There’s a little wall at the end of the terrace, just before the steps that lead down into what my mother used to call the shrubbery and my father used to call the damn scrub. He’d have been very shocked to hear me repeat it, but he’s been beyond earthly shocks for better than thirty years, and if he’s been watching over me that long then he’s had time enough to accustom himself to our modern lack of decorum. Whether he’s listening or not, the echo of his words gave me something to smile about as I sank onto the wall, and God knows I’m short enough these days of reasons to smile.
I settled my skirts automatically, glad in a corner of my mind for one night’s return to their disguising drape. That corner supplied a minority voice; my eyes were on the wicked little flight of slate steps, treacherous when even slightly damp, and my thoughts were further away than that. Gareth had slipped – not on the steps, that was me, and it was long ago – had slipped into error. He should never had hidden the papers. He must have known he could not keep the news from me forever, and that his attempt would only tell me that he knew of my interest in the case, that he had always known of it. From there it was a short step to understanding that he could not have known and not have acted on his knowledge, not when his own cherished sister was involved.
The music played on, soft and sweet and distant, as it had played on another evening when I had drifted away from the crowd. I had come to the head of these steps, daringly dressed in what they called, back then, a pajama suit, and I had paused, and I had looked back. I had been too young to look back for long, too certain of my choice, too eager to put my life into the hands of the man who waited for me in that damn scrub.
Now two figures pattered along the terrace towards me, giggling and shushing, amateurs in the ancient game of love. They saw me and doubled back, perhaps thinking that I only loitered there as a guardian and a chaperone. It must be hard now to see me in any other role; it must be hard to imagine me in silk pajamas, young and lithe and hesitating only a moment at the head of the steps. That thought was too painful, and I shied away from it. It was easier to think of the lurid details in the newspaper reports – yes, even of that – than of a young girl moving silently down those treacherous steps so surely and so swiftly and so many years before.
I sat for a long time, thinking without words, hardly even aware of my own thoughts, entirely unaware that Gareth had joined me until he said softly
“You’re missing your party.”
I managed a shrug of studied indifference.
“I don’t dance so much, any more.”
He flinched, actually flinched, from the words. I hadn’t meant them to sting, hadn’t meant to prompt an answer to the question I still could not ask. He settled at my side, and we sat quietly there, listening to distant laughter, watching long past scenes. The girl on the narrow steps. The shot that that no one could ever prove was fired. The startled girl slipping, falling. The bad break, the poor set, the brace that I wear to this day.
“I would have been the first.”
He knew I meant it as an apology. I hadn’t always taken his dislike of my … of that man well.
“The third. That’s why I was so sure.”
The last answer. In his certainty then, in his tone now, I knew he had never intended to aim high in warning.
“It’s a good job you were always such a rotten shot.”
The reports said that there had been seventeen girls. Even so.
“They would have hanged you.”
Hanged him and buried him behind the wall, and with my blessing. He knew that too.
“It would have been worth it.”
Written for the Mid Week Blues Buster