Abigail checked her watch as she turned her bike on to the hill; she had two minutes in which to make it home and she knew that she could do it with ease. Hitting the hill she let go of the brakes and lowered her body over the handlebars. The wind blew into her face and stung her eyes but she didn’t mind; it was the closest thing to flying as she whizzed by the houses. It was just a shame that it had to end she thought as she slammed on the brakes to turn the sharp corner on to her road. She stumbled through the back door on the stroke of four to be confronted by her father.
“What on earth have you been doing to yourself?” he asked,
Abigail looked down at herself. Her blue jeans were ripped clean across both knees and the baggy striped shirt she wore over her blue t-shirt had a hole at the elbow and was missing a few buttons. The toes of her trainers were scuffed and the laces undone. She suddenly became aware of the fact that her father was referring to the mass of blood and gravel that passed for her kneecaps.
“David just got a skateboard, I had to have a go and fell off on the hill…” she began.
Robert held up his hand to stop her. “Did you not think of getting that cleaned up?”
Abigail shrugged. “I didn’t want to look like a wimp,” she said defiantly. “I’m not a wimp,” she protested.
It was only at this point that she realised there was somebody else in the room with her father. A dignified looking lay with dark hair stood in the doorway behind him. Abigail felt her defensiveness slip a little and Robert, now over his initial shock, suddenly remembered his manners.
“Abby, this is Lady Nina Rutherford, an old friend of your mother’s.”
Nina laughed. “Oh Robert, less of the ‘Lady’ please. It’s so awfully stuffy.” The title had come a few years earlier in the New Year Honours list and, if truth be told, Nina was still a little shocked, and embarrassed, by it. “It’s nice to finally meet you Abby,” she said stepping forward.
“Aren’t you that pianist?” blurted out Abigail suddenly.
Nina laughed again. “Depends on which pianist you mean by ‘that pianist’.”
Abigail clapped a hand to her mouth as the colour flooded her face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, I… I just didn’t think!”
“No Abby, you never do,” said Robert with a grin. “Look, go and get yourself cleaned up; I’ll put the kettle on.”
Dinner that evening was a somewhat awkward affair. Robert was only too aware as to the reasoning behind Nina’s visit but the subject still remained a touchy one for him and so Nina and Abigail found the conversation steered in a different direction as soon as one of them mentioned Mary-Lou. It was not without guilt that Robert did this for as much as he knew that it was for Abigail’s benefit, it was something he couldn’t talk about without bringing up all the old hurt. He’d explained things to Abigail and as for now he felt as though he’d done enough. It wasn’t that he wanted to deny her the chance to know about her mother but even after thirteen years the pain of Mary-Lou walking out on him was so raw that his only way of coping was to try and push her out of his mind completely.
Nina quickly realised that Mary-Lou was a sore point in conversation as far as Robert was concerned and steered the conversation away from her. It bothered her slightly that Robert was so unwilling to open up about Mary-Lou but at the same time Nina felt awkward about tackling him over it, she didn’t feel that it was her place. She didn’t know whose place it would be to undertake such a task but she felt fairly confident that it wasn’t hers. Still, she thought to herself, it wasn’t all lost. She’d begged Abigail for the day tomorrow and she’d take her out for lunch and a good long chat. She liked Abigail, there was something appealing in her straightforward and honest approach to everything. As dinner wore on Nina realised that, even away from the influence of her mother, Abigail had most certainly inherited her mantle. Even though she hadn’t known Mary-Lou at thirteen, she’d known her at fifteen and she was sure that there couldn’t have been too much difference, only a slight maturity.
Nina Rutherford was the school’s musical genius. It was my friends who first encountered her on their train journey home for the Christmas holidays; I was stuck in the San having had my back dished after Emerence Hope’s toboggan had collided with me. They never really mentioned that first meeting, once or twice maybe in passing but the Nina I got to know was quite different from the one she had been at that point in her life. One of the first things to strike me about Nina was her confidence in her abilities as a musician, but she was never overbearing about it; for her it was perfectly natural talent and that was the image that she projected to others. It was a part of Nina, there was no need for her to boast or brag or be unbearable about it. When I first met her, her music was the be all and end all of things and during her first term at school this was almost her undoing after an unfortunate accident in gym class. Once Auntie Jo had got hold of her and explained things to her in a way that I could never dream of being able to do school life was much improved for Nina. Over the following years we got to know her as one of us, a normal schoolgirl who happened to have an extraordinary musical talent. I saw her have the occasional wobble in confidence but they were only ever momentary lapses, once she was performing Nina came alive. We drifted somewhat as we grew older, our chosen careers often meant that we were in different hemispheres and meeting up was almost an impossibility. She was, however, one of the few friends to stand by me when I walked out on Robert and Abigail; possibly she was the only one who could make any kind of attempt at understanding what I was going through. Global recognition and fame never changed Nina, she still remained the honest and enthusiastic girl I had known at school; someone I was proud to say was my friend.
Nina felt a little more able to relax the following day as she drove into York with Abigail so as they could spend the day. Abigail slumped awkwardly in the passenger seat beside Nina engaged in a fierce argument with her conscience over whether she should even be in the car. She only had a vague notion of the cost of such cars but she was more than aware as to just how far that amount would stretch in the poorer areas of the world; on top of that she knew how harmful exhaust emissions were to the environment. Still, she thought to herself with a half grin, she couldn’t really imagine the great Lady Rutherford on the bus.
Nina remained blissfully unaware of Abigail’s inner struggle with her conscience. She hardly knew the girl but there was something about her, as there had been with her mother, that drew Nina to her. A brief encounter at a funeral and a night’s strained dinner conversation were hardly ideal foundations but Nina was determined to overcome these initial problems. Even so, she thought casting a furtive glance at Abigail who appeared lost in her own thoughts, she had a primary goal for this weekend and one she intended to achieve.
After an hour’s aimless wandering around York’s shops Nina realised that shopping wasn’t really Abigail’s line and proposed a break at the next café they saw. They caused a quiet stir among the other customers. The elegant and refined looking lady turned heads as people muttered amongst themselves that they could swear that they knew who she was; then the slightly scruffy looking child beside her who clearly did not belong to the woman. Nina glided to the table ignoring the looks of the others, Abigail being more aware kept her head down and hurried past.
“Abby,” said Nina looking up from stirring her coffee after their drinks had arrived.
Abigail set the glass of milk she had been sipping down on the table a little too hard causing some to slop over the side. “Oops,” she muttered blushing furiously whilst dabbing at it with her napkin.
Nina ignored the mishap. “You do know why I’m here don’t you?”
Abigail nodded. “Course I do.”
Nina regarded Abigail for a moment. “Do you? I mean, you do?” she faltered.
Abigail shrugged. “Well I guess I do. It’s about my mum isn’t it?”
Nina let out a slow smile. “How did you know?”
“Everybody seems to be talking to me about her these days.”
“But I thought that was what you wanted.”
Abigail shrugged again. “I know what I said at the funeral; but it was different then.”
Nina tried to keep the puzzled expression off her face. “So you don’t now?”
“I don’t know.” Abigail paused and looked at Nina. “I mean, I do, obviously since I hardly know anything about her. Dad doesn’t like to talk about her, it’s too painful for him still, and I don’t want to hurt him any more than I have done by talking about the past. You know, sometimes I think it would have been better if I’d never been born.”
“I think your father might disagree.”
“Maybe. But she clearly didn’t want me,” said Abigail pointedly with clear reference to her mother. “Otherwise she would have stayed. Obviously I was a bit of a disappointment.”
Nina reached across the table and took Abigail’s hand in hers. “Now Abby you know that’s not true.”
“Don’t I? I wouldn’t know since she didn’t stick around to tell me.”
Nina sighed inwardly, this was evidently going to be more complicated than she had previously thought. “Abby, I don’t make any pretence that I understand what was going through your mother’s mind when she decided to leave you; it wasn’t something she really like to talk about. I mean, we hardly saw each other after we left school, we were usually on completely different continents for a start but I know that I was one of the few who remained in touch with her even after she had left you. I’m not sure that she herself understood why she felt she had to leave so I don’t expect you to either and I certainly can’t explain it. The only way that I was able to see it, is that there are some people who just aren’t cut out to be mothers. You know, your mother worked to hard to get where she was, she overcame so many obstacles with such determination that she didn’t want to lose what she’d managed to achieve.”
Abigail looked up. “Is that why you never had children?”
Nina nodded. “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to give them the attention and love that they deserved, it wouldn’t have been fair on them.”
“So what do you think changed my mum’s mind? Even for just that short time she was with my dad?”
“Well she was certainly in love with your father for a while but I suppose in the end she just loved her work more. It did hurt her a lot to leave you both but she was convinced it was the right decision to make.”
“I suppose then,” said Abigail slowly. “That it was better to not have her at all than have her and have her wishing she was somewhere else.”
Nina nodded. “It was her way of showing you that she loved you.”
Abigail took a long drink of her milk and then put the glass down. “Tell me what she was like at school.”
Nina glanced at her watch. “We’d best order some lunch then.”
The atmosphere was decidedly relaxed between Abigail and Nina by the time their respective meals arrived. Abigail suspiciously prodded her sandwich with her fork as Nina retold the tale of the Aladdin pantomime, which, for various reasons, had almost been an absolute disaster. Abigail’s eyes widened in horror as Nina reached the dramatic climax with the fire.
“Weren’t you terrified?” she asked in a voice filled with horror.
“Oh absolutely, but at the same time I knew that at least one of us in there had to keep our head! But given that I’d overcome all my initial fears and misgivings about conducting in the first instance it seemed that little bit easier with hindsight and perspective.”
Abigail shut her mouth sharply suddenly becoming aware that she’d been sitting there with it hanging wide open. “I don’t think I’d have had the guts to be that brave.”
“I knew that God would protect me,” said Nina simply in reply.
“Oh right,” mumbled Abigail as she played distractedly with her side salad. “I didn’t think of that. I don’t really… I mean, that’s never really been my scene. Dad, he said he stopped going to church when mum left, I think he was angry with God for letting her go.” Abigail stopped and chewed thoughtfully on a piece of carrot. “So I mean, I think I believe in God and all that but I’m not really sure since I’ve never really had the chance to do anything like that.”
“Your mother had incredibly strong faith.”
Abigail shrugged. “She wasn’t strong enough to be my mother though.” She stopped herself. “No, I don’t mean that. I think what I mean is that God’s meant to have this plan for all of us right?” Nina nodded. “And for her it obviously wasn’t to stay; or maybe it was and she turned her back on the plan for her. I mean, I really don’t know and I don’t think it’s my place to comment on things I don’t properly understand.”
Nina smiled. “But you’re trying to understand and that’s what makes you like your mother. She had this incredible gift of understanding people; she could get right under people’s skin and find out what made them tick. She was always looking for an explanation for things, just like you’re doing now. Really Abby, I couldn’t have asked for a better friend than your mother. She was so supportive and she had such faith in people; I know that I would have felt a lot worse about conducting Aladdin if it hadn’t been for her. But she was just an ordinary schoolgirl like everybody else, only she had the courage of her convictions and stood up for what she believed in. Mind you, from what the others told me I believe she was a bit of a holy terror in her younger days.”
“I don’t suppose you know much about them.”
“No, for those you really should talk to Mrs Maynard, a woman with a more flypaper like memory I have yet to meet. The things she remembers about the history of the Chalet School never cease to amaze me.”
Abigail chewed her mouthful of sandwich thoughtfully. “Did you ever read her books?” she asked.
“Of course I did, everybody did. I haven’t read them for a while though, well more than a while, years. I’ve outgrown those sort of things now; I hear she is still writing but I would have thought she was a little old fashioned for people of your age.”
Abigail nodded her face giving nothing away. “I just wondered.”
Dinner on the Saturday evening was a more relaxed affair than it had been the previous night. The bond between Nina and Abigail was apparent to Robert and he noted their caution to avoid reference to Mary-Lou. After dinner Abigail excused herself and slipped off to her room to read leaving Nina and Robert alone in the living room. Taking advantage of the more relaxed air Robert opened a bottle of wine and they sat in opposite armchairs sipping their wine and passing comment on the state of the world.
“You seem to have hit it off with Abby,” remarked Robert after a lull in conversation.
“She’s a great kid,” replied Nina. “I like her, she’s really rather like…” Nina broke off.
“Her mother,” finished Robert with a sigh. “I’ve heard that so often.”
“Well she is,” came the defensive reply. “You can’t deny her that. I know things didn’t work out the way you wanted them to but you can’t deny Abby her mother.”
Robert stood up and crossed to the window and stared blankly out of it. “I know,” he said quietly with an edge of sadness.
Nina crossed the room to join him. “It’s a nice part of the world here,” she commented vainly trying to change the topic of conversation.
“Don’t you ever get the urge to settle down in one place?”
Nina shrugged. “From time to time, but it usually passes. I wasn’t designed to settle; there’s so much world out there that I haven’t seen. And besides I’d have to give up playing then as well and giving up that would be akin to giving up life for me. It keeps me happy and it makes other people happy, as far as I’m concerned that’s all that really matters. I’ve never wanted anything else, I don’t know anything else.”
A slow realisation began to dawn on Robert. “You’re quite an amazing person, did you know that?” he asked staring thoughtfully at Nina.
“It has been said,” she said with a light laugh. “But I don’t think I am, I’m just me.”
They stood in the twilight, the two darkened shadows against the window, and stared at each other for a moment before Robert took his courage in both hands, leaned in and kissed Nina gently.
Nina was the first to pull away as though an electric shock had run through her body. Robert regarded her with a puzzled air.
“I… I don’t…” she stammered.
“Do you always do that?” he asked.
“React like that whenever anyone gets close to you.”
Nina stared, puzzled. “I… I didn’t… It just didn’t seem like a good idea…” she faltered.
“So you do then.”
“Robert please, let’s not talk about it. It wasn’t meant to happen and I’d rather just forget what happened,” she said turning her back to him.
“Why are you so scared?” he asked running his fingers lightly across her shoulders.
“I didn’t say I was. I just said I didn’t think this was a good idea. Because we’ve had a bottle of wine and besides it just doesn’t feel right, not with everything that’s happened lately. The timing’s just all wrong.” Nina was vaguely aware of the fact that she was fishing for excuses. True the wine had clouded her judgement a little and she was fighting to be rational and silenced herself.
“When are you going to stop running away Nina?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You can’t spend your whole life running away whenever anyone gets close to you and hiding behind the pretence of your work.”
“I don’t,” retorted Nina trying to stop herself from raising her voice, but then realisation slowly dawned on her. “Robert,” she said gently taking his hand. “I’m not Mary-Lou, and neither is anyone else. I’m not running away, I don’t run away and I most certainly don’t hide behind my work. I pulled away from you because I didn’t think that we were making the right move. I didn’t come here for your sake; I came here for Abigail because she has the right to know about a mother that you’re denying her. Let’s just say that we got caught up in the heat of them moment and leave it at that if only for Abigail’s sake; goodness only knows she’s been through enough of late without us complicating matters for her,” Nina paused unsure how to carry on. She’d never been too good at this sort of thing having always tended to channel her emotions into her music but, she realised, there were times when words held more sway over her and this was one of those times. “Mary-Lou never ran away from you; to leave you took all the courage that she had. I don’t condone what she did but I know how hard it was for her to do what she did; she was only doing what she thought was best. You’ve said it yourself, you can’t cage people; there are times when you have to let them spread their wings and fly. And you have to as well, but not now, not here, not with me.”
They stood a few moments each lost in their own thoughts. Nina amazed with herself for her soliloquy, Robert taking something new from words that so many others had said to him over the years. He knew, deep down, that they’d always been right but it just hadn’t been the right time for him to take notice of them; but here and now it was all so different. Maybe it was Nina’s way; maybe he’d already subconsciously reached the decision himself. Either way it was as though a great weight had been lifted from his mind and suddenly things began to seem a lot clearer.
“You’re right,” he whispered as they fell into an embrace.
It was an embrace of true friends, a comfortable embrace.
Abigail noticed a change in atmosphere the following morning and the hint of a change in her father but she didn’t question any further. She sensed that he was feeling a lot happier now than he had done for a while. She knew that Nina was involved but decided that for now it was probably a secret best kept between Nina and her father; for Abigail knowing that they were happy was enough for her to be happy. After a leisurely morning over the Sunday papers the time arrived for Nina to leave with a promise of a return and tickets for her next concert in the area. Abigail and Robert stood at the top of the drive as they waved her off, Robert with a far away look in his eyes, thinking of what might have been. Abigail turned and looked sharply at her father.
“Dad, stop drooling,” she said firmly. “It’s so embarrassing in someone of your age.”
Robert was left open mouthed at the top of the drive as Abigail turned on her heel and ran off back towards the house to find her bike. He smiled inwardly, there were times when his daughter never ceased to amaze him.
“What time are you coming back?” he asked as she passed him on her bike.
“What time’s dinner?” she asked over her shoulder as she stopped a little way past him.
“About seven okay with you?”
Abigail shrugged. “Fine. I’ll be back later,” she replied glancing at her wristwatch.
Robert watched her tear off up the road at a speed that alarmed him mildly before shaking his head and turning round to head back indoors to finish reading the papers.