Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Chapter 36: Longest Day Evening


Nydia formed long lines and filed past the summer spread.  Neith remained wedged between Ruthie and Elle the entire way.  She conversed with Amos, or attempted to with the vocabulary he had.  He held onto the drawstrings of her shorts while she filled two plates – one for her and one for him.  She had repeatedly adjusted said drawstrings, to ensure she didn’t make a scene.  She loaded up with sausages someone called Kit had made, grilled corn, coleslaws, and fruit kebabs.  She smiled to see Koro hold out the corn in a pair of tongs from behind the grill, smiling.  “Rose-tints,” he said, nodding to her.  They kept moving along the line.

“How about you carry our forks, Amos?’  Neith pointed to the forks at the end of the table row with her forehead.  Amos was happy to be a helper.  Neith carefully balanced one plate on her wrist and the other between her spanned fingers of the same hand so she could take Amos’ hand in her other.  She drew him towards the bench where the Snows were now sitting, redirecting him from his beeline for the beach.  To his way of thinking, she had just assigned him to collect new sand tools, after all.  They passed clusters of children, families with other families, and one little girl with a plate entirely loaded with blackberries.  Elle was already seated with her plate in her lap, talking to Davey, when Neith and Amos joined them.  Nola was there too, with her legs beneath the bench, her plate balanced on top of it.  Ruthie came and followed suit.  Davey received permission from Elle to go and sit with Jimmy and his family while he ate.  Jimmy’s family all gave Neith coy waves when she looked their way.  She waved back, thankful.

Neith and Amos put their plates on the grass, sat down together and began to eat.

Memorise this too, Cole, she reminded herself.  Every bite was good. 

Neith heard someone come down on the family bench but continued eating without looking up.  She helped Amos cut his sausage into portions and ate a mushroom he rejected with a screwed up face.  Amos repeated his best enunciation of “thank you” (without a T) like a sing-song.  Neith told him he was welcome and took another mushroom from his plate.  She felt eyes on her, and turned.

Miles was looking at her.  He was leaning towards Nola, listening to his daughter’s story, but definitely looking at Neith.

Neith resumed chewing but held his look.

It was clear he felt things other than anger now.  Neith drew a deep breath.

Neith looked at Elle – who was looking between them, then at her plate, shaking her head.  Amos tugged on Neith’s sleeve to show he had an apple slice between his lips so that the apple’s skin made red teeth.  She smiled with tears in her eyes.

Maybe she could delay telling Elle, for one week?  What would happen after they talked?  Worst case scenario: Elle considered Neith concealing truth from her a betrayal, and wanted her gone.  She’d clearly stated what she couldn’t tolerate; what she couldn’t have around her kids. 

Neith could almost feel justification for carrying on, without change.

But she couldn’t lie to these people anymore.  She didn’t know what was going to happen, but she hoped once Elle knew, they could make that decision together; Elle could speak for her kids, and Neith – somehow – would speak for all the 2K’s.  For Grace. 

“Aunty Elle?”  Nola.

“Yes, hon’?”

“Can I?  Please?”

Ruthie nodded to her mother empathically, from behind Nola’s head.

“Sure.”  The two girls hugged each other, and Neith attempted to replay the words that must’ve passed while she was suspended in a haze of mutual appreciation – maybe more? – with Miles.  Nola had asked to sleep over, that was it.

Miles looked at Elle now, with an expression that showed agitation.  Maybe Neith had mistaken the look she had shared with him, before.  Maybe he was sorry for what happened yesterday, but it didn’t look like he wanted a reason to come by the Snows.  He didn’t want a sleep-over, that was clear.  Elle should’ve known.  Neith read all of this from Miles’ eyes.  Elle mouthed “Sorry” and looked pained with remorse and recognition.  She and Miles looked at their daughters, saddled up by each other, fizzing. The adult siblings made a silent agreement to leave things as they were, in spite of whatever misunderstanding had just taken place between them.

A different crew from those that laid the tables were going around filling laundry hampers with the dirty dishes of those who had finished eating – which seemed to be most people – many were leaving the field. 

Offensive feedback from the megaphone snapped everyone to attention, mid-clear-out. “The dance starts in 30 minutes in the main hall.  Freshen up, if you must, but don’t be late for the Dolphin Reel.”

Miles swung Amos around in a circle while Davey waited, a line of one.  Most of the other families and children were winding away from the beach through benches and the odd upturned drying kayak.  It looked like a small migration.  Strings of lights were visible on a large building near the round Yurt room; Neith figured it was the hall.

Freshen up?

Neith started walking with the Flynns and Snows, their own pack within the herd. 

Elle linked arms with Neith.  She smelled of sea and sunshine.  The tips of her hair were still wet, and fine fair curls of dry frizz radiated from her hairline.  Miles had been swimming too.  His hair was already dry, but his shirt clung to his back in two stripes of colour that were darker than the rest.  The sun hadn’t yet dried him out.  He’d left his shirt on, in the water.  Neith had noticed.

“Miles, will you take the kids and the not-quite-a-kid to the hall for me?”  Elle called ahead to her brother, four metres or so ahead.

Miles looked over his shoulder; “Sure thing.” 

“Thank you.”  Elle tightened her arm link and pulled Neith eastward, away from the hall, turning just before the old train carriage.  Yes, Neith had learned that was what it was – hundreds of years old, and parked in Nydia.  They walked on through the village. It still resembled a giant’s scattered paraphernalia – as though the train carriage was a cast-off toy, some homes were the result of the giant’s mud-play, others constructed of the giant’s building blocks.  They came to the Snow family cabin, and Elle released Neith from her arm-vice before reaching the door.  She had stopped, stock-still. 

Neith looked at Elle, then followed her gaze.

Across the door she saw large words in, black?  Still dripping.  “Leave.”

Elle’s breath became short and tightened.  She approached the painted letters, examined them, smelled them, and then threw open the door.  Neith was still standing where Elle had first stopped. 

She could tell Elle the whole truth now.  She could tell her, and then do just what the graffiti ordered.

Elle reappeared with a fistful of damp rag, and began furiously smearing through the vandalism.  Neith unstuck from her spot and went to her.  “Let me do that.  It was meant for me.”

“This is my house.  Whoever did this, they’re picking a fight with me.  What if the kids had seen this?”  Incensed, she bore through Neith with wild eyes.  Neith was past feeling anger.  She was defeated.  Elle’s rage should be for her.  She should have ended her stay here before Elle’s home and sense of security was jeopardised.  She should’ve at least told Elle about the note.

As if reading her mind, Elle dropped the rag on the step, kicking it a little, slumping to sit down next to it.  “Has there been more than this?  And the nettle?”  Elle looked up at Neith, who had picked up the rag and was wiping what remained of the words.  Was it blood?  Seriously – can’t a bad guy be original for once?

“Not a lot more.  A note.  A look here or there.” 

“Nee!”  Elle sang in an injured voice.

“I thought it was my problem, not yours.  I imagined you were already taking enough heat for letting me stay with you, I didn’t want things to be any harder on you.”

Elle was still looking up at her.  “Neith.  I love you, okay?  Do you get that?  And you’re my people now.  And in my house, we stick together.  When people mess with us, or threaten or torment us, we talk about it, and we tackle it as a team.”

Neith couldn’t swallow.  Would she still be “Elle’s people” tomorrow?

“I’m sorry.”  How had Elle managed to make Neith feel she had betrayed her by protecting her?  That lady was good.  She was no longer looking at Neith, her eyes fixed on something in the distance.

“Now, you listen to me.  We are not going to let some immature coward stop us from enjoying Longest Day.  I’ve chosen happiness this year.  This year, Longest Day without my husband has been more than…bearable.  Things have been good, Neith.  They’ve been good.”  Elle might be crying.  Neith couldn’t see.  It sounded like she was. Her posture spelled dejection. Neith had finished most of the clean-up but still stood behind her seated friend.  “Now: I have a dress in there for you.  It was mine, before I had the kids.  I want you to wear it.  There’s a dance happening on the other side of this village.  There’s a very decent man there who deserves to be happy again, and dances seem to be the key to all courtship. Maybe I’ve read too many Austen novels, but there it is.” 

Neith twisted the cuff on her wrist.  She didn’t wear dresses.  She’d never worn a dress. 

Elle looked up at her again.  “Say something.”

“I love you, too.  And I’m sorry for everything that I’ve messed up.”

“That’s enough.  Come on.”  Elle stood and they went inside, where she opened the chest by the door.  The one everyone sat their shoes on, when they visited.  As Elle pulled from the shoulders of a garment on the top, it unfolded as she lifted.  It was long.  White cotton; simple, light, and undecorated – except for scant lace around the square neckline. “I’m not saying you need a dress to get a guy’s attention – Feminists for Life, and all that – but Neith, it’s Longest Day.

Neith nodded.  Neith wore jeans and a pockety jacket because they were functional and they were what she had.  She’d never required clothing to serve a function other than practicality before.  She’d never “freshened up.” She’d never had a reason too.  The dress reminded her of something a modest Middle Earth elf might wear, if she wanted to join in a dance with a man in the forest.  It was something she could never imagine being worn on a Match Tower dance floor. 

It was perfect. 

She hugged Elle from behind with her chin on Elle’s shoulder.  “It’s Longest Day.”

#

Elle had freshened up too.  Her hair still looked sun-kissed but with less fuzz.  Instead of sweeping it into its usual knot it laid in the loose braid Nola had plaited down her back.  Nola had threaded in a few daisies here and there.  Elle had put on a dress as well – one similar to Neith’s; no fuss light blue cotton that was crisp and clean. 

On the way to the hall, the two women paused to take in their reflections in the glass of a darkened house.  The starchy cleanliness of Neith’s dress fabric accentuated the colour of her summered skin across her décolletage and cheeks.  A sprinkling of freckles she hadn’t known lay sleeping on her nose and cheeks back in the lab had sprung out and looked dark tonight.  Her hair was longer than she was used to, less sleek without her city regimen.  It hung to her shoulders, wispy and black.  Although Neith and Elle looked very different, they also looked right to be standing next to each other – hand in hand wearing matching dresses and happy determination.

They approached the doors into the hall.  Noise and light spilled out into the dusk.  It would be dark soon.  Even on Longest Day, the sun had to set.  With a squeeze of her fists, Neith was ready.  They walked in together. 

Neith was assaulted by music, dancing, bodies, laughter.  The music came from a band of six in the corner opposite the door. There were so many people inside!  She hadn’t known how accustomed she’d become to Elle’s sleepy cabin until met with the party in the hall.

Neith became conscious of the way her white dress hugged her figure across the ribs.  Her legs felt naked beneath it.  Should she have left the shorts on underneath? 

There was a kitchen at the back of the hall.  Neith saw Tai, the guy with the pony who’d played goalie, and a third guy with colourful lures hanging from a pocketed vest.  Neith wanted to ask him where she could get a vest like that.  Neith was pretty sure she’d seen the same three together on one of the bathing hole walk-bys.  Now they were all washing the dishes carried in from the field.  Neith quickly looked away. 

Her eyes fell on Miles. 

Miles danced with the children in a circle.  He hadn’t yet seen her and Elle.  Amos had, however.  When the circle’s rotation brought the late-comers into Amos’ line of sight the little guy broke from the ring and bounded towards them.  Neith had to steady herself with one leg behind her as he collided with her bottom-half; she’d assumed he was running for Elle.  “You pretty Nee,” he said.  He looked up at her with his arms encircling her knees.  He released her and held his arms up towards Elle.  “Up, peas.” He wasn’t good with his L’s yet.  Elle scooped him up and held him close, his arms wrapped around her middle. 

Neith looked back to the circle Amos had left. 

Miles had stopped dancing.  He was looking at her.  And only her. 

She licked her lips and felt stupid immediately for drawing any attention whatsoever to her mouth. 

Miles smiled then.  The frightened wingbeats inside Neith imploded, coming together to form a spinning, living topiary inside her.  The storm was gone.  There was only the concentration of flurried movement, spinning. 

Neith fully comprehended complicated.  If only Elle knew.

Then Neith saw Davey – and Davey saw his Mr Flynn looking at Neith.  Neith looked to Davey, pointed at him too, and then flashed both of her hands twice, fingers extended to show 20 – reminding her 7-year-old admirer of their rules of engagement.  Davey folded his arms then tugged on Nola.  The pair wove away through the dancers, out of sight.  Ruthie was all that was left of the circle.  She chewed her lip.  She looked at her teacher-uncle.  She appeared to be deciding if she could continue dancing with only him in a way that wasn’t awkward.  She had decided; she moved towards Elle and Neith.  Miles looked towards them, and then the way his dispirited student and daughter had marched.  He smiled again at Neith, sending the ball inside her into hyper-spin.  He followed the fleeing little people.

“You’re welcome,” said Elle.

Neith looked confused.

“It’s the dress.  It had the same effect on my husband.”  She winked.

Neith put the painted imperative, malicious bouquets, bullying note, and antagonistic stares out of her mind.  She threw back her head, and laughed. 

“It’s mine as soon as I’m 16,” Ruthie called over the reverberation of the room.

“Try 20,” Elle said, pokerfaced.

“18.”

“Deal.”

“Now dance with me!”  Ruthie seized Neith by her wrists and drew her out closer to the centre of the room and into a spin.  Neith felt invincible in the radiated strength of this family.  Maybe today wasn’t her last here.  And if it was, it would be a great last day. 

Ruthie was invited to join a friend Neith hadn’t met.  The friend was dancing over by a table lined with drinks in mismatched mugs.  “Go!”  Neith said loudly, stepping back in line with Elle.  She was still hugging Amos.  He had fallen asleep on her. 

They watched Ruthie dance.  The ball of wings stilled, but remained.

“He’ll get over it.  With time.”  The words came near her ear, with breath on her neck.  She flushed instantly.  She turned her head, and almost brushed noses with Miles.  She took in his soft hair – now completely dry – and could see he required no amount of freshening up to be…much more than presentable.

The music stopped.  Neith held her breath. 

Jamin was standing on a kid-sized chair with his hands cupped around his mouth.  “Ripeka, will you accept this dance?”  All heads turned, and Neith followed the domino effect back to Jamin’s wife.  She looked up from a couch on the far wall.  She was holding the newborn Neith had seen earlier – so small.  Rose and husband were seated beside Ripeka.  The husband’s arm lay protectively around his wife. 

Ripeka glared at her husband with good-humour before lightly returning the bundle to Rose’s outstretched arms.  “I will!” 

The tangle of families and friends filling the room became organised.  Adults and senior-schoolers formed lines facing each other.  Were they going to throw sticks again?  

Lilting music came from the band, hands were extended, and a complicated series of turns and cross-overs unfolded.  They had all been reading too much Austen.  Neith was about to say as much to Miles – having recovered her breath – but turning, found him gone.

She located him in one of the lines, Ihaka opposite him.  They stepped in turn with others, forming what Neith imagined looked like four-petalled flowers from above.  They kept returning to their marks, opposite each other.  Their dance looked like what was happening in Neith’s chest.  Miles looked to Neith, his eyes apologetic.  Scratch that, nothing looked like what was happening in Neith’s chest. 

Elle had dragged a chair over with her foot as a hook.  She sank into it. Amos snored.

Neith went and collected another chair for herself and sat beside her partner in cotton summer dresses.

“That’s the Dolphin Reel.”  Elle offered.  “If you watch, you might learn.”

“I’m not sure I want to,” Neith leaned over, and replied in the ear unobstructed by Amos’ head.

Elle laughed.

Neith watched Miles.  She wasn’t sure she could learn anything, the way she was feeling.  She was so intent on watching, she didn’t notice a small group approach, freshly finished with their kitchen duties.  Tai was talking before she had fully taken in the pride of boys at her flank.

“Well this little bird must be Neith.” 

Neith and Elle both looked up from their chairs. 

“She looks like a little quail, to me.  No, a fantail.”  Tai rolled his tongue on his bottom lip.

“You know what they say about fantails?  They say those birds may seem sweet and sing a fair song, but they always get too close.”  He cocked his head, as though considering leaving his comment there.  He didn’t.  He added, “And then they die.”

Goalie-Pony sniggered like any 2K perv-jerk back home; “Curiosity killed the fantail.”

Elle was making a move to stand, despite being anchored by Amos.  Neith couldn’t let Elle take any more heat for her.  She couldn’t default to ignore anymore.

Neith held out her hand with her palm towards Elle, as though to say: Sit, I’ve got this.

“Are we talking about me in fauna metaphors, right now?”

“Want it plain?  I’m sayin’: since when did a little spy get welcomed into our midst?”  Tai still seemed to be the spokesperson for the group.

Neith began to wonder if Ninja had caught the bird, or should she add the arrangement of bird organs to the list of harassments, stacking up. 

Grace wasn’t here to speak for her.  What would Grace say?  Grace always heard the insult, owned any part that was true, then sliced back with her corrections.  Neith could do that.  She’d be Grace for a minute. “I can’t say I’m not curious – Tai, is it?  Because I am.  I always have been.”  The dancing was stopping, the music failing – the tense exchange was in sight of the band.  Neith had a feeling they wanted to be able to hear what was being said.  Elle was threatening to stand again.  “But I never asked to come here; I never asked for any of this.  But I’m doing my best to get by without disrupting the peace.  I certainly haven’t approached anyone here with a shred of malice.  It’s not who I am.  I’m harmless.”

Tai knew eyes were on him.  He retracted his tongue, smiled, and made a small bow to the dancers who had slowed, watching.

Miles and Ihaka broke from the ranks, coming close.  And it appeared yes, all of Nydia wanted to hear what was being said.  What did this outsider have to say for herself?

Elle was up; “Tai, that is enough.” 

“She’s right, Tai.  It’s not the girl’s fault she’ll never really belong here.”  Ihaka.  Thanks.  That sickly sweet smile.  The passive-aggressive pleasantry.  Neith wasn’t sure who she disliked more – the open bully or the merry non-wife.

Koro pushed through Miles and Ihaka and levelled his gaze on Tai, Goalie-Pony and Lures.  “This is over.  Right now.” 

Tai held his hands up in smiling surrender.  The brute squad backed away, excusing themselves from the hall before being excused. 

Elle mouthed “Thank you,” to her father, and placed a protective hand on Amos’ back.  She sat back down.  Neith mimicked her.  The music resumed.  People returned to dancing.  It was as though Nydia had expected this chemical reaction to take place eventually.  Tai had made his feelings known to Neith for months, others probably knew too.  Tai’s distrust in a City visitor was an inevitable quarrel boiling, boiling, threatening to overflow.  Now it had happened; now they could dance.

Neith was still simmering and shaking a little.  She didn’t want to dance.

Ihaka felt differently.  She held her hand towards Miles, angling her body back towards the country dance line.  Miles answered her invitation with a look. Ihaka dropped her hand, allowing something other than a smile to show for only a second.  Then she put on a happy face, took Ruthie from the senior school group, and rejoined the reel.  Ruthie mouthed “Save me.” 

It was absurd, but Neith allowed some of the tension to escape in a quiet laugh.  Elle did too.  Miles nodded over towards the drinks table.  Neith and Elle looked, then looked again.  Davey was asleep beneath it, his bottom in the air.  They laughed harder.

Koro appeared in unobscured flashes between the dancers, as they moved.  He was sitting at the far end of the hall, furthest from the door.  Nola wilted in his lap. 

“I think it’s time to go home,” Elle said.  “Will you ask Koro to bring Ruthie home before midnight?”  She was asking her brother; the one who didn’t want to dance anymore.

“Sure.”  Miles feinted this way and that, through the reel rows – adults, and senior students – both forming their interchanging walls.  Neith’s vision took in Miles scooping up Nola, then dancers; Miles scooping; dancers; Nola draped over her father.  Nola seemed much younger, being carried. Miles leaned in to speak in his father’s ear; more dancers.

“Will you get Davey?”  Elle asked Neith.

“Of course.”  Neith almost clung to the wall as she edged around the room.  She successfully reached the drinks table.  Beside it, zombie-fan Jimmy was asleep with his head in his mother’s lap.  The woman gave the same shy wave she had earlier in the day.  Neith appreciated it and smiled in thanks.  She attempted to scoop Davey as she’d seen Miles just do, but lacking his shoulders, failed to match his effortless finesse.  As inelegant as she was, she bounced Davey up into a position she felt confident she could sustain for a distance and followed Elle and Miles – each of them carrying a child – out of the hall and into the night.



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