"Once more!" said Elli, sharply.
"I can't do it!" I complained. "My fingers are too small to reach the last key!"
"No, they aren't," said Elli, placing my hands into position. "You need to think about what you're going to play before you play it. Now, once more!"
We were sitting at the upright piano Alice's family owned. It was nearly as tall as I, and it was made of mahogany, with intricate bevels along the edges, and pretty criss-cross patterns over the upper panel. The keys had a lovely full, warm sound that harmonised with the warm sunlight shining in through the window behind the piano. It was really quite a pleasant atmosphere, but at the moment, I felt little else but frustration.
I played the melody again, with some awkwardness. Fingers placed alright? Yes... G, A, walk down — that was easy, it was just like the scale I had practised many times — D, move my hand into position to jump down... E, D, and now to reach down for the last note...
"That's A, not G," said Elli.
"I can't!" I stood from the piano and clenched my fists. "I'll never be able to play it, and that's that!"
"You just need more practise, darling," said Elli. She picked up her tea cup and took a sip.
"I won't hear it!" I snapped. "I won't bore myself when I have better things to do!" I walked away from the piano and proceeded to storm about in a circle, with my arms crossed.
Elli stood and collected the sheet music from the piano. "Well, your half hour is nearly up anyways," she said, placing the sheets into her bag. "We'll try again next week."
I said nothing, and continued to pace in circles. Elli took hold of my arm, forcing me to come to a stop.
"What?" I asked, irritably.
"You need to relax, darling. How about we find something to do outside?"
My irritation faded almost instantly as my mind conjured up images of the English countryside.
"Do you want to play by the stream west of here?" I asked.
"The one we saw on our way to the tennis court yesterday?" asked Elli. "Splendid! Let's have Alice come with us!"
I nodded in agreement, and the two of us ran upstairs to burst into Alice's study without so much as knocking.
"Alice!" I half-shouted.
"Oh!" Alice exclaimed, turning round to meet us. Her eyes were wide, and she held one hand over her heart. Her head was ducked slightly. "Don't scare me like that!" she said, frowning.
"We're off to visit the stream nearby, would you like to come?" I asked, as I rocked back and forth on my feet.
Alice looked down at the open books on her desk. "I'm sorry, Mary," she said. "I'm studying this afternoon, so you will have to go on without me."
"You've said that all week!" I pouted.
Elli walked behind Alice's seat and leaned over, wrapping her arms around her.
"Why don't you join us, my dear?" she said softly into Alice's ear. Alice looked down. Elli proceeded to take Alice's hands in hers. "I'll be rather lonely without you, you know..."
Alice lowered her head further as her face turned bright red, but she couldn't hold back her smile. "A-alright, I will come," she said.
"Yay!" Elli and I said in unison.
Alice stood. "I'll fetch my parasol. I'll be ready in a moment."
❀ ❀ ❀
We sat in the grass, a few metres from the stream, taking in the sun and watching as its light danced on top of the running water. I was crouched, with my arms hugging my knees, feeling the tall grass tickle them. I listened to the cicadas' symphony, that seemed to come from everywhere all at once, and tried to time the taps of my feet to the pulse of their song. It was difficult to stay in time.
My attention drifted, and I began to watch Alice, who sat to the right of me. Her dress was layered with a white ruffled underskirt and adorned with her typical bib collar, as well as a ribbon tied round her thin waist. The dress was a soft lavender today, which had the peculiar effect of bringing out the striking intensity of her green eyes; which, while pointed directly on the road ahead, didn't appear to be focused, as though she were daydreaming. Along with her parasol, she looked like something you would see in a painting...
My eyes refocused. Alice was looking at me with concern.
"Is something the matter?" she asked.
I felt my cheeks grow warm. "N-n-nothing!" I stammered. "I just..." I looked down at my fingers. "You look nice today, that's all."
Immediately after the words left my mouth, I felt my face grow even redder. I tried to hide it by turning my head further to the left. Why was I embarrassed, anyway?!
"Oh... Th-thank you," said Alice. She seemed embarrassed by the compliment, which made me feel better and worse at the same time.
My attention was taken by the cheerful singing of a nearby lark. I let go of my knees and rotated myself around, scanning the area, but I couldn't manage to find it.
"Alice?" I asked. "Have you ever gone birdwatching?"
"Ally and I often watch birds in town," said Elli, before Alice had a chance to reply. "There's a bench near the town square with trees on both sides of it. It's a nice spot to relax, and we pass the time by watching the birds that fly about."
"The trees really are quite lovely," said Alice. "Their branches hang over the bench, sheltering us from the sun on days when it's bright out. Every year, come springtime, the flowers come into full bloom; and the trees' branches are covered with pink and white flowers all over. Sometimes their petals will fall and land on us."
"We always catch one of them before they reach the ground," said Elli. "For good luck."
"I don't believe they do any such thing," said Alice, "but I enjoy catching them anyways."
"Of course they do!" said Elli. "I found a sixpence on the ground the very first time I caught one!"
"Did you?!" I asked.
"That was only a coincidence," said Alice.
"You're only jealous," said Elli, smirking.
"I always make time that week when the trees are flowering to visit with Elli," said Alice, looking towards the incoming clouds in thought. "It reminds me of the time we met... It was the springtime then..." Her voice got quieter as she trailed off.
"You mawkish child," said Elli, grinning.
I laughed, but inside I felt a sort of emptiness. I wondered if maybe I would have... something like that some day. I tried to ignore the thought, and resumed my efforts to find the source of the song I heard in the air. I stood and searched the trees behind us, eventually spotting a lark perched on one particular branch, singing gracefully.
"I've found it!" I cried.
Elli ran to see. "So you did," she said. "That's a lark, I think. I haven't seen this species in town before." She turned to Alice. "Say, Ally — We should go birdwatching round the country more often, don't you think?"
"Perhaps... If I've the time," said Alice.
We listened to the bird's song in silence for a little while.
"I wish I had my piano with me right now," said Elli, wiggling her fingers about.
Alice sat in front of the tree. "One day, a few years ago, you and I were practising in my study," she said. "There was a bird just outside that was singing quite loudly all throughout the afternoon. Do you remember that, Elli?"
"I remember," Elli replied, sitting beside Alice. "We tried to play along with it."
"Practising what?" I asked.
"Oh, Ally used to play the violin when we were younger," said Elli. "She had a small piano in the study at the time, and we would practise songs together after school."
"Were you very good?" I asked.
Alice blushed and smiled. "Not in the slightest," she replied.
Elli laughed. "You weren't so bad," she said.
"How long have you played the piano, Elli?" I asked.
"Oh... Since I was about four years old," she replied.
"That long?!" I asked.
"It shouldn't surprise you," said Elli. "I've been playing as long as you've been drawing."
"That's not the same," I said. "Does it really take that long to be able to play well?"
Elli shrugged. "I don't know. I can only speak for myself."
"Do you think I could be that good someday?" I asked.
"Not if you won't let me teach you," Elli replied, smiling.
"Elli, come look at this!"
Elli and I turned to see Alice standing by the stream. Elli ran over to her, and the two began to converse over something. I stayed back and watched. I never saw Alice as happy as she was when she was with Elli. It was almost like she was a completely different person.
I sat by the base of the tree and took my sketchbook and pencils out from my bag. I continued to watch the girls as they talked, and I began sketching. I worked for what felt like only a few minutes before I heard my name called. I looked up.
"Mary!" Alice waved to me. "It will be dinner time soon, we ought to return home."
Already? I put my tools away, and ran to catch up with her.
❀ ❀ ❀
It began to rain just as we stepped inside the villa. Sebastian greeted us and took Alice's parasol for her.
"Elli, why don't you stay with us for dinner?" asked Alice.
"I can't," she replied. "Mama wanted to have dinner together tonight. It's my father's birthday today..." She looked down and shuffled her feet.
"Oh... I understand," said Alice.
I began to walk upstairs, but stopped. I opened my bag and took out my sketchbook, finding the drawing I had made while outside.
"Alice!" I said. "I want to show you something."
Alice came to my side, and I handed her my sketchbook.
"Wow!" said Alice, brushing her hair behind one ear. "This is beautif— Mary, is this... Is this Elli and I?"
I nodded. "Yes!" I exclaimed. "I thought I'd draw you two while you were together. I hope you didn't mind." I played with my fingers.
"This is wonderful..." said Alice. "Pardon me if I am being too forward, but would it be alright if I kept this drawing?"
"You really like it?" I asked. "I want to finish it first, but you can have it when I've done that!"
Alice's eyes lit up. "You would? Thank you ever so much, Mary!"
I giggled and put my sketchbook away. I glanced at Elli, who was collecting the sheet music from the piano, and began to feel a creeping embarrassment rise in my chest. I approached her timidly.
"Elli?" I asked.
"Yeah, darling?" she replied, looking over the pages.
"I'm sorry I... Became upset with you earlier."
Elli whipped her head round to look at me with some confusion. "Oh, during our lesson?" she asked. "No need to apologise to me, darling."
"So you'll come back next week?" I asked.
"If you want me to teach you," said Elli, putting her bag over her shoulder.
"I do!" I said, hopping in place.
Elli smiled. "Then I'll be glad to," she replied. She began walking towards the doorway when Alice stopped her.
"Elli, wait!" said Alice. She was carrying an umbrella. "It's raining out," she said.
"Oh, thank you dear," said Elli, taking it. "I forgot." As she opened the door to leave, I began walking upstairs.
"Elli, one thing more," said Alice. Halfway up the stairs by now, I turned to eavesdrop, out of curiosity. Alice put her hands on Elli's shoulders.
"I enjoyed our afternoon together very much," said Alice. Her voice was lowered a little bit, and it was difficult to hear her over the rain. "I'm very thankful that you and Mary invited me to join you. It was a beautiful area. Mary drew a lovely picture of us when we were talking together, and it's helped me to realize... Perhaps I've been more concerned with my studies lately than I ought to be... It's difficult for me to remember that. It's selfish of me, I suppose."
"Well, if it's important to you, I won't force you outside," said Elli. She grinned. "I know how red-heads like you avoid the sun, since you're probably vampires and all." She wiggled her fingers as she said this.
"Elli!" Alice laughed. "Mary's only here for so long," she continued, "I'm going away to Cambridge next year... I should invest at least some of this time I have with you both."
"I'll bother you any time you like," Elli replied.
Alice took Elli's hands. "Please be safe going home," she said. "Tell your mother I wish her well. I know it's difficult for you... even after all this time. If you need to talk with me, I'm always here for you."
Elli's face looked serious for once. "... Thank you," she said, after a moment of silence.
Alice drew Elli close and hugged her, holding her tightly for several moments before releasing her. Elli's face was reddened now. I thought I could see tears in her eyes.
"I love you," said Alice, tilting her head to one side.
"I love you more," said Elli, smirking. As she began to walk down the steps, Sebastian appeared and stepped out to escort her to the gate. I ran to Alice's study before she could see that I had been watching them.
❀ ❀ ❀
Sitting at the small reading table, I took my sketchbook out of my bag and opened it up to my drawing again. I stared at it for a moment.
They really are important to one another... I thought. I hoped I'd captured their relationship well. I took out my pencils and began colouring. A moment later, I heard quiet footsteps enter the room.
"Thank you for inviting me to join you, Mary," said Alice. "I enjoyed spending time with you."
"Th-thank you for coming," I replied.
Alice sat at her desk. "Perhaps I needed a break from my work," she said. "Your drawing..." She turned her pen around in her hands. "... helped me understand how valuable our time together is. This summer has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, Mary. I don't want to miss out on it."
"My drawing... did that?" I asked. I smiled. "Sometimes I wish I was as... responsible as you are," I said, sheepishly.
Alice smiled. "And whatsoever ye do," she quoted, "do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ."
"But it's hard," I said.
"Most things in life are," Alice replied. She glanced out the window. "That's why we have each other."
I continued my colouring. I had pages upon pages of unfinished drawings in my sketchbook. This one would be different. I was going to finish this one, for Alice.