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Having started thinking about Julian, Rhyll had found it difficult to put him from her mind again, and half-term provided insufficient distraction. She began to write letters, rarely getting beyond the first line before crushing the paper in an impatient fist and resolving not to try again. She lurked at the edge of all the digging, working with them for a time and then brusquely making her excuses to disappear elsewhere, shrugging off the good-humoured requests to stay where the real action was as easily as she batted away their gratitude. Professionally, she had resolved it was much the same principle as she had used in explaining the apples to Peggy: it did well for her to retain an interest in the events concerning the School and especially concerning the grounds thereof, without fully giving herself over to the job. Personally, she was enjoying the small doses of companionship. And privately, she was alternately grateful for the distraction and overwhelmed by the synchronicity: the physical digging-up of Michael Christy's family history alongside the uncomfortable mental unearthing of her own.

Rosalie and Matey had cheerfully insisted on her joining them for at least one meal each day of the half-term, Matron sternly remarking that this way they could at least all three be assured of one proper break from work and a healthy meal at a sensible hour each day. It suited Rhyll well to be thus held, kept anchored to the real world by the requirement to make polite conversation for half an hour with her colleagues. It also, she noted with satisfaction, helped disguise the meals she had not really had to stay for over the preceding half-term but had anyway, for the sake of a few minutes longer with Peggy. Matey, Rhyll found to her great delight, was gloriously uninterested in the secrets of Christy's unstoppered well and would only speak on the matter in harrumphing annoyance at the sheer inconvenience it caused, and the potential illnesses befalling girls who leapt around in swamp-mud. These mealtimes accordingly became a real break for Rhyll, and she wondered if in fact Matey had orchestrated this ban on shop-talk deliberately; for all Rhyll prided herself on being rather unreadable, she knew full well that very little in the School ever escaped Matron's notice.

Yet during the other hours of the day - the many hours during which she was not helping the men in their digging, nor making small talk with her two colleagues inside – Rhyll was revisiting memories she knew Matey couldn't have guessed at, for the only other person who shared them was likely thousands of miles away, somewhere far out in that wide grey expanse of sea. Chief engineer, her mother had murmured proudly the last time she had visited, scrutinising Rhyll's neutral nod of acknowledgement in the obvious hope of something more indicative - some comment, or question, that might explain why her two youngest children who had once been so close now appeared to no longer speak at all.

It was all or nothing, with Julian, and that was the problem. Coming eight years after the second son - fully ten after the first - he had been blessed with parents who had great reserves of experience to draw on, without the thinly-spread attentions of those with numerous other babes under their feet at the same time. Academically gifted, strikingly good-looking and with a gentleness of nature so marked it drew frequent comment from those who met him, it became evident at an early age how richly he had repaid them this privilege of circumstances. It might be easy to resent such a sibling, Rhyll knew, and yet Julian's truly remarkable kindness made such resentment impossible. He had been a boon and a blessing to her as much as he had to his parents; had advocated fiercely for her when her desire to read pure science for her BSc was met with doubtful faces, had sat patiently with her night after night trying to help her make sense of numbers and letters which had a baffling tendency to swirl together before her eyes; and above all, had always recognised her own capabilities, had maintained that his only assistance was in translating what she understood most thoroughly into someone else's imperfect shorthand - even when she herself had struggled to believe it.

Julian was guileless, in the way that the spectacularly gifted or fortunate so often can be. His support for his younger sister, explicitly and implicitly given, had none of the strategy Rhyll would have conceptualised herself - it was never that he consciously chose to exercise his superior powers of persuasion in her interests, or wished specifically to share the fruits of his relatively better-rewarded skills with his closest ally: rather, being so unaccustomed to disappointment himself, he simply believed she - and anyone else - had a basic right to do the things she most wanted to do. Rhyll didn't regard it as any misfortune to have been the disappointing child: at long last, after three sons, a daughter - a daughter who failed completely to be the sweet and gentle little girl her mother had yearned for through thirteen years of only boys. Having thus disabused her mother's dreams in mere infancy, she had been spared the pedestal and the eventual fall from grace; had learned early on to manage her own expectations, to keep back what was most precious - and had simply accepted this as pragmatic fact too early in life to perceive it as something to be hurt by. Even now, after time enough to be critical, she still tended to prize this pragmatism: after her BSc and her time at Swanley, she had not returned home other than for the briefest of visits and in so doing had managed to retain a relationship with her parents which was entirely cordial and disappointed no-one. Dutiful enough to visit at regular intervals, considerate enough to maintain a geographic distance which minimised the likelihood of any hint of scandal, and circumspect enough to recognise the freedom this accorded her, Rhyll had attained a peaceable satisfaction with family matters.

Not so for Julian! That early taste of acceptance and adoration had set him up poorly, had left him with a persistent desire for continuing closeness - and that very lack of guile, that gut-conceived feeling that there was honour in truthfulness had proved to be the spanner in the works. With their two eldest boys settled in New Zealand with their own families and unlikely to return, and whatever conclusions had been drawn from the mutual silence Rhyll and her parents maintained on certain matters, the hope that Julian would provide them at last with their 'real' - or rather, nearby - grandchildren had been palpable. Oh, he hadn't been quite foolish enough to actually spell it out to them, although on more than one occasion Rhyll had read the signs, spied him on the brink of doing so; but the secrecy, the insuperable distance opening up between himself and his family, the gnawing guilt had all robbed Julian of some kind of innocence which had hitherto been undisturbed. He wanted to tell them there would never be a daughter-in-law, much less any grandchildren, and he wanted to know from them that it would be fine; but he knew he could not tell them, that it would not be fine, and Rhyll had watched, powerless, as this disconcerting knowledge tore him apart inside.

What might have made for common ground between the two had become something powerfully divisive: Rhyll, sympathetic but characteristically blunt, had counselled a tactful evasion; Julian, angry and smarting from his first real threat of rejection, had retorted that her own long-standing appropriation of 'evasion' had so thoroughly redefined it that any such attempts on his part would be immediately tainted by that particular association - that he could not possibly exercise the luxury of simply avoiding any definite confirmation or denial, for Rhyll's own noncommittal stance had so firmly shaded that silence as a wordless confirmation. Rhyll, irritably prioritising justice over compassion in a rash moment she had since much regretted, had pointed out that it was scarcely her place to confess all sins, cutting herself off completely and upsetting everyone else into the bargain purely to cast a more convincing shadow over his own furtive secrets. These conversations - conducted and revisited over a period of some months, many years ago now - had grown ever more bitter and resentful, and eventually they had stopped speaking altogether; and Julian had gone off again, escaping his problems in some frigate engine room, the third son all but leaving the country too. Rhyll lacked certain knowledge of such matters, but she strongly suspected that a chief engineer could surely find an appropriate dry-land job in a shipyard somewhere, if he so desired - that this continual absence at sea was nothing more than a desire to run away and hide; she might know very little about the employment opportunities of a naval engineer, but she knew her brother better than anyone.

Raking up for a bonfire and watching Michael Christy stood knee-deep in running water, excitedly chattering about his long-gone relations and their pirate boats and their hidden smuggled goods, Rhyll was powerfully, painfully reminded of her own long-gone history, of her beloved brother standing knee-deep in the little brook proudly clutching a newspaper boat, of his sad and lonely secrets stowed somewhere among the steam turbines or wherever it was that he spent his time these days - and for the first time, she began to appreciate the true extent of her loss.

 




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