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The Ruins

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I.

"Tell me about Paris." The hour was late and the low light in Miss G's room was making Di feel loose and open like in the moments before sleep, emboldening her to ask things she perhaps shouldn't. (But that was one of the many things Di had learnt from Miss G already: perhaps I shouldn't meant it would be thrilling if I did.)

"I'm not sure you're ready to hear about Paris," Miss G said, her voice rich and low and conspiratorial. "It's rather a scandalous tale."

Di sat up a little straighter on her cushion on the floor, warmth blossoming inside her. Her cheeks were probably pink, she thought, which made them pinker still, but Miss G didn't seem to notice and there were no other witnesses around. The other girls had joined them, earlier, but Miss G had asked Di to stay behind. She wanted to lend her a book. Di knew the other girls on the team would be burning with jealousy and that only thrilled her further.

"I can handle a little scandal," Di said in her most mature voice. "I'm not a complete innocent."

Miss G smiled at that and reached for a cigarette. As she lit it she kept her eyes on Di, the brief flare of match light bathing her features in a delicious glow. "It was all about sex, of course."

All the best stories are: another thing Di had learnt from Miss G. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep her expression neutral and tried her very best to keep her focus on Miss G's eyes, not the way her lips curved around her cigarette.

"His name was Guillaume. He was an artist--penniless, of course, as all the best artists are. I can't abide a rich man who fancies himself an artist or a poet--their work has no truth."

"What did he paint?" asked Di, breathless in anticipation of the answer. She could feel what was coming as Miss G gave her a knowing smile.

"Nudes. He was fond of landscapes before he met me, but... let's say I became something of a muse for him." Miss G exhaled a stream of smoke into the light of the candle. "He was a brilliant man. I was only a few years older than you at the time, and--well, you know how it is to be young and consumed with lust. You do know, don't you?"

There was the gardener's boy with his strong arms and broad smile--he was the one that all the girls at St Mathilda's fell for, though that had more to do with his being the only male specimen for miles around. Di had had lustful thoughts about him, or had tried to, but Miss G's talk of painters and nudes and Paris sparked something else in Di, something that she had only looked at obliquely before.

"Of course I know what it is to feel lust." Di's voice had lost the confidence she had been projecting before.

Miss G considered her. "You don't sound certain, Radfield. Desire. That's the most important thing of all--don't forget that. If you want to truly know yourself, you must know what you desire."

Di nodded, filing the information away into the corner of her brain that held all Miss G's wisdom. "I think I do know what I desire," she said, sounding more confident this time, and Miss G leaned forward until there was barely a foot between their faces.

"You must be sure."

How had Di ever doubted it?

A long moment stretched between them in silence, their eyes locked together--and Di could feel her face burning, and wanted desperately to alleviate the tension and look away, but somehow she felt that Miss G would be disappointed if she did.

"Tell me more about the Frenchman," she said eventually, her eyes never leaving Miss G's face.

For a moment Miss G paused, as though she were collecting her thoughts, and then her countenance changed. "It was terribly sad, actually. He was hopelessly in love with me, but after the initial flame of passion died I found I could not love him back. He was so heartbroken he threw himself into the river. That seems to be my lot in life: to break hearts. It can be quite a burden." Miss G gazed into the fire, and Di felt she had been forgotten entirely. Perhaps Miss G was thinking about the trail of broken hearts left in her wake, men and women alike who had been consumed by Miss G and spat out in pieces. They were a pitiful lot, these imagined souls, none of them worthy of Miss G's desire.

Di knew it would take a special sort of person to capture Miss G's heart.

 

II.

Di heard the commotion before she saw it. A thump, a gasp, voices faltering mid-hymn until everyone stopped singing altogether and the organist got the hint two bars later. Di craned her neck, and spotted what had happened at the end of the row.

Fiamma was on the floor.

Such melodrama, Di thought, and her thoughts grew sourer still when she saw Miss G rushing down the aisle towards where Fiamma lay. Girls were crowding around Fiamma; Miss G shooed them away, snapping, "Give her space, girls. Let her breathe."

Miss G knelt down beside Fiamma, lifting her head until it was cradled in her lap. For a moment the church was silent as all held their breath, Di included--but it wasn't fear for Fiamma's health that froze her solid, it was the look on Miss G's face, concern and tenderness and something else indecipherable, and the way Miss G's fingers played through Fiamma's hair.

It didn't take long for Fiamma to stir a little, causing relief to bloom on Miss G's face. "Just a fainting spell," she said. "I'll take her to get some air."

Fiamma still looked groggy and unstable when Miss G led her out, her arm gripped tight around Fiamma's side, and that confirmed Di's suspicions. She had always believed that Fiamma was something of an actress; it went hand in hand with being a duplicitous cow. Everyone else might have been taken in by her--including Miss G, who was too kind, too loving towards her girls--but Di couldn't let it stand. She slipped out after Miss G and Fiamma.

A hand on her shoulder stopped her as she was almost at the door, and Miss Lacey frowned down at her. "And where do you think you're going, Radfield?"

"I'm team captain. I have to check on my teammate. Miss G would want it." She put on her most innocent smile and eventually Miss Lacey gave in and let her pass.

Outside the church she found them on a bench, Miss G still holding Fiamma tight and stroking her hair. Di hung back, peering from around the corner of the building, watching. From inside the church the hymns had started up again, but over the faint strains of Nearer, My God, to Thee Di could hear the words Miss G was murmuring: "Oh, my dear darling girl, my sweet thing," over and over.

Fiamma was still pretending to be out of it, her head lolling against Miss G's shoulder. She would be able to smell Miss G's perfume, would be able to feel the cool silk of her blouse against her cheek. She would be able to feel Miss G's heartbeat. Di could imagine nothing so sweet, and perhaps that was why this burned so much: Di wished the feigned fainting spell had been her idea. She would give anything to be where Fiamma was now.

The hymn inside the church ended and a new one began, and still Di watched, unnoticed. The longer the tableau confronted her, the stronger jealousy roiled inside her, and she was a second from marching up to them--or else fleeing in tears--when it changed. Fiamma began to stir, then fight against Miss G's hold, as incoherent words of protest tumbled from her lips.

"Dear girl, you fainted," Miss G explained in soothing tones, trying to calm her, but Fiamma extricated herself from Miss G's grasp and rose to her feet.

"Stay away from me. I don't want your help," Fiamma said, and Di watched as Miss G's expression fell. She looked crushed, frozen to the spot while Fiamma stalked off, heading straight towards where Di was lurking around the corner of the church. Di stepped back, and as soon as Fiamma rounded the corner she seized her arm.

"I don't know what kind of perverted mind games you're playing," Di hissed, "but they've got to stop."

"What are these games you're talking about?" Fiamma tried to pull her arm away but Di held on tight, digging her fingernails in for good measure. "You have no idea what's going on here, have you?"

Di laughed viciously. "I know exactly what's going on, you manipulative whore. I know you only pretended to faint so you could get close to Miss G. Very clever, but I'm on to you."

"Why on earth would I want her to touch me?" Fiamma had stopped struggling at this point and was simply looking at Di like she was quite mad--another manipulation, but Di wasn't falling for it.

A cacophony of footsteps inside the church signalled that the service was over and Di was out of time. She yanked Fiamma close as the doors began to open and glared.

"If you don't stay away from Miss G, you're going to regret it."

 

III.

After the war, Di returned to St Mathilda's one final time. The school bore the scars of war that marked the whole country: haggard faces and a melancholy that lingered even as people went about the work of rebuilding their lives. But loss didn't begin and end with the bombs.

The paths through the woods were familiar even through the mask of time, and it didn't take long for Di to find the site of her pilgrimage. The ruined walls had crumbled even further as the trees continued to claim the stone for their own, but Di could still find the exact spot on the forest floor where Fiamma had lain all those years ago. She had wanted to visit Fiamma's grave, but her body had been shipped to Spain and Di didn't know where she was buried. But this was better. A distant grave would bury the past, and Di couldn't afford to let the past lie.

It would have been so easy for things to turn out differently. A thousand decisions, some small and some significant, had led to this point, and Di took responsibility--except she didn't really know what taking responsibility achieved. Fiamma wasn't coming back.

She toed the ground where Fiamma had fallen. The soil was hard, even though it was getting to be Spring. She should have brought flowers, or a wreath, or a marker more permanent, but she knew the school wouldn't approve. They had done such a good job of sweeping the unfortunate incident under the rug.

The light began to fade. A cab would be waiting up by the school, ready to take her to the harbour, and from there she had to sail back to the mainland, and take a train down to London where she was making her home these days. Such a journey for such a brief visit. But there was one place she must visit first, one person she had to see.

The lake was unchanged: still grey water, the wooden diving platform, a gaggle of girls shivering in their swimming costumes. A teacher commanding their attention, the focal point of their awe.

Di walked up to the diving platform, her heels clacking on the wooden boards. For a moment she was transported back, back to a time when she would hurry across these same boards to be the first by Miss G's side, but things were different now, and she kept a measured pace.

"Miss Gribben," she called out, plastering a smile on her face. "Hello."

Miss G spun round, and emotions flitted across her face in an instant--surprise, alarm, fear--as she hesitated, like she was torn between wanting to retreat back to the safety of her girls, and wanting to meet Di halfway across the walkway so they could talk quietly and not make a scene. After a moment her expression settled back into the smooth mask that Di was used to, and she approached Di.

"Miss Radfield, what a surprise," Miss G said with a smile that was as false as Di's own. In the decade since they'd last met, Miss G had recovered her talent for hiding behind lies. "I suppose it is still Miss Radfield, isn't it? You haven't married?"

"No. I feel very much like I'm not the marrying type."

"One thing we have in common," Miss G replied, but her smile died when Di shot her a sharp glance.

She suddenly became acutely aware that the girls on the diving team were listening in, for all they were pretending to keep a polite distance. For their sakes, Di didn't want this to get ugly even though the very sight of Miss G, her false smile and darting eyes, awoke an anger inside Di that she hadn't realised she harboured. But she was not one to lose her temper, not anymore, and so she kept her disdain contained.

"Anyway, I was just visiting the school for old time's sake when I thought I simply must see how you were getting on. How nice that you've restarted the diving team after your leave of absence."

"They're doing marvelously," Miss G said, and her pride in her girls almost seemed genuine. She turned to the team then and said, "Girls, this is Miss Radfield. She was the captain of the very first diving team here and she was very much the star."

"Well, that's not quite true. I was the captain, yes, but Fiamma was the best."

The colour vanished from Miss G's face but she recovered in an instant, so quickly that the girls of the diving team wouldn't have noticed. "You were both very good. Let me introduce you to our new captain," she said, ushering forward a dark-haired girl who could not have been older than fifteen. "Di, this is Alice Cummings. She won a bronze at the regional diving championships last week."

Di tried to smile through her surprise. "Congratulations." Perhaps things had changed here--not quite in the ways that they ought to have changed, but enough. Nothing could make up for the tragedies of the past, but perhaps they could all move forward.

She looked at Alice, who was beaming with pride--not at Di, but at Miss G, who smiled so fondly that one could be forgiven for mistaking her as a proud teacher and nothing more. But then she stroked Alice's hair and Alice leaned into the touch in a way that was so familiar that Di ached. She knew that feeling, or at least she thought she did.

She couldn't be sure. That's what Di told herself as she said her goodbyes and walked back to the shore, Miss G silently accompanying her for the sake of propriety. She couldn't be sure what she had seen, or what it meant. She couldn't be sure she wasn't so wrapped up in her own past that she was projecting it onto the future.

Her shoes hit sand and she turned to Miss G one last time, taking a moment to choose her words carefully. "Take care with your girls, Miss G."

"You mean 'take care of my girls', I suppose?"

Di looked up at her, and for the first time she noticed how wounded Miss G looked, and she almost felt forgiving. "No," Di said gently. "You know exactly what I mean."