After Forever Ends

After Forever Ends

A novel

By

Melodie Ramone

Cover Photo by Cynthia Heim

Cynthia Joy Photography

Plymouth, Indiana

[email protected]/* */

Story edited by Sean Comer

Mesa, Arizona

[email protected]/* */

All contents copyright 2012 by Melodie Ramone. All rights reserved. No part of this document or the related files may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.

I Melt With You

Words and Music by Richard Ian Brown, Michael Francis Conroy, Robert James

Grey, Gary Frances McDowell and Stephen James Walker

Copyright © 1982 UNIVERSAL - MOMENTUM MUSIC LTD.

All Rights in the U.S. and Canada Controlled and Administered by

UNIVERSAL - POLYGRAM INTERNATIONAL PUBLISHING, INC.

All Rights Reserved Used by Permission

Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation

For my children, who believe in elves.

For my husband, who dared me to write a love story.

For Randall, who’s whispered secrets to me all my life.

And for everyone who was ever brave and lucky enough to have

loved somebody with their whole heart, and, to have had somebody

brave and lucky enough to love them back.

CHAPTER ONE

“Gran?”

I can hear Kitty’s voice from the back of the house, but I am not going to answer her. I am sitting on my chair in her garden trying desperately to hear a natural noise, something other than the dim hum of a freight train from several blocks away. All I hear at her cottage are air planes, freight trains, auto-mobiles, motorcycles and lawn mowers. All day long. They hurt my head. It makes me wish I had been blessed with the deafness that Alexander has acquired over the last few years.

It’s nothing against Kitty. Kitty is my favourite grandchild. I’ve never made too much of a secret of it. She and I have been a duo since the day she was born and it was more than generous for her to invite me to stay while I mended from my surgery. When Alexander and Lucy couldn’t handle me anymore, Kitty was the only choice to take me on. I was hell to deal with when I first arrived, but the Scottish blood I passed on to her runs strong in her veins and she dished my unpleasantness right back at me. I would reckon not too many could go toe to toe with her and survive, which is why, because of my age, I surrendered and stopped bickering. It wasn’t easy. Nothing bothers me more in this world than a person who behaves as a sheep and not as a dragon.

I love Kitty to bits. I don’t suppose that her home would be in a place of my choice, being as I was not consulted when she and her husband purchased it, so I shouldn’t complain about the noise. No, Kitty is not my problem and neither is her house. My problem is that I am homesick. I miss my little house in Wales where the only sounds are the chumming of the stream that leads to the lake, the tweeting of the birds and an occasional owl at night. So different it was there from everything here in England. I haven’t lived in a city since I was fifteen years old. I’m out of practice with the noise.

It does get quiet here at night, though it’s an eerie sort of quiet. It’s as if everyone in the world has gone away and left on the lights. The back garden is the darkest spot I can find. I can’t see the stars for the illumination of street lamps, but I often slip back there and watch the bats dart past the lights. Swift, silent and graceful, they remind me of myself as a girl. Darkness gives them the chance to finish their business and live their lives without interference from those that misunderstand them. In that way, they are more like Oliver.

My Oliver. He was my best friend. He was my husband and my whole life. I’d give anything to spend one more minute with him, to feel his arms around me or listen to his heart beat inside his chest. But he crossed the veil last summer. I was never lonely a minute in my life before he went away. And although his memory keeps me company, sometimes his absence wakes me up in the night. I’m eighty six years old now and I cry just like I did when I was separated from Oliver at Bennington those two weeks after we returned from the cabin. I may be an old lady, but in my heart I am still just Oliver’s girl.

I do have a trick, though, that keeps me from doing something stupid while he‘s away. It’s really very simple and I learned it in the wood. If I sit quiet and I think about him hard enough, concentrate long enough, I can see him anyway I want, at any point in time that I can remember him. It’s like watching a film almost, but it comes in flashes. Thank heavens I have a lifetime of memories. The one I love the best of Oliver is the tall, dark haired lad with the contagious grin that I fell in love with. I watch him with his twin brother and their friends playing football on the grounds of Bennington. I listen and I can hear their laughter gliding along the breeze. Oliver is yelling, “Foul! Foul!” and Merlyn Pierce is jumping on to his back, trying to pull him to the ground. Instead of going down, Ollie spins and jerks poor Merlyn until he falls off. Two years later, I hear Oliver whisper, “I love you, Sil.” I can see his hands around my middle and feel his chin resting on my shoulder as we watch the sun set over the lake at school. We were still students at Bennington, so very young. Yet still, I love him just as much when he is that old man standing in the doorway of the home we built together, always with that grin, telling me I am as beautiful as I was the day he met me. Seconds later he is confessing that he has only weeks to live.

“Now, Sil,” He tells me, “I need you to be strong through this. We’ll get through it together like we always have. I’ll love you still even more after I’m gone. That’s part of the magic.”

“Oliver!” I whisper out loud, suddenly coming back into the present. I often talk to him when I think no one is listening. I think he can hear me better when we’re alone, “I did something last night. You’ll laugh. After my bath I looked at myself in the long mirror. It was hysterically funny, Sweetheart. You would not believe how old I am! I’m a shrivelled, saggy, silver haired old lady. You’d never know I’d once been a curvy red headed bombshell with boobs no one could believe!” I chuckle, pulling my fingers through my hair, “Carolena talked me into letting her cut off my hair. I don’t know why I let her do it, except it was always in knots and I have trouble sometimes holding the brush. It’s at my shoulders now, curlier than ever. It’s not the same. I wonder if you still think I’m beautiful,” Tears spring to my eyes, “I miss you, Ollie. I miss you more than you can imagine. I miss you more every single day. I know you’re inside my heart, but…”

I pause for a moment, waiting to hear from Kitty again, but her voice does not come, “Anyway, listen to me, I walked right up to that mirror and I looked at myself closely. I’ve lost a ton of weight. The skin on my face is loose, so is the skin on my neck. I have loose skin everywhere, really. I look like a turkey, I swear it. I don’t look so good and my eyes… they’ve faded. They used to be so blue they’d catch people off their guard, but now they’ve tamed down to a sort of grey,” I sigh, wiping my tears away with the back of my hand. “I’m tired, Sweetheart. I want to go home. I’m inclined to lose my faith. Oh, Oliver, I don’t want to be here anymore! If I can’t go home I thought maybe if I told you, you’d come and get me. So…”

“Gran?” It’s Kitty, leaning out the door. She is thin and straight backed as a rail, “Are you here?”

I stop speaking and look back at her, pretending I am scratching my face and not wiping my cheeks. My granddaughter is absolutely gorgeous. Her mother is the perfect combination of Oliver and me; tall and thin like her father with high cheekbones and dark chocolate coloured eyes, but she has my flaming red hair, and round, pale face. Kitty is an exact copy of her mother, only younger. “Yes, Kit?”

“Gran, are you OK?” She asks quietly. She comes out into the garden and leans over me, setting a mug on the stool, “I thought you might like your coffee. Were you taking to someone?”

“Talking to the winds,” I tell her, “And the whispers. I’m missing the trees.”

She sighs and puts her hand over mine as she sits, “I know you are.” Kitty pulls her chair to face me. “You’ve been looking a little down lately. How’s the ankle?”

“Itchy.” I tell her, “I’m dying.”

“You’re not dying, unless it’s from an overdose of drama,” She says this as a joke, but she does not laugh and that is a good thing since I don’t think it’s funny. She checks the incision scar on my leg, which didn’t want to heal for a time, and then changes the subject, “I was thinking about your little house in Wales.”

“Yes?” I am not going to allow myself to be hopeful that I will ever see it again. I have the correct suspicion that certain people in the family think that I’m better off not being there since my fall. That’s the dilemma that came with getting old. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, but the children sit around and wonder when I won’t be. They watch carefully and intrude on my decisions while they call it love. And it is love, I suppose, that spawns their interference, but it puts me in a situation. If I go ballistic and throw my weight around, they’ll be in a position to say I’m not in my right mind. And if I am too patient and too passive, they will run me over like a marble pastry roller on soft dough. I always have to figure out how to play it so I win.

“Well,” She is still looking down at my leg, “Nigel went out there to have a see. He said Warren cleared the downed branches from the lot this spring and had the well repaired. That was a big job. Warren says everything is fine, but Nigel…well, you know, Nigel knows all about maintaining property because of his dad’s work. He says the front part of the cabin is in decline. He wants to take down that half and build a new one…”

I can’t help it now. Tears fill my eyes and spill over. I know Nigel is right. The original part of the cabin is well over two hundred years old and much of it is wood instead of stone. It’s more than likely in the condition he says. But still, the thought of taking down our house is breaking my heart. The history of that place is overwhelming. That house was our home.

“Gran, please don’t cry. Just listen. This was a while ago and Alexander went positively ape about it. You know how he can get. I’m sure Nigel nearly lost a limb!” She looks me in the eye and chuckles, “From what I understand when he was through shouting at Nigel, Alex rang Gryffin and shouted at him, too,” I have to smile now imagining Alexander going off on those two, but at the same time I pity them both, “When it was all done, Gryffin told Nigel not to do a thing with the cabin and reminded him that it’s not his decision. So don’t you worry. Gran, please stop crying, because I have a surprise for you.” She waits for me to take a few breaths as she gently pats my hand. When I have recovered, she speaks softly, “You know how Devon and Zachary have their rugby tournament in London this weekend?” I nod, turning my head to look up into her dark eyes, which are catching all the light from the morning sun and reflecting it back at me, “Well, I love my boys and I’m as proud of their being athletes as anyone, but I told their dad and them that I’ll not be coming to this one. I told him it’s time me and my old Gran took holiday on our own and I take her back to Wales.”

My heart is pounding, “Really?”

“Really,” She grins. Oh, how she looks just like her mother when she smiles. “I want to take you home, Gran. I’d like to see it again as well. We can check it out and see if Nigel’s right or he’s gone mad.” She stands up, “Your ankle is mended well enough. We can’t hold you hostage here forever, although I’d like it. Nigel and Warren and Natalie are there if you need them. Nat says she’ll come and stay with you if you need. You know Warren would, too. Any of us would.” She pauses, “Right. I’ve already got you packed, but I want you to go have a pee before we leave off. We’ll be taking the train to Wales and I know how you hate public toilets.” She pauses, her face suddenly serious. “Do you think you can make it to the house, though? With your leg? I rang Warren to let him know and he says the path is cleared right to the hill, but you know it’s steep.”

“I know I can,” I say. I know my old legs may not be able to make the climb up the hill, which is indeed steep, but I am sure of one thing; if I cannot, Alex will berate them until Nigel or Warren carries me. I know I will make it there somehow. I have to. I promised Oliver I would stay and protect what he no longer could.

I know Kitty is not certain that I can make it to the house, but she’s not going to say it. She’ll see to it that I do. That is the power a good grandmother has over her granddaughter who was loved as much as mine. The child will do anything for you when you’re too old to do it for yourself.

“Kit,” I smile at her, “I have never thanked you for all those holidays you chose to spend with us in the wood. Not everybody understands the magic, but you always did. Your mind is open and your heart is free. You are so much like your granddad.”

Kitty grins, “Thank you, Gran! I’d like to think I’m like him!” She pauses, “You do know how much I miss him, don’t you? I miss his jokes. I miss his stories, especially. He was the best storyteller. He’d have me laughing until I ached.”

I nod. “He was funny, wasn’t he? He and I used to laugh all the time.”

“I remember. You two were always so happy.”

“We were,” I rise, “I need to check something. Are we leaving straight away?”

“We need to leave soon, yes.”

I head into the cottage to make sure she’s packed everything I need. She has. Tucked safely away inside my train case is a small, silver locket. I remove it. My hands are so old and shaky I can barely open it, but I do, and make sure what I’ve hidden in it is there. It is; a little sliver of wood that Oliver gave to me and Alex told me to make sure I had when I came home. I shut the locket and pull the chain over my head.

An hour later the train is picking up speed, racing toward Wales. The cities and factories are fading, giving to rolling green hills dotted with sheep. My heart is soaring. Home, home! I am going home!

“I was born in Scotland,” I tell Kitty after a silence, “You know that, but do you know how I ended up in Wales?” She sets down her magazine. I have her complete attention. “I lived in Edinburgh until I was fifteen, ten years after my mother died. My father fell to bits when she did. He was more like a wet sack than a man afterward. He may have been even before, I’m not sure. He cared about my sister and me. He never lost his temper and we always had a roof over our heads and food to eat. We went to the best schools as well.” I pause, remembering him with a mixture of affection and disappointment, “My father moved us to Wales because he met a woman. She was lovely, good to Lucy, but had little to say to me. He never married her, though,” I pause again. I can’t even think of her name now or why they didn’t marry. Deciding it doesn’t matter, I continue, “Daddy wanted to go back to Scotland after their affair ended, but he stayed in Wales because of me and Oliver. He stayed because he knew he’d have to take me back murdered and in bits hidden in baskets. There was no taking me from my Oliver and he well knew it, so he stayed to look after me and keep Lucy in one school. And he only did that for a short while before he became ill and decided he wouldn’t survive. He went back to Scotland to die and lived more than thirty years.”

Kitty laughs, “I believe that anyone wanting to take you from granddad would have had good reason to be afraid.”

“Yes, they would have,” I nod. “Your granddad and I made a lot of promises to each other and we never broke one. Not a one and never leaving each other was the big one. He couldn’t help but die, could he? Or he never would have left me. We’d still be two old farts running around Wales whacking each other with dirt and talking to the trees, wouldn’t we be?” I chuckle and look at my wedding ring, pausing for just a moment to reflect on that thought. “Now I only have one promise to keep and it’s to be done in that faerie circle, so says your great uncle Alex. So you see, even though I appreciate you putting up with me, I’ve got to go.”

“In the faerie circle, Gran? What is it? Maybe I can help?”

“Ah, I don’t even know for sure.” I sigh, “Alex says it’s important that I get there, that’s all I know. He says he can’t do it without me.”

“You four and your secrets!” She is referring to Oliver, Alexander, me and Lucy, “You know, my mum and her brothers and cousins, they don’t ask questions. They grew up in that wood, so they have an understanding that we grandchildren don’t. But we ask the lot of you anything and all we get for answers is a load of muttering. I’d love it if you’d tell me some of the secrets you keep about the wood.”

“The secrets of the wood?” I shake my head, still chuckling, “Now, those would make a long story and if I told you, you might not believe me.” I think about telling her everything for a moment, but say, “Any time we tried to tell anyone about what goes on in the wood, they walked away thinking we were mental. At first I even thought Oliver had cracked his pot, all his talk about elves and magic and missing socks. But he never doubted it, he just had faith that it was all real and we were all part of it.”

“What was real?”

I finger the locket around my neck. “Faith, love, magic, destiny…it’s a long story, all which happened in the wood. It’s our whole lives.”

“We have time,” She says softly, “And a stay over at Nigel’s for me to boot. Tell me, please. Tell me about your lives,” She looks at me and sees my hesitation. Her voice drops to a sincere tone just above a whisper, “Gran, I know he was your husband, but he was my grandfather, too. His life meant something to me as well. He told me things, but I was so little and I couldn’t understand half of what they were. I only knew they had to do with magic and honouring promises and why he wouldn’t leave the wood.”

“Did you ever ask him why he never left it?”

“I did, toward the end when he was so sick and it seemed it would make better sense for him to go somewhere where he could get more help.”

“And what did he tell you?”

“He said that there’s magic in the wood. Old magic. And that there are things that go on there that just don’t make any sense if you say them out loud. He said some things are real and true even if you can’t see them. I know he was talking about the faeries. I remember hearing their voices in the cabin. I remember dropping chocolates into the faerie circle and having my dollies reappear in the bathtub. I knew something incredible was going on, but I never understood just what it was.”

I look at my granddaughter and I see the hope in her eyes. It’s sincere. She honestly wants to know who we were and where we came from. I think of my father and how he refused to discuss our mother with Lucy and me. We were robbed of our mother twice, once when she died and once when he kept her memory from us. I don’t know why I never told Kitty the story of her grandfather and me. I suppose it just seemed so personal, but she’s older now and the truth is, it’s as much her story as it is mine and Oliver’s. If not for our story, she would have none of her own.

“It’s about more than the faeries, Kitty. It’s about so much more. It’s a long story, but I’ll tell it. Where to start is the question.”

“Start at the beginning.”

“Then at the beginning, while I’m still young enough to remember and stronger than my arthritis to think that far back,” I tell her with a quick smile, “Make sure we have plenty of tea, yeah? You’ll want it.”

CHAPTER TWO

I don’t honestly remember a day before I met Oliver Dickinson. I think my life must have started right then on my arrival to Bennington College, the boarding school my father decided to send me to that year. I had been boarding since I was seven and, to be honest, I quite preferred it to the summers I spent sitting around our cottage in Edinburgh having to be perfectly quiet while Dad was working. Boarding school was much more fun than home. I always had at least two friends every year to spend time with and no one bothered me for wandering off alone to study. I was most happy about being at Bennington, actually, because there were both boys and girls who attended. At fifteen years old, I was rather interested in boys after having gone to all girls’ school for the last eight years.

Anyroad, my first day I was sitting on a stone bench in the second quad reviewing my afternoon schedule. Schools are always the same. You can tell each and every clique from the next by the looks of them. I had always been quiet and spent much of my time observing those around me. At Bennington, the athletes were all clean cut, shirts tucked in, hair respectably short for the lads and pulled back in barrettes for the girls, who stood rather more boyishly than they should have in their skirts. The brainy kids were all in a huddle beside the statue of a woman walking with a book in her hand and were talking excitedly and waving their schedules at each other. The princesses all stood together in a tight circle and distinguished themselves from the rest by their sparkling barrettes, perfect make up, expensive bags, and manicured hands. The princes were the same, sans make up and sparkling barrettes. They all wore the same expression on their faces as if they smelled something horrible. The misfits, which were the crowd I always fell into, were spotted here and there, individuals who weren’t really interested in what was happening around them, but were more involved in taking in the warm rays of the sun. I was watching one of them…a girl, blonde, who was holding a bottle of water in one hand while trying to open her purse without spilling her drink inside. I was wondering why she didn’t just put down the bottle when… THUNK! Something that felt like a stone hit me on the back of my head.

“Oh! Ow!”

“Oh, great galloping grey goats!” A loud voice came from behind me as a figure rushed around to my front. I had my hands over the back of my head deciding if I were injured or just surprised when I realised a boy had put an arm around me in apology, “I am so sorry! I’ve hit you with the ball! I smacked it right at you, I did! I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

I looked up and I swear time stopped. It was not that he was the most traditionally handsome boy I had ever seen, although I can’t say he wasn’t attractive. He was simply out-and-out adorable, so bloody cute he immediately made my insides wiggle. He was one of the misfits, I surmised instantly, and a popular one at that. He had a long neck from which hung a loosened black tie and the top two buttons of his white uniform shirt were undone. His dark brown hair was an intentional mess, obviously kept just short enough to meet regulations at the school. I noticed straight away he had nice skin, a smooth, olive complexion, even though I there was a small nick on his chin from having shaved. He had a straight nose, high set cheekbones, and, I glanced at his hand where he was still holding my arm, long fingers and a very gentle touch. I peeked back up at him and he blinked as my eyes met his, looking at me as if he knew me from a time long ago and was shocked to see me again so soon. Neither of us knew what to say.

“No.” I answered suddenly, moving my hand from the back of my head. My mouth had gone dry, “No…I mean…no…I just…no, not at all…”

“Sorry?” He was amused, still keeping his eyes locked with mine, a smile forming at the corners of his mouth. He stood straight and peered down at me with his head cocked as if he wasn't sure what to do. We were lost in an odd moment set apart from time and trying to find our way back to where we had started. “No what?”

“I mean…no. I’m not hurt. Not at all. I’m fine. I’m just…I’m…” He grinned at me crookedly and I felt my face flush as I returned the smile. “I’m just Silvia,” I said finally, reaching out to shake his hand. “I’m just Silvia Cotton and I’m just fine, thank you.”

He took my hand in his and held it for a second without shaking it. He just sort of let the weight of it fall against his palm and kept looking at me with that sideways grin. He could have had the devil inside of him with all the mischief of that little smile, but it was too sweet to belong to anything more than an ornery angel. It was at the moment he spoke that I noticed that he had two dimples, one on the left cheek and one on the chin, and that his lashes were long and black. His eyes were the exact colour of baking chocolate melted in a silver bowl, but they sparkled in the sunlight, “I’m Just Oliver Dickinson,” He told me brightly, “It’s nice to meet you, Just Silvia Cotton. Sorry about that, you know. I hope I didn’t tick you off.”

“No,” I started giggling like a mental, like the girls you see in films making fools of themselves, but it seemed perfectly OK since he was still smiling. “I’m not ticked off.”

“Not hurt and not ticked off. Just Silvia. Just Silvia Cotton, eh?” He sat beside me on the bench. It was a few more seconds before he released my hand, “You’re new here. What year are you?”

“Fifth year.”

“Ah, me as well. We’re bound to have loads of courses together.” He glanced at my schedule, which was open on my lap. “Well, maybe not then. You must be clever.”

“I get good marks.”

“What’s that accent?”

“I’m from Scotland.”

“Lovely!” He said sincerely, “No other Scots here that I’m aware of, you’re the only one! Have you met many people at the school yet?”

“No, I haven’t had time. I wasn’t here last night. My father dropped me off this morning right after breakfast.” I couldn't believe I was actually sitting on a bench having a conversation with him. I was usually very shy, but there was something about him that set me completely at ease. Whether it was the kindness in his eyes or his disarming smile I am still not sure, but whatever it was, I felt like I'd known him for a long time and not at all as if we'd just met.

“Oh, well then let me help you meet some,” He turned and gave a friendly wave at someone who had just called out a hello to him, “I know everyone at this place for the most part. I’ve been coming here since I was eleven,” He turned back to me, “You’ll have to meet my brother, Alexander, first. He’s my twin, but don’t think we’re all that much alike. Only just exactly,” He jerked an arm at a group of teenagers across the quad as if to invite them over. I could pick Alexander out from a distance. They could have been the same person. Tall, long limbed and dark haired with a loose tie and his shirt undocked, he gave a short wave of acknowledgement and began to amble toward us. Oliver continued, “The lovely lady beside him is his current flavour of the week, but don’t tell her I called her that. She’s a nice girl, which is a switch for my brother, lemme tell you! Her name’s Sarah Farnsworth. She’s rich as the queen and has the brains of a rabbit,” The group began to approach, appearing to be a friendly bunch, “And that is Merlyn Pierce, the black kid with the hat on crooked. Nothing bad to say about him, he’s a right decent sort. He fancies being an opera singer, but he can’t sing. He goes off into the fields and belts out Puccini every so often and clears the sky of birds,” He paused to shake his head with a mock frown on his face, then turned his head back to me and grinned. Our eyes locked again for several seconds before he broke away, “The one with the scarf is Lance Crosby,” He continued, “He’s a fantastic bloke. Alex’s and my dorm mate. He actually knitted that scarf himself. Can you believe it? Happy colours, he says! He’s quite the quilter from what I gather, too,” Oliver looked at me and winked, “Just don’t ever mention it to Lance that he’s short. In fact, when you greet him, just say, ‘Hello! You’re looking quite tall today!’”

I found myself giggling again.

“Everyone,” Oliver stood and put his hand on my shoulder, “This is Just Silvia Cotton and she’s just fine!”

Those were my friends at Bennington, the five of them I met first on the quad. I quite liked Sarah Farnsworth, but it was not long before she moved away to Canada, leaving Alexander somewhat heartbroken. That is to say he was as heartbroken as he was capable of being at the time, which did not add up to devastation. He rebounded quickly and within a few weeks he had a new flavour du jour.

Merlyn Pierce was a lovely bloke, handsome in an offbeat way. When I think of how he looked the first thing that comes to mind is that he had smooth, velvety skin. I swear he never had a blemish on him. His colour was dark and really beautiful, like creamy chocolate mousse spread flawlessly over his bones. His nose may have been a bit bulbous, but he had beautiful brown eyes and was always friendly and forever quick with a joke. Although he couldn’t carry a note and was not as great a violinist as he dreamed of being, Merlyn’s love of music blurred the lines of obsession. He could tell you at any moment what was happening in the World Opera scene and what the latest jazz artists were up to, as well as what was topping the pop charts in the UK, Western Europe and the US. He had connections that got him tickets to just about any show in Cardiff or London, so none of us ever lacked something to do on the weekends when we could leave grounds.

“We’re going to a show this Saturday,” He told me casually on my third day. I had been officially inducted into their midst, “I can get another ticket if your parents would give you permission to go. The thing is we don’t know if you’d want to.”

“Well, who are you seeing?”

“Motorhead,” Alexander answered as he playfully, but quite firmly, slapped his brother across the face. They had begun rough housing the moment they entered the common room. Oliver slapped him back harder and they both turned to me.

“Motorhead? Are you bloody joking? I love Motorhead!” I exclaimed. They all seemed shocked. Even Oliver gave me a great expression of surprise, “What?” I demanded, looking between them as they stared, “Just because I dress in skirts and wear lipstick doesn’t mean I don’t own a pair of Docter Martins or don’t love Lemmy! Who don’t love Lemmy? Lemmy is God!”

“Lemmy is God?” Oliver asked with an approving smirk.

“Damn right Lemmy’s God!” I swore, “He’s my boyfriend, too!”

“Lemmy is your boyfriend?” His eyes widened and his brows went up. Oh, he was adorable when he did that.

“Well, yes,” I began to laugh, “He is my future ex-husband, you know!”

This Alexander seemed to like. He laughed out loud and tossed an arm over his brother's shoulder with his hand dangling in front of his chest, “So you’re not one hundred percent committed to Lemmy then?”

“Well…you know...he’s very busy with Motorhead…”

“Not to mention being God,” Oliver interjected, “Blimey!”

And, thus, my first rock concert was front and centre at Motorhead, crushed against the stage right before the mosh pit, pinched in front of Oliver, who happily beat off the moshers. I very much enjoyed watching him block and shove people away from doing me harm. It made me feel quite special, not to mention that he seemed to be having the time of his life doing it. Often the onslaught caused us to be pressed close together. Merlyn and Alexander, however, abandoned us both and were in the thick of it, caught in the mosh with the other hell raisers.

Sometimes I think my ears still ring because of that show, it was so bloody loud. Years later, Oliver told me he considered it our first date.

Lance Crosby had opted to go and see his mother for the weekend rather than come with us to Motorhead. Lance was more difficult to sort out than the rest. He was a diminutive young man, almost freakishly small, with dusty blonde hair and fresh green eyes that were nearly too big for his face. Not a great looking chap at all, though, plus he was only five feet tall and shuffled when he walked, which was a bit annoying. Still, he was kind and quiet and kept to himself for the most part. I think he was really shy, especially with girls, even the ones like me who wanted nothing other than just to be his friend. Lance never talked about himself in conversation. Everything I knew about him was what the other boys had told me, like he was rich as hell, but never acted it, and lived on a medieval estate in Caernarfon with his mother. He had a good heart and the right idea about family and country. He wanted to join the military after he graduated, then go to university and find a wife and raise a family. Very simple man, Lance Crosby was. If he hadn’t been so loveable, I’d have thought him boring, except that he was usually found glued to the side of Alex Dickinson, who was always getting involved in one form of mayhem or another.

“Oh, Lancelot!” Alexander would call in the tone of a mother hailing a child. That particular day he was motivating down the corridor at a casual speed, hands jammed into his jacket pockets.

“Yes, Alexander?” Lance would counter as if replying to his mother.

“You’ll never guess what I have!” Alex would sing this part like a show tune.

“What do you have?” Lance would sing back.

“Balloons, Mate! Loads of balloons!” He pulled handfuls out of his pockets, “We’ve just enough time to fill them before the first years leave the North Tower!”

Lance’s horns, tiny as they may have been, would poke out from beneath his mop of hair and off they’d go to declare war on unsuspecting eleven year olds making their way from class.

I was a little surprised at how quickly the lot of them took me under their wings. In truth, it was immediate, which was a great comfort since I was not only in a new school, but as well in a country I had only lived in for a few weeks. It was Oliver and Merlyn who showed me about the school that first day and made sure that I knew where all of my classes would be. They gave me the guidance and warnings I needed on which professors to watch out for and which to kiss up to, as well as the heads up on the more troublesome students. I shared my lunch hour with them, Alex and Lance, and then spent the remainder of the day on the quad in their company as well. Having been called to a meeting for the girls in my dormitory to discuss the rules, I got separated from them just before dinner and when the meal bell rang I found myself standing in the cafeteria alone in a busy crowd of students. There seemed to be no vacant tables where I could sit by myself.

I hated that. If I had to be somewhere where I felt so very alone then I wanted to be alone. There was somehow always more comfort in being apart from everyone than being in the middle of it all and not having a place. I was contemplating taking my tray and having my dinner in the girl’s toilet when a familiar voice came from behind me.

“Hi, Silvia!” I turned to see Oliver grinning at me. He was trailed by Alexander, who was looking to his right and walked directly into Oliver’s back, “I saved you a seat at our table,” He said as he stumbled forward.

I could actually feel people watching us, as if half the heads in the hall turned, but I was too overwhelmed with the fact that these boys had sought me out to look around and make sure.

Alexander winked at me and then hung his tongue out at a girl to our left and pretended to pick his nose. “Always sit with us,” He turned back to me and pointed to the far wall, “We’re over by there. Come on then!”

Oh, the relief! Oh, the joy! Being paid so much attention to by two handsome boys is a great way to start any first day at school. There was something happening even then between Oliver and me, no matter if we were being coy about it.

I had dinner with them. Don’t ask me why I remember, but it was turkey with gravy and mash and Alex had three plates. Oliver barely touched his. All through dinner he talked to me. Random things, really, like asking me about where I'd boarded before and if I liked rugby. Alexander didn't say much. He just ate and sort of started at me and then Ollie would turn and give him a hard look and he'd laugh a bit and look away. I noticed off the top that those two could speak to each other without words, although at the time I had no idea of the depth of some of those conversations.

At the end of the meal, a professor came to the table and asked the twins if they would lead a group of first years to their common room and thus they disappeared from the hall while I followed Merlyn and Lance to our own. “This way, this way,” Lance mumbled as he shuffled along, “Careful on the stairs, Love, people fall on them all the time.”

“Lance is the resident mother hen,” Merlyn told me almost apologetically, “People fall all over this place, not just on the stairs.”

I sat with those boys in the common room discussing the many hair colours of Duran Duran until we were joined by Ollie and Alex. We all sat together joking until the first bell rang for curfew.

“Do you know your way to your hall of residence?” Merlyn asked, rising to his feet.

“Yes, I think so.”

“Well, we’ll walk you anyway,” Oliver said firmly. He stood above me, peering down with a playful expression. “We can't have you getting lost, can we?”

“You do that, Ollie,” Alex stood up and looked about the room, “I gotta go talk to Sarah a minute before she goes to bed or she’ll get all upset and I’ll never hear the end of it, mind. See you in the morning, Silvia. Welcome to Bennington!”

“Thank you, Alexander! Good night!”

He nodded and crossed the room to his girlfriend.

Merlyn, Lance and Oliver walked me to the entrance of my dormitory, which was the building on the opposite side of the great hall from theirs. “Sit with us in the morning at breakfast,” Oliver told me with a grin as he left, “We always sit at the same table. I’ll make sure you have a spot.”

“Thank you,” I said sincerely, feeling very special.

“No worries! Cheers, Just Silvia!”

“Cheers!”

He grinned, gave a short wave, and the three of them turned away.

I let loose a long sigh, and then held my breath tight in my chest. He was sincerely beautiful, very sweet, and my heart was already stuck on him.

I wandered around the hall of residence for some time trying to make sense of the room numbers. When I couldn’t find mine, I decided I must be on the wrong floor and headed up one, only to discover that I was completely in the wrong place. Frustrated, I returned downstairs and wandered the labyrinth of corridors until I realised that someone had switched all the numbers on the doors. There were a several girls running up and down the halls, but none seemed to be in any rush to help me. I finally located the prefect’s office, which was nothing more than a wooden desk shoved into a large, empty cupboard. The girl inside seemed to know without me telling her what had happened and set about righting all the number plates on the doors instead of helping me find my room.

She was very rude and I was quite upset by the time she was through. I was even more so when I walked into the wrong room and two girls stared at me as if I were stupid. At least they were nice, however, and told me that there must have been a misprint on my card because they’d been there for three years and knew they were both in the right place. “You’re going to have to go to the prefect. She has the master list and she’ll set you right.”

I thanked them and walked reluctantly back down the hall to ask. “Sorry,” I said as I tapped on the door of her makeshift office, “My room is wrong.”

She gave me a hard look as if I were bothering her, even though all she was doing was eating a pastry. “What’s the room?”

“Two-fifteen.”

“Can’t be. That’s the third year floor.”

I sighed, “I know that now.”

She mumbled something about new students being as retarded as first years and picked up her ledger, “What’s your name?”

“Silvia Cotton.”

“You’re in room three seventeen,” She glanced up at me, “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from the Dickinson twins.”

Where the bloody hell did that come from? I wondered, but I asked, “Oh? What do you mean?”

The girl raised her eyebrows at me, then looked down at a list and turned several papers on a clipboard, tapping her pen on each one, “You‘ll find out.”

I waited a moment to see if she wanted to elaborate, but she never glanced up again. I left her sitting at her fold away desk in the corner thinking to myself about how completely unpleasant she’d been. What she said made me a bit nervous, though. I’d only been there a day and although they’d seemed so kind, maybe those boys were trouble. Oh, I hated the idea of having made friends already and of then having to ditch them so quickly. I finally made my way back down the corridor and up the stairs to my new room. I opened the door to find a girl standing in front of the window with her back to me.

“Hello,” I said not too loudly.

She turned, spun, really, on her heels and immediately stuck her hands behind her back as if I’d caught her up to something. The expression on her face was odd, as if she’d swallowed too hard and needed to cough. She looked me up and down for a moment before she spoke, “Hello. I’m Sandra.”

“I’m Silvia,” I smiled. Sandra was incredibly tall and a little too thin, but she looked harmless enough in her little wire rimmed glasses. “Which bed have you taken?”

“I haven’t, but I’d like this one,” She pointed to the one nearest her, “I like to sleep by the window. I mean, if that‘s all right.”

“That’s fine. Which cupboard have you taken?”

“I took the one by the door unless you want it. It doesn‘t matter to me.”

“First come, first serve,” I dropped my leather satchel on my new bed, thinking that she seemed very thoughtful, “I’m just glad I found the room! I had a terrible time!”

“They changed the plates again?” She asked without a smile.

“Yes, they did!”

“Bitches,” Sandy mumbled firmly, “All of them.”

I laughed softly, “I just had one of them tell me to watch myself around the Dickinson twins. Do you know what she meant?”

Her narrow eyes flashed wide for just an instant, “Who was it who said it?”

“I don’t know. The prefect downstairs.”

“Did she have dark hair?” Sandy asked. I nodded. “Long?”

“Medium.”

“Then it wasn’t Jayne Fitzpatrick. Jayne Fitzpatrick and Jennifer Eisenberg are the prefects for this floor this semester. They, I, and Nicole Bell, but Nicole is a blonde. Jayne probably wouldn’t have said it anyway. Did the girl threaten you at all? “

“Not so much. I think maybe she was trying. She was very unpleasant.“

“It was Jennifer Eisenberg,” Sandy said matter of fact, “Don’t mind the Dickinson twins. Watch out for Jennifer Eisenberg.”

“All right.” I yanked my larger suitcase off the floor and swung it on to the bed, glad to hear that those boys were all right. “Can I have this dressing table?”

Sandra nodded and sat on her bed. She watched me for a long time in silence as I began putting my things away. Suddenly she spoke again, “Maybe you do have to look out for the Dickinson twins. I mean, at least half of them. Alexander can be a right cad. Oliver’s all right, though.”

“He’s all right then?” I asked a little too eagerly.

She smiled as if she’d finally decided she liked me, “Yeah,” She nodded, “He’s brilliant. You don’t need to avoid him at all.”

That was the best news I’d ever heard, although her warning me about Alexander fell on deaf ears. Alex could be right foul when the mood struck him. However, I was never intimidated by his nastiness the way most people were. In fact, I must admit that if there had never been an Oliver Dickinson, his brother, Alexander, would have run away with my heart and the two of us would most likely have ended our relationship in the fashion of a double murder. This being said and despite our differences, he and I quickly became the closest of friends. Although so much like Oliver in so many facets, Alex was very different in the girlfriend department. You see, Alex changed his girlfriends like he did his pants, where Oliver was loyal almost to a fault. They were a set of dead ringers, though, physically indistinguishable right down to their fingernails, unless you knew the few subtle differences that told them apart. Looking so much alike and having to wear identical school uniforms was very much a sport for the two of them.

“Oliver, Professor Fields sent me to ask you if you have time this afternoon at four to come by her office,” A fourth year boy with short blond hair approached him in the dining hall.

“What are you calling me Oliver for when I’m Alexander?” Ollie scolded, tossing a scrap of bread at the poor boy, “Bloody hell! Don’t bother me! I’m eating!”

“Right! Tell him I’ll be there!” Alex added sharply, “Now piss off!”

They both thought this sort of thing was terribly funny. They pulled it off successfully two years in a row for final exams and once Oliver served a detention for Alexander so Alex could slip out of school early on a Friday and go see Julian Cope in concert in London with Merlyn. They could even occasionally pull it over on their own parents, but never on Headmistress Pennyweather, who knew one from the other at a glance from clear across the dining hall.

“That is thirty minutes detention cleaning dishes, Mister Alexander Dickinson, for throwing food! If you would like to win Miss Sherwood’s affection, there are better ways! Like complimenting her lovely smile or simply saying hello!” She rather sang her way between the tables, “Mister Oliver Dickinson, I suggest you put away that gum before I see you chewing it. Having it is no crime, but chewing it in any hall beside your dormitory is fifteen minutes detention!” She glanced in my direction with a smile, “Miss Cotton, so nice to see you this morning! Are you rested and ready for the Academic competition this afternoon?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good, good! We’re apt to win with you in!”

“Thank you, Ma’am, I’ll do my best.”

“I’m sure you will!” She walked away calling, “Misters Pierce and Crosby, hats off in the school buildings!”

“She’s a nightmare,” Alex groaned when Headmistress was out of earshot. “I wish she’d get on her broom and crash into the side of a bus.”

“I think she’s a daisy,” Oliver grinned, popping his gum into his pocket. “I think she’s brilliant.”

“I know you do. You fancy that old harpy. One day I’m going to do something right awful in front of her and make her think it’s you.” Alex threatened as he lifted his spoon.

“Like what?”

“Like going up and pissing into one of those great urns with the shrubs that sit inside her office. Right in front of her, too.” His eyes were narrow. “Like when she’s having tea with parents or something. Just whip it out and…” He bit his bottom lip, imitating the motion.

“It’ll never work,” Oliver returned with little interest, going back to his cereal, “She knows full well you’re the bad egg.”

Their scam would have never worked on me, either. I could tell them apart from minute one. I could tell which one was which just by the way Oliver looked at me. It was the way he told me he loved me all the time, with those beautiful, shiny, dark eyes, right from the moment we met.

There was never a question as to Oliver and me being together. I don’t think anyone had any question about us; we were just as natural as the sky and earth. Immediately we met between classes. He always seemed to know where I’d be. If I was in the library and he had a moment, there he’d appear, whispering to me between the shelves. If I were coming out of a classroom and he was in the same hall, he’d wait for me in the corridor and walk with me. He saved me a seat beside him at meal tables and he always brought me back to the entrance of my hall of residence at curfew. “Just Silvia Cotton,” became, “My Sil” within a month. Mostly we hung out on the quad and in the common room with our friends, but we often went walking by the lake alone.

I loved those long walks we’d take. Those times are extraordinary, the ones when you first get together with someone special and spend all your time getting to know each other. Oliver was the most outgoing person I’d ever met. He was light hearted and funny, something that was new to me in a male. The only real encounter I’d had with any man had been my father, whose personality was something like a flannel; constant and reliable, but not the most stimulating companionship. Everyone at Bennington seemed to be fond of Oliver and he greeted them all with the same warmth. He had a knack for being sensitive, but just when you thought he was a complete pushover, he’d come out swinging like any other lad. Neither Oliver nor Alexander were small boys. They were both imposing figures, standing at least a head taller than the next tallest teenager. They sported broad shoulders and muscular physiques and had large hands. Both of them were fearsome on the rugby pitch as well, so much so that opposing players occasionally hesitated to approach them and once or twice actually ran away. I would have thought that rugby would have been Alexander’s game as he was usually the more aggressive of the two, but Oliver was an animal on the pitch. His transformation into brutality amazed me because, in general, he was just such so gentle.

The first time I encountered my sweet Oliver Dickinson being really naughty was three weeks into my stay at Bennington. I was walking down the corridor in the East wing during my free period when I saw him and Alexander huddled together in a corner.

“Hi, Ollie!” I said brightly, coming up from behind, “Hi, Alex!”

“Shush!” He and Alexander said simultaneously. Oliver didn’t turn to face me. He was obviously too busy with something, but Alex spun and put his finger against my lips.

“Sorry,” I whispered as he removed it. I could see Oliver now since Alex had shifted. He had an Eppendorf tube in his hand and was frantically packing something into it.

“What are you doing?”

“Shush, Silvia!” This time he turned and they both waved a hand at the floor to prove they meant it.

I stood there in silent compliance with no idea of what they were up to. I was still quite dumb to them and their evil ways at that point.

“Is it ready?” Alex breathed.

“Yeah. Is he coming?” Oliver whispered, pinching the top on to the vial. “Is he on time?”

Alex looked over his shoulder and sniggered, “He’s by the end of the way, he is.”

Both of them stood up and straightened their jackets. Oliver looked at me and winked, then took two steps forward and hailed another student, “McGuigan!” He said quite loudly, “You need my notes for laboratory.”

Josh McGuigan stopped about ten feet away and eyed the twins suspiciously.

“Come on!” Alex said curtly. “We’ve been waiting for you! You want to make us late?”

I knew Josh from my philosophy class. He was a nice boy, but he had a terrible case of psoriasis that left him with open sores on his hands and neck, and probably other areas of his body as well that he kept covered at all times. I recognized his ailment immediately because my father suffered from the affliction from time to time. I knew that it wasn’t contagious, only ugly and painful to its bearer. Most people didn’t know that, though, or they were at least insensitive enough to avoid or tease poor Josh.

I’d come upon Oliver having a chat with Josh one afternoon in the courtyard. When Josh left Oliver mentioned that he felt badly for the boy. “I like him,” He said as he took my hand and led me down the hall, “We’re mates,” He paused, “Well, sort of like. He’s good at taking a joke, mind. I took him on as my lab partner second year without asking him to be. I’d watched him always left standing alone, being the last one chosen, so I just walked over and chucked my books on the table and told him to shove over.” Oliver looked at the ceiling as he continued, “I didn’t see Old Josh’s dorm mate walking around with big, nasty scabs all over him so I figured it was safe to exchange a couple of test tubes with the bloke. I hate that, you know? When people are rubbish to somebody who's done nothing to harm anybody.”

I nodded. I hated that, too. What a good heart Oliver Dickinson had. His kindness often went unnoticed, but it never failed.

Josh didn’t say a word in response to either of them the morning they stopped him in the corridor. Instead, he sighed and came forward, reaching out his hand to take the notes from Oliver. Just as he was about to collect them, however, Alexander smacked Oliver’s hand at the wrist with such force that the papers scattered across the ground.

“You dickhead!” Oliver gave his brother a shove, “Why’d you do that?”

I wondered the same thing. It seemed such a senseless act, but within seconds it was all too obvious why he’d done it. As Josh bent down to pick up the papers, Oliver pretended to help him, As he leaned down, he dropped the vial into Josh’s pocket. Josh didn’t notice.

“Ah, who cares?” Alex demanded, stealing my arm, “I’m taking your Sil and we’re going. You two bore us shitless.”

I allowed him to haul me off. “What was that about?” I asked as he dragged me around a corner and sat with me on one of the benches outside along the corridor. “That was rude, Alex!”

“Just wait,” He grinned. He looked just exactly like Oliver when he smiled. Breathtaking, really, how closely the two of them resembled the other.

“What did you two do to poor Josh? I thought you three were friends!”

“Don’t worry about it,” Alex said quietly, giving my shoulder a playful squeeze, “It’s a game! Josh knows it! He gives it right back!”

Oliver appeared around the bend and sat on the other side of me. Immediately, those two began to snigger, “About fifteen seconds, I’d reckon,” Ollie said, turning to peer back at the direction he had come. “I can hear the girl’s football team coming up the corridor…”

“What’s going—“ I began to ask the question, but was never able to finish before there was a loud bang that sounded something like a gun shot. Seconds later, a flock of startled girls in their football uniforms ran squealing around the wall past us out on to the quad. About ten feet behind them followed Josh McGuigan, his mouth open in a silent scream, moving at full speed. The dishevelled notes were still clutched in his hand.

“What the hell was that?” Professor Rankin, the physical education instructor, jogged into the quad to gather her distressed team. “Is everyone all right? Is everyone here? Calm down, Ladies!” She shouted, and then paused, “Joshua McGuigan? What on Earth are you doing out here with the girls? Go on! Go to class! Clear off or I’ll give you detention!”

Oliver and Alexander howled with laughter.

Josh’s face was deep red as he walked off the quad. He looked at the twins, shook a fist at them, and began to chuckle.

The boys doubled up.

I didn’t need to ask what they’d done. I knew Oliver had packed that test tube with dry ice. Dry ice packed tightly enough in an Eppendorf tube will explode. It shouldn’t have hurt Josh, not inside his pocket, but it certainly went off with a bang that was amplified between the stone walls of the corridor. Timing it so it happened as the girl’s football team was leaving the dressing room was just a stroke of genius.

“You are evil!” I told Ollie, giggling along with the two of them.

“Yes, but you love it!” He swore and patted my knee just as Madame Pennyweather rounded the corner. She stood in her black dress with her pointed shoes planted firmly on the concrete and gave the three of us such a stern look that we immediately jumped to our feet. I thought she was deciding on a reprimand, but instead she just glared at us. She shook her head and disappeared back into the wing.

“Wow,” Oliver muttered, “She let us go! You’re our lucky charm, Silvia!”

“Damn straight,” Alex added, “Can I rub your bum for luck?”

Oliver punched him in the shoulder. Hard.

That night, Oliver and I decided to have a stroll together after supper. It was quite cold, unseasonably so, and in a hurry to have him all to myself I had not worn anything other than my uniform jumper for extra warmth. I had my arms crossed tightly in front of me, shivering as we walked along. Oliver was chattering on about an out of control rugby match he was involved in once when he stopped and turned, “Cold, Sil?”

I nodded, allowing my teeth to click together, “I didn’t think it was this chilly!”

He pulled off his uniform jacket and put it around my shoulders. “Put this on. Better?”

“Oh, yes.” I could feel the warmth from his body inside it. I slid my arms into the sleeves and stretched my fingers to see if I could poke them out. I couldn’t. When he wasn’t looking I took a second to turn my head and sniff his collar. It smelled like soap mixed with the freshness of the earth after a good rain, with just a hint of burned wood. I closed my eyes and smiled. The scent of him made me cheerful. It was the essence of Oliver and a fragrance I would smell for many years to come; only I didn’t know it then. All I knew at that moment was that he was fantastic and smelled wonderful and I was in his school coat and that all things in the universe seemed correct and proper.

It was then that he held my hand for the first time. He rolled back the sleeve of the jacket, took my hand in his and looked at it carefully, “You have beautiful hands, Silvia,” He said simply, then he wrapped his fingers through mine as we strolled on. “Cold, but beautiful.”

With no fanfare, he continued to tell me about the game, giving a quick wave to his mates who were hitting golf balls into the water.

“Want a go?” Alexander called out.

“No, taking a walk with my Sil,” He shouted back, “Nice swing, though, Lance! You looked very tall when you did that!”

Everyone laughed, including Lance.

We walked on, around and around the lake until the bell rang for curfew. I was in heaven. Heaven! No boy had ever taken the time away from his mates to walk with me before, much less hold my hand in front of them. Oliver’s hands were large and warm and strong. Just the way I thought a boy’s hands should be. Every time we met from then my hand was in his as if it belonged there naturally.

We did have our differences. We discovered this one lazy, rainy Saturday as we sat at one of the tables in the fifth year common room. The topic of discussion was “I want to know everything about you”. Quite literally, as Oliver had wandered into the room, sat across from me and said, “Good morning, Silvia. Put your book away, because I want to know everything about you. Now, tell me exactly when and where you were born.” After that, our conversation had wandered all across the board.

“How can you only be Scottish? You’ve nothing else mixed up in there?” He asked.

“I’m just Scottish as far back as I’m aware.” I knew I had English and Irish in me as well a ways back, but I didn't say it, “I’m sure that there’s something else in there somewhere, though I don’t like to admit it.”

“Purist, I see. Well, I’m a couple of things. Welsh, primarily, of course. My mother’s side is Welsh, Irish, English and German. My father’s side is Welsh, English and French, but my great grand mum. She was from Egypt.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s where you get the dark skin and those dark, mysterious eyes.”

“Must be,” He paused. “Tell me something odd about you, Silvia.”

“Odd? I don’t know. I’m quite boring.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Actually, I am. Let me think. Oh! I don’t like purple.”

“That’s all right. I don’t like cake.”

“How in the world could anyone not like cake?” I was bewildered. “It’s soft and sweet even without icing. What do you eat on your birthday?”

“Mum gives Alex cake. I eat hot sausages.”

“You stick candles in hot sausages?”

“No, not in the sausages. In the ice cream.”

“You’re barmy!”

“So says my mum. What I can’t understand is why you don’t like the colour purple.”

“I hate purple!”

“How can anybody hate purple? Purple is the colour of kings and queens! It’s noble!”

“I hate purple because I knew someone once who was all about purple. I had to room with her at my old school and everything had to be purple. The twat was obsessed with bloody purple! Her bed, her lamp, most of her clothes…all purple! She went as far as having pencils that were purple and smelled of grapes! Ugh! I couldn’t stand her! She was a pathological liar as well! I mean, she lied so much she actually believed her own lies! She had really bad breath and she snored like an ogre! And she never brushed her teeth, either! She wore so much hairspray that her hair moved in one solid brick when she scratched her head! Oh! I still can’t stand her! To this day she makes me want to pass my lunch straight out my nose!”

Oliver blinked a few times, “That’s immensely disturbing.”

The one subject that seemed to create a problem for us we talked about only once in those early days. That subject was religion. Catholics had raised Oliver and I was brought up by Protestants, but I had thought the whole subject to be mostly rubbish.

“It’s barking,” I said passionately, “A man builds a boat and gets two of every animal? How’d he travel to every continent and how’d he feed them? Did he really go to Antarctica and make his way through the glaciers in a giant dingy to gather up penguins and polar bears? Why didn’t one eat him? Polar bears eat everything! Plus, do you have any clue how many species of animals there are on the planet, not to mention back then before we conquered the land and killed most of them off? And an olive branch? How did an olive tree survive the flood? They’re native to the Mediterranean coast! Oh, yeah, the bloody coast survived a flood and was the first to produce new, fruit bearing trees! And how did a flipping little dove carry a branch in its beak...”

“I think it was a twig, actually,” He interrupted my tirade, “And I’m glad you know so much about the origin of olive trees, but that’s not the point. God was with him. I agree that the bible stories may be a bit far-fetched, even some of the stories of the divinity of Christ are a little hard to handle in a logical sense. You have to believe in some sort of mysticism to accept any of it. It’s not about what you can see or know. It’s about believing in what you can’t see or know. It’s about faith. That set aside, though, how can you explain creation if there is no God?”

“Science,” I answered simply. “Quantum Physics. It’s all a system of natural events and mathematical equations and we don’t have the answer yet.”

He looked at me as if my response made him sad, “OK,” He said slowly, “But do you believe in God at all?”

“I haven’t gotten proof yet,” I answered, “But I’m waiting. I hope there’s a God, but I don’t think for one second God is what you think it is.”

Oliver sat for a long time just looking at me before he spoke again. When he did, his voice was quite soft, “I think that you have to believe in things at least a little to have them be a genuine experience. You have to open yourself up to magic to have any magic come to you. God is magic, I think, in its oldest and purest sense.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m saying,” He looked extremely serious, “That God is not some ancient bloke sitting on a chair looking down through the clouds, randomly lobbing lightning bolts at bad people. I’m saying that God is more than that. Like you, I’m saying he’s something we can’t understand.”

“And I am saying that one day Science will allow us to understand.”

Oliver leaned back in his chair, “I honestly hope not, Sil. I honestly hope not. If it did, what would happen to faith?”

I was about to answer him when there was a great clatter as Merlyn flipped backwards in his chair and landed flat on his back on the floor.

“Oh, shite!” He lay there stunned. “That wasn’t good!”

Alexander and Lance laughed shamelessly.

“Are you all right?” Oliver showed a mild amount of concern. He leaned forward a bit to have a look at his fallen comrade, but made no move to help him.

“My neck’s not broken,” Merlyn stood up and lifted his chair. “I’m okay, I think.”

“Well, that’s a good thing!”

I never answered Oliver’s question about what would happen to faith. I don’t know how I would have, to be honest. Whatever it would have been that I came up with, it wouldn’t have been nearly as profound as I would have thought at the time.

The next day proved to be sunny and warm. Oliver and I took one of our walks after breakfast, hand and hand down to the lake. We walked around a few times before we decided to sit down in the grass. I had a Snickers bar my father sent from home and I took it out of my jumper pocket, “Would you like to share, Ollie?”

“Silvia Cotton, you have to be the most fabulous person in the world! How did you know?” Oliver was a fan of mostly any kind of chocolate, but Snickers were far and beyond his favourite.

I let him take the first bite. “Great gliding green gophers!” He pointed, “How big are your feet?”

I blushed, “They’re not that big.”

“Not that big? They’re like gun boats! They’re bloody gigantic!”

“No they are not! They’re only a 41!” My face was on fire.

“Yeah, they are!” He teased, “A 41! They’re more like battleships!”

“My feet might be long, but they certainly are not battleships!” I covered them with my hands, “My feet are too narrow for most shoes! And look at yours! Yours are as if…I don’t know! They’re like oil tankers!”

“May I have another bite of chocolate?” He asked and I indulged him. He looked at his shoes as if to inspect them, “Yeah, I suppose they are large, if a 48 and a half is large. They’re a full size larger than my brother’s.”

“My goodness! You have feet like great, giant sea faring vessels!”

“Yeah, well, I guess if we had children they’d be doomed to sport massive footwear. We could teach them to float sitting on one of those inflatables and send them here to Bennington and they could paddle about the lake like bizarre little ducklings.”

I laughed and took another bite of my candy bar. “You’re very funny,” I told him sincerely.

Oliver’s face came close to mine.

He kissed me. It was quick, smooth, and square on the lips. I felt my face go redder. I dropped my eyes and continued to chew my chocolate.

Oliver looked away casually and then turned back, “That was nice. I think you got more chocolate than I did. May I have another?”

I nodded and held out the candy bar.

That wasn’t what he was talking about. He kissed me again, only this time it was longer and more skilfully done with his palm against my cheek. His mouth was so warm. I had no idea a boy’s lips could feel as soft and lovely as his did. I closed my eyes and I let him kiss me and I kissed him back.

Merlyn Pierce catcalled us from across the lake, “Snogging!”

“Right in public!” Lance added, “That’s a thirty minute detention, Dickinson! I’ll tell Pennyweather straight away!”

“Brilliant, Oliver!” Yelled Alexander, “Can I have a go next?”

More people who were walking or studying turned and looked. I could feel my face beating and burning. Oliver leaned in and kissed me again then shouted to our hecklers, “There! Now it’s an hour in detentions and worth every second! Light off flair to alert the staff if you like, Lance Crosby! Piss off, you, Alexander Dickinson! She’s my Sil!”

“I’ll stop the world and melt with you, Oliver Dickinson!” Merlyn replied. It was about two seconds later that the three across the lake began to serenade us with the Modern English song that those lyrics came from before they returned to their golf game.

After that day I was “Oliver Dickinson’s girlfriend”.

“What’s with the new girl?” A girl named Peggy McGhee whispered in library. She was good friends with that Jennifer Eisenberg, the prefect who had been so rotten to me the day I arrived. I could see her between a row of books and the top of the shelf as I roamed the reference section. She tossed her dark hair off her shoulder as she leaned toward another friend, Molly Weathersby, “Which Dickinson is she involved with? I see her with them both all the time.”

“She’s Oliver’s girlfriend.” Molly Weathersby replied, taking a half step forward. “He was kissing her by the lake!”

“Kissing her?” Peggy stiffened.

“Oh, yeah,” Molly seemed to be enjoying her friend's disappointment. She smiled evilly, “It looked rather sweet.”

“Really?” Peggy's shoulders slumped. She took a quick breath, however, and seemed to have a change of attitude, “Oh, well. That won’t last. Oliver never has girlfriends at Bennington. Are you sure it was him and not Alexander?”

“It was definitely Oliver.”

“Oh, crap.” She sounded sincerely disappointed as they walked away.

Later that day, I entered a classroom. It's a horrible feeling when you know people are staring at you and the prof, an older man with a charcoal coloured hair and a thick black moustache, did not see me enter. He continued to scribble course instructions on the blackboard while I shifted my books from arm to arm and rubbed the tip of my maryjane into the back of my other. When he finally noticed me, he yanked his belt up to his chest and smiled kindly, “Oh! Hello! How can I help you, Dear?”

“Hello. Professor Nickels? I’m Silvia Cotton. My schedule has changed. Is this Advanced Chemistry?”

“Ah, yes, you must be Oliver Dickinson’s girlfriend!” He set down his chalk, “I was told you were coming by! Please, yes, find a seat! What was your name again?”

Oliver was, as I had guessed when I’d first seen him, quite popular, and that made me less welcome by most of the girls. Sandra Ashby, who had quickly become my best girlfriend ever, always knew everything about everyone at Bennington. It wasn’t that Sandra was the gossipy type, quite the opposite, but she was involved in everything from being President of the Student Body to being a long standing member of the Photography Group. Sandra had a hand in everything you can imagine at Bennington. She was always darting from class to this meeting or that meeting and at those gatherings, people talked and Sandy listened. Therefore, she heard all the codswallop imaginable. After gathering it up, she usually set about finding out the truth from fiction. She was an excellent source of both tittle-tattle and genuine scandal. She never spread it about, but she was always more than happy to sit and give me the full report after curfew when her meetings were over and it was just her and me in our room.

I was telling her about what I’d heard Peggy and Molly saying in the library and about how I felt I was getting the cold shoulder from many of the female students. “It’s been like this from day one. People staring at me and gossiping. I don’t think it’s very friendly here,” I told her, hugging my pillow to my chest, “I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”

“You haven’t done a thing!” She answered sincerely, pulling her uniform shirt out from her skirt and kicking off her shoes as she sat at the head of my bed, “They’re just brassed because Oliver likes you and not them. Any one of those girls would pull out their eye teeth to have Oliver. Bitches, all of them,” She took off her glasses and held them to the light to check the clarity of the lenses, then tossed them on to the side table, “Peggy’s been throwing herself at him for four years and she can’t get it through her head that he’s not at all interested.”

“She hates me. You should see how she looks at me.”

“She’s a jealous, daft cow. You have to understand something,” Her Irish accent was thick, “Oliver is liked by everyone in the school, even the staff. Well, except Professor Wilkins, but he hates everyone. He especially hates Oliver, though, and I don’t know why. But besides him, there is no one here who Oliver is not at least sort of friends with, including the ones that no one speaks to at all. Like Josh,” She paused and pulled the berets from her mousy brown hair. She set them on the nightstand between our two beds and rubbed her scalp with her fingertips where they had been before she continued, “Every girl here fancies Ollie because he’s good looking, of course, but more because he’s genuinely sweet. He is, too, it’s not at all fake. His family has a lot of money, as well. They’re by far not the richest here at Bennington, but there’s money on his dad’s side that goes back to the family possessing antiquities in Egypt. His mum, I don’t know. Her family’s called McNeil and comes from the North, but I’ve never heard that they’re connected to anyone important or anything. I’d still bet there’s money there somewhere, though. I don’t know all the details on the Dickinson family. I could find out if you want me to.”

“No,” I said honestly, “I don’t care about their money.”

Sandy nodded, “Well, just so you know, Oliver is an excellent catch. So is his brother. Alexander gets loads of girls and he’s popular here, too, but if you ask me, he’s not Oliver,” She pulled off a stocking and tossed it on to the floor. “He’s not nearly as nice.”

“So he’s had loads of girlfriends then?”

“Oliver?” She tossed her other stocking, “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Not here at Bennington anyway. Ollie’s only had one girlfriend at Bennington that I know of. Her name was Gloria and it was third year. All the girls hated her and told her she had pasty skin, even though she was really very cute. She was really a nice girl, if you want the truth. She lives in Welshpool like him. I don’t know why they broke up. They seemed to still be friendly. Her parents decided not to send her back this year. I’ve heard they’re having legal issues and it’s costing them a fortune. But anyway, Oliver hasn’t had a girlfriend here since, not for anyone not trying. And he never snogged Gloria at the lake that I know of, so, you see, if you were caught with Oliver Dickinson’s lips on yours, most of the girls here at Bennington will really hate you, at least for a while.”

After she explained, it was somewhat entertaining being with the boy almost every other girl seemed to want, even if she pretended she didn’t. I sort of flaunted it, if you want the truth, by rushing to his arms and clinging to his side as I returned their nasty looks. Of course, they all had Alexander, who was willing to share himself freely, but Oliver…he was all mine. We thought we’d die when winter break came along and we had to be apart for two whole weeks.

“Can I ring you, Silvia?” Oliver asked me the morning we were scheduled to leave. He was facing me with his hand on my shoulder, caressing the bend in my neck with his thumb. It was fairly obvious he had no idea how seductive it was, “Do you have a phone?”

“We do, but my dad is odd about it,” I had an urge to turn my head and kiss his hand, but I didn't. There were too many people around and I didn't want a scene if somebody saw. Instead I wrapped my fingers around his wrist, “He doesn’t like for it to ring. He gets jumpy and upset. He says it’s for work and emergencies only. He’s really mental about it.”

Oliver looked disappointed, “Well, can I come and see you then?”

My heart began to pound, “I’d love that if he’ll let us! I’ll ring you and let you know!”

He smiled and my heart beat even faster. “Brilliant!” He grinned, “I do hope you do!”

He and his brother were taking the train home that morning Oliver and I walked hand in hand to the school bus that transported the students to the rail stop. We stood for as long as we could together on the edge of the drive outside the gates of Bennington. He was concerned about leaving me behind. “Your dad's coming to collect you?”

“Yes. He'll be here soon enough.”

“I hate going with you still here.”

Professor Rankin shouted at Oliver to get on the bus. He kissed me quickly, a move which could have bought us both a detention, but our professor chose to ignore it. “See you soon,” He took a step back and stopped. He sort of cocked his head and looked at me as if he were deciding something. “Silvia, I...”

“Come on!” Professor Rankin shouted.

His head jerked toward her, then quickly back at me, “See you soon, Sil,” He said and with a quick smile crossed the road and climbed on to the bus.

I stood there at the edge of the road watching him. Through the glass I saw him walk down the aisle and sit beside his brother. He leaned over him to gain access to the window. Alex shoved him a bit. Both of them waved to me as they pulled away.

It was the first time in almost five months that I’d been in anywhere where Oliver wasn’t within running distance. It was odd how completely unnatural that felt.

I walked back to the school with my hands in my pockets. It was windy and the cold nipped at my cheeks, but I didn’t care. It reflected the way I felt inside. The quad was dotted with only a few students, none of which I knew, all of whom were scurrying to finish their business before they left off for home. I went to my room to make sure I'd packed properly, although I was certain I had. I'd left school more than enough times for holiday to know exactly what I could do without while I was home. I sat on my bed for a while, feeling terribly sad and not being sure of why. It was a familiar feeling, an emptiness that I'd always had. A disappointment, really, because I knew full well there was absolutely nothing to look forward to. I'd go home. I'd sit in my room and read. I might even fall in love with a book or two, but I’d be alone. Maybe I’d spend some time with my sister. Annoying and silly, she was. I loved her to bits, but she was nine, still wanting to play with her toys, and I was fifteen and no longer even slightly interested in childish things.

I was too serious, really. It came from having lived the life I had at schools. Everything was organised and structured. There hadn't a whole load of time for fun or silly games, so when the moment came that I could relax I had no idea of how to do it. Not on my own anyway. The only time I ever felt carefree was when I was with the twins and they were both officially out of my life for two whole weeks.

To add insult to my feeling put out, my father was late. He was often late. Sometimes not just a little late, but hours late. Sometimes he'd forget all about collecting me all together, confusing his days. I'd have to stay an extra night when it happened, so it was a good thing that some of the staff lived on premises or it might have been even more embarrassing. After an hour alone on my bed, I decided to head down to the common room and sit on the sofa. There was the off chance that somebody pleasant might happen by and give me some sense that the whole world hadn't disappeared and left me behind.

I was deeply involved in a novel when Dad came bursting in with Madame Pennyweather at his side, “Sorry I'm late,” He proclaimed. His hair and trench were damp with rain, “I got caught up. Do you have your things? We need to get going, Silvia, and get your sister next so I can get back to work.”

I dutifully closed my book and shoved it into my satchel. Daddy had already grabbed my bag and was giving me his “hurry up” face. I kept my eyes away from his as I moved to the door. I didn't say a word. I didn't see any reason in it. It's funny the way that man could make me feel like I was less than nothing. He was more than a little late and still reserved the right to hurry me along as if his rush were my entire fault. He did that quite often, this indirect abuse, and I am still confused as to if he ever intended it. Still, it was hurtful. I'd tried to tell him once, but he'd gotten terse with me and told me I was over-sensitive and over-reacting. I never said a word to him about it again. I learned quickly that with him, somebody else was always at fault. Nothing was ever his doing, not if it wasn’t perfect. It was obvious that his priority was never me, so I learned to take care of myself and I never spoke to him at all if I didn't have to.

Madame Pennyweather walked beside me out of the school with her hand in the centre of my back, “Have a lovely holiday, Miss Cotton,” She said gently, “Do you have plans with Oliver over break?”

“No, Ma'am. I don't imagine I'll see him until we're back.” I sort of whispered it. Even though he was three steps ahead of us and I knew he wasn't listening, I didn't want my father to hear.

Madame Pennyweather picked up on that immediately. She smiled kindly and patted me. She didn't say another word until she bid me safe voyage. I thanked her with a smile.

Dad tried to make idle chit chat with me on the drive to the school where my younger sister, Lucy, was attending, but I, of course, had very little to say. My father and I had never been close. I think when I was small that my mother had done most of the caring for me and by the time she died my father really had no sense of who I was. Lucy, on the other hand, was just baby and he’d had to give her the most attention. I was older and required less care, so I had to do for myself for the most part. Then he'd sent me off to school while he kept her home with him. Lucy and Dad had the bond. She could laugh with him and curl up on his lap and giggle, whereas his touch made me stiff and his humour didn't always suit me. I knew my father loved me in his way. He told me often enough and he showed it by making sure I always had what I needed, but the bottom line was that I’d been living away from him nine months out of the year for eight years and we didn’t know each other at all. Because I didn’t know him, I didn’t trust him to understand anything happening in my life and I never let him in. I didn’t even mention Oliver or Alexander or any of my other friends to him at all. After a time, he stopped talking and we drove on in silence.

As predicted I spent the majority of time in my bedroom with my books. Lucy came and went, annoying me and entertaining me interchangeably. I sank into a deep funk after a day or two and slept a lot, waking up only for the essential processes of being alive.

“Silvia, are you ill?” Dad asked me one night at supper. “You’ve been acting strangely.”

“I’m fine, Dad,” I mumbled, dragging my fork through my mash.

“What’s that photo in your lap?” He looked over at me and held out his hand. It was a command to pass it over, so I did. It was of Oliver and me playfully waltzing on the quad. Lance had snapped it on Sandy’s photography club camera and Sandy sent it to me in the post. Dad held it up to his eyes and squinted. He'd obviously left his glasses in his office. I expected him to have a negative comment, but he actually smiled, “That’s a lovely shot. You look very happy. Is that your boyfriend?”

“Yes, Sir,” I took the photo back as he extended his hand.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a boyfriend?” Daddy didn’t sound particularly interested, but perhaps a bit curious. He leaned back in his chair and engaged me, “What’s his name?”

“Oliver Dickinson.” I tucked the photo back on to my lap and didn't look at him.

“What does his father do?”

“I’m not sure what he does exactly. He works for the National Museum.”

My father nodded. Having received the message that I wasn't eager to talk about it, he picked up his knife and fork and went back to his dinner. After a few bites he told me, “Well, eat and go and ring Oliver then. I’d hate for you to miss any more meals. Being lovesick can make you truly ill,” and then he returned to his food without another word.

I was amazed. I couldn’t believe he was actually going to let me use the phone! My father had always been very strict about me using the phone. Oliver had given me his number anyway, though, and I took it out of my purse and dialled him with shaking hands.

“Hello?” A woman answered. Her voice was light and airy and I knew it was his mother.

“Hello, Ma’am. Is Oliver available?”

There was a pause, “I’m trying to remember if he went with his father. Just a second,” I heard the phone rumble as if she’d covered it with her hand, “Xander, did Ollie go with your dad?”

“Judging by the fact that I’m Oliver, I’d say no, Mum.”

She laughed, deep from her belly, “Oh! Sorry!”

“It’s all right. I’m wearing a rugby shirt that says Alexander after all.”

“You have a bell. It’s the girl from school, I’ll wager.”

“Wonderful!” I could hear him snatch the receiver, “Oh, please, please, please tell me this is Just Silvia Cotton!”

“It is!”

“I hope you are not hurt or ticked off! I hope you‘re just fine!”

“I’m just miserable! I miss you so much I think I’m going mad!”

“I miss you, too, Sil. I don’t think you’re going mad, though, unless I am, too. We must be going through withdrawals. I’m having odd dreams.”

“Like what?”

“Like I get back to school and you’re snogging Merlyn and laughing about it at me, so I go and kill Merlyn and stuff his body under the sink in the boy’s toilet. Then someone tells me that you’ve been snogging Lance and Professor Wilkins, too, so I set about hunting them down so I can kill them as well. Then Professor Campbell nicks me in his office and takes me into this castle and makes me watch fashion shows and Joanna Brewster was in them all,” He paused, “You’re not snogging Merlyn, are you?”

“It’s you I’ll snog,” I made sure my father was not in hearing distance, “And only you. Did Joanna look nice?”

“For a troll in a bonnet, I suppose.”

The remainder of the holiday we spent mostly on the phone. As much as I wanted to, I never worked up the nerve to ask Daddy if Oliver could visit. I had this brutal anxiety that he would disapprove somehow and put me back in the school in Scotland. I almost wished he didn’t know about Oliver at all. I wasn’t interested in having anything come between us and my father had the power to do that. So did Oliver’s parents. Oliver was the first person in my life I’d ever become attached to. I honestly felt like I needed him, like I wouldn’t be able to breathe if he wasn’t going to be in my life. I was threatened by anyone who might be able to take him away.

I can’t imagine how I ran up my father’s phone bill that holiday, but he said nothing about it. If there was anything I appreciated about my dad it was his ability to not be passionate about anything, including money. The night before we were supposed to return to Bennington, I rang Oliver to say good night and tell him that I couldn’t wait to see him again. His mother answered, as usual, but what she said made my guts fall to my shoes.

“Yes, Oliver is here, but he is not allowed to speak to you. May I have a word with your mother?”

I began to tremble. I was certain she was going to tell my dad that I was never to call her home again and that she would make sure that Ollie would be forbidden from contact with me at Bennington. A crushing wave of completely illogical unease swept over me. I felt my eyes burn with tears.

“I…I…” I stammered for a moment and then took a breath, “My mother is passed, Ma’am, but I can get my father if you like.”

“Oh,” She sounded incredibly stiff, “I’m terribly sorry. Yes, please, a word with your father?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll go and get him.”

I walked down the hall on shaky legs and knocked lightly on his office door. “Daddy?”

“Open the door,” He replied mildly.

I made a crack and stuck my head in. He was sitting at his desk behind his computer with a pen in his hand. His rusty coloured hair was sticking up in all directions, “Daddy, I rang Oliver and his mother would like to speak with you.”

He looked up with a puzzled expression, “With me? Very well,” He leaned over and lifted the receiver of the telephone that sat on his desk. “Hello, this is Philip Cotton…yes…” He was looking at me the whole time, blankly as always. His thin lips were together in an expressionless line. “Yes…No, I didn’t know that. Oh, I understand…Yes, she’s very fond of your son…Oh, that’s too bad…Yes, we do these things as children and we learn from our mistakes… No, I don’t see that as being any problem…no, I agree completely…no, there’s no problem that I can see…certainly…yes, we’ll talk before then… fine…yes, thank you. All right then and you have a good evening as well.”

He hung up the receiver. I stood in the doorway for a moment after he returned to his work. He finally looked up, “Silvia, why are you just standing there? Go hang up the line in the front room.” I did what he told me and began to walk to my room with tears running down my cheeks. Something about my father always made me nervous. This made no sense at all being as he was about as aggressive as a blade of grass. As I passed by his still open door he called out, “Silvia, come here.”

I stopped and wiped my face before I entered, “Yes, Daddy?”

“Oliver couldn’t come to the phone because he is being punished. It seems that his brother slipped off to London after his mother forbade him and Oliver tried to cover up for him. You never told me he was an identical twin,” My father said this without a hint of humour. “It seems that all of your bells to his house have made his parents a mite curious about you. They’d like to meet you. I told them it would be fine for you to visit his family at Easter. They’re South of here and don’t like the idea of sending you home on a night train, so she said you could stay there a day or two in the extra room,” My heart leapt. I felt the blood rush to my face. Daddy’s expression did not change, “I said it was fine, Darling.” He paused, “You’re growing up, Silvia, and it’s happening faster than I imagined.” I thought that a normal father would have hugged his daughter. Mine simply said, “It’s getting late. You need to get to bed so you can get off to school on time. It’s a long drive and I have to drop you off early.”

“Right,” I answered, “Good night, Daddy.”

“Good night, Dear.”

I closed the door and ran down the hall to my room doing my best not to whoop with joy.

CHAPTER THREE

The final term at Bennington that year was as rough as the winter that accompanied it. A blizzard hit the day after our return, dumping so much snow on the quad that no one could pass across it without sinking to their hips. In Lance Crosby’s case, he sank to his chest and stood shouting until Alexander yanked him out and piggy backed him to class. The snow didn’t have the decency to melt, either. In fact, it began to fall again two days later and alternated with Arctic winds for the next three weeks. Headmistress Pennyweather sent word home to our parents to send good winter clothes, but they made little difference against the elements. For three months, we trudged through the frozen tundra to classes and day after day, we ended up soaked to the skin after we thawed out in our seats. A number of illnesses spread through the corridors and each one of us found the other sniffling and coughing.

“I don’t get sick!” Alexander proclaimed as Madame Pennyweather hauled him off from the breakfast table to the hospital wing. He’d been suffering for two days with a fever, sore throat and chills and now was slightly green with pinkish circles under his eyes. He hated going to see any kind of a doctor and was having a wobble about it, “Can’t you tell I’m just pretending so that I can get out of class?”

“If you are I’ll see to it you get an award,” She stood only above his elbow, but she had him by the waist and was commanding his pace, “Come now, Alexander, your mother’s not here so let me care for you in her stead. She‘d never forgive me if I let one of her sons expire in the cafeteria.”

He gave her a look that was almost tender, “I’m not dying.”

“You will if you continue to disobey me!”

Alex laughed softly, but surrendered to her authority.

It turned out the poor boy had strep throat and a touch of tonsillitis. They admitted him promptly to the infirmary. It wasn’t more than three hours later that Oliver went in, hand covering throat, and was trailed shortly after by Lance. The next afternoon Merlyn followed. With some rest and antibiotics they were all back on their feet within a few days. I managed not to get what they had by some miracle, but about a week later I got a nasty cough that wouldn’t let go and by the end of February, I was choking on harsh yellow mucus with every breath I took.

Never one to get very sick, I didn’t recognize what was happening to me or that I was rapidly becoming more and more ill until one fine Monday morning I spiked a high fever and could hardly get out of bed.

“You need to go to the nurse,” Sandra told me as she dressed, “You’re off colour, Sil. You sound like you’re dying. You were up all night again, weren’t you?”

“Yes. I know I need to go to the nurse, but I have an exam,” I choked on my own words and had to sit back on my bed. “I’ll go after that.”

“Oh, please promise me!” She picked up her book bag and stood beside the bed, hovering over me like a mother hen. She pressed the back of her hand to my forehead, “I’m so worried about you!”

“Aren’t you late for a meeting?”

“I am,” She dropped her hand, “Will you be OK if I leave you?”

“I’ll be fine,” I told her, tugging an arm into my jumper. “Go.”

I knew I was overdue for breakfast, but I didn’t seem able to pull myself together. I was hot and disoriented and couldn’t keep a pace without having to rest every few seconds and cough until I couldn’t breathe. I got dizzy when I bent over, but I finally got my shoes on and headed out the door and over to the dining hall.

I was at the top of the stairs going into the cafeteria when Headmistress Pennyweather came up with a group of first years trailing behind her. “Good morning, Miss Cotton! Running late? Mister Dickinson looks positively lost at his toast without you!”

I started to say hello, but suddenly there was three of her quivering on the stairs before me.

“Miss Cotton?” I watched the three headmistress’ faces go from smiles to frowns, “Goodness! Are you all right?”

I don’t remember fainting or falling down the steps. What I do remember is waking up in the hospital wing with Oliver and Alexander sitting by the side of my bed. My fever had left me unable to tell which one was which. I shook my head to clear it, but ended up just lying there and watching them talk.

“Hi-ya, Sil!” The one leaned forward and set his elbows on his knees and looked very excited to see me.

“Are you feeling better, Sweetie?” The other performed the exact same gesture, except he put his hand over mine.

“We’ve been worried about you!”

“I told you to see the nurse last week,” A cool hand smoothed back my hair. My vision was a bit blurred, so I wasn't sure which one had done it, “Madame Pennyweather’s been dashing in and out to check on you all day. She just left.”

“Quite annoying, really. You know she kept you from going all the way down the stairs? Bad fall you had. Fever caused you to faint. Rumour has it your legs went up over your head. Bunches of first years were chattering about your yellow knickers. Sorry I missed that. Not the fall, but seeing your knickers. Your legs up over your head especially, though.”

“Shut up, you foul git!”

“Sorry,” He shrugged, “But we’re right glad you weren’t hurt, Sil.”

My bout with bronchial pneumonia landed me two weeks in the hospital wing where my greatest joy was Oliver. When the nurse, Madame Dupree, realised I was his girlfriend she started having trays delivered to him so we could share our meals together. We’d sit and do our coursework and we’d chat and laugh until Madame Witherspoon, the night nurse, chased him out for curfew.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” He’d promise, “Get some sleep, Sil. Get better so I can have you back. I’m really lonely without you.”

Of course, Sandra would pop in with armloads of coursework and an earful of the latest gossip for me. Or Lance would stop by with Merlyn to say hello and sit a bit. It was at all times nice to have them come. Lance was always bringing me magazines he’d nicked from the common room and Merlyn would smuggle me apples and caramel dip from the kitchen.

Alexander came and went as his muse led him. He walked in one day and dropped his book bag on the floor, “Oliver is beginning his detention for mouthing off at Professor Wilkins this morning. The lard arse gave him three hours over three days because Oliver called him a pompous, pretentious, self-satisfied fascist arsehole. A bit severe a punishment if you ask me being as it’s the truth. Although Ollie did say it to his face, which was not the cleverest thing he’s done lately.” He tossed his coat over a chair, “He sends his best to you though. He’s mad about you. It’s Silvia this and Silvia that. Best I can do to compete with him is coming to see you when he’s not around.” He reached into his bag, “I brought you crisps and a Coke,” He set them on the table beside the bed, “And a cherry tart. I picked one up from the lunch queue for you. I know how you like them. And I brought that book you wanted,” He handed me a hardbound novel, “Sandy rented it. She can’t come by today as she has a meeting with the Community Buttlicker's Association of Bennington or one of her other high society non pol female social groups anyway.”

I laughed and began to choke immediately, “Thanks, you’re very thoughtful,” I said as sincerely as I could while coughing, “Seems your brother and you have been on a roll with trouble.”

“Ollie’s been on a roll. He’s been in a right creative spurt, he has. It’s difficult to resist him when he offers such great solutions to boredom, so that’s why I’ve been on the spot a time or two lately. Blame him, he’s the bad egg,” Alexander was in one of his serious moods. His handsome face was almost devoid of expression, which was an indication that he was on edge, “Would you mind if I sat here and read for a while? The common room is crowded and our dormitory smells like a chip shop thanks to some stupid first year misusing the poppity-ping in the room below us. Stinks like hell.”

“Not at all. I’d love to have you. Are you all right? You seem tense.”

He pulled up a chair and took out a paperback novel. Alexander and I shared a love of fiction. “No,” He slouched deep in the chair and tossed one leg over the other, “I’m fine. Just looking for some quiet. These people annoy me.”

“It’s definitely quiet here.”

He opened the book and pulled out his page marker, leaning back in the chair. He didn't look at me when he spoke, “When I’m through with this, you have to read it, Sil. I think you’d like it very much.”

“Who is it?”

“Vonnegut.”

“Oh, I love him,” I picked up the book he had gotten for me and opened it to the first page, settling in to read. I noticed the cover of his book, “I think I’ve read it. Is it the one about the Armenian?”

“Yes.” He mumbled. “You have good taste in books.”

Within seconds, both of us were lost in our stories.

I enjoyed spending time with Alexander. He had a reputation for being nasty and licentious, but when you got him by himself and really took the time to get to know him, Alex was actually introspective and bright. I wouldn’t call him sensitive. If he liked you he was less likely to be beastly, but he was quiet by nature and easily flustered by having too many people around him so the environment at Bennington often set him on edge. For some reason my presence seemed to soothe him.

Oliver had even noticed and commented about it. “My brother listens to you,” He said once in amazement after I had talked Alex down from a near violent episode with another student, “It’s incredible. Alex never listens to anybody.”

Even as much as I enjoyed having Alex around, the happiest nights were when it was just Ollie who came by. Oliver and I had a way of making each other laugh over silly things. In fact, I think that summed us up right there. Silly. Oliver and I were silly together. We laughed so hard and had so much fun people thought we were mental, but neither of us cared. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. I really had no idea why somebody as wonderful and as popular as Oliver Dickinson would come by every chance he got to see me and show such devotion to a complete nobody, but I wasn’t going to argue. By that time I was totally lost to him. I was in love.

There were other times Oliver was unable to come and see me during the two weeks I spent in the sanatorium. Miserable, they were. I hated being apart from him for more than a night. It was like an aching empty spot in my gut, like I was hungry, but a deeper pain. I thought at times the way I felt when he was not there was unhealthy, a sort of obsession, and that I needed to get myself in balance. No boy could be the centre of the universe, I swore, not even him. Funny, sweet, easy-going, good looking and wonderful as he was, we weren't exactly the same person. There was him and there was me. I could exist without him. I knew that. I had to be able to. But I just wasn't so sure that I could exist without us.

"Us" was becoming a very important thing to him and me both. It was getting to a point where one of us was never mentioned without the other and neither of us made any plans that didn't include the other. Not because we weren't able and not because we didn't have the freedom to do it. I'd have let him go off with his mates as quickly as he'd have let me go off with mine. It was that neither of us wanted to. No matter what we did, we wanted to do it together.

Unfortunately, that didn't always happen. Oliver had a keen mind and a restlessness that drove him to take chances. He was always up to something or other. Usually it was harmless pranks or general nonsense that he and Alexander and their mates did for entertainment and thrills, but sometimes he'd take it a little too far and pay the price for it.

Alexander popped in another afternoon with a different explanation as to why Oliver couldn’t come. This time Alex was quite animated and not at all interested in reading books or being quiet. He strode into the infirmary and past the rows of beds, taking just a second to acknowledge one girl and wish her a speedy recovery. He then hurried to the side of my bed and yanked out the chair with a scratch against the tile.

“Silvia!” He leaned forward and kissed my cheek, "Josh McGuigan got him!”

“What do you mean? Where’s Oliver?”

Alex laughed. He had the nicest laugh, something of a chuckle from inside his throat, but when something struck him as particularly funny it was a broken cackle. Not wanting to set his full blown cackle free, he sort of squeaked and covered his mouth with his fist. He dropped it as he spoke, “In Madame Pennyweather’s office and I imagine he’ll be there for quite a while! It was bloody brilliant, Sil, what Josh did! You should have seen it!”

“What happened? No one got hurt, did they?”

“Oh, no! Not at all! We were in literature, mind, with Professor Lucas, and she told Oliver it was his turn to read. So Ollie stands up in front of the entire class and opens his book and his mouth kind of falls open and just stands there staring at the page. It was odd. Then he’s flipping through the pages like mad, right? Front to back, back to front and suddenly he starts laughing. Well, Lucas is like, ‘What are you laughing about?’ and Ollie tries to stop. He says real seriously, ‘Nothing, Ma’am, but I can’t read this’ and she says, ‘You can’, and he’s like, ‘No, Ma’am, I really cannot read this’. By now he’s being ultra-serious, mind. And he sounded all stern-like, just like our Dad. His face was blood red, though. I mean, even his neck was red like a blooming cherry. He looked very strange. I was sitting there wondering what was wrong with my brother, knowing he was very uncomfortable-like, and Lucas says, ‘I said read it, Oliver, or it’s detention!’ and Ollie says, ‘Really, Ma’am, it’s detention if I do read it!’ And she got angry and she yelled, “READ IT!” Alexander was speaking rapidly, tapping his fingers together in delight as he told the story. I’d rarely seen such entertainment on his face, “So Oliver takes a deep breath and he says, ‘All right, Ma’am, but I want you to know that I’m not responsible for the content of these pages. I wish you’d have a look…’ Now she’s ticked off, so she shouts again, ‘I SAID READ IT!’ Ollie took a breath and he says…” Alexander at this point could hardly speak he was laughing so hard. I could see tears filling up in his eyes. He squeaked again as he pinched out the words, “He says…he reads…out loud, mind you, ‘The police officer plopped me down on the bonnet of my car and shoved my skirt up past my waist. He tore my knickers away like they were made of cellophane and began licking me as if he were starving’!”

“WHAT?” My chin almost hit the mattress. “He did not! Wait! Who put that--”

“Josh!” Alex was struggling to speak through his laughter, or at least to keep his voice down. He wrapped his arms around his middle and shook. He wiped the tears out of his eyes, “Josh stole Ollie’s textbook out of his bag during lab this morning and he glued all kinds of nasty bits inside. I went up to the desk when Professor Lucas was chasing Ollie down the hall and I had a look at the thing. Filth’s on every page, you can’t even see the original text! I mean, it’s really disgusting stuff, Silvia! Pornographic pictures, dirty literature, ads for sex toys, male prostitutes, old ladies, he-she’s, sheep…you name it. Josh had to be collecting these bits for weeks! He gave the book back to Ollie just before class. He says, ‘Here, Mate, you left this in Chemistry’ and Ollie just took it and said thanks. He didn’t even think about it! Never saw it coming! Clever bastard that Josh! I didn’t know he had it in him! That’s the best one he’s done yet! I‘m so proud of him! He‘s like a son to me now!”

I couldn’t stop laughing. I thought back on all the pranks Oliver had pulled on Josh just in the time I’d known him, everything from the exploding Eppenndorf vials to super gluing the poor boy’s daps to the floor of his gym locker. Josh had fired back with putting Vaseline in Oliver‘s shorts and cutting the toes out of his socks, but nothing like he‘d just done. “Oh, he got him good! Good for Joshua!”

“Lucas freaked out, of course. She went white then pink and started screaming. Couldn’t understand a word she was saying, mind. She was just squawking like a chicken, then she hit Oliver like ten times with her lesson planner and chased him out of the room, beating him with it the whole way down the hall. He was like…fending her off,” Alexander imitated his brother by bending his arms and holding them as if to block blows, “We were all watching by the doorway. It was brilliant! By the time she got back we were passing the book around and the whole room was rolling,” He leaned back in his chair, satisfied that he’d gotten the story out, “Joshua looked so smug, the little bugger. Anyway, Ollie knows the drill. He went straight to see Pennyweather. He’s been there for over an hour. I don’t know if he’ll be coming to see you tonight or not. He might really be in trouble.”

“Oh, they have to know he didn’t do this himself!”

“Ollie won’t rat Josh out and he won’t pin it on anybody else, either. He might have to take the knock for it himself if Professor Lucas wants blood.”

“True. Poor Oliver. But it is hysterical.”

“Aye,” Alex nodded, “It is that. I just hope they don’t tell our parents. Dad will have a stroke!”

Oliver ended up going without being punished as Professor Lucas and Madame Pennyweather both agreed they believed he had been the victim of a distasteful prank. Oliver never did turn Josh in for his crime, either. He simply said that there was a lot of teasing going on amongst the boys on that floor and it really could have been anybody. However, I noticed shortly after that he, Alex, Lance and Merlyn were suddenly collecting newspapers of all sorts and that when they’d get passes to go into town they’d each come back with rolls of duct tape. I knew that they’d been having some of the girls in our form nick bags of flour from the kitchen during cooking classes. They went about this for about two months and never told me what they were up to, but in the end I heard that somebody had made a paper mache wall so thick it took an electric saw and a sledge hammer to break through it.

The story that was whispered throughout the halls was that in the middle of a dark Friday night, this person, or persons, as it may have been, sneaked out of quarters and placed this object, which was just slightly larger than the door frame, over the entrance to Josh McGuigan’s room. They then used some sort of sealant to cement it into place against the wall. This left Josh and his unfortunate dorm mate unable to open their door the next morning no matter how hard they pushed and slammed themselves against it. Nobody bothered to notify staff right away, as I suppose it was more entertaining to watch them struggle to escape their paper mache prison. When a prefect finally happened by and saw the monstrosity over the door and heard the boys pounding against it from the other side, help was finally hailed. It took another hour to get one of the groundskeepers, as it was then Saturday, to come to finally free the boys. It was said, too, that later, after swearing to Madame Pennyweather he had no idea who’d sealed him in, Josh McGuigan walked over to Oliver Dickinson’s room, knocked on the door, and shook his hand.

But long before that happened, I got over my ailment and was returned to the student population. It became appallingly obvious that I had fallen behind in my studies. I couldn’t deal with that. I was used to being the know-it-all at the head of almost every subject and the idea that I didn’t know every detail of every topic that had been covered made me wonky. Oliver and I only shared one class together, which was Physics. It was quite ironic because I needed to study up on what I had missed and poor Oliver was not getting the class through his head in the slightest. We had special permission from the professor one Thursday night to stay in the common room after curfew to work together on an essay. “Help each other out,” She had said. So there we were sitting in the common room alone on a couch in front of the fireplace with our books and papers laid out on a table before us and if you think we were actually working on that essay you are out of you bloody mind.

“Two days until Spring break,” Oliver grinned at me. The firelight caught in his eyes. He really did have beautiful eyes, so dark they were nearly black in that light, but still bright at the same time, as if they were able to absorb every bit of light around him and send it back.

“I know! I’m so excited! But what if your parents hate me?”

“Oh, they won’t hate you, take my word. My dad’s a bit of a nag. He’ll ask you a ton of questions and make you feel like you’re on trial, but he’s more or less harmless. He just thinks he has to know everything. Oh, and he’ll yell at Alexander and me as soon as he gets through the door. ‘Get down here and put away your daps!’ He’ll shout, but it’s OK. It makes him feel like he’s done something important for Mum.” He paused, as if considering this, “Plus, he likes yelling at us, so sometimes we do things to give him a reason. You can just ignore him. And as far as Mum, she’s got a sense of humour. You can get her going with a good joke, but she’s a high strung sort, so don’t mention any catastrophic bits of news, do not discuss politics and leave religion as far from the conversation as possible. She loves to serve tea, so have tea with her and make sure you eat whatever she puts on your plate. Keep telling her everything she cooks is wonderful, which it generally is, and you’ll be fine. Alexander and I have talked about you. I know she’ll love you to bits.”

I leaned forward and kissed him quickly, “Thank you for putting in the kind word. You know I’m scared to death, don’t you?”

Oliver looked at me thoughtfully and took my hand into his own. “Don’t be scared, Sil. Not of my parents. They're all right. There’s not a thing about you that they wouldn’t like and even if they did find something, I wouldn’t care. I would never change my mind about you.”

He kissed me again. We sat for a long moment with our foreheads together and our fingers intertwined. “We should probably work on the essay,” I finally said. “What will we tell the professor if we come in tomorrow and have nothing done?”

He sighed, “Aye, we maybe should.”

But of course we didn’t. We were too distracted by each other to even turn a page and by the time we got serious enough to try our time was up and Professor Wilson swept us out of the common room and in opposite directions to our dormitories.

I spent the first week of break at my house, teetering between melancholies and ringing Oliver. My father had to work the day I was supposed to arrive at the Dickinson’s, so I took the train by myself. It was a long, boring ride. I had a book, but I couldn't concentrate on reading it. I was too excited about seeing him and too nervous about meeting his parents. What would they look like? What would they think of me? What if they absolutely hated me? I wasn't rich like the girls Alexander dated. I wasn't the prettiest girl at school. I checked my reflection in the window and tried to smooth down my curly hair, wishing I'd put my comb into my purse where I could get to it easily and not packed it into my bag. The train rocked and rumbled and I stared out the window at the passing fields and hills, marvelling at how true it was that Wales was overwhelmed with sheep.

When the train stopped at Welshpool Station, I was shaking. It was my need to be close to Oliver that kept me from feeling sick to my stomach and my legs sturdy under me. As I stepped off, I saw Oliver and his family waiting for me down the platform.

“There she is!” Oliver exclaimed, holding out his arms, “There's my Sil!”

We rushed to each other, but stopped just in time before we did something inappropriate like press together and exchange tongues right in front of his parents. Instead, we gave each other a respectable hug and kiss on the cheek.

“Hello, Sil!” He gave me a look that said he would not disappoint me later. That right eyebrow shot straight up, the grin went sideways and the dimple in his cheek appeared. I immediately began to giggle like a fool.

Alexander rolled his eyes, “Hello, Silvia,” He said idly. He leaned down and pecked me square on the lips. Keeping his face still close to mine, he looked deep into my eyes and said, “Good to see you.”

God, he was a serious player. Even though I knew he was toying with the situation, it was not difficult to recognize the power he held over just about any heterosexual woman alive.

“It’s OK if you do it!” Oliver mumbled, referring to the peck, “If I kissed her on the mouth they’d put her straight back on the train, wouldn’t they?”

“Works in my favour for once, doesn’t it?” He looked at his brother from the corner of his eye, “Ha-ha, Oliver! I get to kiss Silvia! I get to snog your girlfriend! Ha-ha!”

“Shut up.”

Oliver’s mother appeared beside them. She hugged me as if I was the child of an old friend she hadn't seen since birth. She didn't look like I'd imagined her. She was smaller and plumper than I expected her to be, standing only about to my nose with middle almost as big around as her chest. She had cute, round face, though, gorgeous skin, and big hazel-blue eyes which she fixed on me interestedly. “It’s so nice to finally put a face to the voice on the telephone!” She held me at arm’s length, looking me up and down. Her short blonde hair shimmered silver in the sun, “My goodness, the boys were right about you being pretty! Beautiful eyes, lovely smile…and where did you get that gorgeous red hair? Is that colour real?” I nodded. She gave me another quick squeeze. “Welcome, Silvia! We’re so glad to have you!”

Oliver’s father smiled pleasantly and took my hand. He was heavier than I expected him to be as well, but tall and broad shouldered like his sons. There was no doubt who the twins took after in looks; dark hair, dark eyes, but a much larger nose and more Middle Eastern appearance than Alex or Ollie. Still the same charming smile. I bet when he was a young man he was quite smart, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Silvia. May I help you with your bag?”

“If you’d like, Sir.”

“I’ve got it,” Oliver hoisted the bag on to his shoulder.

“Come on! Come on!” Missus Dickinson began to usher us along the platform with a smile, “Let’s go home!”

I sat in the back seat of the car between Oliver and Alexander. Each of them took one of my hands and held it. Alexander laid his head on my shoulder. Missus Dickinson chatted about how excited she was that Oliver, who was always shy with women, finally had a steady girl.

“Xander’s had plenty of girlfriends,” She carried on, “He’s quite popular with the girls, but Oliver’s so fussy we didn’t think he’d ever find anybody good enough for him, did we, Edmond?” Their father grunted. She continued, I think, without hearing him, “So when Xan said Ollie had a girlfriend at Bennington we were right curious. Usually when we mention dating to Oliver he shrugs at us, so when he kept on about you, we knew you must be someone special.”

“Oh, yeah, Mum,” Alexander told her, “’Cause all my girlfriends have been slovenly trollops not worthy of any notice at all!”

“That’s not what I meant, Xan.”

“Oh, aye! Yes, you did! I’ll date anything! Won’t I, Mum?”

“Alexander, you know that’s not what I meant!”

“Well, it’s not all wrong,” Oliver noted, grinning widely, “You did date Vivian.”

Alexander laughed. “Oh, aye! Vivian! She was a right slut!”

“ALEXANDER!” Both of his parents shouted at the same time.

Alex’s face turned bright red, “Well, she was! And it doesn’t matter now anyway because I’m in love with Silvia!”

Oliver was sniggering. “She was a right slut, Vivian was!”

“OLIVER!” Both the parents shouted again.

The boys seemed to think this was very funny.

“It’s all right, Mum,” Oliver assured her as he squeezed my hand, “Alex is in love with my Sil now anyway.”

“Yeah and Sil’s definitely not a slut,” Alexander grinned, giving be a quick nudge.

“Yeah!” Oliver agreed. “Not like that filthy Vivian! I’d never bring some outrageous tramp into your home the way your Xander did! Put her right under your nose, he did!”

Alexander laughed again, but louder, “You have no idea what that girl wanted to do to your sons under your own roof, Mother!”

“To both of us at the same time, Mum!” Oliver interjected, “She was a deranged slut!”

“STOP IT!” Their mother turned and glared at her twins, “NOW!”

“THE NEXT PERSON TO USE THE WORD SLUT IS GOING TO BE PUNISHED!” Their father barked. I could see him eyeing the boys in the mirror, “AM I UNDERSTOOD?”

“Yes, Sir,” They answered in unison. Both of them quieted and slumped in their seats.

They were both silent for a moment before Alexander innocently asked, “Well, can we say she was a whore then?”

“ALEXANDER!”

“Just checking! Settle down!”

I caught on quickly to the fact that the boys took great pleasure in bringing their parents to the brink of insanity.

Everything was quiet again for a few moments.

“So if Oliver were to agree to share Silvia with me,” Alexander began casually as he snuggled against me and caressed my hand. Although it seemed innocent enough, it was actually quite a sexy manoeuvre that made me involuntarily lean in his direction, “And both of us married her, let’s say, and turned mum’s house into a polygamist commune, would all of us being madly in love with each other be considered twincest?”

“No, twincest would be if I fell in love with you and you with me,” Oliver leaned forward to look at his brother. “And that’s wrong on so many levels I can’t even begin.”

“But wait! Think about it, Ol. If Sil loved us both passionately and we both loved her with equal passion, wouldn’t we all be guilty of twincest? I mean, if we were both married to her, we’d all be related. The children would be cousins and half-siblings both, plus they’d be their own step-siblings as well! We’d be twin brothers in law!”

“Silvia is mine,” There was a certain warning to Oliver’s voice, “But, yes, I suppose that might be twincest, considering the children. I’m not sure. Still, she’s not interested in that sort of thing.” Oliver moved nearer to me on the other side, drew me close and eyed his brother carefully. It was a protective gesture, “It was Vivian who was the one so keen on twincest, remember?”

“She was! She was all about twincest! Did she show you…”

“Yes! But don’t say it!” Oliver held up a hand, “Mum won’t want to know! That Vivian was an immense slut! Gifted, though!”

“In bloody abundance!”

“THAT’S IT!” Edmond roared, “I’LL HAVE NO MORE OF THIS CONVERSATION! WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU TWO?”

I could feel my cheeks burning. Oliver and Alexander chuckled from either side of me.

“Just having a laugh, Dad.” Alex replied calmly.

“Jeez, Old Man, calm down!” Oliver added.

“Yeah, honestly! We’re planning on getting jobs and our own place before we indulge in any of that!” Alexander said seriously, “We’d need to be able to afford a whole lot of plastic, you see! Twincest can get right good and messy! Noisy, too, and you need a lot of space for it…”

“ALEXANDER!”

“Leave him alone!” Oliver objected, “At least he didn’t say slut!”

“OLIVER!”

Both the boys kissed me on either cheek. They were obviously quite pleased with themselves.

I was so embarrassed I thought I’d die.

If their home were any reflection of their riches, I would have said they were well contented. The building was a newer three story brick and wood dwelling with five bedrooms and had every modern amenity known to man. The rooms were all comfortably furnished, tastefully decorated and covered with plush carpeting. Missus Dickinson had a large, lovely garden, complete with a huge ornamental birdbath, and Mister Dickinson kept his car in a well-organized garage. It was difficult to believe that Alexander and Oliver came from such deliberate parents. Their home was beautiful, but not spontaneous or unreserved, as I would have expected it or their parents to be, considering how free spirited the twins were.

Powys, Wales, is a gorgeous area of the United Kingdom. Most of Wales is gorgeous, in fact. It offers everything from waterfalls to caves to rolling hills, meadows, beaches and mountains. After being locked away at Bennington since my arrival to the country, the only place I'd seen was Brecon Beacons, where Ollie had taken me one Saturday to go hiking. That set aside, there were endless things that I had not had the opportunity to see and Oliver was determined to show them to me. Borrowing Missus Dickinson’s car did not seem to be any sort of issue, so the boys and I spent most of our days outside the house exploring the countryside. We’d arrive back home just in time for supper.

I quite liked their mum. She was kind and funny, a bit stiff, but surprisingly saucy once you got to know her. She enjoyed her bitters as much as she did her tea, but you never saw her drinking it until after eight when she'd finished her bath and slipped into her yellow dressing gown and pink slippers and sank on to the sofa beside her husband. They were so cute, the two of them, as they leaned against each other and watched their nightly television shows. I'd never seen a married couple who acted like them, who seemed to be so happy and content together. Edmond would put his arm around her and say, “How's my girl?” and she'd smile and reply, “Ready for a cwtch, Darling.” There they'd stay on the sofa until he nodded off and she woke him up long enough to lead him to bed.

It was beautiful. I was amazed at how Oliver and Alexander didn't even seem to notice. I dreamed of having a set of parents like that and it bothered me how much the boys took them for granted. I suppose when you're raised with it it's nothing you'd even consider, but I considered it. I considered it a lot.

The boys had gotten much of their sense of humour from their mother, especially the off handed, light hearted teasing Oliver was famous for. Their devotion to the woman was obvious. All she had to do was mention that something needed to be done and one or both of them were on it.

“Oh, shit,” She'd muttered one afternoon from the kitchen, “I forgot jam.”

“What kind, Mum?” Alex popped up, “I'll walk by and get it.”

It was always like that. They adored her. It was obvious as well that she was mad about her boys. She catered to most of their whims without hesitation.

“Mum, I was wondering if you might make those chocky biscuits with the nuts in them?” Oliver asked one afternoon as he popped an entire scone into his mouth.

Ana gave him a look to remind him of his manners, then smiled when she saw he couldn't chew it whole and handed him her coffee cup, “Soften it up, Piggy, there's no rush. Always in such a hurry to eat. You'll weigh a ton one day,” She patted his shoulder, “I'll get right to them then, Love. Chocky with nuts.”

Ollie put his hand on the top of her head as he brought the cup to his lips, a non-verbal expression that said, “Thank you,” and “I love you” all at once, loud as anything.

That sort of thing was extremely normal for them and entirely alien to me, all that love and attention.

“What are you three going to do today?” Ana asked pleasantly one morning after Edmond had gone to work. “Have you taken Silvia to Powys Castle yet, Boys?”

“Yes, Mum,” Alexander took the milk bottle from the counter. “We went to all the must sees and terrorized all the tourists. Had her in Gwent as well. We could head by Swansea, but if it's all the same can we take your car to London?”

“I imagine you did. Swansea is lovely,” She responded softly without looking at him, “And absolutely no to London.”

Alexander laughed as he sat at the table next to me and plunged a spoon into his cereal. He looked quite tired since he’d sneaked out the night before and had wandered in around sunrise smelling like he’d been dunked in a tank of ale. “We’ve taken her to all the caves and the falls as well. I left Ollie alone with her to take her to the more romantic, secret bits.”

“Well, that was nice of you, Xan, wasn't it?” Ana yanked a pot off the stove just as it began to boil over. “So, Oliver, you took her to see the falls? What did you think, Silvia?”

“Wales is lovely, Ma’am.”

She smiled at me and nodded, delighted with my approval as she returned to the stove.

“Yeah, we’ve done all that, Mum. Since you won’t let us go to London, we were thinking about going into town next,” Oliver sounded completely serious. “And seeing what we could do to get ourselves kicked out of someplace.”

She nodded, but didn't look at her son, “Oh, aye! That’ll be a good time! That’ll take the two of you about a quarter hour! Poor Silvia being led about Welshpool by the sinister likes of you!”

Both of the boys laughed.

“Don’t let her fool you. Mum’s a right naughty one!” Oliver told me.

“Naughty-ish,” Ana corrected, turning to us and setting her hands on her hips, “I have ideas, but no inclination to carry them out.”

“Oh, Mum taught us all we knew, originally,” Alexander said proudly. He stood and walked to her where he wrapped his arm around his mother’s shoulder. Oliver followed suit, “She didn’t mean to, it just sort of slipped. The rest we invented!”

“Mum’s younger brother taught us about soaping windows and creative uses for rotten fruit. He gives Mum full credit for showing him,” Oliver kissed the side of her head, “She tries to tell us she was not a troublemaker in her day, but we don’t believe her.”

“Not at all!” She protested, “I was an angel!”

“Like us!” The boys put their faces together and fluttered their eyelids. “Angels!”

“Yes, angels! That’s why your father has you off at boarding school all year and working full time in the summer! Because you’re angels!”

“Dad just can’t take a joke,” Oliver explained.

Their father was different. He was warm and friendly, too, but he had a temper that rivalled Alex’s and he frequently lost it on the boys. Oliver had not been kidding. Edmond came home and usually within a few seconds was shouting.

“ALEXANDER! OLIVER! COME DOWN HERE NOW!” He waited for them at the bottom of the stairs as he removed his jacket and shoes.

They came down the steps with their best innocent faces.

“Which one of you exchanged my hard boiled eggs for non-boiled ones in my lunch today?” He asked as if he weren’t even slightly upset, but his face was red, “It was quite a surprise when I went to crack the one in front of my supervisor at lunch and it was RAW!” He began to shout, “IT MADE A MESS ON EVERYTHING!”

“Blimey, Dad! No idea!” Alexander looked at Oliver, “I never did that! I’d never do that! Did you do it?”

Oliver’s eyes were wide, “No! Why would I do such a thing? Dad, you simply must have grabbed the wrong eggs in your rush this morning!”

“What a terrible mistake!” Alexander interjected. “Grabbing the wrong eggs! Bugger! What a bother that must have been!”

“You really do need to be more careful, Dad,” Oliver finished.

“You two are the wrong eggs,” Edmond muttered, “I should have been more careful when we were conceiving you is what I should have been! When do you go back to school?”

“Not soon enough for you!” They replied in unison.

“Go away,” He mumbled.

He was, however, always nice to me. He came into the kitchen where I was sitting with his wife, kissed her, and smiled broadly at me, “Good evening, Silvia!” He placed a hand on my shoulder, “How are you, Sweetheart? I trust my sons are treating you, at least, with kindness and respect?”

“They are, Sir.” I smiled at him. He really was very handsome and I genuinely liked him. He always made me feel welcome in his presence, even when he was ready to murder his two sons.

“I’ve told you to not call me Sir!” He laughed, and patted my back, “Please! The only people required to call me Sir are that set of toxic demons when they’re in trouble! Call me Ed!”

It seemed an odd thing calling him Ed. I liked it much better later when it was comfortable to call him Dad.

“Alexander! Oliver!” He shouted again, but this time with much less force, “Get down here NOW for supper and bring the playing cards!”

And that was how I learned to play my card games, sitting around the kitchen table with the Dickinson's almost every night over Easter break. It was warm and brilliant at their house. What a magnificently normal family they were! I'd never seen a normal family up close and in action. I loved every single second of it.

When their parents would go to bed, Alexander would immediately make a phone call to see if there was anything worth sneaking off to with his friends. There was usually a do somewhere.

“Dad’s snoring.” He’d come down the steps with his jacket slung over his shoulder, “I’m off. You two sure you don’t want to go with me?”

“No,” Oliver put his arm around me, “We’re good, Brawd.”

“All right then. See you later!”

This left Oliver and I alone in the front room to do as we pleased, which added up to shamelessly groping each other on the sofa. We never had that much privacy at Bennington, not enough to do much more than getting off occasionally in the common room or on the quad and it was only on the second night before we were taking it too far.

“What about your parents?” I glanced at the doorway when things started to get too hot.

“Oh, they never get up this late,” He mumbled.

I loved what we were doing, but there was an anxiety building. I was getting this feeling, this deep feeling of wanting. I was feeling like if I didn’t have more of him I would starve or suffocate and even die. Our clothes were peeling away, being pushed up and tugged down. There we were, tangled together, skin on skin, shoving sofa cushions in all directions beneath us as we moved against each other. With every breath I was being drawn deeper into him and becoming more and more frightened. I kept looking toward the doorway. His hands were moving over my skin, running the length of the flesh under my skirt, up my belly and across my breasts. My shirt was open, his was off. I felt so weak I thought I’d lose control. But I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to be closer to him still. I wanted to be part of him and have him be part of me. I wanted him to know how much I loved him.

He was crushing me, pressing me down. I was so afraid.

“Oliver,” I whispered, “Please wait…please…”

He yanked his hands off and sat up suddenly, falling away from me, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

“No, don’t be,” I pulled myself out from between the couch cushions. I could feel how red my face and neck were. I was hot all over my body, ready to break into a sweat. Oliver slowly slid off the sofa and sat on the floor. He pulled his hand through his hair and looked away, “You didn’t do anything wrong or anything,” I assured him, smoothing down my skirt. I readjusted my bra and closed my blouse, “I liked it really. It’s just that I’ve never …”

“Gotten off on a sofa in the middle of the night at your boyfriend’s parent’s house?” He tuned to me quickly with a look in his eye I couldn't quite label. I wasn't sure if he were upset or about to laugh.

“Well…no, I haven’t.” I looked down as I buttoned my shirt.

“If you want the truth, I’ve never either. Of course, I’ve never had a boyfriend to try it with.” He had such a way of putting me at ease with humour. He grinned at me and I melted, “No, really, though. I never have. Not even with a girl.”

“Really?”

“Truly. Not like we just were anyway.” He turned his t-shirt right side out and slipped it over his head. He didn’t notice that he’d put it on backwards.

“But I thought…you know you’re so popular with the girls. I just figured you’d have...”

“Don’t confuse me with Alexander when it comes to that, Sil.” Oliver lifted his drink from the coffee table and took a large gulp, “That’s his department, not mine.”

“So you’ve never?” I pulled myself up and righted the cushions.

“Oh, I had a chance or two. That Vivian we joke about, she was a bit—er—adventurous.”

“She wanted to commit twincest?”

He grinned again, but this time he blushed, “Yes, she did. But I didn’t. I found it repulsive, passing a girl back and forth between us like a hot towel. Alexander agreed, which kind of surprised me. He’s odd like that, though. You’d think he’s a dog, but he’s actually got some decency in there someplace. He’s really not so much of a pervert as everybody thinks. Anyway, it’s why we make fun of her. She was bizarre really.”

“You’re the first boy I’ve even kissed.” I told him as I buttoned my shirt.

“No way!” He really did not seem to believe me. “You’re way too pretty to have never been kissed before me.”

“It’s the truth! I went to an all-girl’s boarding school. It wasn’t like I was snogging the caretaker. He was the only male there.”

Oliver was quiet for a moment, “I’ll tell you the truth, even if you think I’m lame. I’ve only ever kissed a girl and that’s it. One girl before you and it wasn’t anything like I kiss you. I didn’t like kissing her. We kept knocking teeth. It was like we couldn’t get it right.”

I giggled, feeling a bit more relaxed, “How awful!”

“It was! After a couple of goes it made me think of two horses snogging. That visual killed any romantic feeling, lemme tell you!” He paused and gave me a thoughtful look, “Xan, he’s done it. Loads, actually. Most of the rumours about him are true. I’ve had offers, but I couldn’t go through with it.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I’ve had offers,” Oliver got on his knees and leaned toward me, “I could’ve anytime I wanted, but something’s always stopped me. I think it’s…well, I know what it is. I don’t like the idea of getting that close to someone who’s not special to me,” He shuddered, “Or especially with someone who gets on with loads of blokes. It makes my skin crawl, honestly.”

“Me, too.” I said quietly and then added, “I’m sorry.”

“What for? For telling me I was going out of bounds? Don’t be.” He took my hand and kissed my knuckles.

“Right. But I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to, either. I do. I’m just scared. Plus, we don’t have any protection or anything.”

“Oh, we do. It’s in Alex’s room. But I didn’t get any because I didn’t think we’d need it. I didn’t think things would go that far.”

I was honestly embarrassed, “Please, I’m sorry. I don’t want you to be angry with me.”

“Silvia,” He was extremely serious. He looked straight into my eyes and searched them before he spoke, “It would take a lot more than you asking me to respect you to upset me. I do not want to rush into having sex on my parent’s sofa for the sake of having sex any more than you do. It’s not very romantic, is it?” He blinked a few times, “I like the way you feel with all your curves is all. And you’re so incredibly soft I can’t help but want to touch you,” He paused, searching my eyes again, “But, look, I’m not a rapist. I don’t want to be a rapist. I care about you. I’d never want to do something that’d make you feel bad or you’d be sorry for later. And I would never ask you to do anything that you’re not in for one hundred percent. So from now on, don’t hesitate. You decide and when you say so, we stop. And, mind, I won’t get angry. I swear.”

“Thank you. I like that.”

“And I like you. Very much. I would never want you to be hurt or ticked off,” He put his arm around me and kissed me on the head as he plopped beside me. “I want you to be just fine, Just Silvia Cotton. It’s my personal goal to make sure you are always just fine.”

“Can we watch some television?” I snuggled against him.

“We absolutely can,” He began flicking through stations. “Oh, I like this one! Neil nails himself to his apartment building. It’s wicked funny! Have you seen it?”

And just like that we were innocently cuddling on the sofa once again.

If you were never in love during your childhood, you missed out on something very special. I am not speaking of those horrible crushes that keep you up at night and make you sick at the thought of the other person. I am talking about love in its purest form, love that happens before either person has ever been hurt by love. Love that is light and simple and never analysed or dissected. I am talking about passion that has to do with being fascinated and respectful of the other person’s body rather than lustful. I am talking about touching without consummation and kissing without profanity. I am talking about sacred love that comes not from your heart, but from the place in the centre of your soul that screams that this boy is what the universe has decided for you and that you know without a question that you are endlessly, hopelessly in love.

That kind of a love is a gift. It’s a package beautifully wrapped and set before you. All you have to do is pull back the ribbon, tear off the paper, yank it out and let it grow. Almost everyone sullies it, though. They hang on to the wrappings too long thinking that what is inside might not be as beautiful as the outside and without sun and air the creature within slowly dies. Or they look to see if another package is lovelier and abandon the first. But Oliver and I did not do that. We ripped that ribbon back and tore off that beautiful paper, pulled out our gift and we let our love grow without even pruning the leaves.

I suppose it helped that we were so young. We had no baggage, no ex-lovers with which to contend, we were not jealous or suspicious of each other. The thing that really made it work, though, was that we did not compete with each other. Whatever it was we were in, we were into it together. Partners from start to finish, we were hand in hand. Always. Whatever it was, hard or simple, we dug into it together and we saw it through to the end. Few people around us believed that two children could be as in love as we were. There were whispers about us and judgements made. Rumours spread. There were even times at school when it was suggested that we be removed from each other, but seeing how good we were together and how hopeless we were apart, none of our parents had the heart to do that.

Having been able to show our affection freely over break, it was nearly impossible to remember to follow the rules of proper conduct at school. We were caught snogging quite often on the grounds of Bennington. I had never had a detention in my life, but I spent at least an hour a week cleaning blackboards or washing windows the first month we got back. Only certain professors did anything about it, though. Most just told us to quit or made threats, but never followed through.

“Mister Dickinson and Miss Cotton,” Headmistress Pennyweather squirted us with water from the top of her sports bottle one afternoon when we thought we had a moment alone, “I believe that is inappropriate contact by definition of the school code. Oliver, I would be careful or people will begin to think that Alexander is just a brother and Silvia is your conjoined twin!” She looked over her shoulder as she continued walking, “My office, thirty minutes this evening at six!”

“Thirty? It’s only fifteen for snogging!” Oliver called after her.

“Yes, but this is not about snogging! I would like to discuss your questionable choice of courses next semester, so it’s thirty, Oliver!”

Oliver smiled at her as she exited. He adored that old lady.

Madame Pennyweather may have had a sense of humour about our getting off, but it became apparent that some other teachers did not. As our fellow classmates had imaginations that they might have put to better use, nasty little untruths began to spread to the personnel about Oliver and I being intimate on school grounds. Although she said she found it ridiculous, at the insistence of a few professors, Headmistress Pennyweather called a meeting with our parents.

Oliver and I sat in silence the entire time. I was embarrassed, but he was highly irritated. If I hadn’t known better I might have thought that he was Alex by the resentment in his eyes as he scowled at each professor in turn. A vein pulsed in his temple and the knot in his jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth.

“We believe that a respite between the two of them would be in their best interest,” Professor Lucas explained, “They both are excellent students and it would be a shame for anything… unexpected… to interrupt their promising futures.”

“I am afraid,” Headmistress Pennyweather said idly, “That God himself might strike me down if I were to agree to that.”

“No, no,” My father added, seeming a bit put out, “Oliver is a fine boy and Silvia has good sense. As long as her marks are up I am not worried about their relationship. I trust that your staff makes sure the children conduct themselves appropriately. Have they been caught doing anything more than kissing?”

“Well, no.” Professor Fields looked a bit embarrassed.

I was shocked at my dad. He rarely showed interest in anything I did, much less defended me. He let a long breath out of his nose and pinched his lips tight before he spoke again, “Then I don’t see a problem and, frankly, I am a bit insulted at your accusations against my daughter! I believe I instilled better morals in her than that!”

Sensing the tension, Oliver’s mother made an attempt at humour, “When we first realised how close Oliver and Silvia have gotten, we considered everything from glue remover to hand grenades to put some distance between them. But after we spent more time with Silvia and got to know her and then we saw them together, we changed our minds. Oliver’s better with Silvia than he is without her. He’s not getting into as much trouble in school as he was, is he? My phone certainly rings less. She keeps him in line, I reckon,” Anna looked between Oliver and me tenderly, “They are precious, both of them. I would go as far as to say that Oliver is in love with her and she seems to return his affection absolutely.” She turned back to Madame Pennyweather, “I know my son. Believe me, if you try to pry them apart, he will rebel. You’ll have him climbing out windows and scaling ledges in the dead of night to get to her. If you think I’m joking, you don’t know Oliver.”

Madame Pennyweather looked to the heavens as if to say Ana had spoken her thoughts exactly.

“Now,” Ana continued, adjusting her purse on her lap, “I agree with Philip. He trusts them both and he’s not concerned about their relationship. He’s right. Their marks are the most important thing and as long as they keep those up I believe it is best to treat this for what it is…simple young love.”

“Yes, yes, it’s nothing to fret about,” Said Edmond. He was sitting tall in his chair and looking straight at Madame Pennyweather. It was a bit intimidating, to be honest, how his voice filled the room as if they were wasting his time, “Oliver and I have openly and frankly discussed his relationship with Silvia. I know what’s going on with them and I know about his intentions. If it were my other son, I’d agree that distance might be in their best interest, but mind this is Oliver we’re talking about. Oliver has a good head on his shoulders. He and Silvia are involved, certainly, but it’s innocent. It’s puppy love. Let them alone. It may pass in time.”

“Please understand,” Professor Fields offered, “That we really have their best interest in mind.”

“We all have their best interest in mind,” Madame Pennyweather agreed, “Or none of us would be here. I believe we've all had the opportunity to express our concerns. Oliver, Silvia, do either of you have anything to say?”

I shook my head. Oliver was dead silent for about ten seconds before he stood up. “Bollocks,” He told them, “This is complete bollocks and all of you know it.”

And with that, he took my hand and the two of us walked out of the room.

I’d never seen Oliver so angry. He was shaking as we stood in the corridor waiting for his parents. When they emerged, Ana rubbed his arm gently and whispered something to him in Welsh that I couldn’t understand.

He nodded. “It’s not right, Mum,” I heard him say in English, “Why do they have to be involved at all?” He trailed off into Welsh, speaking so quickly that even the few words of the language I might have recognized were a blur.

She rubbed his arm again, “I don’t know, Ollie. You just can’t let it get to you.”

He dropped his cheek down against the top of her head and hugged her. “Thank you, Mum, for being on our side.”

“We’re always on your side,” Edmond put his hand on Ollie’s shoulder and then turned to me, “Headmistress has sent for Alexander. We’d like to take the three of you and your dad out to dinner since we’re all together. We don‘t get this chance often, do we?”

“No, Sir. That’d be lovely.”

“Silvia,” He shook his head, “Don’t call me sir.”

Alex arrived about the same time Daddy quit chatting with the professors. We went to dinner in town. It took a little while, but Alexander was able to break Oliver’s foul mood.

“Professor Lucas is just jealous,” He assured his brother quietly when our parents were not listening, “That mingy bird couldn’t get laid in a home for the blind. And as far as Professor Fields, she could wander into a forest of hammers begging for it and never get nailed.”

Ollie began to laugh. By the time we got back to school, the whole thing was a joke.

Oliver and I tried to cool our public displays of affection from there on, or at least not display them where a teacher could see us. We still had detention from time to time, but the general over-reaction of the staff had waned and soon the other students got tired of our snogging and quit talking about it.

Spring came over Wales it seemed overnight that year. The mounds of snow melted away into mud and then dried to allow the grass to become green once again. The sports teams regrouped and the students began to wander about the quads. Frisbees flew, cricket bats swung, and the ear splitting musical tones of Merlyn attempting to sing “Tore Adore” echoed across the lake. Lance found a girl who was actually shorter than he was and we saw a little less of him.

“He’s pulling an Ollie,” Alexander coined the phrase one rainy Saturday morning when we were sitting together on the sofa in the fifth year common room waiting for Oliver to be released from detention. He’d gotten caught planting boiled eggs under Josh McGuigan’s mattress. “Meets a girl and we only see him at meals and with her there to boot.” He shook his head slowly, “Don’t you think Lance’s new girlfriend looks odd? I’m not trying to be stupid, but is she a dwarf?”

“No, dwarves have limbs disproportionate from their bodies. Hers are proportionate. She’s just very little,” I responded, scrutinizing her from our distance, “She may be a midget. I’m not sure what classifies a midget. I know it’s different for men and women. Lance may be a midget,” I suddenly realized Alex was staring me as if I were a numpty, “Don’t give me that look! I’m being serious! Anyway, they’re absolutely charming.”

“I don’t believe she’s a third year,” He crossed his arms across his chest, “She’s not large enough. If I had to guess I’d say she’s no older than eight.”

I laughed, “She’s well-formed for eight. Anyway, she seems quite nice.”

Alexander looked at me for a quick second and then without a hint of humour in his voice, he said, “No, I heard some of the staff talking. She’s all bad, that one. They kicked her out of the Lollipop Guild for theft, yeah, and she did community service for bitch-slapping the Mayor of Munchkinland.”

I burst out laughing with such force Lance and his new girlfriend turned to look. Alex finally lost the straight face and gave them an involuntary smile. We both waved, which they returned.

“That wasn’t very nice,” I told him, even though I was still laughing.

“When are you going to realise that I’m not nice, Sil?”

“Oh, you’re nice. You just don’t want anybody to know it.”

The school year ended a month after that conversation. Oliver and I had already worked out the details of how we would see each other over the summer. We discussed them again as we stood outside the school waiting for our rides home to arrive.

“Cars, busses, trains…I’ll walk to you if it comes to it,” He promised, “But it won’t. I’ll have to work during the week. Dad makes us work to keep us honest and out of trouble, he says, but that’ll give me money to see you on the weekends, eh? Mum and Dad want you to come visit us, too.”

“I can take the train for that,” I took his hands, “It’s pathetic, but I’ll miss you every day.”

“It’s not pathetic. It makes me feel cool,” He grinned and pushed a stray hair from my eye, “I’ll miss you every day, too, Sil, but I’ll see you every weekend. More if I can make it up there. We’ll have fun. I’ll take you places. Me and you, Sil. It’ll be brill!”

His smile melted me as usual. “Did I ever tell you that you are my favourite person?”

“And you’re mine, Just Silvia Cotton. I’m glad that you’re not hurt or ticked off. You’re just fine,” Oliver kissed me tenderly as my father pulled up to collect me, “I’ll see you on Saturday.”

“See you on Saturday,” I took one last look into those dark eyes before he walked me over to my father’s car.

“Good afternoon, Mister Cotton!” Oliver said brightly, waving an arm.

“Hello, Oliver! How are you?” My father got out of the car with a grin and walked to the back to load in my bags.

“I’m well, Sir,” He helped him stuff my bags in the boot and stepped back as Daddy slammed the lid closed.

“That’s good news!” Daddy gave another rare smile. “Are your parents coming for you?”

“Yes, Sir, a little later.”

“Good then! Silvia, go ahead and say good bye. You can ring him later this evening.” He headed back to the driver’s side of the car, “Good to see you, Oliver.”

“Yes, Sir, you too,” Oliver glanced to see if my father was looking and kissed me again quickly. “I’ll ring you after supper, yeah?”

“OK.”

He opened the door for me and held it until I was in. “I’ll talk to you soon, Sil. Have a brilliant day, Mister Cotton!”

“Yes, you, too! Give your parents my best!”

“I will!” Oliver closed the door.

I turned in my seat to see him watching us as we drove away. He saw me and raised his hand as if to wave, but he didn’t. Instead, he stood there with his arm stretched up and his hand wide open, almost as if he were reaching. I put my own hand against the glass and twisted to get a better look at him, but we were already around the bend in the drive that took us from Bennington. He was out of view.

It was amazing how extremely alone I suddenly felt.

CHAPTER FOUR

When Oliver and I first met at fifteen, we really were just children. Although charming in most every way, he had been a little too thin and quite gangly. He had turned sixteen the last day in April and after leaving Bennington for the summer, began working in May at a flour mill in Newtown. Spending all his holiday loading bags of flour on to and off of the back of trucks had caused a period of radical physical change for him. He had grown taller and his shoulders had broadened. His arms had doubled in size and he had gained a considerable amount of weight, but it filled him out from almost too skinny to having a lean, muscular physique. His voice had deepened into a man’s and was smooth and gentle when he spoke. Oh, my heavens, he was a beautiful boy! One touch from his long fingers could send chills all across my body.

When we’d meet on the weekends, he’d embrace me and lift me off my feet so that I was dangling in his arms. He’d kiss me like he had been away from me for months and whisper, “It’s just us now, Sil. Me and you.” Every time it was the same. Every time my heart soared. Every time I fell more and more in love with the boy I’d met at school, the one who now was rapidly becoming a man.

Physically speaking, I became a young woman that summer as well. I had my sixteenth birthday on 14 May, just two weeks after the twins. I had always had a large bust for my frame, but I found that none of my bras were fitting properly and that my knickers had become snug around my groin. I thought I was gaining weight until I stood on the scale and discovered that the amount was minute. I had transformed, plain and simple. My waist had narrowed, my breasts had filled out and my bum had turned round overnight. My uniforms for school looked comical.

I told my dad that I needed all new clothes. “I'm sorry, Daddy. Nothing fits,” I explained, sucking in my stomach so my jeans wouldn't cut into me. It was horribly uncomfortable.

He nodded without a word and reached into his pocket for his wallet, “I thought you’d grown. Amazing how you girls do that. It happens overnight, doesn’t it? See what you have that Lucy can use, then get a taxi and go get whatever else you need. Take your sister with you or she’ll pout. Don‘t worry about spending, I trust your judgement.” He handed me his credit card.

“Thank you, Daddy.” I tucked the card into my pocket and began to leave.

“Silvia, wait,” He called. When I turned to face him, he scratched his head. “I just had a thought. Why don’t I toss Ana a bell and see if she’d be willing to take the two of you shopping in Powys? I could send you both down on the train and you could get your school uniforms direct. That way you could both be fitted at the shop. I really have no idea what size your sister is these days, either.” He paused blankly, and then added, “You're both getting so big,” as if we were toddlers having a growth spurt.

I didn't think much of what he said at the time, but in retrospect he must have been remorseful about our growing up. As usual, however, I was only thinking of myself. I loved his idea. Ana and I had become great friends over the summer. I adored her. She'd taken me shopping before once or twice and I'd embraced it since I'd never had a mother with whom to shop. It didn’t hurt, either, that the outing would give me the opportunity to spend some extra time with Oliver. Sometimes my father was brilliant without effort. Life was good. Life was very good.

Lucy and I caught the train south the next morning at seven. She was tired and difficult. “Have a kip!” I finally snapped at her after she practically burst into tears over dropping a pasty.

“I'm not tired!” she swore, but her eyes were pink and puffy.

“Right,” I mumbled, agreeing to avoid any further argument. I was quite relieved when she nodded off five minutes later and left me to my book.

Ana met us at the station, dressed in blue jeans and a rose coloured satin shirt, all full of excitement and smiles. “So this is Lucy!” She held out her arms, “It’s so wonderful to meet you, Darling! Oliver’s told me all about you! He said you were just as lovely as your sister and you are!” She shook her head, still grinning. “Where did the two of you get that gorgeous hair?”

“Both Mum and Dad are gingers,” Lucy said quietly, accepting the hug. “That’s where.”

“Well, it’s beautiful,” Ana rocked her in an embrace. “It’s going to be a wonderful just us girls together on the loose! We’re going to have so much fun it’ll be sick!” She grinned at me, released Lucy and took me into her arms instead. “Hello, Silvia Sweetie!” Now she was rocking me. “I was thrilled that your dad phoned me and asked me to take you both shopping! Ollie and Xan are working until five, but they have something planned for this evening for the four of you, so the whole day should be loads of fun...let's go! Let's go!”

We went to first to be fitted for uniforms as our father had suggested. It was Lucy’s first year at Bennington and I was looking forward to having my sister closer at hand. We had never attended the same school and I saw it as a chance for the two of us to become tighter knit. I’d always loved my sister, but I was five years older and we’d never had the opportunity to be very close since I was away at boarding school by the time she was two. Unlike me, our father had chosen to keep Lucy home until she was eleven before he sent her off to board. I'd only known her after that on occasional weekends and holidays.

“I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like without Alexander if our parents had decided to split us up,” Oliver told me when I explained my sister’s and my relationship. “Very boring, I imagine. Sad, really. Lonely, for sure. Mind, I hate him sometimes, but at least he’s there for me to hate,” He paused, as if contemplating that, and then asked slowly, “Have you ever hit her?”

I laughed. “Lucy? No!”

“Oh, God!” He was amazed, “You’ve never hauled off and walloped her straight in the face-like?”

“No!”

“Then you have to spend more time with her!” He was so sincere. “If you don’t love-hate your sister and have never set a bruise on her then you don’t know her well enough! Gor blimey! We’re going to remedy this situation immediately! You‘ll be beating the crap out of Lucy by the end of the summer if I have anything to do with it!”

Now knowing the situation in full, Oliver began making it a point to invite Lucy along on some of our day trips when he came up North. Lucy adored him almost as much as I did.

“Is he coming here tonight?” She’d ask on Friday, her eyes twinkling, “I don’t have anything to do tomorrow if he’s going to be here then, either! Can I come along with you two? Do you mind?”

Sometimes I did mind, but I took her along anyway. She was, after all, my sister and I was supposed to want to black her eye every once in a while.

We did all of our shopping that day with Ana, giggling and being silly as girls are known to do when set loose in a department store with their father’s credit card. I didn't go mad with it, though. I was frugal even then when it came to money and could stretch a pound further than dough.

Ana noticed it. As we were standing in the middle of the cosmetic section in a department store she turned to me, “Silvia, you have such lovely skin. You should start taking care of it now. Let me buy you some cream, Sweetie. It's never too early to start moisturising!” She took my chin in her hand and smiled, “And we'll get you a good cleanser as well, nothing harsh. Always make it a point to pamper yourself. It's most likely that nobody else is going to do it for you, so you have to do it for yourself. No matter what, always remember that you deserve it.”

I hung on her every word. Everything I knew about being female I'd learned from magazines. Having my period for the first time was terrifying. It wasn't that I was not aware of what was going on, but it was shocking to wake up and have my knickers and sheets covered in blood. I'd panicked and had my dorm mate go and get the house mother.

She'd been rather mean about it. “Congratulations. You're a woman now. Here,” She tossed a box of cheap maxi pads at me, “Go have a shower and clean up. Then come back and strip your bed. You'll have to do your wash.” Then she'd left me standing there all soaked and in tears.

It was my father's way of helping me out, buying me subscriptions to young girl's magazines and having them sent to my school. So I knew how to care for my hair and I knew how to apply my makeup. It didn't matter what clothes were in fashion as I wore uniforms ninety-five percent of the time. But with all the knowledge those magazines gave me, I knew nothing of what it was to be a woman. From the moment we met, Ana showed me how to smell pretty and be soft from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

That day at the department store she brought me in front of a mirror and stood with me. “Look at yourself, Silvia. You're such a pretty girl, but you can be more.” She brushed my hair back with her fingers, “The trick to being a woman is it's effortless. The trick to being beautiful is that the effort never ends. Just don't ever let anybody see how hard you work for it.” She looked into my eyes through my reflection in the mirror, “Being beautiful is the most powerful position in the world. Part of it is your face. Part of it is your breasts. The most of it is your heart. Never allow anybody to take your heart for granted, especially not my son.”

When we were through shopping that day and she'd filled a bag with beauty supplies for me, the three of us had lunch in an upscale pub. Neither Lucy nor I were used to such luxury, but Ana seemed to think nothing of it. I watched her, casual and relaxed, and I realised suddenly that I didn't have to be tense and shy. I could sit and smile as easily as she did. I could be like her. Comfortable in my own skin like she was in hers. Beautiful like she had said. Beautiful like her.

When our lunch was over we took a walk through a city garden and then made the drive home to Welshpool. Ana did her favourite thing and made tea. Lucy chattered non-stop, but I didn't listen to her. I watched Ana instead, trying to set into my mind how she did things and the way she moved.

When Alexander came through the door a few hours later, Lucy popped right up, ran over and threw her arms around him. He looked a bit stunned, but recovered quickly and hugged her back. “Hi, Lucy!” He said smoothly, “It’s nice to meet you, too!”

She saw Oliver stride in behind him and turned candy apple red. She let Alex go. It was obvious she’d forgotten Oliver was a twin. “Oh, my!” She whispered.

“Little Lucy Cotton!” Oliver cried, dropping his car keys on to the floor and not bothering to pick them up, “Where’s my hug then?” Lucy looked even more embarrassed as Ollie gave her a tight squeeze. He bent and kissed the top of her head, “So you met my brother, yeah?” He asked casually, then whispered, “Don’t worry about mixing us up, Sweetie. It happens all the time. Even our own mum does it sometimes. We look just alike, don’t we?”

Lucy looked hopelessly at Ana, who smiled and nodded. “Yes, you do,” Lucy smiled.

“I’m better looking, of course,” Alexander boasted, “That’s the easy way to tell who‘s who.”

“Yeah,” Oliver agreed, absently stroking her hair as he turned away, “He’s really the good looking one.” He came over to me and lifted me up, kissed me and whispered in my ear the same thing he always said. Then he set me down, smiled and announced, “We’re going to have so much fun!”

Oh, and that weekend was fun, too. I remember it like it was yesterday. After my sister got over her embarrassment at confusing the twins, she took to Alexander like she’d known him her whole life, but she still got mixed up when he and Oliver were in a room together. The frustration almost sent her to tears.

“I’ll tell you what,” Alex offered with an easy smile, “I’ll wear blue the whole weekend so you know which one I am!”

“OK! Since Oliver is Sil's boyfriend, can I be your girlfriend this weekend?” She giggled.

“Well, I sort of have a girlfriend…”

“Try three.” A voice came from the other room.

“Very funny, Mum!” Alexander called over his shoulder, then turned back to my sister, “No, seriously, Lucy, I have a girl at school that might be my girlfriend, but since she’s not here, you and I can have a date weekend. Is that all right?”

Lucy giggled again, “Sure!”

With as quickly as Alexander became annoyed with people, I thought for sure Lucy would begin to bother him, but he didn’t seem to mind her. He played with her, but not in a bad way. He played with her exactly the way she wanted him to. She was the princess and he was the handsome prince who was going to take her to a ball. I've said it a million times, but for all his foul temper, Alexander had more good in him than bad. He was just so frightening sometimes that people were too scared to find that out before he sent them scurrying like mice for cover.

Oliver and Alexander had wanted to take us to see a play that evening, but they’d been too late to get tickets. We went to the cinema instead and saw an American film so horrible I’ve never forgotten it. I couldn’t tell you the name of it or what it was about, but I remember who starred and I remember that we left midway through and went to get a bite at an all-night café. It was a darkly painted little place, barren of any genuine personality, with bright florescent lighting and black table tops.

The boys obviously knew the waitress.

“Oh shit!” Alexander shifted in his chair. He quickly tossed his arm around the back of Lucy's seat and slouched toward her as if to read off her menu.

Oliver noticed this odd behaviour and looked over his shoulder. He turned back to his brother and raised his brows. They stared into each other's faces, another of their silent conversation passing between them. Neither moved or made a sound until Alex frowned and dropped his eyes. Oliver sniggered and flipped open his menu. His brother made a sound in his throat that was something between a cough and a pig's snort.

The waitress apparently had a history with Alex. A pretty girl, she marched up to the table, set a hand on her hip and glared at him, “So you’ve given up on older women and moved on to elementary school students, eh?” She demanded.

“I’m not in elementary school,” Lucy told her irritably.

Alex looked slightly uncomfortable. Slouched low in his chair, he raised his dark eyes to meet hers. “She’s a friend.”

“Well, Little Girl,” She looked at my sister, “Watch out for your friend.”

Oliver slapped his hands on the table and looked around in irritation, “Can we have another server?” He called, “Please? Send out the cook even! Anybody will do! This one‘s mental!”

“Mental?” She demanded, “Your brother...”

“Shut it!” Oliver snapped rudely, his eyes wide and his brows nearly touching his hair line. There was a great pause where he slowly waved his finger at her as if he were warding off an evil spirit. He shook his head slowly from side to side. “What's done is done!” He continued, “The past is the past! All of that! It's time to get on with your life!” Then slapped his hand flat on the table again and twisted in his chair. “Sir!” He called to a man standing behind the counter, “Another server! Now! Please!”

It was Alexander's turn to snigger. He covered his smile with his hand, but the glee in his eyes simply sparkled. The girl gave him a filthy look, huffed and stomped away. A moment later another waitress without an attitude appeared.

We had a pleasant meal and quite a few giggles, even though Alexander thoroughly inspected his food several times for any signs of sabotage before he ate it and Oliver spilled his Coke all over the table twice.

“Damn the gravity!” He swore.

When we got home, the four of us sat in the dining room and played cards until Lucy couldn’t keep her head up. Refusing to go to bed, she followed Alex into the living room and sat down in front of the tele, staring at the screen with eyes I am not sure were actually seeing.

Oliver led me by the hand through the kitchen and out into the garden to look at the stars. That lasted about fifteen seconds. After an extended groping session on the bench in the back garden that was ended when his mother let the dog outside, I woke Lucy, who was now zonked on the sofa, and brought her upstairs where I tucked her into bed with me in the guest room.

We lie there whispering to each other in the darkness.

“I'm so glad you're here,” I told her honestly.

“Me, too. You know Oliver loves you?”

“Do you think so?” I could see her in the moonlight. Her face was turned toward me, but her eyes were closed and her mouth was slack.

“I know he does.”

“Go to sleep, Lucia,” I giggled and kissed her cheek.

I lie there awake for a long time after she took my advice, listening to the sounds of the house and wondering what it must have been like to have grown up there.

The next morning the four of us took the car to Brecon Beacons and spent the day wandering the trails. We had dinner in a lovely little pub in Llangynidr. We then journeyed South to Ebbw Vale to meet up with the twins’ cousin, Karenna, who had rang the boys the night before and invited us to a do her friends were having in the middle of an empty sheep pasture. “It’s going to be banging!” I could hear her voice over the phone, even though I was a chair away from Alex, who was speaking to her. “Everybody’s coming! I haven’t seen you two in forever! I can’t wait!”

I had never met Karenna before, although she had been mentioned from time to time with fondness by Ollie and his family. She was the same age as Oliver and Alex, the oldest child of Ana’s younger brother and she turned out to be one of the nicest people I had ever met. Short, light haired and sweet natured as she could be, she looked similar to Ana with her baby doll complexion and a lovely smile, although she was already a bit pissed by the time we go there.

“My God!” She exclaimed, looking me up and down, “You’re fucking gorgeous, Love! Look at you! You look like bloody Kate Winslet or something!” I didn’t look like Kate Winslet at all, but it was a good compliment, so I thanked her. “What are you doing with these two pieces of crap?” She demanded as she laughed and hugged Alexander, “I’m glad you’re with Oliver and not this one! Oliver’s bad enough, but this one’s awful!” She turned and drew Oliver into a deep embrace, but she turned her face to me, “No, really, they’re wonderful chaps, aren’t they? Both of them! My two favourite scuzzes…I mean cousins…”

I’d never seen so much liquor in one place. There were literally barrels of it lying about and tubs filled with ice and bottles of all sorts. People had driven their cars up into the grass and were sitting on bonnets and rooftops with their radios going, shouting and talking and laughing with each other. Loads of couples were getting off all over, writhing in the grass.

“Isn’t their sheep shit on the ground?” I asked Ollie as we walked hand in hand around to see who was attending.

Oliver laughed, “Drink enough alcohol and I don’t think you’d consider it.”

We made our way around the lot. It was astounding how many people Oliver and Alexander knew. A lot of them were former Bennington students or rugby opponents from different schools. We were hailed to chat several times. I was surprised to see so many of our classmates there as well, including Josh McGuigan, who was drunk off his arse. He ran up and threw his arms around Alexander, “No bangers on you tonight, Buttie?” His heart was obviously overflowing with intoxicated infection. He turned to Oliver, “And buttie! Which one of you is which? Do I care? Not really!” He let go, shoving him by the head, “Aren’t you going to have a drink, Mate?”

“I’m Oliver and no,” Ollie shook his head, “I’m driving.”

“Good man then!” Josh grinned, drooling slightly, “Well, what about you, Alexander?”

“Nope,” Alex had his hand on my sister’s shoulder, “I’ve got to keep an eye on my girl.”

The smile that spread across Lucy’s face could have lit the night ablaze. Oh, no! I remember thinking, Lucy really has fallen in love with Alexander! Oh, the thought was terrifying. I thanked God she was only eleven years old. Four more years and Alex might have had her pinned down in the back seat of the car. The thought gave me shivers.

We sat for quite a while with Joshua and some mates from school, Connor and Malcolm McCrary. They were brothers who had relocated from Ireland, not twins, but born on the same day a year apart. They were nice boys and I was glad that they were there because Peggy McGhee was as well. She sat in the bed of someone’s truck with Amber Monahan and Serena McLaughlin, staring me down as much as they could without giving themselves away as bitches in front of the boys. I stared right back, not a bit afraid of giving myself away as a bitch to anyone.

“You could take any one of them,” Malcolm whispered to me at one point with a half-cocked grin. He seemed to be the only one who noticed the non-verbal showdown.

“Thank you,” I returned the smile.

He saluted me with his bottle and shrugged another grin.

“Sil,” Lucy came trotting up to me after a couple of hours. She’d been off with Alexander in a different clutch, “I have to pee so bad! Can you take me?”

Having a pee where we were at meant walking away from the crowd out into the darkness and then squatting in the field. I had to go myself and took her, thankful that I always wore skirts. Lucy, on the other hand, had to strip off her shoes, socks and jeans. The process took a while.

I had never known before I returned that I was the jealous sort, but as Lucy and I re-entered the party, I stopped dead in my tracks. Serena, Amber and Peggy had circled Oliver like three vultures. I had an impulse to go running up and club them over the backs of their heads, but I didn’t. Instead, I hung back and watched.

Oliver was still sitting where I had left him. He laughed at something Joshua said and shook his head in response. It appeared that the McCrary brothers had found another place to go, as they were absent. Amber was sitting on the ground where Con had been and Serena was on her knees beside her. Peggy was off to the side, staring at Oliver like a disregarded puppy stares at someone who is teasing it with a scrap of meat.

Amber said something else and Oliver laughed again, but looked away from her. He glanced at Serena as she spoke. I couldn't hear what she said, but I heard him reply, “No, I don’t think Sil’d want to go.”

I began walking toward them slowly, listening carefully as I went.

“Well, who said Silvia was invited?” Amber asked.

“So rude!” Joshua cooed.

Oliver raised his eyebrows, “Really?” He climbed to his feet, peering down at her, “Well, who says I would go even if she were?”

“Oh, come on, Ollie!” Serena moaned, “You used to be so much fun!”

“No, I wasn’t,” He told her, speaking very slowly the way the Welsh are known to do,

“Alexander was fun. If you check the record you’ll see I’ve never been any fun at all. Now if you’ll excuse me, I see my Sil.”

“Come on, Oliver!” Amber ran her hand down his leg as he passed. I wanted to bad to run up and kick her, especially when she turned and saw me. She actually had the nerve to smile.

Ollie was oblivious to everything. For as bright as he was, he was certainly stupid when it came to the games girls play. He just pushed past them as if nothing were happening and walked over to me. Boy, did they give me three dirty looks, moving together like a solid brick wall of bitches. The urge to beat them up didn't pass, but I did them one worse instead. I embraced Oliver and kissed him deeply while I held my middle finger up at them over his shoulder.

Josh’s laughter echoed through the fields.

I stared triumphantly at the three girls. Amber and Serena were obviously offended. I thought Peggy was going to cry.

The McCrary brothers suddenly reappeared, “Oy, Ambular!” Connor was being particularly obnoxious, as he was known to do when he'd been drinking, “Serenina! Peggers! How ya doin', you buncha feckin' slags? Ya come to get a shotta Irish?”

They all three gave him disgusted looks and began to walk away.

“Low class,” Amber muttered.

“Oy! Don' leave!” He called after them, “Amby! I love you, you know I do! Serenina! You know you like it Irish!” He stood for a second in the laughter of everybody around him, and then cried, “Peggers! Come back! I'll clean yer cobwebs!”

Oliver, Josh, Malcolm and I all cracked up. After another second of mocking shock at the girls’ departure, Connor dropped to his bottom and struck up a conversation about a completely different subject. Oliver and I hung about with them for a little while longer, but once Alex returned and collected Lucy, who was completely out of her element and being unusually quiet, we took the opportunity to take advantage of the back seat of the car. We were once again in the midst of taking things way too far when the door flew open and we both spilled out on to the grass in a knot.

“What the bloody hell, Alex?” Oliver demanded, drawing himself on to his knees. “Are you trying to kill us?” He turned his attention to me, “Are you all right, Sil? Did I hurt you?”

I thought it was the funniest thing that ever happened, both of us crushed up against the door and then us falling out. I lie on the ground with my legs still inside the car, holding my shirt closed, laughing so hard it hurt, even though I was sure I'd be bruised.

Oliver pulled my skirt down to cover my knickers.

“We’ve got to go!” Alex said urgently. “Lucy, get in the car! Ollie, Sil, get up now! I said we’ve got to go!”

“What did you do this time?” Oliver stood and buttoned his trousers, trying to look casual.

“We’ve got to go!” Alexander repeated, shoving his brother's shoulder as he got into the back seat. He sat and leaned out the door, “Come on now, let’s MOVE! OLIVER! NOW!”

“I’ve got to find my keys,” Oliver answered, not making a move to get in the car.

“LET’S GO!” Alex nearly shouted, “NOW! OLIVER!”

I scooted across the driver’s seat to the passenger’s. I buttoned my blouse and smoothed my hair in the mirror. I had the distinct feeling that Ollie might be moving slowly on purpose, as he still hadn't gotten in yet.

Lucy sat silently beside Alexander. Her face gave nothing away. She sat straight with her hands in her lap, but she kept looking at Alex out the corner of her eye. Oliver was still not in the car. Alex was obviously tense.

“What happened?” I finally asked.

Alex looked at me with the blank face he was so famous for and said nothing. Whatever had happened, he considered it none of my business and wasn't planning on explaining.

It was Lucy who spilled the story and did it at a mile a minute at that, “OK! It went like this! We were just sitting with some people and these three lads came over. The one was very cross with Alex about something and I thought they were going to fight. Alex looked like he wanted to fight anyway, but a girl called Jennifer came over and took the boy away with her, but one of his friends stayed and wouldn't let us leave and Alex had a fight with him and left him lying in the grass. I think he beat him up pretty badly. Then we left. Then on our way to the car another girl came up to us and said we'd better go because Jennifer's boyfriend was back and he was looking for Alex and so were his mates since Alex had beaten up the other boy. They're very angry. There's a group of them going to teach him a lesson, she said!” She squeaked out the last bit, “So we really need to go!”

With that information, Oliver got into the car and put the key in the ignition. “Jennifer, eh?” He looked over his shoulder at Xander, “So let’s fight. How many of them are there?”

“I don’t know. Three? Five? More than I care to deal with.”

“Well, if it‘s only a few, we can get Con and Mal and…”

“No!” Alexander barked so loudly I jerked, “Put the bloody car in gear and let’s GO!”

“You really want to run away? We've got an army right here. They’re fuckin’ English for Christ’s sakes! We’re on home ground!”

I’d never heard Oliver sound so macho. It struck me as sexy.

Alex lunged over the seat and turned the key himself. The engine fired, “Let’s go!” He growled, “I want to go, all right? Oliver? Can we please just fucking go?”

“All right! All right!” Ollie put the car in gear, “We’ll run away then! But it’s a good night for a fight,” He added as he backed up, “Nice clear weather, plenty of moonlight, not too hot...”

Alexander said nothing. He just stared out the window. I couldn't read whether he was frightened or just not in the mind for war. His blood lust in general greatly depended on his mood and it was often impossible to gauge when those moods would change. He'd already had a fight. Maybe that was enough for him for one night.

We drove on in silence. After a half hour on the road, he tapped my shoulder. When I turned to acknowledge him, he spoke. “That’s a pretty bra you’re wearing, Silvia,” He stuck his tongue in the corner of his mouth and narrowed his eyes, “Very lacy. I saw it when my brother had you nailed to the car window. You look nice in lavender. I saw your knickers matched, too. Tell me, did you buy the set yesterday at the mall with my mother?”

I felt my face go hot.

No one said a word for about ten seconds and then we all burst out laughing.

Lucy and I went home the following day. She was a bundle of excitement from then on about going to Bennington and I wasn’t sure I was happy about why. My sister had developed a monumental affection for Alexander over that weekend we spent at his house. It was more than a crush. She adored him. In fact, she was so besotted with him that his mere existence wouldn’t let her think of much else.

Alexander was well aware of it, too. “She’s a sweet kid,” He assured me, “But she’s just a kid. No worries, Silvia, I’ll do the big brother thing and watch out for her and I won’t break her heart. I promise.”

Alexander, for all his faults, could be an outstanding human being at times. I loved him as much as I did Oliver, but in a different way. Over the year I had known him, he had become more than my best friend. He had become my brother. I trusted him with my life and, thus, I certainly trusted him with my sister.

A little less than two weeks later when Lucy and I arrived at Bennington for the first day of class, we were met by Ollie and Alex at the gates. Alexander sported a half healed black eye and still badly swollen cheek. He had a red scar from stitches near his left ear and a large split in his lips. One of his wrists was in a splint and two fingers were taped together.

“You had your fight then?” I asked as I set my hand gently against his face.

“Aye,” He answered, turning his head from my touch, “I ended up not having a choice.”

“Oh, Alexander…”

“Stop it,” He avoided looking me in the eye, “I’m fine.”

The boys carried our bags to the Great Hall for checkin and from there I took Lucy to orientation and left her with Professor Wilson, who was in charge of her group of first years. It felt strange leaving her. I still remembered my first day when I was only seven years old. I had been lonely and frightened and I didn't want my sister to feel that way at all. “Professor Wilson is very nice,” I assured her, but it was more to comfort myself as she didn’t seem a bit worried, “Don't be afraid to ask any questions and don't be too shy. You won't make friends if you're too shy and you need friends at a place like this.” I looked down into her little face, “You'll be fine, Sissy. I promise.”

She nodded. “I’ll be fine, Silvia. You can go.”

After I left her off, the twins and I headed out into the quad to find mostly the same students that attended year after year. After several brief “hellos” to them, we fell quickly back with our group of friends.

Lance had spent his summer at home in Caernarfon and unable to make the distance to see his girlfriend in Liverpool, they had parted ways, although they still seemed friendly enough when they met again at school. I caught on quickly, however, that this was false on Lance’s part.

“She’s already got someone,” He did his best to hide his ruin. “Can you believe it?”

“You don’t need anyone disloyal,” Alexander told him. “Bennington is filled with all kinds of girls. It’s a three-to-one ratio.”

“You would know,” Lance muttered.

“Oh, she was too short anyway,” I consoled, cuddling against Oliver's chest to hide from the wind, “But you now! You’ve sprouted up like a weed!”

“Ah, Sil and her sugar-coated lies!” His good nature left him unable to resist a smile, “Let’s just say I feel taller when you say them so sincerely!”

Merlyn, on the other hand, had had quite an eventful holiday. He had spent it in Paris, where his parents now lived. He’d gotten a job bussing tables in a jazz cafe, which I respected him for doing as he was quite rich and had no need to work at all. But he'd wanted the experience and it was one way he could find his way into a musical environment. He'd made loads of friends, he told us, had a little romance with a girl from Spain, and, best of all in his opinion, a professional lounge singer had offered to give him vocal lessons.

“I found my range!” He was ecstatic, “She told me that I’ll never be able to sing like Pavarotti, but listen to this…” He took a few steps back and belted out, “What’s New Pussycat?” People stopped to stare, but not in horror like they once had. Most walked away, but one actually clapped and said, “Yay!”

“You may have a future yet!” Oliver told him sincerely, “Merlyn Pierce, the new Tom Jones!”

Merlyn grinned. His chest puffed out, “Do you really think?”

“Oh, aye!” Oliver nodded enthusiastically, pulling his ear, “I really think! Keep at it! That was a great improvement!”

I was wondering where Sandra was when she came running up. Literally, she was breathless by the time she threw her arms around me. “Oh, Silvia! I missed you! You look wonderful! How was your summer?” I told her it was fantastic. Sandra gave Oliver a quick smile and a hello before she continued, “I checked the lists in the common room! Headmistress approved our request and we’re sharing a room again, only it’s a floor up, which is brilliant because I’m told the ones up there are larger.”

She unsnapped her satchel and reached inside, “I’m sorry I’m so frazzled. I drank about a barrel of coffee. Whoo!” She shoved her hair back with a shaking hand, “But I saw this when I went on holiday to the US and I had to get it for you.” She handed me a small box, “I meant to mail it, but if you want the truth I lost your address and couldn’t send it!”

“Oh, Sandra, you didn’t have to!” I took it from her trembling hand.

“I know I didn’t have to. I wanted to.”

I opened the box to find a beautiful silver hair clip adorned with moonstone and lapis lazuli. “Oh my, thank you! I love it!”

Oliver looked over and saw it in my hand. “Now that’s beautiful,” He said sincerely. “Give it here, Sil, I’ll put it in your hair.” He drew my hair back in his hands and fastened the clip. “It’s really lovely, Sandy.”

Sandra grinned, “It was nothing. Gor blimey, it's windy today! Can we get our bags yet? I packed my jumper.”

“No,” Alexander answered, sauntering up from behind, “Hello, Sandy. You’ve changed your hair. I like it. If you’re cold, you can borrow my jacket.” He removed his Bennington jacket and slipped it over her shoulders. He didn’t seem to notice when she went stiff and pink. Instead, he continued as if it was something that might have happened a million times, “They always start with the first years. It makes them less edgy if they get to their room and their stuff is there.”

Sandra put her hand on the shoulder of the coat and looked at me with wide, disbelieving eyes. “Oh, my God!” She mouthed at me and I nodded in equal amazement.

“They were still checking bags last I knew,” Lance mumbled, still noticeably miserable.

“I don’t know why they do that,” Oliver shook his head, “No one carries their drugs and liquor here in their bags. Everybody knows that.”

“Drugs and liquor at Bennington?” Merlyn pretended to be aghast.

“Oh, yeah,” Oliver knocked himself on the head, “Those here at Bennington! What was I thinking? Like that would ever happen!”

“Has orientation started?” I asked, suddenly remembering my sister.

“Yeah, they’re all in the dining hall meeting their dorm mates.” Oliver slipped his arm around me. “Don’t worry about Lucy. She’ll find her place.”

“I hope they still have biscuits in there when they’re done,” Sandra rubbed her stomach, “I’m starved. I love those ones with the caramel bits.”

Alexander leaned toward Sandy and reached into his jacket pocket. He produced a serviette and held it out to her, “Haven’t you learned to get into the hall before orientation? Silly girl! You’ve been here how many years?”

“Oh, I don’t want to eat your biscuit!” She seemed even more shocked. On a normal day he grunted at her and maybe asked her to pass him the salt. “You keep it!”

“Are you joking?” He grinned, “I nicked about twenty of them!”

She took it from him as if it were a great treasure, “Thank you, Alexander! You’re being so nice to me today!”

He gave her a funny look. “It’s just a biscuit, Sandy. I have been known occasionally to share with my friends.”

“Well, thank you all the same!” Sandra went deep crimson and tucked the biscuit into her purse.

“You’re welcome, Bach,” He gave her a grin, but turned away when Meredith Ainsworth called his name.

Oliver and I looked at each other in mutual shock. He called Sandy “Bach”? Alexander had obviously been harbouring an affection for the girl he’d never let on to before. For someone who possessed the capacity to spew venom at any random victim, Alexander could be a darling when you caught him in the right mood. And a shameless flirt.

“I still have about five,” Oliver grinned, “If you want another later.”

“Well, give me one then!” I held out my hand. “I missed the pillaging of the first-year biscuit table extravaganza!”

“Of course!” Oliver produced his own serviette and handed it to me.

“Thank you, Bach.” I said as I squished my face up at him.

“Anything for you, Bach.” He replied as he squished his face back.

Alexander had turned away from us and was talking with Meredith.

“I’m sorry I didn’t ring you back last night,” He was saying, “I ended up watching that film with Ollie and I fell asleep.”

“Oh,” She pushed a dark curl away from her bright blue eyes and flashed a devastating, if not calculated smile, “That’s OK. I needed to pack anyway. Your face doesn’t look so bad, not as bad as I thought it was going to. Not that your gorgeous face could ever look bad. Is Sandra wearing your jacket?”

Alex looked over his shoulder at Sandra for a second, and then turned back casually, “Yeah, she’s cold,” He said with little intonation in his voice.

“Oh.”

“You don’t mind, do you, Mere?” Sandra asked sincerely, acting as if she were about to remove the jacket.

Meredith smiled again, “No, no! Not at all!” She replied sweetly, “Why would I mind?”

“He was really just being nice,” Sandra explained apologetically.

“Yeah,” Oliver said suddenly, his eyes bright, “Sometimes I wear it, too!”

Everyone laughed. Alexander and Oliver exchanged glances. Another silent conversation that lasted only seconds. Alex shrugged his shoulders. A second later Oliver did the same. Then they both turned their attention back to whom they had been speaking before.

I pulled away from Ollie and took Sandra aside. “She’s been ringing him all summer. I think they‘re together…”

“She can have him!” She whispered back. “What happened to his face?”

“He had a fight. Are you serious about Meredith? He was just flirting with you!”

“No, he was not!” She insisted. “He was just being nice!”

“When is Alexander ever nice?”

“Sometimes,” She said before pausing. “Once in a while! I’ve seen him be!”

I shook my head, “And anyway,” Sandra continued, glancing at the two of them, “I can’t go crossing Meredith!”

“Why not?”

“Because!” She pulled me further away by my arm. “You don’t realise anything that goes on here, do you?” She paused, pushing up her glasses from the side, “Meredith Ainsworth’s a princess, Silvia! No! No, she’s not a princess! She’s a bloody queen! Her parents are on the board here at Bennington and not only that, but her father works with my father in Parliament! He’s my father’s superior!”

“So?”

“So, believe me, he sees to it that Meredith gets everything she wants! We both had birthdays this summer and my parents got me a very nice BMW sedan. They could have got me a more expensive one, but this one’s got an excellent safety rating. Her parents found out that I’d gotten the same they were buying for Meredith and they went back and got a Mercedes instead!”

“So?”

“So, I can’t compete! Plus, look at her! She’s gorgeous!” That was true. Meredith Ainsworth was quite striking. Thin, long legged, always with the perfect hair and makeup, and a ton of money to boot. Alexander seemed to have forgotten all about Sandra and was standing on the quad with Meredith as if they’d arrived together. “They make a fabulous couple,” Sandra muttered. I hated to do it, but I had to agree. They were quite handsome together. “I’m giving him back the jacket,” She said firmly as she took it off.

“Why?” She didn’t answer me. Sandra was about to hand it back to him when I yanked it from her hand. “I’m freezing, Xan,” I lied, using the nickname that only his closest friends and family called him, “May I borrow it for a while?”

He started to reply, but Meredith interrupted him, “Why not borrow Ollie’s, Silvia?”

“Because he’s wearing his,” I replied matter-of-factly, but asked Alex in a sweet voice, “May I, Xander? Please?”

Alexander looked at me as if I were mad or stupid. “Of course, Sil. Anything for you.”

Meredith may have been able to intimidate Sandra, but she wasn’t going to intimidate me. There was no way in Hell I was going to allow her to wear that jacket. She may have been a queen among princesses to other people, but to me, she was little more than another girl who had just been condescending to my best girl friend. I'll tolerate many things. Snootiness, sarcasm, pretence, you name it, but in all my life I have never been able to tolerate outright rudeness.

Headmistress Pennyweather’s voice rang out over the intercom, “Good morning, Students, and welcome to a new year at Bennington! First years are to report to the dining hall at this time for orientation. The staff expects any veteran students who see a lost first year to assist them in anything that they may need. Second through seventh year students are to report to the common room that correlates with their year of study. There they will find their class schedules and details of this year’s dormitory arrangements. After doing so, all of you may be at your leisure. Lunch, dinner and curfew bells are to be observed. Classes begin tomorrow morning. Have a lovely day!”

“I have to go help organize the assembly,” Sandra told me as Headmistress’ voice faded, “I’ll see you later, yeah?”

“We’ll see you there!” Ollie smiled at her as she walked away. He glanced at his brother, who was engrossed in a conversation with Meredith, shook his head and looked back at me. He shuddered dramatically.

I nodded in complete agreement.

I don’t think that anyone aside from Oliver and me was as happy as us that the summer had ended. It wasn't that we were back to school. Oh, Lord, no that had nothing to do with it! We were just excited that we were back in a place where we could see each other every day instead of only weekends. For us, it was like life had righted itself into its proper position. We were more together than we'd been in months and we quickly set about as we always had on our quick kisses between classes and long walks around the lake. We'd sit in the grass and talk for hours when the weather was good, both of us laughing so hard at times it echoed across campus and people would turn to look. It was the same in our common room, him and me cuddling on the sofa while we chatted with our friends. We'd become a staple.

“I thought for sure they’d break up over holiday,” I heard Peggy McGhee tell Molly Weathersby in the common room. They both turned to look at me, not realising I was within earshot.

“No, Dustin McGregor says that Oliver’s parents practically let her live there. He’s a neighbour and he saw her in Welshpool with them all the time.” Molly replied in a low voice.

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. Her and her sister both, all summer long.” She paused to look at me again and then turned back to Peggy, “Well, you know that she stayed with him at his house last year all through Easter. My parents think it sets a very bad example.”

Peggy gasped. “What about her parents? Don’t they care at all what she’s doing?”

Molly shook her head, “My mum’s talked to Oliver’s mum and from what I heard, Silvia’s mum’s dead. Obviously her dad doesn’t care much about her reputation.”

Peggy seemed to ponder this for a moment, “Wow. I can’t figure it out. She's low class, you know? She has no mother, her father doesn't care about her. She's here on scholarship, I'm told. I bet she doesn't even pay for her own uniforms,” She looked over at me again with a cross of disdain and confusion on her pale face, “What’s she got that makes Ollie want her so badly?”

Molly seemed to be becoming annoyed with the conversation, “Well, Oliver's always been a weird one, hasn't he? Maybe he enjoys the novelty,” She glanced at me again and then back to Peggy just as quickly, “But she is pretty, isn’t she? And you have to hand it to her, she’s quite clever. Maybe she helps him with his coursework. My guess, though, is that it’s her chest. Men love women with large breasts.”

“She’s got those!” Peggy looked down at her own, which weren't much to speak of, “Do you think hers are real?”

“They're real,” Molly sighed, “I saw her in her bra once.”

It hurt my feelings to hear them contemplate how great a mystery it was that Oliver could even consider me as an option to love. But that's the way it was with girls like Molly and Peggy. They didn't have any real concept of what people were about. All they saw was where people came from, what people had, and what they could gain from them. Everything sought was for an advantage or to increase their position. They'd been raised in privilege, in giant houses and been driven around in big cars. They'd been born with a sense of entitlement to the best things in life. The world was theirs for the taking. Well, everything but Oliver Dickinson, which made them all bitchcakes because he should have chosen one of them. They were simply better than the filth that was allowed in on scholarship. It was the first time in their lives they'd been denied. And I’d been the one to deny them.

Yes, their attitude was hurtful, but it made it all the more enjoyable to watch them chew on the fact that I had what they never would.

So I let them talk. It's not like I could have stopped them anyway. The rumour mill at Bennington never rested, but unlike the year before I was used to the chatter. I was more interested in overseeing my little sister into a smooth transition. I found out shortly that it was not just me doing it, but Alexander and Oliver as well had set about pointing Lucy out to people and telling them all to give her a hand up. Because of that, Lucy Cotton was being treated just short of royalty by the upperclassmen while she found her place in the social hierarchy of the first years.

I had never seen Lucy interact with people. We were very different indeed. Where I had always been the quiet, studious type, my sister was a chatter hound who dreaded to touch a book. Until I met Oliver and was thrust into the limelight, I had been a wallflower. But not Lucy. No, Lucy was in the middle of it all, in charge and being the boss. She commanded a certain authority without effort, it seemed, and it was not a long time before it became obvious that my little sister no longer needed my assistance at her new school. I was free to look after my own business, except for when she would show up and talk non-stop while I was trying to study.

“I don’t know what the problem is with Michelle,” She followed me into the library, “We used to be friends and now all she does is try to get me into trouble! She’s angry because of Trevor! I don’t even like Trevor! I can’t help it that he likes me! Trevor is just my friend, Silvia! But she goes and tells everyone that I like him and I don’t!”

I tried to listen to her sympathetically, “Lucy, shush. You can’t speak so loudly in here. Missus Cronin is very strict.”

That was true, but the other truth was that I didn’t want to deal with Missus Cronin because she held a grudge against me from the year before. What had happened had not actually had a thing to do with me, but with Oliver and Alexander, who had both gotten detention for having a row that got out of hand in the library. They then spent that extra time collaborating on drawing a very nasty, but hilariously funny depiction of Missus Cronin wearing fur lined boots under her floral dress with a crown on her head and a fur stole. Brandishing a giant pen like a double-sided axe over her head and sporting a murderous snarl, the caption below her read, “Cronin the Librarian”.

Anyone who had seen the film “Conan the Barbarian” laughed until their sides ached. Unfortunately, on his way out of his German class, the drawing fell out of Oliver’s notebook and was retrieved by the professor. It ended up on Headmistress Pennyweather’s desk and she had no choice but to haul the both of them in and set them up with a series of painful detentions where they did things like clean toilets and scrub the floors of the hospital wing. That was not enough punishment for Missus Cronin, who was obviously not impressed with their artistic genius. Since then she not only hated the twins, but me, Lance, Merlyn and Sandra as an extension.

My sister lowered her voice, but she didn’t stop going on about Michelle and Trevor and Alicia and Bonnie and Laurie -- oh how I wanted to tell her to shut up! I did my best to block out her noise while I found the books I needed for a research paper on Chaucer.

“Oh!” She took a step backward and hid behind a shelf, “It’s Brandon Reese!”

“Who?” I looked over to see a tall blonde haired boy walk down our isle and move over to the next.

“Brandon Reese!” She hissed, moving very close to me so that I could hear her, “He’s disgusting. He and his friends are always saying things to girls. Horrible things, Sil.”

“Like what?”

“Like things! Nasty things about their bodies and things! I hate him! He makes me ill!”

“If you get upset every time some disgusting boy says something nasty to you, you’ll find yourself upset quite often,” I told her and bravely walked to the desk with my books to be taken out. I did my best to smile at Missus Cronin. She looked at me as if I were invisible and stamped a date on a card for each book, and then shoved them back at me. I went back to a normal voice as Lucy and I left the library, “He’ll get caught sooner or later and I promise Headmistress Pennyweather won’t tolerate…”

“Hey, Red, are you red all over? Got a fire crotch?”

I stopped dead bang and turned. Two first year boys were sitting on the rail, laughing at the blonde boy from the library.

“Pardon me?” I demanded.

“I asked,” The little sot said bravely, “If your hair is red all over,” He sneered, “Do you have a fire crotch?”

I had it in mind to walk up and thump the little brat in the face when I saw Alexander come over and around the stairwell. In one movement, he swept the two sideways off the rail on to the floor and lifted Brandon by the shirt. He whirled with him and slammed him hard into the stone wall, “Do you know who I am?” He demanded.

Brandon didn’t answer. He just stammered, his legs dangling uselessly, his face white with fear.

“That’s my woman and she’s more beautiful than any troll you’ll ever drag out from under a bridge, so admire her all you want, but keep your filthy gob in your mouth, got it?” Alexander shook the terrified boy again. “And if I ever—EVER,“ He was snarling, “Hear any of you or your foul mouthed friends say another unsavoury word to ANY girl ANYWHERE on the grounds I’ll tear your ugly heads off! Do you understand me?”

Brandon stammered again. No words escaped.

Alexander gave him another good shake, “I asked you if you understood me!”

“Y…yes…”

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, S-s-sir.”

“Tell my girlfriend you’re sorry.”

“S-s-s-“

“Look at her!”

He turned his face toward me. I swear his lips were white. “S-s-sorry, Miss. I’m terribly sorry…”

“Tell her you’re a fuck wit,” Alexander banged Brandon’s head against the wall.

“I’m a fuck wit!” He was practically in tears. “I’m sorry!”

“Will this happen again?”

“N-no, Sir!”

“Good answer!” Alexander started to set the boy on to his feet and then thought better of it. Instead, he picked him up from under his arms and threw him in the direction of his friends, who looked almost as terrified as he did. Brandon hit the concrete with his bottom, but rolled and skidded across it on his belly. He was on his feet before he even stopped. The three of them immediately began to run in the opposite direction.

“Yeah, run!” Alexander muttered. He turned slowly to Lucy and me, “Are you two all right?”

“Yes, thank you, Oliver,” Lucy said. Her eyes were wide like saucers.

Alexander gave her an odd look as if it surprised him that she couldn’t tell the difference between him and his brother, “No worries,” He replied.

I didn’t ask him why he didn’t tell her.

Thinking he was Oliver and not wanting to be a tagalong, Lucy explained that she was going to go and tell her friends what had happened.

“Wow, Alex,” I said after she left, “I’m stunned! You’re my hero! Why did you say you were Oliver?”

“I wanted to scare him more,” He said simply, then gave me a crooked smile, “If I said I was your boyfriend’s brother, who cares, right? No claim to authority. But your boyfriend…well, that just gives me the right to wipe the tile with his greasy little arse.” He glanced in the direction the boys had run, “I think I gave them a good enough scare to stop them. It helps that there’s two of us walking around. They won’t know which is which. We can be in more than one place at a time, really keep them straight.” He shook his jacket straight, “Talking to girls like that! The little dirt bags tick me off.”

We began to walk together, “Thank you.”

Alexander shrugged, “I know just about every girl in this school. Mind I’ve dated most of the older ones. There’s no one like you, Sil. Sometimes I wonder if I’d hit you with that ball if it’d have been me you went for instead. My brother’s the lucky one. But still,” He eyed me head to foot, “You have a bloody fine body. Blimey, it’s hard not to look at the way you bounce and sway-like.” He stopped before he said more, wiped his forehead with his sleeve, and looked straight ahead, still walking, “But you do belong with Oliver and, mind, I’ll not have some little tosser talking about you like you’re an object to covet. You’re not just practically my sister, after all. You’re a lady and you’ll be treated like one if I’ve anything to say about it. Lucy, too.”

I had never known how Alexander felt about me before that, other than he was fond of me. It was quite pleasing to have him compliment my looks, every girl wants to hear that, but best to know where my place was in his heart. After a moment of recovery, I pulled him down by the shoulder and kissed him on the cheek, “I love you, too, Xan,” I told him, “I always wanted a brother and you’re the best one ever!”

Alex went pink, but he smiled, “Ah, shut your mouth,” He shrugged, referring to my thick Scottish accent, “You talk funny.”

We both laughed as we made our way down the corridor.

“So, are you dating Meredith Ainsworth?” I asked, trotting to keep up with his long stride.

“Aye. I mean, I suppose I am by now.”

“Why?”

He took a quick sideways glance at me, “I dunno. She’s all right.”

“She is pretty.”

“Aye.”

“Is she very clever?”

“She’s all right.”

“Is she interesting?”

Alexander seemed annoyed, “I said she’s all right.”

“I know she’s very pretty. And very rich. And I know that she’s very, very stuck on you. I’m just wondering how much you like her.”

Alexander stopped and turned to me. His dark eyes were broad, “I don’t know why you’re concerned, Silvia. I know Ollie doesn’t care for her much. He thinks she’s superficial and has no brains. Superficial, maybe she is. Materialistic, she is for sure. But she’s got brains enough. There’s just something about her I like is all. I don’t know what it is to be honest. I like her. That’s it.”

“Then why are you teasing poor Sandy Ashby?”

“Sandy? Who’s teasing Sandy?”

“You’re calling her Bach and giving her biscuits. Yesterday you went up and got her a second pudding. Come on, Alex. What are you playing at?”

“Sandy’s an interesting girl,” He replied. “I’d like to get to know her better. Problem is, she doesn’t find me very interesting and she doesn’t seem to want to know me at all.”

“She’s terrified of Meredith.”

“Then she’s silly,” He began to walk again, “I’m not looking to marry anybody, I’d just like to be able to have an intelligent conversation with somebody. Seems the only girl I can do that with in this place is you. Mind, even if it is just about things that are none of your business.”

“All right! All right! I just want to see you happy!”

“I’m happy, Sil!” He gave me a cheesy grin as he wrapped his arm around me and squeezed, “I’m so bloody happy I could fly!”

“Well, fly to your class then. I’m at mine.” I stopped in the doorway, “See you at supper?”

“See you then, Silvia. Cheers!”

I watched him walk away, thinking to myself that he was mindless. For as many girls as he’d spent time with, he didn’t know a thing about them at all.

Alex told Oliver what had happened at the library over dinner.

“Really?” Ollie looked around the room with interest, “Which ones?”

Alex looked at him sideways and jammed another fork full of meat into his gob before he pointed to a table across the room.

“Those little hamsters?” Oliver ripped off a piece of bread. The boys saw him looking over and quickly turned their heads. Oliver looked a bit disgusted, “You should have hit him.”

“Oh, aye,” Alex nodded sarcastically, his cup held in mid-air, “I’d have hit him, yeah? And his friends would have made a bunch of noise, mind, and Cronin the Librarian would have had me. Pennyweather would’ve called Dad again and I’d be up a tree for real. Good idea, Oliver. Next time I’ll hit him!” He shook his head and then added sharply, “Oh! And you’re welcome, too. You might have thanked me for looking out for Silvia.”

“Thank you, Alexander,” Oliver returned coldly, “Mind, I would have thought that you’d be looking out for her and Lucy without needing any recognition for the fact.”

Alex was giving his brother such a look of pure hatred I wasn’t sure what he was going to do or say. He sat for a few seconds glaring at him until he stood up violently and shoved his tray across the table. It hit Oliver in the chest and splattered.

Oliver jumped up at first in shock, but his face quickly turned to rage. He didn’t have time to retaliate, however, before our Headmistress was beside the table.

“I know,” Alexander gave her an almost apologetic look, “Detention. I’ll see you in your office in fifteen minutes.”

“Actually,” She fumbled with her spectacles, “I was going to ask if everything was all right between the two of you.”

“Everything is fine, Ma’am,” Oliver lied sullenly, wiping gravy from his shirt, “I think it was an accident the way he shoved the tray. We weren’t even arguing. I think he spilled something on his trousers.”

“It didn’t look like an accident to me.” She frowned, her eyes flicking back and forth between the twins.

“No, Ma’am,” Alexander’s voice was not much louder than a whisper, “I spilled some hot soup on my lap and jumped up. I didn’t mean to shove the tray like that.”

“See?” Oliver didn’t look pleased, “I thought so. You all right then, Brother? Didn’t scald your willy, did you?”

Alexander shot him another hateful look, but said nothing.

Headmistress didn’t appear as if she believed a word, but she didn’t check Alexander’s trousers for soup either. She looked back and forth between the boys again and frowned more deeply, “As I said, I wanted to see if everything was all right. It’s always a shame when two people who have always looked out for the other are suddenly at odds. But I see all is well with the two of you, since you both agree to the same story as usual. Seeing as supper has nearly ended, if you’d like to go change your clothes, Oliver, I can have your dinnertime extended.”

“Thank you, Ma’am, but no,” Oliver continued to wipe himself off, “I’m fine.”

“Do you need a new tray, Alexander?”

“No thank you, Ma’am. I’m not hungry.”

She looked between them, “Very well then.” And she returned to the professor’s table.

Alex stood there locked in a moment with his brother that I could not diagnose. He was obviously waiting for something to be said, but Oliver only glanced up at him for a second and then looked away far too casually. He picked up his fork as if nothing had happened and stuck it into his roast beef.

Alexander pushed in his chair and walked away in an angry silence.

There was something escalating between Oliver and Alexander that I did not understand. The discord had begun just before their return to Bennington. Those boys were very close. There wasn’t much that went on with either of them that the other was not aware of. I’d seen them argue, but any anger was generally short lived. They were partners in crime more often, but there had been noticeable tension between them as of late that I found upsetting.

“What was that?” I asked Oliver after a few moments had passed with nobody saying anything.

“That was nothing,” He muttered, not looking up from his supper.

“What is going on, Mate?” Merlyn put down his cup, “Alexander’s a bit up on his horse.”

“He’s a twat,” Was all Oliver said.

“He’s very upset,” Lance said knowingly, “I’ve never seen him so angry with you, Ollie.”

Sandy sneezed viciously into her serviette. She dabbed daintily at her swollen nose and closed her bloodshot eyes in misery before she did it again, “Whatever it is needs to be made right. He’s your twin.”

“What needs to be made right is you getting a refill on your allergy medication before your brains come flying out,” Oliver answered quickly. His dark eyes darted around the table, “Aye, he is my twin. There’s not a whole lot I can do about that one, is there? Believe me if there were, right now I’d do it. You lot need to mind your own business. Don’t any of you worry about what’s going on between me and Alexander. He wants to blame anybody but himself for the consequences of what he does. You’ll be next if you’re not careful.” He waved a finger at each of us. Sandy sneezed again so hard she hit her head against the table. Oliver leaned across his tray quickly and put a hand on her cheek in concern, “Christ, Sandra! You all right? Can’t you get something from the nurse?”

I asked him again what the problem was when we were sitting alone by the lake. I thought that perhaps he would tell me the whole story apart from the others.

Oliver sighed, “Do you remember in Ebbw Vale when those blokes came looking for Alex?” I nodded. He continued, “Well, they caught up to him. He really...” Oliver trailed off as if he had decided not to say what he’d begun to. He took a breath through his nose and held it with his lips pinched tight before he continued, “Well, let me just say that Alexander was held accountable-like for something that he’d done. I’d rather not say what it was specifically since he told me in confidence. He’s embarrassed about it because he was taken in by someone. He knew he shouldn’t have done it, but, mind, he didn’t know the full story of what he was getting into, either. Certain vital information was withheld from him, if you get my meaning,” Oliver stopped speaking again for a moment. He studied my face before he continued, “But he didn’t consider the consequences of rushing in, either. Don’t tell a soul I told you this, Silvia,” Ollie looked into my eyes, “They kicked the crap out of my brother. Literally. They waited for him and found him walking home and beat the shit out him in the gully by our house. They made enough noise that a neighbour of ours saw it happening and her husband chased them off, but there were four of them and nothing Alex could do. He tried to fight, but he didn’t stand a chance. He was all alone,” Oliver shook his head, “He’s never been alone in a fight. I’ve always been there to help him if he wasn’t winning, but I wasn’t there that time because I was with you.”

“Oh, God, Ollie. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, Silvia and don't make it, either,” He took my hand into one of his and covered it with the other, “Mum and Dad want blood out of somebody, but Alex won’t say who did it, even though he full well knows and so do I. He’s embarrassed. Plus, he’s nonetheless hurt. He spent two nights in the hospital. The bruises are gone, but his shoulder was dislocated and it’s still wrecked. His wrist and fingers ache all the time from being broken and he’s got pains jetting through his jaw. He doesn’t sleep well because he can’t get the pain to stop. The pain medicine makes him sick. And me…well, I guess I’m supposed to go right on over and fight the guys who did it to him, but I can’t say that I’m exactly supportive of that idea.” Ollie shifted his weight in the grass, “I knew something had happened. It’s way I was in such a hurry to leave your house, but when I got home and found out…yeah, I was angry. I still am, but I’ve been telling him for a long time he needs to slow down and think before he launches himself head over arse into trouble. I kept telling him sooner or later he was going to get himself into real trouble, but he just kept on and when it finally happened, all I could say was I told him so.”

“So he’s angry with you because you said you told him so?”

“Alexander’s just angry. He’s been angry for a long while and now he’s really angry. He’s not letting go of any of it this time. He’s angry with our parents, he’s angry with the school, he’s angry with me. He’s just brassed off all the time and there’s nothing I can do to help him.” Oliver looked at me carefully, “I’ve decided to just leave him alone and hope he come to his senses eventually.”

“I hate seeing the two of you fight.” I lay my head against his arm. “It makes me so sad.”

“We’ll be fine, I’m sure.” Oliver stroked my cheek with the back of his fingers, “He can’t keep this up forever. I told him I can’t keep catering to him. I’ve got my own life. One day he’ll understand. He has to.”

That one day was a long way off. That entire year they were either barely talking or taking verbal pot shots at each other. To this moment, I still do not know in detail all of what went on between Oliver and Alexander that divided them, but I know what finally reunited them.

Two days after we finished the school year, I came to visit at their house. Oliver and Alexander had been in the garden mowing and raking when I arrived and after a quick kiss from Ollie and a peck on the cheek from Alex, I’d gone inside to have tea with Ana.

“Lovely day, isn’t it?” Ana and I settled into the sun room. She poured a cup and sat down across from me all ready for a chat, “The weather report said it was supposed to rain this afternoon…” She trailed off and looked nervously toward the window as voices approached. An obvious disagreement had made its way on to the patio. Ana shook her head, “They’ve been fighting for days,” She mumbled.

I nodded, but my focus was on what was being said outside the window.

“I can’t believe you!” Oliver sounded distinctly annoyed, “Shut up! Bitch, bitch, bitch! You need to pull whatever it is you’ve got shoved up your tight arse and get on with your life!”

“I’ll let go of it when I’m good and ready, Oliver! And it’s not just that, either! It’s you! It’s the way you’ve become! You walk around like no one but Silvia’s good enough for you! The whole school should fall down and worship you! Perfect Oliver with his perfect girl! No one can touch Oliver, yeah? ‘Cause he’s so bloomin’ high above you if you look up at him you’ll get blinded by the sun! You think you’re so fucking clever…”

“A might cleverer than you, Boyo! Who is it always getting stung at school? Not me! There’s a good reason for that, too! I DON’T DO STUPID THINGS THAT GET ME CAUGHT! You’re so stupid! You never listen!” The aggravation was rising in Oliver’s voice, “You just do whatever without thinking about the consequences! If you’d been home where you were supposed to be that night it wouldn’t have happened at all! They couldn’t have got you!”

“Oh, aye! Coming from The Saintly Oliver, that means so much! As if you’ve never slipped off to the pub at night!” Alexander’s voice was dripping with sarcasm, but it quickly dropped low to a threatening tone, “You sit back and plan your crimes, you calculate them like a bloody criminal! And then sit there like you’re too good to shit! Maybe I ought to tell Pennyweather about you being the one nicking the money out of the pay phones last term or you finding Professor McClellan’s password in her desk drawer and going back later to change your marks in her computer so you didn’t fail out of Physics! Or maybe I should tell her it’s you who knows how to get inside the vending machines and that’s why they’re always going empty!”

“At least I don’t get caught! And if I did I’d take responsibility, yeah? Without moaning about it like a little bitch like you! You’re nothing but a fucking whiney little bitch, Alex! And you’d do that, would you? You’d get your own brother expelled from school?”

“Why not?” Alex was shouting now, “You’d leave your own brother alone to get beaten up! We all know where your priorities lie, don’t we, Oliver?”

“How many times do I have to tell you that I didn’t know what was going to happen? Or that I’m sorry?” Oliver interrupted. He sounded exasperated, “Fuck! I didn’t know any better than you what she’d set you up for! I wanted to fight them in Ebbw Vale, if you remember, and get it over with then, but you sprinted off like a schoolgirl! If I’d known they were going to come here, I wouldn’t have gone to Silvia’s! I’d have stayed and made sure you were all right! I can’t go back in time and stay here with you instead of leaving, now can I? And I can’t be any sorrier than I am about what happened to you! Jesus Christ! You’re my brother and they meant to kill you! How do you think that makes me feel knowing I wasn’t there? I’d have died with you, Alexander! You know that! But hells bells…will there ever be a day when you take responsibility for a single damn thing in your life?”

“That’s brilliant coming out of you!”

“Shut up! I’m tired of listening to your rubbish!”

“Don’t walk away from me, Oliver!”

“Get your fucking hands off me! I’ll not tell you twice!”

Ana and I stared at each other in silence, waiting for the next exchange. I watched the disquiet wash across her face as if she knew what was about to happen. She closed her eyes and cringed, tensing her shoulders as if bracing for an impact.

It was deathly silent for about a half a second before there were the sounds of a scuffle.

“I’ll kill you!” Alexander swore.

“Go fuck yourself!”

A crowd of birds shot up past the kitchen window just as the impact of somebody's body slammed into the side of the house and caused the glass to rattle. Grunts and muttered curses filled my ears. I heard a series of thuds like somebody slamming a raw steak on to a counter top. It took me a second to realise it was the sound of fists pounding flesh.

“Boys! Stop it right now or I’ll tell your father!” Ana screamed as she raced for the door. “Boys! I mean it! Stop it before you hurt each other!”

As I followed her to the door and peered out into the garden. I saw Alexander lift Oliver up from around the waist in a rugby style take down. Ollie was pounding the back of his head with short, rapid blows, as if he were trying to punch his brains through his skull and out by way of his face.

Alexander roared from deep in his throat. They were words that came from him, but to be honest, it sounded like only one. He screamed, “FLABBERDUFT!” as he slammed Oliver on to the concrete and brought his fist down on him.

What he said may have been in Welsh. I don't know, but Ana screamed and there was a terrible crash from the boys’ direction simultaneous to me banging into her in an effort to get out there and save my boyfriend from the murderous hands of his brother. Ana and I both tumbled on to the patio.

“Boys!” Ana was powerless and she knew it. She stood with her arms stuck out at her sides and her mouth in a death cringe, “Oh, no!”

We rushed toward them. For just a second, everything was still. The garbage bins were turned over. Rubbish was scattered everywhere. Oliver was lying flat on his back with hands over his face and his eyes pinched shut. Alexander was leaned over him, his fist still clenched.

“Get up, you little cunt!” He snarled.

“Fuck off!” Oliver’s reply was muffled through his hands. He looked up and stared up into his brother's eyes, but made no move to fight him. Blood oozed around his fingers.

Ana gasped, “Alexander! What did you do to him?”

“I gave him what he had coming!”

Ana dropped down beside her fallen son, “Oliver! Are you hurt?”

“No! Of course I‘m not bloody hurt!” He waved her off, “Step off me, Woman!”

She stood and took a few steps back.

Oliver lowered his hand to reveal a blood smeared face. There was a stream of blood coming out of one nostril. He wiped it across his cheek and looked hard at his brother. For a long moment, he sat and said nothing. Then he finally spoke. “You could’ve hit me harder than that! What are you? Some kind of pansy?”

“I knocked you flat!”

“You hit like a girl!” Oliver pulled on his teeth as if to make sure they were still secure and then licked his lips. He wiped his nose again.

“A girl? Me? You’re the one lying on the ground bleeding!” Alex stood up and cradled his still tender, once broken wrist. He winced.

“Lucky!” Oliver dabbed at his nose again with his sleeve. His top lip was visibly swollen. “If I hadn’t been off balance I would have had you! It’d be you on the ground bleeding!”

“Like hell! I hit you square in the face! I split your lip wide open!”

“Then why is it that my nose is the thing bleeding?”

“It’s your nose and your mouth!”

Oliver climbed to his feet, “No, it’s not!” He swore, even though it was, “It’s just the one side of my nose! You’re a pixie! I swear! Next time you hit somebody hit them hard enough to break something!”

“I’ll hit you again if you like.” Alex offered, rubbing the fingers on his hand that had been taped. I could see the orbit of his right eye beginning to darken and swell.

“You’ll just hurt your ickle witty hand again,” Ollie sneered. He climbed to his feet and pressed a hand up to his ear, shaking his head against it.

“Oh, piss off! “Alexander gave him a shove as he walked past.

“See! Attacking me from the rear, you are!” Oliver looked over at his mother, blood pouring down his handsome face, “Did you see that, Woman? Your son shoving me from the rear? It’s you who raised him to be a…” He turned back to his brother, “A… great…” Oliver seemed to be searching for the proper insult. He shook his head, unable to find it. He settled on, “…cowardly bastard.”

“A great cowardly bastard?” Alex winced and held his ribs with a contorted arm.

“It’s a fair cup!” Oliver replied. “Alexander the Nancy Boy, the Great Cowardly Bastard! Now go put your high heels on and I’ll have Silvia take you dancing!”

Alexander laughed loudly and put his hand on his brother’s back.

“You called me a cunt!” Oliver chuckled as they disappeared together into the house. “I can’t bloody believe it! Filthy gob you have!”

“Sorry. You know I didn’t mean that.”

“It’s all right. I called you a whiney little bitch. We’re even.”

And just like that the problem with them was settled. It was over and done with and the two of them were as good as new, best mates and brothers as always.

I wondered why it hadn’t happened sooner, but I knew the answer. It had a name. Pennyweather.

Ana and I stood staring at each other in the silence that followed their exit. It was at that moment she offered me the best advice she ever would. “Don’t try to make sense of them, Dear,” She patted my shoulder kindly, “Don’t even try. Just accept them both for who they are and have the courage to love them anyway.”

Those were words I lived by for more or less the rest of my life.

The boys and I spent our summer as we had the one before, them working during the week and Oliver and I rushing North and South across Wales to see each other any chance we got. Alexander came and went as he always did and we occasionally caught up with Lucy, who had her own pressing social schedule. When we did the four of us did meet up, we took flight in whatever direction fit our fancy. It was that summer that the twins and I were seventeen and that summer they decided it was time for me to learn to drive a car.

I’d never been behind the wheel of a car before. I didn’t know how to turn on the lamps, much less where the gears were. In fact, I had no idea that cars even had indicators to show which way they were turning. Alex found this extremely entertaining and sat laughing at me for a good ten minutes as the car lurched and died, lurched and died, and just sometimes just plain died.

“Shut up, Alex! You‘re not helping!” Lucy scolded, “You can do it, Silvia! Try again!”

“OK, you’re letting up too fast,” Oliver told me gently, leaning toward me and motioning at the pedals with is hand, “Let up on the clutch slowly until you feel it tug and then accelerate gently...that’s it...all right, now depress the clutch again and shift...good job, Sil! Now let up slowly and accelerate...shift…excellent, Love! Now do it again! Hooray! We’re moving!”

Lucy cheered. Alexander let loose in the back seat with a mighty, “Yeeeeeee-haw!” that sent me into a fit of giggles. But I drove. Without a proper license to be doing it, I drove their mother’s car from Abergavenny to Welshpool, stopping at the park behind their house to switch drivers so that Ana never found out what we’d done.

It was that summer that I developed something in myself that I’d never possessed before. It was confidence, the knowledge and the sincere belief that there wasn’t a thing in the world I couldn’t accomplish. I’d always known that I was bright. I’d always known that I could learn anything and get better marks in school than most, but I’d never been able to actually do anything. I’d never been given the chance to try. I’d honestly never thought to ask if I might try.

That night, Oliver and I went off by ourselves to the park after dark. I sat in front of him, leaned against his chest, and we looked at the stars.

“I want to learn to cook,” I told him.

“My mum can show you how. She’s a wonderful cook.”

“I’d like to learn to sew, too. I want to knit as well.”

“Mum can sew. I don’t know about knitting, but she has a sewing machine. She used to make us clothes when we were little, but she doesn’t do it anymore. She’d show you how to use it.” He paused, “Lance knits. For real. He’d teach you.”

“I want to make you dinner one night. Something fabulous. Something you love.”

“I have something I love.”

I felt my heart flutter. Had he just said he loved me? I didn’t ask. Instead I just turned my head toward him, “Someday,” I whispered, “I am going to make you so happy.”

“You do make me happy,” He whispered in reply and kissed my nose, “Every day.”

We sat there in that park for I don’t know how much longer. We sat there until the grass was soaked with dew and the moon was in the middle of the sky. It was very late when Alexander showed up and told us his parents wanted us inside immediately.

Ana was more than happy to show me how to cook and sew. I started coming down to Welshpool during the week when Oliver was working, absorbing all I could. I did better at the stove than the sewing machine. Ana and I had so much fun in that kitchen. We’d dig through her recipes and bake while she told me stories about how she learned to cook from her mum, aunties and Grandmother. It was amazing to me listening to her talk about her family. I thought big, happy families where people loved each other and passed down traditions existed only in storybooks. All of my grandparents had passed before I was even born. My step-gran had been the only one I’d known and she’d died when I was nine. My father had one brother that he rarely kept in touch with and I only had one cousin. I had been friends with him when we were little, but hadn’t seen him in donkey’s years. My mother had been an only child. Listening to Ana, it began to dawn on me how cold and empty my world had been until I’d met Ollie.

“We’ll have to take you to meet my mother,” Ana tapped her fingers against the page of a cookbook, “We need to pay her a visit soon. She’ll love you! She doesn’t live too far from your dad, actually. I’ll ring her up and see if she’s not too busy sometime before you go back to school. She’s seventy-two now and busier than she’s ever been since my dad passed away. I know she’d love to see the twins. She adores them.”

It actually freaked me out a little how included I was becoming in Oliver’s family. I realised that it was not just him I’d grown to love, but I loved them all. Ana was a lovely, sweet woman and the two of us had given each other something neither of us would ever have had. She gave me a mum love and I gave her a daughter's adoration. Her husband and I were developing a bond as well. You see, Eddie, like all men, enjoyed food above anything but sex, and he was thrilled when extra special things like pies, cakes, biscuits and breads were pouring out of his kitchen and on to his plate.

“You’re becoming quite the chef,” He told me one evening across the dinner table, “I love Italian. You’ll make an excellent wife one day.”

Oliver squeezed my knee under the table, but his mother said, “She’ll be more than a wife one day.”

“And she has lovely, excellent, huge, well-rounded...” Alexander began to speak, but trailed off, looking around the table for reaction. All eyes were upon him, expecting the worst. “Filthy minds, all of you!” He snapped, “I was going to say she has lovely, excellent, huge, well-rounded…” He cupped his hands in front of his chest, “Course backgrounds at comp to support her brains and talent, which will be excellent when she comes to her senses and marries me one day. Then she can cook and pay the bills both while I sit on my bum and play video games.”

“Keep dreaming, Little Brother,” Oliver told him as he reached for the milk, “Sil’s mine.”

“Damn it!” Alex ran a hand over his face, “Can’t you just let a man have his dreams?”

“In your case…no.”

I had to get my things together quickly after dinner that night in order to catch my train home. School was starting the day after next and I hadn’t even begun to organize. Oliver and I were heading out the door when he realised he’d forgotten his wallet in his room and dashed upstairs to retrieve it.

Eddie came out of the kitchen and saw me waiting by the door. He flashed a smile and asked, “Do you want to just move in, Silvia?” I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not. I stood in the entryway, blinking at him like a moron. He kept grinning kindly, “I know you can’t, but I think I’d like it if you did. I’ve never told you how fond I am of you, have I?”

“No, Sir, I don’t think you have.”

“Well, I am. You’ve become a real part of this family. I’m beginning to think of you as my own daughter. I can’t help it.” He paused and looked at me thoughtfully, “I’m hoping after you graduate you’ll move down so we can all be closer. Spend more time together, you know?”

“I’m planning on it,” It was impossible not to smile when Ed smiled and Ed was smiling at me. “Oliver and I have been talking about what we’re going to do after graduation.”

“Good,” He said firmly, “You’ll have to fill me in later. Now off with you! You’re going to miss your train!” But instead of wishing me a nice voyage as he normally did, he hugged me, and then kissed me on the cheek. I held him tight for longer than I needed to. I held on to him the way I’d always wished I could hold on to my own dad. When I finally let go of him, he held on to my hand. “Oliver!” He called his son, “Come on now, Boy! She’s going to be late!”

Oliver galloped down the stairs, “All right, I’ve got it! See you soon, Dad!” He pulled my hand from his father’s as if it were something that happened every day and took it into his own.

“Safe!” Ed said seriously as he closed the door behind us.

Oliver took me to my train. After a quick snogging, I went home as I always had to sooner or later. I got a taxi at the station and came into the house unnoticed. My father, per usual, was in his office working and my sister was sitting on the floor in the middle of the loo painting her toenails. I went into my bedroom and packed my bags for school, then lay on my bed and closed my eyes. I thought for a long time about the Dickinson’s and how blessed Ollie and Alex were to be born into such a family. How lucky they were to have had cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, not to mention each other and two loving parents who always wanted to know where they were and what they were doing. They’d had all of that love their whole lives. I lie there and I cried thinking of all that warmth they’d gotten that I’d missed. All the hugs, all the kisses, the giggles and the jokes. Even the angry times when their father would shout and their mother would get so frustrated she’d make them stay in their rooms for hours seemed so wonderful to me. At least someone cared enough to be angry. My father never got angry.

I’d had none of that sort of love. It hurt to know it and it made me feel upset with my mother for dying and let down by my father for not seeing to it that I’d gotten it after she was gone. I was at home, in my own bed, crying my eyes out, and I knew no one was going to come and comfort me. I knew as well if I’d been in the bed in the extra room at Oliver’s that someone would have.

I made up my mind right then what I really wanted in my life. It was comfort of a home and a family. But more than that I wanted love. I wanted love to surround me. I wanted to swim in it. I wanted to hold it in my hand like heated sand and pour it through my fingers so it covered my feet. I wanted to taste it, I wanted to smell it. I wanted to wrap myself up in it like a blanket and stay safe and warm inside of it forever. And I wanted to give it. I wanted to drown people in it. I wanted to love with all my heart and be loved just as much in return.

And I knew I could have it, but I’d have to change. I’d have to let go of all the loneliness of my childhood. I’d have to focus on filling my world with love from that day on. It meant having to re-think every reaction, but I was going to make sure I had what I wanted. I’d learned that I could accomplish whatever thing I set my mind on and that anything was possible. I knew that love, pure and undiluted, could really exist.

I knew this because Ana and Eddie Dickinson had shown me that it was true.

That night, I swaddled myself in a jacket that Oliver had left in my room. I slept with my face buried in the lining where I could smell him and pretend that he was close. I knew he wasn’t really there, but the scent of his skin made me remember that even if he wasn’t in the room, he was real, and even if all I had of him for the moment was his jacket, I was still closer to love than I’d ever been before.

CHAPTER FIVE

Our final year at Bennington went by at lightning speed. Bennington, above anything else, was a preparatory school, and anyone who went there was required to have and to maintain an exemplary grade point average. Thus, even at the best of times, it was competitive. That final year, though, was a very different atmosphere than it had ever been before. Everyone seemed more serious and more focused. Tempers were hotter and there was a lot less general messing about on campus. There were many students that attended Bennington College that were wealthy. Some were beyond wealthy. And then there were others, like me, who came from working class backgrounds. Students like us only had one chance. We were not about to budge over and allow someone to take away our grants. Every scholarship student there wanted their futures as much as I did. Therefore, I found myself in constant competition for marks to win money for university. I was not about to have to leave Great Britain to continue my education because I could not pay to attend Cardiff University, nor was there really another college I wanted to be read at since Oliver had his heart set on Cardiff University and I had my heart set on Oliver.

Realistically, I knew my father could have set aside enough money to put me through at least the first four years of university, but I had plans that went beyond four years. Daddy had always worked as a journalist and editor, but his income had never been a steady one. The money that paid for mine and Lucy’s education, I knew, came from my mother. More specifically, it came from her death. She had a decent life insurance policy, I had gathered, but I knew something that my father had thought was a secret, too. I knew how my mother had died and I knew that he sued the people who were responsible for at least a million pounds. However, I knew that he was sued for liability over an article he wrote years later and lost a portion of that money. Take that and consider the two houses he bought for us to live in, the one in Edinburgh, which he refused to sell, and the one in Denbigh, which he had paid too high a price for, and the cars he had to buy along the way, and then add the cost of Lucy’s and my private education and the answer was that I really did not know how much was left for Lucy once I finished up. I didn’t want to take all the money and leave her without enough.

Anyroad, it didn’t matter. I had always been a good student. I had always worked hard and studied. I didn’t see any reason why I should not finish ahead and go to school where I wanted. There would be nothing--and I meant nothing--that would stop me.

That scholarship became an obsession. I worked harder than I ever had. I fretted over every detail of every essay, hounded the Profs for extra credit, tested and retested myself before exams and destroyed and recreated any of my project assignments that were not utterly perfect. I slept very little and worried very much. I even skipped meals sometimes. It was not long before I was tired and cranky and so completely stressed out that no one wanted to be around me. I don’t know how or why Oliver put up with me, but he did.

“Look at her,” He whispered to Alexander as I studied in our common room on a Friday night. It was just before Christmas and I wanted to do well on my exams before we went on holiday. Everyone else in the room was singing Christmas carols and dancing around with bottles of soda in their hands. “Bless her! She’s like a bloody hound! Nose down to the paper, sniffing for facts! Oh, where, oh, where has my Little Sil Gone? Oh where, oh where can she be?” He sang, softly nudging me under the table.

“See that, Ollie? She didn’t even look at you! No sense of humour anymore, that Silvia!” Alex shot a rubber band at me. It landed in my hair and hung there. I flicked it away and ignored them. “Come on, Sil!” He begged, “Give us a smile!”

I looked up at the two of them. “Stop it! I have to study!”

“All you do anymore is study!” Oliver returned. “Come on, Sil! Why don’t you take a break and we can…”

“Your parents may have the money to put the two of you through Bennington and then pay for you to attend Cardiff as well, but my father more than likely does not!” I snapped, “I have to study! I don’t have a choice!” I didn’t mean to sound as cross as I did.

They looked at each other with wide eyes and expressions that mocked a child who had been scolded. “Wow!” Alexander pointed at me, “Don’t anybody stick a pin in her!”

“Right then! That’s it!” Oliver reached over and flipped my text book shut.

“Why did you do that?” I squealed. I slammed my hands on to the table.

Alexander yanked the book away from the front of me. I made a grab for it, but Oliver swooped down and scooped me up from around the waist. “Hey! Put me down!” I cried as he lifted me and out of my chair. “Hey! Hey! Stop it! Put me down!” I screamed again as he hoisted me over his shoulder and began to carry me out of the room. “I’m in a skirt, You Twit!”

He clapped his hand on my bum as if to keep the skirt decent and continued walking. The crowd roared and cheered. I could feel my face burning blood red. I looked up through the hair covering my eyes to see everybody in the room laughing and pointing.

“Bring her back safe!” Alexander beamed as he called out over the clapping and howls that filled the room.

“Oh, I will, don’t you worry!” Oliver replied. Without looking back he continued through the door, down the corridor and straight out of the building.

“Put me down!” I hit him on his back. It had no effect. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I wasn’t angry, exactly, but I was a little more than annoyed and confused. Oliver ignored my protests. “Put me down or I’ll scream!”

“You’re already screaming,” He told me. “Nobody’s coming, eh?”

Oliver walked with me over his shoulder all the way to the lake before he set me down ankle deep in snow. “Don’t you say a word!” He put his fingers over my lips. “I know it’s cold. Just give me a minute-like.”

“Can I go back in where it’s warm if I do?”

“Yes.”

“All right, then, make it quick.”

He put his hands on my shoulders, “We’re playing a game. You do what I say.”

“Doesn’t sound fair.” I crossed my arms in front of me. I was freezing.

“Trust me, Sil. Shut your eyes.” I did. He walked around me and wrapped his arms around me from behind. “Now, relax and take a few deep breaths. Not like that! That’s more like hyperventilating! Do it for real! Deep, long breaths. Feel the cold air in your lungs.” I took a few deep breaths, “Let your shoulders fall. Relax your neck,” He put his chin on my shoulder and moved us in a half circle. “Now, pretend that Cardiff University does not exist. Pretend that nothing exists at all. Pretend that nothing is real but you and me, Sil, standing in the snow on a cold December’s eve just before Christmas. Just you and me in the still keeping each other as warm as we can. Let yourself be quiet and listen to the night. Tell me what you hear.”

We stood there for a long time. “I can hear an owl,” I whispered. “What’s that creaking?”

“It’s the ice on the lake,” He whispered back.

We stood there for another moment. “I can hear you breathing.”

He laughed quietly.

“It’s like I can hear the air. It’s like I can almost hear the cold buzzing in my ears.”

“Good. Now I want you to open your eyes and look up, but remember that it’s just you and me…just us…”

I opened my eyes. The sky above us was unbelievably beautiful, filled with millions of stars. In the middle of it all, right above us, was the largest, silver moon I had ever seen. Without thinking about what I was doing, I lifted my arm and reached out to touch it.

“This is what it means to be alive, Silvia,” Oliver whispered into my ear, “The cold on your skin, the owls hooting and the ice creaking. That mind blowing black sky with a zillion sparkles in it. That big old moon in the middle shining down…that’s what it is to be alive. All of that and you and me and the rest just doesn’t matter.”

I turned. As beautiful as it was, all I wanted was to see was his face.

He took my hands in his and warmed them with his breath, then put them against his chest, “I love you, Silvia. I have always loved you. I loved you before forever began and I’ll love you still after forever ends.”

“I love you, too, Oliver. I always have.”

“Then come back to me?” His voice was as soft as his eyes, “Stay with me this time? I miss you when you go.”

I buried my face into his shirt, “I’ll stay with you for always if you’ll keep me.”

“Ah, Silly Sil,” He massaged the back of my head with his fingers, “I’ll keep you for always and then some.”

We stood in each other’s arms looking up at the sky for a long time.

“Silvia?”

“Yes?”

“I can’t feel my toes.”

“Me either. Let’s go inside.”

“One promise first?” He stared down into my eyes.

“Anything.”

“It’s Friday night,” He said gently, “Everybody’s in a good mood. Promise me no books until Sunday. Sit around with me. Let me have my Sil back.”

“That sounds like the most wonderful idea ever.”

We walked back to the school hand in hand. As we entered, Headmistress Pennyweather was passing through the hall with a pile of file folders in her arms. “Good evening,” She smiled and nodded her head at us, “The opinion of most from the seventh year common room is that you would make a fine caveman, Mister Dickinson, carrying your best girl off on your back out into the snow. I hope that the cold air has brought you back to your senses.”

“Yes, ma’am. Both of us it has.” He replied.

She gave him a look that said she was amused, but he needed to watch his step. “I am glad to see you made it back by the curfew bell. You two should return to your common room. The other Mister Dickinson has pilfered a large beach ball from the gymnasium and Merlyn Pierce has managed to wire a portable karaoke machine up to a loud speaker. There is…pardon me for using a phrase I am far too old to be using…a party banging up in the house.”

“Bloody excellent!” Oliver exclaimed with a grin that would have taken any woman off her feet.

Headmistress Pennyweather’s catlike eyes moved from Oliver to me. She continued to smile pleasantly as she shifted the files in her arms, “I really must go. Please inform Mister Pierce that that tampering with school property is a punishable offence. I am very busy, however, and I might forget that he did it at all if the loudspeaker is fully functional in the morning. We do have amplifiers in the music room that may be used with permission from Professor Adkins, for future reference. As well, Mister Dickinson,” Her eyes flashed back to Oliver before she turned on her heel to leave, “Tell your brother to return the ball in the morning and that I want the painting he made on the inside of his cubboard door removed tonight. He’s quite a clever artist, but it cannot remain. If word of it got out he was creating new depictions of professors he could wind up in detentions again. I am certain you didn’t have anything to do with it yourself.”

“I’ll be sure to tell him,” Oliver gave her a wave, admitting nothing, “Have a good evening, Headmistress.”

“See you two at breakfast,” She sang as she strolled away.

Oliver had been right. Sitting around our common room laughing hysterically at our fellow seventh years belting out karaoke was all the medicine I needed to sort out my priorities. Well, that and shamelessly snogging him on the couch in front of the entire student body. The highlight of the evening was when Alexander, Nina Jacoby and Deidre McDaniel, did a searing rendition of Doctor and the Medics “Spirit in the Sky”, complete with Alexander “going on up” by climbing the tapestry. Later, accompanied by Merlyn and Lance, they danced the entire dance from the Cure’s Why Can’t I Be You? video while Ian Phelps sang it. Quite well, too. When the final bell rang at a quarter to midnight signalling us all that it was time to return to our dorm rooms, Oliver and I were the last to leave. He reluctantly walked me to the entrance of the girl’s dormitory and gave me one last lingering kiss on the lips.

“I love you, Sil.” He held me close like he didn’t want to let go.

It was the second time he’d said it. I didn’t think I could ever hear it enough. “I love you.”

“Good night,” He took a step backward, “I’ll see you at breakfast.”

“Sausages and eggs,” I named his favourite morning foods.

“And bacon and toast,” He named mine.

“See you then, Sweetheart.”

“See you then,” He didn’t leave. The midnight bell rang.

“Run, Oliver! You’ll get detention if you get caught in the halls after twelve!” I opened the door and stepped through the threshold. “Leg it! Go!”

“I love you!” He hissed, spinning on his toes and taking off at a sprint.

“I love you, too!” I hissed back, but I was sure he did not hear me. He was already down the hall and around the corner, his long legs moving him to his own dormitory as quickly as they could take him.

There wasn’t anything after that night that could have possibly made me sad. I had what I had always wanted. I had someone who loved me and someone whom I could love the same in return. Oliver and I had no fear of each other. The whole, ugly world drained away around us until there was nothing left but him and me and whatever it was we were laughing about at the moment. We had heaven in each other.

I still worked hard for that scholarship. I still studied and sometimes I got a stressed, but I knew in the end it didn’t really matter. No matter what happened, no matter where we ended up, he and I would be together. It was really the only thing that mattered to me.

Almost through our final term of school that year, spring break came around. Oliver and Alexander had set up a camping and fishing trip for the two of them at the cabin their father had inherited from their late Grandfather. It was actually a decoy so that Alex could have a rendezvous with Meredith at her uncle’s cottage in Chipping Norton while the uncle was on holiday. Meredith and I conspired to tell my father that she needed me to stay with her to house sit. He agreed, as I knew he would, never asking a question other than the address. Hence, Alexander and Meredith were free to have their affair and Oliver and I were on our own for nearly two weeks.

Ollie and Alex said they needed a night to get the cabin in order, so the two of them headed out of Bennington with their mother and I left off with Meredith that Friday evening for her uncle’s cottage. I had never spent any real time alone with her other than in the corridors at school and I was not sure how we were going to get on, but the truth was once we got out of the confines of Bennington and her guard was down, she was really quite charming. I could see why Alexander liked her. She was funny in a sort of childish way and had keen, if not a bit rose tinted, insight into the world. Her uncle had stocked the ice box, so she and I prepared a buffet of expensive foods and spread it out in the sitting room. She changed into her pyjamas before it was even dark and brought blankets in. We sat and talked most of the night. Or, rather, she talked and I listened.

It was a bit disconcerting. She was so besotted with Alexander that you would have thought that the sun rose and set only for him. “I love his laugh,” She told me and I had to agree. Alexander and Oliver both had an infectious chuckle, “And his eyes. And the way he looks at down at me just before he kisses me...” She drew her breath and smiled dreamily.

I didn't say much at all when she'd go on about him. I felt bad because I knew that Alexander was becoming quite bored and annoyed with her and this holiday was a last ditch effort to rekindle any kind of interest on his part. He'd told me that himself, that he'd about had it with her whining and clinging to him all the time. I think Meredith knew it, too, but she was not ready to let go of the fantasy element of the relationship. In her mind, Alex was the perfect man. Demented, really, as he was back to not being very nice to anyone, including her.

The twins had their mother’s car when they arrived late Saturday afternoon. Meredith and I had been watching for them all day, so we both saw them coming up the drive and raced into the garden to meet them. As he got out on the passenger's side, Meredith threw herself into Alexander’s arms and met him with a long, sloppy kiss.

Ollie covered his mouth as if he was holding back vomit and tossed Alex’s bag on to the grass, right over the top of the car. “All right, all right, you two! Take it indoors!” He said playfully, but Alex and I both knew he was serious.

“Right then, we will!” Alexander picked up the bag and put his arm around Meredith, “Happy camping, you two!”

Ollie and I watched them disappear inside the house.

“Let’s go!” I was so excited I couldn’t stand it. I climbed into the car, “Come on, Ollie! I can’t wait to see the cabin!”

He’d told me so much about it I couldn’t linger. Plus, I didn’t want to wait anymore to be alone with him.

“I give them the week before one of them’s lobbing butcher’s knives around the kitchen at the other,” Oliver shook his head as he eased into the driver’s seat. “Alexander’s out of his bloody mind with that one. She’s completely mental. Ever seen Fatal Attraction? I hope there aren’t a lot of small animals at the cottage. Oh, look, a baby cat!” He pointed at a cat sleeping in the sun in front of the garage, “Run! Run away, little puss! Run away now! Or it’s in the boiling pot for you!”

I tossed my bag into the back and threw my arms around his neck. I kissed him hard on the mouth. “A whole night and I missed you so much! I kept waking up thinking I heard the car.”

“I would have come sooner if I could have, but the cabin was kind of a shambles. No one’s been there for a while, so it needed a lot of work to make it liveable-like. I had to chase out the spiders for you.” He winked and then kissed me again, “You smell fantastic.”

“It’s new lotion. Meredith gave it to me. Do you like it?”

“Oh, yes. Keep using that.” He gave me a long stare, his dark eyes wandering over my face, “Sometimes it still shocks me how pretty you are.”

“Wow, I think I’m blushing,” I answered as I belted myself in.

“I’m so bleedin’ lucky!“ He put the car in gear, “Ready then? It’s a long enough drive, but first we’ve got some shopping to do.”

I’ll never forget the feeling of complete freedom as we drove out of England. It was truly just us for the first time ever. Nobody of authority knew where we were or where we were going. We had nobody we needed to ring to let know we were fine, no curfew to answer. We blasted down the M54 with the windows down and the radio up listening to the Cure, talking and laughing as he purposely hit puddles along the road to see if he could get me wet. We stopped at a grocer’s on the border of Wales and bought a few days worth of non-perishables and then popped into a tiny restaurant for supper where we got the giggles and sat snorting while the waitress shot us dirty looks. It was dark by the time we came out, holding hands and still laughing so hard we must have seemed mentally impaired.

We drove on past Welshpool, the “danger zone” as Ollie called it, referring to the fact that it was possible we'd drive up behind his parents on the A483 if they were out. Thankfully we turned off the highway without incident, arriving in to one of those tiny, lovely Welsh villages that look like a snapshot off a post card. On he drove until he turned on to a dirt road that appeared to lead nowhere at all. We took a few more narrow turns until we came upon a place where the way forked into four directions. He took the one going North-East and drove us down a lane that had been dug by years of tire tracks in the grass. He turned one more time, moving slowly as we made our way over uneven ground and finally just stopped. He killed the engine.

“We’re here!” He said happily, looking over at me with a magnificent smile, “Mind, almost. The path’s too overgrown to take the car further. We cleared it as best as we could, but we need to move a fallen tree and that isn’t going to happen without a chainsaw. The cabin’s not too far. I’ll carry the heavy stuff if you can get the lighter bags and hold the torch.”

We got out of the car and began gathering up the sacks of groceries. “Just take one and we'll get the rest tomorrow,” He told me as he tossed my duffel over his shoulder, “What did you pack? An elephant? Great grunting gorillas, my arm will come off!” He teased and then continued to talk excitedly, “I set the cabin up last night, so it’s liveable, but a little musty. Grandpaddy used to bring us here when we were children. It’s magical, you know? Tomorrow when it’s light I’ll show you where the faeries live.”

“The faeries?” I asked. Oliver always talked about fanciful things as if they were real. It was something I loved about him, but one of the things we did not have in common. I still didn’t believe in anything I couldn’t touch and see. It was not yet part of my experience.

“You being from Scotland and you don’t believe in faerie folk? If you were Irish they might shoot you,” I could see him grinning at me as we walked, but he tripped over something in the road and straightened up, “Yeah, Grandpaddy always said that there were faeries here and he showed us the circle where the Lord and the Lady of the Wood live. He used to talk to them. They’re real. Elves are all over this place, especially in the trees. I never saw one of the little folk myself, but, mind, I’ve certainly heard ‘em.” He glanced at me again curiously, “You really don’t believe there’s a chance, do you?”

“A chance of what?”

“That they’re real. The faerie folk.” He watched me for a response, but I gave him none, He continue, undaunted, “Elves are real, that I know. I’ll tell you when we were kids and we used to stay here things would happen. They’d play jokes on us-like, the Lord and Lady would. Like take our socks and hide them in trees. The only way that we’d get them back was to leave sweets in the circle and in the morning our socks would be neatly folded on the table.” He heard me laugh, “You honestly don’t believe me, do you?”

“Not really, but it’s a funny story.” I was trying to watch where I was putting my feet as the path steepened. Nasty vines grabbed at my ankles and I wondered half-heartedly if the elves had planted them to punish me for not believing in them. “I wish I had worn socks, though.”

“Do you want a pair?” He asked sincerely, helping me over a downed branch, “We can stop and I’ll get you a pair from your bag, providing you brought some.”

“I did, but it’s OK. I wouldn’t want them to disappear tonight.”

“Ah, my silly Sil. Why would I lie? It’s true and you’ll find that out when you can’t find your socks in the morning!” He rubbed my shoulder, nearly dropping one of his grocery sacks. “You don’t believe in anything, do you?” He sounded almost sad, “I know you don’t believe in God, but not believing in magic just doesn’t make sense.”

“I never said I don’t believe in God,” I defended myself, “I said I’m not convinced. And most people would say that a faerie stealing your socks doesn’t make sense. Why is not believing in something that can’t be proven so difficult to understand?”

“Because, Love, there’s that and then there’s faith. Then there’s you and me and I believe we are magic. That’s why I brought you here. To prove it to you.”

That statement made me so happy I could have burst, “Maybe there is such a thing then,” I admitted, “If it’s something you can feel but not see. Things like love. Love could be magic.”

“There are lots of things you can feel but not see,” Oliver said knowingly, “And if you point the torch right there,” He moved my hand higher so that the beam of light widened, “You’ll see the cabin.”

It was a tiny, semi-circular one room cabin situated deep in the woods, sitting high on a steep hill. I could hear water ripple from behind it and spotted an owl watching us from a tree right beside the front door. It flew off as we approached. Oliver hurried up to the door, set down his sacks and tugged on the handle. It didn’t open. “What the bloody?” He tugged again, this time harder, and then moved aside a pot from the porch. He took the torch from me, pointed it down and ran the beam of light along where the stone foundation met the bottom of the cabin. Finally, he threw his hands up, “Oh, he did not!” He swore, “That stupid git took the key!”

“What?”

“Alexander! He locked up! First I told him not to lock the bloody door and next he keeps the key in his pocket! I’ll kill him! I swear I will!”

I was shivering in my shoes, the night air biting at my bare legs. “Oliver, it’s OK. We can drive back and get the key.”

“It’s a three hour drive one way, Love!” He was exasperated. His dark eyes were wide and his brows were so high they disappeared under his fringe, “It’ll be near midnight by the time we get there and tomorrow by the time we get back! I had planned to show you around the wood in the morning!” He looked around quickly like a thought had struck him, “Well, sod it all then! I’ll chop it down!”

“Huh?”

“The door,” He looked around irritably and then found what he was searching for; a heavy handled axe leaned against a pile of split wood. “I’ll chop down the door!”

“Oliver, wait!”

I started to stop him, but found I had to step back instead as he swung the axe over his head until the door splintered almost in half. He kicked it in, turned to me and smiled, cocking an eyebrow, “Old wood, Love. I’ll get a new door tomorrow when we go to town,” Oliver held out his hand palm up, “And a proper new lock and key that I’ll keep with me. Come in then and let me show you the place.”

There was nothing to it. It was one oblong room built of stone and wood with a bed shoved against a far wall, “I put clean linens on it,” He told me proudly, then pointed to the bathtub, which was right beside the bed, “We can use this, too. I washed it-like, except that there’s no running water. You have to take water from the well, and then boil some on the stove to make it warm and dump it in. When you’re through, you pull the plug and there’s a hole cut in the floor where it drains out. Brill! Mind, stove’s there,” He motioned to the other side of the room, “Burns wood and it gets right warm in here.” He lit an oil lamp, which was on a sconce against the wall. The room sprang to light, “There’s the loft up there. That’s where me and Alex used to sleep. Don’t think we’ll need that, but the ladder’s hanging just in case. Now the loo is outside, back there, but I left some paper in here in case you don’t want to…”

“I love it!” I told him enthusiastically.

He beamed, “Really?”

“Yes! But I’m freezing!”

“Right! I’ll light the stove!” He shuffled past me and began to fiddle with some matches while I threw broken boards from the door out into the lawn. When he was through lighting the fire, he hung a duvet over the doorway, which did very little to keep out the night wind. We sat on the floor near the warmth of the stove and snuggled beneath a woollen blanket, enjoying the closeness of each other. That was something that we did our whole life together, just sit and be close. Often it involved no erotic touching or even kissing, but it was very much just as intimate. Oliver’s arms were the warmest, safest place I had ever been or would ever go. I never found another spot where I felt more like I was home.

So there we were a few hours later, wrapped in the blanket with our fire burning down, and the sun already on the rise. We were dozing a bit, with me leaned back against his chest. I could hear his breathing become light and feel his body slump and then he would jerk and wake us both. I was just asleep when he whispered, “I love you, Sil.” He ran his hand along the inside of my bare arm. I felt his nose against my neck as he inhaled my skin, ”Just Silvia Cotton, not hurt or ticked off,” He kissed my ear, “Just Silvia Cotton and she’s just fine…and I love her.”

He’d said it a thousand times by then, but every time he did I felt a rush of warmth. I turned my head toward him and my lips lingered on his. “Let’s go to bed,” He whispered in the same voice, “It’s almost light outside and you’re already asleep. No need to stay on the floor when there’s a bed to lie in,” I allowed him to half lift me in his arms and went with him to the side of the bed. It was dark away from the stove. I could see the outline of his body as he pulled his heavy sweater over his head. He drew back the duvet and was on his knees as he held out his hand for me to take. I reached for him and stepped in close, taking him off balance.

It was me who initiated it. I began kissing him slowly on his mouth, his chin, on his throat, his neck, his ears, the part of his chest exposed beneath his t-shirt. I let my hands wander over his broad shoulders, the back of his neck and face, down his sides to his hips. I undid the button on his jeans and pushed them down with his briefs. I ran my fingers across the hard, flat muscles of his tummy, let them slide around his hips and across his bottom. I pulled up his t-shirt and lifted it over his head. .

Oliver returned my kisses and my touch. His hands caressed my face and arms. They tangled my hair. He crushed me to him, warmed my thighs with his long fingers. He unzipped the zipper on my skirt. It clung to my hips for a second, and then fell uselessly to the floor. He fumbled with the buttons on my blouse until it fell open, then ran his lips along the bulge of my breasts, not even trying to undo my bra or go beneath it, just breathing me in and tasting my skin. Then he unclasped it with one hand and caressed my breasts as he kissed my neck.

I pulled his face back to mine. He scooped me off the floor like I weighed nothing and lay me on the bed. He kissed my breasts, dragged the tip of his tongue over them and along the length of my belly and down the path to my knickers. I lifted my hips to help him remove them and then he found me.

I gasped. I was weak all over.

Oliver moved back up and laid his weight upon me. I had never wanted anything so badly in my life as I wanted him. I wanted all of him, every bit of his body, every piece of his soul, every ounce of his love. There was no sound but our breath, the only light in the room were grey whispers that seeped in around the edges of the sheet he had hung in the doorway. I finished undressing him, slowly and with great care, making every inch of his flesh known to me.

We were belly to belly on the smooth sheet, my legs wrapped around his middle. I could feel him ready for me, so close to where I was waiting. On thrust and he would be inside me, but he stayed still, kissing me endlessly, waiting for my final permission. I rolled on to my back and pulled him on to me in one motion.

“Make love me to me,” I whispered in his ear, “Please, I want you to. I’m ready.”

There were no more words. He asked no questions. He loved me. I loved him in return. There was no rushing, no nervous or clumsy hands, no second thoughts or anxiety about what we were doing. It was Oliver and me becoming one as we had always been meant to be. The way he melted into me astonished me; how easily my body had given in to allow it to happen, how smooth the skin of his back was as he focused his strength to keep from crushing me, how right the bulk of his body felt on top of mine, so fine, so perfect, pressing me down. I revelled in the way his muscles moved with mine, skin on skin, so supple. I would never have imagined a boy so strong could be so yielding, but he was, gentle as ever. I loved the way he breathed into my ear and moaned so softly, the way he responded to the sounds I made in reply. I was amazed by him and by the way we took each other to a place we had never known existed and never wanted to leave. The way he loved me….

He brought me to life.

I had never felt so safe, so completely warm and protected. He moved upon me slowly, gently, with a rhythm that said he never wanted to stop. I clung to him with my arms and legs, caressing him with my limbs. My heart was pounding.

“Sil,” He whispered, “I…oh, Love, I…”

“No-no, no-no,” I clung to him tighter, “It’s all right, Oliver. I want you to. Please, come to me, Sweetheart. Let me give you that.”

He groaned, almost a whimper, and his body began to shudder. After a moment, it was as if all the strength had left him and he laid still, his breath hot and even on my neck.

I didn’t move him. I cradled him instead, holding him inside me as I came back to reality. I wished that we would never have to return to school or to our homes. I wished that I could stay in that little cabin like this with him forever.

We lay together, still stroking each other‘s skin, “You are so beautiful,” He mumbled, “You’re so soft. You feel just like silk…”

I never prayed. I never talked to God or believed that he even existed, but that morning, I thanked him. I thanked God for creating a man as wonderful as Oliver and I promised that I would be a woman fit to have him.

“Just say that you want to stay right here with me forever.” I whispered to Oliver, “Just tell me we can.”

“Maybe we can do that,” He replied dreamily, “Maybe this can be our home.” He lifted his head and looked at me with those beautiful, dark eyes. He was so tired he could barely focus them, “There’s magic here. There is.”

I smiled, “I know.”

He moved off my body and pulled the blankets up over us, gathering me close. “We’re so tired,” His words slurred, “Come, let me hold you.”

I lay my head on his chest and listened to the steady beating of his heart. He stroked my hair gently with one hand and wove our fingers together with the other. I found myself falling asleep.

Oliver’s breath was light and his voice drowsy when he spoke, “Hey, Sil, marry me?”

He said it just like that, just like it was the most natural thing in the world. I lifted my head and looked into his eyes, wondering for a split second if he was even awake. His brown eyes were open wide, staring into mine. There was a slight smile forming at the corners of his mouth. I grinned, “OK,” I answered. I kissed the smooth skin on his chest, “I’ll marry you.”

“Today,” He whispered, kissing the top of my head. “Promise me today after I show you the faerie circle. Let‘s get married…”

“OK,” I remember saying again as my eyes closed again.

Oliver woke me up only three hours later. I swear he had enough energy for ten people. “Silvia,” He whispered, tickling my nose, “Sil, wake up. We’ve got loads to do, Love.”

I opened one eye and groaned, “I need coffee.”

“That I can do for you,” He kissed me quick and bounced off the bed, “It’s not the greatest, mind. It’s instant stuff I nicked from the Professor’s lounge. We’ll get the kind you like in town.” He walked to the stove and poured steaming water from a metal teapot into a mug, “Come on now, Love, I’ve got to show you the circle before we head into town.”

I got dressed quickly and, shivering in the cold of an early spring morning, took my coffee and followed him out into the garden. “Careful, the grass is slick with dew,” He steadied me as we descended the hill past several ancient trees. We stopped before a large ring of mushrooms. At first I didn’t think there was anything odd about it other than its size, but after a moment I noticed the mushrooms were too hefty for the time of year, giant, in fact, while the trees were still budding. Set among the mushrooms were stones of various shapes and sizes.

“It’s a magic circle,” Oliver was excited to show me, “Try to pull up one of the stones.”

I leaned over and tugged what looked like a loose rock. It wouldn’t budge. “Odd,” I crouched and set down my mug, pulling again. Finally, I tried with both hands. I got on my knees in the wet grass to have a better look, “Goodness! They’re set in the earth!”

“Right they are!” Oliver crouched beside me. “When Alex and I were boys we decided to try to dig one out. We must’ve gone down about four feet before Grandpaddy came out and gave us a beating for it. I don’t reckon we were even near the bottom of it.”

“They’ve always been here?”

“Long as I’ve known and long as Grandpaddy knew, too.”

“And the mushrooms?”

“They’re there all year round. Get buried in snow, but you can dig them up if you like.”

“Ever pulled one up?”

“Are you joking?” He looked deadly serious. “Of course we did! They pop right back-like. Grow the size of this in a day or so! Go ahead and try it if you don’t believe me!”

I picked up my coffee cup and stood, “No, I believe you.”

“Well, let’s get into town now that I’ve shown you. We’ve got a lot to do,” He raised himself to his full height and stretched, “You’re still going to marry me, aren’t you?”

“I will.”

“Well then, in that case,” He held out his hand and cocked his head, “We really must move more quickly!”

Oliver had wanted to rush into town for two reasons. The first was that we needed to buy a new door and the second was that he wanted to ring Alexander and ask him to come to our wedding. He called him from a phone box inside a store.

“Do I sound like I’m bloody joking?” He looked at me and rolled his eyes, pointing at the phone. “Yeah, I’ve got the ring that belonged to Nana. I told you I was! Oh, stick a baguette in her mouth and shut her up, Alex! She’s annoying is what she is!” He rolled his eyes again and hung out his tongue. “Let me talk to her…hello, Meredith? Hey, I appreciate your concern, but mind it’s really none of your business. No, I’d like it very much if you came, but this is a happy occasion so keep the negativity to yourself, yeah? OK. Put Alex back on the phone, yeah?” Oliver shook his head at me, “Alexander? Yes. All right. We need the signatures. Can you do that? Yes. Right, I don’t think that Silvia’s dad will be any problem. Yes, but mum and dad know we’ll be eighteen in five days, don’t they? Silvia has a bit longer, but her dad won’t make a fuss. Why would mum and dad? So they could force an annulment and then have us just go do it again in three weeks when Sil's eighteen? Imagine that! OK, Alex. Thanks! See you then, Brawd!”

“It works out bloody perfect!” Oliver told me as he hung up the receiver, “They won’t be leaving for a bit, Alex is doing us a favour first. Then it’s a good three hours or so from where they’re at, so that gives us enough time for me to put up a new door and us to heat water for a bath. Blimey, I didn’t bring any shampoo, so we’ll have to buy that, too,” He was chattering a mile a minute, “I’m starving, aren’t you? Should we stop in at the pub? We need to buy coffee. That instant stuff I nicked could knock the hair off a wolf.”

“Yes, we need better coffee. You know I’m addicted to coffee with cream and sugar. I need to buy myself a face cloth and a pair of socks.’’

“You didn’t bring socks?” His eyebrows rose.

I looked away quickly, “I thought I did. But I can’t find them.”

He laughed and tossed his head back, then quickly looked straight into my eyes, “They got you already! I told you! Nicked them right out of your sack, did they? Ha!” He clapped his hands, “Fine then! Brilliant! But you don’t need to buy new ones, the old ones will show up!” Oliver whooped and lifted me off of my feet, “I told you! Didn’t I?” He noticed people staring at us and grinned at them all, “Don’t mind us! She doesn’t listen to a thing I tell her and I’ve just been proven right! It’s better than Christmas!”

An old lady smiled and a young man looked away.

“You haven’t proven a thing!” I giggled loudly as he tickled my neck with kisses, “I forgot to pack them is all!”

“Ah, no you didn’t!”

“Then you took them!”

He looked a little hurt, “Come on now, Love! You don’t think that, do you? Can’t you just give it a chance?”

“Faerie Folk and magic?”

“Yes, both of those! Yes! And me, too! Trust me that I’m not lying!”

“Oh, Oliver,” I suddenly felt ghastly, “I do trust you!”

“Good. We’ve got to trust each other. It’s the only way we can be a real team.”

We finished our shopping and went to the timber yard where Oliver had a door cut out to fit the one he had chopped down. “It’ll be a lot warmer tonight,” He told me as he strapped the door to the top of the car.

“I wasn’t cold.”

He grinned, “We can always leave it open if you like.”

“Oliver?”

“Yes, Love?” He wasn't looking at me.

“Have you noticed that people are watching us?”

“Of course they are,” He tugged a knot on the rope and gave the door a shake to make sure it was tight. “It’s you they’re looking at, Sweetheart,” Oliver said softly, rubbing my arm through my jumper, “Cause you’re beautiful,” Then he grinned, “And ‘cause you keep clamouring on and no one can understand a word with Scottish brogue of yours.”

“Really?”

“Really. Everyone thinks you’re mental. Can’t figure out a word you’re saying, can they? But they smile at you because you’re cute-like.”

“Oh, shut it,” I mumbled, feeling my face go red.

“I love you even if you can’t talk, Sil. Mind, I understand you by now. You say, ‘yugh’ instead of you and I know you’re talking to me. And you say, ‘Oooop’ when you need to get on a lift for the third floor and ‘Doon’ when you want to get back to the lobby. You call me ‘Ahlahvehr’, he imitated my accent precisely, “And you roll your R’s like a drunken German. The rest of it, I dunno. It’s all rubbish.”

It was funny, even if I was feeling a bit insulted. “And Welsh accents are so much better?” I asked. I mimicked him, “’I loves what I dos, Buttie!’ you say! Or it’s something that makes even less sense like, ‘Whose coat’s that jacket, Butt?’ or ‘Have a swill in the bosh, Biwt!’ What the bloody hell is a swill? Or a bosh? Or a biwt? Eh, Buttie?” I demanded and then started laughing when he burst out, “Heel-lo!” I continued, “I-yam from Wales-like and I likes tah play da roog-beh! Mind, I like-at keck da balls throo da bag ay-cha…“

“The big H?” Oliver giggled like a child, “Do you even know what it’s called?”

“Do I even care? No! Besides, I’ve heard all about you Welshmen!”

“From who?” He asked with great humour, “Englishmen? Let me tell you about Englishmen,” He leaned close to my face, “They say that same thing about everybody, especially the Scots.” He raised his eyebrows and then lowered them again, “Here’s the line: ‘You know about Scotland, don’t you?’ The other bloke says, ‘No, what about Scotland?’ And the first bloke says, ‘Scotland is the land where men are men and sheep are frightened.’”

“No! No! They say it about Wales!!” I giggled as he grabbed me around the waist and playfully wrestled me from stomping away. “When I said I was moving here, that’s what someone told me! Welshmen love their sheep like their wives!”

“Oh, aye, they say it about us, too! Sure they do! But, mind, tell me then why the English put lipstick and high heels on their sheep?” He caught me and spun me around. His face was very close to mine again. I think he would have kissed me if someone driving by hadn’t honked their horn and made us both jump. Oliver flushed, “Wanker!” He yelled at the driver and then turned back to me, “Let’s go to the pub and get breakfast, yes? Fat sausages and eggs? Bacon and toast?”

My stomach growled. Food and I have never been enemies.

By the time we got back to the cabin, heated the water for and taken a decent bath and Oliver hung the door, Alexander and Meredith came walking up the path.

Oliver ran out into the lawn and leaped at his brother. Alex caught him with little effort and pounded him on the back, “Thanks for coming all the way here, Alex,” Ollie released him. “It didn’t seem right without you.”

“Wouldn’t miss it, Ol,” He slapped Oliver on the back once again, “Hello, Lovely Silvia! How is the blushing bride?”

“Alexander!” He lifted me up and spun me around. I tried to kiss his cheek, but he turned his head and I got the corner of his mouth instead, “I’m so glad you’re here!”

“Me, too,” He looked around, his eyes catching the light and sparkling. “Don’t you love it here?”

I started to say that I did when Meredith replied, “This would be just like camping. I never want to go camping.”

“I will remember that,” Alex replied through clenched teeth, giving his brother a look that said he’d had it with his current mistress.

She turned to me, obviously concerned, “So you two actually want to get married? Today? No one gets married on a Sunday. It’s the Sabbath.”

“Historically,” I could not help myself, “Saturday is the Sabbath.”

She frowned, but said nothing.

“Let's go!” Oliver wrapped his arm around my shoulder and the four of us headed down the hill to the car. Meredith said nothing as we pressed through the brush, but as we backed down the path, she spoke again, “Don’t you have a dress, Silvia?”

“I am wearing a dress, Meredith.”

“Yes, but it’s a yellow spring dress, not a wedding dress.”

“We haven’t exactly booked an abbey,” Oliver told her shortly, pulling on to the road and putting the car in gear. “Oy, did you bring the papers, Alexander?”

“In my pocket.” He patted his jacket, “You're all set.”

“Excellent! Thank you, Brother!”

“Anything for you and your Silvia.”

It was about ten seconds before Meredith mentioned, “You’re wearing trainers, Sil.”

“So?” Oliver asked a bit hotly.

“You look like you’re headed to a picnic in the park, not to your wedding,” She leaned back, “I wouldn’t get married dressed like that.”

“Well, it’s not your wedding, is it?” Alexander snapped, turning on her in the backseat, “Silvia looks beautiful! Silvia always looks beautiful! You’re a guest and by proxy, a guest should shut her cake hole and be polite and helpful to her hosts!”

“How dare you talk to me like that!”

“Oliver!” He smacked the back of the seat with the flat of his hand, “Stop the car! Now! I want to throw her out on the road!”

“What? We’re in the middle of nowhere!” She shrieked.

“Perfect! Then no one will hear you scream!”

Meredith began to cry.

“Oh, stick a cork in it!” Alexander hit the back of the seat again, “I’ve been listening to you for days! I'd love nothing more than to reach in and yank out your vocals cords!”

“Alex!” I scolded him because it seemed like the proper thing to do.

Alex glanced at me and then leaned forward and slapped his brother on the shoulder, “Oliver, take me back to the cabin then! I’ll drown her in the lake!”

“Alex!” I admonished him again.

“Don't stop the car!” Meredith wept.

“I’m not stopping anything!” Oliver looked in the mirror at the two of them, “And there’ll be no one being drowned in the lake either! Meredith, please don’t cry! No one’s throwing you out!”

“Not until the car does stop and then you’ll be lucky if it’s not at a bloody red light!” Alex threatened.

“You wouldn’t!” Meredith screamed, huge tears pouring out of her pretty blue eyes.

Alexander gave her a blank stare and turned away.

She wailed again. Oliver shuddered, looking in the mirror to get his brother’s attention. When he caught Alex’s eye, he mouthed, “Stop!” and Alexander made the motion of grabbing someone by the collar, choking them, and tossing them out the window. Oliver shook his head. Alexander nodded with enthusiasm.

Meredith continued to cry, sniffing loudly.

“Aw, Mere,” I said gently, passing her a tissue from my purse, “Please don’t cry. It’s OK if you don’t like my dress or my shoes. I’m sure you’ve dreamed of your perfect wedding all your life, while I’ve never even given it a thought. I’ve only dreamed of Oliver. The clothes I’m wearing mean nothing to me.”

She wiped her eyes, “I’m sorry, Silvia. You look positively adorable, really. Not many people can wear yellow, but you look like Cinderella in it. It’s really beautiful with your hair.”

“Oh, my goodness! Thank you!”

“I’m sorry to you, too, O. You look quite handsome in your...” She leaned forward and peered over the seat, “Shirt and tie.”

“I look like I’m heading for class, really.”

“No, because your buttons are done and the shirt’s tucked in and your tie’s on right,” She said seriously, “And you combed your hair. You don’t do that at school. At school you look like you just rolled out of bed. I think you look very put together. I am sorry if I sounded like I didn’t want to be here. It’s just this is very fast and you’re still in school. I don’t think this is such a good idea.”

“It’s all right,” Oliver told her as we entered town once again. “It’s forgotten. We’re glad you’re here.” I saw him eyeing his brother in the rear view mirror again, making sure he was behaving. Alexander was staring out the window.

After a bit more driving, we located the local magistrate and Oliver banged on the door. “We’d like to get married, Sir,” He said with his usual grin when the old man answered, “Today, right now if it’s possible.”

“How old are you?” The magistrate peered at us over his spectacles.

“Both seventeen, Sir,” Oliver told him.

“Legal then, I suppose. You look young, though. I’d have said sixteen at most.” He looked at me up and down like he was still trying to guess my age, “Baby faces. Humph. Do you have written permission from both of your parents?”

I froze. Written permission from my parents? I had had no idea that we needed that. I looked at Oliver in horror, but he didn’t seem fazed.

“Yes, Sir,” Alexander answered smoothly, “They do. I have the letters with me.”

He produced two documents he’d been holding in his jacket pocket since we got to the door. I had been too excited and distracted to ask what they were. The constable took them and looked them over carefully. He eyed Alexander with a look of deep mistrust and then turned his attention back to Oliver. “Is there a reason why your parents are not present?”

“Silvia’s mother’s passed,” Oliver answered without hesitation, “And her father takes very little interest in her life. He lives in Denbighshire and saw no importance in making the trip. My parents are not all pleased about us being married, but they consented because they know they can’t stop us, Sir. It’s either this or we continue to commit carnal sins for nineteen days until Sil’s birthday and we’re both eighteen and get married anyway. Sil will be showing by then. My parents signed the documents and opted to pray for us instead of attending.”

I almost laughed out loud.

The magistrate blinked. “And do you have proper identification?”

“We do.”

“Let’s see it.”

Oliver reached into his pocket and produced a driver’s license. I stood there like an idiot. “Sil,” He told me quietly, “Give him your ID.”

“Oh!” I snapped open my purse and produced it.

The magistrate looked it over carefully. “Well, you’ll have to have to be registered to be married.”

“Where do we do that?” I asked, bouncing on my toes.

The magistrate gave me an odd look. “Well, right here.” He pushed to door open, but made no move to let us in. “You aren’t Welsh, are you?”

“No, Sir, I’m Scottish,” I did not try to hide the pride in my voice.

“Hmpfh. No wonder I can’t understand a thing you say,” He muttered and Alexander laughed out loud. I poked him in the shoulder and shot Oliver a look that stopped him before he started. The constable gave me a long stare, “Have you lived in Wales more than seven days?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Well, come in then. Right this way and I’ll get you your license. You have to fill it out and sign it and then I have to file it…”

“How long will that take?” Alexander asked suddenly as we entered a cluttered office. He glanced sideways at Meredith. She turned her head.

The magistrate looked up to answer, but paused, his eyes moving between Alexander and Oliver as if he saw double. He wiped his eye behind his glasses, blinked, and slowly answered, “As soon as whoever’s getting married signs it, I stamp it with this,” He lifted a heavy wooden stamp, “And put it in this drawer,” He motioned to a filing cabinet, “And then it’s filed.”

“And we can we get married then, yeah?” Oliver asked eagerly, his grin spread from ear to ear.

The magistrate sighed, clearly annoyed, but then he looked into Oliver’s face and softened. “It’s supposed to be a wait of fourteen days.”

“Fourteen days!” Oliver exclaimed. “We’ll be damned to hell in fourteen days! Or so say my parents! It’ll be purgatory at best and only if they pray hard enough! Sil will be wearing those jeans with the elastic band in the front!”

“There are not enough Fatima Prayers!” Alexander interjected, “Mother’s knees will need replaced! Great Merciful God, I’d hate to see Silvia married in a frumpy maternity gown!”

“It’s supposed to be,” The magistrate repeated, “But this is a small municipality and I am registrar. So my answer to you is as soon as you wish, since you’re in such a hurry. We wouldn’t want either of you burning in hell or your mother to have to have her knees replaced or anyone being married in an unflattering gown,” He moved around his desk and opened a drawer, fingering through files, “Now is it just two of you?”

“Just us,” Oliver and I said together. He squeezed my hand.

“I presumed that since the two of you have bees in your bonnets and the other two look as though they may duel at sundown,” He did not look up as he spoke. Oliver and I glanced at each other and stifled a laugh, “OK, then, fill this out,” He shoved a document across the desk, “And both of you sign it here,” He pointed with his pen, “And here.”

Oliver and I filled out the paper while the old man looked us over carefully. When we were through, he pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose and read, mumbling to himself, “Bride…Silvia Sophia Cotton, born in Edinburgh. Mother named Sharon Mariana Nettles, father named Philip Joseph Cotton…” He paused, “Groom…Oliver Eric Dickinson, born right here…” He looked up, “You’re not one of W.D. Dickinson’s clan, are you?”

“He was my grandfather,” Oliver answered, “Did you know him?”

“Yes, yes, I knew him,” He didn’t smile, but his face went soft again, “He never won at cards, but he never paid up, either. He married my cousin, Catherine. She was from Welshpool.”

“That was Nana,” Alexander said fondly, “The world was a better place with her in it.”

“I miss her,” Oliver chimed.

“The world was a better place with both of them in it. Terrible what happened,” He signed the document quickly and stamped it, looking carefully at the boys, “The whole road to their home was washed away. Well, you were probably old enough to remember, yeah?”

“It was only seven years ago, Sir, we remember well,” Oliver looked grave. “It’s not an easy thing to forget when both your grandparents drown in their car.”

I gasped. I had had no idea that the Grandpaddy and Nana he had spoken so fondly of so often about had died in such a horrible way.

“Yes,” Said the magistrate, “At least they went together, yeah?” He paused again, “You look just like her mother, you two do. Catherine’s mum, Elaine. She was my aunt, you see, married my father’s brother. Did you know Catherine’s mother was a twin as well? Had a sister named Denise who looked just like her. As much as you two do, wouldn’t know them apart and they liked it that way. Dark hair, dark eyes, just like you two.”

“We’ve been told,” Alexander mumbled and Oliver added, “Yeah.”

“Now Catherine, my cousin, Elaine’s daughter, your grandmother, she loved no place more than that little cabin way out behind the woods. Is that still there?”

“Yes, Sir,” Said Oliver and Alex in uniform.

“Hmmm. I played cards there once. Lost my gloves. Looked all over for them, but when I got home they were put together and laying on my bed like someone wanted me to find them,” He scratched his head, “Odd night that was.”

Oliver and Alexander glanced at each other knowingly, then they both looked at me with their eyebrows as high as they would go. I raised mine in response and turned my attention back to the magistrate.

It seemed like the conversation was going to go on forever when the old man ended it as quickly as it had begun. “I’m ready now,” He took us into a different room, “Sunnier,” He said and then mumbled, “Bit dusty.”

The sun was shining through the high set windows with such ferocity that Oliver and I had to squint against it. Dusty was an understatement. It was all I could do not to cough just looking at all the powder floating in the air, illuminated by the light. He stood us in the centre of the room and ithout the use of any book, rifled off the shortest wedding sermon in human history. “I welcome you to witness the marriage of…” He looked at Oliver. “Names again?”

“Oliver and Silvia.”

“Oliver and Silvia.” He repeated, then shook his right hand as if it were asleep, and kept on, “Oliver and Silvia, you have shared a past, short as it may be, and you may now share a future, which could potentially go on forever. Marriage is a promise in the heart of two people who love each other. It is the state in which Oliver and Silvia wish to enter.” He looked at Alexander, “Who gives their blessing?”

“Uh, I do,” He seemed surprised to be addressed, “I give them my blessing, Sir.”

“Your name?”

“Alexander.”

“Thank you.” He turned back to Oliver and me, “Alexander gives his blessing. I don’t suppose there is anyone here who would show cause as to why you should not be married?”

We all looked at Meredith. She opened her mouth, but was met with such a threatening scowl from Alexander that she immediately shut it. Instead of speaking, she looked at the ceiling and tapped her toe against the floor.

“Very well.” He turned back to us, “Oliver and Silvia, you are required by law to inform me if there is any legal or moral reason why you should not be married. Tell me now if there is.” It was obvious he did not completely accept our story. My guess was it had something to do with the parental signatures that I was certain Alexander had not procured by asking anyone to sign anything that had to do with our marrying. In fact, I was certain that none of our parents had actually signed anything at all.

Oliver and I looked at each other. “No, there are none, Sir.” He answered softly.

“All right then,” He sighed, “Face each other. Take her hands, Boy! Right! What’s your full name again, Son?”

“Oliver Eric Dickinson, Sir.” He took my hands in his and gave me the same kind of smile a child would give a giant lollipop.

“And yours, Miss?”

“Silvia Sophia Cotton.” I answered as I felt a warmth rush over me. I smiled and Oliver and I both began to laugh nervously.

“Oliver Eric Dickinson, do you take Silvia Sophia Cotton to be your wedded wife?”

“I do.” His eyes were filled with tenderness.

“Will you love her until you die? Cherish her no matter what she says or does and be true to her and only her as long as you both shall live?”

“Absobloodylutely.” He grinned.

“Will you honour her and care for her even if she’s sick?”

“I will.”

“Silvia Sophia Cotton, do you take Oliver Eric Dickinson to be your wedded husband?”

“I do.” I squeezed his hands.

“Will you love him until you die? Cherish him no matter what he says or does and be true to him and only him as long as you both shall live?”

“I swear I will.” I couldn’t take my eyes away from his.

“Will you honour him and care for him even if he’s sick?”

“Yes,” I replied absently. Oliver smiled and I realised I’d answered wrong, “Right! I mean, I will!”

“May you always share your hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows. Oliver, repeat after me: I, Oliver, take you, Silvia, to be my wife. To have and to hold from this day forth. To love and respect in sorrow as in joy, in hardship and in plenty as long as we both shall live.”

“I, Oliver, take you, Silvia, to be my wife. To have and to hold from this day forth. To love and respect in sorrow as in joy, in hardship as in plenty as long as we both shall live.”

“Silvia, repeat after me: I, Silvia, take you, Oliver, to be my husband. To have and to hold from this day forth. To love and respect in sorrow as in joy, in hardship and in plenty as long as we both shall live.”

He said it so fast I got a little lost, but I gave it a go, “I, Silvia, take you, Oliver, to be my husband. To have and to hold from this day forth. To love and respect in sorrow and with joy, and in hardship and when we have plenty for as long as we both shall live.”

“Close enough. Do you have rings?”

“I have one for her, Sir.” Oliver reached into his shirt pocket and produced it.

“Well, give it to her! Put it on her finger and say this: I offer you this ring as a symbol of my undying love for you. Let it always stand as a reminder of my devotion to you.”

“I offer you this ring,” He slipped it on to my finger. His voice was quiet, yet it lingered in the room, “As a symbol of my undying love for you. Let it stand as a reminder of my devotion to you.”

“You don’t have a ring for him?”

“No, Sir.”

He sighed, “May you enjoy lengthy days filled with love. Now you have made your vows. I pronounce you husband and wife.” The room was completely silent. “Go ahead then!” He snapped, “You’re husband and wife! Kiss her, like you haven’t done that already and good luck to you!”

Oliver took me into his arms and we met for our first kiss as a married couple, “I’ll love you forever, Silvia,” He whispered in my ear.

I thought for just a second that I could pull away. I don’t know why it crossed my mind to bolt, but it did. Just for one split second there was doubt, but there was not a bit of me that wanted to do it. Instead, I stood on my toes and held on to him as tight as I could. “Me, too, Oliver,” I whispered, kissing the smooth skin of his cheek. “I’ll love you forever.”

“Forever, Love.”

“Forever.”

CHAPTER SIX

Oliver and I spent our first two weeks of married life in that little cabin only getting out of bed long enough to use the loo and head into town for food. We’d make love and sleep, wake up and talk and laugh, feed the fire, eat, take a bath, make love again, eat and sleep some more, make love again…it was just like heaven, our little heaven. I’d never been so happy in my entire life, but as the days flitted past that horrible monster called anxiety began to sneak up on me.

The morning we had to go back to Bennington, I cried.

“What is it, Sweetie?” He rocked me gently. “What’s wrong?”

“What if your parents freak out?” I sobbed, “I don’t think that our marriage is exactly legal! What if they want to annul it?”

“They won’t.”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Because,” He sounded completely relaxed and reasonable, “I’ve already had my birthday. I’m eighteen. You’ll be eighteen in less time than it would take for them to complete and file the papers. By the time anyone discovered it wasn’t copasetic and annulled it, we’d just have eloped again. The first time would be discarded and all would end the same. Why would they even bother?”

I knew he was right, but I was still afraid. I was really, truly happy for the first time ever in my life and I wanted Ed and Ana to be happy, too. I had this horrible feeling that they weren’t going to be. Oliver had no qualms about disregarding his parents’ wishes if he felt something was important enough, but the thought of disappointing them simply broke my heart.

Hours later, Oliver and I were sitting in his parent’s front room. We had rang my father the night before and asked him to make the drive down so we could all talk. Oliver’s parents were a bit surprised to see Daddy pull up, as we hadn’t had time to tell them he was coming, but they were pleasant as always and welcomed him right in.

“Well, what is this about then?” Ana smiled as she set down the tea tray.

My heart was pounding in my throat. Oliver looked quite cool, however. I still didn’t know if this was the best thing, springing it on everyone all at once that we’d lied about how we were going to spend our holiday and had eloped two days after we’d left school. But Alexander and Oliver had out voted me. They were sure that it was best to get it over with in one loud bang.

“Do I have the floor?” Oliver asked, sounding a bit excited, “Right then! Where to begin? Begin at the beginning, I always say! So, as you know, we all went off on holiday two weeks ago, separately at first…” He began speaking rather quickly, which was more or less normal for him. He carefully skimmed the details of events and bent truths, which included not even mentioning Alexander had buggered off to England to be with Meredith and then forged parental consent for us to be married, or that we’d gone off with each other the day after school broke up. These facts were omitted in an obvious effort to make the story easier to digest for our parents and to help all of us, who were each stone cold guilty, seem more innocent. When all had been said, Oliver had managed to spin the entire tale in less than seven minutes. I know because I was watching the clock the entire time.

“And just like that, we were married! Alex scampered off to see Lance in Caernarfon to let us alone-like and here we are now telling all of you our good news!” Oliver finished as casually as if he were announcing how he had scored on his final tests at school. He clapped his hands together, “Brilliant! Right! Now what’s to eat, Mum?”

The room was dreadfully silent for about one single second. Everybody was in a frozen state of shock. Oliver often had that effect on an audience.

“You did WHAT?” Ana screeched as she tossed her biscuit into the air. It landed in my father’s tea, causing the hot liquid to splash on to the back of his hand. He wiped it absently with his serviette, looking at Oliver as if he had explained the situation by a using combination of mime, baton twirling and smoke signals.

I could hear my sister from the doorway where she stood with Alexander. I swear she couldn’t help herself. If she was more than ten inches from him she had to somehow find a way to get closer, “What’s the big deal?”

What was the big deal? I could feel myself edging toward a full on panic attack. Oliver and I sat across from his parents and my father, exactly in the spot I had wanted to avoid being in. I gripped Oliver’s hand tightly for support as I was certain I was about to pass out. I didn’t want anyone to hate me, but just the same, Oliver was my husband now. He still smelled like soap mixed with clean earth and burned wood and I wanted to leave quickly so I could kiss him violently and endlessly and be his wife in every sense. I wanted to go back to the cabin in the wood and never see anybody but him ever again. I was still afraid that his parents would realise that the marriage was not legal and force the issue of the fake consent, even after Oliver had assured me that they wouldn‘t. I was sure they could have us annulled in about ten seconds. I was afraid to return to school as well because I knew they would never let us be together and I would have to lie alone in that dormitory full of girls who suddenly seemed like children to me.

My heart was thumping painfully. I looked at my husband and him at me. “Let’s run away,” I begged desperately with my eyes, “Now, Oliver… ready…one…two…three…RUN!”

He got my message, but instead of hurdling the sofa our parents sat on and running out the garden door as if our lives depended on it, he winked at me.

He turned slowly back to his mother, “I said,” Oliver’s voice was calm, although it did give away a hint of irritation at even having to explain again, “That Silvia and I got married the Sunday before last.”

The room was silent again. I could hear the clock. Tick, tick. Tick, tick. And the sound of a car whizzing past outside. Wiiiiiiiiiissssssh. Suddenly his mother’s Pekinese startled and made a sound as if she had swallowed herself whole. Alexander gave her a soft nudge with his foot.

All three of our parents stared at us with no idea at all of how to react or what to say.

“Is he joking, Xander?” Ana asked hopefully, looking toward the doorway for support. I could see the ends of her blonde hair shaking, but she didn't give it away if she were trembling, “Be serious now, the both of you!”

“He’s not joking, Mum,” Alex answered glibly, resting his hand on Lucy’s head.

“Well,” My father finally spoke with the enthusiasm of a soggy green bean, “Why wasn’t I informed before you did this, Silvia? You could have rang! I might have liked to have seen my daughter married!”

Oliver’s mother was still staring at us, wide eyed with her mouth hanging open, bits of biscuit sticking to her bottom lip. She moved her mouth, but no sound escaped. Finally, she gathered herself and managed a look of stunned outrage.

Edmond however, was having little problem with the outrage. He absently wiped at his wife’s face to rid her of the crumbs, but got her nose more than her mouth. His face was becoming redder as he cleared his throat, “BLOODY HELL, BOY! WHAT MADE YOU THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? OLIVER ERIC DICKINSON!” His voice boomed painfully against my ears, “GETTING MARRIED? YOU’RE STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL, YOU KNOW! YOUR MOTHER AND I WAITED UNTIL AFTER COLLEGE! DIDN’T WE? WE DID THE RESPECTABLE THING! WE DIDN’T RUSH INTO ANYTHING! BUT NOT YOU!” He pointed a shaking finger at his son, “YOU AND YOUR MADCAP IDEAS! YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN SO BLOODY IMPULSIVE! RUNNING INTO THE STREEET AND PETTING STRANGE DOGS FROM THE TIME YOU WERE OLD ENOUGH TO WADDLE! ALWAYS JUMPING INTO THE DEEP END OF THE POOL WITHOUT A FLOATSUIT! YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN SO…SO…SO…” He seemed to be losing track of his thoughts. He paused with heaving breath and I swear he went burgundy before he shouted again, “RECKLESS! WHAT ON EARTH WERE YOU THINKING? YOU’RE ONLY SEVENTEEN--”

He took a step forward and literally punched Oliver in the side of the head. His fist against the bone sounded like a thump on a coconut. I recoiled on to the couch and drew my legs up, trying to push myself away as he did it again. And again. And one more time.

“Ow! Fuck! Dad! Ow! Stop it!” Oliver, taken completely by surprise, did his best to defend himself with his arms and elbows.

“Dad!” Alex sort of shouted at the exact moment Ana cried, “Eddie! Stop!”

“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL WERE YOU THINKING?” He bellowed. “I THOUGHT YOU HAD A BRAIN IN THAT SKULL OF YOURS!”

POP! POP!

“Eddie! Stop!”

“Dad! That's enough!”

“OW! DAD! DAMN! OW!”

“NOTHING BUT DIRT IN THERE! YOU IDIOT! YOU IMBICILE! YOU--”

Edmond stopped suddenly, a realization spreading across his heavy face. His great brown eyes grew wide and his mouth hung open as stupidly as his wife’s had a moment before. This time his skin went white. “You’ve really gone and done it now, haven’t you?” He asked quietly and then thumped himself on the head instead, “I should have known! All the time you spend together! And you swore to me you two hadn’t yet! Not in any rush, yeah? Oh! I would have expected this out of Alexander, but not you, Oliver! What fools we are! Ana, she’s got a muffin baking!”

“A muffin!” Cried my father, “House sitting she tells me and all the while she’s got a muffin!”

“What are you talking about?” Oliver sounded honestly confused, rubbing the knots out of his head, but Ana and Alexander obviously had gotten Edmond’s meaning because Ana screamed out loud in horror and Alex burst into a loud hoot which he swallowed as he covered his mouth with his hand and spun in a circle.

I sat there and cried.

Oliver looked at me, his dark brows nearly in a knot. Hand still pressed to his skull, his eyes begged me to explain why in the hell his father was talking about baking at a time like this. Then it dawned on him because his expression grew wide as the true meaning of muffins washed over him. He turned back to his father, “No!” He insisted, “She’s not pregnant!”

I felt my face turn as fiery auburn as my curly red hair.

“Are you sure, Dear?” Anna asked in a voice that sounded like it belonged to a mouse.

“Silvia’s never made any muffins that I know of,” Lucy was so innocent as she defended me from her perch in the doorway, “She can hardly re-heat steak and ale pie!”

That statement was too much for Alex to handle. He began to laugh so hard he had to remove himself from the room. His lack of control was contagious. I began to giggle, too, but Oliver had become completely irate. He rose to his feet, “I thought you people would know that I’d marry her sooner or later!” He said hotly, allowing the insult to show in pink splotches across his cheeks, “It appears you‘ve forgotten that I‘m eighteen now, Dad, not seventeen, and Sil will be eighteen in four days! So we got married and the lot of you can shove off if it doesn’t please you! It’s not like we needed your approval! We would have asked, but you’d have denied us and even then you couldn’t have stopped us! I love her! I’ve loved her forever! And she loves me! Sod you all!”

Edmond’s chin quivered, but whether it was in anger or relief, I could not say, “She’s not…not… er…you know…”

“Baking muffins?” My father finished.

“You’re sure?” Ana asked in that same small voice. “No muffins?”

Alexander roared from the kitchen.

“She is not baking anything! Nothing! No muffins!” Oliver didn’t sound quite as upset anymore, although he was still rubbing the back of his head. He turned just as his brother pushed open the kitchen door a crack and peeked out. Alexander mouthed, “Muffins!” Bursting with silent convulsions and Oliver nodded, “I know!” laughing as well, the absurdity of the conversation finally sinking in.

He looked away quickly before he laughed out loud, still determined to appear upset, but he made the mistake of looking down at me. When Alexander shut himself in the kitchen, I had completely lost my composure. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did a little of both.

“Are you all right?” Oliver asked me so seriously that I burst into a new fit of giggles and tears. “Look what you’ve done to her, Dad!” He shouted at this father, this time looking prepared to fight back, “Screaming at us like a complete mental! Look at her! She’s beside herself!”

“It’s a good thing she’s not harbouring a muffin,” Alexander cleared his throat and sounded very stern as he re-entered the room. He leaned over the back of the sofa and gently massaged my shoulders, “Really, Dad! Look at her! She’s obviously very distressed!”

“Yes!” Oliver looked at his brother and then turned back to his parents. “How dare you shout like that! If she were pregnant you could have damaged our baby!”

“Upset the muffin cart!” Alex offered. “Way to go, Old Man!”

Oliver laughed out loud.

By this time all of the parents looked very confused. It was Ana who finally spoke, “We just want to be sure.”

“No,” Oliver turned to her “We promise. No muffins. We’ve only been playing at the oven a short while. If we did happen to manage to mix a successful muffin, we’ll let you know in a month or so. I mean, blimey! There are at least a few recipes to test! We need to experiment, you know? Buy a book or two, see how to mix it up. So far as I know right now I like apples myself. Silvia, however, seems to prefer bananas. It may end up we both like some other sort. We’ll have to see, won’t we?” He sat back on the sofa and gave my hand a squeeze. “But at any rate to make a decent muffin you got to have good nuts and berries, so we’ve no trouble there.”

Alexander was banging his fist against the wall, loud snorts escaping him. Oliver and I completely lost our composure and fell into each other’s arms, kissing through uncontrollable laughter.

“Muffins!” He said, “Bloody muffins!” And we both laughed harder. “Lord, I love you,” He mumbled. “Marry me again?”

“Nuts and berries?” I could hardly speak, “You’re such a turd!”

“I know!”

It didn’t seem to be quite as funny to our parents. Oliver had left all three completely speechless and feeling foolish. After a short silence, Ana spoke. She stood up, smoothed her skirt, and smiled a sincere smile, “Well, Dear,” She held her arms wide for me, “Come here! Congratulations and welcome officially to the family, even if it is a bit sooner than we thought!” She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, “We reckoned you two would get married one day! I have to make a nice supper then!”

“No,” Said my father, getting to his feet, “I’ll take us all out, how’s that? Come here, Son!” He yanked Oliver off the couch and crushed him to his chest, pounding on his back as if he were choking, “I always did like you!” He swore.

Oliver coughed.

Edmond was the last to speak. “All right then. What’s done is done. Congratulations, you two. I’ll phone Father Dominic and set up a blessing for your marriage. While I’m at it, I’ll call the headmistress at Bennington, but I can’t promise how she’ll react,” He looked at me carefully, “Silvia…if you were…you know…well, you know you could tell us. We love the both of you no matter what. We’d see you through.”

“Thanks, Eddie.”

“Silvia,” He smiled, “Don’t call me Eddie anymore. Call me Dad.”

More tears came to my eyes, but this time they were happy ones. I launched myself into Eddie’s arms and clung to him, “I love you, Dad!” I swore.

“I love you, too, Daughter!” He petted my hair, and then asked quietly, “Now you’re sure, right? Absolutely no muffins?”

“Get off it, Old Man!” Alexander slapped his father on the back, “I’m sure one day Ollie and Sil will have at least a dozen muffins, but not today. Speaking of muffins, I’m bloody starving!” He turned to my father, “Where you taking us, Phil?”

CHAPTER SEVEN

It was surreal having spent two wonderful, romantic weeks alone with my new husband and, upon announcing our nuptials, being scolded as if we were five years old by our parents, Oliver having his head practically pulverised, then being forgiven immediately, taken to dinner and dropped off at school by my father.

“Thanks for the lift, Phil,” Alex told dad as he got out of the passenger’s side of the car. He waited a moment for Oliver, Lucy and me to climb out of the back. “See you later, Sil,” He gave me a quick hug. When he looked at Oliver, his face was stone serious, “Let me know how it goes with Madame Pennyweather tonight.”

“I’ll see you at breakfast if not sooner,” Oliver replied as if he were not even concerned. “Night, Lucy Cotton!” He pulled her into a playful hug.

“Night, Oliver,” Lucy kissed his cheek, then mine, “Night, Silvia,” She gave her prettiest, sweetest smile to Alexander. “Are you ready to show a lady to her door?”

“A lady? You’re nothing more than a teensy weensy munchkin!” He teased. “I, however, am a gentleman and I will chivalrously escort even a munchkin to her door, least some foul menace cross her path.” He held out his hand in a courtly manner, making a deep bow. She placed her palm in his and giggled. Alex kissed her knuckles, “May I have your arm, Milady?”

“Certainly, Milord!” Lucy slipped her arm through his. She looked over her shoulder at Oliver and me and giggled again as Alexander gallantly led her through the gate and on to the school grounds.

My father caught Oliver’s attention with a short wave. Ollie waved back and nodded as if to say everything was fine.

The moment the car drove away I started to cry again. Oliver pulled me close, “Why are you crying, Sil?” He asked tenderly just as it began to rain.

Headmistress Pennyweather came rushing out of the gate, “Oliver! Silvia!” She held an umbrella over the three of us, “I’ve been waiting for you! I need to speak to you both, please come in!”

She took us into the building and ushered us into her office. “Sit, sit,” She motioned to the chairs in front of her desk as she hurried behind it and sat in her own, “I understand you two were married,” She said with no hint of a smile, “I suppose congratulations are in order. However, this puts the three of us in an awkward position. You see, until I have permission from the board I cannot allow the two of you to co-habitate on school premises.”

I could not stop crying. It was as if someone was removing my heart with a spoon. I had felt no anxiety at all about being married to Oliver, but the thought of him being taken away was more than I could bear. I wanted to finish school, I truly did, but it seemed such a silly thing now to be living at a place where there were classes and schedules and other people’s rules. I was no longer a child. I had left that behind in an ancient, tiny cabin on a hill. I was someone’s wife now, a woman and I wanted…no, I needed… my husband beside me. They had no right…no right at all…to take him away from me. Yet I was helpless to stop them.

Oliver still had his arms around me, holding me close to his side as we sat in those awful straight-backed chairs. I buried my head into his chest and continued to sob hopelessly.

“You’ll have to sleep in your separate dormitories as you always have,” She clicked the top of her pen, “Naturally, you’ll have to attend and complete all your courses. And your free time is, as previously, your free time to spend as you wish,” She tilted her head, “Observing proper conduct, of course.”

I didn’t listen to the rest of what she had to say. It seemed like hours before she dismissed us, although we never left her office. I sat there crying while Oliver held me close and told me it was only temporary. “We’ll be able to be together all the time soon, Sil,” He kissed the top of my head, “I know it’s hard. It’s killing me, too, but we’ll get through it. I promise!”

I knew the headmistress was still sitting at her desk. I was very aware that she was watching us and even more aware that she was straining to hear every word we said.

“I don’t want to be here!” I sobbed, “I want to go back to the cabin and be with you!”

“Me, too, Sil. Me, too, but we can’t right now.”

“No, Oliver, let’s not stay here!” I hissed into his chest, “Let’s just go! Please! They’re going to chuck us out anyway!”

“Maybe not, Love. Maybe not,” He pushed the hair back from my forehead, “The term’s almost up. They’ve never had students go and elope on them before. This is all new to them as well. They just have to make some arrangements…”

“Arrangements? Make arrangements? What about our arrangements? We’ve got a life, too, and this is like…this is like taking a step backward!” I felt slightly hysterical. It was all I could do to keep from shouting, “I can’t stand it! I don’t want to sleep without you…not once…not one night…not ever!” I shook with sobs, “Please, let’s just get out of here!”

“Silvia, listen to me,” He moved away from me so that I had to tilt my head back to look up into his face. His dark eyes searched mine as if he was looking for some sort of reason he could reach within them, “We have to graduate! What’s the point of all the time we’ve spent in school if we don’t? I’ll tell you what’ll happen. I can’t get a decent job and we can’t afford to put a lid on a basket for our muffins!” I couldn’t help it, I began to laugh. He let me rest my face against him again and held me tight, swaying softly, “You are the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. You and me, Sil. You and me, we’re magic, remember? And nobody is going to take one of us away from the other forever! So it’s a couple of nights or it’s six weeks and then we graduate. We get out of this place and we go home…”

“To the cabin?”

“My dad says yeah, we can have it,” He smiled an easy smile down at me, “I reckon we can fix it up some, mind. Put on a couple of rooms. Maybe even build us a right proper toilet,” He pinched me lightly on the chin, “And I can continue to work for the flour mill, it’s not far, and we can still go to university…”

“I just want to be with you.”

“You are with me.” He put my hand over his heart, “Here, Love. Always. Here.” He rocked me like a baby for a long time, smoothing down the curls in my hair with his long fingers.

Our headmistress finally spoke, “I’m sorry. I truly am, you don’t know how sorry, but it’s gotten terribly late. I have to ask you both to return to your dormitories.”

I held tighter to Oliver. I had made a huge circle of wet with my tears down the front of his uniform and his shirt stuck to my cheek.

“OK,” He answered her softly, “Just one more moment, please?”

I could see her through the bend in his sleeve. She nodded, looking sincerely sympathetic, “One more moment would be fine,” She told him.

“Listen to me, Love,” Oliver pulled back again just a little and looked into my eyes. He cocked his head and wiped my cheeks with his sleeve, “Just Silvia Cotton isn’t Just Silvia Cotton anymore. She’s Just Silvia Dickinson now and she’s my wife,” He moved the band on my finger from side to side, “Someone special gave me that ring a long, long time ago and I’ll tell you the story another time. But I want you to know that it’s magic, OK?” He looked around quickly, glancing at the headmistress, who was pretending not to hear, “It’s as magic as you and me. Now, go. Go and get some sleep and know that I’m thinking and I’m dreaming about you, same as always. I’ll see you at breakfast. Fat sausages and eggs and hot porridge, toast and bacon…and me. All your favourite things at one table, eh?” He looked deep into me, right into my soul, “I love you, Sil. Never doubt it, never forget it.” His grasp loosened, but he kissed me. “It’ll be OK.”

I released him reluctantly. “I love you, too” I sobbed. I couldn’t lift my head as he let me go. I just stared at his legs.

Headmistress took me by the arm, “I trust you can find your way to your room, Mister Dickinson?”

Yes, Ma’am,” He answered. “I can.”

“Goodnight then, Oliver,” She said quietly, rising to her feet, “I will take care of your young Missus.”

“Thank you,” He answered, but he didn’t move.

“I said goodnight, Oliver.” She said more sternly. I think she pointed to the door, “Go!”

He did as he was told slowly, touching my shoulder as he went.

I swear I sank right there and would have hit the floor, but Headmistress caught me, “Now, now, Miss Cotton…well, I suppose I can’t call you that anymore, but it seems so odd to call you Missus Dickinson. Perhaps I’ll just call you Silvia, if you don’t mind,” She was speaking rapidly in a tone that said it was not sure if she were addressing a woman or a child, “Now, now, Silvia,” She started again, “It’ll just be a few hours and you’ll see him again. I’m no ogre, you know, and if things were just up to me I’d give you quarters together, seeing as you are married and as far as I know there are no rules as far as being married and attending this school,” She paused again, “But it’s never happened before…and there are rules about boys and girls being in each other’s dormitories,” She squeezed my shoulders, helping me back to my feet, “I’ve been watching you and Oliver for as long as you’ve been here and I’ve seen…” We took a few steps, “I’ve seen that there’s been something special between the two of you since he hit you in the head with that ball…yes, I saw that, too…I see everything…and what I don’t see I either get told by the professors or the students…” A few more steps, we were through the door, “But, please listen to me now. I have no intention of expelling either one of you for the simple crime of getting married. It’s the natural thing that people who meet and fall in love do sooner or later...”

“Headmistress Pennyweather?” My voice was shaking.

“Yes, Dear?”

“I want you to expel us.”

She burst into laughter, a sound like bubbles that I had never heard come from her. “Missus Dickinson! The very thought!” She patted my back, “You are one of my top students! You are an excellent candidate for a scholarship to university! I couldn’t see it right to expel you just because you want to go! And I would hate to see you resign the school! I enjoy having both you and Oliver here very much! You two bring life to this stuffy place! Plus, if the two of you left I would think Alexander would go and then my detention pad would be lonely,” She chuckled. “We will find a way, I promise. We will find a way for you both to be together and see a successful finish here at Bennington.”

We finally made it to the door of my room in the dormitory. “Thank you,” I said meekly.

“You are welcome,” She smiled softly. The creases beside her eyes deepened as she put her ageing hand on my shoulder, “Sleep now, breakfast will come sooner. And please remember what Oliver said to you, Silvia. Love has a magical way of making everything work out just right. Don’t doubt it or forget it.”

She waited for me to go inside the room and close the door. I heard her shoes clicking until they turned the corner the end of the hall. “Hi, Sandy,” I said weakly, turning toward my friend, “How was your holiday?”

“Why are you crying?” Sandra asked with concern. She was standing between our beds in her pyjamas and had obviously been waiting for me for a while. There were two sodas and a half-eaten box of chocolate rings on my bed, “And why did you get here so late? I was worried! I thought you weren’t going to come back. I thought maybe you’d had a crash…oh, no! Oh my! Is it Oliver? Is he OK?”

“Oh, Sandy!” I fell on to my bed, “It’s terrible!”

I told her everything. I buried my face into my pillow and sobbed until my head pounded and my teeth hurt.

She handed me the last tissue just as my eyes swelled shut, “Well, you’ll see him soon, won’t you?” She said in a comforting tone, rubbing my back with the flat of her hand, “Oliver! Your husband! Wow, you’re the only person my age I’ve ever known who got married! But you didn’t tell me what it was like.”

“What was like?” I was breathing through my mouth like a fish out of water with my face pressed against the pillow.

“You know…it…you know…sex.”

“Oh,” I thought it was a silly question, “It was like…well, magic.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes,” I mumbled, “But I never got my socks back.”

I didn’t hear what she had to say after that, I was sound asleep.

The news of Oliver’s and my marriage spread like wildfire throughout the school. By lunch we were being stared and pointed at. “No photos, please!” Oliver said grandly as he passed a table of gawking sixth year girls. He lifted his food tray as if to block his face, “Show starts at eleven, Everyone! It’s nearly sold out, so if you haven’t gotten tickets already, buy them soon! They’re on sale in the middle room!”

That was Oliver, always making a joke of everything. I didn’t find it quite as funny.

At dinner Lance and Merlyn joined us at our table. They came in together and took their usual seats, giving us generic greetings. Immediately afterwards the awkward silence set in.

“How you holding up, Mate?” Lance finally asked Oliver as he mashed his potato with his fork.

“What do you mean?” Oliver was perfectly casual.

“Well, everyone’s talking about you two being married,” Merlyn began slowly. His lovely brown eyes flicked up to meet mine and then went straight down again.

“I know. But it seems to me they’re not saying much.” Oliver bit into a carrot and immediately spat it out, “Bloody disgusting! I hate when they make them sweet!”

“No, they’re saying plenty,” Lance’s pale green eyes were filled with sympathy, “Not that Merlyn or I believe any of it, you see.”

“It’s all bullocks,” Alexander said through a mouthful of stew, “Don’t you give it any mind, Sil.”

“Well, I heard that I’m a filthy whore a few times today and that a few people are surprised I’m walking straight. Oliver has me pregnant, I’m told, and it’s why he married me. Is that what you heard?” I was looking at Lance. Merlyn, for whatever reason, still did not seem to want to look me in the eye.

“Well, yes. They’re saying you’re with child.” Lance answered softly.

“But that’s not the bad bit,” Merlyn shook his chocolate milk carton, deciding that he was going to speak to me, “Someone’s telling folks that your parents forced Ollie to marry you against his will.”

“Oh, my God!” I threw my hand against my forehead. I felt sick. “You’ve got to be joking!”

“That’s absurd!” Alexander snorted, “Philip Cotton couldn’t make Oliver do anything! Lucy could take the old man with one arm! Ollie’d snap him into bits!”

“Why does everyone think she’s pregnant?” Oliver asked innocently as he spooned stew around his bowl. “Can’t two people just get married because they want to?”

“She’s not?” Lance shoved his dark blonde blond fringe out of his eyes with the back of his hand. He was honestly surprised.

“You are a great stupid scrut,” Alexander told him, “The two of you have the combined sense of a pair of goslings,” He raised his voice and put his arm around my waist as if to protect me, “She’s not pregnant! Sil’s a fine and decent girl! What’s so unbelievable that they might be in love? But then again,” He looked around to see how many people were listening. I’d say it was most in our half the hall, “If you would combine the keen and insightful minds of this lot you’d no doubt come to the wrong conclusion every time!”

“I’m sorry,” Merlyn told us sincerely, “It just seems odd is all. The two of you planning on going off together…well, that’s all right. But then you come back married! What’s a bloke supposed to think?”

“It was a bit sudden,” Lance added. He seemed relieved. “You never mentioned getting married, neither of you.”

“Ollie did to me,” Alex muttered. “Why’s he got to tell you clowns?”

“It’s all right,” Oliver handed me a piece of buttered bread. “I really don’t care what anyone thinks or says.”

“I do!” I objected, “They’re saying that my dad made you marry me! It’s bad enough they’re saying you only married me because you banged me up, but my Dad forcing you to marry me…that’s just humiliating!”

“It’s completely stupid as well,” Oliver replied calmly. He put his arm around me and tucked me to his side, “We’ve been a couple for two years and they’ve always talked, haven’t they? It’s never bothered me.”

“Of course it’s never bothered you! Nothing ever bothers you, Oliver!” It was the first time I can remember being really angry with him. I jerked away, “When someone says something you don’t like, you have this uncanny ability to just turn your head away and not hear them or you make it into a bloody joke! This is no joke to me! What they're saying bothers me! It hurts me!”

I turned away from him and found myself facing Alexander. He didn’t say a word, but I knew he was as upset as I was. I stared into his dark eyes and I got the distinct impression that he would kill for me if he had to.

“Eat your supper, Sil,” Oliver urged, putting his hand against my back, “You haven’t had a bite since we’ve been back. When we’re through with dinner we can take a walk around the lake like we always do. Get away from all these people who would do better to find themselves a hobby other than worrying about us.”

“I’m not hungry! I don’t want to go for a walk! I want to leave, Oliver!” I turned to him and then turned away just as quickly. If I looked at him I might start shouting and I didn’t want to do that. Enough people were already staring at us. “I told you when we got here! I hate this place and I hate almost everyone in it!”

I wanted to leave Bennington so badly it was all I could do not to scream and run out of the gates and up the road. It was only Oliver’s consistency and calm insistence that kept me there.

“Hey, Sil,” Lance said gently, “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t think any less of you when I thought what they were saying might be true. Nor did Merlyn. I swear it! Hey, please don’t cry…”

But I couldn’t help myself.

“Oh, screw them!” Alexander put his arm around my back set his face close to mine, “Silvia! Listen to me! There is not one of those people talking who’s not a complete arsehole! SCREW THEM!” He said it very loudly, loudly enough for most of the room to turn and look.

“Come on, Love,” Oliver whispered into my other ear, “What they think doesn’t matter. We know the truth and our friends know the truth. Who gives a damn what those morons say?”

“It’s degrading!” I tried to get a hold of myself, but I couldn’t. I put my hands flat against the table, but my fingers were trembling, “It makes me feel as if I’m some vile, disgusting creature!”

That was it for Alexander.

“Could you be any crueller?” He demanded. He was looking straight at someone, but I could not tell whom. “You need to grow the bloody hell up! She’s a person! They’re people, these two!” He stood up, sending his chair skidding across the floor with an angry scrape. He was so livid his face was turning red like Edmond’s. I could see the vein in the side of his neck pulsing, “Who the hell do any of you think you are? Saying all you’re saying! How about we put you hypocrites under a microscope?” His eyes darted around the room and settled on the table to our right, “You! Vincent Todd! Yes, you! Oliver shouldn’t have bought the cow when he was getting the milk for free, eh? You’d have done the same and chucked her, eh? Excellent, Mate! Tell me, smoked any weed in your dormitory today? Wait! No! You had some down by the lake! Yes, I saw you! Dare you to put out your pockets!” He turned his jacket pockets inside out and mocked the guilty face Vince was making, “And you, Nick Porter, over there saying that Silvia’s all banged up this afternoon in class and laughing about it! You‘d like to have a piece of that, too, eh? Yeah, that was funny when you said that about my sister in law!” He clapped his hands and then snarled, “You’re lucky Professor Nickels walked in or I’d have knocked your teeth down your fucking throat! Oh, speaking of throats, did you and Dan Simms ever decide whether you were gay? You two lovers work it out? Or are you still playing make believe with that girl from Ebbw Vale? What is her name? Oh, yeah, Karenna McNeil! Nice girl, Karenna! Did you know that she’s my cousin on my mum’s side? I’ve been meaning to ring her. I’ve learned a few things since the last time we talked!”

There was a collective gasp and some hushed laughter throughout the hall. Nick and Dan both went white as chalk.

“Alexander!” Meredith spoke from a table away, “Stop it! Sit down!”

“No! Shut your hole, Meredith Ainsworth! It was you that started this rubbish! It’s the only reason why you could understand them getting married, eh? She’s pregnant! Well, if you’re so virginal I don’t suppose anyone would believe my recollection of how you spent your holiday with your knickers off and me on?” Meredith immediately began to cry. Alex didn’t even acknowledge her, “Or you, Jennifer Eisenberg, saying how Silvia’s such a whore! She’s been with both Oliver and me according to you! Well, let me tell you something! Silvia’s been with only one man and she was married to him! I’d slice my cock off before I’d betray my brother! But let’s not damage my reputation, eh? How about I tell everyone about you and me and our great adventures in the equipment shed while you were still engaged to Ted Guinness? As I recall, he graduated and you came straight for me! Didn’t mention he was buying a cottage for the two of you in Chepstow, did you? I got my arse beat over you, did you know? Old Ted and three of his rugby fucks found me in my own town and knocked the living shit out of me in the gully behind my house. Nearly broke my jaw, those bastards! But he dumped you just the same, didn’t he? Did me a favour, too! Got me free of you before John Christiansen gave you his disease! Still itching? You’re a lying, two timing, unfaithful, useless, cum swallowing tramp!”

Again, collective gasps and assorted laughter. Alexander glanced at John and he ducked as if something had been swung at his head.

“You’re a liar!” Jennifer swore, but there were streaks of pink in her face. “You’re a liar, Alexander, and everyone knows it!”

“Am I? Let’s see if I am! Got one tit larger than the other, do you? Come on, Dear, whip out the silicone cup you wear on the left and show us the difference!”

“It’s true!” A female voice rang, “I’ve seen her in the dressing room!”

A wave of malicious giggles filled the room. Jennifer was not one of the better-liked girls at the school. She was well known for spreading unkind gossip and bullying the under-classmen.

Jennifer crossed her arms in front of her chest and turned scarlet. She glared at the girl who had spoken, a second year that I did not know, “You’re a bitch! “ She told her and then turned back to Alexander, “And you’re a bastard!”

“Damn straight I am! And you’re a lopsided slut! Look at the lot of you girls!” He waved a hand toward the tables filled with the older female students, “You’re all so perfect with your knees glued together? Christ, I’ve banged half of you foul bitches!”

Oliver and Merlyn burst out laughing. Lance and I, however, just sat there with our mouths hanging open in horror. Moreover, Alex was not finished yet. Oh, no. Not even close.

“I don’t have to make anything up about you people! You tell lies! Lies! Well, I have the truth! And you can say what you want about me and if it’s horrible and disgusting it’s probably right, but at least it’s the truth! You’re all so full of shit! Silvia’s not pregnant! She’s a nice girl and she married Oliver for every good and true reason there is! You people make me sick! The lot of you gives me the shits!”

Headmistress Pennyweather burst through the doors and rushed toward Alex, waving her arms in the air, “Mister Dickinson!” She shouted, “Mister Dickinson!” She held up her hands to stop him. “That is enough!”

“I’m not through!”

“Yes, Mister Dickinson, you are through!”

“No, Ma’am, I am not! I have a lot more to say!”

“No, Mister Dickinson, you do not!” She stopped where she was and squared herself. “Anything you have left to say is better left unsaid! Do you understand me, Alexander?”

Alex glared at her and she glared right back. After a moment, he sat down, but his face was still a deep purplish red. I could hear his breath rattling in his chest like he’d just run a marathon at a sprint.

Our headmistress glanced around the room quickly, “Go back to you meals!” She shouted. “All of you!” She turned back to us and lowered her voice, “I see the gossip running amuck at Bennington has the lot of you very upset. I was afraid of that. Rumours and ignorance are unfortunately unavoidable when people do something unexpected.” She looked over her shoulder and then back, “Oliver, I want you to take your missus to the boardroom in the great hall. She does not need to be subjected to further examination. Alexander, you, Mister Crosby and Mister Pierce may join them there if they wish.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Each boy mumbled in turn as they stood and gathered their trays.

Madame Pennyweather glanced around again and then shooed us with the back of her hand, “Away! All of you! Clear off! It’ll give you an hour or two to cool your heads! I want you in your common room by curfew!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Oliver answered mildly, taking my hand to help me stand, “Thank you.”

She nodded at him,

“Thank you, Ma’am,” I said quietly as Oliver and I passed her on our way out.

She looked at me with the sort of kindness I always tried to show Lucy, “You’re welcome, Silvia. Oliver, take care of your missus and have a quiet supper. Make sure she eats. She’s looking peaky.”

“I will, Ma’am. Thank you for everything.”

She winked at us and then turned quickly on her heel and sped away.

After Alexander’s outburst, people were at least less quick to be rude to Oliver and me. Whether it was out of guilt or because they were terrified of Alexander pointing a finger at them I can only speculate, but they treated both of us with much more respect. I even got an apology out of Meredith in the library a few days later.

“I didn’t mean to start any rumours,” Her blue eyes were wide with sincerity, “At your wedding, you remember, Oliver and Alexander made those comments about you showing if you had to wait and about their parents praying for you. Personally, I didn’t know if they were joking or not. I just didn’t see any other reason why you two would do something so rash. I only said about a baby to one person, I swear. The really mean stuff wasn’t me. I’d have never said any of that. I told people that it was a nice little wedding and that you both seemed very excited and happy. It was just so extreme, the way you two just went and did it! You’ve always been kind to me, Silvia. Oliver has been, too, even though I know he really can't tolerate me at all. I never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

“Well thank you for that,” I said honestly. Meredith was a spoiled, whiney girl from North of London who most people couldn’t stand, but the truth was that I liked her. She had a good heart beneath it all. “I’m sorry Alexander is being so cruel to you.”

“That’s not your fault,” She pressed her pretty lips together. Alexander had been dating Meredith for a year, far surpassing any of his previous flames, but he’d turned on her when they came back to school. After humiliating her in the dining hall, he refused to speak to her. She’d gone out of her way to try to make things right between them. She’d cried, she begged to know what she’d done, she’d even pulled on his arm to force him to talk it out, but he’d simply walked away. I knew that the truth was that he was just bored of her and was using the situation as an excuse to get rid of her, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that. She was hurting enough, “I do hate him.”

I didn’t blame her for that one little bit, nor did I blame Jennifer Eisenberg when she spat on Alex in the common room as we were entering to make the curfew bell.

“Disgusting! Honestly!” Oliver rubbed it off his cheek, “Could you have sprayed any further? I think you might have missed someone! My brother is right, you are completely mental!”

“I’ve had your saliva on me before,” Alex retorted, wiping spit from his neck with his sleeve, “Always willing to share, aren’t you, Jen?”

“You’re a pig!”

“Oink-Oink,” He sneered, “And you’re an asymmetrical cocksucker.”

The common room filled with, “Oooooohs” and assorted laughter.

Jennifer whipped her head around, turned bright red, and began to cry. “I hate you, Alexander Dickinson!” She screamed as she tore her way through the crowd and out of the room toward the dormitory. “I wish you’d just die!”

“Join the crowd, take a number, get in queue,” Alex mumbled. He looked about the room, “Anybody else got anything to say to me?” He called. He waited a moment. There seemed to be no takers. “No? Brilliant! Fuck off then, all of you! Leave me alone!”

Alexander could be the foulest, nastiest person in the world. I was awfully glad he’d never seen me without my clothes on. If I ever made him angry who knows what he might have said.

Life at Bennington was easier to bear from then on, at least for me. Still, it was perfectly awful only being able to meet with my husband after classes and at meals. Sleeping without him beside me at night was hell. I would go to bed pretending that my pillow was his chest and wake up thinking we were at the cabin. I was so happy for just a second and I’d reach for him only to find the cold side of a bed. Then I would cry, wishing desperately that we were back where it was just us and the faeries who stole socks in the night.

“It’s going to be all right,” Sandy would whisper, “Oliver promised so you know it will.”

Friday came and went, marking a week we’d been kept away from each other, although Professor McClellan did allow us to stay in the common room so late on my birthday that we fell asleep spooning on the sofa. “Let no man set aside what God has put asunder,” She quoted to us as she gently shooed us back to our dormitories just after dawn, “Go get ready for breakfast before anybody finds out where you spent the night. Hurry! Here are your passes! Go!”

The following Friday evening our Headmistress again summoned Oliver and me to her office.

“We’ve had a board meeting,” She said without a smile, “To discuss your situation. It would seem that there is no rule as to whether or not our students who are of age or have parental consent may marry; therefore the board can say nothing of your marital status. They are afraid more than anything that you will set a precedent that others will follow. I told them,” She took off her spectacles and looked at us very seriously, “That not all of our students have that inclination and I did not think that you two could influence anyone to follow in your stead. Students, as we know,” She put her glasses back on, “Have found other ways to demonstrate their strong desires for each other without the constraints of marriage.”

Oliver grinned. I was sure he was thinking of Alexander and his proclamation that he’d banged half the bitches at Bennington.

“Now, as I had previously expressed to Miss Cot—I mean, Missus Dickinson, or, Silvia, if I may…I can’t quite get over the Missus, if you don’t mind,” She cleared her throat, “As I had previously expressed to Silvia, there are strict rules about students visiting the dormitories of the opposite sex. These we cannot bend, nor can we find a way to make any exceptions in your case.”

I felt tears rush to my eyes. “I knew it!” I gasped.

“We’ll get through it, Sil,” Oliver whispered, “Together. I promise.”

“Together would be right, Mister Dickinson,” Headmistress Pennyweather leaned forward, “At the suggestion of both your parents, I, along with Sandra Ashby’s father, Roland, who sits on the board, and with the support of several professors who attended the meeting, have persuaded the board to allow the two of you to finish your term here at the school residing in the smaller of the gamekeeper’s quarters which until this morning housed many shovels and rakes. Those have been moved and the quarters are being cleaned as we speak to make them suitable for the two of you. They should be ready by the end of the weekend.”

I think I squealed. Oliver and I embraced and kissed quickly in our excitement. “I told you, Sil!” He held me tight, “I told you it’d be all right!”

I turned my head and saw that the headmistress was smiling.

“Thank you!” I ran around the desk and threw my arms around her neck. I am sure I was choking her by the way she rubbed her throat when I let her go. “Thank you so much!”

“I told you, I am no ogre,” She stood up, “But now I’ll tell you something I didn’t before,” She looked at us both with a sort of twinkle in her green eyes, “I met my husband here when we were students. It was our final year when he asked me to marry him, right under that tree where the two of you like to sit. We asked our parents to consent, but they refused. We had to wait then, of course, until autumn for me to turn eighteen to marry, but I understand how hard it can be to be asked to do so. I suppose now you can appreciate why I am on your side.”

“I can see why he married you!” Oliver exclaimed, pulling me back into his arms as I rounded the desk. He flashed that unbelievable smile at her, the one that made women wiggle inside like jelly. “You’re bloody beautiful, you are!”

“Flattery, my Dear Oliver,” She blushed, “Will not get you far, but,” She added with a hammy smile, “I do what I can. Thank you for noticing.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

“I don’t want a big bloody window in my bathroom!” I shouted.

Oliver was annoyed with me and had been the entire morning. “Get to your garden, Woman!” He yelled, still playfully, but his aggravation was mounting. He waved his hammer in the air, “Let me do everything wrong in peace!”

“It’s a learning experience,” Alexander chimed in, popping up beside him “He’s got no experience and he’s learning!”

“And what are you, a bloody carpenter?” Oliver demanded.

“What? Me? No! I’m learning from your mistakes!”

“Oh, sod off! You make enough of your own!”

“I’m copying you!” Alexander looked at me and pointed at Oliver as if to say his brother had lost his marbles. Alex had somehow managed not to lose his good humour that day and was taking the piss out of his brother every chance he got.

“Don’t you call me woman, you man!” I shook my garden hoe at both of them, interrupting their quibble. I was just as annoyed with my husband as he was with me, “It’ll be next spring by the time we get a toilet in at the rate you two are going! And, for the last time, Oliver, I don’t want a big window in my bathroom!”

“And why not?” He was really stuck on wanting this huge window in the loo, “It’ll give you light to see how lovely you are in the mirror!” Oliver steadied the board his brother was preparing to drive a nail into, “And you are lovely, yeah? Or has being in the dark so long made you forget?”

“It hasn’t me,” Alexander pounded his nail, “You’re beautiful. Every day I say to myself, ‘Alexander, that Silvia‘s beautiful. Today‘s the day you‘ve got to go steal her away from Oliver‘. Then I get drunk and forget to seduce you.”

I ignored him. “I don’t want people peering in at me while I’m in the tub!”

“Oh, aye,” Oliver snapped back, “That’s a big concern because there’s just so many folks wandering around in the wood waiting to peer in at you in the tub!”

“I, for one, would wait,” Alexander quipped, “But I might mistakenly end up peering in on Oliver on the shitter,” He shuddered and took another nail from the pouch on his belt and pounded it in.

“Yeah! An’ what about that then?” Oliver waved the hammer at me again, “That’s why you need a window! Without one, the toilet will stink!”

“Only when you use it!” I called, dropping back on to my knees and clubbing the dirt with my hoe, “This could be your head! Remember it!”

He laughed heartedly, “But I might use the toilet and then you come in behind me--”

“And pass out from the stink and drown in your tub!” Alexander finished for him. They both chuckled. “I think you need a window, Sil, for your own safety!”

“Oh, shut up! Make me any angrier and you’ll be without sex for a month!” I knew I wasn’t going to win this one, so I was reduced to idle threats. I threw down my hoe and wiped the dirt from my hands.

“Who me?” Alexander asked.

“Not you, you silly sot! Me!” Oliver retorted. He turned to me and bowed, flourishing his hammer grandly, “All right then, very well, Your Highness. Would it be all right if I put in a wee tiny window in your loo, up high where only eagles dare tread?”

“And dragons!” Alex added, “Dragons dare tread there, too! We are in Wales after all! Dragons dare tread there so they can eat the eagles!”

“Fine! Where only eagles dare tread to end up being eaten by dragons?” Oliver gave me that look, the one that I could never help but give in to, the one where the one eyebrow went straight up and he flashed the crooked smile. It turned me to a marshmallow.

I smiled, but looked down so he wouldn’t see, “Fine! A small one up high so only dragons eating eagles can see me in my tub! But if the stink of you brings one crashing down on on my roof, they’ll be hell to pay!”

“Alas,” Alex pounded another nail, “The happy twosome has reached a compromise!”

“That’s what this marriage is all about,” Said Oliver, “Well, that and hot sex.”

“Yeah, so you say, but can she cook on the wood stove yet?”

“She’s getting better. It’s really just about the sex right now.”

“I imagine it is!”

“I hear you!” I told them. I began to make my way across the lawn.

They whooped and hollered at me as I went up into the house. “You’re lovely!’ “What a tush!” “Marry me!” “Shut your noise, she’s married to me!” “Aw, you shatter my dreams!”

“Twincest is a crime!” I reminded.

“Only if it gets reported!”

`“Shut up, Alexander!” Oliver barked.

“Oh, get to work then!” I called as I entered the door, “We only have a day before we have to leave off for school!”

School was ending the following Wednesday, which was at that point the greatest relief of my life. Oliver and I had our applications in at Cardiff University, but neither of us had heard back. Alexander was moving a few towns over from us at the cabin; he’d rented a flat and was, at this time, womanless. Having destroyed more than one reputation during his tirade at Bennington that night, most of the girls were afraid of what he might do if they bothered him. But that was all right. His being single gave him more time to help us put up the additions we were making to the cabin, which were not going up as effortlessly as we had hoped.

Oliver and I had discussed the plans for adding on to the cabin over supper, which we now had in our quarters when we were inclined to carry our dinner trays across campus and didn’t feel like joining the others in the dining hall. We shared our ideas with Alex over breakfast the next morning.

“We need a toilet first,” Oliver told him, “And a bedroom for certain. I imagine sooner or later a kitchen would be nice.”

Alex chewed his bangers in silence, his eyes fixed on his plate, but they shot up from time to time to meet his brother's and I knew he was listening. More than that I knew he was thinking. I didn't bother to ask him what about. Alex never said much when he was in the process of thought, but it was never long before he divulged a plan.

That evening, he came knocking on the door. Oliver and I answered it together.

“I went on the internet and I found some interesting stuff,” He said before he even came in. He had an armload of papers he’d printed out, rolled into cylinders under one arm and filling his hand. He walked directly past us and to the little kitchen where he set them down and unrolled two before he got to the one he was looking for, “There! This one! Look at this, Oliver! This right here is plans for installing eco-friendly plumbing in a remote location. It’s really cool,” He showed Oliver the prints, running his finger along the edge of the paper, “I could get into all this designing they do. Genius, really. Brilliant, mind. I mean, this here exactly as it is would never work in the room we’re building, but I’ve modified it. Look.” He unrolled a second paper and tapped the table, “I drew it out.”

“Lemme see that,” Oliver leaned over it with interest, “You designed this?”

“No. I stole the design,” Alex's chest puffed just a bit with pride, “But I did modify it.”

The twins discussed it seriously for at least an hour. I could hear them mumbling back and forth, occasionally laughing. Finally Oliver agreed, “It won’t be easy to install or very inexpensive, but I think we can manage it if we do it ourselves and I use part of my trust to pay for it.”

“Brilliant!” I had never seen Alexander as excited about anything as he was at the idea of building that toilet. He was chuffed to bugger.

It was quickly becoming a fiasco, however. Over-confidence is more often the kiss of death and we were all arrogant in those days. Life, however, and the pursuit of doing things that you are not schooled in accomplishing, has a way of knocking that out of somebody in the most painful ways. Our hands were blistered, we were bruised, but still, all of us were trying to keep our sense of humour. And putting the room up was fun, in a stressful sort of trying not to kill each other or ourselves in the process kind of way.

“If I hit myself one more time with that flipping hammer I swear I’m going to climb the tallest tree in the wood and jump out of it head over arse!” Alexander stuck his thumb into his mouth, “Bugger it all to hell!”

“I’m going to take money out of the bank and buy us one of those air compressed nail guns,” Oliver was inspecting the skin between his thumb and index finger, “I’ve had enough of these bloody blisters breaking on me.”

“Let’s do it,” Alex kicked a board out of his way, “Right now.”

“I’ve no money for it,” Oliver said disappointedly. “Bank’s closed.”

“So? We go into town and find a nail gun. Then we call Mum and ask if she’ll charge it for us. Two if they’re inexpensive enough!”

“You’re so bloody clever sometimes, Alexander,” Oliver kicked the same board, “I’ll pay her back Monday.”

“Bloody sensible is what I am sometimes,” Alex grumbled. “Let's get some food.”

We had previously spent our weekends at our school lying about with our friends or heading to London and Cardiff to see rock concerts, so it seemed odd how we were now rushing to the cabin on the weekends to lay floors and toss up walls. But the real paradox was that Oliver and I, who now were married and had taken possession of our own home, had to rush from that world of adult behaviour and responsibility and return to school on Sunday before curfew or we faced detention. How ironic that a married couple would be sentenced to spend an evening together polishing trophies in a trophy case for missing curfew, but it happened. We had too much fun doing it as well, so the next time we were late they had us clean the showers. Not nearly as much fun, but we still laughed the whole time.

The gamekeeper’s quarters at Bennington where we stayed those last few weeks of our enrolment were nice enough, not that we had a lot of time to enjoy them. Classes and preparing for final exams took up most every waking moment. Bennington had furnished the little house for us, so we had a sofa, chair and a bed, but we spent the majority of our time studying at the kitchen table. Often, there was little conversation.

Oliver would usually close his books first and yawn. “I am so blooming buggered,” He said the last night before our final exams, as he rubbed his eyes, “I can’t wait until school is done.”

“And then we can start university,” I mumbled, flipping a page in my textbook while I tapped my pen against my bottom lip. “And it the whole thing begins again.”

“Ah, Sil, it’ll be fun!” He grinned and back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest, “We always have fun, yeah?”

“Usually,” I turned another page.

“Look at me,” He tapped the table three times with his fingertips. I looked up, “You’re stressed too much, Sweetie,” He said gently, “You’re not enjoying life.”

“I’ve got to get high marks if I’m going to get into the microbiology programme.”

“You will, Love. You always do,” He stood and came around behind me, “You are Silvia. You are the classic over-achiever, Love. I wish you’d stop working so hard sometimes. If you’d just relax, you’d find out how easily it all comes to you.”

Even though he was standing behind me, massaging the knots out of my shoulders, his words hit me like a stone. Instead of comforting me like he intended, they broke something inside of me instead. “That’s just it!” I told him, “It doesn’t come easily! Everything I’ve done I’ve worked my arse off for!” I was so tired and burned out that it all came bubbling out of me. All the anxiety, all the frustration. Everthing. I sobbed.

Oliver must have felt helpless because he said nothing, which was not much like him. Instead, he just stood behind with his arms around me and let me cry. Finally, he kissed my hair and he spoke, “I wish you could see what I do. You are the most beautiful person who was ever created. In your heart and in your mind, Love.”

“I am not!”

But you are!” He insisted, rocking me gently, “I love the way you smell,” He muttered, kissing me softly behind the ear, “I love your skin. You’re always so soft. And bright! Silvia, you understand things that nobody else does. All that Science rubbish that gives the rest of us headaches, you explain it so we can understand it. Mind, we only understand it for about a femto-second before it all slips out through our ears, but, that’s how good you are. I know what a femto-second is because of you!”

I kept sobbing. No matter what he said, it made me cry harder and I knew why. I was terrified. As much as I loved him, loving him scared the hell out of me. Everybody who was ever supposed to love me had sent me away. My mind was racing. What was I doing married? Why was he saying all these wonderful things about me? When would he leave? When would he tell me to go? When would this whole dream be over and I’d be left standing in a strange place with my bags like I’d always been left before?

I was out of control and vulnerable. How had I let myself get to the point where someone could hold me in his hand and could crush me at any second? How could I ever have let myself feel like I depended on his will for my very breath? How did I ever allow myself to trust him when he could destroy me? Completely and totally obliterate me? I had always been so strong, so focused. But with him, I was lost.

He was quiet for a long time, holding me in that little kitchen. Finally, he spoke.

“I’ll never leave you, Silvia,” He swore. I’ve been told that soul mates can read each other’s minds and Oliver could certainly read mine. He squeezed me tighter, “No matter what happens, no matter what goes wrong. I’ll stay with you forever.”

“I know.” I whispered. I believed him. I felt some of the tears recede, but anxiety burned in my chest.

“Then why are you afraid? I can feel it, Sil. Why are you afraid of me sometimes?”

“Because,” I put my hand back against his face and caressed the beginnings of stubble on his cheek with my fingertips. “Nobody’s ever loved me before.”

“Is it so unbelievable that somebody would?”

It took me a moment to answer. I traced the bones of his face and ran my thumb across his lips. “Nobody ever has,” I repeated.

“That’s the saddest thing I‘ve ever heard,“ He told me softly, “That somebody as incredibly wonderful as you never felt loved. I’m sorry that your life was like that, but it isn’t anymore because I‘m here now,” He warmed my shoulder with his hand, “I love you. You don’t need to be afraid of that, Silvia, or of me. I won’t just stop loving you one day out of the blue. I know your mother died and your father wasn’t there for you. I know you feel they both abandoned you, but I won’t. You are always safe with me. I’ll never hurt you, never on purpose. I’ll never betray you. I’ll always protect you. You have to know that. I have always loved you, Just Silvia. I loved you before I knew you were real and I will love you always in time. I promise. I swear it.”

I suddenly could breathe again, although there was still a bit of post-hysteric gulping going on, “I promise the same, Oliver. I promise, too.”

I stood up and he took me into his arms and held me until I was calm and relaxed. Moments later he walked me to the bed where we lie close, side by side, lost with each other in the place that we could only get to together. It was the only place where either of us felt entirely at peace and knew that we were completely safe and totally loved. We were together. We were home.

We slept, both of us lost in dreams we’d never remember later to share. In the morning, I woke facing him. I sat up and caught myself in the mirror. My hair was a nightmare of frazzled, spidery curls. My eyes looked as if they’d been bleeding and my nose was red like a tomato. I noticed him move and realised he’d caught my reflection as well. Me, looking the worst he’d ever seen. I looked back at him and immediately began pulling at my hair.

He smiled and said, “I have eye drops in my jacket pocket.”

That was when I knew he’d been telling me the truth. He really wasn’t going anywhere.

All of my fear melted away.

CHAPTER NINE

I got one hundred percent on my final exam the next day. Instead of rushing back to the cabin, we spent the weekend at school enjoying the year end festivities with our friends. We were all fully aware that this was our final hoorah. It was only a matter of days before life as we knew it would end and each of us would shove off in our different directions and make our own way in the world. It was ever present, this fact, lingering just below the surface, but no one said much about it. No one discussed their anxieties or sadness at the inevitable separation we’d all experience. We just talked and laughed and chased each other about the rugby pitch as usual. Then, the following Wednesday all of us… Alex, Oliver, Sandra, Lance, Merlyn and I, all received our A-Levels and set about preparing to go home.

I kept thinking that this was it. My last and final moment not only as a second form student, but as a child. It was my time of passage, I knew, the moment where I had nobody to answer to but myself. Everything I had worked all my life for, all those tests, all the studying and coursework and worry and aggravation...all of it accumulated into the moment that it all ended. I wouldn’t know if I had been accepted to Cardiff until August, so I pushed it out of my mind and tried to focus on the now, on the excitement that I should be feeling at having completed such a task as finishing secondary school. So many people didn’t make it and I had, with honors.

Then why, I wondered even then, wasn't I excited? Why wasn't I filled with a sense of accomplishment? Why wasn't I bursting with pride? Why did I feel nothing more than relief mixed with sadness, mixed with that horrible sense of regret I always felt, as if I could have done better, as if I should have done something different?

I didn't give myself time to give it any mind. I couldn't feel anything back then, not anything in any depth other than my strange emptiness and occasional bouts of sadness. Nothing but him, nothing but Oliver.

One the last day there, we left one by one. One by one, without truly understanding the magnitude of it at the time, we each left any life we had known before and began a journey from which we could never return.

“I can’t believe you’re all going!” Lucy howled, clinging to Oliver on the quad, “You’re leaving me here all alone!”

“All alone?” Alex asked incredulously, looking about the crowd, “You have a thousand friends at this school! You‘re Queen Bee of your class!”

“Not friends like you!” She choked back her tears and hugged Oliver tighter, “You’re more than friends! You’re my family! I’m going to be all alone! Ollie and Sil have moved away and now you’re leaving me, too, Xander! How am I supposed to come and see you?”

“We are family,” Ollie squished her to him and kissed the top of her head, “Which is why you’ll always see us!”

She howled.

Alex looked at me and shook his head, “Is she serious?”

I nodded. I had been aware that Lucy had been upset for weeks about us leaving Bennington. She hadn't pulled any punches letting me know. When she’d figured out that I wasn’t going to be living in the house with her and Dad anymore and that no one would be travelling one way or the other to visit all the time, she had sank into a deep funk. “It's not fair!” She'd told me in a fit one night, “We've always been together!”

“Lucy,” I tried to remain calm. Part of me really wanted nothing more than to tell her to grow up and remind her that there was a long, long time when we weren’t together, but it seemed cruel so I didn't. Instead, I took the logical route, “We're five years older than you! We had to go before you or we'd be in college until we were twenty-three! Besides, Ollie and I are married now and we have to have our own place. It's not like we won't ever see you.”

“I hate it!” She stomped her foot so hard her hair went in her face, “I absolutely hate it!”

Nothing I had said seemed to comfort her, so that last day on the quad I didn't even try.

“We’ll never leave you forever,” Alexander sounded annoyed, “You know you’ll see us from time to time.”

It only made her cry harder. “From time to time! I’ll be so lonely in Denbigh this summer!”

“Take the bloody train then, yeah?” Alex snapped. He'd had enough of her moaning, “You can come to Welshpool any time you like!”

“Really?” She blinked up at him. Her pale, round face was pure innocence. She was pretty even then, Lucy was. Lucy was always pretty, even when she was a baby, and she was pretty with tears streaming down her cheeks at twelve years old.

“Do you think my mum would turn you out?” Oliver asked gently.

“Would you come and see me?” Her eyes were wide, still fixed on Alex.

“Lucy,” Alexander’s shoulders slumped. The look of annoyance was swept away with another that said he couldn't believe she'd ask such a thing. He shook his head, “If you need me, you call my name and I’ll drop what I’m doing and rush to you. Don’t you know that by now?”

“You always expect people to know things without telling them,” She sniffed.

“Only clever people,” Alex teased.

Lucy giggled.

As much as I had wanted to leave Bennington since our marriage, the thought of walking out of those gates and never returning was very sad for me. After most people had already gone, the six of us Bennington kids gathered in a group on the quad for the last time to say our goodbyes to each other. It was surreal. I looked at the friends I had made since I had gotten there…the ones I had been close with like Sandra, Lance and Merlyn and the ones that had sort of flitted in and out of my life, like Meredith and Josh. Three years I had known all of them, but it seemed a lifetime. I could not even begin to measure the ways that all of us had changed in that time, nor was I able to fathom how we would change once we went our separate ways.

“Take care of yourself and of that giant oaf you married,” Merlyn told me in my ear as he gave me a very firm farewell hug. He was going to his parent’s cottage in France and needed to catch his plane, “I’ll miss seeing you both every day.” He held me at arm’s length and smiled broadly, “Take care of you, too!”

“I’ll miss you, too,” I said sincerely, kissing his cheek, “We'll see you soon!” I turned to Lance, who was standing to my left, grinning, “Goodbye, Lancelot,” I gave him a good squeeze and bent to kiss his cheek as well, “I know you’ll do wonderful at Cambridge. Keep growing like you are and soon you’ll be tall as an oak!”

“Liar Silvia!” He chuckled. I watched the red spread across his cheeks about the kiss, “I’ll miss that about you!”

“I’ll stop the world and melt with you, Oliver Dickinson!” Merlyn wailed out the chorus to the song they were always quoting to each other. It had some private meaning I was never in on. He began walking away, “You see the difference and it’s getting better all the time!”

“There’s nothing you and I won’t do, Merlyn Pierce!” Oliver wailed back as Merlyn gave us all one final wave good bye. Ollie held his hand high above his head and bellowed, “I’ll stop the world and melt with you, Boyo!”

I hugged Sandra, the last to leave the quad, for a very long time. She was the hardest for me to leave. Oliver said nothing about it, but left us alone instead, going over to stand with Alexander.

I can honestly say that one of the most beautiful experiences of being a girl is finding a best friend. It took me fifteen years to find mine and it had happened at that school. In a number of ways it was a love affair with me and Sandy. From the very beginning we'd understood each other. I trusted her implicitly. I told her everything, things I'd never even told Oliver. She knew about my feelings for my dad, my ambitions, my sexual encounters. She knew my most intimate secrets and my greatest hopes and fears.

She was my harshest critic. I’ll never forget how she tore me to bits while we were gown shopping for a Yule Ball. “Oh, God! Silvia!” She scolded, “You can't wear ruffles! You look like a fucking retarded six year old!”

To this very day I can't even think of wearing a ruffle.

But in contrast she was my greatest, most honest supporter. “Now that dress, Love! Is gorgeous!” She had gasped and slapped her hand over her mouth. I had tried on an off the shoulder black, sequence satin gown, “Bloody gorgeous!”

“Is it really?” I turned in the mirror and looked at myself over my shoulder.

“Oh yeah!” She placed her hands on her slim hips, “I'd fuck you in that!”

“Really?”

“Really! I hate you!”

“Really?”

“No, I love-hate you! You're too cute!”

“I love-hate you, too! You're so tall!”

“Shut up and zip me!”

Sandy and Silvia. That was us. I loved her like a sister, true and real, and I knew that because I had a sister and it was difficult to compare the two.

On that quad the day we left Bennington, we wept knowing we'd be apart for a good, long time.

“You’ve got my address,” I finally let her go, wiping the tears from my cheeks.

“I do! And I’ll be back in Wales around Christmas, we can have tea then.” She dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “I can come back sometimes and you can come to Ireland, too!”

“Of course we can!”

“Oh, Silvia, I feel like I’m losing a sister!”

“You’re not losing anything!” I swore. I grabbed her up again and squeezed her hard, “We’ll be mates forever! I’ll see you around Christmas!”

As much as I meant the mates forever part, I knew somehow deep down in my heart that we wouldn’t meet for tea at Christmas or at any time soon after that, either. She might come to Wales from time to time, but she'd have no time to leave her obligations to come and see me. We would send posts and make phone calls and one day we would reunite, but our lives were going to take us to different destinations. My world was below hers, a simple one, where hers was one born with responsibilities I would never understand. It was like a stone sitting in my gut. I knew that Sandra knew it as well.

As Oliver and Alexander approached us, she let me go and turned to them. They both hugged her and the three of them stood chatting for a bit.

I suddenly felt incredibly lonely. The meaning of the old saying, “A page has turned” dawned on me. How true it was. I had spent three years writing a page of my life at Bennington and it was now over. Those days were safely tucked away, bound by time in my memory. My past could never be edited, revised or changed, but I could re-read it as time went on and review its lessons if I needed to. It was the first time I understood how precious memories are. I felt so empty and so full all at once.

Moments later, Sandra left off with her older brother for their home in Ireland. Lance had left off with his mother for their estate North in Caernarfon. Alexander left off with his parents for the family home in Welshpool and Oliver and I took one last walk around the lake together in silence. We looked at the little gamekeeper's cottage that had been our temporary home, at the tree we sat under when he had kissed me for the first time, and the spot on the bank where we would hang out with our little group of friends and laugh until we ached. Neither of us said a word. Then we walked across the grounds to the bench where we had first met.

“I want to take this with me,” Oliver said quietly, patting its surface. “Maybe I’ll steal it.”

“It’s made of stone. We couldn’t lift it.”

“Yes, but Professor Wilkins took the rubber ball from Lance when Merlyn broke a window with it and wouldn‘t return it, remember?”

I nodded, “You lose a ball and you can’t have a bench. But you ended up with me.”

He wrapped his arm around me, “Just Silvia, who’s not hurt or ticked off, but just fine.” We watched a butterfly flutter past and land on the grass, “What would it have been like here without you?”

“You’d have had loads of girlfriends.”

“Like who?”

“Oh, like Peggy McGhee!”

“Who? Oh, her. Yes. I mean no. Definitely not her.” He was looking straight ahead.

“Serena McLaughlin then.”

Oliver snorted. “Try another!”

“Amber Monahan.”

“No way! She‘s revolting!”

“Well, you could have had the half of the female students that Alex didn’t,” I squeezed his arm, “Or the two you might have exchanged if it wasn’t a good fit. Wait! Would that be twincest?”

I watched the dimple appear in his cheek as Oliver smiled and shook his head, “Gargoyles, ninety-five percent of them. I wouldn’t have wanted any one of them and none of them would have been clever enough to get me through Physics.”

“I didn’t help! You nicked the password to Professor McClellan’s computer, picked the lock on her office and changed your mark yourself! And maybe you wouldn’t have wanted to keep any of those girls, but they’d have wanted to keep you.”

“So? You practically wrote my essay once!” He looked up into the sky, “I’d have been miserable here without you!” He paused, “Well, maybe I’d have gotten an urge to go to Edinburgh then. Maybe I’d have gone and seen a beautiful red haired goddess on a bench and beamed her straight in the back of the head with a rubber ball just so I could meet her.”

“You did that on purpose?”

He looked at me with the devil in his grin, “No, but it would have been brilliant, yeah?”

I lay my head against his arm. We were quiet for a long moment. “So it’s good bye to Bennington now and off to our little house in the wood.”

“Oh, I’ll make it big. I’ll make a mansion out of it for you.”

“I don’t want a big house.”

“Really?”

“No, just a couple of rooms.”

“A toilet with a window?”

“Up high, sure,” I squeezed him again, happily imagining it, “Nothing we can’t manage. Just something where we can go at night and be warm and eat fat sausages and bacon and toast in the morning. Of course, running water would be nice.”

“A room for us and a room for a muffin or two?” He nudged me.

“Oh, yes, definitely, but we’ll worry about the muffins as they come. They can always share a room for a while if they have to. Lucy and I did.”

“I really do think you are absolutely the most fabulous person in the world, Sil.” He looked at me seriously, “Marry me again?”

“As many times as you ask, Sweetheart.”

“Then I’ll keep asking.”

“Good.”

We sat there awhile longer before we both knew that it was simply time to leave the place and everybody in it behind. Both of us sighed, taking one last glance around. How special Bennington was, really. Despite its constraints, it had been a sort of magical place for us. Oliver had spent a good amount of time growing up there, but I tell you this for nothing. That is that I was born there. I said it in the beginning that I swear my life began the day I walked through those gates and I wasn't joking. I certainly would not have grown to be the woman I did had I never set foot on that quad or sat on that bench that morning to check my schedule. It is so amazing the way such a simple act can launch the direction of your destiny. One just never knows, do they?

As we were exiting the quad, Headmistress Pennyweather came scurrying across it, “Ah, the young Dickinson’s! I was hoping to find you!” She was all smiles, her hair tucked up under a grey fedora, “Lovely day, is it not?”

“Yes, ma’am, lovely,” Oliver told her.

“Well, since the term is over and you two are no longer students, there is something I have wanted very much to give to you,” She reached into her pocket and pulled out an envelope, “It is from not only me, but some of the other faculty. We could not formally present you with a wedding gift while you were enrolled here, but now that you’ve graduated we all wanted to wish you well.”

“Thank you,” I told her as she thrust it into my hand, “I don’t know what to say!”

She grinned, looking between the two of us for a moment, “Don’t say a thing at all, Silvia. Just use it well and wisely. And remember these words from an old lady…life can be cruel and at times can be downright ugly, but as long as you remember what you saw when you first knew you loved each other and keep finding it over and over again, there is nothing that you can’t get through together. Not a single thing!” She took a sharp breath, “Now, Mister Dickinson, may I give you a hug as a good bye?” She stood on her tiptoes to embrace him and patted him lovingly on the back, “Hopefully not a forever one, I’d like to see you again. Please do keep your brother in line,” She released him and turned to me, “And one for you, Missus Dickinson, who shall forever be Miss Cotton in my mind…I still can’t get past it,” She laughed, giving me a tight squeeze. “Come back and visit an old lady once or twice! Or give me a ring and let me know how it is going with you two! Now, go on! Get on with your lives! And make them happy ones, too!” She looked at her watch, “I’ve got a plane to catch! I’m spending the first part of my holiday in Monte Carlo!” And with that, she scuttled off and disappeared into the halls of Bennington.

“She’s an angel,” Oliver grinned as he took my hand and began to walk with me toward the gate.

“You really do fancy her, don’t you?” I asked him seriously. He didn’t respond, but kept looking at the school. I slit open the envelope with my finger and opened it, drawing out the card, “Oh my!”

“What is it?”

“Remember when she said that what she doesn’t see herself someone always tells her?”

“Yep.”

“It’s a certificate for lumber from a yard from the staff, like she said. Wow, a lot of them signed the card! And there’s a business card with a note. Oh, my goodness!”

“What?”

“Professor Walker’s son’s a bloody plumber and he’ll do the house at a discount!” I grinned, waving the paper, “I always knew I was his favourite!”

“Yeah, he’s sweet on you. Lots of blokes are, even the Profs. Dirty minded old buzzard he is, if you ask me. You probably didn’t even need to take an exam in his class to pass, yeah?” Oliver turned to me, and then looked back at the school with a deep, longing sigh, “I understand that completely, believe me. You bring that out in a man. But I do know now what I would have done if you hadn’t come to Bennington. I would have gotten past the age difference and I would have run off with that brilliant, beautiful old lady, Headmistress Pennyweather, and I’d have made her my own!”

“No,” I put my arm through his, “Because I’d have had an urge to come to Wales first and I’d have beamed you in the back of a head with a rubber ball. You’d have had no choice but to abandon your feelings for her and run away with me.”

“You know what? You’re right.”

“I’m always right.”

Oliver laughed and pulled me to his side, “That’s why I married you!”

CHAPTER TEN

The train is coming to a stop. I am suddenly snapped back into the moment and glance away from the window. I had not been aware I had been staring out of it at all. Kitty has one hand on her chin, leaning forward with her elbow on the table, and the other wrapped around a can of cola.

“She was the one you called my mother after, wasn’t she? Your headmistress?”

I nod. “She was a kind lady. She was one of those people who come into your life for a short time, but leave a profound effect on your soul.”

“She was a romantic, no doubt.”

“It was your granddad she shined on more than me. If she were thirty years younger, I’d have had some competition because he was right stuck on her. But she looked after Alexander, too. She was firm with him, but she protected him. Madame Pennyweather loved those boys and everybody knew it. After she passed on, Sandy told me that our Headmistress had birthed twin sons herself. One had died at shortly after birth and the other only lived to be about five years old. It was a birth defect, both she and her husband were carriers of a rare gene, and there was a three in four chance if she ever had another child it would have the same affliction. She never tried for more. I can’t say that I blame her,” I sigh, thinking of my old Headmistress and how if I could I’d love to pop into Bennington and see her still sitting at her desk, “It was why she became a teacher instead. She taught little ones before she took the position of Headmistress at Bennington.”

“That’s very sad,” Kitty says sincerely.

“Losing a child is the worst thing you can imagine, Kitty. It’s a nightmare you live with every day for the rest of your life. Even if the child dies before you got the chance to bond with it, every once in a while you’ll wake up thinking of it in the night.” I stop speaking and press my fingers against my temples. I don’t want the conversation to go where it’s heading and so I make sure I return to the former subject, “When I found out Madame Pennyweather’s given name was Carolina, I thought it was the most beautiful name I’d ever heard. Carolina Montez was the name she was born with. I’d had no idea she was from Brazil. I really should have taken the time to know more about her when she was alive, but I doubt she would have told me much. Anyway, your granddad and I changed the spelling of your mum’s name so that people wouldn’t mispronounce it. Carolena. I just love that name.”

Kitty watches a few people pass by heading for the exit doors.

“Are we getting off here?” I ask. I’m confused for a second and then embarrassed when I realize we’re not stopped at Welshpool Station. I’ve been to Welshpool Station a million times. I hope Kitty doesn’t think anything of it.

It’s obvious she doesn’t realize I’ve just had a lost moment. “No, Gran. Not yet.”

“Am I talking too much? I’m losing track of what I’m saying,” I rub my forehead. I have a slight headache, “I’m getting old. I think I just blabber on. I don’t know what I’ve told you. I hope I haven’t embarrassed you.”

“No,” She answers in the same voice, “I love that you’re telling me. It makes me feel special that you’d share it with me.”

“Sometimes I think parents consider their children’s history to be part of theirs…like a continuation. And they think of their grandchildren as perpetual infants. I think we forget that when it comes down to it we are all a shadow of those who follow. You should know you shadow. How old are you now, Dear?”

“I’ll be thirty-three in September.”

“You don’t look a day over twenty.”

She laughs, “I wish!” Then she smiles at a vendor and helps a little girl pass between chairs. “Do you want to tell me more?”

“I think I can go on,” I absently fiddle with my wedding ring. I have never taken it off in all the years I’ve had it longer than to wash a dish or have a bath. “Where was I?”

“You left Bennington,”

“OK, OK. We left Bennington. Now what came next?”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

It had been four years since we’d left Bennington College. Oliver and I were twenty-one that spring, completing our degrees at university, both working, and completely settled into the cabin by then. We’d worked our tails off since we’d moved in making it a right and proper home. By the start of that first summer the twins had finally managed to get the walls up around the room that would be the toilet with the window up high. With the discount that Professor Walker’s son had given us, we had the well tapped and working plumbing installed. He jokingly asked us if we wanted the tub left in the front room, but we opted to move it to the new toilet instead. I picked out this beautiful little porcelain sink that looked like a shell and Oliver bought an oval shaped mirror to go above it. We’d felt it was quite an accomplishment. To us it was another testimony that there was nothing we couldn’t do.

“Unbelievable,” Oliver stood in the middle of the room with Alex, “We managed to finish one whole project. You ready to start the next now?”

“I’m ready to start drinking whiskey,” Alexander replied. “But the room is nice.”

“I think we’ve learned enough to get the next up more quickly.”

“Oh, you think that, do you?”

“Oh aye!” Oliver turned to his brother, “At least I learned enough from my mistakes if you didn’t! I used the phone and asked for help! Dad and our cousins, Mike, Dennis and Artie, and Uncle Ian and Great Uncle Jack are going to come help us on the weekends!”

“You are the clever one, Oliver!” He put his hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“Tell me about it!” Ollie sounded very satisfied as he returned the gesture.

“Well,” Alex said quickly after a moment of silence, “Let's go get pissed then.”

“OK.”

With the extra help from Oliver’s family and Lance, who came down to visit whenever he could, we had two bedrooms and a kitchen with a larger wood burning stove to cook on by the time the second snow fell. We called Professor Walker’s son in once again to set us up with plumbing in our kitchen. It worked very well each year until December when the pipes would freeze and we were back to boiling pots of water on the stoves. We redid all the floors with new oak and had new windows cut and installed. The house was still small, but really quite lovely.

Alexander was so fascinated with the process of adding on to the cabin that he changed his direction at university from engineering to architecture. Devising and building structures had become his passion and he was talented with it. By request, he designed and built a tree house for the mayor’s children. It sat proudly in a great oak in the man’s front garden and demanded attention from passers-by, particularly because of its Northern tower and the spiral steps leading up to it that wrapped around the tree. It wasn’t long before Alexander was sought out to make more. He earned loads of money on the side customizing tree houses and play houses for people’s children. He loved it, too. I never saw Alex as happy or satisfied as when he was sitting with his drawing pencils in front of graph paper or when he was standing near a pile of timber and steel.

It was such a busy point in time, those four years. Oliver and I had full time jobs, both of us, as well as being full time students at Cardiff. Oliver still worked as he always had at the mill loading bags of flour into the back of trucks, only now he was a manager and was making better money. I had gotten a position just off the university campus at a cafe as a server until I finished my Biology degree. I then went off to work part time at a hospital, spinning blood in test tubes and scraping cack on to slides in search of parasites. It was better pay, but it was boring. Oliver and I tried to set our schedules as close to each other as we could, but it was more or less impossible. We didn’t see much of each other and life was becoming less and less fun.

Still, we were so happy when we were together. We must have been completely mental. It’s hysterical. There we were living in the middle of nowhere, still in a minuscule little house. We had no electricity at all and no running water in the winter, plus it took half the spring for our pipes to regain water pressure and they never did decide whether to give us hot or cold and water when it rained hard enough. I did have a fantastic garden, though. I found I had a knack for keeping it, and we’d managed to afford two decent cars, using part of Oliver’s trust, that could make it up the path to the cabin even in the worst weather. And we had each other, best of all.

Oliver and I would still go into town and use our mobile phones to keep in touch with people since we couldn’t get a signal at the house. We were too far out to have telephone lines, so a home phone was out of the question. I rang Sandra as often as I could to see how she was doing and Lucy, too, on the days she could receive calls at Bennington. Lucy was sixteen now. She’d matured into a young lady with her own notions. Headstrong and independent, she had gotten over her anxiety about being at school without all of us and had fallen into a groove of her own. Lucy, from what I had gathered, had taken over the campus and was back to doing anything she could to avoid actually learning anything. Bless her heart, she couldn’t seem to be serious about anything but worrying about Alexander.

“How is he?” She’d ask, “I only talked to him a minute about a week ago. He sounded a bit boggled. Have him ring me, right? I miss you all so much. I know you‘re busy, but you should get Xander and come and visit.”

“You can come here, you know.”

“I know. It’s just that I’m all tied up most of the time, especially on the weekends. Will you tell Xander to ring me, please?”

I’d tell him, but I never knew if he did.

Oliver kept up with Lance and Merlyn. We even occasionally gave Headmistress Pennyweather a ring. Everyone was fine and busy like we were. Life was moving at warp speed. I think it does for everyone when they get into their early twenties. There’s just too much going on to give anything the attention it deserves. Wasted years, those are, all action and very little meaning. At least they were to us. We thought we were living, but I think now that we were only sleep walking. We were like robots programmed to achieve goals. We focused, we toiled, we got the job done, did what was expected of us, and we took no pleasure in any of it. While we were busy succeeding at every challenge we undertook, there was not as much music, there was not as many jokes, and we didn’t laugh as much as we once had. I’d say that at twenty-one, Oliver and I were the most grown up we’d ever be in our entire lives. Thank God we eventually got over it.

When we forgot or got too busy to ring, Oliver’s mother would come looking if she hadn’t heard from us by the weekend. “Anything could happen to you out here in a place like this!” She’d tell us, “I wish you’d go get a nice flat in Cardiff!”

“We can’t afford rent in Cardiff, “Oliver would say.

“If you’d just let your dad and me help you…“

“Forget about it, Mum. We’ll do this on our own. “

As difficult as it was to live there sometimes because of its remoteness, Oliver and I had no intention of ever leaving that little cabin. I don’t think it ever would have crossed our minds if it wasn’t being constantly mentioned by her. What no one but Alexander understood was that life at the cabin was interesting. It was not long after we had moved in that I began to truly understand why Oliver swore the place was magical. There were more than a few nights we’d look over and see and a small tan and white owl perched in our kitchen window, peering at us with its huge yellow eyes as if it wanted to know us better. Oliver called him Alfie. “Hello, Alfie,” He’d say as he walked past with a bowl of something, “How are you tonight? Come in if you like.” Alfie would just watch him with his huge eyes and not make a move in either direction. “Suit yourself, Mate,” Ollie would tell him, “You know you’re always welcome.”

It wasn’t just Alfie, either, who visited. None of the animals seemed shy in the wood. Hares would hop about unbothered by the goings on of people in the lawn. Foxes would sit at the edge of the garden and clean each other’s coats. Miniature deer would come up from the wood and climb on to our front porch and linger. They’d peek inside the windows, leaving nose prints and smears on the glass. The grass along the path would dry and dull, but it was always green on the lawn. Flowers would grow in patches where there was no grass. It gave a person the sense that they were in a place that defied standard. That you were somehow straddling the divide between what was convention and all that was possible. In the wood, the lines of reality were always blurred.

What went on inside the house was something to behold as well. Things would move around when you weren’t looking. I’d leave my purse on the kitchen table and find it on the sofa five minutes later. Or Oliver would accidentally drop his keys on the floor while carrying in groceries and leave them while he set down the sacks. He’d turn to pick them up and they’d be on the counter. Or sometimes, items would magically appear, like the time I found the most beautiful pink rose lying on the porch. I ran to the bedroom and kissed Oliver for the gift. He swore he hadn’t given it to me. That rose lasted for nearly six months in a simple vase of water. One morning I came out and all the petals had fallen and were lying, still beautiful, scattered across the table. Oliver was not joking about the socks wandering off, either. His socks were constantly going missing, but he’d set out into the garden and talk to the trees or leave sweets in the faerie circle and they’d show up later sitting neatly on the table. The ones I lost the night before we married had never come back.

Sometimes I was still sure Oliver was playing with me, but usually I had my doubts. The third summer we were there, late at night, when it was very, very quiet, I began to hear a man and a woman speaking so faintly that I could hear their voices, but not understand a word that they said. It always sounded like it was coming from the front of the house, but when I went out there they would stop talking. After a while I started hearing them in the garden as well.

I mentioned it to Oliver one night. “I think I’m going mad in my old age,” I told him.

“You’re not going mad, “He looked at me very seriously, “If I told you, you won’t believe me.”

“You hear them, too?”

“It’s the Lord and the Lady of the Wood,” He mumbled as he shook his fringe out of his eyes. “They’re having a baby.”

“A baby?”

“Aye. A wee baby. They call it their boon. They have loads of them, but they get very excited every time a new one comes along.”

I took a second to consider this before I dismissed the possibility out of hand, “Who are the Lord and the Lady? Ghosts?”

“No, they’re not ghosts. They’re faerie folk. Elves. I don’t know much about them other than they live here in the wood. They have forever-like. They knew my Grandparents and theirs before them and so on.” He seemed a bit tired as he flipped the page of a textbook, “Don’t look at me like that, Sil! I’m not mad! I’ve known them my whole life. I’m actually surprised that you can hear them. Not everybody does. My parents never have. I hear them like you do mostly and can’t make anything out they say, but they’ve spoken to me twice since Grandpaddy gave me the shard.”

“The what?”

“The shard. It’s a little piece of wood, longer and thicker than a sliver. Grandpaddy’s Grandpaddy gave it to Grandpaddy when he was a boy to keep. One day he gave it to me.”

“Why?”

“Because the Lord told him to. Or so he said. Nana gave me something else, too.”

“What?”

“That ring you’re wearing.”

“My wedding ring?”

He nodded, “There’s a story behind it. The Lady gave it to Nana and told her to keep it for her grandson, the Boy from the Olive Tree, whose love would have hair the colour of autumn flames and eyes like blue ice.” He twisted his bottom lip, “When my parents called me Oliver, she figured the Lady must have meant me. Just before they died she gave it to me and told me the story.”

It was an emerald ring set high in an odd design and very old. It was a beautiful ring and probably quite expensive.

“You were very young, weren’t you?”

“Oh, aye, I was just a kid. Mind there was something in the way she explained it that made me know it was a treasure, so I put the ring up and kept it safe until I gave it to you.” He looked at me a long time, “I knew it was you the ring was meant for as soon as I laid my eyes on you. Hair the colour of autumn flames and eyes like blue ice. Nana told me the Lady had said that, those words exaxtly. Plus the second you said you were Just Silvia Cotton I knew for certain I was hopelessly in love with you.”

We smiled at each other, remembering that moment.

“What did the Lord and the Lady tell you when they spoke?”

Oliver sighed. He looked at me for a long time before he spoke, obviously deciding what information he was going to share, “The first time they told me that they’d chosen me to protect the wood. They asked me if I’d honour the promise of my forefathers and keep it safe for them and the creatures that live here. I said yes.”

“And the second time?”

“What they told me they said you wouldn’t understand until you were ready. They told me not to tell you because you have to understand it in your own time.”

For some reason I was able to accept that. Something inside of me didn‘t want him to tell me, not then. In the deepest part of me I knew I had lessons to learn.

Both of us were quiet. I watched him flip another page in his textbook and lift a glass of water to his lips. I whispered, “What does it all mean, Oliver?”

“I dunno,” He looked back up at me and smiled gently, “Love magic, I think. The Lady of the Wood says Love is the oldest and greatest of all the magic in the universe. I guess we wait and see. We’ll know in our time.”

We didn’t speak of it again for a very long while. Not for many, many years. In fact, we didn’t discuss it again until near the time when he left me.

Oliver and I both earned our four year university degrees respectively. Oliver had made up his mind about his future and was going to be a paediatrician. He had always known that he wanted to go into medicine. Oliver, you see, was a healer. It wasn’t anything he did by choice, it was just his way. He knew what to do and what to say to make people feel better when they were hurt or sad or frightened. Even when they were angry. He was drawn to children, always had been. Perhaps it was because of his kindness and his own refusal to never stop defending innocence and trust that led him to it, but he had made his decision to enter into paediatrics after a course in veterinary science where all he did was fiddle with poop. Bringing home two chicken sealed the resolution.

I was not very excited when he drew the cage from out of the truck, “Chickens?”

“Yeah,” He grinned, “I figured we’d grow them.”

“Grow chickens?”

“No, eggs.”

I stifled my laughter, but not my smile, “We’ll grow eggs?”

“Oh, you know what I mean!” He laughed at himself, “They’re hens. They’ll grow the eggs and we’ll steal them-like.”

“Oh, goody,” I teased, “And what’s next? You bringing home a cow?”

“I was thinking about it.”

“I don’t want a cow.”

“Why?”

“They stink.”

“So do chickens.”

“I never said I wanted chickens.”

“Oh, right then! Brilliant! No cow! Can I keep the chickens?”

I pretended to ponder the question. “They were free, weren’t they?

“They were!” He grinned proudly.

I wrapped my arms around him, “You may keep your chickens, Oliver.” I kissed him, as I always did when he arrived, “Welcome home.”

“Glad to be here, Love.”

That was the way every afternoon went more or less, except after that one I was knocking chickens off the porch with a broom most days. I hated those blasted chickens. All they did was run around clucking and depositing feathers and cack all around my garden and porch. The one didn’t even produce eggs, but neither Oliver nor I could work up the nerve to kill it and eat it. We invited the foxes in sometimes, but even they weren’t interested in that useless hen.

I was always home before Oliver since all my classes were in the morning. As a girl, I had been certain I wanted to go into some field of science as a career. I thought microbiology sounded fascinating, but after getting my Bachelors of Science, I started to wonder what I really wanted to do with my future. I was beginning to think that maybe I didn’t want a career and nothing else. After the talk Oliver and I had about the Lord and the Lady and their many boon, plus Oliver suddenly wanting to be a paediatrician, I thought maybe I wanted children, too.

I began to read all of his Early Childhood Development texts instead of studying my own.

I hadn’t said anything to Oliver, but I was beginning to wonder why we hadn’t baked any muffins yet. We’d been married for over four years without a single discussion about or use of any kind of birth control. It wasn’t as if we adhered to the rhythm method and we certainly spent a good amount of time playing at the stove. Let’s face it, in a house without electricity once the sun goes down there isn’t a whole lot else to do. I knew that a few of my classmates had had babies. Sandra was one of them, now living outside of Belfast with her husband and new son. She’d gotten married only the year before and had been pregnant before she said bang. I’d called and congratulated her after she sent me the photos of her child who looked, to be honest, sadly a bit like a small Bill Clinton. That set aside, I told her how lucky she was.

“Thank you, Sil! He’s magnificent! When are you and Oliver going to have one?”

“Oh,” I answered casually, “We’re going to finish school first, you know. We haven’t really thought very much about it.”

“Well, it hurts like hell,” She told me, “So you may as well wait.”

“I don’t envy that,” I told her with a forced laugh, but the truth be told, I was stone cold jealous. I had a head start on her in the baby department, after all. I wanted to know that there was life brewing in my womb. I wanted to feel a baby grow and move inside of me. Why Sandra? Why not me?

I was only twenty-two the year her son was born. I kept telling myself to stay calm. I was young! There was plenty of time to have loads of babies. But after I got my next period spot on time, I went to the doctor to discuss my apparent infertility. He told me he could run a few tests and that would tell him more, but I appeared perfectly normal and healthy. It might not be me at all, he said, perhaps Oliver had a low sperm count or maybe he was even sterile. Or it might be nothing at all and I just had to let nature do what it needed to do.

Nature doing what it needed to do was one thing, but the thought of Oliver being sterile seemed impossible. Oliver? I couldn’t imagine it. He was so capable, brimming with excitement and life all the time. Oliver was gentle and so full of love…he would be an excellent father…how could he not be able to make muffins? Nature might do its thing, but nature doing that to him would just wrong.

When my tests came back normal, I knew two things. I knew that I wanted muffins very badly and that there was no way I was going to mention anything about it to Oliver. Oliver was working himself weary between his job and his education. He had enough on his plate. If I told him I wanted a baby, he would do anything to give me one. He always gave me everything I wanted. If he found out he couldn’t, it would crush him. It would be the first time in his mind that he had failed at anything. He was under enough stress. I knew he couldn’t take it, not right then. And even if we managed to make a muffin, I wondered if having one would be enough alone to set him over the edge.

He never said much about our financial situation, but it was taking its toll on him. Oliver had grown up with money around him. He’d never wanted for much. After we’d gotten married, his parents had asked us to live with them and when we’d refused, they had repeatedly offered to help us. He absolutely would not let them. The day he allowed his dad to pay the taxes on the land for us, he swore it would never happen again.

“It’s not that much, Son,” Ed seemed a bit offended that Oliver didn’t understand he was happy to do it. “You can’t do everything on your own all the time.”

“Like hell I can’t!” Ollie insisted, “This is a onetime thing, Dad!”

Still, I knew being broke didn’t suit him. He hated every second of it. Oliver was used to getting up and going where he wanted and doing what he liked when he had the urge. I knew he felt stuck and he despised that feeling. Still, because of it, he channelled all of his focus on university so that he could get a degree as quickly as possible. Once he had that, he would work his way into a position where he had the two things he wanted most; freedom from owing anybody anything and money he had earned himself to prove that he never needed anything from anybody in the first place.

A baby could really put a damper on those kinds of plans, if not cause a complete derail. Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea at all. I would never have wanted to do anything to make him unhappy. His smile and the sound of his laughter were what I lived for.

It struck me that I had never seen Oliver sad. Not once, not really. I wouldn’t do a thing to change that. Our situation was fine, I resolved. If nature decided it was going to be just him and me alone forever, I would be satisfied with that. My goodness, Oliver was enough on his own! Sometimes just being in the same room with him made me so cheerful I thought I could fly. After all the time we’d known each other the passion we shared had never waned. If anything, it had intensified. I wasn’t even sure that I could love a baby more than I loved him. Maybe it wouldn’t be fair to bring a child into our lives and have it be a third wheel. I had to consider that as well before I forced the issue and the poor little creature suffered because its mother couldn’t love it enough to see it past its father. And what if I couldn’t? What if I was a horrible mother and Oliver was a wonderful father? I was not threatened about him loving our child more than me, that muffin deserved for him to, but what if he loved me less for not being the parent I should have been? What if a muffin ruined it all?

Now, I knew I was just being daft. I knew I could and would love our muffin with all of my soul. How couldn’t I? Look at the recipe; a bit of me, a bit of Oliver, bake it in the oven and out comes a living, walking, talking, thinking and breathing creature that we had made together. How could I look at that little being and not realise it was muffin magic?

Magic. We had so much in our lives, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to see what we could make together? Magic was everywhere.

I found myself thinking often of the Lord and the Lady and their many boons. I was happy for them. For some reason, they were becoming more and more real in my mind and more and more present in my everyday life. I decided if I were hearing them, and I was quite certain I was not mad, that they had to be real. And even if they weren’t, I was going to give them the benefit of the doubt.

One day I took a plate of Turkish Delights out to the Faerie Circle and placed it in the centre, “I don’t know how much to give you or what you like, but I love these things, personally, and Oliver hates them. I think it would be selfish to eat them all myself, so I brought you about ten. If you fancy them, please enjoy them. I can bring more. If you don’t fancy them, I’m sorry. Please just leave them and I’ll bring you something else. Do you fancy Snickers? I know Oliver brings you Snickers, but I don’t want to if you’d prefer something else.”

Feeling a little foolish, I stepped backward away from the circle, “Congratulations on your newest little boon. I’ve been hearing you chatter. You sound so happy. Maybe someday Oliver and I will have a family together. I hope to. I’d really like that. I really would. But for now I suppose I’ll just be happy for you. Good bye.”

I picked some rosemary from the garden to use for our supper and poured some more birdseed into the feeder before I headed into the house. When I got in, I straightened up our tiny living room and went into the kitchen to cut some vegetables. I was chopping my heart out when I suddenly froze. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something appear on the countertop. Chills ran up and down my spine. “Did that really just happen?” I asked myself. Perhaps it had been there all along. But, no. I knew it had not been there when I had come in the room because I had taken the knife I was using right out of the drawer below where it now sat. I turned slowly toward it and I actually screamed.

It was the plate I had just left in the garden.

I dropped my knife on the floor and ran out of that house. I jumped from the top step down to the ground and landed in the grass crouched down on my toes and on the tips of my fingers. I sprang up and I ran as fast as I could to that faerie circle. I skidded down the slope in my trainers and fell, landing on my bottom right before it.

My plate was gone. Sitting in its place were the pair of pink socks that I had lost the very first night I stayed at the cabin, neatly folded. I picked them up slowly with shaking hands and noticed something inside. I stuck my fingers in, felt around and drew whatever it was out of the fold.

“Holy shite,” I muttered with my hand over my mouth, “It’s true!”

“Silvia?” Oliver was calling from across the garden. I could see him coming out of the house, I‘d just missed his arrival, “Are you home, Love?”

“Oliver, come here!”

“There you are!” He wandered over and bent to kiss me. “What’s up, Sil? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“What are these?”

He took them from my hand and turned them over. “They’re keys…” He paused and drew in a deep breath, “Blimey, Sil! These are the keys I accused Alex of taking the night I chopped down the door! He swore he didn’t! He was all ticked off for me saying he did! Where’d you find them?”

I held up my socks and pointed into the circle. I was speechless.

“Did you leave them sweets?”

I nodded.

Oliver grinned, “I think you’ve met the Lord and Lady! They’ve been waiting for you to come to them, haven’t they? And I’d bet they like you, too, since they gave you back two things and not just the one!” He was beside himself. Smile splitting his face, he slapped his hands against his thighs and looked to the sky, letting loose a triumphant howl. Then he turned back to me, “Now do you believe?”

I looked around the garden, “Do I have a choice?”

Oliver took me in his arms, “Did you ever?”

No, I guess I didn’t really have a choice, especially not after that.

I learned to make candies after that day just so I could leave a variety of sweets in the circle for the Lord and the Lady. Oliver’s socks would come up missing still from time to time, but nothing of mine, not ever again until after the children arrived.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Time passes and so did another year for us. Sometimes life falls into a rut, even for the young who are living with elves. Oliver went to school during the day half the week and the other half of the week at night. He worked odd hours around his schedule, as did I. We didn’t see much of each other. It was lonely, really. I didn’t have much else to do but coursework, so semesters peeled by one after the next. I had my Masters of Science and Bachelors of Accounting degrees with no real motivation to apply either. When I was offered a grant for graduate school, the board of governors asked me what my intentions were for the future. I gave them the first answer that popped into my head, “Obviously, I have my Masters of Science and I intend on continuing with Microbiology. I’ll complete the program for Biophotonics…” Blah blah blah. My response was ultimately meaningless as I was losing interest in all of it. I was only going to school because Oliver wasn’t around and there wasn’t really anything else to do.

I didn’t know quite what was happening to my brain then. Hormones, I suppose. The ageing process had taken hold and I was no longer the ambitious girl I’d always been. I didn’t care anymore about much but relaxing. I'd lost my edge. I had no need to compete with anybody. I was satisfied and the things that had once driven me no longer were important.

I was still curious, though. Curious about everything imaginable, but I wasn’t much interested in being the one who discovered why some people get cancer at twelve and die while others who smoke cigarettes and dwell in polluted cities live to be one hundred. Someone else could find it out for me, tell me and I'd apply it. Where or how I would I never considered.

It was madness! There I was with two degrees in my hand, a graduate student with an exemplary average, ready to begin my career and I had no bottle left. I had always known I wanted to be a medical researcher. I had dreamed of the day when, like Carolyn Porco when she discovered the moons of Saturn, I'd be the one to learn something that no one else on the planet knew. I was right there on the precipice of it. I was not only a microbiologist, but about to be a Biophotonist, one of the elite in my field! I could have been sorting out ways to save the world, but I didn't want to.

What had always fascinated and intrigued me now was a bore. A nagging at my coat tail holding me back from my new pursuits, which included little more than spending time in my garden growing my plants or sitting under the big oak in the side lawn reading books.

I had lost my mind. Oliver was gone so often I think I would have been depressed, except I started talking to the trees.

I can’t explain it. But those trees, they seemed as if they wanted me to talk to them, so I would. For hours. “You know,” I told the one I liked to read beneath, “I’ve never loved a place as much as I have loved it here. And you’re a part of it. Every day I come out that door and you’re standing here. Every time I look out my kitchen window I see you. I’d like to be your friend, but I’m not sure how to be friends with a tree. A bird you can feed and leave water for. Same with squirrels and foxes. And a hare will always come for your cabbage, but what can I do to make a friend of a tree? I use your shade, you keep the rain off of me. I sit right here all the time on your roots and you never complain. So tell me, what can I do to reciprocate your kindness?”

Insane, really. Twenty-three years old, I was. Twenty-three years old living in a primitive little house, not wanting any kind of a career or future, still in love with the same boy I’d always been. And we were still broke, let me tell you. Oliver and I had no money at all, but what was already spent. Everything we owned was second hand but our clothes. I didn’t have a television or the internet because I still didn’t even have electricity. I wrote to my family and friends only occasionally and rang less than that. I had every reason to be bored out of my skull and want to run away. But I loved it there in the wood with Oliver and I never wanted to leave.

The wood was my home; my heart had become the winds.

I wasn’t feeling very well that day. I hadn’t felt very well for a couple of days. It was almost like I had the flu, but not. I was nearing the time of my monthly cycle and thought that was the problem, as I was bloated and nauseous and had terrible pressure in my lower abdomen and side. I rubbed my belly and groaned a little and then I lay back against the tree and looked up at the sky. The clouds were passing more quickly. There was a storm on its way.

My only sadness was that I still didn’t have any muffins. I hadn’t said a word to Oliver, as I promised myself I wouldn’t. But I was still a little worried that I might never have one. All kinds of people were making muffins. There were billions of muffins popping out of ovens all across the Earth. I only wanted one. It didn’t seem that that was too much to ask. My disappointment was mounting, but I brushed it off time and time again.

Maybe I was being selfish, I thought. After all, I had been duly blessed. I had a home, a husband who loved me, food to eat and faeries in my garden…maybe I shouldn’t even have wanted a baby. I was still happy that the Lord and the Lady had their boon. I wondered if it had been a boy boon or a girl boon or maybe even twins. I wondered if Oliver and I might have twin muffins. He had told me once that twins usually skips a generation, but maybe we could.

I could see them in my mind’s eye, running around in the garden, two naked little muffins chasing the butterflies and digging in the dirt with their tiny muffin hands. Two muffins made of chocolate that looked just like Oliver or two muffins made of cherries that looked just like me. Or maybe one of each or a single muffin that had both ingredients, mixed like a chocolate dipped cherry.

I wondered if it could be done. I mean, make a real muffin somehow using chocolate dipped cherries. Maybe I’d try it.

Right then I knew I had to pull my wits about me. I was going mental. I was allowing too many muffins to be dancing in my head. The answer was obvious. I’d simply ask Oliver for a dog. It wouldn’t be the same as a muffin. It would be more like a chip, but it would be something I could mother. And, oh, I had this desperate need to mother something.

Something was happening to me for sure, but I was not at all aware of it. I just felt different. I felt like something inside of me was changing and I was sort of floating away. I was thinking about things I never thought about before, things aside from muffins. Like my mother.

She had been dead for nearly nineteen years. I hardly remembered her and I hardly thought about her. Why? She had been my mother! She must have been important to me. I must have known her, needed her. Certainly I loved her. Didn't I? I put that thought straight out of my head. I had to have! All children love their mothers! I shouldn't have been any different! Then why couldn't I remember her?

My father had told me so little of her, but there were things he had. I knew she had been well loved by people, that she'd had friends. I knew that she was intelligent and patient and that she had loved me. He'd told me that more than enough times, “Silvia, your mother loved you so bleedin’ much,” He'd say in a tone as if he were addressing a wounded animal, “She never would have left us if she'd been given the say.”

So I knew that, at least. I knew she hadn't abandoned me on purpose. She hadn't been a suicide or run off because she just didn't care. Still, I just couldn’t bring her face to my mind. I'd seen pictures, so I knew what she looked like, but I couldn't see her. She had red hair, but not like mine. Hers had been light, almost blonde. I remembered that. I remembered her hair, shiny and soft. It was curly like mine, too, but she cut it short, just above the shoulder. Sometimes she wore headbands, thick cloth ones, to keep it out of her face while she worked in the house. Was it cooking or cleaning? I couldn't remember, but I could recall that she always painted her toenails red and she…she?

I strained to remember another detail. What else about her? Nothing. That my father seemed to be ruined after she died? Yes, that was about it.

Then there was my father. So dull, passionless. Constantly buried in his work. Surrounded by words. Words. Words. Pens. Ink. Books. Click, click, click on the keyboard, always writing, always working. That was my father. No interest in anything past his nose. I was certainly past his nose. He never came to visit on hols, not that I had expected him to. He had nothing to say when I rang him. I thought about tossing him a bell from time to time, or even popping in on him for a visit, to ask him about my mother. I had so many questions, but I wondered if he would even tell me anything at all.

I wondered if I really cared.

It bothered me, though, the way I had so little emotion toward him and was so curious about her. And, still, I didn’t miss either. What was wrong with me? Why was I so disconnected? What had happened to my family? Why was I so cut off from my own blood? I had a sister that I adored, but our only contact was the phone. She had never come to visit me anymore. I had a cousin. His name was Oliver as well, and I loved him dearly when we were children, but I had not seen him since I left Scotland. Not that I would have gone and looked him up. What would I have said? “Hello, Cousin Oliver! It’s Silvia and I’ve got nothing to say, just feeling so bored I’ve gone loopy!”

No, nothing seemed to matter from before I came to the wood. It wasn't worth reaching back to find anybody. That had been a different life all together and I had a new one now. I was where I would always stay, even when I wasn’t feeling so well and even in the rare event that Oliver and I weren’t getting on.

We’d had a fight the night before, a right nasty one, too. We disagreed from time to time, but it was rare either of us lost our tempers or shouted. It did happen where we would, but that night was the first that anything had ever come close to violence. Any time we ever had a fight it was almost always about finances. That time was no different. Oliver had gone absolutely ballistic on me when he found out that I’d phoned my father and asked him for money.

“We don’t need his money!” Oliver shouted at me. His hands were balled into fists, “Damn it, Silvia! I could work extra hours to make that much! I told you not to ask anybody! You completely disobeyed me!”

“All you do is work extra hours as it is! It’s not enough, Oliver!” The stress of not being able to pay the bills was too much for me. Any calm I might have had cracked right there. It hadn't been an easy thing to ask my dad and I was already ashamed and defensive about it, “Even when both of us work extra hours sometimes it’s not enough! Do you think it’s a better idea if we can’t pay for one of the cars and they come and take it? We owe so much money on this house and you just keep building on to it…”

“Would you rather have it so small you can smell my breath across the room? Is that what you want?” He threw his arms into the air, “Well, Christ, Silvia, if I‘d known that I wouldn‘t have spent most of my trust fund trying to make an acceptable home for you!”

“That’s not what I’m saying! I’m saying…”

“You’re saying nothing!” He was furious. His dark brows were furrowed, his frown so deep it actually distorted his face, “You’re telling me that what I do isn’t good enough! I built this house for you, Sil! Do you really think I want to work ten hours a day, go to school all night and come home to put up walls around you and then hear you bitch about not having space for your shoes?” Now he was ranting. He kicked the back of a chair and it turned on to its face. It scared me so badly I began to shake. Oliver continued, “Ever think of that? I work my arse off every day of the week, including Sunday, because I’m the only one who ever chops the fucking wood! I’m still disregarded! Christ, Silvia!” He kicked the chair again. It spun toward me, “I could be hanging around with my friends! It would be a hell of a lot more fun than this! “

That stung. All I had done earlier was mention that I needed more cupboard space. I hadn‘t known he would feel I was complaining. However, I reacted to the insult with anger and quickly changed the subject back, “Would you rather have had me not ask my dad and have them come and take my car because we couldn’t make the payment? I‘d have to quit school, I‘d lose my job! I work too, remember?”

“And use your money how?” He roared. He was unwilling to listen to any sort of reason. He just wanted to blame, wanted to take his frustrations out and I was the only one there, “I don’t know where your money goes! All I know is that it’s all spent and at the end of the week you have none left and you take mine! I don‘t know where that goes, either! All I know is that we should have minimal expenses and we never have any fucking money!”

“What are you accusing me of?” I couldn’t believe he said that. He knew where every penny was spent. I kept careful accounts on our expenses.

“You shouldn’t have asked him!” He yelled, going back to my father, “I told you not to!”

“No!” I shouted back. Now I was egging him on, “You told me not to ask your parents! They could help us, Oliver! They have money, unlike my dad, and they want to help, but you’re too busy being proud and trying to prove something to your dad that no one but you understands!” Now not only were my feelings hurt, but I was enraged, too. I was enraged at his stupidity and his selfishness, at putting me in a place where I had to beg for cash and then shaming me for it. I began to scream, “Now I want you to tell me about what you just said about me taking your money! You explain! You think I waste money? Oh, aye! Just look at my luxurious life! I still have clothes I wore in high school! Am I dripping in pearls, Oliver? Am I? Where's all my fancy dresses and my big diamond ring? Oy! Look at me! Or are the bloody bills paid? I SAID LOOK AT ME!”

“You’re controlling!” He snapped, but I had knocked him down just a notch, “You’re tight fisted unless it’s something you want and then you just go off and spend as you like without consulting me! It’s my money, Silvia!”

“It’s our money, Oliver! Ours! And every penny is spent keeping us from being swallowed by our debt!” I was livid by then. How dare he lecture me on a budget when he was the one who wasted money on things we could have done without, “And you like to eat as well, yeah? Do you want to work all day, go to class, and then have to shop, too? You can add that in if you want to keep track of your money, Oliver!”

“Fuck this! “ He grabbed his coat off the couch and started for the kitchen.

“Oh, no!” I thought, “He isn’t going to start with me and then just walk away!” I headed him off. He knew what I was up to, but was a second too slow in figuring it out. We raced to the counter and I snatched up his keys before he could grab them and ran with them to the back of the house.

He was right at my heels, “Give me my keys!” He roared.

“No!” I screamed and slammed the bedroom door in his face, taking a few steps back.

He struck his fist against the door, then kicked it open. He stood in the doorway glaring at me. His voice was low and threatening, “Give me my keys!”

“No!” I took a few more steps back, stumbled and fell on to the bed to see him towering over me.

He was shaking with fury. My God, he looked just like Alexander right before he was ready to do something terrible. For a second I was actually afraid he might hurt me, but he didn‘t. He just stood there momentarily with a snarl on his face, and then yelled, “Fine! You have them! I’ve got two legs!”

I watched him spin around. He kicked the wall on the way out the door. Wood splintered. I could hear his heavy booted footsteps stomp across the floor of the front room and then the door slammed shut with such force that the entire house shook.

Everything fell silent. I sat on the bed stupidly, clutching those keys so tightly that they cut into my palm, and listened hard for any sound. There was nothing. After what was probably fifteen minutes, I felt brave enough and I crept out into the kitchen. I peeked out the window to see if Oliver was in the garden. He was not. I stepped out on to the porch and looked. No sign. I closed my eyes and listened. I heard nothing but the whispers of the winds and I knew my husband had gone away on foot.

I waited for him like an idiot, sitting in the front room on the sofa, jerking at every little sound, but he never returned. I felt so alone and so confused. I didn't understand his anger toward me. He'd never shamed me like that or been so awful. Things had been so hard for us. What if I'd betrayed him somehow? What if I'd really hurt him? What is he didn't love me anymore?

What if he’d broken his promise to never leave me alone? What if he wasn’t coming back? Where would I go? What would I do? Who would I be without Oliver?

The question was paralysing. Strong, confident Silvia reverted back to the insecure little girl who had been dropped off at boarding school by her father at seven years old. I felt like I was dying inside. I sat and wept, not even bothering to light the stove for light or heat.

“Oh, Alfie,“ I told the little owl later through my tears when he came to call, “Oliver’s not here,” Alfie scooted to the side and tilted his head in response, “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I made him angry and he left.” The owl let his weight spread across his feet and settled down as if to rest. He blinked, still staring at me.

Many hours later he fluttered off and I put myself to bed. I lie there awake and worried, trying to cry myself to sleep. My head ached and my face was numb. Finally, I heard the front door open. More than one person entered, but they were so quiet I thought that they might be holding their breath

“She’s asleep, Xan,” Oliver finally whispered. “It’s very late, isn’t it?”

“About one AM, but who cares? Go wake her up, Oliver. Fix what you did.”

“I’m going to. Thanks for the talk and the ride.”

“I’m glad you phoned. It’s good to spend time with you, Brawd. Tell Sil I love her.”

“I will. Night, Brother.”

“Night.” Alex said and the door clicked closed.

Oliver walked into the bedroom and shut the door behind him. He smelled like ale and cigarette smoke and I knew he’d been at the pub all night with Alex. He undressed quietly and crawled into bed. He didn‘t touch me right away. Instead, he lay flat on his back, stiff as a board. “Silvia,” He finally whispered, “I know you’re awake.”

“I am.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me, too.”

He drew close behind me, resting his arm over mine, and took my hand. He caressed the back of it with his thumb, “Don’t be sorry. I’m the one who needs to be. It’s all right, Love. I understand why you asked your dad. You were right to do it. I shouldn’t have yelled at you like I did. I know you did it so we’d be OK. I know you did it because you care.”

“I don’t want you to have to work all the time!” I sobbed, “I never see you anymore!“

“Shush, Love. I know. I hate it, too. I know how you spend the money. I don’t know why I said that. It wasn‘t even true,” He buried his face into my neck. “Shush...”

“I wasn’t complaining about the cupboard space! I didn‘t mean it like that at all!” I turned my face to his, “I know you work hard to make this place more modern so it‘s easier to manage! I‘m sorry I don‘t chop any wood! I‘m not strong enough to swing the axe…”

“Shush, Silvia. Please don’t cry,” He wiped my cheek with his finger, “I hate it when you cry. I don’t mind chopping the wood. I actually enjoy doing it. It’s not something you should be doing anyway and I don’t expect you to,” He sighed, leaning his forehead against mine, “I’m not always good at explaining myself, yeah? Sometimes I just expect you to know how I’m thinking without me saying it. The thing is that I’m building this house because I want you to have everything you need. I want this place to be our little paradise, made especially for you and me. Custom built-like,” He paused, carefully considering his words, “When you said you didn‘t have proper space, I went stupid and took it as you telling me I’d failed you when I tried so hard to make it just right. I’m a man, Silvia. I want to fix it right for my wife.”

“I appreciate everything you do!”

“I know. I know,” He caressed my face with his fingertips, letting them linger on my bottom lip, “I realised something I hadn’t until tonight. I told Alex. I’m tired, Sweetie. I’ve never been burned out before, but I‘m fried. All I do is work. I am so sick of my job. I hate it. I am so sick of school. I want to be done with it. I’m so tired of being poor. Sometimes I find it hard to keep an eye on the goal and remember all of this is temporary. I get the next part of my trust fund in two years. We took a lot on too soon and I think it’s caught up to me. I just want to sleep one night and know I don‘t have to wake up at all the next day and then just have that same day when I don‘t have anything I have to do. I’m so tired.”

`“Me, too,” I sniffed at a tear that was running sideways down my face. “We both need a break, yeah?”

`“But that’s it. I don’t want a break, because I’m doing all of this for us. What I need is you, Sil,” He cupped my head in his large hands and looked into my eyes, “I need to know I can come home and you’ll be happy to see me. I miss you. I’m so busy anymore I’ve neglected you and you’ve gone away on me again. You're off inside your head where I can't reach you. I need you to come back. I can‘t do this without you.”

I rolled into my husband and curled against him, “I never left! I just forgot, that’s all! I forgot that it’s just you and me and nothing else matters! I’m sorry if I made you feel alone! I don’t feel well…I haven’t lately at all...”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I’m nauseous and my gut is tender. I was dizzy all day. I‘m so tired and I got my blob.”

“Oh, Sweetie,” He pulled me close, “Come here. Let me hold you.”

Oliver was asleep in about ten seconds. He got up two hours later at three in the morning to go to work I felt guilty because I knew he was tired still and I actually had the entire day off. Oliver kissed me tenderly before he left, “I love you, Just Silvia. Don’t be hurt or ticked off today. Be just fine.”

“I love you, too, and I won‘t, Sweetie. I‘ll be fine. I promise.” I walked him to his car and waved as he drove away. I knew he wasn't angry with me anymore, but the uneasiness of the argument still lingered inside me.

That had been almost eleven hours earlier. I knew that at that very minute that I sat talking to my tree that Oliver was just getting out of work and was on his way down to Cardiff for class. He’d be home after that. I stood up and lightly kissed my tree’s hard bark, then lovingly rubbed it with the palm of my hand, “Right then, enough of me jabbering on,” I told it, “The rain is coming. I have a house to tidy, a supper to make and a man to meet at the door. Good day to you, My Friend!” I gave a sort of silly salute and began to walk away.

I was halfway to the house when a terrible pain split me from my lower left side all the way up to my chest. I dropped my books and stumbled forward, wrapping my arms around my body as if I were giving myself a hug. I felt my knees sink into the earth and I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t breathe. I had never felt pain like that, not ever.

It would be at least four hours for Oliver to come home. My mind was somehow clear and thinking. I could feel the wind picking up and wrapping itself around me. I looked down and saw splotches of blood on my thighs, little dots as if they had been set with pinpoints. And suddenly it was as if a bag of blood had splattered all over me. I watched streaks of it run sideways down my legs and into the grass. The pain intensified again and I pitched forward on to my face into the dirt. I still wanted to scream, but the whole world was becoming a very deep, terrifying blue before my eyes.

It was…so…beautiful…and so…wretched…

I knew I had dirt in my mouth, but I couldn’t spit it out. Again I felt the winds wrap around me and a few drops of rain hit my shoulders. I knew I had to do something to help myself, but I was paralysed with pain. I was staring at the tree to which I had been speaking. I saw Alfie was high above me, perched on a crooked branch. He turned his head and peered down. “Help me!” I whispered as well as I could, “Alfie, please…” He ruffled his feathers and swooped down, gliding toward the pond.

I closed my eyes.

There was a pause that seemed like forever. Then a quiet pop.

“She’s in a bad way,” I heard the whisper of a woman. The voice was almost sultry.

“Yes, I’d say she is.” A man with an odd accent replied in a hush. “Is she dying? Do you think she’s dying?”

“As humans come and go I’d say I don’t know. I don’t see Death yet, do you?” She paused, “But I smell human blood.”

“It’s feeding the ground, yes. See it? I smell it, too.”

“We should help her then,” The woman spoke determinedly. There was another pause, “I don’t know how to assist this myself. I’ve not magic that can take or save a life. She needs…what do they call them? A dicker.”

“A doctor.”

“Yes, a doctor. Where is the Boy from the Olive Tree?”

Another pause. “I can get to the lad in time, Folia, but he’s too far to aid the Silver Miss! He‘s going the wrong way!”

“Then get the Doppelganger!”

“Aye, I should have thought of him! Forgive me! He is not far. I will bring the Doppelganger as soon as I can! Will you stay with the Silver Miss? She looks so unwell.”

“I will do what I can, But go, Copse! Go now!”

I heard another pop, louder this time, the sound you would hear when someone pulls the cork out of a bottle of champagne. I felt my body roll. I was on my back.

I remember their conversation as clear as the day I heard it. I couldn’t see them, mind you, I was staring at a cobalt blue sky, but I heard every word they said. Their voices were tiny, but strong, and strangely distant, yet seemed so very near.

“Ohhhhh,” Said the woman, “Now, Young Silver Miss,” She came close to me. I could feel her warmth against my cheek, “I know little of humans, but I do know now what is happening to you,” I swear I could hear a baby crying, “And I know if what is happening to your boon was happening to mine, I would not want to be witness to it. I regret, I regret! I cannot help your boon, Young Silver Miss. Here upon us comes Death…”

“No!” I tried to scream, “No!”

“Death has no ears and no eyes, but he is not here for you…it’s your boon. Her life spilled out on to the grass with your blood…”

“No! Not my muffin! I never knew! I never knew I had one! I didn’t have a chance to love her! No! Death, you may not have my child! No! Go back to where you came and leave my baby alone!”

“It is too late,” The Lady said gently, “In a second he’ll take her away, but take peace because his arms are gentle. You fight so hard for a boon you never knew was. Oh, so sad. So sad is the mother who cannot protect her own child from Death. There is only one thing I can do for you, Silver Miss. I know your name and I will speak for you words of power. All I can do…”

“No!” I knew my baby had gone. I could breathe again, but the pain was terrible. I could feel the blood run down from between my legs, soaking the seat of my knickers. Rain splashed against my face. I screamed at Death, “No! Bring her back! She’s mine! You bring my baby back! I need to love her!”

I heard The Lady’s voice again, resolute:

“By the power of three,

I call upon the winds that touch the trees!

Peace be with the child who left before her,

Let sleep conquer the mother’s horror

This thing I ask, this spell is cast!

And so mote it be!”

I heard a loud clap and I fell into complete blackness.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

I was floating. Not flying, because I was on my back, but floating. It was very warm where I was, but I could not see anything around me. I could hear murmurs, whispers. I could feel people touching me gently. I knew that Oliver was there, floating with me, up above my head. I could feel his hands on either side of my temples. His fingertips caressed my cheeks.

“No, no,” He said, “She’s a strong one… she’s a rock…”

“I feel awful…” It was Alex, “If only I’d thought of going there sooner…if I’d known…thought she was dead…so much blood…”

“Feel awful?” Oliver sounded almost angry, “Not you, I should…told me she wasn’t feeling well…said her belly hurt…that she was dizzy…” His words were hanging in the air and then disappearing, not at all like full sentences. I struggled to open my eyes, “…you saved her…so much stress…I yelled at her…was very cruel…she didn’t deserve…just haven’t been there like I should be…left her all alone last night…gone all day…she could have been there for hours… promised her…I swore… never leave her alone…must have been in so much pain…I wasn’t there…and now…just lying there…”

“You have to work…finish school…owe her a future…a life, Oliver…”

Suddenly their voices were very clear.

“A life, Alexander? A life! She is my life! She’s everything to me! Without her it just doesn’t matter! Nothing works without her! She’s all I’ve ever known! She’s the only woman I’ll ever love!”

“She’s gonna be fine, Oliver! Look at her! Sleeping like she’s got a spell cast upon her! She’s been through the worst!”

“She’s still got to wake up! Oh, God in Heaven, Alex, what would I do if I lost her?”

“You didn’t lose her! Pull it together! She’s alive and the doctor says she’ll be just fine!”

I could hear him crying. Oliver crying.

Oh no! Oliver!

I tried to reach for him, but I couldn’t move. My arms were like lead weights, immobile. I’d never seen my Oliver cry. I’d never seen him sad. I didn’t want him to cry because of me. I was there, I was fine. I had to let him know. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn’t.

Oh, Oliver, don’t cry…I’m all right…please…

But he did. I heard him sob and I couldn’t do a thing to comfort him.

“Come on now! Oliver, stop! She’s going to wake up! They sedated her is all! When we got here she was confused! She was talking nonsense and fighting the nurses! Oliver! Come here,” Alexander’s voice was gentle. I could hear a rustle of clothing beside me as if Alex had taken his brother into an embrace, “She’s going to be fine, Big brother. She’ll be fine.”

The room went quiet again. I fell into blackness. I was floating.

I felt a pinch in the back of my hand. I was suddenly aware that there were tubes plugged into an IV, all attached to a vein in me. I could once again hear pieces of conversations.

“…I feel so guilty…”

“…not your fault, Son…” Edmond’s voice, “Thank God…someone up there was looking …your brother was listening…”

“So odd, really…” Alex sounded like he was speaking from a within a dream, “...just knew I had to get there and fast…kept thinking Sil’s all alone and she needs something…seemed so urgent…”

I fell into blackness. I was floating.

I could hear movement, a chair being rolled across a floor. My shirt was pushed up, my belly felt wet and cold. Something slick and round was pressing against it. A man was speaking, “I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.”

“Are you certain?” Oliver asked. He was holding my hand.

“Yes. I’m absolutely certain.”

“The baby’s dead then?”

“I am so sorry.” The object left my belly.

“How far along were we?” Oliver’s voice was hardly a whisper.

“I would say about fifteen or sixteen weeks.”

“Oh, Christ!” It was Alexander, “Why?”

“Please,” Oliver whispered, “Explain why this happened.”

“I don‘t know,” The man speaking was wiping my belly with a towel. He pulled my shirt back down and it stuck to the goo that was left, “The placenta has separated from the uterine wall. It happens, but almost never this early in pregnancy,” He sounded far too casual, almost as if he were reading off a card. “There are many factors that can lead to miscarriage in the first and early second trimesters. We’ll have to run some tests to find out for certain, but chances are that no one could have done anything to prevent this. Spontaneous abortions occur in about twenty percent of pregnancies. They might even be more common earlier on and women just associate the bleeding with their normal cycles. In your wife’s case, this was a medical event,” I managed to open my eyes just a crack. I could see a doctor standing to my right, speaking to the twins. A nurse was preparing a large syringe. “We’ve got the bleeding under control, but her body hasn’t expelled the fetus.”

“I want my wife to be well. What do I have to do to make her well?”

“We need to induce dilation and expel the fetus.”

Oliver swayed on his feet. Alexander steadied him. “What does he need to do? “ Alex asked, holding his brother tight against his side.

“He needs to sign the consent forms.”

“Fine,” Oliver’s voice was just over a whisper, “Get them. Let’s do it now.”

“I’ll have the nurse get them.”

Oliver looked sincerely ill, “Will she give birth then? “

“She’ll have to, yes. “

“Will she be awake?”

“She’s only lightly sedated.”

“Put her out,” Oliver said flatly, “Put her out cold. I don’t want her to feel any pain. I don’t want her to know what’s happening to her.”

“That can be done.”

“I want to be with her.”

“You can do that. You do understand that it will be a still birth? “

“I understand.”

The nurse injected something into my IV line. I fell back into blackness. I was floating.

A growl, a gurgle…it was a machine. There were bright lights and voices. Something hot was pressing on the inside of my thigh. I could feel pain, pain in my abdomen. Horrible pressure in my bottom. I gagged, trying not to vomit. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I could feel fingers. Someone was touching me down there. That sound I heard was suction. They’d put some sort of vacuum inside of me and they were drawing out my baby.

“No, no!” I thought desperately, gagging, “Wake up, Silvia! Wake up! It’s a nightmare, it’s a bad dream! Wake up! “I tried to move my fingers, tried to shake my head, “It hurts! Oh, ouch! Ouch! Help me! Oliver! Oliver! Oliver, help me!”

He was holding my hand. The IV in my arm jerked as he leaped to his feet. “Something’s wrong! She’s moving! She’s awake! Help her!”

I opened my eyes. I clasped and unclasped my hands, but I couldn’t move my arms. I looked at Oliver, desperately at Oliver, but all I could see was a shadow of him, a blurred outline of his figure. I tasted vomit in my throat, gagged harder, more painfully, and realised I was choking. I still couldn’t move my arms. I felt my body convulse, lift up off the mattress and slam back down. Oliver shouted again, but I couldn’t hear what he said through the blood rushing through my ears. I was helpless. All I could do was gag and jerk and lie in that awful bed.

Someone turned my head to the side and held it down. “Clear the airway!”

“Damn it!” Oliver shouted, “I said help her!”

A tube slipped into my mouth. More gurgling. I made a grab for it, wanting to shove it away from me. Someone else held my shoulders. I closed my eyes and tried to scream, but I only choked more. A nurse streaked around the bed and took the IV line into her hand. She held down a plunger and I felt my body go slack. I tumbled back into blackness. Then I was floating.

A voice said, “She’ll rest a while longer. There doesn’t appear to be any lasting damage.”

“Will she be able to have more children?” It was Ana who asked.

“She’ll be able to conceive just as she did before the miscarriage. This sort of thing doesn‘t typically repeat itself.”

“She’ll be fine then?” Oliver’s voice was trembling.

“We’re going to keep her overnight. She should be out from under the sedative in a couple of hours. She should be on her feet by the morning. We’ll see how she feels.”

“Thank God! Thank sweet, sweet God!” Edmond said it.

There was relief in Alex’s voice. “You can breathe easy now, Ol.”

“We all can,” Oliver smoothed my hair with his hand and kissed my forehead, “Thank you so much, Sir. I couldn’t lose my Sil. She’s the whole world to me.”

They were all there with me, the Dickinson’s. My family. I felt a tear catch in the corner of my eye and hang there, but I was unable to cry. I wanted to thank them all for coming, to thank them all for loving me as one of their own, but I still couldn’t even open my eyes. I wanted to let them know how much they meant to me. No one had ever loved me but them, no one but them and my Oliver.

Oliver kissed me again. I wanted to tell him about the conversations I had heard. I wanted to lie in his arms and cry until I couldn’t cry anymore. There were so many things that I wanted to tell him and I just couldn’t. I wanted to tell him that he had been right, the Lord and the Lady were kind. I wanted to tell him that they saved me, that it was the Lord who went and got Alex. I wanted to tell him what their names were. I wanted to tell him about the tree I was talking to and about Aflie being there and about the cobalt blue sky. I wanted to tell him what I had learned that day about life and how close Death had been and how he had not been there for me, but I tried to fight him anyway. I wanted to tell him that I would have fought Death for our baby. I would have torn him apart before I allowed him to take her, but Lady Folia had put me to sleep because she knew I’d fail, because she knew I had no chance against him.

It was all real. Life, elves, muffins and death…it was all real. And I understood none of it. Not a thing of any of it, but it was still real and it was beautiful and it was savage and I hated what had happened, but I loved my life. I loved my life because of him, because he was in it. I wanted to tell him that I remembered what Headmistress Pennyweather had said and that I still knew what it was I first saw that made me love him. I wanted to tell him that we were going to be all right and that we were going to get through it together, just like always. He didn’t need to worry about me. I wasn’t going anywhere, not today and not tomorrow. I’d never leave him.

It was a long time later, but I finally opened my eyes. Oliver was sitting beside me with his head down and his hand hanging over the rail of my bed. I reached out for him and put my fingers against his.

“Sil?” He practically jumped, “Oh, Love, it’s so good to see those beautiful blue eyes!”

I tried to speak, but I don’t know what I said. I finally just put my hand on the back of his head and I pulled him down. I kissed him for a long time, one kiss without breaking contact with his lips, “I’m not hurt,” I finally tried to say, but my voice was a hoarse whisper, “Or ticked off…I’m Just Silvia and I’m just fine and I love you…”

“Silvia,” His voice was shaky. His beautiful brown eyes were swollen and bloodshot behind tears, “I’ve been waiting for you to wake up! I’m so sorry, Love! I’m so sorry that I wasn’t there for you when you needed me…”

“It wasn’t you. It was me. I did something wrong! I put a wrong something in the batter and I spoiled the muffin and it died…” I shook my head tried to pull myself together so I could say what I meant instead of blathering like a fool. “I didn’t know or I wouldn’t have done it!”

“Silvia, they gave you loads of drugs. You’re not making any sense, Love. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“No, no! Listen to me!” I clung to his hand.

“I’m listening, Sweetheart.”

“I never told you. I never told you how much I wanted a child, but I did. I told the wood and the winds and I told the Lord and Lady. I told them everything, but I didn’t tell you that I wanted to have your baby so badly. I wanted something that was you and me all in one…magic…I wanted to make muffin magic…” I was struggling to speak. I could hear my words slurring. My eyes kept closing. I fought to make any sense at all, “You don’t know how much I love you or how much I need you. I love you, Oliver, and I love our baby, but I didn’t even know she was there and--”

“Shush, Love, shush…I know.”

“Please don’t hate me, because I don’t know what I did wrong! I tried! I tried, but I couldn’t stop Death from taking the baby! Her life had already spilled out with my blood onto the grass!”

“Sweetheart, stop it! Hate you? No, Silvia, no,” He took my hand in both of his and pressed it to his lips, “I’ve been so worried about you! When Alexander found you he said you were asleep. He thought you were having a kip, he said you looked so peaceful in the rain that he almost laughed. And then he went to wake you and he saw all the blood…you gave him a fright, Love. You gave us all such a fright.”

“But we had a baby!”

“I know about the baby. And I’m sorry, but, yes, she’s gone. I got to see her. I got to hold her. She was so beautiful. Tiny. I could hold her in one hand…” He held his hand palm up and stared at it.

“Do you want one? Did you want that one?” My head was lolling from side to side. “I’m so sorry about her…”

“Silvia, don’t be sorry! You’ve done nothing wrong! I want a baby someday. Sure. With you? A little muffin? Oh, yeah. And if I’d had a choice none of this would have happened and we’d be out picking a cradle for the one that’s gone now,” He looked so earnest it was breaking my heart. A tear was clinging to the tip of his nose, “But more than that I want you. Alive and well. Don’t you understand that I can’t live without you? Don’t you know that I couldn’t get through a day knowing that I was going to come home and you wouldn’t be there?” He sniffed and the tear fell, “I can’t even tell you how much I love you because there are no words…and this… this was just a bad something that happened, Love. It’s the worst something that has ever happened to us, but it’s not the worst thing that could have. Alexander might not have had the thought to drop in on you and you could have lay in that garden and bled to death in the rain. I could’ve lost you!”

“Another bad something happened, Sweetheart.”

“What was that?”

“I killed the good chicken with my car on my way to school.”

He laughed. A tear rolled down the back of my hand as he kissed my knuckles, “I don’t care about any chickens! I care about my wife! We can get more chickens if we like!”

“I lost our baby!” I cried out and, dizzy, fell back on to the bed. Oliver helped steady me, “She died! I saw the blood! Loads and loads of blood! Lady Folia said it was too late! Death has no eyes and no ears, but I yelled at him, I did! I told him to piss off, I did! But there was nothing I could do! Not a thing and I could hear a baby howling and I wasn’t for sure it was ours, it could have been the boon, but Lady Folia didn’t want me to have the experience of losing mine, so she asked the winds to make me sleep…”

“Lady Folia?”

“It’s her name. The Lady of the Wood.” I told him, trying to lift my head, “And the Lord, his name is Lord Copse.”

“Oh, OK,” He said this like he already knew.

“Oliver…they’re real. And you were right, they’re very kind. It’s all real, Sweetie. Life, muffins, The Lord and Lady, the Wood, the winds and Death…I heard them all! I saw Death coming and he made everything a beautiful, terrible blue and I didn’t understand a thing! They were all bigger than me, all the bigger and the stronger of me and I couldn’t even move!”

“OK, Sil. OK. Please settle down! It’s done, Love. It’s done and you’re safe now. ”

“I want a dog!” I wailed suddenly, veering completely off the subject. Oliver grinned. “If I can’t have my muffin, I want a dog! Can we get one?”

“Yes, Love. Oh, yes. Two if you like.”

“No, just the one. I want a Scottish Terrier.”

“OK.”

“And if it’s a girl I want to call her Ivy and if it’s a boy I want to call him Duncan.”

“Of course,” He was laughing softly. He kissed me on the lips, “Whatever you like.”

“And someday, Oliver…someday when it’s right and my body says yes again, I want to make a baby with you,” I was falling asleep “A whole bunch, a basket of muffins…chocolate dipped cherry muffins with a surprise inside that makes each one just who they are…very special muffins, each and every one. I love you, Oliver and I want to bake you muffins…”

“Close your eyes, Love, and go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake.”

“OK. Then when I’m awake, go get me a puppy.” I was incredibly tired, “If I can’t have a muffin then I want a dog…a Scottish one…Scottish like me. And he’ll need a leash. I can’t have him dashing off and getting killed liked the chicken,” My head fell to the side and off my pillow. I was almost asleep before I remembered, “Oh! Do me a favour?”

“Yes?”

“Go and get a wee rattle, the nicest you can find, and put it in the circle for me. Tell Lady Folia and Lord Copse it’s to celebrate their boon and to say thank you. They saved my life, Oliver. I think Alfie got them for me. I’m not sure, but Lady Folia took care of me and Lord Copse fetched Alex. Don’t you think that they didn’t.”

“I know they did. I’ll get you anything you want, Silvia. Absolutely anything you want.”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

If someone had told me the day I lost our daughter that happy times would ever come again, I’d have called that person a liar. But they wouldn’t have been lying at all. Headmistress Pennyweather had told us that life could be cruel and downright ugly, but if we kept looking for the thing that made us first know we loved the other and kept finding it, there was nothing we could not get through together. Sometimes things happen in a marriage and those things are big enough to either tear a couple apart or make them ten times as strong. Oliver and I kept searching each other’s eyes when things got tough or ugly. Sometimes it took a little effort, but we always found that spark in each other that we could ignite back into our original passion. We took time for each other. We took time to listen, we took time to care and we took time to let the other one know that they were still top in our heart. Because of that we were stronger than anything that could ever come our way.

I was able to hold our baby later after I’d come round again. She was so tiny, as Ollie had said. She weighed in at nine ounces and was only seven and a half inches long. She was whiter than snow and smooth as silk. She had all ten fingers and all ten toes. She had little round eyes and a bump for a nose, delicate, sweet lips and perfect, minuscule ears. She looked like a real baby, no different from any other I’d seen except her skin was so thin that all her many veins were visible. I stared at her as I rocked her in my arms. I wasn’t able to weep. I just held her for a long while knowing that I would never be able to do it again. I wondered about her, what she would have been like. I would never know. I would never know how her smile would have looked or hear the sound of her laugh. I wondered what colour eyes she had beneath those sealed lids, what shade her hair might have been had it been able to grow. I held her to my breast and I whispered to her promises only mothers make to children. I told her how much I loved her and how sorry I was that I’d not been able to protect her. I only had a while to prove my love to a child I was going to have to give away too soon.

“Mum wants to know,” Oliver whispered later when I was almost ready to let her go, “If you’d like a picture of her.”

I looked down into that tiny, beautiful face and I shook my head. I didn’t need a picture. I’d never forget her. She was going to be a part of me forever.

I let the nurse take our daughter away. She did it with such loving hands. I never told her how much I appreciated that and I should have. Even in death that child was treated with nothing but gentleness and respect. In that way, maybe she was the luckiest of us all.

I went home two days later in a daze. The only thing that made me know that any of it was real or had actually happened was that my heart ached and the pain kept me from sleep and food. There was no laughter in the cabin. Oliver and I barely spoke. The doctor had warned us not to try to conceive for a while and had given me a prescription for contraceptives, which I threw in the rubbish bin on the way out. I knew he meant well, but in my mind the chances of me getting pregnant again so quickly were astronomical. The other thought was that after what I had gone through with losing our baby there was absolutely no way that I was going to destroy another. No, nature was going to do what it would do and I was going to allow it to happen.

Then there was the business of having a funeral. I might have just had her buried quietly and kept her memory all to myself, but it was important to Oliver that her life be validated. I had been unconscious when he’d filled out the birth and death certificates for our child. Not having any idea of what we would have called her if she’d been born alive, he simply wrote “Cara”, a Welsh name for “Beloved”, on the line for her name.

Our precious Cara’s short life was honoured on a sunny Friday morning. When we first got to the funeral parlour, Oliver and I walked in and went straight to the casket. We wrapped our arms around each other and stood alone before the coffin and stared in numb disbelief. Then we sat together on a single, metal folding chair and we held tight to each other, knowing if we didn’t one of us would fall to the ground. Neither of us sobbed, we just clung until we could rise and then we turned our backs to the casket and greeted our guests with hugs and handshakes.

They filed in one by one. Some sombre, some forcing smiles, all of them trying to support us through something that we didn't completely understand. Oliver and I held hands and soldiered through as the line grew longer and longer, trying not to remember that that tiny box was the only bed our daughter would ever know.

“I won’t let you go, “He whispered.

“Never," I responded as I squeezed his hand tighter.

“It’s just me and you, Sil," He didn’t look at me. He stared straight ahead, his eyes focused on something I couldn’t see. I watched the muscle in his jaw tighten. He turned his head slowly and showed me his face. The light caught his dark eyes.

“I love you,” I whispered. He said nothing. There was nothing to say. I watched tears well up in his eyes and I watched him blink them back. He looked away. I just stood with him and shared his shock and sorrow while the world we knew crumbled around us. Helpless, we let it fall.

Alexander made no secret of his sadness or his tears, nor did he shy from opening the lid of the coffin and placing his hands inside. He cradled his niece with his fingers. He kissed her tiny head, marvelled at how perfect she was, and whispered to her in Welsh for a long time. No one interrupted him. No one suggested that he hurry or stop. No one told him to close the lid. He was given his time to say his hello and goodbye all at once. When he was through, he sat at the right side of his brother and he took my sister under his arm. He did what he could to comfort Lucy through her grief. I watched him wipe her face with the sleeve of his suit, saw him kiss the top of her strawberry coloured hair and rock her in his arms. I thanked God that he was there to do for her what I absolutely could not. I was frozen in my shoes, unable to reach out to anyone but my husband. I kept digging my fingernails into my skin to check if I were dreaming.

Lance sat in the back of the room with Josh McGuigan and Gareth Hughes, a boy Oliver used to play rugby against from Kerry. Loads of people came. It was truly amazing how many people cared. None of them said much to us. There was no need. They were there. It was all that mattered. My father came to call later in the day. He drew me close in what was supposed to be a fatherly way, but I was too stiff in his arms and he let me go.

“I'm so sorry, Silvia,” He said sincerely, cupping my face in his dry hands. He brushed the hair from my shoulder, “Is there anything I can do? Anything at all?”

“No,” I answered him simply, looking a little too hard into his eyes. I was so angry with him. I was his daughter. I was his healthy, living, breathing daughter and he’d sent me away, sent me off to school like I was some rubbish he hadn’t the time to deal with. My daughter was dead. My daughter had been torn away from me before I had the chance to even know her. How dare he come now and try to be my father when he’d had every chance before and passed them by?

He knew I was angry with him. He's known I was angry with him for years, but he'd never worked out why. If he had taken the time to look at himself, really look at himself, maybe he would have seen me there, lurking, begging for the attention I never got from him. If he had taken the time to notice, maybe he would have seen he had a daughter who once loved him with all of her heart, but didn't need him at all now. He'd never been there when I did and I'd learned to care for myself. Even in this chaos, even in all of my pain and suffering, his daughter, me, didn't need him. And not only did I not need him, I didn't want him. It was too little too late.

He said nothing else to me, but turned to Oliver instead. Oliver, in his kind way, put his hand on my father's shoulder and squeezed it, “There's nothing you can do,” He said simply, “Thank you for being here. Lucy's quite torn up, though.”

Dad nodded. He seemed relieved to be set free and hurried over to Lucy, who made a loud huffing noise when she saw him and fell into his embrace.

“Good,” I thought, “They can take care of each other and leave me to my business.”

I hid my face in the coat of Oliver’s suit.

Dad lingered awhile, but he left later without saying goodbye.

Oliver’s entire family including aunts, uncles, his ancient Gran, and all of his cousins came by in sets. Most of his cousins were near our age and they all had little ones. They’d dressed them in clothes fit for Easter and held on to their little hands, worried that their presence would bother us. Oliver told them no and to let them run about.

“Let them do what Cara never will,” He told his cousins, Karenna, who by then had a boy and a girl who were toddling about, and her brother, Mike, whose son, Rhys, was getting into everything he could reach. “Let them play.”

Ana scolded Rhys when he stood on his toes and leaned against the casket with his hands to smell the flowers.

“Don’t touch that!” She screeched and made to slap his shoulder, but Oliver leaned back and touched her arm.

“It’s all right, Mum,” He said quietly, shaking his head. He pulled one of the flowers from the spray and handed it to Rhys, “Here, Lad. Take this one and leave the rest, yeah?” He didn’t smile, but his voice was soothing. He looked back at Ana, “Mum, it’s all right. Really. None of this is what anyone wanted. It’s just what it is. He‘s a child. Let him do as a child does.”

Ana fell silent. She nodded and sank into a chair. I watched Eddie take her under his arm as she began to cry. Oliver looked away.

There is nothing more terrible in this world than a coffin made for a baby. By the time the service was done, the casket was filled with plush little stuffed animals, a rattle, some plastic rings, a book of nursery rhymes, even an empty bottle, a jar of strained peas, and a silver spoon. . It haunts me still, the sight of that delicate, rose pink box laid on a slab of white marble like some sacrifice on a pearl polished alter, covered in beautiful flowers so it could barely be seen.

We left her there, in that place, lying alone beside the wall. We went home and we sat together and we said nothing.

Our Cara was buried with her toys the next morning. Oliver and I leaned against each other so that we could stay standing as the reality of what had happened finally sank in. It was only moments before Edmond and Alexander had to support us. They collected us under our arms and kept us vertical, all of us in a cluster, while we went limp and sobbed. They kept us standing as we watched our baby being lowered into the ground and then they practically carried us across the grass and to the car when her casket had been swallowed by the earth.

Oliver and I fell against each other in the car and we wept as neither of us had ever wept before. I pulled away from him as the car left of the cemetery, straining to see the spot where she lie, pressing into my memory the picture of the place where we had buried every dream we never even knew we had.

And just like that she was gone. Cara, who should have been our miracle, had left us as quickly as she had arrived.

Bizarre, really, that tradition dictated we have a lunch after, as if either Oliver or I could think of taking a bite of anything. The only thing I could think of was drinking and drinking heavily, but I was too numb to lift the glass. “Tell me it’s not real,” I whispered to Oliver, “Please, lie to me.”

He blinked several times before he placed his hand against my face and stroked my cheek with his thumb. He said nothing, but his eyes replied, “Tell me the same.”

After, we went home to the cabin. Alex drove us, afraid we would be too distracted to get there safely. Lucy sat with him in the front of the car, her hands folded neatly in her lap. Nobody made a sound. Alex and Lucy saw us inside, both still unnaturally quiet. I went straight to the kitchen and took a sedative that the doctor had given me. I didn’t want to be awake. I didn’t want to think. All I wanted to do was go to sleep and wake up to find that it had all been a nightmare. The pill stuck in my throat and burned as it dissolved.

My sister made a pot of tea and sat with me at the kitchen table until the medicine overtook me. Neither of the cups touched, she helped me into my pyjamas and put me into the bed. Oliver had taken a pill as well just after me, but it seemed to take longer for it to affect him. I could hear him speaking quietly with his brother from the other room, their Welsh words mingling in the otherwise silent house.

Lucy lie with me on the bed, holding me the way a sister holds her sister when she’s afraid to let her go.

When I woke up hours later, the house was soundless. I knew Lucy and Alex had left long ago, probably at Oliver’s request, but I wished that they hadn’t. I stumbled out of the bedroom to check on Oliver, a feeling of worry sweeping me. What if something happened to him? What would I do without Oliver? Again, the thought plagued me. My heart and head both pounded as I caught my weight with my hands and held myself up against the wall.

I didn't see him at first. It was dark, but I saw Alfie was in the window watching him sleep on the sofa. The owl turned his head and blinked at me. He nodded and shifted his weight as if to engage me in a conversation.

“Hi, Alfie,” I whispered, “Thank you again for helping me.”

The bird closed his eyes and turned his head away as if to say it was nothing.

I stood for a few minutes and watched Oliver sleep. Bathed in the light from the moon, he looked almost like a child. He was so peaceful that I couldn’t bother him, even though I wanted to have him hold me more than anything in the world. I didn’t wake him to ask or crawl on top on him without permission like I normally would have. Instead, I went back to our bed and I cried alone.

A week passed before we slept again in the same bed. It had been a long, dreary day, raining off and on. He’d left for work at four that morning and stayed until six that evening. He was hot and tired, still had his studies to finish and didn’t seem to be in a particularly good mood. Nor was I. I’d sat in the front room and cried from the moment I woken up, but I had forced myself to stop and go to the grocery a few hours before he got home so that he wouldn’t know I had been doing it. I’d rushed to make him a decent dinner and tried to pretend that I’d busied myself studying all day by laying my books out open on the floor.

“Dinner looks good, Love,” He told me as he pulled off his work shirt and washed his hands in the sink. He didn’t mean it, although red fish was one of his favourites. He hadn’t even glanced at the table to see what was there. His deliberate politeness put me off just a bit.

“Thank you, Sweetheart.” It was the last thing either of us said for about twenty minutes. We sat on opposite ends of the table and picked at our meals. Neither of us looked at the other.

I hated it. I wanted to jump up and scream. I wanted to flick butter at him or kick the table so it bounced and his peas hit him in the nose. Anything to get him to smile or even shout. Anything to get him to speak. My God, this was us! Us! Oliver and me and we were sitting at supper like we were strangers or, worse, as if we were angry with each other. I hated that something was wrong and that something had come between us. I felt so frustrated and alone, but I sat and pushed my vegetables around on my plate instead of saying a word.

Oliver must have had enough silence, because he decided he’d break it. He didn’t look up at me when he spoke. In fact, he posed the question directly to his plate, “Do you want to try for another baby?”

I was not surprised that he had asked the question so boldly, but I was a little at the tone of his voice. It was so plain that he may as well have asked me to pass the vinegar. I took a minute to answer, waiting for him to look at me. When he didn’t, I responded with a joke. “I’d like to practice.”

He took the bait and laughed, “Me, too!” He raised his eyes to mine. It was such a relief to see him smiling, even if it wasn’t his usual mad grin, “But I’m serious. Do you want to give it a go for another? I mean, once you’re healed and the doctor says we can?”

I sighed, “What I want is to go on with our lives. I want to go to school and go to my job and come home and make you dinner. I want you and I to make love at our leisure as we always have, when we want and where we want. I hate that we can’t right now. I hate not being close to you. I hate it, Ollie,” I found myself sighing again, “I want to get back to being us. And if a baby comes out of that, then so be it. That’s magic. And if we never are lucky enough to have a baby, then so be that. We’re lucky enough to have each other. I think that’s magic enough.”

I had carefully crafted the answer so he couldn’t argue it. He nodded and returned quietly to his meal. After a moment he asked, “Do you still want the dog?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’ve had a time of it getting my hands on a Scottish terrier, but Alex found a breeder in Colwyn Bay. I was thinking that we could give them a call and make a trip if they have any pups.”

“Oh, I don’t care if it’s a pup. An older dog would be OK, too. Not too old, mind, I want to keep him awhile, but a dog one or two years old who maybe doesn’t mess on the floor.”

Oliver nodded, “Right. I’ll give them a ring tomorrow.” He looked down at his plate again and took a half-hearted bite of rice.

“Are you all right, Sweetie? You seem a little gloomy.”

“What’s out there is gloomy,” He jerked his fork toward the open door. “The weather’s affecting me. I’m just thinking, that’s all.”

“About what?”

“Well, I want to talk about what happened to us. I’m just not sure you’re willing to.” He took that moment to look me dead in the eye.

I looked away from him. The pain of the miscarriage was still fresh in my mind and heart. I’d spent days thinking about it, pulling myself back and forth between anger and sorrow, fear and confusion. I had taken the week off of work and school on my physician’s advice and done my best to make things seem normal at home, even though they weren’t. I couldn’t stand the tension between Oliver and me. We’d had our arguments, but this kind of strain between us had never existed before. He was my best friend. We’d always been able to be honest with each other. I had always been able to fling myself into his arms and cry if I was sad or stand in front of him and rant if I was annoyed. We giggled together more than anything. But now, it was like we were afraid to touch or speak, like we were suddenly estranged. It was the oddest, most uncomfortable thing I’d ever experienced.

Still, the truth was that I really didn’t want to talk about it. But if he felt he needed to I knew I must. I couldn’t let us get any further apart from each other than we already were. We were together, but both of us were lonely. That wouldn’t do for Ollie and me. Plus, I knew that I really had not given him a chance to express anything about how he felt. Honestly, I had never even considered how he felt. I was suddenly ashamed of myself.

“We can talk about it,” I said finally.

“It won’t upset you?”

“It might, but I’m already upset. I’ve just been hiding it from you.”

“No you haven’t. That’s the thing, Sil. You can’t hide anything from me. You shouldn’t try to, either. It doesn’t make me feel better that you don’t want to trouble me. It troubles me more that you push me away.”

“I’m sorry, Oliver.”

“I know. I know you are.” He leaned back in his chair and gave me a careful look, “I thought we’d have had one by now,” He said it slowly as if he were measuring my reaction, “The rate we go and nothing, then,” He paused, “Before we even have the chance to be excited about it, it’s over. I found out I was a father when I found out our baby was dead.”

I looked at my husband with tears stinging my eyes, “It was the same for me. I didn’t know she was inside me until she was torn away. I should have known! Something should have told me I was pregnant! But I didn’t! I had my cycle! Every single month! I was spotting, but I thought it was stress. It was light, it had happened to me before, and I really didn‘t gain much weight…I thought it was just me gaining a bit and losing it like I always do…”

“Silvia, there wasn’t anything you could have done. The doctors explained it over and over. It just happens for no reason sometimes.”

I wanted to believe that they were right. I knew Oliver believed them, even if it was difficult for him to accept, but I felt so guilty about letting that child die. I had been responsible for her. She had lived inside of me. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “I wish we’d talked about children, Oliver. We never did. Not seriously.”

“Yeah, we should have. It’s not like I don’t think about it. I’ve known since the first night we were together that there was the constant possibility we might be pregnant.” He paused, letting his breath escape through his nose, “At first, mind, when Alexander called me I was only worried about you, but now it’s like whiplash. I’m so relieved that you’re here and you’re all right. That’s really the most important thing to me. Really, it is, but I can’t help feeling that I’ve lost someone.”

“You did,” I picked up where he trailed off, “I need to keep that in mind. I keep thinking that it only happened to me.”

“It’s didn’t, Sil. It happened to both of us.”

“I know.”

“It’s just so…and none of it is your fault, mind, but it’s bloody disappointing. I think about things sometimes. I imagine the future. I always pictured us with at least two, but more like three or maybe four children. All of them piled up like a litter of pups on the floor.” He almost smiled, but it flickered away, “And then this happened and I’m sitting here now and truth is I’m shaken to my core.”

“Me, too. I’m so sad. I‘m frightened.”

“I am as well, Sil. Seeing you lying in that hospital…that was frightening. Seeing blood all over Alexander’s clothing, up and down his arms…that was frightening. Losing the baby…that’s just…I don’t know,” He put his arm over the back of his chair and looked away, “It’s wrong.”

I hadn’t realised he was angry about it. I didn’t say anything, though. He didn’t need me to. He needed me to shut my noise and listen.

“There are people out there with children and they ignore and abuse them. You hear about some stupid bint who leaves her kid alone in the car for hours or some cold-blooded bloke who shakes his to its death because it’s crying. And there are teenage girls getting pissed at parties and winding up with a baby they don’t want. Girls are out having abortions because they didn’t have the sense to take the pill or use a condom. And then there’s me and you and we weren’t trying, but we would’ve given that baby everything we got. We would’ve loved her. We’d have cared for her. We never would have hurt her. So why? Why did we lose her? I want someone to tell me why this happened to us. To all three of us. I want someone to tell me.”

He didn’t sound angry to me any longer. He sounded as heartbroken as I felt.

“I wish I could answer that, Oliver. I’d like to know, too.”

“Dad says it just wasn’t the time and that there must have been something wrong. Well, we know that, don’t we? He says it’s better it happened because if she had lived through the abruption she would have lost so much blood and oxygen that we might have had a child who had no quality to her life. He’s all logical about it, which is really fucking aggravating to me right now. I just can’t see a plus sign. And Mum…she just clicks her tongue at me and says nothing. She gets very upset, you know how she is. She wants to help, but she makes it worse because she cries and I don‘t need that right now, then I feel guilty-like because I‘m annoyed with her and maybe I shouldn‘t be,” His face was stiff, his mouth pulled into a tight frown, “The doctor…you know… says…you know…tells me that it just happens, sometimes there’s a reason why and sometimes it just happens for no reason at all that they can find. I know in my mind he’s telling the truth and that’s the best he can explain it, but my heart can’t accept what I’m hearing,” He shook his head and looked straight into my eyes. Anger and sadness had taken over his face. His voice was suddenly hoarse, “I saw her! I held her! She was perfect! We did everything right putting her together! It's bullshit!” He tapped his fist against the table, but not with any strength. He did it as if he were in perfect control of how hard he was touching it, as if he had allowed the full force of what he meant to do come through his hand he'd have smashed the table to splinters, “God must have wanted her, Lance told me and I almost punched his face! If it had been anybody but Lance I would have beat the—“ He stopped. His breath caught in his chest before he began again, “Alexander, you know, he says there’s no reason for it at all. Two, young, healthy people losing a healthy child, and he agrees it doesn’t make sense. And he feels bad-like because I feel bad, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to be in my shoes. I hope he never does. He doesn’t know what to say. There’s nothing to say, so he tells me I’m perfectly correct to feel like I feel,” His eyes were full of such pain I wanted to reach out and touch him, but something told me not to. Something told me if I did he would stop talking and I knew that was what he needed to do. Talk it out until what we’d been through either made sense or he could accept it. “I don’t know, Silvia. That’s the thing. I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m so bloody thankful that you’re OK. I’m so bloody thankful, but our Cara dying…it’s just not right. She was just a wee little girl! What’d she ever do to anybody?” He trailed off and then took a deep breath. His voice was just above a whisper when he continued, “I’m so angry about it. I want to shout at somebody. Not you. Just somebody. I want somebody to have to tell me why. I want to grab God by the throat and make him say he’s sorry for what he did to that little girl! I want him to tell me why he chose our Cara,” He pivoted in his chair from me. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew instinctively that he was crying.

“Oliver,” I walked around the table and put my hand on the top of his hair, “I’m here, Sweetheart. Please don’t turn away from me. I need you.” He turned in the chair and buried his face into my belly. I cradled his head, “I am so sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t come to you so we could talk about her. And I’m sorry I lost her. I love her, too, but there was nothing I could do…”

“No, Sil, I don’t blame you,” His voice was muffled. He wrapped his arms around my waist and held me, “I don’t know who I blame. There’s nobody to blame. I’m just so angry!”

“It’s all right. It’s OK. It’s reasonable to be angry and sad about it. It wasn’t fair, was it?” I ran my fingers through his hair, “I’m sad. I’m sad all the time because she died. It just wasn’t fair. I say it over and over. Not to us, especially not to her…but there’s nothing we can do and that’s the hardest thing to sort out. It hurts. We had no say and there’s not a thing that can ever make it right. She’s just gone, almost like she was never even real…but she was,” My voice broke. “She really, really was…“ Oliver sobbed into my dress. He shook. I pulled him closer. We held each other and we cried for a long while. “Keep going,” I told him, “I’ve been doing it all week. It helps. But I’ll tell you one thing. I know in my heart that one day you and I will have children. Maybe loads even.”

He sniffled, “I know now wasn’t the best time. Still, it’s bloody unacceptable. I really would have liked to have had that baby. I’d have liked to have seen your belly swell and watched how your body changed. I’d have liked to watch our daughter be born and watched you hold her.” He drew a sharp breath, “I would have liked to have been her dad. I really would have.”

“One day, Oliver,” I promised, “When things are right and ready.” We were both quiet for a moment. “Please say something for me.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“Tell me about the things you don’t do in life,” I whispered, “The things you said your grandfather told you and Alex so often when you were children. String them together for me.”

He was silent. Just when I thought he was not going to say a word, he stood up. “Things happen to you in your life that hurt. They kick you in the gut and knock you down. You get up. In this life you can never stop. You can never stop trying until you get it right. You can never quit praying in the middle of a miracle…” He stopped speaking. His eyes suddenly flashed with understanding, “You can never quit praying in the middle of a miracle and here in the wood you can never give up believing that something magic can happen at any second of the day.” He put his hands on my shoulders and rubbed my neck, tears were still in his eyes, but the look of him was different. “Because that’s what this place is about, believing that the impossible can happen. And that’s what life is about, too, having faith that there’s magic even if you can’t see it.”

“That’s it. You told me that I only believed in science and I didn’t have faith, but I do. I have faith in you, Oliver Dickinson. And I have faith that you and I can do anything as long as we are together. Life knocked us down and Death took our child. It makes no sense, but I have faith that one day we’ll get it right and we’ll have our batch of muffins and we’ll think…yeah, this is our miracle and our magic…and we’ll remember how we feel right now and we’ll say…well, we’ll say that we didn’t give up. We’ll say that we had faith, won’t we?”

“Oh, Sil,” He pulled me close kissed my hair, “What would I do without you?”

“You’d be horribly lost and lonely, I’m sure. And I’m certain that you would not have any éclairs to eat tonight.”

“You bought éclairs?”

“Yes, a dozen. I got them today when I went shopping.”

He pulled his head back and looked into my eyes. He was smiling, “Marry me?”

“Of course, Oliver!” I grinned for the first time in two weeks, “In the morning, though. We have pastries to devour tonight.”

“I love you! Let’s eat them all!”

“And I love you!” I couldn’t help but giggle. Oliver could be so childlike, getting all excited about junk food. His zest for life was unstoppable and contagious, “Yes, let’s eat all the éclairs and get sick on sugar and wish we hadn’t!”

“Let’s do that! It’ll be fun! I have a theory that sugar fixes most anything, yeah?”

“I know you do and you may well be right!”

That night Oliver ate eight éclairs and I had three. There was one left on the plate that neither of us had the constitution to touch.

“Breakfast,” Oliver mumbled. He lay back on the sofa and pulled the old, woollen blanket over the two of us.

“For you, maybe. I’m having toast.” I felt sick right down to my toes as I lie against him with my head on his chest. “If you’re going to vomit, please tell me so I can get out of the way.”

He laughed and stroked my back, “I promise I’ll say something if it comes to that.” We were both quiet. I was almost asleep when he spoke again. “We’re going to be fine, Sil. You know that, yeah?”

“I know, Oliver. I believe in us.”

“Me, too, Love. Me, too. You better get out of the way.” I jumped off of him and tumbled on to the floor. Oliver chuckled mercilessly, “I’m sorry! I couldn’t resist!”

“You’re a jackass!” I told him, laughing as well, “Let’s go to bed.”

“I have an idea.”

“Should I put on a helmet?”

He laughed again, “No. Let’s cancel tomorrow. I’ll skive off school and call off work. Let’s spend a day together, just you and me, Sil. We’ll just lie about and sleep and chat and watch the birds in the sky. It’s been too long since we have.”

“That sounds fantastic,” I told him as I helped him off the sofa.

We went to bed that night and slept wound around each other with the blankets on the floor. The next morning we left the cabin early and only long enough to drive to the spot where we could use his mobile phone to report him absent to work. After that we went home and ate bacon and toast and crawled back into bed where we laughed a lot and cried a little and talked for hours about our hopes and dreams for the family that we would make together one day. That evening, we drove to Colwyn Bay and Oliver and I fell in love with a tiny, solid black Scottish terrier I called Duncan. It became apparent after only a few hours that our Duncan was completely mental. Oliver and I watched him dash about the garden and we laughed until we ached as our new pet leaped into the air as high as his stubby legs would bring him and tried to snap fireflies out of the air. Later, when Duncan had exhausted himself clowning and we brought him inside, we waited until he had fallen asleep on the blanket we bought him. When his little ribs were pumping with deep breaths and his tiny paws were twitching, Ollie and I left him alone in the house.

The two of us lay in the garden with that woollen blanket across us. I nestled in his arms and stared at the moonlit sky, contemplating life and all the limitations and infinite possibilities that came with it. Later, when we saw Alfie glide over us and into the trees, we went inside where we climbed back into our bed.

There, sitting crossed legs in the dim flicker of an oil lamp, we split the last éclair between us and we began the long process of healing our broken hearts.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The following January, Alexander left Wales to finish his architecture degree stateside at the University of California in San Diego. He was supposed to be gone for ten months, but the twins began to miss each other bitterly after only three weeks. They had never been away from each other for more than a few days and I know both of them were lonely and lost without their brother to lean on. Oliver was busy finishing his own degree at Cardiff and working at his job, but neither kept him from calling his brother at six o’clock in the morning…noon stateside…to catch Alexander at lunch and have a chat. Or Alexander would ring him at midnight his time to reach him just before Oliver’s supper.

It was strange watching Oliver without Alexander. It wasn't as if he couldn't function or survive, but it was obvious that there was something different in him. I'd never known another set of twins and even though I accepted them both for their differences no matter how closely they resembled the other, it was difficult at times to think of them of being anything less than two parts of the same person. Oliver would tell me I was being unfair with that statement, but it's true. Their relationship wasn't far off from a marriage of sorts and after all the years they'd spent with each other nose to nose they had a real sense of the other, even from afar. For instance, Alexander would set his alarm to wake him at seven am and Oliver would sit straight up in the bed at one o'clock in the morning UK time and look about the room disoriented.

“What is it?” I asked the first few times.

Oliver shook his head, “Alex is up,” He’d mumbled, easing back onto his pillow, “He's getting ready for class.”

Events like this happened again and again. He'd know when Alexander was sick without him phoning. Another time Oliver was injured at work when a ladder slipped off a lorry and struck him in the shoulder. Alexander was ringing us before Ollie was even out of the doctor's office. The bond between them was beautiful and astounding. It was truly one of the most amazing things I ever observed in my life, the way those two knew and loved each other.

I didn't speak to Alex often myself. Our schedules never coincided. We'd chat occasionally on the internet or I'd catch him on a Saturday, but Oliver would keep me updated with news. A few weeks after he got there, Alex visited Las Vegas with some people he met. He said the city was something like the tube in London combined with Piccadilly Circus and filled with drunks. He hadn't enjoyed it, except that he'd seen Cirque de Soliel and loved that. Alex was enjoying the US, but said it was too damn hot and too damn sunny in California. It was unnatural for winter and he missed the snow. He mentioned that he fully understood how I felt when I arrived in Wales because no one could understand what he was saying. That went both ways, but he was catching on to the slang. On a brighter note, America had amazing food and he had discovered something called Southern biscuits with sausage gravy. A girl he knew was going to teach him to make so he could make it for us at home. She was his new love interest and he talked about her in a way Oliver had never heard his brother speak of any woman.

“It's serious,” Ollie told me about them, “I can hear it in his voice. He's mad about this one, he is.”

“He's been mad about others.” I just could not take Xander in any relationship seriously.

“No,” Oliver replied knowingly, “This one's different, Sil. This might be it for him.”

“Do you think?” I didn’t believe it for a single second. And if it were true, I had the distinct feeling deep in my gut that it wasn’t a good thing.

I could tell by the look on his face that Oliver felt the same, but it flashed away as quick as he smiled again, “I think it might, but mind this is Alexander we're speaking of. We'll give him his time to find out for himself.”

Time was definitely available for him to find out. The weeks seemed to peel slowly in Alexander's absence. There was a real sense of something missing. Not just in Oliver, but in his parents and in the quiet that filled our weekend nights and in the silence that followed the mention of his name. We all we all missed his presence.

In March, he went to hospital with the flu because he had no immunities to the viral strains overseas, but he recovered quickly and was back at school in no time. He said his courses were rough, but he was learning all sorts of skills he wouldn’t anywhere else. In the summer, Alexander survived an earthquake that took down a department store on his street. Bloody terrifying, he said, the ceiling in his flat cracked right above his head. More weeks ground past and just when it seemed we may be getting used to not having our boy around, Alexander finished his degree and was coming home in a few weeks with a big surprise.

I was not sure that I wanted to know what his surprise was. Knowing Alex, it could be anything. I put it out of my mind and set about finishing my own degree and settling into my new job. I'd gotten a position as an electron microscopy technician, which was not my dream position, but was a start in the right direction. It kept me occupied and interested in something instead of feeling the restlessness and boredom I so often felt back then. As happy as I was and as satisfied as I felt with all my accomplishments, there was still that ever present “It” lurking in the background of my mind. That nagging empty space that I somehow always felt no matter how hard I tried to fill it. I brushed it off as I always had and I focused on what was at hand. Work, school, Duncan, Oliver...the cabin...whatever. Anything so I didn't have to pay it mind and feel it for real. Anything so it would be a shadow off to the side and not a cloud that would envelop me and swallow me whole.

Still it was very exciting that Alex was on his way home. He was my dearest friend and I had missed him so much. It was good to have something to look forward to instead of lingering in the same mundane occurrences day after day. And I knew Oliver was excited. His mood had improved. He seemed more up than he had in ages, more like his old self, cracking jokes and laughing it up.

We were supposed to collect Alex from the airport, but he rang us just before we left to get him and said that he'd been delayed and not to bother. He'd phone again when he got to his apartment.

He finally did ring Oliver back that Friday evening and told him to get me and come to his flat that night for dinner. It was an odd demand. Alexander’s flat was about the size of a postage stamp and he rarely had anything more than a couple of packages of Japanese noodles, cereal and half gallons of milk in his entire kitchen pantry. Normally, we would have met at his parent's house or at one of their favourite pubs. Still, I didn't think much of it at the time. I just wanted to see my brother and I knew Oliver did as well.

“Boyo!” Alexander whipped open the door before we'd even knocked and immediately embraced his brother, pulling him from side to side in a bear hug. They pounded each other on the back lovingly, “It’s been too long, Brawd!”

“It has!” Oliver agreed. I hadn't seen a grin on him like that in forever.

“Silvia!” Alexander released Oliver and opened his arms to me, “Lovelier than ever! I swear, you just get prettier and prettier!” He drew me up off my feet. “You smell like tulips,” He mentioned as he squeezed me tight and gave me a friendly kiss, “How are you?”

“Excellent!”

“Well, get in here!” He set me down, but didn't let go of my hand as Oliver entered the room, which was tidier than it had been the last time I’d been over. I stared up at him as if he were a stranger. Alexander looked fantastic. He was smiling and suntanned, freshly shaven, and dressed in black from head to foot. He released me and crossed the room where he drew two bottles out of a small bucket of ice, “For you, Sil, pear water, and for my brother, what else but Woodpecker cider?”

Oliver took the bottle from his hand, “Thanks! Been awhile since you got a haircut, yeah? Don’t let mum see you looking like that.”

He shook his head, still grinning, “No, haven’t seen her yet, but I suppose unless I want to get told off I should trim it up a bit.”

“What is that wonderful smell?” I asked. Something was cooking in the kitchen and it was making my stomach growl. I didn’t realise I was hungry until I smelled it.

“Oh, I dunno. I think it’s—“

“Alex, I got it! I can’t believe I forgot bread! I’m such an airhead! Did you turn off the--” A woman shut the door and turned around. Her eyes widened, “Oh! Shit! I’m too late!”

Oliver and I looked at each other.

Alexander stood, “It’s no problem, Mel,” He said mildly going to the door. He took the bag from her hand and kissed her lightly, then turned back to us, “Oliver and Silvia, this is Melissa. My wife.”

I think my jaw may have dropped, but I was not sure if it was because Alexander was married or because of the way this girl looked. She was unbelievably gorgeous. She stood just above Alex‘s shoulder, possessed a ridiculously small waist, had ample bosoms, straight blonde hair to the middle of her back, large, round blue eyes and a heavy, pouting mouth. She looked as though he’d yanked her off the front of a bloody magazine.

“You wife?” Oliver stood up with a start, “Well…” Oliver was almost never at a loss for words, but at that moment he stammered, “Alexander! You mentioned her a thousand times, but you failed to tell me you’d married her already! Although I had a feeling,” He gave his brother a somewhat dirty look, then smiled broadly at the woman before us, “Well, come here then, Melissa!” He opened his arms, “Welcome to the family! It’s fantastic to finally meet you!”

“Oh my God! Oliver!” She looked terribly excited as she sort of tip toed over to him. She met his embrace, “I feel like I know you! You look just like Alex! Just like him! I can’t believe you’re here…or I’m here…or whatever!” She sounded like she had lost her mind. She stepped away from Oliver, “And Silvia! I’ve heard so much about you, too!”

I stood up not knowing whether I should hug her or hold out my hand, but Melissa knew exactly what she was going to do and threw her arms around me. It was an odd little clasp, warm at first, but then felt like she really didn’t want to touch me or do it at all. Her cheek was hot against mine. “Alex says such fantastic things about you! He’s always telling me how smart and funny you are,” She pulled away from me and took a moment to look me in the face. As she did her smile faded subtly, “And beautiful, too, I see.”

I had an impulse to give her a push. A great, hard push. So hard that she flipped backwards over the coffee table and crashed on to the sofa.

“Well…wow!” Was all I could sputter.

There was an awkward silence from the twins as she and I stared each other up and down. I was certain that I could kick her arse in two seconds. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d ever beaten up a snobby bitch.

“So what’s to eat?” Oliver asked to break the tension, “I worked all day and I’m starved!”

“I made meatloaf,” She was really unbelievably attractive as she spoke, moving back to Alexander like a swan across water. “I hope you both like meatloaf!”

Oliver looked at me, “Is he serious?” His eyes asked. His crooked grin said, “She’s a complete disaster!”

“I hate her,” I told him telepathically, “Tell your brother to send her packing!”

“Meatloaf?” Oliver asked, smiling, as he turned to Alexander and his new sister in law. He could always read my mind. I should have known he would be amused by my disapproval.

Melissa looked at Alex searchingly. “Oh,” She explained, “It’s like a loaf of bread, but made of meat…”

Alex saw the look on our faces, “That doesn’t sound as good as it is. It’s fantastic.”

“We know what it is, don’t we, Dickhead?” Oh, a stab! She truly was from out of town if she didn’t think we had meatloaf in the United Kingdom. I adored that man, my husband. He covered his insult quickly with a compliment, “It smells like heaven, yeah?” Oliver rubbed his hands together quickly and grinned at his new sister in law, “Is it done, Melissa?”

“Yes, it’s done,” She looked a little confused by Oliver’s remark, but was quickly won over by his charm. Oliver had that same quality as Edmond to make you feel immediately welcome and at home, “I just have to warm the bread. I would have made the bread myself, but I couldn’t find the right kind of yeast,” She spoke over her shoulder as she headed into the kitchen.

“You’re not going to find the right anything around here,” Oliver said as he followed her, “In Newtown, if you look maybe, but not here. “

We all gathered around the tiny table in Alexander’s tiny kitchen. Melissa doled out thick slices of meatloaf and mash on to each of our plates, “I hope you like it,” She said honestly. Her breasts were so large I thought they were going to go straight into Oliver's food as she leaned across him. He leaned back and stifled a laugh, “It’s Alexander’s favourite thing I cook,” She continued as she moved on to me, “Which is really nice because it’s so easy to make.”

“I'm sure it wonderful,” I mumbled, watching my husband cover his face with his hand. He shook a bit and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. He didn't dare look at me or Alex lest he burst out with a snort. He pursed his lips and got himself under control as he dug a fork into his meat.

“This is bloody fantastic!” Oliver hadn’t even swallowed yet. His eyes got wide and he covered his mouth. He made a grab for his cider, “Christ! It’s hot!”

“It is good,” I said quietly, “So when did you two get married?”

“Just before we came home,” Alexander set his knife down, reaching for his wife's hand, “Melissa wanted her mother to be at the wedding.”

I nodded. I didn’t say what I was thinking, which was that I was bothered that Oliver and I were not there and his “surprise” sucked. “I’m sure your mother would have liked to have been there as well. Tell me, how did the two of you meet?”

“Well, we met at the university…” She began.

“You’ve an architect then?” I had the feeling she had never read a book in her life.

“Uh no,” She fluttered her long, curled lashes. Her eyes were exactly the colour of deep blue sapphires and they bored into mine, a sort of dare. I wanted to thump her right in the face. Oliver looked at me sideways and hid another smile. Melissa continued, “I was there to see my sister in a play.”

“Is she an actress?”

“She wants to be.”

“What about you? Are you an actress?” I held her eye, blinking casually, “You look like an actress.”

“Me?” She laughed. It was fake, “No. I used to do some modelling, but…”

“But what? Too many blondes on the runway? Did one knock you off?” I was getting myself worked up into a right fist fight. Oliver sniggered, but Alexander looked at me as if I’d gone mental. I took a bite of meatloaf into my mouth and chewed it carefully.

“No, I didn’t like it.”

“Too much competition?

“Not really.”

“Did you attend university at all then?” I changed the discussion, refusing to take my eyes off of her. I could see her begin to squirm. I'd always had a talent for that. “The Evil Eye”, I'd been told I had more than once. It was the ability to stare at a person and actually make them feel my presence by just looking. It made most people incredibly uncomfortable and it was working like a charm on Melissa. Easy pickings. I’d dealt with bigger and nastier spoiled brats than her at Bennington. It had been awhile since I’d had an all-out bitch contest, but she was going to be a breeze. Melissa was a snack compared to some I’d faced and I’d only had to hit two of them. The others I’d simply intimidated into submission.

“For a while.” Her resolve was failing. She dropped her eyes.

“What did you read?”

She hesitated, “What do you mean?”

“Read. At university. What did you read?”

Melissa looked completely confused. “As in books?”

Oliver hid his smile behind his fork.

Alex cleared his throat, “She means what did you study.”

“Oh! I was an English Major.”

“Linguistics or just English?” I asked.

“English.”

“Then you must be a teacher. It’s about all you can do with a degree in English these days,” I flipped my fork in my hand like a baton.

“I actually didn’t finish that degree.”

I was not overwhelmed with desperate shock, “Really? Did you fail out?”

“No, I switched my major.”

I wanted to ask her if it was to basket weaving, but I held my tongue. “To what?”

“Culinary arts,” She replied.

“Did you finish that course of study then?”

“Yes,” Her suntanned face flushed. She was brassed. I had her where I wanted her, “Did you finish yours?” She snapped, suddenly looking me in the eye again.

“Oh, aye,” I had been being a cow since I first laid eyes on her, but now she had taken a poke at me and I was going to have her for supper instead of that insanely good meatloaf. Culinary degree indeed! “I have a Master’s of Science in Microbiology, a Graduate Degree in Biophotonics, in fact, and a Bachelors of Science in Accounting. I speak fluent French and English as well as Welsh, which you better learn quickly,” I put extra emphasis on ‘and English’ to mock her former major. I watched her flinch when I mentioned learning Welsh, “Currently, the team I’m spending my days with are using lasers to irradiate blood cells and recording data to find new and better ways to cure small problems we have on Earth. Little things, you know? Like cancer,” I sat back in my chair, very satisfied with myself, “What’s your work? Since you no longer model?”

She flushed deeper.

Oliver pinched my leg under the table. “So you’re a chef? I can bloody believe that! This food is absolutely fantastic!”

Alexander looked at me like he wasn’t sure if he should laugh or ask me to leave, “We met at uni in the café, Sil. Melissa had just seen her sister in a play and she was getting a cup of coffee. The lid wasn’t on properly and her drink spilled all over. I got her some serviettes and when the barista replaced her coffee we sat down and had a chat.” He looked at her softly, “It was like…kismet.”

Kismet? Was he out of his blooming mind? Alexander said kismet? Something was indeed wrong in the universe if Alexander Dickinson of all the wanton rogues who dwelled within it was using words like kismet! I thought for a second about smacking him, too. There was something not right about this girl, but I was not sure what it was yet. I couldn’t believe Alexander wasn’t on to it. I opened my mouth to say a little something about kismet, but Oliver pinched my leg again.

“That’s how it happens. Small events, yeah? I hit Silvia in the head with a ball, that’s how we met.”

“I’m really clumsy. It was embarrassing,” Melissa smiled at my husband all sugary sweet. It shot through my chest like a red hot arrow. I was going to kill her.

“Oliver wasn’t being clumsy,” I started in hotly before she could finish, “He was being careless. There’s a difference, you know? Carelessness is an oversight. You can’t help being clumsy, it’s a liability of the way one’s brain is designed. Not a good quality in a kitchen, I would imagine. Have you ever tripped and tumbled into a hot oven with a spring loaded door?”

I said this all very quickly. It was obvious that she had not understood a word from the confusion on her face. Sometimes I loved the way my accent complicated a situation.

Oliver and Alexander both laughed out loud. Alexander coughed to stop himself when he saw the look on his wife’s face. Oliver suddenly became insanely thirsty and guzzled his cider.

The room was deathly quiet as she glanced from face to face, avoiding mine completely. Finally, she spoke, “I tried to be cool and wait for him to call me,” She pretended she wasn’t ruffled. She was looking right at Oliver. I didn’t like the way she was ogling at him, either. It was something like the way a streetwalker would eye a fifty pound note, “But I couldn’t. I called him the next day and asked him out and that was it. We were in love.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet I think I’m going to – Ow!” I stopped short when Oliver pinched me again, this time harder than the other times. I slapped his shoulder just as hard. “Stop it!”

“And he accepted, obviously!” Oliver was being exceptionally kind, but I knew he would have cheered me of if I took a whack at her. He was only holding me back for the sake of his brother. “How lucky for the two of you.” He paused, as if gauging the explosiveness of the situation. “So you haven’t met Mum and Dad yet, Melissa?”

It was my turn to be quiet and let my husband take an unintentional jab. I had some more meatloaf. I hated to admit how fantastic it was, but it was the most wonderful thing that I’d ever eaten in my life. It made me want to scratch her eyes out. A chef! An honourable title, I supposed. Suddenly it seemed to me that I could hardly boil an egg.

“No, not yet,” Alexander gave his brother a knowing look.

“Well, no rush for that, yeah?” Oliver didn’t sound at all like he meant it.

“Bollocks!” I said loudly, “She’s family now! She deserves to wade in the same deep river of hell that I do when it comes to your folks! Share the pain, that’s what family’s all about!”

I watched Melissa flush yet again.

The boys stared at me with the same disbelieving smirks on their face.

“Well, it’s true!” I insisted.

“So, Big Brother,” Alexander finally broke the silence that followed, “What’s happening with you?”

Oliver took a sideways glance at me to make sure I was finished and then launched into a rundown of his daily life. I let them talk. I supposed I had said enough by then. It had been a long while since the boys had been face to face and I could see the both of them relaxing in each other's company. I hadn't seen in Oliver relax like that for a long, long while.

They were the only conversation for the remainder of the meal. I made it a point to keep my mouth shut and my eyes down. When dinner was done, I helped Alex clear the table while Oliver assisted Melissa with the dishes. After, we adjourned to the front room for wine, dessert and more chitchat.

Melissa had made tiramisu from scratch. She seemed very proud of this, although I knew from experience that tiramisu was not difficult to put together. Still, I said nothing. I had decided that there was no point and anything that would come out of my mouth could potentially lead to a court hearing. Oh, I so wanted to clock her!

“No, thank you,” I said when Alexander tried to hand me a dish, “That’ll make your arse expand exponentially, fast and for real.”

She gave me a nasty look out of the corner of her eye as she passed. I leaned forward and meant to trip her, but Oliver put his hand against my knee and shook his head.

There was a lot of wine and way too much irrelevant conversation happening that evening for my taste. I've never been a big wine drinker. It upsets my stomach and gives me a headache, so I just sat quietly and waited for the nightmare to end.

When it was all said and done Oliver and I said our goodnights with plans to meet again soon. Alexander pecked me on the lips and told me mockingly, “Thank you for behaving yourself, Silvia. You’re usually so difficult to deal with, but you were lovely tonight, Sweetie.”

“I always rise to a challenge, Darling,” I kissed him again on the lips just to brass Melissa off. I thought about patting him on the arse as well, but I didn't.

“It was so nice to meet you!” Melissa told me, pretending that she didn’t want to pull my hair out of my head for being a raving bitch, much less for kissing her man on the mouth twice, “We need to get together soon!”

“Oh, aye, that’s likely as these two are brothers! Couldn’t get out of that one if we wanted to, yeah?” I didn’t offer her a hug. “Night now!”

I walked out of the room and left my husband on his own to say a proper goodnight.

“Good Lord, Silvia, what was that display of hostility?” Oliver asked about thirty seconds later when he came out the door, “Have you lost your manners completely? You were so rude!”

“What?” I asked innocently, walking down the steps to the front door, “I hate her.”

“You just met her!” He caught up to me in the foyer and held the door for me as he drew the keys from his front pocket.

“And I can tell you right now she’s a fraud and a fake!” I turned to face him.

“And how could you surmise that in all of five seconds?” He stepped outside. The door caught him in the back and sent him forward a half step.

“Didn’t you pay one bit of attention?” I couldn't believe how daft he was. Men! So stupid! “Did you even look at her? You think she was born blonde? Her brows are dark! Did you see her finger nails? They’re like great talons with glittering gems on them. Acrylic! Her jumper was pure cashmere and her purse and shoes...”

“So?” He was clueless as to what my point might be. We walked together across the garden and out the gate to the road.

“Her purse, Oliver, and her shoes were Prada and not a knock off either! Fucking Prada!” I stood outside the passenger door of our car and watched him walk around to the driver’s side.

“Her shoes were hideous,” He agreed, but obviously had no idea what Prada was, “They looked like witches’ boots made out of some dead animal’s skin.”

“Doesn’t matter!” I tossed up my hands, “Prada, Oliver! Prada!”

“What the blooming’ hell is a Prada, Silvia?” He peered at me over the car.

“It’s very expensive designer shit is what it is! I don’t even know what a pair of Pradas would cost! More than any of us has! Alexander just got his degree! He’s going to be eating peanut butter without a spoon and she’ll be dripping in cashmere and sporting Prada!”

“Maybe she wore her best. You just met her!”

We got into the car, “And so did you!” I wasn't going to let it go, “By the look of you I would have thought you didn’t think much of her either, but it would appear now that you are as in love with her as your stupid brother! Soon there’ll be a full on incident of twincest! I can see it now! Both blinded by a set of rock hard silicone enhanced tits!”

He glanced at me sideways with his mouth hanging open. “Twincest? I can’t bloody believe you just said that! Your breasts are much larger than hers!” He paused, “My God, are you jealous?”

“Me? What do I have to be jealous of? The fact that she’s an irritating, plastic Barbie doll? Or the fact that she has just as much between her ears as one of them?” I yanked on my seat belt. “Or that she looks like what would happen if Angelina Jolie and Heidi Klum got smashed together too closely on the tube and became one person?”

“Aw, come off of it! Silvia!” He laughed out loud, “She’s attractive, she is, but not nearly as pretty as you are!”

“Now you’re a liar!”

“Am not!” He was still laughing, “Settle down! She’s not that pretty! Sure, she’s tall and she’s got all that…American stuff...going on, but she’s got an odd mouth and…wow! That accent is bloody awful!”

“You wanted to tell her to shut up as well?”

“Well, didn’t you know? She talks too much and too fast,” He was always good at imitating accents. He launched into an American accent, waving his hand in the way that she did as he spoke, “An-duh…oh, my God! An-duh it was like reeeeely just cra-zay and-duh I was like holy shit! An-duh then I was like…oh, my God, yeerrrrrr joking! Uh-no way! An-duh ya think?”

He had me laughing so hard I had to wipe tears away, “I thought you got on so well!”

“We did! But honestly! She’s a nightmare, I swear!” He pulled away from the curb. “My brother would marry a monster, wouldn’t he?”

We drove on for a few minutes before I spoke again, “I reckon I should apologize to her.”

“You should. You were a complete cow back there, Love.” He smiled and shook his head, “It was quite humorous. I haven’t seen you that angry since Serena McLaughlin and Amber Monaghan set about their skulking in the common room.”

After that party in Ebbw Vale when we were kids, Serena McLaughlin, Amber Monahan and Peggy McGhee went on a calculated crusade to break up Oliver and me. All three of them mercilessly stalked him around campus, getting in his face and being extra cutsie and ever-so-sweet. Oliver couldn’t stand Peggy so I was bothered very little when I saw her approaching him. Amber, on the other hand, had a lovely face and not only that, she was fairly clever. She was meaner than a skinny dog as well. Attractive, clever and unkind are a dangerous combination in a teenage girl and I knew that even then. Amber made me nervous. Not that I thought she’d take Ollie from me, I just knew sooner or later there’d be an ugly confrontation and I wasn’t interested in getting into trouble. Serena, on the the other hand, just made me insane. She was not particularly pretty, although not ugly, either, and I wasn’t impressed with her intelligence, but she had dedication, let me tell you. She was tenacious.

Sandra came to me on afternoon before class and told me she’d heard Amber talking about how the free period she and Serena shared with Oliver was the perfect time to “home in because Silvia’s in class and can’t watch his every move”. I went through the roof! Sandy asked me to settle down and told me that she’d been watching and Oliver was ignoring both of them, but I didn’t care. The very nerve of those bitches!

I was so angry I swore I’d kill all three. I skived off class and marched straight into the common room where they sat across from Oliver with their backs to me. Ollie was studying and didn’t notice me come in, so I began the conversation by kicking the back of Amber’s chair. What ensued was your typical altercation between teenage girls, complete with the boy telling everyone to quit squabbling and the girls ignoring him while hurling insults and threats. What was not typical, however, was when I reached out and grabbed Amber by her gorgeous blonde hair and shoved her so hard she flipped over her chair onto the table. She tried to stand, but I bitch slapped her back down.

Serena hadn’t possessed the brains to run away like she should have and gave me a push. I glanced a blow off of her shoulder, at which point she decided she didn’t want to get beaten up like her friend, and tried to run off to hide in the girl’s lavatory. Ollie insisted I let her go and got in my way, but by that point I was quite literally seeing red. I stormed past him into the toilet. Serena thought she was going to fight me and took another chance at striking me. I hit her once in the stomach, but beyond that, it only took about forty seconds before I had her head stuffed into a toilet. Ollie and Merlyn burst in and hauled me off. I still can’t believe nobody told on me.

“They got what was coming to them,” I mumbled, releasing the memory.

“Alexander loves Melissa, yeah? She’s an odd fit for him, I admit. He doesn’t do well with the insecure type, but if he feels that strongly about her, we have to give her a go. We have to accept her and at least try to love her, too,” I forgot sometimes how thoughtful Oliver was. He was the kindest person I ever knew, “If you think about it, Sil, she was probably nervous. Alex said he had her meet with us first because she was way too wound up to meet with Mum and Dad. I can‘t blame her.”

He had stopped speaking too suddenly. I knew immediately he was not telling me something. “Oliver, what is it?”

He stared straight ahead and screwed up his face.

“Oliver, Xander tells you everything. What did he tell you that you’re not telling me?”

“I know it won’t make you any happier, Love.” He warned.

“Tell me! I’ll find out sooner or later, won’t I?”

Oliver sighed, “I want to get home first. It could take a while.”

“Tell me, Oliver!”

He said nothing until he stopped the car at the bottom of our hill. He made me get out before he told me that Melissa was pregnant.

Then he held me while I cried.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

It took me two days to phone Melissa. I hadn’t been sad about our baby for a long time, but finding out Alexander’s wife was pregnant had brought back the emptiness inside. It wasn't fair that they were having a baby without trying and Oliver and I weren’t. It made me hate her all the more that on top of not liking her, I was jealous, too. But regardless of how I felt, she was family now. Alexander had married that dim tart monkey and there wasn’t anything I could do to change the fact. Family was everything and I wasn't going to create a rift in it that I could avoid. So I decided it was better to gather myself than to act like a troll again.

I was at the greengrocer’s when I finally did ring her. “Hello, Melissa?”

“Yes, this is.”

“Well, I know it’s you, you twit. Who else would answer Alexander’s home telephone?” I thought, but I said, “It’s Silvia. I’m dreadfully sorry for the way I behaved the other night. I was right awful and I didn’t need to be. I got my monthly the next day, maybe that had something to do with it, but it doesn’t matter. I want to apologize.”

“Oh, it’s OK,” She laughed, but it sounded forced. “I’m sorry, too. Maybe I was trying too hard. I didn’t mean to put you off. I get nervous and I don’t know how to act sometimes.”

“Listen,” I told her, “I know Alexander very well. He has no tolerance for stupidity. If he married you then you must have something special. Loads of girls have tried hard to peg him down and he tossed them off like rubbish. He chose to keep you on. It says a lot, it does.”

“Well, he has nothing but the best things to say about you.”

“That’s kind of him. I can be a bit of a cat, if you didn’t see.” Slight pause, “Has he taken you to meet his parents?”

“Not yet. Tonight.”

“Oh, heavens!” I rolled my eyes, “Do they know you’re married?”

“No, Alexander said not to tell them until we get there.”

“Alexander is a dolt,” I dropped the cucumber I was holding into my basket, “Listen to me carefully. Those two boys thrive on chaos and discord. Their parents are very conservative to say the least. How two people so by the book could have produced a pair of hell raisers like those two I have no idea, but bringing their parents to the brink of a stroke is sport to them. They enjoy watching them turn blue.”

She was quiet.

“They have a bet, you see, to see which twin can kill which parent first. Believe me, you can’t just walk into Edmond and Ana’s home and say, ‘Hi! I’m Melissa and I’m all banged up! By the way, I married your son this afternoon!’ They will have nothing of it, let me tell you!”

“What…what can I do then?” She sounded sincerely frightened.

“I’m going to do you a favour. I’m going to save you from what happened to me when Alex and Ollie decided the best thing to do was to drop a bomb on their parents laps and his father shouted until I was in tears,” I paid the grocer.

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to phone up his mum and I’m going to tell her myself!” I answered bravely as I left the store, “Believe me, you’ll be happy I did, too! I’ll do it straight away as soon as I hang up with you! Your phone may begin to ring the instant I’m through. Do not answer it yourself under any circumstances. Is Alexander there?”

“Yes.”

“Good. By the time he has time to want to ring me up and shout at me I’ll have done it.”

“Uh…ok.”

“Whatever his parent’s say, don’t take it personally. They’ll get over the shock. They always do sooner or later. Honestly, they’ll love you in a couple of hours, so just relax and make sure you keep that muffin safe.”

“What?”

“Your baby. Think of your baby and stay calm. It’s not going to be ugly if I do this right, but be ready if it goes bad. Oh, and you’ve been married more than a month, remember that!”

“OK.”

“Right then! Cheers!” I clicked the phone closed.

I walked to a bench and set down my groceries as I hit speed dial for my mother in law. She answered on the third ring. “Hello, Mummy!” I sang in my sweetest voice, “How are you?”

“I’m wonderful, Darling!” Her voice was light. I knew she'd probably been preparing all day for Xander and Melissa to arrive. She was blissfully in her hostess element. I bet the tea tray was already laid out. I almost hated to be the one to toss the grenade into her kitchen, “Xander is bringing his American girlfriend over to meet us tonight! I’m so excited to see him!”

“Yes, well, make sure you serve decaffeinated tea.”

“Oh? She doesn’t take caffeinated tea?”

“Oh, Mummy, don’t you know? All the doctors say a pregnant woman shouldn’t have caffeine!” Silence on the line. Dead, cold silence. “Mummy, are you there?”

“She’s…” Ana couldn’t say it. I never did understand why pregnant was a dirty word.

“Baking a muffin, yes!” I answered brightly, “But everything’s all right! They’re already married! Didn’t Xan tell you?”

“He said he had a surprise.” She muttered.

“Oh, stupid me! I’ve gone and ruined it!” Alexander was madly beeping in on my other line, “Yes, yes. They married a month ago or so and he didn’t want to tell you and break your heart that he’d denied you being there the way that Oliver and I had. He said he loved her so much he just couldn’t wait! Who am I to fault him for that when I did the same?” I rolled my eyes as far back in my head as I could and hung my tongue out.

“Oh, my,” There was a great amount of relief in her voice, “I’m shocked, but that was thoughtful of him since I couldn’t be there! I do wish I could have seen one of my sons married!”

“Oh, she’s beautiful, Mum. She looks like a Barbie doll. And very nice, too, I think. It’s hard to tell, though. She might be a toad.”

“She’s having a baby?”

“Full on baking, she is! But they just found out, quite a shock. Must have happened on their wedding night, yeah?” I leaned forward and pretended to vomit into my sack.

“Oh, how sweet!”

It was all I could do to hold back my disdain, but I had done it! Alex was still ringing me, “Oh, Mum, that’s Alex on the line. I should pick it up and tell him I’ve ruined his surprise!”

“Oh, tell him to ring me straight away!” She was terribly excited.

“I will. Speak soon, Mum. Cheers!” I clicked the line over, “Alex?”

“DAMN IT, SILVIA! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! YOU DIDN’T JUST RING MY MUM!”

“OH, SHUT YOUR NOISE BEFORE I COME OVER AND KNOCK YOUR ROCKS, BOYO!” I yelled back, “YOUR MOTHER IS SO HAPPY SHE’S ABOUT TO POP!”

There was silence again. “What?”

“I told her you’ve been married a month and didn’t want to break her heart by telling her when she couldn’t be there to see her last remaining single son married! You just loved Melissa so fucking much you couldn’t wait to get her to the church! I almost threw up, Alexander! I even told her you felt terrible for hurting her like Oliver and I had. I told her that you only just found out that Melissa is baking a muffin and that Melissa is beautiful and wonderful and you’re both so happy you’re blowing bubbles out your bums! She got banged up the night you got married, I said! Can you believe your mother believed that rubbish?”

“You told her all of that?”

“I did! And do you know why?”

“Why?”

“I did it for you! Because you’re my brother and I love you and you’re so incredibly fucking stupid! Your bloody wife is pregnant! That’s why I did it! Because I treated her like the road the other night and I would never, never do anything to upset her again and have anything happen to that baby!” I was so angry I was drooling. Literally, slobber was flying all over. It was disgusting, which made me even more upset, “You are a thoughtless moron, Alexander Martin Dickinson! As if Melissa needed to go to that house and have your father scream at you two like he did when Oliver and I got married! And she DOES have a muffin! She was freaked out meeting the two of us! Do you want her to get so upset that she loses that baby like I lost mine?”

“I didn’t think about it like that.”

“You didn’t think at all, did you?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“You should be, Fuckhead!”

“Fuckhead? Jeez, Silvia, are you feeling all right?”

“No! You are an arsehole, Alexander! You fuckhead!”

He ignored me, “So Mum’s… she’s happy?”

“Oh, yes! She wants you to phone straight away. When you do you better remember you just found out! You were married more than a month ago and you’re regretful that she wasn’t here! Tell her if it’s a girl you’ll put Ana in the name! Just make her happy!”

“Right! Brilliant, you are!”

“Tell me something I don’t already know! I’ve got to go! I’m so angry at you I have to go walk until I calm down or I’ll crash off the road!”

“Don’t do that, Sil.”

“I won’t, no thanks to you! It’s my good sense, not yours!”

“Thank you for calling Mum.” He was dripping with gratitude. I'm serious. I could feel it coming across the line. It was like a pulse and it weakened the resolve I had to hate him.

“Piss off.” My voice sounded soft, even to me.

“You’re a daisy, you know that? I love you, Silvia!”

“Shut up. I hate you. Ring your mum.” I hung up on him and stomped to my car.

I tossed my groceries into the back seat and walked around the village. I didn’t know if I was upset because I was angry at Alexander for not thinking about the wellbeing of his wife and child or if it was simply because Alexander had a wife that I didn’t approve of and a child I couldn’t have.

After a while I knew it was only because of the child.

It wasn’t fair! I kicked some rubbish on the side of the road and told a stranger to piss off for looking at me like I’d done something wrong. It was not fair that Alex and Melissa should accidentally become pregnant and I couldn’t carry the one child I’d conceived. Eight years! Almost eight years we’d been married and they’d only known each other a couple of months. Already they had a child together and me and Oliver…we were hopelessly barren. I felt that hot bubble of envy swell up and pop in my gut. It burned across every inch of my body.

Oh, damn it! Damn it! Damn it! I wanted a baby so badly I ached all over. Stupid, worthless womb! I hit myself twice in the belly and immediately regretted it.

I hadn’t realised how late it was getting. It was almost dark by the time I got back to the car. I knew Oliver was home by then. He wouldn’t be worried, but he’d be wondering where I was. I turned the ignition and hurried home.

Oliver was sitting on the porch with the dog when I came up the hill. “Hello, Love!” He met me for a kiss at the edge of the yard and took the groceries. Duncan kept jumping as high as my waist, his little tail wagging frantically, “What were you up to? Concocting more alibis for Alexander?”

“He told you?” I lifted Duncan in my arms and rubbed his ears. He licked me wickedly.

“He caught me just before I left school. Bloody clever of you! You make me so proud!”

I had to smile, “Yes, it was rather sly, wasn’t it?”

“Brilliant!” He put his arm around me as we entered the house, ignoring Duncan as he tried to press between our feet, “I made toasted cheese sandwiches for dinner. They’re probably even still warm.”

“Excellent. I’ll make the salad then.” I began to take the vegetables out of the sack.

Oliver stood beside me and watched me chop. He moved the hair from my neck and put his face into my shoulder, “It was a big thing you did, Love,” He said quietly, “I know you don’t like Melissa. It must have been hard for you to say nice things. You protected her.”

“She’s married to your brother. I have to do what I can.”

Oliver nodded, but said nothing. He just stood straight, looked down at me and grinned.

Three weeks later my mobile rang while I was on my way home from school. It was Melissa. “Lucky thing you caught me!” I told her, “I’m almost out of range.”

“Can we get together?” She asked, “Just you and me?”

“Sure. Everything all right?”

“Yes. I just need to talk to another woman.”

“I’ll have to get turned around,” I really would have rather gone home, but I decided that to uphold peace in the family, I needed to make an effort to find something tolerable about her.

“Can we go somewhere? I’d like to get out for a while.”

“Like where?”

“I don’t know. Is there a restaurant we can sit and talk at?”

“Not around here. There are a couple of pubs, but they’re not intimate. Where is Alex?”

“He’s at an interview for a job.” She sounded odd, like this bothered her.

I disregarded the twisted feeling I was getting in my stomach. I got it every time her name was brought up. It was a thousand times as bad when I was confronted with direct contact, “Well, how about you come out to my house then? Leave Alex a note and wait on the garden path. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“OK, Silvia. Thanks. Bye.”

“Cheers!” I clicked the phone closed and turned around in the road, already dreading what I had just done.

She was standing at the edge of the garden when I came up. Goodness she was pretty. She looked like a clip from a film scene you'd see on a poster at a theatre, perfectly still with the setting sun illuminating her corn silk hair. I gave her a wave and she smiled. She closed the gate when I stopped and was in the car in two steps. “Hi,” She said brightly. “Thanks for coming!”

“Hello! No problem!” I began to drive.

We were both quiet for a minute. “So you and Oliver have been married for a long time?”

“Almost eight years.”

“Wow! You did marry young!”

“I have no regrets,” I smiled as I drove.

“They’re identical.” Melissa shifted her weight in the seat. With the belt pulled across her I could see the bump of her belly. “Those two, I can’t tell them apart. It’s like…it’s incredible.”

“They’re actually not identical. They’re mono-zygotic twins, yeah, but if you look, Oliver is a bit taller than Alexander and his shoulders are broader, too. He has larger feet. Alex’s eyes are a little bigger. He has a scar here,” I pointed to my ear. “Oh, and if you never noticed, Alex is left handed and Oliver is right, which only matters if they’re not trying to fool you, because they always remember to switch hands if they’re up to something.”

“Wow. You’ve done your research. I hadn’t noticed any of that.”

“It’s subtle, most people don’t. They sound just alike, though. I can’t even tell them apart if I’m not looking. They’ve fooled me more than once on the phone. They’re funny, those two. They’re so different, but then they’re so much alike at the same time. Their brains operate more or less the same way, but they behave singularly. Oliver is the more outgoing one. Alex is loads more quiet than Oliver, but both are quick witted and clever. Equally as dangerous, I’d say. Put them together and leave them to plot and anything can happen. They’ve proved that more than once,” I pulled off the main road and started on the many paths that led to our home. “Oh, and their tempers are something to mention as well. Alexander’s temper is far hotter than Oliver’s, but either of them can be a fiend if you get them angry enough. It’s best to know when to draw back with Alexander. Oliver will walk away from a fight, but Alex will take out his fork and knife and keep at it until he’s had his fill.”

“Tell me more about him.”

“Alexander?” I found that a curious request, “What do you want to know?”

“Everything.”

“May I ask you something? How long have you known Alex?”

“Eight months,” She answered quietly.

“Do you love him?”

Melissa snapped her head toward me, “Yes!” She didn’t say it like it was a reflex. She said it more like she was insulted that I had asked her. I was impressed with her sincerity.

Neither of us said anything else until I drove up the path to the cabin. Duncan had come out of the house through the dog door and came bounding down the hill to greet me, running in circles beside the car. “This is it,” I told Melissa, grabbing my books from the back seat, “It’s not much, but it’s home to us!”

“Alexander told me about this place,” Melissa said as she got out of the car and closed the door. Duncan ran to her and sniffed her shoes. He growled softly, “He thinks this is the best place on earth.”

“I agree.” I paused, sizing her up. I had no idea what she was getting at, but that feeling of mistrust was still boiling in my gut, “Melissa, what do you want to know about Alexander that you can’t ask him yourself?”

Her lids fluttered. “I just,” She glanced down at the dog and then back at me, pulling her jumper tighter around her. Her mouth went rigid. “I want to know more.”

I wished Oliver was home. He was so much better than I was at knowing the right things to say and when to say them. He could read people as if he were inside their head listening to their thoughts, “Come in. I’ll make us some coffee.”

I took Melissa into the house. “You have a beautiful home," She told me as she sat on the sofa while I made coffee in the front room. Melissa could be so sincere at times. It was truly an endearing quality and it set me back from time to time from being convinced that she was pure evil. The fire cracked inside of the stove, giving off warmth that took the chill right out of the room. I watched her look around as if she were lost. She had an expression of deep wanting in her big blue eyes. There was something about her that resonated sadness. A deep, endless sadness that I recognised and knew I'd felt before myself. It was loneliness. Melissa was alone.

Part of me felt sorry for her and wanted to be her friend, but every time I thought of reaching out that sickening crunch would go through my stomach and I pulled back. That feeling had never failed me when there was something wrong. I had learned to trust it.

“Thanks. We’ve worked hard on it. I don’t have decaffeinated coffee, sorry,” I told her, handing her a mug, “But a little caffeine won’t hurt you in your condition.”

“No, a cup or two is OK.” She smiled and took sugar from our coffee table, “Thank you.”

“No worries," I sat in Oliver’s chair. Duncan jumped up on to my lap and sat looking curiously at Melissa, “So,” I began the conversation, “What do you want to know about Xan?”

Her eyes were huge. “Everything! Tell me about when he was a kid!”

“Well, I’ve known him since we were fifteen,” I began to tell her everything I knew or could remember. I told her stories about what went on at Bennington, minus his womanising, about how he had become so interested in architecture while helping us build on to the cabin, and about him and Oliver and how close they were. “Alexander is my best friend. He’s a bit on the crusty side, but he’s the only brother I’ve ever had and beside my husband, I think he is the most wonderful man alive. You’re very lucky to have him.”

“I know. He’s great.” She had that wanting look again.

“Are you troubled about something, Melissa? Can I help you?”

“It’s just I feel weird,” She pulled her long hair back with one hand, “I know I know you and everything,” I almost laughed out loud remembering Oliver’s imitation of her in the car, but I maintained myself, “And here I am at your house asking you to tell me all about the man I’m married to like I don’t know him at all or something!” She shook her head. “It’s weird.”

“You love him right?”

“Yes!” She set her cup down, “I’m so in love with him! He’s smart and he’s funny and,” She put her hands in the air, “He’s absolutely everything I ever imagined I’d want in a husband!”

“I believe you!” I said, but I wondered now if she was being sincere or trying to convince me, “If you love him that should be enough to put it right in the end. Whatever it is.”

She seemed to relax a bit, “It’s not Alexander that’s the problem. It’s all just been so fast. Like, he’s got those dark eyes that look right through you, but in a good way. It’s hard to know what he’s thinking, though.”

“Actually, Alex is very easy to read. When he’s affectionate and funny, he’s in a good mood. When he’s stormy and brooding, he’s set off about something. If it’s you, he’ll let you know, otherwise just let him be set off. He’ll cool down. And when he’s quiet, he’s feeling snowed under and he’s looking for a cave to go hide in where he can be by himself and let the feeling pass him by. Alexander is really quite simple. All you need to know is when to love him and when to leave him alone.”

Melissa either wasn’t listening or had missed the point, “How am I supposed to know that if he doesn’t tell me? He’s so intense all the time and then he goes off with Oliver!”

“They do everything together, Melissa. You can’t get jealous. There’s no competing with Oliver in Alexander’s mind, just like I can’t compete with Alex in Oliver’s. Those two are twin souls as well as twin brothers. They‘re tight as a dog with two tails.”

“I’m not jealous of Oliver!” Despite what she said, she seemed very threatened, “It’s just that I don’t like being alone! I can’t handle it! I’m used to having lots of people all around me all the time! Sometimes, though,” She was whining now, “I just want Alex and nobody else, but he’s always busy!”

“He’s trying to build a career,” She was really annoying me. I was not sure at all of what she was playing at. She just seemed jealous and needy to me. Not at all the kind of woman Alexander required. “I promise all he’s doing he’s doing for you. Have you told him you feel like this?”

“No, he should know he can’t just leave me alone!”

“He’s a man, Melissa. You’re lucky he can read a book. He certainly can’t read your mind.” I paused. I really didn’t like her, but I wanted to help her for Alex’s sake. “You know, Alex has always needed a lot of space. He gets claustrophobic when he’s crowded and he goes off alone. You have to trust that he’ll come back. He will.”

“Well, do you blame me for worrying? He’s my husband! I don’t know where he goes or what he does! You said yourself lots of girls have tried to get him,” Her voice was rising, “How do I know they’re not still trying? He’s so handsome! We run into women all the time and he knows every one of them by their name!”

“It’s a small area,” I mumbled.

“And some man made a comment about me nailing Alexander down! He said he never thought he’d see him married, he thought that someone would kill him over their wife or girlfriend first! What am I supposed to think?”

I hesitated on responding to that one, “Alex was…” How was I going to put it? “Not quick to settle on any woman for a while. He…” Oh, I wished Oliver was there! “Dated quite a lot,” I finished uncertainly.

“I bet he did! You’re married to his twin! You know how sexy he is!”

“They’re beautiful boys,” I agreed, “Inside and out. Alexander has his faults, Melissa, but he’s loyal to those he loves. He knows a lot of people, but, really, he keeps a small circle…”

She wasn’t listening to a thing I was saying, “Well, why wouldn’t they be trying? Oh my God! All my girlfriends at home wanted him! The way he talks! Well, maybe you’re used to that accent, but…Oh, my God!”

“We’re in Wales,” I was thinking that she was one of the stupidest people I had ever met, “He doesn’t have an accent here.”

She just kept talking. “When I met him, I fell in love with him like immediately. I was over the moon. I couldn’t believe a guy like that would choose me! I’d never been so excited about anything in my life. It was so perfect, Silvia! He was thoughtful and romantic and he listened to me when I talked…”

Wow, I thought, Alex really does love her. I was ready to shove one of Duncan's chew toys into her gob just to shut her up.

“And then,” She suddenly sounded very sad, “I missed my period.” She looked at her hands and shook her head, “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t call him for a week, even though he was blowing up my phone. I thought for sure he’d freak out, you know? I figured he’d drop me and go running back to Wales, but he was so calm. He was like, ‘OK, so we’re pregnant! I was going to ask you to marry me anyway! Didn’t plan it like this, but all right!’ He wasn’t even fazed. I’m still fazed. I mean, I love him, but this all just happened so fast.”

There was an uneasy silence. “Their dad always says make your holiday choices and pack a lunch,” I said quietly. I really did want to comfort her. She seemed so hurt. It was like trying to reach out to an injured animal that you were almost certain had the inclination to bite you for your effort.

“Huh?” Her eyes flashed back to me.

“It means you can make plans, but you usually take the scenic route to see them through.”

“Ya think?” She laughed, but not as if it were funny, “I never thought within a month of graduating the culinary academy I’d…number one, be married…number two, be pregnant…and number three, most of all, I never thought I’d be living in Wales! I didn’t even know where Wales was!”

“Did you think he’d stay in the States?” I asked her seriously. I knew Alexander well enough to know he would never live that far from Oliver. Not for long anyway.

“He said he wanted to go back and I knew eventually we would. I guess I just thought it would be down the road or it would be like six months here, six months there.”

“Did he tell you it would be like that?”

“No. He told me that he had to go home as soon as he got his degree and his visa was up. I just didn’t think he meant it. I thought he’d want to stay for at least awhile. At least until the baby was born.”

“Alexander is usually pretty clear with his intentions,” I sighed, “But I can sympathize. You are very far from your home.”

“Ya think?”

I really wished she’d stop saying that. “It seemed a long way from Scotland when I came to Wales. And the Welsh are unique. The Welsh are…very Welsh. You don’t know what that means unless you come here.” I sat back and thought for a minute, “I imagine that you feel very much out of your comfort zone. But you married Alexander. He should be your home.” She began to cry. I knew I had said the wrong thing, but I was not sure why it had been wrong. “It’s OK, Melissa. It seems even with Alex you’re quite lonely…”

“I love him so much! I want to be with him, but I’m homesick already and I’ve only been here a month!” She sobbed, “Oliver has been very nice and Alex’s parents have been very nice…everyone’s been very nice, but this place…like, it’s not home. You all speak English, but it’s not English! I can’t understand half of what anybody’s talking about! Alexander talks about a going up a wooden gwelly and I don’t know he wants to go to bed! So I just sit there like a jerk! And I’m supposed to be a chef, but chips are crisps and fries are chips and prawns are shrimp! All I want is a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips and all I can find are shrimp flavoured ones! Gross! And all the food looks the same, but tastes different! I can’t get anything to taste right! Even chocolate tastes like crap here! And the other night Alexander took me out to dinner and they had peanut sauce on the plate with my meat! I almost puked!” She was obviously very frustrated, “And, like, I buy the shampoo I buy at home, but it smells weird. And I can’t drive! I’m always on the wrong side of the road! I feel like a moron!”

“You’re not a moron. You’re an American. We all expect you to be backwards. There are a lot of American tourists who come here and drive down the wrong side of the path, no one’s shocked by you doing it. Don’t be so hard on yourself. And not one of us you’ve met speaks the Queen’s English,” I told her. I was trying to be soothing, but at the same time I didn’t comprehend how she could not understand that when you’re married your husband is your home. For whatever reason Duncan chose that moment to snarl at a shadow on the wall. I tapped his shoulder to get him to stop as I continued, “And not one of us speaks American, either. You’re in Wales dealing with Welshmen. It’s a completely different lingo. I had to learn it, too, but you have to understand that to us, it’s you who sounds strange. We just all have to be patient.”

“That’s just it! I don’t fit in!”

“You fit in with Alexander.” I suggested desperately.

“I miss my mom!” She wailed.

“Have you called your mum?” I handed her a tea towel to wipe her eyes. “Have you told her how you feel?”

She nodded. “Yes. She and my sister are flying out in a few weeks when she can get time off of work.”

“Well, that’ll be lovely!”

“They’re excited,” It seemed to cheer her up just a bit, “They’ve never been to Europe.”

“Wales is very beautiful. Powys is breathtaking in spots. Oliver took me to see secret places when we were younger, places that aren’t in the tour books. Alexander knows them and I’m sure he will take you there as well. ”

“Alexander said he’d take us to England, too, and Scotland if we want to go,” She looked at me hopefully, “He says we can drive there.”

“You’re not far from England where you’re sitting right now. You could walk to it if you were determined enough. A little more than two hours’ drive will get you to London. The English countryside is quite lovely. And Scotland is a hop, but not a terrible one. I’m biased, but Scotland is amazing. You’ll have a wonderful time! You can ferry to Ireland like!” I still almost felt bad for her, but for some reason I couldn’t quite get there. Duncan growled again, “Listen, Mel, I know how lonely it feels to be in a new place and know no one really, but you’ll find friends. And you already have a best friend in your husband. You two are doing all right?”

“We are!”

I looked her straight in the face. I didn’t care what Oliver said about her, she was a beautiful girl, even if I did agree her mouth was a bit fat and oddly shaped, “It’ll take some time, but we’ll be your family, too, soon enough, if you let us. And I know Alexander well enough to tell you that he’ll not hold you captive in Wales. Once you have that baby you’ll go back to the states often as you can manage the time and the tickets.”

She smiled. “I’m not miserable, really, I’m just…”

“Hormonally challenged?” I offered, “I can only imagine what you’re going through,” I looked down at her belly, “It’s OK, Melissa. That’s a Dickinson you’ve got growing inside you. One of those is enough to put anybody over the edge at times, much less two.”

“I’m glad you answered the phone,” Mel wiped her eyes, “I think I’d die if you didn’t.”

“You wouldn’t die,” I told her, “Alexander wouldn’t allow that.”

Melissa and I spent all day together that day. I showed her around the wood and answered her questions about the faerie circle and the elves that lived there. She seemed to be able to believe it easier than I had. Finally, I asked her the question that I had been dying to ask, “What does it feel like to have that baby in you?”

She rubbed her belly, “Crampy, mostly. It’s not like I can feel it move yet or anything. I don’t think so anyway. But I’m already showing.”

“I wasn’t,” I stared at the bulge under her hands, “I was further along as you when I lost mine, but I didn’t show at all. I’m built more sturdy than you.”

Her eyes were wide. “You’re not sturdy at all!” She said it as a reflex to avoid my comment, but it was unavoidable, “I’m sorry.”

“For what? I have a woman’s body. Even when I was a girl I had a woman’s body. I've always had curves. I’d rather eat every day anyway than suffer to wear a bikini.”

“No. That’s not what I meant. Alex told me what happened to your baby. I’m sorry.”

“It happens,” I looked to the spot on the ground where my daughter had died, “But it won’t to you. You’re going to have a happy, fat little baby. And I’ll be its Auntie Sil.”

“Yes, you will!”

“And I’ll look out for the muffin, too,” I said as I looked at the sky, “I know you’re wanting to go home to your husband now. I can tell by the look of you.”

“I am,” She agreed, “I’m getting tired.”

“Come on then. I’ll bring you to him,” I walked her to the car, shouting at Duncan to stay. He sat in the grass, looking extremely put out.

Melissa talked non-stop all the way back to their flat about nothing much at all. I nodded and smiled here and there and pretended to be watching the road while I did my best not to listen. As she exited the car, I stopped her, “Melissa! Wait a second!”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For loving Alexander enough to let him have his child. He’s a good man, Alexander. He’ll give you the moon for nigh a sixpence if you’re kind and loyal to him.”

“He is a good man,” She agreed.

“I want to be your friend, Melissa.”

“I want to be yours, too.”

“Good, now I want you to know something about me.”

“OK.”

“That man you married is a step away inside my heart from my own husband. He’s the only brother I’ve ever had and he’s my best friend. He’s very important to me.”

“I know that.”

“Good. And one more thing,” I looked her square in the face, “You’d better love him and treat him the way he deserves to be treated, because if you hurt him, I swear on my dead mother that I’ll murder you with my bare hands.” She flinched. “Do we have an understanding?”

Her eyes were bigger than I had ever seen human eyes become.

“Now go upstairs to your husband and be a good wife to him.”

She just stood there.

“Good night, Melissa.” I put the car in gear.

“Good night,” She finally managed to sputter.

I nodded and pulled away from the curb.

She was still standing on the garden path staring at the car when I drove away.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Nigel Jacob Dickinson was born at eleven eighteen in the morning on a fine and rainy autumn’s Tuesday in Newtown, Wales, United Kingdom. He was a right big baby, too, and he had a head full of dusty brown hair to boot. His mother came out of it no worse for the wear, making the statement, “That was nothing! I could do that again!” to which her mother in law quickly replied, “Mind your tongue!”

Alexander was beside himself. He’d take his son and hold him in his hands and just stare at him for hours. “He’s unbelievable,” Alex would say over and over again, “I can’t believe I had anything to do with this. He’s a miracle.”

And he was. Nigel was absolutely beautiful, the most beautiful little baby I had ever seen. He wasn’t red or splotchy or covered in tiny hairs like some of the babies who come into the world looking like they’ve just rode in the blender. He kept his eyes open for long periods of time, too, as if he was terrified he’d miss something important. He had this look about him like he knew more than anybody else, but he was just too tired to tell us about it. When he was one week old, I picked him up to change his poppy nappy and he looked right into my eyes and bestowed upon me the first smile he gave to anyone ever. He stole my heart completely that day. Oh, yes, I loved that little Nigel.

But Nigel Dickinson wasn’t the only good news we had that season. Oliver graduated from Cardiff with a doctor’s degree in paediatric medicine three weeks after our Nigel was born. Oliver and I celebrated by making love and then running nude around the wood, throwing clumps of dirt at each other. We should have been getting dressed considering we had a big fancy party to attend at the University, but we were far more interested in just having fun. We rounded the trees, swung from branches, chucked dirt and finally ended up in a tangle rolling down the slope. We stopped at the edge of the water, my naked body on top of his, and we laughed and kissed until we couldn’t breathe.

“I’m thinking,” He said when he could talk, “That we should just skip this whole do.”

“And why would we do that? There will be people to meet who’ll be looking to give you a job!” I was picking pieces of leaves and dirt out of his dark hair. “You didn’t become a doctor to miss getting a job, did you?”

“I can work around here. I’m sure that Doctor Caldwell would take me on staff. He’s older than creation, you know, and he might like to have me take on some of this patients. And then, God willing, he’ll die one day soon and I can take over the entire practice.”

I burst back into a fit of giggles. “You’re terrible!”

“Well, he is old! He remembers when God was baptised! He was the first man to ever meet grass!” He laid his head back, then lifted it, “Really, though, Sil, do you honestly want to get all dressed up and go to some boring, stuffy supper with a bunch of boring, stuffy know it alls and talk about boring, stuffy rubbish or stay here and make love beside the sea?”

“The sea?” I laughed out loud again, “It’s a ruddy little pond!”

“It can’t be a pond! It’s got a babbling brook that leads to it from the river! So it’s got to be at least a very small lake,” He paused and scratched his cheek. “I reckon, anyway. Hey! Stop laughing at me! It’s hard to proposition love making when your wife is snorting in your ear!”

“Ah, marry me, Oliver Dickinson!”

“Again? Sure, but you’ll have to buy me a ring this time. Circumstances have changed. I have standards now.”

“Oh, shite!” I looked up suddenly.

“What?”

“Is that your father’s car?” I was looking up the drive with mounting horror.

“Oh, shite! It is!”

“Oh, shite!” I leapt to my feet as Oliver scrambled to his, “Run, Oliver, run!”

“Run, Forrest, run!” He did his best Southern US accent and slapped my bum. We were both giggling uncontrollably as we dashed up the slope and around the back of the house.

We were too late. The car beat us to the go. By the time we made it to the house, his parents were heading through the garden.

Neither of us could stop laughing. We hid at the side of the house, holding our breath so they wouldn’t hear us and come looking.

“Where do you think they are?” Ana asked innocently, knocking on the door.

“The cars are here,” Edmond cleared his throat, “They can’t have gone far. Oliver?” He shouted, “Silvia?”

Oliver tapped me on the shoulder and pointed up to the window we had put on the toilet wall. He raised his eyebrows.

“What?” I mouthed, “Me? No way! I’ll get stuck!”

“No, you can make it,” He hissed, “Get in there and tell them you’re dressing and toss me out some jeans! I’ll come round the front!”

“You’re mad!”

“It’s brilliant!”

“You’re a loony!”

“Oh, stuff a sock in it and put your foot in my hand,” He crouched down, “Come on now! OK. One…two…three…ho! Up where only dragons eat eagles!”

He practically flung me into the air. I caught the open window frame with my elbows and hit the side of the house with a loud bang. The window swung shut and bounced off my head.

“Hang on! You can do it!” Oliver was laughing so hard and trying so desperately to keep quiet that his face was purplish red. “That’s it! Put some bottle behind it and hoist yourself in!”

“Screw you!” I growled as quietly as I could. I struggled to gain a foothold on the rough wood, “You’ll pay for this one, Oliver Dickinson! I swear it!” I was hanging halfway out kicking my legs to free myself from the window, which was now clamped against the small of my back, “Stop laughing so loudly! They’re going to come round and see my fanny sticking out!” I screamed as I plummeted to the floor and landed with a hollow thud.

“Way to go, Love!” I heard from the other side of the wall.

Realising I was not hurt in any way, I grabbed a pair of Oliver’s dirty jeans and tossed them out the window, “I’ll have you for this one!” I told him, catching the jeans as they didn’t quite make it and fell back down to me. I flung them again and they went straight out, then I wrapped myself in a bathrobe and hurried to the door. I yanked it open harder than I meant, slammed my hands on to my hips and nearly shouted, “Hullo!”

Edmond and Ana shrank back in what I think was fear. Ana gathered herself first, “Hello, Darling! We thought we’d missed you.”

“No, no, just taking a bath,” I pulled a cobweb off my forehead and slapped my hair thinking a curl was a spider, “Come on in!”

“We saw the dog up the way chasing the chicken…” Ana paused, “Sweetie, your legs are all scratched.”

“You’re filthy as the road.” Edmond added. “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yes, chickens, you know? Chasing dogs. Happens every day around here. Dirty legs, too. That’s why we have the bath, you know? Not for the chicken, of course. Who’d bathe a chicken? I killed one once, felt very sorry about it.” I forced a laugh that made me sound as mad as I seemed. I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. “Tea anyone?” I could feel my face burning. Where the hell was Oliver?

“We’d love some tea.” Edmond pretended not to notice a bra I had hung on the back of a chair to dry and a box of Tampax sitting beside the breadbox. He mercifully ignored a bottle of self-heating sex oil set in the middle of the kitchen table as if it were a vase of daffodils as well. If he knew what we’d done on that table he wouldn’t have been so keen on sitting down for tea.

I picked up the bra, tossed it into the sink and shoved the Tampax into a cabinet, grabbed the oil and threw it into an open bag of dog food, then spun, faced them and smiled too widely, “And what brings you two out to the wood?”

“We came to congratulate Oliver on his success. Where is he?”

“Oh, he’s…” I peered out the window, “Outside…somewhere.”

“Did we come at a bad time?”

“Never a bad time, Dad!” It was Oliver who said it. He burst through the door as if he were a grand sultan. I stared at him in horror. The jeans he was wearing were obviously unbuttoned, only coming halfway up the pelvis, the front and back were covered by tea towels like a loincloth pulled through the belt loops. The legs of them clung tightly to the middle of his calf. He was almost waddling.

He looked at me with a smile that positively beamed. He was enjoying every second of this nightmare. He tried to act proper as a clump of dried dirt fell from the side of his head and hit his shoulder.

“What on Earth are you wearing?” Edmond demanded. Ana just stared at him with a combination of shock and amusement.

“Oh, these? These are Sil’s, of course! Sometimes she gains a pound or two and her clothes get a little snug, so I put them on and go walking around. Gives me another opportunity to get into her jeans, if you know what I mean,” He winked at his dad, and then scratched his bare chest, casually tossing some debris on to the floor. “Right! I’ll have to go find a pair of my own now. Silvia, do tell me, did you happen to see any of mine lying about?”

I set the teapot on the stove and excused us.

“I think they’ve been alone here too long, Dear,” We heard Ana mumble just as we shut the bedroom door.

“I think we’ve interrupted something we don’t quite understand.” Edmond added. “And I’m sure we don’t want to, either!”

We burst into the loudest fit of laughter we had managed yet that day. And, worse yet, we could not stop.

“I’ll get the tea ready while you two get cleaned up and dressed,” Ana called back to us,

“Take your time!”

We lay on the bed and laughed,. “I wish they’d leave,” Oliver winced, holding a stitch in his side as he struggled to peel off my jeans.

“We’ve got to go out there.”

“No, leave them. Maybe they’ll have their tea and go.”

“Oliver, you are positively evil!”

He gave me that grin. Oh, I loved that grin. It was pure, unadulterated mischief, “I’ll show you how evil I am when they’re gone!”

“Promise?”

He stood up and pulled on a pair of his own trousers, “Promise.”

We got dressed then and did our best to compose ourselves as we went to entertain our unexpected guests, but it wasn’t easy. Every little thing that day was hysterically funny, from Oliver re-explaining his master plan for snagging an old man’s medical practice to his father telling us about a mummy coming into the museum from Cairo that was dropped down the steps. We laughed especially hard when Edmond said that Alexander was finally all grown up.

After they’d left, Oliver and I sat out in the garden by the big tree. It had cooled off and gotten windy, but it was a perfect late afternoon to just sit and be close. So we did, just sat and enjoyed the familiarity of each other.

“I think we were very rude to your parents,” I told him.

“If we were it’s because of the way they raised me,” He said flatly, shooing Duncan, who was having a jealous moment.

“Do you think that Alexander is seriously grown up just because he had a baby?”

“I suppose he is, yes. I suppose he thinks he has to grow up like everybody else. He’s full of nothing but piss anymore.” He gave the dog another nudge.

“Well, we never have grown up. Look at how we behaved today.”

“You don’t have to be dead to be grown up, Love. Look at my parents. They’re all grown up, yeah? Dad works, comes home, and says, “Hello, Dear!” Sits on his fat arse and eats his pudding, then he says, “Good night, Dear!” and gets into his bed by nine and goes straight to sleep. And my mum, she’s cleaned that house so often it doesn’t even get dirty anymore. She doesn’t have much else to do so she watches ladies programmes all day. She’s bored shitless. That’s no life, is it?”

“No, I wouldn’t think so.”

“I’m a doctor now, Silvia, and from what I’ve been told a pretty good one,” He was looking straight ahead, watching the wind, “Yet I’m still running around like an imbecile tossing dirt clods and laughing like a twelve year old. I don’t ever want to come home and say, “Hello, Dear”, eat pudding and go to bed. I want to come home, say, “Hello, Dear,” eat my pudding off your beautiful body and go to bed with you all sticky in my arms. If growing up means we have to be like my parents, sod it all. I’ll stay a jackass forever.”

“Do you think we keep each other from growing up?” I stroked Duncan’s fur. He had realized Oliver as not going to allow him space between us and surrendered, lying by my side instead.

“I think we keep each other entertained and amused and that’s what keeps us from being like them. I think we’re content, not immature. There’s a difference between being immature and acting silly.”

I turned and studied his face for a moment before I spoke. I loved looking at his face, especially looking into his eyes. If you look closely enough at anybody's eyes you can see the light of God and that light was bright in Oliver. “Can I tell you something?”

“Yes, Love. Anything,” He had so much kindness stored in those eyes. You could actually feel it on your skin, like he could envelope you and draw you into a safe place. My God, how I loved that man.

“Do you remember the worst thing that ever happened to us?”

“Of course I do. How could I forget?”

“Well, I’ve been wanting to show you something,” I reached into my pocket, “I bought two of these a week ago. One for me and one for you and two to be sure and they both have these cute little plus signs on them.”

Oliver took the plastic stick from my hand. “Oh, Silvia!”

I laughed, watching the smile spread across his face.

“We’re almost through our first trimester! I wanted to tell you sooner, but I was so scared something would happen and go wrong again and I wanted to see the doctor first to make sure the baby was all right. She says everything is fine!”

“Oh, Silvia!” He threw his arms around me and squeezed me tight, “And me tossing you through a window! Shame on me! Silvia! Silvia!” He rocked me and kissed my neck, “A wee little muffin! A baby for us, Silvia! Now we’ll have somebody else to throw dirt at! We’ll have to invite mum and dad back out to watch!”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Every moment of your life is a gift. In the end when you are old and all your friends and family have died or have gone away and your bones ache every second, if you are lucky, you still have your memories. And what are memories if not moments locked away in your head and in your heart? They’re like little sparkling treasures in a box waiting for the lid to be lifted so the light can shine upon them once more. I like to open that box. I adore my memories. When I am dead and gone everything I owned will survive me. But I will take my memories with me. At least the ones I didn’t pass down. The ones I did hopefully will become the treasures of those I chose to tell.

I had a wonderful pregnancy, the very best a woman could hope for with a first child. I checked my belly every morning to see if I had a bulge yet, but I didn’t manage to produce one until the end of my fourth month. It appeared around the time that I stopped my endless indulgence on grapefruit and began to endlessly indulge on sour green apples. Oliver brought a sack of them home for me every night, that sweet man, along with anything else I had wanted the day before or he thought I might like. He took excellent care of me and our baby.

Poor Oliver. He really must have thought that I'd gone mad, but he took all my whims and moods in stride. “Sweetie,” He whispered one night from beside me on the sofa at his mother's house, “Are you crying?”

I had been trying to hold my breath for several minutes, but upon hearing his voice, I burst out with a loud sob and bawled, “Yes!”

He immediately drew me into his arms, “What’s wrong?”

“That show!” I didn't want to admit what had actually set me off, so I kept it general.

“Huh?” He was sincerely confused, “Doctor Who is making you cry?” He paused, figuring out the true source, “Oh! It was the tissue commercial?”

“Yes!” I wailed and buried my face into his arm. I could feel him shaking gently as he held in a fit of laughter. “Shut up,” I mumbled and he shook harder.

I had the oddest cravings for food combinations as well during those nine months. I remember fixing breakfast for us one day. I was so proud of myself, it looked so delicious spread over the table, but when Oliver walked out he made such a face I baulked, “What?”

“What is this?”

“It's breakfast!”

He scratched his head and said nothing more, but still looked a bit put off as he sat down.

“Are you going to eat anything?” I asked, slightly offended.

Oliver paused, looking at me adoringly across the table, “I'd like to make some eggs. Would that be all right?”

“But I made breakfast!” I looked at the table and stopped immediately. It was only about eight o'clock in the morning and I'd prepared bean burritos with sour cream, sliced green apples, and large slices of birthday cake.

“Yeah,” Oliver agreed, seeing the expression on my face and realising I understood, “I think this is more-like for you than me.”

We both began to giggle.

It went beyond that, though. Those things are fairly normal. My pregnancy issues went further. Where most expectant mothers are exhausted and want to sleep more, there was me, who was suddenly ten times as energetic as I'd ever been. And that was saying loads considering my previous stamina.

“You need to sleep more,” Oliver wandered into the kitchen in the middle of the night and stood in the doorway in his pyjama pants, “Pregnancy has made you completely hyperactive. It‘s not good for you or the baby for you to be running around like a lunatic all the time.”

“I’m nesting.”

“It’s three in the bloody morning!” He objected, sounding as grumpy as his father, “We only have five rooms! The stove can wait until it’s light! Will you please come to bed?”

I did, but I had terrible insomnia. I was out of my mind cleaning most days and nights to ease it, reading during the day when the light was good. None of it helped me sleep any, but the cabin smelled absolutely wonderful.

Pregnancy had not only made me a connoisseur of bizarre food combinations and utterly hyperactive, but it had rendered me mildly retarded. I found myself losing track of time, redoing things I had already finished, bumping into things and hitting my head constantly. I couldn’t remember from one moment to the next what I was about to do just before I forgot. This made for a bad time at my job. I couldn’t concentrate. Halfway through my second trimester, I made mistakes that could have been avoided and I was reprimanded. The odd thing was that I didn’t care. My career wasn’t important to me anymore. Still, the attitude with which my supervisor approached me was annoying and I did not hold my tongue once I was home.

Oliver sat in his chair silently and listened to me as I vented. He was slow to speak, but when he did, what he said surprised me, “Well,” He leaned back and looked into my eyes, “Maybe you should think about staying home full time with the baby.”

I couldn't believe he was suggesting it. “And waste all that schooling?”

He scratched his chin, “Well, no. Not really. I’ve told Doctor Caldwell that we’d do well to have our own laboratory at the office. Do everything in house, so we don’t have to wait so long for results. He agrees, but we’d need someone to organize it. Mind, you could do that.”

“And how would I stay home with the baby if I did that?” I liked the idea of what he was saying, I just wasn't sure if we could manage it.

“Well, you wouldn’t have to be there all the time,” He explained. I could tell this was something he'd been thinking about for a while. Oliver often seemed as if he were incredibly spontaneous, and he could be, but more often than not when he made large moves they were pondered for a long period of time and ironed out in his mind so that there were no mistakes, “You set it up and help us hire a few people. If we needed you, you could bring the baby with you. It‘s a paediatric office, Love. The baby will fit right in.”

“How will we afford me not working?” I had to be sure before I agreed. I wasn't making a great salary, but it was half of his and together we were sure to do all right.

“We’ll deal with that,” He answered placidly, patting his knee to signal Duncan that he could join him on the chair, “I’m making more now and we’re beginning to catch up. I have my trust coming soon and that will put us ahead.”

“Are you sure?”

“Silvia,” His dark eyes bored right into my soul, “I’d rather have you home with our child than out making us rich. Some things money just isn’t worth.”

I put my notice in to the chagrin of my employers, who offered me a raise to stay. It was tempting, but a sharp kick from within my uterus told me it wasn’t a good idea. I declined and left the building with an intense feeling of relief. All my life I'd dreamed of being a scientist, but now the only thing that was important to me was my family. My husband and that little baby living inside of me were my main focus and I was thrilled I had the chance to dedicate my entire life to them. Working was a stress on my mind and on my body and I knew the baby and I were much better off just buzzing about the cabin and avoiding the cold winter that raged outside our doors. Plus my belly was getting so big I was having trouble getting in and out of my car. I wasn’t sure how long it would be before I couldn’t drive.

Not that I needed to. Oliver came home every night with a bag of goodies, kissed me on the mouth and then put his hands on and kissed my belly. “Hello, you muffin!” He’d say, “I heard you’ve been telling your mother you want oranges! Healthy choice! You’re going to be a clever one, you are!” and then he'd stand up and come back to me, “Come here,” He's take me into his arms, “I missed you all day.”

“I missed you, too. Are you hungry?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course. Oliver had been born starving and never ceased to be seeking a meal. And so we'd have dinner and then we'd sit together and chat and giggle or sometimes, just lie close and be quiet and enjoy the time we had alone.

He had been right, as he usually was, about Doctor Caldwell. The good doctor had enthusiastically taken Oliver on staff as an assistant doctor. He was grooming him to take over the practice when, three months later, as Oliver put it, “Being older than the first rays of light, he took his retirement and carked it on hols in Poland.” My husband was more than happy and willing to take a loan to purchase the practice from Missus Caldwell, which included a wide area around where we lived. He took out more money than he needed and by our eighth month, Oliver and I suddenly had some money to burn.

Well, what does one do when they have a baby on the way and money in the pocket? Pay off debts, I said! But Oliver responded, “Yes, Love, that, too!” and set about building the most beautiful nursery I had ever seen. He took everything out of the room we used for storage and put it up in the loft one Sunday. I watched him from my perch on the sofa without asking any questions until he began to pour hot water he had boiled into a bucket.

“What are you up to, Sweetheart?” I peered at him over my book.

“Alexander and Nigel should be here any time now,” He replied as he poured in dish soap into the water and swished it around with his arm. “Gor blimey! That’s hot!”

“That's nice, but I asked 'What are you up to', not ‘When will Alexander and Nigel arrive’,” I had to smile at him. He was so cute with his arm stuck in that red bucket.

He returned the grin, “I’m clearing out the office. Making a proper room for our baby, Love. Did you think I’d wait until spring?”

“Actually, I thought we would.”

The front door flew open with a bang before he could respond. Alexander and a bundle of blankets that was Nigel stumbled in and forced it closed against the wind. “It’s bloody insane, that wind!” Alex leaned against the door before he took off his hat and shook it at Duncan, who rushed straight over to play, “Silvia!” He looked up at me with a huge smile, “You’re round as all those apples you eat! You look absolutely beautiful! Give me a hug!”

“Give me that baby!” I waddled into the room and took Nigel from his father, “Hello, My Little Muffin!” Nigel peered up at me and smiled, sucking on his tiny fingers. “Oh, how I love you, Nigel Jacob Dickinson!” I peeled away the blankets and kissed his squishy face.

“I’m getting water all over the floor,” Alex apologized, tugging off a boot with Duncan attached to it, “Sorry, Sil. I know you’re keeping a clean house these days.”

“No worries,” I shooed the dog, “Where’s your wife, Alexander? Off having another botched series of collagen lip injections?”

“She’s working,” He shook his head, “You just can’t stop, can you?”

“Not when it’s so easy and so much bloody fun!”

“Well, that’s her real mouth. I’ve seen pictures when she was a child.”

“That’s a tragedy!”

“Ah, I still love you, Sil,” He unbuttoned his coat, “There’s nothing you could ever do to make me stop, either, so please quit trying.”

“Ah-ha-ha-ha!” I kissed Alexander on his frozen cheek “You’re the one who taught me how to be evil! I was so sweet before I met you!”

He paused for a second, “Well, yes. That may be true.”

“It is true,” Oliver confirmed it, “Remember that innocent little girl we once knew? Now she’s self-proclaimed evil! You corrupted her!”

Alexander gave me a smile, “Well, at least I taught you well.”

I sat with Nigel in the front room and played with him while the twins cleaned the walls in what was to be the nursery. “Do you know the Muffin Man? I do! I do!” The baby squealed in delight as I tickled him. “I know the Muffin Man! His name is Nigel and he’s the most handsome bloke in Wales! He is! Oh, yes, he is!”

After a while Alexander came out and put his coat and boots back on. He went off into the garden and came back with four buckets of paint and a large black bag strapped to his back.

“You’re painting in this?” I asked seriously. “It’s a bit cold, isn’t it?”

“I am and you’ll stay out of there if you know what’s good for you. The window will be cracked, Sil,” He walked past me with the coat still on, “Take care of my boy!”

“I am!” I called after him and returned to Nigel, who was my most favourite pastime. “We don’t need them, do we? No, we don’t! We have each other and jars of smashed bananas!”

I was not allowed in that nursery until the following evening after a furniture delivery truck came and left several large boxes, “Oliver!”

“A changing table and a wardrobe,” He wrapped me in his arms, too excited to let me find out for myself, “And a wee little cradle, all for the baby,” He was so proud of himself his chest puffed, “And a rocking chair that glides for my beautiful wee little mummy.”

“I love you so much!”

“I love you both so much! Come and see the new room, yeah?”

“I’d love it!”

He led me back by the hand through the doorway. My free one immediately flew up over my mouth. It was gorgeous. My husband and his twin brother were both artists in their own right, but they had outdone themselves. On the first wall as you entered was a mural of little boys and girls and fuzzy white lambs playing about on a rolling green pasture beneath a cloud scattered sky. Another wall was a rainbow with birds of all colours and sizes soaring all around it. Beneath the rainbow, they had added an eagle that was being chased by a dragon above a small cabin in a wood. I was relieved that the eagle was not yet clamped the dragon’s jaws. The third wall was painted with scenes from a child’s nursery rhymes. Lines from different stories were heading in all directions around the people and animals from the tales. And on the final wall, surrounding the door, were creatures from the sea, friendly looking dolphins and whales and colourful fishes, splashing after each other in a playful game of chase.

Tears were rolling down my cheeks.

“Do you like it, Love?” He asked quietly.

“It’s more than beautiful! It’s…there are not words, Oliver!” I looked up into his face, “This was all your idea, wasn’t it?”

“I couldn’t have done all this without Alexander. He’s really the one with the talent.” He looked around proudly. “But, yeah, the idea was mine.”

“I honestly do not think that I can be happier than I am right now,” I wiped away my tears before I put my arms around my husband and more spilled out, “I think if I was any happier than this I would just die!”

“Then don’t get any happier,” Oliver told me seriously. “Because we have a baby to be born and I need you to help me raise it. I can’t have you dying. I couldn’t stand it.”

“Marry me, Oliver?”

He looked down at my bulging belly, “You should have thought of that before you seduced me, Silvia! We’re a little late in the game for marrying! Everyone knows I got you pregnant!” He could always make me laugh. “But, yeah, OK, I’ll marry you. It’ll be scandalous, but I’ll do it.”

“Good.”

Oliver didn’t stop spoiling me with the nursery. Over the next few months, he did a few practical things as well, like purchase an ice box so we had a place to store milk and got me a washer-dryer so I didn’t need to take the baby to the laundry with me.

“I don’t want my child in that filthy place!” He ranted as he struggled to install it by himself. “Blast it! My thumb!”

He even had the good sense to have solar panels installed to store energy in a generator so we could work all our new possessions since we were too far from civilization to have electric lines run. My Oliver was certainly Johnny on the Spot. And then he did the best thing ever. He hooked us up with a satellite dish and got us new laptop computers and a brand new television. “You can use the computer to ring me when I’m at work,” He told me, “This little gizmo works just like a phone, so I’ll always be able to come right home to you if you need ever me.”

I used the phone first to call on my father, whom I had not spoken to since I’d told him we were expecting. For some reason I had a very deep need to talk to him right then.

“Silvia!” There was a hint of relief in Dad’s voice, “I’m so glad you rang! How is everything?”

“It's fine, Daddy! It's really, really good!”

I talked to my father longer than I had ever before in my life. I told him all about the pregnancy, about the nursery and the appliances. I told him about Nigel. I talked to my father like he was an old friend who needed catching up, like he was someone with whom I held no secrets. He asked questions and laughed with me and then told me all about the work he was doing and the travels his research was taking him on. And he told me all about Lucy, who was off at uni. He gave me her new phone number and told me to call her after seven. “She’s back to her flat by then,” He explained, “She asks about you all the time, Silvia. She’s very concerned about you and the baby. I think she said she spoke to Oliver the other day, but you really should ring her yourself.”

“I will,” I promised, “I suppose I should let you go, Dad. Oliver cooked supper so I could talk with you a while. I’m really hungry.”

“Well, a wise man does not separate a pregnant woman from her food. I learned that with your mother,” He actually laughed again. “Go and have your supper then.”

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, Silvia. Give me a ring at least when the baby comes and let me know. I’m hoping you’ll let me come and visit.”

“Let you? Oh, Daddy, you’re always welcome!”

“That’s good to know. Don’t forget to ring me when the baby’s here.”

“One of us will. I promise.”

“Good bye, Silvia.”

“Cheers, Daddy!”

I hung up the phone and sat in the chair for a moment before I joined Oliver at the table. “Nice chat, Love?” He asked. He'd already filled my plate with vegetables and mash.

“The best.”

“Excellent,” He grinned across the table at me.

I went six more weeks before the baby came. I was so round I looked like a deformed balloon with fat little hands and feet sticking out. I was heavy and miserable and was probably miserable to be around, but as always, the meaner I became the sweeter Oliver forced himself to be. He still brought me home everything I asked for, only now I had a phone and could make on the second requests. The situation had become dangerous.

The night before she was born I had to have a pizza. I mean, I absolutely without question HAD to have a bloody pizza. It could not have just been any pizza, either. It had to have extra pepperoni and then I dumped hot sauce all over it. Chinese hot sauce, the kind that has the potential to blister your lips, if not melt the flesh from the inside of your cheeks. I poured it on like maple syrup.

Oliver was looking at me like I’d gone off my nut. “Would you like a sandwich with that, Love?” He asked as he picked up his second piece and saw half the pie had already gone. I started laughing and, as usual, I could not stop. I giggled until my sides ached while he just sat there grinning at me and shaking his head. But I cannot describe the stomach ache I had when I woke up at four in the morning. Or, at least, I thought I had a stomach ache. I jumped up and raced to the toilet. Fear tore through me that I would not make it in time.

“Hot sauce can be your friend or your enemy,” Oliver mumbled to me from the bed, “You should have stopped after the thirty-seventh piece.”

I would have laughed, but the pain in my gut kept me from it. The urge to loosen my bowels passed. I came back into the bedroom and started into bed when it hit me again. I jumped up and rushed back to the toilet. I repeated this action ten more times and finally had a good picture of what was happening. Oliver by this time was, predictably, sound asleep.

I knew it was contractions, I was just not sure at what point I should wake my sleeping prince and tell him about them. I sat on the bed with the dog and timed them for three hours, walking back and forth from the toilet for safety’s sake. Finally, at about seven o’clock Oliver opened his eyes and smiled, “Good morning, Just Silvia.”

“Good morning!” I said straight as the well-aimed arrow flies, standing in the middle of the room with my legs spread apart and my pyjamas clinging to them, “My water just broke.”

“Blimey!” He jumped so high he might have hit his head on the ceiling. “Blimey!” He said again and leapt out of the bed.

“I’m going to change my clothes,” I was a bizarre sort of calm. “Will you pack a bag?”

“What do we need?” He tripped on the dog and caught himself against the dressing table.

“Er…I don’t know. I have a bag packed for the baby. That’s in the wardrobe in the nursery. For me, I’ll need a change of clothes for sure. I don’t know what else.” I padded to the dresser and started rummaging for dry clothes. “A hairbrush and my toothbrush. Pack an overnight bag as if I were staying with your mother, I reckon.”

“Right!” He yanked on a pair of jeans and stood there bare chested. He stared at me and then that smile spread across his face, that marvellous, dangerous grin that made me go all crazy inside, “We’re having a baby!”

I grinned back at him, “I know!” Another contraction hit me. I leaned over and tolerated it. “Oooooh. We need to go soon!”

He pulled a shirt over his head, “OK, go put fresh clothes on. I’ll pack your bag.”

Oliver was waiting by the front door when I came out of the toilet. He helped me into my Wellies and pulled my coat around me, “Car’s started,” He said as we went out the door and were hit straight in the face with a blast of cold wind. “Roads should be pretty clear by now,” He added. “Bags are in the boot,” He held me up as another contraction ripped through me. When I was able to walk again, he helped me into the car. I heard him shout as he rounded the front to get in himself, “Lord Copse! Lady Folia! She’s having our baby! Keep an eye on the dog and send the wind at our backs, yeah?”

Still being shaken by losing our first child, I had decided long before I had wanted to have the baby at hospital. It was only a twenty-five or so minute drive, but it was the longest ride of my life. Oliver was driving faster than I would have liked, but I wasn't going to argue with that fact because I was terrified if he didn't I'd have the baby in the car. Still, if I didn't say something and we ploughed into a drift, I'd be having the baby in the car all the same. I clung to the handle of the door as if it were some fail safe to keep me from sudden and instant death while I decided which choice to make.

“I'd like to live to have this baby!” I finally breathed as he barrelled through the snow drifts. They sprayed up over the windscreen and whited out the view. I pinched my eyes shut to block out the terror and concentrated on breathing through another contraction.

Oliver didn't take his eyes off the road, “I know these paths like the back of my hand,” He assured, “I've driven them a hell of a lot faster than this in deeper snow. It's going to be all right, Sil. I'm going to get us there.”

“I love you,” I swore out loud, but in my head I was thinking that my husband had the brains of an ant. I began to pray to a God that I'd never believed in that Oliver was telling me the truth and was not just being over confident about his driving skills.

The hospital was the same one where Nigel had been born. I remember thinking about that as I waddled up the path to the door, Alex's son. I remember thinking about Alex as we walked through the sliding glass doors. It still seemed strange to me how our lives had intertwined from so early an age and how they continued to stretch together in a common direction, always crossing, always mimicking the other. The three of us; Oliver, Alex and me, always together in one way or form, inseparable from the start. All three of us becoming parents under the same roof in the same year. I couldn't imagine sharing so much of my life with anybody but them.

“Phone Alex,” I told Oliver through clenched teeth as I leaned against the wall and contracted violently, “I want him to be here. For a minute. Let him know he’s not staying. I want him to leave when I say and come back when I want him around again.”

“I will, Love.” Oliver rubbed the small of my back, “I will the moment you're settled.”

By the time we got to the Obstetrics floor I was in serious distress. The contractions were coming hard and fast. I handled them by taking quick steps between them and then falling against the nearest wall when they'd hit. A fat nurse saw me from down the hall and rushed up with a wheelchair. She popped me in and took me to a room where she stuck me on to a bed. Oliver was rushed in a different direction to have me registered.

“I'll be right back,” He promised as he quickly kissed me.

“Ollie, I'm afraid.” I clung to his hand. I was, too. Horribly afraid. I don't know if it was the fact that he was leaving me or that the realisation that I was about to give birth was setting in, but I was suddenly terrified. My heart was pounding. I felt tears rise into my eyes and spill down my cheeks.

“I know, Sweetie,” He eased my hair back, “I'll only be a minute.”

“No need to be afraid,” The nurse assured me without any sort of smile. She gave Oliver a sort of shove toward the door, “Women have been doing this since the beginning of time.”

She sounded like my dad. Dismissive of my thoughts and concerns. I was just a silly girl. She may as well have said it. A silly girl without a choice who shouldn't be feeling what I was.

Oliver recognised the look on my face, because he sort of snapped at her, “Well, women may have, but Sil never has, so let's try to make her feel better instead of stupid, shall we?”

The nurse's mouth fell open. She clamped it shut, “Right!” She said, suddenly smiling at me, “I'm sorry. All I meant was that your body's built for this! You can do it! And you have a great staff here as well! Who's your doctor, Sweetie?”

She and I made bogus, pleasant chit chat for another few minutes before she excused herself. I appreciated her effort, but I still didn't like her much. It was obvious that under the false exterior of giving a shit about me that she'd rather be someplace else.

I waited there in that room, contracting like a quilt drying on line during a windy day, for a bit longer before I realised there was another woman with me. She had been quiet when I'd come in, but it wasn't long before her husband arrived and she began moaning and carrying on as if Death had her in his grip.

I found it telling that she'd been perfectly peaceful until he'd come. Some women will do anything for attention, even in a situation where all the attention is on them anyway. It's always bothered me, the drama they perform. I took it as long as I could before my own discomfort and wanting of my husband made me lose my grip. “Shut your noise!” I growled at her, “You’re not making it any better for the rest of us having to hear you carry on while we’re suffering the same pains!” Another contraction hit and I clenched my teeth.

“Oh, Daniel! It hurts!” She cried.

“I SAID SHUT IT!” I growled.

The nurse pulled a curtain shut between us. Seconds later Oliver appeared and I immediately felt much better.

“You doing all right?” He asked softly as he took my hand.

“My back hurts. The whole thing's in knots,” I felt the tears well up in my eyes again, “This sucks, Ollie, and I want it to end quickly. I know it'll get worse, too.”

“It'll take its course,” He promised, “Sit up and let me get behind you.”

I said nothing, but moved forward on to the bed and allowed him to slip behind me, one leg on either side of my body. He pressed me forward with his palms and skilfully massaged every muscle from my shoulders to my lower back. “Deep breaths,” He coached, “In through the nose and out through the mouth. Close your eyes and go with the pain. You can't fight it, you can only survive it. Deep breaths...”

He'd really done his homework on reading what to do to help me through my labour and I wished even then that any of it was working, but the tension in my body and mind were impossible to shake. Between the pain of the contractions and the relentless cramping of the muscles in my back complied with the drama queen in the bed across the room from me and my own anxiety, I was ready to demolish buildings with my bare hands.

“Relax, Sil.”

I sobbed, but not because of the pain. I sobbed because I was still afraid. I was afraid because I was helpless and the pain only made that more clear. But soon enough the pain did its job and intensified to the point where I wasn't frightened anymore. I was just angry. I was angry and I wanted to get the whole thing done with. It was taking too long.

I took the blanket into my hands and squeezed it with all my might as Oliver continued to rub and press along my spine.

About twenty minutes later the nurse returned, bursting through the curtain as if I should be excited she had arrived. She sang, “How are you feeling?”

“Murderous.”

“Let me check your cervix,” She slipped on a glove. “Off the bed, You!” She waved a hand at Oliver, who dutifully slid out from behind me. “Lay back, Silvia.”

“Do you really have to?” I asked, hesitantly moving back to the head of the bed and lying down. Over the last few days I'd had my cervix checked a couple of times and it was not my favourite experience.

“Yes, I have to.”

“Can’t he do it?” I motioned to Oliver. “He is a doctor, you know?”

“I’m a doctor of paediatrics, not obstetrics, Love.”

“Afraid not, Dear,” She said as she shoved her fist up my twat and then removed it promptly, “Good news! You’re ready to go to delivery!”

Another contraction mowed over me like a dozer. “I want drugs!” I said as soon as it had passed. “And I want them now!”

She wheeled me into a different room without another word. The new nurse there was much younger and smaller than the first, a blonde with dark green eyes and a nice smile, but I decided she wasn’t worth a damn when she told me that it was too late for an epidural.

“What?” I nearly screamed, turning on to my side to endure yet another blinding contraction, “You are so full of shit!”

Oliver laughed out loud.

“Don't despair,” The little nurse told me, “We have other drugs!”

She hooked me up to an IV with deft skill and shot something not nearly as good as an epidural into my IV that numbed my brain, but not so much my contractions. It did, however, dull my sense of fear and I felt quite comfortable and confident in the idea that I was about to pass an object that weighed at least seven pounds out of a passage that I'd felt violated for having a fist inside just a moment before.

I don’t remember much about the birth other than it felt like I had the stomach flu, a heated screwdriver tearing at my guts, and my privates were aflame. I remember Oliver holding my hand and telling me I was doing great. I remember, too, the doctor wandering by at the exact moment I was certain that the baby would never come out and I would die.

“You're ready to deliver!” He announced as if I should be surprised, “I'm here to help!”

“Oh? Are you going to yank it out for me?” I asked.

He looked at me as if I were mad.

Oliver chuckled.

“She's feisty,” Said the nurse.

I continued to labour for I don't know how much longer. I was so tired I thought I'd never make it through, but right at the end I suddenly felt extremely strong. I pulled myself to a near sitting position on the end of the bed, “Just get away from me!” I commanded, “Let me do this!”

They all three backed off immediately.

“Ollie,” I pulled my hand away from his, “You stay close! But don't you dare...touch… me!” I bore down.

“Push, Love!” Oliver told me, counting along with the doctor and the nurse, “One! Two! Three!” He was so excited. I was vaguely aware that he was smiling with his mouth wide open, “You're doing great, Silvia! You're doing so great!”

I wondered how the hell he knew if I was doing so great when with one final push and a collective cheer from the doctor, nurse and Oliver, out of me shot…

Absolutely the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

“It’s a girl!” The doctor proclaimed, “Congratulations!”

Our baby screamed bloody murder.

“Hear that?” Oliver kissed me hard on the mouth, “Hear all that noise? That’s our girl! She’s ours, Sil! Listen to her! Isn’t she wonderful?”

“She is!” I don’t know why, but I was laughing. The nurse was pushing on my belly like she was trying to kill me to help me expel the placenta and I was laughing. “Listen to her bitch, Oliver! That’s the Dickinson in her right there!”

He let loose with a ridiculous cackle, “Aye, Love, that would be true! She sounds like Alexander on a bad day!”

After few moments they brought her over to us.

“Oliver, Oliver!” They put that little bundle in my arms, “Oliver, look at her! We’ve made a little monkey! Look, she’s just like a tiny ape!”

“Don’t say that, Mummy!” He bent closer at my side.

“No, honestly! She looks like a chimp! Look at her! She’s all funky! She looks like a teeny tiny baby orang-utan!”

“They’re all like that,” The nurse smiled gently.

“All of them come out looking like a deranged lemur?” Oliver asked genuinely. “Like some bizarre, demented infant baboon?”

The nurse’s eyes grew wide with horror.

Oliver and I, of course, laughed hysterically. We were having our first good joke at our new baby’s expense. And why not? We both knew new born babies were rarely attractive. Neither of us had a doubt she’d turn out fine. Besides, she was too young yet to take any offence.

“I don’t think she’s an ape at all, Love,” Oliver took her tiny foot in his hand and fingered her toes, “She’s just a wee little wet muffin is all! Give her time to dry out! She’s only got that look on her face cause of all that blooming hot sauce you made her ingest last night! You looked like a gorilla yourself this morning! I thought I woke up beside a grey back!”

“Ha!” I cried. Literally, I was crying. I was so happy and it all seemed so funny. Indigestion, various types of apes, new born babies, birth, life, marriage, the faith it took us to finally get there. It was all more than I could understand, but it was all real. As real as Oliver and me and our wee little wet muffin sitting there in the delivery room laughing it up together for the very first time.

Now that is a precious memory indeed.

When I was brought to a recovery room it was filled with flowers and cards and balloons. “How many people did you call?” I asked Oliver.

“Just Alexander, like you said. I told him to call whoever he thought of.”

I looked at a tag tied to a teddy bear, “Oh, my! This is from Sandy! He called Sandy! I miss her!”

“Of course he did, Love. She’s your best girlfriend. Are you ready for company? There are about a hundred people waiting to see you.”

“I suppose. I must look terrible.”

“Are you joking? You look absolutely amazing!” He gave me a wink, “I’ll be back.”

I sat there and looked around the room at all the gifts for a moment until people began to pour in.

“Silvia!” Ana was the first one in, Edmond stuck at her heels, “She’s absolutely perfect!”

“Did you see her?”

“Through the nursery window. The nurse said there are too many people here, but we don’t care!” She bent down and kissed me on the cheek, “My first granddaughter! Thank you!”

Edmond was speechless. He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t. He just stood there grinning and then he winked at me. He looked a lot like his sons when he did it. Finally he leaned over and kissed me right in the middle of my forehead, “We love you, Silvia!” He grinned as he pulled Oliver under his arm and kissed his forehead, too. “You did excellent, Son!”

Alexander and Melissa were next into the room, “Good job, Sil!” Alex had a sleeping Nigel on his shoulder. He stooped over and kissed me on the head, “She’s gorgeous!”

“Oh my!” I nearly screamed in shock and delight, “Lance Crosby, you old dog! What on Earth are you doing here?”

“Visiting you, of course!” He came over and gave me a huge hug. “You went and finally had that baby you’ve been carrying around since boarding school! You were pregnant nine years instead of nine months! Well done! I was in Caernarfon when Alexander rang me and I thought…well, hell…I ain’t had a day off in a while, so I drove on down.”

“You have not changed one wee bit! Except you’re a hair taller…let me see. Yes, you might be!”

“Oh, how I’ve missed you and your lies!”

“Sil,” Oliver pushed his way through and held out the phone. “You’ll want to take this.”

I took it from his hand, “Hello?”

“Silvia, it’s Lucy! Oh, I’ve missed the whole thing! Damn it! I wanted to be there!”

“She’s a girl! She looks like a chimpanzee!”

“Like a what?”

“She’s all squishy, she’s adorable. She looks like a squishy monkey!” I stuck my finger in my free ear, “Where are you?”

“I’m just crossing into England from home,” She was living in Scotland again. She'd gone back after she graduated from high school because she was worried about leaving Daddy alone. She'd struck out on her own since, but I knew she still kept close tabs on him, “I can’t believe I missed it! A girl! Brilliant! Dad is with me! We’ll be there as soon as we can! Don’t do anything else without me!”

“Oh, be careful, but hurry! I can’t wait to see you!”

“I’m losing bars now, Sil…I love you…”

The call dropped as I said, “I love you, too!”

“Lucy’s coming,” I told everyone excitedly, “And my dad, too!”

“I knew she’d make it back sooner or later,” Oliver tapped Alex on the shoulder, “Our sweet Lucy’s on her way!”

“Sweet Little Lucy Cotton!” Alexander grinned, “I haven’t seen her since she was in a training bra! Brilliant!”

Melissa shot him a look and he immediately straightened his face.

Lance had just hung up his mobile, “Merlyn sends his best. He’s in flipping Holland, if you can believe that. He’s in a meeting, but he’ll call you tonight personally.”

“What’s he doing in Holland?” I asked. Through my drugged and foggy mine, I couldn't imagine anybody needing to go to Holland for anything. It seemed like such a bizarre and strange place to be. I couldn't fathom how he could be there and not in England, even though he was Welsh and now lived in France. My head was a mess of physical exhaustion and narcotics.

“Some kind of business. He’s always travelling. He was in Finland last week.”

“Bollocks!” Alexander announced, “He’s gone to Holland get himself a pair of those wooden shoes! I’m so jealous!”

“Yeah!” Agreed Lance, “Me, too!”

By the time the room had cleared out a few hours later and the nurse had brought our baby back to us, I was too tired to hold her. Oliver, however, was not. He kicked off his shoes and told me to shove over. He crawled up into the bed with her in his arms. He set her between us. We both lay there and stared at our daughter, completely in awe.

“She’s perfect,” I whispered.

“Oh, yes. We made muffin magic with this one.” He couldn't take his eyes off of her.

“One day she’ll make muffin history.”

“Are we calling her after Madame Pennyweather?”

I felt the first ping of sadness I had in a very long time. Our headmistress had died late that autumn in hospital after suffering injuries she sustained in a car accident. We had spoken to her about a month before it happened on the phone and told her about the pregnancy. She had sounded so excited for us, “You are going to be wonderful parents! Children are the most beautiful blessing! You’ll have to bring the little one by and let me have a look!”

The only reason why we found out she’d died was that Lucy had a friend whose little brother was still in attendance at Bennington. Lucy called to let us know that they were having a public memorial service for our headmistress at the school. Oliver and Alexander were determined to go.

“This completely fucking sucks,” Alex said as we entered the great hall, “That woman was like a second mother to me!”

“You called her a witch,” Oliver reminded him, “You said she was a nightmare. You wish she’d crash into all sorts of things on her broomstick.”

“Well, she was!” Alex insisted a little too loudly, “She knew things there was no way she could have known without having some other-worldly sense. It was never a mutual dislike we shared. It was just a series of conflicting sensibilities.” He looked around, “Holy shite, this place has not changed one bit!”

It hadn’t. The polished wooden tables were the same ones in the same positions, even the tapestries had the same wear in the same spots. Even the chairs were still sitting in the same places. It was like stepping back ten years in time, which made it even more surreal that we were there to say good bye to a friend instead of returning to visit one.

Headmistress’ body was not present at the service, but there were dozens of photos on display. The twins and I found ourselves staring at one in particular of an attractive young girl, maybe sixteen years old, lying on her belly in one of the fields surrounding the school with her face propped up on her hands. Her hair was long and dark, scooping around a moon shaped face. A strand was caught between two pouting, heart like lips that curled into a shy smile. She was unrecognisable except for the slightly slanted, spring green eyes and the Bennington emblem on her uniform jumper. There was an autograph in the corner that read, “To Joshua, I will love you forever. Your Carolina.”

“Mister Joshua,” Oliver whispered with a far off look in his eyes, “The bloke who used to come in and set up the Christmas tree. He was her husband.”

“Mister Joshua was her husband?” Alex leaned in to take a closer look at the writing.

“Must’ve been.” Oliver was still staring at the photo, but he moved to allow Alexander to see, “If you look over on that table there are a couple of wedding pictures. I thought the groom looked familiar. Mister Joshua’s right over there with Professor Fields and Professor Nickels. He looks a wreck. He was always here at night, remember? We’d see him after hours all the time. I bet he came and stayed with her when she worked late.”

“Wow, I never thought of it. Poor guy, losing his wife like this,” Alexander touched the frame, “You were right, though. Once upon a time she really was a daisy, Ollie.”

“I told you,” He muttered as he took my hand, “You looked at her and all you saw was old. I looked at her and I saw a woman. Take the time away from her face and she was absolutely lovely. You could see it, even through the lines around her eyes. Caroleeeena,” He drew out the name, “A beautiful name for a beautiful lady. I absolutely adored her.”

“She’ll be missed,” I said softly. A lot of wives might have been jealous of the affection their husband had for any female, but I never was. I always thought it was sweet, Oliver’s infatuation with an older woman and one who was his headmistress at that. To me, it was another example of one of his best qualities; his heart was as free as his mind, “She was so special.”

“Bennington as we knew it is gone forever,” Alexander sighed and put his hand on Oliver’s arm.

I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking that he was right. It didn’t seem real at the time that she was gone. I knew that there was no way that school would ever recover from her absence, but I knew as well that it was only us and a couple of others who were privileged enough to have glimpsed the real Madame Pennyweather who would ever realise it. I had a feeling that when she died all the love in the place went with her. I felt very sad for the students who still attended.

But now Oliver and I were holding our baby daughter for the first time. I didn’t want to be sad and I knew Madame Pennyweather would not have wanted us to be either.

“Yes.” I told Oliver, “We’ll definitely call her after Madame Pennyweather.” I looked down into my daughter’s little face, “Hello, Carolena Mariana Dickinson,” I whispered as she gave us a huge yawn. “We’re your parents and we’ve waited a very long time to love you to bits.”

“Yes, we have,” Oliver told her. She turned her head toward his voice and raised her eyebrows as if she were listening, but she never opened her eyes, “We have big plans for you, Young Lady. We’re going to show you everything there is to see in our wood.”

“You’re very lucky. You’re going to grow up in a magical place.”

“We’re going to let you play with elves and show you how to talk to the trees…”

“…and how to listen to the winds…”

“And the whispers…”

“We’re going to take such good care of you, Muffin, and give you so much love!”

“And we’re all going to have so much fun, Carolena.” Oliver yawned and leaned his head against mine, “We’re going to be the first ones to show you how to laugh until it aches…”

“And how to hold your sides so you can laugh more still.”

“Yes,” Oliver kissed the top of my head and rested his cheek against it, “We really are going to have loads and loads of fun.”

I was falling asleep. I could tell Oliver was, too. Caro was already long gone.

“Thank you, Just Silvia,” Oliver whispered into my hair as he slumped against me. “She’s perfect. She’s absolutely, unbelievably flawless.”

“You’re welcome,” I think I answered him before I was asleep, but I’m not sure.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

It took a couple of weeks, but how beautiful she became! Carolena didn’t look like an ape at all once she got done being all squished. She looked like a right little lady, all chubby and full of toothless smiles.

When Carolena was born she had a head full of dark brown hair and we were sure she looked like her father. Within a week or so, however, it all fell out and was replaced with a coat of orange peach fuzz. That peachy fuzz soon became tiny auburn locks which grew quickly into great spiral curls almost the exact colour of shiny copper. Her eyes, however, were a deep cocoa brown that shined in the light, just like her daddy’s. She was our perfect combination, our little chocolate dipped cherry muffin. She was more wonderful than we’d ever hoped she’d be.

Carolena was a happy baby. She spent her time doing what all happy babies do…eating, sleeping, messing nappies, spitting up and laughing at her parents. She had a lot to laugh at, no doubt, because we had no idea of what we were doing and were always teasing each other about it. In particular, though, she found her grand mum to be extremely entertaining. Ana could not walk into a room without Caro bursting into a fit of giggles. It was obvious she stole her Nana's heart from the word go.

“She’s the best present ever!” Ana told me on her birthday when we’d stopped by to wish her well. She was holding the baby’s bottle as Caro stared intently into her eyes, “Four months old already, she is! I have a granddaughter! After years of nothing but stinky, naughty boys, finally a sweet baby girl! What a relief!” Caro giggled and spat milk everywhere. Ana’s smile widened, “And look! Everything’s a blasted joke to her! Bless her! She gets that from her dad!”

Oliver started taking Caro outside as soon as he felt it was warm enough for her to go. Most of the time she would look about in fascination at the sun sparkling through the leaves or she would sleep on her daddy’s shoulder as he walked her around. Sometimes we would take her out and lay her on a blanket with Duncan, who boldly protected her from the flies by snapping them before they landed, while Oliver and I sat and talked about our life and our thoughts. We made sure that we didn’t lose touch with each other as he became more and more busy at work and I became more and more focused on the baby. We’d stay up late at night and made love under that woollen blanket and then lie close together and watch the stars in the sky through the window in our room. That was our time, when it was quiet everyone else was asleep. That was when we were able to make the whole world disappear and have it be just the two of us, like we knew it was always meant to be.

“I love you, Just Silvia,” He’d whisper, “I’m so glad you’re mine.”

We were so young and so in love. Life was nearly perfect.

For us, at least it was. But not for Alexander. His life was unstable to say the least. He had gotten a position with a small architecture firm and was getting great experience, but wasn’t making much money. He, Melissa and Nigel were still living in their tiny flat and the stress of the small quarters combined with the constant financial strain and pressures of a baby seemed to be taking a toll on them.

Oliver thought that it might be good to have us all go out on a Saturday night. I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to be in close proximity with Melissa, but at the same time I missed my brother and wanted to spend time with him any way I could. We made arrangements to meet with the two of them at a nice restaurant at seven and were still sitting at the table alone when eight rolled round.

Oliver checked his watch, “I guess it’s our date then,” He smiled at me over the candle, “Although it’s not like Alexander to be late to a good time.”

I nodded and glanced toward the door, “I suppose they’re not coming? I’m starving, Ollie. Can we order now?”

It was just after our food arrived that Alexander made his appearance. It was obvious that there was something wrong as he slipped into the chair opposite his brother. “Sorry I’m late,” He didn’t try to hide his obvious annoyance. I noticed his cheeks were flushed and the collar of his shirt was flipped up as if to hide his neck. He flicked a glance in my direction and didn’t smile. “Hi, Sil. You look nice.”

I wasn't sure he'd even really seen me.

“No worries,” Oliver assured him, not bothering to smile, either, “Where’s your wife?”

Alex hesitated for just a second as he lifted his menu, “I don’t know,” He motioned to the server, “Can I get a whiskey, please? No ice.”

Uh-oh. Whiskey no ice. Trouble in paradise, that was. I glanced at Oliver and noticed that he had not even touched his plate. I watched the two of them stare at each other, lost in one of those silent conversations they were so famous for leaving me out of. Their dark eyes darted against each other and I knew that there were things that I didn't know.

I despised it when they would do that to me. It frightened me. I hated when there was something wrong and I couldn’t fix it…or worse, I wasn’t given the opportunity to try.

“You don’t know where your wife is?” I couldn’t help it, I laughed out loud, interrupting their dialogue, but it was not a laugh like anything was funny at all. It was quite the opposite. “Well, where’s your son then?”

Alexander broke away from his brother and looked directly at me. The waitress returned with his drink and he thanked her without moving his eyes from my face. “Yes, Silvia, I said I don’t know where she is. Our son is with my mother. Thank you for your concern.”

“What’s wrong with your neck?” Those two were not going to leave me out of whatever was happening. Plus, if Alexander was going to be snippy with me I was going to give it right back to him, “Got a gigantic love bite, do you?”

“Tell her,” Oliver said in a low voice, taking a bite of his asparagus, “Or I’m going to.”

“Well,” Alex leaned back in the chair with his whiskey held in the palm of his hand, “Since you make it a point to make everything your business, especially things that are not, I’ll tell you. Just to shut you up.” He paused, waiting for my reaction. I gave him none, so he continued, “Melissa and I had a fight. Melissa and I fight a lot, actually, and sometimes it’s worse than others. Tonight we had a fight about coming here with the two of you. She didn't want to come. I did. She told me to make a choice between the two of you and her. I chose the two of you. She chose to take my car and drive away with it, which is why I am so late. I walked from Mum‘s.”

“So what’s with your neck then?”

“Oh,” He looked toward the ceiling casually and took a sip of his drink before he turned back to me, “She scratched me.” He turned down his collar so I could see three long, red claw marks that ran from his clavicle almost to his jaw. The skin wasn't broken, but you could see clearly where the blood had risen beneath it to just below the surface.

I gasped. We were all silent for a moment, except for the clink of Alex setting his now empty whiskey glass on the table.

“She does this a lot then?” I couldn’t believe it, “She scratches you?”

Xander’s eyes narrowed, “Sometimes. But, listen,” He leaned forward, “I’m hungry and I’m looking to get drunk, so let’s not discuss the blackness that becomes my life. Tell me about your perfect world, you two.”

There was so much acid in his voice that I found myself looking down at my plate. I was suddenly not at all hungry.

What a horrible dinner. Alexander ate nothing and got drunk on whiskey. Oliver was unnaturally quiet and didn't drink at all and me, I just seethed.

I couldn't remember ever hating anybody as much as I hated Melissa. Alex was many things. He could be rude, snide, cold, and plain old scrupleless, but beneath it all he had a heart as big as the sea and a kindness that was unforgettable if he ever chose it to show you. But even more than that, when Xander loved somebody, he loved them deeply, endlessly, and there wasn't a thing he wouldn't do for the object of that affection. Alexander loved his family. He loved his parents and he loved me as his sister, but he especially loved Oliver. The connection those two had was something that can't really be quantified. It was psychic, like they shared not only the same interests, but in many ways, the same mind. They were a permanent part of each other. Making him choose between her and Oliver went beyond cruel and unfair. It was sinful.

But she did. She made him choose and it went on like that. The times when he'd choose her, she didn't have an outburst. The times when he'd choose Oliver, she would. Seeing me was completely out of the question, even with Oliver, but it did happen from time to time. It hurt, knowing he was choosing her over me, knowing that I could be let go like that. I knew Xander didn't mean anything by it. I knew in his mind it was a temporary solution. I knew as well that he knew I knew it. He expected me to know it and be patient with him, so I was. But it didn't make it hurt any less. That old sense of shame, of abandonment, of not being good enough or worthy of love, bubbled up from deep within and took its familiar spot as a sickening brick sitting in my stomach.

I'd see Xander on occasion when he came by to collect his brother or on visits at their parent's house. He was usually alone. He seemed fine, but there was a tension about him that was different from the man we knew. Sometimes it was unavoidable not to have us all in the same place, Melissa included. She was both distant and pouting or appeared perfectly normal and engaged us all in conversation, but her mood could turn on a pin’s head and her anger was always aimed directly at Alexander. She made no secret when he displeased her. In fact, she seemed to find great pleasure in taking it out on him in public.

They had horrible fights. She'd hit him without hesitation. He never struck her back. Alex was constantly frustrated and on edge. It wasn't long before it took a physical toll. He had dark circles under his eyes and had lost weight. His mother was worried about him, his father was getting fed up with the fact that she was worried about him, and I was growing more and more upset with the situation. Oliver was the only one who kept his cool, exercising his unbelievable ability to trust that his brother would work everything out in the end.

But that didn't settle with me. He wasn’t the Xander I’d always known. He was quieter than usual, withdrawn, and I had the constant impression that he was keeping secrets. He’d show up with scratches on his arms and neck, sometimes his face, and once or twice a bruise. I knew Alex was a big, strong man and all of that, but, honestly, I worried about his physical safety. Melissa would fly into rages where she would not only hit, but she would throw things. I came to the flat once with Oliver to find a steak knife she had flung stuck into the wall above the stove in their kitchen. CD cases would be shattered, picture frames smashed. The rubbish bin was always full of broken items.

“This is mad!” I couldn't stand it. I could feel my face flushing red as I pointed to a broken mirror in the trash. “Are you waiting for her to kill you?”

“We haven’t got a gun,” He mumbled, “She’s not going to kill me.”

“Leave her.” I demanded

“Say that again,” His head snapped up. His deep brown eyes burned into mine, “And you’re the one who can leave, Silvia.”

“Fine!” I told him, snatching up my purse “You go ahead and keep her then! Let her ruin your life, but I’ll tell you one thing for nothing, Alexander Dickinson! If she hurts that baby I’ll kill her myself! Count on it!”

“Get out, Silvia,” He was looking straight at me, but his voice was a whisper, “I have more glass to clear.”

I stomped out and slammed the door while I was at it.

Oh, I hated that Melissa! I hated her for more reasons that I could count, but I hated her most for the affect she was having on the family.

“We need to do something!” Ana told us all one night while we were having supper at her house with her and Ed, “Some sort of intervention! Alex is in trouble!”

“He’s a grown man,” Eddie mumbled, but it was obvious he was upset as well. He rubbed his face with his palms and sighed.

“Oliver, tell us what’s really happening,” Ana looked at her son searchingly, “We all know you know! You always know! He’s keeping secrets! Keeping secrets from his mother!”

Oliver smiled an easy, natural smile, but I knew it was false, “Ah, Mum, Xander’s all right!” He coaxed, “Really! When hasn’t he had secrets?”

“Oliver, don’t try to make this less than it is!” She seemed near tears, “He's my son! He's my baby! Alexander might be a grown man, but he's still my baby!”

“Mum,” Ollie said gently, putting his hand over hers, “I’m not making it less than it is! I know he's your baby! He's my brother, too, yeah?” He patted her, “He's all right, really. It’s just that things aren’t good over there and he’s trying his best to make them better. He’s trying to focus on his family, on his own son. He’s not trying to leave you out. It’s nothing personal. Give him enough space to do what he has to do to sort it out.”

“It’ll never sort out,” I said quietly, “No matter what he does, it will never sort out.”

“He’s throwing himself away,” Ana was doing her best to keep her composure, “All for that girl!”

“He’s throwing his time away,” Ollie agreed, “But I don’t think he’ll throw away his life. He feels responsible for her. For her and Nigel. They’re his family whether we like her or not.”

“What can we do?” Ed asked seriously, “Oliver, you know him best. Tell us how to help our son.”

“Be here for him. Stand back and watch him and be ready to catch him when he falls. He‘s going to fall hard, too. It‘ll take all of us.”

So we did. We stood back and we watched him fall.

Melissa came and went in our daily lives. Eddie tried his best to stay friendly, but Ana was losing her patience. She had the instinct that all good mothers have, that urge to protect her babies no matter if they were children or grown men. I know Alexander kept much of what went on in his marriage to himself, and especially from her, but she was his mother and she could see the stress on his face and feel the pain in his heart whether he told her about it or not. And Oliver, bless his heart, couldn’t look his mother in the eye and tell her lies.

“He’s all right, Mum,” He reminded her one afternoon in the kitchen after Alex had left in a hurry, “He’s doing his best. He’s spread too thin, but he’s all right. Believe me, if he wasn’t I’d make sure to correct the situation.”

“I know you would, Oliver,” She clicked her tongue, “He’s just not himself. Where’s his fire? Where’s his spark? This isn’t like him. He’s not my Xander anymore,” She looked as if she were about to cry, but she didn’t, “I miss my son, Oliver. I miss your brother. I miss Alexander.”

“He hasn’t gone anywhere,” Ollie wrapped her in his arms, “He’s just trying too hard.”

Oliver was compensating, making excuses, and I knew it, but I said nothing. Oliver was hurting as well. He missed his brother, too. We all did.

Melissa had discovered she was pregnant again five months after Caro was born. Oliver came home one night after visiting their flat and told me he was certain she was going to fling herself out in front of a train.

“Oh, she’s not pleased,” He shook his head, “You’d think she found out she’s dying.”

“How’s Alexander?”

“He’s fine about it. He’s a bit surprised, but he’s taking it in stride. I don’t know about the two of them, Love. There’s real trouble over there.”

“Like that’s any kind of a shock,” I mumbled.

I saw Melissa a few days later and gave her my congratulations. She screwed her pretty face up into a smile and thanked me, but she said, “I really wasn’t ready for this,” As she pushed her blonde hair behind her ear, “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

“Not much of a choice now,” I returned her smile, “If you need anything, let me know, right?” I was trying to be cordial for Xander’s sake. He had pulled so far away from his support system that I didn’t want to give him any more of a reason to leave us than he had. I wasn’t going to create a problem and take the chance of him ultimately choosing her over us.

Melissa nodded and hurried off to work.

I couldn’t understand why she was so stressed out about her pregnancy. If I’d been pregnant again I’d have been doing cartwheels and dancing with joy, but I was becoming more and more aware that everything stressed her out. Melissa and I had an odd relationship. It was obvious that she despised me. She made comments to Ana and Edmond about me that were quite out of line, but there were other times when she was friendly and kind. She could really be very sweet at times, but the fact that she could be so nasty made me think that all of her good traits were nothing more than a manipulation to get what she wanted. I ignored her more than anything. I knew I had the upper hand because she was well aware that I was firmly entrenched in that family and any wrong move could land her square on her bum.

Having another baby seemed to be enough to change her attitude and she started coming around more, being friendlier with me, and allowing Alex more freedom with his brother. It was enough for me to back off just a bit. She toed the line just to where I didn’t see any need to carry out my threat of death upon her. Alex wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t exactly miserable either. For some inexplicable reason, he actually loved that girl. I’d never seen him so attentive, so affectionate and selfless with any woman. And, believe me, I’d seen Alexander with more than a few women. He adored her, even if everyone else would have helped her pack and taken her out to her car at any given second if it meant she was leaving. And sometimes when she was with him you could see that she adored him as well, that she trusted him much in the same way that I trusted Oliver. When they weren't fighting you could tell that they were friends. The problem was that they fought too frequently to see that very often.

Still, it was there, in their intimate moments when they thought no one was watching. When he'd take her hand and kiss her fingers, when he'd touch her belly and smile and when she'd stand on the tips of her toes to whisper in his ear and they'd laugh softly over a private joke. I saw it. I knew it was real. Whatever it was between them, whether anybody else understood it or not, it was real.

Melissa got on with Oliver all right, but she harboured a deep and obvious resentment for me, even if she did her best sometimes to hide it. I, of course, did nothing at all to better the situation. Truth be told, I egged her on much of the time. I might have backed off if she ever showed even the slightest interest in her husband or child, but she didn’t. She pawned both of them off as often as she could and then got catty and jealous about them. I felt like I was on the opposite end of a tug of war with Alex in the middle. He didn’t quite understand why we fought over him, but I did.

As far as I was concerned, I had more of a claim to Melissa’s husband than she did. Alexander and I had known each other for far too many years. We were close, the best of friends long before she washed in with the tide. It wasn’t that I had a problem sharing him. It wasn’t that I was jealous because he went home to be with her and their son at night now instead of coming to visit Oliver and me. It was none of the things that she might have thought it was. It was not an ownership issue at all. It was because Alexander was my family and she had no business coming along and trying to drive a wedge between us. The scars of my early childhood and the fear of losing somebody I loved still ran deep within me.

At the time I really didn't understand what her problem was. Her rapid mood swings, her uncanny ability to be the warmest, engaging person in the world one moment and the next to be a screaming lunatic who took swings at her husband for no valid reason at all. I didn't understand why she seems so unwilling to make a change for herself in an effort to improve her marriage or, especially, why she didn't apply more interest in being a mother to her son.

Alexander was the one who took the biggest role with the parenting. In fact, it was Alexander who took the biggest role with everything. After she was let go from her job, Melissa didn’t work again. Alex would call me sometimes during the day and ask me if I’d pop in and check on her. I never asked him why because I knew he wouldn’t give me a straight answer, but I knew as well it was because he was worried. Not about her, but about Nigel. Every time I’d walk through the door, pretending to be friendly, she’d greet me with absolutely no emotion and let me enter. She’d head straight back to the sofa and return to watching whatever programme was on the tele without almost no further word to me. The house was always a disaster. Toys and food and empty dishes littered the tables and floor. Dirty clothes were everywhere, as were scattered baby bottles and tins. Bags of rubbish sat beside overflowing bins. Alexander was many things, but a lazy slob was not one of them. He'd never been afforded the luxury, not by his mother and certainly not by his school. Didn’t she do a thing? Even a simple, single thing?

There would be Nigel wading through it all, always smiling at me when he’d see me, running to me with his little arms in the air. Half the time he’d be dirty and his nappy would be soiled. I’d take him to the bath and play with him in the tub with his little floating frogs and duckies, get him dressed properly and have him help me tidy the house a bit before his father came home. Melissa would sit on the sofa without a word and let me do it, too. Oh, how I wanted to take him home with me! And sometimes I would.

“Melissa,” I’d say on the days when I couldn’t stand it, after I’d pulled a clean nappy on to his bum, “Do you want me to take Nigel off your hands? I can give Xan a ring and have him pick him up on his way home. I‘m sure Ana would love to see him…”

“Sure,” She’d say with no interest, never looking away from the television screen, “Whatever.”

I wanted to bash her head. Here she had this lovely husband who’d do anything plus put up with her nonsense and a beautiful son, a roof over her head, and people who genuinely would have welcomed her into their family. With all of that, all she could do was sit and sulk and think of only herself.

So I’d take her son with me and bring him either to my house or to his grandmother’s where he’d be safe and paid proper attention to, at least for a couple of hours.

Whether it was due to boredom, narcissism, or to ease financial issues, Melissa eventually made a connection with the gentleman who owned an upscale pub on the edge of town. Even being pregnant, he hired her on the spot to work full time during the days. This seemed to bring her mood up a bit and she lunged at the opportunity. Her immediate inclination was to put Nigel into a nursery. I wasn’t happy about the idea, but I didn’t say anything. Alex, however, would have nothing to do with it.

He came to the cabin one evening alone with Nigel. He seemed upset, but was obviously doing his best to hide it. Finally, after we'd had dinner together and he'd loosened up a bit, he looked at me from across the table, “Sil,” He seemed almost hesitant; “I have to ask you something. I don't want to put you out. I know you have your own thing you do here and you have Caro and everything, but I don't want Nigel in a nursery. They're germy places and I don't think the children get enough one on one attention.”

“What about your mum?” I knew where he was going, “Don't you think she'd want to keep him?”

Alex blinked, “My mum's getting on, yeah? She might do all right with him a day or two a week, I reckon, but I don't think she could keep up with him full time.”

I broke into a huge smile, “I'll do it then! I'll be Nigel's Nanny!”

Alexander's shoulder slumped as if an enormous weight had just come off his back. He let out a long breath and grinned like I hadn't seen him grin in ages, “Will you really?”

“Don't be stupid,” I told him. “I'll do it for free.”

“No, I'll pay you.” He insisted.

“Whatever!” I was chuffed to buggery that he'd asked me, “I don't care!”

It was silly of him to think that I might have said no. I was as in love with Nigel as I was Carolena. The little man was so adorable, dark hair, dark eyes, dimpled smile. He’d take three steps, fall on his bum and laugh about it. He was a shrunken version of a drunk and happy Alex. I took him on immediately. It was a trick keeping him in line sometimes, but I learned quickly that the best thing to do with him was to make him a part of every little thing I did from changing Caro’s nappies to pulling weeds to making lunch. We got on with no problems.

Melissa didn’t work on Wednesdays, so on that day it was just me and Carolena. I'd take her shopping sometimes, but mostly we spent those days quietly, just her and I playing in the garden and waiting for her daddy to come home from work. That particular day we'd gone to the book shop in Newtown and I'd bought a book by Michio Kaku I was just dying to read. I was sitting with her in the glider, resting my chin against her cheek while she slept, turning pages with one hand when the phone rang. Thankfully, Caro was a heavy sleeper and didn’t stir as I lay her on the couch to answer.

“Hello?”

“Silvia!” It was Edmond. His voice was thick and hard, as if he'd swallowed a chunk of bread and was ignoring the pain it caused, “Do you have a key to Alexander’s flat?”

“Yes.”

“Get in your car and get over here right now!” It was command. There was no room for question or argument inside of it.

“Why? What’s wrong?” A horrible feeling spread through me. “Where are you?”

I could hear Ana in the background, her voice shrill with terror, “Does she have one? Oh! Thank God! Tell her to get here!”

“I'm standing in front of Alexander's flat. We just saw Melissa!” His voice was like ice, “She was in town without Nigel.”

“Where’s Nigel?” I remember staring at the screen saver on the computer. The words “Cymru Am Byth” danced about it, huge silver letters that had no meaning to me at that moment. The second I asked the question I knew the answer.

Somehow Eddie knew I knew it because he never answered me. Instead, he said, “I’d kick the door in, but I’m afraid I’ll hurt him! We can hear him! Ana’s talking to him through the window, but he’s going back and forth trying to let us in! He can’t unlatch the door! I’d call for a locksmith, but they might call the authorities and Alexander…”

“I’ll be right there! Keep him at the window!”

My heart pounded so hard I heard it in my ears. All the shit lying around that flat he might have gotten into flashed through my mind. Things he may have shoved into sockets, things he may have cut himself with or swallowed. He was alone in there! All alone!

“Oh, Nigel!” I sucked back my panic and my tears of stress and terror, “Nigel, be safe! I’m coming, Baby…be all right!”

I scooped up Carolena and tossed her into her car seat, more or less ignoring her as she protested. We were off in a blink. I didn't even bother putting on my shoes, but tossed them on to the front seat. I didn't even shoo Duncan from the car as he leapt in and made himself at home of top of them. I just got in and drove. I had never been so afraid in my entire life. I had never driven those paths so quickly. I literally caught air coming off some of the hills and refused to yield on the one way paths, instead laying on my horn and waving frantically for the other drivers to get out of my way. I'd never sped the way I did on the way into town. I watched the speedometer click over 140kph and still kept pressing down on the accelerator until I screamed to a stop at the garden gate.

Eddie met me at the road. “Thank God! Silvia! “

He swept the key from my hand and raced into the building. I took Caro, who was sleeping again by then, out of the car and bolted up the stairs to the flat. Eddie was struggling with the key in the lock.

“Jiggle it!” I told him. “Here, like this!” I stepped in front of him and gave the door a shake. It swung open.

Nigel was standing in the centre of the room holding a cup in his little hands. He grinned, a huge smile that revealed all five or so little teeth he had, and he said, “Paaaaaaa!” to Eddie, holding his arms out wide.

Eddie scooped him up and held him close, “Oh, Sonny,” He mumbled, “You’re safe now, you are…you’re safe…” Ana came beside them and put her hands on the baby’s head. She stroked him desperately with her palms as if to make sure he was still solid. Eddie stooped so she could kiss Nigel and there they stood, the two of them with their arms wrapped around him. Ana sobbed, Eddie held his breath.

I stayed in the doorway with Caro in a state of stunned disbelief.

Melissa had left him. Her own son. Not even two years old. She had left him alone in that ravaged flat with no one to look after him. Who knew how long he’d been there. Who knew what had gone on or what might have happened if Eddie and Ana had not seen her by chance strolling through town. What was she doing? What was she thinking? What in the bloody hell was wrong with that woman?

I suddenly hated her like I had never hated anyone in my life. I wanted to leave my daughter with her grandparents and go and find her. I wanted to shatter every bone in her body with my bare hands. More than that I wanted to take Nigel away and never let her see him again. She didn't deserve to.

“Let’s get him out of here!” Ana spat. She looked around the place and curled her nose, “Let’s get him out of here before that bitch comes back!” I had never heard her refer to a person badly before. Not once in all the years I’d know her. She said every word in Welsh, then switched to English, “Let’s get him home! I’m going to call Alexander myself this time!”

“Take him,” I told them, “And Carolena, too. I’ll get his things. If Melissa comes home, I’ll deal with her then, won’t I?”

After they left I was suddenly very calm. I walked to the baby’s room, which was the only room in the house that was tidy, and put enough for a week in a bag. I had no idea why I was packing like that, but it felt right, so I did it. I took everything. Clothing, toys, blankets, nappies, wipes, his shampoo and baby wash. I moved slowly, methodically, hoping Melissa would walk through that door so I could crush her skull, but she never came home, At least not until after I’d gone.

I phoned Oliver at the office from the car and told the nurse that it was an emergency. I told him he needed to get to his mother’s as soon as possible. He was a bit confused at first, but I filled him in with what I knew. He was furious, but he said very little, being as he was surrounded by people. “Bring Nigel to the office,” He said quietly, but his voice was low and serious, a tone he rarely used, “Straight away. It’s most likely he’s just fine, but…”

“He seems fine.”

“Thank God,” He replied quickly “But, mind, I’ll have a look at him all the same. I have to go. I’m phoning my shit brain of a brother.”

A different sort of panic swept me, “Oliver,” I knew how angry he was by the tone of his voice. Ollie didn't get angry often or easily, but when he did it often had a disastrous outcome for the object of his aggression, “Think before you speak. I don’t know if your mum’s rang him or not, but you know she’ll give him a proper scolding…”

“Not like I’m going to,” He was speaking through his teeth. I could tell. I could almost hear them gnashing, “I'm going to beat his arse.”

“Oliver, don’t! Alex didn't do this! She did this!” The thought of the twins fighting, the thought of that horrible wench finally setting a firm distance between them, was more than I could stand. “Alex needs you! He trusts you better than anybody! Please! Please don’t attack him! He’s going to be just as upset as we all are, but if you put him on the defensive…”

“He’ll take Nigel away from all of us.” He finished for me.

“It’s what I’m afraid of. And I'm afraid we'll lose him. Oliver, what will we do without Alexander? He's our brother!”

There was a pause. When he spoke again his voice had softened. “I won’t hit him. I won't even ring him. I’ll wait for him at mum’s. I'll talk to him.”

“Thank you, Sweetie.”

Oliver did speak with him that afternoon. The two of them went off into the yard and sat beside the birdbath. I caught a glimpse of them for a moment. It looked tense at first, but it wasn't long before Oliver's arm was around Alexander and he was squeezing him in a supportive gesture. Alex's head was hung, cradled in his hands.

They talked for hours while Ana and I sat with Nigel and Caro in the sitting room. The house was eerily quiet.

I would have thought that experience might have been enough for Alexander to take a stronger hand with his wife, but it seemed that he didn’t. I don't even know what was said to her or if anything was at all. He went home and everything went back to how it had been. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to bash his head as much as I did hers and I was sorry that I'd told Oliver not to hit him. She could have killed their son with her neglect, but Alexander didn’t seem to want to do a thing about it.

It was putting a strain on Oliver and me as well. We never discussed it, really. I just got the feeling that he wouldn't have told me about it. It was another one of those things that he kept inside of him for his brother, some unspoken, private matter that only the two of them understood and neither of them felt any reason to let anybody else in on.

“Why?” I finally demanded Oliver explain. I couldn't take the stress, “Why doesn’t he do something about her? Why doesn't he take that boy away from her?”

Oliver looked surprised. It struck me that he had had no idea that I hadn't understood the situation from Alex's perspective. He stared at me before he slowly explained, “Because she’s pregnant and he doesn’t know what to do.” He watched my face, waiting to see some understanding. When he didn't, he began again, “Silvia, slow down and think. He’s doing his best to protect Nigel. She’s not keeping him anymore on her days off, yeah? Christ, Sil, he’s got the lad sleeping in the bed with him so he can keep an eye on him even at night! He comes home on his lunch and cleans the place every day. You don't see that because you're not there.”

“He needs to get that boy the hell away from her!”

“Silvia!” Oliver stared at me in disbelief. He really did not understand why I was not getting the point of what he was telling me. Sometimes he took his relationship with his brother for granted and forgot he was the only one in the world who could take Alexander and make him make sense, “We all know that, don’t we? But what you’re failing to see is the other baby! The one inside Melissa! He’s protecting that one the best he can as well! If he sends her packing, he sends her off with the other child!”

That stopped me. I looked at my husband from across the table and I was suddenly ashamed of myself for thinking that Alexander was being irresponsible. I had been so wrapped up in Nigel, the one I knew. The one I could see and hold. I hadn’t even thought of the little child inside of Melissa or what she might do to harm it if Alex pushed her too far.

What a delicate line he was dancing on. His situation was dangerous, far more dangerous than I'd considered and he wasn’t being an idiot at all. He was protecting his children. Both of them. God bless Alexander. For all of his faults, he was a loving and excellent father.

I looked up into my husband’s dark eyes. He saw the understanding in mine and smiled gently, “He’s doing the best he can, Sil. The best we can do to help him is allow him to keep doing it.”

I didn’t say much more after that. I waited and I worried instead. I kept Nigel five days a week and was shocked when Alexander rang my phone one day to tell me it would be Melissa who was going to collect him from my house.

“Why don’t I just bring him home then?” I asked, the bubbles rising in my stomach.

“Sil,” There was an element of desperation in his voice, “She’s doing better. Please. Just have him ready.”

“I'll have him ready,” I conceded.

“Thank you,” He breathed.

“Alexander?”

“Yes?”

I sighed, “Nothing. I just miss you. I wish you'd come round more often.”

“I miss you, too, Sil. I will come round. We'll speak soon, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“I have to get back to work. Cheers, Bach.”

“Soon, Xander. Cheers.”

Melissa showed up at my door not an hour later. “I’m here to get my son,” She stressed the word ‘my’.

“He’s got a bit of a temperature,” I told her as I reluctantly handed him over.

“I’m sure I can handle it,” She snapped. Nigel fussed in her arms.

“I am sure you can,” I snapped back. I could feel my temperature rise, “However, being short in conversation and long in self-importance isn’t going to change the fact that he’s got explosive diarrhoea, too, is it?” She glowered at me. I glowered back, “Oliver brought him some medicine. It’s--” I stopped speaking. Melissa’s mouth was twisted and her eyes were narrow. Who the bloody hell did she think she was? Coming to my home after I’d cared for her son all day and disrespecting me with a look like that? I swear if she had not been holding that baby I’d have knocked her right in the chin. “Never mind,” I clipped the words off through my teeth, “I’ll ring Alex. He’s the one who does ninety-nine percent of the parenting.”

“Speaking of Alex,” She jerked the medicine from my hand, “Don’t call him. Ever. He’s got better things to do than talk to you.”

“What the hell is your problem today, Melissa? Wake up with your knickers drenched?”

“I don’t like the way you are with my husband!”

“I don’t like the way you are with your husband, either!”

“Mind your own business, Silvia!”

“Your husband is my business!”

She shifted Nigel in her arms. “You’ve got your own man!” Her voice was threatening, “Leave mine alone!”

“What are you going to do about it? Claw me with your false talons? I’d smear you from one end of the garden to the next!” It was all I could do not to poke her hard in the shoulder, but I resisted again for Nigel’s sake, “You go piss on yourself, Melissa! I won’t leave him alone! Alexander is family! What are you playing at?”

“I’m not playing at anything! I am telling you that Alexander is mine and you need to leave him alone! You can’t have them both!”

I was stunned for a second that she would say such an incredibly stupid thing, but it was only a second longer before I became angrier than I already was. She led with her chin that time, “Oh, aye! You’re a right eiri, aren’t you? Well, let me tell you something about the twins!” I leaned in and lifted myself on to my toes a bit so I was more even with her eyes. I dropped my voice, “If I wanted them both, I could have yours as well as mine in a heartbeat!” I was saying it to be cruel, no other reason, “So watch your step or I might have a go at your man and then you’ll know the true meaning of twincest!”

Melissa opened her mouth to say something, but shut it before she did. I knew she didn’t know what an eiri was and that I’d I'd lost her with my accent, but it was obvious that she'd gotten the meaning of my threat by the look on her face. I wished I could be there when she asked Alexander later and he told her I called her a snobbish, conceited whore. I wondered if she could figure out twincest on her own. I doubted it. Still, what I had said had stung her. I was quite pleased with that.

She tried her best to intimidate me with a glare, but it truly had no effect. I was so angry I would have slapped her in the face for it, but she was still holding Nigel. I could imagine not striking her full on and bouncing my palm off his little head. Lucky for all of us, I was clinging to self-control with everything I had. “Get out of my sight,” My voice was low even in my own ears, “Before I hurt you.”

Without another word she took her son and stomped off the porch and to her car. Duncan scrambled out behind her, barking at her heels all the way. I could hear Nigel screaming after I slammed the door. I felt bad about scaring him.

I do not think Melissa really had any idea of how badly she was messing things up with Alexander. I know she was that far gone. Or maybe she honestly didn’t care, but I find that hard to believe. If she would have listened to anything people were trying to tell her, the end result may have been different. Alexander really did try to make it a point to be romantic and loving, but Melissa, among her other issues, just did not understand the ways of the Welsh. Instead of relaxing her way into her new life in Wales and trying to figure out its rhythm, she tried to force her old ways on to her husband. It conflicted with his sensibilities and confused him, which left her frustrated and angry. She just couldn’t figure out how to get her balance, but to my knowledge she really never had any to begin with.

Part of me still wanted to help her for Alexander’s sake. He was trying desperately to hang on to a marriage that was rapidly dissolving into disaster. If she would have spoken to me civilly I would have tried to explain the dynamics of the Dickinson family. Although they didn’t always agree, the family was a united structure. Each member was respected and appreciated for their individually, encouraged to achieve their goals, and all were praised and loved equally. There were no favourites, there were no black sheep. Everyone had an important role and certain responsibilities, the first being that family was number one. And Melissa by her apparent disinterest and disregard for her new family’s culture, as well as her open dislike for me, was quickly landing herself on the outside of the inner circle.

“If she says one more bad thing to our Silvia,” Ana told Edmond on Christmas Eve as the three of us were getting trays, “I’m going to put her out in the snow!”

“Can I please beat her up in your front room, Dad?” I asked him sincerely, “Please? I promise I won’t break any furniture!”

“Settle down, Ladies!” Edmond took a tray of tarts from Ana, “It’s Christmas! Let’s try to enjoy ourselves!”

“Hard when I have to hear that sort of rubbish,” Ana muttered.

“Well, then you might like to know that your son, Oliver, just put a dead mouse into her coat pocket,” Edmond’s face was red with mirth as he suppressed his laughter.

“He did not!” I gasped.

“Oh, he did!” Edmond snorted with the effort of not bursting into a fit.

Ana didn’t even try to keep it in. She let loose a loud, silly giggle and cheered, “Hooray! I love that boy!”

“Yes, yes! We did a good job with him! Now, come on! Come on!”

Alexander brought Nigel over one morning early about three weeks later. He showed me the plans he had been drawing for expanding the cabin, “You’ll have three more rooms that can be used for bedrooms if needed. Oliver wants an office, too. We’re putting one room on the back, but the three we’re going to build on top of the additions we’ve already made. I’m leaving the front alone. It’s very old and I’m not dealing with the roof. I wanted to build two rooms on to the rear, but we can’t go back much more without clearing several trees. Oliver won’t have that, so we’ll go up instead. I have a new door here on the side,” He pointed at the plans with a pencil, “The stairs going up will actually be built outside, but we’ll enclose them. That way no one will have to walk through either bedroom to get upstairs.”

“I thought we were OK.” I looked at the plans, “It’s just Oliver, Caro, Duncan and me.”

He chewed his gum slowly. “You’ll have more children one day, yeah?”

“If nature allows. But why does Oliver want this done now?” I asked. Alex didn’t look at me. He scratched his head with the pencil. “OK, Alexander. What are you two planning that you’ve failed to tell me?”

He sighed, “Nothing. Oliver just wants it done. You know how he is when he gets something in his head. It’s got to be done right now, rush, rush. Linger and he’ll kill you. As for me, I just have a lot on my mind.”

“Do you want to talk? You seem more bothered than usual.”

“Yes, actually, I am,” He sighed again, “And I would like to talk. “

“Talk. “

“Melissa wants to go back.”

“Oh aye? What’s keeping her?”

“For the moment it’s pregnancy.” He paused. “And then nothing.”

“You’re building a room for Nigel, aren’t you?”

“Silvia, no, I told you…”

“Stop right there! I’ve no problem with Nigel having a room here or anywhere else, but I have a problem with your wife. I have from the moment I met her. I said it then and I’ll say it now. She’s not for you, Alexander. And she’s not fit to be a mother, either. She can go through the motions, but she can’t care for that boy like he needs to be cared for.”

Alexander looked up at the ceiling, “I agree.”

“You married her too soon,” I told him, “You could’ve waited. You could have not married her at all!”

“Oh, aye! But you weren’t there, were you?” He turned and looked straight at me, “And I had a big decision to make right quick-like, too. I could’ve left her, yeah? She might have chased me down for some support money or she might have let me go. Or she could have had an abortion and been done with it all. But there I was and at the time I saw something in her that’s not there now. She was sweet. Maybe not so clever, but she was warm and kind. So when I married her I was mad about her and inside her belly was a wee Dickinson. My child, Silvia! No Dickinson has ever left behind another Dickinson! I married her quick because my legal stay in the US was almost done. She’s my wife then so she didn’t argue about coming to Wales. She came out of obligation and something she thought was love. She had the baby and my son was born Welsh. In Wales. Do you get my meaning?”

“You made it so! You planned it!”

“Damned straight I did! Had I allowed my son to be born an American Citizen, do you think that when his dad and mum had enough of each other and I wanted to leave off for Wales they would let me take my son from the nation of his birth?”

“You knew it even then?”

“I knew we weren’t you and Ollie. You and Ollie, now, that’s a rare thing indeed. Melissa and I hadn’t been together long enough for me to know. I knew she had problems. She told me there were issues and I saw warning signs, but I didn’t think at first she and I could never see it through. I knew a couple of weeks after we got here that she wasn’t all right. I tried to make it better, but I only made it worse and it was obvious that something was seriously wrong after Nigel was born. She doesn’t want much to do with him, does she?”

“She’s a cow.”

“No, she isn’t. Don’t say that. I never told you and I should have. She’s ill. She has bi polar disorder. She’s been on medicine since she was nineteen only when she got pregnant she quit taking it. She didn’t want to hurt the baby. She’d only started to get back on it when she got pregnant again and she went right off.”

“Oh, Alexander! I’m sorry!” That suddenly made things loads more clear.

“She’s not right. She leans heavily toward the depressed, but the mania’s even worse. She doesn’t want anything to do with Nigel, but it’s not that she doesn’t love him. She just can’t love him correctly,” Alexander looked like he was a hundred years old, “All she does is cry and get angry at him or she gets excited and forgets about him. She hates herself for it, but she really can't help it. She’s afraid she’ll hurt him. She hates you because you do what she can’t. She’s got this ridiculous notion that you and I are lovers or at least we want to be. And we should not have gotten pregnant so soon, but we got arseholed one night and weren’t careful and…” He trailed off, “You know how it goes,” He shook his head, “She’s unstable. I’m afraid to leave for work because she’s tried to kill herself. I never know what I’m coming home to. Most nights she’s happy to see me and then ten minutes later she’s swinging at my head. She punches me closed fists. Not that it hurts mostly, but her hitting me like that in front of our son? Or she locks herself in the loo and sobs for hours. She’s impossible to live with.”

“How horrible.” I had been so caught up in the thought of Nigel not being safe that I'd forgotten what Alexander must have been going through emotionally. He was so unhappy standing there talking to me that day, so drained of the energy that he'd always exuded. Alexander, mouthy and rebellious his whole life, was now a man heavy laden with burden and responsibility, trapped in a situation he had no idea of how to successfully escape.

“She doesn’t want the baby,” He continued, “She’s not at all excited about it. She refused her ultrasound. I have to force her to appointments. She doesn’t even want to discuss names. All she talks about is going to the US after she has it and being with her friends and her family.”

“She’s having the baby and then taking holiday?”

Alexander didn’t look at me. “She’s divorcing me, Sil.”

“What?”

“After what I just told you you’re surprised?”

“Well, with two wee babies that’s the last thing I expected to hear!”

He nodded. “Bit sick, yeah? But so is she. She’s sick, not evil. She thinks it’s the right thing to do. I tried to tell her that I’d stick with her. All she has to do is have the baby and get back on medicine and we’d work together until we had it right, but she says no. She’s going back state side as soon as the baby’s born.”

I was not quite sure what to say, “Are you contesting the divorce?”

“I can’t stop her from leaving. If she leaves, and she will, what’s the point? No, I think Melissa and I are divorcing straight away.”

“Before she has the baby?”

“Yes, she wants the marriage ended as soon as possible. I don’t want to, but I’m not going to fight her. I’ve tried to help her and I’ve accepted that there’s nothing I can do. I told her I’d give her the divorce without any argument, but I’m keeping both of the children.”

“What did she say about that?”

“She cried for about an hour and then she went to bed. I do know that I can keep my children in Wales, at least. She can’t leave and take my children, too. Not without my saying so.”

“She’s far gone then. I’ll tell you for nothing that you’d have to pry Carolena out of my cold stiff arms. I’d fight until I was dead before I’d leave her for a day.”

“Yes, and you love your child. She does hers, too, in a way that I can’t understand.” There was a sadness I’d never seen in Alexander before, “There won’t be a fight if she goes home without them. If she doesn’t come back I won’t bother her ever again. If she comes back it’s just as well for everyone. I still want custody. She’s too unpredictable to keep the children.”

“You’re a good dad.”

“I am! And Melissa…I just don’t understand why she won’t stay and get help. I can raise the children, I know I can. But a child needs a mother!”

“I’ll do it then.” I said a little too quickly, “I want them. I mean, I know that they’re your children, but with a couple more rooms on top they could just stay here. You could stay as well. And all the children could be raised right and proper here in the wood.”

I looked down at Nigel and Carolena who were sleeping together on a blanket. Duncan lie about a foot away, opening one eye from time to time to check on them. They were angels. Little bundles of magic, they both were. Funny how a fifteen pound runt of a litter meant to keep them safe and close while Nigel’s own mother was walking away. What a fool she was.

Alexander was staring at me with a look that I could not place.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Melissa’s not so off base,” He said softly, “I love you so much, Sil. I always have. You’re my brother’s wife. You were Oliver’s wife long before you married him, but I love you, too. It’s like this ache right here,” He rubbed his sternum, “Every now and again when I look at you or I think of you, it actually hurts. It’s been a bit disturbing the way I’ve felt sometimes,” He smiled, “Don‘t look sickened! The truth is that I’m jealous because Oliver has you through and through. I’ve never seen anybody love anybody the way you love him. I used to wonder if the hurt was because I was in love with you, too-like… like, really, really in love with you. Now I wonder if it’s not just jealousy because no one’s ever loved me like you love him. Or maybe I’m just a man who’s not used to being ignored and recognizes a woman that has always been out of his reach. Maybe deep down from time to time I’m tempted by the challenge? No matter. I’d never try. The thought of being romantic with you is just too weird,” He shuddered, “Plus I’d never do that to my brother and you’d just crush me anyway. But whatever it is, I know that I love you and it‘s obvious to Melissa as well. She takes it to a different place than we do, she makes it a bad thing. It's not a bad thing. You’re my sister, yeah? What she thinks is all wrong. Still, I’d be honoured to call you mother to my children.”

“It would be an honour to mother them, Alexander. And I love you, too.” I looked at him carefully for a second, digesting all he had said. We‘d been friends for so long that I had been aware of his affection without him telling me about it. Nothing he had said took me by any surprise. “Only it’s not confusing for me how I feel about you. It never has been.”

“I know!” He grinned, “And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Could you imagine the mess we’d be in if it ever had been?”

It would turn out that this divorce was something that Melissa had been mulling over for nearly as long as Nigel had been alive. The plans to change the house, however, had been something Oliver had mentioned before the idea of having Alexander and the children move in had come up. Xander, however, thought it better that he and the children still keep their own home, which I thought was a bit silly.

It was only two days after Melissa gave Alexander the divorce proposal that she moved out. She left her son with his father and she rarely checked in. It was the hospital that called Alex on a Sunday afternoon five weeks later to tell him that he had a new baby daughter who was born the morning before.

Oliver and I raced to the hospital to see her. We peered at her through the nursery window. It wasn’t a good view, but there she was, our little niece, sleeping peacefully.

Oliver held a fussy Carolena. “Shush, Caro,” He tried to put the pacifier into her mouth and she spat it out, “She’s getting teeth, Love,” He told me as he peered into her mouth, “About three of them all at once from how it appears. Two on the bottom and one on top.”

“I know. She’s drooling and chewing on everything.” I wiped dirt off of Nigel’s nose, “Look at your new niece in there! Poor little baby all alone! She’s not even named!”

“Alexander won’t allow her to go anonymous for long,” Oliver peered through the glass, “Maybe she’s named and we just don’t know it.”

It was just then that Alexander rounded the corner, “Well, it’s done.”

“What’s done?” Ollie turned to his brother and asked.

“She’s signed the final papers. She’s going,” He looked down at Nigel, “And that’s that. My attorney’s faxing them over to the US tomorrow. I’ve filled out the birth certificate as well. Melissa’s agreed to leave the children with me. She didn’t really have a choice, not if she wanted to go home.” We watched a nurse enter the nursery and lift the baby into her arms. She walked out of the room with her. “And now I get to meet my daughter.”

“What name did you give her?” I lifted Nigel, who was reaching for Alex.

“I’m calling her Natalie,” Alexander looked older than his father as he stroked Nigel’s hair, “Hey, Buddy! You’ve got yourself a little sister! Natalie Christine! Want to meet her?”

He was about to say something else when the nurse came around with the baby. “Here you go, Dad!” She stopped in her step, “Doctor Dickinson!”

Alexander took a step forward and relieved her of her burden, “That’s Doctor Dickinson,” He motioned to Oliver with his head, “I’m his twin. The good looking one. Hello, Natalie, my love,” He pulled the blankets away from her chin and peered into her little face, “Hello, Muffin! It’s me, your dad! And this is Nigel! He’s your big brother! Oh, hello! You’re beautiful, aren’t you? You look just like your Mummy! So beautiful, aren’t you?” He kissed her gently and wandered off for a private moment, speaking to her in Welsh whispers.

The nurse laughed nervously, “Oh!” She said to Oliver, “I didn’t know you were a twin! Identical, too!”

“We prefer mono-zygotic, but close enough, Millie,” Oliver smiled and moved to look at the baby. “Silvia,” He called gently, “You have to see her! We have someone very special here!”

I rushed over and put my hand against Alexander's biceps. He turned and lowered her so I have a peek.

Oh, she was lovely. I’d never seen a full term baby so tiny. She was pale as snow, her pointed little head covered in thick honey coloured hair. “She’s truly beautiful,” I told Alexander, thinking she looked like one of the babies from the covers of magazines. “She’s amazing. Look at those fingers! Long and slender…she has your hands, Xander.”

“This,” Alexander whispered as tears began to stream down his cheeks. He took Natalie‘s little hand and she curled her tiny fingers around his thumb, “Is the most important woman I’m ever going to meet. This is the one who‘s going to teach me what love is all about.”

Oliver patted his brother on the back. None of us said another thing.

Even though he said he was not moving in, that night there were three babies and one Duncan sleeping in the nursery and Alexander sleeping on our sofa. It stayed that way until spring when a new top went on to the back of our little cabin. And then there were three babies and one Duncan in the nursery and Alexander sleeping in the smallest room upstairs.

I never heard another thing about Melissa until a year later when she rang us, weeping, “Silvia! It’s Melissa,” She sounded like she’s been at the pub all night, stuffed up and drunk, “Please don’t hang up on me! I know you know! How are Nigel and his sister?”

“Her name is Natalie. Didn’t you know that?”

“Yes, I knew that! It’s so pretty! Natalie. How are they?”

“They’re healthy and happy.” I wanted to hang up so badly my hand twitched, “Why don’t you speak to Alexander?”

I held the phone out at him. He was sitting in the middle of the floor playing a toy xylophone with Nattie. “It’s her, isn’t it?” He asked. I nodded. “Nigel’s out with Oliver?” I nodded again. “Jeez, it’s three in the morning stateside!” He stood up with a great sigh and took the phone. “Melissa?”

The rest of the conversation was held in hushed tones, “You want to see us? Well, I can help you with a ticket back to Wales. No. They’re babies, Mel. No. I’m not bringing them there, no way. Because I have a job. I can’t just go jumping the pond on a moment’s notice because you called. You’re working, yeah? You can come here then. Come on! Be reasonable! A toddler and a baby on a plane for twelve hours when you can come here?” There was a pause, “You did what? Well, that wasn’t very well thought out then, was it? I’m sorry. I don’t bring you up. He’s too young, he won’t get it.” He stopped speaking, obviously listening to her, “No!” He said suddenly and angrily, “Don’t you give me that shit, Melissa! They’re babies!” He sounded so sad I wanted to go over and comfort him, “Yours and mine! You left us!” Another pause, “It’s harder than you thought? Oh aye! For me as well! Don’t tell me that. It’s a lie. It’s a lie and you know it.” A half an hour later, Alexander had had enough, “This is going nowhere. I can’t do this with you. Because it hurts, that’s why. Go to a doctor, please. Please get on medication and get your life straight. Call again when you’re sober, right? Yes, I’ll answer. Yes. Goodbye, Melissa,” He hung up the phone with his head low.

“Are you all right?” I asked from the kitchen doorway.

He shook his head and looked at his daughter, “No, not really. I pretend I am, but I’m not.” He stood like he meant to walk out of the room, but he sat down on the sofa instead, “I’ll be honest. I’ve been waiting for her to ring. She does from time to time. I check my mobile every day, wondering if I’ve missed her. I actually hope she’ll ring, you know? I hope she’ll tell me she’s well. Just then, she was wrecked. She couldn’t carry on a conversation, she just babbled. Confessed her very soul to me, she just did.”

“She wants to see you and the children?”

He ran his hand through his dark hair, “Aye, it’s the first time she’s said so, but she can’t come here to see us. She wants me to bring the children there.”

“You said no.”

“I did. I can’t do it.” He was quiet for a long time. “No woman ever touched me, you know that, yeah? All those girls, all those girlfriends, even the ones I liked. Not one touched me, but Melissa broke my heart. I hate her for all the pain she caused me. I hate her because I loved her and I know she didn’t love me. And the really mad thing is I swear if she knocked on that door right now I can’t say I wouldn’t invite her in and do it again.”

I knew he would. If she had knocked instead of phoned he would have taken her back even after all she had done to him. Alexander was world renown for holding a grudge. Very few understood he had a vast capacity for forgiveness as well.

“I loved her, Sil. I truly did. I still do in this weird, masochistic sort of way. I could have loved her forever if she’d have let me,” He seemed dazed, as if this were something he'd gone over in his head a thousand times and had never been able to sort out, “We had a family. We could have been a right and true family, but she pushed us away. If she didn’t love me, that’s fine. It hurts, but I can live with it. That’s my fucked up karma. I think of Meredith Ainsworth and what I did to her and I know I deserve it. I just can’t understand why she didn’t love the children.” He dropped his head and rested it in his hands. When he looked up, he might have been crying, but there were no tears in his eyes, “Simple of me?”

“There’s nothing simple about it.”

“It’s just a damn shame,” He shook his head, “It’s just such a damn, tragic shame.”

I said nothing else.

Years later when she was grown and on her own, Natalie’s younger daughter had a health scare. Nattie looked her mother up and phoned her to ask some questions about the family’s medical history. Melissa answered all she asked, but at the end of the conversation she requested that Natalie never call again. Her voice was, she told her, too painful a reminder of a life she’d chosen to leave behind.

“What a complete bitch!” Natalie exclaimed as she hung up. “I’m still her daughter and this is her grandchild whether she likes it or not!”

I patted my niece on the shoulder. Alexander’s words rang through my mind. I was inclined to agree with him.

It was a damn tragic shame indeed.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Perhaps it was because he never let go of his sense of adventure or his quest for merriment, but his entire life Oliver Dickinson had a special way about him. He was always happy, always smiling, rarely did a negative statement ever escape his lips. By the time Carolena was two, he was the leading area paediatrician and he knew every child and every parent within an hour of the area. The children loved him to bits as he was kind and funny. Some adults, however, didn’t trust how odd he was. And my husband was odd, too, and unapologetic about it. He had his own method of doing things and he didn’t give a damn about what anyone thought because he was an excellent doctor and an excellent human being. He knew it, as well, although he never boasted.

I loved it when I was fortunate enough to be able to watch him at work. He was a man made for children. I remember one evening I was at his office with our own little ones, helping him close for the night, when the phone rang. Even after office hours with none of his staff there, he answered it. “Oh, great green goobers! “ He fiddled with a paperclip, “Yes, bring him in straight away! No, that’s fine. You’ll sit in that hospital for days before they’ll be able to see him. I’ll wait. “

A half hour later a young woman appeared with an obviously sick little boy. The child was terrified and refused to come out from under her coat or go into the examination room. I went into the back to tell Oliver. “He won’t come, Sweetheart. You should see him, though. I got his temperature and he’s got no fever, but and he’s crying and it hurts him to make any sound, so he‘s doing it silently. It‘s pathetic! It‘s awful!”

“Aww,” Oliver made a sad face, “Poor lad!” He washed his hands and walked into the lobby, tossed his lab jacket on to the sofa, and sat on a chair. “Hello,” He said brightly, “I’m Oliver,” He was looking right at the mother, “Are you Damien?”

“No,” She answered, clearly confused.

“Oh,” He scratched his head, “Somebody called Damien was supposed to stop by my office. Is he here?” He looked about dramatically, “I hear he’s quite frightened to be with a doctor. Maybe he’s hiding then?” He opened a drawer on the colouring table, “No, he’s not in here,” He looked under the chair, “No, not here, either!” He peered inside a tissue box, and then placed a fist on his hip, “Nor here. Hem! Well, where is he then?”

Damien giggled and poked his head out from under his mother’s coat.

“Ah-ha!” Oliver clapped his hands together, “I’ve found him! Damien, I need help! Can you help me?”

Damien nodded.

“I have this problem, you see,” Oliver leaned forward so he was eye level with the boy and looked at him very seriously, “I get these bogeys in my nose,” He said quickly, “Huge ones. Real dragon scales. I try to pull them out, but sometimes I can’t tell where they are,” He held out an instrument, “Can you look and see if you can find any for me?”

Damien giggled again He stepped away from his mother and held out his hand.

Oliver placed the object in his little hand, “Just push the red button and the light will come on-like. There, that’s right!” He tilted his head up, “Just shine it up my nose and tell me if I have any.” The little boy giggled and shined it up Ollie’s nose. “Do I have any?”

“No!” Damien laughed.

“Good! I must have got them! Would you mind if I had a look to see if you have any? We’ll do bogey patrol!” Damien handed him the light, tilted his head and Ollie had a peek, “Damien,” He asked seriously, “Have you swallowed any frogs?”

Damien laughed wildly. “No!”

“No? Well, your mother told me you had a frog in your throat!” Oliver ran the light in front of the boy’s eyes.

“My throat hurts.”

“Well, it might be a frog, yeah? Even if you didn’t swallow it on purpose, sometimes they crawl in there while you’re sleeping and get stuck. Might be why your throat hurts. May I have a look?”

Damien opened his mouth wide.

“Oh, dear,” Oliver shook his head, looking into the boy’s throat, and clicked his tongue, “Definitely a frog. Maybe two. Do your ears hurt?”

“Yes.”

“Let me have a look then,” Oliver waited for the boy to turn his head, and then checked his ear, “Pesky frogs! They’ve gotten into your ears, too, Lad!”

Damien looked shocked.

“No worries,” Ollie checked the other ear, and then fingered the glands in the boy’s neck, “We have anti-frog serum we can give you. Some other doctors might tell your mother that you have a sinus and a double ear infection, but I won’t lie. It’s definitely frogs.” Damien’s mother laughed. “Let me have a quick listen to you breathe,” Oliver popped on his stethoscope and pressed it to the boy‘s chest,, “Very good, Lad!” He turned back to the mother, “We’ll give him an antibiotic,” He pulled his pad out of his lab coat pocket and began to scribble on it, “And something for pain. Clear liquids, lots of rest. He’ll be good as new in no time.”

“Thank you,” The woman took the paper from his hand.

“No worries. In the meantime, Damien,” He looked serious once more, “Take your anti-frog serum and try to sleep with your mouth closed tonight. Your mum can spray the house for frogs in the morning and you shouldn’t have any more problems.” Ollie patted his head and grinned. “Go home now! Eat your vegetables!”

That was my Oliver. He had a way of always knowing what to say to make someone feel better. He was born to be a doctor. He was born to be a dad. He’d come home from the office after a day of dealing with children from morning to afternoon and would have ours out in the garden in a flash. He’d be keeping track of Nigel, who was constantly running, have Carolena by a hand and Natalie in his other arm, walking and telling them all about the wood.

“Fawlie” Was one of Nigel’s first words. He said it as he bobbed up and down pointing at the faerie circle.

“Yes,” Alexander told him. “Faeries! That’s where they live!”

“Fawlie div!” Nigel shouted, “Dud!” He added and hit Alex hard in the face, “Dud!” He shouted and hit him again.

“Yes, Nigel, I’m your dad. Don’t hit people. It’s not nice.”

The Alexander I met at fifteen would have run away screaming if he had seen that scene coming. But the Alexander from those days was very different from the man standing before me now. Xander had become quite serious since Melissa left. He reminded us a bit too much of Edmond at times, but he had Oliver and I to take the piss out of him when he got to be too much. Once, when I was trying to have a snowball fight with him and he wasn’t being any fun at all, I managed to knock him on to the ground and shove one down the front of his blue jeans, tucking it nicely in the crotch of his pants. He retaliated by picking me up and pitching me into a drift. The sour puss. Oliver was always dumping glasses of water over Alex’s head, but the best was when Xander wouldn’t snap out of a bad mood one night and Oliver wrestled him to the floor and shoved chips up his nose.

“You bastard!” Alexander pulled them out when his brother finally let him up, “I’ll take these and make you eat them now!”

Oliver tried to escape, but Alex caught him by the his pullover and spun him around. He grabbed his brother by the head and tried to force them into his mouth, but Ollie managed to trip him and they both dropped to the floor. Alex still had Oliver’s head trapped under his arm. “Eat them! Eat the bogey flavoured chips, Oliver!” He smashed them into the side of his brother’s mouth.

“I’ll shove them up your arse!” Oliver swore through clenched lips, giggling as he struggled to escape the vice-like grip.

“Then they’ll taste even better, won’t they? Bogey-arse flavoured chips! Eat them!” Pop! He slapped his brother's cheek. Pop! Pop!

Oliver managed to pull away. Wiping his face with one hand, he lunged at Alex, who caught him around the waist and slammed him sideways on to the floor. The house shook as they began to wrestle, rolling about on the floor, punching each other and laughing like children.

It was so funny to watch those two at play. They were so nearly equal in size and strength you never knew which way the tide would sway. Very rarely did one ever tell the other that he loved him, but every slap, every kick, every sucker punch to the ribs said it louder than words.

Ollie was excellent at taking time for everyone. When he wasn’t at work healing the sick, he was spending time with Alexander, who needed his brother’s support more than he realised, or he was at his parents’ home helping them with the upkeep that was becoming too much for them in their age. But he always made sure that he would take Carolena and me on special walks, just us, up the path and over to the pond, “See that, Caro Muffin?” He showed her everything, “That is a ladybug. Not at all good to eat. And you see this? This is a mushroom, which sometimes is good to eat, but you must be careful. And that is Duncan’s cack. Never, ever eat that!” He gasped, “Oh, look! Moss! Feel it, Muffin, it’s soft! And this is a nice flat stone, good for skipping. When you’re older, we’ll skip a lot of these, right? Oh, no, Silly, no eating leaves! Mind, what I think the best thing in the world to eat is that little fist of yours, don’t you?” He would take that tiny wet little fist out of her mouth and pretend to munch on it and little Carolena would squeal with delight. Then he’d set her down and she’d do her best to run, toddling in every direction until she landed on her knees and got up to try it again.

They were a pair, those two. They loved each other with such tenderness it brought tears to my eyes at times. “I wudge yeeew, Datty,” She’d say as she squeezed his leg in her tiny little arms, “I wudge yeeew! Pit me ut!” She was feisty like me and tireless like him, a combination that could only be met with absolute love and unending patience, of which Oliver had both. If he maybe ran a little short once in a blue moon, I was able to pick up the slack.

It was at breakfast when Carolena was two and a half that Oliver told me I was pregnant.

“What?” I demanded, literally throwing a piece of toast at him. It hit him square in the chest. I sent one flying at Alex and he caught it.

“Check the calendar, Love. You were due five days ago.”

“He’s right,” Alex mumbled through a mouthful of eggs.

I accidentally dropped the next piece of toast on Nigel’s head. “Oh, so the two of you think you know my schedule better than I do?”

“Of course, Love, don’t you notice when we tend to hide?”

“Oh, shut up, Oliver! Alexander, stop your smiling or I’ll slap you!” I checked the calendar, “Well, you’re right.” I said without allowing myself to get too excited, “Bring me home a stick on your way tonight.”

“I have to go to work, Darling,” Alexander stood up, kissed all three of the children and faced me, “And I not might be back until late depending on how my meetings go. I’ll have to leave that little chore up to Oliver.”

“Get out of my house,” I warned. He pecked me on the forehead as he passed by. “And make sure you bring nappies for your daughter tonight.”

He waved over his shoulder as the door shut behind him.

“I’ve got to run, too,” Oliver leaned over Caro and she immediately puckered her pudgy lips. “Have a good day, Muffins,” He kissed Nigel, who was too involved in his cereal to respond, and Nattie, whose face was covered in gooey toast, on their heads, “But I will bring you home a stick, Silvia,” His voice lowered as he approached me, “I’m very excited.”

“I love you, Oliver.” I stood on my toes to hold him close. “I wish you could stay home.”

“I love you, too,” He caressed my face with the back of his fingers, “I wish I could stay too, but sick children, yeah?”

“Damn brats going and getting sick! Giving you a job!”

“I know. Pesky germ factories at work.” He kissed me. Oliver never left without kissing me, even on the rare occasions that we annoyed each other, “Have a brilliant day, Love.”

“You, too, Sweetheart.”

He winked and went out the door in a flash.

When he came through the door again that night, he handed me a pregnancy test, “Here, Love, go pee on this.”

We trampled into the bathroom together. He was right on my heels. He closed the door behind us and leaned against it, staring at me as I tore open the plastic. “I can pee without your watching me,” I told him as I hauled up my skirt and lowered my knickers.

“I’ve seen you pee a thousand times,” He replied, still staring. “You never got stage fright before. Why are you hovering?”

“Shush. You’re going to make me pee all over myself.”

“Like that’s anything new.”

I laughed, “Right then, it’s done!” I set the test on the counter. We watched the dials darken. A plus sign was almost immediate.

I screamed with shock and joy. Oliver and I threw our arms around each other, jumping about in circles. “A baby! A baby!” We laughed and kissed, “A baby!”

“Oh, Sil! We’re gonna have another! It’s gonna be so much fun!”

We burst back into the front room to tell the children, who were too little to have cared, and found Alexander lying on the floor being pummelled with tiny little fists.

“Let me guess,” He grinned. An elbow glanced his jaw, “It’s a baby?”

It was another effortless pregnancy, with the exception that my nose bled constantly and I woke up with horrid cramps in my legs that brought me near tears. Most of the time, though, I didn’t even remember I was pregnant since I was so busy chasing the three wee Dickinson’s about the wood. They kept me occupied, to say the least. I was more thankful than ever for Duncan, who stood guard with all of them and would head them off if they tried to leave the lawn, barking and yelping so that I would see and tell them to come back where it was safe. He’d do the same if a fight broke out. If ever I didn’t react quickly enough, he’d grab one by the seat of their trousers and pull until they gave up, cried, or, in Natalie’s case, fell on top of him. God bless our Duncan. He was assistant nanny and head referee at all times.

My water gave way while I was, of all places, standing in the middle of the waiting room of Oliver’s office. There were children crawling the walls in there, including my own, and suddenly my socks were soaked.

“Oh, shite!” I said very loudly. About half the mothers looked at me, aghast. “Sorry,” I told them, “Plug your ears and grab a mop!”

“Oh, my goodness!” One woman cried, pointing at the dark spot where I was standing, “You’re in labour!”

“Aye, I think so,” I said casually as I could, “Nigel! Get off that table right now! You’ll tumble off and break your head!”

When Oliver was told what had happened, he was ready to send them all packing and take me to hospital, but I told him no. “I’m not even having contractions yet, Sweetheart. Go and get as many appointments as you can in and I’ll ring. Can I leave the children here, though?” I asked, “I know your staff has enough to do, but your mum will come and I’m very wet. I don’t think in an hour I’ll be up to looking after them.”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course! Are you going straight over then?” Oliver was standing in the waiting room with me, his hands on my belly.

“To hospital? I think I should, don’t you?” I asked. He nodded, “Can you go home and get me a bag before you head over?” I asked, realising all the things I hadn’t done yet, “And I haven’t even packed a bag for the baby yet…oh, damn,” I felt a cramp sweep through me.

“I’ll reschedule our appointment, Doctor,” Said a blonde woman with two blonde daughters. She had stood up when I’d grabbed my middle, “What you’ve got going on is much more important than having a wart removed!”

“We’ll reschedule, too,” Said another and about three more followed.

“Doctor,” A woman holding her baby sounded near panic, “My Macsen is so sick!”

“Oh, he’ll see your Macsen,” I told her, “Don’t fret, Ma’am. I’m not in any danger of having the baby right here right now,” I turned back to Oliver, “Take care of little Macsen for her, Sweetheart. And of our three little muffins,” I never differentiated Nigel and Natalie as not being my own children from Carolena, “Get the bags and come soon as you can.”

“I really don’t want you to drive yourself, Sil.” He said seriously.

“I can make it, it’s not far.”

“No, let me ring Mum. She can bring you.”

“No way!” I held up my hand, “You know I can’t handle her when she dotes.”

“Alex then.” He was looking at my belly.

“He’s at work.”

“I’ll take her,” The blonde woman interrupted with a smile, “I’d be happy to.”

“Oh, you don’t need to!” I protested.

Oliver clapped his hands, “The wart comes off for free if you do that, Missus Howland!”

She chuckled at his enthusiasm as she gathered up her girls.

Oliver nodded. That amazing, insane smile that I loved so much began taking up most his face. His eyes were ablaze, “I’ll be there just as soon as I can, Love. Don’t you dare go having our baby without me!” He kissed me with more passion than was acceptable for standing the middle of his waiting room in front of clients, “Ring me when you settle in.”

“First thing!” I left the office to the best wishes of a very excited crowd.

Missus Howland saw me to the hospital. “Your husband is the nicest man,” She told me on the way. “All the children love him. My son wants to invite him to his birthday party!”

“He has a way with little ones,” I agreed, breathing through a contraction as I clung to the seat. “I’m sure he’d come if you asked him.”

“Well, you’re very lucky to have him, Missus Dickinson,” She pulled up to the hospital. “Do you need me to walk you in?”

“No, no. No thank you,” I opened the door, “They’ll just pop me into a wheelchair and see me on my way. But thank you for everything!”

“Oh, my pleasure! Good luck!”

I nodded, “Thanks again! Cheers!” I closed the door, and waddled up into the hospital. “Hello!” I said brightly to the woman behind the desk, “I'm here to have a baby!”

I had just settled into the first room when Alexander came bursting in, huffing for breath, “Bloody…” He leaned against the wall with one arm and held his side with the other, “…car died just at the end…of…the road… I think I might…be out of petrol…”

“Do you need a bed yourself, Alexander?”

He gasped out a laugh, “You seem OK. I could have… walked instead…” He dropped two bags on the floor, “I…got some stuff from the cabin…Oliver phoned me…I was at lunch…”

“Do you need to go back to work?”

He shook his head and waved his hand at me. “I told them…to reschedule my calls…I left the kids off at mum’s…” Alexander fell into a chair, “Bloody hell! I’m getting old!”

We sat for about an hour until Oliver arrived, still wearing his office jacket. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. We watched a few television shows, East Enders being one and I don’t know why because we never watched that show. My mood was steadily heading southward and I found myself rolling from side to side to ease the pressure as the cramps grew worse. Finally, I chucked a Kleenex box at the television, “Shut that woman up!” I demanded, “And, Oliver, if you say one more damned thing to make me laugh I swear I'll kill you!”

“We’re getting close,” He said knowingly. He nodded at his brother to support his statement, “Mind, last time if I told her I was excited one more time she was going to bite my nose off.”

“Shut up!” I snapped.

“Do you want me to check your cervix, Love?” He asked.

Alexander laughed. I did my best to slap him, but another contraction crushed me and caused me to fall short.

Oliver called a nurse, who did just that and checked my cervix, “Oh, you’ve made great progress!” She proclaimed, “Congratulations! You’re ready to go down to delivery!”

“Can I get real drugs this time?”

“Of course, Dear,” She unlocked the bed and whirled me around, “We have plenty!”

I really liked that woman.

The epidural was not pleasant going in. “You said it’s going to cramp a little?” I asked the nurse who was helping to steady me as I sat on the edge of the gurney. My arms were on her shoulders, my hands balled into tiny fists. I honestly wanted to strangle anyone I could reach, so I kept them tightly closed. This did not keep me from having the urge to pound them against her, even as innocent and kind as she was being, “This is bloody hell!”

“Just relax, Ma’am. It’s in. It takes about ten minutes to get to its full effect. You’ll feel much better then.” She patted my arm, “There, there, Love. Lie back. That's it…”

I lay on that bed and watched the clock for ten minutes, counting the seconds. But she was right. After eight minutes passed, I was relaxed and nearly pain free. “This is like heaven,” I told Oliver, “Can you do this for me at home?”

He laughed, “I’m afraid not. I’m sure I’d paralyse you if I gave you an epidural.”

“Well, how about just the Demerol then? Little injections here and there?”

He laughed again and shook his head.

A little while later the doctor came in. He lifted up the blanket and violated me in an effort to check my progress, then looked at me and smiled, “You’re there! It’s time to start pushing, Silvia. Are you ready?”

“Oh, yes,” I told him. I wiggled to the foot of the bed.

I could feel every contraction, but it did not hurt. I pushed with all my might for about fifteen minutes and only felt a little tired. “Push! Push!” Said the doctor.

“Come on, Sil!” Oliver was hopping up and down, “I can see the head! I can see it!”

“Really?” I honestly tried to sit up and look. Nobody seemed to notice.

“That’s it, Silvia, one more good push!” The doctor coached.

“Oh, yes, Love! I can see the head!” Oliver repeated, “Push!”

I was watching my husband as I did what he said. He looked exactly like that boy at Bennington, his hair a little too long and tousled, his eyes blazing with excitement, in a white dress shirt unbuttoned at the top, black trousers and a tie so loose it was almost sideways around his neck. He looked just like he’d looked the day I’d met him, just like he did when he kissed me by the lake. A thousand memories washed over me all at once, all of them were of him.

“I love you, Oliver.” I told him truly.

“I love you, too, Sil!” He kissed my temple and put his hand over mine, “Push, Love!”

I took a deep breath and drew my legs up. I pressed my chin to my chest and I pushed with all my might. I did it for Oliver. I was going to give that boy I had loved so much for so many years what he wanted more than anything in the world; another child.

In an instant the room filled with the screaming of a brand new baby.

Oliver kissed me on the mouth, “You did so good!”

“What did we have? Chocolate or cherries?” I was trying to sit up to see, but the nurses had me blocked.

“I don’t know yet.”

“It’s a boy,” The doctor grinned at us as he weighed our son, “And a nice healthy, big one, too!”

The nurse kneaded my tummy as if it were dough to help me expel the placenta. Once I had, the doctor handed me our son. He was pale and smooth, whining and shaking slightly. He seemed so tiny to me compared to how I had felt when they’d handed me Caro, even though he was considerably larger than she had been. His little hand popped up out of the blanket and clasped my finger, he rubbed his tiny toes against my stomach as he squirmed. “Oh, my, this one has a grip!”

“He’s not so apish,” Oliver said quietly, stroking our son’s spine.

“No, but he’s bloody beautiful! Look at him! He’s so handsome!”

“He looks a bit like Pierce Brosnan.”

I laughed, “No, I think he looks a bit like your father!”

“Oh, shut your noise, you! Let’s stay with Pierce Brosnan!”

“OK,” I giggled. “He wants his bottle shaken, not stirred.”

“Oh, yes, he does!” Oliver ran his thumb over his son’s bald little head, “Look at the cone on this one!” He took our son from my arms and laid him on my lap. He pulled back the blanket and began to examine him, “Oh, he’s put together good! You’re an excellent baker, Mummy,” He checked his hands and feet for reflexes, bent his little arms and legs, “He’s hung like a Dickinson, too!”

I burst out laughing. Oliver swaddled our child and held him close, breathing the scent of him in. “Oh, my son! I have a son! I get to name you, yeah? Your mum said if you were a boy I could! And you are a boy, so I get to!”

“Do you have a name picked?” The nurse asked.

“Oh, let’s not call him Pierce!” I begged dramatically.

“Are you sure, Love? It’s Scottish and he looks just like him! Plus, it’s Merlyn’s name. We could call him after Merlyn.”

“I know it’s Scottish, but I’m sure. Plus, Lance might be upset if we called him after Merlyn. And Pierce is a verb, too. I don’t want to always be calling him a verb.”

“No Pierce Lancelot?”

I knew he was joking, but still exclaimed, “Oh, God! No!”

“All right then! It’s a good Welsh name for this one! And a noun, too! Gryffin!” Oliver said proudly. “Our son will be called Gryffin Alexander!”

“That’s a right manly name,” I told the baby, “We couldn’t have brought a son into the world and given you a sissy name, could we?”

“No, I’d not do that!” Oliver handed our baby back to me and sat on the side of the bed, grinning, “No son of mine would be called something pansy like Patsy! Patsy Dickinson! That’d be shameful!”

And so there we were again laughing it up with another child. Only this time instead of being horrified the nurse laughed with us.

After a few more minutes they brought the baby down to the nursery, set me right, and took me to my recovery room. Once again it was filled with flowers, balloons and cards. I got settled in.

“Is Alexander still here?” I asked, wondering why no one was popping in for a visit. “Where are all my children?”

“Yes, Love, Alex is down the corridor with the rest of your adoring public. I’ll let them all know it’s safe to come,” He gave me a quick peck on the forehead, “Be right back.”

Ana and Edmond were the first to enter. Carolena and Nigel followed close behind. Alexander came next with a sleeping Natalie on his shoulder. I allowed Nigel to have one of my bears and pulled Caro on to my lap. I gave her a balloon to yank at. My dad rang to say he could not come, but he was very, very happy and relieved that Gryffin and I were well. Lance tossed us a bell as well, telling me that he’d love to come, but he had to mend a fracture in his leg.

“You grew too fast,” I told him, “Your bones became brittle!”

“Oh, you, Silvia!” He laughed. “If you must know I tumbled off a stool trying to get clotted cream from a shelf!”

“Well, that’s what you get for having tea at the home of the Jolly Green Giant!”

“Ah, Sil! What am I going to do with you? Always knowing my secret get a ways!”

“At least you didn’t tumble down the beanstalk! You might have broken your neck!”

“So true!”

“Oh! Lance, I love you, but Sandy’s beeping in on the other line!”

“Of course! Ring me anytime, Silvia! Tell Sandy hello!”

“I will! Cheers!” I switched lines, “Sandy! How are you?”

She had three children of her own now. “A boy! Oh, Silvia…it’s just been too long!”

“I know. I’ve seen Lance, but not you or Merlyn since Bennington. I think we need to plan to get together. Lance says hello, by the way!”

“Oh, I should ring him up. I think we need to plan a get together, too! In advance so no one can argue!” She sounded so close that I felt like I could reach out and hug her, “Bennington welcomes their graduates back once a year. We should rent a hotel nearby and have an all-out do. Do you want me to plan it then?”

“Yes!” I told her, “And I’ll help if you need!”

“Oh, Sil, I can’t wait!” She squealed, “It’ll be so fantastic!”

“I couldn’t get Merlyn,” Oliver told me after I’d hung up, “I left him a message, though.”

“He’ll call back.” I said, “Did anyone get Lucy?”

“Alex left her a message, too.”

Lucy had been nearly impossible to get a hold of recently. She was busy as all girls in their early twenties are, figuring out how to make her way through the world on her own terms. It made me sad that she wasn’t there, that she wasn’t part of our happiness, but I understood she had her own life. I just hoped it wouldn’t be like that forever and that sooner or later she’d come back to us. I missed my little sister terribly, but I forced it from my mind and focused my attention on my husband and my new son.

The room had emptied by the time she called to wish us congratulations. “I’m so sorry I can’t come,” She told me, “I have this new job. My supervisor is a complete pillock and he won’t give me the time off.”

“It’s all right, Sissy. Come when you can though.”

“I will,” She sounded uncertain, “I miss you all. How is Ollie?”

“He’s awesome!” I glanced at my husband, who was holding the baby in his hands smiling down at him.

“How is Xander? I worry about him. He seemed so down the last few times we spoke.”

I sighed, “He’s doing his best to keep his chin up.”

“Tell him hello for me. Tell him I think of him often.” Her voice was hushed, as if she didn't want somebody to hear what she was saying. I was quite certain it was her new boyfriend.

“Call him and tell him yourself. You know his number.”

She was silent for a few seconds, then sighed, “Yes, I’ll do that.”

I didn’t believe her. We only spoke for another minute or two before she had to go.

“Everything all right?” Oliver asked as I clicked the phone shut.

“She sounds stressed,” I told him, “Speaking of stressed, I hope Alex is OK.”

Oliver grinned and nodded.

Alexander had bravely taken all three of the children back to the cabin by himself. Nigel, satisfied with his bear, was content to go, but Carolena was giving her uncle quite a hard time about leaving. She’d chucked a wobbly halfway out the door and he’d dragged her out dangling from his sleeve and kicking at him. Carolena was a little more than something to contend with when she’d missed a nap.

“Don’t you dare get her ice cream when she’s behaving like that!” Oliver warned Alex as they left, but we both knew that was exactly what he was planning on doing. It was his tradition that anytime he had the children all to himself they gorged on French vanilla ice cream with gummy bears and crushed Oreo biscuits in it. Something as infinitesimal as wobbly wasn’t going to deter Uncle Alex from indulging in that creamy goodness.

Finally it was just me and Oliver and our new baby boy sitting side by side on the bed the same way we had when Carolena was born.

Gryffin was sleeping like an angel.

“He really looks different than his sister,” I observed, “He’s not squishy at all. He’s all round. Newborns are supposed to be ugly, but he’s so cute!”

“He’s gorgeous,” Oliver whispered into my hair, “Thank you so much. You are so much more than Just Silvia, have I told you? You’re absolutely amazing.”

I laughed, “Oh, am I?”

“You’re a fantastic muffin maker. All your muffins are magic.”

“You help a lot with that.”

“Maybe, but the way you love them, that’s the real magic.”

I was quiet for a long moment, “We waited a long time, didn’t we?”

“We did.”

“Now we have a girl and a boy. Do you think they’ll be others?”

“God willing.”

I sat there and stared down at my son. The same sense of being beset with all of the things I didn’t understand washed over me as it had only when I had lost my first child and then again when my daughter was born. There are only certain times in your life that it happens. Times in your life when you realise that you are truly alive and you let yourself feel the blood rush through your veins or pay attention to the way your heart feels in your chest. I closed my eyes and remembered everything that was real. New life, children, laughter echoing around the trees, my family, the winds, the whispers, love, elves, magic… Oliver and me…

It had begun with Oliver and me and it always seemed to end there as well. “Who would have thought,” I asked my husband, “When we walked out of that constable’s house at seventeen and married that we’d still be together and as happy as we’ve always been?”

“Carolina Pennyweather,” Oliver whispered, “She’d have been the only one who’d have been certain of it.”

“She told us that life could get tough and ugly, remember?” I asked. Oliver nodded, “But in not so many words she told us that it was beautiful, too, didn’t she?”

“She did.”

“I miss her. I wish I could thank her,” I said sincerely, “I wish I could go and see her or ring her up and tell her about our children. She’d be so happy for us.”

“She is happy for us, Love. She didn’t have healthy children of her own. She only had the ones who let her love them in her own way while she had them at her school.” He sighed, “She was good to Alex and me. Strict, mind you, but good. Personally, I think the woman was a saint and when she died she got wings and she’s fluttering around Bennington with a detention pad, taking notes for Saint Peter.”

“Well, we have healthy children,” I caressed my son’s head, “And to honour our headmistress, we shall cherish them.”

“Love this one to bits, just like his sister.”

“And promise to teach him all about the wood…”

“And the trees and the winds and whispers.”

“And how to go looking for elves…”

“And how to listen to them in the still of the night…”

“And trust that there is always love. So much love all around him.”

“All around him, yes, and we’ll teach him faith to keep him strong.”

“Oh, Gryffin!” I was so filled with love I began to weep, “You have no idea how much fun you’re in for! Your father’s a loony! He’ll keep you laughing for days!”

“And your mum’s an excellent shot with a hunk of dirt! She’ll keep you on your toes, she will! It’ll be so much fun, Lad!”

“It will be. All of us in our little wood.”

“Just like heaven,” Oliver looked into my eyes. “Marry me again, Silvia? Please?”

“As many times as you ask, Oliver.”

“Then I shall keep asking.”

We slept that first night with our son as we had with his sister. The three of us piled on to a bed that was far too narrow, our arms around each other and our baby boy cradled safely between us.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

The twins and I spent the next year as we always had, running about the wood playfully bickering with each other and laughing as though the whole world was funny and anyone who didn’t live with us there were fools. Alexander took his trust fund and opened Double Vision, his own architectural design and building company. His partner was a woman called Becky, of whom he was quite fond. He often took her to dinner and had her to the house. I was certain that there would be an affair, but found out later that Becky was a full-fledged lesbian and was the first female friend he’d ever had without designs. It was refreshing to Alex. Natalie, Alex said, was the only woman he was interested in carrying around in his heart. Anybody else exceeded weight limitations.

Xan was a wonderful father and his children adored him. When Nigel was small and Alex would work late, Nigel would go to bed for me early, but he’d make it a point to wake up in the middle of the night just so his dad would come and gather him up. Alex would plop into the glider in the corner with his son, toss a blanket over the two of them, and rock him until both of them were asleep. Sometimes I’d go out into the front room in the morning and find Alex so zonked he’d be slipped halfway off the chair with Nigel tucked under one arm and Natalie clutched in the other like a gilbert. I never bothered them. When three people are that tired, there is no sense in not letting them sleep.

As it had always been, Oliver and I were happy. Our time was spent being surrounded by four children who filled every moment with action. We stole private moments when we could. We’d get off in the office at his practice and go on “dates” when his parents would watch the children. Those consisted of an occasional dinner out and sometimes a film, which we never actually saw since we got off in the theatre as well. We had fun, Ollie and me. No matter what was happening, in the end we always managed to enjoy each other.

We took a weekend trip to France on our thirteenth wedding anniversary. It was loads of fun darting about Paris, but as the first night settled in it seemed very strange not to be home. I knew Oliver, just like me, was missing the children.

“I just thought of something,” He told me suddenly as we lie in bed awake.

“What?”

He turned his head to me, “I’ll be thirty in a few days. I met you when I was fifteen. I’ve known you exactly half my life. Fifteen years I’ve know you and we’ve been married for thirteen of them. I’ve been married to you almost half my life.”

“Wow. You’re right.” I let the thought wash over me.

“I’m so lucky,” He caressed my belly, “I’m so bleeding’ lucky.”

But I knew that it was me who was really the lucky one. Any sane woman alive would have fallen for Oliver Dickinson, with his handsome features, his intelligence, his charm, and his affectionate nature. For whatever reason, he’d chosen to stick with me. I refused to question why. I just thanked him and thanked the universe by loving him and his children every day with everything I had.

As far as the children, it was easy to want to knock their heads and even easier to love them all. Nigel and Carolena were only six months apart in age. Racing toward four years old, it seemed that the both of them had it in mind that they ruled the roost. Poor Natalie, at not quite two, was getting the stuffing knocked out of her on a regular basis. They’d run into her and knock her down, steal her toys, and take her snacks away. When she’d get hurt by some other means and cry, however, both of them would hurry to her rescue.

“Oh, Nattie, you bump you head!” Carolena would rub her back.

“Mind the door frame, Nattie,” Nigel would lift her to her feet, “There now! You’re right as rain!”

Then it would go back to constant screaming, constant banging about and utter chaos.

I loved every second of every day.

“She’s my mummy!” Nigel tried to pry Caro off my leg while I cooked, “You let her be!”

“She no you mummy! She you auntie!”

“Mummy!”

“Auntie!”

“Now, you two stop it or I’ll pop you both down for a time out!” I threatened, “I’m as good a mummy to Nigel as I am to you, Carolena, even if I am just an auntie! Now, come on, let’s go wash up…Oh, heavens! What is that on your face, Child?” She looked like a deranged middle aged housewife.

She had the same sparkle in her eyes that Oliver did, “Nigel make me cute, Mummy!”

“Did you paint Caro with my lipstick, Nigel?”

Nigel grinned at me, proudly nodding. He tucked his hand into his pocket and produced my lipstick, putting it into my hand. “Check out Nattie. She’s posh.”

“See me pwetty!” Nattie spun in a circle, holding her skirt out. She had deep purplish, crooked lines all over her. Caro joined her in spinning. A moment later so did Nigel.

I slapped my hand against my forehead and found my camera. What else was I supposed to do? At least he hadn’t painted the baby.

Gryffin, like his sister before him, was an easy going, happy baby. In the looks department, he was the opposite of Carolena. That is not to say that he did not resemble her, which he did in the face to a great extent. It was that where Caro had inherited her father’s dark eyes and my red hair, Gryffin looked like a shrunken Oliver. His hair was the colour of wet earth and his eyes were soft coco brown. Thanks to the other three, he had an uncanny ability to sleep through anything, which is why I was surprised when he would wake up whenever he would hear the elves.

I was not sure whether they had stopped coming by or the simple exhaustion of keeping all the children had me in such a deep sleep at night that I missed them, but it seemed to have been awhile since I’d heard Lord Copse and Lady Folia chattering in the house. Occasionally, I would hear a murmur or two from the trees when I was alone in the garden and I would say hello, but that was all the noise they made. Oliver, Alex and I had never stopped visiting the circle or leaving them sweets, nor had any of the children. Nigel was convinced that they adored peanut butter and would set crackers with it smeared on them out every afternoon. I think the ants got more of it than they did. Still, with as quiet as they had been, so many of the children’s toys went missing so often it was impossible to forget their presence. When the toys didn’t reappear after a day or two, I’d comfort the children by telling them that the boon must have really liked that particular item. “Elves can’t get toys at a store like we can.” I told Nigel once when he’d lost an elephant. “It must be special.”

“Then when we buy toys we need to buy two!” He wailed back at me. “I love my lellyfant!”

One night I awoke to the sound of voices from the nursery, which was straight across from our bedroom. Nigel and Carolena had moved upstairs to take two of the rooms there, so it was only Natalie and Gryffin sleeping downstairs. I knew immediately it was the Lord and the Lady. They were speaking loudly and I could hear them laugh from time to time. I lie in bed listening carefully, trying to gather what they were saying, but I couldn’t make out a single word.

Suddenly, Gryffin began to gurgle. A moment later he let out a giggle that woke Oliver.

“Is the baby laughing?” Oliver sat up and scratched his head, “What’s happening?”

“Shhhh, listen…” Their voices came again. Oliver nodded, leaning toward the door. Gryffin squealed with giggles. A second later Natalie laughed, too. We could hear her shifting in her bed, “No, tha’s OK,” She said aloud in a sleepy voice, “I tell him tomonnow. T’ank you. Nigh’ now.”

Oliver and I lay there smiling and listened for a while before the voices stopped. There was a crack as if someone had stepped hard on one of the floorboards and the baby was quiet again.

“Should we check on them?” Oliver whispered, “We’re up.”

I shook my head. “No, they’re sleeping,” I yawned and curled my body around my husband’s. “They’re happy and fine. Like me.”

Oliver rubbed my back. After a few moments we were both asleep.

The next morning I found something in my son’s crib. It was a small purple elephant.

“Well, there you go,” I said out loud though no one was in the room, “They must have realised it meant more to you than it did to them, Nige.”

My sister came to visit us that summer. It had been nearly three years since I’d last seen her in person. She’d finished with university, which she had attended more for fun than to pursue a career. Lucy had spent the last few years gallivanting around the United Kingdom, hopping from party to party, and when she’d graduated she really had no idea of what she wanted to do with her life. She’d ended up in Glasgow with a boyfriend who was none to kind to her, although she didn't tell any of us that until after they'd split up. If any of us had known, particularly the twins, I am quite certain the lad would have ended up with broken legs, lying in a pool of blood on a dark road some place. Still, she'd made it through somehow and remained in that city, not in a very savoury neighbourhood, now living in a rented flat with four other girls. She worked in an advertising office as an assistant for a woman she despised. She’d been through a series of short term boyfriends since her split. She was burned out on her life and tired of the scene.

“I don’t want to drink and smoke anymore,” She told me over the phone one night, “I don’t want to discover every boy who’s interested in me is a scumbag. My flatmates are sluts and slobs. This street I live on stinks! It smells like something died in the gully! A few nights ago a girl was raped a block away from my flat. I don’t want to be here, Silvia! I have to make a change before it‘s too late, but I don‘t have any money!”

“You can come here, Lu,” I told her. My heart ached for my sister.

“Do you have space?”

“For my sister, yes! We’ll make space!”

“Will I be imposing?” She gulped the words, but sounded hopeful, as if somebody had just switched on a torch in a dark room and she could faintly see a door out.

“Lucy Cotton! Imposing? Good Lord, what are you talking about? It’s no imposition!”

“Well, maybe I’ll stay a week or two then?” I could hear a tissue rub across the receiver. Lucy cried easier than me and that was saying something.

“You can stay as long as you like.” I promised, “You always have a home with us.”

“Oh, Sil! Home! Do you know how long it's been since I've really had a home?”

She rang me the following evening to tell me that she’d booked a ticket on a train.

“I’m so happy!” I squealed, literally jumping up and down, “The Cotton sisters teamed up with the Dickinson boys once again! Oh, Lucy, I hope nobody gets hurt! “

She laughed, “It’ll be too much fun! It’ll be sick! “

I ran out into the garden where the twins were standing the moment I got off the phone, “Lucy will be here on Saturday!” I shouted as I skipped crossed the lawn, “She’s really coming this time!”

“Sweet Little Lucy Cotton!” Alexander grinned, “I haven’t seen her in donkey’s years!”

“That’s excellent, Love!” Oliver shaded his eyes from the setting sun, “Little Lucy Cotton here with us in the wood once again! We’ll have to do something special!”

“I’m going to buy her chocolate,” Alex nodded in agreement with himself.

“Well, aren’t you thoughtful?” Oliver patronisingly observed.

“Goddamn right I am! She loves that crap!”

Oliver was on call at hospital on the day she came, so it was Alex and I who dropped the children off with Ana and went to get her at the rail stop. We were quite early so we grabbed a bite and had a nice chat in a pub down the road. Alex was in good spirits that day. He reminded me of the old Alex; engaging, funny and bright. It was great spending the afternoon with my best friend. Funny how we had been living in the same house and I had still missed his company.

Every time I saw my sister since I’d left her at Bennington, she’d amazed me with how she’d transform herself. The only thing we had in common physically was our red hair, although Lucy’s was a tamer shade to my fiery auburn. Lucy was taller than me and as a young girl, she had a body narrow as a ruler. No hips on that girl, small, perky breasts, a tiny little bum. She had a lovely face with a button for a nose and a smile that stole the hearts of men. And she was cute with how she carried herself, too, skipping about like she hadn’t a care in the world. But when she felt like changing the way she appeared, she may as well have been a magician. Lucy could go gothic one night to a club looking like a vampire and be dressed in a ball gown the next looking like a film star. The last time I had seen my sister was when Carolena was born. She’d still had her straightened then. It was cut as high as her chin in a symmetrical bob, a la Victoria Beckham, and it gave her a rather hard appearance. She’d been wearing false eyelashes and a lot of make up at the time and she’d looked lovely, but as if she was trying too hard to achieve something she was not.

I was not prepared for the woman who stepped off the train that afternoon. Her hair had grown to her shoulders. It bounced as she walked, silky strawberry strips of curly locks all around her face. Her makeup was light and natural and accented her dark eyes. She’d developed hips, noticeable, noticeable, and I thought to myself that her perky breasts had filled out and were particularly round under her clingy blue t-shirt.

“Silvia! Oliver!” She waved her arms wildly as she toward us.

Alexander’s mouth was slightly ajar.

I caught my sister. We danced in a circle, “Lucy! Lucy! Let me have a look at you! Oh, it’s so good to see you! I missed you so much!”

“Silvia! Oh, I’ve missed you, too, Sissy!” She turned and threw her arms around Alex, “Oliver! You look so handsome!”

“Alexander!” He corrected. He kissed her cheek, “How are you, Munchkin?”

“Alex!” Her cheeks were pink as he set her down, “I mixed you two up!”

“It’s our job, you know? Embarrassing those who can’t tell us apart! If we could have made a living at it we would’ve!” He took a step back and looked her up and down, “Look at you, Lucy! You’re a right grown and beautiful woman! CFMS, too, Munchie!”

She laughed nervously, “CFMS? Do you think so?”

“Oh, aye!”

“What’s CFMS?” I asked, feeling very much out of the loop.

“They’re Come Fuck Me Shoes,” My sister said naturally as if she was explaining Inc behind a company name. She lifted a foot to show me her high heeled boots, but her attention was more on Alexander, “Not so much a munchkin anymore, yeah?” She held out her arms and did a little turn so he could have a better look.

I was not sure what was going on. Was Alexander flirting with my sister and had she just said ‘come and get it’ without using those words? And did the idea of that strike me as interesting, humorous or hit me with a pang of horror? I looked back and forth between them and I’m not sure, but I think I was laughing.

“Well, we need to get going,” I said suddenly, “Do you have all your bags, Sissy?”

Alexander carried the bags off the platform while my sister and I chatted away about what she’d been up to. While I’d been having babies and chasing children, stealing opportunities to make love to my husband, she’d been romanced by a boy from Blackpool, who’d taken her virginity and talked her into moving to Glasgow with him, then broken her heart with his inability to commit. “He really wanted me all for himself,” She explained, “My needs meant nothing to him, but I couldn't ever please him. In the end, it just didn't work out and he ran off with one of my good friends. Cow can have him. Best of luck to them both!”

She continued on to tell us that the betrayal was intensely painful, even if she didn't like to admit it, and after several months of pining and heavy drinking with her friends, she’d met a man from France who was much older than her. He’d whisked her off and seduced her on holiday in Spain. He showered her for almost a year with expensive gifts and showed her amazing sexual experiences, but a few months back he had left her to return to an ex-lover.

It kind of threw her for a loop. She was still talking about it as we drove home, “I didn’t think he’d ever marry me or anything. Bloody hell, I wouldn’t have married him even if he’d asked! And I knew that he had unresolved issues with her,” Lucy was speaking so openly it shocked me. My sister tended to keep personal things personal, even from me, but especially from the twins, “But I don’t understand why he left me to go back to her, either. She’s older than him, even, she’s a cow, and she’s not that pretty. Sort of scary looking, really. I don’t mean to be conceited, but why would he want some bone nosed old woman when he could have had me?”

Alexander didn’t approve of anything he was hearing. “Wait!” I could see him squeezing the steering wheel, “Stop where you’re at, Lucy! Lemme see if I’ve got this right! First, you’re chasing around with some cocky rugger bugger who’s never going to go pro no matter how much he believes he has a chance. He’s too arrogant to realise that and get a real job and too bloody stupid to see who he’s got in love with him. But you’re in love with him anyway he breaks your heart? OK, that makes no sense at all to me at all. You should have curbed him straight away. But then you go from that bloke who can’t be true to you to running around Europe with some old man who can’t be true, either? I almost get the lad from Blackpool, but why on earth would you be interested in a man old enough to be your dad?”

“Well, he wasn’t that old!” Lucy objected.

“How old was he?”

“Forty-five.”

“Forty-five! Bloody hell, Luce, how old are you now? Twenty-five in December!” Alexander shook his head, “He was after one thing, he was, and it did not include your honour!”

Lucy laughed, “You would know! I remember you at Bennington!”

“Hey!” Alex objected, “That was a long time ago and I was a scoundrel if one ever walked through those gates! But any girl I’ve ever been with has been my age and was completely aware of what I was about and what I was after! There were never any secrets or surprise with me! Those girls were after the same, too, or it never would have happened! That’s the rule!”

“Well, he didn’t exactly take advantage of me. He told me what he was about and after.”

“He was about a mid-life crisis! Forty five and running about with a twenty-four year old girl! I’m thirty…that would be like me dating a ten year old!”

“If you were going to date ten year olds you might have dated me,” She joked.

Alexander snorted.

“Settle down,” I told him, “Lucy’s an adult. She can date who she likes.”

He made another noise out his nose that said she couldn’t if he had anything to say about it. He glanced at me sideways.

We got to the wood just as Oliver was arriving with the children. He released the three older ones from their seats and hauled the baby out still inside his. “Hello, Love!” He called to me as he closed the car door. “Lucy! Great glowing golden goblets, I hardly recognize you!”

I watched the winds wrap themselves around and embraced my sister as she climbed out of the car. She paused and closed her eyes for a second with a serene smile on her lips, returning their welcome.

My sister was beautiful. I’d never noticed it before. I’d always known she was an pretty little girl, but I’d never seen her as a woman before that moment. It took my breath away. Lucy Cotton was all grown up.

I thought about the night I had arrived at the wood with Oliver. I remembered how wonderful I had thought it was. It was the first place I had ever felt like I was home. I remembered the night Oliver and I were married I stood outside without my jacket and let the cold winds wrap themselves around me. I was so alive, so happy and at peace. My sister looked how I had felt then. She looked like she had come home after a long, long journey and could finally rest.

“Hello, Oliver!” Lucy gave him a quick peck and a sideways hug around the neck, “You look handsome as always! May I hold my nephew?” I watched my sister unbuckle Gryffin from his car seat and take him into her arms. He gave her a huge, toothless smile and she melted immediately, “Oh, he’s absolutely unbelievable! I love babies! I want one now!” She stomped her foot and looked around the yard, “And who are you little lambs ignoring?” She demanded, “Come over here now, you three!”

“We don’t talk to strangers!” Nigel shouted as he dodged Carolena’s out-stretched arm.

“Oh, aye!” Alexander called back at him, “This is no stranger, mind you! This is Lucy Cotton! She’s Auntie Sil’s younger sister and one of my oldest friends! You’ll come and say hello properly or I’ll burn your behind!”

Nigel walked right up to Lucy with Carolena at his side. His dark eyes narrowed as he looked her up and down. Finally, he unscrewed his little face and smiled, “Hello, Lucy Cotton,” He said in his best big boy’s voice and stuck out his hand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you! I’m Nigel Dickinson!” He took her hand and shook it. “Welcome to our home!”

Oliver and I sniggered. Alex grinned and nodded at him. Satisfied, Nigel stuck the toe of his shoe into the dirt and shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets.

“Thank you, Nigel! I’ve met you, you just don’t remember,” Lucy beamed at the boy, “You’re as fetching as your dad! You’ve gotten very tall! The last time I saw you, you were this big,” She held a hand down toward the ground to show him, “And little Carolena, how much you’ve grown, too! Oh, I’ve missed so much!” She squatted down and hugged her niece. “You have hair just like your mummy, you do! You’re so pretty!”

“Thank you, Auntie Lucy. It’s love-ally to see you.” She sounded like a shrunken Ana, “Have you come for tea?”

“No, Miss,” Lucy shook her head, “I’ve come to stay and be your real Auntie for a bit!”

“Do you like dogs?”

“Oh, yes!”

“And worms?”

“Not so much, I’m afraid!”

“Good.” Carolena grinned. “You can sleep in my room.”

“This is Natalie,” Oliver had picked Nattie up out of the dirt and was dusting off her knees. “Nattie, this is Miss Lucy Cotton. Say hello!”

Natalie opened and closed her little fingers, smiled, and hid her face in Oliver’s shoulder.

Tears sprang into Lucy’s eyes, “Oh, she’s beautiful!” What have I been doing running all over creation and not visiting all of you? Look at how much I’ve missed!” She sniffed and held Gryffin close, “You’re my family and I’ve been so far away! I’m a fool is what I am!”

“Oh, settle down, Lucy,” Alexander rubbed her back, “You’ve always been a fool, but you’re here now. That’s what counts!”

She laughed and took a swing at him with her free arm. She hit him hard in the chest. He made a loud noise in response and the two of them giggled as they embraced. Alexander kissed her head and smiled.

It was wonderful having my sister at the house. We made supper together, which was quite an experience since Lucy was more of a takeout girl than a cook.

“What’s this?” She asked.

“It’s a hand mixer.”

“Oh. What do I do with it?”

“You use it to mash the potatoes. Er...Lucy?”

“Yes?”

“You need to add the prongs on to it.”

“Oh!” Her face went red, “Sorry! I don’t cook much. Well, honestly,” She blew her hair back out of her face, “I don’t cook at all!” She began to giggle, “As you can no doubt tell!”

I squeezed her shoulder, “You’re all right! Take the prongs and try it again!”

She was much better after dinner helping me to drop the children two by two into the tub. “Let me get Caro,” I told my sister, “She’s got thick hair and it’s a trick to rinse it. Natalie loves getting her hair washed, though. She’ll fall asleep in the tub if you rub her head long enough.”

“Really? Oh, Miss Natalie, you and I have so much in common! Do you like to have your hair brushed, too?” Nattie nodded. “Me, too. Maybe when we’re all done in here we can do that, eh? I’d love to brush your hair for you.”

Nattie smiled shyly and nodded again as she smashed bubbles on to her chin.

When we were done with the girls, Lucy and I wrestled Nigel into the tub. We were both soaked from the struggle to scrub him spotless. He ran back and forth between us as we captured him and polished him dry. She held him down while I forced him into his pyjama bottoms,

“Lemme go!” He squealed.

“You’re not charging around with your willy hanging out!” Lucy yanked the shirt over his head as I forced on the bottoms, “There! Like it or not, you’re dressed!”

Nigel leapt to his feet and stuck his tongue out at her.

“Oh!” She pretended to be offended, “I’ll get you for that!”

He bolted for the door and she chased him out into the front room. Alexander caught him three steps into the room and lifted him into the air, “It’s time for bed, Bud! Come on now, say your good nights! Pass around your farewell kisses!”

Nigel oddly did not argue. He simply gave everyone a wave and stayed in his father’s arms. They followed Oliver and Carolena up the stairs. Lucy and I put Gryffin, who was already sleeping, and Nattie down in the nursery.

“Good night, Nattie Muffin,” I kissed her little head, “I love you.”

“Wuf you, Silly,” She mumbled. Her eyes were nearly closed, “Wuf you, Yucy,” She held her hand out for my sister, who took it in hers, “Night,” Nattie whispered and I watched her face go slack.

“Isn’t she the most precious thing ever?” Lucy whispered, kissing her on the side of the head, “Good night, Miss.”

“She is the sweetest child,” I answered as we tip toed out of the room, “I can’t believe she spawned from Alexander.”

That night, Oliver and I watched Lucy and Alexander sit closer together than they needed to on the sofa. They snuck sideways glances at all evening and kept making each other laugh. There was a lot of accidental hand touching and whispering. They even split the last bottle of soda sharing the bottle, which was something I’d seen them do before, but it seemed somehow intimate where the other times it had been friendly. Oliver and I pretended not to notice and said nothing about it.

At about midnight everyone was getting tired.

“I hate to think of it,” Ollie stood and stretched to his full height, which allowed him to press his fingers to the ceiling, “But I have to go to work tomorrow, so it’s up the wooden gwelly for me.”

Alex rolled his eyes, “Sadly, Ladies, so do I,” He leaned back against the couch and then tossed his weight forward so that he rolled on to his feet, “As much as I hate to admit it, I’m off to bed.” He looked down at my sister, “Lucy, are you sure that you wouldn’t be more comfortable sleeping upstairs? I’m more than happy to let you have my room.”

“Oh no!” Lucy held her hand up, “I’m fine on the sofa. You have to work tomorrow, you need your bed.”

“If you change your mind, it’s no problem,” He gave her a long look and smiled, “It’s so good to see you, Munchkin! We’ve got loads of catching up to do, yeah?. Until then, sleep well,” He leaned over and kissed her cheek, then turned to me and kissed mine, “Night, Sil.”

“Good night,” Oliver kissed my sister as well, “See you at breakfast.”

“At breakfast!” Lucy smiled at Oliver as he left the room,

“Goodnight, Alexander,” She called after Alex as he finally headed up the stairs.

After they’d gone, I gathered up the extra pillows and blankets for Lucy. “I wish I had another bed for you,” I told my sister as she settled on to the sofa.

“Oh, this is fine. I sleep on the couch a lot at my flat.” She patted her pillow and sank back into it, “I love it here, Silvia. It’s so cosy.”

“What's cosy are you and Alexander.”

Her face went red as a beet. “I was flirting with him,” She admitted, “Was it obvious?”

“I think,” I tucked the blanket around her feet like I used to when she was a little girl, “That he enjoyed it very much. He hasn’t had much to do with women since his divorce.”

“Oh, Sil, he’s hotter than ever!” She whispered excitedly, “The last time I saw him he was with that bitch, Melissa, and she kept giving me looks, so I hardly spoke to him at all. I was right upset about it, if I never told you. I wanted to tell her that he was mine! Funny, huh? That would have done great, me telling his bitch of a wife to back off my man!” Lucy laughed, “Today when I got off that train,” She sat up and grinned at me, “I thought he was Oliver and I was ashamed because he gave me butterflies in my tummy. He looked so absolutely gorgeous! I thought, ‘Oh, my God, Lucy Cotton! You can’t go falling in love with your sister’s husband! Get a grip now!’ When it was Alexander I thought I’d die.”

“You’ve been admiring him since you were what? Ten?”

“About that. I wanted so badly to have him be my boyfriend at Bennington.” She lay back with the back of her hand against her forehead, “Remember how he’d humour me? Taking me here and there. Do you remember the Christmas ball when he told Meredith to go rest her feet because he was going to dance with me for a while?” She giggled, “I couldn’t breathe being so close to him. I just held my breath the whole time. Oh, I loved him madly! But I understand he’s got a lot going on in his life now. I’ve no intention of coming in and making trouble.”

“Lucy,” I told her honestly, “There isn’t a whole lot going on in Alexander’s life. You’re remembering the lad who used to strut around Bennington like he had a key to the girl’s dormitory. He’s changed. He doesn’t even date anymore. His ex-wife cut him deep and he’s never been the same Alex since. He gave her all he had and she took every bit and then abandoned him with two children and not much left inside.”

“It’s awful what she did, Silvia. I hate her for that. I don’t care if she was a loony. Alexander might not always have been the nicest bloke, but he deserved to marry someone who loved him.” She paused, “It’s all he ever really wanted, you know? It was his only real requirement.”

“What?”

“That someone would love him for who he is. Someone who wouldn’t constantly compare him with Oliver. It’s why he stayed with Meredith for so long, you know? She saw him, not Ollie’s twin brother. I know he loves Oliver, but wouldn’t it drive you batshit to be held shoulder to shoulder with someone all your life? He would be downright awful sometimes just to set himself apart. I think he did it just to test whoever was around him to see if they loved him anyway. But nobody ever understood that, did they? I think maybe his mum, but nobody else.”

Lucy did, obviously. It had never struck me how well she knew Alexander. They had always had a friendship apart from Oliver and me, although all I had ever seen was Alexander playing the big brother role and Lucy being a love sick little girl. Still, I had never considered all the private conversations they must have had and all the intimate observations she had been able to make. Lucy had literally spent years watching Alexander from afar, hanging on to every word he said. Somewhere along the line she’d gotten his number. Lucy was no dummy.

“He was never downright awful to Melissa that I ever saw,” I told her honestly, “He was always kind to her, even after they split up. She calls him from time to time and he’s always very cordial.”

“Well, he shouldn’t be then. He deserves someone who loves him for all he is, the terrible and wonderful Alex I’ve always fancied.”

“Yes, he does. And I know you’ve always fancied him. Let me tell you how Oliver and I feel about this, Lucy. You’re a woman and he’s a man. Fall in love or have your fun, whichever you choose. Don’t get hurt, don’t hurt him and keep the children in mind. It’s all we ask.”

“Of course, Silvia. You know I wouldn’t hurt him or the children.”

“I’m just as worried about your heart getting broken. It is Alexander we’re talking about. The terrible and wonderful Alexander.” I kissed my sister on the head like she was six years old, “He may have mellowed some, but his stripes are just the same. Get some sleep. We want to make a big breakfast in the morning.”

“Good night, Sissy.”

“Goodnight,” I went back to my room and slipped into my bed.

Oliver rolled over and smiled at me, “Did you see what I saw happening with those two?”

“They’ll be snogging by this time tomorrow night,” I assured him, climbing into bed.

“Do you think so?”

“I’d bet a quid on it.”

“Good. Alexander could use some female attention.”

“I don’t want to think about all that in detail, thank you,” I kissed my husband, “That’s my baby sister. But I told her to have a go at him anyway.”

“Good. He’s always liked the girl…as a person, I mean. She’s been too young for him. I don’t think he’s ever looked at her as anything more than your little sister before tonight. But she’s not a baby anymore, is she?” He paused, “Isn’t that just so odd when you think about it?”

“Quite. She’s plenty old enough to be with him now if they’ll have each other.”

“Ah, well, it’s not up to us. Just come here then and let me hold you.” He rolled me into his arms and sighed, “My Sil. Whatever they decide I’m glad that I have you.”

“Me, too, Sweetheart.”

It was about ten minutes later we were both asleep and twenty before Nattie woke us all up screaming bloody murder that a big cat had come up from the floor and swallowed her leg. Alexander took her off to bed with him and the rest of the night was peaceful.

Oliver and I made a fantastic breakfast the next morning, “All the comforts of Bennington,” He announced as he spread it across the table, “We have hot porridge, fat sausages and eggs, toast and bacon, juice and milk and, as it is our Lucy’s breakfast favourite, we even have sliced ham.”

“Oh, you are spoiling me!” She giggled from the doorway. “Can I help with the kid’s plates?”

Gryffin sat in his baby chair chewing on his bottle. He looked around at all of us and grinned, kicked his feet and squealed. Oliver gave him a tug on the toes, “Is that so?” Gryff giggled and kicked his feet again, “Well,” Oliver gave him few slices of banana, “I agree with you one hundred percent, Lad! What’s that? You want some melon? Can you manage that with one tooth?” Gryffin shouted and threw his bottle, “Well, right then! No need to raise your voice and toss your drink! I’ll get you some!”

“Lucy,” I said, “I’d love your help! Carolena won’t eat eggs. She’ll have porridge and bacon, right, Caro?” My daughter nodded, “And Nigel likes his toast dry. No butter for Nigel, never, not on a thing or he goes mental. Just a little jam on his, if you please, right, Nige?” Nigel gave me the thumbs up, “Other than that, he’s got the Dickinson stomach and a taste for everything, just cut it up so he can eat it. He goes too fast and chokes. And Nattie,” Natalie looked up at me and smiled slyly, hiding a piece of toast that she had sneaked from her daddy’s plate under the table, I put my finger over my lips as if to promise I’d never tell, “Nattie likes everything. Just give her a little of it all chopped up and she’ll be happy.”

Lucy nodded, but she was still lost. She tripped over Duncan as she crossed the room.

“Where’s my toast?” Alexander demanded, dramatically looking about the table. He stood up and checked his seat, “Where’s it gone?” Nattie giggled wildly, “You have it!” He cried, “You stole my toast!” He pulled her up out of her chair on to his lap and kissed her neck so that she squealed, “I’ll have you for breakfast!” He pulled her plate over, “Sit with me, Muffin, and let Lucy have your chair.”

Oliver and I exchanged glances. There had been no reason to move Nattie. There would have been an empty seat on the other side of the table. “I think Alexander’s back to his tricks,” Oliver mumbled to me under his breath over the stove. I nodded in agreement.

Ollie and Alex went to help Edmond with a plumbing issue later that morning. Lucy, the children and I had lunch outside and waited for the twins to come home. Then Oliver and I went through our evening routine of bathing the children and getting them into bed. We did this without Alexander or Lucy, who took a long walk and then were discovered sitting side by side on the rocks by the pond having a private chat. Oliver and I kept our distance, but we checked every once in a while to see how the situation was progressing.

“Nothing! He’s not even holding her hand!” I whispered around nine o’clock as we poked our heads through the trees.

“What? That’s not the Alexander I know! He was doing so well!” Oliver strained to see through the foliage. “What the bloody hell is his problem? Is he that out of practice?”

“What about my sister with her forty-five year old? You’d think she’d know how to take control of a situation! Look at her sitting there like she’s twelve years old and on her first date!”

“Christ, what’s taking him so long?”

“Don’t ask me! He’d have had her flat on her back by now a few years ago!” We watched Lucy put her hand on his shoulder and leave it there. She scooted just a little closer, “Look at her! She’s begging for it!”

“He’ll be at it soon enough.”

“Let’s hope one of them does something at least before everybody goes grey!”

Lucy looked over her shoulder in our direction and we both ducked back under cover. We hurried to the house giggling.

At eleven o’clock that evening, Nigel woke up wanting a drink. Oliver told me he was going to go check on Alex and Lucy again. After about two minutes, he came into the house and closed the door, “What time did you say they’d be snogging by tonight, Darling?”

“They are not!”

“They are!” He grinned and slapped his hands together, “It’s disgusting, really!”

“Oh, yay!” I clapped my hands. “How disgusting is it?”

“Well, they’re not nude or anything, but they’re snogging right good.” He plopped down on the couch beside me and took my hand, “She’s sitting on his lap facing him with her arms and legs around him. It’s sickening!” He pretended to shiver, “A couple of tramps! Makes me want to vomit!”

“Oh, good for them!”

“I say!” He gave me a thoughtful glance, “The winds are changing in the wood, Love. Let’s hope this is what’s supposed to happen.”

“That Melissa hurt him badly,” I pulled my knees to my chest, “Rotten stinking old tuna fish sandwich, she is, even if she was sick in the head. Lucy wouldn’t do that to him. She’s waited to too long to be able to love him fully. It’s been against the rules until now.”

Oliver nodded, “That she has. He didn’t think of her as more than a child, but when Caro was born he said to me, he said, ‘Oliver, I should have married that Cotton girl’. I swear he did.”

“You never told me that.”

“Well, Love, I was a little distracted with you and the baby.”

“Hmm. Well, don’t let it happen again.”

“I promise. The next time we have a baby I will pay more attention to what is happening with the other people around us.”

“Right!” I put my head on his shoulder, “Well, we can’t make them fall in love. It has to happen on its own.”

He looked very serious for a moment, “My brother and your sister. Is that twincest?”

“Can’t be. They’re not biologically or legally related. And neither you nor I are involved with either of them, so, no.”

“Thank God! …well, would you look at that?”

“What?”

“On the television, Love. It’s Alexander’s green tie. He’s been looking for it all over.”

“I hate that tie. It’s awful. I’ve thought about hiding it on him myself.”

“Yeah, but your sister’s favourite colour is green, is it not?”

I thought for a second. “Yes, it is.”

“There’s magic here in the wood,” Oliver nodded, saying this as if it were something new, “I swear there is.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The happy news about having our dear Lucy in the wood was that she decided that Glasgow was crap and she abandoned it to reignite a life in Wales. She got a job working at a realtor's office in Newtown and bought herself a truck so she could navigate the wood, even though Alexander took her to work most mornings. Alexander, in fact, took her most places most of the time. The two had embarked on a new direction in their relationship that included hand holding, snogging, snuggling, dates, family outings, sniggering and meaningful whispers. It was everything eleven year old Lucy would have wished for. However, six months after she arrived, the adult Lucy was still sleeping on the sofa and getting frustrated with it as well.

“It’s not about the sex,” She told me one evening in private, “It’s about the fact that he only lets me get so close. He throws up boundaries and road blocks as we go along. He’s hot and he’s cold. I never know which it’s going to be. I’m so bleeding confused my head hurts!”

I told Oliver what she‘d said one morning when it was just he and I straightening up the front room, “What’s with that? Why isn’t she upstairs with your brother by now?”

“Because,” Oliver puffed a pillow and set it on a chair, “My brother is in love with her.”

“So tell me again why she’s not in his room?”

Oliver sighed. “Oh, Silly Silvia. Think about it. My brother’s in love with her. Don’t you know what that means?”

“It means he should be putting her in his bed by now. He‘s put enough women into his bed he didn‘t love, why not try something new and make it meaningful?”

Oliver laughed, “No, Love. It means that he’s scared shitless.”

“Of Lucy?”

“Yes, of Lucy! And of having his heart broken again,” He looked at me and immediately understood that I didn't, “Think about it. He’s got her here with him all the time. They adore each other, yeah?. Always have. She loves his children and they love her. It’s perfect, isn’t it? It’s a fantasy, yeah? Too right to be true and it came too easily. He didn‘t even have to win her over, it was built in that they were both emotionally involved. So what happens if he actually makes it real? What happen if he takes her upstairs? What if in the end he winds up hurting her? Or, worse yet for him, what happens to him if she decides she doesn’t love him the way she’s always thought she does and runs away like Melissa did?”

“That’s barking! She wouldn’t!”

“I agree. I don’t think she would, either, but it’s where his head is right now. He’s scared. It’s her who’s going to have to make the first move if anything’s going to go forward and I think she’s going to have to push hard, too. He likes things where they are. It‘s safe for him.”

“My God, Oliver, I never thought I’d see the day when Alexander was afraid of a girl!”

“Aye, neither did I, especially not Lucy Cotton, but he is.”

“Well, can’t we do something about it?”

“We could strip them naked and glue them to each other.” He suggested as he folded a blanket and laid it across the back of the sofa, “Or we can just stand back and wait until he pulls his head out of his arse.”

“Well, that’ll be a sonic boom.”

I watched the two of them, Lucy and Alexander, from a distance. To be honest, I didn’t think they’d ever get it straight. There were times when they were so blissful together I thought they’d elope as Oliver and I had. Alex was spontaneous and romantic with her and she doted on him and the children. They would seem to be so happily devoted to each other and then out of the blue, Lucy would come to me in tears, confused and hurt and feeling rejected because Alexander had pulled away.

“I cocked everything up,” My sister told me at the table when it was just the two of us folding towels, “I told him I love him.”

“Did you now?” I asked with interest, “And how is that a cock up?”

“You should have seen the look on his face. It was like I stuck a dirty sock under his nose,” She buried her face in her arms.

“What did he say?”

“He said the worst thing possible.”

I shut my eyes and cringed, unable to fathom the worst thing Alexander could come up with to say. I hesitated to ask, “What was that?”

“Nothing! He said absolutely nothing!” She laughed, but not like she thought that it was funny in the slightest, “And I immediately changed the subject to what we should do for Natalie’s birthday!”

“I’m sorry he’s such an arse,” I told my sister sincerely.

“I love him just the same,” She lifted her head, “So I think that makes me the arse.”

One night in late September, nearly four months later, Oliver and I were startled awake by the sound of voices. Not the playful voices of the elves or the tender voices of lovers whispering in the night, but the thunderous voices of two people who were very much in the midst of a nasty row in the garden.

Oliver and I hurried to the window in the kitchen.

“Don’t you walk away from me!” My sister screamed, chasing Alexander through the grass. “Alexander, I mean it! Don’t you walk away from me! Let’s finish this!”

“What the fuck do you want from me, Lucy?” He turned halfway across the garden and faced her. He shook his hands in a manner as if to say he was ready to throttle her.

“I want you! Are you that bloody stupid?” The gestures didn't seem to faze her, “I want to know where we stand!”

“And I need to get away from you so I can think!”

“About what? About how much time you’ve wasted?” She stood her ground. “About how long you think I’m going to wait for you to realise that you love me, too? How long do you think I’m going to let you string me along? I won’t wait forever for you to make up your mind!”

“Nobody’s asking you to wait!”

“Do you want me to go then? Say it! Tell me if you want me to go! I’ll go! I’ll be gone tonight! I’m ready to go right now! Just say it!”

“Oh, grow up!” He turned his back and made his way to the edge of the hill.

“I won’t be here when you come back!”

Alexander didn’t turn around. He waved an arm at her as if to say he either didn’t believe her or he didn’t care and he kept going. I watched my brother in law disappear behind our hill. I heard the engine start in his truck and watched the car lamps whip around and disappear through the trees. And then I saw my sister cover her face with her hands and sink to her knees.

“Ah, that cockhead’s gone and done it now, hasn’t he?” Oliver was distinctly aggravated. He made it across the room in two steps and pushed open the door. He was across the lawn just as fast, “Lucy,” I heard him say softly as he knelt beside her, “It’s all right. He’ll come back…”

I came to her other side and put my hand against her back, “I’m so sorry, Sissy.”

“He’s such an arsehole!” She wailed.

“Aye,” Oliver comforted her, “He is.”

“He’s so incredibly obstinate! He’s the most insufferable bastard ever!”

“Aye. He is.”

“I love him so much! And I know he loves me! I know he does!”

“He does. I swear it,” Oliver pulled her under his chin and squeezed her affectionately.

“Then why does he do this? Why does he make me feel like I’m the most precious thing on Earth one minute and the next leave me standing here alone? He does this to me all the time! I don’t know how much more I can take!” She wiped the tears from her cheeks, “I swear I’ll walk away from him! I swear I will! Am I just a friend? Am I his girlfriend? Are we lovers? I don’t know! He won’t tell me! He’s such a dick! I don’t need this shit! I want to leave right now!”

“Don’t be so fast to do that,” I told her gently, “Just give him a little more time. I think he’s worth waiting for.”

“Lucy,” Oliver took her hand, “Come with me to the pub. You and I need to talk.”

“You’re in your pyjamas!”

“I’ve seen people walk in there in worse than this,” He insisted, rising to his feet, “A hard cider and a breath of different air will do you good. My brother’s an emotional midget. He can’t explain himself, so I’ve got to do it for him before he throws away the best thing in his life.”

Fifteen minutes after they left, Alexander came storming into the house. He looked at the empty couch and then turned to me. “Where’s Lucy?” He demanded angrily.

I sat in my chair and glared at him. I wanted more than anything to leap up and jump on to him and start tearing out his hair in clumps. I contemplated walking over and kicking him square in the bullocks, but I didn’t. Instead I decided to be even wicked.

“She’s left.” I said coldly.

“What?”

“She’s left. She went ballistic after you drove off. She’s had it with you. Packed a bag and insisted Oliver take her to a hotel. That’s where she is now. Checking into a hotel. She’s taking a train out in the morning.”

“To where?” He seemed alarmed, “Where is she going?”

“Like I’d tell you!”

“Silvia!” If I hadn’t known him better I might have been threatened by his tone, “Tell me! What hotel did he take her to?”

“How do I know, Alexander? Did I go with them? No! I stayed to look after the children!” I was not going to budge, “She was so upset! She was screaming and sobbing and saying she’d had enough of your rubbish! She said you were a mean bastard and that she was going! We tried to get her to stay and she said no, she’d just walk then, and Oliver told her that if she really didn’t want to stay here anymore, he’d drive her!”

“To Newtown or Welshpool?”

“How do I know?” I was quite enjoying torturing him after what he’d just done to my sister, “They’re both equally as far, aren’t they? For all I know he took her to London!”

“Oh fuck!” He slammed a palm against the top of his head, “What have I done? Fuck!”

“Well, it’s too late now!” I relpied sadistically.

Alexander’s eyes were wider than I’d ever seen them, “No! No, it’s not, Sylvia! Shut your noise! I’ve got to find her!” He pulled his keys out of his pocket, “I’m going to find her!”

“You better!” I warned, “You better go and find her, Alexander, because she’s leaving for real this time! You’d better go and find her and tell her everything that’s in your heart because she’s had it with you!” I leaned forward in my chair, “You’d better go and find her right now, Alexander, because you’ll never find another Lucy Cotton in your life! No matter how far you travel and how hard you look, you’ll never find a woman who loves you and your children like my sister does! There’s only one Lucy Cotton and you bloody well know it, too!”

Alexander stood there for just a moment in the centre of the room and looked at me. There was real fear in his eyes.

“Go, Alex, and you better hope it’s not too late.”

Without another word Alexander spun and bolted out the door, not even bothering to close it.

“Nitwit,” I muttered and then I began to laugh. I laughed until my sides ached, wishing desperately that Oliver had been there to see what I’d just done. He’d have been so proud of me.

Lucy and Oliver came home about three hours later. “She’s all better,” He told me, “Just tired and wanting her pillow.”

“Are you OK then, Sissy?”

Lucy gave me a weak smile, “I’m OK,” She said softly, “Oliver and I talked a long time tonight. I think I understand what’s happening with Alex. I’m just exhausted now.”

“Well, lie down then.”

“Where is Xander?”

I began to laugh again and told them the whole story.

“Oh, shite!” Oliver wiped his eyes, “I think I’m going to pee myself! I’m telling you, right now Alexander is checking every place she could possibly be staying between Newtown and Welshpool! He may even have gone to London! That’s hilarious!”

“I hope he runs out of petrol and has to walk home,” Lucy held her side, lying back on the couch.

“Ah, go to sleep,” I told her, “I got your revenge for you!”

“I love you, Sissy. Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure,” I grinned as I exited the room, “Night now.”

“You are so bloody clever!” Oliver put his arm around me, still laughing, and led me to the bedroom, “I’m so proud I’m married to you!”

The sun was up when I heard the front door close and keys land on the kitchen table. There were three footsteps and then silence.

Alexander had come home.

I listened, curious to hear if Lucy had woken up as well, but the house was still. I couldn’t take the suspense. I crept out of bed and padded my way as quietly as I could to the doorway. I tiptoed into the hall and peered around the wall.

Alexander was clinging to my sister, holding her close like a rag doll. I could barely hear what he said, “Oh, God, Lucy! I thought you’d left me! I thought you’d gone…”

“I thought about it,” She whispered, “But I couldn’t.”

“Don’t ever leave me. Please. I’m sorry. I love you. God, I love you…” He kissed her head and her face, little kisses, lots of them, all over.

“I love you, too, Alex. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t.”

“Lucy, I’ve been such a scrut.”

“Yes, you have.” She put her hand against his cheek. “I forgive you. You know I do.”

“I’m a cocky bastard,” He continued, “And I’ve got a hard head. I don’t listen. A long time ago I could have walked away and let you go, but I can‘t…I need you, Lucy. I act like I don’t care, but I do…”

“I know you do.”

“She messed me up so bad…I can’t even explain how she messed up my head. She made it so I don’t know who I am anymore. I used to know and now I second guess myself…I’m trying…I really am. I’m trying to be what you need me to be…I need a second, yeah? I’m trying so hard…“

“I know. I didn’t mean to pressure you…I just wish you’d talk to me…“

“Don’t give up on me. Please. I want us to be the thing in my life I didn’t ruin. I want you to be the one thing in my life that I did right.”

“Alex, it’s all right, Sweetie! We’re all right!”

“Let me do the right thing, Lucy. Please, for once in my life, let me do the right thing. Give me a second. I didn’t expect this, but I’m trying…please, let me do the right thing…”

“Alexander!” She hissed, taking his face between both of her hands, “Stop!”

“No! “ He shook his head, “I don’t want to stop. I want to explain. I want to tell you everything.

I want you to know everything…“

“Xander! “ She was smiling, laughing softly. She pressed her lips against his, “It’s all right. I know you’re screwed up! I know you’re a prick! I love you anyway! Don’t you know it?”

“Will you marry me then, Bach?” He took her hand, "I don’t have a ring for you. I’ve been too much of a coward to get one… “

Lucy gasped and threw her arms around him.

He was still muttering when I slipped around the corner and back into my bed. I’d seen enough of my sister’s perfect moment. There wasn’t a thing about any of it that had been any of my business, but that moment on belonged only to my sister and Alexander. Oliver was still fast asleep, sprawled out on the mattress, snoring lightly, his face pressed against the pillow. I lie beside him and put my leg over his middle and my arm around his chest.

He reached back and patted my calf, “Just Silvia…and I love her…” He mumbled.

I just lie there and stroked his hair, “And I love you,” I whispered.

The sad news of our dear Lucy coming to stay with us in the wood was that eventually she left. And when she did, she took Alexander, Nigel and Nattie with her. It wasn’t completely tragic as they only went as far as to buy a lovely house outside of Welshpool, but for me it was heartbreak. I had, after all, raised Nigel and Natalie as if they were my own and now I had to hand them over to a new mummy. Even if that new mummy was my own sister, the whole thing sucked completely.

I cried and cried the day they left. Alexander didn’t understand it at all, “Silvia, my God!” He told me irritably, “It’s not like they’re being shipped off to live with strangers! We are their parents!”

“Oh, shut up!” I snapped back, “I’ve been with those two children twenty-four seven for as long as Nattie’s been alive! Don’t tell me I’m not allowed to be sad about them going!”

“All I’m saying is that it’s not so bad.”

“And I'm saying it’s the worst thing ever, now piss off!”

I did a fair job of pulling it together for the next few hours and not crying it in front of Nigel and Nattie, but once they had gone, I cried like someone had died.

Oliver went back and forth between comforting Carolena, who had planted herself on the front porch in a stubborn attempt to force Alexander to allow Nigel to stay, and me, who was sobbing hopelessly in the kitchen.

“They’ll be back,” He rubbed my shoulders. “They didn’t move out of country! They’re fine!”

“How do I know that?”

“Silvia,” Oliver sighed, “You know I love you, but you have control issues, Sweetheart. You don’t need to protect them from Alex and Lucy.”

“Alex I do! He’ll bash Nigel!”

“No, he won’t bash him!” Oliver laughed, “No more than the boy needs! And whether you want to admit it or not, Nigel needs a bash here and there! Alex won’t beat him to death! Our dad would strike us when we were particularly terrible and we lived!”

“But I won’t see them every day!” I bawled, “Lucy’s staying home with them! They’re my babies sure as I bore them out of my own body and I had to give them away! Just like that! Bang! They’re gone!” I know it sounds insane, but I swear my breasts were aching like they did just after my own children were born. It was like a physical need to find Nattie and Nigel and hold them close. “I miss them so much!”

“Ah, Sil, I know. I miss them, too, already. It’s way too quiet. No one’s screaming, nothing’s spilling or breaking. Alexander’s not shouting. It’s very strange.” He glanced around the room, “But I need you to come with me now. Caro wants you outside. She doesn’t quite understand what’s happening and she needs you to help her see why they’ve left. She’s had it with me. She’s says she’ll stand on the porch until Nigel comes home.”

It was even harder on Carolena to watch them go. She didn’t understand at all why we couldn’t all just continue to live together at the wood. She’d never known it any other way. “Why can’t they sell their house?” She demanded, clinging to her yellow rabbit, “And come back here?”

“Uncle Alex has asked Auntie Lucy to marry him,” I tried to explain, crouching in front of her so I could look her in the eye, “When people get married they get a house of their own.”

“You’re married and you have a house and we all lived here before!”

“Uncle Alex needed a place to stay for a while,” I told her, “He couldn’t take care of Nigel and Nattie by himself. He was alone then. It was never supposed to be forever they lived here. Now he has Lucy to help him and they’ve gone to Welshpool, not far from your grandmum and granddad’s house, near the park, so when we visit…”

“I want my Nigel!” She screamed, “I don’t care! I want my Nigel!”

“What if we ring him, Muffin?” Oliver suggested, “Would that be OK? Would you like to talk to Nigel on the phone?”

Caro sniffed and nodded.

Every night for a while, if she didn’t see her Nigel, Carolena would call him before she went to bed. It was enough to get her by. The three of us adjusted after a time to seeing the others when we could, but our happiest times were when we were all together at the wood. Those were the times when everything seemed as if it were perfect and right.

My husband’s twin brother married my little sister on a cool and breezy Saturday afternoon in November. The ceremony was lovely and simple, held in the same church where Alexander and Oliver’s parents had been married and where the twins and all of our children had been baptized. Just our families and a couple of old friends from Bennington were in attendance.

Lance was there, of course, taller than he ever had been before, and sporting a brand new haircut, with his girlfriend, Daneen, who must have been a half giant, Oliver said, because she was at least three inches taller than her date. I’d met her two times before and I liked her quite a lot. She seemed a sweet woman and I hoped that Lance had found his Miss Right after never having had a lot of luck in the love department. Lance, for all of his goodness, deserved to fall in love and live the rest of his life with someone who appreciated him.

I was shocked at Merlyn Pierce, though. He’d grown up for sure. My husband and I were standing in the churchyard when Oliver suddenly turned away from me and bolted toward the road shouting, “I’ll stop the world and melt with you, Merlyn Pierce!”

There was a gigantic black man standing in the middle of the street with his arms held wide open, “You see the difference and it’s getting better all the time, Oliver Dickinson!” He bellowed.

“There’s nothing you and I won’t do, Merlyn Pierce!” A second later they were embracing, banging each other on the back. Merlyn had Oliver in a bear hug, swinging him off the ground, even though Ollie was a good four inches taller, “Good Lord, Merlyn Pierce! It’s been donkey’s years!”

Merlyn shoved him off, “Blimey, Ollie! You haven’t changed one damn bit! Mother of God, you’re heavy, though!”

“You are!” Oliver laughed, “I see your love of pastry has caught up to you! Your head’s big as a bloody globe!”

Merlyn rubbed his belly and laughed. “Yes, it has!” He put his hand over his eyes to block the sun, “Is that Silvia?”

“Why, yes, it is!” I walked toward him, “Merlyn Pierce! You devil!”

Merlyn swept me off my feet and spun me around, “Silvia Cotton! How on God’s earth are you?” He set me down and turned, “Oh, forgive me, Darling! Oliver, Silvia, this is my beautiful wife, Penny!”

We said hello and stood out in the road for a while longer chatting until Oliver insisted that we go inside and find Alex.

Merlyn was so fat I thought he’d never fit into the church, but he managed to squeeze through. His wife was twice as big as he was, too. They both looked absolutely wonderful and they were obviously happy together.

Lance had been the only one out of us who’d seen Merlyn regularly since graduation. He ran to the back to get Alex and we all met in the sanctuary. All of us were talking and shouting, poking and pulling on each other. We could have been back at Bennington for all the laughing and swearing that was going on, in a church even, but it didn’t seem to matter since three of the four children were running wild and making more noise than we were.

“Are they yours?” Merlyn asked Oliver, “Obviously, the red head is!”

“Yes, that’s Carolena. This chap’s mine, too,” Oliver motioned to the car seat on the end of the pew where Gryffin was sleeping peacefully, “The other two are Alex’s. Cute, huh?”

Merlyn and Penny drew out photos of a lovely, chubby little nine year old daughter, Mindy, that they’d left back home in France.

“Wow!” I said honestly, “Oliver, look at this little muffin! She’s absolutely precious!”

Oliver took the photo, “Blimey, Merlyn! I haven’t seen her since she was about five! She’s a daisy! She looks like your wife!”

“Thank you,” He replied, swollen with pride. “Your children are gorgeous, Oliver! And yours, too, Alex! Who would have ever thought we’d be old dads one day?”

“I figured we’d be playing snooker in the pubs,” Alex answered honestly, “None of it was ever in my plans.”

Merlyn put his arm around his wife’s neck, “The very best things are the ones no one plans, yeah?”

“Absolutely,” The twins answered in tandem.

If we had ever mentioned children when we were students at Bennington it was more or less as a criticism of our parents for sending us off in the first place. Oliver and Alexander were there for dual reasons. The first was that it was a fine preparatory college and their parents wanted only the best for them. The second was simply that the combination of the two of them and their mischief was more than the poor pair could manage and they wanted to keep their sons out of trouble. Lucy and I went because our father lacked the ability to parent us. Lance’s father had died when he was ten and his mother felt boarding school was the most stable environment for him to be in until she could collect herself and bring him home. He had ended up loving it so much she kept him in. Merlyn, different from us, was only there because his parents were older when he was born and, having already raised three girls, they were too busy with their careers and social agendas to want to bring him up. He was tossed away, privileged style.

“Are you sending her off to school?” Alexander asked seriously.

“Oh, bloody hell no!” Merlyn shook his head, “She’s staying with me! I’ll raise my own daughter, thank you!”

“Yeah,” Oliver agreed, “Yeah, so will we. I don’t know how my parents did it. I can’t stand the idea of not seeing them through school.”

“I don’t think I could send mine off. Not Natalie anyway,” Alex had a faraway look on his face, “I couldn’t tolerate it. Although some days I consider it with Nigel. I think it might be better for him, more structure and discipline, if he doesn’t straighten up when he’s older, anyway.”

“Nigel’s a good boy,” I told him. “He’s going to be fine.”

“I hope,” Alexander agreed, “He’s just a little hot headed.”

That evoked a laugh. “Nothing like his father, I assume?” Lance, who had no children, finally found his way into the conversation.

“No, he’s much better than I ever was.”

“Isn’t that the truth, Boyo?” Oliver nodded in agreement.

The other Bennington guests were friends of Lucy, two I didn’t even know and one I only vaguely recalled. Laurie McGhee remembered me, though. “Silvia Cotton! You look wonderful!” She kissed my cheek like we’d been lifelong friends, “It’s good to see you again!”

“You, too, Laurie. How have you been?”

“I’ve been good! Oh, I have to tell my sister Margaret how wonderful you look! Actually, let’s get a photo!”

“Why a photo?” I asked.

She giggled, “I just want to put it to her is all. She was always so jealous of you! Oh, my, she started so many rumours!”

“Wait…Margaret McGhee? Peggy McGhee is your sister? Oh, yes! I do remember you! You shared a room with Lucy her second year! Laurie! Oh, my, you’ve changed! Yes, your sister hated me! She started all those rumours?”

“A fair amount of them! Oh, she was so in love with Oliver! She had a picture of him, yeah? She kept it in her room. She was convinced that she’d have him that year, but you came and stole him away! It wouldn’t have ever happened! He never liked her! ”

I shook my head. “I used to always hear her say she thought for sure we’d broken up.”

“Wishful thinking on her part! But not to worry! It’ll tell her you and Oliver are still happily together,” Laurie laughed wickedly, “And that you have lovely children, too, little ones, and you weren’t pregnant at school. She’ll die! She had a fit when I told her that Lucy was marrying Alexander. She said, ‘What is it with those Cotton girls getting everything they want?’ She’s still not married. She lives in Merryside with a cat!”

“Now that is sad,” I agreed, “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I need to go have a peek at my little sister.”

“Not at all! It’s her day!”

Lucy looked like an angel with her strawberry hair swept up into sparkling pins. She wore our mother’s wedding dress. It was very ornately embroidered and detailed with pearls, a white silk gown that swept the ground as she moved. On her wrist dangled a bracelet and around her neck she wore a thin gold chain with a simple teardrop pendant. “How do I look?” She asked, turning from the mirror.

“Perfect,” I told her honestly.

“Is it time?” She drew a deep breath. “It’s time, isn’t it?”

“If you’re ready.”

“I am,” She nodded. Dad took her arm and led her to the aisle.

Alexander was waiting at the altar. When he saw my sister his eyes positively lit up. He grinned like a boy with a brand new bicycle. “You look amazing,” I heard him tell her as she took his hand.

“So do you,” She replied She squirmed happily in her shoes, “Wow!”

Neither Lucy nor Alexander stopped smiling at each other, not even once, not for one second, the whole time they were being married. Alexander looked astonishingly like Oliver as he took his vows, “Lucy, I’m not good with words. I usually choose the wrong ones, but I can’t do that right now, because I’m standing here and I’m looking into your beautiful face and I can’t remember what I planned to say. You came along and you set everything that was wrong in my life right. I’m going to spend the rest of my life with Lucy Cotton and that’s odd and unexpected and, mind, it’s completely mad to think that it would have ever happened. But it’s so right, yeah?” He started to laugh, “I don’t even know what to say! I love you so much!” He leaned over and kissed her quickly, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but right with you.”

“You weren’t supposed to kiss her,” The priest whispered.

“Oh! Sorry!” Alexander whispered back.

A ripple of laughter spread throughout the church.

Ana dabbed her eyes. Whether she was crying over the joy that her son had found true love after a failed marriage or out of relief that she finally got to go to a wedding, or that no one was pregnant, I do not know, but I was sincerely happy for her. I was happy for everyone.

“Alexander,” My sister twisted in her shoes again like a little child, “I’m gobsmacked! I had this whole thing I wrote memorized, but it wouldn’t be nearly as special as what you just said to me. So here I go without it. I’ve loved you since I was eleven years old. I loved you all those years ago when I was just a little girl and you loving me back would have landed you in prison,” They both laughed, “I loved you when you were in love with someone else. I loved you when I hadn’t talked to you in ages. I loved you when I decided you were a bumpot and I didn’t want you. But there I went and loved you again when I got off that train and I thought you were Oliver standing with Silvia. But I love you right now more than I did any of those times and I have this feeling that I’ll love you even more tomorrow. And you’re right. Spending the rest of my life with Alex Dickinson is unexpected and it is odd and mad and, Alex, I love you straight back. You and our two little muffins. With all my heart, I do. You’re my whole life and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but with you, either. Not ever.”

Our father sat in his pew with an odd look on his face and stared at Lucy. I had never realised it as a child, but considering him as an adult sees her father, I knew he must have loved Mum very much. He was glad for Lucy, but watching that dress move about in living colour brought back memories I don’t think he was prepared to deal with even after all the years mum had been gone. For a second, I wished I’d known her so that I could comfort him, but the truth was that he had held our mother hostage in his own heart and never allowed us to love her, too. She was a vague recollection to me and someone Lucy had been too young to even miss, but that day I realised that she was still my father’s mistress, a ghost he was either too weak or too unwilling to set free. It was no wonder he could not handle being too close to his daughters. We haunted him with memories of our mother.

I could not wait for him to leave and go back to Scotland where he could be far enough away that I might forget that realization and not see him as pathetic ever again.

Oliver stood beside his brother and me beside my sister as they exchanged their rings. He never lifted his eyes from mine, nor did he fail somehow to get me smiling. I knew he was remembering our own wedding, the one that had lasted all of about three and a half minutes. The constable had rattled off the ceremony as if he was going to be late to lunch and sent us packing straight away.

My goodness, I thought, I’d been in a yellow sundress and he was wearing tan trousers and a white shirt and black tie from Bennington! It was the best we’d had to wear in our rush to the altar. I was so glad we hadn’t waited to marry. Marrying him was the best thing I ever did, even if Lucy and Alex looked much smarter than we did doing it.

“I love you, Sil,” Oliver mouthed at me as Alex slipped the band on to Lucy’s finger.

“I love you, too,” I mouthed back as Lucy did the same to Alex.

“Marry me?” He raised his eyebrows and grinned wickedly.

“We’re next!” I grinned back.

The priest said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride…again!”

Alexander lifted Lucy straight off the ground and suspended her in his arms. My sister draped her arms around his neck as she met him for a kiss that lasted for ages.

Everyone stood and clapped.

When the wedding was through and everyone had left the church and was heading to their cars, Oliver and I dashed back inside like a couple of school children at play and stood together at the altar.

Oliver took my hands in his, “Just Silvia, blah blah blah. Kiss me.”

He pulled me into his arms and kissed me madly on the altar of that church, “I love you, Sil,” He said when he finally stopped, "Thank you for marrying me.”

“I’ll do it every single day, Sweetheart.”

We were at it again when someone interrupted us.

“You two have not changed one bit!” It was Merlyn Pierce who came back into the church. He was smiling, “This is the House of God, you know! Come on now, everyone’s waiting for you! Your son just puked on my wife, by the way!”

I hurried out to do damage control. Gryffin had been born with an amazing capacity for projectile vomiting. He got it from his dad and Uncle Alex.

My dad had made reservations for a nice dinner for the entire wedding party at an upscale pub in town. Dad had a quick dinner and a celebratory pint and then left off for the airport straight away. After making sure all the children had a bite, I let them go home with Oliver’s parents. I told Ana that we’d pick them up, but she shook me off, “Nonsense! How often do I get them all at once? You and Oliver have a nice night alone!”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes, have a wonderful time with your friends!”

I thanked her profusely and returned to the table where the Boys from Bennington had decided that we should all change clothes and meet up at another local pub that the twins had haunted since before they were legal. “Oh, this place is great!” Lance raved to his girlfriend. He had obviously been there before, “It’s out of control!”

The place was out of control. It was no understatement. Ollie, Alex and I used to go there when we were young and the night always ended up in some sort of trouble. Alexander and Merlyn were standing on a table leading a crowd in a rendition of a Welsh drinking song when Oliver and I entered. The place was already smoky and crowded and the dance floor was filled even without a DJ.

“Oliver!” Lance called, holding up two drinks, “Silvia! Come have a pint with us!”

“What took you so long?” Laurie McGhee demanded with a smile. She took the glass from Lance and handed it to me, “Come do a shot with me!”

I tossed back whatever it was that was sitting on the table and chased it with the bitters, then tossed back the next one that Lucy handed to me and chased that as well.

“There’s nothing you and I won’t do, Alexander Dickinson!” Merlyn sang to Alexander as he lifted him up off the table by his waist and twirled him around.

Alex put his hands on Merlyn’s shoulders and bent one leg at the knee, pointing his toe up like a little girl, “I’ll stop the world and melt with you, Merlyn Pierce!” He swore, nuzzling the top of his old friend’s dark head with his nose.

“Oh, aye,” Oliver smiled, picking up a shot for himself, “This is going to be a party!”

Oliver and I were not ones to drink much, but it seemed like multiple shots and bitters were an excellent idea that evening. Before I knew it I’d lost count. I was sitting at a table downing another shot when Alexander came and put his hand over the top of the glass.

“Slow down, Sil, or you’ll throw up like little Gryff!” He took the shot and had it himself. “All over Merlyn’s wife!”

Penny thought this was hysterically funny, “Oh, give the girl the drink! She looks like it’s been awhile since she got out! I’ve been puked on loads of times!”

“Yeah!” I picked another, “She gets puked on a lot!”

“You’re bladdered,” Alexander told me. He rubbed my head affectionately. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you wasted. Can you handle it at your age?”

“I’m a fucking Scot!“ I told him definitely, “Of course I can! I could out-drink you the day I was born, Welshie! Can you handle it at your age, Old Man?”

“I’m not bladdered!”

“I can’t believe you married my sister!” I cried, “You better be good to each other or I won’t know which one to kill!”

Alexander said something, but I couldn’t hear him over Penny’s laughter and the general noise of the pub, which was filling up rapidly. We did another shot together and then another with Oliver and the two of them took me by either hand and led me out on to the dance floor.

Oliver and Alexander actually both danced quite well for men of their size. When we were younger we’d go clubbing in Finsbury on Turnmill Street. We’d dance shamelessly and seductively, the three of us, with me pinched in the middle. I’d been asked more than once how I knew which one not to kiss. I’d never admitted it, but once I had kissed Alex on accident, to which he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and said, “Ewwwwwwww!” It had turned out to be so funny that all of us still joked about it from time to time. The three of us were doing something similar that night, only my little sister was in on it now as well. “Twincest!” We were shouting and laughing, “Long live twincest!”

I was so pissed that night that I’m not quite sure what all happened other than I spent the majority of my time dancing with Alexander, who kept grabbing my bottom, and with Lucy, who kept grabbing my bottom, too. It seemed to be a game grabbing my bottom that night as Oliver and Penny were at it, too. I was grabbing their bottoms to make things even, of course. Alex and Lucy left there first, somewhere around one in the morning, since they had a plane to catch in London at ten. After that I lost a drinking game to Merlyn, told some woman off for flirting with my husband and danced with Lance and Oliver, sandwiched between them like a floozy. I remember Lance’s girlfriend joining us, squeezing herself into the mix with Oliver, and after a moment Penny pushing her way up, squishing Lance between her and me. His head was caught, smashed between our breasts while Merlyn snapped photos. It was extremely naughty and terribly funny, even after we were all back to a normal state.

A few hours later when they had sobered up, Lance and his Daneen bid us farewell.

“I wish you didn’t have to go,” Oliver told him sincerely. He gave Lance a slap on the back that sent him forward a step.

“We’ll all get together soon!” He promised as he helped Daneen into the car. “Silvia,” He held his arms wide. I bent to give him a wet kiss on the cheek, “Take care of this hopeless mess you married!”

“I will! I love you, Lance Crosby!”

“Well, I love you, too, Silvia Dickinson,” He said mildly as he shut his car door and drove away.

“Sandra Ashby’s got a thing planned in the fall,” Merlyn was saying as he headed for his own car, “Are you two going?”

“We wouldn’t miss it!” Oliver hung his arm over my shoulder, “Lance says he’ll be there, too!”

“We’ll see you then for sure then as well!” Merlyn grinned, “My God, you two don’t look a day older than you did leaving Bennington!”

“I’m not sure we are,” I told him seriously.

He laughed, “Well, you’re the lucky ones then!” He got into his car and rolled down the window, “See you!”

“Take care of those precious babies!” His wife called.

We waved as they drove away.

“Well, Sil,” Oliver turned to me, “Should go and get the kids from Mum’s?”

“Are you mad?” I leaned into him and bit his shoulder softly, “She asked to keep the four of them! There’s no one at the cabin! We’ve got a night of snogging ahead, you!”

“I’ll do more to you than snogging then!” He picked me up around the bottom and ran toward the car with my middle crushed to his belly.

“You bet you will!”

Oliver plopped me on the bonnet and gave me the same look I’d seen him give a good steak when he was starving. He put his hands in my hair and pulled my face to his. I wrapped my arms and legs around him and snogged him like we were teenagers. He pulled my bottom tight against his middle, “God, Silvia, you are so damned sexy…”

“Oliver,” I tilted my head as he licked my neck. I popped a few buttons off of his shirt shoving my hands into it and clawed his chest, “We’re on top of a car in a car park…”

“This is new,” He agreed, pulling my chemise out of my skirt.

My heart was pounding in my chest. “Oliver…” I couldn’t decide if I was going to keep kissing him or tell him we needed to stop. One of my shoes fell off. I had to hike my legs higher to keep from sliding off the car. He pressed me down. “Oliver…” I was tugging at his belt. I decided that I liked kissing him better than stopping when we were rudely interrupted.

“Oy!” The man shouted and then belched loudly, “They got rooms above the pub, yous!”

“Ah, go get your own then!” Oliver shouted back, but we straightened up. He took a step away from me and turned toward our heckler. His shirt was ripped open, his belt was loose and his hair was a bloody mess. “Mind your own…” He tripped over his own feet, “Business!”

I slipped off the car to find that my skirt had gone sideways and half a breast had worked its way out of my blouse. I tucked it in hurriedly, but couldn’t figure out how to get my skirt on straight. I stood there fooling with it and turned an ankle in the one shoe I was still wearing.

“Hey!” The man shouted again, “You’re my kid’s doctor, ain’t you?”

“I am not!” Oliver yelled back, heading around to his side of the car, “I’m his twin brother! The good looking one!”

“Giving it to his wife on his car?” He laughed, “If I was your twin brother I’d kill you!”

“If I was my twin brother I’d kill me, too!” He replied and then looked confused, “Did I say that right? If I was my…”

“Oh…piss off!” I shouted, picking up my shoe and yanking open the car door, “You’re about a pint past sober! Mind your own business!”

“Mia’am, I was watching you inside. You’re about ten past sober!” The man laughed again and walked back into the pub, letting the door slam.

I sat in the passenger’s seat and shut the door.

Oliver got in the car, “Well, that was a bit awkward,” He said mildly, sticking a key in the ignition, “We should go somewhere much more private than that, don’t you think, Love?”

“Definitely.”

He looked over at me and motioned with his thumb, “Back there all right with you then?”

“Perfect!” I was over the seat before him.

It was not quite light out when we woke up naked and tangled in the back of the car. “Oh, good God!” Oliver slipped on his jeans, slowly and with great effort, “I think someone blasted a rocket off from between my ears.” He hit his head on the window closing his button and pressed his hands to his skull.

“Where is my skirt?” I fumbled with my knickers and finally just dropped them on to the floor and picked up a shirt.

Oliver looked about and then pulled it out from under his legs, “Here. Your shirt’s buttoned crooked, Love. Actually, that’s my shirt.”

“I don’t care,” I pulled up my skirt and gave up almost immediately on zipping it.

Oliver yawned and rubbed his head, “It’s a good thing I didn’t drive. I think I was a bit more juiced up than I realised. Lord, I have to pee!”

“Well, go do it!”

“I will!” He pulled on his undershirt and got out of the car.

“My neck is killing me.” I whimpered as he got into the front seat.

“When we get home I’ll rub it for you.”

“I think I’m going to puke.”

“You probably are.”

“Oh, I feel wretched, Oliver.”

“You’ll be all right.”

I decided it was better for me to stay in the back instead of joining him in front. We drove on in silence until he pulled up at the end of our path and stopped the car, “We’re home, Love. You all right?”

“My head hurts.”

“Sorry,” He said sincerely.

“Don’t be. I did this to myself.” I lay down on the seat.

We were both quiet. Oliver dozed off in the front for about an hour while I suffered in the back. Finally, I shoved the door open and vomited all over the grass. I felt much better when I was through.

“That was commanding,” Oliver observed, putting a hand on the small of my back, “Are you through, Love?”

“I think so.”

“You ready to go in then?”

“Oh, yes,” I got out of the car on the other side as to avoid my mess and began to make my way across the garden. I was about half way when my skirt, which I had not zipped, fell down and I tripped over it, sprawling in the grass. It seemed like too much of an effort to get up, so I didn’t.

Oliver sat beside me, “Bare arsed, face down on the lawn. God, I’m proud I’m married to you,” He waved a piece of gum before my eye, “Here, Love, chew that. It’ll help the taste in your mouth. At least you had your hair back, eh?”

“Aye,” I took the gum and put it in my mouth, turning on to my back with my eyes closed. Oliver collapsed beside me flat on his face with his arms to his sides.

Both of us slept for a little while. When I woke, I rolled on to my knees. I spat out my gum and focused my eyes on the cabin. I was gauging the distance, considering whether or not I wanted to make a crawl for it.

“You know, Silvia,” Oliver rubbed my thigh, “You’re beautiful when you’re recovering from a night of debauchery. Want to give it another go?”

“Oh, yes. Right here, Sweetheart. It’s just too far to the house.”

Funny how it all happened. All in one day, Alexander married Lucy, Oliver and I saw a bunch of old friends, got drunk, almost had sex in public, wound up making love twice in our car, then did it again later in our front garden, passed out and woke up freezing in the November chill, oddly with sunburns on our bottoms and backs.

Best of all, six weeks later I discovered that I was pregnant.

Who would have guessed Lucy would be, too?

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Antonia Rose and Elizabeth Elena Dickinson were born eight and a quarter months later at ten sixteen and ten twenty six am respectively. After a rough pregnancy that included going into full blown labour at only five months followed by three months of taking drugs and lying flat on her back with her feet up to avoid it happening again, Lucy had gone into labour early once again the night before.

The whole thing was very scary. Oliver called to tell me that the water had ruptured on one of the amniotic sacks while he’d been at the house. He’d gone with Alexander to take Lucy to the hospital and there was no stopping it now, early or not, the babies were coming. Lucy took this quite calmly. She was, as any other first time mother, completely clueless. Oliver came home after an hour or so, saying that her labour was progressing very slowly and we didn’t need to rush out. Alex would call when it got serious.

And so we spent an evening with all four children in the cabin and we went to bed without much concern. Alexander called us at about nine in the morning to tell us that she was in full blown labour. After hours of only mild contractions, she had completely dilated within twenty minutes, was in horrible pain, and by the time she was to begin pushing she had become hysterical.

“Can you come?” He sounded desperate, “Right now, Silvia?”

“I can,” I said uncertainly, “I have to collect the children…”

“I need you now! Lucy needs you now!”

“We’ll be there straight away,” I assured him. There was something in his tone that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I hung up with Alex and told Ollie what was happening. We were out of the cabin and on the road to Newtown in a flash.

When we got to hospital, I could hear Lucy screaming all the way down the hall. “I told her she needed to take the drugs,” I covered my ears with my hands. I felt like I was going to vomit, “A natural childbirth, she said! Oh, my poor, stupid little sister! Listen to her!”

Oliver wrapped me in his arms, closing my one ear with his chest and the other with his hand, “It’s OK, Love. There are doctors with her.”

“Is that Mummy carryin’ on?” Nigel, obviously concerned, turned and looked at Oliver. Ollie reached out and put his hand on the boy’s head, but said nothing.

Edmond and Ana had been there when we’d arrived. Ana was sitting in a chair to my right, clutching her purse in her hands. She looked pale. “Eddie,” She made a motion with her eyes, “Take the children and go down the hall, please,” Edmond nodded and gathered up the children. With promises of crisps from the vending machine, they happily followed him out of the waiting room. Ana stared straight ahead, but her chin quivered.

“Mum?” Oliver said gently, taking a step toward her, “Don’t cry! It’ll be fine! Oh, come here! I’ve got arms for both of you!”

She stood and fell against her son. Oliver was holding us both under each arm whispering consolation when Alexander came sprinting down the hall. He skidded to a stop, “Silvia! You’re here! Thank God! Can you please come? She’s completely mental!”

I nodded. Alexander took my hand. I waddled as fast as I could along behind him, being eight months along myself. I looked over my shoulder and watched Oliver draw his mother in with both arms. “Be strong for her, Love!” He called after me. “She’ll get through it!”

“They gave her something to calm her down, but she’s asking for you. She’s lost it completely!” Alexander was stressed. I could see the vein pulsing in the side of his neck as it only did when he was very upset, “I’ve never seen anyone like this!”

Lucy was lying in her bed moaning when I entered the room. When she saw me, her eyes widened. She looked crazed, not at all like sweet little Lucy, “Oh, Silvia!” She held her hand out for me, “I’m dying, Silvia! I’m dying just like Mummy…”

“Lucy!” I went to her side, “You are not dying!” She went into a contraction and screamed bloody murder. “Lucy!” I got right in her face, “Look at me! I said look at me!” I knew I only had seconds before she contracted again.

My sister looked into my eyes, but she was completely dazed, “I killed her, Sil! She died having me!” She screamed again, “Make it stop! Make it stop!”

“Lucia Dianna Cotton!” I grabbed her chin and forced her to look into my face, “Mummy didn’t die having babies! Mummy died because she fell! She fell, Lucy! She fell off of a ladder hanging curtains in a shop at her job!” Lucy contracted again. She screamed wildly, “Lucy! Come back to me!” I put my hand on her sweaty cheek and made her look into my eyes again, “She hit her head, Sweetheart! She died from too much blood inside her head, not because she was having babies!”

“I always thought…I thought I killed her…” She screamed again, pounding her head back against her pillow. “Please! Please! Stop!”

“Oh, God, Lucy! No! It was an accident! A stupid, silly accident!”

“I didn’t do it? She didn’t die because of me?”

She tilted her head back and screamed again, but not with as much force. I could see the strength draining out of her.

“No, Lucy, you were four months old when mummy died! It was completely cruel of Dad to never have told you! To let you think that all your life! Damn him!” I truly hated him at that moment. I watched my baby sister contract again, watched her suffer, and I wished our father was there so he could see how he’d made it worse for her. “Come on now,” I knew I had to keep her going, “Remember these little babies inside you! You want them so badly! You fought to keep them inside you! Remember that?”

She looked at me. Her face was odd. She looked like somebody had drained all the blood from her veins, like her skin was some sort of living plastic. I knew she wasn’t really with me, only just drifting in and out. I remembered lying on the lawn while my baby died inside me and hearing the Lord and the Lady telling each other that I looked in a bad way. I thought that I must have looked something like Lucy did at that very second. “Lucy, stay with me now! You have to be strong for those babies! You have to fight just as hard now to get them out as you did to keep them in!”

“She needs to start pushing,” The nurse told me, “She needs to push with every contraction.”

“Be strong…” She muttered, “For my babies…where is Alex?”

“I’m right here, Honey,” He went around to her other side.

“Alex! I need you! I’m so scared!”

“I’m right here.”

“Hold my hand!”

“I will. I won’t let go of you, I promise. Come on now, Lucy, our children need you.”

“Ours. Yours and mine.” Her eyes were fogged. “Two girls.”

“Yes, Lucy, we’re having twins. Come on now, help them be born.”

“On the next contraction, push,” I said, “Just push as hard as you can like you’re on the toilet. Make them come out.”

The medication was taking her over. She wasn’t screaming anymore, but she couldn’t push either. “I’m so tired…” She did her best, but she was exhausted. She pushed with all her might for as long as she could, but fifteen minutes later it was not enough.

The doctor finally told her to stop, “I’m going to help you now, Lucy. I’m going to help bring the first baby out.”

“Oh, God!” She sobbed, “Oh, God, thank you!”

I had never seen forceps before. They looked like giant salad tongs, like a utensil you’d uncover in the cupboard of a monster. “You’re going to put those where?” I thought in horror, but I said nothing. I was sure that I would faint.

I looked at Alexander. He went white and swallowed, but he turned to his wife. “It’s OK, Lucy. Lie back.” He smoothed her hair away from her face and spoke gently to her while the doctor took those enormous pincers and inserted them inside her body.

She wailed in hurt.

I closed my eyes. I was dizzy. When I opened them a moment later, the doctor was drawing out a tiny, bloody…and completely silent baby.

I held my breath.

The doctor turned his back and did something I could not see. “Come on!” He muttered and continued to move his arms. “Come on now!” He lifted the baby and did something else, “Come on, Baby! Let us hear your voice! Come on, Darling, cry for us!”

I watched a tear roll down Alexander’s cheek.

“Come on, Baby!” The doctor said once more.

I closed my eyes again.

“Please,” I begged silently, “Please, if there is a God out there, please, please, please…make this baby all right! Please…please…please…not like Cara…please, don‘t do that to Alex and Lucy…please, not like Cara…please…”

It seemed like forever for it to happen, but the room was suddenly filled with the magical sound of a screaming child. It was faint at first, but the doctor did another something and the sound became louder and louder until it was obvious we had a very upset baby in the room.

“Great work!” I gasped.

I heard Alex release his breath. I glanced at him as he hurriedly wiped more tears from his cheek.

Lucy lie back against the pillows with her eyes closed. “Is she all right?” She asked softly, “Is my baby all right?”

“3/5,” The nurse called.

“We’re looking her over,” The doctor said gently, “Now we’ve got another to deliver, Lucy. How are you?”

My sister opened her eyes and blinked a few times, “I think I’m all right. I’m all right as long as she’s all right.”

The nurse called out, “Here she comes now! She’s a fighter! 8/9!”

The doctor smiled, “Yes, she got off to a slow start, but she’s fine. Can you push?”

“You’ve got the first one!” Alexander kissed the side of her head. “Just the one to go now! You can do it!”

Lucy seemed to have renewed strength. She gritted her teeth and pushed until she had nothing left to push with and with one final grunt, out came the second baby, who fell into the doctor’s hands screaming like she hated the whole world.

I had to sit down and collect myself.

I watched Alexander take my sister into his arms, “They’re here!” He told her, “You did it! Two girls, Honey! Two little girls!”

“Oh!” She looked across the room, “Can I see them?”

“In just a moment,” The doctor said kindly, “You’ve suffered an awful tear. Let me stitch you up and get the bleeding stopped.”

The nurse dug away at her belly. Lucy didn’t seem to even notice. She was too lost in kissing her husband, too lost in the ecstasy of being a new mother. She had forgotten I was there.

It didn’t matter. It was not my place to be there. Not anymore.

I got to my feet and made my way down the hall. “She did it!” I said as brightly as I could, “Two girls, they have!”

“You look a little peaky, Dear,” Ana reached out for me.

“No, I’m just very pregnant,” I replied. Oliver helped me into a chair. “It was stressful. Lucy was so frightened and then just so tired. The first baby struggled a bit at first. I’m not sure she was breathing, but she’s fine now. She won’t shut up! She’s angry at us all, I reckon.”

“That’s wonderful!” Edmond pulled Ana close, “Two more girls for Grandmum!”

Oliver sat beside me, “It was bad, yeah?” He whispered.

“It was awful,” I admitted, laying my head against his shoulder, “I want to go home.”

“OK, Sweetie.”

Nigel came running in from the hall, “Auntie Sil!” He put a hand on each of my knees, “Did Mummy have our babies?”

I tried my best to seem chipper, “Yes, Nigel. Everybody’s fine.”

“Boys or girls?” He asked, “They had a picture and said it was girls, but I couldn’t tell.”

“Girls. Definitely girls.”

“Well, that’s OK,” He said as if he’d been considering it for a while.

Carolena was suddenly beside him. She removed her lolly from her mouth and looked me right in the eye, “I saw you go in there.” She said this as if no one else knew, “Tell me, Mummy, was it grotty?”

There was something in the way she said it that made her Dad and I both laugh. “Actually, Muffin,” I told her, “It was really quite grotty!”

“It’s always grotty, you!” Oliver gave her a poke. “Grotty babies!”

About that same time Natalie came running into the room, “Gran!” She shouted, “I got you a pee-an-nut butter cup!” She turned the corner too sharply, however, and slammed into a potted plant, which fell over and spilled Spanish moss everywhere. Ana let out a surprised scream and Gryffin, who was toddling in with his Granddad, immediately toppled over.

“Blimey,” Nigel slapped his little hand against his chest, “Everything all at once and you lot will give me a stroke!”

Oliver and I decided to make sure that Lucy was resting comfortably in her recovery room before we went home. We wanted to make sure Alexander was doing all right as well. Alex never said much about how he felt, but he was easily upset when someone he loved was hurt. And when Alexander got upset, it wasn’t always a simple thing for him to calm down. We’d seen him go on for days in misery.

When we entered the room, Ana was leaned over Alexander in his chair. Her chin was on his shoulder and her arms were around his chest. She held him for a long time, rocking him like he was a child, even though he was probably twice her size. He patted her arm gently in return.

“Are you all right, Dear?” She whispered, “Is there anything you need?”

“No, Mum. Thank you.”

“Supper?”

“No, they said they’d bring me something to eat from downstairs.”

She kissed the top of his head and stood.

Edmond stroked a piece of hair away from Lucy’s forehead, “She’s white as a ghost.”

“She lost a lot of blood, so she’s pale. They gave her something after,” Alexander whispered, “Something to bring down her blood pressure. They said she’d rest for a good while.” He glanced at his brother and then at me, “That was bloody terrifying. I don’t think we ought to do that again.”

“Maybe not,” I said honestly, “But it’s over now.”

He nodded.

“Well, we’re taking the children home with us,” Ana announced, “So Silvia can get some sleep. She doesn’t need any more excitement in her condition,” Everyone was worried that I’d go into labour and being ridiculously pregnant, I did not pass up the chance to agree to some quiet time. Ana smiled suddenly, “Two girls, Alexander! I’m so happy!”

“Yes,” Edmond mussed Alex’s hair, “We both are!”

We hugged and kissed the parents and children goodbye and left Alexander alone with his wife, but Oliver and I didn’t leave the hospital for a while. Instead we stood in front of the nursery window and stared in at our new nieces.

“I thought twins skipped generations,” I rested my cheek against the rough wool of Oliver’s sweater.

“They usually do,” He responded quietly, “Which is which?”

“I have no idea.”

“I asked Mum once how she kept Alex and me separate. She said she kept the tag on our wrists as long as she could. Then she put an O and an A on the bottoms of our feet with magic marker. After that, she made sure she dressed us different, but she lost track when we started switching clothes on her. Eventually, she just knew. Nobody’s identical. There’s always something that tells us apart.”

“I thought I was going to lose my sister in there,” I said softly, “I was so scared for her.”

“I knew she was in trouble. I could hear her. I was worried, but you Cotton girls, you’re fiery.” Oliver put his hand on my swollen belly, “Too bad we didn’t have the twins.”

“What would we have called them?”

“Certainly not Antonia and Elizabeth! Awful names, those are! Now Heloise and Gertrude, I’d have named them!”

“Oh, yes, Antonia and Elizabeth are just terrible! But I like Helga and Euphemia much better than your choices.”

“Oh, can’t we have Euphemia and Heloise, Love? If we have twins?”

“Definitely!”

We laughed quietly.

“I can’t see them well enough,” Oliver said. “I’m too tired.”

“Me, too. This is boring. Let’s go home and have sex. Maybe I’ll go into labour.”

“Excellent! I’m all for that! Sex is what got us into this predicament and it’s what’ll get us out!”

“With any luck! My back is killing me!”

“At least I can’t get you pregnant, yeah?”

“No more than you already have.”

Oliver wrapped his arm around my shoulder for support as we began to walk away. “Maybe we ought to find a linen closet and try it here. We won’t have to come back if you do go into labour.”

Oliver could always make me laugh, even when my back was in knots and I was exhausted.

We went home, but any ideas of fooling about were gone as soon as we saw the bed. Once on it, we were both immediately asleep.

It was one in the morning three weeks later when I shook Oliver awake, “Sweetheart! Sweetheart!” He was never easy to wake up even on his best day. I licked my finger and stuck it in his ear, “Oliver, wake up!”

“W-what?” He sat straight up, “Is it Duncan? Did he win?”

“Oh, wake up!” I popped him on the side of his head, “Your mum’s on her way over. I’m contracting. They’re twenty minutes apart, let’s go.”

I was hot and cranky and not at all in the mood to have a baby.

Oliver shook himself to full consciousness. “I was dreaming about the dog,” He said absently, “He was driving a car in the Grand Prix.”

I was hot and cranky and not at all in the mood for him to make me laugh, either, but I couldn’t help it at that one, “Come on let’s get going then! Get up!”

Ana arrived ten minutes later as if it were noon, hair done and dressed to the nines. “You go on now and have your baby!” She said like she was sending us off for a private supper, “I’ll pop by in the morning to check on you!”

I knew it wouldn’t be long by the time we made it to the hospital, “Take me straight to delivery,” I told the nurse as soon as they put me in a bed, “This is my third child and I’m not playing about this!”

“Let me check your…”

“Now, you listen to me, Miss!” I reached out to grab her by the jacket, but I stopped myself, “I’m telling you, you can check whatever you like, but if I miss my epidural because you want to argue, I’ll do you for it!”

“All right,” She slipped on a glove, “Lie back, please. Well,” She yanked off the glove, “You’re right! It’s off to delivery for you!”

“I want my epidural.”

“That should not be a problem.” She unlocked the bed and gave it a shove.

Oliver was grinning as we hurried down the hall. I tried to glare at him, but it was impossible, “A baby, Sil!” He was dancing around like a kid, “Want to bet a quid it’s another boy?”

“You’re on,” I smiled quickly and looked away as another contraction washed over me.

I remember what I was thinking more during that delivery than the other two. I was thinking about my poor sister believing that she killed our mother and practically killing herself out of guilt during the birth of her own babies. I was thinking about Carolena and Natalie and Antonia and Elizabeth and how they’d all be doing this one day. I was thinking about the Lord and the Lady and wondering how many boon they’d had over the years. And I was thinking how odd it was that I somehow knew without question that this was the last baby Oliver and I would ever have and how that was perfectly fine with me. I had this feeling that this little baby was going to make our family complete. I remembered the Lady’s words when she asked the wind to make me sleep, “By the power of three!” Three was a magical number and I knew in my heart that our number of babies was up.

“Oliver, I love you,” I gave a great push.

“I love you, too, Sil.”

“This is it,” I grunted, “Muffin Magic, Sweetheart!”

“You’re the best!” He swore.

I put my chin to my chest and pushed with all I had. A few seconds later, a baby cried.

“You owe me a quid!” Oliver jumped up and down in place, “I can see! It’s a boy!”

“A boy!” I lie back and smiled. It was the best bet I ever lost. “A wee little muffin man!” The doctor laid him in my arms. “My goodness, he has the biggest cheeks I’ve ever seen!”

“He’s a chipmunk!” Oliver grinned, “We’ve had a monkey, a James Bond clone and now a chipmunk! We’re so bloody lucky!”

“Oh, he’s very handsome! Look at him!”

“His tongue’s all stuck out!”

“He’s still lovely.”

“Aye, he is.”

Not as many people gathered around us that time. Sandra sent another bear and a note saying that she’d reschedule our get together for the following year. Lance phoned in his congrats and gave us the details on his upcoming wedding. He said he’d be by in a day or two to check on us. Penny sent flowers and best wishes. Merlyn was in Sweden on business, but he promised to call later that evening.

Ana and Edmond came to see us while Alexander and Lucy looked after the children. There were just too many and the twin girls were too small at that point to bring them in. When they left, Alex and Lucy came out and stayed for an hour or so. I was too tired to be very talkative. Lucy asked if she could come to the cabin with Nattie, Annie and Bess during the days while Alexander was at work and Nigel went off to school.

“You’re calling them Annie and Bess? How precious!”

“They are,” My sister’s eyes filled. “I’m so glad they’re healthy. Annie gave us such a scare when she was first born.”

“Don’t be silly about asking if they can come out!” I told her, “I’d like it more if we built on a few more rooms and you all moved back in, but I know you need your family to yourself. Just remember how much I love you all, Sissy. Please know that there will never be a moment that you cannot come to me for anything.”

“Same here, Silvia. I hope I can be half the mother that you are.”

“Trust yourself, Lucy. Have faith and you’ll be just fine.”

“I love you so much!” My sister hugged me, “Thank you for what you did for me when I was having my babies. I don’t know what happened. Something snapped inside me. I was so frightened I just completely lost my head. I don’t remember a lot of it, but I must have been a nightmare.”

“Don’t be sorry about it!” I waved my hand at her, “That crap hurts!”

Alexander sat in a corner with the baby propped in his hands, speaking quietly to him in Welsh about things I couldn’t hear. Oliver was beside him, adding to the conversation here and there. They were both grinning and sniggering like outlaws.

“You better watch what you’re telling that sweet little boy,” Lucy warned, “Both of you! Send him off in the wrong direction and his mother will have your heads on a plate!”

“Lucy!” Alexander protested, “I’m hurt!”

“Yeah!” Oliver added, looking stricken, “Me, too!”

“We were telling him about helping ladies across the road!”

“And holding doors open for old people!”

“Oh, stop your lies!”

“She doesn’t believe us, Oliver!”

“No, Alex, I’m afraid she doesn’t trust us at all!”

I sat there and giggled at the three of them.

The truth was that I was more tired than I’d ever been in my life and I was relieved when they decided it was time to go. Oliver went down to the cafeteria to grab a bite while I took a long, hot shower. When I came back to my room, Ollie was sitting in a chair. “They took the baby down to the nursery,” He told me, standing to help me into the bed, “They had to do a couple of tests, nothing to worry about.”

“Come lay with me,” I pushed to the side, “Hold me. I need to be close to you.”

“Of course, Silvia,” He kicked off his shoes, “My pleasure.”

We lay together for a long time in silence. After an hour or so, the nurse brought our new son, “I suppose you want this little guy?” She was an American girl with large teeth and a wonderful smile, “He’s a cutie patootie!”

“Yes, please,” I reached for him and received him into my arms, “Thank you so much.”

“If you need anything, just buzz!” She told us, “Congratulations, Doctor Dickinson! He really is beautiful.”

“Thank you, Jeanne,” Oliver smiled down at our son, “I think so, too.”

She gave me a wink and hurried out of the room.

“Oliver,” I whispered, “It’s time to do our thing.”

Oliver took our son from me and laid him between us. We sat for a long time and said nothing. We just admired that beautiful little boy.

“He has no name,” I said finally.

“I know. We hadn’t decided on what to call a boy.”

“He doesn’t look like a Simon, does he?”

“No, he does not. I know a Simon anyway and he’s a dick.”

“We could give him a mighty, manly name. Like Spike.”

Oliver laughed. Our little unnamed son squirmed a bit, but decided that sleep was more important than complaining. “No, Spike is a bit Spartan in my book.”

“You think so, Sweetie? I mean, Spike Dickinson would command some respect at school. ‘Oh, look out, Mates! Here comes Spike Dickinson …oooooh, he’s very rough!’”

“Yes, yes, it’s a very intimidating thing to be called Spike, but I am thinking something a bit more subtle as not to frighten the other children,” Oliver stared at his son for a long moment, “I am thinking that I’d like to name him after by grandpaddy if you have no objection.”

“You never told me his name. Everyone calls him W.D.”

“It was Warren.”

“Now that’s a lovely name, isn’t it?” I looked at the baby, “Warren.”

“It’s all right then?”

“It’s better than that! I think it’s a brilliant name! He’ll have loads of friends with a name like Warren. ‘Look, Mates, here comes Warren Dickinson!’ No one will fear him and no one will make fun of him either, not like if we’d called him a sissy name like Patsy Dickinson.”

Oliver laughed and kissed me on the head. We were quiet again for a time. He was thoughtful when he spoke again, “It’s not all up to us this time. Have you thought about that?”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re not on our own anymore. It’s not just us. This one’s got a brother and a sister older than him. And cousins, too. And he’s got his Auntie and his Uncle and his grandparents. It’s not just up to you and me to teach him.”

“But we will.”

“We will. We’ll teach him all we know.”

“There are things about the wood only you can show him. There are secrets there that only you know.”

“Well, you, too, Love! You’ll show him your tree and how to be friends with it.”

“I will. And you can teach him to skip rocks on the pond.”

“And what the difference is between a lake and a pond, too,” He told me and I giggled. “Cause you can’t teach him that since you don’t know.”

“We’ll teach him how to have fun. Oh, Warren, you have no idea how much fun we have and now we have you to chase, too!”

“He has no idea how happy he’s going to be.”

“He has no idea how much we love him.”

“But one day he’ll know.”

“Because we’ll show him.”

“Each and every day, Warren,” Oliver’s hand looked positively huge as he caressed the baby’s head, “We’ll show you how much we love you.”

“And we’ll love you always and forever…”

“To bits…”

“And that’s our promise, Little Muffin Man. That’s our very first and most unbreakable promise to you.”

“It is…”

I wanted to stay up and look at our new son for a while longer, but I was so tired my eyes were closing on their own.

“Sil,” Oliver whispered, “Stop fighting sleep.. We’ll both be here when you wake up.”

“Thank you, Oliver,” I nuzzled my head under his chin.

“No, thank you, Sweetheart.” He kissed my hair.

I closed my eyes and I fell asleep thinking about what a lonely child I had been growing up with a father who didn’t have enough love to pay me attention and then sent me off to boarding school where only my physical needs were met. None of my children would ever know that kind of life. They’d never know it because one happy day I ended up at a place called Bennington and a handsome, good natured, rebellious young man had hit me in the head with a rubber ball. He’d made all my dreams come true, that Oliver Dickinson had. Now I had him and his parents and his brother and my sister and seven fantastic children who had filled every inch of my life and every corner of my heart. My life was worth living because of all of them.

My last thought before I fell asleep was that it was Oliver who had made it all possible.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

With the addition of our Warren, or “Little Renny” as he was soon to be called, since neither Gryffin nor Natalie could say his name, it seemed that our family was complete. Oliver and I brought him home as naturally as if he’d always been part of us and set about doing what we did each day with his welcome addition. In a way that the other children hadn’t seemed, Warren wasn’t new to us. We were experienced by then. We knew his sounds, we could discern the motions he made with his head and his little hands. Warren was a communicator, too, a noise maker from the moment go. He’d sit in his chair and smile, clicking his tongue and cooing. Or he’d bang his toys on plastic bowls like it was the greatest thing on Earth. Warren was a pretty baby, too. Long limbed and strong at birth, he had gorgeous brown eyes, but they weren’t like his dad’s. They were large and round, a polished topaz colour with odd flecks of green and gold. They were the kind of eyes that caught you when you least expected them to and kept you there, waiting, staring into them. Like his brother and sister before him, he was a happy little chap, except unlike either of them, he wasn’t the independent sort. Warren needed to be close, he needed touch. He was so glued to anybody who seemed to want to hold on to him that it was difficult to get anything done when I didn‘t have a willing volunteer available to relieve me of him. It was only a few weeks after he was born that Oliver bought me a sling contraption to wrap him in and I spent most of our first six months together with Ren strapped to my belly as I went about my business in the wood. I thought that Gryffin might be jealous about this, but if he was he never expressed it. His only concern was that his little brother wasn’t big enough to play with yet and that he wanted to know when he would be.

“He’s very boring, Mummy,” Gryff told me one day peering at his brother in the pram as we were strolling down the sidewalk in Newtown. “He can’t walk and he can’t talk. He’s not good for much.”

I didn’t stifle my laugh, “He’s just a wee bairn, Gryff! He’ll be on his feet in no time!”

“That’s your best friend there in that pram!” Oliver told him, “Honestly, he’s the one who’s going to have your back for the rest of your life!”

“Like you and Uncle Xan?”

“Just like me and Uncle Xan,” Ollie rubbed his son’s head, “When the chips are down, I’ll tell you, your brother’s the only one who’ll be there for you!”

“What about Carolena?” Gryff asked quite seriously.

“Oh, her, too,” I assured him, “Count on that as well.”

We raised them like that. Not just our three, but the seven of them. We raised them all with the belief that in the end it was only the seven of them and that they had a duty to take care of each other. There really was no differentiation between who was brother and sister and who was cousin. All of them were Dickinson’s. All of us were Dickinson’s. We were, in a very real sense, an army.

“Dickinson’s take care of Dickinson’s,” Alexander used to say, “Family is a holy obligation.”

Having not come from a true and right family, it was amazing to me how much to heart the children took that sentiment. With Carolena in school, it was just me and my two boys most of the time in the wood, except for the days when Lucy would come by with her three girls. Annie and Bess were still babies and spent most of their time toddling about and having kips, but Natalie was growing by leaps and bounds. She was small for her age, but her mind was keen, and she was curious about everything everyone did. Natalie was not afraid of anything large or small and she was full of a million questions. She had this special way of caring about the people she loved as well, almost an over-caring where she noticed little things and set about fixing them.

“Teach me to cook!” She told Lucy and I one afternoon when she was four, “The children all want eggs!“ and then there was the day she came in with the little ones after playing in the snow. She plopped down beside me on the sofa and said quite seriously, “Auntie Sil, show me how to make mittens! I want to knit so my sisters never have cold hands! They‘re freezing!“ She was quite the little nanny, taking on responsibility with them that worried Lucy a bit.

“I want her to be a child, but she acts like she’s twenty!” Lucy shook her head, watching Nattie pass out dry cereal in handfuls to the children, “I can’t get her to sit and play a game!”

“It’s just her way,” I told her, “She’s a bit serious minded, but she still giggles.”

And she did giggle, especially when she was with her dad and Oliver. Oh, she adored them both and they loved her back with gorgeous abandon. Oliver would pick her up and swing her around like she was nothing. Toss her up over his shoulder, catch her, swing her around his back, catch her, then send her flying at Alex, who would do the same. They’d hold her by her arms and let her walk upside down across the ceiling until her little face would turn bright red. Having been so betrayed as a child, it amazed me the trust she had in them. There was no question in her mind that they’d never hurt her, no thought that they could just let her go and she might come crashing to the floor. It was perfect trust, never let down.

Alex had said the first time he held her that she was the girl who would teach him what love was all about and it had been the truth. Natalie brought out gentleness in him that I don’t think he ever knew he had. I never saw Alexander become cross with Nattie, not cross enough to ever say more than something like, “Not now, Nattie! Quiet down!" and he certainly never raised a hand to her. Alexander was a wonderful, patient father and he adored all of his children, but Natalie was his little angel.

“Nattie, my love," He’d say, “You’re so pretty. Pretty like your Mummy, but you’re mine through and through, yeah? “He’d hold her close, “I don’t know what I did to deserve a daughter like you, but I got you and I love you to bits! “

She adored him as well and she took any opportunity she could find to steal a moment with him, especially if it was away from the older children. It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen, Natalie at five years old, sitting with Alexander in the garden, yellow balls of yarn lying in the grass, instructing him on how to knit.

“Oh, blimey!” Alexander held his work out in front of him, “Is it knit one, purl two? Or the other way around?”

“It’s knit one, purl one for three rows, Daddy. You’re working on a ribbing.”

“Oh, bugger it all to hell!” He dropped his project to his lap, “I’m doing it all wrong!”

“Don’t give up! You can do this!”

“You think so?”

“I know so!”

“OK, if you say so! Let me start over then. Knit one, purl one…for three rows…”

They were fascinating, every single one of them. Nigel, the oldest, was always the first and usually the best at everything. He had the restless nature and good looks of his father as well as Alex‘s zeal for having a good time. He was a bit more sociable than his dad, however, and found himself from an early age the centre of attention most everywhere he went. I have to admit that it did go to his head at times, but the other Dickinson’s made it a point to bring him back to Earth. Nigel, through all his hot headedness and tantrums, in the core of his being, was a good soul. He was clever and needed occupied, however, or he could be borderline evil. He did stupid things as well, though, like trying to take his bicycle down a slide at the city park and breaking his leg in three places. He drove Lucy up the wall with his antics, but I realized early on that Nigel was as easily entertained as he was bored. The trick with him was to keep him busy. Clever as he was, if left to his own devices all he could usually come up with to do was to make something explode or beat up his mates. Thus, we were always looking for something to keep him busy and over the years we found many, many things.

Nigel lacked his father’s artistic genius, so paints and modelling were out, but he had a knack for athletics. Ollie and Alex coached him in football and rugby, but he was too much a roughneck for the junior rugby teams. Perhaps the twins shouldn’t have shown him so young how to tackle, I suggested, but both of them looked at me like I was mad and said, “You can’t play properly if you don’t tackle!”

“He’s only eight! Does he need to be slamming his mates down so hard?”

“Bunch of pansies!” Oliver huffed.

“They need to grow a pair,” Alex looked away, “Babies!”

I just shook my head.

For his birthday when he turned ten, we bought him a weight bag and had Oliver hang it from a tree. Alexander did the same in his own yard. What we ended up with was a more relaxed lad who discovered that, aside from punching things and slamming other boys to the ground, he enjoyed reading books. It connected him with his father, this love of reading, and the two, who had been at odds more than not, were suddenly trading stories between them and, as Nigel grew, discussing philosophy and literature.

The physical and mental exercise didn’t stop him completely from having outbursts, mind you. Nigel had a temper that wouldn’t yield. I’d be tempted to say that it was even worse that Alexander’s. Like his father before him, Nigel wouldn’t say a word as he grew angrier and angrier with somebody. He’d remain quiet; perhaps begin the argument, but not usually. No, usually he’d just stand there with a blank expression on his face and when his opponent least expected it, he’d blast him square in the face. Needless to say, he didn’t lose often. Punching people was a bit of a hobby for him, but he loved to tease and torment Carolena more than anything. I’m sure that it was his favourite pastime, but it certainly was not his most productive. Caro was by far his most even match.

I understood the rivalry between them. Nigel and Carolena were so close in age that they were always nose to nose. They shared the same form at school, sometimes even the same classroom. Caro was intensely competitive by nature, something she inherited from me, no doubt, especially when it came to her marks. After they were eight or so years old, she couldn’t fight with Nigel physically as he was much larger and stronger than her, but she gave him a run for his money with everything else. Carolena was an excellent footballer, although she didn’t take to rugby, and she’d show him up at matches. He’d retaliate by tripping her as often as he was able. She’d usually respond by punching him, at which he would laugh, and the two of them would be expelled from the game and sit on the side, arsing off. But by both of them striving to outdo the other, both managed to achieve excellence in academics, at athletics…at everything really. They drove each other mad, but they made each other better, too. And no one…and I mean NO ONE…messed with either of them without having to deal with the other.

As Carolena matured into her teenage years, she took on more physical traits of her father. Facially, she looked like me, except I always thought that she was prettier. But, like Oliver she was unusually tall and slender with long arms and legs. Her hair was the colour of shiny copper, hanging in curls to the middle of her back and her eyes were glittery dark chocolate. Llike her dad, too, everyone for miles around seemed to know who Carolena Dickinson was. Still, being so popular didn’t make her interested in many of the boys. Carolena had a serious mind and dreams of leaving Wales for a posh life in London. My daughter had her eyes on the stars and paid little attention to the comings and goings of people who were not like minded. Thus, she had adopted a reputation for being a snob.

She wasn’t. Caro was kind and considerate. She always took time for people. She’d learned it from her father, how to listen and care. It was only the ones that were jealous that called her names. When she was fifteen, she was pursued by the star of the local rugby team. Caro found him boorish and brainless and it was only three dates before she put an end to his courtship. It didn’t sit well with him and within a week he gone on a mission of slander, making claims against her virginity.

Oliver and I were doing our best to comfort her.

“Carolena,” I told her gently, “You can’t control what anyone says about you. The people who know you know you. They know it’s all lies. And the others who choose to believe it without knowing you…well, who cares? They don’t matter.”

“Your mum should know,” Oliver added, “People said a lot of foul things about her. Especially when she married me.”

“Why is it that just because I don’t want to marry a local rugger bugger and live my whole life within twenty miles of the municipality I was born in people think I have a problem?” Caro was literally in tears. “Connor Stuart is a mega-fuck brain and I wouldn’t be caught dead naked with him!” Oliver and I almost laughed out loud. Carolena had no idea she had slipped and used a curse in front of us. We choked back our smiles and allowed her to continue uninterrupted, “He’s dirt, he is! And if that makes me a bitch for saying it, than I am a bitch!”

“You are not a bitch and I don’t ever want to hear you call yourself a name like that again! Listen to me now, Carolena.” Oliver moved her chin with his hand so she was looking right into his face, “There is nothing wrong in this world with a woman setting levels of acceptability for herself. If some mega-fuck brain rugger bugger does not live up to those ideals that is entirely his problem. Girls who lower their standards or have none at all, for that matter, marry boys who abuse and misuse them. You are my child and you are worthy of respect. Don’t request it. Expect it. Demand it. Always.”

Caro’s dark eyes were glittering in the afternoon sun as she stared into her father’s face. “I love you, Dad!” She hugged him around his neck. “Why can’t I meet a boy like you?”

“I love you, too, Muffin.” He patted the back of her head. “And maybe one day you’ll meet a boy who’s even better than me. But don’t ever have one that’s any worse, yeah?”

About three days later Nigel wound up in Oliver’s office after he clothes-lined Connor Stuart during rugby practice. “He kept getting in my way!” Nigel proclaimed as Oliver wrapped his shoulder in ice, “He slammed right into me, causing me to nut him the first time!”

“He’s got a hump the size of a walnut right in the middle of his forehead,” Oliver mumbled, weaving the bandage to hold the ice under Nigel’s arm.

“Well, yeah! Our head’s collided! As far as the alleged clothes-lining, well…I dunno how that happened. It was an accident!”

“Yes, Nigel, and you accidentally kicked him in the ribs and accidentally stepped on his face as well as he lay in the grass gasping for air, right? Put down your arm now.”

“Well, yes,” Nigel grimaced as he lowered his arm, “Exactly.”

Subsequently, he was not so accidentally suspended from the team for his lack of control.

“I was in control!” He argued, “I was in perfect control! He’s alive, ain’t he?”

It was not the first time that they’d shown that when they’d take the time to quit bickering, Carolena and Nigel were the best of friends. The most obvious example I can remember of this was when they were eleven and they both ended up sitting after hours in Oliver’s office bleeding after Caro jumped in on a fight that Nigel was coming out on the bad end of.

“I’ll do him again!” Caro told us as she sat on the examination table.

“Sit still!” Oliver demanded, gently prodding her face, “That’s a whopper of a bruise! Hitting a girl! That boy should be ashamed!”

“She was pounding the sense out of him, she was!” Nigel said proudly from his seat off to the side, “He got me down, so’s I couldn’t get up and here comes Carolena just a blaze of red hair and flying fists! Bloody magnificent she was, Uncle Ollie!”

Caro grinned, “It was fun. Is he still here?”

“No, no. I sent him off with his mother.” Oliver turned her face in his hand, “It was fun, yeah? You two shouldn’t fight!” He scolded them responsibly, and then added, “But I’m right proud you both for taking up for Natalie. Your dad’ll be having words with his father, I‘m sure…two on one, he said. Well, who came and put our little Nattie into a bin? She’s got bruises all over her!” He turned, “Lucy, is Nigel’s numb enough for stitching yet? I’m through here. Take Caro for an x-ray of this cheek. It looks like it’s all swollen tissue, but I want to make sure there’s nothing broken to be safe. ”

After the twins were born, Lucy had found her calling in life. She went back to school and became a nurse. Oliver hired her straight away, of course, and she helped him run the office. I did the accounting and managed the labs, but mostly I just looked after Oliver and the children, as I always had. Me, with all my degrees, knowing all I knew, and all I ever wanted to be was a mum! But Lucy could juggle a career and her home life with me taking care of the kids. I was very proud of my sister, little Lucy Cotton, who’d grown up to be a dedicated mother, a wonderful wife who was adored by her husband and a damned good nurse to boot.

Little Nattie was sitting quietly outside the door in the hallway. I really did not want to see my Nigel getting stitched, so I came and sat beside her. “You all right, Muffin? That was a right nasty thing that boy did. I’m sorry it happened to you.”

“I was just walking and he picked me up and tossed me in the rubbish bin,” She said softly. Natalie often got the brunt of bullies because she was so unusually small, “I didn’t mean for all of this to happen. Are they hurt?”

She was the sweetest of all the children. Blue eyed and golden haired, she had her mother’s gorgeous looks and full mouth. In fact, she looked nothing at all like Alexander, except often mocked his expressions, “Ah, Nattie,” I told her, “Caro and Nigel will be just fine. Don’t you go feeling bad about what happened to them. You did nothing wrong. Some bully came and decided to throw you into a bin and your brother was having none of it. Be glad he was there for you. He takes after your daddy, you know?”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah! When your dad was a lad he had an awful temper. And he especially hated it when someone would dishonour a lady.” I heard the front door to the office open and close, “I think that’s your dad now. Go see!”

She jumped off her chair and raced to the waiting room. “Daddy!”

“I don’t want another shot!” Nigel yelled, “I don’t want another shot! Mum, make him stop! I don’t want…Oy! Get away from me, Uncle Ollie!”

“Do you want to feel a needle coming in and out of your brow over and over again or just once?” Oliver asked seriously.

“Shush your noise,” Lucy told him gently, “It’s just a little sting!”

I cringed as he screamed anyway. Nigel had a flair for drama.

I could hear the excitement of children down in the waiting room now that Alexander had arrived. “Oy, you little munchkins! Natalie, my love! Come here, I heard you had a rough afternoon!” He grunted as he lifted her from the floor, “Oh, you look fine! Beautiful, in fact! Hello! Hello, all of you! Hello, Warren! Hello, Gryff! How are you, Little Bessie? Hi, Annie!”

“I’m not Annie, Daddy,” I heard a tiny voice, “I’m Bess!”

“And I’m your Uncle Ollie,” Alexander returned, “You can’t play at that one with me! I invented some of those tricks!”

“We got you the other day!” One of the chirped.

“For about three seconds!”

The twin girls giggled.

“Uncle Xan!” It was Gryffin, “Can you draw a cat for my new story I’ve written?”

I stood alone in the hall with my eyes closed and I listened to all of their voices mingling together. It was chaos, all of them talking at once and Alexander trying to lend an ear to each one. I let the sound of them fill my ears and swell my heart until I thought that I would burst from all the love inside of me.

As she got older, Natalie did not grow any less lovely in her disposition. It took my breath away sometimes how much she looked like Melissa, she was stunning, but that was where any reminder of her mother ended. Natalie was anything but an unbalanced air head. She was calm and kind and she had a spirit that was impossible to sink. Natalie was close with Lucy. Never having known her mother, she had absolutely no interest in seeing her when Melissa came to Wales.

“It’s nice that she’s here,” Nattie told her father, “But I don’t know why she’s bothered to see us now. I suppose I can sit with you and Nigel, but I don’t have anything to say to the woman.”

“I’d appreciate it if you did,” Alexander said calmly, “And you don’t have to say much.”

“Good, because I’m not going to.”

Nigel, on the other hand, was very excited. He had vague recollections of his mother and was eager to see if anything about her matched his memories. He was concerned, on the other hand, that his eagerness would somehow insult Lucy. Lucy, however, was not threatened in the slightest. “I’d like to beat the shit out of her, Sil,” She told me privately, “But knowing that she lost out on her children and I got both of them and Alexander, too, is enough revenge for me. Her stupidity and selfishness were my gain.”

Nattie was unimpressed when she got through meeting her mum. She hugged Lucy afterwards and said, “Ah, my real mum! I love you, Mummy!” Nigel, being more open to the experience, kept contact with Melissa for many years until she succumbed to breast cancer when he was forty-three. Still, he hugged Lucy when he returned from their first meeting and told her loved her enormously. When Alexander arrived back at the wood after the reunion, he scooped Lucy into his arms and kissed her passionately then held her very, very close. “Oh, my God,” He said about ten times, stroking her hair, “Lucy, Lucy, Lucy…you’re like a dream…”

I think my sister was very satisfied.

They were happy together, Lucy and Alexander. Their marriage was not perfect, but it worked. They needed each other. Lucy needed the consistency and support Alex offered her. He was safe, secure, solid, and she knew that he’d never hurt her. Lucy was a calming influence on Alexander. She didn’t take any of his rubbish and gave him a reason to behave, motivation to work hard and stay focused. She loved him, certainly, but there was never any question in anybody’s mind that she’d put him out if she had to. I think Alex liked that, the idea that his wife could make it without him. It made him want to please her. Plus, she took care of him, which was something that Alex had always desperately needed. They were an excellent team. The friendship and affection that they’d always shared had grown deeper and deeper until they’d become a part of each other. Once they’d recognised it as love, it had taken them over. Bless their hearts, they endured the pitfalls and made it work.

“In the end,” Alexander told her on their tenth anniversary, “It’ll just be you and me. The kids will have grown and gone and it’ll be just you and me staring at each other with nothing at all to do.”

“That’ll be brilliant!” Lucy giggled, “I’ll make pies!”

Alexander brought out his old oil paint set out to the cabin one summer and sat with her and their three girls in the garden. I watched him show each of them the different brushes and explain what each did. They opened and checked every jar carefully.

“Is it still good?” Lucy asked excitedly.

Alex nodded. They smiled at each other. “Are you ready?” I heard him ask the girls.

They nodded enthusiastically and walked to the car with him, all three holding on to his hands. He pulled out four large canvases and the four of them headed out to the clearing by the pond. Lucy and I sat on the stoop and chatted while they stood in the sunlight until each had finished their first painting. Annie’s was complete Picasso nonsense. Bessie’s was of birds in the sky. And Nattie’s was the sun shining grandly across the pond, reflecting light all over the wood. Alexander painted three little girls standing behind canvas with brushes in their hands. Those paintings still exist, hanging proudly in the front room of the cabin in the wood.

Now, I watched all of my children grow with great interest, but there was something about my Griffin which was special. This is not to say that the others weren’t but Gryffin had his own way about him. The child was a deep thinker from an early age. He questioned everything. He wanted to know all about the world…scientific things, but he always seemed to be heading toward spiritual answers. He had a fascination with the soul, with all the supernatural possibilities the universe offered. It crossed over into the occult at times, this thirst for knowledge, but we never discouraged him from reading books on Witchcraft or ghosts or demons. It was all research for him, really. He took bits and pieces from everything and used them to make sense of the world around him. He used everything in his writings.

Gryffin wrote his first poem before he was old enough to write it down himself. Oliver and I were sitting in the living room in the rented cottage when he sprang off the bottom step and landed almost in the middle of the room.

“Gryffin Alexander!” Oliver scolded, “It’s way past your bedtime!”

“I know, Dad, but I’ve written something!” He swore breathlessly. “It’s in my head and I need you to put it on paper before I forget it!”

Oliver and I exchanged glances. Ollie grinned suddenly and I said, “Right then. I’ll get pen and paper then.”

This was the poem:

“When God made Adam and Eve, they were meant to eat the poison apple

When God made the horse it was meant for man to ride

When God made the camel it was meant to walk the desert dry

When God made the people they were meant to live and die”

He was four years old. I thought it was rather magnificent. It was something he got from my dad, this love of the written word, and it wasn’t there that he stopped writing. We got him a tape recorder and he told his stories by mouth for about a year until he got his penmanship under control. He read as well, read everything he could get his hands on, even newspapers and things that we knew he couldn’t reason for himself. He wanted to know everything, sometimes just for the sake of knowing it.

Gryffin was the jokester of the family as well. He was a cheeky monkey from the moment of birth, I think. He could pick out the absurdity in any situation and bring it to light immediately, which was infuriating when you were angry with him to begin with. For instance, Oliver once got so angry with him over something he told him, “If you ever do that again, I’m going to punish you and you’re not going to like it!”

“Well, obviously, Dad,” Gryffin retorted as if his father were the stupidest person he’d ever met, “Why would I like it if you were punishing me?”

Cheeky, cheeky, cheeky. He was very lucky Oliver was his dad and not Alexander. Alex would have knocked him to the floor without a second thought. Oliver, no matter how angry he was with the boys, never hit them. I don’t think he hit them even once. Not like me. I’d spank if I had to. I always felt badly afterward, but I’d do it.

Gryffin was always quick with the comebacks. All three of our children had grown up around banter and could hold their own in a battle of wits, but Gryffin was particularly sharp. That is when you got him in the mood to talk. Most of the time he’d just sit quietly and you never knew where his mind was at. Gryffin was a constant thinker. I don’t think his brain ever shut off. He was a worrier, too, which I never quite understood. Sometimes he’d worry himself into a stomach ache and I’d have to get him a hot water bottle to hold against his belly. “You can’t do this to yourself, Darling,” I’d smooth the hair away from his forehead, “You have to learn how to rationalize all this anxiety…”

“I knows it,” We lived North of Cardiff in Wales. Far enough North that the very distinctive dialect that exists down there should not have factored in, but it did. Oliver made sure that all of our children started off speaking clearly instead of adopting that dialect, even though he, himself, was able to speak both fluently. Therefore, once they started school and they began hanging around with all the trash talkers in town, all of our children could both communicate effectively and, as Gryffin was ever famous for, throw verb conjugation and the proper English language to the winds. And sound like he had a mouth full of stones as well. He’d respond in the Cardiff jumble, “I don’t wants at do it, it’s just all sorted-like and I don’t like to not acts like it don’ bother me ‘cause it doos…”

“Gryff…stop talking your nonsense!”

“Sorry, Mum,” He immediately spoke properly, “I just do it anymore and don’t think about it.”

“Well, that is a problem then, isn’t it?”

He laughed softly, “Only for you.”

Gryffin grew tall and strong over the years. He was a quiet lad, thoughtful. Gryffin looked just like his dad, so much it was scary, but he’d inherited more than being handsome from Oliver. Gryff had a gentle voice and a gentle disposition. His touch was always soft and easy. He was honest to a fault and did his best never to harm any creature. Of all the children, I was the closest with Gryffin. Why, I’m not sure. I think he chose me. Caro was stuck to her daddy from day one. Warren always seemed to gravitate to his uncle Alex. Natalie was definitely Alex’s girl. Nigel usually turned to Oliver. Annie and Bess loved Lucy. But Gryffin, he was my little buddy. He’d sit and talk to me for hours while I knitted. I never had to ask him to do anything twice. He could make me laugh so hard I’d cry. He was my son, certainly, and he respected me as an authority figure, but he loved me as his mother and as his friend. We were playmates.

Annie and Bess made their way through their childhood much I suppose like any pair of look-alikes who were struggling to establish their separate identities in a world that wanted to think of them as the same person. Those two were identical down to the pads of their feet. Unlike their fathers, it was hard to tell one from the other even once you got to know them. Still, like their fathers, they were fundamentally different. Annie was good at mathematics, Bess was good at Language. Annie liked light haired boys, Bess preferred dark. They fought like two cats locked in a box as well. You would have thought that they hated each other the way they’d scream and pull hair. Lucy and I, having grown up separate, couldn’t understand that. We’d rush in to break up the tussle, but Oliver and Alexander would stop us when they were home.

“Let them go, Love,” Oliver pulled me back gently by the hand, “They’re all right.”

“Annie’s going to kill her!” I swore as Annie grab her sister by the shirt and threw her to the ground, then sat on her and hit her in the shoulders.

“She’s not trying to hurt her,” Alexander promised, but he poised himself on to the edge of his chair to see better, “If she wanted to hurt her, she’d be punching her in the face-like.”

“Bessie’s not even crying,” Ollie added, “She’s just screaming her head off, yeah.”

“Stop it, you two!” Lucy jumped to her feet and headed to the girls, but Alex caught her by the elbow. “Let me go, Xander!”

“No!” Alex told her in a firm, gentle voice, “They have to do this! You don’t understand! Oliver and I do! They have to settle this!”

Lucy looked disgusted.

“It’s a twin thing,” Oliver explained, “You don’t understand. We do. Let them sort it.”

So we did. We sat in our chairs, Lucy and I biting our lips, and we watched the two youngest girls slap and punch the hell out of each other. When they were done, they sat with their backs to each other and they cried. When they were done crying, they checked to make sure the other was all right and they went inside and both had a kip. They fought again from time to time, but each spar became less violent until it was mostly just arguing that went on. They were never as tight as Oliver and Alexander. It wasn’t until there was an advantage or some hint of trouble that they suddenly united or, as they were coached by their father and his brother, conveniently attempted to switch identities. It worked often. Even on me.

Neither of the twins took much after their mother or their father in looks. They were both medium height with long strawberry hair and big green eyes. Those were Cotton traits for sure. The thing that struck me odd about them was that both their faces were sprayed with beautiful, pale freckles all across their noses and cheeks. No one on either side of the family that I knew of was freckled. That was until Ana showed me a photo of herself at about fourteen, “Those are mine!” She laughed and pointed at her young face, “I hate my freckles! I’ve covered them with powder for years!”

Annie had a head for science like I did, so she and I got on quite well. Annie reminded me in many ways of her grandmother, Ana. It was her properness, her organization, the way she made sure that everything had a place and was in its place at all times. But just when you’d begin to think she was no fun at all, she’d come out with the most outrageous and hilarious statements that would leave you standing with your mouth hanging open. Annie loved to shock people and she was very good at it.

“Annie! I told you to get out of that tree!” Alexander shouted angrily at her from the porch when she was about four years old.

She replied in Welsh.

Alexander stiffened and locked his jaw. He looked at Oliver, “What did she just say?”

Oliver sniggered, “She told you to go put your finger up your arse and whistle.”

Alexander blinked, “I thought that was it. I should really go and beat her now, yeah?”

“I don’t know, Brawd. She’s quite small.”

“I can’t believe she just said that to me!” He tried not to laugh. “Bloody hell! And in Welsh, too! Where‘d she learn that?”

“She heard it from you!” Oliver glanced back across the garden to Annie, “You think you they can’t speak Welsh yet? They know everything you say. You always were the bad egg.”

“Aye! There’s nothing I can do! I’ll just go stick my finger in my arse and whistle then?”

“May as well,” Oliver replied. “But you still better make her come out of the tree or she’ll know you’re a pansy.”

“Right!” He drew a breath, “Antonia, I said get out of that tree! If you don’t you’ll be the one whistling out your bum!”

He took only two steps before she was on the ground.

Bess was a separate sort from the other Dickinson children. I can’t put my finger on exactly how, though. She was bright and lovely. She ran and giggled and dropped candies in the faerie circle like the others. As she grew, however, it became more and more obvious that she lacked understanding of the wood. To her it was a lovely place to visit, but it was never a home. I never saw the winds embrace her. She never woke up and told me she heard voices in the night. Rarely did anything she brought over come up missing.

Bess was like her brother, Nigel, in many ways. The first would be in temperament, as she was predisposed to outbursts of rage that included knocking around a girl or two at school when they trespassed the boundaries she had set for them. The second was her inclination toward athletics. Bess was one of the few girls who made it on to the high school rugby team, playing forward, as she was extremely nimble and quick in a race. She did quite well at it, but it was tennis that was her real love. She competed in many tournaments throughout the years, but when she was offered the chance to pursue it semi-professionally, she opted for college instead. Sports, she reasoned, could make her quite a name and perhaps a bit of money, but in the end it would take its toll physically and offer nothing permanent. She was more interested in putting her hands into the dirt and therefore opted to study history and anthropology, which became her life long career. Our Bess was full and whole, but she was a different echo from that ancient Dickinson stone. She was more like the Cottons, I’d say, bright as the sun, focused, and not afraid to set goals and chase them until they’d been had, but she wasn’t whimsical and certainly not a daydreamer.

Warren, on the other hand, was a Dickinson down to the marrow in his bones. He had inherited the red hair of the Cottons, although his was a much darker shade than anyone else, as if coffee had mixed with copper. He had the devil’s grin, that boy. Warren looked as much like Oliver as Gryffin did, but wasn‘t as dark. He was like his father in many ways as well, especially with his enthusiasm and zest for fun, but there were other similarities. Like his father, Renny was very popular without any effort, especially with the ladies. It was hysterically funny the way they flocked to him, even when he was just a little boy. I remember when a new family moved in across the street from Ana and Eddie, Warren, who was about five years old, went outside to see them. Two little girls in pigtails came skipping across the street and it wasn’t fifteen minutes before he had them in the house. It wasn’t an hour after that they were fighting each other in the yard to decide who got to be his girlfriend.

“He’s going to be a rock star,” I told Oliver.

“Well, he’s certainly not going to be a rocket scientist,” Oliver laughed, “But he’s not going to be lonely, yeah?”

Warren struggled with his studies. Many people, including Oliver, took him to be lazy at times, but he wasn’t so much lazy, as in his head, he wasn’t wired like others. Our son wasn’t a dunce, but school books didn’t come so easily to him. It took him a long time to learn to read. He’d look at a page and not recognize any letters, although he could tell you his alphabet and spell out words orally, He had loads of trouble writing as well. It was as if he just couldn’t form the letters properly. He formed his letters backwards and often upside down. He was distractible and impatient with anything that didn’t capture his interest one hundred percent.

He was immediately labelled learning disabled. Oliver was in agreement with that. We soon discovered that what we thought was a slight stutter was actually a rare speech disorder called a “clutter”. Warren was not stuttering at all. Instead of his words getting stuck, they were combining. For instance, instead of saying his hands were “freezing and red” after playing in the snow, they would come out of his mouth as “f-f-f-fred”. However, his over-anxious teachers were quick to try to diagnose him with other disorders as well, ones that his father was not so quick to agree with.

“He’s not AdHd,” Oliver told Ren’s headmaster rather hotly.

“I’ve seen many students with AdHd and…”

“And nothing more out of you!” Oliver snapped, “I’ve got your 'and’! AND I’m a doctor AND I treat every child in this school and the next three towns over AND Warren is not AdHd! There’s a difference between AdHd and being six years old!” The next suggestion made him even more irate. “Aspergers? Are you serious?” He demanded, “Are you out of your bloody mind? Tell me, what subject did you get your degree in? Where do you get your expertise? Read a couple of magazines, see a child who’s a bit different and struggles to learn, and decide he’s handicapped?” I swear he almost spat he was so angry, “I think you need to spend some time around a child who’s truly autistic before you make a suggestion like that! Then again, maybe you should take anatomy once again as well so you can distinguish your arse from your bloody chin!”

When challenged, my husband could be more than arrogant, and nasty as anyone you‘d rather not deal with. He ended up pulling Ren and Gryff both from that elementary school and putting him in a private school nearly an hour away. But the result was that his new teacher gave Warren more one on one attention and noticed an odd thing that no one else ever had. Warren’s eyes seemed to roll in his sockets at times when he moved his head.

We immediately took him to an optometrist, who, after a brief examination, discovered what the problem had been all along. Warren had weak muscles in the back of his eyes, which often gave up, and he couldn’t consistently focus his sight. In reality, he had 20/20 vision, but he couldn’t see a thing because he couldn’t keep focused long enough for his brain to translate what he was seeing. The doctor gave us exercises to strengthen his eye muscles and by the end of the school year, Warren had gone up three grade levels in every subject. The thing that I noticed, however, after we got his eye sight corrected, was that he didn’t seem to be able to remember a thing that he had read, but if he saw it done, he’d get it in a snap. Then once he’d done it himself he’d never forget it. I had to work with him after school with his studies, but after a time he seemed to not need me so much. Warren was never an excellent student, but what he was would have made Merlyn Pierce green with envy. Warren was musical.

As a baby his favourite thing to do was to sit on his Granddad’s lap and bang away at the piano in their sitting room. Edmond had tried to force both of his sons to play, which they had shown no interest and even less talent for. He was thrilled that out of all the grandchildren, one finally had some concern for his beloved piano.

“Pay beano?” Warren would ask the minute we’d come in the house.

“Play my piano?” Edmond beamed, “Of course! Come on!”

It was always a noisy visit.

“Oliver, Silvia, a moment please,” Edmond stopped us one evening on our way out the door, “I’d like to ask you if I may do something for Warren. I’ve been playing with him at the piano and he catches on quite quickly. I think he could play. I’d like to ask you if I might set him up with lessons.”

“You’d do that to someone else?” Oliver asked seriously, shivering at the memory of his own piano instruction. “That’s just mean, Old Man!”

“Oh, I think that’d be lovely,” I told Edmond, shifting Warren on my hip, “He’s about the right age to start isn’t he?”

“Bloody hell, he’s only three!” Oliver saw the look on his father’s face and shut his mouth immediately. Instead he picked up Gryffin as if to protect him.

“He might be a little young, but if he isn’t ready we can just try him again later,” Edmond gave me a rare smile, ignoring his son completely, “I’d like to see how he does.”

Warren took to it immediately. We had no room for a piano in the cabin, but we bought him a keyboard and not long after a set of headphones for him to use along with it. When he was five he begged for a guitar, which his Granddad supplied for him. By the time he was eight Edmond had him giving concerts in the village on both instruments. Warren didn’t take to the violin very well and he despised the cello, but Edmond didn’t care. He had his little prodigy. When Warren got to school he took up the clarinet, which led to oboe, bassoon and saxophone. Oliver bought him a trumpet for his thirteenth birthday. He’d stand out in the garden and play Vivaldi for the elves, as he would when he took up French horn. I found the flute lovely floating in the windows from the garden, but it was the piccolo I enjoyed the most. Warren could sing as well, but for whatever reason he would choke when it came to using his own voice in public. That was until he landed the lead role in a musical at school and came out of his shell. From then on, it was a different story.

“Mum! Warren’s in his room with his cans on, crooning in French! Grandad, you never should have told him about Maurice Chevalier!”

“Caro, did it ever cross your mind to knock on his door and ask him to stop?” I asked.

“Ugh!” She turned and stomped up the stairs.

“He’s unstoppable!” I told Edmond, who had dropped by for tea. “He breathes music! There’s hardly any space for him to sleep in his room! It’s filled with instruments and music leaves scattered everywhere!”

“He’s got my name in the middle of his!” Edmond bragged with a grin that rivalled either of his sons, “Warren Edmond Dickinson! There’s a reason it’s in there! I love them all, though, you know! All my grandchildren are brilliant! Just brilliant! All of them! But that Warren…”

Ah, Edmond and Warren. It would be my guess that Edmond had often wondered if his own sons had somehow mutated from the gene pool, but he’d found his soul mate in Warren. For all the years they had together, the two were nearly inseparable.

If you count from the time that Nigel was born to the day the last child left the wood, you would have yourself twenty-four years. It’s incredible to think about. I spent almost a quarter of a century wiping bogeys from noses and tears off cheeks, sticking plasters to injuries and having to be sympathetic to problems the kids were having in their lives that seemed so inconsequential to me. I mean, being serious, at thirteen, who cares if a boy doesn’t like you? At sixteen, who cares if you failed your driver’s test on the first try? And at seventeen, who cares if you get accepted to three universities like Annie did and have to choose which one you want to attend the most? It was difficult for me to keep in perspective how harrowing these things were for the children. Honestly, at seventeen, I was married!

“You’re stressing too much! Your whole life is just beginning! Just see where the winds take you…just fly!” That’s what I told them. I said to Nigel and to Carolena. To Natalie and to Gryffin. I told it to Annie. I told it to Bess too. And to Warren. I said it to each of them as they struggled with their fears and insecurities, “You were born with wings! Your heart is free! It’s a beautiful world out there with everything imaginable waiting for you to find! Don’t be afraid! Fly away!”

It seemed that they must have listened because one night I went to bed and the next day when I woke up, all of them were leaving me.

Nigel and Caro, of course were first. Nigel headed down to Graytown and got a flat the summer he graduated high school with some mates of his. He worked at a pub and went to uni where he studied Welsh and History. Caro, as promised, headed off to London where she enrolled in a school for Veterinary Science, and worked in a department store to support herself in a flat in Chelsea. Two years later, our little Natalie left off for school in Paris, where she was to study Art. She was still so small. She looked just like a little kid as she hugged her daddy and mum at the rail stop. “Goodbye for now, Auntie Sil! Uncle Ollie!” She hung out the door of the train and waved as it pulled away, “See you soon! I love you all! Cheers! Bye!”

We all stood there until the train was out of sight. “Three gone,” Alexander said with an obvious lump in his throat, “Four to go.”

“I hope she’ll be all right,” Lucy’s voice broke. “Paris is so far away.”

“She’ll be fine,” Oliver put his arm around my sister, “As long as she doesn’t call and say she’s house sitting or camping over spring break, we’ve no worries!”

“Oh mercy, Oliver! What we did to our parents!” I put a hand over my mouth so Lucy wouldn’t see me smile.

“I’d kill her!” Alexander muttered.

“Don’t say such things!” Lucy insisted. “She’d never!”

Oliver and I laughed. Shameless, we were. We had no remorse for what we’d put our parents through. When we’d married we felt it was our life to choose. Not one day after did we ever do a blasted thing that anyone told us we should. We gave each other permission not to. We didn’t listen to a word of decent advice. We were young. Love had a way of making us fearless because we knew that no matter what happened, if we fell on our face as we entered the ring or conquered the world in battle, in the end it would just be us, together. Everyone else would have buggered off before the day was through. He and I were just the way it was supposed to be. It was brilliant.

There was a two year separation between Nattie leaving us and Gryffin finishing his studies at comp. Gryffin decided that university was not for him. Instead he took a job writing for a journal and the autumn after he finished school he packed his bags and moved straight to Edinburgh to put pen to paper and make a living at it.

“If there was more opportunity in Wales, I’d stay,” He told me the morning he drove away, “I’m going to miss you, Mum. And this place. Lord Copse and Lady Folia, too. I told them I’ll be back one day and asked them to look after you. You’ll be OK, yeah?”

I smiled. “Gryff, I have a husband to look after me.”

My son laughed, “I know, but I love you, Mum. I worry.”

“I love you, too, Muffin, and don’t worry. Your dad is very good at looking after me, plus I’m pretty sturdy myself. Just go and make your dreams all come true. That’s all I want from you. Be happy.”

It’s true. It is all I ever wanted for him or for any of the children for that matter. I wanted them to go off and chase their dreams and make happy lives for themselves. But it didn’t ease the discomfort or the loneliness or the worry that followed having them go.

As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve never been good at letting things go. Oliver was always good at it. He’d mourn for a bit and then he’d move on somehow, but I never figured out how he did it, especially when someone I loved would pass.

I lost Duncan the summer I’d had him fifteen years, almost on the exact date he’d been delivered to me. Duncan had been lively and strong until the end, but the last few months of his life he’d started having strokes. They were small ones, ones he recovered from quickly. They’d take him off balance, but after re-hydrating him and giving him a vitamin, he’d perk up and go chasing rabbits off into the wood as if he were still a pup. Then, toward the end, I found him in the middle of a fit. When he came out of it, he walked sideways and was nearly blind. Still, he didn’t seem to be suffering and he was more than content to lie beside somebody and have his ears rubbed, so Oliver and I decided it wasn’t time to have him put down. I wasn’t ready to part with him anyway, but I was slowly working on preparing myself for the inevitable. Duncan was dying. It was only a matter of time until he did and I knew it.

I woke up in the middle of the night one night to the whispers of the elves. I lie there and listened, unable as always to make out a word that they said. Still, something told me that I needed to go into the living room, so I climbed out of my bed and walked along the cool floorboards into the front of the cabin. I heard an odd noise, a sort of raspy snort, and flipped on the light to see my little dog lying on the couch, twitching. It was obvious that there was something terribly wrong.

“Oliver!” I called as I knelt beside my dog, “Oliver! Come quick! It’s Duncan!”

Oliver was beside me in a flash. He put his hands on Duncan’s chest, turned him, and put his ear against his side. When he lifted his head, his face was stone serious. He turned his dark eyes to me and shook his head. “Hold him, Sil,” He whispered, “Sit with me on the sofa and let’s hold him.”

He didn’t need to say any more. I lifted my ancient Scottish terrier into my arms and I cradled him like a baby. I ran my hands over his smooth fur and kissed his little face. I watched my tears land in his beard and stick. I wiped them away. I watched him take short, shallow breaths. Over a few hours they gradually became more and quieter until they were faint. It took me a few minutes to realize it when he stopped breathing all together, but I know that Oliver knew it the second it happened because I heard him crying softly behind me.

“Oh my,” I whispered as I ran my hand over Duncan’s smooth fur, “He’s left us, hasn’t he? Duncan‘s gone away.”

“I’m sorry,” Oliver whispered harshly. He cleared his throat, “It’s just his time.”

I put my hands over my face, but I didn’t cry right away. I couldn’t decide if it were sorrow or relief I felt that he was gone. I decided that it was both, but those are two emotions that are difficult to feel at the same time. They don’t mingle well. Ollie put his arms around me from behind and cradled me like a child, rocking me gently from side to side.

“He was so old!” I bawled. “He was the best dog ever!”

“I’m so sorry. Yes, Sil, Duncan was the best dog that ever lived. My God, we had him longer than we’ve had Caro!” He shook a little.

We sat there like that for a time, Oliver holding me and me holding my poor old dog, both of us weeping quietly so we didn’t wake the children. Finally, about the time the sun was on the rise, Oliver told me it was time to bury our pet.

I allowed him to take Duncan from my arms. He lovingly wrapped him in the blanket he often slept on by the stove and carried him out to a shady corner in the garden. Just before the tree line where the deer often stood and watched us, he began to dig a hole. I sat on the porch with a rag and I sobbed as I watched him plunge the shovel deeper and deeper into the Earth. Finally, he took our ancient Scottish terrier into his arms and he kissed him gently on his old face before he placed him in the ground. Then he removed his t-shirt and laid it across him before he began to refill the hole with dirt.

When he was finished, he came and he sat beside me and neither of us said a thing.

The children woke a few hours later. I let Oliver tell them that Duncan had found his rest. We both went with them out to the place where he was buried. We both hold them while they cried. Losing Duncan to them was the same as losing a brother. They’d never known a day without the old bloke, they’d never spent a night without him sleeping beside one of them on their bed. They’d never known death before losing him, not one of them, and it was devastating and confusing and painful. I wished that I could do something, anything, to ease their suffering, but it was impossible to do through my own grief. I felt so selfish as I sat and cried with them, but maybe I really wasn’t. Maybe I was just teaching them that it was all right to be so sad you fell apart. Maybe they needed to know that it was OK to feel bad when you lost something you loved. Maybe I taught them that in life you can’t always be strong and that there are times when it’s perfectly acceptable and even expected, that you are so overwhelmed by emotional pain that you literally cannot stand.

Oliver was more solid. Still, with a heart as hard a pudding, he teared up from time to time and fought it away. Xander came over later in the day and took him out for a pint while Lucy and I bawled softly in the kitchen. Duncan had been a part of their lives, too, and his passing hit them as well as their children. When Nigel, Natalie, and the twins arrived with them it was a whole new round of tears.

It’s funny how animals become a part of your life, real and true as if they were your own flesh and blood. Oliver had gotten me that dog as a replacement for a child we’d lost. Even though we knew full well that he could never really take the place of our Cara, he’d filled a spot that needed filling and he’d helped us both to heal in ways that maybe we wouldn’t have as completely without him. We’d loved that dog as our child, given him the same attention and care that we had all of them. It seemed so unfair that we’d all outlive him, somehow strangely unnatural, even though we knew all along that we’d lose him sooner or later. It tore us apart at the gut, though. It wasn’t much different than it would have been if someone had come along and yanked a baby from our arms. We’d felt that before.

“He was a brave little bloke,” Gryffin sniffed. He was nine years old, his cheeks were splotched as he rested his head on Oliver’s shoulder, “He was about as tall as the cabbages and he’d go chasing deer out of the birdfeeders.”

“Yeah,” Xander smiled, “Barking his brains loose while those wee little stumps he had for legs were just going and going. Imagine if he’d ever got one! Poor, brave ole li’el Dunky-doo.” He shook his head and continued. He spoke loudly as if he were reading from a book, “Fearless Dunkers, defender of bird feeders and mighty conqueror of various dinner scraps! Lord of the Food Bowl and Champion of the Water Dish…” It took me a second to realise he was being funny. “Blimey, he was so old he smelled dead a year ago!”

“He was older than that,” Oliver agreed, “And he did smell of rotten potatoes at the end.”

“’e was older dan God’s granddad!” Gryffin replied with a grin, though his eyes were still red and watery, “That li’el ole Hunky Dunky-doo!” He dropped the accent, “We were lucky to have him for so long. We really were. He actually died six years ago. If he hadn’t swallowed that battery when he ate the pink rabbit…”

“Now that’s a lad,” Oliver smiled and messed his son’s hair.

We all sat together for a while on the stoop. None of us had any inclination to eat supper.

We eventually recovered from the loss of our beloved Duncan. A few weeks later Oliver asked us if we’d like to have another pet, since all we had left were two cats and the spotted grey and white goat, Tangwystl.

“I just don’t want another dog,” I told him later in private, “Right now I want to hold on to Duncan. I don’t have the strength to love anybody new right now. It takes too much courage to love somebody. I’m just not brave enough to lose them. When I’m feeling brave, we can get another dog, but, please, Ollie, I just can‘t take it just yet…”

“Silvia,” He pulled me close, “Please don’t cry anymore. I hate it when you cry. It’s OK. We don’t have to get another dog. Not ever if you don’t want one. And I think you are very brave. You’re very brave to take the time to understand how you feel and you’re brave to say it.”

“I’m being selfish.”

“Shush. You’re the least selfish person I know. You’re being honest. Oy, come on,” he tilted my head back and smiled at me, “Stop it! Stop crying! It‘s OK. I miss him, too. We all miss him. Getting another dog isn‘t going to bring him back, yeah? And you‘re the one going to take care of a new one, so if you‘re not ready, it‘s really us being selfish wanting to drag a new one in. Shush now, Love, and let‘s go eat something sweet. Sugar fixes everything.”

It took me months to get over losing my dog. I missed him as much as I’d missed any person who’d been a part of my every day, especially the ones who I knew would never be coming back. Sometimes I’d hear his bark on the winds. Once or twice the little square we cut in the door for him to come in and out of swung as if he’d passed through it, but there was nothing there. A few times I felt him brush against my leg as I made dinner. Was it his spirit telling me he wasn’t as far away as I feared or was it just my mind trying to comfort me? I wondered, but I was still thankful for the times when it would happen. Faith, Oliver had told me long ago, was believing that something magical could happen at any moment of the day. So I believed.

Years after Duncan left us and Nigel, Caro and Nattie had begun their lives, I helped my youngest son, Warren, to pack his bags. He was heading off to study composition at the London School of Music. My youngest, my baby, was standing before me, tall and strong with his hair a mess on the top of his head, shoving the last of his blue jeans into a cardboard box.

You’d think that after having sent the others off I’d have been comfortable letting Ren go without too many words or tears, but I wasn’t. I watched him, remembering the clumsy toddler who used to pull on my skirts. I could still see that little boy lost somewhere in his lean face. He looked like Oliver. Even his hands were like his fathers, long and slender as he clicked shut his computer and slipped it into a case.

I excused myself quietly from his room and went outside where I wandered into the wood and sobbed alone for about an hour. I took another fifteen minutes after I stopped to gather myself and cool down, hoping when I returned I was not bright red. I knew I would be. Damned pale skin always gave me away, especially when I didn’t want it to.

When I came back into the garden, Annie and Bess were there with Warren, the three of them standing in the middle of the yard with some mates, laughing loudly and talking excitedly about heading off for university. I stood back and I watched them, while that lump kept returning to my chest. I remembered the days the three of them were born. Annie, now beautiful and animated in the mid-day sun, who struggled to breathe at her birth. Little Bess, who came into the world fighting and had never cowered from battle once since. And Warren, our Little Renny, who now towered above everyone and commanded the scene with his very presence.

How proud I was of them. Every one of them. And how much my heart bled that they were old enough to leave me. Where had all the time gone? When had this happened? When had they gotten so big, so strong, so independent? And what on Earth was I going to do once they were gone?

Off they went, opened their wings and flew away. Bess went to study anthropology in Cardiff. She lived at home for a few months and then got a flat with a couple of her schoolmates. She came and went as she always had, showing up mostly for suppers and holidays with loads of stories to tell us all. She was always travelling somewhere or doing something exciting, like going to Easter Island for six weeks to aid on an archaeological study.

“It’s such a big, beautiful, fascinating world out there, Auntie Silvia,” She told me once over a quick lunch in London, “I want to go everywhere and see everything! I wish Annie would go with me sometimes, but her feet are glued here in Britain.”

“Do you miss her?” I asked, remembering how many years the two of them had spent fighting like cats in a bag.

“Terribly.” Tears sprang into her eyes, “I love my life, you know? I love to travel, but sometimes I just want to go home. Annie is my home and she’s usually so far away. It’s hard…”

Annie had decided that she wanted to settle on studying business at King’s College in London, and was working three jobs to boot. She wasn’t much to be seen as of late. She and Carolena had rented a flat together with another girl, who disappeared a few months later in the middle of the night with most of their clothes. Shortly after that, Warren decided he didn’t like living where he was in London and he took up residence with the girls. Annie liked that quite a bit, she said, because his presence deterred boys from inviting themselves in. Annie had many suitors and none she was interested in dating more than casually.

By the time Warren moved in, Carolena was in love with the older brother of a friend she worked with. He was a tall, light haired, handsome bloke named Adam Moldovan. They’d met at a costume party and had been joined at the hip since. Oliver and I liked Adam quite a lot as he had a quick sense of humour and a kindly disposition. It was a bonus that, according to both Warren and Annie, he respected and adored Carolena as well. It was the only thing, Warren said, that kept him from exercising brotherly protection.

“Adam’s all right,” He told Oliver and I one evening as we were all having dinner. “He calls before he comes over and he leaves when he ought to. It’s Annie’s dates I don’t like being in the house.”

“At least her dates don’t giggle like fools,” Caro told him.

“Or scream ‘Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!’ at the top of their lungs all night long while people are trying to sleep,” Annie added bravely.

Warren turned deep crimson and stared at the tablecloth.

There was an awkward silence where several of us could not look at each other without laughing.

Lucy cleared her throat, “So, Warren, have you auditioned for the symphony yet?”

Warren was still reading at the London College of Music. Of course, he shined there. The competition was thick and he occasionally felt overwhelmed and insecure, but his dedication and talent carried him through the rough spots. He’d call Oliver and me up just bursting with news of who he’d met and what he was doing. We were often lost in translation, but we were excited because he was. He stayed in London for two years before he graduated and was asked to audition for an orchestra in Berlin. From Berlin he played his French horn and then he was invited to play piano in concert in the Czech Republic. He stayed on there for about six weeks before he was subsequently asked to play the piano for an opera in Vienna. He rang often to tell us how unbelievably cold it was in the city and how unbelievably blessed he felt to be doing what he was doing.

“Life’s fantastic, Mum!” He told me breathlessly. “Really! Who would have ever thought a boy from the wood would be walking in the footsteps of Mozart?”

“Yes, Renny,” I smiled into the phone, “It is fantastic. I‘m so happy for you.”

Finally in his element, our baby boy had done what I told him. He’d spread his wings and he had flown away. So far away. I missed him. I missed them all.

I must admit, I went a little crazy with all of them gone. Actually, I went a lot crazy. I found myself being clingy and needy with Oliver when he was home. When he was gone, I was lonely and bored. I had no interest in any of my chores or hobbies. I found myself easily brought to tears and not sleeping well. I spent most of my days hanging about in the garden, talking to my trees.

“I want them!” I shouted at least ten times a day to the winds, “Send them home! Make them little again! I want my muffins little again!”

The goat was cute and funny, but she wasn’t enough to fill my void. I thought about getting another dog, but I couldn’t stand the idea of the heartbreak it would bring when he crossed the veil. I was not willing to go through that again. The pain of losing Duncan had left me shy. I could get a cat, I supposed, but a cat was likely to just be wild in the wood. The other’s had all gotten that way. I knew I needed to just get used to the idea that I would see the children at Christmases and when I was lucky enough to make or receive a visit. It just seemed so horribly dismal. I still had my need to mother something and no one to look after.

Seven muffins, seven empty beds. Three rooms upstairs and a nursery downstairs that we had put on just for our children, all sitting quietly where there used to be so much noise and so much action. And me, who’d given up a career and all self-interest to raise a family, had no idea of what to do with myself.

Oliver came home from work one night with a bag of sweets for the circle and a faerie cake. He took off his office jacket and walked to the stove where I was standing. “I’ve been thinking, Just Silvia, that I know what your problem is.”

“I have a problem, do I?” I asked inoffensively as I turned my chicken in the pan.

“Well, it’s not a problem, perhaps,” He tossed his jacket over the back of a chair, “It’s more of a predicament.”

“And what is my predicament, pray thee?” I stuck my face into his, “Are you forgetting something?”

“Not at all, Love!” He gave me a kiss, “I’ve thought of everything.”

“And what is everything?”

“Your problem is simple. You’re bored.”

“I am,” I agreed.

“Yes, you are! You’ve been bored since the moment you waved goodbye to Warren as he got on that plane, you have. I think you need a little something to occupy your energy,” He rolled the faerie cake in his fingers and then licked icing from his thumb.

“What do you suggest?” I asked as I turned off the stove.

“Well…is supper finished, Love?”

“It is. Are you hungry?”

“Yes.”

“Well, wash your hands then. I’ll have it for you in a second.”

“I don’t want to eat right now.”

“Why?”

“Because I’d rather do this,” I should have known when I saw the smile curve in the corners of his mouth he was up to something, but, being out of practice, he caught me off my guard. In a flash he took that faerie cake and he smashed it right into my face.

I stood there with my mouth gaping, cake and icing up my nose and sticking to my eyelids.

Oliver was standing in front of me now with his hands on his knees, that old, insane smile on his face, “Are you bored now, Love?”

“I’m…going to…do…you for that!”

“Ha! You have to catch me first!” He shouted and made a dash for the door, calling, “You are way too slow, Silvia! You’ll never get me!”

I grabbed a bread roll from the counter top being as it was the nearest thing I could smash into his face in return and jetted out that door hot on his heels. I couldn’t see for a moment through the cake in my eyes, but I could hear him laughing and shouting from the lawn.

We were seventeen again. I gave him a good chase across the garden and down the path, but he was still much quicker than I was. “Run! Run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me!” He called as he leaped over something in the way, “I’m the bloody Gingerbread--” It was at that moment his foot caught on something and he fell flat on his chest.

I had to stop running I was laughing so hard. “Are you hurt?” I called out to him. I kept forward, but I was bent sideways with laughter.

“I think I’ve ruptured my spleen!” He rolled on to his back and flopped his arms out wide. “I’ve been meaning to fix that hole!”

It was my turn to cackle and taunt him, “Can’t catch you, you’re the bloody gingerbread man? Did your break your biscuit when you hit the ground?”

He laid there and laughed.

I plopped down beside him out of breath, but smiling. “Here,” I handed him the roll, “You must be hungry.”

He drew me to him and sucked icing off my cheek, “I’d rather eat cake. Oh, that was a good. I should have bought a batch.”

“It’d have been all out war if you had. And anyway, all you ever eat is the icing.”

He was quiet. He played with my plait for a while, still smiling, “I love you, Sil.”

“I love you, too, Oliver.”

“You know, having them all gone doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We can snog on the couch again in peace.”

“True.”

“We can snog all over, in fact. We’ve never done it on the path.”

“Ha-ha!” I slapped his leg, “Imagine that! On all these stones? I get the top!”

“Yeah, on second thought, that’s probably not the best idea.” He pulled himself up and helped me to my feet, “I’m starving. Let’s go eat some of your supper, Love. And when we’re done I’ll give you a right good snogging. Test the waters, you know, see if I still got it.”

“Oh, you still got it,” I assured him.

We walked back to the house hand in hand.

After getting cake smashed in my face, Oliver and I were back to our old ways again; pawing each other on the couch, swimming naked in the pond, throwing dirt at each other. We made love on the lawn and slept in the sun when we were through. We stayed up late at night wrapped in that old woollen blanket watching the sky. Oliver kept up his medical practice and I tended the garden. We both went together and talked to the winds and the trees and left sweets for the Lord and the Lady and their boon, of which they now had many more.

I got used to the cabin being quiet again and fell back into being who I was before the children came along, Just Silvia, Oliver Dickinson’s wife. And, as we always had been, we were happy once more.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Once of the tricks about life is that it’s always changing. Sometimes the changes are good. Sometimes you think they’re good and you end up disappointed. Other times you think life has handed you a lemon and it turns out to be a diamond. And there are other times when it just is what it is. It’s not what you wanted, but there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just have to accept what’s happened and go on. Those are the toughest times in my book, the times when you simply have no choice and life just does what it wants without even asking what anybody thinks.

There had always been a hole in my heart, a space that my mother had left when she died. Most of my life I’d kept so busy that I didn’t take the time to know it. I recognized that there was a disconnection inside of me when it came to my family. By the time I was a teenager I’d become so engrossed in Oliver and his family and in ingraining myself into it that that I’d left my own blood far behind as if it never mattered. But the truth was that it did matter and as I got older, I began to feel a nagging inside. I was a Scot, born in the Highlands, and living in Wales. I missed my homeland. I began to think more and more about my ancestors, the men and women who had come before me, who had fought and died on the same soil that their father’s had. The same soil under which my mother now rested. The same soil I had left behind.

Sharon Mariana Nettles. My mother. Born twenty years before me. Married my father. That was all I knew of the woman who had given me life.

It haunted me more and more that I couldn’t remember her. Sometimes when I was home alone and it was very, very quiet, I’d try. I’d sit with my eyes closed and allow my mind to wander. I had flashes, bits of impressions and snapshot-like memories. Blurbs of a woman standing at the side of a bed with her cool hand pressed against my hot cheek or a woman in a red jacket walking briskly down the street pushing a pram. I could almost hear her, “Come along, Silvia! Faster, Darling! Quit splashing in puddles! Your baby sister can’t get wet like we can!”

It always left me with a sigh. Was it even her? I couldn’t be sure. No matter what I did, I couldn’t see her face. I knew what she looked like in photos, so I knew I‘d recognize her if I could only just see her.

I’d talk myself all together out of thinking it was her I remembered. It may not have been. It may have been Gran, whom I did remember. Gran had taken care of Lucy and me so much after Mummy died. The truth was that I would probably never even know. I had only blurry images and ideas, but nothing concrete. I remembered some of the things I did after she was gone. I remember being told that she was with the angels. I didn’t really know what an angel was, so I several times a day I’d go to the window and sit, watching for a car to pull up and have the angels leave her off. I remembered writing a letter and sticking it in the letter box at Gran’s. It was addressed to heaven and I had asked for God to send my mother home. If he couldn’t, I asked for him to give her a drawing that I had enclosed.

I had no one I could ask about her other than my father. My mother had been an only child. I knew of no cousins on her side, or of any great aunts or uncles who still lived. It was apparent that I was going to have to speak to my father if I wanted to know anything, but I was afraid to do it. The thought of breeching that gap with him, of actually inspiring a response, sent me into convulsions.

He had never reacted to anything. Not when I did something bad as a child, not when I succeeded in school, not when I ran away and got married under-age or graduated university or had babies. He’d made the required phone calls, shown up for the required visits, given the appropriate congratulations and simply left. But the subject of my mother had been very different. I remembered him after she died. Him, sitting in the living room with his head between his knees, sobbing. I remembered him sinking to his bottom in the grass at the cemetery on a rare visit. I remembered creeping out of my bedroom one night, very late, to find him in the kitchen with a female friend of my mother‘s, a thick glass of brandy in his hand, and I’d asked in a whisper if Mummy was ever coming home.

He looked at me and made a hard face. His eyes narrowed and he glared. He looked at me as if he hated me, like he’d have slapped my teeth out of my mouth if I had been standing any closer. Then he turned from me and gave the same look to the refrigerator.

“Get back to your bed! “ The friend said harshly, making a move toward me as if she was going to strike me, “Stop talking your nonsense! Leave your father alone!”

I spun and ran back to my room I accidentally slammed the door behind me. Lucy, four months old, howled for a moment. I heard my father go to her and the friend mumble something about damning me for my stupidity.

I hid under the duvet. That was when I understood what dead meant. That was the moment when I knew she was never coming back. That was the moment that the innocent little child that was me ceased to exist. It was the moment that I stopped trusting my dad. I knew to never ask about her again and I never did. His response to my question had made it very clear that she was a subject better left untouched. Anything I might have remembered as a child slowly faded from my mind.

But there were still traces of her. When I was eight I found a woman’s tortoise shell comb in his dresser as I was putting away his pants. He saw it in my hand and froze in the doorway. His face draw back as if he’d been stabbed. The silence that followed left me with a horrible sense of shame as if I’d done something terrible, yet I had no idea exactly what it was.

And so my mother became a stranger to me, someone who had left me before I had the chance to know her.

My own children were grown and gone. From time to time they’d phone me, each of them, and we’d chat. The whole time somewhere in the back of my heart there was an ache that hadn‘t been there when they were small. After all those years, after having raised my own children, I finally had time to realise what my mother and I had lost. It was each other. I finally had time to miss her and mourn her passing the way I should have when I was a child.

Time passed and I still said nothing to my father. It was Oliver who sat with me at night and listened to my frustration, who didn’t call me mad for crying over a woman who’d died so long ago that I couldn’t even remember her.

“You lost somebody, Sweetie,” He’d say as he smoothed back my hair, “You lost somebody you loved. Maybe it happened a long time ago, but it still happened. In a way, it’s good that you’re finally sad about it. I’m glad that there was enough of a bond there that you can feel that now, all these years later. It’s safe to feel it. You’re safe. It means that she loved you as well…more than you knew…so much that a part of you is still mourning her, yeah?”

Lucy and I went to visit our father in the spring he was turning seventy. He had rang her and asked us to. He said it was important. Both of us knew that something was occurring, but neither of us knew what. He was waiting in his house for us when we arrived in the afternoon. He looked frail, drawn. He seemed short of breath and had a woman who was flitting about the house. He had never mentioned her to either of us, so, naturally, Lucy asked if he had a girlfriend.

He laughed softly and shook his head, “No,” He smiled, “Felicity is my nurse.”

He explained much too calmly that he was in third stage kidney cancer. Lucy and I sat in our chairs in stunned silence as we listened to him prattle on. It was only the one kidney, he told us, and there was no evidence that any cancer had spread. There were plans to have it removed. With luck they’d get it all in one swoop. Without luck, he’d die quickly, possibly even on the table.

Lucy and I stared at each other. Finally, she spoke, “Daddy! What’s the odds you’ll have luck?”

He laughed again, oddly happily, “About 10%,” He told her. “Don’t look so frightened, Lucy! It’s certainly dismal, but I’m having it removed, so there’s at least a chance! If I didn’t, I’d be dead in a couple of months. I’m opting for the surgery!” He leaned back in his seat, “I’m a Scot, after all! I won’t go down without a fight!”

I phoned Oliver later and told him the news, too stunned to feel any emotion. He didn’t have much to offer on the subject. Oncology was not his speciality. We ended up talking about taking a trip to Paris later in the season, just for fun. Just the two of us. He made me laugh like he always did. How odd, I thought. I was fifty-one years old, lying in my old bed in my old bedroom, whispering to Oliver Dickinson on the telephone, covering my mouth so my giggles wouldn’t wake my father. Life truly does repeat itself.

As we said goodnight, he promised, “I’ll ring you up as soon as I’m done with work. At lunch, maybe, if I can.”

I thought of the boy who worked at the flour mill in Newtown who always rushed to phone me after work. I wished he were rushing to catch a train instead to see me just like he did then. But I didn’t say it. Instead I sighed, “I love you, Ollie.”

“I love you, Just Silvia. I’m glad you’re not hurt or ticked off.”

“No, Sweetie,” I laughed softly, “I’m just fine.”

Lucy and I stayed in Edinburgh, in the house we’d grown up in, while Daddy prepared for his operation. The day he had it we were at the hospital. It took several hours. Lucy cried here and there, paced the halls, phoned Alexander so often I thought he’d tell her to stop, but he never did. I didn’t feel quite so anxious. I sat on the couch in the waiting room and drank coffee from a paper cup while I read a book. On the surface I am sure that I appeared removed, but the truth was that I felt far from it. I wanted that man to live. Not so much because I loved him so much I couldn’t imagine life without him or because, like my sister, I valued life in general so highly. I wanted him to live because I still hadn’t gotten what I wanted out of him yet. He still hadn’t told me about Mum.

The doctor came out of the operating room at about six in the morning to tell us that Dad had come through his surgery successfully. “We got the kidney,” He said with a tired smile, “And it looks like we got all the cancer with it. It’s going to be a rough road, but this part is over.”

Lucy and I were exhausted. We took a taxi back to the house. It was still inside as we entered, like there was no life in there at all. It smelled faintly like pine needles and coffee. The boards creaked beneath my feet as I walked into the kitchen.

Lucy followed behind me. She stretched her arms over her head and yawned loudly. She shifted her weight from side to side, “Well, I reckon we should go to sleep.”

An idea had suddenly swept me. I turned to her and put my hands on my hips, more awake than I’d been all night. “You go ahead, Lucy,” I told her, “I’m going to go into the attic.”

“For what?” She made a face. Her nose twisted and her bottom lip poked out just a bit. Lucy had always been afraid of the attic.

“You don’t have to come,” I laughed, “But I want to have a look. There have to be… things there…” I trailed off, then said the rest quickly, “That I want to see.”

“Like what?” She blinked, looking at me as if I were out of my skull.

“Oh, Lucy!” I stamped my foot, “Things that were Mummy’s! You know he’s hidden them! I want to see!”

“Mum’s?” She looked confused.

“Lu, I know you were little and you don’t remember her, but I do! I think I do! I might! I think about her all the time lately and I wonder. I think I remember things, but I’m not sure and if I can find something…anything…that was hers maybe I’ll be able to remember more.”

My little sister nodded with sudden understanding, “All right,” She answered gently, “Do you want company?”

“That’s up to you. You’re tired, aren’t you?”

She grinned. Lucy was forty-six years old, but she was still beautiful, especially when she smiled. “Nothing coffee can’t fix!” She swore as she glanced at the machine on the counter, “You taught me that!”

My sister and I tore through that attic and searched for any remnants of our mother.

“I feel naughty," She told me as she flipped open a dusty hat box, “Like I’m not supposed to be doing this."

“He wouldn’t like it," I agreed, “But I don’t really care. She belongs to us, too, Sissy," I felt a ping of anger spread through my chest and run up my neck. Heat spread across my face, “She belongs to us as well. He can’t keep her to himself anymore. It’s not fair."

Lucy nodded and began to thumb through the contents of the box. After several minutes, she paused, “Oh, my,“ She said softly, running her fingers gently over a post card, “Have a look.“

She handed it to me. It was a glossy black post card with a picture of red wine and the words, “J’taime”. I flipped it over and read what was written on the back.

“Dear Philip, Paris is no good without you. I miss you. Hurry. Love forever, Sharon.“ I checked the post date. They were eighteen years old.

My father had told me once that they’d lived in Paris briefly after they were married. I read the words again, “Look at the date. It was right after they were married.”

Lucy took the card from my hand, read it and grinned, “Let’s see what else we can find.”

There wasn’t much else. Some old photos, many reminders of our childhoods, some of Gran’s gloves and hats, but not much of our mother. Not much at all.

Daddy came home a week later. Oliver and Alexander came on the weekends to help out. After two more weeks Daddy told us he was fine with his nurses and more or less tossed us out. Relieved, we returned to our lives and our husbands.

“Did you ask him about your mther?” Oliver asked me.

“No, I didn’t want to upset him, especially considering what he’d been through.”

Ollie didn’t ask anything else.

I put the post card I had stolen from him in a glass frame and I hung it in our bedroom on the wall beside photos of our children when they were little.

A year passed. I spoke to Dad maybe three or four times, but I asked him nothing. Lucy came to the wood one day all alone. Her eyes were wet and swollen. “I just spoke to a doctor, Sil," Her bottom lip quivered, “He was at a football game and he collapsed."

“Dad?" I felt my heart stop, “Is he all right?"

“Oh, Sil! He’s all right! Sort of! He’s home, but the cancer’s back!" She wailed, “It’s in his lungs this time! Stage three again! Oh, Sil…it’s bad! It‘s so bad! We have to go!”

The two of us drove again to Edinburgh. With no time to wait, he was in surgery when we arrived. Half of one lung was coming out and a quarter of another, plus he was going to have to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. Oliver and Alexander followed after the next evening, both of them uncharacteristically quiet, even as the four of us sat in Daddy‘s kitchen and played cards to pass the time while we waited for word from the hospital.

Of course I was upset about Dad having cancer again and I was worried about him having the operation, but I wasn’t thinking about that so much as I was that I hadn’t asked him what I wanted to know. Damn it! I decided that I wasn’t going to allow him to die without telling me everything he knew about her. He was going to give her back to me. He had to. I was going to make him and I didn’t care if he liked it or not.

Oliver was the only one who knew my plan. I woke up early eight days after his operation and left by myself for the hospital so I could see Daddy alone. He was in his bed, pale and weak, in a green gown with oxygen shoved up his nose. I had hardened myself to it before I got there. “Daddy?” I pulled a chair up to the bed, “How are you?”

“Silvia!” He did his best to smile, “You’re here!”

“I am,” I replied softly. “Tell me, Daddy, are you up for talking?”

“It’s not so easy to breathe,” He admitted, “But I can. What do you want to talk about?”

I was terrified. I felt exactly like I did that night in the kitchen when he’d glared at me and I’d been scolded and sent to my room. I felt stupid and small and ashamed. But I wasn’t a confused five year old child. I wasn’t small or stupid and I had no reason to be ashamed. I was angry. I knew I shouldn’t be. I knew it wasn’t proper, but there he was in his bed, half dead, doing what he could to smile, and all I could think of was the cold look he’d given me that night I’d wandered into the kitchen. Part of me wanted to cry. Part of me wanted to punch his face.

I wasn’t kind or gentle about asking him. I leaned forward and placed my hands squarely on my bare knees, looked him in the eye, and I came right out with it. “No more bullshit, Dad. I don’t want any excuses, I don’t want any lies. You’ve dodged cancer once and it doesn’t look like you’re going to have an easy time doing it the second. You have information I want.“

“What are you? Interpol?” I couldn’t tell if he was annoyed or trying to be funny. “What do you want to know? “

“I need you to tell me about my mother.”

He looked very confused, “What?”

“You’re dying,” I said coldly, “Whether you survive this and beat the cancer or not, you’ll die sooner or later and when you do, you’re going to take all that’s left of my mother with you and leave me without her forever. I’ve let you have her all to yourself all my life, now you’re going to give her back to me. Do you understand, Daddy?” I was shaking. I leaned forward some more, moved to the edge of my chair and hissed, “You’ve had her long enough! You’re not going to die and take her with you! I won’t allow it!”

My father looked older than I could ever have imagined someone looking. He slouched with a sigh. “Well, this is not what I expected. All right, Silvia. I’ll tell you all about her. What do you want to know?”

I was taken aback with how easily he’d agreed. “Everything,” I told him, remembering a conversation I’d had with Alexander’s first wife, Melissa, years ago, when she’d used the same words to get information from me, “I want to know everything.”

“All right,” Daddy’s voice was soft, shallow, short of power for lack of breath, “She was beautiful, Silvia. She looked like an angel, but she liked to break rules. Never anything bad, mind you, just little things. Like she’d chew gum in class, but keep it hidden in her cheek. She’d keep pens. She had thousands of pens. And shoes. The girl couldn’t get enough shoes.“

I vaguely remembered the closet in my father’s bedroom being filled with ladies shoes. When I was small I would go in there and slip my tiny feet into them and try to walk. I recalled stumbling around quite a bit and banging into a dressing table.

“She didn’t like to be inside much, especially in the summer,” He continued, “She never wanted to stay home if she could be someplace else. She liked to sneak out of her house at night to come and see me when we were dating. I worked at a meat shop. It was freezing in there. I was always covered in muck, but she‘d ride her bicycle all the way out there about five miles and sit on a stool and talk to me all night long. She was very bright,” He was looking at me, but I could tell he didn’t really see me at all, “She knew all sorts of things. She was never boring to listen to and even when she talked too much it was all right by me.”

“How old were you when you met?”

“Seventeen,” He answered. His eyes were so far away it frightened me. He paused, the corners of his mouth twitching, “You look like her. I've always told you that. You do. You have her face right down to the crooked bottom lip. There have been times I thought you were her ghost. Your voice, too, sounds like hers.” He gasped and then let out a long breath, “I loved her, Silvia. I loved her more than life itself. “

He stared at me for a long time before he spoke again, “Being with her was like being caught in the wind. She had so much life. She was her own force of nature. She could do things that no girl I ever knew would even think of doing, like toss hand axes and hit marks stuck to trees twenty feet away. She was in the car during the accident that killed her mother. She never told me exactly what went on, but she was very close with her father after. They did everything together. His name was Darrel and he was a welding man. She knew how to make things from metal. She made lovely things. Wind chimes and little brass unicorns, holders that looked like hands and trees for her jewellery. She loved jewellery, anything that shined.”

I listened to him.

“I was too shy to ask her until we were eighteen. Shy and afraid of her old man. He was a big man! Still, I think I told her I was in love with her on our second date. She laughed right in my face. She nearly broke my heart, but then she kissed me. She was always affectionate, you know? She never passed a chance to tell somebody how she felt or to hold my hand. She made me feel like a man and I was just a boy,” I’d never heard him speak like he was. Usually so quiet, the words were rushing out of him and disappearing on the air like powder caught on a breeze, “I married her that year. Her dad knew. We had his blessing, but mine didn’t. My mother wanted me to finish university and have a degree. She didn’t want me working in the plants or the mills, but there was no way Sharon was going to wait.” He paused, shook his head and smiled again, “We got married in this little church called Saint Matthew‘s. It’s not there anymore, they pulled it down years ago. Sharon had a wobble because she didn’t want to wear white. She said it was drab, she wanted something pale pink, but her step-mother wouldn’t have it. Sharon threatened to run away then, but her dad bribed her with the dress Lucy wore at her wedding. He found it himself. Somebody had ordered it special, had it made, and called off their wedding. It had been sitting in a shop for nearly five years. Nobody wanted it. It was too flashy, too long when mini dresses were all the rage. But he knew it was all for Sharon when he saw it. It had sequence, you know, and pearls. It shined, so she lunged for it. She looked unbelievable at our wedding. She carried a single white rose.”

He licked his lips, and nodded off for a long while. The only sound in the room was oxygen gently hissing through the cannula. Just when I was certain he’d say no more, he turned his head back to me and picked up as if there had been no break, “One morning she announced you were on the way. I don’t know, Sil," He shook his head gently from side to side, “She named you Silvia for a book she’d read. Silvia was the name of a beautiful silver dragon that saved a medieval city in a fantasy story. Your middle name, Sophia, means Wisdom. She named you how she hoped you’d be one day. And you are. You are.”

He went on to tell me about my mother with us as babies, how she‘d hold us and talk to us, walk us about and show us everything there was to see. And then he began to tell of something that started a buzz deep inside of me.

“She loved animals, especially rabbits. No idea why, they’re filthy animals, but she had about fifteen of them. I made her a dozen hutches and set them on the side of the house in two rows. She’d take you out there, Silvia, and you’d walk along between them, feeding all the bunnies one by one…”

Something flashed through my mind. It was a memory I’d always had of walking between what I had thought were fences, but they weren’t fences at all. They were small wooden doors covered in chicken wire. It was snowing outside, big, fat flakes falling from the sky and sticking to my eyelids. I reached up with my mitten to rub one off when something from behind one of the screens lunged at me and banged against the door. I screamed and turned to run away, but I lost my footing on the slick snow and fell flat on to my back. A woman bent over me and lifted me to my feet.

“Shush, Love,” She used the same words Oliver always spoke when I was getting emotional. I could hear her laughing gently. I could see her black Wellies and purple tweed coat as she lifted me into her arms, “It’s just Cottontail! It’s just a bunny! He’s not going to hurt you!”

“Cottontail?” I said aloud. “Oh, my God!” I slapped my hand over my mouth. I was literally gobsmacked. My whole body was electric as if I’d been plugged into a socket. Hot, stinging tears filled my eyes and rolled on to my cheeks.

”Are you all right, Silvia?” Dad asked sincerely.

“I’m fine,” I told him, still stunned, “I just….I thought I didn’t remember anything. I thought I couldn’t remember her, but I think I do. I remember a rabbit anyway. His name was Cottontail. I named him after that silly Easter song. I’d forgotten about the rabbits. I thought they were at Gran’s house. I thought they belonged to her.”

He laughed out loud, “No, she didn’t even like them! She agreed to take them, though, after Sharon died, because I couldn’t take care of them and you and Lucy, too.” He stopped and winced. “Just give me a moment,” He whispered.

“Please. Take your time. “

After a moment he began again. “She loved music as well,” He said, “Bagpipes! She loved bagpipes and pan flute! And had such a crush on David Bowie!” He laughed, “It made me so damned jealous!”

David Bowie. Another wave of heat and electricity washed though me. I had always loved David Bowie. I loved him with a dedication and passion that I’d never understood. I’d always felt like I somehow knew the man, as if he’d been a neighbour or an old sitter that had moved away and made the big time and I’d never seen again, but if I did the two of us would throw our arms around the other and be so relieved to be together after so long. Something about his voice, something in his face, in his eyes, had always made me feel safe. He was familiar.

I remember feeling like the room had suddenly disappeared and I wasn’t with my father any longer. I was in a different place all together. I was small, standing just in front of a doorway on a brown rug while a woman closed the door behind us. Sun was pouring in through one of the windows, filling the bed with a giant square of yellow against a grey-blue duvet. She put a record on a player. Above the bed was a picture of David Bowie in a frame. I climbed on to the bed and reached up with my little hand to trace the shape of his face with my finger. His eyes bored into mine. “Hello," I whispered, “How are you today? “

The woman lie across the bed on her side. Her red hair fall across her face. She reached out for me, “Come on, Silvia, lie down with me. We’ll have a little kip.”

I wasn’t tired, but I lie down and crawled up beside her. I put my hands against her swollen tummy. I could feel a baby move inside. Lucy. It was Lucy. I rolled away and stared at a dressing table, stained in a dark brown. It had a pink tea cup and saucer on top of it and a large mirror with a black and white photo of a man taped to it.

“Dad,” Suddenly back in the moment, I interrupted him, “I remember something. Tell me where this was.”

He nodded his head as I described the room. “That was her bedroom when she was a girl at your Gran’s house. The photo was of her father.”

I listened to him keep taking, telling me what she liked, what she ate, what her favourite colour was. I could finally see her. I still couldn’t make out her face, but I saw her body as she lifted me up. I could feel her. I could feel how soft her hair was as I buried my face into her neck. I could feel how strong her arms seemed as she cuddled me close. “It’s all right, Silvia,” She whispered, “They’ll be brighter days, Darling. Always remember that there will be brighter days.”

With a swirl of lavender and vanilla, sitting on a wooden chair next to my dying father, I remembered my mother. I heard her voice. I could smell her. I could feel her. Not just in a memory, but in the room with me, all around me.

Soon after, he drifted off to sleep again. It was all right. He’d given me what I had come for. I let him rest. I wasn’t angry anymore, not really. I’d never understand why he’d made the choices he had as a parent, but there was nothing either of us could do to change any of it now. After a time when he didn’t wake, I stood and kissed his forehead.

“Thank you, Daddy,” I whispered, “Thank you for giving her back to me.”

I drove back to my father’s house and told Oliver alone.

“She would have come back to you in your time, ,but I’m glad he reminded you” He told me, “The ones who share your heart never go very far, Sweetie. They never go very far at all.”

As before, Dad tried to send us packing. He was doing just fine, he told Lucy and me. We needed to go home, but every time he told us, his voice would be a little weaker, a little less convincing.

Finally, in the middle of the night, the hospital rang. It was a nurse doctor telling us that he’d slipped into a coma and it would only be hours until he was gone. The cancer had metastasized into his brain and it had taken him quicker than anyone had expected. Oliver and Alexander put us into Alex’s truck and we left off almost immediately.

Our father died at hospital less than three hours after we arrived.

It was so bizarre. Just bizarre. Lucy fell apart immediately, but I couldn’t even cry. My father had kept me at such a distance my whole life that his passing was almost a relief. I know how awful that sounds, but it’s the way I felt, like some sort of bondage had been lifted. I went home I made all the phone calls to my uncle and some of Daddy’s friends. Three days later, as he had made his own arrangements, Lucy and I buried him quietly beside our mother.

“I’m so sorry,” His friends told us, “You two were his pride and joy.”

I thanked them and told them truthfully that was a comfort.

Months after he left us, Lucy and I sat alone in the kitchen of the house where our father had lived for fifty years. Everything had been taken out of it, every corner had been scrubbed. It was ready to go on the market and I was ready to leave it behind. It wasn't any sort of home to me anymore. It was a place where I had lived, but without Dad there it was nothing more than an empty shell.

“It’s so strange,” Lucy told me, looking around the room, “Knowing that I’m never coming back here again.”

“Not to me,” I told her honestly, “I was never much attached to this place.”

She seemed surprised, “This was home.”

“For you maybe,” I looked at my sister, “I didn’t have a home until I met Oliver.”

“What?” She seemed offended. Her pale face was suddenly flushed, her full lips twisted sideways, “What are you talking about?”

“Dad never wanted me here,” I explained, still feeling the ice that surrounded his place in my heart, “He was always too busy to take any time for me.” I could feel myself becoming angry again and the look on her face, like she wanted to slap me, only made me angrier. She really didn't understand. She really didn't get it. He'd always treated her differently than he did me. Babied her. Spoiled her. Kept her close while he sent me away, “I just stayed here,” I continued, this time challenging her, “The same as I stayed at my schools. I wasn’t really wanted anywhere. Not until I met Oliver.”

Lucy's expression changed. She stared at me with a look I’d rarely seen on her face. I couldn’t place it. She didn't say a word, but her eyes smouldered.

“Lucy, are you upset with me?” I played innocent.

“God damned right I’m upset!” She shoved herself back in her chair and huffed, “Do you really believe that he didn’t want you here?”

“He loved you better,” I responded. “I know he loved me, but he loved you better.”

“Like hell!” Lucy’s face went bright pink. Her brown eyes brimmed with tears, “You are so stupid if you believe that! For all your brains, Silvia, you are so god damned STUPID!” She made a move like she was going to stand up, but didn't, “Do you realise you were all I ever heard about?” She slapped her palm against the table, “YOU! All he ever talked about was YOU! Friends would come over to visit and he’d tell them all about his Silvia!” She snorted, “‘Silvia got the highest marks in her class this semester!’ ‘Silvia won the science competition!’ ‘Silvia looks so much like your mother, Lucy! So much it takes my breath away sometimes!’ He never said a thing about me! Not to me, not to anybody...”

“He always pampered you!”

“I’m not saying he didn’t!” She was still shouting, “He did! Poor stupid Lucia who couldn't do a thing for herself! She needed looked after! Either by him or her big sister! I never even COMPARED to you!” Her face was bright red now, wet with the tears that were pouring down it. Whether they were tears of rage or sorrow I had no idea, “But you are so fucking selfish and so arrogant and so BLIND that you never saw he tried to do the same thing to you! You needed something, he saw you had it, didn't he? Train tickets and clothes and all your books and your extra classes! You told him you needed ten quid and he gave you fifty! And you never came out of your bloody bedroom!” Lucy threw a crumpled serviette at me, “He tried, Silvia, to be good to you and you shut him out!”

“He gave me things! Things! I didn't want things!” I screamed, chucking the serviette back at her. It hit her in the breast and fell to the ground. She was bent over reaching for it as I laid into her, “I wanted a father! I wanted a home and a family and I got a school! I got a fucking school because he didn't want me here! He wanted to work and he only wanted you! I was too much bother!”

She lobbed the serviette back at me, but I deflected it with the back of my hand and it sailed into the sink, “Shut up! Just shut up! He did what he thought was best for you! You were so bright, Silvia! So bright that your teachers didn't know what to do with you! Put you up a year? He gave you professors when all you had before were dimwits!”

“I didn't have to live there!”

“Maybe you didn't! But maybe he didn't want you wasting away here where you weren't being raised properly!”

“It doesn't matter! I needed him! And what about when he moved us all to Wales so we could all be close? He never sent for me!”

“You were always with Oliver!”

“He could have stopped me!”

She was silent for just one second, her eyes wide with disbelief, “Do you really mean that? He could have stopped you? Really? Do you think he wanted you at Oliver’s constantly? Do you?” She demanded, “He hated it! He told me he hated it. He worried! He worried that you’d wind up pregnant! He used to tell me to go along when you'd invite me to keep an eye on you!” She drew a sharp breath, “But when I told him you weren't having sex...and believe me, I left a whole lot out in the area of details!” She laughed out loud, quickly shaking her head, “And I mean a WHOLE lot out...then he saw you were finally happy. You were always so sad, so fucking MISERABLE and there wasn't anything anybody could do to ever make you happy! So he let you go. You never listened to a damned thing he told you anyway! You‘d just run off, I told him, and you and Oliver were right and proper. No worries, I told him. I had to tell him because you never listened to anything he said and if you fucked up, it was me who was going to have to listen to it because I was the one he always dumped his shit on…”

I'd never thought of it from her perspective. She was telling the truth. It was her that always caught the brunt of it when things would go wrong. It was her because she was the one who always ended up going home and I was the one who was always leaving and doing all she could to not come back. But I wasn't ready to slow down. I wasn't ready to see that. I was so angry at him, still so angry at him just because he hadn't been a good father to me and I had wanted one so very, very much.

“He never said anything!” I found myself yelling at my sister as if I were speaking to my father, “He never said a word! He let me go without a word! He even gave me money to do it, to get me out of his way! He didn’t give a damn about me! He never stopped me! He could have!”

“Is that so?” She screamed back, “If that’s so then you tell me why he rang Eddie and Ana every time you went to make sure you were there safe! Or why he took a day and drove all the way to Welshpool to sit down with your boyfriend and find out exactly what his intentions were!”

That stopped me in my tracks. “He did that?”

“Damn right he did! He rang Eddie and told him he didn’t like what was going on. He was worried about you and he told him he wanted to speak to Oliver man to man! Eddie had him come down!” She was shaking, her hands in tiny fists, stuck together like she were squeezing my head between them, which is what I know she wanted to do, “I was there, Silvia! He literally grabbed Ollie by the collar and sat him in that chair in corner of the sitting room, the red one, the wing chair, and prodded him! He had him pinned! Ollie couldn't have left if he wanted! And if Oliver hadn’t answered exactly the way he had, if hadn’t been so honest and so sincere…if he had been anything at all like his brother, Alexander…well, Dad was going to send you back to school in Scotland! And that would have been the end of it!”

Oliver had never told me that. Never. I stood there, silenced, stunned.

Lucy continued, “And, besides, he sent you to Bennington to be closer to him! He really did! He was planning on having us both home every weekend! He was going to marry that woman and try to make a real family, but you…you never wanted to come! You met her...what? Twice. And as I recall you were a stone! And after you started Bennington, you asked him not to come and get you! Or do you forget that? You had to study, you told him, but then it was Oliver, wasn't it? You always wanted to stay at the school or go to the Dickinson’s because of Oliver! You never asked if Oliver could come here! Not once! Not for more than ten minutes to come and take you away! Dad wouldn’t have let him, you know? He missed you, Silvia! He missed you! He loved you and you just shoved him off!”

I couldn't say anything to defend myself. Every word of what she'd said was true. I'd always blamed him for abandoning me, but I had abandoned him, too.

“I didn’t want to stay in Scotland after I graduated high school!” She was losing her resolve. She sank back into her chair and covered her face with her hands, “I didn’t want to come home, but I did! Don’t you know what you did to me? I did it for him! I had to! He was all alone and you left him! You were so selfish! I did it for him because I didn’t want him to be alone and you had shoved him so far away!”

I was so ashamed of myself. I’d always thought of my father as being the cold fish, but maybe he hadn’t been. I had shoved him away. Maybe it had been me all along. Maybe I had been the one who left him all alone and not the other way around. Lord knows I was selfish when it came to Oliver. He was all I wanted, the only thing that mattered. That was true. I had cast my father…everybody, really, aside for him and only him. And at what cost to poor Lucy? She'd become not only Dad’s spy and his link to me, but his emotional caretaker.

I shook my head, trying desperately to clear the rush of thoughts that were invading my brain. Had Daddy really reached out for me and I’d been too blind to see it? How many times? How many different ways had I been too caught up in my own pursuits to notice? Had I rejected him over and over until one day he’d just finally given up?

I knew the truth was that I had. I knew as well that he was the parent and he never should have allowed it. He never should have quit on me. He should have kept after me until I saw it. I would have accepted him eventually. He was my father. My daddy. I loved my daddy and I spent so many years wanting him to want me. Oh, God, I would have taken his love if I’d known he was giving it. It was all I ever wanted from him…his love, to be his little girl. I had wanted so desperately for my Daddy to want me all my life.

And he had. He had. I just couldn't see it for all my anger.

“Oh, God,” I felt the sadness and regret building up inside of me, spilling out my eyes, “Oh, God…what have I done?”

I was so selfish. So blind. I had shoved him away, gone through the motions of being a daughter instead of really being one. And now it was too late. My father was dead. I wouldn’t ever have another chance to try again. “Oh, God,” I repeated, “I’m so sorry…I am so sorry…”

Lucy found me. She slipped her arms around me, “He loved you, Silvia,” She rested her head top of mine, “Don’t you ever think for a second he didn’t and don’t you ever think for a second that he loved me more. He loved us differently, because he knew us differently, that’s all. But he loved us. He loved the both of us with all his heart.”

“Oh, Lucy, it's too late!” I wailed, “It's just too late!”

And it was. In too many ways to count for Daddy and I. We'd both lost. Lost because of pride and because neither of us knew the words we needed to get back to each other. And now it was over. No second chances. No take backs, no returns.

It was the deepest emptiness I had ever felt.

About a year later, when all of my father’s worldly belongings had been dispersed and his house was sold, Oliver took me at my request back to the cemetery where he lie beside my mother. I sat on his grave and I closed my eyes and I waited for him. I begged him to come to me, to become part of me the way I had chosen not to let him in life. I begged him to let me need him and to need me in return. I sat and I cried and I felt no touch at all.

And so I left him there to rest forever in Scotland, buried in the soil of his fathers. I left him and I went to Wales, the place he had sent me when I was fifteen and the place where he had left me when I was twenty, when he had given up on me ever needing his hand. I left him there and I went home.

Lucy took the photo albums from his house. Those memories meant more to her than me. If you want the truth, I wasn’t in very many of the pictures. The majority of them were taken without me there at all. I wondered how many of them I might have been in if I'd chosen to. Later, she left one in a silver frame on the mantle at my house. It was of young Philip Cotton and a red haired baby girl in a pale blue dress with yellow bees on the hem. He was holding this child under one arm, facing her toward the camera, but she was peering up at him, her blue eyes wide with wonder, and he was looking down at her the way a father looks at his daughter, with promises to love and protect her forever.

“You gave me away,” I whispered, “But I know you thought it was best. It’s just a shame, Daddy. I miss you, but it’s OK. I always missed you, even when you were here. That‘s my fault. I just wish I‘d known that I had a choice. You should have told me. That‘s your fault. We both lose, but we love each other just the same, don‘t we? I‘m here, Daddy, if you ever need me or you just want to say hello.”

I left the picture where Lucy had set it, but I didn’t look at it much. Hardly ever. And eventually it, like the sting of my father’s death, faded from my mind, to a place where when I thought of him I found only reasons to smile. Eventually, all the anger was gone and I was thankful for him.

I had a daddy, didn't I? He wasn't perfect and he certainly wasn't the one I'd dreamed he would have been, but I had one all the same. And I'd love him as much as I'd hated him, hadn't I? All that distance, all that time wasted, but the fact that he'd inspired such passion in me meant something in itself. I can honestly say now that I think that's special. Screwed up and turned inside out, we were special him and me, and I am so thankful that I can say that I had a daddy and that he mattered. All his faults and failures mean nothing to me now.

He mattered and I take him with me now every place I go.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

We got the greatest gift that next winter when everyone made it home for Christmas. Carolena had just arrived with Adam, when the snow began to gather on the ground.

“Mummy!” She hugged me tight, “We’re in for a white Christmas!”

That was an understatement when we woke up the next morning to two feet of snow.

“No one’s going anywhere for a while! More snow is coming! This is the best Christmas gift ever!” Ana came bounding down the steps clapping her hands, “Hooray! All of us together under one roof! Eddie,” She snapped her fingers at her husband, “Light a fire! We’ll pop some corn!” She turned to Oliver and Alexander, who were sitting on either side of draughts, “Ollie and Xan, you can finish your game later! Put on your Wellies and walk down to the grocer for me! I need more potatoes, more sausages and more sugar!” She spoke to her sons as if they were teens still under her command. “Come on now! Hurry up!”

They looked at each other and grinned.

“Yes, Mum,” Alexander stood and kissed her cheek.

“Straight away, Mum,” Oliver kissed her on the other side.

“Would you shovel the garden path?” She asked.

“Absolutely not!” Oliver told her seriously.

Her mouth fell open and she clamped it shut promptly giving him a stern look.

“That’s why we have sons!” Alexander finished for him, “Lads, get your boots on! Shovel the way for your grandmother!”

“An’ what’ll the girls do?” Gryffin pretended to complain. He picked up a Wellie, realised it was not his and handed it to Warren.

“We’ll sit here all warm and look pretty while you work,” Carolena smiled. She was plaiting Natalie’s long hair, “Like girls are supposed to!”

“Oh, aye!” Nigel laughed, “Well, bake something at least then!”

Bess chucked a hair pin at him. “Shut up!”

“Come on then, Adam,” Oliver wasn’t about to let Caro’s man off the hook, “Come with Alex and me. You can carry the potatoes.”

“All right,” He agreed with a good natured grin.

“I like him,” Lucy told Caro after the men had left the house, “He‘s one to hang on to.”.

“He’s very handsome,” Bess added. “He has lovely eyes.”

“I like the way he smiles,” Nattie handed Caro a hair pin, “He’s got the best smile.”

“He has a nice arse, too” Annie said.

“Annie!” Caro giggled.

“It’s true! I just want to grab it and bite it!”

“Aye, me, too!” Ana nodded as she poked at the fire.

Caro’s face was as red as her hair, but she laughed with the rest of us. “Grandmum! I can’t believe you said that!”

“What? I’m a woman! I have eyes! I still have warm blood in my veins!” She looked from me to Lucy and the three of us exchanged knowing giggles. “You don’t forget to notice a handsome man with a fine body with your first grey hair, Girls!”

“Auntie Sil, why isn’t Lakshmi here?” Natalie was trying to keep her head still while Caro pulled her hair to finish the plait.

“She’s spending the holiday with her grandparents,” Lakshmi was Gryffin’s girlfriend. He’d met her in Edinburgh and before I knew it they’d moved in together. I hadn’t had the chance to meet her yet, which bothered me a bit, but she was lovely on the phone and Gryffin adored her, “They don’t know she and Gryff live together because they wouldn’t approve, so they wouldn’t like him coming there for anything overnight. They’re very religious, I’m told.”I peeked out the window to see all of the men chasing each other through street, lobbing snowballs in all directions. Even Edmond was in on it. I watched him slip and fall in the road. He waited a second for Nigel to come close and see if he was all right, then popped up and beamed him straight in the chest. At the same moment Gryffin and Warren assaulted Nigel from two other sides and he caught it in the back of the head and the shoulder respectively. I watched him chase after Warren, but Alexander caught him and wrestled him to the ground. He was busy shoving snow down the neck of his son’s coat when Oliver knocked him over and everyone piled on top. There they were in a heap in the middle of the street, all the Dickinson men and Adam Maldovan, stuffing snow down each other’s collars. “Girls! Quick! You have to see this!”

Everyone hurried to a window facing the street and we all stood laughing at the boys.

“Have I forgotten at all to tell any of you how very much I love you?” I asked.

“No,” They replied more or less together followed by a chorus of we-love-you-too.

We made such a masterpiece in the kitchen that holiday. It was wonderful, as Ana had said, having everyone under one roof again. No one fought, no one got angry, no one complained or took anything personally. We just sat snowed in at Grandmum and Granddad’s house and enjoyed the company of the people we loved the most. We were there for three days and two nights. What an absolute blessing that was.

Oliver and I slept in his old bedroom in his old bed. It was really too small for two people, but it didn’t matter. I liked having to be too close to him. He lay there on the second night awake and much too quiet. I waited for him to tell me what he was thinking, but after an hour or so when he didn’t I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Ollie, what’s up?” I rolled over and put my hand on his chest, “Talk to me.”

“I’m just thinking.”

“About what?”

He drew a breath, hesitated, and then spoke, “Did you notice Adam pull me aside after we had supper?”

“No. Was I in the kitchen?”

“I think so.” He answered quietly, and then said, “He wants to marry our daughter.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes,” I couldn’t see him in the dark, but I could tell he was staring at the ceiling, “He loves her. I could see it in his eyes. It was in his voice. He asked me for my blessing. Can you believe that?”

“Wow. Old fashioned of him.” I said. Ollie nodded. He said nothing. I moved closer and laid my head on his shoulder, “She loves him, too. She has for a long, long time. He’s good to her. Do you see the way they look at each other?”

“She looks at him the way you look at me,” He answered.

“I know. It’s a dead giveaway, isn’t it? I’ve always tried to pretend that I’m not mad about you.”

“Yes, me, too. Wouldn’t want anyone to know, yeah?” He pulled me close, “God, I’m glad I’m married to you.”

“Me, too, Sweetie. Me, too.”

It was a week later when Carolena called and told us on speakerphone that she was getting married. Oliver stood with an odd grin on his face and listened to her tell the story of how Adam had proposed to her spontaneously in the middle of Trafalgar Square. “We were just walking through and suddenly he stopped and dropped to his knees. You know how nasty Trafalgar Square is with all the birds. I honestly thought he’d fallen down or something, but what had happened was he’d been fingering the ring and he’d dropped it! So he was on his hands and knees crawling around and I was standing in front of him asking him if he was all right and he looked up suddenly and said, ’Carolena Mariana Dickinson, I love you! Will you be my wife?’ He was holding out the ring! I was a bit surprised, but I said yes, of course! And the moment I did a group of tourists came the square from the other side and they sent the pigeons into flight! They came right at us and we had to run!” She giggled, “It was so unromantic! It was terrible! One of them shit right on my coat!”

“Well,” Oliver consoled, “You won’t ever forget it, will you?”

“No, I won’t! You know, I’ve thought about it and I don’t want a big wedding. Adam doesn’t have a large family and most of our friends are just casual. It seems like a lot of work and a lot of money for one day having a big fancy do. We can keep it small and simple, I reckon, if we keep our wits about us.”

“You can,” I told her, “Lucy’s wedding was beautiful and it was just a couple of people.”

“I remember bits of it,” She was quiet for a second, “I was wondering…well, I was thinking…do you think it would be all right if Adam and I were married in the wood?”

“Really?” Oliver’s eyes widened. “You’d want to do that?”

“Well, yes. I think it would be pretty right by the lake, yeah? At sunset maybe. You know, right when the sun goes down and the lake is so still the water looks like a mirror reflecting the trees?”

I smiled and took Oliver’s hand, “Yes, it’s beautiful then.”

“I’m thinking, if it’s all right, too, that I’d like to have a dinner in the garden afterward, lit by candlelight. It makes only eighteen people, including all of us Dickinson’s and Adam’s family and the few friends we’d invite.”

“That would be lovely, Carolena. That would make your father and I both so happy.”

“It would,” Her father agreed. He rubbed the back of my hand gently with his thumb, “That would be very special, Muffin.”

Later that evening I caught Oliver standing in the nursery staring at the mural of the children and the lambs. I came beside him and rested my cheek against the flat of his arm.

“Alexander and I painted all of this for her,” The look in his eyes was far away, “It was one of my inspired moments. I called him up and told him what we were going to do and he was over in a flash. I was so excited about her, Love. A baby. A wee little chocolate dipped cherry muffin. You knew I was wound up about becoming a dad, but the truth is I dreamed about her long before she was born. I did it with all the children.” He paused, “I knew she was a girl. I wanted her so badly. I made so many plans and so many promises to her and she wasn’t even out of you belly. We waited a long time to meet her. And then there she was, Little Carolena Mariana, my only daughter. You were both so beautiful the day she was born.”

“Are you crying?”

“So what if I am?” He put his chin on the top of my head, “When I put her in here the first night, it was in this crib right here.” He put his hand on the side, “I carried her in one arm. She was so tiny and warm all wrapped up in that fuzzy little pink blanket Mum gave her.” He was quiet for a very long time. “She grew so fast. She was only ours for a little while, yeah?”

“She’s still ours.”

“She’s still ours, sort of. She’s grown into a woman, she has. She’s an excellent and lovely woman like her mum. She’s got the Cotton brains and the Dickinson nerve. I know she’s all right. I know she can handle herself, mind, but my heart still worries for her. In my heart, she’s still that little muffin wrapped in a fuzzy pink blanket and I’m just her dad hoping and praying she’s OK. I guess it never ends, does it?”

“No, loving them or wanting to protect them never ends.”

“I know Adam will take care of her.”

“He will.” I agreed, “She couldn’t have found a better man to spend her life with.”

“They all grew so quickly.” He sighed.

“In a breath.”

“Sometimes I miss them being small. I miss all the noise and the chaos and the garden being littered with toys. I miss how we used to all get together on Sundays,” He paused, “I don’t know if I ever really thanked you.”

“For what?”

“For my children. For being my wife. For putting up with me all these years. It was because of you that we were the family we became. You know that? You were really the glue that held it all together.”

“Oh, I think you had something to do with it. Lucy and Alexander, too. We raised all the children together. It was a community effort.”

He was quiet again for a moment before he said, “Let’s have another baby, Sil!” For just a split second I actually thought he was serious. I jerked my head back and stared up into his face “We could!” He insisted, “We’re only fifty or something!”

I could feel my mouth hanging open. He immediately threw his arms around me and burst out laughing. I joined him.

The wedding came on a gorgeous day in late June. Lucy, Adam’s mother, Milla, and sister, Jayne, who was Carolena’s best friend since uni, Natalie, the twins and I got Caro dressed in the nursery. How odd, yet fitting, it seemed to prepare her for her marriage in the same room she had slept in the first night we brought her home. The walls were still painted as they had been for babies, but there stood Carolena, as her dad had said, grown into a woman. Her veil was draped over the crib.

She was absolutely stunning in my mother’s wedding dress. Where Lucy had worn it once and looked like an angel, my daughter brought out majesty in the gown. Bess took Caro’s thick red curls and turned them into gorgeous plaits that she wove through a studded headband with such skill I’d have thought she’d done it a hundred times. When she was through, our Carolena looked like a princess.

When Oliver came in to tell her that the sun was beginning to set, he stopped in the doorway without a word and stared.

“Daddy?”

“You look so…” He blinked a few times, “Stunning, Caro. You look absolutely stunning.”

Alexander stumbled in behind him. He stopped dead in his step and stared as well.

“Uncle Alex?”

“I…I’m sorry,” Alex smiled, “You just look…just like your Mum did about thirty years ago. It’s like a step back in time. It took me by surprise. You look unbelievable, Muffin. Absolutely exquisite.”

“Thank you!” She ran to him like she used to as a little girl and flung herself into his arms and then turned to her daddy and flung herself into his, “I’m so happy, Daddy!”

“Stay happy, Muffin,” He held her tight and kissed her hair, “Always stay just as happy as you are right now, right this minute. Promise me?”

“I’ll try.”

“They’ll be hard times. I promise. But I promise as well that if you remember the thing that made you love him in the first place and you keep finding it again and again there won’t be a thing you can’t make it through together.”

“I’ll remember.”

“I know you will. I know.” Oliver held her tight and closed his eyes, “Don’t ever forget to laugh, even when things are a mess. It’s the secret of it all. After today, there is no one else but you and him. Just you and him and that’s all that matters. Remember that, too.”

“I will, Daddy.”

“Now, come on. Let’s get you down the aisle,” Oliver held her at arm’s length and grinned, “You’re going to have so much fun!”

Alex moved to the side to allow them to pass.

Our little girl was married as she wished beside that little pond that she and Oliver insisted was a lake. It was an elegant, simple ceremony that ended just as darkness swept across the wood. Warren, Gryffin and Nigel lit the candles and the wood was illuminated in a soft glow that made Carolena look even more beautiful than she had during the day.

After the wedding was through and the dinner was finished and everyone had left us for their homes and honeymoon, my husband and I curled up on the lawn under that old woollen blanket. We sat close and we watched the sky and we said nothing at all.

A year and a half later Carolena missed her cousin Nigel’s wedding because she’d had her first baby, a daughter she named Ekaterina Sophia, after both the baby’s grandmother’s middle names. Kitty, they called her, and she was as lovely as her mum. Caro and Adam would come and visit more often once Kitty was born. She’d send her for a few weeks in the summer and my deep seeded need to be surrounded by children was once again satisfied. Having never had a grandmother myself, I tried to be everything to Kitty that I would have wanted if I’d had one. Kitty, Oliver and I had loads of fun.

Two years after that, still in competition with Nigel, who had just had a son he called Matthew, she gave birth to a son of her own, whom she called Oliver. And then, three years later, she outdid her cousin once more. Nigel had just had another son he called James. Three days later Carolena had twin boys called Nicolas and Alexander.

Nigel had her beat on one thing, however. He and his first wife, Laura, divorced shortly after Matthew turned two. A year later, he married his girlfriend, Mary, whom was the mother of his youngest son, James. They divorced three years after James was born. Nigel stayed single for twenty years, dating here and there, until he met Carla, a cheeky, heavy set girl who was nineteen years younger than him and the daughter of none other than Nigel’s old rugby mate, the mega-fuck brain, Connor Stewart. Carla never wanted to get legally married, nor did she want children of her own, so Nigel bought her an old cottage in Kerry Village and the two lived happily ever after, more or less, “in sin and mortal peril”, as Oliver put it.

Ana Kaye McNeil Dickinson, Oliver and Alexander’s mother, crossed the veil the April after Nic and Alex were born. She’d developed a cough, which she ignored until she was sure she had pneumonia. Thinking she’d go to the doctor and get a shot of antibiotics, she went for a visit and was told after a battery of tests that what she had was cardiac obstructive pulmonary disease. She had a surgery to unclog an artery, but a few months later she suffered a heart attack and six after that, at the age of seventy-eight, she passed away peacefully in Edmond’s presence at hospital in Welshpool.

Oliver and Alexander didn’t take the time immediately to deal with their own feelings over her death. They were too busy looking after their father, whose heart was completely shattered over the loss. He’d been with Ana since they were twenty years old. Much like Oliver and I, she was what his life had revolved around. Being retired, he was at a loss as to what to do with himself in her absence.

“I was holding her in my arms,” He told me as we sat in his front room after her memorial service, “I used to tease her about greasing up her face. I told her she looked like a glazed ham. She‘d say to me, ‘Well, at least I‘ll always be beautiful‘. You know, she didn‘t have a single wrinkle on her face,” He sighed. “She really was always beautiful.”

“She was,” I agreed. I meant it, too. Ana never let herself go for even a day.

“You’re never ready,” Edmond told me, “I don’t think it matters how old you get. You’re just never prepared to be the one left alone.”

I took his hand and said nothing. There simply was nothing to say. I was there. It was the best I could do.

Oliver held himself together until she was buried. Eddie told us he was tired after the service and he asked to be dropped off at his house. Alex asked if he wanted company, but he shook his head. “I’m tired, Son. I need to go home and be alone.”

We hugged and kissed him and respected his wishes. Oliver and I left him off. As we were walking down the garden path to the car, my husband asked me if I would mind driving. “Not at all, Sweetie,” I replied and took the keys from him. I had only made it around the corner before he put his hands over his face and allowed himself to begin to mourn his mother. I took him home and I let him cry without even trying to stop him. Eventually, he fell asleep.

The night of her funeral there was a dreadful rain. It came down in all directions, filled the dips in the road, and made travel on the muddy paths to the cabin nearly impossible. Still, at about ten thirty that night someone was pounding on our door.

Oliver woke up and rolled out of bed and on to his feet. “What the hell? “ He rubbed his head, “Is somebody here?“ The pounding came again. Both of us hurried to the door to find his brother and Lucy huddled together under an umbrella to protect them from the storm. “Are you mad?” Oliver demanded, hurrying them into the house, “Get in here!”

“The door was locked!” Alexander shook his head as if to free an ear of water

“Really?” Ollie was surprised. We never locked our door.

They peeled off their dripping coats. They were both still in their pyjamas “Silvia!” Lucy hugged me, “Alexander had a dream!”

“What?” Oliver took a bag from Alex and set it on the floor.

She and Alex looked at each other. “OK, OK, let me explain,” Alex was grinning excitedly, “You know how you and I were so upset that we didn’t get to say good bye properly to Mum, Ollie?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I’ve been having this feeling that she’s around, yeah? Ever since she died, really, and I’ve been chatting with her. I told her that if there’s anything she wants us to do she should let us know.”

“So tonight he went to bed early because he was so damned sad,” Lucy interrupted She put her hand lovingly against his cheek, “And he woke up about an hour later and he tells me, ‘It’s in the cupboard behind the bloody cache pot!’ I had no idea what he was talking about, but he said it again, ‘It’s behind the bloody cache pot!’ and he jumped up and ran out of the house!”

“What are you talking about?” I couldn’t help but laugh at them. They seemed so excited and were making no sense at all.

“I went over to Dad’s in my bloomin’ flannels and tore into his pantry. He didn‘t wake up, thank God, because he would have thought I was mental! I pulled out that old cache pot mum had in there and behind it was Grandmum’s recipe book!”

“The one Mummy has been looking for since Grandmum died?” I asked.

“The very one!” Alexander literally jumped in place, “See, in my dream I was sitting here on the sofa-like,” He motioned to the front room, “And you,” He was looking at his brother, “And Silvia were in the kitchen. I could hear you talking. Well, through the front door comes Mum…and I mean, through the front door, she floated right through it. And she’s all smiling and looking really young and pretty and she says, ‘Xander, I found the book! It’s behind the bloody cache pot! Must have fallen, yeah?’ and then she sits beside me and pats me on the hand and she says, ‘Go get it and get over to your brother’s! Don’t mind the rain! Make what’s on page twenty-seven. Silvia has everything you need. It’ll bring back memories you’ve forgotten!’” Tears were welling in Alexander’s eyes, “And then she tells me she loves me and Lucy and asks me to tell you two that she loves you both and that she’s so proud of us all. And then she says to me, ‘I really have to go, Xan. Don’t miss me because I’m not far. Tell Oliver and Eddie you’ll all see me again in time’. And then I woke up.”

“Well, what the hell’s on page twenty-seven?” Oliver demanded with a good natured grin. He took the whole story in stride without even a question. Then again, he’d been speaking to elves since he was a child, why would it seem so out of the realm of possibility that his mother could have visited his brother in a dream?

“Let’s find out!” Lucy hugged the book to her chest, “Come on, Silvia! Let’s go cook!”

It was a simple bread. Flour, butter, eggs, sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, milk, a little nutmeg, and vanilla. We baked it for a little less than an hour and pulled it out.

“It smells good,” I held my nose over the pan.

“It says to butter it and serve it hot,” Lucy glanced over the recipe one last time. “Mummy scribbled a note.”

We sliced it and served it to the twins.

“I remember this!” Alexander said through a full mouth, “She used to make it after mass on Sundays! Before they sent us to Bennington!”

“We’d have it with chamomile tea and orange slices,” Oliver covered his face with his hands. “This is what it tastes like to be seven years old, Alex!”

“It was our favourite! Bake the bread, Mummy! We’d beg for it. And she would, she always would!” Alex wiped his eyes, “God, our mother loved us! She loved us so bleedin‘ much!”

“Ah, Mum!” Oliver sniffed, “God bless you! I was missing you, but here you are now! Thank you, Mum!”

“Yes, thank you, Mum,” Alexander smiled, savouring his slice of bread. He squeezed Oliver‘s shoulder, “Thank you for page twenty-seven!”

I must have made that bread a hundred times after that night. They never told me more of what memories it brought back, but it made th