The elder pair wandered a little way before they spoke.
“You’re amazing the way you handle the children,” observed Vinzent. “They love you so much. It’s so easy to see.”
“Oh, I’m used to it. I’ve practically run their lives since I was sixteen.”
“I wish I had brothers and sisters. Life would be more interesting if I did. I can’t tell you what a revelation it is to spend time with a family – your family, moreover.”
“Is life boring?”
“No; it’s lonely though.” He frowned momentarily. “Did you say you’d run their lives since you were sixteen? That’s very young. Was there any reason?” Then, as he saw Aoife’s eyes fill, he hastened to reassure her. “It’s okay; I’m sorry; you don’t have to tell me.”
“It was when she died. My aunt. It’s my debt to her,” Aoife said, smiling though her eyes were wet. “I must look after the kids. And I love doing it.”
“You work very hard. Don’t you have a mother, then?”
Aoife looked startled for a second. Then she recovered herself. She took a deep breath, mentally making her decision.
“Yes!” she snarled with almost unintentional viciousness. “She’s dead, or she doesn’t care! I don’t know. It isn’t like I’ve spoken to her in ten years!”
Vinzent had a sympathetic look in his dark eyes. “I’m sure she cared,” he said at last.
“She doesn’t,” said Aoife. “You don’t understand.”
“Don’t I?” he halted his steps, and turned to face her, a strangely gentle anger about his stance. “Don’t I?” he repeated.
Aoife raised her eyes to his with an inkling of trepidation, and she saw such understanding in them that she suddenly broke down and told him everything. He was one who understood even better than her uncle. Uncle Humph was blinded by his own sorrow and love for Aunt ‘Nymph’. Vinzent didn’t know Aunt ‘Nymph’. He had never met her. He was not biased for better or for worse. He understood.
“Tell me,” he said simply, and Aoife obeyed.
“When I was nine my parents were off on an art tour, leaving me with my aunt and uncle. I haven’t seen them since, though they’ve been travelling for ten years. I’m nineteen now. For the first few years I was sad, but as I got into my teens I realised that Auntie was quite sufficient to bring me up. She helped me through everything, and that’s ever so much, although, not being a girl, you couldn’t be acquainted with much of that trauma. The teenage girl who strives to be honest has a difficult time, I can only say – and she does not always succeed, I can also own with regret.
“And then three years ago she died, and it was even worse than being parted from my parents aged nine. She just died, like that, and then she was gone.
“So I vowed I’d bring up the children for her, as she brought me up so well.
“But it’s so difficult, Vinzent! I don’t know how I keep going, I really don’t! And then Dee caught pneumonia, and we had to bring her here. Six years ago we came here because Auntie was ill, and it prolonged her life three years. We were so afraid for Dee, and nervous. There was another boy, too – Geoff. He would have been eighteen next month, I believe, but he died from measles. We had to take such care of Dee, and we were terrified that another of the family would die. It just couldn’t happen. It couldn’t happen again. You don’t understand how terrible it is, Vinzent! You don’t!”
She broke down into feverish tears, and Vinzent, pressing his lips together, offered her a warm shoulder. Aoife accepted it, grateful and a little comforted, but still delirious with the memories that were recalled as she released her heartbreak.
“I do understand,” murmured Vinzent gently, scarcely blinking. “My mother died five weeks ago.”
Aoife’s tears froze, a tsunami in the Arctic, and she raised her head. She saw instantly the candid tears in his sad brown eyes, and believed. He had told the truth, told of his own heartbreak, and she had come to her senses. There were more people and more sorrows than merely Aoife Thimble and her parents’ desertion and her aunt’s death and her difficult burden.
She controlled her sobs. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I never guessed. I never notice anything, you know. I’m utterly useless, and I’m so, so sorry.”
“Not with the children you’re not,” Vinzent replied in a low voice, warm and encouraging. “You’re great with them, and you’re fun to be around and a good companion. You’ll never be useless, Aoife. Just remember that you are dearly loved. You’re loved by the children, and your uncle, and your aunt. Your parents love you, though they may be clumsy and careless and forgetful. And others love you besides, whoever you are and whatever you are. You are not a comparison. You are Aoife Thimble, and you are loved more than I can describe.” He hesitated, their eyes locked in a seemingly eternal gaze. “Come on; you should get some sleep. You’re exhausted.”
Leaning on him, for she was shaking violently and truly felt that she might collapse on the spot, Aoife made her way back to the tent, where she stepped unsteadily over Apollo and slid into her sleeping bag, secure in the knowledge that someone really did understand everything. Soon she was sleeping as soundly as the children, and never felt the light brush on her cheek as a tall man bent down and kissed her goodnight.