[The first paragraph a scribbled, illegible mess.]
I haven't been sleeping well. At first I thought it was my roommate Eva's mess that was bothering me. Even with my eyes closed, I know its there, and it bothers me. Sometimes it gets bad enough when I've been lying there for hours that I get up and start tidying at three in the morning. Only Eva's a light sleeper, so inevitably she wakes up and asks me what in God's name I think I'm doing.
I wonder about that sometimes, too.
I've got a lot tidier than when you knew me. These days, I feel restless if everything isn't neatly ordered. It gives me comfort, knowing all my papers are all organised and in their correct folders. It's not Eva's fault; she couldn't be organised, even if she wanted to be. But she leaves her stockings and ribbons all over the floor and although I don't want I end up snapping at her.
But that's not what's keeping me up. Not really.
It upsets me because it's been disturbing my studies. And because of that I worry about my grades and I lose even more sleep over it. It hasn't been easy getting here, you know. I'm not trying to be modest but I don't want you to think, Oh, Julia's so intelligent, she's had her name down since she was born! By thinking so, you do me a disservice! Oxford still doesn't accept many women. I worked hard to get where I am. And sometimes I'll be sat in a lecture, surrounded by the smartest men in the county, and I'll realise I don't understand a single thing! And I'll go home and work even harder, and when I do finally sleep it'll be because I've fallen asleep at my desk. And that's when I have the dreams.
The dreams. Yes. That's what's been keeping me awake.
I have the queerest dreams, lately. I dream I'm holding a woman made of clay. But to start with they're a man. They're always a man to begin with. We're in bed together. And we're rolling around, and our limbs are heavy, so heavy, and the bed feels like water. And then the dream changes; now I'm the man, and he the woman. And again! Now we're children, just like when you and I…
I'm sorry. I know you don't want to remember this. But sometimes I can't help myself…
Lastly, I'm myself, and the man in my arms in a woman. And our limbs are so soft and smooth, and I feel so, so…
I hate it. I wake up feeling so odd it takes a long time in the bath to scrub the sensation off. Sometimes it won't come off, and I don't get any work done that morning. What if I fall behind because of it? What if I get thrown out because of it? "Julia, we're sorry, but you are not clever enough for this university. Please go back to your parents and become a secretary." Well I won't! I can't! I'm not going home!
Eva's just come in. She's thrown her stockings on the floor, again. I can see them in the corner of my eye. But at least she hasn't asked what I'm writing. She knows better than that, at least. She's dependable, in that way.
I want to tell you about someone I met yesterday, and I trust you won't tell anyone about it. Does everyone still ask about me? I told myself I didn't want to know anything about the people at home, but… Well, when Jacob was here in September he said he'd come again soon. Has he mentioned anything about it? Apparently he was here on 'business' but he seemed far more interested in snooping around my affairs. He even gave Eva twenty questions! Like he thought that me and she…!
I don't know you stand living with those people… I told you I would have helped you with your shop. I could have—We could have—
Her name's Maggie. She's in St Hilda's too, and was studying French, but, as she told me—I'm sick of speaking French!
(As am I, Silene.)
She changed courses and is now taking the classics with me. Except that we're in week four now, and she doesn't even know what Alexander was great for. I've told her that if she comes to the college library with me later, I'll let her borrow my notes.
It's not like me, is it? I barely even know the girl. But… I didn't want her to be like the others, meeting and saying goodbye, letting them slip out of my life leaving only imprints in the sand. The only person I'm able to be honest is to you, in these letters, even though I'm never going to send them. Because I know that even if I did, Silene, you'd never read them.
You won't believe this! Maggie is a shoe size one! Her feet are so tiny, all white and dainty, and then she stamps them and fumes that she has to buy them from the children's department. "And the shoes I want are never in the right size! C'est des conneries!" Seeing as how you taught me that one, Silene, it's not necessary I translate it. Her vulgarity shocked me at first. She's so small, like an eency-weency pixie, and yet when she erupts—which seems to happen frequently—she's like a volcano blowing her top. When she gets really mad, she turns back to French, whether she supposedly hates it or not. From anyone else, this would be antipathetic, but when she gets mad her eyes twinkle; invariably, we end up laughing, even yesterday when the librarian threw us out because she screamed "Merde!" – and this was just because she forgot her pen.
(Though I'm glad the librarian didn't speak French, otherwise it really would have been—shit!)
Another thing; when she says something, anything, she moves in close, as though she's about to confess a secret.
Though, of course, she only comes up to my shoulders… it really is as though she's like a little doll. When she kept swearing, I threatened to pick her up and put her on the shelf. But when I said that, she got even madder and exploded; "Do you know what Professor Smith did earlier? He wouldn't believe me when I said I was a student. He told me to go back outside and play!"
I always knew Professor Smith was going senile. Maggie might be a girl's size but she's got a woman's face. She might play around but there's a sharp intelligence in her eyes, even cutting. She a creature of contrasts. She says she can't stand French but she can't seem but to help speak it. She can't stand her small feet and got even more irate when I told her about the Chinese girls who bind their feet for that purpose, but when I told her to "Calm it, Cinders," she cooled down immediately.
She slumped down onto the settee and confessed, "I've always loved fairy tales."
I'd like to write more but I have to get ready to go out now. How fitting! Tonight Cinderella and I are going to the ball.
I've been so busy lately I haven't had a chance to write. And you know, for a few days, I even managed not to think of you, not even once! We've been given three essays to work on at once, and Cinderella and I have been working none-stop. (Since the ball, the name has stuck. But I'll get back to that later…) Because somebody got us thrown out of the library again- I'm not naming any names!- we've had to work in my room. Cinderella's roommates—though not quite as bad as the ugly step-sisters—are very rowdy, and since Eva spends so much time with her boy now we usually have the place to ourselves. Did I mention that after Christmas, she's planning to move in with him? (You'll have to keep this quiet; everyone's treating it like its scandalous news!) I haven't introduced her to Tom or Robert… as I wrong not to? But I don't want her falling in love with them; they're not good to their girlfriends, and they'd never have time for her anyway.
Let me tell you about the ball.
I wore that purple dress I let you borrow once—do you remember? Up at Margaret Hall, when you spilt that wine all over me—but, never mind that. Let me tell you, Cinderella put me to shame! She wore a beautiful crème gown, and I don't know whether it was the lights, but her skin itself seemed to glow. They look atrocious on me, but pale colours suit her beautifully. She has that translucent fey look some girl-children have. In her eyelids, mostly, but the nape of her neck, too. She tells me she keeps her hair short because it has a bad temperament, but it suits her. It'd be a shame to cover over that lovely neck of hers. I wasn't the only one admiring her. I think she must have been asked to dance by a dozen different men! Even Short Stuart gave it a go.
"Sorry," Cinderella said curtly, "I'm with Julia tonight, and if she's not dancing then I'm not either."
"Oh come on Jules," Stuart implored, "Maggie's the only girl here who's short enough to be my wife."
Cinderella let out the most disdainful little "Hmph!" you could ever hear and turned on her heel.
Stuart rubbed the back of his tufty hair. "Oh man," he said, "I blew it again, didn't I?"
"You've got to be less forward," I told him.
"How do you mean?" he said, deeply serious.
"Next time, try asking her out on a date first, instead of asking to marry her."
It took me some time to get rid of Stuart, and longer to find Cinderella. When I finally did, she was in the garden, pumps flung off, dipping her sore feet in the fountain. She looked a little bit sad, so for a while I just sat beside her and said nothing. Suddenly, she burst out, "There's another reason I gave up languages I didn't tell you about." She looked at my feet, rather than my face. "I was the only woman in my class. It was all full of men!"
I said that that couldn't have been very fun.
"Too right! They either treated me like a child, or tried to ask me out." She went very quiet. "Julia, have you ever been in love?"
My throat went very dry. But very quickly, she said, "I'm sorry. I guess that's kind of a personal question to ask. It's just that I've never been in love, so I don't know what's wrong or right to talk about."
I couldn't say anything. I pretended to listen to the shush-shush of the fountain, but all I could think about was you. I bit my lip; dug my nails into my palms. It was very difficult, to go back to that world where Cinderella and I were sitting.
She confided, "Sometimes I wonder if they're right, and I'm not just a kid." Almost a little breathlessly; "Sometimes I feel as though I don't fit in."
"At the university?" I said.
She nodded, uncertainly, but then, more decisively, shook her head. "At everything."
The words coming faster to her now, "It's like, the shoes don't fit." She searched out my eyes and held them with a fierce intensity, wanting, no, needing me to understand something. She was almost begging; "Do you know what I mean?"
I could answer her honestly. I said softly, "Yes."
She reached out her hand and took mine, squeezed it so tight it hurt. But it wasn't just my hand that was painful. She said, "It's so strange. We've only really just met but I already feel so close to you Julia."
All I let myself think about was what white, slender fingers she has.
I don't think I said a single word today, apart from "Yes,", "No," and "Thank you." It's as though all the words have been squeezed out of me. I don't dare myself to speak.
I know. I know. I promised everyone I wouldn't do this again. But night after night, I keep having the same dream and I—
Jacob sent me a letter today. I've enclosed it;
To my sister Julia,
I hope you're well. Mother, Father are both very healthy and doing fine, though Mother had a touch of bronchitis at the end of last month. Phillip has finished his studies and is helping me with the business. The old man we had to look after the horses, Mr Hindley—I remember you were fond of him—retired last month. We've a new boy in who seems very keen and seems to do the job well enough. I've been quite busy so this will just be a short note. On the second of next month Silene and I will be in London, so we'll drop by on our way through. We've got some good news, but it can wait till in person.
Your loving brother, Jacob.
P.S- As your older brother, I still have high hopes for you. Don't make a fool out of yourself.
Don't I always? But Silene, just seeing your name joined with his is unbearable. If you care nothing for me, why can't I feel the same for you?
Today, after lectures in the hall Cinderella caught me before I could get away. Caught me by the arm and pulled me back like a shepherd's crook. Said, frankly, without a hint of accusation, "You've been avoiding me, haven't you?"
She said, "Why?"
I wanted to answer her honestly, as honestly as she had been with me. Because I want to be open with her, not this cold, closed icicle I've become.
But that honesty is part of the problem. I said, "I can be myself with you." She watched me, listening. A little crease appeared in the skin between her eyes. "And that's not a good thing."
No probing questions like the people back home, no interview. Just the line between her eyes, deepening. She asked again, "Why?"
I said, "Because it's dangerous."
And do you know what I did then, Silene? I still can't hardly believe it myself. I took her into the back of the chapel and we sat in the pews at the back, and I told her about you.
I don't need to tell you the story I told her. You were there. Though, of course, you'd never admit it now. It seemed positively easy for you to throw away what we had and dismiss it like it never happened, just like tearing up a page of a letter you didn't like anymore.
The story came out of my mouth like a confession. And once I started, I couldn't stop. The words rolled faster. And Cinderella sat next to me in the pews, listening. "And that's why I came to Oxford. Not just to get as far as away as I can from them, but to prove myself. To prove that—" When I came to the end, it was as though my voice ran out of steam. I stopped dead. The words, spoken aloud, hanging between us, had a different weight than when I spoke them in my head. Suddenly, I wasn't sure what I was trying to prove anymore.
Cinderella had been looking at me straight the entire time, not interrupting, not even nodding, her face a blank canvas. But now she let her head drop to look at her lap. She said, "That's awful!"
My heart plummeted. I assumed the worst. I thought I was stupid to think anyone, even her, would understand. But—
"That your brothers could do such a thing!" she continued. I was shocked to see tears in her eyes. She grabbed hold of my arm, a cold thrill seizing me. "Julia, I had no idea! You should never have had to go through something like that. If my family ever…" The tears welled in the pools under her eyes. I could barely breathe. I don't think anyone, not even you, has ever cried for me before.
"It's alright," I said, at last, the words tightened into a ball. "It wasn't real love, after all."
The grip on my arm was so tight her nails dug in. Again, that insistent need for me to understand. Her eyes didn't drop from mine for an instant. She said, "In Leighton, where I'm from, there are two old spinsters who live together. Always, have, always will. They do a lot for the community and everyone respects them. And Julia, everyone knows, but no one cares."
I said, "They're…" the word was difficult to wrap around my tongue, "inverts?"
She nodded. But then her lips twisted into a frown. "It's such an ugly word, isn't it?"
Silene… I don't know what it is I feel right now.
As soon as it got dark last night, even though everyone was still wide awake in the common room, I went to bed. Eva was getting ready to go out. Snapping on her earrings, she said, "You're going to bed already?"
"I'm tired," I said.
"You're always tired," she said. "Are you feeling alright?"
She strode over on her heels to feel my forehead. It was strangely maternal. I thought of Mother, who I hadn't seen for almost two years. "No fever," she said. "I prescribe a good night out."
"Not tonight," I told her.
"Oh!" she laughed, covering her teeth with her hand. "I didn't mean tonight. Edward's taking me out for dinner tonight." I noticed the ring on her little finger. She noticed me noticing, and I quite suspected she wanted me too, because she said airily, "Just a little something Edward bought me. Hey," like she'd had a good idea, "you should get a boyfriend too Julia. Just make sure you pick one who'll take you out and buy you presents. The last guy I went out with was a complete cheapskate." She walked back to the mirror to apply her lipstick.
"I don't think so," I said. She pursed her lips at the mirror.
She said, "Have you ever had a boyfriend, Julia?"
I saw her watching me in the mirror. I don't think she realised I could see her doing it, because she studied me very closely. Then she said, quite as airily as before, but watching for my reaction intently, "Dear, you're an invert, aren't you?"
I sat up very suddenly. "I'm not—" I began.
She shook her head, fresh curls wobbling. "Don't get me wrong. That's not an accusation." She smiled, I think to try and set me at ease. It didn't work. I felt cold, like a ghost had swept through me. "My cousin is the same, so I know all about it. Apparently you can't help it."
She sat down on the end of my bed, but I just wanted her to leave. "You don't understand. It's not like—" She looked at me with such a little disbelieving smirk that I fell quiet. I said, very softly, "How did you figure it out?"
She said, "Darling, we've been living together for over a year now and in all that time you haven't even as much as mentioned a man. I would have to be a moron not to have figured it out."
"Why did you never say anything?"
She shrugged sleekly. "I figured it was none of my business. But," hesitating, "you haven't been yourself lately, all quiet, like something's been cutting you up, and I wondered if that had something to do with it."
Silene, sometimes I must admit that I forget that other people notice, or think about me. I'm so used to being anonymous, keeping a low profile, that when people show that they care, it shocks me.
"Oh!" said Eva, "don't cry!" She pulled out a silk handkerchief and stuffed it into my hands. She said, "Really, don't. You'll get me going too and I've just done my mascara."
Eva was always Eva! I laughed, in soft little sobbing hiccups. She reached over and patted me on the leg. "There, there," she said. "Now I've got to go or I'm going to be late for Edward, but I wouldn't worry about it so much if I were you. The world is changing. It's our generation's time to shine now, Julia!" Getting up, she clicked across the room, and as she did the light from the lamp caught her sheer silvery dress and for a moment, she shined. Then she turned off the lamp and was gone. The room was thrown into darkness. I laid there for a long time.
The world might be changing, but my world wasn't.
I thought about a lot of things that night.
Silene, if we hadn't been treated like lepers, would you still be with me? It's something I think about a lot. If we met at another time, where we could love freely, without being mocked, humiliated and alienated and abandoned, would we be happy together? Or would you still have left me for my brother?
Sometimes, to me, the past seems more real than the present.
I've never told you this before, but when I found out what you'd done all I could think was 'The cabin, the cabin!' I knew that you would have never done what you did if you'd remembered the cabin.
What did they do to you, Silene?
After those months of separation, after begging my father, shouting, screaming, bargaining, pleading, when he finally allowed us to meet and I cried, "But Silene, what about us? Didn't you say you loved me?"
And you were sat in the drawing room so calmly, your hands folded in your lap, like you thought you could ever fool me and you tittered with nervous laughter and you said, "But Julia—you're a woman!"
You must have made yourself forget.
You were the strange speaking half-French child who nobody wanted to know. When you and your family moved to Marlow from up north, even the down-and-out Routledges were too snobby to have you to tea. And do you remember? When you and I were still very small and papa was smoking his pipe in the parlour room after dinner, like he always did, and the smoke always irritated your throat... And we came up to him, holding hands, in our best dresses because—yes, because it was a Sunday! I asked if I could marry you. How he laughed! Do you remember? You must remember…
When I asked him again, years later, he didn't laugh. He took out his pipe and looked at me, and then I knew I had done something wrong, and I felt ashamed, because father only took out his pipe when something very serious had happened…
The cabin. The cabin! That's what I'm trying to get back to. When I think about you, I always get back to the cabin, eventually.
It was our seventeenth summer. Uncle Andrew had leant us his cabin set back from the cliffs in Cornwall, between the little villages of Porthtowan and Portreath. It was wild and windy and rugged, a land of heather and bracken and coarseness. Nothing like the manicured gardens in our house in Marlow. The land felt ancient, terrible and when I looked out over the peninsula, my heart trembled. The wind tore through the landscape, exposed everything; the barren cliff face; the white weather-beaten trees gnarled and bent like driftwood; ourselves.
It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
We dared ourselves to stand on the very precipice of the cliff. There was something about that landscape that gave us courage. I felt like Eve; like the first woman. Primal, like the earth itself. Deep and dark and secret as the very soil, like clay. I could feel the heartbeat in your hand.
No one to chaperone us. To hide from. To force us to pretend we were something else, other than who we truly were.
Cinderella's right. 'Inversion' is an ugly word. It makes me wince to hear it, to put it down in writing. In ancient Greece there wasn't a word for it. But when we talk about Achilles, why do we always forget Patroclus? Why is Alexander less great because he found love with another man?
I don't think the most important things in life can be pinned down in words. They're too extraordinary for that.
All this time, I've always thought that what we did was wrong. That in a way, I deserved it when you left me. But Silene, even if you still deny the feelings we had for one another, weren't we supposed to be friends?
She'd told me she wouldn't be by till the evening, but today, out of the blue, Cinderella turned up at our room. Eva answered the door, so all I heard from the bathroom was a breathless, "Is Julia in?" I knew something was wrong, so I hurried out. I was right. As soon as she saw me, she burst into tears.
I tell you, I didn't know what to say. Eva was flummoxed too, shot me an 'I'll let you handle it' look, and managed to slink away.
When I asked her what was wrong, Cinderella stuffed a sheet of paper into my hands. "That," she said. It was the grades for our latest essay.
"I'm sure it's not that ba—" I stopped, looking at exactly how bad it was. "Oh," I said.
"They're going to throw me out, I just know it!" she wailed.
I thought it was imperative I got her sat down with a hot cup of tea as soon as possible. A few minutes later, we were sat on my bed, her hands curled round a cup. With her puffy red eyes, she looked like a pink little fairy. She snuggled up to me and sniffed, "Thanks, Julia."
I put my arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry about it. And we're not going to let them kick you out. You're going to see Professor Golding and ask to redo it, and I'm going to help you."
She sniffed again. "Thanks Julia," as though she was stuck on a record.
"But I don't understand," I said, "you're usually so good at this. Exactly how did you do so badly?"
She shook her head with a sudden ferocity. "Oh, I don't know! First I couldn't think what to write it on, then I got distracted, and I…" her voice so soft I could barely hear her, "… I'm not sure I really like classics, either."
She sounded so miserable, so utterly downcast because she didn't like the classics that I couldn't help it; I burst out laughing. Cinderella fixed me with a ferocious glare. She exploded, "It's not funny! It's very serious!"
I tried to contain myself for my angry Cinderella. I said, "If you don't like it, why don't you just change to another course?"
"I can't!" she said, rather shrilly.
"Sure you can. Just write to the arch chancellor and ask."
"No," she said, "I mean, what if I don't like that one either?"
"Then change to another one!" I laughed. "Gosh, Cinders. You sure are picky."
She said, "Stop laughing." She was looking at me with such puffy, fierce eyes and tight jaw that quite quickly, I stopped laughing. But then, her tight face relaxed. She shot me an apologetic look and murmured, "Sorry. It's just, you don't understand."
"Well," I said gently, "I won't, unless you tell me."
I took her hand, to show I forgave her. She glanced up at me and bit her lip. "It's just that, all I've done for years is dream of coming here. The scholarly city of Oxford! The city of dreaming spires! Then I studied so hard, and won the scholarship and I begged Daddy to allow me to go. My family's just an ordinary family, you know. They don't know anything about scholars. What I learned I had to learn myself. After school everyday I stayed and read every book in the library, and when I went to sleep all I dreamed about was Oxford. And now everyone at home is so proud of me; they think I'm going to become a famous professor, and I… I…" her face scrunched up and she said, "I hate it! It's nothing like I imagined it. Everyone treats me like a child; the lectures are boring, not inspiring!; the lecturers all smell like old cabagge, and the men here- the crème de la crème of the intelligencia- are more interested in what's in their pants than becoming professors! I've had five men propose marriage to me in the last two months. What's wrong with these people? "
I paused, and said, "I didn't quite think it was that bad."
"Exactly!" she said. "Exactly! I'm the only one who feels this way. There must be something wrong with me for me to be like this. Something about me that doesn't fit."
"No," I said, "I think you're just expecting too much. Even if it's the city of dreaming spires, Oxford's just a city. Oxford university's just a university. People are just people; good and bad." I struggle, but manage to force out the words, "For me, it was just a place to go. Somewhere where I could immerse myself in books and learning and forget about Silene. And I… I wanted to prove to her, to them that even if… if I was perverted, I could still achieve something. I wanted to be better than them."
She peeked at me from under her wet eyelashes. She said, "You are better then them."
"I'm not," I said. "Nobody's better than anybody else. If you think you're better, you end up being worse. For a long time, that was my mistake."
Cinderella twisted her lip like she wasn't too sure about this. I said, "The thing is, Oxford isn't some fairy tale place. It's just a place, like any other place. And even if some of the professors smell like cabbage, they do actually know what they're talking about. And some of the lectures are dull, I know, but it depends what you're looking for in them. And even if some of the guys are, for lack of a better word" I smiled, "merde, some of them actually aren't too bad. And you know, once you get past the proposal you're smooth sailing!" Then I asked, "What did you write about in your essay, anyway?"
"The Greek-Persian conflicts."
"Well of course you were bored!" I said. "There's nothing more dull than war and battles. Why ever did you pick that for?"
She mumbled something that sounded like, "That's what everyone else was doing…"
"Well, they would. But you should have picked something you were interested in."
She said, rather indignantly, "Well what did you pick then?"
I grabbed my essay from the top of the dresser and handed it to her. She read, "Reconstructing ancient Greek society through poetry." She paused, and asked, "We could have done poetry? Who did you do?"
"Homer, mostly. But the nine lyric poets too." Nervously now, I flipped through to a certain page and said, "For part of it, I wanted to show how attitudes to what we call inverts were different then. Sappho wrote love poetry about women and was a highly respected poet. I… um, thought it was kind of interesting."
She took the paper from me again and flipped through it. "Huh," she said. "What did Professor Smith say?"
"He gave me a good mark, but… he didn't exactly comment on that part."
"Why not?" she demanded. "He can't just ignore it. We should go and—"
"I'm not going to force anyone to think the way I think," I said, firmly. "I've had enough of people trying to do that to me."
"But you can't let them just walk all over you—"
"No," I said. "I'll write what I want to write. It's up to others if they want to listen."
Cinderella sat back with a sigh. She dropped the essay onto the floor with a fwak!
She said, "When I came to this university I was sure that I was so smart. Now I'm starting to wonder if I know anything." She picked at her nail and said, "Just like they said; I'm a kid. I thought coming here would be like entering a fairy tale, like I could be my own Cinderella. You know, I even thought I was going to meet Prince Charming," her voice was bitter. "Geez, what was wrong with me?" Her eyes flicked up at me, bright and glowing. There was something in there; a question, or an invitation. She said, "I can't be trusted to make my own decisions. I need a reason to stay. Someone needs to tell it to me."
She took my hand. What she was asking me ran from her fingers to mine, like electricity. But even before she asked me, I already knew my answer.
-When it struck how similar this moment is to one from the past. And Cinderella's hair was blond, not black, her fierce lips another pair of smaller, coyer lips. Dimples that weren't there before. Silene sat in front of me on the bed, waiting for me.
"Julia? Are you alright?"
You have no idea how difficult it was for me to pull back from that moment, because of how hard, how desperately I wanted to stay there with Silene. But I pulled back, till it was Cinderella sat there, looking perplexed.
I leant forward and kissed her, very softly, more like a butterfly kiss than a real kiss, lips connecting lightly and smoothly. My nose touched against the softness of her pale cheek. For a moment, I could have sworn I felt a shiver run through her body.
I said, "So stay."
We don't call Cinderella Cinderella anymore. "I grew out of my glass slippers," she explained, to the boys who asked one day, after class.
"That's a shame," said Short Stuart. "I kind of wanted to make you my fairy tale princess."
Maggie looked over at me. We exchanged a secret smile. "Sorry," she said, "I graduated out of the castle." She reached her hand out for mine. I picked up my books, took her arm, and we strode away.
"What?" Stuart exclaimed behind us loudly. "You mean she has a boyfriend?"
This is something I'm not sharing with anyone. I made that mistake already once. What Maggie and I have will belong only to us.
I don't know why I write these letters anymore.
Whenever Eva spends the night at her boyfriend's, Maggie comes round and we talk late into the night. We sit on the bed with our feet touching and tell stories, and whenever Maggie laughs, her laugh vibrates through her like a cello string and gets into my soles. We talked so late, last night, that the lamp dimmed and flickered out and I had to go out and ask for more paraffin.
When I came back, Maggie had gone. She snuck out of the dark behind the door, hung her arms around my neck and kissed me.
I said, "I've dropped the paraffin."
She said, "Forget the bloody paraffin for a minute."
She kissed me. I forgot it.
We didn't mean for it to happen, but Maggie fell asleep by my side. And that night, I had the same dream again. Except that this time—
The sunlight woke us. Streamed through the window in ribbons and made everything soft and light. We had slept with our hands clasped. I said, "I had a dream about you."
For a few minutes, I'll admit, all I could do was stand there and stare. It wasn't the shock of seeing you again, or even how much you'd changed. It was the idea of you. I had never contemplated that the idea of you, and the idea of St Hilda's reception room could go together. It was like two worlds had collided; a horse in a pig sty, or wearing yellow to a funeral. I stood in the doorway, with the sudden need to laugh.
But there was something tragic in there, too.
For a while now, especially since I had met Maggie, I had been building a notion in my mind that I had lived two lives. That I could carefully score down Marlow and Oxford, before and after, amputate the old in a single surgical procedure.
But then you, Silene, were sitting there with your legs crossed at the ankles, looking so domesticated you were almost bovine, and it was all I could do to hold back laughter.
"Julia?" Jacob was up in my face, just like always. "What are you doing just standing there? You've got such an odd look on your face."
I followed the buttons up his shirt, climbed his collar up to his eyes. It was always a struggle to look at my brother. Because he was so tall, he was always looking down on people.
I said, "It's nice to see you too."
I spoke quite blandly. There's something about Jacob's biblical sincerity that kills sarcasm, or humour. The most trivial of things is spoken like a pronouncement. Even his harshest of criticism is intoned like he's trying to help you become a better person.
I always feel oddly ashamed, talking to Jacob.
He made a strange little half-movement like he was going to embrace me, and thought better of it. He turned it into a hand on my back, guiding me firmly over to Silene. He said some pointless piece of politeness, like, "I hope you've been well."
You had been gaping out the window so dreamily it was as though you were only half there. At Jacob's voice you looked up with a smile, but at the sight of me your red lips opened into a childish little O of surprise.
For a long trembling moment, charged with the years and awkwardness of intimacy, we looked at one another. Jacob coughed.
I think for the sake of saying something, you said, "Julia. You look different."
I said, quite softly, "Do I?"
"Your hair," you said.
"I like it shorter now."
"You're different as well," I said.
"My makeup," you said.
No, I thought. Not the way you look. You.
"Why don't I show you around?" I said.
You agreed, and I took you and Jacob on a tour round the college. And as you got a good look at St Hilda's, I had the time to get a good look at you. Do I even know you any more, Silene? Have you become a dreamer since I knew you? You floated around the college, absently brushing your hand against tables, shelves, books. Why the childish need to touch everything? It's been two years, but you feel younger than when I knew you. Or were you always this way, but I never noticed?
There's nothing of Cornwall in you now.
I can't help but wonder if the Silene I knew was one I constructed in my head.
"This is the college library," I said. The words fell flat as soon as they left my mouth. Jacob and Silene stood beside me.
"I see," said Jacob.
"And…" I had conducted tours here for schoolchildren, but all I could think to say was, desperately, like a schoolchild myself, "that's where I sit."
It was unbearable.
Suddenly, your hand was on my arm. Gentle, pitying, and quietly apologetic. "I'm glad you're keeping busy," she said.
I jerked away. "And through here," I said, my voice unnaturally high, "is the reading room." I strode away, very quickly. The room was empty. "The architecture is 15th century design, as you can tell by the distinctive arches. And the chairs are-"
"Julia," Jacob said.
"-are, are the work of famous Italian designer who also-"
"Julia," Jacob said. "We have to talk."
"Who also… also…"
The words died in my throat. Since I'd read the letter, I'd known this was coming.
I said, "Sit down then. Do you want tea? That's a stupid question; I know you've never liked tea Silene. But I think Eva might have some coffee and I can-"
"Julia," Jacob said. "We're getting married."
We were sat opposite one another and until today I'd never noticed how loudly the grandfather clock ticks and the tree outside can tap against the window or how loudly someone in the other room can hum or something, anything.
And yet I nodded, and accepted this quite calmly.
Jacob leaned across the gulf between us and handed me what I assumed is an invitation. I don't know; I didn't even look at it. And at the same time, my hands didn't even shake.
Jacob smiled at me, a very older brotherly smile, like he was proud of my behaviour. "What I think," he said pragmatically, "is that this is a good chance to heal the rift between the family." He inclined his head, so I knew that by family he meant the family and me. "Our union should also be our family's union. We miss you at home, Julia. And when you think about it, it makes no sense we should be estranged just because of some silliness in the past."
My hands clenched in my lap. What we had was silliness but yours was a union. Desperately, I sought out your eyes but you were looking determinedly away. So calm and dreamlike, like I couldn't see the agitation of your foot, like every other time you were nervous.
Jacob sat back, squeezed his fiance's hand in his. "We're just on our way to London to pick out the flowers. Silene's thinking lilies right now, aren't you darling?"
You looked up, and your answering smile was like a breaking dawn, soft and honey comb. And until that point there had still been a part of me that was an observer behind a pane of glass, separated by the vacuum of time. But at that point, your smile hooked me like a lure, dragged me back. And we were in the cabin in the summer that was ours only, and that sunshine smile had been only mine.
The same smile you looked at my brother with.
It felt as though I was burning. My chest burned white hot, as though my insides were on fire. I couldn't look away from that awful smile. I wanted to cry out, but clamped my mouth shut. I don't move, didn't trust myself to breathe. I would be incinerated in my seat, terribly, silently, and no one would even notice.
"Are you okay?" someone said softly in my ear, and Maggie's hand closed over my shoulder. And the heat began to leave me, to fade away like she was drawing it out with her fingertips, like a splinter. I drew a deep ragged breath, and turned my head away, towards the axis of Maggie's eyes.
Notes; The places mentioned are all real. St Hilda's was one of Oxford's first all-women colleges, though I've never been there and so taken some artistic liberty with it! Marlow is a town in Buckinghamshire and Leighton is in Dorset. I once went camping on the cliffs between two villages called Portreath and Porthtowan and my feelings towards the place are much the same as Julia's. There's no where in England quite like Cornwall.
'Invert' was the terminology used in the day for gays and lesbians, though if you were an invert it meant not just an attraction to the same gender but that you posessed some of the qualities of both genders. Basically, I imagine that butch lesbians and camp gay men were the easiest for the scientists to find. Inverts were members of 'the third sex' which I'm sure confused a lot of feminine lesbians and masculine gay men at the time... The term doesn't really apply to either Julia or Maggie but it wasn't until later we started using the word 'homosexual.' Lesbianism, in particular, was something that was swept under the carpet, not even known about by much of the population, till the row over Radclyffe Hall's 'Well of Loneliness' which was banned for its depiction of 'inverts.' The book went to trial and was banned in England, but of course, as the way goes with such things, became incredibly popular for it...
Just a little history lesson for you there... Most people I've met hate The Well so I was suprised to find that it was an amazing book! But it is wonderfully melodramatic, and I am a sucker for melodrama...