Rhyll paused for a moment, mopping her brow on her sleeve and gazing out towards the rippling grey sea. Water, always water, the constant theme of this term: water when the rain had been torrential, and water when the sun had shone hot and long and they had almost wondered if it would ever rain again; water in the old well beneath the roses into which Peggy had not so long ago leapt with all her usual untrammelled vigour, and water in the Hollow where the prefects had so dramatically discovered it; and all the time, in the distance, the constant rippling of the sea. Somewhere between all this water, and seeing Peggy and Mary together over the weekend, Rhyll's thoughts crept towards Julian, for the first time in a long time.
It was the thing Rhyll liked best about the island, being near the sea again. She could hear it from her bedroom at night just as she had as a little girl, crashing insistently against the rocks, and the familiarity both soothed and thrilled her. The sheer expanse of it, through space and time, diminished everything else in a rather pleasing fashion. What else could really matter, that it couldn't be washed away by morning? Rhyll tore her eyes away and reached for another apple, plucking it effortlessly from the branch and slipping it into her basket. And another, and another. Tentatively warming to her subject, she unspooled a reel of sepia-tinted film in her mind, recalling a childhood spent largely out of doors, unwatched and unimpeded: Julian knee-deep in the stream experimenting with boats of all varieties - first origami, then painstakingly-designed contraptions fashioned from wood offcuts filched from the joiner's yard, then at last a much-prized motorised ocean liner in red tin - whilst Rhyll herself performed a most exacting inspection of all nearby plant life, drawing careful diagrams in her precious notebook, scrupulous records of what grew where - and when - even whether it could be persuaded to perform otherwise. Later on, sitting at the table after the evening meal, she would pester Julian into helping annotate these meticulous sketches, and he would express dismay at the number of fruitless experiments she had conducted.
"But doesn't it make you feel very disappointed?" He would ask, writing easily in the space Rhyll had indicated, his mind clearly on any one of the proto-boats which had veered wildly off-course, tipped perilously to one side or other, or - most disappointingly of all - sunk steadily into the mud.
Rhyll would shrug, untroubled. "I didn't make them, did I? I just wanted to see what would happen."
"And now you know," he would remark with a fond grin, gently pushing the worn notebook back across the table with a reverent kindness which warmed Rhyll's soul, told her that at least one person in the whole world realised how much it mattered to her.
"Penny for them?"
Rhyll looked down from the ladder with a start. "Oh, hello you."
Peggy was looking up at her with dancing brown eyes. "You were miles away. You looked a bit gormless, really, but it was a happy sort of gormless." Rhyll pulled a face of mock outrage, but Peggy pressed swiftly on. "Isn't the harvest more or less over already?"
Rhyll shrugged amiably. "More or less doesn't make a season, does it? All done within the week now, I imagine."
"And isn't it a bit - well - below you, in a way?"
Rhyll laughed. "Well, yes and no. It does well to retain bit of an interest in everything, and it's a good opportunity to keep an eye on the general health of the trees. But also, it's rather a nice way to spend an occasional afternoon." As she spoke, she wrapped her palm around another swollen fruit and, with a deft flick of her wrist, liberated it from the branch, placed it swiftly and gently in the basket. Another. Another.
Peggy, watching, murmured reminiscently: "I remember picking apples in the summertime..."
Rhyll snorted, but it was a friendly snort and her eyes still smiled. "Child's play, no doubt. How many would you pick, maybe twenty? At a push? Do you have any idea how many we get down on an average day?"
Peggy grinned. "All day? Doesn't it get a bit boring?"
"Not when you've the pleasure of good company. Here, catch." She dropped an apple, smooth and shining and vibrantly red; watched as it land neatly in Peggy's waiting hands; and was rewarded with that glorious smile, broad and uninhibited.
Not a good idea, Rhyll reminded herself, and returned her focus to her work. Reach, hold, twist, basket. Reach, hold, twist - A brief scrabbling below and then Peggy was perched on the lowest branch, the apple held perilously between her teeth. She took it out and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, guileless, then stood up again to continue her ascent. A minute later she had drawn level with Rhyll and settled herself astride a sturdy branch, reclining comfortably against the trunk as she ate with undisguised enjoyment.
"So what was all that about Jennifer Penrose?" She demanded, cocking her head to one side questioningly.
Rhyll laughed. "Oh, it can't be good form to rake up past misdeeds, can it? It was scarcely remarkable, really: she just decided that her 'free' time ought not be encroached upon by gardening - I must say I'm not without sympathy on that point but then I never was a boarder, and in any case the garden won't tend itself; the unfortunate aspect was that she chose to spend the time reading Gone With The Wind instead."
Peggy giggled. "Well, it's hardly edifying reading for a young lady, but it's not as dangerous as it might have been, surely."
"You ought to take that opinion to the Head, you know. I'm sure she'll be grateful, for the insight into your own reading matter if nothing else!" Rhyll teased.
"Don't you be slandering my own reading. I don't think I've even read our Miss Penrose's tome, I just - what I do know of it has never struck me as particularly awful. I mean, it's hardly Lady Chatterley, is it?"
Rhyll surveyed Peggy for a moment, gratified by this evidence of a breadth of understanding beyond the cloistered world of the School and momentarily - foolishly! - emboldened by it. "'You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how'." She quoted softly, simultaneously regretting her impetuousness and rejoicing at the faint pink rising in Peggy's cheeks. "It's not quite the thing for schoolgirls, though I agree it is a rather mild literary rebellion, all things considered."
"You've read Gone With The Wind?" Peggy demanded, having rapidly regained her composure.
"Oh dear, no," Rhyll laughed. "Well, only a quick glance at the confiscated copy to see what was so much more interesting than dead-heading pansies. Lady Chatterley, on the other hand, I have read - though I somehow didn't feel up for a detailed comparison in the staff-room..."
"A valuable missed opportunity," Peggy sympathised drily. "Am I stopping your work, by the way, Evvy? I'll clear off if I am - sorry, I'd meant to ask that much sooner."
Rhyll shook her head. "Like I said, it's all the better for the company. I'm nearly done here, though."
"All right then. Plans for half-term?"
Rhyll shook her head again. "I'll just stay around here. I know Christy's planning on digging up near enough half the grounds - or rather, standing around importantly instructing other people to dig - so I might keep a little watch on that, see what they turn up; and otherwise pick fruit while the sun shines. Or if you really want tedious accuracy, it's a good opportunity to get on top of the tidying and the start of heavy winter pruning, and all the more so if Christy's decided Griffiths ought to be digging up underground streams instead of getting on with any of it." She grimaced slightly. "And you? You're off to Aberdeen, aren't you?"
Peggy nodded with a smile. "I am. It should be nice - when I went up last time they'd only just moved in and weren't properly unpacked yet, never mind any sort of decorating, so it'll be interesting to see how they're set up now that's all done. And I'd like to see the local area a bit more too, now that Mary knows it so much better."
"I'm sure you'll have a wonderful time," Rhyll agreed, surveying the tree once more. "I'm done here, I think. Do you want a hand down?"
Peggy raised an amused eyebrow and, by way of answer, set the half-eaten apple back in her mouth and slithered down gracefully, standing rather smugly at the base of the ladder as Rhyll descended.
"Your ankle's healed up all right, then," Rhyll observed cheerfully. "In that case, you might make yourself useful with the crate." As she spoke, she carefully emptied the apple-basket into the wooden crate on the ground; and, with the heavy load swinging between them, they strolled side-by-side, back through the orchard towards the shrubbery and the Big House beyond.
Author's Chapter Notes:
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