The garden had seemed a magical place to Kay when she was a little girl; she longed to climb into the arms of the old oak tree like she used to do. She reached up and touched a branch, feeling the rough bark beneath her palm, wondering how badly it would damage the fine wool of her trousers.
"Kay, whatever are you doing?"
She turned and saw Alice approaching, skirt swirling as she walked. The moonlight made her pale skin even more luminous. She was seventeen -- only a year older than Kay -- the daughter of a man who had saved Kay's father's life during the Great War.
"I was thinking of climbing this tree," Kay answered.
"The first time I met you, you were in that tree. You were eight and your dress was torn. I thought you'd have outgrown that by now."
"I suppose. But, don't you remember how it felt when you were young, to be up so high, looking down on the world?"
"No. I've never climbed a tree."
"That's a pity," Kay said. "Everything looks better from up there." She slapped the lowest limb, which was just above chest height. "Come on. I'll help you up."
"I couldn't possibly," said Alice, but she moved to stand next to Kay anyway, head tilted up to look into the tangle of branches above them. Kay crouched down and wrapped her arms around Alice's hips, pressing her cheek into the softness of her abdomen, breathing in the scent of violets. With a deep exhalation, she stood.
"Oh!" Alice laughed and grabbed onto Kay's shoulders.
"So what do you think?" Kay asked.
"It's... leafy. But peaceful." Alice glanced over at Kay and then back out at the garden. "You look lovely in that jacket, by the way."
"Thank you," Kay said, feeling her face flush. "You should tell that to my father."
"Oh? Does he not approve of it?"
"Nor the trousers. Apparently now that I am nearly a grown woman, I'm to start dressing like one. But I rather think that being a grown woman should mean I get to make up my own mind about what to wear, don't you?"
"I suppose," said Alice, swinging her feet. "But boys do seem to like us in dresses an awful lot."
Kay felt a familiar oppressive weight sink down upon her. What did it matter, in the end, if she wore trousers or skirts, when she still had to pretend she was just like every other woman underneath her clothing, rather than the aberration that she really was? I don't care what boys like. Not in the slightest.
Reflexively, she brought her hands together and took hold of the gold ring on her pinky finger, spinning it around and around.
Alice reached over and pulled Kay's left hand away from her right, clasping it with her own. "I can't believe you still have that."
"I've never taken it off."
"I know. I lost mine ages ago."
Kay left it in her pocket until she got back to her flat. The entire walk home, she'd felt as though she were in a dream. The woman -- Viv, that was her name, Kay would never forget it -- appearing out of nowhere with something Kay had never expected to see again, then whispering a hurried thank you before melting back into the crowd: it had to have been a dream.
But there it was in her pocket. She pulled it out and cradled it in her palm. It was real.
Once the ring was back on her finger, Kay lay down on her bed and drifted off to sleep, still in her clothes.
When she awoke, it was dawn. Yesterday seemed a lifetime ago. She splashed water on her face and went out, walking with purpose, seeing the ravaged face of London as if for the first time.
Mickey was still asleep when Kay arrived at the boat; she came the door with her eyes squinted against the morning light.
"We're going to rebuild," Kay told her.
"What are you talking about?"
"Everything," said Kay. She felt like she could burst open at any moment. "I've realized: it's all there in the rubble. The pieces can be put back together again, to make something new."
Mickey regarded Kay for a moment, her face solemn beneath her sleep-mussed hair. Then she grinned. "I'm very happy to hear you say that, Kay."
Kay smiled back and touched her ring. "Some things can never be lost, only misplaced for a while."
"Ladies, I'd like to introduce Kay Langrish. I'm so delighted that she's finally agreed to grace us with her presence."
The party was larger than Kay had been expecting. The hostess, Margaret, was a woman Kay had met through the hospital. Kay found her a dreadful bore, but she was remarkably adept at navigating bureaucracy.
A crowd of women pressed towards Kay, cooing and smiling. Kay focused on a pretty blonde and smiled back.
"I don't need to tell you how crucial she's been in financing the reconstruction of the children's ward," added Margaret.
"It was the least I could do," Kay murmured to no one in particular.
The blonde woman stepped forward and stuck out her hand. "Hello, I'm Lucy. I've such admiration for the work you've done. Just the other day, Margaret was telling me how you--"
Across the room, a familiar face caught Kay's attention. It couldn't be Julia. And yet it was. Lucy's voice faded into the background, blending with the hum of the party. If Julia was here, did that mean Helen was here as well? The thought sent Kay's heart thumping. It was as though she was back on the street that night so many years ago, understanding for the first time what had happened: that she had lost Helen after all; just not in the way she'd feared.
But then Julia turned and smiled at a thin, angular-faced woman -- not Helen at all. Kay saw their hands brush together, saw the flash of intimacy in their eyes. Julia said something, and then glanced around the room, freezing when she saw Kay.
Poor Helen. Julia, what have you done?
"I'm sorry, I must be going," Kay said, and hurried away from Margaret's fading smile.
It hadn't taken much effort to find Helen: a few phone calls to friends in the right places had done the trick. Mickey had tried to dissuade her from going, but Kay was insistent: she needed to make sure that Helen was all right.
Kay only paused a moment outside the office door before walking in.
The woman behind the desk was familiar, but not in the way Kay had expected.
"Kay!" Viv stood and came around the desk, her smile wide and genuine. "Oh, Kay! It's so lovely to see you! I'm glad you looked me up, I always hoped-- oh, God. I'm so stupid, you might not be-- are you here for an appointment?"
"No," said Kay. "Of course not."
The door at the back of the room opened, and Helen stepped through it. She stared at Kay, eyes wide and cheeks pale.
"Helen!" Viv said gaily. "This is my friend Kay."
Kay waited to see what Helen would say.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Kay."
"Likewise," said Kay.
"Helen's getting married next month," Viv said. She leaned against the edge of her desk and grinned ruefully at Helen. "She's leaving me to deal with all the nut cases on my own!"
The colour returned to Helen's face and she smiled, looking a little abashed.
"Congratulations," said Kay. "I hope he treats you well."
Helen nodded. "Thank you. He does. I'm very happy."
It was strange how those words released something inside of Kay, something that had been locked away for years and years. "I'm glad to hear that," she said, and then turned to Viv. "What are you doing this Saturday?"
"-- then I called him and told him it was over. Just like that. After so many years."
The sun was setting as Kay walked with Viv along the Strand. They'd been to the cinema, as they had done every Saturday afternoon for the last four weeks.
"I don't even really understand why I did it," Viv continued. "But what were the odds of me finding you just then, when I wasn't even trying? It seemed like anything was possible, after that. I could have a new life. And Robert was there at the pub when I found you, and he... well, after that, things just happened. We were engaged a few months later. Of course that didn't work out. Six months later he ran off with some girl he'd interviewed.
"And do you know what the worst of it is? My brother met him in prison. That's how I know him: through my brother. God! I've never told anyone that. My father doesn't even know. I don't know why I'm telling you. I hardly know you, and yet--"
Viv stopped in the middle of the pavement, looking at Kay as though she were afraid of her. "You know all of my secrets. You're the only one in the entire world who knows them all!"
"Well. That hardly seems fair," said Kay. "Would you like to know one of mine?"
Her hands shook a little as she lit a cigarette. She had never done this before: never told someone who wasn't like her.
"When I was a girl, I had a best friend called Alice. We only saw each other a few times a year -- she lived up north -- but when we were together... Well. She was beautiful. When we were ten, we convinced our fathers to buy us gold rings -- one for each of us. Friendship rings, we called them. I wore mine always. Didn't take it off until that night in the ambulance, with you."
"Oh!" Viv shook her head. "All those years, and then... I'm sorry. I doubt they even noticed, in the hospital. There was so much chaos, and-- I'm sorry, I shouldn't have made you."
"No, it's all right, I didn't mind. It was time. That's not the secret."
Kay took hold of Viv's arm, and Viv leaned in towards her. "Well? Tell me, then!"
"When I was seventeen, I kissed her. She never spoke to me again."
"Never again? Because of a kiss?"
"It was not a friendship kind of a kiss."
"You mean you kissed her?" Viv whispered. "Like a man kisses a woman?"
"It's not always a man and a woman," Kay said.
They walked a few steps. Kay waited to see if Viv would pull her arm away from Kay, would leave her. She did not.
"I lied," Viv said abruptly. "There's one secret that you don't know. It's not really mine, exactly, but... in a way it is. I don't know. I guess you'll understand. My brother. I think--" She took a deep breath, as thought to steel herself. "He was in love with his friend. The one who died. I think he's... you know. He's different." Viv's eyes blazed fiercely. "But I love him."
"I'm glad to hear that," said Kay.
Viv squeezed Kay's hand where it was grasping her arm. "We're all different, I guess, in one way or another."
"I know," Samantha said, pulling her luggage behind her. "Look, I've got to go, I'm going to miss my flight. Yes. I'll see you when I land at Heathrow. I love you too. Bye." She flipped her phone shut, weaving her way through a crowd of people standing like a herd of cattle in the middle of the terminal. Bloody idiots. She took a deep breath and reached up to feel for her necklace; her hand scrabbled down her breastbone, missing the familiar shape.
"Fuck!" she said, and turned to run back towards security.
When she got there, she was breathing heavily. "Excuse me," she said to the first guard she came to, "I left my necklace here. It's a gold ring on a chain. It's really valuable to me, please--"
"All right, hold your horses. We've got it. You're lucky you got here when you did, though... we were just about to send it over to lost and found," the man said in a heavy New York accent. "Wait here a sec." He strolled over to one of the x-ray machines, picked up a small plastic tray, and walked back towards her. He raised his eyebrows. "So, anything else of yours missing?"
Samantha felt at her wrist and tried not to laugh. Laughing at an airport security guard was probably a bad thing. "Actually, yes. My watch. It's, uh, it's got a pink band and a cat on the face."
The guard shook his head and picked up the watch. "Hello Kitty?" he asked, holding it out to Samantha. She grabbed it and tucked it into her purse.
"What does it matter? It makes me happy," she snapped.
"Hey, I don't judge," said the guard, but he was smirking, just a little.
Samantha plucked her ring out of the tray and held it up in front of her. "This belonged to my grandmother. Well, she wasn't actually my grandmother; she was my grandmother's best friend. But she was like a grandmother to me. She taught me to be true to myself. Even if the rest of the world thinks you're weird. And that's how I live my life."
A young man in skinny jeans was sitting on a bench nearby, putting his shoes back on. "And if your true self likes pink Japanese cartoon cats, that's totally cool," he said. "Rock on, fake grandma."
Samantha grinned at him. "Exactly," she said.
"Have a nice flight, ma'am," said the guard, shaking his head.
"Thank you. I will," said Samantha, "because I know my girlfriend will be waiting for me at the other end."
She pulled the necklace over her head, picked up her bag, and continued on her way.