"Aren't you going to open that letter, Nell? It's been sitting on the table since Monday." Hilda paused. "I'm not sure if I ought to just mind my own business - tell me if I should! - but I believe I recognise the handwriting."
Nell shrugged awkwardly. "Yes, I imagine you do. I certainly do. I'm not sure I do want to open it, to be honest. I haven't seen her in nearly eight years. Whatever it says, I don't think now is the time I want to hear it."
"Your English," Hilda murmured automatically.
Nell grimaced at her. "I'm sorry, though - I should have put it away and not put you in the position of having to ask. I hope it's not given you any cause for concern. You really needn't, that was all such a long time ago now. Oh, it's so typical of Con! Getting in touch out of the blue because she feels like it, and never mind spoiling anyone else's summer!"
Hilda smiled sympathetically and laid a gentle hand on Nell's arm. "I know I needn't be concerned for myself, dear girl. I can't help being concerned for you, however."
Nell returned the smile, grateful for Hilda's limitless empathy. "Thank you, my love, but I'll be all right - am all right, near enough. You're right, I'll open it now. Do you mind if I..." Her voice trailed off, but Hilda had guessed what she was asking for.
"I was thinking I might take a walk down to the village. I've a letter to Madge I need to post, in any case. I'll be about half an hour, I suppose - unless you'd like longer?" She matched the action to the word, rising gracefully to her feet as she spoke, a questioning face turned on her friend.
Nell sought her eyes and gave her a true smile. "Thank you, for understanding so well. Half an hour sounds perfect. I'll look forward to seeing you again," she added honestly.
Hilda nodded, smiling comfortingly at her partner and carefully keeping the small niggling worry she still felt hidden. She didn't doubt Nell at all, not exactly, but the fear that she might be about to lose her to someone with a prior claim sat malevolently in the corner of her mind. Half an hour is no time at all, she chided herself sternly.
What an age it has been! I am so sorry - to have contacted you out of the blue like this, and to have not done so before now. At first there was so much to say, and yet so curiously little - and then, as time passed, there was also a silence I couldn't explain."
Quite right, you couldn't. But why didn't you even try? Nell stopped reading for a moment, pausing to push down the unanticipated rush of anger.
"I wish we had parted on better terms. I don't know what you heard, but Jock just turned up one day and that was it! I don't imagine I'd have even had time to pack, if we hadn't all been packed up already.
"I suppose some might think it romantic, but I certainly didn't - I only felt hijacked by something I realised too late I wanted no part of. I remember you warning me, though you never used so many words. How I wish I'd listened, now!"
What if, Nell wondered to herself. What if?
"I have been plagued by thoughts of what might have been, what I walked away from. All I could see were the unavoidable difficulties, and my ticket to an easy way out.
"I miss you desperately, Nell. Say you'll have me, and I'll come to be with you. The children are all boarding now, so half the practicalities would already be taken care of. It would none of it be easy, but there must be some way of making it at least possible, and I think in time we could make it really worthwhile, a life together. I know I don't deserve you - but I love you so.
Nell put the letter down and, unexpectedly, wept. Wept for Con, trapped in a life which made her so unhappy. Wept for herself, eight years ago - even four years ago - when such a letter would have fulfilled all her dreams; and for herself today, feeling horribly complicit in Con's anguish because her answer could only disappoint her. Wept for all the countless other women who had given up on their dreams. And, since she had started now, after not crying for years and years, she wept for all the other hardships of these eight years that had passed, the eight years that had made everything preceding them unrecognisable: for Luigia di Ferrara, for Jeanne le Cadoulec, for Florian Marani and poor, broken Maria; for an innocence nobody had recognised the existence of, never mind appreciated its value, until cataclysmic events had shattered it.
The sound of the door closing quietly heralded Hilda's return. She rose to her feet as Hilda came into the kitchen.
"Oh, Nell," Hilda's sympathetic face had only the faintest trace of anxiety, and Nell felt a sudden rush of love. I don't deserve you, either, she reflected, almost guiltily.
"I wish I didn't feel - well - unsettled by it. It seems just another thing to burden you with. But - well - I do." Hilda finished up apologetically, her fingers twisting distractedly amongst her partner's, on top of the bedclothes.
Nell tilted her face to look at her properly. "You needn't. I don't say I don't understand - only, you really needn't. It was a long time ago. A different lifetime, Hilda." She looked reminiscent. "You know, she was always jealous of you."
"Was she?" Hilda asked quietly. "And I suppose you told her she needn't be, too?"
Nell winced, but said nothing. Remorse flickered across Hilda's face, and she recanted at once: "I'm sorry, Nell. That was unfair of me."
Nell shook her head, as much as she could against the pillow. "No, it wasn't. I probably shouldn't have mentioned that." She had told Con she needn't be so touchy on the subject of her own early friendship with Hilda; had been sharply dismissive of what had felt at the time like nothing more than a possessive demand. Looking back, she felt a good deal more sympathy for Con who had perhaps only been aching for exactly the kind of recognition she could never give. But then again, maybe even this sympathy was only nudged into being by a sense of guilt, that maybe Con had prophesied truly after all. Nell sighed up at the ceiling, tried to reconcile her absolute conviction that if Con hadn't left they would still have been happy together, with her abiding love for the woman beside her now.
"It's probably no fairer for me to ask you to hold the whole conversation in your head," Hilda offered mournfully, and Nell felt anger course through her again. Drat Con!
She took a breath and began, knowing she must master both sensitivity and honesty on this matter, knowing there was no room for error on either count: "I love you, Hilda. I am profoundly grateful to have you in my life and I can't regret that at all; I would go through all of it over again to be here beside you now. You have to believe that." She paused to acknowledge Hilda's assent, and continued as carefully as she could: "At the same time, I feel - grief, I suppose, for all that Con and I gave up on. It'll pass - it's nowhere near as acute as it was first time around all those years ago - but it's a difficult reminder, that's all."
"You can't just switch it off," Hilda said understandingly.
"No," Nell agreed, breathing an inward sigh of relief.
"How is Con?" Hilda asked tentatively, her hand still and steady in Nell's own now.
"Unhappy. - Oh, not in any exceptional way, I suppose; there's no 'bad news' in that sense. I always knew she would be, I even told her as much - though when I didn't hear from her, I thought perhaps I'd been wrong about that, that it had worked out for the best for her after all. Still, it's not my place any more to go rushing in to save her - is it?" Sudden doubt crept in at the last, a plea for absolution.
Hilda bit back two responses to this plea - the first piteously anxious, the second quietly chippy beneath a veneer of magnanimity. Instead, she stuck to surer ground: "Poor Con!"
"Yes, poor Con," Nell agreed readily. "And there are so many like her." She swallowed. "I'm very lucky, I know."
Hilda smiled softly. She knew, right then, that it wasn't finished yet but would all come all right eventually. She reached over and ran her hair through the loose white hair curling around her lover's face, more familiar even than her own; constant, steadfast, dependable. "As am I, my dear. I don't forget that."