There was a ring at the doorbell that made Andrea jump in her place on the sofa beside Lucas. He registered her tremor, placing a hand out to calm her, before he leapt up to get the door. In the cold of the annexe-room, Lucas swung his door inwards to reveal his sister. Her hair was scraped out of place and her eyes displayed all the signs he knew of a girl in shock.
She spoke hurriedly, relating the terrible goings on of the past hour. As she refrained from wailing, concern built up within Lucas. He felt a crick solidify in his neck and raised a hand to attempt to soothe it as he welcomed her in.
“Feel free to leave your stuff anywhere. Okay? I’ll just explain the situation to Andrea.”
He traipsed back into the living room, where Andrea had now come to stand. She shot him a questioning look, and he guided her over to the bookcase.
“What’s going on?” Andrea muttered into his ear, casting Léa looks from out of the corner of her eye.
“Keith has kicked Léa out of his house,” explained Lucas.
Andrea face said it all: of the surprise and the guilt and the confusion of Keith’s actions now.
“What’ll you do?” she whispered.
“Well, we’ve no space to set her up here, but, since she’s leaving tomorrow for the Spanish publishing office, that won’t be much of a problem.”
“Lansdale has a hotel, as I’m sure you know.”
“The one just across the boulevard? At a quick walk, that’ll take twenty-five, thirty minutes.”
“Or you could drive,” Andrea suggested.
“I meant that it wasn’t far,” he retorted.
“That’s good. One night, it’s reasonably priced, so I hear.”
“I’ll tell Léa. For the time-being, um…do what you normally do.”
“I’ll come with you.”
Lucas wasn’t so sure of whether that was a good idea, but he daren’t argue with Andrea when Léa needed them united.
Andrea said, “I’m sorry for what Keith has done,” and promptly attempted to guide Léa into the house. In his current uselessness, Lucas flopped back down onto his sofa.
“Thank you, Andrea,” Léa replied. “I’ll just sit by Lucas. If I book a room at the Lansdale hotel – as I should have originally done – I’ll be gone by this evening.”
“That’s exactly what we were thinking,” Lucas added with a tender smile.
“You know what you need?” interrupted Andrea pompously. “An ice-cream sundae. I’ll whip you up one after I just pop to the corner-shop to get some ice-cream. Won’t be long. Will you be okay whilst I’m out?”
“Of course,” Léa said with a laugh. “I have Lucas here.”
In the clatter of footsteps, Andrea darted from the living room to the kitchen and back, stealing her keys from the side-board as she went. The whirlwind, she was gone in less than a minute. Lucas sunk into the sofa, scraping his hands over his face and partly to touch up his hair.
He heard Léa sigh beside him, her voice filling with something like relief. “But how are you?”
“No, today’s’ about your matters. Let’s not talk about me.”
“I’m trying to distract myself from my own matters. And I know you, baby brother; you use others’ matters to distract from your own, too. Otherwise, you wouldn’t shut up about everything you’ve done and places you’ve been. As is, you’ve been unusually quite. No, shh. Tell me, Lucas, what the matter is.”
“I guess I deserved a battering like that. You know what, Léa? It’s of small concern compared to your troubles.”
“Nevertheless…” she promoted.
Lucas shifted in his seat, uncomfortable. Thank goodness Andrea had popped out.
“I’ve been having a little trouble keeping on top of my finances lately, mainly because I’m still paying off the mortgage for this place. That would be fine under normal circumstances. Sure, I’d deal with it.”
“But, since Andrea came into your life…?” Léa suggested.
“Oh no, it’s not Andrea’s fault at all! No, these are the different circumstances: St. Anne’s was meant to give me a raise, but yesterday I received an email alerting me otherwise. Lately…I’ve been having second thoughts about claiming the Head of Religious Studies post there. Yes, as you have pointed out, Lansdale is a beautiful place, but I’m beginning to regret my placement. I just don’t think the school treat their staff to the best of their ability, even for a private school. You might not think it, but it’s stressful being head of my subject whilst still only having a little responsibility. I need some way to break away, out of this rut. It frustrates my…illness more than you’d imagine.”
“Okay, yes, I have no way to imagine what you’re going through, but maybe you’re overreacting because of the money thing. Just give it a couple of months before you act on impulse and do something silly like resign. After all, you’re unlikely to get a post as Head of RS again.”
Lucas shifted once again to sit on his hands, with the hope that then they’d not descend into fidgeting.
“Could you not tell Andrea, please? She was a student there for seven years, after all.”
Léa raised her eyebrows and rounded her eyes. “If you’re sure you’re doing the right thing, Lucas.”
“Pretty sure,” said he.
From the outside came the sounds of a door handle crunching down and Andrea’s scuffed footsteps echoing in the annexe-room, before she herself entered, shoeless, but with a plastic bag snug in one hand.
“That handle keeps getting caught. We’ll have to oil it soon.”
“Great, I’ll add it to my list,” answered Lucas without hiding his discontentment much.
Andrea ignored this commentary.
“Is everything all right here?” she asked, turning to Léa.
“Yes.” Léa pushed down on Lucas’ sofa and managed to lift herself up to Andrea’ height. Lucas had never realised how similar in height his two favourite women were. That was cool.
In the swish of one of Andrea’s dresses (Léa looked a little strange in her borrowed robes, even when she had bought a couple of new outfits to exercise or walk in), Léa had embraced the other woman. They unfolded and Lucas felt an unusual pang of delight. He hadn’t factored in so much friendship. Perfect.
“I’m strong,” said Léa. “I’ll get over Keith.”
Nevertheless, Lucas knew the ill-contentment in her voice. Placid Léadidn’t resort to it often, but even the most shielded of older sisters faced weakening sometimes.
As Andrea somehow guided Léa back into the sofa’s depths, the latter shot Lucas a look. A typical Léa look, regardless of her current emotional situation, more than just a typical gaze of sisterly care. She wasn’t going to tell of the exchange. And, though thankful, in due course, Lucas himself forgot about the matter of little importance.
“What can I get you? I mean, apart from the sundae. Coffee?” Gee, Andrea was sure rambling more than usual. Scolding himself, Lucas suppressed the smile.
“Really, I’m okay. Though…coffee would be nice. Black. No sugar.”
Andrea lifted herself out of the sofa-space – how she had squeezed three people into the two-seater he didn’t know – catching the crease of her tight skirt on the stuffing edge. Lucas couldn’t help staring.
She turned to him, hands on curvaceous hips.
“Come on, Lucas. Coffee.”
“Me?” he responded, partial befuddled anyway.
At Andrea’s certain tone, he obliged, paying close attention to the certain way she frog-marched him into their kitchen. Andrea pushed the door ajar, and she began to clatter things from her shopping bag onto the counter-tops.
Lucas strode to the kettle and set it boiling. Easy. To augment his idea that she hadn’t brought him in to become a second pair of hands, Andrea turned the instant he had reached for the coffee packet.
“How’s she holding up? Really?” she asked.
“Alarmingly well,” he admitted. “That does worry me; she likes to put on a brave face…”
They both knew of the implications of his worries. For now, however, Lucas swallowed the knot in his throat and suppressed the feelings.
The conversation continued in whispers as Andrea seized a spoon and began to whip the ice-cream around in her bowl.
“What are you…?” he interrupted.
“This makes it lighter and softer. Better for sundaes.”
“I don’t see what use spoiling Léa will do,” he added. “She doesn’t take to treats.”
“Nonsense. Everyone loves treats.” Through her stirring, Andrea dismissed his point with a flick of the hand.
“I’m being serious. There’s no association within her that says ice-cream equals comfort.”
“Hmm?” In his boredom, Lucas began to pour the coffee granules into a spare mug.
“That's what it’s called, what you’re describing. Léa has never been classically conditioned to comfort food as I have.” She pulled some sort of awkward face, but did continue mixing together the sundae ingredients in all her wonderful way.
“Okay. Well, regardless –” the kettle popped up with a click – “regardless, I don’t think you ought to reconcile my sister in this way. She’s not used to such flattery as this.”
“Reconcile?” The spoon within the bowl stopped its motion, jolting onto the curved edge.
“You suggested…” he began. This was a bad idea already.
“Hardly! I was tipsy.” Andrea let her frown slide a little and she opened a can of chopped nuts in the while. “I promise I am not trying to reconcile Léa. You were the one who asked her after all!”
A throat cleared behind them, and, like two accused schoolchildren, they turned, faces of innocence a petty façade. Leaning on the door-frame, Léa crossed her arms, one over the other.
“I am here, not in hiding. Lucas you know you only have to ask me if you need anything, and, Andrea, I give you permission, too.”
“You can’t be really okay with this already,” Lucas spoke up.
“I have said my opinion. Besides, it’s not like we’ve broken up. I have fewer wounds than some women.”
“But –” Andrea tried. She must have heard the same tone of disappointment that Lucas had.
“I’ll eat the sundae and go to sort my room at the hotel.”
“It’s almost done,” Andrea said, helpfully.
Léa gave them a curt nod and marched back into the living room, but Lucas wasn’t going to let the situation drop.
“Now that does worry me,” he muttered under his breath. “You’d better stay here ‘til I call.”
He waved a small smile in Andrea’s direction, before leaving her in the kitchen. In the living room, Lea was peering through the television selection guide, but Lucas was able to read her face as disinterested.
“What game are you playing?” he asked with a sigh.
Léa lifted her head slowly from the paper, raising an eyebrow as she did so.
He folded his arms, admittedly a little angry, if he was true to his own emotions. “The way you treated my girlfriend. If you really had no feeling of disarray in what Keith has done, you would not be acting so sharply with the people you love.”
“You were talking behind my back, Lucas! What did you expect?”
“And you expect me to leave you questioning that? Léa, please; we’re worried. I am asking now: be yourself.”
“I told you: it was nothing.” She flung the magazine to the ground beyond the sofa, before turning away to fiddle with its pages, as if in apology to the selection magazine. That was when Lucas saw it: the pristine nails scraping at the smooth skin spread across the bones of her hand.
She was uncomfortable. And Léa only became uncomfortable in conversation when she was lying.
“It means nothing.”
He couldn't stand to see her inwardly agonising. Instead, as more of comfort to himself, Lucas placed himself on the sofa-tip and edged along to his sister. Apart from a stiffening of her shoulders, Léa showed no sign of having noticed his presence. So what? Lucas threw caution to the wind, and wrapped his long arms around her.
Suddenly, Léa eyes welled up, leaving trails of tears spreading across her white face. She flung herself angrily further into his arms, all the while talking on in a savage tone.
“I don’t know why I acted the way I did. So recklessly.”
“No. It was because I asked you to.”
“I wouldn’t have done so if I hadn’t… All because of a stupid, stupid crush.”
“That I encouraged. Oh, Léa, I’m so sorry. I’ve been hurting you passively.”
Lucas tugged his sister into a tight, warm embrace, feeling her thrash with anger underneath. Tiny fists pounded the taller man’s chest; no matter how enormous the four years between them seemed, sometimes Lucas had to stand up and be the older brother.