I do not own The Worst Witch or the characters... this is just a little HB/Lamplighter fic for your reading pleasure.
'I must say it's absolutely lovely to see you again,' Amelia gushed, taking the familiar hand between both of her own. 'I'm sure the girls will be ecstatic. You will stay a few days and entertain them again, won't you?'
'Of course,' replied Lynn Lamplighter, lifting her tasselled woollen poncho over her head, shaking the tendrils which had fallen loose from her twist of mocha hair. 'Anyway, I've no choice. My parents' cottage is absolutely full of clutter – it'll take days to sort through. And how are you, Miss Hardbroom?'
The white smile turned upon Constance, who had felt strangely on edge all morning pending the arrival of the woman she had only met once in her life, yet to whom her thoughts often referred with a feeling of... well... she'd never quite worked out what that feeling was.
'Very well, thank you,' the witch replied with a stiff smile, taking the outstretched fingers and savouring the warmth of the younger woman's skin.
'Ah, yes – you mentioned your parents' cottage in your letter,' Amelia continued as she poured the steaming tea. 'You know, I never realised they were living in the village – I'd have invited them for tea if I had.'
'You grew up in the village, didn't you?' Imogen, having dressed a little more smartly for the occasion, shifted in the unfamiliarity of a skirt.
'I did, yes. My father used to commute to London from here, but once he retired they both decided to move to the seaside. I don't blame them, really,' Lynne smiled and took a seat at the table. 'It was a lifelong dream. And that abundance of scenery – beautiful.'
There was a quiet moment during which tea was passed around and the room seemed full of lamentations of seaside escapism.
'What do you plan to do with the cottage?' Constance found herself compelled to break the silence, not knowing where her question was headed. Lynn shrugged.
'Sell up, I suppose. They've transferred the deeds to me to do with as I wish, but I've no need for it. I've a place in Hoxton, within a stone's throw of the most wonderful art galleries – I honestly couldn't be better placed if I camped out at the Tate!'
Everyone laughed, even Constance, although hers was false and she recognised the sinking feeling descending into her abdomen, an anchor of disappointment.
'Well, if you happen to want to give us first refusal...' pondered Amelia.
'Miss Cackle!' Constance's eyes widened, incredulous. 'I hardly think the Academy is well-placed to afford such extravagances! I think Miss Lamplighter should at least be permitted time to consider staying here... And for what purpose do we require a cottage?'
'I've been thinking about it for some time, actually,' Amelia's gaze was fixed upon the middle distance as she spoke. 'It would be good for us to have a sort of break-out point. Somewhere to go when we need to – well, anything, really!'
Something amusing had clearly occurred to Imogen and her face broke into a wide, girlish grin, earning a glare from Constance.
'What's wrong with the staffroom?' snapped Constance.
'Do calm down, Miss Hardbroom. It's just a thought. Anyway, the funds would be my own, not the Academy's. And don't look at me like that! Did you think I couldn't possibly have a little nest egg stashed away for a rainy day?'
'This is hardly a rainy day! And as well you know I never discuss vulgar matters, Miss Cackle, so I would have no reason to enquire as to your personal finances!'
'Ladies, please!' Lynn smiled, laying a hand on Constance's, the unsuspecting witch flinching and whipping it away. 'I don't wish to cause an argument. But for what it's worth, Miss Cackle, I'd be delighted to offer you first refusal. Let me speak to my solicitor and I'll make enquiries with the local estate agent. You must all come and have a look around.'
Amelia and Imogen exchanged satisfied smiles. Constance's hand was still burning in her lap.
Several days passed before Constance agreed to go and view the cottage. It was a Friday evening, and with the majority of the week's work done, Miss Lamplighter had caught her off-guard and argued that she had no reasonable excuse not to accompany her into the village.
'Come on,' she'd said, slipping her arms into her mac. 'The marking will still be there in the morning. I command you to have the night off!' She giggled and swept out of the room, leaving Constance lost for words in her wake.
The forest was thick with misty darkness and the smell of stagnant rain, the ground springy with the mulch of late autumn. Constance felt awkward, searching for words as Lynn spoke freely and easily. There was an air of abandonment about her, Constance thought, and she felt conspicuously constrained beside her, her logical and scientific mind completely artless when it came to uninhibited displays. At one point, Lynn had slipped on the sodden foliage, letting out a shrill 'Whoops!' followed by unabashed laughter, and had linked her arm through Constance's and clung to her as though for dear life. If only she'd known how every sudden touch sent an agonising wave through the witch... But she was just one of those people – one of those tactile types to whom physical contact was easy. And meaningless.
'Bloody keys!' Lynn muttered, fumbling with the lock. 'Ah, here we were. It's a bit chilly but I'll get the fire going.'
Constance stepped over the cottage's threshold, ducking her head as she did so. She squinted as the room's sudden illumination pained her eyes. What greeted her was a seventeenth century dwelling complete with crooked beams and an original fireplace. The front room, though full to the rafters with possessions – packed bookcases, a piano wedged greedily into a corner and too much furniture for the available space – was tidy, and had the air of a dearly loved home. It seemed to welcome her, and she found herself wishing she had about her character some of the carefree contentment that rustic living had no doubt contributed to Lynn's easy disposition.
Lynn indicated to Constance to take her seat on a small Chesterfield sofa beneath a leaded window, and the witch perched bolt-upright on its edge as Lynn leant across her to draw the floral curtains. A waft of musky perfume startled Constance, a scent which had become familiar to her during the past few days and which stirred her every time she'd caught it emanating nearby, strangely thrilling her with the prospect of an imminent coalescence.
'Right, let me sort that fire.'
'Allow me,' Constance raised her spellcasting fingers and shot a bolt of blue and orange light towards the fireplace, lighting it with an immediate swell of hot flames.
'Goodness,' Lynn beamed, impressed. 'I forget you're witches sometimes, you know. You all seem so... normal.'
Constance smiled inwardly and watched as Lynn bent here and there about the room, shifting piles of old papers and humming a tune to herself as she did so, her skirts floating about her ankles and occasionally revealing a little more of her calf. Constance averted her gaze, searching the room for some other point of interest but unable to stop her glance lingering back every so often.
'Oh yes!' Her thoughts were interrupted and she saw Miss Lamplighter standing with her head tilted, her chin between finger and thumb and a sparkle of inspiration in her eyes.
'What is it?' asked Constance, unnerved that the young woman's gaze was so directly upon her.
'Stay like that!' Lynn bustled about the room in a sort of frenzy, rifling through boxes and bending into cupboards, bringing out jars and unrolling a large coil of paper. She placed a paintbrush between her teeth and glanced about. 'Aha,' she muttered through the handle of the brush, picking her steps to a point in the next room where Constance couldn't see her. She shifted again in her seat, feeling the heat of the fire on her cheek. Lynn returned, complete with an easel which she propped in front of a small stool that she'd dragged from beneath the piano.
'Oh no, I couldn't possibly – I –'
'Just – stay there!' Lynn batted a hand to indicate Constance sit back down, and the witch rolled her eyes, distinctly nervous at the prospect of being painted. 'Come on, Constance,' Lynn teased, arranging her things around her. 'You've got to allow me my fun. I've wanted to paint you since the day I met you.'
'Have you...' Constance was intrigued, but certain it wouldn't be ladylike to fish for compliments.
'Yes...?' Lynn furrowed her brow questioningly, as if Constance should somehow have known this. 'Now. Something's not quite right.'
Lynn slid from the stool and padded over to Constance, kneeling down in front of her. She laid her hands on the witch's velvet-clad wrists, coaxing her hands apart. Constance held her breath, fixing her eyes beyond the rain-dampened streaks of Lynn's hair to a featureless point on the wall. The only thing galloping through her mind was the urge to flee.
'That's not it...' Lynn said to herself, leaning back on her heels and considering her options. 'Hmm...' This time she placed her hands on Constance's knees, easing them both to one side so that they tilted towards the arm of the chair. Coming up against resistance, Lynn smiled. 'Relax,' she whispered. 'I don't bite...' Constance felt the colour flush to her cheeks. She objected to being rearranged so presumptuously into a position that came anything but naturally to her; but something inside her was willing her to enjoy it. She'd been here before. Not here, exactly – she'd certainly never agreed to be an artist's model; but she'd been in situations that had inexplicably petrified her, and she'd always fled, and had always regretted doing so. Do something everyday that scares you... the words echoed from somewhere, although she couldn't quite place them...
'I know what it is. I'll be back in a sec.'
Lynn darted off again into what Constance thought was the kitchen and emerged moments later with a glass of red wine, propping the large brittle bowl between Constance's fingers.
'Now, that's not for drinking,' Lynn mocked, waving a pencil at her, returning to her seat and beginning to sketch against the easel. 'I don't want you intoxicated.'
My dear girl, Constance thought, if only you knew...
Several long minutes passed, during which Lynn sketched, humming an inane tune to herself. The unfamiliarity of her position was causing a dull ache to spread through Constance's lower back.
'If I may ask, Miss Lamplighter – how long am I to remain still?'
'Not long now. Fortunately for you I have a photographic memory. So once I've got your outline and a few colours in place, I'll do the rest tomorrow and you can consider yourself dismissed. Look down a bit, will you? No – not that much. Wait - '
Lynn stepped forwards to kneel again before the witch and took Constance's face between her fingertips, turning it downwards so that their eyes met. 'You really do have exquisite features, Miss Hardbroom,'
Constance stared urgently into the animated eyes, longing to detect tenderness in the words; but she was met with the appraising scrutiny of a professional. 'Such wonderful cheekbones, and an eye shape to die for.' She got to her feet, and Constance was confronted by the perfume again.
'Keep your eyes on the glass.'
As time elapsed so mercilessly towards the end of the evening, Constance found that she was rather enjoying the feeling of being appreciated artistically. She wondered, perhaps, if her marginally more relaxed disposition had anything to do with the few mouthfuls of Beaujolais she'd stolen when Lynn had disappeared into the kitchen to change the water for her brushes.
'May I ask what the relevance of the wine is, and why it made such a difference?' Constance asked on her return. Lynn smiled.
'You're my Tess.'
Constance was confused.
'Never heard of Fabian Perez?'
'No, I can't say that I have...'
'Well Tess, it would seem, is his muse. There are enough paintings of her. I don't know that much about him, really. There was an exhibition of his work at a little gallery in Henley-on-Thames. I thought of you when I saw Tess. Not sure why, really – you're very different. For a start you're not Argentinean.' She peered round the side of the easel. 'Or scantily clad.'
'No, I certainly am not.'
'But perhaps if you were... Well, I thought of you when I saw her. And this is based on her.'
Constance stiffened again and prayed to whatever entity might be listening that Lynn couldn't see the wine's surface rippling with her every tremor. Lynn's eventual burst of laughter confirmed her fears.
'What's so funny?' demanded Constance, with a little more pathos than she'd intended.
'You! You're so... self conscious. Just relax. I'm not about to undress you, Miss Hardbroom...'
'Well, here it is. Ta daaa!' Lynn whipped the protective sheet from the canvas that was propped up on the staffroom table, and Constance was pleased to see her shift uncomfortably, as though embarrassed at exhibiting her work for such close scrutiny.
On turning her attention to the painting, a qualm swooped through Constance's stomach. It was unlike anything she'd expected, better than any photograph she'd seen of herself, so detailed and full of life. She could barely take her eyes off it.
'So? Do you like it?'
'I –yes, I –'
'Then you must have it.'
'I couldn't. I mean – it's me. I couldn't keep a painting of myself. It would be... vain.'
'Your mind does work in strange ways, Constance! Of course it wouldn't be vain. I don't often do portraits but they're always a gift for the model. What else do you want me to do with it? I could sell it, I suppose...'
'I'm not sure I like the idea of being displayed above someone's mantelpiece!'
'Well, it's up to you.' Lynn shrouded the painting in its veil once again. 'Have a think. But if I sell it, I'll happily donate the proceeds to the school.' And with that, she left Constance alone with the painting and her thoughts.
With a sense of voyeuristic indulgence, the witch tugged at the corner of the sheet until it slid once more from the painting, revealing the artwork in all its taciturn glory. She studied the interpretation of herself, her lips parted slightly in wonder. It seemed incredible to Constance that some people were so adept at capturing life on paper. She had never had an aptitude for any form of art. She could construct a perfectly persuasive letter, but never a story; she provided the pupils with faultless diagrams of potions ingredients, yet was incapable of producing a still-life – at least, not without a little magical intervention. Yet here before her was something so beautiful, so reminiscent of everything she now held dear about that brief evening a few nights before, bringing forgotten details to the forefront of her mind as though she were reliving them. She wanted to relive them. Every moment of trepidation, every unfamiliar move, every alien sensation – it had all been worth it, and each moment in Lynn's company had been a precious thing that she could now only view through skewed glimpses of nostalgia.
Constance sighed at the ridiculousness of her sentiments and shook out the sheet, draping it over the painting, almost sick with adoration for it. From somewhere wafted the stirring scent of Lynn's perfume. Clutching at the sheet, Constance drew it urgently up to her face and inhaled. It smelt of nothing but dust and faded washing chemicals. She attuned her senses, sure that the scent could not be that left by Lynn when she'd walked out several minutes previously. Searching around the small space in front of her and feeling foolish lest she should be observed, Constance sensed that the aroma was emanating from the painting itself...
There, in the bottom right hand corner where Lynn had imprinted her slanting signature, lingered the perfume which had transferred from her wrist as she'd signed it. Somehow, it completed the picture.
Just at that moment, Miss Lamplighter popped her head around the door.
'I'm off now,' she said with a smile. 'Lovely seeing you again.'
'I'll keep it,' Constance threw the words over her shoulder. 'And thank you. For everything.'
Lynn smiled again, vaguely puzzled, and turned her attention back to the voices of the staff bidding their goodbyes from the corridor. Constance muttered a preservation charm which she cast on the painting.
Her affections may have been futile; but time would not erode the amalgamation of herself and the woman she was unlikely ever to see again.