Esther’s face was still burning. She’d turned and run the moment Mark Reading ended; anything to escape the awful, choking pressure.
She hadn’t slept at all last night; every time she closed her eyes she saw the gold-on-blue hymnbook cover, replayed over and over again the moment when she could have avoided disaster, could have said something to Nicola. The odd thing was, she couldn’t cry. Normally, she’d have been exerting every ounce of her willpower to stop the tears from starting, but instead, she just felt numb. Perhaps this was what ‘being in shock’ meant. Because it was beyond any doubt now that her friendship with Nicola was over; kaput, terminated by her own hubris and hopelessness; yet she suspected that some part of her mind still hadn’t caught up. Accepting the worst, she’d told herself that all she needed to do was get through the morning intact, and so she very nearly had. But then Latimer had asked that question, and Nicola had pretended it was her that had messed up - had point-blank lied to a teacher to protect Esther. Why? She didn’t deserve it - Nicola, and Tim and Miranda come to that, had every right to be furious with her - so why not put the blame where it belonged?
And then the explanation occurred to her, and her running pace slowed as if her feet had suddenly turned to lead. Nicola was mortified at having believed in her; didn’t want anyone else knowing that she’d been stupid enough to imagine that Esther could sing.
So this is how it feels, thought Esther dully, as she unlatched the kennel door. “Come on, Daks. Last walk”, she said as she clipped the lead to his collar. Their usual Saturday-morning route: through the corner gate as if heading for the forbidden beach path, then a sharp left where a public right-of-way ran along the boundary of the school grounds. The path was quiet and heavily-wooded, used mainly by dog-walkers and the occasional hiker searching for the coast path; but if you followed it up to the top of the ridge, the woods thinned and you could see the sea. She needed to clear her head, get some perspective.
Use of this path was a Kingscote dog-owner’s privilege that she’d found herself appreciating more and more this term. At first, she’d been highly amused that Daks obviously counted as the equivalent of two of her Upper Fourth peers in Miss Keith’s arcane calculus of risk and responsibility. But today, a thin, insidious voice in her head whispered “Just as well, because who else would come with you now?”
She had tried to change so many times, tried and tried. And if she couldn’t change, she saw suddenly, then there would be more Nicolas: her future unfolded before her as a series of broken promises, let-downs, failures to be a proper friend. This couldn’t go on. She needed to put a stop to it, somehow, before she did any more damage. And it occurred to her that if she could find some way of removing herself as quietly and neatly as possible from her own life, then everyone would be better off. Daks would be so much happier if he were properly a Marlow animal; it was obvious every time he came back after the holidays, and she was dreading the day that he realized it. She found it hard to imagine that Mummy and George could feel anything other than relief if she were no longer cluttering up their household, hanging around like the evidence of a failed relationship, spoiling their new family unit. That was clearly how it was with Daddy and Sheila, no matter how much they tried to be kind and pretend it wasn’t. And Nicola - well, she’d known for some time, if she was honest with herself, that Nicola and Miranda would prefer it if she were not around so much. Even before yesterday.
The sun made her blink as she came through the break in the trees. The heath stretched out in front of her, with the sea on the horizon, and the beach somewhere below, hidden by the curve of the hill. She unclipped the lead from Daks’ collar, sat down on the same fallen treetrunk as usual (worn smooth by probably hundreds of people doing the same thing) as she watched him run and chase imaginary rabbits.
The sea shifted and glittered on the horizon, and slowly, she saw how it could be. She could take Daks back to his kennel and leave a note with him for Nicola saying she’d caught an earlier train, just as if nothing had happened between them. Clear her things out of the dormitory, and then, down to the beach; the far end where no-one’s allowed to go, where there’s a cross-current even at low tide. But she hesitated, thinking of possible flaws in the plan. It was too close, too vulnerable to discovery. Someone from school might find her - afterwards, and then there would inevitably be some kind of Fuss, which would be unbearable, even if she weren’t there to witness it. Or, worse still, what if she were interrupted - caught - prevented from doing it? To be safe, she needed to get out from under the purview of school. And with that thought, another option presented itself. She could catch the train as if everything were perfectly normal, get off at Paddington, and then - a misstep, a stumble on a crowded Tube platform while waiting for the Circle Line. No-one would imagine that it was anything other than an accident. And all at once, she realized that this gap between school and home was where it must happen; any earlier, any later, and it would be impossible for some reason or another.
With her course of action settled, she felt an odd sense of calm and purpose - relief, almost. She looked up to see where Daks had got to, and - oh, bother - there was someone coming. A tall, angular woman; fifty or sixty, perhaps, with a brown, weathered face, wearing a green waxed jacket. Esther recognized her as a regular dog-walker, owner of a spaniel cross called Poppy, someone she’d stop and say hello to while Daks and Poppy greeted each other enthusiastically. Too late to pretend she hadn’t seen; impossible to avoid the encounter.
“Do you mind if I share your bench?”
Esther tried to smile politely. “Oh, no - don’t worry - I was about to go, anyway.”
“Daks is probably wondering where Poppy is.” Esther realized with a jolt that she hadn’t noticed - yes, of course, that’s how she’d looked different as she came up the path - not just the absence of a lead dangling from her hand, but something about her posture, the way she was walking.
“I’m afraid to say that she’s no longer with me.” Then, while Esther was still trying to work out if this could mean anything other than the worst possible thing, “She seemed to be in some kind of discomfort - not herself, somehow. So I took her to the vet, and he found a mass in her stomach. There’s nothing they can do for that, of course. And I hoped - but it was obviously getting more painful for her, every day. So I did what every responsible owner must, when the time comes.”
“Oh! - I’m so sorry. She was a lovely dog.” Esther, still numb, felt the physical manifestation of a lump in her throat; observed with detached curiosity something that resembled prickling behind her eyes.
“It’s been so sudden. Just three weeks since we were up here last. She was still quite a young dog - I thought we’d have a good few years together yet.”
Esther, trying and failing to say something like ‘I don’t know what I’d do if Daks died’ but unable to formulate the words, found herself saying instead “You must miss her very much”, and immediately could have bitten her own tongue out - what a hideously tactless thing to say! Could she possibly be any more incompetent? Mortified, she risked a glance at the woman’s face, and was surprised to see an expression that could almost have been gratitude.
“Yes. Yes I do, very much so. They say that one shouldn’t grieve so much for an animal, that a dog is not a person” - and here, Esther saw the woman’s face twist and darken momentarily, so briefly that she wondered if she’d imagined it. “And it’s true that an animal is not a person, but an animal can still be a friend. And I have lost a very dear friend.” She paused. “I shall get another dog in time, of course. But not yet. You know, this is the first time I’ve been up here without her. It felt like the right thing to do today.”
Daks came bounding up to them. “I do think it’s marvellous that they let you keep animals. Wish they’d allowed that at my school. You must be heading home for the holidays very soon?” Esther nodded mutely, unable to say yes; “I’ve got to catch a train” was all she could manage.
“Well, in that case I mustn’t keep you a moment longer.” She stood up. “A happy Christmas to you and Daks - You know, all this time and I don’t know your name. I’m Ruth.”
For an awful moment Esther thought that Ruth was going to hold out her hand and she would be obliged to shake it; right now, she felt that the slightest touch might burst the thin membrane that was holding her together, and all the rottenness and contamination would come flooding out. But Ruth’s hand stayed in her coat pocket, and with a rush of relief, Esther realised that she’d just been fumbling for a non-existent lead. Compared to that, saying her own name was easy. “Esther.”
“Well, all the best to you, Esther, and I’ll see you next term.”
Left alone, Esther sat motionless and hunched, her fingers buried deep in Daks’ fur. Trusting, oblivious, endlessly hopeful Daks. I can’t do that to you, she thought. I won’t do it to you, I promise. She felt hollow and drained; only one thing was now certain, and that was that she could no longer do what she had planned. Two commitments in as many minutes; one to Daks, one to Ruth. It was impossible now. But what, then? The future yawned in front of her like an open trap. She calculated, frantically bargaining, her mind sliding around the unthinkable and unbearable. Her promise to Daks meant at least seven more years - but probably much, much more, because dogs can live to be quite old really, nearly all of them do - at least seven more years in which she must try to learn what everyone else already knew, learn to be a proper functioning person. And if she didn’t manage it in that time - well, then, that could be that. But in the meantime, she had no choice but to carry on.
This holiday couldn’t come to an end soon enough, thought Nicola savagely. In that brief moment on Tuesday morning when they’d all been dizzy with relief and sleeplessness, it had seemed that things might be all right after all; but since then, everything had fallen apart.
Giles had left early on the Wednesday morning, and to Nicola, it seemed that his departure neatly sealed up the events of the previous fortnight in an impregnable compartment of her mind, knowledge of which she was trying her utmost to wipe from conscious thought. But it wasn’t as easy as that. Ann had certainly not forgotten; she was still furious and upset, and in an unguarded moment she’d given Nicola a look that was sickeningly like contempt. Then Ginty had come home from Monica’s, and no-one had quite known how to apologize to her - apart from Ann, of course, who’d written straightaway - and she obviously still minded, very much so, and had barely spoken a word to any of them except Ann.
Mrs Marlow had been exhausted and preoccupied when she’d arrived back on Tuesday night, but by now she must surely notice that something was going on; it was only a matter of time before she demanded an explanation. With Lawrie and Peter around, there was always a very real danger that someone would say something. Nicola felt uncomfortable in their presence; if they were going to let slip, she didn’t want to be implicated in the act of leakage, even by proximity.
Nicola had been spending as much time as she could with Patrick, the one person with whom she didn’t have to prevaricate; they both understood how it was, and nothing needed to be either said or avoided. But at breakfast that morning Mum had asked her where she was going, and she couldn’t very well not say, and then Ginty had turned very white and run from the room in floods. Nicola hadn’t particularly wanted that to happen, but there seemed no way of avoiding it.
And then, supper tonight. With Karen, who’d come over to talk to Mrs Marlow about something-or-other and been persuaded to stay, given that Edwin was in Crewe with the children; but without Ann, who was still saying she wasn’t hungry. Mrs Bertie had been clearing up as usual when she’d said out of the blue, “You might be interested to know that Judith Oeschli’s back in hospital again. They don’t reckon they can do much for her now. She’s done herself too much damage, they say.”
Mrs Marlow looked up sharply. “That’s the woman whose son kept running away, isn’t it? And she took an overdose?” Mrs Bertie nodded. “It’s a sad business, the whole thing is, if you ask me. I just hope the boy’s all right, wherever he’s got to.”
Mrs Marlow let out a long, exasperated sigh. “I must say, I simply cannot fathom the mindset of someone who can think that that is any kind of solution. Even if the child wasn’t going to be living with her, she’s still his mother. How on earth could she imagine that that would do him any good? What kind of person - cops out like that instead of facing up to their responsibilities?”
The words hung in the air for several seconds. Karen was the only one who responded. “And yet, when I met her - I didn’t know it was her at the time, of course - she did seem to care about him much more than you’d expect, given the Home and all that.” She mused tentatively, as though she were in a seminar in which all sides of an argument must be considered, “I suppose that if one felt that one had let someone down very badly indeed - caused some kind of irreparable damage to someone one cared about… perhaps if one felt that one were doing more bad than good in the world, on balance… Then, I can see how a person might imagine that it was the responsible thing to…” She tailed off. In the normal rhythm of family discussion, this would have been the cue for Rowan to deliver a robust and withering put-down. But Rowan sat white-faced and rigid, staring intently at the salt-cellar.
It was left to Lawrie to break the silence, half-a-beat too late and slightly too emphatically. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Kay, that’s the sort of excuse-making rot that Ann would come up with!”
This can’t get any worse, thought Nicola, frozen in terror of discovery. But before Mrs Marlow could react, Ginty stood up, pushing her chair back so hard it crashed against the wall. “Excuse me. I think I’ve had enough of this conversation”, she said as she stumbled from the room, looking as though she were about to be sick. “Virginia! Come back!” shouted Mrs Marlow, rather pointlessly, at the door that Ginty had left half-open behind her.
And after that, the atmosphere had been unbearable. Nicola had gone to bed as early as she could possibly pretend was reasonable, and then she’d tossed and turned, plagued by nightmares.
Bacca Cove again, except that this time she knows by the angle of the sun, the knot in her gut, that it’s too late. She finds the cave entrance, picks her way through the scattered debris inside, and - her heart leaps because there’s a blue human-sized mound in one of the sleeping bags, perhaps it’s going to be OK after all. She crouches down next to the shape in the sleeping-bag and touches its shoulder, willing herself to feel warmth under her hand, the rhythm of breathing. But it’s not Giles or Peter this time. The lifeless, blank, unrecognizable face of Judith Oeschli is staring up at her. Choking, she scrambles for the cave exit. Now she’s out on the beach with Rowan, desperately hunting for the fragments of Surfrider to put them back together, and - Daks is running around, weaving in between their legs, lead trailing in the sand…
This must be some kind of displaced sense of responsibility, Nicola thought in some lucid part of her brain, with no small degree of exasperation. It’s not my fault that I don’t know what Esther did with Daks, and in the scheme of things it’s hardly important, and…
Suddenly she was awake and sitting bolt upright. Karen’s words ‘if one had let someone down very badly indeed’ had overlapped with the image of Daks trailing his lead on the beach, and somehow clicked like a combination puzzle - No. Surely not.
Because even if Esther were no longer one of her best friends (and the way that this thought entered her mind without resistance told Nicola that it was no longer a question) - nonetheless, it was of immense and urgent importance that she was alive and OK. As she undoubtedly is, in London with Daks, having a thoroughly boring hols and getting on perfectly adequately with her family, Nicola told herself firmly.
Perhaps she should have phoned, after all. It was, technically, possible for Rowan to be wrong about things. It seemed to her now that she could perfectly reasonably have made a polite enquiry about Daks, just after they’d both got home, and cleared the air, and been done with it. But what could she say now, a day before term started? And - what if her worst-case imagining were right?
Suddenly, the ludicrous image of Nicola having to ask Ginty to phone Esther’s house for fear of bad news appeared fully-formed in her head, and she almost barked out loud with laughter at the irony, and had to stuff a pillow into her mouth to stop herself. When she’d calmed down, she gave herself a good mental shaking: ridiculous morbid imaginings worthy of Ginty, indeed. Fifteen minutes later, she was quietly letting herself out of the kitchen door accompanied by Tessa, who was by far the best known cure for morbid imaginings.
Nicola was on the roof at precisely quarter-past-one, and was immensely pleased to see that Miranda was already there waiting for her. To her surprise and relief, she found that it was easy to construct a true and valid account of her holidays that was full of items of interest to Miranda - the Christmas Day picnic with Giles, the New Year party, the astonishing success of The Disaster - without encroaching anywhere near dangerous territory. Listening to Miranda’s hilarious and no doubt equally well-edited account of her own holidays, Nicola grinned and let Kingscote wash over her. It was good to be back.
But later, once they’d gone their separate ways to library and rest-of-unpacking respectively, Nicola became conscious that she was avoiding something, in a very Ginty-like way; a task that would only get worse the longer it was put off. Coward, she reproached herself.
“Don’t suppose anyone’s seen Esther recently?” she said, as casually as she could manage, to assorted Upper Fourths in the library. Nobody had. “But she’s probably at Noah’s Ark”, said Sally, helpfully.
Nicola caught sight of Esther at the far end of the main lawn, with Daks on his lead; her tall, thin, elegant silhouette was unmistakable. The involuntary rush of relief took her by surprise; she’d done such a good job of suppressing her morbid imaginings, she’d almost forgotten what it was she’d been worried about, and was glad to be able to file it emphatically under ‘nonsense’. She ran easily to catch up with her. Then Esther saw her, and her whole body stiffened; as Nicola approached, her expression froze into an uncertain smile.
She thinks I’m angry with her, thought Nicola, rather taken aback. Yes, Esther really did need things to be said. Well, in that case, better get on and say them, and then it would be over and done with.
“Hi, Esther, good hols? How was Daks’ first Christmas in London?”
“It was okay, in the end”, said Esther noncommittally. In fact, it very nearly hadn’t been. Mummy had been at first flustered, and then furious at Daks’ unscheduled arrival. "He can’t stay! We’re not ready! You’ll just have to phone your friend and tell her to come and fetch him.” And when Esther had tried to explain that this was impossible, she’d got out the Yellow Pages and started looking under ’K’ for kennels. But then Esther, to her astonishment, had heard her own voice saying calmly and distinctly, out of that new, cold, numb place, “If you want to get rid of Daks, you’ll have to get rid of me first.” And then there had been a long, awful silence, until George had made an odd sort of noise that might have been a cough, might have been a funny kind of laugh, and said “Well, it looks like Daks is one of the family, then. And we haven’t even been introduced! Hullo there, old chap.” After that, everything had been a lot less awful than it might have been. But Nicola didn’t need to know any of that.
“He didn’t think much of the Tube. I had to carry him quite a lot, not just on the escalators, when you’re supposed to. But he’ll get used to it, I’m sure.”
“I take it your little brother or sister hasn’t arrived yet?”
“No, not for another three weeks, at least. Mummy’s getting really fed up. I’ve seen the new house, though”, she said with sudden enthusiasm. “Just from the outside. George took me and Daks for a walk there on Boxing Day, while Mummy was resting. It’s got a little garden out the back, and Mummy says that gardening really isn’t her thing, so it’ll be my responsibility when I’m home at Easter. It’s north-facing, though, so I’m going to have to ask Mr McGregor about which plants will grow in shade…” She tailed off, remembering too late that gardening wasn’t Nicola’s thing either.
It would be easy to take the coward’s way out; Nicola knew that she had to say it quickly, before it was too late and she lost her Nicola-at-home perspective, before school things gained weight and magnitude. “You know, Esther, that thing with the concert last term - it really didn’t matter. Honestly. It doesn’t matter. It’s not important.”
Esther exhaled slowly. ”No.” She paused, flickered a brief glance at Nicola’s face, as if taking in new information. “No, I suppose it wouldn’t. Of course.” “But,” - she had to say it, regardless, however pathetic Nicola thought she was being - “I’m sorry, anyway.”
She bent down to adjust Daks’ lead, more abruptly than could possibly have been necessary. “Listen, Nicola, I’ve got to go. There’s somewhere I said I’d be. I’ll see you at supper. Come on, Daks.” She turned and headed off in the direction of the corner gate, leaving Nicola baffled and slightly bruised.
And then, somehow, it turned out that by the time Esther arrived at supper (at literally the last possible moment she could without actually being late), the only gap left at the Upper Fourth table was on the end next to Pomona; who gave her a cheerful, mock-horrified grin as if nothing were out of the ordinary, and budged up obligingly to make a space that was just big enough.