CLAIRE GLANCED BACK one last time at Sommerfied Place, as the car turned on to the main road. The sky was just beginning to lighten, and streaks of magenta coloured the eastern horizon. They had an eight o'clock flight from Heathrow, which would take her thousands miles away from all she knew and loved. As Sommerfield disappeared from view, the tightness in her chest refused to loosen, but it would do no good to cry. The choice had been made for her, and all she could do was make the best of the situation. After all, she was only going to be gone for a year, but she was never going to see her home again, at least not as some one who lived there.
Liana, away from Sommerfield and Daisy, let her hair down, talking more freely as the car proceeded north on the A22, with Colin at the wheel.
"I didn't realize how much I'd gotten used to left hand drive. It feels a little awkward with right hand again," Colin commented.
"Just as long as you get us to Heathrow in one piece kid brother," Liana said, then offered, "Do you want me to take over?"
"Certainly not!" he scowled, his male ego getting the better of him.
"Well then, don't complain."
"I wasn't complaining..."
They bickered affectionately with each other, and continued almost all the way to London. While Claire occasionally offered input, her mind was elsewhere, mainly on two people who had come to mean the most to her: Lance and Elsa, both of whom she was leaving behind in England.
Lance had left Sommerfield late yesterday evening and had driven to the City, where he went straight to the office and spent most of the night absorbed in company business, to take his mind of her departure. Before she left Sommerfield early this morning he rang her to say goodbye, promising to visit her for Christmas. That promise had made Claire's leaving less heart wrenching. She had also taken the time to ring Elsa who had returned to Cornwall to say good-bye, and promised to write soon.
Her mind remained on all that had transpired in her life since last summer. Undoubtedly, it had been the happiest time in her life. Claire tried to convince herself there would be more of those times to come. She just had to bear it out for a year, then she would be back here with Lance, her best friend, and all that was familiar.
Gawd, a year seems sooo long... She moaned inwardly.
"Come on little sister, we're here," Liana prodded Claire to awareness when they arrived at Heathrow.
It was only seven o'clock, but already the terminal was a hotbed of activity, with incoming and departing flights.
Before checking in their luggage, Liana and Colin decided to change into more comfortable clothing.
"You might want to do the same little sister," Liana suggested to Claire. "Trust me. Toronto at this time of year can be bloody murder for the heat and humidity. When we left, it was a scorching ninety-five degrees with a humidity level that made it seem more like a hundred and five. An exceptionally hot summer has been predicted, so I don't anticipate it'll be any better when we arrive. Come on." She led the way to the ladies' loo, taking the one medium sized suitcase she had brought. "Do you have anything light that's easily accessible? If not, you can wear something of mine. We are about the same size.
"It's all right, I packed a couple things at the top that might be suitable," Claire said as she followed Liana.
Liana emerged a few minutes later in blue jeans. Her long auburn hair was tied back with a red scarf that matched her western shirt and short cowgirl boots. Claire had dug out a pair of red jeans and the white cotton puff sleeved blouse she usually wore with it. Taking a cue from Elsa, Claire had gotten into the habit of not keeping articles of clothing past a year but she loved this particular outfit; it was so comfortable. She kept on the white pumps she had left home with, since it was impossible to dig out more comfortable shoes from her luggage.
"Perfect, little sis," Liana commented favourably when Claire rejoined her. "You'll be glad you changed. Let's get our luggage checked in, then we can go and have some coffee. I'm dying for another cup and I simply can't wait until we board." The first thing that struck Claire about her sister was that everything Liana did, was conducted in a brisk, efficient manner -- or maybe Liana had always been this way. There was a twelve-year difference between them, and Claire had always been a little in awe of this sister whom she hardly knew now. She remembered Liana as being self assured, sophisticated, and even distant.
By the time they emerged from the ladies' loo, Colin joined them, dressed in white jeans and a polo shirt that moulded to his well-toned, lean body like a second skin. With a bronze tan, and thick brown hair highlighted with blonde streaks from the Canadian summer sun, he looked more attractive than a man had a right to. His merry blue eyes certainly turned a lot of ladies' heads in the crowded terminal.
Looking at him, Claire immediately thought of her fiancé and felt a pang of regret, but forced herself to swallow the lump in her throat, willing herself to continue believing she would see him again soon. Noticing her melancholy expression, Colin affectionately placed his arm around her shoulder as they stood in line to check their luggage.
"Don't worry sis, you'll see how quickly the year will fly by," he reassured her. "Who knows, maybe you'll be able to persuade him to immigrate to Canada."
"I don't think so Col. Do you know who Lance really is?"
"No, but pray tell us, Lee and I are very interested," he said. Claire detected a slight note of patronization in his rich baritone voice. Nevertheless, Claire took the time to give them a very brief rundown on her fiancé.
"Very impressive little sis, and I honestly mean that," Colin remarked with sincerity.
"Oh dear, I'm afraid I must have come across as an insufferable snob," Liana groaned ruefully. "Will you apologize for me the next time you hear from him? That place was getting to me, and I just couldn't wait to get away."
Suddenly, Claire couldn't understand why Sommerfield Place seemed a long way off, although they were but a little over an hour's drive away. There was something about Liana and Colin that made them seem not so English anymore. Claire listened to them more closely than she had since they had arrived, and noticed that even their accents had become modified.
After checking their luggage, Liana made a beeline for the airport coffee shop, leaving her sister and brother with no alternative but to follow her. They had fifteen minutes before the boarding call and she meant to have that cuppa she was craving.
"She's behaving like someone addicted," Claire whispered whimsically to her brother.
"I dare say she is. When you pull as many all-nighters as she's been doing at the word processor, caffeine becomes a way of life. Poor Pete's been complaining he hasn't seen his wife in bed in nearly a month, now he's threatening to get a blow-up doll in her likeness," Colin chortled.
"I heard that," Liana shot back over her shoulder from two feet ahead.
While having coffee, Liana admitted to feeling extremely uncomfortable with the embittered woman Daisy had become. She would never understand how Daisy could remain with Bernie. The same kind of antipathy Claire felt toward her brother-in-law filled Liana's voice when the subject of Bernie came up. Claire stared shrewdly at her wondering if Bernie might have tried raping Liana too when she visited just after Bernie and Daisy were married.
They heard the boarding call, and hurried out of the coffee shop.
* * * *
THE PLANE TOUCHED down with a rough thud that would have thrown everyone forward, had it not been for seatbelts. Colin reached a reassuring hand over squeezed his little sister's, but Claire didn't feel the need for reassurance. The gin and tonic she had just finished before the landing announcement was made, had relaxed her. If anything, she felt an incongruous mixture of anticipation and sadness: Anticipation of being in a new country and seeing new surroundings and people, if only for a year. Having passed an almost sleepless night, she had slept for most of the flight, and awoken again about an hour before they were due to land. When she had ordered the drink, she pleaded with her sister and brother not to let on she was under age. Take off and landing always made her nervous on any flight, and she needed a little fortification.
"I didn't see it," Liana said with an understanding smile. Afterward, she and Colin filled Claire in on what she could expect of life in Canada.
"Nothing like the life we had at Sommerfield when mum and daddy were alive."
"I didn't expect it to be, but you must know mum and I finally got on quite well in the last few months, Lee, and I'll miss her just as much as I miss daddy," Claire admitted, and went on to explain the events of their lives together before Anne died.
A wistful expression clouded Liana's face at the news, but she quickly suppressed whatever emotion she was feeling. She did admit to being happy that Anne had started enjoying life again. Claire chose not to mention her suspicion that Anne had committed suicide, feeling it would better not to. While Liana might have been able to handle the news, Claire knew her brother wouldn't have. Colin had always been close to Anne.
A light tap on the shoulder by Liana jolted Claire back to the present. She glanced at her wristwatch. At a little after five in the afternoon, it looked like an ordinary, bright summer day.
"I say, that pilot ought to go back into training and take a few more flying lessons," Colin remarked wryly as the plane taxied into the terminal. "Phew! That felt like a close one. Anyway, my dear sisters, we're back on ol' terra ferma now, and I surmise we're safe." He got up from his seat and reached for his carry on bag from the overhead baggage compartment, anxious to get out. He had also imbibed quite a few martinis on the trip and didn't appear too steady as he rose.
"Thank heavens for G T," Claire held up her glass, while eyes were saying;
Did we land safely?
"I'm sorry sir, it's not safe for you to get up yet, please wait until the plane has taxied," an attractive raven-haired, stewardess approached and cautioned Colin.
"Whatever you say luv'," Colin turned on the charm. "Say, what are you doing tonight gorgeous?"
"Regretfully, getting rested for the flight back to London in the morning," she informed him in a lilting Yorkshire accent.
"Pity, you don't know what you're missing, darlin'," he flirted.
"Those are the breaks now, aren't they?" Before Colin could answer, another stewardess came and informed her she was needed in the galley.
Forty-five minutes later the two sisters and brother passed through customs, and picked up Liana's white Honda from the Park `n' Fly.
"Oh gawd, you were right about this heat, Lee," Claire remarked, already feeling the heat and humidity that had a body drenched in sweat with the slightest move of a muscle. Well, maybe she was exaggerating a little, but it was uncomfortable. Claire was thankful for having heeded Liana's advice this morning, and changed before boarding. She knew she would surely have fainted from heat exhaustion, had she been wearing the oatmeal coloured flannel Yves St Laurent suit she had left home in. They'd had a rather warm summer last year and it looked like England might be lucky again this year. Compared to this, England might as well have been in the tundra! The first thing Claire noticed at the crowded airport terminal was that a lot of people were wearing as little as possible, without breaking any laws against indecent exposure.
Liana chose to drive as they headed to the east end of the city in Thorncliffe Park where Helena and Colin shared a two-bedroom penthouse flat or apartment, as Liana apprised her sister of the North American terminology.
* * * *
CLAIRE BREATHED AN AUDIBLE sigh of relief as they entered Helena and Colin's air-conditioned apartment. Quickly dropping the overnight bag and her purse on the nearest chair, she sank into the comfortable sectional sofa. Moving even an inch seemed a major effort.
El would be as ecstatic as a pig in mud in this heat. She decided to write to her friend as soon as possible and tell her all about it.
Helena, dressed in a white silk caftan with silver brocade that superbly set off her glowing tan, was on the telephone when they entered. She barely spared a glance and a cool smile in their direction, and continued her conversation for another few minutes.
Hardly a warm welcome, Claire thought wryly. Oh well, maybe it is important.
She got a sinking feeling in her stomach, not unlike what she had felt with Daisy, as she looked at Helena on the telephone. Helena continued talking, deliberately oblivious to everything and everyone around her. From a few snatches of the conversation she heard, Claire deduced Helena was talking to a man, possibly her boyfriend.
Claire took the time to quickly scan the apartment. It was fairly large and tastefully furnished with Prussian blue upholstered and Swedish teak furniture, a blue, white and peach Oriental rug covered the conversation area of the L shaped living room, while the rest of the polished hardwood floor remained exposed. Modern impressionist prints hanging on white walls, echoed the colours already prevalent to the decor. Various hanging potted plants in brass pots near the Prussian blue acrylic-draped picture window, provided a touch of nature. While all the colours harmoniously blended together, a pervasive chilliness lingered in the atmosphere, Claire thought, feeling the chill go to her very soul. Maybe it had something to do with Helena's manner.
The operating theatre at a hospital would be more welcoming than this place.
"Come on sis, I'll show you around," Colin glanced at Helena still on the phone, and shook his head resignedly, as he led Claire away from the living room. He took her two large suitcases and deposited them in the room Claire would be sharing with Helena.
"Ohmygawd, Col, I don't think I like this arrangement," Claire complained, experiencing a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach at the thought of sharing a room with Helena, who was already acting as though her privacy had been invaded. "I get the distinct impression it couldn't matter less to her, having anyone around."
"That's very possible," Colin agreed, "but she's going through a rough time right now, luv'. She just broke up with her fiancé, and Helena can be a real bitch on wheels when she has man troubles."
"Well if she did, they must have reconciled, judging from snatches of the conversation I overheard."
"If that's the case, things should be rather ducky around here then," Colin responded drolly, not convinced. Claire didn't miss the dubious expression that momentarily clouded his face. "Cheer up, if things don't work out I'm sure we can come up with a satisfactory solution," he offered, pecking her cheek.
Liana beat a hasty retreat to Colin's room to use his telephone, which had a separate number, to ring her husband and tell him to come over. She was seething inwardly, but held her temper in check. When Helena finally got off the telephone, she apologized with as much sincerity as Lucretia Borgia. The smile on her reddened lips didn't reach her cold green eyes as she blandly announced she hadn't had time to cook dinner, so they were going to order Chinese take-out.
Helena had always been different from the rest of the Devereaux children. She even looked different, lacking the classic beauty of her other sisters. She was by no means unattractive. Her striking green eyes bore as much warmth as the North Pole, sheltered by black, highly arched brows. Glossy, jet-black hair was styled in a smooth page cut. She hadn't always been attractive though.
As a child, she had been podgy, a problem which plagued her into her teenage years. Her features had been quite irregular with a nose too big for her face, and the subject of curious stares whenever people saw all the Devereaux children together. She always stood out unfavourably from the rest. Even though Donald had been kind and had tried to give all his kids equal attention, it was no secret he favoured his classically beautiful auburn haired daughters over Helena, who was also inclined to be very antisocial.
Helena had sensed her father's rejection, and soon refused to even go out with the rest of her siblings when he took them out. She would choose instead, to stay at home engrossed with a book or crossword puzzle she might have been engaged in. In her teenage years Helena was the one who sat at home on Friday and Saturday nights, in front of the television or in her dorm at school with a book.
With the modern wonders of plastic surgery, Helena had acquired an attractive, striking face. She had also lost weight and now fitted into a size seven dress. Her fashionably slim figure made her appear taller than her five feet six inches. She had a good job as an executive secretary to the vice president at Shell Oil. She attended University of Toronto a couple nights a week, where she was working on obtaining a Masters degree in geology. Of course, with her inheritance from their parents' estate, Helena could have attended university full time, and even have a house of her own instead of renting an apartment. She took a militant pride in the idea of making it on her own.
Almost immediately, Helena decided not to have the cleaning lady come in once a week anymore. She figured between Colin, Claire and herself, they could manage to keep the place clean, so she could save money.
* * * *
BY THE END OF THE next day, Claire had a good idea of what life was to be like with Helena. Sharing a room with someone else could sometimes be difficult under the best of circumstances. Helena, a downright ill-tempered female, hardly spoke to her kid sister, except to dictate what Claire was supposed to do around the apartment. Claire might have as well been a stranger. Helena also decided Claire should get a job that would enable her to pay her share of expenses. Claire hoped to attend school full-time, to at least complete her high school education, as Claire had hoped to do.
"You're not better than anyone else here. If you wish to finish school, you can take night classes same as I'm doing," Helena coldly snapped when Claire mentioned her desire to go to school, the third day after her arrival in Canada.
"Very well, I shall try to land a job as soon as possible," Claire answered meekly, not wanting to make waves. She wanted to try and get along with Helena.
"Yes, do that. In the mean time, I expect you to keep this place spotless, seeing that you're home during the day. The vacuum cleaner is in the closet near the bathroom, and the cleaning solutions, furniture polish and sponges are beneath the kitchen sink." She walked away leaving Claire flabbergasted. Claire knew how to keep her room tidy by putting away her clothes and other personal items, and making her bed, as she had learned from watching Elsa when they shared the dorm at school. Vacuuming and cleaning?
I wasn't aware I was brought here to replace her charwoman. Claire thought with distaste, then decided she should learn to do her share of chores. After all, Colin would be doing his share too when he happened to be there. Well, that remained to be seen. He spent a lot of his time out with his friends in the evenings, hardly coming home, even for supper. In response to Colin's absence, Helena griped about a church downtown that Colin and Liana had got involved in, thanks to Liana's fanatical husband whom Helena despised.
While tidying up, Claire noticed the little white bible and all the other Christian paraphernalia in her brother's room. Colin didn't strike Claire as being Christian, considering the way he had imbibed cocktails on the flight from London.
Claire shrugged her shoulders.
Each man to his own conscience. Then again he could be one of these people who's petrified of flying and was trying to conceal his fear by drinking, she decided as she picked up the few pieces of clothing Colin had haphazardly thrown on the bed, and tossed them into his laundry hamper.
There wasn't much to do in Colin's room, as it appeared he was generally neat. He obviously had learned very well, because at home Claire knew Colin wouldn't have had to worry about being neat. There had been maids to clean the Devereaux children's rooms. So this was what Liana had meant, when she said they lived quite differently from what Claire had been used to. As for the chores she had been assigned, Claire learned fast and managed to keep the place reasonably neat and clean, but it seemed she could do nothing well enough to please Helena. As soon as Helena arrived from work, she inspected the apartment, and never missed a thing.
"You missed a spot here on the stove and there is still dust here on the end table," she complained, "Can't you do anything properly, you stupid female?"
Claire chose to tune her out, figuring it wasn't worth arguing over. Claire felt as if she were in a bad dream from which she would awaken and find herself in her room at Sommerfield, or the room she occupied when she visited Cardon Hall. Liana and Peter rang her everyday to see how she was getting on, and were usually concerned about her, offering to take her out with them. She was always forced to decline because it seemed Helena always had something for her to do, that was more pressing.
By the end of the second week, it appeared hell would break loose in the apartment any second. Helena's fiancé announced he had fallen in love with another woman. She yelled and screamed and generally made life a terror for her siblings. Colin made himself scarce, leaving Claire alone to face Helena's wrath, especially after she'd had a few drinks, which she took to doing frequently. In sympathy for the pain her sister was experiencing, Claire let Helena words pass through one ear and out the other.
Claire received a special delivery letter from Lance, snapping her out of the daze that had descended over her since she had left him in England. She forced herself to face the fact Anne was really gone, and it was the reason she was here. With the realization of how much she missed Lance enveloping her like a tidal wave, Claire sank down on the sofa and released everything that had built up within her since she left England, including the latent indignation she felt at the way Helena treated her. When she read a part of the letter where Lance said he had rung her last week Friday evening, and her sister had taken the call promising she would have Claire ring him back -- a message that Claire never received -- she snapped, finally becoming furious with Helena. Lance wanted to know why Claire hadn't returned his call.
Claire glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was four o'clock on Friday so Lance would be at Cardon Hall by now since it would be around ten in England. Claire picked up the receiver and dialled the number to Cardon Hall and heard Oliver's impersonal voice on the other end, telling her to hold, while he informed Mr. Stevens she was ringing. No sooner did Lance take the phone, Helena walked through the door demanding to know to whom Claire was speaking.
When Claire told her, Helena went ballistic.
"You stupid cow! Do you think I'm made of fucking money for you to use my phone to ring all over the fucking world!" Her green eyes blazed as she charged at her sister like a rabid animal. Claire thought Helena was going to strike her. "Hang it up immediately!" Helena demanded instead.
"Lance I'm sorry, I have to ring off. You heard her," Claire said, feeling even more dejected now that she had heard his voice.
"Listen, darling, go over to your other sister if that's possible and I'll ring you back there," Lance told her. Claire felt the seething rage roiling within him on the other end.
"No luv', here's Colin's telephone number. Ring me right back on that line," she gave him Colin's number and hung up. Claire got up, inhaled deeply and let it out again as she faced a wrathful Helena who smelled of liquor. Obviously she had stopped somewhere for a few on the way home.
"You're disgusting. If it's a guilty conscience you're worried about, I already know he rang me last week, and you conveniently forgot to give me the message. Now, get out of my way." her voice was low and steely. The cold glitter in her eyes made Helena stop. Claire regally walked to Colin's room and picked up the receiver as the phone rang.
"Hello, darling," she said calmly, expecting Lance's voice on the other end.
"Are you all right?" he asked, concerned.
"Yes, just hold on, let me shut the door."
She put the receiver down on the bed and closed the door, locking it. With the mood Helena was in, Claire couldn't be sure what the woman would do. The last thing she wanted was for Helena to burst into the room with one of her numerous innocuous tirades about Claire missing a spot when she cleaned up, while she was on the phone with Lance.
"I'm here, luv'," Claire said as she picked up the receiver again.
"Darling, please know you have a place at Cardon Hall to return to, if you wish," Lance assured her tenderly.
"Thank you, Lance, but don't worry I'll be fine, really. Don't hold what you just heard, against Helena. She's having a difficult time right now. Seems her fiancé decided he preferred someone else instead. I'm sure she'll be better once she's over it."
"You're being a lot kinder to her than I suspect she is to you," Lance remarked perceptively, but Claire chose not to tell him how close to the truth he was. She didn't have to. She didn't want him to worry, but he would anyway. Claire knew. "Darling, please be careful." There was a note of pleading in his voice now. "I don't want to lose you a second time around."
"You won't, Lance. No matter what happens, my heart will always belong to you." Claire promised, choking back the lump constricting her throat. Gawd, he was so near, yet so far. How she longed to reach out and touch him; trace his handsome features, run her fingers through his crisp curly hair, revel in the scent of him mingled with the expensive after-shave he wore. She wanted to feel him touch her, love her, set her body aflame as only he could. Her body quavered as if with a will of its own at the thought of him loving her. He seemed to sense what was going on within her as she haltingly said,
"Anyway, how are you?" wondering if she would be able to stand a whole year of not seeing him, if he couldn't visit for Christmas after all.
"Missing you like bloody hell, and I can hardly wait for Christmas," he groaned.
"Aw darling, me too."
"Until then, I'll have to try not to go positively berserk from missing you."
"And I'll have to do the same."
They talked a bit longer and he filled her in on everything that was happening. Elsa had decided to return to school to do A'Levels; Sheba, the White Arabian mare he had given her seemed to be missing her. Sommerfield Place had been sold to an unknown buyer, which filled Claire with renewed sadness and regret at the thought of never seeing her home again. The other half of her expensive wardrobe Claire had left behind was being stored at Cardon Hall for her.
"Do you want me to ship the clothes to you?" Lance offered.
"No, luv' I'll be fine with what I have. I don't anticipate needing anything that formal while I'm here. If I do, I'll just buy something. But thanks anyway, for offering."
After they rang off half an hour later, Liana called. She was looking for Colin but asked Claire if she would like to accompany Peter and herself on a drive to the country. Claire didn't hesitate to accept the offer this time. Suddenly the atmosphere around the apartment was too oppressive to stay in on a Friday night.
Claire had been in Canada two weeks and she hadn't been out much, except to go to the mall a few times with Colin. Helena always found some chore for her to do if Claire mentioned wanting to go somewhere. She had wanted so much to get along with Helena, to do things right. Apart from learning to clean properly, Claire even cooked dinner most evenings. She thanked heaven she had thought to take Home Economics in school. Helena remained unappreciative of her effort, and Claire no longer felt inclined to even try, at least not this afternoon.
She resolutely got up from Colin's bed to go to the bathroom for a quick shower, before dressing to go out. Helena waylaid her, as she was about to enter the bathroom.
"Why haven't you started dinner?" Helena demanded belligerently.
"I haven't had the time," Claire snapped.
"What is that supposed to mean?" The malice in Helena's feline green eyes lasered out at Claire moving up and down to momentarily rest on the fabulous diamond solitaire ring she was wearing. Claire's blood chilled in the face of the almost palpable hatred emanating from her sister. It was as if Helena had been scarred by venom, and a red light immediately flashed in her brain. Intuition warned her Helena was dangerous, and Claire would have to be very careful. She felt sad at being forced to see her sister in such light, but there was one thing she had learned from being with Lance and Elsa, and that was to trust in her own intuition. She had lost the feeling of worthlessness that had been with her so long and felt so much better as a person now. She inhaled a deep breath and exhaled again. Just hearing her fiancé's voice again, had infused her with strength and purpose she hadn't felt since Anne died. Claire felt her world was going to be all right again, as long as she remained strong.
Drawing herself to her full height, Claire faced her sister coldly, refusing to be intimidated. "Since it appears I've been brought here to replace your charwoman, I suggest you make other arrangements for dinner from now on. And may I remind you, that I was informed by you, that I'm expected to find a job? So far, I haven't had the opportunity to make any move in that direction, thanks to your incessant demands. But we'll discuss that later. Now if you will excuse me, I have to shower. Pete and Lee are picking me up in half an hour." Claire attempted to brush past Helena.
"You're not going," Helena declared implacably as she took a swig from the glass of neat bourbon in her hand.
"Oh really, and who decided that?"
"I did, I'm responsible for you."
"For Godsakes woman! I'm only going out with our sister and brother-in-law..."
"Never mind kid, I said you're not going," Helena reiterated, her eyes glittering spitefully. "Don't forget I sponsored you into this country and should I choose to withdraw that sponsorship, where does that leave you?"
"I get the message, and I have one for you. Why the hell don't you just go ahead and do it? You'll be doing me a favour," Claire snapped, deciding she wasn't going to let Helena intimidate her into being a doormat with that threat.
"Really? How? You can't touch your money until you're twenty-five. You didn't even graduate from high school, so what makes you think a first job in London will pay you enough to afford a flat there?"
Helena was right, and she gloatingly knew it too, as a cloud of uncertainty sailed across Claire's face. Claire would have welcomed the opportunity to return home, but not under the present circumstances. She didn't want to return to England to marry Lance out of necessity, and she doubted he would want that either. As he had said before she left, she was only seventeen and he didn't want to force her to settle down to married life with him, when she hadn't even lived a little. Could it have been that deep within, he really wasn't ready to get married either? Doubts began to assail her but they swiftly flew out the window as she remembered what he had just said to her over the phone.
On the other hand, if she went running back to him like a puppy dog with its tail between its legs after only a couple weeks, how could she ever expect him to take her seriously? All her talk about wanting to continue her education and doing something useful with whatever time she had here in Canada, would be just that; talk. What a bloody coward she would be if she allowed Helena to intimidate her into returning to England. No, she was a lot stronger than that.
"Maybe you're right on that score Helena, but right now I really don't give a damn! It's Friday, and I've been cooped up here for the two weeks since I arrived. Tonight I'm going out whether or not you like it," Claire declared with steely determination that matched her expression. "Now let me pass." She attempted to get past her sister to enter the bathroom, but Helena grabbed her by her hair and shoved her down with such a vicious force Claire hardly knew what hit her, until she landed on the floor hitting her back against the toilet bowl.
Claire remained on the floor staring up at her sister, stunned. Her eyes watered. There was sadness and an understanding beyond her years, as to why Helena was the way she was now: The pain of an emotionally scarred and unfulfilled childhood, virtually ignored by both parents. But that was no excuse for her deplorable behaviour now. There had never been any sort of violence among the siblings that Claire could remember.
Claire got up from the floor shaking her head, while Helena sauntered away laughing. Her back hurt along with her head where Helena had grabbed her hair. She stood for a few moments in front of the vanity, taking deep breaths and exhaling them until the pain subsided. It occurred to Claire that her sister was either stoned drunk, mentally unstable, or both.
Well whatever the case, I don't want to live here much longer. She resolved, starting Monday, regardless of what there is to be done around this plac,e I'm just going to leave it and get out and find a job. With any luck I might find one that pays a half-decent wage. Afterwards, even if I have to take a room somewhere, so be it, but I can't stay here.
Claire locked the door before stepping into the shower, where she turned on the water as hot as she could bear it.
* * * *
THE TRIP TO THE country worked wonders for loosening Claire's taut nerves. Her insides had been in knots since she left Helena's earlier, after what had happened. She chose not to mention the incident to Liana or Peter. Liana still got along fairly well with Helena, and Claire didn't want to ruin that. She managed to put her troubles aside to thoroughly enjoy the sights of the Canadian countryside with it's rolling hills and plains, small towns, old farm houses and grazing animals, so unlike the English countryside. Although the latter contained the same elements, the different style of architecture and the likelihood of passing a castle or two, and picturesque thatched roof cottages, were the main distinguishing features differentiating the two landscapes. Thatched roofed cottages and medieval style castles were noticeably absent in Canada except for Casa Loma, of which Peter had showed her a postcard, and it was situated downtown Toronto.
Along the way they passed a trail-riding ranch, and Peter decided to stop and take the ladies horseback riding. Being back in the saddle made Claire feel in control again, and she didn't realize how much she had missed riding since the last time she'd ridden at Cardon Hall, a month ago.
Oh God, has it been only a month? It feels like years.
Cantering across the wide green plain, breathing the fresh, loamy smell of the country, and feeling the wind in her face and hair, Claire felt as light and free as air. Nothing else mattered at the moment except that she missed Lance terribly, and wished he rode beside her on one of the two black stallions now, instead of Liana and Peter.
It wasn't that she minded being with Liana and Peter. She had enjoyed this activity immensely with Lance, Elsa and Kevin, and sometimes Anne. There had been something magical about all of them being together. She'd felt a sense of belonging, instead of the loneliness and inability to fit in anywhere that had consumed her for the longest while. Initially, she was inclined to grit her teeth and want to scream about the unfairness of it all, at death for taking Anne away from her just when they were beginning to know each other. Claire had really grown to love her mother very much in those few months of blissful happiness.
All was not lost though, she still had Lance and Elsa, albeit they were thousands of miles away, but they were still close in her heart. And Claire knew that Anne was finally happy wherever she was. She and daddy were together again. And who knew? They had probably been reborn to find and love each other again, somewhere else in time. Claire had begun to take a different view of death since she met Lance, and since Elsa introduced her to the concept of reincarnation.
She began to realize it wasn't something to be feared and fought against at all costs. It was but a transition, and there was hope. In the meantime, one's duty was to live and do what they were supposed to do in a particular lifetime.
Suddenly Claire whoaed the horse to a slow trot, as she allowed her thoughts drift.
"Is something the matter, sis?" Liana inquired with curious concern, as she and her husband slowed their horses and trotted along beside her.
"Uhm...no, not really, ohh, I was just thinking about back home. You know, Lance, my friends Elsa and Kevin, and mum. All five of us sometimes went riding like this when Lance invited us to Cardon Hall on weekends."
"You really miss him don't you?"
"Even more so now, that I spoke to him on the telephone before coming out."
"Vat's zhis?" Peter joked, affecting the heavy European accent he had almost lost after being in Canada twelve years. "Do I hear somezhing about ah boyfriend? I hope he eez not a `hot potato'," he chortled at Claire's puzzled expression.
"'Ot potato, ot potato." Three-year old Giselle perched in the saddle in front of her father, parroted, clapping her podgy little hands, grinning.
"Aw, Pete has this thing about comparing Giselle's future boyfriends to hot potatoes when she brings them home. If he dubs a prospective boyfriend as one, it means Gis must drop the guy in a hurry," Liana explained, rolling her eyes. "I keep telling him our daughter is only three, and it'll be a long time before she starts bringing boys home."
"Ahh, but a father must be prepared for these things nevertheless." Peter argued in a mock serious voice. "My father always did it with my two sisters, and you know what? He was always right on the mark when he dubbed one `hot potato.'" Claire looked at him, the sun glinting on his golden blond hair and the merry twinkle in his blue eyes. His features were regular except for a broken nose he had sustained during a hockey game. At almost forty, his body was as taut as a violin string without an ounce of spare flesh. It was he result of working out in a gym three times a week to keep in shape for the winter hockey season, when he coached a minor league team three evenings a week as a hobby.
In his jeans and red and blue western styled plaid shirt, he looked like any other North American male, instead of one who would have been hand-picked as a child to be part of Hitler's master race had he been old enough at the time. His parents had packed up and fled to Sweden three weeks before Hitler's troupes marched into Austria. It was there Peter had grown up until he immigrated to Canada.
* * * *
UPON RETURNING TO the city later that night, they drove straight to Liana and Peter's place; a modest split level detached home. Its delightfully cozy English country decor immediately evoked a feeling of warm welcome. Claire declined her sister's invitation to stay for coffee, stating she had to get back at a reasonable time. Helena had refused to give Claire a key of her own, and Colin was at the church youth services tonight. So he had taken his key as he was going to be quite late coming home. After Peter dropped Claire off in the lobby of the building where Helena lived, she took the elevator up to her sister's apartment. Tension coiled into a tight knot in her stomach as she walked down the red and yellow patterned carpeted hallway to her sister's door. Claire knocked but there was no answer. As usual, whenever Helena was home, the stereo was on Q107 FM, a heavy rock station she favoured. Claire knocked loudly enough, but Helena didn't open the door after she had been there five minutes. Claire bent down and lifted the lip of the mail slot and called out, just in case Helena might have been in her bedroom or the bathroom.
When Helena still didn't open door, Claire was left with no choice but to go back downstairs to the pay telephone at the corner of the next block, and ring Liana. While bewildered by the situation, she realized she shouldn't have been surprised after the encounter she'd had with Helena that afternoon. Unbidden, tears sprang to her eyes and coursed down her cheek. She still didn't want to believe her own sister could be so cruel. After making the call, she walked back to the lobby of the building and waited. Peter's red Mustang rolled up within fifteen minutes. He accompanied Claire back up to the twenty-first floor at her request. She remembered Helena had imbibed a few drinks this afternoon, and maybe she had fallen asleep. It was worth one more try.
This time Claire and Peter heard Helena talking to someone on the telephone, and refused to acknowledge their presence or open the door. Peter didn't expect his intervention to make a difference since there was no love lost between him and Helena. They merely tolerated each other when Liana was around.
"I know she's suffering right now over what happened with George, but her behaviour tonight is still inexcusable," Liana seethed, after Peter informed her of what had transpired. "And you said you heard her talking on the phone when you went back up?"
"We both did," Peter answered before Claire could.
"Did you two have a row?" Liana asked Claire, looking speculatively at her.
"Look, I didn't want to say anything, because I know you two get on well with each other. I think it's just a personality clash here."
"Jennifer-Claire you're not answering my question!" Liana impatiently cut her off, her voice sharper than she had intended. Peter announced he was going to the kitchen to make some hot chocolate and inquired whether Claire and Liana would also like some, but they both declined.
"Yes. She was drunk, or close to it," Claire continued. "When I told her you and Pete wanted to take me out, she forbade me to do so, and as I was walking out the door, she told me if I went anyway, I shouldn't bother coming back," Claire admitted. "I didn't take her seriously, because I didn't think my own sister could be that cruel. Lee, I've scarcely been out of that flat since I arrived from England, because Helena always has something for me to do. She has dismissed the cleaning lady...."
"Are you telling me that you've been doing all the chores around there?" Liana frowned.
"Yes, and Colin too, when he happens to be around which hasn't been much lately. I only wanted to try and get along with her. I don't mind doing my share of chores. She decided that we could all pitch in equally."
"Except you end up doing the lion's share of the work. Why, the miserable bi..." Liana bit back the oath she was about to utter.
"Something like that," Claire admitted.
"Have you had any time at all to look into going back to school as you wanted to do?"
"No, Helena said I had to find a job. But it's impossible for me to go on interviews, unless Colin remembers to leave me his key. She refused to let me have one. So if I go out during the day, I can't get back in."
"Why didn't tell us what was going on all those times when we called you?"
"Like I said, I only wanted to try and get along. I bent over backward, trying to make things pleasant, but it was just never enough. I suppose it's partially my fault. I should have spoken up, but Lee, since I left home, I've felt like I've been in some kind of dream or nightmare, from which I hoped I'd eventually awaken. What with mum, gone, the two other people I was closest to, being so far away."
"That's understandable," Liana's voice softened with compassion. "How would you like to stay with us instead?" she offered.
"Are you sure it's all right?"
"I wouldn't have asked if it wasn't."
"What about Helena?"
"Don't worry about her. I'll deal with her, later."
The next day Liana rang Colin to find out if Helena was going to be out anytime during the day. Liana was too irate to risk a confrontation with Helena, and end up saying something she would regret later. She knew Helena better than anyone, and understood Helena harboured a lot of resentment toward everyone in the family, because of the way she had been treated by both parents. Christian love and compassion had prevented Liana from writing Helena off, but she lost all patience with Helena because of this incident.
It turned out Helena would be gone most of the day, so Claire and Liana went over and Colin let them in. It didn't take Claire long to gather her belongings since she hadn't unpacked all of her suitcases. Helena had told her there wasn't enough room in the walk-in closet for both their clothes, which was a lie from what Claire had observed.
"Why didn't she just come out and say she doesn't want to share her space with me?" Claire had said to Colin, shrugging. "I might respect her more for her honesty. Does she hate me that much?"
"Come on luv', I'll see what I can do with mine. I'm sure we can find a few inches of space so you can hang up some of your things." He had suggested, tactfully not wanting to get into any bickering between his sisters. Even with clearing out part of his closet, it still hadn't left much room for Claire to hang up many pieces of her own clothing. He did let her hang a few of the wildlife watercolour paintings she had brought with her from home, in his room. In fact Colin had treasured them, especially, as they had been painted by his kid sister.
"You're not taking them all, are you luv'?' He asked anxiously, as Claire took down three of the paintings from his bedroom wall.
"No, Col, dear, but come and take your pick out of the eight I have, but I must have at least four for my new room until, I can paint more." Claire laid out the paintings on the bed and her brother chose the hedgehog, a jackrabbit about to disappear into its burrow, and a trio of horses in motion on the Southdowns. Colin was about to choose the one of the black squirrel Claire had befriended when she stayed in Plymouth last year, when she held up her hand haltingly.
"Ah, ah, big brother, this one I keep. It's special to me."
"Not even for two hundred bucks?" he tempted.
"Col, you know I won't have the heart to take the money from you, so don't ask. I'm not parting with it. Choose another, brother dear, or forever hold your peace," Claire advised, tempering her determination with a smile.
"How about if I get a print of it made and return the original to you? I'll pay for it." He offered hopefully and Claire didn't have the heart to refuse him.
"All right, but why don't you get two made," glancing in Liana's direction, as she shook her head looking at the rest of the paintings, enthralled. "From what I can see, Lee will be wanting one as well."
"Just one! Claire I want prints of all of these! They're simply breathtaking! What other surprising talents do you have up your sleeve, little sister?"
"That's for me to know and you to find out," Claire smiled mysteriously, treasuring the feeling of acceptance and approval she felt from Liana. There was a growing feeling of comfortable closeness with Liana that she knew she'd never have with Helena.
"Anyway, siblings, let's continue the art exhibition at my place huh? I'd like to be gone from here before Medusa returns, since I have no desire to risk a confrontation right now and forget I'm a Christian," Liana announced, briskly, helping to pack the rest of Claire's belongings, while the girl wrote a note letting Helena know where she was going to be from now on.
After that day, Liana and Helena remained at odds; a situation stubbornly perpetuated by the latter. Claire, wisely chose to stay completely out of it. She felt guilty about being responsible for the rift between the two. Helena, after all, was still their sister, and from all accounts she and Liana had got along fairly well before Claire arrived. Then Claire thought to herself:
I didn't ask Helena to sponsor me to come to Canada, so why should I feel guilty that my presence has caused a rift between her and Lee? Besides, she brought it on herself, and the best thing to do, is stay out and let them sort it by themselves.