"What are you doing up before me?"
Rhyll didn't need to turn around and see Peggy's smile to recognise the good humour of her feigned petulance. "Making a picnic. Not breakfast yet I'm afraid - that was waiting 'til you stirred your stumps."
As she spoke, she cast an inadvertent glance at the oats soaking in the pan on the stove, and Peggy danced lightly across the kitchen, giving them an inspectorial prod with the wooden spoon before nodding approval and lighting the gas. This task accomplished, she returned inquiring eyes to Rhyll. "You have plans, don't you, darling one?"
"You needn't sound so suspicious," Rhyll complained with a twinkle as she wrapped the sandwiches in brown paper and set them to one side.
Peggy shrugged and filled the kettle. Setting it on the stove beside the pan of porridge, she glided across the stone floor to stand behind Rhyll. Small hands clasped Rhyll's waist as Peggy reached up to kiss the nape of her neck. "Tell me!"
Rhyll laughed, and wondered if life could ever be better than this, barefoot in the big kitchen with the sea and sunshine on one side and her lover on the other. "I thought we could take a boat out, row over to one of the other islands for the day. Would you like to? I've never been to any of them."
"I'd love to."
Rhyll had arranged the loan of the boat almost as soon as she had nonchalantly agreed to stay another month at her rooms in St Briavel's. The length of her stay had been raised by Mrs Morgan, who had gone to spend a week with her sister near Cardiff and suggested Rhyll see out the full length of July, rather than leaving midway through as she herself had initially proposed.
"I should feel happier going, knowing you're still about the place," she had acknowledged gruffly, and Rhyll had nodded, deadpan, not a muscle of her face betraying how she herself felt about this 'favour'. Instantly she had known the possibilities offered by a whole week alone; had turned over several months’ worth of holiday plans in her mind as the older woman spoke; had offered a slow and indifferent agreement even as her heart thumped with excitement.
The man she had wanted was Thomas, from the next street: “the younger Mr Thomas”, as Mrs Morgan always described him, but in all her time on the island Rhyll had never come across the older man whose existence was implied by the identifier. A father, a brother? Rhyll did not ask, but idly turned it over in her head as she took herself off to see him that same morning, skated as close to the truth of her own business as possible: she was unexpectedly holidaying in the village before leaving for good, and might she borrow the skiff for a day, to finally get around to exploring the surroundings she had so foolishly taken for granted all these years? She used fewer words than these, knowing such effusion would ring false, but the sentiment was there and she meant it. Flattery had scored her the deal: he had sized her up, evidently decided her rowing did not require questioning, and agreed the date. He would not accept the payment she offered and, careful not to offend, she did not attend to persuade him.
"Do you know anything about any of the islands?" Peggy asked, trailing her fingers in the glittering water as she spoke.
Rhyll shook her head. "Nothing at all. It'll be a voyage into undiscovered lands - unless you know anything you've neglected to mention?"
"Not a sausage!" Peggy threw back cheerfully. "Oh, Rhyll, this is nice, isn't it? Thank you."
Rhyll smiled, somewhat vacantly: she could find no words to shrug the thanks off as unnecessary, to say that the planning had been a joy in itself; that Peggy's undisguised pleasure was more than thanks enough.
Rhyll rowed and they talked, the conversation moving between the teasing humour that had always characterised their relationship and more serious matters: she listened as Peggy spoke about the two brothers Rhyll might never meet and her time at Bedford, and in turn she told Peggy about her own brothers, their families, the lives she had lived before joining the school. Talking with Peggy was always easy, no matter the subject: there was a steadfast something in the brown eyes which told her beyond any doubt that she was understood, and she was accepted; there was a comfort to their shared humour that felt safe – and more than safe, nurturing: a place where something delicate and precious could take root and thrive.
“Hi – we’re almost ashore!” Peggy exclaimed in delight, scrambling to her feet with a suddenness that caused the boat to tip precariously to one side. Sweeping her skirt up with one hand, she clambered lightly out into the sea. “Lovely sand!” she offered, standing thigh-deep with one hand on the boat and looking doubtfully at Rhyll’s trousers. “Do you want to go in a bit further before getting out? Height advantage notwithstanding, I’m not sure you’ll be able to roll those up sufficiently to keep them dry at this depth. I must say,” she added with a grin, “it’s rather refreshing to think of a dress as being the most liberating of outfits. I remember terribly envying my brothers at times, when I was small – but maybe they returned the favour from time to time?”
“They would have had shorts, surely,” Rhyll objected, making a decision and unclipping her braces. “But yes, I suppose you do combine elegance and practicality in an unexpected way, standing in the sea with your dress tucked into your knickers...”
“Cheek! I like that, from someone about to remove her trousers altogether.” Peggy’s indignance bubbled with laughter. “Not that there’s anyone here to see, anyway. And it is a beach, after all.”
Rhyll grinned. “You almost sound as if you didn’t know that I meant it, about elegance and practicality, but I did. You always are.”
Peggy raised her eyebrows. “And always unexpectedly?”
“Well. Often, at least.” Rhyll teased, climbing from the wooden boat with a little more caution than Peggy had. “Egads! It’s cold. I shall want to spend the next hour wrapped in a blanket, once we’ve got this thing ashore. You’re quite right about the sand, though, that’s a bonus – we’ll be done in no time.” She took the rope Peggy handed to her, and together they guided the small boat through the water.
The beach was a small one, bookended by cliffs at each end. This had the welcome effect of sheltering them from the winds and rather trapping the sun’s warmth. One might easily have been forgiven for thinking they were somewhere far nearer the equator than the Welsh coast, Rhyll mused, snorting at her desire for a blanket only minutes earlier. “Damned lucky find, this,” she remarked to Peggy as they tugged the boat up onto the golden sand.
Peggy followed her gaze to the jagged rock framing their cove. “Did you mean in terms of the absolute privacy, the highly temperate miniature climate, or our excellent combination of luck and skill in performing such a painless landing when there must be an awful lot of rock not fifty yards in either direction?” She asked, with a sparkling smile and scant regard for grammar. “Actually, it makes no difference. Of course we’re lucky, we always are. And of course we deserve it, we always do. Do you think we’ve brought her up high enough? I think that’ll more than do the job – and now, what’s this about a picnic?”
"We'd better get going, I suppose," Peggy commented, slipping her watch back into the pocket of her discarded jacket. "I don't know when you've got to get this boat back to your fisherman friend in the village, and quite apart from that I don't imagine it would be too much fun to land ourselves stuck out here for the night."
This last thought was accompanied by no small trace of wistfulness, and Rhyll chuckled and slipped a sympathetic arm around her shoulders. "Probably not as much fun as I'd picture it! You're right about the boat, though. I said I'd have it back there before eight tonight."
Peggy nodded, still slightly forlorn. "I wish we hadn't to go back," she choked out. "It's only one more day, and then the magic's over, isn't it? October seems so very far away, somehow."
Rhyll nodded, recognising both sentiments. The gap between this dream-like idyll, this first outside place where nobody could see them, and the reality of the next term, was stark. If only any of it could be as simple as just staying here forever. She drew Peggy closer to her, thankful afresh for their isolation.
"Don't talk about it," she counselled firmly. "Not today. This is our holiday."
With a finger in wet sand, she traced out both their names in huge capital letters, running the tail of Peggy’s Y straight down into the upright line of her own R. “Because there’s nothing we might take for a souvenir of the beach,” she explained, “I think we ought to leave the beach a souvenir of us.”
By way of an answer, Peggy dipped her own hand into her pocket, and with shyly brought forth a grey-brown shell, whole and delicately whorled, a few grains of sand still clinging to the rim of its pinkish underside. Rhyll inspected it, with great interest in it as an unfamiliar species and as something Peggy had acquired so privately.
“My souvenir,” she said softly. “For my room at the new school. I think it’s the same colour as your eyes.”