Fire and Hemlock YT 2015
There were an unexpected amount of practicalities to be dealt with, in the immediate aftermath. None of them had brought anything sensible to change into, and nobody was willing to go into the house to raid Laurel’s closets. Ann Abraham had a blistering headache, and Leslie still hadn’t been told anything and Polly’s shoes had got lost somewhere. Tom’s car was perched on top of the roses and Leslie, Sam and Ed were trying to maneuver it out, while Anne called out suggestions and guarded their instruments from rogue dew.
Hope, Polly thought, was a wonderful medicine, but Tom still looked exhausted, worn not from winning -or losing, technically- this fight, but from simply existing in it for all those years. Polly took hold of his hand and squeezed it tightly until it stopped shaking. His fingers were very long around her hers and he leaned against her, tall enough that he could tip his head sideways and rest it on the top of hers. The warm bubble of hope still floated around them, but the rising sun also made her very much aware of how cold it was, sitting on the grass.
“I don’t know how we’re all going to get in there,” Tom said quietly. “Let alone with the instruments.”
It wasn’t easy, and it meant Tom had to hold on to his cello in the passenger side seat while Sam -who still had shoes and who looked at least a little more awake than the rest of then drove. The sun was rising and Tom flipped the little shade down, so Polly could see his eyes in the little mirror, grey and sleepy but not, she thought, tired, not really. Ed, Ann, Polly and Leslie as the smallest were all crammed in the back. Leslie, Polly noted, had kept hold of his flute and his thumbs brushed against it as he looked out of the window.
“I think,” Leslie said, still looking away, “That I want to know what happened.” He sounded like he wasn’t sure if this was actually true and Polly caught Tom’s eyes in the mirror. Tom was going to say something and Polly was suddenly dreadfully certain that whatever he said would kinder than the truth-- something close, but softened at the edges to be less painful.
“You know what Laurel started to do to you? Your father saved himself from it by getting her to take Tom instead,” Polly said. “And then he hid so that Tom wouldn’t have any help to escape from it and risk it coming back to him.”
“Polly, that’s not entirely fair,” Tom said. “He didn’t want to risk you either, Leslie.”
“He didn’t try to help you ever, and he blamed you for it all anyway” Polly said to him. Somewhere, Seb must be about, which made her add, “And even if you’re scared, that’s not a good reason to put someone else in your place without even trying to make it right after.” And Laurel wouldn’t have been interested in Leslie, not then, not when Mr Piper -Charles Lynn- had first made his deal. Polly wasn’t inclined to forgive him for any of it.
Leslie nodded. He looked, Polly thought, unsurprised. “That sounds like something he’d do,” he said. He looked at her and Polly thought she could recognise that expression. “He’s not-- I know he wants what’s best for me.” And Polly could hear the rest of it very clearly, even though Leslie went quiet again. “And then you came to rescue Tom? I don’t. I don’t remember it very clearly, but…” he half-turned in his seat to look at Polly. “And you did, somehow.”
They practically fell out of the car at Polly’s Granny’s house, out into her sensible garden and the reassuring presence of all those little minor signs of someone who lived there, without much in the way of riches or helpers to keep it in shape. The new double-glazed windows that looked a bit out of place in the old walls, but were so much better at keeping the warmth in. The hose coiled up, but not put away, on the front lawn.
The door was unlocked and her granny was sitting in a chair facing the doorway and Polly almost knocked her over hugging her.
“Mrs Whittacker,” Tom said. He was leaning against his cello, which was leaning against him-- both of them propping each other up. “I want to apologise…” he started to say.
“There’ll be time enough for that later,” Granny said. “Who do you have with you?”
Polly made the introductions and left them to change. Most of her clothes were back at the flat in Oxford, but she had some things her-- things that were a bit small or a bit worn, things that weren’t worth taking up with her, but weren’t at the throwing-away stage either. She changed into a pair of jeans - wearing at the knees and inside leg, but just about okay- and a long jumper that was itchier than it was warm, and that mae Polly feel like a dandelion.
Dandelions were tough, though, Polly thought. She rolled the sleeves up to above her elbows and went downstairs with a few things that Ann at least might be able to wear. The others were in the living room and Tom was talking to Leslie, quiet but intent.
“There’s some tea in the pot still,” Granny said from behind her. She nodded Polly into the kitchen and sat down on one side of the kitchen table. She waited until Polly had poured some for herself and taken a sip before saying, “You’ve got him back.You beat her, then.”
“Yes, I…” Polly struggled to put it into words. “She’d rigged the game so he had to lose to win,” she said. “So that everything that gave him strength just made Morton Leroy stronger. So I had to make him weak, to make make him lose.” And it had to be true, when she said it-- the kind of truth that worked on Tom.
“But it worked,” Granny said. “What are you going to do with him now?”
Keep him, Polly thought. What she wanted was to take Tom upstairs to her room and put him on her bed and fall asleep with him. She was tired, not as tired as Tom, but too tired to do anything other than sleep right now, but oh, the thought of sleeping with him, next to him-- the fact of him as something she could have close. It was breathtaking. She was smiling, she realised, wide enough to make her her cheeks ache.
“Do you know what he wants to do with himself now?” Granny said. “Does he? I remember him a bit more now, I think. Not clearly, but-- he’s a musician, isn’t he? And you used to write stories with him.” She waited for Polly to answer, but Polly couldn’t stuck on the first part. She didn’t know, not really, what he wanted to do next. Go to Australia again, or America or Europe or anywhere else in the world? Or stay in England, in London, probably. He was, she knew, an exceptionally talented musician. And she was in Oxford for another two years.
There was a cough from the doorway.
“Polly, I--” Tom said, then stopped. “I, ah. Did you…”
Granny looked at them both, then said, “I’ll let you talk” and left the kitchen. Tom sat down in the chair she’d left opposite Polly.
Polly pushed her tea towards him. “Gran wants to know what you want to do with you life, now that you have one again.”
“What are my prospects,” he said, smiling a little. “I-- you know I don’t actually what my situation is. I had-- well, Laurel kept control of any money, after she had me back. She was very… generous, with it,” he said, his mouth forming something that wasn’t quite a smile. “I think I’m out of the habit of imagining a future-- well, not imagining it, but believing in it. It presses on you, you know. It makes you selfish, because it’s so hard to think beyond it. Knowing you don’t have a future-- and you have to go on like you have one anyway, or it all becomes impossible. You have to pretend to yourself when you can agree to a concert next year or think about renewing your car insurance for another twelve months, or you won’t bother getting breakfast today. But you don’t really believe it, you just tell yourself you do.” He took a sip of tea, looking down at the table and then back at her, just for a second before staring into his mug again like it had anything more special than plain tetley’s.
My poor Tom, Polly thought. She took on of his hands and held it in hers, locking their fingers together across the table.
“And that’s not the worse of it,” Tom went on. “The worst of it is, is that she makes you so desperate to get out, you’re willing to be quite ruthless. Charles used me to escape, and I used you and Sam and Ed and Ann to try to get free, and even Mary, too. You cling to anything and you build up all these little walls between you and-- and you don’t let go of anything that works until it stops working, because you need it all. And that’s not Laurel doing it, that’s you doing it to yourself.”
“It’s not the same, you know,” Polly said sharply. “You never put anyone in your place. You didn’t try to trap anyone there with you. And you tried to keep me out of it, when you thought I was in danger.” He looked up at her-- and it was quite impressive, she thought, how he could do that when he was significantly taller than she was-- then lifted her hand still tangled in his and kissed her on the back of it. It was casual and so unbearably romantic that Polly felt her face go hot. “We get a say in this too, you know,” She said to cover up how red she knew she was going. “You don’t get to keep us from being foolishly brave on your behalf. That’s not fair on us either..”
“I don’t think there’s much anyone can do to keep you from being brave,” Tom said.
Polly shook her head. “I don’t think you know how much of a coward I can be sometimes,” she confessed. “I’m very scared of being an embarrassment, or of being stupid and wrong about things. About people.” She could remember now, how hard she’d worked at being a hero-- deliberately going after that bully in school, practicing running and lifting her bedframe and making herself as strong and brave as possible. And then she’d let Laurel attack her in all the ways she hadn’t trained for. Laurel had told her she was a bother and a burden and an embarrassment, and it had made Polly feel like everything she’d been trying to do was just a stupid girl playing make-believe. That even thinking Tom had cared for her-- that she’d mattered to him-- was just another petty delusion.
“Do you have to go-- When do you have to go back,” Tom said suddenly. “You’re at uni, at Oxford, you said?”
“I’m reading history at St Margaret’s,” Polly said. And because she was still proud of it, “It was just me and Fiona that got into Oxford, in our year, though Fiona’s reading Natural Sciences. And Lucy Jenkins to Cambridge. Oh, let me…” She dug got up and dug around Granny’s kitchen for where she kept her notebooks for shopping lists. “Here, this is my address, and-- well, I don’t have a phone in my room, but we have a shared on in the halls, so if you ring, they’ll knock on my door. You can write to me. As yourself even, if you wanted.” No need for proxies or secret identities-- no need to worry about her mother intercepting them either.
And she could write back because, of course, she liked writing letters-- she’d forgotten that fact about herself with the rest of it, but she did.
“I will,” he said very firmly.
There weren’t any direct trains from her granny’s to Oxford, but the next train to Reading was at three o’clock, and she could change there. To her surprise, Leslie was already at the station when she got there.
“I thought you’d get a lift with Tom and the others?” Polly said.
Leslie shrugged. “It’s not any quicker driving,” he said, then explained, “I’m going back to London. I’m at the Royal College of Music. It’s reading week, but…” he shrugged again and looked away. “I don’t want to see my parents yet. I’m not sure what I’m going to say to them.”
Polly nodded. The thought of Ivy as she’d seen her last crossed her mind-- that Ivy, the one that had given up. It occurred to Polly that, as much as her mother poisoned her own life with her miserly attitude to happiness -as if for her to be happy, she had to make sure nobody else had a chance to be- she had still kept trying until three years ago. Ivy wasn’t a good person, not really. Even at her best, she was self-centered, jealous and mean-spirited, but she’d never quite stopped working, however misguidedly, for what she thought she was entitled to. Maybe taking that was another thing Laurel had done-- another side-effect of her stealing back any memory of Tom in Polly’s life
The train was almost empty. They found a set of seats around a table. It was strangely normal, to talk about their classes and courses, like they were any other two students that had found themselves sitting next to each other, until Leslie suddenly, said, “I like my course!”
“Good,” Polly said, somewhat taken aback. “I like mine too.”
Leslie drummed his fingers against the outside of his flute case. “But she made me not care about it! Or not as much as I cared about making her happy. That was more important than anything. And I didn’t care about Nina, about hurting her, or any of the other girls I was--” He stopped a bit guiltily. “Not that I was seriously seeing anyone else, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like--”
“No, I remember,” Polly said. “You and Nina both.” Not cheating anyone, but going at it with a general charm and broad target that meant they’d both slip from seeing each other to seeing someone else and back again without any real breath in between.
“That’s right,” Leslie said, frowing. “You were friends, weren’t you? She made me forget that as well.” He looked at her again and flushed slightly and Polly thought he might remembered that he’d kissed her once as well. “Am I safe from her now? Are you,” he added, which made Polly feel a sudden flash of liking. There, she thought, that’s why I don’t mind Nina liking you.
“I think so,” Polly said. “She lost, you see, and I don’t think she’s allowed to try again.”
She was meant to change at reading, but Polly risked stayed on the train until it pulled into Paddington, so she could see him off. In Paddington, Leslie looked more like himself-- more like the Leslie she could remember, bold and charming and nicer than he had to be, confidently walking through the crowds of commuters to the underground. Then she found her train and went back to Oxford.
It was strange going back to the flat she shared with Fiona after. Even normal things, like the bus journey back, were overlain with a double-memory. Now, she could remember looking out the window while Tom drove them both to Stow-on-the-Water, trying to read the map on the way. She still had the second set of memories -these ones said she’d never really been to Stow-on-the-Water but once, and that was by bus on a school trip- but they were slightly faded already, lacking in detail.
It was almost a relief to be back at St Margaret’s where she had just the one set of memories, although some of these made her squirm with embarrassment. She’d gone with Seb to Fresher’s ball, happy to show off with him. She’d been a little proud of being his girlfriend, because he’d been handsome and rich and had been, she thought, very much in love with her, and had even been a little smug that she was better at it than her father or her mother had been. And she couldn’t remember what it was like to be in love with someone then, so she hadn’t known that she didn’t love Seb at all.
Fiona was out when Polly got home, so she went straight to her record collection and found it worryingly thin, without any of her favourites. It felt like a blow to remember that she didn’t have them in her second set of memories-- she had a few records, but none of the ones Tom had leant her or that she’d spent her own pocket-money on. She wondered what had happened to them, if they’d just faded, if Lauren had somehow arranged for them to disappear. If she’d just left them behind somewhere, at Granny's or her mother’s.
Her mother had probably sold them, Polly thought. She wouldn’t have been able to remember where they’d come from either, so she’d probably thought they belonged to one of the lodgers or Polly’s father and thrown them out or taken them to a second-hand shop. Changed them into a new coat of paint for the hallway.
She dug through and eventually found one of Fiona’s, the BBC Philharmonic. The front was just an old painting of some mountains, but she could find Tom’s name on the list of performers along with Ann Abraham, Samual Rensky and Edward Davies.
Fiona came home just as Polly turned over the album and had sat down in front of the heater, eyes closed so she could try to pick out the strings better.
“I didn’t think you liked classical music?” Fiona said, putting her bag down.
“I didn’t think I did either,” Polly said. She hadn’t really felt anything about it. Seb had taken her to a Prom once, with the Berliner Philharmoniker playing, and she could remember listening to them and feeling—well, not nothing, exactly, but not anything much either. It had been pleasant, a sound in the background, and she could remember letting herself be distracted, thinking about her next tutorial session. She hadn't fallen into the music, hadn't been swept up by the rises and falls—hadn't picked out one instrument to follow through. It hadn't been comforting or overwhelming or even frustrating.
She wondered if that had been a side-effect, or if Lauren had done it deliberately. Maybe that was just what music would have felt like, if she'd never met Tom and the other Tans at an impressionable age. She shuddered at the thought.
And she was reading history-- not English, like she’d imagined whenever she’d vaguely thought about university when she was little. History, Polly thought, was as close as Laurel's magic allowed her to get to actual stories. Polly had her lectures, had read buckets of stuff off her tutor’s reading list and asked for more even outside of class. Polly had loved it, falling into the past, into other people's lives. Her shelves were full of history books, some severely academic and some of what her tutor would call popcorn past. There were a few biographies in there as well, but only two fiction books, both airport novels she's started and failed to finish. She somehow managed to avoid fiction almost entirely, even tuning out in English to the extent that she'd only just managed to get her O level, and she'd dropped it as soon as she could.
She could remember, now, how much she'd loved stories. Reading The Hobbit on the train to her grandmother's . Going to London Zoo on a class trip and staring at the wolves there, imagining herself running with Bonnie and Sylvia from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Memorising the description at the front of the enclosure and, in her next letter to Tom, writing a carefully researched scene where they found some orphaned wolfcubs, which had to be nursed back to health and then released back into the woods even though she'd very much wanted to keep them in the story.
In her second set of memories, she'd been frightened of the wolves at the zoo, but she'd loved Seb's friend's Alsatian. She wondered if that was another echo.
Fiona was staring at her and then grinned. “So I guess it all went well, then?” And, as if it had just occurred to her, “So does this mean you’re done with Seb?”
“Yes,’ Polly said. “and yes.”
“I’m glad for that, even if it hadn’t worked out with your musician. Oh, I know I should have said something,” Fiona said at Polly’s reaction. “But he didn't seem to make you unhappy or anything, and it's hard to tell someone you don’t like their boyfriend when he hasn't really done anything wrong.” She gave Polly a fierce look, “And now I’ve said that, you definitely can’t get back together with him because that would be even more awkward.”
Seb hadn’t appeared that morning-- disappeared with Laurel and Morten Leroy and the rest of Laurel’s guests, and Polly didn’t know if that meant he’d escaped-- if, with Morten defeated, there was no need for him. Or if with Tom freed, Laurel had taken him in his place. It was an unpleasant thought, and she felt guilty that she hadn’t thought of it earlier.
Poor Seb, she thought. Except that he wasn’t poor, and looking back, she could see how much he’d made use of Laurel and Morten Leroy’s power and influence. Not just the magical stuff, but the money as well. He’d been afraid, but not enough to try to escape like Tom had-- only enough to work very hard to make sure someone else died instead of him.
She wasn’t sure now why she’d agreed to date him, why she’d agreed to marry him. He had been handsome and clever and wanted her-- so very much the sort of person she should fall in love with, that she’d never quite realised that she didn’t love him at all. And Laurel had taken away anything she could have used for comparison, so all she really had to go on was that it wasn’t like her parents’ way of being in love, which had made it seem like the good kind of being in love, just by comparison.
Tom that made her feel anxious and protective and fierce and so much more herself than she was with almost anyone-- the Polly that she wanted to be, the Polly that she liked being best. Tom that she'd had a crush on, before she even knew what that was. Tom, that felt like he was hers to protect, to watch out for, to help be happy.
Seb hadn’t been her boyfriend, so much as she’d been his girlfriend and then his fiancee. She'd felt very clearly that she was Seb's Girlfriend, to his friends, to his work colleagues. She'd been there to be… well, lovely, he'd called her, and to love him and to be clever enough to make him look cleverer. She'd been Seb's Polly, a little bookish, but the kind of girl that someone like Seb would date.
She thought about how she'd never particularly not wanted to kiss Seb, exactly, in that second set of memories. How it had been a bit clumsy at first, but okay, and then better, as they got better at it, and she'd never, not once, thought that she wanted to kiss him enough to risk him not kissing her back. She hadn't been particularly anxious about it, not even the first time they'd—she hesitated over had sex or made love, what she’d thought then warring with what she thought now. She’d wanted to do it, but not because it was with Seb.
Tom-- he might not want her, in the clear light of day. She didn’t think it was likely, but it was possible, that he’d kissed her in the moment, that he didn’t feel that same click of rightness as they fitted into position next to each other. But it occurred to Polly that she’d always be aware of the lack of it-- that she’d look for it, know what it felt like and recognise it when it wasn’t there. She’d never slot herself into the space somebody else made for her, dull her edges to fit there.
And she’d always be Tom’s Polly, because Tom’s Polly was also Polly’s Polly, her own Hero.
“You look dreamy,” Fiona said, a little enviously. “You’re going to be like this the rest of the week, aren’t you?”
“Longer,” Polly said. “Hopefully years.”