One Perfect Day
Melissa’s and Julia’s arms swung together, brushing occasionally as the two girls strolled along the promenade idly looking at the buildings, the boats, and the other people around them who had arrived from the city and nearby towns. The sun shone from an almost cloudless sky of ultramarine marred only by thin tendrils of meandering white: it bounced from every surface and insinuated itself into nooks and crannies, but the salty air was cooled by a breeze flowing inland so the weather seemed not to be as it was, as some reddened and peeling visitors had learned to their cost.
Julia’s black hair was cut in a bob which curled around her chin; she was dressed in a white blouse whose buttons were undone almost to her breasts, white jeans that hugged her legs, and cream sandals whose heels were not so high as to hinder graceful movement, unlike many other girls who strutted awkwardly as they tried to impress their eager audience, most of whom knew little of such things though they thought otherwise. She had a camera with an 80-200mm zoom lens attached, its strap wrapped casually around her left wrist, and circling her throat was a Cleopatra-style necklace with alternating chevrons of white, red, and yellow gold, being a gift from her parents to celebrate her sixteenth birthday.
Melissa was over two inches taller than her friend, and had chosen a pale blue T-shirt, a slightly darker skirt whose wide pleats swirled around her bare calves, and black shoes; from her right shoulder hung a hessian bag with Julia’s wide-angle zoom lens, a small pair of 10-by-25 roof prism binoculars, and a few other things they might need. Her hair was dull auburn and quite long, already windswept and somewhat unruly, and streaked in slightly paler shades due to exposure; she wore more pronounced make-up than Julia’s light dusting of powder and pale lipstick, with her mouth painted a reddish brown, her eyes lined in soft black and upper lashes thickened by mascara, and her broad cheekbones emphasised by a faint blusher. The effect of these, and the self-assured manner in which she carried herself, gave her the appearance of being older than she actually was, and on occasion it was something she used to her advantage.
The young women were constantly the subject of someone’s attention, partly because they radiated an obvious happiness and seemed to be in a world of their own even as they paid attention to the one surrounding them. They walked straight, their eyes looking where they were going rather than the ground a few inches in front of their feet, or at each other whilst conversing, and they moved, spoke, and laughed with an unselfconscious ease and delight in one another’s company; mostly they gained attention simply because they were attractive.
A group of rowdy boys dressed in the mandatory style of tattered jeans and worn leather jackets leered as they approached and moved around the girls at the last moment, pawing the air behind their thighs and beside their breasts and shouting lewd and pathetic, improbable suggestions through the distorted noise that came from a portable cassette-player carried by one, but as neither Julia nor Melissa paid any real attention further insults followed them for a few seconds before the next hapless victim was accosted.
Outside one of many almost identical souvenir shops that spread like tatty ribbon development along the front, a middle aged couple paused and began looking at the racks of postcards. Her bleached hair was partly covered by a black hat bearing the slogan ‘sex appeal give generously’, set between upside-down Union Jacks whose colours had been printed out of register, and his trousers’ belt accentuated what was already an extensive paunch, but they were evidently enjoying themselves, which was all that mattered in the resort, as that was why it existed and how it managed to survive whilst some of its neighbours fell into further decline.
Julia was telling Melissa more of her childhood and how the atmosphere of the buildings and amusements, the shops and arcades, and the bustle of both local people and tourists had altered almost imperceptibly until, arriving home after her first term at their country school, the changes had struck her almost with the force of a physical blow and made her realise with a sense of disorientation what part of what growing up was all about.
She looked with a feeling approaching discomfort at one of the pairs of policemen who were now having to make circumspect patrols of the harbour and adjoining streets, keeping a wary eye on the gangs of skinheads and rockers who started riots at the week-ends, or perhaps they were caused by mods and teds, but she could barely understand the difference between the various gangs who fought over such petty things as clothing styles and categories of pop music, and thankfully their blinkered attention was usually reserved for others of their ilk.
Julia swung her gaze up to the white skeletal structure of the Ferris wheel looming over the surrounding terraced houses, then back down to the lines of electric lights spiralling around and between lamp-posts that in the evening would be lit to stand like sentinels against the night, though many of the bulbs were broken or missing, having been stolen and used as missiles. She sighed to herself, for the girls had hoped, perhaps somewhat naïvely, to find a funfair of the kind she remembered so fondly, but they were greeted instead by an overgrown amusement arcade, smaller cousins of which littered the sea front with promises that could never be fulfilled.
There were no carousels, which was particularly what they had wanted to see: Julia because of the pleasant memories it would rekindle, clutching the spiralling post of burnished gold and riding up and down and around on gaily painted horses as an automatic organ consumed its cardboard programming and played in the centre; and Melissa as she had never ridden a proper one before, seeing them only in books and films she could not relate to, as her upbringing had been at odds with such fun.
All they saw were some ridiculously small roundabouts on which rode simplified machines of war, or cars with wings that were supposed to resemble spacecraft fighters, all of which revolved to the accompaniment of rock music, and the only one having vehicles that moved up and down in any fashion did so by passing segments of the floor over an abrupt ramp in the base. Dartboards whose prizes were imported trinkets of thin brass and gaudy prints of gamin children with obligatory tears had replaced the stalls, booths, shies, ranges, and tents of Julia’s youth, and groups of surly boys roamed menacingly past gargantuan frameworks supporting hair pin tracks, shouting belligerently at everyone who did not meet with their limited sense of approval, especially other boys who behaved in a similar manner and invited an increase in antagonism.
Though she was only nine months older than her friend, Melissa wondered how such a chaotic noise could ever have truly meant anything, but Julia was quick to point out that nothing was as it had been, even allowing for her distorted childhood perspective and selective memory. Only the innocent laughter of the very young remained basically unchanged, though they now expected vast and complicated machines on which to play as they had been deprived of the gift of imagination and so had to experience someone else’s second-hand dreams rather than create their own, and she was thoroughly disappointed with what had occurred.
They had to admit they had perhaps been hoping for too much, and so were not particularly upset, merely resigned to things being as they were, for although Julia had grown up in the area she had never really paid much attention to that end of the coast, and the changes which came had touched only vaguely on her sedate home-town, so she had ignored them quite easily, even though it had probably made her rather insular.
Julia felt more protective than ever towards the many wonderful memories she had, for an entire way of life had vanished forever as far as she was concerned, and she suddenly understood her parents’ comments regarding their own youth as she caught herself thinking of ‘the good old days’: a laughable cliché that now assumed a very personal aspect. Hers were a mere decade ago, which she found incredibly unsettling, for though change was an inevitable part of progress and something she welcomed because of the manner in which life would be improved and knowledge gained, it seemed to her it was usually the worst things that survived.
They passed the clock tower on their way to the harbour-arm, and saw a hundred feet or so out to sea the thick supporting columns and interlacing iron-work which were all that remained of the town’s pier. Having been deemed unsafe a few years ago the army tried to destroy it with explosives, but their public failure was dramatic and the tangled island of criss-crossing struts and twisted beams remained as a relic of the age which produced it: a monument to forgotten engineers and craftsmen whose greatest achievement lay north on the other side of the estuary, thrusting for over a mile into the sea.
Rather than stay for the morning and try with little hope of success at sorting out the few things that might have been of interest, the friends consulted a timetable at the nearest bus stop and agreed to go south around the headland to the next town. It was a quiet place with a small sheltered bay of pale sand where, tides permitting, it was possible to walk on the beach to another town further along the coast, for though a promenade went most of the way, it stopped about a hundred yards short of the succeeding one.
There was a wait of almost ten minutes for the open topped bus that followed a route along the north and eastern coasts of the isle, so they sat on one of the many stone benches built into the low wall at the side of the narrow pavement; they looked down to the small harbour behind them as two men began installing the mast on their sailing boat, whilst nearly on the horizon a large tanker moved slowly in a haze, the front of its wide superstructure a featureless blur as it reflected sunlight.
When the bus arrived, Melissa and Julia paid their fares but remained below, for had they sat upstairs the sea breeze could easily have given them headaches without them realising until it was too late, and they would be walking into the constant wind for a few miles later on, whether along the promenade or the cliff tops, they were undecided.
They passed through a newly built estate of bungalows and small houses, parts of which were marked off as private, and commented idly on the uniformity of design and how silly it was to have a box like garage literally in front of one’s home, only eight or ten feet away from the lounge windows, but the estate was not large and already looking tatty, ill kept, though as with most such developments it probably liked to think of itself as exclusive.
After fifteen minutes of driving through overlapping suburbs that had spread inland and met siblings who refused to acknowledge one another’s existence, a secluded bay nestled at the base of the next town as the two girls left the bus near some formal gardens, and though it was relatively crowded considering how small was the main part of the town, most of the people wandering along the narrow streets were somehow different, more sedate.
An outing of excited school children were being dictated notes in vain by their teacher regarding a famous author who, according to the numerous blue plaques embedded in various walls, seemed to have stayed in most of the houses at one time or another, and a family who were evidently from across the Channel shouted at one another, unsure of how to reach their destination or communicate their need to those who might know.
Older men and a few women, all of whom seemed overly dressed, sat on the many wooden benches which overlooked the solitary bay, and they talked quietly, enjoying themselves, almost a part of the scenery so perfectly did they fit into the atmosphere, or perhaps they were responsible for creating it. On the beach, a party of young girls in simple but pretty dresses of blue or yellow were presided over by a nun as they played in some boat swings and on a couple of trampolines, two more of which were being rigged by a well tanned, slightly muscular blonde woman; one girl in particular executed somersaults and spins with apparently effortless ease, much to the encouragement of her friends who called out to the rather disinterested nun to watch, but she was busy warning another girl who wanted to go any buy an ice cream to be on the look out for strange men, and not to stray.
Julia and Melissa descended a tall flight of steps to the promenade and walked towards the southern end of the bay, passing men who had handkerchiefs covering their heads as they listened to tennis or cricket on portable radios, and who glanced at their wives before somewhat furtively watching the young women. Melissa’s hair began to blow across her face as they left the protected bay and entered one of the many smaller coves that undulated along the coast, and she removed a few strands from in front of her eyes in an idle wave of her hand, continuing the movement to point at a black and white bird with a long tail that had settled on the cliffs beside them. Julia zoomed in and tried to take a photograph as it ran along a ledge before taking off, but the bird was very swift and as the shutter clicked quietly she knew the transparency would show only blurred cliffs with a black wing in the upper corner; she wound on the film in an automatic gesture, pulling back the sleeve on her lens to its widest setting so it was ready for anything else she might want to photograph, and put the strap over her shoulder.
For its entire length, the curving edge of the grey promenade overhung a few steps that were pounded incessantly by the incoming tide, and dark green seaweed hung from the stonework and moved like thick hair as the sea washed over it, barred from reaching the cliffs that had been eroded for long centuries past. Spray leapt up every third wave, and where steps led down to the sands water swirled in miniature whirlpools and spume collected in the few sheltered corners, though sometimes the froth had an unhealthy appearance caused by pollutants, and metallic colours gleamed on the surface like the iridescent wings of insects. There were railings only near the steps, and the metal that had one been painted white now seemed to be made entirely of rust, though the wind and water had rendered it pleasantly pockmarked to touch, and not at all rough.
Melissa laughed as she moved barely in time to avoid being splashed by a particularly large wave that sent spray nearly to the low concrete buttress at the base of the cliffs, and Julia smiled at her and the atmosphere of ease and contentment already surrounding them, for this was only the third day of the long school holiday and her parents had readily accepted the idea of Melissa staying with them for the duration, as she was Julia’s best friend.
The tide had already covered the stretch of sand that separated them from the promenade of the next town, so they had no choice but to ascend a fairly steep slope set in a gap in the cliffs. Nearby, a small refreshment kiosk was boarded up, its curving concrete awning giving them an unsettling feeling of reverse vertigo as they passed beneath it, and once they reached the top of the slope a wire fence divided a few yards of rough grassland at the edge of the cliff from a neatly mown verge with pristine benches facing the sea, and houses on the other side of a road that turned inland to skirt a park which had once been the grounds of an estate.
Melissa pushed open a gate that was held shut by a rather powerful spring, and sighed with exaggerated relief as Julia stood beside her; the far side of the park was less than two hundred yards away so did not take very long to cross even at the slow pace they were walking, and as they passed two more refreshment kiosks that were also closed Julia told Melissa about the smugglers’ tunnels in the cliffs below, and how some had fallen in and left dangerous crevices in the ground, though the exits were now blocked up where they emerged half way up the present cliff-face.
The park led to an esplanade, and looking over railings to the end of the promenade below which they would have reached had the tide been low and the sands accessible, they saw two men spreading out nets that had been left to be washed in by the sea, sorting out the crabs and flat fish which were caught.
Outcrops of rock containing small flower gardens acted as a boundary between the esplanade and the road, and though clearly artificial were well-designed; the only real clue to their origins were the alternating sequences of wide and narrow strata whose proportions were quite regular, and an occasional corner where the brownish facing had been knocked off either by accident or typically senseless vandalism. Some stairs leading down to the promenade were in the same style and contained a few sheltered alcoves with benches providing a view of the sea, and the young women paused to watch with a childish delight as some bees and a solitary wasp flew around and crawled into bright purple flowers in a large bush.
On their right, at the other side of a square of grass about the size of a bowling green, what seemed to be a semi circular temple backed onto a particularly high piece of rock that formed a shelter against breezes. Pairs of columns stood in front of a stone bench, and in the middle was a bowl containing a fountain in the shape of a ram, restrained by a cherubic boy and girl; a short metal pipe in the ram’s mouth and the drain rose were covered in verdigris, and the back of the bowl was clogged with rotting leaves and decomposing insects. Various graffiti was scratched onto the surfaces, and as with all such defacement it was virtually illegible, reflecting as it did the illiteracy of its creators and their desire to mark territory with the blind instinct of a dog urinating against a tree, but from even a slight distance the structure looked oddly like a war time relic, part of a defensive fortress rather than the resting place it had originally been.
They looked down at the derelict diving tower of a swimming pool complex that was new in relation to the rest of the town’s entertainment facilities, and watched the sea hurl itself against the far wall in an apparently futile attempt to gain access and reclaim the beach. One end had been marked for wind surfing to be practised, but the water was stagnant and covered in slime punctuated by metal crates that looked oddly like decaying silver skeletons, and plastic bottles which resembled obscene floating carcasses. A graduated slope at the bottom of the main pool contained clearer water, as if it were somehow changed regularly, and the faintly shimmering reflection in the breeze rippled surface hid the true nature of the tower, making the broken railings and chipped stonework appear complete, like a window to the recent past.
Rather than feeling downcast by the continual sight of so much decay and partial ruin, of buildings both old and modern, Julia was only saddened by it. She admitted that a part of her was longing for a lost life, even though she was born long after the decline became really noticeable, and she had never experienced the towns as they were only a few decades previously. For a few years she felt almost as if she had been born out of time, a little later than she should have been: it was not insecurity or morbidity which caused the reaction, merely an impression she received every so often, and probably due to her parents’ stories of how things were, as they had made of her own childhood a continual series of adventures and discoveries that made learning a delight.
Melissa, who shared many of her feelings, was also slightly disgusted at the blatant waste, and though she thought she might begin to feel a little disturbed walking amongst places which contained so many ghosts and lingering memories as she still had more than a few of her own that were not entirely exorcised, she would much rather be near these buildings with their overt character and history than the modern town centres, which were starkly functional and never as clean as they pretended to be.
A powerful droning noise throbbed through the air, and she looked up, expecting to see the bulky yellow rescue helicopter flying overhead, but Julia pointed out to sea at a haze mid way towards the horizon that was travelling to the coast a couple of miles in front of them, and told her it was one of the hovercraft which regularly crossed the Channel.
The entrance to a lift shaft that descended to the promenade was surrounded by blue corrugated iron streaked with rust where the paint had flaked in submission to the onslaught of wind and rain, but the lift was closed because the attendant was at lunch, so anyone unable to use the steps remained on the higher or lower level, unable to leave. On the other side of the road was a large, imposing building: formally an hotel, the sandstone gargoyles and gryphons on its square tower were now almost obliterated by the wind, making of their faces and bodies an even more grotesque presence than originally intended, but they would soon all disappear, for the hotel was being converted into apartments, a casino, and a discotheque.
The girls passed a shallow crescent of houses that had been made into small holiday flats, and the names of some of the surrounding streets were forgotten testaments to the area having been used as a training ground for large numbers of troops who, a few centuries previously, defeated a potential invader. The road sloped down as it curved to meet the bottom of the High Street, circling some semi formal gardens created in the same style as the artificial rocks they had seen earlier, where a small waterfall trickled into a stagnant pool, and the owner of a small restaurant was busy chalking up the day’s prices on a large, angled slate.
On their left was the higher level of the harbour, protected from the sea by a single lock beneath a narrow lifting bridge; many of the berths in the upper section were attended by pleasure yachts of various sizes, and an occasional motor launch. The road split into three levels to curve up and around a headland directly in front of them, but the girls turned right and entered the High Street, for though it was still fairly early in the afternoon everyone seemed to lunch at noon and so they would, with luck, have missed the main rush.
In the window of the nautical equivalent of an estate-agent they were surprised at how seemingly well priced were some of the boats for sale, though maintenance, berth, and running costs would have to be considered, then they almost laughed at the ridiculously high prices in a nearby jeweller’s shop, and the condition of the so called souvenirs which, apart from the lopsided and faded transfers, could have been purchased from any town in the country.
Without much deliberation they decided to lunch in a restaurant whose menu had a fairly good selection at prices which seemed to be an unofficial standard in all of the places they had passed already, and there was an incentive in that the muzak was quieter than most and so easily ignored; the restaurant was not as wide as some of its neighbours, but deep, and they sat at a table for two near the main door so they could turn to look out into the High Street.
There were fifteen or so other diners inside, and after the initial regard paid to Melissa and Julia as they entered a few people began throwing less than surreptitious glances in their direction, sometimes staring for many seconds before returning to their conversations, though one family looked up and smiled at them slightly, thinking they recognised fellow tourists.
Perhaps the untoward attention was due to Julia owning a camera which she had left in an exposed position on the table, for there was nowhere else to put it except the floor, but she had long ago given up taking any notice of people who looked at her for that reason as it had been happening ever since she was given her first camera three years ago; at times she became indifferent to the open stares, for she knew they considered her too young to possess or even know how to properly use such a piece of equipment, as an angry man had once falsely accused her in front of her astonished parents, but it was sometimes difficult not to be affected by the reactions, and feel entrapped by them. If she was not the cause, then it may have been her friend’s voice, whose elongated vowels, though softened by her years in England, were still unmistakable, and gave to her speech a curious series of accents as she alternated between American and British pronunciation.
Melissa ordered a cheese omelette and chips with a small side salad, Julia a gammon steak and chips, and when the meals arrived she was pleasantly surprised to find she was served with a proper cut of meat rather than a slice taken from a large compressed roll, which in one place she had been unfortunate to visit had been served to her with its plastic skin still intact, though somewhat burned; for the remainder of the meal she had a rhum-baba, as they were clearly fresh and had real cream, Melissa chose a crème caramel, and they both finished with black coffees that were not quite as strong as they could have been.
Slightly less than an hour after having entered, Melissa picked up her bag that had been resting on the floor next to her feet, and took out their purse; she left a small pile of coins near her coffee cup and paid for their meals at the cash desk, then followed Julia outside. Deciding on what to do next, the two girls went back down the High Street, now having to walk in the road because the pavements were beginning to become congested with people who wandered, not knowing where they were going and careless of the confusion they caused for those locals who did.
They paused for a moment to watch a dilapidated and very rusty dredger move past the outer breakwater of the harbour, on its way to maintain the channels that ran through some treacherous sands a few miles out to sea; its appearance was made even more pitiful by a graceful harbour launch that seemed to have been designed along the lines of a millionaire’s yacht, and as such put to shame many of the nearby motor launches which had been built with that appearance in mind.
Julia and Melissa followed the lowest of the three roads that curved around the headland, and on their right, as though beneath a viaduct in some busy city’s back streets, broad arches curved over entrances to workshops from which could be heard the whines and throbs of heavy machinery, and an occasional wolf whistle as one of the bare chested, deeply tanned, tattooed workmen stopped to look up, and watch them pass.
Set back from the road, the cliffs were almost sheer in places, buttressed by tall brickwork columns and arches, and between them, large blocks of modern concrete helped keep the cliff from crumbling, though all around was evidence of past failures where pieces had fallen to create a tumbled collection of debris, and higher up, black lines split the chalk as fractures spread with the accuracy of a ruler.
The beach behind them was not as high as a few years ago, for many tons of sand had been removed to help build the large area covered by tarmac on their left; the land-ward side was enclosed by a high wire fence, and standing at intervals around it were tall pylons supporting powerful spotlights, which at night would illuminate the custom’s depot and toll booths that spread across the width of the car park and compound for one of the cross Channel ferries. The area was almost deserted now, with only a handful of workmen enjoying a tea break on the far side, near their van.
The road ran alongside a promenade whose long and frequent breakwaters of angular concrete slabs and tubular metal railings created a series of small sandy beaches, and the companions looked up suddenly to frown in puzzlement as they heard a high pitched whine that was definitely not caused by a hovercraft.
Flying very low, and so slowly they appeared as if they would drop from the sky at any moment, a pair of very unusual black aircraft with no visible markings passed on their way to the military airfield some miles inland; their wings were not particularly swept back, or long, and had squared off tips, and in front of the double tail-plane mounted on top of the fuselage were two small jet engines that soon took the aircraft out of sight, leaving a trail of party burned fuel hanging in the air for a few moments before it was dispersed by the breeze.
A long flight of shallow steps ascended the cliffs beside another lift shaft which, like some of the other buildings they had seen, gave the appearance of being a fortification left over from the last war, and these led up to a short esplanade that gave entry to a model village and motor car museum, but neither was of interest to the girls, and they walked on.
After the first few bays that contained a score or more people bathing on the narrow strips of pale sand, Melissa and Julia had the rest of the promenade almost to themselves, and on their left, appearing very near the horizon and much longer than it actually was, they could see the pier of the town where Julia lived. It was a modern construction, supported by plain concrete cylinders that showed none of the intricate craftsmanship they had seen earlier in the day, and Melissa studied it through the small binoculars she had taken from her bag, even though she knew well enough what it looked like.
Julia smiled at her friend and took the binoculars to try, with little hope of success, finding her parents’ home on the sea front, and was almost blinded as sunlight reflected from an opening window to create a sweeping beam as bright as the various lighthouses situated along the coast when they shone their coded signals out into the night.
She returned the binoculars to Melissa and leaned on the railings, watching the incoming tide below her as it pounded the side of the promenade. The crashing rhythm of the waves seemed to want to hypnotise her or lull her to sleep, and as Melissa leaned beside her their arms brushed lightly; they turned and looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, happy and content in one another’s presence and the easy but intimate friendship they felt, then looked down and managed to forget most of their surroundings for a short while as the sight and sound of the waves dominated their senses.
Perhaps ten minutes later they continued walking slowly along the promenade, during which time there had been a noticeable change in the pattern of the waves as the tide rose; they saw a couple of men preparing sturdy fishing rods and long lines, and before the end of the promenade a curving slope led up to the top of the cliffs. Though there were many years separating this garden from the others they had passed, there was continuity of styling, for as the girls walked beneath an arch of brown stone, small clusters of flowers shone bright purple, yellow, and orange as they trailed over the artificial brown rock.
Melissa and Julia walked through a park that was barely larger than some people’s lawns, heading for the road that meandered towards the coast again and passed through a village set behind a rocky bay, and on their left a wall of dull brick was protecting the entrance to a caravan park, though the vehicles residing there were shabby, and the gravel paths overgrown with untamed fauna.
They stood by the veranda of an inn and looked across another larger bay a mile or so distant, where the large concrete apron and buildings of the cross-Channel hovercraft port could be seen; one vehicle was already taking on passengers and coaches, on the far side of the buildings could be seen the fins and propeller blades of another machine that did not seem to be in use, and near the shore, in an enclosure beside the port, was a reproduction sailing ship that had recreated a voyage made some centuries earlier.
Rather than take the long route by following the road inland, the friends consulted their map and took a footpath that in many places was near the edge of the cliffs, though after they had passed a few houses there were fields dotted with poppies on their right, and wild bushes between the cliffs and path, which was now deeply rutted.
Julia smiled on seeing what was blocking the path in front of them, and though it was a modern construction of metal rather than the ramshackle wooden ones she had seen as a child in the country lanes through which she used to roam, she found it reassuring and was glad that, in some senses at least, things did not change very much. Melissa watched Julia pass through the kissing gate and turn to face her, leaning on the frame, and she smiled, waiting, then chastely kissed her friend on the cheek and tasted the slight tang of salt from the sea-air before Julia allowed her through and they continued along the path.
The buildings of the hoverport were obscured by tall bushes on their left, and in a few places could be seen the remains of wire fencing that had been erected to prevent people wandering from the path and reaching the top of the cliffs, but though some of the torn sections had been replaced there were still many gaps that led to a fatal drop to the beach.
Melissa squinted slightly, watching her footing in the ruts, and smiled at seeing the stile ahead, for it was both typical yet unexpected, as the kissing gate had been. Julia stepped over it easily, almost vaulting to the slightly higher ground on the other side as she held her camera out of harm’s way in her other hand, then she turned and took the bag from Melissa who had to hitch up her skirt to traverse the stile, whose wood was bleached by the sun and worn by the wind so it resembled some kind of polished bone. Julia took her friend’s hand to help steady her, then they both stood in one corner of a triangle of land whose far side bore the road that curved down to meet the port, and as they followed the last hundred feet of the path, they watched a hovercraft approach the terminal.
Without looking through the viewfinder of her camera, Julia knew that the vehicle, though extremely large, would not fill the frame even with the lens on its maximum setting, for she wanted a photograph of the hovercraft rather than of the bay with the vehicle in it, so she took a 2x tele-converter from the bag, placed it behind the lens, and zoomed back slightly. She took only a single picture as the hovercraft passed directly in front of and below her, following its progress with her other eye so she could see where it was in relation to the background, but she knew the one photograph she had taken would be good: a perfect broadside view that was sufficiently slow to leave the propellers blurred, yet fast enough to freeze the mists surrounding the hovercraft’s skirt into smoke like tendrils.
The path joined a fairly wide pavement beside the road that led to the port, and perhaps feeling slightly sad that the day had so far not been as originally intended, but more than glad with the way it had turned out Julia and Melissa decided to end their journey. As they approached the ship in its enclosure they were overtaken by a bus that stopped just in front of them to disgorge a few passengers, and they ran after it, Melissa putting her foot on the lower step as Julia passed her to check the destination, then they entered and paid their fares, sitting on the wide seat at the back which they had all to themselves.
The bus took a fairly direct route to the town they had previously viewed through their binoculars, and as the bus crossed a bridge to enter the last of the villages through which they would pass, Julia pointed out some of the old tiled buildings that had remained almost unchanged over the years, though most were now varying kinds of antique dealers; after a short wait to allow for another bus to make a connecting stop near the new town hall of smooth brickwork, they left the village by the same bridge because most of the narrow roads were one way and could barely accommodate the long buses, and drove through the last few miles of countryside.
The girls were the last to leave the bus once it had stopped at the main station near the middle of town, but they avoided the crowded centre, taking some of the narrower streets and walking back the way they had come, moving towards the sea front with the pier on their right, the long shingle beach spread before them. The house they stopped outside was one of two that stood by themselves, and from the exterior seemed to share a conservatory on the first floor that ran around the front and part of the side of the building, then Julia unlocked the front door and called out to her parents, smiling as an acknowledgement sounded jauntily from the back of the house.
They went to the top floor and Julia’s room at the front, which contained old mahogany furniture with highly polished surfaces that reflected dull images of their surroundings, but the presence of such muted colouring was heavy rather than oppressive, intruding into the room but not dominating it, and leaving plenty of space for a wide single bed set against one wall to fit a chest of drawers, a small dressing table whose angled mirror’s silvering was flaking at the edges, a tall wardrobe, and a deep storage box.
The room on the other side of the upstairs bathroom had long ago been turned into a guest’s bedroom which Melissa was currently occupying, and this was furnished similarly, with two adjoining single beds whose curved head-boards shared a warm interior wall; below was the master bedroom, a study, and a large darkroom for Alexander, Julia’s father; on the floor beneath was a library and a second bathroom, and a small music room with an upright piano that only Julia’s mother could play with any skill, something which Melissa envied her. The first floor housed the large conservatory, a drawing room, and the main bathroom; and on the ground floor was the dining room, the lounge, and a kitchen and scullery that led out into the garden at the rear of the house.
Julia and Melissa washed and tidied themselves in preparation for the typically early dinner, passing the twenty minutes or so by sitting on a bed in Melissa’s room and talking lazily of the outing they had only thought of the previous evening, and what they might do the following day, which was a Sunday. Whilst they briefly discussed Melissa’s rather disappointing A-level results, as she had only managed to achieve four ‘B’s and two ‘A’s, they did not speak of the subject at any length, for to do so would destroy the wonderfully relaxed atmosphere they had carried with them all day, and Melissa’s prospects had not been harmed too much.
Karen, Julia’s mother, called out in a strong voice from the bottom of the stairs, so they went down to the dining room, sitting opposite one another at the round table, its linen cloth embroidered with lace, and as Karen served the first course of dinner Melissa and Julia between them recounted their day and the impressions they had received from the various buildings and people, talking easily and freely for over an hour as they listened to the understanding comments made by Julia’s parents and heard of how things had been in their own youth, for though both were widely travelled within Britain and parts of Europe, they were born and had always lived in the coastal town.
After the girls had rested, sprawled languorously on the beds in the guest’s bedroom, listening to a radio and talking idly of nothing in particular as they browsed through some fashion and pop magazines which, though apparently meant for girls of their age were overly childish in their garish presentation and condescending in their assumption of a limited attention-span, Melissa and Julia strolled along the sea front, leaving the pier behind them as the sky continued its gradual darkening.
Pebbles scattered in an explosion of noise as Melissa jumped onto the stony beach and walked on top of a breakwater made from old railway track joined by large rivets, all of the surfaces dark rust-red and worn smooth, and Julia followed her, stepping down from the edge of the promenade and reaching the wet shingle where the tide lapped slowly but inexorably.
A while later they walked with their arms linked, their heads bowed slightly so they could see to kick the occasional pebble as they spoke quietly of nothing in particular, and by the time they had turned around and begun to wander back, the sky was a dense blue glittering faintly above them. Far to their left, a solitary light-house flashed its beam, indicating the final sea-side town they had visited that day, and as with the ships it guided, reminding them they had a home to return to.
The hard concrete columns of the pier were like the petrified ribs of a long dinosaur supporting its rigid spine above their heads, and Melissa stopped to lean back against one of them, taking Julia’s hands in her own and looking into her almost invisible eyes for a few moments before pulling her close. She bent and lightly kissed the side of Julia’s neck, tracing a meandering path with her tongue to reach Julia’s throat and then her chin, finally meeting her parted lips for a kiss that lingered as Julia eagerly returned the embrace. They stood apart again after a minute or so, not at all guilty at the contact but somewhat concerned lest their moment of tenderness be discovered, then walked the last few blocks home knowing more than ever how much their feelings were shared, but that they must soon part because Melissa would not be returning to school in the new term, which would be the beginning of Julia’s final year.
Karen and Alexander were relaxing in the lounge watching a rare television documentary, and bade their daughter and Melissa good night before the girls retired upstairs and bathed, dressing in loose gowns and lying on Julia’s bed, Melissa with her back against the wall, and Julia’s head lying on her lap. They spoke idly of what they could do during the coming days, places they might visit and things they could see, but no plans were made as they wanted to feel free to do as they wished and follow their whims, or ride on whichever bus arrived first and see where it took them.
Melissa stopped talking as she realised Julia was looking at her with more than just a dreamy, relaxed expression on her face, staring into her eyes in a manner that was knowingly intimate rather than intrusive; she lifted Julia’s neck to kiss her, quickly at first, as if the contact might not last beyond the first moments, then with greater ardour as Julia raised her arms in response and clutched her strongly. With a low moan of frustrated desire Melissa broke their embrace as she heard a floorboard creak on the stairs below, and she moved along the bed to sit on its edge, turning and leaning to cup Julia’s face with her hands and kiss her once more before standing up, knowing that as with school they were still limited by their surroundings, though considerably less so as they had already proven when they had the house to themselves.
Julia watched through half-closed eyelids as Melissa walked slowly to the door and switched off the light to her room, pausing in the doorway to turn and blow her a kiss; dim light from the landing shone through Melissa’s night-gown, which she wore only in case she met Julia’s parents, for she thought it pointless dressing for bed, and though occasionally wearing a slip detested pyjamas. Julia whispered a good-night, then lay her cheek against the pillow and stared at the slowly forming outlines of the furniture in her room as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, wondering if their strange relationship had any chance of a future, given the length of time they would be separated.
Pretence & Panic
Sitting as she so often did in the rear corner seat of the last of the buses she needed to take her home for the half-term break, Julia looked through lowered eyelids at the occupants of the other four seats, then returned her attention to the nearby hedgerows and meadows that passed in a blur, their distant cousins moving in ever slower lines as if they were nothing more than printed cardboard cut-outs in a toy theatre.
The parting words from Melissa’s last letter were still fresh in her mind, and she ached with a loss which became greater with each day that forced the wonderful holiday further into the irretrievable past. Though remembering all the places they had visited during the summer and things they had done together, she was not being as introspective as she might otherwise have been because there was so much to look forward to, and whilst Melissa had not been able to take leave so soon after getting her job and visit during the week, they would have most of the week-ends together.
“I want to kiss you. I want to feel you, feel you feeling me inside you. I miss you so much.”
The meaning was more than plain, and though she knew the previous sentences were clearly intended as a parody of the highly emotional letters exchanged by girls who lived at the school over a century ago, before such attachments were discouraged lest they be thought unnatural, the underlying message was no less true, and Julia was somewhat embarrassed as well as pleased. Were the letter to fall into the wrong hands then she might be in serious trouble, never mind the shame of having her private life exposed for her colleagues to jeer at, for Melissa was now beyond any actions the school’s governesses might bring, but Julia herself was feeling vulnerable and more alone than had she merely lost the company of a dear friend, whom everyone knew Melissa to be.
Her parents still had no idea of the true manner of their daughter’s love, and had accepted as normal the amount of time they spent together and the close attention they paid one another, but with so much time away from the relatively formal atmosphere of school so many things had changed, and despite Melissa’s initial misgivings they had continued and even intensified their physical relationship, experiencing a freedom they had not been able to achieve at school except on a very few, special occasions, which were necessarily fraught with danger.
Julia’s mind with its knowledge of social and scholastic history kept saying what she did was terribly wrong, but her body and particularly her emotions knew within themselves that it was correct not only for herself but also Melissa, who expressed her own feelings as much by what she did as what she said. From all their conversations and futile attempts at self-analysis it was soon apparent they both shared an early knowledge of being different from other girls, but they had not been able to fully identify it until, talking either idly or in earnest with friends about meeting boys and dating, they realised this would not be the case for them, and that was when the subterfuge began.
Such an outlook had to remain a secret from one’s family and friends, protected by a tacit agreement with everyone else’s discussions or comments, and effectively forcing them to live a lie and project to the outside world an image that the world itself wished to see, but as with all such deceptions there came a time when it caused more grief than it might have prevented, and there was then no alternative but to at least be honest with oneself, if not everyone else, though this last had been so hard for her she doubted it would ever happen. She was more than aware of what she was, had listened as intently as her friends to the unsubstantiated gossip regarding two girls in the upper sixth, and had reacted as she knew she must, but the betrayal upset her, and she wondered what kind of future they had.
Any guilt Julia might have felt about the relationship simply vanished whenever she thought about Melissa: her calming, stable presence, her down-to-earth advice that seemed so obvious in retrospect, and though she might not actually be obsessed she knew what she felt was far more than just a crush. It was her first love, and regardless at whom such affection was directed, she did not want to be hurt. She knew the last reaction was usual, so in that respect did not trouble herself more than any other girl in the same situation with a boy-friend from whom she had become temporarily separated; yet, simply because she also knew the feelings were a reflection of her true self, she was thrown into confusion. Was it really love or merely an infantile infatuation that would soon fade as she applied herself to her final year of studies? Would Melissa’s feelings for her survive after a few months living by herself in the big city? Would Melissa find herself another girlfriend, or be seduced by the first man who promised her unending love?
Fortunately, Julia had been known from her early days at school as a bit of a dreamer, fully participating in and enjoying the few remaining compulsory team activities whilst at the same time appearing almost outside them: certainly not aloof or distant, or going through the motions for its own sake, but more as if she knew that things just had to be done, to ‘play the game’ on its own terms, for such things were still an expected part of the agenda. Her studies were often intense, and even before passing her ‘O’ levels she had been criticised more than once for specialising too early, but she knew precisely what she wanted to do and that anything else would be more than compensated by the extensive library at home and her almost unlimited access to reference books. Why bother learning facts and figures by rote when she knew where they might be found if needed?
Her attitude had never been one of rebellion, and though the underlying hypocrisy of the school’s principles and sometimes even its principals occasionally made her smile to herself, she also knew she was fortunate and would never consider wasting the opportunity her parents had made for her, and never had themselves. She was taught to think for herself and to question from an early age, which qualities the school generally supported as it had long relaxed what in modern terms would be seen as excessively restrictive controls with regards to lessons, dress, and behaviour, but its own authority and perceived wisdom were built on long and proud foundations and so were still almost sacrosanct, and to challenge them a crime bordering on the heresy that was no longer taught, having been replaced by more useful things such as sex-education and even warnings about drugs.
Julia smiled, thinking back on…
…their initial meeting…
The classes were being taken on another week-end field trip, as had happened for a few years before Julia attended, and whilst there was little point in following the school’s ancient and now outmoded traditions by arranging tents and other camping paraphernalia as if they were a troupe of girl-guides, it was still deemed necessary they all embark on walks that would take them through as varied a selection of countryside as was possible within a day’s journey.
Sometimes this might be a visit to the nearest ancient town for local history, or archaeology; other outings involved being driven to some remote village, and then told to make their own way home in small groups to practice orienteering; or they might be shown geology and ecology in action: all things considered, the times not spent in study for the inevitable exams were filled with as varied a syllabus as could be accommodated in the establishment that was both trying to keep its traditional values alive whilst being seen as progressively modern as its larger contemporaries. It was also, in its own rather peculiar way, an environment designed not to place them under too great a strain, which meant at times those like Julia who lodged during term rather than being day-girls or those who went home at week-ends led a rather sheltered existence, but she had always thought there must be more sensible things to do with the time, if only to let them do as they chose.
The girls with whom she shared one of the multitude of rooms that were barely large enough to accommodate their beds and a single wardrobe beneath two rows of unimaginative shelving had long ago left Julia all but alone, striding ahead to join half a dozen or so other girls with whom they were more friendly, and leaving Julia to walk somewhat listlessly along the paths and rutted tracks of the woods.
Julia knew Melissa only as someone who was a year ahead of her, for most of her own friends were in the same class as herself, but she was paranoid about her secret being discovered and had unintentionally erected a slight barrier of formality that prevented her from becoming as casual in her friendship as her colleagues. Had she been asked, she would probably have emulated nearly everyone else and referred to Melissa without any disparagement as ‘the lanky Yank’, though those who disliked the American girl spoke of her with lack of originality as ‘the rich bitch’, and whilst she had heard the gossip which said Melissa’s arrival carried with it a dark secret brought from her previous school, she had paid it as little attention as any other rumour.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, she was rather surprised to hear a softly spoken “Hi,” beside her shoulder and to see Melissa walking with the obvious intent of accompanying her for a while along the meandering track. They spoke of harmless generalities for a few minutes, as if they were two tourists in a strange land who, upon meeting by chance in a secluded road-side café, realised they were from the same city and so stopped for a while to compare impressions, but after exchanging a few sentences they began to talk of more specific though still neutral things, and she began to find some of Melissa’s observations rather interesting.
Not really knowing what to expect, Julia was pleasantly surprised to discover that Melissa’s outlook, far from being one of remoteness or inability to relate to what might seem tiny villages, and counties that were probably smaller than the expansive farm she had grown up on, was in many cases one of astonishment and, in some instances, near-reverence for the age and genuine tradition of their surroundings, which naturally went back many hundreds of years. Melissa was adapting and surviving as best she knew how, and managing very well in the process, but apart from the obvious loss caused by the recent death of her mother there was also about her an atmosphere of someone not fully at peace with themselves, and without wishing to appear intrusive Julia tried without success to determine the cause.
Melissa’s outlook was far from melancholic, for she had long ago accustomed herself to being sent from one place to another as her fickle but passionately Europhile father continually changed his mind about what he thought best suited her, and neither did she actively deride her native land for its brash and sometimes vulgar energy, but her descriptions of small towns whose geographical elevation was in many cases greater than their advertised population only made Julia laugh, and she soon found herself reciprocating, telling her new companion selected details of her own childhood, and things she had been told by her parents.
They parted almost an hour later as the succession of ever smaller copses through which they had passed finally dwindled away, cut through by minor roads that were often reduced to half their width by an untamed riot of bushes and low, arching trees, which provided many yards of cool and welcome shade; the school was now only a few minutes away and everyone was glad to be back, though some might detour to the village a mile distant to purchase a few of the luxuries that made life at school more enjoyable.
…the beginning of their friendship…
At first, their meetings were irregular, occurring as they did at the end of each day when neither of them was otherwise occupied with their own circle of friends, or studies, but during the following weeks, and on two consecutive week-ends, they somehow managed to meet without prior arrangement, and either sat or went for a stroll as they talked, idly at first, then in greater detail and about more personal aspects of their lives.
Julia was surprised by how similar many parts of their childhood had been, despite that she came from a large family with a plethora of aunts, uncles, and cousins, whereas Melissa’s father was the only person of that generation whom Melissa knew; they had both been loners, not shunning the company of others nor yet abandoning themselves to group activities: they liked being alone at times for its own sake, neither lonely nor isolated, and never feeling anything approaching the unease that other people said they experienced when in similar situations, as they also said they felt uncomfortable in silence, which the girls adored, as they did night-time.
There was no conscious desire of becoming friends, it was something that happened effortlessly of its own accord, developing over a period of weeks as they discovered new things they had in common, and delighted in learning of the things they did not. They traded memories of primary school and how knowledge was gained in an almost unconscious manner because it was always fun, and then the shock of arriving at secondary school and being force-fed with facts and figures whose relevance seemed at times impossible to comprehend.
One or two very close and dependable friends were their preference, rather than a large group whose loyalty and reliability might fail when put to the test, and though the basis of their upbringings had been very dissimilar they nevertheless shared many outlooks of life and expectations of what could be gained from it. Never considering having a boy-friend herself, Julia did not really think to comment on the fact Melissa rarely spoke about boys herself, either as friends or prospective partners; when discussing their future lives and career prospects, each spoke as if living either alone or sharing with a girl-friend was taken for granted.
Melissa would be glad when the summer was over and she could move to London and get a job, for though her absent father would increase her existing monthly allowance as well as add a substantial lump-sum to her trust-fund, she did not want to make use of it unless absolutely necessary, so it would remain as a financial safety-net. Julia had every intention of living in London as well, though she really needed to seek her parents’ permission and, with the qualifications she hoped to achieve, knew she would easily manage to be a secretary or personal assistant, though with her good organisational skills she aimed to move higher.
A fortnight or so before the long holiday, Julia invited Melissa to stay with her, for she could then show her friend all the things she had spoken of during the past months, and Melissa would only have to move to London earlier if she did not visit Julia. That they had by then been lovers for some weeks was not the deciding factor: rather, it gave them a promise of the time spent together being even better than they might have otherwise hoped. Her parents readily agreed, happy that at last Julia had a steadfast friend; in truth, her parents were glad of the stabilising effect Melissa was having on their daughter, for she made Julia express herself as an adult in the unselfconscious way she had when a child, so it was clear each derived great benefit from the other.
…their first kiss…
Even an hour or so afterwards, safely back in her own room and so aware of what had occurred that she assumed everyone else in the school also knew of it, Julia could never properly recall the topic of conversation. The only things she could be certain of was that she had never betrayed herself or so much as hinted at the knowledge she might not be attracted to boys beyond having them as friends, and that she had never received from Melissa any indication of her similar preference.
Having just entered her final year, Melissa had a small room all to herself, not much larger than a moderately-sized bathroom and still known by its traditional name of a cubby; originally panelled with dark wood that was now almost obscured by newer fixtures and fittings, its single window was high and narrow, facing north so it was often filled by hard light, but it had the advantage of not becoming too hot and stuffy during the summer months.
It was in these confined and rather impersonal surroundings that Julia’s true self had been allowed its first taste of freedom, though it was impossible to say who had been responsible. Certainly, she knew she had not instigated the slow but somehow inevitable embrace, yet neither could she remember Melissa leaning all the way forward to kiss her: it was something they had probably done together, perhaps reading signals in the other that neither was fully aware of, or just following a mutual need for intimate contact regardless at whom it was directed.
They had been sitting on the narrow bed, talking earnestly about Melissa’s attitude towards her exams, for having read with a single-mindedness Julia at times envied, Melissa was in one of her frequent take-it-or-leave-it moods, and Julia was trying to persuade her not to discard all the effort she had thus far put into her study. She sympathised with her friend’s virtual exile, for coming from a large family she could not conceive of being out of contact with any of the relations with whom she got on well, but Melissa was very isolated, under considerable pressure both from her father and her teachers to succeed, and beginning to show it.
Had this simple desire for reassurance started it? Whatever the cause, Julia reached out in a purely comforting gesture, and though what at first was merely a friendly hug changed rapidly when, moving slightly apart from one another, their gazes met and, after the most transient of pauses, they kissed.
The contact was initially fleeting, nothing more than a touching of slightly parted lips, but rather than giggle in shared embarrassment or move apart in horror, they watched one another for a few seconds of heart-pounding hesitancy before pulling themselves together again and increasing the strength of their hold as their kiss became more than just tentative, but fluid and exploratory.
“No,” Julia remembered pushing back, but she had no idea of how much time had passed. She did not want to be caught, in both senses: to be disturbed by a sudden intrusion that would shatter the wonderful moment, or to have Melissa be the cause of her secret being discovered. “It’s wrong,” even to herself, she did not sound very convincing, for she knew in her heart that for herself it was not, and she was in a state of nervous agitation. They were interrupted by a nearby door being closed loudly, and Julia sat up abruptly, turning to look briefly at Melissa before leaving with what she knew was undue haste.
Lying on her own bed, guilt and shame vied with one another to be recognised as the main emotion she felt, but even as she tried to blank them out a new reaction made itself known, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it from surfacing: she had enjoyed the way they held each other and the feeling of Melissa’s full lips on her own, and that it was a girl’s kiss rather than one from any of the few boys she had flirted with in little more than a half-hearted manner made the experience almost perfect, so she could not attempt to justify the occasion by saying it was merely an innocent contact. There was no other conclusion than that it was right for her, but though she was not appalled at the realisation as she had known for a long time of her attraction, now that something had occurred to confirm it, she was terrified beyond belief.
The following day she consciously avoided Melissa during the breaks, and when evening came went for a stroll in the grounds, wandering around the small lake and watching the birds and fish without really seeing them, and thinking perhaps of returning to her room to collect some books to bring out and read in the warm air. She passed the dull white wrought-iron gazebo covered in trailing ivy whose original view was now almost obscured by overhanging trees, and as she was about to enter saw that not only was Melissa seated inside and reading, but also that Melissa had heard her approach.
“Hello,” she smiled as she looked up. “About yesterday…”
“Forget it,” Julia interrupted, not wanting to discuss the subject any further, and regretting wandering in that direction as she knew the gazebo was also a favourite haunt of Melissa.
“Okay, if that’s what you want.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she almost snapped, as the casual remark had been the last thing she expected.
“Only what I said,” Melissa’s reply was annoyingly brief, leaving Julia with little else to do except make an end of things, but Melissa lifted her arm, the little finger of her right hand crooked. “Pax?”
Julia hooked her finger under Melissa’s and, though the touch was completely innocent, felt her cheeks flush a little. Panic swept through her suddenly even as the reconciliatory contact was broken, but too late to prevent her asking, “Why did you do it?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Melissa’s flippant answer made a mockery of the situation, which was probably just as well.
Fully aware that for every second she remained she was placing herself in greater danger of exposure, yet needing to know her friend’s motives, Julia spoke too quietly, “And was it?”
Melissa almost frowned, “You tell me.”
“It was only a kiss,” Melissa’s nonchalant manner dismissed what they had done as if it were nothing more than walking with their arms linked, and had it been merely an accidental touching of their lips as they went to kiss each other on the cheek then she would have been correct, but Julia was fairly certain it was far more than that, or was that only wishful thinking?
“Stop playing with me,” she wanted to shout, but her protest emerged as a whisper. “All I want to do is forget it.”
“You’re the one who keeps going on, not me.”
“Only because… it was you who did it, anyway.”
“It takes two to tango, you know.”
“I didn’t…” Julia shook her head. “Why are you so smug? You’re doing this deliberately,” she accused, then without thinking, challenged, “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” the word seemed to be spoken far louder than it was, and though its sincerity was undeniable, the fact Melissa had admitted the charge only made matters worse, “but not the way you think. There’s so much you don’t know,” she added, as if passing a comment on the weather.
“Don’t treat me like a child,” Julia’s voice sounded petulant even to her own ears.
“Then don’t behave like one.”
“Do I have to spell it out to you?”
“I don’t even know how you can talk about it like this,” she turned to leave and close the matter once and for all, but was kept in place by Melissa standing up and holding her arm. There was so much that Melissa had left unsaid, so many things hinted at yet never admitted, but that single unequivocal ‘yes’ was too slender a thread for Julia to clutch at, and she looked down.
Melissa’s hand raised Julia’s chin as gently as if lifting the head of an injured kitten, but Julia could not meet her gaze and stood numb as Melissa wrapped her arms around Julia’s waist, pulling their bodies closer. Not until she felt the contact of Melissa’s shoulder in her other hand was Julia aware of completing the embrace, but even then refused to do anything until Melissa’s lips touched her own and, trying not to gasp with a reckless fervour as she abandoned herself to Melissa’s tantalising kiss, she finally responded as she knew she wanted to.
Julia was conscious of the fact that Melissa could not now betray her without exposing herself as well, but even as that thought formed itself in her mind, her body was reacting in a way she had never felt before, and she could not help but begin to breathe heavily. She almost moaned when they broke the contact and sat down, unable now to blame Melissa for anything. “You have done this before, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” the repeated admission was simple. “But not like this,” she added.
“You certainly knew what you were doing.” A sudden realisation caused her to make a statement of what should have been a question, “That’s why there were rumours about you when you first arrived.”
Melissa almost laughed, “Actually, it wasn’t what you think: I was moved here for my protection. Barbara… my teacher, was dismissed without so much as a by-your-leave; she bore the full brunt of the charge, and I was seen as the victim, my ‘innocence’ corrupted, my trust betrayed, but I was as willing a participant as she. We both knew what we were doing, despite the risks, and it was wonderful while it lasted. Thankfully she managed to get another job easily enough because the school hushed everything up to save themselves the embarrassment.”
Julia wanted to leave in the face of such open honesty, but was unable to. The affirmation left her in even greater turmoil, and she turned abruptly, “This isn’t right, and you know it.”
“I know what I like,” Melissa did not wait for a reply, for which Julia was grateful. “It was a bit of harmless fun.”
“No it wasn’t,” Julia’s voice faded. She was more confused than ever, both in relation to her own feelings and the reactions of her friend. Was Melissa behaving totally out of character and mocking her? or was she probing in a very abstruse manner to determine precisely what Julia felt? Her voice became firmer with conviction, “Otherwise you wouldn’t have kissed me again just now.”
“I don’t recall you putting up much of a fight.”
“You caught me by surprise.”
“Oh, stop kidding yourself: you enjoyed it as well.”
“You’re trying to seduce me,” she accused.
Melissa shook her head, “I don’t have to. I’m not giving you anything you don’t already know you want.”
“You think I’m a…?” Astonishment and a counter-accusation were Julia’s final ineffective attempt at protection, but still she could not mention the subject directly, skirting around it with partially completed sentences. “I suppose you are, then?”
“’One of them’?” Melissa laughed. “Is that what you were going to say?”
“And if I was? Whatever you want to call it, you know what I’m talking about, and you haven’t given me an answer.”
“Okay then: I knew I was a lesbian when I was about twelve. When did you?”
“Oh,” Julia could say nothing else in reply. “What do you mean: when did I?”
“Stop prevaricating; you know and I know and we both know. Big deal. When did you first realise you were attracted to girls? And don’t tell me you’re not, not after everything you’ve told me over the past months.”
“When I was thirteen or fourteen, I think,” despite herself, and still needing to shield her true emotions, she could not now see any way to retreat that did not openly insult Melissa’s intelligence, yet she balked at naming herself as calmly as her friend had done. Even though Julia had been certain of her own feelings for so many years, still she kept wondering how Melissa could also be so convinced, for she never had Melissa’s calm self-awareness. “How can we really know? We don’t have the experience.”
“Of what?” Melissa’s laugh was not in any way condescending. “You know you don’t like kissing boys, and what with various attempts at match-making by your numerous relatives you’ve had plenty of opportunities, none of which you took beyond a bit of mild petting that you didn’t want to take any further because of who was doing it to you.”
“Now you’re putting words into my mouth.”
“I’m only telling you what you see in yourself, and don’t read any antiquated psycho-babble about mirrors and reflections into that. It was you who told me about the boys, remember?”
Julia could neither deny nor lie, so looked down again, “We were such good friends, where do we go from here?”
“Who said we had to go anywhere?” Melissa seemed dismissive again. “Things like this happen all the time: it’s not like we have to commit ourselves or anything.”
“But that’s for other people… men and women, I mean.”
“Do you feel guilty?”
“No,” Julia answered softly, then with greater conviction as she admitted the honesty of her reply. “No, I don’t.”
“Well, then. Come on,” Melissa stood up, and guided Julia slowly from the gazebo, “let’s get back.”
Knowing only too well the efficiency of a grape-vine that would inform every house and tutor of the school within an hour should anything untoward be discovered, Julia was acutely aware that everyone looked on Melissa as her best friend, despite being in the year above, but even as she did her utmost to continue that impression she was concerned lest she be trying too hard, and so made a mistake.
At the same time, she was questioning everything that had happened. Did it mean she and Melissa must of necessity have an affaire with one another? How long would it last and how deeply would they be involved, if at all? Almost since their initial meeting she had found Melissa to be attractive as a person, and she had never denied how much she enjoyed her friend’s company, but even knowing these feelings were reciprocated did not mean they were right for each other as companions. Or did it? Despite Melissa’s warning, she could not help but begin to analyse their situation, but due to her lack of experience or knowledge of any other relationship of a similar kind, she kept bumping into dead-ends or going around in circles.
She knew Melissa was very attractive, too, but had never so much as fantasised what it might be like to even kiss her, let alone make love to her, or indeed any girl: they were thoughts she had quelled long before they had a chance to form, and though enjoying without embarrassment what had laughingly been called solitary vice, it was purely an expression of self-discovery and pleasure, for she had not really visualised a lover of either gender. The worst thing was, she quickly and easily identified the feeling that had surged through her body when they kissed in the gazebo: it was a passion that left her almost weak with desire, for she not only wanted someone to make love to her, but also to hold and give pleasure to another woman.
Were they, as she also thought, simply too young to truly know what they wanted? Could their immature and untested feelings be trusted in relation to something that might affect the rest of their lives? Certainly, Melissa thought otherwise, and whilst she was as emotionally secure as anyone might be who had spent most of her childhood and adolescence away from her family, there were times when she sorely missed her dead mother. She became haunted by grief, and guilt that she had not been there when needed or done sufficient when she had the opportunity: she needed forgiveness, and absolution that could never be forthcoming, for no one could now give them to her except herself, and she did not know how.
Whilst able to spend as much of their free time with one another as they wished, this was something they avoided, continuing to behave as before but savouring the occasions when they were together, for Julia soon recognised her friend’s initial and apparently brutal questioning was due to a fear of discovery as great as her own, though hidden beneath a layer of bravado that at times made her seem forceful.
The only time they had really discussed their situation they had virtually agreed not to become too involved, for their own good, but Julia was finding this increasingly difficult, and knew by the way Melissa reacted that the same was true for her. If only such things were accepted as usual then their relationship would not have had to be clandestine, though it would have certainly have been discouraged within the school environment, but the situation made more awkward by their genuine friendship, which seemed strengthened rather than strained and at least meant they had many other things to talk of, or if not converse, enjoy each other’s company as they studied or relaxed.
…the first time they made love…
One week-end between half-term and the long summer holiday, the school had mounted another of its educational excursions, hiring transport for the boarding upper sixth to travel on a journey that would provide a break from the incessant study, yet also be informative. One of only eight girls who declined, Melissa remained in her room with her books and notes, knowing she had been remiss on previous week-ends and so needed to make up time lost to lethargy and the contrition that plagued her like an unwanted shadow, but she was not in the mood for studying old lives no matter their pertinence to the modern society they had helped form, and she left her room to wander apathetically through the winding panelled corridors, visiting the library and returning to her room with the intent of reading for the next two hours regardless of what happened.
Twenty minutes later she slammed shut the book, having read the same dozen or so pages over and over but been unable to absorb their content; she regretted not going on the journey, for it would have helped relieve the stress she was under, as intended. Such was her frame of mind that she welcomed what at other times would have been an intrusive knocking on her door, and in response to her call Julia entered and grinned as she saw the books and papers.
“I thought you would have gone on the trip,” she said.
“I wish I had; I just can’t think straight.”
“Any particular reason?”
“Apart from the obvious, the usual,” Melissa sounded a little dejected, and Julia moved books along the bed so she could sit down.
“Why do you keep punishing yourself like this?”
“I don’t know how not to.”
“I just wish there was something I could do.”
“It’s one of those things I have to sort out by myself,” she was not being ungrateful. “Don’t you ever feel there are times when you want to turn your back on the whole thing and disappear?”
“No,” Julia’s answer was honest, and she squeezed Melissa’s hand. “Everything will be all right, you’ll see.”
“It’s your turn next year,” Melissa smiled.
“You’re supposed to tell me it won’t be as bad as I think!” she laughed.
“It won’t be: you’re more focused than me.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m a drifter: you’re the one who’s so single-minded.”
“Only when there aren’t any distractions.”
Julia shook her head in sympathy, “You can’t blame yourself for the rest of your life, it’s not fair.”
“I meant you.”
“Oh.” Julia’s voice was quiet, and she added almost in a whisper, “I’m scared.”
“Don’t be.” Melissa held Julia’s head against her shoulder for a moment, then broke the contact and smiled, “Look at the two of us, we’re as bad as each other.”
“There’s so much I’m not sure of. I don’t know what to do any more.”
“You’ll be all right,” Melissa kissed her on the cheek, but rather than pull back she remained leaning forward, and after momentarily looking into Julia’s eyes kissed her lips: quickly at first, then with greater consideration as the embrace was reciprocated.
As with the other times they had managed to snatch precious time together and feel secure enough to indulge themselves for a few minutes of desire, Julia felt how right this was for her, but more than that was also aware of how much passion there was within her: it was an emotion that without warning took control of her pulse and her breathing, directing her hands in unbidden movements as they glided over Melissa’s neck before sliding down to her shoulders, along her arms, then across to her breasts.
She stopped suddenly, acutely conscious of what she had just done, but rather than withdraw her hands kept them immobile, as if she were a tight-rope walker whose next step might plunge her into a darkened abyss and oblivion, or carry her safely to the faraway lighted platform. Melissa’s kiss did not reject the situation but urged her to continue, and even as she became aware of Melissa pushing her back and scattering books onto the floor, she reached out and crushed Melissa’s hair between her fingers.
Julia had no idea how the buttons on her blouse were undone, only that when the straps of her bra were pushed over her shoulders and Melissa’s warm tongue traced a path from her throat to between her breasts before rising to dart across her nipples, she sobbed, forcing Melissa’s mouth against her body. Her breasts were momentarily covered by Melissa’s own, then she felt her skirt being lifted and fingers moving along her thighs, brushing over the tops of her stockings and making her pelvis flex involuntarily as her body began to grow hotter with anticipation.
For the first time in her life, fingers other then her own teased the moistening flesh through her knickers and she wanted to respond in some manner, but it was impossible; she could do nothing except lie back and allow Melissa the freedom of her eager body as the final obstruction of cotton was held aside and she was penetrated. Her orgasm was almost a paradox when it eventually wreaked its exquisite havoc on her senses, for it seemed an anti-climax: given the state of her arousal it was expected and more than welcomed, and better by far than any she had given herself, but it also heralded the completion of something she had wanted never to end as her hands held Melissa’s fingers inside her.
Julia lay in a daze for a few minutes as the blossoming warmth and tingling slowly dissipated through her limbs and seemed to flow from her extremities, watching through half-closed eyelids as hands she dimly recognised as her own slid along Melissa’s partially clothed body and carefully felt her sex, but she could do nothing for a moment except explore gently, for her own body had not yet recovered from the pleasure she now wanted to give Melissa.
The heat surprised her, and for a few seconds she felt trapped as Melissa’s legs clenched, but her low gasps which increased in intensity and frequency informed Julia she had been right to follow her instincts, and she held onto the rocking body with a sense of enjoyment and fascination as she watched Melissa’s contortions.
“Oh god,” she lay beside Melissa as they kissed one another lazily. “I had no idea…”
“Better than dreams,” said Melissa in a voice that was almost slurred, then she slowly sat up and almost laughed. “The door: it wasn’t locked!”
“Mmm,” Julia did not at first react to the news that at any moment someone might have burst in on them, then the words made sense and she crossed her arms over her breasts. “If only we could be really alone.”
“There can be other times, if you want to.”
“I think I do,” admitted Julia, then she turned away. “There’s so much I’m still not sure of.” She began dressing herself, and when she stood up to straighten her clothing she found she could not meet her friend’s gaze, no matter it was not penetrating, but gentle and self-assured. “What are we going to do?”
“You take everything far seriously,” Melissa spoke in her usual tone, and once again seemed almost dismissive of all that had happened.
“So I’m what… another tick in the register for you?”
“I didn’t say that. Let’s just not rush things, all right?”
Julia opened her eyes to see the familiar and welcome sight of the last village outside the window, knowing only what she felt for Melissa, and that her parents had to remain ignorant of their relationship. As with so much of adult life, it seemed entirely unfair, but her mind and emotions were finally settled and she knew exactly what she wanted, which knowledge gave her comfort, and strength.
The sound of her name being called startled Julia from her light reverie as she lay on her bed idly reading one of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories. She turned in response to her mother’s voice and went downstairs to find Karen standing in the hallway with the phone in one hand, and the beginnings of a frown lightly creasing her forehead.
“It’s Melissa,” she said, holding out the receiver, then she whispered, “I think something’s wrong, dear.”
“Thanks,” Julia took the phone and sat with it at the bottom of the stairs. “Hi,” she said as her mother departed, “I was thinking of you this morning.”
“Me too,” Melissa’s voice was unnaturally subdued. “Thinking of you, I mean.” She sighed, “Umm, can I come and see you in a day or two? We need to let your parents know about you staying with me, anyway. If you still want to, that is.”
“You know we were expecting you,” Julia was astonished at the sudden doubting of her intentions, “and you know how I feel. What on earth made you think I’d changed my mind?”
“Nothing you’ve said.”
“What’s wrong? Come now if you want to: mum and dad won’t mind.”
“I can’t, I’m not feeling too good at the moment. I just need some time by myself.” There was silence for a few seconds, then Melissa admitted, “No, I don’t, but I’m so alone…”
“Don’t be silly,” Julia was beginning to be concerned for her friend’s unique reluctance to speak of what was causing her so much evident anguish, and she lowered her voice slightly lest her affirmation be overheard. “I love you, you know that, and so do my parents. It was only last month they said they almost looked on you as my sister.”
“They did?” Melissa did not seem particularly convinced: not as if she disbelieved her friend, but rather because she could not equate the comment’s relevance to her present situation.
“Yes, and they meant it. You know how fond they are of you.”
“I’m just so lost at the moment, I don’t know what to do,” Melissa indeed sounded like a child abandoned in a busy department store or a crowded city’s bustling street: surrounded by hoards of strangers who moved blindly past her unaware of her plight, and unable to know how to save herself. “I can’t stay here, the flat’s so empty, but I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Of course you do,” Julia protested.
“I’ll only be in the way.”
“No you won’t,” she was far from annoyed at her friend’s unusual state of self-pity, but thought a firm approach might help more than an overly sympathetic one which resulted in platitudes, rather than a positive course of action. “Stop it, Melissa: tell me what’s wrong.”
“Don’t tempt me, or I’ll pour my soul into you.”
Julia was slightly puzzled by the odd turn of phrase, then she recognised it as a mis-quote of the last line from The Night-Piece To Julia, for Robert Herrick was Melissa’s favourite poet, though she held her native country’s Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson in equally high regard. “Then do it,” she said. “What’s the point in having friends if you keep bottling things up? It doesn’t do you any good, you know that: it only causes pain.”
“So does letting it out,” Melissa replied, and sighed deeply. “I told my father.”
“Told him what?”
Despite herself, Julia was appalled, and wished that the phone, which was usually a means of bringing her and Melissa together for a short while, would suddenly disappear, for it was now only an instrument to keep them apart. She wanted to hug her friend and console her, but was prevented from any contact other than a distant and tinny voice against her ear.
“After he’d threatened to have me horse-whipped, he accused me of everything you can think of, and then some. It’s just as well we weren’t in the same room: he’d have hit me, or worse.”
“I really don’t know what to say,” Julia confessed, then realised she was supposed to be helping, not be powerless herself, “but I do know you can’t stay there, and you mustn’t make things any worse by refusing to help yourself. If you leave now you can easily catch the last train. Tell me you’ll come?”
“You’re probably right,” Melissa’s voice was heavy with emotional exhaustion.
“Promise me you’re coming,” Julia was insistent.
“Okay, I’ll pack some things. See you.”
“I love you,” Julia whispered, then replaced the phone on its table with overly-careful movements and wandered slowly to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water from the filter-bottle kept in the refrigerator; she leaned forward over the sink and stared across the garden at the verdant border lit from above by light spilling from windows, turning as if half-asleep as her mother entered the room.
“Was everything all right? I don’t mean to pry, but Melissa sounded very upset.”
“She is,” Julia saw no reason for attempting a deception that would only be revealed once Melissa arrived, and she finished the water. “You know she was due to come down on Tuesday, but she’s arriving tonight. I know it’s late,” she pre-empted any objection on her mother’s part, “but she’s… she isn’t in trouble, but needs to talk to someone. I wouldn’t ask it of you if it wasn’t important.”
“I know that, dear, just as you know she’s always welcome. Would you like your father to go and wait for her?”
Julia was pleased by the offer, but undecided. “I don’t know. It won’t be for a couple of hours. Can you promise me something? When Melissa arrives, we need to be alone.”
“I was going to,” Karen smiled and knew better than to pursue the matter any further at the moment. “I’ll make sure the spare room is ready.”
“Thank you,” Julia kissed her mother, and could not help but wonder how her own parents would react if they were to suddenly discover the reasons for Melissa’s turmoil, or that their daughter was in the midst of a passionate relationship with another girl.
* * *
Alexander entered the house carrying Melissa’s over-night case, followed by Melissa herself, who stood in the hallway as he closed the door behind her. She embraced him quickly, then silently hugged Karen and looked over her shoulder at Julia, who stood at the bottom of the stairs trying not to fret.
“Thanks,” Melissa smiled at Alexander and his wife. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
“Julia told us it was very important,” said Karen, “so it must be.”
“And we love having you here,” Alexander replied.
“I think you two girls want to be alone,” Karen steered her husband into the lounge, but cast a worried look over her shoulder at Julia, who was picking up her friend’s case. “Don’t stay up too late, or should that be early? It’s almost midnight.”
“We shan’t,” Julia began the ascent and distantly heard her father inform Karen that Melissa was almost in tears when he collected her from the station, and she had seemed to be in a state of shock throughout the ride home, so much so that he had wanted to ask as delicately as he could if she were pregnant.
Once in the guest’s room, Melissa sat on the bed and leaned sideways so her cheek was resting against the head-board. “I’m so tired,” she spoke quietly, and kicked off her shoes to curl up on the empty duvet-cover, for even the summer duvet was too warm at that time of year.
“Don’t shut me out,” Julia sat beside her and took her unresponsive hand. “You mustn’t be afraid of letting me in, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Nothing can hurt me now. I’m so exhausted I’m just plain numb.”
Julia pulled her close and cradled Melissa’s head against her shoulder, “Whatever possessed you to tell your father?”
“Because I’m sick to death of lying,” Melissa answered in a voice that was almost trembling, but Julia knew this was due more to rage or fury than the suppression of tears, for Melissa had never been ashamed of crying, and now that she had no reason to withhold them, her tears fell so easily as sobs rocked her body against Julia’s. “I’m tired of grinning inanely every time some pea-brained do-gooder tells me it’s about time I got myself a boy-friend. I’m fed up with having to conform to everyone else’s silent expectations of how to behave. I’ve had enough of people’s whispered judgement, their ignorant appraisal of my life which they know nothing about because they don’t care beyond what they want to know that’s safe. I’m sick of their suggestions there must be something seriously wrong with me because I haven’t had a string of boy-friends by now, but then if I did I’d only be judged a whore. Being locked up in school hasn’t helped, either: I’m an emotional cripple, limping on crutches of fear. I don’t know anything real, only what they’ve spoon-fed us from books, which is to go out and live as they want us to. But I’m not like them! It’s bad enough growing up in the first place, what with all the insecurities that brings, without having this thrown in on top as well. The pressure is getting unbearable.”
Julia was rather surprised at the line of reasoning, if indeed there was one amongst the protests, but she knew Melissa was still haunted by things from her past which she had not yet properly faced, as she did not know how to. Now that Julia knew the reason for Melissa’s admission to her father she began to wonder how long she could maintain her own deception to her parents, but at the moment all that mattered was Melissa’s welfare, and she easily dismissed her own doubts as she said quietly, “I do know what it’s like; I’m still there.”
“But you have a family, you have this…” Melissa’s looked up slightly to glance at the room. “You have so much you take for granted you can’t even see how special it is. My father is all I have, because ever since mom died he’s been the only other person beside me who could talk about her, who knew her as I did, and knew her a lot longer. I’ve gotten over the anger at her death, the sense of betrayal at being left alone, which I now know are normal reactions, but she can’t absolve me of my guilt for all the other things. He couldn’t, either, because he didn’t know how, and now he never will.”
Despite herself, and knowing her reaction would be felt, Julia flinched at the final remark, and realised with a slight feeling of despair that she could never fully understand how dejected her friend must be feeling.
“And don’t tell me he’ll get over it, because he won’t,” Melissa continued voicing her thoughts, but perhaps this was for the best, as she was at least talking of her pain; perhaps, too, this was all she needed at the moment: someone to listen, to hold close and be held by. “How can you spend all your life with a person and not know them? If only I’d had some inkling of how he would react, then maybe I’d’ve swallowed my pride and kept quiet, but in all those years he never once said what he thought, never so much as hinted at how much he hated things like that. It was so deep-rooted, such a way of life that it was never mentioned, because then it could be questioned and challenged: it was as inviolable as dogma spewed from a pulpit by a revivalist preacher, but I’ve only just seen that. How could I have been so stupid? Even when he didn’t come over for my eighteenth I didn’t feel let down, because he’d always been away; all I expected was a phone call and a larger cheque, and that’s exactly what I got. Maybe he thought he could buy my love the same way he’s always bought me presents, I don’t know: I’m not sure of anything any more.”
“Love isn’t something to be bought or sold like so many toys: you can’t give things to people and expect them to love you because of it.”
“I know that, but why didn’t I see it in him? What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing,” Julia was emphatic. “You want a father, and you need a family: there’s nothing at all wrong with that. The more you deny how much you need others, the more you isolate yourself from the very people who could be your friends. Look at us: even if we weren’t in love we’d still have been very close, and you’d still have confided in me if you were in trouble. Perhaps you’d also have told me you were gay even if I wasn’t, because it’s part of who you are, and you trust me.”
“You sound like my last shrink,” Melissa’s voice was not critical, and she almost smiled, though the movement was so faint as to be barely discernible.
“I’m only telling you what’s true,” Julia squeezed her hand, “and it is: you must see that.”
“Sometimes I think I’m blind,” Melissa blinked slowly, as if awakening from a deep sleep and desperately trying to capture images in her mind from dreams that were fading even as she recalled disconnected fragments from them, then she sat up and leaned forward. “Why does everything have to be so fucking complicated?” she protested weakly as she wiped away her tears with the palms of her hands.
“That’s better,” Julia plucked a tissue from the box on the bed-side table.
“He wanted to hurt me,” said Melissa, “to make up for the fact I’d hurt him. Trouble is, he succeeded. I haven’t a clue what to do now.”
“You’re not responsible for the way he behaved, and you mustn’t blame yourself for not knowing beforehand how he would. You’ve hardly seen him in the past few years, and you haven’t lived with him for over half your life: that’s a very long time, and people change, even your own parents. It seems as if all he can relate to is money and purely what it can buy, not even how it can be used to help other people and give them indirect happiness.”
“Well, he’s saved himself a bit by cutting me off, but at least he can’t touch my trust-fund; neither can I for another couple of years, but then I don’t need to.”
“Which only proves how sensible you are, so stop knocking yourself.”
“I can’t think straight,” Melissa shook her head slightly, then managed a rather wan smile. “I’m glad you told me to come here; this house is so stable: just like you.”
Julia did not want to protest the compliment, which she did not think applicable to herself, because she knew Melissa to be exhausted. “Try and get some rest,” she said, and all but laughed at the phrase, no matter it was heart-felt, and appropriate.
Melissa smiled at the cliché, and the underlying consideration; she nodded silently, and with her customary lack of self-consciousness that at times still almost embarrassed Julia, she undressed and laid out her clothes on the other bed. She unzipped her over-night case and took out a sleeveless white night-gown that she wrapped carelessly around her body lest Julia’s parents came upstairs, then left for the bathroom to wash.
Julia waited for her friend to return, and with the promise of having a week together in which to try and achieve some form of consolation for Melissa’s pain, she knew with a sudden certainty what she wanted to do, despite the risk. She left for her own room and closed the windows against the faint sound of waves and an occasional seagull, then rumpled the bedcovers and pillow, dressed in one of her prettier night-shirts, and returned to the guest’s bedroom.
Melissa was puzzled when she returned to discover it lit only by one of the bed-side lamps, and Julia lying on the covers, but she said nothing, only frowned.
“I don’t want you to be alone tonight,” explained Julia. “I want you to wake up next to someone who cares, someone who loves you.” She had known for some time beyond certainty she did love Melissa, and was now not afraid of voicing her affection.
“But your parents?”
“They never come up once we’re settled, you know that, and after everything else we’ve done…”
“As long we don’t fall out,” Melissa was too tired to smile in anything other than a slight fashion, and neither did she want to argue, so took off her gown and lay beside Julia, hugged her briefly and kissed her on the cheek, then closed her aching eyes as Julia switched off the lamp. “Love you, too,” she whispered so quietly that no one else in the room might have heard her, but Julia did, and rested her cheek against Melissa’s shoulder.
* * *
Melissa almost shivered, as much from the cool wind blowing along the shore as from the thought of the interrogation taking place in the house some distance behind her. She took her hands from the pockets of her coat and turned up the collar in a gesture more suited to psychological than physical protection, for she was neither hot nor cold. She longed to be with Julia and was frustrated that she could not, knowing her presence, though comforting to Julia, would only make matters worse, and she was experiencing the beginnings of a slight anger at no one in particular: certainly not Julia’s parents, or Julia herself.
A feeling that the end of the featureless concrete pier was only part of an island, no longer attached to the coastline and promenade, passed quickly through her, but she shook off the encroaching desolation with relative ease as she was merely feeling a little melancholic and knew it would soon pass, though her body, as if not believing her mind and seeking more material comfort, turned from watching the sluggish waves and walked slowly back the way she had arrived.
The faintly heard, wind-blown sound of her name caused her to look up and see Julia sitting beside her on the sofa, and Melissa shook her head slightly to clear it from what had been a sudden and overwhelming feeling of intense isolation.
“You seem to have thought everything through very thoroughly,” Alexander was clearly impressed by what he had learned.
“We spent a lot of time working it out,” Julia agreed.
“Well,” said Karen, “I certainly don’t see any reason to prevent you, and from what Julia’s told us, the flat is more than big enough.”
“It took me quite some time to find it,” Melissa explained, “but I knew what I wanted; the first flat was really just somewhere to stay while I got a job and settled in.”
“It’s wonderfully cosy,” Julia replied, “but there’s also plenty of room to move about, and everything we could possibly want is in the High Street. It’s ideal, you’ll see.”
“In effect, though,” said her father, “you’ll be paying Melissa rent.”
“Yes, if you want to look at it like that. Anyway, neither of us could have afforded the flat by ourselves, whereas together we can.”
“I can see that,” he nodded, and looked at Melissa. “Now I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I’m thinking of Julia’s security. What if something happens and she has to leave?”
“That’s a fair question,” Melissa acknowledged. “This is something we’re trying for a few months, to see how it goes. If it works, then we’ll probably move to a bigger flat in a year or two; and if it doesn’t, I’m not going to throw Julia out and make her homeless: it’s all a matter of trust.”
“We’re both adults,” Julia replied. “I admit I’m not too sure how it will go, either, but I can’t see there being too many problems. Considering the alternatives are either living by myself in a dingy bed-sit or flat-sharing with a complete stranger, I think this is the best possible solution. It’s not as if Melissa and I don’t know each other’s likes and dislikes, habits and so on.”
“That’s very true,” agreed her mother. “You’ve been close friends for quite some time now.” She looked at her husband, “I for one can see no reason to stop you, and as you’ve just demonstrated you have thought through everything very thoroughly.”
“I agree,” Alexander replied. “I know it’s always hard for parents when their young leave the nest, but you’re both very level-headed girls… young women, I mean,” he smiled, “and it’s not as though you’re moving to the other end of the country, is it? Or emigrating.”
“You must come and see us as soon as we’re settled,” said Julia. “My only real concern is about finding a suitable job… one that I like, I mean, as there’s bound to be plenty of menial things. I know,” she almost laughed at the expression on her mother’s face, “I mustn’t be too fussy to begin with, and I promise I won’t be: you know I can be very practical when I need to be.”
“As you’ve just demonstrated,” agreed Karen. “I think you’ll both do very well together, and I hope everything works out as you intended.”
Mid-way through their dinner of ham and cheese quiche, with a fresh salad, the phone rang, but as soon as she recognised her mother’s voice on the speaker of the answering-machine, Julia left the dining-table and crossed the lounge.
“Hi there,” she sat on the sofa, trailing the lead across the carpet and smiling at Melissa, who resumed her meal. “I’m glad you’ve rung. What time were you thinking of coming at the week-end? It’s just that we need to go out and get some shopping, that’s all.”
“That’s why I’m calling,” replied her mother. “I’m sorry, but we can’t make it: there’s been a last-minute change of plan. The directors at work… there is going to be one of those horribly formal luncheons that everyone just has to attend, and if I don’t accompany your father… We can’t get out of it this time, I’m afraid, and I was so looking forward to celebrating your results. Whatever happens, we’ll be there next week, I promise.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Julia was sympathetic. “I’m sure Melissa and I will find something to do, and there are a couple of films that look half-way decent, so we might go and see one of those.”
“You seem to be spending more and more time together, don’t you?”
“We always did,” her voice implied a dismissive shrug of the shoulders she would have made had her mother been present.
“Yes, but I thought that perhaps you might be getting out a bit more.”
Julia was a little puzzled, “What do you mean?”
“Well… two young girls like you staying in so much: it seems such a waste. You ought to be going out and enjoying yourselves, that’s all.”
“We do,” she laughed. “We go to galleries and exhibitions, parks, films, restaurants when there’s a bit of spare cash, usually a club once a week, and we have a really good time.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Karen sighed and, after a short pause, commented, “I just thought that once you were settled you might have started meeting people, even if only those at work to begin with.”
“Most of them are a bit too old for me, really, and we don’t have that much in common.”
“But you must have been asked out, surely?”
“Yes, of course, but you know I’ve never been one for social alcoholism, and as for letting cigarette smoke contaminate my hair and clothes… I’ve been out a few times with them, of course, for various engagements and anniversaries, but nothing ever came of it. Why the sudden interest?” she was curious.
“Oh, no particular reason. It’s still less than a couple of months since you moved, and the house seems so empty without you; we still expect to see you in your room, or coming down the stairs to dinner. I was just wondering if everything was all right, that’s all. You would tell me if there was something wrong, wouldn’t you?”
Julia laughed, “Don’t worry! Everything is working out really well. I’m starting to build a life of my own, that’s all, and it’s not as if I’ve emigrated to Canada or Australia, is it?”
“No,” the tone of her mother’s voice implied a smile, “you’re quite right. Well, if there’s nothing on your mind, I’d better be going.”
“I’ll be thinking of you,” replied Julia. “’Bye.”
“Take care; ‘bye.”
“Strange,” Julia commented idly as she returned to the dining-table.
“What was?” Melissa enquired.
“She asked if I was all right.”
Melissa laughed, “It would be stranger if she didn’t. She’s your mother: she cares for you, you know that.”
“It’s just the way she spoke, as if she assumed something was wrong but I wasn’t telling her. I was looking forward to seeing them, as well, but at least this gives us another week in which to get things straightened out a bit more.”
* * *
“It’s so good to see you,” Julia’s mother kissed her on the cheek, as did her father. “I know it’s only the second time we’ve been here, but the journey is already beginning to seem familiar. I suppose that’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
Julia did not answer what had only been a rhetorical question, and led her parents into the lounge, where Melissa received smiles from Julia’s parents, but not a kiss from Karen; though such a greeting had become common during the time Melissa stayed with them at the coast, its omission was not worthy of comment, and Julia ignored it, indicating the new two-seater sofa for her parents whilst she and Melissa sat at the dining-table. “Would you like anything to drink? There’s fruit juices, or coffee.”
“Not for me,” replied Alexander, “though I’m looking forward to the lunch you promised us: you always were a good little cook,” and his wife shook her head silently in response to their daughter’s question, looking at the room without giving the impression of critically appraising it.
“You’ve done it very nicely,” she said. “I like the colour-scheme: it’s lovely and light.”
“It was the first room we finished,” replied Julia, “because we spend most of our time in it. The kitchen and bathroom are almost done, so are the bedrooms, and the hall will only take a couple of afternoons.”
“What’s that strange clicking noise?” Karen was puzzled, as she could not identify the source.
Melissa laughed slightly, and indicated the hallway. “It’s a small wall-regulator clock; we don’t notice it any more, except when it chimes the hours, but we switch it off for the night. You’re used to the heavier ticking from your grand-father clock at home.”
“Come on,” said Julia, “I’ll show you what we’ve done since you were last here.”
In contrast to most of the furnishings in her parents’ home, the vast majority of the furniture was of light shades: the lounge contained an oak dining-table and teak chairs, a tall book-case of beech veneer, and a small side-board of ash in which were decorated plates and a few crystal glasses purchased for their flower-like shapes rather than any use they might be put to. Julia led her parents from the lounge to the hall, where they paused to look at the reproduction mediaeval clock with its seemingly crude mechanism and solid lead weights, and into the kitchen, which had been painted a pale lemon yellow.
The main bedroom was fully decorated except for the wall nearest the door; it contained their double bed surrounded by a polished brass bedstead, a narrow dressing-table with a long angled mirror at the back, and a second-hand wardrobe of sandalwood purchased from a large basement antiques shop in the High Street. The other, much smaller bedroom, had more two wardrobes used exclusively for hanging space, and a long drawer-unit on which was strewn a few odds and ends that had not yet found a home, but its walls were still showing the original dark blue colour, for only the ceiling had been painted so far.
“I’m impressed,” said Karen once they returned to the lounge. “Everything looks so fresh and clean. If you carry on at this rate, you’ll have it all done in another month or so. I still think it’s a pity the bedrooms are so unequal; yours looks more like a spare room at the moment, and when are you going to put in the bed?”
Julia saw her father give Karen a sideways glance, but could not fully determine the expression it conveyed. Was it surprise at the criticism? or annoyance? It seemed a combination of the two, yet also carried with it an impression of something hidden and not to be discussed. She had a sudden and very strong suspicion there was more to the inquiry than was at first apparent, and that it was not as innocent an observation as it might have seemed, but without betraying the fact she and Melissa did indeed share the larger bedroom there was nothing she could do unless she forced a confrontation, and she tried to dismiss the feeling with a quick smile. “It’s just the way in which we’re doing the decorating, that’s all.”
“And a very good job you’ve done,” said Alexander. “Speaking of jobs,” he continued, “how are you getting on? The last thing you told us in any detail was that you’d settled in, but were finding it a little boring.”
“It still is,” Julia replied in as casual a voice as she could muster. “The problem is, it’s almost too easy. I need more of a challenge, but they won’t give me anything important until I’ve proven myself, so I’m relegated to filing and telephoning people. If nothing happens in the next couple of months then I may start looking elsewhere, but I don’t want to end up as a temp wandering from one place to another, with no security and no prospects.”
He smiled slightly, but the motion was gentle and natural rather than calculated or forced, “You always did like stability, even as a young girl. And how about you?” he looked at Melissa.
She was almost startled by the direct question, for she had been more than aware of the silent interchange of expressions between Julia’s parents and knew precisely what they were thinking, but as with Julia she had no choice but to continue as if nothing were troubling her, as she did not want to force the issue. “I’m quite settled, really. I want to stretch myself, too, but it’s only a small firm. I’m hoping if I make myself useful then they may take more notice of me, but at the moment I’m just an odd-job girl with a handful of exams to my credit. At least they don’t expect me to make the tea,” she smiled.
“It’s good to see you doing so well,” he said, “but then you’ve always seemed to know what you wanted.”
“And how are you managing living together?” asked Karen. “Is it what you expected?”
“It’s fine,” answered Julia. “Some evenings we’re so tired from work that we just curl up on the sofa and watch some of the rubbish on TV or listen to music, and we share the chores, but most of the time we go out somewhere, otherwise there would be no point to it all.”
“Well,” said her mother in a voice that contained an odd tone of resignation, “being like this certainly seems to agree with you: you’re obviously very happy.”
Julia was pleased by the comment, but more than ever felt there were many undercurrents to the remarks, and added, “We each need our own space from time to time, of course, and there have been a couple of disagreements, but that’s only to be expected. It’s surprising how quickly everything fell into place, really.”
“You’ve known each other for quite some time now, and you both wanted this to succeed: that was clear from the moment you broached the subject to us. It’s strange,” Karen spoke slowly, as if uncertain of the course her words would take, then she looked directly at Melissa, “I thought… no, I was so certain I’d feel threatened, but I don’t, not now. I know what such a good influence you’ve had on Julia, it’s just that I never expected this. I’m not even hurt. No,” she corrected herself again, but the word had no strength behind it, “that’s not true, I am hurt: a lot. How could I not be?” She shook her head slightly, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Melissa looked across the table at Julia, but without any sense of cruelty she wanted Karen to mention it of her own volition rather than in response to an uninvited disclosure from herself or Julia, and she asked as calmly as she could, “How could I possibly threaten you?”
“By taking our daughter from us. I knew it would have to happen eventually, of course, but I made the natural assumption it would be because she had moved in with a boy-friend.”
“What…” Julia began, but was interrupted by her mother.
“Please don’t make this any harder for us than it already is. I know you think you were acting for the best in not saying anything, but it’s that lack of trust which has also hurt us, can’t you see?”
Julia did not reply for a few seconds, and her mind was in a spiral of doubt; she could not determine the right thing to do, whether an outright acknowledgement of her loving Melissa or a delay of the inevitable was for the best, but she was saved from a decision by Melissa speaking in the same apparently off-handed manner she had used so long ago in the faded white gazebo at school.
“Not telling you what?”
Karen breathed deeply, perhaps summoning courage, and she looked at her husband, “That you’re living together as more than just friends: as man and woman, however these relationships work: I admit I don’t know anything about them.”
“When did you find out?” Julia knew the question to be a clear admission that the assessment was correct, even if highly inaccurate, but she was also aware that any denial from either herself or Melissa would only worsen matters.
“I had my doubts some time ago,” said her mother, “but I couldn’t put a name to them. You were always so happy together that at first I didn’t recognise it, because I merely saw you as friends, and I wasn’t looking for anything unusual. And then, one day… I think it was after you had returned from visiting Melissa at Easter, I suddenly realised that for some time you’d been behaving towards one another as if you were in love, because I’d been looking forward to seeing that sort of reaction to one of the boys with whom you seemed to be friendly. I knew you were very fond of each other, of course, I never thought twice about that, we’d taken Melissa in as if she were part of the family, after all, and her staying during the holidays was so natural we took it for granted, but things seemed to be more than just deep friendship: it was as if you were sharing a secret, and it wasn’t just a silly pact that school-girls make. That’s when I think I realised, but I couldn’t say anything, I suppose because I didn’t want to believe it, and you never said or did anything to confirm it.”
“Oh,” Julia did not really know what else to say, and was expecting at any moment an impassioned outburst for her to consider what she was doing, and accusations of corruption levelled at Melissa. She wondered why she was so calm: perhaps it was the only way to behave when faced with the truth, but any further reply was forestalled by her father coughing faintly, either embarrassed at the discussion or simply clearing a throat made dry by rising stress and the confirmation of their suspicions.
“It’s true, then?”
“Yes,” Melissa replied simply, just as she had done when challenged in the school grounds. “I’ve never lied to Julia about my feelings, and I’ve never lied to you about anything at all: I’m not going to start now.”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Julia felt as if she were apologising, but did not know how to, or even if it was possible or desirable: not for loving another girl, which she would now defend rather than excuse, but for the lack of trust. “I wasn’t quite sure to begin with, and by the time I was, I didn’t know what to say. How could I have led up to it? What I don’t understand is the way you’re behaving now: don’t you mind?”
“Of course we do!” her mother’s voice was not particularly loud for a protest. She sighed heavily, “But your father and I have also had a great deal of time in which to talk things through, and apparently he reached the same conclusion independently. The most important thing was finding out whether or not you were happy, and it’s quite apparent you are. That’s what’s so hard: seeing you like this. You wouldn’t believe how much the flat shows who you are, what you are; and as for the bedroom you obviously share…” a tremor passed through her body. “I didn’t think I could be so rational about something so fundamental, but what am I supposed to do?”
Julia left the table and knelt beside the sofa, taking her mother’s hand in her own. “Why didn’t you ask me sooner? It would have made things so much simpler.”
“Because I didn’t want to believe it!” Karen’s shout was almost subdued, but still her daughter winced. “Oh, I’m not blind, I know things like that go on. What with the tabloids exposing someone almost every week it would be stupid not to, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine my own daughter and her best friend were… what do you call yourselves nowadays? Is it still lesbians?” She did not wait for an answer, and rested her cheek on Julia’s hair, “I don’t want to lose you, but I don’t know if I can…” she sighed again, and addressed Melissa. “I don’t think I’m angry with you, not really, and I’m not blaming anyone: I just don’t understand.” She began crying, her body rocked by muted sobs as she clutched Julia, and Alexander put his arm around his wife’s heaving shoulders.
“At least it’s all out in the open now,” he spoke quietly.
Karen lifted her head, “And what happens to us? I can’t stop loving you,” she looked down at Julia, then up at Melissa. “I can’t despise you all of a sudden; I don’t see why I should do so at all. I’ve always liked you, was so glad that Julia had at last found a friend she could truly depend on, but now that I know more about you it makes everything so different. I’ll never be able to look at you the same way again.”
“I wish I’d had the courage to tell you,” said Julia, “but I was afraid: I had no idea how you’d react.”
“Nor had I,” her mother replied. “I’ve had plenty of time to get used to the idea: I suppose that helps.”
“And been torturing yourself all the while,” said Alexander, “not knowing one way or the other, whereas I… well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I didn’t mind, but it certainly wasn’t that much of a surprise.”
“Anyone else would have wanted to know right-away,” Melissa pointed out, “and likely put a stop to it.”
“I couldn’t accuse you without being absolutely sure of myself,” Karen explained. “Even when Julia told us she was going to live with you, and you came down and we went through what were really only formalities, it seemed so perfectly normal and respectable that I convinced myself I was wrong, but now I’ve seen how you live I can’t do that any more. I didn’t… don’t think what you’re doing is right, I doubt I ever shall, but Julia is so content, and that means a great deal to me. I wouldn’t have prevented her from moving in with a boy-friend once I was certain it wasn’t just a whim on her part, but then I know she wouldn’t have done such a thing without thinking it through, so when she said she was going to live with you rather than by herself I thought it such a good idea.”
“I think,” her husband continued, “that what’s uppermost in our minds is Julia’s happiness, and at the moment that’s undeniable. If we believed sufficiently that you were sick then nothing either of you said could prevent us from breaking this up and taking Julia home right now, but it’s precisely because we don’t think that, that we’re doing our utmost to understand what’s happening. I don’t think we can, though,” he added. “I suppose you think we’re both being very stuffy and old-fashioned: that we shouldn’t even be talking about it, but just let you get on with your life the way you want to.”
“Not the way you mean it,” Melissa was in one way grateful they were discussing the situation rather than rejecting it and, inevitably, their daughter, as had already happened to her; but another, smaller part, wanted to protest at the intrusion and ultimate judgement, no matter how well-meaning it was. “The thing is, it’s not us who have changed, but you, because of what you’ve learned, and you’re going to have to deal with it.”
“What on earth are we going to tell everyone?” Karen wondered aloud.
“Nothing they don’t already know,” answered Julia. “There’s no reason for them to think otherwise, and it will only make things more difficult. Once they know, you’ll either have to defend us and risk ostracising yourself, or side with them, which I don’t think you want to do. As far as they’re concerned, we’re two girls living together for convenience and company. It’s hardly an unusual situation, and that’s how everyone here sees us; or if not, they haven’t said anything. It’s not really any of their business, anyway.”
“Was it something we did?” asked her mother. “Is this our fault?”
“No, it isn’t,” Julia was firm. “You said you can’t blame Melissa, so don’t go blaming yourself instead. It isn’t anyone’s fault, because no one’s done anything: it’s just the way things are.”
“You make it all sound so simple,” replied Alexander, “but then for you I suppose it is.”
Melissa almost laughed, “Not really.”
“But you’re sure? You must be.”
“About being gay, yes, but that’s precisely the problem, or at least it was for a while. If I wasn’t, I could easily find excuses for doing other things; the fact I am meant I had to pretend to be something else, or behave as if I wasn’t interested. The one time I summoned enough courage to tell someone, because I loved him and I wanted him to know how happy I was, he threw it all back in my face and disowned me, and that hurt: a lot. It still does.”
“So that’s what it was all about,” said Alexander in a contemplative tone. “We knew something was terribly wrong, of course, but Julia refused to discuss it even after you’d left, so we had no idea. I thought it was something else, but I was wrong.” He shook his head, “What you must have gone through! I could never do that,” and looked at his daughter.
“I don’t want to lose you, either,” Julia’s voice was somewhat hoarse, and she stood up. “I’m just going to get some water.”
“Could I have something a bit stronger?” asked Karen, then she realised, “Oh, of course not.”
Much to her surprise, Melissa replied, “There’s some whisky in the cupboard. It was a present from someone at work who tried to impress me without bothering to discover what I actually liked; we never got around to throwing it out.”
“How would you like it?” Julia asked from the doorway.
“Half-and-half,” said Karen, and nodded slightly in thanks as her daughter left for the kitchen. She turned to her husband, smiled weakly and held his hand as they heard the clink of glasses. Of a sudden, she laughed, but the sound was neither strained nor particularly nervous, “I was thinking of the first time Julia ever brought you home: you were so shy, then, so unsure of yourself beneath the bravura. And now look at you: you’re so confident, so mature. It’s hard to think of you both as young adults.”
“I wasn’t just shy, I was scared,” confessed Melissa. “You were a real family, with roots and a history: everything I lacked. If I seem confident now, it’s only because I’m finally laying my ghosts to rest, but then I’ve had a lot of help. If I’ve been as good an influence on Julia as you seem to think, then it’s because of her bringing those qualities out in me, and that’s down to you too, as you taught her those things.”
“Here we are,” Julia brought in three glasses of cold water and two of diluted whisky. “I wasn’t sure what you wanted, dad, so I did both,” she held the tray in front of her parents, and her father, having passed one whisky to his wife, after a short deliberation took the other, then Julia put the remaining glasses on the dining-table, carefully leaning the tray against one of its legs.
“Do you mind…” Alexander’s voice seemed unnaturally loud as he addressed Melissa directly, “…if we have a few minutes alone?”
Melissa stood up and squeezed Julia’s hand, both as an open sign of affection and as a contact meant for reassurance, before walking from the lounge, thinking of waiting in the kitchen but deciding against it because it was too near, for though part of her wanted to over-hear everything that might be discussed, she knew it was too invasive and would not want anyone else to do the same if the positions were reversed.
“Oh, Julia,” Karen shook her head, “what are we going to do? Tell me honestly: is this what you really want? Are you sure you aren’t just doing it because Melissa wants you to? Does she have some kind of hold over you?”
“No,” Julia would have shouted the denial, but even so managed to inject a tone of horror at the suggestion by elongating and flexing the vowel, “it’s nothing like that at all. You can’t blame Melissa; or me: it’s something that…” she almost shrugged her shoulders, then wished she had not as the gesture implied a dismissive quality that could be misinterpreted, “it just happened.”
“How can you possibly say that? It isn’t something you acquire like a new dress. Or is this all some sort of game you’re both playing?”
“It isn’t that, either. How can I make you understand?”
“I don’t know that you can.”
“But do you want to?” Julia tried desperately to bridge the gap that was opening between them. “Whatever happens, you can’t walk away from this. Neither can I, but I know that, and I’ve already made my decision.”
“You certainly sound as if you have,” admitted her mother in a quiet tone, “but is it the right one?”
“You’re only being so critical because it’s Melissa. If it was any of the boys who have tried to… um… get to know me better, then none of this would be happening.”
“Of course it wouldn’t, but I’ve already said that. It’s only because this is so unexpected that we’re having this conversation at all.”
“How can I try and make you see?” Julia sighed a little, “I don’t know if this will make any sense or not, but for the first time in my life I feel as if I know who I am. I know what I feel, not only for Melissa but also about myself, and this is so right. I’ve always known there was something different about me, why going out with boys never really meant anything, why nothing ever happened when they tried to take things further, and now I know what it is: I’ve named it and admitted it to myself. I can’t explain it any simpler than that, and I don’t want to analyse it to the point of a meaningless abstraction. I’ve already tried, anyway, and it doesn’t work.”
“Do you love her?” the question, though blunt, was neither brutal nor sarcastic.
“Yes, I do. It took me a long time to realise, but I can’t deny it any longer, and if I did I’d only hurt myself, and Melissa. I love her a great deal, and she feels the same for me.”
“I see. I always thought I had an open mind about these things, but that was only because it was something which never affected me; and now that it does, I don’t really know how I feel. It would be pointless to deny it, and I certainly can’t ignore it, but I’m not sure I can accept it, either.”
“Does that also mean you can’t accept me?” Julia’s voice was almost a whisper.
“Heavens, no,” her mother was aghast at the idea.
“But it’s part of me, part of who I am. You can’t separate the two, don’t you see?”
“And you say you’re as sure as you can be?”
“I’m more than certain: I know.”
“Well,” said Karen with a tone of finality as she stood and went to the doorway, “you don’t seem to leave us with much choice, do you?”
“What do you mean?” Julia was suddenly terrified of what her parents were going to do, but could say nothing as Karen summoned Melissa back to the lounge.
Karen remained standing once Melissa had entered the room, then she held out both her hands and managed a smile that was relatively free from strain, “You’re both very dear to me, and I don’t want to lose either of you, particularly you, Julia, so I’m probably doing this for all the wrong reasons, and if that means you having a relationship I can never understand, then so be it.” She kissed both girls on the cheek before embracing them, “I doubt I’ll ever be able to condone what you’re doing, but I’m certainly not going to condemn it. I love you both too much to do that.”
Julia was almost in shock as all of the tension that had built up during the past minutes drained from her body and left her feeling weak, almost disorientated. She blinked away tears and held onto her mother for a few moments, then looked past her to Alexander, who had remained seated and almost silent throughout most of the conversation. “And you, father?” she asked somewhat formally.
He smiled a little, tilted his head to one side in a manner that seemed to suggest he was indulging an errant child, but in his case was the equivalent of shrugging his shoulders, “I love you for who you are, Julia, as your own person, as well as my daughter; I always have done, and nothing will ever change that. Now then, I think that’s enough for now: we’re all a bit wound-up, so where’s that meal you promised us? I’m hungry.”