After dessert, Elli and I left the café and set out for her house. It was a long walk, but it was a pleasant day, so I didn’t mind. The air became quieter as we got further from town and entered the countryside. Cottages of varying sizes lined the dirt path, bordered by short wooden fences. I watched butterflies flutter about from flower to flower.
We came to a small honey-coloured house that sat at the corner of the path. Elli hopped over the fence and looked at me expectantly. I looked at it, putting my hands together.
“Um, isn’t there a gate or something somewhere?” I asked.
“Sure, but where’s the fun in that?” she asked. “Come on already.”
“I-I don’t know—”
“It’s easy!” said Elli.
I furrowed my brow in determination and took a few steps back. I hesitated, swallowed, and then broke into a sprint. I leapt over the fence and landed awkwardly. As I tried to stabilise myself, I tripped on my long skirt, shouting as I fell over.
I stood and dusted myself off, glaring at Elli as she laughed.
“How was that fun?” I asked.
“It was fun to watch!” she replied, smiling.
“Oh come on,” said Elli, taking my hand and leading me to the door. “Lighten up, will you?”
“Mama, I’m home,” she called as she entered the house. She removed her hat and stepped into the kitchen, where she was greeted by a stout woman with long, dark hair. The woman kissed Elli on the forehead.
“Welcome back,” she said. Her voice was accented heavily, but I couldn’t place it. “How was your afternoon?” she asked.
“I brought company,” said Elli.
The woman glanced at me. “I thought you only mind neighbors’ children on Tuesdays,” she said. My face turned red.
“This is Mary, Mama,” said Elli. “She’s a friend.”
“Oh, oh, very sorry,” said the woman, looking at me once again. “Very nice to meet you, Mary.”
“G-good to meet you,” I replied sheepishly.
“You call me Julia,” she said jauntily. She began pacing round the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I make you something to eat, you must be hungry.”
“Mama, we just came from the café,” said Elli impatiently. “We can wait.”
“Oh, I will make you something anyway,” Julia replied. “You go have fun.”
Elli motioned for me to follow her. The house was rather small for its outward appearance, with narrow hallways and low ceilings. As we walked through the sitting room, I noticed a little table. On it sat a few framed photos, depicting a balding, mustachioed man wearing a uniform similar to the one I’d seen my father wear. A small medallion was placed next to the photos. Not wanting to appear nosy, I didn’t stop to read what was on it. After climbing a flight of wooden stairs, we entered a rather plain room, with very little furniture.
“Ta-da!” said Elli, raising her arms and turning round in a circle.
To one wall was a white upright piano, with the name “STEINWAY & SONS” printed in gold letters. Strewn about the floor were sheets of paper, covered in musical symbols and scribbles. Elli moved her hand across the bench, clearing the paper onto the floor, and sat down. She inched over to one side and patted the empty spot on the bench. Timidly, I sat beside her.
“Alright, tell me: What do you know about the piano?” she asked, placing her hands in her lap.
“U-um… You press these things to make noise,” I said, pointing at the keys.
“Those are called, keys, darling. Each one plays a different note.”
“And you have to memorise all of them?!” I asked.
“No, you only have to memorise twelve. But don’t worry about that now. I’ll teach you how to play a scale.”
Elli guided me through the pattern, showing me the notes to play in order.
“No, no, straighten your wrist. You’ll hurt yourself that way,” she said, correcting my posture. “That’s it. One, two, three — your thumb next, darling. That way you’ll be able to reach the rest of the keys.”
“Right,” I said, nodding. Slowly, I followed her instruction, repeating until I could get through the pattern without mistakes.
“That’s it, you’ve got it!” Elli said.
“It’s hard…” I said, laughing nervously. “Why don’t you play something?” I asked.
“Alright…” Elli trailed off. She searched the floor and picked up a piece of paper, placing it above the piano. She shook her hair away from her face and straightened her shoulders, and began to play.
It was something quite unlike what I had ever heard before, with quick notes that jumped and danced about the keyboard all at once. I watched in awe. Colours swirled about in my head as I listened.
“It feels… Very orange,” I said.
Elli stopped. “Orange?” she asked, laughing.
“I like it,” I said.
“I can teach you to play like this if you want. Alice has a piano that you can practice on.”
“I’d love that!” I said, standing. I felt my skirt tug on the bench, and looked down, noticing a small tear in the material.
“It must’ve torn when you jumped over the fence,” said Elli. “Come here, I’ll help you mend it.”
I borrowed one of Elli’s old skirts while she fetched a needle and some thread from another room. We sat on her bed in silence as she sewed the fabric. I wished I had been more cautious, this was one of my best skirts… I remembered wearing it to my primary school graduation. A wave of nostalgia came over me. I missed my old school. I was friends with everyone there. Then came secondary school. My family had moved up North, so I no longer had any of my old friends beside me. I recalled walking in and being scared by how tall everybody was. Everyone seemed to know each other, but since I was new in town, I didn’t feel like I could fit in. I remembered when Bethany let me play on her football team one time. That was the first time someone there had invited me to be a part of something. I felt special. Afterwards, I began to meet with her and her friends from time to time, but the awkwardness never really went away. They all carried themselves with such confidence, which must’ve been easy for them, I imagined. They were normal. They had normal heights, normal interests. Of course it was easy. I was short, there weren’t many students there who cared for art or bug-catching or any of the things I liked to do. I didn’t even speak like them… Sometimes I was afraid they would be embarrassed to be seen with me.
I glanced at Elli, and crossed my arms in front of me. I wondered how she fit in at her school. She wasn’t particularly tall either, but at least she couldn’t be mistaken for a primary-schooler. She had a round face, like myself, but hers was contrasted with sharp features that mirrored her determined nature. I watched her sandy brown hair cast a shadow over her eyes. Though concentrated on her work, her eyes twinkled with a mischievous spark, as though she was always planning some prank or another. I frowned. I still didn’t know what to make of her. She was rude one moment and surprisingly thoughtful the next, then rude once more. I didn’t know what Alice saw in her.
I frowned as I remembered the argument I had with Alice that morning. I felt my chest tighten. Who does she think she is, to tell me I’m not serious enough? I thought. I mean… She’s right… But she’s not my mother! She has no right to tell me how to act! It’s not any concern of hers! Yet… Oh, she’s right, what am I going to do? I suppose I could really study art, but that might be too hard… But even then, I can’t get in if I can’t pass my…
“What’s the matter, darling?”
I looked up, surprised. “H-huh?“
“You seem upset about something,” Elli said.
“I-I just… Um…” I looked down. “Elli? What do you want to do after school?”
“After I graduate?” asked Elli.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I don’t know,” said Elli, continuing her work. “I haven’t thought about it.”
She hasn’t? I thought.
“Why do you ask?” asked Elli.
“Oh, I just — thought you might… I thought I might be able to get some inspiration from — from you,” I said. I kept my eyes on my skirt. “Alice asked me that question the other day.”
“You know,” Elli said, “I sewed up one of Ally’s dresses a while back. She used to wear these wonderfully extravagant things. She tore one of them one day when it caught on a tree. She didn’t want her parents to find out, so I helped her mend it.”
“Extravagant things?” I asked. “When I was looking for her tennis outfit, I saw some of her fancier dresses.”
“Those are the ones,” said Elli. “She doesn’t wear them anymore, though.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s a bit of a story,” said Elli. “You should ask her yourself.”
“I-I wish I was more like Alice, really…” I said.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Elli.
“O-oh! Well…” I stammered. “She just seems like she knows what she’s doing…”
“Yeah?” asked Elli.
“And… She’s so tall, and she has such pretty hair…” I curled one finger around a strand of my own hair and started twirling it.
“Hmm,” replied Elli. “I was right.”
I looked up. “What do you mean?”
“You’re jealous of her. I could see it when I met you.” She smiled.
I frowned. “S-so what if I am? I-It’s not like I think she’s perfect. She studies too much, I think. But…”
“You’re just like the children at school—” Elli began.
“Don’t call me that!” I snapped.
“What?” Elli asked, her arms raised slightly out of surprise.
“I’m not a child!” I said. My vision began to blur.
“Mary, I—” Elli stared at me for a moment. She stood, putting down her work.
“Come here,” she said, taking my hand. Silently, I complied, following as she pulled me down the stairs.
“Where are we going?” I asked angrily.
“Be quiet,” said Elli.
We kept walking past the houses and went off the road into a clearing, where there was a small lake. Nearby were two boulders, about knee-high.
“Sit down,” said Elli, herself taking a seat on one of the boulders. I did as I was told.
“I told you I met Alice in art class, right?” asked Elli.
I nodded, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. Elli continued.
“She used to come here to read or study sometimes. It’s a popular place to skim stones. One day I was out playing and saw her here. A couple of the kids from the year above us were harassing her. I got angry and told them off, and made them give Alice her things back. I spent the rest of the evening talking to her and making jokes and things to cheer her up. We became good friends then.”
“What did they do?”
“They told her that she didn’t belong in that school, that she didn’t deserve to go there. That she thought she was so special because she came from a rich family, when she never did anything to earn it.”
“Why would they say that?” I asked.
“Well, it’s not to say she didn’t have it coming to her.” Elli rolled her eyes. “The girl chastised anyone who stepped a hair out of line.”
I guess I’m not surprised… I thought.
“You don’t want to be like her,” Elli replied, leaning in. “You may feel invisible at school, but she wishes she could be.”
“But—surely some people look up to her, right?” I asked.
“You’re missing the point, darling,” she replied. “Haven’t you ever wanted to be friends with someone because they had something you didn’t? Put yourself in her shoes. She lives in constant fear that anyone who speaks to her is looking to take something from her. And the ones who aren’t are jealous — of her money, or her popularity, or her status. Like those gremlins we saw on our way to the café.”
“They weren’t friends of yours?” I asked.
“Heavens no, darling. They do nothing but spread rumours, and I wish to take no part in that.”
“Oh…” I trailed off.
“That’s just how people are. I love Ally dearly, but darn it all if she doesn’t take every insult to heart. She’s weak.“
I looked down. “Even so… Nobody will ever look at me the way—”
Elli cut me off. “Mary, look at me.“
I raised my head. Elli was staring at me intently. She didn’t blink.
“You have to quit with this silly talk. Why do you care what anyone thinks of you?”
I gestured to myself. I could feel my cheeks redden as my vision began to blur again. I wiped my eyes.
Elli stood suddenly and took my shoulders. “Mary, I don’t care what you look like. Your heart is the only thing that matters. Are you listening to me?” Her tone of voice intensified. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else says! The only way someone can look down on you is if you let them, and that includes yourself, so by George, don’t do it!”
She sat back down. “Mary, we’re young. I don’t know what I’m doing any more than you do, but if all you do is put yourself down for it, then where will that ever get you? You say you want to be like Alice, but you already are. You fear the same things, and you let those fears tie you down. Even now, you’re too afraid to cry, because it would only embarrass you. Just let it go already!”
I lowered my head and squinted hard, feeling the tears roll down my face. I cried in quick little gasps that started quietly and got louder. I felt Elli place her hand on my shoulder. I began to quiet down, and raised my head, simultaneously embarrassed and relieved.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sniffling and forcing a smile.
“No need, darling,” she replied gently. “Now then,” she said, standing. “Put that out of your mind for now. Let’s fix up your skirt.”
I stood up and stretched my arms. I took a deep breath and sighed audibly. Looking back at the glittering lake, my head began to clear. I followed Elli back indoors and up to her room, where she finished sewing up the rip in my skirt.
“We’d best get back to Alice’s,” said Elli, handing me my skirt. She scribbled something down on some music sheets and stuffed them into her bag.
I turned round. “Yes?”
Elli looked stern. “I told you none of this, alright? I never told you anything about Alice.”
Elli smiled. “Good. Go get changed, darling, I have a few more things to prepare.”
I went off to another room to change back into my skirt, and then we set out for the villa.
I cleared my throat as Elli closed the gate in the fence, which I walked through this time instead of jumping over. “Th-thank you,” I said quietly.
“Oh, it was easy,” said Elli, still fiddling with the papers in her bag as she walked. “I bet you didn’t know I could sew, hmm?”
I took her arm, and she lifted her head to look at me.
“Thank you,” I repeated.
She smiled. “No worries, darling.“
I smiled and held my hands behind my back as I began to skip beside her.
Maybe Elli wasn’t so bad. Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.