Anne was always the only girl. She learnt to play alone, setting up parties and functions and adventures for her dolls whilst her brothers tussled in the garden, or went fishing in the pond, or climbed the ancient old oak tree (Julian always leading, Dick scurrying after on too-short legs, always trying to keep up). Even when her mother brought the local girls over to play, and Anne would dutifully involve them in her games, she would only play the ones that are meant to be played solitarily.
She would play with the boys, though, when they were not running around getting dirty and would play with her. They would play games like ‘hide and seek’, and ‘tag’, and even when they were slightly too rough Anne would prefer these games to anything that Sarah Morris from next door would play with her.
Dick called her ‘Little Pig’, and they would play beneath in the kitchen table that he was the Big Bad Wolf coming to eat her. He would knock on the wooden table leg, and use the deep, scary voice that he learned from their father telling them bedtime stories.
“Little Pig, Little Pig,” he had said. “Let me come in.”
“No!” Anne would say, giggling behind her hands. “I will not let you in!”
“Oh,” Dick would continue, “but Little Pig, I’m so tired and cold and hungry. Won’t you let me come in?”
“No!” Anne would say. “I will not let you in!”
“But it’s getting dark outside,” Dick would say. “It’s getting dark and I’m afraid of the monsters in the forest. Won’t you let me come in?”
And Anne would hold firm, and Dick’s pleas would get steadily more impressive and expressive, until she would hear her mother’s voice call for her to come out from under the table. Then Dick would leap at her, fingers bent like claws and teeth bared, snarling. And Julian would wrap his arms around her from behind, and say in her ear,
“Got you, Little Pig.”
She would wriggle and squirm and fight to get away from them, because that was part of the game. Sometimes, she would notice that it was Dick pretending to be their mother, and she would make a break for the garden, or the stairs. The boys would always catch her, but she could fit into spaces that their grasping fingers could not reach.
“I didn’t know we had a cousin,” said Anne, bouncing in her seat as she tried to see over the horizon. “Why haven’t we been to visit them before?”
Julian put a hand on her thigh and pushed her back onto the seat.
“Because Dad and Uncle Quentin never got along, and they haven’t spoken for a long time,” he said, and Anne frowned, not really understanding. She cannot imagine not talking to Dick and Julian; but then, maybe Daddy had lots of friends when he was younger. He had lots of friends now, after all.
Dick grinned at her, dimples creasing his face, and prodded her between her eyebrows. “’If you don’t stop frowning’,” he said, pitching his voice to mimic Granny, “’your face will stay that way.’”
Anne immediately smoothed her face into blank perfection, and the boys laughed.
“You’ll have to remember to smile for Aunt Frances,” Julian reminded her. “It can’t be easy, being married to Uncle Quentin.”
“And for this cousin of ours,” added Dick. “What’s her name again?”
“Georgina,” Julian said, and Anne wrinkled her nose.
The cab pulled up outside the cottage (named ‘Kirrin’, if the painted sign was anything to go by), and the boys jumped down to take their bags from the driver. Anne climbed out rather more sedately, purely because the ground was uneven below the car and she did not want to make a bad impression by falling over the first time she met Aunt Frances.
Their new aunt was standing at the gate, hand shielding her eyes from the setting sun behind them and smiling. Anne thought she looked tired.
“Hello, darlings,” she said, kissing them each in turn, her face warm against their cheeks. “I’m afraid that your uncle won’t be coming out to greet you; he’s busy at work.”
“What does he do?” Dick asked, squinting up at the two-storey cottage in front of them. Julian clipped him around the ear.
“He’s scientist, remember? Dad said he’s very important.”
Aunt Frances smiled (she did that a lot, Anne noticed, and found that she quite liked how much you could hide behind one). “He’s well respected, certainly,” she said, and Anne saw Julian pinch the back of Dick’s arm to stop him asking any more questions.
“What about Georgina?” Anne asked, smiling up at Aunt Frances. “Will we be seeing her?”
“Ah,” said Aunt Frances. “Well, George is out at the beach right now, but she should be back any minute. I told her when we were expecting you. And that we’d be having dinner as soon as you arrived,” she added, with a barely perceptible wink.
Anne was outside, feeling the hot stones beneath her bare feet, when a child who could only have been Georgina came pelting up the road. She skidded to a halt when she saw Anne, and scowled at her.
“You’re Georgina,” Anne said, in surprise, because Georgina was wearing short trousers and a shirt like Dick, and had crudely cropped her hair. She then flushed, a little, because Dick always laughed at her when she stated the obvious.
“My name is George,” Georgina said, voice heavy with anger and scorn. Anne blinked, and could not understand why anyone would rather be a boy than a girl. But then she thought about how Dick and Julian could get away with almost anything, that no one ever saw them, not really, when they were running pell mell down the street; but how they would always keep a close, careful eye on Anne, as if she were more frail than the boys.
“Alright,” she said, and George’s face smoothed out of the scowl in surprise. “Sorry,” she added. “I didn’t know. Daddy only ever said – but never mind. I’m Anne, by the way.”
George snorted at her name, but Anne just smiled at her, practising portraying a thousand emotions with the tilt of her mouth (the way that she saw Mummy do at dinner parties, when Daddy invited friends that she did not approve of). She stuck her hand out to Anne, brusque and uncertain, and Anne shook it.
“It’s nice to meet you, George.”
“Yeah,” George said, and Anne took that for ‘it’s nice to meet you too’.
It took the boys slightly longer to accept that George was not Georgina, not the prissy, frilly girl they had envisaged. George was hardly accepting of them, either, but Anne had years of practise of playing on her own, and the boys had each other.
She accidentally met George on the beach, when George came running across the sand looking as if she had been crying. Anne thought it probably had something to do with the yellowing bruise that was glowing on her cheekbone. Still, she had enough sense not to mention it when George realised that Anne was there. Instead, Anne pushed George into the surf with a laugh, and George came up spluttering and furious and then grabbed Anne’s legs as she tried to back away.
Anne had only a little experience tussling with the boys, but she thought that she did reasonably well. George was laughing when they stopped anyway, the tears forgotten until Anne touched the bruise on her face.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” George said, harshly.
“Alright,” Anne said. “What do you want to talk about?” George shrugged, so Anne lay back in the sand, and waited.
“Mother wants to send me to away to school,” George said, abruptly, after a long pause.
Anne sat up on one elbow, and looked at her cousin. “So?” she said. “Dick and Ju already go away to school. I’ll be going, too, after this summer.”
George looked pained. “They’ll make me dress as a girl,” she spat, angry and, Anne realised, not a little afraid.
“Have you always been a boy?” she asked, carefully. George blinked, startled.
“For as long as I can remember,” she said. “I never wanted to be a girl.”
Anne took her hand. “You can always be a boy to me,” she said, and George grinned at her. It was the first time that Anne had seen George smile like that – like she was actually, genuinely happy – and she squeezed George’s hand.
The boys came around, eventually, after George had been in a fight with some of the local fisher-boys, and had almost bested them (the last round had not counted, because they were all rather a lot bigger than George, and Dick and Julian had dashed into help).
“You don’t fight like a girl,” Dick had said, accusingly.
“I’m not a girl,” George had scowled. Julian raised an eyebrow at Anne, who had been standing at the sidelines, ready to scream if things had got out of hand. Anne smiled at her brother, and Julian shrugged at Dick.
“Alright,” he said. “But we’d best be off, before the grown-ups come.”
Even though they accepted that George wanted to be treated like a boy, they still classed her as ‘one of the girls’. They would say things like ‘the girls can watch the boat, and we’ll go get the macaroons’, and Anne would see George’s face darken. She wanted to tell him that it was not all that bad, being a girl; even though you could not get away with the same things that the boys did, you could get away with doing so many other things. Everyone always forgave a crying girl, for example.
Julian called Anne soft for referring to George as a boy, always using ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ when talking about him, but Anne did not care. She wanted to show George that being a girl could work to his advantage, though. She just needed a way to do so.
When the thieves caught them on Kirrin Island, Anne managed to escape being tied up by shrinking into a corner and crying, quietly. The men ignored her; after all, a ten-year-old girl was hardly a threat. There was no way that she could get back to the mainland on her own.
Anne felt a strange sense of satisfaction intermingled with the terror and anger as she hit the man guarding the boys with the oar she had found. She hit him again and again, all the while thinking only of George’s expression of fear lest they should discover that he, too, was a girl; and Julian’s look of helplessness as he struggled against his bonds; and Dick’s poor, broken, bloody face, beaten when he had tried to fight against their captors.
She did not drop the oar, and saw an odd mix of fear and awe and pride on Julian’s face as he looked at her and the bloody length of wood. George was breathing hard, eyes darting around the dark room, supporting Dick against his shoulder.
“See?” she said, a little shakily, feeling like her grin was a little too manic and about to split her face. “It’s not all bad, being a girl.”
George’s lips quirked, slightly, and Dick snorted in amusement - although that could have been him attempting to breathe through his broken nose. Julian stepped forward, over the man lying in pool of his own blood, and took the oar from Anne.
“We need to get back to the mainland,” George said. “We need to tell my father what’s going on.”
They all nodded, tight-lipped.
“We scupper the boats before we leave,” Julian added.
In a quiet moment, after all the palaver with statements and police and arrests and news reporters had died down, Julian caught Anne from behind and hugged her.
“I’m proud of you, Little Pig,” he said, and kissed her behind her ear.
Anne did not really mind school. She had friends, of a kind: other girls that she would chatter to happily about the latest fashions, and boys, and how to do her hair; but she missed the company of her brothers and cousin. The holidays that they spent together were always so much more exciting, more real somehow, than everyday life at school.
Despite her longing for them, she never told the other girls about what they did on those holidays. Even when the subject came up, and the others were all talking about how they were going to the continent for the beaches or the culture, or down to the coast or up to the Lake District, Anne would never tell them what she was really hoping for. She would say things that were abstract and deliberately vague, and dealt quite happily with the sighs from the other girls when she told them that she would be spending the summer with her family.
“Again, Anne?” Bridget Willis said, raising an eyebrow. Anne liked Bridget; she was always unafraid to speak her mind. It was refreshing. “Why don’t you spend the summer with me and my lot, over in Kent? I’m sure you must get tired of spending all your holidays with boys.”
She said the word like it was offensive to her, and the rest of the group tittered in agreement.
“Not really,” Anne said, not rising to the bait. “I don’t get to see them at all through the term; it’s nice to be able to spend time with them.”
“But what do you do?” Margo pressed her, leaning forwards on her crossed knees. “Surely you enjoy doing boy-things all the time.”
Anne shrugged, non-committal. “They let me do ‘girl-things’” (she said the word laced with a hint of the derision they had used, and smiled internally at the looks of confusion on their faces) “when I like,” she said.
George was at the station.
As soon as she spotted him, Anne said goodbye to her friends and ran over, dragging her case. George grinned at her. He looked stressed, she thought, and rather too thin. He had not been getting along well at his school; even now, he was still wearing the uniform, and looked distinctly uncomfortable in the blouse and skirt.
“At least you don’t have to wear and pinny,” Anne said, kissing him on the cheek. She had to stand on tip-toe to do so, now; George had grown over the past term. “They’re so horrific. I look about ten!”
George laughed at that. “You’re only just thirteen, Anne,” he said, as they crossed the station to meet their connection. “And you haven’t really grown yet.”
Anne stuck out her bottom lip, but retracted her sulk when George threw an arm around her, and gave her a squeeze. “Never mind,” he said. “I’m off to stay with your lot for the hols; Mother and Daddy have to go away for one of Daddy’s conferences. It’s all arranged with your parents, of course; I reckon Mother sent the ‘gram, though.”
The prospect of the Easter holidays looked immediately brighter; Anne knew that her parents would not want all four of them about, cluttering up the place - “Easter is one of the busiest times for Mother, and she has to keep her social calendar” - and so, with any luck, they would be allowed to go off and camp by themselves.
George sighed, grinning, and leant back against the seat. “At last,” he said. “I never thought that I’d get out of that horrid place.”
Anne patted his arm, in sympathy, and helped her change.
Dick and Julian were just as delighted to see George as Anne was; there was much backslapping and handshaking, and as they hailed a cab they all regaled one another with the horror stories of their last term. Dick, apparently, had almost managed to be expelled: he had started a fight with one of the older boys, who was saying ‘indecencies’ about the girls’ from the school across the road. Luckily, he had been able to play it right, and was let off with only a month’s detention.
“A month, though!” Dick bemoaned, as Anne was shocked and relieved in equal turns about his story. “A whole month writing lines. It was absolutely dreadful.”
Julian made a place on the school’s rugby team, and had an interesting catalogue of bruises to demonstrate for them.
“Don’t forget about what you did to old Wiggins!” Dick said, the glint in his eye clearly telling that he did not mean for Julian to get out of telling George and Anne about the trouble he had been in, as well.
Apparently, Wiggins - a teacher at the boys’ school - had been massively incorrect about something, and Julian had put him in his place.
“Which isn’t something that grown-ups appreciate too much,” he added, and Anne laughed.
“You didn’t get into too much hot water over it, though?” she asked, worriedly. “I mean, they won’t have told Mother or Father, will they?”
Julian waved off her concerns. “Don’t fret, Anne,” he said, grinning. “You’ll put lines in that pretty head of yours. No, they won’t have called home: grown-ups might not like to be told when they’re wrong, but they are very susceptible to a bit of brown-nosing when done in the right way.”
“Oh, Mother!” Anne was always the favourite to be used when trying to wheedle. “Please, can’t we go away? You know you don’t want the four of us getting under your feet; and we won’t get into any trouble! We’d just go on a little cycling tour - Dick and Ju and George have already got everything planned! Even the route, if you want to look at it.”
“Anne, stop,” said Mother. “After all the trouble you managed to find over Christmas? I’m not having you being carted back here at the Witching Hour by some Godknows policeman, do you hear?”
“But we won’t,,” Anne wailed. “We’ve learned our lesson; we promise not to get caught by any more policemen!”
Mother looked at her, shrewdly; but Anne did not break her gaze. Eye contact was hugely important, she had learned, when maintaining a fallacy.
“Very well,” she said, returning to her letter-writing. “But I want you all back here in time for the train back to school, understand? And no policemen.”
“Yes, Mother,” Anne said. “Of course.”