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Authors: Molly Ringle

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BOOK: Relatively Honest
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“So, er…” I curled my hands around the coffee mug. “What was Evelyn like?”

“Oh…” Mum picked up the basket with the cutlery in it, and opened a drawer to sort the spoons and forks. “Impulsive. A little over-dramatic, the way a youngest child can be. Very sweet, though. She felt sorry for everyone, and cried at films a lot, and was always the one who got the most attached to our pets. Things like that.”

And how could you betray such a girl, you heartless woman?
“Sounds nice.”

“Yes. But…” Mum closed the drawer, and began stacking yellow plastic bowls on top of each other. “It also meant she took it too much to heart when Rhys and I got together. She felt she had to leave straightaway. It was silly, of course. We would have told her to stay, if we’d known she would run off like that.”

“She just disappeared?”

“Practically. Left a note saying she would get out of our way, never burden any of us again with her presence, that kind of nonsense.”

“Passive-aggressive.” Oddly, I could see Sinter behaving like that, though not Julie so much.

“Yes, they might call it that, these days.” Mum hung the dishtowel over a bar. “And how is Julie? As a person, I mean. What is she like?”

“Calm. Optimistic. Clever. Not over-dramatic at all, as far as I’ve seen.”
Except once in a while when she’s been drinking, she can get touchy. Also she does have the capacity to be amazingly passionate. Matches my libido any day, and even tops it on some occasions. Quite the wildcat, really, and I still have the nail-marks to prove it. Oh, sorry Mum, that isn’t what you wanted to know?

“What’s she been up to during the holiday?” Mum asked.

My daydream fell to pieces. I shoved the mug away. “Her boyfriend’s visiting. Patrick. You remember, he worked at Whitecrest.”

“Oh, yes. Very bright, that one. Good-looking, too. I’m so glad she has someone nice.”

“Yeah.”

“What about you? Haven’t heard you talk of any girls lately.”

I folded up the newspaper. “I’ve met a few. Don’t really have a girlfriend at the moment.”

Lord. I was getting so accustomed to telling misleading truths, I hardly had to think about it anymore.

Chapter 19: Spring Term

Julie greeted
me by pulling off the road into a rest area as soon as we were out of Sunriver, and leaning across the car to kiss me until my tongue buzzed and my vision swayed. “I missed you,” she said, and grinned. But she had no interesting news to report, nothing along the lines of,
Threw Patrick out on his arse
, or
Turns out Evelyn Smith wasn’t my mother
. We picked up for spring term right where we had left off in winter.

One by one, practically everyone we knew at the university became aware we were “together” if not officially. Sinter already knew, of course, and tolerated our diversions in our dorm room, giving me the space I had given to him and Clare back in autumn. Clare soon figured things out too – or rather, asked Julie one day, “Are you and Daniel ‘friends who shag’ or what exactly?”

Julie had admitted, “Something like that. Don’t tell Patrick,” and Clare had snorted and said, “Why would I?” Having both roommates thereby clued in, we could sleep in either room together, and often did. The other dorm inhabitants caught on too. They saw us emerge in the morning from the other person’s room, or caught us in a hallway kiss, or, being individuals bright enough to get into a state uni, simply deduced we wouldn’t spend every possible waking minute together if we didn’t fancy one another.

I didn’t dare say the word “love” again the first week of the term. But after one of our sex-that-wasn’t-technically-sex encounters, she melted around me and sighed into my neck, “I love you.” Why did I hug her as tight as I could without breaking her ribs, and murmur the same words back, when that very sentence had sent me sprinting from the country when Miriam had spoken it?
Because you’re one fucked-up bloke, mate
, my conscience helpfully supplied.

And the cousin question? Interesting, that. One day in April I got a letter from my grandmother in England. It began with the standard, “Dear Daniel: My, you’re a university man already! How time flies! I remember your grandfather’s tales of Oxford. Back then, tuition was only sixteen shillings a year.” (I exaggerate a tad.)

Toward the end was this skinny paragraph: “I hear your mother has found Evelyn’s family, though hasn’t approached them yet. I rather suspected she might look up those people. She tells me you already know your cousin, who sounds nice, but I feel too old to take on a new teenaged granddaughter.”

Abruptly, the letter turned into “study hard, don’t drink” admonishments, then ended with Nanny’s loving signature.

I felt uncharitable resentment against Nanny and my deceased Granddad these days, for their role in alienating their youngest daughter and, with one thing and another, putting me in this cousin-shagging predicament. Having Nanny dismiss my precious Julie as a granddaughter not worth “taking on” made me even angrier.

Rather than answer the letter or do something smart like throw it away, I left it on my desk, where it got buried beneath a pile of notebooks.

One Sunday morning Julie, wearing a pair of my shorts and a T-shirt with no bra, leaned across from the bed to fetch a book I had asked for. She paused, elbows on the desk, then tugged the envelope loose from under the pile. “Ooh. British stamps. Cool.”

Panic electrified my fingers and toes. “Yeah – here. Give me that. I’ll put it away.”

She flexed herself back to the bed, book and envelope in hand, but examined the return address. “T. Smith. Ex-girlfriend?”

“Grandmother.” I plucked it from her.

“Huh.” She settled down beside me, on the pillows we had lumped against the wall. “I have grandparents named Smith in England. Biological ones. We’ve never spoken, though.”

I rose up on my knees and shoved the letter between two books on the shelf over my head, resolving to shred it into tiny bits later today. My hand shook slightly. “Do they even know about you?”

“I doubt it. My dad says he didn’t get in touch with them. My mother and her folks weren’t on good terms, or something.”

“Oh.” My knees wouldn’t hold me up anymore. I slid down against the wall and stared at my blankets. A sense of doom, and the hatred of all this lying, darkened my sight. I can only assume it was my conscience, and Julie’s silence, that made me say what I said then: “Maybe we’re related.”

She smirked. The mattress shifted as she leaned toward me. Our sides touched. “I’d want you anyway,” she said, and caught me up in a long kiss.

I was foolish enough to seize onto it as unspoken forgiveness.
Really, it’s okay, see?
I let myself think.
On some level she knows, and it’s okay. And even if she doesn’t know, she won’t mind when she finds out.
The flimsy reasoning sustained me for another month.

Another Sunday, in late May, I felt brave and tried to draw the truth out.

“Tell me something you’ve never told anyone,” I invited. It was a hot day and we were sitting under a willow downstream of the Autzen footbridge, dipping our bare feet into the Willamette River.

“Okay.” She leaned back on her fingertips and looked at the sky. “I’ve kind of been meaning to tell you this anyway.”

Oh, God, she found out. Here it comes.
“What?”

“You know how I said I’m technically a virgin? Well, I’m not actually sure of that.”

Unexpected, but intriguing.
“What do you mean?”

“The way I discovered I have no head for alcohol was at a party about two years ago. Patrick was with me, and he was drinking too. We crashed in a spare room at the girl’s house – I had told my parents I was spending the night with her – and later he claimed we had sex. I don’t remember a thing, so for all I know, we did.”

Sometimes the violent things I wanted to do to Patrick’s genitals surprised even myself. I broke a willow twig into a few dozen pieces instead. “And there was no proof, one way or the other?”

“There was a used condom. But we had played with those before.” She shrugged. “Plus, I felt like such crap the next morning, I took a shower first thing, in the hopes it would make me feel better. So any evidence got washed away.”

“How reliable is his memory?”

“For that night, slightly better than mine. But not by much. For a while he kept saying we did, then later he said he wasn’t actually sure. So there we are.” She kicked her foot, sending up a splash of river water. “Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.”

“Fuck,” I said, in sympathy and bitterness.

“I bet you remember your first time.”

“I’ve told you about that.” (Rachel Denker. I was fifteen, she was seventeen and quite the expert. Ten minutes in her bedroom, after school one day. Quick but memorable.)

Julie put a cold wet toe on my leg. “Then tell me something I don’t know. Tell me something
you
haven’t told anyone.”

I let the willow twig fall into the river, and twined my fingers into the long grass hanging over the bank. Even then, though it was awful, I thought,
There, I can’t tell about the cousin thing, because I’ve already told Sinter. So it doesn’t count.
But that was all right. I had another secret, almost as humiliating.

“Okay. The summer when I was fourteen, I had this job in a hotel in Harrogate.” I rolled back into the grass, covered my eyes with my arm, and told her the whole thing, just as I had typed it in the never-sent email.

At the end, she was silent a while.

“Ouch,” she said.

“Yeah.”

Her fingers threaded into mine. “Five pounds, that’s, what…seven, eight dollars?”

“More like ten now.”

“Hm.” She lay down beside me. “You might want to start delivering pizza or something, or else raise your rates, because as an income...”

I grinned, and peeked at her from beneath the shelter of my arm. “You of all people should know I’ve raised them. It’s a full twenty quid now, for the first ten minutes.”

“Five quid for every minute afterwards.”

“Or a cool hundred if I’m to stay all night.”

“Don’t I know it. I’m wasting my life savings on you.” She kissed my hand.

I kissed hers back, gratefully.

Now, if only the other secret would go over so well.

“Which airport
is better to fly into?” Sinter asked in early June. “Heathrow or Gatwick?”

We were studying in our room – or, at least, I thought we were.

“Wherever the airfare costs less,” I said. “Any reason you ask?”

“Remember I told you I was going to escape and fly to the UK one of these days? Well, I’m going to.”

That was certainly more interesting than a history review sheet. “When?”

“The week after finals. There’s this work-abroad program through the university. You can stay a few months. Figure I’ll get a summer job and live in a tiny London flat, and enjoy being five thousand miles away from my parents.”

“You’re serious?”

Sinter held up a thick folder, with a bright yellow “Work/Study Abroad!” logo on it. “Looking up airfare on the web right now.”

An unexpected twinge pressed my heart. The image of my old house and its iron fence, the street out front wet with summer rain, the red buses swooshing by, had made me homesick for the first time in a long while. “I envy you, mate. Say hello to the old place for me.”

“You could come with. Show me around.”

“I have my reasons to stay.”

He lowered his eyes, and swung back to his computer. “Yeah. That’s okay.”

About those reasons: they were a bit flimsy really. Julie drove that point home the next day, as we met in her room while Clare was out.

“I guess Patrick called your parents,” she said.

I felt an instinctive panic. “Why?”

“Got another summer job at Whitecrest. Working in the office, this time.”

“Oh. Right.”

She plucked a sticky note from her desk, and concentrated on gluing it across all the knuckles on her right hand. “So…probably I’ll have some chances to come into Sunriver, at least. Even though it can’t be…” She waved her fingers. The note fluttered. “Like this, all the time.”

“I understand.” Still sucked, but I understood.

The end of the term arrived before I expected it. I took one final after another, and then, hey presto, my first year at university was up. I had to pack my stuff and get out of Spiller Hall. As for next year, Sinter had agreed to live with me in a flat – or rather, apartment – somewhere in Eugene. We stood in our stripped-bare room, surrounded by bits of litter and scraps of tape, and shook hands.

“I’ll come back in time to look for a place with you,” he said.

“I can start searching early, if you like. I’ll need something to do, on those ‘Patrick’ days.”

“Okay. Email me. I’ll check whenever I can.”

“Will do. Have fun in England, mate.” I dispensed with the handshake and hugged him.

“I’ll be phoning you a thousand times before I leave. ‘Can I take the Underground to the airport? How much do I tip taxi drivers? What’s in black pudding again?’”

I grinned. “You don’t want to know that last one. Well…this is me off, then.”

“This is me waving goodbye.” He demonstrated.

I went downstairs and got into Julie’s car, which awaited me at the curb, and off we went to Sunriver.

“Welcome home, darling!” Mum hugged me so tight my sunglasses fell off.

“Ow. Hi.”

“Isn’t it glorious here? The sun! Everything so green!”

The green Oregon everything, bursting out all over with blooms and shoots and pollen, had in fact made me sniffly and sneezy over the past few weeks, but I nodded. “Very nice.”

Julie stepped out of the driver’s seat and moved to open the hatchback. My stomach twisted in anxiety as she and Mum entered conversational distance. “Hello,” she said to Mum. “Nice to see you again.”

Mum turned to gaze fondly at her niece. “Hello, Julie. So good to see you as well. We do appreciate you driving Daniel round all the time.”

Julie took one of my boxes out of the back and handed it to me. “Oh, it’s no trouble.”

Mum pulled out my plastic-wrapped cube of bedding and stacked it on the box. “Please, come in and have some iced tea. Something to eat, perhaps?”

“She can’t,” I cut in, almost in a yelp. “She was just, uh, telling me how her family’s impatiently waiting for her and all.”

Julie gave me a lift of the eyebrow, but smiled. Hopefully she’d chalk up my weirdness to general embarrassment with one’s parents, or to my being uneasy about cheating with their employee’s girlfriend, or something. In any case, she took pity on me. “Yes,” she said. “I do have to rush off today. Sorry. I hope I can visit over the summer, though.”

“Yes, please do,” said Mum. “Anytime at all.”

Julie waved to us both, her glance lingering on me as she returned to the driver’s side. “Talk to you later.”

“Bye.”

We watched her drive down the road and turn out of sight at the curve.

“She really is lovely, isn’t she?” Mum said.

“Yep.” I bent and picked up a box, and swiftly carried it inside.

Dad wandered in from the verandah. I greeted him as a way to change the subject, and got him to help me bring things into my room.

However, they weren’t done talking about Julie. At the dinner table that evening, Mum said, “I’ve been thinking of contacting the Frenches.”

I nearly spewed my macaroni. “Really,” I coughed.

“Well, since you already know Julie, it’s a bit silly to keep our distance, isn’t it?”

“Um, I don’t know. I mean, as you said, it’s an awkward situation.”

“All happened so long ago,” said Dad, chewing on a piece of bread. “I reckon they’ll be happy to bury the hatchet, for the sake of the kids. Assuming there’s any hatchet to bury.”

“I suppose so, but…”

“Besides,” Mum added, waving her wine glass toward me, “with you and Julie so friendly, she’s bound to mention your name at some point, and when her father hears ‘Revelstoke’ I’m sure he’ll wonder.
They
may end up approaching
us
.”

I pushed my chair back a few inches. The table was restricting my breathing. “Good point.”

“So, I don’t know.” She rested her cheek on the curve of the wine glass. “Over the weekend, perhaps? I shall have to think about what to say.” The weekend, incidentally, was in two days.

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