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But lately things had been. She frowned slightly as the summer breeze dragged loose hairs across her cheek. At night, when they sat around the dinner table and her father made his sweet unfunny jokes and they all laughed anyway, she felt as if she were on the outside looking in; as if the others were on a train carriage, sharing the same old family rhythms, and she alone stood at the station watching as they pulled away.
Except that it was she who would be leaving them, and soon. What, she wondered, would her parents say when she told them that she wanted to leave?
Below her, the washing shrugged wetly on the line. Laurel slid her white-rimmed sunglasses onto her nose and slumped against the tree-house wall. The problem was the war. It had been over for sixteen years—al- most all her life—and the world had moved on. Every-thing was different now; gas masks, uniforms, ration cards, and all the rest of it, too, belonged only in the big old khaki trunk her father kept in the attic.
Her thoughts had fallen instead to the nights lately when she man-aged to creep away from her sisters; when she stepped out into the balmy dusk, transistor radio tucked beneath her blouse, and climbed with a racing heart into the tree house. A new generation of people, all listening at the very same moment, who understood that life, the world, the future, were out there waiting for them … Laurel opened her eyes and the memory fled.
Its warmth lingered though, and with a satisfied stretch she followed the path of a rook casting across a graze of cloud. Fly little birdie, fly. That would be her, just as soon as she finished school and turned eighteen. She continued to watch, allowing herself to blink only when the bird was a pin prick in the far-off blue; telling herself that if she managed this feat her parents would be made to see things her way and the future would unfurl cleanly.
Her eyes watered triumphantly and she let her gaze drop back towards the house: She would miss them when she went.
Laurel blinked. She would miss them. The certainty was swift and heavy. It sat in her stomach like a stone. They borrowed her clothes, broke her lipsticks, scratched her records, but she would miss them. The noise and heat of them, the movement and squabbles and crushing joy. They were like a litter of puppies, tumbling together in their shared bedroom. They overwhelmed outsiders and this pleased them.
They were the Nicolson girls: Unholy terrors, as Grandma proclaimed after their holiday visits. She could hear the distant whoops and squeals now, the faraway watery sounds of summer by the stream. Something inside her tightened as if a rope had been pulled.
She could picture them, like a tableau from a long-ago painting. Skirts tucked into the sides of their knickers, chasing one another through the shallows: Rose escaped to safety on the rocks, thin ankles dangling in the water as she sketched with a wet stick; Iris, drenched somehow and furious about it; Daphne, with her corkscrew ringlets, doubled over laughing.
The plaid picnic rug would be laid out flat on the grassy bank and their mother would be standing nearby, knee-deep in the bend where the water ran fastest, setting her latest boat to sail.
Daddy would be watching from the side, trousers rolled up and a cigarette balanced on his lip. Light of all their lives … The baby. He had a name, of course, it was Gerald, but no one ever called him that. It was a grown-up name and he was just such a baby.
Two years old today, but his face was still round and rich with dimples, his eyes shone with mischief, and then there were those legs, deliciously fat white legs. Sometimes it was all Laurel could do not to squeeze them too hard.
They all fought to be his favourite and they all claimed victory, but Laurel knew his face lit up most for her. Unthinkable, then, that she should miss even a second of his birthday party.
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What had she been playing at, hiding in the tree house so long, particularly when she planned to sneak away with Billy later? Laurel frowned and weathered a wave of recriminations that cooled quickly to resolution.
She would make amends: If she completed the task before her wristwatch ticked away ten minutes, she would accrue bonus points on the imagined score sheet she carried inside her always. The breeze blew warm against her bare sun-browned foot as she stepped quickly onto the top rung. Later, Laurel would wonder if things might have turned out differently had she gone a little more slowly.
If, perhaps, the whole terrible thing might even have been averted had she taken greater care. She was rushing and thus she would always blame herself in some way for what followed.
It had been happening this way a lot lately. She was like the weather vane on the peak of the Greenacres roof, her emotions swinging suddenly from one direction to the other at the whim of the wind. It was strange, and frightening at times, but also somehow thrilling. Like being on a lurching ride at the seaside. In this instance, it was injurious too.
For in her desperate hurry to join the party by the stream, she caught her knee against the wooden floor of the tree house. The graze stung and she winced, glancing down to see a rise of fresh blood, surprisingly red. Rather than continue to the ground, she climbed again into the tree house to inspect the damage.
She was still sitting there watching her knee weep, cursing her speed and wondering if Billy would notice the ugly big scab, how she might mask it, when she became aware of a noise coming from the direction of the copse.
It was a rustling; natural and yet separate enough from the other afternoon sounds to draw her attention. She glanced through the tree-house window and saw Barnaby lolloping over the long grass, silky ears flapping like velvet wings. Although they remained a way off, through some odd quirk of the wind current Laurel could hear quite clearly the tune her mother was singing.
Their focus on one another was so complete, their appearance together in the sun-drenched meadow so idyllic, that Laurel was torn between joy at having observed the private interaction, and envy at being outside it.
She grew sulky and her sulkiness stopped her from calling out or climbing down, rooting her instead to the place she occupied on the tree-house floor. There she sat, stewing darkly in a strangely pleasant manner, as her mother reached and entered the house. One of the hula hoops fell silently to hit the ground, and Laurel took the action as a show of solidarity. She decided to stay where she was. In the meantime, she was going to read The Birthday Party again and imagine a future, far away from here, a life where she was beautiful and sophisticated, grownup and scab free.
The man, when he first appeared, was little more than a hazy smudge on the horizon; right down at the farthest reach of the driveway. Laurel was never sure, later, what it was that made her look up then.
For one awful second when she first noticed him walking towards the back of the farmhouse, Laurel thought that it was Billy, arrived early and coming to fetch her. Only as his outline clarified and she realised he was dressed all wrong—dark trousers, shirt sleeves, and a hat with an old- fashioned brim—did she let herself exhale.
Curiosity arrived hot on the heels of relief. Laurel forgot that she was sulking and with the luxury of concealment surrendered herself to staring. She leaned her elbows on the windowsill, her chin on her hands. There was always the possibility he was a lost traveller seeking directions, but the farmhouse was an unlikely choice, tucked away as it was so far from the road.
Perhaps he was a gypsy or a drifter? One of those men who chanced by occasionally, down on their luck and grateful for whatever work Daddy had to give them. Laurel shivered, scaring herself briefly, and then she yawned. The man was no fiend; she could see his leather briefcase now.
And so she looked away. Laurel scrambled to the window, peering over the sill to see the spaniel standing to attention in the middle of the brick path.
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He was facing the driveway, watching as the man— much closer now—fiddled with the iron gate that led into the garden. Behind the house, the gate near the hen yard creaked—the hinge that always needed oiling—and the dog growled again.
His hair ridged along his spine. The smile slipped from her face. It was an invitation no one could refuse, and the man tucked the handkerchief back into his pocket and stepped closer, raising his hand slightly, as if to anoint the little fellow.
Her mother moved then with startling haste. She wrested the baby away, depositing him roughly on the ground behind her. There was gravel beneath his bare legs and for a child who knew only pleasure and love the shock proved too much. Crestfallen, he began to cry. Hairs prickled on the back of her neck.
Fear, she realised, Ma was frightened. The effect on Laurel was instant. Certainties of a lifetime turned to smoke and blew away. Cold alarm moved in to take their place. The man was no stranger. He spoke again, too low for Laurel to hear, and her mother nodded slightly. She continued to listen, tilting her head to the side. Her face lifted to the sun and her eyes closed just for one second. The next thing happened quickly. It was the liquid silver flash Laurel would always remember.
The way sunlight caught the metal blade, and the moment was very briefly beautiful.
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