“Eat it up now, before it gets cold!” Hodge placed steaming bowls of porridge on the kitchen table in front of her two young charges. Bryony, the elder girl carefully trailed a golden line of honey over the creamy bowlful, whilst her younger sister, Bethany, blobbed a large spoonful of bright strawberry jam in the centre of hers, stirring rapidly to turn the white to pink. Dutifully they spooned their breakfast down under the housekeeper’s watchful eye.
Hodge ran water into the porridge pot and stood it on the draining board to soak. She turned back to the girls. “Now then, make the most of this week, because Mr Eyre will be arriving on Sunday afternoon.”
Bryony laid her spoon down and looked up at Hodge. “Do we really need a tutor? Surely all we’ll ever need to learn is in the books in Papa’s library?”
“You know perfectly well what your parents’ letter said, Miss Bryony. A tutor has been engaged to give you a proper and…what was it?”
“A proper and progressive education as befits the daughters of the British Empire.” Bryony quoted, having memorised the contents of her parents’ latest letter.
“What’s the British Empire?” asked Bethany.
Hodge laughed. “Well then, there’s your first question for Mr Eyre when he comes.” She turned back to the sink, smiling to herself, and set to work on the stubborn cooking pot.
Porridge eaten, Bryony took their bowls over to the sink. Bethany flung open the kitchen door and the morning breeze wafted in bringing in the summer scent of new-mown grass.
“Don’t be late for lunch now and mind you don’t get those pinafores dirty. I had the devil’s own job getting those fruit stains out last week.”
The girls looked at each other, then turned to Hodge, smiling sweetly. “Yes, Hodge,” they said in unison.
“All right, off you go now.” As the two girls ran off up the garden, Hodge sighed. It didn’t seem so long ago that she had been running wild back in Ireland, through the sweet meadows of her family’s farm.
Bethany skipped across the garden, pausing at the fish filled pond with its large central fountain. Bryony watched as her sister dipped her hand into the water, giggling as one of the gleaming golden fish started to nibble her fingertips. Then she was off again, running beyond the confines of the well-kept garden and on into the orchard beyond.
Bryony shut the garden gate behind her and wandered over to the old oak tree which stood in the corner of the field. Tom the gardener had told her that it was over 200 years old. She brushed the debris from the little bench which Tom had built for them, then sat down smoothing out the pages of her notebook in her lap. Her pencil poised, she stared across the orchard seeking inspiration.
“Come and look at the clouds with me,” Bethany shouted. She was sitting on the soft grass, legs stretched out, leaning back on her hands. “Come on, Brynee.”
Bryony gathered her things and joined her sister on the grass. They lay on the grass, heads touching, staring up at the blue summer sky. “Look, there’s a squirrel,” she pointed at a fat round cloud, dragging a wispy plume behind it.
“I think it looks more like Celia’s cat. Tom said we might have one of her kittens when they’re old enough.”
“If Hodge lets us.”
“She will if we ask her nicely.”
Bryony was pointing again, over to the left. “Doesn’t that one look just like Clara?” Clara was Bryony’s favourite hen; a little round bantam with snowy white feathers and frills on her feet. She closed her eyes and listened to the insects buzzing around the fruit trees. Tom was pleased with them and a bumper crop of apples, cherries and plums was anticipated.
Bethany sighed. “I wish we could stay like this forever.”
“With no Mr Eyre.”
“He can’t be worse than Miss Calderbridge.”
“With her stupid pointy nose and her silly stuck up voice.”
Both girls giggled. Bryony rolled over on her stomach. “Mama hasn’t been very good at picking our tutors so far, has she?” She plucked a daisy from the grass and examined it. “I suppose it’s harder when you’re so far away”
“What’s it like in India?” Bethany turned on one side and looked at her sister.
“Well, the garden in that postcard Mama sent looked a bit like ours, except much larger, and it’s much, much hotter out there.”
They had been silent for a little while, when suddenly there was a rustling in the bushes by the fence behind them. They looked round to see an enormous rabbit emerge, nose twitching. His fur was grey-brown with a slight tinge of green. He nibbled on a piece of long grass, and then hopped past them. He was so close that Bryony could have stretched out and touched him. He stopped by the first tree and sat up on his hind legs. The he turned and looked directly at them.
“That’s the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen. Look at his fur.” Bryony whispered.
The rabbit’s ears twitched. “Do you think he wants us to follow him?” Bethany whispered back.
Bryony laughed. “You’re not Alice.” It was only last year that Bryony had read ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to her.
“But look Brynee.” The rabbit had raised a paw in their direction. “I’ll just go a bit nearer.” She stood up slowly so as not to alarm the creature, then took a few steps towards him.
The rabbit hopped off as far as the next stand of apple trees. He stopped and turned, looking up at Bethany with his dark brown eyes. His left ear bent quizzically. She looked back at Bryony. “I’m going to follow him.”
Bryony watched her sister scamper off after the rabbit. At twelve, going on thirteen, she felt she was a bit old to be running after rabbits, even if it was an exceptional-looking animal. She rolled over on her back and resumed her contemplation of the clouds. They formed pictures in her mind; pictures which she would later turn into stories. Miss Calderbridge had not approved of her work. Far from it. ‘Too fanciful’, she’d said in that prissy high voice. Fortunately she’s left soon after that particular pronouncement. That had been more than a month ago and Bryony’s little writing book was almost full now. She hoped Mr Eyre would be more sympathetic and not try to force useless mathematical problems down her throat. She was going to be a writer. What possible use was algebra?
Bryony was distracted by thoughts of Mr Eyre. How old was he? Might he be young and handsome? Mama’s letter hadn’t mentioned these things. Her eyes refocused on the sky. She let her imagination run free, then struck by a burst of inspiration, she sat up. After a few minutes’ thought she snatched up her writing book and pencil and hurried over to the bench under the oak tree, one of her favourite writing spots. Starting on a new page she wrote the words, Bethany and the Great Green Rabbit. She sucked the end of her pencil for a moment then began to write.
Bryony wrote five pages in her closely written script as her story unfolded. Eventually she came to a halt and closed the notebook, a satisfied smile on her face. She looked up through the rich canopy of oak leaves which shielded her from the summer sunshine. The shadows had shortened. She’d better go and find her sister. Bryony leapt to her feet and stowed the notebook and pencil in her pinafore pocket before setting off through the orchard.
There was a small woodland at the far side. The girls weren’t really supposed to go in there, but they often had, although only as far as the first clearing. No doubt Bethany would be there gathering bluebells.
When Bryony reached the clearing, sure enough, there she was sitting on a fallen log. Her long, golden hair obscured her face; she was looking down, examining something she was holding in her hands.
“What have you got there?” Bryony asked as she sat down next to her sister. Bethany held out a tiny wooden object. It just fitted into the palm of Bryony’s hand. It was a carving of a little bird, which had once been painted; brown feathers on its back and red on its breast. A robin. “That’s lovely, Beth, where did you find it?”
©2019 Chris Hall