|The beautiful young woman in the cream dress and matching hat drew a number of admiring glances as she walked along the sun-drenched waterside close to Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens. Another young woman, not as attractive as the first but, with her fair hair and sharp features, still good to look at, approached from the opposite direction, and the two exchanged warm greetings before entering a tea room and being shown to a table by the window.|
"Mummy and Josette'll be along soon: they went to collect something for Dad but it wasn't ready, so they've had to wait," Sybil explained as they waited to give their order for tea and cakes. "It's good to see you, Emmy." She smiled affectionately. "You've been such a good friend whilst we've been in Sydney. And … well, now that I'm going to be staying here, hopefully we'll be able to see each other often."
She blushed, and Emerence grinned as she took a closer look at the diamond and sapphire ring adorning her friend's left hand. "It's a bonzer ring, Sybil. Congratulations! It's smashing news. So, both you and Josette! But she's not going to be married for a while yet, is that right?"
Sybil nodded. "I didn't want Josette to think I was trying to … well, steal her thunder, especially seeing as she was engaged first. And Bride's wedding probably going to come off later this year as well, and she's been engaged for quite a while. But we're only having a small wedding, you know, and we've got nothing to wait for. So we decided we'd get married as soon as he could arrange leave from the Navy. I'm so glad you're going to be able to come, Emmy. There aren't going to be many people there, but, like I said, you've been a good friend whilst we've been here … and it'll be nice to have some people there on my side. Thank you so much. It'll be lovely to have you there."
"I'm looking forward to it," Emerence said cheerfully. She paused as the waitress arrived with their tea and two delicious-looking cakes. "Thanks for asking me! But you'll have loads of people there, surely? Gosh, are you going to have all your sisters and cousins as bridesmaids, like Peggy did? Margot wrote to me about Peggy's wedding and how many of you there were. She owes me a letter, so I haven't heard any of this yet."
Her face lit up. "I've just had an idea! Dad's got to go over to Germany in February or March, for some business thing or other. I'm sure he could arrange it so that he could bring Ailie and Margot and the others back in his plane, if they'd like. It'd be a lot easier than travelling on the commercial flights. And it's a decent-sized plane, so there should be room for all of them. Oh … mind you, there's your cousin on the other side, as well, isn't there, Primula's sister? Doesn't she live on the Platz now? Oh well: I'm sure Dad'll sort it out somehow." She stopped. She'd thought it was a good idea, but Sybil looked more stricken than pleased. "Sybil – are you all right? Sorry – have I said something wrong? It was just an idea. I won't even mention it to Dad if you don't want me to."
"Len and Con and Margot aren't coming," Sybil said abruptly. She took a sip of her tea. "Apparently it's too close to their exams. And Daisy and Laurie aren't coming either: it's too far to fly with the children, Daisy said. And Uncle Jack can't leave the San." She took another sip of tea. "Although there are plenty of other doctors there, and I'm sure he'll be taking time off for Bride's wedding. I know we haven't given them much notice, and I know what a long way it is, and I do understand about the exams, but I can't help thinking … well, I can't help thinking that if it was Josette's wedding, or if Bride was getting married over here, then they'd all be coming, no matter what."
She flushed. "I'm sorry, Emmy: I shouldn't have said all that. I don’t know what you must be thinking of me. Forget I said anything, please. And I'm sure Mummy and Dad would be eternally grateful if your dad could bring Ailie and Auntie Joey and the younger kids in his plane, and so would they. It's very kind of you to offer, if you're sure he won't mind."
"Of course he won't," Emerence exclaimed. "But, look, er … "
She was no good at things like this. Mary-Lou, or even someone like Ros Lilley or Jo Scott, would have known exactly what to say. She didn't. But she had to say something: that was clear. "I'm sorry the others can't come, and you're bound to be disappointed about it, but Margot and Len and Con are all dead set on going on to university, and it is getting frightfully close to exam time. And it's probably Uncle Jack who's saying that they can't come, or maybe even Miss Annersley: I'm sure they wouldn't want to miss your wedding. And long journeys with little kids probably are a nightmare, you know. And maybe none of the other doctors are … I don't know. Not up to being in charge for more than a few days?"
She paused to take a forkful of cake. "It's a long way, you know, Sybil. I should know: I've done the journey often enough! Sorry to state the obvious, but it's not just like going from Switzerland to England, like it'll be for Bride's wedding. Maybe Uncle Jack just doesn't feel he can be away for that long. Then there's the cost and everything. And people get nervous about flying, especially when it's such a long way. People living in Switzerland or England think of Australia as … well, the other side of the world! When I said I was leaving school, Margot was convinced we'd never see each other again!"
Sybil's face brightened, and she nodded. "I couldn't possibly be married without David being there! And he wouldn't miss my wedding for anything, bless him. And Primula's flying over with him, and Nick – her fiancÚ, you know. None of us have met him yet, apart from David. He's got some cousins living in Sydney, so he's going to stay with them. David's acting as chaperone for the journey, he says! He and Prim have always been such good friends." A shadow crossed her face again. "It's nice when cousins can be like that. Josette's always been pally with Maeve, and with Len. And Bride always used to say that Julie Lucy and Nancy Chester were almost like twins."
She shook her head. "My friend Ruth Lamont's coming as well. I felt awkward about it: I didn't want anyone to feel that I was asking them to make the journey, when it's such a long way and … well, like you said, there's the cost. So I said that I wasn't expecting anyone to come … but Ruth said she wanted to. And her people can afford it. She's flying over with David and Prim and Nick. I'm so glad she'll be there." She paused for a moment. "But none of the Bettanys are coming. None of them.
"Peggy can't make long journeys at the moment – she hasn't told a lot of people yet, but, as it is, she couldn't have come even if she'd really wanted to. And I understand that it's difficult for the others to take time off work, and that they've got Bride's wedding to plan, and everything. But I still thought that Uncle Dick and Auntie Mollie and Daphne might come, even if just for Mummy's sake."
"The perils of being so far away," Emerence said sympathetically. "I really miss Margot, and I'd like to catch up with some of my other pals from school as well, but it's not like you can just be nipping between Australia and Switzerland every few weeks. But hey, you'll be going back to England some time, won't you? Maybe you could have some kind of wedding party then, and celebrate with your rellies and friends back home? You could even wear your dress again. Have you got it yet?" She finished her cake. "You'll look a real stunner, you know, Sybs. Everyone used to say that you were the school beauty queen."
"Don't say that," Sybil said sharply. Then she gasped. "Emmy, I'm so sorry. I don't know what's come over me today: that was so rude of me. I'm sorry. I know you were only trying to be kind. And it's a nice idea, but when we go over to England it's likely to be for Bride's wedding, and I wouldn't want her to think that I was trying to take any attention away from her. And … well, it's going to be weird enough everyone looking at me for one day, without doing it all twice. But I'm so sorry I was so rude. Please forgive me for snapping like that."
"Of course. Hey, stop sounding so worried! It's all right: it was no big deal." Emerence shook her head. "Sybil – feel free to tell me to butt out, but am I missing something here? I wasn't thinking – I should have known not to say that, I've heard Josette say often enough that the quickest way to make you mad was to comment on your looks, but … well, why? She always said that she didn't know. And all this stuff about maybe everyone would come over if it was Josette's wedding – where's that coming from? You've said yourself that it's difficult for people to get time off work, and about the expense. I know it's a shame, but I don't understand why you seem to be taking it all so personally. It's almost as if you think they've all got something against you, and that's why they're not coming. Why would you think that? I've never once heard Margot say anything bad about you. Why would she? I'm sure she and Len and Con would love to come, but they have got their exams next term. And you've just said that Peggy can't travel. It's a shame she'll miss the wedding, but what lovely news that is!"
"It is, isn't it?" Sybil smiled for a moment. "I'm so pleased for her. But I really don't think she'd have come anyway." Her face clouded again. "She's never liked me. Not her, nor Rix, nor Bride nor John. Nor Daisy. And it's all my own fault. Sometimes … sometimes I even wonder that anyone would want to marry me at all. I've tried so hard to change, but you can't take back what you've done in the past. I was such a horrible child. It's no wonder none of them have ever liked me. And then Josette got hurt, and it was all my fault, for being so vain. I've done such terrible things. No-one'll ever forget that."
"Whoa!" Emerence held up her hand. "You've lost me completely now, Sybs. Start again. You're not making any sense. What terrible things? Why do you think no-one likes you? And what happened to Josette, and what on earth has it got to do with you being vain? Especially seeing as you aren't vain! As for being a horrible child, I'm sure you weren't, but we all did horrible things when we were younger. I set fire to our summer house!"
"You did what?" Sybil looked at her incredulously and started to laugh. "Seriously?"
"Well, I've made you laugh, at least!" Emerence grinned. "Not that my pyromaniac past is something I'm very proud of! That's when I was packed off to the Chalet School. All the way from Sydney to London, on my own. They couldn't wait to see the back of me. I bet you were never anything like as horrible as I was."
Sybil's face shadowed again. "You didn't know me back then. I mean, right back then … when I was a little girl in Tyrol, before we had to leave, and then when we first moved to Armishire. There were so many of us. Peggy and Rix and Bride and John all lived with us, and so did Daisy and Primula and Robin as well at one time. And Auntie Joey, before she was married. I felt like Mummy never had any time at all just for me and David. David never seemed to mind – he's a much nicer person than I am – but I did. I should have felt sorry for the Bettanys because their parents were so far away, but I didn't. I used to say that they were only cousins, and they didn't really belong. Is it any wonder that none of them like me? You can't imagine how horrible I was."
Emerence exhaled. "Sounds like it was pretty tough for all of you," she commented. "Being a one and only, I don't really know – but I think I can understand that it must have been rough for you, always having so many people around. Len always says what fun it is being part of such a big family, but … well, I know Margot gets jealous sometimes."
"You won't tell anyone I said that, will you?" she added hastily. What had happened during her last few days at school was a secret, and she wasn't going to say anything about it, even to Margot and Len's cousin. "But it sounds as if you were all in an awkward position. And anyway, Sybs, it was years ago. You're talking about things that happened when you were a little kid. All kids squabble. Even if you weren't very nice to them then, I'm sure none of them hold it against you now. You shouldn't be beating yourself up about it. Everyone liked you at school, you know. People were really pleased when you were made a prefect. In fact, I don't think I ever heard anyone say anything bad about you."
Sybil blushed. "Thank you, Emmy. That's kind of you. But I can't help remembering just how awful I was back then. And, you see, Josette got hurt because of it."
"I vaguely remember hearing about Josette having an accident." Emerence frowned. "You were all in Canada when I started at the Chalet School, and then you came back and people were talking about how much good your stay there had done Josette and Margot. It always seemed weird to me, because there never seemed to be anything wrong with either of them – although I know Margot used to be a bit fragile when she was little. But Josette had been at school for years before they went to Canada, hadn't she? There can't have been that much wrong with her. And she's never been ill as long as I've known her – well, apart from the scarlet fever, but loads of people had that! What happened? And why would you think it was your fault?"
"Because it was," Sybil said unhappily. "I was nine, and Josette was just a tiny. I thought I was being really grown up, and I was going to make myself a cup of tea. I'd been told not to touch the kettle, but I did anyway. And then Josette stood on my toe, and I dropped the kettle and the boiling water went all over her. I tried to help by pulling her clothes off, but I just made it worse. The scalds all healed, thankfully, and she hasn't even really got any scars now – children heal well, they say. But it was horrible at the time. She must have been in so much pain, and she was frail for a long while afterwards. Mummy and Dad were so angry with me. I deserved it, of course. Oh Emmy, you can't imagine what a horrible, vain little brat I was – and it was poor Josette who had to suffer for it. I'll never forgive myself for it: never."
"Sybs, you mustn't say that!" Emerence was genuinely shocked. "Josette doesn't hold it against you. I'm sure she doesn't. I'm sure none of your people do. It was an accident. You've just said that Josette stood on your toe. You weren't to know that you shouldn't try to remove her clothes: you were trying to help. And she's absolutely fine now. She's been fine as long as I've known her. She must have been fine for years before that, in fact – I'm sure I remember being told that she was in the same form as Mary-Lou and Vi and co even when she was so much younger than them, so there can't have been very much wrong with her even then. Accidents happen."
She stopped, and looked puzzled. "And what I really don't understand is what has any of this got to do with people saying that you were the school beauty queen?"
"Because it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been so vain!" Sybil raised her hands to her face. "I was a horrible, vain little brat, like I just said. Auntie Joey, and Daisy, all of them, they said that it was because people said things about … about what I looked like. And that that was why I was so … so wilful. And that was why I was messing with the kettle."
"What?" Emerence almost laughed in bemusement. "You know, Sybs, I don't mean to offend you, but I've thought before that your family say some strange things sometimes. Margot's had this as well, you know. Apparently she was being told when she was only three that she had a … how did she say they put it? Something about God giving her a bad temper. She worries about it a lot. A hard row to hoe: that was it. Don't tell anyone I told you that … but then I don't think it's a secret. But I've always thought what a strange thing it was to say to anyone, especially a kid of that age."
"It was because they didn't want her to be like me." Sybil shook her head emphatically. "Because I was so horrible to everyone. Because of what I did to Josette. Because I was a horrible, vain little brat."
"Sybs, will you stop saying that?" Emerence said exasperatedly. "That's three times now. Even if you were vain about your looks – I'm not saying you were, but just say -, what on earth would that have had to do with going near the kettle? It doesn't make any sense. And it was, what, nearly fifteen years ago? You can't keep feeling guilty about it."
She took a deep breath. "Sybil – I don't pretend to understand all that stuff about hard rows to hoe, but I do know what it's like to see someone else hurt because of something you've done. When I hit Mary-Lou with my toboggan, she was so still and grey that at first I thought she was dead. I thought I'd killed her."
"Even when they said she was alive, they didn't know if she'd … well, what she'd be like when she came round. Or if she'd ever walk again. And I was much older then than you were when the accident with the kettle happened. Miss O'Ryan had told us not to go over there. Even Margot tried to stop me. But I thought I was being so daring … and Mary-Lou could have died because of it. I hated myself. And I felt like everyone else must have hated me too, and that I deserved it. To know what … because of what I'd done … even now, I can hardly bear to think about it. I'll never stop being grateful that she's all right, because she so easily might not have been. So you see, Sybs, I do know how you feel."
"But you didn't mean to hurt Mary-Lou!" Sybil spoke more loudly than she'd intended to, and flushed and lowered her voice when the ladies at the next table turned to look at her. She lowered her voice, but spoke just as emphatically. "Emmy, you were silly, yes, but you didn't mean to hurt anyone. And, from what I remember Blossom telling me about it, if Mary-Lou had got well out of the way when Mlle de Lachennais told everyone to, she wouldn't have been anywhere near your toboggan. It was an accident. You're not still fretting about it, surely? Mary-Lou'd go mad if she thought you were still upset about it."
"She told me straight afterwards not to feel bad about it." Emerence smiled reminiscently. "Very bossily, if I recall! Good old Mary-Lou! And I don't think about it much now. I know she's all right. And I know that thinking about it isn't going to change what happened. But I hope I've never been as thoughtless again since. Everyone does stupid things, Sybs. All right, maybe you and I have done stupider things than most! But you just said yourself that Mary-Lou'd go mad if she thought I was still fretting about what happened, and Josette'd go mad if she knew that you were still fretting over what happened. Wouldn't she? Come on Sybs, wouldn't she?"
"I suppose so," Sybil admitted. "I don't, much, you know. Not now. It was just … with people not wanting to come to the wedding. It set me thinking about it all again."
"I'm sure it's not that they don't want to come." Emerence poured them each another cup of tea. "Truly, Sybs. I think you're worrying about nothing. It's all in the past. And you're starting a new life now. Away from everything that happened in Tyrol, or in Armishire, or in Switzerland … all of it. Half the world away, in fact!"
"Your fiancÚ – have you told him all this?"
Sybil nodded. "He knows all about it."
"And what does he say?"
"Pretty much everything that you've said." Sybil half-smiled. "Well, apart from the setting fire to the summer house and hitting Mary-Lou with a toboggan. But the rest of it. Especially the last bit – about starting a new life."
"You know, Emmy, neither Josette nor I were very keen on coming on this trip. It was Mummy who insisted that we come. I never in a million years imagined that we'd both end up staying here! But I'm very glad that we will be. I love it here."
"I'm glad to hear it!" Emerence raised her teacup and clinked it against her friend's. "We should really have glasses, but teacups'll do, I suppose. Here's to your new life! And do you know what, Sybil? D'you know what today is?"
"It's a public holiday, isn't it? Something historical? You'll have to excuse my ignorance, I'm afraid: I've just got so much to think about at the moment that things aren't really going in. What are we marking?"
"Australia Day, of course!" Emerence clinked her cup against Sybil's again. "So here's to you, and here's to Australia and your new life here. No more fretting about the past, Sybil. I'm sure no-one holds it against you, and it's time you stopped holding it against yourself. Leave it where it belongs – in the past, and on the other side of the world. You were just a little kid then. You're a grown woman now – and a very nice one, and anyone will tell you the same thing. And you're about to embark on a whole new life, in a new country! Happy Australia Day!"
"Thank you." Sybil looked pensive for a moment, then she smiled. "Thank you! Thank you so much, Emmy. Thank you for listening, and thank you for talking so much sense. And thank you, Australia! I never dreamed, when I arrived here, how things would turn out. I thought it'd just be for a few months, just an interlude and instead … well, it's been more wonderful than I could ever have dreamed of. What's happened here … it's been the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to me. I'm so very, very glad that Mummy and Dad decided I should come with them to Australia."
She lifted her cup again. "Happy Australia Day!"