Gen, U, no particular pairings unless you count Ginty's offstage exploits.
No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made from this work.
A Scarlet Hatband
"Well, since you ask, it is rather shattering," said Patrick carefully. "I suppose it wouldn't be, for you?"
"Now it would," said Nicola candidly. "If it'd happened a few years ago I suppose it'd just have been another one to join the scrum. You'd have to ask Giles, really."
He gave a little grin that showed his teeth. "I may be on better terms with your esteemed brother than I was, but I don't think it stretches to barging matily up to him and asking how it felt when the place started filling up with little squawkers and their impedimenta. Though, actually - that was quite how it felt, when your lot used to descend in a body on Trennels for the summer, way back when. One felt someone offstage had given the order to send in the troops, armoured pram division."
Nicola punched him on the arm in a friendly way. They were sitting on the Mariot Chase stable roof, a place that Nicola had only thought of as a possible place to sit the day before; they could see the stable-yard below them, and Sellars going about the business he had firmly discouraged them from helping with, and the hedge beyond stirring in the crisp September wind.
Patrick hugged one knee and let the other long leg dangle. "I mean... part of me thinks that it's perfectly normal and that it's really too Freudian for words for me to be shocked... or Oedipal, or whatever it is..." Nicola preserved respectful silence, not feeling she had enough acquaintance with either gentleman to judge, "... but part of me still thinks ugh, and at their age too. Wouldn't you?"
"It'd be a shock, all right, if Ma started ballooning round like..." Like Esther's mother, Nicola trapped herself into thinking. But Esther Frewen's half-sisters were presumably well past the pram stage by now; might, for all Nicola knew, be elder sisters themselves to yet more small Frewens and Thornes, and Esther herself had... left.
Oh, there was a story about her father getting a high-powered job as something to do with an European Commission and Esther being desperate to move to Brussels with him, her stepmother, and the Frewen half-sister; but surely Esther had been sent to Kingscote because of things like that, particularly considering that there was another parent who was remaining in the country and might - if she hadn't been Mrs Thorne - be relied upon to take up the slack. Nicola had rather hoped that Mr Thorne was better news than his wife, though one couldn't tell, really, from what Esther had said. "At least they won't expect you to re-home Bucket," she said, pretty much at random.
Patrick did up his windcheater a little tighter. "There was a health visitor around last week clucking about all these animals," he said. Nicola looked away, relieved at having been misunderstood. "I think she was glad to find something to prove she wasn't wasting her time, MP's wives not being her usual line of business... I won't be entirely surprised if I come home from Oxford one day and find Bucket following in the steps of the Bump, though."
"It won't be a Bump by then."
"It'll end up answering to Bump until it's twenty, you mark me," Patrick predicted darkly. He looked away. "And then I suppose there will be new arrivals in the gee department too. One can't call Blackleg an ideal child's first pony."
Nicola agreed that you couldn't, and shared milk chocolate from her zipped-up pocket; and they both ate for a while and watched the brindled horizon, and didn't talk about Mr Buster.
"There's a storm coming in," said Patrick finally. "My dear Mama would tell me to bring you inside before we both get drenched."
"I don't mind getting drenched," said Nicola hardily.
He gave another of those glancing smiles that warmed her like sun through water. "Neither do I."
And then, looking away again. "I suppose - I mean, I'd still be the Heir Apparent and all that ghastly jazz - but when the Bump is here - I mean - it'd make it easier for me to enter the Church. If that was what I wanted."
The storm-front was still rolling in, bruise-dark, across the Crowlands, so however it felt to Nicola, she couldn't possibly have been struck by lightning. "Is that..." she said tentatively, and then was lost for words: is that something you feel called to do was too ghastly Careers-Day pious for words, but everything else sounded as if going into the Church was just another alternative to stacking shelves at Sainsburys. "Is that something you'd want to do? I mean - sorry - d'you mean be a monk, or what?"
"I don't know," he said slowly. "I was thinking more in terms of the priesthood, but I'm certainly not ruling it out." And then, with another glancing grin, "Oh, do stop looking so taken aback, Nicola my love! It is something people our age are still allowed to do, you know. Your lot are even turning would-be vicars away because they'd prefer someone with twenty years in the Army or on the shop floor."
"I know it is," said Nicola, embarrassed. "I mean, I don't... sorry... oh, drop it. But what - I mean, what if the Bump's a girl?"
"It's an equal-opportunity world these days, so they tell me."
"Tell that to the Navy," said Nicola with more than a trace of bitterness.
"Now is that the very particular Marlow family version of tell it to the Marines?"
Nicola coloured. "No. I just meant there are things you can't do, even these days, if you're a Wren."
"Move to America," he suggested. "They have female captains over there."
She agreed, vaguely, that she just might. It started raining. After a while they both tacitly agreed that this kind of rain, poking like cold grey fingers down the collars of coats and slickly drenching the face and hair, was no fun at all and that it would be a good idea to wander inside in search of towels. Patrick, very politely, slithered down off the roof first and then held out both hands to catch Nicola round the waist and jump her down. She still felt very odd; more like she'd been punched in the stomach than struck by lightning, now she came to think of it, and talking of thinking of it, she wasn't going to.
Mrs Merrick came out as far as the stableyard porch to meet them, wearing an exceptionally stylish waistless chartreuse affair that had clearly not come from any shop in Colebridge, nor even the jaunty maternity-wear boutique called Blossoming Out! that had popped up in the Arcade in Wade Abbas. She bustled Nicola up to her own scented bathroom, leaving Patrick to manage as best he could in the downstairs cloakroom. Nicola towelled her hair, agonised briefly over the etiquette of borrowing someone else's comb versus going downstairs with her hair on end, and eventually did the best she could with palms and fingers. By the time she emerged into the bedroom, which looked museumly and unlikely as bedrooms in the daytime always did, Mrs Merrick had - rather to Nicola's relief - gone; Nicola paused only to be impressed that Patrick's mother had fresh flowers by her bedside, and hurried out onto the stairs.
The flowers were fortunate; they gave her something to say to Patrick's mother whilst Patrick was saying things like yes and I see in a very constrained voice down the telephone. He came back into the dining-room suppressing a grin.
"The last time I saw that look on your face, Pat, you'd rubbed your Aunt Florence's soup-plate with soap," said his mother dispassionately. "Who was that?"
"It was for you," he said properly, turning to Nicola, his eyes gleaming particularly gold as his mother snapped on the electric light against the gloom. "Your sister Lawrie."
"Lawrie?" asked Nicola, wreathed in relief that it hadn't been her mother. "Whatever's the matter?"
"You're wanted at home urgently." The relief dissipated. "Something to do with a parcel from the school outfitters."
If Helena Merrick hadn't been there, Nicola would have worked off her various feelings by saying What? and Huh? and I haven't had anything to do with the school outfitters, that was all Ma's lookout; as it was, she rubbed her still-damp hands on the dry stripe of skirt that had been covered by her coat, and said that she supposed she ought to go and thank-you-for-having-me to Mrs Merrick.
"Oh, I'll run you home," said Patrick. "It's far too wet to ride. I'll bring the Idiot back later."
Drenched hedgerows rushed by outside the Land Rover's windows: Nicola looked at her own hands, which were turning an interesting shade of blue about the nails, and then at Patrick's hands on the steering-wheel, and didn't say anything about the Church.
She had thought the silence, if not companionable, at least not awkward, but Patrick evidently felt differently; he said, slightly diffidently, "So I suppose things will be different now you're in your Sixth."
"Yes indeedy," said Nicola with rather more enthusiasm than was needed. "Permish to wear our own clothes at weekends, not just evenings after dinner, and to go and buy coffee in town as long as we do it in pairs and promise to stay out of pubs, first two privileges not to be combined, offer void where prohibited. Though, actually, I wouldn't be surprised if Keith clamped down on us going into Wade Abbas after all that fuss last term with those idiots Shirley Russel and Vivienne whatsit meeting boys from the Tech. Still, at least we're allowed to drape ourselves decoratively all over the grounds to study in Free Periods rather than being confined to the library."
"That doesn't sound like you," he said with a sidelong glance. "Draping yourself anywhere, I mean."
Nicola wasn't sure what he meant. Her cheeks burned with what Mrs Bertie would undoubtedly diagnose as an early sign of pneumonia. "No - actually - it was Tim who said it."
"Oh, Lawrie's friend?"
"Aren't you the well-informed one?" she said in what would usually have been an affectionate tone of voice.
"Actually - you know I like Lawrie, well enough - "
"That's generous of you."
"But I do wonder - if you don't mind me saying - how anyone can put up with her full-time. Choose to, I mean." He drew the Land Rover up with a flourish and spatter of gravel in the Trennels drive, and looked rueful. "Oh dear. Things left better unsaid. It's just - well - she is a bit much. Don't you think? No, of course you don't. Never mind. Sorry pardon sorry all round."
"Ah, well, Tim's an acquired taste herself," said Nicola, feeling suddenly and inexplicably better. "Thanks for the lift, Patrick. 'Bye."
"'Bye," he said, and leaned across to plant a kiss on her cheek, except that she was swinging the door of the Land Rover open and rushing out into the rain before he could.
"Look at all the times Nick's been form prefect and you haven't. I don't know why you're so surprised," said Ginty, half addressing Lawrie and half conducting a dialogue with her own displeasure. "What I don't see why is it had to come from the school outfitters at all, actually. Aren't there enough prefectly red hatbands from Kay and Ann?"
"Not for the boaters," said her mother.
"There's Ann's boater-as-was," argued Ginty.
"Oh, Ginty, do stop being tiresome. You were the one who wanted Ann's boater when she left, and you were the one who reduced it to its present state."
"I couldn't help that it blew off whilst I was walking along the coast road, could I? People aren't supposed to come down there on motorbikes. It was just terrifically bad luck,"
"You could have been more careful."
Nicola opened the door into the sitting-room. Ginty, in jeans and an outsized rugby shirt that Nicola supposed belonged to this month's boyfriend, looked consciously airy and unconcerned; their mother, in about-to-go-and-sit-on-a-Committee tweeds, looked quite the reverse. The box from the school outfitters stood between them, a half-unpacked, sodden cardboard Exhibit A. Exhibit B, Nicola supposed, was Lawrie in the hiccuping aftermath of floods, sitting hunched in the windowseat wrapped up toga-fashion in the curtain. "Blimey," she said respectfully. "Don't tell me they've sent us four gross of name-tapes all embroidered Marrow in lovely cursive again?"
"No, thankfully enough, and that reminds me, Ginty, if you could see to your name-tapes before you leave..."
Ginty crimsoned. "But it's so babyish. And it's not like they get mixed up in other peoples' laundry like they did at school."
At another time, Nicola would have ventured a mild tease, and asked, not even Alec's, but Ginty looked likely to flare up at the slightest spark, and besides, she didn't really want to be reminded of Ginty's success with Alec at present. Or John, or either of the Jameses, or Timothy, or Marcus.
"They go in with everyone else's washing at home, and it makes trouble for Mrs Bertie."
"Mrs Bertie doesn't have to..."
"And, as you'd know if you gave it a moment of thought, it isn't convenient for you to be running loads of your own washing every five minutes. There's only so much water in the boiler..."
"It's not fair," burst out Lawrie, grabbing the moment with a particularly dolorous hiccup.
"Oh - Nicola." Her mother turned to her, as if only now realising that the room contained three daughters instead of two. "I was planning - I thought we could go to that place in Colebridge, like we did for Ann, once Ann told us - it really is more sensible this way..."
Nicola turned her mind to possible errands that Ann might have carried out in Colebridge and came up a perfect blank. "To get the piano-stool re-covered?"
"The piano stool?" said Mrs Marlow with Karen-like disconcertment. "What? It can't need re-covering again. Don't tell me one of you has spilt ink on it?"
"We're not ten," said Lawrie.
"Looking at you, Lawrie, I do sometimes wonder." Mrs Marlow turned from one twin to the other. "I had the letter from Miss Keith this morning. It was mostly about changes to the official games kit from next term - they're doing an official tracksuit, which I do think makes sense -"
"More work for the school outfitters," said Ginty impishly.
"...yes, I daresay... Oh, it'll be easier if you read it for yourself."
Nicola scanned the lines of Miss Keith's dashing angular handwriting. Joy rose inside her, joy everlasting, blurring her eyes until she could barely make out the words and had to shove the letter back into her mother's hands. "Games Captain?"
"And Lawrie won't dry up about how it's not fair and she's not even a prefect," said Ginty with feather-light malice, judging that their mother's irritation with her would probably pass more quickly if she dropped another sister in it. "I've told her she ought to think of the rest of the world. Now that you'll have a lovely red hatband, to go so well with your lovely blushing complexion, and a tie-pin besides, no one's going to mistake you for each other any more. And if you get hit over the back of the head and forget who you are, you can look at yourself in a mirror and be reminded."
A younger Nicola would have said something ferocious along the lines of if anyone's going to be hit over the back of the head it's you. As it was, she merely smiled crimsonly, said something incoherent to her beaming mother along the lines that no, she didn't specially want to get dressed up and go to the Stag and Hounds in Colebridge, and if fish and chips were the only thing that would cheer Lawrie up (as Lawrie was insisting they were) then fish and chips it should be.
After that, still fumble-footed with happiness, she spent the afternoon banging out tunes by ear on the piano, and was rather surprised, when congratulated by the remainder of the family at supper, to realise that she hadn't been thinking about Patrick at all.
Trimmense thanks to thewhiteowl for beta-reading!