Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Chapter 29: Summer

Neith sent her parents and Grace emails describing how well she was fed.  She couldn’t say anything about the things she wanted to.  Her parents pressed her for more details than what kind of catering came with her training.  Grace hadn’t found another soul who cared for old films or comics, but was getting better at controlling I.M.. 

MinSci however, went dark for all of November. 

Neith altered her deadline for telling Elle about the phone and uncertainty about Phase 2.  She knew now why the council might want a second phase, in spite of their messy history.  Neith still needed to tell Elle all of the truth.  She wanted to wait until after Longest Day.  Now she met regularly with the After School Club, she knew Nydia was counting down to this occasion.  She didn’t want her confessions to taint the celebration she’d heard so much about. Nor did she consider now good timing to begin making defensive plans for the future – in whatever direction.  After sharing stories and Neith quizzing them about their hobbies, the after schoolers had moved to family and community traditions.  This included rules for popular Nydia games.  The energetic assembly had helped Neith to sketch out the field for a game that sounded like what the Intra had on soccer. 

Things became easier with Miles – she called him that whenever they were alone.  He insisted.  Knowing now he wasn’t out of bounds by way of marital status but rather by way of “complicated,” she felt less scandalised and more…intrigued.  And hurt. Elle had ruled him out as an option. He sometimes took a place in the Club’s circle, joining in the sharing; filling in details the group missed that he felt worthy of record.  Their eyes caught on one another often.  Neith always looked away first.

Of those children, Neith spent the most time with Nola – who had long ago shed her shyness like an unneeded protective cloak.  She would linger longer than the rest, (since her father had to leave last, on the council’s terms).  Nola described tales of shipwrecked families, unabashed, or told Neith that foals were no longer called foals if they left their mother within their first year – then they became weanlings. Nola broke down the unusual habits of birds nesting near the school house – they were tuis, Neith now knew, distinguished by chest feathers that resembled white cravats.  The tuis came many times a day to perch upside-down on vertical, twiggy branches bearing hot pink spring blossoms, and would return for other purple flowers, months later.  Nola’s big brown eyes held the same illuminating enthusiasm her father’s did, during these explaining times. 

Neith reported her progress at the school to MinSci.  Still no reply.

But Neith was back at Elle’s now, away from those children.  The ones she knew best were asleep.  She and Elle were at the table, both at separate tasks.  Neith put down her pencil.  She’d been touching up a sketch of Nola, done from memory mostly.  She was practising her writing by adding a caption.  She was getting better.  She kept thinking of Miles, whose loving, endearing relationship with her drawing’s subject now seemed impossible to miss. 

“You look like you want to ask me something.”  Elle spoke.

Yes, am I not good enough for your brother?  “I do.  What is a boiler room?”

“At the school?  That’s easy – sheesh, you had me there!”  Elle put her hand to her chest.  “The boiler room is behind the classroom.  Maybe you call it a furnace, in the City?  They use steam to heat the schoolhouse in the morning and evenings on cooler days.  They can’t have used that for a while now.  What makes you ask?”  She didn’t say: Wondering what Miles and Ihaka’s relationship was.

A boiler was for heating.  The classroom had been comfortable, every time she had visited, in spite of the high ceilings, but particularly balmy on that first day.  Hmm.  No, it was probably not being used much now.  She began mapping out the room from memory, and confirmed radiators and pipes did run the perimeter.  Another result from a major haul?  Like the solar cells?

“Neith?  That’s not all, is it?”  Elle was making repairs to a chair with white wood glue using a stick and rope to winch things tight while they dried.  The chair had given out when Davey was tipping back on it during dinner earlier.  Neith fixated on the chair.  Elle had asked a question.

“You’re right.  That’s not all.  I…”  Which question?  Can you forgive me? Or am I not good enough?

“Yes… You said it was complicated, with Mr Flynn.”

“He’s Mr Flynn now?  What happened to ‘Miles?’”

“Miles, then.  May I ask, how it’s complicated?  I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth…again.  I see him a lot.” 

Elle left the chair upturned on the table and sat down opposite Neith, who was on her usual bench.  She slid the glued chair aside to establish better eye contact and laced her fingers together. 

“It’s probably best you know.  But I won’t have you feeling bad for it.”

Neith waited. 

Elle’s story came slowly.  “Jamin mustn’t have told you.  He didn’t know you were…interested in Miles, I guess.  You see, we agreed you needed to know that some people are still hurting over the past.  You needed those details.  So he will have told you about the woman we lost.  He didn’t tell you that was Wren Flynn; Miles’ wife.”

Neith looked down to her pencil.  The woman wasn’t just Tai’s sister.  Miles’ wife.  Miles was a single, according to Ruthie.  Wait.  Boyd and Jamin had both said things with that woman had ended badly.  What had that meant?  She couldn’t believe the woman Jamin had been talking about had been so close to Miles.  How could Miles even face Neith if she represented the monstrous entities that robbed him of his wife!?  The people out here had been crushed in the past.  How could they risk mending a bridge that would allow those same people to cross over into their camp again? 

Elle continued; “She was pregnant at the time.  The City couldn’t help themselves.” 

Neith was ashen.  It wasn’t any easier to hear a second time. “How can any of you even look at me, remembering that?  Letting me come here…”  That meant Nola…Neith felt tearful.

“Having you come here was easy.  The deal they offered this time was a peach…compared to what we’d known the City to be capable of.  There’s nothing really stopping them doing it again, except that they failed.  When they sent a formal apology with the boatman from Havelock – promising no further force – only requesting a single researcher be permitted to come into our camp to try to mend things here?  I was all for it.  I figured all those years meant a change in management, or maybe some of the people back there were feeling remorse.  There were mixed feelings in the council, but we took the deal.  We agreed having…you here…was better than waiting for the City’s next move. And as Jamin told you, we need to figure out what comes next. And Neith, you really have been a gift.  I haven’t slept so well in a long time.  I know no one is coming for my children, because they’ve showed their hand this time.  Whatever they hope will happen, it’s a new game. I believe they really have given up on taking any of us to the City.  We’re starting to believe things can be different, having met you.  We need a next step.”  Neith felt so confused. 

“What happened to her?  The woman got sick…?”  She wanted Elle’s version – since she knew now Boyd had left out some important details.

Elle looked grim.  “Yes, she was sick.  She had the baby, in the City.  They were both sick.  The people who took her saw things were turning dire.  They knew they needed to send them back – back to Nydia.  The baby did come back.  That’s our Nola.  She was fine, once she came home.  But Wren?  She never came back.  She didn’t want to.  She wanted to stay in the City, even though they warned her it’d be her end.  Who knows what tests they’d done already, but she was willing to stay there with them.”  Elle was angry remembering, Neith could see.  The angriest she’d ever seen Elle.  “Miles went – tried to persuade her – but she wouldn’t come back.”

“Miles has been to the City?”  Neith felt winded.  And Miles’ wife chose that place, over a life here with him?  It didn’t make sense.

“He didn’t want to lose her.  Or the baby.  But he came back with only Nola.”

Neith began to do the math.  Nola was…seven?

“Wait, how long has he been teaching at the school? I can’t believe he can stand having me there.”  Her thoughts were running into each other.

“Two years – Koro taught before that.  And Miles can face you because he doesn’t blame you for anything.  He doesn’t blame anybody but Wren for how things ended.  You don’t remind him of anybody who wronged him.  They were willing to release her.  What they did was wrong, but we knew they were desperate when they did it, and nobody got hurt in the end, at least, nobody that didn’t choose it.  It was an ugly time, but those wounds are starting to close.”

Neith couldn’t imagine they’d ever heal.

“I don’t understand – why would anyone from here want to stay in Feichangbei?”

“There’s part of the ‘complicated’ we talked about earlier.  There are rumours, well, fairly well-established reports, that she had greater things to fear back here.”  Elle wore concern.  “That someone had done her harm, already…the worst kind.  She refused to say who treated her so badly, only that that person was still here and would be waiting for her return. Not Miles, no,” she quickly added, “but someone, who…meant her harm.”   How harrowing – Wren Flynn’s options; die sick in a foreign place or return to a living nightmare.  But weren’t Miles and Nola worth fighting for?

They sat without speaking for a minute.  A knock at the door startled them both.

“I’ll get that.”  Neith slid along the bench, pulled her jacket closed, and opened the front door.  No one was there.  She scanned.  Eventually she looked down.  A bouquet of summer blooms and accents of green lay on the stoop, wrapped in woven flax.  A bouquet. 

“Elle, is someone sweet on you?”  Neith lifted the offering and carried to the table. 

“I was about to ask you the same question.”  Neith knew Elle’s pointed stare referred to a certain widower, his name still hot on the tongue.  Elle pulled loose a small card cinched to the back of the flax backing.  “They’re for you.”  Elle looked up at Neith and held the card to her.  Elle watched Neith’s face as she read her name inside.  She pulled the flowers close, about to bury her face in them – to smell the spring-time their colour promised her other senses.  “Wait!”  Elle pulled the flax towards her.  “Who would do that?”  Elle took the bouquet by the flax outer and twisted it back and forth with her wrist. 

“Do what?”

“Make you a gift of nettle and flowers?”

Neith craned her neck to scan for thorns or any other sign to give away the spray of flowers’ transformation into something ill-boding.


“The leaves here – this is nettle.  You can’t tell to look at it, unless you know, of course, but it’ll sting you.  Your face would’ve been a mess, if you’d done that.” Elle pointed at Elle’s face and pointed back to the flowers.

Neith’s countenance fell. 

“I know who you hoped they were from.  And no, he wouldn’t make this mistake, if they were.  My brother knows nettle from lemon balm!  And this isn’t his style.  No, this was no accident.  It’s not even worth picking the blossoms out, either.   What a waste.”  Elle took the bunch out front and put it upside down in a lidded barrel.  She jerked her head around, hoping to find a culprit.  Her expression suggested she knew she would not.  She came back in shaking her head.

Neith hung hers.  Jamin had warned her there were mixed feelings about.  He’d given her advice too.  What had he said?  She tried to remember the conversation after he crushed any remaining hope she’d had that MinSci could be decent.  The woman Boyd and Jamin had told her about – she’d died, Neith was sure of it.  Boyd said her liver failed, it was clear she never returned.  That was more than ending badly.  What had Jamin said? 

That was it; Give us time.  What amount of time could possibly be enough?