She was tall, almost a head taller than I. A plain white dress with a golden trim gracefully outlined her delicate form. Her thick, reddish-orange hair was gathered loosely into a plait, an arched fringe framing her pale, freckled face; though once soft and round, it had grown to be well-defined, with high cheekbones. Underneath a prominent brow hid two bright green eyes that betrayed the excitement in her otherwise calm demeanor. A gentle smile formed on her thin lips as I approached her.
“Welcome, Mary,” she said, embracing me. Her hair smelled of strawberries.
“It’s been ages,” she continued, holding me at arm’s length. “Are you well?” She was clear and well-spoken, with a quiet but steady voice. Despite the propriety of her speech, she voiced the R’s in her words, as many from this region did.
“Y-yes, I — It’s nice to see you too,” I replied.
“Please, come in,” she said, gesturing to me and walking inside. I followed her into the parlour and looked round. The parlour was an open expanse covered in a polished hardwood floor. Ahead of me was a beige wall separating two hallways, and on the wall was a framed depiction of the McCrae coat of arms. To my left was a sitting room and a spiral staircase that lead up to the second floor. Directly above me hung a fancy silver chandelier.
“Mother is in the kitchen,” said Alice, clasping her hands in front of her. “She’s preparing dinner tonight. She knew you were coming and thought you might enjoy one of her meals. She’ll be pleased to see you.”
I put down my suitcase and followed Alice to the kitchen, still holding my box of pastries. Aunt Clara, a stout woman with short, wavy yellow hair, was brewing a pot of tea. A meat and vegetable stew simmered on the stove. She turned round upon hearing our entrance and smiled widely, embracing me.
“Oh, Mary darling, it’s so wonderful to see you again!” She put her hands on my shoulders, looking me over. “You’ve grown up so much.”
I felt warm inside. “Thank you for having me,” I said.
“Don’t mention it,” she replied. “We’re more than happy to let you stay with us.”
I remembered the box I was holding, and held it out to her. “Oh, um… Th-these are for you,” I said. “I thought I might buy some pastries on my way here…”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have, darling,” said Aunt Clara, pinching my cheek. She took the box and placed it on the marble-topped counter. “Alice, why don’t you show Mary to her room. Dinner will be ready soon.” Aunt Clara turned her attention back to the tea.
Alice smiled “This way, please,” she said.
“Allow me,” said a voice. I turned to see the butler picking up my suitcase.
“O-oh, I can take care of it,” I said, rushing over to take it from him.
“I might as well become a supervisor at this point,” the man muttered.
“Thank you for the offer, Sebastian,” said Alice. She moved silently through the parlour and up the spiral staircase. Like her voice, her movements were steady and smooth. I took up my suitcase and followed.
The upper floor was divided into two halves by a long, wide corridor, with several doors on either side. Alice opened the second door on the right and walked to the center of the room. She clasped her hands in front of her.
“This is where you’ll be staying,” she said. “I hope it is adequate. There’s a washroom just out in the hall, to your right. My room is to your left, but if I’m not there, you can find me in the study across the hall. If you need anything, please let me know, or Sebastian if I’m not around.”
I laughed. “You don’t need to talk like that,” I said, falling backwards onto the purple canopied bed, with my arms outstretched. “I remember where everything is.”
“If you’re alright here, I’ll help Mother with dinner,” she said. “Do you need anything else?”
“No, no, I’m alright,” I said. She nodded and left the room.
I propped myself up with my arms and looked round. The room was rather spacious, at least twice the size of my room back home. To the right of the bed was a bookshelf and a large bay window, adorned with red curtains that spanned most of the wall. Across from me was a tall wardrobe, with a full-sized mirror nearby. To my left, on the same side as the entrance, sat an old wooden writing desk. The walls were decorated with framed paintings of locations in the Cotswolds.
I began to unpack my suitcase, filling the wardrobe with my dresses and other clothing. I moved to put my sketchbook on the end table next to the bed, when I noticed a little music box sitting next to the lamp. The box was white and rectangular, with black edges. I opened it up and smiled. Inside was a photo of Alice and I from when we were young. We were standing out in the field behind the villa, grinning. We were about the same height back then. I put the photo aside and wound up the music box. It started playing a simple melody. I sat on the edge of the bed and swayed back and forth as I listened.
“It’s a wonderful song, isn’t it?”
I breathed in sharply and looked up. Alice was standing in the doorway. Hurriedly, I closed the music box.
“I-I’m sorry, I just meant to look, that was all,” I said, standing.
Alice smiled. “You needn’t be ashamed, there’s nothing wrong with being curious.” She crouched beside the bed and picked up the music box, opening it again. “This was a song Mother used to sing for me when I was young,” she said. She took up the photo. “Do you remember this? We picked strawberries that day…”
“I do,” I said, sitting back down. “I picked twice as many as you did,” I added with a smirk.
“You also ate half of them,” Alice replied, without hesitation.
“I-I… I might’ve.” I averted my eyes. I could feel my cheeks beginning to glow.
Alice giggled. “You’re still adorable when you’re embarrassed.”
“Thank yo—ah—I—no I’m not!” I exclaimed, frowning. My face grew warmer.
Alice stifled another laugh. As she returned the photo to the box, she noticed my sketchbook sitting on the table.
“What’s this?” she asked, reaching for it.
“Don’t touch that!” I said, snatching it up and holding it tightly to my chest. Alice looked frightened.
“It’s just a book, that’s all,” I said, stuffing it away in the drawer.
“Oh… I’m sorry,” said Alice. She stood. “Th-that was improper of me, I apologise.” She looked at the clock that hung on the wall. “I came to tell you that dinner was ready. We’d best hurry before the food gets cold.” She hurried out of the room.
I hastened to the washroom and cleaned up for dinner. I didn’t mean to be harsh with her… I looked in the mirror. My face was red. I felt like crying. First impressions… Or, rather, new impressions, were important! No, Mary, I thought. Get ahold of yourself! I’m sure she knows you didn’t mean it… I took a deep breath, then hurried downstairs, entering the dining room just outside the kitchen.
It was a long room, dimly lit. The dining table, covered in a fine red cloth, was set with exquisite white bowls and saucers, with thin blue lines round their rims that reminded me of waves. The air was thick with the inviting aroma of Aunt Clara’s stew.
She and Alice were already seated. I began to take my seat when I heard heavy footsteps behind me.
“How’s my favourite niece?” a loud voice called. I turned to see my uncle walking into the room.
“Uncle Ian!” I ran into his arms. He was a large man, with fiery red hair and piercing green eyes. His eyes crinkled when he smiled.
“I could eat that whole pot right now, I could,” he said, standing. “But I doubt its nutritional value.” I rolled my eyes. His eyes remained on the stew as he took his seat at the end of the table. I sat down across from Alice.
We began to eat. The table was mostly silent as we devoured the food, until my uncle spoke up.
“Mary, I’m glad you made it here safely,” he said, buttering a piece of bread. “I was afraid you’d get lost on the way here, or kidnapped by a bear, or—”
“Ian!” said his wife, hitting him on the arm. He simply laughed.
I frowned. “I’m almost sixteen, you know. I can follow a map.” I knew he was joking, but I couldn’t help feeling cross.
“Have you been out to the strawberry fields yet?” he asked.
“I haven’t,” I responded.
“You ought to take a look tomorrow, they’re growing well this season.”
“I-is that so?” I asked.
He nodded. “Alice has been out there every day watering them. She won’t let the gardener do it,” he added, smiling at his daughter.
Alice blushed and said nothing.
He stood. “That was wonderful, Clara,” he said. “Well, I have some business I ought to attend to. I’ll be in my study.” He left the room.
“Mary,” began Aunt Clara. “How’s my dear sister been? I haven’t heard from her in a while.”
Oh no, I forgot to call mum! I realised. I stood up quickly and asked if I could borrow their telephone. I ran to the sitting room and dialed home. My mother picked up, scolding me for not calling sooner. I assured her that I was alright and that we had just eaten a lovely meal. After a short conversation, I hung up, and noticed Alice standing near me out of the corner of my eye. She was holding two plates, each with one of the raspberry-filled croissants I bought earlier that day.
“Mother opened the box you brought over when you arrived,” she said, holding one plate out to me. “Would you like a croissant?“
I accepted the offer.
“Would you like me to get you something to drink, Miss McCrae?” asked Sebastian, who appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
“No, thank you Sebastian, I’ll get it,” said Alice. “Please, eat something, Sebastian. You must be starving.”
The man smiled. “I will. Thank you, Miss.“
Alice went away and returned a moment later, holding two cups of freshly brewed herbal tea. She sat on one of the red cushioned chairs, putting her food down on the table in front of it.
I was surprised I still had room to eat after dinner. We sat quietly as we ate.
“S-so… I hear the strawberries are growing nicely,” I said, staring down at my food.
“They are,” replied Alice. “They’re ripening earlier than usual this year.“
“Oh,” I replied. “Th-that’s nice.“
“Do you grow anything at home, Mary?” asked Alice, putting her plate own.
I looked up. “Me? I—um… Oh, uh, I have an orchid by my window, and my mum has some plants on the porch and in the kitchen that she tends to.“
“That sounds lovely,” said Alice, smiling. “Did you buy the orchid, or was it a gift?”
“My dad gave it to me before he left for India a couple years ago,” I replied.
“How thoughtful!” said Alice. “He must love you very much. Do you miss him?”
“Sometimes,” I said quickly. I paused. “U-Uncle Ian said that you tend to the field by yourself?“
Alice blushed again and looked down. “We have a gardener, and he tends to the garden out front, but I like to take care of the field myself.”
“I-I see,” I said.
Silence. I tried not to fidget.
“Would you like to pick strawberries tomorrow morning?” asked Alice. “I thought we might bake a pie with them.”
“Oh yes, I’d love that!” I responded immediately, my mouth full.
Alice giggled. “Wonderful,” she said, standing. “We’ll go after breakfast!” I stood as well.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” she said, hugging me tightly. She picked up our empty plates and took them to the kitchen.
I went upstairs to the guest room. I walked over to the mirror and stood up straight, my shoulders back, my chest out. I sighed and began to pace about the room, feeling restless. Not much had changed since the last time I visited. The butler — Sebastian — he was new. They had another before, but I couldn’t recall his name. Alice… She had the same mannerisms I always knew, but in the few years since we last met, she’d changed so much. Was I any different? She didn’t seem at all surprised by me…
I decided to distract myself by thinking of our plans for the morning. I left my room and went down the hallway to the balcony that overlooked the field. I opened the windowed door and walked out into the cool night air. It was getting dark, but I could still see the trees that lined the area, arranged neatly into rows. I breathed in deeply. The air was cleaner than what I was used to back home.
“It’s going to be pretty windy tomorrow, I think,” said a voice behind me. I jumped a little, turning my head sharply. Aunt Clara laughed and came up behind me, putting her arm around my shoulders. “I haven’t seen you in five years!” she said, squeezing me tightly. “You needn’t hide from me, dearest.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to,” I said.
She held up a small red-and-white box. “I brought playing cards,” she said, grinning.
My eyes lit up. “… Can we play Rummy?” I asked, putting my hands together.
We sat down at a table on the balcony. She shuffled the cards, dealt them, and we started playing.
“So, how is your mum doing?” my aunt asked a few minutes into the game.
“She’s quite well,” I replied, drawing a card from the deck.
“Still working at that bakery?”
“Yes, actually — she’s been promoted recently,” I said. “She oversees the new employees now, I think.”
“Good for her!” my aunt exclaimed. “I always told her she could do it if she set her mind to it. What about your father?”
“He says he’s faring quite well. He sent us a parcel of things from India, they were all very interesting.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said as she placed a set of cards down.
I hesitated. “Aunt Clara?”
“What is it, darling?”
“What does it mean to set your mind to something?”
“It means to focus on a goal and do anything it takes to accomplish it, even if it gets difficult. Why do you ask?”
“I—ah, it’s nothing,” I said. My cheeks grew warm.
“Oh come now, I know it isn’t nothing. What do you mean?”
I looked down. “W-well, before summer, my schoolmates all decided what they wanted to study in higher education, and I… I’m not so sure yet.”
Aunt Clara put another card down. “You think so?” she asked.
I didn’t respond.
“Take your time,” she said, patting my shoulder. “You’ll find it when it’s ready for you. In the meantime, keep trying new things, and don’t be afraid to take chances. Talk to people about their lives and about their own passions. Learn from their mistakes and their discoveries. That’s the only way to grow, you know.”
I sat up a little straighter. “What do you like to do?”
“Oh, I love to teach,” she replied. “You can’t put a price on knowledge, you know, and I think you young people ought to take it more seriously. I studied to be a teacher, but after marrying Ian and moving here I never got a job doing it.”
“Did you give up?” I asked.
She laughed. “I never gave up, dearest. I didn’t need a job in order to teach. I volunteer here and there. Of course, I’ll teach anyone who will listen,” she said, placing a winning set of cards on the table. “Maybe I should give you some lessons,” she said, grinning.
I looked at the cards, then back at her, my eyes wide.
She laughed again. “Keep an open mind,” she said. “You’ll find new ways to look at your situation.” She shuffled the cards again. “Another game?”
“You bet!” I responded enthusiastically, my heart lightened from its previous state. We played far too late into the night, after which I went to my room and prepared for bed. As I climbed under the covers, I thought about what my aunt had said.
I like doing lots of things… But I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I love more than anything else. Is that… Is that bad? I’m nearly sixteen, and everyone else in my school knows what they want to be when they’re older. At least, I think they do. Shouldn’t I know, too? No — no, there’s nothing wrong with me if I don’t know yet. I hope. Right…?
I got up and searched the bookshelf, looking for something to take my mind off my worries. Standing on my tiptoes, I checked the top shelf. I found a book with a pretty cover and started reading. It was about a mysterious island kingdom whose inhabitants and rulers had all seemed to have gone mad, although no one seemed to be very concerned about it. It was thought to exist in a place called Seine, though it was so far believed to be a myth.
I put the book down on the end table and turned to my side, one arm underneath my pillow. I stared into the distance, not looking at anything in particular.
I’ll ask Alice about it tomorrow, I thought. I’m sure she knows what she’s doing…
After a few minutes, I glanced at the clock. It was already past midnight. Right, tomorrow then. I closed my eyes and quickly fell asleep.