There had not been a hotter day that year. The sun shone vehemently, keen on making up for the colder days we had endured up until a week before. It had been a strange shift, like the seasons had woken up from their slumber, hastily jostling each other out of the way. Spring tried to slip a few days in, a pathetic attempt; it was engulfed by a hot, bothered and irritable Summer, bent on making everyone else feel the same. Or so it felt, to me at least, as my mind roamed. I shaded my eyes and squinted through the gaps in my fingers. It was not yet noon and sweat trickled down my back. If only I could remove this stupid bonnet and this stupid hat and this abominable corset. I closed my eyes and sighed deeply, resumed fanning myself (for all the good it did) and feigning interest in whatever Louise was talking about.
“Then the vicar said, you of little faith! And he stepped out just as Anne decided at that precise moment to empty her bucket. Little faith indeed!” The girls tittered behind their fans, imagining Vicar Ludlow with his wide brimmed hat and Anne helplessly wiping the muck from his face with her apron. I looked away, too frustrated to find what would have been comic on any other day as remotely funny. I sat and stewed, watching the boys run in linen shorts and light white shirts, swinging their clubs confidently. Their hair wind-swept, their cheeks flushed, their shouts loud and masculine and strong. How I envied their freedom, their rough play, the way they were able to scurry like petals in the wind while we… while we sat rooted, withering slowly but surely as time mocked our misspent youth.
“Ema!” I turned sharply. Louise had been calling me for some time, judging by her red face, her flared nostrils. She reminded me of a pig when she was angry. She leaned back like one insulted. “I was asking you whether Lord Alfred has paid you a visit yet,” she intoned sweetly. The kind of sweetness rotting apples gave off. I had told her a while ago, that he hadn’t. She simply wanted everyone else to know that Lord Alfred Warrington from London had paid all of them a visit, except me. Everyone looked at me expectantly. Jane whose blonde curls looked immaculate despite the heat gave me an apologetic smile. Selma, whose puppy was better groomed than me barked and slobbered all over her mistress’ dress. Georgina, Louise’s own cousin was giggling to herself.
“Come now Georgina,” Louise elbowed her cousin playfully. “Maybe Lord Alfred simply didn’t make time.”
I looked down at my hands. They were full of ink stains, as was the hem of my sleeve. My hair must be bristling at the edges. I had only joined this party because my brother happened to be good friends with Louise’s. Frankly, I did not give a damn about Lord Alfred, Archibald or Edward. I would have given anything to be anywhere else, with my books and my pens and I was angry, constantly angry at doing what everyone thought I should be doing, rather than what I wanted to do. I stood up.
“Lord Alfred left this morning, didn’t you know?” I said looking at Louise squarely. Her mouth dropped open just a fraction. “He said, and I quote, I’ve wasted enough time with these country girls. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to follow in his footsteps.” I turned and walked away.
“Well then,” I heard Jane say. “That explains everything, doesn’t it?”
I walked alone through woods bathed in light. Under the canopy of leaves, the heat was less stifling. Dust swirled in the beams of light, particles in an endless dance. I walked, unpinning my hat, running my hands through my hair, pulling out all the pins until it cascaded, a little copper stream. I could still hear the boys’ raucous laughter but the crunching of the leaves beneath my feet was slowly getting the louder of the two. I didn’t have an aim, and I didn’t know these woods too well but they seemed kindly to me, welcoming. For the first time that day, I felt like myself. I touched my face, laughed out loud. I ran. I jumped. I pirouetted (badly) and swung around the bark of a tree, holding it at arm’s length, turning and turning, until the dark leaves and the blue sky blurred into a single oil painting, its colours running off the canvas. I closed my eyes. And just as unexpectedly, I felt a lump form in my throat. But no. I shall not cry. Instead, I stopped and fell back, arms outstretched on either side, on a pile of dead leaves.
“What is this life?” I whispered aloud. Nothing answered, just the creaking of the branches as they relayed the message back and forth. What is this life this life this life. And then silence, total and unmistakeable. The kind you only feel at the back of your neck, when you know someone is watching you. I opened my eyes.