She stood up, abruptly releasing her mother’s hand, and drew herself to her full height, looking even taller in the immense dignity she had conjured from her controlled anger.
“I will gladly take my brother in with a greater welcome than anyone could give,” she said frostily. “But I wish firstly that I had a little warning, secondly that I had known of his existence before this evening, and thirdly that he won’t be as unhappy as I was ten years ago when you first left me. I was nine years old, and attached to you, as any good child is. Those were the unhappiest months of my life, until I realised what a rock and standby my aunt and uncle were.
“When Auntie ‘Nymph’ died I was unhappier than when you left me, for she was a better parent to me than anyone. I was sadder because she had been a mother to me and helped me through everything. But I had friends and family who helped me through my sorrow, and still do have friends and family who help me even now.
“I know it is a cruel thing to abandon a child for ten whole years, even with folk who are as kind and accepting as these are, as I experienced the bitter feelings of utter and complete loneliness for those few months; I should know if anyone does. I have told you this because if you go away again you should be aware of how I felt.”
She could not keep the ice in her voice, as it gave way to a catch and her eyes filled with hot tears waiting to flood over down her cheeks. It had cost her a lot to say those cruel words to her parents newly-found, but she knew that if she didn’t speak them, she would be forever bottling them up inside her and her parents would never understand.
With this she turned from the room, not wishing to cry before the children, who had heard the raising of her voice and had crept to the kitchen door. She threw herself on her bed, and lay face-down in a stormy passion of tears, a thing to which she had not given way for years. She had cried, it was true, but she had not cried with such fervour and violence since the death of her aunt and before.
She locked herself in her room, and fell asleep shortly, but came downstairs again when all the children were in bed, Lionel snoring softly in Nathaniel’s twin room, and Mr and Mrs Thimble agreeing to spend the night on the sofa-bed, as they had booked no hotel.
Aoife walked in, smiling her old smile through her tears, conscious of so many eyes upon her – so many eyes beyond minds who had heard and registered her heartbreak, and felt sorry for her with unauthorised sympathy – but she did not care.
Her parents, Uncle Humph, Lindy and Rob looked at her with surprise. They would not have expected this Aoife to return to them: sad and happy and uncaring.
“I’m sorry I said all I did,” Aoife said, her voice projecting over whatever they might have to mutter amongst themselves without her hearing. “But there is something I haven’t told you. All of you. I have my own life, to start with. I sold a painting exactly two weeks ago for two hundred and sixty pounds. And there’s something else.”
She came between the two sofas, where the five could all see her, and stood there beaming. No one said anything for several minutes.
“What is it?” Mrs Thimble whispered at length, and a slow smile spread across Sir Humphrey’s face.
“Is it…so are you…?” he murmured.
Aoife nodded, and Lindy showed a silent expression of excitement and joy. The other three were still looking baffled.
“What is it?”
“It’s Aoife’s secret,” Sir Humphrey explained, nodding to her.
Ever so slowly, Aoife brought her left hand from behind her back and lifted it to her other, which touched it almost reverently.
Mrs Thimble saw it first, and she gasped.
“A ring, Aoife! You’re engaged! My baby is engaged!”