If Rhyll felt some long-absent pang of nerves as she descended from another train carriage two months later, she did not give any outward sign. Following Peggy, who darted through the crowded station with a speed and dexterity that belied the cumbersome bag she carried with her, cheeks pink with the cold and eyes alight with excitement, it hardly seemed reasonable to mention the churning anxiety in the pit of her stomach. She hoisted her own bag more firmly over her shoulder as she quickened her pace.
It was cold but dry and bright, and the seaside town was busy. From the station, Peggy led her downhill, round a twisting avenue lined with grand hotels and countless shops, until they reached the town square where the great Christmas tree stood. Peggy gave it a satisfied nod, and smiled almost shyly at Rhyll - as though she was presenting the tree, along with the rest of the town, to her for approval. She waved one hand out at the distance, with a little less shyness, a touch more pride, almost catching a passing family as she did so and beaming an apology on them. "The sea!"
Rhyll's gaze followed her direction, across the manicured gardens and past the pavillion: the sea, indeed. Her own smile widened. There was such tremendous rightness in its nearby presence: reassuring, grounding. It seemed a good omen; she hoped it was.
"I'll bring you back to see it properly tomorrow," Peggy continued. "That's if we can't find the time to come out again before it gets dark this afternoon. Promise." She grinned playfully at her, and caught the tips of Rhyll's fingers in her gloved hand, momentarily, to steer her away from the sea and up through the public gardens, weaving past the throng of shoppers and merry-makers along the path between fenced-off grass and flowerbeds. Even in winter, it was obvious at a glance just how well-tended they were, neat and tidy and without the slightest patch of overgrowth; the extreme human control of the plants could have so easily been cloying, but it was carefully judged and finely executed, Rhyll decided. She thought she could picture it quite well in full bloom, and wondered whether she would ever be back here to see it in summer.
The gardens followed a running stream, maybe four feet in width. As Peggy guided her alongside it, the crowds thinned out and the gardens dipped lower than street level, the hubbub of the town centre beginning to fade out of view higher up and partly obscured by delicately-groomed bushes. Nonchalant, Peggy picked up two twigs from the ground, examined both before passing one to Rhyll and pulling her onto the little bridge. "My count - three, two, one-" and in perfect synchrony they released their missiles into the water below. Peggy spun and leaned across the other side, and when the twigs emerged from beneath them they had become entwined and she laughed in delight. "Well, I can't think of a better draw than that!"
They passed the war memorial next, and by unspoken agreement both fell respectfully sober until the great stone structure was safely behind them. Rhyll thought of her brother Julian for a moment, stationed in the Far East for the second Christmas running; perhaps next year he would be home.
Yew. Cherry. And pine, scores of pine trees as far as the eye could see, tall and ancient, majestic in their sense of prehistory: they must have been here for all of time, and they would be here for generations beyond Rhyll's own death; she felt comfortingly inconsequential as she gazed up at them.
"Watch!" Peggy commanded now, dropping her big bag at Rhyll's feet and - barely pausing to check that Rhyll did as instructed - suddenly running at the stream and taking a flying leap across it. She landed neatly on the other side, only bending low enough to stabilise herself with a hand out of caution, Rhyll thought, rather than actual need, and when she turned to face her she was grinning with childlike delight. Rhyll put her own bag down and gave a round of applause, and Peggy paced the grass her side of the river thoughtfully. "I don't think I can jump back here," she remarked. "It's too wet. I'll slip."
"And here I am with two bags, then?" Rhyll chafed, but she was not displeased as she reached to pick both from the ground.
"Sorry," Peggy called, still cheerful. "I don't think it's too far to the next bridge. If it were summer, I'd wade across and propriety be damned, but..."
"Well, if that's so, I'm bally glad it's December!" Rhyll retorted. "What sort of impression am I to make on your parents, if you turn up in my company looking like some sort of urchin?"
Peggy giggled, positively skipping along, running her hands over the low-hanging tree branches as she dipped underneath them. "They're used to it. They'd be more concerned if I turned up without a hair out of place. Out of five of us, it's only really Mary you can hope to manage that sort of thing reliably." As she had predicted, another bridge loomed nearby, and she came across it to Rhyll, retrieving her big bag with a grin of gratitude. "Isn't it ducky here, Evvy? Now I think about it properly, I don't suppose we will be able to get out again today without being horribly rude, but definitely we'll go for a good walk along the shoreline tomorrow. Invite Mary and Kitty along too, if they want. Mary's been down a week already - I know for she wrote to me and said she'd arrived last week - and Kitty was due to arrive yesterday. I'm glad we're all here. I've been looking to it for such ages." She glanced at Rhyll, and her mouth twtitched as though she thought of adding something more, but thought better of it and grinned sheepishly at the ground instead. Rhyll tried on a number of responses, found them all somewhere between trite and banal, and also settled for smiling at her feet.
It was Mary who first came to the door to greet them, standing in the wide hallway with a soothingly familiar smile. "Come in, come in! Very well timed, we were just about to have some tea. Leave your things there-" and here she stopped talking, smothered as she was by Peggy's embraces. She gave Rhyll a helpless grin over her sister's shoulder, and Rhyll smiled back as she laid down her big bag against the skirting board and nudged Peggy's neatly into place beside it. Two youths pressed through into the hall, mumbling greetings and offering shy smiles: both were startlingly like Peggy to look at, the same tousled hair, the same dark eyes set in sharply angular faces, and on this basis alone Rhyll liked them already.
Mary led the way through the passage to the parlour, and Peggy caught up Rhyll's hand in a quick squeeze. She was animated, alive, and Rhyll was warmed by it, enough to quell her own nerves.
The rest of the family were congregated in front of the roaring fire. Kitty Burnett and a man Rhyll vaguely recognised as Mary's husband Andrew sat at either end of the Chesterfield; one of the boys perched on a pouffe beside Kitty, and the other leaned against the armchair in which their mother was - upright, alert, eager to greet her latest arrivals. Peggy crossed the room swiftly, kissed her on both cheeks, her own cheeks flushed with pleasure. Someone rang for tea, and it seemed almost immediately Rhyll was seated amongst them all, drinking good hot tea and luxuriating in the warmth of the fire and the easy comfort of the family, where no one stood on ceremony and it was taken for granted that the latest visitor would join in straight away.
"Dad working today?" Peggy asked her mother. Her father was a district Recorder, the position for which the family had moved here more than a decade earlier. "Tomorrow, too?" Her mother answering both in the affirmative, she then glanced at her two sisters side by side on the Chesterfield. "I was thinking about a walk in the morning, follow the coast path west until... Well, just 'until'; I don't know how far we'll want to keep going. Coming? - And you, Andrew?"
Mary nodded immediately, looked sideways at her husband in questioning. He, too, nodded his assent.
"Not me,"Kitty answered quickly, and Rhyll caught a little note of something in her voice; not something altogether likeable. She cast her mind back, tried to remember Kitty at school: the sharpness, coolness of her response now - neither recalled anything to her. Even still, it was probably nothing; none of her family gave it a moment of attention: Peggy herself had shrugged indifferently, and moved the conversation on to other things.
It was not entirely unnoticed by Peggy, however; nor was it forgotten, though it was the following morning before she had a chance to investigate further. Catching her sister on the way out of the bathroom before breakfast, she fell into step beside her, accompanying Kitty to her room. "Not coming out with we four this morning, still?"
"No," Kitty answered shortly, evidently keen to let it go at that; but Peggy did not leave her, and her continued presence quickly prodded the elder sister into expanding on her point. "Look, Peggy, I shall be civil and all, but I wish you'd not brought her with you. Won't you think of the position it puts me in? She was our teacher, Peg! It doesn't quite sit right with me. Yes, I shall be civil, but I've no inclination to come cavorting about with you all."
Peggy saw red. "What's not to sit right? It's no different from Jo and Jack Maynard, or Jane Eyre and Rochester, or - Mary hasn't any problem. I don't see why you should have."
"It's different for Mary. She'd left already, and now she has Andrew too." Kitty scowled to herself as she retrieved clean clothes from the wardrobe and began to dress. "It's not fair of you. You never think about anyone but yourself. Go for your walk! I shall amuse myself with Dick and John, but I wish you'd never brought her."
She turned away from Peggy now, and knowing herself dismissed Peggy stalked angrily from the room. Her high mood of yesterday disappeared, she descended the stairs to the dining room with a heavy heart.
Rhyll was there already, contentedly engaged in conversation with Mary and Andrew. Andrew was regaling both women with tales of his general practice in Aberdeenshire, the curious collection of patients he came into contact with in any particular week, and they were all laughing. Peggy took her place, and reached for a slice of toast. Rhyll and Mary both turned to her with warm smiles - two very different warm smiles, both going a long way towards restoring the upset her unexpected altercation with Kitty had caused. Mary hasn't any problem: Peggy had thrown it at Kitty with the conviction born of a great sense of injustice; but while the injustice she had felt was no affectation, her confidence in the pronouncement had been less than she had implied. The breakfast scene cleared her mind of any doubt, however: Mary was more than merely a good host, was welcoming Evvy into the family home with real care - even, Peggy cautiously recognised, with pleasure. As for Andrew - well, she couldn't guess what Andrew thought or knew of the matter; but she did note that he was already more at ease with her guest than he had ever seemed to be with Kitty or herself. Thank goodness for these two; Christmas good-cheer remained possible, because of them.
It was likewise because of Mary and Andrew that the walk was a delightful one. Rhyll marvelled aloud at the gentle rolling hills, the way the cliffs in the distance fell away sharply into the sea; at how lushly green it all was, healthy with the heritage of millennia as undisturbed swampland. Through her admiration, Peggy found herself appreciating the landscape as if for the first time; she had always shrugged off the scenery here, considering herself to have been spoiled by the more dramatic beauty of the Tyrol; but now she saw it as Rhyll did, a pastoral idyll, a gentle triumph of benign neglect. She talked about the area as they walked, and - hearing herself as though the speaker were someone else - she realised how fond ofthis place she was, how proud, how much knowledge she had absorbed unknowingly over the years: part history, part geography, part folklore. She pointed out the places she and her brothers had played as children; the deserted island in the peninsula which had been set up as a decoy during the War, and so saved the harbour a great deal of damage; the tropical gardens set into the cliffs just above the sea, where they walked down to the promenade itself on the return journey. At this last Rhyll's eyes lit up, as Peggy had known they would, and laughingly she led the way into the quiet pathways of the gardens, where she fell into step beside Rhyll, taking her turn to listen. Rhyll at her happiest and most knowledgeable always thrilled her; and there was something exquisite in this new admixture of a place which was unshakeably familiar - almost boring 'til now, she owned - with this precious new visitor.
The early dusk was beginning, as they began the last leg of their journey up through the chine. Andrew and Rhyll had settled into a comfortable conversation which Peggy - trailing several steps behind, together with Mary - could not hear, nor guess at its content. Being able to relax and chat with Mary was yet another unexpected pleasure. They spoke of nothing important - none of the serious or important things they might have thought to, if this time together had been contrived or felt costly; as it was, they talked of work and home, the small quotidian details of their respective lives, minor amusements of the past few weeks for each of them. Mary asked after mutual friends at the School, and Peggy teased out little details of past exploits, the better to understand her colleagues' current and inconsequential foibles; each had a sense of at last knowing the other as an equal, neither parent-figure nor overgrown baby but as sisters, with divergent lives and almost diametrically opposite personalities but nonetheless a rich shared history and all the comfort that that could bring.
Thank you for the lovely comments!
A confession, ahead of this chapter. I had this all planned out in my head, on the basis that the Burnett family home is never given an exact location but that in 'Lavender' they are described as having been "bombed out on the south coast".
Only, when I went to double check this, that turns out not to be the case: instead, they had in fact been "bombed out on the east coast".
I don't think this is the worst error in the world, but - rather than try to modify my whole imagining of it - I've simply redacted actual place names (or other unmistakeable references which identify place) in this account. If you recognise where it is - or indeed recognise that it cannot possibly be the east coast - then I can only apologise and hope that it doesn't ruin the story for you!