Hildegarde.
The increasing demand of the job kept her away from the memory of Frank too; she'd rather subject herself to physical exhaustion than go through the emotional roller-coaster all over again.
But the feeling of relief of being at the graces of kind colleagues and hands-on bosses can never compete with the joy she would feel each time she would arrive home to meet the girls, as the burdens of her heart would disappear over a shared meal, a little game of hide-and-seek in their small brownstone apartment along Beacon Hill, and a bedtime story that accompanied a few songs sung by Faith and Brianna—who, just like the recent KitKat predicament, would both battle over who gets to sing better. The girls, unfortunately, had only one standard of good singing, and that would ultimately belong to the person who sang the loudest. After their first two weeks in Boston screaming the lyrics of How Far I'll Go from Disney's Moana, Claire reminded herself to check on soundproofing windows online, and get them installed as soon as possible.
"Did you like it, Mummy?" Faith asked enthusiastically for a feedback, as if she were the one who made the crispy treat. Brianna had the same smile etched on her lips too. They both looked ridiculous, but they were altogether beautiful.
"I love it, Faithie. It's very yummy!" She imitated Faith's habit of stretching her words, before taking a big munch out of the wafer, gobbling everything down. The twins clapped, the way Claire would always do when they finished their meals. "Yay! All clear!"
"Good job, Mummy!" Bree punched in the air. "Good job, Faithie!"
"We're all good girls!" The other little one tittered, sending Claire heaving out a loud laugh. While the blissful air filled their tiny dining space, Claire affirmed herself of how things are looking up now that Frank was out of the picture.
After dinner, Claire let them share their story about how their day was with their new babysitter, Mrs. Crook. After that, much to Claire's surprise, was another round of a screamed version of the Moana song that's been on their heads for days. Claire made sure they only sung up to the first chorus before ushering them to the bathroom for a quick shower, and soon later tucked them to bed.
"It's now time for a kiss-kiss," Claire softly whispered at the final leg of their nighttime routine. The girls were now bathed and cleaned and prepared for the night, but when she leaned forward to give each of them their goodnight kisses, Brianna blocked her face from her mother's lips. "What's the matter, sweetie?" She asked as vivid blue stared back at longingly.
"Are we really going to school? Just like what you said before?"
That question drew in Claire's face a tender smile. "Yes, sweetie. It'll be fun. I told you, haven't I?"
"I know," Brianna glumly said. "I know." She repeated to herself, as though the first wasn't enough to convince her.
Right after her visit at Leoch, and that brief forest kindergarten walkthrough with Jamie, Claire came home to tell the twins about it: that Leoch was a beautiful playschool filled with all the farm animals they would encounter in their little flashcards back in London (Claire made it certain she never mentioned anything about Teacher Sandy), that there were kids their age they could make friends with, and that there were horses—one of them was a tall, black horse named Sleepy. They got excited about it instantly.
Although the concept of new friends and farm animals was gladly welcomed by both, Claire noticed them feeling quite restless and agitated about school, especially when the first day of classes approached them fast.
Tomorrow was the their first day of kindergarten classes, which explained why the twins were jittering over the matter.
"There's nothing to worry about, loves." Claire spoke of those words more to herself than to the girls, her mind going back to that photo of kids playing in the mud. God, will these girls even oblige themselves to a little dollop of dirt?
"What if they don't like us?" Bree asked. "I never had friends. Except for Faith. But she's my sister. That does not count."
"Me too," Faith seconded, looking more worried than the other twin.
Claire swore her heart melted and she could have shed a tear both of joy and of pity; joy for their innocent concern on how to make a good first impression on their first day, and pity for their innocent concern on how to make a good first impression on their first day.
The very same reason.
But if there was one emotion that stood out, it was the pride in seeing Faith and Brianna growing up right before her own eyes. They were becoming more self-conscious each passing day, experiencing the first few joys and concerns of a young child.
Maybe if Frank saw this for himself, she asked herself while beholding the two girls' presence, things may have been different, I guess?
She shook her head of any unwanted thought.
"They will like you. You're the most beautiful girls ever!" Claire said reassuringly, rolling to the empty space beside them. "And I'm sure your teachers are fun too. I met one of the kind teachers from forest school, actually," she said as she held up a finger, emphasizing the number 'one', and they lifted a finger to mirror her actions too. "The kind sir told me that it'll be fun, and there is nothing to worry about because you'll meet new friends there. He likes horses too! And the horses seem to like him very much too. You remember Sleepy, right? The horse I told you about?"
After receiving two fervent nods in reply, Claire giggled. "He petted the big horse, just like this." A hand gently grazed Faith's head, and then Bree's. "And then, he'll make a clicking noise to get the horse's attention, just like this!" She clicked with her tongue, and the girls giggled at the sound.
"Then what happened?" Bree was already taken out of her previous worriment, and so was Faith. Claire didn't really know how tonight's bedtime odds were in her favor but she thanked the heavens for that.
"What happened next? Oh, big old Sleepy followed him, as they walked together to his horsie-home."
In reality, Claire never got to see Jamie walk the horse back to the stables that day. After that firm handshake, he grinned before taking one step forward to open the car door for her. Chivalry suits him well, she said to herself.
He was a true gentleman.
He wished her safety as she entered the car that day, warning her about speeding vehicles around that time, and then waved one last goodbye before she started the engine. Claire could remember making a quick glance towards the rearview mirror and still see Jamie's big silhouette in the middle of the gravel yard, watching her car speed down into the main street, until he was already out of sight.
"I wanna see Sleepy," Faith yawned, while sluggishly tugging on both Claire's and Brianna's hair. "He's very good."
"And very smart too! Just like you both. He's curious like Faithie-girl, and rugged strong like Brianna." Claire snatched the moment of their fun colloquy in order to come up with an improvised bedtime story about Sleepy the Horse. "Sleepy was a beautiful black horse among all others, and was everybody's favorite. He loved to walk under the sun, along with his other farm companions."
"Like the moo's?"
"Yes, Faith. Like the cows that go 'moo', and the sheep that go 'baa'. They loved it in Leoch, especially when they saw the little children having fun during the day." Sleepy and the animals pranced around the barn with the cows and the goats at the sight of the kids, and by the time she felt that the girls were adrift into their dreams, Claire stopped.
And they all lived happily ever after, she smiled, planting sweet kisses atop each forehead before she soundlessly crept towards the door. Once she had secured a considerable distance from her daughters' room, Claire checked her phone, which had been buzzing forever against her back pocket of her jeans.
"Bloody hell," Claire felt her face fuming as she slumped onto the couch, seeing an endless cycle of messages coming from Frank. She scrolled through the message thread, her eyes simply glancing through one bubble after another. She didn't want to dwell in them much, because if she did...
10:00 PM. How are you?
10:25 PM. Did you have any trouble getting a place? I know of a colleague who lives down in Cambridge.
10:26 PM. The rent isn't that bad, but I know the place is wide and spacious enough for you, Faith and Bree.
10:28 PM. Claire?
10:30 PM. Have you found a school for the girls? Classes are about to start there. I know of a place where you could hitch them in.
10:31 PM. I know the principal. He's a man, just in case you wanted to ask.
10:35 PM. I'm sorry. I must be rambling a lot. I'd appreciate it if you'd give me a reply.
10:36 PM. Just wanted to know if you're doing okay.
10:40 PM. Take care.
Claire guffawed, as she tapped on the screen before placing her phone against her ear. It rang twice before a deafening shrill chimed on the other end of the call.
"CLAAAAIRE!" Geillis was screaming in a loud, threatening noise that Claire almost flung the phone across the room. "A'missed ye sae muckle!"
"Missed me? G, I've phoned you every after twelve-hour shift, how on earth could you miss me?" The two laughed and caught up with what happened during the previous day instead: Geillis mentioned that the car had already been sold, and that she had already deposited her money. Claire, in turn, gave her an update on the twins' first day in forest kindergarten, how she had already paid their fees in full, how she'd spent most of the days getting them ready for a new learning environment, and how Frank had decided to storm her with messages about lodging and prep school.
At the mention of the last update, Geillis made a quivering sound of disgust. "Little piece of advice, Claire. Save my digits, as well as your new colleagues', write them in a piece of paper or in yer computer or phone's note app. And then do yerself a favor by getting yerself a new number and whack that auld cursed card down the garbage."
"I'll consider that."
"Consider? Claire, don't tell me ye are giving this man a chance. Ye've been put to misery for God knows how long."
Claire suspired a deep breath. "I know that, G. But he's... he's asked me about the girls. I know things between me and Frank won't be the same anymore, but if he's trying his best for Faith and Bree, then who am I to keep him from being a father to them?"
"Look." Geillis spoke sternly, seemingly trying to get a point across amidst the cacophonic noise. "Ye moved miles away with the girls to keep them both away from that eejit of a man. I ken ye as a loving and forgiving woman, Claire. But if ye'd invalidate the way F-word has thrown yer family down the drain over a series of text messages, then I'm sorry, I'd have to call ye a shitehawk."
Whatever shitehawk meant, Claire was certain it wasn't pleasant. "Are you seriously going to call me that?"
"Dinna need to. I ken you'd never give him a chance." She finally said. "Good luck tomorrow, Beauchamps. It's gonna be a long day."
"Early bird again, Fraser?"
Jamie glanced to the door where a young scrawny woman greeted him with a warm smile. Her long, chestnut hair and her heavy backpack bounced with every step she made towards the office cubicle they both shared.
"Are ye no' used to me showing up early yet, Geneva?"
"I'm quite certain you'd arrive at six in the morning for the barn animals, which is why I'm so glad that this cup of coffee isn't going to waste. Had to tempt the gods for it." She grinned at him, placing one of the venti Starbucks cups on his desk. "A random good-luck present from yours truly."
"Och, ye dinna have to, but I'm grateful." He lifted the cup and slightly pulled the lid open to get a whiff of the lively, nutty aroma of espresso. "And a good-luck gift? Why so?"
She scooted towards the empty chair beside him. "Why, it's your last teaching year, of course! Don't tell me you've forgotten?" Geneva plopped her backpack on the desk, making it land with a heavy thud. "Or perhaps you've decided to stay in Boston for good?"
"I havena forgotten, lass. And Christ! What's inside yer backpack, a boulder?"
The twinkle in Geneva's eyes sent his lips curving to a smile. "A laptop, dummy. Seems like you have no problems about the gift, as I can see you enjoying the scent of oozing caffeine."
"I just, erm... Don't people normally give parting gifts when the school year's at its end?"
"I just wanted to give you something, that's all." She playfully tapped on the surface of her own paper cup, but her eyes never left him. "Is it crazy, how I'm beginning to miss my cubemate even before the school year has begun?"
"I could take Jamie's cube when he leaves for that cup of coffee, Dunsany." Another voice joined in: a deep, gruff one, and both of them instantly knew that they weren't alone inside the faculty room. Jamie swiveled his chair to wave a hand to Rupert, one of the Leoch kindergarten teachers. "Will ye gift me a cup then? A good-luck gift for the birthday boy?" He teased.
"Not a chance, Rupert." A flushed Geneva scoffed, turning away from both men. The room was silent again, except for the faint clicking sound in Rupert's keyboard, and while Geneva had been blowing softly on her coffee before taking a sip, Jamie swiveled his chair to face her momentarily.
"Thank you for the coffee. And for wishing me a good year." He expressed friendliness in the smile that he gave her, but nothing more than that. The glint in Geneva's smoky-grey eyes need not be a subject of much scrutiny, as it was no secret that his cubemate and colleague, Geneva Dunsany, had feelings for him.
"You're welcome, Fraser." Geneva too was well aware that Jamie, despite being knowledgeable of her affections, did not seem to have the same sentiments and fondness. But she was fine with it nonetheless.
As he made a generous sip from the flavorful and mellow brew, Jamie somehow felt bad he couldn't reciprocate the same affection, as much as he felt bad for the birthday boy Rupert, who looked crestfallen as he sank to his cubicle chair. In a regular day, it was the three of them who arrived to Leoch earlier than the others: getting modules and props prepared, daily reports submitted, and memo updates read way ahead than the other teachers. One e-mail memo from the school's administration, however, caught his eye.
"Marsali MacKimmie. Fergus Claudel. Roger Mackenzie." He scrolled further down. "Brianna Randall. Faith Randall." He leaned onto his chair to peek into Geneva's cubicle. "Gen, there seems to be a wee error on my class list."
"Can ye check the e-mail?"
She made a few mouse clicks behind the cubicle's partition. "Oh. You mean the twins?"
Twins. Jamie scrooched forward on his chair to make another glance on the list.
Did she really decide to enroll here finally? Jamie's train of thought recalled that one day where he'd seen a slender brunette lady in the middle of the gravelyard, looking helplessly lost and confused as she held up a brochure of the forest school. She said she had twins, although she didn't look much like a mother of two rowdy bairns as her body seemed lean and fit. Had she not mentioned about children, he would have mistaken her as a lass who had gotten lost along the way.
"How did ye ken they were twins?"
"Oh, that? I was able to have a quick chat with the registrar the other day. She told me she was able to talk to an English mom on the phone yesterday, begging her to keep the two girls in one class." Geneva crossed her arms. "She was just worried they wouldn't warm up in school well if they weren't grouped together."
"I see." He replied, eyes still focused on his computer monitor. "Did ye get any more information?"
"Not much, I'm afraid. But what I do know is that the mom's a doctor. She's new in Boston, and is still struggling to juggle her shifts along with other errands. Poor lady has a lot on her plate right now."
Jamie kept those details in mind as he skimmed through his students' data. He had in his class a handful of kids from non-American parents: a pair of English twins, two Scottish bairns, and a boy of French descent under foster care.
"I'll read through this later," Jamie shut his computer down and checked the time on his watch. They only had roughly an hour before the cars would begin to flock by the gravel yard; it was the very place he last saw the woman who had travelled to Leoch in her blue scrub suit, throwing at him one question after another about outdoor learning.
With more of the teachers reporting and filling the faculty with raucous noises of 'it's been a while's and 'happy birthday, Rupert's, Jamie decided to take a quiet breather by the reception area, along with his cup of coffee.
"Last leg before going home, eh?" Just when Jamie thought he had escaped the noise, Rupert showed up, following him to the entrance. "I'm surprised ye were na' holding up a phone to yer ear. Usually yer sister would give ye a morning call before work."
"Aye. Jenny." He mumbled. "She called earlier. Canna seem to bide."
"She's just excited, man! Nae danger. She'd just be surprised at how the year's gon be through fast. One blink and she'd find ye back in yer homestead." Rupert patted him on the shoulder. "Oh, and are ye free this evening? O' course ye are free. Who owns yer time, anyway?"
Jamie furrowed his brows at him. "Why?"
"I'm treating everybody for a wee dram at Ardsmuir Pub. Whisky sounds good?"
"When has it sounded bad?" Whisky always sounded good for Jamie. "Canna think of a day,"
"Me neither." Rupert replied before nodding towards the archway where two cars made a turn to the gates. "Seems like we haftae stop talking about whisky for the time. The bairns are coming in now. I'll see ye later then?"
Jamie nodded, raising his coffee to him. "Long may yer lum reek. Happy working birthday, Rupert." After one quick smile, the plump man took off to the grounds, to prepare the yurt for the kids' playtime. Jamie remained on his seat, watching parents come by the receptionist, and would soon be led with their kids to the yurt where they could play before the gathering circle. Jamie was also quick to assist some parents into coaxing their child into the yurt, accompanying the timid and faint-hearted ones into tables filled with crayons and coloring books. One of the boys that he brought to a coloring set was actually Fergus, one of the bairns under his care. The boy did seem to be content on his own, and so Jamie proceeded outside. He had left his coffee cup unattended; who knows if a kid knocked it off by the table were he last left it?
Coming back to the reception area to finish what was left with his coffee, he finally saw the English lady—Claire, if he recalled her name right, along with two red-headed girls. Standing by the side of the entrance, Claire was on her knees, comforting the shorter-haired lass who seemed to be crying, while the other one, whose hair was longer than the wailing girl, stood by her side.
The Randall twins, as he recalled their surnames at his class list. These two were going to be a part of his five students for the year.
It was instinct that led Jamie to pace towards the troubled trio after forcing the hot liquid down his throat. It was time he switched his teacher mode on. "Miss Claire?" He called, immediately catching her attention.
Before Claire could speak, however, the wee lass wailed.
"I don't know anybody!"
"Faith, sweetie," Claire hushed soothingly at the girl. "Bree is here with you. See? She's fine, isn't she? Faith can be fine about it too, right?"
She wailed even more.
"Faith, I promise you can get your KitKat if you become a good girl in school. Both of you can get a KitKat, okay?"
"I don't want a KitKat! I wanna go home!"
"Faithie," Claire was insistent, but after a few seconds of being stuck in a tight corner, she turned to Jamie with a grimace of embarrassment before turning towards her daughter.
"Y-You remember the kind sir with the horse? The one who does the fancy clicking sounds? He's here!" She beamed towards the little one and, much to Jamie's amusement, she was successful in closing the floodgates of tears.
The little girl with the longer mop of hair eyed him then, not with suspicion, but with a look that felt as if she had high regard for him. Without neither of the three noticing, Jamie made a perturbed gulp. What on earth has this woman been telling them about me?
His gaze shifted from the awestruck one to the other who was busy brushing her tears away with a clumsy flick of her hands. This girl is named Faith, he repeated to himself before kneeling down to meet her eye to eye.
"Hullo there," he smiled, yet still careful with the way he approached her. God knows what kind of stories their mother told them about him. "I'm that, erm, kind sir with the horse," he decided to stick to the facts.
Faith's sobs were still there, but it had softened into gentle, whispering hitches. "H-Hello," she managed to say while her hands slowly slid inside her sweater pockets.
"What's yer name, lass?" He asked, even if he already knew.
"I'm Faith," she stretched her name.
"Aye, wee Faith," He nodded, turning towards the other girl. "And what about ye, what's yer name?"
"Brianna?" the lass replied as though she was not sure of her own name either, while she snuggled closer to her sister to form a joint clump of ginger-red rumples.
Jamie can't help but marvel at how adorable they were. Perhaps his last year teaching in Leoch would be a blast, after all.
"It's nice to meet ye both." Placing a hand on his chest, he introduced himself. "I'm Mr. Jamie. I'm one of your teachers here in school."
"Are you not going to ask for my Mummy's name?" Brianna interrupted, which, of course, sent him chuckling at her fine wit. The girls' mother, at that moment, flushed into a deep pink at her daughter's sudden snark.
"Brianna, that wasn't really polite, was it?" she corrected, although Jamie didn't mind. "Be kind, please?"
"A keen lass, ye are! I'm sorry I forgot to ask yer mother." He then turned towards the older one among the three with knowing eyes. "What's your name, Ma'am?"
She smiled beneath the secondhand embarrassment. "I'm Claire. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Jamie."
"I'm verra happy to meet ye, Miss Claire," He bowed, and then turned towards the kids. "Are ye happy too, lasses?"
"Verra," Although it didn't really reflect in Faith's worried expression. Jamie offered his hand for her to hold, and she gingerly placed her little fingers atop his calloused palm. Bree followed suit, groping and fiddling on the man's fingers.
"Can ye show me happy faces then? A happy face like this?" Jamie grinned at them, and they immediately mirrored the grin. "Bonny!"
Bree gawked. "Bunnies? There are bunnies?"
"Oh, yes! There are wee bunnies back in the grounds, of many colors." Jamie interjected before Claire could even speak correctively towards the little girl. "We can visit them later during class. But first, let's go in to the yurt to meet and play wi' the other kids, aye?"
Jamie didn't have that much trouble in getting the two girls to wend their way from the reception area towards the big yurt, all thanks to the promise of getting to meet the bunnies up close, and the presence of Claire walking along with them.
The twins' first day in class may have had a rough start—with Faith suddenly panicking as she saw strangers walking past the entrance, while Brianna made one scornful remark after another. Despite all that, Jamie's rescue and amazing rapport with the girls took her by surprise. She had underestimated his skill with toddlers when they first met, but he managed to prove himself fit for the job with the way he helped the girls make a new friend as soon as they reached the playtent. Seeing them come out from the dark, enclosed shell of timidity and guardedness and finally sharing cute grins with the other kid made her heart swell with unexplainable joy, something she knew she was meant to feel all this time if she had not been deprived of it.
God, Claire bit her lip. What took us so long?
"The horses have already been forgotten, thanks to the bunnies. But that wasn't so bad, was it?" Jamie said thoughtfully when he turned towards Claire, but was startled when he saw her sniffling a tear. "What's wrong? Is everything alright?"
She nodded, eyes still moist and wet. "I'm fine, it's just... I..." The sniffles made her pause for a moment. "I just never thought it would be this smooth." Claire turned away, not wanting her daughters to catch her crying on their first day. "S-Sorry, I'm just quite relieved they made it through the big leap from homeschool to kindergarten."
"They made a bigger leap of faith than that, Sassenach. English lasses, ye all seem to be." Jamie remarked while she dried her eyes with a handkerchief.
It took her a moment before realizing he had called her that. "Must be that phone call with the registrar. I guess word spreads fast among the teachers here."
"Nah. I ken because they're assigned to me."
"You're their teacher?"
"I am," Jamie crossed his arms, eyes never leaving the three kids huddled over one coloring book. "That wee laddie wi' them's another one of mine. He made a fit earlier, was beside himself the entire time until he got his hands over a coloring book. Glad they're getting along too, ye ken. It's good to get them familiar wi' faces before classes begin."
Clare noticed that most, if not all parents, stayed inside the yurt even as the teachers were already making their way inside. All of a sudden, one of the lady teachers, who introduced herself to the group as Miss Geneva, began to clap and get everybody's attention. She greeted and began to gather the kids in a circle, while the parents stayed behind, occupying the empty benches that surrounded the far corners of the tent.
"Are you not joining the kids?" Claire asked Jamie when he sat beside her. Wasn't he supposed to be up front?
"Ah, no. Not yet," He shrugged. "Gathering circles and a few bit of song-singing is usually Miss Geneva's time to shine. The teachers lead one particular program for the day, ye ken."
Claire did see that the other teachers were also seated among the parents, relating to them while the beautiful ang young Miss Geneva engaged the little ones to a time of introduction.
"What sort of activity do you get to lead the entire group of kids in?" She asked him while she noticed how the little coloring-book boy was now seated between Faith and Brianna in the circle of kids.
"I lead nature time, which includes the forest trail and the animal interactions." Jamie replied; his gaze was carrying from the kids to Claire, and then quickly back to the kids. "But we take turns with the forest trail. Me, Mr. Rupert and Mr. Angus. Just so we also have our time to focus on our class."
"I knew your assignment had something to with animals, Mr. Jamie."
He gave her a quizzical look. "Does that assumption have something tae to wi' what happened awhile ago, Miss Claire?"
"Me being the kind sir wi' the horse," the way he even attempted to pull her accent sent her giggling, but she indulged him with a decent backstory anyway, telling him how his sudden appearance with a horse by the gravel yard was the cause of it all. "I guess I have traumatized ye with such a sight."
They shared a laugh, and began to talk not as parent and teacher, but as two strangers trying to get to know each other, If Claire could put it that way. He began asking her questions not pertaining to kids and kindergarten, but more about her and how she happened to end up in Boston. Claire, in return, said what her heart was ready to tell any stranger who asked: that she simply had to leave a failed marriage for the sake of the kids.
That was all her healing heart had permitted for her to say.
"Boston was the place since, well, because I first managed to secure a stint at the general hospital. I could've ended up in any other state if I didn't get the job here."
"Ye were really planning on living someplace far away, then?"
"I had to, it was for the best. My husband, he was.... well... I really don't have the right words but he wasn't pleasant."
"Ye dinna have to tell me, it's alright." He assured her. "Seems to me that there was no other way but out."
Claire let out a sigh. "You can say that. But of course the choice didn't come too easily, knowing that we didn't have any family in an entirely new city."
She was afraid with the way he would respond with that; surely teachers would raise brows on how a mother of two who'd dare to work four to five twelve-hour shifts a week. But Jamie didn't give her the judging eye. As she thought, this was no longer a conversation between a parent and a teacher.
"I see," The scattered noise inside the tent seemingly reduced around her when he spoke with his deep, resounding voice that it made her turn towards him. "That's courage, ye ken. Doin' what is right in spite of fear, or even if things are uncertain and against ye. If ye've done it for the people ye care about at the expense of your own comfort, who could go against that decision, no? Doing everything ye can for the sake of your kids is an act of courage. Canna deny ye that merit."
Despite having most parts of her heart in a mess than it is in the mending, she cannot simply resist the warmth and tenderness that he evoked, as well as the feeling of being guarded and secure with how his body faced her as they sat side by side. It was just like what she felt with Joe—being the all-genuine colleague that he was, but there was something inexplicable with Jamie's gaze. It was deep. Ravishing. Like the sea along with its ebbing and flowing. But it was not that his eyes were beautiful. It was that he looked at her. Beheld her like she was someone worthy of beholding.
Frank could've never gazed at her this way. No one did. It was different.
And Claire found it disturbing in herself that she felt comfortable in the eyes of someone lesser than an acquaintance.
"Oh, Christ. Flattery will get you nowhere, Mr. Jamie." She jested, breaking the stare that may have lasted for more than five seconds if she had only allowed it.
"I'm no flattering ye, Sassenach. I was just stating what's true, is all. " He pointed towards the gathering circle. "It's the bairns' turn."
She didn't even have time to process how he'd just called her a sassenach again when she saw Faith and Brianna being gently guided by Miss Geneva to the center. Their eyes were restlessly looking all over the place, looking for somebody they knew until they saw their mother, standing up, waving her hand towards them.
"Oh, what pretty girls we have here!" Geneva knelt behind them, placing both her hands on each head. "It's your time to introduce yourselves to your new friends. Say your big hello now, dears."
Claire fumbled for her phone inside her red leather bag to capture the moment. Hitting 'Record', she captured the brief moment where the girls looked at each other, as if wondering who among them should go first. She thought she had guessed right, but was surprised to see Faith take one step forward.
Oh, my precious baby!
"Hello," she was swaying her hips as she maintained her gaze towards Claire. "My name is Faith Randall!"
"Oh that's wonderful! Altogether now, pals: Nice to meet you Faith." Geneva maintained her cheery disposition as she gestured for the kids to repeat after her, and they all did. God, that woman could keep the same smile for eight long hours and never falter, she thought as she panned the camera to Bree, who was now up next.
"Hello, I'm Brianna Randall." She appeared to be nonchalant and more composed than her sister, but the way her hands fidgeted behind her made Claire aware that she was braving the moment.
She could never be prouder than this.
The gathering circle went on, and thanks to Geneva's patience and dedication to her craft, she was able to get to know Fergus, the first friend her daughters ever made when they entered the yurt. Fergus was the last kid to introduce himself to the group before snacks were served, and soon later, the teachers came to gather themselves into smaller clusters, each class having one round wooden table and six chairs. Jamie had also left his seat beside Claire to bond with his little group of five toddlers.
Aside from Faith, Brianna and Fergus, two other kids—a blonde girl and a boy with thick brown hair—flocked near him as he began to talk animatedly while pulling out flashcards of farm animals, making their snacktime an interactive one. Claire had been recording every bit of the girls' first day, zooming and panning the viewfinder screen wherever Brianna and Faith sat and crawled. However, it didn't help that their teacher was a big man; with his broad shoulders blocking the view entirely, Claire had to scoot a few meters to the left just to capture a better angle of the twins.
"Alright everybody! Since today is a time for big introductions, who's excited to greet our fellow farm animals a big hello?"
The yurt suddenly turned into a rowdy cubbyhole at the mention of animals; clearly the kids were looking forward to meeting them, and even the teachers expected this kind of reaction that they all knew how to calm them down. "Okay, I know. Are you excited?"
"Yes!" The kids said in unison. Even Faith and Brianna was in it.
"Alright, pals." The poise and grace of Geneva was still just as lively as it was when she first appeared. "Before we visit our friends from the farm, we need to have a set of rules. Let's call on Mr. Jamie to give us a few instructions, okay?"
He stood as he was acknowledged, head almost hitting the roof of the tent. Jamie did mention that there were other teachers who were sizeable, but none of them came close with the broadness of his shoulders, or even his towering height. "Hullo, hullo!" he waved, putting his hand near his chest. "Now that we've made friends with everybody here in the tent, it's time for us to go out and introduce ourselves to our farm friends. Can ye give Mr. Jamie a wee thumbs-up if ye're all excited? Just a thumbs-up," he gestured, bunching his hand to fists while lifting a thumb for them to see. Everybody followed, necks cocked towards the towering figure before them.
"Okay. Verra good, everybody! Now, I've got three rules. The first one, kids," Jamie held out one finger, and then slowly placed it against his lips. "Can somebody tell me what this means?"
"Quiet!" One of the kids from Jamie's little circle gave his answer opposite to its meaning.
"Aye, ye got that, Roger Mac! We have to be whisper-silent. We dinna want to scare them with our noise, aye? So we have to be whisper-silent when we visit them. Can ye make the whisper sound wi' me?" With his voice decreasing into a soft whisper, Jamie and the kids made a hushing sound in unison. "Now onto the second rule, it's two, like the peace sign here," He held up two fingers, affirming each one that copied his gestures. "We have to be peaceful wi' them and be gentle. Lastly,"
The kids didn't even wait for him to hold three fingers up, as they already did it. "Wow! How'd ye ken three was next? How clever! Yes, it's number three. We'll be visiting three places this morning: the chicken coop, the rabbit farm, and then the cows. So, again, can ye tell Mr. Jamie what's Rule One?"
Both teachers and kids made hushing noises together.
"Wa' bout Rule Two?"
V-signs were given back as a reply.
"Aye, and number three—which I dinna think would need demonstration." He then invited everybody to stand up for a little stretching exercise before leading the group of students and teachers outside, trooping along in a single-file.
Parents were only allowed to watch their kids by the picket fence. And although some of the parents decided to just stay by the yurt, Claire was among the ones who went out to see her kids be introduced to even more of the environment around them. From afar, she could see Brianna and Faith pootling along with Fergus and the two other kids as Jamie led his group first towards the farm animals. She saw Jamie kneeling down as he placed a baby chick on top of his palm towards the group of children, gesturing for them to say hi to the feathered creature before giving the little bird a gentle finger-pat on the head. The other teachers also had scooped up a chick for their class to see, but Claire was entirely focused towards Jamie's class, seeing that Brianna already had the chick on the palms of her hands.
"I'm holding it, I'm holding it!" Bree struggled to keep her voice to a minimum even in her excitement. Beside her, the four other kids observed and waited for their turn. Claire managed to take a photo before Jamie picked up the bird from Brianna and placed it atop Fergus' palms. It was a shame that the rabbit farm couldn't be seen from the fence; Claire had wanted to capture a few moments from their first encounter with the bunnies, but she trusted enough that the days they'd spend in Leoch would reduce the rabbit farm's significance into a common sight.
The kids won't be heading back to the tent until lunchtime, as they would be spending the remaining hours of the day outside. This simply meant Claire had more than enough time to go through one photo after another.
Scrolling through her phone's camera roll, she was misty-eyed with tears of joy and pride as she reviewed photos of her daughters' happy faces in a group of new people. Some of the photos she took even had their teacher hovering beside them, making their hair's strong shade of golden-russet beam vividly in the sun.
By noon, a loud bellowing of chants began to near the tent's entrance. Jamie led the group into a chanting rhythm of the song I Love The Mountains as they all marched inside, and Claire, trying to cork a snicker, noticed how Geneva was singing raucously to hide Jamie's obvious lack of skill for singing.
"You're out of tune, Mr. Jamie!" And there it was: yet another ribbing remark from the ever-stubborn Brianna Randall as soon as the big group broke into their small classes for lunch.
Jesus H. Christ. Claire dropped her forehead into her hand as the group laughed, including Mr. Jamie, who seemed unaffronted by her daughter's straightforwardness. "I ken lass. Poor Mr. Jamie canna sing," he confessed to the group of kids as he helped each one out with their lunchboxes. "But since we'll be spending some time together, can ye and the others help me wi' my singing?"
"Yes!" The five of them nodded, carrying on with lunch. Claire kept watch on Jamie's little group of toddlers until a smiley Geneva reappeared into the center of the yurt, calling everybody into a closing gathering circle. Once the kids have cleared their lunchboxes and helped wiping the table clean, the teachers helped them drag their chairs to the center.
The little goodbye song Geneva began to teach the kids distracted Claire from even noticing that Jamie was already making his way towards her. It was only when the bench faintly creaked at the weight of someone heavy and the way that the air wafted with a familiar scent of musk, pinewood and Jamie did she realize he was sitting beside her, phone in hand.
"I took some photos." He uttered, not with the animated voice he used for the kids, but with his normal voice—which was low and deep-toned with hints of his dialectal brogue. "The rabbit farm's hidden behind the stables, and I thought ye might want to keep a souvenir from their first day. They saw Sleepy too, but only from afar."
He knew. Claire smiled, taking her phone out. "Airdrop?"
"Aye," He tapped on his phone and in a second, photos of her two girls appeared on her phone. Each of them cradling a rabbit in their arms as they smiled for the camera.
They look so... happy.
Claire felt her heart swell with so much joy that she began to shed tears again.
"These are priceless photos, Mr. Jamie. I'm really happy. I erm, never thought they'd be able to fair well in a new place, with new people—"
"It's all courage, Sassenach." Jamie made a quick remark, while watching her swipe through one photo after another. "That was courage right there. Where else could they learn that best other than by looking at their mother?"
"You're not just a flatterer, alright. You're an observant one."
He feigned an offended look. "I'm a kindergarten teacher. Being observant is a skill that is essential to my job."
The kids began to disintegrate from the gathering circle, culminating the kids' first day of school. Faith and Bree began to hop towards Claire with their bags after saying their farewell to their classmates, catapulting themselves to their mother's arms. "Oh, beautiful loves! Did you have fun?"
"I did, Mummy!" Faith hugged. "Bree did too,"
Brianna scoffed, all too proud of herself. "Faith did not hold the chick."
"But I got to hold the bunny!"
"Everybody gets to hold the bunny, Faith! Don't get too proud of it." The two continued squabbling until Claire intervened before they could even begin screaming at each other.
"Alright, girls? What did Mummy say about quarrelling? Not good, right?" Claire said with a calming tone. "What was Mr. Jamie's first rule again?"
The mention of their teacher sent their slanted eyes shifting to Jamie, who had already managed to move a few meters away from Claire as soon as the kids went to her. Claire watched him shaking his head to get their attention, making his thick, wavy hair bob with the motion. He clenched his fist, leaving one finger pointed upward, and pressed it against his lips.
"Quiet," they said in chorus, mirroring the man's actions. Claire grinned, pulling them back into her arms and planting warm kisses on each girls' cheeks.
"Alright. Before we go, a promise is a promise." Claire gently stood from the bench, still addressing the two toddlers as she searched inside her bag. Seconds later, she produced from her bag two square-shaped chocolate bars wrapped in red foil paper.
Faith instantly gasped in excitement. "KitKat! We're good girls, Bree!" They hopped wildly, hugging each other after braving their first day; it was gratifying for Claire to see that their joy of receiving the chocolates have come from the affirmation of their good character, and not just for appeasement.
After receiving their wafer, the two of them thanked their mother before speeding outside the yurt along with the other kids who also went out to play before going home. Claire followed, but before exiting the tent, she turned towards Jamie and found him still sitting by the bench with his elbows perched on his knees. He was busy tapping on his phone when she approached him. "I'm really thankful, Mr. Jamie."
He looked up to meet her with a warmhearted smile. "Ye can call me Jamie when the kids are no' around."
"O-Okay," Claire felt her ears becoming rubescent at that brazen remark. "Thank you, Jamie. I hope they weren't such bothersome children to deal with."
"Och. They weren't," He grunted as he stood up, this time making Claire the one cocking her head to meet his eyes. "But even if they were, I won't treat them any less than what's expected of their teacher. But dinna fash, I had quite a good run with the two o' them, along wi' the three others. It's a relief, ye ken, seeing two more wild ruddy bairns in Leoch other than the one I see when I check the mirror."
Claire laughed, "You actually think of yourself as a child?"
"Just for the time being," He offered his hand, palm opened wide as if he was waiting for her to plop something on it. "I believe ye and the lasses live by the proverb: 'The good, ginger-haired kids get the KitKat bars at the end of the day', yes?"
"Did you just make that up?"
"Yes, but ye canna discount the truth." Now he was playing. "I'm good. And a ginger too."
"But you aren't a kid."
"Not yours, I reckon. But a kid, nonetheless. "
As much as she wanted to keep herself from her amusement, Claire couldn't help but snicker. Then came a chortle.
Until she convulsed with the loudest of giggles in front of him. It was the first time, after a long tearful month, that Claire had broken into a fit of laughter.
"Just wanted to make ye laugh, is all." He grinned, quickly placing his hands inside his pockets as he too stifled a laugh.
"God. I could bloody never think a grown man like you to have such an uncanny sense of humor..." She crossed her arms, heaving deep sighs to ease herself from her humor. "Anyway, I should get going. I'm really grateful for all of this, the pictures, the laughs, everything."
"Ye can save the thanking at the end of the year, Sassenach. The year had just begun."
"Maybe I'm just really grateful, I had to tell you how relieved I was. I never..." she sighed in content, her expressions free and relaxed. "I have never felt this happy for a long time."
They stood transiently, taking in the way today had been both a blessing for them both. Jamie expression was all well-pleased and glad, although his fingers were nervously tapping against the fabric of his jeans. Claire noticed that slight hint of nervousness in him, even if he did seem composed before her.
"Ye can, erm," He cleared his throat, "process the bairns about how their day went by the time ye get home. It'll make them come prepared for Thursday,"
"Of course, I'll keep that in mind. Bye then, Jamie," She replied, waving at him before turning away.
She never heard him say goodbye when she began to walk towards the yurt's door. But Claire could only imagine the astonishment in his face by the time he would look down on his bench seat to see a KitKat bar resting behind him, a handwritten note coming with it. She had managed to place the chocolate on the bench while he was busy tapping on his phone earlier that he must have not noticed it there the entire time they began talking. He may not be a kid, but he'd been a good teacher—a breath of fresh air not only for both Faith and Brianna, but for Claire as well.
The good, ginger-haired kids truly get the KitKats at the end of the day, she smiled.