It’s true that I had been appreciating the things I had been given in life. I had never had a father figure, true, but my electronics were fairly up-to-date, and the vocal mismanagement of Miss Brooks’ relatives was not on the verge of being abusive. Still, I had been glad to leave when I did.
We reached Clarissa’s flat just before lunch, where the midday sun cast a set of darker shadows onto the whitewashed flats for me to identify. Like the majority of buildings in new London, this place clung to its façade of modern brick and wide panes of shining-clear glass. Each side of the uneven surface wore a face that told me to come into the society, but those shadows would tell another story if they had been given a moment more.
I did all I could to appreciate that set of masonry before Clarissa let me into her place. She pointed out a plug just beside the sofa and, as she set about making herself (and hopefully me) a sandwich, I went about trying to sort my mobile out.
I plugged it in, turning it on to check that the system hadn’t been too shocked from such a neglect. After Meygan, I had paid no heed to my mobile being used. Luckily, the phone chirped as its screen brightened, and I relaxed.
A second later, the room was full of my ringtone, louder than normal, and my shoulders tensed once more.
I grabbed the device. My adoptive mother was on the other end.
“Hi.” It seemed the right thing to say, though I didn’t know what else I wanted to.
“Hello, how are you?”
“I’m okay.” I swallowed, tight-lipped.
“Where are you?”
“London. Where else?”
“Oh. No, I meant: what have you found? Where are you now?”
“I’m in my hotel, Ms. Brooks.”
“And what have you found?”
I silently fumed. Why was she asking me this torrent of questions?
“Not much,” I tried to lie; “just a small toy-shop in the shopping district. You know, a make-your-own kind.”
“Oh. Alright. That’s interesting.”
“What is it?”
“I was just making sure that you’re okay. How much money do you have left?”
I resisted the urge to grit my teeth.
“I don’t know…”
“You don’t? But what if you’re running out? You should come home at once.”
“Mother!” The word slipped out before I could even think it. “Look! Ms. Brooks-”
“Maria,” she said with a tearful tone.
“Please don’t,” I tried to respond as quickly as possible. We were talking over each other, but it didn’t matter.
“I will. You are just as much my daughter as you were a month ago. I wish you’d come home and stop this fantasy.”
“Don’t do this. Don’t try and snatch me back-”
“I just think it’s a bad idea!”
“I know you do! Leave me!”
I let my voice settle until it was quiet again.
“It’s not a fantasy. She’s out there somewhere. I need to do this and I need you not to stop me.”
“Yes, this is what I want. Don’t you-”
She cleared her throat, and, instinctively, I went quiet.
“I don’t want you getting into trouble. It’s a tough world out there-”
“And I’ve got the danger allele.”
The other end of the phone was silent, as if the woman who had brought me up had been petrified.
“I’m here, Maria. I was just thinking.”
She was slow to respond again. I could almost hear the clatter of her mind as it made its way along the tracks.
“You don’t know what sorts of trouble you’ll find waiting for you. You don’t know what sort of person this woman is.”
“Yes, I do. I know more than you do.”
“Please come home,” she begged. “Please. If I could do anything to help you…”
“No, not anymore.”
“Just…” I growled under my breath. “I’ll come back when I need to.”
“Be safe. I’m always here.”
“Yes, I know. The thing is: I just need you to give me some space for now. Goodbye.”
And then I hung up.
I tossed my phone away, back to the corner it had wanted to settle into before. Clarissa crossed the floor with a swish of her dress. She was in serving mode and her eyes filled with tough accusations even as she placed the plate down. I was outstaying my welcome, even for half a day.
With a nod, she indicated the sandwich she had made me. Though I couldn’t care any less now, I still checked it for flavour, and, in finding chicken, salad and sauce, happily tucked into it.
How we ate in silence, I did not know, but it happened that we were both too absorbed in what had just transpired, our thoughts wiring out messages that met in the mid-air but were quickly dispelled to nothingness.
Eventually, Clarissa shoved her plate into a dishwasher and left the machine open for me to do the same. I knew she was watching me by that point, but I still refused to turn and give her any satisfaction.
“Yeah, about money...”
That made me turn sharply.
“I hope you don’t intend to bill me.”
“No it’s not that, you know.”
I stared Clarissa down, wearing as vicious an expression as I could muster. She wilted in my sight, weak in her hesitation.
“Miss Brooks…” Clarissa began. She bit her lip for a few seconds longer.
“My father will be wanting the next instalment of your payment, right. Just a warning.”
“Back to The Admiral it is for me, then.”
“Do you want a lift?”
“You aren’t going that way. Don’t start this protective business again, Clarissa.”
“I’ll just take the train like I did yesterday. The tickets are still surprisingly cheap. It’s not going to be dark for ages, you know. I’ll be fine, seriously.”
“Are you sure? There are so many places you could be missing out without tutelage.”
“What?” She was giving me a look, and, this time, I couldn’t decipher what suggestion was written on her face.
“I just believe that you could be doing better with me.”
“Hmph.” was all I responded. Instead I fiddled with the letter-card and pictures that were tucked inside my pocket, and avoided her gaze with stubborn acknowledgment.
“How about I get back to The Admiral and when I see you next, if I have any questions, I’ll be happy to speak to you.”
As I finished speaking, a buzzing started spreading around my head. It was not the sort of buzzing of a physical kind, not like tinnitus, but there it persisted in my head as if some little piece of information was shouting at me from being the curtain that had been slung over my mind.
“Well, we’d better get going. You’re not hungry any more, are you?”
I laughed, eyeing the small fridge.
Clarissa lifted my rucksack onto the table, before she skipped over to the phone. I noticed that she handled it with great care, as if the phone was ready with teeth.
“It’s not quite finished charging, but you’ll be okay, right?”
She laughed, letting me gather my things together before she had the manners to chuck me out. I couldn’t believe that I was moving on already. The whole world was in a rush.
“Thank you. For everything, really.”
“Hey. You realise that I’m not going to be able to be…colloquial with you when I’m back behind my father’s desk on Monday.”
“I might be gone by then,” I joked, hardly expecting to have left the confines of a wide London in two days time.
She held open her front door for me, sharpening her eyes on my rucksack. I could only guess at what theories were springing through her mind, possibly considering whether the last couple of days had actually existed. If I needed Clarissa’s faith, I wouldn’t have asked for it, but she herself might not have ever given help as a consensus. She hadn’t been educated in looking after the likes of mad teenagers.
And then the annoying buzzing in my mind hit the well. I had been missing one detail.
“Do you know where Sagebrook Senior is?”
She studied me before she answered, staring directly at the frown that fell into my eyes.
“No. I’m sorry, but I’ve never even heard of such a place. Is that, what, a school? I didn’t think it would have existed. I’d Google it, myself, and even then I’d expect it to be in the outskirts of London. We don’t get modern names like that in Central London. It’s all ‘London School’ this and ‘Art College of London’ that…you know.”
I began to journey down the steps outside her flat, when I turned to see Clarissa above me, she lounging against her door at the top.
“So, Google it?”
“It’s worked for you before,” she said with a knowing smile.
And, as my own smile met hers, I felt a little better to be diving into the Londonian society without a compass, moral or otherwise…again.