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by Veronica Bright

It’s been like having a puppy in the house.

Martha sits in the ferry port waiting, lace-ups firmly on the ground. She stares ahead, straight-faced. Her hair is trapped in neat waves, her fingers fold into each other, immobile, imprisoned. The others in the twinning group are having what seems to be an impromptu party. And Nicole, in her unlaced plimsolls, is at the centre of it all, moving from one English host to another, kissing cheeks, hugging, laughing, goodbyes catching in her throat.

Yes, it’s been like having a puppy around, uncontrollable, all wags and scampers. Martha has frowned over lids abandoned carelessly, the shampoo, the toothpaste, her best hand-cream. She’s caught glimpses of clothes scattered on the guestroom floor. And those high-heeled shoes. Martha bought some once, long ago, shiny, red, sling-backs. “You’re not wearing those,” her mother said, inferring loose women, whatever they were. “Besides.” Sniff. “They’re bad for the feet.”

Martha purses her lips. She’s taken trouble over meals, typically English, carefully made. She’s ferried Nicole to meeting places on time, asked if there’s anything she requires.

Martha’s mother taught her to put others before herself. Always. No matter what.

The rest of the twinning members think of her as quiet, solemn. How she ended up with a gregarious scatterbrain for the exchange is anyone’s guess. Nicole makes friends with everyone. If language runs out, she communicates with gestures, smiles. There is usually a lot of laughter involved, too, on both sides.

“I don’t think I laughed at all,” thinks Martha, “when it was just her and me.”

What did she expect? Someone who tiptoed to the bathroom, sat at breakfast with elbows tucked firmly away? Left no footprint on her life? Martha still has the massive boot-prints where her parents trod their rules into her.

Think of other people.

Stop showing off.

Sit there quietly.

Do as you’re told.

They made war on Martha’s self-confidence, until she became this person who tiptoes, blushes, apologises. Scowls. Desperate to please, and failing.

Martha watches as Nicole runs over to a middle-aged couple. She speaks rapidly to them, waving her hands.

“Not a puppy,” thinks Martha. “Something that buzzes, zooms, dazzles. A dragonfly perhaps.”

How Martha longs to shed the restrictive skin that has encased her for years, to heave herself out of her pond, metamorphose from a nymph confined by correctness. It’s not too late, is it, to take to the air and fly?

The party is told to move towards the departure gate.

Nicole skips up to her, almost dancing, kisses her cheek.

“I’ve ’ad a wonderful time,” she says in her beguiling accent. “Super. You ’ave tried so ’ard. Merci beaucoup.”

Such confidence she has, this Nicole. Such a gift. It makes Martha’s heart ache. She smiles, in spite of herself. “It’s been a pleasure.”

What she means is, it’s been an education, and today my real life begins.

Veronica Bright is the author of Cloud Paintings and A Gift from the Horse Chestnut Tree, two collections of prize-winning short stories, which you can find on Amazon. They are available as paperbacks and ebooks. A former primary school teacher, Veronica is also the author of teaching resource books published by Kevin Mayhew Ltd. You can connect with Veronica on Facebook or Twitter @BrightVeronica. Please drop by and say hello on her website, www.veronicabright.co.uk, where she writes a monthly blog of interest to fledgling writers.