In a spirit of ‘all’s well that ends well’, I present this alternative view of the beginning of the Summer section.
Peter opened his eyes. Sunlight, creeping down the hall and through his open door. He reached out a hand for the clock on his bedside table, and connected instead with something soft. It was a crumpled polo shirt. Ah, yes. He had not undressed neatly. What had he slept in? Pants. Logical enough.
He drew the polo shirt towards him, sending a glass of water tumbling to the floor. Peter cursed. It spilt but did not break. Leaving it to soak into the carpet for the moment, he shook the shirt experimentally; the clock rolled out. He squinted at it. Eight fifteen. Ridiculous. By rights, he should sleep for another three hours and wake with one hell of a hangover. Not that he was complaining about that last one. Fine. He would go back to sleep. He rolled over and hugged the pillow to him.
But he was feeling remarkably alert, and the awareness of that spilt water tugged at him until he got up and put a towel down over the puddle. Then, of course, the glass had to go back to the kitchen. He shrugged his dressing gown on and went upstairs.
Colette was in the kitchen, drinking her horrible weak tea. She raised her mug to him in salute. ‘How was the Theology binge?’
‘Good, thanks, yes,’ Peter said. ‘How are you?’
She twisted her mouth into a nervous grimace. ‘It’s results day.’
‘For you, maybe.’ He smiled, thinking of his solid 2:1. ‘Are you going up to campus soon, then?’
‘When I’ve had some breakfast.’
‘Do you mind if I come up with you?’ he asked on impulse. ‘I could do with a walk and a look at the Grand Union Stores, before I leave this place forever.’
She regarded him for a fraction of a second too long. He stopped a sigh. Would she ever trust him? But she said, ‘Of course; why not?’
Why not indeed? Peter said: ‘OK, I’ll go and get dressed.’
They went to the Chemistry floor of the Science block first. Peter had never been further inside than the foyer in all his three years at Stancester; today the great glazed atrium was like a greenhouse. Colette led him across the hall, up a flight of stairs, over a bridge and along a corridor. At last she came to a halt opposite a small gaggle of excited first-years. ‘Here.’
She slid past the group and scanned a list headed ‘SECOND YEAR’. Peter also looked, but could make nothing of it: the marks were listed next to the students’ identity numbers, with no names mentioned.
‘Ah,’ Colette said grimly.
Peter followed her finger with his eyes. ‘Fifty-one. That’s OK; it’s a 2:2.’ He knew his voice lacked conviction.
‘Could do better,’ Colette said.
It was true; they both knew it. Peter said, ‘You’ve had a hell of a year.’
She nodded. She was on the verge of tears. The first years moved off, chattering happily; presumably they had all attained the forty per cent mark necessary to progress. In second year marks counted.
She was looking at the board more closely. ‘I didn’t actually fail,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure that it was possible to fail the whole year on one set of exams. I just didn’t do as well as I should have done.’
He had hoped never to see her look so bleak again. Her head was tipped forward; her shoulders drooped. She was wilting in the heat and disappointment. He risked putting a hand on her shoulder. She sagged under the weight of it.
‘Do you want to go home?’ he asked. ‘Or to the pub, or something?’
She shook her head. ‘Even the Venue won’t be open yet. And I can’t go home.’
‘Why on earth not?’
‘It’s kicking-out day for halls. Which means it’s moving-in day for Lydia. Her parents are coming down to drive all the stuff over to our place from Wycombe, and then take her home. I can’t be there when they arrive. We agreed on that last -‘ She sniffed and let the sentence trail off.
‘They surely won’t be here this early?’
‘I suppose not.’
‘Would it be worth giving her a ring, to see if they are? And, if not, you could go over to Wycombe now and say goodbye before they get here.’ Inspiration struck. ‘And then -‘
‘We could go to the beach.’
Colette’s mood lifted as the train drew out of Stancester and pelted south and west into Devon. She felt happier still when they left the express at Exeter. A soft breeze floated through the station as they waited for the branch line train that would take them down along the Exe estuary to the coast. Perhaps, Colette thought as she wandered up and down the platform, she had just needed to get out of Stancester, away from the expectations and the pressure and the dead heat.
The Exmouth train was short, only two carriages, and warm and lazy. She leaned her head against the window and closed her eyes for a moment or two, trying to fix Lydia’s image in her mind, those dark eyes concerned and loving and anxious; that tawny hair dishevelled in the bustle of last-minute packing, with a cobweb caught in it from goodness knew where. She tried not to think about how Lydia had jumped at every footstep in the corridor, every little whistle or chirrup from her mobile phone, tried to remember instead the exact sensation of having her in her arms. She sighed, noiselessly. Eight weeks!
Sitting up and opening her eyes, she looked sideways at Peter, who was frowning at the Church Times crossword. He looked up at her and smiled. ‘How are you doing?’
‘Better, thanks. I don’t deal with heat so well.’
He nodded. ‘Sea breezes, that’s the answer. We’ll have a nice day at the beach.’
They did. They ate ice creams; they bought buckets and spades and built sandcastles. Wandering down to the water line, Colette picked up her skirt and paddled, the water swirling cool around her ankles. She gazed out to sea for some time, then glanced back up the beach to see where Peter was. He had stretched out on the sand and was dozing.
‘Peter,’ she said, when she had trudged back up the beach and sat down beside him.
He removed the newspaper from his face and blinked up at her. ‘Yes?’
‘Are we friends?’
‘Of course we are. Didn’t I let you stand me an ice cream?’
‘So you did. Clotted cream and all.’
‘Clotted cream and a little plastic spoon to eat it with. That’s proof enough of my devotion, I should say.’
Colette laughed. ‘It wasn’t your devotion I was questioning. It was whether you still liked me the way I like you, even though I don’t like you the way you like me in the other way.’
‘Mrmph,’ Peter agreed. ‘Well, obviously. If it was just the other way, I wouldn’t have let you get the ice creams. I’d have insisted on buying them myself.’
‘Actually I think I might be over you. I did throw the spoon away, after all.’
‘Really?’ This was encouraging.
He sighed. ‘Not really, I’m afraid. At least, I did chuck the spoon, but I’m not over you. I’m sorry. I know it’s awkward.’
‘I’m sorry, too.’
‘That’s all right. You can’t help it. Nor can I. We just live with it, don’t we?’
‘We do.’ She wiggled her feet in the sand, enjoying the dry powdery warmth between her toes.
‘In fact, we only live with each other for another week, so I wouldn’t worry. It’s much easier these days, anyway, now you’ve got Lydia.’
‘Oh. Good,’ she said, feeling warmth spread through her at the sound of Lydia’s name.
‘Well, obviously it’s a lot easier for you. I just keep going as I was before, but you’re happy, and that’s a bonus.’
She shook her head. ‘You’re such a gentleman.’
‘I know.’ He smiled and shut his eyes again.
‘Once upon a time,’ she said, idly, ‘there was a knight who wished to marry a beautiful princess. Her father told him, fine, you can marry her, but first you have to complete seven impossible tasks. No problem, he said. Bring it on. OK, said the king. The first impossible task is this: go away and never come back.’
‘Exactly,’ Peter said. ‘At least, that was the way you were playing it.’
‘Well, yes.’ She picked up a discarded lolly stick and doodled in the sand with it. ‘I didn’t expect the princess to take matters into her own hands and come after me. And in the mirror version you play it straight. Metaphorically speaking.’
‘Quite. I’m here. In body, at least. Not so much in mind.’ He yawned.
Tentative: ‘Like I was, back in March?’
‘I didn’t want to bring that up,’ he said.
‘Nor did I, particularly. But I want to apologise.’
‘Fair enough.’ He sat up and extended a hand to her. ‘Shake?’
She took it. ‘Of course. Friends?’
‘Good.’ She smiled. ‘Sorry – well, sorry it’s been so awful.’
He glowered. ‘Stop apologising.’
‘OK, then. Thank you for today – this was a really good idea.’
‘Wasn’t it?’ he agreed happily.
‘Took my mind off things. Except for how I’m talking about them to you now, of course.’
Peter stretched his arms high, bracing his back against the seawall. ‘Ah, yes, that’s the other thing, isn’t it? The princess actually does have a real father.’
‘Yup. And I’m not even asking him for her hand. I’m a wuss.’
Peter looked at her severely. ‘I thought you were doing this voluntary exile thing for her? So that her family wouldn’t catch on and give her hell this summer?’
‘Yes, that was the idea. But I still feel like a wuss.’
‘You’ll just have to swallow your pride and be a wuss, in that case. You can be chivalrous and sneaky at the same time. It’s practically the definition of courtly love.’
She laughed. ‘I suppose so.’
They bought fish and chips and ate them on the station platform, waiting for the train back to Exeter. Colette fell asleep on the express, only waking when Peter shook her shoulder, gently, as it drew into Stancester.
‘Ouch,’ she said.
‘Yup.’ She craned her neck, trying to see how pink her back had gone. ‘Oh, well. I’ve got some after-sun stuff, at home.’
‘Safe to go back now, you think?’
‘Should be. She’ll be half-way back to Hastings, by now.’
‘OK,’ Peter said, thoughtfully. ‘OK.’
A neat stack of boxes and bags in the corner of the sitting room betrayed Lydia’s recent presence in the house. There was no rational reason to go into the sitting room, so Colette, feeling Peter’s sad, understanding, eyes on her, proceeded straight up the stairs. He followed her as far as the kitchen; she went on up to her room.
She chucked her sandals under the bed and her bag on the desk. It left a little trail of sand behind. She winced as she stretched her arms, and felt the sunburn on her shoulders. There was still sand between her toes; she sat down on the edge of the bed and wriggled them to try to dislodge it.
‘Colette!’ Peter called from downstairs. ‘Tea? Cake?’
‘Tea, yes please; cake, no thanks,’ she called back. How Peter could even think about eating after such vast quantities of fish and chips… She sighed. Odd how the minor discomforts combined to make contentment. Her results seemed less disastrous now. Summer retakes; that wouldn’t be so bad. And Lydia… Lydia had left Stancester, and was probably back in Sussex; they wouldn’t see each other for nearly two months now, but after that… She thought of Lydia’s things, boxes piled up in the sitting room, to be moved into Olly’s room in September. Not Olly’s room, at least, not for much longer. Lydia’s room, soon: the room next door. Would it be weird to go downstairs to look at the boxes, count them, perhaps, to let herself think that Lydia had been standing there only a couple of hours ago?
Just as she was reluctantly deciding that it would, Peter appeared. ‘Tea oop, love,’ he announced, in a woeful parody of Becky’s accent. ‘Hey, hey, what’s up?’
‘Something in my eye… sand, maybe,’ she lied. ‘Sorry.’ She grabbed her pyjama top and wiped her eyes on it. A folded piece of paper fluttered to the floor.
Peter handed it to her. ‘Something of yours?’
Lydia’s cramped, tangled writing. Colette pounced on it. ‘Oh! She’s left me a letter.’
Peter turned around and tactfully began to eat his cake while Colette read the note.
Writing this very quickly – Mum and Dad think I’ve gone back to get something from my book box. Just wanted to say 3 things:
1. I love you.
2. Thank you for going out today. I feel awful for kicking you out of your own house, but you were right: they’d have known straight away if they’d seen the 2 of us together.
2a. I love you.
3. I’ve nicked your pink cardigan. I hope you don’t mind – I had to have something to prove you still existed. Let me know if you need it and I’ll post it back.
Goodbye, my darling. I’ll phone you whenever I can. September seems so far off!
All my love – Lydia xxxx
Reaching the end of the note, Colette threw herself face down on the bed and howled. Peter patted her ineffectually on the shoulder. ‘Is it – all right?’ he asked. ‘Either way, there’s tea here.’
‘Oh, yes,’ she gulped. ‘It’s as all right as it can be.’ She sat up, blew her nose, and reached for the mug. Far too strong, of course but none the less welcome.
‘Are you working this summer?’ he asked.
Colette knew a deliberate attempt to change the subject when she saw one, but she humoured him. ‘I haven’t sorted anything out yet, but I probably will. Why?’
‘I was just thinking: you could come and stay with me if you happened to have a free week. Tonbridge is only about an hour from Hastings, you know.’