The light feeling of Irene's fingers touching her shoulder through the fabric was more than enough to wake Belinda, but she preferred to pretend that she was asleep for a little bit longer. When a mere touch wasn't enough, Irene shook Belinda, and when even that didn't suffice, she gripped her shoulder a little tighter. Belinda opened her eyes and smiled at Irene involuntarily. She was glad to see Irene. She did not miss her, since they saw each other recently, but she still had to smile at the sight of Irene leaning above her, with the sun making Irene's stray strands of hair shine. No matter how much Irene's mother sighed and reminded her daughter to keep her hat on and not to let her hair fly around, whenever Irene was at home, away from the watchful eyes of Matron and Mistresses, she was far too busy with more important things than keeping an impeccable appearance. Things like music and the green meadows… and Belinda.
Belinda did not mind Irene's little foibles in the slightest. She liked to catch a loose strand of Irene's hair here and there and then to play with it for a bit before tucking it away behind Irene's ears, always feeling a little thrill when she accidentally brushed her fingers against Irene's skin. She wanted to do this even now, but Irene's voice brought her back from her reverie.
„Did you hear me?" said Irene, „Mum's saying it's time for dinner."
With these words, Irene offered Belinda a hand to help her get up and Belinda gratefully took it. She did not let go of the hand afterwards and they went back to the house together, their fingers intertwined. It was only when she heard Irene's mother exasperated sigh that Belinda realised that there were some blades of grass stuck in her hair and blushed furiously from embarrassment. Excusing herself, Belinda ran into the washroom and quickly brushed the grass out of her hair. Why, oh why, was she so vain that she did not keep her hair neatly pleated like at Malory Towers? The answer, though, was obvious: Irene.
When Belinda left the washroom, she found Irene outside, waiting for her turn. „Mum sent me here to brush my hair," said Irene, laughing at being scolded like a little child.
Belinda couldn't help but laugh as well, since Irene's cheery mood was as infectious as always. She waited for Irene to finish and then they went to take their places at the table together. For some reason she couldn't fully grasp, Belinda felt a vague dislike towards Irene's mother and suspected that the feeling was mutual. Maybe it was like the other girls prophesied after Belinda's arrival at school and Belinda and Irene made each other's forgetfulness a thousand times worse. That, of course, was a complete misunderstanding. Belinda was not forgetful; she just didn't remember the unimportant things at all. And once Belinda met Irene, there was so much more that Belinda had to remember.
The dinner went by peacefully and again, Belinda thought that she was unfair in her assessment of Irene's mother. However, when the meal ended and Irene grabbed Belinda's wrist, announcing that they were going for a walk, Belinda once again noticed an almost imperceptible crease of Irene's mother's brows. If she weren't always trying to catch the subtlest expressions on the faces around her, Belinda would have missed it, just as she was sure that Irene's mother did. At least, the resentment was unconscious.
Resentment? No, she shouldn't think that. It wasn't right to think that of someone who hadn't done her the slightest wrong. Maybe it was just worry and what mother didn't worry about her daughter? At least, she wasn't like Mrs. Lacey, fussing over Irene's every step and crying a river of tears whenever they were to be separated.
Still, Belinda couldn't help herself but wonder at Irene's mother's reaction. Irene's presence, though, had soon chased any such thoughts. For Irene's family, dinner was not an evening meal, late afternoon at best, and the summer sun was still shining in the sky, although its radiance and its reflections in glass were different than when it was at full strength.
Even Irene's hair looked different and Belinda wished to touch it and find out, if it was just as changed to the touch as it was to the sight. She indulged that wish, feeling every single strand with her fingers. Irene gave no sign that she noticed Belinda's careful touch. Maybe she was listening to a bird that just started singing – birds and their song drawing out the keenest interest Irene ever had in the natural world – or, Belinda dared to hope, maybe she noticed and did not mind, or even liked, the touch.
As much as Belinda wished to know, she would never ask Irene. If she did, the spell would be broken; the understanding they had built shaken by a single question. She did not need to ask, since when Irene's hand found Belinda, drawing her closer to share the bird's song with her, Belinda knew. Her heart jumped and skipped a beat before landing with a heavy thump.
The evening sun – how did the time pass so fast? – cast delicate shadows on Irene's face, each shadow a single hair or a strand that had escaped free. Instead of catching the hair and tucking the away like she always did, Belinda touched the shadows, letting her finger follow them over Irene's cheek, feeling the muscles move as Irene began smiling.
Irene turned around to look at Belinda and her eyes somehow seemed far darker than usual. Maybe it was the coming night, maybe just Belinda's sense playing a trick on her, but the hue was one that she had never seen in her pencils and chalks and paints, a hue that she was aware she would never be able to copy.
Belinda opened her eyes the tiniest bit to speak, but stopped herself, suddenly feeling inarticulate. All that she knew about human language was somehow inadequate to what she wanted to express. Irene still understood, brushing Belinda's fingers off her face, gently, not irritated at all, and once again intertwining their fingers, taking hold of Belinda. The time flowed impossibly slowly compared to how it just seemed to fly before. If she didn't do something, Belinda felt as if she would explode. So she closed her eyes, leaned in and clumsily kissed Irene half on the lips, half on the cheek.
She did not need her eyes to know Irene's reaction. There was no surprise, yet Irene somehow seemed unsatisfied. Belinda felt Irene drawing both her face and her fingers away and for one singular, terrible moment, she felt all alone with the blackness behind her eyelids. The moment, however, faded even before Irene drew Belinda into an embrace and kissed her properly.
Belinda opened her eyes, looking at Irene's red face. It was not the heavy, sweaty flush of physical exertion, nor it was the angry scarlet of embarrassment. No, it was a delicate, soft shade of red that was tantalisingly close to pink. The darkness in Irene's look also disappeared and Belinda saw the usual mischievous gentleness.
Their lips separated from each other and Irene released Belinda, leaving her breathless but content. Was there any need for words? Yes, there was, but they could always wait. Right now, there was Belinda and Irene, and the entire world except their little patch of grass seemed infinitely distant.
Irene, though, must have seen it differently. She quickly kissed Belinda again and spoke, breaking something irretrievably precious. For a short moment, Belinda felt like she disliked the sound of Irene's voice, but she could never do that. It was Irene, after all.
Due to her musings, Belinda completely missed what was Irene saying to her. She blushed. From embarrassment of course. "Sorry," she mumbled, "I wasn't listening properly."
Irene did not let any disappointment show. "It doesn't matter," she said, "I wasn't talking properly."
Regardless of whether Irene intended the words seriously, Belinda found them funny and laughed. After a second or so, Irene joined her. Out of breath from all that happened, Belinda grasped for Irene, drawing the girl even closer. Gradually, they recovered from the laughing fit, still short of breath, but completely at ease.
Smiling widely, Irene looked Belinda straight into the face, "I somehow think that Mum wouldn't approve," she said, but didn't look the slightest bit guilty or worried.
That was true and Belinda's heart sunk at the thought. Back inside her head, there was the thought that what she and Irene just did was forbidden and wicked. At school, Alicia was dropping hints about things like this, scraps of stories she had overheard from her brothers. Stories about boys kissing girls and other matters like that. Wasn't kissing Irene the same? Would they have to keep this evening a secret?
She did not want that, but she also intensely wanted to keep this Irene, Irene lightly flushed and holding Belinda a little possessively, to herself and to never share her with anyone. Belinda looked at Irene once more. With Belinda not responding, Irene was looking somewhere far distant, humming a tune under her breath. It was such a serene sight that Belinda felt she could continue watching forever.
They stayed like that for some more time, Belinda watching Irene and Irene looking into distance. The shadows lengthened and coldness crept into the air, but neither of them paid much attention. Only when a cold breeze started blowing, did Belinda stand up, offering her hand to Irene.
Their hands remained joined even after Irene stood up and they started to walk back inside. Halfway through the way, Irene stopped Belinda and gave her another kiss. Belinda did not mind at all, but she was still a little surprised.
"We're almost in sight of the house," said Irene.
The worries returned and Belinda started to feel very conscious of how would she and Irene seem to others. Should she let go of Irene's hand? Would anyone get suspicious if they saw them holding hands? It took some time before Belinda's composure returned. Of course that no one would get suspicious! There was no outward change. The only change was on the inside and both Belinda and Irene could keep a secret, especially one as precious as this one.
When they entered, Irene's mother took a short look at them and let out another sigh of exasperation. Momentarily panicked, Belinda looked at her and Irene's clothes and understood immediately. They were both rather dusty from their sojourn outside, not to mention the blades of grass stuck on their dresses and in their hair. As soon as they were out of earshot, Belinda and Irene looked at each other and started laughing.