We're back! And as "Finish UC" is one of my new year's resolutions (kind of), we're here to stay. Should be only another four-ish chapters till the end of Part One, which is something to aim for! At any rate, I really hope this chapter in some way makes up for the very long hiatus.
Thank you so much to everyone who has commented either here or on tumblr or twitter. Honestly, every time I've received a review from a new reader or a query about updating, it's brought me closer to the point of continuing the story. This isn't a "won't write unless you review" plea at all; rather, your comments really do mean a great deal to me and it's so encouraging to know that people still care about the story and that it is even gaining new readers. So thank you. Also thank you to OrangeShipper for lending me her ears and her insight into the characters. You are wonderful!
Trigger Warning: This chapter contains brief discussion of abortion and the mention of rape.
Mary woke first and for a moment was lost in warmth and comfort. She had relaxed during the night and in the morning found herself lying on her front, her cheeks pressed in her pillow and Matthew's arm flung over her back as he slept. His deep breaths tickled her hair and she smiled into the pillow and let out a sigh of contentment before she tried to stretch her muscles and became more aware of new aches as she came to.
Sybil was still pregnant. Her boyfriend was the wrong sort. And she and Matthew had slept together. It had been more awkward than she had expected, though less uncomfortable than it could have been, she imagined, and indeed her nerve endings prickled into awareness at all the points where their naked bodies touched, his fingers on her back tracing imaginary trails of fire down her spine... She swallowed. It had been less satisfying than... well, it was hard to know what she could compare it to. Instantly, her chest tightened with an ancient sorrow and she could no longer bear to stay there under Matthew's protective arm. She slipped quietly out of bed and reached for her dressing gown. Staring down at him as he shifted in his sleep, her eyebrows drew together in a frown even as her heart called out to him. It had not been so satisfying... but she was glad it had happened. She felt bound to him now, more so than she had imagined the previous night when she had been so desperate (too desperate perhaps for it had shocked him, she thought) to get it over with, and that made it all so much harder, so much more complicated. She chewed her lip and her heart ached with an unfamiliar thud, flashes of physical memory of his fingers, his lips, the light in his eyes, breaking into the fog of impressions and ideas that were far more established than her relationship with Matthew. They would not be undone as quickly as all that and, as she stared down at him at peace, she felt as separate and above him as much as she felt drawn to him. Reaching out to him, she gently smoothed a soft lock of his hair away from his face before forcing herself to turn away and slip out of the room to the bathroom.
Matthew was still asleep by the time she was dressed and went downstairs to find her mother and sister. A part of her hated leaving him but the part that was not so courageous was afraid of what would happen when he woke up. The last thing she remembered before drifting off to sleep was his regret and her apologies and she did not want to repeat them. She did not want to discuss her stress the previous night or rehash their conversation about his assumptions about her virginity, she did not want to discuss his own loss of control, she did not want to discuss any of it at all.
Fortunately there was plenty to distract her with the rest of her family. She arrived in the kitchen at an opportune moment. Sybil was sitting on one side of the table, cradling a mug of tea and looking miserable. Her mother sat opposite, her eyes bulging in disbelief and horror, toast getting cold in front of her. Sybil looked up as Mary came down the stairs and made a face before sighing heavily.
"Did you know about this, Mary?" asked Cora suddenly, looking round and pinning her eldest daughter with a direct stare.
"About what?" replied Mary cautiously, not sure how much she knew.
"The baby, Mary," drawled her sister, as if exhausted with the whole thing already. "I just told her about the baby."
"Yes! The baby!" Cora sounded as if she wanted to be hysterical.
Mary got down a mug from the shelf and flicked the kettle on. "Yes, I did know. That's why I'm here actually; to have Sybil's back when you explode."
"Oh, I'm not exploding. I'm very calm about it. Teenagers fall pregnant all the time. Why should my daughters be any different?"
"See? She's very calm," Sybil muttered into her tea.
Mary rolled her eyes. "So I see. Coffee, Mummy?"
The countess blinked. "Yes, please. My, it's a good thing your father isn't here. Can you even imagine?"
"I might not tell him. I mean, if I have an abortion I won't have to."
"Don't speak of it just yet, Sybil. Not until I've had my coffee."
"Good luck trying to persuade your Catholic boyfriend to go along with that," said Mary.
"Oh good, he's Catholic," murmured Cora faintly. "Robert will just love that."
"It shouldn't make any difference!" cried Sybil, crossing, uncrossing and re-crossing her arms. "It's not as if he even goes to church except at Christmas."
"Not going to church never stopped people from holding inherited prejudices when it suits them," replied Mary with a shrug. "Tom would hardly be the only one."
"Girls, don't squabble, please don't squabble!" Their mother held her hands up for peace. "When Tom arrives we can all discuss it sensibly; at least – Mary, you met Sybil's boyfriend last night; do you think he will be able to discuss it sensibly?"
Mary wished she could say something nice about him but honesty trumped her concern for her sister's immediate feelings. "I think he will certainly be keen to discuss it."
Cora sighed as Sybil started up with more animation than she had shown so far. "Don't be so snide! He is sticking with me, he said he loved me, Tom is... he might not be what you'd want for me but he's what I want and he will stand by me. At the moment, he's the only one who is."
"Oh, so what am I doing then?" Mary glanced over her shoulder as she prepared two cups of coffee.
"Being a bitch?"
"Sybil!" said her mother sharply. "Don't speak to your sister like that. Mary's being very rational about this. By the way, where's Matthew?"
"Still asleep," she answered before adding quickly, "I think."
"Oh that's something... Whatever shall we do with him with Tom gets here?"
"Matthew knows." She handed her mother a cup of coffee and sat down with her own. "I didn't mean to tell him but... he was there." She looked down, feeling her face growing hot and wishing it wasn't.
"Yes, Mary blurts all our secrets out to-"
"To my boyfriend," Mary said sharply. "Matthew is my boyfriend. I can keep a secret as well as anyone."
Cora laid a restraining hand on her arm but smiled almost desperately up at her. "Matthew's your boyfriend? I have to say, I did wonder if there was anything like that going on. How lovely!"
"Oh great! You love Mary's boyfriend but-"
"Sybil, you need to pull yourself together. Do you want Tom to see you like this? I'm going to get cross soon. This morning is going to be challenging for everyone and if you want me to help you, you need to be able to listen as well as talk."
Sybil thumped her head down on the table with a groan. Mary and her mother shared an exasperated look but Cora frowned. She shook her head and leaned in towards Mary. "I'm finding this difficult, darling. My little girl..."
Mary placed her other hand over her mother's. "It will be alright." She forced herself to hold her gaze. "You will make it alright. You always do."
This was getting uncomfortably sentimental for Mary's taste. She pulled her hand away and sipped her coffee. "When's Tom coming, Sybs?"
She pulled her head off the table with great apparent effort. "Soon."
"Well." Cora girded herself up and even managed a stoical attempt at a smile as she stood up. "I better get cooking. I feel like pancakes. Do you feel like pancakes, girls?"
For the first time that morning, Mary and Sybil met each other's eyes. Pancakes were their mother's comfort food, a hark back to her American childhood, reserved for special occasions and treats.
"Pancakes sound good, Mummy," said Sybil, much more subdued. She added, as Cora turned away to get down a mixing bowl and some scales, "Are you going to get really angry?"
Her mother sighed. "Perhaps later. I guess I'm still in shock. Anyway, what would be the point? What's done is done."
Matthew came down into the kitchen, hair wet and sticking up, searching for Mary. She took a deep breath as her gaze was automatically drawn to him and her hands clutched her mug more tightly. He stared at her, smiled, and then the smile dropped and he looked questioningly at her. What did one say in this situation? She was not sure, so she fell back on learned politeness.
"Good morning, Matthew! Come and sit by me!" She indicated the chair.
Sybil waggled her eyebrows suggestively and Cora fussed over him, enjoying a distraction from her younger daughter's love life by focusing on her elder daughter's. Amidst this, Matthew slipped into his chair and prised Mary's hand away her mug. He was warm and slightly damp from his shower – and utterly delectable. Her gut twisted.
"You weren't there when I woke up," he whispered, lowering his gaze to her.
Her eyes darted across his face and dipped momentarily to his lips. "Should I have been? You were asleep and I wanted to see Sybil..."
"Of course." His expression cleared slightly but he still did not look perfectly happy. "But, Mary, are we alright? I just wanted to say, about last night-"
"Not here!" she hissed back, uncomfortably aware of her sister watching them and her mother only a few paces away making pancake batter.
"Right." He squeezed her hand. "I understand."
But he really didn't understand anything at all and she began to draw patterns on the table with her finger as she tried to work out how to behave and what to say. She had only had one boyfriend before and Rashid had been different anyway and she had been younger. Now she thought she should have woken him up rather than seeing him again for the first time under her mother's nose. Matthew was so comfortable in this role as boyfriend; it came naturally to him to be kind, to be loving. It did not come naturally to her, not in the same way.
"Pancakes, Matthew?" asked Cora.
He twisted around, still holding Mary's hand. "Oh, um, you know, I was thinking about going for a walk."
Cora's eyes bulged. "A walk?"
He shifted in the chair. "Yeah... Look, I know Tom is coming round and you have a lot to discuss and, well, I wouldn't want to get in the way." He looked appealing at Mary. "I thought maybe I would go to church."
Three pairs of eyes looked back at him.
"There's St Mary Abbots just on the High Street," Sybil said. "They have several services on Sunday morning."
"Thanks. I guess I'll walk that way then."
"I'll come up with you," Mary put in hastily and stood up with him. They left the kitchen together, Mary following Matthew closely up the stairs.
"You could have stayed," she said as they faced each other in the hall. "I don't think Sybil would have minded. She likes you." She smiled faintly.
A painful expression crossed Matthew's face. "Right." He looked at her suddenly, directly. "And you?"
"Do you like me?"
He took her hands and pulled her towards him. "No, I get it, I do. I messed up last night. I was thinking about it and – Mary... I'm so sorry."
She blinked at him, worrying at her bottom lip in consternation. "You didn't mess up."
His expression was devastatingly clear and honest. "I did though. I wasn't thinking, I was overwhelmed, it was all so – but you don't need my excuses. I was rubbish. Our first time together should have been wonderful and it- I mean, you're – Mary, you-" He cleared his throat and glanced away. "I like you so much and I know you're so far out of my league and if you don't want to continue this, I understand and-"
Mary was growing more uncomfortable the more he spoke and eventually she had to interrupt him. She placed a finger against his lips and had to fight the urge to sway more closely against him as the imprint of intimacy washed over her. "I don't care about – what you care about. I don't mind. That is, these things happen." She forced a smile. "There isn't anything to discuss."
She kissed him, covering his lips with hers and swallowing his words. For a moment she felt his surprise and then he melted against her, drawing her more closely to him and returning her kiss with a knowledge and sensuality that was thrilling and new. It was Matthew who pulled away, however, and smiled at her with hope, but with some measure of remaining confusion. "I should go. Get out of the way and leave you free to deal with Tom and Sybil."
"Good luck!" He kissed her quickly again, lingered over relinquishing her hands, and finally managed to pull himself away from her and out of the door.
Mary stood rooted to the spot, her heart racing. With cold horror, she realised she was trembling. Matthew, kind, sweet, generous, occasionally misguided Matthew... It was Matthew and he deserved better than her. She twisted her head away as if she could escape herself and her thoughts.
"Mary?" her mother called up the stairs. "Any sign of Tom? I'm wondering whether to start frying the pancakes yet."
She swallowed and made herself reply. "No, no sign. I'm coming down."
One fist clenched tightly at her side, she slipped quietly back downstairs. In fact, the doorbell rang only a few minutes later and Sybil went to get her boyfriend.
"I have to admit I'm not predisposed to like this Tom," confined Cora to Mary.
"I should hope not!"
"I shall make an effort – and so must you, Mary – for Sybil's sake and for – for the baby's sake, but I really find it hard to sympathise very much with a young man who impregnates a teenager."
Mary rolled her eyes and made a non-committal noise just in time before Sybil reappeared, leading Tom Branson into the room, anxiously clutching his hand. Fortunately, he seemed more subdued than he had been the previous evening and was dressed conservatively in jeans and a regular t-shirt.
"Mummy, this is Tom, my boyfriend. Tom, this is my mum, and you remember, Mary."
He rubbed his hand against his trousers and stepped forward into the room. "How do you do, Lady Grantham?"
Mary wondered with grim amusement whether Sybil had been giving him a quick lesson on aristocratic titles on the stairs. And also on good manners. It seemed a demanding elder sister was one thing, but a titled mother quite another.
The countess straightened up and gave him her hand to shake. "It's nice to meet you, Tom. I would say at last but as I only heard of you for the first time last night I can't. I wish we could have got to know you before today so we could all get used to each other before this – this issue arose, but unfortunately that has not been possible so we shall have to manage as best we can. Anyway, would you like pancakes? They're just about ready."
Tom blinked and reclaimed his hand. "Pancakes? Er, yes, ma'am... milady. Thank you."
Cora turned back to the oven to put the finishing touches to breakfast and Tom looked across to Mary. He nodded to her. "Hello again."
She inclined her head but saw no particular reason to put him at ease.
"Well!" said Sybil brightly, sitting back down and pulling Tom down in a chair next to her. "This is my house."
"It's really nice." Tom's eyes were skimming around the room.
"Our London house," Mary could not resist adding. "Our main residence is naturally in the country at Downton Abbey."
Sybil's glare said Must you? very clearly but her sister only shrugged. Tom glanced between the two of them. "Yes, Sybil mentioned something about that."
"Are you from the country, Tom?" asked Cora, handing him a plate of blueberry pancakes.
"Thank you. No, I grew up in Dublin, though my granddad owned a farm. Wow, this looks amazing!"
"Mummy's pancakes are amazing," Sybil smiled, upending a bottle of maple syrup over her plate.
Within a few minutes they were all served and sitting down. Cora drank half of her cup of coffee before resuming conversation.
"Why don't you tell us a bit about yourself, Tom?"
He swallowed his bite. "I'm not sure there's much to tell. I'm Irish, I came over to England when I was eighteen to look for work and I've been here ever since, working as a mechanic in a garage in Shoreditch. It's good work."
"Do you have family over here?"
"An aunt and her family, yeah. I wasn't totally alone when I came over here. They're up in Liverpool but I couldn't get a job there so easily so I came down to London. Sarah, who owns the garage, was really helpful at getting me sorted."
"How kind of her. Do you have a place of your own then?"
"I share a house with a few of the lads in my band."
"Tom's too modest to mention his band, the Tomcats, but it's really awesome," put in Sybil proudly. "Weren't they good at Livia's party last night?"
"Very good," replied Mary, injecting as much condescension into her tone as she could.
"And are you professional?" pressed her mother.
"Mummy!" protested Sybil. "What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?"
"I think what Mummy is trying to work out is just how realistic it is to expect Tom to pull his weight in supporting you and a baby."
There was a brief silence before Cora pursed her lips. "I wouldn't have put it quite so bluntly, Mary, but since you bring it up, I am concerned to find out if you are in a position to take responsibility for this child you have created."
Tom sighed and looked down for a moment. When he raised his eyes, his expression was determined. "I'm not rich, Lady Grantham, and I don't have two houses to spread out in, but I do love Sybil very much and I will always be there for her. And the baby. Whatever it takes."
Sybil clasped his hand in adoration but the countess leaned back in her chair and sighed. "Bringing up children is hard work and just when you think you might be getting it right life throws you a curve. How old are you, Tom?"
He stared at her. "Twenty-two. Twenty-three next month."
"And my daughter is seventeen. She is a minor. Do you understand what this means?"
"So? I'm over the age of consent!" exclaimed Sybil.
"And still legally a child."
"That doesn't even make sense," she huffed.
"I'll tell you what it means," continued Cora with deceptive calm. "It means that I hold you, an adult man, fully responsible for what has happened here. You seduced a child, you got her pregnant and, I swear to God-"
"Hold up!" Sybil leapt to her feet. "You can't just go blaming Tom for this like he raped me or something! I consented. I consented to everything. I'm not some stupid child."
"Really? Because you sound exactly like one!"
Cora's sudden glare was so frigid that it stopped Sybil in full steam. Tom glanced between them but he also looked rather afraid.
Mary cleared her throat and injected quietly, "Aren't you glad Sybil's willing to take responsibility for what happened? Isn't that something?"
Her mother gave her a piercing look. "There can be such a thing as taking too much responsibility, Mary. I'm more interested in seeing some sign of it from the adult part of this couple."
"I do take responsibility, Lady Grantham," said Tom. "Only, with respect, I see Sybil as an equal. She's-" He looked up at her. "You're smart, independent, beautiful..."
Sybil touched his cheek as she sat down again. "Whatever we do, we do together. Even the mistakes. It was both of us."
Cora sighed and laid her hands flat on the table. "Right. Okay then. You want to be treated as adults so I'll treat you as adults. Here is what we're going to do. You two are going to sit here in this kitchen with pen and paper and you are going to work it all out. You are going to decide whether you are going to keep the baby or not, you are then going to discuss the practical implications of your decision; you will be open to each other about your financial situations, your living arrangements, and you will have a frank conversation about the influences on your own upbringing that will impact on how you choose to bring up a child of your own."
Mary, watching all three of them, felt in this moment that she could see the Cora Levinson who had run a multi-national company since her early twenties emerging from underneath the façade of the American countess. She had seen this side of her mother only several times before and felt a grudging admiration for her.
Sybil looked increasingly miserable. "Mummy..."
Cora pursed her lips. "If you're keen to boast of your maturity and you're ready to do adult things then you're also ready to take adult responsibility for them. That's the way it works, Sybil."
"I don't think I want to have a baby!"
Mary rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "Then don't! That's what I've been saying all along."
"Sybil, please, don't do that, not to our baby! We'll make it work. I promise you-"
She pulled her hand out of Tom's and shook her head. "Honestly, the more you try to pressure me with this anti-abortion bullshit, the more you make me want to go straight out and get one! Stop it, both of you!" She bit her lip. "You're right, Mummy. We need to think to this through properly. We'll do it as you say."
Lady Grantham sighed, her expression relaxing slightly. "You'll have to make up your own minds. I can support you and fight your corner if I have to with your father, God knows you'll need all the help you can get, but at the end of the day it's your baby. You need to take the decisions – and if you can't, perhaps Mary is right and you should consider an abortion. But that has its own price, so think about it very carefully."
She stood up. "In the mean time, I'm going upstairs to hear all my other daughter's news." She smiled widely at Mary and pushed her chair under the table. "You can do the washing up, Sybil, while you talk. I find it very therapeutic. Come on, Mary."
Mary stood up too and followed her to the stairs. Sybil sat forlornly next to Tom who was staring at the table. She hesitated and turned round, stopping behind her sister's chair.
"What?" She craned her neck to look up at her.
With a shake of her head, Mary lightly squeezed Sybil's shoulder before turning tail and preceding her mother up the stairs.
In the hallway Cora stopped and shook her head. "Oh, my darling. What are we going to do?"
Mary remained silent and still, waiting for her to continue.
"I just want to look after my little girl, Mary. I want to make everything right."
"But you can't." It came out harsher than she had intended.
"No, I can't." She gave herself a shake. "But you, my dear, you have been a pillar of strength!"
Mary recoiled in surprise. "Me? Sybil resents me!"
"Of course she does. Can you blame her? But she came to you, Mary. Not me, not your father, not Edith- you. And you were there for her and put your own life to the side to come down here and be with her when she told Tom and me. That's not nothing. I know you haven't finished your exams yet. And I know you, Mary." She looked at her with solemn pride. "I know how hard this must be for you. Don't think I don't know that and love you even more for it."
Mary looked away, her stomach knotting up with the anxiety she had felt ever since she had woken up that morning. "It's not the same thing."
"I didn't say it was the same thing." She squeezed her arm affectionately. "Now, come into the sitting room and tell me all about your lovely young man before he gets back from his walk."
Mary forced a wan smile and followed her obediently but her worry did not ease at the mention of Matthew.
When Matthew returned to the house after church, it became necessary for him and Mary to leave immediately in order to catch a train back to Scotland that wouldn't get them in too late. They said their goodbyes quickly to Cora, Sybil and Tom. Mary managed to extract a promise from Sybil that she would keep in touch and would ring any time she needed to talk and the countess issued Matthew with an open invitation to Downton Abbey over the summer holidays.
On their own again, Matthew was inclined to be cheerful. Church had given him the space he needed to consider everything that had happened in the past few days and he was ready to appreciate Mary's comment that there was nothing to be discussed and remember her kiss over any niggling doubts. But Mary could not enter into his good mood. Her mind was filled with the look on Sybil's face as the reality of her situation hit home but also her expression of complete trust and reliance on Tom. She held Matthew's hand in the taxi to the station and smiled at what he said, but she hardly felt him or heard him. On the train, she pulled out her annotated Shakespeare and writing pad and used her imminent exam as an excuse not to talk much. Instead, she wrote out quotation after quotation to use in her essays on Tuesday.
At the station when Matthew suggested coming back with her, she put him off. Revision... and she needed to talk to Anna, talk to her properly. She had neglected Anna since the party, but that had been disastrous not just for Sybil. Friendship always made an impression on Matthew and, though disappointed, he accepted her desire to be with her friend.
"Shall I see you tomorrow?"
She shrugged unhappily. "I'm not sure. My exam is on Tuesday..."
"Tuesday then? After your exam? It's a morning one, isn't it?"
"Yes." She forced a smile. "After my exam then."
He took her arms and pulled her to him, frowning. "Mary, what is it? You said we were okay but... are we? I don't understand you today!"
"Then stop trying!" she cried, irritated beyond endurance by what felt like his constant questioning. "Do you honestly think you're the most important thing in my life at the moment?"
He stepped back from her, his face creasing in offended hurt. "Clearly not. Whyever would I think that?"
She stared at him, wishing she could take back the words, however true they were. At least, they were true on one level but the iron band round her heart suggested otherwise.
"I didn't mean-"
"Then what? What did you mean, Mary?"
She could not reply and finally he exhaled in a huff. "Whatever. Let me know when you want to see me. Good luck with the Shakespeare!"
With that bitter parting call, he hauled his rucksack onto his shoulders and marched away towards the bus stop leaving Mary alone at the taxi rank. She pressed her eyes closed before turning away so she did not have to look at him.
Never had the sight of a light on in the front room of the little terraced house she shared with Anna been so welcome. More welcome still was her friend getting up from the sofa with a smile of happiness to see her, hugging her, and helping to take her bag upstairs.
Soon they were seated side by side in their usual places on the sofa with one of Anna's home-made smoothies. Strange as it was to believe considering where she had come from, Mary felt as if she was only now at home.
"Tell me everything," Anna said. "You and Matthew-"
"No, you first," Mary insisted. "What news about John?"
Anna shrugged. "Nothing really. His - that is, Vera - she wants to see him but he hasn't taken any of her calls. He doesn't know what she wants. Mary, I honestly think she's insane!"
"Those leopard skin leggings certainly were. How did they end up together anyway?"
"One night stand. Years ago. Then she said she was pregnant and her family threw her out. So he married her."
Mary tipped her head back as far as it would go against the back of the sofa. Too many pregnancies where there shouldn't be... "Ugh."
"I suppose she wasn't really?"
"He doesn't know for sure. There definitely wasn't a baby. He'd been chasing her for a divorce for ages but he hasn't been able to trace her until now when she suddenly pops up in his life again. He wants to keep her away until we've come up with a strategy for dealing with her."
"We?" queried Mary, latching onto the important part of the sentence.
Anna rolled her eyes. "Yes,we are still together. Sorry about that, Mary! I'm not giving John up just because he has a crazy wife and a bit of a chequered past... Okay, it does sound a bit ridiculous when you put it like that, but what kind of coward would I be if I did?"
Mary looked down, fiddling with the edge of her top. "Better a coward than..."
Anna placed her tumbler on the coffee table and studied her friend. "Okay, out with it, Mary. What happened in London? Tell me exactly what happened."
"I slept with Matthew."
Her friend's eyes widened. "Yess! Oh, I am so happy! And, if I can say- Finally!"
Mary smiled wanly and avoided her eyes by sipping at her smoothie.
"I mean, this is good, isn't it? You and Matthew; it's what you want, right?"
"Yes; that is, I think so. Only-"
Anna had the sense to hang back and wait.
"I'm not sure it's going to work." She managed to meet Anna's eyes.
"No! Why do you say that?"
She shook her head. "I thought that sleeping together would be the ultimate climax of everything we'd done so far and after that we would, oh, I don't know, live happily ever after, but it wasn't like that at all."
Anna bit her lip to hold back a smile. "Oh, honey, it's only the beginning!"
"Yes. You see, it changed me, Anna. It made me feel so... so dreadfully close to him. As if I couldn't- I couldn't- I can't bear it!" And suddenly, surprising herself, she burst into tears, covering her face with her hands.
Instantly, Anna's arms were around her, holding her tightly. "Hush. It's alright. You can bear it. There's nothing that can't be fixed."
She raised her head and stared at her bleakly. "That's not true. And I pushed him away."
"What did you say?"
She told her.
"Oh dear, that's pretty bad..."
Mary half laughed, half sobbed in agreement. "But he has to understand..."
"He's only human, Mary. He's just got the girl of his dreams and he wants to spend time with her. Not so unreasonable, is it? And he may be head over heels in love with you but he's not going to wait around forever while you jerk his string."
"I'm not trying to hurt him."
"Of course you're not, but you are all the same and you'll carry on hurting him the longer you push him away."
She took a deep breath and brushed her tears away from her cheeks. "What should I do, Anna? I'm afraid I can't be with him, not as he wants me to be. You know, I thought sleeping together wouldn't change things but it has. I can't be with him like that without him knowing the truth. It feels dishonest." Her voice dropped. "And I can't tell him."
Anna looked at her with infinite sympathy. "I think you should though."
"Don't you see I can't? Not him, not anyone!"
"Tell him, Mary. Tell him everything since you can't move forward otherwise. And if he runs, he wasn't worth it in the first place. But you'll regret not telling him far more than you will telling him."
Mary frowned and chewed her lip, unwilling to agree.
"Look at me! I didn't run, did I?"
This earned her a reluctant smile. "No, you didn't," she replied softly.
"And honestly, Mary, no even semi-decent person is going to. We can't help what happened in our past, especially what wasn't our fault, but you're an idiot if you're going to throw away a guy like Matthew because you can't let go."
"How am I meant to let go?" she cried. "Because I've tried!"
"I don't know. But Matthew's a good guy and if anyone can help, I think it's him."
Mary sat back and pondered, coming to no decision. Eventually she shrugged. "Well, I'm not going to do anything till after my exam."
"So long as you do actually do something then," pressed Anna.
"You're a hard task master, Smith!"
"I learned from the best!" She quickly jumped up from the sofa as Mary aimed a cushion at her. "And if you're going to use your exam as an excuse for avoiding him, I think you should at least go to bed now so you can work productively tomorrow. Right?"
Mary sighed and stood up. "Right. And Anna..." She bit her lip and held out her hand.
Her friend rolled her eyes and squeezed her hand tightly before letting go. "I know. Now get along with you!"
"I mean it."
"So do I!"
It was over. The five minute warning had been given, the order to put down your pens had rung out, the papers had been collected, and the cohort of second year undergraduate English students who had taken the Shakespearean Tragedy paper were finally released into the bright sunshine of the first week of June.
Evelyn had a bottle of very good quality prosecco on hand to share with his friends and Fiona, another member of the class, had a bottle of cheap champagne to shake and spray on anyone who got in her way.
"All this fuss now and our actual finals will be an anticlimax," Mary commented wryly to Evelyn as she sipped his prosecco from a plastic cup as they hung around the maid quad outside St Salvador's.
"We've got two years to get over this excess," he replied with a smile. "I think we'll cope!"
"We've finished we've finished we've finished! Down with Macbeth! Longest three hours of my life!" shouted Fiona, hugging everyone in sight. "Jannetta's for lunch, everyone?"
With murmuring agreement, the group began to make its way down North Street, Evelyn and Mary making up a rather staid rearguard. The sense of relief was enormous. The final exam might not have been a real priority for her when compared to Sybil's pregnancy but it had weighed on her mind all the same, almost as much as she had told Matthew it had. The realisation that it was actually over, that the academic year was to all intents and purposes ended, the long vacation begun, and that there would be no more work until September, made her feel light and free and filled with possibility.
They crowded into the cafe, ordered the usual round of sandwiches, paninis, cakes, and ice-cream sundaes and fell into small chattering groups, picking over the exam they had just done ("What the hell is peripeteia? Have we even done that?" "So obvious they would make us do a prac crit on that speech of Iago's!") and discussing summer holiday plans. Mary joined in for a while but her mind soon turned to other things. What was Matthew doing now? Was he thinking about her? Was he waiting for her to call? Or had he given up on her in disgust? Even as she talked, she had her iphone out on the table in front of her, restlessly entering the passcode, waiting for the screen to switch itself off again, before repeating the process again.
"Just text him," said Evelyn quietly. Mary glanced at him. "Whoever it is you're not texting, text them."
"You think?" she replied, before adding with a small smile, "It's Matthew. Should you be encouraging me?"
He shrugged. "Even if Matthew wasn't in the picture you still wouldn't go out with me so I don't see why not."
Mary raised her eyebrows at him but she unlocked the phone once more and opened up a new message. She hesitated but Evelyn was watching her surreptitiously over his ice-cream.
Exam over! Where are you? x
Almost immediately, a reply came back.
Well done! Did it go OK? I'm at the Sports Centre for cricket practice. Are you coming to find me? xxx
Mary's heart skipped a beat and she glanced around Jannetta's as if something there could provide the answer.
"Coming out tonight? Pre-drinks at mine! You two in?" exclaimed Fiona suddenly, appearing at Evelyn and Mary's table.
"Not me," said Mary. "I have – I have plans."
And just like that, her mind was made up for her.
Yes. Don't move! xxx
Wouldn't dream of it. So glad you're coming. xxx
She stood up and grabbed her handbag, made her excuses to her friends and set off through town, Matthew's texts and his desire to see her even after what she had said spurring her onwards. By the time she reached the sports centre, she was warm from anticipation as much as from her brisk pace. Another flurry of texts took Mary across the green parkland towards the cricket pitch and the sight of Matthew waiting for her, sitting on the steps of the pavilion, his practice having already finished.
He was one with the summer scene; white kit with grass stains on the knees, fair hair catching the sun, and tentative smile. He could have been the poster boy for some kind of nostalgic notion of what it meant to be British. He was beautiful and Mary's throat closed up with emotion. She walked slowly towards him, not letting her eyes leave his face. He stood up, she paused in front of him and brushed a strand of hair away from his forehead with trembling fingers.
Her heart expanded at the sound of his voice, questioning and unsure but so incredibly hopeful. Her lips curving into a fond smile, she leaned forwards, wound her arms round his neck, and kissed him deeply.
For a brief moment, she felt his surprise and uncertainty, then his arms were around her and he was kissing her back. At first, her heart pounding and her fingers twisting in his hair to pull him closer, she felt a panic that she needed to assure him of her feelings as quickly as possible, until his own insistent gentleness forced her to slow. There was no hurry. No need to rush through things. Nothing competing for their attention.
Smiling against his lips, she pulled back. "Come with me." She tugged on his hand.
"Where to?" he asked delightedly, pulling her back for another kiss.
"Home. And you're coming with me. Don't say you're not!"
"I want to. But, Mary-" He tugged on her hand and forced her to face him. "Wait. I want to apologise. On Sunday, I wasn't thinking. Of course I wasn't your top priority considering everything going on with Sybil and Anna and with an exam still to go and after I was so inconsiderate the night before. I shouldn't have pushed you."
Mary shook her head, even as she warmed to him for his goodness. "Don't apologise, Matthew. We were both wrong. Anyway, you're my top priority now. Is that good enough?"She raised her eyebrows.
His eyes glowed with appreciation. "It's more than I could have hoped for."
"Anna's not in till later, you know."
His smile became mischievous and her stomach fluttered and clenched with the onset of desire. "She isn't?"
"Not till much later!" She darted away from him across the grass with a laugh, hearing his answering laugh as he followed her.
When he caught her by the edge of the pitch and pulled her willingly back into his arms, he murmured between kisses, "This time's for you, sweetheart. It's going to be all for you."
And it was.
Lying in his arms afterwards, the only sounds in her room the ticking of the clock and their mingled breaths as they slowed, she reflected that their first time had changed things for good too: this time she had no longer been afraid.
Matthew was tracing patterns on her shoulder. "I'm glad you gave me another chance."
"Well, you know what they say about practice!"
His eyes gleamed. "I do indeed." He leaned over her, pressing her into the pillows as he kissed her lips and trailed kisses along her cheek and down her neck until she gasped and clutched at his shoulders, delicious tingles running up and down her body. She laughed, the sound huskier than usual and he pulled back a little way. "Should we do a lot of practising, do you think?"
Mary pretended to consider this. "We probably should." She tilted her chin up to rub her nose against his and laughed again as he aimed a bite at hers, pushing him until she was leaning over him, propped up on her elbow. His face was flushed and eager, adoration shining out of his eyes. Mary's expression softened visibly and her smile faded into something more serious. As if understanding the gradual shift in her mood, Matthew found her hand and entwined their fingers together, kissed her knuckle, and smiled up at her.
"I want to talk to you," she said, looking down at him.
"Alright. What about?"
Mary took a deep breath and stared out across her bedroom, tears suddenly prickling behind her eyes at the momentousness of what she was about to say.
"I want to tell you what happened in Thailand."
Dun dun dun!
Next chapter: Mary has a difficult confession to make to Matthew, and Sybil has an equally daunting conversation with her father to look forward to...