New Places, New Problems

 

Chapter 6

In the morning Claire felt ill. She had woken a few times during the night and she had a headache when Stephen came to wake her by letting his alarm go off beside her. She groaned at the sound. "I feel sick," she said miserably.

Stephen looked concerned and placed a hand over her forehead.

"That's cold," Claire shivered.

"Stay in bed."

"I wasn't going to get up anyway. I have a headache and I feel ill."

Stephen stood up and went away, but Claire barely noticed. He had not asked whether she wanted anything to eat, but it was unlikely that she did. But he would make her some tea. He could not stay home because of the children, so he would have to leave a note for his mother. He did so as he waited for the tea, a special herbal tea that was said to be good for sick people.

"But I'm not hungry," Claire protested weakly when he brought her a full tray.

"For later," he said, wondering if she should call Matthew. On the one hand he did not want to deprive her of medical attention, but on the other, it was Matthew who was the doctor who would come and who would examine Claire. There was something that held Stephen back from calling Matthew right away and he was shocked when he could identify this emotion as jealousy. Jealousy of what, actually?

Stephen sat back and studied a painting. Why should he be jealous of a doctor? But Matthew was also after Claire and Stephen admitted to himself that he did not like that, but he did not want to probe any further than that. "Shall I call the doctor?" he asked eventually.

"I think I'll be alright." It would be such a fuss to have the doctor come all the way here to find there was nothing wrong, Claire thought.

At first Stephen was glad for her answer.

"Maybe if he has nothing to do," Claire added after realising the doctor was Matthew. It would cheer her up if he came.

Stephen swallowed. Of course. She liked Matthew. Claire should not suffer because he was jealous. "I'll call him," he said curtly, unable to show his disappointment, because he had been the one to suggest the doctor. He had better get dressed and go to school. They would be waiting for him. "I left a note for my mother. She'll look after you."

Claire realised only now that he had to go to school. He would go away. She did no feel like talking, but she would feel better if someone stayed. With a pathetic gesture she took hold of Stephen's sleeve and then, realising that she was about to beg Stephen to stay, she let go of him. But he had been nice to her so far.

He did not know what to make of that gesture, but he carefully placed her arm back under the covers so she would not be cold and then poured some tea for her. "Drink this in a few minutes. I have to go. I'll be back "


Claire slept some more and then lay reflecting on her situation. Stephen's mother came in at half past nine, having read the note in the kitchen. She was very concerned and asked how Claire was doing. Stephen's father had been in very briefly, but not long enough for her to form an opinion. Apparently he had something in the study that he had to see to. "I'm already feeling better," Claire answered. There would be very little need for Matthew now, if he was coming at all.

But he came anyway, a good three hours after Stephen had said that he would call him. "Claire!" he came in looking rather indifferent. "You're ill?"

Claire had just attempted to swallow a dry piece of toast and succeeded. She tried to smile, but his attitude puzzled her. "Not very." Stephen's mother had taken Claire downstairs when she had felt a little better and she had given her old pyjamas and socks of Stephen's to wear so she would not be as cold as in a night shirt.

Matthew did not know that and consequently it was a very disturbing sight for him to see her in Stephen's house and Stephen's clothes when he did not know what had been going on. What had Stephen done? "Why was I called then?"

"Stephen insisted."

Because Stephen wanted to let him know he had got there first, Matthew realised. He ignored Claire's puzzled looks and gave her a perfunctory examination. "Nothing really wrong with you," he said abruptly. "It'll pass."

He left fairly quickly after he had come and Claire was confused. He had seemed to seek her out before and now, when he could stay, he left.

Stephen's mother had seen her face. "What's wrong?"

"I don't understand men," Claire sighed. "I thought he liked me, but he was so distant now."

"Do you like him?"

"I haven't been here long enough," Claire said evasively.

"That's true. You can't really know each other yet."

"Was it something I did? Was it because I wasn't home last night when he came by? Did he come by?" She had not asked him if he had, but it struck her that it might well be the explanation for his current behaviour. "Maybe he was upset that I wasn't home. He said he would stop by, but I went out before he had come," Claire explained. "It was getting rather late, you see, and I didn't want him to call very late."

Stephen's mother nodded, understanding it only partially. It had been rather late and so she had visited Stephen? "You'd be the first to run away from a charming young doctor," she said a little sarcastically.

Claire pulled a face. "I know. The world is full of people who don't. I don't like them. That's why I'm here. My old friends would declare me mad if they hear I passed up the chance of --" her eyes filled with tears. "-- of I don't know what, exactly. It's not a chance. Only a trap. Maybe it's my fault that I don't see it the way they see it. Maybe it's my fault that they seem happy when I'm not. That I'm different. I probably lack some essential quality." It was probably because she was feeling bad that she was acting like such a whiner.

"There are people who think like you," said Stephen's mother. "But they might take a while to find. Now dear, don't make yourself sicker than you are by thinking gloomy thoughts. I'll brave Stephen and put you behind his computer so you can go into a chat room and get cheered up. I know a nice one. But be a good girl and don't look into any of his files. He's rather touchy about them."

Claire wondered what Stephen's files contained. "What's in them?"

"Ideas, text..." his mother said vaguely. She had only stumbled across one by accident and it had been vague enough, but Stephen had not liked it. "I only know they are private." She installed Claire behind Stephen's computer and made her promise not to explore the contents of his C: drive. "I'll bring you some more tea after I've done the laundry."

 

 

Chapter 7

Claire was resolved not to look into Stephen's files, since she had promised his mother not to. She chatted and surfed until Stephen came home. Sometimes his mother had sat with her if she had had nothing to do and they had talked a little.

His mother had already told him that she had put Claire behind his computer and so he was not surprised at that, but more so at something else. "Those are my pyjamas."

"You won't know that I wore them anymore after you've washed them," she replied. "And I didn't look into your files."

Stephen shrugged. "It wouldn't have mattered." He did not want her to think that he had some weird stuff on his computer, because he did not. "It's only text." Things that he was working on and that he was not yet sure of enough to show it to anyone.

"I did check your bookmarks," she confessed. His bookmarks had shown him to be widely interested, although she had not always understood what he could want with those sites. Some were far too difficult for children and they could not be of any use for the school.

"Were they interesting?" he asked. She had to be feeling better. Would she be going home now? He would like it if she stayed, actually, and he frowned when he thought of that.

Claire misinterpreted his frown. "Sort of," she said curtly, turning away.

"Claire..." Stephen had forgotten that Matthew had been around. What had happened? "What did the doctor say?"

"Very little. There's nothing really wrong with me, he said. I'd better go home." Claire briefly glanced at Stephen and saw he looked only partly relieved. Why? He ought to be relieved that nothing was wrong with her. Why did he still look a little worried?

"No!" He was glad she was alright, but he was still dying to know what Matthew had said and done when he had been here.

That surprised her. "Uhh...why not?"

"That cottage is...nothing." Stephen did not know how to explain it. "It's depressing."

She slowly turned her head towards him. How odd that he should say what she had thought as well.

"Whatever you like," Stephen said finally. "But if you'd like me to get some or all of your things, you'll just have to say so. Do you object to Andrea Bocelli?"

"No."

Stephen turned on some music and stretched himself out on the couch with a book.

Claire sat looking at him for a while as he speedily leafed through the book, only studying certain parts in greater detail. He was odd to say the least. However, would she want to stay? She did not know if that was what she wanted. The cottage was depressing -- he had been right about that -- and the guestroom here was not. His mother was nice. And Stephen himself -- well, he was improving, she thought. Even if he was still wearing the same things as yesterday.

Soon Stephen was engrossed in the book and made notes in an almost illegible scribble. He forgot about Claire until his mother came to see how they were doing.

"Tea, anyone?" she asked. "The tea helped you, didn't it?"

Stephen looked up, suddenly reminded of their existence. That the tea had helped implied that Matthew had not done a great deal and that was important to know. He glanced at Claire, but she was still seated behind his computer, with her hands in her lap and apparently not doing anything. Come to think of it, he had not heard her tap any keys for a while either, although that had not really registered. What had she been doing then?

She nodded. "I think it did. I feel a little better."

"Stephen must fetch your things," said his mother. "You will stay another night, won't you? You shouldn't go back to that draughty and cold little cottage if you don't feel well yet. I think it leaks, too. No place for a sick girl to spend the night. Here at least it's warm."

"If it's no trouble..." Claire hesitated. Stephen might not want to follow his mother's orders. Perhaps he would not like her to stay at all.

"Stephen..." said his mother.

Stephen stood up and turned towards Claire. "If you tell me what you'll be needing, I'll get it." He could not help smiling.

Claire stared at him for a few seconds before answering. Stephen was smiling? Really smiling? Yes, he was. "Uhh..." That smile made him different. If he had first approached her with such a smile, she would have liked him instantly, she suspected. But he had not, so why was he doing it right now?

"I'll take everything if you don't want me to go through your things," he suggested. "It wasn't all that much, I recall." Why was he happy that she would stay if she barely acknowledged him? But he could change that. And he would not be like Matthew.

He was certainly odd if he alternated smiles and frowns. Claire did not know what to make of him. "I don't mind if you go through my things if that saves you any trouble carrying."

Stephen stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans. "I'll take Daisy and the cart." It would not be any trouble. He would just throw her things on the cart. "And say it was Mum's idea and not mine." People would start gossiping if a woman moved in with him after a day, he had realised. It would be less if he emphasised that Claire was ill and that it was his mother's idea, so that she would in fact be his mother's guest.

Claire looked after him as he left the room and shrugged helplessly at his mother when Stephen was gone. "That's the second man I don't understand." If it had to be absolutely clear that he had not invited her, why had he been willing to collect her things immediately? She did not understand that at all. He should have been reluctant to go in that case. "I thought he didn't mind."

Stephen's mother snorted a little. "How many times have you had a man stay the night at your house, Claire?"

Claire blushed. "Not that often." She failed to see what this had to with the situation at hand.

"Did anybody ever comment on it?"

"I don't think anybody noticed and anyway, it happens so often that a friend from far away misses the last train or the bus and then..." she shrugged. "So it's common. People wouldn't..." But people here might, it suddenly occurred to her. "But here it's different?"

"Here it's very different," Stephen's mother nodded with a smile. "People know everything. I don't know how, but they do. They must have binoculars. It's got worse since we got telephones."

"So..." Claire tried to get it all sorted out. "People would know I'm here? And they would know that all my things are being taken here? And they would think..." she left the rest of the question hanging in the air.

Stephen's mother knew what she meant anyway. "Yes, that's exactly what they would think."

"But I've only been here for a day," Claire protested. It was ridiculous to assume that she would move in with a man a day after meeting him.

"You're a city girl. They believe city girls move very fast," Stephen's mother smiled wryly. "Faster than island girls. It's probably not the case, but it's a persistent belief here."

"And Stephen?"

"Do you want to know if Stephen believes that too or if he knows that they believe that?"

Claire looked troubled. "He doesn't come across as if he believes that, because he doesn't go out of his way to be nice or anything..." But he had to know what people were going to say. "Why doesn't he want them to say that if he knows it isn't true?"

His mother bit her lip to suppress a smile upon hearing that Claire did not think Stephen was making any special efforts to be nice. Certainly not compared to Matthew, she thought. "Would you like him to go out of his way?" she asked. But she should not give Claire the idea that she knew everything Stephen thought or that he listened to her at all, just because they lived in the same house and because he had listened to her suggestion that he go and collect Claire's belongings. He was independent from them and he generally did things his own way.

"No," Claire admitted and sighed with an irritated frown. "I just want them all to stay away from me right now. I don't understand them and I don't want to be somebody's new accessory they can show off. I mean, that's all men care about, isn't it? At least, that was all my friends cared about -- to have a pretty girlfriend. I don't trust them if they're nice. They always have something in mind, because they wouldn't have been nice if I had been ugly. I'm sick of men, money, business, parties, life, everything. Bah."

 

Chapter 8

Claire was a little sorry about her outburst and stayed silent. She should not have said this to her hostess, who might think it was also directed against her when it was not. "I'm sorry. I was just very depressed."

"And you've come here to be cured. There's no money, no business, no parties here -- only men and life to make you sick. Your problem has been halved. Doesn't that sound good? Come downstairs and have some tea," Stephen's mother invited her. "My husband baked biscuits."

"I beg your pardon?" asked Claire, whose father would not dream of baking biscuits.

"Biscuits."

"I didn't know fathers could do that," she said as they descended the stairs. Actually, her mother could not do it either. They just did not have the time. She supposed things were different if you were on this island all day with nowhere to go. Perhaps one would turn to baking.

"Only when they have visitors. The three of us can't eat all of those biscuits."

"Do you have any other children besides Stephen?" If they did, those children obviously did not live here. There had been no sign of them and where could they possibly be hiding on the island? Nowhere.

"Yes, but they moved away from the island for their studies and they never returned."

That sounded a little regretful. "Never?" Claire exclaimed. Had there been some fight?

Stephen's mother laughed. "They come to visit us, but they don't live here. They have jobs on the mainland." Claire tended to take things very literally, she noticed.

"And Stephen doesn't?" Claire had understood that he had only become a teacher a year ago or so, so what had he been doing before that? He had been on the island.

She wondered why Claire asked. The answer seemed obvious. How could Stephen possibly also work on the mainland? "Not anymore. It doesn't matter where he lives for his job." Stephen could write anywhere and she rather liked it that he had come back. If only her other children could move back as well, but they were not as footloose.

"What did he do then?" Claire asked curiously.

"Oh, he didn't give it up. He's still a --" But she was interrupted before she could finish the sentence.

"Abby!" Stephen's father called. "Where did you put the gloves?"

Abby had to go and find them for him and Claire still did not know what Stephen's profession was, if he had one at all. She did not get another chance to ask and she forgot about it, because the biscuits were delicious and still hot.


Stephen returned to find them all drinking tea and eating biscuits. They looked very cosy and he suspected his parents of liking the fact that they had a guest for once. He had brought all of Claire's things, having had to repack some of them. "I hadn't ever really been inside that cottage," he said. "But I have to say it's a bit of a brack."

"A what?" Claire asked.

"It's a local word. I don't know how to describe it, but you wouldn't want to live in one." He would not be surprised if one of these days the roof would blow off in a particularly heavy storm. It would be preferable if that happened when there was nobody living there.

"Oh."

"Especially not when you're ill," said his mother. "I suppose they didn't know you were so young. They wouldn't have dreamt of putting you in that cottage all by yourself. If they had known, I suppose they would have let you board with an elderly lady. They told Stephen you were fifty-three." She did not know where they would have put Claire -- here, perhaps. They had enough space and time to look after her.

"Fifty-three?" Claire cried, looking at Stephen. That meant he had to have been very surprised to see her, if he had been expecting someone so old. Would that explain why he had behaved so strangely? "Is that why you --" she stopped. It was not very good manners to ask him that, maybe. But then, why should she mind her manners if he did not either?

"Why I what?" he asked.

"Well, why you --"

Stephen looked at her expectantly.

"Why you treated me as if I wasn't what you had been expecting," Claire said, a little embarrassed. It was difficult to ask a question she considered pretty rude.

"Because you weren't what I had been expecting," replied Stephen unperturbed. He supposed she was right, although he had not evaluated his behaviour and he did not know he had been acting that way.

Claire gave him an uncertain grimace. "Oh. Well, I suppose not, if you thought I was going to be fifty-three. I don't know where they got that idea."

"1947," said Stephen. "I didn't see your job application, but they emailed me that you were born in 1947."

"Oh. Typo."

"So was it 1974 or 1977?" he asked when she did not volunteer to explain what it should have been. He did not dare to guess. At that age, three years would make a huge difference.

"You would have more faith in my abilities if I said 1974," Claire answered. "But does it really make a difference?" It was 1974, but why should Stephen care?

"Have another biscuit, Claire," said Stephen's father. "Stephen wouldn't want you to have any abilities anyway, because you might criticise what he's been doing at the school. Isn't that right, Stephen?"

Stephen coughed. "Thank you, Dad." But he had guessed correctly then. The older, the better, he thought, but he did not really want to analyse why he thought that.

"But on the other hand," said Abby shrewdly. "That means you wouldn't have any abilities to appreciate his work either. So Stephen doesn't really know what he wants -- abilities or no abilities."

Claire glanced at Stephen to see how he was taking all this, but he seemed good-natured enough to take it in his stride. There also seemed to be a subtext here that she did not understand.

"Being appreciated would be nicer than being criticised," Stephen answered. "Not just for me."

"Oh, really? You should have considered that when you said --" Claire broke off. She was almost going to say something rude again.

"What did I say?" Stephen knew he had a tendency to sometimes phrase things badly, but it was also possible that she took everything the wrong way. He did not know her well enough yet to know that.

Claire saw all three of them looked at her curiously. "Well, that I would be punished for being late. You should have appreciated the fact I was there," she said challengingly.

"I wasn't really clear about what I meant," Stephen conceded, raising his eyebrows a little because she really thought he had been serious about that punishment. And he did appreciate the fact that she was there. "But you didn't show up on time and for all I knew you had chartered a boat to go back home before school."

"Why would I do that?"

"Women do that sort of thing." That was a bad answer, but his preceding remark could not have led to anything else. She was turning out to be very good at making him respond like a rude misogynist, when he really was not like that. Perhaps he should control the urge to say the first thing that occurred to him, because it was not helping things along.

"If you had women do that sort of thing to you, you should probably ask yourself why," Claire snapped and coloured. She was snapping at him in front of his parents. That was not the right way to go if she wanted to remain a guest in the house.

Stephen guessed that Claire would indeed think of him as a rude misogynist and that she would have a very clear opinion on why women ran away from him before school. He could say that they did not, but he thought it would be a waste of time. Instead he shrugged. "And you should probably ask yourself why you didn't."

 

Chapter 9

In order to leave you had to have something to go to, Claire thought, and she did not really have that, except maybe her parents. But she had not even called them yet to say how she was doing so far.

Stephen smiled a little when she did not answer him. He was glad she had not left. "I'm happy to have someone to share the workload with."

"I thought you'd be returning to whatever you were doing before you took over teaching," said Claire, looking at him a little curiously. Was he going to keep on teaching then? She hoped he would tell her what his profession was.

"I'm still doing that -- at night."

"At night?" Claire frowned. The island seemed to sleep at night, apart from the fact that there simply did not seem to be any places where one could work. There could not be a heretofore hidden part where there was a factory or an office building or something like that.

"Yes."

"Where?" She looked puzzled.

"Here." Stephen was a little amused, because he saw she did not understand anything of it. She obviously had no clue what he did, or she would not react in such a puzzled way.

"Here in the house?" She waited until he nodded and then continued. "Let me get this straight. Before you started teaching, you spent all day in your house?"

"No."

"You're pulling my leg somehow," Claire said uncertainly when she saw he was amused.

"I have a computer," he explained. "And that's where I do most of my work, but I don't necessarily have to do the preparatory work at the computer -- just type it out."

Claire leant back and wondered. She did not want to come across as too inquisitive. Maybe he would tell her what exactly he did behind the computer. But Stephen did not. She saw he began to look reflective after a while, to the point of ignoring his surroundings completely. After a quick succession of indefinable emotions on his face he got up and left the room.

He did not return until his mother called him for dinner. Claire had been curious what he had gone to do, but she had not dared to ask and his parents had not told her. Apparently they were used to it. Maybe Stephen wanted to avoid having to entertain her.

It was even more amazing that he did not sit down to dinner with them, but collected his plate with an absentminded frown and went back upstairs. He must really appreciate his own company, Claire thought. And dislike hers.

Stephen's mother finally noticed that she was puzzled by her son's behaviour. "I expect he's busy," she said.

"Doing what?" Claire could not imagine that anything could be so important that it could not be interrupted and continued after dinner.

"He's working."

Claire thought that his parents were probably so used to Stephen's oddities that they no longer realised that it was not normal. Who was she to say that it was very strange? She was only a guest and she could not criticise behaviour that was accepted and approved of by all parties in the house. She would just have to get used to it, no matter how impolite it seemed to her.

She did not see any more of Stephen that night.


Stephen did not come to hold the alarm by her ear the next morning. When she woke she saw that he must already be at the school and that he had let her sleep late. She felt much better today and she could in fact go to the school as well. His parents were not in either. At least, she could not find them anywhere. It worried her a bit that she could not lock the door behind her and she waited for a while in case they were coming back, but when it took too long she just wrote a note for them and left the door open. Anyone could have walked in before she was awake too.

Not far away from the school she ran into Matthew. He stopped his bike for her. "Hi Claire," he said expectantly, but with some reserve.

"Hi Matthew."

"Are you feeling better?" he asked.

"Yes, I was just going to school." Claire wondered why he did not smile so much anymore.

"I saw Stephen didn't stay home to nurse you."

"That wasn't necessary. You said yourself that there wasn't anything really wrong with me."

Matthew looked away. "What were you doing at his house?"

"I'm sorry. Were you upset that I wasn't home when you called?" Claire asked him.

"When I called? Oh. I assumed you were asleep. I never would have imagined that you could be with Stephen." It sounded a little jealous.

Claire felt she had to justify her presence there, even though such a feeling was ridiculous, because she could go where she pleased and she was not dependent on anyone. "I had to ask him something about the school."

And she had just gone on to stay the night. Why not, Matthew thought in resignation, since he would have tried the same. One could not really blame Stephen. "Oh."

"I didn't see much of him at all yesterday."

"You didn't?" Matthew asked a little more hopefully. Perhaps that was a good thing.

"I think he was working. He didn't eat with us either."

"He's a bit...strange, sometimes, but he's my friend, so I'm used to it." He paused. "So does that mean you and he are not...er...lovers?"

Claire nearly gagged. It was not that Stephen was repulsive, but the very thought that she would go after men and become lovers just one day after meeting somebody was incredible. "No!" she said vehemently. "Ick, Matthew!"

Matthew took this to signify that she did not like Stephen and he could not help smiling. "Sorry about shocking you. It was just a question. Of course I didn't really think that you would..." He laughed. "It was only a joke. People will start to wonder in such a small place, you know."

"Yes, but -- I'm not that type of person," Claire said in a determined voice.

"Good, good," said Matthew for no particular reason. "Are you going to work now?"

"Yes."

"Hey, there's a new film out in Lirra. Would you like to go over there some time and watch it? There isn't a whole lot to do here at night."

"Maybe. Which film?"

"I don't really know. I forgot the name. I'll let you know. I have to go and visit an old lady with rheumatism now, so I'd better go."

"Oh. Well, you'd better go then," Claire said. "Bye." She watched as he pedalled off and then walked on to the school, thinking about what he had said. It was almost as if he had been worried that she was in love with Stephen. How very odd that he could seriously contemplate that idea. But it must mean that he liked her himself and no wonder that he had invited her to the cinema. She did not know whether to say yes or no to that. He might be liking her more than she liked him and she was not sure how much she actually liked him. There had not been enough time to form an adequate opinion of anyone on the island.

 

Chapter 10

"Stephen said you were ill," said one of the youngest pupils when Claire came in. "But you're not ill! Stephen lied. He's going to have to stand in the corner!" the child giggled.

Claire deduced that this was the punishment for lying. "But he didn't lie," she said softly so Stephen would certainly not be able to overhear what she was saying. He was on the other side of the classroom. "He didn't know I felt better." She walked towards the desk and hung her coat over the back of the chair. When she looked up Stephen was standing beside her.

"Are you feeling better?" he inquired.

Claire nodded. "Yes. But I didn't lock the door."

That seemed to confuse him. "Which door?"

"To your house. Anyone can walk in."

"Oh, don't worry. Nobody will." He put his hands in his pockets and observed her. "I think you should follow me around today."

Now Claire was confused. "Why? How?"

"So you can see how things go around here. It's an easier way to get acquainted with the school than forcing you to do things by yourself right away."

"You won't allow me to do anything at all?"

"Can you make coffee?" Stephen asked, raising his eyebrows inquiringly.

"Are you serious?" Claire was ready to become offended if he was indeed serious. She hated the kind of men who thought women were only good for domestic tasks.

Stephen seemed surprised that she had to ask. "Don't take me too literally." He thought about that. Maybe she always did. She had looked at him oddly on more occasions than just this one, but he had not really considered how his words might be received. "It causes misunderstandings."

That was easier said than done. "But how else will I know what you mean?"

That was difficult to explain. "I don't always know that myself," Stephen confessed. "But...just keep in mind that I hardly ever mean any harm."

"But what if this is the one time that you do?" Claire pressed. "And should I interpret all your words in the opposite way?"

Stephen looked confused. He was not sure if he always meant the exact opposite of what he was saying if he was only teasing. One could not speak of opposites, really, only of gradations. "No, just a few."

"Which ones? Could you give me a warning?"

He knew he was neglecting the class for far too long and realised that they could go on confusing each other indefinitely, but that it had to end. "Don't think so much, Claire. It's bad for women. They shouldn't think."

Claire gaped at him, unsure how she should interpret that. Stephen insisted on vexing her and seemingly he was unaware of it too, but to fight this out in front of the class would be a bad idea. "Well, me and my weak brain are entirely at your disposal," she said sarcastically. "Do with me as you please, but don't give me too difficult stuff to do -- I might not manage."

"Nah, I'll keep it simple," Stephen assured her. He was not entirely certain whether she was not upset with him. There was a bit of a gleam in her eyes that was difficult to interpret. It might be indignation or it might be amusement. Given Claire's previous reactions, it would probably be indignation, he realised a few seconds later and he cringed. He was screwing things up royally.

For the rest of the morning, he essentially ignored her, only asking her if she had any questions about what he was doing, but she did not. He tried not to keep things too simple, or to come across as though he were doing things exaggeratedly simplistically just because she was looking on. It unnerved him that she never asked or said anything. What was she thinking? Did she hate him? Just because he had made a few remarks she had misinterpreted?

"The day's over," he said curtly when lunch came around. All the children had run out of the classroom.

Claire assumed they had gone to play outside before lunch, or something like that. "Over?" There was not going to be any school in the afternoon?

"Yes, they only have school on Friday mornings. They're all going home." He realised he had forgotten to tell her that. Oh well. He could not think of everything at once.

"Oh." While Claire did not mind that there was no school, she wondered what on earth she was supposed to do that afternoon. There ought to be more enjoyable things than keeping Stephen company, but she did not exactly know whether there were any on the island. Since she was a guest in his house, she would have to wait until he said they were going home. It would be impolite to go off all by herself, but he was still looking through things on his desk rather aimlessly.

"Claire...if you're upset with me, tell me so," Stephen said after a few minutes. Something had to be done about that, he had concluded.

"Upset?" she repeated uneasily. She did not want to go into that.

"You know the meaning of the word and you know how to convey the emotion." Women were far too easily upset, he thought, when nothing was the matter at all.

"I do?"

Stephen did not want to have a discussion about that. He could ask and she would deny it. "Don't ask me. You're the one who knows best."

"I think you're a patronising, rude jerk," Claire blurted out. She was really getting annoyed with him now.

"You're upset with me," Stephen concluded calmly. "I thought so."

He should not be calm. Claire became even more annoyed. "I can't believe you'd actually take pride in that!"

"I don't. But abuse me all you like to get it out of your system," he said invitingly.

"It doesn't work that way."

"Unfortunately," he remarked. It would certainly speed things up a little if she could abuse him and then feel normal again. "I'm sorry, Claire. I'm not aggravating you on purpose and it's a pity if you think we can't work together, because I don't really see any problems. I'm sorry if you do. If you think it's something that can't be helped, then I'm not sure what we should do, because I'm just being myself and I'm not sure what I should do to keep you from taking everything I say the negative way."

It was true that she had a habit of taking things negatively. That was exactly the reason why she had come -- fled -- here. Claire looked at the floor. "I guess it's just me then. I knew that. People never see any problems when I do."

"It's possible to see too many problems."

"I never make any problems up," she defended herself sharply. They were always real to her. She was not going to invent any more of them -- she had quite enough of them as it was. What was he thinking?

He would disagree, but he did not say so. "Life can be tough, though, when you believe other people don't share your outlook," he said softly.

"Life is tough anyway," she said bitterly.

She was not going to allow herself to be convinced of the contrary right now, Stephen thought. "People expect so much from you, don't they? When you don't want to do all that." He knew this was probably the first right thing he had said to her when there was some recognition in her face.

 

2000 Copyright held by the author.

 

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