CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
Ayalet was troubled. She was by nature an uncomplicated individual. On the surface her shyness was, in reality, a broadly realistic expression of a basic conservatism. Changes alarmed her, upsetting the calm tenor of her life. Of course she had once dreamed of escaping the strictures of island life; all of the islanders — whether they admitted it or not — shared that. Like the others, she also clung to the scant hope that Mandragora's dominion over their lives could — would — be overthrown. That such an event would bring drastic changes into hers and the lives of the rest of the islanders was an irony she was all too aware of.
The appearance of the stranger, Perry Lane, had of course been the source of greatest upheaval. Her first sight of him had both alarmed and intrigued her. The traveller's unkempt appearance, in particular the man's exuberant mass of facial hair, frankly, scared her half to death. But Perry's eyes were in stark contrast to his wild visage. They were the soft eyes of a person who has seen both the best and the worst that life has to offer. They were the colour of a wintry sea, deep and unfathomable, but not threatening like the ocean, apt to turn to stormy, deadly fury. She had been pleasantly surprised by his appearance after Hazel had — in her usual bullish way — supervised a thorough makeover prior to her first date with him.
During the ensuing weeks, she had grown extremely fond of the newcomer, liking his seriousness and his reserved sense of humour: his wit was less dry than understated — or subtle, perhaps. Perry's own shyness, although less pronounced than her own, had been another source of frustration. When he finally grew bold enough to kiss her she was too distracted with anxiety to take any pleasure. Later came cuddling and — she guessed — what amounted to making out, but it was clumsy and awkward. On their last date, a few days ago, he had gently cupped her breast and she had frozen, partly with surprise at his boldness, but mostly because a delicious thrill shot through her. His hand lingered for only a moment and then withdrew, leaving her feeling warm, wanting more but too pathetic to know how to invite it. It was only later that night as she lay alone her bed that she wondered if her sudden stiffened reaction to his touch may have warned him off.
But that was not the problem at the forefront of her mind as she walked home from school. She had fallen into the role of schoolmistress. Her own teacher, Faith Goodie, had been her predecessor and her latter years as a pupil had more or less served as an apprenticeship. Mrs. Goodie was in her seventies when she retired — although she still came in one or two afternoons a week to help out with lessons. Ayalet appreciated the help, the more so because she was determined to avoid using the elder children as surrogate teachers in the way Mrs. Goodie had. There were only a dozen or so children in the school, split between the junior class and senior class and she generally found it was not difficult to split her day moving back and forth between the classes, setting and supervising their work. Naturally the junior group occupied most of her time.
School children are never as smart as they imagine themselves to be and within the microcosm of such a small school as hers, Ayalet was rarely in the dark concerning the shifting sands of playground politics. Children plot and scheme as though the adult world is deaf — and stupid. In some societies that may be good enough for normal clandestine behavious, but not in Pendlehead's closed community. Ayalet was not privy to the totality of the animosity between Javon and his sister, but that lunchtime she had heard enough through the thin boards of the classroom wall to set alarm bells ringing. Her first instinct had been to keep Javon back after school and grill him for detail. But, watching the boy's subdued demeanour during the afternoon session, she decided that confrontation might not be the best way of dealing with the situation. She liked both the Simpkins children. The five year age difference caused them considerable problems, mostly — it had to be admitted — from the top down. Ayalet wanted to help, especially if, as she suspected, the problems were serious. By the time she discharged the junior class and sent them home she had decided to call on Morwena on her way home to talk the matter over.
“Yes, I agree with you,” Morwena said. They were sitting at the table in Morwena's cottage over a pot of tea and a plate of shortbread. “It does sound like young Shamika is playing with fire. I've seen her passing here at around two-thirty the last few weeks and at first I assumed she was working up at Gordain's. But when I asked him about it he said he hadn't seen her in ages.”
“Hm. What puzzles me is how she's getting away with it?”
“They don't care at that age. They believe they're indestructible.”
Ayalet laughed a little too harshly. “That's the truth. But now I have no idea what to do. Should I confront Shamika or go to her parents?”
“Ah yes. Hardly an easy choice. If you challenge the girl she'll be bound to deny it and that would force your hand.”
“Go to her parents, you mean?”
“Exactly. Have some more, please,” she pushed the plate of biscuits toward Ayalet. “On the other hand if you go direct to the Simpkins you risk alienating Shamika, possibly for ever.”
“Risk? I'd say it would be a foregone conclusion. Shami's a headstrong girl. In some senses she's very immature for her age. For all that she tries to boss her little brother around, their relationship is more of a two way street than she realises.”
“As in: he tends to bring her down to his level?”
“That's right. She can be quite grown up one minute and the next she's bickering like a kindergärtner. She can quite a handful, sometimes.”
“So what are going to do?” Morwena said.
“I don't know, Mor.” Ayalet said, frowning over the rim of her teacup. “I was hoping you might have some ideas.”
Morwena smiled warmly. “If I know you, you're hoping I'll offer to intervene.”
“But you're also concerned that if I do, Shamika will see my involvement as a betrayal on your part.” To Ayalet's nod, Morwena said: “Well there you're simply thinking too narrowly. It's what happens when you get too close to a problem.”
“So, leave it with me a few days. I think young Miss Simpkins and I are going to keep bumping into each other in unexpected places. I can be quite sneaky when I want to. There's no danger she'll think you are involved.”
“That will be good, but I can't do nothing for long, if there's no other way around this. I can't ignore what I know.”
“What you think
you know,” Morwena corrected. “I'm not suggesting I think you are wrong, but we should give the girl the benefit of the doubt until we have something more to go on.”
“Yes, of course. But please, don't leave it too long. If there's no other way I shall have to go to her parents and the longer I leave it, the worse it looks.”
“I shall start tonight.” She glanced at the window. “It'll be dark soon. I had better start getting ready if I'm going to—” she made a coughing noise “— bump into Shamika as she walks past Gordain's.”
Ayalet smiled and rose from her seat. “I almost feel sorry her.” She picked up her cloak from the chair-back she had draped it over. “I'll be running along then.”
At the door, she stopped and turned towards her friend. “Thanks, Mor. I'm so lucky to have you to rely on.”
“Don't be silly. What're friends for.” It wasn't a question.
Ayalet suddenly wanted to be in her own home. “Don't stand there letting all the heat out. Bye for now.” She strode off through the snow drifted across Morwena's unswept front yard.ReflectionsChapter One (for latecomers)Chapter Twenty Eight