Polly has always loved puzzles. Word puzzles, math puzzles, logic puzzles, mechanical puzzles, anything at all that can get her to slow down and look. But her favorite, really, has always been jigsaw puzzles. She likes the feeling of taking broken pieces and putting them together to create something beautiful.
She’s done them since she was a child. She still remembers her first puzzle, her mother dismissively handing her a forty-piece puzzle of a cat and assuming that her two-year-old would never figure it out. That’s the sort of mother she was- only giving gifts she thought would be useless. Polly solved it within an hour. That’s the sort of girl she was- rising to any challenge set before her. Her mother never gave her another puzzle.
Her grandmother, though, she was another story. They never had much money, and what money they did have Polly liked to spend on her younger siblings. She was older and could understand why there was no money for a new dolly, a new racecar, a new tea set. Emily, Edward, Tim and Susan were given new things whenever there was spare change. Polly made do without.
But her grandmother, she would sit down with newspapers and magazines and make homemade puzzles. She would draw pictures and then cut them up into interesting shapes. Sometimes she would take down a bowl or a tea cup, when things were really bad, and she’d break them, then give them to Polly with a bottle of glue and tell her to get to work.
Sometimes, when times were good, she would go and buy a puzzle for Polly. She would find one with the most pieces, or the strangest picture, and she would give it to Polly with a proud, happy smile on her face. Then they would sit down at the kitchen table and do it together, Tim occasionally joining them or, when she was older, Susan.
Emily and Edward never really liked puzzles. They delighted in stealing pieces from whatever Polly was working on, or breaking apart whatever she’d finished so far. Grandmum Judith always tore into them about that, confining them to their bedrooms or grounding them. Polly never really minded. Edward and Emily needed their diversions, too, after all, and who was she to begrudge them? Besides, it added to the challenge of the puzzle, trying to finish it before they could break it, or having to hunt down the stolen pieces.
When she can afford puzzles, she likes Ravensburger puzzles best. They’re heavier, more substantial, and less prone to falling apart at the slightest provocation. They’re expensive, though, so she rarely gets them.
At St. Trinian’s, there aren’t many places to work on puzzles. So Polly stops. There are other things to worry about, anyway. There’s that nasty Kelly Jones, who likes nicking things from her. There are older students who think that because she’s eleven, she can’t possibly know things, that she is naïve and innocent and all manner of things that she isn’t. There are the teachers, who are jaded and cynical and challenge Polly in new ways. In her second year, when she becomes a Geek, there’s the matter of making her mark. She designs a CCTV system, and that’s puzzle enough to keep her occupied for quite a while. Figuring out hidden areas that still have a view, deciding whether to wire things in or devise a wireless system, creating a mobile camera system using hockey sticks, it’s all perfect.
She misses them, though, a bit. She found them soothing when she was younger. But she decides those are things of the past. From her frivolous youth. Never mind that she’s twelve.
She doesn’t count on Kelly Jones, though.
It’s her birthday in their third year, and Polly is anticipating a quiet one. She’s already received gifts from her family, little handmade trinkets that make her smile, even if she really has no use for any of them. The world of a Hi-Tech Geek has little use for anything that doesn’t exist in 1’s and 0’s. Friendship bracelets and dolls made of handkerchiefs are sweet, though. They remind her of home. She keeps them tucked away in a secret compartment under her bed.
She’s settling in with a book, looking forward to learning something new about particle physics, when Kelly drops down on the end of her bed, grinning wildly. Polly raises an eyebrow.
“Yes?” she asks, shutting her book. There is no point in trying to read while Kelly is around. She demands everyone’s full attention.
“It’s your birthday,” Kelly says.
Polly snorts. “Brilliant observation.”
Kelly rolls her eyes, and holds out a wrapped package. Polly can’t help blinking in surprise. They’re not really the gift giving type, the two of them. At least, not at official times. Kelly’s never even acknowledged her birthday before, which is the way Polly likes it. Birthdays are a time to celebrate the mothers who gave birth to you, and Polly sometimes finds it easier to pretend she doesn’t have a mother rather than acknowledge her.
“Well? Aren’t you going to open it?” Kelly asks impatiently, thrusting the package forward.
Polly takes it hesitantly, and looks at Kelly, frowning. “I didn’t get you anything for your birthday.”
“Did I say this had to be reciprocal? It’s a gift, it isn’t a condition of our friendship.”
“Yes, but it’s not fair-”
“If it bothers you so much, get me a gift later. C’mon, open it!”
Kelly looks incredibly eager, so Polly gently slides her finger under the tape and lifts, careful not to tear the paper. Kelly bounces up and down. “Will you hurry up? Tear it!”
“If I tear it, I can’t use it again later,” Polly says dismissively. She slowly removes the paper, and stares down in shock at the gift.
It’s a puzzle. A two-thousand piece puzzle of a castle. It’s even a Ravensburger.
“I don’t know if you like puzzles, but I thought you might find it interesting, at least. I got permission from Najwa to use her office, if you want to work on it. Putting it together in the dorms would be a bad idea,” Kelly babbles, smiling at her.
Polly runs her hand over the puzzle box, staring down at the picture. “Kel. Kelly. It’s perfect.”
“Oh, good,” Kelly says, oblivious.
Polly looks up and smiles tightly. “Want to come help me put it together?”
“I’m shite at puzzles,” Kelly confesses.
Polly’s smile grows. “Want to come help me put it together anyway?”
Kelly laughs. “Sure. Yes.”
They go and start putting the puzzle together. Kelly is every bit as awful at it as she says she is. Polly laughs and tells her to start working on the edge pieces.
Later that year, Polly gets Kelly a forty-piece puzzle for her half-birthday. Kelly chucks it at her head.
After that, it becomes a bit of a tradition between them. They get each other puzzles, everything from puzzles for toddlers with ten pieces, to some interesting three-dimensional globe puzzles, some with modern depictions, some historical. They always get each other puzzles for their half-birthdays, but occasionally they’ll get one for other random celebrations. At first they use the Geek office to put them together, but when that becomes impossible in their fifth year, they clear out a broom closet, set up a card table, and get to work.
It’s something that belongs to them, just them. Polly doesn’t do puzzles at her grandmother’s house anymore. Tim likes to do her old ones, occasionally, but he lacks the focus and patience to really put one together. Susan has become fascinated with card games, and whenever Polly is home, she tricks her into playing poker and stealing all her money. Polly thinks she counts cards. She catches Grandmum Judith touching puzzle boxes occasionally, looking wistful, but then Susan will pull her into a card game, and the look fades. Her grandmum is a dab hand at Rummy.
So the puzzles are for her and Kelly now. They’ll find cheap, poorly made puzzles at supermarkets, or broken puzzles with missing pieces at secondhand stores, and they’ll sit down and gleefully put them together. Kelly gets better at it, but she always does the edges while Polly begins with the middle. There are strategies, of course, for putting puzzles together. Sorting by color, looking at the picture on the box, rotational symmetry, things of that nature. Polly doesn’t work like that. She spreads all the pieces out and just grabs the pieces she needs.
“It’s uncanny, you know,” Kelly tells her at one point, her head in her hand, watching as Polly grabs three different pieces from the pile and hooks them together.
“What?” Polly asks, distracted. She just saw a piece that she thinks will fit with the one she’s holding in her hand.
“How you just know. You’re not working on a particular part of the puzzle, are you?”
“No,” Polly says, frowning. She sees the piece she wants and grabs it.
“Well, then, how do you put these pieces together?”
“The shapes,” Polly says, gesturing. “You can tell which pieces are supposed to hook together.”
“But don’t they all have repeating patterns of shapes?”
“Yes, depending on the puzzle. But that’s where color and picture come in.”
“And you can spot all that in the span of seconds?”
Polly really doesn’t understand where this conversation is leading. “Of course.”
Kelly laughs softly and shakes her head. She reaches over and squeezes Polly’s hand. “You’re amazing, Pol.”
Polly frowns in confusion, but squeezes back gently. Then she sees another puzzle piece that she wants, and goes back to the puzzle.
She can feel Kelly’s eyes on her the entire time.
Of course, later there are no more puzzles, because Kelly leaves.
Polly tucks their collection of puzzles away in her closet and lets herself forget about them. She buries herself in her dull job, in parenting Hannah and Hazel, in assisting Taylor and Andrea, in having tea with Celia or suppers with Peaches. She does Sudoku for fun, learns origami, teaches herself to knit. She considers getting a cat, but then remembers her poor, long disintegrated plant. She reads poetry.
She lets the puzzles collect dust, and tries to forget.
Polly knew she was in love with Kelly when she was fourteen. She’d had a crush for a while before then, but she tried to ignore it. She chalked it up to silly schoolgirl pining, to mixing up friendship for love, to hormones, whatever she could. But when she’s fourteen, and Kelly keeps hugging her after hockey games, sweaty and smelly and gross, and Polly still likes it, she knows she’s done for.
But Polly isn’t the sort of girl that Kelly would ever date, so she keeps her hands off. Polly dates Harriet (they may be close friends, but they’re awful girlfriends) and Tiffany (“God, could you share something with me? Anything at all? A feeling, maybe?” and no, that was not one of her better breakups) and Chelsea, Deryn, Kate, Lana, Catherine. Laksha. They all end badly.
She wonders if she’s doomed with relationships, but then Kelly comes back and no, it turns out she gets a second chance, and she takes it.
They settle into each other, her and Kelly and Annabelle. They buy a cottage and move into the country. Kelly refuses to get a job, Annabelle goes to work at St. Trinian’s, and Polly- well, her new work is a secret, one that she hints around but never reveals to her wives. They cook dinner, they go for walks, they watch movies; all in all, it’s very normal.
And then one day, Kelly sits down next to her on the sofa holding a wrapped package. Polly looks up from her ereader, surprised.
“Yes?” she asks, closing the protective cover to her ereader.
“It’s your half-birthday,” Kelly says quietly.
Polly blinks. “I didn’t know we did that anymore.”
Kelly snorts and shoves the gift at her. “Because we’re so old, Polly. Open your present.”
Polly tears the paper away, enjoying the ripping sound a bit. She feels tears well up when she sees a puzzle box. It’s the same one Kelly got her that first time. Two thousand pieces, a castle. She presses a hand to her mouth.
Kelly sees her face and suddenly looks terrified. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just thought- no, Pol, please don’t cry, I’m sorry, I’ll get rid of it,” and she reaches out for the box. Polly knocks her hands away.
“No, don’t,” she says. She pulls Kelly closer to her and presses a kiss to her temple. “It’s perfect.”
She closes her eyes and lets herself rest there for a while, breathing in the familiar scent of Kelly’s shampoo, of her sweat. Kelly hesitantly wraps an arm around her shoulders and pulls her closer.
“Want to help me put it together?” she mumbles finally into Kelly’s neck.
“I warn you, I’m absolute shite at them.”
“Want to help me put it together anyway?”
She feels Kelly smile into her hair. “Sure. Yes. Always.”
They don’t celebrate regular holidays. They find them silly, for the most part. Anniversaries, in particular, get ignored, if not forgotten. They have their own celebrations. They celebrate the date that Annabelle came to St. Trinian’s. They celebrate the day Kelly was made Head Girl. They celebrate the anniversary of Polly becoming a Geek. Half-birthdays are the best, of course. But other than that, they ignore holidays.
Polly comes home from work one day and finds Annabelle waiting for her, grinning. Polly frowns and sets down her briefcase, shrugging off her jacket. “What?” she asks.
“Kelly has a surprise for you,” Annabelle says, her smile growing even bigger.
“I don’t like surprises,” Polly points out.
“It’s Valentines Day, and you’ll like this one,” Annabelle says, and pulls out a blindfold. Polly can’t help but smile a little.
“Bit of a role reversal, then?”
“Oh, you know I’ve always wanted to tie you up,” Annabelle laughs, and Polly allows her to tie the blindfold around her eyes. Annabelle takes her hands and guides her. They’re leaving the kitchen and going into the living room. Something feels strange about it, though. The sound of her footsteps on the carpet is different. She frowns.
“Did you rearrange the living room?”
“You’ll see,” Annabelle says, the smile evident in her voice. “Are you ready?”
Polly sighs. “Yes, of course.”
A different pair of hands untie the blindfold. Polly looks at Kelly, who seems far too excited. She’s practically bouncing, it’s just disturbing.
“Happy Valentines Day,” Kelly says.
“We don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day,” Polly replies automatically, and looks around the room in vague horror. All the furniture is pressed against the walls. Half of it is missing. Their chair, for example. And the coffee table. The sofa is tilted up on its end, leaning against the wall.
In the middle of the room is a package. A fairly large one.
“Open it,” Kelly says, and she reaches over to grab Annabelle’s hand. Annabelle hides her smile behind her other hand. Polly gives her a suspicious look, but goes over to the package. A sound system, maybe? Entertainment center? That would explain why all the furniture is moved. She reaches out a hand and begins tearing.
Halfway through, she stops. She squints a little, thinking, No…, and then keeps going, faster now. She can’t help but be excited. If this is what she thinks it is…
It is. She looks at the box with so much glee she can’t stand it. It’s a Ravensburger puzzle. Thirty-two thousand pieces. Thirty-two thousand.
It’s possibly the best gift in her life.
“Oh my God,” Polly says, and her knees fold underneath her. Kelly and Annabelle manage to catch her before she hits the ground, though. “Oh my God,” she repeats.
“Do you like it?” Kelly asks anxiously. She hears Annabelle snort in her ear.
“Wow, Kelly. Wow.”
“What? This could be sheer horror or disgust or-”
“Or shock,” Annabelle points out. “You just gave her a gigantic puzzle.”
“Where are we going to put it?” Polly asks, surprised at how shaky her voice sounds. “Do we- do we even have enough room?”
Kelly shrugs and slowly lowers her the rest of the way to the floor. She sits down next to her and folds her legs. “If not, we shove the sofa outside.”
“Or, you know, take it upstairs. Or put it in one of the offices,” Annabelle points out dryly. “Someplace where it won’t get ruined by rain.”
“Thirty-two thousand pieces,” Polly says, staring at the box in awe.
“And forty-two fucking pounds. It comes with its own handcart,” Kelly points out.
“It’s beautiful,” Polly says. She reaches out and runs a finger along the edge of the box.
Annabelle laughs, drops a kiss on the top of her head, and says, “I’ll go start dinner. Let me know when you’re done geeking out.”
“Never,” Polly calls to her. “I will never be done. Not this time.”
Annabelle keeps laughing.
Polly stares at the puzzle for a while longer, admiring the size of the box, the lovely picture on the front, the intense, bold colors of the image. She wants to run her fingers through the piles of puzzle pieces. She wants to open that box and inhale the unforgettable scent of cardboard.
Kelly nudges her with her shoulder. “Hey. Want to help me put it together?”
Polly starts to smile. “Aren’t you shite at puzzles?”
Kelly leans over and gives a sweet, gentle kiss. She pulls away and says softly, “Want to help me put it together anyway?”
Polly squeezes Kelly’s hand gently. “Yes. Yes. Always.”
Then they tear open the box and get to work.