She couldn’t go back. Not after last term. She just couldn’t.
Esther watched herself in the mirror, as, depressed, she dressed in Kingscote scarlet. In two hours she’d be on the train. The countdown to the dreaded return to school, which had begun on the first day of the holidays, had stopped being days and was now hours. Soon it would be minutes. How was she going to cope with it? What was she going to say? To Nick, to any of them? Esther bit her lip. Why was she so useless?
“Hurry up, Essa! Breakfast’s ready!” her mother called up the stairs. She’d promised to make Esther’s last breakfast of the holidays a good one, bacon, eggs, fried tomatoes, fried bread … fatten her up before term-time and its dull cuisine. Esther couldn’t smell frying bacon, however; it would be just like Mum to break her promise. She always did. But then, Esther reminded herself, she could hardly reproach her mum for that, however silently; not after what she’d done to Nick.
It wasn’t simply that she’d broken her promise either; it was that she’d kept quiet and allowed Nick to handle the resulting fall-out from Esther’s not singing. Tim, Esther knew, had been furious that Nick had missed her cue for the solo; in the dormitory she’d heard the others discussing how Tim had tried to tear strips of Nicola afterwards, and Nicola had told her to belt up. Then the next day in class Miss Latimer had made a snide comment about Nicola’s stage fright. Esther cringed at the memory. Two occasions when she should have spoken up, confessed that she’d promised Nicola that she’d sing her solo for her and had subsequently fluffed it. But she’d been wary of letting the others know that Nicola hadn’t actually wanted to sing, in the wake of her Conduct Mark embarrassment … Esther corrected herself sharply; forget the excuses, she simply hadn’t had the courage to speak up.
She went downstairs to the big kitchen where, typically, her mother presented her with cereal and toast. “Sorry, Essa,” she said, “when I got up this morning I simply couldn’t bear the thought of frying bacon … Next holidays I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
“I won’t be here next holidays. Next holidays I’m with Daddy and Sheila,” Esther reminded her stiffly, shaking cereal into a bowl and pouring milk over it.
“Of course you are. Sorry, darling. So forgetful.” She patted her stomach as a reminder to Esther that she was nine months’ pregnant and about to produce her infant any moment. Esther instantly clutched at this convenient straw: perhaps Mum would go into labour right this minute, necessitating Esther calling an ambulance, contacting George, accompanying her to the hospital, further delaying the inevitable return to Kingscote.
“It’s okay, Mum,” she assured her mother, remembering that cooperation was a necessity if she were to bring her mother round to her way of thinking. She’d been cooperating since the first day of the holidays, however beastly Mum had been, and it had made things a lot smoother than they might otherwise have been.
There had been a row, of course. A frightful one, and even Daddy had got involved. Mum and George had been fuming when Esther had turned up, not only on a much earlier train than the one she was supposed to catch, but with her poodle, Daks, in tow. Even though Mum and George had found a house to move into, they were still in the flat until after Christmas, and had nowhere to keep the dog.
“I thought you knew that the Marlows would have to look after him these holidays and after that we could manage?” her mother had said; no, shouted. And Esther had conveyed the impression that she had thought it would be alright, with the move happening so soon, and said she couldn’t possibly phone the Marlows to say there’d been a mistake; they weren’t expecting to have Daks this time.
In the end, George had arranged for one of his colleagues to look after Daks until the house was ready, and Mum had spoken to Daddy about Esther’s thoughtlessness and he, no doubt egged on by Sheila, had scolded her roundly. She seemed to show no common sense where Daks was concerned, he said, reminding her of the way she’d run off early from Kingscote because of the dog a year ago.
So, in everybody’s bad books at home, and dreading next term, Esther concentrated on pleasing family. She helped with the move, did lots of housework for Mum, helped with the cooking, and promised she’d sort out the new garden once she was home for the holidays. She liked gardening, even if she did now associate it with that broken promise to Nicola. If only she’d kept quiet that day when Nick said she didn’t much like the idea of singing in front of everyone after what had happened …
“I’ll miss you when you go back, Essa,” Mum said now. “You’ve been such a help to me these holidays.”
This was it. Her chance. Esther swallowed and said, “It’s a shame I won’t be here when the baby arrives. I was hoping it would be born before I went back so that I could help.”
Mum smiled. “That’s alright, Essa. You’ll come home for half-term, like we said, see the baby then.”
“But it’ll grow so quickly and I’ll hardly know it. It doesn’t seem right. I wish I could go to a day school near here, and be home each day … “
“I know, Ess, but Kingscote is a good school, and if it’s a little girl, she’ll go there one day. You’ll be able to tell her all about it.”
No go, then, Esther thought glumly. She was back to hoping Mum would go into labour. She looked up at the kitchen clock. One and a half hours to go.
Of course, Mum didn’t go into labour. The taxi came and whisked Esther and Daks away and she was soon on the train, in a compartment with some other girls from Upper IV A, Tim Keith included. Esther made the appropriate noises to “Had good holidays?” and concentrated on the new countdown: how many minutes and stops till Colebridge Junction, when the Marlows would get on. Unless they were driving, Esther thought optimistically; they did that sometimes.
Holiday anecdotes over, the girls moved on to the term ahead: lacrosse and hockey, and netball, of course; and whether there’d be a play.
“Me Auntie hasn’t said anything about a play this term,” Tim said. “There’ll be one next term, of course.”
Afraid that the fateful solo from the carol service would be brought up, Esther excused herself, saying she wanted to see to Daks. He was in the guard’s van, and greeted her as if she’d been away for years rather than minutes. His unconditional love for her always made her happy. The train stopped at a station, and her stomach lurched. Another stop and twenty minutes closer to Colebridge Junction.
She couldn’t go back. She couldn’t face Nick. Nick must be so disgusted with her – she’d broken her promise, she’d let Nicola take the blame, and then she’d run away, taking Daks, without letting Nicola know what was going on. Esther could feel the tears pricking, wishing she hadn’t let herself fall so far in Nicola’s estimation. After all that Nick had done for her – especially in looking after Daks, and rescuing him at a time when Esther had feared he was going to be put down. What an utter heel she was.
The only way she’d stop feeling like a heel was to put it right. She needed to apologise to Nicola, to let Tim and the others know that she had been to blame – well, perhaps she should check that out with Nicola first. If Nicola rebuffed her, then it was what she deserved. But she couldn’t go on letting things remain unsaid. She swallowed, knowing that when it came down to it she would want nothing more than to hide away … as she was now.
Another station, then another, then another … And then they were at Colebridge Junction. Esther peeked out and saw Nicola and Lawrie, together, and Ann, a little farther away, on the platform. Nicola and Lawrie were responding to someone beckoning them into a carriage … Tim no doubt. Ann wasn’t looking at them, even; strange for Ann, Esther thought, shrinking back into the van, so as not to be seen. Ann was usually a fusser.
Go on, she told herself. Go and find Nick. Apologise. But she knew she couldn’t; not in front of everybody … She started counting down again, the minutes till they arrived at school, and she had to face Nick. Oh, lor’.
The van door opened, and Esther looked up, expecting to see the kindly guard, who’d turned a blind eye to her being here. Daks jumped up joyfully.
“Hullo, Daks,” Nicola Marlow said, bending down and petting him. “Hullo, Esther, Tim said I’d find you here.” Esther felt terrible, and wished she wasn’t here. “It was alright, you know, that solo thing,” Nick continued, still talking to the dog. Then she looked up and grinned at Esther. “So don’t worry about it any more. Oke?”
And Esther, relieved beyond words, smiled hesitantly back.