Elli and I arrived at Alice’s late in the afternoon. Clouds had begun rolling in, but the low-hanging sun’s light still peeked through, turning the bottoms of the clouds a bright red.
“I enjoyed the tea, darling,” said Elli, removing her hat and placing it on the hatrack just inside the parlour. “It’s too bad Alice couldn’t come.”
“Yeah,” I said, removing my hat as well. “I-it was fun! Thanks for showing me your piano!”
“You’ve got the fingers to play it, you just need practise,” she said. She began fiddling with her bag. “I made some notes for you to look over, and—Oh, darling, before I forget, I need to ask you something.”
“What’s that?” I replied.
“When is your birthday?” she asked.
“U-um… The twenty-first of September,” I said. “Why?”
“Oh that’s much too long to wait,” Elli replied. She took something out of her bag and held it out to me.
“Dah-na-na-na-naaaaaaaa!” she sang, a big smile on her face. In her hands was a pale orange dress.
“Wh-what’s this?!” I asked, taking it. I stared at it with wide eyes.
“You remember that dress you said you wanted?” she said. “I took it to a tailor for you. I had to sell those skirts I bought, but I think it was worth it. I intended to give this to you on your birthday, but I thought you could use some cheering up.”
“You—wow, thank you!” I said.
“Go on, try it on, I want to see!” said Elli.
I ran up to the guest room and changed. I fashioned the bow in back and turned round in the mirror, admiring the dress. It was thin, and rather simple in design compared to my typical dresses, with short sleeves that went just past my shoulders, and a long hem that reached down to my ankles. It fit perfectly. As I stepped out of the room, I saw Elli waiting for me. Her eyes widened when she saw me. She covered her mouth and started to bounce on her tiptoes.
I rolled my eyes. “Go on,” I said.
Elli let out a squeal and hugged me. “You’re precious!” she exclaimed.
“You don’t think it makes me look any older?” I asked.
“Darling,” she said, “you look like you. You’re beautiful.”
I blushed. “Thank you,” I said. I looked down. “A-Alice was—I mean…”
“What about Alice?” asked Elli.
“Alice—I was afraid you—we wouldn’t be able to get along. But you’ve been so nice to me… Alice was right about you.”
Elli smirked. “You’re not so bad yourself, darling.” She began moving down the hallway. “Well, I’m going to find Ally,” she said. “I’ll be downstairs.”
I went back into the guest room and twirled round in front of the mirror once more.
Do I really look okay? I thought. Absentmindedly, I touched the ribbon in my hair, the one Elli had given me. I smiled. O-of course. For once, I almost felt proud of my appearance.
I returned to the parlour, where I was greeted by Sebastian.
“Ah, there you are, Miss Bennet,” he said, bowing. “Miss McCrae requests your presence in the back garden.”
Is she still angry with me? I thought. I felt my stomach flutter. Elli ran in from the kitchen.
“Come on, Mary!” she said. I followed her through the villa to the back door.
The back garden was much smaller than the one out front, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Overlooking the strawberry field, it was filled with bright red and yellow poppies, daisies, and carefully arranged shrubs; the soil was bordered by multi-coloured stones. Nearby was a round table covered in a thick white cloth, around which sat three silver chairs with white cushions. On the table was a fancy three-tiered stand filled with little cakes and pastries and sandwiches. Beside it sat a teapot decorated with pink flowers, and round the table were cups and plates to match. Alice waited for us by the table, dressed in a long, pastel green gown with a white laced hem and cuffs. In her hands was a matching parasol. Her hair glowed like a kindling fire in the afternoon sun; her smile had the warmth of one.
She doesn’t look upset.
“Good afternoon Mary, Elli,” she said, curtseying. “Sebastian and I made tea for you. I hope you’re hungry.”
“Oh, goody!” I cheered, hurrying over to one of the seats.
“Ally, you shouldn’t have,” said Elli. “But I won’t complain.” Elli and Alice sat in the other two chairs.
“I knew you wouldn’t,” said Alice. She poured some tea for us. “I chose Keemun, Mary, since I know you like it,” she said.
“Th-thank you,” I said before taking a sip. It was just as pleasant as I remembered it. I took one of the pastries from the cake stand, and took a bite. They were sweet, flaky things filled with warm cottage cheese that melted in my mouth. I closed my eyes and smiled in content as I rocked my legs back and forth.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you today,” said Alice. “How was your outing?”
“We had a grand time,” said Elli. “Didn’t we, darling?”
“Elli taught me how to play a thing on the piano!” I said.
“A scale,” said Elli.
“Yeah, that!” I said. “She said she could teach me more over the summer.” I stuffed another pastry in my mouth.
“That’s wonderful, Mary!” said Alice. “I hope you will play for me someday.”
“I brought some music for you to study,” said Elli. “Alice can read music, so she can help you with that when I’m not around.”
My eyes widened. “I thought you said you couldn’t play music,” I said to Alice, my mouth full.
“I-I used to take violin lessons as a child, but I haven’t played in years,” she replied, blushing. She frowned. “And don’t speak with your mouth full, it isn’t proper.” I looked down at my plate.
“A-and you?” I said, after I had finished.
“What’s that?” asked Alice.
“Y-your afternoon,” I replied. “How was it?”
“O-oh,” replied Alice. “I just did my studying, that was all. Sebastian made me lunch. I felt bad for asking him to help me prepare this as well.”
“I’m glad you did,” I said, reaching for one of the cakes.
Elli stood. “I’ll go get those music sheets before I forget,” she said. She ducked inside.
My attention was caught by a quick flash of colour. I turned my head to watch as a butterfly flew past me and perched on one of the flowers in the garden. I stood and hopped over to the stone blocks surrounding the flower bed. I got up on one of them, and held my arms out to my sides as I began to walk slowly along, keeping my sights on the butterfly. From behind me, I heard the sound of footsteps, and turned back to see Alice walking behind me, wobbling with her arms outstretched as she attempted to keep her balance. It was a little strange to see.
“Th-that’s it,” I said. “Don’t move too much.”
“I’m… trying,” she replied, frowning as she focused. She began wobbling more, and eventually let out a yelp as she lost her balance and stepped back onto the grass, laughing.
“You’ve almost got it,” I said.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” said Alice.
“It’s fun, right?” I asked.
“It is,” she said. Suddenly she frowned and looked down at her feet. “Mary, I feel like I ought to say—I mean, I owe you an apology for—Oh!”
I put my arms around her. I closed my eyes as I pressed my head to her chest, squeezing her tightly.
“I love you,” I said after a moment. “You were right, this morning.”
“Oh, Mary, I—” Alice began.
“No, you were right,” I interrupted, without looking at her. “I… I acted like a child. I’ve always admired how grown-up you are, and I was embarrassed when you scolded me, but I-I’m sorry. Can you forgive me?” I let go and looked up. Alice had a look of surprise on her face, which melted away into a smile.
“Mary,” she said, holding my hands, “that’s the most grown-up thing you could say.” A warm feeling came over me. “But I should be the one to apologise,” she continued. “Perhaps I was jealous, when I said that.” She hugged me again. “I love you.”
An idea struck me. “H-hold on!” I said, wrestling out of her grasp. “I-I need to get something!”
I dashed back into the villa and up to my room. Where is it? I thought. I rummaged through my belongings before remembering where I placed my sketchbook; I opened the end table drawer and found it inside. Taking it up, I carefully removed the drawing I had made of a hibiscus. I ran back outside and into the garden, where Alice was waiting.
I held the drawing out to Alice. “This is for you,” I said. “I saw these flowers on the train ride here, and remembered that you used to keep one in your room when you were little, so I drew one. I-I want you to have it.”
Alice stepped back and covered her mouth and nose with her hands. Her eyes shimmered. She took the drawing from me and wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. “Mary, this is lovely. If you don’t mind, I’ll frame it and hang it in my study. Thank you so much.”
“Am I interrupting something?”
I turned to see Elli standing nearby, holding several sheets of paper.
“No, not at all,” said Alice. “Mary drew this for me,” she said, holding the drawing up.
“A-and I’ll let you see my sketchbook sometime too,” I said to Alice, playing with my fingers.
Her eyes lit up. “You would?!” she asked.
“Just… Promise you won’t laugh at it…” I mumbled.
“Of course not,” she said. “Although I can’t promise Elli would do the same,” she added, smiling at her friend.
I felt a drop of water on my arm; then another, and another, until all of the sudden rain began to fall.
“Oh dear,” said Alice, holding the drawing closely. “The food will be ruined. I’ll ask Sebastian to help us move our things inside.” She held out her parasol to me. “Come here, there’s enough room for both of us.”
I glanced at Elli, who was waiting at the doorway, and then back at Alice. A week ago, I hadn’t met Elli, and had barely known Alice, but now they were closer to me than any friends I’d ever had. I thought back to the night when Alice and I watched shooting stars. I glanced at Elli once more. I guessed my wish had come true. And maybe I wouldn’t grow up any time soon, I thought, but… Maybe that was okay. I looked back at Alice, who beckoned me earnestly.
I stepped under the parasol.
~ FIN ~