Miranda’s house really was beautiful, Nicola thought for the millionth time as they walked through the front door into an elegant, well-furnished hallway. There were several stylish table and floor lamps to light their way, but when Miranda called out to announce their arrival to her parents there was no reply.
‘Must still be out,’ Miranda concluded, kicking off her heels without appearing relieved about it. ‘Lucky we treated ourselves to supper then, otherwise we might have had to cook, which is neither of our strong points.’
‘Actually I’m not too bad now,’ Nicola admitted, sitting down on the bottom stair to unlace her grubby trainers. ‘I’ve been practising for uni by making occasional dinners at home in the holidays. Rowan said she could almost eat the last one.’
‘Praise indeed.’ Miranda walked over to the hall table and picked up a neat pile of letters, idly sorting through them. ‘Sounds very sensible if you don’t want to starve at Oxford.’
Nicola nodded, still feeling rather sober about their impending separation. There was only half a term left of school, and most of that would be taken up by cramming, intermittent panic and exams rather than fun of any kind.
‘Maybe I should make some sort of effort to learn how to cook and scrub floors, and so on,’ Miranda continued, and they grinned at each other, both knowing full well that Miranda would most likely have people to do those things for her throughout her life. She wasn’t going to uni, instead she had managed to compromise with her parents about starting in the Shop while also taking an evening course in some sort of specialised ceramics. Nicola was a little hazy on the details, but Miranda seemed delighted, so that was the main thing.
Oh! Hullo.’ Miranda stopped sorting and picked up an envelope, gazing down at it with a very odd expression.
‘What?’ Nicola stood up and went to stand beside her, peering down at very neat, even handwriting. Miranda, her cheeks tinged with pink, tilted the envelope towards her.
‘It’s from Jan,’ she explained, seeing Nicola’s blank look.
Nicola grinned. ‘Gosh! You never told me that she still writes, after all these years!’
‘She doesn’t, really.’ Miranda exhaled, composing herself. ‘I mean she hasn’t for ages. Let’s go to the kitchen, I know you’ll be hungry again in ten minutes anyway. You have the metabolism of a small rodent.’
‘Oh really…’ Nicola began to protest, but as she knew this to be very likely true, there was nothing for it but to follow her Best Friend towards the fridge.
Miranda poured them both an orange juice and they sat down at the kitchen table to drink them. Nicola, observing Miranda still clutching the envelope, offered her a friendly grin. ‘I know you’re dying to read it, so for goodness’ sake, do. I’m happy to wait.’
Miranda glanced at her, colouring again. ‘Alright,’ she agreed.
She ran an elegantly-shaped nail along the flap, opened it and tugged out a single sheet of paper, handwritten on both sides. Nicola tried not to watch too much as Miranda unfolded the letter and began to read, but she couldn’t help it, because she was also curious about what Jan might have to say these days, especially if she didn’t often write any more. She drank her orange juice in silence, and looked pointedly away at each corner of the immaculate, shining kitchen filled with electrical devices she barely recognised, and the fresh flowers in a vase on the windowsill, placed there by the West’s Housekeeper every morning.
After a couple of minutes Miranda folded the letter, put it back in the envelope, laid it on the table and picked up her glass, drinking deeply. Nicola, looking at her now, was horrified to find her friend was as close to tears as she had ever seen her. That was to say, she was a little pink and her hand trembled as she put the glass down.
‘Is Jan alright?’ Nicola asked hesitantly, because something awful must have happened to make Miranda look like that.
Miranda swallowed, avoiding her eyes. ‘Oh yes, she’s fine. Very well, in fact.’
‘Oh,’ Nicola replied, confusedly. ‘That’s good, isn’t it?’
‘Yes.’ Miranda paused for a moment, focusing very hard on her glass. ‘S-she’s getting married.’
Nicola looked closely at her, and it was at that exact moment she saw how it was, and had always been, and kicked herself for not working it out before. What sort of friend did that make her, to not have even noticed for absolutely years?
‘Oh,’ she said quietly. ‘I see.’
‘He’s called James,’ Miranda was saying, and from her expression, Nicola thought with a gulp, it appeared she was only not crying through tremendous self-control. ‘She met him through work, she says.’
‘Oh,’ Nicola said again, feeling like an idiot, because she wasn’t sure if Miranda wanted her to realise or not, and what could one say, anyway? There was nothing worse than when the person you specially liked didn’t seem to like you back, as she well knew, she thought rather bitterly, remembering the last time she’d seen Patrick, and everything that had happened since then, or not happened, more to the point.
She cleared her throat. ‘Well… I suppose it’s nice that she wrote to tell you specially.’
Miranda glanced at her sharply. ‘Why nice?’
‘Well…’ Nicola floundered a bit. ‘Only because you said Jan doesn’t usually write anymore, and she must have thought you’d want to know about it, to write now.’
‘Hmm.’ Miranda looked down at the table, fiddling with the edge of the envelope. ‘Perhaps. I’m not sure whether that doesn’t make it worse, to be honest.’
Then she sighed, got up and went over to the wine rack. She paused a moment, selected a bottle and pulled it out. ‘Do you like red?’
Was this what people meant by drowning their sorrows? Nicola wondered, rather taken aback. Because clearly Miranda was feeling pretty sorrowful, and it was a good point actually, about Jan writing because she knew how Miranda would feel. It probably was worse than just finding out by chance. Nicola was certain she’d prefer the second one if Patrick suddenly decided that actually he was getting married to someone else, thank you very much for the good times and goodbye, Nicola Marlow, which was starting to look like it could happen at some point.
Her throat suddenly felt very swollen, but she managed to say ‘I have no idea.’
‘Have you never… oh I suppose not.’ Miranda opened a drawer, rummaged a bit and produced a corkscrew. Nicola watched, impressed, as her friend opened the bottle with ease. It was probably something to note for uni, how to actually open bottles of things. Although at the moment she couldn’t really see herself becoming a beer-swigging, pub-dwelling student type immediately on arrival in Oxford.
‘Does none of your family drink?’ Miranda asked, coming back with the bottle and two glasses.
‘Of course they do. Well Rowan certainly goes to the pub, and who knows what Giles gets up to.’ Nicola smirked, relieved to be heading into safer territory. ‘And Lawrie got drunk when she was about thirteen at one of the Merrick’s parties.’
Miranda managed a smile. She poured half a glass for Nicola and pushed it towards her. ‘Try that, it’s a lovely vintage.’
Nicola hesitated. ‘I’m still only seventeen.’
‘Let’s say I’m supervising,’ Miranda said firmly. ‘Besides, you’re not in a pub, so its fine. I promise no one will turn up to arrest you, Nick.’ Nicola had to laugh at that. She took up the glass, sipped tentatively and made a face. Miranda chuckled. ‘Keep drinking, it’ll grow on you.’
She sat back down, cupping her glass in her right hand and sipping slowly, smile fading as she looked at the letter lying on the table. Nicola drank a little more, thinking that it tasted rather unpleasantly like a kind of bitter fruit juice, but her head was beginning to feel warm, and that was quite nice. Was she drunk already, she wondered. Was this how it felt?
Miranda sighed, drank a little more and tilted her glass from side to side a little. ‘I suppose if you don’t like it, there’s more for me.’
Nicola put her glass down in concern. ‘Are you sure… is this the best thing to do?’
‘It’s what people do isn’t it, when they’re heartbroken?’ Miranda said bitterly. She met Nicola’s eyes with a fierce look. ‘Don’t pretend you didn’t know.’
Nicola swallowed. ‘I actually… I didn’t.’ She watched Miranda’s expression soften a little. ‘Sorry. I’m such an idiot Miranda.’
‘No.’ Miranda smiled sadly at her. ‘Maybe I wasn’t as obvious as I feared. And also there is a certain safety in being at a girls’ school, in that crushes on older girls are almost de rigueur. So one can get away with it, as it were, up to a certain point.’
Nicola considered this for a moment, and wondered how many girls at Kingscote were also hiding behind this, aside from the one other she knew of who might have been, at various points.
‘You shouldn’t have to ‘get away with it’,’ she said quietly. ‘Why on earth should it matter?’
‘You don’t mind then?’ Miranda looked at from under her eyelashes, her cheeks tinged with pink.
Nicola smiled. ‘No, idiot. Why would I?’ And also, she added silently, I’ve already had a version of this conversation quite recently.
‘I don’t know. But people do, don’t they?’ Miranda stood up suddenly, walking over to the window and looking out into the dark garden, glass in hand, the other resting on the sill. She looked tremendously glamorous and grown up, standing like that, Nicola thought, and wondered if Jan had even seen anything in her in return or if it had always been impossible.
After a moment Miranda turned around and leaned back against the windowsill, looking over at her. ‘Not that I’ve… told anyone else outright, actually.’
‘Oh.’ Nicola looked at her, deeply touched. ‘Really?’
‘Mmm. Who would I tell?’
Miranda drained her glass before answering. ‘Maybe later on. There’s not much to tell, yet.’
She came back over to the table and collected the bottle. ‘Let’s take this up to my room. My parents might be back soon, and I’m not really in the mood to… you know.’
They went upstairs and shut themselves in Miranda’s huge, expensively decorated bedroom, arranging themselves on the bed with Nicola propped up against the pillows clutching her freshly topped-up glass and Miranda sitting crossed legged, leaning back against the wall and halfway through her second. She picked up a cushion and laid it in her lap, gently picked a feather out of it then set to teasing another out by the stem. Nicola watched, feeling rather lightheaded. She wasn’t sure if Miranda wanted to say more, or if they had finished with the topic at present.
Miranda remained quiet for a while. Nicola watched her destroying the cushion, and she managed to make even that look elegant, picking each feather out with her shapely nails and placing them side by side on the blanket. Nicola, surreptitiously glancing down at her own tattered, dirty nails, reflected that they really were the most unlikely of friends. And yet here they were, with Miranda talking about this for the first time, and to her. Really it was quite flattering.
‘It’s school, really,’ Miranda said finally, looked up at her. ‘A lot of people might be funny about, you know, changing in front of me, that sort of thing.’
Nicola snorted. ‘Because you’ll what, be unable to control yourself?’
Miranda smiled a little.
‘Who says you think any of that lot is attractive anyway?’ Nicola added, and then paused. ‘Wait, do you? Anyone, I mean?’
‘Oh.’ Miranda coloured again. ‘Not really. I was always rather focused on Jan.’
‘Oh well, I can see that,’ Nicola agreed.
‘Yes. I mean, there was this one time we were up on the roof, that is, I went up there and Jan was there too.’ Nicola stopped, wondering why on earth she was bringing this up now. But Miranda looked very interested, so she carried on. ‘We talked a bit. And I thought then that I could understand why you like her so much. She’s not really like anyone else, is she?’
‘No, she’s not.’ Miranda sighed. ‘Would it be very pathetic if I clung on to the hope that maybe she does like girls as well?’ She glanced at Nicola. ‘Some people do, don’t they? Like both?’
‘Well Lawrie-’ Nicola stopped abruptly, her face heating up. Miranda eyed her carefully.
‘Would you like me to pretend I have no idea what you were going to say there?’ she suggested.
Nicola hesitated. ‘Um... it’s not... I’m not actually sworn to secrecy or anything.’
‘But it’s not your thing to tell.’
‘No.’ Nicola looked at her nervously. ‘Y-you wouldn’t say anything, would you?’
‘Cross my heart and so forth.’
‘Thanks.’ Nicola let out a relieved breath. ‘Gosh, the number of times I’ve been furious with Lawrie for blurting out our secrets.’
Miranda smiled at her. ‘You could never be furious with anyone, not properly. And it was only to me, who of course will be the very soul of discretion.’
Miranda looked at her. ‘Or were you perhaps thinking that this might be a happy accident?’
Nicola frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well of course, we’re not talking about it. But if we were…’ Miranda said significantly, ‘I suppose I might ask if Lawrie is alright?’
‘Oh.’ Nicola chewed on her lip for a moment. ‘It’s quite a recent development, at least, me knowing is, and that usually means her knowing is.’
Miranda smiled a little. ‘You two are adorable.’
‘No we’re not.’ Nicola blushed furiously at this accusation. ‘She just will tell me things.’ She paused a moment, thinking. ‘But, I mean, if you were looking for someone to talk to, I could drop a hint to her, I suppose, although with Lawrie it usually has to be less of a hint and more of a physical push in your direction…’
‘Are you matchmaking us?’ Miranda asked, expression slightly horrified. ‘No offence, Nick, but…’
Nicola burst out laughing. ‘Not your type?’
‘No. Good grief. No one could be less so.’
Nicola, sobering abruptly, was a little stung by such a determined rejection. ‘She’s not that bad!’
‘Oh, well,’ Miranda, looking at her, was clearly searching for a diplomatic response. ‘It’s not her exactly, I suppose. But she’s your twin.’
‘Looks too much like me?’ Nicola suggested.
‘There is that, although you don’t look so much the same to me, after so many years in your delightful company.’ Nicola grinned. Miranda studied her appraisingly. ‘Of course, you are objectively not too bad.’
‘Thank you,’ Nicola replied, laughing.
‘And therefore neither is Lawrie. However… no. Certainly not.’
Nicola picked up Miranda’s pile of feathers and began to arrange them from largest to smallest. ‘What I actually meant, however, was wondering if it might be nice for you to talk about your undying love for Jan with someone who knows what you mean.’
Nicola hesitated. ‘I think I’d better say no more about it.’
‘I think so too.’ Miranda gently nudged her knee. ‘Well. I shall certainly look at Lawrie in a very different light when we get back to school.’
Nicola, contemplating a vision of her twin and Best Friend flirting with each other, was momentarily struck dumb.
‘Anyway.’ Miranda put her, by now, far thinner cushion aside and looked at Nicola. ‘Enough about me, what about your love interest? You’ve hardly said a word about Patrick since you’ve been here. Is it all off again?’
Nicola, given her present feelings towards the Merrick boy, wondered why on earth Miranda considered her too placid to ever be furious with someone. ‘There’s nothing to tell. The last time I saw him was Easter, when we spent every day together and we… you know,’ she blushed on remembering herself happily hinting to Miranda, on the first day back, what she and Patrick had very nearly almost done in his bedroom, prevented only, she had assumed, by the restrictions of Catholicism rather than his attraction to her, which had been very evident.
‘But he hasn’t even written since,’ she added, fighting to keep the annoyance out of her voice.
‘Still not?’ Miranda leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and propping her chin in her hands. ‘Well, you’d know, but is he not just terrible at writing?’
Nicola hesitated. ‘He always used to, a few times every term.’
‘Hmm.’ Miranda eyed her. ‘I’d be blunt and suggest he was just using you to get his jollies, but four years is a long wait for that. And what’s more, from what you said it seems no jollies were forthcoming.’
Nicola blushed deeply. ‘It’s well, we didn’t exactly… but we did… um.’
‘Nicola Marlow.’ Miranda sighed at her. ‘Let’s get this straight once and for all, because you never did say properly. Did he put his man bits in your lady bits?’
‘Was there any nudity?'
Nicola blushed further. ‘Some.’
‘Did either of you come?’
‘…I’m not sure.’
‘Oh Nick.’ Miranda smiled kindly at her. ‘You’d know if you did.’
Nicola, by now a solid red, was unable to say more. Miranda laughed at her a little, but not unkindly. ‘I suppose he didn’t then, there’s no hiding that from what I understand.’ She made a face that suggested she’d rather not think about it. ‘Well, the only thing is to talk to him, I suppose.’
Nicola, slowly fading back to a light pink, shook her head at this. ‘I think I’m finished with the whole thing. I just feel annoyed with him, now, and that’s all. Either he’s embarrassed about what happened, which is silly because he initiated it, or he’s gone off me now he’s sort of got what he wanted.’ She swallowed hard, because although it was true that her feelings for Patrick were fading, she’d been possibly-sort-of-in-love with him for four years now, and that was a huge investment to let go of.
Miranda shook her head a little, and without a word reached out her hand and took Nicola’s hand, squeezing gently. Nicola squeezed back.
‘What a pair we are,’ Miranda said, offering her friend a smile. ‘Perhaps we should be happy single, and give up on all our silly fantasies.'
Nicola grinned. ‘I’ve only tried boys, in fact one boy. Maybe you should try them, and I’ll try girls seeing as it seems to be the thing now.’
Miranda laughed. ‘Well you know if you really want to do that, I’m very much available for experimentation if that’s all I can get.’
Nicola’s smile faded a little. She looked at Miranda and Miranda looked back at her, a little uneasily.
‘I was joking,’ she said quickly.
‘I know.’ Nicola squeezed her hand again. ‘But maybe I wasn’t.’
Miranda’s eyes widened. ‘It’s not a good idea. You’re my Best Friend, Nick.’
‘I’m not saying let’s run off together,’ Nicola explained. ‘Just… why not? I’m curious, you’re… well, not repulsed by me, I hope.’ She grinned, hoping she looked a little braver than she actually felt. ‘Go on.’
‘Go on what?’ Miranda looked shell-shocked.
Nicola shrugged. ‘Just… kiss me.’
This was reckless, Nicola thought, her heart pounding in her throat. Was it the wine? Maybe it was just that here they were, both feeling hurt and fed up, having had a wonderful three days together until now and it was all coming to an end soon, school and more or less living together, and then what?
They looked at each other. Miranda licked her lips, withdrew her hand, drained her wine glass and set it aside. ‘Okay. Stay there.’
She uncurled her legs, crawling up the bed and stopping in front of Nicola, who watched her, frozen in place. Maybe this was a really bad idea, because although she knew she wasn’t attracted to Miranda, surely once you kissed someone you looked at them differently, and what would happen if either of them enjoyed it a little more than they should?
It was too late for second thoughts though, because this was happening. Miranda leaned a little closer, stopped, rested her hand on Nicola’s shoulder to steady them both, tilted her chin up, and leaned in to press her lips against Nicola’s. Instinctively Nicola closed her eyes, parting her lips slightly. Miranda’s lips moved against hers, and she responded as she had done with Patrick, without thinking, until they got into a slight rhythm. It occurred to her then that they hadn’t really discussed the terms. Was it just a kiss like this? Or the kind she and Patrick had shared for hours that night, which had been passionate, slightly sloppy, open-mouthed affairs?
Nicola wasn’t sure which she was hoping for at this point, but certainly Miranda’s lips were gently nudging hers apart, and Nicola found herself letting this happen, and her arms went around Miranda’s waist, pulling her awkwardly closer as their kiss deepened. Miranda’s hand crept from her shoulder to the back of Nicola’s head, holding her steady, and Nicola started to feel slightly out of control, because it wasn’t Miranda’s fault if she was enjoying it, she liked girls, and here she was kissing one who she found bearable enough as a Best Friend. Maybe that was enough sometimes, Nicola thought confusedly, because she was quite enjoying it herself, even though the thought of going any further – because actually, they could quite easily recreated what she and Patrick had done together, and was that what two girls did? – was slightly terrifying.
Miranda broke off the kiss abruptly and Nicola opened her eyes. They looked at each other, breathing heavily.
‘We’d better stop or this will quickly progress to my hands wandering under your clothes,’ Miranda said bluntly. ‘Was that enough experiment for you?’
Nicola winced. She hadn’t thought about it like that. Did Miranda really think Nicola was the type to get her currently vulnerable Best Friend to kiss her, just to find out what it was like? Was that actually what she had done?
She watched as her friend sat back, wiping her mouth, smoothing down her hair, rearranging her composure, and wondered if they’d just messed everything up.
Then Miranda laughed, and it was so surprising that Nicola couldn’t help joining in.
‘Oh Nick.’ Miranda reached out a hand and gently patted her on the knee. ‘I don’t think it’s for you.'
Nicola smiled sheepishly. ‘Maybe not. I mean, it was alright.’
‘Oh, thanks.’ Miranda rolled her eyes at her. ‘It was alright for me too.’
She got up, reaching out to help Nicola up. ‘Come on, let’s go to the pub. I need another drink to get over that.’
‘Huh.’ Nicola shoved her gently. ‘I’m not that bad, am I?’
‘No.’ Miranda looped an arm around her shoulders, guiding her out of the room towards the stairs. ‘You’re not bad at all. Patrick is a galloping idiot if he can’t see that.’
Nicola grinned. ‘Probably. And Jan has no idea what she’s missing.’
‘Hmm. If you say so.’ Miranda let her go with a grateful look as they hurried downstairs, grabbing jackets and stumbling back into their shoes, before departing arm in arm to the nearest pub.