After the meal more games were in action, but after an hour or so Aoife was feeling odd. Maybe it was the noise or the heat. She didn’t know. She just didn’t feel too good all of a sudden.
“I’m just going outside to catch a breather,” she told Élodie quietly.
“Do you feel alright? Would you like me to come with you?”
“No, thank you. I’ll be okay in a second. I’d rather you kept the kids from coming after me, actually. They tend to see when I’m not there. Although I expect they’ll be too occupied right now to notice.”
And so Aoife slipped out, and sauntered down to the lakeside with no difficulty. A few breaths of fresh air cured her sudden nausea, but she enjoyed the peace of the still lake, and did not feel ready to return to the noise and bustle of the party instantaneously.
“I like Élodie’ father,” she said aloud, gazing into the orange sunset and wishing that she had her painting utensils with her. “I would love to have a dad like that. I wish my dad was like Uncle Humph and Mr Atkins.”
“So do I,” said a low voice behind her, and she jumped.
“Why do you always creep up on me?” she said in good humour as Vinzent came onto the path beside her.
“I wanted to check you were alright,” he replied seriously, touching her forehead lightly.
Aoife did not flinch, but stepped backwards with a swiftness that I would not wish to be mistaken. “I’m fine. It was just a little nausea for a moment.” She stepped forward again as his hand dropped, and her voice changed. “And I wanted to think.”
Vinzent nodded. “I do too. Mr Atkins reminds me of my father. English fathers: that’s what we all have in common.”
“Dead mothers or aunts,” added Aoife. “Or dead aunts and mothers who don’t care about us.”
Vinzent did not reply.
Aoife eyed him speculatively. “When…how long ago did your father leave you?”
“A little more than ten years ago, before your cousin Blaise was born. Around about the time…”
“The time I was abandoned by both my parents,” Aoife finished bitterly. “How do they expect me to love them? How can they expect to love me? We’re strangers. Nine and nineteen: it’s a big difference. Do they really think I’m the little girl I was then, no older than Blaise herself?”
Vinzent glanced at her with an expression that revealed nothing. “Maybe they haven’t had the chance to visit you?”
“Haven’t had the chance? They’ve had the chance for ten years. They were in France twelve months after they left me. In France! Don’t you think they could have spared the time for just a weekend and dropped in to say ‘hello’ to me? Or do you think they just don’t want me any more? And that’s why they offloaded me when they saw I was getting too big for them to cart around, and that gave them an excuse for forgetting me, like an unloved unwanted puppy. And they have the money, too, so it’s no use saying it would cost too much. Besides, it doesn’t take much to dial a number into a phone and press ‘call’. I’m their daughter, for heaven’s sakes!”
Vinzent stayed silent. He was not used to Aoife in this mood. He understood how she felt, and knew she was just letting her stress out, and perhaps for the first time in ten years letting her real feelings and her real thoughts out of her head. He knew she needed advice, or these questions would go on rotting in her mind, and who knew what could happen if her parents ever did return to such a bitter daughter? But he didn’t know what to say. He had no advice to give, not having been in such a situation himself. But he had to say something. Just what?
“I expect they do still think you’re a little girl. They probably haven’t fully realised that you have left school and are a fully-grown woman with a fully-grown mind. They probably don’t realise how strongly you feel about your aunt, or how much responsibility you take for the children. In their minds you can’t be much more than the heedless nine-year-old they left behind – a little like Blaise, maybe. Perhaps taller, perhaps more beautiful; but they still think you’re a child.
“You’re not, though. You haven’t the mind of a child, though I know plenty of people your age with minds of children. And most importantly, if they realised what you felt about them, I’ll bet they’d be over here in twenty-four hours, just to correct your thinking. As you say, a girl needs a woman, and who better than her own mother? Your parents would be heartbroken to hear that you don’t know if they love you or not. I know that, if I can’t help anywhere else.”
Aoife sat in such forbidding stillness that Vinzent wondered if she was angry at what he had said. He needn’t have feared, for Aoife raised her head upwards after a long while, a magnetic smile on her face.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “You’ve really helped me.”