Alice and I went downstairs to prepare lunch. Sebastian offered to make something for us, but Alice declined, and we made sandwiches for ourselves. As we ate, I looked out the window and saw that the rain had stopped.
“Alice?” I asked. “Do you want to go out to the garden after lunch?”
“What for?” asked Alice.
“No reason,” I said. I left the kitchen and pranced to the doorway. Oh, I’ll get my sketchbook! I thought. I raced upstairs, found it, and returned.
“I’ll be outside!” I shouted, opening the door wide and stepping out into the cool, moist air. Clouds covered the sky, save for a few patches of sunlight here and there. The air smelled that peculiar way that it does when it’s just rained. The bright, sporadic chirping of birds could be heard from all directions; some of them were perched on the water fountain, taking advantage of the excess water to drink or bathe. Occasionally, a gust of wind came through, causing a nearby pile of leaves to dance in a little whirlwind, as though a magician had taken to them. With each passing gust, my hair was blown in a different direction, though, my bows kept it mostly in place.
I heard the door open behind me. Alice stepped out, carrying a light brown coat. She handed it to me.
“I thought you might want this,” she said, putting her hat on.
I took the coat. It was simple, without patterns or fluff. It was not intended for very cold weather, as it only had two buttons near the waist so that it couldn’t be closed all the way up. The fabric was very soft, and it appeared to be in perfect condition. I put it on, surprised to find that it fit me almost perfectly.
“That coat was one of my favourites, but I’ve grown out of it,” said Alice. “It always made me feel safe… As though any dangers were less worrisome so long as I wore it. It’s nice to see that it fits you well.”
“Th-thanks,” I replied, looking down. Another gust of wind blew through, and this time I barely felt it. I started to wander about the garden, eyeing the carefully arranged flowers and shrubs. Everything was a vivid jade green, darker than normal because of the rain. Droplets of water rested on the surface of the leaves and on the grass, adding a sort of glimmer to the garden as a whole.
I rounded the corner of the left side of the villa, spotting a very tall, thick oak tree. Underneath it were two wooden benches that sat opposite one another. I sat down on one of the benches and put my head back, staring at the tree. Birds were chattering among the branches.
Alice sat down beside me and opened a book. I sat for a moment, then stood and walked to one of the flowerbeds. I stepped on one of the small stone blocks surrounding it, and put my arms out to my sides as I attempted to balance on it.
“What are you doing?” asked Alice.
“Balancing,” I replied. “Try it, it’s fun!”
I got no response.
“Alice?” I asked. She was writing something down in a notebook. I hopped off the stones and approached the bench. “Alice!” I said again.
She looked up, startled. “Pardon me?” she asked.
“Come play with me,” I said.
She smiled. “Would you like to sit here with me?” she asked.
I looked up at the tree. Maybe I could try drawing it… I sat down on the other bench and opened up my sketchbook. Looking up at the tree again, I began to copy the patterns. I made quick, calculated lines that soon developed into a patchwork of detailed branches, each with its own unique shape. I began to add the leaves.
I looked up.
“Might I see how it’s coming along?” asked Alice.
I put my feet up on the bench. “I-It’s not finished yet,” I said. She seemed to be very interested in my work, but I didn’t think I was ready to show it to her…
“I understand,” said Alice.
I continued sketching, texturing the tree’s trunk.
“Hmm?” I looked up from my work.
“I’m… I’m sorry if I came across as too… Emphatic, earlier. I shouldn’t push you to do anything you aren’t interested in.”
“Oh…” I said. “I-it’s alright!” I felt a little better.
“I don’t think you ever responded when I asked you this morning… What do you want to study after school?”
“Oh, I um…” I started.
“I suppose you would be studying art? Perhaps that should’ve been obvious to me,” said Alice.
“O-oh, yes!” I straightened my posture. “Yes, um, I-I am going to be studying art stuff.”
It was a plausible answer, at least.
Alice smiled. “I’m glad,” she said.
I continued working for a few more minutes before Alice piped up again. She was strangely talkative this afternoon.
“Mary, what made you decide to become an artist?” she asked.
“I… Wouldn’t really say I’m an artist, I guess…” I replied. “I just draw things I like. I like pretty things. I like making pretty things. They make me happy.”
Alice smiled. “That’s a wonderful reason,” she said. She picked up her notepad again.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
Alice looked up. “I’m studying,” she said. “I need to learn as much as I can in order to get into Cambridge.”
“Why?” I asked.
“They expect you to have an interest in your field of study,” she said. “I need to be able to prove that I do.”
“Do you?” I asked.
“Are you interested?” I clarified.
Alice frowned. “Of course,” she said. “Of course I am! I do wish you wouldn’t—”
“Who’s the new kid?” said a voice. A shadow came over me. I looked up, startled as I was met with a pair of crystal blue eyes. Her short, thick brown hair hung upside-down — if she had been upright, it would’ve just reached her shoulders. The girl hopped down from behind the bench and came round in front of us, donning a white hat. She had a lively air about her. Her motions were quick and precise, and she walked with a sense of dignity that commanded attention, much like her manner of dress. She was in fact fairly short, no more than a few centimetres taller than I, but she had a rather defined figure, outlined by a bright red blouse that matched the ribbon on her hat.
I put aside my pen and closed my sketchbook, clutching it in front of my chest.
The girl crouched in front of me, her layered white skirt hovering above her boots. Propping one arm on her knee, she rested her chin on her open hand and stared at me intensely, as though she was reading my innermost thoughts. In her other hand was a white cup half-filled with tea.
“This is Mary,” Alice replied. “She’s my cousin, she lives up North.“
“H-hello,” I faltered, shifting my weight on the bench. I held my sketchbook a little tighter.
“She doesn’t sound like a Northerner,” said the girl, without moving.
“W-what’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, frowning and gripping the bench with both hands.
A playful grin flashed on her thin lips. “I like her. She’s cute.“
Angered, I stood, and began to walk towards her. “Pardon me, I’ll have you know that I—” I stopped myself as she stood to meet me, still grinning.
“I-I mean… Th-thank you,” I muttered, returning to my seat. Her smile grew wider. My anger faded into embarrassment.
“I like your hair,” said the girl, crouching again. Her own hair danced lightly just above her brow.
“It reminds me of how Alice used to do hers,” she continued. “You remember that, don’t you, Ally?”
Alice’s cheeks flushed. “A-ah, Mary, pardon me, I haven’t introduced you. This is Elli, she’s a friend from school.”
“A friend?” asked Elli. “So I’m just any old friend now, am I?”
“Oh no, I didn’t mean it like that,” said Alice frantically.
Elli wrinkled her nose at her and smiled.
So this is that girl she mentioned yesterday… I thought.
“G-good to meet you,” I said, straightening my posture.
“Back ’atcha, love,” said Elli, jumping up. She put her tea down on a nearby rock and started to walk in circles, her arms outstretched.
“What brings you to this dreary old neighborhood, darling?” she asked.
“I-I’m staying with Alice for the summer,” I replied.
“Splendid!” she replied, stopping to face me. She put her fingers together. “Let’s have tea!”
“But it’s not tea time yet!” I said.
Elli laughed. “It’s always tea time, darling.” She picked up her cup and strode towards the door of the residence. “I’ll let myself in,” she called back.
Alice stood and clasped her hands together, smiling warmly. “Will you join us?” she asked, before heading in Elli’s direction.
Another gust of wind blew through the garden. I snatched up my sketchbook and returned to the villa.
❀ ❀ ❀
Elli was perched on the kitchen counter, swinging her legs back and forth rhythmically as she sipped her tea. Alice was preparing another kettle.
“Join me, won’t you?” Elli asked, patting the counter. For the first time, I noticed that she spoke like one who was well-educated. It was a familiar accent I heard many times when I lived in the South, but something I had become unaccustomed to since.
“N-no thanks,” I said, crossing my arms in front of my chest and looking off to the side. “I’d rather stand.”
“Have some tea, then!” she replied. “It’s good fo—No no, Ally dear, just a bit more water, a proper cup of tea must be perfectly balanced—Yes, there we are, carry on.” She turned to me. “Darling, what was your name again? It seems I’ve forgotten.”
“My name is Mary,” I replied.
“Charming,” said Elli, “but a little dull, wouldn’t you say? You need a nickname.”
“H-hey!” My face reddened.
“You do that quite often, don’t you?” She smiled.
“Elli, don’t torture the poor thing,” said Alice, looking sternly in Elli’s direction.
“But it’s fun,” she pouted.
Alice said nothing, turning and placing the kettle on the stove to heat.
Elli turned in my direction once more.
“How long have you been here, darling?”
“O-only a couple of days,” I replied.
“And you’re staying for the summer?”
Elli smiled and hopped down from the counter. “Ally, I came by to ask if you wanted to play tennis this afternoon.”
Taking a sudden interest, I looked up and listened more intently.
Alice kept her eye on the kettle. “Anything you want,” she said. Elli looked a bit dismayed by this response.
“Aw, you’re making this too easy,” she said, slouching over. “I had a whole monologue prepared.”
Alice glanced at her, raising an eyebrow. “You wanted me to say no?”
“You’re just going because I want to. I wanted to convince you.”
Alice put her hand on the girl’s shoulder and looked directly into her eyes. “You’re my best friend. I don’t care what we do as long as we’re together.”
After a pause, Elli looked at me. “She’s being mawkish again. Has she done this to you yet? She does this a lot.”
Alice frowned, tilting her head to the side. “I mean it, Elli.”
“I know, I know.” Elli smiled, waving her hand dismissively.
“We can use my court if you’d like,” she replied.
“You—you have your own tennis court?!” I asked in shock.
“Yes, it’s a private court my father built for guests to play on every now and again.” She looked somewhat uncomfortable saying this.
“You can come too, darling,” said Elli, addressing me. “It’ll be fun!”
“I don’t need permission,” I said. “I’ll come along if I want to.”
She laughed. “Splendid! You’ll need a tennis outfit, though. Can’t really run and jump in a thing like that, can you?”
“I should have an older outfit from when I used to take lessons,” said Alice. “It was around the same time as when I bought that coat I gave you, so it ought to fit. I’ll go look for it.”
“I-I can find it!” I said. “Where is it?”
“O-oh, are you sure? Check the lower drawer of my wardrobe, it should be in there.”
I darted up the stairs and entered Alice’s room. The layout was similar to the guest room’s. I looked round as I walked gingerly through it. In the middle of the room was a large bed covered in a deep green duvet, with golden accents. Wooden bedposts reached the ceiling, where a green canopy was pulled back. On her desk sat a book on mathematics, as well as several pages covered in equations. Most of them had lines drawn through them. Everything was very neat; there wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere to be seen. On her end table I saw a copy of the Bible, which appeared to be well-worn. Next to it sat a framed photo. Looking closer, I saw Alice and a girl who I assumed was Elli sitting together on a bench. They were holding hands. Elli had her other arm behind Alice, with two fingers up in a “V” shape poking out from behind Alice’s head. Alice couldn’t have been older than fourteen in the photo. They’ve known each other for that long? I thought.
I continued to Alice’s wardrobe and opened it up. Inside hung many extravagant dresses, mostly in dark colours. I looked round, then touched one of them. It was soft. I pulled it from the rod where it hung and held it up to my shoulders. It had a much fancier design that the clothing I was used to seeing Alice wear, with puffed sleeves and ruffled layers below the waistline. The lower part of the dress bunched up on the hardwood floor below my feet.
The floor squeaked suddenly. Quickly, I returned the dress to its place. Looking down, I noticed two drawers at the base of the wardrobe. I opened the first one, and found a pristine white uniform.
“Did you find it?”
I turned to see Alice in the doorway.
“Y-yes, I just did!”
“Good,” said Alice. I ran to my own room to change.
I was a little embarrassed to be wearing Alice’s old clothes, but I had to admit that it was appealing to wear something of such high quality. They were quite comfortable. The shirt had short sleeves, cuffed just past my shoulders. The pleated skirt reached just below my knees. They were in perfect condition, as far as I could tell.
As I descended the stairs, I saw Elli waiting for me. She had replaced her red blouse for a pink one similar to what I was wearing, and her boots had been exchanged for running shoes. As I entered her sight, she squealed and jumped in place.
“Darling, you look simply charming,” she said, clasping her hands together.
I said nothing, just looked down and walked faster, pulling my arms closer to my sides. A moment later, Alice appeared, wearing a long, thin white skirt and a white blouse with long sleeves.
“All the equipment is at the court,” said Alice. “Let’s go out back, it’s quicker that way.”
“Wait!” exclaimed Elli, running to the kitchen. She returned with her cup refilled.
“Ready!” she said, beaming.