NaNoWriMo

The First Chapters that have been scraped for A Terrible Beauty

These are the first two chapters that I wrote and then realised they didn’t work so well. Please ignore spelling mistakes and tense problems as they have been checked but not edited. Enjoy

A Terrible Beauty

Chapter 1

“Ash!” The voice cut through the crowded train station and a tall woman turned, the sneer on her face disappearing as she came face to face with the petite blond in front of her. Suddenly and dramatically Ash’s larger face was crowned with a smile.

“Yes, Jennifer?” She said it pleasantly enough, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes, giving her a very hard expression, although Jennifer didn’t appear to notice.

“Can I take the dog?” With a sigh Ash handed the lead over to her bouncing sister. Her actions were more those of a fourteen year old than a woman of almost forty. Not that Ash was against acting younger than you are, but still she found Jennifer’s actions disturbing and embarrassing. Looking around she noted eyes that are turned in their direction were mostly male and all are fixed on Jennifer’s small but perfectly trim figure. Not for the first time Ash felt like some hand-me down she had been forced to wear as a child. Not Jennifer’s hand-downs obviously, but some friend of a friend’s. When the genes had been handed out Ash had got the larger ones. Standing at just under six feet and with what could be described as a stocky frame, in the past, her sister had often referred to her as the horsey help.

In the station Ash watched her sister bounce along and then come to a halt as a guard asked to see her ticket. Dismissively she waved a hand in Ash’s general direction saying, “She has it.” Without a backward glance she entered the train and the guard walked over.

“Madame,” he said, “is the Mademoiselle with you?”

“Oui, merci.” Ash handed over the ticket. The guard looked at it, handed it back and moved on to speak to another passenger. Ash looked at the suitcases at her feet and guessed she would be moving them herself. All along the sleeper train people were boarding, but Ash never expected help and seldom received it. She had always been a Madam, never a Mademoiselle. Entering the carriage she glanced back, looking for the tell-tale blue of a police uniform. Nothing. She was hoping that they wouldn’t catch up, not yet anyway. For the first time a smile danced across her face and the plain woman was transformed into something remarkable.

“Ash,” Jennifer screamed from inside the carriage.

Ash sighed, giving the vaulted ceiling a glance; it truly was a wonderful place to start a journey. The only thing she was uncertain about was whether it was the beginning or the end. She hoped that it was a new beginning, but first there was Jennifer. As if hearing her thoughts her sister appeared and shook her arm.

“Laertes has escaped,” she cried, tugging at Ash’s sleeve as if trying to pull the already shapeless jumper into the train on its own.

“Did you drop the lead?” Ash asked, talking as if to a child and not her older sister.

“He was too strong.” Jen flapped her arms as if to accentuate her weakness, the summer dress floating around her. Her image was of some ethereal being of an indeterminable age fully in control, despite the fact that this soft fragile thing was truly as hard as nails and an incredible bitch, but she hid it well, her true nature. I was the only thing that Jennifer and Ash had in common.

“He is a whippet!” Ash cried, heaving the bags into the carriage and dumping them at her feet. “Stay here.” She then walked swiftly down the corridor. At the end she could already see the quivering form of Laertes huddled into a corner. The dog really was a little undernourished, but Ash had only bought him a week or so ago from a breeder. The poor dog had been used all its life and Ash felt mean that she was continuing the tradition.

Standing about ten feet away she snapped her fingers. “Laertes, come.” The dog tilted his head to one side as if considering her request and then trotted over. He still quivered, but as he leaned into her leg, Ash stooped and scratched behind his ear. “Not to worry boy, we’ll both get out of this.” The dog looked at her as if unconvinced. “I promise.”

“Ash,” Jennifer called again. She was walking along the corridor without the bags, but as she sashayed down Ash caught a glimpse of a guard carrying the cases. He had an adoring look on his face as he followed her sister, eyes glued to her pert exterior. Ash snorted in disgust and Laertes sneezed his agreement. Jen looked around and said in a stage whisper, “Must you.”

“Must I what?” Ash asked, innocently.

The guard interrupted, “Madamoselle? What is your cabin number?”

Jen smiled at the guard, dripping candy, and then scowled at Ash. “Well?”

Ash sighed, “Eight.”

“Bon,” the guard said and then motioned them forward. Ash moved, in the lead. She hated being followed but the corridor was too small to let her sister and adoring stalker pass. They reached the cabin and Ash removed the card key. She slipped it into the lock and stood back as Jennifer entered first, followed swiftly by the guard. She heard the guard put the cases down and her sister give her thanks. The guard then existed, stopping in front of her. “Madame, keep the dog on a lead and secure at all times. Merci.” He gave her a look that suggested he saw her as a bug, nothing of any importance.

Ash said nothing, just stared and then for a moment she looked at him with all the hate she felt, and she smiled, a grin that began in her gut and showed her teeth. The guard stepped back, coughed and turned, walking away as quickly as he could. Just as Ash dipped her head through the door Jen pushed her out.

“Is Andre still here?”

“No.”

Jennifer pouted. “Oh, I was hoping he’d get me some water.” She looked one way and then the other and then flounced into the cabin. Ash followed feeling somehow too large for the room.

“There should be a tap in the bathroom,” She said companionably.

“Don’t be disgusting,” Jennifer’s brow furrowed into a frown.

Ash just shrugged and looked at the bags, which were sitting unhelpfully in the middle of the room, making everything too cramped. Turning around she saw the rack, as the brochure had suggested, against one wall. She placed both cases on it. Of course the brochure had been a stylised drawing and plan, not mentioning the blandness of the decor. The Orient Express this train was not. All that came to Ash’s mind was beige. Even Laertes seemed at a loss, standing next to Ash and picking one foot up at a time.

At least there was an ensuite. Sharing a bathroom couldn’t have happened, she needed privacy for what she wanted to do; her task would be impossible without it. Looking out of the two picture windows she watched the crowds move past and the goodbyes. Jennifer walked over and looked at the windows and then at Ash.

“Well?”

“What?” Ash asked.

“Where do I get water?”

“There’s a snack carriage further back in the train.” Ash indicated the way they had come.

Jen sniffed and opened the door. “Come on, Laertes.”

“No,” Ash said, “the dog stays here.”

“I don’t see…”

“You let him go.”

“He was too strong,” Jen complained, a whine in her voice.

Ash turned and looked at her, smiling without any humour. “Exactly.”

Jen pouted but when Ash gave no reaction she left, slamming the door. Ash sighed and began to relax. She looked down at Laertes and he thumped his tail. Going over to the bed-side cupboard she took one of the tumblers on top and filled it in the bathroom, then placed it on the floor. The small room contained a sink, toilet and shower and was surprisingly roomy. Unclipping Laertes’ lead Ash stroked his head, marvelling at his red colouring. “Lucky I found you.” The dog just looked at her, his tail rapping a sharp tattoo on the carpet, before having a drink.

There were two beds in the room, one on top of the other, but the top bunk was folded away, leaving the bottom with enough head room to sit on it. Not that she needed to, there were two chairs in front of two identical picture windows. But Ash needed the bed to look more like a sofa. Quickly and gracefully, now that she was not being observed, Ash began to rearrange the bedding into a sofa. As she did she pondered on Jen’s recent appearance. It had been a week ago. She had been working one of her normal days, basically administration in the morning and tourists in the afternoon.

Ash didn’t mind working as a conservation restorer, she got to work on her own and it was intricate work. It allowed her to embrace her perfectionist side. She had been getting the dust from an intricate carved sideboard, carefully using her badger haired brush to softly tease the particles from around the swirls and flowers. She’d been totally absorbed and hadn’t heard one of the volunteers come in until there was a light touch on her arm. She had swung toward the intrusion with her fist clenched around the paintbrush, holding it more like a knife than an artistic accessory. Mrs White had stepped back, a hand to her throat in fear. Ash had immediately snapped out of the stance and smiled apologetically.

“I am sorry, Mrs White,” Ash had said, putting down the innocent brush. “Is everything okay?”

Mrs White had blustered a bit, as if trying to hide her reaction. Ash had watched with amusement as her face had changed to a red hue, clashing remarkably with her blue rinsed white hair. For a moment she had wondered if her volunteer would collapse and she would have to call on the first aid certificate which, up to this point, had remained useless. Just as Ash was getting used to the idea, Mrs White’s colour returned to normal and she waved a weak hand toward the door.

“You have a visitor,” she gasped.

Ash nodded in thanks and, as she passed, she looked down at the old lady. “Perhaps you ought to sit down.”

Mrs White had nodded at Ash’s retreating back. Taking a shaky breath she looked at the brush. For just a moment she was sure that Ash would have plunged the wooden handle into her, her face had been so determined. Shaking, she warned herself against such silly thoughts. Ash was kind and obviously very easily spooked. Walking to the door she decided not to go back to her post at the front door straight away, but to take a quick tea break. She hurried out, but Ash was already gone. Mrs White shrugged and turned away from the tourist section and toward the staffroom.

Ash walked swiftly though the private part of the house. At least that is what she called it, liking to pretend that it was her own property, rather than the fact it had been turned into a tourist attraction. She found it a constant struggle to make the house believe it was occupied. Ash knew that sounded odd, but the house was old and needed to be kept at a certain temperature and just have people in it all the time. Unfortunately, because the house was a tourist attraction it closed down during the winter and, although Ash would turn up when she could, the house would always become a little too cold and a little damp. Although she loved the job she did she, still felt that the house was a waste having been converted into a low-impact fairground ride. Once she had lived in a house like this, just as big, a gentleman’s residence. Yet that had been as cold as this house, but in different ways.

Ash reached her office, which would have once been the butler’s quarters, but was now stylishly decorated in a semi modern feel. There inside, sitting on a bottle green leather sofa, and shifting uncomfortably as the bare backs of her legs stuck to it, was her sister. Ash had stopped, amazed. She hadn’t seen Jennifer for almost twenty years and just seeing her had transported her to the last time. Standing out on the gravel in the drive way Ash had been leaving for university. Her sister had rolled up in a brand new Jaguar, skidding in the gravel. Ash had been saying goodbye to the people who had been as close as parents ought to be. She had stepped back, away from the spray of sharp stones. Silently the Ashfords had disappeared as all good servants are able.

Jennifer had hurled herself from the car. “You can’t go!” she had screamed, running over to Ash and stumbling slightly in her designer heels, her short mini dress bouncing.

Ash simply placed the last bag in her battered car and turned to face her irate sister.

“You can’t go,” Jennifer repeated, standing in front of Ash with her hands clenched in tight fists and her face ugly with anger.

“You mean to university?”

“Yes.”

“Why ever not?” Ash had asked calmly. Once, this outcry would have concerned her and made her fearful of repercussions from her parents, but now she knew that no matter what, she was safe.

“You will disappear,” Jennifer had sneered. “I know you and you will just walk away.”

“Really?”

Jennifer stopped there and nodded. “Don’t deny it.”

Ash had looked at her with analytical eyes. “I won’t. I will go to university and I will not come back here. If you ever need me then you will have to find me.”

“Mum and Dad let you do this?” Jennifer asked, flapping her arms.

“Yes.” Ash leaned forward and grinned. “And they are paying for it all.”

“What?” Jennifer screamed.

Ash ignored her outcry and continued in the same vein. “And in turn I won’t change my name. So, if you ever need me you will find me.” Of course, at the time Ash had decided to move around and make it as difficult as she could for them to actually do this.

Now, as she watched her sister fidget on the sofa Ash remembered the triumph she had felt as she had driven away. She had thought she was free, yet they had found her. But then Ash had stayed too long here. She had become too comfortable and now she would have to pay the price. But it could fall into the plan quite brilliantly. She smiled and placed her foot gently on the board she knew was squeaky. Leaning her weight on it she intentionally allowed the noise to fill the silent hall. As Jennifer started to turn Ash moved into the room, a smile on her face.

“Jennifer?” She said, sitting behind her desk. “How are you?”

Jennifer had smiled and looked at her, judging her. “Not good. How are you?” She leaned forward, perched on the very edge of the seat, as if this answer was something so very important. And, Ash mused, she supposed it was.

“I am fine, Jen.”

Jennifer winced. “Don’t shorten my name,” she snapped. Then looking around the room she smiled. “I see you are still happy with the servant’s way of life.”

Ash raised an eyebrow, for her brain-addled sister that retort hadn’t been too bad. “I run the place.”

Jennifer had started a little at that. “So, little Ash grew up.”

Ash laughed without humour. “Actually that’s Dr Ash.”

Jennifer sneered, her heavily made-up face as ugly now as it had been then. “You can’t escape. I want what is mine.”

Ash just looked at her for a moment and in her head she answered. I can escape but I choose not to. Out loud she nodded, “I suppose.”

Jennifer suddenly relaxed and smiled. “Anyway,” she said, her voice full of light and laughter. “I only want a kidney; it’s not as if it is anything that you don’t have two of.”

“A kidney?” Ash said, “I always thought it would be your liver that went.”

Jennifer shrugged. “No, I have something wrong with my kidneys. The doctors didn’t believe me when I said to them not to worry. All I needed was to track down my sister. They had been worried about compatibility but I told them you were a match.”

Ash said nothing.

“Mum and Dad send their love.”

“No they don’t,” Ash said blandly.

“No, you’re right, they don’t.”

Ash had then told Jennifer about her trip and asked her if she would like to join her. They were due to take a flight back to London when the train got into Munich. Ash had managed to put off the talk about the kidney until they caught that flight. Sitting on her makeshift sofa Ash smiled and stretched. Perhaps she would, but then perhaps not.

Laertes lay at her feet and Ash watched the crowds go past, mostly just people-watching, but also checking for that tell-tale blue. Both were just starting to drop off when Jennifer flounced back into the room.

“I found the water.”

“Good,” Ash said, shifting in her seat.

“Oh, you made a sofa,” Jennifer exclaimed and sat on the unoccupied half, putting her feet onto Ash’s lap. Laertes growled softly in his throat and Ash gave him a smile with just her eyes. His tail thumped briefly as if understanding. Just as Jennifer had planned Ash got up and moved to one of the chairs. Although Ash felt vulnerable at exposing her back she also liked the fact that only Jennifer’s face would be visible easily.

“How have you been?” Ash asked, just to kill time before they started to move.

Jennifer shrugged as she settled into the sofa. “Partying. Mum and Dad have been hoping I’ll marry well. To keep up the family name.” She opened her sparkling mineral water and took a drink. “I haven’t found anyone I want to be with, all the time.” She scowled at Ash and with a laugh in her voice said, “what about you?”

Ash smiled. She knew that Jennifer didn’t really believe that she could have anyone. After all, who would want her overly large frame and long features, “I have someone. Or rather had someone. He doesn’t approve of this trip.” Ash shrugged.

“Don’t worry,” Jennifer said. “You’re better off without one. They are nothing but trouble, wanting sex all the time.” She paused, obviously enjoying herself. “You have had sex, haven’t you?”

Ash wasn’t going to answer. Jennifer was about to open her mouth again when the train lurched and she was cut off. Laertes jumped to his feet and Ash placed a hand on his head in comfort. Jennifer watched as the train pulls out of the station. Ash went over to their bags and opened her own. Taking a bright pink wash bag from it she turned her back on Jennifer.

Jennifer watched her for a moment, but went back to looking at the scenery. Ash took a syringe and filled it with a clear liquid. Carefully, she measured the amount and then, turning, she held her hand behind her back.

“Do you take drugs?” she asked Jennifer.

Jennifer shrugged. “Yeah. I’ve been in rehab twice.” Then, turning to Ash she frowned. “Why?”

Ash smiled. “Just wondering.”

Ash was now standing above Jennifer and she grabbed her arm in a vice-like grip. Plunging the syringe into her neck, she depressed the plunger. Jennifer’s eyes widened but before she could scream her eyes started to droop. Ash brushed a loose strand of Jennifer’s hair out if her eyes and leaned in close. “There is more to me than you realise.” As Jennifer lost consciousness Ash re-arranged her on the sofa so that she was comfy and went calmly back to her bag, replacing the syringe.

 

 

Chapter 2

Ash sat in one of the chairs, crossed her ankles and leaned back. She had just over thirteen hours and was in no rush. Laertes came over and placed his head on her knee; looking into her eyes with such confidence that Ash had to smile. She had thought to drug the dog with her sister but he had become so obedient that there was no need. He would do as he was told. Frowning she turned to the window. The one behind her didn’t open but the other had a small catch. It meant it could only be opened about four inches. It would need to open far wider than that.

Going over to her bag she removed her tool kit. It was wrapped as if containing no more than artist brushes, but then these were her brushes and with them she created art. Rolling out the wrap she ran her hand over the embroidery on the flap that held the implements in their pockets. It was done by a child’s hand and showed a line of crude herons along the flap. She had been ten when she had made it.

The school had been the small local one and not the larger boarding school that Jennifer had gone to. Ash had been a quiet child, really out of necessity. The kids in the school had seen her as a quick and easy target. Even now she was sensitive about her height, although with a friends help she had been able to stand up straight. But those school years had seen the first sign of rolled shoulders and lank hair used to cover her face. She had never had a boyfriend, none would take her on; she was taller than them and in school speak that had meant she was seen as a freak. Still, she had enjoyed the lessons and although sewing wasn’t a favourite she had liked the pattern of needle and thread. Her teacher had said that even with clean hands she could make white cotton dirty, but for this project they had picked out a rough calico.

Ash had then looked high and low for a motif. In the end it had been something as simple as a bird glimpsed on the local flooded field. She had liked to sit and watch the water eddy and shift in the strong wind, driving it between the roots of an oak that had become stranded. And there, one day, had been a heron, its grey feathers looking almost pale blue and its belly silver. It had stood like a statue and for a moment Ash had wondered if it had been, then it had thrust its head under the water only to rise with food. On the fence at the edge of the field Ash had sat forward. The lake was truly a field and therefore held no fish, yet this bird had found something to eat. She had wished at that moment to have a pair of binoculars, but although her young eyes were good she was not able to see what the bird had caught. All she knew was that it hadn’t been a fish.

The next day in biology she had ask Mrs Jarvis but she had shrugged. “I don’t know. Ask Miss Landon,” she had said.

“The sewing teacher?” Ash asked surprised.

“Yes.” And with a wave of her hand dismissed her.

So that lunch time she had found Miss Landon in her room, cleaning out the silks. “Miss Landon?” she called tentatively.

The young teacher had turned and smiled seeing Ash. Miss Landon found the tall child perplexing. She knew that her family were moneyed and she also knew that the girls guardians were not her parents. Yet Ash was always well dressed and although her hair could to with a better cut Miss Landon thought she would grow into a striking young woman. “Yes, Ash?”

“Mrs Jarvis said that I was to ask you…” It was as if Ash had run out of breath. She just stood in a too short skirt and scuffed shoes staring at the floor.

“What is it, Ash?” Miss Landon asked not unkindly but aware that her lunch hour was quietly ticking away.

“I saw a heron,” Ash began and then told the story.

Miss Landon sat on her chair behind her desk and pulled open a book. She flicked through the pages until she found the bird she wanted than she beckoned the girl over.

“The heron.”

Ash nodded.

“Look at the food it eats.”

“Frogs,” Ash exclaimed.

Miss Landon nodded. “That would be my guess.” She watched for a moment as Ash traced the strong image of the bird. “Would you like to use this on your project?”

Ash had blushed. “I’m not that good.”

“Perhaps, but the heron has many different guises.” She had then pointed at the bookshelf containing a number of books on symbols. “I’d start with the totem book.” She got up and put on her coat. Ash watched but didn’t move. “Do you have lunch with you?” Ash nodded. “Excellent. Then use this time to look over the books.” With that she grabbed her bag and left.

Ash watched her go, knowing that Miss Landon probably knew about the bullying and was being kind by allowing her to stay in this room. She looked down at the illustration of the heron; it would be cool to put it on the paint brush case she was making. Getting a number of books she sat herself at one of the desks and went through them. The most interesting though had been the animal totems. Not only had she found the symbol to embroider along the flap but she had also found what the heron meant; self-reliance and aggression, something that Ash had been determined to emulate.

The heron had become her totem and had followed her throughout school and into adulthood, but the next time the animal entered her life was even more unexpected. Ash had moved up into the secondary school and was a couple of months off her sixteenth birthday. The students surrounding her no longer bullied, but then it was due to a lack of reaction on her part rather than them liking her. Miss Landon was a memory and the heron, although with her in the margins of her exercise books or doodled on paper, was nothing more than an ideal, one that Ash knew she was far from emulating. She had been able to realise the dream a little, or at least express herself when she had first gone into Mr Jones’ class.

Art at exam level was seen as an easy subject but as far as Ash was concerned it was what kept her sane. Here she could hide in the background; a too lanky child with a short shock of hair that made her look more like a wild Aunt Sally than a young woman. She had kept her head down and done the work, but when Jones had come to tell them they needed to do a large piece of coursework her mind had gone a blank. Mr Jones had sat opposite her and laced his long fingers together.

“What would you like to do?” he asked in a cultured voice. It was the only thing that bothered her about him, his voice. It sounded too posh for him. And the fact that he had long fingernails. She really hated that. Maybe he played guitar but as he threaded those hands together she couldn’t suppress the shiver that run up her back.

In response she just shrugged.

“Come on Ash, you always have brilliant ideas.” When she said nothing, just looked at the paper in front of her, he had pulled it toward him. Looking down at the different doodles of herons he had smiled. “What about doing something with herons?”

Ash’s head had snapped up and she looked at him with bright eyes. Bur Mr Jones said nothing, he just got up, tapped the drawings and left. Ash sat looking at the birds and then wandered over to the class computer. Bringing up the search engine she typed in ‘heron’ and ‘painting’. At first all she found were a lot of motifs from totems to native-type images. But there was one painting that made her stop. It was a hare. Clicking on it she found that it was an impressionist painting. Mr Jones came up behind her and leaned over her shoulder.

“Impressionists?” he questioned. “Interesting artists.” He was leaning just a little too close and Ash felt her skin crawl. Mr Jones was a nice man in the classroom but he also had his favourite girls. There were rumours in school that they got to stay after and tidy the blackout cupboard. Ash never wanted to tidy that area. The thought of him all eager and thin was enough to make her heave. As he got a little too close to the side of her face, so she could smell the sweet sourness of his breath, she sidled from her chair and logged off the computer.

“I thought I’d check the books,” she said quietly, happy to be out of reach. She could hear the computer shut down in the background and for a moment she thought he would follow, but little miss Nat came up to him, red hair and small skirt. She wanted him to see her work and she pranced around him like an expectant puppy. She was a favourite. No, Ash never wanted to be in that group.

Going over to the shelves Ash blocked out all the sound and looked at the spines. On one of the bottom shelves she found it, an oversized book with a black glossy cover. It contained a huge number of paintings and letters between the different Impressionists. Picking it up she struggled with it to her desk. The bell went and Ash frowned.

“You can stay after,” Mr Jones said from behind her.

Ash’s spine stiffened and she shook her head. “I’m due home.”

“Shame.”

“Can I borrow it?”

“Yes, I suppose so. If you bring it back.”

She had struggled home with the huge volume and taken it to her room. There she had found what she was looking for; a heron, dead and strung up by the feet, its neck resting on a white sheet, with one magpie and two jays surrounding it. Perhaps it was the wings which were open and as beautiful in death as they had been in life, or maybe it was because of the fact that the heron had become a thing, not the beautiful creature that had been in the water all those years ago.

Ash had settled back on her bed, propped up by her plain white pillows, with a sketchbook in front of her. She had done a few doodles but nothing seemed right. It was almost as if she were not making art but copying another’s work. She glanced at the name, Brazille, had painted this in 1867 and he had seen it as his version of the well-used bowl of fruit. This was nothing more than a still life. She was stuck, unable to see how to implement her idea.

Then a scream had echoed through the house. If it have been the summer than Ash would not have been surprised. Jennifer would have been in the house and she was known for her sudden outbursts. But it was winter, although spring had been struggling. There were only herself and the Ashtons in the house. A quick glance at the clock as she moved from her bed and out the door showed it was six in the afternoon. Flying down the stair she found a distraught Maria in her husband’s arms. Ash couldn’t see properly but there appeared to be a red substance on her guardians hands.

“What happened?” Ash asked.

Benson turned his grizzled head toward her. “Aunty hit a bird.”

Ash hated that they insisted that she call them Aunty and Uncle but it was a small price to pay for the freedom she got. Even if at times all she truly wanted was a hug. Shaking herself Ash smiled at her Uncle. “What kind of bird?”

This just set her prim Aunt off again wailing and screaming. Uncle scowled at her and nodded to the open door. “Go see for yourself,” he snarled. Ash knew that what he wanted was for her to wail and break down the same way his wife did. He found her independent nature perplexing.

She moved to the open door and Aunt held out a blood-stained hand. “Don’t go,” she sobbed, “it is too horrible.” Her voice hitched to a high squeak and she buried her head into Ben’s shoulder. He began to make shushing noises and Ash silently left them to it. How Maria in her prim pencil skirts and blonde grey hair pulled into a tight bun had ever met the gruff and dirt encrusted Benedict, Ash had no idea. Or how they worked. In her own family Evelyn and Harold were always arguing, screaming about one thing or another, usually joined by the ear-splitting cry of Jennifer as well. No, Ash knew that she was better off here.

Walking over to the blue convertible, well there had to be some perks for looking after her, she looked into the back seat. Suddenly and unexpectedly Ash’s face split into a grin and the face that had seemed detached and uncaring was transformed by warmth. “Brilliant!” she cried.

“What?” Uncle said from behind. He had followed and had a large plastic bag in his hands. He looked shocked as if he had expected any reaction but this one.

“Can I have it?” she asked, practically bouncing.

Ben had never seen her look so animated and for a moment he was taken aback. Perhaps if they had accepted the child as theirs, instead of a burden, she might have been more like this. Except they had pushed the needy hands away and refused the hugs, making her into the girl he knew, silent and disapproving. He reacted to her smiles and echoed them with one of his own, shocked at the strangeness of it on his face. “Of course,” and he handed her the bag.

“And you can clean the car.” Maria’s waspish and nasal tone broke Ash’s smile. Ben looked away, finding her face almost painful to look at. He turned and looked at his wife, who he adored but knew that she was jealous for no reason. Maria had made him promise not to spend a lot of time with the child. “You are mine, Benedict Aston, and don’t you ever forget it.” And he never had, but sometimes his soul hungered for more. So he had turned himself into a bear, an angry bear that the child had run from when she was small and even now would avoid at all costs.

“Uncle,” Ash’s tentative voice said, her eyes downcast. “Can I have the bag?”

Right there on the drive he felt his heart crack, he had done a child, no a baby, a disservice. If he felt dispirited he went to Maria and she would hold his big frame in her stick thin arms and he would feel as if he were encased in porcelain, he would feel treasured. Who did Sharon turn to? He frowned down at the child.

From the corner of her eye Ash saw the frown and winced, waiting for the harsh voice to give a command or tell her off.

Instead Ben cleared his throat and he shuffled. “Call me Ben, not Uncle.” His voice was softer and lower than normal.

Ash blinked at the ground but said nothing.

“Why do you want the bird?”

“For a school project.”

Ben walked around Ash and looked into the back of the car. “A heron?” He sounded surprised. “Why do you want a heron?” He lowered his hand and pulled the bird out by its foot. It was surprisingly long and Ben had to hold it at shoulder height to stop its head hitting the floor.

Ash was speechless. The beauty that Ben held in his hand was astonishing. All she managed to whisper was, “it looks unhurt.”

Ben looked down at it and around the wings. A grey feather drifted down and landed near its head. “Just a little blood near the beak.”

“How did she hit it?”

Ben rolled his eyes. “She didn’t really, it was struck by a lorry driver and Maria stopped to see if it was alright. They are endangered so the guy just picked it up and threw it into her car.”

Briefly Ash’s eyes crinkled as her imagination transported her to that roadside. Ben saw and he frowned. “Why do you want it?” he repeated. “They won’t let you take it to school.”

“I know, but I need it to create a sculpture…” Ash trailed off, her eyes transfixed on the heron, but her mind already plotting the photographs.

“I don’t understand.”

Ash looked at Ben. “Wait here and I’ll show you.” Ben nodded and gently laid the bird onto the tarmac.

Turning, Ash ran into the house and headed for her room. Outside Ben inspected the blood inside the car. He was surprised that there hadn’t been more. A bucket of soapy water and he would be done in half an hour.

Ash came charging out of the house with a sketch pad. She opened it at a painting. “I want to recreate this.” She pointed at the bad reproduction of a painting.

Ben took the book from her and turned it toward the sun. He saw the birds and the sheet. It wouldn’t be too difficult. “Why?”

“For my exam.”

Ben handed it back, ashamed that as Ash took it a thumb print of blood stuck to the page. “Sorry.”

Ash shrugged.

“You have the heron, but what about the others?”

She just looked at the ground. Ben squinted at the sky thinking. “I could help.”

“Really?” she said, giving him a sharp look.

“Yes.”

“Okay.” That simple offer of help was the only time Ben ever attempted to say sorry for not raising her differently, and it was the only time Ash ever accepted the apology.

 

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