by Julia August
I was twenty-three before it occurred to me that women were attractive. I guess that makes me a late bloomer. Summer was just getting underway, bright and brisk and breezy, when a little voice in my head said: what a pleasant season, it brings out all the short skirts and skimpy tops, and isn’t it nice to have something nice to look at when you’re walking down the street? And it must have said it several times before I realised what it meant.
This isn’t the point of the story, incidentally. It’s just to explain how I reacted when the girl turned up. I was still seeing all the world from new and unsettling angles, and wondering what, if anything, I was meant to do about it, so when she stumbled out of a dripping autumn evening while I was taking down my washing, I was hardly thrown at all.
I’d left the back door open, mostly for the light, and enough of it spilt over the yard to gloss her yellow hair to gold. She was panting and her blouse had slipped down from her shoulder and her feet were bare, which wasn’t a good idea at all, and she caught my arm just as I was reaching for a sock. “Oh please,” she said, “please, you have to help me…”
Her bosom, I couldn’t help but notice, was heaving. And there was a lot of it.
“All right,” I said, and blinked. “Uh. Come in?”
She came in. I got her a cup of tea and sat her down on the sofa while I brought in the rest of my washing. It was wet right through and I was annoyed I’d ever gambled on a sunny morning turning into a sunny day.
I dumped my socks on the table and went to get a drying rack. “So,” I said, “you needed help…”
And then the whole story came out, although not very clearly, because she was still calming down and I was trying to work out how to fit a bath towel, a hand towel, two tea towels and a week’s worth of clothes onto one small rack. It involved a mirror and and her mother, or possibly her stepmother, or it might even have been her godmother; I never did get that straight. Whichever one it was was jealous and they’d had a massive fight and her father wasn’t any use because he’d never stand up for her and he didn’t understand her anyway. So she’d had to run away, unless her mother (or stepmother, or godmother) had thrown her out, which might have been what really happened. She wasn’t very clear. Then she’d met something or someone that scared her badly underneath a bridge outside town. There was a hunter involved, or maybe it was a woodcutter, and she’d run crying through the trees while dead leaves fluttered all around like yellow butterflies and somewhere along the way she’d lost her slippers, which had been made by midgets for her birthday.
I didn’t think ‘midget’ was a word people were meant to use these days. I didn’t say anything. She still seemed pretty shaken up. I got her another cup of tea and stood there wondering whether I’d left enough space on the rack for everything to dry.
“Will you help me?” she said. “I’m looking for a prince.”
I’d just about decided to move the towels to a radiator, so that took a moment to register. She was staring up at me with her drowned violet eyes, long lashes quivering. Her hands were white around the cup.
She was serious. I caught myself feeling sorry I didn’t know any princes.
I asked her why. She said so he could defeat the problematic maternal element and they could get married and live happily ever after. I said I was sorry I didn’t have any alcohol in the house.
“Will you help me?” she said again. “I don’t have anywhere else to go…”
“Um,” I said, and sighed, and went to get the apple cake I’d baked at the weekend. She looked like the sugar would do her good.
I wasn’t going to say I wouldn’t help her. But — a prince?
Even if I’d known where to find one, which I didn’t, I couldn’t see how a prince was meant to sort out the girl’s domestic problems. And even if she found one and he did, I couldn’t see where marriage came into it. She needed a counsellor, not a husband. By the sound of it, so did the rest of the family.
I’d never been very good at saying delicate things diplomatically. I sat and watched her eating cake and wondered where to start.
“You can sleep on the sofa,” I said at last. “Uh. About your mother…”
Her mother was dead. Or she was wicked. I guessed tough love, but the girl wanted to talk about her three brothers, who had run away from home one by one and never come back. They didn’t even write, she said, tearfully. I got a box of tissues and patted her creamy shoulder and wished I was any good at comforting people.
She blew her nose. Then she said I was the nicest person she’d ever met, and how long would it take to find a prince? I said, well, we could probably check Yellow Pages, but she shouldn’t get her hopes up and had she thought about trying something less drastic first? Like what? she said, pouting slightly. Um, I said, maybe she could sit down with her parents and talk about everything that was bothering her. I tried to suggest counselling, but the pout was getting more pronounced, so I asked if she’d considered university instead.
We talked about university for a bit. She didn’t seem enthusiastic. Apparently she’d been home educated and hadn’t taken any exams. I started to think she might not be exaggerating about her parents after all.
“My mother always said I only needed to dance and be witty,” she said, “and I was pretty enough that wittiness was optional…”
I said that was very old-fashioned of her mother.
I would have said a couple of other things, but she widened her eyes and said innocently, “Is that bad?” and she liked how I did my hair. I said I’d been thinking about cutting it and she said no, I shouldn’t do that, the ringlets suited me and what beautiful earrings, where had I got them?
I couldn’t remember. I admired her blouse, which was thin for October, and said I probably had something warmer that would fit. Also socks. So she sat on my bed while I emptied out my drawers and we talked about big woolly jumpers and difficult relatives and why marriage didn’t necessarily mean happiness and how no one could ever have enough pearl necklaces. She did agree with that. And then I got out the spare duvet and made her promise to think about trying to work things out with her family by herself. Or, failing that, getting some qualifications and a job.
Honestly, I was surprised to find her in the kitchen in the morning.
It’s not that I expected her to take off in the night. I suppose I’d decided it was all too strange to have really happened. But no: the floor was swept and the table wiped down and there she was wreathed in white ghost’s breath curling wispily up from her cup of tea. When she saw me in the doorway, she gave me the brightest smile I’d ever seen and asked if she could make me one too.
“Uh,” I said, “thanks. I’ve got a hairbrush you can borrow…”
I was remembering that other people eat breakfast and wondering if I had anything in the house. She nibbled toast and told me it was lovely. Then she said she’d been thinking about what I’d said last night.
“Oh,” I said, “good. And?”
I’d helped so much, she said. I’d shown her she should deal with her own problems, or at least escape them in a more proactive way. She was going to find her slippers and brave the woods and cross the bridge and go home to her family. Alone.
I was surprised again. I hadn’t realised she’d taken any of it so much to heart.
I hoped she wouldn’t regret it.
It was a sunny morning. I gave her my umbrella anyway. We’d exchanged numbers, just in case I did find a prince, but she stood looking like a china doll in my biggest and woolliest jumper, and smiled, and hugged me so tightly my ribs bulged. If I found one, I was welcome to him, she said, and she wished me well.
“Well,” I said, “actually,” and then I didn’t say it, but only waved as she went out of the gate in my old red shoes and disappeared down the street towards the woods.
Maybe next time.
Julia August is a student in the UK with an interest in crumbling civilisations and ancient political rhetoric. She consequently has a very complicated relationship with Marcus Tullius Cicero. In her spare time, she is a harmless internet denizen and aspiring writer.