On Sunday, I attended church with Alice’s family. Once we returned to the villa, I ran to my room and changed immediately out of my stiff dress into something more comfortable. I looked in the mirror as I tied my hair back into a ponytail, using the ribbon Elli had given me.
I guess it’s alright… I thought. I felt a little more grown-up with my hair up like this, but I still thought that something was missing. After a moment of thinking, I gave up and decided to look for Alice. I found her sitting at the desk in her study. Her hair hid her face as she hunched over a book. A pen was in her right hand, which hovered over a sheet of paper. As I walked further into the room, the wood under the rug creaked, causing Alice to look up. She appeared to be startled.
“Oh, hello Mary, I didn’t hear you come in,” said Alice.
“What are you doing?” I asked, sitting in one of the green cushioned chairs nearby.
“I’m just studying,” said Alice, looking at her work again.
“Do you want to play outside?” I asked.
“It’s too hot for me to be outdoors right now,” said Alice.
“What about a game of chess?” I asked.
“I’m too busy to play right now, Mary,” she said.
“How did you find the sermon this morning?” Alice asked, with a brighter tone of voice.
“I didn’t really pay attention,” I said, slouching in my chair. I began to play with my fingers. “I got bored, and my collar was irritating my neck.”
“Perhaps our services are a little different than yours,” said Alice. “Not all ministers are great speakers. Nevertheless, I think you ought to pay more attention. Their words are important — Mary, are you listening to me?”
I sat up straight and said nothing, trying to avoid admitting that I hadn’t heard her last sentence. Alice sighed.
“Mary, do you have any idea what you’re going to do with your life?” she asked, turning in her seat to focus on me. “You must learn to pay attention. You must learn discipline. Not everything can be fun.”
I frowned. “I-I know that!” I said. “I just wasn’t listening… that time…” I stood up. “A-and why do you care?” I asked.
“I’m your cousin, Mary, and I’m your friend. I have an obligation to look after you. You must learn that there are more important things in life than frivolity.”
I crossed my arms. “At least I’m not spending my Sunday with my nose in a book,” I said. “How is it so important that you have to do it every single day?”
Alice looked down at her book. “You wouldn’t understand,” she said.
“I would too!” I said, stomping one foot on the floor.
Alice’s voice became quiet. “You wouldn’t, Mary. Y-you’re too young to understand. Leave me alone, please.”
My vision began to blur. I clenched my fists at my sides and stormed out of the room in frustration, heading out to the balcony. I stood with my arms crossed, and my mind blank. After a moment, I heard a voice from behind me.
“Miss, something appears to be the matter. Is there anything I can do for you?“
“Leave me alone, Sebastian,” I said, without turning.
“Miss Eldridge is at the door, she is requesting your presence.”
“Oh!” I had forgotten that she had planned to meet with us after church. I dashed to my room to get my hat, then ran downstairs. I opened the door and saw Elli. One hand was on her hip, in her other hand was a cup of tea.
“Top of the mornin’, darling. What do you say we get going?”
“H-hello,” I replied, straightening my posture and smoothing the wrinkles in my skirt.
“That’s not a very direct answer, is it?” she asked.
“I-I mean, right, let’s go!” I closed the door and stepped out into the bright sunshine. “A-Alice is studying right now, so I don’t think she can come,” I said.
“That’s alright, darling, it’ll just be the two of us, then!”
We left the garden and started on the path towards town.
“What’ve been up to, love?” asked Elli.
I was looking at my feet, lost in thought. “Huh?” I asked. “O-oh, um… N-nothing,” I said, looking up at the sky.
“Sounds dreadfully boring, I must admit,” the girl replied.
“I’ve been practising for a recital coming up next week,” said Elli.
“A recital?” I asked.
“For piano,” she replied.
“You play?” I asked, my eyes glittering with curiosity.
Elli nodded. “I’ve played since I was a child.”
“Are you good at it?” I asked.
She smiled. “Well, I was the only person in my class to get full marks on our last exam.”
“I wish I could play an instrument,” I said.
“I could teach you,” said Elli.
“Could you really?” I asked.
“Sure. I teach the children from a nearby school all the time, I can teach you too.”
A breeze passed through. I watched Elli’s hair float in the wind. It was the first time I had seen her without a hat, though she wore a red flower in her hair which matched her skirt. Despite being nearly her height, I felt like a child in her presence. I crossed my arms in front of my chest.
“Elli? How old are you?” I asked, hesitantly.
“Oh, I’m eighteen.”
“What?!” I stopped walking, my eyes widened.
She just laughed. “I’m kidding, darling, I go to the same school Alice goes to. I’m sixteen.”
“Oh… I forgot,” I said, continuing along the path. A moment of silence passed.
“H-how about you?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” asked Elli.
“H-how old do you think I am?” I replied.
She looked me over. “Well, if I had to guess, I might say you’re thirteen. Although that hat is sort of outdated, isn’t it?” She smirked.
“I got it from my grandmother!” I said, clutching the hat in my hands.
“It shows. Anyway, was I right?”
I adjusted my skirt. “I-I’m fifteen and a half, actually,” I said with an air of pride.
“I was close,” the girl remarked.
“Y-you’re not surprised?” I asked, quickening my pace to walk by her side.
“Why should I be?”
“N-no reason.” I looked down at my feet.
“So where are we going, darling? I’m getting quite hungry.”
“Huh? Oh, um… Ah… I-I thought we could go to a café where Alice and I ate the other day.” I fixed my eyes on a stump that we passed by.
“Is it the one on Bridge Street?”
“I-I think so.”
“That’s a fine place.”
“You’ve been before?” I asked.
“Oh yes, many times. Alice and I go there after school on many occasions.”
At this point, we arrived at the market. Our destination was at the end of the block, round the corner on the far end of the street. On our way there, we were approached by two boys around our age. They seemed familiar.
“Good afternoon, Elli!” called one of them.
“What do you want, Gerald?” the girl replied.
“Come now, that’s not a nice way to greet someone who merely said hello.”
“I don’t have time for your nonsense today, Gerald.”
“Oh? You’re not with the princess today? Was the sun too bright for her, or did she finally get tired of hanging around the poor folk?”
“Leave us alone,” Elli replied sternly. She took my hand and pulled me down the block, ignoring the boys as they called after her.
“Who were they?” I asked as we rounded the corner.
“They go to my school. Don’t mind them, they’re idiots.”
I was silent.
“Here we are,” said Elli. We had reached the café. We went inside and found a table near the back by a window. Elli straightened her skirt, adjusted her hat, and cleared her throat.
“So, darling, what’s the country like so far?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s—it’s calm,” I said.
“It’s quite unlike the city, isn’t it?” She smiled.
“You’re right,” I replied.
Elli smiled proudly. “We may not have the big stores or factories you have up North, but you have to admit, it’s rather charming here.”
I put my elbows on the table, pressing my open hand into my cheek. “It is,” I said, smiling.
“Tell me about your hometown,” said Elli.
“Oh, I live in Darlington,” I replied.
“That’s quite far from here, isn’t it? What’s it like?”
“It’s a market town, like here, but more… Um—industrial-ish. It’s very busy. We have a lot of trains there… You can always hear them running about, even at night. I used to have trouble sleeping when my family moved there, but I’ve gotten used to it over time. The noise is sort of comforting to me, now. I rode a train by myself for the first time last—” I paused. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.
“Tell me more, darling,” said Elli. “What’s your school like?”
“I go to a state school,” I said.
“Do you like it?”
“I guess so,” I replied. “The only class I’m really interested in is art class.”
“Yeah?” asked Elli, smiling. “Is it something you’re pursuing? Are you going to be a famous artist someday?” Her eyes grew wider with excitement.
“I-I don’t know… I don’t think I’m that good,” I replied.
“Oh come on now, I saw you the other day. Are you having a laugh?” she asked.
“I-I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” I said.
“Tell me about your friends, then,” said Elli. “What are they like?”
“Yeah. You have friends at home, don’t you?” She rested her head on one hand.
“S-sure, but… N-nobody close,” I replied. I played with my fingers.
“Why’s that?” Elli asked.
“I-I don’t know… I don’t think I really fit in…”
“Darling, darling, please!” She waved her hand dismissively. “If there’s one thing I know anything about, it’s not fitting in.” She sipped her tea.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Elli crossed her arms and leaned in. “I’ll let you in on a little secret, my dear.” She lowered her voice. “I moved here from another country when I was four years old.”
She’s not from here? I thought.
“Everything was very unfamiliar to me,” she continued. “School was an absolute nightmare. I could barely communicate. I kept failing assignments and getting myself into trouble for it. When my father found out, he made me attend every event or party for the entirety of primary school.”
“Wow…” was all I could say.
Elli leaned back and grinned. “I hated him for it,” she said, “but in the end, it worked out.”
We were interrupted as the waiter came by.
“Good afternoon, ladies. What can I get for you?”
“I’ll have the roast beef sandwich, please,” said Elli. “Oh, and some tea as well. Earl Grey, hot.”
The waiter looked at the cup already in her hand, confusion on his face. “Are you sure? It appears that you… already have tea with you.”
Elli’s expression was blank. “And what’s that got to do with anything?”
“U-understood,” said the waiter. He turned to me. “And you, Miss?”
“D-do you have egg mayonnaise sandwiches here?”
“Only the best,” he replied.
I wrinkled my nose as I smiled, trying to contain my excitement. “I’d like one of those, then. A-and some black tea, please!”
“Absolutely. I’ll be back in a moment.” He walked off to the kitchen.
“Shame that Romeo isn’t here today,” said Elli.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Ally’s infatuated with one of the waiters here, ‘Pine’ I think his name is,” she said, smirking. “It’s entertaining to watch her when he’s around.”
“I think we might have seen him the other day,” I said. “Alice was all embarrassed and flustered.”
Elli giggled. “She does that. She’s too shy to say anything about it, as if she might get rejected. That’s a silly notion. It’s not like she doesn’t have enough boys fawning over her at school.”
“Is she popular?” I asked.
Elli put her drink down. “Darling, when you live in a place like this and come from a family like hers, you’ll be popular no matter what you look like.”
“It must be nice to be popular…” I said.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Elli.
Our sandwiches and tea arrived. Hesitantly, I bowed my head and said grace silently. I looked back up. Elli was already eating.
“E-Elli?” I began. “How did you become friends?”
“Ally and I?”
“We met in school,” she said. “But we didn’t become friends until a little while later. I’ll tell you the story someday.”
The waiter came by again. “Will you be having any dessert today, ladies?”
“Oh, do you have cinnamon rolls?” I asked, hopping in my seat.
Elli looked him in the eye. “What’s the biggest ice cream sundae you have?”
“We have a three-scoop sundae served with a brownie—”
“Add another scoop, and you’ve got a deal,” said Elli.
The waiter nodded and exited hastily.
Elli turned to me. “Hey, let’s go to my place after dessert, and I’ll show you my piano.”
“Oh, can you?!” I exclaimed, placing my hands on the table. I cleared my throat and repositioned myself, speaking in a calmer tone. “I-I’d appreciate that very much, yes.“
“Splendid!” said Elli.