My white buckled shoes clicked in slow intervals as I walked, clutching my bag as tightly as I could. A gust of wind came through, and I squinted, shivering from the cold. I pressed on, hearing the sound of childrens' voices growing louder.
Mum said that my new school would be just like the one in London, but my fear remained. I wished my friends were here...
As I entered the courtyard, I looked round to see many of the children standing in circles together, talking and laughing, playing tig or hopscotch. Two girls walked past me on their way inside the school, and I stepped back involuntarily. Were they all this tall?
I looked round the courtyard once more, and decided it was too cold for me to stay outside. I hurried indoors, breathing a sigh of relief as my body began to warm up a bit. The pleasant sensation was immediately replaced by shock as I looked round the hallway. Dozens of children were walking about, chattering noisily amongst themselves. I held my bag more tightly. I felt as though I was lost in an ocean, with large waves all around me, and nowhere to swim.
I found the nearest corner and ducked into it, watching the flood of people anxiously. Just then, a woman who I assumed to be a teacher came through the hallway.
"Children!" she shouted. "To your classes, please! I know you're all excited to be here, but do remember where you are." The children began to clear out of the hallway, and the woman noticed me standing in the corner. "Your name, miss?" she asked.
"Mary Ann," I said.
“Is this your first year?"
"To the room on the left down there," she said, pointing down the hallway. I nodded and ran to find the classroom. Most of the seats were filled already. Scanning them for empty spots, I saw one by the window at the back corner of the room. I hurried to it and sat down, putting my bag on the floor beside me. I kept my head down.
"Good morning, class." I looked up to see the woman I'd seen a moment before. She was wearing a red coat. "My name is Mrs. Clarke, and I will be your teacher for the semester." She stood at the desk at the front of the room. "I'd like you all to introduce yourselves, since this is our first class of the year."
This isn't so different from my old school, I thought, so why am I so scared? I knew how to introduce myself. My gaze went from student to student. Although they all wore the same white and grey uniforms, they had a wide range of hair colours. Some had honey-coloured hair, others red like the leaves that were piled up on the ground outside; others dark brown, like the chair my father would sit in every night after dinner to read in. Some had short hair, others long, some straight, some curled. I thought it was nice that there were so many different kinds of hair. I couldn't see their faces from where I sat, but I wondered what colours their eyes were, and if any of theirs matched their hair.
"Your turn," whispered a girl sitting next to me. I looked up. The teacher was looking at me expectantly.
"Your name?" asked the teacher.
"M-Mary Ann," I said, speaking up so the others in the room could hear. "I moved here from London recently."
"What a lovely name," the teacher replied. "I'm sure there are plenty in this room who've never been to London before, why don't you tell us something you like about it?"
I looked down and clutched my skirt with both hands. Why did I have to say that? My vision began to cloud with tears, but I didn't know why.
I stood quickly and ran out of the room, nearly tripping over a desk on my way. I pressed my back to the wall just outside the classroom door and began to cry. Images came flooding to my mind of the old flat I used to live in, the neighbor's terrier I would say hello to every morning, the bakery I passed every day on the way to school whose scent I would always stop to take in, the tree at my old school where my friend Anne and I would eat lunch together... I couldn't say anything about-- London! Not in class! I couldn't be reminded of it now, it was too much for me...
I opened my eyes, promptly shielding them from the morning sun with my hand. Rolling onto my back, I stared up at the canopy of the bed. It had been nearly five years since my first day of secondary school. I sat up and stretched. There were some days when I still felt the call of my hometown... But Darlington had become meaningful to me over time.
I got out of bed and walked to the window. The trees surrounding Alice's residence were beginning to turn yellow. Autumn was near... I'd been away from my mum for what felt like a year, and I could hardly wait to see her again.
I dug about my suitcase and found the clothes I wanted to wear, and went to the mirror to dress myself. I wondered if I'd grown at all during the summer... My red pleated skirt appeared no shorter than it ever had. I thought it felt a little tighter, though... I put my hands on my hips and struck a pose in the mirror. I tried to ignore the fact that I'd eaten quite a lot lately. Fastening the buttons on my laced shirt, I looked up at the photo of Alice and I that I'd stuck on the mirror. I couldn't help but smile at the sight of her, and a feeling of longing came over me. There was an unpleasantness to it... I turned away from the photo.
I took two red ribbons and tied them into my hair on both sides, just under my ears. I hadn't trimmed it since before I left for Gloucestershire, and the fringe was getting in my way more often. I felt silly wearing my hair like this sometimes, but something about it made me happy anyways.
I made sure everything was in my suitcase... My sketchbook, pencils, photos, the sheet music that Elli had given me... I leafed through the pages. I was already learning Three Blind Mice. Mum would be so proud!
I took my hat, bag, and suitcase, and made my way down to the kitchen for breakfast.
"Good morning, Mary," said my aunt as I sat at the countertop.
"Good morning!" I replied, without much thought, as my mind was occupied by the full plate in front of me.
"Have your things all been packed?" she asked.
"Mmhmm," I replied, my mouth already full of potatoes.
"I ought to visit your mother soon," she said, putting her elbows up on the counter. "Maybe we'll visit for Christmas."
I looked up. "Would you?" I asked.
"You shouldn't speak with a full mouth," said Alice, taking a seat next to me.
"Sorry," I muttered.
"It'll be quiet around here without you, lass," said my uncle Ian, with a smile.
"I'm glad I could stay with you," I said.
"Mary," said Alice, "meet me in my study after breakfast. I have something I'd like you to see."
My eyes widened. "What is it?" I asked.
Alice smiled. "I'm not telling," she replied.
I tried not to complain aloud, and ate the rest of my food as quickly as I could.
After breakfast, I returned upstairs to find Alice waiting for me in her study. She beckoned me closer.
"What is it?" I asked, trying to hide my excitement. Alice reached up high and took down a small object from a shelf. She held it out to me with both hands. It was a little white box, with embossed golden patterns that swirled about, branching off from one another and branching off again, like the roots of a plant. In the center, also embossed, was a five-petaled flower.
"This is a music box I found in town early last month," said Alice. "Someone had wound it up, and the music was so light and cheerful... I thought of you when I heard it. I'd like you to have it."
I took it from her, carefully, and looked round it. The patterns on it were rather intricate. Finding a knob underneath, I wound it up. A happy little waltz began to play, and I imagined what it might look like. A little girl danced in her garden, but she had no human partner; instead, she was dancing with the flowers, the air, the sky, and the sun.
The music wound down. I put the box down, and gave Alice a hug.
"Thank you," I said.
Alice stroked my hair. "The smile on your face is thanks enough," she replied.
❀ ❀ ❀
I brought the music box down to the parlour and tucked it away inside my suitcase, and said my goodbyes to my aunt and uncle.
"You've got an umbrella with you, haven't you?" asked Alice.
I froze. "N-no..." I mumbled.
"I–" Sebastian began, appearing behind me.
"Allow me," said Alice. Sebastian sighed.
"It's been a pleasure to serve you, Ms. Bennet," he said, bowing his head slightly.
"Thank you, Sebastian," I said, hugging him. He looked a bit surprised, but said nothing.
I took the umbrella from Alice, and lugged my suitcase down the steps and out into the crisp morning air. I walked slowly, taking in the sights of the garden one last time. The collection of irisis that filled the spaces between the stone paths sparkled with morning dew whenever the sun peeked through the clouds. Birds' singing rang through the air. Most of them hid among the trees surrounding the villa, but a few of them bathed in the water fountain that sat in the middle of the path. I put my suitcase down to open the gate, when Alice appeared from behind me.
"I'd like to accompany you to the station, if you don't mind," she said, opening the gate for me.
"Thank you," I said, picking my suitcase back up. Together, we walked slowly down the winding dirt path, which flickered with shadows as the sun shone the trees above.
"You seem chipper today," said Alice.
I looked up at her. "I'm looking forward to seeing Mum again." I said.
"When I was younger, my father traveled quite often," said Alice. "Sometimes, I would come along with him. My heart longed for my mother when I'd been away for very long. Whenever I returned home, she would remark how much I'd grown since I'd left. I had never grown very much, but she seemed surprised nonetheless."
"I visited Liverpool with my father once," I said. "My mum said she thought I looked older since the last time she'd seen me... She didn't seem happy when I said the same."
Alice stifled a laugh. She looked up at the trees. "It's bittersweet to be going home after you've become so familiar with the place you've stayed. Whenever we visit somewhere, no matter how lovely it may be, there is a part of us that yearns for home. The longer it waits, the more joyful it is when it returns. However, even if you do not stay for very long, you're not quite the same person when leaving as you were when you arrived. Experiencing new towns and meeting new people changes the way you see the world... That experience becomes a part of you forever. When you part ways, it's like saying goodbye to something that helped you become the person you are now. I hope that when you return home, you will do that something proud."
I thought for a moment. "Alice?" I asked.
"Yes?" she replied.
I played with my fingers. "Do you think I'm— do you... think I've grown at all, this summer?" I held my left arm with the opposite hand.
Alice looked at me for a moment, carefully. "Yes. I believe you have," she said.
"Really?" I exclaimed. "How so?"
"Your smile has grown," said Alice. "You don't look quite as worried as you used to. You're not so upset when it's too rainy to go outside. I've watched you play with Nadia on those rainy days... You're patient and gentle with her. I think your heart has grown very much."
"Is that so?" I asked. Those weren't the words I was hoping to hear. Still... I felt a little proud.
Alice nodded. "But, holding the truth in love, we may grow up to Him in all things," she recited. "No matter my coursework, my reputation, or anything else, I wish not to let anything lead me astray of that. I don't remember my grandfather as a farmer, or as my father's father. I remember him as a kind man who treated everyone he met with love and understanding." She looked at me. "I hope the world remembers you in the same way."
I started to skip. I looked at Alice. "Join me," I said.
"What? I-I couldn't--" she stammered.
"Come on, it's fun!" I said, taking her hand.
Alice seemed quite troubled for a moment. She looked around, then down at her feet, and gingerly, began to skip.
"That's it!" I said, laughing. Alice smiled, eventually breaking out into a laugh of her own.
I liked hearing her laugh. I was going to miss it.
❀ ❀ ❀
We reached the train station with some time to spare. There weren't many people around. I wondered if very many people knew this town. I'd never heard anyone but my family mention it before. It seemed like a wonderful little secret.
"Do you need my help?" asked Alice.
"I can take care of everything," I said.
"I'll hold your suitcase for you," Alice replied. We approached the counter.
"One ticket to Darlington, please!" I said.
"Darlington?" said the receptionist. "You had enough o' the country life, eh?" He laughed, his eyes crinkling as he did.
"I-I've been visiting family this summer," I said, handing him the money. "I'm going home, now."
"Are you?" he replied, taking it. "You only need one, eh? Your mother not coming along?"
I looked at Alice, and my face turned red. "Sh-she's not my mother," I said, trying my best not to shout. "We're cousins."
"My apologies," he replied. He handed me my ticket.
I turned round to see Elli waving at us from the platform.
"Elli!" I called, running to meet her.
"Mary!" Elli replied, taking my hands as I reached her. "You look absolutely charming in that outfit, darling, I knew you would. You said you didn't believe me, but you wore it anyway; and I was right, wasn't I? I was! You should trust me more often, I happen to know a thing or two about fashion."
"Y-yeah," I mumbled, trying to hide my smile. "Y-you look nice, too," I added.
"I came to Alice's to say goodbye, but you'd already left, so I ran here as quick as I could," said Elli. "I'm so glad I didn't miss you."
"My train doesn't arrive for a few minutes more," I said.
"You'll send us letters from Darlington, won't you?" asked Elli. "You have my address?"
"Of course," I replied. "I've written it in my sketchbook."
"Wonderful, darling," said Elli. "Do expect something from me on your birthday," she added, putting her fingers together with a sly grin.
Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of a little brown-haired girl a few metres away, wearing a kerchief on her head.
"Nadia?" I called. The girl waved shyly at me.
"Nadia!" I ran to her and gave her a hug. Though it'd only been a couple months since we met, I thought she had gotten a little taller.
"Are you going 'ome today?" said Nadia.
"Yes," I replied. "I'm going to see my— my home again."
"Are we still friends?"
"Of course!" I replied. "We'll be friends no matter where we are."
"Will I see you again?" she asked.
"I'll visit you as soon as I can!" I said.
Nadia paused and wrung her hands together. Then, she reached in her apron pocket and took something out of it, and held it out for me. It was a small, smooth rock, about half the size of a golf ball. It was oblong, with one side's slope being sharper than the other's, and there was a dent on the longer side.
"I like this rock very much," said Nadia. "'olding it relaxes me. Please take it. It will 'elp you."
I looked at the rock, and then at Nadia. We held eye contact in silence for a moment. I took the rock and put it into my pocket.
"I will never forget you, Mary," she said. "Thank you for being my friend."
"I'll never forget you, either," I replied. "Thank you for being mine."
I heard my train start to arrive, and glanced in its direction.
"Goodbye, Nadia," I said, giving her one last hug. "Let Elli walk you home."
"I will," she replied.
I returned to Alice and Elli, who were engaged in conversation.
"My train's here," I said. "Alice..." I began. She looked at me expectantly. I paused. Why weren't my words coming out? I tightened my lips, trying to hold back tears.
"I..." I began. "I've learnt so much from you this summer. I'm not so responsible, and I become cross too easily, and-and perhaps I can be jealous, too... But..." I couldn't speak anymore. Alice embraced me and held me tightly, pressing my head to her chest, rocking me back and forth very slowly. After a moment, she stepped back and held my shoulders. Her eyes were shining.
"I'm going to miss you more than I have the words to express, Mary," she said. She pushed my hair out of my eyes. "Thank you for reminding me how to see the beautiful things in the world again. Please never forget how to do that. Take care of yourself, and keep your head up. I love you very much. May the Lord be with you always."
I turned round to see Elli watching our conversation. In an instant, I was overcome with emotion, and threw my arms around her, sobbing into her shoulder. She returned the hug.
Elli whispered into my ear. "Be brave for me, alright? You'll be quite alright, I know it. I'll send some love your way."
I released her and dried my tears. "Thank you," I said, with a smile.
"All aboard!" I heard a call. I ran up to the train door, paused, and looked behind me. Alice, Elli, and Nadia all stood by the platform, watching. Elli was standing behind Nadia, holding her closely. I felt a warmth in my heart. I thought that, perhaps, I had begun to understand what love was... It was something that Elli had shown me at the lake that day three months ago... Something Alice had shown me when I'd admitted my dishonesty, and countless times after... It was something I saw between the two of them. Even in Nadia...
"Goodbye!" I shouted. "I love you! I love you all!"
"Goodbye!" Alice and Elli shouted back. Nadia waved.
I stepped onto the train, stowed away my belongings, and took my seat. I removed my hat and ran my fingers through my hair. As the train began to depart, I took out the music box that Alice had given me. I turned it round in my hands admiring the patterns. Noticing a little latch on the front, I wondered if there was anything inside... I unlocked it and opened the lid to find myself staring back.
Inside the lid was a little mirror, and in the shallow space in the box was a folded piece of letter paper. I picked it up and unfolded it to find four pressed hibiscus petals inside. Placing them in the box, I returned my attention to the paper, where a note was written in neat, flowing penmanship.
The days have become shorter, and every breath of the ever-cooling air is a reminder that your stay here is nearly over. These halls will be a little more lonely without you. I try to remain content. If it must come to an end now, that only means I will cherish our moments together even more.
When Mother told me you were coming to stay the summer, my heart was filled with excitement — to meet you again after so long! I wondered what sort of person you had become. And how wonderful you are! Hidden behind your timidity and your strong temper is a heart that I believe cares very deeply for other people; don't ever let go of that, for after all has been said and done, it is this that will be remembered.
However, I was also filled with anxiety — could I present myself as everything I ought to be? As one truly and faithfully committed to the service of the Lord, as one who could be relied upon and trusted?
As I reflect back, I realise that, in my worry, I had been thinking only of myself. The first week of your stay, I was so continually preoccupied with how you — how everyone — might perceive me, I had ignored you in my efforts to further my cobbled-together image of righteousness. Yet here I am, still writing of it! I shall write of you instead.
Mary, you admitted to me shortly after your arrival of attempting to present your own image — I marvel at your courage and honesty. In spite of your fear, in spite of your anxiety, you revealed your heart, as if through a looking glass, for all to see, exposing the real you — a you who is still growing, like a flower still budding, that blooms late in summer, after all the other flowers have had their time — and how much more beautiful you will be when you do!
Please take care on your return home. Say hello to Aunt Agatha for me. Don't worry about Nadia; Elli and I will take care of her. Send us letters whenever you like. I hope to see you again very soon.
May grace and peace be unto you from our Father in Heaven. Lovingly yours,
P.S. Send us something neat from Darlington, will you? -Elli
I dried the tears that had welt up in my eyes, folded the letter back up, and returned it to the music box. I looked out the window and watched the rolling hills of the Cotswolds as they went by.
The 'me' leaving this old town wasn't quite the same 'me' that had arrived. I looked the same; I was no taller, no bigger, and I wore my hair the same way... But something inside of me was different. It was little... But...
Perhaps… even the little things can be quite beautiful.
~ FIN ~