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End of Summer

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Blackleg and The Idiot snacked contentedly—at least, The Idiot was contented, Nicola thought; Blackleg, clearly, did not think much of his current mooring, a wind-blown shrub on the grassy border of a nameless cove one east of Mulcross Bay. And frankly, she wasn't at all sure Blackleg wasn't right; it didn't look at all secure; except that, as Patrick had said, his tiny mind couldn't possibly stretch to the notion of escape, and as for The Idiot, she needn't worry as long as he kept up his practice of checking at regular intervals that the humans were still there and still interested in him. The sun, September-hot, was almost like a physical weight, as if, without a wind to blow it away, it could collect and bury one... Too drowsy for even a private chuckle at the notion, she lay on her back, plucked grass, and thought of gathering sunlight around her like a quilt.

Patrick's voice broke in, blowing away sleep but not warmth.

'Where no one comes, Or hath come since the making of the world. Only look—' He gestured at some Strange Shapes capering with rugs at the other end of the cove. 'Wonder if we should move?' But the Shapes came no closer, and Patrick settled back on to the grass. 'Phew. Polite greetings not required... What's that you're pretending to read?'

'Oh—' Nicola sat up, rescuing An Anthology of Mediaeval Latin from its precarious position on her ribcage. 'Just next term's Latin. Latimer said we should make a start—'

'Have you?'

'Well, I have been carrying it around quite conscientiously—' Though she'd been rather chuffed, in a secret, never-to-be-mentioned-to-Tim kind of way, when the Latimer announced a Mediaeval Project and suggested mildly that it might be as well to form a casual acquaintance with the book over summer: Latimer's mild suggestions being, in their own way, as implacable as Crommie's pronouncements, Nicola had duly introduced herself—click heels and bow, Lieutenant Marlow at your service... And, after all, some of it was fairly entertaining, even without the thought of Patrick.

'May I?' Nicola passed the book to Patrick's waiting hand. He flipped through it, smiling faintly, absorbedly—his Reading Face, Nicola thought of it.

'I always think it's rather fun the way things rhyme—'

'Yes, I've often thought how the Aeneid might be improved with the odd couplet—' A tease, but a mild one, for he went on, 'And just think, no ghastly-awful standing at the blackboard to do scansion. Or if they do get you, over much quicker.'

'Hadn't thought of that, but yes, fairly jam—'

'And... Gosh, what a lot of the Carmina Burana. One wonders if they've read this, one truly does.'

'Latimer yes, Keith probably no,' said Nicola, whose random selection had included one or two surprising items translatable only by Kay's whopper of a dictionary, now making its final home in the Trennels library. 'Anyway, they probably think we won't.'

'As long as they throw in a tankard or two among the Erasmus and Gaudeamus? You might be right. Then again, that's what my old lot thought when they put a complete Catullus on the shelves.'

Nick whistled, not entirely sure what a complete Catullus involved, but from Patrick's tone—Schadenfreude, she thought, having recently encountered and enjoyed the word—it was something fairly rowdy.

'I wish they'd let us have something like this at Broomhill.' He flipped over a few more pages, stopped, read a few lines: 'O Fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis... Ever noticed that's to the tune of Clementine?'

'Not something I'll be mentioning to Latimer,' stated Nicola. 'Wouldn't they? Let you study it, I mean.'

'Not a hope. Much too dangerous for our impressionable young minds. Not so much the drinking and the adultery,' Patrick clarified, taking a square of chocolate, 'as the grammar. Scandalous things they do to the accusative.'

'Mm,' said Nicola, observing the diminished pile of chocolate and taking a square for herself, hungry or not, to be on the safe side. 'But you do like your place?'

Patrick's hand tilted from side to side, gesturing equivocation. 'I don't actually shrivel inside at the thought of it, if that's what you mean. There's Regina, for one thing. And I keep bracing for some more of these cosy chats about wouldn't I feel better if my Pa wasn't pressuring me to turn my back on all our fabulous new insights, and then I remember they don't care. Which is almost worth it by itself.'

'What do they do about church?'

'One size fits all, all very dim and non-denominational. But nobody bothers about one little lad not taking Communion, so could be much worse.' He was silent for a moment, stripping the outer leaves off a blade of grass. 'What I do mind is they keep making one be in things.'

'In things? Like plays, you mean? Or teams?'

'Teams. The English fellow did suggest rather firmly that I should audition for Richard III—'

'I'd have thought you'd be interested—'

'To watch, natch, dreadful Tudor propaganda though it is, but I fancy they were pleased to see the door shut behind me when I gave it a go.' He whistled, tunelessly, and threw a pebble toward the sea, startling a lone seagull into flight. 'But cricket, now, any healthy young man with two legs and two hands can play that.'

Nicola, fascinated and baffled as always by this particular facet of character, supposed having to be in things when you wanted to be out was as bad as being out when you wanted to be in, though she wasn't sure that was quite how it worked... Nevertheless, she expressed suitable sympathy.

'At least new blokes haven't a hope of being tapped for prefect.' Knuckles tapped, propitiatingly, against skull. 'What about you? Sure I won't be hawking with the Head Girl? In the... actually, the not-all-that-distant future, is it?' He rocked back on his heels, plainly contemplating something large and disconcerting.

'Shattering thought,' said Nicola, ritually, though in fact it was, rather. She sorted through several conflicting emotions—pleasure at his unconscious assumption that their holiday pattern would continue; the baffled, cross feeling she remembered from reading Omitted from Junior netball team (though, curiously, not from anything else; even being thrown out of Guides had lost its power); the embarrassment proper to the mention of her prospects—and found a sort of warm, bubbling happiness was uppermost. She schooled her features to indicate unconcern.

'Not me, matey. I'm a stray dog as far as Keith's concerned.'

Patrick raised an enquiring eyebrow.

'You know. Dogs, stray. Given bad names. Hanging to follow smartly.'

'Oh.' Patrick digested this. 'Don't take this any way it isn't meant, but I rather thought you were the type masters liked. Mistresses, I mean,' said Patrick, who thought himself lucky to be benignly ignored by Authority.

'Staff,' said Nicola absently, colouring faintly when she remembered this as one of Ginty's pet corrections. Had she—? Nicola wondered, feeling hot and obvious. But maybe they hadn't talked about school? Come to that, she had very little idea of the sorts of things Patrick and Ginty had talked about, beyond Rupert and Rosina and sloppy Gondal stuff—which was something she was very definitely not going to allow house-room in her head.

A stalk of hare's-tails presented itself in her field of vision and tickled her nose. 'Staff, then.'

'Nope. Lawrie's department, not mine. She can prance out and deliver soliloquies on Speech Day and be a Credit to the School. I just sit there and clap.'

Without precisely applying it to herself, Nicola found herself remembering Rowan's once saying that her relationship with Miss Keith negotiated a razor-edge of mutual toleration. Peter had remarked, on the occasion of Lawrie's Prosser, that Kingscote didn't seem overly keen on sense; Nicola had, naturally, protested, but it did seem true that a naval upbringing, even the peripheral sort enjoyed by daughters and sisters, was a poor preparation for school life.

'Who will be, then? Tim?' Patrick, having met Tim during previous holidays, found Lawrie's taste in Best Friends peculiar, to say the least, but there was no denying Tim was efficient.

Nicola shook her head. 'Nepotism.' She considered. 'Prob it'll be Miranda. Unless—' She hesitated.

'Unless?'

'Well, you never know when they'll decide it matters. Her being Jewish. But I don't think Keith would, not really.'

Patrick, who had found Miranda no less intimidating, if rather more likeable, than Tim, made an agreeing noise. 'How about you? Games? One gets the impression you're generally in teams.'

'If it's netball or cricket,' Nicola agreed. She was about to disclaim ambition, but it came to her that if she couldn't tell Patrick, then— She wasn't sure how that thought ended, but surely, like Miranda, Patrick must be safe. 'What I think is, it all comes down to who decides. If it's Craven, she'll want to win. If it's Keith... Well, I reckon it's about fifty-fifty, that's all.' Maybe a conduct mark let you out of being a prefect forever; maybe Keith would balk; maybe Craven would vote for Sally and a quiet life... But, after all, these were thoughts better suited to the silent watches of the night. 'Of course, I wouldn't actually mind being Librarian,' she said hardily. She thought of notes on the door signed J. D. Scott, and the glass-fronted cabinet of fragile old volumes only the Sixths could use. 'I expect it'd turn out rather interesting.'

Sitting, she craned to look at Patrick's watch; Patrick, recalled to himself, looked also; and— 'Crikey. We'd better trot, or I'll be in grave danger of becoming That Merrick Boy.' Picnic remains and rugs were piled into rucksacks; Nicola advanced casually, halter in hand, on The Idiot. 'Come over tomorrow?'

About to say Yes, sure, Nicola checked. 'It's Sunday—'

'Come to Mass at our place. We can take Regina out straight after.'

'I don't know what Ma will say—not about the Mass part, but she does worry about our old boy's feelings—'

But by then Blackleg and The Idiot were saddled, and conversation perforce fell into abeyance as they picked their way back to the bridle path. And by that time, the light had taken on the odd, saturated quality that seemed to subdue sound, so they rode on, companionable and silent, until Trennels rose before them and the business of dismounting broke the spell.

'I say, Nick.'

She turned, resting a hand on the warm metal of the gate.

'Do come. Tomorrow. The new place bars half-term—thinks it's bad for our results—and all the fellows want to talk about is prep. I haven't had a proper conversation in years. Present company excepted, natch,' he added.

Nicola, glowing with pleasure, feeling as if she'd just finished a gallop with The Idiot instead of their sedate hack home, agreed that it was just possible she might.