Carrie’s study-room was across the corridor from the much brighter ‘playroom’; her own study was grey, grey-walled and carpeted lightly, walls pushing in the short area between, where a wooden desk and matching, blue-seated chairs had been neatly placed. A potted plant, like that of the room at home, had been pushed into the single window, and the wall beside that was decorated with a spectacular painting. It was the view of a river, tinged with blues and green-greys, despite the aptly greyscale colouration the image implied. A low branch hung down in front of the view of the persona, it touched with greens and light yellows, and, unless I was mistaken, a bridge loomed out the top corner, so inviting and orange-yellow warm in the other darkness of the picture. Finally, there, gliding into the front of the picture was also the bow of a punting boat, one which I had always wanted to, but had never actually, stepped foot in. There was no ‘driver’ or punter, so I assumed that the painting was meant to be set from his or her perspective. The brushstrokes wavered in and out of focus, a blurry camera that just aided the beauty of the image.
I gazed at it for a moment, but then turned back to Carrie, whilst both our eyes flitted back to the playroom.
I was able to hear the delighted cries of the children in the other room. Thinking that Mrs. Karkroff was in the room with them, I didn’t dare to go and see them, but Carrie put me out of my worry.
“They’re amusing each other for now, but after I’ve had my word with you, I’ll let you see them.”
She gestured for us to sit down in the two, hard-backed chairs that were angled more softly than the two of Mr. Karkroff’s study I had sat in the day before, and face-to-face, Carrie and I placed ourselves. Even wearing the neat dress that she was, she crossed her legs, one over the other, neatly leaning the knees straight upwards, like she was a proper teacher, a proper adult…
“Agnetha…” Carrie watched me inspecting her. Her eyes flashed, but her expression was steadfast in neutral for now.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, “I was just…”
“Admiring the room? I understand. It’s not much, this place, but it forms a part of home for me, away from that Oxford-Rose house…
“There’s always a bit of Oxford in my heart wherever I am. Do you see that painting over there? It’s an abstract picture of the Cherwell, based on a photo that Josh once took… He was an avid amateur photographer, did you know that?”
“I didn’t…I’m sorry. There was so much I could have learnt about him if I’d just bothered to ask, instead of trying to fumble my way through our friendship.”
“Well, we once went punting across that beautiful canal, and here, it’s constantly near my heart. Like Josh was, I guess.”
“Who painted the picture?” I asked, though I didn’t really know in what context that was important.
“I did,” Carrie replied, making me start and look from the painting to her and back.
“You… You paint now?”
“Yeah, just call it a hobby, Agnetha. It’s only one of the things I do to pass the time. In fact, I actually used up most of my materials on ‘Sunday on Josh’s Cherwell’; I haven’t been able to do such a big project as that since.”
I took in the light, happy phase of the picture, where hope seemed to live on, that Cherwell water calm and brisk.
“Do you miss it?” I eventually asked her.
“Yeah. Why don’t you make your way back?”
“Police and political reasons mostly. I don’t want…to get arrested, you know. I…I wouldn’t be able to stand that. And the pay here is good…well, it’s enough. And if I leave the children…”
“I see. Caroline, it has been-”
“A while? But police never change their minds. You’ve seen the cases…”
“I have. Things do change, though. You’ll see that if you come home, Carrie.”
“I can’t…but the girl, my charge…”
Carrie almost tipped her head into her hands, but, as she was going to, she gently smiled, her eyes not quite meeting mine. She watched the gentle wind out the window, before turning her sighing breath back to the matter at hand.
“I’m worried about little Elsie. I’m worried about her.”
“Of course. It’s your duty to be like this, I suppose,” I added.
“I’m worried about her,” Carrie replied again. “You wouldn’t know it if you saw her for the moment, but I’ve known that little girl for years; sometimes, I feel as though it is me who is her mother, not Maripose Karkroff; and now I seem to be able to tell when she’s…unsettled in her mind.”
“What you need is someone to look after for yourself,” I pointed out, to which Carrie sighed.
“My place is here, Agnetha. This house still needs me.”
“Okay, I see.” I paused, to let Carrie’s sighs drain away. “Carry on. What’s up with Elsie?”
“I didn’t notice it until, well, until about yesterday. At first I thoughts she was just anxious about all the new people. Then, in our lessons yesterday, I noticed something that only I, knowing Elsie well, would call strange. She wouldn’t speak. Not to anyone, and not even during art-time, when she is usually the most vocal, even in the English language.
“Well, it was then that I noticed that her English had fallen through completely, and, talking to her brother, even her Russian was short and monosyllabic. I’m worried about what has been going through her mind. I’m wondering if something has happened… Whether…”
“Whether it’s something to do with Petre Rusav’s murder, you mean?”
“Well, I can’t be sure, and that’s what is stressing me out inside. Ignorance is such a terrible thing-”
“Not if you’re happy,” I replied, quickly.
“But Elsie is not! Oh, I don’t know anymore. What is happiness if it is ignorance?”
“I’m sorry,” I bit my lip, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I know, Aggie, I know,” said Carrie, looking back up from her hands. “I told Mrs. Karkroff, but she just told me to keep an eye on the siblings when they’re together. They talk to each other, but Ivor can’t tell me, of course. There’s the confidence issue, as he’s always been a pretty shy boy, but also there’s the language barrier. It was hard enough for me to join a Russian household and begin to introduce myself to a foreign custom.”
“Hmm, how did you…?”
“Object placement and the such-like; I’d put down an apple, point to it, and recite ‘apple’. Soon enough, Elsie being bright enough to pick it up, she learnt some words, but Ivor just didn’t seem to get the hang of English. In our most recent lesson, before the murder was…announced, Elsie and I had begun to work on proper grammar, you know, all that strange stuff that English people take for granted when they learn their mother tongue.
“Elsie learns most of her vocab from books, but having me to point out the grammatical tips really helps her get ahead of the language.”
I nodded, agreeing. I wasn’t an expert on language, but I could see that Carrie was beginning to develop an oracular flair, very perceptive of her student.
“Can I go to see the two of them, then? I’ll need to see Elsie before I can judge whether you’re being insightful or just over-reacting.”
And, abruptly, Carrie stood up, offering me her hand.
“Yeah, let’s go. I guess I’ll be able to explain why you’re here without mentioning Petre Rusav.”
“That’ll be for the best,” I heard myself saying, as we moved from one room across the hall to the other. The remark was lost on Carrie, striding ahead.