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three times Valancy said what she was thinking (and one time she didn't have to)

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Roaring Abel showed up at her doorstep, hat in hand. "Can you spare a minute for an old man?" he asked and then burst into a guffaw of laughter. "Come over here, girl, and let me have a look at you."

 

"You look a treat, darling," he said, "and damn if those Stirlings didn't break the mould when they made you."

 

They talked good naturedly for awhile, like old friends. She talked with him about her recent overseas trip; he made some suggestions about the extension Barney was building out the back. Finally, he stood to go, and she rose as well, to walk him to the doorway.

 

At the front step he paused.

 

"She would have been so happy for you," he said, and she felt the bristles of his beard, felt his strong arms wrapping around her, containing her. She was close enough to smell the whiskey on his breath. She had never heard his voice sound that quiet before, never sound so broken.

 

Perhaps, she thought, this is what it would be like to have a father.

 

"I know," she said. "I miss her too."

 

He clung to her then, like a child.

 

*

 

They sat down in the parlour. It was strange, visiting a place that had been home for so long - although this house had never been home, not really. Still, she was familiar with these rooms, these people - and she was seeing them with new eyes, these days, and wondering how in the world had her mother ever wielded so much power over her?

 

Cousin Stickles brought them tea, and they arranged themselves around the parlour, exchanging pleasantries and small talk, meaningless comments about the weather. Valancy drank her tea quickly, thirsty from the walk.

 

Mrs. Frederick gazed meaningfully at the grass stains on Valancy's skirt and the dirt on her boots. The look spoke volumes of her displeasure, but Valancy was unrepentant. Barney had offered to drive her across for this visit, but it had been such a beautiful day outside. The sun was bathing the world in golden hues, and the green of the grass was shot through with patches of wildflowers.

 

This room was musty and dimly lit, and the curtains were all drawn. A ray of sunlight filtered through the crack between the curtains. It feebly cast its beam - a streak of light across the worn rug, trapped in a dark house.

 

"Married life's agreeing with you, then," Cousin Stickles stated querulously.

 

"Life is agreeing with me," Valancy said, with such force that Cousin Stickles looked entirely taken aback, and forgot to ask if she wanted another cup of tea.

 

"Good," said her mother, restlessly patting the fabric of the couch. "That's good. One wants one's child to be happy."

 

"Did you?" asked Valancy, curiously.

 

"Did I what?" asked her mother.

 

"Ever want me to be happy," asked Valancy, "really happy."

 

"All I ever wanted was for you to be a good girl," Mrs. Frederick said, gesturing vaguely. She looked thinner than usual. Valancy remembered her mother as taking up so much room in the house, and now she seemed lost in these empty rooms. "I brought you up in a Christian home, and your family has always been there for you."

 

"Still, I'd much rather be happy than good," said Valancy.

 

Mrs. Frederick made an odd choking sort of noise, as Valancy demurely picked up her empty tea-cup and raised it to her lips to hide her smile. She hadn't said it to shock her mother - she had said it because it was the truth.

 

Although - if Valancy was honest with herself (which she tried very hard to be, these days) she had to admit that shocking her mother was a satisfying side-effect.

 

*

 

Olive walked out of her bedroom, wearing her wedding dress. She twirled experimentally, surveying her reflection in the parlour mirror.

 

"It's beautiful," Valancy said, from the corner where she was standing. Olive looked up, startled.

 

"I'm sorry," Valancy apologized. "I didn't mean to frighten you. I was just dropping these off for your mother, for the wedding tomorrow." She placed two baskets filled with fresh fruit on the table.

 

"Oh," said Olive, somewhat coldly. Just because Valancy was virtually an heiress now did not mean that Olive was inferior to her. Cecil was still a fine match. "Thank you." She walked over and looked over at the baskets.

 

"Oh," she exclaimed - delighted in spite of herself. "Grapes! Those were always my favourite, growing up."

 

"I know," said Valancy. "I remember that."

 

"Thank you," Olive said, graciously. "Everyone's been so generous. Daddy's getting us a new car, and Uncle Benjamin is paying for our vacation, and mother has made me an entirely new wardrobe." She trailed off, conscious of the fact that she was rambling on about this in front of Valancy, who now had more money than Olive could ever dream of. Valancy was just standing there, her mouth curled into a curious half-smile. She looked as if she was looking through Olive; and, not for the first time, Olive caught herself wondering what it was that Valancy was thinking.

 

She'd never used to wonder what Valancy was thinking - had never cared to know the answer.

 

"What?" demanded Olive, impatient at Valancy's reticence. "It may not be Barney's millions, but you could at least be happy for me."

 

"Do you remember the dust-piles we used to make?" Valancy asked, suddenly.

 

"Yes," replied Olive, "why do you ask?"'

 

"No reason," said Valancy. "I was just thinking. It's all dust, isn't it? Whether you've got a big pile, or a small pile."

 

Olive frowned. Valancy was forever coming out with these strange outbursts now, nonsensical statements and non sequiturs. Of course, they had to humour her, but nonetheless she hoped that Valancy wouldn't say anything too embarrassing at the wedding tomorrow, especially not in front of any of Cecil's relatives.

 

Valancy suddenly reached out and embraced Olive. "All the best with the wedding tomorrow, dear," she said. "I know we have never really understood one another, but I wish you so much more than dust," and then she kissed Olive lightly on the cheek, and turned to walk away.

 

When Olive told her mother that, later, she tried to explain how unsettling it had been, Valancy with her cats eyes and smiling like she knew some kind of secret. That night, when she was trying to sleep, she couldn't get that smile out of her mind - imagine little Doss looking so mysterious!

 

It was the same triumphant little smile Valancy had flashed her all those months ago, when Olive and her father had come across Valancy and Barney Snaith broken down on the side of the road - Valancy all dressed up like a common shopgirl, and not one of the Deerwood Stirlings. And Olive was sitting in a nice car with her father and felt as if her world had turned upside down. She didn't want to trade places with Valancy, of course not, but she felt as if she was missing out on something. It wasn't a feeling she was used to, not at all.

 

She remembered thinking at the time - fancy being jealous of quiet little Doss! And yet - there it was.

 

*

 

They'd gone to Aunt and Uncle Wellington's picnic that morning - although Barney had kept asking her "Are you sure?" as if he half-suspected she would change her mind at the last minute. Valancy wasn't surprised - she had half-suspected she would change her mind as well.

 

"Wouldn't you rather spend your birthday in Rome?" he had asked, half-joking, but she knew that all she had to do would be to say yes.

 

"Rome was beautiful," she said. "But they're my family, Barney."

 

She knew he understood. After all, he had spent years running from the specter of his own father, but she had seen the look on his face when his father had found him, after all that time. Family meant something after all, and as exasperating as her clan could be, Valancy was struck again by the wave of fierce loyalty she felt for them. For so many years her family had been all she had - and those were the worst years of her life, admittedly, but she knew that they loved her, in their own way.

 

They'd never understood her.

 

But perhaps blood was thicker than water, cloying and lingering in its coppery necessity.

 

The picnic had wound down a few hours ago, although Barney was still sitting on the church steps chatting companionably with Uncle James, who had been disturbingly deferential to Barney ever since the Redfern's connection had come to light.

 

Valancy had slipped away from the crowd a few minutes ago with a murmured apology. Barney had offered to come with her, of course, but this was something that Valancy had had to do on her own.

 

A year ago she might have been frightened of the cemetery, but today she was curiously at peace here.

 

Valancy was struck again by the realization that having the biggest dust-pile just meant that you ended up with a pile of dust - nothing more, nothing less. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust echoed in her mind, and she spared a thought for Cecilia; for Roaring Abel clattering about in that empty old house.

 

She laid her flowers down on Cecilia's grave, and sat there for awhile, letting the moment wash over her. She missed Cissy, of course - but she imagined Cissy in a blue castle of her own, laughing and clutching a chubby toddler tight to her bosom; with rosy cheeks and eyes that sparkled with mirth.

 

She rose slowly - it was getting later, and Barney was expecting her. But she still had one last stop to make.

 

It took her awhile to find. There were no flowers here, no sign that anyone remembered. Impulsively Valancy reached up and tugged out the flower posy that Barney had carelessly threaded through her hair this morning at the picnic. She laid it on the grave, the red and pink blossoms standing out in sharp contrast to the weathered grey stone.

 

There but for the grace of God go I, flitted through her mind, except, she thought wildly, it was an "e" rather than an "i" that had set in motion the events of this year. Perhaps there was no such thing as coincidence.

 

She looked out across the cemetery, shading her eyes, and then there was Barney, walking towards her with his loping stride, and his dear, precious smile just for her. The horizon was tinted opalescent and violet behind him, dusk gathering across the cemetery, creating pools of shadows and light.

 

"What are you thinking, darling?" he said, as he moved to stand beside her. She didn't reply, simply rested her head against his shoulder. She felt his arm tighten around her, and she knew that he had noticed the inscription, but he didn't say anything, just held on even tighter.

 

She looked out across the bay, and in the distance she could see the lights of the village laid out before her, like clusters of stars in the night-sky, flickering beacons illuminating the way home. She imagined her home on the island; where Good Luck and Banjo were waiting, mewling and prowling about in the dusky half-light.

 

In the distance, a stray beam of fading light sparkled in the distance, and for a second she thought she saw a sapphire pillar, gleaming in the sunset - and then she blinked, and it was gone.

 

Barney didn't say anything - and she wondered if he'd seen it too, knew she would never ask (although months later she would read the latest excerpt from his next book `Blue Moon' and suspect he had).

 

Silences didn't scare her anymore. Neither did empty spaces, because there was always something to fill them with - life was beautiful in its unpredictability, and the world was full of deep sorrows and deeper joys, and there was no time for petty frustrations or childhood insecurities, no time for doubt.

 

She had everything she needed, and it was more than enough.

 

Barney reached for her hand and together they walked out of the cemetery, leaving old ghosts far behind.